I was greatly honoured to introduce Charles Burnett’s masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, at the VIFF Centre on 31 August 2022. The below is a write-up of the brief comments I made about the film during my intro to the seven audience members who came to watch the film – a sad but lucky number of viewers, since this film surely deserves many more spectators.
Perhaps part of the reason why Killer of Sheep did not attract a large audience for this screening is that the film is overlooked somewhat – not in the sense of being ‘underrated’ (which is not really the case; the film is very highly rated), but because it took years for the film to achieve any wide release because Burnett had not secured the rights to the film’s remarkable soundtrack, which includes work by Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin and others.
While it took about 30 years for the film to achieve a wide release in c2007, even its initial run in 1977/1978 (when it won the Critics’ Award at the Berlin International Film Festival) came some four or five years after initial production – with Burnett shooting the film between 1972 and 1975.
This long, slow production and gestation means that Killer of Sheep is a kind of ‘underground’ film, one that (for me, unfairly) gets only low attendances while much more mediocre fare is significantly better attended (two women left the screening at which I gave the intro because they were in the wrong theatre – leaving those seven behind – notably all ostensibly white or Asian men, though I shan’t get too much into the possible meanings of that here).
This long, slow production and gestation of Killer of Sheep also befits the way in which it offers to us a different conception of cinema, harder to understand than regular cinema.
For, some might say that, with a production budget of US$10,000, Killer of Sheep necessarily has ‘flaws’ and/or ‘limitations’ – because the dominant capitalist model of cinema dictates that a lack of budget is a deficiency, and that to make a ‘good’ film ‘in spite of’ no money is somehow a grand achievement – to be rewarded in some cases with much more money for one’s next film.
But I might contend that in fact those ‘flaws’ are not just the core strengths of Killer of Sheep, but also necessarily a part of a film that presents to us a possible world beyond the atomised world of selfish greed, of self-serving individuality, that is at the heart of neoliberal capitalism, and which is the backdrop for Burnett’s film.
In order to explain this, I’ll offer up a key example of one of the film’s ‘flaws’ – which features regularly in the film – but which is in fact at the heart of what it is doing/saying, and which makes of it such a work of genius.
It happens regularly when working with non-professional actors (and, in my experience, also with professional actors) that they cast looks on occasion at the camera. Most filmmakers would edit such moments out of their films; apparently (but I don’t really believe or buy this), it destroys the ‘illusion’ of cinema (because apparently cinema is supposed to be an immersive illusion or ‘escape’ from ‘reality’ – whatever that is).
However, in Killer of Sheep, it happens on various occasions that actors look directly at the camera – and the scenes play on and play out fine, with me as a viewer not feeling that this diminishes my experience of the film, but that instead it enriches it.
Above are three examples.
For, as per long-standing analyses of images where figures look back at the viewer, there is a sense in these gazes from the screen not only that the film’s viewers are not detached, unseen observers peeking voyeuristically into the lives of the figures on screen, but rather that we are implicated into that world, and by extension the film itself.
One can think about it this way: at time of filming, these actors looked at the camera and/or at Burnett. In doing so, they ‘broke character’ and made it clear that they were aware that they were in a film – i.e. ‘acting’ in front of a camera. Burnett does not edit this out of the film; he keeps it in – repeatedly. He wants us to know that this is a film; that these are not professional actors; and most especially that he and we are connected with them.
Killer of Sheep is a key text in what has come to be known, thanks to Clyde Taylor, as the L.A. Rebellion – a group of Black filmmakers making films out of UCLA in the 1970s, many being taught by Teshome Gabriel. Making specifically anti-commercial (‘rebellious’) and proactively ‘Black’ films lends to Killer of Sheep and others from this ‘school’ a political edge.
For, what the glances to the camera come to mean, when read with this political outlook in mind and thus through the lens of race, is that the Black lives that we see onscreen are not just Black lives objectified to satisfy the curiosity of (white) film viewers. Rather, it means that Burnett (and others from the L.A. Rebellion and beyond) give a dignity to these performers, as well as to the characters that they portray on screen.
More than this, it presents to us a non-capitalist view of the world and of cinema – and one that is exemplary not just of a ‘socialist’ mindset (Charles Burnett as a would-be Marxist filmmaker making anti-capitalist films), but which also reflects the necessarily structural exclusion of Black people from that capitalist world – and from its regular cinema.
How is this so?
Well, if as suggested above the over-arching ethos of white western modernity is the sovereignty of the individual (personal liberty, individuality, greed), then the structure of modernity that allows for such sovereignty is in fact a racialised structure that allows for white sovereignty at the expense of Black ‘sovereignty.’
Figure it this way: the individualised white hero rescues the individualised white woman from the Black horde in numerous early movies. Thus the individuality of the white hero can only be made real if it is distinguished from the non-individuality of the non-white other (and even though the white woman is in this schema also reduced from being a subject to being a stake and/or an object in order to validate that white individual male hero, the non-white other is also structurally necessary here to make her believe that being an object is better than being outside of the subject-object binary entirely; to be an objectified white woman is ‘better’ than being Black and abject).
So… to be Black in white western modernity is to have no individuality, which is the preserve of whiteness alone.
But rather than offer to us a counter-claim to individuality – a movie with a Black hero/superhero – Burnett instead rejects the hero/superhero model altogether. He rejects individuality altogether. And in its place he offers to us a vision of a different kind of living – living not an atomised, alienated life, but living in a community.
To be clear: Blackness is excluded from individuality anyway. And in being excluded from modernity – and necessarily so, since it is that exclusion from modernity that makes whiteness itself ‘modern’ – Blackness necessarily lives ‘otherwise.’ But rather than have that exclusion imposed upon Blackness in the form of white supremacist (racist) films that depict the above-mentioned Black hordes, Burnett takes that exclusion and turns it positively into community.
In the language of the wonderful Fred Moten, to be Black is effectively to consent not to be a single being – with consent being the key term here. For, to consent not to be single is not to be shunted into the ghetto against one’s will – although this of course happens; it is, rather, to choose community, to choose contact with others, to choose not to be a single being.
And so the looks to the camera create community; rather than a cinema of individuality, Burnett gives to us a vision of a cinema that consents not to be single, and which asks us viewers also to consent to that.
Since cinema is a key tool in propagating the ethos of individuality (I want to be a film star; I want to be exceptional; I want to be a great movie director, etc –> self, self, self), the lack of budget in Burnett’s film is neither flaw, therefore, nor is it an obstacle ‘around which’ Burnett somehow skilfully managed to get. It is absolutely and structurally necessary that his film be ‘cheap’ – just as it is necessary for his actors to look at the camera. It demonstrates that they knowingly consent to be in this different kind of film; that they consent not to be a single being.
But let us not over-simplify Burnett’s film. For while the amazing shots that we see in Killer of Sheep are regularly crowded and involving people – especially children – piling on top of each other and touching each other – and not being single – so is Burnett’s film filled with harrowing ‘singles’ (shots featuring people on their own).
Is Burnett contradicting himself here, then – and do we see that any use of a ‘single’ demonstrates that he is not the communitarian filmmaker that I am claiming him to be?
No. For, Burnett’s film, in its tale of a man, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who is struggling to make ends meet, and who is invited to commit a crime and to try various other schemes in order to survive, very clearly charts how even though to be Black is not to be single, there is nonetheless the pressure of living in a capitalist society bearing down on these characters – and that this pressure does indeed isolate them.
The tension between the group shots and the singles, then, is the very struggle for survival in Black America; for while to be single when white is a sign of empowerment, to be single when Black is to be isolated from the community – something that capital precisely needs to happen to prevent that Black horde from realising its own strength and taking power.
Killer of Sheep powerfully and skilfully, then, presents to us the impossibility of being Black and American: it is not to be single, but it is also to have forces weighing down on you that try to force you into not an empowered but a lost singularity – the singularity of depression and despair.
So Burnett does not present to us a Wakanda-style fantasy of Black empowerment; rather he presents to us a ‘reality’ of community coming together, but also being torn apart by the pressures of capital.
It is for this reason that various people consider Killer of Sheep to be a ‘realistic’ film. However, I wonder that the term is a bit misleading; for while it does indeed present to us a ‘reality,’ it nonetheless is an incredibly considered film.
Take, for example, the continual cuts between children playing and animals in the abattoir where Stan works. A form of montage that is straight out of Sergei M. Eisenstein (one thinks of the cut from the workers to the cow being slaughtered in Strike, USSR, 1925), this is expressive and abstract (it creates a metaphor rather than the ‘telling it like it is’ that we typically understand ‘realism’ to be), as it suggests to us that these kids – undifferentiated in the eyes of white western modernity – are lambs to the slaughter, heading for a world in which they will be alienated, alone.
Furthermore, there are frequent associations in the film between femininity and dogs. We first see Stan’s daughter, Angie (Angela Burnett), in one of the most striking images from all of cinema: in a dog mask. We hear dogs barking when we then see women in the street. And Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) first arrives on screen just as we hear the line ‘give a dog a bone’ from the nursery rhyme, ‘This Old Man.’
While some critics have perhaps rightly critiqued Burnett for giving short shrift to women in his film, I do not think his point is to make a derogatory comparison here between femininity and the canine. Rather, I think, Burnett wishes to demonstrate suggestively – expressively, via artifice rather than through ‘realism’ – that a woman’s life is a ‘dog’s life’ in Black America.
For, let us return to the mythos of the white male subject rescuing the white female object from the abject Black horde. The Black woman does not even feature in this schema. And so Burnett uses the canine to get at the ‘impossibility’ of Black femininity – as per the various conceptualisations of the same by writers like Michele Wallace, Evelynn Hammonds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Rizvana Bradley and others. That is, while Blackness in the form of Black ‘masculinity’ is structurally ‘outside’ of white western modernity (subject-object-abject), Black femininity does not even feature (subject-object-abject-[animal-plant-]nothing; or, perhaps more accurately, subject-object-animal-plant-abject-nothing). Its, or her, very existence, then, is ‘impossible.’ And Killer of Sheep portrays this through the soundtrack.
Finally, I added in my introduction to the film that Killer of Sheep does not really have a coherent structure. Things happen episodically – meaning that there are one-off events that in a mainstream (white) film might lead somewhere and/or to which one might return. But in Killer of Sheep, single things happen, and they do not come back – and the centrality of Stan as the protagonist even kind of peters out as the film progresses.
For me, the way in which mainstream cinema ties up loose ends (there is little that is random, happens once and then never comes back) effectively demonstrates belief in a god who gives meaning to events – even if ‘bad’ ones. Or rather than belief in a god, it is cinema functioning as a way of inventing that self-same god in order to justify whiteness as the ‘chosen’ (or ‘supreme’) race (white supremacy).
To portray a universe in which stuff does not happen for a reason, in which that character does not come back because that incident in fact had a hidden meaning, in which there is a not an underlying structure to the world… is to give expression to how to be Black in America is to lead a ‘godless’ life.
This is a not a question of whether one believes in a god or not, or whether there really is a God or not. It is about how a ‘structured’ life in which things have meaning is a white creation for whiteness’ sake; hence white people harrumphing in an entitled fashion when things do not go their way and/or when they are confronted with chaos. And it is about how an ‘unstructured’ and ‘chaotic’ life in which things do not have meaning is the flip side of that ‘order’ – not a Black ‘creation’, but created for Blackness by a white structure in order to allow that white structure to exist as such. Whatever god it is that white people think blesses them with order, entitlement and privilege (however illusory this order at times proves to be*), that god does not exist for Black people, who are not blessed with order, entitlement and privilege, but their opposites.
And so even in its very ‘structurelessness,’ Killer of Sheep proves itself to be a magnificently profound film – and an incredible piece of work given that this was initially a student film. If only more students wanted to engage in such a political and philosophical way with their filmmaking – regardless of whether or not they have the gumption to shoot feature films instead of shorts while still studying (most students do not do this; they stick to shorts, hoping to make their way towards features later and when paid handsomely to do so and with big budgets – i.e. it is progress towards the affirmation of the self, self, self; it is what they have been told to do since birth; it bespeaks the demography of the university and/or film school).
While I might feel sad that Killer of Sheep was the only exemplar of the L.A. Rebellion on offer as part of Ragged Glory, the series in which it belonged, its inclusion is fabulous. And while it has inspired filmmakers like Skinner Myers and Merawi Gerima to go on and to make exceptional films about Black American life in the contemporary moment, I hope that it gets more screenings, more viewers (more than seven viewers) and that it brings about a different cinema and a different world – one in which we collectively consent not to be a single being, and to build finally a true world community worthy of the name.
In this sense, a film like Killer of Sheep is not great ‘despite’ its lack of budget – and there is no need to question what sort of film Burnett might ‘really’ make if ‘given’ (as if by a ‘god’) a bigger budget (with that budget thus functioning as a means to make Burnett bow before the god of capital). Killer of Sheep is thus not a ‘minor’ masterpiece as many would have it understood – perhaps including ‘major’ film theorists (who speak of ‘minor cinemas’ if not of minor masterpieces, exactly). The film is, rather, already and always the greatest cinema; it is the cinema of the future; it is not even ‘cinema’ as we typically know it. It gives to cinema a future – because it also gives to humanity a future. Killer of Sheep is a major piece of work. The greatest. Enjoy it.
(And for some more of Burnett’s great work, check out his brilliant short, When It Rains, USA, 1995, here – while it is still available.)
* When white privilege is revealed to be illusory, the insult is so great to whiteness’s sense of supremacy and entitlement that it often turns psychotic/murderous in response. This only reveals the psychosis that is whiteness in the first place, as argued by Kehinde Andrews, for example. Where on earth does this psychosis come from, and how can it be so ingrained in white people not only that they should always get their own way, but also that they even believe that have a ‘way’ that is specific to them in the first place? The very idea of them even having a ‘way’ – and that they are entitled to it – demonstrates that they are psychotic in their belief that they are special and ‘chosen’, that they are the true ‘subject,’ and that the world/universe exists ‘for’ them.
I was delighted this evening (Wednesday 24 August 2022) to introduce John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever as part of the VIFF Centre’s Ragged Glory: Summer in the 70s season in Vancouver.
My intro ended up being improvised rather than read, not least because there was a hitch with the projection, which meant that the film started 30 minutes late.
All the same, I am posting here the written intro that I might otherwise have given, and a truncated version of which I did give, combined with greater enthusiasm for the film (I got a bit nervous that the below is too disparaging).
I shall add a bibliography at the end, although the main text, not being entirely academic, does not include direct references. All the same, the work of those in the bibliography was immensely useful, even if not directly referenced.
And so… the intro as would have been! Starts:-
The Bridges of New York play a key role in Saturday Night Fever, especially the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge – with one scene in particular, featuring John Travolta’s Tony Manero and Karen Lynn Gorney’s Stephanie Mangaro, finding some sort of respite from the endless pressure of the city while looking out at the bridge from the Shore Parkway Greenway.
The shot announces Woody Allen’s Manhattan (USA, 1979) two years ahead of that film’s release; and yet, where Allen unashamedly takes us into the rarefied milieu of New York’s educated elite, John Badham’s film keeps us much more firmly in Brooklyn, specifically the Bay Ridge area where Tony and his friends live, work and go balling on Saturday night at the 2001 Odyssey nightclub.
Where Allen’s film is resoundingly white in its privilege and outlook, though, Badham’s walks a very narrow bridge between exposing the racist, homophobic and misogynistic white world of Bay Ridge, and effectively endorsing it. For, while many might think of Saturday Night Fever as an upbeat jaunt thanks to the iconographic status of its central dance moves and its soundtrack, as brilliantly celebrated and lampooned in Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, USA, 1980), it is in fact a very downbeat film, and in the manner of contemporary trigger warnings, it features two scene of sexual violence, as well as a near-constant stream of abusive invective that make it almost an extreme version of the street cinema to which many 1970s films aspired – with Fever explicitly referencing films like Rocky (John G. Avildsen, USA, 1976) and Serpico (Sidney Lumet, USA/Italy, 1973) – as well as Bruce Lee.
As Rocky in particular saw the resurgence of the Great White Hope in a sport then-dominated at the heavyweight level by black athletes, so do the Bee Gees in Fever take disco and make it a white form, with Travolta also openly acknowledging the influence that black dancing, and even black walking, played in helping him to develop not just Tony’s moves on the dancefloor, including moves of black origin like the Scooby Doo, but even the famous strut with which the film opens.
The low angle shots of Tony, creating odd diagonals across the frame, perhaps also tell us that while Rocky and Serpico are Tony’s cinematic points of reference (and while Stephanie aspires to Franco Zeffirelli’s high brow Romeo and Juliet, UK/Italy, 1968), director Badham is drawing more upon Blaxploitation fare like Shaft (Gordon Parks, USA, 1971), which opens with similar movement and framing.
Read in the light of Spike Lee’s later Jungle Fever (USA, 1991), itself about the impossibility of bridging the racial divide in Bensonhurst, one of the main thoroughfares in Bay Ridge (where, in fact, we first see Tony in Saturday Night Fever), one might even conclude that the ‘fever’ of Saturday Night Fever is an otherwise disallowed blackness, which is characterised, in a language appropriated positively by a rapper like Nas, as ill.
Or, as dance scholar Sima Belmar has written of the film, repeating what one of the crowd members says of the African American dancers in the film’s climatic dance competition, there is ‘no way’ for blackness to be allowed into a film that is structured around the white male individual, a story that we have seen repeated afresh this year in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (USA/Australia, 2022).
Come the final dance competition, then, audience members can themselves decide whether the number put together by Tony and Stephanie, of course all dressed in white and dancing to ‘More Than a Woman,’ performed in rehearsal by Cape Verdean-American group Tavares, but here by the white Gibb brothers, is better than the other performances that we see from the African American and the Puerto Rican dancers. Without wishing to give too many spoilers, Travolta’s movements in the film are magnificent, but Karen Lynn Gorney is alas no dancer – only making her task in giving life to Stephanie all the more difficult, if not impossible.
Numero uno says director John Badham in a cameo role to the Puerto Rican couple, perhaps giving to us a sense of where the director’s sympathies lie, and how the film’s constructed whiteness itself demonstrates the racially rigged nature of cinema. And as we see the morally barren lives of Tony’s friends, Joey and Double J, emerge most clearly, perhaps we get a sense that Tony does not want to belong to this world in which white Italian American identity is built upon the backs of occulted black, Hispanic and other racialised and gendered labour (for example, Asian – as per the Bruce Lee poster that adorns Tony’s wall).
In this way, the film – much like Tony and his fellow so-called ‘faces’ (who include the afore-mentioned Joey and Double J, as well as Gus and the afflicted Bobby) – treads a precarious path across the bridge that separates affluent Manhattanites from the residents of Brooklyn as they live in the wake of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Son of Sam killings and more. In this way, those low-angle shots, which will be repeated three years later in Kathleen Collins’ overlooked Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (USA, 1980), precisely about Puerto Ricans trying to make it in outside of New York, demonstrate to us the tightrope that Tony and others of his class walk, or strut, in order to make a better life for themselves.
But where the Cruz Brothers rise as, precisely, brothers – that is, collectively, in Tony’s white world, he is of course atomised, alone (thereby challenging the film’s pretensions to class analysis). And so while Saturday Night Fever promises to us that Tony can become repulsed by the sexist, racist and homophobic world in which he resides (indeed, much has also been made of how Travolta is regularly ‘feminised’ by the camera in his performances), it also cannot let go of the myth of white exceptionalism, even as Tony needs not sex but friendship in order to deal with his life.
Indeed, the film cannot let go of its masculine privilege, giving to Tony an interiority that he tries to express through his dance, both through point-of-view shots during his rehearsals with Stephanie and through his desire to discuss ‘how we feel when we’re dancing.’ It gives no such interiority, however, to the stripper presented to us frontally, and thus as a ‘mere’ display, in the back room of 2001 Odyssey, while Tony’s neglected partner Annette (Donna Pescow) suffers repeatedly through his emotionally neglectful behaviour. Tony’s most famous pose, arm pointing into the air, perhaps recalls that otherwise unseen icon of New York, the Statue of Liberty, but here expressed as the search for Liberty by the white male; this is femininity as appropriation negatively (i.e. downwards), unlike illness as appropriated ‘upwards’ by Nas. In other words, Saturday Night Fever offers us cinema as usual.
Indeed, Pablo Larraín’s brilliant Tony Manero (Italy/Brazil, 2008) perhaps points to the dark heart that is at the centre of Travolta’s Tony, as well as Saturday Night Fever more generally – and in the South American context, the film and its lead character do function as means for creating a psychotic whiteness within its own culture (even if ‘Latin’ functions as non-white within a North American context).
You’re turning God into a telephone operator, Tony says to his long-suffering mother. God is a medium, then, and his desire to be Pacino would suggest that this divine medium, cinema, presents to us a White God. But as Robin Wood identified that the 1970s saw a shift from seeing the repression of sex as horrific to seeing sex itself as horrific, so does Saturday Night Fever in its sometimes sincere, sometimes performed attempt to get past dancing as a prelude to sex, grapple acutely with the horrors of a New York ravaged by history and which lies just over the bridge from Woody Allen’s bourgeois, and perhaps ultimately more deeply corrupt, Big Apple.
Belmar, Sima (2016) ‘Behind the Screens: Race, Space, and Place in Saturday Night Fever,’ in Douglas Rosenberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 461-480.
Kinder, Marsha (1978) ‘Saturday Night Fever by John Badham,’ Film Quarterly, 31:3 (Spring), pp. 40-42.
Ramanathan, Geetha (2020) Kathleen Collins: The Black Essai Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Steven, Peter (1980) ‘Saturday Night Fever: Just Dancing,’ Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 23, (October), pp. 13-16.
Wood, Robin, and Richard Lippe (eds.) (1979) American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Toronto: Festival of Festivals.
This blog is a write-up of sorts for the first of a series of events that I am putting together in my (still relatively) new hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Collectively entitled Cinema Thinks The World, the events involve a series of screenings and discussions over the course of the next year and perhaps beyond, and half of which are held in partnership with, and at, The Cinematheque here in Vancouver.
Each event involves one or more of a group of scholars who work on film at the University of British Columbia (UBC), expanding widely beyond its specific Department of Theatre and Film (where I am located) to incorporate scholars from various other disciplines – primarily but not necessarily exclusively in the Humanities.
Sponsored by the university’s Public Humanities Hub, the Cinema Thinks The World project effectively takes its name from the idea that it is hard for us to think of ‘the world’ without thinking of images produced by moving and still image cameras.
Indeed, as I explained in my brief introduction to the first of our screenings on 2 June 2022 at The Cinematheque, Matthew Boulton said of the steam engine, which he first helped to manufacture following its invention by James Watt, that it was a technology that was not worth making to work in three British counties alone, but that it only would make sense to build it for the entire world to use.
As the great Trinidadian scholar and Prime Minister Eric Williams suggests, drawing upon this comment from Boulton in his landmark 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery, to think ‘globally’ is always already to think through capitalism, and that it is technology (here, the steam engine) that necessitates such thinking.
Fast forward to the time in which we regularly see images of the ‘whole planet’ from outer space, and we can also connect Boulton’s remarks to Martin Heidegger’s well known idea of the ‘world picture,’ whereby a ‘world picture’ is not just a picture of the world, but an understanding that the world is, or we can only understand the world as, a picture.
That is, photographic and cinematographic technologies, among other imaging technologies, are what allow us to understand ‘the world’ as such. In this way, cinema ‘thinks’ the world for us. But just as the steam engine and cameras are technologies that spring from and reinforce power (not just steam but also political power), then so does the way in which cinema ‘thinks’ the world need to be looked at in terms of what I am here terming politics. If you will, if cinema thinks the world (for us), then how we think (of) the world will depend on what kind of films that we watch – from which places, which periods and so on. Thus how we think about the world depends on which kinds of films we see and which kinds of films we get to see and/or are encouraged to see. And which of the vast number of films get screened is a matter not just of taste, but also of, precisely, politics. That is, cinema plays a key role in power struggles and the distribution of power: if you are not on the screen, then you as good as don’t exist (since no one knows about you).
The world – what the world is (or what the world is understood as being) – is in this sense a concept that is unevenly distributed, much like wealth, and much like movies, in that American blockbusters are widely distributed and small, slow art house films like Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, much less so.
Given that Tsai’s film is itself about cinema and the films that we see (or not, as the case may be), then it was a wonderfully apposite film for The Cinematheque to screen and to act as the launchpad for this series, with the 2 June event involving responses to the film from Chelsea Birks of The Cinematheque, and Igor Drjlaca, Christine Evans, Helena Wu and Mila Zuo of UBC. Along with The Cinematheque’s Shaun Inouye, I moderated the event – which required minimal effort and great pleasure.
What follows may well touch upon some of the things that the participants said in relation to the film, and I shall where I can give reference to things that my esteemed colleagues said. But primarily it is just a brief response to the film of my own, and it can be understood as incomplete rather than final thoughts about what is a very rich film.
For, Tsai’s film is set in a cinema where is screening King Hu’s classic wuxia movie, Dragon Inn (Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1967). Through a curtain, we see a packed house looking up at the screen early on in Tsai’s movie, before we see outside the theatre the arrival of a young Japanese man (Kiyonobu Mitamura), who without paying for his ticket proceeds into a relatively empty screening.
The mismatch between the full and empty house already destabilises our understanding of what we are seeing: what is real? who is really there? And this ‘ontological instability’ only deepens when, as the film progresses, we learn the theatre may be haunted and that various of the patrons might be ghosts (perhaps especially a woman, played by Yuang Kuei-mei, who eats nuts, discarding a seemingly endless pile of nutshells over the cinema’s floor).
The Japanese man seems not necessarily to be at the film to catch up on an Asian classic, but rather to get involved also in some of the cruising that seems to be going on among the cinema’s male-majority audience – even as our man never seems quite to be in luck.
Director Tsai’s work is, as Song Hwee Lim has argued, exemplary of what is sometimes called ‘slow cinema,’ in that ‘very little happens’ in terms of ‘dramatic action,’ while also consisting of long takes and long shots that give to the film a sense of taking place in ‘real time.’
Indeed, it is 45 minutes before a word is spoken (although we can hear dialogue from King Hu’s film during this time), and as much as anything we might just see people walking slowly through the cinema, especially a ticket woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who has a pronounced limp, or taking amusingly interminable leaks in the men’s urinals. All the while, the rain pours insistently down outside of the theatre, with water leaking in through the cinema’s roof, and the ramshackle space, as we latterly discover, facing imminent closure.
For all of its flowing water, though, the film is very ‘dry’ in its humour – a kind of deadpan comedy of manners along the lines of someone like Jacques Tati, whose Playtime (France/Italy, 1967) was made in the same year as Dragon Inn, and to the ‘philosophy’ of which I shall return imminently.
Indeed, while I hope to have set the scene to the film in the above description, I also hope to have established what for me are some of the key terms of making a bit of sense of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, including real time, playtime, limping, leaking, water and the weather.
For, as we see the ticket lady limping around the theatre, slowly climbing and then going down stairs, there is a sense in which this is not just a film that moves at a ‘pedestrian’ pace, but that it, too, also ‘limps along,’ walking imperfectly, or in a ‘non-standard’ fashion.
And yet, if we feel tempted to call this a ‘real time’ movie, then the fact that we might be seeing ghosts seems only to complicate such a claim. Or, put more interestingly, it begs the question: what is ‘real’ about time at all?
One of the points that Tsai seems to be suggesting, in fact, is that time is not ‘real’ in the sense of having a fixed form or rhythm, but rather than time is malleable – even if also unstoppable. Time is, perhaps, like water, or the tides – both liquid but also inexorable.
But more than this is that our understanding of time, what we consider of time to be ‘real,’ is also an issue of politics, including perhaps especially the politics of cinema. While Tsai surely loves King Hu’s film, the choice of an action movie seems here to be pointed: cinema, in its mainstream iteration, employs fast editing and greatly condenses time, using speed as a means to engage and to maintain our attention.
So powerful is cinema in doing this, that when things move slowly or in ‘real time,’ ‘reality’ becomes ‘boring’ (and in our smartphone age, this leads many, or most, or perhaps even all people, to get out a smartphone or equivalent device in order to give themselves a shot of not ‘real’ time, but ‘cinematic time’). In other words, cinema and its offspring media have come to determine our sense of time – and even though ‘real time’ might be a byword for ‘slow,’ what it really points to is how our perception of time, what we understand time to be, what of time we think to be real, is determined by cinema. Tsai offers us up a slow movie that shows us what it is like to limp – because in the speedy world of impatient capital, those who limp, those who are disabled or non-standard, get left behind, cast if not exactly out of reality (we know that they exist) but outside of those who count to get to shape our reality (we forget them and their needs). Since it is cinema that encourages us, through its speed, to neglect those who limp (they are ‘long’ or ‘boring’), then Tsai must redress this imbalance through cinema itself, and that he does so in a film set in a movie theatre and featuring a classic wuxia film only makes him more conscious and conscientious of how cinema shapes our reality – of how cinema thinks the world. And if cinema typically thinks the world in a fast and rushed way (the way of busy-ness/business), then Tsai revels in those who are out of business, out of time, outside of that reality of time, and in a different, ‘real time.’ Tsai wants us to think the world differently, or otherwise – and to do this, he plays with time, or offers us up some ‘playtime,’ in which we come to play and to find delight not in some hi-tech super duper toy, but in the most basic and wonderful ingredients of life: the sound of shoes on surfaces, leaking water, the sheer wonderful strangeness of people, the fact that anything exists at all.
Being made in 2003, Goodbye, Dragon Inn also draws upon King Hu not by chance. For, in the years preceding and around Tsai’s film, Chinese-language cinema had enjoyed great global success with at least two other King Hu homages, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA/China, 2000) and Hero (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2002). These two action flicks kind of set the bar for money-making transnational Chinese film productions, meaning that in some respects King Hu functions as a clear forebear of an exportable (and nostalgic) ‘Chinese’ film style that is put together in a bid achieve ‘global’ success. While Tsai no doubt loves Dragon Inn, he also is making a kind of anti-King Hu movie.
Perhaps the above point is contradicted in the film by a wonderful moment in which two of the actors from Dragon Inn not only see themselves on the screen as members of the audience in Tsai’s movie, but they also then have a brief chat about the film in the foyer once it has ended. Miao Tien and Shih Chun, effectively playing ‘themselves,’ discuss how no one goes to watch movies anymore, and that no one remembers them.
However, I would suggest that there is no contradiction here, in that directors like Lee and Zhang recycle King Hu precisely so that we don’t have to watch his films (and thus can forget them). Perhaps this is one of the key and paradoxical uses of cinematic nostalgia, even: to help bury the past under the guise of resurrecting it. Old wine is put into new bottles – and it is the bottle that ends up being of greater value than the wine itself.
Being a playful film that limps along, Goodbye, Dragon Inn would seem to want us to take pleasure not in perfection, but in precisely imperfection, or that which is non-standard (I guess I am using this term as developed by the French ‘non-philosopher’ François Laruelle, whose work has so inspired John Ó Maoilearca, my former collaborator on Philosophical Screens in London, UK, and which functions as a clear inspiration for Cinema Thinks The World).
This is perhaps also why the building itself is falling apart and why the rain plays such an important role in the film: for, as the ticket lady limps, so does the building leak – both united in their ‘imperfection.’ But as the weather and water come to get in the way of people’s plans, disrupting our movements, so does Goodbye, Dragon Inn suggest not only that we all leak or take leaks, but in some senses that, even as we are encouraged to control and not to show in public, our imperfections, our porosity and the fact that we leak, these in some senses are our most precious facets.
Indeed, the Japanese man is in the cinema looking to hook up, it would seem. And even if he is not successful in this quest, some around him seem to be (as people move in and our of toilet cubicles that they seem to share fleetingly with others). The point I wish to make is that desire – particularly but not uniquely sexual desire – necessarily includes leakages, porosity, penetration, wetness and so on. Our very lives depend upon it (at least for the time being).
More than this, though, is that cinema is instrumental in inculcating and/or shaping our desire: we are encouraged to fall for movie stars and to seek ‘cinematic’ liaisons throughout our lives. We are, if you will, encouraged (and designed) to ‘leak,’ and yet we live in a world that disapproves of this.
Here the queerness of Tsai’s film (and his work in general) takes on extra meaning, for while desire is a necessary ‘imperfection,’ queer desire is an ‘imperfect imperfection’ – and so to embrace rather than to reject imperfection logically if not de facto leads us into the queer, a queer time, and so on. Perhaps it is only fitting that the Japanese man is frustrated in his quest for intimacy, even as that frustration can then also be shared by the viewer of Tsai’s film: what could be more imperfect than imperfect imperfection unfulfilled?
As the rain beats down, we also understand that cinematic time is a time not just of controlled bodies, but also of controlled time – time subjugated to the tempos and rhythms of capital (the fast pace of the action movie). The slow film, however, with its fits and starts, is kind of a time out of control.
Le temps: the French word for time and, of course, the weather. The weather is out of our control (and, thanks to climate change, getting totally ‘out of control’). To surrender to the weather, then, to let it leak in, to get soaked – this is also a queer gesture that paradoxically brings us closer to a ‘natural’ world, or a world in which we live, rather than a world that exists only as a picture.
In this way, while Chelsea Birks suggests that water is a deliberately empty signifier in Tsai’s film, it functions for me as a reminder of this lack of control, but also as a reminder of the afore-mentioned unstoppability of water, of the tides, of time.
That is, the quest to control time is effectively the quest to stop death, and it involves a quest to control the weather – a quest linked to cinema both in the sense that cinema can ‘preserve’ us beyond death (provided that people still go to see our movies!), and in the sense that cinema as made in studios (and in the season-less place of permanent sunshine that is Hollywood) involves the control of weather (making films outside in the mutable, un-Californian weather is a risky enterprise).
And yet, Tsai does not flee from death, just as he does not flee from the weather. Indeed, as Tsai films not just limping time, playtime and ‘real time,’ but he also films dead time, especially towards the end of the film when we hold on the empty cinema theatre for about a minute and a half, during a long take that involves the ticket lady limping with a broom through the hall after the screening of Dragon Inn has ended.
Tsai asks us love all of life, and part of life is death; part of time is dead time, not the singular beat of action-time. And part of cinema, then, is the empty cinema. And one might even contend that cinema uncontaminated by people is in fact ‘pure cinema.’ That is, Tsai offers us pure cinema, and yet it is a cinema that to many might be intolerable because it is so slow, dead, boring, limping, etc.
And yet, this is Tsai’s generosity, his love – both of cinema and of the world and its people: he has time, he gives time to everything, including that which apparently is ‘nothing.’ And for those who see his film, especially when they do so collectively in a movie theatre as we did on 2 June (and as Christine Evans remarked in her response to the film) is not just generous, but it also generates a new time, a new collectivity. Tsai is asking us, if you will, to see the world and time otherwise, and he is using cinema effectively as a tool to train us to do so (for those who are responsive to his ‘teachings’). Tsai asks, invites and gives us the means to think the world otherwise. Can there be a more loving gesture?
I shall end by saying that Ervin Malakaj intervened on 2 June to express some frustration that the Japanese tourist’s desire is indeed frustrated. In some senses, Tsai might be accused of promulgating a negative image of queerness here, one in which queerness has what Lee Edelman might term ‘no future’ (it does not belong to the time of capital). Or that while he might gives us some queer time, there is no ‘sexy time’ – with sex/sexiness being an especially leaky and ‘imperfect’ but crucial aspect of human life (might there be a time when we might even consider sex to be beautiful?).
Responses from the panellists suggested that if not in this film, Tsai does nonetheless broach sex as a topic in his other (or at least in his earlier) work.
However, I might take Malakaj’s point in a slightly different direction and invoke how the frustrated queer desire of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is nothing compared to the suppressed queerness of the film that currently dominates the box office globally, namely Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2022).
As many have joked, Maverick and its predecessor (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) cannot help but exude a kind of queer excess in their own quest to demonstrate a perfectly controlled cinema, a perfectly controlled masculinity, a perfectly controlled desire. If the first Top Gun film is about ‘the need for speed,’ then we can see how it is also an arch-capitalist film. And even if the new film is itself filled with powerfully nostalgic affects (I insist that Christopher McQuarrie has a key role to play in the success of many of Cruise’s recent films)… and even if in the new film, we see staged on at least two occasions characters in the film having to watch Tom Cruise do something virtuosic (thereby training us also to see Cruise as a virtuoso star, thereby forgetting temporarily all about his problematic involvement with things like scientology and the human costs that it can have; could Katie Holmes ever have whispered a word of criticism at Tom Cruise?)… it in this way becomes an arch-capitalist film, clinging to a manhood and masculinity and a cinema that we had perhaps thought, or hoped, was outdated. Clinging to a world, to a reality – thinking the world in a fashion – that is outdated.
Or is it?
As the discussion on 2 June drew towards its close, an audience member asked about how one might explain or teach Goodbye, Dragon Inn to the TikTok generation. It is an important question, because while we might never hear what Katie Holmes has to say about being married to Tom Cruise, we have heard from Amber Heard of late what it was like being married to Johnny Depp. And in what has been dubbed a trial by TikTok, Amber Heard has come off the poorer (whether or not she is especially ‘likeable’). That is, the offspring technologies of cinema like TikTok bring with them more of the patriarchal same that supposedly we got rid of thanks to everyone’s much-vaunted and new-found wokeness.
If Tom Cruise passes for a ‘maverick,’ never daring really to be queer, then Tsai Ming-liang is the real deal, a genuine maverick filmmaker, generous in his work, generating new times and places rather than trying to rehash the old times and values of American Manifest Destiny, of cinema in its mainstream iterations. Tsai’s films might put some audience members to sleep; but if ‘woke’ is simply capitalist heteropatriarchy 2.0 (or 3.0 or whatever), then maybe some sleep and some dream time, some unreal time, some dead time, are what we need. That is Tsai’s love of life, of the world, of cinema. And as Tsai himself says: vive l’amour!
There are numerous films about which I’d love also to blog and which I have of late seen, and yet it is Doctor Strange that motivates me most to make the time to write a post for a few reasons.
If foremost among these reasons is that the film brings together a bunch of ideas that are circulating in numerous other contemporary films, perhaps most especially the notion of a multiverse and the possibility of invisible spaces existing alongside/with(in) our world, it is not because Doctor Strange is the best of those films. Indeed, far from it – at least as far as this blogger is concerned.
Indeed, of recent explicit multiverse films, Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniels, USA, 2022) is a thematically richer film, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/UK/China/Switzerland, 2021), along with Ben Russell’s Invisible Mountain (USA, 2021) both in their own way link their engagements with a weird world to a ‘pataphysical history of imaginary/impossible and virtual spaces (which is not to mention a slew of recent horror films that are about unseen rooms in houses and unreliable, or non-Euclidian architecture).
That said, Doctor Strange does possess some uncanny parallels with another, earlier film, and which parallels can help us to unlock some its ‘secrets’ (perhaps ideological critique is what allows us truly to find the ‘Easter eggs’ hidden within films, above and beyond the usual ones that are designed as sales devices for much contemporary movies).
The film with which Doctor Strange has parallels is not Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (USA, 1946), a film that is referenced somewhat knowingly in Raimi’s movie when we learn that Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has/had a sister who died from falling through some ice when he was a child – which is exactly what happened to George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life, except that in that film George rescues his drowning brother, Harry (Todd Karns), an event that does not allow him to go to war since it costs George his hearing in one ear, and which in turn means that he remains stuck for life in Bedford Falls, a situation that leads an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), to show George a parallel universe in which he never existed. The experience leads George to accept his small-town life, meaning that parallel universes generally end up forcing us to accept this one world with which we do live (we must of course credit Charles Dickens, if not earlier authors, for coming up with the ‘here’s a world where things turned out differently’ – as per A Christmas Carol from 1843).
While I wish not to parallel Doctor Strange too much with It’s a Wonderful Life, I shall route back to that film later in this blog, since a telling difference between the two films is that where George in part accepts his fate because he realises that he was never there to rescue Harry, who thus is dead in the parallel universe that he visits, in Doctor Strange it never even crosses Stephen’s mind that he might try to find a world in which his sister is alive. Rather, all of his efforts are focused on finding a world, potentially, where he is together with the basic object of his desire, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – while also being about the search for a world where Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) can be a housewife rather than a superhero.
The film I wish to compare Doctor Strange with is, then, somewhat surprisinglyBuster Keaton and Donald Crisp’s The Navigator (USA, 1924).
Full disclosure: I have written a book about Keaton’s film, Navigating from the White Anthropocene to the Black Chthulucene (Zer0 Books, forthcoming), and it is in part as a way of introducing some of the ideas to that book that I write this blog.
All the same, a couple of the parallels are, as mentioned, “uncanny” and thus worth elaborating.
For, Keaton and Crisp’s film involves a young man, Rollo Treadaway (Keaton), who gets caught on board a boat, The Navigator, that is set adrift by some saboteurs, and ends up running aground off the coast of a Pacific island. In a somewhat outdated and problematic (read: racist) fashion, Rollo, who is on board by chance with the object of his affection, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), become threatened by cannibalistic and dark-skinned islanders, who try to board the titular ship, prompting Rollo and Betsy to try to escape via canoe and (these are all spoilers) finally to be rescued by a passing submarine.
So far, these might not sound like compelling parallels. But things get interesting when we consider that early on in The Navigator, Rollo decides that he is going to marry Betsy (who initially turns him down) at the precise moment that he sees an African American couple drive past the window of his sizeable mansion.
Furthermore, when the black cannibals abduct Betsy while Rollo is trying underwater to liberate The Navigator from the shoal upon which it has run aground, Rollo is attacked by an octopus, which he ends up killing with his knife (the slaughter of the octopus takes place behind a rock in Keaton and Crisp’s film).
Effectively, in the book-length project about Keaton and Crisp’s film, I argue that the octopus is, through the film’s editing patterns, equated with Blackness, in the sense that Blackness becomes, like the octopus, a sort of intelligent alien outside of “humanity,” which comes to be understood distinctly as white humanity – and that Keaton/Rollo’s desire to form a heterosexual and heteronormative couple is driven by the threat of African Americans functioning in a similar fashion.
That is, the heterosexual union of the African American couple is so jarring an image to Rollo, because from the perspective of hegemonic whiteness African Americans are, as Roderick A Ferguson has identified, perverse and outside of heteronormativity, that he himself must become heteronormative (and Betsy be damned if she does not actually want to marry Rollo). As a result, we might understand that the heteronormative couple is born out of antiblackness as much as it is supposedly a “natural” or “normal” thing to do. And Blackness is rendered “weird” through its parallels with the octopus, a creature noted for its weird otherness not least in its partial appearance in the horrific and apocalyptic creature Cthulhu, the invention of the notoriously antiblack writer, H.P. Lovecraft. By this token, I propose, working both with and somewhat against Donna J. Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene, that the latter is, or will indeed be, black – while the Anthropocene, or the era in which humanity (read: white humanity) has dominated and corrupted our planet, is essentially white. That is, white supremacy has to end, both effectively and psychically, for us to stop destroying our planet.
But what does this have to do with Doctor Strange?
Well, as readers who have seen the film might already be thinking, Doctor Strange starts with the eponymous superhero attending the wedding of Christine Palmer to Charlie (Ako Mitchell), a black man who otherwise is undeveloped as a character (at least in this film). And what happens as soon as Christine and Charlie get married? A giant octopus creature attacks New York, prompting Stephen, his cape, and Wong (Benedict Wong) to do their superhero thing and defeat it.
So… here is the parallel (if it needs spelling out): in both films, we see the fulfilment of black heteronormativity as such a threat psychically to the white male hero that the latter will go on a quest across the reaches of space and time in order to try to put right that otherwise offensive situation. And in both films, this threatening black otherness is linked via montage to a cthulhoid, tentacular and weird monster, namely the octopus.
Note that Stephen only ever really asks whether his life ends up with Christine – and that he is not bothered about a world where his otherwise dead sister might be alive. That is, Stephen, who clearly has not cared so much about Christine that he has pursued her with any vim or commitment in this world, suddenly does really care about her – because she is marrying a black man.
We don’t need to get too much into how the history of cinema has – from Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915) onwards – rehearsed the idea of the white woman as the stake for racial discrimination, in that the threat of the black male reinforces the notion of the white woman as the white man’s possession, and in that the “loss” of a white woman to a black man is so humiliating to white masculinity that it reveals how white masculinity’s empowerment and heterosexual possession of the white woman is built upon antiblackness (otherwise the black man would be no “threat”). But we can see that this history is being played out once again here – with the plot reinforcing the hegemonic power of white masculinity not only because a chief obstacle to Stephen’s quest is Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but also because Wanda, as craving domesticity over empowerment, reasserts female domestic servitude/subjugation as the “true” desire of all “decent” women.
And, finally, it is notable that the person who allows Stephen to do his universe-hopping is a woman of colour, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). For, white masculine empowerment really comes via an appropriation of the powers of the woman of colour.
In other words, for all that multiverse movies might allow us to imagine a world in which we might live or be otherwise (as Ashon T. Crawley might put it), Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in fact uses the multiverse as a threatening trope that allows us to wish not for other worlds, but precisely for our own, white supremacist world. That is, Doctor Strange… provides us with white supremacist business as usual – and in this way is one of a slew of recent films that also seems to take horror at inter-racial relationships, be those told from either side of the colour line (don’t be in a relationship with a white person – as per Get Out, Jordan Peele, USA, 2017, or The Sleeping Negro, Skinner Myers, USA, 2020; or the more disturbing message that we get here – that a white woman marrying a black man is inadmissible to the white masculine imagination).
What this goes to show, then, is that even if Doctor Strange… is not explicitly a “white supremacist” film (as far as I assume, Sam Raimi is not a member of the KKK, for example), it is a film born out of a white supremacist world, and in proposing but failing to think otherwise, it appropriates what it means to “think otherwise” and, by not really delivering to us an “otherwise” world, it reaffirms white supremacy as the (hetero)norm.
The deaths of Celestine Chaney, Roberta A. Drury, Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey, Margus D. Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Aaron Salter Jr., Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield and Pearl Young all confirm that antiblackness is real, and that people are out there who believe that it is a legitimate enough worldview to justify a genocidal act like the one that took place recently in Buffalo. That antiblackness is not born in a bubble, even if we might blame Twitch and the internet for their roles in indoctrinating and giving a platform for the perpetrator of the mass killing. It is an antiblackness that is pervasive, sitting even in positions of great power, like that of the President of the USA.
To get rid of antiblackness, if it is even possible, requires not just decrying events like those in Buffalo, but in getting to the psychic roots of antiblackness in the white imagination (which imagines itself as supreme, and which cannot truck the threat of a black rival, as per Doctor Strange…). It is for this reason that I wanted to write my book about Keaton and Crisp’s otherwise classic comedy, and it is for this reason that I feel compelled to write this blog, even if, as mentioned at the outset, there are plenty of other films that I wish I could find time to write about right now.
I might update this blog and post a link to my book once one exists. Otherwise, if this blog has at all piqued your interest in the book, do keep an eye out for it.
I did not do a Films of the Year of 2019. At the time, I thought that it would involve some distasteful self-promotion, by which I mean that at times I think that to blog at all is mere self-promotion, as well as possibly a masturbatory practice in that no one cares to know my thoughts on films (and so why do it in public?).
All the same, with that fear put aside for the time being, I am doing a kind of ’round-up’ of films that I saw for the first time in 2020, which will include those that I thought were most strong, and some other thoughts/observations, which will range from being about my viewing habits to things that I noticed/thought/liked/disliked. This might make this post a bit random, and at times a work of ‘mere opinion’. I hope that this is okay.
On a further note, I also include a lot of the short films that I saw this past year, but not all of them. And the list includes for the first time a number of the television/streaming shows that I saw.
And so it is that I saw 468 films for the first time in 2020. I thought that this was a lot, but looking back on 2019, I notice that in that year I saw 454 films for the first time, and in 2018, I saw 407. So while there has been a slight increase, the number of films remains roughly consistent. And if we wanted to put the increase down to anything, it would be a result of the increased amount of time spent at home/not interacting with others as a result of COVID-19.
The massive sea change that has taken place, though, is the reduction in the number of films that I have seen at the cinema, and the large increase in the number of films that I have seen online. For, in 2020, I saw a ‘mere’ 47 films at the cinema (compared to 237 in 2019), while also seeing 11 on DVD/file (21 in 2019), 13 on television and/or PayTV (0 in 2019), and 11 on aeroplanes (17 in 2019). All of these are dwarfed by the 386 films that I saw online (compared to 179 in 2019).
I do not include in my list of films the movies that I watched as part of the fabulous Small File Media Festival, run by, among others, Laura U Marks of Simon Fraser University. Many of these were micro-films of barely a minute in duration.
But while there is surely much more to say about those films than the mere mention that I give to them here, evoking the Small File Media Festival also allows me to mention how Marks has been charting/estimating the carbon footprint of watching films in high definition and/or 4K at home – and the numbers are not pretty.
I am not sure how home consumption of films compares to theatrical consumption, but overall the former will be more detrimental to the planet per person, since far fewer people attend home screenings than do (at least in principle) theatrical screenings. That is, home viewing is far more energy intense, and thus likely involves a bigger carbon footprint.
As we continue to watch movies at home as a result of the pandemic, and as viewing habits perhaps shift permanently away from theatres (a trend that was already taking place, but which now has intensified as a result of COVID-19), then bearing this issue in mind must be of great importance… and you can read some of Professor Marks’ work on calculating and mitigating your streaming carbon footprint here.
Where normally I just keep a list of films and their directors, this year I have also kept a note of their year and primary country of production (many are co-productions, but I basically have gone by the first named country if indeed a given film is a co-production).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of films that I saw were from the 2010s (259 films), with films from the 2020s coming also perhaps an obvious second (113 films). [It stands to reason that I saw more films from 2019 in 2020 than I saw films from 2020, because there is/will always be a lag between production and distribution/exhibition.)
I otherwise saw 19 films from the 2000s, 16 films from the 1990s, 15 films from the 1980s, 20 films from the 1970s, 8 films from the 1960s, 8 films from the 1950s, 0 films from the 1940s, 3 films from the 1930s, 2 films from the 1920s, and 2 films from the 1910s.
This clear bias for contemporary films seems a shame to me, not least because, ultimately, I feel I watched a lot of crap this year, especially some thoroughly mediocre films that seemed to merit my attention because streaming, when I likely would not have watched such films had I the usual choice of work in theatres.
To assert the latter – that I typically have a strong selection of films in theatres – bespeaks how lucky I am that London is/has become a major film hub – and the pandemic has only made me miss institutions like the ICA, the BFI, and others, as playing a key role in my life. Furthermore, places like the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image (BIMI) are clearly of great value culturally both to me and to the city in general, and I should highlight Timité Bassori’s La femme au couteau (Côte d’Ivoire, 1969) as one of the true pleasures that I had at the theatre in 2020 – and which I saw at BIMI.
If London is a major film hub, it also in 2020 became no longer my home, as I moved from the UK to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, in order to live with my partner, who at the start of the pandemic discovered that she was pregnant, about which more later.
Being in Vancouver during the Canadian equivalent of lockdown (not as prolonged or intense as in London) has meant that I have not discovered the city or its cinemas as much as I would like, and perhaps it is unfair to say straight off that Vancouver does not seem to have the diversity of offerings that London does (with Paris having an even greater diversity than London), because I may yet discover (and/or be part of!) a range of offerings hitherto unknown to me.
That said, I have attended in 2020 (and on earlier visits) screenings at both the University of British Columbia and Marks’ Simon Fraser University, and which have featured films that I might not otherwise see in regular theatres, this year including Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (Canada, 2020), a noteworthy post-apocalyptic zombie film in which First Nations inhabitants are immune to, and enjoy killing off those zombified by, the plague of the living dead.
I shall come back to First Nations films in a bit, but I might also mention how I have ventured to the VIFF Centre and the Cinemathèque also in Vancouver, seeing in particular the Dardenne Brothers’ Le jeune Ahmed (Belgium/France, 2019) at the latter, and I hope that in the fullness of time these can become firm favourites, with other independent theatres like the Rio similarly having given me the opportunity to see things like Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France, 2019) and Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, USA, 2019).
What is more, since Vancouver enjoys a large Asian population, it seems clear that one can also see a range of Asian films at the cinema, as was the case for me this year with Feng Xiaogang’s Only Cloud Knows (China, 2019) and Yellow Rose (Diane Paragas, Philippines/USA, 2019).
In addition to the VIFF’s physical VanCity theatre, the VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) was also online this year, and, buying a festival pass, I surely got to see a good number of newer films that otherwise I might not have seen.
Perhaps needless to say, the shift to online film festivals this year means that in addition to VIFF and the Small File Media Festival, I have also enjoyed offerings from various other places, perhaps most notably the We Are One Festival on YouTube, a joint venture between 21 different fleshworld festivals, and which, in 2020 at least, offered up a range of non-premiere (or rarely premiere) work, but which nonetheless made for some good experiences, for example Fradique’s Ar condicionado (Angola, 2020).
I lamented above that I feel like I have watched more ‘crap’ in 2020 because alternative work is not showcased. And yet, since the internet is supposed to have everything that you could look for, it seems odd that I might say this. For surely there is nowhere that is as diverse as the internet for finding films.
And yet, what seems/seemed clear to me with a renewed intensity in 2020 is the importance of gatekeepers and curators. I have followed up on and chased down all manner of films in 2020, viewing stuff via the usual suspects (Netflix, Amazon Prime, MUBI), as well as taking out at least temporary subscription to places like OVID (and then leaving after seeing most of the content that appealed to me, and which I had not seen before; in particular this included being able to see Wang Bing’s monumental documentary, Dead Souls, China, 2018; Hôtel Terminus: Klaus Barbie, sa vie et son temps, Marcel Ophuls, USA, 1988; some shorter work by John Akomfrah; and finally the third part of Patricio Guzmán’s Battle of Chile, Chile/Cuba/Venezuela, 1979). I have also benefited from an institutional subscription to Kanopy, while of course also watching films on Vimeo, including Vimeo on Demand, and YouTube, including films released via YouTube/Google. This is not to mention various other online archives, nor iTunes, to which I equally turn on occasion if the title is right.
But across all of these, I have been browsing and/or tracking down titles. That is, I read about a film via a news story or what have you, and then I need to go and find out where to see it. Or, conversely, I hear that a.n. cinema, gallery, university or other is hosting an online screening of x or y film, and so I go to that venue for a single visit.
What to me seems clearly missing, however, is a single venue where one can go for the latest arthouse releases. MUBI comes closest to this, but a lot of the material that it shows is ‘archival’ (i.e. not new). Don’t get me wrong; I love MUBI, but it is not the same as the ICA, where three or four times a week I could physically watch a new film, generally ‘arthouse,’ and basically I’d trust that it would be halfway decent or worth watching because the ICA had decided to program it.
The VIFF may come to be closest to that in Vancouver, especially as it tries to rollout its festival year round. But even then, I think that its programming is less adventurous than that of the ICA going by what was selected for this year’s festival (much as I appreciated what I did see at the VIFF this year).
Now, I am not trying to sound ‘arsey’ or pompous by saying that the ICA hosts ‘arthouse’ films. But I mention its programming/curation specifically because I am not lacking for mainstream films online. Netflix and Prime both have their own productions, as well as hosting films from other studios, while HBO Max, iTunes, Optic, Disney+ and other venues allow me to see the full range of mainstream movies, even as studios have been withholding a lot of titles as they work out whether or not theatres are a safe option.
I will always be able to see those bigger movies. But being able to see a full world of cinema… that is what seems lacking, and a site that brings together and hosts the latest in world cinema – a bit like what MUBI is doing now, but with an emphasis on the contemporary – is what I think I miss most sorely about the ‘new normal’ of majority-online film viewing. Hunting for films can be fun; but time also becomes an issue – and especially if one has to take out a new subscription to a site, meaning that in addition to the one film that one wants to watch, one feels obliged to watch other material on that site… perhaps simply because it is there.
The issue of access to world cinema becomes clear to me when I consider where the films come from that I saw in 2020. The ‘medal table’ is as follows (with, for the sake of simplicity, co-productions being defined by the first named country only):-
Broken down into regions, I have seen films as follows (with there being some overlap and repetition below across Africa, MENA and Asia):-
North America – 193
Europe – 111
Asia – 76
Latin America & Caribbean – 31
Kurdistan – 21
Africa – 14
MENA – 11
Oceania – 10
(I wish to note that Kurdistan has a separate entry here because I was a juror for the London Kurdish Film Festival 2020, and so saw various films from the Kurdish region(s).)
While I think that the numbers of films that I have seen from Asia and perhaps also Latin America are respectable, it seems clear that online film viewing, especially with what the major streaming services offer (and even more especially with how difficult it is to search through them for non-western fare), is an overwhelmingly Eurocentric affair.
I am ashamed that I have only seen two Iranian films this year (including one short), and I am also appalled that I have only managed 1 Russian film. I feel like I normally see much more from, say, Portugal, Romania, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, Argentina and Mexico in a given year, even as this year has been (relatively) good for my viewing of Taiwanese, Brazilian, Japanese and Canadian films.
And so while I love it that Netflix randomly had the back catalog of Youssef Chahine turn up among its titles this year (accounting for 2 of the 3 Egyptian movies I saw in 2020), and while I know that I can find archives of Korean (and probably Russian, Argentine, and Mexican films) online, it is the fact that these are not brought together that leads to the imbalances. If you will, I guess I want/need someone to take care of my movie diet for me – hence my emphasis on the importance of curation/programming – rather than me having to source everything myself.
Indeed, a case in point would be the Iranian movies. This year I bought a subscription to IMVBox, and so in principle I can see as many Iranian films as I want – from classics to more recent ones. However, I have not seen a single film yet via this service. In part, this is because I continue to get sidetracked into watching ‘crap’ on Netflix, and so mea culpa.
But it also is due to the fact that having to get to yet another website, and then having to browse it to find something that I want to watch (from among IMVBox’s own swathes of ‘crap’ – with all due respect to Iranian filmmakers) just becomes too much work to do.
I understand that this is a First World problem (how can one get more ‘First World’ than complaining about one’s lack of access to work from the ‘developing world’?). But in order to address the hegemony of the West, and in order to resist the general ‘crap’ that Netflix and Amazon Prime put out there, there needs to be a site that brings together the best in world cinema.
FestivalScope is perhaps the site that is the beacon of hope for this, and I have watched a decent number of films on that site. But a) it is not a site that is readily accessible, in that one has to demonstrate a connection to the professional film world, and b) its selection is wonderful, but it also regularly very ‘dour’, it contains a large number of films, and there is no internal curation to help you pick them apart with any particular ease. Perhaps the perfect site would be a hybrid of the curational stye of MUBI – mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ – and the emphasis on the contemporary of FestivalScope (and in some respects similar sites like DAFilms).
At this point, I might also mention how Dr Leshu Torchin at the University of St Andrews in some way stepped up to this would-be plate by (meta-)curating a series of playlists, in many instances of movies to be found online, and which did indeed spark a great deal of enjoyment for me.
While my viewing has been dominated by western films in 2020, I might say that from within these spaces, I have nonetheless watched a lot of what we might call ‘decolonising’ cinema. In part this was spurred by the efforts of places like the Criterion Channel in making available classic African-American films in the wake of the revitalised Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, and also as a result of the concerted effort by VIFF to programme First Nations movies. I should perhaps also here mention how I saw a few First Nations films at the Cinema at the End of the World symposium organised by Dr Mila Zuo at UBC in February, where I saw the afore-mentioned Blood Quantum.
Some of the First Nations films are, dare I say it, hit and miss; I did not personally care for VIFF’s opener, Monkey Beach (Loretta Todd, Canada, 2020), nor The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (Shelley Niro, Canada, 2019), which screened at the Cinema at the End of the World.
The latter in particular is about a woman who has just turned 25, and so its title is mathematically ‘off’, in that the film is about Mitzi’s 26th year, and not her 25th. However, such pedantry on my part does lead me to wonder that my insistence on mathematics misses the ‘untimeliness’ of the First Nations movie, in the sense of considering the western world from an outsider’s perspective, as well as my imposition on to the film of my own ‘mathematical’ and western sense of measurement and calculation.
It has been contested that the world ended for Native Americans many centuries ago, in that the arrival of white settlers marked an apocalypse of genocide, illness and displacement. Now that the white west is worried about the ‘end of the world’ as our ecology collapses, what really is revealed is its ongoing delusion that its own experience is universal. As we reach a world of ‘aftermath,’ then, perhaps it is the ‘aftermathematics’ of Mitzi Bearclaw that is what we need, but I am too stymied by my ‘mathematical’ thinking to let this be so.
And so it is with the ‘cheesey’ aesthetics of Monkey Beach and Mitzi Bearclaw. I find the films mawkish, and much prefer the more austere offerings of, say, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, Canada/Norway, 2019), or the historical dramatisation of real-world events depicted in Beans (Tracey Deer, Canada, 2020). But again, this is perhaps my own prejudice at work, and maybe we need the ‘sweet’ style of these films in order to accomplish a better world.
As it was a great pleasure to watch a number of films by indigenous filmmakers, including from Canada, the USA and Brazil (for example, Apiyemiyeki?, Ana Vaz, Brazil/France/Portugal/Netherlands, 2020 – a film mentioned by various others in their Films of the Year lists), so was it also a great pleasure to watch various landmarks and forgotten pieces of Black American cinema – with numerous being excellent, including (in chronological order): The Girl from Chicago (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1932), Lying Lips (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1939), The Story of the Three Day Pass (Melvin Van Peebles, France, 1968), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, USA, 1968), Watermelon Man (Melvin Van Peebles, USA, 1970), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, USA, 1973), Abar: Black Superman (Frank Packard, USA, 1977), Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, USA, 1979), Cane River (Horace B. Jenkins, USA, 1982), Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982), Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, USA, 1983), The Killing Floor (Bill Duke, USA, 1984), She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, USA, 1986), Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, USA, 1989), New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, USA, 1991), Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, USA, 1993), Surviving The Game (Ernest R Dickerson, USA, 1994) and Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, USA, 1998).
These joined a few recent landmark achievements in Black American cinema that I got to see, including Strong Island (Yance Ford, USA/Denmark, 2017), Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, USA, 2020), Time (Garrett Bradley, USA, 2020) and The Sleeping Negro (Skinner Myers, USA, 2021).
Indeed, I would place The Sleeping Negro and Time as two of my top top films of the year, with Skinner Myers’ film in particular being a revelation. Having seen the film somewhat by chance, I can only recommend that viewers seek it out; and I might add that one place to see it that I know of is at the forthcoming Slamdance Film Festival.
On this topic, I might note that the UK also had a strong year for Black film and television production, with I May Destroy You (Micaela Coel, UK/USA, 2020) being perhaps the stand-out television show, and Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (UK, 2020) and Lovers Rock (UK, 2020) also being superb. Alongside these I might recommend Remi Weekes’ His House (UK, 2020), as well as Onyeka Igwe’s short experimental piece, The Names Have Changed Including My Own and Truths Have Been Altered (UK, 2020).
Furthermore, I would like also to make a special mention for Juliet Ellis’ Ruby (UK, 2020), which is an extraordinary film made for £20,000 about a young girl and her seemingly sleeping mother, and which was made in Sheffield and Cleethorpes, having been rejected by funding bodies for having ‘no commercial value.’ For me, it is the best British film of the year, and also in my top top movies. The sort of cinema that really needs to be preserved and encouraged.
In addition to Black British and Black American films, I also managed to catch a few Asian American movies and shows, with Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (USA, 1982) being for me a wonderful masterpiece.
And another underdog production worth lauding is Congolese rapper Baloji’s Zombies (DRC/Belgium, 2019), which in its short running time shows as much innovation and ideas as, say, Black is King (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Emmanuel Adjei, Ibra Ake, Blitz Bazawule, Kwasi Fordjour, USA, 2020).
Perhaps predictably, the UK also produced one of the worst films that I have seen about race in 2020, namely Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers’ A Brixton Tale (UK, 2020), which reproduces some of the worst myths about Blackness, and which sees a completely unrealistic Brixton fetishised through a white girl’s lens as exotic and gritty.
And while I don’t typically like to bad-mouth any film production, since I know from experience how hard it is to make a film and also how hard it is to control a film’s production, I mention this because I have noted that A Brixton Tale has also been selected this year for Slamdance.
The point I wish to make, then, is that for all of the good work that the Slamdance programmers have done in selecting The Sleeping Negro, which is perhaps the best film that I saw in 2020, that they select alongside it a film as inept in its treatment of racial politics as A Brixton Tale only goes to show that festival programmers sometimes do not have the wherewithal to know what they are looking at, with their ability to pick films about pressing issues such as race being as good as chance, rather than based on any astute analytical skills. And I would consider Slamdance to be a major festival. Given how many entries festivals get these days, and given how few films ultimately Slamdance is screening, it seems particularly a poor choice to screen such a film, thereby undoing the good work of selecting The Sleeping Negro, and indeed undermining their own claims to be making meaningful or progressive contributions to cinematic discussions of race.
I have situated the prominence of Black film in the UK and the USA alongside the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the death of George Floyd. This is not to overlook films from other parts of the world that deal with race (for me, two of note that I saw in 2020 are Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, Jamaica/USA, 2018, and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, Portugal, 2019). But I might also mention that following the angry-making execution of death row inmate Brandon Bernard, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy (USA, 2019) also seems a film to have taken on a renewed timeliness.
And 2020 cannot but be remembered for the passing of, among others, Chadwick Boseman. Seeing him play a ghost in in Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, USA, 2020) was indeed chilling, even as that was one of several films and shows to give the Vietnamese pretty short shrift in 2020 (Watchmen, Damon Lindelof, USA, 2020, being another case in point, much as I otherwise enjoyed it). While his soliloquy against god in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, USA, 2020) is of such power seeing it after his passing, that really it does become a performance with what Roland Barthes might call punctum. I’d not be surprised if that turn in particular lands Boseman a posthumous Academy Award.
It also felt sad to say good bye to Irrfan Khan, an actor whom I have loved since I first saw him in A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, USA/UK, 2007), where he acted everyone off the screen. I managed to see two films with him in 2020, the thoroughly mediocre Puzzle (Marc Turteltaub, USA, 2018) and the better Qarib Qarib Singlle (Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017). He plays eccentric lovers in both, and is completely amiable in both, but it seems a shame that in the former his much more interesting story is overshadowed by the hackneyed struggles of domestic life embodied by Kelly McDonald.
With Winterbottom in mind, it was pleasing as always to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon together again in his Trip to Greece (UK, 2020), which constitutes the original comedians- and/or karaoke singers-in-cars show, and which remains superior to all that have followed (and I suspect that Coogan would make for a significantly more entertaining companion than most of the people that Jerry Seinfeld decides to reveal as pretty boring in his coffee-driven Netflix show).
Sacha Baron Cohen had a busy 2020, appearing in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Jason Woliner, UK/USA, 2020) as well as The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, USA/UK/India, 2020), in which he was in particular very good. These screenings accompanied my first-time viewing of earlier turns from him in The Dictator (Larry Charles, USA, 2012) and The Brothers Grimsby (Louis Leterrier, UK/USA, 2016). As a note, though, while The Chicago 7 had various pleasures, the superior courtroom drama of 2020 was for me Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.
Among the various actors who seem to have had a good year, I might mention Gina Rodríguez, who stood out in the otherwise mediocre Someone Great (Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, USA, 2019), and who in Kajillionaire (Miranda July, USA, 2020) was forced to play second fiddle to Evan Rachel Wood’s well-acted but otherwise wilfully quirky and white Old Dolio Dyne. Indeed, women of colour playing second fiddle to, or absent from the world of, white women seemed to be a common theme in films from 2020 – with movies like Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, Australia, 2019) and System Crasher (Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019) validating the (blonde) white girl as perhaps the stake of the future, posited by the latter film as a ‘system crasher,’ when in fact they are the beating heart of the (contemporary world, i.e. modern capitalist) system.
Some of the films about white women were better than others, with The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA, 2019) perhaps standing out, with this viewer not being as taken as others by Bombshell (Jay Roach, Canada/USA, 2019), Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA/France, 2019), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, USA/UK/Germany, 2019) or The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, Canada/Australia/USA, 2020) – even as these films did have their merits.
Kristen Stewart perhaps gets a special mention as a performer whom I like a lot, but who appeared in a string of pretty forgettable films this past year, and in which her whiteness is at times core, including Underwater (William Eubank, USA, 2020), Seberg (Benedict Andrews, UK/USA, 2019) and Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, USA/Canada, 2020). While the latter is relatively pleasant in its depiction of coming out, its chief point of interest is the under-used Daniel Levy (from Schitt’s Creek), and whom I hope to see in many more films.
Indeed, in the year of ‘Karen,’ it seems as though the white-women-focused narrative seemed slightly off-kilter, and I might mention that White Chicks (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA, 2004) seemed an appropriate film to watch for the first time.
It was also pleasing to see women taking the helm for otherwise average blockbusters like Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan, USA, 2020), The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythewood, USA, 2020) and the disappointing Mulan (Niki Caro, USA/Canada/Hong Kong, 2020), with my estimation in 2019 already being that it is a sign of strength – at least in some respects – when women are as able to make, and do make, as basic films as men do.
That is, women directors – like directors of colour and indigenous filmmakers (as also suggested in the discussion of Mitzi Bearclaw above) – should always have jobs making not just the best films, but films from across the spectrum of quality or, put differently, making films for different audiences, with different budgets and so on.
I mean, I wish that every film could be a masterpiece and that there were no disappointments, or that there were not even merely forgettable films; but if there are going to be all of these types of film, then who gets to make them should be distributed equitably.
That said, of the 468 films that I saw for the first time in 2020, only 116 were directed by women, with a further 22 being made by male-female directing teams/collaborators. With a handful of films made by trans/non-binary directors, this nonetheless left the vast of majority of films being directed by men, or groups of men.
Of course, this could reflect my choices of films to watch rather than the state of the various industries from which I saw enough films to get a sense of the gender (im)balance in terms of directors. But really, I think that this reflects the ongoing gender bias in terms of few women getting to direct movies.
All the same, a number of films by women did stand out, as per various listed above (Yellow Rose, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Beans, Queen & Slim, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time, I May Destroy You, Ruby and The Assistant).
And to this list I might in no particular order add the notable A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, China/USA, 2019), A Febre (Maya Da-Rin, Brazil/France/Germany, 2019), Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma, France, 2019), Mignonnes (Maïmaouna Ducouré, France, 2019), Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2020), First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019), Present.Perfect (Shengze Zhu, China/Hong Kong/USA, 2019), Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, Austria/UK/Germany/France, 2019), and Honey Boy (Alma Ha’rel, USA, 2019).
Should it seem that I am picking unduly on the narrative focused on the (bland) white female character, I should add that there are plenty of films that do the same with white male characters, although again there were some good exceptions to this, including Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA, 2019), True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, Austala/UK/France, 2019), Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands, 2020), Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy/France/Germany, 2019) and Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Greece/Mexico, 2019).
That said, watching older American ‘mumblecore’ films by the likes of Joe Swanberg and Nathan Silver this year, I did come to think that they seem dated now, not least in their whiteness, which in the language of Kehinde Andrews constitutes a psychosis (a term that Andrews uses in relation to Amma Asante’s Belle, UK, 2013, a film I also saw for the first time in 2013). And yet, mumblecore has produced a couple of playful takes on precisely psychotic whiteness, as evidenced in the two Creep films that I saw this year by Patrick Brice (USA, 2014 and 2017), and which star mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass as precisely that white psychopath.
What is more, Mark’s brother, Jay Duplass, also was one of the stars, with Tatiana Maslany, of Pink Wall (Tom Cullen, UK, 2019), which was one of the standouts of the year and certainly the best relationship/end-of-relationship film that I have seen for a while. Wim Mertens’ ‘Iris,’ which plays over the closing credits, was also a revelation for me. Fabulous acting, smart script writing, getting to grips with the depth and difficulties of human relationships and emotions.
Returning to (or staying with?) psychotic whiteness, this also seems in its most horrendous form to be at work in a range of films that I saw about manhunts, including the afore-mentioned Surviving the Game, as well as Craig Zobel’s utterly unlikely – and not particularly likeable – The Hunt (USA/Japan, 2020), wherein, as a direct contradiction of the logic of the Proud Boys, it is Democrats that hunt down Republicans for sport. Superior to both, however, is Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France, 2019), which is definitely one of the best of 2020, and which tells the tale of poor Brazilians in the sertão hunting back the white hunters who come to kill them for their amusement.
I might mention that psychotic whiteness is also at the core of (the same) Mila Zuo’s short film, KIN (USA, 2020), which was one of the most affectively rich films about a group of disaffected whites in rural Oregon that I have seen. I must confess to total bias, since I co-wrote the film, but I also think it worth puffing how this short is a dense, complex and powerful look at white America today – with a searing edit by Dougal Henken that takes the film a long way from the script that I co-wrote with Zuo (and for the better!), as well as powerful performances from Frank Mosley, Sophie Traub and Cameron Shuman.
And this mention allows me to segue into how Mosley is himself on the up and up. Having worked last year in Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, USA, 2018) and Chained for Life (Aaron Schimberg, USA, 2018), in 2020 we got to see him in The Ghost Who Walks (Cody Stokes, USA, 2019) and Freeland (Mario Furloni and Kate McLean, USA, 2020), while also catching his directorial effort, Her Wilderness (USA, 2014) reworked as an online interactive movie. Here’s hope for more in 2021!
From Creep, we might also segue into Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s excellent Creepy (Japan, 2016), one of several films from the director that I saw this year. This is a film that at one point features a jellyfish prominently displayed on a television screen, one of numerous examples this year of tentacles and cephalopodic creatures, which were the focus of David H Fleming and my recent book, The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulumedia (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Such creatures also turned up in the afore-mentioned Watchmen, His House and Underwater, as well as in Ad Vitam (Thomas Cailley, France, 2018), Chanson douce (Lucie Borleteau, France, 2019), My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, South Africa, 2020) and Lovecraft Country (Misha Green, USA, 2020). And with HP Lovecraft in mind, we might also mention Richard Stanley’s The Colour Out Of Space (USA/Malaysia/Portugal, 2019)… Indeed, it would seem that tentacular and cthulhoid creatures continue to abound in contemporary film and television, such that David and I should prepare a second book on the topic (which in fact we are doing).
From Kurosawa, I also saw Before We Vanish (Japan, 2017), one of numerous films that seemed to announce and/or to rehearse life under COVID-19, some of which were more powerful (Vivarium, Lorcan Finnegan, Ireland/Belgium/Denmark/Canada, 2019) than others (I was not particularly taken by She Dies Tomorrow, Amy Seimetz, USA, 2020).
In terms of horror, I might also say that I enjoyed retrospectively seeing Insidious (James Wan, USA/Canada, 2010), which was esteemed to be cognitively the scariest movie of all time, as well as The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, South Korea/USA, 2016) and It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults, USA, 2017), which I found much better than the same director’s subsequent Waves (Trey Edward Shults, USA/Canada, 2019).
With regard to COVID-19, there were a few productions made to reflect life during the pandemic, with the one that I shall mention being Cinema-19 (Courtney Stephens, Kalpana Subramanian, Usama Alshaibi, Scott Cummings, Lori Felker, Matt McCormick, Eman Akram Nader and Alex Megaro, Christin Turner, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Kelly Gallagher, Sarah Ema Friedland, William Brown and Mila Zuo, Amir George, and Adam Sekuler, USA/Canada, 2020).
As the list of directors surely makes clear, I am blowing my own trumpet again, but I toot it to say how I proud I was and continue to be to participate in a project with such exceptional filmmakers, with Mila Zuo and I collaborating on Coyote, a short film about which I also shall be writing an essay for The Projector in 2021.
If Cinema-19 is a compendium of films of life under lockdown, then Ai Weiwei’s CoroNation (China, 2020) functioned for me as the best documentary yet about the pandemic, as it depicts the emptied streets of Wuhan and the almost science-fictional procedures put in place to control the spread of the disease.
Perhaps predictably, COVID-19 produced a rash of films about confinement, with window films becoming increasingly common, be those the windows of the digital machines that we consult at home, or the windows that we look out of into relatively empty streets.
While this aesthetic has been announced by Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window (USA, 1954), thereby making an implicit connection between the window film and disability/disease, it is an aesthetic that also bespeaks surveillance. And it is surveillance that we see taken up explicitly as a theme in Ulu Braun’s remarkable Saturne (Germany, 2020), shot in Berlin as if uniquely from the viewpoint of CCTV cameras as a man seeks to spread the ashes of his dead mother, among other things.
Not only might we note the ongoing legacy of Rear Window in films like Number 37 (Nophiso Dumisa, South Africa, 2018), but we might also begin to weave together how the window aesthetic, tied as it is to surveillance and illness/disability, is also tied to the pandemic, as per some of the Cinema-19 films and as per Mati Diop’s In My Room (France/Italy, 2020).
The quasi-academic/theoretical point I wish to make, then, is that COVID-19 is perhaps linked, at least aesthetically if not politically, to the rise of a surveillance society, and that this surveillance society constitutes a sort of illness (with those who are disabled perhaps being best placed to perceive as much).
As made clear by Mati Diop’s other work, including her renowned short Atlantiques (France, 2009), which I also saw for the first time in 2020, surveillance is also linked to migration. Indeed, the confinement/carceral aesthetic of COVID-19, as well as the window aesthetic to which it is related, is demonstrated in His House, with Christian Petzold’s Transit (Germany/France, 2018), a hangover film that I also only saw late in 2020, equally relating the contemporary moment to a moment defined by the plight of those undergoing forced migration. (A propos of Petzold, I found Transit far superior to his more recent and aquatic Undine, Germany/France, 2020.)
Finally, if we see the window aesthetic already at work in films like 9 Days: From My Window in Aleppo (Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, Netherlands/Syria, 2016), a film that I saw when it came out four years ago, then in some senses the ‘COVID-19’ aesthetic was also already announced by the refugee crisis prompted by the war in Syria. And this carceral aesthetic also is linked to the radicalised carceral logic at work in the contemporary USA and so brilliantly analysed by Garrett Bradley in Time.
While I am proposing somewhat provocatively, then, that there is an aesthetics, thematic and indeed a conceptual through-line from Blackness to surveillance society to refugees to aesthetics of confinement and/or fenestration, then I say this also to introduce the final ‘best film of 2020.’
While documentaries like CoroNation, The Two Lives of Li Ermao (Jia Yuchuan, China/UK, 2019) and Goodbye CP (Kazuo Hara, Japan, 1972) were among the best that I saw for the first time in 2020, it is Abbas Fahdel’s Bitter Bread (Lebanon/Iraq/France, 2019) that is my final ‘best film of 2020’ – which is perhaps unlike anything else in its weave of staged and documented scenes made with inhabitants of Syrian refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The film is urgent and powerful, and in some ways it brings together many of the key concerns for our planet right now.
In a final bit of puffery, I shall also mention that I finished a film called The New Hope 2 (UK, 2020) this year, a sequel to my earlier adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and which was shot in London’s Hyde Park back in 2014. Set in London and Los Angeles, I think that the sequel is, like the first part, a deliberately punk, DIY and no-budget film that also hopefully says something for/to our ‘DIY’ and ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking times, and which I offer up for free (as usual). May it provide some comic relief in these tough days.
However, even as I ‘big up’ KIN, my book and The New Hope 2, the best production for me was the one announced in Coyote, the contribution made by Mila Zuo and me to Cinema-19, and which comes in the form of Radian Winter Zuo Brown, a daughter born to me and my partner in 2020. No film can match even an instant in her company.
In sum, then, my best of 2020 – meaning films from 2019 and 2020 – are as follows, ranked in a Halliwell-style *** and **** system, since I don’t believe in shoe-horning together 10 films (or 100 films) for a Top 10 (or Top 100) if there aren’t enough that are of sufficient perceived quality.
Numerous of the above-named are films do not feature below. This is not because I don’t like them; indeed, to my mind – and still thinking Halliwell – many of those films would would get ** or * and lots of italics for standout contributions. And there are plenty of films I’ve not yet seen and yet which I imagine I would like (and in fact have already seen in 2021 a couple of films that might well have a got a mention here if I’d seen them only a few days earlier: Shirley, Ammonite, St Maud, Fourteen, Saint Frances, Clemency, Rocks, the rest of Small Ax, Minari, etc)…
All the same, the *** and **** films are as follows:-
The Forty-Year-Old Version, I May Destroy You, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Black Mother, Martin Eden, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Vitalina Varela, The Assistant, Uncut Gems, Another Round, A Febre, Present.Perfect, Bacurau, CoroNation.
Ruby, Time, The Sleeping Negro, Pink Wall, Bitter Bread.
Should it be of interest, my top films of 2019 are/were as follows, according to the same system:-
13th (Ava DuVernay), Destroyer (Karyn Kusama), Dragonfly Eyes (Xu Bing), Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham), Long Day’s Journey Into Night 3D (Bi Gan), High Life (Claire Denis), Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa), Nuestro tiempo (Carlos Reygadas), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot), Museo (Alonso Ruizpalacios), The Infiltrators (Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera), Le Franc (Djibril Diop Mambéty), Le Daim (Quentin Dupieux), Muna Moto (Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa), What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? (Roberto Minervini), Monos (Alejandro Landes), Afrique, je te plumerai (Jean-Marie Téno), Campo (Tiago Hespanha), High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh), 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami), Vulnicura VR (Björk/Andrew Thomas Huang), Beats (Brian Welsh), Cómprame un revólver (Julio Hernández Cordón), Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov), Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari), The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent).
Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi), Hale County This Morning This Evening (RaMell Ross), The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
And now, for what it’s worth, here are all of the films I saw in 2020, followed by a complete list of the films I saw in 2019.
USA et al
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
A Brixton Tale
Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers
A Dance for Death
A Hidden Life
A Rainy Day in New York
A rosa azul de Novalis
Rodrigo Carneiro and Gustavo Vinagre
A Russian Youth
A Secret Love
A Shape of Things to Come
Lisa Malloy and JP Sniadecki
A Trip to the Moon
A Wrinkle in Time
Abar: Black Superman
Alfred & Jakobine
Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts
An American Pickle
Are You Listening Mother?
As boas maneiras
Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Asako I & II
Así habló el cambista
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Khavn de la Cruz
Beautiful New Bay Area Project
Before We Vanish
Between Heaven and Earth
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
I was recently invited to write an essay on “Don’t Look Now” for a catalog to accompany a recent exhibition of work by Martin Erik Andersen at Holstebro Art Museum in Denmark.
Always one to be persuaded by flattery, I naturally accepted, and subsequently spent a fair amount of time conducting research, watching and thinking about the film, and then writing this essay.
Alas, however, the below essay was not what they said that they were looking for – in that does not provide a ‘mathematical’ analysis of the film. Rather than waste the c30 hours of work that went into this, though, I figured I would post it here.
Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure
“Don’t Look Now” seems to have it in for wizened old dwarf women, since the one who features in Nicolas Roeg’s film turns out to be a murderer who ultimately slays John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, and who is the central protagonist of the movie.
We have to start with a spoiler, though, because it is only by getting to the end of the film that we can begin in certain respects to make sense of it. For, as we shall see, “Don’t Look Now” offers up a conception of space and time that suggests that in many respects we are always already dead – and that it is simply an anthropocentric conceit to organise, or indeed to contain, space and time into measurable units, or indeed to measure space and time at all.
I should refine my last sentence and say that it is not simply an anthropocentric conceit to measure space and time (to divide space and time into measurements). Rather, it is quite specifically a tendency or a trope of what we might term capitalist man to do this (with the gender implications of the term ‘man’ being allowed to remain, with whiteness and western-ness also being qualities that remain consistent with such hegemonic practices, or practices of domination). In short, capitalist white man (who could almost certainly be specified via further adjectives) seeks to dominate nature by subjugating nature to measurement. By making our world finite and ordered. To bring order to chaos.
Why does man seek to do this? Because he wishes to halt time, not to die, to live forever, and to escape from the perceived cruelty of nature, which cruelty amounts basically to taking it as an insult that he does not live forever in the first place. That is, man seeks to do this out of narcissism. To prove that he is above the animals and ‘better’ than nature.
But what does this have to do with “Don’t Look Now”?
It has everything to do with “Don’t Look Now”, because (capitalist western white) man’s wrangles with the chaotic universe become the very fabric of Roeg’s movie, both as a documentary and as a self-consciously composed (fiction) film
What on earth do I mean when I describe the film as a documentary?
Well, what in particular I mean is that humans don’t have to go very far with a camera in order to find signs of humanity’s attempts to dominate nature/the world/chaos via what I am terming measurement. As it turns out, Venice is an excellent venue for this because it is a space where the straight lines and measurements that humanity imposes on the world (including the delimitation and naming of space that is calling this particular place ‘Venice’) come in direct contact with—and are reflected in—the chaotic waters on top of which that city is built (and into which it is slowly sinking, about which, more imminently).
But even if Venice provides an excellent visualisation of how a certain kind of humanity (patriarchal white society, with the Christianity business at its core) tries specifically to build itself upon water in order to subjugate that water, you could basically point a camera anywhere these days and what you would film would include the straight lines and geometric patterns applied to and/or covering over nature by humans, as well as signs of that nature itself in the form of tendrils, vines, blades of grass, trees, rain, clouds, and anything else that is not manmade. In this sense, pretty much all films document the ways in which humans try to, but in many ways cannot, pave over nature and create a measured and measurable world of order, and of which we can make easy sense. We simplify nature, making order of chaos, and in so doing we mark our separation from chaos, giving to ourselves a sense of our own specialness within the universe.
Except, of course, that this endeavour is all vanity—and Venice will indeed sink into the quagmire as churches will fall into disrepair, humans will die, and so on. At least, this will happen until humans do discover the elixir of eternal life (and preferably eternal youth rather than ageing forever but not dying). That is, humans will do this until they do finally become gods—a pursuit that even today many believe possible thanks to the powers of ‘science,’ i.e. thanks to the powers of measurement itself. We seek the bottles or other containers that will bring about eternal life, be those augmented bodies, computer avatars, elixirs that we can drink, space ships to take us to the stars and many more ideas, as often faddish as foolish.
Cinema and photography, as technologies that can in some senses preserve human life, including beyond what we typically refer to as death, are part and parcel of this endeavour. And yet, cinema can also, like many humans, be at war with this embalming impulse and it can also open itself up to and find regeneration in chaos. Rather than being a tool for eternal life, cinema can also let chaos and death into its system.
And so if “Don’t Look Now” documents man’s vanity as he attempts to cheat death (just look at Venice; such vanity is the very architecture of the place), it also consciously explores this contradiction, and thus it emerges as a work of art that actively works with chaos rather than trying to pour concrete over it.
Indeed, the opening shots announce as much: rain and the shuddering water of a pond—accompanied by a zoom that creates a pattern of almost televisual static. We dissolve to patterns of light on a black background, as light filters through cracks in a blind. The blind may keep out the light, but as the film will tell us, the blind can also see, and in seeing, show us aspects of our world that we otherwise miss.
After these opening seconds, we will repeatedly have flowers, vines and tendrils creeping into the frame. Indeed, in cutaway after cutaway, Roeg deliberately speaks the iconographic language of the still life, where the straight lines of the human world are juxtaposed with the sinewy mess of nature. Furthermore, pigeons will repeatedly emerge into frame to disrupt the geometry of the city, while cats meow from behind metal grates (which is not to mention dogs barking and children crying offscreen throughout the film).
Even when we do find ourselves in relatively geometric spaces, the human itself emerges as a force of chaos rather than one of control. We can picture John and Laura, framed by drawing tubes and hotel room furniture, and yet they themselves both have curly, barely controlled hair, spiralling out of their heads (and out of John’s lip)—a sort of cinematic Kandinsky consisting of monochromatic straight lines coming up against inconsistent spheres.
John is at the centre of this tension between order and chaos. If the blind seer Heather can tell that John also has visions, John tries as best he can to deny them. Even as he knows that he is restoring a fake church, something that he admits to Laura over dinner, he still is invested in the project of halting time and bringing about the restoration and eternal youth of this floating city.
Indeed, the tension that John feels is clearly reflected in his consideration of space. For, John has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, which we see next to Laura on the sofa of their English home at the film’s start. We are not given access to the book’s contents, but from its title we might surmise that John can indeed see beyond space as geometric, that is, beyond space as being made of fixed and measured/measurable coordinates.
Let us dwell a while on this idea. For, the Greek term for measurement is metron, which for Reza Negarestani is
found etymologically encrypted in English words such as Dimension (from dimetiri: measure out), meter, etc. Keeping well in mind the famous doctrine of Pythagoras, ‘Man is the metron of everything’ (pantōn chrēmatōn metron anthrōpos), metron can be translated as scale, measure, standard, and value. According to Sextus Empiricus, metron expresses criterion (scale, measure) but Heraclitus and Sophocles saw it as certifying dominance, a domination over something. Therefore, metron indicates that both measures and dimensions inter-connect with power, judgement and reasoning. The critique of metron explains how dimensions (namely metron) bring power into effect, mobilizing and propagating it. (Negarestani 2008: 233)
In other words, metron is humanity’s attempt to control an otherwise dimension-defying reality and to become a god by measuring it out, by applying to it a fixed number of dimensions, and thus by dominating/subjugating/simplifying it. No wonder it is that we see a bust of Socrates’ note-taker, Plato, as John inspects a slide also at the film’s start. For, via his engagement with ancient Greek thought, John understands that measurement is nothing more than man’s attempt to control nature, and that it must therefore be fragile. What, however, lies ‘beyond’ this fragile geometry of space…?
Beyond the fragile dimensions that humans construct via walls, pavements and other straight, hard surfaces, which all eventually will crumble into the sea, man is lost—as John and Laura experience even within Venice as they wander its alleyways at night. Without illumination and thus without the visible markers or measures of space that man has created in order to navigate it, space is simply a labyrinth, and space simply swallows up man and demonstrates that his meaning and order, his straight lines and his religious myths, are mere consolations against the impermanence and complexity of the world. Even a frozen lake is not flat/straight, as Laura explains. And so the human world tries to be permanent and thus is carved in solid materials like stone, but even these become covered by moss and broken down, and even these give way to mud and water, which in turn drown humans and bring them back to the ever-shifting earth.
If “Don’t Look Now” pits an ordered solidity against chaotic liquid, then clearly humans contain within them the tension between these two states. For, humans are of course themselves mostly liquid, as is made most clear when blood flows forth from humans in injury and death—and monthly in the female human for as long as she might biologically generate new life. Humans thus create bottles for liquids in order to contain their chaotic power, much as humans bottle themselves up in order to keep the same chaos at bay (unsurprisingly, then, John is aghast when he vomits, which he claims not to have done in 10 years, since he prides himself on keeping everything inside).
And yet, if humans create and become bottles, glass nonetheless smashes on several occasions in the film: Laura and John’s son, Johnny, cycles over glass just before Christine drowns in the pond, while glass smashes as Laura faints in the restaurant, and John is covered in broken glass as he nearly falls from inspecting the mural in the Church of St Niccolò dei Mendicoli. Meanwhile, blood spills from John and Johnny at the moment of Christine’s death—and the water beneath Venice is always there to remind us that chaos can only be bottled briefly, if at all.
But still (western) humans persist in shutting themselves off from the outside and in seeking eternal, bottled and contained life. Indeed, “Don’t Look Now” anticipates, or at the very least positions itself as being part of a cultural logic of computation when little Johnny’s headmaster at Porton School is revealed as being called Babbage. Clearly an allusion to Charles Babbage, the progenitor of digital culture, his role as an educator clearly suggests that the logic of mankind as exempt from nature (with digital technology having since the film become the talismanic technology that will make this aspiration come true) is one that is inculcated in western humans from an early age, such that they go on to internalise this logic of separation-from-reality, and assume it to be real.
What is more, humans resist the outside world not just by building walls (even as doors fly open by themselves/at the power of the wind), but also by covering themselves with clothes—with “Don’t Look Now”being especially a treatise on gloves. It is as if humans want to avoid direct contact with as much of the world as possible, including with each other. In addition, humans cross their legs (John) in order not to let out the yonic energies that emanate from their genitals, and humans try to maintain sure and still postures. (Notably, Laura is told to uncross her legs when Heather tries to get in touch with Christine from beyond the grave.)
The awkwardness of Donald Sutherland running towards the pond where Christine drowns is one of the most important images in “Don’t Look Now”, since it conveys the imperfection of human movement—while at the same time working within the film to suggest that humans try otherwise to move as little as possible, to turn themselves into perfect statues and thus to live forever (in photographs?). This stillness involves a suppression of desire that is at odds with the openness to other dimensions that Heather experiences, shuddering and juddering as she communes orgasmically with the beyond… and which orgasmic shudder has clear echoes with the film’s ‘controversial’ (or at least for many people memorable) sex scene, in which John and Heather remain (alas, all too tastefully?) nude for what seems like a prolonged period.
To shudder and to quake is to be in touch with the infinite and to generate new life, much as the mud and the water generate new life and the continued evolution and change of life on earth. John Izod sees the brooch worn by Heather’s sister Wendy as a symbol of fertility (Izod 1992: 108), and in some senses he is not wrong; but when we get a close up view of it as Laura inspects the brooch while visiting the sisters in their hotel room, we see more clearly that it depicts a mermaid—as if these women were indeed from a chaotic water element, and thus also outside of the geometric world of masculinist stone.
In identifying the film as western, as well as by quoting an Islamic scholar in relation to measurement above, we perhaps have wandered far from the film’s intended/suitable critical framework. And yet, the film also contains seeds of such a ‘dewesternising’ critique. ‘The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,’ says John to Laura just before he confesses to restoring not a real church but a fake. Not only is the western world in some senses fake as a whole because of its fundamental and wilfully illusory separation from nature/reality, but it also is one built upon a history of theft and a subsequent denial of that theft (with western man seeking no depth whatsoever, since to enter the murky depths, to enter murkiness as depth, is indeed the remit of the Byzantine/other; no wonder western man tries to surround himself with mirrors, which surfaces “Don’t Look Now” also consults repeatedly).
At one point, John comes face to face with a grotesque bust on the side of the church that he is restoring. Not only does this suggest that John himself is grotesque, but it also brings to mind the way in which the grotesque is itself a marginal form that is perhaps marginal precisely because it regularly blurs the boundary between the human and other species/the rest of the world, with grotesques (and its explicitly non-western cousin, the arabesque) regularly seeing the figure merge with the textual in the form of a flourishing vine. In other words, the grotesque reminds us not of the separation of man from world, but precisely of the interconnection between man, animal, plant and the rest of the material world (see also Marks 2010: 96-98). In the Islamic pictorial tradition, the grotesque and the arabesque both also bring to mind the autonomous life of the line; that is, as the line is freed from the burden of representation but instead becomes its own expressive force (flowing as it wishes and not because it must outline, say, a face), so does it move beyond the realm of the visual (this is a picture of a face) and into the realm of the haptic (you can feel the force of the line). It is not through vision that we can understand the world, but through touch, even as western humans put on gloves to avoid it.
But as the line comes alive in the grotesque and the arabesque, so might we also understand how colour, in particular through a Venetian history of art, also connotes hapticity. Laura U Marks can help to illuminate once again why Venice is such an apt venue for “Don’t Look Now”:
of course line and color are interdependent, as in the labile quality of the contour and the mercurial technique of chiaroscuro. It is notable that the Venetians, and their coloristic heir in the nineteenth century, Delacroix, were influenced by Oriental contact. Haptic space began to push to the surface of their paintings, while the linearists were still keeping the abstract line in check… Artisans began to emphasize flow over form. The tendril decoration inherited from Greek and Roman art quickly lost its naturalism and became what we call the arabesque. (Marks 2010: 54)
And so with its emphasis on red, “Don’t Look Now” similarly enacts an attempt to divorce colour from form, to give to colour a life of its own, as is made especially clear by the blood that floods the image during the climax of the opening death sequence. This haptic aspect of the film thus helps viewers to get beyond simply what is represented (here is a person in a red coat) and to access other dimensions hidden within these normal/normative ways of seeing (but of course the bearer of the red coat turns out to be a grotesque, old, murderous woman, since the grotesque, the old and the female are all antithetical to the myth of eternal youth that patriarchy seeks, promises, and narcissistically fools itself into believing it can realise; the woman does not bottle up life, keeping it for herself, but instead she bleeds and gives life).
If “Don’t Look Now” in some senses consciously places itself within artistic, pictorial and/or painterly traditions, then it is also knowingly a film. If for Mary Shelley the Promethean endeavour to establish eternal life led to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, then Christine’s death clearly evokes the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when the monster throws a little girl, Maria, into a pond, causing her also to drown. Indeed, perhaps this allusion makes clear how John himself is a creating a monster in trying to resurrect a fake. Or rather, in trying to be Prometheus, John already is Frankenstein’s monster himself.
Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Now” of course follows hot on the heels of Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), which itself tells the tale of how human desire cannot be kept straight, and how man will indeed only ever fail in his attempts to prolong his life. Finally, the moment when a dead body is fished from the water recalls a similar moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), in which a car is similarly fished out from the Tiber—as if that tale of human alienation were in some senses continued here. A poster of Charlie Chaplin further clarifies the film’s lineage: the tramp equally is alienated from the machinic world of capital.
But much as “Don’t Look Now” revels in its status as a film, it is and must also be in rebellion against that very same status. For if cinema is anything, it is perhaps, as mentioned, a technology for preserving human life beyond death. In this way, it is part of the Promethean project, while the very and inevitable existence of the frame means that cinema only ever ‘bottles’ or ‘boxes’ space, offering us the Euclidean coordinates of a framed reality. Cinema is like Venice in that if the latter is, as Heather suggests, a ‘city in aspic,’ then cinema likewise puts the human body in aspic, preserving us in polyester.
If this is so, then it is against the frame of cinema itself that Roeg will consistently reframe, zoom and blur the images that we see. As with the performances, in which lines are mumbled, and the sound recording, in which sometimes the dialogue is hard to follow, Roeg thus deliberately makes a technically ‘dirty’ film, reminding us regularly that we are watching a film, a fake, a story that is not necessarily to be believed. Indeed, the use of quotation marks in the very title of the film (“Don’t Look Now”) suggest a second-hand rather than an original story.* And it is a story that at times we literally cannot see very clearly; one that on occasion leaves us baffled as to what exactly is happening.
What is more, Roeg’s radical editing, in which we can jump from different times to different spaces and back again within what we would traditionally refer to as a ‘scene’ ties in with the film’s use of cinema not to affix time but to demonstrate its interconnected nature. That is, as the dimensions of space are attributes that we affix to ‘raw’ space so as to conquer it (and so as not to get lost), so do we do the same with time.
Clocks and watches abound within “Don’t Look Now”, with these technologies themselves being ways for humans to regulate and thus in some senses to control time. And yet time itself is not linear, as the love-making scene itself exemplifies; we jump back and forth between John and Laura engaging in coitus and the two of them getting dressed/covering themselves back up for dinner. What was formless and naked becomes formal once again—but the edit mixes the chronology up suggesting that the past, the present and the future all co-exist simultaneously. This is why John can see his own funeral, why Heather can foresee the future and why John is in some respects (always) already dead: as space is deeply, or fundamentally, dimensionless, so, too, is time.
(To “look now” is thus perhaps not to see; one cannot look now, or at least the film encourages not only to look at the now, but to see how the now/the present is intertwined with the past and the future. If we truly could see the “now” we would not see it isolated from other moments in time, but entangled with them.**)
If it is the destiny of all humans to fall, as John imagines at one point that he does in the church amidst a shower of broken glass, then gravity will bring all humans to the grave. And in that muddly hole, worms will devour us and vines will emerge from that mud in a new sprouting of life. In the mud, space is dimensionless, but, so, too, is time, with Roeg’s cinema travelling through edit ‘wormholes’ to connect up what would be different spaces and times as if they were all connected. Not extended geometrically into a manageable pattern—but all together all at once. The vanity of man is to live forever; the reality of the universe is that we do live forever, but we also die forever, too. The vain and Promethean endeavour of man is to separate life definitively from death; the destiny of the human is to realise that life is inseparable from death—even as this leads to life defying gravity and emerging from the grave. It is at La Fenice where the sisters are staying by the film’s end; they are thus like phoenixes, transcending the distinction between life and death via their embrace of immanence and rebirth, as John canters (awkwardly again) towards his own death in Venice (Fenice?) because he will not accept a world without measure.
When the corpse, which bears a remarkable similarity to Heather, is retrieved from the Venetian canal, we see the open-eyed actor playing that part suddenly blink. No doubt an ‘error,’ the moment nonetheless demonstrates that the world of life without death is a world of impossible unblinkingness, one of permanent light in which paradoxically we cannot see. It is only when we blink, or when, like Wendy, we have something in our eyes (including mud, which perhaps explains why John begins to drink—here’s mud in your eye!) that we actually do see. True reality is marked by invisible dimensions that perhaps we can feel through senses other than vision; to be limited only to unblinking vision is to close oneself off to those alternative dimensions, spaces and times that we might dismiss as fantasies, dreams or hallucinations, but which in fact are real.
But what is it that we actually are not seeing? Perhaps of particular note is that “Don’t Look Now” features a second book in addition to Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and that is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play, Der Stellvertreter (1963), which regularly is translated as The Deputy. Der Stellvertreter explores the way in which Pope Pius XII failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. What remains invisible, then, is the way in which National Socialism and the Catholic church both—in their attempts to control the world—lead to genocide, both within Europe and further afield. This blood, more than the Venetian lagoon, is the true chaotic liquid that has been spilt for the purposes of creating the western and patriarchal world of walls. And it is a blood that cannot be shown, but only alluded to, much as a black hole cannot directly be seen, but which can only be felt as a result of its gravitational and grave effects (everything falls towards it).
It is quite typical of 1970s art house movies to offer up many different signs, and yet which on the whole remain hard to decipher. “Don’t Look Now” is no exception, and there remain numerous details that I have not been able to mention, including the role of the police (‘The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead’); the way in which the camera always lingers on Signor Alexander, the owner of the hotel at which the Baxters are staying, after the other characters have finished talking to him; the way in which Laura is referred to as Mrs Baster at the airport, as if the family might be bastards; a poster about Boris Godunov; the prominence of a pair of neon glasses and a sign for an ottica, or optician’s, as John and Laura emerge from the darkness and back into familiar and lit alleyways in the Venetian night.
But of course if “Don’t Look Now” made total, coherent sense, then it would too much have subjugated its details to meaning; it would too much have made order out of chaos. In part, “Don’t Look Now” must remain chaotic on purpose, full of details that elude interpretation, and thus coming alive like the line and colour of the arabesque and/or the grotesque. In this way, it suggests an infinity beyond the finite world of walls and stone. An invisible world of blood unleashed. But also a world of life beyond death, of life in death, of dimensions beyond the measure of western capitalist man. Maybe the measure of a man, and the measure of this film, is that it seeks to go beyond measure, and to put is in touch with that infinite. Such an infinite reality can never be spoiled—except by the greed of men who seek to live forever.
* I overheard British Film Institute librarian Sarah Currant making this point during an induction session for students in the BFI Library. My thanks to her and my apologies for purloining the observation.
** This point was suggested to me by Mila Zuo. My thanks also to her for her help with this.
Izod, John (1992) The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne: re.press.
Obviously I could have started this blog with ‘imagine there’s no Beatles,’ as a number of journalists have done in their write-ups about Danny Boyle’s Richard Curtis-scripted Yesterday.
However, I want to start with the smoking because at one point in the film, lead character Jack (Himesh Patel) says that he’s dying for a cigarette only for his best friend Rocky (Joel Fry) to ask what cigarettes are – with Google (which along with Apple of course does exist) then confirming that in the alternative world where Jack has woken up, cigarettes do not indeed exist, alongside the Beatles, Oasis (the band), Coca Cola (the drink) and Harry Potter.
There are several things to pick apart here – beyond the obvious fact that bands like Coldplay (namechecked) would also not exist had the Beatles not existed.
For more specifically, without the tobacco industry, firstly the USA would quite possibly not have enjoyed the global economic dominance that it enjoyed in the twentieth century (and periods around it).
Secondly, slavery was a key component of the American tobacco industry, and so to imagine a world without smoking is, for better or for worse, to imagine an America without slavery.
Furthermore, the Indian tobacco industry is one of the world’s largest, and it historically commenced with the introduction of tobacco to Goa by the Portuguese, before the British then created a tobacco industry during their colonial rule of the country.
I wish simply to suggest, then, that to imagine a world without tobacco is in some senses to imagine a world without slavery and a world without colonialism.
Oh to imagine such a world.
And yet, to imagine such a world is in some senses to deny such a world.
That is, Yesterday asks us in part to imagine that slavery and colonialism never took place – even though Jack Malik’s British-Asian family has found its way to Lowestoft in order to live there, and even though there has, even without the Beatles, still been a history of music that includes many African-American sounds (Stevie Wonder is namechecked, among other indicators, including Ed Sheeran’s rapping).
Indeed, in Boyle’s film it is early confirmed that the Rolling Stones continue to exist, meaning that these arch-appropriators of African-American sounds have indeed continued to be successful, even though the grounds for their success – the African-American music from which they ‘borrowed’ so many licks and beats – ought not to have existed since there was no tobacco trade and thus not slavery in the same fashion.
Jack, bless him, feels bad for appropriating the Beatles’ music, even though John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) appears in the film to confirm that basically he has not written his songs (he is not a frustrated musician, but a happy widower living on a beach, seemingly only a taxi ride from Lowestoft, blissfully unaware of pop music and the media).
And yet, if in effect appropriation has gone on (the Stones are still around), and if in effect the supposed non-existence of a history of slavery and colonialism has still resulted in more or less the same world as we have now – except without the Beatles and without Coke – then the principle of the film is that theft and the occultation of theft through the rewriting of history is absolutely fine.
Let us imagine basically the same world as we have now – except that there was no slavery and no colonialism.
So basically the film is a denial of at least two of the most pernicious moments in western history, including the gigantic theft that led to the very creation and dominance of the west that the film affirms.
More fool Jack, then, for confessing – even if it allows him to get the girl (Lily James). For, in doing so he basically demonstrates that he is a dupe for a set of values (upheld in typical Curtis fashion as implicitly ‘English’) that he has been fed and yet which no one else believes in.
Indeed, Jack’s gesture might have a touch of the Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, USA, 1939) about it, but I am not sure what the panic from record producer Debra Hammer, played by Kate McKinnon, is about.
For while Rocky uploads all of the Beatles songs at the end of the film to the internet for people to download for free, the production and recording rights would still belong to her record company, and so Rocky/Jack will spend their whole life in penury, if not in prison, as a result of their unprovable story and their breach of contract (how to prove the existence of a band that never existed?) – all the while the record company owns rights to the songs, regardless of whether people have downloaded them for free.
Indeed, pretty much every song in the world is already easily available online on a host of websites, and it has not led to the collapse of the music industry – even if bands like Radiohead (whose poster for In Rainbows adorns Jack’s door) have attempted to give away their music.
(Besides, the record label would just get a better set of musicians and singers to sell better versions of the songs to the world, thereby making more money.)
So, Jack/Rocky’s ‘revolutionary’ gesture is in other words just business as usual in the contemporary record industry.
What is perhaps of greater import, though, is that the denial of history is also business as usual in the contemporary world.
Perhaps it is not by accident that Jack first ‘breaks through’ internationally while playing a gig in Moscow as Ed Sheeran’s warm-up – with the sequence of course involving a cover of ‘Back in the USSR.’
What is more, it is notable that Jack also relies solely on Google for his verification or otherwise of the existence of the Beatles.
Not only does Yesterday thus affirm that it is only by existing on the internet that one can be validated as real, but it also implies – in a celebratory, product-placement fashion – that companies like Google shape our reality, determining what is real or not.
In other words, Yesterday plays out as comedy what is perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the digital, ‘post-truth’ age: that what we consider to be real is highly manipulable, is indeed manipulated, but here is something to be celebrated as we deny slavery and deny colonialism as we live in a world without history and smoking.
Facetiously one might suggest that Yesterday could just as easily be called ‘Cambridge Analytica Saves The World.’
And yet in this facetious comment lies a sense in which Yesterday plays fast and loose with history as it offers up an extended Google advert, even as Google surely does shape our perceptions of reality thanks to its manipulable algorithms, data mining, listings of people and events, and so on.
If ‘Imagine’ were indeed a song about imagining ‘no countries,’ ‘peace,’ and more, it perhaps is a song about a world that beats to the unified drum of a single military-industrial-entertainment complex. That is, ‘Imagine’ is as much a bitter indictment of world history as it is an attempt to dream that humanity’s bloody, planet-destroying history did not take place.
A denial of a reality in which borders are being continuously reaffirmed on both sides of the Pond. A denial of a reality in which exploitation has created this world of huge injustice… Yesterday is in some senses, then, simply a reimagined version of today: the world is falling apart but no one wants to believe it and everyone just denies it. And so the entropy of the world will just go on happening…
In the face of trying to build of a new tomorrow, Boyle and Curtis instead waste their time dreaming of an alternative yesterday. Where that will get us… no one knows.
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.
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.
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.
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, A 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.