“[…] and what if I said it happened to me? Would that make a difference? You that are all full of knee-jerk politics about ideas about victims? Does it have to be a woman? […] Like if it wasn’t Jewish people in the Holocaust if it was just me in the Holocaust? Who do you think would care then? Do you think anyone cared about Victor Frankl or admired his humanity until he gave them Man’s Search for Meaning? I’m not saying it happened to me or him or my wife or even if it happened but what if it did?”
David Foster Wallace, ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men [#46]’ (1999: 105)
Is it worth feeding the trolls? If so, what should we feed them? I’ve spent the better part of this afternoon testing a premise – that there are some online trolls that can be reasoned with, provided you know which ones to look for.
I’m not talking about the actually troglodytic bastards who think that death threats and harassment belong in a civil society – if that’s you, kindly fuck off, this is a club for older kids.
Rather, I’m talking about the New (Gender) Atheists, the folks for whom a hashtag like #notallmen signals some kind of extraordinarily relevant and sophisticated anxiety about feminism, feminists, social justice warriors et al.
The smart ones, or at least the ones that want you to know, first and foremost, that they are being ‘the smart one’ in the conversation.
The ones who can’t quite square themselves with privilege theory, even though they willingly and loudly accept the fact that, you know, women have had it worse than men for actual millennia.
The ones who seem almost genuinely disappointed when someone won’t ‘debate’ them on a feminist social media page, a comments section, a blog. The ones willing to offer their own artful ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ of a feminism which is both ‘too extreme’ and ‘too mainstream’ at once. The rambunctiously-pointless thing that is #gamergate.
I didn’t have to travel far to find one. In fact, there is still a very reasonable case to be put that I am one, because goddamn do I have opinions about identity politics.
When I’m not writing about the troll-ier aspects of David Foster Wallace (who definitely had a thing or two to say on the ‘subject’ of women), I consume copious amounts of political media, Australian and American. Chief symptoms of this addiction include on-the-spot evaluations of a person’s rhetoric, often freely given, and the assumption that people around you think and speak like politicians.
Point is I’m borderline. I get the thrill of arguing with people, especially on the internet. But I’ve never actually done it that much. I didn’t get a twitter account until this year. Suddenly I’m all “hey pal, boost my signal why dontcha, #auspol, #qanda, #auspol, #qanda” but I barely even considered doing that before. Am I, a twenty-seven year old man, finally reaching internet puberty?
As it happens, my voice did not exactly deepen when I read the following comment on Clementine Ford’s facebook page. To protect the identities of those involved, we’ll go with this guy’s fake name, Jon Tan:
This comment was in response to a very compelling video about online abuse, which didn’t exactly do justice to the video:
But there was something hypnotic about the typo ‘saying the hope’, and there were twenty-odd replies and a flurry of ‘read mores’. So I cracked out the proverbial popcorn, and the show did not disappoint. If I’m borderline, this guy was full-blown:
It’s about here that I paused, because it suddenly occurred to me that MRAs are really forthcoming about their own experiences with domestic abuse, especially at the hands of women. I could be off-base about Jon Tan – he may have just been slapped outside of a bar somewhere – but there was another hypnotic and closed sentence: “I’ve never seen a man hit a woman but have seen many women hit men including myself.” The trouble, as far as I could see, was all the bullshit that had accrued itself to this potentially relevant point
Maybe not relevant beneath the video, though, as numerous smart commenters pointed out. But I can only get so far with “That’s not what the article/video was about? Christ, why can’t we just talk about what it’s about?” And I wanted to test whether my nascent troll powers could be put to use in service of a good cause. So I stepped in:
This intervention was calculated. I wanted to throw him a Captain Kirk-style logic puzzle, to see whether he was sentient or just a sophisticated bot. Like a rhetorical CAPTCHA: how come you’re doing the thing you say you shouldn’t do, with your words? You’ll notice the absence of any prominently feminist terms – I didn’t accuse him of mansplaining the male experience or anything. But I might as well have, because old mate typed the wrong letters into the CAPTCHA box:
Because I am avoiding some minor copy-editing work on my PhD, I decided to run the challenge again, based on the new data that Jon Tan had helpfully provided. Same puzzle, more clarity:
Coincidentally, this is more or less what I would say to David Foster Wallace if I’d ever been able to meet him. More to the point, I think I cracked a code, because a little while later (this all ended up happening over 24 hours or so) I got this:
That’s an improvement, right? Still full of bad ideas, but at least Jon Tan had taken the hint and dropped the “bad boy of gender politics” act. I could actually clarify what he meant from what he said; I didn’t have to parse all of the Richard Dawkins bullshit anymore.
