Thursday, February 25, 2010


"Is this what a Nostromo sequel would look like, shot by Pedro Costa?" (Danny Kasman)

"Surreal, absurd and sad—all hallmarks of a Lav Diaz film—Butterflies, and indeed there are actually butterflies, is all the more haunting in that it seems to be foreshadowing a real-life event—the killing earlier this month of Canadian-Filipino film critic Alexis Tioseco and his partner Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc, likely by people they knew, but were not wearing masks." (Wise Kwai)

These low-constrast images are fascinating. I kept thinking, 'These shots seem so simple, so obvious, and yet I can't recall a film that looks to have been made quite like this.' Roaring white noise in the background will give way to dead silence from shot-to-shot; roosters crow all around you in one take; motors and traffic. Murky depths everywhere. Beautiful, ugly, picturesque, mundane: this video is balanced on a knife-edge.

The plot of Butterflies Have No Memories, such as it is, reveals itself slowly and obliquely. There's a dead-and-gutted mining town. A Canadian woman, Martha, comes back to this place, where her family used to live in its industrial heyday. She tries to socialize with her old friends and family employees, who are too busy with their own problems & the getting-on-with of life. No time or inclination for idle nostalgia in a home they've never left, a privileged past they've never romanticized. Some of the villagers concoct a plan (with different levels of moral feeling) to kidnap Martha. From there the film goes even deeper into an abyss. Somehow Butterflies Have No Memories seems to be both in the vein of novelistic, richly structured moral exposé and as well in the "slow," "meandering," small-s surrealist paradigm of contemporary festival cinema.

I do not expect this to be the last time I write on Lav Diaz's work ...


Some potential reactions to The Hurt Locker:

A. "This movie is metal, bro."
B. "This movie is about how soldiers experience contemporary warfare as metal, bro."
C. "This movie is metal, bro, and it was directed by a woman."
D. "This movie is about how soldiers experience contemporary warfare as metal, bro, and it was directed by a woman."
E. "This movie is about how soldiers experience contemporary warfare as metal, bro, and it was directed by a woman, and I am vaguely cognizant that there are, like, kickass gender implications at play."

Obviously there are additional, and different potential reactions to The Hurt Locker, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't pick up some of these vibes from hearing about the film, which I recently caught up with on DVD. (Eh, it's so-so.) But why is it that so many people feel compelled to express their affection for Bigelow primarily through the prism of her being, essentially, a tomboy, and then relating this 'praise' as though patting oneself on the back for it? (As one piece of evidence: Rob Nelson's comments in the current issue of Film Comment, where he writes, "Note to Marc Webb, Todd Phillips, and Oren Peli: Kathryn Bigelow is a more muscular director than all of you combined." One might as well be saying: Yeah! Let's make fun of them nancy-boys! It's OK to do so because we've snuck in under the umbrella of gender equality!)

Isn't this really just a symptom of the sorts of thinking we should be moving beyond? Yes, Bigelow is a quite talented director. Some people consider her one of the preeminent directors in Hollywood today. She is also a woman, and there are not so many of those directing films (and doing a lot of other empowered jobs) as one would think there should be. And one could count on one hand the number of women filmmakers in Hollywood who might be granted, in public and critical discourse, the status of "authorship" and, what's more, a respected authorship, over her films. So indeed it's important to discuss gender, like genre, with respect to a lot of Bigelow's movies. Including The Hurt Locker. At the same time, hasn't she been around, doing her thing, long enough for people to have come up with better ways of understanding her than (implicitly) by strict analogy to one of the tough female action heroes in one of the films helmed by either her or her infamous ex-husband!?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


It should go without saying that if Elusive Lucidity is anything beyond a 'public notebook,' which is the author's main intention for this site, it is a club where one of the few dues to be paid is to be open to the art of Jerry Lewis. It's not so much that Jerry Lewis is a particular personal favorite, but rather that he's a lightning rod and litmus test. I'd wager that, chances are, if you like this blog at all, you probably are also a believer in films like The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, and Cracking Up (aka Smorgasbord). Or you're open to being a believer.

