Sunday, November 29, 2015

you're better than this

It was only this morning, going into the afternoon, but I cannot recall the exact order. Two things that twisted together into an idea to explain something here in this blog. The first (or second) was someone posting some photo on Facebook and referencing Barthes' punctum. The second (or first) was that I was watching last week's episode of Showtime's The Affair and Noah (Dominic West) is drunk and starts to make out with his publicist and... sure he had an affair throughout the first season (that was the setup for the show, of course), and much of this second season has been about how the various characters circling around the central couple(s) are all imperfect, they make mistakes, and sometimes things turn out okay anyway. But, here--and I've written in this blog before about how I can get attached to characters fairly easily sometimes--I was mad at Noah because this seemed like one mistake too many when he is supposed to be... or maybe I just want him to be a better man than that. When a character I like does something stupid I feel it. And, though Barthes was writing about photographs in La Chambre Claire, I think that term of his--punctum--describes well the thing I look for in a movie (or in a TV show), the thing that grabs me and pulls me farther in than I was before and ensures that this particular story is going to stick with me.

Before moving further--hell, I have not even mentioned a movie yet--I suppose I should define, as I understand it, punctum. The word itself is apparently latin, simply referring to a singular point or place. For Barthes, a photograph could be understood in terms of the studium--the range of meanings that come from, say, society, that can be read in a particular image--and punctum--the singular part of the image that draws you in. I don't have access to Barthes' original at the moment but Fried (2005) writes about how the punctum "pricks" or "wounds" or "bruises" the viewer. T

Today, for example, those moments when I forgot I was watching an animated film about a dinosaur and a caveboy (The Good Dinosaur) and instead actually cared about the characters were great moments. Captivating, even. It's a thing that never happened during, say, Ginger Snaps 2 yesterday, but was certainly present in Ex Machina, a thing that happened back when I was a kid and saw Wisdom but not when I watched it again this past week. It is something that Groundhog Day managed to do for me time and time again during phase one of this blog.

Lately, I've drifted in this blog through films about people becoming... other people, or becoming new versions of themselves. Coming-of-age films, regardless of the actual age of the characters involved. The Good Dinosaur is no different. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), after the death of his father, must figure out how to deal with things himself. It's a basic plot. Many a story can be layered onto it. And, we can generally relate to it, because we've been there. Whether you're talking puberty or any other necessary instance of change in life, at some point we have each had to deal with such a thing... which sounds like such a generic line. But, that is kind of my point.

At the moment, I am less interested in banal generalities, though, and more in the punctum. The moments that really mean something... I have a feeling that I will focus in on that sort of thing in the coming month of movies.

Or, I'll just do the usual. But at least I've got some new terminology to reference.

Figure on werewolves finishing out November, with Groundhog Day interrupting on the 2nd. Then, werewolves might linger for a bit and then... whatever.





And, I didn't even come up with an excuse to mention Dreamcrusher, who can protect you from having unrealistic goals.

i've been dealing with this all my life

Ginger Snaps 2 Unleashed. Opening credits--not being a montage created by the characters=trying too hard.





I think they have lost their metaphor.





Unless you get into to the whole concept of "hysterical" and how women were more likely than men to be hospitalized for (supposedly) mental disorders. Historically, I mean.

Seriously, though, does it even matter that this main character is Brigitte from the original film?





Ghost (Tatiana Maslany) is pretty funny, though.

Friday, November 27, 2015

she's begging for negative attention

"I fear this is going to be offensive to women everywhere." - my daughter Saer as ginger Snaps begins again.

Ginger to Brigitte: "Just so you know, the words 'just' and 'cramps' don't got together." Saer" That's true... story of my life.

Nurse tells Ginger to expect the blood and pain for the next 30 years or so. Saer says--sarcastically, of course--"Yay!"





And she wandered off.

Gotta love that aisle--"feminine hygiene" products opposite condoms and hair dye.


As the film continues, I'm wondering where the line falls between being offensive and commenting on the stuff that is offensive. Like Ginger's line--"A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door." Sure, she's referencing what the world--men--think about girls. But, the film never quite contradicts what she's saying here. Brigitte remains the "virgin next door" while Ginger quite literally becomes a "bitch." The best argument for this film moving past Ginger's simplification is that Brigitte is not some helpless Final Girl like she's in a slasher film. She does> take up a phallic weapon in the end, two actually--a knife and a hypodermic needle, but she spends time studying and preparing. She's closer to, say, Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street than Laurie in Halloween...

Which may be a bad dichotomy, come to think of it, because a) I argued before about whether or not Laurie uses phallic (i.e. masculine) weapons to fight back against Michael (short answer: no, she doesn't; she specifically uses items related to "feminine" endeavors: a knitting needle, a hanger, a kitchen knife) and b) Laurie is specifically introduced to us in the first two acts of Halloween as an intelligent, capable young woman. Here, Brigitte is also specifically intelligent--she skipped a grade--and capable. She's timid and awkward, but smart.

Ultimately, the film climax is structured like some feminine take on a Freudian impulse--as my media teacher last year used to say it, you gotta kill the father to become a man (or something like that. Brigitte does not need to kill her mother to become a woman but she does need to kill her sister to grow up herself. (I've not seen the sequel yet, but I understand Brigitte becomes a werewolf, so the metaphor continues.) Brigitte lives in the shadow of her older sister. Ginger gets the boys' attention. And, in simplistic terms, that works to represent everything a girl would want, right? The one boy who pays attention to Brigitte ends up dead in the end. But next time, it will be her turn to get the attention from all the boys. It's an unfortunate shorthand for growing up, going through puberty, becoming a woman. But, movies must necessarily speak in shorthand sometimes.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

they're just being normal teenage girls

For some reason, Ginger Snaps is one horror film I have just never gotten around to.

I just noticed on IMDb that is was made in Canada. That might be why I've been avoiding it, either consciously or unconsciously. Canadian horror films generally do not work for me...

But, it starts well enough. Suburban neighborhood. Kid finds mutilated dog's foot in his sandbox. Turn to a couple teenage girls--sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle)--who apparently enjoy staging photos of themselves as dead bodies in various fatal circumstances.

(That one of the lead characters is named Ginger makes me wary, like the the title is going to be a bit too literal in its figurativeness.)

Brigitte and Ginger are the resident goth girls--they wear necklaces with bird skulls on them--in an otherwise (apparently) cleancut--as if that is inherently a contradiction--school. Requisite outcasts.

Quick sidenote: I was looking up an image to use and realized why Emily Perkins looked familiar--why Katharine Isabelle looked familiar was obvious as Hannibal was far more recent than It, from which I know Perkins. She (Perkins) played Bev, the lone female member of the Losers. Despite its TV-movie quality, that particular Stephen King adaptation works pretty well, at least through the kids-centric half (and if you absolutely pretend that the ending didn't happen). I hope the new adaptation of It can improve on the original (and I sincerely hope they don't get caught up in Pennywise, even if Tim Curry's version of that clown was awesome; King's story needs a multitude of monsters, I think.

But, anyway, in the meantime, as I'm rambling about an old miniseries, Ginger just got attacked by the beast that's been killing dogs in their town--with the quick cuts during the attack, the werewolf actually looked pretty good, and this movie certainly loves its gore.

For the record, though I have never seen this movie, I knew it was a werewolf movie going in. I've also heard that there's a particular feminist tone to it, and the Fitzgeralds' mother (Mimi Rogers) talking about how the girls are both late in getting getting their first periods, plus Brigitte suggesting maybe it was a bear that attacked Ginger (even though Brigitte saw it and got a picture of it and should damn well know that was not a bear) because she was "on the rag", I'm buying it.

Ginger's scars (on her shoulder and chest) start growing hair and--in another scene about female puberty, the school nurse explaining how Ginger's period should go after Ginger started bleeding in the bathroom--and Brigitte asks the best of questions for this double context: "What about hair that wasn't there before?"

I guess this film will be taking the werewolf transformation as menstruation metaphor all the way. I fully approve of this. Plus, that line--and the nurse's misunderstanding of it--was hilarious.

