Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Lawless

If you have not read Andy Rector's beautiful, compelling reflections from a few years back on Joseph Losey's The Lawless, you should do so.  (This work is available to stream on Netflix now, at least in the US.  It's not very long, and it is very good.)  Losey's film is in many ways similar to the roughly contemporaneous Ace in the Hole (also set out West, in the sticks), but while it is less ambitious than Wilder's excellent film, The Lawless seems deeper and more cohesively critical in some ways.  I will springboard from Andy's comments into some of my own notes.

-The rigorous framing of the police who are only rhetorically good; they let real brutality and distortion happen always.

A representational strategy the film employs: most of its cops are presumably "decent folk," and The Lawless depicts them early on as being a number of reasonable individuals with a bad apple or two in the bunch.  Intriguingly, this representation mirrors the function of the police themselves in the social body depicted, i.e., superficially benign (and indeed perhaps benign almost to a man), but systematically complicit with the mob lawlessness which seeks to enact revenge upon Paul (Lalo Rios) - an imperfect kid caught in a bind.  The effect of this is a beautiful, subtle perversion of the general model, which valorizes individualism and thus individualized action, causation, culpability, etc.  The Lawless grants as much but contextualizes it - "just doing my job."

-The cut from Lalo Rios taking a shower outdoors to the white privileged kid taking a shower in a comfortable bathroom.

We see the latter character first in silhouette, I believe.  Paul though is silhouetted later in the film, at the police station, after they've taken his fingerprints at a desk - and in the same shot, courtesy of shadows on the wall, we see his mug shot being taken.

-The father of the privileged kid as well-meaning only insofar as his wallet goes (shoring up the system in the process)

Though I do think the film positions his behavior as sincere - perhaps he's a so-called "liberal communist" avant la lettre?  The shoring up of the system is not laid at the feet of his supposed character fault, but rather at the incongruity of his liberalism toward a good cause when it fails to link up with the proper destructive/reconstructive mechanisms against the system.  Again and again, The Lawless outlines individualism's dead ends - despite all manner of faith & good works ...

-The long (dare I day Straubian) pan across the quarry where Rios is being hunting for something he didn't do - beginning on the back of the farmers head and going in the opposite direction from the idealistic newspaper man trying to find Rios before the police do - a dialectic shot if there ever was one.

I am constantly impressed again with the flexibility and strength of classical Hollywood cinema - the malleability of its codes and the way that these codes could be applied to ends highly antithetical to what is generally presumed to be Hollywood's product.  (This presumption may be correct in everything except its range across the films themselves.)

-The newspaper man's gestus. Ciment says he's a positivist Capra hero who realizes he is wrong. His stopping to admire the smell of burning leaves in October (representing nostalgia for small town America) in contrast with marred human relations all around him.

And again, I would stress here that the film does not dwell on the individualist wrongness of this "positivist Capra hero" (an apt description).  Burning leaves in October - an uncontroversial existence? - these aren't illicit desires in themselves.  It is the use of these desires in a context which renders them as a screen against more pressing, ultimately damaging concerns which The Lawless criticizes.

-The very Brechtian gesture of the match that the newspaper man lights for the callous and sensational newspaper woman's cigarette as she dictates lies to her paper, saying that Rios had no "remorse" in his eyes, all she could see was "cruelty". This gesture of the newspaper-man's is in contradiction to his moral position in the scene prior. The lighting of the match is an action showing that the newspaper man has not put into action his consciousness of complicity (which the film is so good at laying bare,media/career wise) and it's like the opposite of the fish-wrapping scene in NOT RECONCILED (Straub) where Schrella REFUSES to dine with a still-fascist democrat by having his lunch wrapped up and leaving.

Yes, this is a brilliant scene - in part for how low-key it is, demonstrating something about Larry's "character psychology" but also of political consciousness in general, the way it is so quickly effaced or repurposed into uselessness in the face of social niceties.  Though we do live in an age when manners seem to matter far too little, their convenience as an occasional shield to political (i.e., politicized) interpersonal confrontation is still to prevalent a function.

-Gail Russell's strong moral/political-bearing character. Such a character is not unconventional to Hollywood films of the time but hers stands out in performance and absolute clarity of the political lines she demarcates. Russell's actual personal/professional life during the shooting of LAWLESS is even more devastating, and constitutes a story worth looking into

She's amazing in the film.  Her character does fall into a certain line of anglicized Hollywood tradition - a romantic interest; pale eyes - but she's still a superb character, and her existence is notable for the perhaps shocking (shocking!) presumption that there were women who were politically active, knowledgeable, committed, etc.  (Not simply "won over" because their boyfriends blazed a trail.)

