Amoeblog

Art! What Is It Good For? More on The Lives of Others Vis a Vis Clockwork Orange

Posted by Charles Reece, January 10, 2008 09:44pm | Post a Comment
Regarding what I wrote about the the transformative power of music in THE LIVES OF OTHERS being a lie, a pal of mine, K, suggested the possible counter-example of the Nazi being moved by piano music in Polanski's THE PIANIST.  I still haven't seen that film due to its starring Adrian Brody, but I suppose if a digitized giant ape can get me to put aside my aversion for 2 and half hours, the name 'Polanski' ought to, as well, even if it's later Polanski.   So maybe I'll get around to that film at some later date. 

A film that does approach what I was talking about from a truer perspective than Donnersmarck's is Kubrick's CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  The film was based on Burgess's novel, which was a rejection of the panglossian futurism of B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, most notably his sci-fi novel, WALDEN TWO, where the happiness of individuals is derived from the outside-in, every aspect of culture being a stimulus which, if functioning properly, keeps the whole community flowing along in prosperity, promoting the desired actions/"responses" -- the providence of which is defined by the organizers.  Things like art have value insofar as they help shape the "proper" behavior, value being defined top-down.  If that strikes you as totalitarian, that's because it is.  And Kubrick's film is an all-out satirical attack against the reifying tendency of the bureaucratically minded whereby value obtains as a place within the system, never for the thing itself.

Contrary to the story Donnersmarck tells of the incommensurability of violence and art, the love of both happily co-exist in CLOCKWORK ORANGE's protagonist Alex.  As it was with Lenin, he loves smashing heads, but unlike with Lenin, he does so to the accompaniment of Beethoven.  It's not until Alex undergoes reconditioning at the Ludovico lab that Beethoven becomes associated with nonviolence.  Getting a dose of some noxious serum while being forced to watch acts of violence and hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony results in just the sort of transformative effect Donnersmarck associates with art.  Donnersmarck might argue that his Stasi Captain gives up his ideology in favor of the intrinsic qualities of the piano piece he hears while spying through headphones, whereas the effects of the Ninth on Alex are due to its extrinsic associations with negative stimuli (via Pavlovian, not Skinnerian, conditioning, but the point remains the same).  This potential distinction, however, rests on the shaky notion that such music has ideological content internal to its nature as art-object, rather than associated with it as a social object.

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TOP 11 FILMS OF 2007

Posted by Charles Reece, December 29, 2007 06:07pm | Post a Comment
In no particular order:

Empathy for the Devil: The Lives of Others (2006), Black Book (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 28, 2007 06:12pm | Post a Comment
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. -- Edward S. Herman

Sympathy is much easier to come by than empathy.  Funny that, since it would seem easier to disinterestedly understand the conditions leading to another's feelings and reasons behind his or her actions than to actually share those feelings and agree with those reasons, particularly when the other is so different from oneself.  I suspect the dominance of the word 'sympathy' is largely due to not enough people appreciating the need for 'empathy,' or even understanding what the word means, as if the two terms were synonyms.  Thus, when the more ethnographically inclined among us suggest America needs to understand the environs or rational structures of a foreign entity perpetrating some act that we deem immoral, they get called traitors, or sympathizers.  HUAC in the 50s springs readily to mind, as well as the right-wing media's reaction to the intellectual Left's take on 9-11.  Classical liberalism, which serves as the bellwether for America's moralizing, defines the human as a self-regulating rational individual, and thus any action taken by an entity (our state, another state, or some hodge-podge collection of disagreeing radicals) that violates the rights of the human so defined is, ipso facto, inhumane.  Thus, any attempt at humanizing, eliciting empathy for, the ad hoc devil will be received about as judiciously as Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" in 60s Israel -- which is to say, not very to downright hostilely.  This negative reaction is always despite any potential moral agreement that the devil should still be hanged.

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Christmas: My Wish Is For 'Less' Instead of 'More'

Posted by Charles Reece, December 25, 2007 06:31pm | Post a Comment
When he wasn’t drinking in pubs and shooting billiards, the greatest Scotsman who ever lived, David Hume, took apart human reasoning, piece by piece.  Of particular relevance to the holiday season, in his essay, "Of Miracles," he critiqued one the foundational chestnuts of the Christian tradition.  In order for something to be a miracle, it must be supernatural.  If it's truly supernatural, then it's beyond natural laws.  If it's beyond natural laws, then it's a violation of anything we humans have the capability of understanding or reasoning about -- is, in other words, beyond rationality.  A Christianity without miracles isn't much of a religion, since all of it's basic beliefs become, at best, metaphors for natural phenomena (virgin birth, resurrection, et al. would be just strange ways of talking about more pedestrian subjects that we all know occur under natural laws).  Thus, Christianity isn't rational. At best, it's nonrational (as opposed to merely irrational), the belief being what's called fideistic, which is the act of accepting a proposition (like 'there is a god') without sufficient evidence, or, really, any evidence at all, because of the supposed value in faith itself.  Many Christians don't like this approach, but it's hard to see any other viable alternative.  Of those who bite the bullet and continue to believe, the most famous are:

Blaise Pascal, who argued that one should believe in a god because if there is a god, the possible reward for being right outweighs the possible punishment for being wrong and you don't get jackshit if you're right about there not being one.


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The Dangers of Swordplay: Cruising (1980)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 20, 2007 11:59pm | Post a Comment
A quick Google search reveals (well, confirms) that the snooty de rigueur critical terms ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’, which let you know that a film is serious art, rather than déclassé entertainment, pop up frequently with discussions of Claire Denis’ BEAU TRAVAIL, but only accidentally, if at all, with William Friedkin’s CRUISING.  (‘Poetic’ even shows up as a plot keyword in the former’s IMDB listing, whereas the latter gets words like ‘perversion’, ‘evil’ and ‘stabbed in the back’.)  Yet both films feature extended sequences of men with beautiful bodies, clustered together and moving in rhythm to music; both are concerned with men of uniform in their habitus, either diurnal or nocturnal, performing a ritual; and both argue for a certain degree of fluidity in male sexuality – however, degree is implicated by using highly different narrative styles.  The “poetic” homophilia of BEAU TRAVAIL is more a suggestion through the recognition of the beauty of male movement, so any of its purported gayness has plausible deniability (like obsessive wrestling fans rewatching old matches of Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka), whereas CRUISING quite literally and graphically depicts the lure of homosexuality for even the most macho of men, NYC cops.  If the object of audience identification, a straight cop, Steve Burns (Al Pacino), can catch it by breathing in the salty air of late 70s S&M clubs and dirty rags drenched in amyl nitrate, then you might, too.  I guess lyricism and poesis don’t spring to mind when our hero is starting to get turned on by a greasy depiction of fisting.

That homosexuality might be taught, or that it could lure someone in, remains a controversial idea among gay rights advocates.  Essentialism qua naturalism tends to be a more comforting thought, and not without some good reason.  Religious demagogues work up the fear of right-wing parents by suggesting that their children might catch the immoral queer “meme.”  Thus, the possibility that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality becomes a way of assuaging these bigoted fears, or at least as a scientistic defense.  But this has always been a fallacious debate.  Just because something’s natural doesn’t give it moral propriety.   If a murder-gene were found, society wouldn’t suddenly start calling murder moral.   And so it goes with homosexuality: regardless of whether Steve Burns starts off as latently gay, or begins to become more gay as he goes undercover in the gay S&M outre-mer to investigate a string of murders is unimportant, the moral questions raised by the film shouldn’t be any different.  Homosexuality is no more nor less moral for being biologically natural than heterosexuality.

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