Thursday, 26 November 2009

Never Mind the Elephant, There's a Highly Charged Political Monster in the Room

Unable to find a repertory cinema in Bristol to accommodate my double-bill desires, I recently programmed for myself a back to back home screening of Gojira (Godzilla, 1954) and Dai-Nihonjin (Big Man Japan, 2007).

Now Godzilla we all know and love for the political beast he/she is; constantly compared to the H-bomb, explicitly described as a weapon, and most importantly, depicted as the hideous manifestation of human nature at its most hateful and destructive. This menacing monster is an early visual imagining of a force intent upon destroying human advancement and industry as well as all modes of modern technology; automobiles, buildings (most notably office towers), bridges, planes, and so on. What's interesting though is that despite Godzilla being ascribed to a consequence of human technological advancement, he/she is also intrinsically organic, arising from the sea (water being one of the four simplest earthly elements). Furthermore, he/she is said to be "millions of years old", suggesting his/her existence pre-dates that of human existence. How then, can Godzilla come to represent the H-bomb and human destruction also? It is said in the film that Godzilla was "awakened by man", made invincible by atomic testing which satisfactorily explicates the contextual horror surrounding the potential of human effect on nature and environment. The film resolves that the only way to rid Japan of such a terrifying monster is through a form of retaliation: to destroy what they have created, they must create yet another, more, destructive force. The ethical question raised is one pertinent to both the film's contextual and indeed history's continual experience of human warfare. If we continue to create with the intention to destroy, we will have to find new, more extreme and even more horrifying ways in which to do so. And so the question remains: where will it all end?

To answer this question we have Big Man Japan. Big Man Japan is a mockumentary that follows lonely individual Masaru Daisato; his wife and kid have left him, the locals are disillusioned in his abilities, he earns a meagre living and is at the beck and call of the government (to electrocute himself, subsequently expand into 'Big Man' and take out a variety of monsters as they ail the city, no less).

Complete with many a jibe leveled towards the perils of reality television, the horror of advertising, and the effects of postmodernism that effect contemporary societies and cultures in a negative and alienating ways, Big Man suggests that "all living creates are strays", and our protagonist, very much like "really expanding seaweed, when you need it to" is exemplary as a contemporary stray whose societal meaning and human connections are so insignificant and minute that he, ironically, has to expand, like the universalising forces of globalisation, in order for anyone to truly see him. Suggesting that it is not like it was in "the good old days", and using visual montage of found- footage to support this notion, Daisato faces many petty 21st century issues, such as how to fight the monsters without obstructing the logo on his chest for one.

With the weight of "policy" quite literally upon his chest, not to mention a corrupt agent and no chance at familial reconciliation, prospects for Daisato look pretty bleak indeed. His only hope is that the ratings for his live television broadcasts will pick up, and with his failure to defeat the Red Monster, they finally do. That failure is what finally gives him some semblance of a break is not merely incidental. Clearly Big Man is advocating that the persistent decline in traditional values of dignity, integrity and most importantly, shame, lead us to a point where we are only capable of enjoying ourselves, being 'entertained', at the expense of other human beings.

Though I don't wish to talk too much about the monsters themselves, only to say that each one in form and function are strongly reiterative of my aforementioned argument, I will briefly comment on three of the simultaneously insane and outstanding creations that you can expect to see should you watch (and I strongly suggest you do) Big Man Japan; 1) The Evil Stare Monster who is akin to what we in west, thanks to George Orwell, know as Big Brother, his literal weapon being an all watching eye, 2) The Stink Monster who smells worse than 100,000 human feces, demonstrative of how our own waste is destroying our environment, and 3) The Child Monster who is like a parasite sucking all that it can from previous generations, needing and expecting in greater quantities than history has ever before tolerated.

Beyond the monsters presented in this film there is resolution as artificiality takes over and the real city disappears, in its place a mock version of itself. As with this mockumentary, if we push the limits of reality too far what we are left with is just the parody of that which we once had.

The Super Justice Family appear and in a surreal scene of intense satire they use extreme and hilarious methods to destroy an elegy of the Red Monster. Overcoming the monster and making things safe for Big Man, he finally realises that he is not a superhero, he is just a man, quietly uttering to himself, "I make no difference". Peace and humanity are utopic ethical ideals that are out of his, and any other single man's, hands. Learning this he flies off with the Super Justice Family, a happy ending impossible, thus an impossible ending plausible.

Though I have been led to believe that there is a final scene not included on the UK DVD release of Big Man Japan, the message seems clear: fifty years on, humans are still using science and technology to create more successful and penetrative forces of destruction. When compared to the H-Bomb, surveillance, pollution and future generations of parasitic beings do not appear extreme or, on the surface, nearly as harmful. But just because our self destruction is now slower and more deceptive than it once was does not mean it is any less terrifying.
Where the monster was once a product of human action the monster is now human.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Bleeding For Freedom

You've got to hand it to the French - when it comes to cinematic extremism, they pretty much own the copyright. However, it is not the so-called 'New French Extremism' that I'm talking about. I want to look beyond the films of Francois Ozon, Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat, Phillippe Grandrieux and Bruno Dumont whose films have been, most purportedly to date, set upon breaking down cinematic taboos and bringing confrontation to the big screen. These filmmakers have had their work pitted against the proverbial 'cinematic greats' who came before (not all of them French) such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, Guy Debord and Luis Bunuel, and measured against those previous models of taboo breaking their work has been slated for lacking either political, philosophical or artistic merit. I'd venture to say it is because of these criticisms and not in spite of them that the movement has turned a new, critically interesting, corner. For all their commentary upon their own origins, the works I am about to discuss demand the now corroded category 'New French Extremism' be dramatically re-defined. With Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's Inside (A l'interieur) (2007) and Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008) comes a mode of extremist cinema that is once again political, philosophical and artistic in merit.

