i just saw selma, and i'm going to express a negative assessment. but first, the production design is excellent; it really gives that feel of the deep south in the '60s. and it is a great and inspiring story, though a bit compromised in its inspiration by the slow or non-pace of racial justice in the decades since.
but there is perhaps too much reverence for king to make a realistic movie about him. it is hard to escape the impression that the actors were cast as look-alikes, and that in itself might make you a little suspicious; they were perhaps not chosen for the excellence of their acting. but it's hard to tell, really, because the script and direction and even make-up makes them like wax figures of king, andrew young, john lewis (that actor was a cut above, though, even if he was partly cast on the basis of the size of his nostrils), coretta scott king, hosea williams, and so on.
there are a few half-hearted attempts at humanization, but they are...insincere, i think. perfunctory. everyone talks in extremely written complete sentences: they simply emit inspiring speeches at one another all day, which does not actually constitute dialogue. they don't talk like human beings. when a tear flows down the face of a character, it's like a miraculous but hieratic crying icon of mary or something. this turns the whole movie into quite the didactic little history lesson rather than a real human drama. honestly, it's also a lesson that is taught incessantly to everyone already in every school in america, a million television shows, etc etc, a lesson you cannot have avoided on a thousand previous occasions. and i don't think that david oyelowo as king quite brings off the electrifying preaching, admittedly an extraordinarily difficult task. but truly, there is no reason to pay money to see david oyelowo deliver king's speeches, because there are recordings of the real ones.
on the other hand, i also don't think, as some have asserted, that johnson is portrayed too negatively. i'm glad they included a little malcolm x, but lord i wish they'd shown a bit of his speech in selma: they just showed other people talking about it. anyway, i wouldn't have nominated it for any academy awards except in set design, art direction, and such.
oprah produced the thing and cast herself as annie lee cooper. she is repeatedly beaten. now, watching civil rights protesters getting beaten fills me with rage. but watching stupefyingly banal self-esteem entrepreneurs/billionaires get beaten, which was quite how i experienced those scenes: well, i don't actually straight condone it, but i wouldn't say i take absolutely no pleasure in it either. go back to inspiring us by your yoyo diets or whatever, sweetie.
here's another little problem. basically, a film about king is above criticism, expecially if you're a white person. that is a formula for making and selling bad movies. but the thing is a mega-million cash franchise produced by oprah winfrey, for god's sake. nothing anything like that can be above criticism. you can't be required to give academy awards on the grounds that someone played king or whatever it may be. just because your gigantic movie is about king doesn't mean, for example, that it couldn't have been better in many filmic or human dimensions. i sort of think a lot of people are pretending to think selma is a good movie to avoid being racists.
apropos of demonic faces and white policemen, i draw your attention to this baudrillardian pre-enactment and pivotal moment in the history of cinema, starring my distant relation william marshall.
[he is my mother's step-mother's, er, nephew? ps there are a lot of far-lefties where i come from, and later a rich history in the blaxploitation industry. so i'll always have those to fall back on.]
more terrifying words have never been uttered than these: "produced by stephen spielberg and oprah winfrey". one thing such a collaboration is likely to achieve: a higher density of gaseous pseudo-wisdom and hyper-emotional cliches than was considered possible in such a small space. there's likely to be an explosion of banal proportions. i have no idea what the thing is about, but one thing i do know: it will teach each of us important moral lessons, touch us to the very depths of our superficial souls, and uplift us all for the umpteenth time into the very ether of Yacketysmackety.
i finally buckled under the boredom and started watching the netflix house of cards. now don't get me wrong - or, what the hell, get me wrong. that said, or left forever unsaid, i think one of the worst developments in the world of film and television is the persona of the virtuoso actor, and i have really more or less hated kevin spacey, philip seymour hoffman, and meryl streep, for example. here is the problem: their super amazing extremely self-conscious virtuosity is incompatible with the fictional contexts into which it is deployed. you go see streep play abraham lincoln or sea biscuit, and what you actually watch is streep-the-great-ack-toor: whoa the accent! the elocution! or whatever. really, people are all like "i'd pay to see daniel day lewis play a household appliance", and i feel that they often have. so, when you go see philip seymour hoffman play a bookcase or whatever it may be, you'll be all: 'i really thought he was actually a bookcase!' what that means is the opposite of what it says: you watched the extreme simulatedness of the extreme simulation and got off on that, not the script, for example. on the other hand, spacey merely irritates me, and i did get irritated with house of cards. i am still trying to figure out the accent - allaeged to be a georgia drawl - which sounds like a mix of cajun and afrikaans. oh hell i got caught up, though, and honestly, robin wright, whom i've been admiring since santa barbara circa 1987, can be on my television any time or all the time.
