Category Archives: Film

Slavoj Žižek – Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of “Black Panther”

Link to a review of the film Black Panther (2018) by Slavoj Žižek:

“Quasi Duo Fantasias: A Straussian Reading of ‘Black Panther’”

 

Bonus Links: “Woke Hollywood? The Marketing of Black Panther” and “The Politics of Batman” and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and “Making Greater Possibilities Inconceivable: Another Thought or Two on the Logic of Lesser Evilism” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War”

Poesía sin fin [Endless Poetry]

Poesía sin fin [Endless Poetry]

Poesía sin fin [Endless Poetry] (2016)

Satori Films

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Main Cast: Adan Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Brontis Jodorowsky


This is the best new(-ish) film I can remember seeing, a fact bolstered by watching the horrendous Star Wars: The Last Jedi at a second-run theater shortly after it.  This autobiographical work draws from the second part of The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography (2001), and chronologically follows Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film La danza de la realidad [The Dance of Reality] (2013), which also drew from his autobiography.  This is not a conventional, “accurate” or “realistic” autobiographical picture.  Some scenes are altered from their historical sources, and most of the film represents stylized exaggerations of real-life events for artistic effect.  While this can definitely be called Felliniesque — Amarcord, Satyricon and 8 1/2 being perhaps the closest counterparts — everything here is unique to Jodo and nothing can really be said to be copied from Fellini or anyone else.  Jodo’s predilection for combining psychoanalysis and shamanism completely and irrevocably marks his own style.  But perhaps it suffices to say this is about as good as Fellini at his best.

The film opens with Jodorowsky in his teens, still living in Tocopilla, Chile.  Jeremias Herskovits reprises his role as the young Jodo.  But his family relocates to Santiago.  He develops a love of poetry.  Eventually he runs away from home and is taken in by kindred spirits at a kind of artist commune.  There he works on his poetry and begins making puppets for a puppet show he presents with a friend.  He cultivates relationships with local poets and spends time in bars recreated here with surreal decor.  He then is given a loft apartment, by chance, where he comes into himself as a young adult.  A particularly moving scene is the very end of the film.  This is where Jodorowsky decides to leave Chile for France.  His father meets him at the port as he is leaving.  In real life, he never saw his father or other family members again.  But here, as a kind of narrator, he steps in to ask his younger self to forgive his father and insist on a different interaction with the father character.  The film is historical, but also a dialog with the director’s own past, as a kind of quest to confront and overcome his own mistakes.  Numerous scenes depart from the way Jodo described them in his earlier book The Dance of Reality.  While sometimes that means the filmic depiction is exaggerated, in some instances things are toned down to be more presentable on screen.

One recurring effect is the presence of stage hands dressed entirely in black, including gloves and full-head hoods.  These stage hands take things from the actors’ hands and hand them other things.  Familiar in theater productions, here the effect is to consciously direct the audience to the symbolic significance of characters’ actions on screen and to heighten emphasis on the characters’ emotional states.  Another device used repeatedly is the active unveiling and movement of life-size black-and-white posters of buildings and a train.  These convey the past in a kind of distant echo, real yet unreal.  They allude to the past while recognizing that events can’t be fully re-created, only conjured up from vague memories from a new perspective.  Then the end of the film features a crowd, half dressed in skeleton costumes and half dressed in red devil costumes.  The skeletons appear elsewhere in the film too.  These images are striking and indelible.

Jodorowsky’s wife Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky provides lighting, color and costume contributions.  All of these aspects are particularly striking and effective.  His son Aden plays his teenage self, and his oldest son Brontis reprises his role as his father.  Pamaela Flores reprises her role as his mother, again singing all her lines in an operatic style, but she also portrays the poet Stella Díaz Varín, Jodo’s first girlfriend.

