Archive for the ‘Kim Nicolini’ Category

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(Also: The Witch – Joe’s Review)

‘But if you take the movie symbolically, the movie is kind of a primer on what fucked America up in the first place: delusional Christian assholes stealing the land and then using their obsessive and insane religion to create a dogma of hate and intolerance.’

 

by Kim Niccolini

If you plan on heading to the movies to check out Robert Eggers’ The Witch, you better hurry. It most likely will vanish before even having a chance to get stoned to death by the general public. Most people have flocked to the film expecting a standard Hollywood shocker horror film. Sure, it could be a crap movie, but at least it would provide screams and squirms and squirts of blood and guts.

Audiences have been gravely disappointed and confused by what they have found in The Witch. Sure, it’s a horror film, but it’s about the horror that is American Christian culture and the disease it has inflicted on social and sexual culture since the moment the first Puritan bible hit the New World. The film is a moody, minimalist parable for the sickness of American conservative Christianity and the horror of its vile intolerance. Rather than finding cheesy creepy shlock shock, most audiences have left the theater surprised, disappointed, and more than a little disturbed. Set in the 1630s and chronicling a Puritan family living in exile, the film is a dismal, dark, stark and disturbing reminder of the original Christian sin that gave way to the rape of the American land, Christian-sanctified genocide, the oppression of women, and the repression of sexuality that has never left the dark core of American socio-politics.

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“Forgive me Lord for I have trespassed” is certainly a biblical phrase that most people are familiar with. And trespass is exactly what those Puritan bible thumpers did. They trespassed in the name of God. They trespassed on land that was not theirs. They trespassed on human rights. They trespassed on women and children. They trespassed on the natives that occupied the land they stole. And they trespassed on themselves, promoting a culture of self-loathing, sexual repression, and a dogma under which it is impossible to be right and thereby gives license to wrong so many.

That is the religious landscape that is portrayed in this colorless, bleak and dismal film. It is a tale stripped to bare bones insanity. Those Puritans were run by a bunch of insane patriarchs like Jonathan Edwards and who scared people into submission with such tirades as his infamous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards and his crew of patriarchs thumped their Bibles and ruled with fear. They set the stage that would infect American culture with a dominant ideology which propagates feverish paranoia, xenophobia, sexual repression, misogyny, and intolerance all bred from a culture of Self Hatred, and this dogma rings as true today as it did back in the 1600s during which this film was set. To quote John Trudell on Christianity’s dogma of self-hatred: “If you don’t love yourself, what the fuck good are you going to do for the rest of the world?” The answer is simple. None. Instead Americans have turned their self-hatred into an Imperialist regime of murder, racism, and sexism. Spreading Democracy in the name of God one bomb and bullet at a time. Or back in the days of the witch trials, one stone at a time.

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On Crackle Now

by Kim Niccolini

I don’t need to tell you that the multiplex is dead. I am a girl who will see just about anything at the movies. I have spent my lifetime going to movies. But even me, the girl who can almost find something remotely redeemable to see at the multiplex, has stopped going. It’s that bad.

So I’m lucky to live in a town that has an independent non-profit cinema –The Loft – which not only shows independent and foreign films but that also screens classic movies on actual film. Currently they are showing a film noir series focusing primarily on tales of cops and corruption. They opened the series with Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) which tells the story of tough cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) trying to take down the corrupt world of the mob and its marriage with law enforcement. Certainly the link between cops and crime is nothing new in the movies. It is as relevant today as it was when it was first explored in early gangster films such as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface(1932) and when it was so brutally detailed in Frances Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films (1972 and 1974). If you look to the movies as a model, in the past they have rarely pulled any punches in equating politics with crime and erasing the line between good and bad. Movies have been a great vehicle for showing the inherent corruption of the American capitalist system, whether legit or not. Criminals are cops, and cops are criminals, and in the end all systems – mafia or government – are out for the same things: money and power. Of course, that means money and power for the world of men, not women.

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by Kim Niccolini

Last year, I bought my daughter a portable record player for her 16th birthday. She is fascinated with music from the early and mid-60s (the time when I grew up), and I thought listening to records of that music would be a great experience for her. I remembered how much joy I got out of my portable record player as a kid, so I wanted to share that joy with my daughter.

