Amoeblog

Mighty White of You: Juxtaposing Cowboys & Aliens and Attack the Block

Posted by Charles Reece, September 12, 2011 09:06am | Post a Comment
What follows is a slightly altered version of a two-part series of posts I recently wrote, now combined as my entry for Pussy Goes Grrr's Juxtaposition Blogathon

juxtaposition blogathon

In the realm of categories, black is always marked as a color [...], and is always particularizing; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything -- white is no color because it is all colors. This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power.
-- p. 127, Richard Dyer's "White" from The Matter of Images


Reading Dyer's above quoted essay reminded me of the classic Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man to discover what whiteness is really like. He receives a free newspaper, gets cash from a bank without any credit and, once the city bus is free of minorities, the whites have a party. Instead of whiteness being the default or normative position from which every other ethnicity is otherness, Murphy's blackness is the norm and whiteness is seen as excess.

A less ironic and more recent example of what Dyer's getting at is the colorizing of Marvel's superheroes: Nick Fury is black in the films and Ultimate line; the Ultimate version of Peter Parker was killed off and replaced by a half black, half latino kid named Miles Morales; Kingpin was played by a black man in the Daredevil film; and more controversial among the Aryan supremacists was the decision to make the Norse god Heimdall black in the Thor film. The difference here between whiteness and otherness is that Peter Parker isn't first marked as white, second as Spider-Man, but Miles Morales is foremost a mixed ethnicity and secondly a superpowered human. If he were to live with his aunt at a near poverty level, that would be part of his ethnic narrative, whereas it's not really a part of Peter's being white. For Peter, those are qualities which merely help the audience sympathize with his struggle as an individual (they aren't anything but dramatic attributes within a particular narrative). The white narrative, through its dominance, seen as normative, is hidden, only revealed by contrast with what falls outside, or underneath.

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Mighty White of You 2: Attack the Block (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, September 11, 2011 11:02pm | Post a Comment
 attack the block poster

[Attack the Block] would start like an Abel Ferrara film or a Michael Winner film with this archetypal situation, this deliberately stereotypical situation and then this thing would fall from the sky and everything would change. And you would start the process of humanizing and exploring and dimensionalizing the characters. That was absolutely the inspiration.
-- Writer-Director Joe Cornish

Attack the Block begins with the mugging of a young white woman named Sam by a group of South London teenage thugs in hoodies. In contrast to a "stereotypical situation" from Winner or Ferrara, the process of humanizing the gang was already implicitly underway before the audience learns anything else about the characters: Sam is neither raped nor killed, only loses her purse. That is, thieves are a lot more human than rapists or murderers (e.g., Cary Grant was allowed to play the former in To Catch a Thief, but the studio insisted that Hitchcock absolve Ray Milland of wife killing in Dial M for Murder). Identification won't prove too taxing, since a falling alien disrupts the event, unburdening the empathic bond between audience and the criminals we'll be asked to feel as heroic later on (nevertheless, some still had a problem with the film's anti-heroes). The position of "Whiteness" is, for the present film, about class, the structural haves and have-nots: Sam is a nurse in training with an economic future; the gang members have to take what they need. She'll move away from the area after residency; the gang is stuck there. As with Cowboys & Aliens, the fantasy of extraterrestrial invasion erases the structural conflict, the leftover being what unifies the two represented classes, namely their jointly held humanity. Sam eventually joins her former attackers (the plot if you want it), reasoning that she's safer with them than alone against the (true) aliens.

The Besson Touch: Colombiana (2011) & Taken (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, September 4, 2011 10:02am | Post a Comment
 columbiana poster  

I caught both of these films the past week, Colombiana at the theater and Taken on blu-ray. The former was directed by Olivier Megaton, the latter by Pierre Morel, but it's the scenarist as auteur who interests me. Although both were co-written by Robert Mark Kamen, I mean the other scenarist who also served as the producer, Luc Besson. If there's something like pure cinema, Besson specializes in pure entertainment. He's unconcerned with any realworld attachment to his cinematic diegeses. His heroes exist in a hermetic reality where all the laws of physics are on their side, cooperating with whatever stunt they're performing, ensuring their success. The only moral code is to be the one performing the violence, not receiving it. This recently resulted in a protest from Colombian-Americans regarding the Besson-world Colombia, filled only with really bad drug dealers killing a couple of really bad drug dealers who happen to love their daughter. Loving little girls is about the only good act in Besson morality, no matter what else one might do for a living (cf. The Professional or Wasabi). Typically that love is expressed through teaching the girl how to perform violence (La Femme Nikita), or to use your professional killing skills to protect her (again, The Professional). In other words, love is violence. 

