On the Waterfront (1954, 108 minutes)
Movies are like rock music always playing a catch-up game to prove they're as good as the classical variety. To this end, no shortage of "weighty" but not "heavy" topics come out, meaning that important things are discussed and then resolved in a petty way to allow people to return unhindered to their jobs without concerning themselves about long-term problems. It's like fighting a symbol in that in the fantasy world of the movie, you beat the symbol once and the problem goes away. Shopping awaits.
_On the Waterfront_, being an antiquated piece of film, could well be an important forerunner of the type of pompously "serious" and fatuously empty movies we saw in the 1980s. Basic theme is this: conflicted character in a bad situation discovers a higher moral truth, and with that in hand, sacrifices himself or herself and does the difficult thing, in the process being misunderstood both by his unimpeachable moral guides (women and priests, or modern analogues, usually black characters in buddy films and psychologists in urban dramas) and his former colleagues in crime or deviance. The showdown occurs, and the now-good character toughs it out in some Jesus analogue situation where he fights but allows himself to be beaten, then rises again when the crowd of one-dimensional onlookers is inspired by his acts and come out cheering. At the end, bad has been brought to light, and good has been achieved in his soul, and to the cheers of his comrades he is accoladed as a new Christlike hero. A gigantic cliche, it's a distillation of the ancient art form of tragedy, except all that made tragedy noble has been replaced by answers benefitting an ethic of convenience, albeit with the momentary struggle for right.
This movie fits neatly into those notches and thus hitched rides the train to its conclusion. Tough bad guy Terry Malloy got some bad breaks as a boxer because he took money to throw a fight, and now at age 30 he's an unmarried useless bum whose primary activities are raising pigeons. As he explains himself, there are pigeons and hawks, and if you're not a hawk, you're going to end up a meal for one. Enter the clueless ingenue Edie Doyle who has actually been at religious school, and allied with her local large-nosed priest, has decided to fight the mob that controls non-union labor on the waterfront. Characters are one-dimensional; the mobsters are pure greed, Edie is pure clueless good. Terry is the conflict hinge in this because (as the rock-heavy-handed symbolism reminds us every time he's seen feeding or holding a goddamn pigeon) he likes the pigeons but wants to be a hawk because he's afraid.
After numerous revelations, and countless tributaries of personality drama, he discovers his inner self and confronts the mob bosses by testifying against them. As soon as the crowd is shown the light of truth, etc., they begin to change, but they're still afraid to take on the mob until brave Perry calls out the mob boss and fights him, loses when the guy calls in his goons, and then marches back to victory after which all others follow him. Conclusion: good wins over evil. Cynical analsyis: the one-dimensional mob boss is a symbol of bad, and government and clueless women a symbol of good, but nothing is said about the systemic problems which produce more mobsters, or what to do about them. It is assumed that showing people the truth allows an easy victory.
Even the struggle for Terry's soul is completely hollow in that he does not confront a complicated moral choice, nor does he triumph over it, but shifts from one side to another. His struggle is not internal but external: he is trying to find a place, not defining his soul, even though the movie does everything it can to convince us of the opposite. If life were so simple, would we need movies? The sense of being lulled into a comfortable sleep is overpowering. While cinematically there are some beautiful moments, and the soundtrack is in parts admirable, the complete shallowness of this work makes me think the only people who like it are those who are looking for an excuse to justify their ethic of convenience. Go watch _Chinatown_ or _Apocalypse Now_ instead, and face the darkness and light of the soul, instead of picking two packaged products in a simplistic and symbolic choice with no relation whatsoever to reality.
