Sunday, January 27, 2008


I recently re-watched All About Eve, All That Heaven Allows, and The Fly (Cronenberg) on DVD.

Mankiewicz's film comes off somewhat better than the first go round--I wasn't a huge fan the first time I saw it, and I know it's a classic and full of great lines, and I see now that it's not a shallow film, that the whole Addison DeWitt angle especially gives it some substantial resonance. But I just haven't been able to jump aboard 100%. Don't ask me why, I'm not certain I could give you a rational reason. Or even a coherent irrational one. Yet.

All That Heaven Allows shows its contours in more definite light now that Sirk isn't new to me, now that I'm aware of the varying mass responses to his work. Without doing the proper research, I would suggest that even though 1950s housewives and other viewers, including critics, weren't excavating deep critical meanings, the level of critique/distanciation in Sirk's women's pictures had to be apparent. Perhaps the films were dismissed as fluff not because they were considered no better than reactionary bourgeois fantasies (something that might apply to Magnificent Obsession, but not There's Always Tomorrow or All That Heaven Allows) but because of their very real narrative "limitations"--I'd hypothesize that it was not because the viewers didn't get the films but because the hierarchical valuation of these films prioritized clear narrative lines and devalued their self-evidently stunning mise-en-scène, lighting and coloration, their complex and rich visual universes. (A good research question would be--and please if you know if this been done, point me in its direction!--whether contemporary viewers & reviewers of Sirk's films ever singled some of them out in terms of the way they felt as opposed to equally "inane" women's pictures of the era.) That said, I don't think Sirk is subversive (which is something I used to think). Critical, yes; subversive, no. As for the self-aware comedy of the films, i.e., a reading of them as sly parodies of the melodramas they also were ... well, yes, that's there, but I think it was probably there in a lot of other (less aesthetically rich) films, and probably people were picking up on it all along, but not prioritizing it. Those are my raw $0.02.

I watched The Fly as a kid, with my parents, and though I think I only saw it that once, a lot of the scenes played back as eerily familiar. (Also, it's such a retread of some of Videodrome's themes!) I've nothing much I want to say about the film; or rather, nothing much I want to say here. But I'm struck by the thought that in a lot of cases 1980s films might be preferable on VHS rather than DVD, whose clear digital lines neither compensate for a good 35mm print nor align with what the filmmakers themselves were using as a comparison/substitute back in those old dinosaur days.

Now go watch "Sensual Seduction" if you haven't seen it already. This is one of my favorite music videos ever, I think. After one or two viewings, try it with the sound off.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Still Life

Has someone specifically labeled Jia Zhang Ke a "poet of globalization" yet? Well they should--it would be a fantastic marketing gimmick. Maybe capitalize it: the Poet of Globalization.

If I open glibly, snarkily, it's only because Still Life is the kind of film whose brilliance may need a bit of polemical cynicism in order to counterbalance what is surely a temptation for some (1) to read the film in purely impressionistic-melodramatic terms. Because as a story about people searching (for...) it is a fairly affecting film. But it is only when the human interest is understood within its wider contexts specifically--not as the dramatic heart of a social message but as micro-developments within a macro-narrative--that I think Still Life emerges as one of the very richest and most important "festival films" of recent years that I've had the fortune of seeing.

To a limited extent Still Life--not alone on this score--reinterprets through some kind of a "realist" lens a lot of the concerns of Italian Neorealism, namely, poor people relocated by circumstances, living in bad conditions but finding happiness, separated from loved ones, coping with health issues and a struggling local bureaucracy. (Forget the Nouvelle Vague--Neorealism and Antonioni are the real lightning rods of contemporary art cinema from around the globe.) Of course the "realism" on display here is prone to little revolts and the occasional display of outright fantasy--a funny bit of spaceship CGI--so in Jia's world everything has its limits. So, limited, too, are the moments of sentimentality (2).

