Weekend at Bernie’s
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Written by Robert Klane
Starring Andrew McCarthy, Jonathan Silverman, Catherine Mary Stewart, Terry Kiser
97 minutes, 20th Century Fox, 1989.

***

An artistic vehicle can’t help being some kind of commentary on something. For dontcha know, All Art is Propaganda, “the fool sees not the same tree the wise man sees”, and everything is just an argument for its own existence.

It’s shallow and gaudy at first glance — rife with tacky dark-comedy, but Weekend at Bernie‘s has some narrative tricks to tell. The title character of Bernie is/was the millionaire scumbag “Eighties’ guy” with tons of friends and money — shallow jerkoff in a jumpsuit at the beach. When Bernie dies, nobody around him even notices, except his underlings visiting for the weekend. Bernie is one of the main events at the beach town; people are attracted to him like flies on carrion. And right away you see his sycophants are so caught up in their own narcissism and shallow pursuits that they can’t afford to actually give a flying fuck about Bernie as a person, dead or alive. They don’t actually interact with Bernie at all. Everyone hangs out with Bernie exclusively for the luxury and status that his social-financial assets afford, and there is no interaction with Bernie, the tangible breathing (or not) human being.

Hmm, Bernie the tangible human being. It doesn’t sway people because it precisely isn’t tangible (even though people are… physical things?). Personalities and artistic endeavors sway people emotionally based on taste, but status, money, convenience, sexual allure, power — these things guarantee a modicum of attention and company: the oarsmen for the armada of the ego. The problem with status-based manipulation is that it is not actually deep enough to effectively sway people of quality, and those it does sway, it does so only temporarily, for their allegiance must always change to sample many flavors.

That’s the game of high society (and maybe all social groups) but it’s goofy here because it’s proven via such blatant means. Plainly shown, this is who Bernie is — or was, and who we construct from the variety of tongue-in-cheek engagements that take place with his corpse. He’s not really dead, or at least not any more than the people he keeps company with, because he’s just as active post-mortem as before. To be alive and aware requires emotional introspection and reflection; the people who cannot process things are the ones who cannot see a difference in Bernie — dead or alive. A person and their legacy are the projected constructs of other people. Status is an illusory social belief granted to those who define it.

There’s never anything particularly fuzzy or friendly about Weekend at Bernie’s and that’s what seems so ’80s about it. Part of the honesty of movies like Conan, Blade Runner, Willow, The Thing, Legend and a slew of other dark atmospheric ’80s fantasy films was they seemed to give an honest representation of depravity within a slew of seriously bold artistic choices and stylistic creations. Here whole thing feels like a very authentic emulation of shallowness, the bright colors, energy, and seeming innocence of the dorky protagonists. The difference is that the shallowness does not feel contrived, negative or soulless, whereas the same film today is so engendered with investment potential it becomes purposeless.
Amazon
@ Wikipedia
@ IMDb
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Avatar
Directed and written by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, etc.
2009, 20th Century Fox, 162 minutes.

***

The same storytelling plots and archetypes have been used and expanded upon for thousands of years. But does it matter that every story has been told or written if the current generation has never bothered to hear or read them? The narrative cliches here are common to the legacy of storytelling and Hollywood film structure, and furthermore are delivered without any subtlety whatsoever. Yet the narrative cliches are not as typically distracting or draining simply because the medium they’re being presented in is being dramatically altered visually. The awkward cliches are rendered painless by the visual narcotics, which gleam with an illusion almost strong enough to engage audience interaction and inviting questions about the evolution of media technology. Just as the play is an expansion upon the epic, the printed novel an expansion upon the play, the mainstream film an evolution of the novel, and video games are an expansion of the film medium, with this movie screening (let’s call it “movie +”) we have interactive suggestions of transhuman experience and real avatar generation (virtual reality).

James Cameron does not seem to have anything intentionally sophisticated to say. Most of Cameron’s directorial work amounts to family action-adventure, with 1-D caricature villains and cutting-edge high-budget visual effects. It worked best in Aliens, but became more obvious with each subsequent outing that he was the poor man’s Ridley Scott. Here Avatar‘s social commentaries are so overt and blatant they honestly can do no more than charm the reasonably mature viewer. Real-life 1-D people may find the movie and characters offensive (and so they are, if perceived as a literal reflection of real 3-D modern society) but the charm actually makes the message more resonant, in the same sense that the unintentional irony or camp of B-movie action creates a kind of interactive relationship with the audience. It’s an interesting effect in conjunction with the 3-D glasses and the impressive visuals.

