Thursday, June 30, 2011

En Rachâchant

Recently I caught up with the Straub-Huillet short film En Rachâchant ('82), which is wonderful in its simplicity.  (The embedded YouTube video I'm including here has no English subtitles, though the intrepid digital explorer can find her own subtitled copy.  Otherwise the primary thing to know is that the child, Ernesto, decides he doesn't want to stay in school because learning things there isn't worth the trouble.  He remains stubborn.)  Mitterand = "a gentleman," a butterly pinned in glass = "a crime," a globe is a football as well as a representation of the earth ... am I wrong to react to this, initially, as a sly, Ivan Illichesque treatment of school as a site of ideological confrontation?

Deadlier Than the Male

Lately my bottom-of-the-barrel consumption has been Spike's Deadliest Warrior.  For those of you who have not sampled this program (available streaming on Netflix or also on Spike's own website), the premise is that two prototypical, unlikely, and mostly historical combatants (say: viking vs samurai, pirate vs knight) are put into a hypothetical battle.  Though the shows always culminate in a simulated live-action "face-off" between each of the contestants, the bulk of the running time follows specialists from either side demonstrating their weapons.  A computer simulation runs a thousand virtual battles to determine "the deadliest [meaning: deadlier] warrior." 

The most repetitive and unimaginative trash-talking and punditry pads out the program.  Think something along the lines of, "Oh man, that samurai sword is intense.  It will definitely kill you [i.e., if you are standing there being passively sliced by it].  But the chainsaw just has too much power.  Gotta give the edge to the chainsaw."  I believe Noam Chomsky once indicated that the general public is presumed to be a bunch of chumps, but if you listened to something like a call-in radio show about local sports, you'd hear people volunteer intelligent commentary.  This may have been more true in the past than it is today.  I wonder if sports punditry - which these days is just beyond idiotic, as with mainstream political punditry - might operate with similarly sinister effects on public culture.  Discourage people - The People? - from ever even thinking about strategy or tactics, which of course is what sport still offers the spectacularized public an opportunity to do ... so that the only end a person will end up ever being encouraged to achieve is selling labor in order to obtain and maintain the opportunity to eat and sleep.

At any rate, in Deadliest Warrior we see what happens when puerile but admittedly fascinating questions - like could an Apache defeat a gladiator? - are posed.  (Let's recall for a second that Guy Debord was a great student of war and martial matters.)  The show has a curious feature in that, when it pits like weapons against each other - such as the mid-range ones - it does it only by separating them and tabulating data based on what each weapon does to an inanimate object like a pig carcass or forensic gel torso.  (If the software the show uses does anything more complicated than this, we are not informed of it.)  Does even such a childish question as this show thrives upon require such dissembling?  This show simply cannot conceive of actual conflict, but instead can only run on the engines of simulation, of R&D execution.  It may be "totally rad" to see a katana blade slice through an entire swine, but the consistently evaded question is exactly what the show vocally promises.  Who would win?  Which weapon actually wins?

Not that one should ever expect that a show like Deadliest Warrior would deliver what it evokes.  I just find it interesting how baldly - and yet unconsciously - the film divorces itself from its actual premise.  I've plenty more episodes to go, but have yet to see a single woman on the show.  I am no expert on Spike and its demographic-marketing strategies, but this channel is still gunning for the heternormative dads-dudes-and-bros market.  (Right?)  It seems, at first, strange that they don't even offer the spectacle of "hot babes" as with boxing, professional wrestling, and mixed martial arts.  But perhaps it's an illustration of the separation between men and woman that war is supposed to engender - war is man's domain, and woman is man's repose.  (So bellowed Nietzsche, if I recall.)  In any event, a show like Deadliest Warrior promises a certain appreciation of violent, macho effectiveness while in fact nullifying this very thing.  Not from a feminist perspective, mind you ...

Image of the Day

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tree of Life

Though I haven't revisited The Tree of Life, as I still hope to, it's been stewing in my head for several days now.

Brad Pitt is probably as good as he's ever been.  The hands-on-lovehandles machismo he played to comedic effect in Inglourious Basterds here re-emerges as the performance of midcentury masculinity.  A rough Don Draper (with a dash of Single Man's Colin Firth, or maybe that's just midcentury modern home design talking), he embodies the marriage of a certain tough minded, indelicate approach to the world (similar to the materialist Sean Penn character in The Thin Red Line) and the Mortimer Adler / modernist self-improvement endemic to a certain class in the period.  Pitt's pouting lip and jawline, his gruff voice - these things glimpsed so many years ago in Legends of the Fall come out and are used to tremendous effect here.  There's no essential distinction between Pitt's performance and the father's "performance."  Or as the doc says in WR - Mysteries of the Organism, you don't have a body, you are your body.

