Blue Story (Rapman, UK, 2019)

I came to Blue Story with a pre-formed mix of admiration and expectation.

The admiration arises from Rapman’s meteoric rise as a rapper from ends being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – much on the back of Rapman’s music videos/online series, Shiro’s Story (UK, 2018).

Shiro’s Story involves some solid storytelling – with Rapman himself functioning as a kind of chorus over events as they unfold, involving love, betrayal, struggle and so on. I shall return to Shiro’s Story as a point of comparison to Blue Story later on.

The expectation that I had for Blue Story arises not only from the existence of Shiro’s Story as a decent piece of online media, but also from recent news stories that, for better or for worse, have helped to give the film a great amount of exposure in recent days, in particular a reported gang brawl involving c100 people at a Birmingham multiplex on 24 November 2019.

Not that the brawling has anything per se to do with Blue Story, but it nonetheless increases expectations about the timeliness and importance of the film. Indeed, the screen at which I saw the film (at the Odeon Covent Garden in London) was near-full (c160 tickets sold).

Furthermore, the vast majority of the audience were young and non-white – on a scale that I have rarely if ever seen at a central London theatre, suggesting that the film is connecting with an audience that otherwise does not often make the trip into such spaces. Clearly, London and the UK in general need more films like Blue Story in order to bring people together – especially to see demographics represented onscreen that all too often are overlooked, tokenised and so on.

Indeed, as has been reported, the decision by VUE to pull Blue Story from its screens (with Showcase having reinstated it shortly after removing it following the Birmingham brawl) is considered to have an element of structural racism associated with it: cinemas are white spaces where black and other non-white British (and other) people appear neither in person nor on screen.

And yet, if we are to have the wherewithal to recognise the importance of structures in the exhibition policies of British cinema chains, as well as perhaps in British cinema as an institution, then it is the absence of structures in Blue Story that constitute its most serious failings.

The film is not without many things to commend it: the performances are across the board intense, with leads Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward clearly standing out; there are some moments that beautifully capture the awkwardness of youth (with audience members responding audibly about the familiarity of party and clinch situations during the screening I saw); and Rapman’s own appearances, rapping as if a Greek chorus in between acts. These latter in particular take the film into the territory of the musical that is fresh and engaging.

What is more, Blue Story clearly fits into a genealogy of black British and other filmmaking, with Noel Clarke looming as a key influence, even if Rapman himself first made a version of Blue Story for YouTube in 2014 – i.e. before Clarke had even finished his -hood trilogy, which culminated in Brotherhood (UK, 2016).

What is more, Rapman’s music clearly bears traces of what might seem an unlikely point of reference, namely Bruce Hornsby – he of ‘The Way It Is’ fame.

Except that Hornsby’s influence is not as unlikely as all that when we consider that ‘The Way It Is’ is a song about the American Civil Rights movement, with the song making reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as racial segregation in the form of the ‘color bar’ (‘When all it sees at the hiring time / Is the line on the color bar, no / That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change’).

What is more, Hornsby has been a regular collaborator with Spike Lee, writing music for nine of Lee’s films, including Clockers (USA, 1995), Bamboozled (USA, 2001), Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) and BlackKklansman (USA, 2018), as well as his Netflix production of She’s Gotta Have It (USA, 2017-2019).

In other words, Lee’s legacy is felt at least indirectly in Blue Story, suggesting that the latter wishes on some level to situate itself within a history of politicised and political filmmaking – and music.

But as Blue Story struggles to recognise structures, so does it struggle to render its story political.

Here I encounter some ambivalence. As a white male film scholar, I am wary that I should be moved to write a blog about a black British film, especially when I am going to be critical of it.

For, why should I critique a black British film when I let so many white British films go for being mediocre, troublesome or problematic (I simply don’t have time to write about all of the films I see)?

It is not that I consider Rapman to be under pressure to represent the totality of the black British experience. But while I want to be supportive of Blue Story (and I hope that in writing this blog at all, I am demonstrating that in many ways I am), I also cannot let the film go for deficiencies that would for me be problematic in any film (all the while acknowledging that I am perhaps ‘no one’ to be able to comment on a film at all).

A read of bell hooks’ wonderful Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) would quickly highlight various of the film’s problems. As hooks takes none other than Spike Lee to task for the phallocentric nature of his cinematic universe, so, too, is Rapman’s cinematic universe one dominated by men, especially as mothers and girlfriends disappear over the course of the first half of the film.

Conceivably Rapman is commenting on precisely the issue of sexism and the toxic nature of masculinity. Nonetheless, his female characters become background over the course of the film (while also being referred to repeatedly – and with intended humour – as ‘tings’ by the male characters who basically stare at them at parties). As a result, women function here as excuses for the men to puff their chests at each other – with barely a nod to the queerness of such behaviour being allowed in such a film.

However, I remain unconvinced that Rapman is commenting and inviting us critically to reflect upon black British masculinity, since the writer-director does so little to engage with where it comes from, how it is constructed and so on. That is, Rapman does not engage with the structures that bring about the aggressive black masculinities on display here – and in this sense his film plays more for entertainment than it does for politics.

This is a pity. Because in Shiro’s Story, for example, we get to see Shiro (Joivan Wade) working in a warehouse before he is then offered a break as a drug dealer. While there is some mention in Blue Story about how Timmy (Odubola) is sold out by a bribe from a rival gang, the world of film is not situated in any economic reality at all.

Furthermore, while there is the odd mention that the threatened and real violence that we see in the film is pointless given that the gang members do not ‘own’ their postcode, there is no sense of history here: how is it that London has come to have ‘ghettos’ and how is it that many young black men (in particular) come to feel hopeless and/or disaffected in such a way that they join gangs.

Rapman is clearly astute to how violence can breed violence, but he barely does more than namedrop the bigger issues that bring about the violence that seems endemic in black British urban society.

Indeed, from Shiro’s Story we know that Rapman can contextualise his stories; and so that he does not here is not because he is a first-time writer-director and thus inexperienced. That is, I shan’t let him hide behind that excuse, especially as he is not as young as all that (in his 30s, apparently), and even if his film does have some dodgy plotting (would a van door really be so hot that one could not touch it even for a quarter of a second in order to open it, especially using, say, a sleeve over one’s hand?).

Rather, the lack of explanation as to why these men are engaging in this behaviour is a choice made by or imposed upon Rapman. That is, he chooses not to show us, for example, the mother of Marco (Ward) and Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) working two jobs, preferring instead to show us her two sons, who seemingly come only to care to seek ‘beef’ with the paigons (pagans) from another postcode.

I say ‘imposed upon,’ because Rapman possibly delivered a film that pleases not so much the audience of his film as a ‘white’ financing institution like the BBC. That is, a kind of structural racism might have been at play in bringing about the end result that is Blue Story in its current form – and one that Rapman has either not been able to criticise, or with which he is happily complicit.

However, the result is the same: without going into the underlying issues that bring about violence, Blue Story becomes little more than a showcase of black men arguing and trying to out-macho each other.

In making little to no attempt to tell us why what we are seeing is taking place, these black men become simply spectacles of violence – and the film reaffirms (I assume without wanting to) the (racist) message that ‘black men are simply like this.’ Or: that’s just the way it is.

However, when Hornsby sings how ‘that’s just the way it is,’ he is of course employing irony because history has shown us that segregation could not continue in the USA, even as racial inequality continues via what Angela Y. Davis has repeatedly identified as the prison industrial complex (including most recently here).

Rapman, meanwhile, provides no history (with the lack of history wrapped up here in the trope/cliché of the absent father, which is repeated across both Timmy and Marco’s families) and in some senses no irony – even if there is ‘dramatic irony’ in that good friends become worst enemies.

To be clear, I am not saying that Rapman needs to offer us a happy ending in which people overcome rivalries and enmity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of pessimism in movies about race, including in now-classics like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (USA, 1991).

This in turns means that it is not quite fair to ask us to think about how Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (USA, 2019) is playing on UK screens with very little fanfare when compared with Blue Story – since in its hopeful tale of historical female heroism it perhaps does not grasp a sense of despair that black and other non-white British audiences potentially connect with, rather than the white bourgeois sense of hope that a film like Harriet perhaps evokes.

But at least in Singleton’s film, the audience is constantly being reminded of a world beyond its Crenshaw setting, as well as the possibility of another world; there is always a choice, and there are economic, social and other structural pressures at work that make the personal lives depicted also political (even as Boyz n the Hood is formally quite conservative).

Notably, when Rapman’s film refers to anything beyond SE13 and SE15, it is generally to Rapman’s own music and/or the LinkUp TV channel that published his early work.

That is, Rapman foregoes political engagement for self-promotion. Again, this is Rapman’s choice; but as he prefers to promote himself over any genuine attempt to engage politically with the structural aspects of race and gang crime in the UK, so does he – in the language of the Dead Prez – choose a Lexus over justice.

Furthermore, as the film becomes repetitive in its succession of scenes in which black men argue, it conceivably ties into a history of what James A. Snead describes in his glorious essay as ‘repetition in black culture.’

But again, there is no motivation for this – meaning that gangs simply exist, without being concerned with territorial business interests connected to the grey or black markets, alternative economies, or social conditions. Apparently simply being born in Peckham will induce in black men a hatred for black men from Deptford – and vice versa, and that’s just the way it is.

Given the coverage that it has enjoyed, it seems a shame that Blue Story wastes a rare opportunity to offer up a scathing critique of structural racism in the UK.

In this sense, the coverage of the Birmingham brawl in fact becomes emblematic of the film as a whole: rather than making a film that incites audience members to take militantly to the streets in demand of social change, Blue Story instead becomes an excuse for young ethnic British people to fight each other.

Sure, this spectacle of self-destruction takes place in an otherwise white, consumerist enclave, and thus it does in some senses unsettle readers of national newspapers. But it also simply reaffirms and reinforces a white fear of a black Britain – reducing minority youths to hoodlums in hoodies who simply are violent, with no need for the rest of society to reflect on their own implication in this mess.

That is, blackness becomes a spectacle for white consumption.

The nihilism involved both in the brawl and in Blue Story is troubling – and in this sense there really is something to get behind here. What is more, there clearly is a British sensibility of nihilism, as we have seen in countless movies related to class (and now race): there is no way out of the British class system (meaning that the UK is truly corrupt since it sees change as impossible; history ended in the UK first, with numerous black and other non-white bodies being excluded from mainstream society).

Maybe it is my white sensibility that is at play when I say that I would hope for more, and maybe it is unfair to ask Rapman to be anything other than human, i.e. flawed and imperfect. But if we believe there is something wrong – as Blue Story would seemingly purport – then it is our duty (so say I) to understand why, so that we then might understand how to change it.

Without understanding why, and without any sense of history (because there is no history?), then it will simply perpetuate – as a spectacle as well as in the form of a reality that affects the lives of real people. The lack of critical engagement here is telling, but also self-defeating.

As Shiro’s Story demonstrates, Rapman can do better. Let us hope, therefore, that next time he will engage with a bigger picture and that he realises not just his commercial potential, but also the political and ethical potential of his considerable artistic talents.

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Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

I was recently invited to write an essay on “Don’t Look Now” for a catalog to accompany a recent exhibition of work by Martin Erik Andersen at Holstebro Art Museum in Denmark.

Always one to be persuaded by flattery, I naturally accepted, and subsequently spent a fair amount of time conducting research, watching and thinking about the film, and then writing this essay.

Alas, however, the below essay was not what they said that they were looking for – in that does not provide a ‘mathematical’ analysis of the film. Rather than waste the c30 hours of work that went into this, though, I figured I would post it here.

Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

Spoilers.

