Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Space swelled ..."

"The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience."

-- Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (Oxford, p. 68).

Maybe the effect is lost on a small video screen; but Colossal Youth (a beautiful English title) really does feel monumental. I just read De Quincey's classic recently; when I came to this passage, I thought, "bingo."

"It's a basic platform ..."

Agnès Varda's 1968 documentary Black Panthers / Huey ... followed by Black Panther Newsreel.

Flight Into Egypt

S. Sudjojono, Flight into Egypt, 1985 [Indonesia]

Flight into Egypt.

(echoing Mubarak)

On Some Recent Viewings

Nothing special here: jottings only.

Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man--my impression: compulsively watchable, but not much more than that. Anyone want to tell me I'm totally wrong, should reconsider, and give it another chance sometime down the road? Speak now or forever hold ...

This February's Film Comments Selects series proved to be, for me, 5-for-5. No bad films. In addition to last weekend's Colossal Youth (again, more on that in the near future), this past weekend met with four viewings.

Keith Uhlich over at Slant calls Valeska Grisebach's Sehnsucht / Longing (Germany) a "Michael Haneke-lite wank job," which I can understand, but the film, which I actually liked a fair bit, put me more in mind of Hong Sang-soo, especially its coda, which performed a Hong-like move of reflecting upon the narrative as a narrative. I realize I'm not in the best position to judge, but I suspect this may have the greatest example of solo-male-dancing-alone-to-pop-music-in-European-film since that ecstatic moment in Beau travail. Thanks to Paul Fileri for urging me to catch this one.

Can one love a film, consider it possibly even a masterpiece, while not understanding about 98% of it? That's how I felt after Mamoru Oshii's Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Japan), which seems to me as though the guy behind Ghost in the Shell (the only other Oshii film I've seen) said to himself, "I'm going to inject Chris Marker into my veins!" Oshii weaves together factual and fictional histories of postwar Japan. (For instance, he mentions the construction of Tokyo Tower in 1958, then discusses how Mothra invaded it in 1962...) Reflecting upon this retelling of the Zeitgeist are stories of the 'Fast Food Grifters' a very loosely connected group of people who contrive to get a free burger or bowl of soba ... and what these contrivances say about Japanese philosophy, values, and participation in material society. And it's all animated in a way I've never seen before in a feature. Totally worth seeing; definitely the big surprise of my FCS sampling.

Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming (US/West Germany, 1977) is a rare work of tough, old-fashioned American progressivism in cinema, the sort that believes in American institutions and ideals like the concept of democracy or the office of the Presidency, but simultaneously not shying away from horrible lies (it's a kind of "faith against faith" for the States). It is most interesting, on a formal level, for its very sophisticated employment of mediated imagery and split screens.

By the time I saw the Straubs' Quei loro incontri / These Encounters of Theirs I was very tired. (I started the day watching a long soccer match with a disappointing result before rushing up to see Tachigui, Twilight's Last Gleaming, and this final one: anyway, my poor eyes were exhausted.) I had to give up, basically, on a textual level--as you may well know if you're already reading this, the film is based on the last five dialogues of Cesare Pavese's Dialogues with Leuco. (The French-subtitled film, with Italian dialogue, had faint lasered-on English subtitles above the French, which didn't make matters easy.) So I can offer not even the slightest analysis or cogent critique from my one viewing. But can I say how incredibly beautiful and refreshing this film is? Birds, streams, greenery, wind, strong and calm voices ... who says that Straub and Huillet make dense, forbidding films? This is the sort of film that invigorates you, that steadies you and propels you into a world of dialogue with fellow humans ... or immortals ...

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Modernisms of the Global South

From amongst today's left-wing comp lit of American academia, probably the two figures who've intrigued me and provided me with the most to chew on are Fredric Jameson and Franco Moretti, both of whom have written excellent work on cinema. For the benefit of those who know neither--

Jameson's The Geopolitical Aesthetic is a very highly recommended book which covers figures like Edward Yang and Aleksandr Sokurov, as well as Videodrome, The Parallax View, and 1980s Godard. I don't own Signatures of the Visible, and whenever I've looked at it in the library it doesn't capture my mind as urgently. Jameson is a Marxist famous for his theories about postmodernism (i.e., he is a theorist of the postmodern, not a "postmodernist" in any really meaningful sense of the word).

