Category Archives: Reviews

Faces

Faces

Faces (1968)

Walter Reade Organization

Director: John Cassavetes

Main Cast: John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel


Johan Cassavetes’ Faces was his second independent production as a director.  It is widely regarded as one of the most important American independent films.  The film is a drama.  Significantly, though, it is drama rather than melodrama.  Theodor Adorno advanced a theory of the “Culture Industry”, which posited that standardized cultural goods — like formulaic Hollywood melodramas — encourage passivity and docility among the masses.  It is immediately apparent that Faces is no mass produced, formulaic Hollywood melodrama!  As one review succinctly put it, “Cassavetes’ gritty black and white drama analyzes the inevitable harshness of relationships (routine, jealousy, infidelity) through a rigid attention to complex emotions rarely seen in movies.” (Though one could question that review’s categorization of infidelity as “inevitable”).

The film centers around the marriage of Richard “Dickie” Forst (Marley) and Maria Forst (Carlin).  Richard is an upper middle class corporate film executive — whose job seems to relate to financing in some way — entering late middle age, who has a posh suburban home, a predilection for boozing, and a womanizing “old boys club” male chauvinist attitude.  The film opens with him at work, briefly, before he visits the home of a prostitute Jeannie Rapp (Rowlands) with his old friend Freddie (Fred Draper), where they carouse and make crudely cynical jokes.  Maria Forst is introduced later in the film.  She does not work, and the couple has no children.  Her husband callously announces he wants to divorce after she refuses sex — with intended cruelty he immediately calls up the prostitute Jeannie in front of Maria.  She goes out with friends to a nightclub and picks up a sort of hippie drifter Chet (Cassel).  Much of the film consists of long, intense dialog-driven scenes that construct character portraits less through demonstrative action and sequential scenes that build on each other than through a series of emotive, confessional yet somewhat isolated dialogues (though of course there is more than just dialogue).

The film is often interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction with the “American Dream”.  And certainly there is something to that view.  Faces draws a bit on the same sort of bohemian critique of bourgeois society as, say, Allen Ginsberg‘s beat poem Howl from a little more than a decade prior.

Richard and Maria each want something more than they seem to have, even as, materially, they have all the possessions they could want, and Richard at least commands corporate power and prestige at his job.  In the film, though, the characters reach out to someone else, as if another person will provide a guarantee of meaning in their lives.  And yet the film is somewhat cramped in its ambitions, in that the characters seem to at most jump from one misguided set of desires to another — if they really make any jumps at all.

The overarching narrative of individuals breaking free of social bounds and constraints that is reflected by the dissolution of the protagonists’ marriage in some ways anticipates the demise of the American New Deal coalition, which gave way to the so-called neoliberal era.  Historian Jefferson Cowie‘s book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class explored aspects of the phenomenon of individualism reflected in mass culture, drawing from the thesis of Christopher Lasch‘s famous book The Culture of Narcissism.  Are the Forst’s really striving for no more than hedonistic narcissism?  As captured in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s splendid commercial flop Zabriskie Point, was this hedonistic narcissism also the basic problem in what the so-called “New Left” of the late 1960s aimed for?

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has explained how the post-modern ethical injunction (of the superego) is to “enjoy!”  The message that people in American society are constantly bombarded with is the command to enjoy themselves, and those same people are thereby induced to feel guilty if they do not experience enjoyment.  Žižek elaborates that the role of psychoanalysis is “to open up a space in which you are allowed not to enjoy.”  In this precise sense, the obstacle is to get rid of the injunction to enjoy rather than to merely shed inhibitions to more fully enjoy whatever consumptive, sexual, spiritual, or other activities people engage in.

The Forsts are kind of like heralds of the post-modern society.  In being affluent, they aren’t barred from enjoying themselves by material lack, because they can afford any amusement or living arrangement they wish.  In being white and having high social status, they also experience an almost complete social/legal permissiveness to do as they wish.  So, they are in this sense able to be considered true post-modern subjects.  When Richard Forst seeks a divorce, it is not that his character has any sort of awakening, really.  Rather, it is that his character experiences guilt by his failure to enjoy his lifestyle of power and consumption.  His impulsive demand for divorce is merely a way to double-down on his existing desires, and to try to remove what he sees (in the moment) as obstacles to those desires.  He simply wants to consume more — and his recourse to prostitutes is a classic example of sex-as-commodity consumerism.  Actually, the scenario in which Richard wishes to leave Maria (he seems to deem it an unserious request later in the film) is close to a classic one for psychoanalysts in which a married (chauvinist) man wishes to leave his wife for a mistress, only to then have his relationship with his mistress also fall apart because he misunderstood that his true desire to have a distant and obscure object (mistress as mistress) about whom to dream.

