To the Wonder


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To the Wonder – Art 6/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5


No difficult film should be approached lightheartedly, and if you appreciate the filmmakers’ mode, or rather their cinematic language, they shouldn’t be read in another one. The foremost disconnect cinema goers have with Terrence Malick and his films (of a great many) is that they don’t know what they’re looking at, but it’s pretty, and they just wish it’d be something they can access and digest more easily. It’s especially the case in his latest offering To the Wonder, which has been described as the most idiosyncratic of his entire career; “almost too Malicky”, as one reviewer put it. To access and digest Malick, you should be warned that it takes a lot more work than you might typically invest in film.

Regardless of Malick’s intention to speak on the universally adored, transcending, and tried theme of love, he loses half the audience. Malick commits the sin of self-indulgence by making something quasi-autobiographical and tailoring it exactly how he alone can inhabit the dream. The mostly silent Ben Affleck works as his avatar witnessing this dream. Others are picked off one-by-one through Malick’s sheer foreignness to the straightforward novelistic narrative we’re conditioned to expect in the unsaid ironclad rules of pop storytelling. Heretofore Malick has either embraced the novelistic narrative outright, such as in Badlands, or a blend of novel in verse like a filmic Eugene Onegin, such as his more recent work. Now he’s gone pure verse, where his film’s purpose is to poetically spell out the feelings of people’s souls instead of giving significant plot turns and twists to expose their character through events, and it’s damn maddening to those who don’t know what to expect.

The result is the most poorly rated film of his career. His previous work stunned with his imagery, but the audience was mostly adrift anyway. To the Wonder has found diminishing returns on what some describe as Malick’s “nature photography” or “diamond commercial” bent. Looking at the distance between each of his films, and the relative proximity between To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, some have said he should have waited a bit.


Yes, I’m here to defend not just Malick, but this supposed turkey of a film, and say that most criticism is a bunch of horse apples. To the Wonder is just as amazing as any of Malick’s previous films, and there is no living filmmaker doing anything as impressive (though many come close). If there’s been some measure of decline, it’s not been in the quality of his art, but the quality of his targeting, or his ability to please a wide audience. In a world where nobody is forced to like anything they don’t want to, that is no sin at all.

The key to decoding any Malick film is often found right at the beginning. In fact it just about gives everything away, though with these visual masterpieces that’s a vast embellishment. The Thin Red Line opens with two American soldiers escaping from World War II and hiding with South Pacific natives who are existing peacefully and permanently in nature despite the industrialized convulsions of hell surrounding them. The New World opens with Richard Wagner’s Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, as Pocahontas and her sisters are paralleled to the Rhinemaidens, with Colin Farrell imprisoned on the way to his fate. The Tree of Life opens with Jessica Chastain explaining the choice between nature and grace, their benefits and risks, leading to a choice you’ll have to make in the film. Is Malick depicting grace or nature, belief or agnosticism, through the creation of the universe, the dinosaur that takes pity on its prey, and a 1950s Texas that perhaps mirrors his own upbringing.


To the Wonder opens with a poetic rendering of Olga Kurylenko’s story to come, as she’s helplessly drawn to the flame (unambiguously describing love). I can see the confusion on people’s faces when she says “One, two, one”. The easiest way to draw that into a picture is to show two monkeys fucking and then going about their business. In many ways, To the Wonder is a continuation of The Tree of Life’s central choice. Reduced to the easiest understanding, Malick is asking should we look to marriage as being in the manner of grace, in the Christian ideal of agape love, the “through thick and through thin”, caring in sickness and in health, sacrifical kind of love. Or should we rather accept love at its most natural, as a passionate booty call whose time comes and goes, regardless of whether the players are good people or not. Malick doesn’t present any tragedy or drama to hash out this matter. He simply depicts three people as they go about this business, and shows them embracing the flame, and its costs. Because honestly, do we truly need the ancient training wheels of dramatists done different for the ten thousandth time to really ‘get’ a love story right this time?

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Kurylenko’s daughter, who’s been brought from France to live with her mom in Texas, tells Ben Affleck that he should get married to her mom, and that will settle everything. Olga hushes her daughter, like “shut the fuck up kid, you’re ruining this delicate balance”. Affleck looks on his mistress and her child with guilt. Children naively pierce the bullshit with aplomb. Later, after developing affection for one another, Olga’s daughter realizes that despite the bizarre arrangement her self-loathing mother has consented to, Ben isn’t really a bad guy, and love exists and dissipates with or without a ring on it. When Ben and Olga split, it’s the second split the little girl has seen, with Olga previously divorcing her father, whom she grows closer to later on. When she’s leaving again for France, the daughter and Ben have both found familial love, despite him not being her real father, or even a future step-father. She knows that even though Ben is lazily taking advantage of her mother’s weakness and neediness in erotic love, he is far from a villain.


