Saturday, September 29, 2007


Michael Newman has an excellent article on television and cultural legitimacy here (thanks to Girish for pointing it out). As we celebrate the "erasure" of high-low biases, and the acceptance of television, are we really just plowing over another hierarchical social mapping in the process?
* * *
Mark Kermode has a really problematic "conversion" article (hat tip to The House Next Door for linking to it the other day) where he, as a film critic, learns to stop worrying and love the boob tube. Cinema, that is, movies, always seemed more profound, a better and more immersive and hence more artistic experience, than television. (His favorite film ever by the way? The Exorcist. He's no purist of cinema as an aesthetic form.) After years of near-abstinence from TV, he finally caves. How does he do it? Well, he watches drama & comedy series, which line up most congruously with the artform, these movies, he so loves. No news or documentaries (he had no beef with those), no reality television shows ('the new porn'), no makeovers, etc. Most of the original content on television that differentiates itself from cinema is therefore disqualified from consideration before he's even started.

In short, he's not saying anything at all about the forms of cinema or television, as modes of exhibition, as political entities, or even as aesthetic fields (except for a few dumb remarks I'll touch on in a second). Why am I not surpried? This essay is nothing more than a cog in the big ideology machine to erase certain differences between film, television, and (though unspoken) computers--which, with the rise of digitization and its (illusory) smoothing out of "everything" you could ever want in the marketplace, serves the corporations whose products get shifted around from cinema screen to iPod to flat-screen, not always in that order. And as Newman's blog entry indicates, a lot of the hierarchies remain, so let's not be too thoughtlessly optimistic about the future, here.

Mainstream film reviewing and television reviewing both frequently operate as product endorsements; advertisements for a company products en toto, or a way of life (if not always for a particular product--like, say, an Uwe Boll film). This doesn't mean professional reviewers are all mindless; but the game has become so rigged that even the smart, dutiful ones have to cave in. And of course, the game has been rigged so well that some of us whippersnapper bloggers are reviewing movies, and hence advertising for companies in some capacity, for free. One difference between film and television commentary is of course the role of justifying the series format for the latter, and evaluating a TV show as it goes along. Someone gives up maybe two hours on a film they saw; but following a show involves more time, and the impetus these days of hooking viewers through continuity-reliant dramas seems to be at a peak. This goes beyond a critics' view of things, though I think it has a certain middle-class apologetic to it (thou shalt justify why you spend time watching Veronica Mars). More conventionally denigrated low-class forms of television--professional wrestling, soap operas--draw people in just as shamelessly, but regular viewers of these programs have always acknowledged it as precisely the addictive ruse it is, I think. Very popular, middle-class, middle-brow (or boutique) shows like Grey's Anatomy or House or whatever else are "canonized" on the Internet and around the water coolers not because anyone waxes poetic about their quality so much as the fact that they've hooked everyone in, from episode one to the latest (which of course then becomes a major foundation for TV value judgments).

Whereas television viewing, especially for the first 15-20 years of cable, was known for being transitory, fragmented, imperfect, it's now beautifully consolidating that spectatorship. Ideally speaking, no differentiation of media of scheduling stands in the way of the worlds of image-commodities (see post on Culture Monkey below). You can TiVo a series, or Netflix the DVD box sets, and watch it all in order at your leisure. Now that you don't need cable to watch cable TV, and commercials (as they are) are slowly becoming obsolete, what matters is first to ensure viewership when one can't fix it in space in time. Hence all the hooks; hence the "addictions" to TV on DVD (etc.);

Mark Kermode writes:

Well, on one level, TV clearly has improved, with the move toward the rectangular 16x9 widescreen image meaning that modern TV dramas no longer need look 'boxy' or 'cropped', a long-standing aesthetic barrier. Just as cinema's evolution from the old 4x3 'Academy' screen ratio to the more elongated 'widescreen' format was as significant as the advent of colour, so television's new picture dimensions are broadening its creative horizons immeasurably. Put simply, TV is no longer square. This is a major improvement and it's significant that my strict policing of my kids' TV viewing habits allows them to watch programmes on CBeebies and CBBC but only in the correct aspect ratio ('How many times do I have to tell you, Tweenies is anamorphic 16x9!').

