Friday, November 30, 2012

Connor Kilpatrick: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
by Connor Kilpatrick

Whatever Spielberg says — there’s no comparing an empty-suit like Obama to a radical like Lincoln.

I thought about writing a critique of Aaron Bady’s mostly very good review of Lincoln for a long time this morning. It was a tough call: I do have some enamel left on my teeth and I can think of nothing else that could threaten to grind it all down to dust than publicly saying anything —anything at all — that could be construed as a defense of either Steven Spielberg’s politics or Barack Obama.

So I don’t want to defend the movie, which I thought was fine for what it was. Actually, by the standards of Hollywood history flicks, I thought it was more than fine.

Bady’s right to call out Kushner and Spielberg as card-carrying Obamaphiles. And it’s more than clear, particularly through interviews, that Kushner and Spielberg want us to connect the dots they’ve carefully laid out between Abe and Barack. Obama himself has done everything possible to encourage the comparison—even being sworn into office on Lincoln’s very own bible.

In their shared liberal revisionism, the Thirteenth Amendment becomes ObamaCare. The Emancipation Proclamation becomes a return to the marginal tax rates of the Clinton era. Thaddeus Stevens morphs into a fantasy of Bernie Sanders “doing the right thing” and sitting down with the prez to cut healthcare for the poor and elderly.

It’s laughable. But instead of calling them out, too many leftists concede this characterization of Lincoln and the Republicans to the Obamaphiles. They seem to believe that the first crop of Republicans did little more than press an official rubber stamp on “history from below” which had already delivered its verdict across the land.

The argument seems to be: “Spielberg says Lincoln and Obama are rubber-stampers. They are. But he’s wrong when he says that such men are the true makers of history.” Then they go looking elsewhere for the real revolutionaries, who can’t possibly have anything to do with these mere ‘stampers.

The question is why are we letting Spielberg, Kushner, and Obama get away with this?

Abraham Lincoln and the early Republicans (to say nothing of the Liberty Party or Free Soilers before them) shared a vision of a radically different society. Wiping out slavery — either through immediate abolition or through the “cordon of freedom” policy of the Republican Party — was hardly a technocratic reform.

And when it became clear that the only way to get there would be through revolutionary means, they took it without flinching: slaves were being emancipated as “contraband” by the summer of 1861, with the first Confiscation Act — written and debated in Congress explicitly as an emancipation act — signed into law that August, less than four months after the start of the war. The endgame of military emancipation had long been on the minds of antislavery politicians, all the way back to John Quincy Adams who first laid out such a scenario in 1836.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Final Papers for ENG 281 Papers -- Final Date and Turn In Instructions

Just a reminder that your paper must be turned in by 4PM on Tuesday, December 4th. Bring it to my office Oswald Building 236B, If I am not there, slide it under my door.

Here is some musical inspiration:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Maximilian Yoshioka: History or Humanity? On Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death - A Nietzschean Perspective on Nanjing

History or Humanity? On Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death: A Nietzschean Perspective on Nanjing
by Maximilian Yoshioka
Bright Lights Film Journal

In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army stormed into the city of Nanjing in China, causing massive physical and human devastation, in what is now known as the "Rape of Nanjing." The incident, and the broader scheme of Japanese militarism and imperialism in which it took place, is today still a constant source of political tension between the two nation-states and their respective citizens. The 2009 film City of Life and Death, by Chinese auteur Lu-Chuan, is a bold attempt to dig up and redefine the specter of Nanjing that continues to haunt the East Asian consciousness. But instead of ideologically measuring one side or the other on a Manichean scale, Lu chooses to focus on the instances of human compassion and solidarity that are able to manifest themselves even in the mindless, brutal atmosphere he so effectively creates within the cinematic world.

What one comes to grasp after seeing the film is the ultimate importance of history as first and foremost a study of the human condition, and of the art of living itself, as opposed to scientifically detached observation and categorization. The continuities of human consciousness and memory mean that our experiences of the past are necessarily intertwined with those of the present; as individuals inescapably grounded in a specific historical period, we are unable to avoid this contemporizing process. Furthermore, it is something that must be embraced, for it allows us to incorporate these historical "peaks" (and crevasses) of human experience into our future actions and values. But in this integration of the present with the past there is the danger of a selective blindness toward the past that must be understood and overcome. However, the purpose of history as a guide to the present and the future, to "life," must still be emphasized over the "neutral," "objective" study of history as "fact," "statistic," or what Nietzsche, in his essay "The Use and Abuse of History, refers to disparagingly as the "World Process" — that is, an attitude of detached passivity toward a historical narrative that is falsely seen as predetermined and unalterable.

