Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cynicism

These days, the most successful cynical filmmakers aren't hucksters and/or straightforward, talented businessmen (like a Corman, an HG Lewis, even an Andy Sidaris), but are instead people who actually believe in their own cynicism – in fact might have no cognizance of it cynicism.  This is the feeling I get when watching Christopher Nolan movies.  Another end of the Hollywood spectrum, though?  I only stumble upon a tiny few a year - there may be more I don't see - but I'm always impressed by those films that while being unambiguously commercial still display a certain harmonious balance between understanding what they are not simply as entertainment but also as expressive objects ... 

(i.e., people can enjoy simple pleasures but people also aren't machines whose buttons need to be ticked off with depressing, predictable ploys) 

... and can take their craft seriously without taking important/imported themes too seriously from the get-go.  It's through the latter that genre can be built into something.  Not from bum-bum-BUM music and dark "topical" material copped from a 14-year-old suburban boy's sense of morality. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Redacted


Before you even begin, please accept my apology for the run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, and jumpy structure on display here.  These are, as usual on EL, notes rather than article.  This is often how I write when hit with a bit of inspiration (but "inspiration" isn't quite the right word; "impulse" maybe).  And in truth I have not written like this for myself in a while, and I am doing so here for two reasons: one, I want to get the feelings out now so I can start to formulate them more coherently down the road; two, when faced with writing a dissertation as I am currently doing (and the dual strictures of occasional writer's block & the requirements of careful, footnoted fact-checking), it can feel great sometimes simply to open up the floodgates on a completely unrelated topic.  (Also: this post discusses Redacted with a general sense that you the reader are familiar with it.  But for readers who may not have seen or heard much about this film from a few years ago, it was a controversial and very disturbing docudrama recreating some of the events around the rape and murder of a teenage girl and her family by US soldiers in Mahmudiya in March of 2006.)

Here's a useful tangent spurred by the talk of mimesis I reproduced here earlier today, occasioned by a recent viewing of Redacted (Brian De Palma, 2007).  Though I generally like De Palma, I let this one pass me by years ago because concensus seemed to be that it was a hugely messy, well-intentioned statement film: a movie made with a straightforward agenda by a leftie greybeard of liberal Hollywood, using newfangled "new media" techniques.  I didn't rush to see it; I already had assumed a picture of what I'd get out of it ... and that picture didn't include a heightened understanding of the political or human dimensions of the war in Iraq.  Plus, those who know me realize I'm like a sloth, cinephilically-speaking - it often takes me a long, long time to get around to things.

Imagine my surprise when I put on the DVD and was completely devastated.  I think it's a great film. 

Yet, how could this be?  Many of the people I'd look to for guidance on this matter were apathetic or mixed, at best, toward Redacted.  My man Girish, for instance, listed it as a film that don't work for him at all from Toronto 2007.  Olaf Möller concluded, "But when all is said an done and every image fucked over, remade, and defiled, we still need to believe in images as carriers of truth, and there's a sense of desperation to the whole enterprise."  In the same issue of Film Comment, the late, great Paul Arthur absolutely excoriates the film on every level.  He writes, "Scarcely a single frame of this stuff looks or feels plausible: a surveillance camera miraculously records crystal-clear dialogue; a female journalist accompanying a nighttime raid shoves her mike [sic] into the faces of troops trying to clear a potentially hostile zone; the diarist's first-person voiceovers and accompanying images rarely match."

Even De Palma advocate and card-carrying professional contrarian Armond White panned the movie: "De Palma hasn’t thought through what to say about war."  (I don't think this is a movie begging for a statement about War in general, exactly, but more to that point below.)  White then echoes Arthur's misgivings about the choice to tell the story through imitation of various new media & journalism templates: "Sequences sample either a soldier’s video diary, Internet webcasts, surveillance camera footage, Al Jazeera broadcasts, even a French liberal-TV documentary with hokey editing transitions from a generic software package. This inconclusive media jumble may be anti-war fodder for those who can’t get enough slant on the war, but it’s essentially a technocrat’s quandary."

