Media, mud and the life of matter

I am feeling a bit deflated. So I decided to write something. This is the result. It owes much to David H. Fleming, with whom I am working on some of these ideas for the purposes of academic publishing to be developed in the (un)foreseeable future. And aspects of it were inspired by papers by Robert Burgoyne, Agnieszka Piotrowska and Eileen Rositzka at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) Conference in Montreal in 2015. They very kindly asked me to act as a respondent to their panel on drones – and to their bewilderment, I responded by talking about shoes.

At the beginning of Gadjo dilo/The Crazy Stranger (Tony Gatlif, Romania/France, 1997), Stéphane (Romain Duris) is walking along a snow- and ice-covered road somewhere in Transylvania. He is lost, and he stops to survey the landscape, stamping his feet and blowing the warm air of his lungs on to his hands. The sequence always make me think about cold feet: Stéphane’s feet must be freezing.

This in turn typically makes me think about shoes. What are shoes?

Barefoot, humans can walk across many but not all terrains. Some will be too hot for bare feet (desert sands), while others will be too cold (Transylvania in winter; the French chaussure keeps the foot hot), while others still might feature rocks too jagged for walking (as anyone who has danced “ooh ah” across a shingle beach will know).

The shoe, then, is a medium that allows humans to cover different terrains, thereby modifying the way in which the human interacts with the Earth, giving to humanity the means by which they can expand their presence both across and into new worlds.

But shoe also separates humans from the world, depriving them of direct contact, even if, as per Stéphane’s freezing feet in Gadjo dilo, the shoe is not a perfect tool for keeping nature out.

After the shoe expanded the possibilities for humans to travel came various other technologies that function as a medium between humans and Earth.

A history of these media might chart how, by and large, humanity’s ability to travel further and faster across Earth has involved ever greater amounts of separation of man from Earth: the shoe raises humanity an inch or so higher, the wheel several inches/a few feet, propellers and jet engines thousands of feet, the space shuttle out of Earth’s orbit.

In some senses, then, the spread of humanity and their ability to see more of this and other planets/moons is linked to an ever-greater distance between man and Earth.

This distance is not just spatial (inches/feet/extra-orbital), but it can also be temporal. Systems of representation such as painting, photography and film, for example, can create a temporal distance (I see records of older times).

What is more, with television, there is minimal temporal distance, but an almost absolute conquest of spatial distance: I am in London, but I can see what is happening in Sydney in effect right now.

Media allow for a renewed understanding of the world (they make for a new world), while at the same time distancing us from a direct relationship with that world.

That new world of humans and their technology/media is an integral part of what we might call the anthropocene – the period in the planet’s history during which humans have had the greatest influence in shaping the world (in refashioning it anew).

For, media like shoes do not only help us to walk over a greater variety of the Earth’s surface-types, but humans also refashion the surface of the Earth with things like concrete in order to make that world more cross-able. The road and the pavement are in some senses the making-shoe of the planet.

And if the planet is, as I am suggesting, ‘made shoe,’ then in some senses the medium – something that was created at a specific point in history – is naturalised, or made to seem timeless. By this I mean to say that we begin not to see that the road and the pavement are human creations, but simply part of the Earth that we live with.

Why did a human create shoes? Clearly, we cannot know a (pun intended) concrete answer to this.

(The intention of the pun is to reveal that we use metaphorical terms like ‘concrete’ – which we know to be a substance that is man-made and, in my argument, part of the shoe-ification of the planet – in order to define whether an answer is good or not, with goodness now being measured by the man-made as opposed to by the natural; we conversely define muddy answers as bad ones. The point being that we use the language of the man-made [concrete] to justify human thoughts and actions, and we use the language of nature [muddy] to delegitimise nature – and in this sense we create not natural but self-reinforcing and quite abstract logics regarding how we understand the world/what we perceive the world to be. In short, concrete/man-made = good; muddy/natural = bad.)

To return. Even if we do not know its precise origins, it is quite possible (I should say that it is quite probable) that the shoe was invented because humans did not simply want to travel, but because they had to. They were either under threat from an outside force or from each other, did not have enough resources in their location at the time, or indeed found that their environment was changing without them even moving, such that they had to invent the shoe in order to better their chances of survival.

Now, I am here linking the shoe to human survival, which would mean that in a basic sense the shoe is a ‘good thing.’ But I also wish to suggest that this story of the shoe and the separation from Earth that it entails (even if the French also term a shoe a soulier, or an ‘under-link‘) sparks, via that very separation, a sense in which the Earth is not just a space with which we exist, but a space that is a malleable plaything that we can mould. Not only do we wears shoes, but via concrete we can turn the whole planet into a shoe. This is not just survival of a planet, therefore, but it is also subjugation thereof.

The subjugation of the planet to humanity leads to a logic that whenever the planet is unruly and does not obey our desires then it is being bad, which in turn makes us believe that the planet is evil, or nasty, or cruel – thus reinforcing our sense of separation from it, since it is in opposition to us, as opposed to something with which we live (and die).

The subjugation of the planet to humanity – the use of the planet not as a space with which we live but as a space that we mould (‘make shoe’) for our own purposes – is what I would call the birth of exploitation (we do not co-exist with the world, we exploit it), and thus the birth of what I would call capitalism, in that capitalism is the institution and then the naturalisation of exploitation, such that exploitation seems right, good and what humans should do, and when nature goes against human wishes, it is bad, evil and cruel.

If the subjugation of nature is good, and if nature’s lack of conformity to subjugation is bad, then we can see here how our understanding of nature has been denatured, and how processes of exploitation/subjugation have become naturalised (exploitation is what we understand to be natural, as opposed to nature itself).

If the logic of exploitation for human benefit is allowed to stand as my definition of capitalism, then capitalism is the institution and the naturalisation of media – of things that separate us from the world, such that we ‘better’ can exploit the world.

In effect, I am suggesting that capitalism entails a logic of separation, and that this separation is legitimised because of a perceived improvement of life (we survive longer), which in turn comes to justify an improvement of life at the expense of the planet.

We know that if we destroy the planet, then there can be no life, be that life good or bad. And yet we persist in our pursuit of ‘improving’ life, even though really it sews the seeds of the end of (our) life.

If capitalism and media are, by this reckoning, coterminous (even though it is in the interests of both, since they are predicated on a logic of separation, for humans to believe that they are not/that they are separate), then the multiplication of media is also the proliferation of capital.

How to make money? Set up a wall in space, thus creating two spaces, and then charge people to walk through the gate that in principle connects them, but which in reality is separating them. Or better still, get them working for as little as possible under the false promise that with enough work, they’ll get from the one space to the other, but then in fact ensure that they can never get from one space to the other, thereby ensuring that they continue working.

(The Church is a self-proclaimed medium between man and God [whatever that is], charging humans in both spiritual and economic terms in order to regulate a relationship that, if I may put it in an oblique way, is in fact one [there is no god; or there is God but our relationship with Him {sic.} is direct; God is already here, but the Church cows us into believing that God is there.)

Now, I am going in some respects to flip all that precedes in this blog post, for which apologies in advance if this is irritating (I doubt you’ll have read this far if it is, though).

It is not that shoes and walls are not real; they are real enough, especially because those who tell us that they exist convince many people not only that they do exist, but also that they must exist (because nature is cruel; because other men are cruel; the shoe and the wall thus are naturalised, replacing a nature that sure enough has ‘barriers’ – I cannot walk barefoot on ice or desert sands for very long, and I certainly cannot walk on water – but these ‘barriers’ in nature are barriers for the human and not necessarily barriers at all from nature’s own perspective; nature sees itself as one – and a human in tune with, as opposed to seeking to exploit, nature thus perhaps also can ‘walk on water’).

However, if from nature’s perspective the first and the second space are not separated, but in fact part of a single space (desert and glacier roll into each other), then the wall that keeps spaces separate is in some respects illusory – it is a human invention. That is, where capital and media separate, nature itself is interlinked, one, or entangled.

(‘But walls keep out the cold. We’d have all died without walls.’ This I imagine to be a normal response here. To which I might reply: yes. And shoes and clothes and cardboard boxes also keep humans warm, especially in climates where it is not naturally warm enough for humans to exist as is. Technology keeps humans alive, in some respects. It is not that technology is bad for humans; I am interested in thinking through what technology does in addition to helping humans, and in working out what that might mean, or how we can think about it.)

If nature is one, and if humans are natural, then we can extrapolate that nature and humanity, including those aspects of humanity that separate, are one. In effect, capitalism is in some respects an illusion, in that the world is not simply a backdrop for but it also plays an active role in our existence. But if humans are not separate from nature, then even in our claims that humans are separate from nature, nature must still be at work.

The aim here is not to say that capitalism, media and so on are natural in the sense that it is fine, or even good, to exploit the planet. Perhaps one of the reasons why humans will exploit the planet until their own deaths is because the planet and humans realise that this is the best/only entangled way for the planet to rid itself of humans in such a way that their belief in separation is not legitimised but exposed precisely as erroneous.

That is, if humans are killing the planet and thus themselves, humans persist in this process in spite of knowing that they are doing it because they are indeed not separate from nature, but with nature. In effect there is no escaping nature: either humans survive by working with as opposed to against nature; or humans die out because they cannot get around the fact that they are with nature, even if they think that they are not. Nature is inescapable.

But, and here we go a bit crazy, if humans and their technology continually do try to escape nature, but if that escape is impossible, then nature is playing as great a role in what humans do as humans themselves are (contrary to the human belief that they themselves are responsible for everything that they do).

If nature is playing as great a role in the creation of the shoe as humans, then in some respects we might read the creation of the shoe as the will of nature to become shoe.

Again, the point here is not to say that it’s great and ‘correct’ for humans have ‘shoeified’ the world/made the world shoe. Rather, it is to say the matter that is the shoe has organised itself as much as humans have organised it.

That is, rather than the human being wholly responsible for making the shoe, matter has in fact partially used humans in order to become shoe. It is not that humans are uniquely exploiting nature; nature is in some respects also exploiting them.

All technologies or media, I wish to suggest, pursue their own propagation much the same way that humans do. In this way, media – matter as a whole, even mud – is ‘alive,’ thinking about ways symbiotically of working with humans.

Just as humans come from water and mud, so, too, is the wall an expression of mud’s own will to become organised. And as mountains rise and fall depending on the shuffles of the planet’s tectonic plates, so, too, do walls and buildings rise up and fall, as matter wills itself via its human partners into various shapes, changing, shifting, matter perpetuating itself into new forms in a kind of breathing of the planet.

And as humans come to encase themselves in their technology – hiding behind four walls, wrapped up in blankets and clothes, cocooned away from that supposedly cruel nature – what we can really see is matter itself taking the form that is necessary in order to reach around and into the human in order to bring the human back down into the mud from which it originally sprang.

That is the thought that I had today and the expression of which – itself an expression of my own impending death as technology reaches into me and slowly turns me back into mud – is a consolation (that which I got wrong today/yesterday is simply the will of the universe, and this mini-essay is simply the expression of the power of the universe and my inevitable death. That’s a bit of an oblique ending, but I shall leave it at that.)

