Monthly Archives: August 2010

Thoughts on Genre, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is not a film that anyone would ever call great, but  in these dire filmic times it’s a real achievement. It is a three-character piece with genuine claustrophobic intensity. Interestingly, it was not first a play, for it certainly feels like one. This is perhaps its greatest failing. For a film, the point at which the audience knows that no more characters will appear in the film is usually where diminishing returns set in. This is only partly true for ‘Creed. Still, that quality of existing in a closed universe finally does take a toll on the narrative. The last forty minutes begins to feel tedious, and the surprises not at all surprising.

This particular sub-phylum of the hostage genre is also so familiar at this point (and what isn’t familiar at this point?) that it works against the parts of this film that have real resonance. The acting is of a very high quality, assuming one can accept the RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) tendencies of all involved. Two ex-cons kidnap the daughter of wealthy man in order to extort two million pounds ransom. That’s the basic plot. The “surprises” remind one a bit too much of the Chris Nolan school of cleverness, but the characters have enough magnitude to more or less overcome this. The best parts of the film are the stretches without surprise or over-amped tension. The claustrophobia is the actual center of the film, and the small locked apartment where the hostage is kept has the existential ambiance of a Beckett play.

In any event, it’s not a film that is going to last over the years, and I doubt in ten years it will seem quite as good as it seems now. Gemma Arterton is certainly luminous in her slatternly way, and along with Eddie Marsden and Martin Compston, they all occupy the space given them with a kind of weird psychosexual pathology that makes the entire affair pretty fun to sit through.

But why is it that the film never manages to rise above its premise?

Since we have had a good deal of discussion about directors vis a vis Sarris’ American Cinema, it’s worth thinking about how this debut film of J. Blakeson fails, finally, to deliver the mise-en-scene that more rigorous directors of genre manage to do. The Val Lewton oeuvre, or even stylists like Sam Fuller or Otto Preminger, all think more deeply about the inherent poetics of film than does Mr. Blakeson. Not to say the film is badly made, quite the contrary. It’s just that it seems to find itself sinking to a level more in keeping with the failed promises of a John Huston or, indeed Chris Nolan. There is something lacking in the way the camera never finds a personal style, never expresses something beyond what the text suggests is appropriate for the scene. There is the sense that cleverness in plot devices must be given preference, and therefore the cumulative sense of poetics is stillborn. The claustrophobic room, for all its creepiness and existential anxiety, is somehow always a bit too pat, always just set dressing. This is a bit paradoxical, and I admit I cannot put my finger on the problem with any precision, because, as I’ve said, the atmosphere of the locked apartment is viscerally oppressive.

I recently watched Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton’s film from 1964, with a script by Harold Pinter. I’d not seen it in quite a while and what struck me the most was how bad, actually, Anne Bancroft was. This was a performance of fake humility. Bancroft was always a poor man’s Patricia Neal anyway. But it is Clayton for whom we can place blame for the film’s ultimate failure. James Mason and Peter Finch are magnificent, but Clayton seems too attached to this being a vehicle for Bancroft and even with a sublime script by Pinter, one cannot but help feel how many chances are missed to deliver a film that transcends its foundational status as melodrama. In ‘Creed, the same problem exists, but in another form. Blakeson cannot find the film language to step beyond the tired genre format. It is, in the end, the reason a Hawks or a Fassbinder or even an Aldrich, manage to express something that cannot be found outside cinema. In films like Crash…. the indifference of the camera placement makes for just pure ugliness, while even the most minor of Lewton’s films is always composed with a serene intelligence. The films of lesser stylists like Minnelli or Walsh are still imbued with a distinct sense of cinema. They cannot have been anything but film. Journeymen directors like John Sturgis, at his best in Bad Day At Black Rock, manage, even despite some self-conscious framing and angles, something far deeper than one gets in ‘Creed. And stepping up to the level of a Losey (compare his work with Pinter scripts!) or a major director such as Antonioni, the sense of purpose in each shot is tangible and so acute at times (in the case of Antonioni) that story is secondary to the revelations of each composition.

The Hill, 1965

It is no doubt overstating the obvious here that Blakeson is not of that caliber. He will, however, I’m sure, have a very successful career, and in short order. The very lack he demonstrates in ‘Creed is a lack that protects the film from ever really penetrating to the level of a disturbance of the soul that would be career ending in today’s studio climate. What I end up taking away from the experience of ‘Creed, is the sense of slight depression that comes from investing more in the watching than I receive from the film work itself. It borders on kitsch for that reason. It also reminds us why great directors, and great actors, are so singular. Even if Kazan or Lumet are not major film visionaries, their sensitivity for their actors provided enough (often anyway) to raise some of their work to the status of classic. The classic being a film that will continue to yield new meaning and evolve as the society itself evolves. In The Hill, my favorite Lumet film, the ensemble acting is of such a high level that the film becomes a mythic meditation on authority and a genuine anti-war film. Today there seems a readiness to embrace the surface style (think of the wildly overrated Hunger by Steve McQueen last year) that one can be assured Blakeson will emerge as the new Nolan or the new Boyle.

Even Huston was sharp enough to know what to do with a Bogart (usually) or a Sterling Hayden. When Huston failed (think Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, or Man Who Would Be King) it was a failure of hubris and of intelligence. Huston was never going to do Lowry right, nor O’Connor. He did best with genre material that edged just outside its formula (Fat City). The final problem with ‘Creed is that it doesn’t want to step outside that formula. It almost does, and the actors certainly strain to give something deeper, but the camera isn’t there to allow it. That said, in an era of actors like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and directors like Chris Nolan or Danny Boyle, or worse, the endless stream of Bruckheimer junk or Marvel comix flotsam, a work like ‘Creed is something close to truly satisfying.

