Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Stephen Handzo: Going Through the Devil’s Doorway -- The Early Westerns Of Anthony Mann

Going Through the Devil’s Doorway: The Early Westerns Of Anthony Mann
by Stephen Handzo
Bright Lights Film Journal


Mann's 1950 threesome was the most auspicious quantum jump by an American director since John Ford's equivalent Americana triumvirate of 1939 (Stage Coach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk) lifted him into the major phase of his career. Yet Mann's achievements seem destined to remain unappreciated and the director himself obscure.

Those who disdain lightweight entertainment and sugary optimism usually prefer the cynical derisiveness of a Kubrick to a vision as uncompromisingly bleak and austere as Mann at his best. If people do not actually like Bresson or Dreyer at least they respect them; Mann has the generic disreputability of Westerns going against him as well.

And yet the Western was the perfect form for Mann. As George Robinson has observed, the protagonists of T-Men and Border Incident incur a moral debt while watching helplessly as their partners are murdered. In Mann's Westerns, the dual roles are combined in a hero who is both martyr and avenger.

Given Mann's own pessimism and the developing ambiguity of the post-war Western, it was perhaps inevitable that Mann's first Western (and arguably his best film) should be a tragic epitaph for the West's ultimate loser, the Indian.

Pro-Indian sentiment had appeared previously on the screen. Long before the alleged discovery of Monument Valley by John Ford, its buttes and mesas were mute witnesses to the epic silent version of The Vanishing American (1926). In both this and 1934's Massacre, the setting was contemporary and the Indian was already humiliated, displaced and long since reduced to reservation chattel. Billy Jack, Flap, The Outsider (about Ira Hayes) are later examples of this type. The other major schools of pro-Indian Westerns, such as 1970's Soldier Blue or the made-for-television Massacre at Sand Creek (1956) are set in the period of the Indian Wars and engage liberal guilt by focusing on a single spectacular atrocity.

Mann's Devil's Doorway is possibly unique in that it calls the ideal of Manifest Destiny itself into question by portraying the colonization of the West from the point of view of the defeated before the doom of the Indian was sealed.

The film opens with Robert Taylor in a Civil War uniform riding into a Wyoming town in which everything — including him — is coated with dust. He is returning from the Civil War having distinguished himself by winning the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. Like Richard Dix in The Vanishing American, he assumes that war service will result in improved treatment for the Indian. (Devil's Doorway closely follows a cycle of contemporary racially-conscious films — Crossfire, Gentlemen's Agreement, Home of the Brave, in which members of the armed forces were subjected to discrimination. These films and President Truman's 1947 desegregation of the military reflected the obvious irony in America's fighting Nazi Master Race ideology with a Jim Crow army.) Taylor has a drink in a bar where he is greeted as a hero by the sheriff (Edgar Buchanan). "In my army, we were particular who we let in" observes cigar-smoking lawyer Verne Cooley (Louis Calhern) whose presence in the scene Mann skillfully withholds. (Calhern in this period had become MGM's all-purpose character actor — a combined replacement for Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Lewis Stone — portraying all the Establishment figures not played by Walter Pidgeon.) "Ever notice how you can always smell 'em?" asks Calhern, unheard by Taylor who walks out of the bar with Buchanan. "The Union Pacific's going to make a lot of changes," is Buchanan's prophetic parting comment.

To Read the Entire Essay

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inside Job Director Charles Ferguson: Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America

"Inside Job" Director Charles Ferguson: Wall Street Has Turned the U.S. into a "Predatory Nation"
Democracy Now

Two years after directing the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Inside Job,” filmmaker Charles Ferguson returns with a new book, “Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America.” Ferguson explores why no top financial executives have been jailed for their role in the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We also discuss Larry Summers and the revolving door between academia and Wall Street, as well as the key role Democrats have played in deregulating the financial industry. According to Ferguson, a "predatory elite" has "taken over significant portions of economic policy and of the political system, and also, unfortunately, major portions of the economics discipline."


Charles Ferguson, the Academy Award-winning director of Inside Job, a documentary about the financial crisis. His film on the war in Iraq, No End in Sight, was nominated for an Academy Award. His new book is called Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America.

To Watch the Interview

Part 2: “Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America”

We continue our conversation with Charles Ferguson, director of the Oscar award-winning documentary, “Inside Job,” about the 2008 financial crisis. In his new book, “Predator Nation,” he argues “the role of Democrats has been at least as great as the role of Republicans” in causing the crisis. Ferguson notes the Clinton administration oversaw the most important financial deregulation, and since then, “we’ve seen in the Obama administration very little reform and no criminal prosecutions, and the appointment of a very large number of Wall Street executives to senior positions in the government, including some people who were directly responsible for causing significant portions of the crisis.” Ferguson also calls for raising the salaries of senior regulators and imposing stricter rules for how soon they can lobby for the private sector after leaving the public sector.

To Watch the Interview

Trailer for Inside Job

2010 Oscar Winner for Best Documentary, 'Inside Job' provides a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse. Through exhaustive research and extensive interviews with key financial insiders, politicians, journalists, and academics, the film traces the rise of a rogue industry which has corrupted politics, regulation, and academia. It was made on location in the United States, Iceland, England, France, Singapore, and China.

Watch Inside Job online for free at Film for Action

Monday, May 28, 2012

Joshua Clover: Fall and Rise

Fall and Rise
by Joshua Clover
Film Quarterly


But Toyota-ization too reached its limits. “Tokyo drift” describes a style of street racing where the cars are made to slide almost frictionlessly through corners, with the low impact grace of a tap dancer in a sandbox. It might just as well be a rubric for the Japanese economy of the ongoing “lost decade”—having avoided a massive economic crash, it is still unable to get back on track or restore profitability, and drifts endlessly through the long turn of late capitalism.

