Hunter S. Thompson once wrote:

“…the only fitting exit will be right off this fucking terrace and into The Fountain, 28 stories below and at least 200 yards out in the air and across Fifth Avenue.

Nobody could follow that act.

Not even me…and in fact the only way I can deal with this eerie situation at all is to make a conscious decision that I have already lived and finished the life I planned to live—(13 years longer, in fact)—and everything from now on will be A New Life, a different thing, a gig that ends tonight and starts tomorrow morning.

So if I decide to leap for The Fountain when I finish this memo, I want to make one thing perfectly clear—I would genuinely love to make that leap, and if I don’t I will always consider it a mistake and a failed opportunity, one of the very few serious mistakes of my First Life that is now ending.

But what the hell? I probably won’t do it (for all the wrong reasons), and I’ll probably finish this table of contents and go home for Christmas then have to live for 100 more years with all this goddamn gibberish I’m lashing together.”

That was in 1977. Twenty-eight years later he put a pistol in his mouth and took the leap.

Likely the most prominent and prototypical creative nonfiction writer of our era, Thompson accidentally built a mythology around himself early in life—the “Gonzo” ideal—traveling the country writing wandering, opinionated, manic political journalism for popular magazines. His artistic ally, Ralph Steadman, later revealed this style to be a result of Thompson’s inability to meet a deadline rather than a conscious decision on the author’s part. Eventually he became sought after by both Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, both of which sent him on a trip in 1970 that would change his career—and life—forever.

Perhaps if Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had never been published, Hunter S. Thompson would still be alive today. Or maybe its publication was inevitable—the culmination of a life trying to break the mold. Regardless, the novel propelled Thompson into the limelight, continuing to garner attention as time passed. A reflection on the death of the American Dream and lampoon of what the counter-culture devolved into, Fear and Loathing was embraced by two audiences—those who “got” the satire, and those whom the novel sought to satirize. Its great irony isn’t captured at any moment in the protagonist’s journey, but was created from the exterior, as druggies and misinformed readers popularized it as a celebration of decadent drug culture.

Thompson slowly found himself confined by his art—had become a figurehead of two movements,“Gonzo” journalism and 70’s drug culture, purely by mistake. Rather than denouncing the attributes that had propelled him to stardom, however, he chose to play into the mythology, raving maniacally in interviews and dressing with an eccentrism that puts most Los Angelos to shame.

But he never forgot himself. His suicide was not that of a man exhausted with his life, but that of another’s forced upon him.


The formation of Thompson’s alternate identity was the result of an ever-prevalent need in American society to ascribe origins and character tropes to everything and anyone peculiar. This compulsion for explanation is evidenced in popular culture now more than ever, with films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Batman Begins, and Superman Returns each retroactively filling the “progenitive” gap of character information. But why now? Decades ago, when Batman and Superman were introduced, there was no drive to flesh out extensive origins for characters—a few panels of a boy’s parents getting shot or some wafty-haired alien propelling to Earth in a white tube was all that was required. In modern times these same tales have been revised and retold numerous times across numerous books, creating a post-modern unsurety about their beginnings.

The most recognizable of these is The Joker.


Just seeing that green hair and purple suit puts a grin across your face.

First appearing in Batman #1, published in 1940, The Joker materialized from nowhere—an apparent jewel thief who murdered his victims with no background or motive aside from monetary gain. His murder of millionaires Henry Claridge, Jay Wilde, and Judge Drake, all witnessed in this initial appearance,  would be retold in 2005’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs in accordance with Alan Moore’s Joker origin, The Killing Joke.

Moore tied the character’s descent into madness directly with Batman. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, the unemployed failing comedian who would become The Joker agrees to guide two mobsters through the Ace Chemical Factory, his former workplace, as part of a heist. After police inform him of his wife’s untimely demise, this would-be Joker attempts backing out of the heist, only to be forced along at gunpoint. Unsurprisingly, Batman arrives and, amidst the ensuing hullabaloo, accidentally knocks the reluctant guide into a vat of acid which dyes his skin white and hair green.

The Man Who Laughs served as a follow-up, revising the Joker’s original appearance in 1940’s Batman #1 to cohere with Moore’s new take on the character. This revision never mentions jewels or money—no longer is the Clown Prince motivated by personal gain. Reflecting on the deaths of Claridge and Wilde, Captain Gordon states “It’s becoming more and more clear we’re not dealing with someone who has a motive other than causing terror”.

Early in the book, a poem is discovered scrawled in blood at one of The Joker’s crime scenes. It goes like this:

“One By One

They’ll Hear My Call

Then This Wicked Town

Will Follow My Fall”.

Ever the vigilant detective, The Dark Knight pieces the poem and his experience at the Ace Chemical Factory together, deducing the Joker’s grand plan. Unlike the 1940 storyline, which concluded with Batman and Robin physically pounding the Joker into submission following his theft of the “Cleopatra Necklace”, this revisionist’s tale has him scheming the release of a specially-designed poison into Gotham’s water supply which will turn the population’s skin white and contort their facial muscles into a grin while killing them. Despite Gordon’s assertion, the Joker does have a motive—the psychological need for others to “follow his fall”.


Other retellings of the Joker’s origin appear across mediums—film, television, radio. 2008’s The Dark Knight toyed with this variety of character, consciously providing its antagonist multiple stories for “how he got those scars”. But the psychological motive witnessed in The Man Who Laughs is most relevant to modern society—is both product and cause of its existence. Popular psychology tells us that everything can be explained by character background—that a person’s actions are entirely informed by their past. It’s why we trace our celebrities, murderers, and icons through their lives—why we read biography.

But what about the Hunter S. Thompsons of the world? What happens when you’re prescribed a personality based on fabricated past(s)? People change as they age—shed old habits and gain new ones. Sometimes this is allowed. But sometimes people are confined by the mythology they’ve created—find themselves incapable of shedding their past identity while fulfilling their friends’ and fans’ expectations of them. These people have two options—fleeing those who restrain them, or quietly settling into a pre-assembled and assigned personality. Thompson’s only option was suicide; his personality was prescribed by the world—the populace acting in the same capacity as Batman’s writers for The Joker. The rest of us are luckily afforded the option of embracing our personalities–of adopting new environments and friends as we evolve. We simply must be willing to make “the leap”.

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 9: A Study of the Unpredictable Betty Draper

Betty Draper has never been the most stably developed character of the Mad Men universe; in just over four seasons, we’ve witnessed Pigeon-shooting Betty, Rome Relaxation Betty, Quiet Distress Smoking Betty, and Frazzled Yelling Betty. Her appearances always feel slightly disruptive, as if these random incarnations materialized out of the ether; indeed, her character’s reactions are often unpredictable, ranging from hysterical to anti-climactic. Season 4 dedicated an entire storyline to explaining her erraticism, wherein she visited a child psychologist on a weekly basis, talking through her anxieties and fears. The success of these appointments contrasted greatly with her adult psychologist in Season 1, leading us to believe Betty had the mind and personality of a child.  Season 5 features an uneven focus on the character, largely because of her actress’s pregnancy; occurring as mere coincidence, this unintentionally adds to Betty’s unpredictable, inconstant persona—crafts the feeling that the character’s very existence is in a state of limbo, causing mass disruption when she appears, only to recede into the background for large swathes of time.

