Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Frequently as I write, I wish that I had a typewriter to work with.  This is not for reasons of tactility or antiquarianism, though I acknowledge these pleasures have their place.  I want a typewriter because of the cobbled-together habits of my composition & editing style, which are an incoherent - though I imagine not unusual - volleying of typing and handwriting.  Both methods of getting word down boast their own kinds of speed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

See Something, Say Something

"Animal nature, or sexual exuberance, is that which prevents us from being reduced to mere things.  Human nature, on the contrary, geared to specific ends in work, tends to make things of us at the expense of our sexual exuberance."  (Georges Bataille, Erotism, trans. Mary Dalwood)

“In Western metaphysics, the spoken or sung word has more authority than the written word.  Voice accords presence – a myth that remains compelling, even though we are supposed to know better: we believe that no one can steal a voice, that no two voices are exactly alike, that finding a voice will set a body free, and that anyone can sing.  This conviction that having a voice means having an identity is a cultural myth, just as sex is human nature but also a myth.  … Voice is a system equal to sexuality – as punishing, as pleasure-giving; as elective, and ineluctable.”  (Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, p. 155)

"A valid meaning is here attached to the word sovereignty, just as to the term entity.  Both do not at all imply that a political entity must necessarily determine every aspect of a person's life or that a centralized system should destroy every other organization or corporation.  It may be that economic considerations can be stronger than anything desired by a government which is ostensibly indifferent toward economics.  Likewise, religious convictions can easily determine the politics of an allegedly neutral state.  What always matters is only the possibility of conflict."  (Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab, p. 39)

In the above video we see the effects of recent policy - surely a "reasonable" search, no? - whereby the entire game is based upon the semblance of security.  The state doesn't even try anymore, because it doesn't need to.  This particular quiet outrage, via TSA, is just the latest in the governance of human beings - and those who would defend might say that perhaps some people are just too uptight about their bodies.  And indeed there are a lot of people, men mainly, whose opposition to having their bodies scanned or testicles fondled is expressed in decidedly queer-unfriendly way.  But my own response to this is, Why do we immediately place the onus onto the citizen to accommodate policy?  "Oh, Citizen, you're just too repressed!  Don't be so hung up on bodily privacy!"  This, to me, is specious on the same order as US mimicry of feminist discourse to "justify" the bombing of Afghanistan.  Of course, the state can do whatever it can get away with, but it is worth attending to the outcry, even if it appears to be mired in politics of the body and of sexual feelings (including feelings of revulsion), and even if it is sometimes articulated along Tea Party lines.  To speak out, though, requires reclaiming a certain sense of the voice, and thus requires establishing a certain (public) baseline for one's own physicality, and for one's own sexuality ...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Image of the Day


Notes toward non-appreciation of Takashi Miike's Detective Story (2007) ...

I had the opportunity recently to look at a film I didn't much like, by a director (with a cult following) that I do much like, and wanted to clarify a few things for myself and in the process maybe some of you can also extract something of use.  The source of the problem or schematic I'm working through here is in my own personal history of being once a romantic-formalist but also (I think?) expanding well beyond these strictures.  But it's also a matter of tackling a problem with some practical utility, at least for the cinephile, like myself, who nerdishly logs what he sees and tries to at least vaguely have some mental placement of its overall worth.  In the past, for reasons of temperament, I adhered to a very "humble" approach to seeing films by filmmakers I liked.  If I didn't appreciate the film, I consciously considered that the problem might reside in myself.  (This has something to do, I think, with the Catholicism attached to a lot of early auteurist criticism, and my own Catholic history - playing the devotional role of the penitent viewer is an important part of this, and something that is really crucial for understanding a lot of this thing, "auteurism."  It's also why I balk violently at a lot of snap judgment-style criticism, and never warmed to Pauline Kael.)  This spectatorial humility on my part was not total - I was not afraid to dislike films, even films I felt I was supposed to like.  I was simply caught in a trap of my own making: how to trust myself when I found numerous kinds of pleasure in giving - or feeling as though I gave - trust in the object before me, the film of the other, an(other) film of the auteur?  To me it was a profoundly ethical matter, even if it wasn't a profoundly well-thought one.  And of course it required a prior, and sometimes implicit, judgment beforehand as to which films really deserved this humility and which films didn't. 