This is a somewhat smaller-budget film.  Moviemaking is an industrial art, demanding substantial funds.  It is simply not possible to realize certain things without money.  Jodorowsky is quite open about his outsider status as a filmmaker, and his acceptance that his quest to make art for art’s sake places him squarely in opposition to the profit-focused Hollywood machine.  He ran out of funds mid-way through filming Endless Poetry, and raised the remaining funds through a “crowdfunding” campaign.  While there is the potential to see his efforts as self-aggrandizing, taking Jodo’s mysticism — drawn from zen buddhism, the tarot, and elsewhere — at face value, he doesn’t hesitate to work on his own personal “inner” growth, or to use himself as an example — good or bad — for others.  This attests to some sort of more noble purpose.  Returning to the Last Jedi comparison, this film presents a much more worthwhile exploration of a master/apprentice framework, particularly in the way Jodo appears directly as a kind of narrator.  The Last Jedi is sub-moronic in that respect, when you get down its anti-zen “striving” narrative.  These elements become even more pronounced in later parts of Jodo’s real life.

Jodo is still only part way through film adaptations of the book The Dance of Reality, and that isn’t even counting his other memoirs about episodes of his adult life like The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Supposedly he plans a five film cycle, of which this is the second.  Though it does seem that the third installment is underway in some form.

Being more about Jodo’s inner struggles to “become himself” when he a teenager, rather than being about his father, makes this just a bit more interesting than its predecessor The Dance of Reality.  The visuals are also more extravagant and memorable here.  This is why movies are made!

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

Universal Studios

Director: Alan Rafkin

Main Cast: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Dick Sargent


Here is a rather mediocre film that nonetheless features a rather great performance by its star Don Knotts.  The basic premise loosely resembles the story “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, about staying in a haunted house to win the affections of a girl.  Knotts plays Luther Heggs, an inept man working for a newspaper with aspirations to be a photojournalist.  Another reviewer aptly described the protagonist as having “delusions of adequacy.”  A recurring gag is that as Knotts fumbles about awkwardly and timidly some unidentifiable person in the back of a crowd yells, “Atta-boy Luther!”  Knotts’ finest moment comes when the small town he lives in presents a luncheon in his honor and he gives a speech.  This speech manages to include a practically exhaustive collection of every inept mistake a nervous presenter can make.  Knotts opens speaking in a whisper no one can hear.  He talks mostly about writing the speech, without actually saying much beyond that, other than to briefly pander to the audience by expressing support for the military — a complete non-sequitur.  His hands tremble uncontrollably while holding his notes.  The speech just kind of ends abruptly, without ever having made a point.  Knotts is positively brilliant in the scene.  As a whole, the film is one of those stiff Hollywood set-bound films that is only slightly more advanced in production values than a television sitcom of the day, and there just aren’t quite enough jokes/gags.  But, it is watchable and Knotts shines through the merely passable filmmaking and writing.  This also perhaps influenced Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

La Jetée

La Jetée

La Jetée (1962)

Argos Films

Director: Chris Marker

Main Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jean NégroniJacques Ledoux


Chris Marker’s short sci-fi film La Jetée is one of the most remarkable in the genre.  The plot is beguiling and the form of the film itself is utterly unique.  The basic story involves a hazy childhood memory of the main character in which he was on an observation deck of an airport and remembers seeing a woman and incident involving a man, which he later realizes was the man dying.  A third world war occurs, involving nuclear weapons that produce fallout rendering the surface of the planet uninhabitable.  The survivors — presiding over a “kingdom of rats” — live in underground galleries below the destroyed remains of Paris.  Scientists conduct time travel experiments on prisoners of war.  The main character, who was a soldier during the war, travels back in time and meets the woman from his childhood memory.  Then he is sent into the future, to try to enlist their help to save humanity of the present.  People from the future eventually send him to the past to be with the woman again.  But as he runs to her, he is shot by an agent of the present day “experimentators” who followed him into the past.  He realizes that his childhood memory was of him witnessing his own death.  This time travel story became the inspiration of the later feature-length film 12 Monkeys.

The form of the film is even more remarkable than the story.  It is almost entirely made up of still photographs artistically edited together.  There is just one shot of moving film, showing the woman waking up and blinking.  A narrator provides a voice-over throughout the film.  There is also music (Euro-classical) and sound effects.  But the shots break suddenly, or other times dissolve into each other.  The narration and music and sound effects begin and end meaningfully.  All of these things are part of the montage, which is astonishingly sublime.  The gritty interpretation of the future was greatly inspiring to the so-called cyberpunk subgenre.

