It Looks So Real on TV: Nightcrawler and Perception of Reality

NOTE: Aspects of the film Nightcrawler will be discussed here. Spoilers inevitably follow.

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir flick, Nightcrawler has been referred to as a spiritual successor to Network, which isn’t an unreasonable comparison. The allure of the screen is perhaps more profound now than it has ever been, with more modes for entering the vast planes of cyberspace becoming available by the year. As Network’s Howard Beale notably proclaims, “the only truth you know is what you get over this tube”, and for all Nightcrawler’s dark quips and slants at corporate diplomacy, there lurks a similar anxiety over the ease with which a population’s personal reality can be contained, and as to what exactly that could mean.

network trouble

Nightcrawler circumnavigates the exploits of Lou Bloom who, upon introduction, is out of work and desperate to make ends meet. He steals from scrapyards and pawns purloined bicycles with the sort of winning smile you might find slapped across an introductory business pamphlet, but soon becomes enveloped in the ambiguous underground of freelance crime journalism after witnessing a burning car wreckage being recorded on the highway. These petty traits will serve Bloom well.

As police officers drag the injured from the flames, Lou hastens to ask one of the freelance reporters – Joe Loder – if the footage will be shown on TV, to which he replies with the crudely catchy, “if it bleeds, it leads”.

It is, incidentally, this line that embodies Lou’s cut-throat mindset throughout the rest of the film, serving as the integral mantra that will drive Bloom’s blackmail of peers, manipulation of crime scenes and ultimate creation of the crime he sets out to capture and sell for local news segments.
nightcrawler lou pink

Nightcrawler mostly opts for a brash, in-your-face attitude towards its characters, but there are instances that allow for interpretation, mostly within the objects Bloom chooses to operate. After hooking a fee with the forewoman of a collapsing news station – Nina Romina – he switches out his battered Toyota for a sparkling Dodge Challenger.

The phrase, “blood on one’s hands” comes to mind when considering the car; a phrase the Dodge seems to satirically exaggerate. The seductive red hue of the car appears luminant against the neon background of nighttime L.A; an abtract projection of the amoral blood coursing through the fabricated veins of the News world; the mere ‘fuel’ in a much larger, grotesque organism.
nightcrawler dodge
This insinuates a darker undertone beneath the already blackened humour, by allowing some degree of innocence to permeate Bloom’s predatorial mindset across the film. After breaking into homes and capturing voyeuristic footage of various hostile aftermaths to sell, Bloom’s efforts are reinforced by Nina, as the footage is nip n’ tucked to allign with her own company hallmark, “think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

This is especially ominous as it doesn’t just allude to the malleability of human perception via the media, but potentially frames Lou Bloom as a product of his surroundings. Maybe he’s a bad guy. But so is everyone else.

nightcrawler lou screaming

Survivor? Monster?

It’s a concept that elicits memories of the Oppenheimer documentary The Act of Killing. Here, perpetrators of the 1960’s Indonesian genocides are captured reenacting their crimes in the style of their favourite films. The film attracted a notoriety (even being termed a ‘snuff film’ by BBC broadcaster Nick Fraser) for apparent lack of information and insinuation of cruel acts.
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But amidst the grinning surreality of the perpetrators’ disquieting play, it is the indubitably present humanity within the focal war chief, Anwar Congo, that irradiates the true horror. Charming sequences of Congo playing with his grandchildren are in as abundant a supply as his jovial accounts of his murder techniques, and both interweave with a notably comparitive intent.

The Act of Killing‘s conveyances evoke the Nazist alternate reality Philip K. Dick envisioned in The Man in the High Castle, the brutes hailed as war heroes; the victims shruggishly dehumanised, often inviting the viewer to question how much perception of one’s actions can be dominated by a society, and how subjective notions of morality, and reality, really are.

And because they’re subjective; malleable, anyone could commit those atrocities, amongst certain surroundings. That’s a very unsettling thought, to say the least.
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Nightcrawler reflects a similar concern, instead against the neo-noir backdrop of Western L.A. Another prime difference is that the platform for moral discussion surfaces more within the off-screen possibility, than the depicted ‘protagonist’. As we observe Bloom dragging lifeless bodies to frame his destructive shots; deliberately witholding information from the authorities in order to orchestrate a juicier story, there is all the while a persistent speculation as to how all this must appear to the everyday audiences that tune in to news stations to (as Lou once claims) “stay informed”.