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Adventures in Cinema 2015

There’ll be some stories below, so this is not just dry analysis of films I saw this year. But it is that, too. Sorry if this is boring. But you can go by the section headings to see if any of this post is of interest to you.

The Basics
In 2015, I saw 336 films for the first time. There is a complete list at the bottom of this blog. Some might provoke surprise, begging for example how I had not seen those films (in their entirety) before – Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, France/UK, 1985) being perhaps the main case in point. But there we go. One sees films (in their entirety – I’d seen bits of Shoah before) when and as one can…

Of the 336 films, I saw:-

181 in the cinema (6 in 3D)

98 online (mainly on MUBI, with some on YouTube, DAFilms and other sites)

36 on DVD/file

20 on aeroplanes

1 on TV

Films I liked
I am going to mention here new films, mainly those seen at the cinema – but some of which I saw online for various reasons (e.g. when sent an online screener for the purposes of reviewing or doing an introduction to that film, generally at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London).

And then I’ll mention some old films that I enjoyed – but this time only at the cinema.

Here’s my Top 11 (vaguely in order)

  1. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany/Switzerland, 2014)
  2. El Botón de nácar/The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, France/Spain/Chile/Switzerland, 2015)
  3. Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway, Netherlands/Mexico/Finland/Belgium/France, 2015)
  4. Bande de filles/Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, France, 2014)
  5. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014)
  6. Saul fia/Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary, 2015)
  7. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2015)
  8. Force majeure/Turist (Ruben Östlund, Sweden/France/Norway/Denmark, 2014)
  9. The Thoughts Once We Had (Thom Andersen, USA, 2015)
  10. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany/Poland, 2014)
  11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 2014)

And here are some proxime accessunt (in no particular order):-

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain/France, 2013); Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014); Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014); Jupiter Ascending (Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA/Australia, 2015); The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 2014); Catch Me Daddy (Daniel Wolfe, UK, 2014); White God/Fehér isten (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary/Germany/Sweden, 2014); Dear White People (Justin Simien, USA, 2014); The Falling (Carol Morley, UK, 2014); The Tribe/Plemya (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014); Set Fire to the Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014); Spy (Paul Feig, USA, 2015); Black Coal, Thin Ice/Bai ri yan huo (Yiao Dinan, China, 2014); Listen Up, Philip (Alex Ross Perry, USA/Greece, 2014); Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, USA, 2015); The New Hope (William Brown, UK, 2015); The Overnight (Patrick Brice, USA, 2015); Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse/My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2015); Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, USA, 2014); Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015); Hard to be a God/Trudno byt bogom (Aleksey German, Russia, 2013); Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2015); Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, USA, 2015); Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, USA/Brazil, 2015); While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2014); Marfa Girl (Larry Clark, USA, 2012); La Sapienza (Eugène Green, France/Italy, 2014); La última película (Raya Martin and Mark Peranson, Mexico/Denmark/Canada/Philippines/Greece, 2013); Lake Los Angeles (Mike Ott, USA/Greece, 2014); Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, France/Belgium/Italy, 2014); Taxi Tehran/Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015); No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2015); Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, USA, 2015); Umimachi Diary/Our Little Sister (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2015); Tangerine (Sean Baker, USA, 2015); Carol (Todd Haynes, UK/USA, 2015); Joy (David O. Russell, USA, 2015); PK (Rajkumar Hirani, India, 2014); Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013); Selma (Ava DuVernay, UK/USA, 2014); The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, New Zealand, 2014); Hippocrate/Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (Thomas Lilti, France, 2014); 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 2014).

Note that there are some quite big films in the above; I think the latest Mission: Impossible topped James Bond and the other franchises in 2015 – maybe because McQuarrie is such a gifted writer. Spy was for me a very funny film. I am still reeling from Cliff Curtis’ performance in The Dark Horse. Most people likely will think Jupiter Ascending crap; I think the Wachowskis continue to have a ‘queer’ sensibility that makes their work always pretty interesting. And yes, I did put one of my own films in that list. The New Hope is the best Star Wars-themed film to have come out in 2015 – although I did enjoy the J.J. Abrams film quite a lot (but have not listed it above since it’s had enough attention).

Without wishing intentionally to separate them off from the fiction films, nonetheless here are some documentaries/essay-films that I similarly enjoyed at the cinema this year:-

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, USA, 2015); National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA/UK, 2014); Life May Be (Mark Cousins and Mania Akbari, UK/Iran, 2014); Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA, 2012); Storm Children: Book One/Mga anak ng unos (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2014); We Are Many (Amir Amirani, UK, 2014); The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Brazil/Italy, 2014).

And here are my highlights of old films that I managed to catch at the cinema and loved immensely:-

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis/Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini (Vittorio de Sica, Italy/West Germany, 1970); Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (Lucchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1963); Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War/Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Harun Farocki, West Germany, 1989); A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, USA, 1974).

With two films, Michael Fassbender does not fare too well in the below list – although that most of them are British makes me suspect that the films named feature because I have a more vested stake in them, hence my greater sense of disappointment. So, here are a few films that got some hoo-ha from critics and in the media and which I ‘just didn’t get’ (which is not far from saying that I did not particularly like them):-

La Giovinezza/Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/Switzerland/UK, 2015), Sunset Song (Terence Davies, UK/Luxembourg, 2015); Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK/France/USA, 2015); Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, USA, 2014); Slow West (John Maclean, UK/New Zealand, 2015); Tale of Tales/Il racconto dei racconti (Matteo Garrone, Italy/France/UK, 2015); Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK/USA, 2015).

And even though many of these feature actors that I really like, and a few are made by directors whom I generally like, here are some films that in 2015 I kind of actively disliked (which I never really like admitting):-

Hinterland (Harry Macqueen, UK, 2015); Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, USA/Germany/UK/Canada, 2015); Pixels (Chris Columbus, USA/China/Canada, 2015); Irrational Man (Woody Allen, USA, 2015); Aloha (Cameron Crowe, USA, 2015); Point Break 3D (Ericson Core, Germany/China/USA, 2015); American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2014); Every Thing Will Be Fine 3D (Wim Wenders, Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway, 2015).

Every Thing Will Be Fine struck me as the most pointless 3D film I have yet seen – even though I think Wenders uses the form excellently when in documentary mode. The Point Break remake, meanwhile, did indeed break the point of its own making, rendering it a pointless break (and this in spite of liking Édgar Ramírez).

Where I saw the films
This bit isn’t going to be a list of cinemas where I saw films. Rather, I want simply to say that clearly my consumption of films online is increasing – with the absolute vast majority of these seen on subscription/payment websites (MUBI, DAFilms, YouTube). So really I just want to write a note about MUBI.

MUBI was great a couple of years ago; you could watch anything in their catalogue when you wanted to. Then they switched to showing only 30 films at a time, each for 30 days. And for the first year or so of this, the choice of films was a bit rubbish, in that it’d be stuff like Battleship Potemkin/Bronenosets Potemkin (Sergei M Eisenstein, USSR, 1925). Nothing against Potemkin; it’s a classic that everyone should watch. But it’s also a kind of ‘entry level’ movie for cinephiles, and, well, I’ve already seen it loads of times, and so while I continued to subscribe, MUBI sort of lost my interest.

However, this year I think that they have really picked up. They’ve regularly been showing stuff by Peter Tscherkassky, for example, while it is through MUBI that I have gotten to know the work of American artist Eric Baudelaire (his Letters to Max, France, 2014, is in particular worth seeing). Indeed, it is through Baudelaire that I also have come to discover more about Japanese revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi, also the subject of the Philippe Grandrieux film listed at the bottom and which I saw on DAFilms.

MUBI has even managed to get some premieres, screening London Film Festival choices like Parabellum (Lukas Valenta Rinner, Argentina/Austria/Uruguay, 2015) at the same time as the festival and before a theatrical release anywhere else, while also commissioning its own work, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junun (USA, 2015). It also is the only place to screen festival-winning films like Història de la meva mort/Story of my Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France/Romania, 2013) – which speaks as much of the sad state of UK theatrical distribution/exhibition (not enough people are interested in the film that won at the Locarno Film Festival for any distributors/exhibitors to touch it) as it does of how the online world is becoming a viable and real alternative distribution/exhibition venue.  Getting films like these is making MUBI increasingly the best online site for art house movies.

That said, I have benefitted from travelling a lot this year and have seen what the MUBI selections are like in places as diverse as France, Italy, Hungary, Mexico, China, Canada and the USA. And I can quite happily say that the choice of films on MUBI in the UK is easily the worst out of every single one of these countries. Right now, for example, the majority of the films are pretty mainstream stuff that most film fans will have seen (not even obscure work by Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Fritz Lang, Terry Gilliam, Robert Zemeckis, Frank Capra, Guy Ritchie, Steven Spielberg, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wes Anderson). Indeed, these are all readily available on DVD. More unusual films like Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, USA/France, 2010) are for me definitely the way for MUBI to go – even in a country that generally seems as unadventurous in its filmgoing as this one (the UK).

I’ve written in La Furia Umana about the changing landscape of London’s cinemas; no need to repeat myself (even though that essay is not available online, for which apologies). But I would like to say that while I have not been very good traditionally in going to Indian movies (which regularly get screened at VUE cinemas, for example), I have enjoyed how the Odeon Panton Street now regularly screens mainstream Chinese films. For this reason, I’ve seen relatively interesting fare such as Mr Six/Lao pao er (Hu Guan, China, 2015). In fact, the latter was the last film that I saw in 2015, and I watched it with maybe 100 Chinese audience members in the heart of London; that experience – when and how they laughed, the comings and goings, the chatter, the use of phones during the film – was as, if not more, interesting as/than the film itself.

Patterns
This bit is probably only a list of people whose work I have consistently seen this year, leading on from the Tscherkassky and Baudelaire mentions above. As per 2015, I continue to try to watch movies by Khavn de la Cruz and Giuseppe Andrews with some regularity – and the ones that I have caught in 2015 have caused as much enjoyment as their work did in 2014.

I was enchanted especially by the writing in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip, and then I also managed to see Ross Perry acting in La última película, where he has a leading role with Gabino Rodríguez. This led me to Ross Perry’s earlier Color Wheel (USA, 2011), which is also well worth watching.

As for Rodríguez, he is also the star of the two Nicolás Pereda films that I managed to catch online this year, namely ¿Dónde están sus historias?/Where are their Stories? (Mexico/Canada, 2007) and Juntos/Together (Mexico/Canada, 2009). I am looking forward to seeing more Rodríguez and Pereda when I can.

To return to Listen Up, Philip, it does also feature a powerhouse performance from Jason Schwartzman, who also was very funny in 2015 in The Overnight. More Schwartzman, please.

Noah Baumbach is also getting things out regularly, and I like Adam Driver. I think also that the ongoing and hopefully permanent trend of female-led comedies continues to yield immense pleasures (I am thinking of SpyMistress AmericaTrainwreck, as well as films like Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhavan, UK, 2014, to lead on from last year’s Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre, USA, 2014; I hope shortly to make good on having missed Sisters, Jason Moore, USA, 2015).

I don’t know if it’s just my perception, but films like SelmaDear White PeopleDope and more also seem to suggest a welcome and hopefully permanent increase in films dealing with issues of race in engaging and smart ways. It’s a shame that Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) may take some time to get over here. I am intrigued by Creed (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2015).  I was disappointed that Top Five (Chris Rock, USA, 2014) only got a really limited UK release, too. Another one that I missed and would like to have seen.

