Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Glimpse of Greatness

A long clip from Robert Gardner's phenomenal Forest of Bliss ('86).

GI, prelude

"Even the objects of the simplest "sensuous certainty" are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit trees, was, as is well-known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age has it become "sensuous certainty" for Feuerbach."

--Marx (and Engels), The German Ideology

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling
material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force."

-- Ditto.

















So, turning from Marx (and Engels), I'm unsure how there could then be ruling ideas if not also, self-evidently, simultaneously, ideas that do not rule (and thus are ruled) ... more on The German Ideology and maybe a few tentative intrusions on the Marx/Derrida debate in the near future.

Bleak Leisure


















I have been reading the Hammonds' The Bleak Age, which documents the particular forms of immiseration in 1830s and '40s Britain. Partly it's an account of a moment in the history of leisure, which means it is also an examination of the ways in which misery and exploitation were organized. The same rule applies as always in our industrial saga--masses of people are lowballed for their basic needs (space, air, water, commons, time) and then, when minor concessions are made at the discretion of liberal-minded patrons (and upon the sweat & blood of protesting mobs), the people are instructed to feel grateful for these pittances. In the developed West, perhaps the quickest way to wake certain people up about the horrific situation we are all being led into is to set alarms around the visible ways in which our leisure, our comforts, are being abrogated. At the same time of course is the obvious truth, that we are already in a horrific situation, that our leisure and comforts are in many instances based upon so many enshrined immiserations that we could not possibly just backtrack. This fact has no novelty for much of the world. But how to target the opinions of the fringe bourgeoisie intellectual consumers of which I am myself part? This is the (sub)class who will help cling to and perpetuate a lot of the dangerous ideas; they will help smooth over a lot of the policies and trajectories of our social system. Point out shrinking privileges, first, and then start talking about them more broadly. This is to be a goal.

* * *

In Rivette's Out 1 there are characters who can afford leisure (like the Thirteen?) and those who eke out their efficiency apartment living on the other side. As an historical document Rivette's film is actually pretty fascinating, this period in the welfare state where one could spend one's days making avant-garde theater, according it all seriousness, and not necessarily being a bourgeois figure of leisure. Some are. Michel Lonsdale, who acts/lounges/nibbles his way through Out 1, shows up three decades later in a Spielberg film, Munich, where he plays a secretive weapons dealer (if memory serves?) who lives out an idyllic patriarch's existence on a family villa in the French countryside, like he's the Dreamworks cross of both Guy Debord and Don Corleone. It's hard to make a good case about a complex and playful 13-hour film I've seen only once (twice if you count the 4-hour Spectre); perhaps pointless, really. Still I have been meaning for some time to start writing a few things on Rivette and his treatment of class and history and not only about the more familiar tropes of realism, performance, and conspiracy. I am convinced somehow they mesh together. It's about duration, the leisure of unproductivity, the pleasure of unstructured productivity*, the BUM-bum-bum on the soundtrack that slips you into each episode like a theme song, the world of suggestion embodied in that amazingly (not-)banal final shot. Rivette is essential here.

* Termitish?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I never held very rosy views of this communistic Eldorado."

--Marx to Engels on Flerovsky, 1870 (here).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cultivating the Close Face





















The close-up of female persecution, immortalized cinematically perhaps beyond improvement in Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc. The trope finds itself re-interpreted within the broader context of the Bressonian aesthetic in his Trial of Joan of Arc. Rossellini in his own way sought to pare things down at least as much as Bresson (for different reasons, to different ends*). He made his own Jeanne d'Arc film, with Ingrid Bergman, but the work I'm including a screengrab from is Blaise Pascal, his 1972 telefilm--this is not Joan, but an unimportant peasant woman. Working hard to do away with "acting," Rossellini, who used close-ups sparingly in this late period, nevertheless tried to imbue in the very grain of the image, in the contours and colors of the face, something of the substance of humanity. This was not to better illustrate a story but to pinpoint the essence, manifest in a body, of the worldly continuum called History of which we were all part. The progress of Man, as he would have termed it.

* Not altogether different.

