Season 5, episode 2 introduced us to obese Betty, the newest incarnation of the characters’ action figure-esque catalog of melodramatic identities. Obese Betty is constantly on the verge of tears, cursed by anxieties over the plump figure she’s amassed living as a sedentary suburban housewife. She worries that Harry’s acceptance of her weight roots in his mother’s rotundness, and feels shame over her appearance; this is made clear when she makes her husband turn away as she gets dressed after a bath. After a long seven episode hiatus, Betty is now back, attempting to control her eating, as seen with the show’s opening shot of her weighing blocks of cheese.  This attempt at control isn’t limited to dietary habits, however; Betty is attempting to achieve emotional stability through her relationship with food. Whether it be comfort or control, Weight Watchers or Cool Whip, Betty adjusts to, and comprehends, reality through eating.

Early in the episode, while attempting to pick up her children, Betty is let into Don’s new apartment by Sally. Her first time in Don’s new place, she’s taken aback by its splendor, and explores; while looking around, however, she accidentally peeks Megan getting dressed, triggering one of her quiet moments of unspoken desperation. Megan is vivacious, young, and sexy, yet what Betty sees isn’t merely the image of Megan bent over in her underwear—it’s a reflection of her former beauty in the house of her ex-lover. Megan’s sexiness isn’t simply an embodiment of fleeting physical perfection—is instead representative of a life and identity gone by. Returning home from this encounter, Betty runs to the fridge and squirts a load of Cool Whip in her mouth. This clearly isn’t an act of hunger—no matter how hungry a person may become, they wouldn’t run to the refrigerator in search of Whipped Cream to pile in their face; rather, Betty’s using food as a surrogate drug for her anxiety—seeks junk food in the same way an addict seeks out junk.

This desperation is exacerbated later by a letter from Don to Megan which Betty inadvertently finds mixed in with Bobby’s homework.

“Lovely Megan—

I went to buy a light bulb.

When I get back, I’ll see you better.”

This oddly topical love letter isn’t hurtful to Betty because of its gushing expression of adoration—it’s hurtful because of its focus on “the gaze”. Unlike Megan, who Don wants to “see…better” so badly that he’s out buying lightbulbs, Betty skulks around in the dark, forcing her husband to avert his eyes when she’s naked. Complicating this is the letter’s authorship; Don cheated on his wife countless times, constantly turning his gaze towards other women, thus denying her his attention; the letter therefore acts as both an affront to her current undesirable figure and callback to her past neglect at the hands of her ex-husband.

Betty’s reactions to “the gaze” are destructive and self-defeating; just as she defines her own inadequacies by judging others, she crafts her own weight gain by seeking food as a comfort from the anxiety these judgments cause. In doing so, she becomes a masochist—forever consoled by that which causes her pain. Food fills the void Don left in her life—provides a fleeting comfort and shallow sense of security. In both marriage and professional life, Betty has faced a lack of commitment—Don’s infidelities, then her own abandonment of modeling (largely at the will of her ex-husband). Her using food as a temporary fix for more permanent anxieties should then come as no surprise; she’s grown into adulthood without anything to anchor her life—knows only broken vows and abandoned dreams.

Unlike her past incarnations, however, obese Betty seems aware of her emotional failings—spits out the Cool Whip she sought as comfort, attends Weight Watchers, and provides her husband emotional support. After catching her husband frying a steak one night, Harry tells Betty he’s worried about his career—that the candidate he was rallying alongside has decided not to run for Governor. He says “I bet on the wrong horse, Betty. I jumped ship for nothing”. This echoes a discussion Don and Betty had during the finale of Season 4; when Don asks Betty how the new house is, she replies “It’s not perfect”. Don’s response, “Then you’ll move again” suggests they’re discussing more than just the house—that her marriage with Harry, as we saw throughout that season, isn’t the idealized romance she imagined it would be. Harry’s aforementioned statement likewise comes loaded with unintentional meaning, this time as a result of Betty’s viewing of Don’s luxurious new pad and beautiful wife. The camera lingers on her for a second after listening to his confession, the pause suggesting feelings that she may have broken things off with Don at the wrong time—that she wouldn’t be living a depressed, obese suburban life if she’d not “jumped ship”. Still, she consoles Harry. “This is a setback,” she says. “You’re always thinking about other people, but then you’re upset that nobody’s thinking about you. It’s so easy to blame our troubles on others, but really, we’re in charge of ourselves”.

It’s doubtful that Betty truly believes this–is obviously a canned mantra from the Weight Watchers sessions she’s been attending; shortly before this scene, we witness her lashing out at Don (for his letter) by way of Sally, suggesting she hasn’t entirely given up blaming others for her problems, and Betty has never been in charge of herself, routinely giving her husband carte blanche over her life, from career to living conditions. While her support of Harry is refreshing, it also provides insight into her own mind; the statement “You’re always thinking about other people, but then you’re upset that nobody’s thinking about you” reflects personal feelings of rejection after facing Don’s new wife. Indeed, she’s plagued by thoughts of her ex-husband’s joyous new life in comparison with her own lamentable existence—obese, saddled with a husband who sneaks about cooking late at night in compensation for his wife’s poor diet, living in the suburbs. Her time with the Weight Watchers group acts as a surrogate psychologist’s office—though she attends intending to lose the weight, she also uses it as a platform to express her feelings of inadequacy. Even in such a focused environment, Betty attempts to merge her insular life with food.

The episode closes with the Francis Thanksgiving Dinner—as the family sits down at the table, Bobby berates his mother for beginning to eat too early; “We’re supposed to say what we’re thankful for”, he says. The camera pans around the table, with each character giving a sincere reason to be thankful, finally ending with Betty. “I’m thankful that I have everything that I want”, she says, “and that nobody has anything better”. This isn’t true, of course—nearly every action she’s taken this episode has been in response to feelings of inadequacy and disapproval. Betty misses her formerly attractive shape, longs for a house in the city akin to Don’s, and wishes, most of all, for a little control over her life. She secretly feels that everyone has something better than her, and may even believe herself undeserving of anything better. Though she obviously fancies a storybook New York life, her past relationship with Don and current dependency on food suggests low self-worth—that Betty somehow desires betrayal by that which she confides in.

Betty’s quest for a new body reflects each of episode 9’s conflicts—Don’s plight to regain former advertising glory, Megan’s comparing her acting talent with her friend, Pete’s seeking to re-attain his mistress’s attention, and subsequent detachment from his own wife; each has lost something they once defined themselves by—rhetoric and lies, acting ability, romantic spark—something they see the people around them claiming as their own. All lash out in their own ways— Don’s use of his position in the company, Megan’s outward attack on her friend, Pete’s threat to sleep with his train buddy’s wife—yet among these, only Don comes out successful; unfortunately, even his Sno-Ball victory is an end to a battle rather than a war. The characters of Mad Men have arrived at a crossroads—must struggle to cling onto their past selves, becoming stagnant and miserable in the process, or move on and accept their life changes. This is reflective of the shift the show itself took between Season 4 and 5—just as Mad Men’s first four seasons focused on Don Draper’s identity crisis only to shift into a more diverse character study of the cast during season five, so has each characters’ lives taken new shapes they’re not yet entirely comfortable with or accepting of. Like so many internet fanboys who cry out at the incongruities writers create with the established mythology of a television series, these characters are desperately in search of the past—of Betty Draper’s thin figure, Don’s marketing prowess, Pete’s sleeze—refusing to move on with time. In the words of Don Draper, “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”.

