Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pedro Almodóvar, 1980)

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Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón, directed by Pedro Almodóvar (1980).

Score: Dafuq did I just watch.

The film opens with Pepi (Carmen Maura), who might be fifteen, twenty-five or thirty-five, I’m not sure, who is at home playing with a sticker album and minding her own business. A policeman (Félix Rotaeta) shows up and tries to fine her for a bunch of marijuana plants she has in her balcony. Pepi tries to seduce her way out of the fine but ends up getting raped and plans her revenge. She asks her punk friends, led by Bom (Olvido Gara, “Alaska”) to beat him up and they proceed to do so, dressed as chulapos and luring him by singing zarzuela. Since that doesn’t work, Pepi decides to approach Luci (Eva Siva), the policeman’s wife and have her leave her husband. Luci starts a torrid BDSM relationship with Bom after the punk singer gives Luci a golden shower like thirty seconds after they’ve met.

This film is made of borderline absurdist vignettes joined by Pepi’s revenge scheme, and all of them are deeply queer. The action swerves between punk parties including dick size contests, a bearded woman scolding her husband for not wanting her (plot twist: he wants men), a transvestite seducing/harassing a courier or an ad designed by Pepi for a kind of panties that turn farts into fragrance. And despite how nonsensical the whole thing is, you can see a deep sarcasm and a sharp look upon society, despite Almodóvar’s inexperience.

Almodóvar’s first full-length was made over the course of two years in his spare time and mostly funded by his friends. It looks cheap because it is cheap (look out for the scene where Alaska is singing into an extension cord instead of a microphone), but hey, I’ve seen stuff at Guggenheim Bilbao that looked exactly the same and it was intentional. Despite the many rookie errors, the movie is exhilarating because it exudes passion for cinema, for art, and doesn’t care about making mistakes, since those are who make greatness in any field.

As you probably guessed already, not for the faint of heart or easily offended. If you are able to look past the irreverence and disregard for conventions, it is a fun film to watch, and living history of Spanish cinema. For some weird reason, this movie manages to be optimistic and cute despite all the sordid stuff that happens in it.

Corpocracy and the working class: an interpretation of “An Orison of Sonmi~451”

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Still from Cloud Atlas (Tykwer, Wachowski & Wachowski, 2012).

Corpocracy and the working class: an interpretation of “An Orison of Sonmi~451″.

***SPOILERS FOR DAVID MITCHELL’S CLOUD ATLAS***

Cloud atlas includes several intertwined short stories from wildly varying genres. My personal favourite is “An Orison of Sonmi~451″, a masterful execution of both the genres of dystopia and cyberpunk.

My thesis here is that there is at least one more interesting way to read “An Orison of Sonmi~451″ than at face value. One of those ways is as a metaphor about our current world, right here and now, instead of a prediction about a dubious and far away future. In this metaphor, fabricants are the working class, purebloods are the middle class and the rest are who we are going to see now. I’m aware that this reading of mine is highly influenced by Chavs, written by Owen Jones, and I want to acknowledge that from the beginning.

Now, let’s gather evidence from the text.

Continue reading

Nietzsche, a philosophical biography (Rüdiger Safranski, 2000)

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Nietzsche: a philosophical biography, by Rüdiger Safranski (2000).

Score: wonderfully insightful.

This is right what it says on the tin: Safranski ignores Nietzsche’s personal life and the social-historical context for the most part and elaborates a history of Nietzsche’s philosophy: how his works came to be, a brief analysis of them, and how he felt about his own creations. For the latter, Safranski relies heavily on Ecce Homo and Nietzsche’s letters.

I’m not an expert in Nietzsche, but I did know a thing or two. What I enjoyed the most was that Safranski strived to avoid commonplace interpretations and oversimplifications of Nietzsche’s ideas, meaning almost everything in the book was quite new to me. The book can get quite dense in some passages because Safranski wants to get to the bottom of the book or idea he’s exploring; Safranski assumes you are already familiar with the simple, encyclopedic definitions of will to power, eternal recurrence of the same, immoralism and so on. Since explicating Nietzsche’s complete works would be a humongous task for a four-hundred-page book, Safranski chooses his themes carefully.

