Chaosmopolitan Cinema: Cinema, Globalisation, Holocaust

Yesterday (22 February 2017), the excellent scholar Celestino Deleyto gave a talk at the Centre for Research into Film and Audiovisual Cultures at the University of Roehampton, London.

In the talk, Deleyto outlined an argument that has also appeared in a recent article in Transnational Cinemas, where he discusses the way in which cosmopolitanism can function as a framework through which to understand contemporary cinema, which today is thoroughly transnational and thus cannot be properly understood according to old-fashioned nationalist paradigms (film history as a history of national film movements, with American cinema – Hollywood – perhaps as its defining centre).

In elaborating this argument, Deleyto engages with two films, Io Sono Li/Shun Li and the Poet (Andrea Segre, Italy/France, 2011) and Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2011). The first is a clearly transnational film, in that it is a film with a multinational cast about an immigrant Chinese labourer who befriends a man from the former Yugoslavia now living in Chioggia, a town close to Venice, Italy, where the locals speak a mixture of Italian and Venetian.

Deleyto outlined how the phenomenon of acqua alta, where seawater rises up above the banks of the city and into the buildings of Chioggia, functions as a metaphor for the film’s own engagement with border crossings and transnationalism of a different sort: that of the characters in the film, who find themselves in Chioggia having made various crossings of their own. There are literal borders that define the nations of the world, but these borders are porous while also moving: Li and the poet can get to Chioggia, but they cannot necessarily integrate into Italian society, even if the locals are happy enough with water seeping up into their buildings from the sea below.

It is through the lens of cosmopolitanism, then, that we can understand what the film is doing. That is, if cosmopolitanism is broadly defined as an openness to otherness, then we can see how the film is about openness – exploring the crossing of borders in various different ways – even if Io Sono Li ultimately has a pessimistic outlook towards the openness to others/cosmopolitanism of the Venetians who occupy the Chioggia of the film (they do not so readily accept the migrants, especially when they begin to form some sort of solidarity between themselves).

Margaret far less clearly is a transnational film in its story of a self-absorbed teenager, Lisa (Anna Paquin), living in New York. But it is about openness to otherness/cosmopolitanism in various ways. For, while New Yorkers might be believing themselves the most cosmopolitan people on Earth, as they sip Cosmopolitans while reading Cosmopolitan magazine, Lonergan’s film in fact skewers the small-mindedness of its characters in New York post-11 September 2001.

The film does this in various ways, with Deleyto using two scenes to highlight something important about the film. The first is during a restaurant scene in which Lisa, her mother, Joan (J. Smith Cameron), a friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) and her mother’s boyfriend, Ramon (Jean Reno), discuss politics over dinner.

As the conversation continues, Ramon in particular discusses authoritarianism, which he then equates to Israel and criticizes Emily for being a typical Jew in not being able to take criticism about Israel. During this conversation, the scene cuts to wider shots of the dinner guests, during which we see other diners enjoying their meals.

More significantly, the soundtrack of the film features the conversation of Lisa et al going quiet as we hear also snippets of conversations from those other diners. The technique in effect reminds us of the otherness that surrounds us everywhere, and yet to which we generally remain closed/unaware. Even though the film critiques the self-absorption of its New York characters – including people whose families come originally from Europe (Lisa, Joan and Emily are all Jewish) and Latin America (Ramon is Colombian, but lived a long time in France) and who talk consciously about borders and control – the film itself takes on a cosmopolitan form by opening itself to otherness, as Io Sono Li opens its fictional world to the real world phenomenon of the acqua alta.

Cosmopolitanism is not just a thematic concern, then, but it is also a set of stylistic/formal traits: having the soundtrack open up to other conversations, having the mise-en-scène feature real-world phenomena. Whether or not any given film is transnational or about border crossings, cosmopolitanism becomes a framework through which we can understand all cinema: to what extent is it in its form and content both about and in and of itself open to otherness?

In the era of globalization that has brought with it Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the Syrian refugee crisis and so on, the question becomes a pressing one – making Deleyto’s work both (un)timely and important.

To return to Margaret, Deleyto ended his talk by showing and analyzing the final scene of the film. At the Lincoln Center, Lisa and Joan watch a production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, particularly a sequence featuring ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour,’ a piece of music often referred to as the ‘Barcarolle.’

During this scene, Lisa begins to cry; Joan notices this and begins to cry herself; and the two embrace.

