Our Greatest Living Film Critic, VI

Volume VI, March 2019

Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Though they joked about it, joking doesn’t take away the fact that this was yet another movie that tells Spider-man’s origin story. There were a couple action sequences where the faux stop motion made the action sequences feel like a strobe light was going off, but otherwise the animation was flawless and sui generis. I don’t like it when people re-imagine Aunt May as a badass. There were some very good jokes, and the voice acting was excellent, but the hype was too much to live up to. I give it 3.75 Johns Romita, Jr. out of a possible 5 Johns Romita, Jr.

Free Solo (2018)

Watched Free Solo (2018), a horror movie about a man climbing El Capitan without any ropes. Alex Honnold plays himself. I call it a horror movie because the main 20-minute climbing sequence is the most anxious I’ve ever felt watching anything, even though it’s a documentary and we know he succeeds. I tried imagining that he was just 5 feet above a thick rubber pad, but they kept shooting from above. The most interesting non-vertiginous theme is how the presence of the camera affects the subject, and whether it is ethical to do that to someone whose life depends on complete concentration. Not surprisingly, after wrestling with the question, they decided to continue making their movie. Honnold seems highly intelligent, goofy, introspective, emotionally stunted, and a decent cook. I give it 4 furniture questions a day out of a possible 5 furniture questions a day.

Triple Frontier (2019)

Watched Triple Frontier (2019), about some ex-special forces guys who steal too much money from a cartel boss in Brazil and then have to get away with it. Movie was sold as The Dirty Dozen (1967) meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), but I would say it is more Three Kings (1999) meets Fitzcarraldo (1982), since the majority of the movie is about the logistics of moving things over a mountain. Oscar Isaac is very watchable and so is Ben Affleck, who gets a couple good speeches and looks eerily like my brother now. Garrett Hedlund is surprisingly good, and Charlie Hunnam’s American accent is embarrassingly bad. This is a pretty broey movie, and that’s fine. There was some talk that it was a parable for military imperialism in South America, but if it is it’s so inconsistent about it that it doesn’t count. It wants to be about the psychological consequences of asking soldiers to commit ultraviolence, but it doesn’t really earn that either. It’s just a ‘B’ movie about some knuckleheads getting in over their head when they try to commit a crime. I give it 3.25 Chekov’s Donkeys out of a possible 5 Chekov’s Donkeys.

Going in circles

The forces at work in healthy party politics are centripetal; they encourage factions and interests to come together to work out common goals and strategies. They oblige everything to think , or at least speak, about the common good. In movement politics, the forces are all centrifugal, encouraging splits into smaller and smaller factions obsessed with single issues and practicing rituals of ideological oneupmanship.

— Mark Lilla

The Inner Ring

People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune from all the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communistic côterie. Poor man—it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.

Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

C. S. Lewis

This is given by Lewis as an observation that people actually feel this way, not an exhortation that we should try to. This is from his speech The Inner Ring.

Mobs

Traffic was being held up by a crowd of people rushing across the road and by curious onlookers in cars, slowing down to gawk at something.

“Look, see the thief,” Kamali said.

It was a sight of old Africa, a naked man running alone down an embankment and splashing across a filthy creek, pursued by a mob.

“They have taken his clothes. He is trying to get away in the dirty water of the river.”

But he was surrounded. People lined both banks of the creek, holding sticks and boulders, laughing excitedly at the man, who was so panicked he did not even think to cover his private parts but just ran, his arms pumping, splashing in the disgusting muck.

I had forgotten how cheerful, even jubilant, such murderous crowds in Africa could be, particularly these spontaneous mobs in pursuit of a weak marked man trying in vain to flee — a thief, a political outcast, a member of a despised tribe. The isolation of such prey vitalized the pursuers and made them shout with joy as they went after him, the toughest men swaggering at the front, the older men cheering them on, the women ululating, the small children screeching and jumping up and down at the sight of all this motion. The vigor, the macabre good humor of the chase, and the idea of certain death were intoxicants. Years before, I had seen similar mobs in Malawi and Uganda, always a large number of excited people persecuting one or two victims. Then, what had frightened me most was the mob’s sense of fun. Fun was still a factor in massacre. Perhaps the reason was simple: weak, idle people, suddenly granted power and the opportunity blamelessly to beat someone to death, are given a snorting animal energy and become joyous in their triumph.

The laughing crowd surged toward the naked man, swinging sticks.

“They will kill him,” Kamali said.

Then the traffic began to move.

Paul Theroux, from Dark Star Safari

Consider Phlebas

Recently reread Iain M. Banks’ great space opera, realizing the second time through that it was a different book than it was when I first read it 15 years ago. These are quotes I extracted because I liked them, they have no real thematic ties to each other.

The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had (at however great a remove) brought into being: the urge not to feel useless.

And

It was the Culture’s fault. It considered itself too civilized and sophisticated to hate its enemies; instead it tried to understand them and their motives, so that it could out-think them and so that, when it won, it would treat them in a way which ensured they would not become enemies again.

And

The Culture, there could be no doubt, relied profoundly on its machines for both its strategy and tactics in the war it was now engaged in. Indeed, a case could be made for holding that the Culture was its machines,  that they represented it at a more fundamental level than did any single human or group of humans within the society. The Minds that the Culture’s factory craft, safe Orbitals and larger GSVs were now producing were some of the most sophisticated collections of matter in the galaxy. They were so intelligent that no human was capable of understanding just how smart they were (and the machines themselves were incapable of describing it to such a limited form of life).

And

General Systems Vehicles were like encapsulated worlds. They were more than just very big spaceships; they were habitats, universities, factories, museums, dockyards, libraries, even mobile exhibition centers. They represented the Culture — they were the Culture. Almost anything that could be done anywhere in the Culture could be done on a GSV. They could make anything the Culture was capable of making, contained all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated, carried or could construct specialized equipment of every imaginable type for every conceivable eventuality, and continually manufactured smaller ships: General Contact Units usually, warcraft now. Their complements were measured in millions at least. They crewed their offspring out of the gradual increase in their own population. Self-contained, self-sufficient, productive and, in peacetime at least, continually exchanging information, they were the Culture’s ambassadors, its most visible citizens and its technological and intellectual big guns. There was no need to travel from the galactic backwoods to some distant Culture home-planet to be amazed and impressed by the stunning scale and awesome power of the Culture; a GSV could bring the whole lot right up to your front door…

And

“This is— ” Fal was annoyed, enough to be a little stuck for words. “This is just us now. We haven’t evolved… we’ve changed a lot, changed ourselves a lot, but we haven’t evolved at all since we were running around killing ourselves. I mean each other.” She sucked her breath in, annoyed with herself now. The boy was smiling tolerantly at at her. She felt herself blushing. “We are still animals,” she insisted. “We’re natural fighters just as much as the Idirans.”

“Then how come they’re winning,” the boy smirked.

“They had a head start. We didn’t begin properly preparing for war until the last moment. Warfare has become a way of life for them; we’re not all that good at it yet because it’s been hundreds of generations since we had to do it. Don’t worry,” she told him, looking down at her empty glass and lowering her voice slightly, “we’re learning quite fast enough.”

The Napoleon of crime

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Rambo III

After the radiator coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too […] the Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help. They drank their urine. She reported that it was difficult at first, but that afterward it wasn’t so bad.

The boy was the weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. They killed their son to stop his pain. Later the husband cut himself and the wife drank his blood. At his request she somehow broke his neck with a rock. Alone she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again. She regretted only one thing — that she had not seen Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. Those were her last lines. The family’s remains were found later, and returned to Tamanrasset.


William Langewiesche, from The World in Its Extreme (1992)