John Steppling


Fade to Black: Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon begins with the kind of dense filmic black you really have to work for in the timing lab. And Haneke keeps you there, staring at that rich black for long moments before the first white title comes, dissolving up out of the dark and then disappearing again, swallowed up. One by one the rest of the titles come and go, in sync with the beating of your heart.

Finally we see buildings and a field, a man on horseback. We are in Europe – in Germany in the Protestant North. It’s the first decade of the 20th century and the doctor of a small town breaks his arm when the horse he is riding trips on a wire someone has strung across the road. As one of the women in the town describes the wire to the police it rises up on the soundtrack as a piano concerto by Schubert, the tones bright and sharp. Something deep in the culture has come unsprung, and Haneke is deft in how he lets the world wars we all know are coming work in silent counterpoint to the still formality of his elegant scenes.


The trip wire across the road is the first in a series of sinister events in the town that go unexplained over the next two years. We move from character to character across the various class divisions, coming to know the citizenry in their public and private selves, which, of course, are shockingly dissonant. The film closes on the eve of World War One, the vast cataclysm that was welcomed across the land as a relief from the seering, inner tension afflicting all. And, of course, that sense of relief at the prospect of apocalypse is something we can all probably relate to in contemporary America, making The White Ribbon seem, unnervingly, like a film for our time.

Obviously, much has changed in the world of man since 1910. Haneke’s small German town offers a window back into a pre-Freudian worldview. Whatever one may think about the state of psychotherapeutic culture today, the everyday sadism of the paternalistic Protestant culture depicted with devastating clarity in this film comes as a shock. We are in the regime of Thanatos, the death instinct. Eros shows up only in the joyful smile of a mentally retarded child (who will be tortured) and in the secretive courtship of the school teacher and a young governess. Reviewers mention the novels of Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, and the portraits of August Saunders. The artist who came to mind for me was the Jewish poet Paul Celan—his most famous lines from the Death Fugue :

death is a master from German his eyes are blue

he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

In the grip of a demonic religion, these regular townsfolk long for the purity of extermination. And the bland brick architecture of their civic buildings have already been made sinister by images of the ovens of Auschwitz. But what hasn’t changed is the human capacity to embrace delusion, and in the America of Karl Rove and Sarah Palin this capacity is being tested anew.


The White Ribbon looks back to a time when bourgeois European culture projected a veneer of normality by violently repressing all that is chaotic in the human spirit. Death stalks this land of well-ordered fields and carefully cultivated social roles. At the fifteen-minute mark Haneke shows us a young woman wobbling on her bicycle as she rides for the first time–here is love: uncertain, tentative, alive to the possibility and the need for connection. To say so much with so little—

Haneke’s artistry here is sublime.

To some reviewers the young school teacher struck by cupid’s arrow by the young woman on the bicycle is possibly Jewish. I don’t think that’s likely, but the Jews do make an appearance shortly afterwards. At the harvest festival thrown by the local Baron, we see a table of bearded men laughing among each other, full of vitality. Here again Haneke speaks volumes with the utmost efficiency. Anti-Semitism was endemic, an anti-value unifying German’s Protestants and Catholics, but as yet relatively dormant, and something in Jewish culture allowed the Jews to thrive in this stultifying atmosphere without losing their connection to the vital, fleeting dance of Being. But this capacity, in the end, is what made them a target for the German insanity when it reached its full fascist bloom.

Haneke’s portrait of repression and its costs feels entirely accurate…but what are we, finally, to make of it? That people in the North of Germany in 1910 had the wrong idea about themselves and what it means to be human? That, in the grip of these mistaken ideas, they tied themselves in knots until, the cords drawing tighter and tighter, they caused each other terrible harm? We watch as the first rivets pop in the minds of the town’s children, and the news of war indicates how the dark energy of that repression has begun to surge and grow with explosive force. The anger and longing so forcefully stuffed down for so long would find its full expression, as it always does. Within thirty years the rich, bucolic landscape so ravishingly photographed by Haneke and his cinematographer would be reduced to ash and ruin.

The film is deeply disturbing for us as we look ahead, and Haneke intends it to be. The look back in time pivots forward just as forcefully, begging certain questions we’d prefer to avoid. What delusions, about ourselves and what it means to be human, do we currently labor under? What sort of harm will these wrong ideas bring to us and to those we love? Where and how might we take corrective action? The White Ribbon manages to make us ask such questions about the strange machine of the human. We see how our understanding evolves…but never quite fast enough. And so it’s a relief to reach the final crawl of the titles and watch as the names in white type fade down, again and again, into that primal, obsidian dark.

Guy Zimmerman

It’s Expendable


Bill Devane in Rolling Thunder, 1977


It’s possible that The Expendables could turn out to be a time capsule candidate for the early 21st century —meaning it may well be, in its way, as perfect a reflection of American psychosis as one could find.

In a sense I wanted to like it. I have an almost soft spot for Stallone, who began his film career in a softish porn exercise (now) called The Italian Stallion. When he made Rocky, it was an odd combination of forces that somehow coalesced to push a modest John Avildson boxing fairy tale into something more iconic. It may or may not be useful to ask how that happened, but for now lets just say the real break out for Stallone was Rambo. By the time of Rambo, all three of the first Rocky films had come out, and so had FIST and Paradise Alley. Now FIST isn’t at all unwatchable (almost but not totally) but both these films had exposed the deep limitations of Stallone as an actor. Never mind, the Rocky franchise was enough for Stallone to be an A-list star and then Rambo, First Blood.  However, there were two other films that happened in this period; Nighthawks and Cobra. Both are vaguely sadistic in a way devoid of irony or even purpose. Cobra, in fact, is a deeply malignant exercise in violence porn. Again, however, you see Stallone, in terms of career caretaking, unable to step outside the two franchises that have stayed with him for thirteen films.

