Monday, December 6, 2010

Drumming diary: Good Times, Bad Times II


I cannot even believe I managed to play that. I'm sweating all over the place, my feet itch, and my ears are hyper-sensitive from how loud I have to crank up my headphones to hear over the drums. BUT I CONQUERED THAT BITCH. HAH. *epic fistpump*

Ahem. Okay. Calming down.


Okay, okay, so, I finally got the heel-toe double-tap technique down. It's still a little hard to switch from single taps to double and back--especially at 150 bpm--but I'll get there. It's all in the toes. From there its just managing to get the timing of the breaks right.

Now pardon me while I dance around my house.

Life on the Internet: The Social Network review (***1/2/****)

Winter's Bone and Inception finally have some competition for my favorite movie of 2010. For anyone who hasn't seen The Social Network yet, you really must. Let me count the ways:
  1. Aaron Sorkin script that assumes, nay, demands intelligence and attention to keep up.
  2. Excellent direction by David Fincher, that master of alienation.
  3. Oscar-worthy performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake. Yes, Justin Timberlake.
  4. Trent Reznor wrote the buzzing, menacing score, which I am listening to right now. It's available for download at the price of $5. (Also, anyone who wants to catch the strange, lovely cover of "Creep" that was featured in the trailer, it was done by Scala.)
  5. A prophecy of our modern lives, as provided by Timberlake's character Sean Parker, the erstwhile founder of Napster: "We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the internet!"
Sorkin and Fincher build their whole movie around that line, bending some facts to fit their thesis of how one little website has changed our world forever. Beginning in 2003, the film opens with Mark Zuckerberg getting dumped by his (fictional) girlfriend Erica. Spurned by her and the Harvard fraternities both, he seeks some way of re-inventing himself and winds up inventing Facebook instead. Along the way he gets pounded with lawsuits by fellow students, the Winklevoss twins, who claim that he stole the idea of a social-networking website from them, and his former best friend and first CFO Eduardo Saverin, who alleges that Mark shafted him out of his 30% share and co-founder status.

Obviously the great irony here is that the world's biggest social network was built by a completely socially inept misanthrope who severed his own personal bonds one by one on the path to that illustrious 500 million "friends." Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic as that misanthrope, all tics and blankness and motor-mouthed insults, with just the faintest quiver of sorrow underneath. He can see the relationships around him unraveling but is so swept up in his own genius that he can't figure out how to stop.

The film leaves ambiguous just how much validity lies in the lawsuits, or in the suits who are pressing them. Zuckerberg might have led on "the Winklevii" (as he dubs them) in order to develop his own website before theirs got off the ground; but then again, as Mark himself puts it in the film, "If somebody makes a chair he does not owe money to everyone in the history of the world who made a chair." The Saverin lawsuit is more one-sided: recently leaked emails and IMs show that not only did Zuckerberg and Parker shaft Saverin, the real-life version of events was even more cold-blooded than the movie depicts. Saverin eventually settled for an undisclosed sum, 5% of the company shares, and has been re-instated on the site as the co-founder.

Despite that victory it's hard not to feel for Eduardo, especially as played by the British-born Garfield. He has an innate likeability and humanity to him that, as the film progresses, actually becomes a burden. Eduardo never had a chance to understand or keep up with Facebook: he was too human. Facebook--and most social networking websites--have forever changed the way we relate to other human beings. It has brought the world closer together and made us more alone than ever before. Sorkin himself commented on Facebook in an interview: “I feel like social networking is to socializing what reality TV is to reality. In a way we’re performing for each other.”

That's what Mark was looking for: a way to present himself as something better, someone who could keep a girlfriend and make it into fraternities. Someone desirable. Sean Parker understood Facebook better than Mark himself; he's a walking performance, all self-invention and narcissism. But Eduardo, with his nice-but-not-too-nice suits, gentlemanly manners, and slightly-pathetic desire for an emotional connection with Mark (pathetic only in how impossible that wish turns out to be), is squarely a city-dweller in the land of the Internetites. He exists outside of the machine. He is just himself.

Which makes his betrayal all the much more effective and poignant. When he finally flips out, the first thing he does is smash Mark's laptop, forcing him to disconnect and--finally and possibly for the last time in Mark's life--have a real-life human interaction. Eduardo's anger is our anger, because there is that tiny, betrayed part in all of us who hungers for something that no blinking cursor can give us.