Moretti has at least two pieces in New Left Review on film, "Planet Hollywood" and "Markets of the Mind." Moretti is known for his rather brilliant, friendly antagonism to close reading and canonical study as the central tasks of literary studies--he thinks that if we are to say things about literature in general, we should not substitute the canon (a tiny fraction of a percent of all produced books) for the whole of literature/fiction--but neither would he endorse that we should go mad trying to expand the canon so that it becomes like the famous Borgesian map. Moretti says: "Reading ‘more’ is always a good thing, but not the solution [to certain problems of the study of world literature and literary history]." From the same article, "Conjectures on World Literature" (here):

The Western European novel: rule or exception?

Let me give you an example of the conjunction of distant reading and world literature. An example, not a model; and of course my example, based on the field I know (elsewhere, things may be very different). A few years ago, introducing Kojin Karatani’s Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, Fredric Jameson noticed that in the take-off of the modern Japanese novel, ‘the raw material of Japanese social experience and the abstract formal patterns of Western novel construction cannot always be welded together seamlessly’; and he referred in this respect to Masao Miyoshi’s Accomplices of Silence, and Meenakshi Mukherjee’s Realism and Reality (a study of the early Indian novel).
[8] And it’s true, these books return quite often to the complicated ‘problems’ (Mukherjee’s term) arising from the encounter of western form and Japanese or Indian reality.

Now, that the same configuration should occur in such different cultures as India and Japan—this was curious; and it became even more curious when I realized that Roberto Schwarz had independently discovered very much the same pattern in Brazil. So, eventually, I started using these pieces of evidence to reflect on the relationship between markets and forms; and then, without really knowing what I was doing, began to treat Jameson’s insight as if it were—one should always be cautious with these claims, but there is really no other way to say it—as if it were a law of literary evolution: in cultures that belong to the periphery of the literary system (which means: almost all cultures, inside and outside Europe), the modern novel first arises not as an autonomous development but as a compromise between a western formal influence (usually French or English) and local materials.

This first idea expanded into a little cluster of laws,
[9] and it was all very interesting, but . . . it was still just an idea; a conjecture that had to be tested, possibly on a large scale, and so I decided to follow the wave of diffusion of the modern novel (roughly: from 1750 to 1950) in the pages of literary history. Gasperetti and Goscilo on late eighteenth-century Eastern Europe; [10] Toschi and Martí-López on early nineteenth-century Southern Europe; [11] Franco and Sommer on mid-century Latin America; [12] Frieden on the Yiddish novels of the 1860s; [13] Moosa, Said and Allen on the Arabic novels of the 1870s; [14] Evin and Parla on the Turkish novels of the same years; [15] Anderson on the Filipino Noli Me Tangere, of 1887; Zhao and Wang on turn-of-the-century Qing fiction; [16] Obiechina, Irele and Quayson on West African novels between the 1920s and the 1950s [17] (plus of course Karatani, Miyoshi, Mukherjee, Even-Zohar and Schwarz). Four continents, two hundred years, over twenty independent critical studies, and they all agreed: when a culture starts moving towards the modern novel, it’s always as a compromise between foreign form and local materials. Jameson’s ‘law’ had passed the test—the first test, anyway. [18] [19] And actually more than that: it had completely reversed the received historical explanation of these matters: because if the compromise between the foreign and the local is so ubiquitous, then those independent paths that are usually taken to be the rule of the rise of the novel (the Spanish, the French, and especially the British case)—well, they’re not the rule at all, they’re the exception. They come first, yes, but they’re not at all typical. The ‘typical’ rise of the novel is Krasicki, Kemal, Rizal, Maran—not Defoe.

Likewise, it would be very soundly hypothesized, the proliferation of cinema as we know it, both exhibition and production, which covered the globe in practically a decade, developed among similar lines. Films are likely to have also been a "compromise," dialogues or struggles between centers and peripheries. U of Chicago doctoral candidate Joshua Yumibe has an excellent article on "vernacular modernism" (pace Hansen) and an ethnographic travel film made in the 1920s where the Ethiopian subjects are many steps ahead of their European recorders' preconceptions, and consequently, perhaps, a few steps ahead of the Europeans themselves.

"[Abyssinian Expedition] shows [the expedition members] gazing at the seemingly strange world they have entered and trying to preserve those images so that when they return, they show them to others. However, the peoples they were trying to capture, image, screen, were not as naive as "primitives" were thought to be. Modernity had beaten the expedition there, and the Abyssinians already understood, perhaps even more clearly than the expedition, the political economics of global representation, and not only did they understand it, but they attempted to assert themselves through its vernacular appeal. They sought to use the expeditions own goals for their own ends: to present themselves and their histories to the world thus fostering a counter discourse within the film." (pp. 25-26)

I think the first decades of cinema are full of great stories, and heretofore unearthed possibilities, like this.

