Amoeblog

Marxist Tales 3: Falling Stars, or When Art Imitates Art

Posted by Charles Reece, January 5, 2009 11:00pm | Post a Comment

Madonna falling in Rio back in December got me to thinking, naturally enough, about Mulholland Dr.'s use of "Llorando," Rebekah Del Rio's Spanish cover of "Crying." There's a lot of gravitas to gravity -- with one slip, the reality of artifice can be exposed. At the club Silencio, when the character of Del Rio (played by Del Rio) falls, but her singing continues, David Lynch is playing around with Bertolt Brecht's epic theater and his notion of estrangement. By having the work remind the audience of the layer of representation intervening between them and the emotions they're experiencing, Brecht hoped to create a more politico-rationally engaged experience -- that is, one of empathy, not sympathy (the former being of intellectual understanding, not the latter's identification).


However, Lynch turns estrangement on its ear by using lip-synching as the emotional crux of his film. If you'll remember, the scene occurs at the point where the fugue world of Betty is fracturing, and the reality of Diane is seeping in. Diane had killed her lover, Camilla, out of jealousy, replacing her in the dream with the amnesiac Rita. Of course Rita can't remember who she is, because she's a manifestation of Diane's oneiric state, a displacement of Camilla, with all the bad stuff repressed. As Rita, she's a ghost, pure desideratum, or Diane's objective (objectified) correlative of the real deal. (In fact, the same applies to Betty; she's Diane's idealized self.) Just as the illusion of the film's representational quality is most exposed (Lynch's "eye of the duck" scene), Betty and Rita begin sobbing -- and (provided the Silencio sequence works properly) the audience along with them.


Lynch has the audience identifying with his characters' experience of the distancing effect. The more one becomes cognitively aware of what's going on (say, knowing what's coming next in the narrative through repeated viewings), the more the emotive impact of the scene. The two dream projections, Betty and Rita, are doppelgängers of Diane, and (through identification) reflections of our own contemporary existence in what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle. We all exist as objectified projections of others while projecting our own images on them in return. The rub is that often what we desire and who we believe ourselves to be are thoroughly mediated by spectacle (our own images are no more our own than the other's image of us). Being made aware of specular (representational) mediation as Brechtian theater attempted hardly solves the contemporary dilemma between what's real and what's merely manufactured. Awareness of artifice is no longer sufficient to counterprogram mass desire (if it ever was), since a lip-synching existence has become an object of dreams. Gravity's truth hasn't hurt the fanbase of the following stars, any more than that of Madonna's.

Beyoncé


Shakira


K-ci & JoJo

The show goes on independently of the stars, just like a perpetual motion machine. Increasingly, we're less likely to feel shame at the antics of Milli Vanilli, instead dreaming of getting such a choice gig. What's really most prized, the face or the voice behind the face? Beyoncé can actually sing, but that's not really why she's famous. Her voice is a phony justification for her star image. The what's-their-names behind Milli Vanilli could sing, too, but fat lot of good that does them now. In other words, "hips don't lie."

Anyone under 60 probably has some level of sophistication regarding the construction of images, but this generalized awareness can lead many to be skeptical of an image's falsity. Living in an age where the medium is the message creates a parity between the real and illusion, making such a determination an agnostic guessing game of which is which. Consider that there was much debate on YouTube as to whether WWE impresario Vince McMahon was really hurt during the obviously staged destruction of the set around him:


As professional wrestlers will tell you in these supposedly sophisticated times, just because wrestling is pure commodity, staged for our entertainment, doesn't mean that they don't really get hurt. These wrestlers acknowledge the truth in Lynch's film: artifice is painful, regardless of whether we know it's false. Aware of the image people have of him, Pauly Shore pulled an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt playing into the mass desire of wanting to see him get punched:


Clearly, Shore was inspired by the internet infamy achieved by Glen Danzig when his macho image got neutered:


Whereas Danzig was probably embarrassed, Shore's intent was, like Madonna's voice in Rio, just to keep his fading stardom continuing as long as possible -- that is, regardless of whether he looked like a coward or a wimp. Being seen is the desire, 'as what' is irrelevant. (The strategy can work.) That's why we can see former Guns 'N Roses drummer Steven Adler sucking on a bong, crying about how Slash hasn't called him on Celebrity Rehab. And it's why some dumb fucker on Cheaters or COPS will sign a release form. When the dream being bought and sold is nothing more than cheap spectacle, devoid of content, where does that leave us? Somewhere in the precarious space of this young actress playing Helen Keller:


Feeling sadness at Diane's awakening to the role she's been playing out in her slumber demonstrates that there's something very real in her identification with images. Del Rio's falling begins to ground Diane's imaginary weightless existence with the moral ramifications of the choices she made in pursuit of the fantasy. Here, Lynch uses the identification with fiction in its most enlightened sense, to reflect our current state of being. As a dialectic between mass media and identity, eventually the desired spectacle will trip over reality. To borrow an analogy from Plato, we can either lift the stick out of the water to see that it's not actually bent, or we can continue to leave it there.