So the layering is such that we have cutting edge special effects — effective enough to render human actors (avatars) unnecessary, replacing our human lead roles with computer computer effects, right in front of our eyes. It’s actually a subtle avatar transformation for us too, acclimating us to the concept of non-humanoid protagonists whom we emotionally will relate to (indeed, the female love interest is an alien with a tail, and save for the real human being Michelle Rodriguez there is an admirable lack of female eye-candy for a PG-13 blockbuster). On top of that, the optimum screening presentation uses 3-D goggles. As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented in a full-length mainstream blockbuster (Spy Kids 3-D and My Bloody Valentine, while cool, weren’t as successful nor optimized for the medium), part of a prop for the movie industry that is currently faltering due to modern networking technology and P2P networks, streaming HD media and high-quality home theaters.

Traditional science fiction, as I’ve said before, seems almost obsolete (both irrelevant and surpassed), but we do not pursue the space technology (or just don’t have the resources. See: global warming, oil prices, military spending, the war on drugs, etc.) that is the apple of our fictional eye. Instead, as my friend pointed out, the developed world has a common modern technology rich in data-mining and digital networking fueled by a mass-consumer market society, one thriving by selling people new stories about themselves. The emotional selling-point of mass-marketing new technology is that it gives the consumer a false, concrete sense of sophistication; an alluring impression of being able to buy class. But gadgetry is in fact, mostly junk.

Anyway, without the mindgames of the whole avatar/3-D/technology situation, you have an amalgamation of the following plots and films, most of which involve the traveling young Caucasian male undergoing an identity crisis:

Day of the Dead is worth mentioning because I haven’t seen anyone else draw the connection. It discusses the same direct “science vs. military” attitudes (liberal vs. conservative, pacifist vs. aggressor) within a cavernous human outpost surrounded by zombies, by way of anthropologists who want to study the same subjects the soldiers want to destroy. And like Avatar, it beholds a special effects spectacle above and beyond any of its contemporaries (Day of the Dead is still unique in this sense, using supremely fine make-up effects and being supremely R+ gorey). But Day of the Dead was done on a budget absolutely microscopic compared to the average Hollywood movie, let alone Avatar, the 2009 movie industry’s Chinese Democracy.

So actually a stupid movie, but kind of interesting, if not intentionally so, because it seeks to sell a complete visceral visual experience, but is still just 3-D CG (demi-god VR status). But it’s really gorgeous and (ironically?) features humans with alien avatars, which are CG creatures, thereby pointing out incidentally that CG effects are our avatars. Then the movie was so loaded with cliches but presented them so casually that you didn’t really focus on them — they just flowed naturally. And it occurred to me that narrative cliches almost don’t matter, if they take place in a new medium. The audience was tricked into being receptive to the experience before it even started and lost their critical assessment of the dialog, story, etc. which would be pig-slop on a tiny, non-3D screening.

*sigh* I know, sorry, this review was so obvious and unnecessary, but after watching the movie I felt compelled to practice my humanoid writing skills. Now I’m going to go watch some humanoid porn, just to make sure I am, uh… attracted to the right species and then smoke some weed cigarettes, to make sure I’m still a part of the beautiful conglomerate circle of consumer life.

@ IMDb

No Retreat, No Surrender
Directed by Corey Yuen
Written by Ng-See Yuen and Corey Yuen
Starring Kurt McKinney, Jean Claude Van-Damme
1986, New World Pictures, 85 minutes.

***

The formula here is literally a formula — the movie is a series of sequential vignettes of training montages; and storyline

