Thursday, June 28, 2012

Erich Kuersten: Sex is a Hen Decapitated -- Bluebeard and the Eroticism of Catherin Breillat

Sex is a Hen Decapitated: Bluebeard and the Eroticism of Catherine Breillat
by Erich Kuersten

The ancient tale of Bluebeard is rife with archetypal resonance for the budding feminine psyche: it's a rite of passage myth, a map of patriarchal oppression's mine field, an initiation into sexual maturity, where the fear of pain is enough to make actual pain a relief in contrast; a color-symbolic dream where the blood of menstruation anxiety (the redness of the clitoral "riding" hood) and the swollen purples of honeymoon savagery (the black and blueness of the groom's bristly beard) mix and match. Like many fairy tales centered on a young girl, it encodes the onset of menstruation into a Pandora's Box moment of discovery, from which innocence can never return, leading inexorably into the scary rites of the marital bed, the agonies of childbirth, and so forth. Do we not, in associating white for virginity and purity, forget that red means the alchemical opening up of that purity into the raw violence of procreation? So what does that third color of the French flag--blue--represent? Naturally, the cooling rescue of death--or rather as symbolized in the 'bloody chamber' where all the previous brides are stored, a suspended animation, a sleeping beauty status wherein the enslaving agonies of childbirth and old age are forever kept at bay, in short, the blue represents frozen death and timeless decadence, pleasure and a disruption of the natural enslavement process of patriarchy. Bluebeard postpones sexual relations in order to keep romance forever young.

The coming of age girl myth tends to focus on the moment of the first dripping eradicable red stain, one that no amount of Clorox will undo. Such a moment--loss and gain coagulated into one crimson blotch --seems to obsess French director Catherine Breillat, a female auteur as detached and horrified in her existential search for meaning as her fellow Frenchmen Gasper Noe, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Claire Denis [note from Michael Benton: Denis is a French woman]. But as Breillat is a woman, her take on femininity is free to delve much much deeper into waters too cold and dangerous to ever be known to men. Eagerly complicit with the grotesque truths of feminine sexuality, Breillat's eyes are not blurred by the glamor and beauty that hypnotize most male directors. Rather than 'fall' for the genetic con job of desire, she focuses on her gender's fascination with the gross otherness of the male body, and vice versa - she wants to explore her own body--stripped of its veils and glamor-- through male eyes. Men after all aren't as obligated to be beautiful. They're position as desirable or beautiful is seldom considered in a marriage. If a woman can't learn to love ugliness, she never gets a prince and stays forever turned off; the beast stays a beast.

For his part, when Bluebeard spots the telltale blood stain on the key to the forbidden chamber, he is sad and disappointed, once again his bride has been unable to remain 'unopened' and so must be literally opened, as in decapitated. But Breillat's crafty beauty knows to stall, to feign compliance with her impending death on certain conditions, and to seek help from the passing musketeer/woodsman(the woodsman gets all the girls because he's already 'slain' his own wolf). If she merely screams and cringes, she's devoured. This is a valuable honeymoon lesson considering the absurdly young marriage ages of our forebears, one surely told by moms of old: do not resist or cringe when your new husband advance; instead, flatter, and stall him. If he will but relent today he shall get double tomorrow, and so on until a nice woodsman can rescue her, or she can develop enough that her deflowering is less of a painful, traumatizing violation.

The patriarchal readings of these tales runs counter to this approach, flipping the beast into a prince with a magic (phallic) wand and happily ever aftering the story before the children reading can learn that the magic wand's spell fades in a matter of hours. Soon enough the hair begins to creep back on their prince and his fangs grow long with the full moon. He seems to get uglier and more ill-tempered as the marriage marches on; that's the part Disney rolls its credits over. Only Breillat dares see not just the beast, but the frog, the vile toad still dwelling behind the sparkly eyes of the prince, and only Breillat nonetheless finds a way to love the thing, proverbial warts and all.

In her fearless approach towards this taboo subject, Breillat seems to possess an ambivalent--if not outright hostile--attitude towards sex. Her liberated female characters are often accused of being masochist subjects. But we have to dig deeper for her real reaction, perhaps a way would be to see her as the French female version of Lars Von Trier. But where Lars uses the D.W. Griffith / Sirkian soap opera woman's story in his savage deconstruction of innocence, purity, deflowering and sex, Breillat eschews any direct relation with 'woman's picture' trappings, to shoot for pure myth, looking past Griffith all the way back to the dawn of the printing press. Her cinema is--in Bluebeard literally--like the pages of a storybook that shows everything the normal books do not.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fall 2012 ENG 281: Introduction to Film Studies

(In Development)

In a globalized world it is imperative that we begin to develop a broader awareness of the interconnected cultures and societies that influence and shape world events. Anyone remotely aware of the American social landscape must recognize that many of our citizens are unaware of the broader relations and connections of the world in which they live in. Many Americans tend to have a narrow understanding of world history, filtered as it is through ethnocentric American textbooks and mediatized narratives filtered through the lenses of the dominant center, which effectively ignores the realities of the margins (culturally, economically and socially). Many concerned citizens struggle to carve out meaning in the contemporary data stream and suffer the neglect of a mainstream media that limits itself to predigested dualistic positions. In this simplified media environment, vast regions of the world are presumed to be unable to speak for themselves and rarely, in the mainstream corporate media that serves as the news for a majority of American citizens, do we receive sustained and in-depth critical analysis of issues through the voices and experiences of multiple interested parties.
--Michael Benton, 2006

"The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated egos."
-- Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

"The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness."
-- Turner in the film Performance

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward path had been lost.
--Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy: Inferno, Song 1

Anyone who believes that every individual film must present a "balanced" picture, knows nothing about either balance or pictures.
--Edward R. Murrow

Democracy is a great conversation, a community defined by the scope and substance of its discourse.
--James David Barber

"Believing is seeing and not the other way around."
--Errol Morris

"There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”
--Raymond Williams

"Art and humanities research begins with a desire to understand the human condition."
--Masoud Yazdani

Film matters because film is us. We as a society use the filmic form to tell stories about who we are and our society - they are a record of what makes us human and what concerns us in the everyday. ... The film form, narrative and styles with which we are so familiar, from Hollywood blockbusters to the avant-garde, shape our own personal narratives. Film offers us a language to speak to each other across national, class, economic, and racial lines - film is a phenomenon that allows us to understand cultures and people.
--Lincoln Geraghty

Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.
-- African proverb

"So you lie to yourself to be happy. There's nothing wrong with that. We all do it."
--Teddy in Memento (2000)

My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.
-– Michael Haneke, “Film as Catharsis”

The question isn’t “how do I show violence?” but rather “how do I show the spectator his position vis-à-vis violence and its representation?”
-– Michael Haneke

As a scholar of transnational/eco-critical cinema, it is increasingly clear to me that cinema is one of the most efficient ways to debate political and cultural issues in a global society. This is especially the case with cinema's potential to visually capture the transnational and even global scale of ecological problems, and engage with them in a way that reaches wide global audiences. Cinema is not only a communicator of ideas and an essential component of the culture industries. It is also a crucial pedagogical tool that facilitates efficient learning and motivates participation from new generations of audiences. It can help audiences, 'old' and 'new', to rethink their place in the world, and crucially, it can also motivate them to do something about the injustices and exploitation to which they are witness.
--Pietari Kääpä

Openness exists . . .not only for the person to whom one listens, but rather anyone who listens is fundamentally open. Without this kind of openness to one another there is no genuine human relationship. Belonging together always also means being able to listen to one another.

--Hans-Georg Gadamer Truth and Method (Source)

Our human existence is rooted in sex. .... It lies at the very heart of love. Though conservatives reject the very idea as dangerous, I would say that the way to save us from our own perversity is by confronting sex courageously. ... Sex brings relief from tension and enmity and leads to harmony in human relationships--husband and wife, [friends] and strangers. (109)

Kaneto Shindō, qouted in McDonald, Keiko. "Eros, Politics, and Folk Religion: Kaneto Shindō's Onobaba (1963)." Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006: 108-121.

