The final scene of the young Han Solo solo movie

 

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INT: MILLENNIUM FALCON COCKPIT

HAN looks at counter on Millennium Falcon console. It reads 12.

HAN
Probably rounded it up. I’m gonna say less than twelve.

He slides out of his chair and struts out of the cockpit, a shit-eating grin on his face. The cocky motherfucker.

CHEWBACCA shakes his head. He leans forward and hits a button on the counter. The readout switches to one that reads to three decimal places. It now shows 12.499.

CHEWBACCA (in Shyriiwook, despairingly)
Rounding up includes rounding down.

He resets the counter, once more protecting  HAN’s fragile little ego.

CHEWBACCA (in Shyriiwook, pedantically)
And it’s not fucking parsecs.

He rises to leave the cockpit.

CHEWBACCA (in Shyriiwook, definitively)
Asshole.

END CREDITS ROLE.

*****

No Bothans were harmed in the making of this film.

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams 2015)

_1443544274and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2014) is not the way tumbleweed blows across the Tatooine desert when Simon Pegg makes his desperately unfunny ‘Rey gun’ joke, nor is it the revelation that the ‘home’ Han is so glad to be back at is the one in which his grandkids have dumped him, where he rooms with Bruce Campbell’s Elvis and Ossie Davis’s JFK, no, the best thing about the new Star Wars movie is the eighteen months of misdirection during which Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill straight-up straightface lied about the next Jump Street movie cross-over being with the Men in Black franchise…

Space is the Place (John Coney 1974)

[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 92 (2004), 97–100.]

Sun_Ra_Space_is_Place_21Imagine Philip K. Dick was born 15 years earlier, black and with an astonishing musical talent in Birmingham, Alabama . . . imagine that, and you might just get Herman Poole Blount who became Le Sony’r Ra who was known as Sun Ra. You might just get the other visionary genius of postwar American sf.

Reading John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Payback 1997), the comparison with Dick seems not entirely spurious. Both were phenomenally productive (Ra recorded over 1000 compositions on at least 120 albums). Both compulsively permutated and reiterated core themes and images whose shades of meaning and internal contradictions always seemed to imply a larger scheme in which they were reconciled. Both were innovators working with battered clichés. Both were treated indifferently at home and lionised in France. Both had run-ins with the FBI, possibly (in 1971 Ra and his Arkestra were invited to Oakland by Bobby Seale and lived for a while in a house owned by the Black Panther Party). Both were students of gnosticism and the Bible. Both had life-changing mystical experiences (in 1936 Ra underwent an ‘alien abduction’), but while the events of 2-3-74 led Dick to write his 8000-page exegesis, Ra lived his exegesis for the next 57 years, in person and on stage. Both were ontologically-troubled, perceiving the world as a veil (either that, or they were both persuasive charlatans). Both were self-mythologisers. Both have been called mad.

Of course, there were also many differences.

tumblr_mku7b2UL0I1s3e71xo1_1280Dick never claimed to be from Saturn, nor did he describe Star Wars as ‘very accurate’. He was not a major figure in post-war jazz, or the frequently unacknowledged godfather of world music, or one of the first musicians to experiment extensively with electronic keyboards. Dick did not mount spectacular lightshows before the likes of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, the Grateful Dead and others whose attempts to transform gigs into overwhelming integrated audiovisual experiences are sometimes cited as inspiring VR’s total immersion grail.

Nor was Dick born black in Alabama in 1914.

And although Dick was keen, at one point, to make a movie (of Ubik (1969)), he failed. Ra, however, succeeded—even if it was not always clear that the barely-released, rarely-seen Space is the Place was a success.

