Thursday, May 18, 2023

Notes for Iron Man analysis—2nd pass

I'm amazed at how much thematic and symbolic material I'm finding! I thought this was going to be a pretty quick and easy piece, but like Tony's armor it keeps upgrading as I go. I've already made a few passes beyond gathering rough notes, so I've got it divided into sections, which really helps to see what's going on beneath the surface in this movie. Now I'm covering the whole movie, not just the first act.

Tony Chastising his robot arm

Check the hilighted text

AI with Personality
At the casino where Obie accepts Tony's award while Tony is gambling, there's a brief video presentation about Tony's life. I freeze-framed on the newspaper and magazine articles and found something really interesting. When he was an MIT junior at 16, Tony developed a thesis that artificial intelligence could be imbued with personality through some kind of simple but radical algorithm. This idea of AI with personality echoes through the entire film, starting with the robot arm in the workshop. Whether it's aiming a fire extinguisher at him or saving his life by handing him his original tech-heart after Obie stole the new one, it always has an eager-to-please puppy dog personality, as if it contains a chunk of Tony's youthful exuberance, an imprint from the time he created it.

This sets viewers up to accept the MK II armor later, imbued with Jarvis' intelligence and personality. Unlike any of today's computer 'personalities' though—like Siri—Jarvis seems to get humor and sarcasm unerringly, and uses it himself. It allows Tony's technology to interact with him like a human being, friendly and personable, rather than clinical like all other tech, though Jarvis does have a very dry English-style sense of humor.

It's as if Tony has so much personality that it oozes from him into everything he designs or builds.

Hi-Tech Security
The armor itself is made in many layers, including pieces of mesh just like the athletic gear that was so popular at the time. In addition to that, Tony is cocooned in a nested series of holographic interfaces that seem to extend outside of the helmet into the air around him. Taken together this gives a strong feeling of being wrapped up and protected, almost like a baby in swaddling clothes. In fact it reminds me of how I used to feel as a kid when I'd snuggle into a sleeping bag out in the back yard or later in a tent in the woods. Or getting in a sweet sports car on a hot day and cranking up the AC and the tunes, and when you hit the highway it's got super-smooth suspension and accelerates like a dream. It's like he's got security blankets made of high-tech metals and AI interfaces. This all relates to his emotionally and physically absent father, which figures into the story in several other forms as well. I'll cover that in its own section.

Over and above the extreme physical security provided by the armor and weaponry, this provides him with emotional security. This is an important element, since Tony is driven by fear that blooms into paranoia in the second movie and anxiety attacks in the third. Remember the reason he made armor in the first place was to protect himself, not only against the Stark weapons wielded by the terrorists in their cave hideout, but originally against his own missile that his body armor was unable to protect him against. And that was psychologically a symbol of his own nature at the time, as a heartless warmonger creating the best weapons the world had ever seen and allowing them to fall into the hands of terrorists. So ultimately the reason he needs all the layers of physical and emotional protection is against his own inner nature, his dark self-image or his ghost-self. It's essentially himself he's fighting. This is why it's perfect that the weaponry the terrorists use has his name stamped on each piece. Plus he feels abandoned and unprotected by his father. This probably contributed to his rebellious smart-ass nature.

Constant Upgrades
I believe the growing terror is also what's behind his constant upgrading of the armor, that plus it links in with the arms race, where constant advances make last year's technology obsolete so that the superpowers keep winning against 3rd world countries using their own weapons from 10 years ago.

But another thing it does is remind people of the tech they use every day. His interfaces are like advanced versions of video games or computer browsers, only in his case they have physical reality and allow him to fly around and kick some ass. We're all familiar with the need to upgrade our computer's operating system frequently, often for security reasons. Hence the endless parade of new armor versions. It seems to be a compulsion designed to keep him busy, to continually perfectify his security measures, in the way some people can never be clean enough or keep organizing and cleaning the house even when it's spotless.

I know on the surface he seems cool and charismatic, but that's the last remnant of his former emotional armoring—it's the calm face he shows the world to hide the nervousness and inner terror that came welling out when he was cracked open like a walnut by Christine Everhart's revelation of his true inner nature. Is it just a weird coincidence that stark means naked? Yeah, probably. But hey, symbolism doesn't need to be consciously inserted by the author or artist, often it happens completely unconsciously. Ok, yeah, it's a weird coincidence.

Terrorists and terrorism make perfect externalized symbols for Tony's inner terror—the real driver of his technological developments, his heroism, and the movie itself. It's the opposite of the Black Sabbath line "Kills the people he once saved". In order to redeem himself Tony must now save the people he once callously allowed to be killed—soldiers and innocents. In a sense he represents America—the American people—realizing it was the policy of their government or some faction of it that created the terrorists and caused all the killing and endless war in the Middle East, and now he's armoring up like a high-tech Charles Bronson to work some vigilante justice and set things right, after doing his part toward disarming by halting the manufacture of Stark weapons.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Iron Man—Plot and Character Web—notes for Act 1

I want to start looking into plot elements and character web in a few movies and see how they tie in with each other (if they're done right). A recent thread suggested Iron Man to start with, and I'm surprised at the depth I'm finding in it. In this movie they hook in deeply to each other. I'm also finding some symbolism that's deftly and subtly handled.