And once I knew what he wanted to mean, the circuit began to work on me as well:
I am such a wanker for writing all this, especially given that it, too, is a retread of my basic point about David Foster Wallace. Also, I’m a straight up troll, because I love pretending to read minds – or rather, I like watching Wallace pretend to in famous short stories like ‘Octet’ (Cunningham, 2016), and I have read more about Freudian psychoanalysis than anyone really should.
But still, where are all these weird parallels between Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and #gamergate coming from? Was it actually worthwhile for Salon.com to run like a billion articles on whether David Foster Wallace was a “bro” or not? Is it too late to just rewrite the dissertation from scratch, about Jon Tan instead?
But these questions don’t really matter right this second, and I’m actually more or less on schedule with the thesis. And I know a little more about why I am, in fact, a feminist, and what my own personal stake in the feminist project might be.
This is good, because it’s something I can tether my troll powers to, like a kind of troll ronin, wandering the digital countryside to occasionally dispatch bandits for good causes.
Alas, some habits die hard:
Identity isn’t everything in politics, but it sure is something – it’s like watching a million team sports play out all at once, except all of the teams are locked in expensive bureaucratic and legal stoushes to decide what game we’re all playing, what the rules and rankings might be, who can play and who can’t, etc etc.
Soccer, then? Tennis maybe? I’m not a sports guy.
But why’s this troll giving me the benefit of the doubt? Is this like the scene between the Velociraptor and the T-Rex in Jurassic World? How are we communicating?
But Mitch, you say, you’re a happy guy, what’s with all the angst in the tunes? What tunes, I say, you’ve really pre-empted me on the content of the tunes, would you wait at least until the tunes are shared?
When I’m not writing about David Foster Wallace, reviewing comedy or applying for jobs, I like to record songs on my personal computer. I’d classify these songs as the work of an enthusiastic hobbyist, but they’re important to me because they carry traces of my last four years – becoming independent, seeing Paris with a second set of eyes, learning my limitations et al etc. For some reason, all of the songs are about being in a cult. For the record, I do not know what being in a cult is like.
So this piece deals with PTSD and trigger warnings, which is fairly good indicator of its content. Whether you are comfortable reading this is, of course, entirely your call. Meanwhile, this piece also deals with the politics of free speech, which, while not exactly traumatic, can be a real fucking headache at times. If this aspect makes you uncomfortable, I’m sure you’ll let me know somehow.
A sampling of image search results for “free speech meme”.
There is some kind of event happening right now on your internet. It involves the sharing of droll anti-PC sentiments, indexed with a particular hashtag, to raise awareness about… What, exactly? Free speech? Feminism? The rights of men? The rights of women who aren’t feminists? The rights of men who are feminists but can’t seem to own up to the label, haven’t quite figured out the right words to get themselves back into the fold, can’t understand why there’s just so many words now, babe, and I thought we were talking about class struggle anyways?
The hashtag in question recalls the idea of the “trigger” – a quick googling of which will either turn up Trigger Bros Surfboards (a surf shop in Frankston, Victoria) or, with the addendum “warning wiki”, a link to the Vietnam Veterans of Australia Association site, specifically a page on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The latter link explains that PTSD is
caused by exposure to trauma in which the person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of that person or others. The person’s response involves intense fear, helplessness or horror.
In studies of PTSD, triggers take on many forms, but there is always an element of re-exposure at stake – whether by physical response (fear, helplessness or horror) or simply recalling past trauma, the triggered subject is re-exposed to certain significant events, often with a shocking intensity. The Veteran’s Association website provides a number of symptoms, including “intrusive memories and feelings”, “alcohol and other drug abuse” and, most frightening for me at least, “sleep disturbance including dreams and nightmares”. Cases of PTSD have been reported as early as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders I in 1952, which describes a “gross stress reaction” brought on by exposure to conflict and “civilian catastrophe”. First named in the DSM-III, and finally hyphenated in the DSM-IV, post-traumatic stress disorder became well-known in the wake of the Vietnam war, and continues to be an issue of concern for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq today. Symptoms of PTSD are also commonly diagnosed in survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault; the connections are well-documented.
