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Some people suggest that Donald Trump’s victory in the American election is as a result of his television personality.
In some senses, I do not doubt it. More than this, though, I wonder about the role that television (and other media) played in ensuring only a 58 per cent turnout of the electorate at the polls. (This is by no means unique to the USA.)
“People don’t care,” Trump repeatedly has said about his avoidance of paying tax – as this article reminds us. Perhaps it has always been so… But perhaps the numbing effects of the media and their anaesthetics is equally turning many people off politics – and this truly is something we should worry about.
As I look to the right hand-side of my Facebook page, I see that 440,000 people are talking about the forthcoming Beauty and the Beast film release. And that 120,000 people are talking about Jason Isaacs and Tom Felton meeting up in Orlando.
Frankly, who gives a shit?
Now, I am a film scholar – and so a lot of my work is about studying the media. What is more, I am heavily into cinema – and so I know that I can post things on my Facebook wall that are ‘trending’ and/or which are about ‘fluff’ like movie releases and performers.
I did, after all, post something about how much I admired Rebecca Hall’s performance in the film Christine (Antonio Campos, UK/USA, 2016) last night – even if my admiration for her exceptional performance is also mixed with sympathy for a film that portrays the rejection of intellectual thought for the purposes of promoting sensationalist news reporting (a kind of Nightcrawler-from-the-other-side).
That is, I think that the film is an intelligent and critical piece of work as opposed to yet another loud, meaningless spectacle.
Am I a hypocrite – in that I seemingly care more about cinema than about politics?
My hope is that I care about the politics of cinema and try to talk about cinema as politics – and that this is linked to our political realities, as is made clear by the election of Trump as a media politician and by the role that the media might have played in turning enough people off politics such that Trump wins, albeit with a clear minority of the vote.
(Even if media-induced apathy is hard to substantiate, we can and must take seriously this question because of media-created-Trump.)
I more or less got upbraided the other night by two friends of mine for not making entertaining films, who equally felt that my analysis of film as political was unfair – because, for example, Tom Ford is an artist and therefore Nocturnal Animals should not be charged with carrying any political weight. Perhaps this refusal to mix politics and entertainment – and to prefer entertainment to politics – is something like my point.
On what feels to be a related point: I paid £16 to watch Christine last night at the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema in London.
I vowed never to return to a Curzon cinema on an evening or a weekend, since I basically am priced out of watching films there, meaning in turn that I am basically priced out now of watching art house cinema in London (I can of course watch it at a later point on DVD and/or online).
I pay £19.99 a month to watch as many films as I want at Odeon cinemas – and nearly the same to watch a single film at a Curzon. As I shall demonstrate below, this is not an advert for Odeon.
But, as the adverts played in the Curzon, their own ident ended with something like the words ‘the home of people who love cinema’ – and I found myself shouting out at the screen a correction: ‘for rich people who love cinema.’
Something struck me, which I have known for a long time and yet the weight of which I felt as if for the first time: we do not talk in cinemas – myself included. We have been cowed into silence before our screens – listening, obeying, but never answering back (and yet with so many people desperate to get on to or behind those screens so as to make themselves feel empowered).
I thought about some of the rot that I have seen in the last few months – nigh every blockbuster and a good number of Oscar films as over-hyped rubbish. That Odeon membership allows me mainly to see bollocks. (I told you that this was not an advert.)
Now, I understand that many, perhaps most people, do not consume films at the cinema. But they do consume films, which increasingly become ‘universes’ comprised of constellations of films.
Furthermore, they also consume ‘smart’ television that is made up of hours and hours of episodes (the person next to me on the Tube last night was watching Breaking Bad on their phone, I think).
Might it be that ‘smart’ television leads to a dumb populace as we spend more and more time following a show than we do taking part in political life – just as universes of Marvel and Star Wars (i.e. Disney) films keep us watching rot about flying humans and talking animals?
Dumb – not necessarily in the sense of stupid. I assume that most people are pretty smart. But dumb in the sense that they do or say nothing about what is happening, not even voting, and thus being voiceless.
I ended up really liking Christine, and felt that this critical film restored a faith in cinema after my outburst at the screen. It is, as mentioned, a film about the rejection of intellectuals and intelligence in the age of sensationalism-for-ratings. In other words, a film that is on point, relevant, and says something about our world today (especially its gender politics and an insight into how we might better understand and deal with mental health issues).
But here it is playing in a Curzon cinema at £16 a pop, meaning that barely anyone can watch it – while detritus like La La Land, which involves little to no political engagement, is effectively on for free for anyone who wishes to pay a similar amount to go to an Odeon whenever they wish.
(This is not to mention the way in which La La Land has received 14 Oscar nominations, thereby meaning that its fluffy nothingness is validated by the entertainment complex more than a film like Christine, which has received none – not even for Hall whose performance is leagues better than anything else I have seen in the past year.)
I shouted at the screen and fortunately for me, last night, the screen answered back with a complex, meaningful film. But who will watch Christine as it plays on two screens in London and at an exorbitant price?
It should be playing there where it will reach a wider audience. Because in the Odeon, not only do people not shout at the screen, but the screen also does not offer anything nearly so thought-provoking, instead cowing its audience into dumb silence as they behold loud spectacle after loud spectacle.
Getting beyond spectacle. Answering back to the media. Getting used to answering back. Developing media savviness and political awareness. These might be tools that we need to develop in order to come up with an answer to Trump (and of course our own, related issues in the UK).
There is a sequence in Lion where Saroo (Dev Patel) and his soon-to-be girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) walk to a party on opposite sides of the street.
Lucy does a wee dance, and Saroo then copies her – the pair thus doing some cute romance as they swap dance moves from across the road that separates them.
The moment is an uncredited homage to Spike Jonze’s short film, How They Get There (USA, 1997), which you can see in full below (for as long as it remains on YouTube).
Given that Lion is a film about a young boy who by accident becomes separated from his family and who ends up being adopted by Australians, and given that the film is based upon a true story, it seems strange to have this extended reference to Jonze’s film included.
For, while Jonze’s is a playful and witty short, Lion seems to be in the business of taking itself very seriously – as perhaps it should do given that it is a film about a topic as weighty as transnational identity, and which is seeking to pick up various awards during this year’s season. The homage, therefore, shifts the film tonally from serious to playful in a way that jars with the what the film otherwise seems to set out to achieve.
So let us say that Saroo and Lucy had seen How They Get There (these characters do supposedly live in the real world, after all, meaning that they may well have done). Surely the inclusion in the film is therefore justified – a kind of audiovisual exchange that could just as easily be the characters bonding via conversation over, say, their love of Aravind Adiga or Powderfinger (also real world figures)?
Well, maybe. But since Lion so clearly adopts this scene from Jonze, it simply feels tired, unimaginative and unoriginal – as if the filmmakers could not themselves come up with anything better than nicking someone else’s idea in order to convey romance. One’s confidence in the rest of the film is undermined: how much more of this film is entirely derivative?
More than this. There is a cinema in the world where such shifts in tone are in fact commonplace, such that they become perhaps even the defining feature of that cinema.
I am of course talking in quite a general sense about Indian cinema, with the Mumbai-based industry known as Bollywood generally functioning as its metonymic figurehead.
Lion is a transnational co-production, as the stated involvement of Australian, American and British monies makes clear above. And yet the film is also largely set in India, with locations including Kolkata and Khandwa, which lies close to Saroo’s home town of Ganesh Talai. What is more, the film also features numerous performances by Indian actors. So, one asks oneself, where is the Indian economic involvement in the film?
Or does the tonal shift marked by the adoption of Jonze’s idea also mark the adoption of ideas (tonal shifts themselves) from Indian cinema, which in turn marks the adoption of Indian cinematic resources for this film – which is a film about the adoption of Indian boys by white Australians?
There are plenty more things to say about Lion, but I would like to limit myself to three things – the first of which relates to How They Get There.
For, in Jonze’s film, things end badly as the male dancer gets run over, with the driver of the car perhaps also dying – and the male dancer’s shoe ending up in a gutter by the side of the road.
Does the reference to this film in Lion, therefore, signal a similar pessimism with regard to Saroo? While the film clearly is about ‘How They Get There,’ are we to believe that Saroo is, as it were, a shoe in a gutter – looking up at the stars that might help him in the developed world? There seems to be no clear analogy, but any way that one looks at it is never far from offensive.
Indeed – to move on to my second point – there is another strange sequence in the film where Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue (Nicole Kidman), explains that when she was 12 she had a vision whereby she saw herself with a ‘brown boy’ – and that this is what drove her not to want to have birth children, but to want to adopt kids herself.
The daughter of an alcoholic, Sue in some senses seems to declare here that Saroo is partially an object that helps her to get over her own traumatic childhood. Which I guess is fair enough, except that this again reduces Saroo to simply a brown boy who may not want to be, but who is indeed the plaything of sorts of white Australians. No wonder that Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), is himself so troubled.