I'm still thinking about the way The Tree of Life situates its women characters.  Jessica Chastain's silent, strong, long-suffering wife: is this a theme of the film, or one of its symptomatic conventions?  I think it may be some of both.  We see here one of cinema's great arguments against patriarchy - that it's neither beneficial nor eternal.  That much is clear.  The question remains, for me, as to Tree of Life's self-awareness with regard to how it uses its male/father/female/mother figures.  I suppose that what we have, in a certain sense, Malick's own examination of a loosely autobiographically informed childhood.  It's tricky to try to tease out what might be meant as historically specific and what might be meant as trans-historical.  Because I can certainly see how one could watch The Tree of Life and roll the eyes at parts, since the gazing-through-trees aspects might suggest the nuclear white 1950s family as the transcendental milieu, the natural context ... rather than a more strictly, more contingently historical one.  On one viewing I'm not sure if the film has really delineated, one way or the other, how it might mean to finesse its viewers' reception of this family microcosm: universal or particular?
The esteemed Peter Tonguette takes the film to task for its departures from classical storytelling craft.  But I don't know how fair this is.  Can one think of a film released by a Hollywood studio that more explicitly marks out the fact that its aims - whatever those might be - are not at all those of crafting a clear story with minimal spatial ruptures?  Peter suggests that The Tree of Life often feels like a trailer for itself.  I think I understand precisely what he means but I'm not sure it appropriately applies to this film, where the editing indeed departs from many fiction cinema norms but is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement.  More than any other Hollywood-released film I've ever seen, The Tree of Life reminds me of the likes of not only Nathaniel Dorsky but also Gregory Markopoulos.  The editing rhythms gun for the proprioceptive, the kinaesthetic, rather than the cognitive fundaments of a narrative.  I also think that, in the middle, most "story" heavy section especially, the editing is highly evocative of memory.  Instead of being efficient, images and actions overlap, we feel them more than understand them; they create a surplus without actually telling everything.  Granted, this is not how an economical, 1940s-style Hollywood film typically operates.  But given Malick's track record and the themes of the film, it's a more than reasonable way to produce meaning and sensation through cutting.  All this may, indeed, prove frustrating to some viewers - because the film suggests that there is a clear and compelling story "lost" in the editing.

Now, one doesn't have to love Terrence Malick's work.  And just because one likes the '70s films need have no bearing on reception of the more recent titles.  Even so, as Richard Neer's brilliant recent piece on The New World indicates, the editing patterns and sound-image relations that characterize later Malick are by no means just pretty or picturesque but in fact rather dense, sophisticated, and intricate.  This does not mean they are somehow above all critique.  Yet this is why I'm puzzled by Peter's objections - of all the potential skeptical approaches, is the best (or even the tenth best) to chide the film for "failing" to edit in such a way as to clearly and economically convey narrative information, as if this is the only criterion by which a film can or should ever be edited?  (Is Stan Brakhage a bad editor as well?  Do Bunuel and Dali's cuts fall short too?)

These are still just mostly initial thoughts ...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Historiography (I)

"A structure belonging to modern Western culture can doubtless be seen in this historiography: intelligibility is established through a relation with the other; it moves (or "progresses") by changing what it makes of its "other" - the Indian, the past, the people, the mad, the child, the Third World.  Through these variants that are all heteronomous - ethnology, history, psychiatry, pedagogy, etc. - unfolds a problematic form basing its mastery of expression upon what the other keeps silent, and guaranteeing the interpretive work of a science (a "human" science) by the frontier that separates it from an area awaiting this work in order to be known.  Here modern medicine is a decisive figure, from the moment when the body becomes a legible picture that can in turn be translated into that which can be written within a space of language.  Thanks to the unfolding of the body before the doctor's eyes, what is seen and what is known of it can be superimposed or exchanged (be translated from one to the other).  The body is a cipher that awaits deciphering.  Between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, what allows the seen body to be converted into the known body, or what turns the spatial organization of the body into a semantic organization of a vocabulary - and vice versa - is the transformation of the body into extension, into open interiority like a book, or like a silent corpse placed under our eyes.  An analogous change takes place when tradition, a lived body, is revealed to erudite curiosity through a corpus on texts.  Modern medicine and historiography are born almost simultaneously from the rift between a subject that is supposedly literate, and an object that is supposedly written in an unknown language.  The latter always remains to be decoded.  These two "heterologies" (discourses on the other) are built upon a division between the body of knowledge that utters a discourse and the mute body that nourishes it." 

