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04

Apr

Classes at Orange Coast College

Classes at U.C. Berkeley

27

Mar

A Walking Shadow

  1. A Walking Shadow; Aldous Huxley

    Matthew Kammerzelt

    English 102H

    April 2, 2007

    A Walking Shadow

    While Thomas Henry Huxley is not today the household name associated with the theory of evolution, he was a paladin of the controversy. That there could be written in something as small as a bird’s beak the history of surviving every challenge the natural world has conjured was too imaginative an explanation to be popular in the 19th century.

    Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold is a beautiful poem. A man storms off from a fight with his newly wedded wife out to a balcony overlooking the beach. He hears the waves ceaseless lapping and he is calmed. He sees the eponymous pebbles that were once mighty cliffs and he is humbled. He imagines all the men who spilt their blood upon this tauntingly exposed corner of an island and by the adrenaline ebbing from his mind he knows why.

    These men had a gift for recognizing eternity’s signature in the mundane, but were on opposing sides of the classic confrontation of the Victorian age. They spent their later careers writing essays arguing, as Thomas Henry defined the fears of his foes, that man’s moral nature be debased by the increase of his wisdomÓ. Both Matthew Arnold and Thomas Henry Huxley attended the wedding of Arnold’s grandniece Julia, one of the first women to graduate Oxford, and T. H. Huxley’s son Leonard, a teacher and man of letters engaged in writing a biography about his father. The marriage was more than symbolic, Julia and Leonard produced Aldous.

    Aldous Huxley was raised as most of the British intelligentsia were at the turn of the 20th century, as a prince. An English education at the peak of Pax Britannia covered the sciences and the arts, but most poignantly, in how people are ruled over. He grew up amongst the top hats and salon discussions of global policy that seemed so distant from the barbarous war councils of yore. But when the war to end all wars broke out and a great evil possessed these civilized men and women, Huxley, 20, lost faith in art that was used for propaganda, science that was manipulated to rationalize mass murder, and most of all, he lost faith in humanity and fell into writing in the disillusioned style that was so cliche at the time.

    His early novels are Huxley’s Howl. There are no heroes or heroines. The characters who think admirably are, in turns, nostalgic or utopian, admirably succeeding only in neglecting the obvious. The sociologists are shy, the artists are lechers, the civic minded are fascists. It is a jaded world blinded by theory.

    A childhood disease had progressively taken Aldous’ eyesight and by the time he had made a career of writing, he was left with only light and dark. So it is little wonder that the conversations between Huxley’s characters are crafted with such intricate finesse. Occasionally, for no predestined purpose, one of Huxley’s characters will become enraptured by the brilliance of the setting

    v around him and describe in exquisite detail all the glorious sightfull decadence of which a blind man could only dream. There is no more vivid account of introspection than those of Huxley’s characters. Aldous was intimately acquainted with the dialogue of cognition and was able to reproduce this accurately on the page. His essays at this time were on music, art, and poetry. He used specific examples of masterpieces to exemplify how a patron could more fully appreciate the experience of being moved. He wrote that ÒGood art possesses a kind of super-truth—is more probable, more acceptable, more convincing than fact itself” (Collected Essays p. 97), but he knew, because of his bifurcated heritage, “living amphibiously, half in fact, half in words, half in immediate impressions and half in abstract notions, we contrive most of the time to make the worst of both worlds” (Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow p. 4). In the years between the world wars, Huxley’s novels and essays were models of the frustration of purposelessness. He was living the dilemma of Dover Beach’s main character:

    Wandering between two worlds, one dead,

    The other powerless to be born,

    With nowhere yet to rest my head…

    The two worlds not of art and science, but between where there are conflicts over which theory can be the only right one and a where beautiful truth is lived every waking second.

    The 1920s were a period of almost constant travel for Aldous. One nine-month excursion across India and America would be foundation for the rest of his life’s work. He ascribed the dichotomy in the pages of Jesting Pilate:

    I set out on my travels knowing, or thinking that I knew how men should live, how be governed, how educated, what they should believe. I knew which was the best form of social organization and to what end societies had been created. I had my views on every variety of human life. Now, on my return, I find myself without any of these pleasing certainties…But in compensation for what I lost, I acquired two important new convictions: that it takes all sorts to make a world, and that the established spiritual values are fundamentally correct and should be maintained.

    After only a few essays where he dared interject outside of a character’s monologue his opinion on the role of government and the future of society, Huxley wrote Brave New World. Inspiration from his travels, his marriage, the death of his beloved friend and sounding board D. H. Lawrence, but mostly the infectious spread of fascism and totalitarianism from Italy to Spain to Russia and then Germany awakened a meta-paternal instinct in Huxley. Where his earlier novels are balanced and poetic, Brave New World is direct and obvious, the work of a man who needed to warn the free world of an impending storm and had not the time it takes for verse to sink in. Dogma and propaganda had again been used to condition the masses to accept Hell on Earth as status quo. Huxley realized the beauty of the chaos which was his freedom all along. The people of StalinÕs Russia and Hitler’s Germany did not have the liberty to debate merits of art and science. In time, Huxley oraculated, neither would any civilization run for profit by an elite threatened with the stresses of overpopulation.

    World War II ended, but Huxley was by no means on the winning side. Goerbbels was being studied by advertising agencies, welfare policies were leading to a regression towards the mean. Science and religion kept the poor reproducing beyond their means. The military-indudstrial-government complex was decreasing in number and increasing control as fast as their unimaginable incomes would allow. Dehumanization was running at full steam.

    Huxley had abandoned the art of fiction for “a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly as can a long novel” (Collected Essays p. V). He had used the novel to take readers on journeys of self-reflection, but as the masses were forced to accept subliminal opiates, he was desperate to vaccinate his audience before it was too late. He lectured at colleges and wrote on the modern threats to freedom, but his appeals to academia were hardly more effective than waxing poetic in the moonlight, as his second wife recounts in This Timeless Moment:

    Many of the people who called on Aldous when they were passing through were outstanding scientists of various kinds: they were especially involved in the humanities, engaged in projects concerning education, the population explosion, and, generally speaking, the improvement of the human race, covering every phase, from the abolition of hunger to the correction of bad taste…[b]ut again, it was a question of large sums of money, committees, laboratories, and it seemed hopelessly long before any of this would have a practical application.

    Then the Huxleys moved to Los Angeles and using the unorthodox Bates Method, Aldous taught himself to see again. He wrote to defended the Bates’ method in the New Yorker and criticized the myopic nature of modern science. He rediscovered the “transcendental pragmatism” of Eastern religions. Buddhism and the Bagadga-vita described the actual ways a person can take it upon themselves to achieve Truth, in one timeless moment, a communion with “An unspeakable sense of gratitude for the privilege of being born into this universe” (Collected Essays p. 344). Of course, Huxley had been to India and had close associates who were the patron saints of Eastern religion in America. Should he have a question, the preeminent guru would be there to take his call.

    Addressing a professional conference of the New York Academy of Sciences, he asserted categorically that by taking the newly engineered LSD, mescaline and psylocibiln, “Human beings will be able to achieve effortlessly…the [“loving kindness, peace, and joy” that] could be achieved only with difficulty, by means of self-control and spiritual exercises” (“History of Tension” The Scientific Monthly, LXXXV as cited in Holmes p. 283). Perhaps this was his most influential revelation, certainly the most controversial. In all, Huxley used psychedelics (a term he coined) only eleven times, always under the care of loving, sober, medical experts. This living state of personalized enlightenment is the incorruptible element Huxley’s perennial philosophy had been missing. With caring tutelage, every experimenter would receive exactly what he needed to believe in the World-soul, immunized to the ravages of dogma and moved to protect and cultivate beauty and love wherever it may be found.

    This World-soul or cosmic consciousness which Huxley developed an intimate relationship with was the source of inspiration and reassurance. Huxley discovered the mind is not a well-spring of creativity, but rather a prudent filter. One could not get much work done if one was in a perpetual state of awe and realization. By means of neurosis the vegetative soul reduces the brilliance of the interconnected universe to workable isolated scale model

    . In as much as “The substance of a work of art is inseparable from its form” (Collected Essays p. 92), Huxley wrote straightforward essays, in the style of the Eastern mystics, without sensationalism or poetic vehicles because they were recipes to reconcile reality. A greater experience is to be had dancing above a crowd than from studying any Manet. Huxley was composing in jargon of empirical enlightenment the diary of a Bhodisativa, the ferry-men who postpone Nirvana to help others across the darkling plain.

    He was not a great modern writer, though in 1960 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Yet he symbolizes better than anyone else the intricate mental consciousness of modern man. His complexities, his conflicts are the product and

    the symptom of our sentient age, benefitted by his willingness and his compulsion to project them and their resolution, in words. Other writers are finer artists, more rigorous thinkers, warmer toward their fellow human beings. But none reflects and deals with so many modern problems, and none makes clearer both the need for solutions and the difficulty of finding them.

    Huxley grapples with the basic questions the reflective person has to ask. He deals with ultimate reality, good and evil, suffering and death, the good society, sex and love. On any one of these themes he can be less profound than someone else, but nobody has tried to grapple so tenaciously with them all. He finished one last dramatically poor but spiritually rich nov

    Gel two years before he died. A utopian counterpoint to Brave New World thirty years earlier. Island’s society blends East and West, values quality of life over production, realizes:

    Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will do.

    Huxley’s legacy is the balkanization of Western Civilization’s counterculture. Hippies expand their minds but drop out of the system it is their charge to change. Vegan anarchists are sensitive to the plight of the proletariat out of selfishness and know nothing of God. Free-spirits in suburban yoga classes pay attention to news on global warming mainly out of paranoia. Though disappointing, these socially conscious scenes are still thriving some three generations after their inception. Huxley would not be disheartened by seemingly unfortunate divisions and shortcomings. Science and art were reconciled by attention and appreciation, and some great force is fated to forge our contemporary ores. Aldous lived through the horrors necessary to overcome superficial incongruities, and understood the growth process of organic reformation.

    He wrote to escort the princes of the American Empire into a future he could not physically attend, where genetic engineering, computers, and the potential

    r synthesis of the social sciences will inevitably be used against humanity. If there is not a unified resistance or sanctuary, the year 600 A.F. (after Ford) will see an end of suffering to be sure, if only for the waves to waltz away this “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare’s Macbeth as cited in This Timeless Moment).

    Works Cited

    Holmes, C. M.. Aldous Huxley and the Way to Reality. London: Indiana University Press, 1970.

    Huxley, Aldous. Collected Essays. London: Doran, 1958.

    Huxley, Aldous. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.

    Huxley, Aldous. Jesting Pilate: The Diary of a Journey. New York: Doran, 1926.

    Huxley, Aldous. Island. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962.

    Huxley, Laura Archera. This Timeless Moment. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux,

    1968.

03

Nov

How to Thoroughly Enjoy The Art of the Coen Brothers’ Films

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[The Murderer Threatened, René Magritte, 1926-27]

They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically—how the planets go round the sun, what sun- spots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap—well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes, you look at it, your looking ‘changes’ it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what ‘would’ve’ happened if you hadden a stuck in your goddamn

schnozz. So there ‘is’ no ‘what happened.’ Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the ‘Uncertainty Principle.’ Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.

—Freddy Riedenschneider,

The Man Who Wasn’t There (66-67)

 

            A movie theatre fills with people. How will they interact with the presented film? Certainly, there is variety, but there are also clues. A movie theatre, as opposed to a basement projector, will most likely show 100 minutes of linear narrative and characters with clearly defined psychological motivation and goals that tend to test and ultimately reinforce dominant social values. We know this the way we know that if a car pulls over with a flat tire, the driver will go into his trunk to get a tire-iron and a spare. That is to say- we don’t know. We just make an assumption based on precedent.   

            If the driver does go to the trunk and does pull out a tire-iron and a spare- if the film does provide a linear narrative and characters with clearly defined psychological motivation and goals, most of us would be able to narrate the following events with ironic detachment. But what if Joel and Ethan Coen were driving the car (and they knew that we were watching)?

            A car with a flat tire pulling over to the side of the road is an easily understandable plot point that David Bordwell calls a norm- “a systematic pattern of narrative, themes, style and the like. The patterns can be located historically with respect to wider sets of customary practices,” (Narration 429-430). How the car is shown pulling over he calls style. Norms, narrative, theme and style provide cues, and the viewer brings to those cues his personal history. What we, the viewer, predict is going to happen after the car pulls over, he calls a schema. And this is where things get interesting.

            The Coen Brothers often reach back into the past and re-present classical, easily identifiable, characters and situations and then use these as foundations to go beyond the previous limitations of genre. True, this is what every filmmaker does, but the Coens foreground the conventions they recycle- emphasizing the unoriginal aspects rather than disguising them. Almost automatically, the viewer will grasp the fundamental features of the event. Or more exactly, the viewer’s active investigatory capabilities will recognize a conventional set-up and then relax, letting old memories of similar cinematic situations take over, conclusions already drawn (unless, of course, the Coens have fooled you before. But even then, the brothers change genre entirely from film to film to keep this game fresh. Eventually, it is the tone of wry, detached, irony we learn to identify.).

            The Coens are careful to establish this relaxing tendency of viewership, certainly something they learned fist-hand from watching too many old movies, because it represents a kind of automatic viewership, if not way of life, that is unfortunate, easy to make fun of, and encouraged by movies that are more or less by the book.   

Or, if a character and his situation may be a little idiosyncratic- like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, a narrator will be employed to set our expectations. A little. The Coen brothers are careful to maintain a certain amount of unpredictability. What amount I cannot quantify though it seems consistent through their catalog. While there are filmmakers who seem to want their viewers to be confused to the point of exhaustion and those whose films can be narrated sight-unseen, the Coen brothers have an interesting take on the middle ground.

            Because they support one way of dealing with the world over another, the Coens’ films can be read as morality plays. The virtue they celebrate and the flaw they punish so consistently throughout their ouvre are not classically defined or depicted as such- and thus the effort they go through to create a universe that represents a certain philosophy succeeding and rewards those viewers who learn to emulate the viewing strategies depicted, and punishes those who do not. What kind of viewer are you?

The Schemer

            When, in The Big Lebowski, the Dude discovers a scrap of homework in his recently found-after-being-stolen car, his friend, bowling partner, foil, and know-it-all- Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is quick to return an address based on the name on the paper, a psychological profile based on the grade the boy’s homework assignment received, and (of course) a plan for a shakedown[1]. What really drives Walter is not an excuse to meet the boy’s d-list celebrity father nor the value of the money stolen, per se. Rather, Walter has a deep and unabiding need for homeostasis, for rules and for the world to act according to those rules. The Dude’s car was stolen, justice must be served, and if you want a job done right… The Dude’s adventure would have ended with a piss-stained rug and a strange story if it weren’t for Walter’s need for comprehension, to find someone responsible for disturbing the peace, and to personally enact justice. All his worldly experience leads him to approach a situation first with a theory, and then to search for evidence in support of (rarely against) that predisposition This method of viewing is described by David Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film as being “top-down”. To symbolize Walter’s unrealistic world-view, the Coens have him wearing tinted glasses in every scene but one.

