Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The earth is evil. No one will miss it.": 16 notes on Lars von Trier's Melancholia

I wonder if Lars von Trier took pleasure in destroying the world that he created in Melancholia? Some notes:

1) What's the correlation between von Trier's Nazi comments at the Cannes film festival and Melancholia? Did von Trier mean to undermine the festival just as Justine (Kirstin Dunst) makes a mockery of her wedding?

2) When she changes the art book display in the library, Justine changes her mise en scene. She is a kind of prophet who can do nothing with her knowledge of the imminent destruction of the earth except negate everything around her.

3) When her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) pulls Justine aside during the wedding to attempt to stop her from making one of her "scenes," I initially thought that Justine resorts to drama because she's beautiful and spoiled, but that's not it. She's the Cassandra who knows in advance that everything her sister stands for no longer matters.

4) Melancholia, like The Tree of Life, shares a symphonic structure and the kind of cosmic imagery one finds in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The movie is divided into three parts: the prelude, and two movements, the first dedicated to Justine's disastrous wedding and her point of view, the second dedicated to Claire's perspective afterwards. All three portions invite the viewer to make connections between them.

5) The prelude's slow motion tableaus prepare the viewer for the end, giving the viewer an impersonal God-like perspective on all of the human uncertainty and error to follow (We know, for example, that the earth will smash like a fiery grapefruit into the much larger Melancholia planet).

6) In the opening scene of the prelude, Justine stares at the viewer in close up as stricken birds fall from the sky behind her. The central question of the movie becomes: what does she know? The film's version of the apocalypse parallels our environmental anxieties: snow falling on a warm summer day, hail falling crazily, and other strange weather phenomena. Sparks connect from the sky to the telephone poles and horses and other animals react to the changes that no one else can feel. How much have apocalyptic omens become part of our daily experience?

7) Why does von Trier burn one of Justine's art book displays, Bruegel's winter landscape painting "Hunters in the Snow" in the prelude?

8) Melancholia is a movie of omens. Justine's depression could be in actuality the prophet's knowledge. As in Donnie Darko (2001), what appears to be mental illness could be a higher understanding. So, Justine's character becomes more calm and collected in the latter movement which is otherwise dedicated to Claire's worry and despair. Justine finds that she can give herself over to the arrival of the planet (she even lies in the nude at night to be ravished by it). The planet Melancholia becomes her groom. She seems cheered up slightly by the planet's increasing proximity. One could say that her knowledge somehow makes her superior to her imminent destruction (although one gets the impression that von Trier would never allow any kind of afterlife to his characters; Malick's seeming willingness to do so in The Tree of Life makes the latter film less severe). At the end of Melancholia when the earth is destroyed, one can't help but expect some sort of coda or denouement, but what can happen after that? Credits.

9) At one point, Justine says "The earth is evil. There's no need to grieve for it. No one will miss it." Did von Trier mean for her gnostic words to echo Uncle Charlie's in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) : "How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?"

10) The bath theme (Justine takes a bath during her wedding in the first movement, and then initially proves too depressed to bathe in the second) ties in with the suicide of Ophelia theme foreshadowed in the prelude.

11) Claire is all about worry. She conveys a mother's despair, knowing that her young son will be killed. As the planet approaches, she doesn't know where to go, what to do. (spoiler alert) Her last act on earth takes on a ritualistic importance. All that Justine and Claire have left is a last stab at magic for the boy's (Leo's) sake. One could say this is pitifully ineffectual, but one could also see that this attempt to keep Leo from fear is one of the most important acts of the movie.

12) In one evening, Justine negates:

a) marriage
b) society
c) her employment
d) her mise en scene
e) her family's money

She denies her wedding's presumption of a comedic ending. Her knowledge is fundamentally tragic, so her wedding dress becomes a kind of shroud.

13) Justine's horse is named Abraham. Did Von Trier mean to make us think of the Old Testament Abraham's absurd trial when God commands him to kill his son Isaac, a story which also figures prominently in Kierkegaard's book Fear and Trembling (1843)?

14) Did von Trier mean for the family's sumptuous midnight front lawn (with its freaky shadows) to echo this scene from Last Year at Marionbad (1961)?

15) What happens to one's experience of time when one knows the world will end soon? According to the prelude, it slows down. The everydayness is gone. How much does Melancholia convey the tragic knowledge one would have if one's mortality was not contingent, if one knew that one will die tomorrow? How much would one's life fill with omens? How much would it take on the same eerily backlit, slow motion grandeur?

