Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Magic Mike (2012)

While one day we may call 2012 the year of Channing Tatum, it is clear that the film Magic Mike is definitely a part of director Steven Soderbergh's interest in the pornography industry, though in this case from the standpoint of an objectified male body. Since his breakthrough with Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Soderbergh has kept a hand in this particular area of entertainment--most clearly with his thinly-veiled near biopic with porn actress Sasha Grey, The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which manages simultaneously to be a metaphor for rough economic times, an expose of the porn industry's cross-over appeal, and a frustratingly unsuccessful film that neatly splits critics. His new film covers some of the same ground and makes clear that the male stripping industry has a lot more in common with the female and male porn industry than one might realize--especially in terms of the fluidity of sexual identity. The film opens with our star rising from a threesome with the woman he thinks is his girlfriend (Joanna, played by Olivia Munn). They both refer to the woman on Tatum's bed, who remains asleep with her face buried in the bed's sheets. It is clear from this comment and others that the girlfriend, whom Tatum's character ultimately has a sentimentally old-fashioned romantic attachment, is more interested in him as bait for the women they bed together than him--or, at any rate, does not feel for him as strongly as he does for her and ultimately drops him after she graduates with her psych degree. Tatum's character, meanwhile, is attached to an ingenue (Adam, played by Alex Pettyfer) whom he recruits and introduces to the male stripping industry but whom he meets initially through the manly industry of home roofing. It turns out that this is one of several business industries to which Tatum is connected--stripping is supposed to be a means to an end, in this case, to have his own furniture design business. He cannot overcome his own credit score, however, and finds himself in a complex attempt to outrun his past, which is catching up with him in the form of his own body's aging--something pointed out to him by the literal embodiment of the future.

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas), who plays the part of the owner of the club whose own dream of a franchise is as much a pipe dream as that of all of the men he has brought under his control. Tatum is simply repeating the pattern by acquiring Adam. While the sexual energy between each of the men is never allowed to become explicit, it is kept visible on the screen through self-conscious moments of touching, of men grabbing and hugging each other in stylized ways--as though the very limits of how heterosexual men can interact physically with each other is called attention to by stylizing its pattern and details. The closest the film gets to acknowledging this tension is when Adam, high at a party with one of the fellow dance partners, Ken (Matt Bomer), responds positively when the partner offers him his wife (Mircea Monroe) for sex, to which the two men respond with a version of "You're the greatest" "No, you're the greatest"--their exaggerated one-upmanship finally becoming something more than a mere joke--especially in their inebriated state. The women in the film, at this point, are little more than the way the men communicate with each other and Soderbergh allows the scene merely to resonate the way that the film as a whole allows the viewer to watch the mens' bodies on stage and off in a way that assumes nothing about the viewer's own sexual interest in them. All of the signification is finally on the stage anyway, especially in the way that the individual numbers cycle through cliches about men--from firemen to Tarzan, from construction workers to hip-hop artists. These numbers, while always winking and self-parodic, keep the focus on the men as opposed to the audience (who are, after all, the audience of the film as well). Tatum, in particular, does a fine job with his numbers. While one might wish that the film were more a twenty-tens' update of Cabaret (1972) where the action on the stage commented on that off the stage, the off-stage reality is kept fairly separate. The off stage genre morphs from that of the innocent corrupted--first by performance and then, predictably, by drugs--the focus shifts from Adam to Tatum, who falls for Adam's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn).

 While much could be done in the film with the sister's obvious replacement for Adam, Tatum's character slides from knowing to romantic innocent--falling in love with Brooke and, unfortunately for the film, the audience realizing it long before the character does. The film ends with the generic machinations of a standard love plot. But how could the standard love plot not be the most shocking one for a somewhat bedraggled male stripper living in the Tampa Bay area? He has, after all, seen everything and, presumably, done everything. Waking up with two women before he goes off to his construction job before he strips at night is only something you can do for a finite number of years. Brooke is his real chance at a new life, even though it is really a filimic way out of an economic reality that has trapped men of his generation as surely as it did the women who came before them--on the stage and in the world. The construction workers that they were takes on a parodic meaning on the stage, where they play at being the reality that they really are not. They are actors playing actors, and the film suggests that if male identity is so fragile, then mens' lives are as well, as what makes them desirable is only the image they live up to. The business, finally, of being male is to strip--the clothes, all being the same disguise, are optional. The men are objects and subjects, embodying the fluid identity of the porn industry, not the core reality of some long-forgotten profession in which their lives were supposed to be identified not with who they were but what they did. The lesson that they learn in the course of the film is that they have no mobility. They are unable to franchise their business (Dallas); unable to start a new business (Magic Mike); and, finally, unable to stay afloat at all without a recourse to crime (Adam). Three generations are linked by the same lack of skills, except to be looked at, to perform, in a different way, for women, for each other, and for the audience who sees through them and their clothes to the flesh beneath, to the last identity they have left.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).

 In this age of rabid remakes of films that seem not to need them, it's good to see one instance in which the remake may have a reason to exist: Tomas Alfredson's film version of John le Carré's (David Cornwall) classic novel of the post-Cold-War era. The film takes on both the novel and its expert treatment in the BBC/PBS seven-part series from 1974 starring Alec Guinness in one of his signature roles. The film manages to update the series by not only streamlining it for a two-hour running time (all the while keeping the complex plot linear and lucid) but also teasing out certain themes, such as the homoerotic undercurrent of the Guy Burgess case, on which the novel is based but upon which neither the novel nor the television series spend much time.

The film recreates a version of the seventies (like the novel, it's set in 1973) that owes its design to the sixties and the era of Mad Men: the seventies as drained of color, with shots frequently composed in shallow rectangular spaces that force the viewer to notice the extreme foreground where even the most subtle actions--a character swallowing or moving their eyes without moving their head--speaks volumes about psychological nuance and creates some of the film's major plot turns. Tinker Taylor remains a story about the 'Circus,' the MI5/6 organization that is the British version of the CIA and/or NSA. The Circus is shown to be not only about cloak-and-dagger high jinks--leaving a "wedge" in the door to see if anyone has come into your rooms while you are away--but also the backbiting and petty turf battles of underpaid civil servants. And the Circus is very much a boy's club. Agents and analysts fight each other as if they were upperclassmen at Eton fighting over the new first-years, hazing and flirting with each other in an attempt to gain power and curry favor.

Thrown into the middle of this already highly-charged atmosphere is the paranoia of "Control," as played by John Hurt, the head of the agency who is forced out in an attempt to uncover the name of a mole that results in a foreign mission that compromises one of his agents. The perceived bungling of this operation forces him, Smiley, and others into early retirement. Smiley is brought out of moth balls when it becomes clear to a senior minister that the mole may be real and is still at large.

With the task of playing Smiley, one of the most beloved characters in all of spy fiction, Gary Oldman makes the wise decision to build upon Guinness' portrayal rather than reinvent it. Guinness was famous for taking a part (whether Smiley or Obi Wan Kanobi) and paring his performance down more and more, removing as much expressivity as possible. What is somewhat amazing about Oldman's performance is that he is able to make Smiley even more stately, even more minimal than Guinness. His slow, quiet, terse movements and speech set the tone for the rest of the film, which allows major twists and turns to be communicated via subtle touches. The changes in Smiley's eye ware are sometimes the only clue we have to flashbacks, for example. Everything is as buttoned up and controlled as Smiley--or Oldman's performance of him.