City of Life and Death's narrative shifts between several characters on both sides of the conflict, which allows the film to largely transcend distinctions of nationality and ideology and focus on the more basic human tragedy underlying it. One is never informed of the strategic or ideological Japanese justifications for the various massacres and battles throughout the film; there is no attempt to rationalize the violence. Instead the viewer is presented with a war that is absurd, irrational, and pointless, and this nonpartisan alignment allows for the emergence of a more universal, humanistic perspective that links the various key characters in the film through their shared ethical commitments. These include Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi), Lu Jianxiong (Liu Ye), a Chinese resistance fighter, John Rabe (John Paisley), a German who ran a demilitarized safety zone within Nanjing, his assistant, Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), and several female characters of both Japanese and Chinese origin, all of whom are faced with sexual violence and slavery due to the notorious Japanese "comfort women" policies.

This humanistic impulse manifests itself in various ways, but is mostly emphasized in authentic moments of kindness, empathy, and bravery that shine through the madness. At the end of the film, Kadokawa, under orders to execute two Chinese civilians, one of whom is a young boy, instead decides to release them into the wilderness, much to the amazement but also admiration of his inferior officer. Yet even this act of compassion is insignificant in comparison to what he has previously been required to do and see; under the weight of an intolerable conscience, he kills himself. Earlier in the film he also falls in love with a Japanese prostitute brought in to satisfy the soldiers' animalistic needs; his genuine feelings of care and affection for her contrast strikingly with the objectifying and dehumanizing attitudes of the other soldiers. John Rabe, the only nonfictional character in the film, was a member of the Nazi Party, a group, like the Japanese, condemned for its role in the Second World War. Along with several other missionaries, he saved large numbers of Chinese civilians by instating a safety zone within Nanjing, and his inclusion further demonstrates the director's commitment to a study of war centered on individual human beings rather than political identities.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Marilyn Adler Papayanis: Sex on the Beach - The Yin Yang of Female Sex Tourism in Two Films

Sex on the Beach: The Yin Yang of Female Sex Tourism in Two Films
by Marilyn Adler Papayanis
Bright Lights Film Journal

With the recent screening of Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the spectacle of female sex tourism has washed up, once again, on the shoals of popular culture. According to reviewers, it is not a pretty sight. Women who travel to the spaces peripheral to "modernity" and, by the way, have sex with the natives are not rare; however, in the continuum of capital expansion that stretches from colonialism to globalization, such practices tend to lose their luster as a kind of radical cultural immersion. For men, of course, such sexual adventurism would hardly qualify as a narrative with anything new to say. The notion, however, that women would travel to remote or less developed parts of the world for the express purpose of having sex with men who are, in many cases, younger and poorer than they are seems to cut against the grain. Yet many studies show this to be the case. Whether characterized as "sex" tourism (commercial sex with the locals) or "romance" tourism (commercial sex with the trappings of a "real" relationship), this practice has inspired a good deal of academic research in the social sciences and in popular literature as well. In her 2006 book Romance on the Road: Traveling Women Who Love Foreign Men, journalist Jeanette Belliveau describes her subjects as "sex pilgrims." According to the Amazon review, her book is "the complete reference for anyone who wants to learn about a hidden phenomenon that affects hundreds of thousands of traveling women and foreign men: Instant vacation love affairs that banish loneliness, provide cultural insights, offer one-on-one, hand-to-hand foreign aid to the world's poor, create international children and sometimes even change the course of history."

Who can beat that? I believe, however, that the representation of female sex tourism in the cultural imagination is also worthy of study, as such depictions reveal a great deal about the anxieties aroused by the "aging" woman's sexuality. The staging of this cultural moment is explored in two radically different films, both, coincidentally, derived from works of fiction: the breezy How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), based on the book by Terry McMillan, and the far more disturbing French film Heading South (2005), based, in large part, on a short story by the Haitian writer Dany Laferrière. Both films indulge the notion that sex in the tropics with a dark-skinned exotic youth is all it takes to cure the malaise of the older woman. In one sense, the autonomy of the woman traveler is a real marker of progress. Sadly, though, the representation of female empowerment in these films is either complicit with racist attitudes still fraught with the lingering spirit of colonialism (Heading South) or in thrall to patriarchal norms (Stella.) In the former, sex tourism is punished; in the latter, it is celebrated.

We learn from the literature that women who sleep with the locals are not a uniform class. They vary in age and in their choice of destination; they vary in terms of their motivations and attitudes toward both their exotic partners and the imaginative geographies in which their partners are embedded. Improbably, for example, the Sinai is a popular venue for cross-cultural couplings. Some "ethnosexual" boundary crossings appear to pass unnoticed, while others are more disturbing, usually because they involve pairings between privileged white tourists of a certain age and marginal youths who navigate the interstices of the official institutions of tourism. Joane Nagel first used the term "ethnosexual" to describe "the intersection and interaction between ethnicity and sexuality and the ways each defines and depends on the other for its meaning and power" (10). In the Americas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica are popular venues for the pursuit of ethnosexual adventurism. These are destinations where the opportunity for women to have sexual or romantic liaisons with exotic Others further complicates the shadowy social relations in the "contact zone" where, for centuries, sexual commerce between male travelers and the natives, male or female, have followed, roughly, the contours of imperial power. The term "contact zone" was coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her groundbreaking study Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation to describe "social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination, like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today" (3).