At the same time, cinephilic nostalgia is no fun unless one has some leeway in recontextualizing it. One of the great things about The Errand Boy (1961; all b&w screengrabs in this post, save one obvious one, are from this film) is how beautifully, cheerfully it skewers a company image. For reasons of both professional development and personal leisure, I have been watching—indeed catching up on!—a lot of television in recent months, and my sitcom of choice the past month or so has been NBC's 30 Rock, a few big notches below the best of Tashlin's or Lewis's satires on the big workplace, but very much in the same family tree ... and also very, very funny. (Let's recall that the great, brutal critiques of, say, Frank Tashlin were still very much part of their system, and part of a certain sanctioned tradition of industrial self-criticism and parody. The greatness of Tashlin, as well as his student J. Lewis, is not that he fomented a revolution but that he so robustly, so sharply pulled off greenlit critiques when they could have been otherwise bloodless.)

Disdain for commercial and managerial nomenclature. "... the distinguished firm of Fumble, Fidget & Fuss ..." (The Errand Boy) / The Sheinhardt Wig Company (30 Rock).

"The real: nothing more than a thing to put film on." (The Errand Boy)

"Gods did not create man; man created the gods." (Fritz Lang, as 'Fritz Lang,' in Contempt)

"Fritz, that's wonderful for you and me, but do you think the public is going to understand that?" (Jack Palance's producer to 'Fritz Lang' in Contempt)

"Ya just liked what ya saw ... and you believed what ya liked" (Magnolia in The Errand Boy)

"It doesn't pay much." "But at least the hours are lousy!" (The Errand Boy)

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Biarritz: a beach town in France (in the south of the Bay of Biscay) where old Dodsworth's younger, sad wife is unfaithful to him, and where Delphine in Rohmer's Le rayon vert goes in search of a good vacation (=something to cure her blues ... love?). In Biarritz, in the cinema, one finds sad romance. Maybe not even romance: Baise-moi was shot, in part, in Biarritz ...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quote of the Day

"In fact, a critique of formalism needs to render inadequate an implicit distinction in much current theory between form and content. Using the codes of narrative and realism, a film like Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969) will be said to be recuperated within a reactionary tradition, while a film like Godard's Ici et ailleurs (1976), which is self-reflexively "about" the ways it can be about the PLO, will be said to be progressive at a more advanced level. But no human practice is a collection of formal codes on the one hand and contents ont he other: any particular practice, any textual system, is a combination and mutual displacement of elements into a new semiotic arrangement whose elements cannot be extracted except in an artificial and distorting way. A wave good-bye in a film derives its meaning not only from the social connotations of waving but also from the place of waving in the semiotic practice in the specific text of the film. Z, for example, is not a film with the same old cinematic forms presenting a new content to the necessarily same old end or effect, but a unique text in which the meaning of elements exists in terms of their place in the text where it is impossible to isolate elements as content or form. To take a more immediate example, while a television show like All in the Family used, and repeated, many of the available specific codes of television storytelling (for example, consistent screen direction; definable beginnings, middles, and ends) and so could be said to adhere to an old system of representation, the very introduction of new elements—even if they are elements nonspecific to television (for example, the image of the bigot, the working class accent)—changes that old system; the presence of a new accent on television, for example, becomes part of the textual system, gives the show part of its meaning in a way that is not distinguishable as content or as form. This, however, is not to claim that this new textual system, simply by being new, is in any way inherently subversive of the old. Every message, by not being some other message, is again a differance, a meaning which differs (is like the preexisting) but differs (is unlike the preexistening); the effect of any partcular semiotic arrangement is never given in advance to a text by its adherence (or not) to prior codes, but can only exist in relation to the specific interaction of that text's codical arrangement with other codes (specific and nonspecific) and in the relation of the specific textual system to the whole social semiotics of an historical moment."

