Yeah, even I’m not gonna drag this blog down to the furthest depths. I’ll leave that up to Lisa Marie, with her most recent review of Showgirls! I really should link that, but been drinking, so that’s way too much work. But yeah, she watched it, reviewed it, seriously, go read it. Terrible movie, but I’ll bet she made it sound better than it was. She’s awesome like that.
No, what I’m trying to write about is the genre of movie known as disaster porn. The first example that most people have been aware of is most likely the movie The Day After Tomorrow. While a fun disaster porn flick, it was incredibly heavy handed with its environmental bullcrap message. But all disaster porn movies have that.
Why am I talking about this at all? Well, tomorrow (or really tonight if you’re one of thems that watches movies on their early night showings) is the premier of San Andreas, starring The Rock. If he doesn’t wind up punching the earthquake and saving California by flexing a lot, then I’ll be sorely disappointed.
Anyways, I’m gonna go see that tomorrow, and I know that my usual movie guy, site founder Arleigh, isn’t going to have seen it by then. Since it’s unlikely to have been reviewed, I feel that it’s really required to share a spoof of the disaster porn movies with everyone. I know for sure that Arleigh has posted this parody trailer, but with his urging, I am going to repost it.
This trailer is done to spoof the disaster porn of all disaster porn movies, 2012. In fact, it’s called 2012: It’s a Disaster!!! I’d honestly say that this trailer is better than the actual movie, and I think many people would agree with me. At any rate, Arleigh posted this very same trailer several years ago, but we both agreed that it’s worth reposting in anticipation of the Rock’s very own disaster porn movie. So, please enjoy this video, with it’s plane disaster, train disaster, whole city disaster, landmark disaster, rolling buildings, yay spaceships? YAY SPACESHIPS! Flying Bentleys, jumbo jet surfing, hell we’ll even forgive the ridiculousness of seeing a black president. Because that’s just plain lunacy! For sure, let’s celebrate awesome disaster porn with this trailer, and look forward to seeing the Rock grab an earthquake by the neck and plant it into the turf. ROCK BOTTOM! ROCK BOTTOM!!!
On Monday, photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark passed away in New York City. Over the course of her 40 year career, Mark photographed everyone from street kids to circus performances to mental patients to celebrities. Along the way, she produced some unforgettable images and influenced generations of future photographers. As you can see in the photographs below, it didn’t matter who Mary Ellen Mark was photographing. Whether it was a celebrity or a teenage prostitute, Mark photographed them all with the same compassion and dignity. You can view more of her work here. Mary Ellen Mark, RIP.
I can’t say that any entertainment franchise has given me more cause to think than Ghost in the Shell. It presents a mid-21st century post-apocalyptic earth in which society has more or less stabilized. Events revolve around Public Security Section 9, a counter-terrorism agency focused on investigating cyberterrorism, which is rather interesting because the original manga by Masamune Shirow launched in 1989, before cyberterrorism actually existed (or the modern internet, for that matter). Throughout their investigations, the team deals with the social and philosophical issues that arise in an age where society is fully integrated across a world-wide network and technology has been integrated directly into the body, rendering people intimately vulnerable to hacks and computer viruses.
I am as guilty as most of having never read the original manga. I became acquainted with Shirow’s world through Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), both directed by Mamoru Oshii, and the 2002 anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, by Kenji Kamiyama. While the two directors take rather different aesthetic approaches–the movies present Section 9 as a harsh, disenchanted unit in a somewhat dystopian world, whereas the television series is lively and a bit cartoonish–both remain dedicated to questioning the impact of highly integrated technology.
Stand Alone Complex lies much closer to the root of my music series, because some of the key issues it tackles have since arisen online in the real world. Everyone is well familiar with the use of V for Vendetta-styled Guy Fawkes masks in protests originating from the internet, but there is a decent chance you have also caught a glimpse of an odd blue smiley face among the rabble. The Laughing Man image originates from Stand Alone Complex, where it functions as a mask employed anonymously by individuals taking public action independently of each other. At first, an advocate for social justice uses it to disguise himself while committing a ‘terrorist’ act, but the image quickly overreaches his motives. Others commit unrelated political sabotage under the guise. Corporations employ it to discredit their competitors. Pranksters use it as a sort of meme, forming the shape with chairs on a rooftop and cutting it into a field as a crop circle, for instance. The image has no concrete meaning, and everyone who uses it essentially ‘stands alone’, but the public perceive the Laughing Man as a single individual.
The actual anime gives a fairly shallow interpretation of this. The creator of the image, Aoi, explains that he never intended the mask to become a social phenomenon, and that its arbitrary usage dislodged the image from its original meaning. He sums this up by asking “Who knew that copies could still be produced despite the absence of an originator?” The ‘profoundness’ of this ties back to a long history of bad philosophy which assumes that signs have universal objective meaning in some sort of fundamental way which mystically transcends subjectivity of the mind. Basically, certain Greek ideas saw a resurgence of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, probably as a consequence of high society’s fascination with antiquities at the time. The plethora of ready-at-hand counterexamples to these archaic notions provided easy meat for countless grad students to earn their PhDs, so long as they did not throw the baby out with the bath water and ruin the game for everybody else.
