Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: Quentin Tarantino, King of the Mooks -- One Basterd’s Inglourious Response

Quentin Tarantino, King of the Mooks: One Basterd’s Inglourious Response
By Michael Dean Benton
Originally published in North of Center 1.8 (2009)

"The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With 'Basterds,' everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story ... “
--Brad Pitt (The German magazine Sterne)

“Historians must, as best we can, cast light into these shadows and account for these people. This we have not done. Auschwitz, generally taken to be an adequate or even a final symbol of the evil of mass killing, is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.”
--Timothy Snyder “Holocaust: The Ignored Reality” (The New York Review of Books: July 16, 2009)

In media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s 2001 Frontline documentary Merchants of Cool, he outlines the marketing category of “mooks” and “midriffs.” The mook is essentially an outgrowth of 1990s MTV Generation marketing that seeks to speak to the inner idiot of men. The mook, as a marketing image, is proudly ignorant and revels in displays of destruction. This standardized conformist dumbass-culture operates behind a veneer of exuberant irrationality. Emotional or intellectual content is rejected in favor of the “wow” factor of stylishly cool shocks to the system.

Quentin Tarantino rose to fame in the 1990s and is a leading purveyor of “mook” culture. From the beginning of his career he proudly cited his broad knowledge of obscure violent videos from long-forgotten genres. He has repetitively produced a series of imitative movies centered upon strings of stylish set scenes of violence. There generally is not a clear reason for the violence in his films, other than personal motivation. In his films (especially post Jackie Brown), style is supreme and overrides any concerns of meaning or narrative.

The last Tarantino film I watched in a theater was Kill Bill I (2003). It was a non-stop series of images of extreme violence, situated in a simplistic comic book format, with no thought or reflection. Even worse were the twisted attempts at humor. Particularly disturbing was the intended comedy of dry humping a comatose woman. I recall observing the negative impact this twisted attempt at humor had on some of the adult males in the audience, who laughed and jeered as if on cue. One male viewer next to me twitched and giggled throughout the movie, his leg jerking as heads flew and blood spurted. My companion, after the movie, said that my face during the viewing reflected my distaste and disgust. It was more my reaction toward the viewer's laughter than the movie.

Herein resides my main problem with Tarantino’s films. The simplistic nature of the cartoonish characters and plots of his films allow “any” viewer to seize upon the “story” as representing his (or her) own viewpoint. Furthermore, the absence of “effect” in regards to the hyper-violence removes any sense of context for the character’s actions beyond personal motivation. This keeps the characters from moving beyond their cartoon nature and allows the audience to revel in violence for violence’s sake.

In order to think about this I will outline some of the characters in his latest film Inglourious Basterds (2009). Most prominent, in the advertisements and trailers for the film, is Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the leader of the American assassination squad. He simply wants scalps of Nazis because they are “evil.” The only background we get in regards to Aldo is that he may or may not have been a moonshiner back in Tennessee. This characterization is so broadly drawn that this character could easily become a NAZI without any significant changes. Raine’s background and those of his men are never fleshed out.

In contrast to this cardboard character, I’m reminded of the economy of a classic pulp film like The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) in which the avenging men are introduced quickly and efficiently. It allows the characters to be more than interchangeable parts in a broadly drawn revenge thriller. The Dirty Dozen still operates within the genre conventions while allowing us to develop a sense of the people involved in the thriller.

Raine’s counterpart is the brilliantly deductive SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). He is called the “Jewish Hunter” by the French Jews he hunts, and Tarantino states that he is intentionally a “brilliant detective.” He is the classic stereotype of the “cultured” NAZI monster that will be destroyed, or brought down, by his increasingly irrational hubris. Yes, his verbosity is amusing when we forget his sinister intent, but, as with Raines, with a change of clothes and era, Landa could be Detective Robert Green on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

In American culture we are faced with a polarized political system in which all sides are calling their opponents fascists. We are slowly losing any sense of historical understanding of fascism as it becomes a derogatory term to be slung haphazardly at your opponents. Ripped from its context, the historical understanding of fascism, the sinister Landa, the hysterical Hitler, the effete Goebbels, simply become labels that can be applied to anyone we want.

Brad Pitt claims “that Quentin put a cover on that pot” and “the work is done” because they have destroyed all of the symbols associated with the WWII genre. The ignorance here is in assuming that this is simply a cultural genre that one can assault and failing to recognize that these are powerful symbols that have not been fully dealt with, because “the true reckoning with the past [is] still to come.” Perhaps, most irresponsible in this film, is the ignorance of the ultra-nationalist mentality of fascism, which encourages us to accept that anything done in the name of god, country, mom and apple pie, is ok.

Shoshana (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes an earlier massacre of her Jewish family by Landa’s men, is the hidden victim secretly plotting an extreme act of violence. She escapes and appears years later, without any explanation, magically acquiring a 350 seat cinema that will become the centerpiece for a fantasy plot to eliminate the NAZI hierarchy. Shoshana becomes a victim of convenience for Tarantino in this film. She has no purpose other than to facilitate the confrontation between the two main male protagonists. Sadly, we continue to hear the ridiculous assertion that Tarantino is producing positive female characters. Close reflection on this character will quickly show that she is but a sketch used to advance the plot.

Uniting the three character threads is a series of over-produced “set pieces” intended to move the plot. A few of them are powerful; if anything, Tarantino is a master of stylish set pieces. In particular, the opening scene and the later basement pub scene are effective tension moments. Unfortunately the book chapter style of the structure is riddled with holes and eventually collapses under the weight of a 158 minute pulp film.

At a pivotal moment near the end of the film, Shoshana prepares to burn down her cinema with the NAZI hierarchy inside. We see her applying her stylish costume for the night as the soundtrack begins playing “Putting Out the Fire” by David Bowie (from Paul Schraeder’s 1982 horror film remake Cat People). The song and music is inappropriate to the sense of drama and time, and the tracking crane shot through the hallway is awkward. This would have been the moment in which Tarantino’s characterization of Shoshana could have been powerful, but instead he is more concerned with producing hollow stylish effects than delving into his character’s mindset. Shoshana remains an empty cipher, and her ridiculous end becomes simply another set piece for Tarantino to act out his phallic fantasies.

Undoubtedly, for many Tarantino fans, this film will be a pleasure. I watched it twice this week in order to work out my reaction to the film. The first time was late on a Friday night, and the crowd laughed throughout the stylishly violent film. The second viewing was on a Sunday afternoon, and the theater was filled with two busloads of UK football players and staff. The football players were actually more restrained than the Friday night crowd. I talked to the man next to me after the Sunday repeat viewing, and he said that he enjoyed seeing good win and evil destroyed. As he walked away from me, I noticed the back of his shirt. It said, “Make war, not love” above the image of a firing machine gun. I wondered who he thought in this world were the deserving good, and who were the evil people that needed to be destroyed.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: My 2012 Oscar Predictions

I do not have TV hooked up at my house, so I won't see them (but I will probably pop online from time to time to see the general progression). I believe that the Oscar nominees are once again very limited and depressingly Hollywoodcentic. Still, I guess I am obligated to make my choices as an American film studies professor -- so here goes:

Best Picture: The Tree of Life
Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Actress in a Leading Role: Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Actor in a Supporting Role: Nick Nolte (Warrior)
Actress in a Supporting Role: Berenice Bejo (The Artist)
Animated Feature Film: Rango
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life)
Art Direction: Dante Ferretti and Francesco Lo Schiavo (Hugo)
Costume Design: Sandy Powell (Hugo)
Directing: Terence Malick (Tree of Life)
Documentary Feature: If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker (Hugo)
Sound Editing: Lon Bender and Victor Ray Ennis (Drive)
Foreign Language Film: A Separation (Asghar Faradi: Iran)
Sound Mixing: Various (Moneyball)
Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Various (Moneyball)
Writing (Original Screenplay): Asghar Faradi (A Separation)

Michael Dean Benton: "Be Me, for Awhile" -- Ideological Becoming and Future Objectivity in Let the Right One In

"Be Me, for Awhile": Ideological Becoming and Future Objectivity in Let the Right One In
by Michael Dean Benton

[As for the controversy of the altered English translation on the current Magnolia DVD consult Icons of Frights thorough analysis and Jeffrey Wells conclusion that it is a case of the continual dumbing-it-down for the American consumer :P My inclination is that all Magnolia and Magnet film releases should be considered problematic.]

I'm working a lot with Bakhtin's conception of the dialogical process of ideological becoming, so I am always fascinated by how people learn new ways of being.

Film (or, if you prefer, art) in this sense can be a tool that allows us to step into the shoes of beings we do not know and for a time wonder how they may perceive the world. International film provides us with a plurality of voices (polylogical discourse) that can provide important counters to the dominant (possibly controlling) narratives of our own culture and/or perspectives. My critique of films, then, always involves a sense of the authenticity of the performative act. Does the film(makers) allow me to authentically experience a different/unique reality? That doesn't mean it has to be purely naturalistic/realism. What it does mean is that the film(makers) does not grossly manipulate the audience, that the film is open to interpretation, and, yet, the voices/actions of the characters are authentic. You may reply to this statement, that these distinctions would rest on a subjective analysis and thus would be open to interpretation, and I would say yes, exactly, let the dialogue begin!