In other words, Lonergan’s film is cosmopolitan enough to give some sort of redemption to Lisa, who has actively sought to reject otherness throughout the rest of the film. That is, the scene shows that there is hope for Lisa as she opens up to the otherness of Offenbach’s opera, such that she has an affective encounter (she cries) – even if this is a muted hope at best, since even though art affects her, the opera remains a very classed and safe space that perhaps indicates a ‘false hope’ (we have no real evidence that Lisa will continue to be anything other than an unpleasant, self-absorbed human being).

Here is where we depart from Deleyto’s wonderful presentation and essay in order to push the argument further – and we shall start by considering the production history of Margaret and then ‘Barcarolle.’

As Deleyto made clear, Lonergan filmed Margaret years before it finally got a (minimal) release in 2011. The reason for it being stuck in ‘post-production hell’ is that Lonergan refused to budge on producing a cut of the film under three hours in length. Eventually, Martin Scorsese stepped in and finally the movie got released – albeit in few theatres, meaning that the film has widely been overlooked.

In addition to being unwieldy in its length, Margaret is also difficult to watch (or at least, this was my experience of the film – not least because Lisa is such an unpleasant character). However, too long for commercial release, difficult to watch, barely having been seen: somehow these elements also add to the way in which Lonergan’s film asks us to think about openness.

For, if his film is about openness in a transnational, globalized world, thus affirming that the national is no longer a suitable frame through which to consider cinema, then perhaps cinema, too, is no longer a suitable frame through which to consider… cinema itself!

My intention is not to sound crazy here. How can cinema no longer be a useful concept for understanding cinema? Well, my reasoning goes as follows: if there is one thing that a film involves, then it is precisely a frame – a border that surrounds every image that we see. And if a film is going to be cosmopolitan and to be open to things that are beyond our normal borders, then cinema must look beyond its own frame, i.e. beyond cinema.

We can see this in Margaret through the use of sound, which helps us to think outside of the frame – to think about spaces that lie beyond our usual purview. But we can also see this in the way in which Margaret does not fit into cinemas: it is too long, it is hard to watch. Even though a film, the film itself somehow eludes cinema.

This makes Margaret a film that is truly of its age. Digital technologies have created a world in which cinema is indeed no longer cinema, with stereoscopic cinema even taking images off the screen and out into the audience (what in my forthcoming book, Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude, I call ‘cinema unframed’).

However, what we get in this digital age is not openness to otherness, but more and more of the same: screens everywhere, each featuring the same old things, a kind of ubiquitisation of cinema through the digital, a homogeneisation of space that sees everyone seeing the same things everywhere at the same time.

Margaret is of its age, then, but it is not just a reinforcement of the dominant values of its age: it is a harsh critique of its age, which gives it the impression of being precisely not of its age, since had it been of its age, producers would have let it exist in its elongated version and more people would have seen it.

In being of its age but in seeming not of its age, Margaret is thus untimely. It is both a film, but also somehow not fit for cinema.

Being untimely, being non-cinema, we can reach here a way not quite of critiquing the cosmopolitan framework through which to understand film (it is a good framework!), but perhaps of expanding upon it creatively.

For, if cosmopolitanism is about borders, then there remains an overwhelming emphasis in it upon space.

This is not a bad thing, but (as Caroline Bainbridge also suggested during Deleyto’s talk) it comes at the cost of thinking about the role of time in these processes. If globalization (and the digital era) brings with it the homogeneisation of space – the same shops everywhere, with the local often suffering – then it also brings with it a homogeneisation of time. We can understand this through those ubiquitous digital screens that each show fast-paced movies that match our fast-paced lives, in which we have no time for reflection and no time for imagination. We have no time for Margaret, which is too long.

Time, then, becomes a question in part of rhythm, or tempo: under globalization, we all lead our lives at the same rhythm, which is the rhythm of commerce, whereby I am always looking at screens, checking my emails, being in bed with my phone, always working if not always at work. The temporality of the globalized era is the temporality of work, of business, and thus of capital, whereby everyone is always busy, always working and not open to different times (slow things and people annoy the hell out of us).

And yet, time is more than just rhythm or tempo, even if under globalization the rhythm/tempo of the world is becoming homogeneised, just as space is becoming homogeneised. For time also is change: and if change is anything – if change can happen – then it must involve being open to otherness.

Being open to otherness in terms of time means being open to different rhythms and tempo, not everyone moving at the same speed. In this sense, the very length and slowness of Margaret is part of the cosmopolitanism of the film.

