Paradise of Storm

Tag: Film

Mid90s is the Beginning and Ending of Our Lives

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by Guy Walker

Growing up in Los Angeles in the mid nineties was supposed to be a time of perspiring boredom. There was no Great War to protest against, no major cultural upheaval, no new mind-expanding drugs to try. There was just the day-to-day unfolding monotony of being a kid, wading through the creamy smog the way grandmothers swim, swinging lunch pails, conceding that yo-yos and Pokémon were scenes of glamour and social footing.

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, observes so much more than the fragmented trademarks of growing up in this strange and passionless orgy—the standardized confusion of slang, the Teenage Ninja Turtles ubiquity, the stapled fortresses bunched together into a barren and broken purlieu. Most representations of the nineties serve more like they were accruements of nostalgia organized neatly on the fireplace mantle. And within the context of skateboarding (as well as surfing and snowboarding), Hollywood has never achieved anything worthwhile. For the most part, these types of films have come across as one blurred and contrived iteration of Dazed and Confused, which in itself was feigned nostalgia.

What makes Mid90s the delicate masterpiece that it is, is our own obsession with authenticity. We’ll scour endless hours of interview footage and Twitter feeds to find a person’s single public stumble, and confidently write them off as a counterfeit icon. Jonah Hill rightly stated that a single Kowabunga! in a film that’s really only peripherally about skateboarding would disembowel the whole work, lump it along with the rest of the ridiculous genre.

But there’s none of this caricaturized glee. Thirteen-year-old Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic, comes from a moderately broken home—with a single mother, and an older brother who beats on him, he turns to a new group of friends. He stops watching movies with his mom; he starts smoking cigarettes, and drinking forties in the bathroom in order to catch up with the older kids; he’s deflowered in a sense, vaunting his success of fingering a girl for the first time. But Mid90s is a return to innocence. The resounding meliorism in Hill’s picture is finding family outside one’s own, in the ramshackled guardians who roam around like us, searching for some invocation of purpose. It seems negligible at times to try to pontificate on why a film is so successful in its delivery, in how it was molded over four years into its nice 84-minute package of what it means to grow up in a broken home. And maybe this was unintended. Director Paul Thomas Anderson said it was only well after he completed Boogie Nights did he realize it was about family—about finding it in the most unexpected places.

The return to innocence is what drives so much of the American adult narrative. It’s why so many of us have children, so we can vicariously relive life’s gleaming optimism through our children’s eyes. The innocence is summarized neatly in a scene when Fuckshit, a rhapsodic long-haired skater a few years older than Stevie, played by Olan Prenatt, explains to a genuinely engrossed homeless man about why they skateboard all day: “[It’s] why we ride a piece of wood—like, what that does to somebody’s spirit.” If an adult uttered those words, we could aptly scoff at their own self-indulgence; but the unprompted candidness of the young is what makes it good and true. That same scene was inspired by a moment just before the end credits in Plan B’s 1993 skate video, Virtual Reality, when one of the skaters sings along to Here Comes The Sun with a homeless man playing on his guitar. There was no mockery, no escaped abuse; just a moment of genuine kinship for the streets.

Because the treatment of the homeless and of skaters at the time were similar. Especially a young black man like Na-kel Smith who plays Ray, the oldest and most talented of the group, who occasionally nudges Stevie in a direction that an older brother or father should. He offers gentle encouragements that could only have been learned from his own time living and falling.