Maria’s situation is more complex than Richard’s.  She lives a life at home, spending time talking with other affluent housewife friends.  She resents her husband seeing her as merely there to serve (or service) him.  When she goes out with her friends and brings home Chet, she is, in a sense, making her own choices, perhaps for the first time, and we might pardon the way those actions appear hedonistic at first glance.  There is, though, a great scene with Chet at Maria’s house in which one of Maria’s older friends becomes indignant that Chet considers them dancing to be ridiculous, offended at the insinuation that she is too old for him.  Then perhaps the oldest of Maria’s friends takes this further, trying to make herself the object of Chet’s desire by dancing with him then tentatively asking if he will kiss her, before she breaks down crying and asks him to drive her home.  It is a moment of loneliness, the manifestation of social constraints of age and appearance, and an almost humiliating projection of desire.  Chet soon returns to Maria’s for the night.  This sort of undermines the aspect of Maria making her own choices — is the youthful Chet with her simply because she is the youngest of the women?  She eventually attempts suicide, which emphasizes the difficulty in her conceiving a new way of life.

Jeannie and Chet are the characters with the most emotional honesty.  Jeannie’s behavior, for her job, is self-evidently an act.  The depiction of a prostitute as most authentic individual in a capitalist society fits quite squarely with many French films of the era.  Chet is a character without much depth, deployed often as merely a prompt for Maria’s character, but Cassel is wonderful in the otherwise flimsy role.

Although Faces is a groundbreaking film, it is also in some ways a less satisfying Cassavetes feature.  The two main characters for the most part begin and end the film as unsympathetic fools.  There are only dead ends and endless misery in their lives.  Cassavetes’ later films explored in greater detail interpersonal dynamics without the hedonistic baggage that Faces carries.  Those later films frequently explore with sympathy emotional bonds that are forged without regard for “happiness” as such.  A possible explanation for this is a sort of “sour grapes” autobiographical one: Cassavates vindictively made a film about the shitty, miserable life of a film executive (and his wife) after he was run through the Hollywood meat grinder by such film executives when trying to work as a director in the early 60s.  And yet, such a view overlooks how this might have just been a coping mechanism for Cassavetes, whose real-life personal aspirations, and sometimes his behavior, bore resemblances to features of his Richard Forst character.  So the ultimate limit of the film is that it gets caught in cynicism and ressentiment that hates what is all around it without quite taking responsibility for its own position within its society and how its desires are conceived as part of that very society.  Though these limitations are minor in what is still an impressive cinematic achievement.

It would be good to pair a viewing of Faces with a self-consciously psychoanalytic film by Fellini or Jodorowsky like 8 1/2 or El Topo, or, perhaps more pointedly, Frankenheimer‘s Seconds, which metaphorically (and with a sci-fi twist) depicts the inability to change one’s desire.

A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Faces International Films

Director: John Cassavetes

Main Cast: Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands


John Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands asked him to write a play with an interesting female character for her to perform.  That play ended up being unsuitable for live theatrical performance and was instead re-purposed as the film A Woman Under the Influence.  Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a stay-at-home mother of three children.  Her mental disposition is one that is inconvenient to modern society (there being no objective definition of a “normal” mental state).  Her husband Nick (Falk) is a working class construction worker.  Nick is a rather angry and occasionally violent doofus who genuinely cares for Mabel.  The film examines the reactions of ordinary people to Mabel’s unconventional behavior, and Nick’s attempts to cope with it — and to try to control it (and her).  Mabel’s eccentricities eventually lead to her being committed to a mental hospital for six months — of note, Nick’s violent outbursts at home and work do not lead to him being committed or imprisoned.  Nick proves inept but well-meaning as a sole parent during Mabel’s absence.  The film concludes with an extended portrait of Mabel’s return home from the hospital.  Nick planned a welcome home party, though the presence of a crowd is questioned by his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) as being too stressful for Mabel.  As the guests eventually are thrown out by Nick’s mother and then Nick, Mabel clumsily attempts suicide, and her children become distraught.  In a fitting conclusion echoing the ancient myth of Sisyphus, Nick carries his children upstairs to their bedroom only to have them run back downstairs to their mother and the process repeats.  Such a “punishment” is fitting for Nick, as a self-aggrandizing jerk whose children seem more genuinely connected to their mother as a person with her own free will than he is.

A Woman Under the Influence is one of the “mature” Cassavetes films, in which his style that blends intense scripted and improvised acting expands upon what he had done in earlier films like Faces and Husbands, notably improving upon the overall pacing, while also deploying a much less conventional narrative structure than Minnie and Moskowitz.  Rowlands and Falk give tremendous performances.  Cassavetes’ narrative examines the characters’ personal situations from a sympathetic perspective, with his iconoclastic film techniques offering a much deeper palette of complex emotions than is typical in movies.  What sets A Woman Under the Influence apart from Faces is that, here, a couple is struggling to keep their family together, whereas Faces saw characters striving to break free of social constraints (while ironically and cynically doing so to seek social validation).  The two main characters are each unusual for feature length films, in that middle aged, working class protagonists are usually portrayed only at the margins of Hollywood cinema and the industrial nature of film production prices out most would-be independent ventures that might otherwise show interest.