“Don’t Look Now” seems to have it in for wizened old dwarf women, since the one who features in Nicolas Roeg’s film turns out to be a murderer who ultimately slays John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, and who is the central protagonist of the movie.

We have to start with a spoiler, though, because it is only by getting to the end of the film that we can begin in certain respects to make sense of it. For, as we shall see, “Don’t Look Now” offers up a conception of space and time that suggests that in many respects we are always already dead – and that it is simply an anthropocentric conceit to organise, or indeed to contain, space and time into measurable units, or indeed to measure space and time at all.

I should refine my last sentence and say that it is not simply an anthropocentric conceit to measure space and time (to divide space and time into measurements). Rather, it is quite specifically a tendency or a trope of what we might term capitalist man to do this (with the gender implications of the term ‘man’ being allowed to remain, with whiteness and western-ness also being qualities that remain consistent with such hegemonic practices, or practices of domination). In short, capitalist white man (who could almost certainly be specified via further adjectives) seeks to dominate nature by subjugating nature to measurement. By making our world finite and ordered. To bring order to chaos.

Why does man seek to do this? Because he wishes to halt time, not to die, to live forever, and to escape from the perceived cruelty of nature, which cruelty amounts basically to taking it as an insult that he does not live forever in the first place. That is, man seeks to do this out of narcissism. To prove that he is above the animals and ‘better’ than nature.

But what does this have to do with “Don’t Look Now”?

It has everything to do with “Don’t Look Now”, because (capitalist western white) man’s wrangles with the chaotic universe become the very fabric of Roeg’s movie, both as a documentary and as a self-consciously composed (fiction) film

What on earth do I mean when I describe the film as a documentary?

Well, what in particular I mean is that humans don’t have to go very far with a camera in order to find signs of humanity’s attempts to dominate nature/the world/chaos via what I am terming measurement. As it turns out, Venice is an excellent venue for this because it is a space where the straight lines and measurements that humanity imposes on the world (including the delimitation and naming of space that is calling this particular place ‘Venice’) come in direct contact with—and are reflected in—the chaotic waters on top of which that city is built (and into which it is slowly sinking, about which, more imminently).

But even if Venice provides an excellent visualisation of how a certain kind of humanity (patriarchal white society, with the Christianity business at its core) tries specifically to build itself upon water in order to subjugate that water, you could basically point a camera anywhere these days and what you would film would include the straight lines and geometric patterns applied to and/or covering over nature by humans, as well as signs of that nature itself in the form of tendrils, vines, blades of grass, trees, rain, clouds, and anything else that is not manmade. In this sense, pretty much all films document the ways in which humans try to, but in many ways cannot, pave over nature and create a measured and measurable world of order, and of which we can make easy sense. We simplify nature, making order of chaos, and in so doing we mark our separation from chaos, giving to ourselves a sense of our own specialness within the universe.

Except, of course, that this endeavour is all vanity—and Venice will indeed sink into the quagmire as churches will fall into disrepair, humans will die, and so on. At least, this will happen until humans do discover the elixir of eternal life (and preferably eternal youth rather than ageing forever but not dying). That is, humans will do this until they do finally become gods—a pursuit that even today many believe possible thanks to the powers of ‘science,’ i.e. thanks to the powers of measurement itself. We seek the bottles or other containers that will bring about eternal life, be those augmented bodies, computer avatars, elixirs that we can drink, space ships to take us to the stars and many more ideas, as often faddish as foolish.

Cinema and photography, as technologies that can in some senses preserve human life, including beyond what we typically refer to as death, are part and parcel of this endeavour. And yet, cinema can also, like many humans, be at war with this embalming impulse and it can also open itself up to and find regeneration in chaos. Rather than being a tool for eternal life, cinema can also let chaos and death into its system.

And so if “Don’t Look Now” documents man’s vanity as he attempts to cheat death (just look at Venice; such vanity is the very architecture of the place), it also consciously explores this contradiction, and thus it emerges as a work of art that actively works with chaos rather than trying to pour concrete over it.

Indeed, the opening shots announce as much: rain and the shuddering water of a pond—accompanied by a zoom that creates a pattern of almost televisual static. We dissolve to patterns of light on a black background, as light filters through cracks in a blind. The blind may keep out the light, but as the film will tell us, the blind can also see, and in seeing, show us aspects of our world that we otherwise miss.

After these opening seconds, we will repeatedly have flowers, vines and tendrils creeping into the frame. Indeed, in cutaway after cutaway, Roeg deliberately speaks the iconographic language of the still life, where the straight lines of the human world are juxtaposed with the sinewy mess of nature. Furthermore, pigeons will repeatedly emerge into frame to disrupt the geometry of the city, while cats meow from behind metal grates (which is not to mention dogs barking and children crying offscreen throughout the film).

Even when we do find ourselves in relatively geometric spaces, the human itself emerges as a force of chaos rather than one of control. We can picture John and Laura, framed by drawing tubes and hotel room furniture, and yet they themselves both have curly, barely controlled hair, spiralling out of their heads (and out of John’s lip)—a sort of cinematic Kandinsky consisting of monochromatic straight lines coming up against inconsistent spheres.

John is at the centre of this tension between order and chaos. If the blind seer Heather can tell that John also has visions, John tries as best he can to deny them. Even as he knows that he is restoring a fake church, something that he admits to Laura over dinner, he still is invested in the project of halting time and bringing about the restoration and eternal youth of this floating city.

Indeed, the tension that John feels is clearly reflected in his consideration of space. For, John has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, which we see next to Laura on the sofa of their English home at the film’s start. We are not given access to the book’s contents, but from its title we might surmise that John can indeed see beyond space as geometric, that is, beyond space as being made of fixed and measured/measurable coordinates.

Let us dwell a while on this idea. For, the Greek term for measurement is metron, which for Reza Negarestani is

found etymologically encrypted in English words such as Dimension (from dimetiri: measure out), meter, etc. Keeping well in mind the famous doctrine of Pythagoras, ‘Man is the metron of everything’ (pantōn chrēmatōn metron anthrōpos), metron can be translated as scale, measure, standard, and value. According to Sextus Empiricus, metron expresses criterion (scale, measure) but Heraclitus and Sophocles saw it as certifying dominance, a domination over something. Therefore, metron indicates that both measures and dimensions inter-connect with power, judgement and reasoning. The critique of metron explains how dimensions (namely metron) bring power into effect, mobilizing and propagating it. (Negarestani 2008: 233)

In other words, metron is humanity’s attempt to control an otherwise dimension-defying reality and to become a god by measuring it out, by applying to it a fixed number of dimensions, and thus by dominating/subjugating/simplifying it. No wonder it is that we see a bust of Socrates’ note-taker, Plato, as John inspects a slide also at the film’s start. For, via his engagement with ancient Greek thought, John understands that measurement is nothing more than man’s attempt to control nature, and that it must therefore be fragile. What, however, lies ‘beyond’ this fragile geometry of space…?

Beyond the fragile dimensions that humans construct via walls, pavements and other straight, hard surfaces, which all eventually will crumble into the sea, man is lost—as John and Laura experience even within Venice as they wander its alleyways at night. Without illumination and thus without the visible markers or measures of space that man has created in order to navigate it, space is simply a labyrinth, and space simply swallows up man and demonstrates that his meaning and order, his straight lines and his religious myths, are mere consolations against the impermanence and complexity of the world. Even a frozen lake is not flat/straight, as Laura explains. And so the human world tries to be permanent and thus is carved in solid materials like stone, but even these become covered by moss and broken down, and even these give way to mud and water, which in turn drown humans and bring them back to the ever-shifting earth.

If “Don’t Look Now” pits an ordered solidity against chaotic liquid, then clearly humans contain within them the tension between these two states. For, humans are of course themselves mostly liquid, as is made most clear when blood flows forth from humans in injury and death—and monthly in the female human for as long as she might biologically generate new life. Humans thus create bottles for liquids in order to contain their chaotic power, much as humans bottle themselves up in order to keep the same chaos at bay (unsurprisingly, then, John is aghast when he vomits, which he claims not to have done in 10 years, since he prides himself on keeping everything inside).

And yet, if humans create and become bottles, glass nonetheless smashes on several occasions in the film: Laura and John’s son, Johnny, cycles over glass just before Christine drowns in the pond, while glass smashes as Laura faints in the restaurant, and John is covered in broken glass as he nearly falls from inspecting the mural in the Church of St Niccolò dei Mendicoli. Meanwhile, blood spills from John and Johnny at the moment of Christine’s death—and the water beneath Venice is always there to remind us that chaos can only be bottled briefly, if at all.

But still (western) humans persist in shutting themselves off from the outside and in seeking eternal, bottled and contained life. Indeed, “Don’t Look Now” anticipates, or at the very least positions itself as being part of a cultural logic of computation when little Johnny’s headmaster at Porton School is revealed as being called Babbage. Clearly an allusion to Charles Babbage, the progenitor of digital culture, his role as an educator clearly suggests that the logic of mankind as exempt from nature (with digital technology having since the film become the talismanic technology that will make this aspiration come true) is one that is inculcated in western humans from an early age, such that they go on to internalise this logic of separation-from-reality, and assume it to be real.

What is more, humans resist the outside world not just by building walls (even as doors fly open by themselves/at the power of the wind), but also by covering themselves with clothes—with “Don’t Look Now”being especially a treatise on gloves. It is as if humans want to avoid direct contact with as much of the world as possible, including with each other. In addition, humans cross their legs (John) in order not to let out the yonic energies that emanate from their genitals, and humans try to maintain sure and still postures. (Notably, Laura is told to uncross her legs when Heather tries to get in touch with Christine from beyond the grave.)

The awkwardness of Donald Sutherland running towards the pond where Christine drowns is one of the most important images in “Don’t Look Now”, since it conveys the imperfection of human movement—while at the same time working within the film to suggest that humans try otherwise to move as little as possible, to turn themselves into perfect statues and thus to live forever (in photographs?). This stillness involves a suppression of desire that is at odds with the openness to other dimensions that Heather experiences, shuddering and juddering as she communes orgasmically with the beyond… and which orgasmic shudder has clear echoes with the film’s ‘controversial’ (or at least for many people memorable) sex scene, in which John and Heather remain (alas, all too tastefully?) nude for what seems like a prolonged period.

To shudder and to quake is to be in touch with the infinite and to generate new life, much as the mud and the water generate new life and the continued evolution and change of life on earth. John Izod sees the brooch worn by Heather’s sister Wendy as a symbol of fertility (Izod 1992: 108), and in some senses he is not wrong; but when we get a close up view of it as Laura inspects the brooch while visiting the sisters in their hotel room, we see more clearly that it depicts a mermaid—as if these women were indeed from a chaotic water element, and thus also outside of the geometric world of masculinist stone.

In identifying the film as western, as well as by quoting an Islamic scholar in relation to measurement above, we perhaps have wandered far from the film’s intended/suitable critical framework. And yet, the film also contains seeds of such a ‘dewesternising’ critique. ‘The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,’ says John to Laura just before he confesses to restoring not a real church but a fake. Not only is the western world in some senses fake as a whole because of its fundamental and wilfully illusory separation from nature/reality, but it also is one built upon a history of theft and a subsequent denial of that theft (with western man seeking no depth whatsoever, since to enter the murky depths, to enter murkiness as depth, is indeed the remit of the Byzantine/other; no wonder western man tries to surround himself with mirrors, which surfaces “Don’t Look Now” also consults repeatedly).