This sense of engorged restraint, where every dominant (like a social realist aesthetic) has its antithetical moments (such as fantastical graphic whimsy), is how Still Life builds its richness. By telling two stories of migration, loss, and searching--a pair of tales which do not directly interlock narratively--Jia is going along with certain demands of a cinema about people. But instead of centralizing any of the interpersonal conflicts, he analogizes them to mirror or rub against the sociohistorical changes depicted more obliquely (but openly) throughout the film: the massive displacement of bodies enacted over several turbulent decades by the Three Gorges Dam (alluded to not only by markings on the city walls, and all the demolition work, but by television broadcasts themselves), the migrant nature of labor and its ill effects (we see the family pleading with a business owner to compensate for a man's lost arm), the (non)curative salves of escapism major and minor (commercial cinema, cards, prostitution: plus the four 'still life' chapters of cigarettes, liquor, tea, and toffee). While watching the film I was overcome with a very peculiar, gradual sense of sadness. This was intermittently sparked by moments of human interaction, of course, but I think it's really deeply motivated and sustained not by the idea of vanquished love or families torn asunder (Jia doesn't bet too heavy on this hand he's holding), but of the way Jia shows time's inevitable passing as etched on all the behaviors of these people amongst each other. And this way of understanding time passing right now is precisely linked to the movements of the Chinese economy, which have very local effects that drift outward and are--we must believe, as we already know--are in turn impacted from the outside onto the local itself.

Jia has a very fine pictorial eye but I've not been as struck by his work in the same way that I have by the likes of Hou, Tsai, Wong, even Zhang (to name some other big names in the sino-cinemasphere). Qualities of light, color, and composition seem--to me--to be slightly less important and rigorous than they do with someone like Hou. (Again, I must stress that I'm judging him relative to contemporary masters in this instance. Jia and his cinematographers can and do make images more beautiful than over 90% of what else is out there.) But where Jia compensates, and I had only really noticed this in Still Life, is with the sound design, which on first encounter is complex, multi-faceted, both full of "real" sounds of the urban space and manipulated for expressive effect. Consider a scene where the woman, Shen Hong, sees a flyer on the wall for Ding Yaling (her estranged husband's suspected lover, and "President of the Hehe Construction Group" or something of this sort). The camera lingers on a close-up of DY's photograph on the flyer, and then pans over to a high-angle photograph of a building implosion. As this pan occurs the ambient sound of the room increases in volume on the soundtrack, evoking the rumble-and-boom of the implosion. Experience comes to us, the film viewers, in images of images, enmeshed in both very localized human emotion (the bitter romantic jealousy felt, or that we suspect is felt, by Shen Hong) and the knowledge of the profitable displacement of masses of working people and lumpenproletariat by these kinds of construction projects ... the result of a legacy initiated by Mao but finally delivered by the bizarre CP-led state capitalism of mainland China.

Really, he is a poet of globalization, and though that is a fine marketing term for this festival filmmaker, it is also a valid description of his achievements. The snark and the sincerity converge, coincide. How postmodern! And Jia is a fine guide to have through the pomo rivers and gorges.

(1) I can identify this temptation in myself and assume I am not the only one.
(2) For the record, I'm not against sentimentality in art. There are far worse sins by and large and if a film is honest and upfront in how it's using sentiment to engage pleasure/identification/whathaveyou I've no complaints.

NB: Though I speak here of "Jia" I have not seen all of his films, and will remedy that soon. I have decided to let myself just post the immediacy of my thoughts in this review within hours of having seen Still Life--for Elusive Lucidity is nothing if not receptive to unpolished thoughts!--and, time permitting, I will soon try to retun to SL and also catch up with a pair of other Jia films, finally ... and if anything of note comes to mind, I'll follow up. Thanks for reading.

* * *

Venue Woes: as I hit up the men's room at the IFC Center before the screening, two fellows at the commodes next to me had just come out of the previous screening of Still Life. One said to the other, "I fell asleep during the last few minutes. So what happens at the end, does blah blah blah happen?" Thankfully, two things. One, Still Life isn't the sort of film that's really possible to ruin with spoilers. Two, the second fellow in the restroom gave a totally vague and noncommittal answer (appropriate, following Jia) and so I didn't have anything spoiled two minutes before I even walked into the theater. A close call.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Image of the Day

J. Edgar Hoover gives Shirley Temple a supportive hand.

Already Occupied by the Enemy


THE [PARIS] COMMUNE represents the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to date — attacking on the spot the petrified signs of the dominant organization of life, understanding social space in political terms, refusing to accept the innocence of any monument. Anyone who disparages this attack as some “lumpenproletarian nihilism,” some “irresponsibility of the pétroleuses,” should specify what he believes to be of positive value in the present society and worth preserving (it will turn out to be almost everything). “All space is already occupied by the enemy. . . . Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics.” (
Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism, Internationale Situationniste #6.)


