Movies


On the weekend I watched the Director’s cut of the Exorcist for the second time in my life. I think I previously watched this version back in the 2000s when it was first released, and it remains impressive on a second viewing, though the special effects let it down a little. It is creepy, nasty, disturbing and ultimately also a beautiful story about one man losing his faith and purpose and finding it again at the last. Fundamentally I think it’s a very christian movie, which revels in the rituals and imagery of the Catholic church and ultimately redeems that church in the face of a deep evil that only the Catholic church is able to understand. Reading William Peter Blatty’s wikipedia, it appears he was a devout Catholic who remained committed to his religion until his death, so it seems likely that he wrote this book with the intention that it was a paean to Catholic tradition, and I think it does this job very well.

There is a lot of careful attention to detail in this movie, which I think is intended both to ground it in the ordinary life experience of people at the time, and also to enhance its creepiness, and a lot of that detail was added into the director’s cut. For example, the coffee conversation between the detective and Chris MacNeil (Regan’s mother) was added in the director’s cut, and in this conversation we see that Regan made the clay statuette that the detective found at the base of the steps. The sets are also very rich, so that for example Father Karras’s little room or his mother’s shabby apartment are full of tiny details about his life that serve to make him seem very normal and to place his class background, his history and educational achievements. This movie is very richly and carefully prepared.

This time when I watched the movie I noticed this detail at its scary best in the language lab scene. This scene was apparently added in the 2000 DVD release along with the coffee scene and the upside-down crabwalk down the stairs. In the language lab scene Karras is listening to the recording he took of Regan when he threw “holy” water on her. He sits in a booth in the language lab, and behind him at the back of the room is a doorway to an office of some kind. The only sources of light in the room are Karras’s listening booth, and the light from that office. Above the door of that office the word “Tasukete!” is written in red on white butcher paper. There are other similar banners in other parts of the room but this is the most obvious and the only one easily read during the brief moment of the scene.

“Tasukete” means “Help me!” in Japanese. It’s an imperative, a demand for help. If you look around the room in the picture above you will see that the other banners in the room are written in whatever the native script of the language is, so presumably are not readable for the vast majority of the movie’s intended audience. Only this one piece of script is transliterated into roman characters that the audience can read, and this is in the place where the reader’s eye is drawn. It seems quite clear that this writing is intended to be read by the viewer.

In the very next scene, Karras is called by Sharon, Chris MacNeil’s live-in assistant, and rushed to the house to see a new phenomenon in Regan’s degeneration. Sharon pulls back Regan’s pyjamas and we see the words “Help me” emerge from the skin on Regan’s belly. The very next scene! These are obviously linked. The director put a Japanese cry for help in a form the viewer could read, before seguing immediately to an English plea for help from Regan herself. He did this in the era before google, when no one could look it up – likely 99.9% of people who saw the movie on its release would never have understood that moment, but he put it in anyway.

But there is another Japanese banner in that language lab. I haven’t been able to find anything about it online, but on the top left of the screen there is a banner written in Swedish, which seems completely normal (the last word is the Swedish for Swedish, so I guess it’s not a special phrase). Beneath it is a short imprecation in Japanese, with two kanji and some hiragana. It’s very hard to see, and the first kanji in particular is impossible to read, but the second one appears to be 惧, a kanji for terror. Writing the first unreadable kanji as a hyphen, it appears to say -u yori osoreyo!, which could be loosely translated as “rather than doing (something), be afraid!” or, more bluntly, “terror over (something)!” I think the first kanji is either osou (襲う, to attack) or 救う (sukuu, to save). So it is either “Terror over salvation!” or “Don’t fight, be afraid!” That’s a very apt warning for Damian Karras given how this movie ends, but it is too subtle for him to understand – no one in this story can read Japanese. So why is it there?

I cannot find anything in the history of any of the people who made this movie which suggests that they had any connection to Japan, and at the time that this movie was made I don’t think Japan was very much in the conscious of Americans – fear about Japanese influence in the west started in the early 1980s, and is best reflected in later movies like Die Hard or Big Trouble in Little Tokyo, and most obviously heralded by Bladerunner (1982). This Japanese is in this movie 10 years before Japan became a common aesthetic influence on Hollywood. So why is it there? And what is the writing on the right hand side wall? It might be radicals for kanji, or perhaps it’s some other writing system I know nothing about.

If only Father Karras had heeded that warning on that banner, this movie might have ended very differently …

Fucking muppets!

 

I have spent the last 4 weeks on a series of fairly demanding business trips to two continents, and since I am bound by the tyranny of miles to a single airline I have been forced to watch movies on only one channel during the flights. This has been really challenging because aside from the enjoyable John Wick 3 the only action movies on offer have been super hero movies, and derivative schlock from other series (like Godzilla). Here I give my brief thoughts on the movies I watched, and ask some questions about the terrible decline of the modern action movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I can’t believe how ordinary this movie is. Does it even have a plot or a purpose? The acting is terrible and the entire cast of mutants is boring and shallow, with no possible reason for me to care about them. As a movie it only holds you because there are some other movies in the same series and you need to see what they do – but since I haven’t seen any other movies in the series I really can’t feel anything for these characters and can’t be led to even understand why they bother turning up. There are some good actors in this movie but you wouldn’t know it. This movie also has one of the most execrable scenes in modern cinematic history which is also one of the most execrable plot hooks in human history, and which is performed so poorly by Michael Fassbender that the depth of its depravity almost slips by you through the power of its banality. I am, of course, talking about the scene where a dude called Apocalypse tries to convince a Jewish concentration camp survivor to join in with his plan for genocide by having him destroy Auschwitz. There’s something really wrong about watching a fictitious character destroy the Auschwitz memorial – it’s just so horribly wrong – but to do so as part of a scheme to enlist a genocide survivor as a genocide perpetrator is really … well, it’s a chef’s kiss moment in modern cinema, isn’t it? But it’s all done so badly that you almost don’t realize how terrible it is until you wake up from the stupor this movie has sunk you into and realize what you’re being tricked into nodding along to. I gave the movie perhaps 20 minutes after that pearler but it didn’t offer anything remotely interesting, so I gave up and decided that staring at the ceiling of the plane was a better use of my time.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 isn’t bad – at least I managed to finish it – but it’s a really lame and weak follow up to the freshness of the original. Standing on its own as a piss-take of super hero movies, Deadpool is entertaining and creative, but as a series in its own right it has nothing to hold it together. Deadpool’s smut and the particular conceit of his humour gets old fast, and watching Deadpool 2 I realized that the original movie was good primarily for its freshness in what is otherwise a stale, juvenile and worn out genre. Since Deadpool was made this genre has gone from needing a healthy dose of satire to needing a bullet, and is such a weak and overworked formula that satire no longer works. Indeed, when you look at the poor mixture of humour and pathos in Avengers: Infinity War you realize that the genre has been satirizing itself accidentally for quite some time now, and satire doesn’t work any more.