In this way, it seems oddly fitting that Saroo is not, in fact, Saroo’s real name. His infantile tongue could not properly pronounce his name (nor the name of his home town), and so Saroo is the result of the boy (played by Sunny Pawar) trying to say Sheru (meaning lion), and Ganestalay his attempt to say Ganesh Talai – a town that no one could find as a result of this difference.
What a thin thread possibly prevented Saroo from being able to find his way home. Nonetheless, the erasure of his Hindi roots through this ‘error’ does, as mentioned, seem oddly apt through its occultation of Saroo’s origins.
Of course, Saroo is haunted by his past and he does finally discover his origins – so at least we see that he cares for truth and is haunted by his privilege knowing that his mother is a labourer who carries rocks for a living while he enjoys boats and aeroplanes (and visions of his past from a drone – with his discovery of his past enabled in large part by the surveillance technology of Google Earth).
In other words, Lion clearly is a film about worlds separated by technology and in particular transport as a means of defining humans according to their different abilities to travel/move (even if true, it is oddly apt, then, that Saroo’s destiny is changed by his inadvertently being on the wrong train – the great distance that it covers from Khandwa to Kolkata signalling his destiny to be catapulted into a new, more mobile world).
And we are glad that Saroo is saved from this world, even if we see him running and laughing and loving his family in Ganesh Talai. For it is also a world defined by manual labour, paedophilia, child abuse and uncaring authorities. Saroo really is better off, it would seem, in Australia – and his rescue is thus in some senses justified, even if his adoptive mother has dimensions of the would-be White Saviour.
Dev Patel gives an excellent performance as Saroo. The film as a whole is powerful. But as the film ultimately endorses the fast pace of modernity at the expense of the slow pace of those pedestrian labourers who function as the very props upon which this modernity is based (it is the labour of his birth mother that brought Sheru into the world, even if Sue takes credit for raising Saroo), so, too, is the film constructed according to the fast pace of western films.
That is, the film has rapid scenes, often cutting into action and getting the viewer to infer what has happened – rather than allowing the viewer to see events unfold for themselves.
In this sense, we regularly see Saroo/Patel at points of high emotion – but the film in this regard does not show us ‘how they get there.’ That is, we do not see the onset of emotion, the change that takes place – we just see the emotion itself, with the emotion itself thus becoming symbolic, a symbol of emotion, rather than an emotion grounded in the real world of change and becoming.
The film’s decision to rush emotions in this way – to be too busy/in the business of business to want to take us through the complexity of emotion – reflects the privileged speed of the highly technologised First World, where emotions become empty because of their own speed, rather than real because slow and enworlded.
In its form, then, the film undermines what it otherwise would seemingly want to achieve: we want to connect with people across boundaries, but really what we are seeing are power games and the use of other people and their real lives for the purposes of our own entertainment, edification and comfort. This makes for troubling viewing, even if I also was swept up personally in the story that I was seeing.
While Patel seems excellent as Saroo, then, it also seems a shame that he is edited in such a way that we do not really get to see him act. Or rather, his performance is reduced to acting as a result of the editing: here is Saroo unhappy, here is Saroo sad, and so on. To get beyond acting exposed as acting, to get to acting as an embodied performance, we need to see the transitions; we need to see how they get there.
Oddly, such a transition is shown in the film – but by Sheru’s mother, Kamla, when they are reunited. I believe that this moment is performed by Priyanka Bose (she plays Saroo’s mother when he is young; it is unclear whether it is still her but aged via make-up when they finally meet again).
In a few brief moments of screen time, we see Bose carry out an extraordinary performance of recognition and then emotion as she recognises her boy. And yet what plaudits for Bose in the celebration of the film at awards season?
Furthermore, in a few brief instants we here sense a story that we never otherwise got to see – the story of an illiterate labourer whose son has been taken from her in rural India. How much more interesting might that film have been, rather than the troubles that a boy had in discovering his hometown through the use of Google Earth?
That we see a film that privileges the privileged masculine perspective is perhaps profoundly western. If, we wanted to watch a film featuring the female perspective, then we likely have to discover a different cinema – perhaps even the cinema of a place like India, where a masterpiece like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, India, 1957) dares to tell precisely the story of a female labourer struggling to bring up her children in the Indian countryside.
(Much as I tend to enjoy the performances of Casey Affleck, the performance from Bose in Lion reminds me of how Michelle Williams acts Affleck off the screen in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2016, even though she has minimal screen time and even though her big scene is scripted basically to suggest that she still is in love with the man who is largely responsible for the death of her children – i.e. it is a male fantasy-fulfilment.)
(This in turn reminds me that both Lion and Manchester by the Sea continue the trend of films about dead, lost, and otherwise problematised babies and children – as I have written about elsewhere. It is the preoccupying theme of contemporary western cinema.)
Forasmuch as it is well made and enjoyable, then, Lion seems to have adopted various things from various other places not in order to present us with any changed vision of the world, but to replicate the vision of a superior western, technologised, cinematic world – even if this world is built upon the labour of people like Kamla, whose plight remains invisible.
How we got here – to such a world that seemingly is made up of different worlds – is hidden.
And yet it might be the most important (hi)story for us all to learn.
This post is a written version of the thoughts that I shall be giving/gave about Goodfellas on Monday 23 January 2017 as part of the London Graduate School‘s Philosophical Screens series, and part of the ongoing Martin Scorsese retrospective being run by the British Film Institute.
Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who has always dreamt of being a gangster. As he rises up through the ranks of New York’s Italian mafia, however, his life begins to unravel in two ways. Firstly, as a half-Irish/half-Italian, he is not 100 per cent Italian and so cannot Get Made to a full fledged mafia boss. Secondly, against the advice of his boss, Paulie (Paul Sorvino), Henry goes into the drug business.
When Henry’s operations thus come unstuck with the law, it would appear that he cannot turn to his mafia family in order to rescue him; more likely is that they will kill him. And so he breaks both golden rules of being in the mafia, and he rats on and betrays people that might otherwise be his friends.
Henry’s situation is not helped by the fact that he is in cahoots with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), both of whom are loose canons, with the latter being particularly psychotic – taking pleasure in murdering various minor hoods with whom he happens to cross paths, and one major hood, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), whose murder will eventually bring about Tommy’s own undoing also.
The film is famous for various lines, scenes and sequences, including when Henry takes his wife-to-be, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date to the Copacabana club, entering via the delivery basement entrance and touring her around the kitchen before entering the club where a table and drinks are laid on as the owners and other clients seek to impress the unassumingly powerful Henry with gifts and gimmes.
Other examples include Tommy grilling Henry about how he is funny (‘Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?’), and a confrontation between Henry and Jimmy in a diner involving a celebrated dolly zoom (whereby the camera tracks backwards and zooms in at the same time, thus giving a vertigo effect) as Henry realises that Jimmy is setting him up for death.
However, a detail in the film upon which I’d like to focus and which will form the starting point of my analysis of the film is Morrie’s wig.
Morrie (Chuck Low) is a small-time hood who runs a wig shop. When we first meet him, we see a television advert of Morrie explaining how good his wigs are as he jumps into a swimming pool and as he is surrounded by women who kiss him on the cheek.
The advert is deliberately cheesy, and after seeing it, the camera pulls back to reveal that we have been watching the image of Morrie on a television screen that loops his advert. The camera turns to Jimmy, who watches the advert, and then back through Morrie’s shop to Henry, who talks to Morrie in person out back.
Morrie is refusing to pay Jimmy the interest on some money that he owes – which leads Jimmy to start to strangle Morrie with rope as Henry receives a phone call from Karen. As Jimmy strangles Morrie, his wig comes off – demonstrating that he is a small-time hood who clearly lies, since his advert declares that his wigs can withstand hurricanes (or words to that effect).
The moment is – like much of Goodfellas – amusing, even if violent. (Jimmy lets Morrie go – on this occasion.)
The aim here is not to discuss the comedy of Goodfellas, and perhaps of Scorsese’s work more generally, not least because this is something that John Ó Maoilearca will discuss/did discuss in greater detail at the Philosophical Screens event. That said, I shall end by making reference to the comedy of his work.
Rather, Morrie’s wig allows us to think about the ethos of Goodfellas as being one based upon excess. For, not only is a wig that is obviously a wig funny (especially when it falls off), but it also demonstrates the way in which humans use things that exceed their natural abilities/possessions in order to demonstrate (in Morrie’s case) a kind of youth, strength, virility – and thus power.
In this particular instance, Morrie’s pretensions to power are ironic given that he is about the most camp character in Goodfellas (although he is married) and also deeply insecure (hence his constant talking whenever he is onscreen).
The fact that we see Morrie’s wig at first on a television screen also plays into this. Jimmy himself says that Morrie should not have wasted money on the advert given that he could have used the money to pay him back. That is, the advert is excessive. Furthermore, the advert itself functions as a kind of ‘bad wig’ – in the sense that it is intended to show mastery of the image, but in fact comes across as cheap.
With both the wig and the advert, then, we get a sense of Morrie aspiring to power, but not being able to attain it – in part because the workmanship of both is too poor. Morrie aspires to excess – just as his fellow hoods do – but in some respects he is not excessive enough to be a successful gangster.