After Olga and Ben flame out, Ben happens upon his childhood sweetheart Rachel McAdams, and they rekindle their own flame. This love too runs its course. The fact that she’s a wonderful person, and maybe perfect for him isn’t enough. There is nothing dirty about her, except for the manure on her boots from running a ranch, that makes the blood boil. If love were a marketplace, you’d always be trading up, and most do. They throw caution and a perfect match to the wind as they embrace the best possible result, however long it may last. A perfect match for a few days is more important than a non-match for an eternity. So Ben dumps the earthy McAdams and tells Kurylenko to get on a plane so he can git sum of that mentally frayed sweaty joy. Having zero self-confidence and zero purpose, Olga leaps at the opportunity, only to burrow into emptiness once again. Her friend comes to town later to remind her that her vitality is bigger and more meaningful than the Texas oafs surrounding her, but it seems the friend is mostly talking about her self, and not Olga.

To round out Malick’s conception of the types of love, a conscience emerges in Javier Bardem, who is playing a priest at a diminishing church. His love for God is questionable, maybe even lapsed. However, his expression of that love, the love that Jesus preached to show for the dregs of society – the crack heads, mentally handicapped, those who can’t help themselves – is hardly diminished. The question here is whether grace is disembodied from the Church, to where it exists outside of a code, without a supernatural hand, or instead whether that sort of love isn’t long for the world when surrounded by the harsh fangs of nature that cuts people down, eroding their spirit until they’re rotting in the ground. Bardem sees love as the one sustaining force for all being, the one thing that stays the withering of the spirit, and is more than happy to spread it, even if he gets none from God. In Bardem’s understanding of love, he runs to the flame like a firefighter, while to Kurylenko the flames suck her in against her will. Like everybody else, they’re both burned to a crisp in the end.


Malick’s autobiographical subtext is worth considering very briefly. After he filmed Days of Heaven with Richard Gere (also about a love triangle), Malick fucked off to France for a while to study and teach. He married a French woman and brought her back to America, where they eventually divorced. He then married his childhood sweetheart, but that’s where the comparison stops (and we needn’t dig deeper for more), because he’s still married to her. You have to wonder how she reacted to this film, though. Maybe similar to how Giulietta Masina reacted to her husband Federico Fellini parading the fact he’s banging all these starlets through allegory in his film 8 1/2, but maybe not so bunga bunga. Think about it: Malick is admitting to himself that he ought to have dumped his wife and pursued the French woman again, because she was superior. But he tempers this feeling (if only to keep the plates from being thrown at him) by making this an exercise in reminding himself of the futility. The film ends with Ben and Olga realizing they’re just not right for one another, and their romance is too dirty, too earthy, too natural, to exist permanently. Malick is reassuring himself he chose right.

Olga is the star of this film, and it sounds like she earned that right by threatening Malick not to leave her performance on the cutting room floor with Rachel Weisz and a few others (yeah, they were in the film, kind of but not really). Compared to previous women in lead Malick roles, it’s difficult to say she exceeded any of them, but competently captured a recurring archetype in his work: the spritely woman stuck in preadolescence (also done in The New World by Q’orianka Kilcher). This archetype may be finally extinguished, with this film as its sendoff from Malick’s psyche. So far, only Sean Penn has acted as a possible Malick avatar, as the grown version of his own infancy in Tree of Life. Penn didn’t get what the film was about, and most of his scenes were cut in that as well. I’d say that’s a failure. Affleck gives a very “Bloomy” role here: that is to say, in my nod to Kingdom of Heaven, he’s amazing at serving his role as a silent lead.

If you approach this film and engage with its message, you may very well enjoy it. If you don’t give it a chance, don’t pay attention, only hear mumbling and see pretty shots of wheat fields and child-like meandering, you’re doing it wrong.

(As an addendum: much has been made of the twirling. I think commenters are just dizzy in this regard. Olga Kurylenko’s character seems to be a professional or amateur dancer, and her daughter enjoys acting like her mom. Otherwise I don’t think anybody else does it in the film.)

The Evil Dead (2013)


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The Evil Dead (2013) – Art 3/5 Ent 6/5 Worth 5/5


“Fellas, no matter what, just keep the blood running.” Theater owner Andy Grainger, the first primary investor in Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, had that advice for the young filmmakers who were investigating earning potential for their low budget flick. They would first pay a winking homage to Grainger by showing a film projector flipping blood out of the reel, and later follow the studied advice closely through all three films in the original Evil Dead trilogy, where our old hero Ash battles demons unleashed by the book of the dead both in a cabin and in medieval England(-ish). Signature star Bruce Campbell would push his inspired performance as series lead Ash into the realm of film and cultural icons, as they embellished his ability to take care of business with a chainsaw and a double barrel shotgun (“boomstick”), and with one-liners that rival Arnold’s.

When Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell felt the urge to return to produce more of the series, they left the heavy lifting from the director’s chair to newcomer Fede Alvarez, who co-wrote the 2013 film’s screenplay with writing partner Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody pinching in for aid (ostensibly to aid the Uruguayan duo in its Americanization). With Bruce Campbell deciding to bow out (for now), Alvarez and Sayagues looked beyond Ash’s hammy mythology to the iconic items: cabin, Necronomicon, rape tree, chainsaw, boomstick. Replacing the mythology of the original trilogy -and competing with a very self-aware horror universe that includes last year’s Evil Dead meta riff Cabin in the Woods– is a subtler narrative of addiction that’s critical to differentiate this from needless horror remakes. Most importantly, and critical to forcing the association with the predecessors, is how Alvarez and Sayagues follow Grainger’s 3-decade-plus-old advice. And sweet merciful christ do they ever keep the blood running.


In the short film Within the Woods, Raimi’s ancestral late ‘70s trial run for this oft-repeated story, the logic of the demonry stemmed from the Indian burial ground cliche resonant with Stephen King fans. King coincidentally shares some of the credit for popularizing the series after seeing the original Evil Dead when it was shuffled out of competition at Cannes. In the original, Raimi’s deep influence from H.P. Lovecraft turns in the Indian burial ground for the Necronomicon, the book of the dead, a Lovecraftian invention used through many media long after he died. Raimi builds it into a Sumerian artifact that acts as a gateway for Deadites, evil demons of a non-specific religion, who combine the zombie genre with the demonic possession genre into what I like to call Zemons (also seen in the Night of the Demons series). With this latest installment, the innovation departs Lovecraft for the most part, leaving only the chitin of his influence in the physical objects and mood, and instead centers in on the most classic theme of all horror, and furthermore Western fiction: Satan.

I can’t personally confirm that Alvarez and Sayagues led to this more Christian of themes because of their Hispanic Catholic cultural heritage; nor can I confirm that they alternatively might have been influenced by Antichrist, Catholic Lars von Trier’s splendid spectacle of an art film that uses some of the tropes from Evil Dead. However, either explanation for this change certainly would make sense. The most direct evidence for a connection to Antichrist is the encompassing chthonic nature of the powerful visuals and the audience outbursts of “OH MY FUCKING GOD” in pitched moments of sadism that both films share in common (the later, notably, also shared with Bruno). Moments throughout the film reminded me of the (socially irresponsible but w/e, YOLO) Christian horror trope of the dumb disbelievers who aren’t prepared to mutilate and murder people because they’re possessed by the Devil / demons (such as in Bill Paxton’s otherwise excellent Frailty).


Like the original, there is no clear protagonist until the very end. That role is surreptitiously given to the character of Mia, played outstandingly by Jane Levy of Suburgatory fame, whose acting ordeal here was nearly as rough as in a Jackie Chan film. I say surreptitious because (SPOILER ALERT BEGIN) in the original the victim of the rape tree is Ash’s (expendable) sister, whereas in the 2013 sequel-redux, despite the narrative misleading us with Mia’s brother handling the boomstick, and her brother’s girlfriend going to town on her own arm with a turkey cutter like Ash did in the second film, it’s Mia who is in the end the center of gravity, if partially by fate of being the last survivor like Ellen Ripley. (SPOILER ALERT END) Wonderfully, instead of this concept descending into a sad attempt at making Mia a female Ash and having done with it, Alvarez and Sayagues use her heroin addiction as the overriding metaphor, giving a soul to be stolen in the first place, a thing so delicious that frankly none of the originals even had.

It’s all the more appropriate then, that Mia is victim to her own doppelganger who pursues her into the rape tree (now more of a rape thicket), and acts as the primary vessel with which the demonry commences. The sanguine ending is further appropriate: with the return of her doppelganger in a literally chthonic rise, Mia has to face herself, her ‘demon’, who is pointedly calling her a “junkie”. The descent into monsterhood serving as a metaphor to addiction was also explored in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, where Lili Taylor experiences vampirism as would a person’s descent into drug abuse, speaking to the intertwining psychological origins of horror stories and the horror stories of real life. Mia’s labors through hell offer a more direct connection to the pain. A poorer sequel-redux would have rested its laurels on using the addiction as an ace in the hole, maybe just a tool with which the Deadites manipulate other characters, as they typically do, in their ‘poor ol’ me’ sweet nothings used to disarm. If Alvarez and Sayagues deserve meager praise for the easy stuff ( buckets of gore and blood that somehow won an R rating for content obviously bannable in many countries) they deserve high praise for sneaking this metaphor in on us.


