Sunday, January 25, 2009
This is not a matter of finding subversive or countercultural (in a broad sense) meanings built into films, which is a different issue. It's a matter of finding the things that a system did not take the care to lie about or stylize—at least not in the same ways as they finessed other things which we now clearly, in allegedly enlightened manner, see for ourselves. The negotiation of businesspeople, creators, and technicians to audiences crystallizes into specific film texts. Studying the changes in producers/audiences in tandem with the study of textual/generic/authorial productions gives us a better understanding of the long history of a commercial cinema, the history of the choices offered to every type of player at different points in the game.
White ethnicity, that is, working class 'whiteness' that is markedly separate from WASPishness within that larger category, seems to get no play in movies anymore. (I welcome counter-examples: this is my impression, not a categorical claim to fact.) Irish kids from Southie seem to be the rare exceptions; but semi-literate neighborhood wiseguys (Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Greek) trying to make a buck? Puh-leeze. To represent a character like this today, I feel, one would need to forestall him having charisma, and one would try to tie all his intelligence to his literacy. But Rocky is the kind of people marked by slang, local dialect, streetwise ways of not only of communicating to other people, but of conceptualizing one's own relationship to other sentient beings. The scene with the realtor in Rocky II is entertaining for this reason. Of course American English is becoming ever more standardized (but not more beautiful or learned) and we are impoverished for it, though it suits the new business mold and its functions in global commerce, where various Englishes must cohere to aid transactions.
(Let's recall, too, that Andy Rector's blog is called Kino-Slang, and he explains why in one of his very first posts...)
The entire Rocky series is a fairytale but its roots are in the working-class everyday. It's a story about proletarian self-improvement, the kinds of things about which Jacques Rancière sometimes writes. Contrast this with Good Will Hunting, which is also about proletarian self-improvement, but on a much more fantastic level. The scene in the Van Sant film where Matt Damon tells off the ponytailed grad student by overwhelming him with knowledge is pure wish-fulfilment. The janitor-bricklayer asserts himself over the upper/middle-class guy via mastery of the area conventionally held by the latter. Rocky himself jumps into the wealth, too, but it's through a different route: work hard, keep your head down, and if you get lucky, you get lucky. Will Hunting, in the Clinton '90s, first holds a job where he cleans floors at MIT—of all the places to clean—and then when he quits it, he can work construction. Bills aren't a problem. Rocky Balboa, on the other hand, aspires to a desk job (and its concomitant financial security) which he can't get, and must beg around for menial labor in the recession '70s. He gets a job hauling beef and promptly loses it for reasons of budget. Choices are made, in Rocky and Rocky II, on the basis of a dream, sure, but also in light of setting food on the table; the latter in the contemporary-liberal "working class" Hollywood fantasy is more likely to be excised from the picture, replaced with pap about realizing one's true potential, etc.
One more thing: the scene in Rocky II where Rocky's got to read off of cue cards while he's filming an ad for aftershave. "It—makes—me—smeel mainly." When he's chastised for misreading, Rocky yos his way into a defense: 'Does this stuff smell manly to you? In my opinion it doesn't smell very manly.' This is something vestigial, and something which I feel like I never see in commercial movies these days (and perhaps not in culture more generally, as refuge from billboards and big box stores is, in America, the privilege of the rich only): working-class incredulity towards advertisements and commercialism. This is different from the middle-class activism against these things, which is often couched in terms of renunciation of an omnipresent vermin on our quotidian existence, a blight on the life we deserve. Working-class incredulity comes from the perspective of the little guy knowing full well he's on the losing end of a rigged con; it's more pessimistic, maybe defeatist, but has a harder core because it's not necessarily a "political" cause.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
"The psychoanalyst Lacan pulled exactly the same trick with Freud. Very quickly, however, one single rupture épistémologique for all times and for all people seemed paltry. Each thinker had to have his own, and then the really chic thinkers had several in a row. In the end, everybody turned themselves into a continuous and monstrous rupture, not primarily with others, but with their own past.
"This is how inconsistency has become the major intellectual virtue of the avant-garde. But the real credit for the tabula rasa school of innovation should go to Nietzsche, who was tired of repeating with everybody else that a great thinker should have no model. He went one better, as always, and refused to be a model—the mark of genius. This is still a sensation that is being piously repeated today. Nietzsche is our supreme model of model-repudiation, our revered guru of guru-renunciation."