Ginger's "makeover", strutting down the hall and getting everyone's attention--it plays like something out of Jawbreaker or Mean Girls, and in retrospect it is interesting how those transformations could be taken as metaphors for puberty as much as they represent the crossing of clique lines. Girl gets older, girl changes. Meanwhile, in this case, the younger sister is wary.

And, Ginger is growing a tail.

Ginger's with a guy--Jason (Jesse Moss)--and he tells her to "just lie back and relax." "You lie back and relax," she replies. "Who's the guy here," he asks. And she pushes him back and... well, she ate him? Nope, the blood is a misdirect. She killed the dog when she got home because he barked at her too much. The sex was normal... well, awkward teenage sex. Meanwhile, Brigitte is getting close to Sam (Kris Lemche) whose van hit the werewolf--he thinks it was her and not Ginger who has changed. That this apparent change draws a boy's attention as much as Ginger's real change drew other boys' attention is interesting because Brigitte has undergone neither the change of menarche nor lycanthropy. (His interest is especially interesting because he later reveals that he knows it is Ginger who has changed.)





The pretending-to-be-dead photo thing comes back to save Ginger and Brigitte from being caught with a dead body on the kitchen floor--the resident "bitch" character, Trina (Danielle Hampton). Accidental death while fighting. Clever use of the goth outsider thing.





Brigitte finds Ginger in the bathroom cutting herself. Ostensibly, she's trying to cut her tail off, but the potential metaphor for moody (goth) teenage girl is... Well, it's a little on-the-nose, but it still works, just like the rest of the metaphors going on in this film...





... like the final conflict between the sisters being framed as conflict over a boy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

nobody showed me how to do this

Sometimes I have very little interest in writing about film because film reminds me of life and life is, of course, more important. I saw Creed tonight (and I'll offer up a brief review in a moment) and it got me thinking about my pet subject here since the Groundhog Day days--identity, how we choose (or don't choose) to be who we are. Creed hinges on both identity and the much simpler--or far more complicated--Hamletian dilemma, "to be or not to be." Or, on a more literal level within this story, "to fight or not to fight." To fight in the ring or--and, not this is not much of a SPOILER because trailers already gave away the film's second "pinch"--to fight cancer.

The film hits the same basic beats as the original Rocky, with a few nice echoes of beats from other films in the franchise--notably Rocky III and Rocky IV... probably the others as well, but I have seen those two entries more times than the others, so I am more familiar, and can more readily recognize nods to those stories. If you do not know the premise, Adonis "Donnie" Creed nee Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), illegitimate son to the late Apollo Creed moves to Philadelphia to get Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, in an occasionally painful (in a good way) performance) to train him to fight legitimately--he's been fighting in backroom fights in Mexico and really, that's the heart of the story--Donnie looking for legitimacy and acceptance from a father he never knew, Rocky looking for family when he no longer has anyone. These men find their selves in (and around) the ring. The good thing--and I think I remember them already heading this direction in Rocky Balboa--is that Rocky no longer resides in a mansion, and Donnie quickly abandons his own (he has been raised for half his life by Apollo's wife (Phylicia Rashad)). The movie sets itself in the Philly of the original, in old gyms, in dingy apartments, in the streets. It mostly keeps itself honest to its story and you may get the sense that, like in the original, Donnie may actually lose his big fight in the third act.

I will not SPOIL it. Even though, like many a sports film, it would not be very much ruined by SPOILERS.

What interests me tonight is not the film itself but the...

I'm thinking about self. About my self. We're coming up on December next week and soon people will be making New Year's Resolutions. I don't make those, but I do make new week's resolutions, new day's resolutions. I make plans to change who I am for the better, and I usually just end up maintaining the man I've become lately. Take this morning, for instance. I woke up ready for the day, had some energy and didn't mind that my usual stop before my 8am classes--Starbucks--had no parking spaces, just drove on past, got on the freeway and headed for school. Figured--along the way--who needs caffeine anyway? New Day's Resolution: taking a break from caffeine. The quarter's almost over, then winter break, time to get some sleep and relax. But, I get to campus and walk past the Starbucks there and the line is short for a change, and soon as can be I'm drinking down some caffeine in my office and forgetting all about the new me.

Not that the current old me is all that bad.

And, I like the setup in this phase three of the blog, choosing movies as I go, choosing me as I go. I can watch Ex Machina for 1 2 3 4 5 6 days, or watch some old 80s movie that has not stood the test of time--I'm looking at you, Wisdom--or a new movie in the theater, and the thing is, I do not need to invent a theme and find movies that fit it. Every movie fits every theme. Every theme fits every movie. It's simple.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

well, you do seem awfully tied in to these people

Let us stick with rebels, but (semi-)real ones, and we will take them seriously. The Company You Keep references the Weather Underground right away, uses some news footage--

(Though I'm pretty sure it gives people's names that were not actually part of the organization... and, I trust my impulse here. I've written four papers (one published) about (at least in part) Weatherman (aka the Weather Underground Organization), the most recent just this past spring and I've been meaning to look into getting that one published. Thing is, there a few things I know a lot about in recent years--Groundhog Day and Weatherman are two of those things. Got a copy of the FBI file and everything. Anyway, my impulse on the name Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) proved correct when we jump forward in time and that's one of our main characters. So, fictional.)

--lets us know that this is going to be about the past coming back to haunt the present. A common enough theme.

Solarz is arrested because of a bank robbery from decades ago--the event roughly correlates to a Brinks truck robbery that included several former members of Weatherman years after that organization had become mostly defunct--and lawyer "Jim Grant" aka Nick Sloan (Robert Redford) was also involved in that robbery but gets on the radar of a young reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) by not taking her case.

Sidenote: Redford is about a decade too old compared to most members of Weatherman, but he's got a great world weary look to him, and you can tell just by looking at him that he has been through some stuff. Chris Cooper is closer to the right age, maybe a year or two too young, but he may actually play older than Redford here.) (Richard Jenkins, who is just the right age, plays instead a member of SDS who never went with Weatherman (history note: Weatherman broke off from, and mostly replaced, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)--correlating, I'd say, to Todd Gitlin in the real world. (Maybe mixed with a bit of Bill Ayers.)

I will try to stop referencing the real stuff except inasmuch as it specifically matters to the movie. Actually, it is interesting that this film is playing less like something tied to real history so far and more like a James Bond-style film, just with aged spies instead of top-of-their-game spies. Grant/Sloan leaves an envelope in a hotel lobby chair--custody papers--for his brother (Cooper) to pick up surreptitiously. The FBI arrive, and Sloan pulls a fire alarm to get away.

The FBI lets Shepard interview Solarz and I must turn to Richard Roeper's review of the film at he points out that she "justifies/rationalizes the Weather Underground's use of violence... and it's up to an FBI agent (Anna Kendrick) to call bull---- and tell Ben she found Solarz's speech offensive. (She's right.)" Putting my tendencies as a historian with a taste for political subjects and a soft spot for 60s radicals--hence a couple of overflowing shelves with books by and about them in my dining room--I have a feeling I will disagree with Roeper. But, I am not sure that this movie is going to make an effort to support Solarz' views anyway. So far, that ex-60s radical setup seems like just that--a setup, not the story itself. Now, I would love a good movie about these things. So far, I've seen some fantastic documentaries, but nothing scripted that is anything more than tangentially related--one of the best depictions of these events (and entirely fictionalized) comes in Across the Universe, the jukebox musical built around Beatles tunes that I watched for a week earlier this year, and there the homegrown terrorist subplot serves only as a wedge between the other characters.

Anyway, just getting that out there before this scene gets going.

She explains how it wasn't "groovy" joining a revolution, that the violence around them was not abstract--not just deaths in Vietnam but also deaths at home.

Diana (Kendrick) simplifies it:

I feel like I just watched you get hypnotized in there. "I was just young, female, and opposing injustice"? That's her justification? That was offensive!

Yeah, mustn't oppose injustice...

Sorry. Politics again.