A different strain of cinema reflected upon the image of female suffering--persecution in the courthouse, and destruction at the stake. (Below this paragraph are stills from Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General and Jesus Franco's The Bloody Judge.) These images reconnect the suffering to their purpose in the narrative: the exploitation at work is of human empathy for the depicted object--another human--exhibiting pain whether real or fictional. (In Preminger's Saint Joan the flame that engulfed Jean Seberg's face for a split second, causing her to scream, was real.) To infuse sexuality into the violent act (that is, to visibly re-infuse it); to turn the rule of authority, of the state, into a rule over bodily pleasures as well as pain. Some of the charge of the more-or-less modernist images of Dreyer, Bresson, Rossellini comes from the same place tread openly by Reeves, Franco, Piers Haggard, countless other schlock practicioners. The ingenuity with which a film treats this 'figuration' has little to do with its genre placement or its place in the brow-level scheme of things. What is vital is that Dreyer and Bresson, though "minimalists" whatever that means, were still including shots that emphasized not religious austerity but economical simplicity. If these films are like a case of connect the dots, it is worth noting what connected the shot-to-shot. These filmmakers were not stupid men; they are arranging elements in the frame and shots in time to deliberate effect--to impart something about the social order in which these women suffered, something about the corporeal, emotional, kinaesthetic experiences amidst the trappings of Law (produced by a chirographic society, with exegesis & rhetoric). These films are nothing if not palpable. If the exploitation film is sometimes more direct than the art film, it does not follow that it is always more honest or even more forthright about its sources. Rossellini, too, in making his spare, simple images, was trying to illumine an entire social order--his vision of "Man" in time and space--by means of ostensibly a few elements. The complexity, though, adds up from concept to concept, gesture to gesture, shot to shot, sound to sound, very quickly. It is because the elements these particular master filmmakers (D, B, R) have chosen to use are those which are so fraught with meaning, so ... elemental. They are also the raw material of exploitation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Image of the Day
















Boullée's Cenotaph for Newton.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Meme

I missed that I was tagged until just tonight--thanks Ali! The meme is a very popular one:

1) Pick up the nearest book. 2) Open to page 123. 3) Locate the fifth sentence. 4) Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing… 5) Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

The book nearest me is actually a slim primer-style book called Contemporary World Television, and p. 123 is bibliography. So I grabbed the book on the shelf right next to it, For Ever Godard. I didn't count the first few lines of text on the page, which were the bulk of a sentence began on the previous page.

"This is the ultimate lesson to be learned from Histoire(s) [du cinéma]: the imaginary museum is also an embodied museum, i.e. the cinema has made flesh the history of this century. It is a body in every sense of the word: a place where the century could take faces, movements and gestures, genitals and utterances. It could also take ideas, references, works, concepts, so as to enable the century to think."

The book is a collection of essays, as many of my readers will know--this one is Antoine de Baecque's "Godard in the Museum." Anyone who wants to be tagged, consider yourself tagged and let us know in the comments if you've participated.

Lewis, De Toth, Boetticher

Just over a year ago I wrote a little on this topic (the last graf), but I was going through some old files on my computer and come upon these comparative private notes from a couple years back inspired by some Randolph Scott Westerns directed by three auteurist favorites. There's no real reason for this, and I haven't seen a Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Budd Boetticher film in some months so it's not like the issues are fresh in my mind. But I figured that, since I wasn't doing anything soon with these notes anyway, I'd post them here with a touch of editing and let people comment if they found anything of interest.

(Tangentially, I suppose, De Toth's Randolph Scott-less Day of the Outlaw got a recent DVD release, and so more people are getting a chance to see one of my all time favorite films by one of classical Hollywood's most underrated directors.)

* * *

Lewis is unusually fascinated with space and perspective: his films seem like they’re very concerned with pointing out the space between objects – between an actor and a table, from a bed to a dresser, from the saloon doors to the stagecoach. He likes to jut out an object, a head, a hand in the foreground even while our attention is focused in the background. What’s more, the ‘delineative’ streak in Lewis continues in his use of color, which tends to be exaggerated and bold, but is steeped within the particularities of décor: dresses and vests and rooftops are done in bright, distinct, solid colors.