Right now, the question being asked by many critics is: will anybody even care about this film in 30 years, like many now feel for the original. It’s a reasonable question, and I think thoughtful people will be justified in thinking “nah, it’s a feast for the senses without any substance”. I’ve seen some decry the lack of slapstick comedy that came to define the series. Many are just downright horrified by the film, with reports of a person fainting in Arizona, a woman movie-goer peeing her pants (though this sounds like dubious twitter rumor monging, considering a character does this in the film), and there are widespread accounts of walkouts, including journalists paid to cover the film, all opting to exit quickly over the gore more than it being a bore. Some might see shallowness to that, and I’m even tempted to recall the silly exhibitionism of the Hostel and Saw movies (Saw’s darkly misguided take on purposefulness mirroring the addiction metaphor).

But let’s be real here. Putting meat in seats by following Grainger’s advice is no sin. If anything, that cheapness should be applauded, as this looks to be a box office smash unlike any of the previous three, suspending the “cult” status. The wit in the originals barely stands up today. Seriously, go back and watch the original trilogy. The most yucks you’ll get is from the ribald skeletons (patterned after Harryhausen’s claymation figures in Jason and the Argonauts) yelling about wenches and storming a castle. If the addiction metaphor didn’t either slip by unnoticed or fail to edify in your account, then I don’t know what will convince you. To each their preferences.


It wasn’t just Stephen King hocking the original that made it a success. It was filling a void of imagination. We don’t have that void today. So in a relative comparison the original’s greatness speaks more to the lack of competition pounded with the ingenuity of the young Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. Yet in an absolute comparison, the reboot wins hands down, albeit in an environment so wonderfully rich in horror films inspired in part or largely by the original. On a practical level, the amplified 2013 film is a devilish delight that throws Lars von Trier into a meatgrinder, while the original is a nostalgic and dusty haunted house routine. The truly macabre films of today that didn’t slide into an R rating put this one to shame (see: Film, Serbian; or rather don’t see). The sheen, professional acting, and polish of this film are only discreditable attributes insofar as the audience is frequently exasperated by modernity. It’s almost as if people would prefer youtube beheadings from Syria today to a glossy dismemberment on screen.

So I’m personally not too concerned with answering the question. Yes, I will watch this in 30 years. Or no, maybe I’ll be dead or possessed by demons. Or whatever. The more important question is whether Army of Darkness 2, confirmed to be on the near horizon, will be a rotten and staid concept compared to this film. I think maybe Raimi and Campbell were right to inject new blood to run with the story, and they chose very wisely.



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Spartacus – Art 3/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5

Confusion. The Kirk Douglas film Spartacus is an exemplar of deep confusion from head to toe, reel to reel. It is an artwork of philosophical leftist agitprop, yet made into the largest commercial endeavor Hollywood had financed up til then. It is an anti-war film that repudiates the concept of hero traditional to “pagan tyranny” in Greco-Roman society, yet lionizes a messianic perfect hero and liberator with fewer complications than Achilles (that is to say: none). It purports to be a film against the evils of slavery, but says that it wouldn’t die for 2,000 years after the plot (roughly the time Spartacus was written in the 1950s, nearly a century after the American Civil War), indicating its actual expected target: bourgeois control of capital. It is a socialist text, yet leans on Christianity for moral force despite Christianity doing nothing to end the evils of slavery and classism that it rails against, and quite the contrary, Christianity justified and invigorated them to newer heights.

But what nobody can be confused about was how enormous Spartacus was in film history, and history in general. Spartacus is, at heart, a dramatic framing of an etiological myth for slave morality, where the tragic extinguishing of a rebellion against the injustice of society would dovetail nicely into the cross and church guilting society into more correct behavior (the final scene has Spartacus crucified like a Christ figure). The highly successful film plucks the heart strings of freedom and justice-minded people everywhere, anticipating later Oscar winning epics like Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Spartacus also effected the beginning of the end for McCarthyism’s lasting impact on Hollywood through the blacklisting of Communist screenwriters, thanks to Kirk Douglas’ heroic decision to give screenwriter Dalton Trumbo his name back after working under aliases for a decade. Even John F. Kennedy crossed lines of anti-communist protestors to see the movie.