We perceive in Nightcrawler a manmade reality; something that reacknowledges its inspiration by Network, and something that bears perhaps a stronger significance now more than ever.With ‘leaked footages’ surfacing every so often online – with little certification of authenticity – perhaps the portrayal of an ‘absolute reality’ on-screen is becoming more and more problematic. If this is so,  considering the unremitting pull of the ubiquitous ‘tube’ today, how much of our understanding of the world is real, how much of it synthesised? And is one of those necessarily better than the other?

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Inside Out: I Feel So Far Away..But There’s The Big Picture

NOTE: Spoilers for Inside Out follow.

Inside Out didn’t feel like a Pixar movie. After first watching it, there was something about it that just felt cold, and distanced. This isn’t to say that the movie was devoid of that  familiar approach of whimsical meaning; in fact, Inside Out is abundant in the touching messages that have come to encapsulate Pixar over the years, such as love, individuality and solidarity amongst the ones you love. And when compartmentalised, Inside Out seems comprised of all the ingredients of previous Pixar movies. When watched, however, it becomes strikingly apparent that Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen were following a different recipe.

inside out screen
What surprised me most about the film was how alienated I felt from the rich and wonderful reality Pixar usually offers. The world depth of Inside Out is contrastingly contained, as we perceive the realities of Minnesota and San Francisco by way of a screen denoting Riley’s vision. In the first moments of the film, we see the birth of Riley through the coincidentally delivered Joy and her awareness of the world through the mind’s observatory window, this distance all the while making it cogent that this is very much a story about our mind, and our experiences.
In turns out that Joy, in addition to a spring in her (and Riley’s step), has more control issues than Marie Barone of Everybody Loves Raymond. Of all the emotions, Joy has known Riley the longest, and as such assumes that things are naturally better when the rose-tinted glasses are kept on. She, “has no idea” what Sadness does, but actively seeks to sideline her, for fear of making Riley upset.

doris roberts

Okay, maybe not quite as many control issues as Marie Barone. And a little less menacing.

Much, if not most of the film, is devoted to Joy’s character development. The more she and Sadness traverse the inner workings of their host’s (un)consciousness, the more she begins to realise that she can’t do all of this on her own. Riley can’t be happy all the time. All the while, we’re watching the effects all these things have on Riley, through both her emotions’ screen and within her own contained environment. This constant switching between worlds; the profound, psychological referential tone was part of what made it difficult for me to really connect with Inside Out’s characters, but equally what brought me to realise that that detachment is what drives it as a metaphor for its audience.
Although Joy, much like a caring mother, only wants Riley to be happy, she finally allows Sadness to affect Riley, in order to receive comfort and reassurance from her parents. Consequently, Riley’s unhappiness transpires as a vital role in our development as human beings, and the distance created between the world of the film, and the audience, makes this concept easier to comprehend in terms of our own experiences. It turns out that sadness has a knack for asking for help when we truly need it, and Inside Out teaches that asking for help when we’re suffering is something we shouldn’t feel burdensome about.

