Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lincoln (review) & Racism


If we have two films about slavery nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, is it too much to ask that at least one of them actually say something about racism? Sorry. That might have been harsh. Both Django Unchained and Lincoln do say something about racism: people in the past were racist and that was a bad thing. My instinct here is to be heavily sarcastic, but that wouldn't do the inanity of these films' discussions of racism justice.

Both films depict overt acts of racism, and even go so far as to depict these acts in a negative way, but that's about it. Maybe I should just be glad for the fact that we're past the days where The Birth of a Nation could be a box office success. That's essentially the message of Lincoln, after all: a great man did a great thing, so be happy that he did it and that you don't have to live in a time before he did it. But I'm not. The problem is that overt racism is not the only kind, nor is it the worst kind. Zizek identifies the underlying racist core of multiculturalist ideology in his analysis of the infamous Oriana Fallaci:

Fallaci's mistake was to take the multiculturalist subservient "respect" for the Muslim Other seriously. She failed to see how this "respect" is a fake, a sign of hidden and patronising racism. In other words, far from simply opposing multiculturalist tolerance, what Fallaci did was to bring out its disavowed core. The French philosopher Alain Finkelkraut said in an interview... commenting on the French suburban outbursts: "... Step by step, the generous idea of a war on racism is monstrously turning into a lying ideology. Anti-racism will be to the twenty-first century what communism was to the twentieth century. A source of violence." Finkelkraut is right here, but for the wrong reasons: what is wrong in the politically correct multiculturalist struggle against racism is not its excessive anti-racism, but its covert racism.*


The problem with Lincoln is not only that it ignores this "covert racism" but that it in fact participates in it. The point is not that Abraham Lincoln was racist. He obviously did something which is and was undeniably admirable. The point is rather that making a movie about Lincoln in today's ideological climate involves much more than simple historical celebration.

An easy way to see this "covert racism" is in Spielberg's portrayal of the black characters themselves. In reality, during the passage of the 13th Amendment there were countless black activists lobbying in various ways for its passage. In Lincoln, with the single exception of the one black soldier at the very beginning of the film who questions Lincoln regarding the problem of racial inequality among officers in the army, all the black characters passively wait for their white savior to emancipate them.** This is racist ideological historical revisionism at its finest (and it doesn't help Spielberg's case that he claimed that the film is simply his "dream" of what happened). My point is not that the movie is bad because it's historically inaccurate, but that it's bad because its inaccuracies reveal an underlying racism.

Okay, so with that out of the way, all the technical aspects of the film were great. The acting was impeccable (Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn to name just a few of the exceptional performances), the lighting was phenomenal, the tension and pacing were spot on, the sets and costumes were great... The problem for me was that this made me all the more disappointed that Spielberg had to ruin it with his racist vision of the time. I liked the fact (that almost passes unnoticed) that Lincoln is in a sense sacrificing a lot of white soldiers in order to abolish slavery. I also liked how Lincoln had to circumvent the law in order to uphold justice (revealing how the law does not serve justice but maintains order). But for me the film was ultimately ruined by its self importance and general lack of anything valuable to say.




*Žižek, Slavoj, Violence, Picador, New York, 2008

**This point was originally made by Kate Masur of the New York Times

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Videodrome (analysis)


"There were many strange things cut—some things not so strange and some things quite strange—just supporting my contention that censorship is always very personal and has very much to do with the sensibility of the person who is being censorious. There are no rules."

"My editor and I had done something that I tend to do which is we had cut the film so brutally that it was about 75 minutes long and completely incomprehensible. However incomprehensible you might think it is now, it was much more so then."

Listening to David Cronenberg's feature commentary on Videodrome makes its existence all the more miraculous. While multiple viewings and/or screening notes render the plot easily comprehensible, Cronenberg's apparent fear that people still don't understand ("however incomprehensible...") definitely has some basis in reality. Once you know what happens in the film, why it happens is no less clear. Max Renn discovers this tape (I think it's technically a Betamax) called Videodrome, watches it, and is infected with a virus that causes him to hallucinate and to become interested in violence, sex, violent sex, and everything in between. So what? Are we to take away from the film that Cronenberg thinks that television/film/etc. make the people that watch them sexualized and violent (Total Film's explanation)? And what's up with the stomach-vagina and penis-pistol?