Smiley, however, like the Circus itself, is not what it seems and the conceit of the film is that the paranoia brought about by a mole is always already embedded in the very fabric of spying itself. The spies not only monitor the Russians (and everyone else in the Easter Bloc), but each other as well. The British are caught between the glare of the American cousins, whom they despise and want to impress at the same time, and the Russian counterparts, symbolized by their infamous leader, Karla, who dogs their every movement. Everyone looks for everyone else's weakness, and the spectre of a mole simply further personalizes the search. That is, spies are not just human, but more so. Their very humanity makes them vulnerable.

At the historical heart of the Burgess case was the idea that to be gay and a spy was a dangerous combination precisely because it meant that you were especially vulnerable to blackmail. Burgess and the other members of the Cambridge Five were supposed to represent the best and brightest of their country. Their roles as double agents were not simply astonishing because they seemed to have all of the best that Britain had to offer, but because they chose communism over capitalism as a superior system. They hated the West, or what it had become. As Bill Haydon (Colin Frith) says in the film, the choice was "aesthetic." While this pronouncement undercuts the historical refusal of the the ethics of the West that the real Burgess argued, it does point to the refusal by Blount and Burgess to acknowledge Stalin or the realities of the post-Stalin Soviet Union, realities that would ultimately imprison Burgess when he defected to Moscow and found that life there was not to his taste. The reality of espionage, however, was made all the easier by the double life that both men lived and the doubleness of being a spy--a secret agent among the civilians--was echoed not only in the (sometimes barely concealed) double life of their homosexuality but in their actual roles as double agents for Mother Russia. Their secrets within secrets becomes a perfect metaphor for the security agency itself--who better to pretend than people who had to pretend all the time?

In the film as in the novel, the danger for the agents is personal feeling. In the novel, Le Carré makes it clear that it is personal relationships that the British secret service is good at, while the Americans, weak on this front, are good at technology. Yet it is in the supposed superiority of their contacts and their sources that leaves the British vulnerable as it is false intelligence that ultimately causes the British to fall for a trap that convinces the Americans that they are receiving invaluable information on the Soviets and thus should entrust the British with their secrets. The mole, however, takes the American information and passes it on to Moscow, which gives back only a sprinkling of information in return--just enough to make their false data seem reliable. This fool's gold that the British mistake for "treasure" not only makes them seem sloppy and endangers their operatives, but opens the Americans up to danger as well. Unwittingly, the British have harmed Western intelligence by their attempt to seem superior to the Russians and to curry favor with the Americans. Their 'feminine' position between the two super powers--trying to make a strength out of a weakness--opens them up to instability, no longer knowing what or who they are.

Le Carré's genius is to make this seeming personal weakness resonate not only with the Circus as a whole, but with Smiley's personal life. Deeply in love with his wife, Ann, the film flashes back to a drunken Christmas Office party in which Smiley sees Haydon smile at his wife. Later, outside, he sees her in his embrace. To his coworkers, Smiley is not only Control's right-hand man, but a cuckold whose personal life is a tragedy. Haydon assumes that it can be Smiley's distraction, his blind spot, that will keep him from ever seeing the mole. That Smiley is able to see through this occlusion, even use the knowledge of his wife's affair to his advantage in capturing the mole, is a testament to Smiley's control of his own emotions as well as his ability to rationalize the elaborate covert operation that has ensnared his agency in a deception that is so difficult to unravel.

The attempt to use Ann as an aporia within Smiley's own thought process becomes one of many metaphors employed by Le Carré to suggest that the spy business itself is one gigantic game--a ludic postmodern system in which no one ever does, or can, know the truth about anyone or anything. All sign systems are ultimately unstable, and the attempt by either Control or Karla ever to know what is really going on is doomed to failure, to create even more unstable layers of unknowingness. Smiley, almost unwittingly, manages to restore some stability, but at so high a price that one wonders what sort of a reputation the Circus has after he susses out his enemy.

Indeed, the danger in the British system is inherent in its most cultured social layer: an indifference to or tacit acceptance of bisexuality, which gives to the film a sense that the homoerotic Etonian world of Haydon, especially, becomes both a strength and a liability. Haydon is able to seduce anyone he wants, which ultimately becomes his modus operandi as an operative. Sex and/or love for him are part of his job, his arsenal of tricks. Seduction is not a perk of his trade, but an essential part of it. Only in a culture that takes itself seriously enough to be sophisticated about sexuality could a mole function with such under-the-radar abandon. Late in the film, we also see Haydon catch the eye of Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the connection that will have the most impact in the film's axis of events. Not surprisingly, it goes unnoticed.

The male world of the spies is one in which female agency seems to have been removed only to reassert itself in a myriad of ways. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is the lone character who desires a "family," and fears ending up otherwise without female companionship like the men who run the Circus. At one point the camera pans across a graffito in the background that says "The Future is Female." Feminism has yet to make a mark in the world we see in the film where women act as support--constantly loading and unloading dumb waiters full of paper, files, transcriptions that flow through this factory of paper. Women are seen listening, scanning microfilm, taking notes, but rarely talking, interacting, or overtly spying. The men are in charge, but are themselves taking the role of the feminine as well away from women. What other than a revolution could be on hand? What other than the truth that will undo the lies that have been told?

Alfredson's version of the story brings out Le Carré's text via a variety of techniques. Not only is London rendered in stark tones, seemingly in decay much like a version of the future as Orwell might have imagined it, but portions of the novel are referred to without being spelled outright. Smiley talks about his encounter with Karla, which is shown in detail in the novel, by reenacting a conversation  with him for Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Likewise, Smiley mentions giving Karla a pack of cigarettes, which Karla takes but then returns unused when he is returned to Moscow, without mentioning that Smiley hated American cigarettes, especially Karla's favorite Camels. The film, in other words, references much more than it shows, leaving many subtle hints to the novel's fans that appear in the film as depth and fullness, fleshing out a world that is much more than merely another spy tale, but a deconstruction of the genre itself--a sort of meta story in which the inner workings of a secret world become a metaphor for life as we live it, and die from it, and can never tell ourselves what is really happening.


In many ways Ian Fleming's creation of the character James Bond was itself a reaction to the Burgess scandal and the creation of a straight version of the the double agent as a secret agent with the blandest name that Fleming could think of, borrowed from an American ornithologist. Despite the fact that his character is a lowly civil servant, Fleming manages to turn him into a sexy world traveler who becomes synonymous with the twentieth century. As Umberto Eco notes, Fleming's technique is to mix detailed consumerism with fantasy--to catalog what Bond buys for lunch or does at cards as a way to make us believe the conversation between Bond and the inevitably erudite villain in another scene. The 'Fleming effect' creates a character who is a living embodiment of the notion of masculinity as being what you do, which in Bond's case, is, paradoxically, what you consume. The iconicity of Fleming's fictional technique makes Le Carré's all the more startling in that he avoids almost completely this approach even though he deals with many of the same subjects. Le Carré's characters couldn't be further from the realm of James Bond, devoid, as they are, almost completely of the world of consumerism, or indeed, of any of the many colorful perks that make Bond's supposedly drab job worth his while.