Avengers: Endgame

I hate-watched this after reviewing the awful sack of shit that was Infinity War, and had such low expectations after that wretched abomination that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s failure to be abysmally awful. It was, however, too long and way too boring, and it ended exactly as I expected: with the universe being saved by a rich white guy (what are the chances!) Plot spoiler folks: our world is not going to be saved by a rich white guy, and the fantasy of the rich white dude who does good has got old fast. The movie still had so many bad points that it was almost unwatchable, but I struggled through so I could see how this horrible shitshow ends (or, rather, restarts). I still didn’t know (or care) who most of these boring, caricatured white people were. Hulk was, if anything, worse than he was in Infinity War, transformed from a metaphor for erectile dysfunction into a sad mocking image of middle-aged ennui. Iron Man had lost his last redeeming feature (his sense of humour, which had already grown old and tired) and was now just annoying. Black Widow at least had a speaking part, though the rush between her and the other dude to kill themselves was just pathetic – neither of them are of any use to anyone, so why didn’t they just toss a coin? And why did they undo the extinction of half the universe anyway? Wiping out half of all life in the universe seems like a bargain if it will get rid of spiderman and space douche in the process. Why bring them back? I mean I know you love your mother and you’re sad she’s dead but five minutes in a room with either spiderman or space douche and you’d kill your own mother to escape. So why on earth would anyone bring them back, and are we meant to really believe that this cast of nobodies is sad about the deaths of their colleagues, who were the most forgettable characters in cinematic history? I’m surprised they could even remember who they used to work with, let alone want them back (I still don’t know the names of most of these incompetents, let alone work myself up into any kind of sweat as to whether they might die or not). This movie also went on a walk through about 8 other Marvel movies, as a reminder that by now these movies are so self-referential and self-involved that you have to do 20 hours of homework through the back catalogue just to understand what’s going on in multiple scenes. What was that shit between Thor and the blonde chicks? I get the impression one was his mother, who he used to live with and see daily, who didn’t notice that apparently overnight he had turned into a fat stoner. How’s that for a maternal bond! (Also Thor was one of the few redeeming features of Infinity War so of course they ruined him in this movie). I guess I should be happy that this entire tired story got a resolution but given that the final scene is just all these people getting back to more adventures it seems like more of a sigh of exhaustion than of relief.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Apparently this is a thing now, with multiple Godzilla movies, which are also somehow linked to King Kong because why not? Also it has this novel plot idea that the beasts are dangerous but some people think they’re part of the natural order and we should try to co-exist with them which is definitely not at all an idea that was old when Jaws was made, and we definitely need to sit through those debates again, especially when they’re done by people who could only be loosely described as “actors”. In this one there are bad guys who are actually environmentalists who want to wake up all these giant monsters to restore the balance of the earth (read: wipe out humans). Because absolutely, definitely, as the world slides into climate crisis and multiple environmental disasters that the environmental movement has been trying to warn us about for 60 years what we absolutely, definitely need are more movies where the end of the world is the environmentalists’ fault and the good people in the government have to fight them to stop them wiping out humanity. Definitely that’s a message we need right now! I would tell you what the moral of the story was but I stopped halfway through because the movie was so pathetic, the action scenes so contrived, and the plot so silly that I just gave up. This movie included Charles Dance and the chick who was Eleven in Stranger Things but even they couldn’t rescue this junk.

Men In Black: International

Boring daddy issues that can’t figure out if they’re serious or a joke, no appreciable plot and the worst acting since Liam Neeson apologized for his racism.

What’s going on with American action movies?

Looking at the menu of the plane’s entertainment system was depressing: just a long chain of superhero movies, with a couple of remakes and a few sequels. There was almost nothing original on the screen at all, and if you wanted to watch something original you would have to look outside the action movie genre. I’m now writing this in the same week that Martin Scorsese derided superhero movies as “theme park junk” and I have to agree with him[1]: action movies were once a great part of Hollywood, but in recent years they have degenerated to the point where they are reliably the worst. They’re just an endless series of rehashed super hero movies, which can be best characterized as second rate pro wrestling, with a scattering of other “franchises”[2] like Men In Black, Star Wars, Batman, or – god forbid – Rambo. There’s nothing original in this at all, it’s just microwaved kara age for the soul. There are even remakes of great movies (like Death Wish, the remake of which was abominable). I think the last original action movie I saw was Atomic Blonde, which was genuinely brilliant but what three years ago now? Since then it’s been spandex as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know why this is happening – why people pay to watch this junk, or what kind of business model the production companies are running that requires them to return to this artistically and culturally desolate fare rather than doing anything original. The best I can think is that it’s the cinematic equivalent of outsourcing risk. They’re guaranteed to be able to make these movies easily and on time, since the plots don’t matter and there are so many characters in your average super hero movie that plot is almost superfluous, and you pay for the movie before you see it so by the time you realize it’s shit it’s too late. I can’t think of any other reason for why people would make super hero movies at all: the original material by Stan Lee is just obviously low-rent, juvenile crap for teenage boys in the 1960s and it is laughably bad, so why would anyone think to draw on it for a movie? Recall that Stan Lee’s material – all the American comic legends – for years followed the Comic Code Alliance, which is a recipe for transparently nationalist and vapid material, and although Stan Lee is said to have broken with this[3] in 1971, this is just post hoc valorization. American comic books were drek for decades, and building a successful movie series on them is going to necessarily require dipping into some of the most juvenile trash that has ever been written down on paper.