Matt Damon is the rich man’s Jesse Plemons.

Finally, I’ve been managing to watch more and more of Agnès Varda and the late Chantal Akerman’s back catalogues. And they are both magical. I also watched a few Eric Rohmer and Yasujiro Ozu films this year, the former at the BFI Rohmer season in early 2015, the latter on YouTube (where the older films can roam copyright free).

Michael Kohler
During a visit to Hartlepool in 2015 to see my good friend Jenni Yuill, she handed me a letter that she had found in a first edition of a Christopher Isherwood novel. She had given the novel to a friend, but kept the letter. The letter was written by someone called Michael and to a woman who clearly had been some kind of mentor to him.

In the letter, Michael described some filmmaking that he had done. And from the description – large scale props and the like – this did not seem to be a zero-budget film of the kind that I make, but rather an expensive film.

After some online research, I discovered that the filmmaker in question was/is British experimental filmmaker Michael Kohler, some of whose films screened at the London Film Festival and other places in the 1970s through the early 1990s.

I tracked Michael down to his home in Scotland – and since then we have spoken on the phone, met in person a couple of times, and he has graciously sent me copies of two of his feature films, Cabiri and The Experiencer (neither of which has IMDb listings).

Both are extraordinary and fascinating works, clearly influenced by psychoanalytic and esoteric ideas, with strange rituals, dances, symbolism, connections with the elements and so on.

Furthermore, Michael Kohler is an exceedingly decent man, who made Cabiri over the course of living with the Samburu people in Kenya for a decade or so (he also made theatre in the communes of Berlin in the 1960s, if my recall is good). He continues to spend roughly half of his time with the Samburu in Kenya.

He is perhaps a subject worthy of a portrait film himself. Maybe one day I shall get to make it.

And beyond cinema
I just want briefly to say how one of the most affecting things that I think I saw this year was a photograph of Pier Paolo Pasolini playing football – placed on Facebook by Girish Shambu or someone of that ilk (a real cinephile who makes me feel like an impostor).

Here’s the photo:

Pier-Paolo-Pasolini-Calcio

I mention this simply because I see in the image some real joy on PPP’s part. I often feel bad for being who I am, and believe that my frailties, which are deep and many, simply anger people. (By frailties, I perhaps more meaningfully could say tendencies that run contrary to mainstream thinking and behaviours – not that I am a massive rebel or anything.) And because these tendencies run contrary to mainstream thinking and behaviours, I tend to feel bad about myself, worried that others will dislike me.

(What is more, my job does not help. I often feel that the academic industry is not so much about the exchange of ideas as an excuse for people to bully each other, or at least to make them feel bad for not being good enough as a human being as we get rated on absolutely everything that we do – in the name of a self-proclaimed and fallacious appeal to an absence of partiality.)

I can’t quite put it in words. But – with Ferrara’s Pasolini film and my thoughts of his life and work also in my mind alongside this image – this photo kind of makes me feel that it’s okay for me to be myself. Pasolini met a terrible fate, but he lived as he did and played football with joy. And people remember him fondly now. And so if I cannot be as good a cinephile or scholar as Girish Shambu and if no one wants to hear my thoughts or watch my films, and if who I am angers some people, we can still take pleasure in taking part, in playing – like Pasolini playing football. And – narcissistic thought though this is – maybe people will smile when thinking about me when I’m dead. Even writing this (I think about the possibility of people remembering me after I am dead; I compare myself to the great Pier Paolo Pasolini) doesn’t make me seem that good a person (I am vain, narcissistic, delusional); but I try to be honest.

And, finally, I’d like to note that while I do include in the list below some short films, I do not include in this list some very real films that have brought me immense joy over the past year, in particular ones from friends: videos from a wedding by Andrew Slater, David H. Fleming cycling around Ningbo in China, videos of my niece Ariadne by my sister Alexandra Bullen.

In a lot of ways, these, too, are among my films of the year, only they don’t have a name, their authors are not well known, and they circulate to single-figure audiences on WhatsApp, or perhaps a few more on Facebook. And yet for me such films (like the cat films of which I also am fond – including ones of kitties like Mia and Mieke, who own Anna Backman Rogers and Leshu Torchin respectively) are very much equally a part of my/the contemporary cinema ecology. I’d like to find a way more officially to recognise this – to put Mira Fleming testing out the tuktuk with Phaedra and Dave and Annette Encounters a Cat on Chelverton Road on the list alongside Clouds of Sils Maria. This would explode list-making entirely. But that also sounds like a lot of fun.

Here’s to a wonderful 2016!

COMPLETE LIST OF FILMS I SAW FOR THE FIRST TIME 2015

KEY: no marking = saw at cinema; ^ = saw on DVD/file; * = saw online/streaming; + = saw on an aeroplane; ” = saw on TV.

Paddington
The Theory of Everything
Le signe du lion (Rohmer)
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Enemy
Au bonheur des dames (Duvivier)
Il Gattopardo
Daybreak/Aurora (Adolfo Alix Jr)^
Eastern Boys
The Masseur (Brillante Mendoza)^
Stations of the Cross
Foxcatcher
National Gallery
Whiplash
American Sniper
Minoes
Fay Grim^
Tak3n
Tokyo Chorus (Ozu)*
Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza)^
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée)
La prochaine fois je viserai le coeur
Pressure (Horace Ové)
La Maison de la Radio
L’amour, l’après-midi (Rohmer)
The Boxtrolls^
A Most Violent Year
The Middle Mystery of Kristo Negro (Khavn)*
Ex Machina
Die Marquise von O… (Rohmer)
An Inn in Tokyo (Ozu)*
Big Hero 6
Images of the World and The Inscriptions of War (Farocki)
Corta (Felipe Guerrero)*
Le bel indifférent (Demy)*
Passing Fancy (Ozu)*
Inherent Vice
Mommy (Dolan)
Quality Street (George Stevens)
Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune (Rohmer)
Jupiter Ascending
Amour Fou (Hausner)
Selma
Shoah*
Fuck Cinema^
Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis)*
Broken Circle Breakdown^
We Are Many
Duke of Burgundy
Love is Strange
Chuquiago (Antonio Eguino)*
The American Friend*
Set Fire to the Stars
Catch Me Daddy
Blackhat
Hinterland
Two Rode Together
Patas Arriba
Relatos salvajes
Clouds of Sils Maria
Still Alice
The Experiencer (Michael Kohler)^
Cabiri (Michael Kohler)^
CHAPPiE
White Bird in a Blizzard*
Hockney”
Love and Bruises (Lou Ye)*
Coal Money (Wang Bing)*
Kommander Kulas (Khavn)*
The Tales of Hoffmann
Entreatos (João Moreira Salles)^
White God
Insiang (Lino Brocka)*
5000 Feet is Best (Omer Fast)*
Bona (Lino Brocka)*
Difret
Aimer, boire et chanter
May I Kill U?^
Bande de filles
Appropriate Behavior
The Golden Era (Ann Hui)+
Gemma Bovery+
A Hard Day’s Night+
The Divergent Series: Insurgent
De Mayerling à Sarajevo (Max Ophüls)
Marfa Girl
When We’re Young
Timbuktu (Sissako)
La Sapienza (Eugène Green)
Enthiran^
Serena (Susanne Bier)+
22 Jump Street+
Undertow (David Gordon Green)*
Delirious (DiCillo)*
Face of an Angel
Cobain: Montage of Heck
Wolfsburg (Petzold)
The Thoughts Once We Had
El Bruto (Buñuel)*
Marriage Italian-Style (de Sica)*
Force majeure
Workingman’s Death*
The Salvation (Levring)
Glassland
The Emperor’s New Clothes (Winterbottom)
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Life May Be (Cousins/Akbari)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Far From the Madding Crowd (Vinterberg)
Cutie and the Boxer^
Samba (Toledano and Nakache)
Mondomanila, Or How I Fixed My Hair After Rather A Long Journey*^
Phoenix (Petzold)
Cut out the Eyes (Xu Tong)
Producing Criticizing Xu Tong (Wu Haohao)
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)^
Accidental Love (David O Russell)*
The Tribe
Unveil the Truth II: State Apparatus
Mad Max: Fury Road 3D
Abcinema (Giuseppe Bertucelli)
Tale of Tales (Garrone)
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond
Coming Attractions (Tscherrkassky)*
Les dites cariatides (Varda)*
Une amie nouvelle (Ozon)
Ashes (Weerasethakul)*
Jeunesse dorée (Ghorab-Volta)^
La French
Inch’allah Dimanche (Benguigui)
San Andreas
Regarding Susan Sontag
Pelo Malo*
The Second Game (Porumboiu)^
Dear White People*
Spy (Paul Feig)
L’anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images*
Punishment Park*
Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Miguel Gomes)*
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Listen Up, Philip
Future, My Love*
Lions Love… and Lies (Varda)*
De l’autre côté (Akerman)
Les Combattants
London Road
West (Christian Schwochow)
Don Jon*
Mr Holmes
The Dark Horse*
Slow West
El coraje del pueblo (Sanjinés)^
Scénario du Film ‘Passion’ (Godard)*
Filming ‘Othello’ (Welles)*
Here Be Dragons (Cousins)*
Lake Los Angeles (Ott)*
Amy (Kapadia)
Magic Mike XXL
Hippocrate
It’s All True
I Clowns*
The New Hope
The Overnight
Sur un air de Charleston (Renoir)*
Le sang des bêtes (Franju)*
Chop Shop (Bahrani)*
Plastic Bag (Bahrani)*
Love & Mercy
Terminator Genisys 3D
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
The Salt of the Earth (Wenders/Salgado)
Mondo Trasho*
Le Meraviglie
True Story
Eden (Hansen-Love)
A Woman Under the Influence
River of No Return (Preminger)
Love (Noé)
Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse
Ant-Man 3D
Today and Tomorrow (Huilong Yang)
Inside Out
Pixels
Fantastic Four
99 Homes
Iris (Albert Maysles)
52 Tuesdays*
La isla mínima
Manglehorn
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Sciuscià (Ragazzi)
Hard to be a God
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Trainwreck
Mistress America
Precinct Seven Five
Theeb
The Wolfpack
The President (Makhmalbaf)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
45 Years
Straight Outta Compton
Osuofia in London*
Osuofia in London 2*
Idol (Khavn)*
Diary (Giuseppe Andrews)^
American Ultra*
La última película (Martin/Peranson)*
Pasolini (Ferrara)*
Les Chants de Mandrin^
Odete (João Pedro Rodrigues)*
Hermanas (Julia Solomonoff)*
Taxi Tehran (Panahi)*
Mystery (Lou Ye)^
Lecciones para Zafirah*
Ulysse (Varda)*
Excitement Class: Love Techniques (Noboru Tanaka)*
Speak (Jessica Sharzer)*
Image of a Bound Girl (Masaru Konuma)*
The Color Wheel*
Jimmy’s Hall*
Shotgun Stories*
El color de los olivos*
Discopathe*
Fando y Lis*
La Giovinezza
Aloha+
The Lego Movie+
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone+
Ruby Sparks+
Eadweard
Detropia
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To)+
La loi du marché+
OSS117: Rio ne répond plus+
Self/Less+
Irrational Man
Junun*
Une heure de tranquillité (Patrice Leconte)
Sicario
The Lobster
Macbeth
Goodbye, Mr Loser
Fac(t)s of Life^
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Legend (Brian Helgeland)
Mia Madre (Moretti)
Mississippi Grind
Sangue del mio sangue (Bellocchio)
Botón de nácar (Guzmán)
Storm Children, Book 1 (Lav Diaz)
Dope
Umimachi Diary (Hirokazu)
Dheepan
Lamb (Ethiopia)
Saul fia
Ceremony of Splendours
Parabellum*
[sic] (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Makes (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Martian
Everest
Anime Nere
Suffragette
Crimson Peak
The Lady in the Van
Steve Jobs
Tangerine
Manufraktur (Tscherrkasky)*
Lancaster, CA (Mike Ott)*
The Ugly One (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Program (Stephen Frears)
Everything Will Be Fine 3D
Agha Yousef
The OBS – A Singapore Story
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Letters to Max (Eric Baudelaire)*
SPECTRE
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
My Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung)+
Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen)+
The Crossing: Part One (John Woo)+
John Wick^
Junkopia (Chris Marker)*
The Reluctant Revolutionary*
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?*
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga^
The Shaft (Chi Zhang)^
Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974*
Um lugar ao sol (Gabriel Mascaro)*
The Story of My Death (Albert Serra)*
Juntos (Nicolás Pereda)*
¿Dónde están sus historias? (Nicolás Pereda)*
Golden Embers (Giuseppe Andrews)^
Cartel Land^
Outer Space (Tscherkassky)*
L’Arrivée (Tscherkassky)*
It Follows*
At Sundance (Michael Almereyda)^
Aliens (Michael Almereyda)^
Woman on Fire Looks for Water*
Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso)*
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation*
Coraline^
Adela (Adolfo Alix Jr)*
Point Break 3D
Another Girl Another Planet (Michael Almereyda)^
The Rocking Horse Winner (Michael Almereyda)^
Foreign Parts (Paravel and Sniadecki)*
Star Wars Uncut*
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)*
Evolution of a Filipino Family^
Lumumba: La mort du Prophète^
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner^
PK+
L’échappée belle+
Legend of the Dragon (Danny Lee/Lik-Chi Lee)+
Magnificent Scoundrels (Lik-Chi Lee)+
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens 3D
Devil’s Knot (Egoyan)^
Anatomy of a Murder*
Two Lovers^
Elsa la rose (Varda)*
My Winnipeg*
Carol
Joy
Surprise: Journey to the West
Grandma
Mur Murs (Varda)*
In the Heart of the Sea
Sunset Song
Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution: Masao Adachi (Grandrieux)*
Black Mass
Mr Six