Stallone’s sensibility, however, has remained constant. His aspirations for artistic greatness, and he has them, have always been cringe-inducing and so as a reflex he has taken on a kind of wispy thin self-mockery. Except it’s so wispy as to become its opposite all too often.  The so-called serious acting roles, Cop Land, are actually pretty dreadful.  However, one can argue that Rambo became a far more culturally influential franchise than Rocky, and that it defined a good deal of the Imperialist character of the ’80s United States. Rambo, as Douglas Kellner has pointed out, co-opted the surface of sixties radicalism and turned it into the militarist right-wing values of Reagan America. The health food obsessed loner, long hair, bandanna, and individualist ethos, as well as anti-military (but only its bureaucracy) the character of John Rambo evolved into exactly what the US (male white) public desired after Vietnam. Its worth noting  that the first Rambo film was set in the US, and the war Rambo waged was against a corrupt small town sheriff. In fact at the end, Rambo breaks down crying , expressing how there is no place for him, or other returning vets, in the US.  However, by the second Rambo film, all ambivalence had been removed. Rambo was the iconic Reagan era warrior, and as Kellner points out, much like the Chuck Norris character in the Missing in Action franchise. Both are brutish and inarticulate, and hyperviolent.

Now, there were a series of post Vietnam films, Cutter’s Way, Who’ll Stop the Rain, Rolling Thunder and Nightmoves, in which the collective angst of Vietnam and My Lai were clear shadowy backdrops, even if, as in Nightmoves, Vietnam is never mentioned. But these were films that existed in a moral twilight, a sense of doubt permeated all of them. Doubt about how the working class had been treated, at the dishonesty of the government, and doubt about the more abstract illusions of the American Dream.  With Rambo, certainly at least by the second in the series, the issue was not politics, but the damaged psyche of the white male in America. The resentments and the feelings of a masculine crisis, were exaggerated aspects of the narrative. Rambo was there to masculinize white working class men. The  feeling that white men were now victims, being preyed upon by feminism, foreigners in our own country, and weak government officials found a responsive audience in young and middle-aged white men. The 80s was the go-go stock market economy (worth a look at Wall St, in the context of the Rambo franchise) but the working class felt no affinity with guys in suits. The masculine ideal that was formed by gunfighters and Indian killers, by the heroes of westward expansion, was a man emotionally distant, more at home with other men and horses, and incapable of receiving love.  He was also self-reliant to the point of pathology. Throughout all of this, the US military was bombarding the country with its incessant propaganda for militaristic values of honor (sic) and patriotism. Again, Vietnam was a huge blow, and John Wayne had been partially displaced by Lt Calley. So, as Reagan destroyed public education, the resentment festered and the anti-intellectual tendencies already in place, seemed to spike. The military was both a way out of small town poverty but also a way to achieve a sense of self-importance.

The Rambo films from the start relied on a camera that fondled and caressed the  vascularity and muscles of Rambo, as well as his weaponry. Lt Calley has been left behind and replaced by Oliver North. The Rambo films idealized the male body, and identified it with the weapons it so expertly used.  However, no matter the heroics and talents of Rambo, there is always the shadow of Vietnam, of the war ‘we” lost, lost because “we didnt have the guts to finish it”. There is also in Stallone’s Rambo a masochistic side that must be hurt, must somehow be punished for not winning. It is a contradiction, and as such is only overcome (in each instance) by blowing up bigger things and more people.

So, we arrive at The Expendables. Directed by Stallone, it also stars Randy Coutoure, real life mixed martial artist, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, of WWF fame. There are cameos by Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, and the film also stars former Rocky foe Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke, and Jet Li and Jason Statham. Just looking at the cast one might see a virtual road map of masculine over compensation and cultural resentments. But what is obvious here is that Stallone must employ “real” fighters and action guys—Couture and Austin, as well as, to some degree, Jet Li. Because one of the most startling realities of sitting watching this exercise in masculine worship is that both Stallone and Rourke have become increasingly grotesque figures,  due to cosmetic surgeries, if nothing else. Stallone was busted a few years back with a case of Jintropin…or HGH. His steroid use is clear (as it is with Arnold) and yet, for an American male public, the illusion of power is better than not having anything. Better than ambiguity. This is a culture that lives so totally in its illusions, in its fictional narratives, that details like cheek implants are unimportant. That Stallone’s eyebrows are firmly stuck in one position, is irrelevant so long as he is still buffed and shooting at “bad guys”. Another amusing note; the villain in this film is played by Eric Roberts, who recently got out of rehab for his marijuana addiction (whatever).  There is a dialectic here, see, and that is between the Hollywood actor and his insecurity about not actually being ‘real”, and the filmic narrative which is about hyper machismo and “realness”. In fact, the masculine bonhomie in this film is so leaden and lifeless, so cartoonish and strained, that it speaks to exactly how delirious and hungry is the audience for this stuff, that nobody cares. A society that semi consciously ‘knows’ that its master narrative isn’t “real” seems to be one for which an endless stream of this junk must be devoured.

Rourke simply has a funny hat and smokes a weird pipe and that’s enough. The man who has had so many cosmetic surgeries (as well as once riding his Harley as part of the Melrose motorcycle gang), that his search for masculinity (an absurd short-lived boxing career) has become an endless drag review of butch accoutrement. Then, Stallone, too, increasingly seems like a fashion model for hyper masculine detailing. The parading of these accoutrement takes up a quarter of the film. Harley’s, knives, tattoos, and of course guns. The emotional distance from women is expressed in two forms; Statham’s beating up a boyfriend of his ex’s…who of course gave her a black eye. And secondly, Stallone’s aw shucks Gary Cooper like flirtation with the beautiful daughter of the evil south American general.

