Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The "28...Later" Films, Sex, and Infection

I'll get this out of the way, first: I just saw "28 Weeks Later", and it was surprisingly weak. In order for the film's central conflict to occur, we have to believe that an elite military force charged with the sole task of containing and protecting the only civilians in all of Britain fail this task monumentally, and fail monumentally twice in short order: two escaped children are allowed to make trouble for at least 20 minutes from the time they're spotted leaving their safe zone in the Isle of Dogs; and a building superintendent is not only given fully access to all sections of the base, but he retains that access even after his biohazardous wife is found by the children and subsequently quarantined by the military. There are other moments of 'why wouldn't this strike a trained military force as a bad idea?', but I'll leave it at that. The film is legitimately frightening, but the biggest frights are restricted to the first 10 minutes, which ask nothing of our ability to suspend disbelief.

What occurred to me, though, and especially when one compares "28 Weeks" to "28 Days", is that this zombie franchise is operating on a subtextual level that's very different from other zombie films. Where Romero's movies are commonly taken as critiques of 'modern life' and consumerism, Boyle and Garland's burgeoning series seems to be take aim at the germ-free society, free sex, and our anxieties over the meeting of contagion and sex - sexually transmitted infections.

Take, for instance, the scene from "28 Days" in which the soldiers intend to rape Selena and Hannah, the two female survivors who had been traveling with Cillian Murphy's Jim. The moment in which the soldiers become totally consumed with assaulting them is the same moment in which the Infected overwhelm their defenses and proceed to kill them all - the intimation of sexual violence is linked to infection and a painful death.

"28 Weeks" presents a subtler link to sexuality as such, though the links themselves are more numerous. The new outbreak begins with a kiss between spurned wife and guilty husband in a scene that's played as if he had cheated on her (well, he did leave her behind when the Infected attacked) and must beg forgiveness. Though it's certainly up for debate, the wife appears to know that she's a carrier for the infection and looks perversely satisfied as she watched the infection take hold, panicking only when she realizes that she's doomed herself, too. The unfaithful partner is met with the vengeful gift of an STI.

The suggestion that the wife can even be a carrier also links the infection to early AIDS discourse. Rose Byrne's medical researcher, the ostensible world's expert in this disease, notes early in the film that she doesn't know how such a thing is possible but that they hardly know anything about the disease in the first place. And, regardless of the wife's lack of symptoms, her blood and saliva are highly contagious. Okay, so the saliva bit is real in the film and turned out to be a myth with regard to AIDS, but the notion of a carrier was popular at one point - a person who could contract HIV and pass it on but who would never get sick him or herself. Whether the carrier in the film would have eventually developed the symptoms of an Infected is unknowable - she's killed by her husband, after all, in yet another bit of spousal revenge - but the danger in tossing around terms like 'carrier' and 'immunity' with regard to a little-understood disease are made perfectly clear: don't swap spit without protection. (There is undoubtedly a moralizing gesture here too, though that's a subject for an entirely different blog entry.)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Intention vs. Reception, and responsibility to work and audience

Last week, NOW Toronto had an absolutely dreadful interview with Avril Lavigne - one of those puff pieces that avoids asking the star any tough questions, but is coy and ironic in its exposition, as if it wants to be highly critical or mocking but fears some sort of punishment. It's a painful read.

A substantial section was devoted to perhaps my biggest pet peeve - the 'artist' who feigns ignorance or denies responsibility when pressed about their content being sexist, racist, etc.* The interviewer notes that Lavigne's lyrics on her new album are incredibly antagonistic toward other women, and even misogynistic at points - as in the highly clever descriptor "bitch slut psycho babe". Lavigne, though, is dismissive of the criticisms, as if her intention trumps reception: "I didn't really think about it that way. It's not serious to me."

Intention comes back later in the interview: "I've done a really good job of focusing on who it is I am and what it is I want, and that has always been my message to my fans: don't worry about what other people think; do what you want to do; be yourself and be strong." Unfortunately, this is a banal and probably even idiotic recommendation: our freedom to 'be yourself' and 'do what you want to do' is constrained by social and economic limits and necessities, just as Lavigne needs to admit that her songs participate in a conventional and semiotic exchange that is far larger than her intentionality. It doesn't matter if she doesn't 'think about it that way' - a responsible writer should anticipate what others will think, how they will receive a message, and what they will do with it. It is a serious matter if you're easily misinterpreted, especially if you have any kind of genuine commitment to your audience. (And even more especially if that audience is largely teenaged or preteen.)

But then, Avril Lavigne and disingenuousness seem a very apt pair.

*My favorite example of this sort of maneuver was performed by Matt Stone and Trey Parker after Team America - which I despise, despite liking South Park - was released. When they were asked, reasonably, about their film being homophobic and pro-imperialist, they resorted to the classical response of blaming the viewers - it was they who were reading too much into the film, assigning it their own biases, and these observations were not indicative of Stone and Parker's intentions and so invalid. They claimed to have criticized people of all political stances and favored none - like Lavigne, they denied any responsibility so far as interpretation goes.