You've got to be kidding. He's been utterly brainwashed by consumerist jingles! I'm as happy as anyone else that DVD has won the battle for widescreen video presentation, and I think it's great that TV channels commonly present films in their correct aspect ratio now. But this fetishization of widescreen (like the fetishization of all things "digital") is fundamentally no more than a proof that someone has taken a shovelful of marketing shit. Academy ratio does not look "inherently" boxy or cropped, of course. It probably will if the original print of the televised image was composed in 2.35 or 1.85. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with the good old-fashioned "square" image, and a critic who does not realize this is someone whose aesthetic faculties have been trampled and buried (sans funeral) by advertising-speak. Does Mark Kermode, lover of cinema, really think pre-1953 cinema was so limited by this "aesthetic barrier" before CinemaScope came to the rescue? That no beautiful images were composed for 1.33? I hope not.
(My parents, who have a massive widescreen TV in their basement, have everything set up so that DVDs of Academy-ratio films are cropped top and bottom so as to be "properly" widescreen. When this is happening with regular folks all over, it's not a victory for historical awareness of our moving image heritage--it's a sure sign that technology companies have referenced and used that call for awareness as a ploy to sell their newest product.)
* * *

I've just finished the first season of HBO's The Wire, which came very highly recommended. And there is much to recommend it. The ambitious plotlines kept me from having any good idea of what was even going on until the third or fourth episode. As a treatise on crime and political corruption in America, it's a relatively clear-eyed account--it says what everyone knows (but which our mainstream media of course back out of when the setting is not fiction), that the political system is corrupt and full of bribes and backdoor deals; that bureaucracy frequently and conveniently inhibits itself from doing anything about this; that poor (black) communities are being continually blighted as a means for profit (not only drugs, but lucrative urban redevelopment projects); that police brutality comes from a number of sources (class privilege, race privilege, a brand of "populist" moralism--when the black lesbian and likable cop Kima rushes to join in on a beating, she's screaming at the perp, "Why would you hit a cop!?") but effects the same domination. And The Wire offers spectacles of cops-and-robbers violence, and occasionally a bit of sex. There's lots of dry humor. It knows exactly how to keep interest high from scene to scene, episode to episode.

Aesthetically speaking. There's one scene where a character named Bubbles, a heroin junkie, is thinking about going clean. As he sits on a park bench there are shots of sunlight through tree leaves; birds chirping. This is where The Wire is at its lowest--when its stylistic choices seem, not inappropriate, but borrowed. It's not organic to the style of the show in any way, it's just something the director or DP thought up because he wanted to show the inviting freshness of a drug-free life; it's like a slick commercial, but a little subtler. Where The Wire is at its best is maybe in its presentation of Omar (Michael K. Williams), a humanized spin on the Badass Motherfucker routine, who in small moments and an admirable seamlessness between performance, writing, and camerawork reveals a deep capacity for love, an adherence to codes ("I've done some dirt, but I never shot anybody who wasn't in the game"), and in his love (the pale boy in the photo below is his lover) and his work (he puts on a show for us viewers whenever he's out to use the guns) he exhibits a taste for beauty. Neither perfect nor "clean," his budding strength is one that is alternative to the system that The Wire depicts and (to an extent) critiques. He indicates something of what might step up if the sociopolitical system presented were actually, amazingly, to start to crumble. He's not a street criminal because he's an underbelly capitalist (like most movie & tv gangsters); and neither is he Robin Hood, mind you; he's a survivalist and he is a certain figuration of potential. It will be interesting to see where this all goes. "I'm hooked."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Quote of the Day

(You know how the sun rises each morning? That's how I feel about cinema. It is always new.)

-- Jen MacMillan

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

La Peinture cubiste

For French readers.

Thierry Kuntzel and Philippe Grandrieux's La Peinture cubiste, a film/video-produced hybrid that MoMA has shown (on a worn videotape) in their series in tribute to the late Kuntzel, may very well be a major work that we don't often hear about.

Never have I been more frustrated at my own inadequate comprehension at French, particularly spoken French--words and phrases bubbling up so that they made some sense but, without subtitles, I was generally adrift. I must really learn this language. This videofilm could be one of my favorites. Grandrieux filmed (a cubist painter and his wife, in an apartment), and Kuntzel videotaped (negative filter effects, tromboning to distort the linear integrity of the objects). Something about the nature of vision, the visual experience of a cubist painter as he sees the objects and furniture of his room; Grandrieux & Kuntzel have situated him in the history of Western painting since the Renaissance. I think it could be great. I wish I could tell.