However, while Morrie might be a figure of fun (who ultimately gets killed by Tommy for being a probable liability after the crew steals US$6 million from a Lufthansa flight), Morrie in some senses unlocks the whole of Scorsese’s film and the philosophy of excess that it sees as key to the (attractions of) gangster life – even if at times this excess is disavowed.
For, while the film equally shows Jimmy criticising Johnny Roastbeef (Johnny Williams) and Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) for spending the Lufthansa money on pink cadillacs and mink coats – i.e. for being excessive – it is precisely this excess that Henry desires and which Karen, too, also finds seductive. Indeed, just after Jimmy has bust Frankie and Johnny’s balls for their profligate spending, we see Henry arrive home at Christmas saying that he bought the most expensive tree they had: Henry likes extravagance.
As we see the Hill family Christmas, Scorsese’s camera tracks in towards a bauble that hangs from Henry’s all-white Christmas tree. Why is this shot here? What does the bauble signify? The fact of the matter is that it is hard to tell. But the bauble is shiny and comes to fill the screen. That is, the shot itself is ‘excessive’ in the sense that it is unnecessary. In this way, Scorsese with his film does not simply show us excess, but he also takes us via his camera movements into the mindset of finding excess attractive. His film itself is excessive, full of ‘unnecessary’ shots and moments, which themselves come to be a chief pleasure of the film beyond simply the telling of a story.
(What is a bauble if not an excessive feature that is part of the festival of excess that Christmas under consumerism has become? These fragile balls that hang from trees for no reason, and yet which we pack away carefully each year, scared that they might break, too thin to hold in hand for fear of crushing them… The bauble perhaps is total excess.)
With excess in mind, the Copacabana shot comes into its own. As Henry leads Karen around the kitchen, we can – if we pay close attention – see that Henry basically does a lap of the kitchen by ignoring the fact that he can go straight through into the restaurant. The lap of the kitchen is pure excess: he is showing off to Karen.
But more than this. In having a single, unbroken tracking shot that also takes us around the kitchen and into the restaurant, Scorsese is also showboating, showing off to us, showing us a film that also is excessive, and which certainly exceeds the perceived necessity of ‘economic storytelling’ considered to be so dear to the American film industry (the ethos of getting rid of everything superfluous, not least because time is money and it costs a lot of money to put it in there; Scorsese’s film, like the gangsters themselves, dishes out in spades ‘fuck you money’ in terms of superfluous shots).
What emerges from this showboating/showing off, though, is that Scorsese does not show us something that exceeds cinema. Rather, through the excess of Goodfellas, we come to realise that cinema is perhaps excess itself – especially when it lampoons the smaller television screen for aspiring to excess but failing miserably à la Morrie’s wig.
In other words, what Henry aspires to be or to become is cinematic, to lead a life of excess. And this becomes clear as we see how Scorsese’s film is rammed full of never-ending camera movements, which are punctuated not so much by static images as more specifically freeze frames, of which there are numerous throughout the film. In other words, even when Scorsese stops his frenetic camera, it also is done in the ‘excessive’ fashion of halting the narrative entirely for Henry to announce some insight, thereby also showing his mastery since it is as if he can control the film.
Soon after Karen has joined the mafia family, we see her at a wives’ gathering, where the women are described in her voice over as wearing too much make-up. However, when we look closely at the gathered women, it becomes clear (if not over-stated) that at least two of the wives are wearing make-up in order to cover up bruises and cuts that likely have been caused by beatings from their spouses.
In other words, we might consider make-up to be a form of excess, but really that ‘excess’ is here used as a way of masking damage in the form of bruising. What this in turn suggests to us is that the other excesses of the film – from the bling to the bravado camera movements – are also trying to hide over some form of damage or bruising, as Morrie tries to cover his otherwise bald pate.
But what is this damage/bruising?
In Tommy’s case, his excessive violence seems to be a standard little-man syndrome, as even he seems to suggest at one point during the story that leads to the ‘funny’ sequence (with Tommy’s storytelling and ‘funniness’ itself being a way of covering over his psychosis – and the film’s comedy as a whole being a way of covering over the psychosis of mafia life more generally). But Tommy’s little-man syndrome here also explains to us something that all of the other characters tend to carry, too: a refusal to be a ‘nobody’ but instead the desire to be a ‘somebody.’
In other words, it is the fact of having been born as a nobody that is the bruise that these gangsters wish to cover over.
There is more to it than this. When Henry betrays his ‘friends’ at the film’s end, he explains that only a Birth Certificate and a record of his previous imprisonment are what the government has on record about his existence. Earlier, when Henry begins to ditch school as a young hood, he says that he does not want to pledge allegiance to the flag or profess any ‘good government bullshit.’
In other words, it would seem that the damage that Henry wants to cover over is not simply being born a nobody, but being born a subject in America, which in turn is to be born a subject under capitalism, with the nation functioning as the structuring principle of the system.
A paradox: governments give to their subjects a name. Indeed, they give you a subjectivity. However, far from turning you into somebody, this assigned name confirms you as a nobody, since really the name functions as a form of what Louis Althusser would call ‘interpellation.’ That is, when the government calls your name, you respond, thereby affirming not your power, but the power of the government as you answer its call and respect its rules. Those with real power have no name (as Paulie perhaps understands in the film – always carrying out his business in secret). To be somebody, then, is paradoxically to have no name.
In this sense, excess – and the desire to show one’s wealth – is always the gangster’s undoing and why gangster films are always films about social climbers, or those who defy the power of the state and/or those in power – while power is really consolidated in hidden areas (even if Paulie does in the end die in jail). We do not know the names of the powerful.
(Read in this sense, Donald Trump is a gangster upstart – and we might even admire him for taking on the invisible corridors of power [represented by the Clintons?], were it not for the fact that Trump clearly does not seem invested in doing anything for anyone other than himself and his cronies. But like all gangsters, he is likely to come undone.)
Bearing in mind Henry’s avoidance of taxes and refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag, we can understand that the mafia (any mafia) functions as an alternative form of government. As Henry says, the mafia was simply protection – at least prior to its entry into the narcotics racket.
More than this, though, we can understand that the protection offered by a government, with taxes functioning as protection money, and with the government giving to its subjects a name (a birth certificate) and keeping tabs on them (police records) is really nothing other than a mafia. Governments are mafias; governments are the institutionalisation of gangsterism – as the Trump election perhaps clarifies.
Viewed in this light – that any national subject is really just a nobody paying protection money to a government that has convinced its subjects via interpellation that it is ‘good’ – it seems obvious that in order to become somebody, Henry will paradoxically go against his government, not pay his taxes, and in effect form his own republic.
More than this: as someone who will never quite be accepted into the mafia family on account of not being 100 per cent Italian, Henry will inevitably betray that family, too, since ultimately he works out that he is not really anything to them, either (they will kill him the minute he begins to get in their way).
It is a further paradox in the film that Henry must lose his identity as Henry Hill by entering into the witness protection programme. Ultimately, the government does get him – and his anonymous identity under witness protection confirms that the government does not care about its subjects, but it definitely wants to bury the competition by having the mafia bosses put away – as happens to Paulie and Jimmy.
And so Goodfellas shows us a world in which one is born a ‘nobody’ via being given a regular name. It then shows how to become somebody, one must rival government. In this process, though, one typically enters a world of excess – the need to show one’s power off and/or to cover over the bruises of being nobody. This allure of excess is one’s undoing, since it identifies one as a threat to all and every other person aspiring to power. Violence and comedy both ensue (as does violence as comedy), since rival powers will feel compelled to fight as long as power is perceived as unevenly distributed (the system of power is the institutionalisation of uneven distribution), and comedy will function as a way of covering over the bruises that cause the hunt for power and which also are caused by the lack of power.
Scorsese’s film does not just tell this story; it also embodies it with its own excesses – specifically trying to demonstrate that cinema is superior to/more powerful than television, with cinema thus being revealed as itself a key tool in the institutionalisation of power via consumerism (advertising and those who profit from it), the power of the media/cinema industry itself, and the sense that if you are not in a movie, then you are nobody.
(Even if the really powerful in the film industry are not the people whom we see – the stars – although these stars make bids for power on many occasions, but rather the unnamed people whom we never see. No wonder that at least one oppositional force has worked out that a potential way to rival governmental power is to be Anonymous. No wonder that show-offs with money in the UK are looked down upon by the quietly powerful as nouveau and gauche. No wonder that the storing of all data by government takes place as a means of precisely identifying who you are as a subject, in order that you continue to respect the power of government – cybernetics as, precisely, a form not of liberation but of government [both government and cybernetics have the same etymological roots])
There are many more things to discuss about Goodfellas, including its specifically masculine world – where women are in some senses part and parcel of the cinematic and excessive existence that these men desire (they want women, but not a woman who talks back/who tries to assert her power – with Henry’s demise being mapped from the start by his attraction to Karen when she upbraids him for standing her up, i.e. Henry is ‘weak’, a demise also signalled regularly by Henry’s lack of appetite for violence and so on).