Parts I and II.

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.

It's a characteristic of the Leftist and what's now called the Liberal, particularly artists and intellectuals of these persuasions, to try and understand how another human can be led to committing inhumane acts, whether due to their focus on structural influences on behavior or because they're all just godless commies who don't have enough commonsense to tell right from wrong.  Regardless, one can smell leftism or modern day liberalism on art any time a story about some morally reprehensible subject is eliciting an act of understanding from the audience (be that subject an Islamic terrorist, Nazi, covert CIA operative, or mythical monster like Grendel).  Sometimes, you get a critical understanding of the subject, as in CROSSING THE LINE, a doc about an army private defecting to North Korea in '62, but other times such artists slip into sympathy when they should've been going for empathy, ironically creating a right-wing work, like DIRTY HARRY.  Three dvds I've recently caught all have that familiar odor:

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film takes place on the wrong side of the Berlin wall in its waning last decade and tells the story of Stasi Captain, Gerd Wiesler, who is sent to spy on the popular, ostensibly pro-Soviet playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his apolitical girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, all because the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf, has a hard-on for the actress.  Wiesler is shown being a devoted agent for the communists, teaching students the techniques of his craft, defending its morality and having very little life outside of work.  It's not until he discovers the true reason for his current assignment -- while being told by his commanding officer, Anton Grubitz, to find something on Dreyman when his eavesdropping has produced nothing -- that he begins to question his ideological service,  It's not so much that he questions the ideology, only whether anyone around him is serving communism or the more bourgeois interest of personal gain.  It's his vicariously experiencing the aesthetically romantic lives of Dreyman and Sieland that he begins to turn against the ideology, the crux of his transition being when he hears the playwright playing a piano piece composed by Gabriel Yared.

This tale of the transformative powers of art was inspired by an anecdote of Lenin's reaction to Beethoven's Appassionata, where he could no longer listen to it as it made him want to stroke heads, not smash them.  In a century where one of the greatest poets, Ezra Pound, was making radio broadcasts in support of Fascist Italy, the anecdote comes across as not much more than a romantic lie artists would like to believe in to inflate the political importance of their vocation.  Contrary to Donnersmarck's assessment that it's a testament to the power of art, what seems more crucial is that Lenin chose smashing heads over listening to a phonograph.  Thus, what the film ultimately leaves us with is a sympathetic tale of how we'd like to believe we'd react if we (meaning us non-communists and members of a non-totalitarian, liberal state)  found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being a Stasi Captain.  What it doesn't give us is any reason why we might find ourselves in that position had we been brought up in East Berlin.  Thus, we're to admire Wiesler for his bravery in trying to save the artists from state persecution and despise his superiors for their misuse of bureaucratic power -- humane on this side, the inhumane on that side.  Right back where we started.

Paul Verhoeven is the master of transparent cinema, taking classical Hollywood narrative techniques and turning them into a reflective experience of viewing.  His masterpiece of mainstream film is undoubtedly STARSHIP TROOPERS, where he delivers the goods one expects from a sci-fi action spectacle, but, upon reflection, makes the viewer feel dirty for being complicitous in enjoying a fascist fantasy.  He seems to be going for a similar effect in BLACK BOOK (which seems to be loosely inspired by Anthony Mann's movie of the same name)  where he gets you to root for Ludwig Müntze, an SS-hauptsturmführer, which is the Nazi equivalent of a Captain.  (Interesting that Sebastian Koch, who played the persecuted artist in the previous film, is now playing the Captain in a totalitarian regime.)   However, Verhoeven leaves out just about all personal actions and  traits that might have led to Müntze's having achieved his rank in the first place.  It seems unlikely that a man would achieve a rank similar to that of Josef Mengele's without being a fairly committed Nazi.  One might object in the film's defense that actions don't always convey beliefs, but as Slavoj Žižek says of communism, acting as if one believes is good enough for the totalitarian bureaucracy to be real. 

Thus, Verhoeven and his co-writer, Gerard Soeteman, gain sympathy for a Nazi only though a cheat, namely omission.  But that's not their only trick.  They also tend to focus on the character's more positive qualities and the Dutch resistance's more negative ones: his falling in love with a Jew, Rachel, the main character -- who, with her hair dyed Aryan, was sent  to spy on his activities; his willingness to negotiate with the Dutch resistance, members of which it turns out were the reason for the majority of Jewish deaths depicted in the film; and contrast him with a classic evil Nazi whom he gets to butt heads with over the mistreatment of prisoners.  As with the prior film, the only kind of "understanding" here comes from a manufactured form of sympathy, making what most call a monster into what's not much more than a version of who we believe we'd be if thrown into evil circumstances.  The questions of how such circumstances structure one's decisions or how seemingly benign actions (e.g., those of efficiency) in one context take on monstrous implications in another are largely ignored.