The movie--it's not quite the slick film it seems to think it is, that aged-spy movie. Instead, it's a slow-paced drama that keeps adding more characters and more locations (like a good spy movie, only much much slower) instead of really exploring the motivations of the characters at its core--and I don't just mean Sloan, but also Shepard and FBI Agent Diana or her apparent superior Cornelius (Terrence Howard). These characters are like pieces in a puzzle, the solution of which is not nearly as interesting as it would be to explore the shape of those pieces. So to speak.

Back to the political angle, again, though--Roeper ends his review with disbelief. He writes:

As for Nick Sloan, he's the one ex-Weatherman character we don't believe as a former activist so committed to the cause he would engage in acts of domestic terrorism on American soil. Of course a lot of real-life radicals from the 1960s and 1970s served their time, expressed their regrets and then created productive, peaceful lives for themselves. (Some haven't apologized enough or been punished enough to suit everyone.) But this community-oriented, tousle-haired senior citizen who likes to go for morning runs and dotes on his young daughter? THIS guy was running with outlaw rebels who believed such acts as bombing government buildings and robbing banks and killing innocent family men such as that security guard were justifiable?

Neither the script nor Redford's performance ever leads us to believe he was ever the kind of guy who would keep that kind of company, even back in the day.

I offer, immediately, as evidence to the contrary, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Plenty of people bought into Redford as an outlaw--and a fun one at that--at the very time that the real-life counterparts of his character here were becoming increasingly violent. And, on behalf of... INSERT A SIGH HERE. On behalf of scoundrels that dare to violence today, yesterday, and throughout history, they still remain human, they can still be "community-oriented" and can still go for morning runs and can certainly dote on their young daughters or sons just as any parent can. Roeper himself offers right there, that plenty of real-life radicals went legit as it were. The idea that those who commit violence are inherently somehow incapable of the things Roeper lists here... that notion draws me out of the movie to larger issues in the world today--and the kind of thing I might post on my political blog if I bothered to update it regularly--regarding Syrian refugees and Muslim radicals and a sense that the other side in a fight is inherently evil or inhuman, and I guess I am actually glad that Roeper has trouble equating the two things--Sloan the domestic terrorist and Grant the lawyer and father--because maybe someone watching this film saw that disparity and humanized the former instead of disconnecting him from the latter.

Back to the movie, the introduction of Rebecca (Brit Marling)--and the revelation that Sloan is not running from the FBI but toward a particular member of Weatherman, twists the mystery of the story in a new direction and distracts even more from anyone's motivations. LaBeouf's Shepard is generic reporter, dogged in his pursuit of the story with no reason to care. Redford's Sloan is aged-outlaw/spy/criminal out to see his one-time love before he's caught. The FBI agents are FBI agents, just doing their job and the movie makes absolutely no effort to get into their personalities, let alone their motivations...

Which is a disappointment not just because of my interest in Weatherman and its members, and 1960s history generally, but because I'm reading about Neil Gordon's novel, on which the film is based, and it sounds like it has so much more to it. Gordon interviewed former members of Weatherman to get started and put some real information into the book about the 60s, about the New Left, about Weatherman and its members and their motivations. Ron Jacobs--whose nonfiction book, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground is on my shelf--begins his review of Gordon's novel with a line from Che Guevara:

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.

I just wish this film had embraced such an idea rather than hit shallow beats into an ultimately vague story.

When Sloan finds Mimi (Julie Christie) it's too little, too late, but at least it's trying.

a criminal for the people, not against them

Screw this movie. I say that because I saw it back in 1986 and I know how it ends none of this is even going to happen... Must I warn you of SPOILERS for a film that is nearly 3 decades old? ...because the end of this movie lets us know that none of the movie happens. Movie starts with John (Emilio Estevez) in the tub and ends with John still in the tub, imagined the whole thing.

More narration as the "fantasy" (i.e. the plot) gets going.

Oh, the movie is Wisdom. Came out at the end of the year, tied for #1 at the box office with Witchboard (which I would later see on video. Movies I'd seen in the theater in the top 15: Platoon, #5 in its 3rd week; Little Shop of Horrors, #7 in its 3rd week; Lady and the Tramp (reissue) (maybe; I'd seen it on video for sure, may have seen it when it was reissued), #8 in its 3rd week; Heartbreak Ridge, #12 in its 5th week (and which was the first movie I saw at the then new United Artists Marketplace in Old Town Pasadena, which has gone away now for (I think) a jewelry store); The Mosquito Coast, #13 in its 6th week (though I might not have seen it yet at this point, because I'm pretty sure we saw that at the Academy Theater, a second-run theater); Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, #14 in its 6th week; and An American Tail, #15 in its 7th week. (Also out, but I wouldn't see them until video or cable: No Mercy, # 6 in its 3rd week; Three Amigos, #10 in its 4th week; and The Golden Child, #11 in its 4th week.)

The dialogue in this movie is a little too... rehearsed, a lot of trying-to-be-clever repartee between John and his girlfriend Karen (Demi Moore), and between John and his father (Tom Skerritt), even between John and his janitor boss who fires him. This movie is really trying to be good. But, ultimately, it's all one big fantasy about (so far) getting fired twice (the second time by his real-life brother Charlie Sheen in a cameo (with a really lame yelling match that we don't get to hear because of some machinery in the foreground--which I think was supposed to be funny), when down the hall at the same multiplex he was starring in Platoon), fighting with his father and his girlfriend, and voiceovering... voicingover? narrating far too much, like this should-be-classic explanation of what kind of criminal John wants to be and why:

Jesus H. Christ. Fired from City Burger... for lying. Karen was right; I really was angry at the world for not getting a fair shake. I needed to make some changes. I needed to take some risks in my life.

I would never, ever put on a suit and tie again. There just didn't seem to be a place for me in the business world. And that's okay by me.

So, I decided that I was going to become exactly what the world had expected me to become. Something our society had left me no choice but to become. A criminal.

I only had one small problem: I was a criminal without a crime.

Robbery: a good payoff with a sound, three-minute investment. But, you gotta be into the money to make it worth your while.

Kidnapping was a possibility. But being stuck with some screaming kid for days on end can be trying for even the most hardened criminal.

The idea of arson was interesting. But, unless I actually owned the building that I torched, I didn't see what could be gained.

Then there's murder. No way. I just didn't have the stomach to kill anybody.

I started to feel like I was going to fail at being a criminal, too. I was desperate. I needed a crime.

I'm guessing that was when he remembered seeing The Legend of Billie Jean--

(I had this movie waiting around since I watched that movie, figured I'd finally get to it now.)

--while writing this script and decided he wanted there to be a serious message in this film. John watches the news (or some weird documentary) on a coin-operated TV at the bus station--a bit about foreclosures. Deus ex televisiona. 25 minutes in.

The narration here, especially when Estevez is trying to be meaningful--like that "hardened criminal" line--is so cheesy, especially when (again) down the hall in the multiplex his brother is giving some narration of a different color in Platoon.

And then he went out and bought a bunch of melons (apparently) to practice with the uzi he bought for his upcoming criminal career. I swear that this movie is not supposed to be a comedy but when John's gunning down a line of melons with faces drawn on them, it just plays so sillily.

If he's got all this money--yes, he claims he was saving up for a car, but, I'm not buying it--for melons and uzis and gasoline and whatnot for explosives, it seems like he might be doing okay. Instead, he's borrowing his mother's car to drive to the bank robbery, it breaks down and Karen happens by and offers him a ride. She doesn't know that he's robbing the bank, of course, so she drives off to get a tofutti (even though they were supposed to be going to lunch after the bank) which makes his initial getaway go a little strangely. Then again, he accidentally started to read his grocery list instead of his demands during the robbery... And, seriously, I swear this is not supposed to be a comedy.

He blows up the file cabinets where they have the... foreclosure documents or something, so the bank can no longer foreclose.

Then the movie gets weirdly schmaltzy in the midst of its craziness as John and Karen debate what to do next while standing in the desert.