I'd like to make it clear that I'm not saying New French Extremism didn't achieve anything or say anything at all, certainly Romance (1999) posited some questioning of the definition by which we classify pornography, though its questioning offered little in the way of its contextual significance (i.e. the reception of or attitudes towards cinematic pornography as experienced in contemporary cultural viewing practices), ultimately revealing its motivations to be superficial also. And whilst some critical literature would claim the opposite, suggesting this wave of cinema was specifically intent upon breaking down the French tradition of artful, political, philosophical film to produce 'cinema for cinema's sake', that would of course ironically in itself still constitute a political act. Undeniably the French have a great tradition of creating and innovating modes of cinema and certainly they act as a beacon for both cinematic inspiration and education for filmmakers the world over. However, for all that these French 'extremists' may have achieved in altering the traditional tropes of French cinema, undermining the bourgeoisie and removing the visual representation of "Frenchness", they are still incredibly self-indulgent and self-consumed. What this supposed 'New New Wave' of French cinema forgot was that to truly get outside of the confines of Frenchness they would need to focus on a more universalising specificity such as genre. In essence, these films have merely replaced the politically challenging and artistically complex films that came before with, as James Quandt writes, "an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity."

Now Inside and Martyrs are a lot of things, but passive they are not. If Inside were analogously the literary review then Martyrs would be the first chapter in what would constitute a most fascinating dissertation on the changing modes and motivations of contemporary French cinema. The title, Inside, already indicates that the film is 'about' everything interior; from the origin of life as representative of the birth of cinema, to the inherent dangers in finding too much comfort in one's own home as reflective of the Frenchness that French cinema can't seem to escape, to the interiority and subjectivity that resides in most accredited French philosophy and to the origins of cinematic spectatorship which also began with subjectivity and the 'I' as formative as with Lacanian psychoanalysis. Everything 'inside' in this film poses a threat and is something to survive. The film's culmination in a type of traumatic re-birth comes at the expense of two traditionally filmic femmes who were the object of the male gaze, now literally disfigured. This traumatic re-birth marks a movement in French cinema - outside of the traditions of Frenchness, psychoanalysis, philosophy, male-centric spectatorship theory and outdated preoccupation with cinematic identification and artifice in the first instance. The final scene of the film is far more significant than a tortured, bleeding woman exposed for her horror onscreen: the act of removing the child in such a brutal manner is representative of a re-birth in French cinema and a far more confrontational one at that.

Having assessed its position and now figuratively broken free from its traditional confines, new French extremist cinema is free to take its first steps. And I think Martyrs is the first step. Beginning with an attack on the heteronormative, nuclear, bourgeois family and replacing them with two strong, albeit damaged, female lovers, Martyrs proves its interest in looking for new answers to tired paradigms. Moving on to an almighty bloodbath and certainly a provocative questioning of spectatorial enjoyment of 'torture porn' amongst other things, Martyrs repeatedly asks what's next - what are the consequences of confrontational cinema and what does it hope to achieve? What happens next is a fascinating rupture within the screen world where the narrative splits and a new direction is taken both plot-wise and also concerning its existential emphasis: our protagonist dies and a new protagonist takes over. The first was weak and suffering the repercussions of her early affectations (just as this form of extremist cinema bears the burden of earlier models of French cinematic extremism) and her replacement is stronger, stoic. Our new protagonist is exposed to the same forms of torture as her predecessor (something I read as the filmmakers' commentary upon their own struggle to deal with the prejudice of preconception that they undoubtedly face in producing new modes of extremist cinema) but her response, her actions, they're different, and ultimately she transcends the earlier model, survives it and consequently reaches a higher level of philosophical and existential contemplation. Finally, she reveals all that she knows to the woman responsible for exposing her to such horrific torment and who is ultimately responsible for the deaths of many and the philosophical 'saving' of few. This I read as a commentary on the expected failure of many to move beyond the empty bounds of extremism, in both filmmaking and viewing practices. After learning the secrets of her subject's epiphany, the old woman kills herself; leaving now a baron new landscape for new beginnings.

Aside from the ways in which Inside and Martyrs are able to rethink and regenerate an otherwise quite pointless mode of cinema concerned primarily with the act of breaking taboo; the films also offer a deeper questioning of why we view what we do. By moving the extremist model into the secure boundaries of the Horror genre, these films are also commenting upon the climate of a more universalising and non Euro-centric movement within contemporary cinema. Horror is the chameleon genre; constantly changing to suit the appropriate contemporary and contextual climate amongst which it resides. Continually reinventing and rebooting paradigms, tropes and conventions it is the most self-reflexive and referentially ridden of the bunch; it is also the most counter-cultural, generic platform available for social commentary and subversive content. So, it is hardly surprising that filmmakers concerned with extremism as a communicative content would look to Horror as a platform for expression.

As I have already suggested, these films question the merits and motives associated with viewing 'torture porn', they invert the concept of both Final Girl and male-dominated killers/viewers as well as challenging the idea of the monstrous feminine by pitting females against one another, making the bleeding woman a character with whom to identify rather than one to abhor, and in suggesting that the significance is not in the survival of the ordeal, but rather in the process of enduring it. Enduring and embracing the process of change is not only the marker of a greater change yet to come, it's also the hard part. For things to get better, they have first to get worse, so keep watching, the French are serious about cinema and if what we've seen so far is anything to go by, then it's gonna be a hell of a journey to endure.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Images from Encounters Short Film Festival Masterclass with Tony Grisoni.

Photography by Jon Craig,, freelance photography and video.

To read more please see the Encounters blog:

Friday, 16 October 2009

Welcome to Crapland

For some reason I am completely alone on this one, but you know what? I didn't like Zombieland (2009).

Feels good to write it down. And now, as always, I'm going to tell you why...

First of all, I'm not buying the cheaper version of Michael Cera that's on offer (Jesse Eisenberg, not that you need remember his name) - if you can't afford diamonds that's cool, but let's please leave the cubic zirconia back in the dress up box, no? Secondly, the zombies suck: they aren't nearly slow or vacant enough and as such they barely constitute social commentary, which, let's be honest, until the likes of Zack Snyder and Danny Boyle came along and fucked things up by changing the tempo, is what they were always (slowly) there for. Thirdly, Zombieland is boring because it's just another typical, predictable, formulaic and thus unwaveringly dull, stock standard US comedy. Sorry folks, but it just ain't all gravy.

These were my surface complaints, and now for my formal ones.

  • Formal complaint number one: it isn't a horror film. Where's the suspense, the gore, the unadulterated and unflinching carnage I was promised? Well I can tell where it's not: anywhere in the film, that's where.

