Monday, January 28, 2013

Tim Parks: In Praise of the Language Police

[Tim Parks is talking about translation of literary texts, but I think it is also useful in considering the translation of subtitles in cinema]

In Praise of the Language Police
by Tim Parks
New York Review of Books


By the same token, very little is said of the mediating work of translators, even though we know that where a great piece of literature has been translated more than once, the various versions can sound quite different and obviously owe a great deal not just to the technical expertise but also the personality and mindset of people we usually know nothing about. In general, we don’t like to think of creative writing as a joint venture, and when it emerges, for example, that Raymond Carver allowed his work to be drastically edited, our appreciation of him, and indeed the work, is at least temporarily diminished. We want to think of our writers as geniuses occupying positions of absolute independence in relation to a tediously conventional society. Conversely, we abhor, or believe we abhor, the standard and the commonplace.

Yet nobody requires the existence of a standard and a general pressure to conform more than the person who wishes to assume a position outside it. It is essential for the creative writer that there be, or be perceived to be, a usual way of saying things, if a new or unusual way is to stand out and to provoke some excitement. So when D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love writes of Gudrun’s insomnia after first making love to Gerald that she was “destroyed into perfect consciousness,” he needs the reader to sense at once that this is syntactically anomalous; a person can be “transformed into,” “turned into,” “changed into” but not “destroyed into.” The syntactical shock underlines Lawrence’s unconventional view of consciousness as a negative rather than positive state, which again is emphasized by the unexpected use of the word “perfect,” rather than a more immediately understandable and neutral “intense.”

Naturally, anyone writing with this level of creativity needs a copy editor willing to accept that rules can be bent and broken. But that doesn’t mean such editors have no role. It is important that the “special effect” stand out from a background of more conventional prose, and that a deliberate departure not be mistaken as something merely regional, British perhaps, or simply that there not be so much clutter around it of one kind or other that it is hardly noticed. George Orwell, a champion of strict grammar as a vehicle of clear thinking, memorably begins 1984 with a very simple, almost embarrassingly conventional novel-opener of a sentence in order that the anomaly constituted by the last word pack a big punch: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” In a different field, David Hume, when presenting his radical and unconventional philosophy, did everything to remove from his writing any indication of his Scottishness, sending drafts to friends to have them check his writing for “Scottishisms.” It was not that he thought standard English superior, just that he did not want a reader’s attention to be distracted from his main purpose.

The editor’s job then becomes one of helping the writer to see where an unessential, perhaps unconscious departure from the norm is actually draining energy away from places where the text is excitingly unconventional. That is, the editor reminds an author that to construct a coherent identity he has to remember his relationship with society and with the language we share and cannot express ourselves without. To go out on a limb linguistically, accepting no compromise and creating an idiolect that really is entirely your own, may win awed admiration, as did Finnegans Wake, but will likely not attract many readers, and arguably does not allow for the communication of nuance, since all the ordinary reader will understand is that you are indeed off on a trip on your own; even Joyce’s hitherto staunch supporter Pound had no truck with it.


To Read the Rest of the Essay

Thursday, January 24, 2013

University of Kentucky: 2013 Greek Cinematography - Critical Approach and Discussion

The University of Kentucky and the College of Arts & Sciences, under the initiative of Prof. Haralambos Symeonidis, are inviting you to a series of Greek films with discussion, screened on 3 Sundays at 5.00 p.m. at the UK Athletic Association Auditorium of the William T. Young Library. The screenings are free of charge.

This event is sponsored by the UK College of Arts & Sciences and the Greek Orthodox Church of Lexington.

January 27th: Stella (Greece: Mihalis Kakogiannis, 1955: 90 mins)

February 24: A Touch of Spice (Greece: Tassos Boulmetis, 2003: 108 mins)

March 31: El Greco (Greece: Yannis Smaragdis, 2007: 119 mins)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Films We Want to See #21: War Witch (Canada: Kim Nguyen, 2012)

Films We Want to See #20: No (Chile/France/USA: Pablo Larraín, 2012)

Democracy Now: The Invisible War -- New Film Exposes Rape, Sexual Assault Epidemic in U.S. Military

[The Invisible War has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary this year.]

