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planet of the humans (jeff gibbs, 2019)

Planet of the Humans has pissed off a lot of people. It's a documentary, made by environmentalists, that takes the movement to task for what is seen as its failures. In "Planet of the Censoring Humans", Matt Taibbi writes, "In Planet of the Humans, [Michael] Moore and Gibbs make a complex argument. In essence, they charge that people have become dependent upon the high-consumption lifestyles made possible by fossil fuels, and that it’s our addiction to that way of life, as much as to fossil fuels themselves, that is driving humanity off a 'cliff.'"

Taibbi's focus is on censorship more than the environment, and it is true that Planet of the Humans has gotten a lot of what amounts to free publicity because of attempts to shut it down. It's not entirely fair to accuse the film makers of milking the controversy ... the film is available for free, it is not as of now a profit-making enterprise ... but Michael Moore's gift for self-promotion is well-known, and it's hard to be sure what he's up to. I imagine he would argue that it's irrelevant, that the only thing that matters is the subject of the film.

Josh Fox is a leader in the attacks on the film. His essay in The Nation, "Meet the New Flack for Oil and Gas: Michael Moore", details many of his complaints.

The discussion surrounding the film is almost entirely about its content ... the form is apparently irrelevant. And I'm succumbing to that problem myself, I admit. The form matters, though, as it always does with films Moore is involved with. Moore creates propaganda, and the criticisms always come from the people he is attacking. What makes Planet of the Humans different is that the people under attack have supported Moore in the past (because they agreed with his propaganda). I, like others, may be making too much of Moore's involvement. I was surprised at how little presence Moore has in the actual film. It's really a Jeff Gibbs movie; he wrote, directed, produced, and is the main character, the way that Moore usually is in his movies. Moore seems to be the public face of the film, because of his notoriety, I suppose, and because of that gift for promotion. The film shares some of Moore's muckraking use of editing to make its points, even when that editing is unfair. Ultimately, it's not a lot different from a typical Michael Moore movie. I like his movies, I'm glad they exist, but I don't trust them, even when I agree with them.

One place where I think the critics are missing the point comes when they accuse the film of pandering to the notion of population control as essential, the criticism being that population control is often related to dark notions of "culling the populace". But the central point of the film isn't that there are too many of us (although that is presented as a problem), it's that we aren't doing enough to change our way of living. The problem isn't too many people, it's too many consumers. The enemy in Planet of the Humans, as in most things Moore is associated with, is capitalism. It's hard to miss this point, but apparently lots of people aren't seeing it. So Gibbs and Moore are seen as "flacks for oil and gas", when the film isn't pro-fossil fuels, it's just a critique of the current environmental movement, which, according to the film, has gotten too cozy with capitalism. It's ironic that the film argues against the movement's capitalist-friendly approach while being accused of promoting fossil fuel usage.

In the end, the criticisms of Planet of the Humans are well-taken. As is usual in his films, Moore (and Gibbs, it's really hard to separate the two) plays cutesy with facts. He is always easy to criticize. As I say, the only difference here is that it's the left doing the criticizing.

Meanwhile, there's an elephant in the room ... well, that's not the right way to say it, it's an elephant that isn't allowed into the room. Nowhere in the film (and nowhere in the critiques) is the question of nuclear power addressed. It's possible that Gibbs/Moore would include nuclear power alongside all of the other hoped-for scientific advances like solar and wind power as misguided attempts to maintain a lifestyle that no longer works. But I have to try and guess that, because nuclear is never brought up. Those of us who think a serious re-examination of nuclear power is long overdue can not be encouraged by this film, or the controversy surrounding it.

Here is an interview with the film makers where they try to address the criticisms:

And here is the movie itself, back on YouTube, at least for now. Watch it yourself, examine it for yourself.

geezer cinema: red joan (trevor nunn, 2018)

Red Joan is a spy thriller that mostly lacks thrills. It takes the not unusual trick of building the story around flashbacks, but in this case, the structure doesn't really do anything for the movie.

Judi Dench is an elderly woman arrested for being a spy. During interrogations, we get her story, with Sophie Cookson playing the young "Red Joan". The scenes of the past are engaging enough, and the arc whereby Joan becomes "Red" is fairly engrossing. But whenever the movie returns to Dench, all the momentum dissipates. At some point, I realized the entire movie could have been made without Dench, without the scenes in the present, and been just as good, just as intelligible. Better, in fact.