events which signify the presence of a narrative, but no actual character development.
Hence the movie is blatantly surreal, its rails constantly wandering off. It protrays karate as the center of the universe.
The best part is when the protag’s ravished mental state actually procures a ghost of Bruce Lee, who trains him to a new level
of martial expertise. At this point it makes no bones about being a fantasy, but is also a hilarious indictment of Bruce Lee
fanboys across the universe.
This is actually a pretty interesting presentation,
for it blatantly disregards the cinematic desire to produce realism. Guys like Tarantino lap this approach up and have made it the
cornerstone of their canon.
It is pornographic in one sense, for the attention of the creators is mainly given to the center character, the avatar of the weird
juvenile male fantasy, and all other
characters are somehow even simpler — 1-dimensional stand-ins for the protagonist’s personal demons. In other words, we have the
starlet at the center of the orgy, the camera focused on her emotional engagements, surrounded by numerous faceless male partners
absent of detail or real relevance.
The movie has no real conclusion either. None of the character’s social ties are remedied until he proves he is a more efficient
killing machine (in the ring, of course) than the rest of the crowd. The love interest is concocted as another background color,
but the female character really is nothing more than a prize to be won. Amusingly, the lead can’t do this until he has the
self-confidence won by beating everybody up, even though she doesn’t seem to actually respond to that quality, but likes his
effeminate exuberance. The plot is a mere sketch, but this is part of the appeal.
Flicks like this are pure escapist role-playing fantasy. The fantasy is an extension of unfulfilled male drives — it ventures off
into harmless fantasy, but also strange solipsism and anti-social narcissism. Because anyone who deeply entertains these kinds of
fantasies seriously is either a little kid, or a dysfunctional adult. Separating the world into such simplistic and convenient
notions is villainous work. It makes me think the presentation of the protagonist, fighting against such boring and obvious evil
landing right in one’s lap,
is actually the way the dysfunctional villain of the story (and society) sees themselves.
This is evident in how much the badass master tries to talk down the criminal, who manifests some kind of insane anger out of
nowhere and pushes the guy to no end. Violent thugs also justify their actions to themselves by often asserting blame upon others,
that others pushed them to behave in the way they did. What is common amongst cheesy, cathartic action movies is the notion that
the protagonist just wants peace, but others force them to maim and kill.
This is the condition of most action movies, particularly those of the ’70s onward. Bruce Lee managed to make everyone think he
was a super badass, whether he was or not. By reveling in himself and his desire for fame and recognition (why did he care if
white people liked his movies?), he managed to become the pinnacle of the male pubescent fantasy.
It’s also Van Damme’s first starring role. He doesn’t have a whole lot of screen-time, but he gets to show off his kicking chops
and do at least one good 180 split. Supposedly the guy only got an initial $250 for working on the film — kinda cheap considering
the quality of his acrobatic work here.
Anyway, Van Damme playing an evil Cold-War Russian is pretty funny, right? I suppose the underhanded agenda is that the Russians
want to take over the karate schools in the USA or something, but it’s not really all that clear. My favorite moment was definitely
the awkward highlight when JCVD grabs the girlfriend’s hair. An evil action, but so necessary to awaken the volitional spark in the
protagonist!
It’s fascinating in how it further defines her role.
–protagonist treats her like a princess (the way a repressed male treats a woman)
–school rival treats her like an object or objective (the way a hedonistic or cynical male treats a woman)
–villain treats her like a victim (serial killer or process predator)
So we have the three
Of course, cinema can be blatantly fake and still influence our own narratives.
LET THE FLIRTING BEGINNo Retreat, No Surrender is a cheesy martial arts movie from the mid-80s, starring Kurt McKinney, who would later go on to do… a few other things. The series incarnations don’t have much to do with each other, but the second and third (and unofficially titled fourth) of the series are notable for being higher budget, well-choreographed, with a recurring lead role played by Loren Avedon (who actually trained under Best of the Best star, Philip Rhee).
The formula here is literally a formula — the movie is a series of sequential vignettes of training montages; and storyline events which signify the presence of a narrative, but no actual character development. Hence the movie is blatantly surreal, its rails constantly wandering off. The plot is a mere sketch — but this is part of the appeal (as a bonus, karate is featured as the center of the universe in the town the movie takes place in).
Flicks like this are unabashedly awesome escapism. The fantasy is an extension of unfulfilled male drives — it ventures off into harmless fantasy, but also strange solipsism and anti-social narcissism. Because anyone who deeply entertains these kinds of fantasies, with any serious intent, is either a little kid or a dysfunctional adult. Separating the world into such simplistic and convenient notions is villainous work. The presentation of the protagonist, fighting against such boring and obvious evil landing right in one’s lap, is actually the way the dysfunctional villain of the story (and society) sees themselves.
Protagonists in action movies are based on narratives actually woven by narcissistic villains.