THE PARIS COMMUNE succumbed less to the force of arms than to the force of habit. The most scandalous practical example was the refusal to use the cannons to seize the French National Bank when money was so desperately needed. During the entire existence of the Commune the bank remained a Versaillese enclave in Paris, defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property and theft. The other ideological habits proved in every respect equally disastrous (the resurrection of Jacobinism, the defeatist strategy of the barricades in memory of 1848, etc.).


No doubt a lot of Minutemen and nativist nutjobs think that the occupying enemy are the illegal immigrants--i.e., the "issue" that seems to be the Republican hot topic for 2008 in the same way that terrorism and gay marriage were in 2004. It's not the Minutemen who have power, however--save for very localized situations when they are confronting illegal immigrants with guns. Our government could see out some simple, clear measures to help with the "problems."

I am surprised, however--because I had assumed there would be a modicum of decency ... somewhere on the playing field ... speaking out to the gringo citizens like me, for I'm sure I'm not the only one, who are not threatened by these people without papers who risk life & limb to survive and support their families, and in the process fuel a lot of our everyday economy. Chalk it up to a naive moment for me (because that's what it is), but I'm surprised, still, at how right-wing the entire immigration debate is proving to be for all involved on the political stage. I guess I just hadn't foreseen the power with which the politicians have molded and manipulated this issue.

Amnesty, education, health care for "illegal" immigrants who need it or want it--I'm for all of it.

And I do not think I am straying off-topic by posting about this on MLK Jr., Day.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


"Whereas Russia and Germany were largely responsible for the formation of the concentrated spectacle, and the United States for the diffuse form, the integrated spectacle has been pioneered by France and Italy."

--Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso translation, p. 8)

* * *

"[F]urthermore the new towns (Sarcelles, Moureux, etc.) were strangely reminiscent of colonial or semi-colonial towns, with their straight roads crisscrossing at right angles and their frequent police patrols."

--Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (p. 59, italics mine)

Grids. Modernization/modernity/modernism as a process within society of production and negation, where a graphic or conceptual thing like a grid can be a tool employed to enact and ensure the social imperative of modernization, or to critique and investigate it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A-G and the Culture Industry


"At the moment Dialectic of Enlightenment was written, there was no mistake in claiming that film is not an art, for it was not. Far from having gone through the process of autonomisation necessary for it to be constituted as such, until 1940 cinema – in Adorno and Horkheimer's brilliant formulation – was only disguised as art. Initial theories and criticisms of cinema were either apologias or works of prescriptive poetics with the aim of winning social legitimation for their object: arrogating for cinema the status of art by the mere act of speech, while the medium's specificity remained undefined. On the other hand, except in a few cases, production remained within an industrial modus operandi. In fact, even most of the avant-garde cinema of this period was industrial – for instance, German expressionism and the Soviet cinema, the latter in addition directly bound to the political power of government (as happened in the other arts before autonomy and democracy). The sole apparent exception, the cinema produced by the avant-garde artists who settled in Paris in the '20s (what Nöel Burch calls the “first avant-garde”), cannot be considered a full moment of autonomy, insofar as autonomy appears in it (and in its critical apologetics) not as a historical process but as principle and essence, an assertion that falls into a moment of ideological falsehood similar to the one described by Peter Bürger in pondering l'art pour l'art. Moreover, in this moment cinema is not an autonomous art, but acquires the status of art just because it is considered an extension of other arts.

"What Adorno and Horkheimer couldn't anticipate was the impact that the Second World War would have upon cinema and its relationship with society. This ethical break was related not only to the misery and horror endured by the countries where the war was staged, but also to the role played by cinema itself during the conflict, both as an instrument of Nazi-Fascist propaganda (where its brutality exposed what was latent in the “good revolutionary intentions” of the Soviet production system – the dark relations between cinema and State) and as an insensible recording instrument of the concentration-camp horrors. It could be thought that these two issues do not relate to cinema's aesthetic specificity (and therefore, autonomy) but to its social and ideological function. Nevertheless, cinema's 'enrolment' in fascism and its ability to record a human body as a mere alienated exteriority – as no more than another material – were the two faces of the heartless gesture with which cinema indicated to humanity its splitting apart. If Eisenstein had somehow speculated that man might be no more than a line or a point in the plan (and that's one of the reasons why his essays always seem to be about to make an interesting proposal about sense in film), these cruel images didn't even discuss it; they implied it, they assumed the question was covered.