  • Formal complaint number two: the rules. They're not particularly clever or insightful and let's be honest, as far as self-referentiality goes it happily checks any ounce of innovation/intellect that it might have had at the box office - where your money now resides, smugly in its place. The cliches aren't parodic, they're tiresome.

  • Formal complaint number three: tacky sentimentality. Seriously with this one, what the fuck? I mean, "Rule 32: Enjoy the little things", are you for real? That said, maybe we can give some credit for it being the most horrific moment in the film: did almost get a visceral reaction from me, as I dry retched into my purse that is.

  • Formal complaint number four: heteronormative, all-American nuclear family propaganda. Now if you're reading my blog then you already know that this stuff really grinds my gears. Two boys, two girls; starts with a father figure to a young, lost boy, and comparably, a mother figure to a lonely, young girl, then, the oedipal complex kicks in (in an all too obvious manner) and the boy overthrows his father to get to the mother (yawn). Later, the 'father figure' undergoes a reversal and becomes the child, ending the film with a happy family of four in an ultra enviro-friendly 4x4- all's well that's ends well, innit? Actually no, it fucking isn't.

  • Formal complaint number five: it reinforces hateful stereotypes. I'm not going to dwell on how distasteful I found the scene where white men literally smash the products of indigenous American Indians, but I will say this: the scene was presented as another moment where you are supposed to 'enjoy the little things'; all-important, all-American, though really, they are all-encompassing fascistic actions where race relations, colonialism and the destruction of an indigenous culture are presented as 'the little things'. Really fucking nice.

  • Formal complaint number six: lots of 'little things' in the film were accumulatively annoying. The false sentimentality of dialogue such as, "I haven't cried like that since Titanic" was lame and trying at best, the two leads dancing together was almost akin to watching Beauty and the Geek - only minus the sincerity or good humour, the automatic running of the rides was not only ridiculous for its blatant disregard of health and safety regulations, but it is actually impossible to run a ride whilst on it. Plus you probably need, I don't know, training. Oh yeah, and the overly stylised heavy use of slo-mo in the opening credits really pissed me off too - it's unnecessary, well, rather, it would have been if the film were actually any good.

  • Formal complaint number seven: the snakeskin jacket. How. Fucking. Dare. You. Harrelson is no Sailor and Zombieland sure as hell ain't Wild At Heart (1990). Fuck you Zombieland.

  • Formal complaint number 47: the way in which they abandoned the sequential nature of the rules and began to jump ahead as if there were so very many of them. Just to be clear, calling this my 47th complaint doesn't mean there are 47 complaints. It's my eighth formal complaint, and you know why? Because eight follows seven, that's fucking why.

The only thing I took from the film was the reminder that "twinkies have an expiration date". Yes, that's true. And so does your crap, generic film that relies all too heavily on cheap laughs in place of actual content, Mr Fleischer, but you didn't bother to check the expiration date on that now did you?

Perhaps I'm being harsh (though I doubt it) and maybe it's because I'm not a 14-year-old boy (though the film got a 15 rating so surely it was aiming for a slightly more mature audience), but it seems you need to be incredulously juvenile in order to enjoy the emptiness this film offers. There is in fact so little that constitutes interesting in this film that even I am amazed to have found myself able to write so many words about it. Though in my defense, a fair fucking few of them are profanities.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Don't Forget the Subtext: New Imperalism in Gran Torino.

I want to start by saying that I thought this was a "good" movie. I mean that in the sense that it ticked a lot of filmic boxes; convincing characters, strong performances, insightful cinematography, seamless editing, well executed direction, all in all a well observed film that shows a bitter, bigoted old man coming to terms with himself and his surroundings. But, and I know, seems like there's always a 'but' with me, BUT, what about the stuff that sits beneath the surface? What of that permeable thing called subtext?

The subtext in this film has been bothering me because I actually think it's counter-intuitive to the surface message and therefore pretty dangerous stuff. Now before you all start bombarding me with retorts that say the film is about race and transcending age-old prejudices- yes, I know that. And for those of you who want to tell me that the central character is xenophobic only so that the relationship between him and his neighbours can be even more uplifting- yes, I know that too. However, this is just the surface stuff - stuff I'm not going to discuss in any great detail - so let's get past what it looks like the film is trying to do, and move along to what it's actually doing through that all-important subtext which I think we should all be both wary and aware of. 

What I'm talking about is not a clear cut white supremist viewpoint, for all intents and purposes that kind of DW Griffith-esque mode of filmmaking has disappeared from our screens. What I'm talking about is more contemporary; a myriad of offensive and ignorant assumptions that work towards promoting an oppressive world view. So, taking in stride cinematic changes brought about by colonialism and postcolonialismGran Torino (2008) correlates clearly with a model for New Imperialism. Actor, director, producer, short lived Mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood is a pretty darn good example of New Imperialism in all its vast and growing glory, so why not go ahead and make a film about it starring yourself as the New Imperialist force? (Clearly Clint's 'tour de force', so to speak). 

So let's recap; Walt Kowalski, xenophobe, bigot, and recently widowed Korean war vet, lives alone except for the company of his Labrador Daisy in a small Michigan neighbourhood. One of the many things that bothers Walt in his old age is that the previously white middle-class community to which he once belonged is fast becoming a poor Asian immigrant area (my distinction between 'community' and 'area' here is not merely incidental). His disdain for others, but particularly those of an Other race, situates him in a dangerous position as the viewers' point of identification is most oft aligned with its protagonist and certainly in this film that is an uncomfortable position to embody for what it implicitly assumes; a) that the viewer is a white heteronormative male (or if they aren't, that they should in any case be able to identify with this criteria in the first instance) and b) that white is not a race but a point of neutral reference from which every Other is raced (for a more detailed understanding of this theory please see Richard Dyer's excellent book, White: Essays on Race and Culture (1997)). And so the dodgy cinematic message begins to permeate the spectator. Brilliant. 