A consultation with reference materials suggests that Tokyo Drift was meant to be out of series and out of time; Fast Five, a less nimble film, takes place earlier. Looks like the present. So Han, a ghost of the Lost Decade, walks into a garage in the emerging economy of Brazil to take his place in the team assembled by Dom (Vin Diesel), who looks like a muscle car with legs, and Brian (Paul Walker), former federal agent. Our heroic band’s admixture of criminal and lawman is matched by the villains: the caper involves a crime lord who is also a political boss. All parties meet at money, obviously. The boss has $100 million socked away in a police station vault. Being street racers, our crew proposes to prise the vault forth from the station cabled to a couple of their vehicles, then flee through downtown Rio. But first they lay hands on an identical vault: a salute to the (remade) Ocean’s Eleven, where the team acquires a replica of the casino vault so as to practice their mechanics. In the event of it, eluding unencumbered pursuit while dragging an enormous steel oblong across pavement proves easier said than done. Call it Rio Friction, the very inverse of Tokyo Drift. Or call it Attack of the BRIC. Abandoning all hope of escape, Dom turns to use the vault as a weapon. Indeed, it has been functioning as such all along; the flight to safety, even before it becomes a demolition derby, has managed to obliterate considerable swaths of the world capital.

Not only is it impossible to imagine the characters thinking this was a good or even plausible idea for getting the dough, it is also impossible to imagine the screenwriters thinking this would make for a good caper. The ten-minute sequence is finally a bit dull; absurdity does have a way of turning to boredom.

But what if we have been thinking of this all wrong, and the entire movie is just a pretext for something else altogether? It may be narrative idiocy of the first water—but it is, we must admit, the single best cinematic representation of the global financial crisis yet contrived, immeasurably better than Inside Job or Capitalism: A Love Story.

A weaponized concentration of capital seems to be dragged about by supermen; it is in fact dragging them around, laying waste to the world before it, destroying houses and urban centers and bodies as it races for safety—before recognizing that there is no safety and it should just turn violently on its pursuers in a festival of destruction.

In the textbook definition, capital is generally self-valorizing value; in a crisis it is inverted, and becomes self-annihilating value. The supermoney that seemed to run the world is revealed as “fictitious capital,” unrealized and finally unrealizable, but still in its auto-destruction capable of laying low the world around it. Which explains what would otherwise be the most intolerable plot device. In the end, it turns out that Dom and Brian have been hauling the fake vault through the city, while the actual box is spirited away, loot enclosed. As a scheme, it’s ludicrous. As a reading of crisis in the world system, it’s immaculate—as if Hollywood had come to an intimate knowledge of volume 3 of Capital without reading, simply by bathing in the current of world money—and should complete the contemporary genre. I am seriously considering renaming this column “The Marx and the Furious.”

Now that we no longer want for figurations of the financial crisis, we can turn to what comes next, if anything, and how one imagines the vectors and contexts of an adequate response. In this arena apocalyptic pictures continue to hold us captive. The signal version this season is Contagion—arriving as an updating of the 1970s disaster flick, and bearing with it some backdated ideas indeed.

To Read the Entire Essay

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Adrian Martin: A Larry Clark Portrait

A Larry Clark Portrait

Life in Motion

One of the great clichés of contemporary cinema is the use of a sudden freeze frame on a character, with his or her name printed on the screen, as if to offer a thumbnail portrait of that person. The device is reminiscent of the vignetted close ups in the credits of 1930s movies, boiling a character down to a few, superficial associations: a name, a smile, a haircut. When Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, 1973), Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 1995) or Guy Ritchie (Snatch, 2000) use such portraiture in its modern, jazzy variant, it is invariably at the start of a story, to orient us.

Larry Clark deliberately waits until the very end of Bully (2001) to freeze, one by one, on his gallery of wanton teenagers. When he at last does so, the effect is a powerful and chilling subversion of the cliché.

It is paradoxical that Clark should eschew such effects of split-second portraiture. After all, his fame came precisely from the photographic portraits he snapped since the early ‘60s and collected in a series of books, including Teenage Lust, Tulsa and The Perfect Childhood. And he is often pegged, by lazy critics, as a mere photographer-turned-filmmaker, lumped into that class of prestigious American artists who, since the ‘90s, have indeed produced some rather ungainly and inert movies (for example, Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer [1997] or David Salle’s Search and Destroy [1995]).

But the very essence of Clark’s films – six features already since his debut with Kids in 1995, with projects including Shame (a remake of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, 1986) and Interrupted (an authorised biopic of Nicholas Ray) in the pipeline – is movement. His films offer a continuously mobile, almost cubist form of portraiture, the kind that is only possible in cinema. His sensitively hand-held camera never ceases sculpting the flesh, tracing the gestures, gazing into the eyes of the strange, too-beautiful creatures that inhabit his amoral universe. It is impossible for these beings to be frozen, summed up, nailed down. Clark is not a fetishist of the image; what is rudely torn from our view, by the camera or the editing, is just as crucial as what we do manage to glimpse. And the music – few contemporary filmmakers select their collages of pre-existing tracks more cannily or dynamically than Clark – always restlessly drives the action into another mood, another state.

