Monthly Archives: May 2016

Reading the Landscape: 30


John (no relation to Reese) Witherspoon, an important figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and the sixth President of Princeton University — his students included not only James Madison, but 37 judges (three of whom became justices of the U.S. Supreme Court), 10 Cabinet officers; 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen — stands guard over my bike.

The Dirty Business of Mt. Everest

If you ask the typical American the name of the first person to climb Mt. Everest, he will tell you that it was a British climber named Edmund Hillary in 1953. A well-informed American will add a footnote. In reality. Sir Edmund Hillary was the first European to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, probably made it first.

These days, the summit of Mount Everest is open to anybody who can afford a tour by someone like Russell Brice, the New Zealander who owns Himalayan Experience Ltd. For $100,000, you get experienced mountaineers to guide you up the southern, Nepalese, side of the mountain, flat screen TVs at base camp, and a team of Sherpas to haul your gear and serve you tea and hot towels in your tent. If you think this sounds like the recipe for class conflict, you would be correct.

Sherpa, a 2015 film by Jennifer Peedom, documents the disastrous 2014 season, when sixteen Sherpas were killed in an avalanche 18,000 feet above sea level at the Khumbu Icefall. A group of Sherpas, each of whom gets about $5000 dollars for the season, then staged what might easily be called “Occupy Everest,” not only refusing to haul gear for Bryce’s western clientele, but promising to stop anybody who did, by physical force if necessary. If you want the record for the “highest labor stoppage in history” this would be it.

Astonishingly, many of Bryce client’s insisted that they still be allowed to go to the top of Everest. I’ve rarely seen a better example of rich, clueless, white people indifferent to the lives of a group of non-western service workers. One man calls the Sherpa’s “terrorists.” It’s exactly like 9/11, he says. Bryce himself comes across almost like a cartoon villain, a Don Blankenship of the mountains. “I understand that the Sherpas are upset that people died,” he says, “but, we have to get on with it. How are they going to feed their families if we cancel the season?”

It’s hard to imagine Bryce or his clients with such a cavalier attitude about a similar disaster in Switzerland. “Yes, I understand that Pierre is upset that he just lost his whole family in an avalanche, but for heaven’s sake we really have to get on with the skiing season.” If ever there were a group of people who needed to “check their privilege,” it’s Russell Brice and his $100,000 a head gang of entitled, racist, assholes.

Spectre (2015)

Spectre begins with a lovely tracking shot through a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City that has us follow masked figures through the pageantry, up some steps, up an elevator, through a hotel room (where one of the masked figures turns out to be none other than James Bond), and then across a series of rooftops before quickly establishing itself as a Bond film with a sequence of ludicrous c.g.i. pandemonium. This leads into a fairly spectacular scene in a helicopter (which dances manically over a suspiciously-not-fleeing Day of the Dead crowd) that cloaks whatever digital imagery is in it fairly nicely, and then we find ourselves in the new M’s (Ralph Fiennes, returning from succeeding Judi Dench in Skyfall) office, where Bond (Daniel Craig, for the fourth and presumably last time) is being berated for his Mexico City shenanigans, laughably carried out without permission. For some reason, this doesn’t get Bond arrested six times before he can say “Martini,” but it does get him injected with “smart blood” by Q (Ben Whishaw, also returning from Skyfall), nanomachines allowing MI6 to track him anywhere in the world (even though the entire point of this scene is specifically seeing Bond getting Q to subvert this smart blood tracking system). Bond also steals a car Q’s working on for 009, which doesn’t raise any red flags with MI6, but does lead to an amusing moment where Bond attempts to engage the custom “Atmosphere” switch in the car during a chase only for a readout to inform him that music customized for 009 has been enabled, which then serenades him. This is only Q’s second film since the quasi-reboot of the Bond movies with Casino Royale, and though a scene involving a plane in Spectre approaches Pierce Brosnan Bond-levels of inanity, we have yet for the new Q to provide Bond with anything really cool and wacky. That’s the perfect Q invention in these movies: something silly that nonetheless serves some kind of purpose, like a gun in one of those pens where the ink forms the lady on the pen’s bathing suit.

I would continue synopsizing, but this is about all I really care to recall with vivid detail. Bond then goes to Rome to antagonize and bang, apparently in that order, the widow (Monica Bellucci) of one of the crime bosses he was chasing in Mexico City, whom he also saves from assassination by her bodyguards, blah blah blah, then he has to go to another country, blah blah blah, he has people working on the inside for him and gets a hold of a ring all the people in this crime organization wear, so on and so forth, it’s all a rub, really. His hijinks in Rome lead to an interesting-but-overblown scene where Bond attends the crime organization’s meeting and meets with the villain (Christoph Waltz, who gets absolutely wasted by this film), who’ll later be revealed to be a past Bond villain (this film is a resuscitation of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. as a plot point, after all). The film boils down to having two villains operating on separate levels who (spoiler alert) turn out to be working toward the same end. At MI6, the existence of the entire department is threatened by C (Andrew Scott), the head of the privately-backed Joint Intelligence Service, an agency looking to form a nine-country surveillance outfit dubbed “Nine Eyes” (I will refer enthusiasts of both Orwell and of our Orwellian world to the real multi-nation intelligence-gathering agency Five Eyes, some of whose activities were leaked by Edward Snowden). “Nine Eyes,” naturally, will put the fabled Double-Oh program out of commission in favor of indiscriminate drone bombings. The Bond franchise reflects on surveillance and geopolitics for nine-tenths of a second while M laments the situation and an action-weary audience wonders if politically-aware emotional heft will ever be backdoored into a Bond movie in any substantive way. Here, it just feels like they’re hitting on the “morally-ambiguous surveillance trope” increasingly common to spy movies, particularly since the Bourne movies put the emphasis on the information-gathering element of intelligence work.

The movie manages to work in a recurring villain (Jesper Christensen) from throughout the Daniel Craig movies, whose appearance I greeted with a heavy sigh and a glance at my watch. Why is every stupid action movie now in the area of 150 minutes, and why do I always look at the time less than halfway through? Oh yeah. And Dave Bautista, better known as the wrestler Batista, whose name in the film is Dr. Hinx but who seems to be playing Oddjob-sans-hat or something, does a nice job smashing scenery. This is really where the Bond movies have come the furthest: all the smashed scenery seems incredibly real nowadays, whereas in the past it tended to look like the cheap pressboard paneling we knew it really was.

All in all, Nine Eyes turns out to be just the sort of thing that Spectre, a criminal organization with its own wide-ranging surveillance apparatus, will benefit from as well, and the plots sort of come together. That said, Spectre by no means earns its runtime, and by the end feels like it’s been bloated by an emphasis on pre-designed set pieces with a script written around them. It’s somewhat fun, but fuck is it long, and it feels wrong that the Daniel Craig series of films will come to an end with what feels very much like a modern Roger Moore Bond: silly-but-globetrotting, spectacular-but-preposterous, and wide in scope but narrow in vision. As alluded to earlier, I half-expected Pierce Brosnan to emerge from a plane after it crashed and skied its way down a snowy mountainside in pursuit of a van and its hostage. Yes, the new Bond series ultimately got too over-the-top and too silly, but at least they took their time getting there. Consider what a triumph it is for the Bond films to even be able to criticize them in such a way; they set out to create more accessible stories of spycraft with the Craig series and succeeded for a good three films. Now that we’re back to wackiness, I want to see Idris Alba dangling out of a flying BMW next movie.