Monday, April 30, 2012

Ahead of May Day, David Harvey Details Urban Uprisings from Occupy Wall Street to the Paris Commune

Ahead of May Day, David Harvey Details Urban Uprisings from Occupy Wall Street to the Paris Commune
Democracy Now

On Tuesday, May 1st, known as May Day or International Workers’ Day, Occupy Wall Street protesters hope to mobilize tens of thousands of people across the country under the slogan, "General Strike. No Work. No Shopping. Occupy Everywhere." Events are planned in 125 cities. We speak with leading social theorist David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, about how Occupy Wall Street compares to other large-scale grassroots movements throughout modern history. "It’s struck a chord," Harvey says of the Occupy movement. "I hope tomorrow there will be a situation in which many more people will say, 'Look, things have got to change. Something different has to happen.'" Harvey’s most recent book is "Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution."


David Harvey, distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.

To Watch the Interview

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Adam Cook: Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard's "The Cabin in the Woods"
by Adam Cook

"The horror film to end all horror films."
—Joss Whedon

The man wasn’t lying. It didn’t seem all that likely that he could deliver on that tongue-in-cheek statement, but Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the genre is so complete and sophisticated, and the ending of The Cabin in the Woods literally shakes the foundation of the “horror film”—just before annihilating it altogether. Once the film approaches its conclusion, and the mechanics of the horror genre that have been manipulating the cabin in the woods have all been made explicit, the cine-commentary matches/exceeds that of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and a with sense of humor intact (“Funnier Games”). The key difference is that Goddard and Whedon do it with intelligence, wit and compassion in equal measure. The film is not condescending to its audience, but rather counts on their own knowledge, and, refreshingly, on their own playfulness. It would seem that Haneke would condemn the shameless voyeurism of the horror-viewer, whereas the filmmakers behind The Cabin in the Woods celebrate the fun of horror films while still indicting its more vapid sadistic tendencies seen in recent years. One senses a love and respect for humanity beaming through the final moments of Cabin, rather than the coldness Haneke purposefully substitutes for sincerity, in order to distance himself from his subject, even as he falls prey to the same dynamic between torturer, tortured, and viewer, that he seeks to chastise. Without the same deliberate “arthouse” tactics, Goddard and Whedon are self-reflexive at every turn, questioning the clichés and tropes the genre is built on. And they have so much fun doing it.

The film’s one central shortcoming may be its inability to work as a horror film itself. Goddard has a visual intelligence—in one sequence, he emulates J-Horror with smashing results—and successfully generates suspense, but the tension that drives the film comes from the mystery's unfolding. Cabin's strength is in its satire, and the film is too funny, too often, for its supposed scares to operate successfully. Nevertheless, if we can count it somewhere among horror films for categorical purposes it joins a shortlist of significant contemporary works in American cinema. Only Rob Zombie comes to mind (though Ti West has his supporters), whose recent Halloween films have challenged the slasher genre with doses of humanism, grotesque aesthetic beauty, and a punishing brutality not meant to satisfy sadistic desires. The inner-workings of the “horror film” are actually built into Cabin's narrative. In a secret facility, two normal looking men-in-ties, played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, are working at some sort of control panel. They have access to actors, cameras, monsters, etc. Anything they need to reach their goal of having five twentysomethings meet their end in a cabin in the woods. These unsuspecting young people are not only lured and trapped but actually altered so as to become the stereotypes deemed necessary by the horror genre. They are stripped of their personalities, uniqueness and intelligence, which are replaced by archetypal models of “the slut”, “the athlete”, “the fool (stoner)”, “the scholar”, and, of course, “the virgin”. The so-called "slut" is, unbeknownst to her, forced to dye her hair blonde before the cabin excursion begins. The “athlete” is actually a sociology major dumbed down and costumed in a letterman jacket. The virgin is not so much a virgin, but as “The Director” (an alluring allusion, I realize) will elaborate near the film’s closing, those pulling the strings “work with what they have”. The five young people are afforded some freedom however. They unknowingly select what will kill them. Meanwhile, back at the facility, co-workers take bets on what it will be. Bradley Whitford's character hopes that it will be a Merman that will cruelly dispose of the victims. On multiple screens, these men observe as each character is killed, almost bored with what to them seems a merciless necessity.

To Read the Rest of the Response


MUBI Forum discussion about The Cabin in the Woods

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tom McCormack: Laws of Desire -- What did David Cronenberg's Videodrome get right about us?

Laws of Desire: What did David Cronenberg's Videodrome get right about us?
by Tom McCormack
Moving Image Source

It can be both fun and necessary to revisit famously prescient works of art and take account of just what they got right.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell was right that the most successful authoritarian regimes of the future would limit dissent by using mass media to control our conceptual tools. He was wrong about how they would do it; instead of issuing messages through a unified voice, the most durable authoritarianism has flourished by dispersing control among a small set of global corporations that justify their outsized power through their success in the marketplace. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley was right that sexual freedom and the triumph of therapy culture would develop alongside rigid class structures. The mainstream acceptance of casual sex and prescription pharmaceuticals really did happen alongside a consolidation of class power—a radical one we're still reeling from. But in Huxley this was accomplished through an exaggeration of class difference and an expanded language for class; in reality, the culture witnessed the atrophy of a language for class and an erasing of outward signs of class in terms of professed values, fashion, and manners of speech (hence "bourgeois bohemians" and "the millionaire next door").

David Cronenberg's Videodrome offered in 1983 a vision of dystopia that rivaled in ambition and sweep and foresight Orwell's and Huxley's more famous works. So what did Videodrome get right? And what, if anything, did it get wrong?

Cronenberg was right that new technologies would unleash a craving for scenes of increasingly extreme and increasingly realistic—if not just plain real—sexual violence. He was right about what this violence would look like ("No plot, no characters. Very realistic"); why the entertainment industry would turn to it ("I'm looking for something that will break through. Something tough!"); and how those in the media would talk about it ("It's absolutely brilliant. I mean look: there's almost no production cost!"). He was right that many people would experience these new products as addictive and would report a psychic bleed into the texture of their daily lives, frequently to their great concern.

