Machina: The First Hundred Days collects the first five issues of Ex
Machina, a new comic book series by Brian Vaughan of Y:
The Last Man fame. The basic idea is that there's one superhero in the world,
a guy with the power to "talk to" and control all machinery, but after discovering
that vigilantism doesn't actually accomplish much, he gives it up and is elected
mayor of New York City. The plot of The First Hundred Days (a pun —
the guy's name is Mitchell Hundred) revolves around a controversy at the Brooklyn
Museum and a string of assassinations of snowplow drivers; meanwhile, a bit of the
background is filled in, as we learn about the protagonist's life story and so
Ex Machina is good, but not as interesting to me as Y: The Last Man.
Like Fables, I would read it if it were free, but
I don't really see myself buying future volumes.
Saved! is a limp satire about teenage intrigue at a Christian high school.
It is hard to be very satirical when you can't quite bring yourself to make fun of
anyone or anything. This movie shows how crucial connotation is in language. A
thesaurus might tell you that "liberal," "left-wing," and "progressive" are all
synonyms. But nuh-uh. This movie isn't really progressive. Nor is it notably
left-wing. But liberal? Hell, it's Exhibit A.
Because it is a liberal movie, the heroes are the school outcasts. Sure, none of
them is perfect — the main girl gets herself knocked up, the rebellious girl
smokes and cusses, the guy in the wheelchair is Macaulay Culkin — but they're
good at heart and the movie encourages us to identify with them rather than
condemn them. So does
that mean that the three popular churchgoing girls are the villains? Nah. One of
them is something of an outcast herself because she's ugly, so the movie can't be
too harsh towards her; one's a minority, so the movie can't be too harsh towards
her; and while Mandy Moore's character does some pretty nasty things, she gets her
comeuppance and learns the error of her ways, so all is forgiven and the movie likes
her too. There's also a flaky mother, but she comes through in the end. There's a
hypocritical pastor, but hey, he's only human, right? Now, I'm not saying that you
can't have a good narrative without a bad guy. But a satire kind of needs, like,
y'know, a target.
I guess you could say the target is intolerance. But Saved! doesn't even
go so far as to suggest that evangelical Christianity is a source of intolerance; rather,
it takes the position that intolerance is a foreign cancer upon Christianity, which
is intrinsically a wellspring of tolerance. Because, see, Jesus loves everybody,
maaan! Including gay guys and pregnant unwed teenagers and Macaulay Culkin! After
the election, a lot of liberal commentators declared that the secular cause was
hopeless and the only way to stay relevant in today's culture wars was to co-opt
Christianity; this movie seems to be an effort in that direction. Hey, we liberals
are into Jesus just as much as you are! Because we remember that Jesus was a
liberal! Hippie Jesus! Free To Be You And Me Jesus!
The problem is, in the end, Hippie Jesus is irrelevant. Hordes of converts aren't
flocking to Christianity because of Hippie Jesus. Nor, much as Bill O'Reilly might
pretend this is the case, are they being won over by Philosopher Jesus — the
way O'Reilly talks, you'd think people were carefully weighing the pros and cons
of Heidegger vs. the gentleman from Nazareth. I have to think that's probably pretty
rare. The title of this movie suggests that someone involved knew perfectly well which
Jesus it was that has become the organizing principle of the lives of hundreds of
millions of people. It's Savior Jesus. And Savior Jesus doesn't appeal to the heart,
nor to the head.
When The Passion of the Christ made hundreds of millions of dollars, some movie
critics complained that it focused entirely on Jesus's suffering and not really at all
on what he taught; this is because what he taught is of, at best, secondary importance
to most of his followers. No, Savior Jesus is all about fear. Christianity is the
leading religion in the world because deep in the limbic system of our brains lurks an
unreasoning paranoia that says, "I'M IN DANGER! PREDATORS ARE GOING TO TEAR ME APART!
I NEED SOMETHING OR SOMEBODY TO MAKE ME SAFE!" Relying on that paranoia
is a good way to keep yourself alive and pass your paranoid genes to future generations.
But it also makes terror the center of your life.