times literary supplement's review of janet malcolm's 'forty-one false starts'. the reviewer, gideon lewis-kraus, sets up the thing as an opposition between malcolm and errol morris, who evidently hammers on the objective truth.
Morris’s canards about journalism and the “relativity of truth” are reminders that Malcolm’s work is never done: he represents one more defender of the fantasy that there are such things as facts that speak for themselves – a story that itself dictates the way it ought to be told, a story that has silenced its competing versions.
assuming both malcolm's and morris's positions on these things are being accurately represented, i'd like to point out that it's a false opposition, and i think that, as set up, neither malcolm's nor morris's position can be sustained or even made comprehensible. also, i think both need a bunch of philosophy. anyway, lewis-kraus certainly does.
so, what in the world could be meant by 'a fact that speaks for itself' or 'a story that dictates the way it ought to be told'? insofar as persons are facts, i suppose, they do indeed speak for themselves, or might, but it's true that the mountain isn't telling you how to describe it or dictating to you like you're its stenographer. on the other hand, the mountain certainly places extreme and elaborate restrictions on what can be said truly about it. so, you know, everest is where it is and not in another place, for example. did it tell you that? something like that would only occur to you if you thought mountains and everything else were made of words or that everything yaps, a position which, though it was fashionable in the 90s, was the very worst position anyone ever took about anything.
now, what about 'stories that tell themselves'? well, that is a bizarre formulation, and right, anyone who took the position that there were stories that told themselves would be deeply confused. but the whole style of formulation is bizarrely question-begging: it just identifies what actually happens with stories. so, i might write a story about edward snowden, but if you think edward snowden or everything that has happened around him is himself and itself a story, you are making the sort of mistake that psychoanalytic litcrits and documentary filmmakers make when they try to grapple with ontology. also you're some kind of wacky idealist. also, even if you could make something like that comprehensible, it would turn out to be obviously false.
stories are things people make. some of them are about the world. the world isn't a story, though it contains stories, for example in libraries or hard drives, or in the form of sound waves. every story is of course an extreme and brutal simplification of the world. don't believe me? alright i'm telling the snowden story. do i include a maximally-complete description of the international-departures area of the moscow airport? i mean every crack in the floor and molecule circulating in the air? snowden's every hair and slightest movement? that's what the world is like, but that's not what any story is like, even one by proust. as to the constant freudian hints in malcolm that we are each of us entirely stuck in our own subjectivity: that's just false and no one believes it.
on the other hand, if you are going to tell a story about the world, then you are going to have to select, interpret, and so on, and it will be marked by your subjectivity and relation to the facts. take a murder, which is what morris and malcolm are arguing about. there are indefinitely many ways you might tell a true story about it: you could do it in french or swahili; you could do it in 100 words or a million; you could do a fictional reconstruction or a documentary film, a graphic novel or a hyper-link tree, each of which could take a thousand different shapes; you could shape a classic hyper-coherent narrative, working up a climax and denouement, or in the style of james joyce; you could do it with multiple narrators or in the third person. and so on and on. obviously, the event and the trial etc do not determine all these things. but i will assert this, for example: there are even more inaccurate ways than accurate ways to tell the story. you might be wrong about who did the killing, for example, or you might construct in your million words a grotesquely skewed or even self-serving interpretation.
in short we do not have to and we cannot choose between facts that dictate how they are to be represented and a world melting into narrative strategies. ok?