Cronenberg was right, in a more subtle way, about what would cause the cultural turn to sexual violence. The movie isn't called "photodrome" or "cinemadrome"—it's not about the nature of mechanical reproduction or motion pictures but about the consequences of private access to public imagery. Professor Brian O'Blivion, Videodrome's resident philosopher, tells us that the television has become the "retina of the mind's eye"; that "the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain." What he's talking about is what contemporary social scientists studying the Internet call—borrowing terms from psychoanalysis—"solipsistic introjection." This refers to the tendency of individuals to believe, on at least a semi-conscious level, that things happening on their electronic devices are actually happening inside their heads. Describing how this effect works in online chat rooms, John Suler writes:

Reading another person's message might be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that person magically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche... The online companion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, a character that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by our expectations, wishes, and needs... People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or very honestly confronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality IS one's imagination. Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry in which a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace is a stage and we are merely players.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, April 23, 2012

Film Quarterly: Interview with Göran Hugo Olsson

Interview with Göran Hugo Olsson
by Rob White
Film Quarterly

The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 is a chronologically presented assemblage of re-edited documentary film from the archive of the Swedish National Broadcast Company. To this original material director Göran Hugo Olsson has added explanatory titles and a soundtrack that consists of original music by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Om’Mas Keith together with voiceover commentary by (among others) musicians Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli as well as professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley, and Sonia Sanchez. Davis’s participation is noteworthy because The Black Power Mixtape includes an electrifying clip of her being interviewed in San Rafael County Prison in 1972 and rounding on the questioner, Bo Holmström: “you ask me whether I approve of violence,” she says, going on to recount the experience of seeing childhood friends of hers murdered in bomb attacks in Birmingham, Alabama, “limbs and heads strewn all over the place.” “When someone asks me about violence,” she adds, “what it means is the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea … what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

Though it has nine main segments, one for each year recorded, The Black Power Mixtape can be described as a kind of three-act tragedy. The first phase is one of radical eloquence and increasingly bold, militant organization. Stokely Carmichael is the star of the proceedings but we also see a grassroots Black Panther schoolroom in Oakland and hear Panther co-founder Bobby Seale declare that “we will defend ourselves, we will shoot … because we are bent on survival.” Crackdown occurs in the next phase: Eldridge Cleaver speaks unconvincingly from Algiers about “government-in-exile” but at home thousands of activists are imprisoned and scores killed. (When we see Davis after her release she is speaking from a platform that appears to be protected by bulletproof glass.) The final part of the film relies heavily on Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces which dwells on the spreading blight of heroin. In one clip a young former prostitute and addict talks to camera about turning her life around, but it is arguably the discourse of self-betterment itself that contributes to an impression of isolation and vulnerability. The language of politics and the idea of a mass movement are no longer present. Although the voiceover commentators shortly afterwards discuss the lasting achievements of the struggle for black liberation in the 1960s and 70s, I could not shake a feeling of loss which emerged from the gulf between the defiant confidence of Davis’s jail-cell remarks and the suffering words of this lonely Harlem woman.

The film’s relationship to history is ruminative. Because of the audio commentary The Black Power Mixtape stages a “moving conversation between past and present,” as B. Rich put it in her spring 2011 Film Quarterly Sundance report. The dialogic mode of presentation means that it would be hard to watch the film without reflecting on the question of viewpoint. The Swedish crews who filmed the source footage were visitors to the U.S., reporting from a country in crisis and at war, their sympathies evidently extended to such people as the Hallandale, Florida veteran who speaks near the start of The Black Power Mixtape about being “ridiculed, discriminated, treated as less than a man … the environment has a whole lot to do with keeping a man down.” But is there truly an outsider perspective on such a history? When Olsson includes 1973 footage of a tourist bus tour of Harlem, its Swedish guide talking up the danger of street crime, before cutting to a camera position inside a police car, the question no longer permits of an easy answer—and that is how it should be.

To Read the Interview

Friday, April 20, 2012

Koch Brothers Exposed: The 1% at its Very Worst
Uprising Radio

When the Occupy Movement speaks about the 1 percent which has wreaked havoc on this country’s financial system, the billionaire Koch brothers immediately come to mind. Charles and David Koch have given hundreds of million dollars to fund a conservative agenda which promotes the interests of the richest 1 percent of Americans. Now, in Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, “Koch Brothers Exposed: The 1% at its very Worst” we get an incisive look at the tentacles of the Kochs’ influence throughout the American political and cultural landscape.

After inheriting the family oil business from their father, Charles and David Koch amassed an estimated fortune of $60 billion dollars through Koch Industries. The company has become the 2nd largest privately held multi-national corporation in the world owning companies that range from Georgia-Pacific paper company to fertilizers, chemicals, ranching, manufacturing and oil pipelines. Veteran film maker Robert Greenwald, in his film, shows how the Koch Brothers have spent their money to wield enormous power and advance an extreme right wing political agenda through massive donations to think tanks, legislators and political groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Employing more than 50,000 people in the US, Koch-funded think tanks, according to Greenwald, are working to dismantle unions, weaken social security and deregulate government to dilute environmental protections around the country. In fact, Koch Industries is one of the top ten polluters in the United States. Not satisfied with influencing the economic system within which their companies operate, the brothers also aspire to shape the cultural fabric of the country. Through groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs are working to demolish the public school system by funding efforts to resegregate schools in places like Wake County North Carolina and undermine minority voting rights in dozens of states.

GUEST: Robert Greenwald, producer and director of Koch Brothers Exposed, also founder of Brave New Films, which has produced such hard-hitting documentaries as as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

To Listen to the Episode and To See a Preview of the Documentary

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Films We Want to See: Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

Bill Mesce: Remember Me -- Ben Gazzara

Remember Me: Ben Gazzara
by Bill Mesce
Sound on Sight


In Husbands, Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Peter Falk play three long-time friends who react to the death of another buddy with a midlife crisis bender of booze and a jaunt to London. Think The Hangover – but serious and for grown-ups.

Like much of Cassavetes’ work, Husbands has the shapelessness and shambling pace of life, the same sense of spontaneity, the same chaotic tumbling of the comedic into the tragic. It’s a demanding watch, but a rewarding one, almost uncomfortable at times in its feel of intruding into the real.

The heart of the movie is the give-and-go between the three leading men, and it may be one of the most honest and vibrant portraits of male friendship – with all its awkward intimacy and macho bullshit – captured on film. The bond between the three seems so damned real, it’s a surprise to find out that the three hadn’t known each other before Husbands.

Watching the film, seeing how open and vulnerable the three made themselves to each other, at the obvious chemistry among them, it’s no surprise they came out of the project friends. Gazzara would act for Cassavetes twice more, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977), and direct several episodes of Falk’s hit TV series, Columbo, including one starring Cassavetes as a philandering orchestra conductor.

But if you really want to see how closely tied the film brought them, go to YouTube and find them on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show being interviewed about the film. It puts Danny DeVito and his limoncello hangover on The View to shame. On the one hand, it’s appalling to see three grown – and obviously half-crocked — men cackling and falling over themselves on network television like kids farting in the back pew during mass.

On the other hand, it seems almost a scene from Husbands, and shows just how right the three of them had gotten it on film. Some things you can’t create; you can only hope to capture.

