Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Von Trier's Antichrist: The rational masculine, the primal feminine

I saw Antichrist recently, and at the time, I told myself it was mostly just an obligatory gesture to the cinema scene. Like Enter the Void, it was so much discussed, inciting such controversy, that I figured I should at least give it a go so I wouldn't feel too out of the loop. I'm glad I saw it -- turns out the reason it stirred people up so much is that aside from the provocation, there's a lot there to think about. The foremost is the film's position in terms of gender politics, and though this is the conversation that's been most covered, I think it's far from exhausted.

It strikes me that so much of the discussion of Antichrist alleges that it's misogynist, which seems like a totally misplaced criticism to me... in fact, the type of criticism that could only come from someone already invested in the patriarchy to begin with. Antichrist is, in fact, a highly self-aware film about gender relations on a broad scale, and it demonstrates a certain tortured sensitivity that more traditionally "feminist" films may lack. To see how this works, however, you have to start by understanding where the film is coming from (giving it the "benefit of the doubt," as it were).

Antichrist is not about breaking down or disrupting essentialist assumptions. It's not about showing that women can do what is traditionally ascribed to men, nor about lubricating the slippery contact between physical sex and gender identity. Those are more traditional routes for feminist mass media to take -- Disney films and action movies showing that women can make effective warriors, art-house pictures breaking up our stereotypes of masculinity and offering criticism of the heteronormative order. Nay, indeed, Antichrist works within a symbolically essentialist universe, where masculinity and femininity are isolated and represented as embodied symbols ("He" and "She", respectively). In order to appreciate the film's statements, you have to accept this initial premise.

From there, the viewer can start to see some outlines of themes in Antichrist. The relationship between the masculine and the feminine is a paradoxical one, entailing both dependency and competition. Perhaps the most logical way to see Nic, the infant who dies in the film's prologue, is that he is the offspring that unites the masculine and feminine forces -- he is their cease-fire condition. His death creates an irresolvable break between masculinity and femininity, and in this break, we find the nature of each of them, engaged in a complex dialectic that evolves throughout the film. I know there are a lot of pseudo-academic terms there. The fact is, this movie condenses a ton of dynamics that theorists have taken great pains to unpack and investigate.

"She" is rage and depression, the explosive despair of losing everything and having no recourse or path to redemption. She is also the body, the orgasm, the blossoming subconscious. "He" is the rational order, mustering the power of language and reason to distance himself from the tragedy he's just witnessed. His first scene in Act I -- the ritual of the funeral, the patriarchal virtues of solemn silence and respect -- is interrupted by Her fainting, a break from reason that belongs uniquely to those who suffer. From that moment forward, He assumes her psychiatric treatment, attempting to circumscribe her pain within his perspective, his methods, his exposure therapy.

This is the patriarchal offensive. It's not beating or name-calling... it's the incessant attempt to flank her grief, to second-guess her instinctive reactions and control the source of her catastrophic emotions. Even when He says her pain is "natural," that she should work through it, he's attempting to put it in its place. And when He decides to take She to Eden, he is doing something bold and inadvisable -- he's taking her to the source, the veiled epicenter of her fear, frustration and self-loathing. He's taking on an offensive role against the feminine force that She represents. She has to "face it," armed with his composure, in order to tame it.

It's worth taking a moment to consider some of the mythological references in Antichrist. Obviously there's the various Christian signifiers -- Eden, the witch hunts, and the death of the only son. The other major reference here is a story called The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars, and/or Vasilii the Unlucky, which is an old Russian-Serbian folk tale. You can read the whole thing here, in its Serbian form, which I think is the more useful of its major incarnations. From this, Antichrist draws a number of images -- the three beggars, the tree with something significant hidden in its roots, and crossing a bridge to reach what is essentially a cursed temple.

The three beggars in Antichrist seem to be symbols of a broken order, especially within the feminine. They are all self-destructive (or destructive of their young, which amounts to the same thing in this case). He and She are not approaching a peaceful, balanced feminine spirit... they're approaching the wooded symbol of a shattered, tortured, guilty soul, ready to lash out at whatever force is trying to control it. The beggars in the Serbian myth are an ambivalent force, acting to destroy power of the father in order to preserve the larger patriarchal chain leading from the father to the son. They are heralds of the Oedipal murder. This symbol functions similarly within Antichrist... though the son was part of the male lineage, a token of the patriarchy's continuation, the mother nonetheless loved it, and she mourns and rages for its loss.

This profoundly complex nature of the feminine spirit is thoroughly explored in Antichrist. She is the vengeful antagonist, inconsolable and violent, but she is also complicit. Indeed, She seems to feel herself to be incomplete, which is a consistent theme throughout patriarchal mythologies. The Freudian/Lacanian image of the female was of an entity that felt itself incomplete, lacking a phallus. In Antichrist, She becomes unhinged because her son, to whom she feels connected on a deep, organic level, is ripped from her, as if a part of her body is amputated. Her rage, pushed to its limit, is expressed as a fear of abandonment, and for a short time, She takes control from He, using the coercive power of a millstone and a fucking huge log. At this moment in the film, the moment when She presides over He's mangled body, the sexual order seems reversed through violence, if only for a moment.

The first reason I claim that this film could be read as feminist, rather than misogynist, is that Von Trier acknowledges the power and the validity of certain forces that he associates with the feminine: pure emotion, including rage, despair, and depression; unconditional love for a son, regarding him as a part of oneself, and the desperation that might be experienced upon the loss of something so irreplaceable. Von Trier seems to acknowledge the injustice of trying to rationalize those things, to fix them through inert spiritual/psychological engineering. I believe he understands these things because he's experienced depression, and he knows that from the abyss of despair, it can't just be explained away (whether as a mere medical condition, or with the platitude that "it will get better").

From that point, the film evolves into a story of the ascension of the patriarchy (a sign, to me, that it was meant to be read as a tragedy, like Orwell's 1984). Once She has dominated He and her rage has abated, She makes a desperate, fateful decision, essentially surrendering her power by neutering herself. This is another sign of the ambiguous nature of the feminine, which is emotionally uninhibited but prone to guilt and self-destruction. This event, depicted so provocatively in the film, is the reversal that allows He to destroy her, reestablishing the patriarchal hegemony.

You may see this as a happy ending or a tragic one (nothing in this film is really happy, per se), but you have to acknowledge, this is what everything was leading up to. In all of the references -- Christian mythology, Freudian theory, the Russian folk tale -- the male lineage has to be broken and reforged in order to circumscribe and control the violent, sexual, physically-potent Female figure, which always threatens to rupture the established order. Christ joins the Father, Vasilii replaces Marko, Oedipus murders Laius, and Nic dies so that He can confront and control She's unstable emotions. And in the end, the women are faceless, dressed conservatively, and gathering as He ascends to the top of the hill. The primal feminine has been dominated, and in Eden as in the Western world, order is restored once more.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and's Laura Miller

-- by the way, this post has been significantly edited for clarity. Please don't be mad. --

Okay, so this thing was published in, penned by a Miss Laura Miller, on the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's both incredibly petty and mysteriously sympathetic (although for any individual, it'll probably strike one of those chords sharply, and miss the other entirely). And it's interesting to parse out as commentary on writing, on our changing literary and creative ecosystem, and on what it means to be an artist in our digital world.

NaNoWriMo is an event, mostly organized online, calling on people to write a 50,000+ word novel in a month. If you successfully do so, you're granted the status of "winner," and there were about 37.5 thousand of those last year. The objectives of this exercise, as gleaned from the NaNoWriMo website, are: 1 - to exercise your innate creativity, which you may ignore or set aside in much of your everyday life; 2 - to commit to a large project and follow it through, which is something you may not often get a chance to do; 3 - to break the shackles of self-censorship that may constrain your intellectual and creative life; 4 - to take part in an important cultural art form, in order to better understand and appreciate it. For the record, I hate that "NaNoWriMo" abbreviation, but I'll keep using it as necessary.

Miss Miller's thesis (perhaps laid out a bit snarkily) is that this organized activity is tragically misguided. She points out that writing demands more than a steady 50,000-word stream of consciousness, and that this initiative creates a glut of amateur prose in a world that's already got too many books and not enough readers. Her arguments aren't very concrete or practical, because she doesn't convincingly show any harms; rather, she's giving voice to a more general frustration, a lack of patience for the narcissistic, the trivial, the self-indulgent that, in her opinion, this initiative seems to appeal to. She seems to be saying, "If you really want to write, you'll learn to do it, and eventually, you'll do it well. Why must there be a widespread movement of people who push themselves and each other to write badly?"