‘We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten’
Narrator of Chris Marker's film Sans Soleil (1983)

"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is not the exception, but the rule.”
--Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

"What is focus, and who has the right to say what is legitimate focus?
-- Julie Margaret Cameron, late 19th Century Photographer

"Death is never the end of the story, it always leave tracks."
-- Notary Jean Label in Incendies (2010)

"We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations."
-- Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin Vol. 4 (1971)

"Power fears poetry... Poetry resides somewhere else, somewhere inaccessible to power; it evokes sentiments, touches being, and speaks in a strange tongue." (163)
--Andy Merrifield, Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination (2011)

"Like religion, a good movie really does answer the only three questions worth asking in life: who you are, where you come from, and what you should do. In its essential narrative arc, a movie gives you clues as to your ultimate identity, the nature of how the world really is, and your mission in life. And if you learn the basics of screenplay writing, you discover very quickly that almost every film script follows a dramatic formula identical to the formula of the standard religious sermon. In the screenplay, the writer’s task is to create an emotionally sympathetic character who is nevertheless guilty of some form of misbehavior, who then must, through an escalating series of forced crises, confront his or her misbehavior and overcome it. Likewise, in your standard sermon, the preacher’s art is to describe, through personal, historical, and anecdotal evidence, the universal sin (read: misbehavior) of the human species, and how God alone can solve this basic problem, and happily, how he does. Both sermons and movies (in America at least) thus, have the same theological bias that favors a happy ending."
--Read Mercer Schuchardt, "Cinema: The New Cathedral of Hollywood" (2001)

Unlike other forms of artistic expression, cinema is an "industrial form of art": in order to express itself fully, it needs ever-greater financial investments. This means that the author's artistic expression is conditioned right from the start--and it would be hypocritical not to admit this--by the capital invested. These capital sources can be motivated not just by the simple and legitimate desire for expression, but also by power groups, concentrations and lobbies of all sorts and backgrounds, who can use cinematographic media in instrumental way to advance particular interests that that have little or nothing to do with the noble--and general--principle of the freedom of expression.
--Vittorio Giacci, "Cinema, Responsibility, and Formation" (2007)

In the end, confusion is not a lack of understanding. It's more understanding. Mainstream reporting and some people in power want to make everything clear to people--at the expense of the very issues and people they deal with. They can't. If it's complicated. leave it as complicated. Give people a chance to think.
--Kal Kim-Gibson, "Dreamland and Disillusion." (Film Quarterly: Fall 2011)

Film is often just business -- I understand that and it's not something I concern myself with. But if film aspires to be part of culture, it should do the things great literature, music and art do: elevate the spirit, help us understand ourselves and the world around us and give people the feeling they are not alone…
--Krzysztof Kieslowski, "Kieslowski’s Three Colors." (Salon: June 10, 2002)

"When a morally compromised author claims the field of aesthetics as a value-free area it should make his readers stop and think."
--W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (1997)

“In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?”
-- Haruki Murakami (2011)

"In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form."
-- Haruki Murakami (2011)

"I think the whole point of OWS is encouraging people to reinvent democracy from different angles and from their own terms," he says. "On one hand, it's a very communal project and on the other hand, it's about individuals who are not necessarily in agreement finding ways to see things anew."
-- Chris Marker, quoted in Steve Dollar's Occupy This (2012)

“Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.”
— John Berger, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960)

"How can I overcome the prejudices of the bits and pieces of mysteries that reside within me, and how can I break through the prejudices that are anchored in the mysteries of others, so that together with them we may create something beautiful out of something that is ugly?"
-- Vilém Flusser, The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism (1994)

“This time the invaders aren’t armed, but they have more damaging weapons than cannons: dollars! So that everything they touch turns to garbage. The whole country is rotten.”
--The Haitian maître d’ Albert, Heading South (2005)

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.”
-- M.M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984)

Realism? Me? I’ve not a damn thing to do with it. The religious attitude to reality has never concerned me.
-- Theo Angelopoulos, cited by Raymond Durgnat in “The Long Take in Voyage to Cythera: Brecht and Marx vs. Bazin and God.” Film Comment 26.6 (November/December, 1990): 43-46

Again and again, I was forced, as any reader is, to return to my own reality, to analyze everybody's reality. A criterion, by the way, by which I would measure any work of art.
--Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1980), in The Anarchy of the Imagination (1992)

One problem with the word “shaman,” which traces its origins to the Siberian steppe, is that it is popularly employed by people more interested in fantasizing about some alternate reality than squaring their shoulders to bear the mundane burdens of this one. However, in cultures where such an office exists, the job of the shaman is primarily to foster the interrelation of two groups or positions that have hardened into such stubborn opposition that the survival of the society is at risk. For life to go on, the two camps must overcome their polemic, and the shaman acts by throwing himself into the fray—mentally, bodily, and emotionally, sometimes at personal risk. The result of his labors typically constitutes a paradigm shift rather than a compromise: the rules, though not necessarily undone, are re-contextualized and the system changes, including the position of the shaman himself.
--Matt Kirby, "I Heart Huckabees Premodern Help for Postmodern Times." (2004)

Many film-makers, including Orson Welles and the avant-gardists Maya Deren, Harry Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, identified their practice with magic – albeit in varying ways. Welles had extensive experience as a stage magician and made his last feature, the faux documentary F is For Fake precisely about cinematic sleight of hand; Deren was a serious student of Haitian vodoo; Smith considered his cut and paste animations a form of alchemy; Brakhage referred to "trick" as the medium's fundamental rule; and Anger was a disciple of Aleister Crowley, who considered making a film akin to casting a spell. (Walt Disney would have agreed.)
--J. Hoberman, "Hugo and the Magic of Film Trickery" (2012)

"I understood writing could be dangerous. I didn't realize the danger came from the machinery."
--William Lee in David Cronenberg's film "Naked Lunch" (1991)

“You know, films are a world within a world. And maybe it’s a world within a world within a world – within another world. It’s a really beautiful thing how lost we are, and we want to get even more lost sometimes.” -- David Lynch

It is clear that I must find my other half. But is it a he or a she? What does this person look like? Identical to me? Or somehow complementary? Does my other half have what I don’t? Did he get the looks? The luck? The love? Were we really separated forceably or did he just run off with the good stuff? Or did I? Will this person embarrass me? What about sex? Is that how we put ourselves back together again? Or can two people actually become one again?” — Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Now look again at that list of effects -- horrific, tragic, epic, comic, pathetic, sublime, absurd, intriguing, disgusting, shocking, thrilling, and wonderful -- a list that's not even a fraction complete. When we're talking about these effects achieved by the art we are talking about affects manifested in the audience, emotional responses of horror, awe, pity, amusement, intrigue and so on. When we're talking about an aesthetic as the set of principles underpinning these responses we're talking about a system which evaluates experience itself. We're talking about our tastes and distates, desires and fears, prejudices and perversions, the basic rules and relationships which shape our affective response to not just art but life itself. Our aesthetic sits at the very heart of our personality. When we respond with horror to a car crash, real or imaginary, it is an aesthetic reaction. When we respond with awe to a sweeping vista of canyons and mountains, it is an aesthetic judgement. When we respond to the image of two men kissing with appetence or abhorrence, that evaluation is defined by and defines our personal aesthetic. Good taste and appreciation of beauty? Screw that. An aesthetic is the set of principles that make you want to fight or fuck.
--Hal Duncan, "The Art of Life" (February 10, 2007)

"All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

"Another Day witnessing existence in bewilderment."
Grandma in The Great Match (2006)

"There's never been a true war that wasn't fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe that they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous."
--Wednesday, in Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods (2001)

"There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous..."
-Hannah Arendt, "Thinking and Moral Considerations"(1971)

The disruption and transgression of the normative and conceptual frameworks of everyday experience, and the provision of a space within which it is possible to imagine not just the satisfaction of familiar wants unmet by existing society, but to envisage wanting something other than the satisfactions which that society endorses and simultaneously denies: above all, to desire in a different way. -- Ruth Levitas, "For Utopia: The (Limits of the) Utopian Function in Late Capitalist Society" (2001: 38-39)

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena: the Videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.
Brian O'Blivion, in Videodrome (1983)

"Although the assembly of the shots is responsible for the structure of the film, it does not, as is generally assumed, create its rhythm; the distinct time running through the shots makes the rhythm of the picture, and the rhythm is determined not by the length of edited pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them. The pieces that 'won't edit', that can't be properly joined, are those which record a radically different kind of time" -– Andrei Tarkovsky, "Sculpting in Time" (1987: 2nd edition)

"The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere: neither in theater nor in life. Otherwise, I'd have no need of it; doing photography doesn't interest me. That, I leave to the photographer." -- Max Ophüls

“When I say this is the most important motion picture you’ll ever attend, my motivation is not financial gain, but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together will be ripped apart unless every man, woman, and child in this country sees this film and pays full ticket price, not some bargain matinee cut-rate deal. In the event that you find certain sequences or events confusing, please bear in mind this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” —Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis (1996)

“The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language—that is, of thinking up some new metaphors.” -- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989)

"If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there's no way we could prevent him." -- Christof, The Truman Show (1998)

