Sunday, 24 August 2014

Best Episode of The Simpsons? Season 10: Mom and Pop Art

In an attempt to get completely up-to-date on one of my favourite TV-series The Simpsons, after I watch each season, I will choose my favourite episode...

It appears that the last time I wrote a "Best Episode..." post was in October 2012. That can't be good if, in nearly two years, I have only watched one season. In any case, with the FXX marathon everywhere, I missed watching the show. I scrolled through the Season 10 guide. I read over the episodes I watched intermittently in the past year and a few happy memories came to mind. Ralph tasting the snow in Lard of the Dance, the make-up shot-gun in The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace and Pinchy in Lisa Gets An "A" are all memorable moments that make Season 10 such fun. And I'm sure Viva Ned Flanders is, pretty much, The Hangover nearly a decade before. It's fair to say that despite these highlights, Season 10 wasn't as memorable as the previous seasons. 

But, I'm an art teacher so choosing my favourites wasn't too difficult. The references, talking points and fun in Mom and Pop Art won me over. The enormous rubber that "erases" Homer after he criticises the art of (Simpsons-creator) Matt Groening only to reveal two workmen holding a large (Claus Oldenburg-like) pencil, with a rubber on the end, hitting Homer in the face is funny on multiple levels. The perfect "it's funny for the whole family" joke, as the situation looks funny it appeals to children, while we know the art reference and the play on an old animation-trick we've seen as long ago as Disney's Saludos Amigos in 1943.

For something as mainstream as The Simpsons, it maintains it's ambiguously open-stance. While it's critical of contemporary art and it's elitist buyers ("Smithers, years ago I blew the chance to buy Picasso's Guernica for a song. Luckily that song was 'White Christmas' and, by hanging on to it, I made billions!"), it is also appreciative of the nature of ready-made's and art as a way to express oneself. Indeed, "Outsider Art" is a real movement that focuses on artists outside of the art scene - "mental patients or a hillbilly or a chimpanzee" could fit the criteria. The incredible art-dream referencing Warhol, Dali and Leonardo Da Vinci, and the surrealist finish as Springfield becomes a lake unto itself, are moments that whatever your opinion on art, is simply unique to the show. Even a Jasper Johns cameo is a nice touch. Chris Barsanti of wrote it best, saying "the episode concocts a knowing satire – but also warm appreciation – of modern art".

Favourite joke? It comes in the episodes closing moments as Springfield wakes up to Homers final art piece...

Ned Flanders: What the flood?! Maude, it's a miracle! The Lord has drowned the wicked and spared the righteous.

[Maude gasps as she see's Homer row by on a raft]

Maude Flanders: Isn't that Homer Simpson?

Ned Flanders (annoyed): Looks like Heaven's easier to get into than Arizona State...

M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

In the media storm involving Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville, it seems to be the relevant moment to rerelease the incredible thriller M. An unforgettable tale of a child-killer, Hans – labelled by the letter ‘M’ - preys on children using balloons and sweets. His horrific acts are not only investigated by the police but by the victims, gangs and criminals of the town. As part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI, M is a must-see in the actor’s catalogue as it defined his character in many of his future films, including the established classic Casablanca whereby he retains his bulbous-eyed, sneaky and slimy persona in Ugart.

Akin to Nosferatu, only nine years prior, M uses shadow to reveal the murderer, Hans (Peter Lorre). The tense opener depicts innocent kids playing a game while singing a tune that acknowledges the killer himself. One of the girls wander off, and darkness looms over her before approaching. We then see her Mother, checking the time at home, slowly realising her worst fears. Police struggle to find the killer and the crime bosses decide amongst themselves that they will intervene. Others assist the criminals in hunting down Hans, with one bright spark marking his jacket with white chalk - and the letter ‘M’. He is cornered in a building and independently, the mob put him on trial. Though clearly guilty, he pleads for a fair trial and with seconds to spare, the police break in and stop the verdict. We cut to a courtroom and, abruptly, the film ends.

