WEIRDLAND: August 2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Dystopian Adventures: "Seconds" (1966) and "Mr. Robot" (2015)

"Seconds" (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer. Plot: An unhappy middle-aged banker agrees to a procedure that will fake his death and give him a completely new look and identity - one that comes with its own price.

You can buy everything in America - even a new life. This is exactly what Arthur Hamilton, a successful middle-aged banker, discovers after one of his old and supposedly dead friends begins calling him at home. At first Arthur refuses to believe that he is the same man he knew years ago, but after he points out details from his past no one else could have known he changes his mind. Encouraged by his friend, Arthur also agrees to visit the office of a company specializing in procedures that allow its customers to reinvent their lives.

Soon after he returns to his lavish beach house, Tony meets the attractive blonde Nora Marcus (Salome Jens, Savages). The two then visit a Bacchanalian grape-stomping ceremony that forces Tony to reexamine his new and supposedly better life. It is an indisputable fact that John Frankenheimer's Seconds was well ahead of its time. Completed in 1966, the film asks a number of questions that are frequently debated in the media today. To see that Frankenheimer was able to imagine a future reality and more importantly accurately describe how technology could alter people's perceptions about right and wrong is indeed quite extraordinary.

Seconds is structured as a thriller, but there are various themes in it that actually make it an unorthodox study of morality in America. There are two major character transformations in it that are linked to different perceptions about success and happiness and the price one may have to pay for them. As the film progresses, Frankenheimer carefully forces the viewer to ponder whether the two are related or simply misunderstood. Cinematographer James Wong Howe shot select sequences with a hand-held camera and many of them greatly enhance the sense of paranoia that permeates the film. Seconds is also complimented by a terrific, very dark soundtrack courtesy of award-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. Source:

Seconds cuts even closer to the bone, exposing the precariousness of the American dream through a vertiginous blend of genre elements: horror, noir, and science fiction collide with suspense worthy of Hitchcock, outrageousness worthy of Kafka, and an acid critique of American capitalism.

Frankenheimer told an interviewer that he wanted to adapt David Ely’s eponymous 1963 novel because “all of today’s literature and films about escapism are just rubbish, [since] you cannot and should not ever try to escape from what you are.”

The attack on advertising was particularly relevant less than a decade after Vance Packard’s best seller The Hidden Persuaders skewered the original Mad Men for their amoral manipulation of American consumers. Frankenheimer was a thorough­going liberal in his politics, incidentally, and in Seconds he found excellent parts for three gifted actors who had endured much hardship in the Hollywood blacklist years: Jeff Corey as a Company executive named Mr. Ruby, Will Geer as the unnamed Company chief, and Randolph as Arthur, his first Hollywood role after the studios banished him in 1955.

Seconds is both Frankenheimian and Frankensteinian, carrying Mary Shelley’s concept of a “Modern Prometheus” into territory that James Whale and Boris Karloff never dreamed of. Since the Company is cagey about its location, for instance, Arthur can’t go there directly. Instead, he’s routed through other businesses like a character in a fairy tale: first a claustrophobic laundry where steam-hissing trouser presses hint at the surgical smoothing in Arthur’s future.

At its deepest level, Seconds is also a resurrection story. It’s a deeply dystopian one, however, where the body is reborn but the spirit stays dead. A particularly haunting element is Geer’s brilliant performance as the folksy old gent who founded the Company and still clucks over it like a mother hen. He chats with Arthur more than once during the film, coaxing the prospective customer into his fold with smooth talk and therapy-speak. In one of their fateful conversations, the camera’s framing makes the brim of his hat look like a glowing halo; “I believe you,” Arthur murmurs in response, like a little boy in Sunday school. Almost half a century after its premiere, Seconds remains unique—a probing psychological adventure, a merciless assault on social evils, and one of the most startling, spellbinding rides you’ll ever take. Source:

"He stepped closer to it; obediently, the image advanced to meet him. He wondered whether it would not be possible for him to merge with it finally, so that he might become forever fixed in the coldness of the shining glass, a two-dimensional representation of a man." —"Seconds" (1963) by David Ely.

