Tuesday, August 31, 2010


"To transform oneself into a corpse, a martyr, or something formless and repellent is not a matter of expiating a collective evil but recalling its existence. These simulated remains do not aim to be hidden bodies (that would amount to making them all over again) but instead manifest as best they can the moral infection that propagates itself beginning with the moment of the Nazi death camps." (Brenez on Ferrara, p. 152)

In White Hunter Black Heart Clint Eastwood, who essentially plays John Huston, in a minor way tries to exorcise the demons or zombies of Nazism through a bit of black humor (see); again and again World War II, and the Holocaust, offer themselves or are offered up as the central pivot against which the cinema measures itself. Recently I took another look at a different postwar Huston - not The African Queen - but Key Largo, which is my favorite of the early Hustons by some margin. (Not that I have quite seen all of them.) A postwar ex-major without home or career finds his way down to the Florida Keys to see the widow of his old buddy & her invalid father-in-law. Their hotel is commandeered by Edward G. Robinson, whose villainous 1930s Hollywood legacy welcomes itself to the home of a certain stance of postwar realism (location shooting and/or its simulacrum, and relatively respectful/liberal "local color").

Heidegger, 1949: "Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same thing as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs." (See also Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command.)

(Back) across 110th St ...

... down to the Bowery, and beyond.

And then:

If you compare early sleazy genre films by Ferrara to comparable projects, like the queasily-entertaining Vice Squad (dir. Gary Sherman, 1982), you may see where the differences between the good & the great inhere. Ferrara cuts to the root of an image, a sound, or a desire, like a notable poet is supposed to cut to the root of a sound or a word; his films are intriguing because they rise above being only symptomatic in a rich or sophisticated or enjoyable way. (Though in some contexts, in some conversations, I might well defend these latter kinds of films, too.) Ferrara takes us to a source, to the place where the stream might be redirected, even if only - for now - in our imaginations.

"I don't know why you do it, Walsh. You'll never change the streets." (Princess in Vice Squad)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tryin' to Make Ends Meet

(a) media culture places far too much emphasis on endorsement, as though all opinion were ultimately nothing but polemics, and in service of polemics.

(b) though there are certainly "divisive" films or filmmakers I'll "take a stand" on, only a thoughtless person would allow the received imposition of the property of "divisiveness" to force a public all-or-nothing stance on any and every purportedly divisive entity.

(c) which is not to say that contradictions and oppositions don't exist and are not sometimes of exceptional importance, naturally.

(d) as if one person's public stance, in more than a minuscule percentage of instances, has any bearing on anything of importance at all - outside, perhaps, that person's own sphere of acquaintance and intimacy, in which case, "public" isn't always the right word, is it?

(e) in Jackie Brown the face of Pam Grier is a beloved ghost, the haunting of a screen idol, but the film (and her image in it) is not a direct homage but, if anything, an indirect one - an echo, a detachment -

(f) because Jackie Brown (like much of Tarantino, who is not "just" an upgraded video store clerk, though that he is too) is a filmic translation or expression of a particular kind of genre fiction, a Leonard-Willeford realm of writing that is itself a take and a twist on older forms of pulp knowledge.

(g) a dimestore author-psychology observation, to be thrown out but not necessarily accepted: Tarantino likes leisurely long shots, holding the frame (like the final two shots of Jackie Brown) because he is constantly revisiting totemic, imaginary constellations of images and moods from his own experiential, audiovisual past; his work is a form of yearning, which is why title cards and musical accompaniment seem to elicit just as much as care & attention as, say, plot mechanics. If not more. The character of this yearning may be immature, underdeveloped, pointless, or any number of things wanting - and yet, a problem of film culture is that, I fear, some reader too snarkily intelligent for her own good may read that I have even ascribed so noble and counter-intuitive a property as that of yearning to a guy like Tarantino. Because one must "endorse" or "reject."

(h) in the current issue of CinemaScope, Olaf Möller summarizes shortcomings in the scholarship on German filmmaker Veit Harlan by insisting that, of course, not only were his allegedly "apolitical" melodramas hardly apolitical, but his greatest work is often absolutely also the worst, politically and ideologically.

(i) Serge Daney warned of the dogmatism of a question of film critical intervention, in one case, where "the aesthetic criterion and the political criterion are given equal status. We assume that 'if there is something missing on the formal level there must also be something missing on the political level.' We remind those inclined to forget it that 'forms are not neutral,' but this is just an excuse for not investigating their very real content, for not spelling out this content in political terms - we leave that to others." (from "The Critical Function," 1973-1974) Daney, in this piece, also points to the problematic importance of discerning, apparently, what is being said by a film, and how. But in trying to go to the roots to find the strongest and most powerfully effective answers, criticism may paralyze the critic, so that they are "bound to have nothing to say when called upon to make a concrete 'intervention' in respect of particular films."

