i saw some movies recently, and i want you to know what i thought of them. this post is going to have spoilers, so if you care about being surprised by the ending of a movie, don't read it until you have seen the films. if you don't care, then that's good, because it is just plot after all.
to start, i want to introduce the three movies together, in a specific order that i will review them in. this is also the order that i watched them. the first is called "district 9". it was produced by peter jackson, who gave a lot of money to a person named neill blomkamp, who is from new zealand, so he could make whatever movie he wanted, because the halo movie got scrapped. actually, it wasn't very much money relative to the other 2 movies i will be reviewing. the second is called "ponyo on a cliff by the sea" which i will refer to as simply "ponyo". it was written and directed by hayao miyazaki, who is a japanese illustrator filmmaker who has won many awards for his work over the years. the third movie i watched is called "inglourious basterds" which was written and directed by quentin tarantino, who had been working on the movie for almost ten years. now, these three movies all share common themes and ideas, as well as plot devices and other aspects which i will get into. they also represent a progression in thought that i found quite interesting. let's start with district 9.
district 9 is a very basic, very entertaining, almost documentary style film about the hypothetical situation in which diseased aliens landed in johannesburg, south africa in the 1980s and were put up in refugee camps by a fictional UN-type organization. in this way, it explores the relationship between a group of humans, south africans, who supposedly got along fine prior to the 80s, and aliens, referred to pejoratively as "prawns" because they resemble undersea creatures. the difference between these two groups is clearly given, one is earthbound and the other is simply not. the south africans resent the fact that their tax dollars are going to provide for the terrible conditions in the alien camp, which is called district 9. all of the political overtones are actually surface features of the analysis i am going to offer. the movie quickly gives us a main character names wikis who winds up accidentally ingesting an alien "fluid" which alters his DNA, making him gradually more and more alien (starting with his left arm, ending with his left eyeball, etc.), giving him he ability to use the powerful alien weapons. strangely, this fluid also has the power to bring the alien mothership back to life and take the aliens off the planet, so it has this strange dual role as a kind of life-force/transition-element. how or why it got to the surface of earth in the first place is an irrelevant mystery. what is important is that the difference between aliens and humans is almost transcended by wikis, who helps his alien friend retrieve the fluid in an action packed firefight, motivated by the idea that he can be returned to huan form by the ships technology and reuinted with hsi wife. he himself winds up missing in district 9, presumably turned full-alien or killed. the prawns are moved to the new, harsher district 10 to wait for the mothership to return to bring them back to their planet. so what we have here is a somewhat formulaic, predictable science fiction thriller which plays off the idea of humans and non-humans and the inevitable conflict that arises when cohabitation begins. the resolution hints at the idea that we are both really very similar, and that it is our arbitrary place of origin that makes us so different and creates this conflict. but the real conflict is that the humans want the ability to use alien weapons, which are very profitable, so they need wikis to contribute to their understanding of alien dna. also, the human soldier characters are incredibly aggressive and admit to just enjoying rampantly killing pranws. basically, the prior situation of perfect south african harmony is breached by these inhuman prawns, and the only way to return to harmony is to "traverse the fantasy" and ingest the solution itself, which turns the human wikis into a prawn himself. i appreciate all of the action, and the fact that wikis adlibbed all of his lines, and the human-non human distinction is very helpful in understanding the next two movies. the point is that harmony is has to be reattained by switching sides, becoming alien yourself, exposing the aspect of humanity that is already alien to itself. it is the inner split between people and prawns that creates the need for all of the action and drama, and the possibility of the resolution. keep this in mind.
in ponyo, the human/non-human distinction is explored as well. sosuke is a 5 year old boy who lives with his mother while his father is out at sea, and ponyo is a small goldfish mermaid creature kept captive by a sorcerer of the seas. ponyo escapes and befriends sosuke, who tries to protect her from the sorcerer. sosuke cuts his finger, and ponyo licks the blood to heal him, which begins her gradual transformation into a human. so in contrast to district 9, the transcendent transformation across the human/non-human distinction goes from mermaid fish creature to human, and not the other way around. the sorcerer doesnt have enough magical power to hold back ponyo's transformation, and she stumbles into his magical cache (which the sorcerer was going to use to envelop the world in oceans), speeding her transformation from tiny fish-mermaid to wobbly chicken creature to full fledged 5 year old girl. human blood plays the exact same function that the alien "fluid" did in district 9, it is a magical substance that not only holds the key to life and magic, but also has the power to start the transformation from one type of creature into the other. ponyo's emergence as a human causes a great flood and the sea rushes up to sosuke's doorstep, but everybody is OK because the movie is rated G. ponyo has the power to make things increase in size, but she turns back into a wobbly chicken-limbed creature a little bit every time. now, this is a miyazaki movie, and it has almost everything else in common with every other miyazaki movie. like in spirited away and tonari no totoro, the main conflict emerges when sosuke's mother leaves to help the grannies at the old age home, but the flood prevents her return, so he and ponyo must use a little boat, magically rendered to be able to go look for her. the separation of family members and the reunion is one of miyazaki's staples. it was ponyo's transformation which caused the flood which created the very need for the magic, and the search int the first place. there is a sea goddess, ponyo's mother and the sorcerer's mistress, who encourages the sorcerer to stop trying to bring her back under the sea and instead let her become a human. her transformation is blessed by the goddess when she shows enough kindness by giving all of her and sosouke's food to a crying baby they meet in a boat after the flood. check imdb trivia for all of the details, but this proves that ponyo is good hearted enough to actually become fully human, which breaks the "curse" and returns the water to its original level. sosuke admits that he likes ponyo "no matter what she is, fish or human". now, the underwater beauty and variety of life, the balance of sea and land, is the same as the imagined serene civilized peace that the south africans had before the prawns came. so in both, an inhuman outsider arrives which creates a conflict, in this case ponyo wants to stay because she likes sosuke and he likes her, even though they are both 5. sosuke's mother doesn't seem too bothered by the fact that a fish had just become a human, she approves like it happens all the time. of course, the resolution is more definite in this G rated epic than that of district 9, which is left more in the cliffhanger, lost in the balance stage: sosuke's father makes it home after the storm, sosuke finds his mother with the old grannies, and ponyo reverses the curse and turns into a permanent human by kissing sosokue. so all of the same themes are here: human/non human, transformation from one to the other, which creates the very conflict that the characters have to solve with the knowledge and abilities they gain via the transformation. just in ponyo, the transformation is reversed, going the direction opposite that of district 9, which allows a more perfect, child friendly return to harmony to be acheived at the end.