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On their travels through the numerous memory banks of the bordering adolescent, Joy and Sadness encounter Bing Bong, who arises as a figurehead of one of the central messages of Inside Out.
A lot of what Bing Bong is is pure nostalgia. He’s undoubtedly a creepy-looking chap, and it’s trying to deny that he resembles the result of what years out of work did to the Cheshire Cat, but the sheer amalgam of his character captures well the impulsive nature of the child mind. Three year old Riley’s hotchpotch creation is a comforting jumble of favourite things, that had me harkening back to my own kindergartenous inventions, as opposed to, again, really engaging with the world of Bing Bong. Maybe I’m a violent egocentric.
However, this state of mind did set me up for one of the most heartbreaking, yet uplifiting scenes in the film.
After Joy and Bing Bong are cast into the void of the ‘Memory Dump’, Bing Bong decides to remain forgotten, whilst emploring Joy to resurface and  “Take her (Riley) to the moon for me”. Whilst this captures the necessary sacrifice in order to feel happiness again, Bing Bong’s evaporation represents Riley’s drift from imaginary dependence, which will ultimately allow her a better connection with the world when it comes to obtaining goals.
In so many animated films, the sacrifice of such innocent characters is seemingly blasphemous. In Monsters Inc. I couldn’t help but feel that Sully’s severance with Boo, firstly argued to be for the best (“kitty has to go”), was rendered obsolete by the reassembly of her door at the end. Perhaps in other family films, the ‘Riley’ might’ve still come to accept her impending maturity, without making sacrifices like letting go of Bing Bong, but the fact that Inside Out doesn’t appear to promise that things will always be A-okay forever validates the theme of emotional honesty better than any of Pixar’s prerequisites do. Even when Joy replies in the Memory Dump scene, she whispers not “I will” but, “I’ll try”, because that’s all any of us can do.

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And so the cinema became ripe with sniffles.

Although Inside Out is something of an odd cousin in the Pixar family tree in terms of how story and world is presented, the film is still, unmistakeably Pixarian. It communicates that yeah, this is what life is about. You’ll make sacrifices. You’ll lose touch with ideas or desires that you once had (another example is brought up by the comic scene in which the mother imagines her marriage to a Portugese smooth-talker: “Come fly with me, Gatinha!”). But you’ll also make sacrifices that were worth it (such as Riley’s sacrifice of her joyful exterior to accept help from her parents at the end), and without those things you wouldn’t be who you are now. Unlike the trite optimism often expected of animated films, Inside Out doesn’t explicitly promise anything; it just accepts that feelings are what generate our sense of humour, our family and friends, our interests and our honesty (reflected by the various islands of Riley’s personality), and whatever does happen will allow those respective islands to develop. It’s when we stop that things decline.

inside out goofball island
The world of Inside Out isn’t as involving. Docter swaps out wacky invite for the familiarity of life, which makes the viewer’s understandings and interpretations much more vital to Inside Out than to previous Pixar films, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just reinforces that this one is more about how the story is told, and what that means.

Clickers, Control, Parents n’ Pikmin: The Familial Bond and Its Ambiguity

NOTE: By reading this, I’m going to assume you’ve played The Last of Us or Pikmin, or both. If you haven’t, you might find this analysis a little confusing to follow, in which case I highly recommend you play the games. In any case, in fact. They’re both cracking. Undoubtedly, spoilers for Pikmin and The Last of Us follow.

Whilst playing The Last of Us, I was struck by how often Pikmin crossed my mind. That isn’t to say they’re particularly similar visually; The Last of Us’ facial bludgeonings and periodic profanity would seem crass in Pikmin’s winsome wilderness, just as the adorable travails of Olimar and his tribe of multicolour companions might be rendered redundant within the world of The Last of Us.

It is, however, a crossover I want to see.

Just replace the Bulborb with a Bloater and we’re on our way.

What I want to talk about is morality, and this is where the Pikmin series and The Last of Us begin to cross paths. Both games involve a moral quest on the player’s part, not just the character’s, and both invite questions surrounding the relationships we build with characters as we play.

One of the deepest relationships that run through the Pikmin games and The Last of Us is parental, and in both game narratives, this sense of familial bond is strengthened by the collapse of rule and the protagonist’s known world. In The Last of Us, the outbreak and loss of young daughter Sarah represents the breakdown of the moralities and systems Joel once related to; whilst the opening scene circulates around human conventions like birthdays, bedtimes and occupational negotiation, the next time we see Joel, he shrugs off the murder of Robert, having infiltrated a Safe Zone.

Pikmin, too, involves a degree of collapse, as astronaut Olimar’s ship, the S.S. Dolphin collides with an asteroid whilst on an interstellar holiday. The collision leaves him “on the surface of a weird planet” with The Dolphin’s parts strewn across it.

As it happens, it is both the outbreak and the crash that leads us, the player, to our respective ‘children’. In games including themes around family, there’s more than likely going to be a child-figure, and in both cases here, each child becomes essential to our survival. Marlene promises weapons in return for Joel to watch over Ellie as they journey west; Olimar must work with the pikmin in order to transport yourself, and gather important ship parts.

