Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Petty Resentment Theatre - Liveblogging 'Invictus'

A film-buff friend of mine encouraged me to watch the new Clint Eastwood movie Invictus, largely to see my reaction to it. Well, here it is. I made a log of the various states of outrage I reached as I watched the movie, which I now post here .


Dear god, this is hammy.

For heaven's sake, they take almost ten minutes in the first scene where the black and white bodyguards rub each other up the wrong way.


Now they're talking about changing the sport emblem, and Madiba's refusal to do so, the way other movies talk about launching the h-bomb. For fuck's sakes.


Wait, and now Mandela is supposed to be wearing a South African flag pin? Dear god in heaven, why? I can understand Morgan Freeman not getting the accent right (and he doesn't -- it's quite distracting) but there's no fucking reason to give Nelson fucking Mandela ostentatious symbols of dedication to his nation. Anyway, they're really anachronistic, and have never been common in South Africa. I've certainly never seen Mandela wear one. It's a really asinine little zit on this hairy asscrack of a movie.


 The Mandela character talking about Afrikaners: "They treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away from them, we will lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be."

Actually, Afrikaners (and the white English -- anybody remember the English? Put in place racial segregation, disenfranchised and dispossessed blacks, still to this day own most of the economic capital in SA's vital industries?) feared that the blacks would rise up and kill the whites in their beds, but never mind that. I'm sure a game of football is constitutive of a healthy nation, and this movie as stirring a portrayal of nation-building, as you make it out to be.


Chester... Chester... Chester... yet throughout all the many (many, many) references to the Sprinboks' one player of colour, nobody dignifies Chester Williams enough to mention his surname.


"It means 'God Bless Africa', which you got to admit, we can use."

And with that touching evocation of pure truth, Francois Pienaar calls knowing glances to the eyes of the racists who, just five second earlier, were throwing away the song sheet to the national anthem. (It had been the anthem for over a year by then, so it would've been hard to find anybody in South Africa who didn't know what 'Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika' meant).


"Are those the judicial appointments for the Free States?"

Free State. State, not States. I know you come from the Unified States of America, Clint Eastwool, but realise that these things really stand out to anybody who knows anything about the thing you're making a movie about.


Also, Jonah Lomu the New Zealander gets named more and gets more screen time than any Springbok other than Francois Pienaar and Chester Token.


Another strange thing the movie does: it has given more mention to the NZ team's pre-game traditions than it has on the South African coach, Kitch Christie, who took over a team in shambles and transformed them into a world champion team. He had an unbeaten record in his tenure, starting in 1994, through the World Cup and for some time later, until cancer forced his retirement and killed him. I'd have thought that was worth him at least getting named.

Another strange fact: Mandela's PA in the movie is black, whereas in real life it was a white woman. I wonder why they changed that, given that this train stops at every other Transformation Station on the Track to Reconciliation.


Oh Jesus, this is just stupid. In the build-up to the World Cup Final, a 747 did a flyby of the stadium. Everybody knew about it, it was scheduled, part of the airline's intensive PR campaign tied to the tournament, etc, etc. But the movie makes it out to be some maverick pilot who decided to buzz the game on his own prerogative, shocking everybody and putting security into a panic. (What would he be doing in the air in a 747? Is he making a pass over the stadium with a fully loaded commercial liner? Whereupon he personally prepared a supportive message on the undercarriage?). It's another example with Hollywood's abusive relationship to real-life stories: it wants to tap into the drama of actual events, but it never resists the temptation to embellish reality in the most pointlessly showy, grandstanding ways.

Petty Resentment Theatre - Final verdict on 'Invictus'

Yeah, so Invictus is a piece of shit. It likes to have lots of side-stories showing the different South African races growing into camaraderie, each more predictable and contentless than the last. Each of these act as support for the main theme of racial reconciliation, which is itself suitably shallow, signfying nothing. There's nothing here to engage with the story that's supposed to be told, we're just shown a series of images which are apparently meant to invoke all the storytelling inside of us. 'What just happened?' 'The domestic servant also got given a ticket to the big game.' 'And what now?' 'The brave knight killed the dragon with his sword.' Because the movie is in a rarefied air floating over the actual story, we are never touched by the difficulties shown and unmoved by their easy resolutions. There is a succession of inconsequential and largely made-up dramas thrown on the way, but the movie is so single-minded in its portrayal of Reconciliation that I find it incredible that anybody would be impressed by little insets that are so obviously beside the point.

