Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"I'll Be Seeing You Boys ... Probably"

Near the beginning of 3 Godfathers (Ford, '48), one of the great Christmas movies (and it gets better each time you watch it), our "heroes" ride into town—John Wayne in command, Pedro Armendáriz in support, Harry Carey Jr. as the green recruit, still a little wet behind the ears. It's his comments—his openness to the cordial Mrs. Sweet—that perk up Buck Sweet's (Ward Bond's) ears and spur him from afternoon gardener into sheriff. It's been a nice meeting and visit, but Sweet is the one to get a leg up.

First he puts on his gun,

then his star.

Ol' Sheriff Sweet gestures idly, once, with his cob pipe at the badge, an unreadable smirk on his face, just enough to impart an oblique, unmistakable message. John Wayne (as Hightower) is not amused. No pearly apples & flowers here after all. The communitarian demands of politeness and hospitality have been honored but the signal is given. The law undercuts nicety, the gesture, when it presumes to keep the social balance. Three ride out. Later in the film, the law and custom are honored (sort of) but are in fact undercut themselves by the bonds of community and love.

Question of the Day

If you could chat with Guy Debord's ghost for an evening (assuming that you would, like me, want to), what would you be drinking? You know Debord's would be a parched phantom. Myself, I'd blow a few days' wages on a really good bottle of scotch, possibly some solid bourbon (depends on how long this evening lasted), and a few nice Belgian beers. I imagine the night would produce a monstrous hangover.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Good Times

The fantasy of a better life: good times on a nice afternoon, a wish fulfilled, a dream undeferred (in the immanent deferment of art).

Been thinking about close analysis, and John Ford, among other things. Cultural imperialism, international trade and capital, the character and role of bright colors & period pictures; cruel comedy. More coming before long, perhaps or perhaps not on any of these topics!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Michael Gaines

The other day I came upon the story of one Michael Gaines, in Kansas, who was recently sentenced to 13 years for battery. I'm still trying to ascertain the details but news reports make it seem like the "battery" for which Gaines was sentenced was spitting on two officers in a jail clinic. Gaines is a large and assertive black man, and HIV+. This latter fact prompted fears from the officers upon whom he (allegedly) spat. Like I said, from the news reports: this is the "assault" for which Gaines is being sentenced.

As we know, saliva is not a fluid that transmits HIV. And as any child knows, no person should be locked up for spitting. What has happened here?

I don't know the entire story yet; maybe there's more to it. But the video and the evidence I've come across so far paints a picture of injustice. There's a story here, and one (with the video) of the incident here. The judge in question has a website, and a blog, and discusses the incident here. The mostly Kansas-based press on the incident has been, in my opinion, deeply biased against Gaines. The video has made the rounds on stupid video websites like Ebaumsworld. From my preliminary searches, neither poz nor black media have picked up on this yet (please correct & inform me where I'm wrong).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Perry Anderson Video

(Note: I've deleted my previous post, which I had debated putting up. I feel like my ideas in it weren't ready yet and needed to be more fully fleshed out, moved away from the diaristic...)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Recent Viewing


La France (Serge Bozon, 2007) Two things make this especially noteworthy. One is the musical element, the other is the fact that Bozon is working in a classical idiom, at least as regards mise-en-scène, without resorting to "pastiche" in any robust sense. It's nice to see somebody doing this without playing up the homage/recreation elements.

Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2006) Required reading: the first chapter in the first volume of Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema. There's conflict, here, all right, but it's not to be found in the narrative. I wouldn't call it a great work, but I'm flummoxed by all the nitpicking that a film about Africa & globalization that isn't a documentary would have the gall to not have a strong narrative propulsion. Can't things just be interesting because they're interesting? (And I saw this at an outdoor screening, with delicious food, by the East River, so there was plenty to occupy us.)

Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994) T. Wendy McMillan deserves to be in more films! I can't find any substantial information on her, but she's the black lesbian scholar. She's also at the center of the funniest moment in the film, when she's walking down the street and, slow motion, we hear somebody on the soundtrack yell out a homophobic "dyke" comment. McMillan turns her head, as she keeps walking, and (still in slo-mo) yells back, "Heyyyyy, fuuuuck yooooouu!" An interesting amalgamation of cheap indie narrative with meta-discursive framings, occupying several pairs of shoes (romantic comedy, navel-gazer, queer film manifesto, discussion of queer film manifestos) with an apparent effortlessness that's easy to miss. This was Luc Moullet's choice (for Film Comment) on 'Film of the Nineties,' an unusual pick to be sure, but if you sit a bunch of cinephiles around to watch this you could perhaps get a good debate going.

House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, 1955) Racist imperialist lunacy, no doubt: I don't see a strong authorial response resisting or mediating a pretty bald ideological operation. But the climax, and elements prior, are all Fullerian flourish, and there's enough here to keep the cinephile following along. Girish has written very well on this film's strengths. Moullet again: "The young American filmmakers have nothing to say, Sam Fuller even less than the others. He has something to do, and he does it, naturally, without forcing it. This isn't a small compliment." (Robert Ryan remains, of course, unassailable.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

The question of politics and the method of my “shifts” are closely linked to each other. For me, the political always comes into play in questions of divisions and boundaries. I chose the title La nuit des prolétaires for my book on the emancipation of the worker in nineteenth-century France because at the heart of this emancipation was the breaking of the natural division of time that dictated that workers must work by day and sleep by night and have no time left over for thinking. The workers’ emancipation came about through workers who decided to devote their nights to other activities than sleep, to give themselves this time that did not belong to them in order to enter into a world of writing and thinking that was not “theirs.” To take this into account, I needed to break the boundary that is supposed to separate genres—history, philosophy, literature, political science. In principle, my workers belonged to “social history.” In other words, their texts were read as documents expressing the condition of workers, popular culture, etc. I decided to read them in a different way—as literary and philosophical texts. Where others were attempting to read about workers’ problems expressed in the language of the people, I saw, on the other hand, a struggle to cross the barrier between languages and worlds, to vindicate access to the common language and to the discourse on the community. As opposed to culturalism, which sought to restore a “popular culture,” I valorized the attitude of those workers who challenged that so-called “popular culture” and made an attempt to appropriate another’s culture (i.e. that of the “iterate”). The idea of a “poetics of knowledge” that would cut across all disciplines thus expresses a very close relationship between subject and method. La nuit des prolétaires was a “political” book in that it ignored the division between “scientific” and “literary” or between “social” and “ideological,” in order to take into account the struggle by which the proletariat sought to reappropriate for themselves a common language that had been appropriated by others, and to affirm transgressively the assumption of equality.

—Jacques Rancière (interviewed by Solange Guénoun and James H. Kavanagh, 2000)


Real elitism entails, subordinately, forcing other people's leisure to conform to your idea of leisure.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Reference Please?

Readers—a while back I recall coming across a reference to what I believe is a book or an article about race, culture, and environmentalism. I think the title was something along the lines of, "Before It Was Green, It Was Brown"—something comparable to this. I want to say that the gist of the book was that a lot of traditional and indigenous communities used common-sense "green" methods in their everyday life, well before the environmentalist movement as such. But I've been Googling in vain. Would anyone have any idea what I might be thinking of? Or am I just crazy? Thanks in advance.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Les Oignons

Marcel Hanoun is one of the rare filmmakers who tries not at all to define his work in relation to a dominant cinema. As Marx said about the future promising people who would paint (rather than "painters"), Hanoun is—like Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet—a filmmaker who lives. The power structure that most insists upon all cinema everywhere being a cinema for as many people (as large a market) as possible is the same power structure that benefits from the actual institution of this way of thinking about cinema. Thus, people here and there make "small" films, neither exactly amateur nor industrial, sacrificing cosmetics in order to strive in the way of aesthetics.

Je meurs de vivre (1994) is a 52-minute* dialogue-skimpy work about a priest and nun in love. Surely made for less money than a lot of student films, it is nevertheless a very powerful film: deftly edited, economical, with a giant cumulative impact. My possibly incorrect impression is that Hanoun is a political radical and an atheist, but here is another film about believers by (presumably) a nonbeliever that captures and expresses something about the emotions that course through veins, and the behaviors that corral and contain them—or try to.

