Monday, December 31, 2012

Julia Leyda: "Something That Is Dangerous and Arousing and Transgressive" - An Interview with Todd Haynes

"Something That Is Dangerous and Arousing and Transgressive": An Interview with Todd Haynes
by Julia Leyda
Bright Lights Film Journal

JULIA LEYDA: You've done several movies that are very clearly woman's films, but the movie that I am most fascinated with in terms of gender is Velvet Goldmine, which is not usually interpreted in that context.

TODD HAYNES: No, except it's probably gotten the strongest female fan base of any of my films. And what's wonderful for me is to see new generations of young women, even as we think we progress as a society and there are new options available to each new generation that seem to be catering to that market more acutely, still Velvet Goldmine offers that market something that they're not getting elsewhere. I always love it when girls come up to me at festivals and that's the one, that's the movie that really turned them around.

JL: I'm interested in how you use the trope of playing with dolls in Superstar and Velvet Goldmine as a way to figure gender, embodiment, desire, identification. You said in an interview that playing with dolls is what you're doing in Velvet Goldmine, using it as a metaphor for the filmmaking process, to play with the characters of the idols more than making an actual biopic about bisexual pop stars. So what about the female characters in Velvet Goldmine? Fans, rock and roll girls like Mandy — talk a bit about them.

TH: Interesting question. The character of Mandy was probably one of the hardest roles I've ever had to cast. We did a really thorough, international search for who could play Mandy. When I look back on the experience, I'm amazed at how many actresses agreed to read for the role who don't often do so. I think what was difficult about Mandy was that she, and the Angela Bowie template for that character, harkened back to a kind of performative femininity of which there are very few contemporary examples anymore. I see it as the Patti Smith divide in terms of rock and roll and public depictions of femininity, whose image emerged finally, after so many variations on the codified mannerisms that were available to women in midcentury American film, for instance, and popular music (although there have always been interesting deviations from this). I think over time a lot of the affectations associated with performing femininity had fallen away, to the point where you came to this iconic figure of Patti Smith, whom I see as similar in a way to the Jude figure in I'm Not There, a very androgynous, more masculine-identified figure. For young actresses reading the role of Mandy it became clear that recent examples of that kind of almost camp presentation of an affected, theatrical persona were very hard to locate; I think of Liza Minnelli, and maybe Parker Posey was one of the later examples, of almost a gay male idea of femininity.

One thing that was very interesting about Angela Bowie is the way she navigated the English and American influences and her accent would come and go, and that was one of the things we wanted to incorporate into the performance, but that's very tough on an actor. We wanted to make it understood that it's a mutable way of fixing into each culture with some fluidity. I mean, there's no question that Angela Bowie was a central driving engine — her autobiography is amazing, and it's supported by most of the documentation and oral histories of those years — in the transformation of David Bowie, who was experimenting with different kinds of feminine representations but ultimately fixed on this Warhol-infused figure of the Ziggy Stardust character. It was really Angela Bowie who championed these kinds of characters, part of the second-generation Warhol clan, who made their way to the UK and appeared in this play Pork in 1971. They just loved her and she loved them, and in a weird way Bowie was sort of a spectator, an observer of this love and energy. And I think, based on what she wrote in her book and other documentation, she was very interested in the gay liberation movement that was burgeoning at the time and she wanted to appropriate it, take it on, and become the spokesperson in a rock and roll vernacular for those ideas.

I don't know if this relates directly to doll-playing except that it really might be the last time that you see an active female figure freely utilizing artificial terms of self-expression and persona in an unembarrassed, unabashed, almost radical way. That was in a way the fascinating counterpart to the more aloof, silent, objectified figure that Bowie assumed as Ziggy Stardust. Of course, there was also that hardcore influence from the American music that he loved — the Stooges, the MC5, and the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed — as the final ingredient to give it that kind of duality, the cross between English musical traditions and this American hardcore, a direct assault. He needed both of those, but there was still a kind of passivity and object-ness of that figure that seemed more quiet, and more comfortable being an image, an idealized beautiful façade that people could project onto; whereas Angela Bowie was active, pulling the strings and moving the levers — in that way, I think, making him up so that he was the doll that she was playing with. So a lot of that energy and that fire and fearlessness I think could be attributed to her.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ingrid Fernandez: Visions of the Other: The Return of the Abject in Roman Polanski's The Tenant

Visions of the Other: The Return of the Abject in Roman Polanski's The Tenant
by Ingrid Fernandez
Bright Lights Film Journal

