Sunday, September 27, 2009

Image of the Day

(By Lee Russell, 1940)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Judd Apatow is like a clumsy cartoon elephant, laughing at his own flatulence & drunk to the point of being painfully sentimental, trampling over piles of money he's made. Though he doesn't necessarily know it, Mike Judge is like this elephant's put-upon zookeeper, trying to explain why the beast behaves like he does. Both are 'poets of contemporary America,' if we understand that the America in question involves endless strip malls, traffic jams, prolonged adolescence, dismal wage (and salary) slavery, needless sexual frustration, McMansions, Mom's basement, and a constant casual interface between folks who do illegal drugs, folks who do legal drugs & folks who say they don't touch either.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Question, Answer

Victims or Masters?

On the Huffington Post, just a hair under half the readers who participated in the informal poll endorsed the multiple choice option (to the question, "Is It Acceptable Behavior To Interrupt A Reporter During A Live Report?"):

Absolutely not. If a journalist is doing a report live from a scene, they should be allowed to do their work without being shouted down or interrupted.

Indeed. This "absolute" right (the identification with the media, and with government) is where one draws a line between the left who conceive of actually-existing state power and its scaffolding as 'We,' a magisterial prerogative upon whose sanctity no mere peon can encroach for any reason ... and the left who conceive of it as a tool, at best, and a potentially dangerous one in addition. Obviously I have no political affinities with those who attended this "Values Voter" conference. Even so. The relation of these reporters to the people at the event strikes me as the relation of an imperial functionary toward provincial burghers. The latter, far from "shouting down" reporters, and trying to prevent "word" from reaching the public of "their event" (alternately insisted upon by the press as a matter of media rights & a matter of self-interest that the values voters are too stupid to recognize: ahem, media's noblesse oblige), at least showed decent manners in these clips.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Does He See?

A Taste of Madison Avenue

I have recently watched the first season of AMC's much-acclaimed Mad Men. There are many compliments that can be paid to this show, compliments I endorse, but first I would like to express that I share more than a little empathy with the Siren's verdict:

"Such laughs as "Mad Men" affords are tethered to hindsight--"We never indulge in such sexism/racism/anti-Semitism/homophobia now, and even if we do, we sure don't smoke."

Back in those Good Ol' Days, something like clothing was considered valuable if it was durable, classic, if it lasted. Today, you can still get good custom tailoring, but a lot of expensive clothing is simply cheap. Fashionable: merely fashionable. The same sort of thing applies, just a bit, to the case of Mad Men. Very fine, very professional production values. Such good ones that they deserve more than the faint praise I'm giving them here. At the same time I feel like they're being used to hide a certain fundamental cheapness in the film's manner, a mercenary and cynical (but, due to the show's success, perhaps not inaccurate) understanding of its' viewers' minds. In the first episode, when new secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is being shown the ropes by Joan (Christina Hendricks), the latter explains as she unveils the "new technology" (an electronic typewriter) that it looks complicated, but they made sure it's easy enough for a woman to use. (It's missing a rimshot, which of course would be tasteless, but that's all it's really missing. The show provides a surfeit of moments like these.)

Who wouldn't, shouldn't grimace at this undignified gesture toward the enlightened viewer's very ... enlightenment? 'Ah, they were so sexist, so myopic, so unhealthy, so milquetoast, so closeted, so repressed, so hypocritical, so lacking in self-awareness.' And in 50 years the popular art of tomorrow will no doubt disparage us in ways that are unfair and self-congratulatory. C'est la vie (in an idiocracy). For one thing: Mad Men is good, but it's not even close to Tashlin's critiques. It remains exquisitely tasteful, on the surface, and ultimately middlebrow. Therein lie a few of the problems.