James Gray in the NYTimes

(From a few weeks ago, hat tip to Ryan for pointing out what I'd missed):

We Own the Night makes the most of seldom-seen locations, especially in the three action set pieces. To film a nerve-shredding drug bust, the production team found an actual stash house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx is the scene of a rainy car chase reminiscent of The French Connection. And the final face-off unfolds in a patch of head-high reeds at Floyd Bennett Field, a former airport in Brooklyn. (One of the reasons it took years to get the film off the ground was Mr. Gray’s refusal to shoot any of it in Toronto.)

Like Mr. Gray’s other films We Own the Night strives for a heightened emotionality that often seems in conflict with its macho environment. “There’s surface subversive, where it’s worn on the sleeve,” he said. “Everyone wears a hat, the ending comes in the middle. What I prefer is where the subversivenes is almost a Trojan horse and is deeper within the film,” as in classical Hollywood cinema.

“There’s a repression about that period I find amazing,” he added. “You’ve got the ‘A’ story and then beneath that something totally at odds with it. You have a movie that exists on two planes.”

Mr. Gray is smart and neurotic enough both to complain about being misinterpreted and to know that he shouldn’t. He doesn’t want to sound defensive but can’t help griping about what he feels are wrongheaded criticisms.

To his chagrin the Variety review of his new movie called him out for using Blondie’s 1978 song “Heart of Glass” in the opening club scene. “The idea that if your film takes place in 1988 it should only have music from 1988 shows a totally limited sense of history and how history is an accumulation of details,” he said. “Is all your furniture from 2007?”

But he is most irked by the contention that his film is cop-glorifying, flag-waving or even pro-Bush, a connection some have made because of the Bushian ultimatum Mr. Duvall’s character issues to Mr. Phoenix’s: “Either you’re gonna be with us or you’re gonna be with the drug dealers.”

“That was a conscious George Bush comment,” Mr. Gray said. “But that’s not the filmmaker endorsing the behavior. One of the reasons Henry IV [which was an influence for We Own the Night--ZC] reverberated for me in the first place was the current White House.”

Monday, September 24, 2007

Branded World

There are some very interesting things over at Culture Monkey, a blog you should definitely check out:

"Today the ideal blockbuster is part of an entire universe of image-commodities and commodified experience, stage managed in all their myriad formats by a single media conglomerate. Should the consumer wish, video games, animated series, comic books, novels, role-playing games and fan communities, all interrelated to an unprecedented degree of detail, can ensure a near-total independence from the reality of others. The blockbusters of the 21st century, including Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the granddaddy of them all, Star Wars, are not just movies, or even just stories: they are worlds unto themselves."

* * *

The idea of wholly-produced 'worlds' that traverse media--realms into which the fan (however casual or hardcore) can immerse himself--has always appealed to me. Of course it's part & parcel of marketing, this profit-wringing through the variegation of 'image-commodities,' but there are some interesting things done with the possibility, like Mamoru Oshii's Kerberos, which I'd love to eventually delve into beyond the few films I've seen from the saga. I hope to finally get some thoughts on Tachigui--The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters up here.

Ethics of Cinematic Dissemination

A bit dense and labyrinthine and wound up into a ball of yarn in my head; please forgive because I'm going to try to unpack later ...

Let's not think of this in terms of market freedom alone, i.e., the ability for corporations to disseminate practically whatever they want for profit, on terms that suit them. Look at cinema under an authoritarian regime: invisibility, inscrutability, in fact even esotericism, might be good things in terms of evading authority and censorship (meaning authority does not recognize the weapon that passes beneath its gaze). The benefits of so-called universalism, of a mostly, easily culturally-translated mass-produced (but, remember, never actually "popular") vernacular (like the Hollywood/HK action film-product), include a big forum for discussion which can be a good. The solution is not a homogenization of these two polarities ("neither totally mainstream nor obscure = ideal"), but the strategic dialogue between elements of both and all that exist in the regions between each theoretical extremity. It's common sense, but almost never practiced ...

