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All’s Welles That Ends Welles: “The Other Side of the Wind” and a Sense of Seventies Timelessness…

There is a tendency to think of the current moment as the most important moment; call it “modernity bias.”

There is a certain egocentricism inherent in this premise, in the idea that this moment when we exist will always be the most important moment. On a purely philosophical level, there may some truth in the idea. After all, this is the one moment when we actually get to make a decision and exercise agency, this is the one moment where a course of action can be changed. Of course, people have made decisions in the past and can plan for the future, but this is the moment that exists right now. It’s understandable to think of the current moment in such terms.

Sometimes this can make it hard to engage with popular culture outside of those terms. Of course, a lot of popular culture is defined by the moment in which it was released. It would be hard to separate All the President’s Men (or even conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation or The Parallax View) from the cultural paranoia of the seventies, just as it would be hard to divorce films like Fight Club (or The Matrix) from the pre-millennial anxieties that informed them. This is not to suggest that these movies lack relevance outside their moments, but instead to acknowledge they are rooted in their times.

In most cases, works are released relatively close to the time at which they were produced, meaning that audiences and critics respond to these films in the context in which they were made. Audiences reacting to films like All The President’s Men or Fight Club were very much in step with the culture that informed it, and so there was a strong communion between what the film was saying and what the audience was hearing. Indeed, any critical reevaluation of these works exists in conversation with the original evaluation, and so the cultural conversation about these works of art tends to move forward from a fixed point.

However, this creates a challenge in assessing works that exist outside of that template. “Lost” works that have been recovered. “Incomplete” works that have been finished. Even older works that have been revisited. It is, for example very hard to separate Doug Liman’s reworked 2018 director’s cut of his 2010 film Fair Game from the context of its later release, specifically President Donald Trump’s pardoning of a key official involved in the events depicted in the film. It becomes an even bigger challenge when dealing with a work that is seeing the light of day for the first time years removed from its original context.

Is The Other Side of the Wind a lost seventies film, or is it a film for the closing of the second decade of the twenty-first century? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it something else entirely?

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Iron Fist – Black Tiger Steals Heart (Review)

And so it becomes a little clearer what exactly Iron Fist is trying to do with the Hand.

Black Tiger Steals Heart reveals that Madame Gao is not the leader of the Hand, but instead one faction of the Hand. Presumably, Nobu was the leader of another faction of the Hand on Daredevil, although his interactions with Gao never seemed anywhere near as charged as they might otherwise be. Black Tiger Steals Heart properly introduces the character of Bakuto, a mysterious figure who has been lurking at the edge of the narrative since he was introduced as a friend of Colleen Wing in Felling Tree With Roots.

“Ay, Macarena!”

Bakuto is ultimately revealed to be a major player in the Hand, a character with ambiguous motivations and impressive influence. Black Tiger Steals Heart immediately sets Bakuto up as a cool idealist with progressive values and socialist leanings. He attracts young followers who seem genuinely devoted to them, arguing against capitalism as a philosophy and suggesting that the power of disaffected youth can be channeled in a more constructive manner. Contrasted with Gao’s capitalism or Rand Industries’ exploitation, Bakuto makes a lot of sense.

Bakuto is ultimately revealed as a sinister cult leader looking to exploit the young people placed in his care, turning them into weapons through which he might wage war upon the establishment. Bakuto’s reinvention of the Hand away from Nobu’s Asian mysticism or Gao’s magical capitalism continues the theme of the Hand as a stand-in for American anxieties about foreign belief systems. In this case, Iron Fist treats the Hand as a reactionary critique of left-leaning social movements like Black Lives Matter or Bernie Sanders supporters.

Enjoy this, because this is the only Asian Iron Fist that you’re going to get.

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Non-Review Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is a beautiful piece of speculative paranoid horror.