The "you are what you watch" reading is problematic not only in that it ignores the most interesting parts of the movie. More importantly it seems to have arrived five minutes late. In Videodrome's second scene, Max complains about a softcore pornographic movie offered to be screened on his television channel: "It's soft. There's something too... soft about it. I'm looking for something that will break through. Something tough."

This lays the groundwork for my analysis of the movie and provides the coordinates of Max's universe. The Videodrome virus doesn't simply make people violent or perverted. Max shows signs of a tendency toward both of these things before being exposed to Videodrome. Instead, the virus destroys its victims' fundamental fantasy and forces them into the position of the subject of drive. This reading allows an enjoyably inverse experience of the film: Max doesn't start hallucinating when he becomes infected with the Videodrome virus, he stops. The message is that we are all constantly hallucinating (via our fundamental structuring fantasy), and Max instead sees the (Lacanian) Real.

To see how this works let's first take a look at the distinction between desire and drive. Here to explain this distinction is Slavoj Zizek:

Of course every object of desire is an illusory lure; of course the full jouissance of incest is not only prohibited, but is in itself impossible; however, it is here that one should fully assert Lacan's claim that les non-dupes errent. Even if the object of desire is an illusory lure, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive nature is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real... There is a parallax shift at work here... in Lacanese, the shift from desire to drive... This gap that separates the aim from the goal “eternalizes” the drive, transforming the simple instinctual movement which finds peace and calm when it reaches its goal... into a process which gets caught in its own loop and insists on endlessly repeating itself. (my emphasis)*

As is somewhat typical with Zizek, there is a lot here and it's not terribly clear. On the side of desire there's the goal and pleasure, and on the side of drive there's the aim and enjoyment. About to personify desire & drive here so get ready. Desire ignores the way that obtaining objects makes them less important (think "grass is always greener" syndrome) because what you want is not the object itself (object of desire; goal) but "the place it occupies" (objet a or object-cause of desire; aim). Thus Desire only gets pleasure out of objects. Drive, on the other hand, recognizes this and "gets caught in its own loop": forgetting the goal of its libidinal energies, it constantly circles its object (I always think of this scene from The Truman Show). This is what Zizek means when he says Drive is "eternalized" and why Drives enjoys

Well, great. Now that we (sort of) understand desire and drive, what's the point? The first hint is that Videodrome (the transmission/tape within Videodrome proper) takes the form of the drive. As Max points out, it has no plot and just repeats itself with no clear goal.** This prefigures the way that the Videodrome virus affects its victims: Max is literally impregnated with drive. We then witness Max's drive mature as he goes from piercing Nicki's ears and sucking the blood out of the new hole to whipping a flesh television to shooting Barry Convex (the creator of the Videodrome virus) with his flesh gun to create this result (Max literally shoots him full of hot jouissance and, unable to take it, Convex's body ruptures and cancerous growths erupt from his face and torso).

Another way to explain this is that the Videodrome virus has forced Max through his fundamental fantasy. Here's Zizek again:

We can articulate two stages of the psychoanalytic process: interpretation of symptoms – going through the fantasy. When we are confronted with the patient's symptoms, we must first interpret them and penetrate through them to the fundamental fantasy as the kernel of enjoyment which is blocking the further movement of interpretation, then we must accomplish the crucial step of going through the fantasy... But here again another problem arose: how do we account for patients who have, beyond any doubt, done through their fantasy, who have obtained distance from the fantasy-framework of their reality?... Lacan tried to answer this challenge with the concept of sinthome... Symptom as sinthome is a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as a bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense. (my emphasis)***

Before "going through the fantasy" subjects experience symptoms of the blockage to their enjoyment (most famously in the form of Freudian slips). The subject finds her enjoyment abhorrent to her idea of herself and represses the enjoyment which results in symptoms such as tics or compulsive behavior (check out this clip). But subjects who have "gone through the fantasy" still exhibit repetitive or compulsive behavior, albeit in a different way. Instead of being a signifier of the subject's failure to enjoy, the sinthome is a testament to the subject's success

Make sense so far? Here we can revisit the quote from Max that I began this essay with on the topic of softcore pornography. When he says, "I'm looking for something that will break through," what he wants to break through is the fundamental fantasy so he can reach from pleasure to enjoyment. The Videodrome virus allows him to do just that: traverse his fantasy to achieve pure jouissance. Soft porn equals pleasure, violent sex equals enjoyment (for Max – don't go out & try BDSM just because you think it'll bring you jouissance).