If you ask me, Olaf Möller's mixed-to-negative appraisal is actually much closer than White's or Arthur's to getting at what Redacted does and what sorts of an aesthetic it actually employs.  Der OM, at least, more or less recognizes that the root of the aesthetic here is a matter of distance from realism, and proximity- or intimacy - in an ethical quandary: how does one reconcile service, even mere citizenship, with complicity in events that push outside the bounds of what is permissible (i.e., what is one's relation to the state's non-sovereign enemy?); and also a quandary one about witnessing such trespasses (i.e., about looking & testimony).

Perhaps because I saw this movie late, largely free of expectations of a bold and timely statement, I was more receptive than many to the acting style and the clear-voiced multimedia tableaux, or the fact that the characters play somewhat stereotyped roles, or that certain plot points and images are "heavy-handed." These things did not strike me as failures because I don't think I agree with many of the film's other observers about what it is even trying to do.  I don't come away from Redacted with any impression that the film was aiming for psychologically rounded characters woven in a rich social-novelistic tapestry - i.e., The Wire in Iraq (or just The Hurt Locker, a film roundly praised for its being fairly "apolitical" yet highly psychological-realist, tho' maybe just maybe those two things are connected!).

For one thing, examples of the latter type of fiction are often overestimated in terms of "realism," and for another, Redacted instead seems to me spurred more along the lines of the thought experiment, the anecdote, or the case study.  Characters are drawn broadly not because they're drawn badly, but for economy of expression.  The situation in which they're placed is artificial, but it seems overwhelmingly self-evident to me (and perhaps I'm crazy since it was not so self-evident to the film's many detractors) that it is meant to be artificial.  (Of course the conveniently-placed surveillance cameras record dialogue perfectly, much to Arthur's dismay!)  This is one reason, perhaps, why so many of the peripheral characters are shown off-screen, given no identification as real "characters," but instead as hands and as voices serving a purpose.

What about, then, the use of multimedia?  I think part of the issue here is the question of mimesis; to what ends and in what capacities does De Palma imitate the trappings of this new spectacular digital age of war?  Is it a choice motivated by texture?  Meaning: does the proliferation of new media techniques, cheap editing transitions, and "fake" looking YouTube vlogs, etc., exist to heighten a sense of the war by retreading the means by which "we" as a society see it?  I don't think this is quite it.  I think the choice stems from a deeper decision about the nature of the text.  (At this moment I'm using "text" in its broad, lit crit sense of the word.)  If Vietnam was the TV war and the Iraq wars were gradually spectacularized into innumerable digital vectors, the means by which we - the American populace at home - have of these wars is also, obviously, mediated through all these electronic forms.  But I would disagree, respectfully but strenuously, with Olaf Möller's assertion that "we still need to believe in images as carriers of truth."  No.  Images alone are not ever carriers of truth.  There is no such thing as a pure film language; there is no such thing as a purely imagistic communication.  These are myths; we have language, and images do not cast us back to a prelapsarian/pre-discursive truth, not even temporarily.  Language is always there waiting, even if we decide it is not active.

So it's important to attend to what the movie does with words, too.  The wooden dialogue many sneered at contains, to me, a lot of subtle and significant cues.  There are Freudian slips (Salazar talks about "her" body) and verbal blocks: that body-twisting rage one feels when an emotion finds no adequate words, or is met with resistance from within oneself to get the words out.  Words themselves seem inadequate once uttered; when McCoy makes his speech near the end of the film, he clearly has no comfort of a talking cure.  He is asked to tell a war story, but what he has to tell falls upon deaf ears as his friends with cameras push him into the production of an another sanctioned image (video & a candid picture of the returned veteran whose peers and colleagues will not even allow him to shake them out of their complacency: he's awkwardly, politely ignored).  Redacted opens with discussion of soldiers bequeathing their Iraq war footage to another; all through the film there is an implicit promise of all this accumulated material being seen by someone, by someone who would have the authority to act in justice's name.  But it comes to nothing.  It peters out.  There's too much out there, there so too many images and words.

(I would go so far as to suggest that the political-ethical problem is not that a proliferation of media objects is intrinsically bad; it is more a matter of how this very proliferation functions in the society that produces it.  In this case, proliferation functions to silence even as many citizens hope and work to do just the opposite.  But it's hard work.  Debord: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.")