Which is fine if these are occasional movies, but the cinematic landscape has been dominated by what is essentially adolescent drivel for the past 10 years. There are now something like 20 Marvel movies, almost all of them shit, and a similar number of DC Comics movies in probably just the past 10 years (apparently there are 71 in total). This is not including the awful TV shows that have now almost all been cancelled because they are so bad. Why has American cinema been overwhelmed by this flood of movies from the same universe about the same characters? And why this universe and these characters, which are specifically and particularly so stunningly low quality?

I don’t have an answer for this, although I suspect it lies somewhere in the toxic witch’s brew of American pop culture’s growing venality, the terrible education system in the US, concentration of American media in the hands of a very small number of companies, and the complete intellectual and artistic emptiness of the money men in those companies. But it’s a depressing turn for American culture to take, because for a long time America was a reliable producer of good quality, exciting and enjoyable action movies. But that industry – the industry that brought us movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Jaws, the original three Star Wars movies, Aliens, Blackhawk Down and Bladerunner – appears to have shriveled and died, and come back as a zombie monstrosity that just lurches from movie to movie, slowly eating our brains.

Someone needs to chop its head off, before the entirety of western cinema culture becomes an empty wasteland.


fn1: Overall Scorsese seems like a man of vulgar tastes, since he seems to think that the only real movies are movies where a young woman falls in love with an older man (or as he puts it, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”), and he seems to think anything where things blow up or people die isn’t real film, so he’s obviously basically wrong. (I mean, if you want to experience “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” you could hang out with your family, or read a book – cinema is definitely not the best place to experience that!) But in this case he is just by pure good fortune correct: this is theme park junk.

fn2: I fucking hate this word when it’s applied to movies or games but when you’re talking about super hero movies or these other long-running bullshit series like Star Wars you’re basically using the right word. They’re the McDonalds of cinema.

fn3: Incidentally, check out the quote of Stan Lee in the linked article. My god, what a prat he must have been.

 

[Spoilers below obviously]

In 2016 a journalist reported that voting machines of a county in Florida had been hacked by the Russians, in support of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything. Other media outlets, right-wing agitators and partisans jumped on this and dismissed it, burying the story completely. In 2019 we discovered it was actually two counties, and the Florida governor has signed an NDA while the FBI investigate. In 2016 Barack Obama tried to organize a coordinated statement from political leaders on Russian interference in the election, but Mitch McConnell refused to support it and threatened to oppose it, in service of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything.

In 2018 the producers and writers of Game of Thrones had their Mary Sue, Tyrion Lannister, give a speech about the power of stories, and about how evil men cannot kill a story, in support of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything.

Do they think we’re fucking stupid? Or are they, in fact, fucking stupid?

Jon Snow Completes the show’s murderous and misogynist arc

Until this season, to the best of my recollection, Jon Snow had not murdered any women in cold blood, and hadn’t killed his own lover in a passionate embrace. I guess the show-runners wanted to make sure that he got to share in the fundamental misogynist spirit of the thing, so gave him the chance to murder his own lover in cold blood and made sure it was the crowning moment in the entire 8 seasons of this shitshow. Remember Jon Snow has been turned into this show’s liberal conscience over the past 8 seasons, so in doing this they made their modern, liberal audience complicit in this final act of spite.

They also had Tyrion complicit in it, because the misogyny of this show has always been a conscious conspiracy by the male characters (with people like Littlefinger and Varys explaining this with bored exasperation to the female characters who hadn’t figured it out). Tyrion egged Jon Snow on to do it, and what were his reasons? Listen to him lay them out: he reels off a long list of all the bad men Danaerys has killed and all the good people she has liberated, and suggests Jon and Tyrion and the bad men of Westeros might be next. Yes, Danaerys killed slavers and murderers and rich exploitative bastards and every man who harboured resentment towards her in his heart. Clearly she was going to have a field day in Westeros! So better that the show’s liberal conscience kill her off before she gets to work. #notallmen amirite?

The show betrays its own grimdark history

I have watched over 8 seasons as the people of this show go through a vicious and cruel exploration of the grimdark genre which, I have argued before, has nothing in common with the reality of mediaeval history and is really just the show-runners’ fantasy of how they would act if they had no legal restraints on the murderous power of their cocks. One element of this grimdark fantasy’s over-the-top bloodthirstiness is its heroes love of murdering prisoners, and the gleeful abandon with which they wander through the battlefield putting their vanquished foes to the sword. This has been standard practice of all the armies of Westeros since the beginning, including the good guys. Jon Snow certainly had no problem with it when he defeated the wildlings north of the wall, or after the battle of the bastards. He didn’t complain when Sansa had the captured leader of his enemies eaten alive by his own dogs.

But when Danaerys and her foreign horde do it, the men who have been running people through with impunity for 8 years develop a sudden case of the Geneva Conventions. Suddenly the show would have us believe that its gentlemen are really gentlemen, and if any one of these other leaders got astride a dragon in a time of war they wouldn’t burn a city to the ground. They’ve been more than happy to have their soldiers run rampage through vanquished cities for the last 8 years and suddenly they get the willies. It does seem like the show has softened this season, as they have attempted to make some of the characters more relatable to the liberal US audience watching it, but this is a problem. For 8 seasons we have understood that the spoils go to the victor. We accepted Danaerys’s Dothraki horde raping and looting their way through every town they conquered and we understood that powerful men get to choose who and what and how they fuck. There was nothing in all the abuse Sansa experienced that was incongruous in its time or place, and only its brutality was unusual. We appreciated that when the Hound killed those dudes talking about Arya as a chicken it wasn’t because their conversation was in any way wrong in the context of this world; it’s just that the Hound didn’t want them to do it to his friend. But if we carry this to its logical conclusion then whoever ascends the Iron Throne is going to murder their way there, and treat the city – and all the seven kingdoms – like their property. Given that the only people left standing are the liberal crowd pleasers, this is going to be a little on the nose for many of the fans. So the show had to take a liberal turn to not end up with one of the most repellent endings in cinematic history. But to me this is a massive disappointment. Don’t throw this gory shit at me for 7 seasons and genuinely revel in it then suddenly get squeamish at the last. Show the courage of your convictions and have the eventual ruler burn, stab, rape and murder their way to the top. Dispense the summary justice and vengeance we should expect! Even Cersei’s death was a cop out here: we all know that if this show were sticking true to its roots she and Jaime would have been captured and she would have been handed around to the people of King’s Landing to be used before her eventual bitter end.

