Wednesday, June 23, 2010


* I wonder which big club will now sign South Africa's Tshabalala - who looks like a hard-working player, and whose goal against Mexico was a beaut.

* When I was younger I very much bought into 'official,' proselytizing US Soccer stances. These days, I don't necessarily care if soccer becomes more popular in the States (though if it does, sure, great) ... which means I'm bored by the ridiculous commentators that ESPN hires for each World Cup, who are surely instructed to cater to the soccer newbie, but seemingly not allowed to do so in any kind of a sophisticated or agreeable way. The commentary is sometimes worse than the vuvuzelas this year. At the other end, I am still endlessly annoyed by the constant "think pieces" (hah) that come around every four years where non-soccer-loving American blowhards decide they know what it takes to "solve the problem" of "Americans just not liking soccer." The World Cup makes me quite jingoistic every time the USMNT takes the pitch, but honestly, why the hell should anyone care if Americans en masse embrace the sport or not? As long as the matches are readily televised, I myself am fine - and if people have a problem with draws or the offside rule, well, big deal. The sport doesn't "need" to become more popular.

* Bad and inconsistent officiating, which is of course the rule rather than the exception for World Cups. I admit my bias is what has me harping on it, but any neutral observer will grant that the US got horribly treated by Coulibaly in the Slovenia game (both the disallowed goal and the mind-boggling yellow card on Findlay), and also didn't get any favors in the game today v Algeria (another legitimate goal disallowed, plus what looked to be another phantom handball yellow card - on Beasley, this time). Brazil's Luis Fabiano scores a beautiful goal but after having blatantly used his arm to control the ball (but the goal stands, no official notices the handball); Clint Dempsey is swiped hard in the face in the penalty box by the Algerian captain, but again no call; but poor Harry Kewell of Australia gets red carded (one of many harsh red cards in this tournament) for an unintentional handball against Ghana ... likewise Gourcuff's (FRA) and Klose's (GER) excessive sendings-off ...

* As my 'second team' in any international competition is always Germany, I'm glad they didn't end up having to play the US in the Round of 16. That would have been rough to watch, like '02. Some predictions, though, for the eliminations round - Uruguay to surprisingly advance to the semifinals. This is because they've shown themselves to be defensively organized and also deadly upfront (what with Forlan, Suarez, etc.), and should be able to defeat the hard-working, easy-to-like South Korea, and also bypass the winner of the USA/Ghana match. Uruguay will fall in the semis, however, I'm supposing, to either Italy, Netherlands, or Brazil. Probably Brazil. Smart money for the semifinal match-up on the other side of the bracket (I guess, without checking any bookmakers' odds) is Argentina-Spain, and I'd bet that Maradona's side go through to meet Brazil in the final, and that the final four places look like this: 1. Brazil, 2. Argentina, 3. Spain, 4. Uruguay.

* USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! (Actually, though it would be a series of big surprises, it's certainly not beyond the pale for them to edge past both Ghana and then Uruguay or Korea, and then to make the semifinal - that would not be a bad run, considering that once upon a time, US soccer optimistically planned on winning the World Cup by 2010.)

* I'll keep my fingers crossed for the Ivory Coast and New Zealand ... just because ...

P.S. My favorite new soccer site/blog, discovered a few weeks before the World Cup, is Zonal Marking, which in addition to all kinds of fascinating analyses and rundowns, has also gone on record to combat the thoughtless public wisdom that (a) Dunga's Brazil are a purely defensive squad lacking any kind of attacking prowess, beauty, or fun, and (b) that all African teams are "tactically naive" (which I think I heard again today on ESPN before the morning games).

Friday, June 18, 2010

Slow Down

... and speaking of 'slow cinema,' just to put my two cents in ... I have to admit that though I am a "fan" (or whatever) of this contemplative cinema adventure - and though I adore Kiarostami, Hong, Tarr, etc. - I do feel some empathy for people, like Steven Shaviro (or perhaps, I would extrapolate, also Olaf Moeller?), who get a little uncomfortable with the polarization of these taste (sub)cultures. Someone like Takashi Miike deserves his due, too! For I have also sat in on the contemplative films of authors I've loved, as with Tsai Ming-liang in Goodbye Dragon Inn, or Claire Denis with L'Intrus, and thought to myself: 'This doesn't seem rich, heady, risk-taking, or beautiful so much as it seems a bit stale, predictable, hitting only pre-approved notes.' I will go to the mat, anytime, for Tsai and Denis as terrific filmmakers; but if I am honest with myself & you there were also some of their films that seemed to be missteps precisely because they appeared to satisfy the conventions of a mold before anything else. This mold seemed to be the aesthetic/stylistic expression of a highly stratified structure of funding & distribution for an elite minority of audiences.* I mean to effect no posture of "anti-elitism" here, as though attacking the cinema of (e.g.) Carlos Reygadas somehow gave me political street cred. In fact I readily embrace a number of filmmakers who cater to this rarefied pocket of connoisseurs. But I think it is worth noting (again if necessary) that this hierarchy is not at all simply aesthetic or intellectual, that it is bound with actual money and coalesces with certain class positions. And therefore it is crucial to maintain the space in which one can speculate that, yes, these art films cater to an audience and to financial masters too ... if not always in the ways of the more vulgar entertainment industry. And so it is legitimate to suspect that sometimes these slow, contemplative festival films are "playing to their market" just as Twilight and Sex and the City 2 are.