Miss Miller's argument sounds puffed up and crotchety, given the apparently harmless inspirational nature of the NaNoWriMo program. People who participate in NaNoWriMo aren't damaged by the experience; to the contrary, they tend to come out feeling very gratified, like their souls have grown, and proud of having created something personal, often for the first time. Editors may gripe about those few writers who send them amateurish manuscripts thrown together for the sake of a writing exercise, and some random people around the world may be annoyed that their novel-writing friends are forcing them to read badly-written manuscripts, but these complaints are minor at best. There's already quite a bit of writing about how arbitrary the "slush pile" process is anyway, and it's hard to imagine that editors are really that heartbroken by having to scan over and discard a few more pages of bad writing.

And yet, there are reasons to sympathize with Laura Miller's angst.

One of them might be your sense of our digital culture, which has been developing over the past decade: an ecosystem of vapid consumption and creation, of capriciousness and self-regard. This is the age of blogs and Facebook, not to mention the world of self-publishing, of YouTube filmmaking, of self-promotion in 140-character chunks. It is a world of consumption that's accelerated but not well-informed, as people ravenously devour the most accessible and sensationalistic media artifacts -- Snookie and the Kardashians, Jack and Jill, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It may be a new world of digital media, with more ubiquitous access to cultural products, but this doesn't mean it's more favorable to talent, or more rich and evolved. A bookstore owner recently said to me, "The e-book devices don't really threaten my business, because they're not for book-lovers... they're actually more for the book-haters." If he's right, it's that much scarier that these devices are taking over the market so quickly.

If you really wanted to back up Miss Miller's thesis, you could probably argue, on a theoretical level, that NaNoWriMo is contributing to a culture of noise. There is a great deal of content being created, more and more every day, and the capacity to curate this content is not keeping up. Ten new blogs pop up for every new magazine or reviewer. Everybody is talking more and more about themselves, feeling more and more pressured to project themselves into profiles, blogs, and tweets. Noise is starting to overpower signal, and arguably, NaNoWriMo is just going to contribute to that trend.

This argument is shaky, given that NaNoWriMo doesn't sell itself as some sort of Great New Writers Tryouts and Awards. Arguably, the vast majority of the people who write a novel in November don't even try to make that novel public... they ask a couple people to read it, and then allow it to disappear into a drawer, existing simply as a personal badge of accomplishment. You may say, "Then what's the point?", but that's not for anyone to judge except the person doing the writing -- nobody is entitled to judge anyone else's creative act in this mundane little world.

Following this "signal vs. noise," "creation vs. consumption" thread, there's another assertion in Miss Miller's argument: that the world needs more readers, rather than more writers. In a way, this is a pointless observation... the lack of readers may be a problem, but it's not NaNoWriMo's problem, because the organization is devoted to personal growth and the individual journey of writing, not to the issue of informed literacy. However, it clarifies Miller's vantage point: she's coming from a place that's concerned not about writing per se, nor about reading per se, but about the economy of creation versus appreciation.

I think this aspect of her argument can best be summed up thus: we in the Western world are developing a culture, not simply of creation and consumption, but of mindless, impulsive creation and consumption -- and NaNoWriMo is an initiative that trivializes and cheapens the very difficult process of creation, and muddies up the literary landscape, making informed consumption that much harder.

Of course, there's something else in Laura Miller's post that bears witness, and it's not so much a "good reason" as it is a way of understanding where she's coming from. It doesn't justify her sourness, but it brings it a small measure of validity. It's something she touches on in this passage:

"So I’m not worried about all the books that won’t get written if a hundred thousand people with a nagging but unfulfilled ambition to Be a Writer lack the necessary motivation to get the job done. I see no reason to cheer them on. Writers are, in fact, hellishly persistent; they will go on writing despite overwhelming evidence of public indifference and (in many cases) of their own lack of ability or anything especially interesting to say."

If you read the comments on the article, you'll only discover a few that agree with Miss Miller, and these mostly come from people who claim to be writers and editors already. On the other hand, sundry great writers (Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers, Meg Cabot) have strongly supported to the initiative (via "pep talks" in particular). If you consider the status of these various participants, with their various positions, you discover something: the people who are most irked by NaNoWriMo are semi-successful or struggling writers, and the people who sing its praises most highly are amateurs on one hand, and celebrated masters on the other.

On a superficial level, this may explain Miss Miller's position: she's part of that class of semi-successful and unrewarded writers who resent all the naive amateurs elbowing in on her profession. Perhaps this essay is simply an expression of insecurity, a blast of misguided frustration with her own professional status, which is obviously respectable, but not transcendent. This may be one of the reasons I feel some sympathy with her, as well: when NaNoWriMo tells amateurs that "anyone can do it," we want to say, "Wrong! It's goddamn difficult! We've been working on it for years, and our careers have hardly seen the light of day!" It's a narcissistic reaction, but there's always some narcissism in art.

However, on a deeper level, there's something here to be said about the actual creative process, and how a creative career develops. There are two highly rewarding parts of a creative career: the very beginning, where there's no barrier to at least "trying it out," and the eventual end, when you finally get the fame and recognition that registers as "fulfilled potential." NaNoWriMo is full of the latter famous people commiserating with the former hopeful people, who are just discovering their own potential: their first comments from readers, their first chapter headings and plot twists and cliffhangers, their first obsessions with their own worlds and the characters who inhabit them.

What's obscured by this process is the fact that between the beginning and the glorious end, there's an extremely long, torturous, difficult journey of thwarted expectations, setbacks, and self-doubt. Audiences don't come easily, and you quickly get tired of soliciting people to read and appreciate your work. The amount of effort you put into each piece increases rapidly, until you're strained and exhausted, and the returns on this investment diminish, basically to nothing. The people who once thought you were so talented and promising are now openly avoidant and dismissive, thinking you're misguided, tired of hearing about what they consider your private obsessions. This period of an artist's life is a trial by fire, and this is why so many give up or discard something that they once claimed to do "just because I love doing it."

This period is not just growing pains. Committed artists know this -- many people will begin an artist's journey thinking they've found their calling, only to give up on it after five or ten years have vanished into a quixotic pursuit. Others will continue with their passion their whole lives, but will never actually be discovered, and they'll have to find some reason to keep going without from the thrill of validation (an absence which, unfortunately, often feels a lot like "failure").

I think it's natural, and even somewhat justified (I don't know, maybe 5-10% justified) to feel some frustration and resentment toward something like NaNoWriMo, which calls out to so many aspiring, idealistic, uncommitted amateurs and invites them to experience the first fleeting thrill of an artist, but doesn't provide any fertile ground for them to really commit. It feels like it trivializes the work of the people who have built lives around their art. It feels like a massive giddy tour bus going through a coal mine or an auto factory.

And yet, I can't stand in open opposition to such a movement. It is not claiming to create great writers, nor is it intended to trivialize the hard work of the great authors. Personal growth and new experiences are valuable in themselves; agency, artistic awareness, well-roundedness, and positive mental habits are things the world could use more of. I can think of lots of alternative projects and initiatives I think would be more valuable than NaNoWriMo within the literary cultural space, but I'm not the one who's taken that first step of creating an organization. Even in the dark forest of my own misgivings and anxieties (and Miss Miller's), I have to step back and remember: this is about giving people a chance to make their own lives better through writing. That's utilitarianism and virtue ethics and self-actualization, the groundwork of great individuals and great societies. There are so many bad things in the world. This is not one of them.

By the way, if you know any websites or services that are dedicated to discovering great writers in the digital ocean of amateur work, please let me know. I've seen them for visual arts and music, but not for writers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Twitter movie reviews: 1 year, 100 movies, 140 characters each

Over the past year, I've been tweeting movie reviews.  I've tried to do this after every single movie I've seen, either in the theater or on video.  I also covered a couple of the anime series I watched. I'm guessing I've captured about 70% of my consumption. Not bad, I don't think.

Each review fits perfectly into a Tweet... including the movie title, date, and any punctuation, each one is 140 characters long, no more, no less. The biggest liberties I've taken are the use of ampersands, and the use of the final period, both of which I considered optional. Again, I think I've done pretty well here, managing to get most of the reviews sounding pretty natural while staying within that character constraint.

Below I've compounded my first 100 Twitter movie capsules! Have fun browsing through. You'll notice the format is a bit different at the very beginning (i.e. at the very bottom)... it took me a week or two to settle on the final structure. So, from this past week to more than a year ago, here's my year in Twitter movie capsules:

-91 - 100-

Antichrist (2009) - Harrowing, sinister, & extremely transgressive, a merciless escalation of pain, captured by a viciously invasive camera.