Husbands, Chinese Bookie, et al was not work Gazzara or the others did for fame and fortune. These were art house films before there was much of an art house circuit. Most people didn’t hear about them, even fewer went to see them. It was work done for the sake of doing; art for art’s sake. Film actors tend to be judged by their commercial successes and their visibility; not their willingness to explore the art. In that sense, Gazzara’s artistry was bigger than his career.

To Read the Entire Essay

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Miriam Bale: They Came From Within -- Yonic symbolism in the films of David Cronenberg

They Came From Within: Yonic symbolism in the films of David Cronenberg
by Miriam Bale
Moving Image


Cronenberg’s early career coincides with the publication of some significant feminist criticism on sexual difference. "A new morning of and for the world?" wrote Luce Irigaray in 1984. "A remaking of immanence and transcendence, notably through this threshold which has never been examined as such: the female sex. The threshold that gives access to the mucous...a threshold that is always half-open."

A more direct connection to Cronenberg's explorations on sexuality: the first test tube baby was born in 1978, three years after his first commercial film was released. Cronenberg commented later on this connection: "Well, I think, with Crash it was getting very focused on the idea that we are re-inventing sex. We are at a major epoch in human history, which is that we don’t need sex to recreate the race. You can have babies without sex. This is the first time in human history that has been true." In Crash, the yonic bleeding-wound symbolism takes on new significance, no longer the wound from penetration but a site of new pleasures, when a character has sexual intercourse with a gash in another character’s leg.

While Cronenberg has worked repeatedly with ideas about the awe and horrors of reproduction—most notably in The Brood and The Fly—more interesting are his explorations of a woman’s sex that have no connection to her womb, that are instead about complex pleasures, power, and fear. The most basic fact of horror is that we fear what we cannot see; Cronenberg has made a career of this vertiginous relationship to the abyss of the yonic. The most haunting scare scene in his first major movie, Shivers (or They Came From Within), which was also the poster image, is of a woman naked in a bathtub with her legs casually open and bent in the water. A slimy phallus-y horror invader crawls through the pipes of the haunted apartment building and exits through the hole of the bathtub drain, obviously heading toward the next opening. It is a terrifying reminder that there is no door to shut out entry to a woman’s body. Cronenberg’s fascination in this film is with these exposed openings to a closed system, where internal meets external. Where does the body end and the outside world begin? This fascination was taken further in eXistenZ. "How come bio-ports don’t get infected? They open right into your body," the inexperienced man played by Jude Law asks the woman—the expert—about the anus-like bio-port openings that are the site for head-fucking games for two. "Listen to what you’re saying, Pikul. Don't be ludicrous," she answers, as she opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue.

Cronenberg followed Shivers with Rabid, which starred porn star Marilyn Chambers as an affectionate woman with an anal opening in her armpit that hides a killer clit. Not since "Little Red Riding Hood" has the clitoris found a better metaphor: a small and pointed red appendage that pops out of hiding in an embrace to stab its victims and turn them into vampiric sex zombies. The film is an awestruck examination of the insatiability of female sexuality. "Do you feel weak?" Chambers is asked by a doctor after a string of attacks. "I feel strong. I feel very strong," she says slowly with a postcoital grin. But the film also addresses her guilt once this insatiability has been awakened. "It's your fault!" she screams at her boyfriend who caused this mutation, a surprising glimpse of rage in an appropriately flat performance. "I’m crazy, I’m a monster," she says later, the woman with girl-next-door looks who locks herself in a room with a victim to prove that she’s still innocent.

In underestimating the clitoris, this "obviously inferior" organ that has no purpose but pleasure, Freud confused size with power, not taking into account the limitless pleasure possible in that "little penis," nor realizing that it has 4,000 nerve endings to the 2,000 nerve endings spread out over a larger space in the male anatomy. (It’s notable, too that a Freud paperback makes an appearance early in Rabid, when a woman wants to know what her father’s interest in her nose symbolizes.)

In eXistenZ, Cronenberg creates one of cinema’s only visual metaphors for the next section of a woman’s sexual anatomy, the lower region of the vagina (the knobby section that contains the woman’s G-spot and other tender buttons) turned inside out, in horseshoe-shaped game pods used as remote controls for sexually metaphoric, virtual-reality games. Made of metaflesh, the pods are pink and wrinkled and make squishy little noises of their own accord once activated. "That's ugly even for a pod," says Jude Law’s character of a diseased pod. One person can play alone with the pod, but it’s no fun, says the gaming female cult leader played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. "Then you’re just a tourist." It takes two to play. "The only way I can tell if everything is OK is to play eXistenZ with somebody friendly. Are you friendly?" Leigh asks the uptight Law. But he is resistant to having a bio-port opening (complete with "Umbi-cord") installed in his lower back.

To Read the Entire Essay

Uprising Radio: A special one-hour program on the South Central Farm in Los Angeles – lessons in human rights, immigrant rights, ecological sustainability, and activism. We’ll hear from farmers, organizers, local reporters, and more.

A special one-hour program on the South Central Farm in Los Angeles – lessons in human rights, immigrant rights, ecological sustainability, and activism. We’ll hear from farmers, organizers, local reporters, and more.
Uprising Radio

GUESTS: Fernando Flores, Rosa Romero, Alberto Taltoa, members of the South Central Farmers Support Committee, Aura Bogado, Anchor of Free Speech Radio News, Daniel Hernandez, LA Weekly Reporters, Peter Camejo, Green Party Candidate for Vice President (2004).

After weeks of nightly vigils and high tension, the South Central Farmers in Los Angeles were forcibly from the largest urban community garden in the United States.

For fourteen years poor, immigrant farmers from Los Angeles have been cultivating 14 acres of uninhabited land in the middle of an industrial region in South Central. They have grown rare, heirloom plants from Latin America, naturally and organically, feeding 350 families. The land was originally cultivated after the Rodney King uprising in 1992, when it was given to the neighborhood. The city of Los Angeles instead turned around and sold the land to a developer named Ralph Horowitz in a “backroom deal” for about $5 million.

Since [2005] the farmers have been struggling to save their garden from Horowitz who was ready to develop the land. They got organized and elected representatives who functioned as full time organizers and campaigned to save the farm. They campaigned for LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city’s first Mexican American mayor, to save the farm.

The link between immigrant rights and environmental activism has attracted widespread support for the South Central farm. Horowitz initially agreed to sell the farm for $16.5 million and gave the farmers a March deadline to raise the cash. The deadline came and went, at which point LA Sheriffs were called upon to evict the farmers. Finally, in early June the Annenberg Foundation, teaming with the Trust for Public Land managed to pledge the amount that Horowitz was asking for. But Horowitz turned down the offer and on Tuesday June 13th, police forcibly evicted the farmers and the dozens of activists that had been camping on the farm.