"Genre is inherently intertextual. Audiences are constantly asked to place a narrative within other known narratives -- it is often the means by which we make sense of the experience of watching a film. Difficulty in doing so leads to a range of emotions, very occasionally a surprised pleasure but more often disappointment, confusion and possibly even anger." -- Mark Browning, "The Importance of Genre" (2009)

Ethics and Cinema:

V for Vendetta (USA/UK/Germany: James McTeigue, 2005: 132 mins)

Fight Club (USA: David Fincher, 1999: 139 mins)

Hunger (United Kingdom/Ireland: Steve McQueen, 2008: 96 mins)

La Jetee (France: Chris Marker, 1962: 26 mins)/The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (Canada: Geoff Bowie, 2001: 77 mins)

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

Moolaadé (Senegal/France/Burkina Faso/Cameroon/Morocco/Tunisia: Ousmane Sembene, 2004: 124 mins)

Conspiracy (UK/USA: Frank Pierson, 2001: 96 mins)

Brazil (UK: Terry Gilliam, 1985: 132 mins)

The Skin I Live In (Spain: Pedro Almodovar, 2011: 117 mins)

Fast Food Nation (UK/USA: Richard Linklater, 2006: 116 mins)

The Piano (Australia/New Zealand/France: Jane Campion, 1993: 121 mins)

Shortbus (USA: John Cameron Mitchell, 2006: 101 mins)

Lady Vengeance (South Korea: Park Chan-Wook, 2005: 112 mins)

Do the Right Thing (USA: Spike Lee, 1989: 120 mins)

The Method (Argentina/Spain/Italy: Marcelo Piñeyro, 2005: 115 mins)

Todd McGowan: The Love of Antagonism in Le Mepris (Contempt)

The Love of Antagonism in Le Mepris (Contempt)
by Todd McGowan

Certainly the most conspicuous dimension of Jean-Luc Godard's refusal of the Hollywood aesthetic is his departure from traditional narrative structure. Godard does not begin with exposition and then proceed to lay down a straightforward narrative arc. Instead, the exposition often lasts throughout the film, and the narrative circles back on itself rather than moving forward toward a clear resolution. As David Bordwell puts it in his analysis of Godard's deployment of narrative, Godard delays and distributes his exposition more than any other director. For Bordwell, Godard is a representative figure of art-film narration, a narration that he opposes to that of the classical Hollywood type. But Godard's distance from Hollywood should not be measured primarily by his attitude toward narrative. It is instead his insistence on depicting sexual antagonism in his early films that separates him not only from the Hollywood aesthetic but from most auteurs outside of Hollywood as well.

The fundamental form that contemporary ideology takes is the idea that the romantic union has the ability to resolve antagonism. Even as belief in social authorities wanes, the belief in the complementary partner who would resolve the subject's lack in a romantic union remains almost perfectly unassailed. The idea of the soulmate penetrates the most cynical veneer, and Hollywood plays an essential role in sustaining this idea. More than providing spectators with a sense of social stability and meaning through narrative, Hollywood cinema supplies them with the ideology of romance. Godard's early films represent a response to the predominance of this ideology.

One of the recurring ideas in the early films of Godard is their insistence on the antagonism that haunts every couple. This is evident in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), Une Femme Est une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), Alphaville (1965), and Pierrot le Fou (1965), among many others. In his films, desires never match up no matter how ideal a couple may seem. Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) shows this disjunction of desire through the relationship between Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot). The film depicts the deterioration of their marriage, and it reveals the roots of this deterioration in the interplay of their desires, desires that resist complementarity rather than facilitating it. Their relationship plays itself out against the backdrop of Paul's decision to work on rewriting the script for a film version of The Odyssey being directed by Fritz Lang (played by himself) and produced by American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), who hires Paul to fix the film. Neither Paul nor Camille have a sense of what the other really wants, and this ignorance leaves them completely isolated as desiring subjects. And yet, at the same time, both believe that they do know what the other wants, and it is this shared belief that ultimately destroys their relationship. As Godard shows, it is the attempt to fill the emptiness of one's desire with an actual object that destroys romance, though this is precisely what cinema typically offers its spectators.

After the opening credit sequence (in which the credits are spoken rather than written), the film begins with Paul and Camille in bed together. Though this opening scene seems to show Paul and Camille experiencing a kind of happiness that they would subsequently lose, it already exposes the antagonism that exists between them. Here, even at this early point, their desires are completely at odds. At the precise moment that Paul believes he is giving Camille what she wants, he reveals to her that he fails utterly to love her in the way that she wants to be loved. Godard reveals this through their verbal interaction in the scene. Camille asks Paul a series of questions about his feelings toward the various parts of her body if he loves her shoulders, her breasts, her legs, and so on. Each time, Paul avows his love for the particular body part. After Paul responds affirmatively to all of the questions, Camille then asks him, Donc tu m'aimes totalement? [Then you love me totally?]. Paul answers, Je t'aime totalement, tendrement, tragiquement [I love you totally, tenderly, tragically]. Here, Paul seems to express total love for Camille - precisely what we would assume that she wants to hear. However, as Paul is speaking, Camille looks down away from his face, seemingly disappointed with this response. This show of disappointment stems from Paul's belief that she constitutes a whole that he can love totally.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Severine Benzimra: French Cinema and French Sexual Attitudes and Culture

State of French Cinema: French cinema and French sexual attitudes and culture
by Severine Benzimra

French sexual attitudes and culture have wildly evolved within the last 20 years. A TV documentary which premiered on June 14th on M6, one of the free French channels, should help us grasp the breadth of the evolution.

Les Français, lamour et le sexe (French people, love and sex) is based on the latest statistics, interviews, and the analysis of sexologist Pascal de Sutter. The first episodes deal with the way French people make love: seduction, preliminaries, and positions; orgasm and fantasm. In the midst of the evening, more than 3 million people were watching - about 21% of the audience.

French cinema naturally mirrors these evolutions, sometimes in a confused way. Sexual repression provokes artistic provocation; cinema might seem less "advanced" (especially to people claiming for an equal treatment of teenagers and grown-ups, gays/lesbians and heterosexual people) in France than in the USA for this reason. Globalization can lead to self-reflection but also to some alienation. When watching US movies, French people often ignore that some scenes were censored in the USA or that a movie was X-rated. Some might consider a kind of race toward freedom is open.

Censorship officially disappeared in French cinema in 1974. It was the end of the Gaullist period and the first year of the presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; the government wasn't so liberal yet. At the end of 1975 a law was adopted concernng pornographic and extremely violent movies. Porno movies couldn't be shown in traditional movie theaters; they were reserved for specialized theaters. The next major move was made in 2000 with the restriction of some movies to those over 18 (after the Baise-moi affair). Before this, movies could be forbidden to viewers either under age 16 or 12.

French directors aren't interested in making familial movies, lets admit it. Movies for kids are mostly animated or made for TV. Beware if you want to take the pony-club class to see Dance with Him; they might leave laughing about the effects of some perfumes on a stallion or of a lady training with a mechanical horse, or the heated discussion of gluteal muscles. Some parents will consider these better topics than others, but there's no consensus. What Americans call family movies are called kid's movies or --exceptionally-- all-audience movies in France (for movies about nature especially, like Jacques Perrins' Peuple migrateur). In December 2009, the town of Libourne organized an election of the best family movie. Seven of the 16 selected films were foreign movies: Star Trek, Ice age 3, Slumdog millionnaire, Harry Potter and the half-blood prince, Up, the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Gran Torino. The French movies selected were two movies on nature (Home, Loup), two movies inspired by mythical books (Le Petit Nicolas, Lucky-Lucke), some comedies (Neuilly ta mère, Rose et noir), the very funny French James Bond (OSS 117, Rio ne répond plus), a Jeunet movie (Micmacs à Tire-Larigot), and the very commercial Arthur et la vengeance de Malthazar (produced by Luc Besson).

The French approach to onscreen sex differs from the American approach mainly through its form rather than its content. American directors tend to make "pretty" scenes, while French people shoot them more naturally (less filters, music, cuts). An exception: love scenes in Claude Brisseaus movies, like between the actresses of Les anges exterminateurs.