Henri Bergson would call Walter’s stubbornness rigidity- something society distrusts even more than immorality that should be punished with laughter. Sure enough, Walter’s dedication to an idea does not make that idea true, and when he cannot contend with contingencies- he is hurt or hurts others in a (usually) comical way. Emmanuel Kant might say that Walter’s frustration comes from expecting dynamic people in a dynamic world to behave according to preconceived expectations of them as if they were static objects. I suppose it is hubris.

It is a scheme that Barton Fink (John Turturro, Barton Finkfollows when he goes to write a movie in Hollywood about “the common man”. It is hubris that makes him ignore the real “common man”, Charlie Munz (John Goodman). It is a scheme that Ulysses Everett McGill drags his companions along (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and his inflexible superiority that is tested along the way. Examples abound- the best laid plans of the Coens’ characters invariably go astray because of dedication to an assumption that was reached all too hastily.

The big Lebowski, Mr. Lebowski (David Hudleston), is an extreme example of a schemer. He is caught up on strict definitions (“What makes a man…is it always doing what’s right, no matter what?”) and meta-narratives (“Your revolution is over…the bums lost!”). But the Coens show that all this bluster is a distraction from the fact that Mr. Lebowski is plotting to frame the Dude for embezzlement. The dude might have realized this except when Mr. Lebowski started his hypocritical speech about achievement, the Dude (imitating Walter) put on his sunglasses- refusing to learn anything new.

These characters, at these instances, take prediction too far. What the Coens would state directly in Freddy Reidenschneider’s (Tony Shalhoub) speech about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)- in the Coens’ universe, a character who has made a conclusion has set himself up to be corrected. And the same should be true for the viewers watching.

When a viewer hypothesizes why the Coen brothers include or highlight seemingly incongruous elements in their films, that viewer is playing the part of the schemer. The Coens anticipate this tendency, play to it with “ symbolism”, and represent it in their protagonists’ often unfruitful pursuits. What’s in Barton Fink’s box or The Big Lebowski’s briefcase? These objects are polysemous- can be read for multiple meanings, and seem designed to taunt and frustrate these Newtonian characters and the concrete conclusion seeking viewers they represent. And whether you expect the briefcase to be filled with money, for film noir to be set in a city, or for the next Coen brothers’ film to be like the last one, the quickest way to make the Coens laugh is to tell them your plans.

But by clearly drawing on the dialogue, lighting, wardrobe, plot elements, etc. of what we have come to understand as hallmarks of genre, the Coens set us up to be corrected, they “lure us down inferential pathways,” (Narration 430). To belabor the car with a flat tire allegory- if the Coens were driving, they would fix the tire and drive on. And then come back with another flat tire. The schemer would expect the second time to be just like the first and act on his expectations.

The Detective

            The detective would be suspicious. While Mr. Lebowski and the Dude both underestimate each-other, the film follows the Dude. The Dude does offer opportunities to comically criticize a person who acts on hasty prejudice, but the Dude also has the potential to transcend this fault. Where Donnie is full of questions and Walter is full of false belief, the Dude readily admits- “I don’t know, Man.”

            The Coens’ detective is hard to describe because he is in a state of flux- a state, “they don’t have words for here,” (Ed Crane, The Man who Wasn’t There). The Dude picks up language from one character to the next so long as he harbors a particular schema. Our reading of the detective is also compounded by the fact that all we know of him comes through the narrator’s perception. His archetypal precedents include the lone gunman of the old west (embodied by The Big Lebowski’s narrator) and the film noir detective. However, the Coens’ heroes are more social, more apt to make mistakes, and reach a greater conclusion than “ I am my own worst enemy” or “the world is cold and crazy”.

            Often, the Coens end their films in the midst of ambiguity. This is a hard thing for some viewers, critics, and characters to appreciate. But the detective is not a thing, well, strictly speaking- he is a representation, but he is a representation of a process of active and accepting viewership. The characters who have learned their lesson would be able to live with inconclusive endings, they learn to “abide” excess signification. Barton Fink learns not to look in the box. In the end, Ulysses Everett McGill will be whatever “you” want him to be.

 

The Narrator

Raising ArizonaThe Hudsucker ProxyThe Big LebowskiThe Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men, and Blood Simple begin with disembodied, voice-over narration. The narrator admits to being an “I” and that the following is a story. The Coens’ films not mentioned above still use title cards, characters recounting dreams, or impressionistic effects- not so much alienate the viewer as to foreground the filmmakers’ subjective presence and the film’s status as a construction made from past-tense material.

So, of course, the narrator would have a different attitude toward the presented material, an ironic detachment even- when compared to the figures who are in the thick of it. The narrator is the author, he controls everything, he has been there before, and things don’t have to make sense- they just have to be tell-able. If a car with a flat tire came to a rest across the street, the narrator would tell a story about a car across a street. Acknowledging that in this Godless world there is at least someone with the ability to, if not comprehend, than at least live and tell a story.  This is sometimes the only reassuring thing to be found in classical noir or the Talmud (A Serious Man), that “the human comedy perpetuates itself,” (The Stranger, The Big Lebowski). It is reassuring even, or maybe especially if, the story is told posthumously.

            By going back to the dialogue, the adultery, blackmail, deceit, the detective, even whole period pieces printed in black and white, the Coen brothers are essentially acting as flash-back narrators over the corpse of classical film noir. However, the Coen brothers are not known for reenacting classical tropes or assembling a collage of them for scientific purposes. No, the Coens’ films are full of potentially new conclusions film noir did not address. And they don’t just take on noir, the Coens ouvre is dynamic. But no matter what the setting, the Coen brothers seem to focus on this same character arc.

            The stylistic moves which we now use to identify film noir (chiaroscuro lighting with an emphasis on pregnant shadows; duplicitous dialogue, nebulous character motivations and events with multiple interpretations) were developed to express the difficult task faced by the private detective, the investigative reporter, or the citizen out of his element; of being outside of but motivated to negotiate a world with too much information, too many conflicting interests, and too many coy and self-interested agents. These films were popular in the 1930’s and ‘40’s because they depicted, more realistically, the complicated state of a stratified and depressed or war-torn world via a protagonist who had no easy answers. Film noir’s detectives represent the drive and difficulty to find meaning in an enigmatic world- contemporaneously explored in the stories and philosophies of Existentialism.

But In Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell posits that the viewer of any film is very much an investigator- scraping together clues to form, test, and correct hypotheses- and the detective in a detective film represents this active viewing process, with the often used narrator depicting our tendency to retroactively organize and justify a film’s events. Indeed, in saying “[films noir] were popular in the 1930’s and 40’s because they depicted…Existentialism”, we are acting as flashback narrators- organizing supportive evidence, and ignoring confounding evidence, in order to make a compelling case – presupposing that such a case can be made about the world or the past.

Some critics see the postmodern project as attempting to negate any attempt at conclusion, to prove all metanarratives inadmissible. So whatever digitized, multinational, and ironically detached forces seem to control the postmodern world, these forces are mirrored in postmodern pastiche and reflexivity. And again, in films now called neo noir, the Detective returns. 

The neo noir detective is more sure of his past than of his future. A case cannot be solved, only survived. A neo noir film will avoid anything that can be construed to imply greater social meaning, but it will also subtly mourn this loss of meaning, or of the hero’s and the audiences’ vestigial desire. 

There is a theme in the Coen brothers’ films of finding the unexpected. Along with the protagonist’s search, the Coen’s films also position their viewers to be more curious than satisfied. At varying levels, through repeated dialogue, through polyvalent imagery and events, and through plot twists- the protagonist may have access to most of the same information as the viewer, but he is usually in a state of constant misevaluation.

His mistakes do not prevent him from hypothesizing, however. The Coen’s anticipate this tendency in their audiences and play to it with meticulous attention to possibly “meaningful” detail- while acknowledging, as in the case of Barton Fink’s box, that the author of the film will inevitably be the viewer, and his beliefs will prove false if he cares to act upon them (attempting to predict the next Coen brothers film).

There is, however another way to watch. As opposed to the detective’s evidence gathering and hypothesis testing/correcting “top-down” method of viewing David Bordwell describes in Narration in the Fiction Film, Bordwell also supposes a “bottom-up” approach which appreciates events in-and-of-themselves with out resorting to justification. This is, it seems, the attitude professed by the Coen’s narrators.

This division between a frantic detective and a zen-like flashback story-teller becomes all the more poignant when we consider the Coen’s penchant for quoting classical conventions from screwball comedy, gangster, western, and of course – (what we now call) film noir.

What is it like for a fan to watch a “by the numbers” scene, set up, or character? The Coen’s show us in The Hudsucker Proxy, where a couple of cab drivers describe the meeting of the protagonist and his duplicitous love interest as if they were pitching the idea for a bad movie script. They are acting as narrators.

Through their consciously complicated depictions of purposely polysemous elements, unsuccessful detectives, and if not unreliable at least inconclusive narrators; the Coen brothers neither negate interpretation entirely nor allow any one theory to stick. Between the schemer, the detective and the narrator, the Coen brothers demarcate a unique and consistent argument about their universe and how to survive it, how to enjoy it.  

 

[1] As this shakedown conversation takes place in the seats of a theatre, the scene has an interesting parallel to O, Brother Where Art Thou- where again the three main characters ignore a dancer on a movie screen in order to discuss and correct each other’s assumptions.

The Cool Tutelage of Quentin Tarantino

“Films are for people who don’t like movies.”
- Clarence Worley, True Romance

If, as Tom Gunning proposes in An Aesthetic of Astonismnent, a few adjustments were made to Christian Metz’s understanding of the “fetishistic viewer- wavering between the credulous position of believing the image and the repressed, anxiety causing, knowledge of its illusion,” (Gunning, 79) that would allow for a lot more fun at the movies. If, instead, we account for the positive feedback loop of a credulous, anxiety causing body and the viewer’s willful fetishism with the addition of (what every film theorist presumes for himself and yet rests his career on the same being absent from the rest of humanity) the viewer’s anxiety reducing ability to consider the construction of cinematic event, we would, I believe, be demystifying film theory as much as those fantastic adventures cinema tends to depict. 


Quentin Tarantino’s works are particularly useful for this study on two counts: 1. Rather than rely on the holistic realism of an initially established diegesis, his films often (strategically) reassert their status as constructions and then 2. proceed to re-immerse the viewer to the point where (hopefully) he or she will again participate corporeally with the cinematic event. Though we want to be concerned with the narrative, considering the myriad distractions on screen, in the theatre, at home, and within our own heads, it is my estimation that Tarantino’s accommodation (and representation) of an ebb and flow of immersion more closely articulates most viewing practices. 


…medium close-up on Vincent (John Travolta, seated, dressed in black and white): “I think its like a wax museum with a pulse.” Two-shot with Vincent vs. colorful/black-and-white vintage movie posters on the wall to his right. A waiter/Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink in Resivoir Dogs) dressed as Buddy Holly (in black and white) steps in front of the posters to the side of the Oldsmobile/table. Buddy (to his notepad): “Hi, I’m Buddy. What can I get chu?” Vincent pulls out a menu and opens it up in front of himself. Medium close-up of Vincent studying the menu: “Steak, steak, steak…Oh yea, I’ll have the Douglas Sirk Steak.” Three-shot: Mia (Uma Thurman), Buddy, Vincent. Buddy: “How do you want that cooked: burnt to a crisp or bloody as Hell?” Vincent: “Bloody as Hell and oh yea, look at this, Vanilla Coke.” Buddy (to Mia): “What about you, Peggy Sue?”…


When I first saw this scene in 1994, I was not able to rigorously process all the allusions- what struck me most was the unrealistic speed with which Vincent was able to order. And while I may now better appreciate how the “Peggy Sue” line adds to the Buddy Holly-ness of Buscemi’s waiter character, or how the (oedipal and adulterous) sexual tension, close-ups, hyperreal color scheme, and dichotomous culinary extremes (burnt to a crisp or bloody as Hell) are a quick (emotionless) primer on Sirkian melodramatic technique, I should, like Vincent, still be drawn out of an initial intellectual assessment of the superficial spectacle of Jack Rabbit Slim’s (uncanny undead movie stars/waiters, anachronistic décor, Steve Buscemi playing a waiter and not as believeably Buddy Holly as the waiter playing James Dean is James Dean) by the visceral imagination of a steak “bloody as Hell”. 


Even if Jack Rabbit Slim’s allusionistic decor is not emotionally evocative for a particular viewer, and even if it is, those meta-cinematic tidbits are presented as part of a non-threatening superficiality which helps us comprehend this new scene as a scene. Beginning with the square that Mia draws, a fourth-wall break that “reminds us of the ways movies build up fantasy worlds for our delectation” (Polan 75), Tarantino gradually, but with determination, builds up a fantasy world for our delectation. What is happening to the characters is happening to the audience- sight, sound, taste, touch, humor, memory, sexual tension, and the uncanny are evoked, depicted and described, continually and in greater detail so that once we agree that “that is a tasty beverage” (Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms, Death Proof), there is less probability that we will wonder about something other than the meaning of the details, the drama, the scene, the narrative, the diegesis, or the film’s construction as an object- which is where we began with Mia’s square. 
But if the purpose of all this sensual synchronization is to take us viewers on a thrill ride in the next scene, then the purpose of all that self-reflexivity should allow us, should the action get too intense, to acknowledge that it is just a movie which is doing so. But where is the fun? Is it in knowing all the references as Vincent does? Or is it in participating with the diegesis as Mia encourages? For Vincent, for the viewer who knows too much, it would presumably take an act of will to suspend disbelief and follow along. And thus we have those reviews which provide a surplus of attention to meticulous detail- attempts by otherwise bored viewers to compel themselves to pay attention (and treating the movie as a superficial object). Without resorting to philosophical/political/psychological identification and affiliation, I believe all the viewer has to do is realize that their body is thirsty because people are drinking and describing milkshakes. And like all sensational devices, this method of communication is “multicultural”.
But rather than simply make movies that immerse and dominate the spectator (and at times allow their minds to wander and thus retain a semblance of autonomy), Tarantino’s films are quite educational about the effective filmmaking processes that are being used. The spectator is immersed, or buried if you will, with a flash-light (Kill Bill 2, ER)- and that “flashlight” is the question any film theorist should be happy we asked, the question that (What’s her face) thought was unavoidable when watching Death Proof, which is: “How did they do that?”. 


When Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. 2) was shot, bound, and buried alive (and we were able to empathize with her mise-en-abyme because a pepper-spray can was an inch away from her eyeball before the screen went black and all we could hear were her gasps and dirt being shoveled on her coffin), she thought of, the movie cut to, another chapter. 


Now, if you remember what was written above the door in Resivoir Dogs or what board-games were in Lance’s living room in Pulp Fiction, you’ll have to admit that Tarantino often interrupts the moments of greatest tension with reflexivity. And that, I think, is the lesson of the Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei. 


Coming to Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) as a Caucasian, American, Woman- Beatrix is judged the way a typical spectator is often still treated in the cinema- that is, in the dominated and hysterical sate that we last left her in the coffin. But Beatrix knows a little of a few languages, not to mention the exquisite art of the samurai sword and one style of kung fu. Being a casual polyglot is important to Tarantino, as he shows with his ability to quote varied cinematic styles (for Pai Mei’s sequence- 1970’s Hong Kong martial arts montages- quick camera zoom to a close-up of the eyes, standing on a sword, actors silhouetted against a red back-drop). And as striking a stylistic change as Pai Mei’s scene should be from the coffin, which was more of an hommage to the style of horror-film, that “language barrier” provides an important, though painful, lesson in semiotics. 


While certainly not the only factors; the linguistic, cultural, national, temporal, and geographical distances inherent to the objects of study for the first French cinephiles certainly made their appreciation of style, construction, and moments that could overcome all those distances that much easier. Tarantino was able to recreate those original French cinephilic conditions by studying what could be considered the products of the fringes of Hollywood’s empire: Blaxploitation, Hong Kong Kung Fu, Spaghetti Westerns, Sirkian melodrama, Grindhouse, French New Wave, Heist films, and Television. Even the intended audience of these sub-genres has, at times, difficulty ignoring their constructedness, their cinematicity as Caetlin Benson-Allott describes in Going, Going, Grindhouse. But despite his distance from the intended audience and their technical and financial limitations (Including commercials or other interruptive screening conditions,) some of these inadvertently reflexive films are still able to effect an undeniable physiological response that one would not expect from a mere object or blank parody. Certainly, this made Tarantino wonder: “How did they do that?”. 


We know that Tarantino did not go to film school, so his cruel tutelage consisted of watching these effective and semi-transparent trompes l’oeil over and over again. And like Goddard (after which he named A Band Apart), Shakespeare (quoted in True Romance), and Hitchcock (quoted in Four Rooms), Tarantino has chosen to retain those occasional reminders of performativity- considering them an important part of the dramatic experience and putting most traditional Lacanian/Athusserian film theorists out of a job. For Beatrix (after she relearns how to eat with chopsticks and drink water carried up a staircase- both distancing devices), learning the structure, physicality, and constructedness of a wooden board, overcoming the complaints of the hand that now belongs to Pai Mei, and learning not to punch the board but through the board via Kung Fu cinematic style is a translateable lesson not just for her, but for any audience. Tarantino makes this clear when Beatrix is able to apply what she has learned from Pai Mei, from the Kung Fu genre, to break out of her horrible position, break out of the horror genre, and… ask for a glass of water. 
So if, at about the third viewing, it would be productive to consider Kill Bill 2 in terms of “Uma Thurman…fighting her way through the annals of exploitation cinema from all over the world,” (Tarantino in Gibley, p 19) , what is the global exploitative cinematic significance of having Beatrix win? Does her femininity, empowerment, trans-cultural resourcesfulness, revenge, compassion, strained motherhood, and reproduction represent a wish fulfillment for the cultural logic of late(r) (“sincere”) capitalism or just Tarantinian viewing/filmmaking practices? Yes, both and more- and that is the beauty of sensual and poetic reflexivity. Through social sympathy (rather than complete identity-loss), the viewer is compelled to pay attention and their mind goes on to invent wonderfully important and meaningful details to explain how and why their body is being influenced (all the while avoiding the obvious yet dissonant conclusion that their body and mind are being influenced by a mere movie). But should the viewer consider the film’s construction or that the drama is a metaphor for at least the filmmaking/viewing process- it should be no less fascinating to watch and yet still allow the viewer to participate in the event without regret. It is appropriate that Tarantino should precede any dialogue about identity, citation, performance, fetishes, interpretation, motivation, and results, with obvious constructedness and conclude with a punch-line that makes light of undeniable physiological impact because these are the proveable facts about the current state of cinema and should be a more widely held optimistic attitude about socially embodied, willfully fetishistic, spectatorship itself. 

*********************

(Fraiman, Susan. “Quentin Tarantino: Anatomy of Cool,” in Cool Men and the Second Sex. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 1-16)


Polan, Dana. Pulp Fiction. London: Bfi Publishing, 2000.
- metacriticism, Polan looks at all the websites and all the critics and tries to understand PF one step removed.

Williams, Linda. “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema,” in Re-inventing Film Studies. edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. London: Arnold, 20000: 351-78.
- My sensai.

Benson-Allott, Caetlin. “Going, Going, Grindhouse: Digital Effects and Changing Economies of Cinematicity.”

McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan.

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a second: Stillness and the moving Image. 

12

Oct

Towards an Argumentative Realism: the films of Kieślowski, Rohmer, and Antonioni

http://matty-panic.podomatic.com/entry/2010-12-17T06_38_06-08_00 ]

.

Above this sentence, you should see a dot. It sits within a field of not-dot; a most basic definition by contrast. If we think of this dot mathematically- as a point with no length, or depth, or width; it is an adequate representation of an ideal, any ideal. Notice how it does not change with time.

But of course, the elephant in the room is indeed the elephant in the room- I mean the “you” and the “we” and the “I” to which I have been referring but that our diagram does not depict. “We” the observers would be represented by another dot. “I”, the party responsible for this dot, would be a third, and the original dot about which we speak in-between:

.  .  .

I admit- this second diagram is confusing. Not only does it need labels, but as I have been writing and you have been reading these sentences from left to right- I assume we are in agreement about the concept of points on a left to right axis representing sequences over time, and we have not yet addressed the issue of time which I would like to accommodate, but the printed word is not conducive to depicting an axis of depth. Perhaps that is why we have only recently begun discussions of authors and audiences and why we have as yet such poor models of both.

I will make one more point, though, before we turn this diagram in our minds so that we are sitting on the “we” dot- that dot which represents “we” is bothersome because, looking closer, it consists of a “you” and an “I” that are not of the same mind (otherwise, this essay would be quite redundant).

:  .  .

And now we have added a Y-axis. On this Z/Y plane, we can plot our instantaneous acknowledgement of different works, or different elements within a work (:  :  .), and different authors (: : :), and then, putting two such sets adjacent along an X-axis to represent different slices of time would, together, give us a fairly accurate depiction of the reality of depictions of reality:

image

Figure 1: Julie reads sheet music.[1]

which could, in turn, be mapped in comparison to other maps and analyzed for its effect on its audience- and so on, giving us a series of similar Euclidian spaces at greater or lesser magnification- boxes within boxes, each demarcated by a conceptual framework encapsulating the medium-specific limitations/abilities which narrow or expanded accommodations for the author/audience, differences between authors/audience members, differences between elements represented or between representations, or differences over time or between times. And though it can account for even the greatest reductions, our new ever-expanding meta-three-dimensional model of models would not put dots-in-fields-of-not-dots out of business, because this is how even our model grows.

But if our goal is to understand the world we live in, as it is lived in, and then represent our understanding so that it too may be talked about, then we can certainly put a dot to shame. Especially if we want to set up the dot as a straw-man to reductively represent how some people reductively represent the world, and then, over time, argue against such solipsism…

Take the opening shot of L’Eclisse (1962, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), if you will- a still, unmoving, context-free black-and-white close-up shot of an assortment of equally un-moving objects…interior, interior objects, some of them are books; some of the mise-en-scene is not-books. One (unmoving) object laid across the top of these books is…the camera tracks right to contextualize that object to be the shirt-sleeved forearm of a clean-cut man seated in the corner who stares, slightly off-camera, but does not move. We now have two points on our Y-axis of symbolism[2]: man and books. But because they are both static, so similar as to be nearly non-distinguishable without a shifted perspective, their points are rather close. Which shouldn’t be- man should be Dazein! Indeed, the odd-one-out in Antonioni’s diagram thus-far is the camera with its ability to move. So in retrospect, L’eclisse has already one-upped the photograph-like still frame with which this scene opened- encapsulating and expanding upon photography’s capacity- distinguishing itself visually and temporally from two other forms of media and their associated, by implication limited, audience.       

But behind that camera there is a man responsible for the first shot and the next shot and movement in between and certainly a catalyst for any meaning we make of and between the two. That man is Gianni Di Venanzo, the cinematographer, and Pierro Poletto the art director, and Eraldo Da Roma the editor, and any one or all of the four co-“scenarists”, and the director Antonioni, and Giovanni Fusco who wrote the opening musical sequence which preceded this shot and set up a stark contrast between hip jazz and astoundingly dramatic orchestral score that set us up to look for similar patterns…and I could go on, but to forget any of the cast and crew and the conditions under which they worked would be reductive- if we wanted to make another L’eclisse, we would have to recreate them all.

But an interesting pattern develops over time. The rest of the shots in this scene develop the same theme. As do the rest of the scenes in this movie. As do the rest of the movies in this trilogy. As do a series of films on which only Michelangelo Antonioni was the common contributor. Therefore, the line that can be drawn through those congruencies can safely be called “Antonioni”.

Consider, then, an argumentative style which fully develops, explores, defines, tests, and applies a theme over time as opposed to one which sets up an instantaneous contrast, as photography is want to do. The extended, “Argumentative” style, as Leonard Bernstien calls it[3], seems to be able to account for and logically order more information, more details, therefore giving us a more accurate picture- a more realistic depiction. And though we cinephiles would like to call such an arrangement cinematic and that Auteur theory is logical extension of montage theory, the same effect can be achieved in literature, music, painting or photography (especially murals or friezes), and certainly curated exhibitions. However, Bernstein’s understanding of a peer-and-time-appreciative Argumentative style is rarely used in any of these apparently congruent forms of communication. More often (Bernstein agrees here with Linda Williams[4]) we find melodrama- a monotonous repetition of the initially established conflict which lamentably does not fully utilize what I have been calling the breadth of the Y-axis, over time, nor the audiences’ abilities to make meaning. Knowing that all of his photographs evoke the same (instantaneous) impression; the photographer/protagonist (David Hemmings) of Antonioni’s 1966 Blow Up quickly flips through a whole book of his prints and tells the publisher that “any one will do” for the cover.

But as that same photographer learns later via blowing-up a photo he took at the park until the grains assemble what can be interpreted as a dead body and his brains assemble a murder plot: to look too closely at any one item that was consciously designed to be part of a set (for instance- only one frame fromL’eclisse, or one pair of shots, or one man who worked on the film, or one film from a career, or one career amongst comparable catalogs [we’re getting to that]) is an abstraction, and our conclusions will be unreliable. 

To comment upon cinema’s ontological crisis is, I suppose, what lead Antonioni away from his early work in documentary. If even photographs were necessarily framed (Z-axis), then between an un-captureable reality and complete melodramatic disregard for the same lies the surprisingly modern and analogous questions asked by phenomenologists, neo-realists, and Antonioni, who I assume was able to imagine an author behind every work, to ask what where why how, and then judge it against its peers and in context with reality as it meant to him. What separates Antonioni from most of the rest of us, however, (what makes him an author) is that he was able to in turn articulate his experience[5].

Now around the same time that supposedly objective photography was developed, a hundred-and-fifty-years ago, God died (or was declared dead, or the Church’s hypodermic version of a melodramatic God was explained by a lonely outsider to be an incomplete and outdated model- which was not news to a lot of people). And since then, more of us prefer spectrums to dichotomies, and ecologies to taxonomies (e.g. that reality is somewhere between personal experience and a social construction, or both, or it is through art that discussions between the two take place…) though it was not so long after that Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) began his structuralist work.

Levi-Strauss was able to collapse seemingly disparate myths, and in his opinion the effective elements within those myths, into dichotomous “mythemes” by taking out the individual stylings of any one version of the myth, and grouping the elements according to his interpretation of their effect, rather than in chronological order (which would be seeing the myth, mistakenly, as “unilateral). While Levi-Strauss’ approach was equally helpful and destructive, my favorite part is how he demonstrated it:

image

Figure 2: “The Structural Study of Myth” (extract)[6]

At the top left corner here, you can see the second paragraph, and how it and certainly the third, have broken out of the traditionally understood restrictions of the essay medium as much as Marcel Duchamp’s “cubist” Nude Descending Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2, 1912) cries to break out of its two-dimensional medium, to make an argument over time and about time, an argument that is more about developing a theme than a plot. But like Duchamp, Levi-Strauss’ point comes at the cost of what we know and like about nudes descending staircases- that is to say- in order to make his argument about time and form rather than making an argument over time about form and style, Levi-Strauss had to abandon (…chose to abandon, his project made a point about abandoning…) the unique stylistic inputs that give each story-teller an identity, a value.

image

Though auteur-structuralism (and I dare say genre study) uses Levi-Strauss’ model, considerable improvements have been made: we can now summarize a stylistic element for its thematic importance (or not), we can acknowledge a designer (though auteur-structuralists do not, in general, acknowledge their contribution to perceiving the design), and if we are dealing with whole films or whole careers- two such charts can be placed in sequence or stacked on top of each other to show longitudinal congruency and development.

But, I argue, this model is unsound because the man who made the chart is unaccounted for. Though Peter Wollen’s claims are backed by evidence[7], the particular rearrangement of that evidence is to his credit or blame, and the style of presentation determines whether I will run to or from his next attempt.

But then the dramatic language I just used warns me that I am exaggerating and simplifying, like Julie (Juliette Binoche), the protagonist of the the second film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s color trilogy: Blue(1993); who cannot stand the sight of nor escape the sound of the music her husband wrote before he died, in an accident, that she survived. Also, she cannot bear to live in their old home, nor any of what was their furniture because, like the symphony, these things are not only reminders but painful reminders of plans which have been… corrected. After the accident, Julie is allergic to any such attempts at projected logic, order, harmony; maybe she even kills that family of rats (has them killed by a cat) just to be right. Through most of the film (wait for it), Julie never awakens from what we take to be a state of shock (one person, a reporter, does comment that she was nicer “before” [before the movie starts]). The other characters run around her doing their caricatures of what people do while she is noticeably estranged- a lot like the protagonist, Vittoria (Monica Vitti), of L’eclisse compared to the seated man we talked about earlier (and especially when we compare Vitti to the non-professional “actors” of L’eclisse or L’Avventura[1960] who can do nothing but play their parts), and like Vittoria with the doodling man who lost his money, Julie spends a lot of time considering media and mediated relationships- through her friend the stripper and her mom the television watcher. Which reminds me a lot of the condition of the physically detached but potentially psychically invested members of the audience of any film- and their consideration of the characters, on the screen, and the author’s consideration of all three. Which reminds me of Claire’s Knee.  