Mid90s has been compared much with the 1995 classic, Kids, for the obvious superficial similarities. Kids is about a day in the life of a group of New York City teenagers, their experimentation with dirty words, their required exaggerations of those novel sexual exploits, when every kiss and touch of a nipple felt like Rocky Balboa’s celebration at the top of the stairs. But as accurate as the youth’s depiction in Kids may have been, it was the product of generational cynicism, a sort of updated Reefer Madness that terrified parents on every friendless cul-de-sac than it did inspire more of an introspective art form. The similarities are there: Telly, the main teenage stalwart of awkwardness, intones to his friend about virgins. “I love ‘em. No diseases, no loose as a goose pussy, no skank. No nothin. Just pure pleasure.” It’s two excruciating hours of this. Watching it today, you don’t cringe for him and his clumsy gloating, but for yourself. We remember when this was the way it was—a collective effort of mentally inscribing the most irreverent displays from our older brothers and drunk uncles and coming to school each day as if to share our dirtiest vocal capabilities, gluing “pussy” with “cocksucker” with “your mom” like they were loose interchangeable Scrabble pieces. There’s a moment in Mid90s when Stevie first steps foot in the Motor Avenue skate shop, where he glimpses from behind a t-shirt rack at the private dialogue of his soon-to-be friends. They debate if they’d rather suck their dad’s dick or eat their mom out. Life or death. It’s as accurate of a moment as ever could be. Lunch hour was an endless joust of hypotheticals: would you rather break both legs or let your sister shit in your mouth. Debates that could run on for hours, fissuring our unrealized ideological confines. But there was always the bleary self-awareness that the whole thing was in jest, that life itself is just some strange ephemeral quip, fueled by waggery and drunkenness. Mid90s captured that integral lightheartedness within its dialogue that Kids didn’t.

Because at that age you’re still learning to form words, trying to croak out some meaning from your smutty orifice. As if there’s a vague awareness that we’ve only recently been weened off the teet, and our mouth is now told to perform, to interact casually and senselessly like normal adults do. Before you become a caricature of yourself, miming the sayings of pristine lawnmower American suburbia, drinking a light beer at your buddy’s bar-b-que, saying things like, “just nod your head and say she’s right,” as you all laugh together like you’ve never heard that witticism before. Mid90s is also the last hurrah of innocence before we start acting out these manufactured identities.

At its core, Mid90s is far more related to Hoop Dreams, the nearly three hour documentary that follows two inner-city Chicago teenagers, and their quest to make it into the NBA. Both films have a similar dialectic between chasing some endless victory lap of a debonair adolescence, sinking deeper into the impishness of being young and drunk forever, and pursuing the original dream of doing what you love professionally. In Hill’s film, Ray and Fuckshit begin as best friends, both with exceptional talent, who gradually drift apart amid their differing interests: Ray pursuing skating as a real, tangible career, and Fuckshit just getting more and more fucked up. This same wrestling of temptations underlies Hoop Dreams—it underlies our daily life. Every momentary lull gnawing with the beckoning of sabotage: am I going to drink more chamomile tea and finish this article, or overdose on ghb with my overweight landlord?

I was never much of a skateboarder, but I’ve surfed most of my life. And walking down the steps to the beach parking lot, there’s always the expected coven of old men, softly shuffling around the dusty blasphemous edge of the world with their shirts off, their dark brown beer-tits mummified forever by the sun, the scaled wrinkles folded over themselves. They still wear flip flops. They still ask me for pot. They still even surf on occasion. But most of all, they stand around like human seagulls, scavenging for the last morsels of cool, talking about their hippest days. It’s why a coming of age story with skateboarding serving as the glaring interest that the plot swirls around is so apt—we know this too will change, that our beloved maple-eyed protagonist lays in his hospital bed at the end of the film with two families that love him, with a myriad directions forward.

The skate documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys showed it without categorically declaring it so: the archived footage was of the Z-Boys as handsome sun-tendrilled kids; but their present day interviews were noticeably different. Stacey Peralta became a famous and respectable filmmaker, while Jay Adams slogged in and out of prison serving drug-related sentences, eventually dying at age 53. The blithe enviability of blond-haired grommets sneaking into backyard pools to skateboard disappears with old age.

Mid90s ends soon after the thwarting romance has fallen apart. These decisions are just beginning to be considered, when the audiences’ own desires for self-correction anticipates for a more comprehensive last verdict. It ends when it needs to end, before the rush of school shootings, before one or more of the friends gets addicted to meth, before the shuttering jolt into the next millennium and all its grotesque calamity. Jonah Hill lets us remember the last redeemable decade as it was, before the lights went out on us for good.

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15:17 to Paris and the Banality of Valor

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by Guy Walker

Spencer Stone wasn’t supposed to be good at anything. He was deficient in his academics, overwhelmed with sloth, obese as a child, consumed with his love for toy guns and camo. In other words, a great American in the making. He eventually joined the Air Force where he was deferential and persevering, but kept failing in the most menial tasks assigned. But then on August 21, 2015, Stone proved what he was capable of when he helped thwart a potentially bloody massacre on a Paris-bound train.