The plot is straightforward enough. Ra, wandering in an alien garden, explains that he is establishing a Black colony there, to see what they can accomplish without white people around—but should he bring the colonists by ‘isotope transportation transmolecularisation’ or by teleporting them through music? Cut to Chicago, 1943. Sonny Ray is a nightclub pianist. Insulted by a well-dressed black pimp called the Overseer (Ray Johnson), his playing intensifies: glasses explode, smoke pours from the piano, everyone flees. Sonny Ray, now Ra, and the Overseer are transported to an arid plain—Chicago, it appears, was just another phase in an ongoing conflict. The Overseer accepts Ra’s challenge to a game of ‘the end of the world’. Ra flies to Oakland, California in a spaceship powered by the music of his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. The Overseer recruits Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a reporter for ‘stone jive Channel Five’, to his cause, along with a brothel madam and two female nurses (who are treated throughout as little more than sex objects). Meanwhile, Ra reaches out to the ‘black youth of planet Earth’ and opens the Outer Space Employment Agency. He convinces the Overseer to up the stakes by letting him put on a show. Government agents abduct Ra and interrogate him about his spaceship’s power source and the African space programme, torturing him with a tape of what sounds like a high school band performing a particularly chipper version of ‘Dixie’. But the show goes on, and Sun Ra returns to space, taking with him a selection of African Americans to establish a colony on an uninhabited garden world. In order to secure this reversal of the Middle Passage from the interference of white people, Sun Ra destroys the Earth behind them.

sun-ra-space-450Shot on 16mm with a tiny budget, the movie has some very rough edges: flat visuals, indifferent dialogue (Ra wrote his own), thin characters, weak performances, poor pacing and the kind of inconsistencies and incoherence one often associates with Ra’s self-consciously elusive and playful pronouncements. Director Coney cites movies like Rocketship X-M (Neumann 1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (Hilton 1954) as inspiring the deliberately cheesy special effects that, aware of budgetary constraints, they set out to create. Fortunately, this unpolished quality quite closely matches Ra’s own pre-punk DIY aesthetic—throughout his career, his and the Arkestra’s costumes were generally homemade and looked it, although those in the movie are of a better quality. (A more remarkable example of this DIY aesthetic is the drum Ra told bassoonist James Jacson to make from a lightning-struck tree opposite the Arkestra’s Philadelphia home—an incident Jacson recounts in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise). The movie’s rawness reflects the circumstances of its production. By Hollywood standards, it is only a little less professional than many blaxploitation movies, and more professional than some. But in judging such movies, Hollywood’s standards are not the most appropriate measure.

Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ identified three kinds of filmmaking. First Cinema is the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators. Second Cinema comprises auteurist cinema and art cinema; but however well-intentioned it might be, it is a bourgeois cinema dependent upon First Cinema distribution. Third Cinema is neither commercial nor bourgeois. In its most militant forms, it is closely aligned with political groups, has clear political goals and is unconcerned with politically-debilitating myths of objectivity and balance. It is an activists’ cinema, embedded in struggle. In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic spectacles, Third World countries should aim to create an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggle. In addressing Space is the Place and some of the more radically inclined blaxploitation movies – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971), The Spook Who sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon 1973) – such standards and ideas might prove more appropriate.[i]

maxresdefaultIt is easy to deplore Hollywood’s destruction and depletion of other national cinemas. What is less obvious is the ways in, and extent to, which Hollywood has deprived the US of a national cinema, a tendency evident since the 1920s and currently foregrounded by the multinational ownership of the major Hollywood companies and their increasingly standard policy of treating the US as just one more territory in which they can sell movies. From this perspective, independent film can, depending on the degree and nature of its independence, be regarded as a national cinema manqué; and Space, Sweetback and Spook can be seen as efforts groping towards an indigenous Third Cinema.[ii] Their rawness and rough edges are products of the dialectics of perfect and imperfect cinema.

Space’s imperfections display the disjunctions of the era. Only a movie this marginal could:

  • display pictures of Angela Davis, George Jackson, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and other black revolutionaries quite so proudly
  • punish a villain by making his underlings, white and black alike, suddenly see him as a ‘nigger’ and treat him like one
  • depict a race war in which whitey loses so comprehensively.[iii]

Only Space could present elements of Ra’s Astro Black Mythology, blending an outer space future with a black Egyptian past – rejecting centuries of Christian metaphorisation of Egypt as a place of bondage and claiming it instead as the Promised Land, as black civilisation.[iv]

vlcsnap-2010-04-13-17h05m45s82And perhaps only such a marginal production could have displayed its misogyny so crudely. But to dismiss Space on this count would be problematic (and not just because many Hollywood productions of the period were just as bad, if more polished). Rather, it is another imperfection that opens up that particular historical conjuncture. This is not to exculpate – nor is it to damn with faint praise by reducing Space to the status of an interesting historical document. More accurate than Star Wars, it tries to offer a new hope, albeit an imperfect one.

