Tuesday, January 30, 2007

No Comments Necessary?

Beautiful, nothing more to say on this one ... there's a nice crop of Nina Simone stuff on YouTube, this video is one of my favorites.

De jure

"The inevitable general staff of the liberties of 1848, personal liberty, liberty of the press, of speech, of association, of assembly, of education and of religion, etc., received a constitutional uniform, which made them invulnerable. Each of these liberties, namely, is proclaimed as the absolute right of the French citoyen, but always with the marginal note that it is unlimited so far as it is not restricted by the "equal rights of others and the public safety" or by "laws" which are intended to secure just this harmony of the individual liberties with one another and with the public safety. For example: "The citizens have the right of association, of peaceful and unarmed assembly, of petition and of the free expression of opinions, whether in the press or otherwise. The enjoyment of these rights has no limit save the equal rights of others and the public safety." (Chapter II of the French Constitution, § 8)--"Education is free. Freedom of education shall be enjoyed under the conditions fixed by law and under the general supervision of the state." (Ibidem, § 9.)--"The domicile of every citizen is inviolable except in the forms proscribed by law." (Chapter II, § 3.) Etc., etc.--The Constitution, therefore, constantly refers to future organic laws, which are to put into effect those marginal notes and regulate the enjoyment of these unrestricted liberties so that they collide neither with one another nor with the public safety. And later, the organic laws were brought into being by the friends of order and all those liberties regulated in such a way that the bourgeoisie in its enjoyment of them does not come into collision with the equal rights of the other classes. Where it forbids these liberties entirely to "the others" or permits enjoyment of them under conditions that there are just so many police traps, this always happens solely in the interest of the "public safety," that is, the safety of the bourgeoisie, as the Constitution prescribes. In the sequel, both sides accordingly appeal with complete justice to the Constitution, the friends of order, who suspended all these liberties, as well as the democrats, who demanded them back. Each paragraph of the Constitution, namely, contains in itself its own antithesis, its own Upper and Lower House, namely liberty in the general phrase, suspension of liberty in the marginal note. So long, therefore, as the name of freedom was respected and only its actual realisation prevented, of course in a legal way, the constitutional existence of liberty remained intact and inviolate, however mortal the blows dealt to its everyday existence."

-- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Oh, So Close!

Tonight at the laundromat one of the TVs was showing Jeopardy. When I was younger--10, 11, 12--I would watch the show regularly. Now whenever I see it I'm just flabbergasted at how obvious the secret is: watch a lot of television, spread out your viewing over 10-20 channels (including Discovery, History, a few more), and retain as many soundbites as possible. You can get every question right! If it isn't to be found on an hour-long Hitler special or trumpeted as the lead story on the national news, it won't be found on Jeopardy.

But there was one question tonight that did hew vaguely towards that wide, weird world of books. The cue was something like, "John Stuart Mill was an advocate for this system of 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people.'"

Contestant 1: What is capitalism?

('No, sorry.' Beat.)

Contestant 2: What is socialism?

('Not that either.' Beat. Beat. 'The correct answer, 'What is utilitarianism?'")

I suppose there aren't too many specials on J.S. Mill. But that first contestant sure knew his Marvel superheroes (an entire category for them, with illustrations).

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Zeitgeist Finds Tony Scott

Careful: I'm not making an endorsement here. But I would like to say that Tony Scott is one of the most interesting filmmakers in Hollywood today, precisely because he so baldly extracts essences to be found in contemporary commercial cinema.

This means to a large extent I'm talking about capitalism, I'm talking about the market, I'm talking about the production of the new (through destruction). Family? Plenty of family-less characters in his work (and plenty of surrogate families brought up in response). Where are the great heterosexual unions ("romances") in his films? They seem to be presented as ghosts, enigmas, lost chances at best. Everything is about an image, an ideal ("top gun," communism, boy scouts?, civil liberties, television celebrity, and in his newest, Deja Vu, it's about rescue-before-terror, or turning back the clock, or time travel, i.e., it's about the act of imagining a pre-disaster world, pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, etc.).

His most liberal film may be Enemy of the State, which is not subversive, not leftist; but is very Clintonian. It has as its assorted "good guys" black people, working class people, anti-war activists, and ex-government rogues. (This is clearly its most progressive element.) The villains? Rich white men exerting great surveillance and military power to achieve what they want and cover themselves in the process. This is the face of the First World, a mirror of reality (Marxism) presented openly but with the funhouse twists of the market ideologies and illusions (accountable government, bedrock rights, and that great one, revenge).

[Notes for dabblers in esoterica: Gene Hackman's character, a retread of Harry from The Conversation, is the rogue who revolted from the NSA and works against it now; he's called "Brill" (librill, liberal?). Also, the villain (Jon Voight's) birthday is listed as 9/11/40. Whoa! Freaky, maaaaan.]