While complex, the idea is simple enough to grasp right away: traumatic things have happened, they have had an impact, and the person experiencing that impact has and will have a particular (often anxious) relationship to things which remind them of the past events in question. More often than not, this is what I think of when I think of “trigger warnings” – labels usually, mostly appended to the beginnings of articles or blog posts, alerting their reader to any graphic or potentially trauma-inducing subjects in the piece to follow. It’s a bit of common sense, and a courtesy, most of the time.
Sampling of image search results: “trigger warning meme”
Other times, it can be a bit of a minefield, especially when journalists like Paul Sheehan are running unsubstantiated stories about “Arabic-speaking” men with the aid of a former Reclaimer, and bloggers like Andrew Bolt are opining the death of Australian free speech all at once. Our speech, they assure us, is not free – its fate rests in the hands of an unenlightened few, unlike Nick Cater’s real Australians, who would of course “never succumb to the voodoo fatalism that disempowers the people of some cultures from changing their lives for better or worse”. What the fuck is voodoo fatalism, you might ask? I don’t know, because I haven’t Cater’s book, but that’s a sample quote, from Guy Rundle’s astonishing review of the book The Lucky Culture.
This quote goes on a little bit further, singling out something especially fatalistic: “Australians (at least until recently) were not allowed to wallow in the mire of victimhood, which becomes a permanent excuse for failure.” If that’s what Cater says about what he believes – I mean if that’s how he chooses to put it – then we’re in for a bit of a rough ride, especially if we want to talk about things like triggers and warnings. These guys seem to still be smarting over the failure to repeal section 18C, that is, a law which prohibits (within a reasonable margin of error) the publication of offensive or insulting materials in today’s big newspapers, and everywhere else in fact – if a court can deem that you reasonably intended to offend a particular race or person of that race, and did so outside the limits of journalistic propriety, then you can face penalty in the court of law. Their concern, I think, is the idea of a court proving someone’s intentions, beyond reasonable or journalistic doubt.
But how hard is it to prove ignorance, dipshittery and outright troll-ness? Hard to say, especially since two of those words I think I made up. But being a dipshit on the internet – vaguely suggesting, for example, that Australians are “wallow[ing] in the mire of victimhood” – is an OK place to start. Because we are dealing with the same sorts of rhetoric that motivate crowds upon crowds of men to huddle together in typographically-cramped sub-reddits, vigorously opining about women on the internet, women in contemporary culture, women in politics, women who will date them, women who won’t date them, women who sort of seem to want to date them but also no, and, most importantly, their own right to their own free speech.
Men have built themselves castles with this kind of speech. Today, though, we have something like the website Return of Kings, whose URL I do not know. But I know about trolls because I know about trolling – the art of the anti-commenter, the trickster, the social media provocateur. They think they’re being funny, even when they’re also deadly serious. That’s an important point to remember about trolls, especially when someone doesn’t realise they’re trolling, or isn’t aware of its effects on other people. More often than not, when a troll is called out on the internet, they will exclaim something to the effect of “dance, puppets, dance” – I knew you’d react that way, you dancing puppet, that’s why I said what I said in the first place!
Sampling of search results for “puppet master meme”
But this is also a defensive formation, pretty basic, sort of displacing doubt back onto the person who has called them out. Virtually, everybody’s response is typical, whether you’re a Labour or Liberal voter, an SJW or an MRA, or anyone else in between. That’s part of what the troll plays to – the typology of the internet, its various made-up words for things (neologisms), and its unique indexing mechanisms for our daily thought (like hashtags). But it’s all about deflecting doubt, getting away with the joke, doing it for the lulz and such. The result is games: puppets dancing to designs, as reported in like a paranoid or psychotic episode, but all dressed up in irony and memes and stuff. Throughout it all, the troll kind of screams out “I know you are, but” – and he probably means this when he says it – “what am I?”