Jigoku (1960) - A treatise on the inherent irredeemability of all men, leading to a descent into Japanese Hell, an eternal tortured bad trip
Hellboy II (2008) - Mignola's lovable brute, transplanted from M.M.'s gothic ruins into Del Toro's carnival of the baroque gilded grotesque.

Season of the Witch (2011) - History? Fantasy? Horror? Still, it's fun watching Perlman and Cage talk trash and fight in barbarian costumes.

Silent Hill (2006) - a wild industrial body-horror throw-down, undermined by some sloppiness, but redeemed by the boldness of its execution.

Wicker Man (1973) - Weird: a story of deception and man's murderous delusions, gilded in a folksy erotic giddiness that's hard to reconcile.

The Machinist (2004) - A tense, jarring psychological echo chamber; the twist isn't as important as the preceding journey of paranoid denial

Strange Days (1995) - A portrait of disconnected people adrift in a world at war, that makes a case for both its destruction and its rebirth

Robocop (1987) - An epic, disjunct hybrid of retro futurist fantasy and gory nihilistic brutality, & a paean to the moral purity of machines

Legend of Hell House (1973) - Offers up an interesting conflict between New Agey science and New Agey spiritualism. Atmospheric, but clunky.

-81 - 90-

I Can See You (2008) - Plays like a twisted wet-dream-turned-nightmare. An uneven, head-trippy romp that shows both inexperience and talent.

Road to Perdition (2002) - Shows the 1930's as a Bauhaus machinist future, its men guided by hard sentimentality & puritan sense of purpose.

Zodiac (2007) - A smart, breathless account of an amateur, willing to reach deep into a dangerous animal's den, even when its handlers balk.

Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006) - A masterpiece of elegant abstraction and subtle storytelling. Blew me away. Esp. the last three ep's

Dead Leaves (2004) - A hyperactive acid-trip anime that becomes a test of patience. Mesmerizing, if you manage to sync up with its insanity.

Elfen Lied (2004) - An apparently cutesy shojo anime subverted by extreme emotional & physical violence. Sailor Moon by way of Takashi Miike

Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988) - Ups the ante on the first film, and comes with the same nightmare fuel set-pieces, but maybe shows too much

Winter's Bone (2010) - The paranoia of a noir, the harrowing grit of Southern Gothic, with just enough love & heroism to keep us sympathetic

Sling Blade (1996) - A movie that fit together perfectly; wouldn't have felt so brutal if it weren't so deadpan, quiet, gentle, & vulnerable

The Beach (2000) - Uneven plotting, at times comical writing, but some earnest sentiment and intense moments between the volatile bohemians.

-71 - 80-

Hellraiser (1987) - Gruesome, thematically focused, unflinching & disturbing at all the right moments. Brilliant, extreme, deservedly iconic

From Beyond (1986) - A parade of semi-human creatures and depravity; provides a great character in the young scientist tortured by the abyss

The Beyond (1981) - Mysterious, relentless, & revolting, full of cheesiness and horror tropes, but redeemed by an epic nihilistic conclusion

Wild Blue Yonder (2005) - Hypnotic at times, definitely a uniquely fuzzy-headed experience, but could stand to be a little bit more focused.

Fear[s] of the Dark (2007) - An eerie and bold psychological study, but not too scary, except Richard McGuire's section, which blew me away.

Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me (1992) - Full of Twin Peaks' enigmatic forces, but more grounded in the main character's troubled hopelessness.

Doctor Zhivago (1965) - A bitter, disillusioned family and political saga with a storybook veneer; stark, beautiful, and surprisingly cruel.

Goodbye, South, Goodbye (1996) - Thoughtful, evocative family crime drama, with a deadpan realism that makes the plot almost indecipherable.

Black Hawk Down (2001) - Gritty, star-studded, shows through audience identification that patriotism is inextricable from vicious bloodlust.

Nietzsche & the Nazis (2006) - Plus side: It's available on Netflix Instant. Minus side: it's a philosophy PhD talking for 3 hours straight.

-61 - 70-

The Sacrifice (1986) - A dreamy meditation on hopelessness and the tragedy and ecstasy of unrepayable grace; muffled, breathless, & hypnotic

Dust Devil (1992) - A parched, haunting, culturally-informed supernatural thriller with touches of abstraction; dense with subliminal power.

General Orders No. 9 (2011) - luminous feature-length meditation on the death of the natural soul of the South; uneven, sometimes beautiful.

Pistol Opera (2001) - spastic Frankenstein of a trippy samurai crime film; loosens up your brain for 70 mins, then attacks it in the finale.

Tree of Life (2011) - Nostalgia and intimacy mustered in service of a heroically ambitious effort. I need another viewing to fully absorb it

Pale Flower (1964) - Japanese sharp-eyed neo-noir, excellent high-contrast camerawork: a disciplined yakuza hitman is devoured by his vices.

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - A compelling saga of perseverance and surrender, although undermined by its one-sided cultural perspective

Bridesmaids (2011) - Funny at times, but tired with crassness. A few lovable central characters allow it to squeak by as amusing & endearing

Nights of Cabiria (1957) - Cabiria was perfect as the jester maiden centerpiece of a storybook tabloid Rome, pregnant with her joy & tragedy

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) - Effectively tense, but could have used better characters to root for (Wilson was the charismatic exception).

-51 - 60-

Thor (2011) - An epic grade-B movie, full of pomp, that always seems to be smirking itself; yet, the father/brother/son conflict rings true.

Unbreakable (Shyamalan, 2000) - A simple, focused narrative construct, with the intensity & tonal commitment necessary to keep me hooked in.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - An opera of slow revelations, of tragic loss & partial recovery of the soul, against an endless desert backdrop.

Your Highness (2011) - Fun, vacuous vehicle for Danny McBride's crude sense of humor. Props to Courtney, one of the greatest sidekicks ever.

Inferno (1980) - Dario Argento weaves a demented doomsday tale of supernatural forces. Full of slow, lurking suspense & unhinged set-pieces.

13 Assassins (2011) - A samurai adventure hijacked by bleak, bloody, degrading medieval brutality. A tortured, vicious, un-heroic hero story

Wild at Heart (1990) - Flailing, fragmented, and twisted, but fairly straightforward compared to Lynch's later films. And Nic Cage nails it.

The Bird People in China (1998) - poignant, lyrical film about the smallness of human lives against the enduring stories of cultural memory.

Night of the Hunted (1980) - surreal, chilling, & sexual: intriguing, but annoyingly close to depicting actual mental illness as evil force.

Vampyres (1975) - A sometimes-silly erotic horror film that still manages to create a compelling setting and a sense of sensuality and dread

-41 - 50-

Cache (2005) - Unsettling, deadpan thriller, very modern in sensibility, clamped over issues (political, social, moral) that go a mile deep.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) - Voight and Hoffman in a platonic romance that competes with Taxi Driver for urban grit, but remains human in scope.

Barry Lyndon (1975) - never seen somebody balance epic romance with dry amusement like Kubrick. Oh, and the photography is beyond brilliant.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1976) - a meditation on love, the sublime, & self-destruction in the shadow of an endless ocean

Annie Hall (1977) - Heartfelt, inventive, distinguished by its lovable cynicism. Has the inscrutable touch of a brilliant emerging filmmaker

The Holy Girl (2004) - a subtle story: childhood faith and adolescent sexuality meet adult perversion. Cinematography you could get lost in.

Do the Right Thing (1989) - A rare film, both warm and cynical: jovial camaraderie, barely suppressing an undertone of reactionary violence.

Restrepo (2010) - Walks a gritty knife-edge between callous and sentimental. An eye-opening window into the way war reshapes the human mind.

The Mist (2007) - A menacing build-up overflows into an epic, devastating climax. The muscular apocalyptic paranoia is vintage Stephen King.

The Iron Giant (1999) - Luminous animation, with the kind of charm you expect of an old movie. A feat of imagination, flawlessly translated.

-31 - 40-

Time of the Wolf (2003) - Harrowing vision of an untamed, barren world - but with a touch of gentleness & determination. My favorite Haneke.

Tenebre (1982) - A respectable work of art, with some genuinely terrifying and surreal sequences, locked in a swinging new-wave time capsule

28 Days Later (2002) - Brilliant because it succeeds in being methodical, sympathetic, & character-driven first, and only then a horror film

Emperor of the North (1973) - Both gritty and magical, the roughest railroad-weary fairy tale I can imagine. Full of great 1930's shit-talk.

