Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mandelbrot Set Is In Motion: American Ultra & Max Goods

As you know, dear reader, when there is something in a film that reminds you of another film (or anything else in popular culture for that matter) it's being "quoted," the reference is intentional because the film makers want you to be thinking of that other film so the film you are watching can expand their visual vocabulary and reward you, as a viewer, for having seen films that the film makers themselves like. When a film quotes another film, it's not a lack of originality, as come erroneously attribute, rather a desire to join in on a cultural discussion the film makers see themselves as a part of. When we see a code word that is supposed to trigger Mike's agent-personality, we are supposed to be thinking of The Manchurian Candidate. When something reminds you of The Bourne Ultimatum (Matt Damon) or The Bourne Legacy (Jeremy Renner), it's because the makers of American Ultra want you to be thinking of those films so they are tied together in your mind; why? Partly because they want to remind you of how corrupt people in the government can be, and if you are wanting the government to be in charge, and to provide for you, then you had better think again, because those in these positions of power will not give you a second thought. When we see Mike chained to a table in a police interrogation room, we are supposed to think of another Jesse Eisenberg filmed when he was chained to a police table, Now You See Me, and how anti-socialist that film was. When we put these patterns of references together, like the Mandelbrot sets mentioned, then we will begin seeing the messages that are being sent to us.
Yes, it utterly bombed at the box office.
Utterly.
But at this blog, we aren't concerned about such things (well, not usually anyway, because when people really like a film, there is a reason for it; however, people don't always go and see a film they would have liked had they known they would have liked it, so just because something bombs doesn't mean I consider it to be a bad film). You might be wondering, however, exactly which movie is American Ultra? I didn't talk about it much because I wasn't sure which way it would go, but I am delighted that it was so pro-capitalist and so pro-America. Here's the trailer to refresh your memory:
Again, I am not a fan of Kristen Stewart, however, she managed a great performance in this film; Jesse Eisenberg? I think he can do anything now. He was perfect in every single scene, regardless of what it called for. As usual, there are spoilers throughout this post, so if you don't want to know what happens in the film, please, stop reading now. Now, what does "American Ultra" mean?
They both have terrible hair in this film; truly, really terrible, knotted, natty dry hair, until the end of the film. Why? Hair, as you will recall, symbolizes our thoughts, and for these two CIA agents turned pot heads, their hair perfectly symbolizes what has happened to their mental processes as they have been vegging out and not living up to their potential, which is what they are doing by the end of the film. If you will notice Phoebe's (Stewart) hair is red but has dark roots: the red coloring reveals that she is "covering" something up, specifically, that she, too, is CIA and not just some pothead girlfriend with a pothead boyfriend, and this leads us to an important issue for critics of the film which deserves addressing: the threshold of credibility. When we sit down to watch a film, we as individuals enter into a bargain with the film makers: tell us a story that will entertain us and, in exchange, we will willingly suspend our disbelief so we can enjoy your story. We don't ask if the Shire really exists, we just want to hear the story of Bilbo in The Hobbit; we don't question if vampires are real or can actually turn into bats, we just want the story and we will allow the creator any license they require to make that story appealing to us. At times, however, especially when a story seems more realistic (such as American Ultra which is set in Virginia and uses real people with real life possible scenarios) when that threshold of credibility is touched, it seems we the audience must rebel and question the methods of the film makers; it has been my experience, that we discredit the artists when we fail to be attentive audience members, that is, in other words, a perfectly good explanation for what has happened, we have just failed to explore what the story tellers wanted us to learn. For example, if Phoebe is also CIA, why did she think Mike would suddenly be able to leave town, even though he had been brainwashed so that he would get massive anxiety attacks whenever he did try to leave town, and trying to go to Hawaii was utterly pointless? Why didn't she realize at the very beginning when Mike told her he had killed two people that something was starting to sound suspicious? Why does Phoebe wait so long to tell Mike about their real relationship? We would go on, because--when Phoebe does reveal to Mike that she is CIA and his handler--like Mike, we hardly believe her, but that is because they have been smoking pot and doing drugs so much for so long! Their brains have been lulled to sleep and it's difficult to get them awake again. Proponents of drug use will deny this, stating that this doesn't happen with habitual marijuana use, and this is just a bad film; however, they are not the measures of intelligence. 