Finally, I saw the last of the Bourne trilogy, which turns out to be the most critical here of the tendency toward viewer identification, or sympathy, even if it makes little attempt for empathic understanding.  The interesting aspect of Jason Bourne, which keeps him being just another fantastic superspy in the mold of James Bond is that while his super-abilities come from his secretive training, his morality  comes from no longer being able to recall the ends for which he was trained.  Thus, the narrative thrust of the trilogy: while trying to find out who and what he is and why a top secret offshoot of the CIA wants him dead, he tries to make amends for various assassinations he performed, but can only remember as abstractions without their ideological content.

So as not to condemn the entire CIA, there's good guys (Nicky Parsons and Pamela Landy) -- who recognize the wrongs perpetrated on Bourne by the ultra-clandestine offshoot Operation BlackBriar -- and real bad guys (Deputy Director Noah Vosen and Dr. Albert Hirsch) -- who do everything they can, including killing innocent civilians, to keep the Operation under wraps.  In terms of an action spectacle, the film delivers (although there is an extended sequence involving cellular technology that reminded me of that tedious Ben Affleck actioner where he spends an hour and a half with a phone to his ear).  As with 007, the object of the audience's wish-fulfilling identification is clearly delineated, only with a face that suggests more B.M.O.C. at your average Mid-Western fraternity than international espionage.   But the film is tuned to STARSHIP TROOPERS in that its final reveal has the viewer questioning his or her fantasized identity rather than giving into the dictates of diversionary entertainment.   -- SPOILER ALERT -- Upon going face-to-face with Dr. Hirsch, Bourne achieves total recall, remembering that he willingly gave himself over to the Operation, proving his allegiance by willingly killing an unknown captive for no other reason than he's told to.  -- END SPOILER ALERT -- Therefore, director Paul Greengrass and writer Tony Gilroy reinforce what a responsible viewer should already know, that there's a bit of fascistic yearning underlying these wish fulfilling fantasies of agents "doing what has to be done" outside of liberal law, what Dirty Harry viewed as flaccid bureaucratic moral proscriptions.

RAHOWA: I Am Legend (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 15, 2007 06:29pm | Post a Comment
   

There was to be a great joke played out in the latest film incarnation of Richard Matheson’s novel of the last surviving man on Earth.  The old racist movie cliché is that if a black man is one of the central cast, he’ll be the first to die.  So casting a black man as the last surviving man in Matheson’s tale seemed like perfectly mad twist given how the book ends, a joke that would do Renny Harlin’s DEEP BLUE SEA, where LL Cool J is the lone survivor against smart shark attacks, one better.   However, Hollywood’s commercial belief in soothing heroic endings turns the casting of Will Smith as Robert Neville into something of a sick hoax where the old cliché is given new life for the current generation.

In the book, Neville is described as a white scientist with blue eyes and blond hair, weighing in at 200 and some odd pounds.  While having an English name, he’s also of Germanic origin.  The Master Race parallel was obviously intentional, given that the story is about our species' one lone survivor indiscriminately killing off the now dominant competitors.  'Indiscriminately,' because although his rivals in this Darwinian competition look the same, have the same feeding patterns, similar totemic fears of garlic and religious icons, and the same nocturnal behavior patterns, they're of two types: a more bestial, lower order form and a mutant human-vamp hybrid capable of highly rational thought.  Neville is a classic tragic figure, holding on to the last vestiges of our civilization’s rationality by pathologically trying to find a cure for vampirism even though he’s immune and more than willing to annihilate the Other through a more physical remedy while it sleeps.  His success via the latter means has made him a fearsome legend in the hybrid community as the ravager of their race. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Ridley Scott wanted that Teutonic slab of manhood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to play the role in his version, which ultimately faltered for budgetary reasons.  Despite his Aryan taint – or the cynic might say because of it – Arnold is what The Industry calls a likable star, enjoyable to watch, regardless of how many ethnicities he might be mowing down.  Money in the bank.  So seeing him playing out Matheson’s hero as the chickens come home to roost would’ve made for a great ironic tale, but alas you’re only as likable as your last picture, and his previous few didn’t do so hot.

Enter Will Smith, as likable a star as Hollywood currently has, even more so than Tom Hanks.  When an actor was needed to play controversial figure, Muhammad Ali, Smith was a natural choice given Hollywood’s ratiocination.  I’m sure it went something like he’d help us all identify with Ali during his most divisive period.  White America has never warmed up to the Nation of Islam, after all.  It’s barely reading between the lines to see how “likable” translates to “bankable” and “bankable” translates to “appeals to white audiences” and “appeals to white audiences” translates to “tends not to bring up any racial issues that might disturb said white audiences.”  Thus, if you’re going to change the racial makeup of Matheson’s last man on Earth, let it be a black man who’s very likable.  Helps us identify with him.  Mighty white of the producers.