He was with with his lifelong best friends Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, traveling through Europe together, unknowingly boarding the same train car that Moroccan-born Ayoub El Khazzani was readying an attack. He armed himself in the bathroom with an assault rifle and three-hundred rounds of ammunition, a pistol, a box cutter, and no shirt, like a self-hating Rambo pantomimist, the sweaty discharge of nerves dripping from his tits. When he emerged from the toilet with gun in hands, he was immediately met with the struggle and force from another passenger, American-born Frenchman, Mark Moogalian. After much hassle, in what looked like a deadly version of musical chairs with the disheveled handing-off of guns, Moogalian was shot in the neck with the pistol, and Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos seized the weapons from Khazzani, beat his face in with the butt of the rifle, and tied him up. They nursed Moogalian’s severe neck wound until the train stopped, and French police and doctors boarded, and all order was restored.

Clint Eastwood’s new movie, The 15:17 to Paris, centers around these suspenseful moments, contextualizing the episode with a strange selection of biographical accuracy. It’s been widely reviewed as a bold, yet mostly failed experiment. By casting the real heroes as the actors, their stultifying charisma is not equatable to bad acting—necessarily, the acting can’t be bad. Criticism of their performance is instead criticism of them as self-conscious young men—a hollow pointless objection that simply says they didn’t entertain the way a real hero would. These complaints are, of course, wrong. Eastwood’s experiment is neo-Stanislavskian idealism, a higher methodology of never breaking character, a newfound commitment towards death. Our heroes will never be in another movie not because they are loathsome as actors, but because they will never be able to prepare for another role.

So, why was the movie so unbearable?

Eastwood has long made clear his political leanings. His queer imbecilic performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention, in which he delivered a stumbling hallucinatory interrogation of Barack Obama sitting in a chair, made everything he did in the future a political act. The 15:17 to Paris wasn’t just shameless military propaganda, or an advocacy of mass distribution of guns and war games for children; it was a landmark entry in the anthology of alternative facts. The single most thoughtful and literary sentence of dialogue was also its worst: my God is bigger than your statistics. It was a moment in the film when our heroes are children; they’re acting up in school, and two of the mothers are speaking privately with their sons’ teacher. She flagrantly and brashly diagnoses the children with ADD, saying they need to be medicated, subdued. The film’s commentary on the reckless haphazard medication of children could have been poignant; but Eastwood’s screenwriter, Dorothy Blyskal, instead diverts it to a gratuitous pandering to Christian conservatism. My God is bigger than your statistics is part of the defiant eulogy in Christian politics—it’s a reactionary crack that’s widely distributed in its application, saying gays are faggots, abortion is murder, war is peace, and so on, until the whole American experience is a porcelain infancy.

There’s about a twenty minutes sequence of Stone and Sadler ambling around Venice, Italy with a selfie stick, posing with the puerile occupation of “Americans in Italy.” There’s no plot here, no advancement of conflict, no foreshadowing of obstacle or goal. But in Eastwood’s obvious senility, in his dithering worship of films about strong men, in his attempt to remain modern and relevant, he inserts the selfie stick as a totem to this is what kids do these days, like a grandfather trying to stay hip with his runny-nosed grandsons: Man, this ice cream is the tits! he says, slobbering everywhere, embarrassing the world.

This has always been an illuminating hallmark of Eastwood’s. His entire career has been about re-characterizing his glory days as the elusive cowboy in the Sergio Leone films, characters that Donald Trump has purportedly idolized himself after—a trick-stopping showman who shoots from the hip and says it like it is. American Sniper was merely an episode in the gradual milk-lacquered entropy of Western heroism, the masturbatory fatigue weighing everything down with the onset of chronic blockbuster depression.