I didn’t sit through the red wedding to see this piss-weak cop out of an ending. If you’re going to commit to this level of grimdark, see it through.

Does everyone in Westeros have their own weather?

I tried to focus on the stupid scene where Tyrione is allowed to choose the next king by a suddenly piss-weak Grey Worm, but I kept looking at the costumes and thinking what is wrong with these people? All the northerners were dressed like they were on a mission beyond the wall, while the southern dandies were in the mediaeval version of shorts and a t-shirt – on a sunny day in the south! What’s going on here? Does every noble in Westeros have the power to set up their own personal environmental zone? Shouldn’t the northerners be sweating like Brits? This whole scene was some of the worst story-telling I have seen in modern tv but still, couldn’t they at least have got the costumes right?

(Incidentally and relatedly – as time goes on in this show I have become more and more convinced that the Northerners are a bunch of insufferable prigs. Turning up to a meeting in the sunny south wearing your best arctic weather gear and sitting like you have a stick up your arse Sansa is the epitome of the kind of inflexible prudery that makes them Westeros’s eternal losers).

Pulling the teeth of all the most dangerous people

I think I’m not alone in wondering what the actual fuck was up Grey Worm’s arse in the second half of this episode. Or Drogon’s, for that matter. Or Arya’s. Or Sansa’s two episodes earlier. Over the past 3 episodes we have seen Sansa retreat to the basement at the first sign of trouble, we have seen Arya go from monster-slayer to pissy girl who forgot how to change her face, and finally in this episode we see Drogon just give up on the whole thing and piss off once his mother dies. WTF? Since when do dragons just chuck a bit of side-eye and run away after someone kills their mother? Worse still, Drogon shows enough intelligence to know that Danaerys’s quest for the throne was her undoing, but not enough to figure out that the dude holding her body killed her, even though the knife that smells like him is sticking out of her chest. Why didn’t Drogon burn Jon Snow, the tower, the city, and all the rest of humanity? Oh because he’s a dragon and they’re renowned pacifists? This is just pathetic.

Similarly with Grey Worm, who goes from being willing to kill all his allies in order to get vengeance on a couple of captives, to handing Tyrion over to what are effectively his enemies, making some weak mewling pleas for justice, then allowing his prisoner to speak, choose a king of all the 7 kingdoms, and then get himself pardoned. The Unsullied have gone from an unstoppable force with iron commitment to their queen, to a bunch of pussies who give up as soon as some white people ask them nicely. Similarly the Dothraki, who in the last scenes are depicted walking along the docks past Jon Snow – the man who murdered their queen – and ignoring him affably.

Basically every opponent of the entitled white men in this story – and in particular every rival to Jon Snow’s attentions as the Most Important Character – has been completely disempowered in this season, their motivations, powers and murderous ethics all melting in the southern sun so that Jon can come out as the reluctant hero. This is weak.

Tyrion fails up

Tyrion has been a failure for multiple seasons. Basically every piece of advice he has given Danaerys has been wrong. She could have captured King’s Landing first with three dragons, burnt Cersei alive, raised a huge army, waited for the army of the dead to come to the south, burnt them all to a crisp with her three dragons, presented herself to all of humanity as their savior, and then replaced all the kings of all seven kingdoms with her handpicked allies. But because of Tyrion’s advice she lost a dragon on a stupid mission to the north that just led to her fooling herself into thinking she had an ally she didn’t; she gave that treacherous ally time to build dragon-killing machines that took out her second dragon; and she lost her best friend in the process. Then Tyrion helped her enemy escape which ensured that she didn’t get to flamegrill Cersei, the woman in all of human history who most deserves a flame grilling, and almost allowed a claimant to the throne to escape alive and foment insurrection. And finally Tyrion managed to convince her lover to kill her (not a hard job since Jon Snow is such a piss-weak loser of a human, and in this show the boys will always prioritize their misogynist conspiracy over a worthy woman). Anyone looking at Tyrion’s history of bad advice would probably think that he’s not a good person to listen to.

So of course when he proposed Bran as king they all agreed. Bran, the most useless person in all the useless people in this show. Bran, who has no experience of leadership, no experience of battle, no significant education, no identifiable character traits, and no evidence of any ability to think or plan. Bran, whose sole contribution to the progress of the story – in fact the only way in which he has materially affected any human being in 8 seasons – was to break Hodor’s mind in a desperate defense that was revealed to have been completely futile within a couple of minutes of it happening. This man is the person who was recommended to the council of Entitled Fuckwits as the next leader. And what new system has Tyrion introduced them all to with his shitty speech? An elected monarchy? I’m sure that will last the test of time!

And after that, with all his evidence of dangerous and useless advice, Tyrion was appointed hand to this useless man. Has anyone ever failed their way to a loftier position than this pair of idiots? This show is like an object lesson in the value of being a rich white failson. Even Jon Snow, whose repeated failings led ultimately to the destruction of much of the northern population and the sacking of King’s Landing, manages to escape justice for murder and then once assigned to the Nights Watch is seen, at the end, just skipping out on those obligations to go and fuck wildlings beyond the wall without a care in the world.

This show should be renamed Rich White Kids Can’t Fail.

Winter’s waning as the final insult

At the end of the show, as we see Jon Snow skipping out on his punishment that Grey Worm meekly agreed to and heading north of the wall to find, fuck and fail another Ygrit (who had the clearest judgment of his character, though for some reason she still fucked him) we see the first budding shoots of spring. This really pissed me off. For 8 seasons we have watched this show on the fundamental understanding that winter in Westeros is unpredictable, long, and horrible. It has been made clear to us that winter doesn’t just come because the Night King brings it, but that it comes randomly for its own reasons, and the Night King has not had anything to do with its coming for so long that nobody believes in him anymore – Cersei had to see a wight with her own eyes to believe he was even real, remember. We were told repeatedly that this coming winter would be longer and harsher than those recorded in long memory, and led to believe that this is why the Night King has been raised up and why he is using it to his advantage. Yet here, barely a couple of months after the Night King dies and so only perhaps an actual earth season since winter reached Winterfell, we see it is already receding.

