Monthly Archives: January 2013

January 30, 2013

23. RoboCop (1987)

directed by Paul Verhoeven
screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner


Criterion #23.

Yeah, that’s right. This thing where I watch the Criterion Collection in order. Making great time so far!

I have postponed addressing RoboCop for many months because I’d fallen out of touch with some basics.

I knew after 10 minutes that I disliked the movie, but I was ashamed of the vulnerable, sensitive level on which I disliked it. Ashamed because the movie makes such a concerted appeal to insensitivity. To be merely disgusted by it is to miss its adult intentions, it seems to be saying, and appeals like this have a strong effect on me. I very very passionately don’t want to miss the point of things.

Only recently has it begun to occur to me that this passion for getting the point is an exploitable weakness. Missing the point of things is actually vital to self-preservation.

It seems to me that all really true and valuable responses to art have their roots in pre-articulate childhood impressions. Nothing that can be really felt waits for adulthood to make itself known. A child is sensitive to everything; no child sets aside any amount of noticing for later. All the important observations are made early, and well.

This may be obvious but it bears stating because many of these early impressions contain some component of fear, and fear is stigmatized in adults. It takes considerable conviction to cling to one’s timidity solely because it is authentic. But this is what is called for, I think, in artistic experience. (Not to mention generally.) So I could stand to keep saying it out loud: the childlike response is the one.

Anyway, of late I think I’ve straightened things out. So I’m ready to face RoboCop.

Emanating from RoboCop is a very strong, pure draft of sleaze. I could couch this in adult terms but it is not actually an adult impression; it is a warning signal from my child-antennae: Do not trust the people from whom this comes, or to whom it goes! This is the country of bad people, bad ideas, bad feelings, bad mojo. Leave the room, close your eyes. Beware.

This is the root truth, and I want to dignify and honor it, rather than just start looking beyond it. Looking beyond is very easy, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first a word on behalf of the innocence that cringes at blood squibs, recoils from existential roughhousing, feels menaced by the company of open prurience. These reactions are, I daresay, right and good. What is it to have “a moral sense” if not this? There is poison in the desensitization that generated this movie, and poison in the desensitization it engenders. My fear ultimately is not of the carnage but of the poison. My body rejects this.

And if one watches the whole movie, one inevitably begins to take in some of the poison. Yeah yeah, more squibs. Yeah yeah, that guy got a huge spike in his neck and a pint of blood sloshed onto the other guy. Yeah yeah, loveless coffin world, I can’t go on pretending I don’t know how not to mind you. It’s actually easy. Yeah, maybe that was actually a fun flick, kinda dumb, I dunno, who cares.

No. That first raw nerve is the thing. The rest is a philosophical danger zone. It’s only safe to venture there if you leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Movies like this are made by people who ran out of their own breadcrumbs long ago.

But that’s just it: The fascinating thing about my experience with RoboCop was that as soon as I went back to the beginning and turned on the commentary, my moral clarity disintegrated. These were nice-sounding men, speaking genially. My childhood alert system quieted on its own terms. Sleaze is always only in the eye of the beholder; real people all have their reasons. Behind the curtain, as usual, are just some folks.

This is the psychological truth behind all shit. I enjoyed delving into it. By the end of my time with the creators I felt, to my great surprise, sympathy for the movie. It’s a stimulating sort of dichotomy to at the same time be quite certain that it is repulsive and that I do not approve.

And ultimately my opinion ends up in the same place: these people may not be sleazes, but by not knowing better, by thinking they knew the difference between humane and inhumane but getting it quite wrong, they showed themselves to be unreliable.

During a movie, I am reliant on it. I need it to be reliable. Beware.

So what does RoboCop get wrong? It is in fact the Salo problem all over again: the medium is the message, so there’s no such thing as an insincere movie.

Actually the principle is even more obvious than that: The content is the message. If you show cruelty as comedy, you endorse the showing of cruelty as comedy. There is no amount of satirical intention that can outdo what you actually do. That’s simply how movies work.

The really grotesque thing about this one in particular is that not only does it have an untenable attitude, but it doesn’t even have it consistently. It’s genuinely not sure whether its worldview is Brazil or Superman or Dirty Harry or what, which pretty much spells philosophical doom, or at least sincerity schizophrenia. It has occasionally gotten credit (from the sort of people who enjoy giving too much credit) for a sophistication that is actually just heterogeneity born of confusion.

I know, there’s a school of criticism that doesn’t care why a movie is interesting just so long as it’s interesting. And yeah, I guess I would agree that it’s a particularly interesting specimen of what it is, which is a cruel, bad movie.

And I could talk about what makes it an interesting specimen, but that would feel dirty and would I believe be ultimately unenlightening. I’d prefer to be clear: they should all be destroyed.

Indulge me my hammering on this point once again:

The fear of awfulness cannot be exorcised by creating awfulness!