Perhaps one of the highest achievements — and casualties — of Western philosophy lies in its complete denial of the body as a conduit for knowledge and self-discovery. The body has been excluded from discourse, always positioned as a threat to the higher instincts of the intellect. It is an unwanted part of the self: the polluted, the irrational, the animalistic that mars the path to enlightenment. It has thus been sentenced to represent the space of the abject, that which is always pushing the socially constructed subject to the edge of the abyss and hence threatens the law. However, a higher truth can be sought in the order of Nature. If we embrace the corporeal, we no longer negate death, decay, sickness — the filth burgeoning inside the self and forever constituting its powerful force. I accept my frailty, the instability of my identity, and I mourn for what I have lost when I achieved the status of subject. For that part of myself always creeps back into my existence as a shadow, a hidden desire I can never satisfy, that of life and death merging into pure being. I mourn the Other. I carry it within me but can never access it in life, for it might destroy me, I have been told; or perhaps it might complete me once it undoes all I have learned to be. Julia Kristeva describes fully experiencing the body as causing a rupture within signification, unacceptable because it eradicates the socially constructed boundaries regulating identity. She states:

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, does not signify death. In the presence of signified de'ath — a flat encephalograph, for instance — I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live . . . My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border . . . It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. (Kristeva)

It is precisely in this foreign land, in this dark continent shunned by rational thought, that we might best find ourselves. The real truth of life is most acutely revealed at a corporeal level, where primal vulnerabilities such as the fear of illness and decay, the violated body, and the body in pain constitute the essence of being human, of being a part of a larger world where "the Other" is a reflection of the self. Moreover, our very physical existence and relation to others stem from a common bond of blood that predates the social apparatus. After all, social identity is easily stripped, uncovering a universal truth — the fact we are all mortal and subject to the violation of our physical space. At its most basic, the bond between humans is forged by the organic — sinews, muscle, bones, and the burden of the body. The instability of physical existence lies in its constant metamorphosis, its ability to simultaneously enrich and destroy intellectual activity, and the presence of elusive desire and the remnants of a fear that remain locked in the moment prior to our existence as social subjects. These concepts are best illustrated in cinema because of the power of the image to enter the viscera, elide intellectual resistance, and elicit an authentic and unmediated, sometimes even involuntary, reaction. The cinematic image penetrates the space of the abject and brings it to life. It is the return of the repressed and allows us to once again inhabit "uncomfortable spaces" we thought were closed off to our senses. Starting from these premises, I propose to revisit the concept of knowledge gained through the saturation of the body by outside stimuli, in this case film images, and how this experience results in a form of transcendence, a deeper understanding of our relation to ourselves and "the Other."

Roman Polanski's 1976 film The Tenant can be seen as a meditation on the fate of the abject body and how it is marked, regulated, and finally obliterated by the social apparatus. However, it also emphasizes how the repressed eludes the symbolic law and allows us to encounter its terrifying shadow, the periphery of existence that always manages to break through. Additionally, Polanski brings in the concept of bare life as stipulated by critics like Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler, inquiring into the way a social subject is constituted and given a voice or utterly silenced and excluded from the circle of the human. The film's main focus remains on the body as undesirable, non-ideal, open to external aggression and pollution. In typical Polanski fashion, the audience is trapped in an "uncomfortable visual space" where the concept of a stable individual identity is never a matter of choice, but instead constituted by our surroundings and forces well beyond our grasp. The Tenant's crowning achievement is its use of the subjective camera, to the extent the audience is literally involved in the action through the vision of its main character, Trelkovsky. We see what he sees, fear what he fears, and eventually become him. Through this process, we experience the frailty of subjecthood and the ability of the cinematic image to rouse in us a dialogue with the innermost recesses of ourselves, the abject within us that, when we acknowledge it, sets us on the path to enlightenment and self-discovery.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Chris Hedges: The Unsilenced Voice of a "Long-Distance Revolutionary"

The Unsilenced Voice of a "Long-Distance Revolutionary"
by Chris Hedges

I am sitting in the visiting area of the SCI Mahanoy prison in Frackville, Pa., on a rainy, cold Friday morning with Mumia Abu-Jamal, America’s most famous political prisoner and one of its few authentic revolutionaries. He is hunched forward on the gray plastic table, his dreadlocks cascading down the sides of his face, in a room that looks like a high school cafeteria. He is talking intently about the nature of empire, which he is currently reading voraciously about, and effective forms of resistance to tyranny throughout history. Small children, visiting their fathers or brothers, race around the floor, wail or clamber on the plastic chairs. Abu-Jamal, like the other prisoners in the room, is wearing a brown jumpsuit bearing the letters DOC—for Department of Corrections.