(j) the abandonment of polemics is not even possible as far as I can speculate, but I do think that to subordinate all thought to polemics is the death of thought, and the death of culture.

(k) it's the small detail, like e.g., Irving Lerner, in whose two great late '50s Vince Edwards vehicles, Murder by Contract and City of Fear, we see some of the through-lines from real filmic "noir" to this later oblique-homage "pulp" almost imperceptibly ... accomplishing the latter by the accumulation of small offbeat details and characterizations, characters noted for their character-ness.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Perhaps one of the last true shills in exploitation marketing, films like Blood Cult and Death Row Diner pulled the wool over many-a-renter’s eyes. Instead of an actual “movie,” take home viewers were scourged by 90 minute blasts of overly sleazy guts ‘n’ boobs, all filtered through the lenses of consumer quality camcorders and 3/4” tape. No-budget producers tapped into a goldmine when they realized that it was cheaper to finance their own productions than license already existing films. And why not? Since a renter couldn’t detect the filming method by its box art, it was too late once they returned home. The $2 had already been spent. Touché!" (Joseph A. Ziemba, Bleeding Skull; see also here.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Young People

(Image h/t to Andy Rector's Kino Slang post on the film from a while back, in the comments section of which you can read him and Miguel Marías discuss Allan Dwan movies.)

Premised upon the most treacly New Deal propaganda you can imagine, Young People (1940) is a Shirley Temple movie with the superb talents of Jack Oakie and Charlotte Greenwood, playing her adopted parents. The trio is a stage family intent upon giving up the vaudeville life in order to raise Shirley "normally" in a classic American town. However, once the Ballantines get to their idyllic New England town, they quickly and obliviously decide they know what's best for everything, and their first night in - during the town meeting - they side with the town's dynamic "young people" contingent - against the mean, stingy, stodgy old farts who oppose progress. By "progress," the film means that the old folks oppose, essentially, a voluntary WPA-ish program to stimulate the economy in their town: industrialization, tourism, and so on. They oppose this because they are geezers and marms who don't like to have fun, which is really what they need to do in order to implement a more open sociopolitical program in their town, courtesy of a sub-quasi-Wilhelm Reichian solution. Meanwhile, the Ballantine family flips between being utterly charming (for us as viewers) and nosy, boorish 'accidental elitists' (to the old citizens of the community). The moral: Anyone who opposes the New Deal programs - although explicit references to partisan politics or policy in this film are fairly tame & vague - is, obviously, old at heart, blindly traditionalist, pessimistic, no fun, cruel, snobbish, and exceedingly petty.

Why is any of this the way it is?

OK, so the film is addressing children (in part), but why is the political component of the film also motivated by a logic as absolutely simplistic as the standard storyline logic of rebellious young kids vs. old codgers? Young People is utterly devoid of social criticism on even the most basic level: as a political movie, it seems to me, it is entirely a flimsy bit of propaganda for voting (thoughtlessly) in favor of the party which most loudly trumpets what it brings is Progress. Progress, of course, is imagined here solely as economic stimulation by way of government assistance and oversight. (That, and ensuring that the village elders give ample space to the twentysomethings, and also allow the kids of Shirley Temple's age to perform vaudeville routines and not just sappy choir numbers.) There's no such thing as race, class, or capitalism in this world; politics reduces to character flaws, and the way to solve problems is to barge through them - so long as Progress is on your side.

It is not as though Hollywood was incapable of making films that evinced the admittedly stereotyped - but not necessarily wrong, and in my eyes far more sympathetic - code of small towns and tough neighborhoods that you have to earn your place in the community over time, and work your way toward the respect of the citizenry. This is how organic communities work, how they develop and (yes) change - it's partly why John Ford's films are so richly realized, because he & his collaborators know something about how to sketch lively communities (families, towns, nations, all complex networks of interrelation between materiality & mythology). But Young People's political program makes Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman look like a model of both balanced portraiture and cutting criticism. Both objects work under the banner of triumphant progress, but the latter, at least, nods in the direction of slowly built community ties (Michaela Quinn has to get her tooth pulled - unnecessarily - in the first or second episode to earn the respect of the townsfolk), and also provides at least initial awareness of those differentiations of the social body such as class and race.