(By the way, do readers know that in Latin America, a great many of the early pioneers in cinema were immigrants from other European countries, not Americas-born and not necessarily Spanish, either? A curious tendency. Scholar Ana M. Lopez has an excellent scholarly overview that posits this fact, which is supported by whatever else I've read of early Latin American cinema.)

And what interests me even more specifically amidst all of these cinematic navigations and compromises is the question of resistance as it plays out through aesthetics. I feel as though the strictly "formalist" or "aesthete" stance toward cinema as an art form lends itself to the appreciation of works from Europe, the US, and a few countries in East Asia above all else. Commitment to rigorous, "serious" films from Latin America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, I think, tends to be characterized by other writers in terms of political commitment well before any kind of aesthetic or formal interest. Yet I know for certain that absolutely great "modernist," "avant-garde," films have been made in Cuba, Brazil, Senegal, India... Would others agree with me to say that we'd be more inclined to first describe someone who would say they are foremost into "Resnais, Pasolini, and Jost" as a person of taste and aesthetics (and also but secondarily, also leftist), and if another person stated, "Rocha, Gutíerrez Alea, and Sembene," we'd be more inclined to say they were a committed radical viewer (and also but secondarily, with good taste). All six of these filmmakers I've mentioned are (were) excellent and very committed left-wing filmmakers. But grouping them according to the geographical parameters of 'North/Western' and 'South/non-Western' I am unable to shake the conviction that artistry appears to trump activism in the former group (even if it's not true), and the reverse appears to happen in the latter. (This "appearance" refers to how these filmmakers are themselves discussed by Western film culture, of course.) Presumably I'd want to help demolish that loose but strong binary through my own research & writing ... if it even exists, which I'd need others to confirm or deny for me.

In (English-language) film criticism, there are voices out there (Chuck Stephens [is he living in Thailand currently, or what exactly?], Köln-based Möller, et al.) who are doing great things in the consideration of 'periphery' both historical and contemporary. But I have only the vaguest ideas of who the great film critics are outside of the US, Canada, and Western Europe, what the great questions (or the formulations of very common questions) are ...

So a few questions for readers ...

What are some good resources (by which I mean things like DVDs, sure, but also cultural centers, websites, publications, critics) for cinema of the Global South--by the citizens of these nations, particularly--and especially if not exclusively, the cinema that can be seen as taking a deliberately resistant approach to the notion of cinema as a profit machine, whether it appears to be deliberately "aesthetic/apolitical" or "polemical/anti-aesthetic"? "Der OM" himself, Olaf Möller, once wrote about the mistake of Western cinephilia, our unwillingness to engage with what other cultures feel about their own art works/products even as we take an interest in those cultures (these years, for cinema, that means of course Iran, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand...). I'm trying to take this chastisement to heart, and in doing so I want to better reconcile my own interests in rigorous cinema and political commitment to people ...

Friday, February 23, 2007


Just finished watching the first season of Extras last night. And ... I've justed added a few more links.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Cassavetes Letters, #1

Dear Matt,

We’re going to talk about the films of John Cassavetes, but before I really initiate this discussion, I want to touch upon a point in which we’re in total agreement, I’m sure—namely, that the prescribed methods & pathways of discussing Cassavetes have not been entirely acceptable.

First things first. There is a disturbing tendency for viewers to assume (particularly when they dislike a film) that the attitudes and worldview of the characters are direct correlations to that of the author. In some cases this assumption may be true, but this does not excuse the employment of the untested assumption as considered fact. (In recent discourse this assumption has plagued Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, for instance: those who dislike the films transfer their criticisms of poor Jesse and Celine to the film itself: it [meaning they] is privileged, hip, hopelessly armchair-liberal; smart without being brilliant, emotional without being profound. It doesn’t occur to some of these people that a film, or this film, is not the sum of its characters’ dialogue!) And this can cause trouble for those who love these films (from Shadows to Love Streams: I confess I haven’t yet seen Big Trouble or Too Late Blues) if they don’t necessarily buy into Cassavetes’ tough guy anti-intellectual sensitivity, the same crudeness that informs a lot of the characterizations in these films. How do we talk about Cassavetes, respect him as an artist, when we don’t subscribe to some ideas he appears to have had an tried to express in his cinema?

