Oct 25, 2023, 06:27AM

Colonized Throughout Space and Time

Ten works about disputed territory.

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As the Israelis and Palestinians slaughter each other, one can’t help thinking it’d be nice if all the time academics and artists ostensibly spend these days thinking about gray areas and ambiguous situations yielded more practical advice on avoiding or resolving conflicts.

Rival claims to the same piece of land is obviously a recurring formula for inspiring terrorism, for instance, but if I suggest clear, consistent individual property rights should be the basis of all law, a legion of artists is more likely to condemn me as a greed-fueled materialist than to hail me as the bringer of peace on Earth.

Maybe the academics should end at least some of their numerous recent papers about the unsettling qualities of “liminal spaces” (disorienting thresholds such as borderlands, unused corridors, forgotten sheds under highway off-ramps, etc.) with overt calls for nice fences and No Trespassing signs if they really want to help humanity avoid trouble.

The makers of videogames such as The Backrooms, which turns boredom into fear by letting the player endlessly wander what look like condemned shopping mall or hospital hallways, could do countless hapless customers an immense favor by creating versions of the game that train players to navigate annoying real-world spaces.

You could get to the next level of the hypothetical food-shopping game Agata & Valentina, for instance, by learning from experience that the increasingly rude cashiers at that store may do things like send you back to the end of the line if you dare notice they gave you a bag far too small to contain the purchases they just rang up for you. You could win the new version of a New York Penn Station game by finding the one hidden “arrivals” digital schedule board around a corner and tucked inside a baggage retrieval area, far from the numerous redundant “departures” digital boards, each of which could in theory display other information for at least a few seconds every five minutes or so but doesn’t.

While we wait for problems that petty to be addressed by art, though, here are 10 recent or recently-rereleased real works (eight films, one play, one TV special) that at least allude to some of the bigger questions of disputed territory, like recovering from military conquests or setting sexual boundaries.

Gareth Edwards’ impressive, big-budget sci-fi film The Creator plays with a few boundaries. Depicting a tragic near-future war between anti-A.I. Westerners and A.I.-friendly East Asians, the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story director plainly now wants to be taken very seriously, but he’s so heavy-handed in depicting the conflict as a replay of the Vietnam War—complete with robots wearing conical hats near rice fields and kindly robot Buddhist monks tragically bombed—that one begins to suspect The Creator was intended as some sort of misdirected revenge against the very American company Disney for butchering his original cut of Rogue One, which reportedly had a lot more face to face combat along riverbanks and among palm trees.

Maybe Edwards thinks the memory of Vietnam is so fresh it’s still the best way to hit corporate America where it lives (the terrified robots and their pals yell “the Americans!” when the anti-A.I. forces approach, not just, say, “anti-robot troops!”). Instead, this trope arguably reduces his film from a potential rival to franchise giants such as Star Wars and turns it into a quirky (yet humorless) exercise in “rice punk,” the sci-fi subgenre that whimsically uses East Asian elements the way steampunk uses the 19th century.

The Stalinist strategy, now nearly a century old and still in daily use, of depicting everything that’s not left-wing as if it must therefore be fascist brings us the black and white vampire/political satire El Conde (The Count), in which not only is Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet revealed to be an aging vampire but so too is his superior in the vampire hierarchy, Margaret Thatcher. All right-wingers are ruthless vampires, get it?

At least Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, at three and a half hours long, offers a little more room for nuance—in the form of a protracted court case after the main action—not that there’s much case to be made for killing or stealing land from anyone, of any hue.

Imperial powers have messed with the locals for millennia, which has helped turn the real-life historical figure Boudica, the first-century-A.D. British tribal queen who coordinated a brief resistance to Roman conquest, into something of a belated media franchise unto herself, spawning multiple films and miniseries. This week brings the theatrical release Boudica: Queen of War. If nothing else, a historian friend of mine expresses delight that atop the head of lead Olga Kurylenko in this movie, they finally got Boudica’s distinctive hairdo right.

The celebration of marginalized warrior women can be forced at times, though, so if you need a corrective to things like next month’s calculatedly ethnically-diverse space action movie The Marvels, be sure to catch the TV special South Park: Joining the Panderverse this week, as Cartman becomes a sassy black woman and his formerly male pals undergo similarly unnecessary stunning and brave transformations.

This isn’t to suggest that the patriarchy never plays mind games, and the play Patient Gloria, ongoing in various locations, cobbles together some embarrassing real-life moments from a series of 1960s training films about the psychiatric process—as administered to a decidedly female patient by decidedly male doctors, in hindsight raising all sorts of questions and red flags (and reminding me a bit of an ex-girlfriend of mine whose therapist, in a mild variation on standard Freudian-analytical procedure, tried to convince her that her dreams about Jude Law were really about the therapist, as if women need reasons to dream about Jude Law).

Mind, body, and spirit are all regions ripe for conquest, alas, and the new documentary Another Body (made by some of my fellow Brown alums) does a good job, for those of us too tech-unsavvy to know, of showing how creepy the use of so-called deepfakes (CGI visuals that can do just about anything including sticking your ex’s face on a porn actor’s body) has gotten, leaving one wondering whether harassment and slander laws are enough to punish the fakery on a case-by-case basis or whether activists (such as the filmmakers themselves) are right to push for more sweeping regulatory responses.

More traditional harassment questions were raised by She Said a year ago, the film dramatizing the tense process by which reporters decided how and when to expose the chronic sexual misbehavior of Harvey Weinstein. The writer/editor in me has to love any film restrained enough to climax with an editor quietly saying it’s time to hit the “send” button on a (subtly world-changing) story draft after one last protracted read.

For the diametrical opposite of subtlety, you could see the 50th-anniversary re-release of the fast-paced and rather insane surrealist film Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky (himself likely a rapist, given his apparent on-screen attack against an actress in his earlier film El Topo, I should note). You may not think this non-stop flurry of violence, nudity, comedy, strangeness, performance art, psychedelics, dead animals, and mysticism—loosely wrapped around a Lord of the Rings- and Dune-influenced plot about Jesus summoning the nine rulers of the solar system to steal the secrets of the immortals—is great, but there’s never a dull moment. “Transgression,” paradoxically, is usually boring, but not here.

And if you want a far gentler crossing of boundaries between U.S.-style fantasy and Latin American influences, the four-decades-later re-release of the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense is ongoing. It’s arguably the best concert film of all time, featuring several songs from one of the first albums I ever bought, Speaking in Tongues, including “Swamp,” which I only now, all this time later, realize is the closest thing they ever did to turning David Byrne into Cab Calloway, the “hi hi hi” standing in for Calloway’s “hidey hidey ho”—with backwoods-bayou-meets-big-city-jazz phrases like “Now when they split those atoms, it’s hotter than the sun” all over the place. It’s not as blatant as Calloway’s influence on Oingo Boingo, but it’s there.

There are some fun ways to collide, after all, not just violent ones.

Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on X at @ToddSeavey


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