So what is Max's sinthome? He certainly repetitively engages in violent and/or sexual acts, but this isn't quite it. Sinthome, like symptom, has an involuntary nature to it. For this reason I want to return now to Max's stomach-vagina (yes you did want another picture). If we first take Zizek literally when he says that sinthome is a "signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment", and second take Max's flesh gun as an embodiment of his enjoyment, then Max's stomach-vagina (go on, click it) is literally penetrated with enjoyment in that he puts his gun into it (this one's a doozy). By performing this action Max overcomes the stumbling block to his enjoyment and traverses his fantasy to occupy the position of the subject of drive and thereby enjoy in the Real. 


*Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, New York, 2010 p. 72-3

**For those of you smart alecs who have already seen the movie and are objecting, "But the goal of the Videodrome virus is to get Max to kill himself!" the film doesn't even conceive this seemingly end-inducing action as a goal. Instead, as Nicki tells Max, "death is not the end... to become the new flesh you must kill the old flesh." The reason there is no more movie after Max shoots himself is that he has exited the Symbolic and instead exists as a pure subject of drive in the (unsymbolizable) Real.

***Zizek, Slavoj, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, New York, 2008 p. 80-1

Friday, January 18, 2013

Some of my DVDs

A friend of mine recently requested that I make him a list of movies I recommend watching. What I did instead was go through my DVDs and pick out sort of the best of the best of what I already own. He then requested that I make this information available in a more accessible format (I sent it to him via Facebook messenger originally). So, yeah, here it is. The order of the movies is by how I have them sorted in my collection (roughly by genre/director).

Hitchcock
Psycho
North by Northwest
Rear Window
Vertigo
The Birds
Notorious
To Catch a Thief
Rope
Stangers on a Train

Other Oldies
The Big Sleep
Double Indemnity
Casablanca
The Maltese Falcon

Coen Brothers
No Country for Old Men
Fargo
Burn After Reading
Intolerable Cruelty

Foreign Films (by English title)
Code Unknown
Breathless
400 Blows
Le Samourai
Rashomon
Yojimbo
High and Low
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Old Boy
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
3-Iron

Animated/Children's Films
Coraline
Akira
Kung Fu Panda
Wall-E
Super 8

David Lynch
Mulholland Drive
Eraserhead
Lost Highway
Blue Velvet

Quentin Tarantino
Reservoir Dogs
Pulp Fiction
Four Rooms (Quentin's is the best room)

Robert Rodriquez
From Dusk Till Dawn
Planet Terror

Modern Classics
The Prestige
Memento
Drive
Speed Racer
The Usual Suspects
LA Confidential
Lucky # Slevin
Traffic

Stanley Kubrick
Dr. Strangelove
2001: A Space Odyssey
A Clockwork Orange
Barry Lyndon
The Shining
Full Metal Jacket
Eyes Wide Shut

Martin Scorsese
Taxi Driver
Goodfellas
The Aviator

David Cronenberg
eXististenZ
Naked Lunch
Videodrome
The Fly
Scanners
A History of Violence
Cosmopolis
The Dead Zone

Horror Classics
Alien
Aliens
The Thing
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Silence of the Lambs

Comedies
Schizopolis
I Heart Huckabees
The Informant!
Be Kind Rewind
The Butcher Boy
Zombieland

Yeah. There are a whole lot of other movies I like, but this is a good selection of the DVDs I actually own.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Les Miserables (review)

Before I get to any sort of intelligent analysis of this film I have to attempt to retroactively bite my tongue. To be fair, I never said that musicals are bad in general, just that I only personally enjoyed a select few. But in any case Les Miserables is, in fact, a musical, and I did, in fact, enjoy it. Immensely.

(For those of you who don't already know my opinion of adaptation I will not be discussing the film's fidelity to either the original musical or the novel. The film stands on its own as it should.)

With that out of the way, there are some things that you probably already know but which I believe ought to be mentioned in any self-respecting review of the film.