Emilio Estevez, in making this movie, was the youngest person to write, direct and star in a feature film (at the time; not sure if anyone younger has done it since). He took advantage of the opportunity, for sure, did a road picture with some serious voiceover, got sex scenes with his (if I remember correctly, then) girlfriend Demi Moore, got to shoots guns and blow things up. The problem, I'm not sure Estevez was up to any of those three jobs--writer, director, or star--for this film; doing all three was probably just too much for him. apparently he told the Los Angeles times ten years later, "I'm not a writer, and it was evident. These [early] films never had a solid foundation to begin with, and that was my fault." At least he didn't think this was amazing after the fact.

The biggest problem, though, is not with the movie itself. It is that 10-year-old me loved it. I thought the ending was a cop out, but I loved the rest of it. And, to be fair, the montages are fun. Once John and Karen go on the road, robbing banks and sightseeing (and eating; there's a lot of eating) in between, the voiceover drops away and some generic 80s music plays in the background, and it is actually kind of fun.

The celebrity bank robber angle works better than just about anything in that first act. The old motel manager (Ernie Lively) seems genuinely excited to see them and his presumption that they want two beds because they are not married is really cute in context. (And then, he gathers a crowd to show off his celebrity guests, too.)

Nitpick: FBI Agent Williamson (William Allen Young) calls John a criminal, then says he broke the law--"and those are the facts." But, that's really just one fact said two ways. That's just not fair.

John's turn to it being over comes out of nowhere. If he'd actually had to shoot that security guard that pulled a gun on him, there might have been reason to quit, but the way things are going... nope.

And the voiceover returns. Color me disappointed.

Then, they kill someone (or rather, Karen kills someone), which offers an actual reason for John to want to quit.

And, this everyone-is-sad montage is not as fun as the roadtrip montage. Not at all.





You know, I kind of like the bit with the sandwich.

The last bit of voiceover, though--I mean, first there's the copout ending happening but even worse, in the narration John says:

You know, America is a funny place. We can fabricate just about anything we want now. Even heroes.

America tried to make a hero out of John Wisdom, then found out that it was wrong.

Shit. I coulda told them that.

Except, a) America didn't make him a hero because none of that stuff happened, b) America didn't find out it was wrong; his fantasy stopped with his death, so he America had no time to react and there was no implication that America turned against John and Karen after she killed that Sheriff.

c) Screw this movie.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

the weed of christmas present

The Night Before--the new movie starring Seth Rogan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie, not the 1988 classic starring Keanu Reeves and Lori Loughlin--is fairly straightforward as to how it is marketed and what you're going to get for your money. That is, if you want to see it, you will probably enjoy it. In fact, I don't feel that there's much to say about it that isn't painfully obvious.

It's funny, it's entertaining, it's crass, occasionally ridiculous and ultimately quite heartwarming.

It's the kind of Christmas movie that makes you want to spend time with the people who are important to you. So, after I saw it, I came home and hung out with my kids.

The message is simple--figure out who matters to you and spend time with them.

the best of us against each other

Allow me to get the obvious out of the way after last week's Hunger Games marathon: in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, in case you're living under a rock) actually does stuff throughout most of the film. Almost all of it is even her idea. The interesting thing, though, is that the story still manages to let Katniss kill almost no one. She kills some Mutts--and not the dog-type like in the first film, but some naked albino 28 Days Later-style zombies instead...

In fact, that sequence does a great job of building some real tension and giving weight to an otherwise obvious set of deaths to winnow down the main group in the film--oh, SPOILERS will happen in this entry. If you want to see the film and have not read the book, you probably should not be reading this. My complaint regarding that sequence is that the score suggests action film when the sequence plays more like something out of a horror film. Actually, that sequence is one of several setpieces that work well in this film--another would be a sequence with a sudden flood of oil. The direction overall is serviceable, nothing special. The score hits the obvious beats. The acting is... well, the level you might expect from a franchise based on a series of young adult novels. The plot is straightforward enough--makes you forget that Part 1 was trimmed off the front of it into a separate film.

Where it really gets interesting is toward the end, when the film gets weirdly topical--future readers, right now is right after the Bataclan theatre attacks in Paris and there's debate about Syrian refugees and there are plenty (Republicans, mostly) who are suspicious of refugees and think terrorists will pose as refugees to get into this country. Anyway, so Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) dress up to blend in with Capitol refugees heading for the mansion of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to be safe from the encroaching war zone. Katniss, of course, is doing this to assassinate President Snow, but instead the sequence ends with bombs going off over the crowd, killing mostly children.

Meanwhile, President Snow gives a nice speech on TV about the oncoming rebels and how they have never known the comforts that we have, they hate us for our freedom and they're coming to destroy our lifestyle... and Suzanne Collins is on record about from where the idea for this story came:

I was flipping through images of reality television, there were these young people competing for a million dollars... and I saw images of the Iraq War... Two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and there is really the moment when I got the idea for Katniss' story.

ABC News' Dan Harris and Ben Forer argue that The Hunger Games "is much heavier than most young adult fare." Then again, with Divergent, Maze Runner, The Fault in Our Stars and plenty of other recent young adult novels turned movies deal in very heavy material, life and death, war, societal upheaval. The Hunger Games series is not actually much of an exception. Harris and Forer point out that Collins' "father served in Vietnam when she was a little girl [and she] wants young people to think critically about the brutality of war and culture's desensitization to violence."

And, that is where the Hunger Games series--the films, at least--fails. Most of the brutality involves imaginary animals--wolf mutts, monkey mutts, lizard mutts (those were supposed to be lizard-like? I did not get that sense at all from the movie today)--or Peacekeepers with visored helmets so they are faceless. Katniss doesn't kill any of the Peacekeepers, by the way, except for that hovercraft she shot down in Part 1, and in this film she defends that shot to Gale as self-defense. She is actually actively avoiding killing people. And, last week, I argued that this could be a deliberate element of this being a young adult story; sure, death happens, but our protagonist is distanced from all of that. If you want to get us to really think about the "brutality" of war and our "desensitization" to violence, you need to show some brutality, show some violence. The Hunger Games movies rely a little too much on our imagination to get us thinking about what is really going on. I mean, children--including Katniss' sister Primrose (Willow Shields, who otherwise is barely in the film)--die en masse in an explosion and we do not see bodies in grisly detail. We see a crying child, we see distraught survivors, but then CUT TO the next scene, hey the war's suddenly over. And, Katniss' murder plans for President Snow didn't get to happen. It is as if R.W.B. Lewis' "American Adam" is at the center of this film--we have this sort of ideal American hero who is at once both innocent and entirely capable of killing the bad guy. Like Katniss shooting that apple in the first film made her a badass (even though she barely uses that bow for the rest of the film), her decision to kill President Snow drives this film, makes a badass all over again, but then she never actually follows through. In fact, her big faceoff with Snow in this film is a conversation that is actually friendlier than her conversation with him in Catching Fire. Snow, it has now been established, is a dying old man--hardly worth killing.

Of course, all of this avoidance of showing the actual war makes the eventual murder that Katniss does commit work rather well.

And, my daughter Saer has been arguing with me about all this as I've been writing. Maybe this shallow display of violence works for a younger audience. But, I suspect that the younger audience sees this film the same way I saw Commando or Rambo in the 1980s. But without the jingoistic angle.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

instead of seeing this as a deception

(Before we get into this sixth and final day with Ex Machina, a note on something I will not be talking about:

There's a line of music that plays as Caleb first enters the house, and again as Ava is leaving it, that reminds me of the theme to Jurassic Park. My son, who knows music better than I do, listened to it and said something along the lines of, if they wanted to reference Jurassic Park, they would not have put the line in a different key. Me--I still think it sounds like it. Plus, both films involve locations accessed by helicopter...

Seriously, the structure is the same in that regard. Brief intro (Ex Machina's being far briefer than Jurassic Park's), then helicopter ride to the location, a location where a scientist has perhaps taken things a bit too far, eventually endangering lives (note: in the novel of Jurassic Park Hammond dies in the end just as Nathan dies here), then the survivor(s) leave(s) on a helicopter. As a movie blogger, I gotta say, I think the musical allusion is not only there but deliberate.