"American Ultra" probably refers to Project MK ULTRA which was conducted by the CIA and Department of Defense. Like the grotesque experiments on human subjects in Nazi concentration camps and in the Soviet Union (as we saw in The Chernobyl Diaries at the end) this marks the beginning stages of communism in America because, traditionally, America has held human life in respect, whereas the Left does not, only the government is to be held in respect. If you scroll down on the link just above to the "Film" section, American Ultra is listed as a popular reference of the program. So, where does this lead us?
Mandelbrot sets.
Veronica is truly a heroine in the film; why? She breaks rules so she can save the life of someone who wouldn't be able to protect himself otherwise because she knows Yates killing Mike is wrong, and she could lose everything for it, including her life. Veronica is an important image of power in the film, because what she did productively, Yates has done destructively; in other words, some people can handle power, others can't. There's another reason to have Veronica playing a dominant role in the film: feminists. I wouldn't necessarily call Veronica a feminist, however, she's smart and she's in a position of power, even after she has been demoted, and she takes matters into her hands. This is rather a message to women that, just because you are a woman, don't think the government is going to be super-nice to you, because they won't, and just because you are a woman, don't think you can't make it in a capitalist society, because you can.
Mandelbrot sets are a branch of mathematics which is also a branch of chaos theory. We could go into self-recognition and all kinds of things, however, we won't; suffice to say, the easiest way to remember what a Mandelbrot set is is by way of Russian Babushka dolls: the large doll contains a smaller doll with the same features as the large doll, but on a smaller scale, which contains a smaller doll within it with the same features, etc., and that is, essentially in the genre of art, what is meant by Mandelbrot sets, that there is a play within a play, there are "films within films" and patterns of micro-organization reflected by macro-organizations.
Why should you care?
Because that's the message of the film.
Yates, on the right, is undoubtedly the villain in the film; why? He decides, with no other authorization or committee, or any legality whatsoever, that Mike must die because he hasn't done anything in five years and he keeps trying to leave town. Yates, as Veronica points out to him, and Phoebe suggests when seeing him again, is an amateur who has made himself a dictator; is there another amateur in America today who is power-hungry and has made himself  a dictator and ruined towns because of his lawlessness? On another note, Yates has taken a group of mentally ill people, like Laughner on the left, and trained them to become CIA operatives and uses them as his personal hit squad;why? Dehumanization. Yates, and socialists/communists like him, fear the free will and decision-making processes of intelligent and free individuals, so employing someone who is sick and mentally inert gives the controller greater control especially because the controller thinks the ill subject will be free of any moral or ethical constraints to carry out their orders. Just as the title American Ultra refers to the MK ULTRA trials, so the testing and "training" of the criminally insane and mentally ill in the film harkens back to both the Soviet Union and the Nazis who did the same kind of things.  
"Mandelbrot set is in motion," Victoria tells Mike, meaning, the film has begun the construction of a set of patterns that we are to find, recognize and organize into a coherent message. At one point, Mike and Phoebe watch cops around a car that has wrecked into a tree, and feeling bad about not getting to go to Hawaii, Mike asks Phoebe if that is a metaphor for their situation: Mike being the tree and Phoebe the car; it is a metaphor, but that's not the way to read it. Mike is the tree, because he has been stuck in the same town for five years now, but the wrecked car is Yates, because Yates has decided to "take Mike out" just like the car wrecking into the tree, but the tree survives the wreck, the car doesn't. This is an example of the Mandelbrot sets in the film, and another one is Apollo Ape Man, Mike's cartoon character, who is a kind of self-portrait of Mike himself, because what happens to Apollo Ape Man also happens to Mike which the closing credits elaborates upon.  The encoded instructions unlocking Mike's mind are so he can protect himself from the dangers being unleashed upon him by Yates, and as viewers, we are interested in this because dangers are being unleashed upon us, the viewers, as well; what are those dangers?
They begin with the soup.