With the process of emasculation complete, Wilson willingly sells his mediocre existence for a chance at personal freedom. However, the Faustian exchange is superficial, enacted only on the surface of Wilson’s body, and the act of rejuvenation ultimately divides Wilson against himself. He faces the stark realization that his manufactured self has no core, that the change in his physical body has not transformed his inner being. Rather than lending coherence to the self, Wilson’s metamorphosis has merely created a disjointed and fragmented identity.

Wilson’s transformation is not a rebirth but a stillbirth; Wilson is reborn dead. As the dreadful nature of the company’s operation is confirmed, Wilson sees nothing but vast expanses of emptiness and corruption. Seconds can be read as a liberal cautionary tale against the feminine lure of totalitarianism. —"The Double as Failed Masculinity in David Ely’s Seconds" (2005) by Marilyn Michaud

"What kind of man is he? There's grace in the line and color, but it doesn't emerge pure. It pushes at the edge of something still tentative, unresolved - as if somewhere in the man there is still a key unturned." —Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) in Seconds (1966)

There are many ways to interpret what Elliot dreamed. The most important thing is that Elliot is repeatedly given a key and Elliot doesn’t know what it opens. We also see him revisiting his old house, where now there’s only a sign of “Error 404. Not Found”. He goes back to his apartment where he finds Tyrell, but instead of talking to him, he talks to the fish. The fish complains about always seeing the same thing (which would go back to Episode 2’s question of “Are you a 1 or a 0?”). The fish is later eaten by Angela, who is having dinner with Elliot. Elliot ends up choking with a key. The key here represents a ring, to which Angela says “yes”.

They go to the FSociety headquarters where they are dressed to get married (Elliot is still wearing his hoodie over his tuxedo). Angela says “You’re not gonna do it, are you? Change the world… Figures, You were only born a month ago. You’re afraid. Afraid of your monster. Do you even know what it is?”. Then she gives him back the key and says “it didn’t fit”. When he asks why not, she replies “You’re not Elliot“. After this strange trip, Elliot wakes up and repeats over and over again that he is alone. Source:

“My approach with Elliot,” Malek explains, “is to dig deeply, but know that I just have to find a way to distance myself from him before it really becomes something that physically and mentally can torment me.” There is a level of transparency and control in reading and writing code, whereas one can never truly know what’s going on inside another person’s head. Human emotions, however, can be hacked with the right amount of precisely applied brute force, which Elliot does as easily as he breathes.

“Elliot is trying to numb himself from the world and remove himself, in a way,” Malek says. “But at the same time, Elliot’s on the search for humanity as well. He may not go at it in the most productive way, but he’s definitely searching for something.” Our addiction to technology and comfort has made us debt slaves at the service of corporate greed. We’re in danger of becoming a little less human.

Mr. Robot’s pilot won the Audience Award in the Episodics category at South By Southwest, and the series itself has enjoyed near universal acclaim. But as the season finale nears, it’s still searching for a larger audience. Even so, USA has already picked up season two – fortunate, since the end of season one is already leading to more questions just as quickly as it’s revealing answers. Malek is under strict instruction not to reveal any details about the final episodes.

“I hate when actors say it took a while to shed that guy, but it had an impact on me psychologically. How could it not? The exploration of what makes these men so complicated is something that I’ve always been drawn to,” Malek says. “I’ve traveled to some really dark places playing both of them, and I’ve learned from playing Snafu that there’s only so deep that I can go before it really starts to take over?”

“I started to think about the ways Elliot’s mind functions. His reclusive self brings him to sit in front of a monitor. “That’s one way that gives his mind peace, which I think is interesting,” Malek adds. “Because for me, that is the exact opposite.” He goes on to add, “I actually did my own audition process of who would be that voice. And I always pictured a woman’s voice in my head. I wanted that.” Asked why, he replies, “I don’t know. Maybe I can be more honest with women in my life, and I found that Elliot might have the same thing. He might be yearning for that, in a certain way. To speak honestly, or to hear the truth, might come from that perspective. Source:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mr Robot, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, Lou Reed & Nico, Portia Doubleday: Confussion & Beauty

Happy 46th birthday, Christian Slater!