There is also a racial dimension to the film, with the music equally playing an important role (perhaps it is telling that it is the second, piano-driven ‘movement’ of Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ that forms the film’s final theme – for this section of the song is also ‘excessive’ after the otherwise famous Eric Clapton guitar riff and singing that forms its first ‘movement’; notably the music also plays as we see Johnny Roastbeef and his girlfriend excessively murdered in the afore-mentioned pink cadillac, with the repetition of the song itself constituting some sort of ‘excessive’ use).
While a more complete reading of the film would look closely at these topics, however, I should like to end with two observations.
The first is that the name Goodfellas in some senses implies capitalist relationships, since the term ‘fellow’ means “one who puts down money with another in a joint venture.” That is, good fellows are ones who work with each other for money, and not for friendship.
(The film’s title differs from that of Nicholas Pileggi’s book from which the film is adapted, Wiseguys. The word ‘guy’ is derived from the same word as ‘guide’ – and by extension the Spanish term for a film script, guión. Wiseguys ‘see’ – whereas goodfellas invest. Perhaps the cinematic excess/cinema as excess of Scorsese’s film suggests how it, too, is trying to carve out an existence under the capitalist regime of filmmaking – getting away from the written form/script/guide/guión and into something different, a cinema of pure excess. Scorsese as gangster upstart filmmaker – with the arts clearly tolerating upstarts as a controlled form of excess, i.e. Scorsese is not really a threat to anyone, being much like a clown, the person who can speak truth to power and not get killed for it – obviously Tommy does not want to be a clown, since he does not want to speak truth to power; he wants power…)
Secondly, watching Goodfellas today, it is clear how closely Scorsese’s subsequent Wolf of Wall Street (USA, 2013) follows it as a guide – including various flourishes such as the lead character turning to camera and discussing what is going on. Indeed, it is almost as if The Wolf of Wall Street is a remake of Goodfellas transposed from the mafia and into the world of banking.
Two subsequent things can be observed from this parallel between Goodfellas and The Wolf…. Firstly, the rise of the mafia is more or less concurrent with the rise of investment banks in the 1970s and into the 1980s, a parallel that potentially alludes to the mafia-esque nature of banks (to which governments are beholden and not the other way around, as post-crisis bailouts would seem to suggest).
More than this: both the rise of the mafia and the rise of the banks are linked to the rise of the drug trade – as well as to media and the excesses of gambling. Gangsterism, banking, cinema, drugs, media: all are excesses, suggesting that the rise of neoliberal capital is precisely the rise of a world of excess in which to be a nobody is a humiliating failure and all will humiliate themselves in order to be a somebody. This striving for excess is ultimately a control mechanism to keep everyone consuming, thereby maintaining the power of those who ‘invisible people’ already hold it.
Goodfellas uses comedy to critique this world, with Scorsese emerging perhaps as the ‘King of Comedy’ through his ability to laugh at even the most sick violence. The comedy is done through Scorsese using excess against itself.
An ambivalence arises between critiquing and indulging cinema’s tendency towards excess, and this ambivalence is a rich vein that Scorsese has long since mined. May he continue to do so – even if this means that he is perhaps more complicit with capital than critical of it… Unless like Henry, Scorsese, too, is getting to the heart of capital in order ultimately to betray it and to put it behind bars.
I can only say what I saw and heard (and felt and thought).
Over the last two evenings, I have attended two experimental film events. The first was a screening of Michael Snow’s La région centrale (Canada, 1971) at the Serpentine Gallery, which screened alongside the opening credits of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – with both being chosen by artist Lucy Raven, whose solo exhibition, Edge of Tomorrow, is currently on there. The second was a performance at Tate Modern of Tony Conrad’s 55 Years on the Infinite Plain (originally called 10 Years on the Infinite Plain when first performed in New York, USA, in 1972, and which has been growing in age ever since – now beyond Conrad’s death last year).
For those unfamiliar with either of these works, the former is a three-hour film shot on the top of a mountain in Québec, and which features images captured remotely by Snow using a robotic arm, to which Snow’s camera was attached, and which rotates in a long series of different directions. The latter is a 90-minute piece featuring ‘drone’ music and black and white strips that flicker on a screen from four projectors simultaneously.
Both experiences involve a fair amount of discomfort, not least because traditional cinema seats were not provided, with the viewer instead having to sit on a wooden stand (La région centrale) or on the floor (55 Years…). Standing is an option. But either way, one really feels the presence of one’s body as one tries to find comfort during the screenings (and live musical performance in the case of 55 Years…).
I am not an expert on experimental cinema. I have seen a fair amount, read a fair amount of literature about it, and also think about it (and occasionally write about experimental aspects of cinema that is otherwise not so overtly non-narrative as these two films).
I am driven to write about these back-to-back experiences, though, not simply to expose my ignorance of the subject (I can’t imagine that I shall say much that others have not written – or certainly thought – in relation to these films), but to convey some thoughts that I had while watching the films. Perhaps that is, after all, one of the things that a blog can do.
To get to my thoughts, though, we must describe what happens in the films. As I have already hinted, ‘not much happens’ from the perspective of someone looking for a film that tells a story. La région centrale features images captured by the camera as it moves round and round, back and forth, spinning upside down, moving in circles in all sorts of directions and more.
55 Years…, meanwhile, features a deep electric bass line (performed on this occasion by Dominic Lash), accompanied by violin (Angharad Davies) and long string drone (Rhys Chatham). At first one projector, then two, then three, then four fill the wide screen with the flickering lines, before all four projectors slowly begin to converge, their images overlapping, and then are turned off one by one, until only one flickering image remains.
Probably sounds pointless, maybe even dull, right – especially if one lasts 180 minutes and the other 90?
I do not think so. Indeed, quite the opposite.
The Snow experience induced in me so many different thoughts, which perhaps have at their core a sense of seeing the Earth as if through the eyes of an alien. Initially surveying the ground, the camera then begins to rotate in such ways that we are consistently being given new perspectives on our world – toying with it, twisting it, turning it, experimenting with it.
As María Palacios Cruz explained in her introduction, Snow deliberately tried to find a spot in his native Canada where no visible trace of human life could be seen (something that might recall my earlier post about the ‘American eye’ in relation to Le corbeau). In other words, he absolutely wants us to see the world from an inhuman perspective; to see the world ‘for itself.’
In the process, we begin to understand how as humans we often do not see the world ‘for itself’ but how it is ‘for us’ (and this is not necessarily a bad thing; we are driven to live and survive by our selfish genes, after all). By getting us to see the world ‘for itself,’ the world itself is made ‘alien’ to us, or we see the world as if through alien eyes. The film becomes a panoply of different ways to look at the world through the insistent movement of the camera – with the non-stop nature of that camera movement also bringing to mind the way in which our relatively static perspective of the world is perhaps key in bringing about our inability to see the world ‘for itself.’
For, the world is also movement – but generally we do not have eyes to see it. The rhythms of the world are perhaps too slow for us to detect. What Snow’s film does, then, is to bring to mind those rhythms. Not just Snow’s film, but by extension cinema as a whole is thus in part a machine to present to us something like ‘deep time’ – the long, slow rhythms of the world that extend further back than we can remember and further into the future than we can imagine (in other words, a world without humans). Perhaps this is why a narrative classic like Vertigo is also chosen to play in part alongside Snow’s film.
If Snow’s film takes us into the realm of planetary time, Conrad’s film takes us (or me, at least) into the realm of universal time.
Using black and whites strips alone, Conrad takes us into a realm whereby I am confronted not just with a world that exists far beyond the human realm, but with the way in which the world – the universe itself – comes into and out of being. If the world pre-existed humans by billions of years, and if it will outlive humans by billions of years (La région centrale), then Conrad’s film tells us that the universe pre-existed the world by trillions of years, and will continue to exist after the world has gone by trillions of years. (It exists beyond time itself, and beyond measure. Again, language becomes meaningless.)
More than this… 55 Years on the Infinite Plain tells us – in its flickering of white, or being, and black, or nothing – that existence itself comes into and out of being. That there is a beyond existence; that there is a beyond being; that there is a beyond ‘is’ – such that one cannot even express what we are describing since to say that ‘there is a beyond “is”‘ is clearly a contradiction in terms (how can not-is and is co-exist?)!
If language cannot suffice for the task of explaining what we see, then we enter into the realm of experience and of a new, different kind of thought (that also cannot be defined simply by what we ‘see,’ since it must be experienced, too).
What is the universe? But simply a flicker of light in an otherwise infinite blackness.
If 55 Years… takes us somehow beyond the universe, then it takes us into a realm not of a singular reality (a uni-verse), but into the realm of multiple realities. An alien perspective, or what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and physicist Aurélien Barrau might suggest is the necessary understanding that there is no world, but only multiple, infinite worlds.
As per the translation of their book on the matter: what is these worlds coming to? What these worlds is coming to (note the grammatical error; again, language does not quite suffice) is the co-existence of existence and non-existence. To invoke a different philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, being and nothingness at the same time.