This is Peter, and we find him in an interesting position in the film. He used to be an assistant to Veronica, but when she was demoted, he was re-assigned but Veronica is able to get Peter to do a weapons drop for her along with the profiles of the "Toughmen" agents Yates has trained, which is how she discovers they are really patients from mental wards. Now, in this scene, Yates has discovered that Peter helped Veronica, and Yates is on the phone threatening Peter that, if he provides any help or interference to Veronica or Mike, he will be executed for treason; if you note, in Peter's left hand is a drink, which symbolizes that Peter is "drinking up" what it is that Yates tells him, in other words, Peter believes he will be executed. Later, Yates orders Peter do prepare a drone strike on Mike and Peter gets everything ready but, at the crucial moment, refuses to push the button that would have the drone fire on Mike and kill him; this should remind you of another film when an average guy also refused to carry out an order that was going to kill someone, like Captain America the Winter Soldier when Robert Redford's character orders a SHIELD computer tech to enter in the code and the technician refuses to do it, even if it will cost him his own life. There is another dimension to Peter: he's gay. Peter gets a text from his lover and their dog, and that's how we know he is homosexual; why is this important? Because the film, like Rock Of Ages, makes an appeal to the gay community that, just because they are gay, they should still do the right thing and not support a government that is going to kill people randomly and at will. It ends up that, because Peter did the right thing, he not only saves his life, he gets promoted. 
That soup--which some of us are more familiar with than are others--is probably not that healthy for him: you just add hot water and you have something that passes for something trying to pass as a meal. Mike has the right, and the freedom, to eat it if he so chooses. That's important. In the Michelle Obama world of dictating what school kids can and cannot have for lunch, and what parents can and cannot send with their kids for lunch, and New York City decides to ban drinks that are of a certain size, and certain ingredients, choosing what to eat is a big deal and act of freedom nowadays. Furthermore, that Mike works in a grocery store, and that the shelves are all stocked with food is a big deal; why?
Communism.
It's an interesting poster and, for someone who doesn't pay attention closely, it could be misleading, but that isn't us, is it dear reader? No, banish the thought. In the two hands that are on top is the spoon and a hammer, both of which Mike had used in the film as weapons to defend himself with. In the lower hands are a joint and a bong, both of which Mike had used to get high in the film. Now, the "higher self" is the appetite for our right to decide, symbolized by the spoon that was used with the soup, and our ability to buy what we need, when we need it, symbolized by the hammer Mike used at Max Goods. The "lower self" is symbolized by the drugs Mike was using before his activation when he was getting high and being a total loser. This image isn't about having both lifestyles, rather, it's about making the decision to lead a "higher" lifestyle, communicated by Mike floating in the meditative stance. When the film first opens, Mike is immersed in the bathtub and he then sits up and blows out a lot of smoke. It's also important to note that Mike's code name is "Wiseman" which he was given.  Since Mike is the wise man in the film, this initial scene of Mike, in effect, being anointed and cleansed as he comes out of the water signals the viewer that he's a good guy (compared to Rose, who we will discuss below) and we should pay attention to what he does. The smoke Mike releases, however, almost acts as noise because it reveals that, even though we are going to watch the film, parts of it are going to be blurry to us, because we won't really be able to see it (Mike uses smoke bombs at Max Goods and steps backwards into a huge cloud of smoke to escape his killers) and detect the boundaries or what is underneath it. That's because the words of the wise often evaporate (like the smoke) before we can sufficiently ponder them and come to an understanding of what they are meant to impart, which is what happens on various levels throughout the film.
My Russian history professor would go to Russia every summer and do research and come back and tell us the stories about how oppressive it was. She said that any time, any time at all, you saw a line, you got into the line. You could ask people what they were in line for, but most of the time, they would have no idea. The line indicated that the place at the start of the line had something, and whatever that was, you would then be able to trade for whatever you needed: if the place was handing out wrenches, you got as many wrenches as you could and traded that for what you needed, like soap and toilet paper, because you didn't know when soap and toilet paper would be available, but you would have something you could trade for it; when there is no free market, there is the black market, and when the government plans how much toilet paper its "citizens" need for the month (because that is what central planning is), it inevitably under estimates severely to keep costs down; why does a communist country want to keep costs down? So Party members in the government can have more money and not worry about the shortages effecting everyone else on a day to day basis. So, that Mike works in a clean, stocked grocery store that has everything anyone would pretty much need to survive, is one of the many marvels of the capitalist universe. But how do I know Mike is battling a "communist" government in the film?