One of the great things about (later) Abbas Kiarostami (whose films after Five I've still not yet seen, though I've seen virtually everything up until then) is just how mischievously he toys with these distinctions, consistently finding a middle line among the viewers who've championed him, and then creating a film that divides them again.

* It should go without saying, I hope, that I mean no disrespect to the many people whose tastes I do respect who like, say, L'Intrus and Goodbye Dragon Inn. I am willing to, sooner or later, go back to these movies and re-evaluate them, and would happily change my opinion if that meant I suddenly loved these particular art films that had initially disappointed me. I'm not trying to argue that any particular title is a bad film, only that one's cinephile card - or taste culture passport - should still be honored if one should be so déclassé as to "raise the question."

Diffuse Cinema

If you've seen the film, or don't care about the substantial spoilers, you can go here and here to read very thorough and clear blog essays about the myriad and wide-ranging implications of, and topics brought up by, Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009). Although, if you've seen the film, and you're a moderately attentive and thoughtful viewer, you don't need to really go anywhere to have anyone unpack the film for you. A clause from early in Kim Dot Dammit's review sums up what a lot of these two pieces are circling around: "the film manages to combine a whole mess of hot topics such as abortion, biotechnology, the reproductive industry, genetic research, cloning, big pharma’s role in late capitalism, maternity, sexuality/gender and so much more into one disturbingly effective film."

This kind of phrasing pops up commonly reviews & criticism, i.e., admiringly listing off the host of diverse elements that a film brings together or brings up. (See, e.g., the
Spin review, Feb 2008, of British Sea Power's Do You Like Rock Music?, where the band "touches on the topics of Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr, the great skua seabird, Kevlar, and the flooding of an island in the River Thames.") This listing by the critical observer is always at least somewhat self-aware, because the point is to indicate range by indicating a number of particulars. But I wonder if this gesture can be read symptomatically, too, to say something about the products in question and their own self-awareness.

A while back I gave a conference paper on 'reversible' films, blockbuster cinema that seeks to accommodate politicized readings by accommodating even contradictory ideologies. On a textual level, there is no true interpretation to movies like
The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix or even more ostensibly right- and left-wing 300 and V for Vendetta. These films have fluid, if not gaseous, rules for the construction of their allies, enemies, and causes. Their engineering as narrative packages is highly clever and streamlined. In a related way but on a more sophisticated level is another articulation of cinema, what we might call 'diffuse.' The difference - and of course I'm speaking impressionistically and in generalities, and any given film will offer particularities which trouble my categories - is that a reversible film fosters a political position (any number of positions), a spiritual forebear being something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whereas the diffuse film knowingly revels in the messiness, in the feeling of impossibility of a clear political through-line. It goes into the cul-de-sac, it embraces the ethical, epistemological, sociopolitical clusterfuck. This isn't necessarily apolitical - cousins to this diffusion seem, to me, to be Roman Polanski as well as speculative fiction writer China Mieville (both figures dealing in genre fictions who have serious political intentions). But diffuse cinema, like Splice or District 9 (Neill Blomkamp) or some Arnaud Desplechin, seems to me to deliberately inspire such lists of diverse topical or thematic content as those highlighted above. When the film in question is considered effective, the iteration of such lists is meant to indicate that these nodes are mobilized in rich, weird, perhaps unpredicted or unpredictable, and sophisticated ways.

As a broader practice in audiovisual culture, like (say) "slow" cinema (see here), I think it'd be worth greater attention to this industrial-textual confluence as something which is still sometimes treated as a natural and unselfconscious happening at this moment in cinema/culture, and sometimes treated (perhaps more shrewdly) as a wave whose riders are aware of themselves ...

(P.S. also, some World Cup commentary forthcoming probably sometime this weekend ...)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Being There

It is a great tragedy that snark should house virtually any critique of the art world these days.