I should probably state right up front what a character web is for those who don't know. It's an idea I ran across in John Truby's book Anatomy of Story. The main characters are all related thematically or in some way to each other and to the main ideas of the story. Each of them representes some particular stance on the theme or a major concept of the story.  My previous entry on Jessica Jones was also about the character web, I explain the idea fairly well there I think. 

Stark. Tony Stark.

​Opens with Back in Black as camera cuts to closeup of a drink in Tony's hand. The lyrics of the song reference Bon Scott's death from alcohol poisoning. Have a Drink on Me (which also references Bon Scott's death) would have been too on the nose and distracting, this is more subliminal. A good choice I think, and the first of many indications of how well thought out the story is, and how the characterization is tied in deeply with not only the plot but even musical choices and other incidentals.

To be more precise, Back in Black suggests that Scott has been resurrected after his alcohol-related death. Bon Scott was the original singer for AC-DC, and when he died people thought nobody could replace him and the band was probably done, but then they found Brian Johnson and released their triumphant next album Highway to Hell. So the use of the song here suggests the symbolic death of the alcoholic Tony Stark—of his cold-hearted war profiteer persona—and his resurrection as the hero Iron Man and the new much more humanistic Tony Stark.

The fact that his drink is in a glass and on the rocks demonstrates immediately how suave and playboy-ish Tony is, bringing his wealthy cavalier lifestyle with him even in war-torn Afghanistan. It's also a statement about wealthy American war profiteers in general, because that's what Tony represents at this point.

He's in the Middle East to sell more weapons when suddenly terrorists attack the convoy using Stark Industries weapons and he's thrown into the same situation his weapons have put countless innocent people into.

In their attack the terrorists use bullets, flamethrowers and explosives—exactly what he will spew from his own armored body at the mouth of the cave. It's as if he becomes the weapon-man himself, living embodiment of the weapons he once sold.

When he sees Stark Industries stenciled on the missile, he's confronting his shadow self—all the evil he's been involved with. It's all turned directly against him now. His cold iron heart has leaped out of his chest onto the ground and is threatening his life. This is an incredibly powerful symbolic image. When it explodes (inciting incident) he'll be forever changed. He can no longer accept his own inner evil, he must go head to head against it if he can survive it. Significantly, the only reason he does survive is because he's wearing body armor.

Jet Plane models he probably built as a boy

In the workshop he has race cars and model jet planes and the propeller of a plane is hanging on the wall. He likes to go fast and fly—things he'll be able to do solo in the armor later.

Pepper takes care of his life, everything he fails to, so he can live his wild playboy lifestyle. She makes sure his appointments are kept etc, takes care of his dry cleaning. All things a wife might do (or maybe his mother), but they're not married. It's the relationship they should have but his character is wrong for it until his change of heart. That fixes everything that's wrong in his life, and then he fixes what's wrong with Stark Industries and begins his campaign to fix what's wrong in the world. Well, certain things anyway. In fact the main point—the theme I suppose—of the 1st movie is Tony's change of heart, symbolically represented by the new tech-heart first cobbled together by Yinsen and improved several times by Tony. When Tony and Pepper do get together later he's become much more responsible, so she doesn't have to do the mothering role she had to as his assistant.

Everything before the cave incident shows he's a maverick, flying by the seat of his pants, doing what's required of him (most of it) but in his own way, usually late and unconcerned. But his genius and charisma etc allow him to pull through in the last second where others would fail. All qualities that he'll use later as Iron Man.

Rhodey is 'by the book'—what the board of directors want Tony to be but he refuses. Rhodey functions as a negative reflection of Tony (not meaning evil, just opposite), used to highlight Tony's opposing character traits. After Tony's change of heart he seems to absorb some of Rhodey's responsibility and caution (not too much) and Rhodey becomes less of a stick-in-the-mud. This is directly referenced in their banter about the FunVee and the Hum-DrumVee. When Tony first said it he was being a bit mocking and insulting, but when Rhodey asks him "So, how was the FunVee?" Tony has already had his big change of heart—the meaning is completely different now. He's no longer the heartless person he was when he said it before. He's been humbled.

Howard Stark was involved in the creation of the atomic bomb. "Some say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That's how Dad did it." So Howard is presented as a warmonger. The atom bomb ended the war, but at what cost? Millions of innocent civilian lives. This is another massive part of the burden Tony carries and must atone for to become a hero. A lesser movie would have labored these points too much and probably gone melodramatic. Here it's handled deftly and rapidly and even a bit subliminally. You don't notice it unless you're paying attention to the undercurrents.

Immediately after the explosion Yinsen saves him using crude technology, but pretty fancy for in a cave. He's symbolically Tony's guardian angel, and then sacrifices himself to allow Tony to live. Serves as a role model and inspiration as well as probably being the first person Tony feels deeply for besides his parents.

Car battery links up with his love of racing cars, like the one he was just building. The battery might be called the heart of a car?

