Monday, July 15, 2013

Films We Want to See #31: The Grandmaster (Hong Kong/China/USA: Wong Kar Wai, 2013)

Left Field Cinema -- Documentary Milestone: The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Documentary Milestone: The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Left Field Cinema

The Fog of War is Directed by Errol Morris perhaps the most celebrated American documentarian, if not as well known as Michael Moore by the public, Morris is certainly a critical darling. Roger Ebert considers Morris’s first film Gates of Heaven, a documentary about pet cemeteries, as one of his top ten films of all time. Gates of Heaven also provides an entertaining anecdote, in which Werner Herzog promised if Morris ever finished the film he would eat his shoe. Herzog’s insanity can be seen in the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Morris’s third feature remains his best known. Thin Blue Line, which followed Vernon, Florida, remains one of the most powerful artistic statements by any filmmaker. Thin Blue Line lead to the subject of the film to have his death row sentence changed to life in prison, then subsequently the initial verdict was over turned. Morris’s documentary directly contributed to this result. The style of the film relies on interviews and re-creations. This emphasis on non-fiction as a documentary style would become Morris’s calling card. Morris went to direct a series of further documentaries including 2008’s War on Terror documentary Standard Operating Procedure. Although Standard Operating Procedure has not been received as well as the earlier documentary Taxi to the Darkside by Alex Gibney which was also released last year it remains an interesting piece of work which focuses on Morris’s typical themes of the deceptive nature of what is considered to be “true”. Morris’s friendship with Werner Herzog makes a great deal of thematic sense, both men search for the ecstatic truth within their respective subjects often at the expense of what could be considered the conventional approach.

The Fog of War presents Morris on top form, a self-proclaimed detective director (which suits him well as he previously worked as a private eye) Morris constructs The Fog of War in such a simplistic manner that it baffles the mind to witness how compelling it is. The entire film is essentially a one-hundred and five minute interview with its subject. The subject being Robert Strange McNamara the Secretary of Defense for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and previously an analyst for the Japanese bombings in World War Two and briefly the first President of Ford motors to not belong to the Ford family. He is a man who’s life begins at the end of the first World War, indeed he is adamant that his first memory was that of the victory parades, the celebrations at the end of the “War to end all Wars” following this we witness the part he played in World War II, the Cold war, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, then finally the Vietnam War. McNamara is a man who’s been surrounded by war all of his life. His contribution to the global politics over the 20th Century is a matter for speculation, by that I mean what real effect he had on events, of which McNamara himself is often uncertain. But as a witness to some of the pivotal events in recent history, you’ll be hard pressed to find a man alive who’s seen so much, witnessed such extremes of human behaviour, or gained such a vast understanding of the moral, amoral, and immoral tapestry that is war. McNamara has amazing recall for a man aged eighty-five casting his mind back more than forty years. He is charismatic figure, who sense of irony and wit cannot be denied. However, the man remains even now the consummate politician.

To Read the Rest

Graham Daseler - Kangaroo Court: On Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant

Kangaroo Court: On Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant
by Graham Daseler
Bright Lights Film Journal

A quiet, starless evening on the South African veldt. The last bluish bands of light are slipping from the sky. It is 1902 and there is a war on. In a small farmhouse, a group of British officers have gathered for dinner. Their topic for conversation: the upcoming trial of Harry "'Breaker" Morant, an Australian lieutenant charged with executing Boer prisoners and a German missionary. During a lull in the conversation, all eyes fall on Major Thomas, the only Australian of the bunch. "Why is it he's referred to as 'Breaker' Morant?" a dinner guest politely inquires. "A ladies' man, perhaps. A breaker of hearts." "No," Major Thomas curtly replies. "He was a horsebreaker. I understand one of the best in Australia." The listeners clearly expect more, but Major Thomas has nothing further to offer. An awkward silence engulfs the room, leaving us, the audience, no less than the dinner guests, a little bemused. A question hangs soundlessly in the air, tantalizing us for the next hour and a half: who is Breaker Morant?

Edwin Henry Murrant was born on December 9, 1864, in the town of Bridgewater, England. The early years of his life are sketchy. His father, also named Edwin, died two weeks before he was born, leaving his mother, a widow at twenty-seven, the meager salary of £40 per annum, which she earned as matron of the local workhouse. Like so many men who rise from obscurity to world fame, Murrant has been claimed by the aristocracy; a recent biographer, Nick Bleszynski, suggests that his true father was not Edwin Murrant at all but Admiral Sir Digby Morant, a well-to-do member of the landed gentry whose near-relations included High Sheriffs, Members of Parliament, and an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. There is little evidence to support this theory, though it does neatly resolve two nagging questions: how he obtained his education, which was considerable for a youth of his caste (despite his family's poverty, he somehow managed to attend boarding school), and where he picked up his expertise on horseback, for which he would later gain so much renown. Both were already in evidence when he first set foot in Australia at the age of eighteen, determined to make his fortune. Crisscrossing the country, he worked as a stockman, a drover, a store clerk, a journalist, and a horsebreaker. Somewhere along the way, he shed his given names, trading them in for a more romantic-sounding trinity: Harry Harbord Morant. Starting in the early 1890s, he began publishing poetry in a weekly Sydney paper, The Bulletin.


When the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, Morant enlisted in the South Australian Mounted Rifles, a unit, like all Australian units of the time, subject to British command. He landed in South Africa in February 1900 and, thanks to his excellent horsemanship and experience in the bush, quickly ascended the ranks, climbing from private to corporal to sergeant to lieutenant in little more than a year. In April 1901, he joined the Bushveldt Carbineers, a mounted infantry regiment (what you might call an early-modern Special Forces outfit) tasked with suppressing Boer commando attacks in the remote Northern Transvaal: what we today refer to as counterinsurgency. He restored discipline to the unruly Carbineers, broke up illegal liquor stills, and returned Boer cattle stolen by troopers. He also executed Boer prisoners under orders handed down from Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the overall commander of British and colonial forces in South Africa.

Then, in October 1901, Morant, along with two other members of the Carbineers, George Witton and Peter Handcock, was arrested for following those very same orders. Though he was offered immunity if he testified against his immediate superior, a major, who had ordered the killings, Morant demurred. During the court-martial that followed, numerous witnesses for the defense mysteriously found themselves unable to give testimony or transferred away. Other defendants, many more high-ranking than the Australians, were let off the hook or quietly discharged from the service, despite being charged with similar crimes. When, mid-trial, a Boer commando unit laid siege to the fort in which they were being held, the three prisoners gamely joined their gaolers in mounting a defense, though this was not weighed in their favor during the court-martial. Although they provided a wealth of evidence that the order to shoot prisoners originated in the uppermost reaches of the British high command (or perhaps precisely because they provided such evidence), the three men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Lord Kitchener himself signed the death warrants for Morant and Handcock, at the last minute commuting Witton's sentence to life in prison. The two men were shot the next day at six in the morning.

Thus began Morant's martyrdom. In little more than a month, the Australian government was demanding an explanation. By 1904, the furor had reached the British House of Commons, where a young MP named Winston Churchill clamored for Witton's release. In 1907, after being freed from Portland Prison, Witton published his account of the events in South Africa, Scapegoats of the Empire, which remains the most comprehensive primary source document on the trial. (The exact whereabouts of the court transcripts remain a mystery, being either lost, destroyed, or still buried somewhere in British archives.)2 Since then, two novels, half a dozen histories, and one play have been written on Morant, yet few have managed to bring him fully into focus. Who was he? What made him tick? Was he victim or villain, gentleman or rogue? These are some of the questions posed by the film Breaker Morant (1980), adapted from Kenneth G. Ross's 1978 play of the same name. That they remain, after a hundred and seven minutes, essentially unanswered reveals not some glaring omissions at the heart of the film but its most knowing insight: that the greatest characters, both in life and fiction, are too complex to be defined by such simple labels. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a truly first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at once and still be able to function. For most people this is difficult enough, but for a film it's nigh impossible. Audience expectations and the very nature of the medium — its need for brevity (generally about two hours), clear-cut characters, and narrative resolution — ensure that cinema rarely deals in moral ambiguities. Take even a film as penetrating as Schindler's List (1993), and you'll find an oft-traveled character arc, a thoroughly contemptible villain, and an unequivocal vision of right and wrong. This makes Breaker Morant a standout. It is that most elusive of creatures, a film that sets up an ethical quandary, one of the most recurrent, in fact, of the twentieth century — the rightness or wrongness of obeying highly immoral orders during wartime — introduces the players involved, presents the arguments for and against, and then lets you make up your mind for yourself, on your own.

To Read the Rest

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Roger Berkowitz: Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’

Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’
By Roger Berkowitz


These facts, however, are not new. An excerpt from the Sassen interviews was published in Life magazine in 1960. Arendt read them and even wrote that “whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem,” Eichmann always sounded and spoke the same. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else.” His evil acts were motivated by thoughtlessness that was neither stupidity nor bureaucratic obedience, but a staggering inability to see the world beyond Nazi clichés.

In his 2006 book “Becoming Eichmann,” the historian David Cesarani finds common ground with Arendt, writing, “as much as we may want Eichmann to be a psychotic individual and thus unlike us, he was not.” But Cesarani also uses the latest documents to argue what so many of Arendt’s detractors have expressed: “It is a myth that Eichmann unthinkingly followed orders, as Hannah Arendt argued.” Similarly, in her 2011 book “The Eichmann Trial,” the historian Deborah E. Lipstadt claims that Eichmann’s newly discovered memoir “reveals the degree to which Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. It is permeated with expressions of support for and full comprehension of Nazi ideology. He was no clerk.”

The problem with this conclusion is that Arendt never wrote that Eichmann simply followed orders. She never portrayed him, in Cesarani’s words, as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” Indeed she rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders. She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders — offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat — to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”

When Eichmann agreed at trial that he would have killed his own father if ordered to — but only if his father actually had been a traitor. Arendt pointed to this condition to show that Eichmann acted not simply from orders but also from conviction. To say that Arendt denied that Eichmann was a committed Nazi or that she saw Eichmann as a “clerk” is false.

The widespread misperception that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s. Milgram was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong. But Arendt rejected the “naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing,” and with it Milgram’s claim that obedience carried with it no responsibility. Instead, Arendt insisted, “obedience and support are the same.” That is why she argued that Eichmann should be put to death.

The insight of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is not that Eichmann was just following orders, but that Eichmann was a “joiner.” In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” Arendt insisted that Eichmann’s professed fidelity to the Nazi cause “did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.” An “idealist,” as she used the word, is an ideologue, someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the “idea” of the movement that gives life meaning. Evil was transformed from a Satanic temptation into a test of self-sacrifice, and Eichmann justified the evil he knowingly committed as a heroic burden demanded by his idealism.

The best treatment of Eichmann’s writing in Argentina is by the German scholar Bettina Stangneth. In her 2011 book “Eichmann vor Jerusalem” (not available in English), Stangneth showed that Sassen was a Holocaust denier who attempted to get Eichmann to deny the Holocaust, which Eichmann did not. On the contrary, Eichmann boasted of his accomplishments, worried that he hadn’t done enough, and justified his role. Stangneth also revealed that Eichmann dreamed of returning to Germany and putting himself on trial, even drafting an open letter to the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer to propose just that. His hope was that the royalties from his book, written with Sassen, would support his family for what he imagined would be a short stay in jail.

Stangneth concludes that Eichmann’s manifest anti-Semitism was based neither on religious hatred nor a conspiratorial belief in Jewish world domination. He denied the “blood libel” (the false accusation that Jews had killed Christian children and used their blood in rituals) and rejected as a forgery the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the notorious anti-Semitic tract (and a czarist forgery). Eichmann justified genocide and the extermination of the Jews by appealing to the “fatherland morality that beat within him.” He spoke of the “necessity of a total war” and relied on his oath to Hitler and the Nazi flag, a bond he calls “the highest duty.” Eichmann was an anti-Semite because Nazism was incomprehensible without anti-Semitism.

To Read the Rest

Werner Herzog And Errol Morris Discuss The Importance of The Act of Killing

Werner Herzog And Errol Morris Discuss The Importance of THE ACT OF KILLING
Badass Digest

The very moment I cracked open the program guide at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to plan out my screening schedule for the day, one film listing stopped me dead. It featured an otherworldly photograph of an gigantic, ominous fish surrounded by hula dancers and a synopsis that began: “in this chilling and inventive documentary executive-produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, the unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are challenged to re-enact their many murders in the style of the American movies they love.” An anxious stir formed in my gut and I was unable to concentrate on anything else. Not only did I have to see this movie, but I knew at that moment that Drafthouse Films simply, absolutely had to distribute The Act Of Killing. And I hadn’t even seen it yet.

A few days later during its pre-premiere press screening, I finally got my chance. Exiting the theater I felt chilled to the bone, I was speechless, my forehead was numb from slapping it for the past 2 hours and I was overwhelmed with a sense that I may have just experienced what could be the most important film of the decade. I looked over to the dazed person next to me and he remarked, “I have never seen anything like that before.” This was BIG. Bigger than any “movie.” Bigger than Indonesia. Bigger than the Toronto International Film Festival. HUGE.

After viewing the film, it was no surprise to me that Errol Morris and Werner Herzog had united to support this monumental documentary. I had always been interested in Herzog’s approach to documentary filmmaking and what he believes constitutes “truth” in the art form. Herzog had always argued “just because something is factually true, it does not constitute truth, per se.” If that were true, the Manhattan phone book would be "the book of books," he told me and a VICE film crew when we interviewed him this past May about The Act Of Killing. He is after a self-described “ecstatic truth,” somewhere blurred in the lines between "fact" and "truth."

Joshua Oppenheimer, the first-time filmmaker of The Act Of Killing is after a similar truth in this film. By utilizing reenactments, a tool that Errol Morris has used several times in his work, and hypnotic surrealism, Josh aims to access the disturbing mindset of these former executioners and how they ultimately want the world to perceive them. I can say that never before have I felt the feeling of wandering inside the subconscious of a man who believes it was “okay” to kill. And that is what makes Oppenheimer's work a powerful milestone in the landscape of documentary cinema.

To Read the Rest and Watch Morris/Herzog Discussing the Film

Graham Daseler - Depth Takes a Holiday: Good Bad Movies

Depth Takes a Holiday: Good Bad Movies
by Graham Daseler
Bright Lights Film Journal

George Orwell once wrote a short but influential essay titled "Good Bad Books" in which he extolled the pleasures of light reading: that is, "the kind of book that has no literary pretentions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished."1 He described the hokey thrill of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, championed Anthony Trollope over Thomas Carlyle, and argued that Uncle Tom's Cabin would outlive the collective works of George Moore and Virginia Woolf. (The jury is still deliberating that last point, but so far he's been proven at least half right.) Probably Orwell's greatest insight, however, is this quiet little statement found in the seventh paragraph: "The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration."2 Here is the heart of Orwell's philosophy, and a good maxim for any aesthete to bear in mind — not only those with a taste for Dashiell Hammett novels — for it resounds well beyond the fiction shelf. Orwell himself applied the same logic to poetry, crowning Rudyard Kipling the champion of the form. "Kipling," he wrote, "is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life."3

That Orwell never expanded his series to include cinema is unfortunate, not just because his insights into the world of film would have been a boon to moviegoers, though they undoubtedly would have been, but because by the time Orwell was writing, in the mid-nineteen forties, books were already being supplanted by movies as the popular entertainment of the century. If one were writing on light entertainment, nothing called louder than the cinema. Had he lived but a short while longer, perhaps he would have availed himself of the opportunity. Indeed, a few months after Orwell died in January 1950, MGM, as if to mourn his passing, brought one of his favorite good bad novels to the silver screen: King Solomon's Mines. One can only guess what Orwell would have thought of the film. It's rousing stuff, set in the dark heart of Africa, with adventure, romance, booby traps, hidden treasure, and plenty of hair-raising escapes. Considering his taste for breezy amusement, he should have loved it.

Which leaves us to pick up where the master left off. First, though, a definition is needed: what is a good bad movie? This is more difficult to answer than you might think, and easier described in the negative. Good bad movies are not merely bad movies that we love. I suspect that each of us, no matter how discerning we fancy ourselves, has his or her own list of treasured titles that we cherish less for aesthetic reasons than simply out of fond habit. And maybe it's impossible, when speaking of good bad movies, to untangle cold rationality from personal affection. Anthony Lane, the peerless film critic for The New Yorker, once confided one of his furtively beloved films, prudently burying it in the middle of a review of Saving Private Ryan (1998): "I was nervous about going to see any movie that might make me feel guilty — or, worse still, indifferent — about enjoying Where Eagles Dare, a work of art I revisit with the devout regularity that others reserve for the shrines of saints."4 Where Eagles Dare(1968) is a fine specimen of the species, brusque and brutal, at times almost convincing you that Richard Burton could actually ascend a windy Nazi aerie on his equally daunting liquid diet. It's not one of my personal favorites, but I could easily see how another could be seduced by its coarse charm. In my case, similar fealty is reserved for Die Hard (1988), the only Christmas movie my family ever owned when I was a child. I can still vividly recall how thrillingly adult I felt tying a backpack strap to a toy machine gun and dangling from the slide at the local playground, feebly trying to reproduce one of Bruce Willis's stunts from the movie. I'd love to report that the passing of a quarter century has dimmed my affection, though, in truth, my brother and I still trade lines from that film much more frequently that we do quotes from Citizen Kane (1941), a game, in its own way, no less childish than playing John McClane on the schoolyard.

This is not to say that good bad movies can be explained by mere whimsy, either. Some of the most sublime masterpieces of all time have also been the silliest. Just ask William Shakespeare, Noel Coward, or Ernst Lubitsch. The Philadelphia Story (1940) is as fizzy as the champagne Katharine Hepburn sips with Jimmy Stewart, but this makes it no less deserving of our admiration than Schindler's List (1993). The true good bad movie may well be silly, but its defining factor is less a question of subject matter than of composition: namely, it contains some flaw that, while not ruining its beauty, holds it back from becoming a true gem. Perhaps this is why good bad movies make such rich material for remakes. They provide the fond filmmaker with a solid structure to cling to without being impossible to scale. Why remake something as brilliant as Chinatown (1974) when you know you'll never live up to the original or, obversely, a picture as atrocious as Mommie Dearest (1981) that wasn't even worth watching in the first place? The Getaway (1972), on the other hand, is the perfect vehicle, swift and steady, unencumbered by anything of weight — characters, ideas, lengthy speeches — with a plot as straight and unambiguous as the route the heroes travel, leading invariably to the bloody showdown at the end. It made for an exciting journey with Steve McQueen and his wife in 1972, and it did again for Alec Baldwin and his in 1994. If the formula works, why change it?

And then, of course, there's always the chance that you'll improve on the original. John Carpenter did it with The Thing (1982), reshaping an already strong scenario — a team of scientists battling an alien in the Arctic — into an even better one: in the remake the alien itself is the shape shifter, simultaneously killing and mimicking whatever life forms it encounters. In the years since its release, the film has become a cult classic, with a prequel of its own, oddly also titled The Thing (2011), trying to cash in on the franchise. Those who try to place the film on a par with horror masterpieces like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Alien (1979) are stretching a point, but not unreasonably. The team of scientists comprises the standard mishmash of characters: nerdy scientists, earnest doctor, ornery old lawman, taciturn hero, and a stoner for comic relief. And there's the usual quota of gore, which Carpenter gleefully flaunts, like a child showing off how gross he can be at the dinner table. When dissected, the monster drips pus and blood; when on the attack, it shoots out slithering tentacles or springs arachnoid legs and scampers off like an overgrown black widow. Under sunny skies, these frights might appear a bit silly, but in the grey, icy abyss of the Antarctic (Carpenter switches Poles for his movie), they seems appropriately portentous, harrying the heroes from within their compound while sub-zero temperatures harry them from without. The theme music by Ennio Morricone is superb: a simple, hollow bass line that has the ominous persistence of death. As for the ending, it's one of the best in cinema history, along with Holly Martins' striking of a cigarette and T. E. Lawrence's watching a motorcycle fly by. It's the kind of wry, stoic affair Hemingway tried to write but never quite could, with two men having a last drink before dying. There's something haunting about it beyond simple sangfroid, though, something to do with the sight of a tiny fire flickering in a sea of blackness and the sound of that inexorable bass line that invariably chills the soul. Ingmar Bergman, at his most existential, never achieved an ending so profound.

To Read the Rest

Thursday, July 11, 2013

J. Hoberman: Prague's Savage Spring

Prague’s Savage Spring
by J. Hoberman
The New York Review of Books

František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967) is a virtual terra incognita. Thirty years after its release, it was named overwhelmingly by a poll of Czech critics and filmmakers as the best movie ever produced in Czechoslovakia, yet it remains little known outside its native land. Even as national epics go, Marketa Lazarová is unusually off-putting to outsiders. Violent and anti-heroic, the movie opens on a note of mordant self-deprecation (“This tale was cobbled together and hardly merits praise”) and goes on to represent thirteenth-century Bohemia as a backwater of Conan the Barbarian’s Hyperborean Age—the province of halfwits, rapists, and brutes.

Aside from repeated, if intermittent, screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and a relatively recent Vláčil retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center), the movie has hardly been shown in the United States since its 1974 American release, for which it was shortened by over an hour. (Supremely unimpressed, The New York Times at the time characterized Marketa as “a colossal—and very near interminable—hodgepodge of medieval mayhem and myth, leaden symbolism and bloated piety,” featuring characters of “such unmitigated savagery that next to them the Visigoths would resemble a Red Cross mercy mission.”) Now released as a Criterion DVD in its full 165 minutes, Marketa Lazarová may finally reach a wider American audiences in all its sprawling glory.

Certainly, the film has an impressive pedigree. Vláčil adapted his labor of love from a 1931 novel by Vladislav Vančura (1891–1942), an expressionist Czech writer, avant-garde activist, independent filmmaker, and (per the movie’s credits) “people’s artist.” In addition to being a pre-war Communist (though he was expelled from the Party in 1939), Vančura was also a wartime martyr, one of many Czech partisans who were executed in reprisal for the assassination in Prague of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

Vančura’s Marketa Lazarová is a mock epic, depicting the savage feud between two rival brigand families, the pagan Kozlíks and nominally Christian Lazars, in the wilds of medieval Bohemia. Vančura was an almost untranslatable master of word play, and here invented a new Czech idiom, at once modernist and archaic, to create, in effect, a new shared geneology. The Czech writer and film historian Josef Škvorecký called Vančura’s lusty yarn a “novel of momentous importance in the history of Czech literature.” Evidently, the novel also had much to say to the young, multinational state that was interwar Czechoslovakia; despite its avant-garde underpinnings, it was his most popular and commercially successful work.

To Read the Rest

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tag Gallagher -- Eclipse Series 14: Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment

Eclipse Series 14: Rossellini’s History Films—Renaissance and Enlightenment
By Tag Gallagher


“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.”

And Rossellini himself? He felt useless.

“By 1958,” said François Truffaut, “Rossellini was well aware that his films were not like those of other people, but he very sensibly decided that it was the others who ought to change.”

“There doesn’t exist a technique for grasping reality,” Rossellini ­insisted. “Only a moral position can do so. The camera’s a ballpoint pen, an imbecile; it’s not worth anything if you don’t have anything to say. To discuss cinema today in strictly aesthetic terms is arid and useless. There’s only a single question: how to awaken consciences? ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,’ said Rousseau.”

He called a news conference and announced, “Cinema is dead.”

“He was as excited as a boy about television,” said director Ermanno Olmi, “but mostly he was fired up about putting history into images, the history of humanity, the facts, the fundamental and significant moments . . . And he told me about this history of iron, of how it had changed people’s economy and life.”

“A guy who starts filming the history of iron does look ridiculous,” Rossellini admitted.

Ridiculous or not, Rossellini’s efforts, from 1959 until halted by death in 1977, would yield some forty-two hours of “didactic” movies, mostly for television. Audiences would judge them boring, historians deficient, and critics unappealing; their emotional and artistic riches have still only begun to be acknowledged beyond a devout coterie. Even Truffaut told Rossellini he was wasting his time. And Rossellini, all the while denying (with patent hypocrisy) that he was trying to “make art,” would go ahead, determined to do what he could to “revise the whole conception of the universe,” as he put it.

Rossellini outlined a vast plan not to recount but to relive the history of human knowledge in hundreds of movies. “The slightest act of daily life contains extraordinary dramatic power,” he said. He wanted to send film crews all over the world. He could not understand why other film­makers, Fellini in particular, were not willing to drop their own projects and undertake his instead. “The world should expect something from intellectuals and artists, a clarifying function, a compass,” Rossellini argued, not just navel-gazing.

To finance his project, Rossellini sought out corporations and appealed to the educational obligations of state television in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Romania, and Egypt.

To say, as many have, that these movies lack acting, psychoanalysis, Murnau-like expressionism, overwhelming emotions, and the richest cinematic art is akin to closing one’s eyes at high noon and claiming the sun no longer exists.


Said Rossellini around 1973: “I no longer consider myself to be an artist of the cinema, one of that godlike coterie of directors producing masterpieces to stun the world. I now see myself as scientist and craftsman. For me, Shakespeare and Rembrandt and Matisse were also scientists. The cinema must become scientific, it must learn to dispense knowledge and awareness.”

Accordingly, The Age of the Medici, made during the productive period of 1970–73, presents Renaissance art as an instrument of research ­rather than self-expression. Rossellini is attacking conventional attitudes toward art. His quattrocento Florentines admire Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome not for its beauty, like tourists today, but as a materialization of Brunelleschi’s wonderful calculations, which are wonderful because they show how intelligence can raise the level of human civilization. Art is politics. Obviously, too, it is money—“the root of all civilization,” according to Will Durant, an incomprehensible miracle, according to Rossellini: witness how the music chirps with delight at the apparition of a bag of gold.

A banker and an art theorist are the heroes of Rossellini’s movie: Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72).

Is Rossellini’s reliving of Florence accurate? Of course not; how could it be? It is easy in a book to write, “Cosimo de’ Medici greeted the Venetian ambassador.” It is something else to provide the clothing, room, furnishings, ambience, lighting, not to mention the words, vocal tones, comportment, emotions, and actual bodies of Cosimo and the ambassador. All this must inevitably be inaccurate in a movie. What were people like then? What was Florence like? We can only imagine, like Walt Disney, Rossellini, or even Giotto.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

May Telmissany -- Wajdi Mouawad in Cinema: Origins, Wars and Fate

Wajdi Mouawad in cinema: origins, wars and fate
by May Telmissany
Cineaction #88 (2012)

"Unknown and alone, I have returned to wander through my native country, which lies about me like a vast graveyard; and perhaps what awaits me is the knife of the hunter who preserves us Greeks for his sport even as he does the wild beasts of the forest." (Holderlin, Hyperion) (1)

The question of origins in Wajdi Mouawad's plays and film adaptations Littoral (published in 1999 and directed by Wajdi Mouawad in 2004) and Incendies (published in 2003 and directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2010) is concomitant to the question of belonging. Both questions are explored from multiple perspectives and both suggest various beginnings. While the plays combine references to different arts (2) as well as references to Greek and classical tragedies, the film adaptations seem to distance themselves from the plays' dialogical structure and introduce some narrative coherence into the discontinued and scattered timeline of war and memory depicted in the plays. This article will compare Mouawad's depiction of the question of origins in light of the historical and philosophical reality of war and study how origins are conditioned by fate imposed on the tragic hero. Littoral tells the story of a Canadian-Lebanese young man, Wahab, who struggles to bury his father in his parents' homeland. Throughout his journey, he discovers the truth about his father, and more importantly he discovers his country of birth ruined by war and terrorism. Incendies follows lane, a Canadian-Lebanese daughter who strives to find traces of her father and brother in the rubble of a war-torn country she never knew. Both Wahab and Jane are sent on a quest, and both discover the roots of their multiple identities upon their parents' death, while travelling across their parents' country of birth.

The powerful and multilayered construction of Mouawad's plays offers various beginnings to the narrative of origins, whether it is the narrative of the nomad (immigrant/traveler) or the narrative of war and displacement. The plot is built in order to explore, understand and challenge the conceptions of belonging and distance, of Self and Other, of identity constructions and postmodern dislocations. Both film adaptations respect and explore these elements and features; they also investigate the possibility of bringing together the reflection on war and the history of war in Lebanon within the "realist mode of representation" inherent to cinema, which helps in exploring the major questions of the plays under a different light. Hence, as one can see in cinema, the physical and material horrors of war take precedence over the transcendental tragedy of war depicted in the plays; moreover, both film adaptations open the door to clear partisanship and provoke controversy among film spectators who were mainly skeptical about the historical/sociological accuracy in both films as well as their political implications.

Also within the cinematic context, the question of origins is altered in order to link together the immigrant's situation which involves at least two different cultures (Canadian and Lebanese) and the theme of civil war as a tragic event in Lebanon. Following the death of a parent, the hero is compelled to travel in quest for an answer to three recurring questions: who am I, where do I belong and how can I reconcile my multiple belongings, including belonging to my family's own history, within the context of displacement? In a much broader sense, Oneness (the One as opposed to the Multiple) which used to be a chief value in Modern Western thought seems no longer valid in the postmodern era when multiplicity has become the condition of the transnational individuals like the author and his characters. The displaced or the expatriate like Mouawad, and the temporal nomad like most of his characters, seek answers through the artistic expression (with its intrinsic logic of fragmentation and multiple beginnings) and through travelling and dislocation. Origins are therefore nourished and developed as an object of knowledge not as an object of national worship; similarly, the author and protagonists who look for truth and salvation learn through their journey that knowledge can only be accomplished thanks to movement and displacement.

In other words, knowledge of one's origins is constantly deterritorialized; it is achieved through an inescapable journey in time and space, back to the time of war, back to the place of birth, and back to the Greek and classical tragedies as major sources of inspiration. In fact, Mouawad's plays (and his single film to a lesser extent) add to the complexity of the question of origins by multiplying the intertextual relationships with Sophocles' masterpieces Oedipus Rex and Antigone, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. (3) For example, in Incendies, the mother falls into silence and dies after discovering that her lost son was also her persecutor in prison and the father of her twin son and daughter. The daughter (more than the son) is haunted throughout the film by the mother's ghost who knew before dying the identity of her persecutor and killer; exactly like in Littoral, where the father's ghost is following the son to help him understand the reasons of his disappearance years before his death. The transposition of the Greek and classical characters and themes into the contemporary setting of war in Lebanon allows for a new interpretation of what it means to be aware of one's own history (including the history of the literary canon) and accept one's fate; to be able to relate the stories behind one's origins from different perspectives, and from different starting points; to recognize one's affiliation to family and nation as an inescapable bridge between childhood and adulthood. When they finally succumb to the twists and turns of fate, the protagonists achieve adulthood and accomplish their quest for truth. Both their agency and their intellectual freedom are determined by the amount of truth they come to reveal: "There are truths that can only be revealed when they have been discovered." (4) says the mother Nawal to her daughter in Incendies. Yet unlike their Greek and classical counterparts, Oedipus, Antigone and Hamlet, Mouawad's protagonists are portrayed as nomads and outcasts, as immigrants and misfits. They are depicted in constant movement, much as Mouawad himself, learning about their origins and looking for the true story behind their parents' life and death. And while they explore their land of birth of which they know nothing, they also discover the meaning of their parents' silence and the signification of their tragic life. The viewer is therefore invited to reconstruct the parents' story out of flashbacks, symbols, signs and props (e.g. tapes, letters) as the story unfolds throughout the children's journey.

In addition to the textual/intertextual dimension, themes of war and fate are dealt with differently in both plays compared to the film adaptations. The plays deal with war and fate as themes within a larger humanitarian discourse that transcends the mega-narrative(s) of the Lebanese civil war. On the contrary, the films deal with war and fate as the expressions of immanence, relocating the narrative within its social, historical and political contexts and challenging the impression of reality altogether. One could argue that the tension between the divine and the profane takes place in the battle field of cinematic representation, re-defining the romantic perception of tragedy and fate and relocating the very idea of being Other (and/or Different in one's own culture) in a rather naturalistic fashion which delves into the horrors of war and the impossible salvation of mankind. However, Mouavvad views theatre as the site of a "ruthless consolatiores" (5) where the tragic and transcendental dimensions of war and Otherness are challenged on the plane of immanence, in writing, while writing. The process of writing itself has to do with the way Mouawad perceives of himself as a member of a larger group, as an Other within the Same in a rather epic way, when his own voice embodies the voice of the Greek chorus and vice versa. He explains in the preface to the English version of Incendies that the writing continued during the rehearsals, in an attempt to challenge the traditional conceptualization of a ready-to-play text produced by an all-knowing writer: "Throughout the entire period, I felt that the troupe, with its technicians and actors laying the groundwork for the writing, was at the heart of the process (...) It must be said, it must be heard: Incendies was born of this group, the writing was channeled through me. Step by step to the very last word." (6)

While analyzing the multiple links between the question of origins, the quest for truth and the reflection on war and displacement, this article seeks to answer the following questions: what role does the diasporic condition play in Mouawad's approach to the question of origins? What is the impact of war as a subject of reflection and as a historical event on both film adaptations? How is fate perceived in the plays and in the movies, and what links can be made between the tragic fate and war in Lebanon? The first part of this article contextualizes the question of origins in Mouawad's career as dramatist and filmmaker, with a special focus on the Oscar-nominated Genie-winning film Incendies by Denis Villeneuve, which offers a moving hymn to tolerance and a cry for the anti-militarization of religious and ethnic conflicts in Lebanon. The second part examines the relationship between war, fate and Otherness through the lens of Holderlin's concept of fate as a superior power to which the tragic hero must succumb in order to be punished. It will also explore Thierry Hentsche's discussion of death and narration as a way to understand Mouawad's infatuation with the question of origins and belonging in a world where displacement has become the modern expression of many heroic actions.

The Context: Transnational Cinema and the Question of Belonging

Haunting origins is not Mouawad's own innovation; it is one of the major topics explored in diasporic and transnational filmmaking as a tool to overcome the trauma of loss and displacement, and to restore order in a world of chaos and opacity. in fact, Arab Canadian filmmakers (7) like their counterparts in Europe and the United States, introduce in their films three major socio-cultural features which deal more or less with the questions of origins: first the ethnic/cultural feature which draws attention to the staging of minority problems as well as majority/minority relationships in homeland and in hostland; second, the historical feature which explores the filmmakers' present and past through the investigation of the colonial and post-colonial history as well as the major historical events that might have led to movements of immigration and displacement; and third, the religious feature which is expressed through the manifestations of religious conservatism and the call for tolerance on one hand, and through the political instrumentalization of religion in times of war and conflict on the other hand.

It is important to relocate Mouawad's cinematic adaptations within this larger context of transnational and diasporic cinema made by filmmakers of Arab origins or based on their work. It is equally important to highlight Mouawad's hyphenated identity and the many lines of escape his work proposes beyond his Middle Eastern culture and his Canadian belonging. Born in 1968, Mouawad spent his childhood in Lebanon, his adolescence years in France and came to Canada in the late 1980s. His theatrical production in French is both locally and internationally acclaimed. In his plays Littoral and Incendies, the ethnic, cultural and religious identities (either Arab or Canadian, Christian or Muslim) are demoted for the benefit of a rather universal/cosmopolitan identity. Yet, it is obvious through the play of nouns and scattered allusions to geographic as well as regional characteristics, that both plays start in Canada and end in the Middle East. It is also noted that religious belongings are not criticized as such but rather demystified for the benefit of a clear-cut critique of the absurdity of conflicts based on religious affiliation in general.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

Drew Winchur: Ideology in Christopher Nolan's Inception

Ideology in Christopher Nolan's Inception
by Drew Winchur
Cineaction #88 (2012)

In the West, propaganda films are nowadays an exceedingly rare art form. Few filmmakers are interested in making didactic arguments for or against "the capitalist order" or "Western empire"; investors willing to fund such work are undoubtedly even rarer. As a case in point, Christopher Nolan's Inception (1) is a conventional Hollywood suspense movie that completely omits any explicit reference to politics. Its narrative focuses on a corporate thief named Dom Cobb/Leonardo DiCaprio, as he frantically grapples with the aftermath of his wife's suicide, while also trying to return home to his young children. The trauma of excessive guilt and the necessity of grieving are the film's most obvious and important themes. Yet despite Inception's supposed focus on individual psychology, this foregrounding of Cobb's emotional turmoil in fact sublimates and rationalizes some disturbingly violent behaviour. Hired by a corporation to "neutralize" an important competitor, Cobb and his associates use futuristic, Matrix-like technology to invade the consciousness of a man named Robert Fischer, Jr./Cillian Murphy. They then succeed in implanting a suggestion in Fischer's mind that causes him to sabotage his own financial interests (the titular "inception"). By bracketing these acts as the uncontroversial circumstance of Cobb's emotional struggle, Inception covertly legitimizes the routine and far-reaching violence used to sustain corporate empires. In practice, if not by design, the film proves to be a highly sophisticated vehicle for capitalist propaganda.

In the production notes to the film, Nolan indicates that

[i]t was very important to [Leonardo DiCaprio] that [the emotional life of his character] be the guiding thread of the story, and with it he is able to draw the audience through the [film's] complex story in a very clear fashion. (2)

DiCaprio's priorities are indeed evident from the very first scenes of the film. Cobb's unresolved grief for his wife Mal/Marion Cotillard is singularly responsible for the failure of his preliminary mission into the dreams of Saito/Ken Watanabe (his eventual employer). As he gathers a team of criminals and prepares to invade Fischer's mind, Cobb is repeatedly confronted with the danger that Mal poses, both in regards to his own psyche and his corporate mission. Finally, and most importantly, Cobb's mission is accomplished only after he definitively rejects Mal's claims about the nature of their relationship, and accepts his share of guilt for her death. It is this symbolic resolution--as much as the success of the team's real mission--that allows Cobb to return home to America and his children. The lack of emotional tension and conspicuous absence of Fischer during the film's denouement is a final signal that Cobb's psychic pain is the driving force of the film.

This emotional journey, however, does not merely function as an engine for the film's plot. The role given to Ellen Page's character, Ariadne, suggests that there is a more duplicitous agenda behind this emphasis on Cobb's psyche. As the young university student recruited by Cobb to design the mission's dream-world, Ariadne functions as a proxy for the audience and as Cobb's personal psychotherapist. Nolan has admitted that

[i]n writing the script for 'Inception,' it was very important to me that there be a conduit for the audience--a character who is being shown this world for the first time and is eager to explore it. That's how the character of Ariadne was born. It was also very important for the audience to see Cobb through Ariadne's eyes and get to the core of that character. (3)

The very origin of Ariadne's name affirms this connection: i.e., a mythical Greek princess who helps the minotaur-slayer Theseus to navigate a labyrinth. Coaxing and guiding Cobb through his darkest memories, Ariadne both demands and provides "more objective" interpretations of what she sees and what she is told. At the same time, this character forcefully narrows the viewer's scope of potential interests, to the point that a fixation on Cobb's mental state is almost inevitable. As Fischer's subconscious becomes more dangerous and difficult for the team to navigate, it is Ariadne who demands that Cobb reappraise their collective predicament and his own psychological health. Cobb then confesses to her (and the viewer) the details of his wife's suicide and his subsequent exile from the United States. After Cobb confesses this secret, Ariadne asks no further questions, and wholeheartedly accepts his rather feeble reassurances as to their collective safety. She also fails to voice any qualms about his selfish recklessness in trying to withhold this information. Once Mal succeeds in sabotaging the mission at the third and deepest level of Fischer's subconscious, Ariadne insists on following Cobb into his own chaotic mind; it is there that she provides him with strong emotional support during his climactic confrontation with and triumph over Mal (whose name, not coincidentally, means "sickness" in French). Here again, she blithely accepts Cobb's story of apparent emotional catharsis at face value. Pertinent questions remain unasked, relating to the impact of this breakthrough on Cobb's future life, not to mention the mission still underway.

For all of her adeptness at critically interpreting Cobb's psychological struggles, Ariadne is tellingly silent in the face of his real behaviour. After a feeble protest against Cobb's offer of employment, she joins the team and fails to raise a single concern about the immorality of their mission. In her enthusiasm for playing therapist to Cobb (and despite the empathy she demonstrates in this capacity), Ariadne seems untroubled by the team's inherently violent trespass into Fischer's mind. Since "the audience [sees] Cobb through Ariadne's eyes", this tacit acceptance of a controversial norm illuminates the film's true ideological leanings.

Ariadne's support of Cobb is perhaps justifiable during the innocent beginnings of their relationship, but proves less and less credible as the film wears on. By the time Fischer has been kidnapped within his own subconscious, Cobb resembles less a grieving widower than a murderous thug. Shoved into locked rooms and unmarked vans, handcuffed, repeatedly threatened and drugged, and beaten with an insouciance bordering on contempt, Fischer's body is gradually stripped of its humanity and debased to the level of anonymous hostage. When Cobb needs Fischer to fabricate a non-existent security code, a member of the team impersonates Fischer's godfather and most trusted confidant. Fischer is then convinced that this imposter will be murdered if he refuses to cooperate. Later, upon revealing to Fischer that his dreams have in fact been invaded, Cobb pitilessly capitalizes on the fear and vulnerability that this disclosure understandably provokes. Throughout all of this, Ariadne seems oblivious to the protagonist's descent into near-sociopathic criminality.

Perhaps most disturbing is the corruption of Fischer's already troubled relationship with his recently deceased father. The entire dynamic and meaning of this private bond is falsified by Fischer Sr.'s dramatic, deathbed confession--a confession that has, in fact, been scripted and stage-managed by Cobb. Given repeated chances to reflect on this profound transgression, Cobb's response is always the same selfish shrug: "I'll do whatever it takes to get back to my family." Ariadne's staunch refusal (or inability) to address this violence is a crippling blow to her credibility---both as pseudo-therapist and proxy to the viewer.
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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Luis M. Garcia-Mainar: The Return of the Realist Spy Film

The Return of the Realist Spy Film
by Luis M. Garcia-Mainar

Stieg Larsson's successful Millenium novels (2005, 2006, 2007) have become a major phenomenon in contemporary globalized culture by combining criminal inquiry with complex accounts of personal life and realism. In doing so they increas-ingly rely on motifs borrowed from the tradition of the spy narrative as Lisbeth Salander finally faces her father, Zalachenko. In a similar vein, and despite its topical issue, Doug Liman's Fair Game (2010) tells the true story of CIA agent Valerie Plame by placing as much emphasis on her political role as on her ability to reconcile spy work with the demands of her family. In the last decade, the proliferation of these combined views of espionage, personal life and realism in such popular texts suggests their relevance to contemporary culture, and in a way that transcends the borders of, at least, Western countries. This paper discusses The Good Shepherd (2006), Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) and L'affaire Farewell (Farewell, 2009), three spy films produced in three different countries, as representative of a recent tendency of the genre characterized by this return to a realism that, already a trademark of the genre, is now inflected by contemporary concerns. Although the paper's main interest will be theatrically-released films, it will also refer to television because the 1980s BBC series based on John le Carre's novels contributed significantly to establishing the conventions of the realist spy narrative, and in the last decade the genre has flourished on the small screen.

The spy film genre moved through the 1970s and 1980s towards an increasing relevance of action and suspense, as proved by the films based on Frederick Forsyth's novels The Day of the Jackal (1973), The Odessa File (1974), The Dogs of War (1980) and The Fourth Protocol (1987), a tendency that would become even stronger in the 1990s and 2000s. 1990 saw the release of the first film adaptation of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan saga, The Hunt for Red October, soon followed by Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and The Sum of All Fears (2002). They initiated a cycle of action spy thrillers that would include the Mission Impossible series (1996, 2000, 2006) and, more recently, the Bourne films based on Robert Ludlum's novels (2002, 2004, 2007). In the 2000s the Bond franchise swayed towards action heroics with Daniel Craig, as did such films as Spy Games (2001) and The Tailor of Panama (2001). More recently, Body of Lies (2008), Traitor (2008), Taken (2008) and Salt (2010) have followed the same line.

Against this background stands out a less popular cycle of spy television series produced in the last decade. CBS's The Agency (2001-2003), ABC's Threat Matrix (2003-2004) and TNT's The Grid (2004) offered realism and topicality by placing secret agents in the new context of terrorism, but they achieved none of the success of the more fantasy-based Alias (ABC, 2001-2006), 24 (Fox, 2001-2010), Burn Notice (USA Network, 2007--present) or the miniseries The Company (TNT, 2007). As Wesley Britton comments, these examples prove that today the fantasies popularized by 007 have a stronger place in audiovisual culture than the realistic spy stories more usually found in literature. (1)

It is in this context that I would like to place three topical spy films which resemble those realistic television shows but were more popular than them. The Good Shepherd (2006) obtained close to $100 million worldwide, a modest success replicated in the same year by a film that was to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and earned about $77 million world-wide, the German Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Later would appear L'affaire Farewell (Farewell, 2009), a French film that lacked the commercial impact of the other two but enjoyed a long career on the film festival circuit. It is my hypothesis that these three films achieved this relative success because they touched on issues that were relevant to audiences, and they did so by departing from contemporary main-stream, action-oriented, representations of spy life. At the same time, they have remained far from the box-office success of films that opted for the action spy formula in recent years. In 2006 Casino Royale grossed $594 million worldwide, reaching number four on the yearly box-office list, while Mission Impossible III obtained $397 million and reached number eight. In 2007 The Bourne Ultimatum was number seven, earning $442 million worldwide, and in 2008 Quantum of Solace grossed $586 million, reaching number nine. Taken, in 2009, obtained $226 million to become number twenty, and by the end of 201 0 Salt had grossed $293 million and stood at number twen ty-one. (2) In comparison, and like their television counterparts, The Good Shepherd, Das Leben der Anderen and L'affaire Farewell didn't do so well because they partially failed to provide the experience relished by audiences. This article will analyse these films tin an attempt to throw light on some of the reasons why they may have been assigned this place as culturally relevant but at the same time marginal products.

The several cycles of the post-World War II spy film have been defined by their degree of verisimilitude and moral conviction about espionage. Influenced by the March of Time newsreels, 1940s docudramas like The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) used actual footage and were clearly propagandistic, while 1950s films like Five Fingers (1952) began to consider espionage more ambiguously. The 1960s saw the appearance of two of the most popular forms of the genre: the Bond films, based on the Fleming novels of the 1950s, and the adaptations of John le Carre and Len Deighton. Bond inhabited a world of glamorous consumerism and moral certainty, while The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965) and The Iperess File (1965) offered realism, questioning moral absolutes and the ethics of espionage. In the 1970s the political thriller replaced espionage with political intrigue and conspiracy, reflecting a mood of mistrust and fear produced by actual events in the United States. As a reaction to the centrality of this conspiracy genre, in the 1980s le Carre's novels were adapted for television in the United Kingdom, a format that allowed lengthier and more complex narratives than film. The BBC's multipart series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1980), Smiley's People (1982) and A Perfect Spy (1988) returned to the realistic accounts of spy life and its difficulties, featuring protagonists who were even more ordinary and methodical than the film version of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold's Alec Leamas. (3)

The spy film shares this reliance on verisimilitude with its literary sources. It has been argued that the function of this verisimilitude is to produce simplified versions of history that reflect the fantasies of mass audiences about historical change, explained through conspiracies and the efforts to stop them. Spy stories alleviate anxieties about the individual's lack of effective agency since history is presented as the consequence of the secret agent's work. Two main versions of history would emerge from the genre, which would bear similarities to the two main cycles of the spy film mentioned above: one would see conflict between nations as inevitable, its only solution to be found in the individual, male, hero; the other would attempt to achieve greater verisimilitude by dwelling on the complexity of events and their moral ambiguity. The first trend would have its roots in the pre-1914 and World War I generation that included, among others, Erskine Childers and John Buchan, and revived in the 1950s work of Ian Fleming. The second trend, initiated in the late 1920s and 1930s by the generation of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, was refreshed in the 1960s by Len Deighton and John le Carre. (4) The heroicspy trend relies on the power of citizens to influence history whereas the realist one is far more sceptical about it, usually underscoring the power of forces above the individual.

This argument echoes cultural interpretations of spy fiction which have tended to view it as metaphor for the conflict between individual subjectivity and social organization, voicing public distrust of the distance created by the social system from the subjects that constitute it. (5) Cultural commentators have invariably noted the genre's political relevance, and it continues to be discussed as a tale of citizenship and citizens' distrust of a state that contradicts their sense of justice. (6) Spy fiction also voices social anxieties regarding work, disclosing the ways in which bureaucracy and corporate structures produce the same alienation, moral ambiguity and uncertainty experienced by secret agents. (7)

Its concerns often match those of crime narratives at large, although spy fiction has its specificities and special focus. It distinctly reflects the organized nature of social forces, exposing the mechanisms that keep individuals under control. It is concerned with morality, with the system's claim to moral righteousness or the individual's struggle with moral principles and widespread cynicism. It also contains the potential to suggest parallels between the secret agent and the ordinary citizen, both being at the same time essential to the survival of the system and reminders of its shortcomings: they embody the contradictory values of bourgeois society, the ambiguity of the law and a fantasy about the power of the individual to influence history. Furthermore, the genre exhibits a greater awareness of this physical and moral milieu than the rest of the crime genres by placing characters in situations that may expose the contradictions of societies and nations. Finally, the spy story shows, more lucidly than perhaps any other genre, the impact of a globalized world in which national borders are no obstacle to transglobal power.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Time of the Wolf (France/Austria/Germany: Michael Haneke, 2003)

Time of the Wolf (France/Austria/Germany: Michael Haneke, 2003: 113 mins)

Bingham, Adam. "Long Night's Journey Into Day." Kinoeye 4.1 (March 2004)

Brunette, Peter. Michael Haneke. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2010.

Frey, Mattias. "Great Directors: Michael Haneke." Senses of Cinema #57 (2010)

Grundman, Roy. A Companion to Michael Haneke. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.

"Michael Haneke Studies: Videos, Podcasts and Article Links." Film Studies for Free (June 26, 2010)

Price, Brian and John David Rhodes, ed. On Michael Haneke. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University, 2010.

Sorfa, David. "Uneasy domesticity in the films of Michael Haneke." Studies in European Cinema 3.2 (2006)

Wheatley, Catherine. Michael Haneke's Cinema: The Ethic of the Image. NY: Bergahn Books, 2009. [BCTC Library PN 1998.3 H36 W44 2009]

Brian Walter -- Love In The Time of Calvary: Romance and Family Values in Crucifixion Films

Love In The Time of Calvary: Romance and Family Values in Crucifixion Films
by Brian Walter
Cineaction #88 (2012)
While marketing his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson pointedly shared anecdotes about the Muslims and agnostics among his film crew who converted to Christianity during the filming. Previewing his already controversial film for conservative Christian leaders across America before its official Ash Wednesday release, Gibson essentially offered it up as a weapon that they could use in the ‘red state/blue state’ culture wars to win converts to Christ. These anecdotes constituted just one element of Gibson’s clever “guerilla marketing” campaign,1 which rather remarkably helped what might otherwise have remained little more than an art-house curiosity—with its remote historical and geographical setting, no stars, and English subtitles to translate the two dead languages used for dialogue—earn more than $600 million at the box office and qualify as an improbable blockbuster.2

Or so it could easily seem. When considered within the longer history of Hollywood’s treatments of Biblical material, the success not only seems much less improbable, but actually almost predictable. At least since D. W. Griffith and the early days of feature films, filmmakers had regularly looked to well-known literature for story material in general and to Biblical stories in particular as conveniently pious vehicles for the revealing costumes, grandiloquent dialogue, and massive crowd pageantry so indispensable to the genre.3 If Cecil B. DeMille is most famous today for establishing Charlton Heston as a WASP icon by casting him as Moses and having him intone the voice of God in his extravagant 1956 Technicolor version of The Ten Commandments,4 it helps to recall that DeMille began mounting his spectacular visions of the Bible several decades earlier, in the silent era, following Griffith’s example in Intolerance with a 1923 version of The Ten Commandments and then, a few years later, conjuring a frankly Salomesque version of Mary Magdalene for Jesus to convert in 1927’s King of Kings. Its venerability may spark debate, but the Biblical epic certainly boasts a long history, suggesting its enduring appeal for American audiences.

The mid-century renaissance of Hollywood’s “swords and sandals” epics shows how well the genre could adapt both to industry anxieties and to America’s popular self-image. After losing control over the exhibition of its product and finding itself on the losing end of demographic shifts that saw fewer and fewer Americans going to the movies as their primary source of entertainment, Hollywood resorted increasingly to costly color and widescreen technologies in an effort to maintain its profits, emphasizing the technical superiority of the theatrical film experience over the increasingly ubiquitous home television.5 The Biblical epic lent itself superbly to the “big event pictures” that Hollywood produced to keep audiences coming to theatres,6 and not only because of the visual splendors available in depicting the glory that was imperial Rome or the majesty of pharaonic Egypt. The genre similarly supported the melodrama of erotic love striving for mastery with family identity or, still more, with spiritual duty. Heston’s Moses is a prince of Egypt who spurns the powerful princess Nefretiri first to save the otherwise helpless slaves and then to marry a humble shepherd woman from the countryside whom he later also abandons (in effect), the better to fulfill his divinely-ordained mission by leading the Hebrews out of bondage and to the Promised Land. So, in addition to championing American ideals of freedom in the face of oppression, DeMille’s Ten Commandments catered to conservative white America’s image of itself as a piously disciplined and wholesome alternative to the corruptions of urban life and inherited power, precisely at a time when white middle-class Americans were increasingly abandoning urban centers for the suburbs.7

Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ does not fall simply and easily into an unbroken line of Hollywood Biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments, but it does mine a vein of conservative Christian separatism that Hollywood had sought to tap going back at least to the 1930 establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code, which represented an “attempt to bind movies to Judeo-Christian morality.”8 Gibson’s entry retains and/or reproduces several core characteristics of the genre, particularly the rules that require love plots entangled with the Christ story to emphasize a conflict between selfish earthly desires and grandly selfless acceptance of higher callings. The women—including, on occasion, even the Virgin Mary—in these story lines tempt men to reject spiritual or otherwise higher imperatives. The specific circumstances and even the results differ, but the age-old association of femaleness with the lower, bodily faculties and maleness with higher, intellectual, spiritual motives prevails, in some form, across the decades in these films.

To connect Gibson’s notoriously brutal scenario to the long history of Biblical epics, it is useful to compare its treatment of love plots to similar subplots in two earlier Crucifixion films, The Robe (1953) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). In The Robe, the oldest and most generically conventional of these films, Diana, the female lead, finally joins her male counterpart, Tribune Marcellus Gallio, in defying the young new emperor Caligula and embracing a beatified martyrdom; though she strives earnestly to lure Gallio away from his staunch religious commitment—offering the joys of marriage and domestic life as an alternative—Diana finally and heroically gives up this dream for her own conversion, wedding political independence to spiritual apotheosis in a way that seems surprisingly progressive in comparison to the later films. Just as surprisingly, though from a different angle, it is The Last Temptation of Christ—the object of a remarkably potent and successful right-wing Christian protest—that proves perhaps the most philosophically conservative of the three, forcing Jesus simply and consistently to reject the women who love him to become the Messiah, embracing his identity as the son of God only by dismissing the flesh and the women who so temptingly embody it for him. Finally, in The Passion of the Christ, the quasi-allegorical relationship between Pontius Pilate and his unhappy wife, Claudia, serves to confirm comfortable truisms about the conflict between love and moral duty needing to resolve itself decisively (however painfully) in favor of the latter.

The oldest of these films, The Robe, was made as an event film from top to bottom, but it also bears clear marks of Hollwood’s self-doubts in the early Cold War era. The first film presented in the new CinemaScope aspect ratio, The Robe also boasted glorious Technicolor processing and stereophonic sound at a time when Hollywood was already (according to conventional wisdom) losing much of its viewership to the popular new home television set. But beyond its technological advances, The Robe betrays Hollywood’s political anxieties in the 1950s, finding in the story of a dissolute Roman tribune’s conversion to Christianity what would seem to be a rather unlikely paean to the heroic, solitary champion of democratic freedoms rebelling against the suffocating forces of inherited and centralized power. Tribune Marcellus Gallio finds himself in the film’s second act in Palestine commanding the Roman soldiers who crucify Christ and barter his fateful robe at the foot of the cross in the midst of a gathering storm. Driven mad by his contact with the robe, Marcellus only finds relief when he converts to Christianity, returning to Rome in the film’s final act to antagonize and finally reject the authority of the spoiled, whiny, sexually suspect Caligula, who, as emperor, sentences Marcellus to execution at the very end of the movie. Debuting in 1953, a few years before its more famous Biblical epic counterpart, The Ten Commandments, The Robe anticipates the later film’s improbable treatment of the Old Testament Exodus as a story of heroically devout rebels taking a stand for liberty and democratic freedoms by ascribing egalitarian virtues to a scion of the Roman empire who bravely turns against the privilege of his upbringing.9

The Robe also shares with The Ten Commandments the figure of the female outsider who falls in love with the eventual man of God before his conversion and who later finds herself spurned for the sake of his higher, divine calling. From her debut in the Roman marketplace, Diana is both Roman subject and critic, an outsider whose dress, movements, and placement within the public space offer Marcellus an alternative to the decadence and cynicism that otherwise prevails. The film opens with a montage sequence of pagan statues and marching soldiers that takes full advantage of the elongated CinemaScope frame to overwhelm viewers with the simultaneous glory and corruption of imperial Rome. The montage sequence ends with Marcellus’ss debut, wandering through the market, perusing slaves for possible purchase. Diana eventually appears behind him, and the busy mise-en-scène of the flesh market around Marcellus immediately gives way to calm and clarity around this woman who remains on the margins. The cross-cutting in the conversation that ensues and the camera placement of the subsequent auction scene between Marcellus and Caligula (not yet emperor) continue to emphasize Diana’s alienation from the sordid business of the place.

Subsequent scenes work to establish a subtly mixed status for Diana: both a loyal Roman subject and an independent spirit devoted to Marcellus even in his eventual madness. She combines these two seemingly incompatible traits perhaps most markedly in the scene when Marcellus returns from Palestine (his grip on sanity already loosening) and she presents him to the old emperor. Displacing the classical architecture, colorful robes, and stately dialogue into the remote countryside, far from the political bodies and flesh peddlers of Rome, this sequence offers the best of both worlds to contemporary conservative Christian viewers, shunning the corruption of the city for the idyllic retreat of a rural life which nevertheless supports civilized, even decorous behavior. Diana is at her best in this setting, reconciling her duties as a Roman subject to the emperor (who, like his wife, would prefer to see her marry their son, Caligula) with her ardent faithfulness to a rebellious tribune. Diana waits for Marcellus on a stone bench overlooking a cliff that drops away to the sea, a bracing setting for Marcellus’s return and the fateful incorporation of the life-changing experience he has had in Palestine into the progress of their love. In her previous two scenes, both set in Rome, Diana appeared in wraps and head-coverings, protected not so much against the weather as from the dangers of imperial decadence, but here, with the striking stonework of a Roman house crowning the hill behind, she appears openly in an off-the-shoulder yellow gown, arm-band, and head-dress, a noblewoman of the empire free to the elements. Here in this outpost, Marcellus releases Diana from her commitment to him—a freedom she pointedly does not accept, instead rushing to take his hand as he heads back to the house to report to the emperor. She serves, in fact, as his go-between, risking the emperor’s wrath to spare Marcellus from exposing his addled state (caused by his contact with Christ’s robe). And when the emperor follows Marcellus’s example at the end of their interview by freeing her from her promise to the beleaguered tribune, Diana refuses once again, a prelude to her final rejection of Caligula at the end of the movie when she elects to join Marcellus in martyrdom. In the midst of his madness—the first step toward his conversion and beatification—Marcellus can no longer fulfill his duties as subject of the empire unless Diana runs interference for him. She puts herself at risk to rescue his interview with the emperor, who thinks she deserves more: “What a wife you would make for an emperor,” he says, shaking his head over her devotion to Marcellus. She chooses long-time, innocent love over power, letting her man leave to heal himself before returning to her. In her brave faithfulness, standing by her almost helpless man, Diana somehow confirms the timelessness of middle-class American family values.

To Read the Rest

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Dreamers (France/UK/Italy: Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)

The Dreamers (France/UK/Italy: Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003: 115 mins)

Buchanan, Ian. "Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers; Kristin Ross' May 68 & Its Afterlives; Deleuze & Guattari's Anti-Oedipus." excerpt from Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. NY: Continuum, 2008: 13-19. Posted on Dialogic (July 2010)

Dyson, Jake. "The Dreamers (2003)." Film Matters (February 20, 2018)

Fletcher, Stephen Q. "The Dreamers: Revolution as a Gala Dinner and a Game." Metaphilm (May 4, 2008)

Hudson, David. "Sex in the Movies." Green Cine (2005)

Ross, Kristin. May '68 and Its Afterlives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Andrew O'Hehir - From Ike to The Matrix: Welcome to the American dystopia

From Ike to “The Matrix”: Welcome to the American dystopia
By Andrew O'Hehir

Part Orwellian security state, part Huxley wonderland and part "Matrix," America is three dystopias in one!

American society has been sliding toward the realm of dystopian science fiction — toward a nightmarish mishmash of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick — since at least the early years of the Reagan administration, and arguably a lot longer than that. (Since Watergate? The Kennedy assassination? The A-bomb? Take your pick.) We may have finally gotten there. We live in a country that embodies three different dystopian archetypes at once: America is partly a panopticon surveillance-and-security state, as in Orwell, partly an anesthetic and amoral consumer wonderland, as in Huxley, and partly a grand rhetorical delusion or “spectacle,” as in Dick or “The Matrix” or certain currents of French philosophy.

Let’s step away from the brainiac analysis for a second and give full credit to the small-town Republican and war hero who warned us about what was coming, more than 50 years ago. In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke gravely about “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” that lay in the coming coalition between “the military-industrial complex” and “the scientific-technological elite.” It would require “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” Ike cautioned, to make sure this combination did not “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” As we say these days: Our bad.

I can’t find any direct evidence that Eisenhower had ever read Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World,” let alone that they shaped his insights into the heretical possibility that the alternative to Soviet-style Communism might turn out to be just as bad in its own way. Ike wasn’t the country bumpkin that many East Coast intellectuals of that era assumed him to be (English was his best subject at West Point), but he favored history and biography over literature and philosophy. His dire and all too prescient vision of the American future was no doubt drawn from the cultural climate around him, so perhaps he can be said to have absorbed the Orwellian vision by osmosis and made it his own. (Intriguingly, his granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, an eminent foreign policy expert, seems aware of the connection and cites “1984” as a formative influence on her own career.)

After the recent revelations about grandiose NSA domestic surveillance campaigns, complete with PowerPoint presentations that look like material from an unreleased mid-‘90s satire by Paul Verhoeven, we learned that sales of one recent edition of Orwell’s “1984” had apparently spiked by almost 7,000 percent on Amazon. Are these facts actually connected? Are these facts even facts? There’s no way to be sure, which may illustrate how difficult it is to know or understand anything amid the onslaught of pseudo-information. Maybe our current situation (as many Twitter users observed) owes more to Franz Kafka than to Orwell.

If people are really going to read “1984,” instead of just throwing it around as a reference, that can only be a good thing. (You can also watch Michael Radford’s excellent film version, with John Hurt and Richard Burton – actually released in 1984! — online right now.) It’s a devastating novel by one of the best writers of English prose of the last century, and a work that shaped both the thinking and the vocabulary of our age. But as a predictor or manual for the age of permanent war, permanent political paralysis and Total Information Awareness (Adm. John Poindexter’s much-mocked predecessor to PRISM), it gives you only part of the story.

If the technology of the national security state has finally caught up with, and indeed surpassed, anything imagined by Orwell’s Big Brother, who must rely on two-way “telescreens” and regular old secret agents to keep tabs on every citizen, the context is almost entirely different. Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Orwell imagined an indefinite combination of postwar British poverty and austerity mixed with the drab, monochromatic austerity of the Soviet Union during the worst of the Stalin years. He was also imagining the aftermath of a future world-transforming war that would be even worse than the last one. Although it’s more widely understood as a political metaphor, “1984” also points the way toward “Planet of the Apes,” “The Hunger Games” and countless other post-apocalyptic visions.

Our own society, with its endless array of electronic gizmos, opulent luxury goods and a vibrant and/or morbid pop culture capable of invading every waking moment (and the sleeping ones too), looks nothing like that. At least on its surface, it more closely resembles the pharmaceutically cushioned, caste-divided and slogan-nourished Dr. Phil superstate of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” which is built around constant distraction and consumption and in which all desire for transcendence and spirituality can be answered with chemicals. But we certainly don’t live in the atheistic, full-employment command economy envisaged by Huxley either — he was imagining an unholy technocratic union of Lenin and Henry Ford — even if many people on the right remain convinced that Barack Obama is leading us there.

For a long time, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was customary for intellectuals who addressed the differences and similarities between Orwell and Huxley to assert that “1984” had not come true and that Huxley had come closer to predicting, as Christopher Hitchens put, it the “painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus” and “blissed-out and vacant servitude” of the postmodern age. I think the best of these comes from Neil Postman’s withering assessment in the foreword to “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a landmark work of cultural criticism published in 1985:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

To Read the Rest