Between snark and hagiography, what decent choice does one have? Nothing works now (if it ever did). When Godard & Gorin made Letter to Jane after Tout va bien, their ungraciousness toward Fonda nevertheless posed some crucial political questions: what is the image of concern, and how can the image stand in for the real thing? Is there a real thing or have we only images in the face of the dooming structural monstrosities of capitalism, colonialism, and coercion? As with the concerned public figures analyzed by JLG & JPG, we see again and again the same thing (despite all differences) in Marco Anelli's photographs of Marina Abramovic's performance piece The Artist Is Present. This is the image of the sensitive observer. The emotionally open person. Artists, certainly a lot of artists. (Paco Blancas: "Also, I love meeting people in line. I’ve met a lot of people and have made a lot of new friends, many of them artists, but really all sorts of people.")

Abramovic to her co-present observers: 'let me be your mirror.'

The cultural spectacle of this performance piece, documented by Anelli and disseminated over the Internet for some time now (the run ended on May 31), may be my own mirror, and perhaps I will read into it my own problems well foregrounded before anything else that might concern anyone else. So be it. Still, amidst all these sensitive, moved, moving, tear-stained faces who've gone to sit and be with Abramovic, I notice, also, that so many of these observers indeed have good haircuts (and certainly not too many boring good haircuts). I cannot help but feel that, were I at a party with most of these dedicated observers, I would be invisible to them.

It is a strange and off-putting position - imagining having one's hard-earned nobrow passport denied - subtly denied - because one can't imagine integrating smoothly into a circle. (This circle of artist-observers.) But once my pouting and my sense of entitlement subside, I am left with further musings on the importance of the space-specific or time-specific art. Part of what is wonderful about ephemeral art, and art given to obsolescence or scarcity, is that wrinkles and re-crinkles the smoothness of an enormous, public projective space (i.e., the dream of mass culture as seen in the nightmares of the Frankfurt School). Put as crudely as possible: it makes things less boring by re-introducing chance & difference to the legacies of Fordism, Taylorization, mediation, and spectacle.

Cinema's relation to space-specific and time-specific art is a frequently-overlooked component of cinematic ontology and cinematic possibility - and, with respect to physical decay, what film is. (Though I would reformulate my arguments - which weren't so well-made - and come to somewhat different positions on certain points, I still more or less agree with the thrust of my three posts having to deal with this in 2006 with respect to Sátántangó - 1, 2, 3.) The art-event which, necessarily, some people will miss (like perhaps a film screening) bears seeds of inequality. But at the same time it introduces an awareness - perhaps a cutting awareness, like my own subdued adolescent pouting at not being like the sensitive aesthetes who were able to weep so beautifully, and with such LES-friendly clothing & hairstyles, at being-with-Abramovic. This awareness is of the disguised limitations of our own assumptive privileges, the thought that we are citizens born to a utopia of artistic access. Yet what ever provided us with these illusions? The entire broken system of modernity.

I like the idea of cinema existing also as a network of legends about films no one is any longer able to see, or is unlikely to see, but whose example may nonetheless spur thought & activity. In an Abramovic-like vein is (it seems) Sylvina Boissonnas' Un Film, about which Nicole Brenez has written beautifully:

The producer and leader of the Zanzibar group was Sylvina Boissonnas. She made only one film, simply titled Un Film, in 1969, an absolute masterpiece so singular and emotional that she has forbidden any screening of it. I have had the great privilege to see it; it is the most simple set-up one could imagine. Sylvina herself, wearing a white dress, stands still at the bottom of a round vat with the camera pointed at her at a right angle. The film is made of sequence shots of ten minutes each (the equivalent of a reel) over the course of which tons of water, sand, stones are poured into the vat, burying her for long minutes at the end of each of the shots. For Sylvina Boissonnas, this was an image of pure depression; for the viewer, it is one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema, one in which the author risked her life several times. It was filmed in 35mm. by Armand Marco, a cinematographer who also worked with Godard and the Dziga-Vertov group.

And thus my dissatisfaction with both snark and hagiography. Neither one can deal with difference; neither one can hold the gnawing horrors of that privileged playground, "the art world," at arm's length and still think through, think with the work itself. My dissatisfaction, too, not at all with The Artist Is Present, which I obviously did not visit/see/be with, but perhaps with what I intuit as the usurpation of cultural gnosticism (all its fun, all its unevenness) by the meaningless, instantaneous opinion-mongering of a web-connected context who proffered this entire thing to me as a sensation, prior to all experience. I don't have the experience, but I get the preview and glimpses of the remix.

I'm sure it would have been fantastic with Tracy Morgan, though.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Level 5

"Until we get smellies, like talkies, war films don't exist."