conveniently, there is a naive review of inglourious basterds right after a decent review of ponyo on notcoming.com which you should check out. basterds has to do with a group of 8 jews dropped into nazi-occupied france to kill as many nazis as they can, in order to spread fear and terror and weaken the german morale. the film is unmistakably tarantino, in every way possible. brilliant voice-only cameos by samuel l. jackson and harvey keitel bring it back to the old school, even though tarantino staples like tim roth, michael madsen and company are missing. here, the distinction between non humans and humans is more complicated, since the groups of people we have to deal with are nazis and jews. both are human, technically, but each has a quality that makes it inhuman and able to consider the other group as inhuman, worth exterminating. the germans are the villains, but the film could have just as easily been made in the other perspective, which the notcoming.com review hits on but fails to understand. tarantino is showing us that the human/nonhuman distinction is arbitrary in itself, it is only created based on some meaningless fact. i'm from earth, you are from the andromeda galaxy; i'm from land, you are from the sea; i'm a follower of the jewish tradition and am genetically (but not recognizably...a strange flaw in that all the jews masquerade as german, french and italians without being detected visibily as jews) while you are genetically german and a member of the nazi party, military, etc. the only thing that sustains this distinction in the first place is the delicate, fragile perspective one side is given, by which they may locate and differentiate themselves from the "other". notably in this analysis, there is no outright transformation from jew to nazi or nazi to jew. several switches attempt to take place, but they are always serving the higher cause of ending the war, bloodthirsty killing, disrespect, etc., and everyone who tries to switch sides ends up brutally murdered or disfigured. the idea "once a jew, always a jew" and "once a nazi, always a nazi" is driven home as brad pitt carves swastikas into the foreheads of nazi collaborators, so that they may never take off their uniforms and give up their identity, or as the jews go undercover as nazi commanders, but give themselves away with incorrect cultural signifiers and lousy accents. what is also wrong with the notcoming review is that basterds is not a work of historical fiction, a genre i have always had a distaste for, since i never wanted to be engaged with a plot if i already knew how history was going to play out. this is why i was so happy about the ending of basterds, which shows that it is not based in the reality of world war two, but instead uses the themes and anecdotes of the war to make its own point about the differences between people. of course, it is the arbitrary difference between nazis and jews that creates the need for all of the action in drama, as it was in ponyo and 9. but tarantino is a postmodern filmmaker, so his idea of the beauty created in the conflict between the two sides is best represented in the movie by movies, where the finale takes place in a movie theater, with nazis watching a goebbles epic that glorifies war, and eventually all of this violent energy in the beauty of film literally explodes and ... well i can't give this ending away, it's just too good. but the life-substance, the magical item that spurs the transformation (as human blood and alien fluid was in ponyo and 9, respectively) is, in basterds, simply, food and drink. this is not surprising, given tarantino's longtime love of filming food, filming scenes around food (tasty beverage...big kahuna burger...i don't tip...that's a damn good milkshake...hattori hanzo sushi...etc. etc. etc.) but the way it works in basterds is given a perfect balance which rings true. food only tastes good because you might not have another meal ever again, because of the unfolding conflict between your group of "people like me" and that "other" group of "people who want to destroy us...therefore we must destroy them". there are many closeups of food, many situations where food is the focus of the scene (milk, dessert, wine, champagne). and even better, food fits the role of magical life-substance because it is, after all, the magical substance that actually keeps us alive! but the lesson is that in order to overcome a radical evil like the nazis, the only way to possibly do this is to transcend that kind of evil and internalize it, which is how brad pitt's basterds manage to work - they use nazi techniques of ambush and mutilating corpses, indiscriminate killing...they basically treat the nazis the way that the nazis would be expected to treat jews...but they take the nazi attitude more seriously than the nazis themselves...
so what is the final lesson from this trilogy? district 9 appreciates the beauty of bureaucracy and regulated existence, but it is caught in the fantasy that south africa was fine before the prawns showed up, and can return to peace after they eventually leave. ponyo is caught up in the beauty of the ocean, its creatures, the visual splendor, and the fantasy that a katrina style flood can take place and everyone will be ok (although one can't help but imagine a more mature version of ponyo where a body floats by towards the end... no, this is impossible, because there is no grim reality in ponyo!) basterds is caught up in the beauty of itself, in the beauty of film to be able to replicate the drama and tensions that humans experience when they encounter that which should be considered inhuman. i need to quote slavoj zizek's twitter account in order to say what needs to be said about fantasy in basterds, so this is a RT: "Inglorious (sic) Basterds is the opposite of living out one's fantasy. It condemns us to the truth. The real fantasy is a world sans Auschwitz"
District 9: ****
Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea: ****
Inglourious Basterds: *****
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