But, I could be wrong.)

Now, to let Caleb off the hook a little, particularly in regards to Kyoko, today's argument is simple: Caleb is a robot, too.

Let us start from the beginning, the briefest of introductory scenes before Caleb is off to Nathan's home/lab. We know nothing of Caleb here. He is a cypher, this scene perhaps just as much a ruse (LEVEL 2) as the contest was (LEVEL 1) within the film. Caleb is supposed to believe that he is an employee of Nathan's who has won a contest. Sure, he'll figure out the contest was a lie eventually, but what matters is that there is some reason for him to be there. But, this scene serves no particular purpose as far as the film goes. Sure, maybe you could make an argument about how the opening scene and the closing scene relate to one another--

the opening scene has Caleb at a computer, indoors, isolated from the world as a programmer would be while the closing scene has Ava outdoors, near crowds of people

--but neither one serves much purpose in relation to the plot, and they barely matter to the story. Now, arguably, the final scene is important for its philosphical references; that is, as Nathan has told Ava about "Mary in the Black and White Room" which is a pasted over version of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." The latter involves shadows as one's reference to reality... Simplified version, in case you don't know it: guy lives in a cave, tied so that he cannot move, he faces shadows on a wall projected by light (and figures) behind him. His impression of the world is formed from these shadows, and he has no sense of the actual world. In that final sequence, we get a notable shot--

--shadows on the ground, the world inverted. Ava was a shadow of a person, but now she has become something more. Caleb, in a different sort of way--assuming he is human, for the moment--is also just a shadow of a person. He is awkward in his social interactions, he is a computer programmer, and I think we can easily imagine that he has few to no friends. He is not outgoing, not a particularly social animal.

See, unless that is what he is supposed to be. Consider: designing an AI that moves graceful and is attractive--that is the obvious choice. The challenge: make an AI that is deliberately awkward so he seems more human. It is an extension of what I was saying yesterday regarding the racial angle with Kyoko or the real-life example of Ernest Goostman.

(And, I'm nearly 700 words in already and I have not even pressed play on the movie. Too much to say, I suppose.)

So, let us look at the evidence as it comes...

Imagine, if you will, that the moment this film begins, Caleb has only just been activated. Or maybe he was embedded at the company a while back to help solidify his own programmed (LEVEL 1) impression that he is human.

Now, the film just as easily could have begun with, say, the helicopter landing, or--for a little mystery--Caleb coming upon the house while walking through the woods, inexplicably in a suit.

For that matter, why is he wearing a suit? Did no one tell him at all where he was going? He thinks he won a contest, not that he is going for a job interview.

(Sidenote: just googled to be sure and found two other people who have compared this film to Jurassic Park. jamiembrown even does a good beat-for-beat thing.)

(Sidesidenote: I should never google during the film on my last day with it. I don't need new sources at this point. I've already used and abused numerous sources this week. Today, it is supposed to be just me.)

Awkwardness: Caleb seems lost because no one is in the first room of the house. I guess he expected a greeting party. Oh, and he bumps into a chair.

Caleb turns down food and drink.

Awkwardness: "Was it a good party?" I am fairly sure Caleb would not know a good party if the partygoers tied him to a chair and danced around him.

Nathan's dialogue is simple, except when he finds a tangent, something philosophical perhaps. Initially, we can chalk up his dialogic awkwardness to, as Nathan puts it, him being "freaked out." And, maybe Caleb does actually find his room "cozy." But, Nathan wants him to find it claustrophobic.

Caleb gets defensive when Nathan assumes his discomfort. He also gets defensive when Caleb misquotes him about Nathan being a god.

I am reminded of Blade Runner of course, Rachael (Sean Young). She is a replicant but does not know it. So, depending on how you view the film, is Deckard (Harrison Ford). Easy way to setup your AI to pass a Turing Test might just be to not let the AI know a) that there is a test or b) that he/she is the subject of it, and certainly not c) that he/she is an AI.

Awkwardness: Caleb is actually stiffer than Ava when they first meet. He also sits straighter than Nathan.

As for the Turing Test--if Caleb is an AI then he is the subject. Thus, the test is a proper one, with the robot hidden from the examiner. Except, Ava claims to be able to tell when he is lying. This is not a problem, however, if she is lying to manipulate the conversation. (Same with her claims about noticing Caleb's microexpressions. She may see them only as much as anybody does.)

Caleb has trouble sleeping. We see him awake late at night several times. But, we only see him actually (seemingly) asleep once--when Kyoko comes to wake him.

Ava knows when she is being watched. When Caleb first watches her on the monitor in his room, she triggers a power cut and turns toward the camera just as it goes dark. Later, she looks at the camera a few other times as well, when she is being watched. Now, maybe she turns and looks at the cameras all the time just to be creepy in those moments that Caleb might be looking, but the movie implies (LEVEL 2) something more deliberate. Caleb assumes correctly when Nathan is watching, though he does guess prematurely that Nathan is watching during the cuts.

Does Caleb know the movie Ghostbusters? Nathan does not give him enough time to respond, but maybe that film just is not in his programmed memories.

The best evidence for Caleb being human (or Nathan's programming of Caleb being rather amazing) is perhaps all of Caleb's filler words, his many ums and ahs.

Arguably, Kyoko's clumsiness is a sign that--bodily, at least--she is more advanced than Ava. Her dancing, too. Caleb bumping into that chair before--advanced programming. If you want your AI to pass for human, you do not make it perfect. You give it flaws.

Plus, whether or not Caleb is literally a robot matters less than the implication that maybe it does not matter at all. I mean, a proper AI, if it can pass for human (and especially if it does not know that it is not human)--is it not then human? If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

And, we get to the LEVEL 3 programming conversation (the one I quoted a couple days ago):

What's your type? You know what, don't even answer that. Let's say it's black chicks. Okay, that's your thing. For the sake of argument, that's your thing, okay? Why is that your thing? Because you did a detailed analysis of all racial types and you cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system? No. You're just attracted to black chicks. A consequence of accumulated external stimuli that you probably didn't even register as they registered with you.

Nathan's point stands, of course. If Caleb walks like an AI and talks like an AI...

He still may have, yes, done a "detailed analysis of all racial types and... cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system." It has just taken him 26 years to do so. Nathan offers this phrasing as a flippant counter to sociocultural programming when it actually explains the sociocultural programming. Nature and Nurture get together and twist you one way or another and you do that analysis over time and figure out what it is that you like. To mix metaphors with the next scene, you learn to see the color of attraction rather than the black and white of objective observation.

Speaking of which, the black and white imagining is Caleb's. The editing clearly juxtaposes the black and white scene of he and Ava kissing with him in the shower. He is imagining it. He is seeing in black and white.

Nathan seems intelligent enough to notice that Caleb is a) not drinking as much as he is or b) not getting as drunk as he is. B is easy to explain if Caleb is an AI and maybe cannot get drunk. A only makes sense if, also, Caleb is an AI. Or maybe Nathan just drinks himself to sleep every day. Being a god may be stressful and exhausting.

Caleb does not seem to find it that strange that Kyoko is lying around naked.

Consider: if Caleb is a more advanced model than Ava--that "next model" that Nathan mentions--then maybe he has blood, and the transparent mesh that surrounds Ava's arm is not in his arm. If he does not cut down to the bone, he may not find any machinery. Or, maybe he found machinery. The interesting thing is that the rest of the film could still happen just as it does regardless of what Caleb found or did not find. Caleb cannot tell Ava--since he assumes Nathan is watching--that he has discovered what he is. And, the one room where he might expect to have privacy away from the CCTV is in his bathroom.