"Hence it is possible for us to understand the importance of Italian neo-realism beyond its immediate social significance. As Gilles Deleuze observes, by introducing a different character, le flâneur this cinema shifts its focus from representation of action to representation of the perceptual experience. And since it could think about any optical-sonic space of experience, cinema, being itself one such space among others, could then become self-conscious (perhaps in more than one sense)."

(source - Hugo Salas, "Material Film")


"yin and yang

You guys in narrative cinema can be the yang, okay! You be the sun, and experimental cinema will be the moon! We are two sides of the same coin. Experimental cinema is NOT the other cinema. We are the other half of cinema! When some of the writers in the media ask, "Where are all the art films? Where are the audiences for art cinema? Where are the next "Antonioni"s? Where are all the women who make films?" We can answer, "Over here! In the yin! Experimental cinema!!!""

(source - Jennifer MacMillan, "Experimental cinema/Narrative cinema 2008!"

... thinking about both of these, and other things.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Desire & Capital Once More

On Men, Women, Theory, the Discipline, and Classical Cinema

"Although the "housewife" was rooted in the social conditions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, nineteenth-century ideology established the housewife and the mother as universal models of womanhood. Since popular propaganda represented the vocation of all women as a function of their roles in the home, women compelled to work for wages came to be treated as alien visitors within the masculine world of the public economy. Having stepped outside their "natural" sphere, women were not to be treated as full-fledged wage workers. The price they paid involved long hours, substandard working conditions and grossly inadequate wages. Their exploitation was even more intense than the exploitation suffered by their male counterparts. Needless to say, sexism emerged as a source of outrageous super-profits for the capitalists."

--Angela Y. Davis, "The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective," in Women, Race and Class (p. 229)

Davis argues that in capitalism's specific brand of sexism half the workforce is devalued as workers: the 'domestic sphere' of the worker is not paid work. She contrasts this with Masai still living traditionally, and nomadically, whom she saw in the 1970s--the women, responsible as a gender for "domestic" tasks themselves, were responsible also for the construction and transportation of tribal housing. Though tasks might have been broken down along gender lines, there was no question that the women's work was as productive, as valuable, as the men's.

"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." Why the girl? Her labor, for one thing--her role--is not valued in the same way a man's is. Why is it that the Western stage that through much of its history forbade women to act has produced in fiction cinema an artform that quite exalts these women-image-commodities? Of what underlying fact is this change an effect? Capitalism. I think the passivity, the to-be-looked-at-ness, that characterizes female roles in cinema comes as a result of larger processes that slanted productive value to one side of a gendered divide, and relegated the "feminine" forms of value to adherence and maintenance of domestic codes: the mother, the wife, the keeper of hearth & home. Whose hearth & home? A man's. The classical narrative cinema surely produced plenty of women who were not mothers, and quite a few who were not wives. But this is beside the point, the issue is not an iconographic one at this level. The issue is one of valuation. The female star is, and is one at whom one looks (rather than the male star, who does, and who does the looking). This "feminine" stasis (i.e., maintenance) is to be appraised by those who can use it. The woman, the female star, does nothing because she is judged to have produced nothing. Her value is as something owned, literally or figuratively, and the (female) star image's value is thus one that contains, reflects, the productive value of the male--the male star, the male protagonist, the male viewer.

By the by. I should state right here that anyone reading these lines who has not read Laura Mulvey's canonical feminist-psychoanalytic article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," from 1975, which was massively influential in film studies and related fields, and was also massively criticized, should go to that link above and do so now. Though Mulvey's very imperfect and problematic piece is now often tittered at by scholars & critics as a mere dusty relic of "Screen theory"--groan, that jargon-ridden, pleasure-killing bad object, right?--there actually remains a great deal of merit, and a great deal of sense, in the article.