Ostensibly Éric Rohmer’s films portray conflict between men and women who discuss their theoretical motivations for monogamy versus adultery or divorce, or the libido versus more intellectually justified or philosophically prescribed righteous actions, but when Rohmer was still more of a professor and film-critic (before he was a director), he wrote a series of essays that bared no judgment on one particular way of living, or reasoning, in support of another more “moral” one. His essays measured every existing art-form according to its ability and its limitations for depicting reality. So if there is a morality to be found in the work of this colleague of André Bazin[8], it seems that the trope of love, like the medium of cinema, was only used by Rohmer to explore the strange relationship each has to reality, fantasy, and rationalization in our everyday lives.

How realistic are the films of Éric Rohmer? In contrast to the form we have come to expect from traditional “moral tales”, Rohmer’s sensibilities are not betrayed by a protagonist’s oddly eloquent monologue or a villain’s Gnostic disruption of a hectically paced action-movie. Indeed, if nothing else, Éric Rohmer’s films are conspicuously marked by a focus on dialogue- where both sides are so evenly matched and naturalistic (to an admittedly specific socio-economically defined culture, but still) that it is difficult to tell which (if either) of the fairly portrayed perspectives any of Rohmer’s films sides with or would have his audience eventually support. Should pigeon-holing Rohmer, his motivations, or the end product of his work be our goal- his faithful adaptation of reality’s openness to interpretation, the documentary quality of his presentation as opposed to a suspiciously designed drama, has made any attempt to identify his bias particularly difficult. Rohmer’s films portray quite literally discussions about socially unresolved conflicts.

But by literally, I do not mean literarily. There is a vagary of dialectics that, while not exactly cinema specific as Dostoyevsky wryly satirized the same in Notes from the underground (1864), does require time- that is, how the more a person pontificates about their past or themselves or their predictions about the future, the less accurate their speech becomes. Rohmer, who did not cut away to every possible reaction-shot, allows the viewer to study the speaker’s behavior, movement, and physiognomy in search of deeper meaning or more convincing truths than words can convey, as we normally do in conversations that lack editing. Now, the viewer may be trained in the art of such supposition or merely accept what the character himself or herself reports to be the truth about their situation in the world; but by the end of the film, undoubtedly some unanticipated event, or reaction to it, will either show the character how futile philosophies are or have the character eventually return to a scenario which better fits his foundational epistemology- where things may be more morally sound but not (as Rohmer depicts them) all that great or for the best. As much as we may now equate moralism with conservativism[9], Rohmer’s husbands’ returns to their wives are not necessarily happy endings. 

            Throughout and beyond the series of films he called Six Moral Tales, Rohmer investigated an unfortunately all too common and perhaps unavoidable practice to be found in both cinema viewing and real life- the persistence of our tendency to presuppose, predict, and predetermine according to popular or personal philosophies that are repeatedly inaccurate and demand considerable violence be played out on the world, events, our comfortable selves, others, or our interpretations of the same (in order to avoid dissonance- which only invites another round of unrealistic retrospection, analysis, prediction, and testing). Rohmer’s scenes and films end when he has made a point about, when we understand the parameters of, the protagonists’ conceptual frame-work and his or her capacity do deal with tests to that frame-work.

            So where Antonioni usurped more static modern art, a Rohmer film will begin, not as much ironically as “realistically” with an ideological declaration-in-conversation only to show the futility of that ideology (or its regrettable success) when applied over time to active agents living in a dynamic world. “There are not enough lies in cinema,” Rohmer wrote in 1948[10], and his cinematic project was in pursuit of a “talking cinema”- where dialogue is a helpful element, not just counterpoint, to a cinema-specific style. And because such conversations become infinitely more fascinating when they discuss a mise-en-abyme where the “people” trying to understand themselves and the world and predict their own and each-other’s actions can be (but do not have to be) understood as “characters” reading pre-scripted dialogue…this study of Éric Rohmer’s signature will find what it is looking for in his most meta-fictional work: Claire’s Knee (Le genou de Claire, 1970).

            When the protagonists of Claire’s Knee reintroduce themselves to each-other, Aurora (Aurora Cornu) expositions to her long-lost acquaintance, Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy), that she is a fiction writer on vacation. Since each scene in Claire’s Knee is separated by inter-titles written in feminine hand-writing, wecan assume that the following film is a (diegetically justified) representation of the notes Aurora has taken regarding the events which have piqued her personal interest during that vacation[11]. Some of those events she has witnessed and some have only been retrospectively reported back to her by her friends, but in either case, we have such little guarantee of the veracity of Aurora’s perception and presentation that it would probably be better to assume, when things work out too coincidentally or when Jérôme’s character shows a significant change between the times when it is witnessed by Aurora and those time when it is imagined by her, that a certain amount of (self-effacing) dramatic license has been taken.

The Abyme

It is not so surprising when Aurora or Jérôme reintroduce each-other to the details of their lives using more words of rationalization than description- this is unremarkable behavior for characters in films and the middle-aged effete bourgeoisie in general. But we only really see how dated, pathetic, and second-hand such a quote-laden mind-set is when the 15 year old Laura (Béatrice Romand) and her un-consummated boyfriend describe themselves, “proper” behavior, ideal Love and other platonic categories using language no doubt parroted from the previous generation (or their movies or, with a nod to Flaubert’s realist/idealist masterpiece Madame Bovary, their books). As such, when Laura and her boyfriend use the same language as Aurora and Jérôme, the young couple call attention to the generality and naïveté of the same statements we the audience accepted as truth when it was coming from the mouths of our attractive and sophisticated protagonists. In an obituary written for The Guardian, Gilbert Adair goes against the tide of most of Rohmer’s fans when he describes what could only be irony in  “characters which

are among the most ­foolish and ineffectual milquetoasts ever to have graced a cinema screen; 90% of their celebrated talk is ­unadulterated ­twaddle. This is ­absolutely not a flaw: it is, rather, a ­species of trompe l’oeil (or trompe l’oreille). Rohmer jangles the small change of wit with such unfailing ­mastery that, just as his characters are persuaded they are making clever ­remarks, so most of the audience are persuaded they are hearing them. It helps, too, that he had an ­extraordinary gift for pastiching the rhetorical tropes of classical French comedy, with a ­particular affection for the “nothing but … ” formula to which many 18th-century aphorists were ­addicted: “Women are nothing but … “, for ­example, or “Sexual ­attraction is ­nothing but … “. It scarcely matters what specific tailpiece Rohmer added – the audience are already ­nodding in worldly ­acquiescence.”[12]

For Jérôme, at least, Laura is therefore a “girl” according to prescription, and should be easily enough wooed according to prescription. If he fails? That means he loves his fiancée. However, if Jérôme does not succeed in his seduction of Laura, Aurora will have found faith in her own ability to resist Jérôme or any seducer that may come along after her soon-to-be-had marriage. And though Jérôme’s attempts at seducing Laura were somewhat half-hearted, being done more out of principle than sincerity, Laura’s strength (Aurora’s second-hand imagination of Laura’s strength) could rekindle a lost faith in the ability of a younger generation, or any indoctrinated person (in this case (of course because she is writing the story) one that reminds Aurora of herself (note the similarity of names))- to recognize ingenuousness, and be dynamic rather than act according to formula. Therefore, Laura is acting as Aurora’s ingénue by proxy. And through Jérôme, Aurora, Aurora’s notes, Rohmer, and his film- Laura is somewhat morally inspirational to the relaxed audience of the film, “bourgeoisie” if only for their petit time in the theatre.

            But the lesson learned from Laura is not the end of this story, after all the film is about the genou de Claire. Signified by her coat and non-possessive attitude regarding her boyfriend, Claire is more modern than the characters mentioned before, and from any notion of Rohmer as a conservative Catholic. Her modernism, though I admit it is not described as such in the film so at least rebelliousness, reawakens something in Jérôme that he thought he had lost…and so fourth, typical older man about ingénue dialoge…a little too typical. Truthfully, Claire does not so often speak her mind and we, Aurora, and Jérôme are able to project a more flattering interpretation onto her without it being corrected or betrayed by her real thought processes.

Through Jérôme’s eyes, we see Claire and her boyfriend boating by a neighboring camp’s swimmers. The camp counselor comes to complain and finds Jérôme sitting outside. But when Claire and her boyfriend show up and get into an argument with the counselor through which we, and Jérôme, learn that Claire’s stunt was at least motivated- the camera stays on Jérôme and ignores the debate. If written, this scene would appear to have Jérôme’s words in quotes while Claire’s would merely be reported, only followed by ‘she said’[13]. The page cannot do such simultaneous justice to a prolonged study of a listener’s reaction, nor can it adequately objectify the spoken word- Rohmer only cuts back to Claire after she is done speaking (even Jérôme’s head is down during her speech, out of anxiety), allowing us to see her as the accumulation of everything that was said, allowing us to see her own physical reaction to that now past dialogue.   

When Jérôme interacted with Laura (often as imagined by Aurora), both were equally idealistic and obtuse, but the point was made about age. However, Claire is much less outspoken regarding her psychological motivations and expectations. Aurora’s distance from Claire is such that the latter’s thoughts cannot even be guessed at. It is a characteristic of Claire’s that she either gives no credence to or at least does not say her suppositions out-loud- a characteristic of which Aurora is extremely jealous or at least curious. Without Aurora (or Rohmer) hazarding to guess what is going on inside the mind of Claire, she lacks something of prescribed psychological depth, she is an object, though neither Jérôme, Aurora, nor the audience finds her any less interesting. As with Jérôme and Laura, Aurora would be even more curious about and inspired by Claire than Jérôme’s lust would ever allow him. He is even too intimidated to approach Claire and Aurora has to initiate their contact (his hand upon her holy knee) by seeming accident. As the writer of the story these events will eventually become, Aurora does have to encourage their taking place.

But as Jérôme finds Claire alone and offers to take her into town on his boat and their trip is interrupted by rain and they take shelter, alone, together- giving Jérôme another even better opportunity to try what he will with Claire, and he does, and is interrupted again by a thunderclap and the sudden cessation of the rain; no less unrealistic than the dialogue (what sounds like a man written by a woman who ‘does not know how to write men’- that could easily be comical if it were not for the seriousness portrayed by the actors) are the weather conditions and their perfect timing. In no way does Rohmer allow this scene to hint at camp or deus-ex-machina until after it is over (just like when Claire boated too close to the swimmers) and in the following scene, Jerome is recounting his actions and thoughts to an Aurora who whishes she were taking notes. She is not taking notes, therefore when she later reconstructs this event and this Jérôme’s retelling, both become a little too perfect and a little too romantic.

But the rain does not stop to help Jérôme (unless of course it is God keeping Jérôme on the straight and narrow path)- this scene lasts just long enough for Aurora’s new ingénue to explicate her philosophy, to have that attacked, to demonstrate her vulnerable humanity after all (by crying) and for her to teach Aurora one final metaphysical lesson regarding her knee. If the common concensus as to why Claire cried is that Jérôme made her realize that her boyfriend’s general disregard for the opinions of others applies to her own feelings as well, then the reason she let Jérôme touch her knee may have something to do with a mind/body disconnect she is attempting at that point: to separate oneself from one’s emotions and frail heart would no less distance oneself from one’s knee. But as this vignette was written by Jérôme’s non-sexual-despite-all-of-his-advances friend, then the storm ended at just the right time for that author to conclude a reason for and retain her admiration for this not-inhuman but self-objectifying girl’s philosophy.

Rohmer may have looked at a mind/body disconnect espoused by the modern generation with some sort of curiosity or even admiration, while at the same time admitting that the old romantic notions of holistic passion and eternal love would continue to be practiced despite their short-comings, but Jérôme too admitted that his upcoming marriage would be more practical than loving, and his relationship with Claire allowed Aurora to understand this new form of attachment. As far as being a character in a movie goes, Claire’s unexamined life certainly has its advantages over those of Jérôme and Aurora who, despite all their attempts to figure themselves out, are still slaves to the script and the whims of the director.  

In a 1977 interview[14], Rohmer complimented the way AmÉrican cinema does “it”. Which can go to mean what David Bordwell has understood as a particularly AmÉrican genius when it comes to making polysemous works that can incite extravagant and satisfying interpretations from each viewer regardless of their particular preoccupation- without the film itself necessarily demanding that its elements be read in one particular way beyond their most general, subjective, and most complicated, iconicity[15]- an effect Jérôme is all too familiar with regarding silent-Claire’s intrigue versus crying-Claire’s easily abandoned pathetic state. Indeed, despite all of Rohmer’s dialogue, the use of extended…I hesitate to call them “reaction” shots…listening shots and even his fearless hold on a speaker until the meaning of the words becomes subordinate to the speaker; all increase the intrigue and number of potentially satisfying interpretations.

For all of its investigation of conversationalism, the dialogue in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995, or any of his films really) has to work too hard to make up for what the film lacks of Rohmer’s finesse with presentation[16]. Rohmer knew that realism is in itself critical, and that reality will correct ideology (despite our best efforts to the contrary).  In contemporary AmÉrican independent cinema, there is a fairly popular branch called Mumblecore which is indebted to (or would benefit from further study of) the tact of realism versus conversational philosophy that composes Éric Rohmer’s project. Both Mumblecore films and Rohmer’s catalog are concerned with the persistence of historical, popular, and personal philosophies, ideologies, despite their inapplicability to modern life. Being AmÉrican films and perhaps appreciating Rohmer’s point about the film making a point over and above what the characters say, the protagonists of Mumblecore movies disclose comparatively little about their philosophical motivations, almost knowing that such declarations beg for correction. Rohmer’s films represent the commonly regrettable but irreplaceable condition of over-cognition and test the success of such a habit without really criticizing anyone who philosophizes or philosophizes in a particular way. These films enjoy a wide and international audience because, regardless of the exact cultural conditions and language used, most of the issues are universal but even more- the process, the conflict, is as applicable to cinema viewing as to living life. Gerald Adair seems to think that the words spoken in Rohmer’s films scare away as many viewers as they earn half-hearted acclaim amongst viewers who agree too easily with any movie that sounds smart. But Rohmer’s films depict a process where reality is not just ‘what we make of it’, and are shot in a way as to increase interpretive possibilities before a (hopefully) now unconvincing narrator gives his own interpretation.