At one point, John comes face to face with a grotesque bust on the side of the church that he is restoring. Not only does this suggest that John himself is grotesque, but it also brings to mind the way in which the grotesque is itself a marginal form that is perhaps marginal precisely because it regularly blurs the boundary between the human and other species/the rest of the world, with grotesques (and its explicitly non-western cousin, the arabesque) regularly seeing the figure merge with the textual in the form of a flourishing vine. In other words, the grotesque reminds us not of the separation of man from world, but precisely of the interconnection between man, animal, plant and the rest of the material world (see also Marks 2010: 96-98). In the Islamic pictorial tradition, the grotesque and the arabesque both also bring to mind the autonomous life of the line; that is, as the line is freed from the burden of representation but instead becomes its own expressive force (flowing as it wishes and not because it must outline, say, a face), so does it move beyond the realm of the visual (this is a picture of a face) and into the realm of the haptic (you can feel the force of the line). It is not through vision that we can understand the world, but through touch, even as western humans put on gloves to avoid it.

But as the line comes alive in the grotesque and the arabesque, so might we also understand how colour, in particular through a Venetian history of art, also connotes hapticity. Laura U Marks can help to illuminate once again why Venice is such an apt venue for “Don’t Look Now”:

of course line and color are interdependent, as in the labile quality of the contour and the mercurial technique of chiaroscuro. It is notable that the Venetians, and their coloristic heir in the nineteenth century, Delacroix, were influenced by Oriental contact. Haptic space began to push to the surface of their paintings, while the linearists were still keeping the abstract line in check… Artisans began to emphasize flow over form. The tendril decoration inherited from Greek and Roman art quickly lost its naturalism and became what we call the arabesque. (Marks 2010: 54)

And so with its emphasis on red, “Don’t Look Now” similarly enacts an attempt to divorce colour from form, to give to colour a life of its own, as is made especially clear by the blood that floods the image during the climax of the opening death sequence. This haptic aspect of the film thus helps viewers to get beyond simply what is represented (here is a person in a red coat) and to access other dimensions hidden within these normal/normative ways of seeing (but of course the bearer of the red coat turns out to be a grotesque, old, murderous woman, since the grotesque, the old and the female are all antithetical to the myth of eternal youth that patriarchy seeks, promises, and narcissistically fools itself into believing it can realise; the woman does not bottle up life, keeping it for herself, but instead she bleeds and gives life).

If “Don’t Look Now” in some senses consciously places itself within artistic, pictorial and/or painterly traditions, then it is also knowingly a film. If for Mary Shelley the Promethean endeavour to establish eternal life led to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, then Christine’s death clearly evokes the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when the monster throws a little girl, Maria, into a pond, causing her also to drown. Indeed, perhaps this allusion makes clear how John himself is a creating a monster in trying to resurrect a fake. Or rather, in trying to be Prometheus, John already is Frankenstein’s monster himself.

Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Now” of course follows hot on the heels of Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), which itself tells the tale of how human desire cannot be kept straight, and how man will indeed only ever fail in his attempts to prolong his life. Finally, the moment when a dead body is fished from the water recalls a similar moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), in which a car is similarly fished out from the Tiber—as if that tale of human alienation were in some senses continued here. A poster of Charlie Chaplin further clarifies the film’s lineage: the tramp equally is alienated from the machinic world of capital.

But much as “Don’t Look Now” revels in its status as a film, it is and must also be in rebellion against that very same status. For if cinema is anything, it is perhaps, as mentioned, a technology for preserving human life beyond death. In this way, it is part of the Promethean project, while the very and inevitable existence of the frame means that cinema only ever ‘bottles’ or ‘boxes’ space, offering us the Euclidean coordinates of a framed reality. Cinema is like Venice in that if the latter is, as Heather suggests, a ‘city in aspic,’ then cinema likewise puts the human body in aspic, preserving us in polyester.

If this is so, then it is against the frame of cinema itself that Roeg will consistently reframe, zoom and blur the images that we see. As with the performances, in which lines are mumbled, and the sound recording, in which sometimes the dialogue is hard to follow, Roeg thus deliberately makes a technically ‘dirty’ film, reminding us regularly that we are watching a film, a fake, a story that is not necessarily to be believed. Indeed, the use of quotation marks in the very title of the film (“Don’t Look Now”) suggest a second-hand rather than an original story.* And it is a story that at times we literally cannot see very clearly; one that on occasion leaves us baffled as to what exactly is happening.

What is more, Roeg’s radical editing, in which we can jump from different times to different spaces and back again within what we would traditionally refer to as a ‘scene’ ties in with the film’s use of cinema not to affix time but to demonstrate its interconnected nature. That is, as the dimensions of space are attributes that we affix to ‘raw’ space so as to conquer it (and so as not to get lost), so do we do the same with time.

Clocks and watches abound within “Don’t Look Now”, with these technologies themselves being ways for humans to regulate and thus in some senses to control time. And yet time itself is not linear, as the love-making scene itself exemplifies; we jump back and forth between John and Laura engaging in coitus and the two of them getting dressed/covering themselves back up for dinner. What was formless and naked becomes formal once again—but the edit mixes the chronology up suggesting that the past, the present and the future all co-exist simultaneously. This is why John can see his own funeral, why Heather can foresee the future and why John is in some respects (always) already dead: as space is deeply, or fundamentally, dimensionless, so, too, is time.

(To “look now” is thus perhaps not to see; one cannot look now, or at least the film encourages not only to look at the now, but to see how the now/the present is intertwined with the past and the future. If we truly could see the “now” we would not see it isolated from other moments in time, but entangled with them.**)

If it is the destiny of all humans to fall, as John imagines at one point that he does in the church amidst a shower of broken glass, then gravity will bring all humans to the grave. And in that muddly hole, worms will devour us and vines will emerge from that mud in a new sprouting of life. In the mud, space is dimensionless, but, so, too, is time, with Roeg’s cinema travelling through edit ‘wormholes’ to connect up what would be different spaces and times as if they were all connected. Not extended geometrically into a manageable pattern—but all together all at once. The vanity of man is to live forever; the reality of the universe is that we do live forever, but we also die forever, too. The vain and Promethean endeavour of man is to separate life definitively from death; the destiny of the human is to realise that life is inseparable from death—even as this leads to life defying gravity and emerging from the grave. It is at La Fenice where the sisters are staying by the film’s end; they are thus like phoenixes, transcending the distinction between life and death via their embrace of immanence and rebirth, as John canters (awkwardly again) towards his own death in Venice (Fenice?) because he will not accept a world without measure.

When the corpse, which bears a remarkable similarity to Heather, is retrieved from the Venetian canal, we see the open-eyed actor playing that part suddenly blink. No doubt an ‘error,’ the moment nonetheless demonstrates that the world of life without death is a world of impossible unblinkingness, one of permanent light in which paradoxically we cannot see. It is only when we blink, or when, like Wendy, we have something in our eyes (including mud, which perhaps explains why John begins to drink—here’s mud in your eye!) that we actually do see. True reality is marked by invisible dimensions that perhaps we can feel through senses other than vision; to be limited only to unblinking vision is to close oneself off to those alternative dimensions, spaces and times that we might dismiss as fantasies, dreams or hallucinations, but which in fact are real.

But what is it that we actually are not seeing? Perhaps of particular note is that “Don’t Look Now” features a second book in addition to Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and that is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play, Der Stellvertreter (1963), which regularly is translated as The Deputy. Der Stellvertreter explores the way in which Pope Pius XII failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. What remains invisible, then, is the way in which National Socialism and the Catholic church both—in their attempts to control the world—lead to genocide, both within Europe and further afield. This blood, more than the Venetian lagoon, is the true chaotic liquid that has been spilt for the purposes of creating the western and patriarchal world of walls. And it is a blood that cannot be shown, but only alluded to, much as a black hole cannot directly be seen, but which can only be felt as a result of its gravitational and grave effects (everything falls towards it).

It is quite typical of 1970s art house movies to offer up many different signs, and yet which on the whole remain hard to decipher. “Don’t Look Now” is no exception, and there remain numerous details that I have not been able to mention, including the role of the police (‘The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead’); the way in which the camera always lingers on Signor Alexander, the owner of the hotel at which the Baxters are staying, after the other characters have finished talking to him; the way in which Laura is referred to as Mrs Baster at the airport, as if the family might be bastards; a poster about Boris Godunov; the prominence of a pair of neon glasses and a sign for an ottica, or optician’s, as John and Laura emerge from the darkness and back into familiar and lit alleyways in the Venetian night.

But of course if “Don’t Look Now” made total, coherent sense, then it would too much have subjugated its details to meaning; it would too much have made order out of chaos. In part, “Don’t Look Now” must remain chaotic on purpose, full of details that elude interpretation, and thus coming alive like the line and colour of the arabesque and/or the grotesque. In this way, it suggests an infinity beyond the finite world of walls and stone. An invisible world of blood unleashed. But also a world of life beyond death, of life in death, of dimensions beyond the measure of western capitalist man. Maybe the measure of a man, and the measure of this film, is that it seeks to go beyond measure, and to put is in touch with that infinite. Such an infinite reality can never be spoiled—except by the greed of men who seek to live forever.

* I overheard British Film Institute librarian Sarah Currant making this point during an induction session for students in the BFI Library. My thanks to her and my apologies for purloining the observation.

** This point was suggested to me by Mila Zuo. My thanks also to her for her help with this.

References

Izod, John (1992) The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re.press.

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Yesterday (Danny Boyle, UK/Russia/China, 2019)

Imagine there’s no smoking. It’s easy if you try.

Obviously I could have started this blog with ‘imagine there’s no Beatles,’ as a number of journalists have done in their write-ups about Danny Boyle’s Richard Curtis-scripted Yesterday.

However, I want to start with the smoking because at one point in the film, lead character Jack (Himesh Patel) says that he’s dying for a cigarette only for his best friend Rocky (Joel Fry) to ask what cigarettes are – with Google (which along with Apple of course does exist) then confirming that in the alternative world where Jack has woken up, cigarettes do not indeed exist, alongside the Beatles, Oasis (the band), Coca Cola (the drink) and Harry Potter.

There are several things to pick apart here – beyond the obvious fact that bands like Coldplay (namechecked) would also not exist had the Beatles not existed.

For more specifically, without the tobacco industry, firstly the USA would quite possibly not have enjoyed the global economic dominance that it enjoyed in the twentieth century (and periods around it).

Secondly, slavery was a key component of the American tobacco industry, and so to imagine a world without smoking is, for better or for worse, to imagine an America without slavery.

Furthermore, the Indian tobacco industry is one of the world’s largest, and it historically commenced with the introduction of tobacco to Goa by the Portuguese, before the British then created a tobacco industry during their colonial rule of the country.

I wish simply to suggest, then, that to imagine a world without tobacco is in some senses to imagine a world without slavery and a world without colonialism.

Oh to imagine such a world.

And yet, to imagine such a world is in some senses to deny such a world.

That is, Yesterday asks us in part to imagine that slavery and colonialism never took place – even though Jack Malik’s British-Asian family has found its way to Lowestoft in order to live there, and even though there has, even without the Beatles, still been a history of music that includes many African-American sounds (Stevie Wonder is namechecked, among other indicators, including Ed Sheeran’s rapping).

Indeed, in Boyle’s film it is early confirmed that the Rolling Stones continue to exist, meaning that these arch-appropriators of African-American sounds have indeed continued to be successful, even though the grounds for their success – the African-American music from which they ‘borrowed’ so many licks and beats – ought not to have existed since there was no tobacco trade and thus not slavery in the same fashion.

Jack, bless him, feels bad for appropriating the Beatles’ music, even though John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) appears in the film to confirm that basically he has not written his songs (he is not a frustrated musician, but a happy widower living on a beach, seemingly only a taxi ride from Lowestoft, blissfully unaware of pop music and the media).

And yet, if in effect appropriation has gone on (the Stones are still around), and if in effect the supposed non-existence of a history of slavery and colonialism has still resulted in more or less the same world as we have now – except without the Beatles and without Coke – then the principle of the film is that theft and the occultation of theft through the rewriting of history is absolutely fine.

