Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sympton and Theme

Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009) could be described as crypto-conservative - respect for military (check), longing for the order and authority of the days of yore (check).  But it's crypto because it takes care not to code its racial anxieties racially.  In fact the majority of the criminals in the film are white.  Nevertheless, it would be possible to insert a mouthpiece into the film along the lines of David Starkey.  Everything else is in place for Harry Brown to hypothesize that the problem with contemporary, welfare state Britain is from its "culture" turning "black."  There's just no one in the script connecting those dots explicitly.  I presume this is because writer Gary Young, director Barber, etc., are more concerned with articulating a storyline that can be comparably more broadly marketed than they are mounting an ideological critique (that is, one from the right).  I suspect socially divisive (e.g. racist, classist, jingoistic) nostalgia is usually easier to market when it's an overtone or undertone, rather than a front-and-center theme.

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Early in Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris (2007), the American boyfriend - played by Adam Goldberg - misdirects a gaggle of American tourists by giving them false directions to the Louvre.  His reasoning is that this has drastically cut their wait in the line for a cab at the airport.  They're Bush-voting Americans here on a Da Vinci Code tour, he rationalizes to Delpy.  They deserve to see something outside of their little worlds, such as a riot.  (Nevermind that this film seems to whitewash Paris as much as Amélie ever did.)  "You're so mean," Delpy replies, "but you're so right!"  Then she kisses him. The class privilege on display here is totally nonchalant.  It's good for American tourists from flyover country to "see some riots."  But does the syndicalist bohemian Parisian culture of Delpy's gentle caricature admit many - or any - nonwhite people?  Perhaps it might, if the nonwhite person is an artist, poet, designer, photographer, etc.  Goldberg's character, suggested to be a Clinton Democrat (!!!), speaks no language but English, went through Italy simply snapping photos ... he's not so unlike these ugly Americans after all, and his real quarrel with the Bush-Cheney tourists he lies to is that they have such poor taste.  They read Dan Brown, not the Faulkner-Kerouac axis of respectable literature.  They live in Kansas or something like it, whereas he lives in New York.  They voted for Bush, not for a proper left-wing politician like, ahem, Clinton or Gore or Kerry.

And this division constitutes the heart of 2 Days in Paris, which is in many ways a sophisticated film.  Delpy is an intelligent person and though I don't think the movie is totally successful, her intelligence shows.  Almost everything annoying on display, that I want to read as a symptom, is at least implicitly or subtly acknowledged by the film itself - a line of dialogue, a choice of setting or blocking.  (For instance, Goldberg goes to McDonald's in a moment of crisis, underlining his proximity to the compatriots that he so despises.)  The Before Sunrise/Before Sunset diptych, which Delpy was so crucial in helping to create, does an even better job than this, though - one of the great recent achievements of cinema in displaying a particular class position (rootless, precarious, but nonetheless privileged, educated, culturally savvy youth), not treating it with scornful distance but inhabiting this position, all the while subtly pointing to its limitations, the fact that it's not the center nor the apex of the world.  Even if it's easy to think that the films' so-called "message" is equal to Jesse's worldview, or Celine's.  This is a common refrain in virulent criticism against those two movies (as against a lot of Malick) - ignoring the structure in order to have one part (usually one or two characters' POV) stand in for the whole movie, a critical upgrade via synecdoche.  Of course there are films, and other artworks, where this is a valid enough operation.  But it should be demonstrated instead of assumed.  2 Days in Paris tempts this kind of reading, and indeed I'm not certain how one could examine the content of the film without it, and yet proves quite slippery ... the lesson being that it's a tricky and provisional thing to arrive at conclusions about an artwork's conclusions.  There are too many variables, too many contingencies - and cultural products have potentially long afterlives, they can be re-purposed, re-articulated, by people and from variable perspectives.

Hence the necessity of materialist (not moralist) analysis, when asking political and social questions of culture.  If we return to the example of Harry Brown, we could jump to the conclusion that the film is not only an indictment of an ineffectual nanny state bureaucracy, but also a thinly veiled lamentation that Britain's culture is "becoming black" ... even if the racial aspect is precisely what is veiled.  What then?  Having cracked the film's code, do we move on to the next?  Do we "combat" the film somehow?  (Why this one and not countless others?) 

3 comments:

Donal Foreman said...

Hi Zach,

Your post seems to touch on something Michael Sicinski put well in an interview with John Gianvito:

"At some point or other, every leftist cinephile has had to decide to devote him or herself to the aesthetic realm, to engage with representations, to take on faith that 'work on the text' has material repercussions and that, pace Marx, interpreting the world is at least a partial means towards changing it."

I'm curious what you think of when you think "combating" the film. Personally I feel wary of spending too much time decoding Hollywood pieces; although it can be fun and revealing of the state of things, it seems to also risk affirming their centrality. It seems to me that working towards a different kind of culture is the best kind of combat, though of course critique is essential as part of that too....

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for your comments, Donal.

I put "combat" in quotes because I'm not sure what it might mean - after all, how do we directly combat things without (in fact) reaffirming their centrality, as you say? This is the impetus behind alternative ecologies of film, or media, or culture most broadly. At the same time, one can risk excising one self from debates which matter to, and for, large numbers of people because it's already, altogether, too central and hegemonic. At its worst, this impulse manifests itself in politics or aesthetics as a sort of puritanism, whereby moral righteousness supplants political action. The balance, as you imply, is crucial ...

I think I'll soon post an excerpt from a terrific essay that deals with some of these problems ...

Greg said...

Zach, your review of 2 Days In Paris made me think of the comments I have read regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement. Specifically, I think many commenters are way off in overestimating the public reaction and support for this movement as critical to there being a progressive alternative to the Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street is but one expression of the frustration vast numbers of Americans have with their economic situations not the driving force of it. If Occupy Wall Street in any way fails, the frustration will still exist and will exhibit itself someway else. That is why I think much of the attention given to the events and skirmishes at the Occupy sites and supposition of the reaction of the American people to them is a waste of time.