Happy 46th birthday, Edward Norton!

Mr. Robot Is Fight Club’s Spiritual Successor: Just as Rebel Without A Cause couldn’t have predicted Taxi Driver’s post-Vietnam disillusionment, and Taxi Driver in turn couldn’t have foreseen the ad-led consumerism that Palahniuk savaged in his debut novel, Fight Club had little notion that the world was just years away from a tech revolution that would endow corporations and governments with levels of intrusive power that make its diatribes against IKEA seem quaint by comparison. Front and centre is the series’ voiceover by lead Elliot (Rami Malek), which captures the same sense of paranoia and sardonicism as Edward Norton’s fast-talking Fight Club narration. Source:

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson and Christian Slater as Mr. Robot in "Mr. Robot" (2015)

With his raised black hoodie, vacant good looks, withdrawn demeanour and counselling sessions, Mr Robot’s lead Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) even channels the hero of another turn-of-the-last-century cult favourite: Donnie Darko. Moving even further down the timeline, casting Christian Slater as a co-lead almost certainly knowingly takes the influences back to 1990’s Pump Up The Volume and 1988’s Heathers, and Slater’s anarchic, criminal mischief-makers characters, Hard Harry and J.D. Source:

Donnie stands out as an anomaly. His parents pay for him to see an expensive psychotherapist, Dr Thurman (Katharine Ross), who prescribes him various pills with exotic-sounding names, but still Donnie doesn't quite fit in. From beginning to end, Donnie Darko straddles the line between the dreamlike and everyday, between the glossy, rose-tinted memory of what the 80s were like and the sharper-edged reality. Donnie's school is introduced in a delirious sweep of the camera and slow-motion shots cut to Head Over Heels by Tears For Fears.

Indeed, the sci-fi fable Kelly weaves around the central character could easily be read as a symbol of Donnie's troubled perception of the world around him. Frank could represent the area of Donnie's psyche that both disturbs and fascinates - a small but naggingly persistent part of an otherwise intelligent and likeable young man. Kelly isn't afraid to tell a story that goes against the grain of Robert McKee-type storytelling. He's since cited Terry Gilliam and David Lynch as being among his favourite directors, and there's more than a hint of their surrealist attitude in Donnie Darko. To regard Donnie Darko as a puzzle to be solved is to miss the powerful humanity in its drama. Source:

After discovering that Slater’s character is actually his father, Elliot (Rami Malek) will confront him about not revealing this to him earlier. The promo video of the next episode shows Elliot coming to terms with the fact that the leader of the hacker group FSociety is his father. Slater’s character, however, is more focused on Evil Corp and their plan. He asks Elliot to “stick to the plan” and ensure that the hacking of the company goes smoothly. The Chinese Hacker White Rose had revealed the flaws in FSociety’s plan and had set a deadline for the hackers to remove a “honeypot” from an Evil Corp server. Source:

Chuck Palahniuk (author of the "Fight Club" novel) explained: "Really, what I was writing was just The Great Gatsby updated a little. It was 'apostolic' fiction - where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. There are two men and a woman. And one man, the hero, is shot to death."

