Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More Than Meets the Eye

After watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen last week, and just a little over a year until my 30th birthday, I eventually ended up finding a creative way of taking stock of the long road that I've traveled to this point, and how the mythology of Transformers has followed me there. As I walked out of the film I said to my sleeping daughter Sumåhi, "Gof suette yu', kao un tungo' sa' hafa? Sa' gi este lina'la'-hu, "privileged" yu' na hu egga' na mapuno' Si Optimus Prime dos biahi, ya hu egga' na mana'la'la' ta'lo dos biahi."

For those who don't speak Chamorro my message was "I'm so lucky and do you know why? Because in my life, I've been privileged enough to watch Optimus Prime die twice and come back to life twice." And for those of you who don't speak the language of Transformers, Optimus Prime is the leader of the Autobots, the good half of the Transformers world, with the Decepticons and their leader Megatron occupying the bad half.

I grew up with Transformers, it was one of my favorite cartoons that me and my brothers would watch religiously, and one of the few from which I can still recall major details and the names of almost all the characters. (The same cannot be said about He-Man, Thundercats or even the Smurfs). The animation style for the television show was good for the time, but still forgettable, and I now realize the the actual reason that I find Transformers so awesome and cool, is actually because of the movie that came out in 1986, for which the animation was violent and fantastic. Its entirely possible that the mental innocence of my brother Jack and I, was lost because of this film and its first violent scene where a space ship full of Autobots, whose names I know, were all brutally massacred (Ironhide, Brawn, Ratchet, Prowl). But just when you think that the moral balance of the universe will finally be restored when Optimus Prime appears thwarting a Decepticon attack on Autobot City, by literally blasting them all to pieces, suddenly, out of nowhere, the completely unpredictable and unacceptable happens, Optimus Primes dies!

He later came back, but at least until he did, it was as if the world had somehow taken on a new hue of mortality. I soon began to live in constant fear over what else, that I previously had felt was immortal, or without the possibility of disappearing, would soon be wrenched from me. The implicit rules of the universe first dictated that no one would ever die in a cartoon tv show, and secondly that if anyone ever did die it would be a "red shirt," and never a main character or heaven forbid, the only decent Autobot, in terms of fighting ability, height and overall manliness.

It was almost surreal, as I saw Optimus Prime die and return to life in the latest Transformers movie, reliving the importance that the movies, the shows and the characters have had in shaping me over the years. But after watching Revenge of the Fallen, which like most summer blockbusters, is a massive, expensive, special effects heavy monster of a movie, another thought occurred to me about how I've changed over the years, and also how Transformers has changed as well. This most recent film, like the one from two years ago, while being a love letter to geeks such as myself, is just as much a love letter to the United States Armed Forces.

Military forces in the original Transformers were much like military in most sci-fi worlds, featuring larger than life alien forces, a joke. But not the military in the world of Transformers today. Large segments of the film are like extended recruitment videos, showing off all different facets of the overall awesomeness of the United States military. Scenes go overly long because of the sleek visuals that show buff guns, rad planes and deadly spydrones of the forces that fight alongside the Autobots. The human forces run like well-oiled, well-disciplined bad ass machines of defense and destruction. Even the human qualities that the military prides itself in being magnificent at providing life lessons in are there, loyalty, honor, discipline, and naturally these values are all displayed in clear contrast to the wimpering, simpering, spineless nature of civilian politicians, making the universe of the military even more clean, clear and crisp.

I absolutely enjoyed the transforming of some of my favorite Transformers into live-action CGI titans, who stab each other in the face and do high kicks, but the hyper-military aspect was so unsettling. I constantly felt like I was watching some twisted wet dream of a Pentagon marketing director. It felt like I was actually watching a Transformer's movie that was constantly being colonized by a G.I. Joe movie. I kept waiting for Cobra Commander to shriek from the background somewhere, or worse yet David Keith or Gary Sinise's voice to appear from somewhere blocking out the voices of the Autobots, informing us that we too can be "Army strong."

G.I. Joe was a show that I also loved as a kid, but as I've grown older and become more peace minded and become less enchanted with the glories of war machines and war-makers, I've distanced myself from those sorts of creative works, which might as well as commercials for the military. I don't have any problems with positive portrayals of the military or what it can do or does, I have no problems with it being involved in good stories, but I loathe it when the story becomes a vehicle for advertising or showcasing the military. Where you can even tell at points, that the director, the producer, the writer, or someone on the creative side of making the film has bended things, twisted it in such a way to appease the Pentagon or appease the Department of Defense. Alot of directors or studios make these sorts of choices since it can save you millions of dollars. If you play ball with the Department of Defense, if you let them edit your film and your story then can provide you access to billions of dollars worth of hardware and even living and breathing soldiers as extras.

Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are both extreme cases where the catering to the military is explicit and front and center, with no apologies whatsoever. Ti mandadagi yu', the credits list more military consultants than there were actors in the film, and I was left wondering at the film's end, how much of the armed forces of the United States military are called to active duty every few years, just to star in Michael Bay's films?