Notes
[i]

Although as Mike Wayne argues in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (Pluto 2001) we should not regard these types of cinema as pigeonholes into which movies can be placed—instead, particular movies should be considered as embodying the dialectical interplay of these different cinemas.

[ii]

The films of the LA Rebellion group, which mostly rejected blaxploitation, can be understood as another attempt.

[iii]

Compare the wimped-out ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J Lee Thompson 1972).

[iv]

See Graham Lock’s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke 1999).

The final post, honest, on Jupiter Ascending (with hints of Fifty Shades and Star Wars)

in which the author finds himself attempting self-reflection, which is not, as you know, his strong suit…

0d25976623564ed7fbaa2169ae7c7774After my single-sentence review and longer post, various folk sent me links to blogs saying positive things about the film I had not considered, such as this piece by bootleggirl.

It contains a whole bunch of things I think are problematic.

First, and probably  least relevant here, is the great, and mostly American, tradition of demonising Mormons – I have always found Orson Scott Card hateful and tedious, and am familiar with the many criticisms of the Twilight books and movies (without reading or seeing them), but blaming all that is wrong about them on a religion is just lazy thinking. I am no fan of religion, organised or otherwise, but at least I understand that religions are complex shifting phenomena, and that people have complex shifting relationships with their religions.

Second, the equation of negative criticism of the film with sexism and transphobia. I have no doubt that transphobia does play a role in the treatment of Lana Wachowski – bootleggirl seems to have specific examples in mind, my only evidence is that we live in a much-too-often really shitty world full of loudmouths and assholes. And I will return to the question of sexism in a while. But I am not certain that recognising these factors makes the film any more coherent. (And there is the question of what is meant by incoherence. It is not as if the narrative is hard to follow; it is, after all, a pretty linear, one-damn-thing-after-another action-adventure. It is more that the thinness of the characters and the compression of what was presumably a three-hour cut makes motivations unclear/unconvincing and reduces the story-world to a series of flat and largely indistinguishable backdrops. The lack of chemistry between the leads also does not help make any of it seem to make sense.)

Third, the array of assumptions made about Lana Wachowski. Although, on the other hand, I think bootleggirl does a good job of demonstrating how adopting a trans perspective can change our understanding of the film. Suddenly, the sequence in which a camp robot leads Jupiter and Caine through the labyrinthine bureaucracy necessary for Jupiter to be declared queen becomes something else. It is no longer a misjudged and tiresome homage to Terry Gilliam (himself as frequently tiresome as he is misjudged) into a wry representation of the difficulties faced by trans people in gender-binaried and gender-binarising bureaucracies.

But there are a couple of important things in bootleggirl’s piece, both of which brings us to sexism in the response to Jupiter Ascending.

The first is bootleggirl’s attempted regenrification of the movie away from its marketing image. It is not a space opera for boys, like Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn 2014). It is about ‘space angel werewolf boyfriends’ with antigravity rollerskates, and thus obviously

a member of the female-targeted romantic fantasy genre – stuff like City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, and yes, Twilight.

I’ve seen none of the movies bootleggirl gives as examples, and I am way more True Blood than Twilight (at least until the fairies showed up), though admittedly not someone who could ever really understand the appeal of Bill or Alcide, especially not with Eric around.

But this makes me curious about the extent to which the film’s delayed release was also about cutting it, post-Guardians, in an attempt to ‘normalise’ its gender appeal (i.e., make it play more to the boys, albeit not very successfully). The female friend I saw it with, who enjoyed Guardians more than I did, also enjoyed Jupiter Ascending more than I did. But then afterwards was slightly appalled at herself for being swept along by the romance narrative.

Jupiter Ascending reminded me of NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) not just in terms of similar story elements, but also in my response to it. It is a novel I liked well enough, but not sufficiently to read the rest of the trilogy or to understand why it got all those award nominations. It was all a bit too bodice-rippery for me. (The same friend read my copy in a single sitting and immediately tracked down the sequels; and looked at me like I was mad when I first made the comparison.)