Last night I watched the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In for the third time. The film is a good example of what I am thinking of when I talk about ideological becoming. So let me explore a few of the aspects that I think relates to my sense of Bakhtin's concept of "ideological becoming." These are beginning notes:

The monster is that uncertain cultural body in which is condensed an intriguing simultaneity or doubleness: like the ghost of Hamlet, it introjects the disturbing, repressed, but formative traumas or "pre-" into the sensory moment of "post-," binding the one irrevocably to the other. The monster commands, "Remember me": restore my fragmented body, piece me back together, allow the past its eternal return. The monster haunts; it does not simply bring past and present together, but destroys the boundary that demanded their twinned foreclosure. (Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Preface: In a Time of Monsters. Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996:ix-x)

1) Oskar is constantly bullied by his peers and is unable to develop his own authentic voice. We see him struggling to say something to defend himself against the sadistic trio that make his life hell, but he is unable to give "voice" to his pain/anger. A particularly pitiful scene is when he goes out into the frozen courtyard with the fetishistic knife and, in a manner reminiscent of Travis Bickle, acts out his revenge fantasies on a frozen telephone pole. This is a familiar character in the many post-Columbine teen revenge stories, an inarticulate, geeky, passive kid overwhelmed with the desire for revenge against aggressively conformist social peers who ignore or degrade him (and it is generally boys enacting these violent fantasies?). In this sense we can understand the "aggressively conformist social peers" as the dominant monologic discourse that seeks to control the narrative of reality and the maladjusted kid struggling to "authentically" challenge this controlling narrative. Sadly, this can often takes the route of mindless, destructive violence, in which "innocents," perhaps other struggling kids seeking their own authentic voice, are struck down by the random violence of the frustrated victim.

2) Destructive power. The bullies insist that Oskar is a pathetic animal not worthy of their respect. This is repeatedly acted out by them upon Oskar's being on a daily basis. They taunt him with pig-like noises, command him physically in a degrading manner, and violently beat on him. Oskar begins to internalize the "controlling" narrative of his oppressors, and his violent fantasies are re-enactments of the only source of power he recognizes--the physical violence of his torturers/oppressors.

3) Authentic engagement. In essence this film is about the human need to authentically connect with other beings. Eli becomes the representation of a powerful alternative to the controlling narrative of Oskar's torturers. Eli, a vampire, is a wise observer of her surroundings and of other people. She is also much more empathetic than any human we see in the film. She feels deeply the pain of Oskar and demonstrates her awareness of it when she repeats his words from earlier in the film when he was acting out his revenge fantasies in the frozen courtyard:

Oskar: Who are you?
Eli: I'm like you.
Oskar: What do you mean?
Eli: [accusing tone] What are you staring at? Well?
Eli: Are you looking at me?
Eli: [points her finger at Oskar] So scream! Squeal!
Eli: Those were the first words I heard you say.
Oskar: I don't kill people.
Eli: No, but you'd like to. If you could... To get revenge. Right?
Oskar: Yes.
Eli: Oskar, I do it because I have to.
Eli: Be me, for a while.
Eli: Please Oskar... Be me, for a little while.

Eli the vampire is much more sympathetic than any of the other characters in the film. The sadistic trio of kids torture Oskar for no apparent reason other than they get off on this false power of controlling a weaker being. The group of addled adults that increasingly become central to the narrative are all grotesquely alienated from each other while fearfully huddling together, or, as in the case of semi-responsible authority figures, completely oblivious to the cruelties of the children in their care. Most of the adults use intoxicants to escape from their stark reality rather than develop an authentic sense of another way of being. This is also glimpsed in the ruins of the fractured marriage of Oskar's parents when his father shuns Oskar in order to mindlessly get drunk with a creepy friend.

When Eli suggests to Oskar "Be me, for a while" she is asking him to ideologically "become" her for awhile, to step into her shoes and see what she sees. To authentically open himself up to seeing from another position.

4) So how do we begin to develop a method of being and observing that resists the ordering tendencies of controlling narratives? How could we ever accomplish anything practical without attempts to “master” the essence of beings? How can we open up a space within which new forms of knowledge can be observed and formulated? One starting point is the development of a new form of objectivity that recognizes the benefits of the development of a radical transperspectivity:

… to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its future “objectivity”—the latter understood not as “contemplation without interest” (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as the ability to control one’s Pro and Con and to dispose of them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge.

… There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: 555).

This radical transperspectivity expresses a recognition of human sense of objectivity as “already” informed so that it can only authentically be developed through the attempt at developing many perspectives. In this way will one move closer toward an always out-of-reach objective sense. Of course this is a constantly evolving process in which we must continue to re-fresh our perspectives as our environments and our situations change. As Maurice Blanchot has argued, language and truth always simultaneously involves both a revealing and a reveiling. Exposure and masking are also the dual operation of all presentation and re-presentation. When we seek to understand the “essence” of a being we must clear a space through re-thinking our positions/situations. This openness allows for the “possibility” of unconcealment because we do not close up in our own solipsistic view, rather we desire to strive towards a Heideggerian entschlossen—a resolve to remain “un-closed” (Translator notes, “On The Essence of Truth”: 131). In order to remain “un-closed” we attempt to answer the Nietzschean call to resist the “Human, All Too Human” urge to “cling to what is readily available and controllable.” So, through the clearing away of objective traditions and the development of a transperspective we open up spaces that allow for the “essence of freedom to be thought” (“On the Essence of Truth”: 125). This is very important because only through the “freedom” to “be” will any “being” begin to reveal its “essence”. We are at a key point here because this freedom is produced through an engagement that “withdraws in the face of beings in order that they might reveal themselves with respect to what and how they are, and in order that presentative correspondence might take its standard from them.” This is the sublime moment that Bataille describes in The Impossible (1991): “As I was staring at the void in front of me, a touch – immediately violent and excessive – joined me to that void. I saw that void and saw nothing, but it, the void, was embracing me” (143). The void is the “clearing” space that will provide the freedom for unconcealment. This void terrifies many because it is the point when one must be secure with(in) themselves in order to “let beings be.” This openness to experience, this desire to rigorously interrogate one’s own beliefs, this desire for a “vision of excess”, leads to the moment in which we must be prepared for the “void” to look back at us. Through a radical “self-subversion” (Bataille) of subjectivity we can begin to prepare ourselves for this fateful experience when we stare into the void of our inner selves. By a new recognition of truth as involving concealment and errancy we enter a stage of “becoming” whereby it becomes possible to rethink our positions/conclusions. We gain another step in our becoming by examining what our own situated truth(s) cover or suppress. Hence, when we arrive at a truth we must have the courage and fortitude to uncover/expose what our truths conceal. In this we can begin to understand that as beings we are involved in a continual process of “becoming” and that our own sense of “becoming” rests upon our ability to clear a space for the “essence” of being to be revealed.

4) A final question: Why would the author of the source novel create this vampire in the manner he has (vaguely hinted at in one quick shot in the film) and why would it become so central to Eli's character? "Would you love me if I wasn't a girl?" This is a radical question that flies in the face of controlling narratives that seek to limit the way we interact with beings in our world. The question asks if Oskar is strong enough to reject the terroristic/monologic narrative that seeks to set limits upon our ability to love freely. Yes, love freely... You will only love what we tell you to love and you will only feel desire for what we say is proper for you to desire and you will only have sex within the limits we seek to impose on you. If you defy these controlling moral edicts, then your eternal soul will be damned forever, if you flaunt your defiance of this controlling narrative we may be forced to pre-empt God's future judgment and beat/kill you here-and-now.

5) "Be me, for awhile" ... powerful plea to step into another's shoes and experience the world as they do.

“Perhaps the impossible is the only chance of something new, of some new philosophy of the new … Perhaps friendship, if there is such a thing, must honor [faire droit] what appears impossible here” (Derrida,1998: 36).

I have no doubt ran off the road in my response to the film, perhaps you might help me to get back on track :)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: City of God, Schindler's List and Contextual Viewings

This is the tenth time that I have seen Cidade de Deus (City of God) Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Brazil: 2002, 130 minutes.

The first time I watched it was like a rollercoaster ride in which the story washed over me and left me somewhat breathless. It was a personal viewing and my critical lense was not fully engaged. Later viewings were different, where before I watched it in the privacy of my home, the later viewings were in communal settings with a larger screen. Although it is often claimed that the theater encourages the "voyeur's gaze" (Norman K. Denzin), I find that watching a movie at home is much more voyeuristic in that one can simply watch without thoughts of others impeding on your experience, on the other hand, a public theater involves one in a communal experience in which you interact with the narrative on the screen while experiencing the reactions of your fellow filmgoers. You may think why is someone laughing at this point, or watch as someone flees the theater, or wonder if anyone can see the tears streaming down your face as you recognize some hidden part of yourself in a cinematic moment. While the darkened theater does allow the viewer to easily slip into a dream-like state, it is a much more "restless" communal state than watching a dvd in the privacy of one's home.