and just one other thing: there are many ways of representing the world that just are not narratives or stories: statistical tables, maps, paintings, dry and relatively unorganized listing of facts, and so on. there are many ways of writing that do not consist of telling stories: polemics, outlines, scientific papers, the tao te ching. is this blog entry a story? is an argument a story? what about super-string theory? i think there will be many items in today's new york times, for example, that are just not best understood as stories. here's one at random. is it a story? alright, help me out: what do you mean by 'story'? also in the 80s and 90s stories took over every other mode in which the world could be represented (or if you prefer, constructed, invented, hallucinated), but that was just disciplinary imperialism by litcrits and certain sorts of psychologists. i guess you can work on that if you want to, or try to show that my road atlas is a story after all, but as you do, i think you'll notice that 'story' no longer at all means what people actually mean by it, so you lose the essence of the doctrine you're supposedly propounding.
so i did promise to stop writing so angrily now and then, or to write about things i love as well as things i hate. i watched beasts of the southern wild last night with my daughter. what a beautiful and moving thing; those performances are unbelievably true: so true, as many have remarked, that they don't seem to be performances. of course, i also admired the ethos: we're trying to preserve our place and our people, fucked up though they are too. it is, for one thing, an enactment of emersonian self-reliance in every dimension, even for people who are 7 years old. (and see, that can be the self-reliance of a real community as well as of individuals; those are not in tension.) jane, i have to say (who was also very moved by the film) did not understand at all why they insisted on staying, why they wanted to escape from the shelter, and so on. and i do think that the idea that people would want to live eccentrically, or in a context not fully institutionalized by bureaucracies, is not something that people who are being processed through an urban public school system are liable to find comprehensible. but i'll also say this: at 12, she's starting to become aware that a lot of what they're telling her is manipulative claptrap; we're going to see a more independent person emerging as time goes on, i believe.
anyway, i don't think that the giant boars added anything to the film's real power; they seemed a very ham-handed, kind of jungian way to drive home points that were already completely developed: you have to face death, you have to face some fundamental dimensions of aloneness, you have to find your own place and your own peace and your own courage. we could say: you have to face the beasts, but then to make that quasi-literal does not make it more profound; all those things are so there and so perfect without that. having giant boars represent the beasts within etc is too easy in a film that everywhere else takes the hard way, as if in a romcom you cut away to a rose during each kiss. (the most egregious example of this technique is tree of life, in which the kiss/rose cut would seem subtle, but way too happy.) now i just feel like a chronic quibbler or something, because that is quite a great work of art. and the beasts were also depicted with great visual power and intimacy. indeed, even as a pure visual experience, the film was varied, beautiful, right.
and, to all my liberal friends and family members who loved that film, i would ask you: is the ethos of beasts of the southern wild compatible with your politics?
ok then, let's talk about steven spielberg. i want to say, it really is amazing all the things you're not supposed to say, and all the people who are more or less above criticism. but anyway, here's my idea: steven spielberg may be this and that, but he is not an artist. i'd say the very budget of these films precludes them being particularly expressive or embodying anything like a personal vision: the films are elephantine, inert, manipulative rather than meaningful, and really quite banal, though of course impressive as spectacles. they lurch between sentimentality and didacticism: spielberg is always teaching you another lesson, and all the acting and emotion and stuff is like a crocheted cozy on a bludgeon. the lessons are very much at the level of sesame street: they're just cliches: precisely because of the gigantic commercial emphasis and investment, the messages must be uncontroversial, and boy are they. nothing strange or subversive or original or idiosyncratic has ever appeared in any steven spielberg movie. and have you ever tried to watch indiana jones and the crystal skull? he's just the chap to do a hagiography of lincoln: there could be no more redundant or predictable gesture by an american filmmaker.
spielberg will be remembered as the second-rate riefenstahl of squishy totalitarianism, the vanilla pseudo-auteur of the era of copyright protection. the stuff emits the scent of bureaucracy, or centralized planning of the arts. when it becomes impossible to spend that much money on a movie, movies will be better. with the deranged level of promotion, in which all media outlets conspire, it's almost like you're required to watch it and like it: it's socially compulsory, baby. i wouldn't necessarily trust the sincerity of any particular person's ecstatic response in a situation like that, especially critics. and i'll tell you this, the pentagon-style media organization - in publishing and recording and visual arts as well as film - has been an aesthetic wasteland, divided between big sortof highbrow art things and shimmering meaningless corporate pop. it's been the era of the blockbuster: way too much unanimous concentration on and promotion of way too few big bloated items: way too few novels; way too few songs; way too few paintings. you have to manufacture a critical consensus and give the bookers and stuff just to fend off facing your own conventionality and mediocrity. we must have the dullest and safest arbiters of taste since the romans. there's a difference between taste and authority, david remnick, and you are failing in your duty to be interesting. every sign that the culture is multiplying or disintegrating - and of course there are many - is good for the arts. insofar as we have universal cultural touchstones they will be way too huge and puerile. gigantic art should be resisted.
sacha baron cohen rocks. great moments in this particular dimension:
Speaking with E!’s Ryan Seacrest, Baron Cohen said he was wearing John Galliano “but the socks are from K-Mart.”
