Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jonathan Eig -- A Beautiful Mind(fuck): Hollywood Structures of Identity

A beautiful mind(fuck): Hollywood structures of identity
by Jonathan Eig
Jump Cut

It has been more than sixty years since Toto tore the cover off the Wizard of Oz and more than forty since Sam Loomis unmasked Norman Bates. Narrative surprises about the identity of major characters are not new in Hollywood film. But three characteristics distinguish movies like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Donnie Darko from past, more typical, Hollywood identity-surprises.

First, in these films the character with the surprise invariably is the protagonist, as opposed to a supporting character who affects a more “normal” hero. The next two characteristics work in tandem. The hero in question does not know the true nature of his identity and so is not simply keeping a secret from us. And the audience does not know the backstory either. We are not let in on a secret the hero does not know. A sudden boomlet of movies intentionally lie to the audience and manipulate viewers’ emotional investment in the heroes. In critical circles, these movies have developed a trendy name: mindfucks.

The two Davids—Lynch and Fincher—are the modern-day champions of the mindfuck film, but they certainly owe a large debt to Luis Buñuel, who made a career out of yanking the rug out from under his audience. From the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou and the “is it real?” documentary Land Without Bread early in his career, right up until the final shot of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the double female lead in That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel played with our perceptions of his characters, simultaneously involving us in fictional lives and reminding us that what we are seeing is flickering light in the image of actors—a representation of a representation.

The current crop of Hollywood mindfucks from 1999-2001 no doubt has been fertilized by several successful “surprise” movies from the recent past. Both Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1994) boasted Oscar-winning screenplays and significant profits; artistic and financial success mark them as more widely seen than previous cult favorites like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990). But the heavy hitter in this recent history is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999).

The Sixth Sense employs a plot device characteristic of all the recent mindfuck movies. At some point in the first act, after a character’s life is threatened, the story is either interrupted for a flashback to show how we arrived at this point (Fight Club and Memento) or the character appears to survive the threat. In The Sixth Sense, we will come to learn that Malcolm Crowe did not in fact survive, that at least part of his subsequent story has been illusory. That will be the big climactic surprise.

Such a narrative device did not originate with Shyamalan. Modern drama has paid plenty of attention to the nature of man’s life and death, from the mainstream of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to the absurdism of Samuel Becket’s Endgame. Two earlier films employ an identical device: Robert Enrico’s Oscar-winning short La Riviere du Hibou (based on Ambrose Bierce’s story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and initially shown to a large American audience as part of The Twilight Zone1 television show in 1964) as well as Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. But neither led to similarly constructed movies nor did they generate $300 million dollar ticket sales in initial release, as The Sixth Sense did.

The Sixth Sense differs from the other recent mindfucks in having little commentary on social, political, and economic forces affecting us at the end of the 20th century, confining its exploration to its characters’ personal journeys (perhaps a major factor in its extraordinary success.) In the entertainment industry, financial success constitutes an essential step forward in the development of a narrative or aesthetic form. The Sixth Sense opened up public awareness, and consequently Hollywood’s interest, in such constructions.

Another 2001 Hollywood release which certainly merits discussion as a mindfuck, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, has been closely linked with The Sixth Sense in critical circles. The Others not only shares the mindfuck device of having a character unaware of the nature of her existence, (in this case Grace Stewart and her two children do not realize that they are dead), but it also shares an utter lack of concern with any social, political, or philosophical explanation for the delusion. Though the characters have superficial discussions of religion, The Others, like The Sixth Sense, has a plot that remains primarily personal. Since its characters do not die on screen, and are, in fact, long dead, the story does not examine the cause of their death. More than any other current mindfuck, The Others is a pure ghost story that employs this popular modern device for dramatic rather than thematic purposes.

To Read the Rest

Monday, May 27, 2013

ENG 281 Fall 2013

(In Development)

1) Fight Club (USA: David Fincher, 1999: 139 mins)
Rushkoff, Douglas. "They Say." Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say. (NY: Metropolitan Books, 1999: 1-26)

2) The Royal Tenenbaums (USA: Wes Anderson, 2001: 110 mins)
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “The Substance of Style: Pts 1-5.” Moving Image Source (March 30 – April 13, 2009).

3) Donnie Darko (USA: Richard Kelly, 2001: 113 mins)
Hills, Matt. "The Question of Genre in Cult Film and Fandom: Between Contract and Discourse." The Sage Handbook of Film Studies ed. James Donald and Michael Renov. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008: 436-453.

4) Romeo + Juliet (USA: Baz Luhrmann, 1996: 120 mins)
Stam, Robert. "Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation." Critical Visions in Film Theory. ed. Timothy Corrigan, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011: 541-557.

5) The Matrix (USA/Australia: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 1999: 136 mins)
Jenkins, Henry. "Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling." Critical Visions in Film Theory. ed. Timothy Corrigan, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011: 620-644.

6) Bamboozled (USA: Spike Lee, 2000: 135 mins)
Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. "Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation." Critical Visions in Film Theory. ed. Timothy Corrigan, et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011: 800-822.

7) Children of Men (USA/UK: Alfonso Cuarón, 2006: 109 mins)
Chaudhuri, Shohini. "Unpeople: Postcolonial Reflections on Terror, Torture and Detention in Children of Men." Postcolonial Cinema Studies ed. by Sandra Ponzanesi, et al. NY: Routledge, 2012: 191-204.

8) Project Nim (USA/UK: James Marsh, 2011: 93 mins)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (USA: Rupert Wyatt, 2011: 105 mins)

9) Monsoon Wedding (India/USA/Italy/Germany/France: Mira Nair, 2001: 114 mins)
Batra, Kanika and Rich Rice. "Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding and the Transcoded Audiologic of Postcolonial Convergence." Postcolonial Cinema Studies ed. by Sandra Ponzanesi, et al. NY: Routledge, 2012: 205-213.

10) Matewan (USA: John Sayles, 1987: 135 mins)
Landy, Marcia. "Making History Through Media." & Scullion, Rosemarie. "Inscribing the Historical: Film Texts in Context." The Routledge Companion to Film History. ed. William Guynn. NY: Routledge, 2011: 115-138.

11) Even the Rain (Spain/Mexico/France: Iciar Bollain, 2010: 103 mins)
Archive of Resources on Even the Rain."
International Film Studies (June 3, 2013: Ongoing)

12) Pan's Labyrinth (Spain/Mexico/USA: Guillermo Del Toro, 2006: 118 mins)
Derry, Charles. "Guillermo Del Toro." Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009: 315-329.