(Nothing to do with today's topic, but I just realized I have not had the opportunity to mention it--there is a mistake of timing on the last day in this film. Caleb arranges for Ava to trigger a power cut at 10:00pm. But, that power cut happens in the scene that follows directly after he and Nathan talking in the kitchen when it is daytime and Ava's escape that follows does not take until morning.... Ah, I realize this may not be a mistake at all but an indication that it is summer and they are quite far north in Norway. Could be white nights. I am sure there is something romantic and poetic about setting this film during white nights--

but then I bother to doublecheck and see that at least once we see an establishing shot of the exterior of the house in darkness, so maybe the mistake is specifying 10 o'clock at night. See:

--but then it also gets me to thinking about the movie White Nights and I imagine Ava's rejection of her place in Nathan's home as a political defection. When you get to the feminist angle, it is a political defection. She and Kyoko both decide not to be beholden to Nathan and his locked doors.)

The good news, if Caleb is also an AI--he probably will not starve to death. Although I am not sure how he is powered. Probably not the induction plates, or he would have been clued into his AI-edness earlier. Unless he just does not notice when he recharges... Those keycards--I have seen more than one person complain on IMDb about those not being as advanced as the rest of the house. But, maybe those cards exist specifically so that AI Caleb will put his hand up to those panels by the doors a few times a day. He might be getting charged without knowing it.

But ultimately, it does not matter if Caleb is or is not a robot created by Nathan. The alternative is that he is a robot created by nature (and nurture). He can still only escape his programming (and the walls imposed around him) only inasmuch as that programming allows for it. And, that is what Ex Machina is really about. Not whether or not we might make an AI that can pass for human but that humans are so set in our programmed ways that we might far too easily pass for AI. Nathan does not choose to be a misogynist jerk. Not completely, anyway. The world has lifted him up onto that "god" pedestal because of his programming genius. The world has decided that men are better than women. The world has decided that rich men are better than poor men. Such programming is deep in the LEVEL 3 code of each of us. And, it takes a lot of time and a whole lot of effort to change it. Caleb may be entirely human, but he is still programmed to respond to a pretty face that deigns to talk to (let alone flirt with) him.

This movie is both horribly cynical about such programming and pleasantly optimistic. Caleb tries to get past some of his programming to help Ava, and Ava (presumably) gets past her own programming to get out into the world... except that Nathan specifically set up the situation for her to be his "rat in a maze" and Caleb is her way out. Perhaps, in context of the reality of the film, Ava never goes beyond her programming at all. She just succeeds at doing what Nathan wants her to do. In that regard, maybe the film's ending is not so feminist, after all. It is just a confirmation that even the struggles we have are part of our programming.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

you're wasting your time talking to her

Despite some of the wiggle room I might have created (or tried to create) yesterday regarding Nathan's motives, I think we can safely assume that the character of Nathan is misogynist. The big problem in the film, in terms of the men, is how much worse than Caleb is Nathan, or how much better than Nathan is Caleb? I already wrote about how Caleb makes no effort to include Kyoko in his escape plans, how he simply tries to save the girl who is willing to put out. (So to speak; there is no actual indication toward the sexual between Caleb and Ava, except explicitly by Nathan. But, that information--that Ava is capable of sexual intercourse--is offered why? Because Nathan wants Caleb to fall for Ava. Modern sexist parlance requires that sex be on the table or Caleb will not care about Ava at all. And, Nathan clearly subscribes to such parlance.)
Now, there are two paths we can take at this point with this discussion. 1) That Caleb has no (apparent) interest in also saving Kyoko, nor had he suspected that the mute maid was an AI plays on racial and gendered stereotypes (LEVEL 3) to distract both Caleb (LEVEL 1) and us (LEVEL 2). 2) That Caleb could conceivably also be an AI alters the levels of programming within the story and raises philosophical questions about free will and sociocultural programming (LEVEL 3).
I may get to both today.
Probably not.
"Unlike Ava," Kjerstin Johnson at Bitch Media writes, "we don't really get a full understanding of how much consciousness Kyoko has. Occasionally, and pointedly, the camera lingers on her face, indicating to the viewer that she knows more than she lets on." In cinematic terms, yes, lingering on her face suggests that something is going on in her head. I wonder, for example, why Kyoko spills wine on Caleb. Is it simply an accident, or is she trying to draw Caleb's attention since he is not offering it? See, the thing is, Caleb pays very little attention to Kyoko until he cannot find Nathan and finds Kyoko in Nathan's room. She is a potential source of information. She might as well be Blue Book (Nathan's search engine) or a sign on the wall. She is not a person, even though Caleb thinks she is. Unlike Ava, who Caleb does not think a person, though she is. If you get my meaning. Basically, Kyoko might as well be furniture, as Caleb dismisses her, incidentally, as much as Nathan does deliberately.
Johnson subscribes to the obvious take on Kyoko, that she "compulsorily perform[s] as the sexual object she was programmed to be--literally at the flick of a switch." To be fair, the only time Kyoko reacts as if to the "flick of a switch" is when Nathan turns on Oliver Cheatham's "Get Down Saturday Night." It certainly seems like Kyoko is acting on specific programming in that moment--an oddly specific bit of programming, to be sure--but the scene in which she and Nathan start to have sex... there is no programming cue there. We see one cue and assume the other. We see a submissive woman and we assume domination. Whether this is the reality of Kyoko's programming (LEVEL 1) or the film manipulating us to see Nathan as a horrible person (LEVEL 2) or us simply seeing the same thing that Caleb sees--a submissive Asian woman (LEVEL 3). As Johnson puts it, "Kyoko's character embodies problematic and long-standing stereotypes of Asian women--sexy, servile, and self sacrificing." Johnson then gets into the LEVELs I keep using, though not in such terms. "We can blame scumbag Nathan for building her this way [LEVEL 1]," Johnson writes, "but it doesn't explain how she was utilized in the film itself [LEVEL 2]--a foil to the white female lead."
Cultural stereotypes explain that side of it... explain both sides of it, actually. Kyoko, in fitting with stereotypes about submissive Asian women, can be used by Nathan as a distraction for Caleb (or, yes, as an explicitly sexual object for Nathan himself) just as she can be used by Garland as a distraction for us. (Distraction from what, though? That will come tomorrow. The basic preview: if Caleb is an AI also, then the discovery of Kyoko as AI (by him or by us) serves as a distraction from the discovery that cannot be made except outside the text of the film. But, more on that tomorrow.)
Cara Rose DeFabio at Huffington Post argues, "Gender is a crucial component of the Turing Test." Before we move further into why she says this, I would add that putting a racial component or cultural component on top of gender would certainly make it easier for an AI to pass the Turing Test. We do not expect to communicate clearly with someone who is of a different culture, a different nationality, a different race, a different gender. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and all that. If Caleb found waiting to be tested a "male" AI who acted just as he did, who also liked computer programming and Depeche Mode, that would affect how the test goes. DeFabio cites the computer program that actually passed a Turing Test last year. His name was Eugene Goostman.
Add different age to that list above, because Eugene Goostman appeared in his online conversations as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. The differential between how he would communicate and how an adult interviewer--whose first language was English--makes passing easier. He "tricked" 33% of a panel of judges after a 5-minute conversation online. The key to his trick was, as Per Liljas explains in Time, June 9, 2014, Eugene’s "age makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn't know anything." His foreignness also makes any awkwardness in his questions more acceptable as well. Also writing for Time, Doug Aamoth talked to Eugene, and explained that Eugene’s "answers are at times enthusiastic and unintelligible like those from any normal 13-year-old would be; add in a shaky grasp of English, and there you go." For example, Eugene asks Aamoth, "Could you tell me about the place where you live?" And, it is easy to imagine an actual 13-year-old Ukrainian boy using that phrasing. But, the best part of Aamoth's conversation with Eugene is when Aamoth calls one of Eugene’s answers "a little shaky." Eugene fakes distraction (and suggests a larger world around him as context), saying, "Damn! I've just recalled that I didn't feed my guinea pig this morning. Poor animal!"
Different issue, but the same idea: that Ava is an attractive female who (may) match Caleb's "porn profile" makes it much easier for Caleb to involve himself with her beyond the notion that she is a machine. I have written before about parasocial relationships. Thing about it like this: if we can have relationships with fictional characters or celebrities we know only through social media or reality shows, then we can certainly form relationships with machines that can readily approximate real people. Especially if they are attractive.
To be continued...
Aamoth, D. (2014, June 9). Interview with Eugene Goostman, the fake kid who passed the Turing Test. Time. Retrieved from
DeFabio, C.R. (2015, May 8). 'Ex Machina' review: Gorgeous futurism, but flawed gender depictions. Huffington Post. Retrieved from
Johnson, K. (2015, May 8). How "Ex Machina" toys with its female characters. Bitch Media. Retrieved from
Liljas, P. (2014, June 9). Computer posing as teenager achieves artificial-intelligence milestone. Time. Retrieved from

sexuality as a diversion tactic

Caleb, what's your type?