*

And a note about the "bad apples" argument: while the narrative is such that there is indeed an atomized spectrum of monstrosity (Flake and Rush as bad apples, Salazar as complicit with little conscience, McCoy as complicit but with a great deal of conscience, Blix as far away from complicit as a soldier could be - which is not that far), and I think this quasi-typage is in keeping with the non-realist dramaturgy of the film, I would emphasize that the film subtly conveys the impression that transgressive behavior by soldiers is structural and systemic rather than solely personal and moral.  To point to a few ways the films does this: (a) providing Flake, if not Rush, with a story about his family history and its pressure cooker of violence, (b) underlining the military imperative to weigh charges of misconduct with morale and tight functioning of the troops, for instance in the video chat between McCoy and his father - this don't rock the boat pragmatism comes across explicitly but we can also draw out a lot of tacit communication too, including about parental indoctrination, (c) indicating via Salazar the choice of a stint in the military as an opportunity for long-term careers, something that the Army has used in its marketing/recruitment since the 1970s [this last is a point gleaned from a talk I saw recently by historian Beth Bailey].

*

Finally, on political controversy: I understand that conservative commentators generally hated this movie, too. My own feeling is that while this is a highly radical and extremely political film, the tenor of its stance in terms of blue/red electoral politics is actually fairly muted.  Though Redacted makes a stringent and angry appraisal of American conduct both individual and systemic, its chief concern is not how or why American foreign policy led troops into the mess it did.  It presumably leaves that for other films, books, etc.  Instead its concern is a matter of our ethical reaction to a line crossed.  A state functions by excluding something, even most things, from its own body politic.  In the act of defense of that very body, and of those very lines, the military arm of the state can cross the lines which had previously been counted upon to help constitute the very substance of that state's body politic.  (In other words, murder would be implemented so as to protect/"protect" even the Land of Pacifism.  Protection of the law entails extra-legal force.)   Even when such transgressions are not officially ordered or sanctioned, they often goes unpunish, or punished only by a scapegoat.  ("Sovereign is he who decides the exception.")  But for the citizen of a state, putatively democratic, who sees this transgression, in fact takes part in it - even from off to one side - there remains a profound ethical problem.  And the modes of seeing such trangressions multiply; rather than carrying truth on their own, they instead act as shattered glass or shards of a mirror.  Perhaps they inure us with their small, image-heavy truths to the demand a more singular, clearer articulation of truth might convey.  Redacted sketches out exactly this sort of clarion meta-picture.

Material (I)

The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being. From the very early times when men, still completely ignorant of the structure of their own bodies, under the stimulus of dream apparitions* came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death — from this time men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world. If, upon death, it took leave of the body and lived on, there was no occassion to invent yet another distinct death for it. Thus arose the idea of immortality, which at that stage of development appeared not at all as a consolation but as a fate against which it was no use fighting, and often enough, as among the Greeks, as a positive misfortune. The quandry arising from the common universal ignorance of what to do with this soul, once its existence had been accepted, after the death of the body, and not religious desire for consolation, led in a general way to the tedious notion of personal immortality. In an exactly similar manner, the first gods arose through the personification of natural forces. And these gods in the further development of religions assumed more and more extramundane form, until finally by a process of abstraction, I might almost say of distillation, occurring naturally in the course of man’s intellectual development, out of the many more or less limited and mutually limiting gods there arose in the minds of men the idea of the one exclusive God of the monotheistic religions.

Thus the question of the relation of thinking to being, the relation of the spirit to nature — the paramount question of the whole of philosophy — has, no less than all religion, its roots in the narrow-minded and ignorant notions of savagery. But this question could for the first time be put forward in its whole acuteness, could achieve its full significance, only after humanity in Europe had awakened from the long hibernation of the Christian Middle Ages. The question of the position of thinking in relation to being, a question which, by the way, had played a great part also in the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, the question: which is primary, spirit or nature — that question, in relation to the church, was sharpened into this: Did God create the world or has the world been in existence eternally?