Americans tend to shoot very handsome and young actors, which isn't the case in France. On the contrary, the representation of teenagers having sexual intercourse is considered more shocking. Ken Park was forbidden to the under-18, an exceptional measure: the sexual scenes were considered a bad encouragement for teenagers (risk of AIDS contamination, etc.) as for adults (pedophilia, etc.). Shouldn't sex be attractive? Oh, no but it must be personal. Sexual scenes aren't supposed to, on this side of the ocean, attract the audience. They represent a part of the life of the character that it is necessary to represent. They aren't meant to excite. Sexual excitation is linked to imagination to be provided by all-audience movies (meaning not the audience of pornographic/erotic movies) if it can be provided by a movie, an idea on which French people wildly discuss and disagree. Most French people would tell you that the image neutralizes the imagination in this field and suggest you to read, or ask someone to read you erotic littérature. It might seem that the subjectivity of beauty (its effect on libido) is much more emphasized in the USA. French actors and actresses don't wish to be called sex symbols. To be "attractive", "sexy", or "hot" is not a compliment in France - traduce it and it might well be received as an insult. Especially "hot." If you look hot because you want it, you are vulgar (and thus not so hot). If you're an actor/actress who looks hot without wanting it, you're a bad actor/actress. Cold can be hotter - see Grace Kelly in Hitchcock's movies, Romy Schneider in any movie, or Catherine Deneuve - they strike one's imagination. A perfect body is cold, secretive, tends to hide itself, while an overweighted, underweighted, aged body is seen as much hotter. The hero of Le roi de l'Evasion (below), a 2009 movie by Alain Guiraudie, a large 43 year old man, had four partners: a "beur" (French-North African) girl, and several elder men.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Erich Kuersten: The Veronica Lake Effect

The Veronica Lake Effect
by Erich Kuersten

What is it about Veronica Lake that makes her so completely unlike all the other leggy 1940s blondes of Hollywood? We know a few things: she was short, had an abusive childhood, was hell to work with, and spent her retirement years tending bar in a cheap women-only hotel. But none of that helps explain her unique, otherworldly effect, which is akin to a whisper silencing a crowded baseball stadium, or the voice you remember from dreams as you wake up late for work. Something in her gaze reflects a sweet tender concern for even the lowliest of creatures. Something in her voice always seems distant and far away as if it was dubbed by the ghost of an angel drowned years ago. Her eyes show a tenderness unbowed, a calmness around psychopathic behavior as if it reminded her of home. Hers is a warm shoulder to weep yourself to sleep into on flu-addled nights even as her aura, remoteness, impassive face, and beautiful blonde hair freeze you where you sit like a blast of Arctic air.

Women doing wartime factory work in WW2 caught their hair in the machines trying to emulate her, so with the cooperation of her studio, Lake's magnificent hair was kept locked up tight in buns and bizarre hats. One can only imagine who unbearably awesome films like The Glass Key would be if her hair could breath and fall and bounce. When Lake's hair was free it could wash all the sins of war away, as in the amazing bathrobe scene of Sullivan's Travels or any shot of her in This Gun for Hire.

She was a very heavy drinker who once noted that her co-star and fellow drunk Ladd seemed a bit of a zombie himself. Maybe that's why they were so perfect together, undead outsiders in a noir world never quite asleep enough to match them. The public sensed they had something special whenever paired, and since they were so short they matched each other the way few others could. Part of the appeal lies in Alan Ladd's stoic rejection of destiny: in Key he's meant to be with the much richer Veronica Lake (he's a political thug; she's an heiress) or in his This Gun for Hire acceptance of her affection for the cop trying to catch him, "You love that guy?" It's all okay with him, for immediately upon being accepted by her, warts and all, he's saved. Her renouncement of the 'peek-a-boo' hairstyle is a similar bit of stoicism. Like many film lovers, I've long been fascinated by the weird chemistry the pair exhibit, and how other similar pairs, such as Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews (Laura), lack that same chemistry, much as the ingredients are there. Ladd and Lake seem to be born in a different time, on a slower projection speed. They're blonde beauties used to having to look up and speak up to talk to people, who suddenly find one another and are thrilled to able to whisper and look straight into each others' eyes, like two kids in a room full of adults, but reversed: the only adults for miles. Together they were like a misfit Adam and Eve from an alien galaxy. Lake was an astonishing 4'11" which made her one of the few women who could play opposite the 5'5" Ladd but it's so much more, and bravely less, than that.

In Glass Key they have such a great sleepy chemistry it's like they're dreaming while awake and whenever they're together they're packing or leaving or otherwise hanging out in empty rooms. You just get used to seeing one or the other's leaving trunks dead center in the room whenever they're together. They both had tough childhoods and you can feel it in their shy delivery and wary glares, like two damaged souls recognizing each themselves in one another, and the aloof posturing, verbal attacks and avoidance strategies they use to keep the world at bay couldn't fool each other for a minute. In This Gun For Hire they're never even close to lovers but spend the night sleeping on each others' shoulders on a moving train, just pals who come to trust each other in a world full of duplicitous poisonous, peppermint-eating snakes which in a way makes it even sexier (and sadder). Normal sex and marriage is stale by comparison.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Surviving Progress (Canada: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, 2011: 86 mins)

[via Documentary Heaven]

Film about the risks we pose to our own survival in the name of progress; connecting financial collapse, growing inequality and global oligarchy with the sustainability of mankind.

Graham Daseler: La Bete Humaine -- Runaway Train

La Bete Humaine: Runaway Train
by Graham Daseler
Bright Lights Film Journal

Where would movies be without trains? The birth of the former, dated, for the sake of convenience, at December 28, 1895, in the Grand Café in Paris, was followed, only a few short weeks later, by the first screen appearance of the latter, the flickering arrival of which, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have frightened early viewers into scurrying for the aisles.1 Historians who accept this story as fact most often use it as an object lesson in the power of cinema over the human imagination, whereas I see it more as an object lesson in the power of the train. Is it just a coincidence that the experiences of movie-going and train travel are so similar? Both have a set beginning and end, both take you to distant realms, yet have a fixed and unalterable course, and both are intensely individual experiences — allowing for observation, thought, and dreaminess — carried out in a public space. Stage a movie on a train, therefore, and you give your narrative not only direction and momentum but a sympathetic audience, as well. And then, of course, there's so much to do on trains. They're big enough to hide on, as in The Narrow Margin (1952), or to hide someone else on, as in The Lady Vanishes (1938), but small enough to bar escape should somebody come looking for you, as in The 39 Steps (1935). They can be tools for good, as in The Train (1964), or ill, as in Night Train to Munich (1940). Getting off them is notoriously difficult, as shown in Silver Streak (1976) but so is getting back on: ditto. They are, in short, the ideal vehicle for a movie plot: fast, sleek, dangerous, both opulent and mechanical, the conveyance of choice for artists as disparate as Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, and Buster Keaton, the last of whom once rode the connecting rods between wheels as nonchalantly as a though he were sitting on a park bench.

Since the decline of the railroad, American filmmakers have had to travel further afield to work trains into their narratives. Wes Anderson was forced all the way to India to find a plausible excuse for a rail trip in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and in Unstoppable (2010) Denzel Washington and Chris Pine went even farther than that, to the remote corners of probability. This, of course, is dispiriting news for aficionados of the genre. Despite a recent flurry of activity — The Polar Express (2004), Transsiberian (2008), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) — the last thirty years have been a mostly stagnant period for the iron horse. At least, that is, with one crucial exception. When I think of the train movie at its glorious peak, at its most thrilling and wondrous, I think not of the velveteen sumptuousness of Shanghai Express (1932), nor the sooty realism of La Bete Humaine (1938) — though in a pinch they'll certainly do — but of a little-known masterpiece from the mid-1980s called Runaway Train (1985)

The story takes place in Alaska, during the dead of winter. Jon Voight plays Manny, a safecracker serving time in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. Revered by the other inmates and renowned for his multiple escape attempts, he has spent the last three years locked in solitary confinement by his nemesis, Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), a petty tyrant of the same breed as Kurtz and Ahab, ruling over the prison as he would his own personal fiefdom. When a court order forces Ranken to release Manny from his cell, Manny makes his break, stealing away in a laundry cart pushed by Buck (Eric Roberts), a none-too-bright young convict who, overjoyed by the opportunity to join his idol, decides to tag along. After crawling through a sewer, braving the rapids of a freezing river, and trudging across a frozen wasteland, they stagger into a rail yard and hop a freight train, hoping to flee the state as fast as possible. As things turn out, this may be faster than they imagined, for, unbeknownst to the pair, the engineer has dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving the train unmanned and barreling at high-speed through the arctic wilderness. From here, the plot splits in three: on one side, we have the prisoners, joined by a lone rail worker, Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), desperately fighting to reach the lead locomotive; on the other, the railway dispatchers, struggling, with increasing futility, to clear the tracks before its path; and on the third, Ranken, hell-bent on recovering his prisoners whatever the cost.