I think this impulse is part of what has connected some makers of avant-garde cinema, as well as theorists and scholars (e.g. Burch), to early cinema, pre-Institutional Mode of Representation. A utopian desire, and maybe a naive one in some ways? Perhaps. (I'm not the historical expert to have a noteworthy opinion on the matter.) Under classical narrative cinematic conventions, things like editing, plot structure, camera movement, etc. are often made to feel invisible, or at least seamless--we are trained as viewers to experience these as seamless under the IMR and its close relatives (low-budget or 'authorial' exceptions acknowledged). There's the highly untrue truism, 'good direction is direction that you can't see.' Whereas in a work of early cinema, as in much avant-garde cinema (or 1920s Soviet montage cinema), the artwork has a non-formulaic or alternatively formulaic make-up. A cut awakens us, keeps us on our toes, because it hasn't fallen into a pattern we've been trained to receive. That reception-training is bound inextricably with the education of the senses that modernity's technological culture instilled upon its inhabitants ... thus, to experience a work (or even simply an instance in it) against the grain of a dominant set of pedagogical-aesthetic patterns is to make one infinitesimal movement against that very culture. (Perhaps only one small movement, though: let's not oversell the "revolutionary" potential of the underground film.)

So the ethical dimension of a shot, a cut, a pan or zoom, whatever, exists because

(a) it bears a relationship to viewers (individual, class), and

(b) because it exists in a system with certain aesthetic patterns finessed and employed in the interests of a (ruling) class for those (mass) viewers' consumption.

Understand, of course, that this is no argument about the greatness of mainstream works: the Hollywood style, or mainstream formal-invisibility, a number of dominant narrative and spectacle-presentational patterns all work because they are on some level effective. We needn't "reject" Trouble in Paradise or Notorious because they operate under the auspices and political program of 'the Hollywood style' (more a stable of stylistic potentialities, really). The question is simply being realistic about how we understand the role of form in sociopolitical discussions of cinema/media.

Special knowledge: the ecology of what we might call anti-mainstream, or anti-IMR practices (production & reception) in cinema and media--which could include digital piracy and sampling as well as it could include anti-bourgeois (!) seizure-producing flicker effects--need not fit the model of avant-gardism. I think this has been a mistake, that some of the literature which deals with alternative practices foregrounds vanguardist purity when it should be foregrounding 'alternativity' (not necessarily marginality)--and aesthetic and thematic self-sufficiency from the mainstream. This posture of exceptionalism has already been co-opted, if it hadn't been from the very beginning. (Look at IFC's smarmy commercials about how it's good because it's, so, like, not cheesy Hollywood crap.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Wanting People to Know

(Photo: Bob Bird/AP)

"Carmen Williams said she wanted people to know what her daughter [Megan Williams] had endured."

And this. To what extent are bloggers ethically obligated to speak up about certain issues? (And not every blogger fits into the category of navel-gazing teenage livejournal diarist or grassroots quasi-journalist, even though this is what all the hype about "bloggers" seems to indicate in the mainstream press.) Probably nobody expects someone who blogs about, say, the corporate world, obscure free jazz recordings, or collectible action figures to interrupt their regular programming and write a post on the Jena Six, or Megan Williams. But what about a blog like this one, with pretensions (ah, more gently now: aspirations) to periodically address very real issues and events of power, and the media? Nobody comes here for news or commentary on POC issues, or radical/progressive issues in general. And yet, Ilyka Damen points to something important here--that is, if you've set precedent for stirring the pot in one way, let's say "the pot" of power structures, the feared race/class/gender matrices, you've built a certain amount of ethical expectation and obligation for yourself. (For my part, I think I've set up these expectations numerous times, and subsequently I've failed at this...) If you've got time to comment on the University of Florida student who was tasered, for example, there's no point in making excuses for not also adding your voice--or pointing clearly to others'--to the movement for justice for the Jena Six, for Megan Williams, for the six lesbians from New Jersey who are still awaiting justice and probably won't get it, for a lot of other struggles that may not be centered on the subject position of white middle-class people who get the short end of the stick from the law (like the UF guy).

(And speaking of which, I'm still figuring out how exactly I feel about the reports of this $1.5 million Duke Innocence Project ...)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Furnaces

A user named 'dharmamarx' has very helpfully uploaded clips from Hour of the Furnaces (with English subs) to YouTube. Here's the incendiary introduction ...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Image of the Day

Quote of the Day

"The writer, as the producer of a text, does not manufacture the materials with which he works. Neither does he stumble across them as spontaneously available wandering fragments, useful in the building of any sort of edifice; they are not neutral transparent components which have the grace to vanish, to disappear into the totality they contribute to, giving it substance and adopting its forms. The causes that determine the existence fo the work are not free implements, useful to elaborate any meaning: as we shall see in the course of a very definite example, they have a sort of specific weight, a peculiar power, which means that even when they are used and blended into a totality they retain a certain autonomy; and may, in some cases, resume their particular life. Not because there is some absolute and transcendent logic of aesthetic facts, but because their real inscription in a history of forms means that they cannot be defined exclusively by their immediate function in a specific work."