And Antonioni makes the same point, in his way, at least once but most memorably at the end of L’eclisse- when our two protagonists go from making-out on the couch to play-acting making fun of other couples they saw at the park, to making fun of themselves when they were earlier flirting, to making promises to each-other to meet tonight and tomorrow and the next day…and then they don’t, and I don’t think the audience is supposed to know that won’t, because the film soon cuts to the spot where they were supposed to meet- expecting them to be there. But they aren’t there. And the camera roams, now so alone, here and there finding an interesting figure, a woman from behind who looks like…no, from the front we can see it isn’t her…the camera finds neither of those characters it once thought were so interesting, so both protagonists must have known that both of them were lying. But then this seven minute de-establishing montage reminds us that they were characters to begin with- not real people like the citizens the camera is now catching. The story was constructed by the very force which moves the camera now- through shots which rhyme with earlier ones, and all this story was, and is, reconstructed in our own heads which, as Martin Scorcesse says in his commentary on the same ending- “led us to believe that anything was possible”[17]. And Scorcesse was not yet a director in 1962.

The ending of L’eclisse is very similar to L’ère industrielle: Métamorphoses du paysage[18], a 1964 documentary shot by Rohmer- where from moving cars filming nacient neighborhoods and the sides of construction sites, the narrator tells us that these are the things that stir our imaginations. Like Scorcesse’s narration over the end of L’eclisse, Rohmer’s narration over Métamorphoses eventually, ironically, goes to prove Rohmer’s point about such suppositions.

But the world can be overwhelming, as it is to Guliana (the fourth appearance of Monica Vitti) in Antonioni’s 1964 Red Dessert (Il deserto rosso), and early Julie in Kieślowski ’s Three Colors: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu). Like Antonioni and Rohmer, Kieślowski  also moved from documentary to feature fiction film, and the world being overwhelming is shown through impressionistic and overwhelming color and sound- something a documentary true to Bazin couldn’t do, but that realityism demands[19].

 But luckily for Julie, she finds out that her husband had a mistress.

Up until Julie meets her husband’s mistress, she has been both shut off from the world and yet overwhelmed by the score that reminds her of her late husband (though all she/we hear(s) is the piano- allowing a musical motif, but indicating a limited understanding of the whole piece). She has been both critical and curious about her mother’s ability to watch bungee jumpers on t.v., but after she learns of her husbands…improvisation if you will (his ability to replace her, nay- carry on a double-life, a two-part harmony sung in a round; with another similar, younger woman whom he also loved and impregnated), Julie goes to see her mom (who is watching t.v.), and leaves without saying anything, and the same old piano music plays again.

But then!, perhaps appreciating her mother’s unaffectability via television, Julie is able to look at her late husband’s score. But when she touches it (fig. 1), the camera is in extreme close-up, the edges are impressionistically blurred, and the music is loud- all to relate how overwhelming this experience still is to her. But she/we has/have a narrator who describes the score, and the other instruments in the orchestra besides the piano; but more importantly keeps Julie moving along. And when the camera cuts back to an establishing shot of Julie and her narrator in his living room; perhaps inspired by her husband’s agility at fungability, Julie, too, is able to replace a piano for a trumpet. Like the photographer of Blow Up, Aurora ofClaire’s Knee, and any Scorcesse-like viewer watching the end of L’eclisse- Julie has transcended her own experience by becoming the (an) author of it. It is difficult to find villains in the works of Antonioni, Rohmer, and Kieślowski , but if there are heroes, these are they- the characters who deserve, nay demand the camera’s attention. But they are also the villains because, in a work that concentrates more on character development than nostalgia, there is no desire regain an earlier ignorant self.  

Though the extent of self-determination shown by these protagonists (a better word than hero as they, for the most part but certainly not all- move the story along) may not be simply limited to the world of film, but cinema is a good place to start experimenting- with thinking of theatres as phenomenological laboratories, and movies as, like Daria (Daria Halprin) was able to do at the end of Antonioni’s 1970 Zabriskie Point- indulge in a momentary deconstructive outburst that we know (or soon find out) is only imaginary.      

And in a coup de grâce of auteurial prowess, Kieślowski  brings back all of his protagonists for a final curtain call at the end of Red (1994). He is writing the movie and they are just characters- so why not? And this assembly is being watched on television by a retired judge, much like us.

That the themes, scenarios, and styles of these three directors can at once support and, if we want to be honest, confound auteur-structuralism does not mean that we should throw the theory out- Kieślowski , among others, have certainly been using an approach similar to auteur-structuralism in order to lean and develop- apparently one that abandons Wollen’s style-less and dichotomous definition of thematic elements and does more with a series of films than he hoped to imagine. And I would hate to think that Kieślowski  somehow charted L’eclisse and Claire’s Knee and said ‘wow, they’re the same’, but I’m glad I did. But then- I tend to trust myself; I know of a million little details that had to be cut from this presentation. Hopefully I have relayed and arranged some of the most convincing ones.

Which is why we should also not abandon our interest in the ontology of the image nor its signs and symbols- but rather incorporate them into a larger discussion about series of images and films and catalogs and human observers and human viewers and human analysts of human viewers. To describe all those dynamic factors over time, we cannot rely on one image, yet, and we never will be able to exactly model reality, but realityism is not a bad goal. And verisimilitude helps, and so does the creative arrangement of elements, as do the commonalities between two (or more) detailed analyses over time.

[1] Still frame from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Three Colors: Blue” (1993) modeling Y-axis (comparison of items), X-axis (time), and Z-axis (Juliette Bionche- creative reception). Retrieved December 16, 2010:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRKWcN7biSo&feature=related

[2] See G. Moses, “Auteur Effect”, p. 3.

[3] Omnibus, “The Music of J.S. Bach” (1957), ABC. Retreived December 16, 2010:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m09X0D2bstQ . Transcribed in <span>The Joy of Music</span>, by Leonard Bernstein. Pages 232-3. Simon and Schuster, NY. 1959.

[4] Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revisited” in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory , edited by Nick Browne, 42–88. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[5] what makes him an auteur is that he was able to do this recognizeably over time. The reason anyone cared to see or explain how he does this recognizeably over time is that his articulation is admirable.

[6] From <span>Theories of Auteurship: a reader </span> edited by John Caughie, pp 132-3. First published in Paris, 1958.

[7] “The Auteur Theory”, from Signs and Meaning in The Cinema, Seeker & Warburg, London, 1967 and 72, as cited in <span>Theories of Auteurship: a reader </span> edited by John Caughie, pp 138-51.

[8] The Ontology of the Photographic Image. André Bazin; Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960), pp. 4-9. Retreived December 16, 2010: www9.georgetown.edu/…/Bazin-Ontology-Photographic-Image.pdf

[9] ERIC ROHMER: REALIST AND MORALIST. By C. G. Crisp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[10] Rohmer, “For a talking cinema” Les Temps modernes, September 1948.

[11] I often find such a framing device to be helpful when analyzing film, perhaps in no small part due to how such justified narration belies a self and socially-conscious work.

[12] Gilbert Adair, “Eric Rohmer: Let’s talk about… everything”, January 12, 2010. Retrieved November 15, 2010: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/jan/12/eric-rohmer-gilbert-adair

[13] Eric Rohmer “Film and the three levels of discourse: indirect, direct and hyperdirect”, Cahiers Renauld-Barraoul, 96, October 1977. Translated by Carol Volk.

[14] · Parlons cinema.Retrieved November 15, 2010: http://vimeo.com/293207

[15] David Bordwell, “Superheroes for sale”, August 16, 2008. Retrieved November 15, 2010:http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2713

[16] One protagonist of 1995’s Before Sunrise was played by actress Julie Delpy who, in 1994, played the…antagonist in Kryzstof Kieslowski’s White.

[17] Retreived December 16, 2010: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d0eFv1vHxo

[18] Retreived December 16, 2010: http://vodpod.com/watch/3195336-lre-industrielle-mtamorphoses-du-paysage

[19] <span>The films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: the liminal image </span>(2004), by Joseph G. Kickasola, is heavy on contemporary phenomenology and knowledgeable about Bazin, but does not use the word realityism, that is mine. 

Super-heroes, Superego, and $

  1. [Genre- Superhero film. Summer 2010]

    Super-hero, Superego, and $

    Just before their final show-down, near the end of Kill Bill 2, Bill (David Caradine) makes himself a drink and pontificates while Beatrix (Uma Thurman), having been shot with truth-syrum, smolders to maintain self-control. The Magnificent Seven (1960) plays muted on the television between them. Bill says:

    …(Medium shot, low angle: Bill standing behind the counter) “Take my favorite super-hero: Superman. Not a great comic book, not particularly well drawn, but the mythology!” Close-up: Bill downs a shot-glass. Back to medium shot, “The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.” Reaction shot (Shot 4): full-shot straight ahead- Beatrix seated on the couch, sweating, huge dart with a red feather sticking straight-up out of her thigh. (Beatrix) “How long does this shit take to go into effect?” Wide-shot from behind Beatrix (Shot 5), Bill walks out from behind the counter and sits against a bar-stool facing her, (Bill) “About two minutes (just long enough for me to make my point). Now, a staple of the super-hero  mythology is there’s the super-hero, and then there’s the alter-ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spiderman is actually Peter Parker. (Reverse shot of Beatrix- same as shot 4. Bill continues:) When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. (Reverse shot of Bill- same as shot 5)  He has to put on a costume to become Spiderman. And it is in that characteristic that Superman stands alone…Clark Kent is superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

    And though Bill goes on to equate Beatrix to Superman, he perhaps fails to see how the whole truth-syrum Gnostic monologue to your captive nemesis thing he has going on marks him as the villain and portends his death to the generically astute audience. But of course he assumes that Beatrix is not generically astute.

                Thusly, this analysis will divide the hypothetical cinematic audience into two factions, allowing both the same undivided attention to the profilmic event. In order to increase the accuracy of our descriptions of consumers’ uses and gratifications, we should distinguish between those viewers who are wholly immersed and those for whom (or times at which) the movie takes on a predictably symbolic status.

                Through the “magic” of cinematic construction, any actor/character has powers of super-human speed, strength, omniscience, time-travel, elocution, good looks, shape-shifting and immortality (especially when we consider their ability to come back in sequels, reappear in completely different roles, or ever be allowed to rewind to that idyllic situation where the story started). But just as the concept of Santa Claus prepares Western children for the concept of Jesus (which prepares them for…good citizenship?)- most of us are initiated into cinema through animated or special-effects laden super-hero movies where incredible feats are explained not by saying, ‘well, otherwise the story would be over too quickly,’ or, ‘well, there’s this thing called editing…’. The construction of the diegesis is hidden as much as possible through the continuity editing and post-production in most productions appealing to mainstream audiences, but in super-hero movies, such the supernatural abilites of cinema are narratively justified, sensationalized, and frankly lied about (as opposed to being kept a secret).

                Which is why it is the villain who has the monologue, or we should say- why the monologue is villainous. An action oriented super-hero movie which intends to appeal to those most primitive urges and can therefore be classified as sensational. We will assume that most viewers came more to play than to work.  The villain tries to ruin that time and space of safety and does interrupt the generally action-packed and quickly edited rhythm of the previous acts with a lecture that should be paid attention to. As such a ruiner of good times, the villain came come to represent the “reality” of any factor which has been or is presently bothering the viewer with life or the world at large- the reason the “certain orientation of behavior”, as Piaget describes play, is ruined but also that formidable force (superego) which hypocritically hates weaknesses and fantasy and makes the viewer feel guilty enough about playing as to drive them to make the experience educational or, through metaphor- externally significant.

                Should the viewer and the text be unfortunately distanced by technical difficulties, cultural assumptions, or time; the viewer will accordingly decrease his concern about whether the super-hero can vanquish this metaphorical violator and instead that behavior is re-oriented to become equally concerned about the more tangible causes of disruption in the script or setting. While Quentin Tarantino’s references to pop-culture allow many to call him postmodernist and the Kill Bill saga can be read as a series of showdowns between figures representing different sensational film genres, there is little about Kill Bill, especially Volume 2, especially in the seamless scene mentioned above, there is little that demands a meta-textual reading.

                On the contrary, Batman and Robin (1997) exemplifies a text whose intended reading depends upon seeing the profilmic event in a historical and presentational context. It failed at the box-office and reasons should include how Batman and Robin violated its viewers’ intended use of super-hero films as play or as myth. Postmodern play, as Batman and Robin has it, is so “cheesy” and “in quotes” that the presentation encourages neither an empathetic identification with its characters nor the socio-political criticism that myth is heir to. If Batman and Robin is an end in itself and demands (more than other super-hero movies) to be treated as such, only a certain orientation of behavior can overcome a superego and be ok with that or a certain sensibility can convince a superego that there is importance in this activity.  If box-office takes (or the lack there-of) are an indication, Christian Metz was right about most viewers (or at least early critics) when he focused on the anxiety of a “fetishistic viewer- wavering between the credulous position of believing the image and the repressed, anxiety causing, knowledge of its illusion,” (Gunning, 79). We can assume that most viewers (or viewings) of super-hero films are fetishistic- present and not present, displaced.

                With such a variety of super-heroes and media to choose from, certainly a consumer finds the particular balance he is most comfortable with or interested in. Bill (from Kill Bill) preferred not only the myth of Superman but also the not particularly well-drawn comic form. I wonder about the coincidence of awareness of the medium, as opposed to immersion in it, and understanding the text as a myth among peers and what influence this has had on “Bill’s” favor.

    While certainly not the only factors; the linguistic, cultural, national, temporal, and geographical distances inherent to the objects of study for the first French cinephiles certainly made their appreciation of style, construction, and moments that could overcome all those distances that much easier. Tarantino was able to recreate those original French cinephilic conditions by studying what could be considered the products of the fringes of Hollywood’s empire: Blaxploitation, Hong Kong Kung Fu, Spaghetti Westerns, Sirkian melodrama, Grindhouse, French New Wave, Heist films, and Television. Even the intended audience of these sub-genres has, at times, difficulty ignoring their constructedness, their cinematicity as Caetlin Benson-Allott describes in Going, Going, Grindhouse. But despite his distance from the intended audience and their technical and financial limitations[1] (Including commercials or other interruptive screening conditions,) some of these inadvertently reflexive films are still able to effect an undeniable physiological response that one would not expect from a mere object or blank parody. Certainly, this made Tarantino wonder: “How did they do that?”.