Let us imagine basically the same world as we have now – except that there was no slavery and no colonialism.

So basically the film is a denial of at least two of the most pernicious moments in western history, including the gigantic theft that led to the very creation and dominance of the west that the film affirms.

More fool Jack, then, for confessing – even if it allows him to get the girl (Lily James). For, in doing so he basically demonstrates that he is a dupe for a set of values (upheld in typical Curtis fashion as implicitly ‘English’) that he has been fed and yet which no one else believes in.

Indeed, Jack’s gesture might have a touch of the Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, USA, 1939) about it, but I am not sure what the panic from record producer Debra Hammer, played by Kate McKinnon, is about.

For while Rocky uploads all of the Beatles songs at the end of the film to the internet for people to download for free, the production and recording rights would still belong to her record company, and so Rocky/Jack will spend their whole life in penury, if not in prison, as a result of their unprovable story and their breach of contract (how to prove the existence of a band that never existed?) – all the while the record company owns rights to the songs, regardless of whether people have downloaded them for free.

Indeed, pretty much every song in the world is already easily available online on a host of websites, and it has not led to the collapse of the music industry – even if bands like Radiohead (whose poster for In Rainbows adorns Jack’s door) have attempted to give away their music.

(Besides, the record label would just get a better set of musicians and singers to sell better versions of the songs to the world, thereby making more money.)

So, Jack/Rocky’s ‘revolutionary’ gesture is in other words just business as usual in the contemporary record industry.

What is perhaps of greater import, though, is that the denial of history is also business as usual in the contemporary world.

Perhaps it is not by accident that Jack first ‘breaks through’ internationally while playing a gig in Moscow as Ed Sheeran’s warm-up – with the sequence of course involving a cover of ‘Back in the USSR.’

For if there is a country that knows about how to manipulate history, then it is surely Russia. And the manipulation does not stop at history; it also includes the present, as the victory of Vladimir Putin in the 2016 American Presidential elections makes clear.

What is more, it is notable that Jack also relies solely on Google for his verification or otherwise of the existence of the Beatles.

Not only does Yesterday thus affirm that it is only by existing on the internet that one can be validated as real, but it also implies – in a celebratory, product-placement fashion – that companies like Google shape our reality, determining what is real or not.

In other words, Yesterday plays out as comedy what is perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the digital, ‘post-truth’ age: that what we consider to be real is highly manipulable, is indeed manipulated, but here is something to be celebrated as we deny slavery and deny colonialism as we live in a world without history and smoking.

Facetiously one might suggest that Yesterday could just as easily be called ‘Cambridge Analytica Saves The World.’

And yet in this facetious comment lies a sense in which Yesterday plays fast and loose with history as it offers up an extended Google advert, even as Google surely does shape our perceptions of reality thanks to its manipulable algorithms, data mining, listings of people and events, and so on.

If ‘Imagine’ were indeed a song about imagining ‘no countries,’ ‘peace,’ and more, it perhaps is a song about a world that beats to the unified drum of a single military-industrial-entertainment complex. That is, ‘Imagine’ is as much a bitter indictment of world history as it is an attempt to dream that humanity’s bloody, planet-destroying history did not take place.

A denial of a reality in which borders are being continuously reaffirmed on both sides of the Pond. A denial of a reality in which exploitation has created this world of huge injustice… Yesterday is in some senses, then, simply a reimagined version of today: the world is falling apart but no one wants to believe it and everyone just denies it. And so the entropy of the world will just go on happening…

In the face of trying to build of a new tomorrow, Boyle and Curtis instead waste their time dreaming of an alternative yesterday. Where that will get us… no one knows.

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Film-Philosophy 2019: Golden Gate

The below is text to accompany the screening of my short essay-film, Golden Gate, which is to be screened (or if you are looking at this after 10 July 2019, which was screened) at the 2019 Film-Philosophy Conference at the University of Brighton, in Brighton, UK.

The film stands alone, but this text functions as a means of elaborating on the ideas that the film covers.

Golden Gate is an essay-film that reworks footage from 43 movies, spanning eight decades, in order to suggest that in cinema – and perhaps in the real world – the Golden Gate Bridge marks, if not the end of humanity, then the end of western patriarchal masculinity.

The film does this by weaving together scenes from these 43 films in such a way that we see how the Golden Gate repeatedly suffers apocalyptic events in movies: nuclear bombs, attacks by monsters from the ancient past, including ‘atomic creatures’ Godzilla and the giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, USA, 1955), as well as post-ecological kaiju and mega sharks, earthquakes, sun blazes, meteors and more.

More than this, the Golden Gate is also a place where congregate such posthuman entities as intelligent apes, intelligent octopuses, intelligent sharks, intelligent aliens, including Vulcans, intelligent cars, mutant humans (X-men), hulks, terminators, other intelligent machines and Supermen/Superman.

Perhaps it is obvious that this would be the case. For the Golden Gate is also a space where the desert meets the sea, with the interaction of these two elements creating unpredictable weather conditions, including fog, that connote uncertainty and amorphousness. That is, the Golden Gate Bridge is a space for all manner of unusual becomings, or what Reza Negarestani terms ‘new sentiences’ (Negarestani 2008: 92).

Small wonder, then, that San Francisco lies just next to Silicon Valley, where in the desert a silicon singularity is being beckoned into existence. Small wonder, too, that the Golden Gate marks the edge of the psychic space of the USA and perhaps of modernity itself: it is the limit of the west, and once that limit is reached… humans have few places left to go, except perhaps by evolving into new life forms, by being replaced by new life forms (or life forms that are at least new to us), by taking their own lives, or by disappearing in a flash of nuclear light.

Indeed, that flash of nuclear light heralds not just the end of man and the arrival of creatures from the deep, but perhaps also the very birth of cinema itself as a sentient being that is set to replace the human, be that as a machine apart from humans or as a cyborg symbiogenetically entangled with humans. Small wonder, again, that filmmakers like Chris Marker, Jenni Olson and Sophie Fiennes (who brings with her auti-philosopher Slavoj Žižek) all come to the Golden Gate to explore cinema’s own ability not just to touch humans, but also to think for and with itself.

And final small wonder, too, that in their essay-film about San Francisco, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson also define the city as one defined by The Green Fog (USA, 2017), with the Golden Gate Bridge featuring heavily in this film that makes reference to the new sentience that emerges from havoc-wreaking weather conditions.

It is for this reason, too, that Golden Gate explores how early film theorist Vachel Lindsay, who in his poetry considered San Francisco to be beyond repentance, sees cinema as a prophecy machine, harking into existence these new life forms that cinema allows us to see, being itself such a life form, as is the Golden Gate, too.

One of the speakers from Eric Steel’s documentary about Golden Gate suicides, The Bridge (UK/USA, 2006), suggests that the schizophrenia suffered by one of the jumpers (Lisa Smith) meant that for them life was like having 44 television channels on simultaneously with all of them occupying equal attention.

This recalls Steven Shaviro’s claim that ‘people along the autistic spectrum are not solipsists, and they are not lacking in empathy… Their vision… “makes everything it represents exist on a strictly ‘equal footing’… fully outside any ontological hierarchy”’ (Shaviro 2014: 132).

To see and to treat equally, to achieve ontological democracy and to remove hierarchies, is perhaps to become autistic, to remove hierarchies. Perhaps Superman is thus autistic. Perhaps Spock is thus autistic. Perhaps Tommy Wiseau is thus autistic. Perhaps it is no mistake that the autistic Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) comes to San Francisco in order to live.

And as vision becomes democratised across space, so does it across time, such that past and future are also equal, such that fantasy and reality also become equal. Where truth and fiction become indiscernible, so are we in the realm of cinema, a form, a sentience and an intelligence where fiction and documentary blend. This is a reality that Golden Gate seeks to depict.

By coincidence, there is a 44thfilm that is worth mentioning for the purposes of explaining Golden Gate, and this is James Franco’s Disaster Artist (USA, 2017), which is a dramatized history of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s ‘bad movie,’ The Room (USA, 2003). For, while The Disaster Artistdoes not feature the Golden Gate Bridge (and in fact is concerned more with Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau’s time in Los Angeles than it is with their time in San Francisco), it nonetheless brings to mind the concept of disaster, especially as it relates to cinema.

For, as Jennifer Fay reminds us at the outset of Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, disaster is a pejorative from dis(bad) and astro(star), being thus ‘the catastrophe that results from planetary misalignment’ (Fay 2018: 1). It is not just that the Golden Gate suffers disasters in the colloquial sense of the word, then, but that it also is a place where humans encounter the alien, or that which is from the stars (in French, des astres, or désastres).

What is more, it is perhaps also here that humans realise that they are from the stars – and that their state is always to fall.

Indeed, Steel has compared his film to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c1558), in which we see Icarus’ legs emerging from the sea after falling to earth (see Holden 2006).

There are many falls in Golden Gate, including that of the camera and the endless motorcade (from cadere, which means to fall in Latin) that crosses the bridge’s span. This is not just a film about trying to defy but being limited by gravity, even if the film is also about a dream of flight, as Caroline Pressley says of Bridge jumper Gene Sprague, who loosely resembles the disaster artist himself, Tommy Wiseau.

For, part of man’s flight is his flight into cinema – the flight of fantasy in which woman is not an intelligent being with whom he shares a world, but an image from which he is separate, which is like a dumb machine, and which he can control – as per Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (USA, 1958).

The fall of man or mankind, then, is really the fall of masculinity, or the fall of the patriarchal world, which headed west, and which invented cinema in order to try to establish control over the environment, over machines, over animals and over woman. But that control is impossible.

If cinema is part of man’s attempt to control woman, then perhaps this essay-film is an example of non-cinema. Or if cinema really is a new sentience, or a new intelligence, then a non-patriarchal cinema, in which man has fallen, is really the birth of cinema proper, not the fall of man, but the rise of the machines.

Perhaps it is to be critiqued that it takes an ontological democracy of objects and subjects in order for woman finally to be given equal footing to man. Nonetheless, the future human world, which will not be a world defined uniquely by humans, will also be a world not defined by the binary distinctions of gender that traditionally have been in play. The death of man is the birth of the human, beyond merely man (super-man), and where equality is established through difference, without difference being a reason to create hierarchies (man above woman, above world, above objects, above animals, above machines). Not woman as the invented other of man. But woman as woman, woman as superman (beyond man). Humanity on the level.

Man, says experimental filmmaker Peter Rose, could not see far enough. But the Golden Gate provides a view to a kill: the end of man; James Bond saved (again!) by a woman.

And so perhaps, as per the title of Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru’s 2014 Bollywood film, which features as the final images in Golden Gate, it is after the fall of western man, at the end of the west, that man will not try to control woman (as per Vertigo), but where non-western man and woman can fall in love. Where man falls, humanity might have a Happy Ending.1

Endnote
1. William Brown would like to thank David H Fleming, Matthew Holtmeier, Murray Pomerance, Clive Smith, Chelsea Wessels and Mila Zuo for their help in the creation of this film.