So Walt's new next-door neighbours belong to the local Hmong community and, at this point in the film anyway, the family unit of the Hmong culture is actually shown in a positive light; i.e. in contrast to Walt's estranged, alienated family devoid of communication and/or emotion, the Lor family love and respect one another, sharing their lives, enhancing joys and halving burdens. However, the community at large is still shown under a negative shadow; poor and condemned to poverty due to their own gang activity and plight upon their own neighbourhood and community, unwilling to 'integrate' (i really dislike this term and use it grudgingly only because it is relevant to the message this film communicates) into the culture and way of the pre-existent (Western) society surrounding them, strange in their custom- strange in the sense of both foreign and odd, and finally as failed on their own terms because the male of the house is not strong, and this, in their own culture is portrayed as very important. - Hopefully from my emphasis on 'own' you can also see the very BNP-esque 'us' and 'them' dynamic that the film establishes early on. 

So, stereotypes successfully set up, time for the plot to shift into gear, in a manner of speaking. Thao, the failed male specimen of the Hmong family in question, is, typically, shy, feeble, awkward, uncool and unable to get a girl. His cousin - which we are to presume is meant literally, although at times feels like a blanket term for everyone in the film belonging to the Hmong community - wishes to initiate him into their gang, which involves stealing Kowalski's most prized possession: a mint condition 1972 Gran Torino. The fact that the car is circa 1972 and kept in 'original mint condition' is actually of great significance, that being the year Richard Nixon was re-elected to the presidency by a landslide vote; it was a time of Nixon, Kissinger and Watergate. Although it represents too the slow and final withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam it is the year before the Paris Peace Accord and the end to the Vietnam War. Furthermore, it was also the year of what's commonly known as the 'Christmas Bombings' (aka Operation Linebacker II against North Vietnam), the largest US Air Strikes since WWII. The car represents Walt's nostalgia for what he sees as a 'better time', although that time is marked by death and scandal. Thao tries to steal the car, something I suggest could be read as an act of exposure, and for that he is punished. 

So, the poor kid now has to work for Kowalski, pretty much taking on the role of slave, in order to compensate for trying to remove the fetishised past from under his nose (I use the term fetishised because the automobile is such a great example of Marx's theorising of Commodity Fetishism). At this stage we shift up another gear and the film plows into its New Imperialist agenda with extreme horse power. Kowalski doesn't really like the kid but slowly warms to him and takes pleasure in setting him to work, instilling a 'good work ethic', some semblance of responsibility and skill into the young lad. Literally providing him with the tools to do so, Kowalski is like the white man who saves the savage from his own sinful ways - i.e. if he had not been taken under Walt's wing, Thao would by now be a fully fledged gang member because, as the film is certain to point out, this is the only path for him if he chooses the Hmong immigrant way. Well, thank god for the white man then. Kowalski, the heteronormative, patriotic, flag-on-the-front-porch, nostalgia-wielding father figure eventually arranges everything so that Thao can have a 'better life'; confidence, trade skill, job, girlfriend and eventually iconic car in tow. But really, all that Kowalski has handed him is the road to contemporary capitalist exploitation. Well done Walt, the path of New Imperialism is a brave and noble one. No wait, it's oppressive, only like the Gran Torino, the labour, alienation and exploitation that it harbours is seamless and invisible. 

Kowalski 'nobly' dies in a martyred scene that supposedly saves the Lor family from their evil cousin and his gang who are finally incarcerated for their crimes. But does condemning half a community to prison and the other half to hard labour really speak to us as an act of emancipation? I don't think so. This film is exemplary in its explication of American New Imperialism and it offers little more than a half-arsed effort at excusing US involvement in the Vietnam War and extolling the supposed anti-communist motives for getting involved in the Korean one. His attempt to 'move on' from his past does not help us to remember that war which is to some degree forgotten. And just as Kowalski finally confesses his sins to a priest, he, and his actions are absolved. But essentially, the reality of what remains is that a new form of oppression merely replaces the old, and in its wake is no less relentless than the last. 

Thursday, 4 June 2009

My High School Sweetheart Did It: Today's Trauma for a Wholesome Anti-feminist Final Girl.

This, it seems to me, is the premise and thus a more suitable title for recent horror DVD release (in the UK anyway), My Bloody Valentine (2009). I wanted this piece to publish at the same time as the film was released on DVD (and yes I realise I'm two weeks late there), most notably because I never got to go see it at the cinema in 3D (a most irritating admission on my part considering my own vested interest in 3D as a medium; I wrote my frickin' masters dissertation on it). So, what follows is my review of the film in 2D, which will of course ignore what I can only assume are the few redeeming features of the film, for most likely the blood splatter and bullet-time cinematography would have been far more stimulating up close and personal in 3D (and no, sitting extra close to a 2D screen is in no way a worthy substitute). But as the two dimensionality of its home viewing counterpart fell relatively flat, I'm going to hone in on the absurdity of its characterisation, specifically of its female protagonist, the emptiness that she embodies, and her ultimate effect in rendering the film a huge disappointment. Basically, it shits all over the very good work other films of the genre have done in presenting powerful, contemporary, kick-ass final girls. 

As a female viewer, one of the great things contemporary horror gives me is the presentation of a Final Girl (for more about this term see Carol J. Clover's excellent book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992), who is strong and willful in the presence of societal/patriarchal horrors; she survives despite the odds being favourably against her. But, unlike such films as I Spit on Your Grave / Day of the Woman (1978), All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) and Martyrs (2008), the protagonist in My Bloody Valentine is pathetic and reassertive of capitalist/religious/patriarchal ideologies. 

Jaime King plays Sarah Palmer, the busty, beautiful final girl and 'all-American moral mom' whose extreme stereotype is pit against the other similarly overdrawn female characters in the film; slutty and outspoken Irene (Betsy Rue) and bitchy back-stabbing mistress, employee and friend to Sarah, Megan (Megan Boone), who both, unsurprisingly for their respective 'sins', die bloody and violent deaths. Not exactly new territory here, and certainly a thinly veiled cinematic confirmation of the sanctity of marriage & the virtues of heteronormative life. Dull yes, but at least the deaths are interesting in their exploitation; Irene, who is seen having rampant sex with a characterless man finds out she is being filmed and treated like a prostitute, (unsurprising really, most women who have sex in a non monogamous manner in horror flicks get punished according to their so-called 'crimes'), but Irene bears no shame and, tits out, runs outside following said man to retain the video footage of her exploits- a thinly veiled guise for what's left of her dignity- but failing (of course) to retrieve the tape, she watches as the man who she just fucked gets killed and then runs timidly (breasts still bouncing) back into the sleazy motel room, home to her 'sins', before being bloodily butchered herself. Nice. 
Megan's death is even more interesting for as she carries the unborn child of Axel (boss and supposed 'friend' Sarah's hubby), her punishment is not just death but the most bloody & smeared death of all; the excess of blood involved in her murder accounts for her 'deserved punishment' (in a Freudian sense) as woman who cannot bleed. Pregnant, she is unable to menstruate and so she is almost situated in a position of machismo; certainly she is shown to be stronger and ballsier than Sarah is. Her punishment is the ultimate: body and bastard baby bloodily smeared all over a wall so that the Other woman who challenges the holy sanctity of marriage is publicly and brutally punished for her anti-ideologically sound crimes.