The story initially got little national attention. But when Actress Daryl Hannah sat in a tree to protest the eviction, national media rushed to cover it. On Uprising, we’ve been covering the story of the South Central Farm for many months in our local programming. It is a profound story with many lessons for linking issues, sustainability, human rights, and activism. Today we present a special program on the South Central farm, with interviews from as early as this March to just a few days ago.

We begin with in interview with Fernando Flores, a member of the South Central Farm Support Coalition. Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Peter Camejo visited the farm and explained its the significance in our organizing.

We turn next to Rosa Romero and Alberto Taltoa who spoke with us on May 17th about the struggle to raise enough money to buy the farm from the developer, Ralph Horowitz.

Aura Bogado, the anchor for Free Speech Radio News, had been reporting from the farm. As the eviction became more imminent, activists began camping out at the farm. Bogado spent the night on May 25th and reported to us about what was taking place.

In the middle of the impending eviction, LA Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez wrote a controversial article about some of the internal problems at the farm. Some farmers who had left the farm claimed that they were kicked out by the farm leadership. He joined us on Uprising on June 12th to explain the situation, as well as help see the South Central Farm in a broader context.

I asked Rosa Romero to respond to the allegations that Daniel Hernandez had made about internal problems among the farmers.

Finally, on the morning of June 13th, the sheriffs arrived and began evicting the farmers. After months of organizing, and finally raising the money needed, the developer Ralph Horowitz, decided not to sell the farm to the farmers. Again, FSRN’s Aura Bogado reported from the farm on the day of the eviction.

More than 40 arrests were made. Horowitz told the Los Angeles Times, “If the farmers got a donation and said, `We got $50 million, would you sell it to us?’ I would say no. Not a chance… It’s not about the money.” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released a statement calling the eviction “disheartening and unnecessary.” He went to on say that “I understand a businessman’s need to invest and make a profit… But I also believe that we are called upon by a sense of community and civic duty to do the just and right thing. I had hoped that the landowner would have heeded that call.”

Aura Bogado put together this montage of sounds and interviews from the day of the eviction.

The struggle to save the farm continues with regular vigils being held in front of the farm and the LA City Hall. For more information on the South Central Farmers.

Sonali’s Subversive Thought for the Day:

We play an excerpt from a recent talk by Vandana Shiva on the “mono-culture of the mind.”

To Listen to the Episode

Monday, April 16, 2012

Films We Want to See: Prometheus (USA: Ridley Scott, 2012)


Tim Robey: Prometheus Preview

Sukhdev Sandhu: 'Slow cinema' fights back against Bourne's supremacy

'Slow cinema' fights back against Bourne's supremacy
by Sukhdev Sandhu
The Guardian

The average length of shot in The Bourne Ultimatum is two seconds. But a new festival argues for 'slow cinema' – an act of cultural resistance, but also a gateway to beauty and delight


Certainly, for much of its early history, the movies appeared to be an engine to speed up the collective social pulse. As much as cars, telegraphs, telephones, photography, or department stores, they represented a technology of change. Cinema didn't merely chronicle the transformations of early 20th-century urban consciousness; like jazz, it embodied them. Its techniques of dissolves, cutting and montage mirrored the rhythms – at once alienating and exhilarating – of modern life.

By the 60s, however, the manufacture of speed no longer seemed quite the radical project it once did. An affluent America was flooded by fastness – cars, food, jukeboxes, multi-channel TV – and speed, rather than being thought of as a way to jolt a flaccid society into a boldly futurist direction, was more and more regarded as a mechanism to cretinise society, to deform citizens into consumers.

Film-makers from Antonioni (about whose L'Avventura Dyer claims "every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour") to Andy Warhol (whose 485-minute Empire depicted nothing but slow-motion footage of New York's Empire State Building) increasingly saw slowness as a zone of avant-garde possibility.

Today, in the age of the fibre-optic cable, the velocity of the moving image – like that of all data – is even quicker. YouTube kittens, TMZ titillation, mobile phone footage of racist outbursts on tube trains: not only do we upload pixellated pictures as never before, we guzzle them up, click-trancing the hours away in search of new thrills and memes and "rofl" fare.

Meanwhile, the average length of shot in films such as Batman Begins (2005) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) is less than two seconds. To watch many multiplex movies, especially if you're no longer a teenager, is like being a lab rat into whose eyes are squirted noxious liquids, or a captive at a black-ops centre whose military personnel jab and jolt you in steady waves of sensory torture.

In this context, the cinema that Romney describes in terms of austerity can also be seen as a form of cultural resistance. What links otherwise distinct films such as Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006), Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light (2007), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme D'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) is the extent to which they opt for ambient noises or field recordings rather than bombastic sound design, embrace subdued visual schemes that require the viewer's eye to do more work, and evoke a sense of mystery that springs from the landscapes and local customs they depict more than it does from generic convention.

To Read the Entire Essay

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ben Sachs: Second thoughts on British horror film Kill List

Second thoughts on British horror film Kill List
by Ben Sachs
The Bleader


Having thought about the movie for a couple weeks (it may be more accurate to say I’ve been unable not to think about it), I’ve come to admire it a good deal. Its nauseating violence now strikes me as purposeful, even necessary. Like Gaspar Noé’s 1998 I Stand Alone—the movie it reminds me of most—Kill List uses its horrifying imagery as part of a larger political provocation. If you have a strong stomach, I’d recommend attending one of the final shows at the Music Box tonight. Some further considerations—along with spoilers—follow the jump.

The movie follows Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two former soldiers now working as hit men in England. Desperate for a job, they take a three-victim contract from a mysterious old man who refuses to disclose important details. Wheatly divides the story into a prologue and three chapters (each named after the profession of one of the victims), beginning with an atmosphere of strict realism and gradually introducing fantastical elements until the film reaches a plane of near abstraction. It seems worth noting that the violence becomes more gruesome as the story becomes more allegorical.

This progression allows Wheatly to cleverly manipulate audience sympathy as well as narrative form. The movie’s first extended sequence—probably its single most successful passage—plays on tropes of kitchen-sink realism to make us sympathize with Jay and Sam while hinting at the barbarism they’re capable of. It depicts an unpleasant get-together between the two men and their significant others, a long night that climaxes with an argument between Jay and his wife that nearly comes to blows. Wheatly and his actors carve out an impressive dramatic shape here, lunging from moments of reckless energy to violent anger to drunken reconciliation. The sequence places the characters in a familiar humanist tradition (think Arthur Miller’s The View From the Bridge), suggesting that beneath their lack of sophistication lies genuine feeling.

