Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Neurocinematics

Killer Joe tells the story of trailer trash Texan family the Smiths. Son Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes money to some local gangsters and so hatches the plot to kill his mother, Adele (Julia Adams), in order to take home her savings via an inheritance.

To do this, he hires a local cop-cum-hitman, the titular Joe (Matthew McConnaughey), as well as roping in his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – with whom he’ll split the money four ways. The reason he has to involve the rest of his family is because Adele savings are apparently all to be left in her will to Dottie.

Since the money is going to come only after the hit, Chris and co offer Dottie as ‘collateral’ to Killer Joe. And Joe takes Dottie – presumably depriving her of her virginity in the process.

The film is blackly comic – with some amusing deadpan humour, plain funny sight gags, trailer park gawping, and unsettling violence – which is often sexualised.

The film is, as a former colleague of mine has pointed out to me, pretty harsh on its women: Adele barely features, Sharla is a conniving slut, and Dottie, having been deflowered by Joe, seems to fall for him pretty bad.

It’s not that the male folk fare better: most people in the film are copper nanotubes (Google it), the men included. But the women don’t really get a look in, being sexual objects, somewhat fatales, pretty incapable of autonomous action, and something of a backdrop for the men to be men together.

However, aside from these shortcomings, and no doubt some interesting things that could be discussed in terms of neo-noir and other films of its ilk – The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, USA/Sweden/UK/Canada, 2010) and U-Turn (Oliver Stone, France/USA, 1997) came to mind while watching it – the film is interesting for a couple of things that I’d like to discuss now and both of which, in short order, suggest that the film is reflecting on the cinematic experience.

I am in the midst of reading Gabriele Padullà’s In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators after the Cinema. The book basically tries to explain what the cinema experience is like – and while I have not finished it to know Padullà’s argument exactly, it seems as though he basically wants to account for how filmgoers watch movies because they enjoy them.

This requires a bit of explanation, since Padullà’s argument will seem obvious (duh, of course we watch movies because we enjoy them). How it is interesting, though, is the way in Padullà dismisses earlier interpretations of the film viewing experience.

For example, early film theorists often compared cinema to Plato’s Cave. The philosopher for Plato is the person who realises the most humans unthinkingly are sat in a cave watching the projected shadows of reality, but not reality itself. Cinema is a bit like sitting in such a cave and watching projected shadows of reality. Ergo, cinema might be a bit like Plato’s cave.

Except, for reasons practical if for no other, then cinema makes ‘philosophers’ of us all (but does it really?), since we all know that reality does not conform to the movies (but do we?). Now, the Plato model perhaps was employed for the political reason that to compare a mass medium like cinema to a great like Plato helps to legitimise cinema as an authentic art form. Indeed, that cinema can and perhaps does make philosophers of us (something I argue in my own published work – but not quite in this fashion/for these purposes) also no doubt helps to legitimise cinema as a ‘meaningful’ form – when most people view it as crash, bang, wallop blood-splattering fun.

However, the Plato analogy cannot stand up when it is clear that we choose to watch movies that we know are just illusions. Furthermore, since we now view films not in a darkened room but, as Padullà puts it, in broad daylight, further means that the Plato analogy is outdated.

Furthermore, Padullà rejects the idea that cinema is a mirror or something like a dream screen for the same reason: we can and do get up during film viewing, we talk, check our phones (my example, not Padullà’s) and the images are far more precise than a dream image.

So, given that these models of what the cinematic experience is or is supposed to be, Padullà’s suggestion (so far) that we watch films because we want to and because we enjoy them takes on some ‘revolutionary’ force.

Why this sidetrack into Padullà?

Because I wonder Killer Joe seems to reflect directly on viewing practices in the contemporary era – and I shall give what I consider to be two clear-cut examples. And I’ll give them in reverse order (in that the one I discuss first happens later in the film than the one I discuss second).

Minor spoiler: as Joe explains to Sharla and Ansel how he is going to deal with Chris following the (expected) botching of the plot to win Adele’s money, Ansel’s attention is drawn to a television depicting monster trucks.

Joe reacts poorly, heading over to the TV and destroying it.

Why this is important to me is because Ansel’s attention cannot but be drawn towards the monster truck screen – in spite of the fact that Joe is talking to him.

While Ansel no doubt likes shows with monster trucks in them, this also signals how the screens that fill our contemporary world are designed – even in broad daylight – to capture our attention. That is, even though we are supposed to be concentrating on something else (here, Joe talking), we find that we look at the screen not because we want to, but because we have no choice but to.

I know that Padullà addresses what we might call the attention economy in a section beyond where I am right now in In Broad Daylight, so apologies to him if I guess incorrectly the nature of his eventual argument.

Nonetheless, I wonder to what extent we are prey to the moving images on the ubiquitous screens that surround us the whole time (which is not to mention the loud sounds that we hear everywhere, too). Indeed, various essays that I have written argue that cutting rates and various other techniques, that colour, that the depiction of human emotions, and (this one’s not published – yet) that the beauty of film stars, are all designed – advertently or otherwise – to attract our attention, whether or not we actually like or enjoy a film. To this extent, cinema – and other screen media – draw upon our attention naturally, meaning that our minds are spent considering neither our natural environment (inasmuch as we might consider screens to be ‘unnatural’) nor attending to what we choose to.

