Saturday, 31 July 2010

the inn of the sixth happiness

These are not so much reviews as they are vicarious ways by which I blog the minutiae of my life – a banal mode of blogging I pretend to be above. I have been reading The Meaning of the City, it is a hard book, a hard book like Tolle's A New Earth, hard for hanging its entire thesis on the willfully vague undefinitions of crucial words ('city'); hard in containing just enough convicting truth to unsettle and just enough error to frustrate; hard because it rubs salt in the open wound of architecture in my life.

I had just concluded a fairly damning passage which claims, “War is an urban phenomenon..” (p51) Here we see, in the way that epics of the Inn's age did so tidily, a city struck and its inhabitants scattered to the provinces. So, along with a bleak jolly up to Angkor this week, I have had Ellul's theology of the 'city cursed' and the 'city under judgement' illustrated in blunt parables.

War aside, more pertinently the film shows mission strategically (?deliberately on her part) focused on the trade hub and story-telling hub which is the city. To borrow Ellul's 'urban': is mission an urban phenomenon? Or to try to speak more precisely of the dilemma: are missionaries, where their work in a city is predicated on the city's structure and city's nature by their being in a city dependently, thereby complicit and implicated in the city's sin? I don't want to believe they are necessarily, but the line is finer and fainter than even I (or Keller or Driscoll) would want to boldly claim and a line difficult to unweave in dialogue with Ellul.

Not one to strain to put meaning to coincidences where there is none, but. This was another faith-gender-empire film that I have found myself thrust in front of, rewardingly so. If any of you are going to watch this, I would love to know how you feel the film would run with a male character in Gladys' role? The Christianity here is liberalised to the point of universalism as she expresses it, but there is still some scope to discuss why such a radically positive film about something so potentially offensive as mission has been made as late as 1958, what gives this film its license?

Monday, 19 July 2010


A couple of weeks ago I had a couchsurfer staying. “Surely there are environmental imperatives which demand urgent objective moral decisions, surely humans universally are moved by the beauty of a flower, surely these observations of 'good' or 'ought' present some challenge to your relativism.” “Yes but equally we could be living in the Matrix.” There is a trump card indeed.

Now, while Inception may not give expression to the human epistemological quandary in any way that the Matrix does not achieve more elegantly, it does bring to the table in a powerful way the suicidal nature of such a worldview. Suicide, indeed, is at the centre of this film, I believe inevitably so, and terrifyingly so. And as such offers me an, albeit painful, filmic response to the Matrix hypothesis.

Spoilering the film, we see these:
(1) First, the lightest of the suicides, barely attempted, but Robert Fischer Jr does go to kill himself when it is suggested that he is in another's dream, where dream death would save him from the extraction of sensitive information (insert 'facebook suicide' analogy here). A simple pragmatic suicide to escape submission to another's 'reality'. Suicide is the last action over which you have control, for those of us entrapped and disempowered by our lives within the unreality of the machine, sum moribundus.
(2) Next, in a brutally cut scene Cobb and Mal kill themselves under a train to get out of limbo; here suicide (unlike that in Bothersome Man) does free them. So they die beholding the meaninglessness of the mirror-like 'reality' they have created for themselves, as Narcissus, but more violently, they die to escape the self-referring gallery, the city of self-snapshots (re:fb again).
(3) In perhaps the most harrowing scene, the supposedly triply certified 'sane' Mal jumps from her hotel window ledge. This to escape the disappointing real 'reality', this to assuage an existential depression (different from clinical depression?), this to enter Cypher's blissful ignorance and thereby to overcome the pain of withdrawl from simulation addiction.
(4) If I understand the film's construction, all points at which Mal attempts to kill Cobb are expressions of his own subconscious willing his own death. These are interesting attempted suicides: motivated by guilt these are suicides of atonement. Interesting that this suicidal guilt should preclude him from architecting. Who do architects put at risk by their unresolved personal guilt? What mileage is there in this depiction of an active, personal guilt?
(5) And the suicides carry on, there is Ariadne's drop off the crumbling apartment balcony, by which point in the film we have lost any sympathy for the characters, lost the aimless plot among the tangents and generally become inured to suicide.

I want to attribute the massive success of this film to more than a mere viral marketing coup, more than its weight of celebrity and a lack of competing summer blockbusters. It meets a powerless, addicted, sinless generation where they are hurting, and there it empowers, sympathises and atones, this by the metaphor which the film allows us to inhabit. The metaphor of the dream is a profoundly comforting one, an addictive one, a gnostic myth structure which the whole-body experience of Inception gives some tangible legitimising weight to for its 140 minutes. As I read the suicides in this context, Inception, it seems, is not coy about the cost of the illusion, that, as in our longing to be but shadows on a cave wall, we will receive in ourselves the due penalty for this great exchange. I found it definitely the most sobering of these techno-existential films I have seen, as a Matrix made after Heath Ledger might, and perhaps ought, to be.

