Thursday, July 29, 2010

Word & Image

"The second great event that affects the image-itself also closely linked to television, this great machine that speaks even more than it shows-is a more and more profound relation, penetrating the image itself, between words and images, making it more difficult still to speak about “the image” since it is so often permeated with language and voice. Here again, the history of cinema returns: words intimately linked with the image in silent film (following the old tradition of words in painting), the establishment of talking cinema, and above all the expansion of voice as the material support of fiction and reflection in all the great works of modern cinema. But here again, video precipitates things by making language return in force in the material of the image and everywhere around it, with enhanced freedom, strength, and an implied and disturbing power." (Raymond Bellour, "The Power of Words, The Power of Images," trans. Elisabeth Lyon)

"There have been several attempts, none very successful, to analyze the iconography of D.W. Griffith's melodramas. An iconographic approach to early cinema was advanced by Erwin Panofsky, who believed that a persistently iconographic stage was a necessary moment in the way cinema evolved its semantic strategies. Traditional iconography helps us to understand early cinema. It functions a little like the subtitles in silent movies, which, according to Panofsky, played a role analogous to that of medieval tituli . . ." (Mikhail Iampolski, The Memory of Tiresias, p. 10, trans. Harsha Ram)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Realism B

"Irony is also part of the conspiracy of art." (Baudrillard)

"In a bourgeois country, just as in a Communist land, they disapprove of “escapism” as a solitary vice, as a debilitating and wretched perversion. Modern society discredits the fugitive so that no one will listen to his account of his journeys. Art or history, man’s imagination or his tragic and noble destiny, these are not criteria which modern mediocrity will tolerate. “Escapism” is the fleeting vision of abolished splendors and the probability of an implacable verdict on today’s society." (Nicolás Gómez Dávila)

Double bill - Hail the Conquering Hero
and When Willie Comes Marching Home. When the populace gets plucked to serve national interests abroad, escapist narratives take on "real" significance. The dream factory produces confections which act as salves ...

Image of the Day

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Realism A

The detail
. Above: sweat stains on the back of the policeman's shirt after he's just exited the car (in Quick Change, directed by Bill Murray and Howard Franklin, 1990). I would be highly surprised if a "detail" like this were ever allowed to make it into a movie like, say, The Dark Knight, even though gritty "details" - and the posturing that underscores such grit - are a cornerstone of the appeal of the contemporary Genre/A films.

The unremarked-upon sweat stain is the sort of detail that can anchor an image to reality; it might coax us (viewers) to project that reality, to begin or continue to wonder what it is, to hold in our heads a relation between the image & the world. The scenario may be ridiculous or fantastic, but there is a corporeal or sensuous link that remains which is erased by an image scrubbed too clean, where one can't imagine (or is not led to imagine) the feel of cloth upon the body, the humidity and odors of a hot city street, or the taste of a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor. It's the difference, to me, between visions of civilizational collapse as seen in Children of Men and Time of the Wolf: two critical darlings, the former being (in my eyes) a horrendously bad film, and the latter being a quite good one. Part of the difference is that Haneke's movie tries to imagine and think through the sensuous and emotional terrain of civilized people living through the crash, a day at a time. The characters in Children of Men are going through a theme park version of a crash, it seems to me. (More on this particular point in a forthcoming post.)

That these aspects of the world are often jettisoned from cinema is just a fact of its history, and of its continuing practice. The power to ignore all such things and yet still aspire to any sort of realism, a kind rhetorical access to reality, is one level at which cinema operates "ideologically."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Admittedly, I'm otherwise an easy mark for offbeat genre films that look like they're trying to do something interesting. I'll give M. Night Shyamalan plenty of room to stretch. I like, at least on some level, all of his films that I've seen, even the one that I think is still largely beyond redemption on most rational bases (The Lady in the Water). He has bad taste, true, but I don't even feel the urge to hold it against him. I do wonder though if he's reached the point where, between his vocal, loyal fans, and his snap-judgment detractors, there is no longer any room for constructive criticism.

I was the only person in the theater for The Last Airbender - it was a Monday, noon showing and I was killing time because my car was in the shop. So I can't say a sociological word about how it played to "the audience." But I'm curious if my experience seeing this film is how most people feel when they have seen the last few (heavily, heavily criticized) Shyamalan titles. And I do think that here Shyamalan has strayed from believing, himself, in the travails of his characters (thus conveying this conviction to the filmmaking) to assuming that the audience was already on board, so he wouldn't need to do any work at getting them on board. Maybe it's because this wasn't an original screenplay, and that Shyamalan was handling a franchise; I don't know. The film is oriented toward children, and it does presumably have some global market ... so one can almost overlook the simplistic dialogue. Yet ... this movie takes no risks! No risks in trying to show us (e.g.) the chemistry between the pony-tailed fellow and the Northern Water Princess ... yet, at the same time, Shyamalan apparently feels it is necessary to have characters introducing other characters in order to say things like, "The avatar has something he has to say to you." Honestly!? (Regarding belief and risks, see Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's letter to Abel Ferrara...)