She loves her record player as much as I loved mine. Since I got it for her nearly a year ago, she has grown quite a collection of vinyl from re-issues to original releases that we have found at our local independent and used record stores. So along with an appreciation of vinyl, she has also learned to appreciate the record store (before it becomes another extinct artifact of Late Capitalism). Her collection includes all the Beatles albums (including a few original releases in pristine condition, of which she is mightily proud to own), Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, the Mama & the Papas and Janis Joplin.70105364

After seeing the movieLove & Mercy, my daughter developed a very strong identification with Brian Wilson, and Pet Sounds joined the ranks of her favorite albums of all time. A couple of weeks ago, we pulled her vinyl copy of Pet Sounds off the shelf and listened to it on her record player. The layers of sound are unbelievable. In the film Love & Mercy we see how Brian Wilson worked with studio musicians to create these sounds. He translated his fierce vision into complex layers of sound by working with a whole cadre of musicians who played everything from guitar to cello to bass, drums and saxophone. Hearing the album on vinyl and remembering the scenes in the movie with the studio musicians, the layers of orchestral under-sounds in Pet Sounds became even more mesmerizing.

After Pet Sounds, we pulled a Simon & Garfunkel album off the shelf. I placed the needle on the groove of the record, and we closed our eyes and listened. I hadn’t heard the album since I was a young girl of twelve. The first thing I noticed when I listened a couple of weeks ago was a complexity of sound that I never noticed before. It was especially notable coming directly on the heels of the Beach Boys. I said, “Wait a minute. Do you hear that? This album has the same level of complex sounds as Pet Sounds!”

A few days later I watched the documentary The WreckingCrew on Netflix. I learned of the film after writing about Love & Mercy when a friend mentioned I should watch the documentary about the band that played back-up on Pet Sounds. So I went into the movie thinking it was going to be about the band that played for the Beach Boys. What I didn’t know until watching this documentary is that The Wrecking Crew was the “back-up” band that literally defined a whole generation of music – the very music I grew up with in the 1960s. The reason the sounds on the Simon & Garfunkel album reminded me of Pet Sounds is because it is The Wrecking Crew playing the instruments on both records. It’s the same band, just different vocalists and songs.

The Wrecking Crew consisted of a group of musicians that backed songs from the top of the music charts of the 50s, 60s and 70s. They were responsible for Phil Spector’s groundbreaking “Wall of Sound” featured on such Spector enterprises as The Ronettes and The Crystals. But the Crew didn’t stop with Phil Spector. For nearly three decades, this uncredited band of musicians provided the pop sound that sold records by Elvis Presley, The Mamas & the Papas, the 5th Dimension, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, The Byrds, The Carpenters, Sam Cooke, Harry Nillson, Cher, The Monkees, and dozens of other musicians. Check out a sampling of Wrecking Crew songs here.

As I was watching the documentary, and the songs piled up, it was like flipping through the pop radio station dial on my portable radio when I was a kid. My daughter would squeal from the other room as one of her favorite tunes was sampled in the film. “I love that song!” I would chime in with, “I loved that song when I was a kid too!” What I didn’t know is how a specific sound manufactured by the Los Angeles music business was responsible for the soundtrack of my childhood and created by artists whose names I never knew until I watched this film.

Speaking of kids, the movie was made by Denny Tedesco, the son of one of the most hardworking members of the Wrecking Crew – guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The reason I don’t cite the date of the film during its first mention is because assigning a singular date to this movie would be as misleading as giving The Byrds credit for the music behind their hit single “Mr. Tambourine Man,” music which was played by The Wrecking Crew because The Byrds did not actually know how to play instruments when the song was released. The film took nearly two decades to make, and it was only with dedication, sweat, and a lot of scraped-together cash and materials that it ever was released to the public.

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Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes

Kim Niccolini

With the passing of master of American horror Wes Craven this past Sunday, I felt compelled to revisit my favorite film by him – The Hills Have Eyes (1977). This movie is so deeply etched in the American cinematic consciousness that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably remember seeing it. Most notably, people remember the scene where the mutant rips the head off a bird and drinks the blood out of the neck hole, or they are haunted by the iconically creepy image of Michael Berryman’s towering bald inbred mutant giant Pluto. Disturbing, no doubt. Some people have referred to the film as obscene and savage. Of course it is because Wes Craven was the master of showing the disturbing, obscene and savage underpinnings of the white American nuclear family. Sort of an Anti-Norman Rockwell, Craven showed the blood-drenched fallacy that bred the American white Christian family. What Wes Craven has always done (and The Hills Have Eyes is the most rich example of this) is use the landscape of the American family to show the horror that resides at the heart of American culture; how it was founded, the violent ideology on which social order was built, and the inherent blood-filled legacy of genocide and violence that paved the way for the suburbs where “God and guns” (to quote Hills Have Eyes) reign.

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In many ways, horror is the most subversive and radical genre in American film. While it may seem like gratuitous and artless violence to many, when done right (and Craven did it right), the horror film can be used to show the artless violence that is at the very foundation of American socio-politics. Through the lens of monstrosity, gore, and bloodshed, horror films have the capacity to depict the horrific aftermath of the Christian colonization of this chunk of land we now refer to as The United (my ass) States of America. America is a horror story on so many fronts.