It should be obvious that we are speaking in generalizations. Of course not all classical cinema was built around the impending formation of a patriarchal and heterosexual union. (Though a great, great deal was--even the anti-Theory Mr. Bordwell provides empirical data to support this, if I recall.) Of course there were occasionally headstrong female protagonists--doers!--and passive male protagonists. And the rich world of character actors is a veritable Pandora's Box, surely able to complicate or enrich any generalization. What is at stake in this post topic, and in my vaguely Mulveyan take on it, is the comprehension of dominants, and the fuller understanding of how particulars and potentials are grafted, over and over, to stand in as universals. There is a reason why people tend to refer to feature-length movies (which, statistically, overwhelmingly feature heterosexual romances, and men more active than women) as "the cinema," when in fact the cinema is more accurately a technological process used to make optical and perhaps auditory effects on viewers ... effects which may or may not feature narrative, acting, mating instructions, etc. We are speaking of the parameters of form and content as shaped and encouraged by "ideology" (another dirty word from Theory). The other ideological constrictions of cinema are economic in nature, e.g., the way we "date" movies by the year of their release (or their "market birth"), the way the media have traditionally reviewed them (as new products on the market, and thus if it's not a commercial release, a product, then it gets little or no comment). At this point I would like to put the question of women in cinema on the back-burner for now, and move into different territory.

Some empiricists in film studies would argue that we cannot know, or rather, should not try to answer a lot of the questions that so-called Grand Theory addresses. We should look at data--data which can be tested and clearly understood, which can be constructive to a whole community. (And the empiricists and formalists have certain very legitimate concerns, I might add. There are plenty of areas--industrial-economic as well as formal-stylistic--in need of greater nuts-and-bolts research and explication.) Leave the rest to sociologists, cultural historians, psychologists, and the like, they say. A common response to this from those more sympathetic to theory is that empirical or formal analysis can give us data, but the data in themselves are not particularly meaningful, particularly if we are not professionals in the field. (Locating, say, an overall increase in Average Shot Length from 1909 to 1911 is good to know, true. But ... ?)

One must interpret data. And there are many ways to place and frame any kind of data to interpret them. Let's say again that ASL increased between 1909 and 1911, then. (I am not checking these dates, by the way. It's a hypothetical supposition, purely, that may or may not have coincidental relation to the facts.) Anyway.

Assuming we have no problems with methodology or intent, that we just accept the data as is, there are numerous ways to then interpret this quantitative information. We could read this as a result of technology--let's posit that cheap cameras or versatile lenses were manufactured which allowed camera operators to zoom and pan with great facility, and thus the imperative to cut in a scene really was lessened. (This is not at all true, but for our hypothetical case, you understand...) We could look at audiences and reception and surmise the increased ASL was a response to the growth of proper theaters and the decline of early cinema's "variety show" existence. (There is some historical truth to this development, though it corresponds to a slightly earlier timespan.) We could postulate that the new phenomenon of popular screen stars needed greater exposure (thus bringing in a number of close-ups, too, to the tail end of our data set). All these interpretations could be true in our little hypothetical exercise. They all also raise a number of questions. Why were those (fictitious) great new lenses or cameras, developed manufactured in the first place? Why did the nickelodeon rise up (and soon die itself), and what were any of these experiences like, and what did they mean? Why were identifiable/identified early "movie stars" adored so? Interpretation begets interpretation, you see.

We could leave all problems outside of empirical, quantifiable, formal analysis and their most immediate interpretations to the social scientists and neurological researchers. A tiny minority of scholars would not mind that at all. I am sure quite a few more would jump on board if we allowed greater wiggle room for strictly authorial/textual/pictorial interpretations.

But all those other areas--reception, viewer psychology, visual culture, cinema & subcultures, gender, race, class, representation, Karl Marx, the "apparatus," desire, queerness--the things that the excesses of Grand Theory rubbed in the faces of traditionalists in the 1970s onward ... should we really just leave them to historians, psychologists, neurologists, etc.? I think not, and my reason for this is that a lot of people who write about cinema from the perspective of the social sciences, or other "outside" fields, often do so with startling limitations. I trust any of us who read film studies books & journals have come across the occasional work of sociological researchers, say, whose interpretation of films goes by blunt plot synopses alone, or overlooking more (or more exemplary) films in a study because the social scientist may not be much of a researcher in the field, or much of a cinephile. Clearly I would not claim that outside academics sometimes working in the field of film studies are bad as a rule--please! I would only suggest that the better ones are necessarily those with a supple grasp of film form & history, and of competing theories pertaining to the medium. So what I am arguing for, at least as a first major step, is a kind of interdisciplinarity. I am aware this sort of call is one of the most hackneyed kinds of irenic mission statements to exist in academia. I plead guilty! I subject myself to cliché here because I think its application remains an utterly valid goal.