Posted in African cinema, American cinema, British cinema, Canadian cinema, Chinese cinema, Documentary, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Iranian cinema, Italian Cinema, Japanese Cinema, Latin American cinema, Philippine cinema, Ritzy introductions, Transnational Cinema, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Is No Cinema

I am going to do an end of year review-type thing tomorrow (1 January 2016), so if you are interested in my adventures in cinema in 2015, then you will have a full run-down then…

But this post is really just a brief note prompted by a couple of books that recently I have read and greatly enjoyed (I know I generally only write about films I’ve seen; this is in contrast a slightly different type of post).

The books in question are Francesco Casetti’s Lumière Galaxy: 7 Key Words for the Cinema to Come (Columbia University Press, 2015) and Pavle Levi’s Cinema by Other Means (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I am afraid that I am not going to write a review of either book, since I plan to engage with them more fully elsewhere and in a more traditionally academic fashion.

However, I should just present a gist of their arguments in order to set up my brief note.

Taking them in chronological order, Levi argues (brilliantly) that we should not just think of cinema as audiovisual phenomena, but that cinema can also be created via (the clue is in the title) other means: using filmmaking equipment in unusual ways/devising and creating unusual filmmaking equipment; writing scripts that are never meant to be filmed, but which nonetheless might constitute cinema; the role that darkness – and not light – plays in cinema.

Casetti, meanwhile, argues (excellently) that in the contemporary world cinema has migrated out of the movie theatre and is still manifest in new media, including DVDs, streaming movies, gallery spaces and more. That is, cinema has adapted and changed, and we need some new words in order better to understand it – but that these other media are basically still cinema. Casetti is also interested in the role that darkness plays in cinema.

I personally tend to agree with Casetti. Indeed, my own forthcoming book, entitled Non-Cinema (details of publication pending), also argues that in the contemporary age cinema remains at the heart of new media, and that what I term non-cinema challenges the domination of a certain type of (capitalist, mainstream) cinema by adopting techniques and dealing with subject matter that the (capitalist, mainstream) cinema generally ignores. In this way, non-cinema is still cinematic – even if it does not adopt the now-predominant capitalist logic of cinema (it must grab attention in order to use eyeballs to make money). Suggesting that digital technology has intensified the potential for and the actualisation of such an a-capitalist non-cinema, I also argue that darkness has a key role to play in non-cinema.

Nonetheless, while I generally agree with Casetti (I do not agree with him on everything), what both he and Levi’s books make me wonder is how real the cinema has ever been. By which I mean to say: in exploring cinema by other means, Levi implies that there is, or at least that there once was, such a thing as cinema, such that we can identify what those ‘other means’ are. Similarly, in saying that new media are more or less still cinema but in modified form, Casetti equally suggests that an unmodified cinema once existed.

The point I want to make is subtle (if I am capable of subtlety). For, I do not disagree with the idea that cinema has existed and continues to exist: cinema generally is a place that one visits (a theatre dedicated to showing films), while also involving moving pictures and sounds projected on to a white screen/wall (cinema is also a set of equipment), and equally something that one watches in the dark (cinema is also a way of viewing films).

(This is not to mention that cinema for some also involves strips of celluloid or polyester that are passed first through a camera, then through an editing suite, and finally through a projector; in the digital age, this material base – you can touch a film strip – has disappeared.)

I also cannot disagree with the argument that in the contemporary world we watch films that do not involve visiting that place, which do not involve the projection of images on to a wall and accompanied by sounds, and which we now increasingly watch not in the dark but in broad daylight, as Gabriele Pedullà would put it.

Indeed, this morning I watched Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution: Masao Adachi/It May be that Beauty has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi (Philippe Grandrieux, France, 2011) on the Doc Alliance website. This involved neither a dedicated film viewing space (I watched it in bed – where I also write this blog), nor a projection (it was streamed on to my computer screen), nor being in the dark (even though dark outside when I started to watch the film, I still had a bedside lamp illuminated throughout viewing).

(Philippe Grandrieux is for me a good example of a maker of non-cinema, and so it is perhaps fitting that I watched this film online – the only place that I can in fact find it these days.)

However, while all of the above is for me true, what I wish to suggest is that even when one does watch a film in a darkened room, using a projector and in a building dedicated to the viewing of that film, this still is not a flawless experience.

That is, while cinema has changed in the contemporary era (Casetti), and while it has long since existed by other means (Levi), cinema has only really ever been imperfect.

Some examples:-

In 1998 at the UGC Ciné Cité in Lille, I see Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, USA, 1997) and the sound is about two seconds out of sync with the image.

In 2013 at the Ritzy in London, I see Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn, Denmark/Sweden/Thailand/USA/France, 2013) and the sound is so loud that I have to pull my hoodie over my ears to muffle the noise.

In 2014 at the Odeon Putney in London, I see The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany/UK, 2014), and after about an hour and 15 minutes, the film freezes and will not continue until maintenance work has been done.

In 2015 at (if memory serves) the Cinema Village in New York, I see Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014) and the sound is turned off for the first 15 minutes of the film.

In 2015 at the Milenium Cinema in Skopje, I see Every Thing Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway, 2015) in 3D, and the bulb on the projector is so weak that the film is barely visible, so dark are the images.

I also remember seeing a film in Paris (I am pretty sure at the UGC Orient Express, but cannot remember which film; in my head it was Cop Out, Kevin Smith, USA, 2010) where/when the staff forgot to turn off/down the houselights.

And I remember seeing a film (I cannot remember which one, though in my head it was something like A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2005) at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, London, where the film was out of focus – prompting several rounds of oneupmanship from various patrons regarding the technical reasons for why this was so.

The simple point that I wish to make, then, is that if the ‘other means’ and the contemporary, extra-theatrical practices of cinema demonstrate by implication/comparison a ‘classical’ cinema (place, projection, mode of viewing), that so-called ‘classical’ cinema exists only really as an ideal – while in reality cinema is an imperfect process, as my examples highlight.

My examples only become more clear when we add in the distractions of toilet breaks, people talking, people munching popcorn, people snogging, people tapping on their phones, people walking in and out.

The examples only become more clear when we add in the fact of watching imperfect, scratched prints of old films – even if digital restorations give to an old film a renewed life. The scratches are not part of the film as intended by the makers, but they are often a much loved part of the film as experienced by the viewers.

In other words, we have never really seen a movie in the ideal way. Reality always intervenes somehow.

But, more than this, I wish to say that these are not distractions from the viewing of the film (even if we find some of them annoying – other people talking, for example). Rather, my suggestion is that these everyday realities of viewing films are precisely part of cinema.

That is, the ideal of cinema might well be watching a film uninterrupted (and yet communally). But this ideal does not exist. Instead, the reality of cinema is interruption, imperfection, and so on. And these interruptions and imperfections define cinema as much as, if not more than, the ideal. Indeed, when we think about memorable viewing experiences, those that linger in the memory are often imperfect viewing experiences, as per my examples above.

In this way, we might say that there is no cinema. Or at the very least we might refine what cinema is and say that there is no cinema without reality, and that reality always interrupts into cinema, and that reality is imperfection, but also memory, perhaps the defining feature of cinema, and perhaps the source and cause of cinema’s great beauty. In the terms of my pending book, there is no cinema without non-cinema. Recognising the importance of non-cinema to cinema, then, recognising reality itself, instead of escaping from reality, is perhaps not only the greatest thing that cinema can do, but also our most pressing job to perform as film viewers.

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Spectre (Sam Mendes, UK/USA, 2015)

Spoilers. And it’s long. Sorry.

The plot of Spectre is that James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret society, Spectre, which is basically in charge of all world crime and terrorism, and which also has at its core a plot to develop a total surveillance society.

In some senses, the film is about information and quantification, against which it pitches memory and emotions.

For, if quantification is about measuring and thus giving to everything an extension/measurement, then memory is about quality and the irreplaceable intensity of experience (intensity, not extension).

The film is a fantasy, as marked in several moments in the film. It is also in some senses the last James Bond film, though Bond will almost certainly ‘return’ – as the end credits habitually announce.

Starting with the more mundane fantasy aspects, we can then build up to what I consider to be the more meaningful ones. We have:-

1. In the opening sequence, Bond attacks a helicopter pilot, who might well be an accomplice to the escaping Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), but who at this point in the film is – as far as audience members are concerned – just a helicopter pilot. He does later attack Bond. But since he is in the helicopter above a massive crowd of Mexicans celebrating the Day of the Dead, clearly Bond is not particularly concerned about innocent lives.