An Amoral Cinema

It is too easy to think of Clark as a realist, or even a hyperrealist, absorbed in a contemporary practice of reportage. These are labels he himself invites. To prepare Kids he “spent two years hanging” with his blushingly young non-professional performers. The research for his new film Wassup Rockers (2005) was partly derived from his own teenage son, who “keeps me up to date” on the latest musical mutations. He presented Another Day in Paradise (1998) as a “real” version of “Hollywood jive”, the “bullshit movies” that have been made about lifestyles based around drugs and crime. All of Clark’s films are close, at some level, to the still vivid memories of his own formative experiences:

Well, you know I was an outlaw. When I was fifteen I was a junkie and I spent many years being an outlaw. I was a burglar, and an armed robber, and a violent person, and I went to a penitentiary. I took every drug on the map for many years, so I was very familiar with that lifestyle.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that all of Clark’s films are broadly truthful in their social observation (although it is at this preliminary level that many discussions of his work stall). His particular kind of verisimilitude, however, does not pretend to be transparent, neutral or objective, in the manner of much realist art. Clark's approach and style owe a great deal to a tradition of subcultural, underground cinema that includes the work of Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey and, more recently, Gus Van Sant (his executive producer on Kids). Clark even has a ‘shadow’ in Catherine Hardwicke, whose Thirteen (2003) and Lords of Dogtown (2005) closely mirror his films.

I would describe this cinema tradition, unpejoratively, as amoral. It gazes, coolly and unflinchingly, upon the most extreme manifestations (and sometimes the most pathetic dregs) of human behaviour. But this gaze is not dispassionate. As viewers we are calmly invited to not merely understand but imaginatively share the tawdry fantasies of those we behold. The mood of such amoral movies is discomforting and kinky, somewhere between decadent, bad-taste comedy and dark, despairing nihilism.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sharon Kinsella: Men Imagining a Girl Revolution

"Men Imagining a Girl Revolution"
by Sharon Kinsella
CMS Colloquium (MIT Comparative Media Studies)

Foreign Languages and Literatures visiting professor Sharon Kinsella examines the media constructions of a teenage female revolt in contemporary Japan drawing from her current book project Girls as Energy: Fantasies of Social Rejuvenation.

To Listen to the Presentation

Ian Grey: Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS

Black Widow Spins Webs Around THE AVENGERS by Ian Grey Press Play Black Widow is the first hero seen in The Avengers, the latest entry in Joss Whedon's career-long feminist project. She does not immediately display the super powers enjoyed by the other Avengers—Captain America’s unnatural super-strength, The Hulk gamma-ray rage giant, Iron Man’s wearable rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot suit, or Thor’s hammer of the demi-gods. The only visibly super things about Black Widow are the latest in cat suit couture and a striking asymmetrical crimson bob. And yet she’s still able to trash a clutch of Russian scumbags with her hands tied behind her back. With a chair tied to her rear. While talking on her cell phone. She’s also the sole Avenger that S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) trusts to convince Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to join Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Captain America (Chris Evans) in the fight against Thor’s psychotic brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who, having stolen the ultimate source of power in the universe, the Tesseract, plans to use an alien army to devastate the Earth. (The plot ends there.) As egos collide, Black Widow—street name, Natasha Romanova—is the only character who does not throw a monstrous hissyfit. The only character to gather actionable intelligence against Loki from Loki. The character who not only literally kicks sense back into the brainwashed Hawkeye, but then absolves him of any sins performed while under the loony god’s spell. You want fearless? When midtown Manhattan is swarming with thousands of robo-aliens, the dreaded Chitauri, Black Widow commandeers one of their slippery aero-sleds and flies it to steal Loki’s glowing phallic scimitar so as to save the world so Iron Man can blow up the aliens. Oh—and the Tesseract? It’s female. I know this because everyone calls it by female pronouns—respectfully. How does that work? Well, the way all Whedon works: second viewings reveal not only layer after layer of multiple meanings, jokes piled on jokes, but seemingly random elements that are actual thematic glue. Nothing is never there without a reason. Anyway, Black Widow! A worthy addition to Whedon’s female action bloodline, right? The flame-haired heir to Buffy, Faith, Kendra, River, Echo, Zoe, Fred, and Illyria, right? No. To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Willie Tolliver: Postlude to a Kiss -- Will Smith's Performances of Race and Sexuality in Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation

Postlude to a Kiss: Will Smith's Performances of Race and Sexuality in Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation
by Willie Tolliver
Bright Lights Film Journal

Will Smith now occupies a position in Hollywood that is unrivaled by any other black performer. His films over the last eighteen years have grossed more than $5.3 billion, more than any other actor, with the exception of Johnny Depp (Smith 31). He commands a salary in excess of $20 million per film, which places him in the highest stratum of bankable actors. Consistently over the last decade he has been the highest ranking black star on annual lists of power figures in Hollywood.1 His success is in certain ways unprecedented. Even more than this, the meaning of his star status has historical and cultural implications that have not been fully examined. Smith's ability to reach such varied audiences, both domestic and global, is an indicator of evolving attitudes about race. The types of roles he has accepted and in which audiences are willing to accept him (savior of mankind, the last man on earth) have done interesting cultural work in terms of redefining concepts of black identity in general and of black masculinity specifically.

This discussion contributes to an examination of the Smith phenomenon by taking another look at his first major film performance in Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Smith's casting as the hustler who impersonates the son of Sidney Poitier has a particular rightness; Smith is indeed the inheritor of Poitier's legacy in terms of breaking new ground for blacks in film.2 Poitier won visibility and dignity for black representation in Hollywood film; Smith extends and complicates this legacy as his performances engage racial representation as it intersects with class, gender, and sexuality. This complex of issues contained within Smith's screen personae sustains his iconicity, and these valances of significance find their source in his seminal performance as Paul Poitier in Six Degrees of Separation.