As the film goes on it appears to be increasingly confused about its own identity and no sequence better illustrates this than the typical psychoanalytical nexus: the Freudian moment. Sarah is confronted in the mine/mind by her two beaus - one of which has cheated on her and the other who left her. The 'return of the repressed' is evident in Tom's return to Harmony, but also through his own character's troubled repression of events past. Unfortunately, layering repression isn't as fascinating a filmic device in this instance as one would usually find because of what follows: as Sarah confronts them both trying desperately to pin 'psycho-killer' on one of her former fucks, she enters her own psyche; Sarah is the Id, Axel her ego and Tom her superego. She listens to each of them in turn unsure as to which is telling the truth. That her fragile mind is represented as a woman in doubt conflicted by the two patriarchal voices in her head is insulting enough, but My Bloody Valentine takes it further and presents the choice as one between unrequited love/road to adultery and the sanctity of holy matrimony. Wait, can you guess which one she chooses? It is at this juncture, abandoning the Freudian moment altogether, that her asshole husband takes the moral high ground telling her to shoot them both - at least then she won't be stuck down in the mine with a psycho-killer. Aw, isn't that sweet? The adulterer would rather die than see his missus with another man. No wait, that's also misogynistic. Ok, let's continue then. Suddenly, the viewer is supposed to side with Axel who, as it is poorly revealed, is innocent and the sanctity of their marriage lives on? Just to be clear then, so long as your hubby isn't actually a serial killer and so long as his mistress and their unborn child are dead, you can still have a holy fucking happy ending? This is more retarded than the most ludicrous of Shakespearean resolutions.

What remains then, is the godly couple with their golden child living happily ever after. Although, the killer 'lives on' as the promise of a sequel hangs in the balance- Valentine's day occurring annually giving plenty of time for production and another no-plot plunder to make its way to a cinema near you. If anything, V-day is all about the money, so on some level the film did communicate its main message to the youths of today: you just can't evade Valentine's Day - a deeply capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchal holiday - but, if you're a woman then you should be careful harbouring feelings for an ex, or any other man for that matter, because you never know when he's gonna turn out to be a psycho-killer. Stellar message.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Trapped in One's Own Reflection or Embracing Cinema's Spectatorial Past?

As any good film student will know windows, screens and mirrors in film are never 'just there'. They are, as reflective surfaces, always indicative of some kind of self-reflexive, psychoanalytical or phenomenological, spectatorial meaning. So it is hardly surprising then that I found the film Mirrors (2008) to be jam-packed with psychoanalytic meaning and indentificatory issues (ahem, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the "I", anyone?). What is surprising (or perhaps not to the reader who knows me a little) is that I'm going to argue Mirrors takes this a step further and propose a reading of the film as a wider commentary on the history of spectatorship in film theory. The reading is quite a simple one really, but to find it in a contemporary blockbuster-horror flick is an absolute joy because I have recently found films belonging to this generic category to be rather one-dimensional and subsequently complacent about, or indifferent to, the forms of self-reflexivity and subversion formative films of the genre inherently brought to the screen and their avid cult audiences.

So, Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) is a man who has just about lost everything; suspended from the force and estranged from his wife and kids, sleeping on his sister's couch and addicted to meds that are supposedly helping him kick his alcoholism (poor Carson), takes a job as a security guard, night shift of course, at the burnt-down Mayflower department store in New York City where he begins to see things in its grand old mirrors. In terms of my own reading the fact that this film is a remake of a Korean film and whether or not it is in fact scary is of little significance, it is really only the role of the mirrors and the role of the Carson that are of interest to me. That out of the way, Carson's primary encounters with the mirrors are ones where he sees things that are not physically there in the world around him, although, as the viewer later learns, they did happen in that very place sometime during the past. The psychological process that goes along with this is such that it allows him to understand himself and his own world as separate from that which he sees in the mirror. This process is clearly Lacanian in origin and parallels that of the infant distinguishing between himself and (m)other. Furthermore, this contemporary psychoanalytic process which includes his vision of something past figuratively mirrors the position of Lacan's theories as appearing later than, yet still in acknowledgement to, well established psychoanalytic models that came before, most notably those of Freud. Carson has now accepted this past model and identified himself within the context of both past and present, the importance of context being a significant acknowledgement for film studies in the 1960s.

Later, Carson learns that the Mayflower department store used to be a psychiatric institute where (of course) 'terrible things' happened. Back peddling to the '50s here he tracks down a elderly woman, Anna Esseker, who, now a nun, was supposedly possessed by an evil spirit as a child. Forced to face her demon (quite literally) Anna was strapped to a chair in a room surrounded by mirrors - some kind of supposed identification therapy. Of course, this form of therapy marks several significant moments in film studies whereby theorists such as Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey took spectatorship theory to the next level: from subject-object identification, sharing POV with the cinematic apparatus, the spectator then aligned his POV with the on-screen male gaze. Initially in the film the viewer's gaze is aligned with the camera's POV, opening with an objective view of the previous security guard taking his own life - in a mirror image. Then, once the camera has settled on Carson, and up until this point in the film, the viewer's gaze is aligned with his.

Next in our metaphorical story of cinematic spectatorship, the only way to stop the 'evil force' behind the mirrors from killing himself and his family Carson must bring Anna Esseker back to the Mayflower and to that fateful room. Okay, okay, dramatics aside, once back in the room and forced to re-identify with herself and her past, something really interesting occurs: the viewer becomes entombed in the room of mirrors just like Anna, and faced with an all-encompassing situation which reeks of Kaja Silverman's theorising of cinematic suture whereby the spectator is stitched into the filmic world so that the look of the camera is completely forgotten.