Russell Crowe as Javert. I get the feeling that I didn't dislike his performance as much as most, but he was definitely one of the weaker central characters. His singing, especially outside of his solos, was not the best, and I could tell you that not even being an expert on music.

But what's worse for me was something that resulted from either his performance or Tom Hooper's direction. To risk a movement towards a critique of the film's adaptation, I thought Javert was a much more powerful character in the book as a sort of ugly, skeletal creature. While the movie obviously doesn't have to take this figuration as gospel, I thought Crowe was a bit too much of a pretty boy. Instead of coming off as a sort of denizen of the night who believes absolutely in the power and necessity of the law, he seemed more like he had been brought up with the law and basically assumed it was the only way to do things. This made his eventual moral dilemma (I'll try not to ruin too much) less moving than it could/should have been.

For my money this is quite a trivial problem compared to the general greatness of the film.

Important to any consideration of the movie is the the way the singing was recorded. For those of you who don't already know, the singing was recorded "live", i.e. while the singers acted instead of later in a studio. I think this, combined with the through-composed nature of the film, were the reasons I didn't have the problems I normally have with musicals. For one, the emotion seemed much more genuine because the actors where putting their hearts into the singing, and for another, there's no rupture in the film's diegesis because the sound is always coming from the same source (and since everyone is pretty much always singing there's no "alright, now here's a musical number!" jumpiness to the narrative progression).

Also excellent, and seemingly a necessity for live recorded singing, was the camera work. Not only is the camera often claustrophobically close to the actors, but it's also not afraid to move around and follow them instead of relying too heavily on multiple cameras and frequent cuts. All this lent the film a unique feel as well as giving the audience a sense of proximity to the characters. Most notably in this regard is Jean Valjean's "What Have I Done?" We are so close (literally) to Valjean while he questions his identity that we become closer (figuratively) to him for the rest of the film.

One final thing before I jump into theory: Tom Hooper, or whoever was behind the camera, seemed to like crooked angle shots a bit too much for my taste. Started distracting me towards the end. Learn to hide the cinematic apparatus better! Ideology, people! Come on.

Right. So I'd like to look at the way Les Miserables deals with the theme of forgiveness. This is perhaps a seemingly predictable avenue to take, but before you leave in disappointment let me try to justify myself. I'm not going to talk about forgiveness in the Christian sense, and in fact I don't plan on talking about Christianity at all. I'm going to look at forgiveness as Zizek does in Violence* (and elsewhere).

The only way truly to forgive and forget is to enact a revenge (or a just punishment): after the criminal is properly punished, I can move forward and leave the whole affair behind. There is something liberating in being properly punished for one's crime: I paid my debt to society and I am free again, no past burdens attached. The "merciful" logic of "forgive, but not forget" is, on the contrary, much more oppressive. I (the criminal who is forgiven) remain forever haunted by the crime I committed, since the crime was not "undone (ungeschehengemacht)," retroactively cancelled, erased, in what Hegel sees as the meaning of punishment. (Violence, 190)

Valjean's "What Have I Done?" and Javert's final soliloquy (the title of which contains a major spoiler, so don't look it up if you care about that sort of thing) both attest to the "oppressive" character of forgiveness without "proper punishment". What's interesting for me is the different reactions the two characters have to this trauma.

Valjean's reaction is perhaps my favorite part of the whole story of Les Miserables. In response to Bishop Myriel's forgiveness, Valjean completely gives up his attachments to his symbolic identity.

I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

Admittedly he does receive some help destroying himself from being in prison for so long, but he continues his selfless ethic when he reveals himself as Jean Valjean to save another man from being imprisoned in his place. This is a profoundly Lacanian ethic: one of the goals of psychoanalysis is to traverse one's fantasy, the fundamental fantasy that structures one's subjectivity. In this case Valjean gives up the fantasy of what constitutes "Jean Valjean" and then after what constitutes "Monsieur Madeleine" ("Monsieur le Mayor").

Javert's response to the trauma of forgiveness is problematic precisely because he cannot do what Valjean does. He can't accept the possibility of a law tainted by the mercy of a criminal. Or, to translate in Lacanese, he cannot accept the inconsistency in the Big Other, something his fantasy (of a pure law free from either mythic violence or petty thievery) had screened from him until Valjean's act of forgiveness. 