An Analysis of “Cabin in the Woods”

A few minutes after arriving to the titular cabin of Cabin in the Woods, Jesse Williams’s Holden character removes a creepy painting from his bedroom wall to discover a one-way mirror into the room of Dana, the woman his friends are attempting to set him up with. After serious hesitation, Holden stops Dana from undressing, tells her about the mirror, and switches rooms, after which she is forced to play observer to his undressing. Being a true lady, she replaces the painting over the mirror, but shortly afterwards covers it with a rug. Being one-sided, this mirror reflects more than mere appearances—is the embodiment of the horror movie-going experience itself. Just as Holden’s character is tempted to watch Dana undress, so are we tempted to observe acts of perversion—in this case, violent rather than sexual—as a culture. And just as Dana’s character “masks” the mirror, the audience’s desire for vengeance against whatever monsters may arise represents the undoing of horror and removal of malicious intent.  This mirror therefore represents the basest of audience expectations for the horror genre, and when it’s ultimately broken down during a mid-movie zombie attack, becomes a physical manifestation of the continuous assault Cabin forces against both horror genre conventions and the fourth wall.

This metatextual breaking of the fourth wall is best found in Marty, a pothead who spends large swathes of the film doling out self-aware comments on the absurd nature of their predicament. Speaking to Dana about his theory that they’re all being manipulated by some outside force, he claims “You’re not seeing what you don’t want to see”, adding almost as an afterthought, “We are not who we are”. It’s not difficult to see what he means—Dana’s best friend, Jules, dyed her hair blonde before the trip, and partakes of an overly-sexualized makeout session with a stuffed wolf’s head early in the film. Her character shifts from a moderately enjoyable friend to a lap-dancing seductress before ultimately meeting her end. To further evidence this transformation, Jules’ s makeout session is met with grand applause, which prompts her to take a bow—adulation and action usually reserved for performers. Such affectations are widespread—Curt’s academic background (hinted at by his suggesting which texts Dana study for a class) is quickly cast aside for a motorcycle-jumping, sex-crazed alpha-male persona, and, faced with a moment of crisis, soft-spoken nerdy Holden takes the wheel of his friends’ van and leads them towards a potential rampage through the woods.

Character roles are only one of many clichés Marty notes; the film begins massing a collection of horror tropes very early, with characters exploring the cabin’s basement and discovering old-timey photos, an abandoned diary, old bride’s dresses, sea conches, puzzle spheres, and a dusty music box. While the others are busy uncovering these totems, Marty attends to the single item in this scene that isn’t an outward allusion to iconic, cliché instruments of the horror genre: a reel of film. The great irony of this, of course, is that metatextuality is a constant of horror filmmaking, whether it be New Nightmare, Scream, Halloween: Ressurrection, Hellraiser: Hellworld, or any other number of films. Marty’s role is therefore to both deconstruct the actions of Cabin’s characters while actively standing in as a horror genre trope; likewise, he pushes back against the horror filmmaking system, questioning, and ultimately deconstructing it, but also falls in line with its trappings. This is made most evident when a ghostly voice wakes him from his sleep, instructing him to “Go for a walk”. He initially questions it, yelling that he won’t “do a little puppet dance” for the voice.  But then, in anger, he decides to go for a walk.

The entire first half of the film, while enjoyable, is less compelling than its second, if only because it refuses to allow escape beyond the typical horror entry. The first 45 minutes hit every traditional horror beat—a long drive into the wooded mountains ala The Shining and The Evil Dead, a chance encounter with an unnamed grotesque man at an abandoned gas station, a swift influx of zombies. When Curt (Jules’s boyfriend) crashes his motorcycle into the cabin’s invisible forcefield, subsequently plummeting to his death, he isn’t merely slamming against a fictional device—the forcefield acts as a barrier, limiting any expansion outside the expected horror formula; the characters can’t escape, and the universe can’t expand.

The engineers experience their own dissatisfaction with the genre’s limitations, bemoaning “Zombies…remember when you could just throw a girl into a volcano?”. One of the two primary engineers longs to see a merman used as the horror of just one of their experiments; though this is easily written off as a throwaway joke, its later payoff is huge, as are its real-world implications. In decades of living on this planet, I’ve yet to witness a single film that used mer-people as its villain. There are monsters that appear on the engineers “possibility list” that, though legitimately horrifying, have experienced little-to-no actual screen exposure; instead, we’re inundated year after year with derivative zombie knockoffs and half-hearted reboots of established iconic characters. This predictability—the “formula” of the Hollywood horror genre—is vaguely hinted at when we’re told “Maintenance wins every year” even though they’re uncreative; when “Zombie Redneck Torture Family” is chosen from the list of possibilities, it is then no surprise that this was maintenance’s pick.

The engineers double as a stand-in for the audience, coldly placing bets on what horrors will befall the young protagonists, sitting with bated breath during hints of nudity, and celebrating the slaughter’s aftermath with drinks, discussion, and music.  The aforementioned party tunes plays a role outside the celebration, however—with any other film, the presumed death of the final protagonist followed by a fade into music would cue the credits. And yet Cabin continues, with the party soon interrupted by a phone call; we’re told Marty and Dana are still alive, whom we soon find have unearthed an entrance to the control center the engineers are working from. In going down into the lab, the characters effectively escape the forcefield they spent hindered by during the film’s first half, breaking the limits and expectations of the horror genre.

We are soon faced with another panorama of horror tropes, this time of the monsters each earlier totem alluded to. Whereas the first collection was intended to honor, or perhaps satirize, the typical horror film, this shot showcases the possibilities—the underused potential—of the horror genre; hundreds of containers shift about containing unicorns, giant snakes, mutant mermen, masked killers, enormous bloodthirsty bats, deranged surgeons, and, of course, zombies. Different creatures wander in and out of sight as if in limbo, and momentarily, the camera pans out to what appears a cube comprised of alternating smaller cubes contained within a vast nothingness; it’s as if by breaking the conventions of the horror genre, Dana and Marty have “unhinged” reality—rather than playing witness to what is, they now see what could have been.  Escaping this rotating rogue’s gallery and entering the control center, our characters are told by a loudspeaker “this shouldn’t have ended like this”; this idea is furthered by a later image, which takes place shortly after the aforementioned monsters are released, featuring each creature recorded on a separate monitor. A typical Hollywood horror entry would segregate these creatures into their own “box”, but Cabin breaks the rules, combining them. The announcement that “this shouldn’t have ended like this” isn’t just a fictional voice of disapproval, but rather the broadly-applied voice of the producer-controlled studio system—refers not only to Marty and Dana’s escape, but also the film’s continuance beyond the aforementioned cookie-cutter ending as heralded by the credits music. This mixing of monster types only adds to the incongruity of the film’s continued narrative in light of the Hollywood horror formula.