Kwaidan (1964) - four sad, claustrophobic ghost stories, staged in small expressionist spaces that feel like the inside of a disturbed mind.

Harakiri (1962) - a film that's slow-burning, but genuinely angry, culminating in a burst of violence in the face of silence and oppression.

Red Desert (1964) - A movie of modernity as emotional paralysis & lethargy. Haunting, in its way: stifling, neurotic, & visually captivating

Black Swan (2010) - Beautifully-lensed, unbalanced film of the torturous process of relinquishing control; striking in its fixated restraint

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) - oblique and callous; a strange puppeteer's parade of dead souls on a jaunt through the real world

Come Drink With Me (1966) - The over-the-top theatrics make this 60's kung-fu classic a curiosity; the sick female heroine makes it awesome.

-21 - 30-

The White Ribbon (2009) - A knot of malice gathering slowly on an historical stage; this makes its relative banality strikingly suspenseful.

My Young Auntie (1981) - goofy theatrical kung-fu, like Crouching Tiger meets Three Stooges. This genre has a tone that's truly distinctive.

Chungking Express (1994) - A fluid tale of love losing itself in a big city. Delicate, meditative story with razor-sharp and dynamic visuals

The Exterminating Angel (1962) - surrealism made suspenseful, addictive, & captivating; evokes giddy helplessness, like temporary paralysis.

Samurai Rebellion (1962) - Quiet & relentless; dripping with the angst of a mannered political society barely suppressing its violent urges.

Lone Wolf & Cub 2 (1972) - Fragmented, less scenic, with a heavy emphasis on explosive violence - balanced by surprisingly poignant moments.

Lone Wolf & Cub 1 (1972) - Striking mix of feudal Japanese atmosphere and 70's exploitation violence; definitely feels like a genre classic.

Venus in Furs (1969) - Great film. A sexually-charged near-death fever dream, endearingly self-important, but chilled out enough to earn it.

The Last Winter (2006) - A good psychological/suspense/madness horror movie, undermined by fragments of a bad monster movie late in the game

Solaris (1972) - Lots of exposition, but a well-wrought love story, subverted by the unease of loving a facsimile of reality... all in space

-11 - 20-

Night and Fog (1955) - Resnais contrasts concentration camps with post-war ruins. Full of images that tore me apart. Difficult but profound.

Onibaba (1964) - Dark, sinister, beautiful footage in the reeds. Barely supernatural, but full of a sense of menace lurking just offscreen.

Pineapple Express (2008) - Like a conversation with a stoner... You could get caught up in it, or just caught in it. Franco made it worth it

Flesh and the Devil (1926) - Epic tale of love and loyalty; an intriguing, endearingly maudlin romanticization of desire and self-deception.

L'avventura (1959) - a mellow, melodramatic journey through the sad, guilty process of forgetting a lost friend & lover; captivating visuals

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - alluring recursive mystery, illusions of depth crafted from surface reflections; already a personal favorite

Visions of Light (1992) - A film giving a voice to the image-makers; for such a history of experimentation, it's almost too straightforward.

To Live and Die in LA (1985) - Heavily dated style & music, but the cynicism, hung over the traditional buddy-cop framework, is cutting-edge

Ivan's Childhood (1962) - A dreamy, powerful, ethereal war film on par with Malick's Thin Red Line; also, a pure cinematography masterpiece.

The Last Command (1928) - Slippery, self-conscious, and layered; big ideas for a silent movie, making it (arguably) an early postmodern text

-1 - 10-

The Devil's Backbone (2001) - A historical horror fable, with attention to the microcosmic effect of terror and tyranny in an enclosed space

The American (2010) - Lonely thriller for action fans who want something unusually beautiful and meditative - intelligent & easy on the eyes

Code Unknown (2000) - Cryptic multi-threaded film from Haneke -- makes me feel like I'm missing something very important & should dig deeper

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) - A messy (revisionist) historical action mystery with intriguing gothic stylings. Superficial but satisfying

The Mission (1986) - All-star cast of brooding men makes epic adventure feel strong & sincere, but I feel like it could have used more drama

Late Spring (Ozu, 1949) - slow drama chronicling the tensions within a family, reflecting social change; a sublime cinematic zen meditation.

The Killing (Kubrick, 1956) - Jim Thompson's brilliant writing, plus twisted loyalties and tragic betrayals, make for a palatable retro noir

The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959) - Frank and melancholy saga of youth inadvertently gone wrong; charmingly sentimental, stylish in its honesty

The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001) - Twisted, cynical, and insightful -- a film whose perversity makes more sense than we might like to admit.

Heat (Michael Mann) - A+ blend of epic & personal, heightened by intense, unsentimental depiction of violence. Subjective,realistic,powerful

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Who are you Nicholas Cage?

A memo inspired partly by my friend Eric's open letter to N.C.

Dearest Nick, the dorky dad of the action pantheon, how do you end up in these situations? Stealing cars, unhijacking airplanes, riding motorcycles under an undead sky. This is such a different man from the guy I see before me... a guy whose droll face says, "I just got home from a long day, I need a few minutes on the couch"... a guy whose arch-nemesis is simply the daily grind, whose epic victory is cracking a joke for his kids when they get home from school, asking them inane questions over a family dinner.

So who in God's name convinced you to put on a suit of chain mail and run off for the crusades? Another actor could sell this as an impulsive act of piety; from you, it seems more like a midlife crisis, prolonged by the interminable travel time to the Middle East... a long road trip with your drinking buddy Felsom, who seems much better cut out for this type of thing, though he's much less serious about it.

Here's the thing, Nicholas -- I've seen you play this character before... a man on a long journey, not sure where he went wrong. There too you were crushed by the guilt of a needless murder, by your own brutality at a moment of release. The only difference: at that time, you were on an airplane instead of a horse, and the demon presiding over the carnage was a man named Cyrus the Virus. You strayed far from your wife and daughter, but at least they were there to ground your clumsy army-guy eccentricities.

That grounding is the anchor that makes you SO GOOD -- so recognizable, so perfectly plausible -- every once in a great while, in one movie out of every ten.  Like that time you saved San Francisco from a rogue faction on Alcatraz... you weren't there because you were some sort of master thief or daredevil motorcyclist. You were there because you were a respectable government-employed toxicologist, and they needed someone with your expertise in the field. Never mind that your wife was bizarrely smokin' hot... that happens sometimes, to friendly, awkward, well-compensated professionals.

And there was also that one time, when you dressed yourself and your foul-mouthed daughter up like superheroes and went on a jaunt to ravage the criminal underground. It was just right, because it was YOU -- an awkward dad at heart, a family man who learned his manners in the 50's. A guy whose devotion and insecurity drove him to do unforgivable things.  You were no Bruce Wayne, with all his playboy sex appeal to compliment his amateur vigilante-ism.  You put on the costume because you wanted to indulge your own boyish fantasies, rather than somebody else's.

And like it or not, Nicholas, those characters are you. You've grown out of those edgy early days, when you were putty in the hands of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and the elder Coppola. So now that you should be inhabiting dramas and dramedic Oscar contenders, like Clooney has settled into doing, you've instead devoted yourself to wandering around Hollywood looking for that lost inner Jason Statham, aggressively miscasting yourself as an elite action star. Your career, like the lives of your characters, is a permanent mid-life crisis.

And this leaves the rest of us split, tortured, deciding whether to scoff at you or shake your hand... whether to hope that you grow up... or pray that you ride this quixotic motorcycle into the ground, forever content to pursue characters outside your nature and against everyone's better judgment.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Road to Perdition (2007): Machinist Gothic

Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition has a lot on the surface -- well-trodden themes of father/son loyalty, that slick neo-noir cinematography, some clever camera work, a host of oily, volatile secondary characters -- maybe too much, according to some.  For a director who got famous making morally ambiguous, thematically twisted films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition seems almost too straightforward, too direct about its hero's journey.  Michael Sullivan is indeed a comic book character, and you could be forgiven for mistaking Road to Perdition for a boringly typical comic book movie.

But this figure has a ground -- there is a thematic inner world to the film, expressed in both a literal and a metaphorical layer, that brings a formal unity to the whole thing.  You won't appreciate everything this deceptively well-constructed film has to offer until you recognize its inner life, the way all the parts interlock seamlessly.

Of course, we shouldn't pass by without mentioning the beautiful, polished images created by Conrad C. Hall, who won the Oscar that year.  This world is dusty and exposed by day, inert in its overcast grays, but at night, it's all angles and shadows... more than shadows, it's a funhouse of black surfaces and bottomless abysses.  It's an indifferent world, freezing cold or stuffy and still, with the blessing of a cool breeze only at the end, on the beach, as the plot folds back upon itself.