But more than this, if we have to be open to otherness and thus to change, we must in some senses live in a world that is not ordered (a cosmos) and strictly urban (a polis, where space is controlled through walls and roads and wires and other lines), but a world that also is chaotic. In other words, not a cosmos, nor necessarily a chaos, but something that is a mix of the two, or what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might, after James Joyce, call a chaosmos.

Chaosmopolitanism, then, is perhaps the framework that allows us to think about both the spatial and the temporal dimensions of being open to otherness, and to think about not just borders in a spatial sense (where they lie) but also in a temporal sense (how they change).

Deleyto demonstrated that the space of New York in Margaret is very hemmed in, enclosed. In enclosed spaces, our world literally shrinks; we become closed-minded and self-absorbed. And in the contemporary, digital world, we close ourselves off from others in many ways, not least by only looking at our screens, headphones in our ears. And as the space of our world shrinks, so does the time, as mentioned: we become constantly on our screens, always working, bored – perhaps even offended – by times/rhythms that are not fast-paced and do not bear the stamp of modernity.

To be slowed down, to slow down: this demonstrates an openness to otherness in a temporal sense, a kind of change that sees rhythms multiply rather than reduce everywhere to one. Chaosmopolitanism is openness to other spaces and to other times.

A chaosmopolitan cinema, then, not only points beyond cinema and its typical frame, but it must also point beyond the fast-paced rhythm/tempo that defines contemporary cinema and much of the other images that we see on the ubiquitious screens that show audiovisual material, and which also must be fast-paced in order for us not to hate and to reject them. I may not like Margaret, but in some senses I must learn to like it, to acquire a taste for its time/rhythm/space in order to become open to its otherness.

But now let’s really take this analysis into its most important realm by returning to ‘Barcarolle.’

There are various things that we can note about the piece. Firstly, the song is about love and about the night – and thus in some senses it is about darkness.

If in a globalized world, it is to be the same time everywhere (instant telecommunications), and if in a world in which screens have brought about this singular rhythm/tempo (what we might call nuncocentrism – only the now of work exists), then in some senses this is to destroy the circular flow of day and night that is the constant movement/rhythm of the natural universe and to bring light to everywhere – for it always to be everywhere daytime, as we are illuminated via the light of the screens and never in darkness (not to be seen, not to be visible, and thus not to be lit, is not to exist). Making such light is, of course, the work of Lucifer.

To celebrate darkness, then, is to celebrate a world of difference, a world in which some things remain hidden, invisible, unspoken, unsayable. Only felt. Only thought. To celebrate darkness is perhaps itself then an act of openness to otherness that we might call love itself: to love not only what we see, but also what we do not and perhaps cannot see. To have a sort of faith: love is best in the dark, even if pornography wants to tell us that love is best in broad daylight.

In being about night and love, then, ‘Barcarolle’ also contains a chaosmopolitan dimension.

Oddly enough, given that the form of the ‘barcarolle’ comes from the boatsmen who pilot gondolas in Venice, Margaret also ends by taking us to Venice, the city that stands on the water and the straight lines of which (cosmos) are interrupted by the lunar, tidal cycles of the night (the chaos of water).

Furthermore, ‘Barcarolle’ is the piece of music that Guido (Roberto Benigni) plays in the concentration camp in order to tell his wife Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) that he is still there in La vita é bella/Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, Italy, 1997).

As the music plays, Benigni’s camera drifts across the camp – from the window at the Nazi party where he is working as a waiter – through the mist and to the dorm where Dora listens.

This is a very cosmopolitan camera movement that breaks down the barriers that have been set up between the Jewish inmates and the Nazi soldiers – a barrier that is broken through music – which like film is a temporal art form. The moment is thus also chaosmopolitan, as it allows Guido and Dora both to remember the past (their love for each other) and to dream of a different future (life outside of the camp). That is, the music allows them to feel/experience a different time beyond the time of the now.

Is it that Lisa is thinking of Life is Beautiful when she hears ‘Barcarolle’ in Margaret – and that she cries as she remembers the suffering of her Jewish ancestors during the Holocaust?

But we have further to go.

Giorgio Agamben argues that we live in a ‘concentrationary universe’ in which the concentration camp becomes the model of the contemporary world under globalization: closed off, not open, controlled, not chaotic, a permanently lit panopticon, that must of course use the techniques of cinema (lighting in order to surveil) in order to function.