Alfredson seems to understand Le Carré's anti-Fleming vibe but also manages to turn his Tinker Taylor into a sequel of sorts to his earlier Let the Right One In (2008, Låt den rätte komma in), another film about  gender confusion (or homoeroticism) set in a similarly stark version of Sweden in 1982. A remake of the vampire genre, the film deals with a twelve-year-old boy who is befriended by a girl he meets in his apartment complex who seems to be his own age, but who is much older and much stranger than he can at first imagine. The resulting relationship mirrors the complexities of an adolescent romance or coming-of-age picture, but with the added twist brought about by the fact that the 'girl' is not only a vampire but a castrato. The resulting attraction between them raises questions, as in Tinker Taylor, about  whether what we are seeing is based upon sex, friendship, or gender. Who is who (or what)? And why is the past always alive, living, like a vampire, on the experiences of those in the present? Another type of cold war, perhaps, and like the historical one, it is both external and internal, and never really ends.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Y: The Last Man.

Written as sixty issues of a comic book from 2002-2008, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: The Last Man is an elaborate thought experiment that attempts to explore what we really mean by sex (as in chromosomal) and gender (as in cultural constructions of). Vaughan and Guerra imagine a world in which all mammals with the Y chromosome suddenly die somewhat violent deaths. The sole survivors appear to be a twenty-something English major and amateur magician/escape artist, Yorick Brown, and his pet Capuchin monkey, Ampersand. As the novel develops, we go on a peripatetic cross-country trek with Yorick as he tries to find his girlfriend, Beth (number one), who was last seen in the Australian Outback. Under the protection of a special agent, known only as 355, and a geneticist, Dr. Alison Mann, Yorick is drawn in to their search for the cause of death of half the population. Our unlikely trio journey from the East Coast across the Midwest to California and then farther westward to Japan and then to China, ending up, finally, in Paris sixty years in the future. Time and space are united in a broad attempt to show both the devastation of what is referred to as the "gendercide" or "Le Grand Départ" as well as the struggle by society, post-male, to reconstruct itself in a new form.

The push around the globe, rather than offering an encyclopedic view of the situation, simply repeats aspects of it that don’t really carry the plot further. One of the especially weak points of the series is the representation of the various foreign cultures that track Yorick--the Israelis, Russians, ninjas, who never really become more than types. The series as a whole drags some between books three and six, but then picks up some momentum. Book ten is a case study in fluid action sequences that move quickly and even realistically and contain details based upon actual places. Paris, especially is rendered accurately (we see the lions at Place Richelieu, for example, before we see the entrance to the catacombs). The first lesson we learn about this new world is that the loss of men creates chaos on the physical level--airplanes crash, construction stops, the infrastructure of mass movement and communication essentially crumbles. The one typically male arena that does keep working is the military, especially those, like the Israeli defence force, in which women already have a sizable combat presence. Indeed, we discover that many women have long been involved in various secret paramilitary organizations and are, within the novel, central to plots and counterplots linked to espionage and terror. At least initially, women do not come together but instead replicate the nationalistic and ideological differences that existed before, some cultures perhaps becoming even more tribal. The devastation of men necessarily makes available new careers and opportunities for women as leaders, but it also points up the fact that women now have the responsibility to right the wrongs of the past and that reimagining the future, at least at the more impersonal levels of the political, is neither simple nor inevitable.

The book ultimately succeeds or fails in its examination of the sex/gender system and the novel focuses on how gender must be reimagined both for the women who survive and for Yorick, who finds himself in a seemingly unique new position. While many women celebrate the removal of men, for most women there is a sense of loss both of culture generally and of individual men (brothers, fathers, husbands) as well. Everyone in the novel suffers from post-traumatic stress and in this sense the novel seems to be very much about the post-9/11 era. Women divide into ‘Daughters of the Amazon,’ who seek to remove anything still genetically male and to prevent their repopulation, and women who try to seek a solution to the crisis (though in very different ways and for reasons that are often kept secret). In the novel's futuristic coda men are eventually replaced by clones, all of which are based on Yorick. He becomes both the last man that ever was and that ever will be. The world, in other words, is permanently altered by what happens and the cause of the devastation is never determined. In this last section we see Yorick’s maturation at two different phases of his life—middle age, in which he has shaved his thinning hair and taken to wearing glasses and is coming to terms with the two great loves of his life, Agent 355 and Ampersand, and old age, when he has gone nearly insane from accumulated grief and stress. He meets his male progeny, a clone, and escapes from a straitjacket from a prison in the Élysée Palace, bringing the series full circle (he is first seen practicing an escape trick). His life ends ironically: he never really confronts his murderous sister, Hero; he spends five years and crosses 25,000 miles to be reunited with Beth (number one) only to have her break up with him and to become Hero’s lover. Yorick beds Beth (number two), who is like a damaged twin of Beth (one), and they have a baby girl (who eventually becomes President of France), but he pines for 355, who sleeps with Dr. Mann, not him. After all of the time Yorick spends with 355, they never express their love for each other until, literally, the moment before she dies. The future seems bleak; the male and female clones are a substitute for the way things once were, but are not the same. Yorick specifically requests that 355 not be cloned. In some ways, the series seems nostalgic for a time when men mattered. In that sense, perhaps, it seems like a desire for the present as a past for a future that it fears to come.

The objectification of the female body that is a part of the tradition of the comic book form adds another layer to the novel's analysis of gender. Conveniently, in terms of the story, almost all women become situational lesbians, and though there is a big market in male robots and transgendered prostitutes, it is also clear that women don't allow the lack of men to stem their sex drive. The novel therefore presents ample opportunity to objectify women's bodies and to titillate readers with frequent scenes of girl-on-girl action. Whether or not the reader or viewer is supposed to be straight men or lesbians is left open, but the ambiguity of the representation of the female body threatens at times to undermine whatever the novel attempts to say about its progressive motives via sex and sexuality. The main female characters, in other words, are almost inevitably attractively drawn with the lack of realistic detail that we come to expect in comic-book-land. The one interesting way in which this one-handedness is balanced is the objectification of Yorick himself. Yorick is shown nude in books seven and ten, in the first instance purposefully to objectify him and literally expose him. He is pointedly shown to have an average-sized penis, which he comments upon (“I’m a grower, not a shower.”). But though he is often put in sexual situations, his body, unlike those of the female characters, isn’t exaggerated—indeed, just the opposite. Existing as he does now in a world literally made of women, it is often hinted at that they have quickly taken over the masculine role. His life is frequently saved by 355 and it is only through training with her over the course of five years that he can ever really defend himself without a gun (in book ten). While he never ceases to be male, the novel tries to suggest that men have to find an identity based, in part, upon something other than masculinity. Yorick himself admits that that necessity is probably a good thing.

One other result of this entirely female world is that Yorick no longer has to worry about the possibility of male homoeroticism. That anxiety can be avoided entirely for the straight male reader—or, perhaps, get displaced to some extent upon the masculinity that almost all of the major female characters show at some point. That is, sexuality gets expressed onto gender. By becoming more masculine, women as a whole take on the ability to be both straight and gay at once. This fact frees Yorick from sexuality, but makes him a permanent prisoner of gender. Women (in the world of the novel) express themselves through the medium of masculinity (they are constantly fighting, running, hiding—at war). Their femininity is expressed only occasionally, more often, toward the end of the saga, via motherhood. From one standpoint, Yorick’s world becomes an all-male one in which the women have been replaced by lesbians; all the women have become men. He is free to sleep with them, but he is also in competition with most of them for the sexual partnering of other women.