"I wanted to write the great American novel, but I also loved rock & roll," Reed told an interviewer in 1987. "I just wanted to cram everything into a record that these people had ignored... I wanted to write rock & roll that you could listen to as you got older, that wouldn't lose anything, that would be timeless, in the subject matter and the literacy of the lyrics."  A collegiate creative writing student who played covers in bar bands and briefly held a job writing pop song knockoffs in the Brill Building era, Reed drew inspiration both from literature (Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch) and his own life — the fellow Warhol collaborators that informed quintessential Reed character studies like "Candy Says" and "Walk on the Wild Side." Besides writing about the psychology of polymorphous sexuality and drug users, he penned some of the most beautiful love songs in history ("Pale Blue Eyes," "I'll Be Your Mirror"). Reed was also a sound scientist who, with the Velvet Underground and after, advanced what was possible with simple chords and electric guitars. Source:

"No Money Down" is a song written by Lou Reed, released as a single in 1986 and originally featured on Mistrial. The 1986 music video (directed by Godley and Creme) is a simple animatronic version of Reed singing along to the music. During the final verse, gloved human hands violently tear away at rubber and plastic parts of the robot, revealing wires and parts.

“White Light/White Heat” (1968): The title track to the band’s brain-busting freakout of a second album, “White Light/White Heat” sets the template for the ensuing 40 minutes of guitar-driven panic that would change the face of rock and roll forever, even if it took rock and roll another decade or so to figure it out. A hugely catchy song overdriven by heavily distorted guitars and a pounding boogie piano, Reed sings about various states of severe mental confusion in a bemused monotone, adding yet another layer of cognitive dissonance to the entire affair. Source:

Lou Reed & Nico during the recording of The Velvet Underground's Banana Album (1966)

Portia Doubleday plays Angela Moss in "Mr. Robot" (2015)

Portia Doubleday (here in a photoshoot for Foam magazine) reminds me slightly of Nico and Amanda Seyfried.

Nico (born Christa Päffgen) in the 1960s.

Nico with Lou Reed in Los Angeles, 1967.

Portia Doubleday and Rami Malek in the pilot episode of "Mr. Robot"

"I don't have a sense of time. Time is timeless to me." Nico

"I've always had a more spatial mind, mathematical, than literal." Portia Doubleday

Nerdist: There is always going to be something great about vigilante justice and the hacking does just that, but what Angela’s doing, going after Evil Corp, is perhaps the more logical path.

Portia Doubleday: One of my favorite moments from the show is the scene between Angela and Terry Colby when he completely devalues her and she comes back with the response of, basically, “You can go through with not taking this deal but inevitably you won’t have what you want most, which is respect and power.” Because that’s what she can identify with—and inevitably that changes his mind. Those two characters are very analogous though, which is interesting because he’s monstrous. In the next scene when she talks about her mother’s death, though, he has a moment of reflection and is humanized—[which is] interesting because we’re humanizing evil.

Portia Doubleday: “I don’t want to know what happens,” but I can’t help but think about it. And your guess is as good as mine: I don’t know what’s going to come out of Sam’s head. I was just going to text Sam today and say, “I have a couple hypothesis and theories about what he’s going to do, but I have no idea. No idea. The show is so unpredictable but it always lands, and it’s not that far-fetched, which makes it even more tantalizing.”  Source:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Rami Malek "Far Gone" video (Mr. Robot)

Rami Malek, wow'd us in HBO's The Pacific. We got the blue-eyed babe to reveal his top unexpected turn-ons. Posing Post-Shower: "I love when a woman comes out of the shower and wraps a towel around her hair in front of me. It's sexy and dramatic." Sparkling Debate: "I am looking for the type of person who will challenge me in conversation, who will defend her values." Laughing Your Butt Off: "If she is graceful and elegant in so many ways, it's a turn on if she has a quirk like a laugh that makes everyone stop in their tracks and wonder who she is." Sleeping Like A Baby: "You get to see this peaceful, unguarded side. There are no walls." Going For It: "The type of woman I want on my arm is spontaneous." Getting Sweaty: "After a run, when her clothes are sticking to her skin.... wow." -Cosmopolitan magazine, Interview to Rami Malek (June 2011)

The show with its off-kilter hero and anti-establishment monologues has drawn comparisons to Fight Club. There are still some people who wonder if Christian Slater’s Mr. Robot character is completely made up. Is that something you play with or have people grabbed the wrong end of the stick in terms of what kind of show this is?

