Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Like the previous film by Nora Ephron also starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Sleepless in Seattle (1994), You've Got Mail begins with now incredibly primitive animation. We see Cartesian constructions, i.e. grid spatialization, of planets passing through the image, until one approaches and grows such that its surface becomes a straight line, on which the outlines of the island of Manhattan form. The outlines of buildings in term appear within the lines of the island and 3-dimensional objects then grow out of those outlines. Everything slowly acquires increasing detail. The frame moves down a street and then stops in front of a building. The CGI runner is slowly replaced by "real" humans and a "real" building. The shot jumps to the interior of the apartment of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan).
In the past I have been known to say that three problems concern the film, of which the one concerns the state of capital. Namely, the conflict between the family-owned small business, The Shop Around the Corner, owned by Kathleen Kelly, and Fox Books, of which Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the surging mega-bookstore, yet also a family-owned business. There is a famous scene, from the beginning of the film, where Joe Fox is taking two children, to which he is related, haphazardly to the bookstore that Kelly owns. An exchange takes place between Fox and one of Kelly's employees, who is showing off a rare book. Fox, the purveyor of cheap books, asks acerbically if the book "costs" so much because of its special illustration, to which the employee responds that no, this is why it is "worth" so much. Value and value. Would that they were the same?
At the Shop Around the Corner, one may purchase books, but there one is not merely purchasing a book, as Kelly explains. Rather, Kelly sees herself as part of a tradition of booksellers (her mother previously owned the store) that also sell the experience of reading that is formative for a young person, which opens the them to the identity they will one day assume. By contrast, Fox books merely passes on a soulless book that is, presumably, denuded of all spiritual meaning, all identity-generating power.
In another famous scene, Kelly and Fox, who apparently live in the same neighborhood and therefore frequent the same grocery stores, etc., find themselves in the same grocery store and Kelly inadvertently ends up in the cash checkout line, but does not have enough cash and needs to use her credit card. This invokes the ire of others in the line. Fox intercedes when the moment appears most volatile, greases the wheels of capital so that the clerk will accept her creditcard.
The creditcard versus cash; the computer versus the typewriter; the meaningful experience of reading versus the soulless consumption of words; business exchanges versus personal exchanges; ... man and woman (the secret cipher); big business versus family business. Of course, the consequences of this encounter are real, as Fox's assistant, played by Dave Chapelle, notes when he asks Fox if he feels bad about sending Kelly's "ass back to the projects ..." Chapelle, the only person of color in the film.
Don't tell me this is a silly film. Deconstruction notwithstanding, I think you see where this is going.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The title of this film announces its trajectory, although it seems, in its content, to be more or less a story of cops that go bad in trying to do good. This story-arch, namely up and then down--although in this film, really, things just get bad and then get worse--requires that the film absorb its actors within a grand scope in which they are merely events that occur. But the real subject of the film would be the city.
There are few directors that are capable of making films about a city. Among them, off the top of my head, I would include Michael Mann (Mann made one of Peterson's first films, "Manhunter" which constituted the first installment of the laborious Hannibal Lector saga, long before Jonathan Demme got ahold of it in the "Silence of the Lambs") and Federico Fellini ("Fellini Roma"; "La Dolce Vita"; etc.). In this register, Mann has undoubtedly been more successful, although to do this issue justice one must acknowledge the different meanings of the city between Mann and Fellini. In Fellini, the city is the people and the culture, whereas in Mann the city is the image. For Americans, only the latter, it seems to me, is really meaningful, although I think that "To Live and Die in L.A." contributes to Fellini's city-perception.
To summarize, William Peterson (now best known for CSI, unfortunately) plays Richard Chance, a secret service agent that is pursuing the counterfeiter Rick Masters, played by a young, luminous Willem Dafoe. Chance and Dafoe typify, in almost the same way, the image of L.A. Chance, in addition to his profession, is a base jumper. This we discover at the beginning, when we see him perched on the edge of a bridge that, a moment later, he jumps from. Of course, the images intend our confusion, thinking Chance suicidal. Then we see the cord attached to Chance's leg. His surname, is, I guess, a blatant indication of the same. The only meaningful life involves extreme risk.