Marker was a a multi-media essayist.  His friend Alan Resnais had wanted him to work on something with him related to nuclear war in the late 1950s.  Marker had to back out, but Resnais project ended up being Hiroshima mon amour (1959), with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras.  But the theme of nuclear war reappears in La Jetée.

Marker’s film is a swirling vortex of regret, loss, hope, rebirth, deception, love, technological horror, and utopian harmony. A curious part of the story is the way the main character (never given a name) reaches a cautious future society that seems to be flourishing, but he does so from a dystopian present with human society at its nadir.  The question is how to break the Gordian knot in which the present seems to make the utopian future possible (The Man Who Fell to Earth would later explore similar themes).  What separates this film from so many others is that it suggests that the time travel technology is not what enables the great society of the future.  Rather, it implies that human connection is the more important aspect, even as the plot ends with the connection between the two main characters being broken with the man’s assassination.

Although often described as being about a “time loop”, the film is open to many interpretations.  Perhaps Roland Barthes’ comment a few years later in Criticism and Truth (1966) is apt: “a work is ‘eternal’ not because it imposes a single meaning on different men, but because it suggests different meanings to one man…”  One such interpretation is to look at the film from the perspective of philosopher Alain Badiou‘s concept of an “event”.  To simplify this concept, an “event” seems to exceed its causes, and becomes apparent only in hindsight as something new emerges from the multiplicity of possible meanings.  It is not unlike a point made in Jorge Luis Borges‘ essay “Kafka and His Precursors” that a great writer’s work establishes his or her precursors in a way that “modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” — an appropriate analogy here given the similarity in tone of Marker’s film and much of Franz Kafka‘s best writing.  There is also something similar in the story line of La Jetée and the later comic book series The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius, which deals with the difficulty of breaking out of repetition and fatalism, and with heroic self-sacrifice for a greater good.

This is one of the greatest sci-fi works of the 20th Century, in the same category as Lem‘s Solaris (1961), Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed (1974), Lang‘s Metropolis (1927), and such.

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland (2015)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Brad Bird

Main Cast: Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, George Clooney


What is worthy about Tomorrowland is that it starts out as a typical young-adult exceptionalism fantasy, draws in a few action scenes, an unusual blend of futurist and quasi-steampunk elements, and a standard vision of a technocratic utopia, then gets around to critiquing all that.  Basically, the premise is that around the turn of the nineteenth century a group of scientists created a utopian society called “Tomorrowland” in another dimension, freed from all the bureaucracy of the “real world.”  Frank Walker (George Clooney) lived there as a child, but was exiled and now lives as a recluse on Earth.  A robot friend of his Athena () then recruits a teenage girl (Britt Robertson) to help him get back to Tomorrowland and fix the thing he built that led to his exile.  But, what is most intriguing are two things.  First, when the trio does arrive in Tomorrowland, they discover that the problem is not really about science and engineering (by “fixing” the device that Walker had built), but about politics, and dislodging the essentially corrupt leader in Tomorrowland David Nix (Hugh Laurie) who knew all along — unlike Walker (?) — how the device was destroying Earth.  Basically, the trio realize that people are stupid, but, unlike Laurie’s character, don’t feel that widespread human stupidity justifies allowing the destruction of humanity on Earth.  And in that process, they basically stage a violent coup — though the film does not explicitly emphasize this aspect of political revolution, it does happen.  Then, with the old regime toppled, Walker sets up a program to recruit new people to Tomorrowland, and in a speech he acknowledges that toppling the old regime was the easy part and what comes next, actually building a better utopia, is the hard part.  While the film shows this next phase in a very cursory way, and avoids the sort of difficult theoretical aspects of describing how that hard work should proceed, it at least realistically suggests where the hard work must take place.  This is a film for young people, and is rather light entertainment, but at the same time the film’s message is a good one (basically Leninist).

Shamus Cooke – History Blinded by Anti Socialism

It never ceases to amuse me how the insight of philosophy and psychoanalysis that ideology determines what is or is not a “fact” is proven again and again.  As Rex Butler put it,

“in the analysis of ideology, it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”

Along these lines, Shamus Cooke has reviewed Ken Burns & Lynn Novick‘s mini-series The Vietnam War (2017):

“History Blinded by Anti Socialism: Ken Burns’ Vietnam”

The general tone of Cooke’s criticism reflects this statement by Malcolm X:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

 

Bonus quote:

“How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!”