The Invisible War: New Film Exposes Rape, Sexual Assault Epidemic in U.S. Military
Democracy Now

On the heels of a new military survey that the number of reported violent sex crimes jumped 30 percent in 2011, with active-duty female soldiers ages 18 to 21 accounting for more than half of the of the victims, we speak with Trina McDonald and Kori Cioca, two subjects of "The Invisible War,” a new documentary that examines the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the U.S. military, which won the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. "Not only was I astounded by the numbers, but when I started talking to the women and men who had experienced this, I was just so devastated by their stories," says the film’s Academy Award-nominated director, Kirby Dick. "These are women and men who are very idealistic. They joined the military because they wanted to serve their country. They were incredible soldiers. And then, when they were assaulted, they had the courage to come forward, even though many people advised them not to," Dick says


Kori Cioca, formerly served in the U.S. Coast Guard, where she was beaten and raped by her supervisor and then charged with adultery because he was married. Cioca is one of the main subjects of the new documentary, The Invisible War.

Trina McDonald, was drugged and raped repeatedly by the military police on her remote Naval station in Adak, Alaska. McDonald is one of the subjects of the new documentary, The Invisible War.

Kirby Dick, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and director of The Invisible War, which just won the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

To Watch the Episode

Sunday, January 20, 2013

After Words: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick - The Untold History of the United States

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, "The Untold History of the United States"
hosted by Michael Kazin
After Words

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick argue that U.S. leaders must chart a course for the future by first honestly facing what they call the country's troubling history of drifting farther away from its democratic traditions. They talk with Michael Kazin, Georgetown University history professor and co-editor of Dissent magazine.

Oliver Stone is the Academy Award winning director of such films as "Platoon," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July," and "JFK."

Peter Kuznick is a history professor at American University and director of its award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute. He is also in his third term as a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians.

To Listen to the Episode

To Watch Episodes of the Showtime series The Untold History of United States on Youtube

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Daniel Kasman: Notebook's 5th Writers Poll - Fantasy Double Features of 2012

Notebook's 5th Writers Poll: Fantasy Double Features of 2012
by Daniel Kasman
Notebook (MUBI)

Looking back at 2012 on what films moved and impressed us, it is clear that watching old films is a crucial part of making new films meaningful. Thus, the annual tradition of our end of year poll, which calls upon our writers to pick both a new and an old film: they were challenged to choose a new film they saw in 2012—in theaters or at a festival—and creatively pair it with an old film they also saw in 2012 to create a unique double feature.

All the contributors were asked to write a paragraph explaining their 2012 fantasy double feature. What's more, each writer was given the option to list more pairings, with or without explanation, as further imaginative film programming we'd be lucky to catch in that perfect world we know doesn't exist but can keep dreaming of every time we go to the movies.

How would you program some of 2012's most interesting films into double features with movies of the past?

To Read the Choices and the Descriptions

Friday, January 18, 2013

Peter Staley and David France: "How to Survive a Plague" - As ACT UP Turns 25, New Film Chronicles History of AIDS Activism in U.S.

[MB: Nominated by the Oscars for Best Documentary]

"How to Survive a Plague": As ACT UP Turns 25, New Film Chronicles History of AIDS Activism in U.S.
Democracy Now

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — an international direct action advocacy group formed by a coalition of activists outraged over the government’s mismanagement of the AIDS crisis. We speak with ACT UP founding member Peter Staley, one of the longest AIDS survivors in the country; and David France, director of the new documentary "How to Survive a Plague," which tells a remarkable history of AIDS activism and how it changed the country. "I’m alive because of that activism," Staley says of the triple drug therapy he was able to take. "This was a major victory this movie tells about getting these therapies. But that was only the beginning of the battle. Now we have these treatments that can keep people alive, and there are still two to three million dying every year. There are more dying now than when we actually got the therapies to save people. So it’s a huge failure of leadership internationally. And it shows a failure of our own healthcare system."