There is essentially no story. None worth talking about. There is only the pumped up (literally and figuratively) masculinity of the action heroes. There is more cosmetic surgery and steroids in this film than maybe any other ever made. And then there is “age”. The flight from age. The age factor is really the auteur imprint behind all the rest of the tropes.  Willis, Arnold, Stallone, and Rourke; men in their sixties. None greying, and all fetishizing their presentation of self. Cigars, chains, guns and knives….motorcycles and of dyed hair. Hard bodies and frequent wardrobe changes. That they are almost all Republicans is worth considering, too. In any event, The Expendables is the logical conclusion to the fantasies sprung circa Iran/Contra. The Ollie North and John Poindexter, McFarlane and Ledeen. Reagan with colon cancer, but his “guys” were out there doing what had to be done. “Cowboys” they were. This is the feverish and sweaty palmed fantasies of Bill O’ Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. This is the lurid dreamscape of Sean Hannity as well as of George Dubya Bush. See, it’s about buying the boots and cowboy hat, about a tin of Copenhagen in the back pocket of my jeans, and about swagger. The fetid fantasies of a senile President leads inexorably to the racist cant of the Tea Party. The attacks on a black President, who just CANT be American…it’s not possible. If only Chuck Norris would go kick some Kenyan butt, I’m sure we could find the real birth certificate. These may be the exaggerated extremes, but lurking beneath this cartoon is the ever metastasizing  feelings of powerlessness and anger in the white working class male in the US.

What was the invasion of Grenada, if not a nocturnal emission from the senile and Hollywood built brain of Reagan? It was all fantasy, too. Yet, Clint Eastwood, made a heroic story out of it in Heartbreak Ridge. Eastwood, a slightly more complex thinker than Stallone, at least accepted the Grenada story (and invasion) as slightly absurd, and shifted his focus to the character he played, a lifer in the Marines. So, the illusions only shifted a bit. Heartbreak Ridge came out in 1986. The trajectory from Iran/Contra and Rambo through Grenada to the Iraq invasion and finally 9-11 is to take a tour of the male psyche as it exists in the US. Now, ten years after 9-11 the culture industry continues to look for ways to recycle the same formula—the same masculinist compensation. But the economy sucks, unemployment is higher than its been since the great depression and rural america has replaced small farms with Meth labs. The obsessions with sports are tarnished with drug use (and in the case of the NFL, with a seemingly endless litany of brain damage) and corporate manipulation. Stallone, like a trained rat on amphetamine, steps up again, and again and again and again, his face stranger, less expressive (if that were possible) and his dye job more obvious, and recites from the American blue book of masculinity. And that masculinity is even more adrift than it was when the first Rambo came out.

The Expendables is frightening, in the way toothless old prostitutes, with rouged cheeks, are frightening. This film is bad dream, but one from which none of us seems able to awake.

John Steppling

Falling Tears

LIFE DURING WARTIME a film by Todd Solondz

The first shot of Life During Wartime has Joy(Shirley Henderson) quietly weeping, as she sits across from her boyfriend Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) in a restaurant booth done in upholstery inspired by strychnine hallucinations. Framed in a peculiarly awkward way by crooked bangs and virgin eyebrows that appear never to have been tweezed,  her lovely face will not remain still, but continues blubbering. The upholstery and her tears taken together is alienating– passively aggressive and demanding–and yet whatever your emotional response, the scene has an unsettling quality, as though you have been manually probed and your fraudulence has been exposed. What do you care more about–why she cries, or her bad hair? How Michael Kenneth Williams got that awesome scar across his face? What was the very bad thing he did?  Why do you want to know exactly–so that you can then spit in his face too?


photo by Catherine Opie


There is no point in denying what you stand accused of,  for the faster you set your tongue clucking at the lameness of these characters, the faster you realize how stuck you are, essentially, in the same misery. The impossibility of forgiveness and the continuing cycle of transgression is philosophically rich.  It is one thing to critique the shallow mores of post-post-Woody-Allen America,  with cleverness and outrageously on-target satire. But the project of this film is more ambitious, less comical, and darker. The sentient viewer is more deeply implicated, and the stakes are higher…the word “War” has not entered the film’s title frivolously: it plays its own role of haunting the proceedings by reminding us of the ultimate consequences of clinging to the joyless satisfactions of retribution.

“Life During Wartime” is a challenging experience,  in the way previous Solondz films have been: refusing comfortable illusions of a pleasing entertainment.  It is a web of inversions and repetitions, of outrageous admissions and crushing deceits. Much of the time you are either forced to retreat emotionally or relent, but inhabiting this cinema is never easy, where perhaps the only crime worse than serial pedophilia is sentimentality. Naturally, this film has provoked one of the most churlish  reviews I’ve ever seen, by Marshall Fine in the Huffington Post(who sanctimonously claims to have tolerated, even enjoyed, Solondz’ other films); as well as a comparison to R.W. Fassbinder by J. Hoberman in the Village Voice.  I’m with J –this film brought to mind for me Fassbinder’s heartbreaking I Only Want You To Love Me(1976), which explores wrenchingly cold family life in post -postwar Germany.

Because it is necessary for any “genuine” artist to begin with irony–if only to go beyond it–and eschew the grandiose in this anti-culture we inhabit,  the comparison to the Promethean Fassbinder may seem unclear, yet Solondz is the only American filmmaker today seriously critiquing the uniquely American form of moral corruption embedded in its insistently bland conventionalism, and exposing the banal righteousness of the culture of punishment, the punitive impulse that drives Americans to view victims as “the good people”(Solondz’ words) and perpetrators as always and forever bad and deserving of social deletion.

Hypocrisy is only beginning of this corruption: the project of Life During Wartime is  to explore the territory of forgiveness and investigate the harboring of spite. Both  spite and forgiveness depend upon a relationship to the past, and a constant repetition of the offense that generated suffering. The formal genious of “Wartime” is how the sequence of scenes,  and the cast of characters are haunted both literally and figuratively, by their former incarnations (Happiness, 1995).  The surprise of Timmy cumming in Happiness is transposed into the surprise of his committing the first sin…which is an inverted form of the sin(pedophilia) of his father. The pedophile father, Bill,  is now incarnated by Ciaran Hinds, whose broken rock of a face is spellbinding and grave.  The scandal-haunted Paul Reubens plays Andy, the ghost of Joy’s boyfriend. Along with Shirley Henderson, these actors bring a new sense of gravitas to their redux roles. This film could be appreciated entirely through its performances, for it gives the actors what it gives the audience,  a brilliantly crafted wordplay that realizes a tragic dimension.