2. After inadvertently blowing up a building by shooting a bomb, Bond finds himself in a crumbling building. He slides down a collapsed floor, and then leaps on to a ledge – the remains of an already collapsed storey. The ledge collapses and Bond lands… on a sofa. The moment is funny, but also nonsensical; what happened to the collapsed ledge? why is the sofa not covered in the concrete that fell before Bond?

Perhaps correctly, one might already be thinking: this guy is taking this film too seriously. But these are already early signs that the whole of Spectre might be Bond’s fantasy. This is also signalled by the fact that helicopters, a collapsing building, and the motif of falling through a collapsing building all recur at the film’s climax. That is, the circular structure of the film not only signals ‘good storytelling,’ but its ‘neatness’ also potentially signals that ‘none of this is real.’ Or certainly, not realistic; who can have this sort of luck – both bad (the same things happen over and over again; the same things return) and good (the sofa, the final safety net).

Onwards…

3. Bond is involved in a car chase in Rome. At one point he finds himself stuck in a narrow alleyway behind an old guy in a small car past which he cannot drive. This gives evil henchman Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) a chance to catch him up, but ingenious as ever Bond simply uses his Aston Martin DB10 to push the old guy out of the way. But don’t worry – the old guy safely manages to come to a halt, only lightly boffing a bollard before his airbag punches him in the face.

A funny moment, except for two things, one of which we shall return to. Firstly, while stuck behind and/or pushing the old man’s car, we see Bond drive past at least two crossroads, down which he easily could have turned in order more successfully to flee Hinx. In other words, logic be damned for the sake of a good spectacle. Or rather, this is still all Bond’s fantasy.

Secondly, the film takes care to emphasise the fact that this old white Italian man survives Bond’s antics. Not so the no doubt various Mexicans who perished in the destroyed building in Mexico, and various other collateral victims of Bond’s antics throughout the rest of the film. The film, which as Bond’s fantasy also means Bond himself, believes a white European to be worth saving. Not so much anyone from the Third World.

4. Bond goes to find old rival Mr White (Jesper Christensen). He finds him in the basement of a house in Austria, where he is sat watching various television screens featuring… news coverage of disasters. This is straight out of South Park, and simply goes to signal that White is ‘evil.’ Given that this is a film that takes care to show us Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in espadrilles without socks and kissing a cat, why isn’t White making a cup of tea or something? Because this is a fantasy.

5. Personally, I also found ridiculous the white tie costume that Bond puts on for the dinner he has on a train with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Why dress up this way for a train dinner seems ridiculous to me. As does Hinx’s arrival. A fight ensues, and Hinx, who wears a weirdly flammable suit that goes up in flames after having a candle thrown at it, dies, in part through Madeleine’s help (she shoots him in the arm). After Hinx’s death, she asks – a line that telegraphs the next shot with such clarity that one wonders why there is no interception/unusual cutting: “What do we do now?” Cut to a sex scene (well, some rather prudish kissing anyway). The entire scenario is silly, especially since on the back of this one brief sexual encounter, Madeleine will shortly declare to Bond that she loves him. If knowing someone for about 48 hours and killing a third party is the recipe for love… then surely we are in a fantasy land.

6. The same goes for Bond’s seduction of Sciarra’s widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci). Bond kills two henchmen by shooting them in the back just before they finish her off (the reason for her necessary death not being too clear, except perhaps that she ‘knows too much’ – and apparently did not love her husband, or so Bond tells us anyway). And then he seduces her. Just like that. Because that’s what happens in real life.

7. Bond has injected into him some nanotechnology that means not only that Bond’s location can be known at all times (a phone can achieve this), but also his physical condition (the film never really explores this aspect of the tech). At first Bond convinces Q (Ben Whishaw) to lie about the information provided by the tech, before M (Ralph Fiennes) tells Q to destroy the files. Which is fine, if one wants to hide where Bond has been. The tech is still in his blood, though, and so finding where Bond is will be very easy for the film’s villains, since they can just track him using this tech. Which is perhaps the case, since Bond is found with ease at all times. But this does then beg the question why M would tell Q to destroy the records at all. (The film does not tell us that the baddies know where Bond is because of this tech.)

8. Bond is taken prisoner by Blofeld somewhere in the Sahara. Blofeld – dressed, as mentioned, in an oddly realistic way and rolling around on an executive (‘wheely’) chair – carries out some unnecessary dentistry on Bond before inserting a drill into what he says is Bond’s fusiform gyrus, the area of the brain in which humans stores memories for faces. Apparently Blofeld is not successful, since Bond remembers Madeleine instants later. Maybe Blofeld just missed. But this suggests something more strange…

9. The film climaxes in the old MI6 building, to which Bond is abducted by more Blofeld henchmen (who also die).

(Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and Q are in a car behind M, who is heading to the new building for joint security agency, CMS. Cue the most redundant line in the film – from Moneypenny: “They’ve seen us, reverse,” she says before the henchmen shoot at the car, apparently grazing Q, though this is never confirmed to us. A real ‘no shit, Sherlock’ moment.)

Anyway, back to the MI6 building: Blofeld has had installed into it some weird ropes, suggesting something like a maze, as well as a bullet-proof screen, and a bomb. Just in case you didn’t know there was a bomb that might go off, the bomb conveniently produces a sort of ‘countdown’ sound, meaning that Blofeld also wired the ruined building with speakers just to remind Bond of the fact that he has a deadline: to find Madeleine before the building explodes.

Not only do we have pointless dialogue (Moneypenny), and a somewhat improbable scenario (rigging the building with speakers, for example), but the fact that Blofeld sets all of this up simply so that he can torment Bond suggests that the plot to obtain world domination is just persiflage, and that all of this really is about Bond himself. That is, it is Bond’s fantasy about being the centre of the world.

I insist that this is Bond’s fantasy precisely because I am not that concerned with making judgments along the lines of ‘the film is full of plot holes.’ It’s only a Bond film would be the obvious and correct response if that were my only intended task; of course the film is full of plot holes, since this is indeed ‘only’ a Bond film.

But while I have used the above ‘plot holes’ to begin my demonstration of the film as Bond’s fantasy, we can go a step further and show how the film seems not just to feature improbable moments of action that we can simply excuse by saying ‘but of course the film is a fantasy’ but which also seem to suggest that the film is not only a fantasy, but specifically James Bond’s fantasy. To wit:-

1. When Bond arrives at a Spectre board meeting, Hinx announces himself by gouging the eyes out of a rival, before Blofeld addresses Bond – suggesting that the entire meeting has been set up for Bond, and not really for the purposes of discussing evil and world domination.

2. When Blofeld shows Bond around his desert lair, he takes him and Madeleine into a room of henchmen at computers. (As if by magic, they catch on CCTV at that exact moment M discussing the closing of MI6 in London, with MI6 being subsumed under CMS, which is headed up by C (Andrew Scott) and who happens to be a Blofeld lackey as well as, we are told, old school friends with the Home Secretary.) At a certain point, the lights go off and everyone stands up and turns towards Bond. Some amazing choreography, which must have been practised beforehand (that is, in the fictional world Blofeld must have issued orders along the lines of ‘well, what’s gonna happen guys, is that I’ll being Bond to this point in the room, and then Brian, you hit the lights, and everyone turns towards Bond and stands up. It’ll really shit him up. Okay, shall we practice? Go… Keith, for Christ’s sake, no! I said turn towards Bond, not the wall. Someone take Keith and feed him to the sharks…). Failing such a moment having happened in the fictional world of the film, the moment again suggests that this all could be in Bond’s head.

3. “It was all me,” Blofeld soon confesses, in saying that all of his recent misdemeanours have been – in spite of words to the contrary – about Bond. Indeed, it turns out that after Bond’s parents died, it was Blofeld’s father who adopted Bond – with Bond surpassing Blofeld in winning the admiration of his father. That is, world domination really comes down to rivalry over daddy love between two kids, one British, one German.

4. Once Bond has been lobotomised, it is hard to tell whether anything is reliable anymore. Perhaps he has no memory for faces. Perhaps he has no memory. Perhaps this is all just a fantasy.

So, if you buy what I have said thus far, not only do the plot holes, but also some far more deliberate moments in the film seem to suggest that this all is or could be Bond’s fantasy. That saving the world in fact plays out in the troubled mind of the middle class British boy – described as being ‘blue eyed’ by Blofeld in a way that naturally recalls the features that in popular memory were the preserve of Aryans under National Socialism in Germany.

The question becomes not ‘is the film good or bad as a result of this?’, but ‘why does the film do this?’ Or rather: what is the film telling us by doing this?

So here we arrive at memory and intensity, which also relate in the film to issues of history, race, sex, the Bond mythology itself, and the medium in which the Bond franchise most powerfully exists, cinema (together with other audiovisual media).

When Bond comes around in Blofeld’s lobotomy chair, Blofeld is explaining to Madeleine about the moment Hinx took out the eyes of Guerra (Benito Sagredo) in the Spectre meeting that was not necessarily a real meeting, but which might in fact have simply been set up for Bond/been Bond’s fantasy.

It is not entirely clear what Blofeld says – we hear things from Bond’s perspective, a little bit unclear since he is still coming round. But basically Blofeld seems to be explaining to Madeleine that the mind exists separately from the body, and that when Guerra’s eyes were removed, he did not function properly as a human being anymore (so if you’re blind, you’re basically not human).

This separation of mind and body that Blofeld seems to be discussing is important (and contradictory, as I’ll explain below). It’s important because if the mind exists apart from the body, then everything might well be a fantasy, something in Bond’s head and which he is not really experiencing. Furthermore, if there is a mind that exists separately from the body, then this dualism suggests a reality in which we humans can see the world as separate from us (i.e. ‘objectively’). If our mind were entirely part of our bodies, and since our bodies are in the world, then this would suggest that our minds are a product of the world. A separate mind suggests the autonomy of humanity, which has conquered the mere body and thus conquered the material world, and which exists independent from the world.

I do not think that such a view of the the mind separate from the body is sustainable, although Spectre has an ambivalent relationship with this concept. I am strongly of the view that the mind is linked to the body, and that what the mind comes up with is linked thus to the world.

However, with regard to Spectre, the separation of mind and body is important, because the film also invokes the idea of voyeurism at times. Voyeurism is liking to watch things, but also liking to watch things as if separate from them, unaffected, disconnected.

Bond accuses Blofeld of being a voyeur, while voyeurism looms large in M’s dislike of C’s plan to instil the perfect surveillance system (the workings of which are never really explained). That is, the film characterises as bad those who are voyeuristic, those who believe in separation of mind from body, and those who believe, therefore, that they are or can be separate from the world.

“I said turn it off!” shouts Bond, somewhat redundantly, to Blofeld as the latter shows to Madeleine footage of her father’s suicide (Madeleine is Mr White’s daughter). He then tells Madeleine not to watch the footage and instead to look at Bond.