Masters, by contrast, is an artist who burns his paintings, and then counterfeits cash. He has a girlfriend who is a dancer, that at first, appears a man whom Masters passionately kisses (it seems pertinent to point out that the director, William Friedkin, also directed "Cruising"). He has no qualms about killing that interfere in his business or try to cheat him. He seems unassailably cool and calm and lives a life of narcissistic contemplation (several scenes of him with girlfriend, in flagrante delicto, videotaping himself).
And the moral of this story is (pace Lewis Carroll) that in L.A. people drive fast, are all felons or will be soon, put no real value on human life, are themselves merely parts of concrete and ash and powder, momentarily in flight.
(Oh yeah: they also listen to ass music and have one of the most incredible chase sequences ever)
Monday, December 1, 2008
One crucial question in this issue addresses the maternal relation to offspring. Is the mother indifferent to the child, and if not must this not be the sign of an original sociality? Rousseau answers: the mother cares for the child until it is old enough to go its own way, and then they part, such that later neither the mother nor child shall be capable of remembering the other. This will turn out to be the site of an intersection with The Lost World (1997).
Rousseau’s account is fascinating, in part, because of its audacity. Rousseau begins the Discourse with a careful outline of the difficulties confronting him. The discourse may reveal the origin of inequality among men only by recovering the original human nature, which Rousseau believes his contemporaries (Locke, Hobbes, etc.) have confused with a later stage in that development. But one of Rousseau’s presuppositions, which his contemporaries do not observe, is that human nature is subject to dramatic change within history. But how, if human nature may change so, shall it be recognized? The problem is not merely that human nature itself is changed, but that our knowledge of ourselves, in the present, grows, and as such managed to conceal our knowledge of ourselves beyond the present. With the increase in knowledge of the knower, the object known becomes unrecognizable, because of the faith required to overlook the temporal distances crossed, conditions overcome, and to see what is most familiar in what seems most different. Rousseau admits this presupposition, accepts in its greatness the difficulty of this undertaking, and submits as resolution a conjecture. In my students’ profane language, a guess.
What leads Rousseau to this most unapposite of decisions? Perhaps his conclusions, which consist largely in the critique of civil society and the endless revolutions therein. Perhaps his faith in the perfection of the original nature, befitting the design of our benevolent creator. It is not anthropological research, which although he draws upon heavily, nevertheless Rousseau claims does not admit of human being in the state of nature that he describes.
Having the chance to see Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World (1997) this afternoon, I can confidently say that the profound query Rousseau raises has not been left to merely scholastic frippery. In fact, the root of Rousseau’s concerns appear in both this film and in its precursor, Jurassic Park (1993), but only in The Lost World is this problem so clearly stated. In one of the early sequences of the film, the basic condition appears for all of bloodshed to follow: the maternal instinct of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Namely, the question remains, does the T-Rex have it (and no, sadly I speak of no Marc Bolan)? Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) poses this question to her boyfriend, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), almost in passing, after he finds her on the famous “Site B” that allowed the sequel to occur, since presumably by the first film the original “Jurassic Park” had been filled with the skeletons of lysine-deficient lizards (by the way, how did they give those dinosaurs their dose of lysine every seven days?). Harding complains that modern science has given the T-Rex a bad rap, focusing on its murderous hunger, without regard for the one capacity that might allow humans to empathize with this terrifying figure: the maternal instinct.
The entire film depends on the maternal instinct and the care it demands for offspring. Of course, this sort of thing reminds one, humorously, of Rodney Dangerfield’s character’s great line in Caddyshack (1980), after meeting the grandchild of his foe: “Now I know why tigers eat their young.” But that really is the question. Why doesn’t the T-Rex eat its young? If the instinct of the T-Rex is to hunt, to search mercilessly until it finds food, why would it not simply eat the children it bears?