That polished cinematography is the first clue to how the film functions on a symbolic level.  Each scene is meticulous, the camera work is orderly and slow-moving, and every element is isolated in the frame, so that all the spatial relationships can be clearly identified.  These people are parts of a well-oiled apparatus, oriented to one another by their loyalty, their malice, their dependence, their pivotal, inescapable utility.

That's the subtext to the whole film: we are inside the machine. Here, before the camera, Mendes and Hall and Hanks lay bare the internals of a great mechanism, and Michael Sullivan Sr. is the rogue component, the cog that's slipping its axle and forcing everything to grind to a halt.

When Harlen Macguire asks Michael what he does, he tells him he's "a salesman. Machine parts." This is the first time he gives a cover story, but it doesn't seem to come out of nowhere... he's spent the whole film assembling various firearms, hiding them away, and explaining their use. In fact, in practically every sequence, the camera fetishizes machines -- we start with a shot of Michael Junior riding his bicycle, and eventually, he graduates to a full motor-car, becoming his father's getaway driver. Harlen the hitman is not simply a murderous reporter -- he's a mechanical eye, a walking camera that captures the souls of the people he murders. It's a world of telephones and combination safes and locks and keys.  Everything in the film seems to jingle and click together and "turn over," the totems of a clockwork world that seems to run more smoothly than our own messy digital universe.

That's the literalization of the film's unifying principle. In reality, the whole Irish underworld of the early 30's is a machine, and all the characters are locked into functional relationships with one another. Michael Sullivan, Sr. is the most reliable part in the whole apparatus at the film's beginning, a trusted enforcer for the local boss. Connor Rooney is the companion piece to his father, and John Rooney is the transmission for the whole local system, functioning on its own terms to serve the larger Chicago machine.

Both Michael Sr. and John Rooney carry fatherhood as an inescapable constraint while they fulfill their functions -- murder, profiteering, regulation, organization.  John, like a well-designed automaton, remains constrained by this obligation even when it turns out his son is betraying him. Knowing he's being undermined by his own kin, he just keeps idling along, acting as the responsible patriarch, keeping the rest of the community in line, making money for his family and his bosses.  He never stops working right, even up to his final stand in the rain, surrounded by his orderly but ineffectual circle of bodyguards

As it turns out, it's Michael Sullivan Sr. who catastrophically malfunctions, provoked as he is by Connor Rooney's subterfuge. Once Sullivan's button is pressed, he switches into revenge mode. He can't be dissuaded by bribery, coercion, or even his desire to protect his son. He will destroy this machine from the inside, even after it's taken care of him since he was young. Michael Sullivan knows that there are some sins that are unforgivable -- there are some breakdowns that can't be prevented.

And maybe that sheds some light on the film's moralistic father-son relationship, too. Michael Sullivan Sr. doesn't seem to be able to extract himself from this system of reflexive violence... being a loyal enforcer, he's totally defined by it.  But he struggles profoundly with his attitude toward his son, who he gradually initiates into the criminal lifestyle, while paradoxically trying to protect him from it.  He gives his son a pistol to defend himself, he teaches him to drive a getaway car, he tells him to keep a lookout.  At the same time, his misgivings are palpable... he distrusts his own father-figure (John Rooney) with the boys, he tries to deliver his son to his wife's sister, and he distances his son from the violence he carries out, albiet erratically.  This is the behavior of a firmly entrenched part of a machine, trying to ensure that his son doesn't find a place in that same machine.

And unto the end, in Michael Sullivan Jr's vulnerability -- in his inability to master the stick shift, his intense love for reading and religion, his dislike for math -- he's the most organic element in this plot, the bit of soft tissue that needs to be protected from the grinding gears of the criminal underground, lest he be torn apart.  This comes across as clear as day when he sits with his father inside an old farmhouse, providing compassion and patience and sips of water.  The boy is not a machine... he's the one real boy in this world of pinnochios, the sole human touch.

The father-son relationships, the intrigue and depravity of the crime world, the Midwestern road trip through heartland prohibition... these are just the flesh of the story.  Dig deeper, and you find its iron-clad, mechanical heart, all angles and edges and parts that lock into place... and then, even deeper inside the film, there's Michael Sullivan Jr., the soft soul peeking out from inside the great machine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Zodiac (2007), Chinatown (1974), and the heart of the noir city

At the heart of the noir city, there's a spider's web of influences and motives that never quite resolve, never quite explain themselves, never present a clear target for the apparatus of justice. It's this lack of identity, this lack of certainty, that makes the noir city such a terrifying place for us helpless human beings, who strive for clarity, balance, and closure. Humans try to consolidate their power and their organization within the city, but this only empowers the city to tear it away from them, laughing, casting its shadow.

The fact that "justice" is itself a diffuse, teetering bureaucracy of internal contradictions doesn't help; in that sense, it's just another part of the urban structure, which envelops everything within its domain.  In trying to organize the truth within the noir city's labyrinth, the justice system simply amplifies its power, like a vaccine in reverse -- the virus is innoculated against the body. The judge who signs the warrant can be bought, the sergeant who carries it out can be undermined and turned aside by his own rules. In this hostile space, the regional departments compete, and the multitide of divisions collapse, burying the truth.

The outsider in these situations may be able to reclaim some power, but not much.  Yes, being independent of a department is an advantage.  Being free of jurisdictions and bureaucracies empowers the ambitious citizen to make his own inquiries and draw his own conclusions.  But disorganization and formality is only the city's outermost defense.  The true irresolvable force, the cancer at the center of the decay, is the rotting heart itself, the empty, uncertain soul of the metropolis.

J.J. Gittes discovers noir LA by wandering through its empty reservoirs and dry lake beds, using his "investigation" as an excuse to take a lot of curious walks. Though he is an outsider (a private dick as opposed to a beat cop), he generally falls in line with the city's cynicism, following people around town, taking photographs, and profiting off his clients' troubles.  But Gittes has a bad habit: he occasionally takes a personal interest in his clients and tries to save them from the city's tentacles. In this, he is a true outsider, an idealist... a guy who falls stupidly in love with women and trouble, who picks at scabs and turns buried secrets into open wounds.

I rewatched Chinatown (1974) because I'd just seen Zodiac (2007), and the dark tangle of intrigue and bureaucracy in the latter reminded me of the indecipherable architectures of the former. It's hard to overstate how different the Chicago of Zodiac is from the LA of Chinatown, the former being a crowded, murky, confrontational fortress of institutions, the latter being sun-drenched and empty, wealthy and lonely and in a state of gilded deprivation. Chicago is flushed and choleric; LA is dizzy and dehydrated. But both cities are big, cynical centers of misanthropy, and both of them are hard on their heroes. Robert Graysmith is to Chicago as Jake Gittes is to LA: a pesky savant, an outsider looking for the inside track, stirring the mud as he indulges his own obsession.

Of course, Robert never gets the stamp of approval that we all want: an arrest and conviction for his suspect. The city doesn't yield up closure so readily, and sometimes, a glimpse of the truth is all you're ever going to get. But Robert does achieve something heroic, even if he goes unrewarded: he confronts that sinister underside of the city, stepping up to it and staring it in the face on multiple occasions. He finds his way into the basement of a Projectionist who seems unmistakably significant in this whole Zodiac affair; he meets a woman who recalls a dark, shadowy figure at her bohemian painting parties; he looks into Leigh Allen's eyes.

In Zodiac, the city is an empty morass of connections and uncertainties.  At least in the LA of Chinatown, it comes down to a few specific people, a few brazen confessions. But what a rotten heart it is! At the heart of the city are the Crosses, one of its most powerful clans, embroiled in incestuous relationships and opportunist plots to destroy farm families and reclaim the land for the wealthy. Gittes unearths the Cross's bizarre culture of transgression, appeasement, and favoritism: Mr. Mulwray, the business partner, is sleeping with his wife's sister-daughter? The connections to Noah Cross are so dense, so intractable, that his motives seem to determine the whole structure. Did Cross and Mulwray really sever ties over the ownership of the water supply?  Or are all these wealthy, broken degenerates still in cahoots, working in uneasy but unbreakable cooperation to protect their fucked up family?