Peter Staley, HIV/AIDS activist featured in How to Survive a Plague. In the mid-’80s, Staley was diagnosed with AIDS. He left his job as a bond trader in New York to work as a full-time activist. He became a founding member of ACT UP in 1987 and served on the board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research until 1991.

David France, director of the new AIDS activism documentary, How to Survive a Plague.

To Watch the Episode
'Zero Dark Thirty' Is bin Laden's Last Victory
by Matt Taibbi
Reader Supported News (Originally published in Rolling Stone)


There's no way to watch Zero Dark Thirty without seeing it as a movie about how torture helped us catch Osama bin Laden. That's why I was blown away when I read this morning that Bigelow is now going with a line that "depiction is not endorsement," that simply showing torture does not amount to publicly approving of it.

If Bigelow really means that, I have a rhetorical question for her: Are audiences not supposed to cheer at the end of the film, when we get bin Laden? They cheered in the theater where I watched it. And is Maya a good character or a bad character? Did she cross some dark line in victory like Michael Corrleone, did she lose her moral self and her humanity chasing her goal like Captain Ahab, or is she just a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (or, hell, John McClane) getting his man in the end?

It seemed to me more the latter than anything else. I barely caught a whiff of a "moral journey/descent" storyline in this film - the closest they came to that was in the first scene, where Maya looks a little grossed out by Clarke's methods. A few minutes later, though, she's all street and everything, wearing a hijab and getting some henchman to throw fists at her suspects on command. She went from queasy to hardass in about ten seconds and we didn't linger on the transformation at all.

Bigelow is such a great storyteller that she has to know, deep inside, that the "depiction is not endorsement" line doesn't wash. You want audiences gripped to the screen, you've gotta give them something to root for, or against. This was definitely not a movie about two vicious and murderous groups of people killing and torturing each other in an endless cycle of increasingly brainless revenge. And this was not a movie about how America lost its values en route to a great strategic victory.

No, this was a straight-up "hero catches bad guys" movie, and the idea that audiences weren't supposed to identify with Maya the torturer is ludicrous. Are we really to believe that viewers aren't supposed to be shimmering in anticipation for her at the end, as she paces back and forth with set-fans whooshing back her beautiful red hair, waiting for her copter to come in? They might as well have put a cape and a Wonder Woman costume on her, that's how subtle that was.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal clearly spent a lot of time with sources in the CIA who were peddling a version of history where the "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" program, though distasteful, scored us the big prize in the end.

In Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's agonizing and affecting documentary about EIT called Taxi to the Dark Side, he talks about the phenomenon of "force drift" in torture, when interrogators start using harsher methods when the permitted ones don't work. Well, in journalism, what happened with Boal and Bigelow is what you might call "access drift" - when you really, really love the drama of the story you're hearing, you start leaning in the direction of your sources even if the truth doesn't quite cooperate.

Obviously, torture does produce some information, maybe even some good information. If you really squint hard, it may very well be that, technically speaking, there's a lot of truth in the plot of Zero Dark Thirty. It may be that we wouldn't have found bin Laden without torture. And as such, any movie about the hunt for bin Laden that excluded scenes of torture would have been dishonest.

But that's not what's messed up about this movie. The problem had nothing to do with the fact that Bigelow showed torture. It was the way she depicted it - without perspective, and in the context of a pulse-pounding thriller where the audience is clearly supposed to root for the big treasure find.

For one thing, Gibney put out a compelling argument in a Huffington Post piece that the ZD30 storyline is not accurate in the sense that it excluded crucial information. He points to several facts that Bigelow and Boal chose to ignore (and remember, this was supposed to be a "journalistic account," according to Bigelow), like for instance:

Mohammed Al-Qatani, the so-called "20th hijacker," who may have been some part of the inspiration for the "Ammar" character who was tortured in the opening scene, might have been the first detainee to mention the name of bin Laden's courier. But as Gibney points out, al-Qatani gave that information up to the FBI, in legit, torture-free interrogations, before he was whisked away to Gitmo for 49 days of torture that included such insanities as forcing him to urinate on himself (by force-feeding him liquids while in restraints), making him watch a puppet show of him and bin Laden having sex, making him take dance lessons, making him wear panties on his head, and making him wear a "smiley-face" mask, along with the usual sleep and sensory deprivation, arm-hanging, etc. In other words, the key info may have come before they chucked our supposed standards for human decency.