Che Guevara, “Message to the Tricontinental,” April 16, 1967

 

Bonus links: The Battle of Chile and “It’s a Fact: Supreme Court Errors Aren’t Hard to Find” (this article engages in a certain kind of criticism that is largely blind to the issue Butler described)

To the Wonder

To the Wonder

To the Wonder (2012)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Terrence Malick

Main Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem


In a way, this film is perhaps the most abstract possible art house take on a typical daytime soap opera, and also the most beautifully photographed.  Terrence Malick continues to structure his films through the fragmented flashback approach of The Tree of Life.  Though here he takes up the challenge of applying his penchant for beautiful images to a setting of dingy exurban American neighborhoods, with their imposing power line towers, rivers contaminated with toxic waste, and nearby landfills.  But To the Wonder is as much pastiche and tribute as anything.  There are the metonymns of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially in the American exurban southern plains settings with their bleak declining economic prospects — some of these bits of the plot resemble the contemporaneous The Promised Land — which parallel the relationship of the protagonists.  There is also ample reference to late-period Godard — the long shots of sunsets and water, a bit like Helas pour moi, the “mature” and “boring” relationship focus of Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Goodbye to Language (which actually came out later), or even his 1971 TV commercial for aftershave.  Following Robert Bresson, the performers in the film are more like “models” than “actors”.  Neil (Affleck) barely says a word the entire film, which is fine.  In fact, aside from disembodied voice-overs (mostly in French), there is almost no dialog between on-screen characters at all.

This film, if nothing else, is about emotion and desire.  The characters struggle to control and take responsibility for their own desires.  What do they want their lives to mean?  While it is tempting to look at Marina’s (Kurylenko’s) catholic faith as an affirmation of accepting religion to guide her, Malick does problematize her religious faith somewhat.  Her prior marriage is held against her by the church.  She perhaps wants the church to guarantee meaning in her life.  She seems to give up that futile hope somewhere along the way.  The Father Quintana (Bardem) character, though pasted onto the main story a bit, is key.  The presentation is indelicate, with its parade of downtrodden figures presented near the conclusion of the film, but when Quintana goes around to help the poor and marginalized, he simply does it without any recognition or even any sorrow.  And this character (who perhaps speaks as much or more than any other in the film, aside from the voice-overs) always helps others and asks them to persevere in working with each other.  He often does these things to a congregation of just a few people, the pews mostly empty.  One of his parishioners tells him she prays for him to have joy, because he seems to have none.  But his perspective, a rather unfashionable one, seems to connect with the two main characters by the end of the film.  They at least pause to reconsider their visions of romantic relationships, and commit to work at them.

The perspective Malick seems to put forward might be explained with reference to G.K. Chesterton‘s “Introduction to the Book of Job,” about the old testament biblical character of Job.

“God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. This we may call the third point. Job puts forward a note of interrogation; God answers with a note of exclamation. Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.  ***  Here in this Book the question is really asked whether God invariably punishes vice with terrestrial punishment and rewards virtue with terrestrial prosperity. If the Jews had answered that question wrongly they might have lost all their after influence in human history. They might have sunk even down to the level of modern well educated society. For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. They will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good.  *** The Book of Job is chiefly remarkable . . . for the fact that it does not end in a way that is conventionally satisfactory. Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins or a part of any plan for his improvement.”

The way Chesterton interprets to story of Job is to say that when Job demands an explanation from god about why he suffered so, god responds with a “that’s such a ‘first world’ problem” sort of answer!  It isn’t that god operates on a level beyond human understanding, which is the more conventional interpretation of the story.  Job’s suffering and misfortune is insignificant in a universe full of such things.  And so it is with Neil and Marina.  Yes their relationship is fraught, but of what importance is their failure to hold together a stupid, happy nuclear family in the face of a universe of (much greater) suffering?

This point is underscored, in a different way, in a scene in which Marina’s friend walks through a neighborhood with her, and suggests she make a calculated bid for her own happiness, just the way Chesterton suggests that god’s explanation of the creation of the universe is blasphemous, a kind of calculated wager in which god performs all sorts of selfish acts in preparation for his own battle of armageddon without much concern for the suffering inflicted along the way.  Marina ultimately doesn’t accept that sort of narcissism, though she toys with it briefly.