The authors constantly remind us that what should be a sexual paradise for him usually isn’t. At first he resists sleeping with other women (the few who aren’t sleeping with each other) because of his relationship with Beth (one) (whom he was going to ask to marry and who was the first girl he ever slept with; interestingly he never comes inside her, but on her chest. While a convenient way to avoid her becoming pregnant for the sake of the plot it also suggests a porn film and an arguably incomplete first sexual experience). When he finally gets around to having casual sex with three other women, it is repeatedly pointed out that he doesn’t seem to be making much out of his unique status in the world. In some ways, Yorick’s women problems humanize him, but on the other hand, his ambivalence suggests something at work at an emotional level that itself references either an overdeveloped conscience or an ambivalence about women in general. While undergoing an anti-suicide prevention program forced upon him in volume four, he is bullied by a dominatrix who forces him to reveal any homoerotic experiences he might have had and he recounts sexual abuse at the hands of an older boy who tied him to a tree. This revelation is treated as his ultimate dark secret, but also as necessary payment for an artificial situation—i.e., any proof he may have of some sort of same-sex experience. That the situation actually vindicates his heterosexuality seemingly paves the way for his growing role as a situational Lothario that he never naturally adopts. He remains the good boyfriend until the end, valuing emotion over everything else—sensitive and, in his devotion to Beth (one), finally, tragic in that he misses the real love of his life, agent 355. The only relationships that end happily in the novel are between women.

Ultimately one might wonder how the Y series updates lesbian-feminist utopias of the 1960s and ‘70s, perhaps especially Wittig’s massively erotic, experimental take on lesbian empowerment, Les Guérillères (1969). The women in that novel transform into non-women and non-men in an attempt to undo the oppression of women as a class by undoing sex itself. It is only by removing the binary that one can remove women as a subordinate term. As she makes clear in her essays collected in The Straight Mind, sexual dimorphism is explained as biology, but only because this explanation masks the true political reality behind sexual difference: the oppression of women. In her fantasy of a changed planet, Wittig imagines the Amazon as a warrior in a battle for liberation. As in Y, the amazons hunt with bows and arrows and cut one of their breasts off to maintain their perfect aim. They are both the fierce warriors of ancient Greece as well as the wave of the future—a necessary link in a battle to change the world. In Y the Amazon warrior is both the vanguard and the enemy, mainly as unchecked violence that threatens to keep the world from ever completely rebuilding. This negative valence seems to suggest both what the other women get from these women—i.e., independence and ideas about female empowerment—but also what they are not—i.e., ‘man haters’ or supporters of gendered violence. The extreme is rejected even as most women take on some of the Amazons’ traits—mainly, lesbian sex, the ability to fight in combat, etc.

While not as psychologically engaging or realistically rendered as other graphic novels on the theme of sexuality such as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) or Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), Vaughan and Guerra's novel does attempt the ambitious project of imagining gender in new ways and the speculative recreation of the world as a post-apocalyptic future. One could argue that the novel does not really belong to the sci-fi or fantasy genres but is closer in form to the dystopian novel--The Handmaid’s Tale gets name-checked, for example. While eshewing the mixture of theory and poetry that Wittig employs in her novel, the mostly realistic (by graphic novel standards) Y has a couple of short meta-moments that are among the many literary in jokes that call attention to Yorick's literary interests and also play with the book’s naturalism. One occurs in volume three when a set of traveling actors create a play based upon the idea of a last man on Earth (partially in homage to Marry Shelly’s The Last Man, one of the many precedents for the book, like Herland) also entitled The Last Man. This section suggests, among other things, not only a play-within-a-play as in Hamlet, but that the Black Death in London was caused when women were barred from the stage. The chapter does a good job of playing with the reverse idea of women now trying to appear like men while on stage. The other moment takes place in book nine when one of the female characters writes her own graphic novel about a world-wide apocalypse via gender that is described as “quasi-feminist po-mo” in obvious reference to what we are reading. The second sequence deals with the aforementioned comic book within a comic book, during the discussion of which Yorick makes the argument that comic books can do what films can, only with paper and pens. The pliability of the medium, in other words, expresses itself as a combination of genres, a medium for expressing ideas (even if not, perhaps, answers), and with the ability, like novels and plays, to develop plot, character, and intricate symbolism. Comic books, in other words, become the repository of the content of the past placed within the form of the future.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Entourage, season seven.

"I think I fell in love with a porn star
and got married in the bathroom
honeymoon on the dance floor
and got divorced by the end of the night
that's one hell of a life."

--Kanye West, "Hell of a Life."

Since its inception as a sort of idealized history of Mark Wahlberg's early years in Hollywood, the HBO hit show Entourage has functioned as not only a series of in jokes about the ups and downs of film and TV stardom but also as a discussion about sex between men and women in an era of uncertainty about their gendered roles. Concerns about the latter have often been put in the mouth of one of the show's bright spots, Johnny 'Drama' Chase, an aging, vain, but loyal older brother of the star, Vincent Chase, a New York pretty boy who has made it big in Hollywood playing a mixture of indie films and big-budget pictures. Left to themselves in a nearly permanent state of adolescence, the brothers, with their two Queens hangers-on, Turtle and Eric, live Hollywood as a fantasy guys' dorm with few responsibilities and, thanks to Vince's star roles, an endless supply of cash. Johnny frequently plays the feminine role in the group as he gossips and facilitates discussion about two of his favorite topics, grooming and sex. The latter subject has included, among other things, numerous references to anal play over the course of the series, especially heterosexual male and female rimming. One might assume that up until this season the show has been fairly open to equating its fantasy of bachelorhood with an open-mindedness toward sexual experimentation, an openness not restricted to Johnny Drama, but also hinted at by Vince, who is shown in his many sexual conquests to indulge in a range of physical types and positions, such as the 'reverse cowgirl.' The show suggests that part of the fantasy of Southern California stardom is bringing porn scenarios to life--enacting the sexual positions, activities, and attitudes exhibited in porn. In its own way, Entourage has tracked the mainstreaming of porn, which has arguably intensified during the time that the series has been on the air. Actresses and models who are photographed by paparazzi topless or nude at the beach or entering or exiting limos with little or no underwear are part of the porous membrane that separates celebrity from pornography. The inevitable merging of California culture with porn culture, Los Angeles with Las Vegas, finally seems to cross over on the series with the introduction of porn star Sasha Grey, who appears for a long narrative arc over the course of most of the season in which her role is something more than the usual star cameo. Her guest role suggests, however, that far from licensing sex that this, the final full season of the series, is about finding the limitations in the show's attitude toward sex and perhaps excess in general.

Season seven has as its primary narrative the idea that Vince, in a desperate attempt to please a bullying director, insists on driving a car during a dangerous stunt. With the director in the car operating the camera, Vince misjudges the stunt and ends up with a blow to the head that has repercussions for the rest of the season. In an attempt not to appear to be weak--in the argot of the show, a "pussy"--Vince ends up damaging himself and subsequently acting out for the rest of the season. His actions slowly become more reckless, beginning with skydiving and motorcycle driving and ending up, by the conclusion of the season, with cocaine and, in the cliff hanger, an arrest for possession. Falling within this narrative is Vince's relationship with a real-life porn star, Sasha Grey playing herself (or a version of herself), as Vince's new girlfriend. Dating a porn star is equated with recklessness, with some type of danger to either Vince's health or, more likely, his career. The arc of the porn narrative suggests that Grey either leads him to drugs or is a symptom herself of the edginess that he is exploring away from the sway of his buddies, who appear, by contrast, suspicious of Grey's presence and appalled, at the end of the season, by Vincent's drug habit.