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Aaron Bady: Lincoln Against the Radicals

Lincoln Against the Radicals
by Aaron Bady


In short, if you widen your field of view, you will discover that W.E.B. Du Bois argued a century ago—and as the historical scholarship has increasingly come to agree—that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.

In short, the idea that the white north “gave” freedom to the slaves draws from and reinforces an attractively simple and flattering myth, one which formed around the old historiography of the period like a noose cutting off oxygen to the brain: the myth that black slaves were rendered passive by their condition, and that—absent an outside force interrupting their state of un-freedom—they would simply have continued, as slaves, indefinitely. It’s only in this narrative that freedom can be a thing which is given to them: because they are essentially passive and inert, they require someone else—say, a great emancipator—to step in and raise them up.

W.E.B. Du Bois was already chipping away at this myth in 1909, but when scholars in the post-Civil Rights era started taking him and his 1935 Black Reconstruction seriously, the historiographic mainstream turned this myth on its head. Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed—as the South collapsed politically and militarily—they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands. At this point, the game was up; just as the institution of slavery had always depended on substantial governmental enforcement and support, it would have taken a substantial amount of violent force to re-impose it, a concerted project to re-establish slavery that no one in the north had any particular stomach for. At the end of the Civil War, to put it simply, the North had a simple choice: re-imposing slavery by force or accept the new reality. They chose the latter.

If you read these books, however, you’d gain a sense of perspective that the film works to make impossible. Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera. “The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film,” as Kate Masur points out, and Lincoln’s own servants were leaders and organizers in this community, something of which Lincoln simply could not have been unaware. But the film makes a point of not showing any of this: while the vast majority of the movie takes place in cramped and smoky rooms, even the exterior shots (usually of conversations in moving wagons) show us very little of what was going on in the streets and neighborhoods of Washington (much less what was going on in the South). Which is to say: they give us the illusion of perspective without giving us its substance. They show you the elephant’s tail quite accurately, and then they declare, on that basis, that the entire beast is a snake.

In the big picture, the Thirteenth Amendment, on its own, just isn’t that important, and much of the forced suspense of the movie—will they pass it?—comes from an artificial sense that more is at stake in a single congressional bill than there actually was. As Eric Foner pointed out when he was asked about the movie, if it hadn’t passed when it did, Lincoln had pledged to call Congress into special session in March; “[a]nd there, the Republicans had a two-thirds majority and would ratify in a minute…It’s not this giant crisis in the way that the film’s portraying it.” This is important because the small picture is not the big picture in miniature, and taking it to be—taking the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to be 19th centuries democratic turning point, as this movie clearly does—will cause us to subordinate the big picture to the small picture.

To Read the Entire Essay

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Norman Ball: The Power of Auteurs and the Last Man Standing -- Adam Curtis' Documentary Nightmares

The Power of Auteurs and the Last Man Standing: Adam Curtis' Documentary Nightmares
by Norman Ball
Bright Lights Film Journal

Before this essay interrogates Adam Curtis' hidden vestibules, gimpy tripods, and grassy knolls, I'd like to say that any book or film that keeps me thinking a year after I encounter it passes my substantiality test. The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self easily fit this category. (I saw All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, The Living Dead, and bits of The Trap only last week.) To survive the immediate frame of the modern attention span is to escape the charge of empty spectacle. You can't fake sustained recollection.

Substance need not equate to wholesale affirmation, however. A good polemic dusts off the thinking caps even of its opponents. Curtis' films provide, at the very least, dialectical lightning rods for alternate narrative threads. Can the same be said for (insert any American TV show)?

In recent weeks Curtis has been arguing for television (BBC being the originating medium for his documentary films, though an American audience can view them on Youtube and Vimeo) to refashion its storytelling techniques ("Adam Curtis Argues TV Needs 'New Tools' to Tell Its Stories," The Guardian, August 22, 2012). It should be fascinating to see where Curtis' films conduct television in the coming months and years. Now, if we could only get American TV to mosey on over to where Curtis has already been, that would be advancement indeed. Right now, stateside viewers are All Kvetched Over by Whole Reams of Will and Grace, but only on DVD due to some contractual disputes that preclude syndication and broadcast. Curtis offers many of his films for free on the Internet. Need I kvetch more?