If in the camp there is only the now of survival, then the contemporary world that features only the now of work is also a camp of sorts. As Deleyto discussed in his talk, the border can constitute an improvised camp (think of refugee camps near Calais). And so in the globalized world of now and the immanentisation of the camp (it is everywhere), then this is also the immanentisation of the border (the border is everywhere, and every infraction into it – into my personal space – is an offense and a justification of violence as I do not accept or tolerate otherness, to which I am not open, but from which I have instead closed myself off).

In such a world, where cinema has been a key purveyor of the values of the now, of the camp, of the border, a chaosmopolitan cinema must go beyond cinema – beyond the frame and beyond its typical tempos/rhythms. It must involve darkness and entirely different rhythms.

For, without such chaosmopolitan openness to otherness, to change and to difference, then we only have a cinema of light, a cinema of a single rhythm and a cinema of now (timely, not untimely, thereby not being quite of its age so much as destroying the concept of age itself, as nothing ever ages/changes – the capitalist quest for eternal youth).

Such a cinema may seem to make everything visible – but in fact it brings with it an occult crime that is beyond visibility, and which can never be figured on a screen, namely the unholy horror that is the Holocaust itself. If we do not embrace a little darkness everyday, if we do not reject cinema and its capitalist logic, then we lose our memory and we lose our imagination, and we allow for another Holocaust to take place.

But more than this. For if there is one other thing that cinema cannot capture in addition to the Holocaust, then it is globalization itself. Cinema can allude to it, but never really show it, for while globalization involves making everything visible (the permanent working daytime of the screen), globalization is, like cinema itself, invisible. Chaosmopolitan cinema must be self-conscious in order to show itself, it must be self-reflexive, and it must perhaps therefore alienate its viewers.

But yet more. If the Holocaust and globalization are not visible, and yet they are the inevitable consequence of a world that is only about the now of the screens and thus of visibility, then this is because globalization is a sort of Holocaust. In trying to destroy the night, in trying to wipe out darkness, faith and love, then murder becomes a perverted measure of ‘love,’ a jealous destruction of the other for their very difference/invisibility that is a love turned to hate.

The logic is something like this: if you will not show me your total self, if you will remain partially invisible to me, then I shall make you permanently invisible via death, because that is what you seem to be wanting. In this perversion, evil is most truly evil because those who commit it think that they are doing someone else a favour, even though the other did not ask for death. Instead, they just asked to be allowed a little space of their own, a little time of their own, something not controlled, in short some freedom.

As we move into a world of permanent light, permanent work, without sleep, and thus with no dreams, with no space of our own, no time of our own, and no memory, then the border becomes everywhere, and we create a new concentration camp (the camp is created through concentration, i.e. the shrinking of both space and time), a new Holocaust. Cinema plays a large part in that process. A chaosmopolitan cinema must take us beyond that, beyond the light of cinema, into different rhythms, and perhaps beyond cinema and the logic of the screens themselves, and into non-cinema, the non-cinema of night and love, where the water caresses the hard land as it feels the pull of the dreamy moon. A little bit of lunacy. If we don’t love each other, we’ll end up killing each other.

 

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From Billy Lynn to Rogue One

In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee, USA/UK/China, 2016), there is a sequence where Billy (Joe Alwyn) experiences a flashback to his tour as a soldier in Iraq.

The scene is ultimately innocuous, but as Billy looks around him in an Iraqi market, we see and hear how a soldier thinks: could those kids be throwing a grenade? could that man be reaching for a gun?

In keeping with the film’s arch self-consciousness, the sequence also features one soldier buying bootleg DVDs – of a Disney film – for his daughter. But the reason why I want to discuss this sequence is because the iconography of uniformed soldiers walking armed through a traditional ‘Middle Eastern’ market place, replete with stalls, sandy ground, narrow alleys and sandstone walls, and with people wearing elaborate robes, has also been deployed elsewhere in recent cinema, namely in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, USA/UK, 2016).

The key difference is that in Billy Lynn, which is far more interesting than its unpromising title would suggest, we are with the soldiers, while in Rogue One, we see these scenes of armed soldiers walking through otherwise traditional bazaars and other ‘Middle Eastern’ spaces through the eyes of the rebels – those who are going specifically to pull out guns and lob grenades in order to defy the imperial presence.

It is not that Billy Lynn is specifically critiquing Disney – even if the Disney bootleg is mentioned. Nor is it that Billy Lynn quite offers a corrective to Rogue One, as it offers a sympathetic portrayal of the life of a soldier who ultimately decides to fight for his fellow servicemen – while Rogue One offers a fantasy of striking back against the Empire, the storm troopers of which are disposable enemies.