Grey is introduced in the fifth show of the season in an episode entitled "Bottoms Up." Our male squad is out for a night on the town with one of the agents at Eric's firm, Scott Lavin. Vince's friend and gopher, Turtle, is the first to spot Grey. He reassures Drama, "She did Soderbergh's movie, so she's legit now." The Soderbergh reference is to his film The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which stars Grey as an expensive prostitute who provides, for wealthy clients, something more than mere sex, but something less than an actual emotional relationship. Receiving mixed reviews, the film emphasizes the economic side of the job while perhaps reveling too much in the quotidian aspects of the service industry it discusses. By featuring Grey, it literalizes ideas about whether or not porn stars are actors who can cross into (and out of) mainstream film. Entourage takes up that challenge and puts Grey into a parallel situation in television, though here she is more clearly playing herself than she was in Soderbergh's picture.

As the scene unfolds, Scott further identifies Grey as "the anal specialist": "I bet her ass sings opera." This conversation leads into the general area of anal sex with Turtle admitting, "I've never done the ass," and Drama retorting, in what has to be the most infamous line of the season, "The vagina is my third-favorite hole." This revelation forces Eric to admit that he, too, as Scott says, is "an ass-virgin." Heterosexual anal penetration is set up as the last frontier, at least on Entourage, as the show's usual pro-sex stance seems to meet a wall of resistance in Turtle and Eric, the latter acting defensively uninterested. When the friends finally get to meet Grey and to discuss her with Vince, he makes a point of saying, "And she reads: her porn name came from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. How hot is that?" No sooner is anal sex raised as an issue than it is given a gay male association. While putatively this reference goes with a later conversation that Grey has with Vince in which she wants to take him to "a Godard double-feature" because, as she puts it, she's a "cool chick who likes art and sex," the high-art legitimation of Grey that is similar to her inclusion in a film by Soderbergh is not the only function of the reference to Wilde. While in Vince's mind it is perhaps a sexual turn-on for her to embody both high art and, with the porn connection, supposedly low, the reference to Wilde's novel also suggests both the implications made about the novel at the time that it was thinly-disguised gay pornography (made a persistent permanent rumor in the form of Teleny), but also within the novel's plot, drug abuse is one of several "sins" committed by Dorian Gray that seem either to disguise, displace, replace, or metaphorize the actions or identities that are obviously homoerotic and connected to him (though not exclusively among the characters in the book) and his secret. By the end of the episode, Vince is shown to have become slowly dissolute, at this point, not from drugs, but from alcohol and the general non-stop party that his initial relationship with Grey portends.

Grey's more subtle effects on Vince are less easy to detect. At one point she re-dresses him before an interview with an important director by taking him out of a skater-boy T-shirt and placing him in a stylishly coordinated striped shirt and jeans: dapper, but with gay undertones. Vince brags that his new girlfriend reads a book a week, but she also likes to do tequila shots with him in the middle of the day. While it is unclear whether or not Vince's attraction to her is because she is a willing companion at a time when he is clearly trying to retreat to the edge, or whether he genuinely has feelings for her, it is clear that her presence has a subtle effect on the dynamics of the series as a whole and brings into focus the many ways that women in the show are not merely objectified but done so in ways scripted by pornography. At the same time, by showing resistance to anal sex, which has become more popular in straight porn, the show also suggests a limit to what might be considered acceptable to the men on the show. Johnny Drama's pronouncements on sex and the body (on the importance of "smooth balls" or that the "landing strip went out in the mid-90s") signal the importance that the show places on film and television as barometers for sexual taste even as Drama's observations are often cued to porn film. Director Larry Clark's section of the art porn sampler Destricted (2006), in which he interviews young men for a porn short and then films it, is notable for the fact that all of the young men photographed have shaved their pubic hair--a fact that shocks Clark and that the young men attribute specifically to porn. The young man Clark ultimately chooses to film requests anal sex as his sexual act. Many of the young men actually admit to preferring to orgasm outside of their partners, arguing that, because that is what they see in porn, that it must be better. The extent to which porn has scripted the narrative of private sexual function suggests an interweaving of public and private that Entourage let's resonate within its own world of self-conscious fantasy. The show also suggests the extent to which people's actual fantasies are created out of scripts given to them by film and television, even to the extent that it represents actions and scenarios that might be pleasing only to them and not their partners. In essence, not only are these scenarios not real, but the artificial nature of their conventions is supposed to be seen as precisely that. Instead, they are acted out by young men and, in Vince's case, the fantasy of dating a porn star becomes the next step--that is, to live inside the fantasy of the porn film by seeming to make it literal by having sex with a porn star and making your own fantasies real, ie, filmic.

The season of Entourage plays with this inverted fantasy by having not only Vince's fantasies enacted with Grey, but also by Ari and his wife. Knowing that his wife has long suffered from her second-class status in relation to his career, Ari finally tries to make up for his lack of attention with a bit of spontaneous afternoon sex. His wife surprises him by being more than ready for the encounter as she drops her clothes to reveal sexy lingerie that looks like an expensive version of a porn fetish outfit--one that emphasizes her ass. (In an episode from an earlier season, Ari had made a point of being home with his wife on "anal sex night.") As they begin to have sex, Ari kisses her on the ass before he reluctantly answers his phone to receive a call from the office that spoils the mood, a mistake that ends up having grave consequences for Ari and his marriage. Likewise, Vince's relationship with Sasha becomes rocky when Vince reacts negatively to her announcement that she is going to star in a porn film, a "five-guy gang bang," that will include her ex-fiancee, who also happens to be named 'Vince.' The reaction to this announcement on the part of Vince leaves them, like Ari and his wife, on the outs with each other at the season's end. Grey is appalled by, among other things, her sense of a sexual double-standard: it is okay for him to sleep with a lot of women, but not for her to have sex with other men when it is actually a part of her job, of who she is. He tries to buy her off by giving her the salary that she would earn on the film. She tells him that "I've been taking care of myself since I was 14." To some extent, Grey's autobiographical elements lend the narrative porn arc a sense of familiarity: the porn star who has had a difficult life and who has established a hard-won career independent of anyone else. On the other hand, the continued presence of Grey as a major arc in the season forces Vince to deal with the inevitable question of how he feels about their relationship once she accepts an offer to do another porn film while dating him. They break up at a restaurant after fighting in a bathroom.