Baron Cohen, in character [as Adm. General Aladeen, dictator of the Republic of Wadiya] appeared on the “Today” show to threaten “unimaginable consequences” if his tickets weren’t given back.
nothing kills a pop star like death. whitney isn't quite on the michael level, but any rational person has already had enough of the stirring tributes and endless re-hashing of the addiction. ok her version of dolly's 'i will always love you' is astonishing. first time i heard it was at the gym at vanderbilt; i just stopped dead, couldn't believe what i was hearing, especially because it was already one of my favorite songs. she had good poppy moments, such as 'how will i know.' on the other hand 'the greatest love' is just dreck. her mother was a great gospel singer; 'the greatest love' just replaces god with...oneself, about the worst and most implausible and most pitiful idea we ever had as a species. don't believe me? ask whitney's 12-step sponsor. the song was a high point in the wave of contentless self-esteem-enhancement and unearned self-worship that in particular women have been surfing for decades. but, like a good spa treatment, all the plastic surgery you can absorb, and all the chardonnay in the world, you deserve it. anyway, i'd say i was at best indifferent to most of her records. great singer, basically meaningless, extremely middle-of-the-road material.
i'll never forget a review i read of the bodyguard (wish i could recall the name of the reviewer). he said that when whitney houston and kevin costner kissed, 'it was like two boards clacking together.'
best picture, 2012: limping steppes, a deeply human portrayal of kublai khan's bum knee and the physical therapist who helped him conquer asia. starring - i don't know - important shakespearean ack-toors.
watcha watchin, crispy? exit through the gift shop, which i thought was a documentary about banksy, whom i regard as the most important artist of the last decade: the stuff is representational, made with great skill, funny, profound, and it actually has a variety of subjects other than art itself: these are all things that we need art for, and which art has ceased to provide. plus it is criminal, anarchist. an exquisite contrast would be to someone like jeff koons - who at least is funny, if empty - or matthew barney who just sucks. you know jeff koons's emptiness is indeed partly redeemed by his consciousness of his emptiness, and his consciousness of that consciousness, etc. but christ that doesn't actually give the crap any content.
now one thing exit through the gift shop might be is a hoax or parody of the art world, perhaps put on by banksy and shepard fairey, both of whose styles are sucked clean of meaning by the "filmmaker"/artist mr. brain wash. it's the kind of documentary where you think it's a documentary about banksy but however it's actually a documentary by banksy about making a documentary about banksy. either way, it certainly expresses banksy's disaffection with the art world, though in an arch superconscious way that is effortlessly taken up into the discourse it attacks. i could say i hope that's not the directon of banksy's work in the future. rather, the question is how to continue to do art outside of the venues of the artworld even while dealing with or accepting artworld success: ultimately the point is where these works are and how they got there, and for banksy that can't only be "here at moma," though that is inevitable.
i watched how to train your dragon the other day with ten-year old jane. well i'll be damned. the story was cute etc. but the animation just floored me. i keep thinking that cgi isn't quite there: still the motion doesn't look quite right; there is a lot of ingenious compensation for the not-quite detailed renderings; you'd see an amazing mass of tiny people and weren't supposed to quite realize that they were moving mechanically, or that they were basically cut-and-paste iterations of a few figures etc.. here the detail is almost unbelievably replete. the treatment of cloudscapes, fire, water, is not only convincing; it's breathtakingly beautiful. you know i've always kind of laughed off the idea of virtual reality a la matrix on the ground of the incomparable richness of real reality. this was an element of my "bone-head realism": there's nothing like a real world! now i'm not quite so sure.