    I have earlier asserted that this symbolic stage of questioning is often labeled as villainous in super-hero movies and why some viewers agree that it is evil. But rather than talking about movies as if they were accurate wish-fulfillments of all viewers, we will the most plausible explanation for their structure when we consider movies to be the marketable fantasies of their producers. Considering the amount of energy that has been invested into making a convincing fantasy world, characters, and scenario; we can assume narcissistic motivations on the filmmakers’ behalf. As if the movie is their child, filmmakers are “impelled to ascribe to the child all manner of perfections which sober observation would not confirm,” (Freud p. 72), that is- to come up with fantastic in-world explanations (no matter how created that world must be) that distract from the reality of the object and the world in which it exists. Freud explained in 1914’s On Narcissism: An Introduction how people who have fairly healthy relationships to themselves and the world can be fascinated by beautiful women, beasts of prey, babies and, “In literature, indeed, even the criminal and humorist compel our interest by the narcisstic self importance with which they manage to keep at arms length everything that would diminish the importance of the ego,”

    (p 70). If the consumer should feel ego-less, they can spend some time studying the popularly defined difference between unhealthy megalomania exemplified by the villain and a model of a healthy (though conflicted) ego which has the power to divide its energies between outward, social, object relationships and the “me time” necessary for self-preservation.

                        The mainstream super-hero movie and popular audience have then come to an agreement: In order to live, both must have an ego, but in order to be sociable, both understand the importance of, the politeness of, keeping that ego private. For the super-hero movie itself, that secret identity involves all the factors of production- the special effects, the mortality of the actors, the editing and set, etc. There are lot of people who would like to use that information against the super-hero or his loved ones and we the audience (as compared to the fictional populace of whatever city he protects) are trusted with that knowledge. The newer and better-made a super-hero movie, the less likely a viewer will be introspective at least during the movie itself, though conscious. Thus the experience of watching coincides with the typical themes and form to create an agreement between movie and viewer to take turns wordlessly discussing instinct, the self, fantasy, and the social self in the space of the socially exchanged fantasy that is myth that is cinema.


    [1] It is possible that what we call cheesy is actually a sincere imitation of how off-beat directors “see” main-stream movies.

PREMIUM PAPER BAG: The Wire’s themes are “politically” reassuring for HBO subscribers.

  1. Season 3, Episode 2: All Due Respect

    Original Air Date—27 September 2004

    PREMIUM PAPER BAG

    [Take away: The Wire's themes are “politically” reassuring for HBO subscribers. Film 151 Genre- Serial Television: What’s So Great About The Wire? Spring 2010, Prof. Linda Williams.]

    “The paper bag does not exist for drugs.”

    -       David Simon and Ed Burns, The Corner (1997) page 158.

    “There has never been a paper bag for drugs…until now.”

    - Major Howard Colvin, Season 3 episode 2- “All Due Respect” (Writers David Simon, Richard Price 2004).

    Introducing the first book to be published about The Wire, David Simon wrote that the show, “could not exist but for HBO, or more precisely, an economic model exactly like HBO,” (Alvarez p. 6). While some HBO shows are perhaps more excuisite examples of the creative talent HBO attracts, encourages, and implements to stunning artistic and popular effect; it is through the narrative of The Wire- with its socio-economic-political consciousness, that we can best understand the importance of an economic model exactly like HBO (premium television) and how that model has directly inspired the programming it supports. So while a “paper bag” solution does not exist for drugs, I will argue how HBO is a solution for TV.   

    Back in the 1950’s, public drinking laws came into vogue. While they may have made sense in the suburbs,The Corner tells us; inner-city police wanted to bother murderers- not relaxing old men. So, though “the origins of the bag are obscure,” David Simon and Ed Burns editorialize on page 158, “by the early 1960’s, this remarkable invention was a staple of ghetto diplomacy in all the major American cities”. When some denizen slipped his just-bought booze into a paper-bag, Simon and Burns argue again in season 3 episode 2 of their HBO show The Wire, that “small moment of goddamn genius by some smoke hound…allowed the corner-boys to have their drink in peace, and it gave [the police] permission to go and do police work…that’s worth a damn,”

    Neither The Corner nor The Wire are very big on bureaucracy- the problem is a system that has more ideas than intimate knowledge, more power than efficacy; and the solution comes from an outside moment of quiet “genius” that spreads, not through policy, but by the invisible hand of common sense.

    As a book, The Corner itself closely matches the parameters of the paper-bag solution. Frustrated by the Pulitzer-driven (simple and sensational) demands of his editors at The Baltimore Sun, David Simon took a hiatus in 1991 to research and write Homicide: A Year In The Life Of The Killing Streets- a book that was meant to be everything industrial journalism was not.

    But nobody cared.

    Simon had discovered that literature was a paper-bag that let him do his in-depth reporting thing, and let him do some reporting that was worth a damn. But Simon and Burns were bothered that Homocide did not convince the BPD, The Sun, nor the citizens of Baltimore to fix their failing system. The drug war escalated and an ineffectual bureaucracy was still fed by finely cultivated outrage. Frustrated, Ed Burns left the BPD to teach high school and help Simon (on a permanent hiatus from The Sun) investigate and write The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood. Meanwhile…Homocide had been picked up by NBC and turned into a TV show that, following established market restrictions, became just another good guys vs. bad guys cop show interrupted by words from the sponsor- a format that Simon and burns would come to expect from all institutions.

     “The paper bag [solution] does not exist for drugs. For want of that shining example of constabulary pragmatism, the disaster is compounded,” (The Corner p. 158).

    Now, In season three of The Wire, Major Colvin of the Baltimore Police Department (played by Robert Wisdom, also an émigré from broadcast television) has been pressured to lower the felony statistics in his district or loose his job. Colvin gives a paraphrased paper bag speech (lifted from The Corner) to his assembled department. He does not bother to share this charming allegory with his superiors. There is, however, one key update to the paper bag- Colvin dramatically (and ambiguously) ends the story with: “There’s never been a paper bag for drugs…until now,” (e3.02, 56:30).  

    Colvin goes on to corral his district’s drug traffic into three, already abandoned, safe zones. Some officers keep the peace, the rest go back to doing real police work. Crime rates throughout the district drop precipitously. Problem solved.

    “Hamsterdam”, as the safe zones come to be called, eventually attract prostitutes and other entrepreneurs who cater to the dealers and the addicts. The zones also attract health-care and outreach programs who see these concentrations as fortuitous focal points of their efforts and target audience. But how is Hamsterdam a paper bag solution?

    The basics are there- an under-the-table cooperation between an overtaxed constabulary and a necessary evil. But Hamsterdam is more than a corner and an agreement- it is a republic ruled by a benevolent dictator.  

    Time and again, The Wire plays out this scenario: the Special Case Unit was ordered by a judge to investigate the Barksdale Organization and could only do so from the isolated safety of a defunct basement.The Special Case unit’s successor, the Major Crimes unit, works out of their own abandoned city building. Colvin’s classroom and Cutty’s gym show other experiments in and a natural tendency towards, not small business, but small politics. Indeed- the various drug lords were so hard to fight because their organizations are small dictatorships more agile than the bureaucracies that chased them. 

     The official institutions of Police, City, State, FBI, schools, and The Sun, are consistently depicted as worse than useless. Regarding Hamsterdam (season 3) and the fake Serial Killer (season 5), when the respective Mayors found out about each scandal, both represented the worst of democracy’s inability to handle crisis by spending several episodes cloistered in-office with advisors, calculating the costs and benefits to their own careers- tellingly unable to make an equal and opposite reaction, though they pretended the opposite for the press conference.

    The real work gets done in medium-sized autonomous enclaves that prove successful in spite of (or fail if they mimic) the dominant system.

    No wonder HBO liked it.

    Home Box Office is new enough (1976) to remember that it did not begin, it was created- and it was the first. Therefore, as compared to the entrenched broadcast networks, HBO’s creators and managers have a closer connection to the entrepreneurial spirit applauded by The Wire. Premium television also has a significantly different business strategy: appealing to subscribers directly (rather than through advertisers) means that vastly different material is preferred. As subscribers have elected to leave the hoi poloi of the broadcast networks, a premium television audience is inherently proactive.

    When Major Colvin says in his paper bag lecture that, “the corner is, was, and it always will be- the poor man’s lounge, that’s where a man wants to be on a hot Summer’s night- its cheaper than a bar, catch a little breeze, watch the girls go by,” he might as well have been describing the passive viewership that broadcast television networks take for granted, that their sponsors encourage.  

    Broadcast television networks strive to produce the “least objectionable material,” (Nelson p.2) that drove David Simon mad. Network producers demand that their shows reduce society to good and evil people (not means and not systems) where the good guys, the status quo, wins because, “In plain terms, a secure audience buys more Drano, Crest, and Miller Beer than an insecure one” (Stark as cited in McMillan p. 52).And though in-and-of itself it may not be the revolution Simon wanted- an unsatisfied audience (with means) buys more HBO.   

    With the Special Case and Major Crimes units all but dissolved and Colvin’s Hamsterdam and corner-kid classroom closed, The Wire explores another interesting economic ecology in season 5. Homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) makes several dead homeless men appear to have been murdered by a serial killer. He does this to get a wire-tap and surveillance team with which he can close the case on Baltimore’s reigning drug lord. He gets more resources than he needs and vouches for other detectives who need overtime to work their real, but less sensational cases. One detective even knew the drill, implying that McNulty was not the first to try this sort of scheme. McNulty makes the connection between his noble corruption and the duplicitous work of the newspaper reporter who is covering the serial killer case (and selling a lot of papers to boot). But the most concise explanation of this economic system comes from when Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is brought to court to defend his mode of governing (Season 5, Episode 7 “Took”, 2008):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAQv6KTfQow

    In the world of media, “tent-pole” is the term used by fans of less profitable productions to apologize for the necessity of Summer Blockbusters. The exorbitant revenues brought in from a production with mass appeal will eventually allow a studio to entertain more risky ventures, or even clear financial losers if there is something else to gain like cultural capital (prestige), social capital (talented people working for the company), or political capital.

    Though a “jury of his peers” lets Senator Clay Davis get away easily enough, and the newspaper reporter wins a Pulitzer prize, when McNulty’s “serial-killer” scheme is revealed, he finds it impossible to explain to his superiors that his motivations were not financially driven.   

    The Wire was not a tent-pole. That burden belonged to The Sopranos and Sex and The City. But season 5 shows that The Wire was grappling with this economic reality through its narrative- the same semi-transparent method it had used in the seasons before to help the show, its creators, and its viewers understand the concept of premium television as a space of safety.

    What functions did The Wire serve? Certainly a slew of talented writers and directors worked on this gritty drama that just happened to be hosted on a channel with a dedication to original documentaries. Mainly for its unique approach to social issues- this show has been the sole topic of, to date, four prestigious university classes- including two at the University of California Berkeley and one at Harvard. Such an honor is not shared by many television programs, and the executives who did not cancel The Wire even when it had low ratings must be patting themselves on the back every time an essay is written that mentions HBO.

    But The Wire stayed on the air, perhaps, because it just kept doing what it did best- outside of this enclave, where the real work gets done, it showed how dysfunctional the systems are and what effect that has on the people who remain. As far as subscriber retention is concerned, that is an important message that needs to be heard.   

     And as we see in those works sensitive to society, politics, and economics such as The Wire, the ecology of premium television (or my understanding of HBO at least) has an impact on and is reflected in the material displayed.

    The Wire could not exist but for HBO, or more precisely, an economic model exactly like HBO,” (David Simon, Introduction).

    The institution of Broadcast television was not investigated specifically in The Wire, but it is not hard to imagine what David Simon thinks of NBC after Homicide was turned into a run-of-the-mill melodramatic police procedural.

     

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV9MamysCfQ 


    [1]  because of their dependence on special interests and statistics (to get the support of a misinformed public).

    McMillan, Alasdair. “Dramatizing Individuation: Institutions, Assemblages and The Wire.” Cinephile 4.1 (Summer 2008): 42-50.

American Beauty by way of Henri Bergson

  1. [“Beauty Americain” by Matte Scott, for Production- Summer 2010.. based on the following essay written for Physical Comedy, Spring 2010]

    American Beauty by way of Henri Bergson

    “Assuming that the stage is both a magnified and simplified view of life,” Henri Bergson writes in the beginning of chapter II of his essay Laughter, “we shall find that comedy [on the stage] is capable of furnishing us with more information than real life on this particular part of our subject [the comic element in situations and the comic element in words],” (Bergson p. 104).

    For Bergson, an audience’s emotional distance was necessary to produce laughter. And while he wrote in the days before cinema, we know that film’s early comedy stars cut their teeth on the Vaudeville stage, that breaking the “4th wall” of dramatic realism is still a comic staple (even if this is done simply through a high-key color palate and lighting), as is making fun of cinematic conventions in a way that often belies the sour-grapes of the theatrically trained.

    Where films that want to be taken seriously must spend increasing amounts of money on creating and immersive fictional world, as soon as that spell is broken we have comedy. As soon as we are reminded of the theatrical aspect, the pro-filmic event has lost its dire importance. Having been made aware of the performativity, the audience can see what clichés and conventions being over-used in serious dramatic work.

    Bergson couldn’t have known this, but a writer, director, actor, set designer, or whathaveyou from the world of the stage must look upon all cinema as a collection of artifice- just dying to point out all the seams.

    Well, after ten years of directing stage productionsSam Mendes made his cinematic directorial debut withAmerican Beauty (1999). As a dramedy, the film makes sudden shifts from seriousness to comedy. Mendes uses, abuses, and combines cinematic conventions of creating serious, realistic, ambiance and obviously staged comedy. To help hold together this covertly meta-textual and trans-generic masterpiece, the protagonist Lester Burnham is played by star of stage and screen, Kevin Spacey, and the screenplay was written by Alan Ball (a graduate of the theater arts and at the time writing for the General Nonsense Theater Company of Sarasota, Florida).   

    While each mood is cued by the mise-en-scene and then followed by an unsettling performance, these two are often at cross-purposes. Bergson writes that “a situation is invariably comic when it belongs to simultaneously to two altogether different series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time” (123). The scenes which end surprisingly highlight the ruts most Hollywood productions have fallen into, how dependent “continuity” is for mood- and by extension how automatic our expectations and reactions have become.  But it is inevitably the actors’ performances which turn an ominous scene comic or vice versa. So, more than other films which use redundant lighting, color, dialogue, and wardrobe, the performances in American Beauty carry the scene. As his comfortable foundation, Mendes, Ball, and Spacey have American Beauty’s performances of physical comedy follow Bergson’s theatrical prescriptions to the letter. That the film’s most inspirational dialogue sounds as if it is paraphrasing Bergson’s optimism about the significance of comedy to humanity and its ultimately liberating purpose- may just be a coincidence.     