Concern for offspring, real or imagined, was also a premise of Jurassic Park, in which Sam Neill’s character, though originally exclaiming no desire for children, finds himself well-suited to the paternal guidance of the two grandchildren of the pater familias of Jurassic Park. In The Lost World, it is Malcolm, the largely silent, nihilistic (because a “chaos-stitian”) cerebral type of the first film (who quickly reveals a very unreflective attitude towards scientific development—that it must be borne with reflection on its ends—as if this was the history of scientific development!), turns out to be the father of a young, precocious black girl (at one point in the film, onlookers remark “I do not see the family resemblance”) who handily follows Malcolm, albeit surreptitiously, to the famous “Site B” where his girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding, has been visiting alone (at her own risk). Malcolm explicitly claims, at one point, when corrected by a colleague that the dinosaurs they are watching are merely protecting their young, that he too is trying to protect his “baby,” meaning Harding. In the course of the film, it will not only be his “baby,” meaning Harding, but also his daughter, that he will try to protect. Granted, here we speak of a paternal instinct, but (sans Freud), the point is the same. Throughout all the numerous reversals of the films, the T-Rex continually follows its offspring, wherever that child may go (out of the nest, San Diego, Las Vegas, etc.).
So where does Rousseau fit in this paean to the powers of nature? Well Rousseau too is haunted by the maternal instinct. The maternal instinct describes the differance, if you will, at the basis of his argument. In both settings, the state of nature and in civil society, the mother expresses a basic care for the offspring. Now the state of nature that Rousseau describes is nothing like that of The Lost World. The latter conforms to the European, Herzogian vision found in Locke and Hobbes: the state of nature is unfettered violence (I reference Herzog in respect of his contribution to this genre, the film Grizzly Man (2005), in which Herzog plays the fool to Timothy Treadwell’s fantastic, Rousseauesque vision of nature, in which bears are social beings capable of love just as are humans—a vision revealed myopic—as Herzog puts it, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”). But the question is, does this maternal instinct betray that human being is originally social, sympathetic, possessing an underlying “moral sense”?
Rousseau’s conclusions leave plenty of space for the aforementioned frippery. And frippery indeed. The true gem of the second Discourse is the reflection on nature, its dynamic … nature, and the difficulties approaching it. Rousseau admits what The Lost World shall not: consciousness of the ideological content of the concept of nature. I am tempted to say the emptiness of the concept. But perhaps it would be better to say the overdetermined character of the concept. And The Lost World, what does it have to say to this? What lesson does it portend for Rousseau?
P.S. The picture above belongs to one of the many palimpsests of The Lost World. But which is the original?
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Let me head off a few accusations.
Leigh, first, diegesis vs. mimesis equals morality vs. amorality. No. Never meant to imply as such. Completely unrelated beasts, as far as i am concerned. But I may admit that perhaps I am using the word diegesis in a technically incorrect manner (for a more technical definition, may I suggest the following venerable source of information). Primarily what I refer by this is the following: in film narratives one typically finds all of the components of the narrative to be self-referential and self-enclosed. So there are rarely moments in the film that are not somehow pointed to the central narrative that is taking place. The instance par excellence of this is the introduction of an object that will later have significance in the narrative. In an action film, someone will talk about the function of some tool or instrument which later will be the key for the indivdiual overcoming some threat or something. Thus, what I take to be non-diegetic in Goodfellas is the scene where they have a late dinner with Pesci's character's mother and talk about the painting. The painting is pure diegetic excess: it does not really relate to the action that is taking place or contribute to our knowledge of the characters. It is really just a funny incident, an aside, or, for your Derrideans, a detour.
Clearly there are a lot of reasons why we might be skeptical about my definition. For example, doesn't the hermeneutic method of the viewer require that she integrate all events within the film to the central Sache at hand? Wouldn't this then abrogate any such judgment? Moreover, as you know some of my theoretical prejudices, wouldn't this be a violation of the non-intentionalist readings of films? Sure.
However, concepts are ready-mades, useful in some situations and not in others. In general, it seems to me that filmmaking is governed the rule of efficiency and against non-diegetic excess. Perhaps there are purely pragmatic, financial reasons for this. But those perhaps purely pragmatic reasons also correspond to the demands of a lot of viewers, namely, that narratives make sense without too much monkeying around.