De Toth likes to exaggerate color too, but for him these things aren’t organized by conceptual designation (“vest”); he acts as if the screen were a canvas and paints on it for the effect. Whereas Lewis is ‘theatrical’ and the colors’ meanings/effects are tied concretely to props and sets (i.e., the camera movement might not have any impact on the way we register color), De Toth is all about ‘painting,’ and thinks of color as one of many ways to present a flat rectangular moving image to the viewer – just as he thinks of motion and linear content in really striking terms that go above and beyond mere functional value.

Boetticher doesn’t strike me as distinctive, or at least as singular, as either Lewis or De Toth in terms of color and space. In fact, Boetticher strikes me as one of the most chameleon of directors – though I have an idea of a Boetticher universe in my head, it’s still not quite easy for me to reconcile Buchanan Rides Alone (energetic yarnspinning converging with smart genre irony), Decision at Sundown (feels like a taut minor De Toth), and Seven Men from Now (spare schematic methodical story with hints of the humor to come in Buchanan). Boetticher’s distinctiveness comes from attitude more than visual expression (though he’s no slouch with composition and pacing). I see Boetticher as standing back, amused, from his material, trying to poke it and rile it up through experimentation – he has a high-concept, highly intelligent streak like De Toth, but doesn’t invest himself emotionally and in upfront ways like De Toth does; so he shares an element of distance with Lewis, but Lewis (unlike De Toth and Boetticher) seems to be much more at home when he’s taking the emotions of his stories at face value: he’s the least critical of his material, and/or the least willing to be critical of it, of the three of them.

Quote of the Day

“Étrange phénomène: l’art, rétrograde dans sa substance, est profondément révolutionnaire dans sa forme et son langage.”

-- Roberto Rossellini, Pesaro, 1966

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Lonely Villa

Lately I've been taking a look at a few contemporary Hollywood(ish) films I should have seen upon their release, but let slip through the cracks. I was shocked at how impressive I found Panic Room. (After liking this and Zodiac over the last eight or nine months, I should stop thinking of Fincher as an overreaching underachiever, and re-grant him status as a genuinely interesting filmmaker--i.e., the way I felt about his work in 1999, but a bit more detached.) Here's a paranoiac NY real estate fantasy, completely upfront about it, which dramatizes the stored-up fear accompanying the UES/UWS bourgie brownstone dream home. So many New York films just assume, or gloss over, the utter jaw-dropping financial prerequisites necessary for all the amazing apartments they exhibit. A favorite whipping-boy of mine in this respect is The Interpreter, in which Nicole Kidman plays a former white romantic-revolutionary in "deep, dark Africa" but has successfully hidden her past from the UN to work as an interpreter ... and she lives alone in a gorgeous, tastefully decorated Manhattan (or perhaps Park Slope [equally expensive]) pad from her presumably cushy salary. Such is the fantasy with films and TV shows in New York, of course, my complaint is just one among a million. But it's nice to see the occasional film that is relatively honest about this fact of real estate presentation. I do think the film starts to unravel, become (somewhat unpleasurably) predictable, in the last 45 minutes or so; I wouldn't call it a total success. But in terms of overlaying societal relations, interior space, and psychology it's pretty shrewd.

I'd suggest that the film treats the gorgeous UWS home as an analogue of the human (subject's) body; all the breathtaking trick shots, the ones that go from the top floor down to the first by means of an ostensibly acrobatic camera, drive home the unity of the space. But once it's invaded the subject must perform a kind of triage, retreat to the essentials to keep the whole pursuit going against the unwelcome harmful elements. This is one reason why the invasion of a home--and all the precautions taken to prevent it--are such powerful tropes: when one's identity is tied up into the property in which one lives, the assault on the property itself is like an assault on one's person. This is reinforced, I think, by the immense investment the film makes in corporeal or kinaesthetic identification--diabetic complications, one's fingers crushed, one's body beaten and broken ... but also the deliberate trade-off in exposing oneself to flame (in order to harm one's enemies), of invading one's circulatory and respiratory systems with drugs and chemicals, of hushing and stretching out the body to make not a peep when tiptoeing past one's assailants ... of surveilling others inside the home via its 'central nervous system.'