Deja Vu is kind of a ridiculous film that I saw after reading limited recommendations by a few intelligent cinephiles (such as
Michael Sicinski, as well as Christoph Huber & Mark Peranson). I don't think it's very good, or very smart, but it is certainly intriguing. A man (Denzel Washington) has to try to stop a crime that has already happened, by way of (ludicrous: everyone admits as much) time travel mechanisms and some weird physics/phenomenology. Everything is focused on the emotional resonance and resolution, however; on the possibility (very faintly suggested, never asserted or delineated) of the spiritual over the merely physical (i.e., logical, rational). When disaster comes knocking, we look for reason away from rationality--the film shows (and is complicit in) an allegory for the post-disaster push we Americans ourselves have taken to, lemming-like, in the last several years.

More and more often I notice that new commercial films use incredibly stylized lighting & color ... not just for something like a flashback or a virtuosic scene, either but throughout the whole thing. Tony Scott is a poster child for this development. It would be profitable for us to begin reading the current Hollywood crops in comparison to the technicolor spectacles of classical Hollywood, an earlier kind of ruthlessly efficient system, in whose artifices of space/color/time/philosophy we can accept so much ("we" as cinephiles, historians), but whereas now we may be inclined to snort derisively at the so-called "MTV-style" of quick editing and bold colors, when it's clearly another self-conscious movement into pure fantasy and spectacle (vernacular sense) and artifice rather than an ineptitude, a slippage from the naturalist templates (color palette, acting style, narrative progression) most often in display from the late 1960s through the 1990s.

Domino may be the guy's best film, there's a chance I'll return to it here in the future, but I'm in no rush ...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Body Snatchers


I had hoped to write a little bit about this film as well as a few others I've seen recently; but in case I get around to it too late I wanted to be sure to mention to New Yorkers that you still have a few more days to see Shockproof at the Two Boots Pioneer theater, in a beautiful 35mm print. Douglas Sirk directed, Sam Fuller co-wrote the script. Go! Attend! Even if you walk out thinking it's the worst film you've ever seen (and why would you?), its success could have positive repercussions for future programming ...

Oozing Chavismo

I suspect US publications, upon hiring any reporters or columnists who might mention Chávez at all, order these writers to use one of the following words within the first paragraph (preferably first sentence) of mentioning the man: "firebrand," "populist," "controversial," "revolutionary" (generally preceded by the phrase "self-proclaimed"). He's backwards, too, right--cuz he doesn't know that socialism is totalitarianism incarnate, a dead 20th century Ideology of Hatred, and probably has something to do with Terror. Tsk tsk.

David Rieff says: "Perhaps we were kidding ourselves when we imagined that when Castro died, the yearning in many parts of the world for a figure like Castro would die as well. If Hugo Chávez proves nothing else, it is that such dreams are alive and well." Isn't that nice of him? Though of course the whole article has the bitter patina of someone just appalled that these masses of Third Worlders might have opinions of their own, I have to say ... Rieff's anti-Chávez write-up is (shockingly) one of the least vitriolic, "fairest" things I've seen written on the Venezuelan in the American press.

I guess we call that "balance" in the media? Eh ...

Contemplative Cinema: The Long Road to Taipei (2)

(Still from Vive l'amour, 1994.)

Some speculation upon the category of cinema under discussion
here ...

1. The rise of the "art film" and (global?) markets for such* in the late 1950s-1960s. Italian Neorealism and its wave, Bergman, Satyajit Ray, certain New American Cinema (Engel, Cassavetes, Milton Moses Ginsberg) and the New Waves of Europe (France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, UK, Poland, etc.). Not necessarily avant-garde cinema as such (e.g., a tradition of Epstein and/or Vertov and/or Cornell).

(1a. The aesthetics of a lot of these art films--not necessarily the sumptuous works of Visconti or the audience-friendly experimentation of Truffaut--were kissing cousins to the exploitation/grindhouse genre films of the era, sharing a common aesthetic.
See here. Made on the cheap, with audiences willing to sit through heretofore commercially "inept" or "unviable" dead spaces, oblique plots, mysterious allusions, the promise of philosophy, the promise of sex. Notice that very beautiful women populate both the work of Jancsó and Metzger.)

* Does anyone know of good historical sources on global art film markets and exhibition centers across the world?

2. Art film subsidies declined in Europe in the 1980s ...

(2a. Many established art filmmakers explored the theme of cinema/cinephilia's demise: Godard, Wenders. Nicole Brenez says it was simply a problem used to go on making films ... )

... but some filmmakers didn't do this. What we might call a renewed interest in feature film, "narrative" (loosely, loosely!) minimalism started to come through with a vengeance in the 1980s, I suppose. Chantal Akerman offered a superb example, Tarkovsky too in his own way, and Jarmusch, Tarr, Denis, and others were making films at this time, breaking onto the scene, instead of experiencing the condition of "art cinema" as a decay or decline (Cinema's Death), they started exploring time or repetition (more often than before as objects rather than means), even as financing grew perilous and it was all but impossible for many serious film artists to attempt a film like The Leopard or Barry Lyndon. Things to do in this case, when you don't have much money and this thing "globalization" shows how staggered the entire world is in experiencing & producing the effects of modernity and/or postmodernity ...