So when it comes to an idea like social justice, or the term “social justice warrior” (which appears mainly propagated by their counterpart, the “men’s rights activist”, and vice versa) the troll goes apeshit random ironic. If trolling is a kind of anti-social speech, this is because it intentionally does damage to the spaces in which it appears, resisting what it sees as “PC” culture gone mad by posting pornography, quoting star wars, belittling critics and, at its worst, endangering people’s lives by posting their addresses and private information online.
Of course, crowds can engage in trolling too – usually when they’ve discovered a ‘lone’ troll in their midst, someone who can stand in for virtually everything they hate about the other side, etc etc. This happened as recently as yesterday on Clementine Ford’s Facebook page, when an 18-year-old man (subsequent comments made sure to remind me that he was totally a culpable adult in a public space) dropped a tactless, offensive, dipshit joke on a post which was mourning the suicide of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl. The dipshit was a repeat offender, mostly playing covers like the aforementioned “you totally fell for my joke” and “feminists are gross and hairy”, “feminists can’t take jokes” et al. But after Ford shared the offending joke (along with a few pictures of the adult man in question [I think from his high school formal]) there was a bit a public shaming, in which legitimate sentiment got mixed in with some reflexive commentary on what exactly should happen to the offender. Eventually, the adult man’s mother had to intervene, more or less pleading for Ford to take down the name and shame post:
And to her credit, Ford elected to remove the post soon after. In its place is this message, outlining what went down and hitting out against another troll – this latter troll had actually been impersonating Clementine Ford online, and advocating that the 18-year-old man kill himself. The responses to this message have been pretty balanced, I think, thanking Ford for raising awareness about hateful speech and for removing the post at the man’s mother’s behest. Given the success of the strategy in the past, Ford must now know that sharing the details of someone online will now inevitably result in that person’s mother receiving an unprecedented shit-tonne of social media attention. It also produces doubles, like the vile impersonator troll (a double of the vaunted art form that is the parody account).
I mean, just try and translate that entire scenario from social media back into real life. The expulsion of protesters from a Donald Trump rally seems somewhat close – protesters are of course trolls, from the perspective of your average rally attendee. And then there is the fact that comparisons to Trump are like comparisons to Hitler – they rarely win arguments. But even this (extraordinarily reductive) analogy would depend on like a Trump doppelganger, who would, while the crowd was distracted by their expulsions, replace the candidate onstage and start cheering on that same crowd. Trolling is a series of reversals – I am not part of your crowd, well then you are not welcome here, how dare you exclude me, but you just said, aha but then you’ve proved my point, haven’t you? And so on and so on.
Sampling of image search results: “troll meme”
If that account seems a little broad, consider how broadly we invoke the term ‘troll’ today, as a noun or as a verb. Politicians troll each other, and the people who trawl their pre-election events can be trolls as well – but then again, people troll under their real name every day on Facebook, usually by just speaking their mind in a particularly dipshit kind of way. You’ll know it when you see it, especially if you tend to follow politics or journalism closely. Just dipshits, far as the eye can see, saying troll things and espousing troll vices as virtue. Doesn’t really matter where you fall on the political spectrum – you’re getting trolled by these dipshits every day, even – no, especially – when they aren’t even talking directly at you, but to their own dipshit mates on the other side. So you think you’ll go wreak havoc with their conversation, drop some truth bombs and break up the party. Suddenly you’re the troll, trolling along. Isn’t that usually how it plays out?
Well, not always. Sometimes the party rallies around you. For better or worse, they rally around this kind of stuff. The current United States presidential election will either be fought on worker’s wages and some generalist Tea Party shit, or will more likely feature a clash between two of the most politically-polarising (or at least polarised) individuals the world has ever seen. This election will matter for all kinds of reasons, including (probably) the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice, the future of healthcare in America, and the enfranchisement or otherwise of American citizens in years to come. But it will also matter for its impact on social media in the weeks and months ahead, as the universe struggles to cope with a former First Lady and Secretary of State going head-to-head with a man who won’t stay quiet about the cock of a real estate developer.
