The Dystopia We Want

27 08 2015

As part of my job, I watch plenty of TV spots and promotional videos, and read piles of print ads. Sometimes, I come across some curious examples. This is one of them. Corning, the company behind this YouTube short, wants everyone – tech and construction companies, even governments – to use its product. That is, glass, obviously, which might be used, in some science-fictional future, for smart televisions, smart phones, smart bathroom mirrors, smart fridges, smart kitchen tables, smart dinner tables, smart shop fronts, smart bus stops, smart traffic signs, smart billboards, even smart panels in clothing stores to browse the catalogue. This is not your grandfather’s glass, that’s for sure. This is glass in the Internet of Everything era. Connected, all the time.

The curious thing, of course, is the inevitable question: do we want this? Is this a good thing? Is this our future? The prevalence of blinding brightness – white or faintly beige or lightly grey surfaces – throughout this video would seem to suggest some sort of heaven. Certainly, all the characters look very, very happy. They’re calm, comforted. They spend the entire day enjoying the endless delights of interconnected devices. But they also spend every waking minute surrounded by surfaces reminding them of their jobs, of their appointments, of the products they do not need but will consume. And the efficiency gained from such technology has a drawback, as anyone who owns a smart phone knows. The drawback being that social expectations change as technology expands the realm of the possible. You can contact people with more speed now, sure. But they also expect you to. Unanswered messages – and by unanswered I mean not replied to within the hour – convey a message: about how much you care about a person or project or team or whatever. The meaning of our interactions has been altered.

What I found intriguing about Corning’s video, quite simply, is its assumption about the absolute, unarguable, unambiguous goodness of the ubiquitous smart technology on display, its assumption that these images – of endless screens surrounding us and bombarding us with information all the time – are attractive, that they make the underlying product (glass) desirable. But, then, maybe that’s true: certainly, tech and infrastructure seems to be moving in this direction. And Corning, here, means to woo other businesses and governments, not street-level consumers or bloggers (in ad-speak, this video is B2B, or business-to-business). Maybe we’ll end up having to get used to this future. Maybe this is the dystopia we want. We’ll doubtlessly grow used to it, whenever it comes about, but it is no more desirable because of this.


Blade Runner: reestreno, antecedentes, legado

10 03 2015

Vuelve al cine (al menos en Inglaterra) una de las obras maestras de la ciencia ficción, capaz lo mejor del género en su versión estadounidense, junto con 2001 de Kubrick. Para encontrar algo comparable, es necesario ir hasta Rusia (el Stalker de Tarkovsky o El visitante del museo de Lopushansky), Francia (La Jetée de Marker o Alphaville de Godard), Japón (Cowboy Bebop o Ghost in the Shell) o Alemania (Metropolis).

Los títulos aludidos no son casuales. Trazan un árbol genealógico: Blade Runner es heredera de una tradición francesa del noir futurista, que va desde Alphaville hasta los comics de Metal Hurlant. También, de cierta puesta en escena (poética, melancólica) de lo distópico, elaborada en La Jetée y Stalker. Y, obviamente, de un modelo de ciudad moderna basado en Manhattan (aunque el film sitúe la acción en Los Angeles), especialmente cierta idea febril de una Manhattan colosal y fantasmal, expresada en Metropolis y, también, en muchas ilustraciones especulativas de los años 20, como las del delineador y arquitecto estadounidense Hugh Ferriss. A su vez, Blade Runner se convirtió en un punto de referencia ineludible para la producción ciencia-ficcional que la sucedió: desde animés (las ya mencionadas Cowboy Bebop y Ghost in the Shell) hasta video juegos (Deus Ex, Perfect Dark y The Longest Journey) y otras películas del género (Star Wars: Episodio II, Hasta el fin del mundo de Wim Wenders).