The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this "enhanced interrogation," the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture - so sure waterboarding was a "magic bullet," as Gibney put it to me - that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden's capture.

The CIA took another detainee, Ibn al-Sheik al Libi, and duct-taped his head, put him in a wooden box, shipped him off to Cairo to be waterboarded, and got him to admit under torture that there were links between Saddam Hussein and bin Laden. This "intel" became part of Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. on the need to invade Iraq. So while torture might have found us bin Laden, maybe, it also very well might have sent us on one of history's all-time pointlessly bloody wild goose chases, invading Iraq in search of WMDs.

A more accurate movie about the torture program would have been a grotesque comedy that showed grown men resorting to puppet shows and dance routines and fourth-rate sexual indignities dreamed up after spending too much time reading spank mags and BDSM sites - and doing this thousands of times to thousands of people, all over the world, "accidentally" murdering hundreds of people in the process, going to war by mistake at least once as a result of it, and having no clue half the time who they're interrogating (less than 10 percent of "terror suspects" at places like Bagram were arrested by American forces; most of the rest were brought in by Afghanis or other foreigners in exchange for bounties).


To Read the Entire Response

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ray McGovern: Excusing Torture, Again

Excusing Torture, Again
by Ray McGovern
Common Dreams


The Downside of Torture

Besides the moral opprobrium that the practices brought upon the United States, the CIA’s use of torture alienated many Muslims who otherwise would have felt no sympathy for Islamic extremists. For example, U.S. military interrogators report that the vast majority of jihadists who came to fight against U.S. forces in Iraq were motivated by the disclosures about torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

FBI interrogators also have said their rapport-building techniques with an early detainee, logistics specialist Abu Zubaydah, were succeeding in eliciting important information from him before the CIA interrogators arrived and insisted on applying their brutal methods.

Author Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side writes that the two FBI agents, Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin, “sent back early cables describing Zubayda as revealing inside details of the [9/11] attacks on New York and Washington, including the nickname of its central planner, ‘Mukhtar,’ who was identified as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad [KSM]. …

“During this period, Zubayda also described an Al Qaeda associate whose physical description matched that of Jose Padilla. The information led to the arrest of the slow-witted American gang member in May 2002, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. …

“Abu Zubayda disclosed Padilla’s role accidentally, apparently. While making small talk, he described an Al Qaeda associate he said had just visited the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. That scrap was enough for authorities to find and arrest Padilla” who was suspected of plotting a “dirty bomb” attack inside the United States (although he was never charged with that offense).

In 2009, Soufan broke his personal silence on the topic in an op-ed in the New York Times, citing Zubaydah’s cooperation in providing information about Padilla and KSM before the CIA began the harsh tactics. “It is inaccurate … to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative,” Soufan wrote. “Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.” [NYT, April 23, 2009]

Nevertheless, Bush administration defenders have cited the information wrested from Zubaydah — who was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002 — as justification for the interrogation tactics that have been widely denounced as torture.

The problem of eliciting false intelligence was demonstrated by the handling of another al-Qaeda captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who responded to threats of torture by fabricating an operational link between Saddam Hussein’s government and al-Qaeda. It was exactly the kind of information that the Bush administration had been seeking to justify its desired invasion of Iraq.

By Feb. 11, 2003, as the countdown to the U.S. invasion progressed, CIA Director George Tenet began treating al-Libi’s assertions as fact. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Tenet said Iraq “has also provided training in poisons and gases to two al-Qa’ida associates. One of these associates characterized the relationship he forged with Iraqi officials as successful.”

But the CIA’s promotion of al-Libi’s information ignored the well-founded suspicions voiced by the Defense Intelligence Agency. “He lacks specific details” about the supposed training, the DIA observed. “It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers.”