Many critics have ripped The Hills Have Eyes apart for its excessive violence. They call it disgusting, savage, and obscene. But this is exactly why the movie is radical. The film’s savagery exposes the truth of the disgusting and obscene violence on which this country was built. The hills do have eyes, and they have witnessed the savage genocide of Native Americans and the brutality of the slave trade. They have witnessed Christians who commit crimes against humanity in the name of God. They have witnessed white racist cops gunning down the black, the innocent and the disenfranchised. They have witnessed the military industrial complex as it builds bombs, wipes out vast amounts of the American landscape, poisons people, and launches its weapons to spread its Imperialist disease. The hills have watched white American middle class Christian families living in a state of violent denial and righteous entitlement as they pound their Bibles and load their guns. All of this is jammed into a cacophonic 89 minutes in Wes Craven’s film.

The Hills Have Eyes doesn’t soft step our couch its message. It brings multiple levels of the ideological violence of American imperialism to the foreground. The movie opens in an American wasteland – a post-apocalyptic desert landscape with gutted buildings, bone dry gas pumps, and tattered remains of consumer culture. An American family decides to travel through this landscape on vacation. Helmed by the patriarch Bob (a retired racist cop who has no problem recalling his run-ins with “niggers”), the family cruises in their station wagon and camper in ignorant denial, thinking their guns and the Lord (as the mom quotes) will save them from any trouble. But trouble does happen, and a collision of America’s ugliest underpinnings comes to surface. Military toxicity collides with a nuclear family and a family of mutants who are nuclear casualties. The drama unfolds in a nuclear fallout zone and unveils the horrific gory ugliness that encompasses American “values.”

Let’s talk about Bob. Bob steers the family into this wasteland. Bob is a blustering red faced blowhard of a man. Uttering racist slurs as he leads his family in prayer, Bob is set up for the audience to despise him. Not only is Bob a racist, but he’s a sexist. When military fighter jets swoop down at the car and drive Bob off the road, he praises the military and berates and blames the women for distracting him. Bob is an asshole, a despicable representative of ignorant white middle class men, and we want Bob to get his comeuppance. Bob does get it and get it good does as the movie systematically slaughters the white Christian family for the entertainment of the audience.

Bob is taken down by rival patriarch Arthur King who leads a clan of inbred mutants. Arthur King’s people embody the toxicity of the landscape. They are deformed outcast mutants driven to insanity as they have absorbed the literal poison of the ground they occupy. They live on cast-offs from the military – walkie talkies and whisky –, and they will eat anything they can sink their teeth into (dogs or babies). Their clothing and jewelry reference that of Native Americans, so they also are the monstrous legacy of genocide. When Arthur King and his clan go up against Bob and his family, it is patriarch on patriarch and abomination against abomination. Both families are equally horrific. One wears their monstrosity literally on their bodies; the other masks their monstrosity in homilies and bibles.

Bob’s death is one of the most memorable in horror film history. He is crucified on a Joshua Tree, and then his body is set on fire. He becomes a human burning cross in the desolate landscape of the Mojave desert. The image is horrifying for sure. Anyone who watches it will have a hard time forgetting it. But sometimes it’s good not to forget. The image of Bob’s burning body references the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynching of blacks in America, and the Christianity the underscores racist murders. These are important things not to forget. It is no accident that Bob’s face turns black, and he becomes the thing he hates and that which he has unjustly targeted with his gun and his badge. Certainly this image is as resonant today as it was in 1977. Bob is the cinematic sacrificial white man. He is the stand-in for all the wrongs the White Man has committed out of hatred and intolerance. The horror genre provides the perfect vehicle to take vengeance on him for his legacy of massacre and violence. The movie makes a public display of the White Man’s execution, and Bob is representative of an entire political culture that executed millions of people in this country. This is radical filmmaking.

Just because Bob is bad doesn’t mean that Arthur King is good. Hell no. He literally sprouted from the toxicity of the militarized landscape, and his clan of mutants are aberrations of the war machine. They adopt Native American costumes in an egregious coopting of culture. They inhabit a land of nuclear waste, and they are nuclear waste. They are the disfiguration of American values, monsters that have leaked out of a landscape drenched in blood from massacres and fallout from the hydrogen bomb. They are weapons begot by weapons and evidence of the rot at the core of the American nuclear family.