But there is some value in fantasy I believe, and the end of Les Miserables attests to this. "Do You Hear The People Sing?", and especially the final two words of the film (I don't think this'll ruin much) "tomorrow comes", exemplify an attitude of fantasizing for the future. Now normally I find displacing one's happiness to an indefinite point in the future to be a rather silly idea. In the case of moving towards communism, however, I can make an exception! But seriously, In order for political change to take place there has to be some sort of fantasizing for a different future.

I think in the final analysis this (in a perhaps indirect way) is the political lesson of Les Miserables: first, give up the fantasy structuring your subjectivity; and second, adopt a new (selfless, political) fantasy. Simple perhaps, but certainly not easy. 





*Žižek, Slavoj, Violence, Picador, New York, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained (review)

I'm torn. Assuming you can deal with the level of gore Tarantino brings to the table, Django Unchained is undoubtedly a fun movie. And if you're looking for a thinking man's movie it has enough symbology thrown in to keep you occupied (although I doubt any minds will be or have been blown). But there was definitely something missing.

Perhaps the problem is that there was, strictly speaking, something not missing, that there was simply too much movie. Django does clock in at over two and a half hours after all. But it wasn't a feeling of boredom that came over during the final act. It was confusion.

Why do Django and Dr. Schultz create this fiction about aspiring to run their own mandingo fights (a sport that may have in fact never existed)?* According to the movie itself, the reason is to get M. Candie's attention, but as we move forward it becomes clear that what catches M. Candie's eyes & ears is the dollar figure itself, not the party's interest in mandingo fighting. So just offer the $12,000 for Broomhilda and be done with it (Schultz doesn't seem in too much pain parting with his money and M. Candie likewise in parting with his slave).

Because of this I had trouble getting into the tension between the good guys and Candie. Without question Candie is a scary dude. You don't mess with someone who gets off watching two men beat the life out of each other. The problem is that this realization brings to mind the question, "why, then, are they messing with him?" If he would've simply been uninterested in $12,000 for a slave (who Candie concedes is worth probably only $200) that's fine, but include like a five second clip of them attempting this (under a false name, perhaps) so that I can get behind the tension while they all sit at the dining room table together.

The only reason I can come up with why Django and Schultz wouldn't do this is that they don't want to get a bad deal ($12,000 for something worth $200 is quite a mark-up). But wait, they're both risking their lives for this girl. And even if they weren't, $12,000 seems a paltry sum when the duo can made almost that much off a single bounty.

How's that for mountains out of mole hills?

Considering that's the biggest problem I had I think the movie is still largely worth seeing, especially if you like Tarantino's other films. His trademark style is definitely here, although not in as full force as in greats like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction or even his recent Inglorious Basterds. But the camera work, costumes, and soundtrack all stood out for me, and as usual the violence was very enjoyable.

In a related manner, I'm pretty angry at whoever decided it was okay to put Leo's introductory close-up in trailers. That is not okay. You ruined his character's intro and part of his impact goes with it. Quit your job.

Another reason to go see this movie is Christoph Waltz. I'm struggling not to waste this blog's first instance of profanity on Waltz's performance. He is awesome. And I mean awesome awesome. If the movie didn't have Django's name in the title I would have assumed he was the main character right up until final act. He deserves without a doubt the Golden Globe he already received and definitely deserves the chance he's been given at the Oscar.

Finally, for an action/drama about revenge and stuff the movie is rather funny. Jonah Hill makes us laugh at the KKK and some of the dialogue in general inspired some giggles on my part (in a good way).

So, I'm going to close this review with a quick look at its theoretical value. Sorry I could think of a better transition.

For a movie about a freed slave attempting to free his love from slavery as well, I thought the movie had surprisingly little to say about slavery. The most moving scene for me was when Quentin first brings us to Mississippi and we see the condition of the slaves there. But this shot lasts only long enough for the name of the state to scroll across the screen. Additionally, the movie's solution to the tragedy of slavery seems to be a sort of glorified eye for an eye. Without going into too deep of an analysis of revenge here, other movies have dealt with this topic in more nuanced ways with more trivial subjects (Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance trilogy comes quickly to mind).**

What I thought the movie did do a really good job with was the relationship of the law to violence. Schultz embodies perfectly the unrecognized mythic violence*** underlying the law in his character of the bounty hunter. This led to some disappointment on my part when we transitioned from bounty hunting to loved-one saving. (Can we maybe just have a Christoph Waltz being a bounty hunter movie? I think he's earned it.) In any case, the scene where Schultz informs a town marshal that he owes Schultz $200 for killing the same town's sheriff was excellent.