The DIA’s doubts proved prescient. In January 2004, al-Libi recanted his statements and claimed that he had lied because of both actual and anticipated abuse. In September 2006, the Senate Intelligence Committee criticized the CIA for accepting al-Libi’s claims as credible. “No postwar information has been found that indicates CBW training occurred and the detainee who provided the key prewar reporting about this training recanted his claims after the war,” the committee report said.

Al-Libi ended up in a Libyan prison during the period when Col. Muammar Gaddafi was cooperating with the U.S. in hunting down “terrorists.” Al-Libi “committed suicide” just two weeks after being visited in the Libyan prison by a team from Human Rights Watch in April 2009.

‘No Good Intelligence’

The al-Libi case demonstrated one of the practical risks of coercing a witness to talk. To avoid pain, people often make stuff up, an obvious point that other truth-tellers also have noted. On Sept. 6, 2006, for example, Gen. John Kimmons, then head of Army intelligence told reporters at the Pentagon, in unmistakable language:

“No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”

Gen. Kimmons is a rare species – a general officer with guts, not to mention an intelligence career focusing mostly on interrogation practices. He was well aware that President George W. Bush had decided to claim publicly, just two hours later, that the “alternative set of procedures” for interrogation – methods that Bush had approved, like waterboarding – were effective.

So the real experts say one cannot acquire “good intelligence” from torture, i.e. an empirical reality upon which to base sound policy. But what about bad intelligence, especially preferred bad intelligence? If your goal in 2002 and 2003 was to make a case showing operational ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq – when none existed – well, then, torture works like a charm.

Yet, Jose Rodriguez now seeks to rewrite this sordid chapter in the CIA’s history and put his own complicity in a more favorable light.

One could say his first major move in this cover-up came in 2005 when he ordered the destruction of videotaped evidence of these “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Surely, it is easier to soft-pedal the cruel reality of waterboarding and other abusive tactics if people can’t actually see the human suffering.

And, the Washington Post, which once basked in the glory of its investigation of the Watergate cover-up, now gives generous space for a practitioner of both waterboarding and destruction of evidence to make excuses without challenge.

Just think how Official Washington’s attitude toward respect for the law has degraded over the past three decades or so. Not even President Richard Nixon dared to destroy the incriminating tapes of Watergate, even though he knew only too well that the evidence on them would be his undoing.

Yet, Rodriguez never faced criminal charges for destroying 92 videotapes recording hundreds of hours worth of CIA black-site interrogation footage. Rodriguez ordered the tapes destroyed at precisely the time when Congress and the courts were intensifying their scrutiny of the CIA interrogation program. Yet – surprise, surprise – nowhere in Sunday’s Post is there mention of that felony fact.

Indeed, as Rodriguez and his torture-friendly colleagues seek to use the occasion of the new Hollywood blockbuster to burnish their image, they are getting a helping hand from neocon newspapers like the Washington Post.

To Read the entire essay

Henry A. Giroux: Racism and the Aesthetic of Hyperreal Violence - Pulp Fiction and Other Visual Tragedies

Racism and the Aesthetic of Hyperreal Violence: Pulp Fiction and Other Visual Tragedies
by Henry A. Giroux
Social Identities 1:2 (1995): 333-354


Violence, Race, and the Politics of Realism

I have no more of a problem with violence that I do with people who like bedroom comedy versus slapstick comedy. It's an aesthetic thing. -- Quentin Tarantino

Extreme violence in Tarantino's films represents a central element in his cinematic style. Tarantino first generated a great deal of controversy through the comic-book style of torture in Reservoir Dogs, gruesomely played out by Michael Madsen who cuts off a hostage policeman's ear and then holds it in his hand while talking to it. Pulp Fiction continues the tradition of hyperreal violence, for example, when Jules just for effect shoots a defenseless college kid. This act of sudden violence is not aimed at some wooden, Hollywood gangsta. On the contrary, the victim is a scared kid and his random murder is senseless and disturbing. Of course, the effects are no less shocking when Vincent accidently blows off the head of a black kid who appears to be barely 17 or 18 years old. These are disturbing representations of violence, endorsed by a director who appears to have "turned murder into performance art."