References
Fay, Jennifer (2018) Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Holden, Stephen (2006) ‘That Beautiful But Deadly San Francisco Span,’ The New York Times, 27 October, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/27/movies/27brid.html. Accessed 1 May 2019.
Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re:press.
Shaviro, Steven (2014) The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Films featured in Golden Gate
10.5 (John Lafia, USA, 2004)
A View to a Kill (John Glen, UK, 1985)
The Abyss (James Cameron, USA, 1989)
Bicentennial Man (Chris Columbus, USA/Germany, 1999)
Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, USA, 2014)
The Bridge (Eric Steel, UK/USA, 2006)
Bumblebee (Travis Knight, USA/China, 2018)
The Circle (James Ponsoldt, UAE/USA, 2017)
The Core (Jon Amiel, USA/Germany/Canada/UK, 2003)
Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, USA, 1947)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA/UK/Canada, 2014)
Escape in the Fog (Budd Boetticher, USA, 1945)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, USA/Japan, 2014)
Happy Ending (Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru, India, 2014)
Herbie Rides Again (Robert Stevenson, USA, 1974)
How the West Was Won (John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, USA, 1962)
Hulk (Ang Lee, USA, 2003)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (Robert Gordon, USA, 1955)
Land of the Lost (Brad Silberling, USA, 2009)
The Love Bug (Robert Stevenson, USA, 1968)
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941)
The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough (Peter Rose, USA, 1981)
Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (Ace Hannah, USA, 2009)
Meteor Storm (Tibor Takács, USA, 2010)
Monsters vs. Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, USA, 2009)
My Name is Khan (Karan Johar, India/USA/UAE, 2010)
On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, USA, 1959)
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2013)
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Austria/Netherlands, 2006)
The Rock (Michael Bay, USA, 1996)
The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA, 2003)
The Royal Road (Jenni Olson, USA, 2015)
San Andreas (Brad Peyton, USA, 2015)
Sans soleil (Chris. Marker, France, 1983)
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, USA/Germany, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, USA, 2013)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, USA, 1986)
Superman (Richard Donner, USA/UK/Switzerland/Canada/Panama, 1978)
Teknolust (Lynn Hershman-Leeson, USA/Germany/UK, 2002)
Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, USA, 2015)
The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, USA, 1974)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, Canada/USA/UK, 2006)

Other films
The Disaster Artist(James Franco, USA, 2017)
The Green Fog(Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, USA, 2017)

Texts referenced in Golden Gate
Berger, Arthur Asa (2012) Understanding American Icons: An Introduction to Semiotics, Abingdon: Routledge.
Fleming, David H. (2017) Unbecoming Cinema: Unsettling Encounters with Ethical Event Films, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1991) Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (trans. Gillian Gill), New York: Columbia University Press.
Lindsay, Vachel (1913) ‘The City that Will Not Repent,’ in General William Booth enters into heaven and other poems, Borgo Press.
Lindsay, Vachel (2000 [1915]) The Art of the Motion Picture, New York: Modern Library.
Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re:press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1997 [1891]) Thus Spake Zarathustra(trans. Anthony Common), London: Wordsworth.
Shaviro, Steven (2014) The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wark, McKenzie (2016) Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, London: Verso.

Painting featured in Golden Gate
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1558) Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

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Kid Icarus (Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin, USA, 2008)

I recently heard that Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s Kid Icarus will soon be available on VOD.

This blog post is a kind of reflective piece written to celebrate its release – and to encourage readers to watch the film.

And so I begin…

Only yesterday, I read another feed on Twitter in which a.n. minor celebrity spoke of how a teacher had told them at school that they would amount to nothing – and that now the minor celebrity was taking great pleasure in effectively getting ‘revenge’ on their teacher by telling them, and the world, how much money they had made in their lives.

Aside from the way in which this narrative reaffirms the idea that all teachers are always already failures for not going into a more lucrative career (because the minor celebrity is affirming success via the fact that they have made a lot of money, while their teacher is wallowing in the decidedly unlucrative career of teaching – because money is the only thing that validates humanity?), my personal response to reading such online discussions involves two queries.

Firstly, I wonder if perhaps it was the very ‘insult’ given by the teacher that inspired the pupil/student to ‘make something’ of themselves – since some people perhaps respond better to what we might proverbially term a ‘kick up the arse’ (or at the very least to constructive criticism) than they do always to being told at all points in time how brilliant they are. Indeed, since the minor celebrity is taking the time to recount this ‘revenge’ story, it seems to stand to reason that the ‘insult’ did indeed function as a spur to them to ‘make something of themselves.’ By this token, the student should probably not be so annoyed with their former teacher, but grateful to them for motivating their achievements, even if that motivation was ‘negative’ (i.e. done as an act of revenge rather than as a positive act done for oneself).

(Not that such a student – that is, the sort that might ‘benefit’ from the so-called ‘kick up the arse’ – would offer thanks to the teacher, especially if they did not really want their newfound minor celebrity and wealth, preferring instead to be able to go back in time and simply to have had a different teacher who did not inspire them to become a minor celebrity.)

Secondly, I query what the student was like at school, and/or whether they had the self-awareness to know what effect their behaviour had on their teachers (which is not to say their peers).

Don’t get me wrong. There are probably some terrible teachers out there, and perhaps some undeserving students have been offered insults by those nasty teachers before going on to achieve fame and fortune, while other excellent and praised students have achieved ‘nothing’ (whatever that means), while others received negative feedback at school and went on as predicted to ‘amount to nothing’ (which I guess means not making much money and/or not being mildly or massively famous). Meanwhile, yet others always were and continue to be ‘high achievers,’ while many more just middled through school and life, and still others fluctuated gently between positions over time.

I am sad for anyone who has been insulted by their teachers and taken it so much to heart that they have constructed a life narrative of revenge around it. I am also sad that any teacher would educate their students – positively or negatively – to believe that money and fame is what makes a life valid.

Furthermore, I am sensitive to how many humans have difficulties learning and/or concentrating in a classroom setting – and who thus may find the experience problematic, if not traumatic. School is certainly imperfect – and working at one entails precisely this: always working towards doing a better job, even as this might be exhausting (if not all-consuming).

I do not want to negate this diversity. Nonetheless, I might suggest from experience that some students have the sad effect of coming across to their teachers and peers alike as arrogant. Now, I have not (to the best of my knowledge) ever told any of my students that they will never amount to anything (because I do not really know what this means, let alone am I capable of knowing someone else’s future – and I have a policy to try only to say things that I know to my students).

Be that as it may, some students can, as mentioned, be perplexing and taxing in their arrogance, capable as they are of insulting their teachers – advertently or otherwise – through their comments, their attitudes and their actions.

What is more, they may be completely unreceptive to their teachers and/or perhaps not so good at listening – such that they might hear an accusation that they will ‘amount to nothing’ when really they are being told that **if** they want to achieve their ambitions, then perhaps they ought to make more of an effort to be more receptive to others, more humble in their attitude, more thoughtful in their comportment.

Indeed, in my own experience (which has involved about as much time studying as it has involved time teaching), the psychological trouble that problematic students can cause to teachers is far more taxing than any of the trouble that teachers caused me as a student.

(Not that this will apply to everyone, not least because most people do not go on to teach; that said, statistically my point stands to reason, since a teacher will encounter 1000s of students over their career, while students might only encounter 10s of teachers; let us not broach the role that peers play in the lives of students.)

All this pre-amble is to say that just this past semester, two students sat right in front of me playing chess with each other during a lecture that I was delivering.

When I then asked them whether they thought that their behaviour was rude – being absorbed in a chess game rather than my class – they denied as much and said that it was doing no harm to anyone. When I asked them if their behaviour was reminiscent of Leigh Harkrider, the main protagonist of Kid Icarus, they said no.

For, perhaps the biggest irony of this chess experience is that I had just shown to my students Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s documentary about students trying to make a film at the College of the Canyons community college in Santa Clarita, California.

For, even though they had just seen that film’s main subject, film student Leigh Harkrider, repeatedly ignoring the advice of his film instructors as he proceeds to make a mistake-ridden movie as part of his film class, they could not see that they might share some of Leigh’s arrogance. That is, their behaviour was, like Leigh in Kid Icarus, completely self-unaware – perhaps convinced, like Leigh, of their brilliance, and thus not in need of anything so boring as a lecture on filmmaking (let alone a lecture on filmmaking as filtered through Kid Icarus).

Sometimes I wonder that this sort of arrogance is especially acute in film classes, since we live in a world where everyone assumes that they are an expert on cinema, and yet where few people realise how much time and effort has to go into making movies, fooling themselves that their capacity to enjoy films will automatically be matched by a capacity to make films.

Perhaps this tendency is indeed especially acute in film classes because we live in a world dominated by movies – whether we watch them in theatres or not. For, we are surrounded by screens that show us content designed to capture and to maintain our attention as much and for as long as possible (i.e. screens that feature content made using the techniques developed over the course of the history of cinema).

To succeed in life – to be rich and famous – only works if you can be seen as rich and famous; that is, it only works if there are images of you in circulation that demonstrate your wealth and fortune. In other words, success is linked in contemporary society to the cinematic, or at the very least to the mediated.

If success is about appearance, then, small wonder it is that people don’t just want to get on with being successful, but they want to mediate their success. In other words, the values of our culture breed arrogance – in the form of people who lord their success over others by making it as visible as possible, and which breeds the values of revenge, whereby people publicly flip the bird at anyone who stood in their path to success.

Luckily for Leigh Harkrider, Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin are not themselves interested in ‘revenge,’ even if there might be moments when Kid Icarus seems like an exploitation of student arrogance for the purposes of making a movie – that is, for the purposes of using another person’s lack of cinematicity to reaffirm one’s own cinematicity, with cinematicity (or appearing cinematic) being a measure of success.

For while Kid Icarus does gently expose Leigh Harkrider’s arrogance as he believes that he can create a cinematic masterpiece without a clue and, more importantly, without putting in any effort, the film is also sympathetic towards him – not that he necessarily deserves it.

The film follows Leigh as he tries haplessly to make his student project, Enslavence, at the afore-mentioned College of the Canyons, where Mike Ott was working as a film professor at the time of shooting.

Kid Icarus is a catalogue of what not to do when making a film. Leigh alienates his friends (potentially stealing a script idea, getting rid of his most faithful crew member, Cory Rubin, and getting everyone to sign endless contracts handing all rights over to him), while also demonstrating little idea of how to create a story – even as he aspires witlessly to be Steven Spielberg and David Fincher.

And yet, Kid Icarus is more than just the humiliation of a student who does a fine job of making an arse of himself (such that he at times might just deserve a kick up it). For, while the film does show us the chaos on set of the student and/or amateur film production – making of Kid Icarus a wonderful companion piece to Christopher Smith’s 1999 masterpiece, American Movie – it also shows us the conditions of Leigh’s life.

Leigh has a Superman cap, he has a Superman check book, his favourite show is Smallville, and he discusses Superman at various points in the film. And yet he is also a guy who lives with someone else’s family, who works at The Home Depot, and who generally seems quite alienated and lonely.

And so while Leigh might dream of being or becoming the Man of Steel, Kid Icarus takes the time to show that this desire is born from its complete opposite, a sense of powerlessness, which itself is tied to one thing that perhaps Leigh Harkrider does share with Kal-El, namely an inner solitude (Superman as an orphan).

Furthermore, while the Enslavence shoot is an at-times hilarious disaster, making of Leigh something of what James Franco might call a ‘disaster artist,’ in the making of his film, Leigh does make friends with all manner of people, as is made clear at the film’s end when he is surrounded by cast and crew come to celebrate at the wrap party.

In other words, Kid Icarus gives Leigh rope enough to hang himself as far as his pretensions of being a great filmmaker are concerned – with Leigh at one point even failing to impress Jay Keitel, whom he courts to be his cinematographer (and who has since gone on to lens episodes of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s Steven Soderbergh-inspired show, The Girlfriend Experience).

But at the same time, Kid Icarus also demonstrates how film brings people together and how filmmaking does create friendships that help to stave off that loneliness. If community college teaches anything, it is perhaps a sense of community.

And this sense of community functions as a counter-example, then, to the self-serving values of wealth and fame that I described at the outset of this post. There is no need for revenge when we treat people with dignity, and there is no need for hatred if we can learn to love, with Ott and McLaughlin clearly loving the subjects of their film even as Leigh in particular is infuriating.