I use the term 'middlebrow' with a bit of a damning connotation, I admit, but only to continue to discussion, not to stall it. I have tried to understand just what it is about the middlebrow that causes some of us to struggle. Here, it's not that I think 'middlebrow' as an end result is the issue, but (if anything) the path that leads to the issue. Let me suggest one diagnosis: the reason middlebrow culture is tough for some of us to take is because it sets the bar for humanity too low, but then expects us to hover precisely at the height of that too-low bar all the time. Middlebrowism is fiercely intolerant of both the gonads & of magnificence. Of course, that's a harsh judgment that needs some leavening. Let's keep in mind that Raymond Durgnat wrote his great book A Mirror for England on the middlebrow British cinema, specifically to defend it even; and something like The Sopranos, which I'm also catching up with on DVD, may be a tad upmarket, but remains thoroughly middlebrow too. And it's excellent. Bertrand Tavernier is, or was, a middlebrow arthouse favorite, but Dave Kehr and Carloss James Chamberlin are two critics who've backed him, and most directors in this world surely haven't made a film as good as either The Passion of Beatrice or Capitaine Conan. The list goes on.

What strikes me in the current Age of Quality Television (not like Norman Lear's 1970s, or the classic days of old Ernie Kovacs, who's still better than anything on television I've seen, as well as most things on the big screen) is the relation to the symbol. Because we are, presumably, detached post-existentialist quasi-ironic consumer-viewers, in the 21st century (the convergence century), we cannot always take a symbol. So this is how tasteful narratives—I suppose—develop symbolism now. They take something and then make it an object of explicit or implicit contemplation for one or more of the characters. Recall: the geese in Tony Soprano's pool (season one), or in Mad Men, the pigeons & their relationship to meek wife Betty in the episode titled "Shoot." Wary of what we'd recognize as a symbol, cautious of a con job or of the exposure of stunted faculties from our high school lit courses ("in The Scarlet Letter the A symbolizes..."), we tasteful viewers demand not to be confronted with any overt symbol, but to treat them obliquely. The characters themselves bear a relation to a symbol ('birds'), ponder out loud or through their behaviors the significance of such birds ('freedom'?). Nobody then is forced to make an interpretation they take too seriously because the act of interpreting is oblique—it's for them, not for us.

How unaware they are, right?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Image of the Day

(From The Cube, directed by Jim Henson, 1969. Yes, that Jim Henson.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Light 5

There is in a lot of Kiarostami an explicit theme at work regarding the bridge between communication and perception—for a message to be received, apprehended, can be difficult enough between two people. When these attempts at communication, or more simply communion (e.g., between a person and his surroundings), extend beyond the immediately, physically present, Kiarostami's overall thematic notes the frail limits of things like cell phone reception, electricity, even a pure concept (like 'urbanity' or 'ennui'). Confrontations between concepts, like 'urban' and 'rural,' 'developed' and 'backward,' are not reiterations of a city mouse meets country mouse schtick at all, of course. The crutches, the scaffolding: this is part of Kiarostami's object, part of what he's describing. In ABC Africa, we come full circle, to Mother Nature: who can forget that lightning?

Friday, September 11, 2009


At the root of every reminder of something which we must never forget there is a concern that we will do precisely that. Individuals' memories are fickle things, and people if left to their own devices will stubbornly form their own ways of forgetting and remembering. If a social unity is to be maintained or finessed out of the harnessed memories of people, we need images and narratives around which to harness everyone.

Light 4

"I think of an unforgettable vision of darkness I once had when I took a friend from Tokyo to the old Sumiya teahouse in Kyoto. I was in a large room, the "Pine Room" I think, since destroyed by fire, and the darkness, broken only by a few candles, was of a richness quite different from the darkness of a small room. As we came into the door an elderly waitress with shaven eyebrows and blackened teeth was kneeling by a candle behind which stood a large screen. On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that "darkness seen by candlelight." It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes."

—Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (trans. Seidensticker & Harper)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tolerable Cruelty

"This movie is not a meditation on anything."

—David Cairns (here)

All historical investigation will reveal skeletons in the closet. Wicked, shameful skeletons in deep, dark closets. No expansive society with clean hands ever survived long. When viewed from the proper historical distance or perspective, however, no injustice retains its resonance forever. This is not my own ethical opinion. But injustices, however great, have a tendency to be forgotten as time moves on.

Imperializing peoples (and not only they) have long been fascinated by violence. Reveled in it. We Americans may be deeply uncivilized on the whole, but we can point to ourselves and say to our credit, at least, that to the individual our fascination with violence is nowadays more invested in mediated and manufactured images than in presence. Is this not some form of "progress"? Torture & executions have been public entertainment in other times and places (indeed including some spots of our own history). By and large, however, American tastes for real violence now are effete, squeamish, highly conditional. Which is not to say that we are not still cruel, or that (bare minimum) our State is not still cruel and wicked. It is.