Tony's crude new electro-mechanical heart, installed by Yinsen

... and powered by a car battery

Strange crude technology is now linked directly into his newly vulnerable heart. This is Yinsen's lifesaving tech staving off the ever-advancing fragments of Tony's shadow heart—the shrapnel from his own missile that's always burrowing in deeper and threatening to kill him. The more I think about this the more depth and subtlety the symbolism develops. It's brilliant—hard to believe good old Stan Lee came up with it so long ago for a comic book. Of course it's been developed several times since then, but the core of it was all there right from the beginning.

I think Yinsen reminding him how drunk he was at the conference where they met years ago made him feel terrible—he doesn't even remember the guy who admires him so much and who becomes his savior/guardian angel. He now feels a great responsibility, and stops drinking at this point.

On Yinsen's death it's like his Guardian Angel spirit enters Tony and he becomes a guardian and savior of innocents who need one. Tries to amend for all the damage he's done through his weapons, though that's never dwelt on in the movie. There's a great deal of brevity that I think works, you can infer it all quite well I think. To dwell on it more would have been a mistake.

Raza calls him 'The most famous mass murderer in the history of America'. His conscience once again, from an unlikely source, his enemy and the terrorist using his weapons against innocents (and against Tony). Christine Everhart(reporter chick) was another externalized conscience for Tony earlier. Wow, I just noticed—is there deliberate symbolism in the fact that her name is Ever-Heart? Does she represent his new heart, ever-threatened by his former one? Or perhaps ever-powered by the Arc Reactor? Not sure. 

Raza's main part in the character web is as a terrorist leader and the major antagonist, who is stealing Stark weapons and even trying to make Tony build him a Jericho missile. He's the face of antagonism, as well as a terrorist. This is excellent, since in my followup post I've identified terror as the driving force behind Tony's 'gearing up' in high-tech armor. This movie really has an amazing amount of subtlety and depth for a Marvel movie. They really knocked it outta that park with this as a first entry to kick off the entire genre. 

The fact that the hole goes so deep in his chest, like a Pringles can, makes it literally seem like his heart is missing, as if he didn't merely build an electromagnet and the arc reactor to power it, but in fact built himself a new heart from the technology of death and war. This is the symbol of his great change of heart, from warmonger to humanitarian and hero. It's important that the person he trusts to remove his first tech heart, the one he built in the cave, and replace it with the new model, is Pepper. She literally reaches into his chest and holds his heart in her hand. The only other person to do that was Yinsen, his guardian angel sent to transform him into a hero.

The reason it has to be armor is because after the explosion he feels vulnerable. I don't think he ever felt vulnerable before, as a wealthy and powerful CEO, and he had an armor-plated heart. The shrapnel of the Stark Industries missile is symbolically shards of his former cold inhuman heart clawing at his chest, at his new more vulnerable heart, and its threat is constant and ongoing. The shrapnel is his never-ending and very physical reminder of the sins he's guilty of, as well as his father's and those of the American war machine. He needs protection from the constant attack from within as well as any attack from physical enemies.

The armor is an improved version of the body armor that saved his life when the missile went off, but with added offensive capabilities. He turns himself into a walking weapon, a marriage of his genius with the very weaponry he once spread war with and let get into the hands of terrorists. He becomes a sort of living Jericho missile, but with a conscience (he no longer needs Christine or anyone else for that purpose).This is a reversal of the line "Kills the people he once saved" in the Black Sabbath song Iron Man. Again, some surprising depth of thought going into music, even though the song itself isn't used here.

And of course in Age of Ultron his neurotic need for protection against his former warmonger shadow-self expands massively and he feels the need to build a suit of armor around the world. He fears people of the kind he himself used to be, the warmongers who attack cold-heartedly and mercilessly. It's really his own shadow-self he fears so much, as if it stalks him constantly but invisibly, and he sees it in all his enemies.

His new hi-tech heart glows like a headlight at first (associates him with the racing car again), then when he inserts the other parts in front of it it's a ring shape like a halo. This seems to be a temporary state, then it glows up into a full headlight again. This is when he gets the MK 3 armor (or is it 2?) painted in yellow and red to match his sports car.

When Tony is working at the forge it's as if he's forging his new self—armed and armored and capable of hero-ing. Important that he does it the direct handmade way, hammering at the forge and sweating. Makes it all feel more heart-felt, more romantic. Not cold futuristic tech at this point. He advances to that later, but this humanizes the entire thing.

It's almost as if Yinsen should already be dead but is allowed to help Tony and sacrifice for him in order to turn him into a savior/guardian angel for humanity, from having been the worst mass murderer known to America. And Tony should be dead as well, except for the (divine?) intervention of Yinsen. There's a bit of The Crow going on here, as if Tony is allowed to remain alive only as long as he continues to fight the good fight and atone for his crimes.

Tony spouting the flamethrower seems to be bringing up the fires of Hell. His flamethrower is far more powerful than the ones used on him earlier and the entire scene behind him is nothing but a flaming inferno of suffering and death. He is become Death, but now he's using his weaponry against the right people. The incredibly intense fire in this scene, as well as the idea that Yinsen is alive only as Tony's guardian angel, and that then Tony becomes a guardian angel to the innocent people he used to sell out, makes me believe that there is an intentional reference to these things. It totally fits the overall tone of the movie and the themes. Of course it's intended to be taken only subliminally. No-one ever mentions any of these religious terms. But since it does seem they're put there deliberately, it strengthens my belief that his 'headlight' was also deliberately made to resemble a halo for a moment. Otherwise why go through all the effects work necessary to have it happen at all? I see it as his high-tech halo. 