The season's multiple references to analyity are often placed in the mouth of the nakedly ambitious Scott, who makes the connection, in episode three, between being an agent and doing anything for a famous client ("I'd suck herpes out of a girl's ass for you"). The connection between servicing clients and servicing men on camera is make explicit and linked throughout the season with sex-for-pay. In a sense this season finally deals realistically with the idea that acting is pornography and with the fact that Vince's career is based to a large extent upon his own objectification by women and the power that this gives him to objectify them. The inherent gender instability of this two-way street creates a tension at the heart of the series that is played up by the coddling Vince receives from his three male friends. Turtle chauffeurs him; Drama cooks for him; Eric manages him. All three exist for and through him and his career. As the series concludes, only Eric seems to have begun the process of true separation from Vince, having finally asked his perfect dream girlfriend, Sloan, to marry him. As "Bottoms Up" concludes, they are experimenting with anal sex and the episode ends with a blow-by-blow by the two of them attempting it for the second time after apparently stopping one time before. With that first time in mind, Eric seems to be penetrating so cautiously that Sloan says to him, "Don't be a pussy"-- the one phrase that is bound to set him off. He penetrates farther, which has a negative reaction from Sloan. Finally, Sloan asks, "What are we doing?" To which Eric replies, "I don't know. I like your vagina. Is that so bad?" The episode ends, then, with a rejection of anal sex, at least by the one successful romantic couple left standing in the show by the season's end, and the prohibitions that are hinted out by the gaying of anal sex at the beginning of the episode are given the last word. Anal sex seems to be the one barrier that the show will not breach in its search for sexual faddishness. Sasha Grey, as the representation not only of porn but of anal sex, is seen as a dangerous influence who directly or indirectly contributes to Vince's dissolution. The most important moment in the series might be the conclusion to episode six when we see the two of them naked and debauched beside Vince's pool. The episode ends with a camera pan to his naked ass, which it lingers on after the music for the end credits begins. Not only is the scene important because of what it foreshadows about Vince's ultimate arrest for drugs, but it shows us Grey's body, full frontally nude, and Vincent Chase, too drunk to respond to Ari, in a clearly objectified form: not in control, his ass exposed, ready to take it like a man.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Treme, seasons one and two.

It's difficult not to bring some of the same expectations to David Simon's new series, Treme, that viewers of The Wire brought to that series, which was arguably, by its end, the best show that has ever aired on television. While Simon's first post-Wire mini-series, Generation Kill, was adept at updating the war genre by accurately representing twenty-first century fighting via the Iraq war, the series was only intermittently innovative overall and pulled from the renewed urban combat films stretching from Full Metal Jacket to Saving Private Ryan to King of Hearts. Treme seemed the best possible chance for a return to form and while it may be too soon to tell whether or not it will be critically successful, it is important to note the many ways that it is, and perhaps most importantly is not, The Wire.

Named after a primarily African-American neighborhood in New Orleans, Faubourg-Tremé, the first season follows several characters, black and white, post-Katrina, up to Mardi Gras and just after, while the second season takes viewers into the dangerous zone of lawlessness and chaos that visited the city after federal and state troops left. In many ways Treme is the obverse of The Wire: a rich stew of characters followed by a camera that seems to be everywhere, constantly picking up on different threads, subplots, ingredients, but never sticking with one long enough to develop. What The Wire did well was develop specific scenes within specific episodes within specific seasons that each had its own unique theme (the docks, the public school system, the newspaper business, etc.). Baltimore was the metaphor for the inner-city or for the US as a whole (in terms of dysfunction, race, values, etc.), but New Orleans is by definition about uniqueness, exceptionalism, and cultural apartness. It is biracial, but also largely segregated. Baltimore, by contrast, is primarily a black city--like downtown Atlanta or parts of other cities, only more so. Black culture dominates the city. Unlike Washington, its regional sibling, Baltimore does not have a white-dominated federal zone at its center. Its soul is black. New Orleans' may be as well, but the chafing at the center is all about the stress of the racially segregated past that has not gone away. What people love about New Orleans is its history, its identity, which is not exactly what any character ever says about Baltimore.

The white characters of Treme are almost all transplants (a cook from Alabama; a professor, one can probably assume, from someplace else; a former DJ who idolizes black culture until he is beaten up by a black man in a bar, etc.). Their relationship to the region is as interpreters (and fans) of African-American culture in general, New Orleans in particular. The black characters (played especially well by veterans of The Wire such as Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste) are cast as the indigenous natives whose cultures and way of life rarely connect to that of their white counterparts. The main link, one might say, is as common victims: everyone has suffered because of Katrina and everyone, to some extent, suffers from post-traumatic stress. Unlike the denizens of Baltimore, they are linked by a specific trauma that is defined by spatial and temporal borders, unlike Baltimore, which suffers from a long, ongoing erosion of services, mounting neglect, and increased drug trafficking. Treme, in other words, is about the materiality of living on the edge--how not enough money affects immediate emotional relationships. The unforseen consequences of the poverty brought about by disaster. Many of the characters on Treme, black and white, want to work, but the chaos of the flood prevents it. Marginality is exaggerated. The characters are different from the underpaid bureaucrats of Baltimore, or the drug dealers whose jobs involved alliances and healthy paranoias. Characters in Treme have lost their cars, their homes, their basic utilities, and are tying to hold on to what they still have--a trombone, an over-indebted restaurant, the hope that a missing brother is still alive.

While Treme often focuses on the musical heritage of the city, spending much of each episode allowing the viewer simply to enjoy extended performances or cuing viewers in to other traditions such as the Second Line (impromptu neighborhood parades on Sunday), the most surprising subculture that the show focuses on is the African-American tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians: African-American parallels to Krewes that contain a chief, a medicine man, and a 'Spy Boy' who scouts ahead for other Indians as they parade through neighborhoods. The tradition was created during the nineteenth century when Africans and American Indians inhabited the same neighborhoods and African slaves took on the racialized identity of American Indians as a form of resistance to white hegemony. The tradition has continued, and the tension between the Indians and the police, or the Indians of one tribe and another, is pointed up in the first season and shown through the friction of encounters between different groups when they go on parade. In his Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (Columbia, 1996), Joseph Roach studied this phenomenon and discussed it as a metaphor for America, or at least American racial attitudes, toward sex and the black body. The most striking aspect of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is not only the elaborate costume made for the 'Big Chief,' but the lack of a mask, perhaps the most common feature of the typical Mardi Gras costume. As Roach explains, at the time that the New Orleans Indian clubs came about "masking was illegal in the city of New Orlelans, and although the law may have ignored the violations of the white krewes, there is no reason to suppose it would have overlooked a black Indian who crossed the line" (197). The refusal to don a mask, therefore, "accomplished a carnivalesque inversion of the ordinary experience of working-class blacks in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, in which the laboring body was exposed while the facial expression remained masked. That today's Mardi Gras Indians expose their faces should be understood . . . not merely as a literal unmasking but as self-fashioning revelation" (197-198). In much the same way that the faux-royal titles of Mardi Gras Krewes parody actual royalty, Mardi Gras Indians function as a commentary on white power and its history of cruelty and erasure. As Roach notes, "The slave-holding propensities of the Five Civilized Tribes (so-called by whites in part because they held slaves) emphasize the double, inverted nature of the Indian as a symbol for African Americans: the nonwhite sign of both power and disinheritance. The theme of frontier space--and its control by nomads--illuminates . . . the importance of the border skirmishes and alarms enacted by Mardi Gras Indians. On Mardi Gras day Indian gangs claim the space through which they move, like a passing renegade band, and the broad arm's-length gestures they make show off more than just their costumes. They occupy the constantly shifting borderlands . . . as they migrate from block to block, from bar to bar. They perform a rite of territory repossessed to assert not sole ownership . . . but certainly collective entitlement to fair use" (205).

