Tag Archives: Kevin Spacey

Our Villainous Love Affair

Annually, we get to live in a post-San Diego Comic Con world where questions about who won the convention,whether Kaiju movies can work as a modern film and OMG HOLLYWOOD IS IMPLODING are speculated to such a minute degree and with so little information that it will all be hilariously wrong by SDCC 2014. Plus all the cosplay in the world.

One tidbit of information gleaned from this year is that Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) will not be in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, but may find himself in other projects during phase 3. The new Thor trailer came out yesterday, and it’s becoming clear that he is still a central character to the universe.

That is a testament to the love we collectively have for the character. People enjoy Loki so much that he was featured as THE major villain in two of six phase one films with a supporting role in at least one phase 2 film and rumors of phase 3 involvement. Not a bad run.

It’s curious to me that the character is so popular because of what it says about the way we consume entertainment. We love this villain. We find him so engaging/charismatic/handsome/sexy that he’s worthy of being the reason The Avengers assemble.

Why is that?

Loki attempts genocide. If you’ve seen the new Thor: The Dark World trailer, you know Natalie Portman gives him the big slap for what he did to New York. And suddenly you realize that she is the only person acting appropriately under the circumstances, and just barely. He tried to do the same thing that made Hitler the go-to villain of the 20th century (with honorable mentions to Stalin and the cast of Batman & Robin). He kills indiscriminately for, seemingly, no reason. He wants to rule the world because his dad didn’t love him or something.

The character is a counter to everything we hold precious. In choosing a career as a loner sociopath, he implicitly says that having a job, falling in love, being part of a community and deciding that a life without violence is not good enough. His purpose is the destruction of all human society. He is, at the least, a terrorist.

And Loki is not alone. He comes from a growing stock of similarly apocalyptic villains that we glorify them for being the coolest of the cool.

So I have to ask. Why don’t we see this when we look at these characters?

rolling_stone_jahar_tsarnaev_boston_bomber_cover

The big freak out was that people thought this glorified the persona of a terrorist, and yet we find ourselves glorifying the personas of would-be terrorists. Granted, there is an obvious difference between the two kinds of villains I’m talking about here. One is a fictional character and the other is a probable bomber. One ruined actual lives while the other helped earn $1.5 billion worldwide.

But is that all there is to it? Killing real people is a good reason to condemn Tsarnaev (or anyone), but doesn’t explain our endorsement of his fictional counterparts. And I, like most people, experience Tsarnaev and others like him indirectly. Abstractly even. We can all agree that what happened at the Boston Marathon was horrible and should never happen again, but for many of us it’s a news story, not a personal tragedy.

The victims exist in a space not too far from the mass-murdered of Darfur or the collateral damage in Afghanistan. We agree that these things are terrible, but they are distant and, to many of us, totally unreal in our everyday lives. When you don’t know the names and faces, real becomes relative.

My point here is to illustrate that the two characters aren’t so different, both being abstracted forms of evil for those of us not personally touched. Both kinds move beyond being people and represent a threat to what we hold valuable. Even accepting the difference between the two (and I do believe there are differences) why is it so easy to idolize fictional would-be murderers?

A part of it is we understand that even the most realistic movie is still farce. It’s not just an awareness that no people were harmed, but that none of what is happening in anyway matters. But is that enough to explain why fictional killers are such popular costumes?

At the end of the day, this guy is dressed like a person who’s cool for killing.

I think something else altogether is happening here. Loki and his proxies don’t register as evil in a sense we can relate to. For all his malice, Loki doesn’t actually kill many people. Coulson dies in The Avengers, but not really; we’ve been hearing rumors of his return for months. The Joker killed some people, but they were mostly other criminals and corrupt police. Rachel Dawes died, but for some reason no one cares.

Compare that to Kevin Spacey in Seven. The bright colors and choreographed fights are absent. Instead we see, in graphic detail, what the life of a murderer looks like. The gritty realism makes Spacey a little too similar to things we actually fear–to crimes we actually have to read about. We will never have to worry about an alien/Norse god trying to conquer the planet, but we have to worry about walking alone at night.

Villains that aren’t strictly evil can become sympathetic. Many of our nasty terrorist-style ne’er-do-wells have tragic back stories and secret pains that explain why they do what they do. Loki does.

Sympathetic villains are easy to turn into fantasy. As an audience, we have the luxury of putting ourselves in the shoes of both the hero and the antagonist. Loki and his like represent a life free of being told what to wear, where to go, how much money electricity costs, what we ought to look like, who we should love and a million other things that mark the boundaries of a social world. These larger-than-life villains can make us feel free without having to feel evil.

A friend of mine says it’s a power fantasy. Taking a human life is the ultimate power. That rings true, but also gets at the core of my question: why is that a fantasy worth having? We could cosplay as doctors that cure diseases or solve water scarcity, but we don’t. We don’t because the fantasy is about the cool we derive from violently achieving ends. That’s why, for every random guy dressed like Thanos you see at a convention, there will be twenty dudes dressed like Loki.

We love the flirtation with being out of control without actually being evil.

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Take Me to your Leader: Indulging Celebrity and Looking For Richard

When and if aliens finally make themselves known to the people of our planet, they will make the assumption that we are ruled by film actors. Can we blame them? If they peruse our periodicals and check out the things we actually do with the Internet, it would be the only logical conclusion. Aliens are pretty logical. The way that we value the opinions of film actors affects everything from commerce to politics.