Based on a series of actual incidents reported in The New York Times in 1983, the story of the film and the play details the encounter of a New York power couple with a young black man who cons and charms his way into their lives for an evening by impersonating the fictional son of Sidney Poitier.3 Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are a private art dealer and his wife who are entertaining a possible investor in a crucial sale. They are burst in upon by the doorman and a young black man (Will Smith) who is bleeding from a knife wound to his side. It turns out that the intruder is a Harvard classmate of their children. They administer first aid, and he begins to talk. He persuades them to stay in, and he will prepare a meal. This he does and in the process dazzles them with his conversation. He discourses on The Catcher in the Rye and the death of the imagination. On top of this, it turns out that his name is "Paul," and he is the son of Sidney Poitier. It is a magical evening, and the deal is sealed. Subsequently, they discover that Paul Poitier is not who he claims to be and that several of their friends have had similar experiences with him. The path of their investigation into the real identity of this strange young man leads them to a friend of their children named Trent (Anthony Michael Hall), a student at M.I.T. He admits to befriending this Paul and sharing his knowledge of their lives with him. This seems to be the answer, but it doesn't begin to explain what has happened to them and how their lives have been profoundly affected.

Paul also seems to have had an effect on Smith as there are distinct parallels between their narratives. I argue that in his ascendant trajectory Smith replicates Paul Poitier's project of attaining celebrity and social status. Indeed it could be said that Smith learns valuable lessons about how to succeed in the mainstream from the character he portrays, and then he surpasses him. Paul insinuates himself into the white and privileged world of the Kittredges through canny and deliberate strategies to overcome the two salient aspects of his identity that might otherwise prove to be barriers: his race and his sexuality. He does so through a process of minimizing his race and sexuality while at the same time subverting conventional notions of those identities. Similarly, Smith's broad-based stardom is predicated on his choice of film characters whose racial identities are non-threatening and whose sexuality is muted or erased, especially given the hyper-sexualized stereotype of black men in film.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Matthew J. Iannucci: Postmodern Antihero -- Capitalism and Heroism in Taxi Driver

Postmodern Antihero: Capitalism and Heroism in Taxi Driver
by Matthew J. Iannucci
Bright Lights Film Journal

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is a gritty, disturbing, nightmarish modern film classic that examines alienation in urban society. From a postmodernist's perspective, it combines the elements of noir, the Western, horror, and urban melodrama as it explores the psychological madness within an obsessed, inarticulate, lonely antihero cab driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). The plotline is simple: Travis directs his frustrated anger at the street dwellers of New York and a presidential candidate, and his unhinging assault is paired with an attempt to rescue a young prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), from her predatory pimp. Historically, Taxi Driver appeared after a decade of war in Vietnam (1976), and after the Watergate crisis and subsequent resignation of Nixon. Five years later, when it was linked to would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and his obsession with Jodie Foster, it became prima facie evidence for those on the political right who believed that violence in film translates into crime in real life. It is now almost impossible to separate Taxi Driver from this debate. However, Bickle's antiheroic character is more directly related to a failure of a capitalist system that pits his working-class position as a cab driver against those who have already been disenfranchised according to socioeconomic class, gender, and/or race.

As the film opens, Travis emerges from a forgotten Midwestern form of Americana that appears as obsolete as Travis himself in a big city heterogeneously composed of corporate financiers, political patrons, gun dealers, and prostitutes. In order to survive, he wants to "become a person like other people" as he puts it, but his own disenfranchisement from this nation has left him both intellectually and emotionally bankrupt from the Vietnam War. Freedom, the very nucleus of the American dream, is dependent on individual socioeconomic choices that inform and shape one's identity. But Travis's lack of a distinct identity compels him to cut and paste together what he believes is a heroic identity from an external menu of personages such as the "gunslinger" and the Indian. In actuality, what he does is stitch together a postmodern antiheroic identity that is nostalgic and pop culture-oriented, evidenced by the Mohawk haircut that he sports in the penultimate sequences — because he possesses no internal self.

Taxi Driver implies that identity is not genuine but always synergistic, a kind of potpourri of idolatry and maxims drawn from popular culture, especially from violent movies and television news. In this vein, Robert Ray views Taxi Driver as a postmodern "corrected" Right film, the type of film generally aimed at a naïve audience. Ray explains that a "Right" film presents a traditional conservative philosophy that promotes the application of Western-style, individual solutions to complex contemporary problems. He writes, "Taxi Driver's basic story followed the right wing's loyalty to the classic Western formula: a reluctant individual, confronted by evil, acts on his own to rid society of spoilers. As played by Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver's protagonist had obvious connections with Western heroes…even his name, Travis, linked him to the defender of the Alamo."1 Ray's notion that the film is a "correction" of the right-wing concept of justice is accurate because of its odd plot twist at the conclusion. Normally, such a story would identify Travis's complicity with these criminals and thereby relegate him to some form of institutional punishment. But the film's underlying theme reveals how absurd the Western idealistic depiction of heroism is because the news media in the film not only ignores his actions but also glorifies a psychopathic killer as a noble warrior.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, May 21, 2012

Trevor Link: Polisse

by Trevor Link
Spectrum Culture

It goes without saying that the subject matter of Polisse is dispiriting and heartbreaking: a group of police officers working for the Child Protection Unit (or CPU) in Paris deal, on a daily basis, with cases involving rape, abuse, prostitution and organized crime. To compound this bleakness, the details of these cases were, in fact, drawn from real life: director and co-writer Maïwenn spent time following actual officers and constructed her film from events she witnessed or heard about during that time. This patina of ultra-realism coats the events in the film, making them reverberate beyond the screen and suggesting, for each unimaginable horror, a series of unseen but real-life analogues. Maïwenn wisely eschews the tedious offering of answers; her film is instead satisfied in tracing the outline of a vast problem, letting its shape impress an urgent tenseness upon us. Unable to intervene, Maïwenn’s camera can only observe, bringing us back once again to a fundamental question of cinema: to what extent can merely seeing the events of the world—bearing witness to them—actually matter?