Rather, both films in fact help us to understand a more subtle but important process – even though they nominally give us completely different perspectives (soldiers and rebels). And this process is the normalisation of Empire via their shared iconography of soldiers walking through ‘Middle Eastern’ bazaars.

Billy Lynn spends a lot of time conveying how contemporary America is a militarised zone. Although it amuses Billy and his comrades that business people describe their workspace as the ‘war room,’ while using other would-be combat terms to describe their work, such moments nonetheless convey the militarisation of the domestic space and its everyday routines.

This is also conveyed in the violence that the soldiers experience not just in Iraq (during Billy’s flashbacks) but at home, where/when the film is set. The film is about the Bravos, a group of soldiers who have become the face of the Iraq war after a journalist’s film camera – abandoned but left recording during a military engagement – captures footage of Billy rushing to rescue Sergeant Virgil ‘Shroom’ Breem (Vin Diesel).

Given their rise to fame, the soldiers are to appear at a show with Destiny’s Child during the halftime interval of an American football game in Dallas. Celebrated as heroes, the soldiers are also in the process of trying to negotiate a movie deal to tell their story.

Without going into too much detail – since it is not the focus of this blog post – the film articulates the way in which domestic America is as violent as Iraq as the soldiers are constantly harassed and abused – even though they receive acclaim from an otherwise patriotic audience.

What is more, while films like Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944) and Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2006) critique the process of using heroic soldiers at spectacular jamborees in order to sell war bonds in a bid to further the war effort, Billy Lynn demonstrates quite clearly in their bid to have their story made into a movie that war provides the material for cinema, and thus to a degree how cinema also provides the material for war.

What is more, while the explosions during the halftime show panic the soldiers as much as does real combat in Iraq (and not simply in a way of setting off a traumatic memory), we get a sense in Ang Lee’s film of how the contemporary USA is indeed built as a simulacrum of war that is itself sufficiently traumatic that the soldiers prefer to bond with each other and to return to Iraq (there are two extraordinary scenes in which men declare their love for each other) rather than to stay at home.

In other words, PTSD is not specifically caused by the trials of war itself – but equally by the never-ending war-like/militarised aspects of contemporary American life: the same car manufacturers (Humvee), explosions, aggressive people, loud noises – except here surrounded by plenty and with a huge emphasis on consumption/consumerism.

Even if the soldiers are doing a job that is not everywhere popular (they themselves understand very well that the major result of their work is that it likely breeds rather than reverses anti-American sentiment), it is in their interactions and experiences with each other that they can find some humanity in a world where otherwise they are simply (undervalued and underpaid) commodities and objects.

This even extends to Billy’s love life; in a remarkable sequence, he realises that Faison (Makenzie Leigh), a cheerleader whom he has just met but upon whom he is sweet, desires him only as a soldier and not as a person (she is disappointed when Billy says that he wishes he could run away with her; a soldier must fulfil his duty). Lee and actor Alwyn subtly manage to capture both Billy’s vulnerability in projecting his own desire for escape on to Faison (the youthful intensity of the recent crush – demonstrating that even though he has fought in combat, Billy is still in some senses a child), as well as the way in which that crush is extinguished in an instant by a single turn of phrase (her disappointment that he does not return willingly to Iraq).

There is a clear critique of Billy Lynn to be made for its treatment of women, including the way in which Billy’s anti-war sister, played by Kristen Stewart, is a woman scarred from a car accident and whom Billy is specifically fighting to protect by serving his country in order to pay her medical bills. But an extended critique will be for someone else to make.

Furthermore, there is of course a critique of the film to be made in its refusal to give us the perspective of those against whom the soldiers fight in Iraq – even though we see at length what it means to take a life by hand as Billy scrambles with someone who might typically be referred to as an insurgent next to Shroom, who has been shot.

However, while Rogue One may in some senses offer a corrective – by giving us the perspective of the rebels (even if in a fantasy universe now owned by Disney) – both films contribute to the same process of naturalising Empire.

Billy Lynn clearly articulates the way in which war is a mediatised spectacle. Everyday life becomes militarised as it also becomes mediatised, while war itself becomes everyday as it, too, becomes mediatised. In its own way, Rogue One does this, too.

While in Billy Lynn Iraqi lives are somewhat disposable (in spite of the extended depiction of the death of the insurgent at Billy’s hands), in Rogue One storm troopers are disposable. While Shroom is killed in Billy Lynn and all of the rebels perish in Rogue One, the imbalance in both films between the numbers of deaths that we see means that both also broadly convey a fantasy of war as simulacrum, or what we might call a war without casualties. War as entertainment. Not war as real (even if Billy Lynn also tries to get to that reality).