Would I recommend this to win Best Picture? Probably not. Would you enjoy this movie, especially if you brought along some friends, friends who perhaps also enjoy Tarantino's directing style or who like a good western? Definitely.




*Perhaps it's to further the metatheatrical thread Quentin started when the bounty hunters need covers to access their targets' locations, but then he needs to do something to solve the contrived nature of the tension.

**Also, while killin' lots of dudes makes for an enjoyable movie, forgiveness is a much more traumatic method of revenge. For more on this stay tuned for my review of Les Miserables.

***For more on mythic and other categories of violence, check out my essay on violence published here.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sherlock (analysis & review) & Detective Discussion

Before we get to the good stuff I want to quickly discuss detective fiction and its relationship to film analysis in general. It seems obvious to me that in order to be a good detective you have to be a bit of a paranoiac (although Sherlock complicates this theory). In order to catch the bad guy you have to accept the possibility of attributing just about anything to her. If Detective Kujan had been a little more paranoid and a little less convinced of his preconceived notions (that Keaton organized everything) he might have caught Kaiser Söze. Paranoia keeps Mr. Pink alive while conviction kills Mr. White (and others).

"But wait!" you say, "Those two movies—and in fact most detective stories that I can think of—actually do have antagonists! Are you really being paranoid if there are people like Kevin Spacey or Tim Roth on the loose?" Yes. Yes you are. (Sorry I just ruined those two movies, but is it really my fault you haven't seen them? They've both been out for almost twenty years. Get it together.)

As with most things, I feel (mistakenly) that a reference to Žižek will be helpful here. He explains a relevant idea from Lacan concerning jealousy in many places, but nowhere as clear as in an interview with The Believer Magazine:*

I would like to use the wonderful model of Lacan. Let’s say that you are married and you are pathologically jealous, thinking that your wife is sleeping around with other men. And let’s say that you are totally right, she is cheating. Lacan says that your jealousy is still pathological. Even if everything is true, it is pathological because what makes it pathological is not the fact that is it true or not true, but why you invest so much in it—what needs does it fulfill?

The point is thus not that there really is an antagonist to catch/fear so I'm being reasonable and not paranoid, but instead that the form of paranoia itself betrays an underlying need for something. In this case the most fundamental need I believe is the need to avoid an encounter with lack. This is perhaps why the denouement of most detective stories reveals the lack of the antagonist. It is not us (the protagonist; the audience) who lacks, but the other.

This gets even more interesting when we make the jump from detective fiction to film analysis. Reading a movie (as opposed to merely watching one—there you go, I've betrayed my foundations in lit analysis) can be seen without excessive extrapolation as performing a sort of detective work. You look for clues that might help you figure out where the director is going to take you next.

But why this belief in the vision of the director? Sure, up to a certain point we can rely on "good" directors to make "good" movies. But we've seen again and again that directors don't really know what they're doing regardless of how thorough a background their have in theory/analysis (take for example the statement by the filmmakers behind Zero Dark Thirty that their film doesn't advocate torture, an inconsistency that even Entertainment Weekly managed to pick up on). This is why "bad" directors occasionally make "good" movies and "good" directors occasionally make "bad" movies.

So again, why do we rely on what might end up being clues laid out by an idiot? Maybe (as can be seen in other areas of what might be called self-definition) we "like" certain directors or movies to create a fantasmatic identity to claim as our own and in turn to save us from encountering our lack. Maybe this is why it can be incredibly annoying to watch a movie you love with one of those people who take pleasure in pointing out minor inconsistencies.

But maybe not.

Before I completely alienate my audience I think it's about time I got to the part where I talk about Sherlock. I mean Benedict Cumberbatch is so wildly attractive it's really amazing I've resisted for this long. So here goes.