Polisse is most interesting when it stays faithful to this ocular theme. As Carol J. Clover has noted in her study of horror films, the eye itself, despite being considered a source of domination (the gaze), is actually quite vulnerable and penetrable (the eyeball-impaling sequence from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 drives this point home quite strikingly). Filmmakers have moreover understood the camera, like the eye, to be an instrument of control and even aggression—its phallic associations reached a climax in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which coupled masculine ineffectuality and truth’s elusiveness: together, a lack of mastery. These associations are reversed in Polisse through the character of Mélissa (played by Maïwenn herself), a photographer tasked with documenting the work of the CPU. Mélissa embodies the eye’s vulnerability, and her camera bestows upon her the power of empathy, an uncontrollable receptivity that manifests as an openness to the plight of others. Following the CPU around, she becomes shaken by the horror she sees, the documentation of which cannot console her, but her role is to look—to look only—and take in what she sees, the camera and the eye functioning in tandem.

To Read the Rest of the Review

Three Reasons: Being John Malkovich

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

B. Kite: Remain in light -- Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch

Remain in light: Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch
by B. Kite
Sight and Sound

Despite the accusations of incoherence sometimes made against them by critics who ought to know better, the films of David Lynch seem to share a remarkably consistent cosmogony that can be sketched as follows: the soul originates in light and unity and has its home there. Although this unity can never in fact be divided, the soul takes on the guise of individual identity, or separateness, and enters the theatre of the world. Once in place, it often forgets its origins and mistakes its role for its being or, in dim intervals of recollection, believes itself so soiled by violence or dark multiplicities of desire that it imagines itself isolate, forever drifting, alone and homeless. But that is the ultimate illusion, and the bleakest. The soul’s essence remains untouched and untouchable, and after however many cycles of rebirth its eventual homecoming is assured, has happened, is perpetually happening. It only remains for the soul to wake up in order to realise it never left. Nearly every Lynch film has a happy ending.

Some of the movies show a full revolution of this cycle (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Inland Empire), some show only a portion (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Mulholland Dr.), and some none at all (Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, The Straight Story). But even in this latter category it’s present by reference and implication: think of Sandy’s dream in Blue Velvet (1986); the repeated injunction “the sleeper must awaken” in Dune (1984); or the Wizard of Oz conclusion of Wild at Heart (1990). (Indeed, the above sketch could easily be reworded into a plot summary of The Wizard of Oz – the film if not the book – which may account for the frequent references to it in Lynch’s work.)

Lynch is, in short, a religious or spiritual artist in the same loosely categoric sense that one might apply the term to William Blake or Tarkovsky, and the fact that this goes so often unrecognised by critics may be because the religion in question isn’t Christianity. It’s basically the Indian Vedanta, with an admixture of the somewhat cartooned gnosticism that Harold Bloom once hypothesised underlay every example of “the American religion”.

The vision is essentially monist, but representations of superficial dualism – and of the corrupt gnostic demiurge – recur in a number of films. Fire is his sign and insects are his agents: in Eraserhead (1976) ‘Man in the Planet’ – the guy who yanks the gears that set the whole clanking machinery of creation in motion – sits by a window, brooding and badly burned. In Mulholland Dr. (2001) the clacking of mandibles grows louder as the camera approaches “the one who’s behind all this” – the charbroiled hobo behind the dumpster. The opening of Lynch’s films are often encapsulated creation myths: Blue Velvet’s offers a geologic cross-section of this dualist tendency – here, the lawn and there, the bugs.

Something about that road in particular

Mulholland Dr. holds a peculiar position within Lynch’s body of work. A greater commercial and critical success than any film he’d made since Blue Velvet, it’s also more overtly marked by the (commercial) conditions of its making than anything else he’s been involved with – indeed it’s structured in response to them. It was initially commissioned as a pilot by ABC Television, then rejected for unspecified reasons. An infusion of French money allowed Lynch ten additional days of shooting, provided he could find some way to wrap the dangling story threads together. And the film as it stands bears every mark of those divisions, running about two thirds pilot, one third new material.

It’s hard to ignore this split, since the two sections move so differently – and especially since the first moves exactly like a TV pilot, throwing out a new plot strand and group of characters every ten minutes or so. This was undoubtedly a factor in its greater popularity, since the pilot material offers a friendlier welcome than much of Lynch’s recent work and the completed film also suggests a tidier, puzzle-box structure – a mystery contained within comfortable, explicable parameters as opposed to the disconcerting tendency of both earlier and later films to open out into the cosmos.


The space between worlds is theatrical, some sort of stage set, because it’s here that the conditions of life flatten into representation and its motions are distilled into an essential form or substance. “Give me your garmonbozia,” says ‘Man from Another Place’ in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and the subtitles helpfully gloss this term as “pain and suffering”. A lifetime’s production of pain and suffering is equivalent to a mid-sized bowl of creamed corn in both volume and texture, we discover, as it splatters across the Red Room’s zigzag floor. These entities appear to feed on strong emotion – for Lynch, as for Rilke, we are the bees of the invisible. Earth is “a learning world”, Lynch told author Greg Olson, and the curriculum appears heavily weighted towards the twinned subjects of suffering and love.