Anthony Hopkins had it with Hannibal Lector. Javiar Bardem had it as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. An actor and role that is haunting, memorable and irreplaceable. Unlike the deeply sinister villains Hopkins and Bardem portray, Peter Lorre’s Hans craves your acceptance. He doesn’t plead innocence and only fails to understand his deep-rooted desires. In an early era of sound, the whistling-signal of his presence is an intelligent use of melody. Scarface would whistle in 1932, and more recently Omar in The Wire and the Guv’nor in The Walking Dead also. Could you trace this morbid use of a childish act, right back to M?

Lang’s silent films ended with Metropolis and Woman in the Moon two years prior. Kim Newman notes the likely influence of Hitchcock, who released Blackmail and The Lodger in 1927 and 1929 respectively. But rather than depicting a killer who is captured and sentenced, M turns the flashlight onto you the viewer. His framing is purposeful, placing you in the judge’s seat in those final moments. His trial is an awkward state of affairs as we are drawn into the argument. The stunted end seems to hint at the lingering question as to whether the courts will do a better job at doling out justice. Ambiguously, we don’t know. M is inspirational and unforgettable filmmaking, a reference point for thrillers and psychological horrors today. Now is the time to see it the way it was intended.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Monday, 18 August 2014

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of 1980’s teenage cinema. Part of the ‘Teenage Kicks’ season at the BFI, this is where Cameron Crowe (who would go on to direct Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous) and Amy Heckerling (of Clueless and Look Who’s Talking) would get their start. The many cast members, including Sean Penn as a sweet stoner, would all use Fast Times as a springboard for successful careers following its release in 1982. What separates Fast Times from teenage films such as Porky’s, is the sense of sincerity and brutal honesty it seeks. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is purposefully explicit, but it highlights home truths that our teenage selves might find difficult to articulate. It begins the conversation about masturbation, abortion and sex amongst teenagers, with a playful tone to balance the seriousness of the issues.

The watering hole of these teenagers is Ridgemont Mall. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) work in a restaurant, and sex and boyfriends are the only thing to talk about. Stacy’s brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), works in a fast food joint whereby he’s popular and with a girlfriend (though he toys with the idea of breaking up to be more “free” in his final school year). Mike ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) works in the cinema, while close friend Damone (Robert Romanus) is a ticket tout for local concerts. Damone, stylish and slick, offers advice to Woody-Allen-esque Mike. Mike is in love with Stacy from the first moment he sees her in biology class. Finally, we have Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and his chums (including Eric Stoltz). They smoke all day and fall into school when they’re not dreaming of surfing and bikini-clad women, to the frustration of crusty old Mr Hand (Ray Walston).

These very vaguely interconnected stories are the focus point for the school year. 15-year-old Stacy sets the tone of the film as she uncomfortably asks Linda about sex, before sneaking out of her parent’s house to lose her virginity at ‘the point’ with an older man. What Fast Times at Ridgemont High deftly manages to do is observe these kids without judgement. There is a sense that the older man is a little creepy, and she caves to peer pressure from her friends, but Cameron Crowe doesn’t spell it out. A teenage audience may see the story in a completely different light. The final act even touches on the theme of abortion, and this darker tone is a subtle hint at the potential dangers at play in those precious teenage years. Cool and likeable characters are revealed as insensitive and thoughtless, while naivety and innocence can be influenced easily, with dire consequences.

In many ways, this isn’t a ‘story’ at all, more an insight and snapshot of (white, middle-class) teenagers in the early 1980’s. The scorn you could hold towards lazy, stoner Jeff is countered by his dreams and ambitions of surfing, and his reckless optimism (that even drives him to order a pizza as he sits in class). Within this single year, Jeff will do fine. Job-hopping Brad too, though fantasising about his sisters friend, has his heart in the right place.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is first and foremost, good fun. There is no definitive moral to the story, and though it celebrates the sexual freedom of youth, it doesn’t seem to pack a punch when it surely could. Abortion, rather than an easy-fix to a flippant situation, is often a difficult process for any woman to go through. By the same token, Jeff’s disenchantment and lack of interest in education is often the case with many, and very few are lucky enough to still achieve the grades to continue. But these are concerns that negate the purpose of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It raised awareness at a time whereby discussing the issues would be taboo in and of itself. By not placing judgement or criticism, it opens the door to interpretation and places the ball back in your court. Teenagers are irresponsible and, rightly so, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has this reckless attitude at its core.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