(Fredric Jameson has located a figure like Taiwan's Edward Yang as a late modernist for a corner of the world in many ways staggered behind Western postmodernity, and thus being a fascinating and unique sort of reiteration of a figure like Antonioni.)

(Another Taiwanese art filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang, enacts a confrontation between the modernity of the French New Wave--Jean-Pierre Leaud has a small part in the film, which partially takes place in Paris--and the modernity of the Taipei art film. I suspect that of the "Big Three" Taiwanese film masters right now, all of whom engage deeply with history, Tsai may be the one who is most concerned with the history of aesthetics and cultural forms. Just a proposition, not a considered conclusion.)

In the past few decades a man or woman with a movie camera may have wanted to:

1 - pare down, take inspiration from those independent minds before you who didn't have much money either
2 - cultivate an aesthetic out of these "subtractions"

What's missing? This is the operative question often directed with negativity or bemusement at the likes of not only Claire Denis and the filmmakers mentioned before, but latter-day arrivals on the scene like Tsai, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, and Hong Sang-soo. This kind of cinema, usually existing as festival fare rather than commercial staples, nevertheless comes from out of a feature film framework, and (this is important) is also propagated and discussed as such. (In other words, these aren't alternatives to the dominant form, "feature film," but simply "alternative feature films.")

In my previous installment, on Farocki's Inextinguishable Fire, I suggested that the risk of boredom and other elements often associated with this type of cinema (plotlessness, diminished viewer identification, repetition) can be used to specific political and social ends, that is, these are instances in which the aesthetic hews away from so-called "populism" (a delicate word, as cinematic populism may often mean the mere extension of corporate ideology & valuations) but for real, concrete, anti-elitist purposes. Insofar as we think of a film by Tsai Ming-liang as a film in which elements are missing--insofar as we characterize what we see as some kind of minimalism--then I think the above defense applies to the way we view a Tsai film. That is, whenever we want to characterize a film as a deviation from a feature film logic, we should submit it to the test that Inextinguishable Fire, I believe, helps establish so cogently. A general principle for viewers inclined to dismiss the contemplative in art cinema: when we think of the object as missing something, we have to look at it as a solution rather than a problem in order to see what the film is really doing.

Tsai's What Time Is It There? is a beautiful work about the scattering of humanity (a father's death, a woman's emigration) and people's rituals both formalized (Buddhist) and personal & visceral (the protagonist pisses into bottles & plastic bags, the woman phones someone only to hang up, the mother cooks constantly). A fully modernized, speedy, capitalist world (Taipei) still "experiences itself" as caught behind: but of course a city doesn't experience anything, people do, and in this film the object of Hsiao-kang's interest flies to Paris, and Hsiao-kang experiences this loneliness as a rift, a gap, so he obsessively sets Taipei clocks to Paris time. The repetition of the action is the way in which Tsai, in the film-world he's creating for his audience, shows us something about the world he's reacting to, the real world: a narrative feature film that does not attempt to reflect the world but to comment upon its workings.

I wanted to say a few words on contemplative cinema, and I have (thought not very well); I've also ended up giving a prelude--verrry rough notes--to another line of inquiry I've been preparing for this blog. It will come later.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


René Clair, 1924

For Jen MacMillan, et al.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Margin Notes

Girish puts forth some words on "poetic film" (letting Maya Deren do a bit of the talking). Of course when most people say "film," "cinema," or "movies" they are talking about what would be the cinematic analogues of novels, rarely short stories (though there are frequent mentions of contemporary cine-serials, i.e., television series), just occasionally nonfiction, and almost never, poetry. See the films of Nathaniel Dorsky for poetry that'll pop your eyes out of your head, Bruce Conner that will turn you over on your head a couple times over, early Luis Buñuel for very angry and savage poetry (the contrarian in me says, "nevermind Dalí's contributions, the hack!"). For me the question of poetry in cinema works best as a kind of literalist sense of analogy.

The question of film poetics, and cinematic strategies, on the other hand, necessitates that we re-examine all (and discard many) of the crutches we have used--been taught to use--in comparison between cinema and the other arts. This is partly because of the massive historical ramifications of these particular forms of production and reproduction (as if I need to tell you: see the likes of Beller, Virilio, Jameson, Benjamin, et al.), and partly because to understand the former it's necessary to do so on its own terms as much as necessary. Otherwise we may only want to interpret "film texts" as though they're extensions of novels and essays, and never anything more, and that's a bad rabbit hole to disappear into ...

Is anyone even still reading EL? Perhaps I've gotten to be too boring a host. So let's say I'm throwing a party. What are you drinking?


"But technology is little more than the outer emblem of symptom by which a systemic variety of concrete situations expresses itself in a specific variety of forms and form-problems. It is not a random variety, and sometimes seems best described in developmental--or better still, in undeven-developmental--language: as when, for example, Edward Yang's film Terrorizer seems to raise the question of the belated emergence of a kind of modernism in the modernizing Third World, at a moment when the so-called advanced countries are themselves sinking into full postmodernity. The residues of the modern will then offer one clue or thread for these explorations."