The Pikmin are projections of innocence, and their head-mounted stems attribute a useful metaphor for development as the game progresses. As the Pikmin grow, the buds on their stems become daisy-like blooms, causing them to gain strength and resilience as a result of your nurture and guidance.

In The Last of Us, Ellie represents the sparkier side of adolescence, but grows equally as a result of her association with Joel. She begins rather reticent, but starts to challenge her surroundings, and, during winter segments, fully takes on the role of the protector of wounded Joel. As a result, we begin to trust her more as an individual; she is given a pistol and rifle at one point to show it. So, with each game, we are presented with envisionments of innocence that we come to care for and trust.

ellie winterThus, it is this transition from survival aid to companion that is put into question as the two games end. In the original Pikmin game, the good ending supports the concept of parents paving the way towards their children’s independence. We agree to work towards the point Olimar leaves the pikmin by collecting ship parts, thus promoting, or at least agreeing to temporarily take on the view that in order for those we love to truly flourish, we have to let them, and this is reflected in the final moments of the good ending.

The pikmin see Olimar off into the intergalactic realms, before beginning to attack a nearby predator. Their battle-cries fill the audio as multiple ‘onions’ rise into the stratosphere; an assurance that the pikmin have internalised Olimar’s survival strategy, that they have confidence enough to make it on their own.

As such, the good ending of Pikmin turns the player’s experiences with the pikmin in on itself. We might not have wanted to leave, even considered the multiple predators still out there, but as we’re confronted with the pikmin’s newfound boldness during the ending sequence, the message that it was for the best is suggested, but whether or not we can trust this implication remains open to our interpretation.
Pikmin_Secret_OnionsThe Last of Us possibly speaks louder in terms of examining one’s own personal motivations, because the game doesn’t conform to the acts of valour or sacrifice conventional of the apocalyptic narrative.

Instead, we see the many years Joel spent detached from humanity condensed into a few minutes of desperation, as he shoots innocent, unarmed doctors and sneaks an unconscious (and therefore, unconsenting) Ellie away from the scene. He infiltrates a place of hope for humanity (the hospital), and deliberately corrupts it, in order to feel close to the daughter he lost long ago. And finally, when telling Ellie about “what happened”, he omits the truths he knew would turn her against him, instead antagonising the Fireflies by claiming they “stopped looking for a cure”.

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The one who teaches Ellie freedom in the midst of a terrible infection ultimately ends up trapping her inside another; the grief that fuels his need for Ellie, and this feeds into the modern-day tragedy of The Last of Us.

But writing his actions off as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ isn’t that simple. Instead, the game shows that the need for a connection with another human being can override our pre-conceived morals, and even drive us to manipulate those we want to feel close to. But its similarity to Pikmin comes in when considering what that might say about us as people.

What is right in these circumstances? Do we keep loved ones because we’ve grown to love them, even if we end up controlling them, and where do we draw the line between what we think is best, and what we want? And again, is letting those we love go really for the best?

The extent to which Ellie would’ve been useful is compromised by the doctor’s recording stating that previous cure projects had failed, and the fact that the moment she distances herself from Joel, she becomes kidnapped by cannibalistic David, offer even more of a moral ambiguity surrounding our understanding of Joel’s actions. Likewise, our control of the pikmin never lead to their harm, so can we trust them enough to stand back?

That’s a very real parental conflict today, and it’s reassuring that video games are taking conflicts like these into account.

Colour Symbolism in Breaking Bad: The Belly of Walter White

It’s been two years since the closure of Breaking Bad. We experienced in those five years the renaissance of Ozymandias, only to watch him rise and fall once again. Whilst Heisenberg has hung up his hat, though, we haven’t quite hung up ours yet, and remain somewhat marked with a dry cynicism that convinces us that even those we root for, those we esteem as great, aren’t always good.
What truly compelled me about Breaking Bad was its symbolism. Many episodes open with abstract, artsy segments depicting the unravelry of the characters’ lives still to come, but always managed to remain inherently ambiguous. Colour was a vital ingredient in Vince Gilligan’s visual alchemy. From the shimmering gold hazmats to the barren wastelands of the Albuquerque desert, the colour yellow is very much a dominant force in Walter White’s life as the poisoned hero. Indeed, the show’s title screen depicts a toxic yellow flame eroding the two words that have since become so integral to many a high-school chemistry class.