Am I being pretentious? Possibly. I mean, people walked out of both screenings – and so clearly not everyone goes with these films. But at the end of 55 Years… the remaining audience members (perhaps as many as 100 people) sat in silence and darkness for about a minute. Finally, some applause – enthusiastic applause, some whoops of joy. Clearly they needed a moment to catch their thoughts, because this film had taken them somewhere different, somewhere special.
In other words, if to someone who was not there this all sounds like wank, to the majority of people who were there, this meant something – even if expressing it is and perhaps remains difficult. “That was absolutely fucking amazing,” said the woman sat next to me. I felt like dancing (and did nearly throughout 55 Years… – although I refrained from doing so).
Elsewhere I have written about how Hollywood presents to us narrative films that, even if they contain ‘puzzles’ for us to work out (my example is Inception, Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), they are still designed to be easy to consume and, by extension, not particularly challenging. I then suggest that films that do not involve narratives (my example is Five Dedicated to Ozu, Iran/Japan/France, 2003, by the late Abbas Kiarostami) can be quite challenging, even if there is no specific puzzle to work out – as we just see images of waves lapping the shore, or ducks walking along a beach, or a pond at night.
My argument in that essay is that common responses to Five… might include either ‘I got it after two minutes, so I do not know why I had to sit through that’ or ‘I did not get it’ – while people might easily say that they ‘got’ Inception (even though it is more than twice the length of Five…).
I suggest that there is not so much anything to ‘get’ with Five… (or Inception, or Vertigo – as its inclusion by Lucy Raven in her programme makes clear), but that one might ‘get into’ that sort of film by working at being an attentive audience member and beginning to marvel at what a wave lapping against the shore is and might mean (is it not a miracle that this happens?) as opposed only to marvelling at special effects and ‘mind-bending ideas’ (even though the leaders of the two largest energy companies in the world sit next to each other on an aeroplane and do not recognise each other).
(Besides which, whenever one says that one ‘got’ such a film after two minutes, they clearly do not ‘get’ it since part of getting it must involve experiencing the film in its entire duration, including the sense of slowness, and the different time or tempo of the piece. To demand that it be shorter is not to respect this otherness, but to apply one’s own rhythm to it, to curtail it, perhaps even to kill it.)
(Speaking of marvelling, I also found myself marvelling during 55 Years… about the fact that I can rotate my head. How is it possible that a human evolved from the mud of a planet that itself was a rock spewed from a star, such that it has a head that can rotate on a joint that sits atop a backbone and which contains eyes that can see and ears that can hear?)
To return from these loco parentheses: I make reference to my own essay not simply to continue to explain to a(n imagined?) ‘viewer-on-the-street’ that these non-narrative films might do something for us (and that thus people who might otherwise never go to watch such films might do worse than to give them a try), but also to correct what I wrote in that essay.
In that essay, I wrote that we might ‘get into’ films like Five Dedicated to Ozu by putting in some effort ourselves (rather than having nigh everything served up to us on a plate, as per Inception). However, now I think it would be better to suggest that we do not ‘get into’ but that we ‘get with’ such films (which is not necessarily to the exclusion of ‘getting with’ mainstream films; I believe that we can get with cinema as a whole – but don’t think that we should only get with the mainstream at the expense of the weird and the wonderful).
Why do I now want to say that we should ‘get with’ as opposed to ‘get into’ these films?
Well, in part this is to explain that getting a bit ‘pretentious’ (talking about cosmic things like a world without humans and a multiverse that exists and does not) is to get with what these films are doing, or at the very least what these films can do with us (it might also be an act of love if we were to say that we ‘go with’ these films – since coitus itself means to go with [co-itus] – as I have suggested here).
Furthermore, the preposition ‘with’ (a favourite of Jean-Luc Nancy) suggests not quite a disconnection from the world (seeing it through alien eyes), but also a connection with the world (seeing it ‘for itself’ – or from the perspective of a world that has seen so much more than humans and a multiverse that has seen so much more than our world).
Seeing through the eyes of the other, a kind of forgetting oneself, is also to commune with another – and in this case not just another human, but a whole other timescale (the entirety of existence) and space scale (a planet, a universe – as well, in the case of La région centrale when it shows us the land beneath the camera in close up, a rock, a patch of earth, a blade of grass). ‘With’ is to go beyond the self, to open the self up not only to the other human, but in the cases of La région centrale and 55 Years on the Infinite Plain, the inhuman.
Furthermore, ‘with’ always implies plurality, or a multiplicity of things and perspectives. For, one cannot be with anything or anyone if there is no thing or one beyond the self with which to be. With, therefore, suggests that we live in a multiverse, and that what these worlds is coming to is perhaps us, our understanding of the multiverse, and our place with it.
(The Conrad also suggests with in other ways – particularly the way in which my eyes when they move from left to right can make the flickers seem as though moving in that direction – before then moving in the other direction as my eyes move from right to left… That is, I am with the film in the sense that I co-create what I see; I see not just a different perspective, but a different perspective with my own eyes; I am entangled with the multiverse. This might seem to contradict the idea that I get beyond myself – but what perhaps really is exposed is not just the world beyond the self, but also the relationship between that world beyond self, and the self itself. What is exposed or revealed is our withness – and how the otherness of that with which we are is necessary for me even to exist and to have my sense of self/my perspective in the first place.)
I wish to end, then, by suggesting that these films do not just put us with the universe or multiverse. They put us with the medium of cinema, too, which opens us up to these new perspectives. I hear the 16mm projector rattle along during La région centrale, and I turn to see the projectors during 55 Years…. The experience of these two films is, then, to be with media, to be co-media, to be comedy.
What we can experience during these films is thus the comedy of the multiverse. When we find such films frustrating, we are perhaps taking them far too seriously (I personally found myself laughing regularly during both films as I marvelled at the possibility of anything existing at all). When we are serious, it is because we are rigid in our ways, in our thinking, and we are resistant to change. We do not become, we are not coming to, we are not with (perhaps we are solipsistically dreaming, a state of unconsciousness from which we can recover only by ‘coming to’).
To be less serious, to enjoy the comedy: this is not only a route to laughter and thus by extension happiness – it is perhaps also a route via with to wisdom (to be ‘other-wise’).
Long live experimental cinema. When screenings like these come along, I can only recommend one thing: get with it.
I saw 416 films for the first time in 2016. I saw 237 of these at the cinema. I saw 128 online. I saw 27 on DVD or from a file. I saw 13 on an aeroplane. I saw 9 in a gallery. And I saw 3 on television.
I do not know how well qualified I am to judge anything like Films of the Year, although I suspect that I have seen more films than a number of people who have offered up their thoughts on the matter. But as a result of the number of films that I have seen, I can at the very least draw upon a wider knowledge base – if not a stronger understanding of what I have seen – than those others in order to summarise the year.
In my view, there were two films that really stood out for me at the cinema. The first is Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade), which I understand many other people also greatly to have liked. The second is We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper), a documentary about South Sudan.
Beyond this, I was very much taken with Actor Martinez (Mike Ott and Nathan Silver), Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios), Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari), Baden Baden (Rachel Lang), Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven), L’Avenir/Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve), Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello) and I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach). So these films might constitute my Top 10 of sorts.
Films that then get a kind of proxime accessunt might include: The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu), The Big Short (Adam McKay), Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), Rams (Grímur Hákonarson), Chronic (Michel Franco), Obra (Gregorio Graziosi), Les Habitants (Raymond Depardon), Desde allá (Lorenzo Vigas), Notes on Blindness (James Spinney and Peter Middleton), Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson), Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas), Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu), Sweet Bean (Naomi Kawase), I am Belfast (Mark Cousins), Divines (Houda Benyamina), Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi), After the Storm (Kore-eda Hirokazu), Ma’Rosa (Brillante Ma. Mendoza), Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Stuart A Staples), Ta’ang (Wang Bing), Paterson (Jim Jarmusch), Les Innocentes (Anne Fontaine) and Your Name (Makoto Shinkai).
I feel that I ought not to given the hullabaloo about it, but I also found Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker) and Snowden (Oliver Stone) to be quite curious films that I cannot claim to understand, and yet the verve and self-confidence of which still remain with me.
Other highlights of the year included the British Film Institute’s retrospective of the work of Jean-Luc Godard, which provided me with the opportunity to see a bunch of films that I had not seen before. I was also especially taken with the retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik’s work that took place as part of the Essay Film Festival organised through Birkbeck. This involved a rare opportunity to see Who Invented the Yo-yo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?, Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? and Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment – all of which are excellent.
MUBI continues to offer numerous pleasures, including a wee season of Jacques Rivette films (especially Out 1: Noli Me Tangere) that I enjoyed immensely, with an ongoing retrospective of Lav Diaz (whose Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) I also saw for the first time) also taking place. Meanwhile, MUBI also allowed me to see Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room and Horse Money. Furthermore, I enjoyed getting to know a bit the work of Joseph Morder and Jean-Paul Civeyrac through MUBI, while also being taken with White Dog (Sam Fuller), Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May), Los Hongos (Oscar Ruiz Navia), and Mes séances de lutte (Jacques Doillon).
Beyond MUBI, the internet also provided me with various other pleasures, including an introduction to the work of Paolo Gioli, about whom I spoke with John Ó Maoilearca at the Wilkinson Gallery, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade extended video. The BBC iPlayer allowed me to see Adam Curtis’ provocative HyperNormalisation, while I was also very excited to see Michael Chanan’s Money Puzzles online. The latter two are thought-provoking and wonderful films, with Chanan working on almost a zero budget to investigate the workings of contemporary capital.
Meanwhile, three fantastic gallery exhibitions were John Akomfrah’s solo show at the Lisson Gallery, William Kentridge’s Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery, and The Infinite Mix at the Hayward Gallery. I also enjoyed Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage at the Frith Street Gallery, with Stephen Dillane’s performance being one of the most exciting things I have seen in a while. Finally, Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, which is showing at Tate Modern as part of their Media Networks exhibition, is well worth seeing, too.
With regard to actors, I did keep noticing Finnegan Oldfield cropping up in lots of French films; perhaps one to watch out for. The films in which he featured all seemed to draw upon a nexus of anarchic sex and/or violence from young people.
In a year of celebrity deaths, Brexit, Donald Trump, Homs, Aleppo, Mosul, Andrey Karlov and more, it struck me that there were a lot of films about child birth, lost babies, stolen babies, abortions and so on – from Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford) through to Blue Jay (Alex Lehmann). I have commented in my last post on Le corbeau on how I query that this relates to creeping fascism in our time.
There also seemed to me to be a number of films about the difficulty of distinguishing between life and death – including The Girl with All the Gifts (Colm McCarthy) and Swiss Army Man (Daniels).
I read a couple of student essays while teaching my World Cinemas class towards the end of the year, in which it was claimed that Bollywood recycles ideas, is thus unoriginal, but also unrealistic in its story lines – while the West is more invested in originality and realism.
My reply to the students who said this was to ask them to look at the highest grossing films of 2016. These include Captain America: Civil War (a sequel), Finding Dory (a sequel), Zootopia, The Jungle Book (a remake), The Secret Life of Pets, Batman v Superman (a sequel), Deadpool (based on a comic book), Suicide Squad (based on a comic book) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (a sequel) and Doctor Strange (based on a comic book).
If the West is so invested in originality, then why does the Top Ten list consist of eight sequels and/or adaptations based on existing material? Furthermore, if the West is so invested in realism, then why are all 10 of these films either about talking animals or flying humans (or both)?
The point is not simply to demonstrate how the young Western mind continues regularly to have little to no idea about its own cinema, its own reality, its own originality, its own understanding of what realism is or might be and so on – such that it can make such sweeping claims. Rather, the point is also to show that it is outside of the mainstream that the most interesting, the most original, and perhaps even the most realistic work might be found.
All of this said, I think I am still hoping for something really quite extraordinary from contemporary cinema – be that its makers (if it does not yet exist) or programmers/promoters (if it does exist, but we simply do not get to see it). Perhaps I am too beholden to cinema as a form (and really the most exciting stuff is circulating outside of cinema). I completed three films in 2016 – Letters to Ariadne, Circle/Line and St Mary Magdalen’s Home Movies, and I am proud of all of them (which is not to mention the compilation film that I have curated, Roehampton Guerrillas (2011-2016), with which I am deeply proud to be associated). It is a shame that there seems not to be an audience for these films (blanket rejections from festivals so far); I am not sure that there is much out there like them, and yet I personally (being biased) of course feel that there is much to like about them. What I mean when I say that I am ‘hoping for something really quite extraordinary,’ then, is that it would be extraordinary but wonderful to find some films that chime a bit with mine – however arrogant, narcissistic, stupid and plain twattish that might sound.
Ade, Sauper, Kidlat, Lang, Ott/Silver, Ruizpalacios, Depardon, Chanan, Mendoza, Rivette, Costa, Morder, Cousins, Lang, Steyerl, Hansen-Løve, Diaz, Dean (and Khavn de la Cruz, whose Goodbye My Shooting Star I also got to see this year, with Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal and a Whore lined up for viewing shortly): perhaps they all have in common a sense that they don’t care about imitating the cinema of other people, and are instead making the films that they want to make, often disregarding the so-called rules – and regularly working on tiny budgets.
Far from being (overly) alienating as a result of its weirdness and difference, such filmmaking paradoxically becomes all the more exciting for it. It is in some senses a cinema of poverty, then, or a cinema of commiseration, that is most exciting to me. And I should like to see that pushed further. I certainly find it more exciting than the unoriginal mainstream stuff being churned out and which dominates the box office. I hope that makers, programmers, distributors, promoters, reviewers, audiences and others alike can encourage this other cinema – this micro-cinema, what Steyerl might characterise as the poor image, or the wretched of the screen, and what I might call non-cinema – to proliferate.
Philosophical Screens: Le Corbeau/The Raven (Henri Georges Clouzot, France, 1943) and the abortion film today
I am writing this post ahead of/as a companion to a discussion of Le Corbeau that will (have) take(n) place on Tuesday 22 November 2016 at the British Film Institute in London as part of the Philosophical Screens series organised by Kingston University and the London Graduate School. It contains my thoughts only, and not those of my co-panellists Lucy Bolton and Catherine Wheatley (except where credited).
The post will explore how Le Corbeau is in part a critique not uniquely of the fascist era in which it was made (France under occupation), but of a more lingering everyday fascism, perhaps even the fascism of the everyday, the everyday fascisms that are part and parcel of the human project – and which when they become dominant lead to death. I shall also relate this to the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau today.
Le Corbeau focuses on Dr Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a surgeon recently arrived in a small town called Saint Robin in France. In a series of anonymous letters, he is accused of having an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the younger wife of psychiatrist and work colleague, Dr Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). He is also accused of carrying out abortions and, latterly, of sleeping with Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the coxalgic sister of one-armed school master Fernand Saillens (Noël Roquevert).
Germain is not alone in receiving these anonymous letters; in fact, everyone in town seemingly receives them, since we are told at one point by Vorzet that the person sending the letters, who signs off as Le Corbeau/The Raven, has sent some 850 such accusatory epistles. Each letter either lays bare or accuses its recipient of a scandal that has taken place – with Germain also being accused of sleeping with Denise’s younger, 14-and-a-half year old niece, Rolande (Liliane Maigné).
While the town at first suspects (and drives away) Laura’s nurse sister, Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), after the suicide of a hospital inmate, François (Roger Blin), who is dying of cancer, Germain begins to suspect Denise, especially after she breaks down during a handwriting test set up by Vorzet, who happens to be an expert in detecting supposedly anonymous handwriting. Indeed, Germain discovers in Denise’s digs a letter from Le Corbeau to Germain announcing that Denise is pregnant, thereby seeming to confirm his suspicions.
However, when Denise tells Germain to look her in the eye, she explains that this is the first and only letter that she has sent. Germain becomes confused – and goes to see Laura, on whose hands he finds some ink, leading him to suspect her.
Vorzet intervenes and says that his wife did indeed begin the letters, hoping to lure Germain into an affair as a result of his old age and his inability sexually to satisfy her. However, he explains, when Germain did not reciprocate, she went insane and started to send out many such letters to everyone in Saint Robin.
Laura denies that this is so – and says that Vorzet himself has been sending (most of) the letters. Germain goes back to Denise, who has fallen (deliberately) down some stairs – affirming that he wants (‘needs’) her to keep his child, a decision that lays to rest the ghost of his former wife who, along with his first child, died during a botched delivery (Germain’s real name is Germain Menatte, a well-known brain surgeon).
Denise then says that Laura could not have sent the letters because she was too scared about violence that might be done to her if she revealed the true identity of Le Corbeau. Germain realises, therefore, that it must have been Vorzet – but arrives too late to prevent Laura from being carted off to a mental institution, the details of which he gave to Vorzet.
However, Germain steps into Vorzet’s office only to find him killed at his desk – his throat cut with the same razor blade that François used to take his own life. We see the mother of François (Sylvie) leave the premises and walk away down the street. How she found out about Vorzet’s guilt we do not know, but she has made good on her promise to use the François’ razor in order to avenge the premature death of her son.
Having got this synopsis out of the way, I can now turn to my analysis of the film.
In the first anonymous letter that we see/hear, Le Corbeau announces that (s)he has an œil américain, or an American eye. The term supposedly comes from novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who in The Heidenmauer, or The Benedictines (1832), which is set in sixteenth century Europe, writes to his American readers about how ‘an American eye would not have been slow to detect its [the landscape’s] distinguishing features from those which mark the wilds of this country [the USA].’
Interestingly, the differences that the American eye would spot are the small signs that would announce Europe to be occupied by humans; the trees in Europe ‘wanted the moss of ages,’ Cooper explains, before suggesting that the landscape offered ‘certain evidence that man had long before extended his sway over these sombre hills, and that, retired as they seemed, they were actually subject to all the divisions, and restraints, and vexations, which, in peopled regions, accompany the rights of property.’
