Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"You've Got Mail" (1998), Part 1

My attraction towards this film I have trumpeted, advertised, as a kind of funny thing that entertains my friends and gives them something quirky to identify with my strange character. Or so I tell myself. But in fact, both the opening credits and images and the closing line ("I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so bad") thrill me.

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

"To Live and Die in L.A." (1985)

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

Rousseau and The Lost World (1997)

In his famous second discourse, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau preempts the vacuous call for “family values,” more than two centuries before the fact. That the family is merely a result of the unnatural socializing of human being, Rousseau concludes in his account of the transformation of human being from the state of nature to civil society. Because human being is originally independent, unsocialized, with no capacity for love beyond an anodyne sympathy against suffering, its emotions cannot attach to the visage of another.

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?