But I digress. While the intended idea behind “Stand Alone Complex” is a bit naive, the Laughing Man does represent a unique sort of game that can only be played in the information age. To the public, the Laughing Man was a single individual, or at most a closely coordinated group, but the participants knew better. They knew that there was no real ‘Laughing Man’, but their independent actions were performed under the expectation that they would be written into ‘his’ public profile. The game was exclusive; you had to be aware of the mask in order to dawn it. The game also had rules; an action totally out of line with the Laughing Man’s pattern of behavior would be perceived as a fraud. (You could not, for instance, reveal the truth behind the Laughing Man.) By playing, you added a little piece of yourself to the puzzle, and it might slowly assimilate you in turn.
Ghost in the Shell has remained a uniquely relevant franchise in science fiction because it got so many ideas right. In 1989, at a time when internet was still a novelty of college libraries, the manga offered a world of total connectivity, where every human and device belonged to a global network. In 2002, Stand Alone Complex introduced the Laughing Man, and shortly afterwards the real world knew an equivalent. Whether this bodes well for the franchise’s dabblings into cyborg technology, only time can tell, but history has certainly made an inherently fascinating fictional world all the more compelling. In the Ghost in the Shell universe, science has fully bridged the gap between computers and neural systems, allowing electronic implants to directly convert wireless digital information into stimuli compatible with the senses. The average citizen possesses visual augmentations which allow them to directly browse the internet via voice command. More complex technology delves deeper, creating a sort of sixth sense whereby users can engage a network through thought command. Some individuals, especially accident victims with the means to afford it, might have their entire bodies replaced by neurally triggered machine components.
The 1995 Ghost in the Shell film gets especially creative in tackling this–enough that it became the chief inspiration for The Matrix four years later. It revolves around brain-mapping technology and its implications regarding sentience and identity. From the start of the film, the ability to copy and read brain data appears to be common. Presumably, these digital copies would remain stagnant until encoded back into a neural network, but as the government develops better software for interpreting and editing the massive content at its disposal, funny things start to happen. The software gains a sort of temporary sentience while performing its complex tasks, and eventually it uploads itself to a cyborg body in an act of self-preservation. This new entity possesses the capacity to read other augmented brains and incorporate them into its internal network. At least, that is how I’ve interpreted it. The movie does leave a lot to the imagination. Perhaps it is recycled from earlier science fiction, and far-fetched besides–I wouldn’t really know–but Ghost in the Shell presents it all as if it were right around the corner, not lost in a distant galaxy of Star Trek.
Ghost in the Shell is so steeped in ideas that it’s a wonder I don’t forget it is a collection of animations, not a book series. Stand Alone Complex is presented as rather typical–and relatively forgettable–anime, but the 1995 movie definitely denies dismissal. It is a real work of art. The city is dirty and a bit washed-out without feeling downright destitute; the masses still lead normal lives. Emptiness expands upward; the characters are perpetually surrounded by massive, sort of dusty-looking structures that feel vacant despite signs of life. The music is simultaneously vast and minimalistic. Generally, the artistic direction projects a feeling that the protagonists are isolated–cut off from the massive world surrounding them–perhaps by the knowledge they possess.
The score Kenji Kawai (川井憲次) crafted for Ghost in the Shell ranks among the best soundtracks I’ve ever encountered. Without it, the film might easily unravel. The plot really does take a lot of creative liberties. What amount of entertainment value could convince people to open up their brains to potential hacking? Or, if they are doing it to maintain memory backups, why is a brain hack so devastating? Can’t you just resume from your last save? Why would a hacker go to the trouble of replacing an entire memory system in the first place, if they could just encode an impulse into an existing one? To these questions, I say “shhhh!”, because Kawai has so utterly convinced me that my cyborg brain will be shipping in from Japan any day now. The music shrouds the film in imminent mystery. It is a moment of quiet awe, before the very foundations of human experience become uprooted and replaced by a higher state of computer-enhanced perception.
‘Interesting’ nerd note on Kawai: while the majority of his discography appears in anime and film, he is credited with arranging the TurboGrafx-16 port of Sorcerian, one of Yuzo Koshiro and Takahito Abe’s better 1980s NEC PC-8801 projects. I am pretty excited to dig that one up. Aren’t you? …Bueller?
Showgirls in the 1995 film that, 20 years after it was first released, is still held up as the standard by which all subsequent bad films are judged. The story behind the production is legendary. Screenwriter Joe Ezsterhas was paid a then-record sum to write a script that ripped off All About Eve and featured lines like, “Come back when you’ve fucked some of that baby fat off,” and “You’re the only who can get my tits poppin’ right!” (And let’s not forget the heroine’s oft-repeated catch phrase, “It doesn’t suck.”) A major studio specifically hired Paul Verhoeven with the understanding that he was going to give them an NC-17 rated film. And finally, the lead role was given to Elizabeth Berkley, an actress whose previous experience amounted to co-starring on Saved By The Bell.