At this moment, we get a sense in which Bond does not want Madeleine to be a voyeur, someone who watches but who is not seen (because/thus suffering from the illusion of being separate from the world). Instead, she and he should share eye contact (the basis of their love?). Which happens as Madeleine does not watch the footage.

Similarly, M describes to C the process of killing a human being while looking them in the eye. Surveillance and drone culture supposedly involve separation and not connection. And with separation and not connection, one does not see the rest of the world, including humans, as connected to us, but as disconnected from us, and thus as something that one can treat as an object. In other words, Blofeld and C’s voyeurism is part and parcel of a dualistic view of the human, which feeds into a system of exploitation and inequality. Bond might kill people, but he does so knowingly, taking on responsibility for his actions… supposedly.

Except for the fact that, contrary to M’s argument, Bond does not take responsibility for his actions (unless being a heavy drinker is supposed to signify guilt and thus deserving absolution). As mentioned, Bond kills henchmen and likely also is involved in killing Mexicans without much of a care (he shoots Lucia’s would-be killers in the back). This is not someone who is connected with the world (looking his victims in the eye), but someone who believes it to be his playground, mechanically and uncaringly dispatching those who are in his way.

In other words, as a fantasy, the film is the expression of the privileged white, middle class and male European belief that one is separate from and superior to the world, which one can indeed treat as one wishes. Blowing up a Mexican building, nearly crashing a helicopter and so on: this is fine, especially when the older Italian driver is not killed, thus salving our conscience since those Mexicans and henchmen are not really real to us (Bond is a psychopath). Hence, in a similar vein, Bond’s treatment of women as playthings.

Perhaps this is made most clear when Bond says of his own life: “I don’t stop to think.” What Bond seems to be saying here is that Bond does not consider the consequences of his actions – he does not consider himself to be part of the world – but he considers himself to be separate from the world, and he has no need to think about what he does, since from his perspective it will always be correct. That is, Bond is a solipsist, someone who is selfish, and who does not consider the consequences of his actions, because he does not believe that his actions have consequences (he does not think he is part of the world) and because this may indeed all be in his head (a fantasy).

And yet, Spectre perhaps enacts the way in which the repressed – the reality from which Bond believes himself to be separate – in fact returns (‘returns’ will be a phrase to pick apart with some finesse).

Firstly, if Blofeld does believe in the dualism of mind and body (with the concomitant voyeurism and ability to exploit others that this entails), then he also cannot sustain such a belief in the face of the fact that he also lobotomises Bond. That is, it is by changing Bond’s material body that he changes Bond’s material mind.

Except for the fact that the lobotomy does not work. Does the fact that the lobotomy does not work suggest that, at the last, the mind is separate from the body, since Blofeld changes Bond’s body, but his mind survives, and he still remembers Madeleine even though he should not?

(In some senses, the forgetting of faces is important for fans of James Bond. That is, we forget that Daniel Craig is not Pierce Brosnan, is not Timothy Dalton, is not Roger Moore, is not George Lazenby, is not Sean Connery. We remember that we forget this, since everyone is always arguing over who their ‘favourite’/’the best’ James Bond is. And yet, we also properly forget the differences between these faces, since we go to watch the films regardless and believe that we are watching James Bond – even though the change of appearance would suggest that at least one of these Bonds is an impostor. In other words, cinema is a kind of lobotomy. A lobotomy that makes us believe that mind is separate from body – this is still James Bond even though that is a new face he has – which in turn makes of us voyeurs, separate from the world, forgetful, returning to the cinema, complicit with exploitation, happy for the trafficking of humans and contemporary slavery to happen… since without them the comfortable world in which we live would not exist.)

Back to whether the failed lobotomy suggests a separation of mind and body.

Well, I shall argue for something slightly different and paradoxical. And this is that the lobotomy does not work because Bond is indeed a solipsist and this is his fantasy, but that the lobotomy also signals the beginning of Bond’s return to reality – perhaps.

Why does the lobotomy not work? Not because Blofeld just gets his procedure a bit wrong. But because Blofeld is not carrying out the procedure; this is just Bond’s fantasy, with Blofeld a figment of Bond’s imagination.

This is signalled by the unlikelihood of Blofeld’s organising his entire criminal corporation around Bond – and visually by the way the two face each other through the glass wall, with Blofeld even (at one point) describing them as ‘brothers.’

As a figment of Bond’s imagination, Blofeld does suggest that Bond is a solipsist with a mind separate from his body. However, this solipsism is not sustainable, with Madeleine in fact signalling Bond’s re-entry into reality, a re-connection with the real world.

How is this so?

Madeleine Swann is a name clearly inspired by Marcel Proust, whose Remembrance of Things Past is a novel about the nature of memory. Swann is the name of the novel’s main protagonist, while it is the smell of a madeleine (a kind of French cake) dipped in tea that induces in Swann many of the memories that are the novel’s contents.

A high brow reference for a Bond film, no doubt. Nonetheless, Proust suggests the importance of memory, with memory being embodied, since smell – i.e. the influence of the real world – is what allows him to remember. That is, for Proust the mind is not separate from the body, with the human not being separate from the world; instead, the two are intimately interlinked.

Prior to the lobotomy, Blofeld explains that Bond will have no way to remember all of the women that he has seduced in his life, and that Madeleine will be just another woman. However, since Bond is a solipsist, what Blofeld is really pointing to is the fact that Bond doesn’t remember apart his conquests as it is (with characters like Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green in Casino Royale, Martin Campbell, UK/etc, 2006, supposedly providing the odd exception). Women are, for Bond, simply objects (he views them ‘objectively’).

(Here the name Madeleine takes on a renewed resonance – this time with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (USA, 1958), in which Scottie (James Stewart) falls in love with a woman who does not exist called Madeleine, before forcing the woman who played the part of Madeleine, Judy (Kim Novak), to become not like Judy, but like Madeleine. That is, Scottie treats Judy as an object, with Madeleine being that object. In this way, Bond’s love for Madeleine might also signal that she is still just another woman, interchangeable with others, and not real, since Madeleine in Vertigo is equally a fantasy and not real.)

Interestingly, it is because Spectre begins to be involved in the trafficking of women and children that Mr White refuses to take part in the organisation, prompting Blofeld to poison him, hence his decision to kill himself with Bond’s gun when the two meet.

In other words, Mr White is signalled as a voyeur (watching the spectacle of terrorism on his television screen, with terrorism reduced to a spectacle on a screen and not involving real people; i.e. it is something over there, not part of a world with which we are entangled), but really he cannot go on in a world in which women and children are treated like objects.

(A Spectre henchwoman, Dr Vogel (Brigitte Miller), with shades of Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), describes in the Spectre board meeting that 160,000 women have successfully been placed in the ‘leisure industry’ – suggesting the trade of faceless women, a trade that is in part engendered by the likes of Bond who do not see women as individuals with whom to interact, but as objects to fuck. Indeed, M and C have an exchange in which C tells M that M stands for moron, to which M responds that C stands for… careless, because M has removed the bullets from C’s too-obviously-hidden gun. Of course, mature audience members will be thinking that C stands for cunt, because C is a bad character who believes in total surveillance, voyeurism and drone violence. That is, C embodies – paradoxically – the belief that women are just cunts to be fucked as opposed to real human beings, because C also stands for separation, objectification, exploitation, detachment, solipsism, Eurocentrism.)

As the daughter of Mr White, then, and as associated with Proust and Vertigo, Madeleine is the revival of memory within Bond – a revival that takes place at precisely the moment that Blofeld thinks he destroys Bond’s memory. Bond now remembers, is now enworlded, and is now capable (once again?) of love. Or so he says…

If we don’t remember anything, we won’t learn from our mistakes, and we just repeat ourselves. Things get repetitive as we forget what came before and do not change (although we may not be aware that there is repetition, precisely because we do not remember).

For Bond to treat women like objects is associated with amnesia, forgetting, not remembering. For him to learn to love, both by getting together with Madeleine and by not killing Blofeld, as happens at the film’s end, suggests that Bond starts to remember.

And yet what does Bond remember?

For, Madeleine Swann seems to be such a contrived character – she ‘loves’ Bond after a brief encounter – and Blofeld is Bond’s imagined evil twin. That is, Bond loves a fantasy woman who is not real (Vertigo strikes), while he keeps alive his evil other half. Meaning that there will be more Bond films as Bond wants to, but cannot quite change (he cannot really love, except to love a fantasy).

Perhaps this is why Spectre is a film that rehashes many tropes from previous Bond films, including a somewhat redundant series of references to octopuses that surely evokes Octopussy (John Glen, UK/USA, 1983). The octopus is oddly the symbol of Spectre (why not call it ‘octopus’?), while also featuring prominently in the opening credits. And then it does not really to reappear. Meaning that it is an empty reminder of former Bonds rather than a meaningful image/symbol (I am happy to stand corrected if someone has a good explanation for it).

I shan’t list all of the other Bond self-references. There are many.

But the point that I wish to make is this. Obviously, as viewers, it is because we have a memory of other Bond films that we can recognise these references. That said, on the part of the filmmakers it paradoxically also suggests a lack of memory, and a compulsion to repeat, since rather than doing anything different, the film recycles things that the series has already done time and again. Memory should be a tool to allow for difference, rather than a way of repeating oneself.

And yet, in not killing the baddie and in falling in love, does Spectre not learn and offer us something different? Well, yes. On a certain level. But if this is still just solipsism (Madeleine and Blofeld are part of Bond’s imagination), then Spectre suggests as a whole the haunting of the Bond series by the other, earlier Bond films, and its inability to move on from the past, in spite of its attempts to do so.

This inability to move on from the past, it is in some senses capitalism. Capitalism is defined by returns, for example box office returns. Things change under capitalism – we get new Bond films – but things remain the same, as we basically repeat. If we repeat, we forget. If we forget, it is because we do not carry memory with us. Memory requires us being in or with the world, and so forgetting is separation from the world. Separation from the world is what enables us to treat others as objects. Treating others as objects is at the core of capitalism, since it involves exploitation (the creation of hierarchies of human beings based upon socioeconomics, as opposed to equality among humans based upon the fact of sharing and being sustained by the same planet). The repetition of Bond tropes – even if we can recognise it – is thus capitalist; and Bond will return, then, even though Spectre threatens a new Bond who does not kill his enemy, who does no longer treat women as objects, but now who instead professes to love. This lesson will be forgotten – and so while Spectre threatens to be the end of Bond, it in all likelihood will not be.

C suggests in Spectre that information is the most important asset/resource, and that to have (access to) it is to have power. Indeed, information is the production of the very system of power and hierarchisation. For, information as computer data and quantification is extension, repetition, the compulsive fucking of women, the cynical killing of Mexicans (even if an old Italian guy is saved). Bond learns through memory not the extent of fucking (a list of women he has bedded), but the intensity of love. Which will be perhaps quantified itself – ‘another Bond film in which he falls in love’ – as opposed to Bond learning to love and going into retirement and there never being another Bond film again.

Bond forgets the women he has bedded. He forgets the Mexicans he has killed, as well as the henchmen. And the whole film comes down to being a dispute between rival boys, with Bond as the perfect Aryan.

Is it perhaps the case, then, that as Bond forgets these things, so Spectre similarly forgets, but cannot help itself from giving expression to, the hidden history of the world that has allowed Europe to become so self-absorbed and solipsistic that it makes films about boys squabbling and letting many others die in the process.