The departure from theories of passive spectatorship paved the way for contemporary film theorists from the 1990s onwards to explore more active and experiential models of spectatorship through phenomenology, cognitivism and haptics. Vivian Sobchack's writing on phenomenology considers spectatorial experience one of embodiment, through corporeal affectivity. Adopting a nonanthropocentric gaze, the focus shifts from the film as authoritative maker of meaning to an essentialist view of its affective reflection as experienced by the spectator. And this is what Mirrors is really about. Evident in the scenes where Carson's family are at home, in danger, the gaze has shifted and it is no longer the person in front of the mirror (the filmmaker, the film itself) that determines the outcome; the 'meaning'. It is that which lies beyond the mirror, behind the screen; it is the spectator for whom the film is a mediated experience, but one in which determinism is something they must embody.

The film also flags up other active modes of spectatorial studies such as cognitivism. Distinct from both psychoanalytic and phenomenological models, Noel Carroll and David Bordwell theorise the spectator as a subject of cognition. After having identified himself, his context and its resolution it is completely up to Carson to 'actively' make meaning out of it all - i.e. that he must reach the conclusion to find Anna Esseker and deduce that she must be brought back to the Mayflower in order for these horrific events to stop. Finally, when Anna re-embodies the demon she expelled many years earlier the mirrors explode and shattered glass fills the frame for a good minute or so. Obsessive framing is used to a point of excess which as Kristin Thompson has us all studiously believing is counter-narrative and operates on a level of materiality so that the spectator simultaneously sees the material nature of the film as well as its underlying structures - that is to say that the pretence is stripped bare and indeed the early spectatorial and Freudian cinematic suggestion that one must disavow is removed in accordance with it. The fragmentation of the mirrors that until this point were so perfectly intact parallels the arrival of that dreaded word, (now rather passe of course) that Cultural Studies has afforded us with; 'postmodernism' meets film theory.

But where Mirrors truly comes alive is right at the end, for even after this fantastic scene of excess violently introducing postmodernism and all its baggage, the final scene reveals something truly spectacular: Carson has made it to the Other side. He has turned the psychoanalytic mirror into a phenomenological window, shattered the restraints of what came before and literally walked through the looking-glass like little Alice did so many years ago. What is on the Other side? Or, are we to think he is trapped within the mirror-world? Either way, this leads to new areas of film studies that are, as I write, being opened up in accordance with Carson's movements: haptics & ethics. Laura Marks's theorising of haptic spectatorship is similar to phenomenology in its emphasis on the cinematic experience and is primarily concerned with sensory impressions, yet it is distinct from phenomenology in its attempt to theorise a proximity to the object, closing the distance between object and subject whilst still allowing a symbolic distance from it. Well now, I'd say going through the mirror, being in one's own reflection is probably about as haptic as it comes. And if turns out to be ethics (should Carson really have sacrificed the life of Anna Esseker for the survival of his own family?) well, his encounter with the Other will surely make for a seriously challenging sequel.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Be Still My Graphic Novel

The art of (movie) adaptation is by no means simple; those who love a novel often complain that something inherent to the written work is lost in the creation of its visual counterpart. Watchmen (1986-87) is no exception. This is the work of which Terry Gilliam has (as you will well know if you've read any review of Watchmen (2008) to date) famously referred to as 'unfilmable'. Gilliam is amongst a string of directors who have become associated with the work's difficult and awkward transition from epic read to epic visual experience. Reception of the film has revealed a rather obvious and by no means unexpected division of opinion between those who have read the graphic novel and those who have not. Whilst I am not interested in comparing the movie and the graphic novel - for I find this line of interrogation to be unproductive and uninteresting for what it offers is both obvious and superfluous, and though I do not wish to insinuate that those who have read the graphic novel 'get it' and those who haven't simply 'don't', what I would like to explore here is the idea that there is something significant, something worth discovering in the graphic novel, that we might think of as a means of access to the underlying 'meaning' (for wont of a better word) of the text. I suggest that this 'something' is actually an inherently dissociative quality. And furthermore, that this particular quality is exclusive to the graphic novel because it is born out of stillness and fragmentation; the fluidity and experiential nature of moving-images being designed to suture the viewer in. This is, at least as far as I am concerned, what makes Alan Moore's laboured work worthy, and fascinatingly so, of both critical attention and popular adaptation.

Kim Newman's review (Sight & Sound, May 2008) offers an oppositional viewpoint to mine, stating that, "Overall the epic-length film is as remote, disinterested and unapproachable as Dr Manhattan...Whereas the comic tried hard to grapple with the lives of particular, fallible, ordinary folks, Snyder can't get interested in them...It's almost an achievement to make a film in which the audience finds itself not caring about the survival of mankind." I want to acknowledge Newman's sentiments because a) I have enormous respect for both S&S and Newman himself, and b) because I think there is an interesting irony in this statement. An achievement it certainly is to communicate an extreme apathetic response, in place of an emotional one, to the survival of mankind. But it is fact in this pursuit where Moore succeeds and Snyder fails. Moreover, there is more to Dr Manhattan than remote, disinterested, unapproachability; for certainly science too is at times ambiguous and subject to complex contradiction, but a finer discussion of quantum physics aside, Dr Manhattan is the pinnacle of the text's groups- Minutemen and Watchmen alike, he is also the fans' favourite, and to some extent a central point of identification for the reader/viewer. Dr Manhattan operates as such in a number of ways for he embodies qualities both human and Other; 1) he was once human (Jonathan Osterman) and resembles human form, 2) his behaviour is human; he is in a romantic co-habitive relationship (sure it doesn't work out, but loads of humans encounter this problem) he has a job, and he lives in a house (etc. - essentially, he is subject to the inanity of the average human existence), 3) as Other he represents an impartiality to converse and conflicting human emotions & subjective opinions, and 4) he is a stand-in for Fate, something with which Moore seems to be extremely interested in (Fate plays a key role in both Watchmen and V For Vendetta, although I will not say much more on that here). Moreover, Dr Manhattan, or Jon as he is referred to by the humans he most frequently interacts with, is likely to be the character who most accurately conveys authorial intention, indicatively so because of points 3 & 4. The irony therefore in Newman's comments is that Snyder would have in fact been doing Moore a justice had he been able to achieve the conveyance of such dissociative apathy for the constant and continual destructive nature of the human race, something the overall tone of the graphic novel communicates. But the reason the graphic novel is able to achieve this is precisely because it slows things down unto stillness. It shows the alternate future as fractured and dismal, but also suggests it as a prophetic possibility, explicated carefully through the use of still and fragmented imagery, and stilted dialogue. The film's converse fluid movement and experiential involvement necessarily draw the viewer in to its temporal pace (whether or not they appreciate this is irrelevant), bringing them into alignment with assumptions and judgements that essentially remove much of the ambiguity offered in the segmented frames of the graphic novel.