Written by Howard Fast while he was imprisoned for Contempt of Congress after refusing to name the contributors to a charity helping the families of Spanish Civil War veterans (amongst whom could be counted former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt), the original book differs heavily from the final screen product. Fast’s unfamiliarity with screenwriting caused actor-producer (and thus overlord of the film) Kirk Douglas, who had invested a large sum of his own money to secure the rights of Fast’s self-published book for adaptation (making Fast bourgeois scum too?), to bring in Dalton Trumbo, a fellow blacklistee and former Communist. After only serving on the production for the early scenes in the Libyan slave mines, director Anthony Mann either quit or was fired, not entirely sure whether he appreciated the scope. Young director Stanley Kubrick was brought in to finish the film. Kubrick would later say this was the only film of his that he did not have absolute control, and it shows.

Trumbo, though a much hailed screenwriter, had a sordid personal-political history that makes the themes of this film quite the more interesting. After authoring Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel that targeted heroism in all its folly, about a World War I veteran laying motionless in a hospital bed, he suddenly decided to cease publication when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, because a case for heroism fell to him much like the Mormon Church received prophesy that Blacks weren’t devils when it became socially unacceptable. Quite ironically for a blacklisted writer, when some isolationists wrote him asking for copies of the book, he reported them to the FBI. He was also a stringent opponent of anti-totalitarian Arthur Koestler, and successfully blocked a Trotskist biography of Joseph Stalin being made in Hollywood. Trumbo called Stalin one of the world’s greatest proponents for democracy. Opponents of Trumbo’s useful idiocy and his fellow travelers, he said, were to be opposed by all means at hand. It’s all the more fitting that the subject of this film is the man Karl Marx saw as the only person fit to be called a hero in antiquity (though as a classicist, Marx was still deeply appreciative of Aeschylus, Democritus, and Epicurus, amongst others, as should you be). In a way, one could view the Cold War as a philosophical battle between a civilization inspired by Spartacus, another by Cato the Younger.

The film begins with some very genius still photographs: one of a hand of a laborer; another of the bust of a classical hero’s face, crumbling. The Latin word for hand is manus, as in manumission, the act of freeing a slave. The crumbling visage is the visual accomplishment of the story’s main theme of tearing down the master morality of antiquity, replacing it with the story of the one man true to our modern nature. Most of the artistry that follows is tiddlywinks compared to the opening stills. The narrator’s opening monologue brazenly condemns Roman society and its “pagan tyranny” that had yet to be civilized by glorious Christianity (yawn). The narrator also condemns the crippling error of slavery within Roman civilization. In truth, slavery did play an enormous role in the death of the Roman Republic, because it effectively drove up unemployment for laboring proletarians and Plebeians, and made them dependent on the slave-holding class of Patricians (or Bourgeoisie, if you prefer), including the attachment of one’s self and fortune to the adventures of generals who commanded the total and long-term loyalty of their soldiers. Imagine robots taking over most of the service industry. Imagine the dispossessed hordes fanatically following the populist politicians promising them free shit, or better yet, the private mercenary organizations like Blackwater doing so.

A Thracian slave (Thrace was a semi-barbarous nation located just on the periphery of Greek culture and history, located today in modern Bulgaria), Spartacus is first seen toiling away in a quarry in Libya, where he is condemned to death for fighting back against his slave drivers. He is rescued by slave trader Lentulus Batiatus (played by Peter Ustinov, who’d win an Oscar for his role), an apathetic and apolitical scoundrel with a heart of fake gold, who brings Spartacus back with him to Capua to be trained as a gladiator by freedman Marcellus (a character that subtly anticipates R. Lee Ermey’s Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and similarly is killed by his instructees). Visiting Batiatus’ compound, Marcus Licinius Crassus (played expertly by the legendary Laurence Olivier), future Triumvir with Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus, comes to watch some Gladiators fight it out to the death for his entertainment. Instead of killing Spartacus, the black gladiator Draba (Woody Strode) chooses to launch his trident at the rich fucks up in the galley, before getting a javelin in his back right at Crassus’ feet (the only one not to flee), who cuts him a final time.

Here we see the ultimate contrast in the film: Crassus vs. Spartacus; villain vs. hero; bourgeois scum vs. warrior for the proletariat; homosexual pagan vs. straight crypto-Christian. Soon after this, Spartacus fights back against Marcellus’ beatings, and spontaneously, the rest join him and thus begins the Third Servile War. The rest of the film is an interesting split. Interesting because of its interplay with Roman history, and the philosophical implications that follow the plot decisions of Fast and Trumbo. Spartacus’ noble decision to flee Italy, and send everyone back to their homes, as Plutarch states, was disrupted by the more rowdy element in his midst such as slave leader Crixus, who saw burning shit down and raping bitches to be more fun than simply going home in freedom. In the film, Crixus simply states legions block the paths through the Alps, and Spartacus is quick to admonish his fellow gladiators for committing captured Romans to an ironic switch of being forced into the arena, thus giving a moral advantage to the slave revolt. This uncomplex good vs. evil crap that simplifies history and politics is easily blamed on the totalitarian intellectuals writing the film, who have a lot invested in the moral clarity of their hero.