Lack, while being constitutive of desire and thus easy to analyze in subjects of desire, becomes more complicated when looking at subjects who seems to have passed through desire into drive. And in my initial experience of the show (I've only watched the first season so far), Sherlock seems to fit this description. While he does take pleasure/pride in his successful solutions to mysteries, The Great Game (season 1 episode 3) makes it clear that what he really values is the repetitive nature of being a consulting detective (most notably he worries when the psychopath who's been organizing puzzles for him doesn't call).

What I find even more interesting is the way that Sherlock resists the typical paranoiac construction of detective fiction. Especially in The Great Game, Sherlock doesn't seem to care who is organizing these puzzles for him to solve. He doesn't want to catch the mastermind behind it all. He just wants to solve some puzzles. It is instead those around him (most often Watson) who want to find Moriarty.

What has happened here? Is it simply that, in the same way that classic detective fiction attempts to displace the lack into the realm of the other, Sherlock is attempting to displace paranoia?

To answer this question I think we have to look back to the first episode. What is the first thing we see? Watson's dreams. We are brought into this new world through the body/eyes of Dr. Watson, not of Sherlock himself. Add to this the fact that Sherlock is a hard man to "like". Not only is he a "high functioning sociopath", but in one of my favorite scenes he basically admits to not caring about other people's deaths. I love this scene because it hints at the fundamental hypocrisy behind caring for the other. To return to my mainstay in this area, what is a single person's death to the mass deaths occurring daily in order to bring us our laptops and iPhones? (What will I ever do if someone fixes this situation? Pick an actually relevant example of ideological blindness?)

But that's not the point here. The point is rather that, as far as points of identification go, Watson is a much more likely candidate than Sherlock. For this reason I believe Sherlock is constructed in a doubly voyeuristic way. Not only are we watching Sherlock, but we're watching (as) Watson watching Sherlock.

And that's about all I have to say about Sherlock (so far). If I have to justify the following scores then you probably weren't reading (or my scoring methods don't really make sense, but let's say for argument's sake that it's your fault not mine).




*Read the full interview here.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Secret of NIMH (review)

I'm pretty sure I'm late to the party on this one, but I finally watched The Secret of NIMH, so you get a read a review about a movie you might not have seen since your childhood.

If you're a fan of Disney and/or Pixar you should definitely check this movie out. The animation and art style in general is awesome (click here for one of my favorite examples). The film oscillates seamlessly between a world of light-hearted comedy and a much darker, more terrifying one. There's something about the way the animators make things glow (if you didn't, click the previous link to see what I mean) that adds another dimension to the art style and gives the film an almost surreal, slightly terrifying, and definitely epic character.

As for the soundtrack I absolutely love most of it. There are these two songs, one towards the beginning and a second accompanying the credits at the end, which are far too cheesy for my taste. I wish so desperately that I could take them out. Just thinking about them leaves a bad taste in my mouth, so let's return to the rest of the music. It's great. It's great enough that I can (almost) overlook these two trashy, aim-for-the-heartstrings croon-fests.

The main characters are sympathetic, the bad guy is evil, the pacing and plot progression are great (the movie could even be a bit longer if it wanted, since—and this is one of my three problems with the movie—it's less than an hour and a half long), and the climax is satisfactory. There, is that enough actual film analysis? Can I talk about theory yet? Whatever, I'm doing it anyway.

Racism. So the comic relief character Jeremy is this clumsy black crow (excellently voiced by Dom DeLuise). He is in one scene tied up by the (apparently racist?) aunt for being a "black buzzard". When Mrs. Brisby brings home a necklace with a sacred jewel, Jeremy can't focus on anything but the "sparkly". And finally, when a female crow literally crashes into him at the end of the film Mrs. Brisby's only advice to help him seduce her is to be "athletic". Maybe I'm reading too much into this but I just wanted to get it out there.

Politics. The antagonist Jenner is a staunch conservative who advocates against change. His home is going to be bulldozed and he refuses to move despite this. Nicodemus, his opponent, is old and frail and argues that they have to move despite the potential risks and the loss of the comfort of home. Without ruining too much, Jenner ends up with a knife in his back (come on, it's a children's movie, the bad guy has to end up dead or banished or something). I found this very satisfying, especially given where the knife comes from (see? I'm not ruining everything).