The self-indulgent homoerotic fantasy is more than evident in how much the badass master tries to talk down the criminal, who manifests some kind of insane anger out of nowhere and pushes our protag to no end. Violent criminals often justify their actions to themselves by asserting the cause of their actions (blame) upon others — that others pushed them to behave in the way they did. Hence, what is common amongst cheesy, cathartic action movies is the notion that the protagonist just wants peace, but others force them to maim and kill.
This overly simplistic narrative is pornographic (duh!), for the attention of the creators is exclusively given to the center character, the avatar of the weird juvenile male fantasy, and all other characters are somehow even simpler — one-dimensional stand-ins for the protagonist’s personal demons. The movie has no real conclusion either. None of the character’s social ties are remedied until he proves he is a more efficient killing machine (in the ring!!! he’z good guy!) than the rest of the crowd. The love interest is concocted as another background color, but the female character really is more of a prize. Amusingly, the lead can’t sweep her off her feet until he has the self-confidence won by beating everybody up — even though she doesn’t seem to actually respond to that quality, but likes his effeminate exuberance (neither a male nor female fantasy cliche, but just more lazy surreality!).
Of course, cinema can be blatantly fake and still influence our own narratives. That’s part of the beauty here: for all the angsty nonsense that the production embellishes, underneath the whole schemata lies some basic male social need that male viewers can identify with. The best part of the story, for me, is when the protagonist’s ravished mental state actually procures a ghost of Bruce Lee*, who trains him to a new level of martial expertise. At this point it makes no bones about being a fantasy, but is also indirectly a hilarious indictment of Bruce Lee fan-boys across the universe. This is actually a pretty interesting presentation, approaching pure irony. Guys like Tarantino lap this approach up and have made it the cornerstone of their canon, but in Tarantino’s case, the blatancy of such an approach actually kills its fertility. The potential for unintentional irony here creates a thrill not unlike real, “found” or docu footage.
This film is only well-known now for being Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first starring role, playing the villain: Ivan the Soviet kickboxer (Cold War, remember?). He doesn’t have a whole lot of screen-time, but he gets to show off his martial chops and do at least one good 180-split. Supposedly the guy only got an initial $250 for working on the film — kinda cheap considering the dangerous quality of his acrobatic work here. Interestingly, Van Damme has pointed out recently, and rightly so, that action stars today don’t have to physically work for their appeal. The editors just chop the action up so that even complete schlubs like Christian Bale or Liam Neeson can look like efficient killing machines. I mean, at least Arnie had to look tough, even if he couldn’t move like Jet Li.
The film can be seen in 8 or so parts on YouTube, and is worth a look if only for the very alluring soundtrack. It’s pure ’80s low-budget keyboard work, but is surprisingly tasteful. Every single interaction is a bursting bubble of homoeroticism, and on the whole is definitely worth it for the giallo, B-movie, MST3K, chop-socky crowd. Modern ironic film fans need not apply and should stick to mass-marketed nostalgia. This one takes balls!

@ Amazon
@ IMDb

________
*Bruce Lee taught a Chinese martial art of his own design, much much different than any form of karate that the movie portrays. It makes his phantasmic appearance to the karate student all the more amusing.

This weekend’s edition of the Financial Times had an interesting interview, by John Thornhill, with the Yugoslavian political philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. The casual Movie Masher fan might only have a passing interest, but then Žižek brings up Hollywood and its commercial ideas of rebellion made for established party-line agendas:

Take Titanic (1997). Most viewers see it as a straightforward love story. Not Žižek. Many critics noted the anti-establishment tone of the film: how the rich passengers are cruel while those on the lower decks are far more sympathetic. But, according to Žižek, the film reinforces the social order rather than subverts it. The true narrative concerns a spoiled, rich girl who has lost her identity. She takes a lower-class lover to restore her vitality, to put her ego image together, he says. The lover literally draws her picture. “And then, after his job is done, he can f*** off and disappear. He is – what I would call in theory – a pure vanishing mediator. It is not a love story. It is vampiric, egotistic exploitation.”

[…]

What particularly intrigues Žižek is how films that seemingly resist the prevailing ideology, such as Titanic, often serve to strengthen it. It was a similar story, he suggests, in communist times when people who told seemingly subversive jokes only succeeded in spreading cynicism and indifference, which was exactly what the party nomenklatura needed to sustain their rule. A member of the ruling Communist party in the dying days of Yugoslavia, Žižek well remembers how the country’s leaders sustained the regime by exploiting the population’s passivity.

“If you asked me at gunpoint what I really like, I would say to read German idealism, Hegel. What I like most, what I love the best, is this objectivity of belief,” he says. Although people may claim not to believe in the political system, their inert cynicism only validates that system. This is all explained, according to Žižek, by Marx’s theory of “commodity fetishism”, the idea that the way we behave in society is determined by objective market forces rather than subjective beliefs. “The importance is in what you do, not in what you think. I love this dialectical reversal.”

Žižek then segues into a riff about obscene military marching songs, which he came to relish during his time in the Yugoslavian army. He sings one from the film Full Metal Jacket (1987), temporarily silencing all other conversation in the restaurant. “I don’t know but I’ve been told/ Eskimo pussy is mighty cold.” He continues regardless: “What I learned from my own military service was that all these obscene jokes, these apparent forms of rebellion, are exactly what the power needs to reproduce itself. There is nothing subversive about it.”

Read the rest of it here, where further discussion abounds: Lunch with the FT: Slavoj Žižek