Coming of age in such a world as this, a world that demands war,  enmity and anger, means a right of passage that inverts the prayerful bar mitzvah ritual. Set in the midst of emotional devastation created by selfishness, cruelty, and banality,  the boy Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), on the cusp of puberty, does what any normal boychild would do when his mother shows signs of interest in a man: derails the relationship by any means necessary, in this case,  he falsely accuses the innocent and tender-hearted Harvey (Michael Lerner) of pedophilia. Timmy is naturally close to the concept of a pedophile; his father was incarcerated for serial boy rape, and so his mother Trish (Allison Janney) has warned him, in language inappropriately vague, that he should respond to any man’s touching him with a loud, rousing scream. Trish, hopelessly philistine and obtuse, freaks out, and Lerner is X’d from her affections. His heart is broken. As for Timmy, an innocent boy’s first experience of sin is a surprise. Nothing has really prepared him for the freakish pain of realizing his responsibility in creating another’s suffering. It sets him running backward in a romantic escape scene from his bar mitzvah party: he is a man today, but last week–when IT happened–he was only a boy! It is a failed excuse. Today he is a man, and there is no turning back.

Our insistence on spiteful reactivity has created continual war, out of the quandary of the Middle East and the infection of 9/11. One of the most striking images from the film is a shot of Helen (Ally Sheedy) spewing a cruel rant at her sister Joy, poised in front of a giant photographic blow up of an Israeli tank bearing down on an unarmed lone Palestinian. Solondz inserts his knife in the neck with lines like, “We [the Floridian Jews] only voted for Bush because of Israel, but we really thought he was an idiot.” The political analysis is tense but oblique.  This intentionally remote “war” exists offstage, in the realm of the moral and ethical, where it acts as a carapace of suffering that holds its set of characters exercising demons in the Florida sunshine within an unseen but everpresent darkness.

Rita Valencia

Silver Lake

(Who owns) Aesthetics

Pasolini. Gospel According to St Matthew

“By crystallizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as “socially useful,” it [art] criticizes society by merely existing, for which puritans of all stripes condemn it.”
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

I recently returned in my thinking, to a topic I have felt rather astoundingly ignored over the last twenty some years. Really, maybe longer than that.  It is, to put it as succinctly as possible, the question of what role art plays in society, and more, what society expects of art today in our early 21st century.

As I’ve spent no small amount of time recently, looking for employment, I’ve come across a number of examples of how confused this whole topic seems to have become. I was going to apply for work as a teacher of writing at the Red Sea Film School, in Jordan. I had never heard of this place, but it sounded sort of more interesting than other recent applications I had sent off to places like Texas A&M University, or Citrus College, or Junior Colleges in Nebraska and the Dakotas. I was, no doubt, guilty of exoticizing this foreign destination — but I have always been fascinated by Arab culture and loved my time traveling through North Africa, and I thought well, even further into the Muslim world would be a terrific place to work for a while.  What I discovered was that a PhD was required. Never mind the school is bankrolled in part by the USC Film School, but this requirement got me to thinking.

I taught for almost five years at the Polish National Film School, and I often raised this question of purpose to the rector and various professors there … usually to be met with a sullen silence. What is the role of these institutions? What do ‘they’ think their role is?

A PhD might prove a useful requirement for engineering departments (maybe) but for art schools? But this takes us directly back to the basic question. What does art do? What do artists do in a society?

The answer(s) are complex, needless to say. But art, for Adorno anyway, was a means to create a small space of freedom in a great ocean of unfreedom and domination.  One of his greatest pronouncements was that a purely aesthetic appreciation of art was pure philistinism. It was ‘pretty’ and nothing more. One can substitute entertaining for pretty, and arrive at the same conclusion. One of the interesting aspects to today’s cultural landscape is the insistence on popularity. Interestingly, Adorno felt Beethoven was too popular and that much of his work had been deadened for us by the endless adoration applied to him (along with, as is usually the case, a simplistic kitsch biography of the artist…and one could add Van Gogh or a host of others to this list). The society we live in has an enormous capacity for neutralizing art (and political thought for that matter). Art-works don’t exist in a vacuum, and a work of real value is often subsequently overburdened with praise and exposure, and this process can, and usually does, affect later readings of the work. One might argue that a litmus test for the very best work is how well it withstands the system of co-option. From Melville to Beckett, one can see those works and artists who inherently remain outside the system they (among other things) critique. This of course raises other questions. The attractiveness of certain works, their surface seductiveness, often suggests a soft and mushy core. Not always, of course. Conversely, there are works who establish their relevance through a complicated distancing in presentation. Brecht obviously thought about this a lot. So did Pasolini and Fassbinder. It’s an interesting thought experiment to examine a Akira Kurosawa, and oppose him to a Pasolini (or Fassbinder or a Godard, say). Pasolini made any number of films that are difficult to sit through. They are tedious in a sense. They are aesthetically disharmonious. Kurosawa never is, and therein lies his problem. Kurosawa may, or may not, have had something to say, but the lack of dissonance in his presentation sometimes seems to rob him of the virtues that lurk within his work.

This has a political dimension to be sure, but that’s not really the primary issue, I don’t think.  Adorno spoke of bad popular art as being an art of consolation. This runs alongside today’s belief in art as therapy, and in turn this brings us up against art as simply distraction. The best distraction being one that , you know, sort of calms you down. In the end we see a system bent on control. Social domination. An obedience factor weighs in heavily here. The desire among the bourgeois critics for ‘novelty’ and ‘the new’ seems to be a paradox. In fact, it’s not at all. Even a cursory look at what is meant by “new” will yield a fetish for the cosmetic surface of work. The culture industry (per Adorno and Horkheimer) is best at constantly recycling the surfaces of its products. Alongside this runs yet another theme of appreciation, and that is “enduring’.