When he takes off, all the stockpiled Stark weaponry goes off at the same time in a massive fireball—Hell expanding exponentially to consume the evil terrorists who dared use his weapons against innocents (like Yinsen and his family, representatives of the slain), and Tony seems to ride the expanding perimeter of the blast, barely avoiding destruction himself. This reminds me uncannily of Ishmael at the end of Moby Dick, the only one thrown far enough out that when the ship sinks and creates a giant whirlpool he doesn't get sucked in with everybody else. And that was definitely the work of God or Fate. 

This is a massive reversal of fortunes on every front. It's the biggest turning point after the inciting incident (the Stark missile exploding in his face). These really big turning points mark the ends of acts, so Act 1 draws to a close when he crashes into the desert and his improvised, single-use armor self-destructs around him. Wow, I just realized act 1 is literally bracketed between two explosions. Or rather the inciting incident and the first major turning point (marking the end of act 1) are both explosions. Cool. 

Maybe the fact that Tony went to bed with Christine Everhart, his externalized conscience, means he's beginning to accept her criticisms of him, and this might be the beginning of his crisis. Once he opens himself up to taking those criticisms seriously, he becomes aware of how cold-hearted he's been, profiting on death and terrorism. Since he isn't aware of any sense of guilt it must all be repressed, internalized into the unconscious. Becoming aware of it is a massive shock to the system, he can no longer live with it, and that's why his iron heart in the form of the Stark missile symbolically leaves his body—he can't stand the idea that it's a part of him. So it separates, becomes a distinct thing that perfectly represents his inner self, and that's capable of destroying him right here and now.

Christine strikes me as almost an alternative Pepper. She's the only woman in the movie who holds a candle to her beauty and sex appeal, and she's also smart and principled. Almost a rival for Tony's affections, though his heart already does belong to Pepper, and Christine is little more than a one-night stand (and his externalized conscience). 

Damn, as these ideas begin to merge and reveal their depth of meaning this gets better and better. These analyses do have a way of starting off rough and developing levels of greater depth. Something tells me after I finish the whole analysis a lot of things will click into place, and I'll probably have to go back and revise the original posts. Or jusr leave them as in-progress documents.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Little Stevie Goes To Hollywood

Close Encounters is really the story of Little Stevie Spielberg getting swept up from his ordinary life and into the exciting world of Hollywood. You gotta look deep into the subtext to see it though. 

This is not a finished analysis at all, more a collection of my notes somewhat refined. If it were finished I'd give it an Articles page of its own. The blog is for notes and whatever I feel like writing up, in a rough state. 

When I found this clip I knew I was on to something. The relevant part starts @ about 05:48:

Wish I could embed it starting there, but Blogspot doesn't seem to allow it. 

He talks about the event that started his filmmaking obsession/career, and it involved a toy train setup. Just like the one Richard Dreyfuss had in the living room in Close Encounters:

I wish I could find the clip I saw long ago, an interview with Dreyfuss, where he specifically said he had played Speilberg's alter ego in three movies. Offhand I can only think of two he was in—Close Encounters and Jaws. Wonder what I'm missing? The original lead for Close Encounters was going to be Bob Balaban, who also is Jewish and resembles Spielberg to a large extent. Balaban is still in the movie, he plays the interpretor at the beginning. He also has a beard and wears glasses. But Dreyfuss said he convinced Spielberg that he (Dreyfus) had to play the lead, because he needs a guy who's a kid at heart. Spielberg realized he was right, and history was made—I agree, as much as I like Bob Balaban as an actor, and agree he does resemble Speilberg, he's too dry and academic to make the part as fun and exciting as Dreyfus made it. In the same interview Dreyfuss also said he and Spielberg both knew they were going to change Hollywood, to make a big impact on it. They were heady days for the young up-and-comers at that crucial time in movie history. The time when special effects-driven movies would take over.

* * *

Sorry, I know this is rough. I'm copying my notes in and somewhat developing them here. More notes:

In a biography I read Spielberg said he could never have made Close Encounters later in his career because he could never see himself leaving his family, but at the time he was in a bad relationship with Amy Irving. The pull of creativity and the Hollywood life was stronger than the anchor of a bad relationship, so he responded to it, and history was made. I think what that really represented was the opposition between the desire to live a nice ordinary life (family life where you strive to keep up with the Joneses) and the creative life, which normal society does not condone. Artists have always been branded as decadent and weird because they don't try to be normal—being normal would rule out creativity.