Bootleggirl is very clear on this point: Jupiter Ascending is ‘a female fantasy. It’s not anti-feminist.’ Again with the problems. Female fantasies are not monolithic. The ones in this film are not shared by all – or even most? – women. Just because it is a female fantasy it does not necessarily follow that it is not also anti-feminist. Not all women are feminists. Feminism is not monolithic. Neither is anti-feminism. Both take many forms.

But I am reminded of a point made by Anne Bilson about the Twilight movies

it seems to me that Twilight attracts a lot more vitriol than any other nonsense aimed at the young male demographic. … reviews of such boy-tosh may be predominantly negative, but the tone is not so much derisive as regretful at opportunities wasted. No matter that movies aimed at boys feature superpowers or super-robots or saving the world with super-ninja skills. Those sorts of fantasies are permissible, almost cool, even when the films peddling them are awful. … But Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls. I’m not saying in a good way, but at least it caters to them, and there’s not a lot else at the cinema that does – not in a young adult fantasy genre that invariably reduces females to also-rans or decorative sidekicks while the Harry Potters and Lightning Thieves get on with their questing.

Angie Han makes some similar and related points in her ‘Partial Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey’.

I’m not sure, but these approaches seem to me to be one way to deal with the sexism in such high-profile female-centred, female-created and/or female-targeted movies: try better to understand their appeal to often largely female audiences; try to leverage any analysis, complaints or critiques into the broader problem of the everyday and widely tolerated sexism of most cinema (not just content, but distribution, exhibition, reception). And we need to question and challenge the boy-tosh in similar ways

Which brings us to the second thing in bootleggirl’s post that set me pondering:

do not critique this movie by bringing up whether Jupiter is empowered. I’ve spent substantial time on another forum where largely male folks compared Jupiter unfavorably as a heroine to Princess Leia in Star Wars episodes IV and V. Even leaving out the metal bikini scene, Leia gets upstaged as the “leader of the Rebellion” as soon as Luke shows up, and like Jupiter, her exercise of power is primarily in conventionally feminine ways like giving orders or resisting pressure techniques, rather than shooting guns. Yes, Leia is slightly better at hand to hand combat than Jupiter, who has space werewolf fallen angel boyfriend to protect her. … I find this critique especially galling from people who loved Guardians of the Galaxy, the film that notorious feminist Joss Whedon was involved in producing where the female characters are good at fighting but also completely reduced to sex objects for men.

4766351833_c999af8d08To be frank, I am always mystified by this widespread reading of Leia, who rapidly goes from feisty to uppity to domesticated over the course of the three movies. Her story arc is one of humiliation, of a woman being put in her place. Regardless of what she does, that is how the films treat her. And let’s not forget, her supposed feminist credentials in the first movie are at least as much about the exercise of class privilege and whiteness. But it does seem de rigueur to genuflect before Leia, or at least before this presumably male fan perception of her.  ( In class last autumn, I mentioned Guardians‘ undermining of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) by the way the camera repeatedly leers at her arse. Male students, presumably intentionally catered to by such shots, genuinely seemed not to have even noticed them; but a lone female student did speak up, saying that was the only reason she enjoyed the film. Which made the ensuing discussion a lot livelier than it might otherwise have been.)

2116419.jpg.square-true_maxheight-285_size-285All of which made me think some more about my own liking for and championing of Emily Blunt’s Rita in Edge of Tomorrow (Liman 2014) and, to a lesser extent, her Sara in Looper (Johnson 2012).

Because when male fans are the ones judging the supposedly feminist credentials of female characters we could well be in serious trouble. Especially when the feminism invoked is so one-dimensional and non-specific as ’empowerment’ – a term that always was pretty vague and has become utterly devoid of actual meaning.

211996120It puts feminism(s) in the past, and treats the social realm as an even playing field in which magically empowered individuals swim while others sink and have no one to blame but themselves. Whatever its uses in the past, ’empowerment’ is now mostly a lickspittle, running dog discourse that leaves patriarchy and neoliberalism untroubled, and the action heroine ceases to be a feminist icon (however problematic) and instead become just another masculine fetish item.

Which is not to say that feminists and other women cannot make important use of them. But when they become such toys for boys to fight over, they also become a way of avoiding feminism(s) entirely.

(Trust me: I’m a boy, we pull this kind of shit all the time.)