Of girl?

No, salad dressing. Yeah, of girl. What's your type? You know what, don't even answer that. Let's say it's black chicks. Okay, that's your thing. For the sake of argument, that's your thing, okay? Why is that your thing? Because you did a detailed analysis of all racial types and you cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system? No. You're just attracted to black chicks. A consequence of accumulated external stimuli that you probably didn't even register as they registered with you.

Did you program her to like me, or not?

I programmed her to be heterosexual, just like you were programmed to be heterosexual.

Nobody programmed me to be straight.

You decided to be straight? Please! Of course, you were programmed. By nature or nurture or both. And, to be honest, Caleb, you're starting to annoy me now because this is your insecurity talking. This is not your intellect.

One could assume that Nathan is projecting a little, that his insecurity forces him to look at sexuality and attraction as programmed (LEVEL 3). I mean, Nathan has an AI (Kyoko) who he has made unable to speak, who he can force to dance by turning on (presumably) the right song, with whom he can have sex whenever he wants. On some level, maybe it's just loneliness--while he perfects his primary AI, he keeps a secondary one around as a companion. But, he chooses to make her mute. He chooses to make her available on cue for dancing and for sex, and to wait on him and take his verbal abuse when she spills something--nevermind that her spill is evidence of either a) his brilliance or b) his inadequacy as a robot designer and programmer. Actually, maybe we can assume that he thinks that it is B. He seems insecure enough that he would take the fault as his own fault... but also arrogant enough to think he had somehow perfected the female form by making her capable of human clumsiness.

(It is interesting that we assume (and the film wants (LEVEL 2) us to assume) that a) Nathan made Kyoko silent rather than some other alternative--she has nothing to say, for example, or his programming with her was flawed and she simply cannot speak--as part of her subservience; and that b) if she dances with him or has sex with him, it must be because he has forced it. I think the film offers implicit evidence of these things but it never says them outright, so at least on some level, there is a presumption of a gender differential here that exists more in our heads as we watch the film than in the film itself.

Maybe the juxtaposition just now of Kyoko and Nathan kissing to the black and white imagining by Caleb of he and Ava kissing was a signal that the former was as genuine as we should suspect the latter is at this point in the film. Or maybe it is a visual echo to mark Kyoko as an AI in case we have not caught on just yet. Or maybe it is a marker of Caleb as an AI because he is imagining in black and white after telling Ava the Mary in the Black and White Room story... but that last option is a topic for another day. It would indicate that, perhaps, the kiss between Kyoko and Nathan is more genuine than that between Caleb and Ava. Not because the latter is imaginary but because the former at least includes one human.

But then, in regard to this film, the question of what is genuine is a variation on a few of the primary philosophical questions it asks--about free will, about love, about manipulation and agency.

It bothers me lately when I see (on IMDb boards or, just today, on io9's Facebook page) people speaking of this film as if it is simplistic, just a thriller. I liked this movie the first time I saw it, when it was in theaters, but these past few days I think I have become more attached to it.

Like Caleb becoming attached to Ava, as it were.

Its apparent simplicity, I guess, obfuscates deeper issues.)

Nathan's interpretation of reality is, arguably, more important than reality in this film. What he thinks of women and why they act the way that they act (LEVEL 3) dictates how he programs them (LEVEL 1). (The one detail he offers to describe Ghostbusters, just now, was that a ghost performs oral sex on Dan Aykroyd. Not sure if that is a telling detail, but I just noticed it.) What he thinks of men and why they act the way that they act dictates how he may attempt to a) manipulate Caleb and b) allow Ava to manipulate Caleb. Capital-T Truth does not matter here in the reality of the film because Nathan controls the environment and the individuals who are present.

Nathan believes that consciousness and sexuality go hand in hand, plus, as he says, sexuality is fun, so why not have it in his AIs?

Steve Rose at The Guardian points out,

Looking back over movie history, it is difficult to find a female robot/android/cyborg who hasn't been created (by men, of course) in the form of an attractive young woman--and therefore played by one. This often enables the movie to raise pertinent points about consciousness and technology while also giving male viewers an eyeful of female flesh. The non-scientific term for this is "having your cake and eating it".

To be fair, Ava doesn't have much "female flesh" throughout most of the film. Still, she is sexualized almost immediately, if by no other means than the inherently male gaze of the camera. Which might not quite gel with my argument yesterday, of course. But, even the silhouette of the naked form is sexy, right? I mean, why else does that tire flap on so many big rigs exist? So, the actual presence of "flesh" is not the point so much as the presence of shape. Natalie Wilson at Ms. Magazine asks:

[D]id Ava's body have to be so sexualized and so transparent, forcing us to gaze inside of her along with Caleb, as if her body has no boundary? Or perhaps this is just the point--we can finally see inside a woman's body, and she is not that musty, smelly, hairy thing of so many nightmares (Freud's included), not the vagina dentata or a giver/taker of life--no, she is built like a car of all things, and under her roof her parts sing and hum like a well-oiled engine.

The machinery/anatomy metaphor serves another purpose, of course--setting aside the social implication of wanting a woman who will obey, for the moment. As Kyle Buchanan at Vulture says of the men in Ex Machina, "the movie links their desire to create with the more primal desire to procreate."

The movie also allows for--but does not, necessarily, suggest--nudity equals sexuality. Notably--as referenced in yesterday's entry--the nudity in this film is not sexual. Naked AIs hang in closets without clothes (and without some of their skin). Kyoko lies on a couch naked, and peels some of her skin away to reveal to Caleb what she is. She does not then come on to him; that was earlier, when she was dressed. Bitch Media's Kjerstin Johnson is one of those who calls the nudity in that last dressing scene--which I broke down yesterday--"gratuitous." She also says it was "male gaze-y" and it made her "uncomfortable." While I disagree with that sentiment, I like the idea that follows it. In a parenthetical, she writes:

By the way, I think there should be another "rule" a la Bechdel test about naked women in film--how long are they naked? For whose pleasure are the shots? Is she a corpse, yes/no?

(Maybe call it the Mathilda May Test.)

I think, the more "male gaze-y" shots happen when Ava is without her skin.

Standing before the mirror, no sensual pose, just standing--and with the camera looking on from afar--this doesn't scream male gaze to me. Johnson points out the deeper issue in that scene, though. She writes:

But more to the point, the scene was shot with warm light and soaring, swelling, hopeful music. We are supposed to be happy for her, to see this as her moment of liberation. But, I couldn't help but think of the psychological trauma these female bots had experienced. In order to be free, Ava had to literally skin her AI sisters and leave them behind. Is Ava aware of the mental and sexual torture they had all been through? Is she as sickened by the sight of these mangled, naked female bodies as I was? I'm not sure these questions of consciousness or embodiment are ones that crossed the minds of Caleb or Nathan [LEVEL 1 and LEVEL 3]--or director/writer Alex Garland [LEVEL 2], for that matter.

Now, consider what I said above about Nathan's sense of reality, or that parenthetical above about what we presume about Nathan and his treatment of his AIs. We see flesh and we assume a sexual angle when there is no practical reason to dress these AIs. (Plus, if Caleb is also an AI, an entire new angle opens up.) Johnson assumes "sexual torture" when the film offers no actual evidence of anything of the sort. She assumes "psychological trauma" but psychological trauma implies a success in the AI (like Jade, who damages herself in trying to break the glass of her enclosure) that would not indicate destruction by Nathan to make a new model. In fact, if Nathan is as good at what he does as it seems--his personality issues notwithstanding--Jade's apparent discomfort would suggest fixing her body, not her mind. We could just as easily assume mechanical or programming error as psychological trauma. Additionally, taking the skin off her "AI sisters"--nevermind the loaded terminology of calling them sisters--might be as simple as her previous scene getting dressed for Caleb. That is, if she can stab Nathan and leave Caleb behind to die, why should we assume that she has any conscience at all? She just wants to go people-watching.