“You can't kick them awake when they're in free fall.”
So the America dream, now in free fall, is hinted at in the urban collage of re-creations by the happy lonely couple of Cobb and Mal. Beautifully rendered city scapes, built with an eye to their appearance as ruins, appear now as ruins, and Cobb is washed up on the crumbling shores of manifest destiny, where the clich├ęs sparkle on the water.

“Do you remember how we got to this cafe?”
I am one apt to sit on the creationistic fence, thereby allowing another to define the dream I operate within. I am one apt to underplay the importance of cosmology, the study of first causes. Where there is a battle for freedom, identity and truth in the present, it is fought at the level of origins both at a micro and meta scale, perhaps I should come off the fence.

It is ironic that this film, so clearly aware of the power of story, should fail to provide a narrative we can care about. I enjoyed and genuinely hugely admire this laudably ambitious triple layered timescale and all of the games it opens up, but ultimately this elaborate heist is let down, crippled even, by the vagueness of the character's banal ambitions (noble an ambition though American immigration may be). The mire of tangents and broken internal rules is simply bad story-telling, with too much of the possible-improbable over the richer impossible-probable, all compensated by a deafening score and gratuitous CGI. Where do films with this much potential go wrong? How big a budget is too big? Genuine questions, as I would ask of big architecture, how do they miss basics, and at what cost and for how long will we compensate people with spectacle?

Anyways, conscious if baffled by the film's shortcomings, I enjoyed its imagination. I did also enjoy the guardian's film criticism criticism, which offers some measure of the cult success of this film.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

other films

mother and child
Oh to have watched this film with someone. It is derivative and over-cooked, over-acted and over-loaded with hot-button (abortion, race, disability, age, as well as adoption) issues. But for all my exhaustion at these, the performances are frequently gripping and provocatively the three central, difficult women all find their resolution in child-bearing or adopting. 1 Tim 2:15. Discuss. The presentation of the church and of Christians in this film. Discuss. A theology of adoption and sonship. Discuss. A broody film.

weeping camel

What just happened? It goes without saying that this subtly executed observation of life for Mongolians is beautiful in all of its long, fixed camera studies, relishing to sit quietly in the ambience of ambient sounds of this desert life. It was interesting to watch a documentary apparently satisfied with the irony of selling by cultural consumption – film – the story of the demise of cultural participation, – yurt singing, as their kids buy TVs. But what happened? As if Jesus healed me and the credits rolled before I could 'be sure to tell no one'. It is a frustrating magic at work in this film, utterly captivating, the power of music, if that is what it was? Aesthetically sparse to the point of powerful beauty but narratively sparse to the point of dishonesty, gaps which leave us to wonder if we are receiving an idealised, sanitised reduction of Mongolian life.

le ciel et la boue
Remember a time of two-way radios and real men? A film's power to move me and the degree to which it risks death in production is a correlation worth constructing one's own life around. I came away feeling that I had crossed New Guinea with them, as if I had been the first explorers into these regions. Understated, heroic and unbelievable film-making.

indonesia calling
A relatedly indo-dutch 23 minutes well spent, watching charming fellows in flat caps protest something or other in Australia.

the mission
Was this an allegory for something? The somewhat romantic but visually stunning portrayal of the architecture of the forest camps is moving, even devastating. This architecture and its suggestion of possibility was the film's greatest provocation: is the picture of social and economic fruitfulness an end worth proselytising for? The compelling and much revisited clip of Mendoza's repentance surprisingly gains little for being seen in the context of its full film. And from that high point the film unravels, ploughing without conviction toward a needlessly blunt and chaotic finish.

i not stupid
5 months into my stay here, I have now managed to watch this, Singapore on Singapore, a cultural 101 for the Ang Mo. Its pantomime humour and self-deprecating introspection are charmingly of Singapore, an energetic film, simple and entertaining story telling, with well articulated caricatures. It considers child suicide with an alarming lightness, beyond mere black comedy, I thought.

i not stupid too
A little drunk on the considerable success of I Not Stupid, the sequel, while still offering great slapstick and some pithy social satire, has an obese feel, scraping around for issues not covered in the first we get pornography, public caning and divorce, all tied together happily with product placement and a moralistic public service montage at the end. These, the conspicuous positioning of New Moon products and the sermon straight out of the Singapore government's kindness campaign, give you perhaps the clearest portrait of Singapore and the arts community here. Watching this with a Cambodian housemate, I can't really say whether Singaporeans find the tone of the film patronising, the endless agonising over corporal punishment throughout is exhausting and eventually self-piteous.

toy story 3
Melancholy for we the generation who have grown up in lives parallel to Andy since 1995 and now leave behind our toys.