This time I watched City of God with the knowledge of where the story would end and it forced me to deal more directly with my responses to the violent spectacle of the narrative. This is one of the reasons I value rewatching films in different contexts because it forces different perspectives (at least in me, I also feel very fortunate to be a teacher of film in that new generations of film students confront me with their experiences and responses, causing, nay forcing me, to revisit my own intepretations in light of their own responses and comments).

One example of a film changing through different contextual viewings is the case of the grand cinematic spectacle of Schindler's List (1993). The first time I watched it was in its second week of release in a crowded megaplex theater in Belleville, IL. The theater was overcrowded, people were sitting in the aisles, and the stench of movie popcorn was overwhelming. It sickened me to watch this portrayal of the Holocaust with people munching on buckets of popcorn and slurping at their quarts of soda. Even though I was revolted by the spectacle of the gorging while starving people were being represented on the screen, there was a moving point when I noticed an elderly couple sobbing and I wondered who they knew that had tragically been lost in the Holocaust. I left the theater disgusted, at humanity, at the gross displays of consumerism, and at myself for not knowing how to make things better.

The second time I watched Schindler's List it was during the special showing of the film on television free of commercial interruption (February 26, 1997). The network that was showing it, with funding from the Ford company (if memory serves me correctly), declared that this was a cultural artifact that demanded to be shown uninterrupted and that it should not be sullied with the dirtiness of commercial concerns (OK, those are my words, but that was the sentiment of the time, but this should also cause us to pause and think about commercials and commercial TV in general). I was a master's student in the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). A wonderful, nurturing, small environment of scholars seeking to glimpse outside the fishbowl. We gathered at a professor's house to watch the event and analyze the film as well as the cultural moment. Again, food was abundant, but it was the food that is cooked with one's own hands, thoughtfully prepared, and shared communally. Somehow this did not disturb me in the way that the popcorn/candy/soda of the movie theater did. We sat in a circle aound the TV, lights on, and discussed all aspects of the film, the historical period and the significance of a large percentage of Americans tuning in that night to watch the film. The experience provided distance from the cinematic experience, yet at the same time enhanced my engagement with the film. It forced me to think about the (re)presentation of the historical facts, to compare the film with other films/histories presented by the audience and to revisit my first distasteful communal experience of the film. Another aspect of the discussion was the protest of fundamentalist Christian groups who believed the film shouldn't be shown unedited on TV and conservative Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn's statement that the airing of the film was an affront to "decent-minded individuals everywhere."

The third time I watched Schindler's List was during another equally powerful historical moment that exposed some of the worst aspects of human cruelty. It was the following academic year after the commercial-free broadcast and I was teaching Introduction to Popular Culture/Mass Media courses for Bowling Green State University. During the early part of the semester a student group did a presentation on the film Schindler's List and claimed that it was unique document because it provided insight to a unique event in human history and that it let us understand this isolated example of evil. The Holocaust because of its increasing historical example as the ultimate "evil" of humanity had become, for many people, an isolated example that they could point to as a place humanity was once at, but never would return to again. I attemted to get my students to understand that this was not an isolated event and that there were many examples of similar collective acts of violent genocide throughout history and the present time. I was struggling to somehow break through their assumption that it could never happen again because we "know" better. I fell into a state of bewildered despair for the next couple of weeks as I struggled with how I could bring a new perspective to their understanding of Schindler's List and the Holocaust--to provide a context that would combat the sense of it being an isolated, special circumstance, caused by depraved monsters, rather than the self-interested actions of everyday humans. Then, as sometimes happens, events provided another opportunity for revisiting the film.

During the middle of the semester Dr. Lisa Wolford, a performance scholar, hosted an interactive performance piece "El Mexterminator", featuring Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, as part of an ongoing series on campus. I heard that the performance was going to address stereotyped and racist representations of Chicano/as and Latino/as. Sensing that this would provide a good opportunity to introduce my students to a different cultural sensibility and to open up the spatial environment of the sealed classroom I decided to bring my entire class to the performance.

This performance opened up a new world for me and the students. It forced us to examine our American history from the eyes/perspective of (an)other culture and irrevocably altered my understanding of education. A week later after this powerful performative event, the South African Truth and Reconciliation committee was holding public hearings and parts of their video broadcasts of amnesty confessions were aired on 60 Minutes. The Post-Apartheid government of South Africa had decided that a full public exposure of the crimes carried out under the Apartheid government would ensure that the world would never forget what had happened. 60 Minutes broadcast an episode that featured men discussing in detail the everyday tasks of disposing and hiding bodies, including the difficulties of completely incinerating a human body. My class watched these historical broadcasts and developed a new understanding of the problems of isolating the Holocaust, or any collective violence, as a unique event, that has never happened before, or will never happen again. My class asked if we could watch Schindler's List and I agreed with the understanding that we would all research the broader historical background of the event. The experience of watching students watch this film, actively taking notes, and later debating the history of the Holocaust, with a deeper awareness of its development and its future ramifications, was an amazing experience. It completely transformed my understanding of the film and the potential for teaching about the politics/aesthetics of the film.

So, why do I bring all of this up after watching City of God? Because in talking with colleagues/students that have seen this film it often seems that the rollercoaster ride of the quick editing and the violent spectacle of the fast-paced narrative keeps us from engaging with the reality of the people who live in dangerous environments like this, in Brazil, in other countries, and definitely in our own country. I think this is a good film, but something keeps nagging at me, perhaps there is more to the story, why the focus only on criminals, why are women just backdrops for the actions of violent men, is there more to the story--why does the main character Rocket seem so lifeless and undeveloped (it was his story? yet it became the tale of Little Ze)?

On the DVD edition of City of God there is an amazing documentary by Katia Lund (co-director with Fernando Meirelles of City of God) called News From a Personal War that examines the lives of the poor people who live in the favelas, including the working class striving to better themselves, and the police/politicians who view the place as a dumping ground for society's undesirables. Everyone interviewed in the documentary from the street level gangsters, to the workers, to militia-style policeman, to the wealthy politicians, are brutally honest about their motivations/intent in a way that we rarely see discussed in the U.S. For example this quote from a high-ranking police officer:

Hélio Luz: I'll say it myself. The police are corrupt. The institution was designed to be violent and corrupt. And the people think that's odd. Why do I say it was designed this way? Because it was created to protect the State and the elite. I practice law enforcement to protect and serve the status quo; no beating around the bush. It keeps the favela under control. How do you keep two million people under control; people who make R$112 a month, when they make any? How do you keep the underprivileged under control and calm?

interviewer: With repression?

Hélio Luz: Of course! How else would it be?

In the last week I have talked to four people who own a copy of the DVD in their home, yet they have never seen the documentary... perhaps this is what I should have shown last night? Once again, City of God is an amazing film, but this cannot stop us from asking questions about lessons-learned and lessons-hidden in the films we watch, most importantly we should question the films we enjoy the most and challenge ourselves to ask hard questions.

Ryan Mottesheard: Fernando Meirelles' visceral Brazilian crime epic, City of God

City of Gods: An Interview with Fernando Meirelles

Joanne Laurier: Sincere, but avoiding difficult questions

Cinema of Brazil

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: Violence in films

Violence in films
By Michael Dean Benton
North of Center

“Far from being mindless, violence is usually the cutting edge of ideas and ideologies.”

—John Fraser, in Violence in the Arts (1974: 162)

I believe that violence is a necessary part of many creative narratives because it is a part of reality. Violence is a part of the human experience. How can we ignore it?

At the same time, I reject simplistic, cartoonish uses of violence where the heroes are shot at a hundred times, receiving perhaps a scratch, while methodically dispatching every person they face. I think it is irresponsible to repeatedly portray, or think of, violence as simply mindless entertainment.

It is important that we have intelligent, complex explorations of individual and collective violence. In life, there are outbreaks of violence that, when they happen, seem beyond our kin or present understanding. But, usually with time, we are able to grasp their motivations or causes. Likewise, in a work of “art,” one can begin to grasp at the reason for the violence and make a sort of sense of it, even if one does not agree with the portrayal of the causes or motivations for the violence.

What is needed is intelligent reflection on the uses or outbreaks of violence. Is it a means to a goal? Is it a frustrated reaction to events beyond our control? A tool for oppression/resistance. Who is using the violence? As a means to what end? Who is/are the victim/s? Why are they chosen? Is the violence random? What are the goals of the perpetrator?

Ultimately, violence in great films cause you to think about the action beyond the visceral sensations. It challenges you to exercise your own judgment, to initiate critical reflection upon the events of the story. For me, this is a defining moment in judging a film or any other work of art.