I would suggest that great art needn’t have to last for ever to be meaningful. And that which does  is often junk. Its durability a sign of its complicity in the reinforcement of values of the ruling class dominating society.

So, back to The Red Sea Film School. I have no idea what goes on at this place, except I’m pretty certain the tuition is beyond the reach of most young citizens of Jordan, or neighboring countries. Whatever the case, I would ask them, as I asked in Poland; what is purpose of this school? I did get one answer to this while in Lodz, Poland, at the venerable old school, and that from a second tier administrative teacher. He said; “We want to produce film professionals, who will be comfortable on any film set in the world”.

Interesting that there was no mention of art or of artists, at what is, in theory, an art school. Then again, these institutions are no longer art schools. Maybe institutions can’t be art schools. I suspect not. I think art is antithetical to institutions of this sort. Clearly, teaching is vital, and as Adorno would say, there is no art without criticism. For him, the aesthetic experience was incomplete until it became philosophy. By which he meant, the experience was fragile and required a solid philosophical foundation from which to shore up — on a continuing basis — its potential for transcendence. Today we have little genuine criticism. And what we have is routinely derided in the mainstream media. The anti-intellectualism of this country is jaw-dropping, and it exists as part of the infantilizing of the entire culture. A society that is bombarded with Rush Limbaugh or George Will, FOX News or a threadbare academic cabal determined to, mostly, secure their tenure, is one allowing for little in the way of radically dissonant thought. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is more true today than I suspect he would ever have imagined. Loud, large, colorful and empty — these are the pre-requisites for artistic success. We produce few Strindbergs or Genets, and perhaps only in some isolated independent arenas does film seem to suggest such artistic integrity. Films such as A Prophet, or Flanders, are exceptions that, alas, prove the rule.

Art is to be taught as if artists were only useful tools for the producers of culture. And producers, whether curators or artistic directors or CEOs, all think alike. They all think like Hollywood Studio heads. With the economic crisis upon us, the use value of art is seen as almost non-existent. And questions about how art is meant to function, its purpose even, are questions usually met with hostility and anger.

The only alternative to this is to be found in a deeper understanding of the social dimension of art. Its lodged in thinkers like Adorno, or Heidegger or Ricouer. In Norman O.Brown and even in Derrida or back to Marcuse and further back to Nietzche and Kierkegaard. The basic formations of genuine Buddhist thought or Hindu, or aspects of Islam. Its not to be found in ubiquitious ad copy of Madison Avenue proles. It has to be searched for and that search means a good deal of refusal on the part of each individual embarking on this journey. The most brain deadening refrain I hear is that of “ you don’t like anything”.

No, not much, its true. But not everything. The culture of consensus is insidious and the first step to a liberation of the colonized mind is stop feeling you have to like so many things.

John Steppling

Yucca Valley

CURTIS WHITE: One Eyed Jacks

One of the best critical writers on film (or most anything) is Curtis White. Added to that, he is talking about one of my favorite films: One Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort.

[Read the full article in John Stepplings comment at the end of this post]

“Complexity. Rio is no simple avenging angel. He’s a one-eyed Jack himself. It’s not that he has a “dark side.” This is not a movie about good and evil. He is complicit. He is one of the tubs-of-guts and he knows it. His violence against others is also an expression of self-disgust. In the very first scene of the movie, Rio eats a banana as his compadres finish robbing a bank. Casually, he tosses banana peels onto first one side of a scale, then the other. Justice: two banana peels balancing each other. This is the attitude of the character who will exact personal justice from the movie’s great wrong-doers? His dealings with women are equally cynical. He lies to them, plies them with jewelry (all given to him, he swears, by his dead mother) in order to fuck and thus humiliate them. He is the shiny prince of white male malice. His own awareness of complicity with the tubs-of-guts becomes clear in the scene I described above, in which Howard “gets his.” For that is the same morning after Rio has shamed Louisa. He has taken her to the beach, lied to her about himself and his feelings for her, and impregnated her as part of his revenge against her stepfather. Clearly, his disgust with Howard’s brutality is in part a reflection of his disgust with himself.”
Curtis White

White touches on something here that can be seen throughout American film and literature. One doesn’t see it often enough, mind, but it is manifest in the best work from American writers and artists. It is the realization that we are complicit in the violence and venality all around us. This complicity, however, is also a station on the journey toward, if not redemption, then awakening, and awareness.


Kent State Massacre. photo by John Paul Filo


The closing monologue in No Country for Old Men (more in the book but also in the film) is a pure meditation on this lesson. One can see it characters such as Ahab (Moby Dick) and in Denzell Washington’s character in Training Day, or John Wayne’s in The Searchers. One could argue the flaw or greatest weakness in Training Day ( a film I admire hugely) is that Alonzo (Washington) never takes the final step toward an awareness (as Wayne does in The Searchers) and thus an embrace, however painful, of one’s own flawed soul. The final shot of The Searchers, shot from inside the farmhouse, shows Wayne walking ever so slowly toward us and pausing, and finally turning away. He cannot ever live in that domesticated world he has fought to create. He must turn away and step back into the ‘wild’. All three actors I’ve mentioned, Brando, Washington, and Wayne, possess enormous physical grace — and magnetic presence. These are larger than life physical specimens….each with his own ineffable form of physical grace. John Ford and Brando sensed this very clearly, though I suspect Fuqua much less so. Training Day is an excellent film, but falls short of the profundity of the Ford or Brando film. Interestingly Kubrick was set to direct One Eyed Jacks, but had conflicts with Brando — and one might well imagine the reasons. Brando was not a Kubrick actor (as Montgomery Clift was not a Hitchcock actor in I Confess…though Hitchcock deals with this in a more inventive way).