The scenes involving Spartacus that were under total command of Kirk Douglas in the film, and his character, through both the writing of the leftist authors, and Douglas’ vanity, makes him come across as the perfect Christian knight of righteous, equitable and sober spirit. The absence of anything remotely resembling a flaw in his character, placing far below the heroic Achilles or especially Odysseus this narrative intends to demonize, is ironic in its lack of Thersitism. Thersites was the loud mouth asshole who allowed Homer and epic writers to voice the contradictions of a story without fully undermining it. Achilles finally punches Thersites to death after he mocks him, but what is said is said, and the audience loves it enough to endure the insanity of the Trojan War. Philosophers in the Germanic tradition, especially Hegel and Marx, took great note of the role of Thersitism, and the role of undermining the egotistical “heroes” of the day. Thersites has no place in Spartacus, however, because it was written by totalitarian blockheads and produced by an egotistical movie star who wouldn’t himself hear any cat calls against his work.

This hagiography made Stanley Kubrick roll his eyes in sardonic disgust, but there was next to nothing he could do about it. Kubrick was given more leeway in the scenes at Rome that followed the cloak and dagger machinations by the ahistorical “Gracchus” (hinting at the crypto-commie Senators Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus who began the Roman Revolution by winning power against the Senate through land distribution to the dispossessed common people). Meanwhile, in notable contrast to the Marxian and Douglasian unblemished hero Spartacus, Olivier’s Crassus is far more complex, and closer to the morally upright but Mitt Romney-esque politically flexibile loan shark described by Plutarch. More notable is how the historic Crassus came to be the wealthiest man in antiquity (and possibly all time): he seized the estates (including slaves) of nobility condemned by conservative tyrant Sulla, and then used his troupe of slaves to purchase estates on fire at rock bottom prices. Broader meaning: it’s okay to capture slaves, but slaves cannot uncapture themselves!

The ultimate irony of antiquity is that most thoughtful philosophers condemned the concept of “might makes right”, in that victory on the battlefield meant the victor owns those that submit, but horrified Greek and Roman society saw slaves revolting, and therefore winning back their freedom, as a police/militia matter that needed to be stamped out. You lose one battle and you’re cleaning, cooking, and sucking cock for life, but you win a revolt and that just means you’ve offended the order of the household and therefore Zeus/Jupiter. But from Alexander the Great’s sack of Thebes to Crassus’ taking advantage of Rome in Sulla’s Civil War, it was more the rule than the exception, and this especially included the institution of slavery (Alexander put all surviving Thebans into slavery, as did most Greek conquerors to the conquered). Plato and Aristotle accept that there are stronger and more noble people in relation to the slobbermouths at the bottom (Aristotle going so far as to say some people are in ‘natural slavery’), but they dismiss the idea that someone is someone else’s property for having lost in combat. Furthermore, Saint Augustine (of enlightened Christianity fame) says that those who lose in combat and pressed into slavery have it done to them by the will of god, therefore the slaves should obey god. Pagan tyranny, indeed.

Nevertheless, the institution of slavery persisted, and whatever deal or compromise on the institution of slavery that might have been met in the Third Servile War was precluded by the fact Crassus had to compete with other adventurous men for honor and glory, because the control of Rome was at stake. In the film, Olivier’s Crassus explains that he wants to return Rome to its former constitution (of an aristocratic character resembling the constitution prior to the historic Gracchi, and the fictional Gracchus opposing him in the Senate). This sets him as somewhat more noble than Pompey and Caesar, both of whom Karl Marx loathed. Marx actually comes to praise Crassus as the more capable general than Pompey, who stole the glory from Crassus in the final pitched battle against Spartacus, and was thereafter an inept buffoon in opposition to Caesar, whereas Marx esteems Crassus (who suffered humiliating death and defeat against the Persians) fully capable of following through on Pompey’s empty promises of stamping out Caesar. The script by Trumbo is not unaware of a need to hold Crassus as the villain, yet a villain of superior guile to his bourgeois brethren. Without Olivier, however, there is little life to be had in this construct.

Kubrick’s role in the film is minimized from his other films, but you can especially appreciate it in a few scenes. Though much of the film follows the nature of Mann’s scenes in the Libyan quarry, Kubrick’s imprimatur can be found throughout. The framing of scenes is reminiscent of Kubrick’s filmic architecture, heavily favorable to distant shots and cleanliness and meaningful purpose for each image. When Spartacus is waiting for his turn to fight in the arena, as the out-of-sight action is heard to the solemn horror of Draba, we get a whiff of the closed intimate interior shots with explosive exteriors found in everything from 2001 to Eyes Wide Shut. A tracking shot after the slave rebels capture and set fire to the camp of Glabrus is also very Kubrickesque. Kubrick insisted on shooting the film outside Madrid, and it makes me curious if he did so to cheekishly bring the film in debt to fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s troops, who acted as the Roman soldiers (oh, the irony!). Older cinematographer Russell Metty fought the upstart director tooth and nail over the film, but Kubrick got his way, and Metty got an Oscar for following Kubrick’s orders. Indeed, the only Oscar Kubrick won.