It seems to me that the film makes a jokey little play on the contrasting motivations of the three invaders--Jared Leto is simply a greedy privileged fuck-up; Forrest Whitaker a disadvantaged smart man driven by economic necessity; Dwight Yoakam a working-class dude with massive amounts of pent-up sadistic hostility. The degrees to which they're willing to go, the amount of pain they're willing to inflict on others or endure themselves, become a grid through which one can interpret the very justifications these guys have formulated for their own crime. Indirectly one could come up with a dense essay on why these guys assault the bourgeois home.

This Whiner Is a Radio Show Host?

Image of the Day


Marx v Derrida











Some of the most worthwhile blog reading to be found currently is the "duel" between Marx (or rather his seconds, led by Le Colonel Chabert) and Derrida (or rather his seconds, led by Roger Gathman of Limited, Inc.). Since I have not read Spectres of Marx, or Stirner, or a lot of things, the conversation has been difficult to follow wholly intelligibly, and of course I can say nothing intelligent about the matter myself. Plus there is a lot of talking at cross-purposes. Still: worthwhile! Perhaps in a couple months I can return to the empty battlefield and offer a few reflections. To read: most posts at LCC from late April until the present; and at Limited, Inc., try these three posts.

"Beware the Islamofascists!"



















(Photograph: Farjana K. Godhuly/AFP -- Getty Images)


Let us recall that it was some of the great Islamic cultures that kept alive "our" Western antiquity; it was Islamic states that tolerated Jews and Christians (fellow religions of the Book); it was Muslim philosophers, scientists, statesmen, humanists, etc., with whom "our" European ancestors communicated and exchanged ideas. What we talk about when we talk of any religion is not a set of doctrines but a set of human, historical practices that produce the doctrines, over time, via collective and traditional intelligence rather than individual, logical intelligence. As such it is one of the great emptied-out truths of our media age that Islam, like every religion, has its "pros" and "cons." This is absolutely true, but it is emptied of its real truth because of its political function in media discourse, because the mixed bag that organized religion inevitably is gets stretched and distorted this way and that. We posit extremes, a polarity: there is "good" Islam, and then there is "bad" Islam, a perversion. Our politicians and media stress to us ad nauseum that these things exist in the thinnest possible sociopolitical context. By convincing enough of us that there is a mutation or perversion, a late predominance of the bad type of Islam, our owners basically cut out our feet from under us. They rob us of thinking of religion(s) in the historical and sociopolitical totality, of rationally coming to terms with the facts of a religion's goods & ills as a broadly cohesive set within global reality, and think of it instead as a kind of cancer, with mysterious origins from beyond, that can and should be kept at bay, and probably also attacked before it can spread.

Of course there are patriarchal and brutal theocratic regimes that have emerged (then and now) in the Islamic world--just as there have been in Christendom. This is the nature of mass, organized religion: beyond debating their truth content, clearly they are a form of social coercion & cooperation. No intelligent person could argue otherwise, one can only argue that these forms of social organization are beneficial and desirable. I think organized religion is very harmful in the long-term and on the macro scale, but can have a great deal of benefits in the shorter-term and on the scales of community, family & individual. Islam, like other religions, has its mystics and its mysteries, all its amazing human beauties--like Sufism, or the drums of Bedouin tribes. (In fact, most religions of civilization are at their most beautiful when they have aligned themselves to much older spiritual practices.) Islam has its relationship with bloodshed and pain (like Ashura, pictured above), as do other religions, because we must come to terms with sacrifice and with death. These are all common knowledge things that are just being blanketed over by the dominant framework of the liberal-hawks, like the worthless Martin Amis.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

FYI

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government has injected hundreds of foreigners it has deported with dangerous psychotropic drugs against their will, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing medical records, internal documents and interviews with people who have been drugged.

The newspaper said it has identified 250 cases in which the government has, without medical reason, given drugs meant to treat serious psychiatric disorders to people it has shipped out of the United States since 2003.