-- Fredric Jameson, "Introduction: Beyond Landscape," to The Geopolitical Aesthetic

"Pirate videos are marked by blurred images and distorted sound, creating a material screen that filters audiences' engagement with media technologies and their senses of time, speed, space, and contemporaneity. In this way, piracy creates an aesthetic, a set of formal qualities that generates a particular sensorial experience of media marked by poor transmission, interference, and noise. Contemporary scholars of technology returning to the Frankfurt school have stressed that technology's operation on the body is a key factor in producing a sense of shock--the complex training of the human sensorium associated with modern urbanism ... What is less discussed is how technology influences through its failure as much as through its successes."

-- Brian Larkin, "Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy" (Public Culture 16.2, 2004, 289-314), p. 291 -- in this passage Larkin mentions Benjamin, Crary, Doane, Hansen, Kracauer, Schivelbusch, and Virilio

"Films made in Hollywood and intended for distribution in an organized, domestic circuit are copied by pirates; sent to Asia or the Middle East, where they are subtitled; recopied in large numbers as videocassettes, video CDs (VCDs are the dominant technology of media storage in much of Asia), or DVDs; and then reshipped mainly within the developing world. In recent years, as Nigeria has become progressively disembedded from the official global economy (with the single exception of its oil industry), it has become ever more integrated into a parallel, unofficial world economy that reorients Nigeria toward new metropoles such as Dubai, Singapore, and Beirut (what AbdouMaliq Simone [2001] more broadly calls the "worlding of African cities." See also Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou 1999; MacGaffey and Banzenguissa-Ganga 2000; Mbembe 2001)."

-- Larkin 293

"The roots of all Nigerian film (whether English, Hausa, or Yoruba) in piracy means that the physical quality and look of Nigerian video films has been determined by the formal qualities of pirate infrastructure. Piracy standardized a particular quality of reproduction; both filmmakers and distributors believe that while people like Nigerian videos, they will not pay higher prices for better image or sound quality. Because the new Hausa videos are dubbed using the same machines as pirate films, because they rely on the same blank cassettes and are distributed through the same channels, piracy has created the aesthetic and technical horizons for nonpirate media.


"I have argued elsewhere (Larkin 1998-1999) that media technologies do not just store time, they represent it. As Stephen Kern (1983) has written, different societies can feel cut off from history or excessivelya ttached to the past--without a future or rushing toward one. Technology, especially the media, often provides the conduit for our experience of being "inside" or "outside" history. The materiality of media creates the physical details and the quotidian sensory uses through which these experiences are formed. ... In postcolonial societies, such as India or Nigeria, this sense is intensified due to the powerful link between technology and colonial rule, where modern technology was part of a civilizing mission of colonial power (Adas 1989; Mrázek 2002; Prakash 1999; Spitulnik 1998-1999)."

-- Larkin 303

And a final provocative thought on cinema in modernity, cinema's capacities for modernism:

"And the worst of it is that I've still got this notion that there's more true modernity in a Walsh western than in a Robbe-Grillet film conundrum. All it comes down to is that I finally gave up the word 'classic' because there has probably never been a classic cinema (in my view there have been pioneers, moderns and mannerists) and put up the idea that if the cinema is the art of this century, a century is too little not to remain and go on being 'the present.' So the avant-garde in the cinema has never really interested me. I mean the avant-garde proclaimed, committed, in struggle, the avant-garde which has often been only an accompaniment to that other history the history of terror in the twentieth century."

-- Serge Daney, in an interview with Philippe Roger (from the 1980s?)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Wedding ...

In The Battle of Algiers' wedding scene, Pontecorvo marks his early shots with Algerian women and children behind bars: a quiet wedding, clandestine ...

The bride and groom ...

During a prayer in which the onlookers all participate, however, the camera tilts upwards, into the sky. Cut to a pan over the city tops: the prayers ascend to heaven but reinscribe themselves upon the social sphere. (Is this a common feature of filmmaking in Algiers, or what? Merzak Allouache's 1994 film Bab el-oued City utilizes such high vantage points too. I have seen few other films from or set in Algeria.)

No doubt when this was screened at the White House the official message was a manipulation of Pontecorvo's point; that this was the textbook illustration of burgeoning Islamofascism: so devout they want to impress it upon the world.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Stray Thoughts from the Notebook

It is important to remember how much context matters. In cinema, in this age, when people misappropriate "auteur theory" [shudder] so badly, it's worth recalling that what made the politique a useful tool was that it understood authorship in the studio system as a battle--not mastery. Nicholas Ray was not the lord & master of his Hollywood projects, instead for the critics he played the protagonist whose strategy and tactics were inscribed onto his commercial work from the inside out. This is why auteurist practices should still be salvageable for the political & cultural left, and not remnants of romantic celebration of the Individual Genius who finds himself (sic) excused from or transcendent of "mere" politics ...