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is, in a sense, an updated examination of the same questions raised in One Eyed Jacks. For really, while revenge is engine for the plot in ‘Jacks, its not at all what the film is really looking at, or expressing. I am reminded of Audiard’s A Prophet again, as a meditation on the holy. The journey toward that which is sacrosanct, that which is set apart–by virtue of a solemnly undertaken journey–gives us the preconditions of the spiritual architecture of holiness. In the case of the individual, it is the release of those mechanisms of clinging to illusion — usually the illusion of a well-defined and concrete self. In No Country the demonic Chigurh is a post-modern white whale. The sheriff (Tommie Lee Jones in the film) has spent his adult and professional life enforcing a set of beliefs about law and about morality. That Chigurh cannot be stopped is clear, but in what way the Sheriff himself has aided this madness is the subject of the final extended monologue (much longer in the book). Writers from Raymond Chandler to Melville and Joseph Conrad, from Jim Thompson to Dostoyevsky, have all approached these questions: guilt, morality, fate, and violence. It becomes the search for a way to justify one’s own powerlessness as it is set forth in systems of social law. What is the final court of appeal? That there is none is a realization difficult for lesser artists, I think.

Where does Wayne go after that final shot?  Where does Malik go, and what does he do? Or Kid Rio?  That Alonzo dies is the exact problem with Training Day.

Those characters who know a truth, and yet are forces of destruction, are particularly and peculiarly American I think. I can think of places in poets such as Whitman and James Wright, as well as William Carlos Williams and Alan Ginsberg, where this is touched upon, and one can certainly go back to Shakespeare to see the purist positing of these dynamics, at the front edge of modernity. There are countless mediating factors, class and money to start with. Directors like Pasolini and Bergman dealt with it in most of their work, but fewer American directors have. Perhaps Hawks did, and Ford to some degree, and maybe Boetticher in his best work. I would suggest that our present climate and the contradictions of advanced capital and globalization have provided a gaping hole in the collective consciousness of 21st century America, but it is a hole, so far, too dangerous to be wrestled with except in a few noted examples. Our addiction to militarism, and its attendant system of values, and the voyeuristic compulsive repetition of cinematic violence, are clear evidence of this specific American pathology — the insistence upon the self, and the rationalizing away of any objection to these beliefs — regardless the cost of this denial. This is not an argument for pacifism per se.  A Mao or a Fidel, if Quaker, might not have liberated their people from abject poverty and near slavery. It is rather to attempt an analysis of what violence actually is, and how we are to live alongside it.

–John Steppling

Perhaps the film that most closely resembles One Eyed Jacks thematically, is Anthony Mann’s Man of The West. It is indeed the same story, crossed with a Freudian take on “King Lear”. I think its Mann’s best film, and its possibly the darkest western ever made.

FROM LENIN’S TOMB: Chattel Story

a commentary on Toy Story 3 posted by Lenin, August 8, 2010

People say the most unlikely things about films. They say Toy Story 3 is a miraculous film. They say it’s a Marxist parable about exploitation and authority. Or a treatise on Stalinism, or the Nazi holocaust. Neither Walt Disney nor its Pixar subsidiary will comment to make it clear which of the various interpretations is accurate. John Lasseter, whose long apprenticeship as a writer in the CGI end of the business has culminated in the Toy Story franchise, won’t speak up either. This is poor customer service. Someone, somewhere, has to break the silence and let us the consumers know what the commodity does, forchristsake. Well, here’s a thought.

Toy Story 3 is a story of how freedom is achieved through commodification, and how “the consent of the governed” roughly equals the willing embrace of bondage. You only have to bear in mind that the main characters are themselves commodities. It’s a jocular, mocking, morality story about toys, their particular role in pedagogy and socialization, the pseudo-history and televisual cliches they condense. Toys are a micro-cosm of the adult universe, produced so that the child doesn’t have to invent the mainsprings of her future life, but can instead go about constructing her ego-ideal around these always-already present objects. They come laden with meanings which naturalize the myths of adult life, meanings that the franchise knowingly smirks about but doesn’t really explore or problematise. They allow for the minimum of creative input and construction from the child.

In the franchise, the toys inexplicably have personalities, aspirations and purposiveness remarkably like those of their human masters. In fact, in the CGI universe, their level of reality is no different from that of their owners (who are, in their different ways, also commodities). But their ultimate fulfillment is in being owned, being put to work, “being there for” Andy. That this “being there for” involves being totally placid, pliable, silent and impersonal does not detract from their, er, humanity. That is the required performance. Everyone, and everything, has its place in the Toy Story scheme of things. That scheme is a hierarchy of commodities with toys near the bottom, subordinate and devoted to their owners. And ultimately, their devotion is reciprocated as, when the time comes for Andy to go to college, he emotes more about parting with his toys than he does about parting with his relatives.

Any attempt to break free of such mastery is illusory, merely a search for another master who will be even more tyrannical. When, after years of neglecting them, Andy appears to leave most of his toys out for garbage collection before heading off to college, the toys respond by sneaking into another box of toys destined for donation to the Sunnyside Day Centre. They refuse to heed Woody’s pleas that Andy didn’t mean for them to be sent to the incinerator, and instead revel in what appears to be a toy utopia, “without owners”. But utopia is soon revealed as a totalitarian nightmare run by an embittered big boss toy named Lotso. The toys are forced to stay in a room where they are smashed up by crazy, dysfunctional kids who don’t know how to play with toys. Buzz Lightyear, brainwashed (re-programmed to factory settings) by Lotso and his henchmen, is chosen to guard the prisoners. (Worth saying, this is the first scene in which any black characters appear at all. It is also the scene where the usual Toy Story ritual of sado-comical limb amputating, beheading and eye-gouging is repeated with maximum gusto.)