Mothra (1961, 101 minutes)
In Texas, there is a tradition of larger-than-life tales where the lonely gentle cowboy is a reminder of the spirit of the listener himself, and the corrupt ol' sheriff represents all that is within each of us that fears a challenge and detests nonconformity as a possible threat. The movie Mothra, created in the first generation after WWII, shows us a metaphorical view of the Japanese spirit - imagine, if you are reading this in 2005, that in 1990 a larger nation had defeated your own with a terrible new weapon that obliterated cities in a single stroke. Something against which you could not defend. And then imagine the creative mind turning over that, and inventing something not technological but supernatural which could not be defeated by atomic weaponry, and which in defiance of all rules of money and social prestige was determined to fulfil an ancient, primal rite which took precedence over all that keeps our modern society functioning... thus to your mind, the arrival of Mothra is absolute. It (she?) is a giant insect with the same unwavering determination that a fingernail-sized moth would have, and its goal is to recover the twin singing girls who are part of an ancient volcanic worship rite on a primitive island. Mothra does not negotiate. Mothra cannot be defeated by the best weapons of the American and Japanese armies, and Mothra destroys cities with a giant wind from her wings that like an atomic shockwave flattens buildings and tosses cars into an untidy mess. While the fools who manage modern Japan show no understanding of the beast, and rely upon their technology, including the atomic heat ray, to defeat it, the only sensible characters in the movie are a pair of Japanese scientists who recognize the simple truth of the situation: Mothra cannot be stopped because her will is purer than ours, thus her intent is clearer, thus the sensible thing to do is to return the singing girls for the volcanic rite. And with that thought the film's primary conflict - more fundamental than giant Moth vs. Tokyo - is introduced: the singing girls are six inches high, and thus are an entertainment sensation, and their American "owner," Mr. Nelson, intends to make himself and his Japanese collaborators wealthy using them. To this movie's credit, Nelson and company are not portrayed as evil, only selfish, and the rest of the modern society pictured seems to back them up on having that values system. While people hold on to their greed, and to their belief that machines will save them from Mothra, they are lost... those who succeed, spiritually, are those who study the giant moth and figure out what it wants, and expand their minds beyond the limits of the monetary-entertainment world to see why it is that such a thing might be important. Transcendent value, please pick up the white courtesy phone. The movie expands along this plot line, and culminates in a bizarre transition when the Japanese lead characters go to New York and thus are surrounded by stereotypical Anglos, complete with roughhouse behavior and a somewhat crude, blockhead view of the self as omnipotent. The movie ends by contrasting Christianity to the pagan sun-symbol of the Mothra cult, and finding the latter somehow purer in that it actually solves real world problems, like giant moths crushing New York and Tokyo. The flustered Americans are shown as victims of their own strength, as if the same disease that led them to repeatedly nuke Japan had infected them with a fatal inability to grasp reality (for anyone who has ever thought that America should burn in hell for its nuclear terrorism, inside this movie is a subtle hint that hell is a state of mind and it is already here). It is a poignant metaphor for modern times, and had this reviewer wishing that Mothra would appear to deliver us all from the hideous menace of our own greed and self-image causing us to deny nature and all realistic value in life. This reviewer found himself lost in the symbolism, and inclined to watch the skies more carefully - more hopefully, even.
When one makes a documentary about a specific musical culture, the risk is always that the film will attempt to appeal to members of that culture exclusively, thus eliminating any chance of communicating with the outside world. The four genres discussed in Dark Planet - straightedge, skinhead, black metal and zealot - are extremely fortunate that this film takes an outsider view of outsider art. By doing so, it no longer attempts to explain what the art is but what changes it desires in the context of society at large; in this, the documentary explains our society through the viewpoint of its dissident music, and does not become some silly MTV-style marketing exploit of the music itself.
Each of the four sections begins by defining and exploring the genre, then gets some general mission-statement-type summaries from those familiar with it, and then forages among some of the issues raised before going to the wide-angle view with a "Sixty Degrees of..." section that attempts to anchor the major concepts of each genre in history. All of this is good practice, and the final touch is while a bit tedious to watch, an excellent reference tool for people who are not acquainted with the genres in question. Unlike many documentaries (yes, I'm thinking of that fat bearded guy) we do not hear much of the interviewers speaking. They let the interviewees field the questions as they may, and seem to be able to encourage them without sticking in a bunch of interrogative dialogue. This method contributes a smoothness to the production which makes it easily viewable.
Although visually impressive, the opening scene of this documentary misunderstands its audience: the people who are watching this are looking for an introduction to the ideas of these genres and their importance in the greater question of what our future as a culture will look like, and therefore, don't really need a music video. We get the point that the music is angry and standoffish from short clips. However, the spliced images cartwheel across the screen in a merriment of chaos and provide a grounding for the younger audiences, some of whom we assume are dumb enough to be duped into thinking this movie is simply a long music video with talk sequences. After this introduction, the film launches into its four parts and concludes within the final one, thus eliminating the cheesy talk show tendency to bring closure to things by mouthing some tediously inconclusive by way of inoffensive opinion.
The skinhead segment: are any non-racist skinheads fat, or intelligent? They have a guy in here who seems to be attempting to debunk the stereotype of Asians as intelligent, and then a series of fat losers who talk about how skinheadism was originally a working class movement centered around dub music from Jamaica. That moments later they claim that society has "always been racist," thus making it more likely that skinhead culture also had a racial origin, or that historically worker's movements have followed a similar pattern, had zero impact on the thinking of the soft, giggly, unstable types interviewed for this segment of the movie. I would have blown this off entirely; if you're going to present disturbing viewpoints, don't start out with the apologists, as not only will they confuse the issue, but by definition, they'll try to bend a distinct artform back into the mainstream fold. I skipped most of this portion after realizing that the "nice" skins were the same sort of losers who have made emo music get the reception a plague deserves worldwide. When they did move on to truly alienated, racist skins, they thankfully found some smart ones, and conducted an impressively non-judgmental interview. In this section, the filmmakers opted for an academic sensationalism instead of some kind of shock/judgment, and the result is that much more transparent in conveying the reasons this culture is alienated and what contrasting values it esposues. To be fair, it didn't make skinheads look like people with a solution. They're a protest tribe, as seen in this video, and as contrasted with those in other sections of the film, a reasonably effective one.