—Catty words from René Girard ("Innovation and Repetition," 1990) hip through sheer squareness, "radical" through Roman Catholic traditionalism.
When Dominic meets his fate he tells Noodles: "I slipped." These words, which appear to quietly haunt Noodles for the rest of his life, blindside us. Like an iceberg set upon our Titanic, they come unbidden to catch us unawares—extraneous to plot development and not even immediately applicable to pathos, "I slipped" is like a perpendicular insertion into the linear progression of time and the narrative. Of course, Once Upon... is not a linear film and its conceptualization of time, memory, history, and diegetic reality is like a Möbius strip (and in this it has a common overarching feature with another great philosophical genre film of the time, Videodrome). There are many such perpendicular insertions, touches which seem to come from out of "nowhere," but which make prevent any such sleek gangster movie. This movie spreads outward, and more on that aspect in the future. But like icebergs and Titanics, the iceberg was always there first, and our own shortcomings of perception and planning, our habitual shackles, are truly to blame: the iceberg may appear out of the mist but it does not come to be out of the mist. So when Dominic says, "I slipped," we get a split second that's easy to accept, but hard to assimilate. For a moment the narrative line morphs into a sturdy horizontal cross-section of these big concepts, "America," "youth," "masculinity," "violence," etc. Almost all such narrative treatments of these kinds of Big Issues in film appear clumsy, shallow, obsequious next to Leone's film.
Time means something different for this moment; not a narrative time but an intrusion, a pause on narrative chronology to reflect upon the underlying experience that burns off the moment we comprehend a narrative through-line. What kind of cross-section here? Actually Once Upon a Time in America is not at all a cross-section of America, or of children or men, or of American Jews or New Yorkers. Its handling of all these things tends toward the narrow and specific, the personal, and if these are ever elevated to generalized principles (anecdotal, nostalgic, exemplary) it is only because the children's narrative, at the very least, is the one sure aspect of the story organized under the sign of memory. When one looks back one has to come up with ways to make sense of the fragmented and stylized slivers that comprise our private, experiential histories.
Hence "I slipped" means a lot of things. It tells us something about the miserable and admirable courage of these hustling street kids; Dominic, too proud to admit he got shot, but too close to death to be proud consciously, has to blurt out something that comes to mind—anything that might save face in front of his pals. It's the sort of explanation that comes to a sleepwalker's mind when she has been awakened; those of us who have been in this position ourselves will understand the weird explanations (neither lies, nor false, evasive but naked) that come to the lips, and we may fancy a guess that this is the sort of last hurrah of Dominic's experiential self we see. Of course: he slipped.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Though I am aware that the New York Times tells me little of consequence, I read its content anyway. Some of it. Like some of you surely did, I read Fish's self-satisfied write-up of Frank Donoghue's book, The Last Professors. I get the same bewildering discomfort reading accounts like Donoghue's as any other young academic does. So if the liberal arts as we know them are in jeopardy (and boy do they always seem to be in jeopardy!) how do we humanities scholars survive?
The great university systems of the modern world existed within power structures which were national, protected and differentiated in both cultural tradition and laws of the state. The universities existed under the dominant paradigms of the system which enveloped them, and as with all capital, resources, and intellectual manpower, the game is rigged in favor of the owners. The great civilizations always maintain some activity for the advancement of leisure and learning. In some of these civilizations these activities are codified and restricted so that a great deal is the prerogative of the elite classes of people.
If tomorrow's age (which is already underway today) is that of transnational capital, will tomorrow's haven for dissent from within—the space it allows for a scholarly spirit of disinterestedness—be sustained by these very corporations and their for-profit institutions, operating through webs of virtual space and "global cities" and English (or some other lingua franca)? And I wonder if, as a corollary to this, the future of a strong liberal arts (or equivalent) education will revert to the privilege of a few or will remain viable on a relative mass scale.
More broadly: will that very scholarly spirit of disinterestedness remain or will it evolve into a new and unrecognizable thing altogether (i.e., in less optimistic words, die out)?
Sunday, January 11, 2009
—Dov Weisglass on soon-to-be-ex-President Bush. (Hat tip to the Colonel for the link.)