Narrative violence

The benefit of some narrative violence is that it makes it harder for audiences to ignore the motivations or beliefs of the characters. This is especially true when we become implicated by our own violent impulses, becoming so wrapped up in the narrative that we encourage the violence—”Do it! Do it!” A good narrative can cause us to reflect on this dangerous impulse. Thus, in the complex cinematic presentation, we are faced with an intellectual quandary in regard to the usage of the violence and the rationale for its usage.

A powerful film will not allow us to stand on the sidelines and retain our intellectual integrity. We have to take a stand, even if it is to condemn the movie. After all, the artist presents us with a work that is intended to shock or affront. (This cuts both ways: it is also hypocritical for the artist to complain when people condemn their work if their intent was to depict acts of violence in a graphic manner.)

Violence historically is employed in the service of power on an individual or systemic level. Our democracy is built on the ignorance of the daily usage of violence to keep some people docile about their situation in life. This structural mask sometimes slips, allowing a glimpse of the true face of that power. Thus, a necessary part of some violent narratives is our understanding of the roots of hegemonic power. Most Hollywood films, as well as many foreign films (see the recent explosion of Asian extreme films), miss this aspect of violence. People facing the threat of actual acts of violence help us to understand human potential. It is not a case of human physicality or oversized phallic weapons. It is an examination of the operations of power in society.

Some violent films to view

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s brutal, disgusting and difficult Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Italy: 1975) traumatically (for this viewer) explores the victim’s complicity as well as the oppressor’s degradations in fascist societies. It is a truly painful and wrenching film, but I do not regret having watched it.

The ending of Peter Greenaway’s aesthetically beautiful The Baby of Macon (UK: 1993) horrified me more than any sophomoric slasher story ever could and, to this day, has left me pondering the meaning of the film. Blocked from being exhibited in the U.S., when we showed it for our film society at Illinois State University, people were crying in the audience. Afterwards, we spilled into the streets and made our way to a pub where we argued into the night about the meanings of the film. As with any difficult film, some of the audience members were angry that we had shown it, and they had reason to be angry. We listened patiently to their complaints even if we believed, ultimately, that the film should be seen.

If you believe that a disturbing portrayal is important and should be seen, you should respect contrary, disturbed and angry reactions. This is what you expected the film to do, therefore you should address its effects on those audiences. Do not dismiss these humanistic responses, engage in a dialogue that art demands of its audiences. Do not become complicit in the further mystification of experience. Directly engage with audience members’ fear/confusion and, in the process, your own.

A problem with the usage of violence in contemporary film is that it has become an effect used to entertain and titillate. This is the ultimate failing of a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. He so desperately wants to be understood as a serious filmmaker, while also doing everything he can to be one of the cool kids. In order to remain popular, his films do little to understand the violence that is liberally spread around like party favors.

A critic of these types of films produced one of the most powerful and disturbing films of the last few years. Michael Haneke’s Cache (France/Austria: 2005) explores the after effects of repressed systemic and individual acts of aggression/violence. It is minimalist and subtle in its presentation of violence, but the impact is long-lasting, reverberating in my mind still, causing me to question the impact of individual and societal repression of violent histories. It forces us to reflect on our own societal repression of historical violence and our individual role in this repression. Perhaps even more devastating is the subtle portrayal of the long-lasting, generational effects of violence.

Instances of violence can also cause us to focus on what gives life dignity and what is noble and ignoble in the human condition. The legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s last film, Moolaadé (Burkina Faso/Senegal: 2004), demonstrates how cinematic art has the potential to change the world. Its portrayal of structural and individual violence speaks to audiences around the world. In protagonist Collè’s struggle to speak out and stand up against tradition-bound violence, it presents an imaginative opportunity for the audience to consider its own society and its stance within it.

The violence of war

A recent BBC/HBO film, Conspiracy (UK/USA: Kenneth Branagh, 2001), has led me to consider how problematic the violence of war is when represented in films. Any representation of the actual battles of warfare, even in explicitly anti-war films, becomes an opportunity for people to glorify the heroics of the participants. Former marine Anthony Swofford, in his memoir Jarhead (2003), called these films “War Porn” because they were used to pump up new recruits for the Gulf War. They didn’t watch nationalistic celebrations of war as good, like John Wayne’s Green Berets (USA: 1968). Instead, they screened traditional anti-war films like Apocalypse Now (USA: 1979) and Full Metal Jacket (USA: 1987).

This is where Conspiracy is different from other war films. It delves into the inner world of power kept hidden in traditional narratives. It goes into the legal process of the 1942 Wannsee Conference in which NAZI military and officials negotiated the “Final Solution” for the perceived problem of the Jews. The film powerfully engages us in the use of pens and words as weapons against peoples. At the same time, for me, it provokes a consideration of our own current legal minds that institute “torture memos,” “secret prison camps,” “extraordinary renditions,” and “assassination policies.” This is violence perpetrated on a massive scale.

A last thought. Legitimated violence—sanctioned by the state, or other social forces–usually is a clear indicator of the boundaries of society: what is permitted, what is forbidden, and who controls these boundaries. Always reflect on what those boundaries are, who they benefit and who suffers, and how they are masked/legitimated as normal.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Casting Call for Lexington Film Production of "The Townie" (3/5)

[Students, extra credit for auditioning -- I'll be at the auditions]


On MARCH 5TH we will be holding AUDITIONS for

a Sound & Vision unlike any other

from 5pm to 9pm
No need to bring a monologue! We’ll supply the sides! Simply bring your glowing personality, myriad idiosyncrasies, and a pleasant and proactive attitude!
“The Townie” conveys the confluent tales of an aimless wanderer seeking a shoe, a young philosopher judging his weight in the world, a madman combating a malefic witch’s coven, a casual lover trying to see his girl, and a sex addict thrusting his way to enlightenment.

A few roles of interest:

INDIGO, a sarcastic demimondaine with morals

YOMURA NAGITO, a transsexual Japanese witch and cruel, immane manipulator of weak minds and hard hearts

MITCH, a knife wielding videographer

GYURKA ETTINGTON, a limping, broken man, embittered to the point of parody

YOUNG WOMAN, an ingenue

OLD MAN, a lech

JONES, a harem doorman who's not in love with his anvil

MURREL WISDOM, a jovial giant and jokester

EXTRAS! for a PARTY! And BLOOD ORGY! (no nudity and nothing pornographic)

Andrew Horton: The Greek and Balkan Spirit of Comedy During the Journeys with the Films of Theo Angelopoulos

The Greek and Balkan Spirit of Comedy During the Journeys with the Films of Theo Angelopoulos
by Andrew Horton
Greek Cinema and Films About Greece

FADE IN on an old political refugee Spyros (the late Manos Katrakis) returning to his Northern Greek village after so many years of exile in the Soviet Union in Theo Angelopoulos’s Voyage to Cythera (1983) When he is near his old home, he begins chirping in what sounds like “bird talk” and soon his call is answered by what appears to be another “bird” speaking. Soon we see another old man appear and suddenly two long parted friends are united because of their “secret” language they used during the Occupation and the Civil War in Greece that followed. This surprisingly joyous moment is followed by Spyros performing a “Pontiko” dance on the grave of another friend in the village cemetery. This dance on the grave clearly strikes all viewers as a kind of triumph over death, destruction, war, exile and separation. In short, the moment is like a New Orleans “jazz funeral”: a celebration of life after death through dance and festivity.

No one would accuse Theo Angelopoulos of being a Greek Frank Capra, Jerry Lewis, Charlie Chaplin or James Carey or even a Hellenic Jacques Tati. And yet if we embrace a larger world of the “comic spirit” as it has existed through centuries of literature, song and culture in Greece and the Balkans, one can surely identify both “comic” and “humorous” as well as ironic moments throughout the many journeys Angelopoulos’s protagonists embark upon. From Suspended Step of the Stork, Ulysses’ Gaze and Voyage to Cythera to Eternity and a Day and even Traveling Players, I wish to comment on how thematically and in terms of narrative, these “comic moments” contribute to the atmosphere and overall impression these films leave us with. On a personal note, I would add that after having known Theo for more than twenty five years and written two books and many essays on his work, it is this spirit of “tragic comedy” or dark triumph that appears to be an important and reoccurring theme in his career.

My overall approach builds not only on my studies of Angelopoulos’s films, but also on my comic research in my books, COMEDY/ CINEMA/THEORY and LAUGHING OUT LOUD: WRITING THE COMEDY CENTERED SCREENPLAY (both with U of California Press). And my major point is that “comedy” is a much wider world than just jokes, laughter, slapstick. Take Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY, for instance. In the largest sense, comedy is about “triumph” in some form, thus Dante’s “comedy” was the triumph of reaching Paradise . Humor and laughter are one part of comedy, but only a part, and so I am stressing as in the opening example of Spyros’s return to his old village, a sense of personal triumph over all adversity. I wish also to see Angelopoulos’s both dark and joyous sense of the comic within a tradition that can be seen throughout the work of other Balkan filmmakers.