To say that Watchmen is a humanist text is true, but it is also a text about the flaws and fractured state of humanity. Certainly the popularity of Watchmen is founded upon the faults, or at least the 'human' qualities, of its characters; these 'superheroes' - Dr Manhattan aside - have no superhuman powers. For the most part, and Dr Manhattan is included here, they act upon their own moral codes, they make mistakes, they are at times devastatingly mortal, they aren't loved unconditionally or universally by their public or the establishment. They are liminal characters who occupy liminal spaces, somewhere between humanity and its destruction. Even the supposedly 'good' and 'bad' characters are ambiguous; their individual actions are often unethical, but their avocation for the preservation of mankind is valiant and moral in its intent. So when the most remarkable character, Dr Manhattan, is seemingly indifferent to the survival of the human race you have to consider that Moore probably intended to communicate some emotive affect to this end. Considering Moore's other works such as V for Vendetta (1982-85) it is likely that the man himself is disillusioned with humanity and so communicating apathetic response is probably an intentional provocation on his part. However, what remains is this: Dr Manhattan eventually comes round, convinced the specificity of each human life is a scientific miracle. That he is convinced is hopeful for those who are cheering for humanity, that he is convinced by a scientific revelation rather than by a person with whom he was intimate- i.e. Laurie, further confirms the notion that the overall tone intended in the text is dissociative.

Finally, there are numerous examples of stillness through the form of Watchmen that mirror the content of its story and its characterisations therein. These include but are not limited to; 1) the seriality of the text, a periodical of twelve individual installments that are in themselves quite contained, 2) the subtle inference and allusion at the end of each chapter through quotation, often of a popular song lyric or prolific writer which function as a summation of each chapters' narrative tone, in cinematic adaptation this is achieved by actually playing the song as part of the non-diegetic soundtrack, often over a montage of images - the effect is more blatant and integrative than it is still and fragmented, 3) the comic within the graphic novel- Tales of the Black Freighter, which acts as a metaphorical mirroring of the predominant narrative actions within the text, 4) the interview segments etc. that appear at the end of each chapter, again these reflect upon events within the text and yet also stand alone as extra-diegetic information, but in moving-image work any extra-diegetic information can only be communicated through visual integration, and must be done at a pace which is in keeping with that of the film's temporal structure. Consequently, this denies certain resonances achieved through stillness.

The referential and even self-reflexive nature of the text is often lost in the fluid movement of visual imagery and the at times excessively stimulative nature of the mise-en-scène. One still frame from Watchmen that has really stayed with me backgrounds signage for a cinema that is showing the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. It is this knowing reference by Moore that acts as a clear semiotic indicative for the importance of temporal stillness in this particular text. It is not then that Watchmen as a text, as a brand, and as a story is 'unfilmable' as Gilliam once suggested, rather that its tone and its quality are such that they cannot be captured by live-action moving image work. It is not a question of aesthetics or scriptwriting, but a question of tonality, something difficult to film and also, it would seem, to discuss.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Epic: Not Just in Part.

Once the image of a man's face has been appropriated as a contemporary counter-culture logo, then the man himself is undeniably an interesting subject for scrutiny. And yet, Che Part 1 (2008) and Che Part 2 (2008) (formerly titled Che: The Argentine & Che: The Guerrilla respectively) don't really focus on the man by way of psychological profiling, rather, and much to Soderbergh's acclaim, they subtly look at the profile of the man through the re-telling of significantly similar yet disparate events of his life. Despite the films' total and epic combined runtime of 257 minutes, both instalments manage to evade confronting some of the more controversial aspects of Ernesto Che Guevara's life; namely the period where he was involved in ratifying sentences of war criminals, which, in some instances resulted in their deaths by firing squads. It also leaves well alone his early days as a medic - though I dare say that was yet another adroit move by Soderbergh, seeing as Walter Salles certainly had that section of the much-loved man's life covered with the release of The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motocicleta, 2004).

Such glaring omissions however lead to the inevitable questioning of what it is that Soderbergh's much anticipated epic tale is about. Well, it's a very measured, diplomatic and thoughtful look at how any one thing cannot be easily characterised for it is always inherently complicated and conflicted. This is well observed through the converse chapters which reveal the success and failure of Che's revolutionary efforts first in Cuba and then in Bolivia. What Soderbergh is really rather poignantly illustrating by dividing the film into these two parts, one showing success and the other showing failure, is that Che was a man as any other; contradictory at times, conflicted in some ways even for a cause that is determined, for it leaves moral and ethic grounds divided, and moreover, that the man is the product of both history and myth; for his triumphs there were shortcomings, for his efforts there were omissions, and for his altruism there was brutality. These things may not be shown explicitly in the film but there implicit presence cannot be denied. Che was a complicated individual and his story is not one that can be easily told. Soderbergh is not taking the easy way out by not turning his story into a psychological profiling of Che, largely because the man's psyche is such that it cannot be fully explained nor understood from the events of history alone. Furthermore, his story is not his own; the story of Che belongs to many, not least the Cuban and Bolivian people as it is a part of their shared histories, and a part of their contemporary identities- for better or worse.

Finally, Del Toro does a terrific job playing a man impossible to portray. Performances were, across the board, outstanding in both parts, and for any and all of its own shortcomings, the finished product is still a masterpiece that I feel sure will stand the cinematic test of time as generations to come will not only have a chance to see Soderbergh's epic tale, but to critique it as well, for I suspect it will be one for the schoolrooms.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

To LiVe! ethically or morally? That is the question.