Such distillation to essence and attraction to extremes, in a slightly less severe form, might also serve to characterise the various modes of Lynchian performance. He’s singularly brave and direct in his approach to heightened emotion, which makes him a rare creature in a modern movie menagerie that generally prefers to peer into such areas through thickets of irony. His approach is stylised but not mocking, though his proclivity for searching for new tones through the contrast of disjunctive elements – say Deputy Andy’s crying fit on the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body in the Twin Peaks pilot (1990) – frequently lands somewhere hard to peg. He seems to draw a frame around each beat and hold it in place for independent observation for a moment before moving on.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Michael Atkinson: Archival Trouble -- The fiction-free science fiction of Adam Curtis

Archival Trouble: The fiction-free science fiction of Adam Curtis
by Michael Atkinson
Moving Image Source


Curtis's brand of deep politics isn't theorist Peter Dale Scott's—he's concerned less with deliberate conspiracy than with the cascade of sociopolitical dominoes, beginning somewhere mysteriously decades ago, tumbling in a semi-secret dialectical train of disaster since, and culminating in flat-out catastrophe, be it 9/11 or the world economic meltdown or merely the Reagan-era state of rampaging consumerist narcissism. Formally, Curtis manufactures his flowcharts with the simplest means available: archival footage, talking heads, calm but ominous narration, associative montage, a pervasive sense of doomsday. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is paradigmatic: Curtis begins, as his Richard Brautigan-quoting title suggests, with the familiar suspicion that the mechanization of our lives is winding inexorably toward a dystopian nightmare in which the matrix of microprocessors and A.I.'s will end up commanding us, not vice versa.

But right away it's clear that Curtis isn't hypothesizing about a terrifying future, but unearthing the hidden patterns that have created the present moment. The villains are not machines. Curtis trips backward, as is his wont, to the '50s and the rise of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist creed in turn gave fitful birth to a spate of influential ideologies, all of which decided that both nature and human society were essentially self-sustaining, equilibrium-seeking logical mechanisms, and could be managed thus. "This is the story," Curtis intones, "of the rise of the dream of the self-organizing system, and the strange machine fantasy of nature that underpins it." The tales he tells to illustrate this harrowing and almost completely overlooked social saga all intertwine, and run from the "spaceship Earth" ideas of Buckminster Fuller, the communes that followed, the pessimistic forecasts of the Club of Rome, the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the genesis of the wholly fabricated Tutsi-Hutu dichotomy that turned Rwanda into a killing field more than once, the career of Dian Fossey, the late-century rollercoaster of economic feast and famine, and the work of theorist/geneticist George Price, who believed that humans were ultimately the slaves of their own genetic imperatives, and who demonstrated mathematically that both altruism and genocide were therefore rational acts, from "a gene's eye view" of things.

There's more, all of it reflecting back upon now; Curtis is nothing if not a staunch proselytizer for the idea of the past never being quite past. All Watched Over is more than a counter-story. Like all of Curtis's work it is approximately half well-circulated history and half "deep" background—that is, storylines and historical angles that have been pervasively and deliberately neglected by the gatekeepers of knowledge and information. The film feels something like a Craig Baldwin delusion-farce turned chillingly, menacingly factual, and the facts accrete into an interrogation of psychotic hubris. The Frankenstein monster constructed by the scientists and demagogues and politicians in All Watched Over is the last half-century or so of life on Earth, which in its ultimate tally amounts to a scoresheet of unimaginable injustice, mountains of bodies, and untold environmental ruin.

Curtis is in reality telling just one story, again and again in various threads and tangents and in dazzling three- or four-hour chunks, reaching back to the immediate postwar years and then forward to the present over and over, limning an infinitely complex genogram of our present existence. Ironically, for a history-rewriting filmmaker/producer boxing so much information into evenings of television, Curtis is fierce about the disastrous effects brought about by the artificial and intellectualized imposition of order. He began in his present mode with 1992's Pandora's Box, a massive autopsy on the worldwide cataclysms that unrolled as a result of every kind of postwar effort to systematize, organize, compel, and codify humanity, from Soviet over-industrialization to game-theory Cold War strategies to Keynesian economics to nuclear-power utopianism. Politically, this is a rocket targeted not at the Right per se, but upward, at the power elite, whose perpetual folly in trying to maximize profit and control leads ceaselessly to societal breakdown—a condition very often beside the point for the elite in question, once they've stood to benefit. The Century of the Self (2002) goes all attack-ad on this dynamic, specifically homing in on propagandist/marketing mahatma Edward Bernays, and how he used Freudian psychoanalytic insights to initiate the gold rush of institutionalized thought control—advertising, propaganda, public relations—that could be said to absolutely dominate 20th-century public discourse.