The award-winning The Century of the Self (2002) offers a devastating critique of our subliminal cooptation from a lifetime's exposure to "father of public relations" Eddie Bernays' propaganda techniques. Whoops, did I just say propaganda? Bernays' most diligent pupil, Josef Goebbels, is rolling over in his hell-pit right now. Let's leave it at public relations. I'm particularly fond of Bernays' quote (very crudely paraphrased here) that democracy is a wonderful system so long as he, Bernays, exerted final subliminal pull over the lever pulled inside the voting booth. Historian Carroll Quigley (mentor of a certain Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton), upon being made privy to the papers of the American elite, realized that nothing was left to chance, not even 50-50 propositions. In what's often referred to as the Quigley Principle, this Georgetown professor torpedoed the notion of a vigorous two-party system. Both levers are vetted and fixed. Here he is paraphrasing the mindset of the government behind the government: "The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy" (Carroll Quigley, from Tragedy and Hope).

This is not a call to embrace monolithic conspiracy theories. There often is, as Quigley went on to suggest, dissension at the highest levels of power. Jealousy is after all a facet of power. Bernays too saw the value of ostensible choice in a democratic-capitalist system where everything boils down to packaging anyway. A typical Bernays adBy the end of WWII, needs in America had, by and large, been put to bed. Desire was the ultimate lever, a grail of incalculable dual potential. Freud's irrational man, with his limitless storehouse of appetites and anxieties, would furnish economic growth ad infinitum. Never mind that natural resources such as oil and copper are ultimately finite. For the moment, sustainment models such as that proposed by Jay Forrester and the Club of Rome's 1972 Limits to Growth (covered extensively in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace) loomed in the near-distance.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

More Resources on Adam Curtis:

The Guardian: Adam Curtis argues TV needs 'new tools' to tell its stories

Monday, November 26, 2012

Graham Daesler: Cutters' Way - The Mysterious Art of Film Editing

Cutters' Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing
by Graham Daesler
Bright Lights Film Journal


Porter's experiments, however fumbling they appear in hindsight, point us to a curious quandary at the heart of filmmaking: what is it that makes cutting work? How is it that we accept such a violent transition — whether it be from a wide shot to a close-up, from Paris to the Sahara desert, or from the seventeenth century to the present — as a cut? "Nothing in our day-to-day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing," Walter Murch observes. "From the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images: In fact, for millions of years — tens, hundreds of millions of years — life on Earth has experienced the world in this way. Then suddenly, at the beginning of the twentieth century, human beings were confronted with something else — edited film."11 What prepared them for this? Not painting, not theater, not even literature, cinematic as some of Dickens's scenes now appear. Murch speculates that it was dreams. "We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams," he writes. "In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, 'This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.'"12 Director John Huston saw it differently. Cinema, he said, was not just a reflection of our dream lives but the very essence of conscious thought, with its fitful jumble of visuals and sound: "To me the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. It's like thought. It's the closest to thought process of any art."13 Watch the final moments of his film The Dead (1987) and you'll have some idea of what he's talking about. As Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) gazes out the frosty filigree of his Dublin window, somberly musing on the emptiness of his life, the film, with no more than a few simple cuts, slips aboard his stream of consciousness as it glides from thought to thought: from past memories to future projections to the lonely churchyard on the hill where his wife's lover lies buried.

The first person to truly discover this cinematic language was D. W. Griffith, who was to early cinema what Jane Austen was to the English novel. He saw what Porter failed to see in The Life of an American Fireman: that you could crosscut between different points of view in a scene to create suspense. Perhaps his most signal technique, for which he is still remembered today, is the accelerated pace of cutting that he used during moments of heightened tension, as in The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and The Birth of a Nation (1915), rapidly cutting between heroes and villains during chases and rescues. In this manner, he showed that, with some clever editing, he could subjugate time to his demands, either drawing it out for suspense or speeding it up for sudden denouement. Likewise, he dispensed with the custom, so reminiscent of the stage, of beginning a scene when a character enters a room, cutting instead at the moment of the important action, thereby accelerating the pace of the story. To show characters in thought, he used close-ups and cutaways (from a man's face, for example, to a shot of his sweetheart miles away) rather than the cartoonish dream balloons employed by previous filmmakers. Not only did this last technique prove that simple cuts could simulate consciousness, it established a dividing line between screen acting and stage acting that still exists to this day. In a tight close-up, a good actor need only think a thought to express it, rather than histrionically projecting to the back rows of the theater.

Early film cutting was a sometimes excruciating process. Editors viewed their movies in negative, making it difficult to tell one take from the next. Lacking any numbers on the film to guide them, they were forced to pore over millions of frames by hand, using minute alterations in the image to find their bearings. "Sometimes there'd be a tiny pinpoint on the negative and then you knew you were right," Margaret Booth recalls. "But it was very tedious work. Close-ups of Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm would go on for miles, and they'd be very similar."14 Most prohibitive, though, was the equipment, or rather the shocking lack of equipment. The essential tools of the trade consisted of a rewind bench, a magnifying glass, and an ordinary pair of scissors. The only way you could see the film in motion was to screen it, so editors took to pulling the film through their fingers to simulate movement. The work must have been exceedingly tiresome, yet it evokes a wonderful image, like some kind of strange tailor's shop, with reams of footage dangling from the walls and the editors, strands of film clenched in their teeth, unspooling bolts of celluloid before their eyes. If they wanted three seconds of footage, they held the film to the tip of their nose and pulled it out to the length of their arm. If they wanted to view it in progress, they hauled it into the projection room and screened it, then carried it back to the editing table to get chopped up some more.