This reflects to a certain extent the way in which contemporary warfare is – from the perspective of the West – a war without casualties (we are horrified when the numbers of Western casualties grows – even though countless Iraqis and Afghans have died in this war – as if their lives did not matter or count since they are somehow not quite as human).

In reference to the first Iraq/Persian Gulf War in 1991, French philosopher Paul Virilio argues that ‘[t]he war of zero casualties (or nearly, on the side of the allies) was therefore also a war of zero political victory.’ Saddam Hussein remained in power – which in the fullness of time led to a second war, where Hussein was toppled (one cannot help but think not only of Hussein’s ungainly death, but also of the much more viewer-friendly toppling of his statue; this is a war about symbols and aesthetically pleasing images – and thus about media – as much as it is about humans, who have a propensity to be aesthetically unpleasing, or war, which also is likely not as pleasing to behold in real life as it is in movies – with Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (Australia/USA, 2016) doing a fine job of hypocritically saying how bad war is before pouring on the war porn in heavy doses), and then to an ongoing war that the American soldiers describe in Billy Lynn as being beyond their understanding as Iraqis now fight each other as well as them.

While Virilio’s assertion is insightful, what he does not quite articulate here is that political victory is not the point. The war itself is the point of the war. The war produces the images, which produces the war, which produces the patriotism, which produces the buying, which produces the consumption, which produces war bonds in the form of bondage to war, which produces cinema, which produces war, which produces cinema, which produces war… and so on.

If there were victory in this war, the war would end and there would no longer be images for us to look at and advertisers and patriots and others for us to get to use those images to make money, and there would no longer be arms sales or private business contracts, or movie deals, and so on. The becoming-everyday of war is matched by the militarisation of everyday life, then, since both are the same process of keeping capital going, with the media playing a major role in the making-everyday/naturalisation of this process.

More than this. If the war cannot end, since this would also mean the end of capitalism, then soldiers in the ‘Middle East’ is to become an everyday – or at least repeated – occurrence. This is, in other words, Empire-building. It is not colonialism, or at least will not go by that name, since a) colonialism is unfashionable and generally condemned and b) because it does not involve colonisation specifically so much as an ongoing and repeated military presence in such places – because the perpetuation of war (war as capital) demands it.

In this sense, Rogue One is for all of its rebellious bluster serving the same purpose as Billy Lynn, even though the latter critiques it: normalising images of invading/Western soldiers in ‘Middle Eastern’ locations – because this is indeed our new reality.

What is more… while Rogue One plays the card of giving us a fantasy of rebellion, it still only perpetuates fantasies of violence, while at the same time demonstrating that Disney’s attempts to regain/retain global domination also involves a kind of militarisation of cinema/a making-cinematic of war.

For, as Disney via the Star Wars franchise and Marvel shows us how we are set to have endless, perhaps infinite, stories set in each fictional universe (not just sequels and prequels, but ‘Star Wars stories’ and the infinite regression of the Marvel spin-offs), so, too, is Disney normalised as the only reality.

This process of normalisation – as delimiting the human imagination such that it can do nothing other than imagine the world as it is, and not a different world that we may ourselves forge – is itself war. It is an ideological war that is about getting people to buy only certain products and to mistrust others (it can be seen in Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose opening stores all across the UK and which are putting out of business countless ‘corner shops’ – perhaps not coincidentally run often by immigrant families with brown skins). And this war is waged through the media, which in turn depict how war is a supposedly necessary and normal part of our lives.

It is a complex and confusing world, where we are – specifically to use war terminology – bombarded by images and sounds that render us all always nervous and on the edge of our seats – in a world very far removed from the quiet and the natural sounds of pre-industrial humankind. It is a war waged for the control of our planet and of each other, with the idea of fighting for control and/or of seeking power becoming naturalised such that no one even questions it anymore. That is, we do not object to being controlled – as we instead reach constantly into our pockets to receive micro-hits of cinema from our smartphone screens, so normalised has this disciplining via militarisation of the everyday become.

The question becomes, then: do you buy into this world of warcraft, or not?

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Trump cinema

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).
Posted in American cinema, Film education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lion (Garth Davis, Australia/USA/UK, 2016)

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.

Posted in American cinema, Australian Cinema, British cinema, Film reviews, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Philosophical Screens: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990)

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.

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The comedy of experimental cinema

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.

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Some notes on cinema in 2016

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 AriadneCircle/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.

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