(One needn't be an academic with certifiable academic turf to open your big mouth in film writing only to show how clueless you are--look at how mind-numbing Camille Paglia's thoughts on cinema are, for instance. Maybe not just cinema.)

Which is why I think that the issue of 'Women in Cinema,' and some of the larger questions that constitute it, are not only necessary things to explore, but can't be answered except through theoretical consideration sooner or later. Ideally all good work comprises a scholarly ecosystem. Scholars, critics, students, and anyone else interested are of a good mind to always consider the health and cultivation of this ecosystem.

* * *

Henri Lefebvre wrote, "We shall now tackle everday life from the new angle of philosophy. In the nineteenth century the axis of thought was redirected from speculation towards empirical practical realism, with the works of Karl Marx and the budding social sciences forming landmarks on the line of displacement. In the social framework of freely competitive capitalism Marx concentrated mainly on the everyday existence of the working classes from the dual viewpoint of productive power and illusions to overcome. Notwithstanding the assaults of positivism and pragmatism, philosohpy still directs such inquiries and is alone capable of connecting fragmentary ideologies and specialized sciences; moreover it cannot be dispensed with if we want to understand the essence and existence, the real or imaginary responsibilities, the potentialities and limitations of mankind; and there is no method to equil it in linking and assessing disconnected material. This is because philosophy, though the wide range of its interests, projects the image of a 'complete human being', free, accomplished fully realized, rational yet real. This image--implicit already in Socrates' maieutic--has, for approximately twenty centuries, been refined, revised, opposed, developed and adorned with superfluities and hyperboles." (Everyday Life in the Modern World, p. 12)

And, "I address the philosopher in his own terms. The question is how far can a compendium of compulsions and determinisms (desires--specialized labor--fragments of understanding--biological, geographical and historical compulsions) assume the appearance of a freely created world, projection of something greater than freedom? Philosophers may ignore these compulsions and determinisms when laying down their laws, but in so doing they will not have solved the problem. The limitations of philosophy--truth without reality--always and ever counterbalance the limitations of everyday life--reality without truth." (p. 14)

I am not completely clear on Lefebvre yet, but I think these sorts of sentiments undergird what interests me about the topics touched upon above.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

There Will Be Blood

My New Year's resolution to see recent commercial releases more often is off to an OK start. I'm hoping to slowly find my way back into writing something like polished "reviews," but without resorting to quote whoredom or boring formulae like "plot synopsis - breakdown of acting & script - final evaluation." Five years ago, I took seriously the art of reviewing and criticism. Now I no longer feel it's really anything like my vocation, but I want to try to improve myself at it anyway. It will be a process, and there will be awkwardness. People seem to pay more attention when I write about recent films anyway.

So. Paul Thomas Anderson makes very "American" films but he makes them as though he were working in a more European industrial tradition--i.e., as though cinema were (yes) essentially a big and commercial storytelling enterprise, but one had the freedom to make strange, expansive, and unconventionally rewarding narrative films. So There Will Be Blood seems a bit like Griffith, a bit like Scorsese, Peckinpah, Malick ... and it also feels a bit like Visconti, a bit like some of the Soviets. It's not that, as a filmmaker, Anderson always feels like any one of these figures. It's not a matter of expression, per se, but a matter of approaching film storytelling. Anderson is of the kind of school of thought that doesn't seem to conceive of cinematic art outside of storytelling in some overriding frame, i.e., one can digress from plot at will but plot is always the glue or the justification for any sort of abstraction/experimentation.

There Will Be Blood unfolds with such singular force of expression that one may be tempted toward superlatives. Certainly there is much to recommend the film--indeed its confident forcefulness (compare this to almost anything else American cinema is producing: this is one that rightfully demands consideration in the big leagues--I feel it's almost alone in this sense), Greenwood's score, Day-Lewis' utterly proficient (and somewhat out-of-control) performance are all selling points. It's the kind of film that Pauline Kael surely would have written an almost-rave for, pointing out its "excesses" and "shortcomings" and loving it all the more for not having so hedged its bets.