Involuntary chemical restraint of detainees without medical justification is a violation of some international human rights codes, the Post reported.

Records show that the government has routinely ignored its own rules, which allow deportees to be sedated only if they have a mental illness requiring the drugs, or if they are so aggressive that they imperil themselves or people around them.

The Department of Homeland Security's new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) took over deportations in 2003.

ICE has stepped up the arrest and removal of foreigners who are in the United States illegally, who have been turned down for asylum or have been convicted of a crime in the past, the Post reported.

A spokesman for the agency was not immediately available for comment. (Here.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hollywood

"Unlike those articulate elites who acted as voices of the political status quo, the tradition in film studies has always been enriched by an element of oppositionalism. The political persuasion of many influential writers on film was radical. The effort to legitimate film as a fine art, however, drove them to adopt the elitist discourse of traditional aesthetics. The populist aspects of mass culture could scarcely be appreciated in such terms. The demotic materials were threatening to elites--even progressive ones--because they challenged the status quo which elitist aesthetics presupposed. Overseas audiences saw displayed in American movies mores, values and attitudes they took to be subversive of local custom and political arrangement. American films were marked by an aggressive egalitarianism in dress, speech, action, relations between the sexes, and access to the basic necessities of the good life, as well as by an attitude implicit in their mode of address to the audience that they were out to please. This was and continues to be part of their attraction and of their threat."

-- Ian Jarvie, "Free trade as cultural threat: American film and TV exports in the post-war period" in Hollywood and Europe: Economics, Culture, National Identity: 1945-95 (eds. Ricci & Nowell-Smith)

"The external aspect was less the model of better unified states, but rather the invasive and disruptive threat of movies from a nation that did not have a single culture--the United States. The vitriolic descriptions of the United States by European intellectuals, especially German and French, are some indication of how it was feared. Ignoring the snobbery of such arguments, there was a danger: American movies did depict a society that was emphatically egalitarian in outlook, even if not in outcomes, democratic to a populist T, and manifestly multicultural. Through all the distortions of American films, no audience could imagine that the Wild West, the southern plantations, the urban jungles and the idyllic small towns, all depicted so deftly, amounted to a single culture. One reason, perhaps, why the United States was so often denounced as a 'mongrel' society. In other words, the actual nation-building project under way in many recipient countries was not consonant with the national and cultural model of the United States. The American model de-naturalizes purificatory nationalisms and tends therefore to undermine them."

--Ian Jarvie, "National Cinema: A theoretical assessment," in Cinema & Nation (eds. Hjort & MacKenzie, 2000)

Coming across the claptrap at the top recently, I knew it sounded familiar--I read the other Jarvie article some months back. Whatever else Jarvie (a student & advocate of Karl Popper, and probably emeritus by now) has put out, these two articles despite their presumed subject matter ultimately function as little more than mindless rah-rah encomia to Hollywood cinema. He takes certain sound premises and half-truths and situates them just so. Then the blanket assertions he makes that seem downright ridiculous to anyone with eyes are just how decently open, egalitarian, democratic, and multicultural American cinema is and has been for years. The more devious thing he sneaks into the articles is the notion that Hollywood product = popular culture (no complications, no nuances, no ifs/ands/buts--H'wood "just" makes great fun movies for affordable prices), therefore resistance to that product (on the market and in economistic terms, in terms of indigenous cultural traditions, even in terms of aesthetics) is necessarily to embrace fearful elitism of good fashioned fun for all regular folks everywhere.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Worthless Rag

A proposition thrown out there for myself and anyone who would critique it. In today's celebrity youth culture almost all celebrity is bought on credit. One finds fame by