I shall return to how Cooper’s American eye would spot how the sculpted landscape of Europe might seem natural but that it does not contain the truly natural ‘mouldering trunk’ or ‘branch [that] had been twisted by the gale and forgotten’ or ‘any upturned root [which might] betray the indifference of man to the decay of this important part of vegetation’ (all Cooper quotations are from page 2 of this edition).
For the time being, though, I should like to stress how Cooper’s term soon made it into French literature, where it came to take on the sense of an all-seeing eye. As soon as 1835, Honoré de Balzac’s arch-villain Vautrin accuses Eugène de Rastignac of scrutinising him with ‘the American eye’ in Le père Goriot, while Gustave Flaubert also uses the phrase in Madame Bovary (1856), where Lheureux, the pernicious merchant who causes Charles and Emma to go into debt (and Emma, ultimately, to kill herself) also claims to have an ‘American eye.’
Reworked within French literature to convey a sense of omniscience and a sense of evil, the term is an apt one to reappear in a film about secrets and affairs like Le Corbeau.
However, for most viewers of the film, to hear about an ‘American eye’ cannot but also bring to mind that most American of eyes on to the world – the cinema. That is, the cinema is an American eye.
Let’s be clear: the French have as strong a claim to the invention of cinema (the Lumière brothers) as the Americans (Thomas Edison), but by 1943 it is the American cinema that dominates globally. For Le Corbeau to claim that it has the ‘American eye’ might also imply, then, that the film is an attempt to rival American film productions – as might also be suggested by Judith Mayne‘s assertion that the absence of American films in Occupied France during the Second World War led to filmmakers trying to make more ‘American’ movies. This is not to mention how the famously troubled history of the film, in that it was produced by Continental, a German-backed and German-led production house, also suggests a German desire to rival American cinema. Which is not to mention still how the noir style that Le Corbeau more or less adopts is not unique to the USA, but that it has strong roots in both Germany and France. In other words: cinema as a whole, and the film noir style of Le Corbeau more particularly, are not necessarily American.
However, at least for the purposes of discussion, I should like to propose that in Le Corbeau the ‘American eye’ does speak of cinema – and perhaps especially of the kind of cinema-eye that Cooper describes. That is, an eye that can see a world without divisions, without property, and in some respects without man, as opposed to the European eye that only sees divisions, property and the human.
While Le Corbeau (the anonymous letter writer) claims to have an American eye, then, Le Corbeau (the film) also adopts an American eye, the American eye of cinema – not simply for the purposes of mimicking a Hollywood style, but in order to lay bare the very European way in which space is divided up into segments of property, with the human at the centre of this exploitation of space.
We can see how this is so in the film’s treatment of space.
Le Corbeau contains a very fluid camera, with the second shot of the film seeing the camera moving along a cloister that lines a cemetery, before then moving through a gate that seems to open of its own accord. In other words, from its beginning, Clouzot suggests that his camera moves and is alive, even as humans die. Furthermore, his camera can pass through gates – something that we also see humans do regularly in the film.
Indeed, I counted 419 shots in Le Corbeau (giving to the film an average shot length of 12.24 seconds given a running time – excluding opening credits – of 85 minutes and 28 seconds). Over the course of the film, we see people walking through doors or gates 64 times, with people opening but then not passing through doors twice. We hear doors opening and closing offscreen a further 7 times, with characters also passing through car doors twice. We see people walk through curtain partitions three times, while characters open cupboards, postboxes, bureaux, drawers, and/or a trunk a further 9 times. Furthermore, we have 2 POV shots of characters looking through keyholes and/or windows, and we see characters (generally Germain) open or close windows 4 times.
In other words, Le Corbeau features c93 instances of thresholds being crossed and/or reaffirmed. Since many of the moments featuring characters passing through thresholds are shown over the course of two shots (with a cut as the character or characters pass from one room to the next), then we can see how there are 100+ instances in the film of threshold crossing and/or container opening, meaning that likely one quarter of the shots in the whole film features the crossing of boundaries.
However, where Le Corbeau opens with the camera passing through a gate, and while we see humans pass through gates and door themselves, Clouzot’s otherwise mobile camera does not pass itself through gates or doors after this initial transgression.
In other words, a tension is set up between the mobile camera that can go anywhere irrespective of boundaries, and humans who also travel, but who are very much restricted by boundaries. If the second shot of the film tells us that the camera is mobile and alive while humans are immobile and dead, then the enclosed rooms and containers that humans inhabit and use in some senses move humans towards immobility. The creation of divisions, the creation of property, the creation of those things that Cooper’s and Clouzot’s American eyes can see as arbitrary, and yet which to the European are real, these are moving humans towards death.
(This is not to mention the walls of the town, or the grilles and other objects that seem strongly to delimit space in the film.)
This tendency to create divisions can also be understood through the importance of letters in the film, the postal service, and the way in which all letters are sent to an address. The term address originally in the early 14th century meant
“to guide, aim, or direct,” from Old French adrecier “go straight toward; straighten, set right; point, direct” (13c.), from Vulgar Latin *addirectiare “make straight” (source also of Spanish aderezar, Italian addirizzare), from ad “to” (see ad-) + *directiare “make straight,” from Latin directus “straight, direct” (see direct (v.), and compare dress (v.)).
As philosopher Alan Watts can be heard explaining on the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ ident, wherever people go, they want to straighten things out – to ‘set right’ rather than to let wiggle, with nature itself being full of wiggly things.
In other words, the notion of the address is an attempt to ‘straighten’ humans, with the idea of addressing someone being the idea also of straightening out their identity. This is also linked to the idea of dress – as reflected in the stiff costumes that nearly every character wears, from Marie and Laura to the men who claim to run Saint Robin.
One’s address, forms of address, dress: all in effect ‘straighten’ humans. But as the division of space is in some respects unnatural, so, too, are these linked concepts of dress and address unnatural – and Le Corbeau tells us so.
For, while Marie and Laura and the men are all buttoned up and repressed (or unable to repress desires that perhaps otherwise might be celebrated), it is Denise who from her initial appearance takes her clothes off/gets undressed and who, most notably as a result of her coxalgia, cannot walk straight (as well as being horizontal a lot of the time while other characters, but in particular by contrast Laura, are vertical – as Mayne also points out).
Germain is attracted to Denise – but he cannot bring himself to admit to loving her for reasons of decorum and social pressure; she is too lower class for him, and he (in Denise’s words) is bourgeois. He closes her window when they first meet, and he addresses her as vous (instead of tu, much to Denise’s displeasure) after they have slept together.
And yet, those who address Germain as Germain are not addressing him quite correctly, for his name is not Rémy Germain, but really Germain Manotte. That is, Germain has a repressed, or rather a fluid, identity. It is only through loving Denise that he can let go of the memory of his first wife and his lost child and learn to be himself again. It is only through accepting his own lack of straightness that Germain can move forward, or be alive. This is signalled most clearly in his impending fatherhood: to be alive is to create life in the universe of Le Corbeau, as we shall discuss in more detail shortly.
There is another side to the division of space that the film creates through its insistent depiction of doors, walls, gates, barriers and other containers. This is seen in the regular shots of characters speaking, but not looking at each other. Sometimes (such as when Laura and Germain meet one evening by the walls to Saint Robin) they positively look away from each other.
It is as though the characters in Le Corbeau do not look at each other, preferring instead to read about each other and/or to address each other formally – but not to address each other properly. We see each other not as people, then, but as symbols – as what we are supposed to mean as opposed to who we are. This is also made clear by the gendered spaces of the film: the all-male club in which most of the men hang out in the evening, and the all-female shop from which Germain is excluded at one point.
If Denise is honest in her lack of straightness (her limp and her desire to get undressed), then she also is honest in her interactions with Germain. For it is only with Germain that we specifically see prolonged exchanges of gaze, with Denise proving her innocence to Germain not through anything other than a remarkable exchange of looks into each other’s eyes.
(Addendum: Germain and François’s mother also look in each other in the eye in an important scene where she announces that she will take her revenge; the old lady also is hunched and thus not ‘straight.’ My thanks to Catherine Wheatley for pointing this out.)
In some senses, then, this is also the ‘American eye’ of cinema: it takes us into a world beyond language and consisting of direct connection via looking into the eyes of another human being. Language itself, then, is part of the ‘straightening’ process of the human world – with the tension between the written text and the visual ‘language’ of cinema also making this clear.
Perhaps it is also important that at one key moment in the film we see Denise from an impossible angle as she lies in bed with Rolande putting cups on her back. In other words, this impossible, ‘American eye’ angle suggests that Denise is a key to a world beyond division and a world beyond conventional notions of property.
It is not that Denise or Germain are heroes in the film. Indeed, Germain causes Laura to go to the asylum (although hopefully he will be able to recall her once Vorzet’s guilt is discovered), while he also literally has blood on his hands from the start of the film: he literally cannot save the life of a baby (and this, we are told, is the third such instance of a miscarriage with which he has been involved). Clouzot is, indeed, too smart a director to make a film that can read in such a straightforward way; for the film to be straightforward would be to contradict the film’s critique of straightness.