    American Beauty tells the story of the last year of Lester Burnham’s life…well, strictly speaking- since Lester begins and ends the film with undead flashback narration, he really tells his own story, beginning by voicing over a helicopter shot of his cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood[1]. The camera finds Lester a year before he died and became a narrator, waking up, putting on his slippers, jacking off in the shower[2]. The narration emphasizes the routine.

    Being undead and some kind of omniscient omnipresent time-traveling profilmic image controlling spirit gives the narrator Lester a certain distance from the depicted living Lester- the distance necessary for comedy. Had the story been told from the point of view of the still living Lester, this routine would have been more depressing than funny, and we probably wouldn’t have been shown him, “jacking off in the shower”. Bergson understands this retroactive dualism in a footnote: “when the humorist laughs at himself, he is really acting a double part; the self who laughs is indeed consciousbut not the self who is laughed at,” (155). Lester is telling a story and so understands that the person in the shower is not “real”.American Beauty’s use of narration tries to get its viewers to also understand that this character is not “real”. As it is, each shot is sparsely decorated, lit with “morning light”, and contains only one actor and action- this is simple and light. 

    Routine is emphasized to make Lester’s actions appear mechanical. Lester even narrates his wife and foil, Carolyn’s (Annette Benning) cutting the roses as performing a routine. This absentmindedness is made fun of, should be made fun of, according to Bergson. Lester should invite ridicule, lest we turn out to be a “sedate” everyman like him. His character arc will be to learn how to loosen up and then gain the respectable amount of free will and agency that every human being is heir to. Too look good naked and to smile. And then he dies. But he dies smiling so its ok. And he doesn’t really die- he transcends. But I’m getting ahead of myself- until he dies (or after he dies and then is able to look back), we can laugh at, with, this metamorphosis.

    Bergson’s best known prescription for comedy is the mechanical encrusted upon the living. He was writing only a few years after Marx and a man acting like a machine was supposed to be so absurd and socially significant as to cause laughter. American Beauty explores “the mechanical encrusted upon the living” in almost as many ways as Bergson hypothesizes.

    Literally, Lester’s voice comes out of a drive-thru window speaker box so “encrusted with mechanical” static that even his wife doesn’t recognize. Lester’s younger neighbor, Ricky Fitts, films several things with his camcorder and plays them back on his TV screen. Lester calls his daughter’s friend and hangs up, but his actions are exposed through the magic of “star sixty-nine”. Though these uses of technology offer some of the few clues to American Beauty’s temporal placement (contemporary), the information which was obscured by technology is of great narrative importance in both short and long terms, these encrustations are not particularly laughter-inducing. Instead, these encrustations allow the situation to be “interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time,”- one way includes us and the omniscient narrator and the other includes some unfortunate character who is privy to only some information. Tension. When these two realities collapse, when Carolyn pulls up to the drive-thru and Lester nonchalantly offers “special Smiley sauce” (pun intended) to his oblivious wife kissing the man in the passenger seat. Comedy.  

    Figuratively speaking (this is what Bergson spent the most time on), we see countless examples of people acting out routines like machines or “humble marrionettes,” (112). Carolyn plays the same “Lawrence Welk shit” over dinner every night. When a motivational tape commands: “repeat after me…”, she does. Their daughter, Jane is (one of many) cheerleaders who perform a perfectly rehearsed routine. “In one sense,” Bergson writes, “it could be said that all character is comic, provided we mean by character the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically,” (156). Lester is an everyman who works in a cubicle, Carolyn is a working-woman but still very domestic, Jane is a “typical teenager”, and they all live in predictable suburbia. These characters are established by their routines- easily identifiable because they are over-used. These characters, all characters in American Beauty, are emphasized as clichés. But again, it is not when the film highlights these routines as routines that is necessarily comic. Exhale in recognition maybe, but not laugh. Routine as routine simply establishes the character on screen as a character- distancing him from reality and thus allowing us to laugh at some future point. The laughter comes when this routine is interrupted- the joy comes when this interruption is sustained.

    As the examples of rigidity mentioned in the last paragraph were more or less conscious choices made for the benefit of socialbility (and caricatured in the film to comedicly criticize society), some attention must be paid to the automatic behavior that is not conscious- American Beauty’s exploration of Bergson’s claim that “the deeper the absentmindedness the higher[3] the comedy,” (155). Twice when Lester is eves-dropping and then might get caught, he panics and runs away down the hall. When he is drinking and told surprising news- there is a spit-take. At these moments, Lester is reduced to the animal parts of his brain, the mechanical parts- and reacts. We too do not need to think to laugh, in fact that might ruin it. When Lester is smoking pot in the garage and his daughter’s car pulls up, he again panics, but this time it is not as funny because the action is bookended by Lester’s ominous neighbor, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), watching Lester from the shadows, through the rain.

    But understanding the point at which Man (both on screen and in the audience) is most automatic allows us to appreciate comic and narrative purpose when American Beauty reverses Bergson’s claim; and animates the mechanical. Beginning with Lester’s spit-take, mentioned above- the spit lands perfectly in the sink. Later, a pillow he throws bounces and lands perfectly on another chair. Without even looking, he drives a remote controlled car into his wife’s foot. Here, these “in-human” objects have taken on what seems to be, not a life of their own, but certainly behavior surpassing their supposed abilities, that “there’s this whole secret life behind things,” as Ricky Fitts describes a floating plastic bag. When noticed, these animate objects inspire hope about Lester’s increased control over the inanimate and mechanical parts of himself. And subtly, as Ricky gives this speech about a bag he recorded with a handheld digital camera,American Beauty comments on the medium and conventions of film itself. The laughter comes, as Bergson claims (though he spoke of funny hats), when surprising proof of the filmmaker’s craft exceeds our own rigid expectations of conventional objects, including movie scenes. 

                Then to the most noble purpose of physical comedy in Laughter and American Beauty- when the performance and performer embody an automatic, occupied, or sleep-walking state of life, these are set-ups. American Beauty emphasizes Lester’s rigidityand the film is, if nothing more, the comedy of his re-agency. When Lester is most mesmerized- in the middle of sexual fantasies or smoking weed, he is (the movie is, and we the viewers are) interrupted suddenly by Carolyn. By reality, by social obligation, by her “needs too”.

                Compared to the theater go-er, the film audience has a greater potential, I think, to be hypnotized by the diegesis of a performance. When Carolyn bursts into the alley to catch Lester and Ricky smoking, when she interrupts his masturbating by asking- “what are you doing?”, she is acting as, “the jack-in-the-box” (105). 

    So too, American Beauty disrupts its viewer’s complacency- not only with the sudden appearance of Carolyn, the sudden shift in tone, but also by interrupting the physical form of the filmstrip itself. Mendes takes the slow, low-lit trip of Lester’s hand up the leg of an ingenue and ELIPTICAL CUT!- repeats the same footage. This “triple jump-cut” (Mendes on Commentary track) is done in all four fantasy sequences and once in “real” life[4]. This real life elliptical cut comes just before Lester is startled to hear that the ingénue is a virgin. He then does not sleep with her. He has been startled out of finishing what would have been an automatic process.   

                So If Lester is a clown whose trials we are meant to learn from, then American Beauty is comedy meant to remind cinema of its physicality, melodramas of their predictability, and viewers of their own and their world’s mechanisms and rigidity.

                But American Beauty goes further. When Bergson wrote Laughter, mechanization was young and he was writing about comedy of the (live) theater. But in the last hundred years, we have grown more accustomed to seeing humans behaving mechanically and cinema viewers have adapted mechanical viewing processes or adopted concessions for the mechanics of the medium and the rigidity of its conventions. I won’t hazard a guess as to whether the ultimate purpose of comedy has changed fundamentally since Bergson’s time or if it has merely evolved. As encrusting the mechanical upon the living seems, in film, to be a little redundant, its funny that with the secret to American Beauty’s comedy is mechanic interruptus. 

     

    https://vimeo.com/14103468

     


    [1] In the DVD commentary, Mendes said he would have shown Lester flying, but that “would have made it a Coen brothers movie”.

    [2] I won’t say American Beauty is making an underhanded comment about the ease of Hollywood’s “establishing shot, medium shot, close-up” way of beginning a story, but that is a prudent frame of mind to be in with regards to these filmmakers.

    [3] Bergson believed comedy could be measured on a qualitative scale according to traditional understands of “high” and “low” art. 

    [4] everything on screen is a flash-back within a movie.

Helvetica and the Organization of Observations

  1. "Helvetica" dir. Gary Hustwit, 2007, Swiss Dots production (IFC)

    [Take away: the “life” behind things is subjective. Documentary, Prof. Skoller, Spring 2010]

    Helvetica and the Organization of Observations

     Helvetica (2007, dir. Gary Hustwit) is not direct/observational cinema and it is not directly reflexive (it is poetically reflexive, but we’ll get to that later). These subversive forms of documentary hang over Helveticain a way that everything this film does is radically moderate. It is not remarkable in its film technique or documentary style. It depends mostly on location shots and interviews with experts, but there is no narration. Instead of some great place, event, or person, the hero of Helvetica is a fifty-year-old font- remarkable only in its ordinaryness. And so, selectively following Dziga Vertov’s 1923 manifesto, it isHelvetica’s burden to utilize the camera so that “even the most commonplace will become interesting,” (p. 20).

    Generally, the film tells of how, in the 1950’s, Helvetica was designed to be “efficient”, in the ‘70’s, it was refused as the hallmark of cold corporations; and now, the youngest generation of graphic designers merely use it when appropriate. Through the tangents of conflicting experts, Helvetica denaturalizes us to an important part of our world and highlights the inherent difficulties of coding and decoding even the simplest messages, over time, in a way that speaks to important presentational and interpretive issues at work in every art, every documentary.

    Helvetica is the filmmaking debut of director Gary Hustwit, a former graphic designer, who wanted to show the importance of design and decided to focus his first film on this simple and ubiquitous font[1]. The importance of this font is immediately established in the introduction. In a montage of globalization- clips are shown of numerous modern bustling metropoli- and the font of choice for corporate logos, advertisements, and city services is…Helvetica.

    Amidst the hectic opening, the only common thread is this Helvetica. There is no title card or narrator or subtitle explaining the purpose of this adventure, so the viewer quickly learns to identify Helvetica as if his sanity depended upon it. The shots are steady and balanced and offer close-ups of short instructive phrases printed in this clean and easy font. But along with the quick editing speed, the shots are also visually very busy: the font as it appears on two adjacent, gafitti-ed mailboxes on a noisy street corner; the font on a display window reflecting pedestrian traffic…and so forth. Hustwit is able to show the need for this strong but nonchalant font in the hectic urban world by recreating a light-house in a storm experience through camera movement, editing, and mise-en-scene. Just as world-cities and trans-national corporations use Helvetica to communicate something nice but important to busy strangers, Helveticauses the same logic to move distracted viewers from our world into its own.

    In the first five minutes, the film moves from the rapid cutting of noisy and visually busy close-ups; to a comparatively peaceful New York subway station that has only one couple waiting on a bench; to its first in-depth interview in the serene and sparse apartment of an old Italian designer.

    This designer, like the rest used in the film, gives a testimony from his cool office in his cool European accent (all subjects speak English) about his personal thoughts about the font and his professional relationship to it (he used it for American Airlines). While he flips through a scrapbook, Helvetica, easily distracted, cuts again to urban scenes that corroborate the points this designer makes in voice-over. Again, the filmmaker does not include his half of the interview nor make his presence known in any other way than through editing.

    Helvetica has a roughly U–shaped chronology. Though the director never expressly voices his concerns, the interviews in first half of the film lead ever closer to the time, place, reasons, methods, and people who first made Helvetica. The second half of the film uses interviews with increasingly younger designers to accurately and personally narrate the impact Helvetica had on the world and some changing opinions about it- back up to the present day.

    Helvetica the font, it is explained, was designed to be not expressive- aside from the options of light and bold. It was designed to be rational. “Now,” one writer comments over images of the “NASA” printed on a landing space-shuttle, the Enviromental Protection Agency logo, and “SANITATION” on the side of a garbage truck, “a government agency or a corporation doesn’t have to be accessible, accountable, or transparent, but they can look that way if they use Helvetica,” “And I could imagine,” a designer voices over advertisements from an issue of Time, 1960, “how it must have felt to replace all the nuptuial calligraphy and an etching of the company’s factory belching smoke with…’Have a drink, period, Coke, period.’”   

    But designers from the baby-boom generation testify that the counter-culture revolution meant, for them (as young designers), rejecting that font that every institution and corporation that supported the Vietnam War agreed upon. They looked for fonts and arrangements that were more capable of expressing a variety of moods to distinguish differently minded events and companies from their predecessors. (At this point, the film’s style does not become more expressive, however- testimonials are still inter-cut with urban proof.)

    The film follows the search for expressiveness through designers recounting the “grunge” era. Eventually, some designers wanted an alternative. Expressionism is fictional- trying to recreate the emotions of an experience. Sometimes you might want to be clean and concise, or buy jeans from a store than claims to be. With reasoning that is highly reminiscent of the original purpose of Helvetica, postpostmodern designers explain how they are comfortable with the font and see it as one option among many.

    With different designers commenting (sometimes disagreeing) about what Helvetica means to them, the film shows that it is not a propaganda piece. At least not for the font itself. What would be the benefit of making a documentary, for instance, not about war but about war reporters?

    Somewhere along the line (for me it was when an interview with a designer who speculates about the origin of Helvetica cuts to some photographs of the principle players he names, cuts to an establishing shot of a town in Switzerland, cuts to the façade of the studio where Helvetica was born, cuts again to low-angle to show a street sign written in Helvetica just outside the studio, cuts to a man flipping through books inside a house, cuts to an interview with him sitting down and wearing an Izod sweater), the realization strikes: just how designed our world is.

    If Helvetica is trying to sell us the importance of design in communication and why methods change (or don’t) using perhaps the simplest thing possible, at face value, Hustwit has stumbled upon a simple way of telling the story of culture in the last 50 years.

    Perhaps Helvetica’s quotes are a little too perfect, the conflict melodramatic. Using the cultural chronology of the last 50 years for a narrative structure was not strictly necessary to explain the font or its importance- and bending reality to fit this narrative certainly required some violence (selective interviewees, editing, and shots of “proof”). But Helvetica’s goal is not to explain modernism, counter-culture, postmodernism, etc.- these issues are unavoidable.    

    And the narrative is helpful. By using a cultural/chronological narrative device and testimony/proof without voice-over, Helvetica shows its own postpostmodern (or ignorant) comfortability with the usefulness of some of the more traditional documentary techniques. One designer/fan of Helvetica argues that he does not see the font as an indication of capitalism- because its efficiency allows design amateurs to communicate clearly and universally, he sees it as a “font of socialism”. The same could be said for the documentary style of Helvetica itself.   

