Steampunk Thursdays

Dune, Spice Guild 3rd Stage Navigator

The Steampunk folder on my desk is filling up fast, and it’s time to lance the boil. We begin with what I consider the ur-Steampunk film, David Lynch’s original cut of Dune. Evidence: the Spice Guild 3rd Stage Navigator – was it Pauline Kael who first nailed this as a flying talking vagina? – and the best part this scene when the Clive Barkerettes swept up the leaking spice as they towed the Navigator’s Victorian vitrine out, as if sealants will be unknown in twenty centuries. Isn’t this exactly how the “Mister Peabody” segments from Rocky & Bullwinkle used to end?

The Old Ultraviolent

Bruce La Bruce

I have four razors and a dictaphone.
     Andrey Tarkovsky, Diaries, 1979. (via Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise)

One night last week when it was too hot to eat I went to see Wanted. Although there is nothing to see in the theatres these days, and my home-viewing experience is now technically as good as if not better than the local multiplex, summer is still the time for curling up with a bucket of popcorn in a cool, dark auditorium. Beyond that, whatever’s on the screen can be forgiven almost anything.

Wanted actually had little to apologize for. There was just enough plot to string the action together, and no pretense that the film meant anything more than that. In fact, in the beginning, when McAvoy’s cuckolded milquetoast is swept off his feet (literally) by Jolie’s plasticized action figure, the script isn’t even half-bad. Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch reminded me of Tarkovsky’s sci-fi films, if Tarkovsky had been hopped up on amphetamines and acid; something I still think would not have necessarily been a bad thing. (Anthony Lane is right: Bekmambetov’s films are loud.) I think the last time I saw a special-effects budget put to such good use was Terminator 2; the philosophy-to-blam ratio of the Matrices was just too high.

Nietzsche Family CircusI’ve developed the bad habit of comparing movie reviews on three online “Christian” movie guides: at first for cheap laughs, but more and more, because I had a glimpse of a well-developed, self-contained and completely alien worldview and values system. Ted Baehr is Chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, and his is the most political perspective: his review of Wanted describes the film as having a “very strong humanist, existentialist, libertarian, almost nihilistic worldview extolling making selfish choices so that the individual is in control of his destiny rather than other outside forces.” There’s also a lot of counting: “at least 105 mostly strong obscenities, three strong profanities, 12 light profanities, some crude vulgarities, and a couple obscene gestures.” Plugged In is a James Dobson gig and filters everything through a “social values” agenda. (Eastern Promises for example, they saw as a pro-life film, and gave it a somewhat positive review.) The problems McAvoy’s character struggles with (for them) are obviously the result of his being raised by a single mother. And more counting: “At least four-dozen f-words mix with the bullets. Two-dozen s-words trail along, too, as do a dozen abuses of God’s name (one paired with ‘d–n’) and a few misuses of Jesus’ name. Other crude words and phrases crop up plenty of times, with ‘p—y’ being a script fave.” Finally, there’s Christian Spotlight on Entertainment, from This is the most schizophrenic of the three, because the reviewers seem to sincerely love movies, and go to some pains to separate out the film’s aesthetic value from its capacity to offend. For example, about Atonement they write: “[T]heological nit-picking aside, I have nothing but praise for ‘Atonement’. Make no mistake this is filmmaking par excellence. The cinematography is sumptuous, at times breathtaking; the acting excellent (Knightly and McAvoy have never been better); and the script tight”; they rate the film “Offensive.” In Wanted, they loved the action sequences, the special effects, and the acting; they rated it “Extremely Offensive.”

Stanley Kubrick

Sadly, what I really miss is Pauline Kael, the one who bid us fall in love with Death Race 2000. The Paulettes, by comparison, come across as a bunch of crotchety old men, which I suppose they’re fast becoming. But Kael’s own reviews still snap. In her pan of Clockwork Orange she starts out: “The numerous rapes and beatings have no ferocity and no sensuality; they’re frigidly, pedantically calculated, and because there is no motivating emotion, the viewer may experience them as an indignity and wish to leave.” But by the end she pivots nicely:

At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us — that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it’s eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it’s worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what’s in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?

What I really want to know is what she would have made of Wanted.