well, exactly. and here is a review of 'winged migration,' from back when i was trying to use my website like a blog:
7.16.03 winged migration
this is a french documentary produced by a cast of hundreds and i guess fundamentally a product of the french government and the european union. it is ravishingly beautiful. as it follows flying and waddling and swimming and fishing and hunting birds around the world, you feel that perhaps for the first time you actually understand what bird flight is. the film reminds me of leni riefenstahl, which i mean as a compliment: much of the effect is achieved through brilliant, rhythmic editing. but i think the film is compromised fundamentally by issues with honesty. obviously, it was filmed from light aircraft, watercraft etc with amazing telephoto technology. but the conceit is that you are merely seeing the birds; the filmmakers are never present. the idea is to create a magical experience, a pure contact with birds. but had i been making the film i would have indicated, in the film, how it was made, and the presence of the planes would have been explicit. of course, first of all, the behavior of the birds was affected by the presence of the filmmakers, but that is never thematized even for a moment. and there are certainly cooked scenes; faux seasonal changes, i think, and a complete adventure near the end that purports to show a tropical bird escaping from a poacher on the amazon that is palpable jive. furthermore, obviously if you're filming birds from an airplane, you can't come up with the pure sound of beating wings in the absence of engine noise. this means that the entire sound of the movie, which obviously is intended to convey the impression that you're hearing what's happening, is an editing effect. in other words, the purity and magic that they are trying to convey are palpably false, and the magic they aimed at could only have been achieved through honest means. at the beginning, it says that the birds were filmed entirely without special effects. i have a bit of doubt about that, concerning what are apparently satellite images, some of whole hemispheres, in which birds seem visible. but either way it is supposed to convey the claim that this is the truth you're seeing. it's not.
so i sat up last night and watched ghajini, on the rec of my student charlie. it's supposedly the highest-grossing bollywood movie ever. it is excruciatingly bad, and i might just leave it there but i won't, of course. i should say that i don't know from bollywood, which could be part of the problem, but it will...stay that way.
one thing that's remarkable is the juxtaposition of genres. ghajini is based on memento, and (half-heartedly and half-competently) conjures up the super-dark tortured paranoid collapsing-time atmosphere of that film, but it's also a light-hearted screwball romantic comedy and a series of michael-jackson-influenced music videos and an oprah-like uplifting social commentary. the incoherence is absolute, but maybe it also accounts for the fascinating trainwrecky charm.
anyway, as a dark concept/action film it has everything that memento had except the intricate jigsaw plot, the cool cinematography, and the intelligence. it revolves the backwards time structure into a flat series of flashbacks. the super-bloody action scenes seem to be the only really decently-directed moments, and really, not so much.
the romantic comedy elements are far less believable than, say, the average sandra bullock movie, which is saying something. it's about a supposedly super-cute billionaire who meets a poor...model. together they save orphans etc. it at once gives you an absolutely uncritical cult of consumption and an unbelievably superficial commentary on the brutality and injustice of poverty. there's also no apparent actual connection between the actors, though the girl is kind of whimsically charming like bullock on a good day or whatever. the dude wears three-piece suits that also in every scene grab his biceps like a claw so you always see how buff he is, the real theme of the film, the only thing that holds it together.
so if you had an interminable sandra bullock romantic comedy juxtaposed with and ending in a bad imitation of a quentin tarantino bloodbath...but even that doesn't do the thing justice
because then there are the music videos: we just stop the film entirely and lurch into, say, a desert landscape, where the actors do pelvic thrusts in florescent polyethyline outfits to mind-numbing hindu techno. when the first one came on i thought it was a super-ironic joke or parody. by the third i was just screeching and writhing in terrible pain. the music is utterly empty, meaningless, with overthtop hyperemotional lyrics. really, india, like continental europe, should produce no popular music domestically, but import it all from us; they just have no frigging idea of any kind.
the "acting" is appalling. i guess my favorite performance was by the pop-tart/lingerie model who played a "medical student." the plausibility of her being a medical student was entirely expressed in the fact that literally every other sentence she uttered started with "as a medical student, i.." "hello, i'm a medical student and..."
the sub-titles were only sort of in english, which did help the comedy: "her trivia are priceless!": a deep expression of love.