Lucy asserts itself from the start. Cells form and apes evolve, immediately confirming its ambitious intentions. Luc Besson, of The Fifth Element and Leon, boldly throws the titular character into a situation she, and we, barely understand. Scarlett Johansson has supported the Avengers, and notably, this year she was second-billing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Lucy becomes her first leading film as a sci-fi, action heroine, complementing her indie work with Spike Jonze in Her and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Lucy is a crazy type of fun. It’s a film with a loopy edge that tries to profoundly state the meaning of life within its ridiculous premise - and we hold on tightly to enjoy the ride.

In Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is a shot-drinking, club-dancing, student, inadvertently pulled into a relationship with Bono-shades wearing Richard (Pilou Asbæk). He forces her to deliver a briefcase, without the knowledge of its contents. Moments later, Taiwanese gangsters kidnap her and force her to carry drugs by surgically implanting these underneath her skin. Lucy’s trials are intercut by a lecture delivered, in grand tone, by Morgan Freeman. He explains the teeny amount of brain power we pesky humans use. Barely 10%, apparently, unlike dolphins who use sonar power by using 20% of theirs.  Suffice to say, the drugs Lucy carries seeps into her system and she increases her brain power. Akin to The Bourne Identity, she has to grapple with the significant skills she has acquired in a short space of time. Gangsters pursue her, less-fearsome cops seek to apprehend her and the knowledge she possesses has to be stored for future generations.

Considering her brain can control “magnetic fields” and her hair changes colour at will (is hair-control part of the brain?), she possesses powers seen earlier this year in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Even Morgan Freeman’s lecture echoes the opening monologue in X-Men. Evolution as revolution or mutation, it seems to make the same point about our need (or our challenges) to adapt. Whereas the comic-hero team subtly comments on homophobia and racism, Lucy is far more on-the-nose. There is a messianic figure in Lucy. Her attitude is openly anti-capitalist and almost Buddhist in her sense of place in the world. Our existence is nothing without time, we’re told. So bold in its stance, Lucy draws inspiration from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, or even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as she witnesses the birth of humanity, from a comfortable office chair.

You’d be lucky to observe these magisterial moments from a comfy chair too, in an IMAX cinema. The small time-frame of the film ensures that it snaps along with assured pace. The plane-hopping and unknowable extent of her powers creates a thrilling tension. When the drugs first kick-in, it is an awkward moment as, Exorcist-like, her body contorts and twists as she is flung across the room. It’s difficult to stifle a laugh when everything is expected to be taken so seriously.

Gang-leader Mr Jang (Cho Min-sik) and his Korean clan all speak their own language. Lucy even requires an interpreter initially when pleading for her life (we need the translation too as it plays without subtitles). As Lucy gains her powers, she understands the symbols and language better. The main drive of the film is a desperate attempt at sharing knowledge. It’s a clever play on us as English-language cinema viewers. You haven’t learnt a second language? Maybe, French-filmmaker Luc Besson is making a point. We’re told that “knowledge does not create chaos, ignorance does”. Am I ignorant? Am I worthy of Lucy’s “sacrifice”?