There is an amazing unfinished novella by Andrey Platonov titled Happy Moscow, in which a parachutist — a glamorous occupation in its 1920s Soviet Union setting — named Moscow Chestnova goes to work building a subway and is maimed, then goes to live with a derelict and helps him get on with his bleak life.  The story is so compelling because of its arc away from personal achievement and recognition.  Chestnova accepts the lowest possible social position and helps others as a kind of gray duty.  She finds nothing unhappy in a landscape usually considered dystopian.  This is what “happy” Moscow looks like!  The tenor of Platonov’s  story recalls a little bit the Lao Tzu saying that a good person is like water, always going to the lowest places where no one wishes to be, benefiting everyone and harming no one, without striving.  This humble, unglamorous sense of duty is lurking behind many of the scenes in the film.

The melodramatic story of To the Wonder repeats age-old wisdom, suggesting that ascending steps “to the wonder” and the rush of “new romantic love” need to give way to hard work at relationships, and on one’s own desires and subjective reactions to objective circumstance.  But the film addresses all this on the level of emotion and feeling.  It might be fair to call it “trite”, but only when looking at the premise from a cerebral and intellectual position, which is what this film challenges the viewer to reject.  I think this is most true of the semi-urban modern landscapes.  Can the viewer choose to find the beauty in those images and be awed by that beauty?  Can the viewer find a sense of wonder and awe in “trite”, common human situations?

At a deeper level, the film suggests that the main couple’s original desire was built around just the simple pleasures of their tryst and its playful, romantic games so characteristic of “new love”, and any long-term relationship was really perceived as some bonus or unexpected surplus, a kind of insatiable gap of unconscious social expectations never satisfied or bridged by the simple pleasures.  Even the couple’s other affairs that happen later suggest a conscious pursuit of simple sensual pleasures and no more, yet a fundamental void remained unfulfilled by those pleasures because they hadn’t grasped that they were bound to further social expectations.  This is what the film questions.  By the end, the main characters have started to probe and understand their desires, and they decide for themselves to build relationships (though it is ambiguous if that means staying together, or seeking other partners, given the film’s non-linear chronology), accepting simple pleasures along the way for what they are.  The broken flashback approach strengthens this conclusion, by suggesting the memories of simple pleasures remain, re-contextualized in the face of new desires that really go beyond what they were originally.  So, the ultimate choice is one different from imposed social expectations, to instead fashion lives/relationships on the couple’s own terms, but making that choice consciously and without the traumatic, insatiable emptiness of having to constantly convince themselves that they want to accede to social pressures to have a “stable nuclear family” required making the “wrong” choice first.  Like Moscow Chestnova in Happy Moscow, they ultimately opt for a kind of dingy view of relationships, stripped of the glamour of some idealized and unobtainable social conception of the perfect marriage, but with a sense of mutual duty and recognition of what are not fundamental needs, and no demand for martyr status or vindication for past suffering.  (For what it’s worth, episodes in season three of the cartoon TV show Rick and Morty dealing with the character Beth focus on similar issues).  Maybe the ambiguity of the film’s ending suggests that the main characters see relationships as only fleeting, grasped when they can be and relinquished when the cannot hold.  Thankfully, there is no didactic characterization in the film.

Unlike Malick’s early films, which tended to take aim at shibboleths of modern society in ways that had parallels in the counter-culture and high art, To the Wonder is rather more daring in its use of “lowbrow” melodrama, juxtaposed against high-concept cinematography of the type that appeals primarily to viewers who normally look down upon melodrama.  This may be one of Malick’s least regarded late-period films.  But it has things to offer, even if, no, it isn’t up to his first three features — though few films are.  Most detractors seem to focus on the characters being thin, undeveloped or uncompelling, or something like that, but those criticisms seem to miss the point in that they are meant to be shells without their own positive desires, which they try (and at least initially fail) to construct.

Joseph Ramsey – Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?

Link to an article by Joseph Ramsey:

“Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?”

I find it much harder to look past the problems with Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, but Ramsey offers some extremely interesting observations that don’t really depend on even seeing the film.

Bonus link: “When Liberals Go Wrong”