Quote of the Day

It's not a brand-new write-up, I know, but I was just looking over it and paragraphs like this that remind me why I like Olaf Möller's film criticism so much:

"In the end, there was a program of 17 films in which people sung at times. Three of which are serious masterpieces: Above all, Makino Masahiro’s Oshidori utagassen (Singing Lovebirds, 1939), a spunky, vivacious, realist jidai-musical with a funky score by Jazz-maître Okubo Tokujiro and some serious political lip; then, Wang Tianlin’s head-strong, noir-fueled Carmen-paraphrase Ye meigui zhi lian (The Wild Wild Rose, 1960) whose I-am-the-Mandarin-Musical-to-end-all-Mandarin-Musicals swagger could impress the shit out of the naggiest skeptic; and finally, the dark horse, Liu Qiong’s Ashima (1964), an “ethnic minority” faux-folklore sort-of-opera whose elegant, subtle, Shanghaian ‘30s-left-wing-Modernism-inspired direction – spiked with sudden experimental stabs – made the most of its eye-popping location shots – magisterial movements through epic landscapes – and its wildly inspired studio-sets. Lovers of communist popular culture also fell for a pair of echt Maoist beauties, Su Li’s Liu Sanjie (Third Sister Liu, 1961), an often-remade paragon of Main-Melody-entertainment, and Xie Tian and Chen Fangqian and Xu Feng’s Honghu chiwei dui (The Red Guards of Hong Lake, 1961), an early model for a cinema that would, via Wang Ping’s Mother-of-all-Mao-kitsch-spectacles-cum-“Peasant, Worker, Soldier”-climax Dongfang hong (The East Is Red, 1965), find a final shape in the Yang ban xi adaptations of the Cultural Revolution-years – works people – ranging from the New Left to the Neoliberist Nostagia-Wizards of Amnesia – got recently again interested in as expressions of something like Maoist Pop Art, with tightrope walkers like Zhang Yimou doing Hongse niangzi jun (The Red Detachment of Women) and Liu Sanjie on stage and Zhang Yuan adapting Zhang Jie (2004) for the screen: a slice of history gets reclaimed and dis-/re-remembered, -imagined..."

I'm not sure I am familiar with a single title in this list, and who knows what is happening with the syntax, but what a great and generous acceptance of a quick connect-the-dots for a festival program that many writers may well have yawned away before even trying to engage?

Monday, January 15, 2007

More Sailors

In John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (based on Eugene O'Neill), there is something else altogether that churns within the sailors' bodies--it's not treated as the potential for revolutionary fervor, but as sexual tension, and demons of the past & future.

Nobody's Shot for Just a Dream They Had

"In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investment accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." [Sustained applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken: the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life?s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life?s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [Applause]

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation?s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [Sustained applause]"


"When asking Negroes to abide by the law let us also declare that the white man does not abide by the law. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments. He flagrantly violates building codes and housing regulations. His police forces are the ultimate mockery of law. He violates laws on equal employment and education. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society. Negroes live in them, but they do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. And so let us say forthrightly that, if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years are calculated and compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would handily be the white man. In using the term white man I am seeking to describe in general terms the Negro's adversary. I seek not to categorize all white people by any use of the term white man. I think it is very important to say this, for there are millions who have risen morally above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society, even at the cost of traditional privilege. To deny their existence as some ultra-nationalists do is to deny an evident truth. More than that, it tends to drive away allies who can and have strengthened our struggle. Their support serves not only to enhance our power, but their break from the attitudes of the larger society splits and weakens our opposition. To develop a sense of black consciousness and peoplehood does not require that we scorn the white race as a whole. It is not the race per se that we fight but the policies and ideology formulated by leaders of that race to perpetuate oppression.

In summing up the general causes of riots, we would have to say that the white power structure is still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality substantially intact, while Negro determination to break through them has intensified. I find five basic causes of riots—the white backlash; pervasive discriminatory practices; unemployment; the war in Vietnam; and the urban problems of crime and extensive migration.


It was routine procedure while in Birmingham for us to collect hundreds of knives before the demonstrations began to insure against momentary weaknesses of participants. We know from direct experience that even the intensely violent individual can discipline himself if his aims are served by other means. This experience has been duplicated for us in the North. In Chicago, 1966, when vicious, screaming white hoodlums lined the sidewalks, our guards were, in many instances, young gang leaders and members. These men, who are accustomed to violence and expert in its practice, had they been released from their commitment to peaceful marching were entirely capable of reducing the white bullies to shivering pulp. They were capable of peaceful conduct and iron discipline because they were willing to experiment with us in finding a constructive solution.