Freud. So a large portion of the story is a mother trying to save her son from pneumonia. While this is heart-warming and everything, it's a little bit Oedipal. Which is fine—I mean I am Freudian, after all—it just gives this sort of incestuous light to some of Mrs. Brisby's motivation. I think that this is for the most part overshadowed by other factors (e.g. her need to move her house before the bulldozer comes), but it's definitely still there.

Science. This for me is the most problematic and confused theme. So NIMH is the National Institute of Mental Health which abducted some of the rats and mice in the film in order to perform experiments on them. Science = bad. However, as a result of the experiments the rats learned to read and had their lifespan elongated. Science = good. I really don't know what to do with this conundrum. In the right hands I think science is a good thing, and maybe the fact that science is demonized for abducting anthropomorphic rats and mice that can talk (which, last I checked, is not how rats and mice normally are) sort of discredits the science = bad side of the argument, but for me the movie was totally unclear on its position.

Also, Dragon the cat looks like Ed Harris from A History of Violence. Not sure why that matters, but I have it here in my screening notes in all capitals.

So after much deliberation, I've decided to award The Secret of NIMH with 4 beers (losing points for those two songs, for being formulaic, and frankly for being too short) and 3 Slavojs (for being surprisingly deep for a children's movie, but also falling into the traps of possible racism and definite ambiguity).



Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cosmopolis (review)

So, prepare yourself for an incredibly biased but hopefully nonetheless informative review.

I love David Cronenberg. Naked Lunch was the first movie in a very long time that made me uncomfortable enough that I actually wanted to turn it off, and for me that's a good thing. While I do prefer his pre-2000 movies (A History of Violence is fun but not incredible; the internet tells me Spider is good but I haven't gotten around to it), I have yet to find a film of his that I don't like.

It's no surprise then that I enjoyed D. Crone's newest project, Cosmopolis. The world Cronenberg creates is a sort of post-apocalyptic American Psycho in which we follow the beautiful Robert Pattinson down his path towards self-destruction. But unlike American Psycho, actual physical violence is sparse and (with one notable exception) brief.

And yet the movie still succeeds in being alienating without heavy reliance on goopy set pieces or graphic violence. It does this primarily with the stylized and almost stilted dialogue, and secondarily through the absurdity of the plot (e.g. Pattinson receives a prostate exam in his limo while consulting with one of his many advisers). I loved it.

Critics, for the most part, did not. Metacritic calculated a 58% average review score and Rotten Tomatoes calculated 65% of reviewers scored it greater than 50%. So not everyone hated it, and in fact the distribution of scores is all over the place, but few pronounced strong admiration. Reputable reviewers (i.e. not Entertainment Weekly) gave it both extremely positive and extremely negative (as well as extremely disinterested) reviews.

Then what do you tell your friends about Cosmopolis if you can't rely on otherwise reliable review sources to give you your opinion? What's more interesting to me than the wide distribution of opinions is their contradictory nature. Half of the critics accuse the movie of being vapid and self-important with no real insight into capitalism, existentialism or whatever the movie seems to be trying to explain. The other half can't get enough of what they perceive as the films themes, motifs, and symbols. At the same time the New York Post bemoans the superficiality of the dialogue, the New York Times calls it "to the point".

What do I think about the movie? It's definitely a slow build (at least the first time through) and the dialogue takes some getting used to. The movie can be read in several interesting ways, but none of them really do the film justice. Saying you went to Cosmopolis for its interpretation of death drive (or worse, its supposed vision for the future of OWS) is like saying you went to The Hobbit for its association of the One Ring with femininity: the reading might be there but if that's all you liked then you weren't really watching.

What I like about the movie is that it creates its own world, and not at all in the same way that J. R. R. Tolkien creates his own world. Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is an incredibly alienating world where everything is not quite right, everything's a little skewed. This isn't just American Psycho of the 21st century (although the parallels are obviously there), it's something much more unique.

In the end all I can really say is if this sounds interesting then you should give Cosmopolis a shot. Watch it and form your own opinion (even if it's just, "Meh, stilted and boring."), since if nothing else Cosmopolis is definitely open for interpretation. And finally, if you can make it, stay to the end to hear Pattinson verbally spar with Paul Giamatti. It's awesome.