Needless to say, this is a far cry from the breezy thrills of The Great Escape (1963), not to mention the soaring pathos of The Shawshank Redmption (1994). Filmed under constantly leaden skies, with howling winds and snowdrifts as far as the eye can see, the movie makes Nanook of the North (1922) look like The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The film feels cold. Watch it on a blistering afternoon in July, and you'll feel cold. Such boreal conditions permeate not just the setting but the hearts of the protagonists, as well. The movie takes as its epigraph a line from Richard lll — two lines, actually, combined into one — spoken between Lady Anne and Richard. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity," Anne scolds the scheming hunchback, to which Richard, unfazed, replies: "But I know none, and therefore am no beast." It's a cunning distinction, counting both as a clever riposte and a brutally honest admission, and one that could easily have been written specifically for Manny, a man of beastly parts if ever there was one. When we first encounter him, he is literally caged in the dark, confined to a cell with the doors welded shut, and in our last impression of him from that scene all we can see are his eyes and the glint of his metal tooth in the dark. Indeed, he's more teeth than talk, with a vicious snarl and a rather hideous laugh. It's a daring performance: impassioned, larger than life, yet seeking little sympathy. In his early roles, Voight often seemed hampered by his own good looks; that doughy face and flaxen hair made him ideal for playing yokels (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) or earnest, mild-mannered types (Deliverance, 1972), but undoubtedly hurt his chances at getting more edgy parts like Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle. By the mid-eighties, though, time had sanded away the baby fat. His cheeks creased and reddened, the youthful beefcake gained menace to go with his lumberjack's physique. He towers over Roberts like a tree, his heft and poise making the younger man seem slight and squirrely by comparison. Voight's great accomplishment, though, is to make Manny a knowing monster, like Richard intelligent enough to observe himself with some contempt but unwilling to change his own nature. His diatribe to Buck on the possibilities available to an ex-con ("You're gonna get a little job, some job a convict can get, like scraping off trays in a cafeteria or cleaning out toilets…") is both a masterpiece of fury and a pitiless look in the mirror. "Could you do that kind of shit?" Buck derisively asks, too proud to consider it himself. "I wish I could," Manny whispers regretfully. "I wish I could." Yet, when provoked, he turns on Buck and beats him with a ferocity that would have shocked John Webster. "You're an animal!" Sara admonishes him, to which Manny, who has seen his fair share of animals, has a simple Richard-like reply: "No, worse: human."

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Budd Wilkins: Birthing Bad -- Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist Through the Lens of “Nordic Horror"

Birthing Bad: Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist Through the Lens of “Nordic Horror."
by Budd Wilkins

When the always-polarizing Lars von Trier released his expectedly off-kilter take on the horror genre Antichrist in 2009, it was met with predictable critical excoriations in equal measure to any positive assessments. (The films closing dedication to art-house favorite Andrei Tarkovsky didn't seem to help matters much.) Fortunately, Antichrist did not lack for reviewers who took it seriously. Several were canny enough to place the film within the context of Scandinavian horror films or, at any rate, the art-house/horror variety that remains for the most part the only type accessible to North American audiences. Nevertheless, even informed reviewers were content to merely sketch in these perceived influences in the most general sorts of ways. For example, the excellent introductory essay by Ian Christie contained in the Criterion Collection DVD package suggests a sort of historical lineage, through which he supposes it might be productive to understand Von Triers approach to genre and material, but can do no more than briefly limn the interconnections. Seeking to follow in Christie's footsteps, let us attempt to further explicate the nexus of contextual relations by 1) establishing the historical basis for a genealogy of Nordic horror (specifically, the Danish variety) and 2) examining Antichrist in some detail at both the thematic and formal level, in order to assess the similarities and contrasts to its antecedents.

For our purposes, discussion begins with Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922), a remarkable early example of the silent cinema as docudrama (coeval with Flahertys Nanook of the North, the recognized progenitor of that genre) that examines the phenomenon of the European witch craze. Christensen's film was apparently inspired by the directors encounter with the 1487 witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of the Witches] while doing research for possible film topics. Opening with a kind of object lesson, complete with onscreen pointer and packed with copious information delivered via intertitle, Häxan fills its first chapter with medieval woodcuts and engravings pertaining to the history of witchcraft and demonology, as well as more recent diagrams that illustrate pre-Enlightenment (read: unscientific), primarily Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern, cosmological conceptions.

Throughout his film, Christensen is concerned to illustrate the hypocrisy and superstition of the Middle Ages and, while he does not imply that witchcraft never existed per se, he attempts to depict the cultural-historical matrix of forces that contributed to the prevalence of these beliefs. Furthering this progressive agenda, Christensen ends his film with a segment suggesting the parallels between the signs and portents that singled out a suspected witch (intermittent anesthesia of the skin, first and foremost) and the modern psychiatric understanding of the symptoms surrounding hysteria. The advancement of Knowledge, though still imperfect, has banished the irrational and ill-founded bogeymen of Belief.

The connections between Häxan and Antichrist are several: On a formal, organizational level, Antichrist is divided, like Häxan, into discrete sequences. Häxans divisions correspond to its length in reels, but are used to segment its documentary narrative (the object lesson introduction, a second chapter portraying a day in the life of a witch and her coven, the next several chapters given over to an extended case history of accusation, trial and execution, before concluding with its modern psychiatry coda. Antichrist, in keeping with Von Trier's other works, contains a prologue, four named and numbered chapters and an epilogue. The chapters are as follows: 1) Grief, 2) Pain (Chaos Reigns), 3) Despair (Gynocide) and 4) The Three Beggars. The latter, interestingly, refers to a fairly common fairy tale (there are Serbian and ethnic Russian variations) that centers around acts of negligence and abandonment involving a child.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Erich Kuersten: Swedish Death, American Style

Swedish Death, American Style
by Erich Kuersten

"A film by Matt Reeves" (Cloverfield), Let Me In (2010) barely even acknowledges it's a remake of a 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In (dir. Thomas Alfredson), which was an adaptation of a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, also from Sweden. The American version keeps the snowy, desolate, alien mood via wintry Los Alamos, New Mexico, with Kodi Smith McPhee as the human boy, and the startling Chloe Grace Moretz as the vampire. One of the changes from the original are scenes were Moretz morphs into the CGI silhouette of a flying pit bull. In quieter moments she's startlingly ageless and we're forced to contend with the idea that she could be five or five hundred; she may have picked her young girl form the way a Venus flytrap picks its sticky sweet scent. In the book, I'm told, she's not even a real girl, but a castrated boy. She could be a thousand year old shapeshifting venus fly cactus. This mystery enhances the bizarre love story at the film's heart. It's one we all know- the old lover making way for the new - but in this case, oh man, we're talking some serious age differences.

Perhaps I mention all this to show how having a Swedish original to work from enables American filmmakers to explore the darker side of childhood, the place where empathy is easily drowned by the desire for companionship, safety, validation, power, and revenge against one's enemies. If the motivation for these remakes boils down to middle America's hatred of subtitles, the ability to depict things American films never could otherwise is surely a close, unspoken second. Ever since Spielberg's E.T. set the tone for the 1980s, movie audiences have reveled in their horror over child abuse scandals and as a result have shied away from portraying kids as anything but saints or, occasionally, evil demons... but either way beset on all sides by skeevy male abductors. Never are they allowed to be sexual and/or ignored - is neglect 'worse' than 'physical' abuse? Is there even a difference?

Having these topics come from Sweden washes the blood off our hands as nervous Yanks. We can do more dark stuff with kids, because hey, it's a remake, of a Swedish film. I have a feeling the same marker of moral responsibility exemption will accompany the sexual violence in Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Thus the Swedish cinema has re-attained its status as America's go-to taboo breaker, a status it won back in 1967 with I am Curious... Yellow, a film that dared to not just show sex, but to show realistic sex, as part of the experiences of a young leftist blonde girl and her older lover filmmaker. The protagonist's sexual openness isn't 'titillating' as much as a provocation . Americans were allowed to see it as 'art' and since it made money, the stage was set for the XXX boom. The leftist politics and new wave handheld style was forgotten but the sex was kept. The phrase 'Swedish erotica' became a redundancy, like American jazz, or Argentine tango.

The original Let the Right One In (2008) dared to assume the American art house market would abandon prurience and moral outrage over the whole child sexuality angle and remember instead the mix of loneliness and exalted terror that is being a child, those pre-empathic Lord of the Flies, Over the Edge kind of feelings from the days when we were sent to our rooms for trying to rebel, and we rolled around in bed and wished we could just kill our parents and be free to eat candy all the time; the agony of being called in by your parents, right when you were about to play a game of 'doctor' with your hot neighbor. When you ran outside after wolfing down your warm milk and yucky vegetables, she was gone.