Now this leads me to say that we must formulate a program and we must fashion the new tactics which do not count on government goodwill but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice. We must demand, for instance, an emergency program to provide employment for everyone in need of a job, or, if a work program is impractical, a guaranteed annual income at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances. A second feature of our program must be the demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them. Third, we must make a massive move toward self-determination and the shaping of our own destiny. In other words, we must get rid of the domestic colony which is the ghetto. Fourth, we must delve deeply into the political arena. Wherever possible we must elect well-qualified and committed Negro candidates, as we have in Cleveland, Gary, and in states all across the South. In Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia we have, for the first time, Negroes in state legislatures. We've got to escalate this kind of program, and it is high time that we retire all the white racists who are in Congress. They can be retired if we vote in larger numbers."


Potemkin's Bodies

If Jonathan Beller sees Strike as the film where Eisenstein sought to manipulate audience consciousness into the processes (of the factory, of labor), here are some stills where he locates proletarian power within the body--shows his audience the existence of dormant labor power, necessarily awakened by consciousnes (one shirtless agitator).

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Image of the Day

From Pare Lorentz's The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Contemplative Cinema: Harun Farocki (1)

(For the Contemplative Cinema blog-a-thon, archives here.)

I. Preliminary Musings (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Choose a Subject)

At first I tried wringing my hands over the question of taxonomy, but soon realized that while I had plenty to say on the matter (what do we refer to with the phrase "contemplative cinema," what is meant by "the boring art film"), I had nothing of interest or originality to say. Retreat, retreat, man! I told myself. So let me explain why I have chosen my topic in relation to how I've interpreted the official moniker of this blog-a-thon ('contemplative cinema') as well as its unofficial, tongue-in-cheek topic ('boring art films').

I could have chosen Jia, Tarr, Reygadas, Hong, Kiarostami (supremely talented filmmakers, all of them), and in fact I was originally trying to narrow down my topics from a list of contemporary filmmakers that included these artists. But as much as they speak to me as a cinephile and as a person (especially Hong & Kiarostami), I was moved to travel elsewhere in the cinema, to try to find an example to discuss that would be both appropriate and innovative to the topic. So I have chosen Harun Farocki, particularly his film Inextinguishable Fire (1967), a work of agitprop that is available to view freely at UbuWeb (it's 25 minutes long and has English subtitles).

II. 400 Degrees, 3000 Degrees

Inextinguishable Fire is a cinematic pamphlet on the destructive properties and the production of napalm, the alienation of the mid- and low-level workers whose labor produces it, and these people's experience of the Vietnam War as mediated by spectacle. It is also a somewhat didactic plea regarding human agency. It's a West German film, in German, though "set" in America (Michigan to be precise).

The film opens with a young Farocki himself, sitting at a table with a paper before him, narrating about the effects of napalm and the difficulty in really getting an audience to see napalm's impact on bodies, on communities. Farocki says that he will show us just the smallest fraction of napalm's effect so as to trigger our comprehension. In a (relatively) famous sequence, he proceeds to grab a lit cigarette (offscreen) and quickly extinguishes it on his bare forearm. He calmly informs us that cigarettes burn at 400 degrees Celsius, while napalm burns at 3000.

"A chemical corporation is like a set of building blocks." This sentence comes twice in the film. When you atomize & diffuse responsibility for atrocities, you make it manageable. Human beings, workers, become simply cogs in a machine, "doing their job." Farocki's main project here is to connect the dots back into a totality: the single line of inextinguishable guilt spotlighting a corporation that tests and manufactures napalm (Dow Chemicals, the military's manufacturer of the substance during the Vietnam War--they also produced Agent Orange). The repetition of shots or camera movements, with differing "characters" portraying different functions or departments of Dow, is a deliberate patterning effect made to enliven the viewer to the mundaneness of the experience on an individual level, and the terror of the practice on an institutional level. Finding the right formula to ensure napalm's burning power--that is, in reality, its ferocity, its near-inability to be extinguished (after it has made contact with human skin)--becomes a day at the lab or the office.

III. Contemplation

I have not seen the majority of Harun Farocki's work but everything that I have seen hews to the same identifiable aesthetic--very dry, unsexy images presented with deep commitment to process, usually with extensive (and dry) narration. In a word, potentially, "boring." The subjects can be any number of things but images, observation, surveillance, control, and perception are constantly recurring themes: the photography of food advertisements and its relation to still life painting (Still Life), or Playboy photography (Ein Bild), the planning of a mall (The Creators of Shopping Worlds), Allied aerial surveillance, the Holocaust, and WWII (Images of the World and the Inscription of War). Farocki is meticulous, constantly focused. This is not to say there is no sense of humor in his work, no beauty, only that one must attune oneself sensitively to his work to get something out of it more than what we might as well refer to as "plain content." Its in the plainness, the dryness, that we find Farocki's deepest aesthetic and stylistic conviction. The presentation of shots so as not to mystify, but rather, to invite (let's say it) contemplation, reflection, reconsideration--reason--and even imagination. From the choice of subject matter to the choices involved with decoupage and then montage, Farocki's cinema is a supremely ethical investigation into our own world, "as we see it" (to twist a title of one of his films), and as we may need to see it differently. Boredom in a Farocki film is a sign that you're not following along with him; this is a case easily proposed for any number of "boring" art filmmakers, however. The distinction that Farocki has over many of his colleagues is that his films are treatises on the very expectations we bring to the cinema, the ideological ramifications of what is produced for the screen and what we take away from the screen ourselves. He's trying to rewire some of the tendencies our eyes and our consciousness have picked up through years of training; he lays bare; like trying to retrain the damaged body through therapy or simple diet. Here, contemplation is an aesthetic choice on Farocki's part, but its intended effects and consequences are anything but "merely aesthetic."