The overall project of shedding light on the barbarous and utterly ancient nature of Roman society was most definitely not a bad one. The film had many of the rougher edges of the Stalinist intellectual authors, and the condescending Christian triumphalism of the previous spear and sandal epic Ben Hur shorn from its final product. The acting of Kirk Douglas, as far as star power goes, is pretty remarkable considering this was still very much a pre-Brando era. Olivier is doing Shakespeare and therefore doing Plutarch, and he’s doing it very well. Jean Simmons is given the role of an orderly waifish housewife ideal, and it’s not that she doesn’t perform it well, it’s that performing it well doesn’t mean a whole lot. The film is, for the most part, rip rollicking good clean fun in the classical epic genre.

One chief failure in Spartacus, however, is the hypocrisy of heroism exhibited by the writers, who essentially condemn heroism for nation or tribe (the film posits the evil Roman against the international band of slaves under their rule), or for glory, or for capital gain, and promote a flawless moral victor in whosoever triumphs for the lower class against the upper class, sans the comic relief of a Thersites. This is binary philistinism, plain and simple, and cannot be taken seriously by any person not inhabiting the 1st Century BCE. The structural and moral failures of Rome were deep and profound, and slavery was indeed the crux of the issue, but what’s apparently missing from the film Spartacus is that he wasn’t intending to free the slaves and begin a new order of the ages. The brotherhood of slaves was more the convenience and easy recruitment. If they hadn’t been cheated by the Cilician pirates promising them escape from Italy, they would have gone and “liberated” more slaves to join their merry band of brigands, until Pompey eventually stamped out the Cilician pirates, and them, one and the same.

The Roman Empire went to all corners of the world, leaving nowhere for free people to breathe freely. They “made a desolation and called it peace”. There was obvious injustice in their mere way of life. But the critique here, like I said earlier, is not about slavery, but about the inequality in men that the useful idiots penning the book and screenplay upbraid in our own society. Fast and Trumbo consider free men engaging in contractual agreements to each other’s benefit to be “slavery” as much as African-Americans subjected to the cruelty of southern cotton picking. The massive gaping hole in their history is that Spartacus, a truly noble fellow justly admired as being the most ideally free thinking and Greek-like of his age, was not turned from a higher purpose of achieving quiet freedom by legions blocking the Alps, but by the unruly nature of the anarchic system he created in his quasi-communitarian band of brigands. They wanted the sensual life of killing, fucking, burning, and destroying. Those base impulses of the common people, it appears, were also mostly shorn from the final product in this film. Film going audiences don’t want to be told that they, as the captains of democracy, are idiots who bend the state to their lowly whims, especially if they are precisely that. If things get too complicated, they hand it over to a hero, a tyrant “of the people”, like a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Lenin, or a Stalin, whose name was etched on the prize the Soviet Union gave to writer Howard Fast.

Despite the context of questioning the elitism of interbellum British nobility, this scene in The Remains of the Day might just serve as a competent repudiation of Fast’s and Trumbo’s Spartacus:

The Master


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The Master – Art 6/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 7/5

Any film that sits with you, and builds in your mind as you replay it again and again, not out of morbidity from some shock material, but out of a pure contemplation, is something to revere. If you’re just confused by a film, either the material isn’t for you, or its abstraction retarded its point being communicated. But more than likely with a film which you revisit in your mind, you’re given enough pieces to infer meaning in the variable areas only hinted at, until the film begins explaining reality outside of itself. This is one of the highest criteria for a worthy work of art.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, The Master brings to union two stories: the plight of a lower class and lower IQ sailor, Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), who is stricken with post-traumatic stress, physical ailments, and a severe sex addiction wrought from childhood abuse; and a subtle reference to the founding and spread of a Scientology-esque cult through the charismatic tent-revival mien of L. Ron Hubbard-lookalike Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). While he was conjuring this story with friend and lead actor Hoffman, Paul Thomas Anderson agreed with the suggestion that the focus should move to the sailor, who commands a far more interesting drama. With his borderline personality projected against the setting of the cult’s feminine-dominated obsessive desire to control initiates’ minds and natures, Freddie’s explosive libido finds and begins to crave the offered structure, until he realizes it can neither serve nor contain him.