Where are the kinds of people behind hashtag “TheTriggering” going to go after they finish celebrating International Women’s Day? I wouldn’t bother to place a bet. Right now, they are opting to post statements denouncing ideas like rape culture – specifically, that the literal objectification of women perpetuates real violence – whilst repeating the most potentially-traumatic materials they can find, or at least insinuating that they totally could if they wanted to. To see the machinery of the internet harnessed in this way is almost laughable, except it impacts real people. It’s exactly like hearing that someone has experienced a trauma, perhaps in a conflict overseas, and opting to show that person another graphic beheading video, “clogging their newsfeed” with the stuff as a celebration of your own right to free speech.
If that’s how you get your kicks, or if that’s what you see as an adequate vehicle for debating a point, then I probably can’t help you. Again, if someone told you that certain words, acts or events tend to trigger an overwhelming fear response in them, what would you do? Post a warning? Respectfully decline to? Would you actually make the choice to trigger that person (knowing full well that, even if you don’t believe in the mechanics of triggering, that they sure as hell do, and they’ve already informed you what’s likely to happen)? If you opt for the latter – as a significant portion of your internet has just ham-fistedly elected to do – how on earth do you justify that choice?
P.S. I know full well that the hashtag in question is protesting the treatment of a journalist and commentator named Lauren Southern, who was reportedly subjected to some pretty fucked up abuse at a protest event in Vancouver. For the record, I don’t even condone carrying a bottle of urine, much less using one. But outside of plausible rhetorical deniability, I don’t see the connection between that event and the dipshit culture war shenanigans being prosecuted online right now. The Infowars website tried to explain it to me, and I got about as far as the claim that “If the media dares to even cover this, they will ignore the 99.99% of smart #TheTriggering tweets and instead focus on the tiny fraction of tweets from white supremacists that are actually racist.” We are the company that keeps us, I suppose.
Russel: And I love you. Because I’ve learned that Platonic love *can* exist between two grown men.
Benjamin: And I’ve learned something, too. I’ve learned that a flawless profile, a perfect body, the right clothes, and a great car can get you far in America – almost to the top – but it can’t get you everything.
Wayne Campbell: Isn’t it great that we’re all better people?
Wayne’s World (1992)
Only fitting to start things off with a new review. This is a reposted version of a review I wrote for popculture-y (pronounced pop-culture-ee) – I implore you to visit their home page if you like things like television, theatre, stand-up comedy and comic books – you do, don’t you?
The End of the Tour is a sharp and sentimental take on the legacy of late American author David Foster Wallace, which examines the peculiar impact of that legacy upon audiences past and present. Beginning with the tragic death of the author in 2008, the film plays off of the mixed emotions surrounding Wallace and his complex body of work, leaping between mythic eulogy and indie-film dramatics in its recounting of an extended interview between Wallace and journalist David Lipsky in 1996. The result is a kind of straight-faced love story between the author and his reader, which is elevated by the brilliant performances of leads Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.
The real Lipsky’s five-day interview with Wallace, published in 2010 as the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, is a candid and sometimes frustrating text. All in all, the book presents a humanizing portrait of a larger-than-life figure, a man whom Lipsky describes as being “charmingly, vividly, overwhelmingly awake”. But on paper, it’s easy to imagine Lipsky as a bit of a prick, willfully misunderstanding the words coming out of Wallace’s mouth; the interview is rife with observations like “[Gentlemanly: He believes he’s flattering me by treating me as a matching peer]”. But this antagonism is surprisingly well-suited to the subject – Lipsky’s book contains some of Wallace’s most vivid and compelling statements about fiction (including his own works), contemporary culture and, of course, postmodernity.
Eisenberg as Lipsky (left) and Segel as Wallace (right)
In adapting this story for the screen, screenwriter Donald Margulies has excised a surprising amount of interview material; weirdly, the word “postmodern” is almost totally absent from the film. Instead, the film teases out the dramatic touch-points of Lipsky’s book – the movement between cities, the throng of Wallace’s nascent stardom, the conflict between its two principal ‘characters’ – to present a strange kind of love story, an intimate and occasionally threatening encounter between two troubled young men. As focalizer, Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a jealous and overtly cynical man, desperate to understand “the most talked about writer of a generation”, if only to countenance his own insecurities as an author. In response, Segel plays Wallace as a kind of paradox, both sincere and standoffish, both “regular guy” and literary force of nature.