There’s a moment when our three heroes wake up together in a sunlit room after a night of dancing in some club in Amsterdam. One of them mutters the well-known adage: last night was crazy, but man, this morning I’m so hungover. The problem isn’t just that this is profanely hollow dialogue that doesn’t do anything to advance the story; rather, it unearths the more brazenly solecistic aspects of ourselves we’d prefer to edit out; it is unnervingly accurate in its portrayal of human simplicity. In truth, the vast majority of us speak the way an illiterate would write. If an invisible transcriber followed us as we went about our day, and we had to read ourselves in dialogue form each night before going to bed, most of us would shrink into the deepest folds of the sheets, cowering in the face of our brutish parody. A choked starling and her impish gasps is all we get; the rest is theater. The home-loving dramaturges that Chekhov and Arthur Miller beautified give an unrealistic advantage to their kind. Those everyday homely characters that we are supposed to relate to are too pictorial and precise in their structure. Stone, Sadler, and Skarlatos are relatable in their doughy normalcy, their artless glorification of helping others.

It’s interesting to compare the incident on the Paris-bound train with a similar, more gruesomely intimate tale of everyday heroism. On May 26th, 2017, on a train in Portland, Oregon, Jeremy Joseph Christian, an ugly mullet-loving white suprematist, was spluttering his yokel philistinism at two teenage girls, one Muslim, the other African American. Strangers in the crowded train intervened, defending the girls, two men of which ultimately sacrificing their lives, and a third man surviving with a severe stab wound to the neck. It’s heroic, but not cinematic. Dead heroes don’t inspire others. But more importantly, there is no flag worship in this type of action; the Other is the victim and not the perpetrator. The messaging in The 15:17 to Paris is clear that these are our boys. Focusing on an incident like that on the train in Portland would confuse that dialogue.

The 15:17 to Paris feels cruel and inept because it is. It never should have been made. It feels like a movie built with stock footage, the kind you see in pharmaceutical commercials with couples walking their doggie on the beach, flying a kite, mowing the lawn—the everyday tedium that we are actually programed to forget. This is all stacked around a single moment of competence, when the shooter’s gun jams, and our hero tackles him. Actually, both of his guns jam. Eastwood makes a nod at the monumental luck, when Skarlatos inspects the guns immediately after the attempted attack, and comments on their “one in a million” fortitude; but Eastwood never fully illuminates this, that the grandiosity of one man’s valor swirls chaotically in our collective farts of ephemerality.

It brings it back to when they are children—my God is bigger than your statistics. “One in a million” is prophecy along this quixotic brand of Pulp Fiction divine intervention moment—it marries Stone’s awesome bravery to run headfirst at the barrel of a loaded assault rifle with the omnipotence of God’s hand at work, ending with the victorious ejaculation of hero-worship dripping off the screen, a hundred flag-waving hard-ons watching determinedly in the theater, their dicks overflowing like lava cakes. What the film achieves in is explicating the pedestrian nature of heroism—it’s something that everyday citizens like you and I can achieve—be fat, suck at school, stop terrorists. It’s the American way.

And in a way, 15:17 to Paris transcends above all other films. The exhausting banalities of our heroes’ day-to-day are all part of the unsentimental realism of how we live our lives. We’re shitty at nearly everything that’s interesting. We go to Europe—to the safe big cities, and to the hostels in those cities—out of some last-ditch desperation for menial indulgence. The 15:17 to Paris is Westernized avant-garde, an unintended masterpiece of social criticism; it forces its viewers to plug along with the careful representation of themselves—an hour-and-a-half autobiographical biopic in which we stand in front of the mirror staring at the religion of monotony that has overcome us, the utter boredom. It’s a sobering moment, when we realize none of us actually orate like the baroque Tarantino dialogues, that the extravagant fictions of our favorite films are exactly that—fantastic, impossible, award winning in their artistry.

Finally, we can continue as normal. Because this is who we are. Heroes are everyone everywhere, shuffling across the wide open range, consuming things like mac ’n’ cheese and Coca Cola. Our cinematic gallantry always just a moment away.


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The Future of Desire

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by Guy Walker

What actually did happen to the sexual revolution? It wasn’t long after one of Freud’s most noteworthy students, Wilhelm Reich, landed on New York’s squalid shores in August of 1939, that the generation of prurience and free love was born. His most noteworthy invention and physical contribution apart from his writings now seems like an artifact of dereliction, some shambled box from an abandoned carnival: the Orgone Energy Accumulator. It looks like a boarded up telephone booth, an unexciting trunk turned on its side that you were supposed to sit in and wait to receive the brilliant and spontaneous orgasms it provided.