Finally, Dana and Marty descend into a sub-subterranean chamber used for human sacrifice; around the center of the chamber are five icons of stereotypical horror genre roles—the whore, athlete, scholar, fool, and virgin. We’re told that five “youths” must ritualistically be sacrificed to keep an ancient evil at bay. Though the film realizes this evil in the form of giant angry gods, what they represent in the film are the standard clichés and figures of the genre—the Freddy Kruegers, Pinheads, Deadheads, nameless zombies, and everything derivative from them. These “ancient” films defined the current system horror cinema deals in—effectively molded audience expectations, and therefore now act as a formula by which kids are ritualistically slaughtered. This is why the engineers at the beginning of the film are nonchalantly discussing drawer rollers and marriage, overlooking their co-worker’s plea to focus on their plan; it’s been done hundreds of times before—has been diluted to a science. In refusing to adhere strictly to the confines of the horror genre (as defined by the “The Ancient Ones”), it likewise begs the question of whether such a system is worth saving. As such, Marty (the Fool) refuses to be sacrificed—survives long enough to speculate “Giant angry gods. I wish we could’ve seen them. That would’ve been a fun weekend”, before being smashed by a massive hand shuttling out of the ground. The hand simultaneously destroys all that came before it—the command center, monsters, ritualistic icons, and cabin namesake—visually “bringing down the screen” to the credits. In this single act, it destroys the formula Hollywood has used for decades when constructing films, realizing the logical end of its metatextual struggle against the boundaries writers place on the genre—it has, however briefly, allowed the world to end, ostensibly giving us something we haven’t seen before (or at least not every Summer). The simple insanity of seeing a giant god destroy the insular world of the film is akin to the moment in Inglorious Basterds when Hitler is machine-gunned to death—it’s nigh unthinkable; and yet, while Hitler’s death is surprising due to its historical reimagining, Cabin’s ending surprises only because it defies Hollywood standards—begs a discussion of the increasing staleness of the films being squeezed out the studios’ aging anus, ultimately proposing we deserve more than we’ve become accustomed to.

Superman: Red Son

Though he feature an unmatched bevy of superpowers gained and lost over the years (x-ray vision, flight, superbreath, heat-vision, super-strength, the ability to turn back time), one thing Superman never had was super-intelligence. He can speed-read at rates that surpass the human notion of speed-reading and absorb books in the process, but everything he feels—his lifestyle and methodology—is fueled by one thing: life experiences growing up on the Kent farm in Smallville. The conceit behind Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son—that Superman’s ship landed in Soviet-era Ukraine—should then revolutionize the character’s morality, evidencing more of a communal ideology than America’s famed “Peace, Justice and the American Way”. It promises a sociological comparison between the capitalist system Americans already know—represented by their iconic “S-emblazoned” Superman—and that of the forgotten Soviet regime; posits what the world would be like today, had Communism spread successfully.  What’s delivered, however, is more a reimagining of the character that wavers between serving the established Superman mythos—Lex Luthor rivalries, ideological battles with Batman, a rogue’s gallery of super-villains well-established in the pre-existing Superman series, even an origin story largely reflective of the original—and an exploration of what a communist world would be like with Superman.

This raises the question of how beholden a writer must remain to the established mythology of a character in the comic book universe. In answering this question, I’m reminded of The Sandman series, which, at its inception, featured a brief tie-in with a handful of DC Comics regulars (most notably John Constantine), before focusing almost entirely on the development of an insular universe. Re-reading that series, the crossovers felt clunky and out of place—The Sandman is a uniquely well-contained story that develops organically; tells the tale of a man’s decision to either change with his times or perish. This is what elevates it past the realm of Superhero comics towards legitimate literature—tossing in John Constantine for the sake of mass market appeal is akin to a reimagining of Macbeth where, midway through, the titular Scotsman joins forces with King Lear and successfully beat down the peoples’ militia. It may be unfair to expect a reimagining of Superman to rebuild the character’s universe from the ground up, but to propose him as a Soviet superhero is to suggest just that.

The apparent similarities between Millar’s Soviet Superman go deeper than the casting, however; within the first twenty pages, as “Sputnik II” hurdles towards America’s Metropolis, Superman appears on the horizon already imagining the various ways he could save the city. “They called me a soldier, but that just wasn’t true,” he narrates. “I was never a soldier. A soldier always follows orders. A soldier knows and hates his enemy. A soldier only fights and dies for his own people. I just fought for what was right.” In these lines, and the predictable rescue of The Daily Planet which follows, Millar proposes Superman’s grasp of an intrinsic understanding of what’s “right”. On the surface, this hearkens back to our own Superman’s mantra of  “Peace, Justice, and The American Way”—suggests that Supes is simply out to fight the good fight, regardless of who he’s saving. What his statement actually connotes, however, is a self-righteous belief that “right” can be quantified—that somehow, he has a deeper, purer understanding of what’s good for humanity than we’ve evolved to comprehend, as represented by our various ideological differences. This figures in later when, shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, he spies Lana Lazarenko, a childhood friend from the Ukrainian farm on which he was raised, waiting in a bread line. Speaking of her children, she tells him “We spent all our money traveling from Saint Petersburg for the funeral and now we have to queue here for scraps with everyone else”.

Until this point, Superman has refused the appointment of party leader everyone has pointedly suggested he accept; replying to Stalin’s son’s accusation of political aspirations, he states “How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not interested in politics or leading the party or any of that behind-the-scenes stuff. I came to Moscow to help the common man. I’m a worker, not a public speaker”. It appears Superman has drawn boundaries for himself—refuses to get involved in the “behind-the-scenes politics” that guide the social workings of a country, instead choosing to help “the common man”, (by preventing train derailments and cosmic collisions with Earth…). The contrast he makes between “the common man” and “politics” suggests a feeling that the Soviet government exists largely to serve the wealthy, utterly disregarding the poor. And so, when he sees Lana standing in the bread line and hears the surrounding peoples’cries that their “children haven’t eaten all day”—that some “haven’t eaten in weeks”—he has a change of heart, stating “I could take care of everyone’s problems if I ran this place, and to tell you the truth, there’s no good reason why I shouldn’t”.  Again, though standing up for starving Russian citizens, his assumption of power smacks of a misguided egocentrism—a belief that he’s somehow “beyond” human failures. His later musing on what Lex Luthor “might have accomplished… in the name of his species” only further evidences this disconnect from humanity. Much like the superpowers of our own world—the political giants of first world countries—Superman assumes the role of leader in the role of a father figure—one who will “take care of everyone’s problems”, even if they be the problems of another “species”—the “common man”. This imagined hierarchical division between Superman and the people he governs is no less specious or harmful to a Marxist state than that of Stalin and the real-life leaders that followed him; just as they lived lives of comfortable opulence and inscrutable power, so does The Man of Steel, constructing a palatial escape from the Soviet state for himself, from which he issues absolute mandate of what the “common man” requires in life.

By the end of his first twenty years in power, all but the US and Chile operate as communist states, yet even within his own country, there is a collective group of discontent souls—individuals who long to throw off the ubiquitous gaze of “big brother”. Upon entering a bar, a yet-unnamed man overhears a fellow drinker complain “We’re like his pets. Animals in a cage. He might shelter and feed us, but we’re never going to be free while that monster’s running the show”. He’s talking about Superman, the figurehead of the now nearly-global communist state; though it nurtures peoples’ bodies with “shelter” and food, it doesn’t allow exercise of the mind, as we soon find out with the stranger’s reply. “Dangerous talk my friend,” he says, “especially when you’re criticizing a man with super-hearing…Incitement to disobey is all it takes to be turned into a Superman Robot these days”. In the panel in which this discussion occurs, a man’s face is centered in the foreground, mindlessly clutching a mop, his eyes zombified by some alien mechanical device consisting of three circles attached to his head. As the stranger indicates, “Incitement to disobey”—any expression of dissatisfaction with the Super-Communist regime—is grounds for an external lobotomy. In exchange for providing the people assured necessities, Superman has revoked their ability to think or assemble freely—has instituted an Orwellian state where dissent is met with very real “Soviet reprogramming”.