Incluso, en el campo literario, William Gibson, que popularizó el cyberpunk con Neuromante, admitió que, cuando se estrenó Blade Runner, no la fue a ver porque temía que anticipara los temas e imágenes que ansiaba volcar en su novela. Años después, confirmó sus sospechas, y no escatimó elogios para el film. Otro escritor que se entusiasmó con el proyecto fue el mismo Philip K. Dick, autor del libro en el que se basó Blade Runner. Los dejo con sus palabras, que redactó luego de ver tan solo un avance en un programa televisivo (nunca alcanzó a ver la película completa: falleció unos meses antes del estreno):

El impacto de Blade Runner, en el público y en las personas creativas -y, creo, en el campo de la ciencia ficción-, será sencillamente sobrecogedor. (…) Nada de lo que hemos hecho, individual o colectivamente, está a la altura de Blade Runner. Esto no es escapismo; es súper-realismo, tan crudo y detallado y auténtico y convincente que, pues, tras ver el segmento (por televisión) encontré que mi realidad cotidiana era comparativamente insípida.

Ida, transcendence, history

9 03 2015


The film’s 1.37 aspect ratio is crucial, as it emphasizes vertical length. We’re used to interpreting film images horizontally, so Ida can be an exercise in visual disorientation. Compositions are not only “tall,” but decentered. Characters sometimes occupy the bottom third of the screen, with the upper two-thirds filled with negative space. This is crucial in a movie about transcendence: spiritual and historical. We’re made to look upwards, above the protagonists’ heads, at what’s beyond them. They are part of an inexplicably larger whole, in both existential and sociopolitical terms. History can be as mysterious and bottomless as God, though efforts to understand it are nevertheless necessary, like a believer must struggle to come closer to his or her deity.

Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn are literary takes on similar themes (especially the former, which shares more than a few plot points with Ida): on the slipperiness of History, on the need to recall those things which others have forgotten. His approach is more essayistic, however. Whereas Ida forgoes historical exposition, Sebald recovers the past through research, returns to the sources. There is no turning back time, but things survive: pictures, films, documents, buildings. Pathways across decades and centuries are opened up by remaining materials. Memories can be stirred by paving stones. In Ida, meanwhile, there are voices and testimonies, often ambiguous. The material, when unearthed, only has meaning because of what is said about it. This has earned the film some controversy. Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, calls the movie unbearably, even dangerously vague. And in Poland, some have claimed, from both the right and the left, that it reinforces distortions of Polish history.

These are fair concerns. The film focuses on a small, local narrative, which is not meant to represent or convey History. Its minimalism works against generalization, and its protagonists – a novitiate nun who discovers her Jewish past and her aunt, a Communist judge and former WWII resistance fighter – are not “everywomen,” but peculiar, specific people. At the margins of the narrative, as argued in the above article by Filip Mazurczak, are other kinds of Jewish characters and Poles, who react differently to Nazi occupation and subsequent Communism. Individuals don’t experience History, but their own histories. The question, then, is whether a film should be true to this incomplete experience, even though it might be at odds with History, or whether it should transcend the characters, move beyond their point-of-view. In Ida, the negative space signals a continent where neither film nor protagonists can go, where there might be full historical and spiritual understanding. Sebald, it seems, has a more conciliatory answer: his books are about fragmentary individual experience, but their protagonists, as historians and academics, nevertheless try to investigate beyond themselves, even when their attempts to explicate History are driven by personal trauma.

Even love needs a break: The Hunger Games and interminable fictions

17 11 2014


The following is a translation of an article originally published in Spanish in A Sala Llena.

It’s tough to review a movie that is, in truth, half a movie. The first Hunger Games adaptation, from 2012, can be enjoyed by itself. But its sequel, Catching Fire, ends abruptly, and so does this first part of Mockingjay. The popularity of the source novel means that, as the saying goes, each movie is “too big to fail,” so that, before one of them is released, the following parts have already been filmed or green-lighted. They don’t have to stand alone, since they comprise a whole whose success has all but been guaranteed.

We meet Katniss Everdeen again (an intense and emotional Jennifer Lawrence), now turned into a revolutionary symbol for the outlying districts, which are trying to stage a disorganized revolution against the totalitarian Capitol. The war is also fought in the media, and Katniss becomes the televised face of the struggle (whose real mastermind is the discrete and scrupulous president Alma Coin, played by Julianne Moore). Katniss reconfigures the character she previously played in the titular reality show, and she uses her fame against the very dominant class that turned her into a star. Backstage, she’s directed by a team of ideologues and consultants, who manipulate her as bluntly as did the dictatorial state, although for supposedly more noble ends. Both parties, though ideological opposites, use the same communication tools, a theme already explored in artier fare (like Pablo Larrain’s No and Peter Watkins’s La Commune) but more than welcome in a mainstream spectacle.

