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Ari's Art Review 2

Dune 2, the Life of Brian, magical negroes, boys and supervillains, Astrid, a lost king, more case histories, blue whales, and cities of the future.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
June 11, 2024

Dune 2: Along with Part 1, this is one of the greatest films. The cinematography and acting are superb. Timothée Chalamet arguably is too pretty and chipper to play the lead, but his performance works. Austin Butler mesmerizes as the psychotic Harkonnen prince; he fills in one of the best movie villains ever. The story combines simple revenge with a fight against oppression, as Paul Atreides and the Fremen people of Arrakis find common cause in defeating the brutal Harkonnen overlords, who murdered Paul's family and took over the "spice" trade on the planet, brutalizing the natives in the process. More deeply the film is about the power and danger of ideological fervor, in this case a messianic form of religion among the Fremen. Paul's friend and romantic interest, Chani (Zendaya), embodies the voice of skepticism and fear in the face of Paul's rising demagoguery.

Life of Brian: I was amazed at how well this 1979 film holds up (I rewatched it recently); it is a true classic. The film portrays the activities of Brian, who lives in the same world as Jesus. Brian is caught up in anti-Roman fervor and ultimately, like Jesus, is executed for his troubles. The film probably could not be made today because it is not "politically correct." For example, at one point Brian uses a string of anti-Semitic slurs to describe himself as a Jew. Obviously in this context the slurs are not meant to demean Jewish people. Similarly, one of the characters displays a stereotypical stutter, and the film uses this for comedic effect. But ultimately the character reveals, privately to a friend, that the stutter is a show, so the film is not really mocking people with a stutter. Many people in today's world seem oblivious to such nuance. Anyway. In one of the greatest cinematic scenes, Brian, put off by the religious fervor annoyingly directed toward him, delivers a monologue: "Look, you've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody. You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals." At this point, the crowd chants back, "Yes, we're all individuals!" Brian continues, "You're all different." The crowd chants, "Yes, we're all different." Brian: "You've all got to work it out for yourselves." Crowed: "Yes, we've got to work it out for ourselves!" Hopeless. As with Paul Atreides, Brian's protestations that he's not the messiah are taken by followers as proof that he is. Bart Ehrman has a 2014 lecture about the religious themes of the film. See also Ehrman's 2023 notes, as well as a book of essays called Jesus and Brian.

American Society of Magical Negroes: I thought this film was funny, original, and poignant. Critics generally didn't like it, apparently because they thought it wasn't ambitious or edgy enough. But I'm okay with a straightforward, relatively simple film! I'd never heard of the "magical negro trope." Basically it's a reference to a Black character who, often in mysterious ways, helps a white character on a journey. Wiki says "The term was popularized in 2001 by film director Spike Lee during a lecture tour of college campuses." The film explicitly mocks the films Legend of Bagger Vance, Green Mile, and Driving Miss Daisy. The set-up of the film at hand is that there's a real Society of Magical Negroes who take on the job of making white people feel comfortable, so they don't hurt Black people. The problem is that the new recruit, our protagonist, falls for the woman who's supposed to be the love interest of the white guy needing "help." So basically the film is a romantic comedy, and I really enjoyed it on that level. Make sure you stay for the juicy scene deep into the credits.

Boys Update: There's a new season of The Boys coming out. Eric Kripke, the showrunner, has an interview with Hollywood Reporter that indicates why the show is interesting politically: "When [Trump] got elected, we had a metaphor that said more about the current world. Suddenly, we were telling a story about the intersection of celebrity and authoritarianism and how social media and entertainment are used to sell fascism. We're right in the eye of the storm. And once we realized that, I just felt an obligation to run in that direction as far as we could." Despite the show's over-the-top violence, I have very much appreciated its critique of power.

Astrid: I enjoy various cop shows, and Astrid (Wiki) is among my favorites. The set-up is that a young autistic woman (Sara Mortensen) who works in criminal archives gets caught up with a police officer (Lola Dewaere) in an active investigation. Although Astrid often faces challenges, both because of her autism and because of others' reactions to that, she proves a valuable ally in the struggle to bring perpetrators to justice. Although I'm hardly an expert on autism, to my eye the show treats autistic people respectfully. I do know autistic people who are not, to outsiders, noticeably autistic, whereas Astrid is. So I wonder if some autistic people feel the series does not capture the full range of the autistic experience. It's a French series (hard to find), so unless you speak French you'll have to follow subtitles (for me that wasn't distracting).

The Lost King: Remarkably, the remains of King Richard III long were buried beneath a parking lot. But a determined woman, Philippa Langley (played in the film by Sally Hawkins), based on her work as an amateur historian, organizes the financing of a successful dig operation for the bones. I enjoyed the slow-paced film. The film has a gimmick of having Langley "see" and interact with a vision of Richard throughout the film. I have no idea to what degree Richard III "was unfairly vilified by Tudor propagandists," as Wiki summarizes the views of some. I'm also not sure to what degree the film unfairly characterizes representatives of the University of Leicester. As Wiki relates, the university and Langley continued to trade barbs following the release of the film. And, as Wiki also relates, Mike Pitts, author of Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King, overall was quite critical of the film. We may contemplate whether the film falls into exactly the sorts of errors, in terms of demonizing others for dramatic effect, that it criticizes. The university has a series of videos about the dig.

Case Histories Season 2: Last time I mentioned the PI show, Case Histories, a set of six TV movies. I enjoyed the second (and final) season as well as the first. A friend strongly recommends the books on which the series is based; I have not tried those yet. Despite my enthusiasm for the show, though, I have to say that the conclusion rubbed my Objectivist disposition the wrong way. Spoiler: The series ends with the protagonist rejecting his romantic interest on grounds that romance and his personal happiness would get in the way of his duty to help people in his community solve crimes. I'm just going to continue the film in my head so that our hero knocks on the door of his love, apologizes, works out his personal bullshit, and gets on with things, cleverly balancing his love life with his career.

Whales and Cities: I very much enjoyed two Imax films currently playing at the local nature museum, Blue Whales: Return of the Giants and Cities of the Future. I was struck by the parallels (not mentioned in the film) between the blue whales and the American bison; both species very nearly were wiped out by stupid humans, but both species have partially recovered partly with the support of caring humans. Regarding the cities, I appreciated this dose of techno-optimism. I do, however, question the value of the city-design contest for students mentioned in the film; it seems more driven by fantasy and wishful thinking than by science. I'd be happy to be shown wrong.

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