Curtis's vision seemed wholly formed at first, despite the fact that he's obviously digging up unknown connections with each new project. But it took the spiral mindquake of 9/11 for Curtis's reverse-engineered prophecies to gain a global profile. The Power of Nightmares (2004) follows the gunpowder trails from the mid-century (uniting Muslim Brotherhood messiah Sayyid Qutb and neocon pope-king Leo Strauss as complementary agents of desolation) to the attacks of 2001, and then maintains that, just as the farcical depiction of the USSR as a global spider kingdom of evil influence is destroyed by direct testimony from CIA agents and a lying Donald Rumsfeld in old news footage, the sudden postulation of Al Qaeda as a terrifying, organized worldwide threat was a manufactured myth used by Western governments and agencies to broaden and tighten their grip on international power systems and the profit to be gained therein.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

To watch Adam Curtis's documentaries online:

Pandora's Box: A Fable From the Age of Science (1992)

The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past (1995)

The Century of the Self (2002)

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004)

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007)

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Graham Fuller: Jean Vigo -- Artist of the floating world

Jean Vigo: Artist of the floating world
by Graham Fuller
Sight and Sound

Jean Vigo’s great work about a pair of troubled newly-weds and the crusty old mate with the Hapsburg jaw and unfettered imagination who travels with them aboard the Normandy freight barge L’Atalante was based on a one-page scenario by Jean Guinée. This was the pen name of Roger de Guichen, who had been intrigued by the sight of a woman helming a barge on the Seine, and had named his fictional vessel after a frigate commanded by one of his ancestors in the Seven Years War. Following the banning of Vigo’s Zéro de conduite in 1933, the director’s supportive producer Jacques-Louis Nounez sent him Guinée’s scenario hoping it would deter him from the kind of radical experimentation that had illuminated Vigo’s scabrous 42-minute satire of boarding-school life.

“What the fuck do you want me to do with this? It’s Sunday-school stuff,” was Vigo’s response when he read the scenario. It was workaday melodrama. Juliette, the young wife, bored with the monotony and domestic drudgery of her life on the barge after the initial erotic charge of her marriage has dwindled, runs away from her conservative husband Jean, the skipper, for an afternoon of window-shopping in Paris, only to find herself stranded when he angrily takes off in the barge. Her handbag is stolen, she’s propositioned, she fears for her survival. The husband languishes, despite the kindly attempts of the mate, le père Jules, to rouse him. In Guinée’s scenario, Juliette is found by the old salt in a church. Penitent, she returns to Jean, confirming she is faithful. But Guinée pessimistically concluded in his synopsis, “Happiness has fled the vessel.”

Despite his reservations, Vigo sensed he could tell the story imaginatively. Nounez struck a deal whereby he would cover the running costs while Gaumont provided studio space, cameras and distribution. Vigo and his co-writer Albert Riéra would eliminate Guinée’s moralising, take advantage of the on-shore plight of Juliette (Dita Parlo) to show the inroads of the Depression and expose the spite of the petit bourgeois mob and the brutality of the police – and use music and magic to bring her home to Jean (Jean Dasté). The genie-like le père Jules (Michel Simon), who discovers her working in a palais de chansons instead of telling her rosary in a church, carries her out on his shoulder, as if she were one of the many cats that cling to him on the barge.

In October 1933, just before shooting, Vigo told a Belgian journalist that he was using Guinée’s scenario “merely as a loose frame allowing me to work with images of the waterways, the environment of the canal-workers, and the actors”. He was as good as his word. The connecting thread of L’Atalante is the realist footage depicting the harsh, unremitting lives of the crew and the waterfront folk as the barge heads to Paris and, minus Juliette, on to Le Havre. Contrasting with the voyage sequences, however, are exquisitely sensual flights into surrealism. Jean, believing an old wives’ tale told him by Juliette in the first days of their marriage, dives into the icy river to seek a glimpse of her underwater, whereupon she is magically superimposed over him in her wedding dress as he swims. (Vigo drew on his 1931 short about a swimming champion, Taris ou la Natation.) Then Jean and Juliette, though miles apart, ‘make love’ by dreaming erotically of each other in parallel scenes, their bodies impressionistically speckled in unifying dots of shadow. L’Atalante.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Joshua Land: Migrating Forms - David Cronenberg and the challenge of the impossible adaptation

Migrating Forms: David Cronenberg and the challenge of the impossible adaptation
by Joshua Land
Moving Image Source

What makes a film a successful literary adaptation? Ask a random literate moviegoer, and they're likely to answer that a good film adaptation should be "like the book" (or play). In other words, a successful adaptation is a faithful adaptation. What then is a faithful adaptation? One that follows the story of the original text, of course. It's this fixation on story that prompts the common contention that most great modernist and postmodernist novels, which often either lack a traditional story or integrate story elements with discursive material, are "unfilmable." One possible strategy of adaptation is to "flatten out" the original by simply discarding everything that doesn't move the story along, as in Philip Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carrière's version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a conventional 1980s Euro-prestige picture that preserves the novel's plot line while eliding the philosophical digressions and ruminations on love and kitsch that are essential to its meaning. So is it a successful adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel? Well, that depends on what you mean by "successful."

Over the latter half of his career, David Cronenberg has intervened in this tiresome discussion with a series of what have been termed "impossible adaptations." In films like Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996), adaptations of novels once regarded as unfilmable, Cronenberg approaches the problem of adaptation from a different angle. One of these films closely follows the story of its source novel and one does not, but both could be described as successful—and even, after a fashion, faithful—adaptations.

Discussion of adaptations is often haunted by the unresolved question of whether a film should be regarded as merely the extension of a literary work into another form, or as a separate work entirely. Cronenberg's Naked Lunch takes that decision out of the viewer's hands to the extent that it's not really an adaptation of William S. Burroughs's novel at all—at least if adaptation is conceived primarily in terms of story. While most of the movie's major characters and settings (as well as the famous "talking asshole" anecdote) come from the Burroughs novel, it also draws from other Burroughs writings as well as the author's life. Seeing Naked Lunch is in no way a substitute for reading the book, or vice versa—which may be precisely the point.