—Dana Polan, The Political Language of Film and the Avant-Gard (1985)

Sunday, February 07, 2010


If you Google image search A Single Man, and different combinations ("Colin Firth," "Tom Ford"), you'll see that stills don't crop up quite so readily—no, it's a panoply of aspect ratios, media screengrabs + publicity images, photographs from the set. At one moment I'm tempted to say that it's impossible one could have anything of interest to say without knowing a few things about how & why this movie was made; and then, I reverse, and I think that all of the important things about this film are immediately evident.

Possibly the most impressive feature fashioned wholly out of cologne ad aesthetics since Vittorio De Seta's 1966 Almost a Man (Un uomo a metà), I wouldn't say A Single Man is a masterpiece. But. It's much better than I would have ever expected it to be. I don't just mean pretty production design + good performances, although this is part of what constitutes the film's appeal. I think that A Single Man utilizes its painfully fashionable production design to interesting ends (one), and that it also bears mature witness to a certain cultural value system that would have been very easily to distort, parody, and dismiss (two).

What's lost, what's at stake, here? The historical conflict in Tom Ford's movie isn't the progress of gay rights—queerness is taken for granted as a fact of life—but cultural decline across generations. The high (and connotatively aristocratic) seriousness that underwrote camp sensibility is here viewed in its recto expression: seriousness, simply. Colin Firth narrates to say that it takes time for him to become himself in the morning. This could easily encroach upon the more heavily-trodden paths of mere masquerade—the same thing employed/parodied in Far from Heaven. But Firth's character, Prof. Falconer, isn't a social outcast hiding his "true" self—though self-fashioning is part of his identity (as it is for all of us). Falconer is, as a queer man of privilege, taste, and intelligence, privy to the masquerade in which we all partake. The painful part of his life is not a limit on his "self-expression," but rather all the rude and cruel impositions that a heteronormative standpoint would otherwise have one believe are reserved only for the normative elect. (Isn't your male lover really just a substitution for something else? -No.)

So what is interesting about A Single Man is that it deals, nostalgically, for a period and context of queer repression but the film does not even begin to define queerness by that very repression. The repression, its threats, are real; there are rules of seduction and of domesticity which one must perform for the sake of safety; but there is not a negative essence serving as the root of all non-normative desire, affection, love.

The team that designs Mad Men was behind the look of A Single Man, too. But where the acclaimed television show gets a lot of its kicks from pointing out how backwards the era was in the full view of something called Progress, A Single Man is rare because it doesn't valorize the ethos of 1960s "revolution" mythology—that is, the short navel-gazing rebellion of middle-class youth against their bourgeois parents.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The so-called literary process of the epoch, studied apart from an in-depth analysis of culture, amounts to a superficial struggle of literary schools, and in modern times (especially the nineteenth century), amounts essentially to an uproar in the newspapers and magazines, exerting no essential influence on the great and real literature of the epoch. The powerful deep currents of culture (especially the lower, popular ones), which actually determine the creativity of writers, remain undisclosed, and sometimes researchers are completely unaware of them. Such an approach does not make it possible to penetrate into the depths of great works, and literature itself begins to seem a trivial instead of a serious pursuit."

—Mikhail Bakhtin, "Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff"

Friday, February 05, 2010

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Missing Olson

I remember reading, somewhere, that Charles Olson used to have a class on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at, say, 3pm. He'd arrive promptly on Tuesday, begin lecturing in god knows what sorts of crazy-erudite-obscure ways, and frequently keep the class late. Then, a number of the students would come out with him afterwards to the steakhouse across the street, where they'd dine & drink, continuing the discussion until the place closed, at which point they'd repair to Olson's shack, more students knocking off, the survivors remaining to continue the conversation all through the night. They'd keep talking until just before 3pm the next morning, when Olson and his most ironlike students would saunter back towards the classroom, launching into formal Day 2 of that week's lecture.

(Could anyone hook me up with the source of this story? I believe I read it online somewhere but can't seem to find the recollection ... )