The Mexican opening. The Day of the Dead. The African desert. The considerably longer world history evoked by the presence in the film of a meteorite, suggesting that the world itself is not isolated but part of a bigger universe. The film cannot but point to a history of colonialism and the exploitation/theft that enabled Europe to become the centre that thought itself so powerful that it could treat others as objects. And this within a world in which it is likely because of interventions from outer space, in the form of meteorites, that the conditions were created for humans to emerge as a dominant species in the first place.

(Léa Seydoux and Christoph Waltz have met before, of course, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, USA/Germany, 2009. This and the film’s Aryan politics might even suggest the return of the Holocaust as a repressed point in history. Furthermore, the constant references to ‘shit’ in the film also suggest the return of a repressed body in what otherwise might all be taking place in James Bond’s mind.)

In other words, Spectre seems to encourage us to forget world/planetary history, but it also cannot help but suggest it. As the film posits a dualist identity (signalled in the Bond-Blofeld and the Bond-Madeleine dyads), it also suggests a much more ‘schizophrenic’ enworldment.

Commercial cinema itself might be part of a compulsion to repeat/a compulsion to forget, since it also often involves a sense of voyeurism/separation (looking without being seen).

As much perhaps is demonstrated in that we are happy for Bond to be involved in the needless deaths of Mexican civilians and henchmen who, while not ‘innocent,’ are also contracted to work for evil. That we carry these views forward into the real world (we allow the deaths of many civilians in the name of combatting evil, while at the same time finding abominable the victimisation of our own people even though they might be considered, like a henchman, accomplices to the hierarchisation, separation and solipsism that is capital) perhaps indicates that the logic of cinema, voyeurism, separation from others and exploitation is not just shown within the film but also applies to Spectre itself.

Spectre is a film that consciously deals with these issues. I think ultimately it cannot help but be a product of the capitalist system from which it springs. But at the same time, since there is the world, it cannot help but show the world.

A smart and complex film (it is knowing about its issues), Spectre suggests that the whole film is Bond’s solipsistic fantasy while at the same time showing that the solipsistic fantasy of overcoming solipsism is the expression of the privileged white, straight and European male. Bond learns, but we suspect that he will return, that he is the real spectre. Who knows, though…? Perhaps the series will end and by remembering, we will learn to create something completely different…

Sorry for the rant. Bond as usual in many respects. But also a more self-conscious and knowing (‘post-modern’?) Bond than usual. Which in turn highlights precisely how the postmodern world is a western fantasy of globalisation (via exploitation, fantasies of tourism, the ability to kill poor people) that has at its core a mind-body dualism. Which in turn reminds us how untenable this dualism is in a world with which we are in fact always already entangled.

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52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde, Australia, 2013)

This is a brief blog post about 52 Tuesdays, which I am introducing this evening (18 August 2015) at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, London.

The film tells the story of Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a gamine sixteen-year old who arrives home one day to find that her mum, Jane (Del Herbert-Jane), is about to undergo the process of gender reassignment, and to become a man, James.

Initially seeming to take the news in her stride, Billie moves in with her father, Tom (Beau Travis Williams), since Jane/James decides that he needs space in order for to concentrate on the sex change. She will see James every Tuesday. And so the film follows the story of Billie and her family over the course of a year, hence the film’s title.

However, as the year wears on, Billie, James and Tom all seem to experience various issues. For example, James’ testosterone treatment does not work as intended, and he suffers from various side effects of his treatment. Tom, meanwhile, falls from his motorbike (not for the first time).

Finally, Billie ends up playing truant at school as she falls in with Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), two students with whom she begins to experiment sexually – initially in a backstage room near her school’s theatre, and then in a space looked after by Billie’s queer father-of-one uncle, Harry (Mario Späte), a freewheeling libertine who lives with James and who seems to be in a rock band.

Not only does Billie push the boundaries of her relationship with her friends and family, then, but she also begins quite compulsively to record many of her sexual encounters with Josh and Jasmine – something that eventually is discovered by their parents, and which might fall foul of the law since the participants in the sex tapes are underage.

Billie’s motivation for recording her experiences are not necessarily narcissistic, though. That is, while there are elements of (well captured and certainly well performed) teenage navel-gazing in her footage, especially in her to-camera video diary confessions, there are two other reasons as to why this is happening.

Firstly, as Billie explains, she is no different from James, who similarly is recording his own transition from woman to man for the sake of posterity. That is, the act of recording is a bid to help one to understand the changes that one experiences and also perhaps to record for posterity a life that is otherwise all too fleeting.

Secondly, though, Billie might be recording herself in a bid to make sense of the world more generally. As the film flips from Tuesday to Tuesday, we regularly see television news footage of what at the time of the film’s making were current affairs: for example, the indictment of Julian Assange, footage from the civil war in Syria and the sinking of the Costa Concordia.

It is not that these clips ground the film in some specific political reality. On the contrary, the footage flashes past us with the effect that it is often hard to recognise what is going on. In other words, the world is a confusing and constantly changing place – and it is easy to feel lost therein.

More than this: one of the reasons why the world is so confusing is because it is so highly mediated; we are bombarded by images from all over the world, and the images themselves do not make that much sense unless we construct a narrative out of them, for example by adding a voice over in order to explain the images away.

That is, our confusion regarding the world is partially increased by information overload and by the technologies that humans have in principle created not only to bring order to that world but also precisely to help us make sense of it.

What do we make of Billie’s (and James’) almost pathological desire to record her/their experiences? Well, as mentioned, it is in part in order to make sense of their lives as they struggle to understand who they are.

But in particular, it is also about struggling who one is in terms of desire: what one wants. And what is interesting here, then, is the fact that the technology itself becomes the object of our desires.

Steven Soderbergh saw this at the start of his career and at the dawn of the age of the digital camera, now exploded into the world of mobile phones and other recording devices, when he made sex, lies, and videotape (USA, 1989).

It is not so much the other person that we desire as a complex mix of the other and the technology itself. And given how strange this must be for a human – to realise that their sexuality extends beyond the human and into the technological realm – little wonder it is that humans feel compelled to record what happens.

That is, the technology produces the desire while at the same time offering the hope for an explanation of that desire. If I might proffer a controversial claim, the technology becomes like therapy: it clarifies the problems that it claims to solve in order to extend our own relationship with that very technology.

It is, in other words, as if the technology were alive – and as if it were acting like a parasite with us in order to assure its own existence. It is likely a logical consequence of the camera on the mobile phone, in conjunction with WhatsApp and SnapChat, that teenage images and videos of genitalia are almost certainly rife across most schools in the (Western) world.

The world is confusing. But more than that, the narratives that we used to use to make sense of the world are no longer tenable as technology allows for gender reassignment, as it allows for auto-recording, and as it allows for us permanently to be experimenting with who we are, removing a sense of stability from the world and replacing it with fragmentation and becoming.

What is true of the world that 52 Tuesdays depicts is true also of how it depicts it. This is not simply a case of the mix of media that we see – home videos, video messages, Skype conversations, video diaries, ‘normal’ footage – and the use of the footage from the news.

It is also true of the way that the film shows us only what happens on Tuesdays. Interestingly, director Sophie Hyde and her crew also only shot the film on Tuesdays over the course of a year. As a result, the film itself has a fragmented feel, in which it is hard for us as viewers to construct a narrative – certainly more hard than it is most easy-to-follow films.

And yet, this fragmentation is a powerful tool for putting us the in the shoes of Billie and James, for we end up, like them, trying to make sense of what it is that we see.

Time rushes by, but time also can drag. As there is no fixed gender in the film (Billie is a boy’s name, Harry is effeminate, James obviously is changing sex), so there is no fixed rhythm to the film either, as it jerks then slows. The fragmentation of the world is not just spatial, it is also temporal/rhythmic.

While Tuesday is a typically masculine day (mardi, then French word for Tuesday, is named after the Roman god of war, Mars; the English name is also after the Norse god of war, Tiw), it is also a day on which we celebrate the carnival of gender reassignment, mardi gras.

And yet, while carnival sees the typical roles that we normally play reversed – men become women, the poor become rich – this is a controlled festival that ultimately helps to maintain the status quo.

What is perhaps interesting at the last, then, is that as carnival has within it a strong conservative streak, so, too, does 52 Tuesdays. For, ultimately after Jasmine and Josh fall by the wayside (before a final reconciliation), family does come through as a final lens through which to make sense of the world.

What is pleasurable about 52 Tuesdays is the fact that there is little to no sensationalising of Jane/James’ transition – perhaps in part as a result of Herbert-Jane’s remarkable performance and his own gender non-conformity in real life.

But also Cobham-Hervey’s central performance as Billie is especially affecting. At times archly scripted, nonetheless, 52 Tuesdays also captures the arch thinking to which adolescents sometimes can be prone.

An experimental feature that is engaged precisely with experimentation in relation to the sense-making process of narrative, 52 Tuesdays is a mature film, even if sometimes about immaturity – and if one were interested in a double bill, it would make a nice companion piece to Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015).

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Plemya/The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014)

This is a brief review of The Tribe in order to accompany the introduction to the film that I made last night at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London.

I have been meaning to write about a number of the films I have introduced, but only now have had the chance.

The Tribe is Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s first film, and it tells the story of a young deaf man (Grygoriy Fesenko) who arrives at a boarding school for deaf people in Kiev/Kyiv.

Soon he becomes embroiled in the students’ criminal activities, being chosen after the accidental death of one of his peers to pimp out girls from the school.

He falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova), and then proceeds to defy the rule of King (Oleksandr Osadchyi), the lead gangster.

Developing on from Slaboshpytskiy’s Glukhota/Deafness (Ukraine, 2010) – which can be seen hereThe Tribe contains almost no dialogue, with almost all discussion and conversation taking place in Ukrainan sign language. It also features no subtitles.

The Tribe is relatively easy to follow in terms of plot. Nonetheless, clearly the effect of the sign language (some, but few, viewers will be Ukrainian signers) is to alienate audience members somewhat from what they see.

Slaboshpytskiy also achieves this in part through his stylistic choices: The Tribe often features long takes, or sequence shots, which also are long shots – i.e. the camera maintains a relatively long distance from the events that we see onscreen.

That is, by refusing to ‘speak’ both in terms of dialogue (with traditional subtitles) and in terms of the usual language of cinema (close-ups explaining to us what we need to know, linked to shots that match the eyeline of the characters, such that we know who sees what and when), The Tribe, while easy to follow on some levels, is also a complex film to follow: what are we supposed to look at during each frame? What is going on?

In refusing to answer these questions, Slaboshpytskiy’s film clearly wants us instead to think. And in some respects to see the world anew. For, in being a film without dialogue, The Tribe clearly recalls the classic, silent cinema.

And as silent cinema, when it first arrived, helped audiences to see the world anew, through techniques such as slow motion, fast motion, reverse motion and freeze frames, so, too, might The Tribe achieve the same goal.

More than this: The Tribe might not only allow us to see the world anew, or as if for the first time (a process of estrangement/defamiliarisation from the world that Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie), but might also allow us to see cinema as if for the first time.