I read a profile of Michael Haneke recently in which Funny Games was explained, essentially, as what I already understood it to be: a sensitive soul responding angrily to the experience of being brutalized by trying to amp it up — so that even the insensitive masses will feel the horror he feels at ordinary movies, and comprehend the error of their ways. It is an all-stops-out attempt to elicit a shocked “Yo, man, that shit ain’t funny” from the terrible hordes who always seem to think that kind of shit is funny.

I already knew this, and yet somehow seeing his research-librarian face next to the words really crystallized the fact for me: depictions of brutality are almost always the attempted revenge of the sensitive on the insensitive. The irony of course is that the “insensitive” they so resent (fine, we so resent) are usually just like them.

The early scene of “black comedy” in RoboCop, in which an executive in a boardroom is machine-gunned to death by a malfunctioning robot, depressed and alienated me on first viewing. Why is this so proud of its callousness? I thought. Who are these awful people who must flaunt their insensitivity? Revenge begins brewing in my sensitive heart. Turns out, when you listen to the commentary, that the amiable-sounding writer came up with the scene while working in a corporate environment and finding it alienating. The murderous robot is his revenge on the suits in his psyche. (And, he makes sure we understand, on the reported horrors of American tactics in Vietnam.) Well, sure, I hear all that. But why did I have to watch it and imagine the “Yo, man, that shit is wack!” target-audience guy breathing down my neck?

The director Paul Verhoeven — the Dutch PhD in mathematics who wants to direct a life of Jesus but instead directed RoboCop and Basic Instinct, a fascinating figure to contemplate — acknowledges his psychology outright in the commentary. He describes real horrors of his childhood in occupied Holland: “growing up in a completely violent atmosphere, where you were forced to walk among dead people by the Germans because they wanted to show that hostages would be killed if there was a problem… they forced you when you came home to walk among Dutch people that were killed a couple of hours earlier. And sitting at the table and suddenly the window was blowed onto your plate because there was a bomb falling on the three or four houses next to you. And in that atmosphere of violence it’s probably quite natural that I’m really interested in violence in the movies, because for me it’s like getting even with things that happened to me at a child that I still have problems probably to accept.”

Good. You nailed it. And in that light, RoboCop and its ilk seem like a very impotent and childish form of coping indeed. I think I could find such things pitiable and sympathetic, if only they weren’t movies, which are so utterly psychologically opaque and thus intimidating. Behold the great and powerful Oz! BLAM! When the blood gets spurting, you don’t imagine a meek guy with a pen cowering next to you, snickering nervously.

(From now on I’m going to try to. But when I do, I’m just going to want to say to him, “Hey, if you don’t like this either, why don’t we just turn it off? Life doesn’t have to be this way!”)

The moral is that conceptual revenge doesn’t work. Someone must break the cycle of bullying!

I’m afraid I can’t muster the grace of a Punky Brewster and love the evil spirit away, but I can set down my machine guns.

Here as a peace offering are some things I liked about RoboCop.

1. The lighting is effective and the colors are nice and warm. At the time, nobody would have called them warm, but that’s because they hadn’t yet seen the blown-out future. Movies today rarely have nice color anymore — directors have all been spoiled on the cold thrills of computer-controlled palettes. This looked like, you know, people, in, like, rooms. And that felt like a cozy throwback.

2. I think this is the only action movie I’ve ever seen where a ridiculous room-destroying gun battle is followed by a scene with a lot of people cleaning up, sweeping up debris with brooms.

3. I may be wrong but I suspect that a not-insignificant part of the reason that people like(d) this movie is that the end credits are cards in a really big bold font, there’s booming hero music over them, and they slam in rhythmically after the last line. You go out tricked into thinking, “well, that was sure dumb, but it sort of had something!”

4. The future equivalent for a videotape is correctly depicted as a DVD. This is done so casually that on first viewing I just took it for granted. The commentary, recorded in 1995, the year the DVD was born, does not yet recognize this as the right choice; the screenwriter muses that a 3.5-inch floppy would have been a better choice than “a CD.” Wrong!

5. I enjoyed the (out-of-print) disc itself. Like I said, the commentary was shockingly pleasant, and I also got a kick out of the long illustrated article on the special effects. Strange to consider the labor that went into pseudo-computer effects, like the robot’s-eye-view where he sees picture-in-picture playback and text overlays. Nowadays this is a 20-year-old technological commonplace, so it’s hard to remember that we were just imagining it first, back when it still meant painstaking hand-measurement and multiple passes through an optical printer.

On which note, I don’t know how to wrap my mind entirely around the fact that tablet computers look exactly like — nay are — the magic-screen computer panels from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The daydreamy part of my mind that knows the latter has no idea what to do with the fact that the practical part that knows the former is willing to corroborate it. It’s sort of like my old childhood thought-experiment: what would it be like if something impossible, like ghosts or aliens or time travel or whatever, really happened? Would it feel real or fake? How would people really respond? (Sadly I’ve since learned the answer: everything begins to go equally gray. I don’t know if you guys have heard but apparently the polar ice caps are melting?)