The stranger, we later discover, is Batman, an anarchist crusader who spends his nights causing social upheaval, primarily in the form of civic explosions. After he destroys the “Superman Museum” and four other buildings alongside it, Pyotr bursts into Superman’s chambers and begs him to just kill the caped-crusader, to which he is told “No. There must be no killing…This utopia will not be built on the bones of my opponents.” This sentiment is echoed later when Superman is faced with an invasion by Lex Luthor—he states “I don’t want to invade them…Everything I’ve accomplished so far has been done by winning the argument”. And yet, the very existence of Batman and his fellow dissidents suggests he’s won no such thing; how hard is it to win a debate against a lobotomized opponent? And why, if the argument is being won, is there dissent on the level of public destruction?

Perhaps ironically, when Pytor calls for Batman’s death, Superman is busy chiseling away at a slab of stone, crafting a heroic statue in the image of himself. Likewise, he is molding the world to fit his understanding of what’s “right”—to serve the intrinsic notion of good he founded his global-state upon. He eventually questions his influence, telling Wonder Woman “Sometimes I wonder if Luthor and the Americans are right…Perhaps we do interfere with humanity too much. Nobody wears a seatbelt anymore. Ships have even stopped carry lifejackets. I don’t like this unhealthy new way that people are behaving”. The boundaries Superman initially set up between himself and the “behind-the-scenes politics” have broken down, the result being humanity’s easing into reckless, carefree comfort. He is both scribe and enforcer of the laws—the great protector, ever-available to prevent even the tiniest mishap, and the great judge, quelling any sign of protest or rebellion with silence. Soviet Superman is, in many ways, the embodiment of a perfect fascist state, providing coverage and protection for the people by mandating what they are to believe and own.

The later revelation that “Every adult had a job. Every child had a hobby. And the entire human population enjoyed the eight hours’ sleep which their bodies required. Crime didn’t exist. Accidents never happened. It didn’t even rain unless Brainiac was absolutely certain that everyone was carrying an umbrella” echoes any number of national promises—America’s turkey in the oven, Franco’s daily bread, etc. It represents a complete control of the people and the world they live in—a sort of totalitarian dictatorship wherein the dictator honestly wants to help his people. The disconnect which continues to breed dissent, fueling America’s refusal to bow before Communism, can be explained only by examining the question of at what point must humans be held culpable for, or allowed to make, mistakes? At what point must a government impose boundaries on its social reach to ensure its people maintain free will, but also achieve an acceptable standard of living? This is a much greater question than a simple comic can answer, as its implications exceed that of the Superman character; indeed, one must first decide what level of injustice and inequality we’re willing to tolerate in the real world—and whether the concession of personal freedom is a valid exchange for supposed comfort and safety. This question has been asked throughout the ages by opposing ideologies; in modern America, the conservative right claims the forfeiture of freedom as a necessary deterrent against terrorist-inspired crime, while calling for the abandonment of social programs like welfare and medicare, while the left proposes greater government regulation and social outreach at the expense of a reduced military budget. The partisan divide, though an ever-present headache, is likewise a necessary evil to avoid the creation of a militaristic socialist country—one akin to Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Neither is particularly all-encompassing (though the conservative agenda skirts closely on such totalitarian thinking), yet were a bi-partisan candidate to realize both parties’ goals, we would ultimately end up with something akin to Superman’s Communist state.

Red Son takes the Cold War one step further than it ever reached on its own—militaristic warfare. In order to avoid the realization of a unified dystopian world, Lex Luthor does the unthinkable—enacts a first strike against Superman using the Green Lantern Corps and Wonder Woman’s Amazonian Squad as an initial attack. In doing so, Luthor has almost all but ensured his country’s demise, but subsequently made one last stand for individualism—a final push for free will and individual expression. Forced into battle, Superman abandons his brainwashing tactics and springs into action, disarming the Green Lantern Corps, pummeling Wonder Woman’s Amazons, and ultimately defeating the fleet of supervillains America releases from its prisons to do battle with The Man of Steel. Hovering over the White House, all that stands between him and total global domination is Lois Lane (Luthor) and a letter her husband penned the night before. Warned by Superman that The White House and everything within a several block radius would soon be destroyed, Lois stands her ground, instead pointing his attention to the letter inside her jacket. Insulted, the super-leader uses his x-ray vision to peak inside—and is brought to his knees by its contents.

“Why don’t you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?” the letter reads.

In a flashback we see Lex handing the letter to his wife, telling her “They say the pen is mightier than the sword”.

The “bottle” hearkens back to an earlier incident in Red Son’s storyline wherein Brainiac shrunk Stalingrad down, trapping it inside a bottle—something which Superman refers to as the “single black spot” on his career. Of course, Luthor’s letter contextualizes Superman’s global reign as mimicking the forced isolation of those in Stalingrad—equates Communism’s total reach, Superman’s imposed acceptance of his system, and the elimination of ideological diversity with the only act of villainy even The Man of Steel has been incapable of correcting. Luthor’s statement that “The pen is mightier than the sword” strikes deeper than even his letter suggests; the cliché motto connotes the triumph of thought over might—is encompassing of the entire Cold War. Though focused on winning the hearts and minds of his fellow man, Superman does so through forceful manipulation—imposes his will on others by way of brainwashing and reprogramming—and is likewise a figure of strength, not intellect. His forced spread of a narrow-sighted notion of what’s “right” for humanity—a group he views as a “species” separate from himself—fails to foster individual thought, and is likewise at ends with “the pen”. Indeed, the very act of reimagining Superman as a Communist superhero is only made available through free will and the ability to think as an individual—in a metatextual way, Red Son exists only because people are free to think, because “the pen” has won out over “the sword”.

Once Superman backs down from his assault, however, he’s questioned by his assistant—the reprogrammed Brainiac—an individual whose intelligence is so great he apparently remained unaffected by the Soviet brainwashing. As he pronounces his intent to bomb America to the ground, thus successfully implementing a globalized Communist state, Luthor commits one final act of heroism—pulls the plug on Brainiac’s ship. Unfortunately, the supervillain accounted for this, installing a nuclear self-destruct sequence which kicks in immediately thereafter. This moment is a realization of so many historical fears—of those who sat anxiously on edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis, learnt “Duck and Cover” during childhood, and felt an air of relief at the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; a nuclear first strike has been initiated—and the only man on Earth who can prevent its detonation is the leader of the party who’s responsible for its launch.

Fortunately, that man is Superman. Like several decades’ worth of political leaders who allowed good intentions to mar the face of countless developing nations during the Cold War, Superman only wanted the best for his people; though his attempt to render paradise on Earth ultimately gave birth to an ideological dystopia, he never intended to hurt anyone—sought only to help. And so, without hesitation, Superman does what Superman always does—grabs the ship, flies into space, and martyrs himself on the ensuing nuclear blast to save the world he’s fought so hard to defend. This does not nullify the nuke’s influence, however; just as a nuclear detonation would destabilize and uproot nearly any country, the Soviet Communist regime quickly dissolves globally—replaced, of course, by a Lex Luthor-led empire.