Obviously a film that is purely non-diegetic would be very possibily not a film ... but video art? Yet there is soemthing to my mind disturbing about the demands of diegesis such that a film bears no consciousness of its own production and its own possibilities. I wish I could explain why I think that is, but it seems it would get me too involved in questions that I cannot yet answer. Nonetheless, it seems that film should open up questioning. Perhaps I can make this normative demand of all film. That film that does not provoke speculation is meaningless. And I think one of the gestures par excellence for doing that is by the careful use of non-diegesis.
Does non-diegesis then mean "mimetic responsibility," as Leigh claims? I think that the beyond to which I refer is not the world outside of the film, but merely an interaction with the narrative outside the terms that narrative establishes for itself. Again, I can think of numerous objections to this claim. For example, that a film refers to itself, for example in Funny Games, with the use of the remote, nonetheless makes self-reflection a part of its own narrative. Thus, any gesture to provoke reflection would become diegetic.
(I am really wondering if the opposition posed between diegesis and mimesis in the entry I linked above can really stand in any creative work.)
But I want to stick to a simple sense of diegesis: that of a plot with a beginning, middle and end; a introduction of characters, production of a crisis, and a resolution of the crisis; etc. In other words, the most basic rendering of a narrative form.
This being said, I want to recast my comments about Scorcese versus Anderson. I don't fault Scorcese for his own particular sense of diegetic responsibility. Obviously Scorcese is a master at the creation of these particular types of narratives. Namely gangster narratives. He has his finger on the pulse of a certain force within American culture. But I think in the end we value directors more for their contribution to the form of film. This is why we think Citizen Kane is more important than Goodfellas. Well, at least the people who do film theory/history. And this is the reason why P.T. Anderson may be a more important director than Scorcese. Frankly, I was underwhelmed when I saw There Will be Blood. But I am convinced, nonetheless, that there is something very important about this film.
One of those things, I think, is the denial of the moral obligations that Leigh imposes upon this film. I hope that I'm not reducing your claim otherwise, except to what you pose it as, in the following: "my criticism of Anderson’s There Will Be Blood really just amounts to claiming that Anderson did not tell the story he could have or should have in that film." Not that you are claiming that "any film that doesn’t include a coherent, didactic and thoroughly sensible narrative structure is a bad film." (Although, I must say, I think your use of the word "didactic" along with these descriptors of cogency seems peculiar, is not self-deconstructive.)
I mean, I think that There Will Be Blood denies, purposely (although this qualifier is not important), any moral imperative. To me, the whole question of the film revolves around the final part. I am not sure why in the final segment we encounter Plainview and H.W. years later, when the latter has grown up and has intentions to set out on his own, and they break definitely. Plainview is clearly mad. Then Eli shows up and we have the great milkshake-straw analogy. Finally, Plainview murders Eli. These two events are in some way the resolution of the two central events in the film: (1) when H.W. is struck deaf and the tensions this produces; and (2) when a piece of land necessary for the pipeline requires Plainview to go and repent and prostrate himself before Eli's church. The encounter with grown H.W. resolves this earlier tension by merely definitively ending their relationship, revealing the illusion of Plainview's paternity. Here we have Plainview reaching the absolute lowest point of his moral character. The last possibility for redemption he repudiates, ostensibly reflecting his vacuous, yet total, capitalistic ethos. In other words, from a moral point of view, Plainview is condemned, reprehensible, monstrous--yet a monster produced by an industry and a specific mode of production (this is, I presume, consistent with Lewis' intention).
But when Eli shows up the moral meaning changes. For Eli has been represented as a small time charlatan, lording his meaningless morality over Plainview and having the satisfaction of Plainview prostrating himself before him. If Eli is the representation of morality apart from the machinations of early 20th-century oil capitalism, there is a tacit smirk in this representation. Regardless of the sanctity of Eli's morality, there is a certain truth to the way that Plainview has simply manipulated the community to which his riches perhaps rightfully belong.