And by this time next year, will many of us forget our prior derision of simplistic Republican moral binarism (and a hypocrisy towards violence), and expound rational Democratic programs for humanitarian militarism in all pockets of the world in order to reach the exact same goals, i.e., the "spreading" of "democracy/peace/freedom" from our glorious bag of tricks? I wonder if there will be, can be, anything short of our economic downfall to prevent this.
—from Raymond Durgnat, "The Fantastic Voyage" (1972)
"I am not sure what Clint's politics are now. The right has disowned him and the left still does not know what to do with him. When The Gauntlet came out 30 years ago, I thought: this is an action movie that doesn't behave itself and seems unlike what has come before. People finally realized what a great film it was in the 1990s. I think Gran Torino and Changeling will be respected properly in about 10 years when other movies start being as brilliant. ... What is amazing is that Eastwood has made the two best political movies of the year since neither movie simply confirms the political biases of its spectators, but complicates them, challenges them, and ultimately leaves them strengthened. They are not the liberal-docu-porn that so many documentaries are. ... [Recently] just listening to NYC friends gush about their enjoyment of the most recent documentary they saw—I often think their mantra has become: “No I haven't done any community organizing, but I saw the documentary.” It is not that this problem is new: it is at least as old as De Sica—the artful rendering of social horror/decay to give aesthetic pleasure. Some documentarians are beginning to look at themselves at the same time that they are looking at the world, and questioning the rules about both the well-made documentary and that when filming they must document and not intervene in what they are filming."
—Brian Dauth, selected comments, The November 3rd Club
Some words to keep in mind in general, but with respect to Gran Torino: surely. It seems to me like everyone talking about this film is worried about whether it's intended to be funny or elegiac, whether we should feel OK about laughing at all the non-PC language (nevermind how that language is used and contextualized, which is close to unique), or how successfully it "deconstructs" some single earlier movie icon and ethos (inevitably Dirty Harry). In the end we embrace what we think are attitudes of knowingness and skepticism and yet we just keep fussing over the proper stances to take towards any given object.
Friday, January 09, 2009
Compounding upon Durgnat's own idiosyncrasies as a critic, it's interesting as always to see how great minds of the recent past have characterized historical developments and aesthetic achievements ... i.e., when they've done so in ways that have not been taken up as dominant paradigms or conventional wisdom. Durgnat (like the 80%-anti-Nouvelle Vague Noel Burch circa 1960, or Manny Farber who chose a humanistic Kurosawa [!] film to exemplify termite art) surprises. Who would have thought, for one thing, that this most insightful critic-advocate of Powell & Pressburger would consign all Archers' films (or Powell's individual works) to only the B list? (Could we surmise that he upgraded them in subsequent decades?) And it's difficult to dismiss Durgnat's embrace of what we think of as boring and mildewed middlebrow classics (1950s Asquith?); Durgnat was on the front lines for underground film and animated cinema, and wrote beautifully about "low" genre films (even when he didn't necessarily argue that they were artistic masterpieces, he accorded them greater attention and respect than many of those who do). This isn't like Judith Crist or other "respectable" older movie critics whose postures where that of the shepherd but whose opinions were those of the sheep.
Durgnat's tastes represent an alternate example, a robust one, for where debates and assumptions in film culture might have gone. It is this excavation of somewhat "off," even alien taste cultures that has fascinated me in recent months. I am trying to recalibrate my own eyeballs to this; starting to do things like thinking in terms of Positif as opposed to Cahiers (for example), and to rearrange the dusty old furniture that's accumulated in my brain (in general). Time to open up windows, add on a few new wings to the house, and rejuvenate things so as to retain the good things of my earlier cinephilia (and larger assumptions about art), but recontextualize them as necessary.
(Oh, and apparently Britain's greatest director was the American Mr. Losey! A nice reciprocity given how canonically Hitchcock is regarded as Hollywood's greatest director.)
* * *
'A First Draft Pantheon' - I've added the directors names & dates from the IMDB, my memory, and Durgnat's own filmography; feel free to let me know if I've made mistakes in my haste.