All this changed with the invention of the Moviola in 1919. A chunky, frog-green machine with foot pedals to run the film and a four-inch spy hole to view it, the Moviola was the brainchild of Iwan Serrurier, a Dutch-born electrical engineer who designed the contraption on a whim, as a diversion from his job at the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in Pasadena. Originally, Serrurier tried to sell his gadget as a home-entertainment device (the name itself, Moviola, was chosen for its happy harmony with Victrola, the popular phonograph), but, at $600, it was too expensive for most families in 1920 to afford. Then in 1924, Serrurier ran across an editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios who suggested he adapt it as an editing table for the movie industry. Serrurier "roughed together" a model that very weekend, turning it on its side and attaching a viewing lens and a hand crank he'd lifted from a clock.16 With that, the first editing machine was born. It arrived just in time, too. With the coming of sound, there was no way an editor, no matter how sharp-eyed, could sync sound to silent lips. To accomplish this aural feat, the Moviola was simply fitted with an additional sprocket for the soundtrack to run on, making possible the explosion of talkies that burst from Hollywood, beginning in 1927. After that, the device changed little. It was hefty, ugly, noisy (more than one editor compared the clanking it made to a sewing machine) and, because of its tilted viewer, required the user to sit hunched over all day at a forty-five-degree angle. Yet it remained the mainstay of the film industry for the next seventy years, an unequivocal, if curious, testament to its durability, almost as if the Model T had persisted as the car-of-choice until the new millennium.

To Read the Entire Essay

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Films We Want to See #18: A Royal Affair (Denmark/Sweden/Czech Republic: Nikolaj Arcel, 2012)

Robert Fowler: Artifact - A musician’s struggle against a giant corporation

Artifact: A musician’s struggle against a giant corporation
By Robert Fowler
World Socialist Web Site

Jared Leto is perhaps best known to the general public for his work as a film actor, most notably in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). However, in recent years he has devoted his attention to the world of music, as the lead singer of Thirty Seconds to Mars.

Artifact, directed by Leto himself, under the pseudonym Bartholomew Cubbins (of Dr. Seuss fame), revolves around major record label EMI’s decision to sue the band for $30 million in August 2008. The film was screened November 8 as part of the New York City documentary festival DOC NYC and previously, in September, at the Toronto film festival.

The “crime” committed by Leto’s group was simply wanting to excuse themselves from their existing, demonstrably illegitimate contract. EMI, however, claimed that Thirty Seconds to Mars had failed to deliver the three albums required by their agreement.

Leto and his band mates were understandably aggrieved at the fact that having sold over 2 million albums at the time of being taken to court, they had not received a penny in royalties and … were still $1.4 million in debt to EMI. This, as the film makes clear, is the standard operating procedure of the record companies, who are in the business, as one commentator notes, “of not paying musicians.”

Leto explained the predicament on the band’s web site: “We had been signed with them [EMI] for nine years. Under California law, where we lived and signed our deal one cannot be bound to a contract for more than seven years. …

“Yes, we have been sued by EMI. But NOT for failing to deliver music or for ‘quitting’. We have been sued by the corporation quite simply because roughly 45 days ago we exercised our legal right to terminate our old, out of date contract, which according to the law is null and void.

“We terminated for a number of reasons, which we won’t go into here (we’d rather not air dirty laundry) but basically our representatives could not get EMI to agree to make a fair and reasonable deal.”

Thirty Second to Mars’ struggle with EMI commenced just as the financial crisis erupted. The filming of what would become Artifact also began at that time and Leto, with a certain degree of self-importance, draws parallels between the plight of the band and global economic crisis. “As we are trying to make a deal with EMI the world is falling apart,” he comments. Nonetheless, insofar as the musician denounces the record giants and Wall Street as part of the same problem, he is on to something.

To Read the Rest of the Review

George Lucas: On Complete Control as an Artist

[MB: is this an artistic or a political statement?]