On Treme, the center of this culture is inhabited by Albert Lambreaux played by Clarke Peters, another veteran of The Wire, who works single-handedly to finish his costume in time, no matter than his displacement from New Orleans has been significantly harsh and severe. His work on his costume becomes a metonymy for community as he tries also to stitch together the remnants of his tribe and to help restore his neighborhood's pride. The trials and tribulations that he encounters, however, have a dark side in both his own propensity for stubbornness and even violence, which sit uneasily with his interests in sewing and design. As Roach argues, "It is no accident that competitive stitchery, beadwork, and opulent adornment have edged out violence in the confrontation between rival gangs. At carnival everyone wants to be seen in acts of conspicuous consumption and expenditure. For the urban underclasses in the United States at the end of the twentieth century, violence is one of the few forms of excess expenditure available in the absence of money. People spend their own and one another's blood" (206). When tribes encounter each other now, they compete not for blood but for prestige, reclaiming space through the act of material display, a tradition of African-American (and Native American, Caribbean, and other) resistance to dominate white culture in New Orleans. In a city with a complex history of racial, ethnic, and religious identities, the Mardi Gras Indians are shown not only to negotiate identities but to deploy them as a way to endure. As Roach concludes, "In the postmodern circum-Atlantic world of late capitalism, what Paul Gilroy calls 'the sound system culture' both symbolises and embodies the syncretism whereby African, North American, Caribbean, and European forms circulate together in a plagiarized interculture" (206). What Treme makes uncertain is the extent to which the black body is still controlled by white culture--a material body that puts itself on display to compete via a system of consumption, what might now be called the neo-liberal system--or whether Albert Lambreaux has achieved his own subjectivity in spite of white culture or even the wrath of nature itself. All of the characters on Treme seem to suffer this same fate as they fight demons that attempt to erase their past, deny their future, and force them to focus on a present that has been weakened, if not destroyed, by what the character Creighton calls "a fucking man-made disaster"--the flood that could have been prevented, and the rescue from it that never came. Perhaps in this sense the characters are like those on The Wire after all in that they have no one to turn to but themselves and within the culture of late-capitalist disenfranchisement, no identities to cling to except those historical ones that now create only a simulacrum of resistance.

For further reading, an interview with David Simon on the first season of Treme:


Saturday, January 9, 2010


At least since The Terminator (T1; 1984), James Cameron has played with the notion of anthropomorphic technology as both a prosthetic extension of the body and a negation of it. In T1, the Governator's nude body is on rich display in all of its real-life existence as the world's greatest pumped-up body--one made to signify as an immaculate combination of Austrian blondness and Southern California tan, the body of Schwarzenegger having been made public first via a documentary, Pumping Iron (1977), in which Mr. Universe tried to redeem a sport in the name of heterosexual males and attempt to quell camp attitude and homoerotic innuendo by goading audiences in the film to ask him about his sexuality ("closet Democrat," he might have answered, but didn't).

In T1 it is perhaps easy to forget that Schwarzenegger's body is put in contrast with his human counterpart, Kyle Reese, who, as played by Michael Biehn, represents a soft-spoken, empathetic, normally-proportioned male. He is also born nude in the film, teleported via an electrified egg to the past that forms the film's present. By the end of the movie, his body is battered and bruised, like Schwarzenegger's, but remains human while Schwarzenegger's body slowly morphs into a metallic exoskeleton, as he sheds his human characteristics to take on ever more uncanniness.

The other body in the film is that of Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, Cameron's future wife. She morphs as well, from a slightly batty '80s party girl into the future mother of the human race's greatest hero and savior. Her transformation is not only physical but mental as well. By T2 (1991) she is buffer than Reese himself and psychologically his equal. To be a resistance fighter, a terrorist, one has to learn to be even stronger internally than externally. Bodies in Cameron's films are always important, but they aren't always what they appear to be. Epiphanies in Cameron films seem to require a bodily change, not just a mental one. The outside always expresses the inside, and vice versa, eventually.

One only has to think about the way in which the original Alien film from 1979 (dir. Ridley Scott) brought the outside to the inside of the body and then outside again, literally, to see why Cameron might have been interested in directing the film's sequel. In his version (Aliens, 1986), not only is the bodily element emphasized further in the monstrosity of the female alien queen, but Ripley is turned into one of the iconic female warriors of '80s TV and film when she dons the cargo loader to battle the queen by using human technology to enhance her own body and turn their fight over a child into a fair one--i.e., one between extremely tough but agitated mothers. As in T1, there are two bodies: Ripley's normal one, and that of her temporary avatar.

T2 further blurs the theme of the body as technology by adding the second terminator. As played by Robert Patrick, he appears to be a normal human male in his camouflaged state as a police officer, but when he is in his liquid alloy form his main power comes from his cunning, his mechanical lack of conscience--the mental again as the source of strength. His ability to change and modify his shape gives him an almost feminine identity, suggesting an exaggeration of the moment in T1 when Schwarzenegger mimics the female voice of Sarah Connor's mother. Patrick is literally, if not metaphorically, soft: the feminine as dialectically superior to the hard, male, talk-lite body of Schwarzenegger. If T1 acted as a primary example of the right-wing Reagan-like creation of the male body as broad shoulders, ripped chest, and exaggerated proportions in general--an unrealistic template as damaging to the psyches of young men and boys as Barbie's waist-line was to young girls of her generation--the second terminator film both provides the original version and softens him, too, into a child-friendly protector, a sort of fantasy substitute dad. The transformation away from this '80s paradigm is finally completed not by Cameron himself but by the terminator franchise in T3 (2003), where the female-gendered terminator is the one who is menacing and all-powerful, though in a way that, oddly, makes her more mechanical and doll-like (and hence less Cameron-esque).

Titantic (1997), the global box-office juggernaut, might at first seem like something else: a non-sci-fi tween film, the precursor of the Twilight series, perhaps. Even here, however, we have a meditation on the body and its limits: Leonardo DiCaprio's classed body; Kate Winslet's eroticized, aestheticized, and ultimately aged body. The boyishness of DiCaprio is used to give him a timeless feel, as if he is, indeed, frozen in time and space: literally, in terms of the North Atlantic, and metaphorically in terms of his final existence only in the memory of Rose. Titanic is nothing if not a chic flick, a romance that actually blows up to gigantic proportions the romantic dyad at the heart of all of his films (Kyle and Sarah, Ripley and Cpl. Dwayne Hicks, et al.), but adds the element of spectacle. Titanic promises to give you something that other films can't or won't: everyday people in extraordinary circumstances whose emotions are further amplified by the tectonics of the film, the way the film is made. In the case of Titanic, the boat's name seems more appropriate for the film itself: everything is bigger, larger, simply grander.

Hence, Avatar (2009), a melding of Titanic, Aliens, and the terminator films, and the logical summation of many of the interests and obsessions in Cameron's run of successful blockbusters. The body, sci-fi, romance, and old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle are brought together in service of a meta-film: a film about Cameron films, perhaps even more than a film about ecology, nativist spiritually, and able-bodiedness, all of which it is as well. In the same way that T2 is in many ways a reversal of T1, Avatar slowly turns inside out many of the elements of Cameron's earlier films. Avatar seems to begin in the same pro-military spirit as Aliens, but slowly reverses this stance driving home more and more pointedly the fact that the military is the problem, that it constitutes the extreme example of the worst aspects of the anti-environmental, anti-humane, pro-capitalist, pro-exploitative future that we seem to be creating. As all examples of futurity do, the film exists mainly to make an argument about the present as Cameron clearly attacks the Bush doctrine, especially in regards to Iraq ("shock and awe"). Alien life forms that were so easy to dismiss and kill in former films are now embodied with a subjectivity that is significant, in part, because it is different--in this case, it represents almost everything that our country and culture no longer is.