A year from now, Mockingjay’s conclusion will be shown in theaters. Then we’ll be able to judge the quality of this preamble, which for the time being is but a fragment of an undefined whole. We’re now used to such blockbuster epics being divided up into episodes and released successively over two or three years. The Star Wars prequels, in 1999, began the trend, and were followed by The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Kill Bill, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, obviously, The Hunger Games. In some cases, the individual films conclude their respective stories within their two-or-three-hour running times. But mostly, their fades to black don’t signal conclusions, not even open-ended ones, but only pauses. As in old serials, we have to return, at later points, to see the continuations of their plots. Although these classic adventures prefigured what television series would become, they have recently returned to the cinema, now as hundred-million-dollar productions (preceded, in movie history, by the Star Wars Original Trilogy and Back to the Future, inspired by the same model). Curiously, the same year that, as we said, this trend began, also saw the premiere of The Sopranos, which helped found the so-called Golden Age of television, marked by supremely ambitious shows. In some of them, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, episodes don’t resolve tiny half-hour or hour-long plots, but simply progress lengthy continuous storylines, behaving like links in extended chains, structured for binge-watching on Netflix or Blu Ray. To summarize: movies have turned into televisions series, television series have turned into movies, and serials have become the new normal.

It’s likely that the median spectator is no longer satisfied with a short two-hour story: it needs something that’s three, ten, or fifteen hours long. No modern blockbuster lasts less than 120 minutes and even videogames, more and more frequently, include novelesque scripts. Such a serial architecture derives from literature: the 19th century novel, genre fiction, and comics. At any rate, it’s not a good cultural moment to be a lover of concision. In Jorge Luis Borges’s famous story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a fantastic universe, collectively generated by hundreds of authors, threatens to devour reality: “A dispersed dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their work continues. (…) So will English, French, and mere Spanish disappear from the planet. The world will be Tlön.” In our multimedia context, we’re surrounded by audiovisual fictions that, to make matters worse, suffer from narrative gigantism and occupy all of our (already limited) time. I write this as an admirer of the aforementioned sagas. But, sometimes, even love needs a break.

Sisters: Brian De Palma’s inconstant selves

17 11 2014


For Sound on Sight:

In Brian De Palma’s Sisters, the titular siblings are French-Canadian Siamese twins surgically separated as adults. Danielle is gentle and lovely, and Dominique gloomy and anguished. This dynamic is complicated by the fact that the former needs the latter to develop her persona. Without Dominique, Danielle has no identity. To weave the fiction of her socially acceptable behavior, she must have Dominique bear the burden of her most disturbing desires. Yet the film, oddly enough, is not about Danielle or Dominique, but about the journalist Grace Collier. As Dominique recedes into the background, Danielle and Grace become the main antagonistic pair, a transition that culminates in an intense climax, a hypnosis dream, that imagines them as conjoined twins. As we learn, Dominique has been dead from the outset, and Danielle has transformed into her in moments of sexual and emotional excitement.

Keep reading.

7 Boxes: Living with cell phones in Paraguay

17 11 2014

7 Boxes

For Sound on Sight:

Even within Latin America, Paraguayan cinema does not exactly dominate the cultural conversation and, sadly, remains something of a mystery. In fact, outside of Argentina, Brazil, and maybe Chile, the rest of South America, in cinematic terms, is mostly uncharted territory (which is not to say no movies are made there, but rather that international audiences, even open-minded cinephiles, don’t know much about them). With this in mind, the breakaway success of 7 Boxes, by Tana Schémbori and Juan Carlos Maneglia, is startling. Since premiering in 2012, it has nabbed prizes in San Sebastian and Mar del Plata; has featured in film festivals in Mexico, Cuba, Sweden, Canada, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic; and has earned critical accolades wherever it has been shown. It is also the highest grossing Paraguayan movie of all time. Nevertheless, it still took two years to reach North American art houses, and it only recently opened in a handful of screens in Argentina, which neighbors Paraguay.