But like I Stand Alone, Kill List lays to waste any humanist interpretation—which may help to explain why I was so offended by it at first. Despite the fact that Jay wants to be a good father and Gal shows sympathy for devout Christians, there’s ultimately nothing that redeems these men. Their “talents” for torture and murder prove to be mere sadism, and they appear to have no remorse for killing anybody (in a Pinteresque touch, they sometimes allude, blithely, to committing unspecified war crimes in Kiev). The men are modern mercenaries: even their suburban lifestyles—which the observant production design stuffs with useless upper-middle-class trinkets—reflect unthinking greed.

To Read the Entire Review

Ben Sachs: A Decade with Takashi Miike -- An Introduction

A Decade with Takashi Miike: An Introduction
by Ben Sachs

Takashi Miike's body of work encompasses the most diverse approaches to filmmaking of any director alive today, from direct-to-video police dramas to avant-garde art movies. On top of this, Miike seems to make no distinction between modes of filmmaking—not only from project to project but within each film itself. His closest American equivalent might be Quentin Tarantino, who shares a wildly egalitarian view of film history, but Miike is almost unique among living filmmakers in that he advances this view within a traditional studio system. Where Tarantino, who makes a film every few years, is expected to produce Art, Miike, who releases anywhere from two to seven in a given year, can operate below such scrutiny. Forgoing Art, Miike has built a career at the intersection of work and play.

And yet Miike's experience in the art world (working with one of Hou Hsiao-hsien's producers on Izo, for instance, or staging a traditional ghost story for the Tokyo stage) remains evident even in familiar genre assignments. Sometimes it appears in the form of surrealist non-sequiturs, like the garish outfits worn by an otherwise gentle old man in White Collar Worker Kintaro; elsewhere, an avant-garde sensibility overwhelms the work completely, as in the lengthy static shots that crop up even in the Dead or Alive trilogy, hitmen-themed action films. Where this sensibility at times recalls Luis Buñuel's work in the Mexican studio system, there's little in Miike's films that could be labeled subversive: Rarely does an out-of-place genre reference or behavioral choice imply social critique. But if Miike's surrealism is inadvertent (and many of his interviews, in which he claims to be working largely by intuition, would suggest this), it is no less worthy of critical consideration, given how surprising, confounding, and generally joyous is the filmmaking surrounding it. If anything, his connection to such a wide variety of images makes him better qualified to reflect the tangled cultural subconscious at the dawn of the 21st century.

When Miike's films are discussed (at least in English), it's typically in terms of overall output or the overriding "craziness." This makes sense, given his rate of productivity, but it's unsatisfying if one wants to understand how the films operate and how they act on an audience. (A noteworthy exception to this trend: Tom Mes' instructive book Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike.) The dearth of serious writing is especially surprising when no director this decade came closer to making movies the way cinephiles have learned to assimilate them. It's not uncommon for today's moviegoer to watch a Jerry Bruckheimer production and a minimalist work by Pedro Costa in one evening, in spite of the bill presenting some irreconcilable contradictions. The Bruckheimer takes for granted not only genre cliches but the obligation to recycle them over and over, past the point of plausibility, in the name of ceaseless spectacle. A film by Costa (or, to cite one of Miike's peers, Pen-ek Ratanaruang) tries to deny spectacle entirely, opting instead for careful, unobtrusive observation. Both approaches seem symptomatic of the Information Age (submission to a wave of facts, vigilant surveillance), but they may as well exist in different media, seeing how little the actual films resemble each other.

Incorporating sources as diverse as these—as well as many, many others—Miike's films suggest a common ground where all moviemaking can converse. Not since Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s has a filmmaker's approach to cinema been this holistic. But when Godard started making films, the distance between Antonioni and Monogram Pictures (to cite two poles of art and commerce) was not nearly as large as the gulf that today separates Bruckheimer and Costa. To bridge these two in a single film is to risk madness, but such wild combinations also carry the promise of new discoveries, perhaps a new cinema that makes old distinctions irrelevant.

This introduction will begin a series of essays that will look at selected films Takashi Miike has directed since the year 2000. It will look at the films themselves (in terms of theme, character, tone, etc.) and how each one reacts to various currents of filmmaking. It's an exercise that doubles as a survey of cinema today; we hope it yields something like a unified image. Because no matter what was going on in movies these past ten years—low-budget experiments on digital video, CGI-filled fantasies, direct-to-video knockoffs of bigger hits, the global minimalist movement, musicals for pre-teens, the arthouse appropriation of hardcore sex, the rebirth of exploitation film gore—Miike was there, attempting something like a democratic overhaul of it all.

To Access the Essays

Richard Koehler: Nicholas Winding Refn and the Search for a Real Hero

Nicholas Winding Refn and the Search for a Real Hero
by Robert Koehler
Cinema Scope

In the middle of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film punctuated by extreme flourishes of violence and vengeance, there is a period of peace. It occurs when Driver (Ryan Gosling), a quietly contained guy who holds down three jobs—auto mechanic, movie stunt driver, and getaway driver-for-hire—is asked by his auto-shop boss (Bryan Cranston) to drive home customer and Driver’s neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy. En route, Driver takes a surprising detour from the street down to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, one of the city’s most iconic images, a grand public-works project born out of vast and tragic flooding the city endured generations ago. The river, choked into a narrow canal and surrounded by an elegantly paved canyon, has been used in too many movies and TV shows to possibly count, most recently by Bruce La Bruce for daytime sequences of L.A. Zombie (2010). Driver, true to character, uses it as a racetrack and as a bit of stunt track—mildly, as a kid’s in the car, and he’s a gentleman at heart—but also as a road to get somewhere.

The typical deployment of the Los Angeles River in cinema is as a symbol of dead ends, final stops, the place where the city dies, and people along with it. Not so for Refn, for whom Los Angeles is a new city, a place of discovery. Viewed from the majestic prospect of a high angle in long-shot widescreen, Driver stops at the place where the concrete river ends and gives way to the wild river, a startling image even for native Angelenos. He knows these kinds of places, having driven everywhere (so, in reality, does Gosling, who knows the city expertly and drove Refn around town as research, inspiration, and preparation). Refn understands those many places in Los Angeles that make it fairly unique, and reverses the usual clichéd knock on the place as one long paved sprawl. Constantly, the paved cityscape surrenders to the natural world, sidewalks dissolve into dirt trails, roads simply stop, buildings reach their limit when faced with cliffsides, massive chaparral, impregnable mountain ranges that cut through the metropolitan area. Driver leads mother and son to the wild river for a Tom Sawyer afternoon under the sun, a Southern California utopia—the ultimate getaway—an idyll that defines Drive and Driver in fundamental ways.