The plot follows Michelle, a young woman who is involved in a car crash. She wakes up to find herself in a strange concrete bunker, under the care of the mysterious (and more-than-slightly sinister) Howard. As she comes to her senses, Howard advises her that something horrible has happened; the world has ended outside and they are sealed safely inside an air-tight self-sustaining bunker. However, Michelle has a healthy degree of skepticism about Howard’s claims, wondering what exactly is going on and just how trustworthy Howard actually is.

At home at the end of the world. Maybe.

At home at the end of the world.
Maybe.

To reveal any more would be to spoil the film. 10 Cloverfield Lane is very much a “mystery box” production, in keeping with various other JJ Abrams projects from Cloverfield to Super 8 to Star Trek Into Darkness. Although Abrams is not directing, 10 Cloverfield Lane retains a lot of the director’s aesthetic. It is a film that is designed to be seen with the bare minimum of information, to the point where the unveiling of the movie’s title came surprisingly late in the release process.

However, writers Drew Goddard and Daniel Casey (working from a story by Matthew Stuecken and Josh Campbell) and director Dan Trachtenberg use that mystery box structure in a manner distinct from Abrams’ blockbuster sensibilities. 10 Cloverfield Lane plays like a feature-length high-budget episode of The Twilight Zone, a story that looks and sounds great but would (mostly) lend itself to a stage play adaptation. 10 Cloverfield Lane feels very much like a classic high-concept science-fiction horror, in the best possible way.

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

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The X-Files – Nothing Important Happened Today II (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

Of course, the ninth season was broadcast in a radically different world than the eighth season.

Nothing Important Happened Today I was broadcast early in November 2001, less than two months after hijackers commandeered control of several airline jets and sent them crashing into various American landmarks. The attacks upon the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon changed the world in a way that very few events can claim. History can be comfortably divided into “before 9/11” and “after 9/11”, a rare marker of cultural significance generally reserved for events like World Wars.

World on fire...

World on fire…

Tom Brokow has argued that 9/11 was “when the twenty-first century truly began.” Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that 9/11 was “the defining event of the new millennium.” Phillip E. Wegner suggested that 9/11 represented the end of “the long nineties” that had begun with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that 9/11 changed absolutely everything. It defined American foreign policy for over a decade after the fact, cemented a culture of anxiety and surveillance, cast an incredibly long shadow over world culture and politics.

Over two-and-a-half thousand people were killed on 9/11. Estimates suggest that up to twenty-one thousand civilians and more than two thousand American troops died during the War in Afghanistan. Studies suggest that up to half a million Iraqis have died of war-related causes and nearly four-and-a-half thousand American troops have died during the Iraq War. These are just the losses that can be tangibly measured; it is to say nothing of the lives caught in ripple effects and unforeseen (or foreseeable) consequences.

Shining a light on what happened...

Shining a light on what happened…

It is very cavalier and insensitive to suggest that The X-Files was a victim of 9/11 in any real sense. With everything else going on in the wake of 9/11, the cancellation of a television show means nothing. The cancellation of a show (even a popular show) is not even a footnote in any account of how the world changed. It is entirely reasonable to argue that The X-Files might have been cancelled even if 9/11 never happened. The show was nine years old, and had just lost one of its two leads. It was entirely possible that the show could never have recovered from that anyway.

Still, The X-Files was a show indelibly and undeniably anchored in the context of the nineties. It was a show that tapped into the zeitgeist in that historical lacuna following the end of the Cold War, when there were no more enemies to fight and where there was room for introspection and reflection about government authority. By the start of the ninth season, the show’s cultural moment had passed.

A Doggett lead...

A Doggett lead…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Impulse (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Impulse is a Star Trek zombie story.

It might sound absurd, but it works very well. After all, the Star Trek franchise rooted in pulp space horror, with extended stretches of the original show portraying space as haunted. In some ways, Impulse could be seen as a logical extension of Regeneration from late in the second season. Both episodes are very much modelled on the classic zombie horror movie formula, both deal with how traditional Star Trek morality applies to that formula, and both are even directed by veteran Star Trek producer David Livingston, who brings a nice kinetic feel to the adventures.

Dead space...