Not only is this a testament, then, to Ott’s patience and qualities as a teacher, in that he does not succumb to telling Leigh he will amount to nothing, even if he gets him to query whether he is a more committed viewer than maker of Smallville. (That is, Ott gets his students to question themselves, their values and their ideas; that is, he inspires in them the desire to learn.)

It also is a testament to Ott’s commitment to community, a commitment that he has continued to explore in his subsequent films as he sticks primarily to the Antelope Valley region of California and as he explores the lives of those who have often been overlooked by a society that values only visibility and wealth.

If visibility and wealth are cinematic, then Ott creates something of an anti-cinema, or what Robert Campbell refers to in his study of Ott’s films as a non-cinema (see Campbell 2018). Or what Ott himself might call ‘small form films.’

But more than this, it is a human cinema, with people defined by their humanity and not by the amount of money or celebrity that they have. And it is a cinema committed in many respects to reality – to showing how real people are more wonderful and complex than any fiction film can imagine, even as fiction films shape our sense of who we are and whom we aspire to be.

With this in mind, step forward Cory Zacharia, who progresses from a friend incidentally on location during a visit with Leigh to The Home Depot, to the prime focus of much of Kid Icarus, where Cory explores who he is on camera, to the main actor with whom Ott has worked in various subsequent film and video projects.

Repeated work with Cory Zacharia not only makes Ott’s relationship with him akin to that of François Truffaut with Jean-Pierre Léaud, but it also demonstrates Ott’s care for and concern with not just Cory, but many other of his collaborators.

Leigh may lack a visible family in the film, but in making Enslavence, a new, substitute family is born. And in making Kid Icarus, a new family is born for Ott and with which he will work on numerous subsequent projects, including Littlerock (2010), Pearblossom Hwy (2012), Lake Los Angeles (2014), Lancaster, CA (2015), California Dreams (2017) and the online movie criticism show Cinema Club (2018-2019).

Bringing humans together and making meaningful and creative bonds: this is the true power of cinema, far more than the wealth and fortune that its most visible makers achieve.

But does it work? That is, if my students could not see how they might have some of Leigh’s arrogance (if they could see it, then they would not have disrespected the class by ignoring it and playing chess), then can Kid Icarus create communities among those who watch the film?

Well, for starters, I can only say that after showing Kid Icarus to students for many years now, it continues to be a film that inspires both laughter and tender responses – as well as being a film with which the vast majority of film students can identify.

But also the very fact that the film is becoming available means that it is a film that can continue to inspire learning. Held up for many years in a distribution gridlock, the film now is becoming available at least in part because of its value as a learning experience for all involved, including Leigh, with whose blessing Kid Icarus can find new audiences.

Perhaps there is hope, then, for not just my own students but perhaps for us all to learn equally to learn, and to continue learning to learn as life goes on. Ott’s films and Ott himself do this, being thus akin to the very best teachers – of the sort that I myself aspire to become: not interested in petty glories or insults, but rather in simply learning for the sake of learning, making films not to achieve fame and fortune, but out of love.

The gift of love and learning to love: no wealth and fame can buy those things at all. That is why they are precisely gifts, offered to us by gifted filmmakers. For those who can now watch Kid Icarus for the first time (or for a second or third time), you are about to receive something wonderful.

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Long Shot (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019)

Since at least The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1941), Hollywood cinema has regularly staged the fantasy that politics would be better off with politicians who just came across like normal human beings – rather than the performances of confidence and authority that people with aphasia find funny because they can tell that politicians are lying.

The Great Dictator shows us a simple barber (Chaplin himself) taking on the role of Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator (also played by Chaplin), and bringing to a halt the end of the Second World War through his final message of love and peace. Indeed, Chaplin’s speech is a veritable YouTube meme, so powerful and articulate does the otherwise word shy barber becomes once put in front of a microphone.

Perhaps the medium – here, radio – brings out of the barber this performance. And in bringing out a performance from him, does the barber not become more similar to Hynkel than we might otherwise think – regardless of his message of peace and love?

Indeed, what is perhaps of particular interest about The Great Dictator is the (almost certainly apocryphal) suggestions that Adolf Hitler modelled himself upon Chaplin – the tramp with a heart of gold. For even if apocryphal, this would suggest that when Chaplin impersonates Hitler, he is in certain respects impersonating himself.

In other words, as The Great Dictator promises to show us how politics might be better if it were populated by regular, straight-talking people… it does not realise that Hitler was precisely a regular, straight-talking person, who managed to whip up bloodlust and hatred in a people thanks to the banality of his speeches as much as through any grandiloquence.

Indeed, as Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas) described it in 1938:

he is no scholar… Hitler’s use of language is the worst immaginable, and it will remain at that level… Those who care for the German language may be anxious for its future when they see its deterioration during the five years of Hiter’s rule; newspapers, magazines, schoolbooks – the entire official literature – have fallen into the florid yet brutal, military and vulgar forms of expression that are typical of the Führer himself. (Erika Mann, School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis, New York: Dover, 1938, p. 68.)

Long Shot implicitly makes a link with The Great Dictator by opening with journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) infiltrating a group of Neo Nazis in his native New York. He is exposed as a Jewish journalist and manages to escape by jumping out of a window – crashing into a car… a moment to which I shall return below.

In other words, Long Shot wants to situate itself within a world of political extremism – and one that is specifically threatening to Jews, even if one could hardly call it a revelation to demonstrate that there are Nazis in the contemporary USA (and thus not exactly a telling exposé in the way that the film wants us to believe).

More important, perhaps, is what is driving Flarsky to infiltrate an antisemitic group in the first place. For it seems clear that the film wants also to demonstrate, for better or for worse, that Flarsky has an attraction for certain types of power – even as he disavows such an attraction.

This attraction is made most clear when he meets up with his former babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who is now Secretary of State. Because she is hot, and because she also gave him an embarrassing boner when he was a kid, we get a sense of how Flarsky’s attraction to power is about as subtle as a porn film (and we’ll get some of that later in the film, too).

So, Flarsky has a boner for power… even as he feels oppositional to it. His writing is considered to be powerful thanks to headlines along the lines of ‘fuck you, climate change deniers’ and so on.

You know, really powerful and sophisticated stuff. Because unsophisticated times call for unsophisticated language. Now is not the time to think and/or contemplate; now is the time to swear and judge.

And thanks to his powers of language, Flarsky becomes Field’s speechwriter (basically writing down what she says so that she can read it back to an audience), which in turn means that he gets to make good on that boner and start a relationship with Field.

Furthermore, because of the ‘humanity’ of Flarsky’s speechwriting, Field’s popularity increases immensely meaning that she is likely set to become the next President thanks to the decision of the current one (Bob Odenkirk) to stand down in a bid to pursue a career in movies (more on this shortly, too).

In effect, the film tells us that people like their politicians ‘human’ – and if only Hillary Clinton had not had that pole stuck up her ass then she might well have had a shot at winning the presidency that Donald J Trump instead won two years and 119 days ago.

But what is this fantasy of ‘honest’ politicians? For is not Trump precisely the ‘honest’ and straight-talking politician that Long Shot wants to uphold as a forward-thinking approach to contemporary American politics?

In other words, as the film attempts to critique the political right by making Field a democrat and Flarsky staunchly anti-republican, its fantasy version of politics is in fact an endorsement of precisely the status quo that we have now.

At one point, Field asks Flarsky in a bedroom scene to take her from behind, spank her and perhaps also gently to choke her (or something along these lines). Finally! Some candour about female desire in the bedroom and how it might well involve aspects that some might consider to be masochistic.

And yet, a fear that runs through my head given the context of this film is that such ‘progressiveness’ could be taken as implying that Trump is justified in his self-professed technique of ‘grabbing women by the pussy.’ After all, such twisted logic would go, this is what they really want…

No wonder it is, then, that Flarsky has eventually to face up to the fact that his best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr), is a Republican. Not only is Lance a quasi-Magical Negro…

… but he also speaks of how his Republican values have enabled him to achieve success in the business realm (such that he can take a day off to get drunk with Flarsky and give his whole team the day off, too).

Lance explains that he tones down his Republicanism around Flarsky because he knows that Fred will just moan on at him if he does so… a bit like those people that moan on against Trump when he is just getting on with leading the nation in his own particular style.

Surely it is good for a film to offer us a vision of the African-American right, especially when it involves the son of a rapper who once proclaimed that it was right to ‘fuck the police’ (however eloquent or otherwise we find this particular use of language).

For not only does this give us a sense of the diversity of political viewpoints in America (Trump has his African-American supporters), but it also allows the film to simplify its Republican credentials while at the same using diversity as a shield to protect it from criticism (‘affirmative action’ is, if you will, turned against itself as you run the risk of being racist if you criticise this quasi-Magical Negro’s Republican views).

The film sees Flarsky fall heavily twice. The first is when he jumps out of the Nazi gathering at a New York warehouse, as mentioned above. And the second is when he falls down some stairs upon re-acquainting Field, prompting one of the singers from Boyz II Men, who are performing at whatever fundraiser they are attending, to offer one of the film’s funniest lines (‘cracker down’).

Both falls are basically impossible to survive – and so the film is no doubt suggesting that this is not realistic and that we should not take the film seriously – just as Chaplin gets bashed in the head by a frying pan in The Great Dictator.

Nonetheless, these two falls might suggest that the film is Flarsky’s fantasy; that is, Flarsky gets to be reactionary while at the same time purporting to be progressive; he gets to be neoliberal while purporting simply to be liberal.

The same idea is carried by the tattoo that is half-completed on Flarsky at the opening Nazi meeting. To prove that he is part of the gang, Fred agrees to have a Swastika tattooed on his arm – and he is going through with it when some timely internet research by one of the Nazis reveals who he really is.

Later we see the same tattoo as having been converted into a sort of funny stick man, while it makes a final appearance at the end of the film after Fred and Charlotte have moved into the White House.

So while the Swastika gets regenerated to become a stick man gag, it nonetheless also serves as a reminder of Fred’s attraction towards power.

The President wants to quit politics to become a movie star – hoping that the Presidency will project him into film stardom after a career prior to his Presidency in television (where, of course, he was most famous for playing the American President).

A sort of Democrat Trump, in that the latter was also a (reality) TV star before becoming President, the suggestion is that the Presidency will not make him a movie star – since, as Fred at one point says, starring in movies does not make you a movie star.

Not only does the film try to create a hierarchy of media here, then, but it also suggests in some senses that movies are more powerful than politics.

In some senses, this may well be true. But if it is the case, then as Donald J Trump’s suitability as president needs to be critiqued at every turn (a self-confessed abuser of women; a denier of climate change; a colluder with foreign powers), so must cinema such as this be critiqued at every turn, even if that is to spoil the ‘fun’ of a knockabout movie that just wants not to be taken too seriously.

And perhaps it is worth saying that it is quite easy to recognise the fun of the film: as a viewer, I found myself not only at times enjoying the film and laughing at its charming leads, but I also found myself indulging in fantasies of empowerment either in politics and/or in movies, perhaps especially the latter.

In other words, if there is to be critique, then it is a critique that must also be levelled at myself, or oneself more generally. We must be questioning our own propensity to be suck(er)ed in by movies like Long Shot.

For, indeed, when a seeming long shot comes about, as per Trump’s victory in the last US elections, then we do need to question how well we know our social and political realities, and how well we know ourselves if we assumed that the realisation of that long shot was previously unthinkable.

In this way, Long Shot‘s depiction of Fred as being attracted to power (even as it wants to tell us that power is attracted to him) is indeed honest – and a level of critical reflection might help us collectively to address the seduction that power offers.

