Thursday, August 13, 2015

Landscape as Counter-Cultural Ideology in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Valhalla Rising

Before there is character in Werner Herzog’s 1972 art-house film Aguirre, The Wrath of God or Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 metatextual adventure film Valhalla Rising—despite being eponymously-titled character studies—there is landscape. While this may not appear divergent to cinematic history’s tradition of the establishing shot, the diegetic worlds which precede man in these films act as authorial narrative commentary.

David Bordwell speaks of the subjective nature of the art-house film’s use of landscape saying, “surroundings may be construed as the projections of a character's mind. Simi­larly, the syuzhet may use psychology to justify the manipu­lation of time,” but Herzog and Refn invert these conventions: rather than using character psychology to expressively “shape spatial representation,” the weightiness of the formal representation of landscape in these films paints its characters as pawns to nature’s indifferent and immovable will (Narration in 209). 

Landscape, then, becomes a character through its formal representation. The vulgarity of nature is juxtaposed against the violence of civilized man (in the name of religion) as a philosophical, authoritarian response to the marriage of colonialization and mythology. True to art-house convention, each film ties historical colonialization to a social critique of its respective history of cultures prevailing over other cultures. Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Refn’s Valhalla Rising juxtapose unforgiving landscape against religious colonization as a social indictment against cultural violence and the Western inability for communal mythology.

Though handled as a metaphoric and mythological figure within Herzog’s film, Lope de Aguirre cannot be divided from his historic significance as Spanish evangelical conquistador: the product of an ideology which justified its abuse of the New World in the name of God.

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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Mookie and the Right Thing

Spike Lee may "privilege morality over politics" as Douglas Kellner argues in "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in the Films of Spike Lee," but morality is far from black and white in Do The Right Thing. Neither morality, politics or racism is given an easy solution because, Lee would argue, there isn't one. Radio Raheem, in adopting the "love/hate" speech from The Night of the Hunter portrays a worldview that isn't exactly cut and dry (let's not forget Rev. Powell is one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time). He ends his speech saying, "if I love you, I love you. But if I hate you..." and never finishes the thought. Do the Right Thing may be a postmodern morality play, but Mookie is an everyman character: he doesn't know how to respond in this exchange with Radio Raheem saying only, "well, there you have it: love and hate," baffled by Radio Raheem's rant.

Radio Raheem seems to be purporting the MLK philosophy that love can conquer societal hate, and this thought it what Mookie has a difficult time reconciling after Radio Raheem's death. Mookie throws the trash can through the window of Sal's Famous, and I don't believe it has anything to do with protecting Sal's family. Mookie screams "HATE!" as he hurls that can and, with the act, completes the ellipses of Radio Raheem's statement. Kellner seems to criticize Lee for failing to spell how how "a system of exploitation oppresses Black," as if racism were that clear-cut. 
Mookie throws that trash can because of this system, but also because of how this system affects the individual. In the moment, Sal's Famous represented another white establishment entering the Black community for economic gain despite harboring racist attitudes toward the very community it exploits. No, Sal was not directly responsible for the death of Radio Raheem, but these actions all occurred through a thread of hate. Sal hating the Black community he served is only a step (through the narrative) of the police officers' disregard for Black lives. Mookie's destruction of property changes the conversation, trying to get the community to "wake up" (like the moral of School Daze) to the system of hate in their community. 

As we have seen recently in Ferguson and Baltimore, America still gets very hung up on the destruction of private property and neglectful of human lives. Mookie did the right thing, not in the act itself, but in forcing the conversation to be one about the larger community issues and systematic racism rather than eye-for-an-eye violence. It is not surprising to me that many people still don't understand why Mookie did what he did when we can turn on the news and, instead of hearing outrage over the death of Freddie Gray, presidential candidates instead Tweet "Blatant and rampant property destruction in Baltimore as the police stand by and watch. Should be a lesson on how NOT to handle riots. SAD!"