16) The whole film boils down to the three principal characters' ability to face the Gorgon--the knowledge of their annihilation. As Kafka wrote, "Can you know anything but illusion? If once illusion were destroyed you would never dare to look back; you would turn into a pillar of salt." In her depression, Justine does become immobilized, but then she finds that she can face it. One wonders, if she, like von Trier, takes some perverse pleasure in the imminent destruction of the earth.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

surveilled links

---Why the crackdown on Occupy?

"Since Occupy is heavily surveilled and infiltrated, it is likely that the DHS and police informers are aware, before Occupy itself is, what its emerging agenda is going to look like. If legislating away lobbyists' privileges to earn boundless fees once they are close to the legislative process, reforming the banks so they can't suck money out of fake derivatives products, and, most critically, opening the books on a system that allowed members of Congress to profit personally – and immensely – from their own legislation, are two beats away from the grasp of an electorally organised Occupy movement … well, you will call out the troops on stopping that advance."

---Why are Americans being "assaulted, clubbed, pepper-sprayed" for "exercising their right to free speech and assembly"?

---The Department of Homeland Security?

---"The Storm Within: Jeff Nichol's Take Shelter" by Scott Macauley

---Palestine and the "architecture of occupation"

---the great black Friday two dollar waffle iron riot

---preparing for the next dark age

---"Every year it becomes more difficult to keep within 2C [of warming above pre-industrial levels – the limit of safety, according to scientists, beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible]."

---Greenwald's "What Endless War Looks Like":

"I’m sure we can all agree that we must endure years more of civil liberties assaults, endless war, bulging military budgets, suffocating government secrecy, a sprawling surveillance regime, and the slaughter of countless more Muslim children in order to save ourselves from this existential Lone Wolf threat. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that endless war, drone attacks, occupying countries, and engineering regime change is precisely what causes and fuels these threats in the first place. Indeed, NYPD’s Police Commission Raymond Kelly claimed that “Pimentel’s talk did not ‘turn to action’ until recently” when he “clearly ‘jacked up his speed after the elimination’ of the Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by an American drone strike in September.” In other words, what little Terrorism does exist is caused directly by our own actions — the very actions justified in the name of stopping Terrorism."

---"it's getting harder and harder to grow any food at all"

---big data

---"Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor"

---6 silent films that inspired The Artist

---Enter the Void's title sequence

---Robert Hass: “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!”

---Charles Taylor's problem with film criticism

---@biblioklept's "Newt's Children, Dystopian Visions, and Greenzone America"

---the classic films behind Hugo

---"Our Bella, Ourselves" by Sarah Blackwood:

"Bella Swan, by contrast, is a much more honest (though cringe-inducing) representation of adolescence. She doesn't know who she is or what she wants. She's clumsy, obtuse, and aggravating in her helplessness. She is also entirely internal, almost alienatingly so. One of my favorite passages from the novel New Moon is when Stephenie Meyer inserts a series of blank pages to stand in for the months that pass while Bella mourns — out of any reasonable proportion — Edward’s desertion. Bella, kind of wonderfully, takes her time.

This is an uncomfortable place for feminists, because this heroine is not particularly good at actualizing herself. Bella waits, she wallows, she thinks, and feels, and worries, and wonders. She does not actualize in the sense we have come to expect from our heroines, an expectation that, I might point out, is quite often based on a masculinist understanding of what being effective in the world looks like. Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the popular The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series, is emotionally stunted but, damn it, she actualizes herself! She punishes the people who hurt her, she sleeps with whomever she wishes, she zips around on a motorcycle, and she’s a master computer hacker. In other words, our actualized female heroine might as well be a tiny man."

---lastly, Miley Cyrus and the pop appropriation of revolution

Saturday, November 19, 2011

securitized links

---Anatomy of an Arrest

---Gilham's "Securitizing America":

"Under the strategy of escalated force police relied on spectacular shows of force that quickly escalated and often turned brutal and occasionally fatal. Frequently, police used force indiscriminately against both violent and non-violent protesters as an alternative to arresting people. By contrast, in negotiated management, the use of force was the tactic of last resort and even then was applied proportionally to threats displayed, and only at those clearly breaking the law (McPhail et al. 1998).