Before, once you've photographed something, you were pretty much stuck with it. Now ... you can have complete control over it just like an artist does, and that to me is the way it should be ... You can make shots conform to your idea after the fact, rather than trying to conform the world to what your idea is.
--George Lucas, in Magid, Ron. "George Lucas: Past, Present, and Future." American Cinematographer #78 (February 1997): 49-52.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Democracy Now: Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone on the Untold U.S. History from the Atomic Age to Vietnam to Obama’s Drone Wars

Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone on the Untold U.S. History from the Atomic Age to Vietnam to Obama’s Drone Wars
Democracy Now

Academy Award-winning Oliver Stone has teamed up with historian Peter Kuznick to produce a 10-part Showtime series called "Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States." Drawing on archival findings and recently declassified documents, the filmmakers critically examine U.S. history, from the atomic bombing of Japan to the Cold War, to the fall of communism, and continuing all the way through to the Obama administration. Contrary to what’s taught in schools across the country, the filmmakers found the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were militarily unnecessary and morally indefensible. They also suggest the Soviet Union, not the United States, ultimately defeated the Germans in World War II. And, they assert, the United States, not the Soviet Union, bore the lion’s share of responsibility for perpetuating the Cold War. The filmmakers also found U.S. presidents, especially in wartime, have frequently trampled on the Constitution and international law, and they note the United States has brought the world dangerously close to nuclear war by repeatedly brandishing nuclear threats. The first episode of the series aired Monday night on Showtime. For more about this series and the companion book, we are joined by Stone and Kuznick.


Oliver Stone, three-time Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter. A Vietnam War veteran, he has made around two dozen acclaimed Hollywood films, including Platoon, Wall Street, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, W., South of the Border and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. Oliver Stone has now co-written a 10-part Showtime series called Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. The first episode launched Monday night on Showtime. It also features a companion book with a similar name.

Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He is the co-writer on a 10-part Showtime series called Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.

To Watch the Episode

Margy Rochlin: Who’s That Man in the Iron Lung? John Hawkes Brings Years of Film Work to ‘The Sessions’

Who’s That Man in the Iron Lung? John Hawkes Brings Years of Film Work to ‘The Sessions’
By Margy Rochlin
The New York Times

EARLY last year the director Ben Lewin was looking for an actor to play the lead in “The Sessions,” a film he wrote based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet who had contracted polio as a young boy and spent most of his life in an iron lung. The casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, mentioned John Hawkes. “This is your man,” she assured him.

Unfamiliar with his work, Mr. Lewin watched “Winter’s Bone,” the drug thriller set in the Ozarks that won Mr. Hawkes an Oscar nomination. In it he plays a hard-mouthed meth dealer named Teardrop, a far cry from the severely disabled man of Mr. Lewin’s film, who with equal parts terror and courage seeks out a professional sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity. “What?” Mr. Lewin remembered thinking. “That creepy guy?”

Only after Mr. Lewin decided to check out some of the actor’s other films did he catch John Hawkes fever. “I thought, this guy’s incredible, just the diversity of what he can do.”

Mr. Lewin wouldn’t be the only one to have spent years seeing Mr. Hawkes in untold film and television appearances without being able to put a name to his thin, expressive face. Mr. Hawkes has worked steadily since the mid-’80s (his TV credits include “Wings,” “24” and “Deadwood”), yet when he received his dark-horse supporting-actor Oscar nomination in 2011, one headline seemed to sum it up: “Who Is John Hawkes, Anyway?”

Today it’s a different story: on the many blogs and Web sites devoted to predicting the winners of the 2013 Academy Awards, Mr. Hawkes’s name comes up frequently in conversations about best-actor nominations along with gold-star competition like Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”) and Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”).

Mr. Hawkes likes to think of himself as an “overpreparer,” and he certainly went the distance for “The Sessions,” in which his character spends much of the film encased in a huge metal apparatus with only his head showing. To approximate Mr. O’Brien’s condition — he had feeling in his body but was paralyzed except for one muscle in his right foot, a muscle in his neck and one in his jaw — Mr. Hawkes did everything from studying Jessica Yu’s Oscar-winning documentary short (“Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’ Brien”) to devoting a week stretched out on a couch teaching himself to punch in a phone number using a stick held in his mouth. Then there was the actual shoot, which required spending long days completely still with his neck craned at a 90-degree angle while co-stars like Helen Hunt and William H. Macy hovered over him. “Lying down and literally not having movement below your neck?” Mr. Hawkes said. “It was a particular challenge.” Mr. Hawkes did not see a finished version of “The Sessions” (a Fox Searchlight release) until its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where audience members leapt to their feet at the end. But Mr. Hawkes said he was most moved by what followed the applause: the sight of Mr. Lewin, who also had survived polio, coming to the front of the house for a postscreening discussion.

To Read the Rest of the Profile

David Bordwell: Return to Paranormalcy

Return to Paranormalcy
by David Bordwell
Observations on Film Art


The broad task that Peli faced when he began work on Paranormal Activity was clear: How to make a diabolic-possession film different from the others? By then, and still, that variant of horror was pretty well-defined. And indeed the film Peli came up with wasn’t that original in outline. A couple is disturbed by mysterious noises and actions in their house. They call in experts and try to find the source of the disturbance. Eventually the woman becomes possessed and kills her lover.