This is not to say that the flashback structure is never a good idea. But Cookson has an engaging flair, and while it's not Dench's fault, the old Joan is miserable and depressed. It makes sense for the characters, but the depressed Joan is never compelling enough that I don't wish to return to Cookson.

Red Joan is competent, and it will satisfy those looking to pass a couple of hours. But that's about all it is.

film fatales #82: the nightingale (jennifer kent, 2018)

I didn't know what to expect from The Nightingale. I wanted to watch it because I loved Kent's debut as a director, The Babadook, but when a director only has one feature to their name, it's hard to construct any patterns. Now that I've seen her second feature, I'm not sure what patterns have emerged, because the two films are quite different. There is the obvious point, though, that Kent, who wrote her movies as well as directed them, brings a woman's perspective to her films. The Babadook was a horror story that focused on a mom ... The Nightingale is also horrific, but it's more reality-based. It's story is also seen through the eyes of a female protagonist.

The Nightingale is a brutal film, one that might play a lot differently with a man in charge (think Game of Thrones). Horrible things happen to the heroine, and Kent insists on letting us know what we are seeing and hearing. A look at the Parents Guide on IMDB (not recommended unless you've seen the movie) details enough events to warn off anyone with particular triggers. But it is never voyeuristic, never pleasurable. Kent takes us inside her heroine ... she doesn't shy away from what happens, but she always keeps her focus and ours on the character.

The movie is long and expansive ... it could stand to be a bit shorter (it's about 40 minutes longer than The Babadook). The length lends an epic feel to the film, and Kent uses the time to cover everything she thinks matters. The Nightingale is repetitive at times. But it overwhelms in the final analysis.

The conclusion is important. At its core, The Nightingale is a revenge drama, and the heroine gets some of the revenge she seeks. But Kent pulls back at the end, understanding that revenge is never going to completely fix what has come before. The finish is a bit anti-climactic, because we in the audience want the revenge. But it's an appropriate climax. And if you make it to the end of The Nightingale, you won't be able to shake its power. Special shoutouts to the leads, Aisling Franciosi and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

l'argent (robert bresson, 1983)

There is a famous tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The official name is Sather Tower, but no one calls it that. We call it The Campanile. It is a landmark that helps as a reference point for new students who don't quite know their way around yet. But for most of us, it is known for its carillon, which can be heard over much of Berkeley (we live a mile from campus, and we can hear it just fine).

A pair of falcons live on the tower, and they recently had triplets. A few webcams are set up so people can watch the lives of the young ones. I've taken a peek ... doesn't do much for me ... but my wife has it running constantly on her laptop so she can watch whenever she gets a notion. She loves it, and tells me tales about what the birds are doing.

Robert Bresson's films, minimalist and contemplative, demand our attention. (My favorite is A Man Escaped.) I often appreciate his movies more than like them, but among other things he is the ultimate "I'll do it my way" film maker, and while I tend to complain about those directors, I always respect them. And with Bresson, I have at times felt more than mere respect. L'Argent is one of those I like.

At first, L'Argent ("Money") seems to be a movie that follows a counterfeit bill through various hands, but eventually, it becomes a story about the people who come into contact with the money. You wouldn't say that "nothing happens" ... in fact, quite a bit happens. But it is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Check out this clip, properly named "Car Chase":

A bank is being robbed. We see the getaway driver. We see a man walking down the street reading a newspaper ... he seems important, yet this is his only scene and he's largely irrelevant. We see cops with guns, we see the robber with a hostage. Back to the driver, who hears a shootout that we don't see. Eventually, a cop car pulls up alongside him, and he tries to escape (this begins the "car chase"). Bresson switches between shots of the driver's foot on the gas pedal and views from his rear view mirror. He quickly crashes into another car. It's hard to think of another cinematic car chase with so few fireworks. Something happens, all right, but it's as if Bresson doesn't want to us to see that something.