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It’s hard to care about anyone in this movie, but the film does show the children as struggling between what is nature and what is nurture. The young mutant girl Ruby has not been completely bastardized. She wants to escape, and she wants to save the innocent baby who hasn’t had a chance to make choices yet. Even the towering giant Pluto seems like a whining baby and a victim to the corrupt system that bred him. The white kids are both superficial and pathetic. In the end, the dogs in the movie – Beauty and Beast – are the most sympathetic characters. Beauty’s slaughter seems much more savage than Bob’s lynching. And when we cheer for Beast’s heroics, it’s not because we want him to save the white family, but rather we want him to avenge Beauty’s murder.

The movie’s visual assault is coupled with cacophonic sound design. The static infused thrumming music sounds like a jet engine mixed with LSD, and it evokes the toxic secrets of military test sites and the abhorrent monstrosities the war machine creates. The music is coupled with an ever-increasing, ear-piercing torrent of blood-curdling screaming. By the time we get to the final showdown, the movie has disintegrated to screams and blood as if the hills themselves are unleashing America’s violent history in a massive flood of noise and gore.

After nearly 90 minutes of carnage, the movie ends with the image of an outraged young father – Martin Speer’s Doug Wood – savagely stabbing one of the mutant clan. Again, it is man-on-man to the death. Doug wields the knife in an insane fury as the screen is saturated with red, the bloodbath of history. The image is horrific and extreme, and it calls for action. How do we stop this brutal cycle? Where do we cut the cord on violence? The movie thrusts us in the middle of the maelstrom, so we need to flail our way out. There is no denying the horror when we walk away from this film.

The Hills Have Eyes is not an act of gratuitous violence. It is an outcry against history and the reality of American Christian values. Wes Craven was a radical filmmaker because he dared to show the horror of white Christian America in all its obscene ugliness. He used the low-brow horror genre to provide social and political critique of the smoke and mirror bullshit that comprises the white American Dream. This film is revolutionary as it incites the audience to take vengeance on an abominable system that has protected the white nuclear family with its faith in God and gunpowder while it has systematically destroyed the landscape and the non-white people who have lived and died in it.

RIP Wes Craven.


Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is currently completing a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will be featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA this summer. She is also completing a book of her Dirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached atknicolini@gmail.com.

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Chappie (2015)

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Kim Nicolini
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Life and Machines at the Bottom of the Pit

by KIM NICOLINI

Okay, I am ready to put myself on the line and be one of the few people who have dared to give Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015) a favorable review. Quite frankly, I loved the movie, and I really feel no need to apologize for my enthusiasm. Sure, there are many reasons why certain people feel obliged to be Blomkamp Haters. His second film Elysium (2013) was a complete bomb compared to his groundbreaking first film District 9 (2009). Still, both films are dystopian visions of contemporary economics and expose the ever growing chasm between the Haves and Have Nots. The films focus out outsiders in general and put class before race, and as such they provide universal messages about the marginalized in an economic System that continues to shove the large majority of people into impoverished to the fringes while the few and the privileged live high on the hog. I have no complaints about either of the films from an ideological standpoint, even if the second as a disappointment.

Many criticize Blomkamp for the color of his skin because he is a white man making films set in South Africa, but South Africa happens to be his home, and certainly economic “violence” strikes across race in South Africa as much as it does across the rest of the world. To up the ante for the Chappie-Haters, Blomkamp chose to use the band Die Antwoord to star as the human leads. This put yet another iron on the fire of disdain from the politically correct Left. Both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have been pulled under the rug for being white while providing cultural commentary on a country that savagely endorsed racism (Apartheid), the legacy of which is strewn across the slums and economic failures that populate the Post-Apartheid South African landscape.

However, whether you endorse the color of their skin or not, when you look closely at what they are doing, both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord are offering their own form of socio-political critique, even if you don’t like its flavor. Sure, they are white, but the violent landscape of Global Capitalism cuts across race. Die Antwoord provides a form of satiric commentary which is as biting and savage as the Systems which brought us Apartheid and its aftermath – a world economy that has pushed the vast majority of the world population into the economic margins. They expose the simplistic and fetishistic views of South Africa that are perpetuated on the Left as well as the Right. Nothing is as simple as black and white in the world we live in, so to critique Blomkamp’s film or its stars based on the color of their skin or their use or re-appropriation in their art and music is missing the point of the film – a point which is universal and human.

If people could put aside their compulsion to put others in boxes (a tendency that Blomkamp addresses in all his films) and just let the film work on them on an experiential level, they may findChappie a lot more than they initially think it is.

Certainly the film offers a story we have seen before in Sci-Fi and asks familiar questions. Can robots be more human than humans? What happens when we employ machines to police people? What is Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, and can they be wedded? These are familiar sci-fi plot devices. But ultimately Chappie is more about humanity, and the robot Chappie is one of the most human characters to grace the multiplex screen in recent times.