Him essentially destroying the house and tearing up the yard (including a neighbor's duck enclosure) to build the huge mountain in the living room represents his creative obsession destroying his nice normal life and his family. It tends to do that if your family isn't supportive of your art and expects you to adhere to society's restrictive norms. And I like the way the obsession kept growing—he kept making bigger and bigger mountains and getting weirder about it, forgetting about everything else. This is the way the creative bug is—it will destroy everything else, or everything else destroys it, unless you have a family that understands art and supports your habit. Also note that, because he made a sculpture (special effects miniature) he knew what the back of the mountain looked like, whereas all the people who drew or painted it only knew the front of it. His specialty as a sculptor gave him a more complete understanding than theirs. I think he's saying that he (Spielberg) always had an interest in building models and sculpting, and that led to his interest in special effects, which of course was hugely instrumental in his generation's (and his) takeover of Hollywood and the creation of the Blockbuster.

What are these but powerful Hollywood-style lighting units?

And note the similarities here:

Finally, the Mothership looks like an upside-down city of glittering lights.

In the desert. Well, that's Hollywood, isn't it? They deliberately turned the ship upside-down to somewhat hide the resemblance to a city.

* * *

Building a toy train setup involves a lot of skills—exactly the same kind that a special effects person needs, at least in pre-CGI days. You make the terrain from paper mache and plaster, put little trees and bushes and rocks on it, make little buildings and install little lights in them. This is exactly the stuff a special effects team did in the 70's.

And anyone who's done any sculpting or building of terrain sets (like for stopmotion movies for example, trust me, I know of what I speak) knows how dirty your clothes get. You get plaster stuck in your hair and all over your hands, dried, so you have to crack it off in big chunks. This is exactly what happens to Neary when he builds the big mountain set in his living room (the place where formerly his train setup was—like everything else in his life it got pushed aside). Actually I think he built the mountain right on top of his train setup, on the same table. Well well, that seems powerfully metaphorical!

This is the creative obsession. When it hits hard you forget about everything else. You stop eating and sleeping and you work like a maniac. It starts to affect you. You become zombielike because you're not sleeping enough. Literally you'll wake in the middle of the night struck by intense inspiration, go to the studio (wherever it may be—in the basement, the spare bedroom, or just the typewriter in the home office) and you lay down what you must, before it's gone. Or you let it die. This is not conducive to good middle-class ordinary family life if you want to keep up with the Joneses (unless we're talking Indiana Jones maybe). I think that's captured brilliantly in Close Encounters.

And I love that to get to Devil's Tower they have to drive against all traffic. Everybody else is going the other way. This is a metaphor. When you're struck by the art bug, you live differently from most. They want to live their conventional lives, and to think creatively—to cover yourself with the materials of creativity—is not normal. You go against the flow of the rest of the people on your street. Even when there's danger (like a fake nerve gas conspiracy designed to clear everybody out of the area). Yo go where you must, you follow the muse, wherever it leads.

And where it led Roy Neary is into a spaceship that resembles Hollywood and a big palace-style movie theater at the same time, with little Hollywood lighting units swarming all around it, that lifted him out of his drab ordinarry life and into the skies. That was his going to Hollywood to live the dream, where he got to play with much bigger and better train sets and lighting units and sharks.

I can't find a picture, but in the Mothership scene there are banks of movie cameras all pointing at the ship filming it and big lighting units set up on tall posts with thick electrical cables snaking all over the ground. It resembles a studio set during a film production. The same was true in the big conference room scene. 

When all the lights went out in Los Angeles as the ships flew by overhead, LA looked a heck of a lot like a movie miniature with little lights all over it, like the toy train setup, or the Mothership. Once you see this stuff, it's all over the movie.

When the little boy first sees the UFOs in the sky outside the house he smiles and says "Toys!" Like a toy train setup? I suspect this is to link the lights and the UFOs with a child's imagination. The child is taken away by the aliens before Neary is (and he's not frightened). I think he represents Spielberg as a little kid, when the movie bug first bit him.

Big hint—the little aliens come out of what looks like a movie screen under the mothership, and then Neary goes into it. Scroll back up and look at the—ah screw it, I'll just repost it. So much easier:

This is directly under the movie palace marquee with the flashing lights moving across it. Under the glowing city of lights that looks like Hollywood. And is in the desert. With banks of movie cameras filming it, and massive lighting units all over the field. This is not really subtle at all once you start to notice it. In fact it's like "How did I never see it before??!"

Who else emerges from the movie screen? Lost pilots from the 40's and people from all kinds of earlier times. Almost as if we're watching old movies on the screen, only the people are emerging from it, solid and real.

And I just noticed—who do we see in the foreground of that little GIF just above? Bob Balaban, the other guy chosen to play Spielberg (watching himself be escorted into the movie screen?), and Francois Truffaut, one of Spielberg's idols, a renouned French director. It's definitely a movie about making movies.

I just ordered the 4k versions of both of these movies yesterday, and am looking forward to watching them tomorrow when they come in. Ironic, that. I also ordered 4k versions of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and 2001, all in one package.

In another bit of irony, I fully believe it was from 2001 that Spielberg (a close friend of Kubrick's, chosen to finish AI after his death) got the idea of a person entering a movie screen. That would take a heck of a lot of 'splainin'!