This is what the evangelists play upon. Exoteric
Christianity says, listen up — you are going to burn in a lake of fire
forever. You are in grave danger! At any moment, you could be
doomed! But there is one — only one — way to be Safe. Believe
In Jesus. Of course, neither half of this command means much. If "Jesus" is
supposed to refer to a Palestinian rabbi two thousand years ago, then what (as
Saved! starts to ask before shying away) is with all the adoration bestowed
upon portraits of a fine-featured Anglo-Saxon with hippie hair? This guy isn't Jesus
the man. It's Jesus the meme. Jesus the magic word. And the "belief" that's
supposed to activate the secret word — what's that? If it's orthodoxy rather
than orthopraxy that counts, how do I measure whether I have enough? Okay, so if I
want to win Eternal Life I have to Believe — how do I know if I'm doing it or
Countless people have spent their lives trying to answer these questions. If you
think that understanding the meaning of life and winning a ticket to heaven will be
your reward, I can see why you'd put in the time. But to me it all sounds like the
Time Cube. I don't believe in Hippie Jesus,
Philosopher Jesus or Savior Jesus. I believe in Schizophrenic Jesus. What
I have read about his speeches and his behavior seems to me very much in keeping
with accounts of other schizophrenics. But he launched a set of memes that, two
millennia later, are only gaining strength. I'm living in a country, the most
powerful in the world, whose culture is increasingly founded on mental illness.
That's a pretty juicy target for a satire. But Saved! responds to this
trend with a bit of gentle mockery and a hug.
Speaking of hippies, it's Billy Jack.
(By the way, these are all movies Jennifer received for free, or more likely on someone
else's tab, from Netflix. This experiment is now in its
The title character of Billy Jack is, basically, Wolverine. He's a violent
guy who turned to non-Western spirituality and became a defender of a special school
whose students are under siege by a world that hates and fears them. In this case
they're hippies rather than mutants, but who can tell sometimes?
The curriculum at the school (called Freedom School, which I think is also the new
name of the Lycée Français) seems to revolve around improv — there's
a lot of improv — and folk songs with names like "A Rainbow Made of Children."
(One of the folk songs early on, I will confess, has a really beautiful melody.) The
school is on a reservation, so the students also learn a bit of Native American culture;
many are NAs themselves. Billy Jack isn't, but he has adopted their ways, to the point that
he lets himself get bitten by a rattlesnake a few times in a tribal ritual. He doesn't
seem to have an official role at the school, but he's basically there to deal with The
Man. Early on he protects a bunch of wild horses from being slaughtered by the deputy
sherriff's gang; later, after some of the kids have been attacked by racists, he responds
by kicking a bunch of the people responsible in the head. Eventually things go really
bad with the raping and murdering and what have you, and it's time for Billy to
really go kick some ass — except this isn't a summer movie trying to cash in on
the audience's collective roid rage. Billy, cornered by the law, is about to go out
with guns a-blazin', when the hippie who runs the school dismisses his boilerplate action
movie speech and makes him consider that, hey, maybe heroic last stands are actually
kind of stupid.
This is not really a good movie, but it raises some interesting issues, which is more
than most movies can say. Chief among them is: how does a non-violent society avoid
being crushed by a violent one without resorting to, well, violence? The answer is not
so simple as "it doesn't." For every case in which military force prevented more suffering
than it caused (say, the Allied effort in WWII), there are countless others in which the
reverse has been true. And non-violent movements often succeed. Look at Ukraine:
peaceful demonstrations brought about an ideal result while an armed insurrection would
have led to nothing but a bloodbath. Or take the case of Canada vs. the United States.
I once read a book that contended that the chief difference between these two countries,
historically, has been temperament: the US is full of Billy Jacks whose response to
British oppression was to load up on guns and take to the woods, while Canada achieved
independence only incrementally and still has the damn queen on its money. But both
are sovereign nations today, and while the US is exponentially more powerful, a strong
case can be made that Canada is more civilized: its citizens have guaranteed health
care even if they're poor, its religious zealots actually lose elections, its history
with its native inhabitants has been less genocidal than America's despite the efforts
of the Saskatoon police, and despite what
Ann Coulter may think,
it doesn't have the blood of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Iraqis on its hands.
On the other hand, Wolverine is himself Canadian. It's all so confusing.
Best in Show is a mock documentary about a dog show, though of course
it's not really about the dogs but about the behavior of the owners. You've
got a screaming yuppie couple, a pair of schlubs from Florida, a southern
goober, an Anna Nicole Smith stand-in, and so forth. They are all thrown into
the stressful atmosphere of the dog show, and as people under stress tend to do,
they respond poorly. Man, the film seems to be asking, isn't it painful to watch
people behave this way? Yes. Painful. Not funny. There are a few chuckles
along the way, but most of the humor is supplied by the cheerfully inappropriate
commentary by the dog show announcer in the second half of the film.
(also, I probably shouldn't say this, but I thought Parker Posey was pretty hot)
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