An amazing passage: a shot of three onions on a plate (like most great representational filmmakers Hanoun attends to the things we ingest), which we then understand that the nun is cutting as we see her face in close-up. (I would guess she is actually cutting those same onions in her close-up.) What we have is an element of fiction, the impression of the nun's tears. At the same time we are shown directly the tools for achieving this fictional effect: the onions which will be cut. But the actuality of the onion-cutting is there, it's both indexically recorded and dramatically performed. What is causing the woman's (character's/actress') tears? We cannot say with real certainty, and this ambiguity is what makes for a palpably felt moment. The long-term internal feelings one carries with oneself over time collide, coincide with the very plain daily activities of life, and become immanent there.

Je meurs de vivre was also listed by Luc Moullet, for Film Comment, as one of his top ten best/underrated films of the 1990s.

* The ending on Hanoun's website, where I viewed the film, seemed quite abrupt but I haven't found any information on whether the running time is actually longer than the ~52 minutes it runs online and that is supplemented (copied?) by the IMDB. If someone has information to clarify things I'd love to hear it.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


“I just couldn’t see Barry again, could I? I’d feel—I’d feel unclean.”

In the mediocre mood-thriller She-Wolf of London (Jean Yarbrough, 1946) the heroine, June Lockhart, believes she is victim of an old family curse—murderous lycanthropy. In one sequence her "aunt" tries to comfort her in the bedchamber after Lockhart concludes she has gone out on another noctural rampage. First she awakens in her bed to see dried blood on her fingertips; she then notices the wetness on the hem of her robe; finally she sees caked mud and dirt on her slippers. Of course it's a blatant signification of menstruation as well as the imposed/reinforced shame of women's biology engendered by our patriarchal culture and our patriarchal cinema. I wonder if, pedagogically, this film could be used as a good example of showing that utterly serious issues can be found in minor films—that "decoding" them neither necessarily justifies a major demolition job on an ideologically illegitimate (or unsavory) artwork, nor does it necessarily underline a supposedly greater complexity or "latency" that ennobles the unassuming artwork. All artworks contain complexity because all artworks are propelled into one's awareness through the discursive borders of human relations.

The film is marked by a premise and set design that John Brahm might have done justice, as he did with a couple of other low-budget Britain-set films I like from the same period (The Lodger with Laird Cregar, The Undying Monster). Somebody—persumably Yarbrough or DP Maury Gertsman—decides to tilt the camera a bit for some "menacing" climactic scenes. But there's no organic or interesting progression to the images and the way the shots come, one after another, the way the themes creep out of each other, grow large through economy of image and totem and audiovisual relations. It's just a bit of cheap technique, and as such the film has the same enjoyable low-key, low-budget charm as most b-movies from the era seem to. But not here the coherence of a Brahm, let alone an Ulmer, who did manage to evoke beyond means (cosmetics) deeper and more complex aesthetic movements.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fourth of July

What Is Cinema (For)?

To what all can we equate the cinema? For starters: lost causes, mirror images, failures, dream-food, a drug, a certain form of reality, lèse majesté, toadying, bullying, pleading, pornography, a captured sequence of sounds/images that may give a reasonably identical experience to the viewer over multiple viewings, a substitute for action, a displacement of life, a patriarchal funhouse, today's Grand Guignol, faith, celluloid, maybe pixels, beginnings and ends, a two-lane blacktop.

(The more I disregard “dominant” cinema and try to distance myself from it, the more refreshed I think I am in looking at it, finding more clearly its parameters, its strengths and weaknesses. For those movie-mad folks who watch only television shows and feature-length narratives [brought to you by DVD]: don't you ever get bored? Staring at the image of my former self, my adolescent self, that I hold in my own head, I am furious. How, why, did I have no sense of foundations, of supplementation? I was a very smart child and am spending my twenties trying desperately to reclaim some of that freedom and some of that focus, against the obstacles of deeply worn-in damage caused by my teenage years. This is why pedagogy matters to me: I am convinced I, and others, have been robbed of a proper education—I'm hardly using this as a synonym for schooling—and must grab it back by force, inches at a time, before it's too late. Too late for what? What makes it too late? I don't know and yet feel compelled, propelled all the same.)