Still. I'm not convinced the film is more than half-baked, conceptually and thematically, and I feel as though Anderson were really sure of how he wanted to say something meaningful but spent less time on the meaning that supplied that ... meaningfulness. To be clear: I'm not lodging a "style over substance" complaint, exactly, but rather suggesting that PTA knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way too well how he wants to say it. I'm pretty convinced that Anderson is an artist who wants to Say Something; less convinced that he's accomplished at following through on those very terms. Perhaps it's a case of "we can spot our own"--when I was a teenager with my own fairly routine movie geek obsessions, and I harbored my own filmmaking dreams, I would often obsess about how my future movie masterpieces would be, and get intoxicated on their imagined affect while paying little heed to real thematic, philosophical, aesthetic elbow-grease. Paul Thomas Anderson sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this stage--the need to tell truths but the rush to sometimes not think them through--and via charisma as well as intelligence & talent, gets away with it.

It is easy enough to boil down most fiction works to a bland message, thereby casting them in suspicious lights. (It's a neat, and cheap, tactic if you're trying to deflate someone's favorite film: "Oh, Film X merely says Boring Platitude Y. Big deal.") In the case of There Will Be Blood, the bland message probably has to do with the violent symbiosis and competition between religious communities and brute primitive accumulation as the crux of American society. Or, to put it more obliquely, the two major power-entitities in American history and their dialectical co-existence. I don't want to be rhetorical when I suggest that, for me, the film's substance is nevertheless too facile, too underdeveloped, to sustain the sureness of its elocution. Where are the roots of Daniel Plainview's entrepreneurial spirit? The roots of Eli Sunday's evangelism? How can one depict a major social and historical clashing without really depicting them socially or historically? Malick's Days of Heaven (which came to mind more than once) may lack PTA's sociohistorical ambitions but, I think, its treatment of class, of work, of mores is more intelligent all the same. Likewise Visconti's The Leopard (which also came to mind, more strangely) shows the way a society is produced and reproduced, rather than simply performing some isolated conflicts. Am I too, oh, Lukacsian here in my demands? Perhaps. But I can't shake the conviction that these are fair terms on which to address There Will Be Blood.


Theatrical Woes: unprepared to cope with near-record January highs, the Union Square Regal 14 kept its theaters--or at least the one I was in--unbearably hot. It was at least 80 degrees F, and stuffy (and crowded). I expect and can deal with such discomforts, from time to time, at a place like Anthology Film Archives. At a corporate multiplex, though? No way. If I am to pay twelve bucks for a Tuesday night movie I expect to be comfortable. Also, the guy who sat next to me was texting with abandon all throughout the film, and he had one of those combo-phones with a big bright screen. (I'm too timid, or "polite," to ever ask anyone to put the distracting light out in a situation like this--I figure that if they're too dense to suspect others might not appreciate it, there is a higher-than-average chance they'll cause problems if confronted about it.) Then he and his date left the movie with maybe 15 minutes left.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Ennui. Is it just me, or is it the case that--when it's not filmed in black-and-white--it's filmed with a lot of warm colors? I am not willing to put money on this as a quantifiable assertion, mind you, but hear me out at least and let me know if you ever feel the same phenomenon I'm trying to put my finger on. I'm thinking of Antonioni in color, of the moral back alleys in some parts of Ferrara and Scorsese (or Cassavetes' Chinese Bookie), of Last Tango in Paris, of the dry Italian landscape in Gianni Amelio (or at least the few Amelio films I've seen). Whenever long takes are meant to indicate a crisis, it seems like a good idea to put reds, pinks, yellows, oranges, and tans into the the mix. I think this may be the case because despite all other "minimalist" adornments within our accepted signifying codes, the warm (womblike? honeyed?) tones cue us in to a problem. A shorthand for the notion that 'something is not right,' not quite in the same way that Pedro Costa means it though ... but something potentially pre-political, pre-intellectual, insofar as we're talking about artistic intent. (If a color scheme is indeed "womblike" shouldn't that take us to the moment of our very first "trauma," at least according to some interpretations?) Perhaps the formula is a sense of ennui, directionlessness, stagnation which is treated with warm colors when the subject matter is mixed with very powerful drives: of violence, greed, sexuality, frustrated kindnesses (the kindness of Amelio's heroes), of something with one Dionysian foot and one Christian one. Perhaps it is meaningful that all of the examples I've just listed above (without premeditation) are Italian or Italian-American. At any rate, if red-and-black and fast cutting are generally meaningful of a very intense cinema, a cinema of intense energies (like those sexual or violent), could this be like the long-take stretched-out mellowed sustain of the same kinds of "notes and chords"? See also this older post.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Overturn the Cars