(Michel de Certeau, from the Introduction to The Writing of History)

This and That

Whose Life Is It Anyway?: the narrative construction is both sharply professional, deeply felt, and bathed in too-much, too-soon pathos.  (The vase the falls and breaks?)  Lightning, at certain points, provided a clear illustration of the pathetic fallacy. But overall I liked the way the film uses weather, glimpsed from inside through windows.  It was neither remarked upon by characters and music for "mood," most of the time, yet remained quietly and open-endedly expressive.


If they make The Hangover, Part 3, it should simply be called Ken Jeong's Hangover.  I would still see that.  Otherwise, what's the point?


Dame Maggie sure seems immortal, sometimes.


I took down a post I made on The Tree of Life for a couple of reasons - mainly because it wasn't really ready to be posted.  I think I just absent-mindedly hit "publish" and directed my attention elsewhere.  Normally that kind of slip doesn't bother me since I rarely revise posts extensively, anyway.  But when I noticed it some hours later, I realized that what came out was a lot of unnecessary and mean-spirited snark, not to mention a straw man argument that was more a heuristic device for me to get to a particular rhetorical space than a "position" I had intended to put out into the ether.  It was my way of working through certain ambivalent feelings I have toward a lot of, hmm, extratextual questions.  Elusive Lucidity is a public notebook, not a polished journal - but it's also not open mic night for every little slice of its author's brain.  If anyone read my earlier post and rolled their eyes (as I would have done myself), mea culpa.  For the record, I loved the film and think it is incredible on a lot of levels, though I do have some reservations, and will probably still post something on it after my thoughts and feelings ripen.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Random Gripe

I don't know what's more irksome, Cisco's "the human network" or American Express' "the social currency."


(Colossus: The Forbin Project, dir. Joseph Sargent, 1970)

Serge Daney dit: "The word “power” came at one moment, synchronically with Foucault... We can say that our cinephilia helped us to go forward. For a cinephile, the power of the cineaste, even if it’s really imaginary, is out of proportion socially and real in regards to what he manipulates as material. Therefore, we see a moral preoccupation which comes back to Bazin, which is to evaluate films not really on their aesthetic quality but in ethical terms. It’s a period when we speak of “direct.” Then there’s a third period when, from the idea of power, we moved to the realization of the power of media. Power today is the new management of media which is a problem on which the Leftists have been nil, pre-historic, with the exception of someone like Baudrillard. But let’s say that, in general, Marxist reflection on media is nil. This is a little bit the Mattelart period. From then on we saw how we could re-interest ourselves in cinema, in films that were coming out, to become once more a film review while being a little bit ahead which consists in recognizing that film is one piece in the more general game of the media and that we can’t disassociate them. To approach these media, everything we learned before 1968, in psychoanalysis for example, is helpful." (h/t, of course, to Kino Slang)

Daney's suggestion about leftist or Marxist reflection on media seems both true and untrue - maybe less true now, some decades after he made the claim.  Still, there's a barb that remains: we haven't come very far.  Especially when Michael Moore and Slavoj Zizek seem like very tenable "choices" for significant portions of what we'd call, I suppose, a "progressive" public.  Some tentative postulates - 

  • Culture always involves trade-offs.
  • This doesn't mean that the complexity, richness, and nuance of culture at any time and situation equates to the proposition - or excuse - that culture is always "too complex" to make any political judgments about it.
  • That said, judgments can come from puritanical positions as well as non-puritanical positions.  The puritanical positions hold virtually all sway in society.  "False choice in spectacular abundance, a choice which lies in the juxtaposition of competing and complimentary spectacles and also in the juxtaposition of roles (signified and carried mainly by things) which are at once exclusive and overlapping, develops into a struggle of vaporous qualities meant to stimulate loyalty to quantitative triviality.  This resurrects false archaic oppositions, regionalisms and racisms which serve to raise the vulgar hierarchic ranks of consumption to a preposterous ontological superiority.  In this way, the endless series of trivial confrontations is set up again, from competitive sports to elections, mobilizing a sub-ludic interest.  Wherever there is abundant consumption, a major spectacular opposition between youth and adults comes to the fore among the false roles - false because the adult, master of his life, does not exist and because youth, the transformation of what exists, is in no way the property of those who are now young, but of the economic system, of the dynamism of capitalism.  Things rule and are young; things confront and replace each other."  (Debord, Society of the Spectacle, section 62.)
  • It seems important to reject an overly simplistic "false consciousness" model when it comes to a population's consumption of media, and their affective, social, and political relations to media.  At the same time, it seems foolish to overlook the possibility that no deception is happening anywhere, when probability deception is occuring more than almost anything else.
  • Anyone looking for a simple formula that consigns, to ethico-political statuses, a particular "kind" of film - art film, auteur film, slow film (like slow food?), "popular" film, popul-"ist" film, people's film, mise-en-scene films, avant garde film - is probably wasting his or her time.  (Cf. bullet point one.)  The Cahiers du cinema "categories" from that famous editorial are intriguing, perhaps useful for analysis, but in fact a clumsy way to start going about political analysis of cinema, let alone media more broadly.  (Still, it is a start, which is more than most can ever say.)
More to follow in this vein later ...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Pixar Thoughts