-- Pierre Macherey, Theory of Literary Production (ed. Geoffrey Wall, p. 47)

More a private reminder than anything else, but I thought I'd like to pass on the paragraph anyway ...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Finally caught up with Buñuel's El and I'm wondering if anyone knows of any good lengthy texts (whatever language, if it's Romance I can parse it and get a little something) handle the question of parts of El's apparently massive influence on parts of Vertigo. Do any of the Hitchcock biographies or anything deal with this? And given how much hell Brian De Palma received with his "Hitchcock ripoffs" (which were, of course, a mere handful of completely forthright engagements with the Hitchcock corpus/mythos: whatever else one thinks of them), has anyone replied how heavily the Master of Suspense seems to have "borrowed" from Buñuel here?

(Speaking of Hitchcock books: has anyone read the two-volume Hitchcock's Cryptonymies by Tom Cohen? Looks fascinating but very intensive, maybe too thick a slice to add to my plate at the moment.)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Image of the Day

Hour of the Furnaces

I wonder what it would have been like to see this film (which I've waited a long time to see) the way it was apparently intended by Solanas & Getino--that is, with debate, discussion. This is one of the biggest problems with the spread of 'political' film today: its neutralization in the social act of seeing the film. Sure, there's always the chance to impress someone at a party with anecdotes about the four-hour Argentinian anticapitalist film you saw, but if it's not showing up again at a screen near you ... then what? And the surge of home screenings, for groups of people, of various Iraq or anti-Bush documentaries is better than nothing; a step forward. But what of the actual discussion amongst strangers, really disparate people potentially, in theatrical venues?

Whose blood didn't boil throughout parts of this film? Isn't the point to channel that energy somehow? Even almost forty years later, it's still got something to it ...

Management Speak

I've started coursework for my MA. I doubt I'll be blogging about the experience as I go along; Elusive Lucidity is a place for me to write about things I don't really get to talk about in my day-to-day life, and school (like work) gets as much play as it needs. This post serves only as a reminder to myself, to keep trying to pull myself out of too-easy thought patterns, to keep thinking--which is a challenge never surmounted, only battled to a truce and judged on one's satisfaction--even when other parts of scholarly life might come easy. The lure of certain kinds of speech can sometimes blind us like a shiny object for a raccoon ...


The Viacom Corporate Responsibility Council seeks to provide company-wide guidance and support to pro-social programs governed by our brands. While nurturing each business unit's distinctive identity, the Council collaborates on Company-wide pro-social efforts, as well as, projects at the business unit level. The Council educates employees and audiences about key pro-social issues to inspire, enlighten and ignite action in both the public arena and within our own employee family.

... Or there are always the groupings of three (via Time Warner, whose "businesses strive to gain competitive advantage from opportunities for constructive collaboration"):

Whether measured by quality, popularity or financial results ... Entertainment maintain unrivaled reputations for creativity and excellence as they keep people informed, entertained and connected. ... We are innovators in technology, products and services. ... a focus on growth, engagement and monetization. ... Most important, our people’s leadership at every level — their creativity, talent and commitment to excellence — ensures that Time Warner continues to provide the high-performance service, trustworthy information and enjoyable entertainment our audiences, members and customers expect.

(That last sentence is so beautifully vacuous, squaring itself with a hat trick of trios, "ensuring to continue to provide," boldly pushing the oxymoronic "leadership at every level" ... four stars!)

If I felt less gauche doing so I'd quote an even longer passage from Chabert, but if you'll excuse me, here are three quite substantial paragraphs from some months ago that I found illuminating:

Frederic Jameson wasn't the first but was perhaps the most eloquent and observant to explain how/why postmodern aesthetic product works on delivering an illusion or facsimile of content. (The first stage of this perhaps was the treatment of content as mere simulacra of content, which was actually the - unspoken- ideological posture of New Criticism.) Without the goblins, the ghosts, the fabulous plot, the fantasy, low-genre or pastiche elements - the vulgar post-modern phenomenology - we have empty, coat-hanger texts, texts which entirely refuse, indeed shrink from, the traditional material referents of the image constellations and narrative paraphernalia they marshall. (There are exceptions, of course).