So again, I ask, why is any of this the way it is? Having done no research toward answering the question, I am still provoked by this movie to ask why, how, for whom it was really working. Did anyone buy its "message" in 1940? Or today?

If I'm hard on Young People here - a bonbon, a Shirley Temple movie, a sentimental musical comedy - it's primarily because it so nakedly portrays something I dislike about the industry and the system which produced it. However. It's also quite an impressive film in many ways. If you look at the camerawork from the opening stage routines here, for instance, you'll see some assured filmmaking. There's a scene where Jackie Oakie rouses Charlotte Greenwood out of bed under the ruse of their having to catch a train - but the five-second reaction shot of her in the bathroom, when she realizes it's a joke and that she's "home" for the first time in her adult life, is a wonderful bit of synergy between actor, director, and editor. Greenwood - what a delightful actress! I could watch her in a film a day for weeks on end, though I think I must have only seen her in five or fewer films at this point ...

An Addendum on Violence

To be taken up after my earlier quasi-defense of Apocalypto. Something occurred to me when I was just looking over On the Genealogy of Morals - specifically the second essay, section 7 (on pain). Of course one can reject Nietzsche's position, and one can reject Apocalypto, but to have a considered opinion for or against the violence in Apocalypto, one needs to address (directly or otherwise) Nietzsche's point about the historical dimension of pain, of the senselessness of suffering, and of the (alleged/conjectured) "cheerfulness" of a life where causing pain was seen as a kind of pleasure. I think that Apocalypto's world is one in which this is quite true, and implicit in the characterizations, cf. the pranks the villagers play upon one another even in the 'idyllic' prologue.

Having said that, of course, I am now more interested than I think I have actually ever been to eventually see The Passion of the Christ, which gives a new and potentially intriguing spin to this particular snuff-bondage passion play. Please note, particularly if you're new to this blog, that I am not endorsing Gibson here, and in fact I believe I am light years too far away from ever influencing anything about his life one way or another. I just think that the weirdos tend to be more valuable barometers & experimentalists than the vast majority of the mainstream folks.

Unaccomplished Artistry

Doing some research for some of my own nebulous academic projects, I watched on YouTube (part 1 here) the shot-on-video slasher movie Blood Cult (dir. Christopher Lewis, 1985), which advances the notion that neither craft nor authorship - in at least some senses that these terms frequently take on - need have much to do with the experience of wonderful cinematic art. An inept, unoriginal piece of pure hucksterism, Blood Cult as a mere market burp (see here) nevertheless presents haunting images, powerful compositions, and a quite absorbing trip down the rabbit hole. A lot of it has to do with "video aesthetics," which is mainly why I watched the thing. And you should watch it too, if you are at all inclined.

Quote of the Day

"If the outstanding films are never all visible at the same time until the window of their contemporaneity has closed, it means they are truly contemporary only for a small group of people—critics, programmers, and distributors. (The rest of us are like people looking at stars that appear bright but, in their own real time, may have already gone dim.) And if we indeed have a common agreement that this small group can declare what the contemporary cinema is, let’s acknowledge that the conditions under which they exercise their judgment are usually bad. Programmers see almost everything on DVD—usually in an office, at home on TV, on a laptop—or else, like critics, at other festivals, often at the rate of three or four a day, a rate that pulverizes both discrimination and memory."

(Chris Fujiwara, "To Have Done with the Contemporary Cinema," n+1)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Double Identity

A Val Kilmer vehicle, direct-to-video (or, if not, might as well have been), with a title that bears the brute generic beauty of exactly this kind of movie. Vague potential to be misread as Double Indemnity, which might only led to a couple of disappointed, perplexed viewers. It's also known as Fake Identity: less elegant, more to the point, still not entirely "accurate" with regard to the plot. I admit that I only paid half-attention to the film, and I wouldn't call it good, but I admire the fact that it trusts in its audience's either intelligence or inertia enough to withhold exposition of its outlines of the premise until the hour mark. We don't really know who's doing what, who's working for whom & why, and whether or not Kilmer's character really even does have a "double identity."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


There a plenty of things to say about the richly formulaic world of the Step Up movies, and the alternately lazy-intense, infuriating-charming stories they tell. Nobody needs to tell me about how these movies are awful because I'm aware of the ways in which they are shallow and mediocre; but in some ways they are wonderful - such as in Step Up 3D's reconciliation scene between Adam Sevani and Alyson Stoner, where the "you got served" logic underlying the dancing* goes to the lavatory for a few minutes, and the logic of the classical Hollywood musical takes over, and a - sincerely sincerely sincerely - beautiful, fantastic dance number breaks out. I guarantee you that this sequence will be better than any scene in at least eight (8) Best Picture-nominated movies this year.