Rather than try to go through it all myself, I'll let Rob Ager (my mentor for all this movie analysis stuff) do it:

I'm quite sure Spielberg was aware of these hidden meanings in Kubrick's films. Ager has devoted a lot of time and a lot of videos to figuring out Kubrick's tricks, and he used a lot of them. Far more than any director I'm aware of. And he buried them deep. He was a chess master and loved to crack secret codes.

2001 is also filled with movie and fimmaking references, such as the space station that looks like a film reel spinning endlessly:

Why is it two hubs attached to each other like that? Usually space stations of this kind are depicted as only one such wheel-shape. The obvious answer seems to be so it looks like a film reel. 

And look at the lighting units, in a scene where a camera features prominently and there seem to be several movie cameras or something on tripods aimed at the monolith:

* * *

Just ran across this in my notes for Jaws:

Ironic? Quint looked at Hooper’s laid-out apparatus and said “What’re you, some kinda half-assed astronaut?" In his next film with Spielberg (Close Encounters) he would be exactly that. ​

* * *

The mountain grows

He must have once built the mountain sculpture on his railroad miniature. Then on witnessing the UFO fly past overhead he was struckwith the obsession to sculpt Devil's Tower. He started by sculpting shaving cream and then mashed potatoes. Each was a progressively better sculpting medium, and each model got bigger and more realisticThen came a smallish one in modeling clay, then he really lost it and started throwing bricks and dirt in through the kitchen window and made the big one (over the form of an upside-down trash can).  By this point his family had left him and he was seen as the crazy guy who walks around covered with dirt and all kinds of weird materials. Exactly the opposite of a good upstanding suburban home-owner. The artistic visions are almost driving him crazy, and he's forced to do their bidding, it's too strong for him to resist though it's costing him everything.

Then, near the end of the movie, at last we see the real thing. In a sense we've been moving toward it the entire time, as he gradually figured out what these weird visions were. He could only figure it out by making them, one after the other (he's a discovery artist, responding to an inner compulsion he doesn't understand).

But here's the part that struck me as really cool, that I never noticed before. Now he and his artist-woman, the right one for him (she has the inner visions too, and so does her son) move toward and onto the mountain—the very one they've all been obsessively drawing and sculpting etc. It dwarfs them now. All those incredible textures they've been drawing and sculpting in successively better realism and detail are now life-sized, and they're climbing among them. Only Neary knew there's a huge flat area on the back of the mountain, big enough to serve as a landing field, because he's a sculptor. He built it in the round, whereas the sketchers and painters all just did the front view. It's as if he created his new world—his new life—by stages, from the stuff of his visions, and then was able to step into it.

This will be the setting where the final act takes place, where he gets lifted off the ground and whisked away to his dream world in the sky (the Hollywood career he's always dreamed about). So cool that it began as just a weird vision in his head that he had to realize again and again as he figured out its shape and textures, and now he lives in it. Just as he ended up living the dream of being a Hollywood director of special effects movies, after making a bunch of amateur 8mm movies on his dad's movie camera.

That blows my mind—especially the fact that Spielberg could encode all of it so that we didn't even notice, no matter how many times we watched it. That is an incredible talent.

It's really the story of a man who thought he was a normal suburban husband/father, but discovered he was an artist driven by powerful visions that his family didn't share. But as he moved toward the place that was calling to him (and everyone else was moving the other way like good obedient sheeple), he met others driven by the same kind of vision. This kind of artistic vision really does alienate you from the normal people. But it can also give you wings to fly.

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Added 05-15-23
I've now seen his recent movie The Fablemans. It's a memoir of his early years when he started making movies. It features a very important sequence at the beginning showing him going to the movies where he saw the train crash effect that seared itself into his mind forever, leading to his obsession with filming his miniature train set. There's also a scene where he meets John Ford, a gruff old campaigner played by David Lynch.

Why Fablemans? It's like Spielberg—a spiel being a story, or more specifically a pitch (like a director might have to make to get a project greenlit). Apparently in German Berg means mountain. I suppose an iceberg is a mountain of ice. So his name means story-mountain. He changed it to fable-man. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Jessica Jones - All About Abuse - Exploring the Character Web - Initial Thoughts. Spoilers.

I just went through the entire 1st season of Jessica Jones in a marathon 2 day session. I was pretty blown away by a few aspects of it, but I don't plan to do a full analysis or a standard review or anything. Instead I just want to quickly jot down my first impressions.

It's the writing that really grabbed me. Well, and casting too - super impressed with Krysten Ritter as JJ. I believe she has found her perfect role. And David Tennant is incredible of course. So are most of the principles, especially the actress playing Trish. Luke Cage - the character is extremely stoic - mostly just a big imposing presence, very man of few words and seems to see everything in very strong binary terms. He strikes me as a blunt instrument of a character (pun intended) opposed to Jessica's much more subtle nuanced worldview in shades of gray - a hammer to her out-of-tune but sweetly-played violin. He's a man of action rather than words, very primal. Things either need to get hit, which is what he does really really well, or he has little to no interest in them, aside from a love interest. And his love is expressed very stoically as well. I'm not saying its bad acting, or a bad character - in fact I quite like him in the first half of the season when he plays an important part, but in the second half he's mostly just a sort of zombie murder puppet with Kilgrave pulling the strings, and for a couple of episodes he's just laying unconscious on Jessica's bed.