And it is sad in Do the Right Thing, too. Mookie and Sal's morning after is not a time of rejoicing, but they come to a sort of ambiguous understanding: Sal tries to play the martyr, bemoaning the store he built with his "bare hands." Mookie's response to what that means is, "it means you owe me $250." That is to say, private enterprise doesn't trump social responsibility. Sal has a debt to the Black community he serves.
Mookie wasn't deliberately directing attention away from Sal and his sons in order to protect them. When the conflict arises, Mookie is standing alongside Sal and his sons while the community looks at them with disdain. This is where Mookie trades sides in disassociation. This is partially self-preservation, but more important, it is Mookie's decision to take a very political stance.

Mookie seems like the kind of character who would let Sal hear about it if he was acting heroically in order to save Sal's family. When the two discuss the night's events the next morning, Sal accuses Mookie of ruining the place and Mookie says nothing like "you should be thanking me for saving your ass out there" and, furthermore, Sal doesn't interpret Mookie as doing anything other than escalating the situation. He blames Mookie for the window whose response is "motherfuck the window. Radio Raheem is dead." These few words say everything about Mookie's intentions. Mookie may not have participated in any violence directed at Sal and his sons (I don't think most of the characters in the film would have, I don't think many of the protestors in Baltimore today would have), but it's difficult to read his actions in the scene as deliberately deflecting attention away from Sal. 

Furthermore, it isn't clear Spike Lee is concerned with dichotomous morality in the situation. Love/hate are presented like Martin/Malcolm: neither has all the answers. Mookie's actions suggest that the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X are only ethereal until you're forced into a real-world situation. Their photos burning together inside Sal's Famous isn't so much to say that their philosophies are antiquated, but that we need to act rather than merely pontificate. The film challenges us to do, not buy a photo or subscribe to a given ideology. Our goal should be a common one and there isn't a prescribed road to attain it. By "doing a thing" in the name of fighting against a disenfranchising system and by opening social eyes to lives mattering more than property, Mookie did do the right thing. He acted.

Mookie didn't do the best "relative" or "situational" thing.  Yes, Do the Right Thing is a postmodern work and, undoubtedly, a nihilist fog surrounds the community in terms of dealing with systematic racism, but Lee lack of clear-cut answers doesn't suggest he thinks morality is relative. The title of the film is a call to action and not one to be taken ironically. Sal's Famous was a symbol, but also a real place. Radio Raheem was not a symbol, he was a human life. Doing the right thing is not a matter of ineffable philosophy (no matter the good intentions behind King or Malcolm X), it's a matter of taking action in the real world against injustice.

The film may not be overtly political (in the binary sense), but it's important to note that it ends with Mister Senor Love Daddy saying the city's Mayor will get to the bottom of the dispute because "the city of New York will not let property be destroyed by anyone." Radio Raheem is not in the news or the purview of the city. Black lives do not matter here. That's why the Love Daddy follows the news by encouraging people to register to vote. The system is broken, it disenfranchises Black, and, despite Kellner's essay, that is a very political message. It would not be nearly as powerful if Lee gave a trite explanation as to how to solve the nation's racist ills. Spike Lee doesn't provide political answers to solving the race problem because its solution is beyond the realm of politics and he doesn't see the end of racism occurring in his lifetime. I tend to agree on both accounts.

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Friday, July 3, 2015

Cinematography as Romantic Catalyst in Woody Allen's Manhattan

Of the many great eras of American film, the 1970s, are often considered a return to form—an almost filmic Renaissance. Here, films, directors and actors grew increasingly cynical and increasingly complex. By the 1970s, film had not only become an established medium, but an acceptable form of expression and art. American directors became post-French New Wave auteurs, not only creating a filmic style all their own, but skewing Hollywood convention in the beginning stages of postmodernism.

Relationships became increasingly complex in the cinematic realm, possibly as a mirror to what film auteurs saw as an increasing societal complexity. Here, seen most clearly in the work of Woody Allen, the camerawork becomes increasingly complicated as the character relationships become increasingly complicated.

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Authorship as Art Cinema in Ingmar Bergman's Persona

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartes was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed—master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the Cathedral of Chartes. 

—Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman

In this commentary on his own film, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman would have us believe that film stands on its own as a work of art, as if somehow any pretension of "art cinema" can be washed away by the simple analogy between a concrete and abstract work of art—that any ideas of authorship are irrelevant because, somehow, the artist is not solely responsible for his work.

In a way, Bergman is right, as the auteur theory has allowed some filmmakers the right to produce painfully self-absorbed work with little social purview, and others to never move outside a rut of established convention. Instead, most art cinema exists in between these extremities; the director is obviously important to the films he produces, but in order for the work to have social value, it must not be limited to individual reflection. Perhaps in art cinema, more than any other genre, the films strike a balance between social value of new modes of filmmaking and the significance of an auteur's canon.

That isn't to say there are no establishments within art cinema. The model is more abstract than—and in many ways runs counter to—the modes of classical production, but there remain certain tendencies in art cinema which indicate, while these films may not be necessarily formulaic, they also do not exist on such an abstract, independent plane.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

87th Academy Awards – Dream Ballot

Despite seeing nearly 300 features and shorts which I qualify as being 2014 releases, the Academy has much stricter rules.  Due to the evolving landscape of cinematic exhibition (and the proclivity of genre films being rushed to VOD) many of my favorite films of the year weren’t even given the chance at contending as a dark horse:  I have seen only 87 productions that Oscar™ deems eligible for the big award.  I don’t expect these percentages to get any better as it seems doubtful the Academy will seek to accommodate for films which circumvent the box office.

I was going to do my traditional “who will win”/”who should win” thing, but I don’t want my wife stealing all my picks in our pool so I’m doing something a little different.  Here are the nominations and wins if they were selected by me, but still holding to Academy rules (with one notable exception).  I saved this document on my hard-drive as “bizarro Oscars,” so please understand this format is weird, self-indulgent and that reader feedback is highly encouraged.

(For obvious reasons I have ignored the shorts categories.  I have no idea how a film becomes eligible in these categories and even less of an idea how they are effectively narrowed down such that an individual film makes an impact.  The short film has an incredible medium called the Internet, and the Academy’s failure to recognize this is a testament to their devotion to punctilio rather than innovative artistry.)

The envelopes, please:

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Monday, February 16, 2015

The Western as Ethnographic Barometer in Gunsmoke and Deadwood

James Arness, the actor who portrays Marshal Matt Dillon in all twenty seasons of Gunsmoke (CBS: 1955-1975), had an interesting take on the ideologies behind the genre’s success. “A cowboy wasn’t tied down to one place or one woman,” he told TV Radio Mirror in 1964. “Nowadays people just don’t seem to have the intestinal fortitude to live the way they’d like. That’s why they tune in on Westerns, to get a breather from stifling conformity. They don’t want to see Matt Dillon—or any other lawman—come home and sweep the kitchen” (McBride 64).

While, perhaps, coy or playing to character, the assertion is odd given the nature of the television medium. The American Western, more than any genre, reflects the morals and cultural feelings of the era in which they were produced. However, unlike the film industry’s predication of rugged individualism dependent on the trope of cowboys riding off into the sunset, during the heyday of the television Western, heroes needed to be domesticated in recurring roles.

Arness’s ideologically ambiguous statement does any amount of cultural work. It presumes the television Western’s narrative is coded with rigid masculinity as well as insinuates its audience is (and its network would allow its program’s target to be) exclusively male. It ties (contrary to the ideological view of the very show he stars in) law and morality to non-conformity and self-government. It suggests the masculine ideal is too individualistic for community yet offers it through a social medium.

Though fragments of these assumptions share some truth with the early Western in print and film, the television Western largely subverts these assumptions through both their serial format and consumerist ideologies. Textual analysis of the first seasons of Gunsmoke and Deadwood (HBO: 2004-2006) will examine how the television Western, though employing traditional genre tropes and themes, does not perpetuate absolute ideologies but is elastic, reflecting the cultures and formats in which they were produced. As paranoid, commercial artifacts of the Eisenhower-era Cold War and the lingering shadow of post-9/11, these programs’ use of Western language exposes an ethnological rift as the culture shifts from the perspective of victor to that of victim in terms of foreign policy.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015