Two free-floating bits that I couldn’t fit into the structure above, such as it is.

1. These corrupt corporate towers of 80s movies have a tone of horror that seems extreme. Maybe it’s just that I associate them with the reckless gore of the same era, but there’s something potent in the power-claustrophobia itself. Well, not claustrophobia, some other -phobia. What’s the word for “fear of night skylines and black lucite”? It was somewhat operative in Dead Ringers, too (and much moreso in other Cronenberg, I know). The idea that glistening architecture goes hand in hand with gore and nightmare has a very obvious cultural “meaning,” but it really is its own aesthetic-conceptual package. I was aware of it and frightened of it long before I had any capacity to contemplate the actual anxieties of corporate life. Just like I encountered videogames teeming with post-Giger vagina dentata long before I encountered vaginas, and came to understand them on their own horrible terms. Damn 80s.

2. While we’re watching our hero shot literally to bloody pieces, at great length, in the commentary Verhoeven first says that the scene is so horrific because it’s supposed to be like hell and/or the crucifixion, and then adds that there’s a second reason: that killing off the protagonist so early creates a problem of dramaturgy, since we haven’t had enough time to care about him, so “that’s why his death is so gruesome. So it has two – it’s a crucifixion, but it also has the dramatic function… to implant this man forever in the brains of the audience.”

That forever is right and it’s a problem. I had never actually seen this scene before, but I already knew about it because I remember very clearly having had it described to me by my traumatized peers in 1988 or so. “He gets shot so much his arm comes off!”

Just like I vividly remember the moment when two friends gave this report: “Tell him about Indiana Jones and the heart!” “This guy pulled out a guy’s heart with his hand!” “And his chest wasn’t even open!” That is word-for-word accurate, 27 years later. Confusing, yes (when is anybody’s chest ever open?), but unforgettable. That poor guy was implanted forever in the brains of the audience, and even, in my case, the non-audience. Is this a good use of the powers of cinema? It seems more like a kid recklessly waving a magic wand and accidentally turning people into frogs, or disintegrating them. Oops! Movies are that kind of power.

All right, and if you’ve been following along (= M, B, A, sometimes D and E, and, for sure, future me) you know that for each Criterion I am grabbing a track of music. This is your Criterion Collection track 23, a standard end credits suite. I editorially removed the words “super-stupid” and “plodding” from the mention of the theme music above, so that I could put them down here instead. This is by Basil Poledouris, who made a minor name for himself, for a while there, writing in this sort of primitivistic shadow of the Jerry Goldsmith school.

Good night, RoboCop. May you continue to age poorly.

January 23, 2013

Disney Canon #43: Treasure Planet (2002)


ADAM I think the fact that that was surprisingly entertaining is a tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson, who totally carried this movie.

BROOM I don’t know that it was carried. But I think you’re right.

ADAM It was entirely faithful to the actual plot of Treasure Island, until the end, and surprisingly compelling. It wasn’t Disney-stupid-plotted, the way they all are.

BETH So why isn’t it more revered?

BROOM I would ask “Why isn’t it more good?” Are you suggesting that this movie deserves a better reputation?

BETH Well…

ADAM It wasn’t a world-class movie, but it was solid. I was entertained the entire time.

BETH I was entertained by it.

BROOM I found it so weird. Did you guys not have the experience I had that this was super super weird? I get that it was in outer space, but it was a weird outer space that didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know what the rules were.

ADAM I stopped worrying about that halfway through, when I decided it was “steampunk,” rather than just nonsensical. A steampunk Treasure Island is a great idea.

BROOM It wasn’t really steampunk, though. It was just whatever they thought of. And the stuff they thought of was weird! All the aliens looked sort of like snails, or like globs of clay. And an all-farting slug. I didn’t understand what flavor of imagination it was all supposed to be. I thought you guys were going to feel the same way!

BETH I just accepted it on its own terms. The thing that I couldn’t get out of my head was that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character was just like my brother.

ADAM He was?

BETH He looked like my brother as a teenager. He had my brother’s hair and some of his personality, and the song was like something my brother would have played on his guitar.

ADAM And it felt weird because you were crushing on him a little bit, right?


ADAM Hear her guilty laugh?

BROOM I think it’s just an uncomfortable laugh.

BETH Unlike you, Adam, I don’t get crushes on cartoon characters.

BROOM And you would tell us if you did.

BETH I would. I would admit it.

ADAM It did bother me at the beginning that there were no coherent rules of space and time.