But lost in all of this is the richness and importance of the gray area.  The middle grounds - which can be middlebrow, or middling achievements, or compromises, or contradictions, or any number of things.  The ability to see on multiple registers, to see how a film's aesthetic and its politics operate on several levels (not always distinct), and in countless contexts.  Sometimes when one thinks one is seeing clearly, it's not the big or true picture one is glimpsing - but the isolated image of a parlor game.

So a few sketchy comments, which are ultimately for myself, but which I share in case you feel they can be for you, as well.

... the connoisseur's eye frequently doesn't care about "genre" and in fact has perfect contempt for a genre project, though sometimes this is dressed up as faux-proletarian respect for a job of work.  Who cares that Phil Karlson made B-movies, Kansas City Confidential is wonderful and evinces an aesthetic sense that goes far beyond - and will exceed - all such pesky questions as material, industrial context.  It is nice to know that a B-movie is (was) a B-movie, that a cathedral is (was) a product of oppressive religious collusion with state and money, that a Renaissance painting existed in an art market and had patrons ... but these don't tell us anything about the inner meaning of the work.

... though discussing the inner meaning of the work is often a way of drawing facile boundaries in order not to do the more intellectually and (yes, perhaps) aesthetically strenuous job of dealing with the outer life of the work as well.

... and in the vacuum of an auteur's career, or a film movement, justifications come easily when one limits all possible connections down to a few registers (those of the author's own work, or a particular stratification of film culture, or - possibly - something vague called "Zeigeist").

... if one is a romantic-formalist and an auteurist, can one draw the line - practically speaking - between the auteur's consideration of his or her industrial context, and make distinctions as to those who did what they had to do in bad conditions, and those who simply let themselves go to seed, having already felt the acclaim - or given up the ghost?  (If yes: If not through "auteurism," then how does the auteurist evaluate the conditions in which the auteur works?)  To me, Carloss James Chamberlin's article in Senses of Cinema on Nicholas Ray and Bitter Victory is a superb example of a film that considers the performative - and this is also to say the industrial and political - dimensions of a filmmaker's authorship.

... the sleekness of some later Miike may pose the question (and I haven't considered the work diligently enough to have a real answer, myself) that he himself is simply festering in a gussied-up version of his prior, perhaps grittier work.  In such a context, even if one is only partly sympathetic to such a judgment of the work, it's sometimes more difficult to be "won over" by formal patterns or stylistic signatures, flourishes.  For instance, in Detective Story, the palette of gore and the wardrobe connection to Kazuya Nakayama's red-white shirt.  In this kind of context the execution - i.e. the performance of authorship - seems more rote than risked.  This is also why, during the middle of the past decade, I found myself dissatisfied watching certain art films by directors I loved, because I was no longer struck by their invention or their freshness, but instead was impressed by their sense of aesthetic safety.  Elliptical art films on the festival circuit (whether good, bad, or in-between) tend to simply deliver to their viewers precisely what they want, whereas E. Elias Merhige's Suspect Zero is at least taking a few chances, even if it's not a great film ...

... innovation is, of course, highly overrated.  I'm happy to let the next buzzword in aesthetics be something like "sustainability," borrowed from Whole Foods style Green politics.  It's also bad but at least it would bring some new questions to the table that would push aside shopworn modernism (i.e., oftentimes, Enlightenment-Fordism) or fan-centered pleasure-center target practice ... which seem to be the two dominant ways of talking about such things.

... at a certain point I asked myself how small the proportion of "successes" Miike makes would have to be in order for me to no longer consider myself an admirer of his work in general.  I imagine, though, that it could get pretty low.  I was converted from a skeptical position with regard to Miike, and so it's hard to de-evangelize oneself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010


Small things I've seen recently & appreciated - a lot of these are repeat viewings -