I suspect that if one watched The Last Airbender with some Pink Floyd album (or two) substituting for the soundtrack, things would be far more bearable. Even then, the imagery itself is so ridiculous that I was reminded of something I had previously (and charitably) forgotten, the whitewashing of the cast, so that the three heroes are caucasian but the "tribes" they represent are suitably "ethnic." The mismatch is so obvious in the film itself that it's distracting. I'd be more willing to temporarily overlook "whitewashing" as just your everyday Hollywood racism if The Last Airbender didn't make most of its supporting characters and background players "ethnic." But this, and Shyamalan's on-the-record profession of love for vague concepts like 'Hinduism,' or 'Japan,' just makes this film even worse.

My personal bone to pick with a lot of commercial historical, sci-fi, or fantasy stories is that, in trying to imagine a very different world, the film (or whatever) in question almost inevitably makes a few broad-brush changes to our own world, and then sutures up the gaps by making characters behave in utterly recognizable (and often comfortingly stupid) ways. Vocal intonations (and vocabulary/phraseology), gestures, hairstyles, characters' morality and mores, it all seems like such trifling coin to throw in the big fountain of Imagination. What I'd give for a for more movies & miniseries that were actually invested in probing differences, in imagining differences. It speaks to another problem at the heart of realism, and while this post isn't quite about that, it does help further set the stage for more to come here at EL ...

Thursday, July 15, 2010


The film done in the style of a lengthy advertisement (slick, sensuous, frequently under threat of becoming just vapid): after a while I've come to realize that I sometimes like this style, a hard fact to face for the part of me that revels in some other austere cinematic traditions & lineages. Nevertheless: Vittorio De Seta's Un uomo a metà, Tom Ford's A Single Man, strains of a few Pere Portabella films (not to mention a few by Godard and Antonioni) ... I remember the first time I watched Fallen Angels by Wong Kar-Wai (on VHS, shortly after I'd seen Chungking Express), and I failed to realize at first that I was watching the trailer for the film, which oddly ran before the feature on the videocassette ... disoriented by the weirdness of the "opening" of the film, I figured that this was what a more advanced cinema looked like.

The vulgarity of advertising might blind some of us to the fact that advertisements - by necessity - need to exercise a lot of skills necessary in the creation of art in order to effectively communicate. Advertisements that "aren't quite art" may often be soulless or what have you, but a lot of times they look & feel something like art because they have so much else in place - traditions, strategies, continuities, short cuts. When a film takes some of these aesthetics and mimics them (often echoing back through cinema what had been cinema originally a few decades before - echoes of perfume ads that echoed Resnais films) it may be tempting to overlook the style, say that it is merely shallow, not bother ourselves to see if it is, instead, both sumptuous/sensuous and efficient, condensed, intelligently abbreviated.

Which brings us to I Am Love / Io sono l'amore (Luca Guadagnino, 2009), about which I'm still working out my opinions. I liked it a great deal but after one viewing I can't tease apart the evidence as to whether it was simply a slick looking experiment, in the style of a fashionable commercial, that I "bought" ... or if it indeed the style looked slick but held multitudes. Was I duped or treated to a luxurious experience? This film seems simple, bare, austere, but also expensive, magnificent, haute. All as it was surely intended on the surface - but it also seems this way in terms of its symbols, its internal references. What hooked me with regard to this 'cool melodrama' is how subtly or obliquely it registers its dramatic lines. Its subject matter includes processes, manners, perceptions. Where does one stand, how loudly is one permitted to sigh or speak, how is a banquet pulled off (and not just from the receiving end), who does one comfort (and how) in the wake of a family tragedy - these gestures are handled, foregrounded, delicately as in a film by Shimizu, Ozu, or certain John Fords (all directors that are in other respects quite alien to I Am Love). And this is precisely why scenes that would seem to play as self-parody instead work in an almost primal way ... in another context, or filmed slightly differently, Tilda Swinton's Sanremo love scene (for instance) would, should induce howls of laughter. But I find it instead comforting and erotic; the scene where her character tells Antonio her childhood name ("Kitesh. Say it.") is heart-wrenching. Thus I'm tempted to say that if so much of cinema is in fact the result of industrialism and commercialism (the content-output of a ravenous machine), at least in a few cases the most brutally consumerist devices have nevertheless provided the cinema, or at least the privileged realm of the art cinema, with some rather beautiful effects ...