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J.M. Tyree: Archive Fighter

Archive Fighter: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
by J.M. Tyree
Film Quarterly

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s latest antiblockbuster, is a baroque rethink of the serial-killer subgenre; a subtly retuned adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s penny-dreadful Millennium trilogy; a technical achievement of narrative compression and pacing in a mainstream thriller; and the most recent proof of the director’s trademark habit of unleashing bad vibes in the multiplex. It’s a sick kind of holiday movie. The story is bookended by two Christmases—a year its two protagonists pass among murderers, sexual predators, and a wealthy family with a history of sadistic brutality (and Nazi sympathies), all stirred up by a cold case involving the disappearance of a sixteen-year-old girl from a private island. With good reason, Fincher called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “the feel-bad movie of the season.” The director renders its source material in the coolly droll yet fundamentally shocking and disturbing style of his previous films about psychos, Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and Zodiac (2007). In the manner of Tod Browning’s subversive 1931 take on Dracula, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo frightens the viewer while injecting grimly fiendish jokes into an earnest literary artifact with an intractably complicated storyline.

Like Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and The Social Network (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a movie subdivided into dozens of impeccable segments, some lavishly arranged shots lasting no more than a flashing second or two. Among the first in this series of mini-films is the peculiar titles sequence that recalls both Fincher’s early days as a director of music videos and the James Bond movies’ graphic set pieces. It features a fittingly icy cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” vocalized by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. Along with this gender-bending, the song’s lyrics provide signposts for interpretation of a film that will “whisper tales of gore” set in remixed Viking landscapes. The sequence’s images of black sludge dripping from motorcycle tires, laptop keyboards, electronic wires, deadly flowers, dark phoenixes, and faces vomiting coins and stinging insects (a reference to the pseudonym, Wasp, of the eponymous hacker in Larsson’s novel) suggest the stylized iconography of a world drowning in liquid evil. These and other touches of deliberate artifice—Polaroid-tinted flashbacks, talking text from the primary victim’s diary, establishing shots of moving trains and snowbound houses that turn landscapes into glimpses from nightmares, multitasking montages that playfully detach sight and sound, and Fincher’s toxic light filters—at once encapsulate and provide layers of chill to distance the awful horrors in store. The movie’s sound design often intrudes, consistently and violently, in ways that lend a surreal aura to the noise of passing trains, closing doors, and moving elevators.

These reminders of unreality also might serve as annotations to a story that is about acts of reading and misreading. Both the novel and the movie begin with a major interpretative mistake. Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal), missing for forty years from her wealthy family’s enclave, is presumed murdered. Her uncle, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), has been receiving mysterious packages each year containing pressed flowers, posted from around the world. He hires a disgraced investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), to look into Harriet’s case, and Blomkvist takes on freelance security consultant and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as his research assistant. Together, they uncover what Blomkvist describes as a story of “rape, torture, fire, animals, religion— am I missing anything?” Of course, everyone is missing something in this thriller, namely that the flowers are being sent by Harriet herself to let her beloved uncle know that she remains alive, rather than by a clever killer attempting to torment Henrik.

Why the most obvious assumption about these secret messages is never made could be the focus of a Derridean highlight reel about the slipperiness of writing, from the expanded definition of the word in 1967′s Of Grammatology (the flowers form a kind of living hieroglyph) to the games about letters in 1980′s The Post Card (Harriet’s flowers are messages mailed but not adequately received). Fincher’s emphasis on textual instability and the control of documents intersects with what Derrida calls the “politics of the archive” in his 1995 essay Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (translated by Eric Prenowitz, University of Chicago Press, 1996, 4). In Melancholy and the Archive (Continuum, 2011), Jonathan Boulter calls archive fever “an addiction to past events which transforms the subject into a crypt” (141), and in Fincher’s film all manner of often macabre texts, images, and objects entomb as much as they disclose, as if attesting to a semantic death drive and to haunted memory. Newspaper clippings, crime-scene pictures, binders of family snapshots or tourist photographs, corporate files and libraries, Bible codes, encrypted documents, video surveillance clips, scars, and of course tattoos record—even if they do not always spell out—nightmare crimes. Larsson’s novel mentions a “death book” that Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård) fills with research on his potential victims, but in a way the whole story is an elaborate memento mori.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Erich Kuersten: All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives -- Stanley Kubrick's Lolita

All Tomorrow's Playground Narratives: Stanley Kubrick's Lolita
by Erich Kuersten
Bright Lights Film Journal

One of the many things that make Stanley Kubrick's best films so endlessly re-watchable is how he makes cultural artifacts (hairstyles, wallpapers, furniture, etc.) that might normally date the film archetypal and uncanny. In his insane formal rigor he warps what passes for "normal" until the word loses meaning. He does this through circular movement: from strange to familiar and back again, slowly like the various orbits in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), In the ever-widening gap of time since that film's release, our judgment of the red and white space station decor, such as the pop-art red furniture, has revolved all the way around from cool and contemporary (for 1967) to joltingly anachronistic (1980s) to back in retro Urban Outfitters-style vogue all over again (1990s), and now (2009) on its way into postmodern super breakdown overdrive; everything is now both in and out, all the time.

DVDs have put all of the century at our disposal — as Marlene Dietrich said to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: "It's so old it's new." Kids are becoming infatuated with manual typewriters and LPs. Having been born in 1967 myself, I now get a weird pang of nostalgic warmth from 2001's 1960s decor, as if revisiting the cosmic playground of youth, wherein parents and monkey bars loomed tall as obelisks and one wasn't expected to understand anything in any adult movie, let alone 2001. The very title of the film reverberates with this weird time loop frisson when you examine it in 2009, wherein humans may not be traveling to Jupiter, but we've got cool stuff Bowman and Arthur C. Clarke never dreamt of, like video camera-cell phones the size of a credit card. But with Kubrick, a 1970s sweater — even seen in the 1970s — or period modular furniture are as alien as if they were from the distant future or prehistoric past. Kubrick gives us nothing that is coincidental; everything is made frisson-laden, down to the last prop. Everything becomes referential to itself, or what Lacan calls a sinthom.

As with a child's misinterpretations of real-life adult symbols and signifiers (why is daddy hurting mommy in the primal scene, etc.), childhood misunderstandings of popular movies form the basis of our pop mythology, much more than the actual films' intended meanings. As a child, my friends and I regularly synopsized R-rated movies to each other, freaking ourselves out as films like Carrie, the Exorcist, Jaws, The Sentinel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Omen grew scarier with each embellished telling. That may have changed now that kids can call up any movie anytime on their wristwatches, but in the pre-VCR 1970s, to kids like me, these rehashes of R-rated films were urban myths, campfire ghost stories (which survives to some extent in the whistling in the dark horror blog approach of, say, Stacie Ponder or Tenebrous Kate). If you saw the movies in person, an inevitable initial disappointment was bound to occur. No amount of special effects can measure up to the full lurid breadth of a child's imagination when told of a glass pane slicing a guy's head off in The Omen (above). The actual Omen itself doesn't come close; it's quite laughably fake, actually.

In a land before VCRs and political correctness, these kinds of imagined fears were a great turn-on, the sublimated jouissance that was once focused around the threat of spankings, the sadomasochistic pulls of infantile sexual dread/desire. The myths of this age are the urban legends (the LSD babysitter microwave infant combo) and the R-rated horror movies. These films had a role in our lives, a giddy terror of inevitable initiation-style rites of pain and passage; they needed to seem terrifying, like a rollercoaster that sends an electric charge up your spine even while waiting in line. But once you rode it or saw the film, you were cool for life. The reality always turned out to be not scary or traumatizing after all; it was just a spook show.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Steven Shaviro: After Hope - The Life and Death of a Porno Gang

After Hope: The Life and Death of a Porno Gang
by Steven Shaviro

Mladen Djordjevic's Life and Death of a Porno Gang (Serbia, 2009) contains explicit representations of sex and violence, including scenes of golden showers, zoophilia, animal slaughter, rape, murder, wartime atrocities, the production of snuff films, and suicide. In its extremity, Porno Gang has a lot in common with its sister film, Srdjan Spasojevic's A Serbian Film (2010), with which it shares a cinematographer (Nemanja Jovanov), as well as the plot premise of porno actors lured into making snuff films. Both of these movies allude, at least implicitly, to the American torture porn franchises of the past decade (the Hostel series and the Saw series). They also bring to mind the controversial but highly visible and critically acclaimed transgressive art cinema of Western Europe and East Asia, including such works as Gaspar Noë's Irreversible (2002), Pascal Laugiers's Martyrs (2008), Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009, below), Takashi Miike's Audition (2000), and Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy (2002-2005).