BROOM There were no rules of anything. Like, what is normal and what isn’t? When you go on an adventure within a fantasy world, there needs to be a sense of what is out of the ordinary for the characters. In Star Wars, when they go to the port city, they make very clear that “this is a sleazy and dangerous place,” and when you see all kinds of aliens, you understand that in the characters’ world, it’s weird to them to be among all these lowlifes and foreigners, but it is not inherently weird to them that they are aliens, or that they are space travelers. Or when Darth Vader attacks, we understand that it’s bad news, and an unexpected event, but that it’s not weird that he travels in a spaceship or wears a helmet. But in this movie, there’d be a big fanfare and we’d see a vista, and I’d have no idea whether Jim is thinking “Oh my god, it’s an amazing space station!” or if he’s just thinking, “shrug, space station.” And that’s really disorienting.

ADAM Did it bother you that his mother was wearing a kerchief, but on a space station?

BROOM The mom looked like she was sixteen!

BETH Yeah, “twelve years later” she hadn’t aged at all.

BROOM She looked like she was his girlfriend.

ADAM It was a little uncomfortable when they were dancing together.

BROOM The mom had no characterization at all. And in the opening scene when he’s a little kid, other than having a magical talking book, he and his mom are basically in a modern suburban bedroom. But then you find out that she actually runs the Admiral Benbow Inn, and their world is actually 18th-century old-timey. Plus robots. The whole idea of that kind of mix-and-match is from a strain of high-concept sci-fi fantasy writing that started to go in that direction — I don’t know when, the 70s and 80s maybe — but it shows up here without the kind of intellectual excitement that needs to motivate it. Steampunk was supposed to be this, like, stimulating mashup, but this just seemed like… a bizarre mix of things.

ADAM I was using the idea of steampunk as a way to get through the movie, and it made me feel better about it. Because then I didn’t have to wonder things like “why are they steering with a big wheel?”

BROOM It wasn’t really that I had a lot of explicit questions. I just felt ungrounded. And, to be honest, by the second half the movie I was having an easier time with it.

ADAM Partly because it isn’t plotted like a traditional Disney movie, many of the hiccuppy Disney things we dislike weren’t in this one. I mean, I guess there was a sort of an “I wanna know!” musical moment at the beginning, but not really.

BROOM But ultimately this wasn’t the same as the story of Treasure Island. And they abused the Long John Silver relationship.

ADAM It was exactly the same!

BROOM In Treasure Island, Jim develops a sort of false father-relationship with Long John Silver— in a much more subtle way, not during a falling-in-love montage, which is basically what we had here — and then his trust is betrayed. And Long John Silver continues to manipulate the relationship even as there’s something authentic about it, and this is a troubling source of poignancy. It’s not just, like, “is he a good guy or a bad guy?” He’s a mixed character, and Jim has to learn his independence from him. Rather than getting to a place where he’s sniffling “Awright, y’old pirate, I got somethin’ in my eye, goobye!” at the end.

ADAM I understand. The book’s Long John Silver isn’t a good guy, whereas this Long John Silver is a good guy.

BROOM Well, he wasn’t a good guy either, even though they ended with this sentimental parting and then his face in a magic cloud. He didn’t actually do anything that made him more of a good guy.

ADAM Yes he did! He let the treasure go to save Jim’s life!

BROOM All right. But he also threatened to kill Jim several times before that.

ADAM Before that! That’s because he too had some growing to do. Of course this is not as morally complex as a novel.

BROOM It was totally unbelievable that he would let the treasure go to save Jim’s life. (Also, it’s totally unbelievable that an entire planet is a machine full of space pirate treasure! Just kidding.) But really, when Long John Silver makes this momentous choice to give up all the treasure and save Jim instead, his line is just something like, “Ohhhhh fine I’ll do it!” And then seconds later the movie itself is making fun of it, when he says “It’s just a lifelong obsession; I’ll get over it.” That’s the writers doing a lazy thing that’s very popular these days, where a script says outright, “We know the story logic doesn’t really work! Ha ha ha ha! Sarcasm!” The Simpsons does this all the time. But the point on The Simpsons is “you can’t take this seriously!” A Disney movie shouldn’t do that. And it did it several more times, too. “Oh, of course this doesn’t make sense, but this is funny patter and it’s clever and sly of us to acknowledge it!” But it really didn’t make sense.

ADAM Well, obviously, it’s not as good as the novel. But I thought the very idea of having moral complexity in the villain at all was significant. Admittedly he switched from all good guy to all bad guy to all good guy, but at least he switched from something to something. More than you can say for Uncle Scar.

BROOM Once I saw that the movie was going to go in that direction — they show us Jim losing his real father, and then gaining this new father figure — I thought, “wow, do they have the guts to actually go through with this? To go where the story goes?” Which is that Jim comes of age. He has to recognize that his father figure is flawed, and he has to choose to be without a father, to be independent. And that is not what happened in this movie.

ADAM Well, that would be more of a downer. I mean, come on.