Cup 2

* Germany: the most impressive World Cup team of the past decade? Unfortunate, too, that they had their best 'placement' in 2002, when their squad at that World Cup was the most boring, the least impressive, and had the easiest route to the final (Paraguay/USA/Korea). I feel as though they put in more excellent performances in this World Cup than any other team I've seen in the last two. While Spain may have earned their semifinal victory, and I don't begrudge Spain their Cup, it hurts just a bit to see Germany go home trophyless again when they've found a style that is both stereotypically efficient and exciting, attacking football.

* I was very relieved this World Cup eventually became a somewhat less defensive affair - the Netherlands-Uruguay game was quite fun to watch, for instance. (As was Germany-Uruguay.) That's how games should be played! In fact Uruguay really were one of the class teams of the tournament, such defensive power paired with Suarez + Forlan proved formidable. I wonder how they'll fare in 2014, especially with Diego Forlan highly unlikely to play a major part.

* We had a plane to catch, and as a result we could not stay to see the last 15 minutes of extra time for the Spain-Netherlands final. Our cab driver kindly put on the staticky Cuban broadcast of the match, where I strained to make out what was happening as best I could. Did Spain, with one of the most fearsome attacking squads in recent years, really score so few goals in the competition, and did they really only come from just three players? (And all of whom, of course, will start the next football season at Barcelona.)

Realism (Overture)

I apologize for my absence, readers - matrimonial matters have kept me occupied! On our honeymoon, we went to Mexico where we inserted ourselves fully and unironically into the trappings of traditional tourism: a resort, guided tours, fruity cocktails, a couple hundred photographs.

At Chichen Itza, our (very good) tour guide at one point asked who has seen the movie Apocalypto. Someone in the front said, "Yeah, it's good!" The guide responded, "Well, as a movie, it's OK. As a documentary ... not so good." Whoever exactly mistook Apocalypto for a documentary remains uncertain. Perhaps a few people have. More pedantically and professionally, I wonder why people persist in assuming that documentary equals unalloyed, unimpeded truth. One might like to know that the company which provided this tour, on the bus ride back, showed us a ridiculous History Channel 'documentary' about the apocalyptic Mayan calendar.

As our guide went on to explain, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto made the Maya look "merely" bloodthirsty - and he, i.e. Gibson, didn't mention the culture's astronomy, mathematics, architecture, all of its other good points in the matter of high civilization. This complaint, I feel, is underscored by the idea that an Othered culture can be known and appreciated specifically and primarily for its cultural Highlights Reel, which is to be reflected microcosmically (we presume) in every fragment of that given Culture (TM). It is mandated that the entirety of a culture, and especially the entirety of its achievements that we find valuable, should visibly frame and underscore any fictional representation of this people. Thus the emergence - or relegation - of indigenous American people in Hollywood & Environs to so much stoic, environmentalist finger-wagging. Concern for what you can do for the Other masks a deeper desire towards what the Other can do for you. And the bourgeois liberal wishes to call this representational protocol 'realism.' Not the definition of all realism(s), but merely the conditions for one kind of realism. Hence, criticisms of Apocalypto are underscored by a concern that the film ("as a documentary") is not sufficiently realistic.

If you read a piece like Prof. Traci Ardren's for instance, you will find a few symptoms connected to this complaint. ("But in Apocalypto, no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities.") I do think that Ardren makes some good criticisms, and some of her larger questions which are skeptical towards Apocalypto (is it pornographic?, for instance) are indeed worth asking. But I'm going to use Ardren's short article as an touchstone for something else, a symptomatology of a certain kind of critique maybe. Two facts emerge which may not be immediately apparent.

First, it is intriguing how rarely critics of Apocalypto's lack of realism consider the possibility that the Maya could be done justice in fiction through any route but the obvious genuflection to 'Maya art, science, and architecture.' To do justice to a culture or civilization at all is, innit, to properly depict what we discern are its strengths, its achievements, and its values worth imitating or respecting. The prosocial liberal sees these as the knowledge and technology of the Maya elites. This liberal would not (want to) think of it in these terms, but it is a stance toward an other highly inflected by elitism. However, Apocalypto casts the Maya elite as Others even in its own diegesis; its approach to the Maya is from a lower class - it's part ode to the Jeffersonian yeoman, part appreciation of pagan-natural village life, part individualist idyll-turned-nightmare. I don't claim the film's stance is coherent; and it's certainly a composite of mythologies on Mel Gibson's part. But I am convinced that Apocalypto's ideology, if it can be said to have one, is not at all that of colonialist salvationism. It is, instead, much more like an agricultural romanticism.