The End of the Tour plays out like an actual romance, as the principals move from awkward first encounter, to unlikely friendship, all the way through to falling out and cathartic reconciliation. While this approach is likely intentional – Wallace appreciation is rife with stories of love, empathetic connection and “really human” connection – The End of the Tour occasionally over-plays its hand, conflating schmaltz with sentiment, or veering beyond intimacy towards straight-up predation. A particularly moving sermon on suicidal depression, delivered towards the end of the film, is undercut by its excessively intimate staging: Segel’s Wallace at the foot of the bed, half-shrouded in darkness, demanding yet another final word on himself and his legacy. Meanwhile, the characters Wallace and Lipsky loudly insist their love for “pretty girls” at book readings, and the film gets extensive mileage out of Wallace’s desire to get laid off of his fame, whilst he and Lipsky joust over a series of (largely sidelined) women characters.
Whilst this take may not succeed as a complete statement on the man and his works – and yes, the film has a few cracks at this towards the end – the simmering tension wrought between Segel and Eisenberg is well worth the price of admission. As a rumination on literary love, and the pitfalls of meeting your idols, The End of the Tour invites us to reconsider an author who, above all else, saw writing as “an act of communication between one human being and another”, an exchange writ large throughout the film.
Hello future posterior reader! If you’ve scrolled down this far, then I’ve either succeeded in posting new material to this site, or else this post is at the top of the page, where I left it today on 9th Fedruary 2016. It was here that I decided to dust off the old login details and make the most of a brand- and SEO-friendly web address.
A lot has happened since I’ve been away – I have been steadily completing my PhD dissertation on critical rhetoric and David Foster Wallace, I’ve learned new things about marketing and communications, and I’ve participated in a wide range of events that I’m going to promote through Schlock Footage, along with any good writings I might find or produce along the way.
But if you scroll down any further, you’ll find reviews of movies from about five years ago. I can’t necessarily vouch for their quality – I would definitely approach the movie ‘Sucker Punch’ in a different way today. These reviews have been slowly feasting off of search engine attention, due to an accidentally-effective eye for film stills (whose fair use for commentary seems assured until I am told otherwise). In 2012 – even without the benefit of you know, new material – the site received 8,000 hits. I still get about 40 referrals from google in a year, for healthy things like ‘sex on the mountain’ (which I imagine turns up El Topo and the Holy Mountain). Anyway, caveat emptor and all that Ferengi nonsense from this point in.
A HIGHLY-CONTAGIOUS, DEADLY DISEASE breaks out in Hong Kong and America. Can GOVERNMENT and SCIENCE stop it in time? Can MATT DAMON protect the remaining fraction of his family?
I’m not so much an expert on film as I am a ‘names-to-faces-to-roles’ kind of person. I’m the guy who pokes his cinema-going friend in the ribs and says, “That’s [actor], who was in [movie] with [other actor], played an alien on [sci-fi show], and did voiceovers for [cult cartoon]! I am enjoying this movie!” If my pedantry didn’t rely so much on being able to distinguish people’s faces, I might have seen a doctor by now.
Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, as you know, is studded with those famous faces, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard. While that sets off my inner-IMDB like a raging rocket, it kind of leaves me with no place to go. Nobody needs to be told that Matt Damon has appeared in many films, for example. Maybe a shout-out to comedian Demetri Martin then? Point is, anyone who sees this film will have their pop-culture brain tickled. Recognising actors in different roles is essentially Intertext 101.
What does this have to do with a film about a global pandemic?
Well, it’s certainly something you can think about while you’re bored. Huge stretches of this film are either non-essential (like a half-baked subplot involving Cotillard as a World Health Organisation investigator) or deliberately drawn out. There are some artistic reasons for this. Contagion is, as many reviewers have noticed, less of an apocalyptic film than a crime procedural. The WHO investigators, along with the American CDC, are collecting clues, testing hypotheses, and hanging about in offices for the entirety of the film. This is a fairly realistic portrayal (I assume) of what would actually happen in this kind of situation.
