1984 by George Orwell

“Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.”- Big Brother makes Winston a promiseI’ve spent the last four months reading this book, not because I’m a slow reader or the story is complicated to follow. No, this book just scares the hell out of me. It’s uncomfortable and relentless, timely (as ever!) and disturbing. But that’s been said before, and the true wonder of 1984 comes in the gift it gives to the reader personally. Like the dreaded Room 101 in which Winston faces his gravest fear, Orwell’s transcendent work signifies something different for each reader, and in turn defeating the very mental apocalypse it foretells. To me, 1984 represents blind self delusion at it’s most dangerous, an attribute everyone of us can use to dignify horrific actions, no matter the side. I have faith that upon reading it again this work could show me a different part of myself, which all great art inevitably achieves.

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The Wire: Season 1 (HBO, 2002)

Wow! My initial impression of The Wire and its opening salvo can be compounded into this one word and an overall feeling of admiration. Like Six Feet Under and Deadwood, The Wire constructs a fascinatingly inclusive environment of characters, in this case the drug dealers of West Baltimore and the local Narcotics Unit attempting to bust them. But the veins of story don’t stop there. The Wire spreads to the political spectrum, the legal angle, and potentially so much more (I’ve learned that the proceeding seasons enter other areas of social struggle around town, i.e. schools, the wharf, city hall!). This epic television show does not merely comment on the contradictions of urban life, where dealers, Senators, and lawyers seem to be bound not by power or ideology, but by money. It’s so much more than that. The Wire, like many of Michael Mann’s films, sets out to present “the game” of criminals and cops, including the codes, boundaries, and consequences involved, and how life outside this professional realm isn’t nearly as satisfying. You aren’t alive unless you play “the game”, and at the same time it can end your life in a jarring, violent, sometimes unseen moment. Season 2 is on the horizon. Wow indeed.

Fargo (Coen, Coen, 1996)

There are startling thematic similarities between Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo and their latest film No Country for Old Men, a unique coupling since each takes such a different stylistic approach toward storytelling. Fargo, drenched in cartoonish black comedy, charts the tragic downward spiral of a planned crime, using the bleak, epic whites of the North Dakota snowfall to signify a world bleached of morality. On the other hand, No Country for Old Men sternly focuses on the violent aftermath of a chance occurrence with a dusty, foreboding mise-en-scene, typical of the layered and studied approach to the consequences represented. While each takes a path down a different road to Neo-noir hell, they end up with the same disturbing thesis. Fargo finishes with Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief asking psycho mute Peter Stormare why he’s murdered so many people. No Country ends in a similar close-up of police chief Tommy Lee Jones contemplating a haunting dream of his dead father, which comes after questioning the heinous nature of Javier Bardem’s ruthless killer. They are afforded no easy answers. As if a part of two separate but equal parallel universes, the scenes speak to a Coen brother’s theme which keeps popping up; the impotence felt by modern day law enforcement officers toward comprehending the viscousness of their criminal counterparts, and an overall questioning of their role as protector/parent. Both McDormand’s Marge Gunderson and Jones’ Ed Tom Bell want to believe they can stem off evil from their respective environments, and the tragedy of both films lies in the personal and silent moments when each honorable servant of the law realize they can’t.

Hidden Agenda (Loach, 1990)

Fascinating in it’s crisp precision and relentless pacing as a police procedural, Hidden Agenda is really the first Loach film I’ve seen where the social and political issues discussed are defined by the story and not the other way around. Frances McDormand, Brian Cox, and the great Brad Dourif headline a stellar cast in this story about conspiracy, assassination, and political malpractice set amongst a volatile Ireland circa the 1980’s. Loach lays on the intrigue with shady meetings in dark Republican pubs, threats issued with lone bullet casings, and government baddies built from the Karl Rove mold using calm words of terror to pronounce judgement. While not entirely coherent in parts, Hidden Agenda functions as a frightening introductory analysis of the current American War on Terror, and all the torture, killing, and lying that goes with such a situation. As Brian Cox’s honest top cop learns, complex truths turn into simple falsities when pushed to the brink of moral failure, and the results live on to ruin again, and again, and again.

Fred Claus (Dobkin, 2007)

The latest Vince Vaughn comedy isn’t really a comedy at all, but a surprisingly sincere story about Christmas, brothers, and selflessness. It’s often funny (the Siblings Anonymous scene is priceless), sweet, and jovial without being blatantly manipulative. A surprise treat for those in the mood for such a plump and festive jaunt. Today, I was more than happy to oblige that sentiment.

The Funeral (Ferrara, 1996)

With this lifeless and almost funny (bad) throwback to the 1930’s gangster film, director Abel Ferrara raises a mallet to the genre and mashes the life out of it. The story comes across overly serious, navigating the tragic setting surrounding a family of brothers attending the funeral of their youngest. The typical melodramatic themes fall flat; jealousy, revenge, madness, and greed all get mixed up with some artificial style and self-importance. The cast (led by Ferrara staple Christopher Walken) looks lost, unable to glean a fragment of sense from the muddled and silly script. Watching this made me pine for the Coen’s Miller’s Crossing.

Black Hawk Down (Scott, 2001)

 

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Few recent films can match the visual and audible mastery of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. From a spatial standpoint, it’s directed perfectly, Scott’s camera fluidly roving through the hyper realized streets of Mogadishu, Somalia with a clear sense of purpose and craftsmanship. As the large team of Army Rangers and Delta ascend on the war torn city, Scott’s hypnotic images of helicopters drifting through the smoke-filled air produce a feverish reaction flushed with horrific excitement, as if you were going into battle with them. When the RPG’s start exploding and the rapid gunfire etches a presence on every wall in sight, the film never wavers in it’s dedication to the conflicted American soldiers at it’s core, establishing a swift pace even in the down time usually reserved for the audience to catch their breath. Black Hawk Down never lets up, pushing for a sense of realism and grit which can be felt with every casualty (and there are a lot of them), and failing miserably when it attempts to sneak in elements of War film cliches in between the carnage. Some of the action scenes have so much going on it takes multiple viewings to get a sense of the layering involved. But Scott almost completely dismisses Mark Bowden’s source material when it comes to the Somalian perspective, throwing in a few scenes of political banter between a captured helicopter pilot and a Somali militiaman to appease those wishing for a dimensional native presence. This phony attempt at showing both sides doesn’t work, a grave misgiving which taints an otherwise fascinating and expertly directed film. Black Hawk Down could have been a masterpiece of American sacrifice and third world plight and how the two are often tragically intwined, but instead it settles for a beautiful, haunting look at the familiarities of modern warfare, no matter the cost.