Under strategic incapacitation police have routinely used force selectively against perceived or actual transgressive protesters. Less-lethal weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, Tasers, rubber bullets, wooden missiles and bean bag rounds are now the weapons of choice. They are less likely to maim or kill, although they have caused serious injury and death. Evidence suggests that police use these weapons as a means to temporarily incapacitate potentially disruptive protesters and repel others away from areas police are trying to defend such as entrances and exits to secured zones (Noakes and Gillham 2007)."

---10 tips for filming protests

---HDR timelapse video

---"What could be more central to Occupy’s guiding philosophy than the idea that the rule of law has been subverted by corporate interests?"

---preparing for the next great depression

---Charles Taylor's problem with film criticism

---Olbermann's thoughts on the clearing of Zuccotti Park

---"What drives the spread of surveillance is not a desire to diminish evil, but the desire to control."

---creating Scarface

---more relevant than ever: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

---Ohlin's "Our Zombies, Ourselves":

"Zombies, it turns out, have much to tell us about our lives in the 2010s. In the literature of the 1940s and 1950s, as critic Morris Dickstein points out in Leopards in the Temple, the Holocaust and the A-bomb rarely appeared explicitly; they seemed perhaps too big to grasp, and too far removed from the personal experience of many writers. What appeared instead was an undercurrent of anxiety shooting through both mainstream literature and popular culture, sublimated, displaced. Expression of the looming threat often took the form of fantastical creatures, especially in the B-movies and comic books that birthed the gigantic likes of Godzilla and the 50-foot woman.

If postwar fiction and popular culture were haunted by the technologies humans had made and the danger that they might backfire and destroy us completely, our own moment’s fears seem to take on a more manageable, face-to-face, if no less terrifying character. We live in an era of rampant overpopulation, ever-increasing consumption, and limited resources, and our monster of choice, today, is the zombie. The current zombie renaissance — and make no mistake, they are everywhere, from movies like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, Zombieland, The Walking Dead to the proclamations of the Center for Disease Control, which last spring issued tongue-in-cheek preparedness guidelines for the zombie apocalypse (`If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak') — is a clear descendent of the kind of displaced cultural anxiety Dickstein diagnoses, but with a difference. Zombies aren’t space invaders or giant insects; they’re not `others' in the way most monsters are. They’re human victims, really, who can’t control what they do. They are uncomfortably, uncannily close to being just like us: our zombies, ourselves."

---Filmmaking techniques by Tim O'Riordan

---Robokopter Zamieski

---Annie Leonard's Story of Broke

---a scene from Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love

---Mike Figgis interviews Jodie Foster

---"Suppressing nonviolent dissent": an anthology

---Linsky's "@longformorg guide to the making of movies"

---trailers for Rampart, Brave, Mirror Mirror, The Iron Lady, and a featurette for The Descendants

---Craig reviews Kellow's Pauline Kael

---an (exclusively male) director's roundtable

---lastly, the political courage of Elizabeth Warren

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Hoover: 7 notes on Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar

As I sat amongst the elderly audience at my local cineplex, I could only focus on J. Edgar's problems even as I kept thinking of Richard Brody's appeal for critics to be careful with their glib judgments of this film. As he writes, "Most critics, myself included, lapse into the shoddy shorthand of our own pleasures when we feel constrained in space or time. But a substantial movie such as J. Edgar deserves better; it deserves a consideration of why Eastwood made it to become what it is." Yes, I agree, but still. Here are some of my issues with the film:

1) J. Edgar has so many correspondences with The Social Network, I couldn't help but wonder if Eastwood was emulating David Fincher. With Hammer appearing often as Hoover's trusted pseudo-love interest/right-hand man, I kept thinking that he's got one of the Winklevii brothers to add class to his Citizen Kane-esque tale of power and corruption. Aaron Sorkin's narrative tendency to skip back and forth in time worked well in The Social Network. The 2010 film's brew of billion-dollar lawsuits, Harvard undergraduate social climbing, and Zuckerberg's computer geek near-autistic detachment formed a compelling mix, in part because so much money was at stake even before you knew exactly how Zuckerberg earned it. In J. Edgar, a geeky but well-dressed career bureaucrat faces congressional criticism, multiple presidents trying to undermine his power, and a lifelong blocked urge to wear a dress. The future does not hang over the early years as dramatically. In The Social Network, no one ages all that much (the real Zuckerberg is still astonishingly only 27 years old), so no one has to focus on their makeup. Whereas Sorkin's screenplay uses the time shifting technique to disorient the viewer with its whip smart switchbacks, in J. Edgar writer Dustin Lance Black (of Milk) uses the same device to obfuscate and complicate an otherwise straightforward story.