Even his action is very minimal - I dig his fighting style revealed in the bar fight with him and Jessie against a bunch of thugs - a few simple unhurried moves delivered with precision in a calm manner. One strike per opponent and down they go - the polar opposite of Daredevil's complex and busy style - he tries to overwhelm each opponent with a massive flurry of blows kicks and moves until he sort of wears them down. I get exhausted watching DD fight!

Unbreakable skin plays perfectly into the main theme - it's the tough exterior, the invulnerability so many trauma survivors develop. And it's important that Jessica doesn't have it, or super strength, or the ability to fly - she says she can only jump pretty far and then control the falls. That's because she isn't completely inhuman. It's the vulnerability that makes her human, her ordeal has only provided her with some toughening and strengthening. That means that Trish is completely human, but is making herself tough and strong and a fighter without losing any of her humanity.

But I don't want to write about individual characters, more about the character web. That's a term I first learned from John Truby's book Anatomy of Story. Some really good stuff in that book, but also a lot of stuff I don't care for much - definitely get Robert McKee's Story first, along with Aristotle's Poetics, and then Truby if you want to go beyond the basic 3-act stuff. That's how I'm approaching this, as a student of writing.

Character web is how each character relates to the main premise or theme of the story and to each other. In this case we have a story where the main theme seems to be damaged characters due to some form of abuse, often in childhood. All the main characters are either survivors or perpetrators of abuse. The show explores the way that affects their various personality types and coping mechanisms. As already stated, Luke for instance is a very stoic character and he copes by seeing things as either good or bad - not to society, he couldn't care less about that, but to him. He's no hero, just a guy with unbreakable skin and a lot of strength who finds those things useful in living his simple life. His mission statement: he protects himself and his own, and thats about it. If you don't either belong to one of those groups or threaten them, then he has no interest. Jessica is a lot like him, but less so. Less strong, less invulnerable, less stoic, and a lot less hardened when it comes to caring about other people in general. This is how the character web is used, by comparing and contrasting characters against each other. I suspect the writers were paying attention specifically to character web for this show.

Simpson (the fairly psychotic poor man's Captain America, with his red white and blue pills and violent outbursts) has a similarly black-and-white worldview - a dyed in the wool patriot and highly trained special forces veteran. Much more articulate and talky than Luke, but with a laser focus on topics relating to his military training. A pretty one-note character really. It might sound like I'm bashing both of the big guys, and if I was concerned strictly with characters I suppose I would be, but they both relate quite well to the overall character web, by serving as foils against which we can see how much more subtle and nuanced certain other characters are. Hogarth is similarly simple - a high-powered lawyer who's excellent at her job for the same reason she's a horrible human being - complete lack of empathy.

Which is an important barometer for reading the characters - how much empathy do they have for other people? It's expressed in different ways - for the first couple of episodes I was disappointed that Jessica wasn't more humanized in some way, a scene or 2 where we get to see her relaxing or enjoying some aspect of her life, but it seems she doesn't do that. She seems to be hard bitten and cynical pretty much to the bone - seems because it's the armor that she hides her vulnerability behind. She never relents in her tough chick routine, but her actions demonstrate her empathy. Not just for people close to her, but for pretty much everybody, even her enemies.

In the X Men series (comics and movies) mutant abilities represent differentness that makes people suspect, whether they're heroes or villains, and turns society against them, serving as an excellent way to comment on prejudice and social ostracism as well as teenage problems, since mutant abilities begin to manifest around puberty. In the Jessica Jones world superpowers seem to be caused by abuse. Apparently most of the heroes and the villain got their powers because they were experimented on in childhood (I assume adulthood for Simpson, same as CaptainAmerica). Nobody ever uses the term superpowers or superheroes, they talk about 'us' and 'them', and refer to them as 'gifted'. The term is how society separates the normals from the different, and since all the heroes and villains are survivors of abuse, it seems to refer specifically to abuse survivors. How are survivors of abuse different from other people? Well, victims of severe abuse often say they feel dead inside, have no feelings at all anymore, are unable to relate to people with any compassion. For those less afflicted it's similar but with correspondingly less severe symptoms. All the main characters are relationship impaired to some degree, and seem unable to hook up with normals, but to relate much better to other 'gifteds'.

I wonder how this relates to Jessica's only friend Trish? She is also a survivor, but has no special powers. She fits into society as an 'us', and yet she feels compleltely at home among 'them'. Maybe she represents abuse survivors who hide the scars well. Or maybe she counts as 'us' because she's a wealthy celebrity? She's one of the most interesting characters to me. No special powers, but she has been training hard in Krav Maga and working out, learning to take care of herself. Essentially trying to develop superpowers to what extent she can - and of course she's on her way to becoming Hellcat or whatever the name is. Sort of a Batman or Daredevil style superhero, with no augmented strength or invulnerability or flight, only training. Trish also represents the real core of humanity in the show. She is in a sense Jessica's conscience, and the person who always believes in her even when she doesn't believe in herself. She's vulnerable since she's only human, and must be protected by Jessie, but she also needs to look after Jessie. They need each other.