* The pinnacles of the hip-hop dance battle in narrative film, that I know of, are Beat Street's amazing subway battle (the set-up is key, more so than the dancing itself), and Step Up 2: The Streets' fantastic final dance (which Step Up 3D alludes to in its own dance battle scenes more than once, but never replicates, let alone tops). I'm happy to accept nominations for other 'greats.'

To Hear Your Banjo Play

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Richard Leacock, Woody Guthrie, Willard Van Dyke, Irving Lerner - amazing, the names and talent that can gather around a 16-minute film from 1947 about the banjo.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Realism: Vagaries of Lighting

Above: a tame/risque scene from the James Cameron potboiler-blockbuster True Lies (1994).

Those who would focus solely on the masters and masterpieces are missing out. (Those who focus mainly the Cameron-type films aren't likely to be regular readers of this blog, so I don't think I
need to address them, right?) A major reason why the Great Men / Great Film traditionalists are missing out is because aesthetic excellence is - and must be - always relational. The mountain of dreck & routine justifies, contextualizes the jewels. But even more interestingly, if you ask me, the entire field of a/v culture is more fertile when aesthetic standards are ... I do not say abandoned (how could one even pretend to do this?), but placed to one side for a bit.

At a certain point, who cares if
True Lies is an awful film, or an awesome flick, or a "genuinely underrated" something-or-other? More important is how we use it and what we draw from it. I have a mild sentimental attachment to True Lies, this movie having entertained me greatly over 5-10 viewings during my early teen years. So, revisiting chunks of it on Netflix Instant over the last few days, I was struck by the scene above: Jamie Lee Curtis' striptease.

No, not
as striptease.

It's the lighting. (And the sound.)

We are to believe that Curtis' character won't recognize her own husband in this dim light - not even his silhouette. I'm sure a cognitive psychologist would be able to explain to me something about vision & expectation, but I'm inclined to believe that a realist direction of the scene -
in this light, in this sound - would inevitably show Curtis quickly growing suspicious, and from there quickly discovering the truth. And I'm sure Cameron and whoever was working with him would have been able to develop the interaction in a suitably "entertaining" way if Curtis just ended up recognizing Schwarzenegger. So the question is: why this particular deviation of psychological believability in a film that draws all of its energy from the interplay between the quotidian and the violent-sublime-absurd?

(And the
sound, about which I have even less-formed thoughts, is intriguing here too: presumably Curtis does not hear the clicks of the play/stop/ffwd/rew buttons, but in close-up the film indeed replicates them, shows that this tape recorder is a perfectly "normal" tape recorder, not a special digital gadget requiring special CIA-ninja training ... is the disconnect the blatant, and open, jump from realism to fantasy, i.e., realism as a type of fantasy?)

In the videotape of the film I saw the film on multiple times in the mid-'90s, as I recall, the image was darker, murkier: it was somewhat more believable that Curtis wouldn't recognize Schwarzenegger. The YouTube clip above is a little closer to this VHS experience. The more optimal digital future, however, has scrubbed the composition clean - it seems - and at least on Netflix's stream, it seems baldly impossible that Curtis can't just
recognize her husband sitting in a chair a couple yards away from her.

How are we to take this series of images? Depending on the level of incredulity one applies to the narrative as well as the medium (and condition of the medium) in which one views the film, the lighting is a marker either of very subtly, deftly coded realism or quasi-realism (if the image is murky and Schwarzenegger cannot be recognized in long-shot by the viewer), or it is a bold divorcement from realism that requires our faith, much like the scenes of Westerns shot in
la nuit américaine.

The Moment of Decision

Below: something about the inscrutability of the child actor ("child actor") - the last scene of the first episode of Freaks & Geeks. The character Sam Weir's hopes to dance to a slow song with his freshman year crush look to be horribly, inevitably stunted once Styx's tune starts the rock-out portion ... but there's a moment of beauty around the 2:34 mark here, because it looks like - crucially! - the body decides what to do first, and then the cerebral cortex does, and for that split second John Francis Daley's face becomes a portal into infinity, folks.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Quote of the Day

“I am not a historian; I am a writer challenged by enigmas and lies, who would like the present to stop being a painful atonement for the past, who would like to imagine the future rather than accept it: a hunter of scattered voices, lost and true.”