Dead space…

Impulse works a lot better than it really should. There are some plotting issues created by the secondary storyline grafted into the episode, and the show doesn’t quite develop its Vulcan themes as well as it might. However, it compensates for these issues with an incredible sense of energy and momentum. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise might be the first season of Star Trek to be seriously facing cancellation in decades, but it had an entirely new lease on life.

Impulse is a bold and exciting piece of television, one that feel vital and urgent. It recaptures some of the appeal of the new status quo that had been somewhat squandered by Extinction and Rajiin.

Reed shirt...

Reed shirt…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Xindi (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Delivering on change is always more difficult than promising change.

The first block of episodes in the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise struggle with the weight of expectation and the sense that the production team have no real idea of how to manage this sort of storytelling. Rick Berman and Brannon Braga had consulted with Ira Steven Behr towards the end of the second season, suggesting that they wanted to model the storytelling loosely on the blend of episodic and serialised scripting that Behr oversaw on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It makes sense, as Deep Space Nine was the only Star Trek series to really engage with that sort of storytelling.

A primate example of the Xindi...

A primate example of the Xindi…

In hindsight, it seems a shame that the writing room on Deep Space Nine was allowed to disintegrate so thoroughly. Ira Steven Behr, Hans Beimler and Rene Echevarria departed immediately following What You Leave Behind. Ronald D. Moore migrated briefly over to Star Trek: Voyager, but quit quite promptly following creative disagreements with former collaborator Brannon Braga. The veteran writers on Enterprise came from Voyager. Brannon Braga, Mike Sussman, Phyllis Strong and André Bormanis were all writers who had come into their own working on Voyager.

Star Trek: Voyager a show that was incredibly episodic and seemed to actively resist serialisation even more than Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is not a reflection on the production team. Braga had lobbied to expand Year of Hell into a year-long story arc during the fourth season, but his proposal had been rejected. Discussing the Xindi arc, Braga has talked about how he wanted to tell a year-long Star Trek story, and it is telling that one of his post-Star Trek writing assignments was on 24.

The ascent...

The ascent…

Nevertheless, it meant that the writers working on Enterprise faced a sharp learning curve when it came to structuring the third season. The experience accumulated during the arc-building on Deep Space Nine was largely lost to the franchise, and a lot of the early part of the third season sees Enterprise making a number of teething mistakes. The early stretch of the third season struggles to pace itself, and it struggles to integrate stand-alone stories with its larger serialised arc.

The Xindi is a prime example of this, an episode that has a wealth of interesting ideas and great concepts, but one that stumbles in the execution.

Pointing the finger...

Pointing the finger…

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The X-Files – The Pine Bluff Variant (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The Pine Bluff Variant is probably John Shiban’s best solo script for The X-Files.

It is the kind of story that the show does very well, a taut conspiracy thriller packed with sharp twists and turns. Not all of those twists and turns make a great deal of sense, but there is an incredible momentum to the episode that keeps it moving forward. John Shiban’s script is beautifully brought to life by Rob Bowman’s direction, with Bowman demonstrating once again why he was the perfect choice to direct The X-Files: Fight the Future. The Pine Bluff Variant is a well-constructed piece of television.

He who hunts monsters...

He who hunts monsters…

It also fits quite comfortably in the context of where the show is at this point in time. The fourth and fifth seasons of The X-Files saw the show really engaging with the dark underbelly of conspiracy culture just as Mulder when through his own dark midnight of the soul. After three seasons of endorsing paranoia and skepticism, The X-Files was ready to deal with the sorts of organised groups that believed in such conspiracies. The Pine Bluff Variant has Mulder infiltrating a militia a few months before the release of Fight the Future would recreate the Oklahoma City Bombing.

It is a thread with which the show had been playing since The Field Where I Died early in the fourth season. The Pine Bluff Variant is the last time that the series pushes these sorts of militia groups to the fore, with Mulder reaffirming and regaining his faith at the climax of Fight the Future. It is a suitably satisfying farewell to this recurring thematic motif.

Fleshing out the threat...

Fleshing out the threat…

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