Sex from some obscure unknown realm has long been a preferred subject of science fiction. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a bounty hunter Phil Resch (a phonetic cousin of the Austrian psychoanalyst), who works for a fictitious police agency, and could be another android, remarks to Deckard with a tone of austere advice, “If it’s love toward a woman or an android imitation, it’s sex.” The reader is propelled into the obvious: how does it actually feel to be in a storm of eroticism with a robot?

Blade Runner 2049 offered another installment of this fantasy. Our hero’s girlfriend, Joi, is a three-dimensional hologram resembling an evolutionary masterpiece; you can watch the movie in what is seemingly another layer of 3-D, gaping up at her seductive digitization swaying into the bedroom, your mouth hanging open stupidly, staring up at the huge screen with your flimsy paper sunglasses. Joi’s character is a reincarnation of a character we know well.

In the 1956 French drama, …And God Created Woman, Juliette, the subliminally catastrophic temptress played by Brigitte Bardot, believed “the future was invented only to spoil the present.” Sixty years later, it’s the present that wants to spoil the future—it wants to give it all up for us, tell us of the trenchant nihilism ahead, popularize the ultimate ghosts of technology. In the film, she lays around naked, walks everywhere barefoot, undisturbed by the male forces and societal norms around her, causing a moral panic amongst those nearest her. The men in the film conclude she “was made to destroy men,” as they try to repel the inevitable gravity of her enchantment.

The destruction of man by the strange and impossible intrigue of the woman is a common theme now. Hollywood is smitten with this fantasy. How will people, you know, “do it”, in the future? Spike Jones’s 2014 dystopic interlude, Her, brought the same titillating futurism conceptualized in the bedroom to the big screen. The envisioned communing between Theodore and the computer operating system, Samantha, was little more than a banal exclamation that mimicked the snorts and grunts of pleasure. It was phone sex, mildly elaborated, only for the sake of the pronouncement of orgasm, leaving the fluids, sweat, bullwhips, fuzzy handcuffs, and every other physical attributor of touch, in question and out of the picture.

Ex Machina notioned that the most beautiful women of the future will be an invasive species of silicon chips molded in our most alluring fashion—they’ll be prowling amongst us, like a digitized playmate who could calmly and regularly beat the Kasparovs of chess, and then lock them in a cellar until they rot. There’s nothing more thrilling than taking someone home from the bar who might turn out to have a survival glitch that would necessarily have to kill you to succeed. BDSM for existentialists; the abstract fetishizing would turn a whole generation into a sex-themed Russian roulette game.

Or there’s HBO’s Westworld series, which featured robot prostitutes that would kill their way to freedom. Thus far, our popularized interest in artificial intelligence goes as far as what sort of envious bloom their reproductive organs will look like, how lusting and lifelike the interplay could and should be. Especially the women. Movie producers and audiences alike don’t desire the other possibility in quite the same way. There’s something deeply unsettling about their male counterparts that would only be used for sex—their dangling rubberized testicles waving in the dusty anarchy of the wild west, their smutty reprogrammable libido under spasms of defect, wreaking havoc on innocent female victims who only wanted a bit of cathartic delight.

It’s clear what’s happening. When Lacan famously announced “there is no sexual relation,” he wasn’t attempting a contrarian view of desire without features. He was iterating how we split ourselves up in the act of sex, between “its being and its semblance, between itself and that paper tiger it shows to the other.” In this, as in a combative death drive, we either give or receive a mask, “a thrown-off skin,” in order to protect our real being.

We’re never really alone with our sexual partners. There’s always a deep fantasy or weirdly-cloaked fetish lingering in the shadows, hammering away at our heads in varying degrees of distraction. In the strange and extraordinary partnership of cultural totems, Slavoj Žižek was commissioned by Abercrombie & Fitch to write for their 2003 Back to School Quarterly, where he quipped his bursting tic-filled remarks on youth and sex, the capitalized large font spread across a glossy overlay of two boys and a girl completely naked, barely of age, carousing in green fields, the sun’s yolk spilled across the whole verdant jouissance like a pagan dream: “The only successful sexual relationship occurs when the fantasies of the two partners overlap. If the man fantasizes that making love is like riding a bike and the woman wants to be penetrated by a stud, then what truly goes on when they make love is that a horse is riding a bike…With a fantasy like that, who needs a personality?”