Know that THE LAWLESS is a film directed by a man who studied Fritz Lang and worked with Bertolt Brecht. Know that an argument could be made for it as a Marxist film, made within Hollywood, and after the HUAC purges no less (courage). That its screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (sometimes credited as Geoffrey Homes) was "greylisted" and yet fought for his blacklisted comrades. Somehow Losey went on to make several more politically advanced films within Hollywood, THE PROWLER and a remake of M among them. And know that you must track it down...

... and tracking it down, thanks to Netflix, is very easy.  Just as it was possible - not easy, but possible - make films like The Lawless in classical Hollywood, the system allows for the regurgitation of yesterday's politically critical products.  (The Lawless is less an A-list film than V for Vendetta or Children of Men, but its politics are far better.)

With THE LAWLESS's politics as a film intact, through his account we can already see some irreversible degradations that went on in industrial Hollywood. If THE LAWLESS is a product of a group of people who represent something that has been lost in the US today (Losey, springing from the same lively and progressive artistic/cultural atmosphere as Orson Welles that once existed in Winconsin early in the 20th century; and Daniel Mainwaring, springing from an honest journalistic tradition, now almost completely gone, where it remains it is ghettoized), and who in all sincerity tried to expose the rottenness of certain aspects of America, we mustn't forget that THE LAWLESS was still a product.

Yes, and what sad state of affairs has befallen latter-day Wisconsin?  Exeunt.

Image of the Day

(for Ignatiy)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

While We Work (2)

An extra note here, to help clarify things.  (When I'm as obscure & perhaps obtuse as in my previous entry, it's mainly because this is where I first sketch out some of my ideas.  I've not refined them for myself, let alone for you, hence the rambling sentences and unclear thought.)  This evening I got home and ate a snack, and Rudy was on TV.  I watched the last ~20 minutes.  This too is a film that basks in working class comforts, nostalgia for old days - home and factory job and nice town.  (Riding the bench for Notre Dame can be a boyhood dream.)  And it struck me then, a rephrasing of the phenomenon that I was trying to hint at before: this particular brand of working class nostalgia, which is not new, is possibly shifting its tenor, in new films or new viewings of old films, from being nostalgic to being faintly utopian.  (Even if the films themselves are not politically or thematically utopian.)  This is to say, we see reflected along the edges of filmic fiction the conditions of precarity which make this fantasy of an older working class life & culture (complete with its various other baggage, like nostalgia for whiteness in some cases) appear not simply as a lost origin, but as a sociopolitical arrangement which now looks pretty damn fine ... and unattainable.  This is a way of experiencing, in the background, the demise of even the imperfections of a welfare state as now beyond our grasp.  Maybe.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

While We Work

Two movies from a couple years ago that I've watched in recent weeks - one a big arthouse hit by a major filmmaker, another a film that probably few readers of EL outside of Brazil will have seen.  They are Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum (her greatest achievement since Beau travail?) and Carlos Reichenbach's mesmerizing, perhaps slightly frustrating Falsa Loura (Fake Blonde). I want to say something about how both of these films imagine small communities and their daily existence, sculpted out of jobs which can ultimately be "left at work" (indeed it's the personal which enters the labor space), where one can have a satisfying life without having to worry too greatly about a paycheck or career path.  Both films indicate on numerous occasions that their characters are not rich - they must make choices as to how to spend their discretionary income - but the fact of their discretionary income is established at the outset.  (Not in the way that Hollywood routinely generates plenty of discretionary income for its characters.  Class is not at all an absent feature of the situations here.  Commercial films frequently cannot represent the working class except through caricature as a "working class," with accents, unfashionable clothes, etc.  Art cinema, particularly outside the US, is more privileged in this respect.)  Coincidentally, concerts appear in both films as a leisure activity.  In 35 Shots of Rum they don't make it to the concert, but they can relax in a bar after-hours, and then there's a wonderful music scene anyway.

I do not wish to give the impression that these films are utopian fantasies.  They are hardly that.  I would not want, even by inadvertent suggestion, to rob them of their sociopolitical criticisms.  But what compels me to mention these films together, here, now, is still something indirect and marginal - yet pervasive - in their total construction.  These are works whose projection of a certain type of existence under labor starts to dematerialize, giving rise to the strange blurring of nostalgic longing and waged mundanity.