1) manifesting the epoch's own perceived image of its Zeitgeist, or
2) going to the extremes of this perceived image, or
3) selling oneself by virtue of a loan--a star provides his or her youth (or equivalent) to the machine, in exchange for fame. But there are two kinds of fame, the temporary and the durable. The grant of the former leads only to a chance at the latter. The machine enables the star-to-be to apply for durable status by means of a "trial period." If the investment provides no returns, the star is discarded along with her youth. In the case of someone like Britney Spears (who may yet pull off a comeback or two in her lifetime, who knows), her initial investment was so much that the machine can feed productively off of her unraveling as she struggles--unsuccessfully, it seems--for durability. Her increasing lack of success is at the same time the machine's energy source, and its manifestations about her (and her success, and lack of it) are strengthened by it. Or, at least, they are shown to be strong by it. They produce, for example, figures who fit into categories 1 and 2, like Chris Crocker. I first suggested an idea in this area in the very first film blog-a-thon. Elizabeth Berkley was a victim of category 3 but has a resurrected phantom career on the current popular surge that enables a surplus of category 1 (as well as 2)--hence she gets the hosting gig for the dance show on TV, because she is "visible" in pop culture precisely as a revenant from that early burnout, the failed attempt at a smooth path into respectable star longevity. Neil Patrick Harris did the same 3-to-1 move to rather hilarious effect with Harold & Kumar (I haven't seen his sitcom), which may have been first forged in his collaboration with Verhoeven in Starship Troopers.

I give Miley Cyrus a few more years. I don't say she'll be forgotten, but she'll be faltering and will have to manifest herself as a figure of category 1, probably, running of the fuel of her cat-3 burnout.

"I have begun to work again, and am making good progress. Only, I have to limit my working time, for after about three hours my head begins to hum and feel painful."
- Marx to Engels, April 22, 1868

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Wright Wing

(I wind up my May Day postings, the break from a break, with a few oblique things on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)

Keep in mind that Obama has distanced himself from Wright--out of political necessity, mind you--and the media are just lapping it all up. The media have provided us with a most blatant and easily disproved misinformation campaign regarding the "controversy" over Obama's pastor. Again, and again, and again ... and again ... columnists and pundits refer to Wright's "hateful oratory," his "bitterness." He has "praised" Louis Farrakhan as a "great American." He "mocked" the "regional dialects" of Kennedy and Johnson. He made fun of white people's dancing. He is just an old, uppity, sour grapes anti-white racist. Right? Wright? Wrong.

Perhaps it won't be available on YouTube that much longer ... but anyone with a broadband connection can see the entirety of Wright's "inflammatory" speeches to the press, to the NAACP. Not just the maliciously, intentionally decontextualized and recoded two-second soundbites that keep getting played. Regarding Obama's denunciation ... here are some of the awful, horrible, evil things that Obama wants to let us know he does not support and does not stand for:

Throughout its 99-year history, the NAACP has been built by people of all races, all nationalities, and all faiths on one primary premise, which is that all men and women are created equal. The nation's oldest civil rights organization has changed America's history. Despite violence, intimidation, and hostile government policies, the NAACP and its grassroots membership have persevered.

Now, somebody please tell the Oakland county executive that that sentence starting with the words "despite violence, intimidation, and hostile government policies" is a direct quote from the NAACP's profile in courage. It didn't come from Jeremiah Wright.

* * *

I believe that a change is going to come because many of us are committing to changing how we see others who are different.

In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as somehow being deficient. Christians saw Jews as being deficient. Catholics saw Protestants as being deficient. Presbyterians saw Pentecostals as being deficient.

Folks who like to holler in worship saw folk who like to be quiet as deficient. And vice versa.
Whites saw black as being deficient. It was none other than Rudyard Kipling who saw the "White Man's Burden" as a mandate to lift brown, black, yellow people up to the level of white people as if whites were the norm and black, brown and yellow people were abnormal subspecies on a lower level or deficient.


Europeans saw Africans as deficient. Lovers of George Friedrich Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart saw lovers of B.B. King and Frankie Beverly and Maze as deficient. Lovers of Marian Anderson saw lovers of Lady Day and Anita Baker as deficient. Lovers of European cantatas -- Comfort ye in the glory, the glory of the Lord -- Lovers of European cantatas saw lovers of common meter -- I love the Lord, He heard my cry -- they saw them as deficient.

In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as being deficient. We established arbitrary norms and then determined that anybody not like us was abnormal. But a change is coming because we no longer see others who are different as being deficient. We just see them as different.