Abu-Jamal was transferred in January to the general prison population after nearly 30 years in solitary confinement on death row and was permitted physical contact with his wife, children and other visitors for the first time in three decades. He had been sentenced to death in 1982 for the Dec. 9, 1981, killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. His sentence was recently amended to life without parole. The misconduct of the judge, flagrant irregularities in his trial and tainted evidence have been criticized by numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

Abu-Jamal, who was a young activist in the Black Panthers and later one of the most important radical journalists in Philadelphia, a city that a few decades earlier produced I.F. Stone, has long been the bête noire of the state. The FBI opened a file on him when he was 15, when he started working with the local chapter of the Black Panthers. He was suspended from his Philadelphia high school when he campaigned to rename the school for Malcolm X and distributed “black revolutionary student power” literature.

Stephen Vittoria’s new film documentary about Abu-Jamal, “Long Distance Revolutionary,” rather than revisit the case, chronicles his importance and life as an American journalist, radical and intellectual under the harsh realities of Pennsylvania’s death row. Abu-Jamal has published seven books in prison, including his searing and best-selling “Live From Death Row.” The film features the voices of Cornel West, James Cone, Dick Gregory, Angela Davis, Alice Walker and others. It opens in theaters Feb. 1, starting in New York City. In the film Gregory says that Abu-Jamal has single-handedly brought “dignity to the whole death row.”

The late historian Manning Marable says in the film: “The voice of black journalism in the struggle for the liberation of African-American people has always proved to be decisive throughout black history. When you listen to Mumia Abu-Jamal you hear the echoes of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and the sisters and brothers who kept the faith with struggle, who kept the faith with resistance.”

The authorities, as they did before he was convicted, have attempted to silence him in prison. Pennsylvania banned all recorded interviews with Abu-Jamal after 1996. In response to protests over the singling out of one inmate in the Pennsylvania correction system, the state simply banned recorded access to all its inmates. The ban is nicknamed “the Mumia rule.”

“I was punished for communicating,” Abu-Jamal says.

Cornel West says in the film: “The state is very clever in terms of keeping track, especially [of] the courageous and visionary ones, the ones that are long-distance runners. You can keep track of them, absorb ’em, dilute ’em, or outright kill ’em—you don’t have to worry about opposition to ’em.”

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Maximilian Yoshioka: Technocratic Totalitarianism: One-Dimensional Thought in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville

Technocratic Totalitarianism: One-Dimensional Thought in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville
by Maximilian Yoshioka
Bright Lights Film Journal


These two mechanisms of symbolic coercion, the arrow and the equation, refer to a broader phenomenon of mindlessness in Alphaville, or what Herbert Marcuse calls "one-dimensional thought," meaning basically an inability to think critically or "negatively" about the conditions of one's own existence. For the person who thinks one-dimensionally, affirmative statements about what already exists (i.e., political institutions, class/wealth relations, dominant ideologies) are all that is possible; consequently, any thought or desire that transcends those existing structures is inconceivable. For Marcuse, the existence of this type of thinking is not so much intrinsic to human beings as it is a socially constructed mechanism built by those in power to reinforce the forms of domination particular to their existence. The dogmatic repetition of the commandment "One should never say why; but only because" by the inhabitants of Alphaville is the ultimate realization of such a system of thought control. Marcuse was writing about contemporary society in the 1960s, the same period in which Alphaville was released. While Marcuse tasked himself with describing the society he saw in front of him, Godard decided to imagine its logical consequence.

Signs of this mental indoctrination, of the subordination of critical thought and agency to rules, regulations, and ideology, are everywhere present in Caution's travels across Alphaville. When he first arrives at his hotel from the "Outlands," he is immediately hassled by staff offering to carry his luggage, direct him to the elevator, guide him to his room, all of which he bluntly refuses, thereby establishing an initial distinction for the viewer between the robotic behavior of the locals and Caution's brash individualism. He is escorted into his room by an attractive but lifeless woman who constantly asks him patronizingly if he is sleepy, if he needs to rest, and so on. Without even asking she begins to undress and offers to take a bath with him. Upon questioning, she reveals herself to be what is known in Alphaville as a "level three seductress," essentially a glamorized prostitute. The apotheosis of this type of mechanical conformism is the way that the locals say "I'm very well, thanks for asking" whenever they meet Caution, even though he never actually asks for such information. The traditional linguistic relationship between question and answer, where one waits until one is asked a question before responding, is replaced with preprogrammed utterances. What one observes here, in a form highly reminiscent of the brainless constant comfort of Huxley's Brave New World, is a society of total convenience and omnipresent guidance, where the strains of independent decision making are now relics of an unscientific past. As Caution himself aptly laments, "People have become slaves of probability."