Rose, here with Mike, is Mike's drug dealer who has just delivered a stash of illegal fireworks for Mike to have on hand when he proposes to Phoebe later. Looking at Rose, which is the first time we meet him, he is "exposed" to us because he doesn't wear a shirt (at all in the film, actually) so Rose's character is completely revealed. His jacket has a photo of the Egyptian Sphinx on it, and he has a tattoo of puzzle pieces on his right pec, a gold necklace and gold watch. The riddles of life escape Rose, he doesn't question anything like the Spinx does, because he doesn't "see" anything because he wears "blinders," symbolized by the dark glasses. When the TV says that Victoria is wanted by the CIA because she in appropriately handled monkeys and spread a viral typhoid virus, Rose swallows the story completely because he lacks any intelligence to think critically, like most people who get into drugs. The puzzle pieces on his chest indicate that he's all there for us to see, there aren't any more "pieces to the puzzle" to find, this is his entire being right here. What's he wanting to do? "Let's drop some acid and go into the titty bar," he suggests, because, for him, that's basically all there is in life and that's how he responds in life and to life's challenges. Had Mike not volunteered to become a part of the program Veronica was heading up, this is how Mike would have ended up: a loser. Because Veronica gave Mike the chance to make something of himself, Mike did. You might be interested in the sign behind the two guys: "We fired the ugly one, come on in," demonstrates that even the pornography industry is capitalistic in organizing itself so that its customers have the best choice.
The whole reason this film is put into motion is NOT because Mike wants to take Phoebe to Hawaii, it's because Yates decides that Mike has been trying to leave town "too often" and so he needs to be taken out. Limited travel of citizens is a top priority for socialist/communist government because when citizens can move around at will, they can plot to overthrow the government; we just saw this in The Man From UNCLE: the Berlin Wall wasn't created to keep clamoring Westerners out of Berlin, it was built to keep despairing East Germans in. Mike not getting to go to Hawaii is an important theme in the film because, the way Yates first tries to take Mike out is by blowing up his car:
Why is the car important to target? Targeting the car means targeting Mike's ability to move and makes it easier to keep an eye on what he is doing and where he is going. This is a warning to Americans: when they (the government) starts messing with our cars, that's the time for us to whip out the spoons. Why does Mike kill one of the agents with a spoon? Because of the appetites it symbolizes. Mike stabs the assailant in the throat,... with the spoon; why? The throat symbolizes what it is we are "led by," it reveals what our leash is in life. In this act of self-defense (and when Mike and Phoebe are being interrogated, Phoebe makes sure the police know it was self-defense) Mike uses his appetites (in this case, the cheap cup-o-soup) as a defense against the encroaching attack of socialism/communism; then he takes away the gun the government agents have and uses it against them; why? The Second Amendment was created for the protection of citizens against their own government trying to kill them; that these agents are, in fact, using guns to try and kill Mike, validates Mike having a gun to defend himself with and disarm the government.
Pretty cool, huh?
What's special about this image of Mike in Max Goods? Mike's "above" the ones trying to kill him, but it also suggests that the "Wiseman" (Mike's code name) will also be above the events and look at the situation from a different perspective. Again, look at how beautiful all those full shelves of inventory are; there's the "BAKING" aisle, then there is an aisle for "HOME LIVING," and that's in one store; this is the beauty of the free market, where market forces determine how much to make and when, where competition creates better and cheaper products; trust me, nothing like this existed behind the Iron Curtain, unless it was possibly or Party Members, but not for the Workers, who the system was supposed to be serving. During this scene, Phoebe is able to get a paper clip and use it to unlock her handcuffs, providing yet another example of "handiness" and, simultaneously, demonstrating how, we don't just need paper clips to keep papers together (although paper clips do that very nicely and there was a need for that) but paperclips also provide us with the means of unshackling us from government tyranny because the drive to develop the very best possible model of the paper clip for widespread consumer use occupied more than fifty inventors, and that kind of creativity and problem-solving keeps the population intelligent so it's more difficult to control them, unlike people like Rose who will believe whatever is put on TV.
Just before going to the Max Goods store to accept Yates' "surrender," Mike puts on the red Hawaiian shirt he was going to wear on their trip, which leads us to our next point: the war at Max Goods. Um, yea, "war" really is a good phrase for the description of what happens, and it essentially defines Mike's style of protecting himself. Here is a clip of what happens in the Max Goods store; please pay attention to all the different objects Mike uses to defend himself with:
Again, he's wearing the Hawaiian shirt because they wouldn't let him go to Hawaii (and he had saved up his own money for this trip, so it's not like he wanted someone else to pay for it, his rights of movement have been severely restricted and this begins with the guys trying to blow up his car). What does Yates say? "Kill him, please," and one of his Toughmen go off to attempt to kill Mike; but they don't; why not? Because Mike "has the goods" on how to defend himself.