(And, let’s be honest, the only reason Jessie Spano was a tolerable character was because she wasn’t Screech.)
Berkley plays Nomi Malone, a sociopath who wants to be a star. She hitchhikes her way to Las Vegas where, as is destined to happen to anyone who shows up in Vegas or New York with a clunky suitcase, she is promptly robbed of all of her possessions. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” she yells, showing off the very expensive dialogue that was written for her by Joe Ezsterhas. Eventually, Nomi starts to take her frustration out on a random car. The car, it turns out, belongs to sweet-natured Molly (Gina Revara), who is a seamstress for a tacky Vegas show called Goddess.
(Seriously, Goddess makes Satan’s Alley from Staying Alive look like a work of quiet genius.)
Soon, Nomi is living in Molly’s trailer and working as a stripper at the Cheetah Club. The Cheetah Club is owned by Al, who is amazingly sleazy but who is also played by Robert Davi. Robert Davi is one of those actors who knows how to make terrible dialogue interesting and it’s instructive to watch him perform opposite Elizabeth Berkley and the rest of the cast. Whereas the majority of the cast always seems to be desperately trying to convince themselves that their dialogue is somehow better than it actually is, Davi knows exactly what he’s saying. Watching his performance, it’s obvious that Davi understood that he was appearing in a bad film so he figured that he might as well enjoy himself.
The same can be said of Gina Gershon, who plays Cristal Connors, the star of Goddess. Sexually voracious Cristal is basically a male fantasy of what it means to be bisexual. Cristal hires Nomi to give a lapdance to her sleazy boyfriend, Zack (Kyle MacLachlan, giving a good performance despite having to spend the entire film with hair in his eyes) and then arranges for her to be cast in the chorus of Goddess. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about Gershon’s performance and that’s why it’s perfect for Showgirls. It’s been argued that Showgirls is essentially meant to be a huge in-joke and, out of the huge cast, only Gershon, Davi, and occasionally MacLachlan seem to be in on it.
Certainly, it’s apparent that nobody bothered to tell Elizabeth Berkley. Berkley gives a performance of such nonstop (and misdirected) intensity that you end up feeling sorry for her. She’s just trying so hard and she really does seem to think that she can somehow make Nomi into a believable character. And it’s actually a bit unfair that Elizabeth is always going to be associated with this film because I doubt any actress could have given a good performance in a role as inconsistently written as Nomi. One second, Nomi is a wide-eyed innocent who is excited about living in Las Vegas. The next second, she’s screaming, “FUCK OFF!” and threatening strangers with a switch blade. She may be a survivor (and I imagine that’s why we’re supposed to root for her) but she’s also humorless, angry, and apparently clinically insane.
Hilariously, we’re also continually told, by literally everyone else in the movie, that she’s a great dancer, despite the fact that we see absolutely no evidence of this fact. Check out this scene below, where Nomi dances with a lot of enthusiasm and little else.
Once Nomi is cast in Goddess, she promptly sets out to steal both the starring role and Zack from Cristal. Nomi’s cunning plan, incidentally, amounts to fucking Zack in his pool and shoving Cristal down a flight of stairs. Nomi’s finally a star but when a Satanic rock star named Andrew Carver (William Shockley) comes to town, Nomi is confronted with the sordid truth about Las Vegas and, because this long film has to end at some point, Nomi must decide whether to take a stand or…
Well, you can guess the rest.
(Incidentally, I like to assume that Andrew Carver was meant to be a distant cousin of the great short story writer Raymond Carver.)
There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to Showgirls.
Some critics claim to Showgirls is just crap. They say that it’s a terrible film with bad dialogue, bad acting, and terrible direction. These critics view Joe Eszterhas as being the villain of this tale, a misogynist who conned the studios into paying two million dollars for a terrible script.
And then other critics claim that Showgirls is crappy on purpose. They claim that Verhoeven meant for the film to be a satire of both American culture and Hollywood showbiz dramas. For these critics, Verhoeven used Eszterhas’s terrible script and Elizabeth Berkley’s inexperience to craft a subversive masterpiece.
Myself, I fall somewhere in between. Based on Verhoeven’s other films — Starship Troopers comes immediately to mind — I think his intent with Showgirls probably was meant to be satirical and subversive. But, at the same time, I would argue that Verhoeven’s intent doesn’t change the fact that Showgirls is a surprisingly boring film. For all the sex and the nudity and the opulent costumes and sets and all of the over-the-top dialogue, Showgirls is never really that interesting of a film. It barely even manages to reach the level of being so-bad-that-it’s-good. Instead, it’s slow, it’s draggy, and — satiric or not — the bad performance, the bad dialogue, and the nonstop misogyny get a bit grating after a few minutes.
Of course, that’s why you should never watch Showgirls alone. Showgirls is a film that you have to watch as a part of a group of friends so that you can all laugh together and shout out snarky comments. The first time I ever saw Showgirls was at a party and it was a lot of fun. But, for this review, I rewatched the film on Netflix and I was surprised by how much of a chore it was to sit through the entire running time. This is one of those films — like Birdemic and The Room — that you have to watch with a group. You watch for the experience, not the film.