Talking centipedes and organic typewriters notwithstanding, Naked Lunch is relatively restrained by the standards of Cronenberg's previous work, marking, along with Dead Ringers (1988), a transition between the director's visceral early films and the cooler, more formalist late work. The outré visual effects are played more for laughs than chills. Indeed, Naked Lunch might be Cronenberg's funniest film, beginning with the ironic casting of Robocop himself, Peter Weller, as the alter ego of the outlaw writer. Weller's stone-faced performance positions the film's protagonist, William Lee, as a straight man (pun intended) who takes its bizarre happenings in stride. Recounting a not atypical incident in which his Clark Nova typewriter kills and disembowels a potential rival instrument, Lee deadpans: "I understood writing could be dangerous. I didn't realize the danger came from the machinery."

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, May 7, 2012

Aaron Cutler: Multiple Vision -- Deciphering the isolated gazes in the films of Béla Tarr

Multiple Vision: Deciphering the isolated gazes in the films of Béla Tarr
by Aaron Cutler
Moving Image Source

This scene arrives about 40 minutes into Béla Tarr's new and (as he has claimed) final film, The Turin Horse. The horse's refusal to move comes on the second day of the film's six, and is one of the most startling interruptions of the daily routines of its owners, a father and daughter, who spend their storm-swept days dressing themselves and cooking and eating potatoes. What's unnerving about this moment isn't just the cruelty that the man inflicts on the animal, which has been established from the opening, as the man drives his beast of burden forward. It's also the sensation, at several points throughout the scene, of the horse looking directly at us, and of its expression signaling nothing. As we stare at the stable door, long after the people leave, we might wonder: Is it possible to think nothing?

The question of whether people can actually live without thought, and the possible ramifications of such life, have arisen throughout his career, which began with straightforward social dramas in the late '70s and early '80s and then, as the Eastern bloc dissolved, pushed toward the abstract. The horror in his films changed from government agencies controlling characters' thoughts to characters suppressing their own. The horse is the extreme of emptiness. Its gaze disturbs because, in most movies, we expect to find motivation in characters' actions, and motives usually lie in the face. Whatever is in the horse's face, though, will stay a mystery.

"Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension," W.G. Sebald wrote. But Tarr's movies don't settle for just this moral—the horse's enormous, inscrutable expression is part of a large network of isolated gazes, including ours. Consider the ending of Tarr's previous film, The Man From London (2007), when a murderer comes face-to-face with his victim's wife. Mrs. Brown has seen things we haven't—her husband's body lies inside a shed we never enter, our eyes lingering on a wooden wall whenever characters go inside. When confronted with the killer, she doesn't seem sad, or angry. She's blank.

Both these gazes—the horse's, and the woman's—suggest violence internalized. Mrs. Brown's life has been obliterated as her husband's has been, but her fate is worse, because she has to keep living.

Nothing is either good or bad unless thinking makes it so. A terrible sight in a Tarr movie traumatizes because of how it wounds not the eyes, but the mind. The pre-London film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), shows a mob trashing a hospital until its members are shamed into leaving—an old man, trembling, looks at them, and by doing so makes them see themselves. We think we've watched everything. But then the camera shifts to a young witness, János, wide-eyed and trembling. He's seen something we haven't. What?

To Read the Rest of the Essay and to Access Clips of the Scenes Discussed

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rob White: Institutionalized

by Rob White
Film Quarterly

“Do you think we beat our wives and children like animals? I swear on this Quran, we’re humans just like you,” says unemployed cobbler Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to a schoolteacher (Merila Zare’i) at one point in A Separation, and it is tempting to think about both this Iranian arthouse thriller and Alexander Payne’s return in terms of fellow feeling across class, age, gender lines. Consider similar sad moments in each film. In Asghar Farhadi’s drama, bank worker Nader (Peyman Maadi) starts to quietly cry while he is spongewashing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. In The Descendants Scott (Robert Forster), a bullying patriarch (whose wife has Alzheimer’s too) softly kisses his comatose daughter in her hospital bed. We catch glimpses of proud men’s secret pain; their care for the incapacitated bodies of loved ones vouchsafes a fundamental compassionate humanity. Such scenes of solicitude trigger our own empathy—yet that same tender response is exactly what risks obscuring a sinister institutional dimension overshadowing the personal pathos.

A Separation begins with Simin (Leila Hatami) petitioning for divorce from Nader. He agrees, but with the impossible proviso that he retain custody of eleven-year-old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own daughter). The characters look to camera as they give their depositions: the initial viewpoint is the presiding judge’s and after the spouses move out of frame the director’s credit appears like a clerk’s endorsement of the record. The marital crisis escalates tragically afterwards when Nader argues with pregnant Razieh (Sareh Bayat), Hodjat’s wife. Employed to tend Nader’s taciturn, incontinent father, Razieh leaves the old man home alone because of an urgent doctor’s appointment. Nader is furious when he realizes, and thrusts Razieh out the door. She falls and later has a miscarriage. Bitter recriminations ensue: Nader vehemently denies that he was aware of Razieh’s condition when he mistreated her; the teacher (who had been in the apartment earlier) corroborates his claim, testimony that will eventually prompt Hodjat’s outburst about being human too. And so the dense, ingeniously regulated plot of A Separation goes on. The director has compared the narration to a crossword puzzle—a good analogy so long as it is understood that the mode is cryptic. Farhadi omits the most important incident of all, and information such as the reason for Razieh’s absence only emerges belatedly (and perhaps unreliably) in conversation. Vignettes such as the sponge-washing, filmed in a plausibly unsteady handheld style, are the pretenses of intimacy that distract from the storytelling’s iron grip.

To Read the Rest of the Essay