Tarantino makes no attempts cinematically to rupture or contest the patterns of violence that his films produce or claim to represent. On the contrary, he empties violence of any critical social consequences, offering viewers only the immediacy of shock, humor, and irony as elements of mediation. And none of these elements get beyond the seduction of voyeuristic gazing so as to demand critical involvement. In this sense, the facile consumption of shocking images and hallucinatory delight that is provoked undercut the possibility of educating audiences to "comment on the image instead of allowing it to pass," there is virtually no space in which the audience can unsettle the "`moment of violence' [to allow it to] resonate meaningfully and demand our critical involvement."

Tarantino employs cruelty, humor, and postmodern parody to parade visually his extensive knowledge of film history and to rewrite the dynamic of repetition and difference. For example, the male rape scene in Pulp Fiction does homage to the classic film, Deliverance (1972), but in the end Tarantino's use of parody is about repetition, transgression, and a softening the face of violence by reducing it to the property of film history. In this case, aesthetics is about reordering the audience's sense of trauma through a formalism that denies any vestige of politics. This is violence with an escape hatch, one that suggests that violence is a "force over which we have no control" based on a aesthetics that promotes the false assumption that "violence can be distanced from reality through its apparent autonomy of signs." This is what Tarantino suggests when he claims that:

Violence in real life is one of the worst aspects of America. But in movies-It's fucking fun! One of the funniest, coolest things for me to watch. I get a kick out of it-all right?

Tarantino's comments reveal more than a hip aesthetics that infantalizes violence by reducing it to an arid formalism and slapstick humor, it is also about a cinematic amoralism which separates the representation of violence from real life. His films offer no language for rendering ruthless violence dangerous in its ability to numb us to the senseless brutality that has become a part of everyday life, especially for children and youth. Tarantino justifies his graphic representations of violence through an appeal to realism. He argues that his violent depiction and deceleration of pain is about "stopping movie time and playing the violence out in real time. Letting nothing get in the way of it and letting it happen the way real violence does." But "real" violence comes from somewhere; it is neither innocent, nor does it emerge outside of existing historical contexts and social relationships. More fundamentally, representations of violence, regardless of how realistically they are portrayed, do not rupture or challenge automatically the dominant ideologies that often justify or celebrate violence in real life. An uncritical appeal to realism does not allow audiences to think imaginatively about ways to disrupt conventional patterns of violence. Tarantino's celebration of realism does not offer any normative grounds on which to challenge violence or to resist power that is oppressive and brutal; on the contrary, the aesthetic of realism serves pedagogically to justify abstracting the representation of violence from the ethical responsibility of both filmmakers and the audience to challenge it as an established social practice.

Tarantino's view of violence represents more than bad politics, it also breeds a dead-end cynicism. His films are filled with characters who have flimsy histories, are going no where, and live out their lives without any sense of morality or justice. In Tarantino's celluloid world, the pursuit of happiness is a bad dream and violence is one of the few options for exercising any sense of human agency. Tarantino acknowledges that his own twenty-something sense of the world was informed less by the social and political events of the `60's and `70s than by French thrillers and Hollywood gangster movies: "The attitude I grew up with was that everything you've heard is lies." In the end, violence for Tarantino submits to the demands of a publicly celebrated, stylized formalism, but the price that is exacted exceeds instant notoriety. What Tarantino ends up with are films in which ultra violence serves as a gateway to sadistic humor at everyone's expense, a chance to depict brutality while assuring the audience that its own complicity and involvement, whether in symbolic terms or in real life, can be avoided.