Cassevetes taken at his word is, I think, an anti-systematic essentialist. He believes in a great truth, or great truths, of human existence and life and the world—but never in any kind of system that would claim to shed light on what these truths actually are. It’s all about experience, the necessarily unclassifiable energies that crackle between all of us: that’s Life, that’s the secret of it. There’s no formula for not being a phony, Cassavetes would assert, but the great humanistic diagnosis of Cassavetes’ work is that we’re phonies all the time, and the great categorical imperative is that we must not be phonies. But I don’t believe these dicta; not very much anyway. And I think that in Cassavetes we can find reservoirs of (yes) “political” or “social” thought, ones that extend out from the bounds of interpersonal experience. So really I’m speaking of Cassavetes (a dominant actorly-soothsayer conception) contra Cassavetes (the less visible filmmaker I’m hoping we can further tease out into the open). Here’s a source (on the conceptual level) of much conflict, joy, piss-and-vinegar in these films we love so dearly! I wonder how many times have I have applied the simplest of lines to important situations regarding film theory and Cassavetes: “Be yourself! Be yourself!” Nick says to Mabel after the “return” in A Woman Under the Influence. The earth shakes, for me, when I see moments like those in Cassavetes. The tension is unresolvable, palpable.

But this is what makes cinema important, important for individuals and for groups, that it’s not about finding consonance (and pretending that we can reject all else) as it is about producing meaning and also value, whether the reified allure of a product, or a more pragmatic use value (ethical, logical, pleasurable…). This is similar, of course, to what makes advertising work: a commercial doesn’t force you to run out and buy Tide detergent, but it does imprint the product or a brand upon your brain—cultural products don’t work without recipients, it’s not as though a Cassavetes film or a novel or a commercial ever do anything in a vacuum. Cassavetes can change me as a person, but this doesn’t mean I am going to turn into one of his protagonists.

At this point I think I should simply summarize that my overriding concerns about this filmmaker have to do with the importance of moral engagements and human existence as negotiated not by purely emotional appeals (and I have cried during these films, been very deeply moved), but by formal analysis and rational consideration of the merits—and limits—of the work at hand. Adrian Martin has done good work outlining some (formal) parameters of Cassavetes’ films; there should be more of us working on this large project with him. I hope that this overture of mine, which is really just a selfish and convoluted way for me to shake out the tablecloth I’m providing before we put food on it, will adequately sketch out the space that I am visualizing for us. John Cassavetes = a major artist, an important artist, someone to bow to—but not our master, not the arbiter, not a genius who’s transcended those pesky categories of social life, politics and history. Now for the real question of this exchange:

What/how is the man’s cinema?

I think Cassavetes tended to keep his camera lower than most people. This is an idea I’m putting forth that I want to keep in mind as we discuss these films. When he photographs groups of people together, we are sitting and looking over someone’s shoulder (the drinking scene that comes around the 20 minute mark in Husbands and the spaghetti breakfast in A Woman Under the Influence, lighting aside, are shot in remarkably similar ways). He even worked with a quite similar color palette over his 1970-1984 films (e.g., the skin and hair tones of Gena Rowlands find themselves forecast by the tall British woman, Mary, in Husbands). And right before the famous spaghetti breakfast we would do well to notice how subtly prominent a place the pot of sauce is given. This people person knows a thing or two about food (and drink), always fine things to zero in on as far as I’m concerned. Anyway—cheers:


[Response at Esoteric Rabbit.]

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Recent Screenings

First, one must read Andy Rector. Pedro Costa's Juventude em marcha / Colossal Youth finally made it to New York--I've waited years to see a film by Costa! What a perplexing, very beautiful film. Maybe I can say more after some more thought. Note, however, that the characters gaze off-screen, like Ford's characters, where they look into history (for lost loves & dreams, and at destruction, at misery, at television screens). There's a beautiful and awkward scene where the "protagonist," Ventura, and one of his daughters sit and describe what they see on the wall across from them.