Above is a fun, loose lineage of some things I have been thinking or reading about: Paris Commune barricades, 1871; a Renault tank from WWI; overturned cars on the street from May '68 riots; Sartre addressing workers at Billancourt, the major Renault factory; Sartre and Godard, May '68; a still from Godard/Gorin's Tout va bien, based on the Renault/Billancourt strikes; a still from Themroc, wherein Michel Piccoli stages his own private Commune (and gets the State angry at him for his troubles). While the images may be offered as there for your casual perusal, and are not of course a serious or profound argument of any kind, they are pointing towards serious questions. The automobile has played such a major role in modernization and, as such, it has been a locus for some of the defining characteristics of our modern dilemma--industrial pollution, consumerism, fossil fuel geopolitics, mobility & travel, labor exploitation and labor-management disputes. Car culture and cinema culture, or more broadly modern travel and modern media (both of which have necessitated certain innovations in commodification and perception), deserve some more vigorous conceptualization and application in history, cultural studies, film studies ... or if the literature is ample (a possibility), then I would like to find it and read it.

A reading list for myself: Kristin Ross's Fast Cars, Clean Bodies (working on this currently); Wolfgang Schivelbusch (various); Jonathan Crary's Suspensions of Perception.

Some films to think about and maybe see again: Il Sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962), To Catch a Thief, La Jetée, Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Playtime, Godard from '67 to '76, Red Line 7000, Sex and the Single Girl, The Big Mouth.

Some films to see: Un homme et une femme (Lelouch), mid-60s John Frankenheimer, more European co-produced pulp/spy/mod movies.

This is just a beginning. I would welcome suggestions on things to read and watch with regard to changes in economics, culture, consumption, perception, and aesthetic reimagination in the postwar era.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On the New, or Second, Life

When Jack Nicholson's Locke enters the hotel room and finds "Robinson" (his double) dead on the bed, we actually see his reaction, his gaze, before we see Robinson's (faceless) corpse. Later in the film, when Locke reaches his room, another hotel room (his "terminal" hotel, his destination in a sense) we see Locke looking before we see the person at whom his look is directed. Yet again we do not see the initial face.

The death is not Maria Schneider's this time, though she is the object of Locke's gaze: in his bid for a new life Locke has assumed the role of death (he's wearing the "dead man's shoes" so to speak). But the doubling that Locke initiates has repercussions that continue into the world beyond him--like the doubling of the woman figure. He doesn't, obviously, "create" either woman. But his actions now link them, provide them with a particular relationship beyond that of simply having a contact in common.

"When the souls arrived at the light, they had to go to Lachesis right away. There a Speaker arranged them in order, took from the lap of Lachesis of number of lots and a number of models of lives, mounted a high pulpit, and spoke to them. "Here is the message of Lachesis, the maiden daughter of Necessity: 'Ephemeral souls, this is the beginning of another cycle that will end in death. Your daimon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him. The one who has the first lot will be the first to choose a life to which he will then be bound by necessity. Virtue knows no master; each will possess it to a greater or less degree, depending on whether he values or disdains it. The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none.'" When he had said this, the Speaker threw the lots among all of them, and each--with the exception of Er, who wasn't allowed to choose-picked up the one that fell next to him. And the lot made it clear to the one who picked it up where in the order he would get to make his choice. After that, the models of lives were placed on the ground before them. There were far more of them than there were souls present, and they were of all kinds, for the lives of animals were there, as well as all kinds of human lives. There were tyrannies among them, some of which lasted throughout life, while others ended halfway through in poverty, exile, and beggary. There were lives of famous men, some of whom were famous for the beauty of their appearance, others for their strength or athletic prowess, others still for their high birth and the virtue or excellence of their ancestors. And there were also lives of men who weren't famous for any of these things. And the same for lives of women. But the arrangement of the soul was not included in the model because the soul is inevitably altered by the different lives it chooses. But all the other things were there, mixed with each other and with wealth, poverty, sickness, health, and the states intermediate to them.

"Now, it seems that it is here, Glaucon, that a human being faces the greatest danger of all."

--Plato's Republic (Book X, 617d-618c, trans. Grube rev. by Reeve)