* * *

Many of us are committed to changing how we see others who are different. Number one, many of us are committed to changing how we see ourselves. Number two, not inferior or superior to, just different from others. Embracing our own histories. Embracing our own cultures. Embracing our own languages as we embrace others who are also made in the image of god. That has been the credo of the NAACP for 99 years. When we see ourselves as members of the human race, I believe a change is on the way. When we see ourselves as people of faith who shared this planet with people of other faiths, I believe a change is on the way.

* * *

Please run and tell my stuck on stupid friends that Arabic is a language, it's not a religion. Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. They are Arabic-speaking Christians, Arabic-speaking Jews and Arabic speaking atheists. Arabic is a language, it's not a religion. Stop trying to scare folks by giving them an Arabic name as if it's some sort of a disease.

* * *

But, since this is a nonpartisan gathering and since this is neither a mosque, a synagogue or a sanctuary, just let me say, we can do it. We can make it if we try. We can make the change if we try. We will make a change if we try. A change is going to come. Can you feel it? Can you see it? Can you imagine it? Then come on, let's claim it. Give yourselves a standing ovation while the transformation that's about to jump off. A change is going to come.

(These excerpts all from the CNN transcript of the NAACP talk.)

* * *

Keep in mind that Barack Obama, the public figure, has distanced himself from all of these comments. He wants nothing to do with them. He not only admits, he cheerfully insists that the above comments are not what he's "about." I would bet that, deep down, Obama is very upset with himself for playing this game--his denunciation a few days ago didn't ring very true to me, it didn't feel like it came from the gut. But to stay afloat, he didn't come out fighting and straight-talking, he played the game, he bent to one knee, he did what was politically convenient. Obama, "the Washington outsider," became that much more like Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

This is why it is vital to not put all our hope on this election, and why third party protest votes will be of very limited but real strategic worth--to let each other know we're not all duped.

Origins of Art

In the future there will be no painters, only those who, among other things, paint. The coming epidemic may wipe out most of us; huddled in villages and cities our weakened immune systems and weakened social instincts will be easily defeated by superbugs. The fantasy of social breakdown suggests to us that it is through our "limitations" that we come to know strength. Moralistic structures on the self reinforce this truism, but it is only because they insist on the terminology of limits and not that of necessity. We feel and are perhaps terrified by the immense freedom of a life constituted by transparent necessity (and at the same time free for absolutely anything else). We fantasize about the apocalypse because it gives us a little of what we crave. But we are constantly required to understand this craving differently than, I think, it truly is. We interpret the limitation of a lack of technology, the constriction of an earlier stage of progress, as though we have landed on the wrong square of this board game, History, and must go back ten spots. We are told lies (we tell ourselves lies) about our violent, dystopic apocalyptic visions as expressions of all that is violent and consumed by appetite, as though true freedom were by necessity tied to this violence and unbridled consumption.

"Indeed, the moderation of genius does not consist of the use of a cultivated language without accent or dialect; it lies rather in speaking the accent of the matter and the dialect of its essence. It lies in forgetting about moderation and immoderation and getting to the core of things."

-- Marx, "Remarks on the New Instructions to the Prussian Censors" (1842)

I have no faith in humanity's arrival at a utopic result. But the impulse is a necessary one; we know that something is very wrong. This is at the core of cinema as Pedro Costa sees it, I think; who has closed the door in life, who may close it in the film? I cringe when I hear relatively privileged people talking in platitudes about how art should "challege preconceived notions," make people uncomfortable, etc. (For this is more often than not a marketing ploy, and is often trotted out by people who wish to sell their brand of trademarked subversion.) Art hasn't this social responsibility; aesthetics have the unavoidable function of providing us with experiences that suggest something about the life we cannot bring ourselves to admit we are fully owed: immediate, detached, cerebral, visceral, erotic, glimpsed, immersed, shocked, consoled, dizzied, expanded, stretched, adulterated, cleansed, and so forth. Some beauty is embedded in peril and disease, but I claim every beauty for myself & mine. It is our birthright. It is the salve to our shocks; it is the bridge erected so that we can cross over. C.S. Peirce saw language, signification, cognition, not only as a means of forming mental habits--but of changing them. This is called learning. The aesthetic experience rapels down and climbs through a dark crevice, and though "art" as we learn in textbooks is unnecessary for human experience, the aesthetic is, I think, inextricable from it.
The cave paintings on Lascaux are the expressions of the deepening gap between, on one hand, a life in perfect harmony with the necessity of history and nature (and thus with no history as such), and on the other hand, a life in which our ancestors are marked by historical record.