Throughout, the conventions of the supernatural film rule: sudden blackouts, bone-shaking noises emitted by offscreen fiends, and characters exploring basements, closets, moonlit yards, and other scary spaces. Special effects are invoked to levitate victims or drag them by unseen hands. Occasionally we’re faked out by scares launched as pranks that some characters pull on others. As usual, normal, i.e. bourgeois American life, is devastated by supernatural forces. Cozy domestic surroundings, including an array of consumer goods, become menacing. Much of all this was pioneered by The Exorcist (1973), so the tradition has plenty of cobwebs on it.

Shooting in seven days on a small budget, Peli settled on a formal framework that borrowed from another tradition, that of the pseudo-documentary fiction film. This too goes far back, to This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Bob Roberts (1992), and before to Stanton Kaye’s Georg (1964), Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967), and Mitchell Block’s No Lies (1972) , and Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). More distant predecessors might be Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, or even the fake memoirs we find in the early years of the novel. Today the pseudo-documentary mode, used for comic or dramatic purposes, is familiar to us from television shows like The Office. This mode has its own conventions, such as to-camera interviews and the occasionally awkward framing, most noticeable in the recurring image of a fallen camera.

The pseudo-documentary approach had been tried in the horror film in the 1980s, but it gained attention at the end of the 1990s with The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). No surprise: Horror films tend to be low-budget items, and shooting in a run-and-gun manner, with handheld shots and awkward sound, was both cheap and realistic-looking. A cycle emerged, exemplified most notably in the bigger-budget Cloverfield (2008).

The problem of the pseudo-documentary is to motivate the fact that someone is filming these dramas. Various solutions have been worked out. You might make the protagonist a filmmaker exploring a subject or creating a diary. Or you can pretend that the people being filmed are celebrities (as in Spinal Tap). Or make the act of filming an effort to document dramatic occurrences. Filmmakers face a second problem as well: motivating how the film has been made public. You can, for instance, present it as a TV or theatrical documentary, as Spinal Tap purports to be. More recently another solution has been found. You can suggest that this film has been discovered after the events were over.

Because of this rationale, the approach is sometimes called the “found-footage” treatment, or in Varietyese the “faux found-footage film.” I’m not delighted by this term because for a long time “found-footage” has referred to films like Bruce Conner’s A Movie or Christian Marclay’s The Clock, assembled out of existing footage scavenged from different sources. So I’ll call fictional movies like Blair Witch and Cloverfield “discovered footage” films.

One reason for this name is that these films hark back to an early tradition of literary fiction, that of the “topos of the discovered manuscript” or “the old oak chest.” Here a tale is presented as a manuscript found and prepared for publication by other hands. The purpose, at first blush, is to give the story an air of authenticity. The same urge prevails in the discovered-footage horror movies, which use this blatant artifice to play with the possibility that these weird happenings really took place. As the image surmounting this blog entry suggests, Peli linked his film to this tradition, even letting the all-too-real company Paramount Pictures attest to the veracity of what we’re going to see.

The development of the Paranormal series took place under the sign of rivalry. A great many horror films of the late 2000s and early 2010s used the pseudo-documentary approach, sometimes marking the footage as recovered. After the success of Peli’s original film, intense competition emerged. There was a blatant ripoff (Paranormal Entity, 2009), followed by many others, including the subtler pseudo-doc The Last Exorcism (2010), which seems to presume that we’ll take it as a found-footage item too.

Just as important, in making successors to the original film, Peli and his colleagues had to compete with themselves. So they freshened up their plots. Paranormal 2 features not a live-in couple but a family; Paranormal 3 centers on an unmarried mother, her live-in boyfriend, and her two daughters. Paranormal 4 features a family whose neighbors are a possessed mother and son.

Interestingly, the subsequent films supply relatively little mythical or doctrinal backstory. Although there are always one or two scenes in which the characters launch on some research, the plots mostly minimize exposition about the hows and whys of possession. (Contrast The Exorcist.) We get just enough hints to assume that there’s a demon who offers women worldly goods in exchange for innocent boys’ souls. Mostly the films concentrate on the characters’ responses, chiefly their quarrels about whether the weird happenings are supernaturally caused. Each film needs at least one blocking character, somebody whose skepticism, obstinacy, or cluelessness keeps the plot going and prevents the characters from simply getting the hell out.

The films also vary protagonists and the characters we’re attached to. Micah moves the plot forward in the first entry with his urge to document the weird happenings, while in the second, the father Daniel and his daughter Ali take turns probing what’s going on. In the third film, again it’s mostly a male filmmaker, Dennis, who propels the inquiry, while in the latest iteration, the narrative momentum is passed to the inquisitive teenage girl Alex.