The present examples are no exception: Taken is about a retired black ops hatchetman for the US going on a rampage through France to rescue his kidnapped daughter from Albanian slave-traders. Colombiana is about the aforementioned daughter from Bolota escaping to Chicago where she meets up with her assassin uncle, who trains her to be a hired killer -- the purpose of which is to eventually exact revenge on the people who killed her parents. Besson, of course, loves assassins, particularly of the young, lithe, winsome and female variety. But that's not what really sets his cornball action tales apart; it's his little flourishes of perversity that I'm calling the Besson Touch.

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Mighty White of You: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 29, 2011 02:49am | Post a Comment
In the realm of categories, black is always marked as a color [...], and is always particularizing; whereas white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularizing quality, because it is everything -- white is no color because it is all colors. This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power.
-- p. 127, Richard Dyer's "White" from The Matter of Images


Reading Dyer's above quoted essay reminded me of the classic Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man to discover what whiteness is really like. He receives a free newspaper, gets cash from a bank without any credit and, once the city bus is free of minorities, the whites have a party. Instead of whiteness being the default or normative position from which every other ethnicity is otherness, Murphy's blackness is the norm and whiteness is seen as excess.

A less ironic and more recent example of what Dyer's getting at is the colorizing of Marvel's superheroes: Nick Fury is black in the films and Ultimate line; the Ultimate version of Peter Parker was killed off and replaced by a half black, half latino kid named Miles Morales; Kingpin was played by a black man in the Daredevil film; and more controversial among the Aryan supremacists was the decision to make the Norse god Heimdall black in the Thor film. The difference here between whiteness and otherness is that Peter Parker isn't first marked as white, second as Spider-Man, but Miles Morales is foremost a mixed ethnicity and secondly a superpowered human. If he were to live with his aunt at a near poverty level, that would be part of his ethnic narrative, whereas it's not really a part of Peter's being white. For Peter, those are qualities which merely help the audience sympathize with his struggle as an individual (they aren't anything but dramatic attributes within a particular narrative). The white narrative, through its dominance, seen as normative, is hidden, only revealed by contrast with what falls outside, or underneath.

Continue reading...

The Dumb Watchmaker: The Killing (1956)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 21, 2011 10:44pm | Post a Comment
killing criterion interior art

Stanley Kubrick's The Killing just came out on blu-ray from Criterion. In addition to being the best looking version I've seen on home video, containing a hilarious interview with Sterling Hayden on the meretricious qualities of being a film actor and a barely promoted new high-def transfer of Kubrick's second feature, Killer's Kiss, there's an excellent essay from Haden Guest analyzing the formal virtues of what is undoubtedly one of the top 5 greatest film noirs (or heist films) ever made. For example:

The synchronized, semaphorelike movement of doors throughout The Killing suggests some sort of mysteriously vast machine, an intricate apparatus vaguely built around the horse race itself, whose very signal to begin is, after all, the precision opening of the multiple gates that simultaneously release the horses and trigger the robbery. The machine metaphor elaborated throughout The Killing is also closely tied to Ballard’s assertive camera movements and the remarkable extended tracking shots that follow characters with an unsettling fixity, as in the scene introducing Clay. Keeping exact pace with Clay as he ambles toward the anxious embrace of his winsome girlfriend, Fay (Coleen Gray), Ballard’s gliding camera cuts a neat cross section through a series of connected rooms in its path, transforming the apartment interior into a type of controlled tunnel that exactly describes and limits the possibilities of movement—a striking illustration of entrapment that subtly parallels the camera’s and actor’s “tracks” with those of the horse race. Indeed, a comparison between man and horse runs throughout the film, captured cruelly in the whinnying, equine look of Carey’s face as he is shot—after his car tire is punctured by a horseshoe, no less—in a distorted carnival-mirror reflection of the horse he himself has killed just moments before. In addition, during the long execution of the robbery itself, each member of the gang seems to be locked in an extended relay race, tracked by the mobile camera as they move across the screen, their actions closely commented upon by a stentorian voice-over narration echoing that of the horse race announcer.

Rather than seeing Kubrick as some cold, art-for-art's-sake formalist, Guest elaborates on the way form and content inform and determine each other in the film. The style expresses a metaphysics: in one film after another, man's attempt to dominate through rational planning is thwarted by a world filled with what appears as contingency to finite beings. In the present example, the real makes itself known in the form of a poodle. Hayden draws the parallel between Kubrick's characters and the director's own struggle to make art in the racetracks of genre and Hollywood money. Kubrick was a pessimist, but he clearly thought there was more than hubris in our attempt to find/construct order in the world around us. When receiving the D.W. Griffith Award from the Director's Guild, he said, "I've never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, 'don't try to fly too high,' or whether it might also be thought of as 'forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.'" [p. 23-4, James Naremore, On Kubrick] There's something human about rationalizing monoliths and starbabies, axe-wielding husbands who talk to ghosts, and poodles. There's a love for humanity in his work.

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