"One citizen avoided another, hardly any neighbour troubled about others, relatives never or hardly ever visited each other. Moreover, such terror was struck into the hearts of men and women by this calamity, that brother abandoned brother, and the uncle his nephew, and the sister her brother, and very often the wife her husband. What is even worse and nearly incredible is that fathers and mothers refused to see and tend their children, as if they had not been theirs."

-- Boccaccio on the Plague.

A Kiss Is Just a Kiss
















(Top: Godard's Nouvelle Vague, 1990. Bottom: his Le Petit soldat, 1961/1963.)

A Simple Story

"The telling of the story, the young woman's narrative, is imposed on the action in such a way as to deny each scene any ordinary dramatic interest and instead to substitute a counterpointing between the description (which is very flat) and the actual realization (also very flat—and with dialogue subdued beneath the narrative voice). At first this method seems pregnant with understated tension, but in time you come to realize that nothing more is happening than appears to be happening, and the method begins to seem silly. And at a certain not exceptional moment, when the young woman, very disconsolate, stands by a tunnel and says: "I found a tunnel—a place where cars went in. They came out a bit further on."—at that moment I began to find the simple story rather silly, too.

"There is an overwhelming temptation to compare Hanoun with Robert Bresson, whose work Une Simple Histoire greatly resembles. But Bresson, for all the spare severity of his style, has never professed to tell a simple story, and (for example, in Mouchette and Une Femme Douce) has often tended to make more complex the fictions upon which he bases his films.

"Hanoun's simplicity—like his almost stationary camera (which is just stationary enough to make for some very fancy corner-of-the-frame interior shots that might have been centered), like his depressed view of Paris, like his leading lady's eyebrows—seems finally less a matter artistic asceticism than of artful calculation. And in the midst of the many deprivations that constitute his style there is a kind of pretentiousness — ostentationsness, really — as if he were taking pride in poverty."

-- Roger Greenspun, NYTimes, 1970 (here)

In denunciations of 'the aestheticization of poverty'--it happens here to Hanoun, it happens frequently to Pedro Costa--the naysayers are the ones who spend so much time concentrating on the cheapness or the squalor depicted by the images. It is as though poverty itself were offensive, that to make beautiful work out of the lives of disempowered people in ugly settings--and let us remember that slums make up a massive portion of our current global situation--were somehow ethically wrong, and offensive. Hanoun's film is about stretching out food among meals, about walking on two feet, about the enforced necessities of a woman to take care of herself and her daughter. The class dimension against some kinds of 'aestheticized poverty' in art comes out strongest, I feel, not in art that actually aestheticizes immiseration and material lack, but rather in art that indicates the obscenity of people getting by despite it all. The woman in Une Simple histoire is a simple, direct, caring mother; she makes do; she slides down the straps of her slip each evening as she climbs into bed so as to be comfortable; when she beds with a friend the two of them rub elbows. The obscene thing is the "enforcement" of poverty; the "offensive" thing is that the crushingness of this poverty is kept at bay. The better-heeled viewer is offended because he will not approve of or identify with the means by which the poor characters do this. Walking around a de la Tour-lit room with a needle in your arm, like a character does in a scene from No Quarto da Vanda, is not something ah set dahz, mmy'know.

It is not as though poverty cannot be romanticized, or turned to beauty in order to peddle an ideological image. At the same time the objection to romanticized poverty can be used as a tool to rob the depiction of the impoverished of any beauty at all, as though all beauty itself were the rightful consequence of accumulation. Minimalisms are not, intrisically, counter-hegemonic. But sometimes the pared down can give us a glimpse of what we're missing, what we need not be missing.

(Taking a break from my break for May Day...)