It is important also for this consideration of Angelopoulos’s films to remember one of the points made in Plato’s Symposium near the ending when Socrates and Aristophanes are the only remaining guests and they remark on how often comedy and tragedy cross lines into each other (Horton,Comedy/ Cinema/ Theory 3). After all, both tragedy and comedy began as ritual celebrations of Dionysos, the god of wine and drama. Furthermore, such an extended view of comedy which embraces its possible border crossing into the tragic as well helps us to appreciate George McFadden’s remark that, “The great works of comic writing (and we can add film) have extended the range of our feelings” (243).

Before exploring such dark and joyful laughter, however, a note is offered on what we mean by “Balkan”. Dina Iordinova best captures the concept as used here when she notes, “In my usage, the Balkans is not a geographical concept but one that denotes a cultural entity, widely defined by shared Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian legacies and by the specific marginal positioning of the region in relation to the western part of the European continent” (6). We are speaking, therefore, of cinemas from the former Yugoslavia , Bulgaria , Albania , Greece , Turkey and Rumania most specifically, even when, as Iordinova readily recognizes, these countries themselves often resist the label of “Balkan”.

I would add more specifically that what these Balkan histories represent are complicated but also fertile crossings of Christian Orthodox cultures with Muslim influences from the roughly 500 years of Turkish domination. In terms of “tragic comedy” as a concept, therefore, it is important to note that we should acknowledge the larger view of “comedy” as meaning a triumph that could be spiritual rather than physical or humorous. This sense of “comic triumph” in a spiritual vein has existed in the cultures of the Balkans and especially the former Yugoslavia . The epic poems of Serbia , for instance, celebrate the Serbian spiritual victory over the conquering Turks during the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century. The Turks, such poems declare, only murdered and destroyed Serbs as living creatures, not as Christians and spiritual beings.

Equally important to the humor and sense of comedy of these cultures, however, is a very strong sense of irony. We know that irony thrives on drawing attention between what could or might be and what in fact is actually reality. As practiced by Balkan filmmakers, irony often calls forth both tears and laughter as we “get” the difference between ideals and harsh realities, dreams and history.

Of course such a blend of humor and horror is not limited to the Balkans as Roberto ‘Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997) suggests in the tragic irony of its title and ending as the young boy sees an American tank and thinks he has “won” the contest his father (Benigni) has tried to pretend the concentration camp during WWII is instead of a death camp.

The much celebrated director Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies provides us with a clear example of such dark yet comic irony. Based on newspaper reportage of actual Yugoslav gypsies who not only worked in crime organizations throughout Italy but who also sold their own children into slavery, prostitution and crime, the film tracks one young boy’s odyssey from Yugoslavia to Italy in a Godfather-like tale (there are, in fact, many direct references to Copolla's crime trilogy). As Kusturica’s film ends, the young gypsy Mafia protagonist is murdered and at the funeral his five year old son steals the coins placed over his father’s eyes (an ancient custom) and runs out of the house. We can’t help but laugh at the son stealing from his dead father, but on the other hand, it is a “triumph” for the son has learned to follow in his father’s footsteps: to be a good thief! Such a moment is ironic, humorous, tragic and triumphant at the same time. Thus unlike many Hollywood comedies such as Dumb & Dumber(1994), Something About Mary (2001), Not Another Stupid Teen Movie (2002), and Goldmember (2002), films such as Time of the Gypsies and No Man’s Land are able to take on serious topics—the selling of gypsy children and the Bosnian War—but open them up to find laughter that is often dark and ironic and also frequently triumphant in unexpected ways.

It is, finally, also worth noting that Greece has had a tradition of satirical comedy tackling serious topics ever since Aristophanes took to the stage in the 5th century BC with his joyous and imaginative farces such as Lysistrata and Peace that were fully meant as anti-war statements.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: Review - Exit Through the Gift Shop

Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop
by Michael Dean Benton
North of Center

How much of our everyday life is colonized by corporate sponsored vandalism and socially engineered marketing prompts? Never mind the obvious mediatized experiences. Take a walk across your nearest urban landscape and look deeply at the signs—explicit and implicit—that seek to influence our actions. Observe how the environment increasingly is demarcated, bordered, limited, controlled and monitored. Why do so few people think about our “society of control” or its soft bargaining through manufactured desires, marketing prompts and mindless distractions? (Hard bargaining occurs when your Governor threatens to call out the National Guard on you for exercising your democratic rights.)

The distinction between private and public space is becoming increasingly blurred. The average urban dweller is now estimated to absorb—mindfully or not—2000+ ads a day. Advertising dominates our internal mindscapes and our external landscapes. Unless we desire to isolate ourselves like the technophobic Unabomber, we are unable to escape these corporate marketing intrusions. What, then, is our defense?

Street Art/graffiti artists

The colonization of personal mindscapes and public landscapes is part of a privatization of the commons in which limitations are put into place through walls and barriers. Extending this metaphor further, corporate colonization delimits the artistic creative imagination as well as the civic imagination of what is possible. Extend this even further and it is as if we have been culturally framed and put on the wall of a museum. Our world becomes comprised only of the narratives that “they” state “we” should pay attention to.

Street Art/graffiti artists—intentionally or not—through their desire to repurpose and reconceive their urban landscapes, positioned themselves against the logic of mass production, herd mentality, and creative uniformity in the traditional art worlds. Eventually, they extended their random tagging into more direct critiques of the branding, limitations, conformity, surveillance, and control of our everyday lives.

Humans are narrative creatures, homo fabulans, who seek meaning and are open to narrative constructions. We all laugh at the person who is unable to perceive that their favorite TV star is not the character they play, but is this all that different from those of us who are unable to perceive the surreality of the infotainment with which we are presented 24/7? When it comes to more important political and social issues, how does this play out in our perceptions of what is right and wrong? Do most people investigate for themselves and use their knowledge to produce their own meanings, or do they sit back and allow talking heads to tell them what to think?

Banksy, a British street artist, announced his artistic intentions through the development of the expanded concept of “Brandalism” in his book Wall and Piece (2005) :

People abuse you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

He goes on to say that the unfairness of this psychological and material struggle is that we are not allowed to “touch them,” to deface their constructed environments, because of corporate invocations. “[T]rademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law” act as mystical barriers protecting their worlds.

Banksy’s response, in the spirit of Street Art/graffiti, is “Screw that!…They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

Asymmetric artfare

So, in a sense, this is semiotic warfare in the form of guerrilla resistance against a dominating force that could wipe you out if you tried direct confrontation. Military theorists call this asymmetric warfare, and it is notoriously difficult for monolithic, high-technology, invading forces to deal with because guerrilla forces strike and disappear into their environment. This long has been the tactic of street artists.

What do you do, though, when the populace has been colonized so heavily by the invading forces? How do you get them to recognize their enslavement or to begin to imagine something different? How do you deal with the lackey art world that supports the dominant structure of passive consumption, corporate branding and obsessive collecting? What does an artist do, when they know their art depends on a critical audience to respond as co-creators, to wake people up? Especially when all of their direct actions of defiance and critique are immediately repurposed and delimited for safe consumption in the 24-hour titillation news cycle.

This is not a new dilemma. As Monty Python so humorously demonstrates in The Life of Brian, graffiti most likely showed up wherever the first empires sought to control societies. Critical artists of all types have a heritage of challenging controlling narratives through defiant rejection of the forms of the dominant culture: medieval carnival culture, dada, ‘pataphysics, punk, Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s performative dioramas, Luis Bunuel’s films, Situationist detournements, and so on.

Documentaries generally adopt an authoritative voice and are very manipulative in their traditional structures. Documentary films from the very beginning have problematized and/or been implicated in this cultural problem. From the questions of whether Nanook of the North restaged its anthropological observations of Inuit life, to Orson Welles’ playful mocking of truth, art and property in F for Fake, to Errol Morris’s restaging of torture scenes in Standard Operating Procedure. What then is the filmmaker-artist to do when attempting to critique dominant, controlling narratives through the form of documentary film?

I can’t say that until you have seen the film

Exit Through the Gift Shop reminds me of a favorite critical reflective essay that I use in my writing-argument courses. It is Douglas Rushkoff’s “Introduction” to his book Coercion: Or Why ‘We’ Do What ‘They’ Say. The power of the piece is that he does not just tell us about these tactics. He demonstrates their process by initially weaving a narrative that constructs a web in which we quickly become entangled—agreeably or disagreeably—and when he has us where he wants us, he then begins to walk us through his narrative web that constructed a controlled way of knowing.