A horse riding a bicycle is as real as Ryan Gosling passing his dick across and into the flickering static of his girlfriend, both of which are only barely less real than an undisturbed sexual communion between two people. There’s nothing remarkably novel about Hollywood’s attempts to realistically imagine the future of bodily desire. A robot’s vagina is not the exemplary nexus of modern art, not some avant-garde interpretation of Freudian psychoanalytics. But some productions have imagined a sort of post-Oedipal world, in which man creates his maker, fucks her, and then is gruesomely slain by her.

What Ex Machina and Westworld achieve is they thrust the viewer outside the obvious torments of being killed by the glamorous female lead, and they allow you to imagine the daily benign thrill of the technicians themselves, and what it must be like for them to pick and prod and quietly sculpt women of our yearning. As viewers, we know the architects of these humanoids had to at some point kneel down and masterfully sculpt the deep swelling crevasse of her reproductive organ, the realism of her sensuality more essential than any other appendage or feature. The absurd bald mounds on Barbie dolls, like they were long-legged congenital eunuchs disguised in aprons and wigs, no longer suffice for the pornographic obsessions of the modern age.

The cinema is now our most easily digested form of suggestive enterprise. We bring the whole circus of crime and drama and comedy and romance and war into our bedrooms, our gawping voyeurism permanently attached to our laptop screens. But it’s always been like this. The preferred art forms from before quietly distilled the same libidinal hankering as multi-million dollar productions filmed in front of green screens do today. What happens when Picasso or Lucian Freud paints one of their women? Are they not attempting to garner a lusciousness of dimension of the female form they never managed to see themselves? They spent countless painstaking hours leaning over their huge canvases, trying to improve on mere replication, detailing the dimpled flesh and overgrown pubic forests like things of undocumented mystery. They composed these scenes, arranged their women in candid moments of trembling bliss, and hyper-realized the overflowing smooth flesh of women as the givers of all life. The title of the painting above is “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” the model’s actual job title. The words give a humanness, a normalcy to the shapeless spill of tit over the edge of the couch, as if this could be every moderately heavy woman walking down the street. We are pressed with the overwhelming gravity of who we really are, the unflattering reality of ourselves as a gruesome patchwork of anuses and other spluttering holes, all held together with this dying membrane of sweat and pores and hair, the festering wounds of age slowly eating away at us.

What’s next, beyond each fantasy, is another. Most of us spend our days slouched in some form or another, our necks sloped like a cow grazing her fields, staring at a screen. We tap away at it endlessly, as if it will eventually do something, fetishizing the swirling blots of color, a whole universe encased in Snapchat doggy ears and nose. When you watch porn on your computer or phone, you’re signaling one half of a holographic sex doll—an illusory, yet very real, pleasure. There’s a brothel in Germany that’s already gotten rid of all the prostitutes—all the real humans, that is—and instead offers their clients a lineup of lifelike sex dolls. We’re almost there. It’s the same fantasy played out in different forms—different brands of the same product within today’s culture industry. Adorno and Horkheimer illuminated in their philosophical monument, Dialectic of Enlightenment, that the “culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises.” It usually ends in flaccid regret. Instead of the high definition fantasy playing out in front of us, we end with a white pool of mucous in a dirty sock. “The promise,” they continue, “which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory.” But it’s voluntary. We pay $17 to see someone else play out our fantasies of what the future will look like.

It could have been an interesting storyline in Blade Runner 2049, between K and his holographic girlfriend—where their moments of affection and confidentiality really lead to, what they would have done about having children, arguments around infidelity and if it’s really considered cheating. But the filmmakers never went there. That particular subplot ended in masturbatory ennui, a close indifference about the future of our relationships. Again and again, we’ll watch these films on our own screens, the clutching voyeurism of survival fluttering across the backlit rectangles, the colorful blobs of other humans superimposed. But the end is always the same. The credits roll and the screen goes black, and we’re left staring at our dark naked reflection in the glass.


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