Yet Plainview gets his own revenge for being belittled by Eli's morality. He gets the satisfaction of showing Eli that the latter has no legal recourse to the oil "owned" by the church. As well, he has the satisfaction of revealing the self-serving motives of Eli himself and the superficiality of the Christian morality Eli represents. But that is not enough. Then, finally, Plainview crudely murders Eli, essentially claiming that nothing less than death is the penalty for the injury Eli has done to him. Thus, in short, Plainview has destroyed the only representation of morality, showing his insuperable, albeit mad, power.
Hmm. I know I'm lacking a conclusion. But I am going to stop there for now.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
This film stars Jean Gabin, who is on the account of all of the people who worked with him over the years, le Parisien le plus grand. In the film he plays the title character, Pépé le Moko, a criminal beloved by those with whom he cohabitates, the residents of Algiers' Casbah. The Casbah is the perfect home for this figure because there he disappears within the labyrinthine enfolding of the ghetto. He seems beloved, not out of fear, but out of a genuine endearment of those around him, although, as far as the film shows, not for any philanthropic regard for his neighbors.
The film begins with French police who have arrived in Algiers to finally catch Pépé, where their French-Algerian counterparts have been unsuccessful. The latter explain, in the opening scenes, the particular difficulty that the Casbah poses for the police. In particular, the French are critical of Inspector Slimane, who sees Pépé every day, but has failed to catch him. The reason for this is not because Slimane is a idiot of sorts, a picaresque character designed to entertain us with slapstick misdeeds, but because in order to catch Pépé you must bring him out of the Casbah. Pépé's men would not hesitate to use their force to overpower Slimane, were he to approach them in such a way. And if Slimane brought his men, Pépé would not be able to be found.
But here we have one of the crucial concepts: in the Casbah, Pépé cannot be captured. In the Casbah he is free, not merely because of the architechtural obstacles posed by the neighborhood, but because of the network of individuals devoted to Pépé, assisting his own evasion. The only reason, we might glean, is because of their common hatred of the French police. The Casbah is the ghetto. This is one site that French colonialism has failed to penetrate. This might lead us to conclude that Pépé is a man of these people of the Casbah.
And yet this is not true. Pépé is, like the actor who plays him, a Parisien. Thus, although he has many loves in the Casbah, and Slimane famously says that at his funeral there would be hundreds of widows, the one woman who truly captures his heart is Gaby, a girl from Paris visiting with her husband and their friends. Gaby's relationship with her husband is a practical one and not one of love, as far as we can tell. Her husband is much older than her, a bald plump fellow and theirs is a relationship of vanity. Gaby meets Pépé during a visit to the Casbah, where she and her friends have stopped, and his eye catches hers ...
The dramatic tension of the film appears with the continual crossings of the Parisienne Gaby into the Casbah, from which Pépé cannot descend. She can never live in the Casbah. Even Pépé's gang is confused why he hasn't snatched the expensive jewelry she wears. At a crucial scene, when Gaby is leaving her husband, she puts the jewelry down on a bed and says she is through and she is leaving. Then she says, am I crazy? and returns for the jewelry, which she will take with her.
Pépé longs to leave the Casbah with Gaby, but he cannot. The ending of the film is tremendous.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
The film is about an English professor (and this a poor choice since the English professor is the egghead par excellence), played by Dennis Quaid; his daughter, a young Republican, played by Ellen Page; his failed brother, played by Thomas Haden Church, who everyone likes because he's so damned funny; and a former student that becomes a love interest (Sarah Jessica Parker, sadly). Quaid's character is going through a crisis, is a melancholic widower with misanthropic tendencies, who is totally unlikeable, but the brother shows up to give him some assistance in returning to healthy social life. Everyone does some learning about themselves. It's a feel-good movie. It is not, however, a movie about "smart people."
The closest thing I have seen to a film about "smart people," as of late, is "Juno," which I thought was genuinely a good film. I remember when I first saw "The Gilmore Girls" and was excited because this was something approaching the cleverness of "The Philadelphia Story" and the machine gun back and forth between characters and thoughts and witticisms. But the show quickly fell apart, after a few seasons, in my judgment. Not very many models. And I went off on Claire Messud's book last summer. Of course, I don't read as widely as people like Leigh, so maybe she has a good suggestion.