("drawn from all British films mentioned in the index")
A. MAJOR MOVIES
Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963)
Blind Date (Joseph Losey, 1959)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1952)
The Citadel (King Vidor, 1938)
The Criminal (Joseph Losey, 1960)
Chance of a Lifetime (Bernard Miles, 1950)
The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963)
The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960)
Give Us This Day (Edward Dmytryk, 1949)
Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)
The Gypsy and the Gentleman (Joseph Losey, 1958)
The Happiest Days of Your Life (Frank Launder, 1950)
Heavens Above (John and Roy Boulting, 1963)
Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, 1935)
How I Won the War (Richard Lester, 1967)
I'm All Right Jack (John Boulting, 1959)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1966)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (Richard Hamer, 1949)
King and Country (Joseph Losey, 1964)
Knave of Hearts (Rene Clement, 1954)
The Leather Boys (Sidney J. Furie, 1963)
The Little Island (Richard Williams, 1958)
Live Now Pay Later (Jay Lewis, 1962)
The Long and the Short and the Tall (Leslie Norman, 1960)
Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959)
Love Me Love Me Love Me (Richard Williams, 1963)
The L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962)
The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951)
Men of Two Worlds (Thorold Dickinson, 1946)
Millions Like Us (Sidney Gilliatt, 1943)
Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1943)
A Night to Remember (Roy Ward Baker, 1958)
Nothing But the Best (Clive Donner, 1963)
Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)
Orders to Kill (Anthony Asquith, 1958)
Passage Home (Roy Ward Baker, 1955)
The Plain Man's Guide to Advertising (Bob Godfrey, 1962)
Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967)
Private's Progress (John Boulting, 1956)
The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson, 1949)
Reach for Glory (Philip Leacock, 1961)
Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Road Sweepers (Michael Ingrams, 19?)
Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)
The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film (Richard Lester, 1960)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)
Secret People (Thorold Dickinson, 1951)
The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963)
Sewermen (Michael Ingrams, 1957)
The Singer not the Song (Roy Ward Baker, 1960)
The Skin Game (Alfred Hitchcock, 1931)
The Sleeping Tiger (Joseph Losey, 1954)
Sparrows Can't Sing (Joan Littlewood, 1962)
Tell England (Anthony Asquith, 1930)
Thursday's Children (Lindsay Anderson and Guy Brenton, 1954)
Time Without Pity (Joseph Losey, 1956)
Tramps (Michael Ingrams, 1958)
The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1967)
Waterloo Road (Sidney Gilliatt, 1945)
Woman in a Dressing Gown (J. Lee Thompson, 1957)
Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968)
Yesterday's Enemy (Val Guest, 1959)
B. IMPORTANT MOVIES
The Angry Silence (Guy Green, 1960)
Battle of the Sexes (Charles Crichton, 1959)
Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962)
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)
The Boys (Sidney J. Furie, 1962)
Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)
Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)
Brighton Rock (John Boulting, 1949)
Carry On Nurse (Gerald Thomas, 1959)
Children on Trial (Jack Lee, 1946)
Circle of Deception (Jack Lee, 1960)
Coalface (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935)
Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1928)
Cry the Beloved Country (Zoltan Korda, 1952)
Dance Pretty Lady (Anthony Asquith, 1932)
David (Paul Dickson, 1951)
Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden, and Charles Crichton, 1945)
The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit (Bob Godfrey, 1961)
Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1959)
Dunkirk (Leslie Norman, 1948)
The Edge of the World (Michael Powell, 1937)
Everybody's Nobody (John Sewell, 1966)
The Family Way (Roy Boulting, 1966)
Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings, 1943)
The Flying Man (George Dunning, 1962)
Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson, 1940)
Guns at Batasi (John Guillermin, 1964)
Guns of Darkness (Anthony Asquith, 1962)
The Heart of the Matter (George More O'Ferrall, 1953)
Hobson's Choice (David Lean, 1954)
I Know Where I'm Going (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
Industrial Britain (John Grierson, 1931)
The Intimate Stranger (Joseph Losey, 1956)
Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963)
The Kidnappers (Philip Leacock, 1953)
Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings 1941)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962)
The Love Match (David Palthengi, 1953)
Love on the Dole (John Baxter, 1941)
Man in the Moon (Basil Dearden, 1960)
Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty, 1934)
The March to Aldermaston ("Under guidance of committee comprising Lindsay Anderson, Chris Brunel, Charles Cooper, Allan Forbes, Derrick Knight, Kurt Lewenhack, Lewis McLeod, Karel Reisz, Elizabeth Russell, Eda Segal, Derek York, 1959)
A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946)
Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)
Night Mail (Basil Wright, 1936)
Oh Mr. Porter (Marcel Varnel, 1937)
Old Bones of the River (Marcel Varnel, 1938)
Once a Jolly Swagman (Jack Lee, 1948)
One-Way Pendulum (Peter Yates, 1964)
Our Mother's House (Jack Clayton, 1967)
Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
Polygamous Polonius (Bob Godfrey, 1960)
The Pumpkin Eater (Jack Clayton, 1964)
The Rake's Progress (Sidney Gilliatt, 1945)
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
Refuge England (Robert Vas, 1959)
Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1958)
Rich and Strange (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932)
Rise and Fall of Emily Sprodd (Bob Godfrey, 1963)
Rotten to the Core (John Boulting, 1965)
Sailor Beware (Gordon Parry, 1956)
Sapphire (Basil Dearden, 1959)
Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, 1936)
The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed, 1940)
The Stranglers of Bombay (Terence Fisher, 1959)
Summer of the 17th Doll (Leslie Norman, 1959)
Tales of Hoffman (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951)
Term of Trial (Pester Glenville, 1962)
They Drive by Night (Arthur Woods, 1939)
They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947)
The Thief of Baghdad (Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940)
This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963)
Tiger in the Smoke (Roy Ward Baker, 1956)
Together (Lorenza Mazzetti, 1955)
Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1962)
Tunes of Glory (Ronald Neame, 1960)
Up the Junction (Peter Collinson, 1967)
The Valiant (Roy Ward Baker, 1962)
Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
The Way Ahead (Carol Reed, 1944)
The Way to the Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1945)
Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick, 1948)
Windom's Way (Ronald Neame, 1957)
Yield to the Night (J. Lee Thompson, 1956)
C. "The category below this would include delightful, interesting or erratic movies, such as, Genevieve, Hamlet, Lawrence of Arabia, Passport to Pimlico, The Wicked Lady, etc."
Saturday, January 03, 2009
—Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (in Bk. III, 1112a)
At issue from some weeks back is whether Barack Obama should be respected or esteemed for being a conduit of popular will (or particular articulations of sentiment among the popular demographic). Alex, being the well-read and thoughtful commentator on political issues that he is, challenged me on this point and asked why we should esteem a leader for giving in to the demands of others. (Discussion here.) For weeks I have let this question sit on the back-burner (or maybe a back-back-burner) and yet I think if I had a strong and sound response it would have come to the fore more readily. As it stands I think I only have a partial response that needs tempering and revision. So either Alex is correct in his thinking, or if he is wrong it is not because I am right (or that I am yet right). I'll continue to think about this.
What lies in the power of the American electorate? Relatively little, on a federal level. But the electorate can pick its officials. Obama ran a campaign based famously on "change," and of course everyone who got behind him knew that the referent of this term had its roots that ran well outside of partisan politics. Of course it was partisan too. My point is that its popular appeal was not merely partisan. This was not solely a change from 'Republican' to 'Democrat.' Obama's campaign captured the speech, the votes, the labor hours, of so many millions of people because it represented a change to Washington culture in general. Certainly we cannot realistically expect Obama to deliver a sweeping transformation; nevertheless he was elected and given such a rapturous welcome by so many because of his symbolic negotiation of the office of the presidency:
"But ultimately, this race is not about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain. This election is about you—the American people—and whether we will have a president and a party that can lead us toward a brighter future." (Here.)
I do not believe that Obama was refusing to play politics when he made this appeal—from one Time Person of the Year (Barack Obama) to another (You). He and his campaign knew exactly what he was doing, and a popular opinion so cultivated, so "played," is not an opinion that can be trusted for decisive and long-term policy. Nevertheless I think that what is at stake with this office is the issue of electoral efficacy. Obama must show himself to be a conduit of populist demands (or make a convincing illusion of it, which may or may not prove easy, we shall see). If he does not honor these terms of his electoral triumph, then I fear that no amount of Lincoln & King invocation will keep history from flicking him aside in a few more years.
Nobody makes movies like Clint Eastwood. I do wonder who decided on the title for Manohla Dargis' review. It's a decent review, I think basically attuned to what Eastwood's doing (no small feat for a critic these days), but the review's title ("Hope for a Racist, and Maybe a Country") is awful, and I think it misses the boat on a lot of what makes Gran Torino interesting and special.