This is utter bullshit and it is the perfect, final example of how the writers of this show betrayed all its fundamental principles in order to tie it together into a nice, trite package that reassures us that the system must stay the same, nothing must ever change, and white men must win. It’s pathetic, weak writing and the end of this show was a catastrophe.

I have just finished season 3 of The Expanse, the near-future science fiction series based on the books by James S.A. Corey, and although some aspects of the ending of season 3 were disappointing I have been really enjoying this show. There’s a lot to like about it – the setting itself, the aesthetic, the fundamentals of the inter-system conflict, the main characters, the ideologies at the centre of the conflicts, and the plot are all excellent aspects of this show – but for me the thing that really stands out, the thing that has kept me really strongly engaged with this show is the Belters and their culture. I think it is the best example of how to build a synthetic culture that I have seen in science fiction or fantasy for a long, long time, and the Belters present a rich and detailed culture that serves to reflect ideas and ideologies from our real world, while also standing alone as a fascinating, rich and deep vision of a culture all of its own. The Belters feel simultaneously very alien, like a society raised in space 500 years in our future and yet also viscerally close to us, as if they had sprung straight from the present to taunt us with visions of our own failings. Even their invented language is simultaneously alien and yet so close you feel that you can understand it without subtitles.

The Belters are a culture defined by both the harsh environment of their upbringing, and their political struggle for rights and freedom. The broad parameters of their political struggle are very much like something we would have seen in the colonial era on earth: a people born and raised on a land they don’t own, who yearn to liberate that land from its distant owners but who have to work for those owners in harsh and unrelenting conditions. They are dependent on those distant overlords for much of their technology and supplies, just as surely as the Indians or Irish were forced into dependency on their colonial masters by a deliberate program of economic and industrial destruction. Their liberation struggle aims to free them from this yoke, but cannot act decisively out of fear of losing that essential lifeline, which in space is a much more punitive and restrictive relationship of dependency than we ever saw in the colonial era. This a really well defined model of how a colonial relationship would look in a capitalist and highly militaristic near-earth future, a brilliant depiction of the property relations that would arise in space 500 years after the Cyberpunk era.

This deeply exploitative pseudo-colonial relationship is perfectly tied to the general character traits of the Belters we meet in the series. They are fatalistic, cynical and prone to despair, but they are also full of energy, indomitable and apparently immune to fear. They are resourceful, capable of making something out of almost nothing, independent and smart, but also cramped by their physical space, the constant imposing emptiness beyond the walls of their tiny communities, and the poverty they are forced to grow up and live within. Belter society is obviously rife with crime and people trying to get one over on one another – and who could blame them? – but their society is also rich from solidarity and a shared sense of struggle, and many of the characters we meet are ferociously committed to the long-term goal of national liberation.

This Belter personality, and the political complexity of Belter life, is perfectly summarized in the character Anderson Dawes, the OPA leader on Ceres Station. Anderson Dawes is simultaneously a union leader, a gangster and a revolutionary, making sure that he is personally enriched and empowered by his central role as a union organizer on the station, while also being intensely (and often violently) committed to his people’s struggle. His public persona alternates between lazy, corrupt gangster and committed unionist, but occasionally we also see his ruthless devotion to the cause of freeing the Belters and making a Belter nation. We also see this later in season 3 in the form of Ashford, captain of the Behemoth and former pirate, but Anderson Dawes is the quintessential Belter revolutionary, simultaneously venal and ideological, selfish and selfless. These people are a really good science fiction depiction of the kind of colourful characters who arose from the national liberation movements of the 20th century, activists who were ferociously and single-mindedly committed to the liberation of their people but who were also often personally very corrupt. Anderson Dawes and the OPA are also excellent representations of the way in which national liberation movements of the 20th century overlapped with worker’s movements, and show the ease with which Marxism was able to infiltrate nationalism in developing (but not developed) nations. It makes perfect sense to viewers of the Expanse that Anderson Dawes should be simultaneously a criminal, a union leader and a revolutionary nationalist – wouldn’t you be? – and this perfect logic is exactly why so many national liberation movements in the 20th century adopted Marxism. Europe’s colonial subjects were also largely exploited workers, and their political activists saw very quickly where those two oppressions overlapped. In The Expanse we see a very believable model for how such oppression would be exported into space, and how its victims would respond in a similar vein to the Arafats and Sukarnos of the 20th Century.

Belter culture differs from 20th century colonial cultures by its existence as a colonized diaspora, rather than a simple single landmass under the control of a foreign power, and the Expanse handles this especially well in showing their relationship with the Martians. The Martians in the Expanse serve as a kind of model of New Zealand, white South Africa or Australia, the colonies that made good by dint of being built on “empty” land (which, of course, was stolen in the real world but was genuinely empty on Mars). Farmers, land owners and rich workers, they view the “skinnies” of the belt with disdain, just as Americans sneered at the Irish diaspora, and Australians looked down on the Chinese workers who provided them with essential services during the gold rush. The Martians think they’re better because they have their own land, although of course really they’re just lucky. The relationship between dusters and skinnies is thus driven by a dynamic of scorn and envy, with both depending on each other and unable to separate, and both looked down on by Earth natives, but unwilling to admit their shared interests. We see in season 3 what it takes to make them put those interests aside and fight for a shared humanity, but I think we will also see in future seasons that the new threats they face will wash away the dynamic of their struggle, and with it the most interesting parts of this excellent television series.

With all of these details, The Expanse offers a masterclass in how to make a new culture: drawing on existing social history for its key ingredients, it adds in new threats and environmental constraints, and builds the character, society and motivations of the new culture carefully on this basis. The result is a rich, believable and highly appealing society that quickly draws you into its struggle, and keeps you deeply engaged in it until the bittersweet ending. This is world building at its finest!