  • the moment in Friday when Ice Cube opens the cabinet to find some Cap'n Crunch cereal, and lets out a "yeeah" (see it in the first few seconds here).  The vocalization seems poised between the scripted and the unmotivated, between the performance of a private moment and the performance for a camera and a crew.
  • the spit fight in Fist of Fury 1991 between Stephen Chow and a thief (see it here).  In Zoolander 2 I hope they augment any further breakdance fighting with spit-fighting.
  • Yuen Wah's (the landlord's) hair in Kung Fu Hustle.
  • all of David O'Reilly's amazing Please Say Something (watch all 10 minutes here) - I didn't know any of his animation before a peer screened this one recently.
  • Eric Balfour punching up a rubbery alien in Skyline - a surreally low-tech moment in a slickly dismal movie that pilfers - without humor, without wit - from various other alien/sf films like The Matrix and District 9.
  • the scene when Audrey Hepburn first peers into George Peppard's apartment from the fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany's, gazing on his passive, sleeping, unclothed body while Patricia Neal leaves cash on the table.  "I understand completely," she tells him soon after.

We Live in a Demography

(Link.)  Strange that a lot of the Republicans' favorite shows are still reasonably popular with Democrats (only three of them earning double digit scores from the quiche-eaters, and two of those are high two digit scores), whereas a lot of the Democrats' favorites are quite negligible to the Nascar tastes - the first five or six shows get middling two-digit scores from Republicans, and are followed by a number of other double digit scores.  According to the survey this breakdown of favorites may be because "Republicans like winners" and self-loathing Democrats are drawn to damaged goods.

My impression is that a significant element separating these two lists is irony, which the Democrat list has in spades: either shows that utilize irony, or double-voicedness, in pretty upfront ways (Mad Men, Parks and Recreation) or whose popularity among a cognoscenti involves ironic detachment (the Kardashians, SVU).  Let me reveal what is already obvious about my own tastes and observe that the one red list program of which I've actually seen a substantial number of episodes, Lie to Me, is in fact a procedural utterly unironic about its use of "science," of techniques.  This fairly entertaining drama is about a consulting firm which specializes in deception detection - they locate and uncover lies by studying universal, inescapable body language and micro-expressions!  Hired in each episode by government agencies, private individuals, or companies, the plots (of course) tend to twist in such a way as to show that the obvious liar is either not lying - or only covering up an even more insidious scandal.  It's a ludicrous business model we see at work here, where time and again Tim Roth & Co. wind up exposing their own clients.  To appreciate this show, and even to stay sane while watching an entire season of it (like I have) means establishing some basic relation to its ridiculousness.  Either one overlooks it because the pleasure of seeing science & technique successfully, wittily implemented is sufficient, or one savors the friction.  Some shows can accommodate this friction, others seem to need the irony (like Parks & Rec).

Not sure we're speaking about a golden age of irony, exactly, but, Henri Lefebvre says: "The great ironist appears in periods of disturbance, turmoil and uncertainty, when the people around him are absorbed in extremely large issues, when the future hangs on important decisions, when immense interests are at stake and men of action are unreservedly committed to the struggle.  This is when the ironist withdraws within himself, though only temporarily.  It is his way of taking stock and recouping his strength.  Back out again in the public domain, he questions whether those involved really know why they are gambling with their lives, their happiness or lack of it, not to mention the happiness of unhappiness of other people.  Do they actually know they are gambling?  Do they know what the stakes really are?  For the ironist the actions, projects, representations and men which confront him are like constellations where distances are more visible than the brilliant points they separate; these spaces he fills with darkness.  The tasks in hand, even the most valid ones, are not enough to satisfy him.  He scans the horizon and tries to weigh up the present.  He is the first to perceive the limits of the interests involved and the chances the tactics in operation have of success (while the people who have conceived them feel obliged to believe in them unreservedly, and never to lose face in front of their supporters)."  (from "On Ironic, Maieutic, and History," Introduction to Modernity, trans. John Moore)

It could be that the symbolic struggle at work in a chart like the one above is whether or not some of these products deserve irony or are simply granted it via the wish fulfillment and privilege of an educated elite (as a means of consumerist distinction).  And/or it could be that the great red-blue distinction itself - instead of calling for an earnest "purple America" rebuke - needs more ironizing.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Facebook Movie