As much as I admire Rushkoff’s disentangling of his controlling narrative, I equally admire Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. Much like how we walk through our urban landscapes and forget we are walking through a heavily coded, artificial environment, we also travel through the typical documentary (or corporate news show) expecting it to tell us the truth –we allow them to create meaning for us without questioning the form and facts. This is why I vigorously defend Errol Morris’ restaging of scenes from various viewpoints to create a documentary environment where we need to forensically create our own understanding of the evidence, and this is why I celebrate Exit Through the Gift Shop as an exemplary documentary that challenges our passivity.

Banksy’s last statement is chilling and can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps you might watch it and, if you do, I’ll gladly discuss it with you. If you disagree, that is ok. Construct your own narrative of what you see and engage other interpretations in an open dialogue. Better yet, oh….wait. I can’t say that until you have seen the film.


Michael Dean Benton: Getting off on John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus

Getting off on John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus
By Michael Dean Benton
North of Center

It is a common truism that reality can’t be copyrighted, but it can be manufactured, packaged, and marketed. Increasingly in our interconnected and digital world we are confronted by a plethora of images designed to influence us to buy certain realities. No images are more prevalent or artificial than the images of sex as products that circulate throughout American culture. From marketing pitches, to romance novels, to feature films, to internet peep shows: we are a prudish society that feeds on illusions of sex.

In these circulating narratives, from the idealistically romantic fairy tales of Hallmark and Hollywood to the mindless sexual Olympics of contemporary pornography, sex is represented as a skill to be mastered in an individualistic quest to be number one. Interpersonal relations are psychological mind games which involve prescribed “rules” for success, and the pursuit of sexual fulfillment becomes a modern variant of bucket-listing as we check off various acts necessary to feel good about ourselves.

If we fail to perform to the level of these constructed fantasies then there is a new pharmaceutical pill (for a price) to make us hard, to renew our vigor, or to chase away our anxieties. If we feel our interpersonal skills need polishing there is always the advice of a new guru, in a multitude of packaged forms, presented for a fee, available to ease your anxieties.

Unrealistic body images, as destructive as they are in the development of our self-image and self-confidence, are doubled in their effect by the unrealistic expectations of contemporary sexual myths. In American society, sexuality is often understood as a private and sacrosanct aspect of our identity. Fragmented, separated, isolated, impermeable, we become easier targets for unrealistic myths and romantic fantasies.

John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus is an honest exploration of a society that fetishizes sex, but rarely truthfully addresses issues of human sexuality. Despite the uncensored trailer’s emphasis (easily googled), the very real sex in the film is minimal, although very explicit. Instead, Shortbus is a powerful exploration of our psychosexual hang-ups, our collective/individual pain (the setting is post 9/11 New York City), the need for a candid exploration of human sexuality and, most importantly, the redemptive power of human engagement.

The first ten minutes are sexually explicit and, even though I was watching it at home the first time, I felt myself blush intensely (verified in a bathroom mirror). It is as if Mitchell is throwing down a gauntlet and challenging us to engage the most banal sexual mythoi that circulate in our mindscapes. Then, once these are operating, as the multi-character scenes climax (so to speak) he begins his critique of individualized, fragmented sexuality.

The film is a powerful visualization of collective exploration and discussion of sexuality in many ways. Most importantly, it is enacted through the actual visualization and production of the overall project. Coming off the cult success of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Mitchell decided his next project would be a collective exploration of sex and sexuality in America. His production team advertised the project as the “Sex” film and encouraged interested participants to send in a ten minute tape in which they describe an important sexual experience.

In one of the documentaries on the DVD version you can see the tapes sent in by the actors and notice how their actual personalities are infused into the roles they play in the film. In the extras we see Mitchell and a collaborator picking up the tapes as people in New York City are protesting the impending invasion of Iraq. This fearful, deranged, post-9/11 panorama becomes incorporated into the subconscious of the film.

Mitchell did not write a fleshed-out script until he had auditioned actors and made the selections of who would be participating in the project. When he had a set cast, they began to improvise and develop their individual roles as an understanding of the collective project began to develop.

Some of the actors dropped out of the project because they feared the damage that it could do to their burgeoning careers. Perhaps they were afraid of being typecast or labeled by the Hollywood system as an actor who performs in “those” types of films. Other actors were unable to continue because they eventually became incapable of mentally separating themselves from their roles and allowing the characters to develop collectively.

We can see in the development of the film the intense feelings and emotions that circulated throughout these workshops and improvisations. Through their hardships, the cast and crew became more of a unique collective family or affinity group. This brings an authenticity to the performances that is generally lacking in the casting of strangers to perform in a film.

In discussions about this film, the question often raised is whether or not it is pornography. I usually field responses before replying, wishing to develop a collective understanding of pornography and its role in our society. Most people follow the famous judicial claim that pornography is the portrayal of sexual acts bereft of any actual artistic or culturally redeeming manner. In other words, if you removed the sex, would anything be left?

I follow a more complicated description and understanding. Pornography is a fragmented portrayal of human society which emphasizes the individual parts over the holistic beings, that denies the humanity of the participants, and that turns sex solely into a product for consumption. Pornography is all about impermeable sex: penetration without connection, orgasms without feeling.

Shortbus is the opposite of pornography. It is actually a film about permeability. The three main characters are in search of genuine human interactions. Yes, sex and sexuality are vitally important to them, but it is contextualized in a fuller landscape of human connection and interaction. Impermeability is a dangerous dysfunction. It is the mindset of those who are not open to others, whether they are individually unfeeling or culturally closed. It is solipsism—individually or collectively. Permeability is the willingness to be open to new experiences and new ways of seeing the world. It is not necessary that you live your life as these characters do, it is more of a willingness to not view the new or different as dangerous.

Of course, the film is about sex and, in its unflinching exploration, it will challenge many people. I am amazed at people’s willingness to sit through the most brutal acts of violence and destruction, yet they become agitated and disturbed by honest portrayals of sexuality. I have witnessed people walk out during certain parts of Shortbus. I also have had people get angry at me for suggesting the film to them.

For me, it is one of the most powerfully emotional films of the 21st Century. I usually cry during certain parts of the film because I empathize with the struggle of the characters. The power of the film is that it views the answers in the collective community rather in the authority of “experts” or the prescriptions of the pharmaceutical industry. It is a deeply utopian film that calls us to get off on life.


Michael Dean Benton: If a Tree Falls - Enforcing the Green Scare

If a Tree Falls: Enforcing the Green Scare
by Michael Dean Benton
North of Center

Curry Marshall, with a degree in Comparative Religion from Swarthmore College and experience as a senior producer at a New York multimedia design firm, got his start in filmmaking by shooting, directing and editing the 2005 documentary Street Fight. The documentary followed the grassroots, underdog candidate Cory Booker’s attempt to unseat Sharpe James, the longtime mayor of Newark, NJ. Marshall impressed audiences and critics with his dogged determination to cover the campaign despite James’ attempt to control all media coverage of his public appearances. The film, which ran as part of a series on PBS and was later recognized with both an Oscar and Emmy nomination, remains an essential document of an actual grassroots campaign running against entrenched party machine politics.

Marshall’s newest documentary, made with cinematographer and co-director Sam Cullman, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) tells the complex story of environmental Earth Liberation Front activist Daniel McGowan, who faced life in prison for his participation in the burning of two timber facilities. The film has received Best Documentary awards at multiple film festivals, and a Best Documentary Editing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Just as Street Fight is essential viewing for grassroots campaigners seeking to intervene in entrenched local power structures, If a Tree Falls is a vital film for committed environmental activists. Not only does the documentary capture embattled environmental activists in the age of the Green Scare opening up to the filmmakers, but most impressive was the filmmakers’ ability to convince law enforcement officials and government lawyers to talk on-record about their perspectives. With that in mind, this is also a film that should spur all American citizens to consider the impact of our current heightened post-9/11 law enforcement policies.

The Green Scare

First introduced into the lexicon in 2003, the Green Scare is a term used by environmental activists to describe the orchestrated campaign to paint their movement as a form of domestic terrorism. With a self-conscious nod to the political repressions of the last century’s numerous “Red Scares” that swept the nation, the Green Scare describes the U.S. government’s use of legal and police tactics to suppress the radical environmental movement. The term seeks to explain why so many environmental activists appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, why the jail sentences of environmental activists seem disproportionately long, and how some activists end up in maximum security prisons.

Though If a Tree Falls does not mention the term Green Scare by name, the film dramatically documents the process in action. A key tactic involves using corporate media to influence public perception of environmental and animal rights activist groups as “domestic terrorists.” This designation may seem like a stretch of the imagination. After all, in the past two decades, the United States has experienced multiple assaults on the twin towers in NYC, the horrific bombing of government offices in Oklahoma by Timothy McVeigh, and an incredible increase in violent armed militias and hate groups as Barack Obama became president–none of which have been perpetrated by environmental activists. Nevertheless, starting in the 1990s both local and national news stations amazingly started to apply the loaded term “terrorists” to environmental activists who never harmed or killed a human being in their actions.