When an actor reaches a certain level of celebrity, they are able to dictate the market…to a degree.

Most of us have seen a movie simply becauseLooking-For-Richard a particular actor had a role in it. The movies produced by actors who have reached this level of notoriety often involve a departure from the genre that made them famous. These projects are often produced or directed by the actor. My favorite example of this concept is the 1996 Al Pacino film Looking for Richard.

Though he began his career on the stage, Al Pacino made his name playing gangsters and cops in some of the most popular films in those genre. After a run of successes leading to the mid 90s, Pacino decided to pay tribute to his first love. He made a documentary about the work of William Shakespeare and its relevance in the modern world. Pacino produced and directed this pet project over the course of four years. Working around his shooting schedule for larger projects (evident because of hair and facial hair changes), Pacino and his famous friends set out to produce scenes from Richard III on a grand scale, shooting crucial scenes on location in The Cloisters and the church of St. John The Divine with actors like Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey working for scale ($40 per day).

Early in production, Pacino had a revelation: Filming a straight version of the play would never top the 1955 Sir Laurence Olivier version. Rather than shut the film down, Pacino went to the streets. Interviewing average people about their thoughts on Shakespeare, Pacino inter-spliced these with scenes from the play.

What makes this movie fun to watch is the lack of indulgence that usually accompanies a project like this. The conversations that erupt during read-throughs, the comparison of British-born actors verses American-born ones in explaining their ability to perform the Bard.

Once shooting had wrapped, 80 hours worth of film was  whittled down to the 112-minute release.

The film was destined to lose money, and without volunteer cast and crew, it never would have been completed. The passion for Shakespeare thatspacey each of the actors displays goes a long way in showing why his work is still so prominent today. A list of movies that borrowed from or modernized a Shakespeare plot would far exceed the space allotted.

So if aliens come looking for understanding about the human race, I hope the look past our current obsession with celebrity. I hope they somehow stumble onto the works of William Shakespeare, or failing that, Al Pacino’s film would also suffice.

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Shuffle up and Deal: House of Cards

 

 

image property of netflix

image property of netflix

 

When Netflix announced it was nearly doubling its rates by separating its by mail DVD service from the instant streaming,  they claimed the additional revenue would be used for two purposes. The first purpose was to purchase better content (I’m still waiting on that one to come to fruition). The second was to venture into creating original material. Lilyhammer, the first such attempt, was mostly a flop. It was a story about a mobster in witness protection played by Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt played basically the same character he played on the Sopranos and the six episodes set Netflix, and probably original streaming content, back about two years.

Netflix has become something of a misleading name for the company as almost 60% of its available content and the vast majority of its new content comes from broadcast television. Currently, the provider is producing a return of the ground-breaking situation comedy Arrested Development. Much to the delight of its die-hard fan base, new episodes of the show FOX seemed determined to cancel  will begin airing this spring (though, I guess “airing” is an outdated phrase now). Netflix will make a full season of content available on the first day.

It has done the same with the new drama House of Cards.

image property of Netflix

House of Cards, based on the BBC series of same name, is a political thriller that opens with a new president taking office. It’s obviously fiction, because the new prez is moderate.

The president-elect is expected to nominate Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, for secretary of state… but, he doesn’t. Considering himself  “in the know,” Underwood is shocked to learn he won’t be nominated to the post.

Underwood sets out to destroy the secretary of state nominee by drudging up a less than flattering story written for his college newspaper. The senator then uses a young contact from the press named Zoe Barnes (played by the lackluster Kate Mara) to push the story beyond a single news cycle.  In doing so, Underwood ensures the nominee will be forced to decline the post. This allows Underwood to place someone loyal to him within striking distance of the president.

Underwood is a borderline sociopath who has his hands in everything in Washington. People are simply assets to him in his gradually unfurling quest for the White House.

While glad-handing and schmoozing with everyone he encounters, Spacey’s Underwood tells us his true feelings and ambitions by way of asides with the audience. Underwood uses Barnes, the reporter mentioned above, to exploit the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter-verse to serve his purpose. He makes use of the congressional gridlock and partisanship to shame dissenters.

 

image property of Netflix

image property of Netflix

The dynamic between Underwood and his wife, Claire (played by Robin Wright), is by far the most interesting part of the series. They have an open marriage — provided they are honest with one another. Though, it’s interesting to note that this is one of the few areas that they are actually honest about. She uses his connections on the Hill (do real people ever call it that?) to further the efforts of her nonprofit. When their ambitions are at odds, the sparks really begin to fly.

House of Cards is a murky depiction of our current situation in Washington. Everyone is dirty or waiting for the opportunity to be dirty. The scenery is dark and dreary. In the fictional DC, it is always raining or about to. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the show is aptly titled and far more functional than Netflix’s recommendations algorithm.

Seriously, how do they get that? Just because I enjoyed Ken Burns’ Baseball, they think that I would enjoy Jackass 3? Is there a place where I can input my IQ in order to stop them from suggesting professional wrestling titles? Sorry, I just got a little off topic…

House of Cards is a solid B+. Watch it if you love politics or Kevin Spacey.

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