Did I say vulgar? That is precisely the wrong - the most insulting - word. It is the vulgarity of social reality ('vulgarity' has beome a synonym for 'materiality' or 'reality') whose urgent suppression and avoidance (as above all a rude, inescapably uppity and frightful incongruity which artistic imagination must, like a phalanx of private security guards, close out from the privileged spaces where the sheer lavishness, the conspicuous costliness and profitability, of the capitalist mass culture's artifacts are displayed) - whose inadmissibility (theoretically bumped up in class to unknowability), then, inspires all this density of simulacral reference.

In this sense one has to class (you should pardon the expression) Spectres of Marx in this genre. If it had been forty times or so more widely read one might be tempted to accuse it of influence on something. Derrida was a very inventive, stupefyingly erudite, and more importantly kind and generous man, but where where does a person in his economically and socially elite minority find the chutzpah, really, to declare the concept of class pernicious, shameful and requiring obliteration on the grounds that it is metaphysical? The Telltale Heart of this ambivalent, and ambivalence generating, work - introducing the new figure, Spectrology/Hauntology (which in the decade since its English translation's release has been more successful than any other new figure of its kind in its target niche), this recursively monstrous changeling- is the drumbeat of denouncement of vulgarity as part of the tireless self-dramatising as a just-baptised bumpkin in a pristine white terry robe, perpetually emerging from the cleansing steams, performing that obsessive and at this point supersititious warding off of the evil materialist eye described by Timpanaro as characteristic and obligatory for all Marxisms or 'Marxian' inquiries, running through the entire work, and punctuating its episodes of textual explication. It is rare for Derrida to make positive, plain language proposals, but curiously it seems about half of the few occurrences of such unhesitating statements in his entire oeuvre appear in his reading Marx; here, confronting Marx - confronting "the philosophy of praxis", confronting an argument which among other things suggests that this fantasy Derrida promotes* of the role of bourgeois sages and administrators is both bogus and insidious - deconstruction transforms from an operation which coaxes into bloom the reticent and stunted seeds of the text, which obeys its object in the obstinate pursuit of a tendentious poetical purpose, to an old fashioned, if tactically and lexically newfangled, rhetorical refutation. This unaccustomed podium-produced debunking - with all the characteristics of the feared vulgarity except clarity - is not occulted so much as minced and scattered over the deconstructive stew as garnish, not stirred in, remaining visible and available for gleaning. The refutation, buoyed up to a level of respectability by the stew below with its strong flavouring of commitments to an undeconstructible justice, is confined to a certain aspect of Marx, that is, to that aspect for which Marx has remained an important thinker for people outside the academy and a troublesome, quarantined and habitually mangled one within, namely, to his critique of capitalism. What is allowed to pass in the purported celebration of the Marxian legacy is Marx' critique of some clerks' text-product. If that is a celebration, who needs stonings?

* * *

On the masking of content there is little I can say. ('I hope to redefine, reimagine, and reinterrogate the notion of masking in the interstices of social, spatial, and ideological arenas.') The enemy here is not difficult language, it is not Continental philosophy, it is not some "outmoded" Marxism. The vigil stands to watch for apologetics for a dominant order; the apologists are often unwitting wolves in sheep's clothing. Enjoy the clips.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Thanks, A.O. Scott

"The best of the old westerns were dense with psychosexual implication and political subtext. Often dismissed, then and now, as naïve celebrations of dubious ideals, they were in many ways more sophisticated than their self-consciously critical (or “revisionist”) heirs."


I love Clint Eastwood's Westerns and Jarmusch's Dead Man, but the fact of the matter is that they have added to--not "outdone"--the autocritical, artistically complex Western tradition already established by the likes of Anthony Mann, Andre De Toth, and John Ford among others ... including, definitely, Delmer Daves' original 3:10 to Yuma. Haven't seen the remake, will do so if I can find time and a spare $11. But this is one of my biggest pet peeves, the thoughtless, history-blind acclaim of "neo" or "revisionist" Hollywood genre films that are often more aesthetically and thematically retrograde than the films that the commentary end of the culture industry tells us they're updating.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


The Spook Who Sat by the Door changes registers a few times throughout; it begins on very procedural terms, leavened throughout by very wry black comedy. A black man, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), excels and attains token placement in the CIA, where his 'Uncle Tom' tactics get him ahead. Lots of small gestural and behavioral beauties--like when Freeman is called last-minute from his job as Director of the Reproduction Department (he makes photocopies in a back room all day, the only job they're willing to give the black hire) to give a tour of CIA facilities to a bunch of white Senators--he advances his hand for a shake ever-so-slightly before dropping it again, acknowledging that he'll get no fraternal greeting.