BETH But he shows that he’s independent when he…

BROOM Surfs.

BETH Exactly. When he surfs to save the ship.

BROOM Well, at least it was better than Atlantis.

ADAM I liked that this was a Disney movie where the father was gone and not the mother, for a change.

BROOM The mother was more or less gone. That character was nothing. Those opening scenes were the worst, because I wanted to get my bearings, and they were just giving me this mother who was like a half-baked non-character from a nineties sitcom. She didn’t have anything at all to do with the milieu.

ADAM She was a little like the Malcolm in the Middle mother.

BROOM No, that character was sort of crazed and funny. This mother was, like, Courteney Cox. “Hi, I’m some lady. I guess I’m playing some lady!” She was nothing.

BETH She didn’t have a lot to work with.

BROOM I thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt did maybe too conscientious a job trying to “act” the “part.” But it’s strange to hear someone trying to find the truth in stuff like “by the solar flares of Arcturus, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” All these stupid lines.

ADAM I think the guy who did Long John Silver was very good.

BROOM Yeah, he did a pretty good job.

ADAM This was exactly how I think of Long John Silver. Is that because I’ve seen some other depiction of Treasure Island where he’s just like this?

BROOM Well, the most famous one is the Disney one from the fifties, which is supposed to be good. I haven’t seen that since elementary school. I’d watch that again.

ADAM I thought it was good that Scroop was scary, and a real villain, but that there was just a little of him, not too much.

BROOM There was a character like that in the book, right?

ADAM Yes. They fight in the rigging and he falls into the water and dies. It’s all exactly like this. That’s partly why I liked the movie, because I just read Treasure Island and every time something happened, I would think, “Oh! Now he’s in the apple barrel!”

BROOM Except of course here it was a space-ple barrel. And as with everything in this movie, a space apple means some kind of gross squirting equivalent to an apple. Everything in the movie had been altered to look more like an avocado.

ADAM But nonetheless, it was satisfying that it was tracking so closely to this book that I very much enjoyed.

BROOM I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I agree that’s a good time.

BETH It’s a very good book.

ADAM The movie did have some frustrating “It’s the nineties, mom!” sort of intrusions. But not that many, and they seemed to feel embarrassed about them. They put most of them in the mouth of the nerdy scholar character.

BROOM I hated him. He didn’t contribute anything.

BETH And then there was that robot, too.

ADAM Ben Gunn?

BROOM I thought Ben Gunn was better than David Hyde Pierce’s character. And why was Emma Thompson in this at all? Why did there have to be a half-baked love story?

ADAM Why not?

BROOM “We have a strong woman character! oh she got injured, she’s going to lie down now.”

ADAM That’s what happens in the book!

BROOM The character’s not a woman in the book. And she had to have these weird fetish stockings. And her weird cat-face wasn’t…

BETH Attractive.

BROOM … or comforting or anything. She looked alien.

ADAM She was an alien!

BROOM The aliens looked alien in a way that didn’t make me feel at home.

ADAM You didn’t look at Mr. Arrow and think, “now there’s a stand-up guy”?

BROOM The rock-face guy?

ADAM The rhinoceros, yeah.

BROOM He was a rhinoceros? I thought he was a rock monster.

ADAM I thought he was a rhinoceros.

BETH I thought he was more like a rock monster.

ADAM Like a rhinoceros made of rocks.

BROOM Okay, I’ll work with that.

ADAM Go back and look. You’ll see.

BROOM Here’s what I was thinking during the movie: “I don’t want to be having critical ‘Disney’s gone downhill’ thoughts. Those are adult thoughts that are irrelevant to the intended audience. So let me watch it the way I would have as a kid, which means opening myself to not caring, and not caring that I don’t care.” It also means opening yourself up to be disoriented. As an adult, I can generally work out the rationales behind things, but if I don’t do that and just watch it, will I be disoriented? And I was. And I figured that when I was a kid, I would have just accepted that disorientation. And that maybe it’s supposed to be part of the fun of fantasy that everything is so weird. But then I was like, “but I don’t like this feeling! I prefer to know what’s going on!”

ADAM I spent most of the time thinking things like “I wonder if they’re going to put him in the apple barrel!” I was disappointed that the complex chess of their face-off on the island didn’t come to pass. Or the part where he pretends to be a ghost and scares off the crew.

BROOM When the book gets to be military tactics about the siege of the fort, that’s less interesting to me, and I appreciated them cutting that out. But you apparently like that part.

ADAM I didn’t dislike that part. You don’t like the way he sneaks on to the boat and pilots it to the north cove?

BROOM No, watching him sneaking around the island is good. But it does feel like a cheat to me — I think I wrote this on my site years ago — that in this book for kids about buried treasure, when they get to X marks the spot, it’s not actually there anymore and you’re denied the scene you’ve been looking forward to, where they’d dig up the hidden chest and open it and see a lot of sparkling gold. Ben Gunn already has it in his cave, right?