Set in the dystopian near future of 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa (Blomkamp’s childhood home), the movie pays tribute toRobocop (Blomkamp’s favorite film) as it shows a city that has completely run amok in crime and corruption. A giant corporation Tetravaal profits from the economic demise by creating a force of robot police to maintain order amid chaos.

One of the robot cops is a real failure at his job. He’s a loser of a robot who keeps getting sent back to the factory for repairs. He routinely is blown to bits; his battery is fused to his chest (ultimately giving him a death sentence since it can’t be replaced); and he loses arms, legs, and ears daily on the job. He wasn’t fit to be a cop, so his designer Deon (Dev Patel) takes the robot’s scraps and decides to use them to test his experiment to infuse robots with human consciousness. In other words, Deon wants to instill Artificial Intelligence with Authentic Human Emotions. This robot will become Chappie.

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Deon is kidnapped by a gang (played as themselves by Die Antwoord) who wants to use Deon to shut down all the robocops so they can go on a crime spree and get money to pay off a gang leader. When they discover that Deon has the parts and ability to build them their very own Gangster #1 Motherfucker (or as Chappie later will say Fuckermother), the gang forces Deon to build the robot for them to help them with their robberies and heists. Deon builds the robot, gives it artificial intelligence, and it is born as a baby.

Die Antwoord’s Yolandi and Ninja play themselves and become Chappie’s “parents.” While Yolandi raises him like a child (giving Chappie his name and becoming his Mommy), Ninja and his partner in crime Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to toughen up Chappie and turn him into the Bad Ass Gangster they need him to be. In the meanwhile, Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore. Moore is a total jackass Christian veteran bully with a mullet. He is the kind of guy who thinks everyone at the office likes him, when really they hate him. Moore wants his giant unwieldy big-balled robot the Moose to take over the streets and replace Deon’s much more efficient and tidy police force. Signourey Weaver plays the self-serving CEO of Tetravaal, the company that is literally making a killing by policing a city populated by the disenfranchised and the desperate.

The movie comes down to a lot of different things: corporate interests versus human toll; economic competition; alternative family; the brutality of the world; artificial intelligence versus consciousness; the ultimate battle between the less bad and the worse bad. In the end, it is a sincere and authentic vision of how to find a place for outsiders in an unlivable world. I was hooked from the beginning, watched it twice, and would see it again in a heartbeat. This is why.

First and foremost on my list is Chappie. The film’s director and human leads may be white, but Chappie the robot is beyond race. He is the universal underdog who everyone can root for. He is a pile of salvaged scraps – corporate refuge turned into a being who is vulnerable, gullible, smart, and completely empathetic. What’s not to love about Chappie? From the early scenes when we see him return to the factory as a beat-to-shit reject ready for the Crusher to watching him grow and learn as a child, crying for him while he is brutalized by gangs and aforementioned asswipe Vincent Moore, and cheering for him and feeling for him during all his confused and bewildered travails. We are with Chappie through the duration of the film, and we feel for and with him (if we allow ourselves to be “human”). Chappie is a mess of conflicts just like people are. He tries to please his parents and defend his family and honor while also coming to terms with concepts of economic necessity, social hierarchy, mortality and consciousness.

We root for Chappie from the beginning. Sharlto Copley “plays” Chappie, and it is his voice and his movements (which were then inscribed with animation) that bring Chappie to life. Every phrase Chappie utters went straight to my heart, whether I was crying or laughing. His innocence is heartrending as he has to learn to survive in a world where innocence is a tremendous liability. Chappie is the underdog of underdogs. He is adopted by underdogs; he makes friends with a dog, and he is taught the brutality of a dog-eat-dog world.

Every expression, every gesture brings Chappie to life. He makes a promise to Deon “his maker” that he will not kill. Because of this he refuses to participate in Ninja’s ass-saving heist. Ninja brings Chappie to a monolithic, gutted half-constructed, luxury high rise apartment building to get explosives for the heist. The building is a real-life construction that literally was never completed. It stands as a symbol of hopeless economic hope. When Chappie is left to wait with the dogs (literal fighting pit bulls), he discovers a dead pit bull. Ninja points to the dead dog and then to a caged live one and asks Chappie which one he’d rather be. Chappie says he wants “to live” so he chooses the live dog, but Blomkamp makes it clear that neither choice is a viable option. This is a brutally impossible position. The pit bulls represent people on the economic fringes who or being pushed to die or live in a cage cannibalizing scraps from other underdogs.

This is the world of Chappie, yet Chappie still maintains integrity and a painfully aware innocence amongst the carnage. It is no surprise that Chappie ends up being the most intelligent character in the film. He figures out what humans are incapable of figuring out for themselves. He certainly is a hero for our times largely because he shows that nothing is simple when you occupy the bottom rungs. Somehow the fact that Chappie is a defunct, mortal, fucked-up yet innocent robot makes the fragility, complexity and brutality of humanity much more effective.