Good-looking, bad news
So Gittes discovers the truth. Kind of. He's turned up the soil wherefrom this rotten tree has sprung. But once he sees its face in Noah Cross, once he tastes its tainted fruit in Evelyn Mulwray, his power ends. He can't hold these people accountable, nor expose their poisonous influence. Their crimes converge and dissolve on a street in Chinatown, where nothing's really reconciled. And maybe this is a worse fate than blissful ignorance: knowing the darkness that lurks within the noir city, and knowing that you can't do shit about it.

Where Gittes found an impenetrable knot, Robert Graysmith finds something else: the erasure, the uncertainty, that the noir city presents as its final face, beneath the masks of violence and domesticity.  He discovers, in Chicago, a troubling fact: the fact that actual, physical events, in all their brute violence and cruelty, eventually disappear, leaving only a facile layer of information. Four years later, Graysmith is still asking, "Who committed these murders?" A better question may be, "Did these murders actually happen?" and even this is more or less irrelevant, because the murders are gone, diluted in history. All that's left of them are anecdotes, clippings in binders, casings in envelopes, handwriting samples, marks on certain detectives' records, an "open" case file.

Robert Graysmith rages against that emptiness, that void, by drawing together what information he can, but more importantly, by finding the people who were involved in the slayings: Linda del Buono, Rick Marshall's friend the movie poster artist, and finally Leigh Allen. Through them, he finds actual anecdotes, the traces of real experiences, so much of which has disappeared after four years.

Robert Graysmith never really sees as much of his picture as Jake Gittes sees of his own. But Robert wins a small battle against the vast forces of the city's unexplored labyrinth -- in the absence of any confirmation, Robert Graysmith comes to his own conclusion. He approaches his suspect in a hardware store and looks him straight in the eye, and at this moment in the film, we can see Robert Graysmith make a leap of faith -- the leap from suspicion to belief.  This is only victory a man like Graysmith can retain in the face of overpowering uncertainty.  This leap of faith may be nothing but appeasement, but at least there's that.  J. J. Gittes never has anything like that.

SIDE NOTE: I think Zodiac, the film, actually presents us with a possible resolution, though it's never quite spelled out for us. Consider: during the extended climax of the film, Robert Graysmith confronts two different men. First, the projectionist, who admits to making posters that seem to match Zodiac's handwriting. This confrontation happens in the basement of a house, the deepest cavern Graysmith reaches in this affair.  And there's someone else in the house... someone who flees before Graysmith can identify him.

The other person Graysmith confronts is the perennial suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, who seems connected to the killer in every possible way: he has the right boots, he has a watch with the symbol, he lived near the first victim.  But Leigh Allen is exonerated by... his handwriting!  And the DNA samples from the letter.

Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this, but to me, this suggests the simple conclusion: Leigh murdered the victims, and the projectionist wrote the letters on his behalf. No connection between these individuals was ever uncovered, and yet, they fit together, like perfectly-shaped puzzle pieces in a picture that's never assembled. Leigh may even have been in the house when Graysmith was there; if he had seen him, it would have brought the whole affair into focus, but he missed him, and so the truth once again eluded him.

Anyway, that's my leap of faith.  I follow Robert Graysmith in coming to my own conclusion, at least in terms of the movie's version of these events, and I'll stand by it until something upsets it.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Event: Occupy Wall Street and Steve Jobs

History takes a strange twist when two big things happen on the same day, and they're related enough that they converge in the news media. That's what happened yesterday, when the Occupy Wall Street protests got big enough to spark some police conflict, and then, in the evening, the death of Steve Jobs was announced and totally took over the media. I've been personally following the protests, finding in them an interesting change in the timbre of political participation. Most of the country is still ignoring them, but this is becoming less and less possible.

The news of Jobs' death, on the other hand... nobody could ignore that. It totally overwhelmed public discourse for the rest of the night. Even the protestors, caught up as they were in the surge of a mass demonstration, had to find time to tweet about the Apple CEO's passing.

The two events create a stark contrast, happening at the same time like this. The protests, in the words of McKenzie Wark, are truly an "event" -- they feel unprecedented, as if they're subverting the media cycle of sensationalism and forgetfulness. This kind of public gathering and outpouring of emotion, this mass expression of discontent, perpetual because it doesn't articulate a terminating condition -- it's a rare occasion, and this is truly the first event of its kind in the age of mass media.  It demonstrates the validity of those philosophical concepts like "aletheia" (Heidegger) or "event" (Badiou), which seem so useless most of the time, but that take on a new vitality when you're in a situation like this, and you truly don't know where it's going.

Jobs' death is totally different. The signs were there for months: the autobiography, the resignation from Apple -- and yet, it was sudden, like getting jabbed with a needle is sudden, even after thirty seconds of watching the doctor get the syringe ready. In that way, even its suddenness was sort of predictable. Jobs' death was a confirmation of the cycles of seasons, the rhythm of life and death, sweeping up even those people who have been elevated to icons, to ideals. He joins the ranks of Amy Winehouse and Mother Theresa in that respect, a victim of the tyranny of the inevitable.  His death wasn't an "event" in the radical sense... it was a landmark, a testament to the power of Eternal Return.

It's hard to overstate the importance Steve Jobs had in our culture. His name is one of the most widely-recognized, and he presided over Apple at a time when it was systematically shaping our whole cultural framework.  This is an information age, and Apple's always been at the leading edge of information access and organization. The number of loving eulogies is a testament to this fact (read many of them here, as noted by Jason Kottke).

And maybe Jobs' infamous lack of corporate charity is part of the zeitgeist, too -- the zeitgeist of the super-rich in-crowd, a massive social class of self-made millionaires and billionaires, created by market speculation and booms in information technology. It's been argued that this crowd suffers from a problem of entitlement and self-interest, a disconnected (almost patronizing and authoritarian) attitude toward the social and political structures, which they're subject to, but not really a part of.  That's another topic altogether, worth pursing, but outside the scope of this reflection.

Indeed, if we can't pay tribute to Jobs as a humanitarian, we can pay tribute to him as a projection, representing capitalism in all its best and worst attributes. Out of self-interest, he created world-changing products and historical innovations -- radical events in their own right -- and he represented the power of freedom and ambition and authoritarianism.  That's free-market capitalism: a blind visionary, seeing the whole world through the prism of itself.

Acknowledging that fact is a cause for concern for some activists, because it leads to a deluge of criticisms, like this one and this one, from both inside and outside the movement.  Twitter: the new platform for mass soul-searching, amiright?

Chances are, a lot of people at Occupy Wall Street had to make some very quick assessments of what they really thought of Steve Jobs last night. On one hand, there's a good chance they were using iPhones and iPads.  They may have been radicals, struggling to excuse their own brand-loyalty; they may have been moderates, trying to decide where Apple's consumer-friendly empire fits on their gradient of indignation. A few of them -- notably the occasional left-leaning libertarian -- may have looked at their iPhones, looked up at a pro-Obama sign, and thought, "Should I really be aligning myself with this movement?"

Self-defenses are simple to generate.  "We're unhappy with the system, not the individuals who have done well for themselves within in." Or how about, "It's the collusion between money and politics, not the actual companies themselves." Or, most obviously, "This is about banks and financial speculation, not about companies making retail products."  These are all reasonable, though they don't completely close off the argument.

Ultimately, though, the final answer is a universal truth: we have to accept, in some measure, what we oppose in another measure, or in another form.  We have to "waffle," as it were, between seeing the value in personal ambition and monetary incentives, and seeing the danger in letting it run unfettered.  In its healthiest form, market capitalism drives human progress and keeps economies balanced.  When it's toxic, it takes over everything: the political process, the lives of individuals, the educational system, the military.

The Occupy Wall Street protests aren't so militant that they can't struggle with these questions. It's one of the visible struggles within the protests: anti-capitalist? Anti-consumerist? Or just anti-Big-Five-corporate-banking? It goes right along with the other tensions that are being dealt with: pro- or anti-Obama? Pro- or anti-Cop? These dichotomies are yet to be decided, and in some cases, it may be up to the subject of the dichotomy (Obama, the police, etc.) to win or lose the movement's favor.

Because of this mushy flexibility, the protests are able to absorb outside resources -- support from unions, support from celebrities -- without, thus far, being infected or assimilated by them. These allies are accepted in good faith, even as their merit is being internally debated. Like any good democratic mass, this collective has constant ideological indigestion.