Bresson is also known for using non-professional actors. He doesn't want "acting" in his movies ... the blankness of the non-actor leaves the audience with nothing except the action (often as simple as a close-up of a face that moves slightly) and the dialogue (which is sparse at times). We don't, we can't be distracted. Action scenes without action, acting scenes without acting. It's easy to understand why my wife, who has no problem looking at a webcam of baby birds, would go stir crazy if she had to watch L'Argent.

Look at this scene, with the perfect YouTube title "Bresson eliminates acting". The driver is in prison. He gets a letter telling him his daughter has died. We see the letter, read by an anonymous mail checker whose face we don't see. In his cell, the letter is read by his cellmates. For a brief moment, we see him with his face buried in his pillow. He raises it for a moment, lowers it again. We never see him reading the letter. Bresson has "eliminated" any possibility of "acting" by shooting and editing it this way.

This is fascinating stuff if you want to delve in. Otherwise, it's not much better than the web cam of the baby birds. #164 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

fans and the 100

The first time I remember fans convincing a TV network to change their minds about a series was the original Star Trek. NBC was ready to cancel the show after two seasons. A letter-writing campaign led to a third season.

This kind of resurrection is accomplished in different manners in the Internet Age. Fans have easier and more direct contact with networks and show producers. There are also many more outlets for series to continue. This isn't new ... there were shows when I was growing up that switched from one of the three networks to another, and more recently, Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed networks late in its run. Now, an energetic fan base can sometimes convince a streamer like Netflix to pick up a show that has been cancelled elsewhere.

Ownership of the "meaning" of a work of art is complicated, but some of us believe that once a work leaves the artist's hands, the meaning belongs as much to the audience as to the artist. Authorial intent is important, but it isn't a "case closed" situation. Artists can be surprised by how their work is interpreted, they can argue that their intent was not in line with those interpretations, but each of us, as individuals, create meaning out of the original work. If 10,000 people read a novel, there will be 10,000 interpretations of that novel.

All of this brings me to The 100. A television series based on a popular series of young adult novels, The 100 has never been the biggest hit ... ratings have gradually dropped over the course of seven seasons. On the other hand, it has lasted seven seasons, so the CW must be happy enough. My sense is that The 100 is a fairly standard cult series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never had great ratings, but it was always turning up on magazine covers, and if you didn't have access to ratings data, you'd think Buffy was a massive hit. Which it was, in its way ... witness the college courses taught about the show (I taught one myself). Again, this is just my own, uninformed, observation, but I feel like The 100 has never gotten attention beyond its fan base. Even people who didn't watch Buffy knew it existed. I don't know if the same is true about The 100.

But that fan base is intense, and their sense of ownership is interesting. If each of us has our own interpretation of a work, we don't necessarily think that we should climb in a time machine and go back to tell Melville how to fix Moby Dick. Fandom today can take surprising forms, though. The question isn't "What does The 100 mean?" Rather, it is the contemporary equivalent of giving Melville advice.

Fans of The 100 have always made their preferences clear, and thanks to social media, they can make their preferences known to the people who create the show. They like this character or that plot device, they like this couple to pair up and find another couple to be uninteresting. There is nothing new about this, beyond the access we have to the creators.

In the third season, though, events within the show caused an uproar. Lexa was a popular character, a commander of clans who was also gay. Over time, a relationship between Lexa and the female lead, Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), grew, slowly, gradually, into an actual romance. Shippers gave the name "Clexa" to the pairing. Alycia Debnam-Carey, the actress who played Lexa, got a job on Fear the Walking Dead, part of a franchise that is much more popular than The 100. The logistics of her being on two shows became too complicated, and so Lexa was written out of The 100. In itself, this would disappoint Clexa shippers, but the way she was written out was a disaster. After Clarke and Lexa finally seal their bond by having sex, Lexa is accidentally killed, in a too-perfect example of "bury your gays". There was an immediate uproar, and many fans announced that they would no longer watch the show. In the final episode of the season, Lexa made a brief, triumphant return in one of the most emotionally satisfying scenes in the entire series, but for many, the damage was done.

Up to this point, part of the fandom, upset at how the series was progressing, turned their backs on it while offering pointed critiques of how Clexa was ruined. Their points were well-taken.