* * *

There are many exquisite things in Pan's Labyrinth, certainly one of the better mainstream films I have seen from the last few years. (Vague spoilers follow, so reader beware!) Let me voice a quibble first: I am uncomfortable with the use in commercial-left cinema (it also happened to a much worse extent, I thought, in V for Vendetta) whereby the hero(ine) must "prove" herself by flirting with the enemy ideology, i.e., fascism. In Pan's Labyrinth, our dear Ofelia has to listen to the Faun and do as he says. The parallel is drawn between blind obedience to the Faun and the fascist Capitan both; but whereas we come to hate the fascist (in fact we should hate him from the first frame), the Faun's authoritarianism remains curiously unexamined. Ofelia's resistance proves to be the "right choice," but not only is it at great cost, it's also divorced from a larger critique of the Faun's demands for obedience throughout the entire film, not just as a third & final "test" for poor Ofelia. (I'm not too bothered by the fact that this film posits utopia as a supernatural monarchy, which seems like an obviously distant [faerie] enough fictive operation to be harmless.) So I left the theater this evening feeling that, unless I myself am missing something, the film's command of its moral universe is a bit flawed. That's the Bad; there's a lot of Good in Pan's Labyrinth though, too. I like the fact that it kept a certain dialogue with film/cultural history (e.g., Un Chien andalou; The Wizard of Oz; possibly also even the absent-father anti-fascist anger of Fernando Arrabal and his Pan-ic Movement). I love the lush, very saturated photography. I admire the fact that this film makes fascists its villains, and not purely generic ones either--it situates patriarchy, misogyny, warmongering, irrational father-worship, and inhuman "efficiency" upon the specter of fascism, ripe for critique.

* * *

The next few weekends will be big ones for cinema: Rivette's Out 1, probably some Kiarostami (including perhaps the man in person), possibly some Tarr if I can fit any in, new stuff by Oshii & the Straubs, an older one by Aldrich (Twilight's Last Gleaming) ... March, in fact, is a ridiculous month for New York cinephiles, not so much for the rarity of its screenings but for the sheer greatness of its two concurrent director retrospectives (Imamura @ BAM, Kiarostami @ MoMA) and the string of major films showing at the Alliance Francaise.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Image of the Day

William Blake, Hecate or the Three Fates (c. 1795)

Critical Acumen

"I have wandered extensively in several great European cities, and I appreciated everything that deserved appreciation. The catalogue on this subject could be vast. There were the beers of England, where mild and bitter were mixed in pints; the big schooners of Munich; the Irish beers; and the most classical, the Czech beer of Pilsen; and the admirable baroque character of the Gueuze around Brussels, when it had its distinctive flavour in each local brewery and did not travel well. There were the fruit brandies of Alsace; the rum of Jamaica; the punches, the aquavit of Aalborg, and the grappa of Turin, cognac, cocktails; the incomparable mezcal of Mexico. There were all the wines of France, the loveliest coming from Burgundy; there were the wines of Italy, especially the Barolos of the Langhe and the Chiantis of Tuscany; there were the wines of Spain, the Riojas of Old Castille or the Jumilla of Murcia."

-- Guy Debord, Panegyric (1.III, p. 32, trans. James Brook)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beware the Wrath of Iron!

From An American Romance (King Vidor, 1944):

"Rossellini, the only major director besides Vidor to make a film on the history of iron ..." (
Tag Gallagher)

"The films which have most excited me recently are Skolimowski's two films and The Enchanted Desna [Dovzhenko]. These are films about which I don't know what to say critically, which give me the feeling of having a lot to learn. Also Rossellini's film about steel [L'Età del ferro / The Age of Iron]. They are films which cut right through me; whereas with others I can see what to take and what to leave. I say this is great, but I could never do it myself. I don't rate these three films above or below the rest, they are films I want to talk about because I don't really know what should be said." (Jean-Luc Godard in an interview with Les Cahiers du cinéma, translated/reprinted, pp. 231-232 in Godard on Godard.)

I don't believe Rossellini's iron film played in the MoMA retrospective ...


Rossellini's historical films often depict as their central progression or conflict a character engaging with others, discussing with them, outsmarting them, outdoing them, and up until the inevitable finitude, surviving amongst those who would not be your friends or benefactors. (This comprises one part of their Socratic content.) Louis XIV--it's a game about money. Blaise Pascal--a wit and orator in addition to a sharp mind, who takes delight in demolishing his peers' and elders' philosophical arguments. Augustine--a conception of God and the good, the paradox of sin and humility elevating one into leadership in troubling times. Earlier, Rossellini dealt with martyrs and strugglers, those for whom the utter extremes of love, compassion, political commitment were pathologized and punished--Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc or a bourgeois housewife who lives among the poor (Europa '51), or St. Francis, or the resistance in Open City. Insofar as these comments are construed as rough and deliberate generalizations, I think they hold true, and for me, for my still incomplete viewing of the Rossellini corpus, the sumptuous 1961 diptych of Viva l'Italia and Vanina Vanini can still operate, conveniently, as a kind of prism from which one reads one side of the body of work to the other--from punishment to power (within limits).