Safranski starts with young Nietzsche’s diaries, his quest to make his own life a poetic object and his fascination with arts and aesthetics. This is the oh so Romantic Nietzsche, the one that becomes spellbound by the character of Richard Wagner and who finds a mentor in Arthur Schopenhauer. This Nietzsche adapts Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, in that “the inner nature of the world is based not on reason and intellect but on impulses and dark urges” (p. 48).

The subsequent chapters describe the genesis of The birth of tragedy, with Nietzsche’s musical interpretation of philological themes and his coining of the concept of Dyonisian. His attacks on the Socratic view of life further reflect his thinking against rationalism as it had existed up to that point. Nietzsche’s elitism is first pointed out here, in his defense of slavery in Ancient Greek, and his departure from Schopenhauer’s ethics of pity: since slavery of the lower classes is a necessary condition for the existence of art and geniuses, it’s a necessary evil.

As Nietzsche grew up as a thinker, he became estranged with Wagner. Nietzsche found the composer aesthetically dishonest in that he started using very effectist tropes in his music and consciously built a myth around himself for his own benefit. Nietzsche still thought music was what could elevate human beings in the absence of religion, but not the way Wagner did. At the same time, Darwinism, positivism and naturalism were becoming more and more relevant in intellectual life, in a way that sometimes clashed with Nietzsche’s views on truth.

Nietzsche applied his Dyonisiam view of life to nature, but this enquiry took him further and further into the territory of metaphysics, and, almost inevitably, to revaluate the Kantian concept of truth. Inspired by philosophical pariah Max Stirner, Nietzsche confirmed his own nominalistic foundations: “Stirner concurred with medieval nominalists who designated general concepts […] as nothing more than breath devoid of reality” (p. 127). Stirner inspired Nietzsche to advocate for a freedom of thought, for critical thought, for creative thought that undermines established thought. Among the undermined ideas there is the Romantic historicism, with its concept of progress and the expected “end of history”. Opposed to that, Nietzsche embraces blind becoming, bringing back Heraclitus and influencing existentialism.

Since abstract concepts are not real but only words and illusions we create, what can be expected from knowledge? What is truth, really? For a philosopher who is mostly known for exploring ethics and aesthetics, he delved into this matter quite a lot. Nietzsche devised a “bicameral system of culture”: science was meant to search for objectivity and cool down artistic passion, and art was meant to instill life in blind becoming and cruel nature. In the end, truth is a matter of perspective, and as such, of power. Nietzsche was very critical of Christianity but not because he thought there was a truth it was denying, but because he advocated for a different truth. But it’s not like he was convinced that there was one single truth that could be found if one used the right method.

Therefore, “the beauty and strength of propositions become virtually synonymous with their truth value” (p.180). By this point of his career, thought was in the same category as art and emotions, and he thought as passionately as he enjoyed music. And so he continued his undermining, and now it was the turn of religion and morality. Since his youth Nietzsche wanted to become who he really wanted to be, know himself and become a whole person, and now he found that morality went against all that. He wanted to be “the master of his virtues”. He started examining virtues and asking himself whether they serve good or they are a mirror of social upheavals. Like I pointed out above, he wasn’t against moral feelings per se, but he felt they had veered society in the wrong direction.

With Daybreak, Nietzsche started a proto-phenomenological program: “he regarded the inner world as an internalized outer world that is only revealed to us as a phenomenon” (p. 208). From this point of view, Nietzsche analysed consciousness, arriving at the conclusion that the individual cannot be grasped, since there is no point of convergence between being and consciousness (p. 211. These passages reminded me a lot of Blindsight).

On August 6, 1881, Nietzsche had a sudden inspiration near the Surlej bouder he came back to frequently: something clicked in him relating the eternal recurrence of the same. In Gay Science, he rejected his perspectivist and phenomenological view and went back to trying to break free from individual perspective. And that escaping perspective came in the form of embracing the cold, dead world, being possessed by things. Eternal recurrence took a new turn: if matter is finite and time is infinite, it is necessary that any particular state of things happens again over aeons. Nietzsche became very interested in the science of his time and the philosophical consequences of the latest discoveries, which he found shocking and terrifying.