The Holocaust represents for us a certain limit, an abyss, a chasm or a reminder which History has thrown us. It is evil incarnate; it is the reminder against "relativists" of what evil is. We are taught this way from a very early age. In the Land of the Free, it is even a matter of legal concern if you want to name your child the wrong way. Not that I mention to protest; I simply desire that we openly acknowledge, for a moment, the implicit boundaries set by our ways of delineating right & wrong, permissible & forbidden. To make a statement or artwork about World War II, at least on the European front, is ultimately then to make a statement about the Nazis, which means to make a statement about the Holocaust. This is the doxa. These are the standards that ultimately frame all such things in public discourse. So if you make a quasi-grindhouse movie about a Jewish-American death squad terrorizing Nazi-occupied France, you've volunteered yourself into the crosshairs of gods know how many people with very insistent and very legitimate concerns.

Quentin Tarantino has an incredibly unphilosophical mind, and this is both his strength and his problem. Not even in his most mature work (Jackie Brown) does he really question anything. The root of his cinema is pleasure, a deeply tactile, visceral, and memory-based pleasure for which, presumably, there are no limits worth abiding (in quantity or quality). Tarantino's conception of pleasure is, however, not unsophisticated. One may argue that it lacks refinement, polish, even the rudiments of taste; but it is self-evidently complex, I think, and it is based on attention to details. (People can debate whether they're the right details, of course.) The opening credits of Inglourious Basterds, before the quasi-Leone opening (a decent sequence), are one of the best parts of the film. A procession of fonts & sizes on the title cards—it's lovely. Tarantino is someone who cares about such "peripheral," "paracinematic" stuff. One of the few, but it's this sort of thing that may appear to future observers as witty or even inventive after this chapter in the history of media convergence/(divergence) is written. The culture that lasts is always a culture that remembers the past in some way. Hermetic novelty will die a pitiful and lonely death (and most of the time it may even deserve this fate). In this opening Leone-like sequence, the SS detective and "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) mentions the incredible lengths to which people will go when they abandon dignity.

Therein lies the key to the film; the key to Tarantino.

He has no "dignity," in a certain sense. Or, as the great Mr. Cairns says in the quote with which I've opened this post, this film is not a meditation on anything. Indeed, we may want a meditation, but do not (will not?) get one from Tarantino. Maybe some of us who liked Jackie Brown were led to believe he was capable of one, and that the Holocaust—i.e., the limit which leads to modernity's very abyss!—would coax this dignity out of him in spades. But no. Instead he makes a childish, violent, and irreverent film that receives as much derision as appreciation from the people who comprise this thing "film culture." Why? Well, it's tricky (treacly?)—but while every good film critic is probably a bit of a moralist, not every good film critic is a good moralist. And not every good film critic has the best perspective on things moral, or how they relate to art, to cultural production in its broadest sense, and to the history of style, affect, posture. I do not claim that I have the best perspective, myself. But I do think that maybe I've found hints of the proper trail in the woods, so to speak.

The problem that makes an insignificant but engrossing entertainment like Inglourious Basterds a "problem" at all is that some of us may wonder why such a film is (a) an event, and (b) something which speaks to others, including others we may otherwise respect, even though it seems odious. (In all honesty, I enjoyed the film and am probably among these latter, problematic folks more than I am the concerned citizens.) Well, to answer (a) with a short answer—it's that we live in the society of the spectacle, and the de facto composition of our "critical apparatus" that contributes to such a thing. As for (b), it returns to the question of dignity. Not all cultural production is dignified, and (as with technology) if it's both possible & profitable to do something, it's probably already accomplished or in the works. Entire film industries are predicated on capitalizing not on the bad tastes of the masses so much as the undignified allowances of these masses. I consider myself a semi-dignified young man, and maybe I'd even allow myself to be described as slightly educated ... but I have no illusions that I am above undignified pleasures. I do not mean to state that I, anti-elitist, am "one with the masses," but more precisely, that I, semi-decent person, am nonetheless fascinated by indecent things. And art, broadly defined, always supplies such things. In a broken society these things are integrated in such a way as to function problematically. The "myopic" sort of moralist-critic does not hold these negative capabilities in mind, and is, perhaps, confused when a major motion picture commands respect (i.e., from the establishment press, the box office, etc.) while not respecting the commands of our social rules of decency, dignity, and order (i.e., it goes there but ... is that really necessary?).