Admittedly, it's difficult to tell whether Stone and Parker were being insincere or were actually ignorant of what they were doing. What is clear, though, is that some critiques are more ambivalent and more desirable than others. In the film, they describe three types of people: dicks, assholes, and pussies. In the end, the hero decides that if he has to be one, then he chooses to be the dick. (Since, as we've been told through the film, the dick keeps the asshole from shitting on the pussy and sticks it to both of them.) Americans may be dicks, Stone and Parker are clearly telling us, but we ostensibly need them to be dicks for so long as there are assholes that harass pussies. This is also saying something about American masculinity, but I won't go there - this time, anyway.

Sure, none of the three offer altogether wonderful positions, but only an Avril Lavigne (evidently) would be unable to see that one is clearly being promoted over the others.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Follow-up to the horrific London 2012 logo...

In conversation with my brother last night, he mentioned this little character: a Tibetan antelope that serves as one of China's 5 mascots for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. And it might help explain the terrible London 2012 logo that I blogged about only a couple days ago.

The criticism that this critter has earned might explain why London decided to go with something abstract and ahistorical. The problem, of course, is that China conquered Tibet about 50 years ago and their relationship remains tenuous, with the Central Tibetan Administration (the traditional leadership in exile) residing in India and the Tibetan province holding a semi-autonomous status that many Tibetan critics claim is a meaningless title. In short, then, China seems to be (mis)representing Tibet as a full and equal member of the country, as the cute mascot totally glosses over a violent and repressive history. (And, indeed, distracts from the question of whether Tibetans are Chinese at all.)

So yes, this is the kind of thing that I'm guessing London hopes to avoid. But someone should tell them that one can invoke their history without doing so in an incredibly problematic way. But I'm tempted to still suggest that the dialogue that China's Beijing mascots open (unintentionally, of course) is preferable to the erasure and/or denial of history that London's logo gestures toward.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The 2012 Olympic logo revealed

London's Olympic organizers defend the design (which consists, roughly, of four abstract shapes that spell out 2012):

"It's vital that we reach out to those young people in a language that they understand and in technology that's familiar to them. This brand is absolutely the world they live in."

"People who understand the Games, who get the Games, have a historic feel for the Games, have an emotional attachment to the Games are probably not going to be moved, one way or another by a brand."

"The new emblem is dynamic, modern and flexible, reflecting a brand-savvy world where people, especially young people, no longer relate to static logos but respond to a dynamic brand that works with new technology and across traditional and new media networks."

"The brand launched today by London 2012 is, I believe, an early indication of the dynamism, modernity and inclusiveness with which London 2012 will leave its Olympic mark."

Should I be surprised that the London team and IOC are resorting to marketing claptrap in order to justify such a hideous design? And should I perhaps acknowledge that I have a certain problematic level of comfort with Olympic tradition, steeped as it is in borders and self-aggrandizement? And admit a certain expectation that London should play to their (admittedly, white masculine-centric) history rather than use something designed to maximize their sponsors' appeal to international markets?:

London organizers want the logo to be interactive, and have encouraged people to download the design template, personalize it and upload it onto the official website. [London 2012 chief organizer Paul] Deighton said the logo would evolve into a number of forms over the years. Sponsors would be able to adapt the logo to suit them. Banking sponsor Lloyds began using the logo on Monday, with its own corporate colours of light blue and green, with the official partner description written diagonally across the bottom number 2.

No, I'm not so naive that I think this is outrageous and exceptional; it is, of course, all too normal. History and our relation to it is always ambivalent and panicked, and so it's often revised or ignored, this being a case of the latter. But it can also be productive and ecstatic. Certainly, an event like the Olympics, which claims to have cross-cultural significance in a way that no other sports event does, should actually try to engage with the host culture's history, troubling as it may be in many ways. Instead, we're saddled with something that promotes London as if it were the newest fad in branding.

But like I said, this logo is not somehow exceptional; and neither, contrary to what they would have us believe, are the Olympics.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Heath Ledger's Joker

You've probably seen this already - Heath Ledger as The Joker in next summer's The Dark Knight. I've delayed responding to it because I was just sort of made...uncomfortable?

Am I alone in thinking that this is wrong, though? And not just wrong, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

The immediate problem, to my mind, is that this Joker seems to lack the very neurotic vanity that nearly ever other incarnation suffers from. As many have suggested, there's something so neurotic about him that suggests he's hyper-rational - not one hair is out of place, his suit always looks 'just so', and his various plans to kill Batman are meticulous in the Rube Goldberg sense. Such a Joker is also purely a sadist - he gets off on the pain he causes others, not on his own, and is only captured because he enjoys the pain more than the victory. He would prefer to allow his victims some small victory so that he can put them through hell one more time. But that Joker is not the one we see in this picture.

We could also argue that the Joker is the death-drive given human form, and that he represents both Batman's and his own secret desire to enjoin in a ritual of repetitive trauma until one or both dies - the superbeing's tacit realization that they can't survive every battle, that the whole struggle is just a big joke that will end with their death. Joker's very ordered appearance, though perhaps no longer neurotic (though I can't see why these two interpretations are mutually exclusive), is an element of this highly ritualized performance. There's something masochistic about this kind of Joker - he desires to lose to Batman, to be captured, maybe even more than he desires causing him pain. This is self-inflicted pain, sure, but only in the most abstract sense - he wants to be defeated by his mirror-image.

The implication that the Joker has carved up his own face (or is celebrating his scarring somehow), just doesn't fit either model for me. It suggests some sort of unspecific psychopathology, a sadomasochist in the most superficial sense - and that's simply boring.