ADAM Yeah. But you get to go in the cave and see it there.

BROOM Yeah, but there’s not a proper Howard Carter reveal moment. Here they had a moment like that, but it was pretty ridiculous.

ADAM That the treasure of a thousand worlds is mostly rings. Aliens don’t even have fingers!

BROOM What’s really ridiculous is that the booby trap destroys everything! It doesn’t just kill the intruders, which would have made sense, but destroys the entire treasure. “Someone tried to get in and steal it? Well then, the time has come for all of it to be destroyed!”

ADAM But that’s just because it turned into Indiana Jones at the end.

BETH Exactly. It was just like that.

BROOM But even in Indiana Jones, the traps are there to kill the people.

BETH And the treasure. Everything is destroyed.

ADAM That’s just what it was. They were like, “we’re bored by Treasure Island so we’re going to switch to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

BROOM But hold on. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there are traps to prevent people from getting to the treasure. And then at the end, there’s a restriction on the Holy Grail that you can’t take it out, and when they try to take it out, it triggers the entire structure to collapse on them rather than the Holy Grail leave the temple. That’s not the same thing as…

ADAM They also did the “I can’t save them both!” moment of reaching.

BROOM Yes. That was stolen directly. It was also stupid that with all of this incredible sci-fi magic going on, their presence is triggered by them walking through an ankle-height museum security red laser.

BETH It’s the nineties!

ADAM They needed to show it somehow. What other way can you think of to economically signal “booby trap”? It’s like Mission Impossible, where Tom Cruise is dangling from the ceiling with the beams around him.

BROOM Or the classic Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They could have just shown it like in Raiders of the Lost Ark where he thinks he’s outwitted the hidden mechanism, but then you see it shift and start up.

BETH But that takes too long.

BROOM You’re defending it? You just don’t like my tone. You want me to stop complaining.

BETH I just don’t have a problem with their stupid laser.

ADAM Broom, this is as good as it’s gonna get for a while!

BROOM I know.

ADAM I don’t have anything gay to say about this.

BROOM Joseph Gordon-Levitt?

ADAM He’s not gay.

BROOM He’s not?


BROOM Let’s look this up.

ADAM I’m sure there will be unscrupulous gossip. I’m sure the first search after his name will be “Joseph Gordon-Levitt GAY.”

BROOM And you know that he’s not?

BETH I’ve looked him up. I don’t think he is.

ADAM I’m pretty well-informed about these sorts of things.

[He is looked up. He is probably not gay]

BROOM I’ve talked before about kids’ movies in the 80s having nobody at the wheel, how they got really harsh and brutal and dirty. Feeling a little disoriented this time made me think, “Maybe that was actually just the time in my life when I was open and vulnerable enough to be affected by such things. Maybe if I let myself be affected by it now it’s still there.” Or maybe I was overplaying the sense that it was creepy to try to get that feeling back. But it was genuinely a strain for me to feel at home with this, and I don’t think it’s just because everyone was a snail. I think it’s also because there’s less warmth than I want. There’s just less warmth in most movies most of the time. The big thing that surprised us about Lilo and Stitch is that it had a modicum of real warmth in it. Here, even the big “relationship,” between him and Long John Silver, was just D.O.A. There was no real feeling there.

ADAM Everything they put it in it that was not in the original made it worse.

BROOM Going back to what it’s like to watch movies as a kid: a kid has such a strong intuitive sense of who are the nice people, and where love is potentially going to come from; might it come from these people? And that’s why people love The Wizard of Oz, because when she says “I’m gonna miss you most of all,” you as a kid think, “yeah, because he’s nice! He’s a nice guy, that scarecrow!” In this movie, and most of these recent Disney movies, there’s no-one in it that I as a kid would have trusted. And I don’t think it has to be that way.

ADAM I think I would have thought the mom was nice, and that Jim was nice but cool, and that Long John Silver was nice ultimately. And I would have been relieved that Long John Silver turned out to be nice. And I would have known that the captain was nice but stern. And that the professor was nice but ineffectual.

BETH They’re all nice, but the underlying emotion is not there. You know these characters are supposed to be nice, but you don’t feel it.

BROOM And that distinction is something that kids definitely have access to. I remember being able to distinguish between movies that were obviously supposed to be one thing but kind of felt like something else, and the movies that actually felt the way they were supposed to. Like The Secret of Nimh, or The Last Unicorn… there were these animated movies that were a little bit less inviting than it seemed like they believed they were. And it was like that scary aspect to them was in part the sense that, like, no-one’s going to give you a hug, here. Even when they hug each other, they wouldn’t give you a hug. I don’t quite know how to put it. But that’s what I started to feel when I asked myself what this movie felt like.