In fact, Occupy Wall Street exhibits all the best and worst of the democratic process, just as Steve Jobs exhibited the best and worst of capitalism. Occupy Wall Street is flexible and open, few voices are "silenced" arbitrarily, and it's in constant flux, adapting to situations and expressing the changing ideologies that are allowing it to build momentum. It's ecstatic and troubled and massively inclusive. At the same time, it's indecisive, anemic in terms of concrete long-term goals, and it frequently splits. Sometimes it seems to teeter on the edge of mindless mob rule. One part goes to Liberty Square, one part goes to the NYPD, one part goes to the Brooklyn Bridge. The human megaphone is empowering somebody, and we can all hear them echoed in that messy multitude, but nobody knows who's talking, or what the hell their qualifications are.

This Occupy Wall Street movement, this "event," as it were, will only survive if it stays true to its troubled nature, its indistinct but deeply-rooted value system. Certainly, as this Tea Partier points out, there will be lots of attempts to appropriate it.  It needs to keep thriving off that kick, that emotional resonance, that you get when you're part of a collective sentiment... when your own unsettled idealism is amplified by the voice of the masses.

There is no right time for a landmark like Steve Jobs' death -- it was always predestined, and no matter when it happened, it would have been a shock. Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is delivering the kick of rupture, of the radical event -- and those of us who are investing in this movement are watching closely, hoping that for this movement, the "right time" is here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Oneiric Break: Dream structures in four major films

I've sensed a recurring structure in a range of highly-acclaimed films, a lot like the self-destructive female archetype I wrote about a while ago. In this case, I've noticed it repeated in four films, all with that sort of "high-concept mainstream" status.  There's an extremely high chance that you've seen at least one, and maybe two or three, of the ones where I've discovered it.

Instead of trying to weave all the criticism together, which I'm sure would result in a big discursive mishmash, I'm going to describe the template right out front, and then describe how each movie fits into it.  Like most of these common structures, it's surprisingly elaborate and surprisingly consistent, once you know what essential elements to look for.

This structure always seem to occur when there's a male protagonist.  This male's sexual desire, somehow unfulfilled, is a key narrative feature; this male is generally pursuing an agenda of desire, mixing sexual, sensual, and romantic desire.  As the story develops, this manifests as pursuit of a particular female.

In the course of the story, there's an initial sense that this protagonist is in the real world (just an assumption of cinema in general, really), but in short order, this reality always gives way to a dream-world.  Sometimes this happens just through implication, other times the transition is quite explicit.  Generally, this dream-world is trance-like and vaguely hallucinatory -- sometimes through subtle touches of surrealism, sometimes in dramatic and disturbing ways.  However, at first, it's a peaceful dream, a dream of comfort and routine.

However, in the climactic moments of the story arc, this dream world becomes a nightmare, manifested as bizarre and sinister disturbances in the surrounding order. This nightmare world is generally unlocked by that obsessive sexual desire -- sometimes right at the moment of its fulfillment.

From here on out, I'll call this moment the "oneiric break" -- when a good dream suddenly turns into a horrible nightmare.

The rest of the plot is the protagonist trying to restore order to this nightmarish world, often through death, either literal or symbolic.

Here are the four test cases. Please let me know if you can think of others!  The first two are films that make the "dream" themes explicit, and then fill into the formula from there.  Also, warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

1. Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe)

Crowe's unexpectedly cerebral Cruise-vehicle was loose and jumbled... much to the chagrin of his usual fan base, but to the delight of cinematic masochists like myself.  As with many of these, the line between real-world and dream-world is blurry right from the start, as David Aames' self-indulgent playboy lifestyle almost seems like a good dream from the first moment -- complete with references to paintings and echoes of pop songs.

This is the best initial test case, because at the end of the film, Tech Support basically lays out the formula.  The dream officially started when Sofia picked up David from the sidewalk after a humiliating bender.  The oneiric break occurs when David flashes back to his damaged face when looking into a mirror, and its nightmarishness is consummated when Sofia is suddenly replaced by Julianna.  According to Tech Support, this break occurs because of a malfunction in the machine, but according to Dr. McCabe, it might be the result of David's guilt over how he treated Julianna (was it the neglect, or the sexual desire? Or both?)  Finally, Vanilla Sky ends with a return to the real world, via a symbolic death: the fall from the top of the skyscraper.

Vanilla Sky is interesting in that there are TWO objects of desire: Sofia is the ideal, the Madonna, a paragon of love and support and intimacy; Julianna is the whore, a seething sexual cauldron of possessiveness and jealousy.  This variation on the basic pattern will be repeated in one of the other films.

Also, note the plastic surgery theme, which will be repeated later.

2. Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

Again, in Brazil, the "dream" theme is very explicit.  Also, as in Vanilla Sky, the initial "real world" and the parallel dream world hardly vary at all in terms of realism; Sam Lowry's dreams of a monolithic concrete city and an evil samurai, aided by a team of tormented monsters, isn't much more out-there than the clockwork bureaucracy he lives in, the whole of which operates as a sort of Benny Hill Rube Goldberg machine from hell.

If you interpret the whole film as a dream, the oneiric break seems to come when Sam and Jill are finally consummating their romantic interest.  This is when the fulfillment of forbidden love becomes the nightmare of incarceration and torture, and eventually, this implied nightmare of torture gives way to the explicit nightmare of Oedipal confusion and madness.

Three additional interesting notes about Brazil: first, it's named after a song, which will occur in one other movie in this group; this song is used to signal the final, empty disconnect as Sam regresses into a permanent dream-state.  Second, as with Vanilla Sky, the film includes a fascination with deformation and plastic surgery.  Third, there's a "mask" theme in Brazil, though it's not as developed as the mask motifs in Vanilla Sky and a later film.

The next two cases aren't explicitly "dream" films, but when you watch them, it's pretty clear that this is shit that would only happen in a confused person's head while they're asleep.  Plus, the "dream" interpretation of each of these films is widespread in criticism and reviews.

3. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)

In terms of this structure, Blue Velvet is the loosest of the four films.  There's clearly a mixture of hazy dream and lucid nightmare, but the boundaries between them are porous.  Even so, the themes are the same: Jeffrey occupies a sort of idyllic suburban world, ruled by convention and idealism and hope for his future. As the story progresses, this lazy fantasy is fractured by Jeffrey's insatiable curiousity, which attaches to the Ear, and by his unfulfilled desire, which draws him to Dorothy.  This leads him into the strange, nightmarish world of Frank Booth.

The Frank/Dorothy lounge music seems to be an essential signal that an oneiric break is taking place -- that we've been lured by voyeurism and curiousity into a nightmare world dominated by Frank's psyche.  The first lounge-music scene occurs just before Jeffrey first enters Dorothy's apartment; the second one occurs before Jeffrey decides to follow Frank to the saw mill; another occurs in Ben's house, and yet another occurs as Jeffrey is being beaten.

Two of the other key themes are repeated.  First, the object of desire is split into an idyllic Madonna figure (Sandy) and a fallen female figure (Dorothy). Second, the film is named after a song -- and music takes on a pivotal thematic significance.

4. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick's last film is both brilliant and divisive, elliptical, enigmatic, and among his less goal-oriented endeavors. Whether it's really a dream film is up for debate, but I know which side I come down on: I think the film is mostly taking place in Bill's head while he's asleep, right after he and Alice smoke up and have a fight. The fact that a highly sexual post-mortem encounter immediately follows is a good indication: he is entering the underworld of his psyche, and he's going to be working through his subconscious desires and anxieties for the rest of the film.

And indeed, for a little while, it's all fantasy-fulfillment: an intimate moment with a prostitute, a jazz club, a mysterious party, the intrigue of an orgiastic cult out in the wilderness.  The intensity escalates until Bill reaches the inner chamber of the party.

The oneiric break is pretty obvious in this film: it comes when Bill is exposed to the scrutiny and judgment of the cult leaders. From this point on, he continually finds himself brushing up against death, guilt, and retribution.  The dream of fulfillment and pleasure has given way to a nightmare of anxiety and paranoia.

Bill eventually arrives home to find his mask from the party lying on his pillow. According to my reading, this discovery represents Bill waking up from his extended dream/nightmare.  The mask is actually Bill's sleeping face on the pillow beside his wife, and at this moment in the narrative arc, he is finally called to return to the real world.

Note that, though Eyes Wide Shut isn't named after a song, music takes on a vast, important symbolic role. Not least of all, the pianist Nick Nightingale acts as Bill's access point to the dream-world's inner sanctum.

Note, also, the theme of unmasking as a dream transition.  This blatantly echoes the dream transitions in Vanilla Sky.

So yes, there are a TON of shared themes, motifs, echoes, and structural parallels between these four films. It's hard to pinpoint any particular statement or position held by all of them; however, the structure itself might indicate some cultural anxities and obsessions that are being worked out.  The patterns are just too clear and intense to be dismissed as coincidence.