Thus concludes Part I of my contribution to this blog-a-thon; more will follow from this topic sometime between now and the end of January.

The Circle Game

A shot from Pravda (the Dziga Vertov Group, 1969):

What seems to make the circle such a compelling social shape in French cinema? Think not only of this shot above from Pravda, but the traffic jam in Week End, the ending of Tati's Playtime, the famous moment in Le Crime de M. Lange, or (at least once) in Guy Debord's Critique de la séparation ('61) a pre-Godard 360-degrees pan. Whether inscribed by the camera's movement or identified from an aerial perspective, there's something there ...

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Ethan (Scar).
Inextinguishable blood (extinguishable whiteness).
An oath (just words).
Home (just a building).
Beauty (evil).

It took me about four viewings to finally "get it"--to appreciate The Searchers at a level generally commensurate with its reputation in John Ford's body of work. I think it took me this long to really pay attention to what was at work here, which is a case of opposites and negations.

This film is not exactly an indictment of racism. It offers a profound eulogy for outward hatred, compulsive/propulsive hatred; but it keeps a lot of its empowered prejudices intact. Ford had his progressive points, which we should never forget, but in a film like The Searchers, and many of his others, we're left with an uneasy taste in our mouths at scenes like the ones with Look, the Indian woman mistakenly bought as a bride. Ford's value in cases like this is as a portraitist; not merely reproducing some of the ideological conflicts of his time & place & position in society (as any artist can do), the point here is that Ford's aesthetic always offers a way out. We never need to "get caught up" in Ethan Edwards' frenzied search to recover/kill his niece from the Comanche--we never need to identify with him (in fact we learn quickly to keep him at arm's length in this film), we never need to identify with any of the characters to follow the threads, see the machines operating, to be able to recognize and name beauty when we see it (the acceptance of eccentricity as in Old Mose), community when we see it (the closed and open bar at the wedding), evil when we see it (Ethan's obsessive and oblique sadism toward the indigenous--picking off their buffalo herd, shooting the eyes out of a warrior in his grave). For everything the film offers, we can see its negation. The off-spaces are present in the portrait. We need be psychologically complicit with nothing in the film.

In a lot of late Ford, there's a plausible (not verifiable) backstory one can piece together: in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance it's that John Wayne may have lied to Jimmy Stewart after all; in The Searchers it's that Ethan's hatred may have stemmed or been spurred by the death of his wife (?)--and Martin's mother (?)--years ago; that in fact the "orphan" he gave to his brother to raise may be his own son, after the Comanches raided his home; that Ethan's inability to protect the precious white women in his life pushes him further into consumptive hatred of those warriors who elude him.

Both Ethan & Scar's first appearances are marked by white women observing their arrival--Ethan in the film's opening moment, Scar when his shadow rises over the young Debbie, who looks up and sees the man who will be her captor and husband. Both would be these women's protectors in some form; both are also very dangerous to these women, as violent men, as patriarchs.

Dominant colors: orange & blue (complimentary), the sky and the land (of Monument Valley) during the daytime--and also of the exteriors (dark blue) and interiors (the hearth) at night.

(Ross Gibson on The Searchers.)

Why do they sing "We Shall Gather at the River" in numerous Ford funerals? The river may be a metaphor for time, the constant overwhelming presence in Ford's films, whose destination for each individual (death) is the specter haunting each figure.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Why Mention the Working Class?

Maybe it will seem anachronistic, passé, to mention the working class. But the codes are still there, the subtle/unsubtle messages, in those media that would ostensibly have us forget the realities of our society. For instance, it may be allegedly a matter of the smart set, the "idea" set, those who are "with it" and those who aren't--by and large the media will forthrightly recognize & endorse any kind of social division/taxonomy as long as it's meaningless. Real divisions get codewords, ever-so-slightly buried meanings. In the NYTimes today (Sunday Style section):

"An ideal breakfast-club hangout includes free newspapers, including a few French and Italian publications, and some authentic well-dressed Europeans to read them. Cappuccinos, delivered silently by waiters in ties, should cost upward of $4, with the bill for a full breakfast including tip costing $20 to $25, enough to discourage out-and-out idlers."

To discourage who, now?

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Worker's Body (Intro)

Maybe I'm back on the topic of 'desire & capital' (search the blog if you weren't reading previously).