I think it’s easy to question . . . you’re talking about a guy who, from the beginning of the series, explains that he’s creating an imaginary person in his head and everyone watching is a part of that. I think the more we get to know Elliot the more you’ll realize what exactly his reality is and I think he’ll also come to realize what his reality is. And as vague as that sounds, I think these questions are going to keep coming up well beyond this first season. I don't want people to think, What if the whole thing is just in his imagination? I know we do take some creative liberties but I promise that this is not all for naught.

I think that’s what’s so captivating about him is he’s very human. In his attempt to be superhuman you realize just how flawed he is and how relatable he is. Source:

Rami Malek "Far Gone" video. Soundtrack "One of these days" (One of these days Ain't it peculiar Gonna look for me And baby I'll be gone You gonna call my name And I'll be far gone) by The Velvet Underground, "The Joke Explained" (I never held your gaze I never know my place I stare at the eyes staring at my face It always ends in a tie There is no knitting the divide I cry at the joke explained Ah but if I had known I would have never believed It's a staring contest, In a hall of mirrors I sweat tears but I don't ever cry I cry at the joke explained) by Wilco and "The tale of the horny frog" (Because I love you, what kind of hell do I put myself through? He hopped on down the road There is no pain this way to the truth Pleasures so painful, it seems the joy is in the pursuit He hopped on down the road Knowing he finally found some truth) by The Flaming Lips.

Rami Malek attending SAG Foundation Actors Center's "Conversations" screening of "Mr. Robot" on August 11, 2015 in L.A.

Monday, August 10, 2015

‘Mr. Robot': Natural Born Hacker

Mr. Robot (the edgy TV show which has just been renewed for a second season by USA network) is the story of a computer genius, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) who works in AllSafe, a cybersecurity firm that lends their services protecting big companies, among them E Corp (Elliot calls it Evil Corporation). Although his best childhood friend works as his supervisor (Angela, played by the beautiful Portia Doubleday), he feels remote towards most people and is incredibly insecure regarding human interaction. Surrounded by technical jargon as Gnome Dell, Tor network and rootkits, Elliot leads a double life as a vigilante hacker by night (i.e. exposing pedophile rings) and conspirator by association of the radical group FSociety.

A pivotal moment in his life is meeting the FSociety's mysterious boss, only identified by the logo Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who progressively brings to light Elliot's painful memories about the shady circumstances of his father's death. Elliot materializes his drug-induced neurosis after his pilgrimage to Coney Island, where the FSociety's headquarters operate, turning his paranoia into something more threatening and politicized. He's highly suspicious of everybody's motivations and profoundly disenfranchised from the world, which he sees plagued with false heroes and social media anesthesia manifested in blind submission to corporations in return for ego satisfaction.

“Sometimes I dream about saving the world, saving everyone from the invisible hand,” Elliot fantasized during the pilot episode while mentally invoking a full-fledged debt-laden collapse in a near future, "but I can't stop it. I'm not that special. I'm just anonymous." Krista (Gloria Reuben) plays Elliot's loyal psychotherapist and when she asks why society disappoints him so much, his reply results in one of the most memorable monologues of this year:

"Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it's that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit. The world itself's just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our commentary bullshit masquerading as insight.  I'm not saying anything new, we all know why we do this. Not because Hunger Games books makes us happy, but because we want to be sedated. Because it's painful not to pretend, because we're cowards." In the episode 7, Elliot offers Krista another awkward revelation: "I don't just hack you, Krista, I hack everyone. My friends. Co-workers. But I've helped a lot of people. I want a way out of loneliness, just like you."

An uncertain cross between Edward Norton's The Narrator in Fight Club and a more cynical Donnie Darko, Elliot seems desperately lost in his search for cracking the establishment's encrypted code. Back to the Future II is his favorite flick, where Marty McFly time traveled from the 1980s to October 2015. The irony here being our real 2015 a lot more somber than the tech-friendly utopia Zemeckis's characters visited.