13) The Cabin In the Woods (USA: Drew Goddard, 2011: 95 mins)
Side by Side (USA: Christopher Kenneally, 2012: 99 mins)

14) District 9 (USA/New Zealand/Canada/South Africa: Neil Blomkamp, 2009: 112 mins)
Said, Edward W. "Invention, Memory, and Place." Cultural Studies: From Theory to Action. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005: 256-269..

15) Cloud Atlas (Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 2012: 172 mins)

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

As a teacher, I'm not interested in just reproducing class after class of graduates who will get out, become successful, and take their obedient places in the slots that society has prepared for them. What we must do--whether we teach or write or make films--is educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world. (15)
---Zinn, Howard. "Stories Hollywood Never Tells." The Sun #343 (July 2004): 12-15.

"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)

What are “thoughts,” and what are “things”? and how are they connected?… Is there a common stuff out of which all facts are made?… Which is the most real kind of reality? What binds all things into one universe?
-- Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

"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)

"The artist seeks to destroy the stability by which society lives, for the sake of drawing closer to the ideal. Society seeks stability, the artist—infinity. The artist is concerned with absolute truth, and therefore gazes ahead and sees things sooner than other people.” ­ -- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (1987: 2nd edition)
"It is the particular distinction of Denis’ cinema that sets it apart from – almost, indeed, in opposition to – the work of many of our most celebrated ‘arthouse’ directors: Bergman, for example, or Fellini or Antonioni. Their films are rooted in autobiography – not necessarily in any literal sense, but in terms of personal introspection – whereas Denis left autobiography behind with Chocolat, and even that film is notable for its poise and critical distance, its objectivity. Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’" -- Robin Wood, "Only (Dis)Connect; and Never Relaxez-Vous; or, ‘I Can’t Sleep’" (2011)

"I owe Armenia a cinematographic confession. A sort of personal bible: my mother, my father, my childhood, my imprisonment. My vision of dreams... the ghosts seek shelter with me, their living heir. But I can’t take them in. I have to tell the police that they’re staying with me. They know neither electricity nor insurance agents. They know no evil. They want to stay with me. I have to prove I love them." -- Sergei Parajanov, quoted in "Deep Red: Joanne Nucho on The Color of Pomegranates (2004)

"In the old days, when you couldn't show sex on film, directors like Hitchcock had metaphors for sex (trains going into tunnels, etc). When you can show more realistic sex, the sex itself can be a metaphor for other parts of the character's lives. The way people express themselves sexually can tell you a lot about who they are. Some people ask me, 'Couldn't you have told the same story without the explicitness?'. They don't ask whether I could've done Hedwig without the songs. Why not be allowed to use every paint in the paintbox?" --John Cameron Mitchell, "How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer" (2007): Shortbus Region 1 DVD release (Th!nk Film)

"The character of any age is tellingly revealed in the popular representation of intimacy. For all the sexualisation of our culture, we live in strangely repressed times: a late-night, infrared fumble on Big Brother is front-page news. While the online porn industry, with its humourless siliconed stereotypes, is worth a reported $10bn a year - more than the cumulative box-office receipts of Hollywood - real human sexual relationships, vulnerable and fun, are hardly anywhere to be seen." --Tim Adams, "Everbody's Doing It..." (2006)

Porter's experiments, however fumbling they appear in hindsight, point us to a curious quandary at the heart of filmmaking: what is it that makes cutting work? How is it that we accept such a violent transition — whether it be from a wide shot to a close-up, from Paris to the Sahara desert, or from the seventeenth century to the present — as a cut? "Nothing in our day-to-day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing," Walter Murch observes. "From the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images: In fact, for millions of years — tens, hundreds of millions of years — life on Earth has experienced the world in this way. Then suddenly, at the beginning of the twentieth century, human beings were confronted with something else — edited film." What prepared them for this? Not painting, not theater, not even literature, cinematic as some of Dickens's scenes now appear. Murch speculates that it was dreams. "We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams," he writes. "In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, 'This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.'" Director John Huston saw it differently. Cinema, he said, was not just a reflection of our dream lives but the very essence of conscious thought, with its fitful jumble of visuals and sound: "To me the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. It's like thought. It's the closest to thought process of any art." Watch the final moments of his film The Dead (1987) and you'll have some idea of what he's talking about. As Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) gazes out the frosty filigree of his Dublin window, somberly musing on the emptiness of his life, the film, with no more than a few simple cuts, slips aboard his stream of consciousness as it glides from thought to thought: from past memories to future projections to the lonely churchyard on the hill where his wife's lover lies buried.
--Graham Daesler, "Cutter's Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing." (2012)

A TV show can’t hold people and institutions to account like good journalism can. But if I can make you care about a character, I may make you think a little longer about certain dynamics that might cause you to reconsider your own political inertia or your own political myopia. You might be more willing to accept a critique of the prevailing political and social systems.
--David Simon: quoted in Julia Leyda, "'This Complicated, Colossal Failure': The Abjection of Creighton Bernette in HBO's Treme." (2012)

The moment of violence in films is never arbitrary or innocent. Yet, there is no singular reading or simple yardstick that can be used to either condone or condemn how violence is represented, taken up by diverse audiences, or used to maximize pleasure so as to give it a liberatory or fascist edge. Cinematic violence can be used to probe the depths of everyday life in ways that expand one's understanding of tyranny and domination; it can also be used to maximize the sleazy side of pleasure, reinforce demeaning stereotypes, or provoke cheap voyeurism. Cinematic violence operates on many registers and any theoretical and pedagogical attempt to deal with complex representations of violence must be discriminatory in taking up such distinctions. As widespread as the culture of violence might be, it is especially imperative that educators, parents, citizens, and cultural workers challenge the representations of violence that have become a defining principle of the visual media. Such a challenge needs to be enunciated critically as part of a broader public policy to both protect youth and to enable them to discern between the violence of the spectacle and a representational violence that allows them to identify with the suffering of others, display empathy, and bring their own ethical commitments to bear.
--Henry A. Giroux, "Racism and the Aesthetic of Hyperreal Violence: Pulp Fiction and Other Visual Tragedies." (1995)

“The concept of ‘obscenity’ is tested when one dares to look at something that he has an unbearable desire to see but has forbidden himself to look at. When one feels that everything that one had wanted to see has been revealed, ‘obscenity’ disappears, the taboo disappears as well, and there is a certain liberation.”