Superficially an action movie, Drive is actually a film in search of romance, zigzagging through an obstacle course of fairy tale and myth, and a hall of mirrors in which characters can be read as fantasy projections of others while being aware of themselves as figures inside a myth. Beloved in Cannes after days of disappointing films in the competition, Drive was perhaps welcomed by some for the wrong reason: as some kind of new read on Melville’s Le samourai (1967), with Gosling processing Alain Delon’s stoic killer. For once, the director has a sound interpretation that he’s willing to share with whomever cares to listen: Refn correctly argues that Drive’s foundation is in fairy tale, particularly its thematic of a character’s discovery of his own heroism, which Driver finds through the course of nurturing and protecting Irene, who’s made paradoxically more vulnerable when her convict husband returns home from prison. The necessary elimination of dragons—in the form of Albert Brooks’ ice-cold mobster Bernie Rose and Ron Perlman’s put-upon mobster Nino, to say nothing of a few nameless hitmen along the way—doesn’t so much make Driver into a killer, although he wreaks revenge with frighteningly intelligent brutality. Rather, it transforms him into a mythical figure who satisfies the imaginings of those around him, including Irene, who can nevertheless only marvel at him while knowing she can never have him. This is vastly different from Melville’s heightened existential world of professional killers who function by a code and live like lone wolves, apparently free of the need for genuine and reciprocal human contact. Delon’s Samourai is a corporeal killing machine; Gosling’s Driver is a young man in formation, whose work comprises (per his three jobs) repair, escape, and entertainment, and who finds his self during a gauntlet that perhaps only he can survive—an accidental knight who slays the beast.

This is a far stretch from James Sallis’ novel on which Hossein Amini’s screenplay is based, and, as Refn describes it, wildly different from Amini’s previous drafts written as a potential Universal franchise for Hugh Jackman. Sallis’ superb, laconic book, hardboiled to the core, as affectionate toward its city as it is cynical about the city’s most famous (show) business, could have been adapted pretty closely, even with its obsessive (and perhaps needless) jumps in chronology. But a knowledge of the book is helpful in appreciating the grand achievement in American cinema that Drive is. Hollywood has always been open to the invasive notions of outsiders, particularly European directors with strong points of view. Lubitsch, Lang, Boorman, Preminger, Wilder, von Sternberg, Herzog, Verhoeven, and von Stroheim all managed to import their native sensibilities with little compromise into the Hollywood system, and generally thrived intact. Refn’s ambition is clearly to make big movies for large audiences by his own sometimes-radical standards, which include mixing the hyper-violent ecstasies of the Pusher trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005), highly theatrical characters like Tom Hardy’s Bronson (2008), dreamlike dances of death as in Valhalla Rising (2009), and the romance of transformation in Drive. His new film is an act of will, pulling a fine but fairly standard piece of high-class pulp into something richer and more dynamic, modern in its self-consciousness as a work of art and entertainment, and Wellesian in its capacity to astonish, shock, and tease the mind’s perceptions. The fact that Refn is soon making a re-do of Logan’s Run with Gosling is a suggestion of a large-scaled cinema that’s aware of its kinetic powers, its artistic breadth, and its ability to kick it into the fifth gear.

To Read the Interview

Friday, April 13, 2012

Eric Hynes: Wishing on a Starship

Wishing on a Starship
Eric Hynes on Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Reverse Shot

For a filmmaker best known for grand gestures—bringing dinosaurs back to life, orchestrating a bicycle ride across the moon, exhuming Kubrick, monumentalizing D-Day, the Holocaust, and the slave trade, even making the hair on Robin Williams’s back disappear—Steven Spielberg might be at his best when illuminating errant details. A dedicated symbolist, he can’t help but bestow import on whatever he captures (the more obvious his object, the more blunt the effect, whether it’s an American flag, a dark face, or a red coat in a black-and-white world.) His cinema telescopes and microscopes, making big what’s small, and near what’s far, and always making you feel—both physically and emotionally—the ingenious contraption at work. Rarely has his marriage of form and feeling worked as fluidly and guilelessly as it did in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film of colossal ambition that plays as intimate, of heart-thumping sensations that register as cosmic, of wondrous spectacle that in the end just sings.

Coming just two year’s after the director’s own Jaws jump-started the blockbuster era, and a mere six months after Star Wars raised the bar, Close Encounters still exceeded all expectations, raking in over $300 million and furthering the culture’s science-fiction craze. Yet even with its big budget and masscult appeal, it still managed to feel like a film of the American maverick era, with one foot in the future, and the other in the dusty, post-hippie, faux-wood-on-a-station-wagon present. While Lucas blasted us into a galaxy far, far away, Spielberg brought the galaxy home, shining its brilliance right through the kitchen door. A large thanks for this belongs to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance), who won an Oscar for visualizing a world in which spaceships and bellbottoms share the frame. He films a cluttered suburban living room with the same sensuousness as the Gobi Desert, a little boy with the same majesty as he does unlikely costar François Truffaut. The blockbuster era was at hand, but so was a global recession, so were fresh memories of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Forget the special effects: Spielberg’s most impressive trick was producing a seventies-set drama so devoid of cynicism.

It’s the small things you notice first. A blip on the radar screen; a toy robot buzzing to life; lights in the rearview; Johnny Mathis spookily summoned on the turntable; a little boy’s frown turned upside down by an off-screen marvel. These initial signs of alien life are negligible phenomenon, but they register as profound. And since they take place in private spaces—in the home, in the car—they also feel personal. When Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary acquires an asymmetrically sunburned face from his first unidentified encounter, it’s more than proof of alien life—he’s been tangibly altered. Vital to the construction of the larger story, the sunburn detail is even more crucial to the development of the personal one. Whereas his wife wants to cover up or explain the burn away, Roy wears it like a badge. After all, the phenomenon happened to him.

Roy struggles to make sense of what he’s seen, and with the fact that he has no control over how he’s changed. He’s lost his job, alienated his wife, and spooked his kids, yet he can’t bring himself to care about any of it—not since the universe slipped in through the car window. While the film’s protracted middle section is its most forgettable, here Spielberg’s at least striving to ground his fantasy in everyday life (something he’d nail in E.T. ). Essential as these scenes are, Dreyfuss and Teri Garr chew more scenery than they should (watching a Cassavetian domestic meltdown in the middle of a science fiction flick isn’t as fun as it sounds), and a lot of screen time is burned without a whole lot of character development (we get it: he’s obsessed, and she’s had it up to here). Spielberg also gets a little too cute with the Devil’s Tower compulsion, belaboring Roy’s unconscious noodling, drawing, sculpting and construction of flat top mountains before he finally notices that his inspiration is right there on the TV! Then it’s a cross-country scamper to Wyoming with fellow traveler Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon, who’s marvelous but underexploited emotionally, especially since she plays the mom of a toddler who’s been abducted by aliens), a sit-down with fellow wide-eyed obsessive, the French scientist Claude Lacombe (Truffaut), and finally the mounting of the Tower. But the Tower is merely a location, not the destination. Not exactly a red herring, the land mass is more like a knowable entity in the midst of the unknowable, a tangible goal as the unfathomable waits right around the corner.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Naked Lunch Radio #9 – Minnesota Madness (Coen special)

[Discussion of the Coen Brothers more serious films up to No Country for Old Men with a healthy dose of music by Minnesota musicians]

Naked Lunch Radio #9 – Minnesota Madness (Coen special)
Sound on Sight

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Jonathan Kirshner: When Critics Mattered -- Kael, Ebert, and ’70s Film

When Critics Mattered: Kael, Ebert, and ’70s Film
by Jonathan Kirshner
Boston Review

The years from the late 1960s through the middle of the 1970s were remarkable ones for American movies. In the words of critic David Thompson, it was “the decade when movies mattered.”