Intellectual culture is not cut off from mainstream culture. Intellectual culture is just archaeology into mainstream culture. Culture at the level of a microscope. This is the way that I justify philosophy to my students: archaeology into why and how we think the way we do. Perhaps film is just not well-suited to represent these kinds of things. Before the end of this semester I read Mao II with my students, which is a Delillo novel from around 1991. The story concerns a famous reclusive writer, who after many years of anonymity appears, purportedly to negotiate for the release of a poet by a terrorist organization. At issues in the novel are two primary themes: first, the tension between the individual and the "crowd." Late modernity burdens individuals with the obligation of personal identity and freedom, supposedly, and mass movements like the Moonies liberate them from these oppressive demands. Second, the resemblance between the writer and the terrorist, both of who make "raids" on the "inner life of culture." The writer is threatened by the multitude of meanings and messages, subsequently diminishing the salience of any one. The writer had determined culture, had organized consciousness. In the contemporary world, the terrorist thrives by the power of the image that overpowers the silent dignity of words and arguments and imposes itself upon the individual. The writer, the terrorist, creates mass movements. Provides an alternative to the crushing obligation of individuality.
In some ways, I think this is really just about the word and the image, and their corresponding temporal modes. Intellectual culture observes the temporality of meaning and transformation, the passage of thought--it works through the mediation of language, primarily. The image is terrorist in intention. It presents a false simultaneity that intimates immediacy, makes us think we have been transported. And the film, rendered in time, how does it mediate between these realms? It creates time, like a drug that immediately separates us, transports us from our concrete surroundings. Never allows itself to be dominated by slowness (speaking of which, I watched Lost Highways again the other night--amazing!) and so dispenses with the fundamental moment of intellectual culture: boredom. And yet, our boredom, strangely, creates a transformation (like the film?). Sitting through the now.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Of course, this line of thinking came to me originally from reading Genet, I think. I was wholly charmed by the line at the end of The Thief's Journal, where he writes: "This book does not aim to be a work of art, an object detached from its author and from the world, pursuing in the sky its lonely flight" (267). If you know his work, you know that much of it is autobiographical and that yet much of it is fiction, as it labels itself to be. These supposedly contradictory categories inspired a senior thesis in which I tried to elaborate the relation of these categories. Perhaps my conviction that the artist does not exist was meant to, in one fatal coup, resolve this "dilemma."
In short, I was an adherent of this group of radical intellectuals who praised the nightime god of "the death of author." We met in a space where we could not use our own voices, where our identities were continually varied, and in which we were not allowed to look at one another (we sat in a circle of chairs all facing outward, passing notes). We praised, instead of the author, the integrity of the work of art. We fetishized the thing itself. Yet, from the beginning, this kind of formalism is inadequate. The language of the text depended upon the grammar of the spoken word, of the heritage of the language's employment and its institutional regulations.
And moreover, when I teach John Donne's "Satire 3" on religion, Donne's own personal history and the state of England at the time enriches quite dramatically the sentiments expressed there. For that matter, when I read any work, its history seems to be a fundamental condition for how it is understood (which does not mean, although Kyle and I have argued about this, that I exclude the interpretive possibilities supposedly ahistorical). What is more, we know that the work, in Genet's case par excellence, produces the writer. So if we were to then get rid of the author, wouldn't we be eliminating one of the more beautiful effects of the work?
In philosophy, the author only seems to produce problems. We start trying to judge what the author meant to say and we do research around the series of an author's works. In philosophy, the author-function, as Foucault puts it, is quite important. Likewise in film, although auteur theory has been dead for some time. But I will continue to treat the works by the Coen brothers distinctly from the class of other works that aspire to the levity of the former. The author serves as a useful node for articulating boundaries and lines.
And yet, the author-function's most distressing effect seems to be in the intentionality that is pursued there in interpretation. I've clung to this point like a barnacle (nice phrase no?). And yet, from a psychoanalytic perspective, wouldn't the intentionality-function itself be something useful, adding a dimension to our interpretation? What do we have invested in the author/intentionality-function? It seems important. Like freedom. Which is all I have wanted to dissolve, since I was a wee glimmer in the eye of a young southern girl at a religious function.