Friday, June 04, 2010


One of the pleasurable things about Mad Men (season three of which I just started watching) is that as it emerges into what we now think of as The Sixties, the characters and plotlines getting weirder doesn't reek of desperation but practically of historical necessity. Though still impeccably tasteful, the way it navigates its historical touchstones is such that it's basically allowing itself to get "weirder," and more complex. With a degree of awareness I still haven't figured out yet (a lot? a little?), the show very cannily operates according to the dominant mythologies of its time period, and utilizes them shrewdly. Cynically? Perhaps. But by now anyone who's actually devoting precious personal time to watching mass-market media at all, including stuff from the Good Ol' Days, must simply allow for this dimension to, more or less, everything. The reservations I have about Mad Men from when I first took a look at it still apply, but I must give credit to the way the series is indulging in measured, wide-ranging weirdness. And there's a new relation to the 'symbol' (cf. my previous post on the show) that I've noticed by now, this one not literary (like "birds = freedom") but simply a matter of intelligent marketing. Behold, the season 3 DVD cover:

21C Afterlives

"But cinema, being synonymous with culture, forms a history, and a defining aspect of any present is always how it interacts with its pasts." (IV)

A modest and rambling apologia.

In recent months - in many months - I have not said a word about news items like the Greece economy, Middlesex philosophy, Arizona immigration. I have made only the barest of allusions to Thailand. If I have been silent on important political topics, it is not because I do not rate them highly enough for discussion, but because I have needed to reform some of my own thoughts and practices with regard to politics and worldliness. In other words, I am quiet because I'm thinking, and I am hesitant to write because my opinions or my understanding change too drastically and/or too quickly in the moments after I write something. (And in fact, one of the reasons why the film-related writing here is also a bit sparse for quite some time now is because I have been rethinking (my) cinephilia, and the entire audiovisual field, in my own piecemeal way.) Those people who browse EL looking for the fervent left-wing commitment which has marked my writing in the past may fairly be puzzled by these staccato, solipsistic write-ups of barely-known commercial movies like Boiling Point and Suspect Zero. Why have I not even said a few things about the late Lubtchansky? Everything a shortfall. For the disappointed onlookers I can offer no satisfactory explanation. EL was made without credo or program, and directionless it continues.

If there is any small interest in these entries for the socially, culturally, politically-interested onlooker, in particular the onlooker without cinephilia, I can only humbly offer these scratchings as examinations of historical sloughing-off. American pastness, its relation to conflict (personal / political): that's a common theme here in these occasional spurts. (1) What can Betty Grable tell us about war, (why) did anyone think she could, and can we use her figure to say anything at all? (2) When faced with the astonishing vibrancy of a past object, how "new" can it seem? Can a past relation (in this case Maria Montez's influence on certain camp & avant-garde scenes) be resurrected, affectively, by a viewer who's long missed the boat? (3) What names are we circulating for people? (4) Further strains of the history of combat and communication, warfare and aesthetics. And so on ... I experience anxiety that others should feel I have been 'depoliticized.' (The worst moment? A classmate was telling me about a course on revolutionary theory and admitted I was the last person she thought would be interested in it. In an instant, everything I had ever written seemed for naught.) If I'm to be judged, even by myself, I want only to have the correct charge, which is instead that my politics are at present too inward-looking to be effectual.

"Democracy" and "democratic" are often words used in place of thought, which is why you can end an essay or article or a self-defense with some gesture towards greater democracy, and it will appeal to any number of listeners simply because the d-word has almost definitely remained undefined, and can stand in for anything and its opposite, really. The messiness of human conflict (and thus the reality of co-existence) gets the gloss. What I'm trying to do in the offspace of whatever I write is to identify and, as best I can (it won't be perfect) gut out these crucial words that often take the place of thought, and which consequently impede political analysis and discussion when everyone involved may not quite realize it.

And if I can achieve any of this through the help of (pleasurable) digging through the wreckage and ruins of 20th century cinema, of media more generally, of classics, and of art, and of political philosophy, then maybe in the not-too-distant future I won't appear so far off course to those observers who might (rightly) think so.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Boiling Point

I swear I had no intentions of racking up little appreciations of modest, present-day genre films lately. But that's what I'm doing. This time it's Boiling Point - no, not the Kitano film (though that's a really good one) - but instead the Snipes & Hopper crime movie, directed by James B. Harris, from 1993. It's somber, unhurried, and (like a solid B) feels both utterly formulaic and yet experientially absorbing, a new path through the same woods. (Or a new way of walking the same path.)


"Boiling Point's central terrain is the hopeless shadow zone of smalltime law and crooks, each sucked deeper and deeper into their own hard-luck tragedies.

"Inevitably, Boiling Point was drubbed by critics, discontented with its lack of thrills and its aura in sour melancholy. That Harris has been permitted (albeit infrequently) by the system to make his resolutely unprofitable movies at all is a Hollywood miracle." (Michael Atkinson, "Genuine B Noir: James B. Harris")


"Genuine B noirs in the purest non-reflexive sense of the word, Harris's films are inglorious, pipe-dream-beleaguered gutterdives, with the cheap integrity of bygone pulp fiction." (Atkinson)


"The weird dreaminess and forced analogies slow the movie down." (Sragow)


"Promoted like an action movie, but there's one problem - this movie has no action!" (Luke Y. Thompson)