--Nagisa Oshima, quoted in Oshima in Words and Images

“To the leaders of the cinema still to come, I can offer only a few words drawn from my modest experience. You must ceaselessly formulate and sharpen your critical views, both of others and of yourselves.” --Nagisa Oshima, quoted in Oshima in Words and Images

"Film matters, among other things, because it has an extraordinary capacity to expand our reality, to deepen our moral sensibility, and to shape our self-understandings, sometimes by moving us closer to cultures, problems, and realities that are distant from those we know well. That said, I think it is far from being the case that all films matter. The task, I think, for film scholars in the future will be to help to ensure that films that genuinely do matter continue to get made, and that they receive the attention they deserve."--Matte Hjort, "Film ... has an extraordinary capacity to expand our reality." Why Does Film Matter (Intellect Books, 2008)

"Sex is just another brushstroke in the painting of life. Fear of sex is at the root of many problems that aren't directly connected to sex."--John Cameron Mitchell discussing Shortbus (2006)

“The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.” -- Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth (1950)

“At a certain point, I felt so useless!” said Roberto Rossellini. Never before had technology accomplished such miracles. Yet everywhere the world was confronting crises. Never before had civilization so needed us all to understand the great problems—food, water, energy. Yet everywhere, especially in contemporary art, there was nothing but cruelty and complaining. The mass media, Rossellini charged, were accomplishing “a sort of cretinization of adults.” Rather than illuminate people, their great effort seemed to be to subjugate them, “to create slaves who think they’re free.” -- quoted by Tag Gallagher

"What's the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. -- Cobb in the film Inception (2010)

"The fact is that war changes men's natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that the horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations … I say that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures and the same provocations as these men whose actions are on trial." -- The character Major J.F. Thomas in Breaker Morant (1980)

“Originally, the embeddedness of an artwork in the context of a tradition found expression in a cult. As we know, the earliest artworks originated in the service of rituals....in other words: the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art always has its basis in ritual.” —Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" (1936)

"You're television incarnate, Diana: indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy." -- Max Schumacher in Network (1976)

Miller’s Crossing (USA: The Coen Brothers, 1990: 115 mins)
Herling, Bradley L. "Ethics, Heart and Violence in Miller's Crossing." The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers ed. Mark T. Conrad. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009: 125-146.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (USA: Michel Gondry, 2004)

Najmeh Khalili Mahani -- Mirroring History: Fassbinder’s The BRD Trilogy

Mirroring History: Fassbinder’s The BRD Trilogy
by Najmeh Khalili Mahani


Rainer Werner Fassbinder shares with many of his contemporary New German cineastes the romantic pessimism about the quest for love and freedom, which gets thwarted by individual limitations and the circumstantial wickedness of society. But, in dealing with the post-war ‘inability to mourn’, Fassbinder is one of the least apologetic filmmakers of the New German Cinema. Although critical of trauerarbeit, he falls neither in the realm of narcissistic self-pity (e.g. Volker Schlondorff’s Tin Drum (1979) or Sander Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother 1980) nor in the domain of schizophrenic self-justification (as in Syberberg’s Our Hitler, 1978). Instead—as Elsaesser notes, Fassbinder treats German history and fascism “in relation to the present, and its representation across the dialectics of identification, the splitting and doubling of the self.” [2] The BRD Trilogy (Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981), and The Longing of Veronika Voss (1982)) continues in the tradition of Ali, Fear Eats the Soul (1973) and The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), to interview, and not judge, the Federal Republic of Germany in Adenauer’s era.

The trilogy films are highly stylized and classically narrated melodramas about Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla), Veronica Voss (Rosel Zech) and Lola (Barbara Sukowa) who represent women in an antagonistic interaction with a patriarchal society. The main characters of each film have in common the persona of a somewhat femme-fatale woman, trapped by her desire for emotional (like Maria Braun), financial (like Lola) and psychological (as in case of Veronika Voss) emancipation. The narratives revolve around the ambivalence of love, with women caught in a corrupt man’s world, and in quest of their post-war socio-economic place. Typically, the road to success for these women in the Fassbinder-depicted patriarchal society, is paved by their mastery of seduction and betrayal (of men). The stories are told against the backdrop of the “economic miracle” which functions as a historical motif, and shapes the characters’ persona and motives, thus driving the causal (melodramatic) relationships between the women and the society to which they belong. Classically narrated as a ‘Sirkian’ melodrama, with lavish lighting and costumes, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola lend themselves to a conventional reading of a linearly constructed story about the rise and fall of a character; characters with personal histories and individual dramas in a given historical moment.

The exaggerated stylization of the films (especially in acting, colors, costumes, and lighting) also serves as a distanciating device that takes the stories beyond the realm of personal into the possible allegorical reading of the anxiety of the post-war Germany as a nation in a dubious historical stance during the 50s. As Elsaesser notes, the BRD Trilogy is a fulcrum for Fassbinder’s thinking about German history, prompting the thought that for Fassbinder the decade (50’s) was a “metaphor for the different cycles of new beginnings that had marked the new German history, or more a metonymy, where the decade could stand as a part for the whole, or even the fast tracked replay of Germany’s entire modern development after total destruction, best described by the Marxian motto that history always repeats itself, once as tragedy, the second time as farce …” [3]

The stories of the BRD Trilogy (“BRD” stands for Bundesrepublik Deutschland, which is the official name of West Germany) spans the periods of American occupation, Konrad Chancellor Adenauer’s era of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the miraculous recovery of the West German economy (Konrad Adenauer being the first Chancellor of post-war Germany/West Germany, from 1949-1963, who helped guide Germany through its economic miracle). This era began at the Postdam conference (July 17-August 2, 1945), where three Heads of Government of the U. S. S. R., the U. S. A., and the U. K. drafted the principles to govern the treatment of Germany under total occupation in the initial control period. The purpose of the occupation was stated as total destruction of the industrial war machine, complete abolishing of the militarism and Nazism and convincing the German people that they had suffered a total military defeat and that they were responsible for what they brought upon themselves, since their own ruthless warfare and the fanatical Nazi resistance had destroyed German economy and made chaos and suffering inevitable.” [4] A Joint Chief of Staff (JCS 1067) directive given to General Eisenhower reiterated these aims of occupation and went so far as to forbid fraternization with the German population and to prohibit giving the Germans food beyond the minimum requirements necessary to prevent famine and starvation. [5] Given the tight leash of the JCS 1067 directive, the economic miracle in West Germany came at the wake of the Cold War, and at the price of setting the foundations of their infantile democracy on Adenauer’s autocratic manner of government, losing the eastern zone to unquestionable control of Russia, rearmament in compliance with the demands of occupying forces, and reinstating many a Nazi officials within the governing bodies of the Federal Republic.

Ironically, the Federal Republic of Germany sprouted through the widening gap between the communist Russia (who conquered Berlin) and the capitalist Western Allies (who claimed the victory). In 1948, ideological phobia split the Western and the Soviet parties; disagreements over control of Ruhr culminated into Russia leaving the Control Council; and, in a few days, Russians began the blockade of Berlin. This event brought to public view the hostile rift between the old allies (Russia versus France, USA and UK) and eventually it ended in a formation of alliance between the old enemies. Germany was warmly embraced by the United States to the extent that the increasing rancor of West’s denunciation of the Soviet Union gave the Nazis a sense of justification for having been the first to warn against the perilous outcome of Bolshevism. [6] The push for the creation of West Germany came from abroad, especially from the Americans; and the Germans—although ambivalent about the unity of their country—immediately realized the economic opportunities of the Marshall plan that also guaranteed the political support from the United States. As such, they set up a ‘provisional’ Constituent Assembly on July 1st 1948, and to draw a ‘Basic Law,’ which was completed in spring of 1949. [7] Under the terms of the Basic Law an election was held; a coalition government between Christian Democrat Union (CDU), the Free Democrats and the German Party was formed; and Adenauer with majority of one vote was chosen as federal chancellor. The United States, Great Britain and France formally recognized the Federal Republic; however, in a revised Occupation Statute, they reserved to the occupying forces the power over disarmament, demilitarization, reparations, industrial controls in the Ruhr, foreign affairs and foreign trade, displaced persons and refugees, and the protection of Allied forces and their families. The wall that cut through Germany and broke its heart, Berlin, also split the national psyche of the German people into a schizoid of conscience versus reality. Partitioned and lacking sovereignty, guilty of abandoning the Eastern zone, West Germany took comfort from active economic support of United States, given in exchange for their opposition to archrival, the Eastern Block.

Similarly to the dichotomous dynamics that created West German history, the narratives of the BRD trilogy take shape from dialectical interrelations between assumed moralities and existing realities that consume the characters (or a nation) within paradoxical periods of history. Fassbinder’s trilogy juxtaposes the hunger years in Maria Braun with the plenteous days of the economic recovery in Lola, and uses Veronika Voss to draw a psychological trajectory between the contrasting features of German history. In fact, the passage from the convictions of Maria Braun and the longing of Veronica Voss, to the pragmatic Lola, parallels a passage from melancholia and mourning (the objects of remembrance) to action towards reconstruction of new—and not necessarily more promising—realities.

To Read the Rest

Saturday, May 25, 2013

C. Jerry Kutner: Cinema du WTF – Upstream Color (Shane Carruth 2013)

Cinema du WTF – UPSTREAM COLOR (Shane Carruth 2013)
by C. Jerry Kutner
Bright Lights Film Journal

A singular and highly accomplished independent film, Upstream Color is philosophical science fiction in the tradition of the French nouvelle vague, seasoned with a dash of Cronenbergian body horror. Like the SF films that emerged from the nouvelle vague – Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Alain Resnais’s Je t'aime je t'aime, Godard’s Alphaville, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch – Upstream Color foregoes studio sets and elaborate special effects in favor of real locations and a concern with fundamental existential issues like the nature of free will, memory, perception, and time – what Raymond Durgnat once called the science fiction of “inner space.”

The body horror, reminiscent of early Cronenberg films like Rabid and Shivers (aka They Came From Within), comes from the film’s MacGuffin, a worm or grub found in the roots of orchids that secretes a drug, prized in certain circles for its psychotropic properties. If the worm is implanted in a victim, he or she becomes a virtual zombie, susceptible to any suggestion, obeying any command.

To say the film is enigmatic is an understatement. This might be the WTF film of 2013. Its complex story is told almost entirely through its visuals. There is minimal dialogue, and what there is of it is fragmentary, heard – or overhead – in bits and pieces. The visuals themselves are elliptical – we might be shown only the beginning, the middle, or the end of an action and have to infer the rest of it. Sometimes it is uncertain whether what we are looking at is literal or metaphoric. Chronology is scrambled. But the effect is not off-putting. On the contrary, this is an extraordinarily compelling film. Because we have to piece the narrative together ourselves, we pay closer attention.

Moreover, there is a sound basis for the film’s peculiarities of style. The two main characters, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (writer/director Shane Carruth) are both victims of the worm – both brain-damaged. Consequently, we experience reality as they do.

To Read the Rest

Thursday, May 23, 2013

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

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

Anderson, Jake. "V for Vendetta: Ideas Cannot Bleed." Letterboxd (May 29, 2020) ["As he puts it, V says there is a serenity, a tranquility in ignorance and complacency. Why would anyone WANT to be informed as to how this world truly works? It’s horrifying, but it’s something we all have to face. Ignoring it, the privilege of being able to ignore it, precisely, cannot mask us, secure us, or fortify us. For the longest time, it has. But this year, at the dawn of this decade, it seems like fear is finally releasing its grip on us. We are being thrust into this because it’s inevitable, and it’s a damn shame it’s taken this long. We are the only ones who have our best interest at heart, so I guess that means we’re the ones who finally have to do something. We are legion. We are many. And we will not go quietly into that good night."]

"Another pro-terrorism film: V for Vendetta." The Anti-Jihad Pundit (March 22, 2006) [This is an anonymous rant that provides a lot of other anonymous rants -- I usually don't use unsubstantiated or unverifiable sources, but I felt that this one was a good example of extreme right-wing reactions to the film]

Beasley-Murray, Jon. "Vendetta." Posthegemony (April 2, 2006)

Boudreaux, Madelyn. "An Annotation of Literary, Historic, and Artistic References in Alan Moore's Graphic Novel, V For Vendetta." (April 27, 1994)

Call, Lewis. "A is for Anarchy, V is for Vendetta: Images of Guy Fawkes and the Creation of Postmodern Anarchism." Anarchist Studies 16: 2 (2008): 154 – 172.

Denby, David. "Blow Up: V for Vendetta." The New Yorker (March 20, 2006)

Goro, El. "Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and V for Vendetta (2005)." Talk Without Rhythm (February 5, 2017) ["... a look at duo of dystopian films featuring the late, great John Hurt with 1984's Nineteen Eighty-Four and 2005's V for Vendetta."]

Faraci, Devin. "V for Vendetta is the Most Dangerous Film of the Year." CHUD (February 27, 2006)

Hoberman, J. "Anarchy in the U.K.: The Wachowski brothers' supremely tasteless take on a visionary 1980s graphic novel." Village Voice (March 7, 2006)

Itzkoff, David. "The Vendetta Behind V for Vendetta." The New York Times (March 12, 2006)

Paik, Peter Y. Excerpt from From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010: 150-184. [Available in BCTC Library PN3433.6 P35 2010]

Sage, James. "V for Vendetta and Political Philosophy: A Critique of Thomas Hobbes." Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (No Date)

Sayed, Yusef. "Little Malcolm and His Big Brother." Keyframe (April 4, 2017)

Williams, Tony. “Assessing V for Vendetta.” CineAction #70 (2006): 16-23. [Professor has copy of this]

Roger Leatherwood -- The Phantom Archivist and The Phantom Archives: The Amateur Online Archive of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

The Phantom Archivist and The Phantom Archives: The Amateur Online Archive of Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
by Roger Leatherwood
Bright Lights Film Journal

Personal Archives in the Absence of a Corporate One

Prior to about 1980, Hollywood seemed perversely uninterested in its own history, inadvertently or intentionally neglecting its production materials (not to mention old film elements) that often were left rotting behind studio vault walls and taking up valuable real estate and given away or maybe dumped in the bay some foggy night. Since the advent of home video and the ever-increasing value of catalog titles, new digital (expensive to license, cheap to deliver) formats and the promise of the long tail, studios have increasingly strived to make their films and TV shows available to as wide an audience as possible for as long as possible, including offering merchandise that depicts the characters, graphics, and designs on any and all appropriate items from toys to smartphone cases. This constant upkeep of the presence of the brand of a filmed property in the culture keeps it in the public's memory, perhaps motivating sequels, spin-offs, and other ancillary revenue. And all this has to be archived and kept careful track of.

In some rare instances, producers have maintained archives, private or set up as museum spaces to display props, costumes, and other ephemera.1 But examples of industrial archival curation are sparse, and while the films themselves may enjoy an afterlife in repertory houses or at museum screenings, physical archives are seldom open and, unless they involve Stanley Kubrick or some other storied career, don't go on the road.2

Legacy production materials of motion pictures from draft scripts to set designs to production stills not intended for the public eye often end up forgotten, if they aren't purloined from under the noses of archivists who never notice them missing. The majority of productions dating from before the 1980s suffer from almost nonexistent archival profiles, and have no cultural presence. As a result they remain invisible to cultural memory. In the absence of digital or other marketing engagements now common to recent cross-platform franchise properties, marketing ephemera surrounding the releases ("collateral" to use the marketing term) gets fetishized as the proxy for favorite films, and authentic original posters for such films as King Kong (1933) to Star Wars (1977) go for thousands of dollars on auction sites,3 signifiers of the original and authentic industrial marketing impulse and of the cultural moment in which these were the only legitimate proxy outside of actual viewership.

Ari Kahan's website devoted to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), The Swan Archives (www.swanarchives.org),4 has curated a collection of marketing materials that reanimates the era of this forgotten film's release. Launched in 2006 with the results of 30 years of collecting posters, stills, and other materials, the site functions not only as a resource for the film's fan community but also as its only surviving archive that creates and even defines a new audience for the film. Made up of over 400 pictures of objects, screengrabs, and detailed narratives of the film's genesis, production, marketing, and editing variants adding up to over 75,000 words, as explications of the film's themes, subtexts, and historical context it presents a comprehensive, exhaustive, and passionately rendered archive of the history and reception of the film and a film of its type in the mid-'70s cultural landscape, all in the absence of any attempts by the corporate rightsholders to do so.

Objects, Their Meanings, and the Importance of Timing

Working online, within view but beyond the traditional reach of normal gatekeepers of intellectual property, Kahan illustrates a new mode of archival behavior and engagement possible in digital environments that revivifies obsolete (in this case, intellectual) property and curates and recontextualizes it. At the same time, Kahan's efforts reflect a rather conservative and closed approach to how an archive is built and functions, in large part by taking pains to protect the assets from promiscuous sharing as well as the context in which they're viewed. By dint of his existence in a landscape that is relatively unexplored, Kahan engages the tension between how audiences and corporate rightsholders control, negotiate, and create new meanings surrounding their properties. His site allows audiences to engage with artifacts outside traditional archival walls; investigates how archival activity affects digital, personal, and other casual engagements with film texts; and points the way in which such sites create new narratives around the texts themselves.

Phantom of the Paradise, written and directed by Brian De Palma and starring Paul Williams, William Finley, and Jessica Harper, was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1974. Appearing amid the rich cultural tapestry that also included The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Towering Inferno, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was largely unsuccessful in finding a wide audience and was relegated to relative obscurity on the second half of double bills before being remarketed to secondary markets with a revamped ad campaign six months later.

A quirky, stylized, and fleet-footed if unwieldy blend of horror and fantasy taking place in a rock-and-roll setting, Phantom of the Paradise attracted the attention of horror film and science fiction fans rather than a teenage rock music audience. Its plot borrows predominantly from the 1943 and 1962 film versions of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera5 as well as the German legend of Faust (the music mogul Swan played by Williams sells his soul for success). By virtue of its pop sensibilities, its fanciful critique of corporate greed, and its stylized filmmaking techniques (a harbinger of the Grand Guignol style Brian De Palma would develop to greater effect in Carrie [1976] and Scarface [1983]), the film slowly built a cult following. As a meta-narrative about popular music as well as a satire of celebrity culture that parodies the very elements that audiences might enjoy about it (flashy rock production numbers, fan worship), the film likely alienated the audiences it expected to attract, until a revised ad campaign repositioned the film as a horror/thriller as opposed to a musical (the Style C poster tagline is "He's been maimed and framed, beaten, robbed, and mutilated. But they still can't keep him from the woman he loves"). Moderately more successful, it attracted enough attention to be written up in various science fiction and film magazines.

To Read the Rest

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Paradise Now (Occupied Palestinian Territory/France/Germany/Netherlands/Israel: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005)

Paradise Now (Occupied Palestinian Territory/France/Germany/Netherlands/Israel: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005: 90 mins)

Bronstein, Phoebe. "Man-Made Martyrs in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Disturbing Manufactured Martyrdom in Paradise Now Jump Cut #52 (Summer 2010)

Jafaar, Ali. Paradise Now Sight and Sound (May 2006)

Ortiz, Gaye. "Dark Beauty: Theological Perspectives on War as Cinematic Mythology." Theology and Film: Challenging the Sacred/Secular Divide. ed. Christopher Deacy and Gaye Williams Ortiz. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008: 160-177.

Rich, B. Ruby. "Bomb Culture." Sight and Sound (April 2006)

Jose Teodoro -- Miss Bala: Nightmare State

Miss Bala: Nightmare State
Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo upends his filmmaking to show a country torn apart
by José Teodoro
Film Comment

Most existences on earth are marginal; the majority of people live on the edges of some kind of war. That the woman and man at the center of Miss Bala swing into each other’s orbit is itself no great coincidence. She’s Laura (Stephanie Sigman), the cheerful 23-year-old daughter of a Tijuana clothing merchant, and he’s Lino (Noe Hernandez), a taciturn, hard-eyed, soft-voiced drug trafficker about whose past we glean almost nothing. Both hail from humble if not desperate backgrounds; both aspire to transcend social determinism via archetypal routes to glamour and power: just as Lino asserts himself through terror and illegal commerce, Laura, however haphazardly, hopes to embody someone’s notion of the ideal woman by entering the Miss Baja California competition. Her first, fleeting encounter with him occurs when a dance party is turned into a massacre by Lino and his confederates. They meet again when she is so naïve as to seek out the police for help. In some perverse variation on the romantic comedy, the two keep crossing paths. Laura spends much of Miss Bala in a state of shock, while Lino seems to quickly intuit how best to exploit her allure while ostentatiously exchanging favors. He can ensure she wins the Miss Baja crown; she can serve as a gorgeous decoy in his criminal dealings.

A fascinating about-face for Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo, Miss Bala—co-written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz and loosely based on actual events—surveys the current state of play in the drug war and offers commentary through a procession of absurdities, ironies, and largely uncontextualized mayhem. The gangsters and the DEA agents are equally menacing and seem to favor the same black SUVs; a beauty contest audience bursts into wild applause for a catatonic contestant; a flaming tire rolls by during an urban shoot-out as though it has emerged from a cartoon, traversing a stretch of asphalt covered in blood, bullet casings, and gasoline. Despite an incongruous, statistics-heavy closing title card, Miss Bala can no more be reduced to a hand-wringing docudrama about the escalation of Mexico’s drug-related violence than Take Shelter can be called a treatise on overcoming mental illness. These films are personal statements about individuals ceding control to forces beyond their comprehension—personal statements that just happen to dovetail nicely with urgent social issues.

“I’d arrived at a place where I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself that much,” says Naranjo, “so I decided to do something that I really didn’t know how to do. My previous films had a little bit of social commentary, but it was from a bourgeois point of view, trying to denounce commodification or conservatism. When I started to develop Miss Bala I felt I was responding to something far more urgent that’s in the air. To the fear.” Speaking during the Toronto International Film Festival last September, by which point Miss Bala had already seen its share of plaudits and detractors, Naranjo emphasized his latest film’s conspicuous shift in both style and content from his preceding work, whether the privileged teens playing out lovers-on-the-run melodrama under a mesh of Godardian alienation techniques (the deliriously stylish and witty 2008 I’m Gonna Explode) or privileged young adults negotiating disastrous relationships (the clever but flat 2006 Drama/Mex). “The directors I admire tend to change a lot between films,” says Naranjo. “Maybe not often with regards to form, but with subject matter for sure. Before, I felt that I was a filmmaker but had yet to really show it. I trusted so deeply in the present, in improvisation. I know I’m shifting. The question now, for me, has to do with whether or not I can maintain this.”


To Read the Rest

Monday, May 13, 2013

John Engle -- August and Everything After: A Half-Century of Surfing in Cinema

August and Everything After: A Half-Century of Surfing in Cinema
by John Engle
Bright Lights Film Journal


The tensions of these real and screen lives have in large part remained those of the film genre Gidget engendered. In the half-century since, from the Beach Party franchise and its early '60s spin-offs, through Big Wednesday, Point Break, Blue Crush, and many others, and on to Chasing Mavericks in 2012, filmmakers have gone to the sand a couple dozen times to produce narratives either focused expressively on surfing as sport or obsessive life choice, or at least as significant background informing and directing the film's meaning. The result has been movies that are often more incisively pertinent in their treatment of growing up, family tensions, a world of dizzying social change, race and class, and the seductive lure of commerce and appearance than their wicked barrels, great tans, and dudespeak might presage. With an eye to the meanings behind their attractive surfaces, I'll be looking at a handful of these, at least one from each decade, for the most part relatively high-profile examples of a film type that, if rarely the source of smash hits, has generally met with commercial success. Hardening firmly in place by the 1970s, a highly restrictive formula thereafter rules the near totality of these films: given their interest in young people on the cusp of adult life, it's not without a certain logic that they return repeatedly to such story elements as the wise mentor, the temptation to sell out, the preparation sequence, and the concluding challenge or competition. The remarks to follow will examine the genre's creation in the beach-craze '60s, then turn to its elaboration in what one might consider the main line of "classic" surf films, with their reliably formulaic focus on childhood's end; the conclusion will explore how, while remaining generally faithful to established patterns, certain films have brought within their widened purview broader social and political issues. With the exception of Bruce Brown's The Endless Summer (1966) — a documentary but vaguely story-centered and, in any case, so iconic as to be compulsory — all of the films under discussion are pure narratives. As such, they should be distinguished from the grainy collections of hot rides Greg Noll brought to stoked kids in countless multipurpose halls and their often lyrical or thrilling cinematic descendants. Whether big deals like Riding Giants and Step into Liquid, or smaller, edgier efforts like BS!, these documentaries are absolutely central to the surfing subculture and merit separate study, with their specialist target audience, their shared values, and visual assumptions.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the first treatments of waveriding were documentary in nature and aimed at the widest possible audience. Like les Pathé-Frères, who put together 100 minutes on Le Surfing: Sport national des iles Hawaii in 1911, filmmakers in the first half of the century responded periodically to a curious public's hunger for images of exotic locales and practices that, even in the era of grand liners and early aviation, remained largely inaccessible. By the thirties, in any case, the word on surfing was getting out, if Hawaiian Holiday, the first cinematic narrative treatment of the sport, is any indication. In this 1937 Mickey Mouse featurette, Goofy recklessly challenges waves that, with the typical extraordinary range of Disney's animation teams, manage at once to be dumb funny, anthropomorphically nasty, and possessed of a frothy, sculpted loveliness drawn straight from Hokusai. While the cartoon is (somewhat speciously) considered the source of the term goofy-footed for surfers who, like its hero, lead with their right foot, its variation on the timeless theme of the arrogant individual chastised by a recalcitrant natural world in fact says little more about surfing than that it was just edging into the public consciousness. It would take the '50s and early '60s and the sport's headlong drop into popular culture before filmmakers would begin to recognize and exploit its rich visual and thematic possibilities.

And what visuals, for there is something basically unbelievable about human beings standing up on a tumbling wave, not to mention carving sleek sweeps and tight reverses back up its face. Cinematically, what's not to like about good-looking kids in a dream locale practicing a potentially dangerous sport that, even straight-on from a fixed shore location in black and white, films like a million bucks? Considered a moment, however, the scene is much more than its very pretty pictures, in large part because of the richly conflicting signals it emits. As sport, identity definer, and style locus, the surfing we have come to know these last decades is a space of, variously, big-money competition, reverent communication with the natural world, heavy partying, one-to-one confrontation with appalling physical force, proprietary localism of the ugliest sort, New Age self-discovery. It is a counterculture and a culture, a way to rebel and a way to grow up, and some live an entire adult life, work and all, still somehow rhythmed by the daily wave report. Surfing is the Beach Boys sweet in their striped Kingston Trio short-sleeve button-downs, and it's Dora dive-bombing kooks and bouncing checks. It's the garden and the salesmen who slither into it. Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how, we are joyfully urged, but to paddle out as the new guy is in fact to try entering the most closed of societies. Surfing can seem like an ocean of style, posing, and attitude, but out in the impact zone and beyond, the superficial abruptly washes off. To choose a short board or long, three fins or one, can be no less than to define different selves and value systems.

The very physical space offers an equally rich palette of thematic opportunity. From knee-high kids' stuff to Fukushima, pure fluid energy rears in defiance at sudden, solid resistance. The arriving swell is pattern and endless variety, or as Laird Hamilton says of the big ones in The Wave, "it's never the same mountain" (72). Proceeding in stately sequence, breakers seem all ruler-edged order, but of course they are also sites of chaos and fear. There the simple can become "in practice immediately complex," writes Woolf in To the Lighthouse, "as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests." Wild swings of perspective rule the sand as well, for what place is more one for sun-drenched, thought-free lotus-eating than the beach. Yet on that thin strip of dry land the tragic drama of our collective addiction to fossil fuels will play out first. And even carefree Waikiki lies hard by an ocean's unfathomable mass with its troubling, timeless reach of myth and suggestion. It is on the shore after all that Wordsworth rejects that world that is too much with us, yearning seaward to affirm the deeper truths of Proteus and Triton. The beach is just the beach, and it is much more than that. The greatest of the wavewriters, Daniel Duane, recognizes the way the surf scene can encode paradox, locate that sweet spot where the deeply complex and the unreflective simple both somehow find their footing.


To Read the Entire Essay

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The New World (USA/UK: Terrence Malick, 2005)

The New World (USA/UK: Terrence Malick, 2005: 150 mins)

Bellamy, Jason and Ed Howard. "Conversations: Terrence Malick, Part One. The House Next Door (May 28, 2011)

Burgoyne, Robert. "The Columbian Exchange: Pocahontas and The New World." Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010: 120-142. [BCTC Library: PN1995.9 H5 B87 2010]

Richards, Peter. "Terrence Malick (Part One)." Director's Club #130 (June 24, 2017)

---. "Terrence Malick (Part Two)." Director's Club #131 (July 9, 2017) 

Seitz, Matt Zoller. "All Things Shining, Pt 4 - The films of Terrence Malick: The New World." Moving Image Source (May 31, 2011)

"Some Illusions in The New World autochthonous88 (September 28, 2008)

Tobias, Scott and Kevin B. Lee. "Terrence Malick: The Art of Voiceover." (Posted on Vimeo: 2014)

Vicari, Justin. "Colonial fictions: Le Petit Soldat and its revisionist sequel, Beau Travail." Jump Cut #50 (2008)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (USA: Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Zero Dark Thirty (USA: Kathryn Bigelow, 2012: 157 mins)

Alpert, Robert. "Kathryn Bigelow' Zero Dark Thirty: A Case Study on Mythmaking and Making History." Jump Cut #57 (Fall 2016)

Beck, Richard. "Mission Accomplished: On Zero Dark Thirty." The Los Angeles Review of Books (February 24, 2013)

Bigelow, Kathryn. "Addresses Zero Dark Thirty Criticism." The Los Angeles Times (January 15, 2013)

Brody, Reed. "'These Are Crimes': New Calls to Prosecute Bush Admin as Senate Report Reveals Brutal CIA Torture." Democracy Now (December 10, 2014)

Chaudhuri, Shohini. "Documenting The Dark Side: Torture and The “War On Terror” in Zero Dark Thirty, Taxi To The Dark Side, and Standard Operating Procedure." Screening the Past (October 2013)

Chen, Adrian. "Newly Declassified Memo Shows CIA Shaped Zero Dark Thirty's Narrative." Gawker (May 5, 2013)

Child, Ben. "CIA requested Zero Dark Thirty rewrites, memo reveals." The Guardian (May 7, 2013)

"Diminished Lives." Cineaste (Summer 2015)

"Dirty Wars Archive Dialogic Cinephilia (November 13, 2013: Ongoing)

Flynn, Michael and Fabiola F. Salek. "Screening Torture: Introduction." Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination. ed. Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek. NY: Columbia University Press, 2012: 1-18. [Professor has a copy]

Freedman, Samuel G. "‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ Through a Theological Lens." The New York Times (February 23, 2013)

Giroux, Henry. "America's Addiction to Violence." Counterpunch (December 25, 2015)

Glennon, Michael J. "National Security and Double Government." Harvard National Security Journal 5.1 (2014)

Greenwald, Glenn and Peter Maass. "Meet Alfreda Bikowsky, The Senior Officer at the Center of the CIA's Torture Scandals." The Intercept (December 19, 2014)

Gross, Larry. "Some Ways Into Zero Dark Thirty." Film Comment (December 18, 2012)

Hafetz, Jonathan and Stephen Vladek. "Throwing Away the Key: Has the Supreme Court turned its back on Guantánamo?" Amicus #13 (March 14, 2015)

Haglund, David. "Who are the People in Zero Dark Thirty." Slate (January 14, 2013)

Hayden, Tom. "The CIA Goes To Hollywood: How America’s Spy Agency Infiltrated the Big Screen (and Our Minds)." The Los Angeles Review of Books (February 24, 2013)

Hersh, Seymour M. "The Killing of Osama bin Laden." London Review of Books 37.10 (May 2015)

---. "Seymour Hersh Details Explosive Story on Bin Laden Killing & Responds to White House, Media Backlash." Democracy Now (May 12, 2015) ["Four years after U.S. forces assassinated Osama bin Laden, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has published an explosive piece claiming much of what the Obama administration said about the attack was wrong. Hersh claims at the time of the U.S. raid bin Laden had been held as a prisoner by Pakistani intelligence since 2006. Top Pakistani military leaders knew about the operation and provided key assistance. Contrary to U.S. claims that it located bin Laden by tracking his courier, a former Pakistani intelligence officer identified bin Laden’s whereabouts in return for the bulk of a $25 million U.S. bounty. Questions are also raised about whether bin Laden was actually buried at sea, as the U.S. claimed. Hersh says instead the Navy SEALs threw parts of bin Laden’s body into the Hindu Kush mountains from their helicopter. The White House claims the piece is 'riddled with inaccuracies.' Hersh joins us to lay out his findings and respond to criticism from government officials and media colleagues."]

Hudson, David. "The CIA Goes to the Oscars: How far from the paranoid 70′s have ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY taken us?" Keyframe (February 24, 2013)

---. "Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: 'This is movie journalism that snaps and stings, that purifies a decade’s clamor and clutter into narrative clarity, with a salutary kick.'" Keyframe (November 25, 2012)

---. "Zero Dark Thirty and the CIA." Keyframe (May 8, 2013)

Jardin, Xeni. "Zero Dark Thirty not good enough to justify torture fantasies." Boing Boing (December 12, 2012)

Jensen, Lindsay. “'It’s Biology': Zero Dark Thirty and the Politics of the Body." cléo 1.1 (April 1, 2013) 

"Jessica Chastain Discusses Her Acting Process In Recent One-Hour Conversation." The Film Stage (March 24, 2015)

"Judicial Watch Obtains DOD and CIA Records Detailing Meetings with bin Laden Raid Filmmakers." Judicial Watch (May 22, 2012)

"Judicial Watch Obtains Stack of ‘Overlooked’ CIA Records Detailing Meetings with bin Laden Filmmakers." Judicial Watch (August 28, 2012)

Mahler, Jonathan. "What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?" The New York Times (October 18, 2015)

Maass, Peter. "Oscars Make History, So Hollywood's War Stories Need to Be True." The Intercept (February 13, 2015)

McGovern, Ray. "Excusing Torture, Again." Common Dreams (January 9, 2013)

Miller, Greg, Adam Goldman and Ellen Nakashima. "CIA misled on interrogation program, Senate report says." Washington Post (March 31, 2014)

Raalte, Christa Van. "Intimacy, 'Truth,' and the Gaze: The Double Opening of Zero Dark Thirty." Movie #7 (May 2017)

Rahbar, Jean. "U.S. ambivalence about torture: an analysis of post-9/11 films." Jump Cut #56 (Winter 2014/2015)

"Really Torn Up About It: Zero Dark Thirty, Torture and Terrorist Realism." Bad Penny (February 9, 2013)

Rombes, Nicholas. "Zero Dark Thirty and the New History." Film Comment (January 29, 2013)

Rubenstein, Richard L. The Cunning of History: The Holocaust and the American Future. NY: Harper Colophon, 1978. [excerpts from pages 15-33]

Secrets, Politics and Torture (PBS Documentary: May 19, 2015) ["From veteran FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk (United States of Secrets, Losing Iraq, Bush’s War, The Torture Question) comes the dramatic story of the fight over the CIA’s controversial interrogation methods, widely criticized as torture. Based on recently declassified documents and interviews with key political leaders and CIA insiders, the film investigates what the CIA did — and whether it worked."]

Shane, Scott. "Senators Say Torture Scenes in Movie on Bin Laden Hunt Are Misleading." The New York Times (December 19, 2012)

Shaviro, Steven. "A Brief Remark on Zero Dark Thirty." The Pinocchio Theory (January 18, 2013)

Simms-Bruno, Holly. "Money for Nothing: Whiteness, Terrorism, Surveillance and Profit." Uprooting Criminology (December 5, 2013)

Standard Operating Procedure (USA: Errol Morris, 2008)

Taibbi, Matt. "'Zero Dark Thirty' Is bin Laden's Last Victory." Rolling Stone (Reposted on Reader Supported News: January 17, 2012)

Taxi To The Dark Side (USA: Alex Gibney, 2007)

"Torture: Peace and Conflict Studies." Dialogic Cinephilia (ongoing archive)

Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. "The Monitor Mentality, or A Means to an End Becomes an End in Itself: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty." Notebook (December 19, 2012)

Wellman, Jacob. "Are We Fighting Monsters We Created." Dialogic Cinephilia (November 5, 2014

Zizek, Slavoj. "Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood's gift to American power." The Guardian (January 25, 2013)

Wypijewski, JoAnn. "Zero Dark Thirty, Snuff Film." The Nation (January 30, 2013) ["The film’s torture scenes do not excuse or glorify torture; they do something worse: draw the audience into accommodating it."]

Phillip Wohlstetter on Zero Dark Thirty: "How does a film think? Recall the famous experiment of Lev Kuleshov. Start with the shot of an actor’s face. Vary the shots adjacent to it: a coffin, a plate of soup, a seductive woman lying on a divan. The actor’s expression will be read, alternately, as sadness, hunger, or lust. For the audience, juxtaposition creates meaning. A film is an arrangement of moments, shorter or longer, but every narrative moment is brought into relief by a significant before-moment and a significant after-moment that frames it. Let’s look at the first torture sequence in Zero Dark Thirty to see how this meaning-effect works. Significant before-moment: the powerful opening sequence, dark screen, the terrified voice of a woman trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11, realizing there’s no help coming, she’s going to die. Central narrative moment: a detainee is water-boarded in the next scene, forced to crawl in a dog collar, hung up naked by the arms, etc. After-moment: the face of Maya, wincing as she watches the torture. I’m cheating on this last. Obviously it’s a reaction shot within a scene, but in terms of meaning, it provides a bookend to the torture moment just as surely as the 9/11 sequence bookends it from the other side. To see the truth of this, imagine an opening with the before and after moments removed. We would be watching a brutal torture scene with no comment whatsoever—that is to say, we’d be in a neo-realist film that lets us observe and come to our own conclusions, that avoids (ideally) telling us what to feel. Instead, the torture moment is framed as a reaction to 9/11, an over-reaction maybe but understandable in context and perhaps in the end—we have to entertain this possibility—excusable. Now let’s look at the work of Maya’s reaction shot (remembering that it’s precisely the reaction shot, a way to locate the audience member in the movie by offering him/her a surrogate who reacts to events the way we would given the chance—it’s precisely this key device of classic Hollywood Film that Neo-Realism rejected because it lulled us so easily into unthinking). Maya winces. We would too, humanists and democrats that we are. But she stays in the room, gritting her teeth, going against her nature. Sometimes, the film whispers, you have to make hard choices, to take hard measures—a celluloid lesson in ‘dirty hands’ moral philosophy."