Why would this be important?

It would be important because we live in a world in which cinema is the measure of reality. Why do I say that cinema is the measure of reality?

Well, obviously it is a provocative statement (though others, like Jonathan Beller, also argue as much) . Nonetheless, we live in an age in which we all try to force ourselves to look as much like movie stars as possible. This is not simply copying the fashions of the movies, but about creating an image of oneself that conforms to the lighting, make-up, image quality, variable focus and so on of cinema and photography. We detag ourselveis when we look ugly on Facebook. Because do not look cinematic – even if we look like ourselves. And as you are not really real if you not on Facebook, so if you do not conform to the widespread image standards do you not really get to exist in the same way as everyone else.

In other words, if we accept my prognosis that the world is cinematic (‘it was just like in a movie’ says everyone when something exciting happens to them, as if the rest of their lives, the uncinematic bits, were inferior, boring, not worth commenting upon, unreal), then to see the world anew is by definition today about seeing cinema anew, too.

One of the ways in which we can see cinema and the world both anew via The Tribe is through the film’s emphasis on gesture.

Benjamin Noys, drawing on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, suggests that cinema might not be about image, but in fact about gesture. And yet, we tend to think of cinema as being so much about image, rather than about gesture, and we tend to think of the world as being about image rather than about gesture, too. Thus, for The Tribe to foreground gesture – the gestures of Ukrainian sign – is for most audience members a way for them to rethink what cinema is and what the world is.

This needs greater explanation. Most of the time, when we watch movies, and indeed when we see people going about their daily lives, we see people carrying out movements, but not necessarily gestures.

What is the distinction between movement and gestures? Movement has an end: I go from A to B (in order to carry out X). Gesture, meanwhile, has no end.

More: the world under capital is about the control of the body, such that the body’s movements are productive, and thus function as a means for capitalists to profit.

This is the philosophy of the production line: the production lines enforces repetitive, mechanical movements that are the control of the body’s gestures, turning them from gestures to movements for the purposes of capital.

As an example, we are back to silent cinema, with Charles Chaplin as the filmmaker par excellence of the production line, especially in his Modern Times (USA, 1936).

We also know that capital is about the control of bodies, because we find so funny and liberating bodies that are out of control. Think, for example, of the Ministry of Funny Walks or David Brent’s dance in The Office.

(Of course, we also find out of control bodies disgusting at times, too: a general antipathy towards certain ‘unruly’ body types, or bodies that cannot maintain strict boundaries – we dislike bodies that ooze, for example, sweat, snot, piss, blood, sleep, and so on.)

Furthermore, in the contemporary age, so many YouTube videos are about not out-of-control dancing, but controlled dancing. Control of the body, especially then to turn controlled body into image, such that the image of the controlled body can then capture attention, which in turn helps that body to become monetised, since if we all always look at certain types of body (woman as the world’s biggest industry), then we can use that body to sell things (cinema as the base language of advertising; advertising as a clear expression of capital).

In contrast to controlling our bodies, we might otherwise work out what weird and strange things that our bodies, in the spirit of Baruch Spinoza, can do. That is, as we are all different, so do we all move differently and thus we ought to be concerned with individuality and not conformity in terms of how we move. In other words, we might progress from movement (controlled bodies under capital) to gesture (bodies doing unfamiliar things, bodies out of control).

The Tribe is a film that is quite consciously about what bodies can do (and, through its non-mainstream filmmaking techniques – the long shots and long takes – about what cinema can do) . Indeed, this is a film in which all of the characters not only express themselves linguistically (Ukrainian sign) through their bodies, but in which violence, prostitution and various other bodily movements and gestures become prominent for us to see.

Importantly, though, the film does not limit itself to showing to a hearing audience the unusual bodies of these deaf people – making of it a voyeuristic exercise in seeing different bodies, but fetishising them precisely for being different.

On the contrary, the film is also about the control of bodies, and about how the limits of Ukrainian sign (language also as a system of control?) are quickly reached, and bodies must as a result find new ways to express themselves.

It is entirely logical and appropriate, then, that The Tribe is also a difficult film to watch in the sense that it is full of violence, sex and, ultimately, a gesture carried out by the lead character (referred to as Serhiy) that is so terrifying that the film thoroughly deserves its 18-rating in the UK.

For, these are gestures that shock us out of our unthinking perceptions and movements, making us see the world anew. And we do not just gawp at deaf Ukrainians in watching The Tribe, but we also are moved by the gestures that we see, causing us to reflect upon what our bodies can do, and to think (with thinking being a journey into the unknown in which we do not so much repeat what we already know, but work out what it is that our brains can do, but following routes of thought that we have not yet discovered – what mental associations can I make; a journey by definition into the unpredictable).

This, then, is what makes Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe a great movie, and one that I think as many audiences should watch as possible. It is troubling, harrowing, alienating. But in forcing us out of our comfort zones, the film engages us in the ethical challenge of finding out not just who we are, but who we could be – with the result being that consciously we ourselves choose to become, perhaps, better, more ethically engaged human beings.

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Accidental Love (David O Russell, USA/UK, 2015)

I wrote this review for The Conversation. They spiked it because they needed the piece to be shorter than it is, but did not see how to make it shorter and to get across the point that I am trying to make with it.

Why a website cannot be flexible with regard to word length beats me. Especially one that caters primarily to an academic audience. But there we go. The spike allows me to post it here, and at least without The Conversation‘s usual unmaginative headline – of the sort that makes you think Rabelais was correct about the Agelastes.

Also, editing out a reference to Karl Marx/Slavoj Žižek (which happened between drafts) seems strange to me, again given the academic readership of the publication. Some identity uncertainty seems to be in place: for whom is The Conversation? (With whom does it want to converse? On this occasion, apparently because I speak for too long and namedrop philosophers, not me!) Perhaps we see here an up-front/a priori (unthinking) capitulation to (unthinkingness and) academic research as only useful when of identifiable use (and preferably surplus) value.

Anyway, such speculation aside, here goes the review, which of course may be incomprehensible, as per the view of my editors. If this is so, and I am living alone in a land of blindness and stupidity, then I apologise…

Starts:-

The premise is utterly ridiculous. On the night that small town Indiana cop Scott (James Marsden) proposes to roller skate waitress Alice (Jessica Biel), a nail is driven through her skull during a DIY accident in a local restaurant.

Alice has no insurance, and so the hospital doctors refuse to operate (eating burgers instead). Basing his decision on the probability that the nail will cause Alice’s behaviour to become erratic, resulting eventually in death, Scott dumps her.

This prompts Alice to endeavour to win him back by going to Washington DC to see Congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will help her to put through a healthcare bill that will allow those without insurance to receive medicare when necessary.

In Washington, Alice finds herself embroiled in a plot that involves Machiavellian intrigue as Birdwell bows to Representative Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener), who wishes to put into action her plan to build a military base on the moon – all in the name of defence.

What follows is a farce along the lines of the Marx Brothers meets Capra, something like Groucho Goes to Washington, except with more references to sex and to race.

The film’s ‘lunatic’ story involves Alice sleeping with Congressman Birdwell as a result of uncontrollable urges brought on by the presence of the nail in her brain. Everything nearly goes wrong, but after a dose of _deus ex machina_, the film ends with a wedding and everyone’s happy — even if the wider issue of healthcare remains unresolved (because who could resolve that issue without alienating a large chunk of the American audience?).

So … after giving you such a synopsis, you may well ask why I’m writing about this film, not least because it has been almost universally panned. Well, I’m interested because the film’s director, ‘Stephen Greene,’ is in fact a pseudonym for David O Russell, the successful director of such illustrious fare as Three Kings (1998), I Heart Huckabees (2004), The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). His second film, Flirting with Disaster (1996), demonstrated that he is perfectly capable of this kind of farcical comedy.

Why the change of name, then? Mainly because Accidental Love, which for a long time was to be called Nailed, is a film that went into production nearly ten years ago.  However, owing to financial difficulties – on some occasions the crew wasn’t paid, while on others the cast quit for the same reason – it allegedly got shut down 14 times.

In 2010, Russell quit the film, which he had co-written with Al Gore’s daughter, Kristin Gore. The remaining scenes were supposedly shot without him. So the film, like Alice, was in effect lobotomised. Fast forward through five years of limbo, and Accidental Love gets released on all of the contemporary platforms (VOD, DVD, etc), including a small theatrical release in the USA – with test screenings apparently taking place unbeknownst to Russell and the stars in the interim.

Now, just because Russell at least partially directed it does not make Accidental Love particularly interesting (or particularly good). But what is interesting is what its troubled history reveals about contemporary Hollywood.

That a woman’s libido expresses itself only as a result of a nail in the brain (Alice’s lobotomy) is of course problematic. It suggests that female sexual desire is somehow abnormal, the result of a brain gone wrong. This in turn suggests that Hollywood cannot tolerate an active female sexuality.

(See how ScarJo in The Avengers films has to end up single because her agency, even if she can deflate the Hulk – male-eating Black Widow as causing loss of erection.)

But this plot device suggests to us that the film as a whole, like a nail in Hollywood’s head, also gives expression to things that the American film industry otherwise tries to deny. The film is a repeat of the kind of farcical films that today seem anachronistic and unfashionable – as made clear by the presence of supporting actors from another time in Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens and Kirstie Alley.

If Hollywood does anything, it repeats itself, returns over and again to the same things: sequels, remakes and ‘reboots.’ But if, in the spirit of Karl Marx and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek, what happens once is tragic and what repeats is farce, then the industry denies that this endless repetition is farcical. Rather than an admission of being forever out of ideas, we are told that this is perfectly controlled filmmaking.

Hollywood has sought to get rid of Accidental Love as quickly and as unnoticeably as it can (the film grossed a meagre US$4,500 at the American box office). And yet, that the film has resurfaced at all suggests the return of the repressed, namely the fact that the processes of repetition and return themselves reveal the film industry’s inability to know what it is doing and why.

You may have heard of a man called Phineas Gage. In 1848, he had a bar driven through his skull when at work – and yet he lived for many years while supposedly undergoing something of a complete overhaul of his personality (he was ‘no longer Gage’ say contemporaneous reports – although the validity of these has been doubted).

Accidental Love is something of a cinematic Phineas Gage – a film that got nailed in production and which continues to be nailed by the critical community.

And yet, in this accidentally lobotomised film, we might find much to learn about the ‘normal’ functioning of Hollywood’s film industry, just as Gage is the exception that allows us better to understand the brain’s role in ‘normal’ human behaviour.

Better put, in an era when industry, including the film industry, demands rationalisation and when risk is removed as much as possible (and one removes risk by sticking to what one knows, i.e. by repeating), Accidental Love helps us to understand that Hollywood, perhaps industry as a whole, is in fact deep down irrational, and that its compulsion to repeat and to return is a sign not of a reduction of risk, but really of its overall lack of control.

It is a sign that Hollywood, maybe even capital as a whole, is not superhuman and beyond question or doubt, but wonderfully, farcically, profoundly human – and thus wholly open to question and to doubt. With regard to Accidental Love, then, even if the film is no great shakes, sometimes there’s nothing so interesting as a complete failure.

Ends

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