I think that one of the reasons people panned Chappie is because the trailer made it look like some kind of WALL-E meets Short Circuit mash-up. It looked like Blomkamp was taking the road of human sincerity and sap. There is plenty of sincerity in this film, but it comes from a place of brutal reality which is not remotely sappy. Yes, we have to suspend our disbelief to feel for Chappie, but I found that quite easy to do. After all, that is what movies ask us to do. SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF. So get over it.

Chappie lands himself in an alternative family, but he also gets a powerful and painful dose of the “real world.” This is not a world that we are going to find at Disneyland. This is a world where the Have Nots battle other Have Nots fight for pieces of the pie that corporations and global economic interests hold tight in their grip. It is a world of slums, violence, and economic despair. It is a world where people scrap and scrape for anything they can get. So it makes sense that this robot made of scraps would be our hero in a world where people really are like dogs fighting over the bones that are thrown their way.

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But there is also a lot of sincerity in this world. That comes not only from Chappie but from the oddball casting of Die Antwoord as Chappie’s family. Living true to the band’s aesthetic, Yolandi and Ninja (performing as themselves except washed up and living a life of crime), the band/gang lives in a gutted industrial building which looks like a post-apocalyptic child’s playroom. Both Yolandi and Ninja deliver incredibly nuanced performances. They are both cynical and childlike. They will brutally commit crimes to survive, yet their survival centers on love of family. It’s a tough mix. They wear cast-off clothing that children would wear (a t-shirt with a kitten on it or a sweatshirt with dolphins), or they wear their own obsolete band fashions. They are repurposed cast-offs just like Chappie, and in many ways they are equally conflicted. They need to survive. They need to take up arms. They need to fight the fight, but at the same time they really just want to be a family. When their other family member Amerika is brutally murdered by AssWipe and his Moose, it is shocking and devastating.

I can’t imagine a better casting choice by Blomkamp than Die Antwoord. Pink slippers, teddy bears, TV cartoons, and plastic toys fill their squat along with firearms and drugs. This is a complicated world where economics and innocence collide.

Die Antwoord’s repurposing is an ode to times past as well as a testimony to the wretched excess of human waste that just ends up as garbage – social and cultural waste. This meshes perfectly with Blomkamp’s aesthetic. I must note that Blomkamp hand-built his robots from “scraps” before his designs went to the animation table. From dirt bikes to outdated computer monitors, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink to turn garbage into art and then into cinematic life. This can be felt in the movie. It is also reflected in such details as Chappie’s use of a stack of Sony Play Stations to transfer human consciousness.

In interviews, Blomkamp always says he’s an artist more than a filmmaker, and that definitely shows in Chappie. Whether in the magnificent trash-turned-beauty sprawl of Die Antwoord’s hideway or in the dystopian shots of Johannesberg, the film is great looking.

Speaking of repurposing, not only does the movie use Die Antwoord’s actual music playing diegetically (within the context of the narrative) on car stereos, etc to lend the movie a sense of the culturally obsolete, but the musical score by Hans Zimmer is performed on actual Moog Synthesizers (more repurposing from the past). The score is utterly fantastic, one of the best musical scores of the year for sure.

The movie also has no shortage of action and explosions as well as laughs. It pulls us in so many directions at once, ultimately leading us to the same final place – what does it really mean to be “human”? Can we be human without human bodies? Would we be better off that way?

Don’t underestimate the political economics of this movie either. While Blomkamp’s earlier films District 9 and Elysium very clearly showed the divide between those who have power and money and those who don’t, this film brilliantly shows life at the bottom of the pit, how those who are left with scraps survive, and how they ultimately maintain humanity in an inhumane world.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She is currently completing a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will be featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA this summer. She is also completing a book of her Dirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

Two Days, One Night (2014)

Posted: February 21, 2015 in Kim Nicolini
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The Dardennes’ “Two Days, One Night”
Workers on the Brink
by KIM NICOLINI

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest examination of working class Belgian life under the life-sucking beast of Darwinian Capitalism is a minimalist parable with maximum effect. Two Days, One Night (2014) follows the harrowing plight of Sandra (Marion Cotillard) as she tries to save her job working in a factory that builds solar panels. Sandra is a young Belgian mother who recently returned to work from an illness. She learns that her coworkers have been forced by the boss of the company to make a choice – receive their annual bonus of 1,000 Euros ($1,200) and lay-off Sandra, or forfeit their bonus and let Sandra keep her job. Sandra has one weekend (two days and one night) to visit her fellow workers and convince them to give up their bonuses and vote in her favor on Monday morning.