After that, though, things seemed to change, at least from my perspective. Clexa shippers who stuck around never quit wishing things had been different (I'm one of them). Meanwhile, over the course of the seven seasons, the relationship between Clarke and male lead Bellamy (played by Bob Morley) grew in ways that worked in a narrative and character sense. They were the two leaders who people looked up to ... being The 100, they screwed up as often as they did good, but they went from being antagonists early on to being a strong partnership. For some of us, that partnership was improved by the absence of a romantic angle. Yes, a woman and a man could bond and work together without "falling in love".

But for some fans, the absence of romance was a crucial flaw. These "Bellarke" shippers thought it obvious that the two did indeed fall in love. (It may have mattered that in the books, the two do fall in love.) When, in real life, Eliza Taylor and Bob Morley married, this became evidence that Bellarke was real. But on the series, Clarke and Bellamy remained strong partners, but platonic.

And here is where things get bizarre. When Lexa died, enraged fans let the creators of the show know their feelings. But Bellarke is ongoing. If Clexa shippers decided to quit watching, Bellarke shippers are still there. But they, too, are enraged, and every episode that the two don't consummate their relationship only ups the rage factor.

So the shippers let the creators know what they think, but it's not a case of "we're going to quit watching". Instead, it's a constant message that "you better make Bellarke happen" or "you idiots don't know what we want" or "you know what we want but won't give it to us". This isn't an attempt to revive a cancelled show, as happened with Star Trek. This isn't an after-the-fact critique of the death of Lexa. This is an attempt to force a story line that the shippers think is correct.

There was a time when people wrote "slash fiction". Fans would write entire novels about the love relationship between Kirk and Spock on Star Trek, often in explicit detail. That's not what is happening with The 100 and Bellarke shippers. They want the people running the series to write their desired relationship into the actual show. And they are very demonstrative.

Meanwhile, the Clexa fans who stuck around are still out there, hoping for one last appearance of Lexa. Clexa shippers and Bellarke shippers don't get along ... it can get brutal. Both groups are insisting that their interpretation of the meaning of the show is correct, and denying any contrasting interpretation.

music friday: gang of four

40 years ago today, I saw Gang of Four. They were touring behind their stunning debut album, Entertainment! I loved the album (still do), and made sure I caught them when they came to the Bay Area. The venue was the American Indian Center.

The opening act was BPeople, and honestly, I don't even remember seeing them:

Gang of Four was a rather bizarre blend of genres. They played post-punk, they played funk, they had political lyrics. There were plenty of groups that did one of those things, maybe even two, but Gang of Four managed to work all three into the mix. I didn't know what a great dance band they were until I saw them.

Here's "To Hell with Poverty", live in 1980:

And "He'd Send in the Army", also from 1980:

Here's a link to the audio from the show I saw:

geezer cinema: baby driver (edgar wright, 2017)

It's nice when you watch a movie and realize the people making the movie know what they are doing. For instance, Baby Driver was nominated for three Oscars: Editing (Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos), Sound Mixing (Tim Cavagin, Mary H. Ellis, and Julian Slater), and Sound Editing (Slater again). Once you see it, you understand why. It grabs you from the start ... here is the second scene in the movie, after which I had that "they know what they're doing" feel:

Edgar Wright doesn't use his style to beat you over the head like Michael Bay, and he doesn't use his style to make things unintelligible (like Michael Bay). He gives us a heightened reality, where everything seems to fit together. Baby (yes, that's the name of Ansel Elgort's character) is locked into the music ... he walks to its beat. Everything that happens as he walks is part of that beat. The lyrics to the song turn up in the background. The movie is so connected to its music that Baby Driver plays like a musical as much as it does an action picture.

And it delivers on the action. For that matter, it does a decent job with the romance, too. It doesn't feel like a jumble ... all of the parts fit smoothly.

The casting is on target, and the actors seem to be enjoying themselves without preening. Baby Driver couldn't be more different than our Geezer movie from last week, The Gentlemen, which is far too proud of itself (without reason). #759 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

by request/film fatales #81: knock down the house (rachel lears, 2019)

Cori Bush. Paula Jean Swearengin. Amy Vilela. I'm embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these women before watching Knock Down the House. They all ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections as part of the attempt to make the Democratic Party, and thus the U.S., more progressive. All three women are interesting, and what we learn of their personal stories informs their politics. All three (spoiler alert) lost their elections, which is probably why I hadn't heard of them.