The film then goes into a different kind of procedural mode, from institutionally-critical to productive: Freeman makes contact with a militant black gang in Chicago, asserts himself as its ring leader; they become an active Black Panther organization (in all but name): our hero's really a radical, and nobody suspects because they don't think the black militants are capable of intelligent resistance.

And from this point there's a certain docudrama urgency to the film (e.g., amazing crowd control and shooting in a neighborhood riot sequence). The Spook Who Sat by the Door has a variegated style and a loose linear structure: a lot of registers to work even (even broad slapstick once or twice), and it succeeds in most of them.

Hogan's Heroes actor Ivan Dixon had something to him as a director, though his directorial work was almost all in television I think. 'Subject for Further Research.'

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Images of the Day

When it comes down to it--here is some "elusive lucidity." Maybe I should just turn this into a Jacques Rivette blog?

Simon on Bergman

Let me put it this way now: What Shakespeare is to the theater, Bergman is to cinema. Neither of them has been or is likely to be equaled. There have been other great film directors: Fellini, whom Bergman loved; Bresson, whom Bergman selectively admired; Antonioni, whom he came to appreciate; and Renoir, who mostly left him cold. But none of them so expressed the whole human being, so encompassed human variety.

Alex posted here: "Overall, Bergman nearly always surpresses politics - characters from the middle ages appear as angst-ridden moderns. Characters from the nobility of the nineteenth century appear as.....angst-ridden moderns. Making movies about other times is a perfect way to explore politics other than our own (Kurosawa Welles and Jancso utilize this method, for instance)- and Bergman ignores the opportunity he himself is creating. Bergman often creates figures who very naturally would have political pasts and activities and ignores that side of their existance."

There are a lot of Bergman films I haven't seen. Empirically I can't be certain that John Simon is wrong; or he may be wrong but at least in the ballpark. Yet nothing I've seen by Bergman suggests he gets at "the totality" of human experience. He certainly seems to register with thoroughness on one certain plane or approach to cinema, to Art. But I feel safe in saying he doesn't ever offer what Brakhage offers, or what Godard offers.

And [Bergman] never shied away from the great, tragic truths.

Strange how those people who most valorize concepts like "the great, tragic truths" never bother to illuminate or even suggest what these truths are. Let's call a spade a spade here--bereft of further elaboration, this statement almost always means, "my own deepest fears, desires, convictions of any and all kinds were affirmed by this artwork." Too timid to invoke I in this context, the commentator projects his feelings onto the totality of humanity.

He was a man who loved women, and sometimes resented them, which comes with the territory. In all his films, women figure as importantly as men, and often more so. He understood them and empathized with them; he was horrified by Hitchcock, whom he perceived as hating them. The uncut version of Scenes from a Marriage may be the profoundest movie treatment of man-woman relationships ever made.

Always it is with these encomia to male directors who are vaulted into the stratosphere for paying attention to half the population. The same sentiment behind, "This director [always male] understood women better than any other." Mizoguchi was a incredibly great director; Ophüls was an incredibly great director; Bergman may have been an incredibly great director too--do we give them a trophy or a jello mold, do we base our estimation on their greatness on our recognition of their basic attention to women? Yes, it's a political good for filmmakers to go against a few patriarchalist grains, but why must praise of this practice so often come steeped in paternalistic language ("resenting" women comes with the territory of "loving" them--sheesh)?

He also understood and loved actors as no other director did. (Renoir, in a couple of films, approached this.) He had been, briefly, an actor, and all through his life directed theater, where the actor-director relations are closer than in film. Importantly, he had a kind of resident company of film actors on whom he could rely, and for whom he tailored his screen characters--only Kurosawa had something vaguely resembling it.

When all else fails, assert without explaining. "Understanding" actors, "loving" them--this is such a cliché; I know because I've used it plenty of times in the past myself. It's lazy. For the record, more than Kurosawa had something "vaguely resembling" a company of stock actors who interacted with the filmmaker. You would think that some Weekly Standard intern would send a note to Simon pointing out this glaringly obvious fact. Simon's opinion may be that the likes of Ford, Altman, or Ozu did not use their "resident companies" as well as Bergman--but Bergman was hardly unique in this regard.

Unlike most directors, Bergman wrote most of his screenplays himself. There he exhibited his superb command of dialogue, another thing that brings him close to Shakespeare.

On this I am simply curious--does Simon, an erudite individual obviously (if frequently very wrong), speak Swedish?