In Alien, Scott transformed the bureaucratic PhDs in Kubrick's 2001 (Dr. Haywood Floyd, Dr. Bowman; 1968) into factory workers in space; the ship, the Nostromo, became a neo-Victorian Steampunk fantasy that suggested that the future may will be a return to the past. In Aliens, Cameron continues the class analysis by transforming the crew into underpaid Marines who are equally unprepared for the challenges they meet. In Avatar, the grunt is still underpaid: Jake Sully can't afford new legs and adequate healthcare is dangled in front of him by Col. Quaritch, the evil military commander who later refers to the Na'vi as "roaches," as a way to buy him off.

Set against the homogeneity of the military is an alliance of which Jake becomes a part: a differently-abled soldier, scientists (Sigourney Weaver plays one in a nod to her former role with Cameron), and a rogue lesbian pilot (Michelle Rodriquez as Trudy Chacon, who gets to echo Ripley's famous sentiment when she yells "bitch"). They come to the aid of the Na'vi, a culture whose primary deity, Eywa, is gendered female. Indeed, it is she who first recognizes something special in Jake, which is acknowledged by Nytri's mother, Mo'at, who not only saves his life but paves the way for him to marry Neytiri and, ultimately, join their clan. The notion of 'Mother Earth' is given a nativist spiritual twist, but could also be seen as quasi-Deleuzian: a neural net that, while it is certainly recognizable in its arboreal from as the Tree of Voices, appears to be mostly rhizomatic, existing underground as so many multi-linear linkages, a point brought home when the other peoples of the planet unite and are later joined by the planet's non-humanoid creatures. The word gets out, via a sort of biological Internet, a power that has the ability to transport the bodies of humans into the bodies of avatars--an equivalent to Western technology itself, or one might argue, what one would have if our technology were conscious and could make decisions.

The idea that everything is connected is emphasized in the necessity for physical contact--especially in the various neural connections between the Na'vi and the creatures that they ride. To know is to touch. Jake and Neytiri's brother, Tsu'Tey, must touch in order to bring their differences to an end. The physicality and sexuality of the film is heightened not only by Cameron's use of extremely disorienting 3-D effects that parallel the spatial inversion of the space station, the jungle, and the mountains, but also in the underwater feel of the planet itself, the bio-luminescence that allows the viewer to see the flow, the interconnectedness, the fragility of the environment. The film is designed in such a way as to remind us of various cultures--the androgynous blue gods of Hindu mythology; the landscapes of China; Native American vision quests, etc.--but also to make us think about the foreignness of our own planetary environment, to defamiliarize it. The only concept of dystopia in the film is reserved for the Earth itself, an environment that humans have destroyed and from which they are essentially expelled. Jake, like his original home planet, is damaged and is trying to find some way to become whole.

Avatar, like The Hurt Locker (2008), is ultimately about the combat body. Whereas Hurt Locker displaces dis-embodiment onto the Iraqi boy named 'Beckham,' the film's protagonist, Sgt. James, seems to desire the same thing and is, arguably, already hopelessly fragmented mentally. The film, like him, is a series of repetitions, death wishes, meant to take him out of the present, out of his body. The reiteration of the homoerotic play with his teammates in the barracks focuses on the physical pain of the body, not just in terms of the hiding of physical intimacy through games (wrestling, etc.), but the breaking down of the body into zones that can be attacked, parts that can be sacrificed while still remaining whole. The men live through their bodies, yet somehow are not of them. In this sense, Avatar and Hurt Locker are the same film. Cameron has done nothing if not remake the Vietnam scenario over and over again, a paradigm also controlling much of The Hurt Locker as well. Slowly but surely that filmic trope, however, has moved from the superiority of the American body--with its powerful prosthetics of air support, deforestation, and tanks that, in its god-like power, destroy the technologically primitive soldiers of Vietnam--to the internalized suffering of Iraq.

The movement from abuse to hyper-consciousness is first shown in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), which re-writes the war genre as an exercise in contradiction. In the first half of the film we see how Marines are made into superior killing machines that will ultimately destroy not only the enemies' soldiers but innocent civilians as well--that the Marines don't have any other choice than to kill. In the second half we are shown the other possibility of that training: that the soldiers are vulnerable to their own doubt, which is exacerbated by urban warfare and the claustrophobia it brings--fear of spaces, of otherness, of new definitions of gender and sexuality.

Cameron's film updates this scenario (the screenplay was originally written by him over fifteen years ago) and seems to work well with the new kind of battle situations we have now in which American soldiers are less likely to die but more likely to live the rest of their lives physically incomplete. Significantly, the hero of Avatar is never whole except when he is living his life through the avatar. Current battlefield medicine, which can save your life and restore your limbs, is here carried further into a sci-fi future where it can give you a new body--one that is taller, stronger, faster. The ending of the film, where the two worlds finally come together--that of the Na'vi and that of Jake's body's reality--mirrors Jake's physical predicament. Both the planet and the space station exist in the same space, but until this point they have been kept separate as the Na'vi have seemed to constitute the past of the film's present, or the audience's, the primal scene beyond which we have supposedly grown.

The sense of anachronism might be akin to what happens at the conclusion of the first leg of Kubrick's 2001 when the monolith appears within the environment of the proto-human apes, or at the end of the film when the fetus appears within the confines of Bowman's bedroom. The point Cameron is trying to make is that two worlds have intersected, but they are also two realities, two different futures. One can't exist without the other, but more importantly, one will make the other obsolete. How can they both be possible? What is ultimately a personal tragedy for The Hurt Locker, one for the protagonist's family, one faceless soldier who is as much machine as human, is species-based for Avatar. Or, perhaps even more importantly, gendered. When Jake finally intersects with Neytiri's world, it is toxic to him and one of the most striking images in the film is the pieta of Neytiri holding Jake, towering above him, as the giantess that she is, protecting and loving his broken body--a mother figure as much as a lover, a morally superior being that, at the moment of her planet's destruction, gives her attention to him. Cameron has, in a sense, combined the strength of Ripley with the romance of Titanic.

The film's admonition to "see" is not meant lightly and has as much to do with the film's technolgy as its theme. Neytiri must see Jake for who and what he actually is. Likewise, Jake must understand what he has been able to see about himself and his people through the experiences he has had on the planet. Ultimately, Cameron's film is about identity: the reality of who we are and what we might become. Cameron attempts to raise the stakes for what mainstream films might aspire to be and do by fashioning for his viewers not a represenation but an experience. Rather than removing the fourth wall and inviting the audience to look over the proscenium arch at a continuation of their own reality, Avatar and its unsettling technogy immerses the viewer in a somewhat open-ended storyline. Like Star Wars in 1977 or Gone with the Wind in '39, Avatar seems to be constituted of layers of collective unconscious and popular myths, political and otherwise, that represent the audience's beliefs at the moment of the film's release. Whatever else one may think about Cameron's achievements, his film is a masterpiece of design: a hollow vessle into which the viewer may bring multiple interpretations and a form of new technology that is itself waiting to be filled with content by other directors. That we will one day look upon Avatar as quaint is probably likely; that we will also look back upon it as the pinnicle of a certain kind of Zeitgeist at the end of a tumultuously political decade in which our greatest external threat became an internal one, in which the outside became the inside, is as well.