Perhaps, then, there is no way that a realistic, meticulously-detailed film about global events can be anything other than long, slow and bloated. There is nothing wrong with any single part of Contagion. Matt Damon’s scenes lend that necessary counterpoint to all the scientific intrigue; the husband to Paltrow’s ‘Patient Zero’, he observes the unfolding events from the bottom of the chain, all the uncertainty, violence and loss that results. Throughout the film, there are flashes of what it must be like to encounter a truly invisible, infiltrating enemy, one that gives no shit about national, cultural or personal borders. But other symptoms may include fatigue, irritability and emotional distancing.
So – whatever, go see Contagion. It’s not like there’s anything else on. And if you do get a little bored, just do what I did. Try and think of every movie that every actor in Contagion has ever been in. Picture it like a mind map. Now picture your attention spreading, along these lines of association, until it encompasses all those films, and all of the actors in those films, and all of the films that they’ve ever been in, and so forth. It takes a lot more conceptual effort than the film demands, but if you commit, Contagion can infect your pop culture brain.
Now, my entire experience of the Planet of the Apes franchise consists of the Troy McClure musical ‘Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get off’ in The Simpsons. This let me experience Rise of… without any preconceptions, judging it as a film first and a ‘franchise-film’ second. This approach made me like Tron: Legacy a whole lot more, but left me wanting to drown Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in a bricked hessian sack. Point is, the best franchise films stand alone, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be a great film even if Charlton Heston had never existed.
No one can quite believe that they’re saying it, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a damn good film. It’s a prequel that isn’t boxed in by continuity or knowing winks to the audience. It’s a character study, of a hyper-intelligent CGI primate, that isn’toverly goofy or dead serious. The film is so grounded by the performance of Andy Serkis, as the revolutionary chimp Caesar, that it’s sci-fi conceit and action sequences go from ‘potentially disastrous’ to ‘fucking astonishing’. It’s a film about evolution, revolution and the dawn of consciousness – how we, as human beings of hyper-intelligent apes, come to be who we are.
Will (James Franco) is developing a cure for Alzheimer’s, and testing his brain-regenerating drug on apes. After the tests go horribly wrong, he brings home one of the apes, Caesar, rather than put him down with the rest of the subjects. Caesar does not suffer from Alzheimer’s – in fact, he has absorbed the drug in utero, and his brain functions develop faster than a human child. The film charts Caesar’s development, from his idyllic childhood to his imprisonment by animal control, and develops an entire psychology around Serkis’ characterisation. He’s a tortured soul, driven to revolutionary action by circumstance, and his struggles are unexpectedly moving.
The apes in this film are ‘more human than human’ – this drives the science-fiction aspect of the film. Watching a young Caesar vault through crossbeams and dining-room tables, you don’t feel like you’re watching an animal run amok – it’s more like a super-agile child existing freely in his childhood home. When the assorted chimps out-manoeuvre local police, it’s not like a primal force overpowering a civilised society – it’s an out-thinking, an out-classing. Super-humans on the Golden Gate Bridge – it’s amazing to think how Rise of the Planet of the Apes treats similar themes so much better than something like X-Men 3.
Caesar’s arc – from wide-eyed child to struggling adolescent to calculating revolutionary – is made so much more identifiable because it’s supposed to be happening to something ‘non-human’. Emotions both subtle and intense, both animal and civilised, make us identify with something both ‘other than’ and ‘more than’ human. This is thanks to Serkis’ performance (for which no Oscar category currently exists), the folks at WETA and some very effective direction from Rupert Wyatt. Everything comes together, and we forget the silliness of super-smart apes taking over the world, because we’re too busy caring about what happens next.
Most of the human performances, of course, suffer by comparison. Franco is perfectly adequate in his role, and best when playing off of Caesar. There are some pretty cartoonish villains, from the a-little-too-capitalist Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) to a deliberately antagonistic caretaker (Tom Felton). There is a completely unnecessary love interest for Will (Freida Pinto), and otherwise zero performances by women to speak of. The strongest link is John Lithgow, playing Will’s Alzheimer’s-suffering father, Charles, in a sweet performance that in fact motivates the plot in the first place. Will is caring for, an attempting to cure, his own father whilst being one to Caesar. This kind of dynamic – father/son dynamics of aggression, identification and self-knowledge – really drive what happens throughout the film.
Outgrowing the father, upending society – Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a moving, well-crafted blockbuster, and earns its investment from the viewer. Highly recommended.