These characters are all flawed, but worthy of human dignity nonetheless.  Nick’s struggle to control the people and situations around him — and his frequent inability to do so — is his most pronounced character flaw.  Mabel is less a “flawed” character as much as one with a combination of inability and unwillingness to conform to social expectations.  Cassavetes’ movies often featured a free-spirit “hippie” character (often played by Seymour Cassel).  The Mabel character is sort of a twist on that theme.  This prompts frequently draconian reactions.  Mabel’s commitment might be compared to the real-life story of the feminist scholar Kate Millett.  This is the “hysterical woman” motif:

“Remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, society confers on you a certain identity. You are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. The basic hysterical gesture is to raise a question and doubt your identity. ‘You’re saying I’m this, but why am I this? What makes me this?’ Feminism begins with this hysterical question. Male patriarchal ideology constrains women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, ‘But am I really that?’ Or to use the old Juliet question from Romeo and Juliet, ‘Am I that name?’ Like, ‘Why am I that?’ So hysteria is this basic doubting of your identity.”

The sympathy that Cassavetes shows his flawed characters is unique.  Unlike, say, Pier Paolo Passolini‘s underclass protagonists, like the titular character in Accatone, Cassavetes’s films often deal with characters situated away from class conflicts.  The Longhetti family is working class, but we see them with a comfortable home and steadily employed without obvious want.  This allows for a unique focus on the characters’ inner psychology, in which viewers can witness the characters questioning their own actions and pursuing changes in their lives while at the same time struggling to make the right changes and repeatedly failing to actually change their desires as reflected in their actions.  While certainly many other filmmakers relied on psychology to inform their work, Cassavetes was unique in the raw, harsh and almost bleak realism with which he depicted these things.  His films are largely free of simplistic symbolism.  Surprisingly, it is an approach that shared some similarities with some films of the Socialist Realism genre, such as Béla Tarr‘s early short Hotel Magnezit, albeit with the freedom to explore subjects other than a critique of bureaucracy.

In the end, A Woman Under the Influence remains a “difficult” film filled with enough heart to remain engaging from beginning to end.  This is another landmark of American cinema from one of its greatest writer/directors.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013)

Warner Bros.

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Main Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day


First, a brief summary of the plot of Pacific Rim.  Aliens have genetically engineered kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters) that they send to Earth through an intergalactic portal (the “Breach”) that opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in order to destroy human civilization and eventually conquer the planet.  Humanoid robots called jaegers are built to fight the kaiju.  The kaiju become larger and appear more frequently over time.  Eventually, humans realize the aliens’ plans and figure out a way to detonate a nuclear bomb in the portal in order to collapse it, saving humans from the aliens.  Most of the film revolves around amazing special effects used to create action-packed fight scenes between robots and monsters.  But what is most interesting — to me at least — is the backdrop against which the robots and monsters fights take place.

Impotence of government – The film’s plot is heavily dependent on a view of the impotence of government.  The first kaiju attack is described (but barely shown on screen) as having taken convention military forces six days to win, leaving extensive devastation.  The idea that the government is unable to act to stop the kaiju is a theme carried throughout the film.  The jaegers are created as an official (multi-)government program, but after one jaeger is severely damaged in a battle with a kaiju, world governments disband the program and instead build protective walls (the jaeger program is then carried on by some sort of independent [private] organization whose funding and organizational structure is never explained).  The walls turn out to be easily breached.  In response, world governments take no action whatsoever.  In other words, governments throw up their hands and apparently decide that the kaiju should win!

Individualism – Most of the film dwells on individual action, and valorizes the motif of “great individuals”.  The jaeger pilots are all hot-shot “cowboys”, just like, say, Tom Cruise‘s “Maverick” pilot character in the film Top Gun (1986).  As governmental impotence provides no response to the kaiju threat, the fate of humanity is left in the hands of these “cowboys”.  Although there are many individuals that take part in the jaeger program, the film presents them less as a team than as an ad hoc assemblage of individuals.  This stands in marked contrast to Shin Godzilla (2016), which responds to a similar program of governmental impotence with an explicitly team-based response.  And, of course, the film pays almost no attention to collateral damage to civilians.  In a way, all this reflects filmmaker David Lynch‘s comments about how President Donald Trump — even if Trump fails to do a good job himself — creates an aura of disruptive greatness that reveals the ineffectual nature of opposition politicians who can’t get anything done.

Destructive industrial growth – The film never entertains any notion of peaceful negotiations with the aliens sending the kaiju through the Breach, some kind of barricade right at the outlet of the Breach, or even permanent depopulation/dispersion of large urban coastal cities.  Humanity focuses instead on building giant robots — their humanoid configuration serving no clear purpose — and a coastal wall — which is so obviously inadequate to the task and so burdensome to normal human activities.  There is a casual acceptance of industrial growth, and not any palpable concern about its consequences or any alternatives.

The film as a whole is strangely entertaining.  That is partly due to the special effects and extensive use of action scenes, but also due to the preposterously comical interactions between the characters, not a single one of which is realistic.

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.