Tarantino's fame, in part, is due to his willingness to substitute an aesthetic radicalism for a political and moral one. For all of his technical, cinematic virtuosity, he cannot escape the surfacing of his own politics and values conveyed through his storytelling and the dialogue he gives to his characters. What betrays Tarantino's attempts to render the underbelly of society on its own terms is the overt racism that informs his films, evident on a number of registers. First, there is the racist language that streams forth from his characters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Racist slurs and verbal assaults abound in these films, especially in Pulp Fiction. There is a disturbing quality to this language, especially in a film that represents a cinematic tradition that Amy Taubin calls a "new acceptable white male art form." The use of supposedly naturalist, racist language aimed largely at white audiences appears to have a jokey quality about it, a kind of porno subtext that suggest that as whites "we're saying something really nasty and really evil, and let's share this secret thrill." This form of verbal racist violence did not escape Allen and Albert Hughes, the black film directors behind Menace II Society , who challenge Tarantino's repeated use of the word "nigger" in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has defended himself against the use of racist language in his films. He response is worth quoting at length:

My feeling is the word nigger is probably the most volatile word in the English language. The minute any word has that much power, as far as I'm concerned, everyone on the planet should scream it. No word deserves that much power. I'm not afraid of it. That's the only way I know how to explain it.

What Tarantino fails to acknowledge is the history that informs the term and how the power of the word "nigger" is tied to the power of white dominant groups who traditionally control how meanings are produced, circulated, and rewarded. The point being that the term is powerful for a set of complex reasons that cannot be left unexplained. Moreover, the use of the terms by different groups of whites and blacks has different connotations. The rapper, Ice Cube, makes this clear in his comment "Look, when we call each other nigger it means no harm, in fact in Compton [CA] it is a friendly word. But if a white person uses it, it's something different, it's a racist word." Similarly, as Robin Kelly points out in Race Rebels the word "nigger" has multiple meanings in black history and in the current context of black popular culture. Unaware of the complex nuances associated with the different contextual uses of the word "nigger," Tarantino parades the term unself-consciously before audiences for whom the signifying power of the term is far from open-ended. For many whites, the word "nigger" is deeply inscribed in their memories and minds less as a term of cultural resistance than as an expression of their support for racist discourse and values. Bell hooks captures the racist implications of the use of the word nigger by white men in films such as Pulp Fiction. She writes:

Yet the film (via these...white men) can also legitimate racist folks by providing a public space where suppressed racist slurs and verbal assaults can be voiced and heard. No one seemed to worry that the film would offer white folks license to verbalize racist aggression.

Link to Read the Entire Essay

Monday, January 7, 2013

Merriam-Websters' Word-of-the-Day: mise-en-scène

mise-en-scène \meez-ahn-SEN\


1 a : the arrangement of actors and scenery on a stage for a theatrical production

b : stage setting

2 a : the physical setting of an action (as of a narrative or a motion picture) : context

b : environment, milieu

"Rick Owens creates worlds more than fashion. His shows are famous for their otherworldly ambience, from the mise-en-scène (from foam to fire to electrifying light shows) to the soundtrack." — From a post by Matthew Schneier on's Style File blog, November 5, 2012

"Studio pictures tend to have a more controlled and artificial mise-en-scène no matter how elaborate and detailed the setting. The lighting is, after all, unnatural, space is confined, and locations are constructed. The emphasis is more on the interaction of characters and less on the interaction of character and environment." — From Ira Konigsberg's 1987 publication The Complete Film Dictionary

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Erin Aubry Kaplan: 'Django' an unsettling experience for many blacks

'Django' an unsettling experience for many blacks
by Erin Aubry Kaplan
LA Times

Quentin Tarantino's slave-era spaghetti western has some questioning the propriety of using a still-festering period of U.S. history as a platform for a bloody, profanely comic pop entertainment.

Tracey White's initial impression of "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's new slave-era shoot-'em-up extravaganza, could be summed up in three words: smart, funny and ugly. Sitting through a recent screening in Beverly Hills, the L.A. costume designer was mostly absorbed and found herself laughing aloud at particularly outrageous moments.

But White, who is black, said her feelings evolved significantly. Two days after reflecting on the matter of slavery and Tarantino's treatment, she pronounced the movie mostly ugly.

"He [Tarantino] gets a good product out of it in terms of wit and a visual look," said White. "But when it was over I found myself wondering, 'What is he trying to do?' I enjoyed the movie when I was in there, but I still have a problem with Tarantino when he deals with our race."