Breaking_Bad_Title_Sequence
From the very beginning, the colour yellow frequently appears attached to Walter White, but it is in Season one’s episode four that it begins to become extremely noticeable. After cooking perhaps the highest grade methamphetamine Breaking Bad’s world of drug-dealers has ever seen, Walt’s efforts are thwarted by the appearance (and frankly killy nature) of Krazy-8. Having managed to regain power, Walter White is seen preparing the captured drug distributor a sandwich. He does this meticulously beside a yellow plate, whilst wearing a yellow shirt, against a backdrop of peeling yellow wall. The sheer oppressiveness of the colour here not only marks the appearance of yellow an an intentional choice by show creator, Vince Gilligan, but also depicts White’s rapid encompassment by the new world he has entered, and the decay (for the walls are dank and worn) it is liable to cause.

Plate Walt White
White, soon after, smashes the plate in the midst of a cancer-induced choking fit, and is seen shakily attempting to put the pieces back together again, only to find that one piece is missing. The missing piece of the plate firstly signifies, to Walt, that he has entered a world he cannot trust (that Krazy-8 will try to exploit his reasonably intact morality by stabbing him with the piece of plate once he is set free), but the yellow hue ties the broken plate, Krazy-8 ‘s yellow jacket and Walter’s shirt inextricably together. Like the plate, by agreeing to distribute meth, Walter has, perhaps unknowingly, lost a part of himself to the criminals he is beginning to associate with; something that catalyses the first of many acts of questionable morality – his murder of Krazy-8. Here, the colour yellow helps us to conceive the instance in which Walter White becomes truly trapped, and no matter how he strives to replace what has been broken, he will always be devoid of that one shard, denoting that things are about to get a lot worse.
What is also interesting about the colour choice to reflect these things is that, through the grim tragedy of the situation, it brings another dimension of abstract irony to what we’re seeing on-screen. When we think of yellow, we are usually greeted by an interpretive notion of happiness, wonder; that bright sunny say on which all our dreams seem possible. But when we tune into Breaking Bad, we are instead confronted with overpowering stenches of drug-dens and anonymous intenstines of botched killings. Considering that the colour yellow seems to grow more and more integral to Walt’s character and expression, this seems a cynical juxtaposition by Gilligan between how Walt sees himself, and the reality of his actions. Consequently, the colour yellow serves as a motif for Walt’s increasingly panoramic fool’s paradise.
Expanding on this, it is quite possible that yellow clothing may be a conscious choice of Walter himself, which contributes to the layered dramatic irony within the show. In Season One, Walt garbs himself in sunny button-downs that tuck neatly into his family-man khakis, whilst he conceals his underground drug networking to those closest to him. The DVD cover for Season Five captures a relentless chieftan enrobed in a yellow hazmat, inexplicably linking Walt’s family ideals with his criminality. Despite all the power Heisenberg has come to possess, the endurance of the colour yellow across the entirety of Breaking Bad boils down to inner state.

walt white s5

Walt is still vulnerable. He’s a man grasping at straws; groping for any morsel of light, of optimism he can get, as his world rapidly darkens. He’s desperately pleading, “This is okay. This is all justified”, and as the audience, we are placed automatically on the fence because of this. In honesty, we want to root for Walt as the ‘tortured hero’. We want to see Walt in the delusional way he sees himself, but throughout the show, Gilligan revels in unforgiving storytelling as he daubs his viewers with darkly humourous, yet painful clarity.
What this vulnerability reminds us is that Walt’s still ‘yella’, and despite everything Heisenberg has ‘accomplished’, he never really rid himself of his fear of dying; something that the persistence of yellow throughout the narrative of Walter White hammers home. In a jacket of gold comes Breaking Bad as a shriek of objection in the face of death; a pathetic realisation that only upon death do we realise just how small we are.