LiVe! (2007) is a film that has been too easily dismissed for being reductive and obvious in its commentary on the values behind reality television. Josh Tyler, a contributor for, has expressed such an opinion, vehemently arguing that the filmmakers are "so desperate to expose while at the same time distracting us all from the fact that we’ve seen this movie hundreds of times before." However, I posit that though the film presents the main thread of its ideas in a clear and basic fashion (a mere functional step in narrative set-up), as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that its central concern is in fact in tune with an increasingly important issue facing contemporary film studies, and that is the filmic role of ethics, not only in the making of visual material, but in the ethical positioning involved in viewing it also. Rather than 'distraction' as Tyler presents it, LiVe! actually attempts to reveal what is beneath the popular veneer of satire, as one of its more unsettling devices is the inherent use of the original paradigm of that which it satirises. Thus, whilst on one level the film is concerned with showing television networks as the money-hungry soulless villains they undoubtedly are, it also simultaneously creates the proverbial cash-cow of a television programme which subsequently becomes the object pertaining to the manipulation of spectatorial response.

Katy Courbet (Eva Mendes), is a television producer who heads up a new show for a failing network based on the 'game' Russian Roulette. The stakes are extremely high: six players, of which five stand to win; five blanks and five cheques made out for five million dollars. Oh, and one silver bullet. Before each contestant places the gun at their temple, a short audition video is shown, supposedly to the television show's studio audience, revealing who that person "really" is. But in fact it is the spectator watching LiVe! who is being fed six character stereotypes, including; (1) Jewel, a blonde twenty-something aspiring actress/airhead, (2) Abalone, a mid-thirties ex-model come performance artist, (3) Pablo, a young & poor Spanish lad, (4) Byron the "token black guy" who comes from a nuclear family and privileged background, and consequently, for his lack of suffering, has failed to make it as a writer, (5) Brad the stereotypical bleach-blonde Californian surfer-dude, and finally (6) Rick, the family man- who just wants to win so as he can continue to keep the farm his father and his father before him ploughed, and someday pass it on to his son...

Of course it won't be the Spaniard or the African-American who land the silver bullet because that would make the film read as racist. Similarly, it won't be one of the women (who are both objects of beauty rather than agency in this film) as to choose either of them would result in a reading of misogyny, and provide yet another example of cinema's longstanding history of punishing women for being "the object of the male gaze". That leaves the two white alpha males. One is a 'waster' and the other a 'family man'. Pretty obvious which of those America, and the average spectator, will feel they can do without. In killing off the least likeable/most seemingly superfluous of characters, LiVe! implicates the viewer in its own moral judgement, and its decision to weigh the value of six peoples' lives against one another. This asks of the spectator, is it possible to see any Other, as they are presented through stereotype on screen, ethically rather than morally?

Following the 'live' (nice pun) airing of the show (and at the climax of the film no less) Katy rushes to the bathroom where she is violently sick. A young kid who had his whole life ahead of him - even though he only intended to use it to 'surf'- has died. Katy's realisation acts as an ethical awakening for the spectator, blatantly and confrontationally asking, who are you to judge the worth of human life based on an individual's intended 'use' thereof? Immediately after this awakening Katy is shot, dead. And it is her death that attracts the most attention, not Brad's; the 'motive' of her killer is openly questioned and though he is unidentified, he is ultimately held responsible. This leads to an inevitable questioning behind the motive and culpability for any killing. It is this idea- that any one person has the right to kill or deny the equal footing of any Other that LiVe! astutely highlights and questions. Finally, the spectator must assume the responsibility of their now dead and thus absent protagonist, whose burden has in death shifted onus.

Of course, you could watch this film and take, as Tyler did, its narrative veneer as a mere distraction. But then you would be denying the truly ethical existence of the Other, even as they are presented through stereotypes, for in that distraction lies the poignant dilemma LiVe! raises: denying your own responsibility in viewing such an atrocity, true or satirised, means you too are passing a moral judgement.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Danny Boyle Millionaire

Whilst I can appreciate that the man has to make a living, I find it outrageously exploitative and just down-right offensive to find his treatment of "slum-life" in India so highly stylised and so desperately cliched. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a film predicated upon the inventive narrative concept of a how a young extraordinarily disadvantaged child -who narrowly escapes a life of begging for an organised crime lord - goes on to be a contestant on, no wait - the winner of, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And yet, despite its inherently imaginative premise, the film is so concerned with commerical "feel-good" appeal that it glosses over some highly confronting and desperately sad realities of the so-called "slum-life" it (mis)represents.

For example, there is a scene in which the two young boys, who serve as our protagonists, must steal and sell goods on a train as a means by which to live on. Despite this being an horrific reality for young, homeless, parentless children who have just escaped the clutches of an organised crime leader, the experience is shown through what can only be described as a very tacky montage sequence which shows the two boys smiling, laughing, and for all intents and purposes, presumably having fun, this is matched to a soundtrack of the recent pop song by MIA, Paper Planes (All I Wanna do is 'Bang Bang' and Take Your Money). Now I can't be entirely sure that the reason Boyle chose this song is for the incredibly transparent effect the children's voices on the track provide, though I'd be more than confident in suggesting it's a motivating factor; the boys are immediately framed as taking rather than surviving which leads to the inference that they are enjoying and profiteering from their actions. This is but one of many examples that can be drawn from Boyle's incredibly misguided and intensely disappointing 8 Oscar Winning film, that clearly expose it for the shallow and superficial trite that it is.

Essentially, the question that the film provokes is by no means new, inventive, or even imaginative, but rather more and more pressing in an increasingly homogeneous climate, and that is one surrounding who has the right to represent. Kate Winslet crooned on the red carpet that it was "so great" that they had brought "the little children" from India all the way to the Oscars. Why is it so remarkable that the people whom the film is supposedly about be allowed to attend? And why then is the director, who as far as I can see really has nothing to do with the situation upon which the film is based, not only allowed to attend, but given an award? I'm sure that there are many people involved in the film who, off the back of its success, will go on to become millionaires, but i seriously doubt that it will be the self-titled "slumdog(s)".