The worker invests himself or herself in leisure activity, these days quite often paying money to watch moving images, whether on a television screen, a cinema screen, or a computer monitor. Alienated from labor, and worn out from the expenditure of mental, physical, and/or emotional energy, the worker pays for escapism, alleviation, even merely coping or accompaniment (potential functions for mass media as seen from the consumer's point of view). Capital is the reason for the question; capital works to provide the answer. Capital "wins" in both situations while the worker wins in neither. Unless one glibly points out that the worker is lucky to have a job and fortunate to have access to quality media. In which case the glib one should probably check the clock and make sure there's still time to reach the Future Business Leaders of America meeting.

There is much negativity and moralizing about cinema's functions as "wish fulfilment," "fantasy," "escapism." Being good modernists we eschew such functions (or try to), and at best ignore the fact that these functions certainly do exist on a massive scale (for "others"). Or if we choose to be postmodernists we look to have our wishes fulfilled knowingly, ironically, creatively, subversively. But here is one major logic for the activity of wish fulfilment as disseminated in commercial cinema. The wish to be fulfilled is created and aggravated by deadening labor; the fulfillment isn't simply a representational re-allotment of power (i.e., "workers can't be powerful in reality but we'll let them take control at the movies")--there exists also an hegemonic function in which the (real) worker's very powerlessness is coded as noble, in touch with life, and in fact the very source of of this vitality. The worker can thus have fantasies of powerlessness attended to by stories & images not of omnipresence, but of specifically working class power as developed and iterated on an individualistic, class-bound scale. Thus Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing--a "good" man, an "honest" man, who has earned his muscles and his figure through hard work; he is in touch with his roots as well as his hips (think also of the third class in Titanic, and we needn't say too much to convince readers of this function's constant enactment on black people, particularly for "their" musical & athletic prowess). Swayze is great, powerful, real--but he is also contained (by class). The working class is to learn to accept and perhaps even enjoy parts of this role in part because of innumerable iterations of this theme in media as seen every day, endlessly. The middle class (to say nothing of the upper) learns to internalize these messages even further, as well. The Jennifer Grey character in this film provides a fantasy entrypoint also for middle-class viewers: the one who can romanticize a slum romance, who can always (deep down) still access that working class vitality for themselves (and for sexual pleasure) ... even if debutante balls and country club manners stifle the impulse. Thus the bodies of stars, whether sexualized, or otherwise empowered (through violence, labor productivity, whathaveyou) become an attraction for viewers, particular the majority of working-class viewers, who receive carefully coded doses of displaced empowerment & control in the media. The "need" (demand) for escape is created, then met--all on capital's terms.

Sexualized: porn stars & women actors (mostly, not always); violence: martial arts and tuff guys (Willis, Stallone); labor productivity and ingenuity: Steve Dangos (Brian Donlevy) in An American Romance (or Stakhanov, or the Maoist equivalent--for this issue isn't only limited to nominally capitalist societies).

(Ah, wilderness! And strength of the working class! All natural, corn-fed, coarsely-bred. Anyway what does it say about my own class sympathies that I've always had a crush on 1980s Jennifer Grey?)

Viewers are not, however, sheep, even if we sometimes act like it. The intended capitalist functions of mass media do not always align neatly with the behaviors of viewers, working class or otherwise. Laura Mulvey's much celebrated (and much denigrated) essay "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema," which in 1975 was a polemical attack on classical Hollywood (in particular) and commercial cinema (in general) for its treatment of women (the objectified other used for male viewers' pleasure), is a still defensible reading of Hollywood cinema, but generally for its understanding of the medium as it is "encoded" (cf. Stuart Hall). The "decoding" of films and media by audiences is not this easy, which is demonstrated by David Ehrenstein's amazing article "Desert Fury, Mon Amour," which is an argument against a too-quick determinism and in favor of simple viewer activities (e.g., Ehrenstein as points to the practices of the many non-straight white male viewers who developed more nuanced codes & reactions to the commercial cinema than the Mulveyan stance might initially accept). So I will also want to look at examples in which the cinema (as a medium) becomes the site for profound autocriticism of some of its own practices--hence Browning, Godard, Pasolini, Makavejev, and Fukasaku in the future (among others).

Sooner or later, more will follow ...

Revisions (Not Revisionism)

"In 1970 this film was called 'Victory'" ...

"In 1974 it is called 'Here and Elsewhere'" ...

This was the moment when Godard entered--totally--what we might call (for lack of a better word) the 'mature' phase of his work. He had been political before, even "vulgarly" so with his Dziga Vertov Group efforts. He had made great films before. But with Ici et ailleurs and Numéro deux he (with the help of Anne-Marie Miéville) began to realize profoundly his and his audience's global/geopolitical location. Filming in Palestine; "I came back home, you came back home." No longer could Godard pretend seamless solidarity--he had to acknowledge his place, and in so doing took a page from the playbook of perhaps the greatest 'extra-French' filmmaker, Jean Rouch ...

Godard Dissolves

“... joie, amour, liberté, travail, désir ...”

... from Petites notes à propos du film 'Je vous salue, Marie' (1983)