Whatever machinations might have existed to place Smith in the role, he has the chops to carry off the extended quiet scenes of a very lonely guy whose only companion is his dog, Sam, and a bunch of showroom dummies (a big surprise to me, I must admit, since I’ve never found him any more prone to nuance than Arnold).  If tv movie reviewers aren’t already talking about Oscar nods, it’s only because his performance is in a sci-fi flick.   I resisted seeing director Francis Lawrence’s last picture, CONSTANTINE, for some like-minded changes that were foisted on comic book character, John Constantine.  Presumably for purposes of identification (this time meaning to an American audience), the thoroughly dark British Sting-lookalike became the more likable American star, Keanu Reeves, and his struggle in the wicked arts was transplanted to sunny Southern California.  Casting Smith, on the other hand, promised some new and interesting commentary on its source material, rather than making hash of its symbolic structure.  And had screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich, kept to Matheson’s basic story, it would have, but they didn’t.

Spoiler!

Imagine a black man behaving in the same way as Matheson’s white hero, futilely trying to eradicate the Other as if it’s another form of virus, or degenerate vermin.  When Neville is captured by the hybrid race and has to come to terms with his mission being not much more than some perfunctory last ditch effort at eugenics, the film would’ve played out like a version of “only I’m allowed to call my brother an asshole.”  Like the recessive genes that lead to the phenotypes of blue eyes and blond hair, Neville, black or white, possesses a natural immunity to vampirism.  And when the biological chips are down, the illusion of race gives way to an irrational, biologically derived need to protect the species, side with the family that’s neglected you for years.  It might’ve proved a disturbing tale to those who believe a history of oppression and lack of cultural power obtains an intrinsic trait of morality to minorities and/or those people who have been oppressed.  Any of those differences in people that exist today would prove to be not much more than empty signifiers when humanity itself is a minority of 1.  Now that’s what I would call a valuable use of identification. 

But this film is a blockbuster aimed at the December market, so what we get are vampires who are, at best, beginning to function on a level slightly above that of Bud in Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD.  They’re capable of following indexical commands through deep-level growls (supplied by Mike Patton) and can duplicate the actions of Neville (copying his Rube Goldberg traps, but not inexplicably his ability to drive the cars placed there by Ford’s advertising department).  This keeps the evolutionary struggle between Neville and vamps somewhere on a par with lions chasing deer (both of which are shown running around in sequestered Manhattan), rather than exploring the ontological implications that Matheson’s vampires have for humans.  Neville is still fastidiously trying to find a cure, but he doesn’t much hunt for vampires during the day, except for the occasional test specimen.  Most crucially and most stupidly, Neville’s encounter in the book with a hybrid female who dupes him is replaced by an encounter with a real woman and child with a promise of salvation in a hypothetical community of humans living in Vermont.  Neville is shown being a devout Christian in flashback, but one who has come to reject God in his solitude.  When the mysterious woman, Anna, and the child, Ethan, save him from attempted suicide, she reveals that God told her of the commune.  He yells at her, giving her empirical reasons for why there’s no reason for hope, but the audience know it’s just about Christmas and science never wins these debates in popular fantasies. 

Just as vampires are invading Neville’s house, he and Anna discover that his cure is working on a captured female vampire.  It’s at this point where the movie begins to truly make mincemeat pie of just about every significant philosophical aspect of the novel.  As the vampire hordes are crashing in on the humans, Neville gives a sample of the recuperating vampire’s blood to Anna, puts her in a safe room of some sort and sacrifices himself by blowing the horde up with a grenade, all  for the salvation of humanity.  The hoax to which I alluded at the beginning of this essay is that Anna and the child, both white (well, alright, she’s Brazilian), survive in a movie purportedly about the last man on Earth who also happens to black.  Compound this stupidity with her arrival to the commune, whereupon big iron doors are opened to reveal what is by and large a bunch of fucking white people in a town’s square looking like Mayberry, with a big symbolic white steeple dead center in the screen, and you get a backwards racialist and religious fabled-styled ending; one that could only be inadvertently created in our sensitive times through just the right mixture of identity politics, generic feel-good naïveté and economically determined choices.  The filmmakers might as well have replaced Anna’s voiceover at the end with the West Texas drawl of Sam Elliot saying, “We hear tell of this legend, some black fella who sacrificed hisself so that we might survive.  That’s right noble of him and we all sure wish we could thank him.”  It’s not quite as offensively hilarious as 300, which didn’t even try to be decent, but it comes close.  Keep hope alive.