2) J. Edgar begins with a shot of Hoover in his corpulent old age, a narrative maneuver that instantly made the movie less plausible. I couldn't suspend my disbelief that I was looking at actual old people given the familiarity of the movie stars in question. When the film jumps back and forth in time, having J. Edgar suddenly rejuvenated by 30 years with his second-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) in the midst of an elevator ride quickly juxtaposed with their youthful lovers' quarrel, the shifting only highlights the problems of believability. We also see them soon afterward in advanced age as they watch the horse races (leaving the viewer saying "Man, how they've grown old together").

As much as anything, the film is a study in aging, but I could never believe in the transformation--Tolson nodding and looking enfeebled after a stroke, DiCaprio bent over and looking glum with his horned-rim glasses. As Hoover cracks open a soft-boiled egg with a fork, Armie Hammer looks disarmingly like David Bowie's aged-a-hundred-years-in-a-day vampire John in The Hunger (1983).

3) J. Edgar also has many correspondences to Citizen Kane (1941), another movie with a chopped-up timeline. (Jay Rober Nash's 1972 biography was entitled Citizen Hoover.) What do Kane and Hoover have in common? Both films feature ambivalent figures highly interested in controlling their public image. They both follow their rise to fame with late grumpy ironic corruption, but whereas Kane remains fundamentally inscrutable, Eastwood's Hoover keeps giving away his secrets (I found I preferred the mysterious and fragmented picture I had of the real-life Hoover to the explained one on the screen). So, [spoiler alert] after a lovers' spat with Tolson, Hoover says "I love you" under his breath (such cruel irony--Tolson doesn't hear him). Hoover didn't like to dance with women, so his domineering Ma Annie (Judi Dench), teaches him how in her bedroom. Annie's relationship with J. reminded me of Hitchcock's weirdness around his mother as he reported to her bedside with much Catholic guilt whenever he transgressed. Still, Kane retains a little potency and mystery as he walks past his hall of mirrors in Xanadu. Hoover rants against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also falls and weeps on the bedroom floor after putting on his mother's dress and pearls. It seems typical of Eastwood's and Black's methods to enhance that latter scene with anguished melodrama. Why couldn't they allow Hoover to enjoy his transvestism?

4) For decades, Hoover never changed his methods for holding on to power all that much. He is always the career-opportunist, finding ways to enhance his pet project, the FBI, with careful public relations marketing strategies (G-men promotion on Post Toasties cereal boxes) and proper fashion choices (tailored suits, 1950s tapered haircuts, no mustaches). In his superficial way, Hoover is nothing if not detail-oriented and efficient, but even with all of the self-loathing sexual repression going on, efficiency is rather dull to watch. Orson Welles masked some of the conventionalities of his story of one man's rise to world prominence with his charisma as an actor and his idiosyncratic film technique that, as Scorsese points out, calls the viewer's attention to the director's decisions behind the camera. In comparison, Eastwood's direction of J. Edgar is efficient but not as flashy.

5) At one point, Hoover claps a little too long after the Lindbergh baby kidnapper Richard Bruno Hauptmann was sentenced to death. Did Eastwood intend to draw a correlation between Hoover's carefully staged prosecution and Kane's attempt to use his propagandistic power to force the public to accept his second wife's Susan Alexander's opera career?

6) In the end, all of J. Edgar's allusions to The Social Network and Citizen Kane mostly betray how the later film would like to join the pantheon. In the process of having examined his career closely, J. Edgar ends up depicting a reduced figure henpecked by his own need to maintain appearances, hold on to power, and deny his affections. His mass of repressive symptoms are certainly dramatic, but I still prefer Billy Crudup's much briefer and more evocative version of Hoover in Public Enemies (2009).

7) Ultimately, the chief drawback of J. Edgar consists of the man himself. As the movie shifts back to the 1930s, Eastwood makes a point of showing reaction shots of audiences smirking and preferring gangster film heroes like James Cagney in Public Enemy to Hoover's public relations efforts to glorify the FBI. After watching 137 minutes of J. Edgar Hoover's fussy inadequacies, I can sympathize with the moviegoers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

remodernist links

---World Order's "2012"

---Neyfakh's "The rise of punkademia"

---Ron Meyer confesses "Land of the Lost was just crap. I mean, there was no excuse for it" as Guy Adams examines the decline of the movie industry:

"There's very real anxiety in the movie business," says Kim Masters, editor-at-large of The Hollywood Reporter. "Audiences, and young people especially, are just not turning out to the cinema in the numbers they were. In fact, there's a joke going around town, though people are saying it through gritted teeth: $20m is the new $60m. What it means is that movies which used to bring in $60m in their opening weekend are now doing a third of that amount."