To this reviewer, the straightedge segment was almost totally redundant. Straightedge and skinheadism could both be seen as offshoots of hardcore, and it would be more interesting to see the conflict in hardcore between moralists (straightedge, emo) and postmoralists (skinheads, anarchists, ecoterrorists) than it is to look at a bunch of straightedgers carping it up for the camera. To no credit of their own, the people interviewed for this segment of the video managed to make themselves look like former partiers who fried a lobe or too and now, speaking slowly, and trying to find a new way, y'know. It might have been more effective to spend half of this segment showing drugs and their effects on some people, hence why one might choose to be a straightedger, than listen to the scene drama tumbling out of the mechanistic mouths of these people. Again, fat losers wandering around feeling sorry for themselves.
What defines the black metal segment are the interview clips with a highly literate fellow from a non-profit group for the analysis of culture. He represents the bridge between black metal and normalcy, and discusses succinctly some of the moral and psychological issues behind the choices made to embrace black metal as theory more than just another style of music. In this, the producers of the film did a great grace to black metal, because they tried to understand it as a functional artistic movement and communicate that not to the child "fans" of black metal, but to the adults who consider the place of all things artistic or philosophical in our society. While clearly the documentary would have had greater short term popularity had it attracted said audience, it would have also made itself irrelevant on the larger scale. Having someone from the world of adults who can offer sage and realistic commentary enhances this section a great deal. It does have its failings, however. The major shortage is that its interview subjects are primarily those who came after the black metal movement, and not those who were aware of its ideological motivation. Time is burned up with commentary from Noctuary, which makes no sense, as they are not a black metal band. Also, lengthy interview clips with some gent from Nachtmysticum expend a large amount of time on getting a few direct facts. Similarly, a fan named "Jason" who is interviewed gets in a few good basic summary questions, but then his articulation is wasted on probing around smaller aesthetic issues. What this section needs is an outline, and some kind of narrative voice that can guide it efficiently through the maze of ideas. As a result of this somewhat disorganized approach, the media buzzwords get too much time - Satanism and Racism - and very little energy is spent making clear the ideas for which it is worth using those taboo-breakers. Incongruously, some kid named Aaron Spell - ironically, almost surely a Jewish name - is interviewed for the achievement of (a) liking black metal and (b) getting drunk and robbing people at knife point. What the hell is being communicated here? On these points, the documentary loses sight of its goal and veers dangerously close to an erudite but still directionless Jerry Springer-esque revelation of extremity, but not motivation or ideology, which are closer to the two abstract topics of a documentary about possible future subcultures for the dying American social organism. What saves this section are the erudite commentaries from a highly literate fellow from a non-profit group and American band Averse Sefira, the latter being used sparsely from a seemingly lack of concise sound bites. For this kind of inspection of the black metal genre, the film is the best in its league, but inevitably, there is more that could have been done with the same resources. Perhaps what led these filmmakers astray was the absence of literate fans who understood what impelled the creation of this genre back in 1990 or so.
The position of genre inspected last is a coveted one, as it is the final option presented to the audience and thus, intentional or no, seems a concluding one. Darkplanet looks at the "zealot" movement, which consists of an extreme Christian version of a hybrid between skinheads and straightedgers. Whether intentionally or not, the zealots appear to be the only group in this film who have a chance of hell of success, and the reason is simple: they have a complete (albeit simple) philosophy, and they are committed to a course of action that goes beyond the music, which in this case isn't much more boring - if at all - than the grinding, derivative anthems of straightedge or post-1995 black metal. There are the obligatory interviews with people so brainwashed their eyes gleam and do not refocus during entire thirty-second clips (a bad sign) and forays into the world of missionary underground Christians who interact with the lost youth discarded by other subgenres (convincing). While many of these people come off as insane, and hearing one of them ramble through a historically-inaccurate deification of the Masada story was embarrassing, the lasting impression is that they are much more likely to endure as an organized entity than the image-conscious but directionless black metal, straightedge and skinhead movements. This may have been what the filmmakers intended, or they may be using this to remind others of what the stakes of this battle are, but in any case, it concludes the film powerfully with a motif of struggle and self-sacrifice.
On the whole, this video is competent and informative. It is not recommended for a "black metal fan"; such people want something that glorifies and repeats the symbols of black metal, where this is a more savvy contextual view that would be better shown to the parents and friends of someone immersing themselves in hardcore punk, straightedge, oi, grindcore, death metal, black metal, emo, metalcore, Christian rock, or the like. This documentary has enough content and literate presentation to fit in with the content on the History channel or PBS, and while that may seem like a kiss of death to those who eschew such things, to the more experienced it is a sign that someone has finally taken these genres seriously and attempted to explain them to other people not as antagonisms of this culture, but as its attempt to heal itself by producing a better future option from within.
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