Literally.
This brings us to an important point: in this image, we see the government (read: Communist Party) accepted hairstyles for men and women in North Korea (which is a communist country). These are the only ways you can wear your hair in that country. I will be the first to admit, there are plenty of hairstyles I don't like, especially the "mullet" hair style, however, I will defend the individual's right to wear it and express their individuality, because in North Korea, there is NO individuality there is only government control. In American Ultra, it's clear that Yates has no respect or consideration for Mike Howell's life, then Phoebe's life, then Peter's life, then the lives of everyone in the town. When Veronica initially confronts Yates about taking out "Wiseman," which is Mike's code name, Yates refers to him as Veronica's "still born baby," meaning two things: first, metaphorically, that because Mike hasn't done anything in five years, they can kill him off; this is part of socialist and communist practice, that those who don't work won't eat (this isn't like disability, or caring for those who have been born with problems, this is meant to be a terror tactic and it works: kill the old and the young and make everyone else scared for their lives). Secondly, if we were to take the statement literally, that Mike is, literally, a still born baby, then Yates fails to show any respect for a corpse, for the body that was once alive. This is like Planned Parenthood selling off the organs of aborted babies, and the Nazis bull dozing the bodies of murdered Jews into mass graves during World War II. 
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss formulated a theory of "handiness": when we have a job to do, but we don't necessarily have the right tools to accomplish it, we will use whatever items we have that are "handy" in order to accomplish the task. An example is when, much to men's horror, a woman needs to open the lid on a can of paint and she uses a screwdriver to do it; the screwdriver isn't the proper tool, but it will accomplish what it is she needs done: opening the lid. This reveals a sign of intelligence in being capable of seeing objects with greater value (the ability to use them for more than just one task) than they were initially designed for.
I couldn't find an image of it, but you have seen it in the trailer, when Mike is on the floor, flips a frying pan into the air and ricochets a bullet off the skillet that hits and kills a guy. What's the point of this scene? Earlier in the film, after they left the airport because of Mike's anxiety attacks, Mike is trying to fry an omelet and, getting distracted, he burns it, so he can't even do that right and he's looking pretty hopeless, then, later, we see him bounce the bullet off that same frying pan; what's the point of this? To demonstrate that, not all of us are good at everything, in fact, an exceptionally rare number of people can do everything, but Mike at least found what he is exceptionally good at and that's an important moral for us all: to find what we do well, and then do it well.
Throughout the film, we see Mike doing this consistently, beginning with the cup-o-soup he flings in the face of the first assailant messing with his car, or even Sheriff Watts does a brilliant job when he uses a chair to attach handcuffs to the leg of one of the female CIA agents trying to kill Mike. Such practices don't just display intelligence, but creativity, and the root of creativity is individuality, which socialists/communists do not value at all. When we get to the last of the film, and Mike has been taken in by the Philipine gang and their leader says, "You're not even armed," but Mike glances around and sees a cooking pot, some cans and other kitchen equipment, he smiles, because he knows that, as long as there are "goods" in the area, he can protect himself.
Of all the things which could have been written in for Mike to use, the film makers chose fireworks; why? Fireworks, in the US, will nearly always symbolize freedom and independence, as they are used to celebrate the 4th Of July. Using the fireworks is a reminder to Yates/Obama that the US is a sovereign nation and our history of industrialism that liberals are trying to make us forget. The fireworks, like the smoke Mike exhales when he comes out of the bathtub, is meant as a cover for him, that through all the fire and smoke, there is something underneath that we are having difficulties seeing, but we need to try and see, in this case, that there won't be anymore fireworks (fireworks are being made illegal, as Rose mentions, because we as a country are becoming extinct) if people like Mike Howell don't fight for their rights and lives. 
In conclusion, American Ultra provides us with a cultural and political critique of what is happening in the country right now. Audience members identify with the main characters, and since Mike is a "sleeper agent," being attacked by his government, we have to say that the film makers want us to consider our own selves to be Mike's: maybe not all of us are soldiers, and we appear to be losers like Mike and Phoebe, but when we hear the right sequence of words and know our freedoms have been endangered, we will all break out like super secret agents and the government had better be aware,
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner