Sunday, November 8, 2009

Some Thoughts on Angelopoulos

I once showed Theo Angelopolous' seminal work, Landscape in the Mist, to a dear friend of mind who had not seen many art films. I think his favorite film at the time was Pi or some such thing. There were times during the screening at which, to my dismay and confusion, he chuckled to himself. After the film was over his review was this: “At least the director acknowledged his heavy hand (referring to the scene in which the hand is lifted from the water).” It is unfortunate. Academics and movie buffs alike have an arbitrary border between good art and pretentious art. The ideology of the day seems to entail that good art is art that can be readily disseminated to and digested by a populace that the individual deems equal to or slightly less sharp than himself. Anything above that line is heavy-handed.

Angelopoulos is not light. He is grave and grand. His films have the weight of the world in them. This weight is perhaps emphasized by script writer Tonino Guerra who co-wrote Tarkovsky's Nostalghia another film and filmmaker widely considered to be “heavy.” These films are serious. They are not larks to be certain. But heaviness is not the whole story for Tarkovsky, for Guerra, for Angelopoulos in general or specifically for Landscape in the Mist. It is in fact about the contrast between heaviness and weightlessness, between light and dark. Consider that the heavy hand rises up out of the water and floats. Remember that the film begins in total darkness, and ends in light. More specifically it ends in mist which is a brightness that has some of the obscuring visual effects of darkness.

Tension between opposites is an important principle for Angelopoulos. The world in Landscape is at once dreamy/absurd/surreal and dirty, gritty banal. The scene in which the young Alexandros confronts the dying horse in the street could have come from Bunuel or De Sica. The same could be said for what I will call “random moments” - the fiddler palying for Alexandros in the cafe, the long shot of the people in the yellow raincoats sliding across the film frame on a hand-propelled rail cart or the scene where the man sneaks up on the chicken. All these events are perfectly normal because random really happens in everyday life. Even “staged” shots like “The first snow,” as dreamlike as it is because all the adults have stopped in a pose but the children move among them, has the feel of authenticity to it. Is not memory always more photograph than a movie?

Symbols also embody a tension of opposites in Angelopoulos. Landscape uses symbols in two ways. The first kind of symbol and requires no special knowledge of anything outside the film, in other words it requires no academic training. Recognition of Orestis' motorcycle as a symbol of freedom for example is made possible within the narrative structure of the film. The children have traveled by train, which is slow and increases their risk of being caught by the authorities; by a truck, which turned out to be driven by a rapist; and on foot, which has consisted largely of trudging through the rain. Orestis' motorcycle is, quite practically, the best way to travel. What's more Orestis and his motorcycle are responsible for all the happiness that the children experience along their journey. The three are tied together through the motorcycle. It is their freedom from the mechanized and littered landscape. The motorcycle as a symbol of freedom lives in the experience. It is not merely evoked, but seen on screen.

Though it is a machine, it is through the motorcycle that they experience a closeness to nature; riding through the dunes with the wind rushing over them. In the company of other bikes, Alexander’s motorcycle becomes another machine polluting the world, and the free spirit it brought out vanishes. We can see that Alexander has an understanding of this as we watch him part with his bike. He is pained to sell it because it symbolizes his freedom, not to the viewer, but to his character. The motorcycle is freedom. When surrounded by other bikes, however, that freedom is limited. With impending loss hanging over Alexander the motorcycle is transformed into something ugly. The connection with the children, with nature, with the eternal is gone.

There is another kind of symbol in Landscape. It is the kind that my friend found pretentious. This is the kind that makes reference to a cultural tradition outside of the specific narrative framework of the film. Though “The hand in the water” episode and “The tree in the fog” episode reach out to other works, I would maintain that they do so not to turn the film into an allegory through, but to enrich the world of the film. Is this necessarily pretentious? In Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Felinni’s Satyricon or Godard’s Hail Mary; knowing the reference points is not essential to understanding the film (for it should have its own internal logic and cohesion), but it usually does grant more meaning to a specific moment.

The obvious reference point for the hand that rises up from the water to point at Orestis is the hand of God in in Michelangelo’s Creation from the Cistine ceiling. What makes the shot interesting are all the ways in which the would-be symbols breaks down almost immediately upon recognition. The index finger, the link between God and Adam, is broken off. As the helicopter flies away, carrying the hand beneath it, Orestis calls out, “If I shout, who will hear me in the kingdom of angels?” From his statement, as well as from the context of the story as it has been discussed thus far, it is clear that Orestis feels a separation from the eternal. He is no Adam, and Orestis is threatened by the giant hand even in the absence of the accusatory finger. I suppose it depends on what you mean when you say “heavy-handed.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Thoughts on Jeanne

Last month Criterion released Chantal Akerman's masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. To my knowledge this amounts to the first time that the film has been available on video in any format, and as such it constitutes an important cultural event. Forgive my tendency for proclamation, but it is one of the greatest films ever made.
I wonder why it has taken so long for such an important masterpiece to become available on dvd. Is it that the film is purely cinematic and thus irreducible to the video image? Or is it too slowly paced and lugubrious for even Criterion's audience of cinephiles (I have mentioned this release to many friends who write about film professionally or semi-professionally, and none of them seem to think this constitute an event)? Jeanne makes very particular, very unique demands of its audience and it strikes me that one must have an unusually sophisticated understanding of cinema to appreciate it. Jeanne is a pure cinema, yet unremarkable to many people who would use such terms.
I checked out the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, and was surprised... baffled actually, to find unanimous approval among the eleven critics who reviewed it, a group which includes Jonathan Rosenbaum and Vincent Canby (!?). My personal experience with the film suggests a more reaction would be the norm. For instance, I once attended a screening of Jeanne at the Harvard Film Archive. When the movie began the theater was about half full. By the end of the nearly four hours, the audience had dwindled to very low double digits, perhaps fifteen or twenty people remained, and at least one of them had only stayed long enough to blurt out “What the hell was that?!” to voice his disgust after the screen went black. More telling was the time I watched this film in a classroom during the first few weeks of graduate school. There was a minor revolt during the screening, and the subsequent discussion was so hostile and narrow-minded that our professor decided he would never show the film to a class again.
Many viewers will see Jeanne as a response to Fassbinder's Herr R. This comparison is fair enough, but I would shy away from calling it a Feminist response. Akerman herself has resisted this categorization throughout her career, yet remains a very popular selection in college courses on Feminist film. I would be interested in the varieties of Feminist interpretation of Jeanne and what they bring to light as well as what they exclude. For instance, if we take the film's conclusion as symbolic - if we interpret it as a "message" what is the nature of that message. Is it merely a longer, slower-paced Thelma and Louise? How else might the ending be interpreted? What if we interpret it in terms of its tragic narrative structure?
The importance of Jeanne has more to do with Akerman's observation of human behavior and attention to detail than whatever her ideological affiliations may or may not be. More than any other film in her oeuvre, Jeanne is the work in which nothing is not only something, it is the only thing. It is not mere observation, but revelation arrived at by spending time and looking hard. Making meatloaf has meaning. Drama is created by context rather than by plot. Missing a button on a housecoat becomes an event.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I Don't Get Very Excited About Eisenstein

The tradition called Russian Formalism is not bad filmmaking. I do not wish to disparage it or dwell on the shortcomings of its products. However, I cannot hear anyone talk about how great it is without thinking of how much better Dovzhenko is. I have a pronounced inability to grant a critic his premise, and it often causes problems. I would never say that Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov are wrong or uninteresting, just that they are limited. I often suggest confronting all the art one can stomach. Often this is my tactic for leading people away from inferior works. The premise is that one needs to see everything in order to determine what is good. This is how museum's work. It may not be the stated intention of the curator, but the point of putting together, for instance, all the Dutch Masters is not to suggest that they are all equal, but to allow the viewer to come to the understanding that Rembrandt is better. One does not necessarily come to this perspective as if it where innate. You don't know what makes a masterpiece by staring at the masterpiece in a vacuum. This is a fundamental premise of art appreciation. I am not sure that it qualifies as “aesthetics” because it is probably to simplistic, too “nuts and bolts” and not enough speculation and conceptualization. I cannot imagine that it is any less valid as a consequence. Art appreciation is at least as much, if not more, a matter of training and honing of perception and instinct than it is a development of theory and methodology. I am sure it sounds foolish, but I know that Dovzhenko's Earth is better than Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, Pudovkin's End of St. Petersburg, or Eisenstein's Potyemkin. I can see it. I see it every time I watch them. I see it because Earth taught me to see it.

I would add that the Russian Formalists are sufficiently well-known, and further I would emphasize the relationship between fame and quality. There are very few exceptions to this rule and usually I can qualify those exceptions to show that they are not really exceptions at all. When we think of French Cinema we normally think of the New Wave. All of them are great directors to be certain, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette especially. Robert Bresson is better, and if you did not go to a graduate film studies program you probably never heard of him (maybe you never heard of him even if you did!). Everyone knows about Bergman's Persona, Wild Strawberries, Seventh Seal and Virgin Spring all of which a fine films, but it is Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and the mammoth, complete cut of Fanny and Alexander that are his masterworks. (For what its worth I will mention that Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible is his most interesting film.)

Part of the problem of assessment is that we are drawn to things that we can readily understand. This is true for academics as well as lay people. In fact for teachers and scholars this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the easier to understand work is always easier to teach. And so what happens is that this ease becomes a standard of value. The dumb ideas that permeate pop culture take root in the so-called ivory tower. Where a music critic with a bachelor's degree in journalism will lament a band that sells out or outlive their usefulness like REM or U2 or who forget their roots and get self-absorbed and pretentious like Radiohead, the scholar with a PhD in film studies will hail Tarkovsky's early work at the expense of his later failures (see especially the works of Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, Natasha Synessios and James Qaundt). There is something is the zeigeist that is fundamentally hostile to what I would call maturity. We want only the surface appearance of difference. The critics loved Tarkovsky when he was a new voice shouting from the wilderness of the Soviet Union – when he was potential. The minute he was able to finish a work without compromise, as soon as he managed to hit them full on in the face with something completely new (Stalker to a degree but more so with Nostalghia and Sacrifice), they were confused. Confusion can go two ways: One can work through it or resent it. Resentment is much easier.

I like to keep these posts short, and now I see a have bitten off a bit too much. No doubt that I will take this topic up again soon. To wrap up I will remind you that the solution to this problem is to watch. I am not a philosopher and I know that my language is often inelegant. Watch the films and figure it out for yourself.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Night at the Movies

Where do you go to see art films? Is it basically Chicago, Boston, NYC and San Francisco plus the odd art museum? Hell, I'm just taking Frisco and Chicago for granted. I have never seen an art film in either of those places myself; I just imagine they are cosmopolitan enough to support art house movie theaters. At any rate I do not expect to see them where I live, but once a year, during the week long film festival at the end of April. I must add, however, that in recent years the pickings at the festival have been rather slim and as the market shrinks up and even festival films will need to be selected more and more as money makers and not as works of art, the pickings will only get slimmer. I do not have great expectations from this year's festival. So imagine my surprise when I take my weekly peak at the local theater's website and find they will be showing Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath and Tarkovsky's Solaris all week. If I go Sunday, I can even catch both on the same day. This was a rare opportunity indeed, so I headed off to the theater for a night of cinema the likes of which I had not known since my days in Boston.

It did not go according to plan, not exactly anyway. First I found out that there was an error in the screening times posted on the website. Day of Wrath played earlier than it was scheduled and the only option I had at the time I arrived was Fritz Lang's M. Well I could have watched Two Lovers or some movie about a cake, but mainstream, quasi-art, Oscar-fodder was not exactly what got me out of the house that afternoon, so I went to see M – me and four other people, one of whom had no idea what he was there to see; I overheard him asking the cashier which movie they were showing was about WWII “or something” because he had to watch it for a class. So I watched M. I should mention that I watched a DVD of M in an effort to get back to my original question. I certainly do not fault the theater here, 35mm or even 16mm prints are very expensive and these days you would have to hire a person separate from your regular “projectionist” to run the machines. But I will say that it was a bit of a surprise to go to the movie theater to watch a pair of classic films only to find out that I would be watching DVDs that I own. The projection was okay though. It was crisp and sharp. The sound was not so good. M and Solaris are especially quiet films, and for much of the time I was hearing Two Lovers and/or the cake movie from the theaters below.

The conditions were not ideal. The financial situation is not good. The films are not films. Nobody is coming out to see them (there were four people in the theater to see Solaris). At least the films will always be the films. M is not an altogether bad movie. Certainly overrated by a great many film historians and theorists, but smarter than its later counterparts – junk like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. It is a good study of mob mentality and moral ambiguity. Not a bad movie to show high school kids if you can get them past the fact that it is in black and white and in German.

And then I watched Solaris again. What a testament to Tarkovsky as an artist that even his least successful works are still full of surprises and nuance. Perhaps I had not noticed it before or I had simply forgotten how physical this movie is. Tarkovsky has a reputation for being quite heady and cold, and I was quite struck by the amount of physical contact in this film. There Snaut's frequent pats on the back and grasping of arms and shoulders – at one point he walks arm in arm with Kelvin and Hari while Kelvin wheres an open robe and quite explicit underpants. Kelvin's physicality often underpins the close contact of a given scene. He wears a variety of mesh shirts and often has the very short briefs. The contact between Hari and Kelvin is also quite more explicit than is typical of Tarkovsky. They kiss arms, hands; Hari puts Kris' fingers in her mouth. Kelvin buries his head into her lap repeatedly, an especially humiliating gesture if one is at all familiar with the generally held notion about Tarkovsky's misogyny. So significant is Kelvin's gesture of submission to Hari that it sparks the ire of Sartorius in the library scene. Is his fury just the result that Kris would lower himself to a non-human, or that Hari is a female, and moreover that Kris would not think twice about submitting himself to her in front of other people?

Also in this scene are the beginnings of what Robert Bird has dubbed the crucible of ideology. To argue multiple points of view is one of Tarkovsky's most important narrative devices. Contrary to what many critics may believe, Tarkovsky's films do not espouse positions about gender, religion, politics, or the nature of truth. His mature works pit several positions on these matters against one another, and in the end no one emerges victorious, nor does the narrative itself achieve any synthesis. Kris, Snaut, Sartorius and Hari each have a distinct point of view. None of them are right. None of them are wrong. This is a quite remarkable narrative achievement considering the rather clear-cut ideology of Andrei Rublyov. In many ways Rublyov is a better film than Solaris, but it remains less of a Tarkovsky film. One need only compare the trio of Snaut, Kelvin and Sartorius with Daniil, Andrei and Kiril. Andrei is clearly the “right” while Kiril is “wrong” and Daniil mediates between the two leaning toward Andrei spiritually and intellectually, but feeling a bit like Kiril emotionally. Who is “right” among the other three? Who wins in the end? The Solaris trio is much more like the Stalker trio, even going so far as to add a fourth – a woman who undercuts the very ontology of the subject the three men argue about.

It is quite advanced in many ways, but still probably Tarkovsky's weakest film. I would love to see a directors cut of it, one that didn't include all the sci-fi nonsense he was obligated to put in by the cultural authorities. All the shots of Solaris itself are so dated and distracting. And Donatas Banionis' acting job on Kris Kelvin. It is easy to see why Tarkovsky disliked working with Banionis and was apt to mention him when enumerating the reasons why he thought of Solaris as his worst film. But then most directors in the history of this medium should be happy to make a movie that equals Tarkovsky's worst.

Tokyo Story, the Limits of Ideology and Some More Biography

“Plato makes the perfect ideal being tremble in me. But that's only a bit of me. Perfection is only a bit, in the strange make-up of man alive. The Sermon on the Mount makes the selfless spirit of me quiver. But that, too, is only a bit of me. The Ten Commandments set the old Adam shivering in me, warning me that I am a thief and a murderer, unless I watch it. But even the old Adam is only a bit of me. I very much like all these bits of me to be set trembling with life and the wisdom of life. But I do ask that the whole of me shall tremble in its wholeness, some time or other.” D. H. Lawrence

It is no secret that I am student of Ray Carney's. I just finished an essay of his entitled “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism: Visionary and Pragmatic.” It is described on his website as “the longest and most ambitious essay he has ever written about film and philosophy.” I have not spoken to Ray about when he wrote the essay, I know that a lot of the ideas and examples came up in a course I took with him in 1997, but my concern is that the essay was first publish in a book called A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States that came out in 2000. That means that Carney waited an awfully long time to set down some tenets for an aesthetics. He had already published books about Cassavetes, Dreyer and Capra in addition to numerous essays and interviews. This suggests to me that I need to get back on track writing about films instead of always letting myself be drawn into debates about the nature of cinema. It is hard not to get side-tracked by these arguments, because I have always been on the defensive. It seems every time I say one movie is bad and another is good, I am asked, by teachers, by would-be publishers, to insert a detailed aesthetic breakdown that makes clear how I reached such a conclusion. Over the past ten years this has become practically instinctual. I have published two essays in cinema journals, one about why it is wrong to understand Tarkovsky's Nostalghia as an anti-feminist harangue and the other about why Kiarostami's Taste of Cherries is a cinematic masterpiece while a movie ostensibly interested in many of the same questions, Mendes' American Beauty is kitsch. Then there is the content of this blog! Where are the movies for people who hate movies?

So I want to thank 13 Kangs for getting us back on track even if he chose a particularly silly idiom. I would ask readers not to judge him by his appropriation of techniques invented by sports hackery, but by the content of his criticism. 13 Kangs is a great student of Bergman, and I know that he did not get that from his screen writing teacher; he learned painstakingly over time. In any event his recent post is a damn sight better than my discussions of run of the mil documentaries about great thinkers and abstract speculation about the nature of Cinema or the makeup of the canon. There has been too much abstract discussion about the nature of art and the particular potential of cinema lately, and it is distracting me from writing about works. Not that this discussion is unimportant, just that I need to make sure I am still writing about works and artists. The films are the real teachers.

I was reminded of this by a recent viewing of Ozu's masterpiece, Tokyo Story. I actually watched it before writing the second blog about Žižek! and the one about Derrida. I must admit it was extremely difficult to bear down and finish those, because Ozu will take the wind out of those intellectual sails. It made me think about how I treat people, particularly how I treat my parents and my grandparents and how disrespectful and ungrateful to them I am. It showed me what generosity looks like. It showed me selflessness and forgiveness. It made me think about how people deal with profound loss. Tokyo Story is about getting old and dying and trying your whole life to do right by people and knowing that in many instances you failed. And when I say that art is about life and not about ideas about life, that's what I mean. Tokyo Story is not ideas; it is not so much in the mind. Ozu's films are always behavior and human experience. His work is also camera angles, empty spaces, pacing and other important aspects of visual and narrative style, but I want to focus just on the matter of ideological consent for the moment. Tokyo Story is daily life; more specifically, it it the daily life you and I ignore because we are too busy thinking about big ideas. When my father looks up from his lunch and tells me, with my mother siting next to him and my wife sitting next to me, that he figures the family name will die with him because his one male cousin only had daughters and it doesn't look like I'm going to have any kids, there is no philosophy to help me make sense of that.

But there is Ozu. I could have forgotten what art was for if not for watching that movie. I came up with the name for this site thinking about a former English professor who absolutely hated movies because he thought the medium was inherently pornographic. I convinced him to take part in programming a film series with me, and I consider it one of my happiest achievements to have won him over to Mother and Son, Stalker, Late Spring and Sans Soleil. I forgot about him. I forgot about that impetus. From now on I hope to fill this page with more criticism and commentary of movies that the average web wanderer my have never heard of.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Let's Get Irrelevant!

Is this a film or filmed theater? Bergman struggled monumentally with the same
fundamental problem as Ibsen: how to bring the elemental fury of the inner world
alive for a viewing audience. His answer was through dramatic precision and
sublime acting.

I hope everybody has missed me and has been enjoying J. Knecht's mapping of the intellectual universe. For those of you keeping score at home, he argues that an enlightened view of aesthetics precludes "understanding" and "explication" and, instead, relentlessly returns our attention to the question of new forms. (Is it better to say "expands our horizons"?) Because of the inherent problem of evaluating new forms with old methodologies, Knecht is apt to dismiss authority and the highly-acclaimed while slyly substituting contemplation of his own pet canon. Fortunately, he is usually correct and mostly self-deprecating. However, that doesn't mean that I'm not getting bored!

I've decided to go against everything that everyone holds sacred and to create a Power Ranking of Great Directors based on my current mood of magical whimsy. Hold your venom, you bagel-eating philistines! It's all in the name of unsettling your biases and inflaming your passions. Here we go!

The rules: This is a Power Rankings analagous to preseason sports rankings that project a team or player's overall value based on various categories, such as passing yards or turnovers. Most art critics have an inherent problem with the term "Greatest" but I think it's mostly due to laziness. Surely we can agree, for example, that Rembrandt is a greater painter than Gaugin and we can point to several formal categories in which Rembrandt's best paintings simply surpass or transcend the works of the latter. I am likewise attempting to formalize a discussion of "top" directors by uniformly applying a formula for greatness while remaining open to changing the terms or the relative value of these aesthetic categories.

The criteria:
a) FORM: a signature style that reveals innovation or technical/artistic mastery of the mechanical aspects of filmmaking (i.e. visual, sound, editing)

b) THEME: complex, mature development and expression of thematic material (objective weight/value of specific thematic motifs deemed to be irrelevant)

c) ACTING/DRAMA/STORYTELLING: consistency and refinement of acting performances; emotional resonance of internal narrative/characters (possibly a red herring but I propose that narrative filmmaking is superior to documentary for the reason that fiction is superior to journalism; I propose that all great directors choose narrative for this reason to formally exploit this distinction between truth and artifice as a primary vehicle for their expression; therefore, I posit that a director's handling and development of characters and the internal dramatic narrative is paramount to the success and scale of his achievement)

d) KNOWLEDGE/CONCRETENESS/REALITY: hear me out--a great director offers so much more than technical innovation, thematic richness and human drama, she brings a refined appreciation for the details of the world, concrete knowledge of things and situations that is rapidly being lost in the ironically named "information age." Surely, Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without his immense understanding of politics and the law, trade and commerce, farming, fashion, history and the military. A director certainly need not be a scholar but, like Rilke's angels, she is bound by the same mission as the returning traveler: to impress and edify us with intimate knowledge of the world.

10. Ingmar Bergman

Formal Greatness: C+
Thematic Greatness: A-
Dramatic Greatness: A+
Greatness of Knowledge: B

Several honorable mentions neglected here in favor of Bergman (Angelopoulos, Dreyer, Fellini, Herzog, Hou, Marker, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Wong), largely due to incomplete viewing. But on the other hand, how can you argue with Bergman's inclusion? Even though I have not seen half of his films, Bergman is in my estimation, along with Ozu, the supreme master of classical dramatic narrative form. Not a bad performance in either oeuvre and many, many legendary ones. His heralded theater roots provided him with the gifts of pacing, dialogue, composition and a knack for handling actors. Nevertheless, these roots themselves had to eventually be outgrown and his work with his actors become the true focal point of his enterprise before Bergman became truly "great."

Even with Nyqvist at his side, Bergman's genius for theatrical realization always overshadows his formal/technical innovation. Deft with comedy, spectacle and the most intense drama, he has a visual tendency towards prettified symbolism a la Seventh Seal. (Strangely, I find the narrative structure of Bergman's early and middle films virtually indistinguishable from the Kurosawa's pot-boilers.) Hard to complain when a film is as satisfying as Wild Strawberries, however, Persona seems to mark a conscious shift in Bergman's priorities towards resolving his themes through other possible means, culminating somewhat in the refined lavishness of Cries and Whispers.

In my mind, Scenes From a Marriage ultimately surpasses Persona as his experimental masterpiece, not through technical innovation, but through the relentless insistence on distance and performance. These two formal innovations are Bergman's greatest achievement in that by loosening the restrictions of time and delving ever deeper into his actor's souls, Bergman arrives at a cinema (albeit originally intended for television) that at last matches the ferocity of his themes (faith, suffering, the distant promise of love) with an experience for the viewer that roughly mirrors the rawness and discomfort of his characters. The title, for me, marks a radical departure from Bergman's comfort zone of formalized drama and instead evokes the kind of actorly exercises with which he would be equally familiar, but perhaps less willing to film. But instead of merely watching pretty actors suffer and torture each other, we become complicit through time and closeup in their momentary flashes of emotion and insight. (The standard here is not "rawness" of acting but the use to which that acting is put and I see no reason to draw comparisons to the acting in Cassavetes, which is equally superior.)

Knowledge of the world in Bergman is mostly limited to the internal realm of the yearning soul (can that really be called knowledge?) and the relationships between men and women. His example lets me illustrate the inverse connection between the strength of his "themes" and his "knowledge." Themes such as solitude, suffering and the existence of God hint to a form of artistic transcendence that demands not only intellectual rigor but a great degree of innovation to avoid mere signification and involve the viewer in a lived experience of transcendence. Bresson has much the same project and he tackles it through rigorous editing and dramatic minimalism. Bergman, on the other hand, tends to show people in anguish and doubt, paralyzed or inflamed by their passions. He tends, in other words, to act his themes out. Although no one can question the authenticity or rigor of Bergman's examination of faith, I am saying here that his expression of this theme tends to be less than, say Bresson's or Dreyer's who sometimes achieve a kind of epiphany for the viewer through the power of the image or editing, rather than the power of the drama. That, to me, is another order of genius. Bergman's merit, I think, comes, like a solid veteran, from his unflinching dedication to his themes.

As a result, I rate Bergman's contribution of knowledge to be only average. He shows us intimate rituals and daily, lived interiors but I can't help but feel it's all set decoration. Has he ever been genuinely interested in the work people do, for example, outside of the relationships they trap us in or the way they symbolically reflect our souls? (Thus the profusion of professors, priests and maidens.) His actors and his sets are always so handsome and impeccably dressed; in other words--artificial. On the other hand, by Fanny and Alexander, all of Bergman's dramatic, symbolic tendencies seem to culminate in a kind of Hamlet-esque reflection of itself that is singularly beguiling. The layered orchestration of family life, ritual and fantasy in this film approaches the highest achievements of Tarkovsky and Kiarostami for me. I cannot help but wish that, like Fellini, he occassionally indulged in more childish reflection instead of trying to be so grownup.

Ultimately, his actors are Bergman's shining achievement. Through his devotion to their bold and nuanced performances, Bergman lays bare the inner lives of men and women as the cinematic counterpart to D.H. Lawrence (or at least August Strindberg).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notes on Derrida

That both Žižek! and Derrida appear within a couple years of one another from Zeitgeist films makes the comparison inevitable. Since I watched Žižek! first I find Derrida functions as a counterpoint in many ways. The way Žižek embraces the filmmaking, how he is always performing, going so far as to act out his death at the end vs. the way Derrida shies away from the camera, always seems reluctant to answer questions, never seems quite confident that this film about him is going to amount to much of anything. That Žižek! is packed from end to end with words, words, words but what I remember about Derrida are the silences – I remember him thinking more than speaking. The project of Žižek! seems to be that the filmmakers want to help him achieve his goal of shedding his humanity and “becoming a monster; becoming theory,” whereas the goal of Derrida is to humanize him through focus on the banal and the mundane, interviews with his wife about their relationship, interviews with his brother. The result is that both end up at odds with their respective mythic images. Žižek, the devourer of popular culture and the champion of the everyday comes across all cerebral and discursive, flying far above the world as we know it a deal with it. Quite surprisingly, it is Derrida who emerges as a down to earth fellow. The documentary is a bit more haphazard, a bit aimless, and quite inferior to Žižek! but the central figure manages to save Derrida through his quiet, matter-of-fact persona.

For me what was most interesting about Derrida was his frequent rejection of the ways in which he is appropriated by the anything-goes/everything-is-meaningful crowd that currently hold court in American intellectual culture. When asked by a British talk show host what he thinks of the idea that Seinfeld is born from Deconstructions Derrida responds: (He blinks a couple times, hands folded and arched just in front of his chin. It is clear that he disdains the question but he is polite. He shifts in his seat) “Deconstruction… the way I understand it… does not produce any… sitcom (Derrida’s French accent is ever so slight, but you hear it when he emphasizes the “com” instead of the “sit.” Somehow that end up communicating to me that he finds this question ridiculous) If people who watch [Seinfeld] think deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them… just read; stop watching sitcom. Do your homework.” Who would have guessed that Derrida harbored the notion that popular culture is shallow? Later there is a scene in which one of the filmmakers points to the some books at the top of his shelf and asks, “Have you read those?” Derrida pulls down two novels by Anne Rice and says “No. I Taught a course concerned with vampirism and cannibalism and someone gave me these. I have read most of these books (on the floor to ceiling shelves from which the Anne Rice came), but not all of them.” Again I want to emphasize, imagine that Derrida would think reading Anne Rice is a waste of his time!

I don’t know what it all adds up to regarding Derrida’s aesthetics, but I am glad to see some indication of standards and values, because those are the things deconstruction is always invoked to neutralize. Similarly, when he is asked what he would like to ask the great philosophers of history, Derrida says he wants to ask them about their sex lives. Not because he wants to diagnose them, but because he wants to make them talk about what they leave out. It has been suggested to me that Derrida is more of an artist than a philosopher. That would explain why he wants the great thinkers to remember their bodies. So much thinking is done at a distance from lived experience, is done even to forget and deny lived experience. The deconstructionists, the post-colonialists, the multi-culturalists, the feminists, the psychoanalyticists fail to bring lived experience back into philosophy; they merely draw their abstractions from different groups of people and champion different values. Their revolutions are often only the flipside of the coin to which they object. Derrida’s project is much bigger, much more dangerous. Not that I am an expert on Derrida. Have written a few hundred words, I am left thinking that I actually know nothing about Derrida after watching that movie. I only know a few things that he is not.

Remaining thoughts about Žižek.

Here is the long awaited (I am sure of this) part two of my reaction to Reality of the Virtual. I would like to cleverly set up the stream of consciousness you are about to step into, but I have no patience to construct such artifice at this late hour. (Yes, this was posted at 12:30 on a Sunday, but when I wrote that sentence it was 10:00 Saturday night and I had been writing, or at least sitting in front of the computer, since 2:00. While that may not seem like much for a lot of people who call themselves writers, it is quite exhausting for me.)

The bit about everyone agreeing to the virtual through silent, even unconscious, assumption is crucial. So many of our beliefs are not really notions in which we believe, but beliefs that we expect others at once to have and to assume we have so we go along. I would say that this flow runs over the very notion of belief itself. When I watch myself, I can see that my very behavior is almost totally made up of movements and sounds that I assume others expect of me. Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel is a brilliant illustration of this phenomenon. Fine, upstanding people will digress to savagery before taking a single step over the precipice that separates the status quo from the unknown, even as the status quo is killing them.

According to Žižek this is the very function of a society. Like the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, argues that society is flawed not by disharmony, but by its primordial shape. Historically, those at the top of the socio-economic power structure have attributed the various problems in their respective societies to minority groups that threaten harmony. Everything would be fine if we got rid of the Jews or the Gays, if we kept the Blacks and Women where they belong, if we kept out the Mexicans, if we killed off the intellectuals. Placing aside for the moment the moral objections to these plans, they do not work because they misunderstand the problem. There is no idyllic, harmonious society to which we must return; there is only the flawed shape of a society that necessarily stratifies classes. A society has to have poor and rich, worker and owner, ignorant and enlightened. What Žižek dares to suggest, if I understand correctly, is that we don’t need an alternative society so much as an alternative to society.

But we are all very attached to society, and so we try to make it work. Chief among our recent efforts to save society has been to disseminate tolerance far and wide. Rodney King’s famous “Can’t we all just get along,” has become something of a motto to large segments of our population, particularly for intellectuals and public figures. Of course nothing has changed about politics and pundits. They still don’t get along, but now they can accuse the other side of not wanting to get along. As for intellectuals, the new-found mission of tolerance opens up myriad new subjects to teach, ways to teach them and demographic groups to bring into the universities.

Žižek calls tolerance a chocolate laxative. He says the ultimate chocolate laxative is to wage wars to free people who don’t ask to be freed i.e. Iraq. I am still working on that metaphor. Does he mean that we are unable to take something we need unless it is sugar-coated, and thus we begin to conflate the two? Is it that we start feeling good about feeling bad? Or does he mean that it isn’t what we think it is. That we think tolerance is something sweet, but the sweetness conceals a motive completely at odds with what we should expect from it? Tolerance, Žižek says, means do not harass me; in fact, don’t even come close to me. Since every attempt at communication is almost always first an intrusion of some sort, then every word spoken toward or written about another human being is potentially “harassment.” It does not take long to reach the point at which this fear of harassment becomes intolerance. I am quite susceptible to this argument, because I see this going on all around me. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck right off! Where does conversation take place? Indeed where does thinking occur? I think this is Žižek at his best – revealing that a given ballyhooed truism that seems like a good idea, actually engenders the opposite of what it purports to do.

Nowhere is this more striking than in his discussion of pleasure. His examples are always vivid. “There is nothing more miserable,” Žižek says, “than those young couples or people who organize their life in order to enjoy themselves.” This is exactly why we have Blackberries. Everyone needs her life to be meticulously planned. We even plan something called free time! We plan to go out and get drunk on a particular night then the next day’s schedule says: “gym” or “jogging.” We have to plan our pleasure! Žižek distinguishes Freud’s time from our own, and it is often instructive to think of our era as “Post-Freud,” arguing that Freud developed his theories and practice in opposition to the societal injunction to deny oneself pleasure, whereas our societal injunction is to go after pleasure. Of course Žižek argues that our pleasure is pleasure neutralized – we get to drink on the decaffeinated coffee and non-alcoholic, low-carb, light beer we want! What we need now is find a space where we are allowed not to enjoy. How pregnant that suggestion is! Yet I fear that my digression into why I think we need that pleasure-less space would lead this commentary quite away from Žižek, so I should leave it alone for now.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Reality of the Virtual Part One

As always I find Žižek’s comments about movies to be needlessly convoluted and quite over-intellectualized. Near the beginning of the “lecture” he argues that Sound of Music is popular because it purports to be about fascist resistance, but really it just re-inscribes and normalizes domestic fascism. Of course this is true. Indeed, how else could it possibly be popular? This is how kitsch works. What I find frustrating about Žižek’s conversation about movies, is that he seems to think this is a particular achievement of Sound of Music. It is for similar reasons I imagine that he named Fountainhead the greatest American film. They are both brilliant illuminations despite themselves of American Cultural ideology. I would ask: Why these films specifically? Isn’t this how Hollywood works in general? And do we really need all the verbal and conceptual gymnastics to say that Hollywood movies which purport to sell rebellion and freedom merely maintain the status quo?

Žižek is a unique, adventurous thinker on so many subjects (often vehement and confrontational), so it is surprising that his views on art line up so neatly with current academic trends.

Where does value come from? I find that philosophers will often focus on questions of ontology to demonstrate that values are unstable. Fair enough. Are we then left with no limits? I can agree that nothing should be taken for granted, that all should be scrutinized and interrogated, but at some point we must get on with it, no? At some point one must choose, yes? I would argue that in the world in which we live, that choice can easily be made for you. One who refuses to get off the path of relativity, one who endlessly deconstructs and upends everything as inherently illusory, will eventually find that his conceptual clarity makes for a quite shallow practical world. Society will not stand for relativism (and I am not sure that consciousness will either, but that is another matter). There will be values, and if one does not determine them according to morals, ethics, aesthetics or what have you, they will be determined by the market.

For all the bad philosophizing of the previous paragraph, I stand by the conclusion, and I reject the practice of indiscriminately treating everything as if it had significance. I am unsure whether this idea began when Freud started applying his technique of dream analysis to his interpretations of art and artists (see especially what he has to say about Leonardo’s Notebooks) or when Freud’s followers began using his myriad analytical practices as approaches to understanding society and culture, but Freud is a key source. I would argue that this methodology really comes to fruition in Roland Barthes Mythologies, the most important book to read for anyone who wants to understand where cultural theory as we know it today came from. Whether or not he states it outright, Barthes makes possible the absolute relativism that we know today. Professional wrestling, laundry detergents, automobile designs, toilets, Guernica, The Wings of the Dove, The Well-Tempered Clavier – all of it tells us something and we are not in the business of assigning value to what it tells us. The consequence of treating all culture as equally significant is that it is only a matter of time, within a society that mass produces and sells its culture, before the market replaces morality, ethics, aesthetics, faith even reason.

I heard Robert Rauschenberg say once that he feels sorry for anyone who cannot see the beauty in a coke can. Indeed his whole project was to transform the ugly, discarded trash and byproducts of mass production and mass consumption into works of art by reconfiguring and recontextualizing them. What Rauschenberg fails to acknowledge, in my view, is his agency in that perception. I believe underlying his statement is the view, held by many westerners, that seeing the beauty in all things is the equivalent of understanding that everything has Buddha nature. I will just say that I think westerners who use this as excuse for their relativism do not understand the eastern idea. Not that I claim to know what it means, just that I don’t think it is meant to be a defense for relativism. I would be inclined to argue that such a statement is not intended to be taken a conceptual at all, and to make reason out of it is a mistake.

Reason may be the root of my conflict with Žižek’s ideas about art. He seems to think that he can submit the world to the power of his mind. Everything is significant because he can make it so, and what’s more, it would be insulting to his great mind to suggest that he does not see right through the market that I submit shapes his values. Such are the limitations of my own mind and my own rhetorical style. I can only evaluate Žižek’s conclusions and speculate about where I think they come from. I do not find his discussion of cinema particularly interesting. For my own part, I do not believe that the sheer force of my will can make meaning. The time I spend browsing the internet, playing video games, watching television and thinking about sports is time unquestionably wasted on insignificant diversions. The less I do those things the better off I am, not just in the sense that all those things make me dumber, or atrophy my intellect, but that they cloud my awareness, they deaden my sensitivities and make my perceptions less acute.

Let me conclude (or rather draw to a close by blowing the whole thing up instead of concluding) by addressing the quote at the top of the page, from the Symbolist poet and philosopher, Viacheslav Ivanov. I anticipate that the notion of “new forms” can be misleading because it carries a lot of baggage about “formalism,” especially to anyone who has studied Modernist Art History. I think what he is getting at is the difference between what the conceptual idea and experience as idea. In other words, it is a lesser art work of art that seeks to embody a particular concept. It is a lesser artist that would have specific conceptual goals that he would use art instead of philosophy or science to address. It is a lesser spectator or critic that would expect to find concepts in a work; that would judge a work of art based on what he or she can glean from it. To experience a great work of art is to be plunged into states of perception and awareness that are ahead (maybe just ahead, but ahead nonetheless) of the categories one keep around to help make sense of the world. Part of making sense of this experience will be the spectator’s effort to revise those conceptual tools, but something happens to perception first. One does not come away from a masterpiece with new knowledge as such, but with sharper perception, enhanced sensitivity and the like. It is more akin to the professed benefits of psychotropic drugs or a profound religious conversion, than to a lesson learned.

Does this sound mystical? It is actually the most pragmatic thing in the world. At the root of it is the simple principle of constant change. As one grows, he or she gives up past interests and amusements. One stops listening to a particular band or a host of bands, one gives up on an author at a certain point, one finds that he or she cannot eat McDonald’s hamburgers anymore. Why? -- Ostensibly because new experiences have put past experiences into perspective. This part of life, this part of consciousness, is often neglected, because it is difficult to use conceptual language to talk about it. Yet it is just as much a part of our perception as reason, except in individuals where it has been ruthlessly subjected to the supposed superiority of reason.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is there a place for violence in the cinema?

I have been arguing a bit with a friend about various movies, many of which feature graphic scenes of violence and murder (Among the directors we have touched on are the Coen brothers, P.T. Anderson and David) We have argued plenty, and in my estimation have yet to get anywhere. Then he boiled it down to a succinct, fundamental question: Is there a place for violence in the cinema? Here are some of my thoughts.

The short answer is no. Sex and violence are such easy button pushers that to show them at all is almost always to invite cliché. This is one of the primary reasons that the Frankfurt school and Benjamin in particular thought cinema was inherently pornographic. I would say that it has to do with the indexical reality (a term I first came across reading Bill Nichols book about the documentary) of the cinematic image. It is not inherently pornographic, but the psychological predisposition of most people makes it so. It is difficult to turn away from violent images. Since most directors know this their use of violence is intentionally exploitative. It is mere button pushing and not aesthetic experience. For whatever reason the intellectual inclinations of many thoughtful viewers is precisely to equate violence with substance and weight as if the director would not show us something so horrific unless what he was saying was very important and very deep. This too is exploitation. The Spielbergs, Coens, Aranovskys and P. T. Andersons of the world certainly know that when they make a violent movie it will be taken very seriously by the critical establishment.

When I watched Burn After Reading I was horrified by image of Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) hacking away at the head of Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) at the end of the film. It is easily one of the worst things I have seen recently. It is the kind of thing one cannot unsee. I would describe it as poison to the imagination. I can recall the image right now when I close my eyes. My question is: What did I learn from this movie that warranted such an image? Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Ozu, Cassavetes, Akerman – they show me the world inside and out, and he does it without hatchets to the face, without feet sticking out of the wood chipper and without pools of blood creeping across hardwood floors.

That is the short answer, the somewhat shallow answer. The real answer is that I reject the question. I am not interested in defining the limits of cinema, as if there were abstract rules to which all works of art were subject. I am not interested in the rules. If I see a good movie that has violence in it, my interest is in the movie’s goodness, not in its violence. If I see a bad movie with violence, my problem is with its badness. One of the most crucial aspects of movie-making is how the director resolves the problem of indexical reality. Part of art is artifice, but filmmakers of both the kitsch variety and the Salon variety seem to want to dissolve the artifice.

Consider Los Muertos. It is about a man who has been in prison an undetermined/unrevealed amount of time for committing a double murder. The film begins with what turns out to be a dream sequence. The camera dollies through the jungle, lifting, falling and tilting through the trees, branches, grasses and undergrowth. All you hear are birds and bugs chirping and buzzing. The two murder victims are revealed in turn. They are presented not graphically, but abstractly, almost as a matter of narrative course. They lie face down, motionless, a bit of red liquid on their backs, but no severed limbs (though we are led to believe the protagonist has killed them with a machete) and no gore.

The remainder of the film follows a man from his prison release to a home in the jungle where he thinks he will find his daughter. The pace is languid and there is very little talking. I should mention that I watched this movie because I read that the director was influenced by Tarkovsky. Let me say that his pace is quite beyond anything Tarkovsky ever imagined. Most of the film is like the handcart ride in Stalker but with only one person. I am exaggerating just a little to indicate that one gets caught up in the pace of this movie. One forgets the character because one is so immersed in the rhythm.

Half of the film is the protagonists paddling a small boat down a river. At a certain point he drifts past a small goat standing on the shore. He paddles over to the animal, and, as matter-of-factly as you please, proceeds to slit its throat, drain it of its blood and gut it, all of which is shown in graphic detail. Let me impress upon you that this is utterly real. Real goat, really killed, really butchered by the main character. It is astonishing.

I want to say a couple things about this. First, this image does not haunt me. It was surprising, but t did not upset me like Malkovich did. Of course I am still thinking about it, but I am thinking about what it means. Film is probably inherently pornographic, but some images stick with you because they are evocative and pregnant, while other stick with you more like shit that you can’t get off your shoe. Malkovich with the hatchet in Burn After Reading is the shit on my shoe.

Anyway, the important thing to understand about the meaning of slaughter of the goat is that it is created narratively. Granted the slaughter of the goat is a dense image, in itself. It is real death and as such it explodes the artifice of the form, and the whole suspension of disbelief thing because here is an actor playing a character in a made up scenario, but he really just killed a living creature. But this movie is not The Slaughter of a Goat. It has a narrative trajectory, and that image is contextualized within that narrative to have a different meaning than it would have if it were a simple piece of raw footage. On a very basic level, this is how cinema functions as a narrative art. The slaughter of the goat means one thing. Put a different image before it, and it means something else. Put another image after it and it means a third thing, and so forth. The narrative is the meaning, not the shocking image. I am not talking about story-telling, or plot or Aristotelian dramatic structure. Narrative is like laying bricks, and these bricks are like levels or modes of perception.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


It is strange to write a short commentary about such a film, because my comments do not really address filmmaking or the ideas of the filmmaker; only what I think about Žižek’s ideas after watching him talk for an hour and a half.

Here are a few observations and points of contention:

The film begins with Žižek explaining that nothing is real and insisting that he means that in a “literal” sense. My short response to that is: Bollocks. (Sometimes a British idiom seems more appropriate than the American version.) I do not understand this kind of thinking. Ontology never made sense to me. One may suppose that the world was created by a Judeo-Christian God who gave humanity a set of rules to live by or one may suppose that all of existence is the dream of a mad man. One may speculate a thousand other hypotheses. I cannot see that it matters. It is quite likely that this is my problem and that I should not judge Žižek for espousing ontology that seems futile to me. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that it is a serpent eating its tail. Is it a useful idea? Does it help one to reach tenable conclusions about the world around him or her? Does it help one to negotiate society, to move closer to what Plato called communion with the One and what today is called more commonly living authentically? For me it has the opposite effect, and I find in Žižek! numerous assertions and arguments that are contradictory, and instead of arriving at a Hegelian synthesis, they end up being self-defeating.

For several months I have been arguing with a friend and colleague about the fundamental mistake of post-modernism, at least when it address artworks. The contemporary critical theorist is always more interested in his own ideas than in the ideas of the work of art or the artist(s) that created it. It is a pet theory of mine that this began when Freud took his observation that a patient reveals more in the latent content of his or her dreams than in the manifest content, and applied it to art works, as if the point of art was to diagnose the artist. Roland Barthes develops this into a full-fledged theoretical approach to art and the rest of cultural production in a book that I believe has secretly had the most influence on critical thought in the past fifty years, Mythologies. The most important thing Barthes does in his work is dissolve the boundary between art and the rest of cultural production. A discipline was born in that book, and despite the fact that Žižek calls himself a Lacanian and Marxist, his discipline is Cultural Theory and it is Roland Barthes who brought it into being.

It is of course unfair to characterize Žižek in this one-dimensional way. He does make a distinction between his serious books and light cultural theory. From memory I believe his serious books are The Sublime Object of Ideology, The Ticklish Subject, The Fragile Absolute and The Plague of Fantasies. Whether I got the list right is not as important as the idea that he acknowledges a difference between his meaningful work (which I will talk about momentarily) and the cultural theory stuff which frankly seems silly to me. There is a point in the documentary at which he says the best American film ever made is King Vidor’s 1949 adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. Bollocks. This is either arch irony or over thinking. He is either trying to be clever, trying to shake up people like me who cling to their sacred cows like Tarkovsky, Bresson and Ozu, or he is making the typical culture theory move that makes what he can do with the movie more important than what the movie really is.

I know that he calls into question the notion of “what it really is.” I think I throw off one or two of my more classically trained philosopher colleagues when I use the possessive to describe the ideas that are in a film. For instance, in another documentary Žižek says he is not interested in any of the subjects that Tarkovsky addresses in his narratives, but in the pre-narrative density of Tarkovsky’s films. I don’t want to say “bollocks” again I just want to point out that all this really means is that Žižek is more interested in Žižek’s ideas than he is in Tarkovsky’s. This is a fine approach to take to King Vidor’s films, because he is not very interesting. One has to be very clever to watch Fountainhead and find anything profound in it. Tarkovsky requires different skills. His meanings require sensitivity rather than cleverness. They require attention to detail instead of free association. And when I talk about Tarkovsky’s ideas I mean the ideas that are in the film. I use the possessive as shorthand so that I don’t have to redefine where truth in art comes from every time I write about the meaning of a film. Tarkovsky often described himself as a medium (he had a fairly Platonic view of how art comes into being). Ultimately I find it prohibitive to get into such ontological discussion when I merely want to address meaning in a film. In Umberto Eco’s great Interpretation and Overinterpretation he uses the following analogy: When you receive a letter from a friend you are supposed to read it to find out what he or she is trying to communicate to you. You could no doubt spin endless meanings from it, even deconstruct it into meaninglessness, but your friend ostensibly wrote it to communicate something to you and you owe it to him or her to suss that out.

The other half of this problem is that Žižek and the like do not approach philosophers the same way. Žižek is not interested in Marx and Lacan for what he can do with them; he is interested in what they mean. Some of his critics will say that he changes the meaning of Marx by superimposing Lacan upon him, but Žižek insists, quite accurately in my view (though I cannot claim to be an expert in either Marx or Lacan), that his Lacanian Marxism is not a game but a clear understanding of Marx. He is not making the connection out of whole cloth, in other words, he is elucidating it. Žižek is most interesting when he diverges with his contemporaries, and his failure to treat artists as thinkers places him among the bulk of contemporary critical theory. Perhaps this treatment of the artist as a second-class thinker goes back even further. Maybe it is a fundamental problem for philosophy. Off the top of my head it seems that only the American Pragmatists (I have in mind Emerson, James, Santayana, Dewey and Pirsig, but probably not Rorty and certainly neither Quine nor Fish) and possibly Nietzsche have had the balls to admit that anyone who does not study and write philosophy for a living would be capable of addressing the mysteries of existence. According to the philosopher only another trained philosopher, and never an artists, is capable of complex philosophical expression.

The philosopher tends to treat art as a cultural expression rather than an individual expression. Žižek has a wonderful bit about what he can learn about various cultures from their toilets. He looks at toilets in, if I recall correctly, France, Germany and… is it England or the US? In any event he sees in these toilets Catholicism and Protestantism, Romanticism and Pragmatism and it is all there. It is a tour de force of Barthesian mythology. But it ceases to be true once you take it out of the abstract. I mean that the toilet, Keats, Mozart and Delacroix are all romantic, but the toilet is only interesting for what it reveals about Romanticism while the artists are interesting for all the unique ways they reach beyond their category.

Writing about art requires a degree of humility that is unusual in a philosopher, especially a continental philosopher. Žižek readily admits to being narcissistic. There is a brief section in which he discusses his fear that if he stops talking he will disappear. However, the documentary stops well short of showing him trying to resolve this problem. Clearly it is a tension that persists. In one of the many prefaces to the latest edition of Enjoy Your Symptom! that I have just begun reading, Žižek says that the best thing to do right would be to stop talking and writing; to go somewhere and (he quotes Lenin) “just learn, learn, learn.”

Finally I would mention the question that proved the most interesting for me, that of freedom. I should say that I reject Žižek’s linking of freedom to pleasure as he seems to mean pleasure in the Freudian sense. Still the discussion of freedom as an impossibility (though I would be less pessimistic and say that it is very nearly impossible) in our culture penetrates far deeper than anything Chomsky has written (and Chomsky is very good!) His discussion of pleasure as a wholly manufactured emotion is equally important, and he ties them together. In fact, this is the proof of that Lacanian psychoanalysis logically extends Marxian theory into the emotional sphere. It is a shattering analysis, and if I have dwelled too much on the points at which I disagree with Žižek it is only because his passion is infectious. It makes one want to argue.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hollywood as Salon

I have a colleague who believes that Michael Mann is a great artist. He has called him one of the greatest living filmmakers, and has written a book about his work. This is a serious film student – what I call a serious film student. You ask him about Ozu, Kiarostami, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Cassavetes, Dreyer, and he knows that these are the great artists in the history of the medium. Then he adds Michael Mann. I do not expect universal agreement, even among the handful of people I consider serious film students, regarding the delineation of the list of great filmmakers. The important thing is to distinguish generally between the class of visionary artists listed above and the group of celebrated hacks and technical showboats more typical celebrated in the mainstream: Hitchcock, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers and the like. As I am more inclined to put Michael Mann in the second group, he seems like a particular odd selection to add to a list of important film artists.

I once asked my friend, “You mean the same Michael Mann that directed Last of the Mohicans and Heat?” “Yes,” he replied. “The same Michael Mann,” I continue, “who made Miami Vice and that movie where Tom Cruise is a blond-haired assassin and Jamie Foxx is his down-to-earth but streetwise cab driver?” He tells me that this movie is called Collateral and says that the light in it is like nothing he has ever seen on film. This is where I want to begin. I am willing to believe that the lighting in Collateral is interesting, but is that enough to make Michael Mann an important filmmaker? It is still a fairly hackneyed premise (that of dragging the everyman unwittingly into the dark underbelly of society in order to give him a glimpse of what life is really all about) propelled along by two of the most hackey actors alive, yes? Sven Nykvist isn’t interesting because he shed some virtuoso light on a few of Woody Allen’s more mundane and unfunny movies. He’s interesting and important because he lit Bergman and Tarkovsky.

The point is that light has to do something. I remember my only visit to the Frick in New York City principally for Vermeer’s painting known as: Officer and Laughing Girl. Never have I been so struck by light in a painting. But Vermeer’s light is more than technical virtuosity. It has narrative and perceptual functions. I am not going to attempt a lengthy interpretation here, but suffice it to say that Vermeer uses light to tell the story not to color it. More importantly, his mastery of light conveys time and space in a way that no other painter has matched. The experience of light is much of what it means to see a Vermeer in person. (For more on the subject of light as a means to create narrative and time, I suggest reading Moving Pictures by Anne Hollander. Not that I am an authority on “Art History” texts, but for whatever its worth, her book is the best I have read about painting.)

So often lighting in film or cinematography in general, is just the director of photography unleashing his technical mastery upon a film that does not necessarily warrant it. Moreover, maybe his technical mastery is not all that interesting by itself anyway. If you took a song by the Nickelback and let Yngwie Malmsteen solo over it would you suddenly have a masterpiece? I would say you would not, because they are terrible and he is all glitz and show with no substance. Likewise with Michael Mann, I cannot imagine how even two cinematographers (it took one Dione Beebe and one Paul Cameron to shoot it) could make an otherwise mainstream hack job into a work of art.

This Michael Mann conversation happened years ago. I only think of it now because I caught the last hour of Manhunter on some movie channel a couple nights ago. At first it was kind of nice to see such a slow-paced film until it became clear that the pace was being used to create suspense. I think I was reading the Video Hound when I came across the suggestion that Stalker was slow-paced to create suspense. This comment made sense to me at the time, because I could not imagine a film that would be slow-paced for that reason. Slow pacing is its own “reward” as it were. Slow movies are not slow just so the viewer will be on the edge of his or her seat waiting for something to happen. That seems to be exactly why Manhunter is slow, not to teach the viewer to be patient, but to play off the viewer’s impatience. I also thought the movie was shot well. It has a unique look it terms of contrast and depth. There are also some nice exterior shots of sunrises and sunsets. If cinema where only beautiful photography! Unfortunately, cinema is often hackneyed stories and clichéd techniques. I will not belabor this argument with a point by point account of each successive film cliché. It is enough to say that there is a final showdown in which the police detective crashes through a bay window in slow motion landing in the arms of the serial killer. A shootout ensues in which the killer has to be shot in the chest about a dozen times, presumably because it is especially difficult to kill evil.

It isn’t as if I needed to sit through it to reach a conclusion on this director. I have seen the aforementioned Last of the Mohicans and Heat as well as Ali, and I have understood all three to be pretty standard genre works. Mann is beloved in the industry so he always has a nice budget for cinematography, sound, locations and big name actors. The result is always a typical movie its type. They look and sound slick and professional, the actors chew up their scenes like they are on a reality show (because apparently we think that’s what constitutes good acting), and the stories are predictable, palatable and satisfying to their projected demographic of filmgoers who expect a little something more but not too much.

The question of who comprises this demographic is an important one. The film scholars worth reading tend divide film between art and kitsch. I have done this for about ten years, but I am starting to understand that it simplifies the issue, and thus draws attention away from the problem. It is one thing to say that some films are art films but most films are mass-produced kitsch. It is easy for the person who is saying it, but more often than not it is divisive for the one hearing it. Many people consider themselves film aficionados precisely because they like Mann, Hitchcock, the Coens and the like, and hate Bridget Jones’ Diary, Star Wars and superhero movies. These folks tend to get indignant when you tell them that these two kinds of films are ultimately the same thing. A better analogy is in order. Though it will probably do little to make friends among those who admire Hitchcock and the Coens and those who admire Ozu and Tarkovsky, it has the advantage of being a bit more subtle than the binary.

There is a sector of Hollywood that functions as the Salon in Paris functioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I would not say this is the work of a particular studio, but is rather an attitude adopted by certain producers, directors and filmmakers. Another term for them that I have used in the past is “Oscar fodder.” From Gone with the Wind to No Country for Old Men and all the Godfathers, Schindler’s Lists, Forrest Gumps and Brokeback Mountains between, these films are distinguished by technical mastery and serious intention. These are the titles that the Eberts, Maltins and Kaels champion a film art. These are the works that the average filmgoer considers to be something more important than a mere movie. And they are better than the latest Indian Jones movie in certain stylistic respects. What they lack is unique vision. They subscribe to a certain body of techniques and those who stray too far from the boundaries of this body are summarily locked out of the Salon.

There is a word for this kind of art: Academic. In Art History they use this term to describe the art that is produced once formerly visionary and revolutionary techniques are accepted into the mainstream and taught. The end result is always that such techniques become stale for they are bereft of their organic impulse. Style and vision are not taught, they are developed by individuals almost always in opposition to that which has been taught. Academic art tells us nothing we do not already know. It shows us nothing we do not already see. I would suggest that we are at this point with cinema, only it does not happen with generations or with movements. In contemporary film a director with nothing to say, someone like Quentin Tarentino, will go to see a film by a great artist like Wong Kar-Wai. He will then extract certain stylistic attributes of Wong’s movie and peeper them into his latest stupid heist movie or his latest bad-ass-who-cannot-be-killed movie. These always look beautiful, and the pint is that they merely look beautiful. They encourage one to judge them as “well done” and it is in one’s ability to tell when film is executed properly and professionally that he or she feels reassured. It matters little whether or not the narrative has a reassuring message, though it most often does.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What the Canon is Missing

In 1952 Bela Balazs formulated a theory of “spectator identification” as the new and novel power absolutely unique to art of film. He describes identification in the following way:

In the cinema the camera carries the spectator into the film picture itself. We are seeing everything from the inside as it were and are surrounded by the characters of the film. They need not tell us what they feel, for we see what they see and see it as they see it” (Film Theory 48).

In Dudley Andrew’s exposition on Balazs in The Major Film Theories, he points out that this idea is inconsistent with other key components of Balazs’s theory: “Spectator identification and delusion are seen here in a positive light whereas they work against the concepts of defamiliarization and of art as formal technique, which Balazs struggled to establish” (98). My aim here is not to assess Balazs in general but rather to acknowledge that by elevating identification as the essential novelty of cinema and by further attributing this achievement to Hollywood narrative style he sowed the seeds of contemporary film scholarship. It is unfortunate that the pioneering work of someone so passionate about the potential of film to aspire to the status of a high art would in many ways function as the embryo that grew into a separate field of film study that decisively rejects high art in favor of texts that reflect upon, and appeal to, mass culture.

Genre theorists, cultural studies critics, psychoanalytic readers, feminists and psychoanalytic feminists, before they conclude anything else, assume that the unique power of cinema is its ability to encourage viewer identification to the point that the viewer gets lost in the world of the film and imagines himself part of it. Thus, what makes cinema important is simply the sheer force with which it can influence masses of people through this process of identification. This is how we come to view Leni Riefenstahl’s bald recycling of the essentially “Pavlovian tactics of Eisenstein’s montage” (David Cook, Narrative Film 789), as the means to creating a masterpiece. Triumph of the Will may be a masterpiece, but of propaganda. The crowning achievement of the film is to trick the viewer into identifying with a hero. In every important stylistic respect Riefenstahl’s methods are no different from Hitchcock’s or Spielberg’s.

The cinema of spectator identification neglects at least three things that only movies seem capable of doing. I will introduce these briefly:

Persistence of Vision and the Time-Image

When a person watches a real movie, celluloid through a projector and not a videotape or DVD, the film images are not actually continuous but projected one frame at a time at a rate of 24 per second. They look like a continuous stream due to a physiological quirk called persistence of vision. Because the frames appear one at a time, the viewer is physically in relative darkness, given the right theater conditions, over half the time he or she sits in the theater. In Forrest Gump, JFK or anything by Alfred Hitchcock this fact is merely incidental. Among those who would argue otherwise are the early film theorist for whom the cinema’s psychological potential was of a particular interest. I would distinguish between those who take advantage of this potential and those who neglect it. Cinema as such has no inherent aesthetic qualities, only potential qualities to be brought out by master artists.

In the cinema of spectator identification, much of the potential is neglected in favor of the one thing that matters: plot. One can buy everything by Oliver Stone, Robert Zemekis and Hitchcock from Columbia House, because plot looks good on video. Nothing crucial to their works is lost in the celluloid to video transfer. What Gilles Deleuze calls the time image, however, does not transfer as readily. Essentially Deleuze contends that cinema is unique in its potential to show time. Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopouplos, Chantal Akerman, Miklos Jansco and others make their films out of very long takes. While Hitchcock rarely needs a shot to last longer than 5 or 10 seconds Jansco, for instance, makes films in which shots last for 20 minutes (Red Psalm). When a viewer is in a darkened theater and relying on his persistence of vision for image continuity this is very important. It is not the same physical experience to watch a movie without many cuts as it is to which one with hundred and hundreds of cuts. This is a large part of the reason that the former does not work on video. Video is a continuous digital image so persistence of vision does not occur. A film with long takes helps to induce within the viewer a meditative rhythm while on video transfers it can much easier just make her tired and bored.

Color and Light

Celluloid is a translucent medium. The images appear on the screen because the light source behind the film strip projects them forward. A number of films within the American experimental or avant-garde tradition are interested in exploiting and exploring this aspect of cinema. These filmmakers actually make movies without ever photographing anything because they believe that the fundamental element of cinema is light. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight consists of pieces of dead bugs, specs of dirt and gravel and tiny blades of grass affixed directly to the celluloid. When the film is projected, one sees the little bits enlarged and rushing across the screen, barely comprehensible, against a background of harsh white light. Mothlight is only movement and light. It could not be further removed from a tradition that believes the cinema to be an essentially and necessarily narrative form. Nor does Mothlight transfer especially effectively to video. The bright, natural light takes on a yellowish hue and causes the borders of the “images” to look pinkish when digitized.

This is part of a larger problem with the transfer of colors in general. Digital values are very different from the values of celluloid emulsion. In a film like Schindler’s List in which all you have to be able to do is pick out the red coat from the black & white image, this is not a problem. Likewise, the difference between the two color scales does not change the saturated color symbolism of Douglas Sirk melodramas or even Nicholas Ray’s color films. The important thing about Susie’s bedroom in Imitation of Life is that it is pink. The important thing about Jim’s Jacket in Rebel without a Cause is that it is red. But when colors are not meant to stand for something, but rather are to be confronted and lived, to actually alter one’s vision as in any color film by Tarkovsky or Bresson, video versions lose or at least alter a key component of the experience. In Spielberg, Sirk and Ray’s Rebel colors have a very basic – one could say “obvious” symbolism. Red means “x” and pink means “y.” In Tarkovsky and Bresson colors are part of a symbolic matrix that exists only in the film. Green does not mean “x” or “y” in Stalker; it means difference in experience from the sepia world that precedes it.

Size vs. Spectacle

Aficionados of films of spectacle like John Ford’s westerns, Spielberg’s historical epics or the proliferation of CGI enhanced adventures from The Matrix to Lord of the Rings will often vigorously demand that these films must be seen in a theater to get their full effect. By “full effect” they mean that these films are meant to be seen very large, overwhelmingly large, in fact, to facilitate the viewer’s desire to enter into the film in Balazs’s sense. I would suggest other reasons why films need to be big. Jacques Tati’s Playtime has to be seen as large as possible, because many of the shots offer so much that requires attention. Every aspect of the long-shots in the airport terminal at the beginning of the film has been meticulously choreographed. Everyone on screen is doing something, and all of it is important. One may find himself watching the person at the bottom left hand corner then suddenly realize he has neglected the other twenty people on screen. One then begins to dart his gaze around the whole image, fixing on some action or person momentarily and moving to the next one. Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to this as “Tati’s democracy” because he gives the viewer you so much to look at without demanding that you look at something specific. I would add that the viewer may be able begin putting together all that he or she notices and thus see a rhythm or composition emerge.

Whatever one concludes this experience, this process, is not possible when watching Playtime on TV screen in one’s living room. The gestures of figures in long-shot are subtle enough on a big screen; on TV they may be empirically non-existent. The trouble is that the meaning of the Tati film is precisely in the accumulation of those gestures and the rhythm of those movements. While we may miss the beguiling spectacle of Death Valley when we have to settle for watching The Searchers on TV, we get the meaning clear enough and freely acknowledge Ford’s mastery in creating that meaning. Tati on a TV screen is irreparably obtuse, and we are led to wonder why anyone would find his films worth watching at all.I do not wish to merely suggest that John Ford and Jacques Tati make different kinds of films; Tati makes better films. His films are better because their meanings can only be put forth through film and because they frustrate and disintegrate every theory of genre, spectatorship or race, class and gender that the critic may force upon them. Ford’s films invite this kind of criticism and, in fact thrive on it, because they are not very interesting for any aesthetic reasons.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Truly Terrifying Film

Many of the films of Kenneth Anger echo some of the playful found in Jacobs and Smith, but in Scorpio Rising he aims at something much darker, we might call it heaviness, in contrast to the lightness of Smith and Jacobs. Critic, Juan Suarez, describes the difference: “In [Scorpio Rising], gayness was aligned to sincerity, subjective truth, and authenticity; the protagonists’ homosexuality was the expression of a subjective inner essence repressed in everyday contexts,” while, on the other hand, in Flaming Creatures, “there is no subjective essence to be realized, no interiority where the self’s truth lies dormant” (Suarez 191). Indeed, Scorpio Rising begins more playful than it turns out to be. At first it looks like it will be a longer version of Kustom Kar Kommandos, a homoerotic, fetish-heavy music video. For some viewers the injection of Jesus into this context is just an adventurous extension of the joke. But for those of us willing to speculate on the homosocial nature of the relationships among Christ and his disciples, the continuity between Scorpio and the Savior is very important. It is no mistake that the appearance of Christ and the apostles coincides with the singing of, “he’s a rebel…” on the soundtrack. While this may be offensive to some, it shouldn’t be too unsettling for those among us who have no vested interest in Jesus Christ’s sexuality.
Where it gets troubling for the rest of us is in the movement from iconologies of rebellion to those of fascism and death. Anger is not at all content to subvert the dominant culture by exposing its homosocial roots. This is not a coming out film. Gay pride fails to hold Anger’s attention. Rather he wants to explore his fears. Part of what happens in Scorpio Rising demonstrates that insidious ease with which icons of rebellion and freedom can become symbols of power and oppression. Moreover, one can never dismiss unwanted meanings; if one wishes to take back those symbols from the dominant regimes and re-appropriate them as counterculture, one still evokes all previous meaning. Scorpio may want to use the Swastika as a new symbol of rebellion, but it will always be an emblem of mass murder.
Why would anyone who is queer want to hold that up as a representation of gay culture? It is precisely Anger’s point that insofar as counterculture has the potential to become mass culture, it is extremely dangerous. Scorpio Rising offers, in part, a cautionary vision about where gay culture can go, if it insists on being blessed by the mainstream. The persistent suggestion is that an individual, who is good, will always be subsumed into the culture with which he seeks to affiliate himself. This culture, whether marginal or mainstream, will inevitably turn destructive especially as it moves out of the margins and into the mainstream. That is precisely what happened to Christianity which began with love for your neighbor and ended up with the Crusades, The Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, the 700 Club and the Promise Keepers. One should feel heavier after watching Scorpio Rising. It is a very frightening film, much scarier than any dumb Hollywood thriller or slasher flick, because the stuff that Anger is afraid of is real.

Jacobs and Smith

In the tiny underground world of experimental film, an artist's reputation often precedes him. The trouble is that said reputation is often spoon fed to viewers that might otherwise no better, delivered to them by festival programs and Avant-Garde Cinema instructors. One must look beyond the political agendas of many so-called supporters of these films to see what is really happening in them. The first time I saw Little Stabs at Happiness, I dismissed it outright. I thought movies had to look serious to be important. Ken Jacobs was, in my estimation, anything but. Not only did I find his films irreverent; he seemed to me sloppy, lazy and boring. I was told that this movie was important because it had something to do with Queer Cinema. I was led to believe that any fault I would find with this film was indicative not of any shortcoming of the Jacobs or his movie, but my own homophobia. Given time, distance, and a fresh set of eyes and ears, I would now argue that Little Stabs has less to do with sexuality at all, than the simple virtues of silliness. This is a special kind of silliness, of course. To praise Jacob’s playacting is quite distinct from analyzing the psychological function of watching clowns in a circus. Those kinds of clowns aren’t self aware. Ken Jacobs and his subject, Jack Smith, are overtly self-conscious and this sets them apart from the rest of the clowns. Jacobs is one of the few poets of the clown world.
The great moment of revelation in this film comes when the guy with fedora (Jacobs?) plays with the children on the brownstone steps. Seeing the children at play with the adults reminds us that the film has been about play all along. Little Stabs is not about being outrageous or flamboyant, but dressing up and play-acting like a child. Without the sequence with the children one could do the queer reading, but this scene takes the film beyond the one-dimensional, sexual interpretation. It would be a home-movie for the loonies who made it to laugh at when they get together to drink and smoke pot. The scenes with the children make it a film for the rest of us to take seriously. It is perhaps difficult to understand because we do not take children, or the way they act, seriously in our culture. Jacobs does and Little Stabs at Happiness is his poem to children and to continuing to act like one when you are supposed to be grown up.
I am not sure, despite consensus to the contrary, Smith’s Flaming Creatures is all that different. To me it does not so much seem like a homoerotic challenge to normative sexuality as an attempt to get back to pre-sexual physical relationships. None of the people in it are having sex – it is not pornography; they are just playing with each other’s body parts. They grab at limp dicks and floppy breasts in a way that is deliberately silly. Even the so-called “rape” scene seems less about psycho-sexual terror and more about self-conscious role-playing. Surely a rape scene in which the victim laughs the entire time is not much of a rape scene. Rather it is as playful as anything else, and to call it a rape at all, is to refuse Smith his attempt to impose upon the viewer’s vision a pre-sexual lens. It may be that for some viewers this return, even if only for the brief duration of the film, is impossible.
Certainly the adults in this film with their adult bodies cannot go back and become as they were before they had carnal knowledge. Nor can the viewer. Still, to psychoanalyze Smith’s film from one’s armchair is to miss the point. Too often criticism of Creatures hangs up on the viewer’s inability to go back to an early state of sexual development. It is not that Smith wants to neutralize the erotic charge of genitalia and breasts. It is that he wants nothing more than to shake them. This is foremost. The sexual charge is up to the viewer. This is not a bohemian desire to demystify the body. It’s not about confronting the repressed with what they want to keep sacred. Giggling penises and breasts are about play. Flaming Creatures is about acting like a little kid, even in relation to another adult person’s naked body.