As a supplement, I've mapped out all these common themes and motifs.  Check out the chart below.  Fascinating stuff.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Where Photography is Going

Today I read something called "Is the Art of Photography Dying Due to Digitalization?"  It's not a particularly new idea, but it's part of a conversation that needs to be ongoing, as conditions are changing faster than discourse can keep up with them. And the concern being voiced in this essay is still urgent.

Man Ray
As much as I'd like to simply shrug, wave it off, laugh, dismiss it, and tell this author that (s)he obviously knows nothing about photography if (s)he can't appreciate its eternal artistic value, I can't.  Why?  Because the author is right in pointing out that photography is changing.  As the technology improves, it provides easier access, and it changes the value placed on images.  This, in turn, changes the expectations, the methods, the purview of the discipline as a whole.

Because, like this essayist, I've heard people play with my DSLR (the cheapest Pentax DSLR I could find) and say, "It's so easy to take great pictures with this!"  And as much as I hate hate HATE to admit it, their untrained golden-hour snapshots often look pretty high-level, as long as they're using a camera capable of capturing the light robustly. So part of me entertains, and fears, this idea: that maybe, for all photographers' self-importance about framing, and the rule of thirds, and being experts in "writing with light," blah blah blah, it turns out that there's nothing between a serious (potentially professional) photographer and a random person on the street, except for maybe a $600 camera.

The article seems to suggest that, in becoming automatic, fully democratic, and highly accessible, the process of taking a photograph is losing its artistic value. As thousands of people are able to buy high-quality cameras, and these cameras become very smart about automatically calibrating and manipulating photos, there is no barrier to creation, so millions of people are suddenly taking, and sharing, billions of photos.  Brilliant amateur work starts to appear, and people stop seeing great photography as the domain of specialists and professionals.

Diane Arbus
So maybe the democritization of photography is leading to the breakdown of the photographer meritocracy.

I think there's something else, though: photography is changing because it's becoming an art of selection, rather than composition. Good photographers in the digital age know: the key to getting a great photograph is getting thousands of bad ones. This wasn't possible when you had to pay for film, and it was clumsy and took time to load, and had to be selected for the light and the speed of the subject; at that time, a photograph was created like a story or a painting is created. The situation and the intended outcome were considered, creative decisions were weighed, and commitments were made before the shutter ever clicked.

Now, the shutter clicks a hundred times -- we try every exposure setting, every film speed, every focal length -- for every shot or scene that looks even remotely intriguing.  Composition isn't so much a concern any more.  Instead, the creative process takes place in the office, operating LightRoom or Adobe Bridge.  Instead of composing a single great shot, we're selecting the incidental great shot from the SD card full of random crap.  We're doing a lot of deleting, both on location and upon later review.

This is a significant change, because it makes the art of photography more like the general process of idetifying images you like.  And like it or not, picking out a great picture has never been seen as a specialist activity -- pretty much every person has the prerogative to say, "This shot is awesome!" and/or "I don't really like that one much." They don't have the training to recognize good from bad?  Who cares? Everybody has a right to an opinion. And this is now synonymous with the discipline of photography -- it's just selection from a gallery of snapshots.

I do think this is happening.  I think it looks like a bad thing, initially, especially to people who are invested in the meritocracy: photography professors, magazine editors, purveyors of extremely expensive professional photography systems.  But ultimately, it's not a bad thing, because the new democratic landscape will be built upon that meritocracy.  There will be specialization: portrait and product photographers, event photographers, artists who focus intensely on one technology, technique, or subject. The standards and the economic value of photographers' skills will change -- it may even take a big hit, as barriers to entry come crashing down. But we'll eventually find new ways to determine merit, and new ways to manage the flood of new talent at the lowest levels of the talent pool.

Sebastiao Salgado
One thing for sure: photography is on the leading edge of two cultural battles being fought right now.

The first is the wrestling match with Content, which has ballooned in volume over the last few years; photography, along with art and writing, has suddenly burst the dam of cultural access, and we're all desperately trying to manage it using little content delivery buckets, like blogs, and social networks, and self-publishing tools. It's the battle of finding SOME way of auditing and distributing all this content, however subjective, low-brow, or crowd-sourcey it is.

The second battle is the economic one, where we're trying to figure out how to deal with this excess of cultural production: who gets paid for this stuff? Has art, in its excess, dropped out of the need- and value-based economy altogether?  Is it going to be the test-case for a post-scarcity economic model?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street, in the middle of its sudden escalation

After spending the last two weeks totally writing off Occupy Wall Street, the long-term protest that's been lingering in Zuccotti Park, I finally took notice today.  I'd been, like, 13 days, and instead of tragically petering out, it seems to have picked up a bit of support and momentum.  I was surprised to hear that.

And then today, there was a rampant rumor that Radiohead would be playing, which drew about 3000 people down to the site.  It was false, unfortunately, but it certainly escalated the phenomenon by some orders of magnitude.  If you're on this leftish side of the political spectrum, it seems to be worth getting agitated about.

There are widespread claims that they're incomprehensible, they have no solid platform or reasonable goals, and they really just seem like a bunch of hippies out to make a laughing stock of liberals. Those are reasonable criticisms, but they ignore the emergent truth of the protest... that it's not about particular short-term goals, or about one particular issue with a particular event, election, or injustice. If it was one of those things, it would have a clear victory condition, and it would probably have been pitifully narrow and ineffective. Crowds of chanting people don't overturn convictions or get new legislation approved.  That, ideally, is the job of those politicians we all elect.

But we can maybe read a different philosophy, a different victory condition, into this whole thing.  The possible positive force here -- the one thing a protest like this could potentially accomplish -- is that it reframes the political conversation.  This is something that, on any given day and for any given person, is absolutely impossible.  No matter how much you blog, you'll either be considered a tepid moderate or a radical twit.  And because it's impossible for one person, it's often seemed, in the last decade or so, that it's impossible altogether, as if the tone of national conversation moves according to some supernatural logic (and anti-logic, sometimes).

Who proved this wrong?  It was the goddamn Tea Party.  The Tea Party emerged spontaneously and kept repeating its anti-government message, and this thread of conversation has totally overtaken the national political discourse.  The excitement got those conservatives elected in the midterms, and it's created a marked upsurge of libertarianism, both as a political loyalty and as a theme in the wider conservative platform.  It's a movement that still has legs, and as it's taken over the whole discussion, the left has lost its enthusiasm, stalled out, and started suffering a string of minor frustrations: its disillusionment with Obama's superpowers - the special elections - the Wisconsin recall vote.

And I think the reason we don't seem to get breaks is because we've lost a foothold in the national conversation.

So that's where this protest has promise: it's bringing new visibility to a discontent, vocal partisan position that has been marginalized in the national discourse for too long. When this is your criteria for assessment, it doesn't matter if there's a list of concrete demands unifying your movement.  All that matters is that there's enough philosophical overlap, enough shared spirit, that it can legitimize more talk, more action, more voting and legislating.

Those claims of "disunity" and lack of focus were valid, back when it seemed like this OWS movement might just peter out.  Creating momentum with such a broad base, without any particular incident to incite anger, is REALLY difficult.  But the OWS protests have actually cleared that initial hurdle.  Now they need to build this whole thing into as large, as global, as visible a sentiment as possible.  They need thought leaders and political advocates to see that a serious leftist perspective is legitimate.  They need them to sense a serious political force in the left, and they need them to try to mobilize it.  They need them to see that the spirit of leftism isn't dead.

Still, this "movement" thing is at a precarious place.  After the numbers swelled this evening, and the TWA union joined the protest, they all decided to march to the NYPD HQ as a protest against police brutality.  Now, I know this is a convenient way to drum up defensive indignance among activist types, but come on -- this protest is about the bankers' excesses and the politicians' collaboration.  It's not about police brutality or the legitimacy of the rule of law.  The police officers are public workers being squeezed by the political environment, and they could make powerful allies.  I hope the protestors -- especially the General Assembly -- take this into account, and make this "march" as much about solidarity as it is about confrontation.

The last last LAST thing this protest can afford to do is to alienate the middle class and moderate America, both on the left and the right side of the partisan divide.  The fastest way for the movement to crash and burn will be: 1) to start railing about leftist issues that have no large-scale traction (i.e. pro-Palestine, PETA, etc); 2) to ignite tensions with working Americans and public employees; and 3) to allow any hint of violence into the conduct of the protest itself.

If you want to know if it's still going on, feel free to check out the Live Stream.  The momentum may surprise you.