However, Life and Death of a Porno Gang stands out among all these films for a number of reasons. It is unique in terms of its style, in terms of its particular geographical and historical location, and in terms of the types of social and economic conditions that it explores. In the first place, Porno Gang rejects both the commercial-genre functionalism of movies like Hostel, and the art-film self-consciousness of directors like Noë and von Trier. Instead, it adopts an informal, low-budget aesthetic; it has the look and feel of a video documentary. The film is largely shot in natural light, in real locations, with small, handheld video cameras, the same kind of cameras that the characters within the film themselves use. In this way, Porno Gang picks up from Djordjevic's previous film, Made in Serbia (2005), a downbeat documentary about the small size and limited horizons of the Serbian porn industry. Porno Gang retains its predecessors' look and feel, as well as subject matter, even though it is a fictional film, entirely scripted and staged.

Life and Death of a Porno Gang also stands out for the way that it tends to shy away from, and representationally underplay the horrific violence that it nonetheless explicitly depicts. This is its biggest difference from A Serbian Film, which presents its depraved visions with a hallucinatory hyperrealism, often pushed to the point of campy excess. In contrast, Life and Death of a Porno Gang remains largely naturalistic, and is not edited for shock value. Indeed, Djordjevic's editing style is oddly elliptical; it gives us buildups, but it often cuts away before the horror it depicts has had enough time to register in its full intensity. Porno Gang neither dwells on its carnage with long takes and a fixed or slow-moving camera, nor riles up its viewers with rapid, disjunctive montage. Instead, there is a kind of everydayness to its horror. The film records the experiences of its characters in a manner reminiscent sometimes of a first-person video diary, and other times of reality television. The film's most shocking moments emerge from this background of everydayness, and then quickly recede back into it.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Gordon Thomas: "Nun-Lust, Torture-Porn, Church-Desecration and Bad Taste" -- Reconnecting with Ken Russell's The Devils

"Nun-Lust, Torture-Porn, Church-Desecration and Bad Taste": Reconnecting with Ken Russell's The Devils
by Gordon Thomas
Bright Lights Film Journal

Back in 1971, if you were lucky enough to see Ken Russell's The Devils — and not that many did, or if they did, felt themselves lucky — you might've wondered: am I expected to take this film seriously? While shooting the film and over the years, Russell, who died in November 2011 at 84, insisted that he was very serious in his film adaptation of Aldous Huxley's 1952 book The Devils of Loudun, a semi-fictional, intensely researched treatment of the real-life, medieval witch-hunting circus that led to the execution of the secular priest Urbain Grandier in 1634. But when the film premiered first in the UK in a censored cut authorized reluctantly by Russell, and then in a more heavily cut version in the US, few people, especially critics, were disinclined to accept the film as anything more than sensationalist or — even worse — dastardly conceived, pornographic garbage.

Were these knee-jerk reactions? Since its theatrical run, it's not been easy to take a fresh look at the film. In the earlier days of home video, Warner Bros., the studio that owns the film, allowed VHS releases of The Devils in the UK and US, but these issues were transfers of the heavily censored American cut, hardly the version with which to revisit Russell's original intentions. With the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, much of Russell's catalog has gone to disc, but, other than on execrable bootlegs, not The Devils — until this year.

Through some sort of finagling, which must've resembled the US negotiating arms reduction with Leonid Brezhnev, the British Film Institute has been able to license from Warner Bros. the original, X-rated British theatrical release cut of The Devils. Not, mind you, the director's cut, recently reassembled by the late Russell himself and shown theatrically, once, in 2010; nor was the BFI allowed to issue the film on Blu-ray. The resultant two-disc, Region 2 DVD appeared in late March 2012, and the film looks many times better than the wretched bootleg from Euro Cult, made available in the US in 2011. The bootleg does, however, contain the rape of Christ sequence, which, along with a segment of another provocative scene, Warner Bros. would not allow for inclusion on BFI's release. With the passage of over forty years — and the reasonable assumption that these scenes would not, at this late date, scorch a reasonable person's eyeballs — the whys and wherefores of Warners' timidity are difficult to understand. The British X-rated version hasn't been seen since the initial theatrical run in the UK, and thus far, Warner has steadfastly refused to release The Devils on disc, in any version, in the US. Apparently, their somewhat admirable goal — to make their entire catalog of films eventually available via the made-on-demand service, the Archive Collection — will fall short, with one title slated to be cast into a lake of fire.

In '71, I knew nothing of The Devils' entanglement with censorship and controversy, and, enjoying the film tremendously, made sure to see it more than once, if only to be certain that the sets (designed by Derek Jarman) were really as strangely beautiful as I'd first thought (they were). At the time, transgressive filmmaking was in the air, or about to be: its harbinger, I Am Curious (Yellow), had arrived back in 1967, Fellini Satyricon in 1969, Jodorowsky's El Topo in 1970; Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was to come in 1972, Pasolini's Salo in 1975, Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses in 1976, and Lynch's Blue Velvet a decade later. Yet Russell, with just one film, seemed to want to break more taboos than all of the others combined.

In Russell's case, though, it isn't just a matter of provocative content. Beyond frontal nudity and nuns masturbating against the toes of Christ's nailed foot, The Devils combines its transgressive content with transgressions in tone, a standard operating procedure for most the director's oeuvre, and one that has consistently gotten him in trouble critically. In The Devils, where Russell amps up the sex and nudity, mixing it all in with a mockery of organized religion — plus scenes of physical torture and degradation enacted on nuns and priests — the film's tone refuses to remain constant, often from scene to scene, creating an apparent confusion of intent.

With certain mindsets in place in 1971, though, was anybody really surprised when the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) adjudged the original cut a nasty free-for-all and thus — with its provocative elements presented in an in-your-face, sometimes confusing style — a film made in shockingly bad taste? It's the "shockingly bad taste" that I believe resulted in the extremity of the censorship, and not, per se, the pubic hair, violence, and rough treatment of organized religion.

Partly, I think, the bad boy in Russell always enjoyed deliberately taunting the unimaginative or conservative viewer. By no means should we consider this his only motivation behind the extreme content and apparently confused intent — I'll get to other, more laudable motivations later — but I'm sure he could anticipate how these factors might cause the BBFC to question the seriousness of his film. Any claims by Russell to the contrary I might consider disingenuous.

Besides shattering the narrative frame with numerous anachronisms in The Devils, Russell more than once inserts a sequence of deliberate, low-down burlesque that appears to undercut the seriousness of the drama. The film's biggest set-piece, the orgiastic possession scene in the cathedral, plays more like gleeful soft porn than the disturbing brainwashed display of blasphemy that Russell has said he intended. When the BBFC screened The Devils, they likely foresaw a potential obscenity case, with accompanying legal ramifications and liability.

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War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (USA: Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, 2007)

War Made Easy reaches into the Orwellian memory hole to expose a 50-year pattern of government deception and media spin that has dragged the United States into one war after another from Vietnam to Iraq. Narrated by actor and activist Sean Penn, the film exhumes remarkable archival footage of official distortion and exaggeration from LBJ to George W. Bush, revealing in stunning detail how the American news media have uncritically disseminated the pro-war messages of successive presidential administrations.

Lee Weston Sabo: Auteurs in the Arena -- Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire

Auteurs in the Arena: Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire
by Lee Weston Sabo
Bright Lights Film Journal

It's difficult to think of an unpopular film by a major Hollywood auteur more ambitious or awe-inspiring than Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly it was one of the most ambitious films of any kind in terms of production: not only was it one of the most expensive ever made, with the largest set ever built, but it was made entirely outside the studio system. It was the penultimate achievement of Samuel Bronston's independent production company, and, today, it is more well known for bankrupting Bronston than it is for any artistic achievement. Its massive financial failure was probably inevitable, considering how difficult it would be to turn a profit on such an over-budgeted colossus under even ideal circumstances, but, after a lukewarm reception at Cannes and a handful of snarky reviews from the likes of Bosley Crowther, the film was saddled with a long-lasting reputation for being a giant turkey. It has slowly earned some status as a lost classic, but audiences and critics alike overwhelmingly prefer El Cid, the previous collaboration between Mann and Bronston. El Cid may have reached a greater apotheosis of Mann's style, but for its auteurist pleasures and smart entertainment, The Fall of the Roman Empire is an unpolished 30-carat gem.