An ambiguous villain, E Corp's sociopathic Technology Officer Tyrell Wellick (played eerily by Martin Wallström), considers himself not so different of Elliot, since both are "perfectionists."

Mr. Robot's Season 1 is, according to its creator Sam Esmail, basically exposition: "It was just the setup for the real story which really begins next season, which would have been Act 2 of our film."

It's testimony to Rami Malek's talent —acclaimed previously for his role of Snafu in HBO's The Pacific— that he seems to be "old-school" concerning his computer skills, and despite his vision of Internet technology as "scary," he effortlessly sells Elliot's robotic enunciation and languid demeanour —opposite to his effusive charm— even in the most harrowing scenes. That tension between Malek's suggestive presence and Elliot's spaced-out look is undeniably the greatest asset of the show.

"From Elliot's perspective, everything is real," says Rami Malek. And the difference with Fight Club is that in Fincher's film things didn't feel so real for the viewer, since the lead character was meant to give voice to an everyman who made symbolic use of "I am Jack's..." as self-concept. Although several reviewers have noted the parallel function between Fight Club's Tyler Durden and Slater's enigmatic character named Mr. Robot, it's clear Durden represented an Übermensch figure, whereas Mr. Robot is more of a fatherly type. Actually, an unreliable narrator is not so rare in disturbed personality-themed films like Somewhere in the NightTaxi Driver, Blade Runner, Brazil, Total RecallDonnie Darko, Memento, Shutter IslandInception, etc.

In my view, it's not as important to reify Mr. Robot's alter ego as is to understand that its central plot is about an alienated geek who suffers from antisocial tendencies and a dissociative identity disorder.

In his head, Elliot Alderson has muted into a holy saviour and anticapitalist warrior, projecting his decadent victimism onto the virtual denizens, whilst obsessing over hacking and sex trysts. In Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Imaginaire (1940), we learn "the tragic character of obsession comes from the fact that the mind forces itself to reproduce the object it fears." Elliot has possibly PTSD added to his psychological malfunction, due to his traumatic family life, worsened by a mother who mistreated him. Having betrayed a promise he made to his dying father, the sense of guilt frequently torments him. To numb what is known in PTSD terminology as "the fear network" and the reactivation of the reminders of his trauma, he has been using morphine for a long time.

"If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he says is the man himself," Philip K. Dick wrote in A Scanner Darkly: "Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then." When Elliot's core beliefs were disrupted in his infancy, his sense of safety, esteem, trust and intimacy entered a process of disintegration that continues latent underneath his hardened apathy. His transient derealization and hallucinations were more visible and their effects more toxic in the episode 4 Daemons.

Sliding by surreal dream vignettes throughout his withdrawal session, Elliot meets Angela who persuades him to confront his Demon: "Daemons. They don't stop working. They are always active. They seduce. They manipulate. They own us. And even though you're with me, even though I created you, it makes no difference."

The Western democracy appears weakened by internal crisis, the masses drowning in debt, so Elliot begins slowly to accept a revolution as inevitable. So far, the adrenaline rush provoked by FSociety's anarchist plans has proven too powerful to ignore. Elliot was a victim of an uncaring mother, but, unlike Fight Club's anti-feminist paranoia, in Mr. Robot, one of the most interesting and tenacious characters is Angela Moss, whose mother was another victim of E Corp. Portia Doubleday's portrait is captivating as Elliot's sentimental refuge and realistic heroine. "She cares about him deeply and loves him deeply," admits Doubleday.

Neuroscience pioneer Franz-Joseph Gall's motto was "Nothing but God and Brain," following Spinoza's theory of the spiritual mind being as real as the brain's circuitry, both "part of the intrinsic intellect of God." The dystopian landscape expands now into one of the last frontiers, our personal yet overexposed cyberspots, threatening to shut down our digital hubs by filtering a virus so malign that we never could guess if it comes from the controlling corporation or if it has been created by natural born hackers. Article first published as ‘Mr. Robot': Natural Born Hacker on Blogcritics.