Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Prolific Psychotronic

Taken from Michael J. Weldon's Psychotronic Video Guide:

"These are some directors who made the most psychotronic movies (not necessarily the best).  All of them have their fans (believe it or not).  The list does not include Italians or serial directors.

1. Jesus Franco (Spain)
2. Fred Olen Ray
3. Cirio H. Santiago (Philippines)
4. Al Adamson (murdered in 1995)
5. William Beaudine (last in 1962)
6. Sam Newfield (last in 1958)
7. Terence Fisher (UK; last in 1973)
8. Fred Sears (last in 1958)
9. Jim Wynorski
10. David DeCoteau"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Workers, Potters (Interlude)

A problem with rah-rah popular culture criticism is the exaggeration of all discussion into "likes" and "dislikes," thumbs up and thumbs down.  This diminishes and perhaps neuters real critique - as Andrew O'Hehir points out right away in his review of The Avengers.  In this paradigm people are encouraged not to have dialogues or to hold complex and nuanced opinions, but instead to sublimate their sense of selves to the enumeration of "likes" and "dislikes." 

O'Hehir, in the comments: "But rest assured that most of the reviews of "Avengers" will be way more positive than mine. And in fairness I'm really not bashing the film."

Douglas Moran: "[laughter] No, you're bashing the genre."

What is this "[laughter]"?  And what has led the expression of so many opinions through the conjectural filter of a public posture?  Another curious speech behavior one might note, especially in the likes of Twitterworld, is the construction of sentences about TV shows or whatever as if one is buffeted about by the dictates of a profoundly impersonal, disassociated rational choice.  For instance: "I can't get behind X" or "I can't support Y."  Or, echoing a lot of sports talk, prefacing one's opinion about an outcome or an elective choice with "I gotta go with..." even when no logical argumentation appears before or after the choice.  It's how this active, speaking subject erases itself in speech that intrigues me.  Such speakers rhetorically dissolve their own agency the endorsement of one "stance" (often product) or another.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Pop Goes Precarity

I have unspecific recollections that other people I've listened to have said this before, but ... for purely commercial cinema, 2010's Morning Glory is shockingly decent.  Not "subversive"; nothing "smuggled": it's simply a product with narrative content that is honest and expressive in contrast to most Hollywood releases: there's a faint trace of 1930s-40s classical Hollywood in this movie.  (Perhaps it's because it depicts a world of busy invention and constant improvisation, not unlike the production plants of classical Hollywood themselves.)  Rachel McAdams plays a 28-year-old morning show producer, Becky Fuller, who loses her job in New Jersey.  She gets a shot at a low-rated morning show in New York at the station IBS.  There, she is soon expected to raise flagging ratings considerably if she wants to keep her job and to keep the show on air.

The apartment she moves into in New York, while nice-looking, does not seem spacious in the way that commercial fantasies about "life in New York" often do; nor - if I recall - are there any guarantees that she even lives in Manhattan.  (Imagine a happy professional woman living in - gasp! - an outer borough!  One of the many execrable things about, say, Julie & Julia is how its contemporary scenes present Queens as a hellhole.  For a movie about the magic of cooking, one would hope against hope that a movie would recognize the culinary miracle Queens represents.  But I digress...)  There's a tough scene in Morning Glory between Becky and her mother where the latter explains that this dream of "making it" in broadcasting was adorable at age ten, inspiring at age eighteen, and embarrassing at age twenty-eight.  "Stop before it becomes heartbreaking."

This is a common gesture in recent cinema and television.  The arrested hero or heroine confronts "maturity" through some task or job, a direction in life.  This sense of direction seems to be everything.  Or maybe we can say it seems to be everything in this Hollywood material that is not exactly about precarity, but is in fact profoundly informed by it in its premises and in its assumptions.  This is, after all, a movie about an adult woman - still youngish - who loses her job abruptly, and feels lucky to get a chance at another measly job, for lower pay, at a struggling organization.  This is not "political cinema," yet it is nevertheless a movie speaking directly to a public that knows what it is like to never get a lunch break or to see highers-up freeze pay raises and cut benefits.

A quick note on a name: Becky Fuller.  "Becky" is plucky, it is forceful yet informal.  In the 1930s, RKO adapted Vanity Fair under the name of Thackeray's heroine, Becky Sharp ('35).  Fuller connotes plenitude, but also echoes a certain economic pluck (e.g., Lucille Ball in 1950's The Fuller-Brush Girl).  Plenitude is what Becky Fuller is after, but the movie dramatizes this not as economic fantasy but rather the richness of community.  If we can pay the bills, and eat all right, how many of us would not be happy - simply - with a workplace of labor from which we do not feel alienated?

Whether or not Becky's labor, and IBS's mission, is alienated in the Marxist sense is beside the point insofar as we're trying to figure out what the film does or says.  (I certainly don't claim it's anti-capitalist, or anti-hegemonic.)  But I think it is meaningful that the film designates as its goal a workplace where the feeling of community is important.