There is much more that could be written—that I could write—about all this, but a few things are clear: that we still are not so stable when it comes to how we conceptualize taste; and that we do not have good outlets for our indecent energies, let alone our critical faculties for same. If we are to point fingers at Tarantino for his indiscretions, his breaches, it may behoove us to point those same fingers at the culture which produced Tarantino, gave him money to make his films, produced an audience that would see it, and produced a community of writers & commentators who would earn money and/or attention in commenting on same.

Old man: "I don't understand the point of this long scene."
Old woman: "I don't either ... but what the hell."

—A couple who were sitting in the same row as me during the tavern sequence.

(I scribble these notes in near-immediate effusion, a few hours after seeing Inglourious Basterds, and may well reverse or criticize my own initial impulses tomorrow. Lately, quick responses to films seen have been at a premium on EL, so I figured that if Tarantino's latest could draw out some words, I should write them.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Light 3

Stills from Miguel Gomes' exhilarating Cantico das Criaturas (2006) - a film with Clare of Assisi as a character.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Light 2

... For the form cannot desert matter, because it is inseparable from it, and matter itself cannot be deprived of form. But I have proposed that it is light which possesses of its very nature the function of multiplying itself and diffusing itself instantaneously in all directions. Whatever performs this operation is either light or some other agent that acts in virtue of its participating in light to which this operation belongs essentially. Corporeity, therefore, is either light itself or the agent which performs the aforementioned operation and introduces dimensions into matter in virtue of its participation in light, and acts through the power of this same light. But the first form cannot introduce dimensions into matter through the power of a subsequent form. Therefore light is not a form subsequent to corporeity, but it is corporeity itself.

—from Robert Grosseteste, On Light (trans. Clare C. Riedl)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Light 1

Television began to appear in the writings of Italian artist Lucio Fontana just after he returned to Italy from his wartime home in Argentina in April 1947. At first it did so incidentally, to exemplify the mutual influence of art and science, which he believed occasionally placed art ist s in ant icipation of technological developments. Indeed, from then on (and despite the fact that regular television broadcasting only recommenced in Italy seven years later, at the beginning of 1954, a full year after its German counterpart), the medium that sends light through space played a fundamental role in Fontana’s artistic conception of Spatialism, which centered on a turn from illusionist to actual space. Faced with a television medium that was still out of reach, Fontana, like Götz, turned to painting, but unlike the German painter’s largely mimetic strategy, the Italian artist’s profoundly transformed the old medium.


Moreover, the architect Luigi Moretti, in a 1953 essay that hailed Italian television as a platform for the arts, reproduced examples of RAI’s experimental transmissions up to that point, including a studio production of Macbeth, a show covering famous jewelry, and, most importantly, two “luminous images in movement” by Fontana.30 The photographs are stills of moving light being filtered, at least in one case, through one of the buchi, Fontana’s signature works initially made from paper and then from canvas, respectively pierced from front and back with a stylus to create punctured surfaces. It appears that the one buco partially visible must have been handled like a screen to animate light in space and to project it onto a wall. This surely is the “new aesthetics” of “luminous forms crossing through space” that Fontana had called for the year prior in his Technical Manifesto of Spatialism. These spots and trails of light in frozen motion are likely the remains of a flickering, abstract light show that was part of Fontana and his peers’ Spatialist transmission.

—Christine Mehring, "Television Art's Abstract Starts: Europe circa 1944-1969" (October 125)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"There is much to repay."

As many of you have probably heard, Philippine film critic Alexis Tioseco and Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc (they were a couple) were murdered recently in Quezon City. I didn't know either of them personally, though I once had a bit of e-correspondence with Nika, who was lovely.

Some words from Gabe Klinger on these two people.

A remembrance of Alexis from Noel Vera.

There is also Alexis' letter to Nika which was a major piece of film criticism (here).

May they rest in peace - and we shall gather at the river.