* * *

A key motif of the rich Italian family: sexual frustration! The melodrama of the wounded Mason with Sandra Milo's title character in Vanina Vanini; Burt Lancaster complaining about how he's never seen his wife's navel in The Leopard (is this complaint in the Tomasi di Lampedusa? it's fantastic!); the entire string of tribulations in Divorce--Italian Style. It seems that for Italian cinema of the 1960s especially, 'fantasy' (sexual or otherwise) is the great mediating theme of all other themes. 8 1/2, Vittorio De Seta's Almost a Man (Un Uomo a metà, 1966), Pasolini's Teorema, Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and A Quiet Place in the Country, Bertolucci's Spider's Stratagem (I know I'm creeping into the early '70s at this point).

* * *

I don't like the few Vittorio De Sica films I've seen. (The ones he's directed, I'm talking about. He strikes me as a really good actor.) But I've gotten to the point where I finally should give a chance to, say, Miracle in Milan and/or The Children Are Watching Us, etc. I'll have to get around to that eventually, and perhaps report back ... but I have said that about approximately 315 things on this blog, so that means there's a backlog of topics I was supposed to have addressed months ago ...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

One Kind of Circulation ...


"A warning from Marx regarding the cinema: "Though private property appears to be the source, the cause of alienated labor it is really its consequence, just as the gods in the beginning are not the cause but the effect of man's intellectual confusion" (Marx/Engels 1978: 79). This self-same relation is paramount in the formation and power of images. Though today it may appear that images are the cause of "man's intellectual confusion," the alienation of our senses; they are really its consequence. Such is the reason, for example, that Americans do not know or did not see or did not feel the deaths of all those Iraqis, do not dwell on the poverty and prostitution of Asia, do not rise up to help ameliorate the disease and famine imposed upon Africa, do not reckon the consequences of their intervention in Latin America. Images are the alienated, objectified sensuality of humanity becoming conscious for itself through the organization of consciousness and sense. They are an intensification of separation, capital's consciousness, that is, human consciousness (accumulated subjective practices) that now belongs to capital. Because our senses don't belong to us, images are not conscious for us. Or rather, they are conscious "for us" in another sense, that is, they are conscious in place of us. As the prosthetic consciousness of the world system, these new sites of sensuous production serve someone or something else. Entering through the eyes, these images envelop their hosts, positing worlds, bodily configurations and aspirations, utilizing the bio-power of concrete individuals to confer upon their propositions the aspect of reality. In realizing the image, spectators create the world.

"In my discussion above of the continuity between objects and images in capitalist circulation it was implied that exchange-value is the spectre in manufactured objects; their abstract equivalence in money as price is a proto-image. When a quantity of money is given for an object, the object is in effect photo-graphed, its impression is taken in the abstract medium of money. What is received in return for money is not, at the moment of exchange, the object itself but the commodity with its fetish-character, its affective, qualitative image component that corresponds to that quantity known as price. We have money given for affect, affect for money.

"This system functions by virtue of the conversion of labor time to exchange value (by capital), and the corresponding conversion of money into productive power (by the consumer). Exchange-value is sensuous labor, subjectivity, shunted into an alien(ating) system. When humans' production is alienated production, that is, when their product is produced for exchange and taken away from them at a socially leveraged discount, work becomes not a satisfaction of workers' needs but a means to their satisfaction. Marx told us that labor's "alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague" (Marx/Engels 1978: 74). To properly understand visual culture the "other compulsions" not specified by Marx must necessarily be part of our investigations. Why do we want to watch TV or be on the computer? In what sense are these compulsory? If the image is a development in the relations of production, a new site of dyssemetrical exchange between "labor" and "capital" and therefore a machine for the production of value itself, how do we explain the hold, that is the entrenchment, of the image? Put another way, how is the desire for television a development in expression of the desire for money? The desire of money?"

-- Jonathan Beller, excerpted from here (reprinted also in The Cinematic Mode of Production).


I've just read Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003):

"Consider the case of California, whose landscape has been thoroughly prisonized over the last twenty years. The first state prison in California was San Quentin, which opened in 1852. Folsom, another well-known institution opened in 1880. Between 1880 and 1933, when a facility for women was opened in Tehachapi, there was not a single new prison constructed. In 1952, the California Institution for Women opened and Tehachapi became a new prison for men. In all, between 1852 and 1955, nine prisons were constructed in California. Between 1962 and 1965, two camps were established, along with the California Rehabilitation Center. Not a single prison opened during the second half of the sixties, nor during the entire decade of the 1970s.