(Eduardo Galeano,"Words About Memory and About Fire," trans. Mark Fried)


In cinema there inheres a promise of viewership - as with writing, painting: the medium is a form given to intentional reception as well as to interception. Some films may be said to formally invite or close off viewers in some patterned way (the ‘openness’ of the classical Hollywood commercial text as opposed to austere high modernism, or dialogue-free chase film in distinction to in-jokey film about the film industry). There is truth to this. But a film is a knot of social forces, a note inscribed by actors, propelled into the social sphere - as weapon, encouragement, shelter, admonition …

Different 'discursive shapes' themselves structure an apparently discrete audiovisual object, not only in its production/encryption, but in its 'afterlives,' and in its directionality when released into the sphere as a knot (which is sometimes well before its full release). These shapes describe the cultural reckoning around cinema - not cinema as an entire medium or entity, per se, nor individual films, but in terms of cinema as an agglomeration of myriad strings of knots, beads (strings of types of knottings).


Sergio Leone’s debute feature, Il Colosso di Rodi (1961): a captured rebel leader is tortured by having a bell placed over his restrained, upright body, and beated repeatedly. When removed, thin rivulets of blood run down his neck from his ears (particularly visible on his right ear). A visual echo, later in the film, when the hero (Rory Calhoun as Darios) exits the Colossus’ ear and is pursued by red-cloaked soldiers, steaming out of the statue’s right ear.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Monday, August 02, 2010

Realism C

A while back I caught up with a critics' favorite, Children of Men, about which I can mostly only muster very bad things to say. (Disappointments like this are what, in part, prevent me from staying as comprehensive as I could be on the apparently important new releases each season or year.) Tripping over itself to make hackneyed decisions as quickly as possible - most of the time - Children even goes so far as to have a baby who conveniently never cries ... until of course, it is narratively convenient for the sound of a crying babe to touch the humanity deep within the military-industrial complex, and cause soldiers to lower their weapons. What point is a dirt-smudged face, or the glorious thrill of depicting a "radical underground," in the face of such illusionistic wish fulfillment?

Of course, to be too disappointed in Children of Men would probably be to give too much credit (or at least the wrong kinds of credit) to the system which had produced the film. A lot of my problems with Children stem not from the film being incompetent than from my utter distaste for its organizing principles, which precede and will outlive it. Only a poor, callow sort of masochist could truly (a) exhibit the rudiments of a taste much superior to the Hollywood companies, and also (b) continually let the jaw drop at failure to live up to these standards.

{ - Hollywood produces a steady trickle of decent middlebrow films, and puts out a fair number of good genre films. Of course, Hollywood also bleeds into non-Hollywood in these respects, e.g., the EuropaCorp family, which is working wonders in putting out vulgar/ian beauties. Who could deny that any one of the Transporter movies is far, far better than most films that get nominated for Best Picture these days? Even Taken - which is basically EuropaCorp consuming zombielike, shamelessly, a D.W. Griffith purity narrative - has its fine efficiency of storytelling, competent performances, and fewer impulses to make a solipsistic trendy mess of itself than a lot of big-budget films. The number of real Hollywood masterpieces the past decade is shockingly low, though, which is why the people who early on pointed to contemporary television as (at least) the US's closest industrial a/v equivalent to classical Hollywood were, we must admit, quite correct. - }

One of the problems with a film like Children of Men, then, is not so much that it fails on some level of realism, as that it feints toward certain kinds of realism (sociopolitical "hardhittingness," like a TV current affairs show in thick black eyeglasses) by means of the scaffolding of sheer fantasy ... the fantasies of grime, privation, and dystopia that are well-worn in Hollywood storytelling.


Related points, on another movie (one I haven't seen yet):

"A look at the above production still shows that the people who make these films haven’t a clue what dirt, grime, poverty or desperation really look and feel like. The trailer showed more of the same – again the fraudulent clothes out of costumes, theatrically gritted up but nothing like what a pair of pants worn a week on a farm look like, much less the endless months McCarthy’s book depicts. And ditto for the burnt out cars, wrecked towns, and the glowingly lit skin of our protagonists." (Jon Jost)


Recent promos for CNN International's "Beyond Borders" have irked me in their smarmy, privileged shallowness. Always, the modernist-enlightenment call to progress, innovation, going beyond borders, a new perspective. Delivered with sharp suit & glasses, a British - or, if American, moneyed - speech (a sign that you're not one of the Fox News faux downhome anchors), and an earnest gaze. And then, after the fearless call to go beyond, we get ... the soundbite.

Of course, as with Children of Men, to be too disappointed in this is to risk the foolishness of granting too much credit to begin with.