The idea that what we see as precious or admirable in a culture could or should be quite different from what a particular character from that culture sees as such in a work of fiction does not always occur to us. (We can see something similar described in this post, which unpacks an incident in the Odyssey which may be mysterious if we do not consider layers of audience, reception, and intention.) And in the case of Apocalypto we have an actual world division, so-called "red state/blue state," grafted onto how we interpret the film based on where we want to see located (and elaborated) the achievements of the political elites.

For Gibson, and for admirers of Apocalypto, it is fitting that the Maya rulers are depicted as bloodthirsty tyrants because to our protagonists and their non-elite perspective, that's precisely what they are! In her piece, Ardren brings up the implications of a fiercely violent movie about the Maya when present-day Maya people face discrimination & worse. It's a valid point, and a much more important concern than simply any entertainment value Apocalypto may provide. But I think it is highly telling that Ardren should read the way the film depicts the elites - decadent, bloodthirsty, unstable, and very much not the heroes of the film - as the way it depicts the entirety of the Maya. Anyone on Gibson's wavelength would instead focus on Jaguar Paw and the villagers as good, likable, stable folk who are caught in a history larger than themselves and victimized by imperial rulers - first, the late rulers of their own ethnos, and then, white rulers from Europe. The prosocial liberal is inclined to see Apocalypto's qualities of tragedy as a condemnation of the Maya people en toto because the Ancient Maya = art, science, architecture, mathematics, astronomy. Passing over these achievements of high civilization, from this perspective, is tantamount to disavowal that they deserve the very title of civilization. But I don't think Gibson or his sympathizers see it this way. I think that Gibson locates the corruption of Maya (or any) civilization at the heart of the State - and any State that would subjugate its citizens in the way that we see depicted in this high-adrenalin narrative is the tragedy.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but the majority of the ancient Maya people don't seem to have had a very good idea of their culture's elite achievements - and if they did, would they have been compliant political subjects? My Chichen Itza tour guide seems to think (and I pretty much agree from my armchair position) that the Maya rulers used the masses' ignorance about mathematics and astronomy to their own advantage. So why would it make sense to have a film that takes place over a few days in the lives of Maya commoners, living outside the confines of a city, that foregrounds an entire millennium of elite achievement? (As opposed to the knowledge of plant and animal life, the rich & complex family structures, the sense of heroism that Apocalypto locates in its non-elite villagers. Apocalypto may still be sloppy, inaccurate, or mythopoetic in these respects, but it does celebrate them and grants them as worthy.) But this is where we can see the logical contradictions at the core of what we might call Putumayo liberalism.

One might say that Apocalypto goes through an awful lot of hard work, including the courting of "authenticity," to make a film that is simply an action-chase narrative with a muddled if sincere thematic framework. That's a spot-on criticism. It is a bit ridiculous for Mel Gibson to have meticulously made this in Yucatec Maya while boasting merely cavalier concern for, say, historical chronology and Mayan representational art. Additionally, though, I wonder if some of the invective thrown at Apocalypto (fair and otherwise) is, in part, spurred by the fact that Gibson - this antisemitic, trad Catholic troglodyte! - is encroaching upon the elite territory of authenticity, guarded dear by the functionaries and clerics of (Enlightenment, Protestant) American civilization. Yes, I wonder.

I said there were two things that emerge from the above complaint. The other has to do with authorship. Despite decades of modern & contemporary debate over authorship which, more workaday concerns of the authorship of fiction seems to proceed along the same old basic assumptions. Some people may roll their eyes over 'Genius of the Author' rhetoric, but I've yet to meet anyone in the world of film & culture writing or in humanities academia who I could actually say provides an example of how to practically get by without the author-function. Of course the question of authorship is historical and systemic, and my pointing out of the failure to surpass authorship despite theories of authorial death is not the accusation of any individual shortcoming, but rather the indication that our individual agency is minuscule contrasted with the webs in which we move socially. This should be obvious, but I want to be clear.

Yet ... sometimes the Author is a perfectly acceptable figure for those who are otherwise "over" authorship, as long as this author is being attacked rather than celebrated. Consider this - Apocalypto, when it has been criticized and attacked by academics, has been laid squarely at the feet of Mel Gibson. (In Ardren's piece, adjectives ascribed to all the other contributors to this film are glowing!) Many people have no problem allowing Gibson 'mastermind' status with this film, particularly if they're critiquing it as a dangerous or reactionary work, which gives credence, or at least consonance, to Foucault's argument that the concept of authorship arose in part from punitive origins. Who is to blame for inscribing this?

More on realism, and I hope in a less roundabout way, to follow. (If you want to read even longer Internet writings on film & realism, the gold standard is, of course, Andrew Grossman - one, two.)