The suspicion is that the best way to answer the question, What Is Cinema?, is to ask, What Is Cinema For? Which means: for whom is the cinema (and the true answer is complex but this doesn't mean diffuse beyond interpretation); how the cinema got to be; why; how it has developed—all of which is inseparable from the prior question of for whom.

The fundamental issues of cinema & politics are neither content nor form but, underlying it all, ownership and use. They set the terms of debate for form/content; they inform them. Of course I do not mean to say that they replace or displace form/content (though frequently we may find the prior manifest in the latter). Obviously, form/content matter. The playing field has not always been correctly identified, however.

In late 1940s Italy, as in 1960s Brazil, people were hungry, and the powers weren't always able or willing to help, and the films said something meaningful about this hunger, spurred by this hunger. Out of desperation they could reach beauty and intensity and significance. The poverty of means of production eclipsed the merely cosmetic to arrive at genuine aesthetics. (This is why a routine Hollywood production will look "better," "more professional," than Killer of Sheep but Burnett's film is more powerful, more aesthetically gripping and richer, than all but a tiny, tiny handful of Hollywood's finest masterpieces. It's not merely "superior content" or "intelligence"—it is also a clear difference muddied by a common confusion about the references available to us from our word, aesthetics.) Spurred by the recognition of hunger, people like De Sica and Zavattini and Rossellini and Rocha made films—some good, some bad, some masterful. They weren't always produced with pure anti-imperialist money, either. (For shame to expect such angelic origins always!) Still we see the popular, the resonant, quickly co-opted, transformed. To see the "vulgar" pink neorealist film of the 1950s, or the hip-exoticist poverty film of Brazil (like City of God) we must not think them only as products of a perverse, empowered sociopolitical motion, though that they are. We must understand that they are origami, sculpted garbage heaps, reactions as much as appropriations. This is as true of them as it was of the films which they twist and distort and perhaps even mock (perhaps even from the vantage point of the capitalists themselves).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


* * *

The course of history is merciless but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy ourselves digging around in the sale bin. While I'm generally not a fan of the 1980s revival that's marked this decade in everyday fashion, I really like these two videos (and the songs for them). I've remarked already, once or twice, on the palpable 'videosity' of the Snoop piece: the tracking, the color. Feist's typical low-key choreography captures what can be fun about cheesy late '70s pop, and an ironic or campy latter-day appreciation of it: it's honest and allows one to let loose and be a little awkward simultaneously. Like enthusiastic karaoke of a song you're supposed to be embarrased to even know ... in front of both friends and strangers.


Walter Benjamin lived for a while in Capri and later in Ibiza. I find oddly resonant the little resort towns and islands (to which I've never been) where so many British and Continental writers/scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century vacationed, which in the age of cinema were obliquely monumentalized in the cinephile's eye by the likes of Godard (Le Mépris) and Welles (F for Fake). The same sorts of places that make a vacation for Garrel's addicts in J'entends plus la guitare are earlier seen in cheap softcore Franco films and L'Avventura and Darling and Il Sorpasso. Pound's Rapallo resembles more than slightly the little Mediterranean every-village where Radley Metzger's Score! takes place.

At the bar one could sip a negroni while reading Proust, staring at cats. When I'm an old man perhaps I could spiff it up to look like this fellow. This is the romantic wish promised by the dreamy part of my self that thinks humanistic activity, and the study of cinema, could ever really be lucrative and alluring.

* * *

“He's a sculptor,” he told me, “an old acquaintance from my travels. I met him in Capri in 1924, in Rhodes in 1926, at Hiddensee in 1927, and recently on Formentera. He's one of those curious people who spent most of their lives on islands and never feel quite at home on the mainland.”

“For a sculptor, that mode of life seems doubly surprising,” I said.

—Benjamin, “Conversation above the Corso: Recollections of Carnival-Time in Nice” (March 1935)