With the collapse of the draconian censorship regime that had imposed a strict moral code on the content of films, the decline of the studio system, and economic and demographic changes in both the industry and its audience, a window of opportunity opened for a new type of commercial film. At the same time, the content of these movies was inevitably shaped by the social and political upheavals of the era: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the Shakespearean saga of the Nixon presidency.

These films, filmmakers, and, implicitly, their audiences, were dubbed the “New Hollywood.” New to reflect their relative youth, but also as a nod to the foundational influence of the New European cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s; Hollywood because the makers of these personal, ambitious, arty films nevertheless hoped to return a fair profit. During this golden age, a night at the movies was still an evening’s entertainment, but it was also an invitation to discuss important works of art that were shaped by, and in dialogue with, the political, social, and philosophical issues of their times.

The New Hollywood was a cinema of moral ambiguity. The notorious Production Code Authority, in ruins by the close of 1966, had insisted on movies about right and wrong, with right winning in the end. By contrast, in the world portrayed by the “’70s film” (and in tune with the tenor of the times) choices are not always easy and obvious (Klute, The King of Marvin Gardens), authorities and institutions are compromised (Medium Cool, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and, finally, the “hero” rarely wins (Chinatown, Night Moves). Individually ’70s films offer character-driven explorations of troubled, imperfect protagonists and complex interpersonal relationships, with no obvious solutions or clean resolutions proffered (or expected). Collectively they reflect a thriving and identifiable film culture—movies that “don’t supply reassuring smiles or self-righteous messages,” but share “a new openminded interest in examining American experience,” as the critic Pauline Kael put it at the time. “Our filmmakers seem to be on a quest—looking to understand what has been shaping our lives.”

These were movies to talk about, and fight about, and accordingly it was also the decade when the critics mattered. An ambitious cohort of film critics, shaped by new sensibilities, expectations, and experiences, led a tumultuous public debate about the movies, their meaning, and their relationship with society. Of these critics, the argumentative, bohemian Kael was the most influential. A singular voice in the Berkeley film scene during the 1950s, Kael made her way East supported by a Guggenheim fellowship and then landed a job at McCall’s, from which she was fired soon after dismissing The Sound of Music (1965) as “a sugarcoated lie.” A brief stint at The New Republic also ended unhappily, but in 1968 she would land, and remain, at The New Yorker, having established her reputation with an elaborate, breathtaking defense of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That review fills out twenty exhilarating pages of her new Selected Writings, and it remains well worth reading (and re-reading). Kael wrote in a distinct, jazz-inflected style, offering a personal, emotional reaction to what she saw on the screen. Her reviews were steeped in the rich context of film history, but, in contrast to the stentorian lectures of many authoritative critics, Kael told you what she felt, and if she didn’t feel it, it wasn’t worth seeing. (Her first collection of reviews was called I Lost it at the Movies.)

Bonnie and Clyde, in what would become a watershed moment in the emergence of the New Hollywood, was originally dismissed and buried by establishment critics as a brutal, immoral farce. With its outlaw heroes, rule-breaking portrayal of bloody violence, and counter-culture sensibilities, Bonnie and Clyde was particularly offensive to critics such as Bosley Crowther, the enormously influential guardian of good taste at the New York Times, who famously trashed the film in print not once but three times. Kael, in dissent, opened her review with a question: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” For Kael, “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about.” It is a film that “upsets people,” even viewers who pride themselves in maintaining an emotional distance from what they see on the screen. But “Bonnie and Clyde, by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back in death.”

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Thursday, April 5, 2012

David Kalat: Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the Cure

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the Cure
by David Kalat
Movie Morlocks

One day, Japanese pulp cinema auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa was watching TV. A killer had been apprehended, and the TV newscasters mobbed the perp’s neighbors to ask all the familiar questions: what was he like? Did he act unusual? Did you ever suspect you were living next door to a monster? And the answers to these inevitable questions are inevitably frustrating: he was just a nice, quiet man who never aroused any suspicions. He must have been a monster disguised as a man.

People want to be able to explain away crime as something aberrant. The press tries to meet this need, to package the reporting of crime in ways that pit us versus them. But Kurosawa, a cynical man who studied sociology before becoming a moviemaker, recognized these impulses as delusional. The killer, his neighbors, his victims, the detectives who caught him, and the reporters who covered the tale are all made of the same stuff. Kurosawa saw the disquieting truth: anyone can be a monster. Even you.

This was in the mid 1990s, a period when the world’s cinemas were clogged with serial killer dramas all hoping to be the next Silence of the Lambs, or Se7en. That, or at least hitch a short ride on their coattails. Most remained just that—wanna bes, never weres, nots. This is the story of the film that did become the Next Big Thing, and along with Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ring invented J-Horror.

Kurosawa had, by this time, spent most of the last fifteen years toiling in Japan’s B-movie industry. The rules of the game were simple, if brutal. To make a living making movies in Japan, you had to make lots of movies, make them fast, and make them cheap. The theaters were dominated by American imports (if not for protectionist policies by Japan’s exhibitors, there would be no room at all for domestic productions), so movies had to have a viable life on video. Certain genres became entrenched as the prevailing mode of commercial filmmaking: pornos, yakuza shoot ‘em ups, and horror movies.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa was capable of playing this game very well. Low budgets didn’t discourage him at all, and indeed he considered them something of an advantage. When he was hired to direct Bright Future in 2003, the first thing he told producer Takashi Asai was, “I’ll come in on time and on budget.” Asai was little taken aback by this promise: “A director who before saying I’ll make a great film or a compelling film says, ‘I’ll come in one budget and schedule,’ a director who announces this to the producer is either really great, or I don’t know… I don’t know really know what to make of it.”