but you know somehow i didn't turn it off. i'm not sure whether i watched it because i was charmed by the idiotic kitsch, or because i somehow got caught up in the absurd story, or because the world series is over, or because i was too demoralized to press the power button, or what. but i did watch to the ohsotragic yet uplifting end (an amnesiac birthday party at the orphanage!), rooting for the whole cast to die, painfully but forgodsake quickly (the thing is over three hours long). and i guess i learned something about art, by contrast.
so i'm sittin here watchin crank 2, which is approximately the baddest-ass movie ever made, with the possible excption of crank. the visual language, the music (perfect), the unbelievable chases and action sequences: incomparable, like its star, jason statham. also it's very very funny. plus it features the great dwight yoakam as an utterly vice-saturated (booze, pills, hookers, etc) defrocked doctor. not to mention, unbelievably, david carradine as a sex-addled 100-year-old. no autoerotic asphyxiation, though, but damn near everything else. somewhere right now, quentin tarantino, the great genius of pomo cinema, is watching crank 2 for the sixth time, having a filmic orgasm. one thing though: probably you shouldn't take the girlfriend, the wife, etc. she's not going to like it. it's so guyish that you got to check your estrogen at the door. don't worry about the premise, which is insane. but within that, the plot does make sense, not that that's necessary. whoever these people are (="neveldine and taylor"?), they're dragging cinema past the millennium.
took my daughter jane (9) to ponyo, the new hayao miyazaki film. both of us are cultists. our all-time movie (like a lot of dads and daughters, i'd think) is totoro. also kiki's delivery service and castle in the sky. the recent ones have been almost too elaborate - like spirited away and howl's moving castle - for small children, with amazingly-visual horror-film animation. but even sam will actually put on princess mononoke, which is beautiful and disturbing.
anyway, ponyo is a perfect synthesis of these two styles; it was so breathtakingly beautiful and real for janie. it's a masterpiece of visual imagination: just teeming with hand-drawn images. girls dancing on tsunamis. it would surprise me if miyazaki (like jane's sister emma (21) hasn't been looking at winsor mccay, with his hyper-replete images, and the sea is the perfect chaotic environment that allows you to go beyond psychedelic. not to mention the transparent/reflective qualities of water, here presented in a tour de force of animation.
for reasons a trifle elusive, i've always hated meryl streep. i guess i feel like it's not exactly watching a great actor, or it is, but also someone who, at every moment, is saying "look at me, the great ack-tor." one more accent would kill me. but i do appreciate the fact that she's now making movies that i wouldn't see even if she wasn't in them, movies about, you know, abba or julia child. this relieves me not of my dislike, but of my bad conscience about it.
perhaps only tarantino could make an incredibly bloody/incredibly funny/incredibly stylish japanese-gunfighter/american-samurai movie. well maybe someone else could. but only tarantino could do it as a re-make of shakespeare's henry vi - the war of the roses as scored by ennio morricone, cast with beautiful asians, and set in nevada - or at any rate such is my speculation. but one other thing. not all men, putting it mildly, have quite understood the incredible sexiness at the heart of feminism. tarantino does (cf kill bill). in sukiyaki western django, drunk grandma turns out to be badassest gunfighter of all. the film is not attributed to tarantino, who "acts" in it, as the only white dude. but i'm speculating more or less that he made it. one nice touch: the credits are all in unsubtitled japanese-looking script, so that it's origins remain obscure, at least to me.
just watched quite the film: "in bruges," with ralph fiennes, colin farrell, and in a best-actor-type turn, an utterly convincing brendan gleeson (mad-eye moody from harry potter). it seems to have been produced by the bruges (belgium) tourist bureau, until it ends up identifying bruges with hell. three suicidal hit men bouncing off the medieval walls. midget jokes galore (it broaches a devastating future in which there is a race war among the little people), and an interpretation of hieronymous bosch. a comedy of errors until it unfolds with the irony, inevitability, and extreme seriousness of a greek tragedy.
perhaps the deepest, most profoundly moving moments in brokeback were the scenes of jake "selling big equipment." anyway, every second, every frame, every idea (true, there was only one) was entirely devoted to political correctness. if stalin was still making movies, he'd have mad bm. anyway, i actually agree with the political agenda. only i object to being subjected to an endless string of cliches, or a mechanical reversal of cliches, in the service of any agenda. maybe you should try to tell a story. maybe you should construct a cogent argument. maybe you should think of these as different operations.