If perhaps at one time after their invention as something other than "small adults," children couldn't wait to access - illicitly or not - the pleasures of adulthood, American culture has by now fully entered the inverse situation.  It's adults grasping for fantasy, wonder, splendor, who don't simply elevate low forms to respectable heights (like the comic strip form into the graphic novel) but come to value young adult fiction and texts alongside, even in place of, "adult" culture.  Thankfully the mania for Harry Potter has died down enough that one can express skepticism towards its merits, publicly, without the tar-and-feather gang emerging from out of nowhere.  It's still in force for Pixar, I think - though I think that by now, the cinephiles who don't expect to get much out of Pixar's movies simply steer clear of them.  Perhaps it's wisest this way.

The Pixar product has usually struck me as a little too pitch-perfect in its wide-eyed (though expert) conventionalisms - really, a hyper-Disney.  This is a mark one can hit a little too well, in fact; affectation is the cancer of whimsy and self-aware humor.  (It's a line drawn in American TV comedy all the time: Parks and Recreation tends to skirt on the acceptable side of this line, and has additional merits, whereas I've never been able to shake the bad vibes I get from the NBC Office, which is of course very similar in form and tone.)  It can be grating to keep hearing about how amazing the Toy Story films are, mainly because a substantial amount of the acclaim seems to be a really good consumer review - 'this is new, and it pushed my buttons.'  There's a formula to Pixar appreciation: express fascination with the dexterity of its use of technology (not soulless like those Final Fantasy movies), then wax gee-whiz about the deep moral lessons and emotional textures the film imparts.  This gets to the heart of the problem: it's not, of course, that I take issue with treating animation seriously.  I don't even take issue with treating "cartoons" (the commercial, juvenile, formulaic things) with care and attention.  It's simply that "the culture of Pixar" (or the culture around it) has fashioned a particular way of treating these films seriously.

It's this ingrained analytical toolkit towards which I'm most resistant.  I'm not a heartless person, and in fact I think that sentiment is an underappreciated tool in the array of artistic effects (this upper-middle and just-plain-upper cultural bias is probably largely a more unfortunate holdover from modernism).  So the techniques in films like Monsters, Inc., Wall*E, and Up - extremely faint but definite echoes of a Fordian way of dealing with on-screen objects, time, and memory - do indeed move me.  And I even take pleasure from the fact that a film as unrelentingly sad as Up is somehow targeted toward children.  What I do also appreciate about Pixar is, because of their privileged place within the mainstream film industry, is that they're able to go ahead and be what most products in the culture industry are far too timid to be - a little lopsided, a bit risky in terms of narrative formula, willing to take their time in parts (this is an aspect of modernist aesthetics I wholeheartedly encourage).  This all exists in addition to, and in conjunction with, the often annoying conventionalisms and predictable affectations the films possess.  I'd love to see a kid who's not "cute," a landscape that's not "breathtaking" ...

De Toth in the Landscape of Dreyer

A minor crime film helmed by Andre De Toth (but even those are always worthwhile) from 1957, Hidden Fear is a US-Danish co-production.  Periodically the scenery (urban or natural) shakes up the familiar blackmail/procedural narrative.  The films of De Toth comprise what should be one of the prime exhibits for auteurist cinephile analysis - working mainly in the crime and Western genres, never amassing a great deal of recognizable power, the director seemed to gravitate toward similar premises and plotlines.  This isn't so much a matter of creative authority as it is, more likely, workaday affinities.  It was what he was good at, what he earned a proven track record in.  In the mode of production he was working in, De Toth would not have been able to "birth" a top-down relation to his material, in the same way that (say) Hitchcock was able to establish his presence with the far-reaching authority over his content around the same time period.  Nevertheless, again and again, De Toth's movies feature world-weary characters in a network of distrust, lightning-fast betrayals, and haunted memories.  Important actions happen quickly, startlingly (like when a heavy pulls a gun or the hero pummels a mug), but the narratives themselves never feel rushed: think of the long spaces finely suggested by the waiting in Last of the Comanches and Day of the Outlaw.

The Living and the Dead

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." (Karl Marx)
"[Tradition] is the democracy of the dead." (G.K. Chesterton)
"I don't fuck everything that's dead!" (Sandra, played by Molly Parker, in Lynne Stopkewich's Kissed, 1996)
"You're going to die screaming ... and I'm going to watch."  (Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight [Renny Harlin, 1996])