"However, a massive project of prison construction was initiated during the 1980s--that is, during the years of the Reagan presidency. Nine prisons, including the Northern California Facility for Women, were opened between 1984 and 1989. Recall that it had taken more than a hundred years to build the first nine California prisons. In less than a single decade, the number of California prisons doubled. And during the 1990s, twelve new prisons were opened, including two more for women. In 1995, the Valley State Prison for Women was opened. According to its mission statement, it "provides 1,980 women's beds for California's overcrowded prison system." However, in 2002, there were 3,570 prisoners and the other two women's prisons were equally overcrowded.

"There are now thirty-three prisons, thirty-eight camps, sixteen community correctional facilities, and five tiny prisoner mother facilities in California. In 2002 there were 157,979 people incarcerated in these institutions, including approximately twenty thousand people whom the state holds for immigration violations."

(pp. 12-13)

* * *

I'm going to do some more reading on this, myself, but here are websites to resources listed in the back of the book: Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, Human Rights Watch, Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, Justice Now, The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, Prison Activist Resource Center, Prison Legal News, Prison Moratorium Project, The Sentencing Project.

The Devalorization of the Human

Above: Final Fantasy: Advent Children; Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within; Sin City; The Matrix: Revolutions (x3); Domino; A Scanner Darkly; Smokin' Aces. I haven't seen all of these.)

As our CGI advances, and we can make more lifelike figures with it (should that be desired), there is simultaneously a tendency to make humans more cartoon-like, more painting-like, more embedded in the picture plane of colors and light. Fidelity to skin tones? That goes first! Not in all films; just in more films. Often this tendency is demonized, dismissed for being tied to youth or genre. Regardless of critical ignorance (or its opposite, blind and uncritical consumption), I think it will be part of the vocabulary of tomorrow's middlebrow, middle-aged, non-generic cinema.

The Pod Posters

(For Tuwa.)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Postmodern Queen

"As much genius was needed to obliterate Man at Byzantium as had been needed to discover him on the Acropolis. For the suppression of movement and the nude was not enough; the soul is immaterial. The one thing that could "devalorize" the human was what had "devalorized" it at Palmyra and in Gandhara, as in China: a style."

-- André Malraux, The Voices of Silence (that's for
Andy Rector)

I am curious about the arrival of prestige film products this past year that are presented, marketed for being explorations of the golden age of Hollywood: not necessarily Hollywood, mind you, but its age. The Good Shepherd, The Good German, The Painted Veil, Clint Eastwood's WWII diptych, and in maybe a weirder way also The Black Dahlia (the only one of these I've actually seen). There are antecedents for some of these, obvious ones--The Good German had Casablanca (and Curtiz in general), or so I read; The Painted Veil's trailer, at least, seemed like Out of Africa 2: In China. This rush of what seems like rather old fashioned prestigious historical fiction cinema is interesting to me (considering I haven't seen most of the films, only their advertising) because it throws into deeper relief another--more enduring--tendency in contemporary Hollywood that I alluded to in my Tony Scott entry some days back. That is, the willful employment of supersaturated and "unnatural" colors and filters, on-screen texts or images within screens within screens: a stylization, an "artificialization," an apparent devalorization of the human, that is becoming normalized if not naturalized within mainstream cinema. We could try to sort of why exactly this has happened thus far, is continuing to happen, but I don't necessarily want to do that here & now.

What interests me more is the possibility that what we might call the artificial turn can & will shed light on the flowering of "naturalism" in cinema that may now be years past its peak, and which maybe some films these days are no longer practicing as itself but as a sort of underhanded pastiche. "Naturalism" here is not something I believe in (after all I must maintain the impression of my critical detachment and irony!), not as a term I'm trying to just accept blindly, but as a descriptor for many shared conventions and projects of mainstream American film & television, whether "serious/prestigious" or simply "rank-and-file" in terms of style & cultural clout. Are these old-fashioned significations not remnants of so-called "classical" cinematic storytelling and aesthetics ... but instead part & parcel of what Jameson has already famously identified as the markers of (nostalgia & pastiche)? It's easy to say "yes" to that question for a film like Far from Heaven or, for that matter, the Thai hit (finally released in US theaters!) Tears of the Black Tiger, and even De Palma's latest film. It's probably also easy to say yes to The Good German, or so my impression is (given the press the film got about Soderbergh's Curtiz-journeyman aspirations, his use of lenses, etc.). But maybe even those films that aren't so "artistic" and/or "playful" are still every bit as enmeshed in a certain overarching logic of representations and style. Maybe less self-conscious about it; maybe also less interesting for it (in general). But even so ...