The one-dimensionalization of thought in Alphaville is also implemented in a more direct fashion, in the control over language and concepts through ideology. As mentioned earlier, one of the main dogmas repeatedly uttered by the scientists and citizens of the city is that one must not ask why, only because. As one of the head scientists tells Caution, "All is linked, all is consequence." He describes the task of Alpha 60 as simply to calculate the consequences and chains of causality that Alphaville will then be bound to follow; in such a system of deterministic logic, there is no room for a "why" to emerge. When Caution responds that he is a "free man," the expression of utter confusion on the scientist's face is truly priceless. By forbidding the use of "why," the technocratic elite of Alphaville is able to insulate its self-contained ruling system from challenge or criticism. Along the same lines, one frequently hears, either from Alpha 60 or from equally robotized humans, the claim that "no one has lived in the past, and no one will live in the future. The present is the form of all life." It is instructive to return again to Marcuse, who in One Dimensional Thought describes the dehistoricization taking place in contemporary technological society, where an ahistorical attitude toward the past is slowly replacing a more holistic perspective that values and interprets the moral and intellectual contributions of historical individuals. Instead, an ideologically driven positivism suppresses the past in favor of a short-term, quantitatively driven measurement of neutral variables. Questions of where or how technological rationalism fits into a broader historical and political narrative are consequently ignored.

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Charles McGrath: Abe Lincoln as You’ve Never Heard Him

Abe Lincoln as You’ve Never Heard Him
By Charles McGrath
The New York Times

“Now he belongs to the ages,” Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, said at the president’s deathbed. “And to the studios,” he could have added.

The latest in a long parade of screen Abes, coming right on the heels of Benjamin Walker’s ax-swinging, martial arts version in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” is Daniel Day-Lewis, who, though he grew up in England and Ireland and had to learn about Lincoln almost from scratch, plays the lead in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which opens Friday.

Mr. Day-Lewis, 55, has already won two best actor Oscars, and his performance here, tender and soulful, convincingly weary and stoop-shouldered, will almost certainly earn him a nomination. He’s neither as zombified as Walter Huston in D. W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic “Abraham Lincoln,” nor as brash and self-assured as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), nor as stagy and ponderous as Raymond Massey, a year later, in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” in which he sounds, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a lot like the television evangelist Harold Camping proclaiming the end of the world once more.

Tall and thin, with big hands and a long neck, Mr. Day-Lewis physically resembles Lincoln more nearly than many of his predecessors — more, certainly, than Kris Kristofferson, who in the 1995 television movie “Tad” had to wear platform shoes to boost him to Lincolnesque stature. Yet the first time Mr. Day-Lewis opens his mouth in the movie, he’s also a little startling. His Lincoln speaks not in Massey’s stentorian baritone, or in the echoing, ballpark-announcer tones of the Disneyland animatronic Lincoln first heard at the 1964 World’s Fair, but in a voice that is high, earnest and folksy.

Mr. Day-Lewis is famously fussy about what parts he takes, sometimes waiting years between films while spending time in both Ireland and America with his wife, Rebecca Miller (the daughter of Arthur Miller, whom he met while filming “The Crucible”), and their two sons. (He has a third, older son with the actress Isabelle Adjani.) For a while he seemed to give up movies altogether and apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker and a cobbler.

Mr. Day-Lewis is even fussier about what he calls “the work”: his process of preparing and then inhabiting a part. For “The Last of the Mohicans” he taught himself to build a canoe, shoot a flintlock and trap and skin animals. For the opening scene of “My Left Foot,” about Christy Brown, an artist with cerebral palsy, he taught himself to put a record on a turntable with his toes; he also insisted on remaining in a wheelchair between takes and being fed by the crew.