When the toys orchestrate the standard great escape from the prison camp, it is foiled by Lotso and his henchmen. There follows a cliched scene wherein the bad guy tries to break the defiance of the good guys with a demoralizing patter about how the world works, and how they’d best try to fit in. Among the toys, Barbie suddenly erupts with the indignant cri de coeur: “Government should be based on the consent of the governed, not the threat of force!” It is immediately ironised, because such earnest expostulations don’t really fit in with the tone of the film. But the writers will certainly have been aware of the long tradition of Disney films regurgitating tropes from liberal political theory, albeit slightly more subtly than this. Not only that, but they will be aware that the first CGI Barbie movie, adapted from the Nutcracker, was based around precisely this struggle between liberalism and tyranny. (I watched it with my nieces one day.) This is merely one example of the constant self-referential ironizing that regurgitates these tropes in a knowing way without really problematising them. And of course, the “consent of the governed” that is referred to here is the commodity’s enjoyment in bondage, her reveling in being used and owned by a master, her sense of freedom in such subjection.

The story is thus an ironic, potted re-telling of American mythologies, as related by commodities, especially through the medium of television. Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the main characters, are traditional models of upright American masculinity, Woody a fifties prototype of the overland frontiersman, Buzz Lightyear a sixties prototype of the space frontiersman. The female characters exist principally as helpmeets and romantic encounters for the toy boys, highlighting their natural heteronormativity, confirming their dominant status, reinforcing a gendered dichotomy that, as everyone knows, real toys themselves do a great deal to produce. The toys exist as a community of sorts, a community of heroes, living the strenuous life, their shared pain and sacrifice bonding them together, the mortal peril elevating them to new planes of existence – all of this struggle so that they can continue to be the willing bonded serfs of rich, white yanqui scum. The narrative confirms that commodities are the most important things in life, real friends, closer friends than anyone you’ll ever meet, and that to be a commodity is the most rewarding mode of existence. The latter claim is hardly unique to Hollywood films, but in drawing out and embracing the servitude implicit in commodification Toy Story takes it a step farther than others.

The extravagant praise for the Toy Story franchise therefore demands some sort of explanation. It is a crashingly dull series, manipulative and predatory toward child consumers, tedious in its little nudge-nudge gestures to adult consumers, punctuated with aesthetic cliches that don’t really qualify as ironic (oh the weather’s taken a bad turn, so there must be trouble afoot), etc. I suppose the terms “feel good” and “life-affirming” must apply here. The films leave a warm little glow in the heart, reminding you that your alienated, commodified relationships are perfectly normal, human, desirable and moreover actually protected as human rights in the advanced capitalist states – it’s in the constitution, dammit. There’s also, though, a calculated element of Rorschach, wherein elements and motifs from history and ideology are scavenged and re-deployed, so that you can retrospectively read into the movie – whose effects you have just involuntarily responded to at a basic physical level – whatever rationalization for so responding that makes you good with it. Indeed, there is Marxism in the film, and the American revolution, and Stalinism, and the Nazi holocaust, and freedom, and sacrifice, and family values, and so on… because the film proves that all such aspects of experience are susceptible to being broken up and rearticulated in the commodity form. It is capital’s highest tribute to itself, to its mode of production, distribution and exchange, its ability to convert all materials into some exchangeable, fungible base. In the furnace of capitalist culture, all of human existence is silly putty or play doh, malleable, protean, and saleable. That too is the basic message of the Toy Story franchise.

Guy Zimmerman comments:

So this is a classic description of how entertainment works and Pixar makes the most sophisticated entertainment. The intention is to put us to sleep to our self-commodification. If the intention were to wake us up, Pixar would be engaged in the very different activity we call art.

Rita Valencia comments:

This made me remember the last time I went to see a Pixar product, which was back during the Bush admin, a rather forgettable film called “The Incredibles”, which was not a franchise, but still did what Pixar does best, sell ideas…as per Lenin’s very smart piece.  But it was also a big step in the direction of the blending of merchandising and content as a marketing strategy.

Oh, by the way, and now that there’s a recession, one does not play hooky with office mates anymore. Progress!

Here are my notes on that show:
The Incredibles  10/2004   Whiz bang animation studio Pixar does it again.  My office mates and I played hooky and went to see it last week.  We oohed and aahed at the cool graphics.  Yes, there was architecture that looked like Neutra, Schindler, or  Lautner; there was even what looked an arcane visual quotation from Zabriskie Point.  There were pores and stubble in the close ups of the leading man. Incredible.
To take a look at the content of this moral fable is to  see how the facade of a left -leaning Hollywood establishment easily washes off. The back story tells of superheroes, Mr. Incredible among them, being sued–frivolously of course–after performing their daring rescues, by whiners and opportunists who feel they can make a case that being saved somehow screwed up their lives. There are so many frivolous lawsuits being filed that the superheroes are driven into retirement: the government can no longer pay for the legal fees. So here we are, with an—uh– compelling argument for tort reform, cleverly concealed as  apolitcal  entertainment.
Oh, and wait a minute, since when did the government employ superheroes?
But there is also a moral lesson here…and the Lord knows this pagan country could use one.  It goes, when everyone is special, no one is special.  Be the best, be the Super power–I mean–super HERO, if that’s what you are made to be, or rather, born to be. Once again, we are urged to look our best and to be better than the next guy, a pitiless and relentless individuation that drives us to egomaniacal highs, and creates giant losers. But so what–losers make really good consumers of superheroes, and hey, what’s wrong with that?
And thank you Pixar, for redefining the aesthetic of the animated cartoon. Now, instead of moving two dimensional figures across a painted backdrop, we have what look like 3-D toys made of petroleum products springing through scenes that look like cutified video games.  It is the height of efficiency and the cleverest of marketing strategies to create the prototype of a product which is put into a screen drama, and then sold in a store to the children, merging object, character, product, and merchandising plan.  But so what.  It was fun, and took our minds off politics.