Furthermore, Kurosawa eagerly embraced genre limitations. “I am a genre director,” he proudly described himself.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Andrew Tracy: Depth Perception -- Jaws

Depth Perception: Jaws
by Andrew Tracy
Reverse Shot

What more can one say about Jaws? There are only a handful of other American films—The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now—whose making and reception have been as extensively documented, the history of their respectively fraught productions only further hallowing their legendary status. And like those films, Jaws has taken on the stature of myth—but a myth of what? Oz, GWTW, and Star Wars are escapes into fantastic other worlds and/or the otherworldly past, Casablanca a fantasy of an otherworldly present; Kane, 2001, and Apocalypse synonymous with the Olympian ambition (and/or hubris) of their makers. Jaws’ brand of escapism is far less comforting than the respective fantasy lands of the first batch, and while it hews far closer to that latter wunderkind narrative—clever, untried kid helms disastrous production, improvises day by day, emerges with masterpiece—it is less intrinsically tied to the person of its director than are the Welles, Kubrick, and Coppola films to their respective creators. Apart from the rare direct avatar (Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary, E.T. ’s Elliott), there is no equivalent in Steven Spielberg’s films to such refractive autoportraits/critiques as Welles’s Charles Foster Kane/Hank Quinlan/Falstaff or Coppola’s Michael Corleone/Kurtz/Tucker.

Far less of a self-styled intellectual than Welles, Kubrick, or Coppola—and certainly far less of a masterful personality—Spielberg is accordingly a more diffuse, though no less unmistakable, presence in his own work. This nowhere-man quality is all the more remarkable in that Spielberg, with Kubrick but unlike Welles or Coppola, has achieved the Benjaminian feat of founding his own genre—a genre of which he is the only true practitioner (see J. J. Abrams’s failed Spielbergian pastiche Super 8). Unlike such former associates as Joe Dante or Robert Zemeckis, who merrily pillage the rag-and-bone shop of pop culture, Spielberg does not so much refer to the cinematic past as imbibe it. Even though he has worked in almost the full range of available genres, Spielberg’s key films are enveloping, holistic, self-sustaining in a manner that belies their generic roots. Jaws’ provenance can be traced to the mainstreaming of the horror film begun by Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and the death-as-spectacle decadence of the disaster film cycle, but it is fundamentally unclassifiable as anything but itself; Close Encounters and E.T. belong to the history of the science-fiction film, but they do not so much work within the genre as use its lineaments to create, as Stanley Kauffmann put it, “event[s] in the history of faith”; the Indiana Jones outings are certainly “adventure films,” but their manic intensity transports them to an entirely different plane; Saving Private Ryan is not so much a war film as (in intention at least) the war film.

The extremity, and inimitability, of Spielberg’s aesthetic stands in inverse proportion to the modesty of his intellectual resources, at least when stacked against his comparable director-demiurges. Welles, Kubrick, and Coppola freighted (and sometimes sunk) their films with a wealth of artistic, literary, historical, political, and philosophical reference points; Spielberg, as surely even his most ardent supporters would agree, has nothing comparable to such extra-cinematic erudition. Not, of course, that he needs it. Spielberg’s profundity—and even this perennial skeptic admits that the man has had his moments of it—is of an intuitive, affective variety that at its height is positively oceanic. “If Spielberg is what’s called a post-literate, he has the strengths as well as the defects of post-literacy,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann in his brilliant review of Close Encounters. “The long, last, thrilling scene overpowers us because, given any reasonable chance to be overpowered by it, we want to be overpowered by it. . . . That finale doesn’t bring us salvation, it brings us companionship. We are not alone. That belief seems potent in itself, and the film makes the belief believable. The way to faith seems to be through the transubstantiation of the twelve-track Panavision film.”

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Thomas Doherty: Portraits of a Serial Killer -- A time-honored public enemy, from Dirty Harry to Zodiac

Portraits of a Serial Killer: A time-honored public enemy, from Dirty Harry to Zodiac
by Thomas Doherty
Moving Image Source

In Adaptation (2002), screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the voice of weary experience, remarks that the serial killer is Hollywood’s hoariest cliché, the overexposed go-to-guy for the inspiration-impaired hack. Point taken—but the perp has certainly earned his star billing on the multiplex marquee. The serendipitous release in recent months of two serial-killer-centric DVDs—Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (a two-disc edition and an "ultimate collector's edition" from Warner Home Video) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (Paramount Home Entertainment), a film from the 1970s and a film about the 1970s, both stalked by the same serial killer—traces the emergence of a predator whose criminal profile, once a blurry police sketch, has sharpened into a wanted poster more photogenic than the western outlaw, urban gangster, or corporate mobster.

The common source for both films—deep backstory for Dirty Harry (1971), narrative arc for Zodiac (2007)—is the Zodiac killer. In 1969, the Zodiac began a slow burn spree that claimed five (confirmed) murder victims in and around San Francisco, a relatively low body count that belies the city-wide terror incited by a territorial predator with a penchant for epistolary expression. Taking a page from Jack the Ripper, the self-christened Zodiac sent ominous ravings and coded messages to Bay Area newspapers, bragging of his homicides and threatening, in his most chilling taunt, to shoot children on school buses, or, as he phrased it, to "pick off kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Going on hiatus as suddenly as he opened fire, the Zodiac eluded capture and denied the reassurance of a case closed.

The investigation came to a more pleasing conclusion at the movies. In Dirty Harry, the opening salvo in what turned out to be a bellwether franchise for both Hollywood and Washington, a squinty, flinty Clint Eastwood incarnated a vigilante detective whose fidelity to Fourth Amendment niceties was retro even by 1972 standards. “Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda?” barks the exasperated DA after Harry tortures a confession out of his suspect-nemesis, a frothing psychopath named Scorpio (played with rabid relish by Andy Robinson), a Zodiac stand-in whose nom de plume also elegized an Age of Aquarius-Haight Ashbury scene gone bad. Though ripped from contemporary headlines, Scorpio could claim a long lineage in American cinema, from the psycho who pushed old ladies in wheelchairs down staircases (Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, 1947) to the psycho who played old ladies in wheel chairs (Anthony Perkins in Psycho, 1960). In terms of temperament, MO, and clinical termscondition, Scorpio was a wack job, or, as Detective Callahan famously tagged him, a punk.

Yet even as Harry fired his .44 caliber Magnum into Scorpio’s chest, the smirking psychopath was being supplanted by a more lethal criminal type. Abetted by the mobility and anonymity of urban life, a feeding ground teeming with hapless prey (typically, young female hitchhikers), and a police force not yet equipped with computer databases, a cohort of less literary, publicity-shy serial killers thrived throughout the 1970s.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Naked Lunch Radio #7 – Transmission

Naked Lunch Radio #7 – Transmission
Sound on Sight

Reviews on the movies Control, 24 Hour Party People and a look back at the Manchester music scene of the late 70`s and early 80`s.

To Listen to the Episode