When it comes to groups advocating direct environmental actions, law enforcement tactics have likewise focused directly (and often violently) upon environmental activists, intimidating those activists peacefully protesting in the streets while discouraging any citizen attempts to confront the corporations that are destroying the environment. If a Tree Falls provides vivid, difficult-to-watch scenes of police assaulting peaceful, albeit resistant, environmental protesters with strong-arm tactics and chemical weapons. Most memorable is the scene where police officers hold the heads of young female activists who sit with their arms linked together, while other officers apply liquid pepper spray directly to their eyes with Q-Tips. Another scene captures a law enforcement officer who reports that when activists do something that he doesn’t like, it becomes personal for him. Later we hear another officer relate that, with the institution of Post-9/11 Homeland Security policies, the easiest way for law enforcement officers to rise up through the ranks and increase their pay scale is through terrorism enhancement cases. (Jules Boykoff, in Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (AK Press, 2007), details how this intimidation of activists extended to police infiltration of groups that never committed a crime, and the unleashing of paid informants who acted as agent provocateurs–facilitating and encouraging the acceleration of activist actions while reporting back to their home agencies.)

FBI Top Ten List

The top ten list of most wanted domestic “terrorists” by the FBI remains focused on targeting contemporary environmental and animal rights activists, in addition to leftist activists from the 1960s/1970s. Currently three people on the list are environmental and animal right activists possibly involved in a series of ELF arsons in the Pacific Northwest. In a 2009 FBI listing of a new “domestic terrorist,” the FBI stated that “animal rights and environmental extremism pose a significant domestic terror threat. To date, extremists have been responsible for more than 1,800 criminal acts and more than $110 million in damages. Currently, we are investigating approximately 170 such extremist incidents across the country”

There is no doubt that there has been significant property damage, as is made clear in the documentary. However, the environmental and animal rights activists have diligently made sure that no physical harm would come to people. Looking at the FBI list one is struck by the political nature of the focus. These are people who object to corporate policies and critique capitalism. There is not one person on the FBI’s top-ten list that reflects a right-to-centrist-political perspective, despite the fact that the worst domestic mass attacks of violence against people has generally come from right-wing extremists.

In recent history, this is even more the case. Most of the dramatic acts of violent domestic terrorism have been from right-wing or fundamentalist extremists: the Jewish Defense League’s bombing attacks during the 1980s, Timothy McVeigh in 1995, Olympic Park Bomber Eric Robert Rudolph from 1996-1998, James W. von Brunn’s attack at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and Scott Roeder’s murder of George Tiller during a Sunday morning service in a church in 2009.

Commenting in the aftermath of Andrew Joseph Stack III’s airplane attack on the IRS building in Austin, TX in 2010, in which one person was killed and many more injured, constitutional lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald noted how “terrorism” is the “single most meaningless word and the most manipulated.” As the various news networks struggled to keep Stack’s act of violence from being labeled “terrorism,” Greenwald reflected on the absurdity of newscasters’ evasions. Stack wasn’t labeled a terrorist because his written statements reflected current Tea Party concerns and complaints against the government. Greenwald goes on, stating that the “term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor.”

Greenwald’s specific comments referred to the discriminatory practices that target Muslims in America, but his point also applies to the way in which the term “terrorist” has been used as a political weapon against groups that may challenge and/or resist the policies and practices of corporations that devastate the environment.

Terrorism enhancement convictions

A central tenet of the Green Scare has been the pursuit of terrorism enhancement sentences against environmental and animal rights activists who commit property crimes. As documented in If a Tree Falls, Daniel McGowan participated as a lookout for one arson, and as a fully engaged participant in a second attack. For these crimes in which no person was physically harmed, he faced a sentence of 300+ years in a maximum security prison. In these cases prosecutors seek what is called a terrorism enhancement conviction. If convicted, defendants are locked in maximum security Communications Management Units. In these prisons there is no sunlight, no fresh air, no activities and extremely limited communication with the outside world.

McGowan, and other Earth Liberation Front members, were brought down by former member-turned-informer Jacob Ferguson, the main instigator in the arsons and (as evidence in the film points out) most likely the first perpetrator of an ELF arson attack. At the time of his work as a snitch gathering information for the FBI, Jules Boykoff reports in Beyond Bullets, he was a full-fledged heroin addict and “receiving between $50,000 and $100,00 for his role as a cooperative witness.” Although confessing to planning and committing numerous arsons across the Pacific Northwest, Ferguson was never charged for any crime. Later, after his role as an informer was over, he was eventually picked up in April on drug dealing charges.

These tactics of harassment, intimidation, infiltration and surveillance have increased in the supposedly heightened security of a post-9/11 America. Most of the targets are social justice, environmental, animal rights, civil liberties, religious anti-war, and anti-corporate activists. As American citizens we should be allowed to freely gather to organize, criticize and protest what we see as harmful practices and policies. These civil liberties are under assault by law enforcement practices that hearken back to the Red Scare paranoia of the McCarthy era and the legal abuses of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. All of us need to consider what this means for our democratic nation, and what the implications are when law enforcement is used as a political tool.


Media Matters: Susan Saladoff -- Hot Coffee

Susan Saladoff - Filmmaker - Hot Coffee
Media Matters

Susan Saladoff (Producer, Director) spent twenty-five years practicing law in the civil justice system, representing injured victims of individual and corporate negligence. She stopped practicing law in 2009 to make the documentary, HOT COFFEE, her first feature-length film. She began her career as a public interest lawyer with the law firm of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, now known as Public Justice, an organization that, for the last 25 years, has been at the forefront of keeping America’s courthouse doors open to all. Susan was recognized by her peers as an Oregon Super Lawyer for five consecutive years from 2006 to 2010. She is a graduate of Cornell University and George Washington University Law School, and has frequently lectured at the state and national levels on the importance of the civil justice system.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: Kathryn Bigelow's Wild Men -- Gender in The Hurt Locker

[This was a short review for North of Center when the film was first released in the theaters.]

Kathryn Bigelow's Wild Men: Gender in the Hurt Locker
by Michael Dean Benton
The Smirking Chimp

"Here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body." Manohla Dargis, “Action!” (The New York Times: June 18, 2009)

Manohla Dargis is both right and wrong in this statement about action film director Kathryn Bigelow. First, Darghis is right in reminding us we should be able to approach Bigelow’s oeuvre as the work of an auteur free from the fact that she is a woman. If we lived in the supposedly free and equal society that many believe we do, then this would not be a consideration. Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which female artists face considerable barriers in getting their work out to the public.

Consider that this “great filmmaker” is releasing her first feature film in the last seven years. When Entertainment Weekly posted their pick for the 25 Top Directors earlier this year, they did not choose one woman. No female director has ever won an Oscar for directing, and only three have been nominated. Less than ten percent of films yearly are made by women directors. The film industry is dominated by male executives, and like the art world in general, there is a long tradition of privileging the male gaze. The male domination of the film industry suggests the “extent to which the dreams that radiate off theater screens and into our culture are still almost exclusively the dreams of men” (Michelle Goldberg “Where are the Female Directors,” Salon, August 7, 2007).

Secondly, and this is where Darghis is clearly wrong, “gender” is extremely important to any consideration of Bigelow’s “kinetic filmmaking.” However, the gender that should be under consideration here is not female, rather it is Bigelow’s repeated construction of the aggressive, adrenaline-junky, male outsider.

There is a continuing series of charismatic, dangerous male characters in Bigelow’s films: Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), the patriarch of the outlaw vampire clan in Near Dark (1987); the extreme-sport guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who leads a gang of bank robbers in Point Break (1991); Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the ex-cop turned street hustler, who deals the adrenaline-junk vids that his consumers are addicted to in Strange Days (1995); and the unyielding Russian submarine Captain Alexi Vostrikov in K-19: The Widowmaker (2002).

In her latest film, The Hurt Locker (2008), this role is filled by the reckless, dangerous, yet sympathetic Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). James is reckless in his disarming of bombs and in his pursuit of a sense of justice; he clearly follows Bohdi’s philosophy that “fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.”

Usually these “wild” figures are opposed by more rational, empathetic and/or civilized counterparts, who alternate between worshipping these Alpha Males and seeking to end their reign. This is most fully brought to life in the classic Point Break through the figure of ex-college football star and undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), who develops what can be clearly defined as a romanticized love for the rogue outlaw Bodhi, who represents for him the ideal “wild” male figure. The eroticism of their relationship is clearly represented as Utah, while chasing the masked Bodhi after a bank robbery, falls down in pain as a result of his recurring, career-ending, football injury. Utah aims his gun at the retreating Bodhi, and has him clearly in sight. But at the last second, Utah lifts the gun skyward and shoots repeatedly into the air, screaming ecstatically, while Bodhi smiles back at him.

In The Hurt Locker, this role of the “civilized” male is filled by former intelligence operative, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Sanborn is confused by his mixed feelings toward James. On the one hand, he admires the extreme bravery and capability of James in high intensity situations; on the other hand, he recognizes that this same aggressively gung ho attitude is a danger to the soldiers surrounding James.