ADAM “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”

BROOM Yeah, butter wouldn’t melt in this studio’s mouth. Like a bad babysitter. Someone who doesn’t really know how to babysit who comes over and is like [gratingly] “all right, so what do you kids do?” That’s the feeling I get off the recent Disney movies.

ADAM Let’s read the review.

BETH I think the New York Times will basically like it.

ADAM I think they will appreciate the historicity.

BROOM They sometimes show up and say the cranky stuff that I say, like, “Look how Disney has fallen in this era.”

[We read it. It is very negative.]


BROOM I think he’s right.

ADAM We’re grading on a curve.

BROOM A problem I’ve been thinking about a lot, in my life, is how to hold to one’s own opinions and standards in the face of a context that seems to imply a different set of standards. And that’s how we’re reacting to these movies. “Okay, so this is what this movie was; how good was it at being that?” And I think it’s a useful to me when there’s a review like this that holds its ground and says “That, the thing itself, sucks! The ‘bad parts’ are not the only thing that was bad about this.” I feel like, “Right! That’s what I need to learn to do all the time.” So, then, you might well ask, why are we watching all the Disney movies? Seeing as we’re well below sea level at this point? Uh… Well, I thought Lilo and Stitch was pretty entertaining and pretty sweet, and I didn’t have a problem with that.

ADAM It certainly seemed more sincere than this. But this was better than that review. He only wrote it that way because he hasn’t yet seen…

BROOM The next one.

BETH I don’t know how to watch them if I have to think of my actual response.

ADAM Yeah, if she had to engage with it sincerely, she’d be like, “What are we doing??”

BROOM Yeah, I don’t think you’ve said enough, Beth. Say more before we end this.

BETH I don’t know how to watch Disney movies if I’m supposed to actually think about them for real.

BROOM You’re allowed to be really angry and disgusted if that’s where it takes you.

BETH I don’t know. I would fall asleep in order to avoid watching that movie, if I was watching it for real. I considered it, while watching. I was thinking, “I feel kinda tired; maybe I’ll just fall asleep.” But then I thought, “No! I need to do this. I want to be present for this.” And then I made it be okay! I changed whatever I was seeing into something that was okay.

ADAM She made her own context!

BROOM But that’s scary. Does that not scare you?

BETH It didn’t feel scary to be doing it.

BROOM So basically, I create this context, by being a weird OCD taskmaster who creates a context where you must stay awake during this movie and then you must talk about it as though it were a movie worth talking about. And so you construct whatever brain you need to make that happen, instead of going to sleep, which is your actual critical take on the movie.

BETH Essentially.

ADAM Oh man! I gotta go.


[he goes to get his things]

BETH So… I’m serious. I don’t even know how to respond to this with my real brain. I don’t have any criticism of it because I made it be okay, so I could watch it. And now I just accept it. I just accept what it was.

BROOM Right. So my question is — and this is hard for me too — if your real brain would go to sleep, do you have an option in between? Something like, “I’m not going to stop paying attention, but I’m allowed to get angrier and angrier about how my time is being wasted”?

BETH I probably do. There is probably some kind of middle ground. I’m just not sure how to access anything other than, like, what I really feel, which is “I don’t want to watch this! I really don’t think this is good!”

BROOM But you’re on board with this project as being kind of fun in theory.

BETH Yes, yes, yes! I am.

BROOM So how does that part of you relate to the part of you whose real response is “I don’t want to watch this”? Can it not say, “I’m going to be righteously pissed off at Disney at the end of this”? Because the choice to go to sleep is itself a kind of “making it okay,” by zoning out. Are you afraid to be angry?

BETH No. I don’t know.

BROOM Are you afraid to be a mean critic of an innocent little puppy like a Disney movie? Because it’s not an innocent little puppy!

[Adam goes]

BROOM I’m going to transcribe at least everything up to this point. His discomfort with this part of the conversation is part of the conversation.

BETH I was trying to watch it openly, like a kid. Because that’s something we’ve been talking about, and, like you were saying earlier about music, if you open yourself to things, you can pretty much like anything. You don’t need to be critical about things, you can just accept them. And so I felt like that’s where I got with this. I just accepted everything about it. So it started, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is really lame. This is really lame.” And then I just switched into a mode where I thought, “Just let it wash over you; just let it be what it is.” But from there I’m not thinking critically. I’m not thinking like a film student. I’m not thinking analytically about it. I’m just watching it.

BROOM All of the things I have to say afterward, it always takes me a little time to let them precipitate into words. And that’s because, like I said, I’m trying to do that too. And this time, the genuine experience I was having was that I felt a little funny about it. Which is a totally legitimate response. The innocent, open part that a kid does is to watch something and at the end feel like, “I felt weird while I was watching that,” or “I didn’t feel anything while I was watching that.” And analytical criticism is just to then say, “Well, I want more than that from movies. Why didn’t that work? Let me try to figure out what just what on.” That’s what my family always used to do. We wouldn’t go to the movies with a plan like “and then we’re going to talk about it!!” We just went to the movies. But then afterward, the processing would always begin, where we’d all want to talk about what that thing was that just happened to us, which had been completely unspoken at the time.