With this conclusion, we see how even people with the best intentions, when placed on an extreme seat of power, can cause great social havoc. Superman, an individual arguably limitless in strength and capability, functions best when operating behind social boundaries; as he implies at the beginning of the comic, when you combine the brute strength he uses to help the “common man” with an individual running the politics of a country, you ultimately end up with a militaristic dystopian state. For all the drama that ensues in our own world over ideological differences concerning social programs and civil rights, these are unfortunately (and paradoxically) the glue that holds society together; just as continued crime ensures the merit of our justice system and unification of our society, the continued debate over what’s “right” and “wrong” on a governmental level ensures the preservation of a diverse, globalized world. The world must therefore defy a “Superman” for leadership—must continually rely on flawed individuals with personal interests in order to ensure the continued peace of a state.

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 8

Until this past Sunday’s episode, Mad Men Season 5 had failed to hook my interest. Despite finally shedding a substantial spotlight on Pete Campbell (easily my most adored character) the season felt unfocused and stagnant. Don’s marriage to Megan essentially neutered the character’s complexity—rather than continue with the Dick Whitman alter-ego, Don immediately revealed his past to Megan, and worse, legitimately fell in love with her, meaning no more Casanova nights in Manhattan. Betty’s essentially an absentee character due to her actress’s pregnancy, and the single episode she appears in portrays her as a hysteric, sedentary housewife, forever teetering on the verge of tears; granted, she wasn’t particularly outgoing before, but the childish rage which drove her through the previous seasons has surprisingly gone missing, replaced by the whimpering fits of an over-sized cow. The rivalry between Pete and Sterling has developed nicely, but seems little more than an Abbott and Costello routine with teeth; strangely, as Sterling’s character has gravitated more towards exclusive comic relief, Pete has adopted an almost existential personality, consistently longing for that which he cannot attain—which is, apparently, every attractive woman alive. Even the racial narrative with Dawn and the Civil Rights marches felt fragmented and half-cooked—outside the first two episodes and Peggy’s taking in the aforementioned secretary for a single night, the story lacks influence—feels tossed in because it fit with the times. The only slightly compelling thread was Joan’s struggles with her husband and child—Joan isn’t naturally suited to motherhood, but she does a great job playing one anyway.

But during last Sunday’s episode, it hit me; the main difference between Season 5 and all preceding seasons wasn’t a lack of quality—I was still continually gripped by each episode from beginning to end. It was merely jarring to see the writers focus on building the side characters’ narratives with equal importance. Until the end of Season 4, Mad Men is essentially the story of Don Draper; you witness his fall and phoenix-like ascent from the ashes of a personality almost literally tossed aside. But with the beginning of Season 5, it appears a separate trend has taken over. Each episode serves up piecemeal developments for each of the characters—Roger’s desperation, Don’s comfort-inspired sedition, Megan’s workplace discontent, Peggy’s feelings of under-appreciation, Lane’s split between being a family man and bachelor, and, of course, Pete Campbell’s continuing failure at being a nice guy, largely fueled by feelings of under-appreciation (not unlike Peggy). I don’t know that the series is necessarily building to anything, or if a central focus akin to Don’s identity crisis will again arise over the course of the remaining two and a half seasons.

Having said that, I’m reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris—both 70’s space opera epics with no “declared” plot. Both operate as rides the viewer must either surrender unto or abandon entirely, and both likewise alienate a large part of the popular movie-going populace. As with these films, I’ve found opinions garnered on Mad Men Season 5 from others ranging from “Meh” to disappointment. After four seasons of Don Crises, the masses expected more of the same; this jarring, fragmented kaleidoscope season is simply too different for many people to swallow.

The secret  of 2001 and Solaris, known only to those who have weathered the 2.5-3 hour running time of both, however, is they’re probably the best films from that era—and possibly ever made. The free-flowing, “ride-like” structure fosters inquiries into theme and intent, and serves for more than simple “Did you like the cinematography” fodder afterwards.

Episode 8 of Mad Men, Season 5 opens with a shot of Pete Campbell riding the train to work, reflecting the exact setup of the season opener. Pete is sitting in the same seat and is soon joined by the same unnamed acquaintance. Their discussion of marital infidelity, though relevant to later events in the episode, plays second fiddle to the feeling of déjà vu this setup plays upon—the notion of repetition and workday minutiae immediately strikes the viewer, who’s just witnessed the mirroring scene in the lead-in to that night’s episode. The train-ride is a microcosmic construction of the “day-in, day-out” lifestyle Pete feels trapped within—is the white-collar cage which he seeks release from by cheating on his wife and “competing” with co-workers to the point of office fist-fights and claiming success for others’ accomplishments. Though his seeming inconsistent character veers towards wormy stalker territory more often than not, the repetition conveyed in this scene proposes an explanation as to why; it’s not that Pete is particularly malicious or actively self-entitled—until the recent establishment of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, he, like many young professionals, felt under-accomplished. The value he places on his work is reflected in his inner-office behavior this season which, in contrast against the canvas of Roger’s hijinks, has been the very model of professionalism. Now that he’s cemented himself as a “name” in the advertising world and has less to struggle for, he feels mired down by the mundanity of the suburban commuter, and thus lashes out in unpredictable, often slimy ways.

The meat and bones of this season has been the relationship between Megan and Don, with an inordinate amount of attention being paid to Megan’s role as both a distraction and example of workplace discontent; at the end of episode 5, we see Bert take Don aside and tell him to focus—that he’s been on “Honeymoon Leave” for too long. It’s true that Don’s critical, often abrasive eye has been neutered by his recent marriage—something that Peggy vocalizes after every pitch she proposes for Heinz Baked Beans. With Megan’s “catch” of Heinz in episode 7, this didn’t seem entirely problematic—the forceful sway Don once brought to the table appeared replaced by charm and wit. Yet with Megan’s resignation this past episode, one has to wonder if we’ll see the return of angsty, identity-crisis-laden Don, and if we don’t, what hope the SCDP Creative team has for survival; the transition from Don’s smile in the kitchen after telling Megan he loves her to his frazzled, almost trembling countenance in the Creative Kitchen with Peggy suggests difficulties ahead, both at work and home.

One scene in particular brought a quizzical smile to my face this episode—Don’s “scene” with Megan acting out the Cool Whip skit. What’s easy to overlook here is the witnessing of two master actors—Megan’s practiced artform and Don’s years of experience living in the shadow of an alter-ego—in an almost Shakespearian play-within-a-play format. There’s a power dichotomy in the skit that reflects Don’s own marriage—the wife asks her husband to taste the Cool Whip, but he refuses, instead proposing several inquiries about its creation. The wife ignores her husband’s continued questioning, instead insisting that he just “taste it”, until finally, she shoves the spoon down his throat. Don and Megan’s interactions have been strangely sado-masochistic this season, with one character establishing dominance over the other, whether with Don’s hair-pulling initiation of coitus after Megan flees the office earlier in the season, or Megan’s emotional dominance in disappearing at the HoJo just a few episodes later; the Cool Whip skit, which we’re told the clients appreciated largely for Don and Megan’s performance rather than actual content, recreates this relationship on a simplified, microcosmic scale, and is actually a stage for them to acknowledge the inner-workings of their marriage.