White will certainly not be alone among African Americans in her ambivalence about the gleefully outrageous film. While "Django" has nabbed almost uniformly warm reviews and four NAACP Image Award nominations (including for best picture), the fact is that it is an extremely Hollywood-ized vision of a critical black American experience.

Some blacks are already calling the revenge-fantasy movie, especially its graphic and highly stylized violence, insensitive, exploitative and ahistorical. Filmmaker Spike Lee, a longtime critic of Tarantino, said this month that he refuses to see the movie, and calls his spaghetti-western approach to slave history "disrespectful."

Many moviegoers will know something of what they're getting into. Violence and the liberal use of black idioms and so-called urban culture are Tarantino hallmarks, notably in early films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," and they've always stirred controversy. But this movie is different because it mines slavery, the complicated source material for so much black culture and fountain of violence in American history.

It is an institution whose horrors need no exaggerating, yet "Django" does exactly that, either to enlighten or entertain. A white director slinging around the n-word in a homage to '70s blaxploitation à la "Jackie Brown" is one thing, but the same director turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction is quite another.

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Cecil Brown: Tarantino's Django: Unchained - Hollywood’s Nigger Joke

Tarantino's Django: Unchained: Hollywood’s Nigger Joke
by Cecil Brown

In order for a joke to work, Mary Douglas, the eminent British anthropologist, wrote that one had to have a social context for it to operate in. “We must ask what are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” she asked in her wonderful little essay, “Jokes.”

“My hypothesis,” she writes“is that a joke is seen and allowed when it offers a symbolic pattern of a social pattern occurring at the same time.”

With Django: Unchained, the symbolic pattern–I’d call it historical context–is Hollywood itself. “If there is no joke in the social structure,” Mrs Douglas observed, “no other joke can appear.” In Hollywood, there are lots of jokes in the system!

The social pattern that allows Quentin Tarantino’s “Nigger joke” to work is set in the South, two years before the Civil War, but my point is that this is only a pretext for Hollywood itself.

Some critics, like Betsy Sharkey in the Times, think this film is a masterpiece. Sharkey calls it, “the most articulate, intriguing, provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright entertaining film yet.”

African American critic Wesley Morris hated it. He called it “unrelenting tastelessness — [...] exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.”

Ishmael Reed, the novelist, pointed out how the Weinstein Company promoted an advertising campaign to get a black audience by promoting Jamie Foxx as the star. In fact, Foxx is only one of the stars, along with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. As Reed points out, Foxx spends most of his time looking at Mr.Waltz and then looking at Mr. DiCaprio, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, What’s dese white folks, talkin ‘bout?

My aim in his essay is to examine the way in which the symbolic system is a reflection of the social system. “What are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” Mrs Douglass wrote in that little essay, “Jokes.”

What are the social conditions that would permit Django to be the big howling, empty nigger joke that it is?

One of these social conditions, certainly, involves the relationship between black actors and Hollywood as a symbol of the plantation system.

In his review of the film, for example, Mr. Reed said that Sam Jackson, in the role of the conniving, omnipresent, evil slave, is “playing himself.”

If Jackson had not dominated the Hollywood system in such a sly way, then his role as Stephen, the master-worshipping house slave to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) would not have its loaded, edgy, uncanny realism. The plantation is called CandieLand (Candyland) and is meant to refer to Hollywood itself as a producer of entertainment (Candy). Get it?

If Jamie Foxx is not known in Hollywood as a resourceful hustler, who will play almost any role, then his part as the “bad nigger” Django would not be so compelling (and lubricous). If he was not the “New nigger on the block,” then the confrontation between him and Sam Jackson’s character, Stephen, the off-the-hook house slave, the scene would not be powerful (and dumb) at the same time.

The dramatis persona forms a homology with the enacted characters on the screen. The key that unlocks Tarantino’s sensationalistic mosaic is that it reveals the inner game of how the Hollywood studio and the plantation slave institution exploited black people.

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