Freeman is also very unconvincing as Mandela. I find his very frequent mistakes in the accent really distracting, but I can forgive that. But perhaps the direction is at fault: Mandela never gave great speeches, whereas the movie makes him out to be someone who solves his problems through rousing oration. Don't bother looking for examples of that in the real world: there aren't any. The film does try to highlight Mandela's more noted characteristics of character and humility, but again its lack of connection with any believable and filled-out story hamstrings this effort. Because we are just given images but not story, there's nothing to add flesh to Mandela's characterisation, and we're given nothing but assurances that he's a great man. Not good enough, I'm afraid: at some stage you need to stop making promises and start delivering on them.

Matt Damon does a much better job with the accent. Too bad he's directed to play a quiet, halting, apparently insecure pretty boy. There's nothing in the character for the actor or the audience to grab hold of.

Oh yes, and as someone who has watched and played rugby all my life, I found the rugby match sequences incomprehensible and pointless. Most of the time I was busy noticing how most of the players looked like underdeveloped schoolboys rather than world-class athletes, or wondering whether the bits of play they were showing conform to the rules of the game. That is how little that sequence captured my imagination.

I liked the movie best when it quietly showed scenes from the actual South Africa: the shots of the townships, and so on. They are believable, and tell quite enough of a story on their own. I very much did not like it when these scenes were artificially augmented with cinematic themes written in letters ten feet tall. Given that it's supposed to be the telling of an actual story, and the poignancy of said story is supposed to be what drives the message home, the film's continued deviation from retelling into embellishment is not only asinine, but self-defeating.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Metal interlude - Pig Destroyer

Even the most casual reader of this blog will have noticed that new posts have ground to a halt. It's due to the pretty demanding schedule of readings and assignments that my current course presses on me, added to the soul-sucking uncertainty and tedium of applying to graduate programmes. Since most of my philosophical attention is currently being given to my academic commitments and chewing on Bernard Williams's Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, I'll make this my first non-philosophy related post on here. I always intended to have a few of them. They might even become a majority.

My first musical post on here is on something abrasive and disturbing: grindcore, that acrid mix of metal and punk which seems, as far as anybody can make out, to be invocations to have all life eradicated from existence. I've listened to a lot of it the past few hours. I don't know how much longer I can keep this up: today I have subsisted only on vending machine coffee, a chocolate bar and grindcore. Man was not meant to live this way. There is no way which is the way man was meant to live, but if there was a purpose, this certainly wouldn't be working toward it. There is a certain perverted pleasure to be taken out of living this much in conflict with basic human interests, throwing the pointlessness of it all irreverently into the face of an uncaring world.

Pig Destroyer - Terrifyer

There are some very significant ways of counting up the scores in which it turns out that Pig Destroyer are the best band working in metal right now. They have chops, they have passion, commitment and energy, they have thrown themselves onto an artistic endeavour which, from the outside at least, is damned thankless, where their families don't likely understand what they do and wish that they'd stop. They also have a unified vision, which some few metal bands do, but, what's more, they have the focus and the insight to pull it off. Focus is something which tends to seperate the really worthwhile musicians from the also-rans. Actual, honest-to-God insight is a quality so rare that it's hard to recognise, simply from lack of examples. Pig Destroyer, for instance, are a metal band with real lyrical strength. It's not that their lyrics are effective at what they do or check all the usual boxes for the genre. It's that they write songs which contain strong, evocative, well-written texts on their core, with lyrical themes that inform the music and are born to fruition in the format. Even though nobody can make out what J.R. Hughes is screaming. Especially because nobody can make them out. When you realise what the lyrics are the surprise of what is lying beneath is a real kick to the guts -- nobody expects lyrically sophisticated metal, especially not in the harsher extremities which Pig Destroyer live and work in. But there you are: the songs are small, tight meditations on a world fucked up in ways that one can barely stand thinking about: the more you look, the more fucked up things you see. Nobody has an easy time of knowing how to react to writing like this -- people have been wringing their hands about the literature of CĂ©line for decades now, as a case in point. But this discomfort is largely Pig Destroyer's point, and one that they forcefully drive home. It's a remarkable achievement.