Megan’s been living her personal life as an actress, attempting to impress a sense of satisfaction with work upon Don and others in the office, but by the end of the episode, it’s Don who must now put on a façade of satisfaction with Megan’s decision. This season is the first time we’ve seen legitimate happiness in Don—and it turns him into a sort of mindless fool; now that he’s forced to put upon an affectation over Megan’s acting aspirations, he reverts back to the embittered ad executive we’re used to from seasons 1-4. When forced to perform the aforementioned skit with Peggy subbing for Megan, the magic quickly falls apart. Peggy isn’t an actress—using the phrase Megan’s father describes Don with from episode 7, she isn’t a purveyor of “studied actions”; Peggy simply says what’s on her mind, living as an individual in the moment—and likewise doesn’t think ahead to study her lines. After the clients from Creative Kitchen walk away, as if to clarify the source of Don’s frustrations and failures, Peggy, rather shockingly, tells him to shut up—that she isn’t the person he’s mad at.

Almost a physical echo of Don’s discontent over his wife’s choices, Pete bemoans his recent mistress’s refusal to revisit their affair, asking “Why do they get to make all the decisions? Why do they decide what happens?” His target for this isn’t only his mistress—it’s all women. Pete Campbell consistently pins the root of his troubles on other people, refusing that he may suffer personal failings in response to his need for recognition and outside approval. His wife, Trudy, likewise becomes the focus of his disgust; already claiming that she’s grown sedentary and droll, he begins seeking affairs, whining that he “has nothing” to those who question his actions. He lusts for women half his age and betrays a friend—the aforementioned man he sees every day—in some misguided conquest to regain a sense of self-worth and vitality in his mundane workday world.

During the course of this conquest, the then-new space-shot images of Earth are brought up. Pete’s mistress views them as a void—a paradoxically physical representation of the vast nothingness surrounding them. Lost in a daytime reverie over his affair, Pete becomes obsessed with this image, asking Harry what he thinks of it. Pete, who opens the episode discussing the bulletpoints of his life insurance policy, which “covers suicide after 2 years”, appears lost in an existential quagmire, his mind plunged deep into the vast reaches of outer space by his unrequited love for a woman already wedded to a friend and feelings of entrapment by his current marriage. Don has a similar moment when, after Megan leaves the office for the last time, he mashes the elevator call button to follow behind. When the door opens, Don approaches it slowly, the camera pulled out to give a profile view of his hesitation. A rush of fear sweeps over the viewer as they wonder what could cause Don to question himself after so forcefully mashing the call button; when the camera finally sweeps over his shoulder the discovery is more horrifying than any monster we could imagine—it’s a shot down the long, storeys-high drop of an empty elevator shaft. There’s nothing. Aside from possibly foreshadowing a tragedy to come later in the season, this “nothingness”, this “failure to operate as expected” is reflective Don’s own feelings of loss, and the vacancy Megan has left him within the office. It also contributes to a collection of bleak imagery this season has piled together, whether it be nurse murderers or mass sniper homicides.

The episode ends with Don listening to the new Beatles album Megan bought him, in reaction to his saying he’d like to “catch up”, after feeling out of touch with the current generation’s musical obsession. The song played—“Tomorrow Never Knows”—is the final track on Revolver, the band’s follow-up to what many consider The Beatles’ landmark album, Rubber Soul, and the second album that really marked their transition from a pre-assembled pop-rock ensemble to a legitimate, industry-changing legacy-group. Don’s earlier agreement to use the 30 year old song played in his office exposed an inability to relate to the current generation’s tastes and a lack of knowledge of the popular landscape, as represented by the trippy, nontraditional rhythm of the Beatles’ then-current tune. After only 30 seconds—just long enough to provide a background for a sweeping montage of all the characters and their places—Don lifts the needle from the album and goes to bed, apparently exhausted by what he’s heard. More than anything this season, Don is becoming irrelevant—an aging dinosaur unable to relate to his target audience, utterly distracted by his personal life, mistrusted and despised by many clients for his open letter to “Big Tabacco”, and unable to conjure the charisma or forceful ingenuity he was once famed for without Megan by his side; the true intent of the ad campaign that ran earlier this year, with the silhouette of a man in freefall, already interpreted by many as an indication of one characters’ eventual suicide, is becoming ever more prevalent: Don has fallen from his seat of importance in the world of advertising, with little hope of re-attaining it.


Without Lost in Translation, most of the world would only vaguely recognize Sofia Coppola as Francis Ford’s daughter and maybe the woman whose performance in Godfather III single-handedly pulled the film down a notch. Marie Antoinette did little to endorse the directorial talent seen in Lost, suggesting that Coppola’s first major success was the result of stellar performances from Bill Murray, and to a lesser extent, a then-unknown Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately, Copolla’s newest film, Somewhere, is flawed at the most basic level—writing—and even the most artsy extra-long shots and inspired Indie music can’t save it. The dialogue is never too colloquial or melodramatic, the scenes never epic or shocking—normally this film’s subtlety would be lauded. Yet it wants so hard to be a redemption story—is so focused on telling only the parts of its character’s transformation—that it feels too shoehorned and inevitable. From the protagonist’s first lust-less voyeuristic encounter with hired striptease enthusiasts Cindy and Blonde #2, Somewhere can only become a film about a man disappointed with his life, and the girl who “shows him the way”.

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a hard-living action-movie star whose days are spent mindlessly speeding his Mustang around the California desert and nights partying and womanizing. Though he occasionally receives visits from his adorable eleven-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), most of his time is divided between playing Guitar Hero with roommate Sammy (Chris Pontius) and hiring hookers for private pole-dancing sessions in his bedroom. After Johnny’s ex-wife drops Cleo off at his apartment unannounced, hoping to go on vacation and have her daughter delivered to camp a week later, things begin to change. Johnny begins questioning his lifestyle as he must defend Cleo from it, kicking random women out of his bed and ignoring unsolicited advances in exotic Italian hotel lobbies. Through a montage of pool-swimming, travel, gambling in Vegas, and long meals spent together not entirely unlike the trailer (scored to the actual song behind the trailer) the two come to love one another, compelling Johnny to give up his rock-and-roll antics after a heartfelt goodbye outside camp.

Father and daughter applaud a film presumably more creative than "Somewhere"

Without giving much away, the ending scene is literally the protagonist “walking away from it all” in the most heavy-handed way possible. For a film so concerned with “showing” rather than “telling”—one where the father and daughter never once actually say “I love you” to one another—Somewhere sure feels like getting clubbed over the head. Everything is paradoxically artistic yet cheap—hits every expected redemption-story beat without bringing anything new to the table; the montage which makes up the entirety of the trailer exemplifies all that is wrong with this film—rather than building a substantial relationship between father and daughter, Coppola opts for the easy way out, manufacturing sentiment with by-the-numbers moves. I wanted to love this movie—Dorff and Fanning deliver excellent performances, the way the camera hangs on characters for just a little too long creates a brooding effect that gets under your skin, and the soundtrack is scored almost entirely by Phoenix, one of my favorite bands on the current Indie-rock scene. But in light of the script’s narrow focus and lack of originality, the cinematography and music seem only to enhance the manufactured feel of the film. What you’re left with is a slow, whimsical ride towards Johnny’s redemption that’s neither spectacular or awful—is rather a nice break from the high drama of our personal lives and everyday cinema that’s entirely, predictably on-rails.

Blue Valentine

When I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind way back in 2004 it felt fresh and sincere—Jim Carrey’s struggle to “give up” Clementine’s memory spoke to the emotionally needy nineteen year old inside me, while the sci-fi “mind erasure” aesthetic appealed to my nerdy tendencies. It’s been a long time since 2004, and though the movie no longer means the same to me—maybe because I’ve grown up, maybe because I’ve hardened into a sadder person—I still can’t deny its freshness and originality. The only film that’s come close to creating the same sensation of heartfelt vulnerability since is Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, a movie that sidesteps Sunshine’s need for sci-fi artifice in favor of simple, well-written dialogue and characters. Blue Valentine doesn’t aspire to elevate the common man’s relationship to the epics of Greek tragedy—is instead a story of polarities. For every kiss there’s a slap, every compromise a betrayal, and every beginning an end. The story doesn’t have a clear start-point or linear narrative, yet despite this, its hodgepodge of scenes craft a genuine love that feels at once familiar and striking.

Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) are a couple who never should have been. They meet outside Cindy’s Grandma’s apartment after Dean moves an old man into the room across from her, and despite Cindy’s relationship with pretty-boy wrestler and college heart-throb Bobby (Mike Vogel), the two fall in love, cradled in one another’s arms after long chases through Manhattan streets and tap dancing sessions in front of shoe stores. After Michelle discovers she’s pregnant with Bobby’s baby, she and Dean head to the abortion clinic, where Cindy abruptly calls off the process midway. During the bus-ride home, Dean decides to settle down with his newfound love and raise Bobby and Cindy’s baby as his own. Love overcomes all and the couple walks off into the sunset, surely to live a life happily ever after.

Flash to today. Dean’s become an alcoholic handyman for hire, Cindy’s grown cold to his touch, and their girl, Frankie, unknowingly sits under the weight of a house about to fall. The honeymoon is over, so to speak, just a scant six years after it began. Begrudgingly and without much expectation, they drop Frankie off at Cindy’s father’s and head to a “love hotel” three hours outside town with the hope of patching up their marriage.

I have to climb what?

The majority of the film is told both through flashback and from within the “future room” of the love motel. The couple quabble and reconcile, kiss and fall asleep alone on the floor. Their story is formed through juxtaposition of fights and memories of a passion long dead, etching out how simple actions like a hug can act as both an eternal embrace and a goodbye. Blue Valentine isn’t a movie concerned with showing you what the couple does to one another—rather, it gets under your skin, forcing you to feel what they feel, undeniably linking intent, rather than action, with emotion. I’m not entirely sure why this film resonated with me more than Eternal Sunshine. It’s true Sunshine’s sci-fi mechanism was unnecessary—Quentin Tarantino brought non-linearity to the mainstream about a decade before Gondry’s work ever hit the screen, so there was no need for such a device—but it also didn’t hurt the movie. And it’s also true that both Blue Valentine and Eternal Sunshine take cheap swings, favoring the highlights of a relationship—first kisses, long nights in bed, play-fights, and quirky dates—while avoiding the trappings of a linear narrative. But unlike Blue Valentine, Eternal Sunshine wanted to have its cake and eat it too—sought to construct a realistic relationship history through elements of “movie-magic” sci-fi. Cianfrance’s film feels like a restless night in bed spent raking over photo albums, remembering people only recently pushed to the background of our lives—is both endearing and nostalgic, delightful and tragic. You may not walk out with any great philosophical questions answered, but you’ll feel like you’ve remembered someone recently forgotten—someone close to your heart whom you dearly need back—and that’s more than we can ask of any movie.


NYFF 2010: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Imagine watching Return of the Jedi without any prior knowledge of Star Wars. In fact, pretend you’ve never even heard of Star Wars—that you think Jedi is a standalone film. You walk in late, missing the opening scrollby that explains everything from the first two movies, a few minutes pass, then BAM, some asshole in a helmet is flying around sand-dunes shooting laser beams at people. There’s a big half-finished lego ball in the sky and thousands of midgets running around the forest wearing tiny bear costumes. Towards the end, the dude with breathing problems takes off his asthma mask to reveal a hideous burnt fish face. As the credits roll you think to yourself “What the fuck did I just watch?”. And in spite of all that, you would still have a more firm understanding of Jedi than I had of Apichatpong Weerasethankul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a film somehow more confounding than the pronunciation of its director’s name. The one thing Jedi has on its side? Narrative.

This was so much cooler when I thought it was a screenshot for the new Team Ico game.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center provides this brief synopsis of Boonmee “Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year for this gently comic and wholly transporting tale of death and rebirth, set in Thailand’s rural northeast. Uncle Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, is tended to by loved ones and visited by the ghosts of his wife and son…”.

That’s bullshit. Uncle Boonmee appears in most scenes, but the movie isn’t about him—it isn’t about anything. The first ten minutes are spent listening to tedious dinner-table conversation between Boonmee and his living family. Eventually his wife’s ghost shows up, adding her tedious contribution about shoes or noodles or whatever the hell she says (I honestly can’t remember.). This all leads up to the reveal of a gruesome and horrifying monkey-man with crimson laser-beam eyes—a monster who will surely tear the family asunder, ripping them limb from bloody limb before feasting on their delicious organs and sending their souls to hell!

Or have a bland, monotone conversation with Uncle Boonmee.

Apparently one of the old man’s sons mated with a Monkey Spirit, which, of course, turned him into a bigfoot. The forest surrounding Boonmee’s hut is actually surrounded by bigfoots (bigfeet?). Don’t question it.

So what horrible secrets or undeniable truths are revealed to Boonmee on his deathbed? Where does this dinner lead? Honey-chewing in a field (yes, chewing) and delusions of government flashlights which can expose a person’s private life. Oh, and did I leave out the part about the nameless princess getting raped by a talking catfish? Yeah, that happens too.

If this sounds like the babblings of a madman, I apologize. It’s the film, not me. Maybe the judges at Cannes confused the Palme d’Or with the Palme d’BORE; while the different vignettes may be stunning on a sensory level, there’s absolutely no through-line whatsoever. The director could just as well have made six different movies with one old man continually moping about in the background, contributing nothing, and called it his “Uncle Boonmee Anthology”; when the old man finally dies in a cave you feel nothing—mostly because you know nothing about him.

Weerasethankul held a Q&A after my screening where he explained that the film was intended as a eulogy to the dying tropes of his Thai cinematic heritage—the monkey-man an example of B horror, the princess his version of fantasy, etc, etc. The problems this cause are twofold—first, Uncle Boonmee is trumpeted as a dying man’s reflection on life, which it is not, and second, how can anyone outside a very niche group of Northeast Thailanders understand what he’s saying? Watching this film is like pushing a rope uphill—a near Sisyphean exercise in frustration and frivolity. Even if you kick back and take the ride, it leads nowhere and says nothing. Luckily this mess will probably never see American distribution—but just in case it does, avoid it like the plague.