A macho rivalry between James and Sanborn soon erupts into unexpected punches, drunken brawling, and even a scene where James literally mounts a prone Sanborn, riding him like a bronco as Sanborn reacts with killing force. Sanborn even openly considers putting James down like a dangerous animal in order to save others.

In these films, the audience is usually placed in the role of the civilized male counterpart. We are there to observe these men who refuse to bend to the rules of society. We marvel at their freedom to engage in behavior that most of us would be too timid to pursue. We alternate between envying, desiring, imitating and fearing their unbending attitude.

These violent Alpha Male leaders have long been adopted as a symbol of ideal maleness in patriarchal American culture, and Hollywood film culture has played a traditional role in influencing society to accept them as their leaders. It is in the swagger of George W. Bush as he states “you are either with us or against us.” It is in Ronald Reagan’s challenges to the “Evil Empire.”

However, there is a difference in the typical Bigelow hero from these presidential portrayals of “propertied individualism” (Michael Rogin: Ronald Reagan, the Movie, 1987). Unlike the traditional swaggering American leader, Bigelow’s heroes make no claim to the rewards or benefits of the society they struggle against or retreat from. In fact, like the tragic Western man of action, Shane, there is no place for them in proper society.

This is clearly exhibited in James’ experiences stateside in a store. He stands confused in the aisles and is overwhelmed by the programmed choices of the cereal aisle. Later, he speaks to his little son about the slow process of social erasure of pleasure. Bit by bit, as we are raised, as we conform, he tells his son, we lose each pleasure of life, until there is but one left, and that becomes your only reason for living. For James, his sole pleasure in life is the challenge of defusing a bomb. Tragically, nothing else matters.

The film opens with a Chris Hedges quote that “war is a drug” (from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) and this sets the tone for the addiction that James suffers from. He cannot find pleasure in civilized life and must resort to the addictive challenge of navigating the violent chaos of the Iraq War. The criminal surfer Bodhi would have understood the EOD Specialist James completely: “If you want the ultimate, you've got to be willing to pay the ultimate price. It's not tragic to die doing what you love.”


Michael Dean Benton: Response to Jarhead (2005: Sam Mendes)

[Originally posted at the defunct website Bluegrass Film Society: November 6, 2005]

I went to see Jarhead on friday afternoon after reading the recent Harper's magazine profile essay on the film and the problems associated with anti-war films. I first became familiar with Swofford's memoirs about his service in the first Iraq War primarily because of Swofford's legendary party-session with University of Kentucky grad-students after a Lexington reading.

The setting:

I showed up at the 3:20 pm showing at the Regal theater (a typical shopping area multiplex). Arriving somewhat early, there were only two other people in the screening area and I thought that this might be a typical early-friday screening (the last afternoon showing we had experienced was The Constant Gardener which had only six people in the audience).

Slowly groups of 2-4 people filed into the theater until there was about 20+ people. At about 10 minutes before the showing three groups of 12+ people showed up, obviously, from overheard conversation and their collective-huddling, they were the local fraternities come to check out the latest war film.

The audience was easily 90% male and, as my companion noted, the testosterone blanketed the theater. One could sense that they were there for some action and some butt-kicking. In my imagination I heard them rallying the guys to go see the film: "Enough of the daily reports of violence and death in the current Iraq-war, lets go see a film about the one where we kicked some serious ass!"

The film (general comments because I don't want to ruin the plot):

This film is going to produce extreme reactions. It will be one of those polarizing films that will be an ideological litmus-test of the people who watch it (like Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing) because it doesn't make an explicit stand either way on this war, or war in general. It simply presents Swofford's personal story of training to be a Marine scout and his experiences in the first Gulf War.

A lot of commentary I have seen is that this film (and Swofford's book) is anti-military. I don't see it... yes it exposes the cruelties of collective male-bonding that is centered around the hatred of an "enemy-other," but is that really shocking to anyone? It portrays the insanity and dehumanization of contemporary warfare in which buttons are pushed and hundreds of people are immediately incinerated/blown-up, but is this unrealistic? It depicts the trauma experienced by those who serve in the military, but one only has to read studies of post-traumatic syndrome all the way back to WWI to realize this reality.

What I think is disturbing about this film for many of the people attacking it is that it de-mythologizes the glorification of personal combat--the individualistic hero-figure who rises above even the scewed-up absurdity of the military situation, bringing order to the madness. In this film there are no heroes. Even Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, perceived as anti-war films, allow us points of identification and characters we can "root" for in their quest to make sense of the insanity of war. In Jarhead, there are no places we can rest, we are kept disturbed, we are uneasy, we really don't know what is going on, perhaps the military terminology best suited to the atmosphere of the film is FUBAR.

The audience afterwards:

As we walked out you could sense the frustration of the bands of fraternity-boys who had sought the glories of represented warfare. They complained loudly that the film lacked the spectacle they had come to experience. I wondered, how many of these boys, from their fraternity-association and position of privilege in our society, would ever have to worry about serving in the military. Why, if they were so lucky to escape this service, unlike their less-fortunate peers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, was it so necessary for them to feel a part of the rituals of war, even if it was through the spectacle of a Hollywood film. As we walked out many of them were on phones planning the night's parties, their frustration so evident, I wondered how it would manifest in the night to come.

Since we are coming up on a week devoted to the military film I assigned Jarhead as an extra credit opportunity for my students. I will post some of the more interesting responses:

Leanne Harvey

Lance Cutshall

Stacey Peebles: Stories from the Suck -- The First Wave of Iraq War Narratives

Stories from the Suck: The First Wave of Iraq War Narratives
by Stacey Peebles

War stories have been with us forever, but at some points in human history they demand our attention more urgently than at others. Now would seem to be one of those times, as the United States remains deeply engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, and—perhaps more importantly—welcomes home wave after wave of veterans whose military service has been quite different than that of their parents and grandparents. As a nation, we are only beginning to understand the nature of that service for the soldiers and how those combat experiences will shape the way our community as a whole thinks about the causes and effects of war.

A great deal of the way we think about war is the product of popular representations—the books, photographs, films, and (these days) online content that takes combat as its subject matter. Think of the Vietnam War, and you’re probably thinking as much (or more) about Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, and Tim O’Brien as you are about first-hand stories from friends and family members. In film and text, young men are drafted into service and find themselves tangled in thick jungle and guerrilla warfare, gradually descending into disillusionment and political cynicism to the sound of a rock-and-roll soundtrack. Contemporary war is a different story.

Welcome to the Suck focuses on the soldier’s experience in the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War as represented in prose, poetry, film, and new media. The war in Afghanistan predates the Iraq War and has officially outlasted it, as combat operations in Iraq were officially called to a close on August 31, 2010. But to date, that war has inspired fewer and less prominent war stories than the war in Iraq. This may change, as political and cultural attention shifts to Afghanistan during Obama’s presidency, and the ways in which this war blends with and differs from Iraq will be a compelling avenue of study in future years.

The American soldiers fighting in Iraq and represented in these new war stories have grown up in a culture of mediation, where it has been more acceptable than ever before to subvert or transcend traditional categories and norms of behavior, gender, and ethnicity. At the same time, new communications technologies have enabled people to experiment with virtual or alternate identities—in venues like blogs, forums, and more comprehensive online worlds like Second Life. Advances in battlefield technologies offer those interested in a military career the promise of a fighting self supplemented by things like GPS-guided Humvees, night-vision goggles, digital battle simulation, and robotics. As young people, these soldiers have been encouraged to revel in their individuality, challenge restrictive categories, and make ample use of technology to do so. Contemporary American culture traffics, after all, in identities that are cyborg, hybrid, avatar.

A film like Avatar, in fact, demonstrates this emphasis very well. The protagonist, Jake Sully, rises above the restrictions imposed on him by his nationality, his culture, his disability, and even his basic biology. It’s worth noting that he is a soldier, and that this is a war movie.

But it’s also a fantasy, and not just because of the blue skin and floating islands. The transcendence that Jake steps into like a warm bath proves to be frustratingly and even devastatingly elusive for soldiers fighting in Iraq. War—real war—enforces categorization even as it forces encounters across the boundaries of nation, the body, and technology.

Consider someone like Kayla Williams, who published her memoir Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army in 2005. Williams worked as an Arabic linguist and interpreter, a tough, smart soldier as eager for challenges as her male colleagues. She is female—and thus historically not typical American soldier material—but she has no doubts about her ability to do the job and do it well. What’s the currency of military masculinity, after all? Grit, brains, competence, and dedication to the group. Williams has all that in spades, and she goes to Iraq ready to take her place as a brother-in-arms. But it doesn’t work out as she’d like. Two instances of sexual assault shake her badly, but even more telling is her account of the fellow soldiers who treat her well. They pat each other on the ass to express acceptance and affection—a gesture called the “good game”—but they are extra careful not to touch her. “As a female,” she says, “I was not really a part of the ‘good game.’”

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