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Jungle Highlights

"When I go to Sri Lanka-- I mean, I haven't been that many times-- but when I went, it was really difficult, just because of how I dress and what I look like. They go, "Oh my God, she's so Westernized." I have brown bits in my hair, and my Mom was practically on her knees screaming, "Nooo! You have to dye your hair before you leave the house or I'll kill myself!" I'd be like, "What are you freaking out about?" and she'd explain the Tamil Tiger girls have been in the jungle for so long that their hair goes brown, and if you walk out like this, you're going to get shot because people will think you're a Tamil Tiger girl. And I'd be like, [posh accent] "Mom, this is fashion! From England! L'Oreal hair color, like, get with it-- because I'm worth it!"

That's how they knew I was Westernized, because I'd be brave and I'd walk to the shops. And they'd be like, "No no no-- you just don't do shit like that around here. Get off the bicycle and quit it, 'cause you will get killed." (via)

I don't yet have an iPod (gasp) and I haven't bought a CD in forever, so I haven't actually bought her new or older stuff yet, but I've been watching/listening to M.I.A. videos on YouTube constantly for the past couple of weeks. I first heard her music from the Dosa Guy back in 2005 ("I like her voice--very sexy").

Family Life


May I suggest an acronym? "The Hollywood Establishment's Glorification Of Downright Fascists As Tragic Heroes Exceeds Reason".

-- Dale Thomajan (via Theo Panayides)

Recently I watched The Godfather (my second viewing, and the first in probably eight years or so). I'm not a FF Coppola fan; I haven't seen everything and maybe I'll love One for the Heart whenever I get around to it, but the "master" who made four of the greatest films of the (allegedly) greatest period of American cinema just does very little for me. So revisiting The Godfather over the weekend, while hardly the painful experience my most pessimistic self had been hardening myself for, was for all intents and purposes a fairly cool three hours. What can I say? I honestly can't say much about the film, one way or the other. But here are a few notes it sparked.

There's a certain stance that Coppola's film takes toward the mobsters that reappears in and structures I think almost every other contemporary American mobster movie (including what I've seen of The Sopranos): a frisson between the comfort and ritual of family life--eyetalians and all their surrogate relatives (and there are always outsiders let in a certain ways: James Caan in The Godfather, De Niro in GoodFellas), the pasta dinners and feisty little grandmas and mistresses and the Church; and the brutal and basically romanticized violence of that other kind of "family life," the beatings and killings, the money movement, the drugs/gambling/theft. The two are frequently played off of each other; no sequence could possibly exemplify it better than the famous Godfather baptism sequence. In fact the baptism sequence literalizes what is often, I think, an unforced, maybe even unacknowledged source of energy and drama in these works--drawing in people through comforts of ritual and familiarity (dinnertime, mundane things like the "everyday" problems of the Soprano family), through certain family values (tribalist, socially authoritarian: everyone from Sonny to Scarface has got to look out for his sister), and then using the credit won in that account to take us "into" the minds of the mobsters--recto capitalist gangsters to the Enron/Halliburton verso. Likewise perhaps there's a basic consumer-pleasing element, a kind of wish fulfilment, in the reverse: that the violence and crime are sprinkled throughout certain reflections of mundane middle-class life. It seems like a perfectly reproducible, workable formula; Scorsese and The Sopranos are compulsively watchable; I wonder why there aren't more mob movies and shows like this.

I type all this in not as a means of trying to attack the likes of Scorsese, Chase, Coppola, etc. There are worthy parts to all their work; but I'm not concerned in this instance with the bottom line of quality obviously, but with the meaning and functions of certain generic (even "authorially" generic) elements in a certain framework. What propels these mob movies forward; why are they so often balanced in this way; is this particular balance of 'family life' perspectives a defining structural feature of the 1970-present mob film?

Exceptions: Abel Ferrara (whose mob films are just of a different order altogether: a different creature) and, at least, the first two features by James Gray (his third hits American screens in October). Little Odessa and The Yards are excellent films that I have watched only once; they are--especially the latter--perfectly fine narrative films, a little Oscar-bait even; they also appeared on first go-round exceptionally smart and clear-eyed about family life, family love, money, mob/metropolitan politics and strings-pulling. I keep meaning to Netflix these two films, analyze them more closely, and write a little about them ...

And one caveat: I have not yet seen Once Upon a Time in America, I always miss it when it comes to the repertory scene here and I really would prefer to see it on the big screen.