I would be remiss in my duties as a feminist if I did not mention the depiction of women in this film, or the lack thereof. Other than Erica, effectively played with intelligence and strength by Rooney Mara in the 5 minutes of screentime that she gets, the female characters are all one-dimensional, either there as (mostly Asian) arm candy or as lawyerly exposition devices. Other reviews have commented on this already, and Sorkin has defended himself in the media by saying that it accurately reflects the misogyny in tech culture.
I am actually inclined to accept Sorkin's defense, especially given his decent track record with female characters. (David Fincher is another story, but he wasn't the one writing the script.) Sorkin may have bent the truth, but there's only so much bending one can do in a culture of angry nerd boys who extoll the virtues of beautiful Asian women as the ultimate girlfriend, as Saverin does in the movie and Zuckerberg does in real life.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Man's Castle: Paranormal Activity and the American Marriage

(Note: this contains spoilers for both Paranormal Activity and its sequel.)

In 2007, an Israeli-born aspiring director and writer named Oren Peli set up a film shoot in his own home. Using a home video camera, two actors he hired for $500 off of Craigslist, and the barest outlines of a script, he shot a ghost (or demon, to be more accurate) story that kicked around Slamdance and some other LA horror festivals before it clawed its way up the ladder to Steven Spielberg's lap.

Released in 2009, Paranormal Activity cost just $15,000 to make, but went on to gross almost $200 million worldwide. For those keeping score, that officially makes it the most profitable movie of all time, in terms of return on investment. It spawned a sequel that appropriately came out around Halloween 2010. Shot in a similar manner, that one cost a cool $3 million and has so far made $166 million worldwide, still a gaping profit margin. There are rumblings of a third.

I find it difficult to believe that the simple storyline and setup can work for a longer franchise, but both films managed to be chilling and effective. And not only because of the things that go bump in the night: the films also portray the all-too human demons that plague American marriages. In both movies, the demonic possessions of women are heavily--if inadvertantly--aided by the callousness and carelessness of the women's husbands.

In PA1, Micah and Katie are "engaged to be engaged," but have been cohabitating for a while when the movie starts, long enough to settle into a marriage-like existence. When weird things start happening around the house, Micah insists on filming them, despite Katie's misgivings. This has happened to her--and her sister--before, when they were kids. Micah doesn't listen to her wishes, though, and starts challenging the dark force inhabiting their house. Katie calls in a paranormal expert; Micah scoffs at the idea and bullies her into not calling a demonologist on the expert's advice. He insists that he can fix this himself, saying, "This is my house, you're my girlfriend, I will handle it." He breaks promises to Katie and buys an Oujia board. Every move only escalates the problem until it manifests into full-on demonic possession. By that time, you're almost rooting for the demon to kill this douchebag. You'd be right.

In PA2, which acts as a prequel, concurrent movie, and sequel all at once, Katie's sister Kristi has just had a baby boy with her husband Dan, adding to their household that includes a daughter, Ali, from Don's previous relationship, a superstitious Hispanic nanny named Martine (magical non-white person alert), and a German Shepherd. When strange things start happening around their house, all the women in the house have strong reactions: Kristi recalls some childhood hauntings, Martine burns incense and chants to keep the demon at bay, Ali is at first excited but changes her mind once she does a little research. The dog worriedly stands guard over the baby.

All is for naught, though, because Dan is the kind of guy who will blame a supernaturally-slammed door on the wind and refuses to listen to any arguments to the contrary. No action is taken, as his opinion is apparently the only one that matters. Hell, even the (female) dog's agitated barking goes unheeded, except by the demon, who puts her in puppy hospital. When events finally escalate beyond Dan's ability to explain away, the solution Martine presents is horrifying: they will use a crucifix to transfer the demon to the next blood relative, Katie, thus setting the events of PA1 in motion. Ali protests, but Dan whips out a line that echoes Micah's--"It's my house, it's my wife and my son. This is my decision."

All of this becomes even more interesting once you consider the fact that neither PA1 nor 2 employed a conventional script. Instead they used "retro-scripting," in which the director laid out basic scenarios and plot developments then let the actors make up their own dialogue. Now, it is entirely possible that two separate directors instructed their lead actors to go the route of chest-thumping king of the house, but it's also possible that the actors went that way on their own. I tend to believe the latter: in both films there was a sense of hesitancy on the actors' parts before they committed to claiming dominance over their house and everyone (female) within it; once they had, then it was full-steam ahead. That says a lot about how engrained that kind of male dominance still is in our households and especially in our marriages.

Except then it backfires, in both cases, rather spectacularly. In PA1, Micah's taunting and the toxic energy around their marital squabbles allow the demon to worm its way into Katie's head. Her first act of possession is to kill Micah. She then saunters over to PA2 and the Reys' house, where she snaps Dan's neck like a twig and kills Kristi.

I hesitate to call this a feminist commentary, both because it's still an otherworldly force attempting to possess the bodies of women, and Kristi is about as innocent and powerless a victim as one can find. However, the movies subtly make the point that the demonic possession is almost beside the point: these women have already lost control over their lives and bodies to the men in their homes.