Perhaps the most up- to-date way the filmmakers refresh the franchise is by making the various films interlock. The films set up a chronology that positions the original release as the third phase of a larger action. Paranormal 2 occurs just before the events of the first one, and Paranormal 3 flashes back eighteen years to supply some preconditions for the previous entries. Moreover, some portions of the plots overlap, so that scenes from one installment are replayed in another, explaining how the time frames mesh. This sort of shuffling with time and perspective is nowadays common both within films and across them; the second and third Bourne films offer good examples.

Above all, the filmmakers have created a new ecological niche by virtue of some initial stylistic choices Peli’s first film made. They were striking but exceptionally constraining. To produce more Paranormal films created a very specific set of problems: How to respect those initial constraints and yet rework them in unpredictable ways?

To Read the Entire Essay

Thursday, November 15, 2012

ENG 281 Last Class Film Voting -- Student Choice

Remember -- you can vote for up to three films and you can suggest two films (do this in the comments at the bottom of this post). I will put films up in this post as they are suggested by students. If your suggestion is a difficult film to find, you should be able to get a copy so we can show it. I'll list some of my generally ignored or unavailable (non USA region DVDs) as options. Suggestions of films end 11/20. Voting will end at 5pm on 11/28.

8 1/2 (Italy/France: Federica Fellini, 1963)

Black Cat, White Cat (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/France/Germany/Austria/Greece/USA: Emir Kusturica, 1998)

City of Life and Death (China/Hong Kong: Chuan Lu, 2009)

The Devils (UK: Ken Russell, 1971)

The Dove's Lost Necklace (Tunisia/France/Italy: Nacer Khemir, 1992)

Election (Hong Kong: Johnnie To, 2005)

The Forgiveness of Blood (USA/Albania/Denmark/Italy: Joshua Marston, 2011)

Gadja Dilo (The Crazy Stranger) (Romania/France: Tony Gatlif, 1997)

The Holy Mountain (Mexico/USA: Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

Howl (USA: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010)

Incendies (Canada/France: Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Land and Freedom (UK/Spain/Germany/Italy: Ken Loach, 1995)

La Vallee (France: Barbet Schroeder, 1972)

Marketa Lazarova (Czechoslovakia: Frantisek Vlácil, 1967)

Mon Oncle Antoine (Canada: Claude Jutra, 1971)

The Music Room (India: Satyajit Ray, 1958)

The Organizer (Italy/France/Yogoslavia: Mario Monicelli, 1963)

Quest for Fire (Canada/France/USA: Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981)

Ran (Japan: Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

The Silence (Germany: Baran bo Odar, 2010)

The Skin I Live In (Spain: Pedro Almodovar, 2011)

Videodrome (Canada: David Cronenberg, 1983)

Current votes
: 8 1/2 1
City of Life and Death 2
Dove's Lost Necklace 1
The Forgiveness of Blood 1
Holy Mountain 1
Incendies 1
The Music Room 1
The Organizer 1
Ran 1
Videodrome 1

Monday, November 12, 2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

ENG 281 Week 12: Gomorrah (Italy: Matteo Garrone, 2008: 137 mins)

Gomorrah (Italy: Matteo Garrone, 2008: 137 mins)

Bochenski, Matt. "Gomorrah." Little White Lies (October 10, 2008)

Curti, Roberto. "File Under Fire: A brief history of Italian crime films." Offscreen (November 30, 2007)

Greenburg, Kathryn Elizabeth. "Rewriting Historical Neorealism in Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah." (A thesis submitted to the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Department of Romance Languages, 2010.)

Ivey, Prudence. "Gomorrah Actors Arrested." Little White Lies (October 13, 2008)

Ming, Wu. "The New Italian Epic." Opening talk @ the conference "The Italian Perspective on Metahistorical Fiction: The New Italian Epic." Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, UK. (October 2, 2008)

Stephens, Chuck. "Gomorrah: Terminal Beach." Criterion (November 23, 2009)

The Godfather (USA: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972: 175 mins)

Freedman, Carl. "Hobbes After Marx, Scorsese After Coppola: On GoodFellas." Film International (2011)

---. "The Supplement of Coppola: Primitive Accumulation and the Godfather Trilogy." Film International 9.1 (2011): 8-41

Gamman, Lorraine. "If Looks Could Kill: On gangster suits and silhouettes." Moving Image Source (May 8, 2012)

MacDowell, James. "John Cazale: Stepped Over." Alternate Takes (June 12, 2012)

Goodfellas (USA: Martin Scorsese, 1990: 146 mins)

Freedman, Carl. "Hobbes After Marx, Scorsese After Coppola: On GoodFellas." Film International (2011)

---. "The Supplement of Coppola: Primitive Accumulation and the Godfather Trilogy." Film International 9.1 (2011): 8-41

Gamman, Lorraine. "If Looks Could Kill: On gangster suits and silhouettes." Moving Image Source (May 8, 2012)

"A Life in Pictures: Martin Scorsese." BAFTA (April 6, 2011)