The Dardennes never once leave Sandra. This is her movie, and we are right by her side in her plight for the entire 95 minutes of the film. As she desperately makes phone calls and visits peoples’ homes to plea her case, the camera follows her every move. The film is scored by the clomping of her boots as she treks and trudges through the streets and countryside of Belgium. Never once does the camera pull away to an outside perspective. Sandra is in every single scene, so we absorb her experience by being completely immersed in it. Because of this, webecome Sandra, and she becomes us. She is an “everywoman” of our time.

We are with her as she stands in front of each door ringing the bell to ask for help. We feel her hesitation, the tension, the despair, the pressure, the degradation. The doors themselves become stories or portraits of the people who live behind them. The Dardennes are great at subtle details, and each door is etched with details of class. Some are decorated with iron gratings with bows soldered onto them. These serve as signifiers of trying reach beyond the trappings of the lower class. They are badges of the working class, emblems of what the people have worked hard to earn. They are the material of the thousand Euros that will cause Sandra to lose her job.

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Sandra desperately fears losing her class position and her townhouse and having to return to public housing. The doors of the homes she visits, their manicured yards, their frosted glass windowpanes, and their tidy porches are testaments to the workers’ hard work to rise above the economic trap of public housing. However, not all workers can throw away their thousand Euros on new doors. Some live in apartment buildings with ragged doorbells in rows, their names blurred and scrawled to near anonymity. Even among the workers at the factory, there is class differentiation as evidenced by the bells Sandra rings, the doors she knocks on, and the activities of the people who live behind them. The Dardennes are so good at showing class through details.

Sandra visits the workers on the weekend, during their time off from work, and we get a glimpse of their private lives. They do the kinds of things regular working people do. They work on cars, or do laundry at the launderette. One man cuts tiles for a second job. One woman is redecorating a bedroom. A father coaches his son’s football team. All these people are ordinary working people doing ordinary things. They have the things that are important to them – their jobs, their homes, their families, their things. And these everyday details make us realize how vulnerable Sandra is on the brink of losing hers.

Sandra really is on the brink. We learn early on that she has been absent from work due to an illness and is just now returning. In her absence, the factory discovered that they could accomplish the same amount of work with one less person. If sixteen workers can perform the work of seventeen, why hire Sandra back? So the company forces the employees to vote against her and for themselves.

Sandra is popping pills from the beginning of the film, and at first we don’t know what they are. Eventually we learn that her illness was actually depression. The Dardennes are clever. Clearly depression can be read two ways in this film – emotional depression and economic depression. The film paints a picture of what happens emotionally when people are forced to resort to extreme measures to maintain stability during an economic depression. Sandra is diagnosed with both literal and economic depression, and perhaps the Dardennes are saying that the latter feeds the former. Certainly the rise of antidepressants and antianxiety medication occurred with the shift to global capitalism and the outsourcing of jobs and increasing pressures on the worker.

While the camera follows Sandra on her plight, it also follows her as she swallows handfuls of Xanax to try to cope. She chugs them down with bottled water as she heaves her tired body up roads to visit more houses and plea with more workers to vote for her job and not their bonus. We are right by her side when Sandra shakes her fellow workers’ hands, watches them cry or express outrage or guilt at her request. We turn with her as she turns her back on a woman who says she won’t help her yet offers Sandra a cup of orange juice. We fall on the ground with her when two workers go to fist-to-cuffs over her case and she gets hit in the face. We occupy Sandra on her plight, and we cry with relief when someone says he or she will vote in her favor. We feel the outrage and despair when one of her factory friends refuses to even answer the bell though Sandra knows she is inside and the woman is supposedly Sandra’s friend.

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We are literally inside Sandra’s shoes, which the Dardennes emphasize by continually focusing on Sandra’s feet in motion. Except when she is standing still frozen with hopelessness or lying in bed staring blankly in despair. Then we are looking out of her eyes into the futureless future she sees – the loss of her working class position and return to public housing which she sees as an ultimate failure. She cries that she is invisible. In this economy, workers are invisible and disposable. They are pitted against each other for survival, and they are thrown in a pit like so many cocks tearing each others’ throats out for a bigger pay check. This is a movie that tests human spirit in a time when it has been beaten down to the ground.

The workers all respond differently. Some say they need the money to pay heating bills, clearly barely making ends meet and needing the bonus for basic living necessities. Others say they need it to buy school clothes for their children or pay for home repairs, so they refuse to vote in Sandra’s favor. Then there are the ones who are outraged at her visit and plea. They say the bonus is what they have coming to them, and they curse Sandra for trying to steal their piece of the pie. Others cry that it’s “not fair” to be put in such a position, and certainly it is not fair. That is the bottom line. None of this is fair. This economy isn’t fair. No one – the workers or Sandra – should be in this position. It is not Sandra’s choice. It is not the workers’ choice. They are thrust into the arena like Romans thrown to the tigers, or tributes offered at the Hunger Gamesor citizens drawing pieces of paper to decide who will be stoned in the coal town in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery (1948).