BETH But you know, I feel a little bit numb, like nothing happened to me. And it’s because I put myself into a place where I wasn’t going to actually experience it, I was just going to “take it in,” sort of removed.

BROOM Maybe there’s different categories of these things. Because “just taking it in” feels very natural and complete to me. But your feeling like you didn’t actually experience anything because you “just took it in” means something must have been blocked out. I was trying to “just take it in” in the sense of quieting my tendencies to analyze until afterward. But in the process I was experiencing things that made me feel mildly weird.

BETH I just wasn’t feeling anything. I don’t know.

BROOM Like watching a McDonald’s commercial.

BETH I guess.

BROOM That was another thought I had. When I was a kid, there was just crap on TV all the time, which I would just watch as itself. I wouldn’t constantly think “Is culture good? Is this a good commercial?”

BETH I feel like this is something I would see at my cousin’s house, at someone else’s house. At times like that I would think, “Okay, this is what’s going to be happening for the next hour and a half; I’m just going to roll with it.” And that’s what this felt like. I kept looking at the clock. Which I always do when I’m watching one of these.

BROOM I remember in high school once being at someone’s house with people who were being nostalgic for their earlier youth, as happens in high school, and they had the laserdisc of The Chipmunk Adventure — the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie — and the girl whose house it was was saying “Oh my god! This music!” And they watched the whole movie — “they” included me — which was a movie of no nostalgic significance to me and of no artistic significance to anyone. And it was just a case of “Well, now I have to sit and wait until this is over.” And that thought was not me having a higher critical standard, it’s just what the movie was. And yes, that is what this movie was too! And so the challenge here is that now we want to try to put that into words. So if that’s what you have to say, go for it.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM That it was a nothing wasn’t surprising to me, though it was a little surprising that it was sort of weird and gross.

BETH That you thought it was weird and gross is surprising to me, because I didn’t have any thought like that, once. I didn’t think “this is weird” even once. I just thought “This is it. This is what I’m watching.” So then I feel like, “What did I do to myself to make it impossible to feel this?”

BROOM Maybe you’re just not as oversensitive as I am to weirdnesses like that. I have always been very ready to feel, like, “uh-oh, that texture is weird, it makes me vaguely uneasy!” I don’t think that’s necessarily universal.

BETH I don’t know.

BROOM I remember when I was a kid and He-Man would be on, I would think “I don’t understand how anybody could like this; this is not my show,” and occasionally I would also think, “It’s so weird and boring and foreign that its foreignness is a little creepy.”

BETH I felt that way about He-Man too. It was so dark — visually dark — that there was a sense of darkness in the cartoon.

[we go on at length about what was uninviting about He-Man]

BROOM And there was something in either just the aesthetic experience of contemplating that, or else in the attempt to get there, the experience of trying to be the kind of person it was for, or trying to understand who it was for and getting lost. “Where and what is this for?” This is, yes, what you would see at someone else’s house. This matches someone else’s world. This is someone else’s horizon. And that would make me a little uncomfortable.

BETH Yeah, I experienced that kind of thing all the time, as a kid. And I know that probably, if I were a kid, this would also give me that feeling, but I didn’t feel anything.

BROOM Was there anything in this movie that when you were a kid would have struck your fancy, even through a veil of total disinterest? Anything, like, “hey, that ball looks like it’d be fun to hold,” or something like that?

BETH Well, I think I probably would have thought Morph was cute. I think that would be it.

BROOM Morph to me sums up what was creepy about this movie. Because some of it was cute, but then again… He was like a blop of spilled Pepto-Bismol, and, like, they hugged him. He had no motivation. He was capable of absolutely anything. He wasn’t really on the side of good or bad. He was scary in the way that worms are scary to me, because, like, “they can move…but what are they??” And yet sometimes he was cute. And that’s a weird razor’s edge to be playing on.

BETH Yeah. It was unusual. You’re right, it was a weird movie. It was weird that they did that to the story. Most of the characters were unlikable. Even the main character wasn’t really likable.

BROOM He was a troubled kid, and you hoped one day he’d be untroubled. And then they say, “yeah, he’s at military school now and everything’s great,” but you didn’t get to actually feel like “I like him now!”

BETH He really just looked like my brother at seventeen, with his parted hair and dour, overly-sensitive demeanor.

BROOM But your father didn’t walk out on your brother. It’s God that walked out on your brother. He went off to sail the seas of space and never returned.

BETH Are you recording this?

BROOM I am. I may not transcribe all of it. But I may. You never know. I may transcribe it in a smaller font after Adam goes.

BETH I’m done.