    I don’t think Helvetica overstepped its bounds. The film denaturalizes us to an integral part of our world that we take for granted, complicates institutional messages by training us to question the mode of communication, and then offers a series of disparate perspectives which explore alternatives and end up explaining the conditions of this phenomena’s existence as a logical, but not total or perfect, conclusion.

    Indeed, the exaggerated importance of font’s ability to reflect society at large is almost comical. Helveticatrains its viewers to see the fingerprints on anything designed. By using such a simple thing as Helvetica, an admitted abstraction, to see that anything made is an artifact of cultural significance- Helvetica admits that anything made continuously for the last 50 years could tell the same story.

    And for giving its viewers the tools to recognize and interpret that which has been designed, Helvetica is unique, and poetically reflexive[2].

    Helvetica not only shows the methods and reasoning behind the creation of an art of mass communication, it focuses on a font whose philosophy, purpose, style, and use are similar to that of the film itself. As nowadays, there are few who need reminding of the influence of the filmmaker, Helvetica’s confluence of subject and style is informative in its consistency.  

    The martial art of Helvetica and Helvetica is a correction of what Dziga Vertov hoped to be the liberating potential of a merger of man and machine. Purposeful without being didactic. Impressive without being unobtainable. While they are not strictly slow motion, any still and steady camera focusing on just one part of the city is a feat, not necessarily only possible with a camera, but certainly more probable (as the typical human behavior is “a series of scattered observations…into the chaos of visual phenomena filling the universe,” p. 3-2).

    Helvetica does not attempt to recreate “objective” reality. But the cut-aways from a person talking to a corroborating image do recreate experience, and the un-narrated transgressions of time and space that occur when Helvetica travels the world in the blink of an eye- do recreate memory. Moving from testimony to visual proof without narration is a close approximation of a goal-driven experience through time and space. Helvetica does not present reality as if it were everything all at once, it rarely is as Vertov notices- we move our attention to small and specific parts…sometimes for a purpose, usually for a conclusion.  

    Helvetica is highly educational about our collective world, our perception of it, and an important aspect of its functioning that tries to bridge the two. But even when Helvetica reaches the point of origin, it is explained that Helvetica’s designer (only mentioned by name in the scene immediately preceding) simply “cleaned up” an already existing font. And even that edition was named “Helvetica” by still another man.

    Too often, I think, the personal effort required of most documentarians- to raise funding, to travel, to film, and to tell a story that the world is ignoring; leads them to identify with some dedicated individual whose sticktoitivness changed the world. Projecting upon this “hero” that his psychological motivations are fascinating and every action important, reflexivity perpetuates self-centeredness and a “great man” theory of history.While these direct and reflexive techniques are important to illustrate subjectivity, reflexivity, like it is said of Helvetica, is just “the conclusion of one line of thinking”.   

    So, while some filmmakers drew more inspiration from the moments of Vertov’s films (specifically Man With a Movie Camera, 1929) where Vertov shows himself or an assistant at work filming or editing,Helvetica instead embraces those metaphorical moments- when a traffic cop is meant linked to the editor. Hustwit also uses just one extended metaphor for his filmmaking design in a way that gives his audience a very informative and balanced lesson about an important global phenomenon. But the single subject allows Helvetica to proceed at a leisurely pace (it does not have to prove that everything is like a movie) and with romance (it refrains from saying directly that this font is like this movie). This interview oriented style may just the most efficient way of communicating information intact. It may just be common sense. Subtracting the narrator was a good move. At this point, I am quite allergic to the voice-of-god and his foregone conclusions telling me what to think. Had any of my thoughts been narrated, I would have dismissed them as ridiculous. And the extended metaphor showed foresight and consideration for the viewer- I was really able to follow this “hero” through many conversations and locations, and instead of discussing something as complicated as “design”, the interviewees had to focus their personal and professional insights on this font.    

     


    [1] Hustwit went on to thoroughly investigate the design process of many popular consumer goods in his next film- Objectified (2010). However, not needing to imply more than he could show, the poetry is gone. The font, one designer claims, is perfect because it was designed according to the space between the letters.

    [2] If offering itself as a template to be copied is a stretch of the imagination, at least the synergistic website offers a “which font are you?” quiz.

What Fight Club Owes to European Art Cinema

[Matthew Kammerzelt. Film 25B: film from sound- Gendelman. August 3, 2009. Journal #4- Fight Club (1999) dir David Fincher]

What Fight Club Owes to European Art Cinema

            If, in a movie, each character is given a unique actor, dialogue, wardrobe, musical motif, and even setting to more clearly define and “round out” the authenticity of that character’s motivations, David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) must be commended for associating its characters with unique cinematic styles.   

             Tyler Durden, embodiement of resistance to the cultural logic of late capitalism, is developed alongside the use of techniques of estrangement designed within the European Art Cinema movement, but in postmodern reflection, Tyler is a parody of modernist resistance. His first job, shown in flashback, is in a movie theater where he passes the time by cutting single frames of erect penises into kiddie movies. Before this is explained, Tyler himself has already appeared several times onscreen as subliminal flashes. Later, when Tyler diegetically addresses the camera with “you are not your fucking kakhis,” the film strip shakes and apparently comes off its track.

            These are homages to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) which begins by showing film entering the projector, a frame of an erect penis and then an upside-down cartoon of a woman washing herself, and later, during a particular moment of intensity, the film-strip itself is shown to burn out and go off its track. These are techniques of reflexivity (where the film acknowledges itself as a cultural artifact) and estrangement (breaking the “4th wall” and thus the audience’s immersion) with the purpose of calling attention to the subtleties of the profilmic image and attributing their existence to an author.  By extension, questioning the media we take for granted and utilizing the potential for what is often over-looked (references to contemporary films [Tyler yells “run Forrest, run”], “Movieline” magazine featuring Drew Barrymore [remember the bookstore in the beginning of Fellini’s Le Femme], “image events” on television, pirated billboards, diaries, survival instruction cards on airplanes, Ikea Catalog blurbs that become superimposed over the living room furniture, telephonic mediation, pills and psychiatry) is essentially Tyler Durden’s raison d’etat.

            However, the European Art Cinema movement pioneered a set of parallel techniques to express a parallel point: dead-pan close-ups, elliptical editing, flash forwards, reimagined flash backs, “modern” musical scores, unreliable narration, a nebulous ending, and “You won’t believe this dream I had last night,” to impress the nebulous psychological state of the protagonist upon the audience’s attempts to decode the narrative, or as David Bordwell puts it, “that life lacks the neatness of art and this art knows it,” (Art Cinema as a mode of Practice p. 99).  These techniques are used at the command of and to define the unnamed “young professional” everyman played by Edward Norton. When it is revealed that the narrator has been fooled by Tyler Durden, a montage recounts the most stylistic “art cinema” shots used in the film - now with the Narrator in Tyler’s place. This twist increases the ambiguity of a movie that is minutes from ending, but does well to explain the confusion and behavior of the narrator throughout the film. As such, by admitting that “it’s called a change over, the movie goes on and no one notices,” as internal monologue instead of an affront to the audience, we find in the Narrator a close approximation of the audience’s experience of the filmitself.

            Fight Club separates itself from European Art Cinema’s tendency for the Auteur-director’s manipulation of the presentation to be obvious and inversely proportional to the character’s control over their own lives. Fight Club’s narrator is aware that he is inside of and in control of his own story, replacing the intrusive author from Bordwell’s equation of Art Cinema and, by telling the story in flash back, realistically justifying the expressionist techniques used. The appropriate application of the stylistic technique which has the effect most consistent with what the character would have chosen shows how unfortunately limiting one Auteur’s signature can be for a film aspiring to investigate subjectivity.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QgFWXLN-ug

13

Aug

Deacoustimatization

You remember, of course, this bit from Reservoir Dogs:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mCfzQOyANk&feature=related

Well, before I get started talking about deacoustimatization (Tarantino does this a lot), there’s one cinematic term you have to know: diegesis.

Diegesis comes from way back Greek, to describe not just the literal events on stage, but the magical world of make-believe these events are supposed to create, take place within, and where our attention is hopefully confined.

Some renegades, epitomized by Berthold Brecht, got pretty sore about theatrical (and by extension cinematic) audiences’ potential for “immersion” in fictional worlds; and so were developed some techniques for “breaking the fourth wall”; such as direct addresses, actors running into the audience, or methods of “reflexivity”, like in Hamlet or Stranger than Fiction- where the play or film somehow calls attention to itself as an object- as a play or a film- as opposed to pretending it is entirely real and assuming everyone believes that.

But aside from any drastic political statements or musings about metaphysics, some artists will just play with the fine line of in-world and out-world for fun or (my theory) to create a work that keeps its audience’s attention or moves with them as their attentions go in and out of the diegesis. 

And though the most common form of deacoustimatization comes when a song is started in the diegesis and then an extra-diegetic soundtrack takes over,

Or the characters acknowledge (start singing along to) some song we though was “soundtrack”, there are other ways to play with the fourth wall.

08

Aug

Songs to Cinema by

A few songs more or less about movie making.

That one I listen to after a shoot; after I’ve lost all direction…

Stunned to realize that a well-tuned bucket brigade is an advanced concept, the next crew I work with can expect a rousing round of sea-shanties whilst packing and unpacking the truck. The timing on this ditty underscores the harmony of crew. For years, I was a drummer in a band… and when all is said and done- I’m looking for those working conditions again: tight-knit equals expertly performing well rehearsed roles to create mutually meaningful brilliance. This time cinematically. One rule- no singing about home on the first leg.

I need some more, but here are a few from back in the day about making (not watching) them motion pictures. They can stay here lest they be lost to time:

15

Jul

On Dance and Choreography

image

So, I watched Suckerpunch yesterday. Plot was not this movie’s best asset. Surrealism aside (or maybe not), the girls in Suckerpunch were ostensibly dancers (maybe).

[Wim Wenders about PINA & 3D: http://www.theasc.com/asc_blog/thefilmbook/2011/09/09/wim-wenders-about-pina-3d/]

My habit of dating ex-ballerinas not withstanding, I’ve been interested in dance for about a year now- since I discovered Kanye’s “Runaway”

[watch all 34 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg5wkZ-dJXA&feature=relmfu

And then Black Swan came out 

Well, I had just finished studying Quentin Tarantino. The connection?- In defense of Beatrix’s long and bloody fight against the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill vol. 1,

I read an “action choreographer”’s explanation of the rhetorical uses and possibilites in such scenes- which can be understood from looking at any of the battles from Kill Bill (Not to mention the awesome sword-fights of Hero, Pirates of the Caribbean or The Princess Bride).

So; dance. Much as I love Degas, I’m always trying to use cinema to it’s full potential and one-up static media. Towards this end, dance is a kindred spirit and a fairly cinema-specific activity

And the lack of words to tell a story goes a little further; being theoretically au currant on account of both academia as a whole and myself in particular finally being as fed up as the general public with Theory; that is- with people who are all talk and cannot themselves make or do. I don’t enjoy many songs with lyrics anymore because I don’t like being yelled at nor do I care much about the importance of the singer’s pretend feelings or findings. Without lyrics, musicians and listeners are paying attention to the sound their instruments make (and that can include voice)… which, long story short, simply turns me on more than most “abouts” these days.

Red Shoes:

Singin’ In The Rain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YWBOfsXsDA&feature=related

Pina Bausch, being the best Contemporary (actually the name of her style) choreographer that I know of, and Wim Wenders seem to be addressing this wordlessness directly in the coming soon “Pina”: 

 

Cinematographically, that clip is exceptional because it doesn’t piss me off- as so many wide-shots of live performances tend to do. In keeping with my hatred of those old paintings that show a hundred people I don’t know lined up on a battle-field doing stuff I don’t understand, I think it is comparatively awesome when any art-form goes then further, gives us a close-up, makes us the ideal observer [arguments about which narrative is ideal are to be expected of course, but still]- making the dancer and the camera do a duet [a trois if you count the music, foursome with editing].

Directed by Yohei Saito.

Official press release:


"World’s End Girlfriend is a Japanese composer whose work blends complex sound structures with beautiful melodies, reaching from electronic glitch to jazz-infused rock to modern classical. Captivating, enthralling and like nothing you’ve heard before, WEG makes for a surprising yet central addition to London contemporary music label Erased Tapes.

His brand new album ‘SEVEN IDIOTS’ will finally be released outside of Japan this April. Shifting seamlessly from catchy pop hooks to elaborate orchestrations and brutal IDM drones, it’s an irregular pop album – filled with twists and turns that will have you reaching for the repeat button. At first recorded with vocals, he took the unusual composing method of building up the songs before erasing all of their vocal parts. By dismantling and re-constructing each track, WEG has produced a genre-defying album that truly transcends categorisation.

World’s End Girlfriend hails from Nagasaki Kyushu, Japan and currently resides in Tokyo. Fascinated by his father’s classical music collection, he began his foray into sound at the tender age of 10, creating his early compositions on keyboard, guitar, tape recorders and computers. To date he has composed more than 600 songs, for the most part unreleased testaments of his early experimentations.

WEG first came on Europe’s radar in 2002, invited to perform at Barcelona’s renowned Sonar Festival. On the back of the collaborative album ’Palmless Prayer / Mass Murder Refrain’ with Japanese post-rock band Mono, he embarked on extensive tours in Europe and North America in 2005, returning for an appearance at ATP Festival in 2008. Recently performing as a seven-piece ensemble, WEG’s ostentious live show is currently selling out 800 capacity venues in Asia. Filmmakers seem smitten too, with the Go Shibata directed movie ‘Late Bloomer’ (2004) and the internationally renowned ‘Air Doll’ (2009) by award-winning director Hirokazu Koreeda both featuring soundtracks created by World’s End Girlfriend.

The music video for ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, taken from ‘SEVEN IDIOTS’, has already received over 90.000 views on YouTube. Directed by Yohei Saito, this beguiling visual represents the high level of interest given to WEG’s music, not widely available outside of Asia – until now.

‘The one album that would turn the entire music world on its head’ (8.5/10) #6 Top 100 Releases – The Silent Ballet (US)

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So in addition to getting out there and video-ing dancing right and using it effectively,

Now we can also re-consider all the wonderfully choreographed long-takes for which the action of the camera is as embodied as the performers. 

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But then we have to wonder- why all the un-reality?

Dream sequences and fantasies seem to be a running theme. If dance meant to inspire the heady audience to re-appreciate their physicality, why the dreams?

Poliça - Wandering Star from The Menagerie on Vimeo.

Or is dance meant to hypnotize? 

Photographic representation of Degas’ ballerinas: http://todayspictures.slate.com/20110719/

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Honorable mention:

Entre act ( @ 5:30)