No one reading this needs to be reminded of "flexible" labor - probably because a lot of people who read are themselves quite subjected to these shifts in a global marketplace, living on the rapidly disintegrating precipice of an imperialist center's "information economy."  Genteel impoverishment awaits so many of us that it hasn't already claimed.  And it surely may be tempting to imagine one's own variant on an honest day's work - mediated of course by nation, race, gender, age, etc.  Get home from a relatively safe, stable, union-protected factory job and relax over dinner with a shot & a beer?  Be able to relate to co-workers because you know that you share a strength in numbers which structurally balances against management?  (Having been a former union member, before going back to school full-time, this isn't always the feeling membership inspires, these days!  Here and there the whole project's being gutted, just gutted.)  However nostalgic, masculinist, etc. any particular image of a decent worker's life might be, the fact of the image - rather than the image - is what's at stake, along the edges, of films like 35 Shots of Rum and Falsa Loura

This is to say: the promise of a merely decent, moderately stable welfare state safety net is itself experienced as a comfort - almost a luxury! - in these films.  And both present foreboding hints of life after this labor - in 35 Shots of Rum, a retired worker commits suicide because he cannot figure out what to do with himself.  And the charming Rosane Mulholland's character in Falsa Loura, Silmara, comes to a sad, disillusioning, chilling realization in her own story - as a consequence of a weekend gig taken to earn supplemental cash.  There are two levels at work here, as I see it.  One, these basic and hard-won privileges for the lives of laborers are eroding.  Two, perhaps some of us have nevertheless come to experience this negotiation as a womb rather than as a prison, and now that we're being let out, the precarity is terrifying.  Neither of these developments at all constitute news.  Obviously.  What is interesting is how they are registering in recent cinema, as emotional and social canvas, even in films whose nominal focus may not be labor relations or precarity.  The workplace is in the film, around it, but not its main point ... and yet it's absolutely the point, when seen from another perspective.

I haven't seen The Company Men (that thing with Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, et al.) but I imagine this too participates in this kind of newly recognized desire to return to a working class cocoon.  In older films I feel like the iconographic counterpart was the home & village versus the sprawling, internationalizing tendency.  (Preminger's The Cardinal, a fairly excellent film with a dismal ending, embodies this tension really well.)  Now, there's no frontier to which we information workers in the imperial centers are told to guide our productive energies ... we are left with just a shrug, and a What's next?

Friday, February 04, 2011

History and the Meme

Just what is it that makes today's salads so different, so appealing?  (Look here.)

When I encountered this web page a little earlier, my first actual thought - aside from the initial reaction of "oh cool, this is funny" - was how close this amusing collection was to history.  And also how far.  On one hand we have an intriguing foray into the history of images - if not necessarily the history of form, then the history of gestures and positions, which provide material for history of forms anyway.  (Maybe take a look at this.)  (There is never truly a "purely graphical" comprehension of visual work; all understanding is in constant conversation with the porosity of forms and what they're attached to.)  But at the same time, we lack the history: though we can guess where these images of happy women eating salad come from, and we might be close to the mark, without the writing we do not know how these images were situated.  The meme is, in effect, harmless, toothless - because we cannot make real connections to the publications (print or digital) where they've been disseminated, to tie them to the obvious discourses of (feminine) health and (feminine) body images.  This is criticism which undercuts critique, in a sense: the instance where the laughing is finally squared solely upon these women in these pictures, with only a shadowy hint of "society" putting them there, so that one does not draw out information - one assumes one is "in on the joke," but gods forbid one uses boring old information to clarify a problem.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Shoot 'Em Up (Notes)

"We'll paint the town the color of pomegranates," says a character in Khyber Patrol (!), in one of the most interesting points of this mediocre 1954 adventure movie.  Another interesting feature is the introduction of automatic weaponry into the fold, as British lancers stave off evil, greedy tribesmen.  The machine gun in period pieces sometimes serves an iconic - or iconoclastic - function, cuing the arrival of a new and brutal regime.  Gangsters and outlaws and imperialists, merciless men, use this sort of weapon.  Filmmakers (like, say, Peckinpah) use it as a signal that a particular type of mythic perspective - and not just characters/bodies - is biting the dust.  [In John McTiernan's Predator, the almost total ineffectiveness of the machine gun against the Predator is a similar move: upping the ante.  Because we already know, in part from prior movies, that the machine gun is one helluva leveller.]

If the firing squad was a form of execution that at least feinted toward civility - because it was difficult or impossible to tell which of a group of men fired the lethal bullet - the machine gun invests not only the guilt of execution but the civility into the functioning of the machine.  As has been discussed elsewhere, by others like Virilio, the mechanics of traditional filmmaking (chronophotography) are tied to technological developments in weaponry.  Who's guilty for taking 24 frames per second?  No one: a single photograph may be a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.  Et cetera.

Films - typically action movies, mobster movies, films about greed - invoke Sun Tzu's The Art of War.  It gets name-dropped in The Sopranos, in Wall Street (by Gordon Gekko), and in, yes, the dialogue in The Art of War (directed by Christian Duguay, a film in the vein of generic De Palma but heavily diluted: like a middling Snake Eyes).  The text is usually handled in a shallow, talismanic way - mere orientalist exoticism repurposed, slightly, as a symbol for cut-to-the-chase strategics.  A thinking man's manual, but certainly a man's manual.  Vicious, Hobbesian state-of-nature stuff.  Having never read The Art of War except in idle excerpt, here and there, I make no claims as to what it actually is or could actually serve as.