7 Boxes, in this age of sequels and franchises, is like Hollywood done right, except outside of Hollywood. Although, in many countries, it has been relegated to the festival circuit and has received a limited release, this is a formally conventional and fast-paced affair, featuring energetic handheld camerawork and an aesthetics of clutter, which, as in City of God or the more sophisticated Portuguese works of Pedro Costa, emphasizes the lived-in texture of poverty. Although it has plenty of violence, 7 Boxes is never solemn or sensational, allowing sudden and even surreal intrusions of humor to relieve the tension and bloodiness. Any movie of this sort risks suggesting that its humble characters know only hunger and crime, and though it would be false to say that 7 Boxes entirely avoids this pitfall, its protagonists do seem to enjoy a broad panoply of emotions, love and camaraderie, dreams and pure adrenaline, as they also interact creatively with technology.

Keep reading.

New Rose Hotel and the epiphanic flashback

25 09 2014


New Rose Hotel explores what happens when genre clichés are expanded to their breaking point. Eventually, they become surprising and expressive devices. Their generic origins are forgotten and their traditional contours disappear. In this case, Abel Ferrara uses the epiphanic flashback trope: a pivotal moment of recollection in which the protagonist, thinking back on previous scenes, links together clues he or she failed to recognize before in order to finally solve a mystery. This happens, to give just one example, in the recent Argentine Oscar-winner The Secret in their Eyes. However, these epiphanic flashbacks typically last one or two minutes. They serve a functional role, giving viewers a sense of what the protagonist is remembering. The protagonist views his or her own story as if he or she were an outsider, an audience member like us, and this role reversal or out-of-body experience is emphasized by the fact that the memories on display usually consist of past sequences from the actual movie. Which means that the protagonist remembers him or herself in the third person.

Ferrara subverts this convention in two ways: the epiphanic flashback lasts almost twenty minutes, becoming a dreamy, fragmented, nonlinear dive into subjective space; and the repeated sequences are not quite so: old scenes are seen from new angles, others are shortened or extended with new footage, and new scenes illustrate what had previously only been suggested in dialogue exchanges. This lengthy, stream-of-consciousness review of events is so meandering, so interminable (compared to similar moments in more traditional movies) that it transforms into a poetic representation of longing, disappointment, and remorse. The protagonist (played by Willem Dafoe), a kind of con artist who specializes in corporate intrigue, may or may not have been conned by the very woman he hired to do his dirty work (a gorgeous Asia Argento), who was also his lover. His recollections piece together the enigma, often ironically, as he realizes that he may have been the victim of the exact deception he meant to perpetrate himself.

The fact that he remembers himself in the third person, as is typical of epiphanic flashbacks, becomes a joke or wink. He has spent much of the running time surveying videos of his prey, so that he now observes himself as once he spied on the subject of his failed con, trying to understand, to look for revelatory details. His identification with the character on the screen – the scientist in the hidden camera footage – is now complete, as he transforms into the body in the video feed, appears in the movie in his mind as the main character, which of course he has been all along for us. More effectively than The Matrix, it restates the Baudrillardian notion that everything has become a simulation, that representation is simply presentation since the original referent has disappeared, leaving only the shape on a screen. A powerful notion in a film about con artists, who simulate for a living, so that, more than people, they are fictional constructs, always seen by others, perpetually watched, any sense of identity slippery and fugitive. What is at stake, in the protagonist’s retrospective disentanglement of the plot, is the degree of his loneliness. Having lived a life dedicated to deceit, as either the offending or offended party, he now finds himself utterly alone, the only people he can talk to figments of his ghostly, echoing remembrances. That his flashbacks occur inside the titular New Rose Hotel, comprised of tiny cabins stacked one on top of the other like storage containers – a monument to spiritual and physical isolation, a bestiary of lonely people ensconced in private boxes – only reinforces the potentially fatal and horribly anguished path his mind and body have taken. Has he found a tomb for himself at the New Rose Hotel? And are his flashbacks the life that flashes before his eyes at death’s door?

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