The Social Network is a little like nesting dolls, or so I thought at first - but this doesn't seem right because I can't be certain as to which particular film-layer masks or is masked the others.  Is it a Sorkin film?  Is it Fincher's?  (Columbia is the author for all legal purposes.)  Less a bunch of nesting dolls, then, and more like a multi-faceted set of optical illusions.  What, also, is this movie about?  "Human connection," Facebook specifically, the rise of a network more generically, a Will Hunting story minus the uplift, Harvard & Silicon Valley social life?  (An aside - Harvard's Kirkland House is presided over by Tom Conley, a great critic and scholar of cinema.)   In this respect, one can hardly pinpoint an origin to David Fincher but one can say, perhaps, that this is the kind of story - narrative resolution inconsequential, diffuse social reference & meaning - with which Fincher has spent the last decade thriving.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The American Television

(with apologies to Andrew Sarris)

This past weekend I came upon a 1959 letter circulated among interested parties, which concerned the hiring of directors for the second season of The Twilight Zone, giving an intriguing breakdown of potential helmers.  Some excerpts, with format changes and elisions ...

Justus Addiss
Walter Doniger
Robert Florey
Christian Nyby
Montgomery Pittman
Richard Sale 
Robert Stevens 

(I include Mr. Florey's name because I know he is much admired in many quarters; I am dead set against him because I believe he gives actors no help whatsoever.)


Here's a list of men of whom I've heard very good reports and whom we should consider

Robert Altman
Jack Arnold
Douglas Heyes 
Phil Karlson
Richard Wilson
Jack Smight

There are several young men, many raised in the Matinee Theatre school, whom I think have done very good work.  They seem to be especially notable for injecting a great deal of life and vivacity into their films:

Walter Grauman 
Jeffrey Hayden
Lamont Johnson
David O. McDearmon
Boris Sagal


There are several men still active, who, over a long period of years, have established a reputation as men of great style:

Lazlo Benedek
John Brahm
Arthur Ripley
Harry Horner
James Neilson

Bernard Girard
John Peyser

(The last two names are young men and less dependable then the others; under the discipline by which they do their best work, they are perhaps better than the others.)

Should we do it as a comedy, it might be well to consider the following successful directors:

Rod Amateau
Hy Averback
Richard Kinon
Oscar Rudolph

* * * 

A letter like this shows that they qualitatively grouped directors in the industry, too (and lines between the film and television industry at this point were blurring), albeit not with the same kinds of categories as Mr. Sarris and those who've come after - but definitely according to the characteristics of a director's work (like vivacity) or an established track record in a genre.  It all points to the complexity of artistic input and collaboration that can go into producing some big audiovisual affair.  There are enthusiasts of the moving image who take special pleasure from, say, the John Brahm-directed episodes of The Twilight Zone (or Gerd Oswald in The Outer Limits), regardless of who wrote that episode's script.  I say this not to devolve into the awful parlor game / pissing contest that asks (as though there's an answer), "who is the real author of this object?" ... only to point out the lines which establish an aesthetic, from the viewer's perspective, are unstable and also capable of keying in to official discourse marginally or obliquely, posing unanticipated questions and finding answers neither proffered nor hidden by "the text."  And there seems to be some industrial and historical precedent for this ...

* * *

Season two of The Twilight Zone, episode list with directors.

"The King Will Not Return" (Buzz Kulik), "The Man in the Bottle" (Don Medford), "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room" (Douglas Heyes), "A Thing About Machines" (David O. McDearmon), "The Howling Man" (Douglas Heyes), "Eye of the Beholder" (Douglas Heyes), "Nick of Time" (Richard L. Bare), "The Lateness of the Hour" (Jack Smight), "The Trouble with Templeton" (Buzz Kulik), "A Most Unusual Camera" (John Rich), "The Night of the Meek" (Jack Smight), "Dust" (Douglas Heyes), "Back There" (David O. McDearmon), "The Whole Truth" (James Sheldon), "The Invaders" (Douglas Heyes), "A Penny for Your Thoughts" (James Sheldon), "Twenty-two" (Jack Smight), "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (Justus Addiss), "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" (John Brahm), "Static" (Buzz Kulik), "The Prime Mover" (Richard L. Bare), "Long Distance Call" (James Sheldon), "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (Buzz Kulik), "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" (Justus Addiss), "The Silence" (Boris Sagal), "Shadow Play" (John Brahm), "The Mind and the Matter" (Buzz Kulik), "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" (Montgomery Pittman), and "The Obsolete Man" (Elliot Silverstein).

Thursday, November 04, 2010