Rachel Lears chose her subjects via a process whereby she worked with progressive organizations to find women like the ones featured in the movie. When she starts, she doesn't know which, if any, will win, but she is there, fly on the wall, giving us an intimate feel for what a grass roots campaign is like.

The problem with Knock Down the House (and, let's face, it's not really a problem), is that none of those women are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since Ocasio-Cortez wins her election, which we know, and since she has become an instant attraction in Congress and in the country, her part in the film overwhelms the story of the other women. This is no one's fault. I doubt Lears could have predicted what happened.

But AOC (we've had FDR and JFK and LBJ ... they were presidents ... Ocasio-Cortez is a representative in the House, but she's known by her initials just like her predecessors) wins her election where the others don't. This results in an inspirational scene (one of many) that is guaranteed to make you get teary-eyed (I suppose if you are one of those people who hate her, you'd be crying about then as well): when AOC realizes she has won.

We know from her story, which Lears shows us effectively, that she wasn't born to be a politician. But she is so charismatic that she wins you over. And no matter how she was born, she seems like a natural politician in the best possible way. When she thanks the people who helped her achieve victory, it doesn't feel boilerplate, it feels real.

Of course, just as she has quickly become an icon for some, she personifies the enemy for others. But Knock Down the House isn't made for those people.

Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are also vital progressives with big dreams. Like I say, this is no one's fault. But AOC is a star, and Rachel Lears is a film maker who knows what she's got. So of course she focuses most on Ocasio-Cortez.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

fool me once

I don't often get blatantly personal around here. As the motto for the blog says, I want you to read what I thought of Irma Vep and from that learn what I am like as a person. But something happened this weekend that is worth passing along, even though I'm the butt of whatever joke might exist. I'll be vague about names.

Yesterday afternoon, I get a notification on a social media site that a young musician I like has begun following me. There is absolutely no reason for this, but 1) I am gullible, 2) I am starstruck, and 3) I didn't have anything else to do. So I followed the person in return.

I get a request to take the discussion private, and I do. Over the next half-hour plus, we have a long private chat. They thanked me for my support, and asked how long I'd been a fan. Not long, I said, just a few months. They thanked me again, and asked how they could pay me back. I replied that they should just keep making music, and they said they were working on something.

I figured that was that, and told my wife I'd had a brush with fame.

But a couple of minutes later, they started the chat up again by asking how my family was doing during the pandemic. I wasn't sure why they asked, but mostly I just thought even famous people are bored during the quarantine, and this person isn't as famous as, say, Miranda Lambert. So I answered, and to be polite, I asked how they and their family were doing.

They said things were fine in their city (naming the correct city for the artist in question). And again I assume the chat is over. Until they say they are sure I have an amazing family. I mention a friend of mine who lives in that city, and they replied "Nice".

I could go on ... the chat certainly did, for another ten minutes. Finally they said we could be friends, but better to do it in private, because they couldn't spend all their time in public with their fans. OK, I said.

Then they gave me their cell number so I could text them. And yes, I am dumb enough that I gave them my number.

Sure enough, I get a text from them right away. The conversation moves to the phone, where it continued for another ten minutes or so. They asked for a photo, I sent one (yes, I am that dumb), they said I looked "handsome", and finally it was time for my wife and I to have dinner. So I said thanks for the chat ... earlier they had asked if my wife would mind that we were chatting, and as our conversation ended, they said they hoped after the pandemic we might meet, and they would like to meet my wife, if she'd want to.

I told my wife all of the above, and we laughed and tried to figure out why the person had followed me in the first place. Later, I began to tell the story in an email to a friend, and it was then that I finally got a clue. I went back to the original follow ... it wasn't from a verified account, but the artist had another account that was verified. I then looked up the cell number, and the area code was in an entirely differently place then they supposedly lived.

And friends, it was only then that I realized I'd been chatting to some anonymous person and not the musician.

I blocked them on social media and on my phone, and decided whatever, it was kinda fun. I also contacted the real artist to let them know someone was impersonating them online.

Yes, I fell for the above.