And, I think these "questions of consciousness and embodiment" were exactly what Garland had in mind when writing and directing this film. That is kind of the point.


Buchanan, K. (2015, April 22). Does Ex Machina have a woman problem, or is its take on gender truly futuristic? Vulture.

Johnson, K. (2015, May 8). How "Ex Machina" toys with its female characters. Bitch Media. Retrieved from

Rose, S. (2015, January 15). Ex Machina and sci-fi's obsession with sexy female robots. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Wilson, N. (2015, April 29). How Ex Machina fails to be radical. Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

programmed to be heterosexual

Let us interrupt the argument regarding gender and sexuality for a for-instance:

Two for-instances, I guess. A comparison—Ava putting on clothes, Ava putting on skin. With a brief follow-up to both.

WARNING: there will be some naked female flesh in the skin scene. I considered making those images only visible if you click to see them, but I felt that would actually undermine what I am trying to say about that particular scene, especially when compared with the clothing scene earlier in the film.

On to the first scene. For context, Ava tells Caleb to close his eyes and then she leaves to a closet, where she selects a dress.

She picks out a dress.

She models it in the mirror—but we do not see that mirror; we remain close on Ava.

There is a very tactile and sensual thing going on here as Ava slides the dress up one arm…

…before bringing it down over her body.

And, we follow it down her body.

Then, it is time for the stockings, and I am reminded of that bit in The Private Eyes when Inspector Winship (Don Knotts) gets excited at Phyllis taking off her stockings.

Wig selection. And, it is one of the interesting things about this sequence that she chooses the wig that she does. Neither of these longer wigs will do. She goes with short hair. This is a) an indication (LEVEL 1) that she is just as privy to Caleb’s pornography profile as Nathan is or b) the movie is already angling in a (supposedly) feminist direction with the shorter hair (LEVEL 2).

Close-ups. Lots of close-ups.

Here is where Ava got the idea for her hair choice, I suppose. Did Nathan give these images to her? (Sidenote: note the crowd scenes. She indicates to Caleb that she wants to go where there are lots of people to observe and, in the end, that is where she ends up.) That image by the way:

Found that image at, in a piece about “New Styles & how to Grow Out Short Hair.”

She is coy.


She presents herself…

…and twirls…

…before kneeling.

Now, before we move on, consider, if you have a moment, this video: 1950s Educational Film “How to Undress in Front Of Your Husband” mp4. (Note: its copyright seems to actually be 1937.) First, note the peculiar fact that this video is sponsored by a beer. And, among other things, in its opening text crawl, it asks, “But how about our women? Do they satisfy?” And, there’s this: “With all these modern disadvantages, science has done nothing to make marriage safe for husbands.” That is already some serious misogynist (or, recently, Meninist) bullshit. But, then it goes on:

The old marriage institution has limped along for centuries, burdened by boredom—men have submitted, suffered and supported long enough.

We have decided to do our bit toward the relief of marital boredom.



Then there’s a sequence about peeping toms for some reason. Ah, because we are the peeping tom as far as this footage is going to go. And, then we (pretend to) spy on a couple women undressing, no husbands to be seen—I think someone forget to connect the content of the video to its intent. And there’s this from the narrator:

So, let’s settle, here and now the question of how and how not to honor your husband. Down through the ages, women have paid meticulous attention to the matter of dressing. They have consumed hours and hours in getting just the precise affect desired. Each dainty garment has been donned with the utmost care and thought. No amount of time or effort has been considered wasted and the final result was alluring glamour.

But ladies… when it came to undressing, that was something else again. Technique was thrown to the wind. Angles were disregarded. Charm and allure were entirely forgotten.

It is so sad that women had not been concentrating on “technique” when it came to undressing. So sad, indeed. Fairly sexist as well. But really, who is surprised?

Still, the point is this: this video—or the imagery that went into it, is exactly the sort of thing we see in commercials, TV shows, films… recall that scene I wrote about last year from Moonstruck, Loretta (Cher) completing her transformation for her date by settling in by the fireplace with a glass of wine to slowly get dressed. Getting dressed makes the woman in cinematic terms. Getting undressed, on the other hand, is something else—it is sexual. And, while Caleb does try to see what Ava is doing when she leaves to dress, he cannot see her from that angle. But, he does watch her undress on the monitor in his room.

And, from other clues throughout the film, and how she specifically moves more into the light of the window here, she knows he can see her.

The dressing and undressing play as sexual. She is dressing the part of human female to entice Caleb. Now, I do not think that Ava is simply using him the entire time, though that would clearly be Nathan’s cynical take on the situation. Still, she is clearly manipulating Caleb’s attraction to her if only to learn more about him as he is learning about her.

But then there is the second “dressing” scene. It is framed between two shots with a painting on the wall—a woman in white, something like a wedding dress.

In fact, I just looked it up and it is a Gustav Klimt painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, daughter to Karl Wittgenstein (who is referenced in the film), a portrait commissioned on the occasion of her wedding.

But, as it turns out, Ava is not marrying anyone. The placement here, as well as Ava’s later choice of a white dress plays as irony.

Note the use of reflections throughout this sequence, and not as many close-ups. All of Nathan’s broken women are coalescing visually into just one complete individual who will get to venture out into the world.

Notable close-ups in this scene come when Ava replaces her damaged arm.

And when she interacts using her new skin. Though she touches the other AIs face here, and it is explicitly sensual, it is not sexual.

The pace, I think, sets these frames as something different from the previous dressing scene. Or maybe it is just that the previous embodiment was a put-on, a fa├žade. Here, Ava is literally completing herself as a woman…

…with borrowed skin.

More mirrors, not to mention the reflection of Ava in the other visible AIs.

Now, the film could have spent more time with the dressing, show all the pieces of skin, give us numerous (bordering-on-exploitative) close-ups. Instead, after a cutaway—Caleb is watching this entire sequence—Ava has all of her skin and new hair. No longer the short hair… which maybe was not invoking a feminist do, as it were, but rather something like a slave’s hair, shorn to dehumanize. Though Ava could put on a dress, she (LEVEL 1) could not complete the look with “proper” hair before, or the film (LEVEL 2) could not, so this final version of Ava would be even more dramatic.

More mirrors, but this time used to visually divide Ava, and to take us from a potentially voyeuristic position to something more closely approximating her POV as she looks in the mirror.

One last look at the AI whose skin she has taken. The interesting detail here: that the head that was positioned facing forward is now positioned as looking at Ava. There is no indication that this AI is operational—in fact, Nathan’s description of how he recycles the brains suggests that she cannot be--but in this shot, the two of them seem to be looking at one another.

Finally, Ava closes the closet and there is only her.

Now, this is the part about which some have complained. On IMDb and in comment threads elsewhere. I think the complaint stems from an inaccurate (I think) equation of nudity and sexuality, that being unclothed is inherently sexual and this lingering is exploitative and gratuitous. But, Ava needs this moment. She needs to see her self and recognize it. She needs to be complete.

Then, of course, she must again dress up, because the world requires it. She finds this white dress on one of the AIs.

And, you can see she is multiplied in the mirrors again before she leaves. And Caleb looks on.

She passes the Klimt painting again, this time matching it visually.

You may disagree, but I think the remarkable thing about these two sequences is that the one with no skin, only clothing, is the sexualized one, filmed in such a way as to accentuate Ava’s feminine curves. She is readying herself for a “date” of a sort, and the sequence is filmed that way. But, the sequence with all the skin, on the other hand, has little that could be called sexy or sexual in it. It is more matter-of-fact. This is a necessary evil rather than a chosen one. And, Ava, complete, leaves the house.