Nonetheless, Germain is, ultimately, a figure who respects the crooked and un-straight path that is life, and which irrevocably involves death as a part of life. This can be contrasted with the character whom we assume to be the main culprit, the ‘real’ Corbeau, Vorzet.
As Mayne has pointed out, Vorzet does not sound too dissimilar to the verb avorter, meaning to abort. And while he claims that Laura at first aroused him as a partner, nonetheless his relationship with her is sexless, straight-laced (as per Laura’s costume, but not necessarily as per her desire) and sterile. Furthermore, before marrying Laura, Vorzet was also engaged to Marie – who herself has become sexless, perhaps as a result of her rejection by Vorzet.
(If this play with Vorzet’s name sounds unlikely, we can again see how such wordplay with names is used by Balzac: as Christopher Prendergast points out in The Order of Mimesis, Vautrin’s name could mean vaut rien, or ‘worth nothing,’ which Prendergast associates with Vautrin’s role as a deceptive cipher in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine/Human Comedy. There is possibly also an oblique reference to Balzac when the post office workers discusses la splendeur et décadence postale, possibly a reference to the latter’s 1847 novel, Splendeurs et misères des courtesans.)
And so, Le Corbeau seems to suggest a world in which straightness (walls, fences), the division of space, and the idea of property all are related to the antithesis of life, all are a kind of death. Fascism, as the manifestation of straightness and control, is thus a kind of death that the film critiques in its depiction of space. Human desire, meanwhile, cannot – and perhaps should not – be controlled. It is not that the fascism of German National Socialism is specifically the target of Clouzot’s critique, then, but the fascisms that involved in everyday human life as we button ourselves up, straighten each other out and address each other with fixed names (Denise at one point calls Germain Joseph – as if identity did not matter to her).
This straightness can, finally, be related to the roundness of balls in the film: Rolande, on the cusp of womanhood, regularly is seen bouncing a ball, signalling both her childishness but also her discomfort at being socialised into the straight world (and this ‘neurotic’ behaviour – as Vorzet describes it – is acted out by her regular theft from the till of the post office where she works). At one point, a ball arrives suddenly from off screen, with Germain having to deflect it; the round has a habit of destroying the straight (the ball has of course been thrown by a child – a human not as yet socialised into straightness).
Not only might we think of the round chaos that is Melancholia swallowing up Earth in Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, but the insistent presence of a globe in Fernand Saillens’ classroom also reminds us that the world itself is not straight – as Cooper observes in The Heidenmauer thanks to her American eye.
An aside of sorts: being about the Benedictines, Cooper’s American eye is perhaps also reflected in Le Corbeau, which potentially also offers an oblique critique of the Benedictines. Not that the denomination is anyway made clear, but the town name of Saint Robin recalls the origin of the name Robin, St Robert of Molesme, a Benedictine who founded a series of small communities in the 11th century.
In The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967), Lewis Mumford writes about how
The Benedictine Order, instituted by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, distinguished itself from many similar monastic organisations by imposing a special obligation beyond the usual one of constant prayer, obedience to their superiors, the acceptance of poverty, and the daily scrutiny of each other’s conduct. To all these duties they added a new one: the performance of daily work as a Christian duty… the Benedictine monastery laid down a basis of order as strict as that which held together the earliest megamachines: the difference lay in its modest size, its voluntary constitution, and in the fact that its sternest discipline was self-imposed. (264)
In other words, the Benedictines constitute (for Mumford) a society of control and scrutiny, an early instantiation of the ‘megamachine’ that is modernity, especially as brought into being through the globalisation of capitalism.
And so, finally, if Le Corbeau offers us a critique of the death that is (everyday) fascism, proffering in its place a celebration of life – even if not straightforward and even if including physical death as an inevitable part of its imperfect, everyday existence – then what does this tell us about today?
It is notable that in the past few weeks various films have come out that involve childbirth, child death and abortion. A short list would include Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, USA, 2016), The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, UK/New Zealand/USA, 2016), Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, USA, 2016) and, in its own way, Bridget Jones’ Baby (Sharon Maguire, Ireland/UK/France/USA, 2016).
It would seem that abortion becomes a key theme in relation to fascism – and that the rise of films dealing with the issue of life and birth bespeak both the way in which fascism certainly has not left us in contemporary times, and thus also of the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau nearly 75 years after it was made.
A brief thought about I, Daniel Blake, including **spoilers** (for which apologies).
The film is about the title character (Dave Johns), who has recently had a heart attack. Although his doctors advise that he does not return to work, the company contracted by Blake’s local employment bureau in Newcastle deems him fit for work.
As a result, Daniel must go in search of work – at least nominally – in order to get benefits and thus economically to survive.
One day in the employment bureau, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother relocated to Newcastle from London by the housing association, who misses her first meeting at the bureau, and so who thus does not receive benefits.
The two strike up an unlikely friendship, with Daniel helping to keep Katie’s home warm, helping her out with food and more.
In some senses, I, Daniel Blake is a large-format, narrative version of the famous ‘Computer says no’ sketch repeated in various ways on Little Britain (Matt Lucas and David Walliams, 2003-2006): it is about the inflexibility of systems that are dominated by information technology.
It is not that information technology is necessarily bad. It is the internet and a direct link to a show manufacturer in China that gives Daniel’s neighbour, China (Kema Sikazwe), a chance of getting out of his own employment misery.
But, through Daniel’s unfamiliarity with computers, it does speak of a generation of humans who are being left behind by the insistent computerisation of all aspects of life. If one does not know how to use or speak to the computer, then the computer will inevitably say no.
As per Ken Loach’s Kes (UK, 1969), Daniel’s answer is frustratingly right before his (and our) eyes, and yet he does not act upon it. In Kes, Billy Casper (David Bradley) demonstrates at length that he is excellent with animals. And yet at no point do any of his teachers or the employment office suggest that Billy might make a good zookeeper, say, with Billy himself also fairly resigned to working down in the Barnsley pit.
Likewise, carpenter Daniel fabricates beautiful wooden mobiles – suggesting in some senses that he might also simply endeavour to work at a pace that is not stressful or necessarily detrimental to his precarious health, and to sell his wares at least to supplement his benefits lifestyle. At one point, Daniel even turns down an offer to buy some of his work from a man (Stephen Halliday) who otherwise buys up all of his furniture.
Something of a tangent: when Lewis Mumford writes in The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development that the surplus labour force provided by slaves in the USA basically led to a stagnation in technological development (no need to create machines to do work that humans will do for free), he also would seem to suggest that it was only when machines were created that could outperform slaves that slavery was abolished.
It is a controversial claim, but one might even say that the American Civil War was in some senses brought about for economic reasons: advances in technology and thus the ability to make profit without slaves is what made some people comfortable with the idea of abolishing slavery – while those who did not have the same technology (the South) were forced to accept the ‘privileged’ perspective that slaves were (now) deemed to be a Bad Thing… and ended up going to war over this.
And so it might be with computerisation: the privileged, technologically advanced people can force their technologies on to everyone else, thereby consigning to misery those who cannot really afford or get access to them.
(Read in terms of a technologised elite imposing its privileged perspective on the masses, one can in some senses account for both Brexit and the election of Donald J Trump as a negative reaction against precisely such a process – however ‘misguided’ or otherwise one might consider both Brexit and/or Trump’s election to be.)
There has been a lot of hoo ha in the reactionary press about I, Daniel Blake being contrived (I think of reviews by the likes of Toby Young). And yet, its contrivances are what make I, Daniel Blake most powerful.
For, there is a sense in Loach’s film of making absolutely clear at all stages that this is a film: the ‘naturalness’ of the acting (which can sometimes seem ‘amateur’), the somewhat forced nature of the script. It would seem that Loach is not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes that this is a film.
This is also made palpable as a result of Daniel’s death at the film’s end: Daniel cannot deliver the speech that he has written about his experiences and how he has been handled, which instead Katie reads out at his funeral. If Daniel lived and delivered the speech himself, then the contrivances of the film would be hidden. Instead Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty place them front and centre. Daniel Blake must die.
This is not to say that we should dismiss I, Daniel Blake simply on the grounds of being manipulative. What else do you think that cinema is if it is not manipulative? Acknowledging its own manipulations, the film nonetheless brings its viewers into a position of having to think about why the film is doing this – not simply for the sake of fooling viewers. On the contrary, it is so that we might take seriously what the film has to say.
The final confirmation of this is when Daniel and Katie enter at first into Daniel’s hearing (if I remember correctly). Looking directly at the camera – for the first time in the film – both speak not to the assembled assessors, but also directly to us.
I, Daniel Blake contains warmth and nightmarish visions of life on benefits in equal measure, with Katie’s display of hunger at a food bank (where she opens and begins to eat directly from a tin of cold baked beans) being in particular harrowing.
We are all implicated in this world. We all should take on the collective responsibility for our fellow citizens. Through the false, Ken Loach encourages us to confront the real.