Anderson is unafraid of the common prospect for error incurred by many storytellers who attempt to paint portraits of conflicted and erratic personalities. These characters more often tend to define the expectation for over-the-top cliches before anything real or arresting. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights are two exceptional people, but a morality tale and rubber cock aside, neither is rendered with corny obsolescence, and are in fact leviathans of cinema, drawn from the auteur’s keen observation of history and anecdote. To construct the two main characters in The Master, Anderson was given an easy go of things with the Dodd false Messiah archetype; to build Quell, he turned to stories imparted from Jason Robards (whom he directed in Magnolia), the life of John Steinbeck, and especially the banned John Huston documentary made for the US Army, Let There Be Light, about the “shell shocked” soldiers returning home from war with a few parts left in combat.

Similar to the proletarian humiliation by elites and sexual inadequacy coloring the eponymous character in the acclaimed Georg Büchner play Woyzeck (adapted by Werner Herzog in the ’70s with his trained Messianic gorilla Klaus Kinski in the lead role), Freddie is a damaged and compulsive brute, bouncing from one situation or one trollop to the next. Stumbling upon Dodd’s yacht (presaging Hubbard’s life at sea, finding no safe harbor for his spiritual snake oil), Freddie comes to be wrapped in Dodd’s manipulative web, being administered reductive hypnotherapy that gives him reason to unleash his demons buried deep within. Dodd cuts him down, then builds him back up again with empty encomium (“you’re the bravest boy I’ve ever met”). Dodd is like a cat playing with a mouse, but Freddie is instantly transformed with purpose and belonging, two things on which his family failed him. Freddie is hooked.

However, unable to find the proper Bacchic orgies and pussay he supposes one might find in any decent cult, Freddie begins sublimating his animalistic impulses (Dodd frequently refers to him as an “animal” in nearly pederastic admiration) as an enforcer in the name of The Cause, getting into scruffs with skeptics, naysayers, and even the police arresting Dodd for thieving from some old bat in Philadelphia. Tossed in the slammer, Freddie suffers a breakdown in which he loses his faith in The Cause, and in The Master, who attempts to administer his hypno-insulto-grip on him from the next cell over. Against the wishes of the ladies in his life, Dodd endeavors to redeem Freddie through pointless exercises meant to destroy his personality, and build him up again in the form of the Cause.

Thereafter, the feminine role in religion comes into play. Though the prophet-messiah and his enforcer are both leading men of the society, the rules and decorum are set by Dodd’s wife (played by Amy Adams), the movement is bankrolled and invigorated by lonely, bored women (such as Laura Dern and Workaholics‘ goofy naive assistant manager Jillian), and it’s to the essence defined by the trimmed hedges of domesticated nature. Adams holds a Livia-like dominatrix grip over her husband the huckster (giving him the best “hand party” in cinema history), and through him, the movement. The absurdity of the emasculated structure is highlighted by Freddie’s compulsive sexual mind, as he’s watching a boisterous gathering of the cult, and through his eyes we see all the ladies stripped of their clothes, breasts and bushes cinema-borne. His animalistic sexual drive is picked upon by Dodd’s recently married daughter, who covers her seductive tracks by claiming the brute is actually in love with her. His unruly and all-too-natural behavior makes him a misfit for the tribe in the eyes of Adams, so he’s reminded of his place.

Really, that’s all so much to take in. This is an appropriate metaphor not just for Scientology, but all religion, faith, crystals, magic healing, and new age horseshit as a whole. The implications don’t even stop at spirituality, and can be seen society-wide. The manipulative Dodd is a megalomaniacal charlatan who builds contempt for self-help gurus, and self-awareness advocates. The worthiness of submission or common sacrifice in the name of belonging or brotherhood also is questioned. Do you really want to join the Masonic lodge because you’ve led a boring life reading history books? Counted alone, the perfect performances of Adams and Hoffman make the film something to behold, but the re-imaging of the story to follow the rage of Freddie is an open invitation for Joaquin Phoenix to blow us all the fuck away by nearly one-upping Daniel Day-Lewis’ method acting, and physical dedication to the role. That’s saying nothing of a personal and real layer to Phoenix’s performance, on account of his family’s history in the Children of God cult.

I’ve said before that PT Anderson has a masterpiece in him somewhere, counter-intuitively admitting I don’t believe the phenomenal There Will Be Blood is the best he has to offer us. I didn’t feel The Master as much as TWBB, not by a long shot, but good lord is it a demonstration in genius filmmaking, making the profession looks deceptively easy. The cleanliness of picture, of narrative tension, of elite actors in their own choir of angels, and the second wonderful musical collaboration with Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood (also contributing to TWBB) leave one in awe of this picture.

Though I still think Anderson can do better, this one is an instant classic.


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