The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other — and among the philosophers, Hegel, for example, this creation often becomes still more intricate and impossible than in Christianity — comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.
 
These two expressions, idealism and materialism, originally signify nothing else but this; and here too they are not used in any other sense.

* Among savages and lower barbarians the idea is still universal that the human forms which appear in dreams are souls which have temporarily left their bodies; the real man is, therefore, held responsible for acts committed by his dream apparition against the dreamer. Thus Imthurn found this belief current, for example, among the Indians of Guiana in 1884.

(Friedrich Engels, from Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886)

* * *

Graphology has taught us to recognize in handwriting images that the unconscious of the writer conceals in it it.  It may be supposed that the mimetic process which expresses itself in this way in the activity of the writer was, in the very distant times in which script originated, of utmost importance for writing.  Script has thus become, like language, an archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsensuous correspondences.

But this aspect of language, as well as of script, does not develop in isolation from its other, semiotic aspect.  Rather, the mimetic element in language can, like a flame, manifest itself only through a kind of bearer.  This bearer is the semiotic element.  Thus, the nexus of meaning of words or sentences is the bearer through which, like a flash, similarity appears.  For its production by man - like its perception by him - is in many cases, and particularly the most important, tied to its flashing up.  It flits past.  It is not improbable that the rapidity of writing and reading heightens the fusion of the semiotic and the mimetic in the sphere of language.

(Walter Benjamin, "On the Mimetic Faculty," 1933) 

* * *

Benjamin's fascination with mimesis flows from the confluence of three considerations; alterity, primitivism, and the resurgence of mimesis with modernity.  Without hesitation Benjamin affirms that the mimetic faculty is the rudiment of a former compulsion of persons to "become and behave like something else."  The ability to mime, and mime well, in other words, is the capacity to Other.

This discovery of the importance of the mimetic is itself testimony to Benjamin's enduring theme, the surfacing of "the primitive" within modernity as a direct result of modernity, especially of its everyday-life rhythms of montage and shock alongisde the revelation of the optical unconscious that is made possible by mimetic machinery such as the camera and the movies.  By definition, this notion of a resurfacing or refocussing of the mimetic rests on the assumption that "once upon a time" mankind was mimetically adept.  In this regard Benjamin refers specifically to mimicry in dance, cosmologies of microcosm and macrocosm, and divination by means of correspondences revealed by the entrails of animals and constellations of stars.  Much more could by said of the extensive role of mimesis in the ritual life of ancient and "primitive" societies.

(Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, pp. 19-20, 1993)

* * *

Although what men see, touch, or grasp are responses to external stimuli, the external objects are determined by the selective activity of the senses and the senses in turn are constantly modified by the biological, social, and cultural evolution of the human species.  In a certain sense, then, there are no natural data, no God-given external facts of nature, but only socially-mediated objects.

(Z.A. Jordan, "The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism," 1967)

[It is helpful to reinforce here that Jordan's gloss on Marx does not claim that there is no eternal world from the standpoint of a Marxist materialism/naturalism, but that our data or our objects of such a world are only ever mediated.]  Further, from the same source:

Unlike mechanistic materialism, which is anxious to explain how ideas and systems of thought are produced by physical and chemical processes in the brain, historical materialism tries to show how ideas and systems of thought emerge from and are determined by social conditions, which both shape and mould man's behavior and are shaped and moulded by man.  But historical materialism also goes beyond what mechanistic materialism was ever able to consider, namely, it tries to explain how man as a natural entity, analogous to other natural entities, acquires his human characteristics through social existence and social evolution.

* * * 

An unrelated, personal addendum: I know that there are few thriving film blogs these days, and the faint guilt over my own inactivity with Elusive Lucidity has been alleviated somewhat by this fact.  It is not that I have been doing nothing, seeing nothing, reading nothing, or writing nothing.  It has all simply been directed elsewhere.  Almost definitely, EL will never return to the same level of activity as it had several years ago.  However, this has been a useful tool for me and may continue to be so here and there, so spurts of activity may still be forthcoming ... including a lot of quotes and maybe some commentary on philosophical questions of materialism, matter, mimesis, perception, and society as inaugurated in this very post.  Cheers, y'all.