The problem is that Long Shot is dishonest about its honesty, since it involves little to no critical self-reflection, even as it claims to with its PoMo television star President and its gags about TV stars not making it in the movies.

Instead, like Fred, the film just offers us a masturbatory fantasy about being ‘chosen’ by the powerful, offering up to us as progressive the idea that a guy with jizz on his face would make for a loveable First Man.

As webcam blackmailing, or ‘sextortion‘, grows rapidly, it is indeed perhaps a fantasy that such online behaviour might be empowering. But the truth is that it empowers only a global criminal network.

Perhaps being involved in a global criminal network is precisely how we should begin to consider the current American president.

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Philosophical Screens: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1971)

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I gave about A Clockwork Orange at the British Film Institute on Tuesday 16 April 2019. The talk was the latest in the Philosophical Screens series.

On this occasion my fellow speakers were Lucy Bolton of Queen Mary, University of London, and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Where my thoughts as written here were shaped by the thoughts offered by my co-speakers at the BFI, I shall try to offer up credit.

In short, I suggested that A Clockwork Orange is a film about control, and as such it remains relevant to our world today.

For, at the centre of Kubrick’s film is the so-called Ludovico technique that chief protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) undergoes after being arrested for murder. The Ludovico technique consists of Alex’s eyes being forced open and then kept moist by the administration of eye-drops as he is shown a prolonged series of films featuring what Alex would refer to as ultraviolence, including what in the film are supposed to be documentary images of groups of ‘droogs’ committing rape and murder, as well as genuine documentary images – both of Nazi gatherings during World War 2 (which we see – including footage from Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935), and of concentration camp atrocities (which we do not see, but which Alex describes).

I shall return to the role played by these documentary images in what is otherwise a fiction film at a later point in time. But for the time being, the important thing to explain is that these images are so horrific to Alex that they, in conjunction with a drug that is injected into him, induce a disgust response, such that he begins to gag whenever he sees or even thinks about doing some of the violent and/or sexual acts that otherwise give him so much pleasure.

It is not that we are forced to watch horrific deeds on cinema screens in the contemporary age. Nonetheless, the idea that we cannot but watch moving images is relevant when we begin to consider the proliferation of screens in the contemporary world, and from which moving images and sounds emanate – perhaps especially ones that are advertisements specifically or advertisarial more generally.

(What I mean by ‘advertisarial’ is that these images may not sell specific products to us, but they sell to us lifestyles, as well as being designed for us to stare at them, i.e. they sell themselves.)

This advertisarial logic of contemporary screen culture is of course capitalist in nature, while its would-be permanence also relates to the development of what has been termed 24:7 culture, or the ends of sleep. That is, permanent illumination and screen culture lead to us always being awake, always being online, always being connected… such that metaphorically our eyes are always open as buzzes and flashes wake us up in the night and stop us from sleeping, our eyes always forced open by the machines of cinema.

We might think that there is a key difference between the world that I am describing (24:7 connection and the ends of sleep) and that of A Clockwork Orange. For, in the latter, Alex watches these images in order not to commit violent acts, while in our world, we are encouraged always to look at these images – in order to undergo our own Ludovico technique.

Except that as the Ludovico technique is introduced in order to control the behaviour of an otherwise unruly Alex, so is 24:7 culture and the ends of sleep designed to control the behaviour of citizens in today’s world. For, it interpellates them permanently into capitalist culture.

More than this, while Alex watches images of violence, what the contemporary ‘Ludovico technique’ of permanent screen culture involves is violence done to us, those who experience it.

Furthermore, what we ultimately learn is not that Alex is violent in spite of the world of control that the Ludovico technique reveals, but that his violence is the logical extension of that world. And that violence is the logic of our world of permanent illumination – violence to the world, violence to us, violence to each other. The cinematic ethos of our times reveals not just violence in cinema (torture porn, etc, to which we shall return later). But violence as cinema/cinema as violence.

If this notion of control in A Clockwork Orange needed further evidence, then the film’s very title offers us a clue. For, Anthony Burgess, upon whose novel the film is based, gave his book the title A Clockwork Orange for a couple of interlinked reasons. The first is his interest in the phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange,’ which suggests the way in which humans often do not fit into the roles that society tries to impose upon them. And the second is his sense of intrigue at how orang in Malaya (where Burgess was based for a time) means ‘human’ (as per orang-utan, which means ‘human of the forest’).

In other words, ‘a clockwork orang’ is a clockwork human – a human rendered predictable and controlled, as their eyes are glued wide shut by the permanent onslaught of lights, images and sounds that prevent them from seeing their own subjugation to systems of control.

In the term ‘clockwork’ we also have an initial sense of how violence is the logical consequence of, rather than the exception to, a society of control. For by reducing the human to set actions and reactions, time is rendered not a measure of change and becoming, but a measure of repetition, with repetition being a measure of controlled bodies doing repetitive actions (‘work’) for the purposes of capital. Clock-work humans are humans that work; humans that are subject to the time of capital rather than their own time.

Let us further this argument about violence taking place not in spite of the control society, but rather as its logical extension.

‘I would not be controlled,’ sing Alex and various other inmates in a chapel service at HMP Wandsworth before the former undergoes the Ludovico – suggesting that prison and religion both are ways of bringing ‘sheep back into the fold.’

But more specifically, once he does undergo the Ludovico, Alex complains about how he ‘began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glazzies,’ he continues, ‘and even if I tried to move my glazballs about I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture.’

In using the Russian term glaz to refer to his eyes, Alex also brings to mind how Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov referred to his cinematic project as a kino-glaz, or a cine-eye, in which cinema would create a new media-determined perception of reality.

That is, cinema is part of (a tool for) a system of discipline and indoctrination, or what I am here terming (in reference to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze) a society of control.

But cinema is already controlling Alex even before he undergoes the Ludovico technique. As much is made clear when we understand that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is Alex’s own ultraviolence theme tune (with that song also taking place in the 1952 American film of the same name at a moment when Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, is a bit unruly towards a police officer).

In addition, we are offered flashes into Alex’s fantasies as he dreams of ultraviolence at home – and during these moments Alex sees himself as a cinematic Nosferatu figure.

In other words, cinema has inspired Alex’s violent fantasies. Cinema will not cure him of violence. Violence is the logic of cinema.

What is key, however, is that Stanley Kubrick seems to be aware of this – as is made clear by various of the formal choices that he makes in the film.

As successively we hear Gioachino Rossini’s ‘La gazza ladra/Thieving Magpie’ and the overture from William Tell during scenes of violence, A Clockwork Orange takes on dimensions of not being about realism but rather being about choreography. The film becomes balletic as bodies fly through the air, as bodies move in slow motion, or as bodies (during a ménage-à-trois that Alex has with two women he picks up at a record store) move in fast motion.

Furthermore, the colour scheme of A Clockwork Orange also shifts the film away from realism and into a highly stylised realm that equally suggests self-consciousness/falsity. Indeed, the film opens with a red and then a blue colour card, while upon being beaten in police custody, Alex seems not to bleed blood so much as red.

Indeed, the very whiteness of A Clockwork Orange (various interiors, walls, props, milk, characters) would seem to fit its vision of a society of control. For, in presenting a primarily white world, the film would suggest a world without diversity and difference, but one of homogeneity/sameness.

(There are five black bodies in A Clockwork Orange; one in the Korova Moloko bar that Alex and his ‘droog’ friends attend, and four in Wandsworth prison. It is a white world that we see; violence is necessary to remove colour from the world and to make it and its values primarily white.)

Finally, when we see Alex and his droogs driving at speed down a country lane after stealing a Durango-95, A Clockwork Orange so clearly involves rear projection that again the film wants to highlight its own falsity.

This is not to mention the regularly stylised performances, which take on comic book dimensions through their grotesqueness and exaggerated nature.

So the question becomes: why does Kubrick adopt such a ‘comic book’ aesthetic – especially when he is dealing with such difficult topics as violence and sexual violence?

My suggestion would be that Kubrick adopts a deliberately false aesthetic in order to implicate his viewer into the film, to create a sense of self-consciousness about our act of film viewing (rather than the film viewer hiding unobserved in a darkened room). This implication is deliberately revealed to us on numerous occasions.

When Alex is being held in custody prior to his conviction, his parole officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) leans forward to speak to Alex, who is on the floor after taking a beating: ‘You are now a murderer, little Alex. A murderer, yes.’

These words are accompanied by a point of view shot, whereby Deltoid talks directly to us, just as Alex regularly addresses the audience, referring to them (in deliberately gendered terms?) as his ‘brothers.’

What is more, Kubrick regularly uses a 9.8mm lens on his camera, which creates a kind of fish-eye perspective that in turn seems stylised/false. This was a technique developed in conjunction with cinematographer John Alcott – and notably when Alex is first checked into hospital where he will undergo the Ludovico treatment, he is greeted by a Dr Alcott (Barrie Cookson).

In other words, it is as if Kubrick and Alcott were consciously suggesting that their film is a kind of Ludovico treatment.

However, theirs is not a Ludovico treatment achieved through the realism of the images, as per what Alex experiences within the film. Theirs is, rather, an anti-Ludovico treatment that is achieved through revealing the falsity of its images.

‘It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,’ says Alex in voiceover when undergoing the Ludovico. And because this is the case, so Kubrick does not show us ‘the colours of the real world’ – so that we do not mistake what we see as reality.

And yet, this creates another seeming contradiction. For if in the film it is documentary images that stop Alex from becoming violent, it seems to be Kubrick’s hope that fiction images will have that effect – that his self-consciously false images might highlight to us the violence of our world. In other words, unlike Alex’s view of the documentary images, Kubrick’s images are not supposed to be taken as real at all.

Here we can return to the use of documentary footage that I mentioned earlier. For, where Alex initially enjoys what he sees, it is the documentary footage of Nazi Germany that begins to change his mind about violence.

And yet, in our real world (as opposed to in the fictional world of A Clockwork Orange), it is the work of people like Riefenstahl, i.e. it is documentary images, together with fiction films that try to pass themselves off as realistic, that help to mobilise nations into committing atrocities as per the Holocaust.

Oddly, when we do see the documentary images interpolated into A Clockwork Orange, their status as images of the real world (as opposed to images of the diegetic fictional world) does help them to bring home (at least for me) the true horror of the Second World War.

Furthermore, Kubrick does not show us the concentration camp footage that Alex describes – not least because it would be unethical to do so (using the suffering of others for political purposes, which is exactly what Nazi propaganda was doing itself).

But what is important here is that it is in its very invisibility – the fact that it cannot be seen – that the Holocaust becomes unbearably real.

That is, it is in not seeing the footage of it that we are sickened by the violence of history.

We might say that Kubrick does not believe in the Ludovico technique, therefore, or else he might show us that footage in order to prevent humans from ever committing such atrocities again.

However, Kubrick specifically uses fake images in order, I shall suggest, to disgust his viewers, rather than using images of the real world. Kubrick uses the comic book style that I have described not in order to show us the real world, but to show us a nightmare version of it.

Put differently, if the Ludovico technique, and cinema more generally, breeds violence, then Kubrick must try to expose this process. He does not use the Ludovico technique so much as try to suggest that it is at work on all of us.

But how can one expose this process without repeating this process?

Just as Alex was really already just carrying out the violent deeds inspired by cinema, so is he co-opted by the film’s end into the seemingly totalitatarian state that is being created in the film’s dystopian UK. Furthermore, Alex’s two droogs, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), end up being cops. Violence is not only encouraged but also useful for the state in order to control its population.

As Ludovico inventor Dr Brodsky (Carl Duering) explains:

the drug will cause the subject to experience a death-like paralysis together with deep feelings of terror and helplessness. One of our earlier test subjects described it as being like death, a sense of stifling and drowning, and it is during this period we have found the subject will make his most rewarding associations between his catastrophic experience and environment and the violence he sees.