Grindelwald apologizes for his crimes

On the plane back from Bangladesh I made the mistake of watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest instalment in Rowling’s exploration of the Potter universe. In this sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Grindelwald has escaped from imprisonment by the wizards in the USA and headed off to Europe to find Credence and begin to rouse a following of wizards who will help him achieve his goals. We follow Newt Scamander, Tina, Queenie and Jacob as they attempt to head off Grindelwald and stop him doing whatever he is trying to do.

I cannot give much more of a review of the movie than that because to be honest I didn’t have a clue what was going on in this messy and confusing story, and I was too incensed by a few details of the movie to care too much about the story anyway. What is Johnny Depp doing in this thing? Quite apart from the fact of recent revelations about his personal life, he is well past his use-by date and should be taken out the back of the studios and quietly put out of his misery. To be fair his performance as Grindelwald is better than pretty much anything else he has done in a long time, but this simply means it could have been replaced with pretty much anyone else. But I persevered! Only to find that fat ugly stupid boring Jacob gets his girl, because while in Hollywood every woman has to be stunningly good looking and have a flawless body and perfect make up and clothes, any fat dude in an ill-fitting suit with the personality of a wet blanket can pull any hot chick. There’s hope for you yet, Homer Simpsons of the world! Also, what happened to the sweet and happy Queenie of the first movie, that she makes a sudden Luke Skywalker-esque zig zag to amoral monster in the beat of an eye? Why can’t modern movie-makers figure this simple shit out? Or at least give us some hint of the change in personality that a much-loved character is going to undergo, so we can at least try and understand it[1]? So having overlooked Queenie’s monstrous change, I am left none the wiser as to what Grindelwald is really trying to do or in fact what his actual crimes are. Has he killed anyone yet? Has he actually done anything? Also, what’s with the incredibly complex and twisted family tale involving baby-swapping on the Titanic? Does everything have to have these super complicated antecedents? Can’t Credence just be, well, Credence? Does he have to be someone important? Is it something weird about Americans that everybody in their movies has to be a fucking Kardashian? Heaven forbid that a powerful wizard should just be an ordinary orphan boy (or worse still, a girl!) with nothing to recommend them except their own innate character and talent! Not that anyone in this putrid sequel had any character … even Scamander was a second-rate version of himself from the previous movie, and Tina and Queenie had lost all of the ethereal beauty and charm they had in the first episode.

So, really, this movie had nothing to recommend it overall and is a good reminder of why I skipped most of the Harry Potter movies. But it offers us a fascinating case study in the problem I identified in my review of Fantastic Beasts: This world we are watching is fucked up, and the sooner the Muggles burn it all down, hoist every wizard on a lamppost, and rid the world of their evil, the better. In my review of the first movie I noted that the magical administration seems to have brainwashed its participants and is cool with summary execution, and I also noted that there is a big inequality between muggles and wizards, that the wizards know about and are doing nothing to stop. In this movie the fascism of the wizards becomes even clearer. In addition to the summary executions of the first episode, we now learn that the administration has complete control of your travel rights and a wizard who travels without permission from the administration gets locked in Azkaban for life; we see that they have a well-organized and extensive secret police; we see that they have surveillance and control measures that they can apply even to famous intellectuals (i.e. Dumbledore) with impunity; and we see no semblance of due process for any of this. We also discover that they have strict anti-miscegenation laws – no one is allowed to love a muggle, and the punishment is terrible. Finally we learn that a lot of them think of muggles as inferior and not human, and want to exterminate all of them. Or, in the case of Grindelwald, exterminate most of them but keep a few around as cattle. So basically the wizards are running a parallel world to the muggles that is much much wealthier than the muggle world, could intervene at any time to make the muggle world much wealthier, healthier and better developed, but doesn’t want to and maintains a strict fascist administration that murders and imprisons anyone who opposes it or tries to help the muggles in any way. Dumbledore is in on the whole thing, and even people who break the rules (like Scamander) don’t do so out of any deep dislike of the system – they just break the rules because they want to have a fling in Paris with their American girlfriend.

Nice people all round.

We also get to see that Grindelwald has seen the future and has seen that in a couple of years the muggles are going to go to war and develop new weapons (nuclear weapons and aircraft) that will make wizards look like chickenshit, and his proposed solution to this problem is the mass extermination of all muggles. When he reveals this information to his followers they gasp in horror at the “arrogance” of the muggles in developing such weapons. Nobody seems to put any thought into the possibility that the muggles wouldn’t have to lift a finger to produce anything like nuclear weapons if the wizards would just share their power to breach the laws of thermodynamics with those who are not lucky enough to be born magical. But such a solution would be a step too far – why would they share their wealth with inferior muggles when it’s much more logical just to wipe them out?

Also why am I watching this movie about a couple of servants of a fascist organization (Tina and Scamander) who are working hard to prevent a radical fascist splinter group of their fascist organization from enacting a global program of genocide to stop a movement of non-magical fascists who share exactly the same principles as they do? It’s fascists all the way down. It seems like the only way that this series could turn a moral corner is if we discover that actually Stalin was industrializing the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of exterminating wizards, the real enemies of global prosperity[2]. By the end of this I was cheering for everyone to kill themselves.

So that’s the problem with this movie: everyone in it needs to die. But the movie does give us something of an insight into how confused Americans (I guess; and Rowling, who is British) are getting about fascism. Grindelwald’s organization had obviously Nazi imagery – his thuggish aides wore obviously Nazi style clothes, he himself is suspiciously German, etc. – and his goal of exterminating all the untermenschen[3] is explicitly Nazi. But the organization he is in opposition to is also a straight-up fascist dictatorship, with far-reaching powers of surveillance and secret investigation, enamoured of torture and extra-judicial killings, who control every aspect of their citizens lives. And the organization he is ultimately scared of and trying to stop is also a Nazi organization[4], which will attempt to do all the things he and his opponents in the wizarding world want to do. Yet, the placement of heroes and villains in this movie in the traditional sense tells me that I’m supposed to be supporting one side in opposition to the other, which means I’m supposed to be supporting fascists who are trying to stop some splinter fascists from fighting some fascists. This is both terrible story-writing and also a sign that modern writers have lost their ability to understand Who are the Real Fascists. Usually stories about people opposed to fascists involve brave, good people who generally stand on the side of freedom and liberty – not Other Fascists. So either the writers have got a really vicious sting in the tail of this trilogy, or the writers have some kind of grimdark vision in which we all side with the fascists, or the writers have not got a fucking clue what a fascist is, and are so unmoored from a basic understanding of politics that they can’t any longer tell the difference between Fascists and Anti-Fascists. There are, we are led to believe, good people on both sides! Or at least on one side, which is a significant advance on “there were no good people on either side”, which was (I would have thought) the standard view of fascists fighting fascists until relatively recently.