He learned to box, naturally, for “The Boxer,” in which he played a prizefighter and former member of the Irish Republican Army and in the process broke his nose and damaged his back. To play the gang leader Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York,” he took butchering lessons, and to play Abraham Lincoln he half-convinced himself that he was Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Day-Lewis, who has a deep voice and a British accent, not in the least Lincoln-like, prefers not to talk much about his method of acting. He doesn’t entirely understand it himself, he says, and doesn’t want to. “There’s a tendency now to deconstruct and analyze everything,” he said during a recent interview in New York, “and I think that’s a self-defeating part of the enterprise.”

He added: “It sounds pretentious, I know. I recognize all the practical work that needs to be done, the dirty work, which I love: the work in the soil, the rooting around in the hope that you might find a gem. But I need to believe that there is a cohesive mystery that ties all these things together, and I try not to separate them.”

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Friday, December 7, 2012

A. Loudermilk: Last to Leave the Theater

Last to Leave the Theater: Sissy Spectatorship of Stalker Movies and the "Final Girls" Who Survive Them
by A. Loudermilk
Bright Lights Film Journal

She's a virgin who won't get stoned (Sleepaway Camp II). She does get stoned and plays strip Monopoly (Friday the 13th). She's not a virgin and wears a tie (April Fool's Day). She's a pregnant sorority sister holding tight to her little gold cross (Black Christmas). She's teacher's pet and basketball star (Slumber Party Massacre). She's prom queen, head of dance club and all-around athlete (Prom Night). Yet she wasn't invited to an important party (Happy Birthday to Me). She knows how to fix a car and disparages capitalism (Hell Night). She's majoring in psychology (Friday the 13th II). She's a divorcee who writes an advice column (Schizoid). She's a naval officer with a mysterious position overseas (Graduation Day). She's the one who says, "We're supposed to be mature adults" (House on Sorority Row). She's the one who says, "We should be prepared to fight" (Hide and Go Shriek). She's the one who says, "I'll put the gun down when the police get here" (Hard to Die). In order to protect herself, she pulls the Stalker's knife from a dead friend's back (Friday the 13th III). "I don't feel any safer here with you," she weighs her options: "I can run cross-country. I'll get to the highway and call for help" (Blood Sisters). She drags herself down corridors to save herself from the Stalker (Halloween II). She saves herself and her wounded boyfriend from the Stalker (Mutilator). She's not the Stalker though she seemed to be the Stalker (Curtains; Nail Gun Massacre). She is the Stalker (Night School) and not exactly a girl (Sleepaway Camp). She's upset about forgetting her chemistry book (Halloween).

Since Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), the survivor figure in horror has been female. "We belong in the end to the Final Girl," declares film theorist Carol Clover in her groundbreaking book Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992). Clover refers to the Final Girl as a "victim-hero," a character who shifts between these traditionally gendered roles — increasingly toward the masculine (in her argument) as the story culminates. A smart and observant girl who either fights off the killer long enough to be rescued or kills the killer herself, the Final Girl is not typically feminine in her interests/skills, experiences an apartness from other girls, and possesses an active gaze that registers signs of danger others ignore (35, 39-40, 44, 48). For instance Halloween's Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), teased by her sex-obsessed peers as the bookish virgin1 who doesn't date, is first to see the blankly masked man watching from the hedges.

In the opening scene of the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), one now might spot Barbara as Final Girl. Director George Romero positions us to identify with Barbara more so than her brother who jokes about the strange man in the cemetery who's "coming to get her." He is coming — to get both of them. While her paranoia saves her, her brother's flippancy gets him killed. After Barbara's initial ingenuity evading the zombie, alas, she goes catatonic and a male character assumes the hero role. For Tom Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, scriptwriter Romero, responding to feminist criticism of Barbara's hysterical passivity, revises her as Final Girl. She is now "an active, assertive character, not only within the diegesis but as a narrative agent as well." In other words, according to Barry Keith Grant's essay "Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead" (1992), she not only takes action to save herself in the story, those actions impact the direction, outcome, and meaning of the story (200).

At large in horror, a revision of the damsel as survivor marks a new era for the genre, and much has been written about it. What's yet to be addressed, though, is a specifically "sissy spectatorship" of the Final Girl during an era of intense homophobia and misogyny. I grew up with the Final Girl, or maybe I should say that I grew up with the genre fans who primarily witnessed the Final Girl. And I want to embrace fan subjectivity to help elucidate my own queer relationship with horror as framed by the straight audience I sat with. To come back, ultimately, to the very theater in which I sat — watching and being watched.

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