But in other films, you can almost tell when some sort of script change or edit has taken place, where the picture of the military doesn't need to be perfect, but somehow is. Where a crazy civilian politician did something, that maybe a crazy military general should have. Where the military should have been pasted, wiped out and made to look like rank amateurs but something intervened to make them seem less inadequate and pathetic. Where the military as an institution and in terms of the behavior of individuals within it seems so much less violent, less racist, less sexist and way more restrained than anything you'd imagine. If you watch some movies carefully, you can feel these sorts of inconsistencies, these pulls that something isn't quite right. The reason that you might feel them is, the same reason that earlier versions of the Matrix from The Matrix Trilogy failed; its because the representations are unreal since they are too ideal, all the stains have been removed and you are left with an incredibly unrealistic and laughable representation. Its not that I'm against showing the United States military in a good light, but I'm against any representation that shows it in this perfect light, that refuses to show the less laudatory aspects, and not just the violence against others, but the violence that the military facilitates from within itself or within the nation, such as against the environment or against women.

I hope that in the next Transformers film, the director and the Pentagon agree to show some of the less than stellar aspects of military operations or military presence. So for instance in this film, the island base of Diego Garcia was featured very prominently in the film, as a fortified, high tech and almost impregnable fortress. I hope, that the next time the audience is introduced to Diego Garcia and all the fantastic work against the world's enemies that the military is conducting there, they also find a way to mention the shameful history of displacement of the island's people, that led to the creation of a US military base there. Or the next time you see any base in a film, I hope that they somehow work into the dialogue or plot of the film some statistics on the cancer rates on and around the base, or list the number of Superfund sites that are there and will most likely never be cleaned up. I would really like to see a commercial for military recruitment that features vets that have been poisoned by Agent Orange or depleted uranium. I would love to see the ad person who got that assignment and I would love to see what sort of treatment or storyboard they would come up with for it.

But this is one key way in which I have changed over the years, how I have developed a "critical" eye, that sometimes prevents me from enjoying violent, militaristic, testosterone bleeding films in any comprehensive sense, because some critique in me gets triggered and ends up coloring the film in a certain way. Perhaps, if an earlier version of me had watched Revenge of the Fallen last week, things might be different and I would have found another way to appreciate or relate to the hyper-militaristic hue of the movie. But, I can never really know for sure, since all I can know is that this is how I ended up. And all I can do is enjoy the schizophrenic ride movies like Transformers take me on. Where one moment I am cheering on the glorious manliness of Optimus Prime and his laying waste to a group of Decepticons, and then the next I can bemoan how ridiculous yan taisensia it is that in this Transformer's universe, tiny little flesh and bone soldiers in desert camo can somehow take on menacing, hulking Decepticons.

Otro fino'-ta: Roger Ebert's review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is gof na'chalek, and funnier than several comedies I've seen recently. Here's a gem from the piece:

"The human actors are in a witless sitcom part of the time, and lot of the rest of their time is spent running in slo-mo away from explosions, although--hello!--you can't outrun an explosion. They also make speeches like this one by John Turturro: "Oh, no! The machine is buried in the pyramid! If they turn it on, it will destroy the sun! Not on my watch!" The humans, including lots of U.S. troops, shoot at the Transfromers a lot, although never in the history of science fiction has an alien been harmed by gunfire."


ddadmin said...

I found the movie to be largely pretty good. The Optimus scenes were cool. It was worth seeing just for those alone. Couple of things irritated me though - little miniature remote controlled truck, length of the movie, the twins and that chick who turned out to be a robot, that was so random and had no explanation whatsoever. But as I told over all I love the movie transformers and the game transformers, so collected some good articles and sites, around 200, for transformers movie and video games. If you are interested check out the link below


Roger Helbig said...

The comment about the ad with soldiers suffering from DU would be pure Hollywood because first they would have to create such soldiers. There are no soldiers suffering from anything due to depleted uranium. There are some who have taken all the lies that carpet bomb the net on a daily basis and have decided that there is "gold" in "uranium" and have falsely claimed numerous illnesses in their claims against the government. Here is the list claimed by Herbert Reed and friends - sponsored by a bunch of liars in New York called the Bronx Greens - "80. Plaintiff Reed sustained serious and permanent injuries, including but not limited to, shortness of breath, skin rashes, severe itching, body and joint aches, headaches, chronic fatigue, dizziness, diarrhea, blood in urine, blood in stool, blurrred vision, long and short term memory loss, and recurring abnormal growths requiring surgical removal, neuropathy of both hands and left leg, sleep apnea, chronic chest pains and sexual dysfunction." -- he enjoys touring the world as the latest "poster boy" for the anti-DU crusade. Guess he makes a pretty good living out spinning tall tales.

Want to learn more, go to www.depletedcranium.com or write me



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