Perhaps the drug is cinema itself. And Kubrick wants to wake us from our deathly eyes-open slumber (including by making reference to his own films as Alex passes a copy of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK/USA, 1968, in the afore-mentioned record store) rather than have us continue somnambulating through the world .

And yet, while Kubrick seems deliberately to adopt comic book techniques in order to shake us out of our deathly slumber, Clockwork Orange arguably fails in this attempt.

For, perhaps A Clockwork Orange historically achieved (and continues to achieve?) the opposite – namely the creation of a new generation of state-endorsed violence.

Burgess’ story was inspired by the rape of his wife by four American deserters in 1944. Meanwhile, Kubrick famously withdrew his film from cinemas after real-world crimes were reported as being influenced by the film.

In this way, the film did the opposite of what it seemed to set out to achieve.

Furthermore, Kubrick perhaps was already aware of this possibility, even before he had it withdrawn from British cinemas in 1973 – as also signalled at various points in the film.

For example, when Alex and his droogs attack writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri), Alex at first cuts holes in the latter’s costume such that her breasts are exposed.

In 1964, performance artist Yoko Ono created Cut Piece, in which visitors to her exhibition were invited to interact with her as she sat on stage dressed in a suit and with a pair of scissors before her. Some visitors eventually removed her clothes in a fashion similar to Alex here.

The moment in A Clockwork Orange is not just a reference to Cut Piece, which functions as an attempt, perhaps, to critique men’s treatment of women in the patriarchal system of discipline and control.

Rather, it is a comment on how work that is designed to be critical of the values of white, patriarchal society becomes co-opted perversely by the very society that it critiques: Alex re-enacts Cut Piece precisely to rape Mrs Alexander, just as Ono tried to get visitors to reflect upon their own propensity for (sexual and gendered) violence.

This process of critique going wrong is even made clear within the film when in the house of a fitness instructor referred to as the Catlady (Miriam Karlin), we see on her wall a painting of a woman with her own breast revealed by a hole in her dress: the painting echoes Alex’s crime but suggests that art becomes violence when in the hands of someone like him.

Indeed, Alex murders the Catlady with a white ceramic penis sculpture – literally turning art into tools for white, male violence.

And perhaps most tellingly, Burgess wrote his novel using ‘Nadsat,’ the language that Alex uses and which basically involves a liberal sprinkling of Russian words (like the afore-mentioned ‘glazzies’) into the English that people otherwise speak here.

In other words, Burgess was perhaps aware about how the language of revolution and the creation of a new world that would live outside of the strictures of capital (the USSR) inevitably becomes co-opted itself into yet more, and more strict, systems of control.

Not only do we see this logic of co-option going on within the film, but perhaps it has also taken place through and around the film.

Not only do we live in a world where Nadsat sounds uncannily like the faux Dickensian patter of someone like celebrity shagger Russell Brand, but we also live in a world of the afore-mentioned torture porn and cruel violence appearing regularly on our screens, which is not to mention the circulation of atrocity videos online (even if taken down soon after being put up).

Notably, in the lobby of Alex’s run-down apartment block, the phrase ‘suck it and see’ has also been graffitied on to a faux classical mural, on to which numerous cocks have also been drawn. Of course, and to evoke the title of another film currently in theatres, ‘suck ’em and see’ was soon co-opted into the language of advertising for Fishermen’s Friends (as John Ó Maoilearca reminded us during the BFI event), as well as being the title of an album by the Arctic Monkeys. Capital takes all oppositional protests and turns then into new markets.

At the BFI event, Lucy Bolton contended that A Clockwork Orange is still shocking, in particular in terms of the treatment that women receive in the film. I agree with her, and think that Kubrick also struggles with replicating violence towards women rather than offering a comment on or critique of it in this film.

But if I also suggested during our discussion of the film that shocking images have become normal within the context of our contemporary sleepless society, it is not that they do not shock us anymore – but that shock itself becomes normal, as we experience shock after shock after shock, such that shock becomes the norm and we accept right-wing politics because we have no energy left to fight against it.

Is cinema not also part, therefore, of the ‘shock doctrine‘? (This reminds me of a very old blog post I once wrote.) In this way, cinema plays its role in establishing the logic of violence in contemporary society.

We are never entirely certain as to why the Ludovico technique fails and Alex retrieves his excitement in relation to sex and violence.

In part this may be a result of the shock experienced after a failed suicide attempt (he jumps from the window of Frank Alexander’s house after a second chance encounter with him).

But it may also be because of Ludwig Van Beethoven. For, during his Ludovico sessions, Alex complains bitterly that Beethoven is used as the score for the films that he sees. (‘He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music.’)

Brodsky speculates that this might help with the treatment, but it also reveals that a certain amount of contingency is at work here; Alex is not controlled by the Ludovico technique, which wears off – and perhaps it does so because of Beethoven, whose music ultimately prevents it from working rather than helping it, thanks to its previous pleasurable association with ultraviolence.

Sound is thus key to A Clockwork Orange, which features some amazing use of Foleyed footsteps and the violent sound in Alexander’s house of a glass bottle clanking on a glass table.

But one sound that features regularly in the film and which I should like to highlight is the sound of belching. It is with an analysis of belching that I should like to draw this blog post to a close.

Eugenie Brinkema has written about eructions in philosophy and cinema, charting in particular how the hiccups and belches of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium perhaps chart how the body always rebels against attempts to control it, and that such gurgles and belches are meaningless in the face of philosophy’s attempts to chart and/or to create meaning.

More than this, the belch also functions as a challenge to the perceived hierarchy that knowledge is primarily a visual phenemenon (Brinkema establishes this hierarchy through an analysis of the work of Sigmund Freud). There are other, ‘lower’ ways of engaging with the world – and cinema uses them, even though we tend to think of it as a visual medium.

Not only does A Clockwork Orange sound, then, but perhaps it also tastes and smells, and what it tastes and smells might be a bit disgusting (dis-gust = ‘bad taste’) – and deliberately so, as made clear by the emphasis on belching, eating, open mouths and porous bodies that seep, and Alex who revels in ooze.

Indeed, when Alex is beaten while in custody, he positively smiles when spat upon by Detective Constable Tom (Steven Berkoff), while it is also here that he burps in the latter’s face.

In addition to this belch, the inmates also burp and fart during the afore-mentioned service in the prison.

Finally, Alex also belches and retches when exposed to the desire to commit acts of violence, including sex, after the Ludovico treatment.

Where belching was oppositional to power (belching at Tom, belching at the prison chaplain, played by Godfrey Quigley), now it has become an expression of subjugation to power. This in turn suggests again that perhaps the belch always was part of the society of consumerism and consumption. That it, like violence, is the logical expression of the contemporary world, and not really oppositional at all.

Nonetheless, Kubrick does, as mentioned, seem once again to be determined to show us this world in all of its disgustingness – even as his film is highly stylised and comic-like.

‘Shut your filthy hole, you scum!’ screams the Chief Guard (Michael Bates) while Alex is in Wandsworth.

And yet, this is precisely what Alex does not do, with his mouth remaining agape at the film’s end as he is fed hospital food by a government minister (Anthony Sharp).

Note that Alex gets fed a lot during the film, while his anger is most carefully aroused – and conveyed – after returning home from prison, by the sound of toast munching by Joe, played by Clive Francis, who has moved into his room.

In that same scene, Alex’s father (Philip Stone) gawps at Alex with his mouth almost permanently open, while the Chief Guard’s own ‘filthy hole’ also often remains wide open, especially when staring at a woman (Virginia Wetherell) trying to tempt Alex into arousal during a demonstration of the success of the Ludovico technique.

That is, humans belch, drop their jaws, and generally are imperfect. We eat and consume, including consuming cinema (we ‘binge’ on movies, with edit also being the third person singular for eating in Latin)… perhaps to the point of being sated, or beyond such a point, to the extent that we feel nauseous and vomit. Perhaps that is the point of satire: over-consumption to the point of gaseous and/or liquid eruction.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is defined as a character who celebrates ‘contagious breath,’ while also being interested in food and wine (‘With drinking healths to my niece: I’ll drink to / her as long as there is a passage in my throat’).

A bawd, then, Belch is the opposite of the relatively effete Orsino, who famously pines that ‘if music be the food of love, play on.’

Rather than being the food of romantic love, though, music in A Clockwork Orange is for Alex – and for us viewers – the food of violence. Furthermore, food provokes belching, and so belching is almost certainly the music of food, and perhaps even the true music of love (a love that is, like an open mouth, agape?).

If belching be the music of ultraviolence and the ‘old in out,’ then Alex will play on. And the ‘in out’ extends beyond sex and sexual violence, and into the language of the institutions that the film portrays: ‘What’s it going to be then? Is it going to be in and out of institutions like this?’ asks the prison chaplain (emphasis added).

Not only are institutions thus ways to discipline the body to be violent, and to desire violence especially towards women, but so might cinema – as Kubrick, with Alcott, tries potentially to establish by having his camera so regularly itself zoom and/or track in and out (the three opening scenes all start with an outward zoom, with the camera thus performing the ‘in and out,’ as if the film, too, were in some senses violating us).

‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it,’ declares Brodsky’s colleague, Dr Branom (Madge Ryan).

Perhaps Kubrick wants us to feel in our bodies a sense of disgust, a bad taste, as we are reminded that the control of our bodies is perhaps a denial of our bodies, and that we must celebrate our body’s unruliness, we must feel our bodies rebel against us and feel unpleasant, rather than be programmed via taking pleasure in cinematic violence into the ways of violent society.

If A Clockwork Orange tries to show the mechanisms at work in the establishment of a white, patriarchal and violent society, then perhaps the film’s black humour, twinned quite deliberately with disgusting violence, can be or become a belch, making it a belch of a film that through its own imperfections reminds us of our own imperfections, suggesting directly that we are Alex’s brothers and that we are the murderers as we are interpellated into its male-dominated society.

Conceivably this message is lost, not least as audiences often recall only the first half of the film with its ultraviolence – as one audience member also pointed out at the BFI. Or perhaps we simply now live in an era of shamelessness as opposed to being ashamed at sensing our own propensity for violence.

But I think that there is evidence that Kubrick is trying (and perhaps inevitably failing) to do something more critical than replicating a society of ultraviolence – perhaps even implicating Burgess himself in this failure as the director changes Alex’s name from Alexander DeLarge (which he announces upon arrival in prison) to Alexander Burgess (as the press call him when he becomes a political pawn as a result of the suffering he has undergone during the Ludovico treatment).

If not a glorious, maybe A Clockwork Orange is nonetheless an ignominious failure. But in failing, it reminds us all too much that humans burp, and that the orang perhaps cannot be clockwork.

Maybe the film’s shocks are dated and outmoded since they have become doctrine.

But Kubrick tries to get us to think about this world – to get us not just to gawp unthinkingly at violence ourselves, but to consume it to the point of belching, choking, perhaps even vomiting.

As a testament to this positive spin on the film, I wagered at the BFI event that c100 people attended the Philosophical Screens discussion in the BFI’s Green Room, which sits directly under Waterloo Bridge. Such strong attendance would suggest that plenty of cinema goers want not just unthinkingly to consume cinema, but also to turn it into a philosophical experience – and one that includes not just abstracted thought, but thinking through the body.

And where the Green Room normally hums with the vibrations of traffic passing overhead, on 16 April 2019 it was virtually silent as traffic was suspended thanks to the Extinction Rebellion protests and protestors not 10 feet above us.

In a world of shocks and violence, peaceful and thoughtful protest, much like thoughtfulness itself (a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love), might yet prove to be transformative forces.

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