And it does something else interesting: it pictorializes the same relation to audiovisual content that I would imagine its audience also has.  Well into the film, Becky Fuller pushes the segments at IBS's show toward the ridiculous, the attention-grabbing, the viral.  We are treated to several shots of laughing Becky reacting to these clips, readymade for YouTube.  (Matt Malloy plays a correspondent who gets pushed into segments on rollercoasters, skydiving, etc.)  Harrison Ford plays a semi-retired serious evening news anchor who reluctantly takes on the role of morning show co-host; his character and Becky at a few points debate explicitly the merits of addressing what we might call the "public sphere" of old-school news discourse, versus the all-consuming and pre-emptive need to get ratings up by grabbing and keeping attention.  Becky, in fact, must satisfy the demands of ratings in order for her and her co-workers to earn a paycheck, and therefore lack the material circumstances even to consider the cultivation of a serious, grave, and ethical journalistic culture.  The movie does little to contextualize or question Becky's position, but what's interesting are the inferences we can draw from how it's all structured.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Frankenheimer's early film The Young Savages ('61), not without its merits, exemplifies one of the weird problems of the period's social problem cinema.  A lot of directors coming into commercial filmmaking during this period cut their teeth in television (in some cases live television), and when some of them wanted to utilize the space available in the wider, larger film screen, there is still a mannered patina to otherwise realist or naturalistic blocking and performance.  (Which is why some pockets of cinephiles still poke Frankenheimer, Lumet, et al., for a stagey or televisual aesthetic.  Can't say I always disagree.)  What seems incongruous in The Young Savages is how its concern for "social problems" on the streets of New York nevertheless give way to eloquent, monologue-like cathartic expressions of self: from the era of Morris Engel and John Cassavetes, such a hybrid of realism and performative conventions seems full of holes ... one wonders where the sincerity of pauses, stutters, and silence has gone?  Hollywood cinema in the 1930s, compared to the 1950s, seems to have a much better pictorial and sonic range of effects for expressing the "problem" class, the underclasses, etc.  Just a feeling ...

Workers, Potters (Part III)

It may tempt one to think, as Serge Daney once put it in perspective, that "if there is something missing on the formal level there must be something missing on the political level."  One keeps one's hands clean if one can point to a chosen pantheon, or constellation, of filmmakers and say, Look!  These are praiseworthy figures.  These are artists fit for the heroic narrative.  From there, it may tempt one, to give not a thought to the structure or continued existence of that very heroic narrative.  The cinephile who thinks he is politically enlightened may have simply supplanted Hollywood's Martin Scorsese with the subproletariat's Pedro Costa ... as though the work of politics proceeds from the private pleasures of taste.  What a profoundly antimaterialist way of going about things, though! 

Still, let's remind ourselves that we are tracing through a complex and balanced situation.  The politics of taste do matter - what I am saying is that they are not however ultimately determinant of the politics of cinema/art/aesthetics.  The aesthetic domain cannot do all the work, and I suspect the amount of work it can do is often overestimated.  Another facet of what I am saying is that our tastes are not themselves free from determinants and conditions ... not even when they appear most evolved, or anyway most divorced from the dictates of the culture industry.  One is not necessarily free of anything simply because one has left behind the sweep of JK Rowling, LMFAO, Avengers, Lost, The Sopranos, Gaga, and Bieber.  Aesthetic tastes and predilections are never simply natural (i.e., physiological or predestined) but are forged.  Even what Bourdieu referred to as a kind of naive, natural taste emerges from the crucible of society.

"We must remind people that behind the auteur and his rich subjectivity there is always, in the last analysis, a class which is speaking."  (Daney, "The Critical Function")

(The word "auteur" would be better dropped in English most of the time; and people would be better suited to use the word "author."  If that sounds weird in a given context, then perhaps "auteur" was not the right word in the first place.)


"No one knows what it means, but it's provocative.  Gets the people goin'!"  (Will Farrell in Blades of Glory)

There's no need to dwell on creating a new classification system for "types" of cinema or media (e.g., the famed Cahiers categories).  What, if any, plan of political action comes from supporting one of the two major veins of popular political cinema (as I see it), meaning, (a) films which clearly demonstrate , as with Ken Loach's work, or (b) pop films that harness a particular message, as Step Up: Revolution is primed to do?

Arguments that either, or both, of these categories are simply subsumed back into the culture industry - that this is a weak "critique" acting merely as a way for capitalist hegemony to innoculate against real critique - may be true.  But they miss a crucial point, which is that audiences never consume these works in a vacuum.  This is sometimes referred to as the "hypodermic needle" model of mass culture, wherein the mindless unwashed simply take in whatever bad shit the corporations sell them - McDonald's, Two and a Half Men, and so on.  To put it another way, critics of mass culture from this viewpoint presumptively project onto the lumpen masses a condition of pure and uninhibited spectatorship, ... i.e., recreating in fact the very modernist ideal of the immersive, mainlined gaze seen in something like Anthology Film Archives' Invisible Cinema.  But whereas something like the Invisible Cinema was an elective practice for society's aesthetes, the hypodermic needle funhouse is a prison.  Recto or verso, what "haunts" these conceptions of media consumption is the fantasy of erasure of the viewing-listening subject, and the elaboration of this same subject as answerable to the mediated mechanics of ideology (as in cybernetics, another field of inquiry whose heyday was roughly contemporaneous with the height of avant-garde Western cinema as well as hypodermic needle masscult theory).  The subject becomes, indeed, subject-to.

To extend more fully - films may contain politics subject to interpretation.  For instance, we can state without controversy that The Birth of a Nation is a racist film.  But these are not necessarily the first nor final word on the politics of those films; in any event they are never, ever the only word.  This is why we can have something like DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation - which I haven't seen, admittedly, but which by all accounts seems to be exemplify in its production/distribution exactly what is overlooked in the spectatorial theories of the previous paragraph: i.e., the act of reception (which entails the possibility of critique and the inevitable context of the social body).  And it is around the act of reception that the more cultivated tastes of more cultivated observers may, in fact, veil a profound insensitivity to sentiment.  More on this to follow.