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Except this isn’t 1948. This is 2015, and as usual the Dardennes give us plenty of reminders that we are in the world of 21st century global capitalism. The constantly ringing mobile phones (an ever present character in their films) remind us that this is the world of money on the move. Fast moving traffic clogs the roads with Japanese and Korean made cars. Traffic is always the main soundtrack in a Dardennes film, and in fact it is the sound that closes this and many of their other films as the screen dissolves to black. Frequently the very last sounds we hear in a Dardennes film, including this one, is traffic.

The sound of cars on the move situates us in the real environment of working class Belgium, but it also reminds us that we are inside the world of money trafficking and the people caught up in it. Sandra needs her job. Every single person she visits needs his or her job. They all need money because money is what makes things move. People can buy things, move through the class system, and move from public housing to townhouses. But this movement is also an illusion. Mostly the working class can be thrown into the dog-eat-dog, people-eat-people landscape of Darwinian Capitalism, a ferocious worldwide empire of money where workers are led to believe that it’s okay to chew their friends’ leg off for their own survival.

This movie shows a desperate and suffocating state of economics for the everyday people trying to get by. Marion Cotillard plays all the complexities of this pressure to the hilt. At moments she is on the brink of suicide. At others she makes her kids’ beds in an attempt to create order and stability in an economic world that makes no sense. At times she takes a deep breath and marches staunchly to the next house to plead for their vote. In a flash, she’s back home climbing into bed with a mouthful of pills and eyes full of blank resignation. Her eyes stare shell-shocked out of her taut and exhausted face. She is caught between the refusal to give in and the desire to succumb to desperate hopelessness, between fighting for her survival and giving up. The place she occupies is the place so many people occupy today.

Sandra is the one knocking on the doors, but the people answering are equally desperate. They just happen to have their jobs . . . for now. In the meanwhile, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) works as a cook in a restaurant, and he dedicatedly sticks to Sandra’s side. He does not give up and does not let her give up. In a small moment when they turn up the car radio and exchange a smile in the car, the small tear-streaked smile that cracks out of Sandra’s worn and exhausted face is enough to break our hearts. There is some life left. In fact, as much as the economic system wants to beat these people down, the human spirit does reign.

I couldn’t help but note the irony of the job Sandra is trying to save. She works in a solar factory, a place that harnesses sunlight while its business practices have trapped her and the other workers in darkness. Also, this is supposed to be an alternative energy source, yet the only alternative energy source we see is one of labor exploitation. The alternative we see is economic practices that have fractured solidarity amongst workers and demand workers cut each other’s throats or risk losing their job and their pay check.

It is not all darkness, and in many ways this is the “lightest” of the Dardennes’ films, though still a brutal portrayal of 21st century capitalism. Some people do come through for Sandra. Most notably, Sandra confronts one woman who lives with her wealthy asshole abusive husband in a posh house in the countryside. He tells his wife not forfeit her bonus for Sandra because they need a new patio, as if a patio were more important than a human life. But the woman changes her mind. She leaves the husband and joins Sandra on her plight. The Dardennes never use soundtrack music. All music is diegetic and comes from within the narrative of the film. In a scene of moving solidarity and triumph of the human spirit, Sandra, her husband and their new comrade crank up the volume to “Gloria” on the car radio and sing along smiling at each other.

Here she comes

Walkin’ down the street

Here she comes

Comin’ through my door

Here she comes

Crawlin’ up my stair

And here comes Sandra. She visits one house, and a young black girl takes her to meet her father who is doing laundry at the local launderette. From the state of his home with the peeling paint and beat-up door, he clearly is in economic hardship. He says that he knows voting in Sandra’s favor is the right thing to do even though he fears repercussions from his co-workers and is scared he will lose his job because he is a temporary contract worker. However, when Monday comes, he does vote for her.

I’m not going to give the ending away and spoil the film, but I will say that in the end it is not about whether Sandra keeps her job or the other employees get their bonuses. It is about the triumph of the human spirit even in the dehumanizing system of Darwinian Capitalism. It is about trying to grab that moment outside of economic pressure and simply do the right thing. The economic system isn’t going change anytime in the near future, but the human spirit has the potential to prevail and can be bigger and better than money.

Of further interest:

Read Kim Nicolini’s reviews of two other Dardenne brothers movies:

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.