My inference from all this is that the people writing this movie actually want us to pick a side, and just haven’t noticed that the side we’re supposed to pick is actually a fascist world government that executes people on a whim and imprisons you for life in a hellish prison with soul-eating demons if you have the wrong boarding pass. The writers are so politically ignorant that they don’t understand the difference between fascism and freedom, and/or are so used by now to the creeping fascism overwhelming their nation that they haven’t noticed that the things the magical administration does are deeply wrong. This is consistent with a lot of other warning signs we’re seeing coming from America at the moment: the fact that Elliot Abrams was defended by almost everyone in “serious” political journalism when a politician pointed out his history of treason and lying to congress; the fact that so many movies now have the good guys using torture and summary execution without any moral qualms; the fact that 23 Republican congressmen can vote against a resolution opposing hate because hate is now cool. I could go on. The moral collapse in the US (and the UK?) is now so far gone that the people who produce its propaganda can no longer tell the difference between themselves and the things that their nation once fought. And so it is that we get subjected to movies like The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we are asked to pick a side when all the sides need to die in a fire.

The only pure people in Rowling’s world are the muggles. They need to rise up and destroy the wizards, or at least enslave them, before the wizards try to exterminate everyone on earth. If we’re lucky that will be the sting in the tail of the final movie, but I doubt it. More likely, we’ll be cheering the fascist government as it beats its fascist splinter movement, and then stands back to watch as fascists burn Europe to ashes. And somewhere along the way the writers will assume that we have lost our own moral code, so that we think this hell makes moral sense. I never thought I would have to say this, but I think the fascists have won.


Other reviews you might be interested in

Why the Last Jedi is shit.

The problems underlying Rowling’s world.

Why Avengers: Infinity War is a bullying disaster.

Mad Max: Fury Road as a perfect political vision of ecofeminist violence.

 


fn1: Also a shout-out here to the way Rowling pissed away one of the fundamental parts of Voldemort’s back story with the Queenie-Jacob shenanigans. Apparently Voldemort is evil because he is the child of a union that was forced by love magic, and that’s why he’s a psychopath who doesn’t understand love. This is a super important message from the original books! So in this movie we see Queenie rock up with Jacob under the exact same spell, and it is just a passing gag, nothing serious, no reflection on her personality or on the nature of wizards. These moments – like the newfound hyperspace killer trick in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – undermine the seriousness and impact of whole story arcs in previous canon, and are a really fucking stupid thing to do.

fn2: I guess there’s another bridge-too-far story in which Hitler set up the Nazi Party as a movement dedicated to the destruction of wizards, but somewhere along the way the wizards used mind control powers to change its platform into exterminating other muggles instead, thus avoiding being identified as the real threat facing the world, and accidentally sparking the holocaust as a by-blow of their plan. This might seem tasteless, but what are the alternatives when you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where you are supporting fascists in their fight against splinter fascists who want to kill other fascists they consider inferior? It’s a kaleidoscope of fascists down here.

fn3: Sorry I don’t know the German word for “magically unendowed and therefore subhuman subhumans”

fn4: It could be said that because he and his little nazi mates are scared of nuclear weapons that they aren’t just opposed to Nazi Germany but to the technological achievements of all of muggledom, but we all know that this would be a weak excuse since the Nazis are blamed for world war 2 and when any movie hero or villain says that they’re trying to stop ww2 we assume that they are trying to stop the Nazis, not the Allies, because it’s the Nazis who started the war. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his primary enemy in muggledom are the Nazis.

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

These guys only run forward!

I have just completed a three day trip to Chengdu, China, where I was visiting an NGO that provides HIV testing and counselling to men who have sex with men. There’s not much to report about the trip itself – the NGO is doing well and we came up with some interesting research opportunities, and I spent a lot of time eating exhausting spicy hotpots – but the Sichuan Airlines flight I took there gave me an opportunity to watch Operation Red Sea, the new hyped-up Chinese action movie. I previously reviewed Wolf Warrior 2, which I watched on a work trip to Guangzhou, so I thought this time I would give a review of this new phantasmagoria of action violence.

This movie is apparently based on a real event in which a Chinese warship evacuated Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015. I think “based on” is doing a lot of work in this claim, however, since the sheer volume of damage and destruction handed out by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in this movie could be seen from space if it actually happened, and I suspect that the only thing the real events and the movie have in common is the words “Chinese warship”. But don’t let that discourage you, because this is an action movie and we all know that action movies are at their best when they ignore reality.

The basic plot of this movie starts simple but gets over-complicated very quickly. A coup breaks out in a fictitious north African country, and as the coup unfolds an Islamist revolutionary group takes advantage of the situation to create havoc and try and steal some yellowcake and the plans for a dirty bomb. A bunch of Chinese nationals are caught in the country, working at various businesses, and so a Chinese warship (the Guangdong, I think) enters the port of the capital and deploys teams of soldiers to evacuate Chinese nationals. The parameters of their mission are very very clear: they are only to act with permission from the government (which they seek every time they expand their mission), and they are only there to save Chinese nationals. Anything else is a bonus, but they have to get permission for every bit of mission creep. This was also a strong theme in Wolf Warrior 2: as opposed to certain nations, these movies make very clear that the Chinese government does not interfere in other nations’ affairs unless it has permission from the UN and local governments, and only to protect Chinese interests.