Lucy is bonkers, but it’s carries an air of confidence in its defiant tone.  Ambition can often lack in summer releases, but not here. Lucy may veer from pseudo-serious intelligent discussion to ludicrous memory-recall of breast-feeding, but it doesn’t shy away from some electronica Matrix­-like gun-fights. It doesn’t get the balance right, but Lucy can’t be faulted for trying. It’s strangely sincere, preposterous and equally bat-shit crazy. Lucy is a refreshing piece of the summer pie, and a welcome change to the formulaic, sequel-driven films that dominate the cinema screens at this time of year.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (Brian Knappenberger, 2014)

Aaron Swartz was a genius. A child prodigy involved in developing the RSS process as a 14 year-old. This was a boy who was going places. His suicide at the age of 26, in January 2013, remains a shock. Coverage of his death credited him as a “co-founder of Reddit”. This underplays his political attitudes and deeply personal ambitions to make a better world. What is difficult to comprehend is how Swartz clearly had so much more to accomplish. This young man looked to Tim Berners-Lee as inspiration, not Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As a child, pre-dating Wikipedia, Swartz created a program that utilised contributions from multiple sources to provide information to share across the internet. It is difficult to imagine what would’ve happened if Berners-Lee had a patent or demanded royalties from the use of his world wide web, but he didn’t. It’s clear from Internet’s Own Boy that there are forces working behind the scenes that are keen to monetise every possible element of the internet. Swartz fought these forces.

Swartz’s early brushes with the law are crucial to his story. Law, Culture and Scientific studies are documents that many believe are freely available to the general public. With the internet, it is a shock to discover that in America, access to public records and law documents are purposefully difficult to gain access to. Furthermore, it’s a multi-million dollar industry that creams off the money of graduates and those in the business who require regular access to these documents. Take PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), an American website that houses all the public records digitally. Despite its ‘public’ nature, it costs (currently) 10c per page, with a maximum of $3 per document. As these are deemed public records, Swartz (amongst a group of other internet activists) began downloading as many of the records as he could, and giving actual free access to the documents via a “PACER recycling” website. PACER earned £150m in revenues in 2008 according to court reports. Even visiting the site in 2014 proves how purposefully difficult it is navigate. Suffice to say, law documents that are considered public record and therefore free to all, should be the type of thing the internet can ensure is freely available, but it’s not. This is only one example of the hypocrisy Swartz was prepared to fight. Consequently, and what led to his depression and suicide, he was hounded by the government in an era whereby computer hacking was considered the new threat. FBI drove outside his house, ex-girlfriends were aggressively interviewed and Swartz’s movements were restricted as he awaited trial. Unfortunately, he killed himself before the trial leaving an incomplete legacy – especially as his lawyer states how convinced he was of their win. The tactics used against Swartz was purposefully aggressive and threatening as he was to be “made an example of” in the face of cyber-threats to America.

As a documentary, director Brian Knappenberger is passionate about his subject. A clear narrative, Knappenberger uses Swartz’s death to bookend the story. His choice of interviewees is friends and family members who openly support the liberal bias that dominates the film. Crucial representation from the government, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR is awkwardly missing, with voiceovers revealing their declination to comment. Sometimes, the absence of crucial figures is a reveal unto itself as “silence speaks louder than words”. In this case, it seems like a gaping hole in the story.

Inevitably perhaps, Aaron’s voice did not fall on deaf ears. Before his death he was part of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) movement, which won its cause in 2012. People talk of freedom and the ample opportunity for the internet to truly make a difference in the world, and surely it can. But these fights require people like Tim Berners-Lee, Julian Assange, Jimmy Wales and Aaron Swartz to lead the way. These are people, who desperately campaign for funding and support; who are maligned in the media and by governments but it is they who passionately defend their belief to change the world, rather than cash-in their chips for the big bucks. Compared to “the billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Swartz struggled to pay his legal fees and this pressure came to a head. Zuckerberg regularly repeats his mantra about “sharing” everything on the “free-of-charge” Facebook. Aaron Swartz was trying to truly “share” the scientific and cultural heritage of the United States, and ensure that “free” documents of law truly were for the public. The Internet’s Own Boy proves that there are fights still to be fought and a genius and important activist has been lost in the process. It may not be the slickest of documentaries, but it is a story that needs to be told. Aaron Swartz was so much more than a co-founder of Reddit, he was an activist that was making a difference for the sake of the world.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth