White Supremacist Cinema: Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, Uncategorized

This post will segue from a discussion of Booksmart to a discussion of issues relating to the Karen meme.

The link might not for some readers be fully concrete, but in a week when Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake 7 times, and in which Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors and seriously injured one more in Kenosha, Wisconsin – before going to the police, who, it is alleged, initially gave him water before sending him on his way (only later to arrest him), the wider contemporary context of Black Lives Matter seems worth bearing in mind, and, indeed, addressing.

This is not to mention the appearance at the Republican National Convention this week of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, after they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protestors in St Louis, Missouri, back in late June.

I open a blog on a well-meaning and enjoyable comedy like Booksmart with an invocation of Sheskey, Rittenhouse and the McCloskeys in order to suggest that the white supremacy of the film perhaps requires a certain (‘black’) lens in order to be seen (or, after Denise Ferreira da Silva, the white supremacy of Booksmart might be seen if we look at it under a ‘blacklight‘) – something that is far less necessary when we consider the (more obvious) white supremacy of, say, The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019).

Part of my job was recently made much easier when Jackson Wright wrote about Booksmart precisely in terms of ‘white complexity, white complicity and new stereotype.’

In his essay, he discusses how the non-white characters in the film are reduced to minor roles, and that these are all somewhat stereotyped. Click on the link above to check out Wright’s brief but informative essay to get the full details of this.

But in order to summarise, I might simply quote Wright in order to say that, although Olivia Wilde’s film was well received critically,

[a] lack of both complex nonwhite characters and women of color who are the same age as the protagonists point to the fact that Booksmart was a white victory, and that with only white victories, there follows white superiority.

Beyond Wright’s important intervention, then, I would like simply to highlight two moments in the film – neither of which gets a mention in his short essay.

Susan B. Anthony
The first takes place early on in the film when ‘booksmart’ protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discuss how they should be more rebellious, especially as they approach the end of school.

‘Name one person whose life was better ’cause they broke rules,’ says Amy in a challenge to Molly, who promptly names Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony as examples of unruly women who, indeed, broke rules and made a case for a more inclusive, and less sexist USA.

It is Anthony with whom we shall stick in this discussion, and her name might well be familiar to contemporary readers, not least because of this mention in Booksmart (which no doubt has prompted numerous Google searches), but also because Donald J. Trump recently called for Anthony to be pardoned posthumously for voting illegally in 1872.

Anthony is a formidable and venerable figure in the history of women’s rights in the USA, and the aim here is not to deny what work she has done in furthering the rights of white women in that country.

However, as Angela Y. Davis has outlined at some length in her classic text, Women, Race & Class, Anthony also was quite prepared to forego her interest in emancipation for Black Americans when the issue of the vote for white women was concerned.

Indeed, Davis reports exchanges between Anthony and Ida B. Wells, who founded the first Black women’s suffrage club, in which Anthony explains how and why she dis-invited Black emancipation campaigner Frederick Douglass from a visit being made by her Suffrage Association to Atlanta, Georgia.

As Anthony said to Wells, and as she is quoted by Davis: ‘I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the southern white women into our suffrage association.’

That is, Anthony did not want the presence of a Black campaigner to diminish support for her bid for women’s suffrage – which here means white women’s suffrage.

Furthermore, as Davis goes on to report, Anthony ‘also refused [this is in 1894] to support the efforts of several Black women who wanted to form a branch of the suffrage association. She did not want to awaken the anti-black hostility of her white Southern members, who might withdraw from the organisation if Black women were admitted’ (Davis 1983: 111-112).

Davis goes on to detail various other ways in which, when faced with the choice between fighting for the rights of all women and fighting for the rights of white women, Anthony chose white women.

From a white perspective, we might say that Anthony was in an ‘impossible’ situation, and that it is better to achieve the vote for at least some people/one ‘minority’ than to achieve the vote for no one because one is demanding too much (by demanding for the equal rights of Blacks).

However, this does not change the fact that Blacks were effectively thrown under the bus – and Anthony sided with the powerful in order to achieve something for white women only, rather than siding with the oppressed in a bid to achieve something for everyone.

Perhaps a ‘realist’ would say that history does not remember idealists who ask for ‘too much.’ But even if this were so, it is a position that accepts as legitimate a white supremacist system that only continued as the USA progressed from slavery to Jim Crow.

Furthermore, if this position is ‘realist[ic],’ then it really is suggesting that white reality is a ‘truer’ or more legitimate reality than a non-white reality. That is, ‘realism’ is determined by white supremacy.

The appeal to reality and realism, while hypothetical (in that it is I who speculate what a ‘realist’ might argue, without having actually encountered such an argument), is nonetheless important.

For equally at work in Anthony’s choice of white women over all women is the implication that white women are worth more than Black women, and that Black women are somehow not women, or not ‘real’ women.

If one wanted to win the vote for women, then one must want to win the vote for all women; if one settles for white women only, then either one does not consider Black women to be women, or one does not really want to win the vote for all women at all.

And if a black woman falls into a secondary category ‘below’ white women, such that she may not, as Sojourner Truth might suggest, be a woman, then this only reflects how Blacks have not historically been considered real humans/have historically not really been considered human, in the USA and further afield (including the UK).

Not being ‘as human’ as a white, and perhaps not even being ‘human,’ means that Black lives are deemed not to matter as much as white lives, and that perhaps Black lives do not matter at all.

Black Lives Matter, then, exists to remind us precisely of the opposite; that Black lives do matter. And that there is not a hierarchy whereby white lives matter more than black lives, which is what we would call white supremacy.

By this token, we can indeed say that ‘all lives matter,’ but to insist on saying this when the contemporary USA, as well as a contemporary postcolonial globe, insists repeatedly on demonstrating that not all lives do matter (to paraphrase George Orwell, all lives may well be equal, but apparently some are ‘more equal’ than others) is what is typically (and problematically?) referred to as ‘tone deaf.’

(Perhaps it is problematic since, in eliding [quasi-]racism with both those without a musical ear and those who are hard of hearing, it is perhaps an insult to the latter two groups.)

To return to our main argument, though, to argue that ‘all lives matter’ misses the point that to assert Black Lives Matter is done in the face of clear evidence that for many people they do not.

Willfully to diminish the Black Lives Matter movement is in effect to reaffirm white supremacy; to insist that ‘all lives matter’ wants to deny a moment of Black centrality in order to restore the historical and ongoing status quo whereby white lives matter most.

For all of its charm, then (and I am happy to say that I enjoyed Booksmart upon initial viewing, even as it might also be critiqued not only from the perspective of race, but also from the perspective of class, in that all of the Angelinos that we see in it are basically rich kids), Booksmart invokes an historical figure who stood for white women’s suffrage at the expense of women’s suffrage – in order to inspire two white women to… party and get drunk for a night, surrounded by a supporting cast of less-developed characters of colour.

The fact that white women’s suffrage is here expressed in the form of getting drunk carries several important connotations. The first is that even if political engagement by the likes of Anthony is in hindsight understood as problematic and/or incomplete, such political engagement now justifies hedonism and consumerism.

As such, Booksmart might embody what in academic parlance is sometimes referred to as a shift from feminism to postfeminism: feminism reworked not against but rather for capitalism – something that we shall also see manifest in discussions of consumerism towards the end of this blog.

Furthermore, that Amy and Molly’s night of drunken mayhem is spent with various non-white characters suggests that hedonism is a kind of ‘slumming’ done here by whites among the non-whites who supposedly do it regularly – even though whites are more commonly arrested in the USA for alcohol-related misdemeanours.

Finally, and more importantly, is that when Amy is arrested precisely for being drunk, the entire scene goes down in an amusing fashion.

White perp walking
We in fact see the scene of Amy’s arrest via social media, in that Molly wakes up after her night out to a series of text messages lauding Amy, whom she then sees in a video getting arrested by the cops.

‘There are more prisons than colleges in the US, did you know that? And it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California. That’s more than Harvard!’ says Amy as she gets ‘perp walked’ to the cop car.

Then, as they move her towards the backseat, she says: ‘This seems excessive. Shotgun. Just kidding. I don’t have one.’

It is a moment that contains various important, if understated, details.

First of all, the ‘heroic’ arrest and/or moment of ‘hilarious’ insolence towards cops is a staple of the teen film, with a notable example being Superbad (Greg Mottola, USA, 2007).

(I have another blog to write at some point in time about how Seth Rogen’s films continue to demonstrate a pretty conservative streak, even though as a comedian Rogen might come across as ‘liberal’; for some notes in this direction, see a relatively recent blog on Long Shot, Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019; with the recent American Pickle, Brandon Trost, USA, 2020, moving in a similar direction. That Rogen plays a cop in Superbad would probably make for a decent starting point for considering this aspect of his star persona…)

What is more, this funny irreverence towards cops is not isolated to white kids, as per Superbad and Booksmart. Indeed, in 21 & Over (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, USA, 2013), Justin Chon’s Jeff Chang dances on a cop car and gets arrested, suggesting that not only white kids, but also Asian kids (who are, after all, the ‘model minority’) can defy the authority of the police.

However, when we consider the way in which irreverence towards cops by Black characters can lead to death, as per recent films like The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr, USA, 2018) and Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), then it seems clear that Blacks cannot ‘enjoy’ humour and heroism in the same way that white characters can.

And when we now consider not movies but real-world police shootings of Black people, like Jacob Blake and so many others, then we might understand that every time a Black American comes into contact with a police officer, there is no joking to be done – since one’s life is at risk.

To joke with the cops, then, is something that is acceptable for whites, tolerable for ‘yellows,’ and intolerable for Blacks. And so to show such a joking moment in Booksmart and for it to be funny demonstrates unthinking whiteness on the part of the filmmakers and an assumption of whiteness on the part of the viewer.

(It is not that you have to be white to find this moment funny; but I might suggest that you do adopt a white perspective when/if you do find this moment funny, regardless of one’s actual [perceived] skin colour.)

Now, I wish generously to suggest that the whiteness of Booksmart‘s white perp walking does not necessarily mean that the moment is white supremacist; in joking with cops, Amy is expressing her empowered white status, but she is not necessarily expressing antiblackness.

However, the scene does in many ways set Amy up as the typical white woman that Hazel V. Carby calls ‘the prize object[s] of the Western world’; that is, Amy is not only defiant of the police, but in some ways she is also protected rather than threatened by them, such that she can make a joke about having a weapon in front of them and get away with it. The police were never going to shoot Amy; they wouldn’t, because as a young white woman, it is her service and protection for which the police stand.

But more than this, Amy’s explanation to the cops about the cost of American prisons suggests not just a white logic but a white supremacist logic at work at this moment (if the two can actually be separated).

This might seem counter-intuitive, in that Amy speaks a truth about the incarceration system of the USA, and she is, after all, planning on spending a year in Botswana before going to university – unlike most of her friends who are heading straight for the Ivies.

That is, Amy might speak here as someone invested in social justice and Black lives – both in the USA, where African Americans are disproportionately kept in prison (as the same Angela Y. Davis, among other writers, has argued across various texts, including this one), and in Africa itself.

However, that Amy offers these statistics at the point of her arrest would seem to suggest that she does not feel that she should be arrested. That is, in saying to the cops that ‘[t]here are more prisons than colleges in the US,’ and that ‘it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California… That’s more than Harvard,’ Amy seems to be saying that she should NOT be used to swell prison numbers, that she is not the sort of person that needs to be arrested, not least because she will end up costing the American taxpayer more than if she went to an Ivy League school like her friends.

This moment might in some senses involve canny writing on the part of Booksmart‘s (white) screenwriters, in that Amy betrays here her own belief that she is the ‘prize object’ and not a ‘real’ criminal. However, it would seem that the film also endorses Amy’s perspective by playing this moment for laughs.

That the moment is also accompanied by a statement from a relatively wealthy white woman about prisons basically not being for her (she should not cause the American taxpayer any undue expense – because she is white) in effect reveals a truth: prisons are not really for white Americans, but actually ways for (white) American taxpayers to pay for Black Americans not to be otherwise out in society.

Forasmuch as it is ‘good fun,’ then, Booksmart demonstrates that good fun is much more readily accessible if your skin is white, even as it reclaims from Superbad the idea that irreverent and empowering ‘fun’ is uniquely a masculine pursuit.

In other words, empowering hedonism is only empowering to those who are already empowered; those who are not empowered simply cannot act in the way that Amy does here, since it might well lead to death.

In some senses, then, Booksmart offers to us perhaps exactly the legacy of Susan B. Anthony: white women are here empowered at the expense of non-whites. In this way, Booksmart in the contemporary moment arguably takes on dimensions of being a ‘Karen factory,’ while also showing how Susan B. Anthony might well be a proto-‘Karen,’ an association made between the two by Helen Lewis in her Atlantic article on the Karen phenomenon, to which we shall turn presently.

‘The Mythology of Karen’
What follows is going potentially to be controversial – because the term ‘Karen’ conveys several linked but slightly different meanings, and in choosing its white supremacist connotations as my preferred meaning of ‘Karen,’ I run the risk of negating the reality of those other meanings (which tend to focus primarily on the idea that the term is sexist).

All the same, I wish to suggest that the very conflation of Karen’s slightly different meanings (racial and sexist) functions as a means to negate the one positive political use to which the term can be put, namely to critique white supremacy.

In her article, Lewis carefully identifies the racialised history of the term, explaining herself that it started out as ‘an indictment of racial privilege,’ with a key example from 2020 being the accusation by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper that he was threatening her in a park in New York on the day that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

What is more, Lewis as mentioned evokes Susan B. Anthony, thereby further suggesting that the latter is/was a proto-Karen avant la lettre, not least for her notorious 1869 statement that ‘[i]f intelligence, justice and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women be brought up first and that of the negro last’ – although Lewis does also contextualise this statement by saying that Anthony was ‘responding to the suggestion by Frederick Douglass that Black male enfranchisement was a more urgent issue than women’s suffrage.’

That is, contra Davis, Lewis suggests that Anthony ‘only’ put white women ahead of Blacks because Douglass threatened to put Black men ahead of white women.

Notably omitted in Lewis’ brief analysis of this moment is that for Anthony to insist in this way on white women’s suffrage over that of Black men, she must both have accepted that white men are superior to Black men (the ‘realist’ position defined above), and that men are superior to women (in that Anthony could not support Black women in seeking to get the vote, because this would de facto mean that Black men would have to get the vote, too; that is, Anthony accepts the patriarchal status quo if she cannot get on board with Black men and all women getting the vote – even as she tries to challenge it).

Furthermore, that Lewis dresses up Anthony’s argument for white women’s suffrage as a bit of tit for tat with Douglass demonstrates that for Lewis (as the interpreter of history) and for Anthony (as the historical agent), the Black man functions as a threat. That is, there is no seeking of alliances when push comes to shove, but only competition between these ‘minority’ groups.

We might say that the onus is on Douglass as a man (regardless of his race) to get on board with Anthony – and surely there is some (qualified) legitimacy in this claim.

However, this legitimacy is arguably qualified indeed, because while we should charge Douglass with overlooking the suffrage of Black women as he seeks the suffrage of Black men, Douglass is not really in a position to help Anthony because he is Black.

For, as a Black man, Douglass is not just in a perceived ‘inferior’ position to Anthony within the hierarchical American system, but also, even though now a ‘free’ man, Douglass is still not considered human (or not ‘as human’) as Anthony.

In some ways Douglass ‘cannot,’ therefore, call for the inclusion of white women as political/voting subjects within the USA.

I place ‘cannot’ in scare quotes because Douglass did, contra Lewis, support the cause of women’s suffrage until his death in 1895 (‘right is of no sex, truth is of no color’). However, his support of women’s suffrage was also in some senses impossible – and not just because to do so would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white men. Rather, and more specifically, it would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white women, who might well see in such an otherwise well-meaning gesture a threat to their position within society.

That is, a Black man cannot in effect help a white woman, since to do so would involve him telling a white man what to do (you should give the vote to white women, Black men, and Black women – which is not to mention people of other races within the USA). A Black man can only, in this sense, represent his own race (and as mentioned it is indeed a flaw in Douglass’ reasoning that he does/did not lobby for the suffrage of Black women, at least at certain points in his career).

Meanwhile, the obverse is not the case; a white woman can indeed (more easily?) lobby for Black men (and women) – and yet at a crucial moment this did not take place.

But more to the point, when Lewis casts Anthony’s rejection of Douglass as a bit of historical tit for tat (he wasn’t going to help her, so she didn’t help him), it denies the fact that Douglass, as a Black man and thus as a ‘non-human,’ was not necessarily in a position to help Anthony, as a ‘human.’

For, how can a human (Anthony) recognise help from and equality with a non-human (Douglass) without destroying the way in which the humanity of the one is dependent on the non-humanity of the other?

Put differently, Anthony might be a ‘prize object,’ but Douglass, as a former slave, is merely an abject (someone ‘cast out,’ from the Latin ab- + jacere = ‘thrown away’).

For Anthony to refuse to help Douglass, then, because Douglass did not help Anthony, is in some senses to misunderstand what Blackness means and how antiblackness works – and it is verily to play into the hands of white supremacy when one sacrifices Blackness for the furtherance of whiteness.

The proof of this difference in power between Anthony and Douglass is, as it were, in the pudding – in that while Black men were in principle given the right to vote in 1870 through the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment (which stated that ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ could not be a barrier to voting), and while women were only given the vote in 1920 following the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment saw swathes of Blacks being denied suffrage on account of taxation, illiteracy, ‘grandfather clauses’ and other discriminatory procedures, right up until 1965 (although it could be argued that such measures continue in various forms until the present day).

That is, while Douglass tried to make a claim for Black male suffrage, and while Anthony made a counter-claim for white women’s suffrage, the history of Jim Crow would suggest that Blackness is a greater hindrance to empowerment in the USA than is femininity (but this is not to suggest that the history of women’s suffrage is easier or plain-sailing).

By this token, we might suggest that it is not the job of the most disempowered/the abject to help the more empowered (‘objects’) in their pursuit of more power – but that it is the job of the more empowered (here, an object) to help the more disempowered (here, an abject) to gain some power.

To apply this dynamic to the contemporary moment: it is not for Blacks to support an All Lives Matter movement, in that it is not for Blacks to march with whites who are seeking a reaffirmation of their own importance in contemporary society. However, it is for non-Blacks to support Blacks at this moment in time. It is for whites and other non-Blacks to march with Blacks. It is for whites to fight for the safety and inclusion of Blacks in an otherwise antiblack society.

However, what seems to be happening at this moment in time – and as perhaps is reflected in Booksmart – is a quasi-repetition of history: Black Lives Matter is being cast aside (abjected) for the restitution of white women as the prize object of capitalist modernity.

This is a thorny issue, and its expression is perhaps unconscious, while also emerging in subtle and not-obvious ways. However, we can see how this is so both in Lewis’ article and in a recent essay co-authored by Diane Negra and Julia Leyda on the topic.

Race and sex
In short, both pieces of writing boil down to suggesting that now that white men are using the term Karen to describe any white woman (but most typically a white woman ‘of a certain age’) who makes complaints and is unruly, the term has been co-opted away from its critical potential and now is being used to reinforce patriarchal values.

In some ways, this charge is a valid one – and it is a charge that I can and must level at myself (as a nominally cis-gendered, white male) as I consider my own unconscious biases, prejudices and so on. For, indeed, perhaps the term has now become in some quarters a kind of term used by male chauvinists to put down white women.

But I am not sure that this ‘mis-use’ of the term means that its initial point of critique, namely that white supremacy can be as present in white women as it can be in white men, is worth abandoning because white men now use the term against white women.

Having gone through a history and present of the Karen meme, starting as mentioned with Susan B. Anthony, Lewis makes an interesting turn when she distances herself from that history on the basis of nationality.

I quote a full paragraph, in which Lewis mentions how in the UK there was no case history like that of Emmett Till, a young Black man killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman. As follows:

The potency of the Karen mythology is yet more proof that the internet “speaks American.” Here in Britain, there is no direct equivalent of the Till case, and voting rights were never restricted on racial lines. The big splits in the British suffrage movement were between violent and nonviolent tactics, and on whether men under 30 should receive the vote before women. Yet British newspapers have rushed to explain the Karen meme to their readers, because Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—the prime sites for Karen-spotting—are widely used in this country. (In fact, the Karen discussion has spread throughout the English-speaking internet, reaching as far as New Zealand.)

There is a confusion here in that Lewis initially asserts that the internet ‘speaks American.’ However, she then makes a clear distinction between the USA and the UK (which comes relatively close to asserting that there is no racism in the UK, in part because the UK does not supposedly have a history of slavery), before reaffirming that the internet is ‘American’ (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are widely used in the UK), before then suggesting that the internet does not speak ‘American,’ but rather that it is English-speaking, and finally registering some surprise (via the emphatic ‘as far as’) that the Karen meme is known and repeated in New Zealand.

The confusion is created by the zigzagging between positions here. The internet speaks American, but British people don’t speak American, except that they do speak American (and maybe even New Zealanders also speak American).

The internet is in some respects without geographical boundaries; firewalls, geoblocking, some censorship issues and linguistic abilities aside, one can (especially if one has the ingenuity to use a VPN) access and engage with the internet from anywhere with a computer, phone line and modem.

That is, it is no surprise that the Karen meme reaches New Zealand, because the Karen meme is not (just) ‘American,’ but on the internet. That it is presented as surprising that someone in far-flung New Zealand might have encountered the Karen meme suggests that Lewis – who otherwise expresses great familiarity with relatively specialised feeds on Reddit – does not really comprehend the internet.

In short, the internet in many respects breaks down national boundaries. And so for Lewis to resurrect those national boundaries involves a sleight of hand that serves to disavow how the Karen meme might apply to someone in or from the UK.

Lewis makes as much clear when she goes on to say that ‘[a]t some point… the particular American history behind Karen got lost’ – another suggestion that the point made in the most recent spate of Karen-outings do not apply to anyone in the UK, and that women like Amy Cooper are unique to the USA.

However, to suggest (or even loosely to imply) that racism, white supremacy and systemic imbalances of power along race lines are non-existent in the UK, such that they appear not to merit mention in Lewis’ argument, is simply false. The UK has its own fair share of issues of racism, as numerous authors, from the afore-mentioned Hazel V. Carby through to Reni Eddo-Lodge can attest.

What is more, while the USA had slavery within its own borders, as an imperial nation the UK outsourced its racist practices, running plantations perhaps not on its own shores, but across the rest of its vast Empire, and from which Empire the homeland benefitted enormously (to the tune of untold, unimaginable sums of money).

Lewis is surely correct to identify that white men calling white women Karen is a mis-use of the term – and that mis-use is surely worth critiquing. But the point can be as simply made as that: the Karen meme (at least in its most well-known iteration) had an initially and ongoing valid point of critique, namely to expose white supremacy/antiblackness, but that it can also be used as a tool for sexism.

To invoke a slightly twisted history of national specificity and problematic disavowals, though, suggests not a search for solidarity across what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the color line,’ as progressive white women join forces with Black men and women alike to combat patriarchy (which in its most ‘simple’ guise is both sexist and racist), but rather a desire to shift focus away from issues of race and to place them once again on to issues of sex.

(In her book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, Lewis achieves a similar sleight of hand. While the overwhelming majority of her examples are white, she does report an encounter with two black feminists, who over coffee explain to Lewis that her commissioning work as a journalistic editor ‘was leaving out women of colour.’ Lewis does admit that in this encounter she became ‘defensive, when I should have simply done them the courtesy of listening’ – before then dismissing the complaints of the women as ‘driven by jealousy, or that heady mix of sadism and self-righteousness which characterises a moral crusade.’ That is, Lewis says not that she does or did listen – which she would only have done out of courtesy, but that she should have listened to them but did not, before then confirming as much when she dismisses the critique as being a case of envy.)

In other words, while Black Lives Matter rages, Lewis’ article comes across as an attempt to remind us not only that white women can be and are victims, too, but that they are perhaps the ‘real’ victims, with the article saying that of course the history of race is important, but that the history of sexism is even more pernicious.

And yet, I might follow in the line of numerous influential thinkers – scholars including but not limited to Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Winter, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Jared Sexton, Katherine McKittrick, Frank B. Wilderson III, Rizvana Bradley and Calvin L. Warren – to suggest that antiblackness is the structuring antagonism (to use Wilderson’s term) upon which modernity is built.

And that modernity may well ‘speak American,’ but it is not American alone (and there is a strong historical reason why American people speak English). Indeed, modernity is not American, but global. And by virtue of being global, it affects us all – even the people in ‘far-flung’ New Zealand (far-flung for whom?).

Antiblackness
The basic premise of antiblackness has already been outlined above: it is the treatment of non-whites, but perhaps especially Blacks, as not-quite or not-even human. It is to be treated as abject, or discarded – much as Lewis invokes a racial history of the racist roots of Karen, only to discard it, and much as Lewis claims to listen to her two black female critics, only to discard them and their feedback.

Towards the end of her article, Lewis draws upon Ta-Nehisi Coates, in particular his essay ‘The Great Schism,’ in order to remind us that Anthony’s fellow suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké, were let down by abolitionists for having fought for the end of slavery, only for that not to lead to any progress in the pursuit of women’s suffrage. Or, as Coates puts it in relation to Stanton and Anthony, ‘the two spent much of their early careers very much devoted to the cause of black people, and took their share of abuse for it.’

Grimké ‘credited abolition with helping awaken her to the persistent oppression of women,’ while Frederick Douglass eventually reconciled with Anthony and Stanton, ‘singling out Stanton, in particular, for making him a “Woman’s Rights Man.”‘

That is, Coates attempts to understand the lack of solidarity between Anthony and Douglass, a fact to which Lewis appeals in defence of her argument (if Coates can feel solidarity with Susan B. Anthony, then so should Blacks today feel solidarity with Helen Lewis).

However, where Coates does indeed ‘forgive’/condone/contextualise the white supremacy of Anthony, Lewis seemingly expects the same forgiveness and condonement, but without offering anything in return. For, while Anthony did spend years ‘devoted to the cause of black people,’ Lewis in this article and in her interaction with Black women journalists in her book only seems to pay lip service to that cause as a means to bring us back to the real cause: the fight against sexism.

It is not that sexism is unreal; sexism is very real and must be addressed – but to use sexism as a tool not to address racism is not progressive, and even if it does not come across fully as a (probably unconscious) white supremacist manoeuvre, it can still come across as ‘tone deaf,’ especially at a moment when Black Lives Matter is attempting (and needing) to gather momentum in the USA and globally.

Now, Coates is most famous for his essay ‘The Case for Reparations,’ which is reproduced in his book, We Were Eight Years in Power. That particular article outlines how and why contemporary American wealth is built upon the racialised exploitation of Black slaves – as well as outlining a particular and overlooked moment of violence in the history of the USA, namely the Tulsa race massacre that took place in 1921.

We shall return to ‘The Case for Reparations’ in the face of consumer society imminently, but it might also be worth noting that the article inspired Damon Lindelof to set his highly regarded ‘adaptation’ of Watchmen partially in Tulsa in 1921 – exploring the race massacre and its afterlives throughout the show.

I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, antiblack oppression leads to a Black protest in that show, where a young boy kills a police officer by firing a gun at him at point blank range. It is ironic, then, that during a pro-Black lives protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it was not a young Black who shot a (white?) police officer, but a young white boy who shot three protestors, killing two of them.

That is, while Watchmen takes a moment to depict Black vengeance, the reality is that whites continue to enact violence on Blacks and their supporters.

And the second reason I mention this is that allegedly Trump held his Juneteenth Rally in Tulsa as an antagonistic reminder of the race massacre; that is, Trump took the event to Tulsa in order to intimidate Black (democratic) Americans regarding how history might repeat itself (even as the history of that massacre repeats itself constantly – with every massacre of an innocent Black American).

If Trump took his Juneteenth Rally to Tulsa in order to antagonise his opponents about the racial history of the place, then Trump’s call to pardon Susan B. Anthony in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election can also be read as an attempt to appeal to a certain kind of feminist voter, specifically a white feminist voter.

Even as Anthony herself might roll in her grave at the mere thought of Trump using her spirit to win votes (and as the Susan B. Anthony Museum rejected Trump’s pardon), the move by Trump does convey the way in which she and he both – as people linked to the Karen meme, including by Lewis – use whiteness, or more specifically antiblackness, to further their own, white cause.

Put differently, while Lewis and Negra/Leyda (to whom I shall turn imminently) recognise but then obfuscate (if not deny) the racial politics of the Karen meme, Trump himself (the ‘ultimate Karen,’ as Lewis acknowledges) and Anthony (as a figure heavily invoked in Lewis’ article on Karen) are indeed Karens in a struggle that has at its core not sex, but race.

From slavery to consumerism
However, like Lewis, Negra and Leyda seek in their essay to highlight how the Karen meme is not just about race, but also and perhaps more about sex. In particular, they write that

Karen is doing particularly important work to mark an interface between (actual or attributed middle-class) white femininity and individuals/communities of color in a period in which everyday situational racisms are being increasingly called to account. She summons a boundary point between recidivist whiteness and “wokeness” at a time when many white people are both becoming more sensitized to racist micro-aggressions and put on alert to threatening breaches of public decorum. And it is apparent that Karen’s utility has heightened relevance now, in a pandemic moment marked by the charged nature of commercial (and other social) spaces. Less frequently noticed, however, may be her role in conservatively reinforcing prohibitions on white female agency in an arena in which that agency has historically been significant – that of goods and services/shopping.

Negra and Leyda then spend the remainder of their essay more or less explaining how frustrating it is to engage in consumer complaints in the contemporary age: customer service is on the wane, contacting someone who can actually help resolve a complaint is increasingly inaccessible, and so on.

It is not necessarily clear how and why white women engage in customer complaints more than any other demographic – although Negra and Leyda seem to suggest that it is because they have the time to do so.

Since apparently no one else has to or can, then, it would seem that the ‘Karen’ as they define them is in fact doing the world a favour, because they are the only demographic that can stand up for consumer rights in a time when those rights are being eroded.

In the face of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more, and given how these killings connect both with the calling of the cops by Amy Cooper (the implication for Christian Cooper is that his life is in danger, even as Amy Cooper fears for hers, because once the cops arrive, they might well shoot him), and given how these killings connect with the armed defence of property that we saw via the McCloskeys (notably also used antagonistically at the RNC to demonstrate that the upcoming US election is not about sex but race), to sit on a customer service complaint line seems small beer at best.

To imply that to do so is in fact not the act of a Karen but in fact doing the world a favour likewise begins to seem ‘tone deaf.’

Indeed, Negra and Leyda quote Sara Ahmed, who herself reports ‘a conversation with an Indigenous woman academic,’ who says the following:

the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.

That is, Negra and Leyda situate complaint as a political act, even as complaint has swiftly become more of a capitalist/consumerist act by the time that they discuss waiting on endless phone lines in order to complain about customer service.

More than this, to equate sitting on a customer service line to ‘surviving the violence of colonial occupation’ seems in somewhat poor taste, with Ahmed’s example being staged as a matter of survival, something that also applies today to Black Lives Matter… but something that really does not apply to sitting on a customer service phone line at all.

Negra and Leyda conclude by suggesting that the Karen ‘seems to seek an ontological reassurance that consumer capitalism is on her side (and on the side of whiteness). We suggest it is productive to consider the sources of “Karen’s” misdirected anger.’

Or, put differently Negra and Leyda do usefully posit in the end that Karen does indeed want to know that their sense of being in the world (Karen’s ontology) is not under threat – and that this sense of being rests in large part on Karen’s (unthinking) whiteness.

But while in some senses it might be ‘productive’ to know that the ‘misdirected anger’ of Karens as they complain about the low quality of customer service stems from a sense of disempowerment as complaining about shopping becomes increasingly difficult in the contemporary age, this again seems to miss the mark of engaging with white supremacy.

This is not to mention how, even if white women (of a certain age) are the ones who purportedly have the time to sit in endless call queues to get through to an exploited customer service worker (who might well be non-white), this experience is not confined to white women at all – and indeed everyone who wants to complain about crappy service has to go through the same process, regardless of age, race or sex.

That is, everyone is disempowered as a consumer in the contemporary moment, and yet Negra and Leyda seem to make a special case that the white woman (of a certain age) is ‘especially’ disempowered, or disempowered in such a fashion that it requires a special explanation.

And yet, forasmuch as being treated poorly as a consumer is in effect universal, so is equally universal the concomitant ‘ontological’ disruption. And yet, it is Karen alone who apparently feels the need to be reassured against this disruption, a singleness of thought that seeks to reduce to nil the other, more dangerous ontological disruptions taking place at the moment, and which in its very singleness reaffirms that Karen must be a ‘prize object’ in capitalist modernity.

(In this blacklight, the recently acclaimed Systemsprenger/System Crasher, Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019, can be seen as a working example of the tantrums that are induced when the white woman does not get her way. The film also seems to endorse the unruliness of its central character, the out-of-control 9-year old Benni, played remarkably by Helena Zengel, since the scenario sees her forgiven repeatedly by all in the film for her appalling behaviour, including bizarre sequences when a care worker, Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch, allows this dangerous child to play with his own children, before then running after Benni to make sure that she is okay, even though Benni has just threatened the life of Micha’s own child. That Micha’s child is mixed race, since he is married to an Iranian-German, Elli, played by Maryam Zaree, only furthers the idea that the white girl, Benni, is indeed the ‘prize object,’ who supersedes in importance all of the other children that surround her, even as she hospitalises many of them. Perhaps this is how fascism in its most hideous form comes truly to erupt into our world…)

And yet, to return to Karen’s need for ontological reassurance, which supposedly is at the base of Amy Cooper’s desire to call the cops on Christian Cooper: the ontological disruption that causes it shrinks into nothing when we understand that to be a Black American (if not a Black in many parts of the world) is constantly to experience what Calvin L. Warren has defined as ontological terror.

That is, while Karen needs reassurance because her ontology has been disrupted – by having to wait in line just like everyone else in order to make a complaint and/or because her white supremacy and/or consumerist tendencies have been pointed out to her – the Black American (and many other Blacks around the world) have no such luxury.

Or rather, such things are the least of their worries – as being pulled over by the police, going for a jog and/or wearing a hoodie might be reason enough for a cop to ***kill*** you.

Perhaps Amy Cooper is indeed upset about call waiting times, and perhaps this does help to explain where she is coming from when she attempts to set the cops on Christian Cooper. But the imbalance between these two ontologies is almost unfathomable; to try to balance them seems to me misguided; to appropriate the language of ‘survival’ in the face of histories of colonialism seems to me (precisely) inappropriate (it is an in-appropriation).

Negra and Leyda quote Audre Lorde’s influential essay, ‘The Uses of Anger,’ and yet they seem to pay little heed to Lorde’s actual words when she writes that

Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anguish at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a whole world out there that takes for granted our lack of humanness, that hates our very existence, outside of its service.

For white women to claim equivalence to this experience – in effect, to deny race – is to undermine and to demean the argument of those People of Colour, especially Women of Colour; it is to repeat the silencing that Lewis by her own admission enacted on the two black journalists who confronted her; and it is not to listen to what the major proponents of the Karen meme are trying to say.

As per Booksmart, white supremacy can be at work in even light-hearted, fun and ‘progressive’ movies, as well as in everyday moments in life. Sexism is also regularly at work; to deny one in order to put forward the other, especially when doing so results in an erasure of race and a repetition of the silencing of non-whites, especially Blacks, is counter-productive.

I have to check my own privileges, as well as to acknowledge my own propensity for unthinking sexism and racism. However, I am wary that to use sexism against racism is not going to take the world where we need to go; Anthony, Douglass and others have all made mistakes along these lines. But it is time to not repeat these same mistakes and for anti-racist and anti-sexist activists and sentiments to be working in concert in order to overthrow an antiblack world order.

Remembering the way in which Karen can ask us productively to address unthinking white supremacy, rather than trying to deny it, excuse it, or indeed to morph it into a renewed sense of (uniquely) white victimhood, seems to me a hopeful path to follow. To enjoy Booksmart and yet to check its blindspots equally seems to me a hopeful path to follow.

As Coates might say, ‘I invite the professionals to fill in the gaps here — both in terms of actual facts and context.’

However, I hope that this blog does go some way to enabling a more progressive, holistic and/or ‘intersectional’ approach to key issues that today have our world hanging in a precarious balance…

White Supremacist Cinema: The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Perhaps the biggest problem with racism in the UK is the UK’s belief that it does not have one.

The ‘it’ from the previous sentence should be defined as pertaining most specifically to the UK’s white population, perhaps especially those white citizens who identify solely as British nationals.

And yet, when we watch a film like The Gentlemen, it seems clear that racism is alive and well in the UK, including in British cinema (which is not to say that cinema as a whole might be a tool built upon racism).

Or, at least, The Gentlemen would wish to suggest that its white, male and Anglo-American values are ‘cinematic,’ while other, diverse forms of expression belong to smaller, ‘inferior’ screens.

We’ll get to the treatment of race in The Gentlemen shortly. First, however, we should get to grips with what I mean when I include the phrase ‘white supremacy’ in the title of this post.

For, in order to understand how white supremacy works, it is important to understand what it is, and because The Gentlemen is not especially subtle in its white supremacy, it functions as a good tool for us to think about how and why white supremacy is at work in the film.

So, as perhaps needs to be said every time one engages with the issue of race in the UK, white supremacy, as well as racism more generally, are not uniquely defined by hood-wearing white people lynching non-white people.

Rather, white supremacy is, simply enough, the belief that whites and whiteness are of greater value than non-whites and non-whiteness, perhaps especially blackness, but for certain in The Gentlemen, more valuable than yellowness.

The immediate defence mechanism that a white supremacist will put into play is the idea that I just betrayed my own racism by using ‘racist’ terms like black and yellow, as well as perhaps white.

To be clear, ‘yellow’ especially is a term that is loaded with a racist history, not least because it has historically been and continues to be a term applied by whites (and others) to various Asian peoples in precisely a derogatory fashion: the ‘yellow peril,’ for example, has long expressed the fear of whites that the Chinese (or others) will ‘take over’ the white world – a fear that is overtly at work in The Gentlemen.

All the same, while Asian people rarely and perhaps only ever with some sense of irony define themselves as ‘yellow’ (unlike Blacks, who do define themselves proactively as black, even though what ‘black’ really is or means has never been accurately or exactly defined – except perhaps by whites), I use the term(s) here to get us to think about how white supremacy works from the inside.

By this, what I mean to say is that white supremacy sees whites and whiteness as being superior to all other colours. In order to do this, it has to cast those other, non-white people into those other colour categories (black, yellow, brown) in order specifically to highlight that they are not white.

Having made this conceptual distinction, which allows the white to value himself above the non-white, the white takes the ‘supreme’ position from among the different colour categories. It is not that there are different colours, so much as a hierarchy of colours, with white at the top. Hence white supremacy.

Thereafter follow myriad ways in which whites and whiteness receive preferential treatment, get more opportunities and so on and so forth, all because they are white, while those non-whites (yellow, black, brown and so on) get inferior treatment, fewer opportunities and so on and so forth.

The point that I wish to make at the outset, then, is that you don’t need to be an overt racist to be a white supremacist or, at the very least, to benefit from a white supremacist system, or to thrive within a society that is white supremacist.

Nor, I might add, do you need to be white to thrive in a white supremacist society. You can be non-white and thrive; and you can be white and not thrive.

But if you are white, then the chances are significantly increased that you will thrive, or at least be more comfortable than if you were not white; and if you are non-white, then you will have significantly greater barriers before you to both comfort and, better yet, thriving.

And so if you benefit from such a system or thrive within such a society because of your whiteness, and if you do not do anything to change the advantages that you have, by, for example, refusing to share that advantegeous position, then, simply put, you are a white supremacist out of complicity, if not out of explicit action.

(That said, how we might separate explicit action from ‘mere’ complicity when we are considering the entire fabric of a life seems quite difficult to me; ‘doing nothing,’ or allowing disadvantages to continue for others simply because this gives you greater advantages, is an explicit action, just as not helping your neighbour is an explicit action… whether or not you run the risk of seeming like a chump to other advantaged people, who will think that you are betraying them because you see, understand and try to do something about the disadvantages presented to some – with the same advantaged people perhaps also thinking you stupid for not taking the same advantages as they do, even though you have those advantages before you. In short, the easy option – allowing things to stand as they are – negates the difference between complicity and explicit action; taking the harder option is always harder, and part of why it is harder is because others will make your life harder for taking that option – calling you names, making you feel bad about yourself and so on.)

Anyway, one of the next defence mechanisms that a typical white supremacist would throw out in order to deny racism, be that their own racism or that of the system from which they benefit, would be an appeal to history.

That is, and as per the notion described above of complicity/allowing things to stand as they are, a white supremacist (be they explicitly racist or simply happy quietly to benefit from white supremacy), would say that the UK is historically ‘white’ and that blacks and other non-whites of course are welcome here, but that they have to come and work their way ‘up the ladder’ and that of course this cannot happen overnight and so on and so forth.

However, while the appeal of such a view is perhaps inevitable to an unthinking white supremacist and to an overt racist alike, it is also false and an act of white supremacist thinking in and of itself.

Its falseness would probably take too long to deal with here in full. But put bluntly, the view is false because the idea that the UK is ‘historically’ white elides in this case race with nationalism – using race to define what is ‘British’ as that which is ‘white.’

But if ‘British’ and ‘white’ are now supposed to be synonymous, then we quickly get into hot water, as many comedians have pointed out – including perhaps most memorably Stewart Lee – since what ‘British’ is has no clear or exact meaning. We are a nation historically made of up Angles, French, Vikings, Norsemen, Celts, the Welsh, the Cornish, Germans, Greeks and more. (Many more!)

To suggest that Britishness and whiteness are historically synonymous is false, then, not because these other nations (Angles, French, Vikings, etc) are non-white (although more on this detail in a short moment), but because if ‘British’ is a single identity that in fact springs from a wide range of different identities, then there is no reason to suggest that ‘British’ is a single identity that has to have a specific skin colour.

What is more, the idea that the UK is historically white is also false and in and of itself white supremacist because if those non-white people who supposedly are ‘now’ British were indeed ‘British,’ then they would simply be British – and there would be no need to tell them that they were somehow ‘not British enough’ because of their skin colour.

That is, when history is used as an appeal to justify ongoing imbalances along racial lines within the UK, it places those non-white people in the category of ‘not quite British’ or ‘not British enough’ – as if having British nationality and/or permission to live and work in the UK were not the end of it.

To be treated as ‘not quite British’ means that history is being used as an excuse to preserve white Britishness in its supreme position, with that supremacy now based upon whiteness (i.e. it is white supremacy), since it is the non-whiteness of the other that renders them ‘not quite British.’

(Nationality can also be used instead of race to classify someone as ‘not quite British.’ For example, one might be Irish or Polish in origin, and this non-British origin is now used as a reason to define the other as ‘not quite British.’ In other words, white supremacy can also work alongside a sense of nationalist supremacy. It is not for no reason, though, that the Irish and the Polish have historically sometimes been referred to as the ‘blacks of Europe.’ That is, nationalist supremacy and white supremacy often go hand in hand, and even though the skin of many Irish people is ‘white,’ and indistinguishable from the skin of many British people, the Irish have not always been considered ‘fully white,’ just as they have not always been considered ‘fully British’ – whatever that means. As a result, ‘whiteness’ is a set of values not always wholly linked to skin colour alone.)

(Furthermore, the appeal to history also is inherently conservative in that it assumes that the past is more correct than the present and the future – a perspective that contradicts the notion of ‘progress,’ which can be equally problematic, and which claims that the present is more correct than the past – and that the future will be more correct yet than the present. In other words, such a view suggests that historical whiteness overrules present diversity and future non-whiteness. Given that history has favoured whites, such a conservative view of the world is thus to my mind itself a culturally ‘white supremacist’ view.)

‘But,’ our white supremacist might contend in their next line of defence, ‘if we don’t look out, then we’ll be overrun by foreigners’ – which is the ‘yellow peril’ line of argument at work in its clearest fashion (although the peril need not always be yellow; it can also be black and/or Polish and so on).

What this line of defence suggests again is that the now-British person is again not quite British enough, and that rather than Britain changing in its complexion in order to match its citizens, it is citizens who must change in their complexion in order to match the nationality.

Again, if we are all only really ‘now-British,’ in that everyone is non-British if you go back far enough, then it is both senseless and racist to say that the newer ‘now-British’ are ‘not quite British’ or ‘not really British’ because of their skin colour (or former nationality). That is, none of us is ‘really British’ when we look hard enough at it, with Britishness – as well as whiteness – simply being imaginary constructs.

The contention comes in again: how can you say race is an imaginary construct when I can see that a black person has a different colour of skin to a white person? I am not ‘imagining’ that difference at all…

In some senses, this white supremacist defence is not wrong; many people defined as black do indeed have darker skin pigmentation than many people defined as white.

However, it is how these differences are meaningful that is an act of the imagination.

For, if I am six foot tall, I am definitely taller than someone who is five foot six. And while some tall people do think that they are superior to shorter people, we nonetheless do not at present exclude people from a group (except perhaps for ‘those who can enjoy certain theme park rides’) as a result of their height. No, theme park rides aside, that would be completely arbitrary and meaningless.

And yet, while we do not (in principle) offer different opportunities to people who are taller than to people who are shorter, white supremacist societies, including the UK, do offer different opportunities to people because of their skin colour.

If we lived in a world where, say, people with size 8 shoes and below were discriminated against, while people with size 9 shoes and above enjoyed the majority of the opportunities and spoils, then we’d not look at skin colour but at shoe size in order to differentiate between people. In such a world, someone with darker skin would still have darker skin, and we would still be able to recognise as much, just as in our current world we can still tell if someone is short and/or has a smaller shoe size. But as we are cool with grouping up with people of different heights and/or shoe sizes in our world, so would we be cool in that other world of grouping up with people of different skin colours – just as long as they had the right shoe size or were the right height!

Since on the whole we are cool with grouping up with people of different shoe sizes, it seems weird that some people are not cool with grouping up with people of different skin colours.

With this example, then, I hope to have suggested that while there are indeed different skin colours (indeed, there are so many different skin colours that there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same skin colour, just as there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same shape and size of feet), what is an act of the imagination is how skin colour determines so much meaning and value in our world.

In the world where we discriminate by height and shoe size, skin colour would still be real, but it would determine so much less. In our world, height and shoe size are still real, but for some reason they determine relatively little (but definitely not nothing) in how much we esteem and value people, while skin colour determines a lot. That it is one and not the other is because of how we imagine people to be and how we imagine people to have or to accrue value.

That is, for some reason the contemporary world sets a lot of importance by skin colour, while it doesn’t supposedly set that much importance by height or shoe size – even though these differences are all real. Why it is skin colour that is so important a marker of difference is an act of imagination; we imagine that this one marker of difference is somehow so much more important than any other (although skin colour is by no means the only important marker of difference, with even height and shoe size sometimes being important enough a marker of difference to make that difference meaningful).

So…

This is a long and roundabout diatribe that has not yet dealt much with The Gentlemen, but which I write at the outset of what is potentially a new series of occasional blogs about how white supremacism creeps into and is at work in contemporary cinema because it is important to demonstrate how the films in question engage with and suggest how whiteness is indeed attributed greater value in the western world, if not globally, and especially in the UK as per Guy Ritchie’s film.

With this in mind, we can turn to various moments in the film that demonstrate its white supremacist values, before then suggesting why it is important to point out the film’s white supremacy, even as it risks spoiling the ‘fun’ of this piece of what would like otherwise to be ‘harmless entertainment.’

Relatively early on in the film a mixed group of youths enter into the otherwise all-white and traditional space of a chippy. The group, which is marked by having non-white members among their number, approach the counter and start putting in orders without paying attention to the other clients – and while speaking in the vernacular of British urban youths.

However, what the youths do not know is that at the counter also awaiting his chips is Coach (Colin Farrell), an Irish boxing/fight coach who just wants peacefully to get his chips without being insulted by these ‘obnoxious’ youths.

What follows is a scene in which Coach beats up a couple of the youths before they recognise who he is and defer to him. As he does this, he also delivers a basic lesson in manners, all the while meeting the nodding approval of the chippy staff, who thus suggest that they have had enough of these young people, too.

The scene plays out as a fantasy of violence enacted against young, mixed groups – whose threat to the otherwise white clientele and workers at the chippy is signalled by the mixed, that is, partially non-white, nature of this particular group.

In other words, The Gentlemen here encourages us as viewers to enjoy seeing violence enacted against these young, urban kids – especially because they are lower class and non-white/mixed.

That this takes place in a chippy is significant: what more of a ‘British’ location could you get then a chippy, given that we are internationally famous for our fish’n’chips? Furthermore, given that a chippy is a ‘working class’ establishment, we can now understand that the youths are not unwelcome there because of their class – because, the chippy owners and the other chippy clients are all ‘working class.’ No – the reason that they are not welcome is because some of them are not white.

That the youths defer to Coach as they get beaten up suggests not only the imposition of a white supremacy over the course of the scene (re-establishing that whites are in charge after their supremacy has been threatened), but also that the youths themselves endorse and support this white supremacy.

That is, The Gentlemen does not just stage whites beating non-whites; it also has the non-whites basically tell the whites that they were correct to do so, since their white ways are better than the non-white ways of the youths – an important lesson that the non-whites learn over the course of this otherwise innocuous-seeming scene.

Having established Coach in his position of white supremacy – a position so supreme that even non-whites recognise his authority – the film then involves a scene in which two boxers at Coach’s gym have an argument. Indeed, one boxer calls Ernie (Bugzy Malone) a ‘black cunt,’ to which Ernie objects by suggesting that this is racist.

Coach interrupts Ernie and explains that it is not racist because Ernie is both black and a cunt, and therefore calling Ernie a black cunt is by definition not racist. Ernie agrees with Coach and goes about his business.

In other words, in this scene we have Coach delegitimise Ernie’s feeling that the other boxer has been racist (which is not to mention misogynist in his use of the term ‘cunt’). But more than simply telling Ernie he is wrong, Coach also gets to give Ernie a lesson in how to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is not racist – with the implication being to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is right. Furthermore, not only does Coach tell Ernie he’s wrong, before ‘proving’ to him why he’s wrong, but the script to The Gentlemen also has Ernie accepting Coach’s argument and basically agreeing with him.

It is important that this ‘lesson’ follows Coach having schooled the youths in the chippy. For now that his authority has been established in the former scene, it is in this second scene simply reaffirmed and not questioned. And this allows for the filmmakers to achieve a deeply problematic triple whammy: to sneak overt racism into this scene, to have that racism explained as non-racism, and for that racism then to be accepted as non-racism by the person to whom this racist slur was directed.

For those unwilling to accept this triple whammy, and who might rather posit that Ernie is indeed black, so it is not wrong to call him black, I should reply: Ernie is not called black, but specifically a black cunt. That is, blackness is here elided with cuntness in such a way that it is made to apply to an entire race, thereby making the discourse racist.

Furthermore, while the c-word does get bandied about in The Gentlemen with some frequency, it is never used in association with, say, white or whiteness. While Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Ray (Charlie Hunnam) might call each other cunts, neither calls the other a ‘white cunt,’ for example.

Perhaps they don’t have to call each other a ‘white cunt’ because each of them is white; for Ray to call Fletcher a ‘white cunt’ (or vice versa) would be redundant and so it is simpler for them just to call each other a cunt.

However, Ernie must be specified as a black cunt. According to the logic of The Gentlemen, then, race apparently has nothing to do with cuntitude except when you are black, at which point in time it is always worth reminding the cunt in question that they are specifically a black cunt.

The upshot of this is that whiteness becomes invisible (whiteness is not even worth mentioning or specifying), while blackness must always be marked – because blackness is a mark – whether or not cuntness, deeply misogynistic as it is, is also a mark.

That blackness is a mark suggests that all deviations from whiteness are abnormal and need to be defined, most often negatively (Ernie is not a cunt, but a black cunt). The need to mark deviations from whiteness is part and parcel of white supremacy – with the filmmakers here going so far as to mark this marking also as correct, and not just by the white characters, but by the affected black character himself.

That Coach is Irish could conceivably mean that we have a ‘metaphorical black’ talking to a ‘genuine’ Black (the Irish as the ‘blacks of Europe’) about race; that is, these are ‘brothers’ talking. But really The Gentlemen seems here as in the chippy scene to want to use Coach’s Irishness to cover over what is otherwise overt white supremacy.

As is typical of much white supremacist cinema, The Gentlemen does not give much screen time to non-white characters. If you look at the poster for the film, you will see that the main cast is white with the exception of Henry Golding (who plays Dry Eye); while there are non-white characters, then, these generally are cast in subservient and secondary roles.

Furthermore, the only non-white character who does have a leading part and who appears on the poster, namely Dry Eye, is of course the film’s antagonist, or villain – an uppity young Asian man who threatens to take over the business of the whites who otherwise monopolise the marijuana business within the UK.

Now, Dry Eye is not just uppity towards the white overlords. No, The Gentlemen takes care to make sure that Dry Eye is also irreverent towards his Asian boss, Lord George (Tom Wu).

However, while this might with some gerrymandering mean that Dry Eye is just a ‘bad egg,’ and that actually there are some ‘good’ Asians, like Lord George, in the film… in fact the film also makes sure to show that Lord George is also a bad egg.

This in particular takes place through a scene in which weed kingpin Mickey Pierson (Matthew McConnaughey) goes to Lord George’s base and poisons him. Not only does he poison Lord George’s tea such that the latter vomits and soils himself – a humiliation in which Mickey seems to take some pleasure – but he also offers Lord George a lecture on vices.

For, at the start of the scene, Lord George explains that gambling on horses is his only vice. Cue Mickey explaining that Lord George, as someone who deals in cocaine and heroin, has many vices, even if he does not take those drugs himself (and this is not to mention the other rackets with which he is involved). This vileness Mickey compares to his own weed dealing, which in his own eyes is simply an innocent and not life-destroying drug, even as Mickey has knowingly slaughtered his rivals (notably black!) in order to be the biggest weed dealer in the UK and perhaps further afield.

This attribution to the Asian other of evil – which applies to Dry Eye, but especially here to Lord George – is not only another scene of the white telling the non-white about their place within the white world order, but it also involves a curious erasure of history. For, as has regularly been noted, it is the UK who supplied and got countless Asians, specifically Chinese people, addicted to opium during the so-called Opium Wars – and all in the name of Empire. And yet, here it is the ‘evil’ Chinaman (with his pompous faux British name!) who is guilty of doing the same…

Again, then, whiteness reigns supreme in the world of The Gentlemen.

The Gentlemen involves a sequence in which Ray goes with his colleagues, including Bunny (Chidi Ajufo), on to a housing estate in order to extract the daughter of a lord, Laura (Eliot Pauline Sumner). This they do, but not without mistakenly throwing a Russian heir out of a window and to his death.

The body is then filmed by a further group of youths, from whom Ray and his colleagues must take their phones in order to ensure that the mission is not recorded and placed on social media.

This then prompts a sequence just like the one in the chippy: white Ray confronts the mixed/non-white youths and then out-toughs them with a machine gun. While Bunny is indeed on Ray’s ‘side’ during this confrontation, as per the sequence in the chippy, the council estate sequence situates the viewer in such a way as to take pleasure in seeing these youths as humiliated, first by marking them as a threat (especially by keeping Ray’s machine gun hidden not just from the youths, but also from us as viewers), then by marking them as defeated.

Again, then, white supremacy creeps in.

And yet, just as Bunny works for Ray, so does urban youth culture work for the film, since the inclusion of celebrity performers like Bugzy Malone is surely done in a bid to boost the appeal of The Gentlemen beyond a white audience.

And what this means is that black/urban music features on the soundtrack to the film also in a bid to sell it – and in order to increase its coolness.

Toni Morrison has written about how white media regularly use encounters with blacks, especially black music, in order to signal a transition (a character suddenly is galvanised to do something tough by listening to hip hop, for example) – and it is clear in the history of cinema more generally that black music is regularly used to signify ‘action’ and ‘excitement’ in films that otherwise have unmarked white characters taking up the vast majority of the screen time.

This exploitation is also at work here in The Gentlemen, then, where all that is non-white is derided and yet used profitably by whiteness, including the humiliation of non-whites for the pleasure of white audiences. (There is even a series of jokes at the expense of a character called Phuc, played by Jason Wong.)

And yet, for all of its use of blackness to increase its caché and chances of making a profit, The Gentlemen also has the temerity to deride black culture.

This it does relatively subtly towards the beginning of the film. For, Fletcher explains to Ray that he has written a film script about the whole plot in which he finds himself involved – for Fletcher is an investigative journalist who has been following the exploits of Mickey Pierson now for some time… and he is with Ray, as Mickey’s sidekick, to extort some money from him so as not to have Mickey’s business exposed in the tabloid press (represented here by Eddie Marsan playing newspaper editor Big Dave).

As Fletcher explains to Ray, his script is cinematic, and he outlines what ‘cinematic’ is and means by comparing it to television or even something that one might watch on a small screen on the internet. As if to confirm Fletcher’s argument that cinema is ‘superior’ to these other media, the makers of The Gentlemen consciously change the dimensions of the screen in order to convey how the bigger/more ‘cinematic’ an image is, the more powerful it is.

That is, cinema is upheld in The Gentlemen as the supreme audiovisual format.

But more than this, cinema is also upheld as white when it transpires that Coach’s non-white protégés, including Ernie and others, have not only stolen some of Mickey’s weed from one of his plantations (a problematic term that I use provocatively by choice), but that they have also recorded their exploits and uploaded them to social media.

In other words, non-whiteness is here implicitly associated with the small screen, which in turn is defined as an inferior medium not just by Fletcher, but also by the film itself, since the film consciously changes the dimensions of the screen in order to demonstrate Fletcher’s point, i.e. to demonstrate that Fletcher is correct.

It is for this reason, then, that the makers of The Gentlemen elide whiteness with cinema as a whole, with whiteness being supreme, especially in this ‘supreme’ medium. Non-whites are associated with inferior media, which in turn confirms their ‘inferior’ societal status.

And yet, for all of their supposed aesthetic ‘inferiority,’ The Gentlemen is very happy to replicate the aesthetics of social media for the purposes of telling its story, including by showing in full one of the music videos created by Ernie/Bugzy Malone in the closing credits.

White supremacy, then, relies on the non-white for its own power, and yet denies this reliance even as it overtly uses non-whiteness to its own advantage.

Of course, a white supremacist might just finally contend two things. Firstly, that someone has to be the bad guy, and so why not the Asian other/Dry Eye? To which one might respond that no one has to be the bad guy at all, especially if we understand that anyone who does ‘bad’ things generally does them for reasons beyond simply being ‘evil’ – even if The Gentlemen cannot be bothered to take the time to show the reasons behind, say, Dry Eye’s greed (meaning that he is simply allowed to be or to become a ‘bad’ Asian).

(I might suggest that cinema as a whole does not generally bother to spend time investigating or exploring complexities of character, a wider issue that is related both to conventions of storytelling, and to the kinds of films we watch, how long they run, where they play and so on. That is, films generally cannot be bothered to explore complexity because it would require slower, less ‘interesting’ and more thoughtful films. This would in turn mean that cinema would run the risk of not making as much money; and so, capitalism as a whole is in part responsible for the lack of thoughtful movies, meaning that cinema is a race to the bottom in terms of indulging unthoughtfulness. How and why thought and thinking are so unappealing in our attention-driven and capitalist society is an issue that will have to await another discussion.)

Secondly, a white supremacist might contend that The Gentlemen need not be bothered to show such complexities because it is, after all, ‘just a movie,’ just ‘a bit of fun,’ or just entertainment – as the film consciously suggests by choosing The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ as the song that plays over the start of the final credits.

But, as Richard Dyer has also suggested, that which is put forward as ‘only entertainment’ is often far from being such.

Or, put differently, we don’t have many pro-KKK films (although we should worry about their existence and the popularity that any such films enjoy). And yet, we do have issues of white supremacy and racism in our society. And white supremacy persists in our societies not only because of overt racism, but also because of white supremacy is fed to us in ‘mere entertainments’ such as The Gentlemen.

I might push further and suggest that not only is there white supremacy in our society, but that we live in a white supremacist society as a whole; that is, our society is built upon white supremacy, among other things (including classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other issues – and all of which are present in The Gentlemen, too). Since our society is built upon white supremacy, we cannot change white supremacy without changing society.

I might also suggest that cinema as a whole is white supremacist and that we cannot change white supremacy in cinema without fundamentally changing cinema.

The reason to write a blog (series) such as this, then, is to suggest that we should indeed be looking to change cinema – by encouraging producers, editors, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, all crew and cast, and even all cinema goers, as well as critics and so on – to be attuned to how white supremacy is at work in the medium, and especially in films like this one.

If we don’t put in such work – if we don’t kill some of the ‘joy’ that people take in white supremacy – then white supremacy will continue. And it is time to put an end to such white supremacy – not necessarily by making only films about paraplegic black lesbians or whatever other sarcastic response a white supremacist might put defensively in place (although why not have many more such films?), but by being and/or becoming more responsible for how we think, how we express our thoughts, and how we live with each other today.

That is, if we can spread a wider understanding of how white supremacy works, then perhaps the fabric of films like The Gentlemen might change. Producers, actors, writers, editors and so on would not want to make such films, and so such films would change. This in turn might change cinema. And by changing cinema we might in turn change society.

Such changes need to be made…

* Another white supremacist contention might be aimed at the writer of this blog as a white (cisgendered) male, etc: am I not also implicated in white supremacy, the recipient of many of its benefits and so on? That is, am I not just a virtue-signalling hypocrite in writing anti-white supremacy blogs? I am indeed complicit in white supremacy, and this has emerged in different ways at different points in my life – and it likely will never not be the case. However, as I grow increasingly to understand the workings of white supremacy myself, I feel it important not only to seek to change my own behaviours and complicity with that system, but also to share what it is that I am learning in a bid to bring about wider change. The process of learning has not ended and likely never will end. To bring it to an end, though, is what we might call a project: a part of one’s life work, something that goes on until death, but which may well give meaning to such a life, rather than persisting in meaningless complicity.

Kid Icarus (Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin, USA, 2008)

American cinema, Blogpost, Documentary, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I recently heard that Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s Kid Icarus will soon be available on VOD.

This blog post is a kind of reflective piece written to celebrate its release – and to encourage readers to watch the film.

And so I begin…

Only yesterday, I read another feed on Twitter in which a.n. minor celebrity spoke of how a teacher had told them at school that they would amount to nothing – and that now the minor celebrity was taking great pleasure in effectively getting ‘revenge’ on their teacher by telling them, and the world, how much money they had made in their lives.

Aside from the way in which this narrative reaffirms the idea that all teachers are always already failures for not going into a more lucrative career (because the minor celebrity is affirming success via the fact that they have made a lot of money, while their teacher is wallowing in the decidedly unlucrative career of teaching – because money is the only thing that validates humanity?), my personal response to reading such online discussions involves two queries.

Firstly, I wonder if perhaps it was the very ‘insult’ given by the teacher that inspired the pupil/student to ‘make something’ of themselves – since some people perhaps respond better to what we might proverbially term a ‘kick up the arse’ (or at the very least to constructive criticism) than they do always to being told at all points in time how brilliant they are. Indeed, since the minor celebrity is taking the time to recount this ‘revenge’ story, it seems to stand to reason that the ‘insult’ did indeed function as a spur to them to ‘make something of themselves.’ By this token, the student should probably not be so annoyed with their former teacher, but grateful to them for motivating their achievements, even if that motivation was ‘negative’ (i.e. done as an act of revenge rather than as a positive act done for oneself).

(Not that such a student – that is, the sort that might ‘benefit’ from the so-called ‘kick up the arse’ – would offer thanks to the teacher, especially if they did not really want their newfound minor celebrity and wealth, preferring instead to be able to go back in time and simply to have had a different teacher who did not inspire them to become a minor celebrity.)

Secondly, I query what the student was like at school, and/or whether they had the self-awareness to know what effect their behaviour had on their teachers (which is not to say their peers).

Don’t get me wrong. There are probably some terrible teachers out there, and perhaps some undeserving students have been offered insults by those nasty teachers before going on to achieve fame and fortune, while other excellent and praised students have achieved ‘nothing’ (whatever that means), while others received negative feedback at school and went on as predicted to ‘amount to nothing’ (which I guess means not making much money and/or not being mildly or massively famous). Meanwhile, yet others always were and continue to be ‘high achievers,’ while many more just middled through school and life, and still others fluctuated gently between positions over time.

I am sad for anyone who has been insulted by their teachers and taken it so much to heart that they have constructed a life narrative of revenge around it. I am also sad that any teacher would educate their students – positively or negatively – to believe that money and fame is what makes a life valid.

Furthermore, I am sensitive to how many humans have difficulties learning and/or concentrating in a classroom setting – and who thus may find the experience problematic, if not traumatic. School is certainly imperfect – and working at one entails precisely this: always working towards doing a better job, even as this might be exhausting (if not all-consuming).

I do not want to negate this diversity. Nonetheless, I might suggest from experience that some students have the sad effect of coming across to their teachers and peers alike as arrogant. Now, I have not (to the best of my knowledge) ever told any of my students that they will never amount to anything (because I do not really know what this means, let alone am I capable of knowing someone else’s future – and I have a policy to try only to say things that I know to my students).

Be that as it may, some students can, as mentioned, be perplexing and taxing in their arrogance, capable as they are of insulting their teachers – advertently or otherwise – through their comments, their attitudes and their actions.

What is more, they may be completely unreceptive to their teachers and/or perhaps not so good at listening – such that they might hear an accusation that they will ‘amount to nothing’ when really they are being told that **if** they want to achieve their ambitions, then perhaps they ought to make more of an effort to be more receptive to others, more humble in their attitude, more thoughtful in their comportment.

Indeed, in my own experience (which has involved about as much time studying as it has involved time teaching), the psychological trouble that problematic students can cause to teachers is far more taxing than any of the trouble that teachers caused me as a student.

(Not that this will apply to everyone, not least because most people do not go on to teach; that said, statistically my point stands to reason, since a teacher will encounter 1000s of students over their career, while students might only encounter 10s of teachers; let us not broach the role that peers play in the lives of students.)

All this pre-amble is to say that just this past semester, two students sat right in front of me playing chess with each other during a lecture that I was delivering.

When I then asked them whether they thought that their behaviour was rude – being absorbed in a chess game rather than my class – they denied as much and said that it was doing no harm to anyone. When I asked them if their behaviour was reminiscent of Leigh Harkrider, the main protagonist of Kid Icarus, they said no.

For, perhaps the biggest irony of this chess experience is that I had just shown to my students Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin’s documentary about students trying to make a film at the College of the Canyons community college in Santa Clarita, California.

For, even though they had just seen that film’s main subject, film student Leigh Harkrider, repeatedly ignoring the advice of his film instructors as he proceeds to make a mistake-ridden movie as part of his film class, they could not see that they might share some of Leigh’s arrogance. That is, their behaviour was, like Leigh in Kid Icarus, completely self-unaware – perhaps convinced, like Leigh, of their brilliance, and thus not in need of anything so boring as a lecture on filmmaking (let alone a lecture on filmmaking as filtered through Kid Icarus).

Sometimes I wonder that this sort of arrogance is especially acute in film classes, since we live in a world where everyone assumes that they are an expert on cinema, and yet where few people realise how much time and effort has to go into making movies, fooling themselves that their capacity to enjoy films will automatically be matched by a capacity to make films.

Perhaps this tendency is indeed especially acute in film classes because we live in a world dominated by movies – whether we watch them in theatres or not. For, we are surrounded by screens that show us content designed to capture and to maintain our attention as much and for as long as possible (i.e. screens that feature content made using the techniques developed over the course of the history of cinema).

To succeed in life – to be rich and famous – only works if you can be seen as rich and famous; that is, it only works if there are images of you in circulation that demonstrate your wealth and fortune. In other words, success is linked in contemporary society to the cinematic, or at the very least to the mediated.

If success is about appearance, then, small wonder it is that people don’t just want to get on with being successful, but they want to mediate their success. In other words, the values of our culture breed arrogance – in the form of people who lord their success over others by making it as visible as possible, and which breeds the values of revenge, whereby people publicly flip the bird at anyone who stood in their path to success.

Luckily for Leigh Harkrider, Mike Ott and Carl Bird McLaughlin are not themselves interested in ‘revenge,’ even if there might be moments when Kid Icarus seems like an exploitation of student arrogance for the purposes of making a movie – that is, for the purposes of using another person’s lack of cinematicity to reaffirm one’s own cinematicity, with cinematicity (or appearing cinematic) being a measure of success.

For while Kid Icarus does gently expose Leigh Harkrider’s arrogance as he believes that he can create a cinematic masterpiece without a clue and, more importantly, without putting in any effort, the film is also sympathetic towards him – not that he necessarily deserves it.

The film follows Leigh as he tries haplessly to make his student project, Enslavence, at the afore-mentioned College of the Canyons, where Mike Ott was working as a film professor at the time of shooting.

Kid Icarus is a catalogue of what not to do when making a film. Leigh alienates his friends (potentially stealing a script idea, getting rid of his most faithful crew member, Cory Rubin, and getting everyone to sign endless contracts handing all rights over to him), while also demonstrating little idea of how to create a story – even as he aspires witlessly to be Steven Spielberg and David Fincher.

And yet, Kid Icarus is more than just the humiliation of a student who does a fine job of making an arse of himself (such that he at times might just deserve a kick up it). For, while the film does show us the chaos on set of the student and/or amateur film production – making of Kid Icarus a wonderful companion piece to Christopher Smith’s 1999 masterpiece, American Movie – it also shows us the conditions of Leigh’s life.

Leigh has a Superman cap, he has a Superman check book, his favourite show is Smallville, and he discusses Superman at various points in the film. And yet he is also a guy who lives with someone else’s family, who works at The Home Depot, and who generally seems quite alienated and lonely.

And so while Leigh might dream of being or becoming the Man of Steel, Kid Icarus takes the time to show that this desire is born from its complete opposite, a sense of powerlessness, which itself is tied to one thing that perhaps Leigh Harkrider does share with Kal-El, namely an inner solitude (Superman as an orphan).

Furthermore, while the Enslavence shoot is an at-times hilarious disaster, making of Leigh something of what James Franco might call a ‘disaster artist,’ in the making of his film, Leigh does make friends with all manner of people, as is made clear at the film’s end when he is surrounded by cast and crew come to celebrate at the wrap party.

In other words, Kid Icarus gives Leigh rope enough to hang himself as far as his pretensions of being a great filmmaker are concerned – with Leigh at one point even failing to impress Jay Keitel, whom he courts to be his cinematographer (and who has since gone on to lens episodes of Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s Steven Soderbergh-inspired show, The Girlfriend Experience).

But at the same time, Kid Icarus also demonstrates how film brings people together and how filmmaking does create friendships that help to stave off that loneliness. If community college teaches anything, it is perhaps a sense of community.

And this sense of community functions as a counter-example, then, to the self-serving values of wealth and fame that I described at the outset of this post. There is no need for revenge when we treat people with dignity, and there is no need for hatred if we can learn to love, with Ott and McLaughlin clearly loving the subjects of their film even as Leigh in particular is infuriating.

Not only is this a testament, then, to Ott’s patience and qualities as a teacher, in that he does not succumb to telling Leigh he will amount to nothing, even if he gets him to query whether he is a more committed viewer than maker of Smallville. (That is, Ott gets his students to question themselves, their values and their ideas; that is, he inspires in them the desire to learn.)

It also is a testament to Ott’s commitment to community, a commitment that he has continued to explore in his subsequent films as he sticks primarily to the Antelope Valley region of California and as he explores the lives of those who have often been overlooked by a society that values only visibility and wealth.

If visibility and wealth are cinematic, then Ott creates something of an anti-cinema, or what Robert Campbell refers to in his study of Ott’s films as a non-cinema (see Campbell 2018). Or what Ott himself might call ‘small form films.’

But more than this, it is a human cinema, with people defined by their humanity and not by the amount of money or celebrity that they have. And it is a cinema committed in many respects to reality – to showing how real people are more wonderful and complex than any fiction film can imagine, even as fiction films shape our sense of who we are and whom we aspire to be.

With this in mind, step forward Cory Zacharia, who progresses from a friend incidentally on location during a visit with Leigh to The Home Depot, to the prime focus of much of Kid Icarus, where Cory explores who he is on camera, to the main actor with whom Ott has worked in various subsequent film and video projects.

Repeated work with Cory Zacharia not only makes Ott’s relationship with him akin to that of François Truffaut with Jean-Pierre Léaud, but it also demonstrates Ott’s care for and concern with not just Cory, but many other of his collaborators.

Leigh may lack a visible family in the film, but in making Enslavence, a new, substitute family is born. And in making Kid Icarus, a new family is born for Ott and with which he will work on numerous subsequent projects, including Littlerock (2010), Pearblossom Hwy (2012), Lake Los Angeles (2014), Lancaster, CA (2015), California Dreams (2017) and the online movie criticism show Cinema Club (2018-2019).

Bringing humans together and making meaningful and creative bonds: this is the true power of cinema, far more than the wealth and fortune that its most visible makers achieve.

But does it work? That is, if my students could not see how they might have some of Leigh’s arrogance (if they could see it, then they would not have disrespected the class by ignoring it and playing chess), then can Kid Icarus create communities among those who watch the film?

Well, for starters, I can only say that after showing Kid Icarus to students for many years now, it continues to be a film that inspires both laughter and tender responses – as well as being a film with which the vast majority of film students can identify.

But also the very fact that the film is becoming available means that it is a film that can continue to inspire learning. Held up for many years in a distribution gridlock, the film now is becoming available at least in part because of its value as a learning experience for all involved, including Leigh, with whose blessing Kid Icarus can find new audiences.

Perhaps there is hope, then, for not just my own students but perhaps for us all to learn equally to learn, and to continue learning to learn as life goes on. Ott’s films and Ott himself do this, being thus akin to the very best teachers – of the sort that I myself aspire to become: not interested in petty glories or insults, but rather in simply learning for the sake of learning, making films not to achieve fame and fortune, but out of love.

The gift of love and learning to love: no wealth and fame can buy those things at all. That is why they are precisely gifts, offered to us by gifted filmmakers. For those who can now watch Kid Icarus for the first time (or for a second or third time), you are about to receive something wonderful.

Long Shot (Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

Since at least The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1941), Hollywood cinema has regularly staged the fantasy that politics would be better off with politicians who just came across like normal human beings – rather than the performances of confidence and authority that people with aphasia find funny because they can tell that politicians are lying.

The Great Dictator shows us a simple barber (Chaplin himself) taking on the role of Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator (also played by Chaplin), and bringing to a halt the end of the Second World War through his final message of love and peace. Indeed, Chaplin’s speech is a veritable YouTube meme, so powerful and articulate does the otherwise word shy barber becomes once put in front of a microphone.

Perhaps the medium – here, radio – brings out of the barber this performance. And in bringing out a performance from him, does the barber not become more similar to Hynkel than we might otherwise think – regardless of his message of peace and love?

Indeed, what is perhaps of particular interest about The Great Dictator is the (almost certainly apocryphal) suggestions that Adolf Hitler modelled himself upon Chaplin – the tramp with a heart of gold. For even if apocryphal, this would suggest that when Chaplin impersonates Hitler, he is in certain respects impersonating himself.

In other words, as The Great Dictator promises to show us how politics might be better if it were populated by regular, straight-talking people… it does not realise that Hitler was precisely a regular, straight-talking person, who managed to whip up bloodlust and hatred in a people thanks to the banality of his speeches as much as through any grandiloquence.

Indeed, as Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas) described it in 1938:

he is no scholar… Hitler’s use of language is the worst immaginable, and it will remain at that level… Those who care for the German language may be anxious for its future when they see its deterioration during the five years of Hiter’s rule; newspapers, magazines, schoolbooks – the entire official literature – have fallen into the florid yet brutal, military and vulgar forms of expression that are typical of the Führer himself. (Erika Mann, School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis, New York: Dover, 1938, p. 68.)

Long Shot implicitly makes a link with The Great Dictator by opening with journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) infiltrating a group of Neo Nazis in his native New York. He is exposed as a Jewish journalist and manages to escape by jumping out of a window – crashing into a car… a moment to which I shall return below.

In other words, Long Shot wants to situate itself within a world of political extremism – and one that is specifically threatening to Jews, even if one could hardly call it a revelation to demonstrate that there are Nazis in the contemporary USA (and thus not exactly a telling exposé in the way that the film wants us to believe).

More important, perhaps, is what is driving Flarsky to infiltrate an antisemitic group in the first place. For it seems clear that the film wants also to demonstrate, for better or for worse, that Flarsky has an attraction for certain types of power – even as he disavows such an attraction.

This attraction is made most clear when he meets up with his former babysitter, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who is now Secretary of State. Because she is hot, and because she also gave him an embarrassing boner when he was a kid, we get a sense of how Flarsky’s attraction to power is about as subtle as a porn film (and we’ll get some of that later in the film, too).

So, Flarsky has a boner for power… even as he feels oppositional to it. His writing is considered to be powerful thanks to headlines along the lines of ‘fuck you, climate change deniers’ and so on.

You know, really powerful and sophisticated stuff. Because unsophisticated times call for unsophisticated language. Now is not the time to think and/or contemplate; now is the time to swear and judge.

And thanks to his powers of language, Flarsky becomes Field’s speechwriter (basically writing down what she says so that she can read it back to an audience), which in turn means that he gets to make good on that boner and start a relationship with Field.

Furthermore, because of the ‘humanity’ of Flarsky’s speechwriting, Field’s popularity increases immensely meaning that she is likely set to become the next President thanks to the decision of the current one (Bob Odenkirk) to stand down in a bid to pursue a career in movies (more on this shortly, too).

In effect, the film tells us that people like their politicians ‘human’ – and if only Hillary Clinton had not had that pole stuck up her ass then she might well have had a shot at winning the presidency that Donald J Trump instead won two years and 119 days ago.

But what is this fantasy of ‘honest’ politicians? For is not Trump precisely the ‘honest’ and straight-talking politician that Long Shot wants to uphold as a forward-thinking approach to contemporary American politics?

In other words, as the film attempts to critique the political right by making Field a democrat and Flarsky staunchly anti-republican, its fantasy version of politics is in fact an endorsement of precisely the status quo that we have now.

At one point, Field asks Flarsky in a bedroom scene to take her from behind, spank her and perhaps also gently to choke her (or something along these lines). Finally! Some candour about female desire in the bedroom and how it might well involve aspects that some might consider to be masochistic.

And yet, a fear that runs through my head given the context of this film is that such ‘progressiveness’ could be taken as implying that Trump is justified in his self-professed technique of ‘grabbing women by the pussy.’ After all, such twisted logic would go, this is what they really want…

No wonder it is, then, that Flarsky has eventually to face up to the fact that his best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr), is a Republican. Not only is Lance a quasi-Magical Negro…

… but he also speaks of how his Republican values have enabled him to achieve success in the business realm (such that he can take a day off to get drunk with Flarsky and give his whole team the day off, too).

Lance explains that he tones down his Republicanism around Flarsky because he knows that Fred will just moan on at him if he does so… a bit like those people that moan on against Trump when he is just getting on with leading the nation in his own particular style.

Surely it is good for a film to offer us a vision of the African-American right, especially when it involves the son of a rapper who once proclaimed that it was right to ‘fuck the police’ (however eloquent or otherwise we find this particular use of language).

For not only does this give us a sense of the diversity of political viewpoints in America (Trump has his African-American supporters), but it also allows the film to simplify its Republican credentials while at the same using diversity as a shield to protect it from criticism (‘affirmative action’ is, if you will, turned against itself as you run the risk of being racist if you criticise this quasi-Magical Negro’s Republican views).

The film sees Flarsky fall heavily twice. The first is when he jumps out of the Nazi gathering at a New York warehouse, as mentioned above. And the second is when he falls down some stairs upon re-acquainting Field, prompting one of the singers from Boyz II Men, who are performing at whatever fundraiser they are attending, to offer one of the film’s funniest lines (‘cracker down’).

Both falls are basically impossible to survive – and so the film is no doubt suggesting that this is not realistic and that we should not take the film seriously – just as Chaplin gets bashed in the head by a frying pan in The Great Dictator.

Nonetheless, these two falls might suggest that the film is Flarsky’s fantasy; that is, Flarsky gets to be reactionary while at the same time purporting to be progressive; he gets to be neoliberal while purporting simply to be liberal.

The same idea is carried by the tattoo that is half-completed on Flarsky at the opening Nazi meeting. To prove that he is part of the gang, Fred agrees to have a Swastika tattooed on his arm – and he is going through with it when some timely internet research by one of the Nazis reveals who he really is.

Later we see the same tattoo as having been converted into a sort of funny stick man, while it makes a final appearance at the end of the film after Fred and Charlotte have moved into the White House.

So while the Swastika gets regenerated to become a stick man gag, it nonetheless also serves as a reminder of Fred’s attraction towards power.

The President wants to quit politics to become a movie star – hoping that the Presidency will project him into film stardom after a career prior to his Presidency in television (where, of course, he was most famous for playing the American President).

A sort of Democrat Trump, in that the latter was also a (reality) TV star before becoming President, the suggestion is that the Presidency will not make him a movie star – since, as Fred at one point says, starring in movies does not make you a movie star.

Not only does the film try to create a hierarchy of media here, then, but it also suggests in some senses that movies are more powerful than politics.

In some senses, this may well be true. But if it is the case, then as Donald J Trump’s suitability as president needs to be critiqued at every turn (a self-confessed abuser of women; a denier of climate change; a colluder with foreign powers), so must cinema such as this be critiqued at every turn, even if that is to spoil the ‘fun’ of a knockabout movie that just wants not to be taken too seriously.

And perhaps it is worth saying that it is quite easy to recognise the fun of the film: as a viewer, I found myself not only at times enjoying the film and laughing at its charming leads, but I also found myself indulging in fantasies of empowerment either in politics and/or in movies, perhaps especially the latter.

In other words, if there is to be critique, then it is a critique that must also be levelled at myself, or oneself more generally. We must be questioning our own propensity to be suck(er)ed in by movies like Long Shot.

For, indeed, when a seeming long shot comes about, as per Trump’s victory in the last US elections, then we do need to question how well we know our social and political realities, and how well we know ourselves if we assumed that the realisation of that long shot was previously unthinkable.

In this way, Long Shot‘s depiction of Fred as being attracted to power (even as it wants to tell us that power is attracted to him) is indeed honest – and a level of critical reflection might help us collectively to address the seduction that power offers.

The problem is that Long Shot is dishonest about its honesty, since it involves little to no critical self-reflection, even as it claims to with its PoMo television star President and its gags about TV stars not making it in the movies.

Instead, like Fred, the film just offers us a masturbatory fantasy about being ‘chosen’ by the powerful, offering up to us as progressive the idea that a guy with jizz on his face would make for a loveable First Man.

As webcam blackmailing, or ‘sextortion‘, grows rapidly, it is indeed perhaps a fantasy that such online behaviour might be empowering. But the truth is that it empowers only a global criminal network.

Perhaps being involved in a global criminal network is precisely how we should begin to consider the current American president.

Philosophical Screens: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1971)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I gave about A Clockwork Orange at the British Film Institute on Tuesday 16 April 2019. The talk was the latest in the Philosophical Screens series.

On this occasion my fellow speakers were Lucy Bolton of Queen Mary, University of London, and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Where my thoughts as written here were shaped by the thoughts offered by my co-speakers at the BFI, I shall try to offer up credit.

In short, I suggested that A Clockwork Orange is a film about control, and as such it remains relevant to our world today.

For, at the centre of Kubrick’s film is the so-called Ludovico technique that chief protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) undergoes after being arrested for murder. The Ludovico technique consists of Alex’s eyes being forced open and then kept moist by the administration of eye-drops as he is shown a prolonged series of films featuring what Alex would refer to as ultraviolence, including what in the film are supposed to be documentary images of groups of ‘droogs’ committing rape and murder, as well as genuine documentary images – both of Nazi gatherings during World War 2 (which we see – including footage from Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935), and of concentration camp atrocities (which we do not see, but which Alex describes).

I shall return to the role played by these documentary images in what is otherwise a fiction film at a later point in time. But for the time being, the important thing to explain is that these images are so horrific to Alex that they, in conjunction with a drug that is injected into him, induce a disgust response, such that he begins to gag whenever he sees or even thinks about doing some of the violent and/or sexual acts that otherwise give him so much pleasure.

It is not that we are forced to watch horrific deeds on cinema screens in the contemporary age. Nonetheless, the idea that we cannot but watch moving images is relevant when we begin to consider the proliferation of screens in the contemporary world, and from which moving images and sounds emanate – perhaps especially ones that are advertisements specifically or advertisarial more generally.

(What I mean by ‘advertisarial’ is that these images may not sell specific products to us, but they sell to us lifestyles, as well as being designed for us to stare at them, i.e. they sell themselves.)

This advertisarial logic of contemporary screen culture is of course capitalist in nature, while its would-be permanence also relates to the development of what has been termed 24:7 culture, or the ends of sleep. That is, permanent illumination and screen culture lead to us always being awake, always being online, always being connected… such that metaphorically our eyes are always open as buzzes and flashes wake us up in the night and stop us from sleeping, our eyes always forced open by the machines of cinema.

We might think that there is a key difference between the world that I am describing (24:7 connection and the ends of sleep) and that of A Clockwork Orange. For, in the latter, Alex watches these images in order not to commit violent acts, while in our world, we are encouraged always to look at these images – in order to undergo our own Ludovico technique.

Except that as the Ludovico technique is introduced in order to control the behaviour of an otherwise unruly Alex, so is 24:7 culture and the ends of sleep designed to control the behaviour of citizens in today’s world. For, it interpellates them permanently into capitalist culture.

More than this, while Alex watches images of violence, what the contemporary ‘Ludovico technique’ of permanent screen culture involves is violence done to us, those who experience it.

Furthermore, what we ultimately learn is not that Alex is violent in spite of the world of control that the Ludovico technique reveals, but that his violence is the logical extension of that world. And that violence is the logic of our world of permanent illumination – violence to the world, violence to us, violence to each other. The cinematic ethos of our times reveals not just violence in cinema (torture porn, etc, to which we shall return later). But violence as cinema/cinema as violence.

If this notion of control in A Clockwork Orange needed further evidence, then the film’s very title offers us a clue. For, Anthony Burgess, upon whose novel the film is based, gave his book the title A Clockwork Orange for a couple of interlinked reasons. The first is his interest in the phrase ‘queer as a clockwork orange,’ which suggests the way in which humans often do not fit into the roles that society tries to impose upon them. And the second is his sense of intrigue at how orang in Malaya (where Burgess was based for a time) means ‘human’ (as per orang-utan, which means ‘human of the forest’).

In other words, ‘a clockwork orang’ is a clockwork human – a human rendered predictable and controlled, as their eyes are glued wide shut by the permanent onslaught of lights, images and sounds that prevent them from seeing their own subjugation to systems of control.

In the term ‘clockwork’ we also have an initial sense of how violence is the logical consequence of, rather than the exception to, a society of control. For by reducing the human to set actions and reactions, time is rendered not a measure of change and becoming, but a measure of repetition, with repetition being a measure of controlled bodies doing repetitive actions (‘work’) for the purposes of capital. Clock-work humans are humans that work; humans that are subject to the time of capital rather than their own time.

Let us further this argument about violence taking place not in spite of the control society, but rather as its logical extension.

‘I would not be controlled,’ sing Alex and various other inmates in a chapel service at HMP Wandsworth before the former undergoes the Ludovico – suggesting that prison and religion both are ways of bringing ‘sheep back into the fold.’

But more specifically, once he does undergo the Ludovico, Alex complains about how he ‘began to feel really sick. But I could not shut my glazzies,’ he continues, ‘and even if I tried to move my glazballs about I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture.’

In using the Russian term glaz to refer to his eyes, Alex also brings to mind how Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov referred to his cinematic project as a kino-glaz, or a cine-eye, in which cinema would create a new media-determined perception of reality.

That is, cinema is part of (a tool for) a system of discipline and indoctrination, or what I am here terming (in reference to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze) a society of control.

But cinema is already controlling Alex even before he undergoes the Ludovico technique. As much is made clear when we understand that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is Alex’s own ultraviolence theme tune (with that song also taking place in the 1952 American film of the same name at a moment when Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, is a bit unruly towards a police officer).

In addition, we are offered flashes into Alex’s fantasies as he dreams of ultraviolence at home – and during these moments Alex sees himself as a cinematic Nosferatu figure.

In other words, cinema has inspired Alex’s violent fantasies. Cinema will not cure him of violence. Violence is the logic of cinema.

What is key, however, is that Stanley Kubrick seems to be aware of this – as is made clear by various of the formal choices that he makes in the film.

As successively we hear Gioachino Rossini’s ‘La gazza ladra/Thieving Magpie’ and the overture from William Tell during scenes of violence, A Clockwork Orange takes on dimensions of not being about realism but rather being about choreography. The film becomes balletic as bodies fly through the air, as bodies move in slow motion, or as bodies (during a ménage-à-trois that Alex has with two women he picks up at a record store) move in fast motion.

Furthermore, the colour scheme of A Clockwork Orange also shifts the film away from realism and into a highly stylised realm that equally suggests self-consciousness/falsity. Indeed, the film opens with a red and then a blue colour card, while upon being beaten in police custody, Alex seems not to bleed blood so much as red.

Indeed, the very whiteness of A Clockwork Orange (various interiors, walls, props, milk, characters) would seem to fit its vision of a society of control. For, in presenting a primarily white world, the film would suggest a world without diversity and difference, but one of homogeneity/sameness.

(There are five black bodies in A Clockwork Orange; one in the Korova Moloko bar that Alex and his ‘droog’ friends attend, and four in Wandsworth prison. It is a white world that we see; violence is necessary to remove colour from the world and to make it and its values primarily white.)

Finally, when we see Alex and his droogs driving at speed down a country lane after stealing a Durango-95, A Clockwork Orange so clearly involves rear projection that again the film wants to highlight its own falsity.

This is not to mention the regularly stylised performances, which take on comic book dimensions through their grotesqueness and exaggerated nature.

So the question becomes: why does Kubrick adopt such a ‘comic book’ aesthetic – especially when he is dealing with such difficult topics as violence and sexual violence?

My suggestion would be that Kubrick adopts a deliberately false aesthetic in order to implicate his viewer into the film, to create a sense of self-consciousness about our act of film viewing (rather than the film viewer hiding unobserved in a darkened room). This implication is deliberately revealed to us on numerous occasions.

When Alex is being held in custody prior to his conviction, his parole officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) leans forward to speak to Alex, who is on the floor after taking a beating: ‘You are now a murderer, little Alex. A murderer, yes.’

These words are accompanied by a point of view shot, whereby Deltoid talks directly to us, just as Alex regularly addresses the audience, referring to them (in deliberately gendered terms?) as his ‘brothers.’

What is more, Kubrick regularly uses a 9.8mm lens on his camera, which creates a kind of fish-eye perspective that in turn seems stylised/false. This was a technique developed in conjunction with cinematographer John Alcott – and notably when Alex is first checked into hospital where he will undergo the Ludovico treatment, he is greeted by a Dr Alcott (Barrie Cookson).

In other words, it is as if Kubrick and Alcott were consciously suggesting that their film is a kind of Ludovico treatment.

However, theirs is not a Ludovico treatment achieved through the realism of the images, as per what Alex experiences within the film. Theirs is, rather, an anti-Ludovico treatment that is achieved through revealing the falsity of its images.

‘It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen,’ says Alex in voiceover when undergoing the Ludovico. And because this is the case, so Kubrick does not show us ‘the colours of the real world’ – so that we do not mistake what we see as reality.

And yet, this creates another seeming contradiction. For if in the film it is documentary images that stop Alex from becoming violent, it seems to be Kubrick’s hope that fiction images will have that effect – that his self-consciously false images might highlight to us the violence of our world. In other words, unlike Alex’s view of the documentary images, Kubrick’s images are not supposed to be taken as real at all.

Here we can return to the use of documentary footage that I mentioned earlier. For, where Alex initially enjoys what he sees, it is the documentary footage of Nazi Germany that begins to change his mind about violence.

And yet, in our real world (as opposed to in the fictional world of A Clockwork Orange), it is the work of people like Riefenstahl, i.e. it is documentary images, together with fiction films that try to pass themselves off as realistic, that help to mobilise nations into committing atrocities as per the Holocaust.

Oddly, when we do see the documentary images interpolated into A Clockwork Orange, their status as images of the real world (as opposed to images of the diegetic fictional world) does help them to bring home (at least for me) the true horror of the Second World War.

Furthermore, Kubrick does not show us the concentration camp footage that Alex describes – not least because it would be unethical to do so (using the suffering of others for political purposes, which is exactly what Nazi propaganda was doing itself).

But what is important here is that it is in its very invisibility – the fact that it cannot be seen – that the Holocaust becomes unbearably real.

That is, it is in not seeing the footage of it that we are sickened by the violence of history.

We might say that Kubrick does not believe in the Ludovico technique, therefore, or else he might show us that footage in order to prevent humans from ever committing such atrocities again.

However, Kubrick specifically uses fake images in order, I shall suggest, to disgust his viewers, rather than using images of the real world. Kubrick uses the comic book style that I have described not in order to show us the real world, but to show us a nightmare version of it.

Put differently, if the Ludovico technique, and cinema more generally, breeds violence, then Kubrick must try to expose this process. He does not use the Ludovico technique so much as try to suggest that it is at work on all of us.

But how can one expose this process without repeating this process?

Just as Alex was really already just carrying out the violent deeds inspired by cinema, so is he co-opted by the film’s end into the seemingly totalitatarian state that is being created in the film’s dystopian UK. Furthermore, Alex’s two droogs, Dim (Warren Clarke) and Georgie (James Marcus), end up being cops. Violence is not only encouraged but also useful for the state in order to control its population.

As Ludovico inventor Dr Brodsky (Carl Duering) explains:

the drug will cause the subject to experience a death-like paralysis together with deep feelings of terror and helplessness. One of our earlier test subjects described it as being like death, a sense of stifling and drowning, and it is during this period we have found the subject will make his most rewarding associations between his catastrophic experience and environment and the violence he sees.

Perhaps the drug is cinema itself. And Kubrick wants to wake us from our deathly eyes-open slumber (including by making reference to his own films as Alex passes a copy of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK/USA, 1968, in the afore-mentioned record store) rather than have us continue somnambulating through the world .

And yet, while Kubrick seems deliberately to adopt comic book techniques in order to shake us out of our deathly slumber, Clockwork Orange arguably fails in this attempt.

For, perhaps A Clockwork Orange historically achieved (and continues to achieve?) the opposite – namely the creation of a new generation of state-endorsed violence.

Burgess’ story was inspired by the rape of his wife by four American deserters in 1944. Meanwhile, Kubrick famously withdrew his film from cinemas after real-world crimes were reported as being influenced by the film.

In this way, the film did the opposite of what it seemed to set out to achieve.

Furthermore, Kubrick perhaps was already aware of this possibility, even before he had it withdrawn from British cinemas in 1973 – as also signalled at various points in the film.

For example, when Alex and his droogs attack writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri), Alex at first cuts holes in the latter’s costume such that her breasts are exposed.

In 1964, performance artist Yoko Ono created Cut Piece, in which visitors to her exhibition were invited to interact with her as she sat on stage dressed in a suit and with a pair of scissors before her. Some visitors eventually removed her clothes in a fashion similar to Alex here.

The moment in A Clockwork Orange is not just a reference to Cut Piece, which functions as an attempt, perhaps, to critique men’s treatment of women in the patriarchal system of discipline and control.

Rather, it is a comment on how work that is designed to be critical of the values of white, patriarchal society becomes co-opted perversely by the very society that it critiques: Alex re-enacts Cut Piece precisely to rape Mrs Alexander, just as Ono tried to get visitors to reflect upon their own propensity for (sexual and gendered) violence.

This process of critique going wrong is even made clear within the film when in the house of a fitness instructor referred to as the Catlady (Miriam Karlin), we see on her wall a painting of a woman with her own breast revealed by a hole in her dress: the painting echoes Alex’s crime but suggests that art becomes violence when in the hands of someone like him.

Indeed, Alex murders the Catlady with a white ceramic penis sculpture – literally turning art into tools for white, male violence.

And perhaps most tellingly, Burgess wrote his novel using ‘Nadsat,’ the language that Alex uses and which basically involves a liberal sprinkling of Russian words (like the afore-mentioned ‘glazzies’) into the English that people otherwise speak here.

In other words, Burgess was perhaps aware about how the language of revolution and the creation of a new world that would live outside of the strictures of capital (the USSR) inevitably becomes co-opted itself into yet more, and more strict, systems of control.

Not only do we see this logic of co-option going on within the film, but perhaps it has also taken place through and around the film.

Not only do we live in a world where Nadsat sounds uncannily like the faux Dickensian patter of someone like celebrity shagger Russell Brand, but we also live in a world of the afore-mentioned torture porn and cruel violence appearing regularly on our screens, which is not to mention the circulation of atrocity videos online (even if taken down soon after being put up).

Notably, in the lobby of Alex’s run-down apartment block, the phrase ‘suck it and see’ has also been graffitied on to a faux classical mural, on to which numerous cocks have also been drawn. Of course, and to evoke the title of another film currently in theatres, ‘suck ’em and see’ was soon co-opted into the language of advertising for Fishermen’s Friends (as John Ó Maoilearca reminded us during the BFI event), as well as being the title of an album by the Arctic Monkeys. Capital takes all oppositional protests and turns then into new markets.

At the BFI event, Lucy Bolton contended that A Clockwork Orange is still shocking, in particular in terms of the treatment that women receive in the film. I agree with her, and think that Kubrick also struggles with replicating violence towards women rather than offering a comment on or critique of it in this film.

But if I also suggested during our discussion of the film that shocking images have become normal within the context of our contemporary sleepless society, it is not that they do not shock us anymore – but that shock itself becomes normal, as we experience shock after shock after shock, such that shock becomes the norm and we accept right-wing politics because we have no energy left to fight against it.

Is cinema not also part, therefore, of the ‘shock doctrine‘? (This reminds me of a very old blog post I once wrote.) In this way, cinema plays its role in establishing the logic of violence in contemporary society.

We are never entirely certain as to why the Ludovico technique fails and Alex retrieves his excitement in relation to sex and violence.

In part this may be a result of the shock experienced after a failed suicide attempt (he jumps from the window of Frank Alexander’s house after a second chance encounter with him).

But it may also be because of Ludwig Van Beethoven. For, during his Ludovico sessions, Alex complains bitterly that Beethoven is used as the score for the films that he sees. (‘He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music.’)

Brodsky speculates that this might help with the treatment, but it also reveals that a certain amount of contingency is at work here; Alex is not controlled by the Ludovico technique, which wears off – and perhaps it does so because of Beethoven, whose music ultimately prevents it from working rather than helping it, thanks to its previous pleasurable association with ultraviolence.

Sound is thus key to A Clockwork Orange, which features some amazing use of Foleyed footsteps and the violent sound in Alexander’s house of a glass bottle clanking on a glass table.

But one sound that features regularly in the film and which I should like to highlight is the sound of belching. It is with an analysis of belching that I should like to draw this blog post to a close.

Eugenie Brinkema has written about eructions in philosophy and cinema, charting in particular how the hiccups and belches of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium perhaps chart how the body always rebels against attempts to control it, and that such gurgles and belches are meaningless in the face of philosophy’s attempts to chart and/or to create meaning.

More than this, the belch also functions as a challenge to the perceived hierarchy that knowledge is primarily a visual phenemenon (Brinkema establishes this hierarchy through an analysis of the work of Sigmund Freud). There are other, ‘lower’ ways of engaging with the world – and cinema uses them, even though we tend to think of it as a visual medium.

Not only does A Clockwork Orange sound, then, but perhaps it also tastes and smells, and what it tastes and smells might be a bit disgusting (dis-gust = ‘bad taste’) – and deliberately so, as made clear by the emphasis on belching, eating, open mouths and porous bodies that seep, and Alex who revels in ooze.

Indeed, when Alex is beaten while in custody, he positively smiles when spat upon by Detective Constable Tom (Steven Berkoff), while it is also here that he burps in the latter’s face.

In addition to this belch, the inmates also burp and fart during the afore-mentioned service in the prison.

Finally, Alex also belches and retches when exposed to the desire to commit acts of violence, including sex, after the Ludovico treatment.

Where belching was oppositional to power (belching at Tom, belching at the prison chaplain, played by Godfrey Quigley), now it has become an expression of subjugation to power. This in turn suggests again that perhaps the belch always was part of the society of consumerism and consumption. That it, like violence, is the logical expression of the contemporary world, and not really oppositional at all.

Nonetheless, Kubrick does, as mentioned, seem once again to be determined to show us this world in all of its disgustingness – even as his film is highly stylised and comic-like.

‘Shut your filthy hole, you scum!’ screams the Chief Guard (Michael Bates) while Alex is in Wandsworth.

And yet, this is precisely what Alex does not do, with his mouth remaining agape at the film’s end as he is fed hospital food by a government minister (Anthony Sharp).

Note that Alex gets fed a lot during the film, while his anger is most carefully aroused – and conveyed – after returning home from prison, by the sound of toast munching by Joe, played by Clive Francis, who has moved into his room.

In that same scene, Alex’s father (Philip Stone) gawps at Alex with his mouth almost permanently open, while the Chief Guard’s own ‘filthy hole’ also often remains wide open, especially when staring at a woman (Virginia Wetherell) trying to tempt Alex into arousal during a demonstration of the success of the Ludovico technique.

That is, humans belch, drop their jaws, and generally are imperfect. We eat and consume, including consuming cinema (we ‘binge’ on movies, with edit also being the third person singular for eating in Latin)… perhaps to the point of being sated, or beyond such a point, to the extent that we feel nauseous and vomit. Perhaps that is the point of satire: over-consumption to the point of gaseous and/or liquid eruction.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch is defined as a character who celebrates ‘contagious breath,’ while also being interested in food and wine (‘With drinking healths to my niece: I’ll drink to / her as long as there is a passage in my throat’).

A bawd, then, Belch is the opposite of the relatively effete Orsino, who famously pines that ‘if music be the food of love, play on.’

Rather than being the food of romantic love, though, music in A Clockwork Orange is for Alex – and for us viewers – the food of violence. Furthermore, food provokes belching, and so belching is almost certainly the music of food, and perhaps even the true music of love (a love that is, like an open mouth, agape?).

If belching be the music of ultraviolence and the ‘old in out,’ then Alex will play on. And the ‘in out’ extends beyond sex and sexual violence, and into the language of the institutions that the film portrays: ‘What’s it going to be then? Is it going to be in and out of institutions like this?’ asks the prison chaplain (emphasis added).

Not only are institutions thus ways to discipline the body to be violent, and to desire violence especially towards women, but so might cinema – as Kubrick, with Alcott, tries potentially to establish by having his camera so regularly itself zoom and/or track in and out (the three opening scenes all start with an outward zoom, with the camera thus performing the ‘in and out,’ as if the film, too, were in some senses violating us).

‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it,’ declares Brodsky’s colleague, Dr Branom (Madge Ryan).

Perhaps Kubrick wants us to feel in our bodies a sense of disgust, a bad taste, as we are reminded that the control of our bodies is perhaps a denial of our bodies, and that we must celebrate our body’s unruliness, we must feel our bodies rebel against us and feel unpleasant, rather than be programmed via taking pleasure in cinematic violence into the ways of violent society.

If A Clockwork Orange tries to show the mechanisms at work in the establishment of a white, patriarchal and violent society, then perhaps the film’s black humour, twinned quite deliberately with disgusting violence, can be or become a belch, making it a belch of a film that through its own imperfections reminds us of our own imperfections, suggesting directly that we are Alex’s brothers and that we are the murderers as we are interpellated into its male-dominated society.

Conceivably this message is lost, not least as audiences often recall only the first half of the film with its ultraviolence – as one audience member also pointed out at the BFI. Or perhaps we simply now live in an era of shamelessness as opposed to being ashamed at sensing our own propensity for violence.

But I think that there is evidence that Kubrick is trying (and perhaps inevitably failing) to do something more critical than replicating a society of ultraviolence – perhaps even implicating Burgess himself in this failure as the director changes Alex’s name from Alexander DeLarge (which he announces upon arrival in prison) to Alexander Burgess (as the press call him when he becomes a political pawn as a result of the suffering he has undergone during the Ludovico treatment).

If not a glorious, maybe A Clockwork Orange is nonetheless an ignominious failure. But in failing, it reminds us all too much that humans burp, and that the orang perhaps cannot be clockwork.

Maybe the film’s shocks are dated and outmoded since they have become doctrine.

But Kubrick tries to get us to think about this world – to get us not just to gawp unthinkingly at violence ourselves, but to consume it to the point of belching, choking, perhaps even vomiting.

As a testament to this positive spin on the film, I wagered at the BFI event that c100 people attended the Philosophical Screens discussion in the BFI’s Green Room, which sits directly under Waterloo Bridge. Such strong attendance would suggest that plenty of cinema goers want not just unthinkingly to consume cinema, but also to turn it into a philosophical experience – and one that includes not just abstracted thought, but thinking through the body.

And where the Green Room normally hums with the vibrations of traffic passing overhead, on 16 April 2019 it was virtually silent as traffic was suspended thanks to the Extinction Rebellion protests and protestors not 10 feet above us.

In a world of shocks and violence, peaceful and thoughtful protest, much like thoughtfulness itself (a love of knowledge and a knowledge of love), might yet prove to be transformative forces.

Philosophical Screens: This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA, 1984)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is basically a written version of a talk that I gave at the British Film Institute last night (Thursday 22 November 2018), as part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series, and where This is Spinal Tap played as part of their Comedy Genius season.

Other speakers at the event were Lucy Bolton of QMUL and John Ó Maoilearca of Kingston University. Some of the below feeds a bit on what they said, and I hope here to acknowledge as much.

Now, to offer up an analysis of a comedy naturally lends itself to immediate charges of spoiling the humour and not allowing audiences simply to enjoy the film. But there we go. Hopefully what follows is a fairly cogent reading of the movie.

And this reading relates to the film’s treatment of hardness and softness, as well as to the relationship between 1 and 0, or the line and the hole, the phallic and the vaginal, the solid and the void – with my argument being that comedy can put us in touch with the void, making it a transformative experience.

For, transformative human experiences all necessarily involve an openness to the outside. Without such an openness, we would be closed off and we would not change. When we are open to the outside, we change, we learn, we become.

We can think of this quite easily in relation to our mouths. Not just in the sense of opening our mouths to live by eating, drinking and breathing. But we also open our mouths when we experience orgasm, when we die, and when we experience something new. Along the lines of the jaw dropping open and we say to ourselves ‘oh yeah,’ as we realise something for the first time.

Each of these experiences involves contact with the outside, with the new, and each involves us learning, developing, changing, becoming.

The same applies, then, to laughter: when we laugh, we experience an openness to the outside. And as much can be understood by the word comedy itself – since the term implies withness (co-) and contact (media), or commedia as they say in Italian. Contact with otherness, with the outside, it tickles us, our mouths open, and we develop as human beings.

And yet we live in a world in which we try to close ourselves off from and to avoid contact with the outside: erecting walls, creating borders and boundaries, hiding in cars, behind screens, not talking to strangers, putting concrete over nature, living indoors and so on. Individualism, too, would suggest the desire to close oneself off from others.

And to build walls, etc, is to create a hard world with hard edges and clear definitions, rather than a soft world of overlaps, contact, vagueness (as per the waves/vagues of the sea) and more. Comedy is a soft form, while seriousness is hard.

Music, meanwhile, can a bit of both of these things. Music can bring people together, but it can also be a hard, aggressive and scary medium. Think of how drums have been used by many peoples to demarcate their territory, and think of how loud music is often defined as a ‘wall of sound.’ Indeed, rock and metal music both suggest hardness.

And this hardness is typically male and phallic.

And so it is that This is Spinal Tap charts a tension between the hard and the soft. This is not simply a question of hard rock music. But it also can be seen in how the band plays around with hardness, aspiring to hardness and to a solid masculinity.

Examples abound in the film, but several include the cricket bat that band manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) carries around with him, the band’s famous Stone Henge set, the album cover of Intravenus de Milo, the proposed Smell the Glove cover, and the tin foil-covered vegetable that bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) keeps down his trousers.

Repeatedly, the band strives for hardness – as also is made clear by the band’s name: Spinal Tap. For, the spine is itself a hard, vertical series of bones that keep the human upright.

And yet, every attempt that the band has at becoming hard/male/phallic/vertical is somehow thwarted. Ian doesn’t really use the cricket bat; the Stone Henge set is comically small; Intravenus de Milo is derided (as is Shark Sandwich, which in being described as ‘shit sandwich’ conveys a softness that the band otherwise tries to escape); Smell the Glove is temporarily shelved as a result of the proposed cover; Derek is humiliated by an airport security staff member when he tries to pass through a metal detector with his would-be massive cock. As Alice Pember also pointed out after the film, when they first arrive in New York, the band is greeted by their driver (Bruno Kirby) with a sign saying ‘Spinal Pap.’

Perhaps an exemplary image of this desire for solidity comes early in the film at the band’s tour launch party, where a mime (Dana Carvey) offers food to guests. Berated later by Billy Crystal (‘mime is money’), the mime signals the round 0 of his mouth and feigns the gesture of eating.

Where the mime tries to pretend that there is something solid where in fact there is only empty space, so does this mime gesture to the hole, to the 0 while seeming to signal a 1. This Crystal image, then, is a crystallisation in some senses of This is Spinal Tap itself: mime, like the band, wants to be money/capital/solid, but in fact it is an empty hole.

We can even return to the name of the band itself: while the spine might keep the human upright and hard, a tap is a vent hole. In other words, while tap also makes us think of drums (the tapping of the drum), it equally is an open hole, an orifice that makes the spine porous rather than solid and upright.

Perhaps the exploding drummers in the band also suggest a porous humanity, with drumming itself punching holes in a wall of sound that otherwise aspires to be solid.

That solidity is to do with modernity and in particular the sound that is afforded by electricity and the electric guitar – even as that sound is also punctured by the radio signals that are picked up by the wireless set on the lead guitar of Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest).

It perhaps also is to do with a nascent digital age, as we see keys player Viv Savage (David Kaff) playing a computer game on the band’s tour bus.

And yet, what is the digital? The digital is defined by binary code – that is, by 1s and 0s. By a combination of the phallic (1) and the vaginal (0).

And yet, as the band aspires towards being hard, it aspires only towards being phallic – and so instead of playing at 10, the band instead wants to replace the 0 and, as Nigel so famously explains, play at 11. In other words, the band wants to play only the phallic (11) and not the phallic and the vaginal (10).

The two-fingered horn gesture so beloved of rock fans (🤟) also suggests an exclusive masculinity: men only (1–1) – as is made clear by the band and their rejection of women (or at least Nigel’s rejection of Jeanine, played by June Chadwick, who is the partner of lead singer David St Hubbins, played by Michael McKean).

This all-male phallic club is also suggested as somehow demonic, perhaps even satanic when we link the horn gesture to the devil, whose horned head also functions as a backdrop to many of the band’s gigs.

It is not that rock music is literally the work of the devil. More, in its desire to be hard, all male, phallic and solid, it excludes the soft and so is a perversion of nature. It is patriarchal. It is patriarchy.

If modernity is the era of 1 (individuality, walls, exclusivity, masculinity, patriarchy), then the digital era involves something different – the advent of a 0, the advent of death, the advent of enlightenment, the becoming that is part of the 0 of the open mouth as it comes into contact with the outside.

(Perhaps it is for this reason that musicians like Lars Ulrich of Metallica were so against digital-era technologies like Napster: their patriarchal masculinity was threatened by the advent of the 0, the desire to make money over the desire to share.)

And This is Spinal Tap may be a film that comes out ahead of the digital era in its fullest manifestation (although as mentioned, the presence of the computer game, notably played by Viv, the weirdest and perhaps softest of the band members), but it is a film that itself is in touch with 0, hence functioning as a comedy.

(Notably, the film is not a nasty comedy, either. It is not phallic and mean towards its would-be phallic characters. Instead we have a lot of time for David, Nigel, Derek and the others – because the film in fact shows their softness even as they aspire to be hard. They want to be phallic spines, but we see also their invertebrate, fearful side – much as Derek at one point gets trapped inside a vaginal pod on stage that otherwise he wishes to escape.)

It was the philosopher Duns Scotus who first wrote of haecceity as a form of ‘thisness.’  That is, haecceity refers to uniqueness and the individuality of things. In some senses, then, haecceity relates to defining things and separating them off from the rest of the world. Or giving to things the form of a 1.

To announce ‘this is Spinal Tap,’ then, is to announce the ‘thisness’ of the band, or their aspirations towards being a 1. And yet what really is ‘this’ when we look at Spinal Tap?

The band may aspire to create a wall of sound as they take us on a jazz odyssey, but really they made their name with their flower power hits from the 1960s (when the band was known as the Thamesmen).

That is, their softer numbers were what made them famous… and as the band tries to cling to fame, so they become harder and harder, undergoing a sclerosis that does not go with the flow (as all flow-ers otherwise do). Or rather, they seek not to go with the flow and instead to be in control… but like all human lives, theirs, too, is a catalogue of errors, a series of failures to escape time, change, becoming, 0 and flow. And in recognising their failed attempts to escape time, we can perhaps recognise our own hubristic desire not to die – and so we laugh, since in the comic moment we do indeed come into contact with a little bit of death.

The clown is a twisted clone. That is, in the pursuit of cloning, humans attempt to live forever and to defeat time, since we will be able to repeat our lives over and over and never die. This is the phallic, patriarchal and planet-destroying quest to become what Noah Yuval Harari might term homo deus.

The clown, meanwhile, is a bit like the clone – but also different, in the sense that the clown like the mime mimics/clones reality, but in such a way that reality is presented to us as if new. That is, reality itself becomes new, soft and a force of becoming/change/time (0), rather than something hardened and never-changing and which, petrified, escapes the ravages of time (1).

The clown – who always speaks truth to power (itself a system of 1) – thus presents us not with reality as we want it to be (under control) but as it is (out of our control, changing us). The clown gives us comedy and a little bit of death (which is why people can also often be afraid of clowns, and why the clown has indeed become something to fear in our era of never wanting to die and seeking permanent life).

Cinema itself might be a tool for presenting idealised versions of ourselves back to us – a tool for escaping the ravages of time as we become permanent in images, or, to take Roy Scranton‘s twist on Harari’s homo deus, to become light, or homo lux.

But if much cinema wants to do this – to show us as permanent and never-changing, halting change – cinema can also show to us change itself, as well as being a force of change. Cinema, then, can be a clone of reality, a virtual world in which we hide from time, death and becoming (1). Or it can be a clown that reminds us that we are all going to die (0) and that our efforts to escape death (1) indeed constitute the human comedy.

Indeed, in the language of Henri Bergson, comedy is essentially the exposition of le mécanique plaqué sur du vivant, or the mechanical mask that we aspire to put on living flesh, the hardness that we use to cover our softness, which, in being exposed as precisely a mask shows us our inner softness.

With This is Spinal Tap, cinema is thus a indeed clown – and this is part of the film’s power.

If the statuesque and petrified Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims in his movies that he’ll ‘be back,’ what he suggests is a desire to become rock solid, hard bodied, permanent and never-changing. To seek always to be back – i.e. to have a spine – is to seek always to return, to control time, not to die.

This is Spinal Tap, though, taps/puts a hole (0) in that spine (1) and takes us into a less vertebrate realm. The film passingly references The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978), thus situating itself knowingly in the genre of the concert film, the music documentary, or what director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) calls the rockumentary. By extension, the film is also a backstage musical, i.e. showing us behind the scenes of the spectacles that we otherwise see on stage.

One of the great music documentaries is D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (USA, 1967), a film that takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s controversial tour to the UK in 1965 (and during which he also tried to solidify his music style by playing electric guitar).

Backness – or the spine – is key to music and films about it. In asking us not to look back, Pennebaker suggests how it is perhaps best not to peer too hard into the life of Dylan, or else we might discover that the legend is just a man – and one who quite deliberately seeks to erect his phallic identity (the would-be 1 of Bob Dylan as opposed to Robert Allen Zimmerman, the musician’s birth name).

Pennebaker’s film opens with a tracking shot of Dylan walking from his dressing room and on to the stage, thus announcing that his film has access to Dylan backstage, as well as access to how he constructs his onstage front. This is Spinal Tap, meanwhile, follows the band around backstage – only for them never to find the stage and thus not to get to the front.

While the film does allow Nigel and the band a final Japanese comeback (Spinal Tap are back!), in showing that they are only back (only backstage?), This is Spinal Tap deconstructs their spinal/solid/phallic aspirations, their thisness, their haecceity, their addiction to the spine – as expressed in David’s lyric in the typically puerile ‘Big Bottom’: ‘how can I leave this behind?’

Although there were numerous mockumentaries prior to Spinal Tap, with Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (Spain, 1933) being perhaps one of the earliest and best known, This is Spinal Tap nonetheless remains perhaps the landmark mockumentary, the film that defines the genre.

In this way, the film is an event, perhaps unique, and in this it is arguably itself a 1. However, in being a film that softens the distinctions between fiction and documentary, it is also a soft film, a film that has a 0 in addition to its 1, and which thus constitutes an openness to the outside.

It is this openness to the outside, its own open-mouthed 0, that makes the film new, and thus a landmark film, even if it is not the first of its kind. As all 1s must be born from 0s (vaginas), then so do we see that 0 is (without wishing to be too heteronormative) the defining feature of human life. The film is a 0, or a cipher, that allows us to deconstruct the 1 of phallic, patriarchal society.

What is more, the film would seem to allow Nigel to come to understand this, as he progresses from wearing his skeleton t-shirt that depicts his hard, vertebrate self to professing that he likes tinned tuna because it has no bones.

No bones about it: This is Spinal Tap is a great film, and it is so because of its softness, including both the softness of and the film’s softness towards its character, as well as the softness of the film’s structure as we do not phallically/linearly progress along a solid line, but instead meander about, get lost, find new things, have chance encounters, and in the process open our mouths, laugh, let the outside in, die a little (oh/0 to die laughing!), and become new, wiser people as a result of our encounter with the clown.

The digital era may yet be the era of comedy, where we learn to live with our planet rather than destroy it, and to live with each other rather than to humiliate and exploit each other (Nigel and David deny but cannot but subtly express their latent misogyny and racism as the film progresses).

It is an era in which we learn to let in and to remember that we come from (and may well return to) the 0. The spine will be tapped and the phallus will fall – and we will move from a hard ‘boner’/boney culture to one of flaccidity, softness, touch and kindness. An era of comedy, where we laugh and in the process love. Let This is Spinal Tap be remembered for tapping early on into the societal changes that are taking place.

 

A brief note on The Predator (Shane Black, USA/Canada, 2018)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Uncategorized

The Predator is old-school Shane Black with smart talk, back chat, banter and gags all amidst an ultra-violent tale of aliens invading Earth.

There are some zeitgeist references, including how the predators are preparing to come to Earth to inhabit it as the human species dies out according to climate change (we may last one, maybe two more generations, the film says).

But really the film is just about sniper daddy Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) learning to find a meaningful relationship with his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), whose autism is linked to an ability directly to understand the aliens, something that chimes with Steven Shaviro’s assertion that autism is not solipsism but a kind of democratic vision of the world – in that the autist prioritises no one piece of information over others, but instead sees the world in a flat (if affectless?) fashion.

In addition to being about fathers and sons, then, the film is also a reworking of The A-Team (Stephen J Cannell and Frank Lupo, USA, 1983-1987), except with a slightly larger squad, in that Quinn is Hannibal, Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes) is BA, Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) and Baxley (Thomas Jane) are combined Murdoch, except that it is Lynch (Alfie Allen) who is on hand to fly helicopters, and then with Quinn himself and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) being a good and bad Faceman respectively. This then makes Olivia Munn’s expert biologist Casey Bracket the equivalent of Amy.

Indeed, thinking about it as I write, the set-up is also not wholly dissimilar to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Kevin Eastman et al, USA, 1987-1996).

With Munn’s role in #metoo in mind, in that she came forward to discuss harassment by director Brett Ratner in late 2017, one wonders that the film might make itself less blokey and perhaps have a more pronounced female presence, as men – both human and alien – beat their chests for the 107 minutes of the film’s duration.

But, all that said, I really only want to highlight one aspect of the film that I found interesting.

The predators bring with them this time some alien dogs. At one point Nebraska shoots one of the dogs in the head at point blank range. However, he fails to kill it – meaning that the alien dog thing recurs throughout the film – but this time as more or less Casey’s pet.

Indeed, it is suggested at one point that Nebraska did not kill, but rather simply lobotomised the beast.

What is interesting, though, is that when we first meet him, Nebraska and the rest of Group 2 are being transferred to a special installation precisely to be lobotomised – each for slightly different reasons, but with Quinn going because he has witnessed a predator in person.

Nebraska’s reason for going is that he shot his commanding officer in a fit of rebellion… only for us subsequently to reveal that he was his own CO, and that the person whom he shot was himself…. in the head. Only he missed.

In other words, not only is a link set up between Nebraska and the dog, in that he shoots both himself and the dog in the head – and yet fails to kill them. But also if Nebraska has already lobotomised himself by shooting himself in the head, then the fact that he is a kick-ass soldier who seems to feel no pain and who ultimately…

SPOILERS

… sacrifices himself by jumping into the jet engine of an alien spacecraft in order to bring it down, suggests that lobotomisations take place not to stop these men from being soldiers, but precisely in order to militarise them.

Indeed, that the Group 2 soldiers all suffer from PTSD, madness and more, The Predator would seem to suggest that these things are not the consequences of war, but the pre-requisites of war.

That the predators do not kill for survival but for sport is mentioned several times as grounds for the name being a misnomer: the predators are not predators but sports hunters.

Meanwhile, Quinn tells his son that he does not enjoy killing… before then confessing – as he kills two fellow American soldiers – that he does. That is, Quinn is a killing machine, while his son also has no qualms about having murdered a punk metal fan who hurls an object at him when he is out trick-or-treating.

Indeed, Rory explains that it is the weapons that do the killing of their own accord when the bearer of the weapons is attacked. Total fantasy of disconnect: I did not kill you, my weapon did.

But more than this.

For, at one point government agent Traeger (Sterling K Brown) describes a dead alien with the n-word, thereby creating a link between soldiers, animals, lobotomised creatures and black people.

Naturally, the film does not explore these associations any further (and it is worth noting that Traeger is himself black).

But if we add in to the mix that actor Rhodes is most famous for his part as homosexual gangster Black in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (USA, 2016), then there are yet further associations in the film with oppression, minorities, abuse and violence.

That everyone ultimately subordinates themselves for the reunion of the white father-son dyad… would suggest the sacrifice of these minorities for the purposes of protecting the planet from aliens is really to maintain the status quo of power and not to bring about any social change.

What seems a lost opportunity for an interesting ending, even if unlikely in the face of the film’s conservative heart, is that rather than having the predator-killing technology turn up as a gift from a rogue predator at the film’s climax, the predator should have delivered to Earth an alien as per AVP: Alien vs Predator (Paul WS Anderson, USA/UK/Czech Republic/Canada/Germany, 2004)… in order to unleash a whole new series of chaos that might indeed help defeat not only the predators, but also the dominant white men at the same time…

 

Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, USA, 2018)

American cinema, Blogpost, Uncategorized

In April, amid all of the hoo ha about the ‘revolutionary’ nature of Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo, USA, 2018) – because to make war infinite and to propose an unhappy ending is really revolutionary? – Steve Rose wrote in The Guardian about how Thanos (Josh Brolin) may in fact not be the bad guy… but really the good guy who wants to restore balance to a multiverse that humans have otherwise put out of balance.

Fast forward three months, and Incredibles 2 strikes me as another example of a film where basically I find myself rooting for the baddie, even though I quite like the goodies, too.

For, about a third of the way into the film, the seemingly arch-villain, the Screenslaver, explains the rationale behind his/her plans. Without remembering the speech verbatim, the Screenslaver basically makes the point that superheroes and representations of superheroes have become ubiquitous and that everyone spends all of their time looking at their screens that feature superheroes rather than heading out into and embracing the real world. People have lost touch with reality, and so the Screenslaver wants paradoxically to use the screens in order to bring people back to reality… but he/she can only do this by defeating those superheroes.

Spoilers.

When it turns out – rather obviously – that the Screenslaver is in fact Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), the only question that remains is whether her brother, Winston (Bob Oedenkirk), is in cahoots with her or whether he is blissfully unaware.

It turns out that he is unaware of her plan. So a couple of questions arise.

For, Winston is basically a billionaire media magnate who just wants to develop a strong publicity campaign to bring ‘supers’ back into the fold after they have lost favour owing to the amount of collateral damage caused by their otherwise invisible labour. With the right coverage, people will understand why they have to destroy so much stuff… and then they will be upheld as the heroes that they are.

What Winston is not, therefore, is a media magnate who understands that he should just develop the whole combat between supers and villains as a media spectacle – since it is eyeballs on screens that makes and keeps him rich.

Rather, this is something that his sister realises… and yet she only wants to destroy the media empire – and in the process also to destroy the supers’ hopes of being able to act out their superpowers by getting into large-scale fights in public.

I don’t want to get too bogged down in sorting through the nuances of this slightly illogical plot. As most people would say: it doesn’t matter, just enjoy the movie and go with it.

Except for the fact that the Screenslaver/Evelyn basically argues for what I consider to be the point of my job: namely that people should be much more media savvy and literate than they are, learning how critically to evaluate both what they see and the mechanisms that are in place that allow them to see it. Without such critical thought and eyes, one is simply prey to the propaganda messages that surround us.

Indeed, that Winston is not acutely aware of the money that he will make from the supers is unthinkable. And how the supers are not aware, or even suspicious, from the get-go that they might be patsies within a ‘sinister’ media plan… just begs the question of when a superhero will come along who is capable of ideological critique and who realises that most of their violent actions are simply an enactment of their interpellation into and perpetuation of the systems of violence that keep the contemporary world as it is (which as it turns out is to be on a crash course with ecological cataclysm).

That is, I wonder when a superhero will come along whose superpower is… intelligence – because most of these ‘superheroes’ might be amazing beefcakes, and they may even be able to bend space and time and to invent amazing technologies… but as far as political sensibility is concerned, these guys are fucking dumb (Charles Xavier/Professor X is about the closest to being an exception to this so far; no wonder Lex Luthor doesn’t respect Superman).

In effect, then, Incredibles 2 is saying that film and media studies are the bad guys, and that critical thought/intelligence is bad in a world where supers should just do what supers do (fight), and we should all watch more and more of them on our screens (in a Disney monopoly) as we are fed endless fictions about ubermensch that help us to forget that in our human, all too human capacity, we have basically brought about the destruction of our planet and continue to be exploited into doing nothing about eking every last penny of profit from the environment, its animals and its humans (if they are separate things) because we are interpellated into being unthinking and uncritical subjects by the ideological state apparatuses that surround us, including cinema and films like Incredibles 2.

In other words, if you are critical of capitalism, then you are the enemy. If you question, then you are the enemy. If you think, then you are the enemy.

And yet, maybe some skills in critical thinking would have helped Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to realise of course she was getting played in putting a camera on her suit so that she can be entered into and win not just a war of perception about whether she is ‘good’ or not, but also a ratings war that Winston pretends to deny but surely cannot be so naïve as to overlook.

But of course, for Elastigirl to out-think her opponents would make for boring cinema. And so here is the rub: given the cinematic values of our society, if you endorse anything that is not cinematic (including intelligence), then you run counter to the role that society has assigned to you, even as the powers that be accrue information/intelligence about you as a result of every keystroke that you make on your laptops.

Did I spoil your fun? Did I spoil your film? I apologise if I woke you from your gentle slumber. Well… sorry not sorry. Sorry. Not sorry.

Tomorrow Never Knows (Adam Sekuler, USA, 2017)

American cinema, BFI Flare, Blogpost, Documentary, Uncategorized

After last year watching and loving a version of his Work in Progress (USA, ongoing), I was particularly glad to see Adam Sekuler’s latest and remarkable film, Tomorrow Never Knows, at Flare, the LGBTQ+ film festival run through the British Film Institute (BFI).

Like Steven Eastwood’s equally profound Island (UK, 2018), which is set to enjoy a theatrical release in the UK in the next couple of months, Tomorrow Never Knowsis a documentary that looks at death, specifically here the build-up to the passing of Shar Jones, a transsexual living in Colorado with her partner, Cynthia Vitale.

Shar has Alzheimer’s and wishes to take her own life, but this is not legal—certainly not with assistance. And so, Shar prepares to die in the only legal way possible, which is by no longer eating and drinking, i.e. by starving herself to death.

Shar is a Buddhist who is interested in the passage of time, as is made clear by her love the Beatles song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ from which the film takes its title and the lyrics to which we hear Shar repeating/singing several times.

In particular, we might note that the song includes the line ‘it is becoming.’ That is, we live in a universe that is not static, but which always is changing. We cannot control the flow of time, and so perhaps one thing we might do is to accept it.

What is interesting about this interest in the flow of time is the tension that the film sets up both thematically and formally.

Thematically, the fllm invites the viewer to consider how death itself is a form of becoming; it is a passage of our bodies (if not a spirit) into another non-living realm, and in which—at the very least—our bodies are dispersed into the universe.

However, so also is Alzheimer’s a cerebral deterioriation that also involves, in some senses, the dissolution of the self into multiple selves—with some memories at certain points in time and few to no memories at other points in time.

There is no intention here to make light of the disease and the devastating effects that it has its sufferers and those around them.

Nonetheless, while death becomes Shar, she does this in particular by attempting to remove Alzheimer’s from her life—refusing what we might call a passive becoming (the disease) for an active becoming (choosing to die).

Paradoxically, this happens via Shar also refusing both to eat and to drink. In other words, in order to be open to death and in order to close out Alzheimer’s, Shar has to close off her body.

These thematic paradoxes extend to the film’s form/style, as I can explain by making reference to something Sekuler said in the Q&A session after the Flare screening that I attended.

Sekuler spoke of some moments featuring Shar that he had shot, and which we remarkable, but which he did not include in the film because he did not get a clean enough recording.

It is not strictly Sekuler’s aesthetic choices that I wish to question. But I use this anecdote as a way of showing how Sekuler is something of a formalistfilmmaker. That is, he aims for and very often achieves spare shots, in which there is little if any camera movement.

In other words, his style searches deliberately for a certain aesthetic, one that is, like Shar’s body as it progresses from life to death via starvation, one that seeks to shut out the outside and to demonstrate control, in particular through static long takes.

But as the human cannot fully close off the outside, and as the Buddhist might seek becoming, nor can Sekuler close off the outside from his film.

Indeed, in some senses Sekuler cannot make the movie that he might ideally want to because of the very reality that consistently invades his film.

Because Shar and Cynthia’s home is quite small, Sekuler cannot achieve distance, the frame is often cluttered, and in greater close-up, with people leaving and entering the frame a lot. Sound regularly must come from offscreen, and, in the form of traffic and other noises passing by their home, there is nothing that Sekuler can do about this.

Likewise even the light that streams in through Shar’s window.

The effect of these interruptions, though, is remarkable. For, as we see a man dying, we also hear the unstoppable nature of the world outside. The world of Shar seems to be one increasingly defined by containers, including her home and the coffin in which she will be buried, and in some senses, too, both her body and her disease are containers.

And yet these cannot be shut off from the world; the becoming cannot stop. The outside always come in.

The philosophical ramifications of Sekuler’s style hopefully here become clear: it is as if Sekuler is striving to stop the outside from coming in by making a technically flawless and aesthetically beautiful film… and yet he cannot achieve this, meaning that in some senses his film is an exercise in failure… just as every human life, as a result of its mortality, is an exercise in failing to stop death—even if one aid its advent through various measures like those taken by Shar (willed starvation).

A couple more things.

Firstly, some of the more remarkable moments of Tomorrow Never Knowsinvolve the outside and a loss of control from both Sekuler and his subjects. For example, when on a hike, we see Cynthia fall over, before Shar also needs to catch her breath.

Sekuler wants to do his static frame, but really cannot. He wants to keep his distance to film aesthetically pleasing shots, but cannot. The couple want to carry on as if unobserved, perhaps, but neither can nor do, as they talk to Adam, who in turn talks back, a voice entering the frame from offscreen.

In its imperfections, I would suggest that Tomorrow Never Knows shows most life, perhaps even most cinema, even if its struggle with the outside and its struggle for aesthetic control (its struggle to control death?) is equally a sign of life and cinema. But in both cases: cinema is not total control, but an absence of it…

But in this sense, cinema is not unlike Shar: she cannot control her disease—and this is just a fact of life. But she can control her death. So we reach another paradox: to be alive is to choose to die.

Sekuler shows us Shar’s dead body several times—at the start and then at various other points in the film. By starting with her corpse, Shar thereafter is reanimated, as if cinema could bring the dead back to life.

Cinema is thus a record of a world now dead, and it is both beautiful and haunting later to see images of Shar dancing in the countryside, a bridge (the bridge between life and death?) in the distance background.

But in contradicting death (Shar is brought back to life), Tomorrow Never Knows only reaffirms its inevitability—as a classical tragedy will depict its dead protagonists before the action unfolds: we know how this is going to end, with a key ingredient of tragedy being that one cannot escape one’s fate (and is perhaps hubristic to believe that it is possible).

Cinema is becoming, Life is becoming. Death is coming, if not becoming from the perspective of the self (which ends with death). But cinema also makes death becoming as it creates memories—an absence of becoming in that it creates something enduring. But even memories are, like cinema, fragile—as Alzheimer’s makes exceptionally clear.

The beauty of life and the beauty of cinema alike, then, lies perhaps in the shared but inevitably flawed attempt to exert control, to stave off the inevitable, to outlive it, both to become with it and not to become at all. To try to create in the face of destruction is perhaps to show spirit, to show that we have a spirit, a spirit that dances across the screen, before once more fading into nothingness.

As an addendum, I might say that while I will struggle to find time to write about it, Jason Barker’s A Deal with the Universe (UK, 2018) was also a highlight at Flare with its tale of attempts at transexual pregnancy.

Meanwhile, I would also like to give a big shout out to Siân Williams, who managed to have not one but four shorts feature in the UK Film Industry online section/selection at Flare. These included Montage of the Mind (UK, 2017), Bedside Surgeon (UK, 2017), DJ Pygmalion (UK, 2017) and Girl Under You (UK, 2017).

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, USA, 2018)

American cinema, Blogpost, Uncategorized

A Quiet Place depicts a world in which no one can fart, or at the very least where humans have developed exceptional sphincter control in a bid to ease out silent (but violent) guffs rather than make a noise. For, if they do make a noise, then aliens with exceptionally sensitive powers of audition will hear you and kill you.

We open with the Abbott family leaving a city in a post-apocalyptic time when the streets are empty, but strangely not littered with the corpses of humans who have been eviscerated by the monsters—begging the question of how they managed to clear up the devastation without making a noise.

They follow a trail of sand that has been laid down between the city and a farm in the countryside. How any human being managed to carry that much sand in order to lay down a path along roads and through countryside is not explained. Nor is the fact that no one else is travelling along this trail of sand, with the sand acting as a way of muffling footsteps.

By a railway bridge, youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) puts batteries in a toy spaceship, which starts to make some noise. Given the stakes, this is a dumb move, but Beau’s only three and a half years of age, so clearly does not understand what is going on. Summarily he is slaughtered by an alien, which happens to be in that exact area and an exceptionally fast runner—so fast, in fact, that Beau has not been able to move to a different spot and remain quiet, or throw away the noise-making toy, such that the alien, which is blind and can only hear, can either no longer find him or goes and follows a false trail towards the plastic toy.

Indeed, although blind, the monster clearly roams the wooded area through which the Abbotts travel without bumping into trees, without being distracted by the wind in the trees, and without there being any leaves or twigs on the ground for people to crunch and snap (even though the Abbotts end up on a corn farm, as discussed below, Kellogg’s will clearly have gone out of business in this dystopian world).

The next we know is that it is Day 472—either since the apocalypse or since the Abbott family arrived at the farm.

Even though more than a year has elapsed, the farm is in excellent working order, with pater familias Lee (John Krasinski) having somehow managed silently to maintain a giant crop of corn, which remains in neat rows and has not overgrown at all.

Despite not being able to flush a toilet, piles of faeces do not lie strewn everywhere. Luckily no one in the Abbott family snores. And Lee has managed silently to ejaculate inside his wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), such that she is now pregnant. By some stroke of fortune, the electricity is also still working, even though no silent power generators seem to have been developed—meaning that the monsters clearly have not found and disrupted the otherwise noisy electricity grid.

That said, the internet is apparently not working, with cell phones also being out of action, meaning that no one is sending or receiving texts (with ringtone and keypad set to silent, obviously), such that humans can communicate to each other the whereabouts of the beasts, information about them and so on.

Instead, humans exist in isolated micro-communities, every night lighting a fire atop corn towers to let others know that they are there. All very idyllic.

During these 472 days, Lee has managed to install and keep running in a basement an old-fashioned radio kit, through which he sends messages in Morse code saying SOS, even though he also clearly sees the fire signals of others at night. Why he wants to be helped (SOS) seems unclear, and why he does not go see the bearers of the other torches also is unclear (smoke signals might also be a decent way of communicating, except that Native Americans do not exist to pass on such skills).

In his basement den, Lee also has in over a year managed to accrue the following ideas: the aliens follow sound, you must be silent, and you must survive. Even though he has a go at electronics—trying to develop new hearing aids for his deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds)—one gets the impression that if this is the sum of his knowledge after one and a half years of living under alien invasion, then Lee truly is a Salt of the Earth American. Or as Mel Brooks might put it: you know, a moron.

Indeed, while one newspaper headline announces ‘steps to survive the apocalypse’ (or words to that effect—with silent print presses clearly having also been developed, together with a silent transport infrastructure that allows for the silent distribution of print newspapers during the period of alien invasion), Lee has not actually put up on his noticeboard what those steps are. Instead, he just has the headline showing—to let him know that there are steps to surviving the apocalypse. Some humans are happier just knowing that they could improve their lot, with no inclination actually to do so…

Clearly it has been beyond the ken of humanity, with all of its technology and know-how, to learn how to, for example, make noise in one place in order to attract one of these beasts, while actually being in another place, and then using this ruse as a way of trapping the beast and then working out its functioning and, bluntly put, how to kill it.

What is more, poor bloody aliens: they kill or at least attack anything that makes a sound (which in the film includes an alarm clock, previously unseen, and a television monitor). For clearly sound annoys the hell out of them. And yet even though they make one hell of a racket as they go about, they do not attack themselves, nor do they go crazy with rage at the sounds of cicadas, birds, and the wind, and nor do they drown endlessly trying to fight rivers. God knows what they’d make of a thunderstorm.

We do see one of the monsters eat a beaver or some such critter at one point, so the aliens clearly do attack and possibly eat more than humans. And yet, the countryside is not an Armageddon of bleating animals—from cows to mice to rabbit to pheasants to squirrels to badgers to sheep to goats—being torn to shreds by terrible monsters, who also might attack each other. Indeed, given that these monsters have such sensitive hearing, one wonders that they have ended up on the wrong planet, really. With no one realising that because their hearing is so sensitive, sound might actually be used against them. And certainly with no one realising that the aliens clearly are vulnerable when they expose their ears, and thus can be killed really quite simply—if you can shoot inside their open ear rather than at the rest of their impenetrable body.

(Presumably in this scenario, Cuba is safe, since Cuba knows how to use inaudible sound frequencies as a weapon, as per the rendering-deaf of various workers at the American Embassy in Havana. God damn those spick communists for being better able to stave off the apocalypse.)

Back to Lee. In 472 days, he has not been bothered to fix the massive nail that sticks up out of the stairs down to his basement, and on which Evelyn will later tread, presumably because he a) does not really like DIY, and b) because he really just wants to be left alone down there (he wants people to tread on the nail so that they won’t go down, with Lee refusing Regan entry to his den at one point in the film).

Furthermore, even though Lee climbs atop the corn tower every day to do his fire ritual (having not yet run out of lighter fluid), in 472 days and as a full-size human adult, he has not managed to fall through the roof of the corn tower, even though his small son manages to do exactly this later on in the film on what is, as far as we know, his first visit to that place (we can guess this because his son, Marcus, played by Noah Jupe, is a wuss who does not want to venture outside; Lee forces him to go fishing, where Marcus, clearly the inheritor of his father’s brains, finally realises that if he is around things louder than him, he can make noise, although why no one else has decided that behind a waterfall might be a good place to live in the era of these acoustic monsters is unclear).

When Marcus does fall inside the corn tower, one of the aliens arrives to kill him, but is put off by feedback from Regan’s otherwise malfunctioning hearing aid. The monster then bursts through the corn tower and out into the (still perfectly kept) corn field, only to reappear a bit later when Marcus and Regan are inside a now defunct car. But where the monster just ripped through a corn tower with ease, it apparently has much more trouble with car windows, meaning that Lee has time to arrive and sacrifice himself for his kids by causing a distraction.

Meanwhile, Evelyn has given birth and she keeps her new son (a replacement for Beau – yay!) in a coffin to keep him quiet—and an oxygen tank, which hopefully will last for three years or so before the newborn learns to be quiet. Even though this secret room is soundproof, and Evelyn and Lee can talk down there, it has enough holes in it that it floods when one of the monsters sets a pipe leaking upstairs while looking for them.

The point of this blog is not necessarily to demonstrate that A Quiet Place has as many holes in it as Lee’s sound-proofed room. Nor is it to suggest that if this film can get a major release, then The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA, 2003) really should be upheld as an entirely legitimate film, since it makes about as much sense as this film, and yet was made for so much less money. Likewise, anyone who derides as inferior a movie like Mega-Shark versus Giant Octopus (Ace Hannah, USA, 2009) is duty-bound to do the same with this film—unless it is really cosmetic issues like budget that one wants to deride (i.e. what one really wants to deride when deriding Mega-Shark over A Quiet Place is poverty; this film may not make sense, but it’s a film with money, so it cannot be shit; only poor films are shit, like only poor people are shit, even though they may be much smarter than the rich male ‘heroes’ we have on display here).

Rather than make these points, though, the issue that I really want to address is why A Quiet Place is the way that it is.

Lee basically sits down in his basement doing completely useless things: making hearing aids that do not work, not fixing the nail, managing in 1.5 years to realise that ‘survival’ is key (no shit, Sherlock), and not reading the ways that might help him to survive the apocalypse, but just the headline that tells him that there are ways to do so. In other words, Lee is a redundant male and completely useless, consoling himself as being useful because he can fish and because he can light a fire with lighter fluid on the top of a corn tower, and sending pointless SOS signals via his radio rig.

At one point, we see a list of radio frequencies for him to try, and as Lee crosses out about the fifteenth frequency down a list of about twenty, you wonder whether he has really been trying to get help at all… Fifteen attempts in a year and a half, Lee? I mean, come on, man… how much do you want to get saved?

But this is the point: in its utter flimsiness, and in being predicated like many recent films around the premise of a dead and/or imminent birth (or in this case both), then A Quiet Place would seem to suggest that Lee does not want to get saved (he does not want anyone to answer the SOS call).

And why not? Basically because he fantasises about being in a world where finally his kids shut the fuck up and leave him alone to fuck about in his basement den doing absolutely nothing useful, but pissing away his time in the way that he wants and not responding to the demands of his family.

‘What do you mean I’ve only tried fifteen frequencies in a year and a half? Shut up! I’m busy. And no you can’t come down here to see how busy I am. You’d just get in the way. And ruin everything, like you’re ruining my life!’

‘Thank God that annoying kid got killed by that monster, even if I did make a token effort to save it. And better yet, I can punish his deaf sister for giving him the batteries and still claim to love her, even though she is deaf. And to top it all: hopefully my new son will both shut my wife up as she keeps banging on about replacing my dead son, while the screaming infant won’t have a hope in hell of surviving, so we might as well put him in a coffin already.’

The moral of the film, then, is that your kids will kill you—making your personal way of life untenable and taking away from you every freedom that you had and which narcissistically you do not want to give up, but in fact want to prolong, and preferably by producing not alien monsters, but clone versions of yourself.

Conversely, if you want to be a responsible father, then you must basically die for your kids—especially if humanity is to have a future. But who is prepared to die? While Lee does die in this film, the film is also about the difficulty he has in coming to this decision.

In its transition from selfish to selfless father, then, the film speaks to a contemporary world in which unruly kids are an abomination, and we pathologise and diagnose kids as having all manner of conditions, disorders and diseases in a bid to get them to shut up, and in a bid to get them to internalise as wrong the very things that make them most alive—namely their differences from their parents (with the pathologised kid being made both to shut up and getting to fool themselves that this uniformed shutting up is a signifier of how different from everyone else in the world they are, perhaps especially their parents, such that they feel exactly like an alien; that is, through their pathologisation, the kids are interpellated into solipsistic silence).

‘A kid that cannot behave? Socialise it through medication and medical diagnosis! Get to a world of silence where parenthood involves no sacrifice, but just a continuation of single and perhaps partnered life as usual.’

Perhaps this also reveals the function of horror stories: equally to get kids to behave by scaring the shit out of them (except that we can flush away that shit in our world, while it magically disappears in A Quiet Place).

More: it is the kids that are the monsters, since they, like the monsters, function in a world without language, without sense, in touch with chaos. It is through language (by being made not just to hear, but by being deafened by the cacophony of modernity) that they will be socialised and made to conform to the law of the father. Or else kill the father.

What this film reveals—the narcissism of the middle class white male (and perhaps of Krasinski as director, co-writer and star)—is also part of the problem: in getting to die for his kids, the useless white male is also rendered a hero, in the process having his cake and eating it—being correct to tell his kids to shut up, being allowed himself to do some shouting, and then being correct finally to let the monsters/the little monsters take over from him.

Notably, Regan and Evelyn take about two minutes after Lee’s death to work out how to kill the aliens, while Marcus whimpers in the corner with his baby brother. And so yes, we have an empowered pair of women, one of them ‘even more empowered’ because physically impaired/hard of hearing—which makes A Quiet Place all very fashionable given the presence of mute and/or deaf women in Oscar-winners The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) and The Silent Child (Chris Overton, UK, 2017), even if collectively these films suggest a desire for women to be mute and deaf in the era of #metoo.

But then we have just spent the best part of ninety minutes watching the patriarchy. Even when in auto-critique mode, then, the patriarchal film still preens itself in an overblown peacock display of uselessness, asking us to marvel at its ability to fart (or not)—and expecting to be loved for it. Much as there is some capable acting and directing here, A Quiet Place just seems to ask for too much.

NOTE: I arrived a few minutes after the beginning of the film, and so might have missed something important. That said, I asked one guy what happened and he said that he was asleep. And so I asked a couple what had happened, and they said that I had missed nothing (with one of them saying, remarkably, that they could not remember the beginning of the film).