Pretty much as soon as they enter the town where the civil war is unfolding things begin to go wrong. They get attacked from all sides, there are suicide bombers, the people they’re evacuating have been split up, and then they learn of more nationals who have been kidnapped and taken inland. One of these nationals is a female journalist who is hot on the case of a bunch of Islamists who are planning to steal some uranium ore, and a dubious scientist who has the plans for a dirty bomb that can be made with it. The soldiers have to go and save her but are attacked on the way, which requires much slaughter, and then find that to rescue the journalist they will have to fight an entire platoon of terrorists – 8 against 150, which of course they pull off because China! Then things go a bit awol, when the journalist tells them about the yellowcake and they decide – without permission from their superiors on the ship – to go foil the yellowcake plan. Rescuing the journalist leads to quite a few of the soldiers dying, and ends in a rather fantastic tank chase with strong hints of Mad Max.

Aside from occasional 5 or 10 minute breaks to set the scene of the next clusterfuck, and to lay out or reinforce a few nationalist themes, this movie is a non-stop warzone. It’s like your GM squeezed a whole campaign into two hours, with stirring music and a lot of stern faces. The soldiers level up between each scene too, because the challenges they face become more and more extreme and they rise to every single one. I didn’t know that Chinese special forces are also elite tank stunt drivers, but apparently they are, or at least in one of their level-ups they picked that skill to a pretty high level, and I think one of them must be able to fly heavy transport planes too. This movie is basically a team of 8 Rambos, doing Rambo things for two hours against exponentially increasing levels of difficulty.

Which would be frankly ridiculous but the action scenes are very good and the challenges are super fun. The whole thing is also anchored by the story of the sniper and his assistant, who seem to be the pivot around which the rest of the action takes place. The sniper scenes are really cool, and although one of the snipers is a typical East Asian hard-faced bullyboy[1], with vulnerable sidekick, they work out in the end. At several points in the action they are forced to face off against a baby-faced Arabian sniper, who is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic way and is actually pretty cool, though like pretty much everyone in this movie he gets it in the end (I think it’s safe to say that there’s no risk of spoilers here). The bad guys aren’t as one-dimensionally awful as the bad guys in Wolf Warrior 2, but they’re still very nasty, with a fondness for forcing innocent people to be suicide bombers by threatening their children, beheading journalists, that sort of thing[2]. It’s one of those movies where you really don’t feel bad about viscerally hating the enemy. Which is just as well because the body count is very high.

Along the way our team of heroes save a couple of victimized local women and some non-Chinese foreigners, and bravely also rescue a suicide bomber from his bomb, while under fire, but mostly their position is non-interventionist: they’re here to do a specific, limited, internationally-sanctioned job and they absolutely will not deviate from that mission unless there is zero risk that they will screw it up by helping out a local. They may be disgusted at the local brand of terrorism, but there’s no liberal interventionism here! The movie also makes a point of pausing regularly to reiterate basic Chinese government policy: we don’t intervene, we absolutely will not allow Chinese citizens to be victimized by other countries, all our actions are in accordance with international law, and everyone from China loves China. The movie also finishes with a shockingly nationalist epilogue: after all has been said and done and the special forces have returned to China, we have a final scene in which some unnamed ships from an unidentified nation are seen moving towards the screen, and a voiceover is saying something like “This is the Chinese navy. Do not enter Chinese territorial waters” with threats of escalating intensity. I think it’s clear enough to everyone who the unidentified nation are and where the territorial waters must be, and I think this might be the clearest case I have ever seen of current great power politics being expressed directly in a movie (barring the infamous final credits from Rambo IV, I guess).

This nationalism is an interesting experience in watching Chinese action movies like Operation Red Sea. Occasionally things happen on screen that are so blatantly intended to push nationalist buttons that you think “wow, this is super unsubtle and really close to fascist!” but then you pause and realize – because you’re viewing it from more of a distance than usual – that what you’re watching is no different to any number of American action movies. It’s probably less blatant than gay porn like Top Gun, and although nowhere near as self-critical as First Blood is definitely no worse than Rambo IV. Because we are not used to seeing military action movies from anyone except America, the kind of nationalism that is routine currency in American movies and that we’ve been raised on suddenly seems shockingly blatant and unpleasant. There’s absolutely nothing in Operation Red Sea that you would not see over and over in any episode of The Last Ship (remember when they pick up that mercenary at Guantanamo Bay? Good times!) But it stands out like dog’s balls when it’s not being portrayed by someone on “our side”. I think it’s very educational to see nationalism from the outside, and reminds me of how much we grow accustomed to in American movies that we really shouldn’t.

Overall this movie is a fun ride, though it has a few problems. The team really is a team, with no strong candidate for a single lead character, and so it’s hard to keep track of exactly who dies and who doesn’t because they’re largely interchangeable. It also seems to hand-wave away some important plot problems, like for example when they’re stranded in the middle of the desert with a bunch of foreign nationals and injured soldiers after the Islamists blow up their ride, and then suddenly we’re at the next battle and all their non-combatant charges have disappeared. They don’t spend much time on character development and aside from the chick, the dude who eats sweets and the sniper team we don’t have a lot of character to hang onto from half of the team (but it’s okay; most of this team aren’t going to go the distance). The first scene with the pirates and the ship also seems kind of unnecessary, like we could have just skipped that, but I guess the GM needed an introductory adventure for the characters. Other than these problems though the movie is a pretty solid contribution to the military action movie genre. It has a little bit of the feeling of Blackhawk Down, though it’s not as good as that (but most action movies aren’t). I recommend seeing it as both a cross-cultural experience, and a rich two hours of exhausting violence, with a tank chase!


fn1: I realize this might sound harsh to my reader(s), but if you have lived and worked in East Asia you’ll know the character I mean.

fn2: It says something about how awful the bad guys were in Wolf Warrior 2 that the journalist-beheading terrorists in this movie are less extreme. At least no one in this movie executed an entire hospital full of Doctors Without Borders volunteers, or blew up a bus full of refugees! (Actually on reflection they did do the latter, but in this movie the bus was part of a military convoy and was also carrying soldiers). But what does it tell us about the movie-maker’s point of view that the enemies in Wolf Warrior 2 were primarily western mercenaries, while the (not as nasty) dudes in this movie are Arabian?

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