Safranski then briefly hints at possible interpretations of Nietzsche as a repressed homosexual and his frustrated love story with Lou Salomé. His social incompetence made him hurt a lot so he decided to retreat to loneliness and keep writing. The incident with Salomé highly influenced the themes of master and disciples and the master preaching to the wrong public in Thus spake Zarathustra.

Zarathustra’s Übermensch has multiple dimensions: it has a biological dimension related to eugenics (later appropriated by National Socialism) and actually evolving as a species, until the Übermensch is a completely separate species from homo sapiens. It also has a less literal dimension as self-enhancement and growth. This growth ties in with his considerations about morals: the Übermensch is not only he who can endure the consequences of the eternal recurrence, but also the one who can build their own morality.

The third central idea of the Zarathustra is the will to power. “The will to power is first and foremost the will to power over oneself” (p. 281). The second aspect is self-enhancement and the third is as a “universal key to interpret all life processes” (p. 282). Nietzsche’s last works tried an ontological interpretation of the world using the will to power as focus.

In On the genealogy of morals, Nietzsche expressed his famous idea of master and slave morality. His criticism of Christianity made him realize that in the end, his quest for truth and knowledge meant he was cultivating a different kind of ascetism, so he was a part of the problem he himself was addressing (p. 303).

As Nietzsche was approaching his mental breakdown, “it is quite fascinating to observe how Nietzsche, the creator of his ‘second nature’, gradually united with his creation” (p. 305). His composure in the face of the tragical and cruel nature of life was something he had to work hard on. During his last weeks in Turin he let go, continuing a series of maniac and depressive episodes reflected in the letters he wrote to his friends. On January 3, 1889, he threw himself on a horse that was being beaten by a carriage driver and collapsed in compassion.

The last chapter examines Nietzsche’s direct influences and analysts, namely: Lebensphilosophie, psychoanalysis, Thomas Mann, National Socialism, Herman Hesse’s “Zarathustra’s return”, Ernst Bertram, Alfred Baeumler, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault.

I feel this is the most nuanced and humane exploration of anyone’s body of thought I have ever read. Nietzsche’s doubts, contradictions and tribulations are presented. He’s shown not as someone who had a single philosophical program and exposed it one book at a time, but as someone who read, learnt, grew up, changed his mind, was disappointed, allowed his personal life and feelings shape his work. His personal life and gossipy details are left aside for the most part, and he is examined as a human thinker, and as a thinker only. And I find that’s just wonderful, to be able to follow and dialogue with the way one of the greatest intellectuals of history gave birth to the work of his lifetime.

Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

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Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes (2008).

Score: Outstanding.

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) look like the perfect couple: married, two children, gorgeous house in the suburbia, he works as a salesman in a big company, she’s a housewife. Though this is what they have been led to believe is a perfect life, they used to have other aspirations. On Frank’s thirtieth birthday, April proposes that they go live in Paris, like Frank said he wanted to before they got married. It’s not so easy, of course: friends and neighbours are reticent, Frank’s masculinity is questioned as he would be supported by his wife, and April’s idea is waved off as childish and unrealistic.

The movie plays with a very interesting, if rarely brought up in movies, dichotomy: leading an ordinary life versus taking risks and looking for new experiences; accepting oneself as ordinary versus striving to do things unconventionally; embracing stability and routine versus embracing freedom at the cost of safety. Accepting social expectations versus living life the way one wants to live it.

Accordingly, gender expectations are explored during the first half of the movie. Frank can’t decide who he wants to be, but he’s more and more tempted to adopt the traditional gender role of the family man and successful businessman. Though April wants to set him free so he can discover himself, Frank cannot help but feeling emasculated by the fact that she would be the one bringing money home. On the other hand, April loves her husband and children, but wants to enjoy life with them in a different way. She only finds reject from her environment, who accuse her of being selfish, whimsical and childish for wanting to escape a life everyone assumes cannot be disliked by a functional human being.

I feel lover’s quarrels are some very difficult dialogue to write and act, and in this movie they are done superbly. The ups and downs, accusations, nonsequiturs and emotional explosions are not only nailed on individual quarrels, but also in the progression they make throughout the movie. DiCaprio’s and Winslet’s facial expressions, intonations and voice modulations are so authentic it does become scary as the movie moves on. Thomas Newman’s music goes from the calm and beautiful to the tense and eerie, signaling changes in mood and focusing attention on the action.

Sam Mendes shows much more than tells, using significant looks and carefully planned shots. A lot of the story is told, nevertheless, because a lot of the pivotal scenes are violent arguments. The character of John Givings (Michael Shannon) is used not too subtly to say what the other characters are thinking but not saying. Anyway, he’s got the honour of saying one of the most devastating lines of the movie: “I’m glad I’m not gonna be that kid”. I think the repeated use of mirrors and reflections is used to emphasize how important self-image and their image in society is to these people.

To wrap it up, it’s a very emotional movie, with fleshed out characters and open to very different character interpretations. With some great acting and fantastic dialogue, it is also quite rich in visual imagery.

Choke (Chuck Palahniuk, 2001)

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Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk (2001).

Score: Accomplishes exactly what it set out to do.

Or at least what I, as the clueless reader, interpreted the book had set out to do, even when I can’t be sure that’s what the author intended. You get the idea. How do I know this book has an agenda? Well, this is one of the first lines of the first chapter: “What happens here is first going to piss you off. After that it just gets worse and worse.

Choke tells the story of Victor Mancini, a recovering sexaholic, medical school dropout and hypochondriac extraordinaire. He works for minimum wage at a colonial reenactment museum with his best friend Denny (addicted to masturbation) and at nights he pretends to choke on food at restaurants so he can get saved by strangers whom he later asks for money. This money he dedicates to paying for a nursing home for his Alzheimer’s ridden mother. Ida Mancini spent most of Victor’s childhood behind bars, and several times she kidnapped him from his foster family and violated parole as a result. Furthermore, Ida fed Victor with factoids, conspiracy theories and a generally unpleasant view of life, turning him into the hypochondriac, misogynistic and generally obnoxious adult man he is.

So, this book really pissed me off. It was a nasty experience a lot of the time, so I kept asking myself why that might be. I remembered the opening paragraphs and deduced it must have been intentional (and skillful). I kept thinking why the whole thing was so disagreeable, and reached the conclusion that it was because none of the characters have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Well, maybe except for Denny.

Both Ida and Victor are detestable people, and they are both guilty for what they’ve become and the abusive relationship they maintain. Ida is guilty of her mischievous relationship with the world. Her litany about danger, excitement, society and ennui is pure nonsense (though I’m afraid some people would make a bible out of it like they did with Tyler Durden). She later regrets her destructive behaviour and wishes she had acted differently, but this happens when she’s already severly brain damaged. Victor is abusive, selfish and deep down scared shitless of everything. He’s masterfully written as a misogynist: “From now on, I say, I’m not giving any more ground. I’m going on strike. From now on, women can open their own doors. They can pick up the check for their own dinners. I’m not moving anybody’s big heavy sofas, not anymore. No more opening stuck jar lids, either. And never again am I ever going to put down another toilet seat”, says a character who is never seen opening doors, paying checks or helping move anyone’s sofa, man or woman.

The beige prose is quite well accomplished. The fact that the style mimics speech and thus uses limited vocabulary and grammar doesn’t mean it’s easy to write, and the pacing is excellent. Though at first it looks like it’s going to be the same thing as Fight club, it finds its voice early on and the story develops its own personality. The different flavourful passages have definitely come out of a very fruitful imagination: the sexaholics meetings, Ida’s conspiracy factoids, her hypnosis sessions with dead famous women, Denny’s rocks, the deformed chickens and so on offer us a window into an eerie world we don’t really want to live in. The passage about the rape roleplay is some of the most insightful lines about BDSM I have ever read.

If you’re looking for some escapist entertainment, you’re not gonna like it. If you are interested in literature as something capable of inspiring feelings and emotions, even when they are undesirable, this is an intersting book for you to read.