Hope is another character who relates directly to Jessie. This isn't explicitly spelled out in the series, but Jessica sees herself in Hope - victimized by Kilgrave, forced against her will to murder her own parents (Jessica feels survivor's guilt over her own parents' deaths). And then put in prison where Jessica is the only person fighting to save her. Jessica feels that if she can save Hope she's saving herself essentially, and that if she 'loses Hope' then she is a lost soul. The name is a big clue - characters named Hope often literally represent hope in some way and need to be protected and nurtured (yep - like Xena's baby). And to make it even more excruciating, even the other heroes keep wanting to just destroy Kilgrave, even when Jessica repeatedly reminds them that would consign Hope to a life sentence and quite likely make her commit suicide. This is a brilliant device - it's a very literal reason that Kilgrave can't just be wiped out, but rather it's necessary to somehow convince the judge and jury that he actually does have telepathic mind control powers. And even with a great deal of evidence, who would ever believe that?

The fact that Kilgrave's powers are something no sane person would believe in is very crucial to the theme - it points out the way society often refuses to see trauma or abuse unless it's blatantly obvious or physical. A victim of purely emotional abuse will often be ridiculed if they tell people about it, which often leads to isolation and suicide. Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths can be very charming, like Kilgrave, and people often refuse to believe they would do any such horrible thing.

The superpowers all seem to be caused by experiments done on people - mostly children, by various secret organizations. This is handled in such a way that it comes across as a stand-in for abuse. Abuse can sometimes make people morose, angry, or violent-tempered, strengthen the will and resolve to incredible levels, and can increase their tolerance for pain and give them what's referred to in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as the thousand yard stare. This is something the veterans who have seen combat have and the young recruits are eager to acquire (in FMJ). But it turns out the way to acquire it is to kill and to see your friends killed or mutilated. So it's caused by the loss of humanity, feeling dead inside. This is why people who grew up in really tough neighborhoods or bad family situations often are so tough - they've got the thousand yard stare. It comes from experiencing horrible things that you can't bear without cracking under the strain.  It's what fighters develop. A badge of honor that marks you as one of them.

One standout thing about the series is the nuanced treatment of villains. They aren't simply evil to the core for no reason - they have what they consider good reasons for what they do and are humanized by showing that they are also victims of abuse and that they have feelings and are capable of great warmth. So this is not a world where the solution is just to blow up the bad guy - they need to be treated with compassion as human beings. See, what's so great about this approach to the bad guys is, this is like real life. In real life your opponents usually aren't people you can just kill - they're usually people doing what they actually believe is right. In the words of Dave Mason, "There ain't no good guys, there ain't no bad guys, there's only you and me and we just disagree." There's a primal satisfaction to simplistic movies where you can just blast the villain with no remorse, but it's nice to have a superhero series that goes beyond the cliches and simple revenge fantasies and shows how messy and multifaceted the issues really can get.

Other factors that make Kilgrave an amazing villain:

  • His power relates directly to the core theme of the series - he's a psychotic manipulator with the ability to absolutely control people - the ultimate abuser. Basically everyone in the show is a victim at some point of his capricious childish petulance, especially Jessica. He can't be resisted or escaped, and even when he's not physically there his power still holds complete sway.   
  • He doesn't just have some random evil plot that they discover and decide they need to stop - he poses a direct personal threat to Jessica. Actually it's both - he uses his power mostly to control and torment Jessie, but he also randomly uses hostages and leaves a bloody trail of their mutilated body parts, and as his power grows he develops plans to take over larger segments of the population, it's as if he's in the embryonic stage of becoming a megalomaniac. 
  • It's revealed that he also is a victim, or is he just playing the victim card? A nice touch, exploring the issue from all angles rather than choosing sides and making the series a propaganda statement. 

And back to the main theme now - I love the fact that so many characters are messed up because of their parents. So often that's the primary cause of psychological issues, either bad parenting or lack of parenting - and that's something Jessica even verbalizes near the end of the season. 

So it's clear that the primary theme is abuse and how it affects people, how they decide to live their lives in its wake. There's even a Kilgrave survivors support group!

As a private eye, Jessica's job involves violating people's privacy all the time. This is because victims of abuse will tend to treat other people the same way they've been treated - sort of acting out and trying to take revenge on other people for what was done to them. It's a way of trying to take control, to get some power over their own lives.

Jessica tends to break doors windows and locks - very symbolic considering she's had her privacy completely violated. Also note that the door to her own apartment is broken for a long time and gets broken again - her boundaries are not secure. And she seems not to be trying to secure them, her friend had to get the door fixed and the carpenter dad dude at the beginning tried to fix it for her as well - people are more concerned for her safety than she is. It's like she doesn't feel safe anyway, so why worry about the door. Psychologically all her doors and windows have been destroyed already.

I think this was also intended to make Hope's dad seem to be acting fatherly toward Jessica - she already sees them as very parental figures (though the mother isn't exactly a warm and fuzzy person). Hope also had a little brother - so the family was just like Jessie's. The only real difference was the bother wasn't killed along with the parents. All this reinforces the idea that Hope practically IS Jessie, but a Jessie without any powers who can't take care of herself, so Jessica needs to do it.