Take, for instance, The Queen (which I have seen), a nicely made, likable, intelligent middlebrow film (though it's still fundamentally a commercial pawn). In The Queen there is a retelling of a more recent period than the 1920s-1950s, of course--the week after Princess Diana's death, in case you've not paid any attention to the movies lately and yet still happen to read my blog. (Are there any like you out there?) But this is still what makes the exercise of nostalgia and pastiche so present--it presents itself as a reverse or "human" side to the news reports of August 1997, as though the media frenzy surrounding Diana's death were telling one part of the story, and the narrative cinema will tell the other, ensuring its closeness to its referent (a pastiche; the characters resemble their real-life counterparts in appearance and character: the screenplay & direction work hard not to "fictionalize" the scenario), and trying to rescue/affirm a certain ethical and emotional immediacy for this past event--a common task for fiction, sure, but here is where the spectacle (Debordian sense) is so everpresent: The Queen reconstructs a news media story as a fiction media story, neither one really having an anchor to lived experience but rather only to each other, filling in all the details of a spectacular happening of 1997 with another kind of spectacle. The resultant film, though ... quieter, "naturalistic," more ... "classical" than a media-happening would seem to be. (Apparently Notes on a Scandal is a similarly Brit-tabloidish exercise, though more pulpish.) But I suspect it's po-mo, and Moe from The Simpsons was wrong: sometimes postmodern can't mean "weird for the sake of weird."
I think I'll sleep on this and decide how much I really believe these off-the-cuff suppositions later ...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Quick; Stray

"The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than "that which appears is good, that which is good appears." The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its many of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance."

-- Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (#12)

What doesn't appear doesn't matter. What "appears," appears appears not on "your" terms or "ours." This is the tendency already victorious, currently in action, against which we can fight ...

Brownfemipower. The Unapologetic Mexican. Fire on the Mountain. Talk to Me Harry Winston.

Image of the Day

Velázquez, Supper at Emmaus (c. 1620)

Monday, February 05, 2007

Césaire on Lautréamont

"And Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautréamont!

In this connection, it is high time to dissipate the atmosphere of scandal that has been created around the Chants de Maldoror.

Monstrosity? Literary meteorite? Delirium of a sick imagination? Come now! How convenient it is!

The truth is that Lautréamont had only to look the iron man forged by capitalist society squarely in the eye to perceive the monster, the everyday monster, his hero.
No one denies the veracity of Balzac.

But wait a moment: take Vautrin, let him be just back from the tropics, give him the wings of the archangel and the shivers of malaria, let him be accompanied through the streets of Paris by an escort of Uruguayan vampires and carnivorous ants, and you will have Maldoror.

The setting is changed, but it is the same world, the same man, hard, inflexible, unscrupulous, fond, if ever a man was, of "the flesh of other men."

To digress for a moment within my digression, I believe that the day will come when, with all the elements gathered together, all the sources analyzed, all the circumstances of the work elucidated, it will be possible to give the Chants de Maldoror a materialistic and historical interpretation which will bring to light an altogether unrecognized aspect of this frenzied epic, its implacable denunciation of a very particular form of society, as it could not escape the sharpest eyes around the year 1865.

Before that, of course, we will have had to clear away the occultist and metaphysical commentaries that obscure the path; to re-establish the importance of certain neglected stanzas--for example, that strangest passage of all, the one concerning the mine of lice, in which we will consent to see nothing more or less than the denunciation of the evil power of gold and the hoarding up of money; to restore to its true place the admirable episode of the omnibus, and be willing to find in it very simply what is there, to wit, the scarcely allegorical picture of a society in which the privileged, comfortably seated, refuse to move closer together so as to make room for the new arrival. And--be it said in passing--who welcomes the child who has been callously rejected? The people! Represented here by the ragpicker, Baudelaire's ragpicker:
Paying no heed to the spies of the cops, his thralls,
He pours his heart out in stupendous schemes.
He takes great oaths and dictates sublime laws,
Casts down the wicked, aids the victims' cause.

Then it will be understood, will it not, that the enemy whom Lautréamont has made the enemy, the cannibalistic, brain-devouring "Creator," the sadist perched on "a throne made of human extrement and gold," the hypocrite, the debauchee, the idler who "eats the bread of others" and who from time to time is found dead drunk, "drunk as a bedbug that has swallowed three barrels of blood during the night," it will be understood that it is not beyond the clouds that one must look for that creator, but that we are more likely to find him in Desfossé's business directory and on some comfortable executive board!"

--Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (trans. Joan Pinkham) p. 65-67

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Thanks to HarryTuttle (who pointed it out in the comments here):

(from Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord)

... reminds me a little of a post here from months ago: Marina Vlady.