The grandiose title bites off a fair bit more than it can chew — promising nothing less than a narrative about the downfall of an entire civilization — but Mann consistently grounds the film with his usual termite art preoccupations. The plot is expansive and has quite a few vestigial subplots, but Mann localizes the drama around the shifting psychologies of a small group of flawed people in or close to the royal family. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) decides he will pass on the crown to his beloved general Livius (Stephen Boyd) rather than his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), whom he loves but considers unfit for government. Livius and Commodus have been lifelong friends, and Livius is romantically involved with Commodus' sister, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), though there seems to be an unspoken consensus that things will never work out between them. Aurelius dies before he can finalize Livius' succession, and the plot bursts like a can of spring snakes when Livius hands the throne over to Commodus anyway, the characters scattering to the winds as they work their private political machinations until the final act brings them all crashing back together in a prolonged bloodbath. The opening and closing monologues by an unidentified narrator weakly frame the film as a pivotal series of events in the course of Western civilization, but Mann treats it like an isolated and incestuous Greek tragedy. During the climactic gladiator fight between Commodus and Livius in the middle of the Roman forum, soldiers form a square around them and box them in by forming a wall with their interlocking shields. The fate of the empire is on the line, but the dramatic weight of the scene is limited to this microcosm where the main thing at stake is how much pain these two friends are willing to inflict on one another. The surrounding mobs, raised up on temple stairs, clearly suggest an amphitheatre.

Mann's obsession with classical tragedy was most obvious in his fixation on King Lear as an unending source of dramatic material, and Mann used The Fall of the Roman Empire as his final experiment in formula tinkering, rearranging the iconography of Lear to see how they manifest in different environments. Even more than The Furies and Man of the West, two Mann westerns that involve aging patriarchs trying to choose their heirs, The Fall of the Roman Empire borrows and alters most of the key components of the Lear story to satisfy its own dramatic needs. The Fool, for instance, is transfigured into a Stoic philosopher named Timonides (James Mason), and Lear's descent into madness is transferred onto his son. Mann also continues his interpretation of Cordelia-like figures as avatars of Electra. The incestuous subtext between Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston in The Furies is more frenzied and, consequently, more interesting, but there's an air of romantic (if not outright erotic) tension between Aurelius and Lucilla that fuses Shakespearean poetic loftiness with Euripidean psychological darkness. The ending is one of Mann's most pessimistic, closer to the total tragic implosion at the end of Lear than any of his other endings: the hero lives, but he existentially disappears by abandoning the world to its own self-destructive drives. I suspect that Akira Kurosawa took inspiration from Mann when shooting his own Lear adaptation, the masterful and equally pessimistic Ran, which visually resembles the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire in how it treats isolated fortresses in barbarian-infested wildernesses as spatial reflections of Lear himself (this is especially true regarding Mann's use of natural height variation and horizontal spaces, which seems closer to Japanese 'Scope films of the time than typical Hollywood epics).

While the level-headedness and integrity of Marcus Aurelius is almost a perfect inversion of Lee J. Cobb's apocalyptic bluster in Man of the West, Livius is cut from the same cloth as Gary Cooper's Link in the same film: a thoughtful, compassionate, and quiet man with a violent streak and dark secrets whose principal story arc involves his private struggle between personal grudges and social obligations. In other words, a typical Mann hero, a character type with no analogue in Lear that Mann frequently used to make his sources texts his own. The final confrontation between Livius and Commodus is essentially a restaging of similar showdowns between Mann's heroes and villains, wherein the hero is forced to commit an act of vengeance, which is always portrayed as ugly, infantile, and pathetic. Mann's refusal to glorify revenge as either a character motive or a plot device criticizes the popularity of revenge tragedies in classical theatre, which he seems to consider barbaric and crude compared to psychologically insightful works like King Lear. In The Fall of the Roman Empire, this specifically manifests as a partial fusion of Lear with Shakespeare's gruesome and much maligned Titus Andronicus, which Mann tries to both elevate and critique by reinterpreting some of its plot elements in terms outside the context of revenge tragedy. Livius, like Andronicus, is set to become the new emperor after fighting the Goths for a decade when the dead emperor's impetuous son claims the throne, but, unlike Andronicus, he retains enough humanity by the end both to survive his world's deterioration into violence and to be utterly repulsed by it. The mass execution of rebels in the film's final moments might technically be as bloody as the end of Titus Andronicus, but its gravity and tone completely deny the farcical nature of the play's climactic cannibal feast.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Audun Engelstad: It's not TV - or is it?

It's not TV - or is it?
by Audun Engelstad

. . .

TV vs. High Art

It is perhaps an outdated discussion, but there seems to be a repeated tendency to see quality and popular culture as two different and mutually exclusive entities. If a product of popular culture is endowed with an aura of quality, it ceases to exist as popular culture. Instead it moves to the realm of the art world. Historically, we can find this view expressed in W. H. Auden’s (1948: 151) classic article on the crime genre where he suggests that Raymond Chandler is not writing detective fiction, but rather serious studies of a criminal environment, and that his books “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.” And Tzvetan Todorov (1977), in his famous article “The Typology of Detective Fiction”, claimed that any experiment with the established features of the genre, in order to improve upon them, implied a move towards serious literature. In line with arguments like these, popular culture and high art exist as two different systems – and never shall the twain meet.

Needless to say, this position has been challenged, in particular as a consequence of the interest postmodern theory has taken in popular culture. Jim Collins (1989) has demonstrated how crime fiction applies many of the strategies that define the writings within a modernist realm, such as a highly sophisticated play on intertextuality and the foregrounding of a self-conscious style. Indeed, much of the postmodernist aesthetics have been invested in blurring the boundaries between high and low culture, re-circulating tropes, forms, and narrative schemes established by popular culture. Apparently, postmodernism has put an end to the divide between the two art systems, it is all one mix now. Or so it seems at times, but perhaps it is not that easy.

The reason for bringing this issue up again, even though it is easy to get the impression that it is settled, is that the conflict between high and low appears to be embedded in the slogan that defines HBO as different from television. And much of the literature on quality television, a term that until recently was something like an oxymoron, is bent on drawing attention to traits like narrative complexity, character density, and a distinctly defined style – traits that otherwise belong to the field of high art. At the peak of postmodernism, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, television looked quite different from today. Perhaps this is the reason why the notion of artworks within television comes so belatedly to television studies.

The notion that the HBO television drama raises above the medium seems to be advocated by the series’ creators as well as HBO’s advertising department. Both writer-producer of The Sopranos, David Chase, and writer-producer of The Wire, David Simon, have in several interviews expressed a general lack of interest in television drama, and, it seems, in television altogether. Such a position is quite puzzling when looking at the track record of the two of them. It is obvious that they are well-seasoned within the trade of serial television drama. Chase has a background as a writer and a producer for television series such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure. Originally, his ambitions for The Sopranos was for it to be a movie, and he has stated that he treated every single episode as an equivalent to a stand-alone film. Much can be said about such a claim, but it definitively works towards distinguishing The Sopranos as something other than ordinary television drama. As for Simon, he was a former crime reporter who was introduced to television as a writer and producer on Homicide: Life on the Street, based on his book Homocide: A Year on the Killing Street. As en executive producer and writer for The Wire he has made a point about bringing in creative people with little or no background in television. This, obviously, serves the impression that The Wire was conceived as unrelated to television. Both Chase and Simon, in their publically well-known statements, express a disdain towards television drama, what it is recognized by and what it achieves (see e.g. Biskind 2007 & Goldman 2006).

TV Auteurs

Whether or not Chase and Simon’s disdain for television is reasonable is beside the point. By their positions they – consciously, or not – apparently align themselves with the nouvelle vague filmmakers who revolted against the current state of French cinema and called for a politics of auteurs (fig. 4-5). If we follow this line of argument, Chase and Simon et al, do not necessarily express a desire to make something else than television – a film, a visualized novel, or something else – rather the goal is to make television drama into something other than what it is otherwise recognized as, yet still television drama. In other words, to explore and stretch the possibilities of television as an art form.

The idea of an auteur within television has been something of a contradiction in terms. The influence of auteur criticism arrived in USA in the 1960s at a time when cinema had lost the competition against television and found it necessary to distinguish itself from television. Ironically, some of the auteurs that came out of the period known as the Hollywood Renaissance had their background in television, such as Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Arthur Penn and John Cassavettes. Within cinema, the auteur is recognized as a person with a strong artistic impulse, the director who rises above the craftsmen on the film set, acting on an impulse to tell something of significance or of poetic value, and who is able to transform cinema to an art form worthy of serious debate. Television, on the other hand, is typically centered on personalities in front of the camera – the talk show host, the news anchor, the leading star of the soap series, and so forth. Take, say, The Late Show with David Letterman. The form follows a fairly strict format, and it really should make no difference who is doing the various jobs behind the camera. They are all replaceable. The only one that cannot be replaced without altering the show is David Letterman, the television personality. David Letterman can probably (and he once did) take his show to any other network channel, and it will still be recognized as The Late Show with David Letterman. The HBO drama series, by contrast, elevates the executive producer to the role of the artist. All though less pronounced, it is much the same position that Robert J. Thompson gives the producer in his study of quality television series of the 1980s and 1990s.

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