---Nussbaum's "The Rebirth of the Feminist Manifesto" and the Remodernist film manifesto

---classic video game deaths

---an encounter with the Oakland police

---David Lynch's music

---Lopate reviews Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

---deBoer's "The Resentment Machine":

"The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, The Wire, says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything. Likewise, the internet exists to perpetuate the idea that there is some meaningful difference between fans of this band or that, of Android or Apple, or that there is a Slate lifestyle and a This Recording lifestyle and one for The Hairpin or wherever. Not a word of it is true. There are no Apple people. Buying an iPad does nothing to delineate you from anyone else. Nothing separates a Budweiser man from a microbrew guy. That our society insists that there are differences here is only our longest con.

This endless posturing, pregnant with anxiety and roiling with class resentment, ultimately pleases no one. Yet this emptiness doesn’t compel people to turn away from the sorting mechanism. Instead, it draws them further and further in. Faced with the failure of their cultural affinities to define an authentic and fulfilling self, postcollegiate middle-class upwardly-oriented-if-not-upwardly-mobile Americans double down on the importance of these affinities and confront the continued failure with a formless resentment. The bitterness that surrounds these distinctions is a product of their inability to actually make us distinct."

---the problem with pictures under glass

---Bell's "Hellish Productions of Six Great Movies"

---"we are a nation of prisonkeepers"

---Ryan Gosling saying nothing

---Lethem's issues with James Wood's review of The Fortress of Solitude

---Kasman's notes on Unstoppable

---lastly, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop in Coffee and Cigarettes

Saturday, November 5, 2011

shock links

---Film Students Getting Punched

---God's eye view

---Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine

---13 movie poster trends

---Book: A Futurist's Manifesto:

"In a digital realm, true content solutions are increasingly built with open APIs, something containers are pretty bad at. APIs—application programming interfaces—provide users with a roadmap that lets them customize their content consumption.

The physical forms of books, magazines, and newspapers have user interfaces that predate APIs. We’ve all figured out how to access the information contained in these physical products. But, the physical form itself does not always make for a good user interface, something that Craigslist, the Huffington Post, Cookstr, and others have capitalized on.

Open up your API, I contend, or someone else will.

Many current audiences (and all future ones) live in an open and accessible environment. They expect to be able to look under the hood, mix and match chunks of content, and create, seamlessly, something of their own. Failure to meet those needs will result in obscurity, at best."

---"Make a movie every week. Write every night." Filmmaking advice from Tarantino and Raimi

---how headlines are created

---Radical America

---Limbo VFX reel

---"a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit"

---"bicycles for the mind"--Silberman explores Steve Jobs' relationship to Zen:

"As a young seeker in the ’70s, Jobs didn’t just dabble in Zen, appropriating its elliptical aesthetic as a kind of exotic cologne. He turns out to have been a serious, diligent practitioner who undertook lengthy meditation retreats at Tassajara — the first Zen monastery in America, located at the end of a twisting dirt road in the mountains above Carmel — spending weeks on end “facing the wall,” as Zen students say, to observe the activity of his own mind.

Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear."

---Lezard's short history of Cahiers du Cinema

---stop-motion Tintin

---Liang's "Camera Movement in Max Ophul's films" (thanks to @filmstudiesff)

---Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel"

---the draconian effects of the Stop Online Piracy Act

---the secrets of the McRib that involves heart, tripe, tongue, scalded stomachs

---"Freeing themselves from the constraining expectations of naturalism, those moments embody the culturally confrontational fact that compared with all other art forms, musicals have the greatest vocabulary for sustained joy."

---"The global economy will remain a horrific disaster for another decade and we’re facing worldwide environmental catastrophe, so we must never, ever cut funding for the Army. Got it."

---Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design

---a letter from Madonna

---Page Eight trailer

---Ingram considers the implications of digital ownership

---the hunt for Blue Velvet's lost footage

---lastly, Eddie Murphy's career arc