No doubt the cognitive pleasures in having our attention aroused (we feel ‘alive’ when we are searching for prey, predator or mate – apparently) have caused a situation of feedback: that is, we go looking for rapid image fixes rather than attend to what we ought to – as my students looking at their iPhones during film screenings in class attests.

Nevertheless, not only would this seem to suggest that we do not strictly look at screens because we enjoy it (we can and do enjoy it, but how much choice we have in looking is up for grabs – anyone who has tried to hold down a conversation in a pub showing even the most banal television perhaps knows this feeling), but it also suggests that we might (wilfully!) be heading into Plato’s Cave – whereby we look at screens, at the play of illusions, rather than at reality, even though we know reality is out there.

In this sense, while Padullà’s critique of the Plato analogy is powerful, he might conceivably overlook the way in which the Plato analogy might also be prophetic.

(And note: when we do not look at what we want to, or when we cannot but hear the sounds of screens that surround us, then to an extent, these sounds and images are doing violence to us. I think of it thus: when I have been trying to sleep and I hear a television, I find the jolts from light sleep caused by the television to be truly jarring and disturbing, violent even. Perhaps you have had a similar experience…? Okay, so it is good for us to be alert and ready for violence – as the Darwinians would have us believe – but cinema and the other screen media would also have us believe that we were made to live in a hyperstimulated state, when a world without screens would have some – real – violence, but nothing like the constant barrage that we have now…)

The second moment, which comes earlier in the film, is when Joe ‘seduces’ Dottie for the first time. During this scene, Dottie undresses for Joe, who turns his back on her and then gives her orders as he undresses himself.

Okay – we the audience members see Dottie, and so there is a complex interplay going on here between our own voyeurism (heterosexual males if no others are drawn to Dottie’s figure for ‘natural’ reasons) and Joe’s projections.

What I mean by this is that in not looking at Dottie, but instead getting her to approach him from behind, he gets to imagine what she looks like – preferring his imagination to actually seeing or looking at her.

In other words, while Joe is pissed off at Ansel for looking at the TV and not at him, Joe himself has a strange relationship with reality, such that he prefers to create projected fantasy worlds rather than to engage in what is actually in front of him.

As much is borne out later when Joe gets Sharla to simulate fellatio on a piece of K Fried C that he holds over his crotch. Joe does not want real contact with Sharla, it seems, but gets off on simulated contact. In other words, it seems that Joe is also as addicted to images as Ansel, and that he prefers images to reality.

Now, since we do see Dottie undress, we might say that Joe has his own foibles, but that we as viewers prefer actually to look. Except, of course, that we are watching a film and not reality. In other words, director Friedkin seems to be bringing to our attention the way in which he, too, is constructing (male) fantasies that we see played out, and which perhaps we prefer to ‘reality’.

The fake BJ scene is most telling in this respect: Joe has just smashed in Sharla’s face when he forces her to suck the chicken leg. If Joe is somehow an ersatz viewer, then Friedkin seems in some respects to be throwing back into our (male) faces the fantasies of sexualised violence that Joe enacts. Indeed, Friedkin ramps this up by seeming to have the seem play out in a titillating fashion (even though the scene is shot from a combination of long, medium and low angle shots; the arch lighting might also enhance this effect).

Joe even suggests with Dottie that he and she are 12 years old as they enact their fantasy sex – an ironic comment, it seems, on the regressive powers of cinema for making us engage not with the real world, or with real people, but with fantasy images of people instead.

Again, then, it seems that Padullà might have been premature (though, again, he might twist back on himself in the book – we shall see) in dismissing both the notion of the mirror and the notion of Plato’s cave as analogies for the film experience.

For, the predominance of screens in the contemporary world – and their power to hold our attention ahead of the reality – seems to suggest that we might be moving willingly into something like Plato’s Cave. And the way in which film can muck about with our sexual fantasies, which of course are based on mental images as much as on reality, suggests that we cannot only watch films because we enjoy them (even though this is a primary motivating factor). But it can be for more perverse and deep-seated reasons than that, ones that cognitive psychology can do little to answer for, and which still need something along the lines of psychoanalysis (with warnings/provisos) to at least begin to contemplate.

Killer Joe is not necessarily a great film, nor the best by Friedkin. Nonetheless, Friedkin belongs to a generation of directors that Padullà says were obsessed with cinema as it was: busy, bustling, loud auditoria, not the museum culture of silence and worship that we have today. As such, it seems unsurprising that his film – in so many ways a throwback to an older generation of noir – would seem nostalgic for former film viewing experiences. Ones where we not endlessly distracted by other, smaller, faster moving screens. And ones where our own fantasies helped to fill in the gaps left by the film world – rather than seeing everything because the cinema shows everything…

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock, USA, 2011)

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

There is not necessarily that much to say about POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, in that the premise of the film is pretty simple.

That is, Morgan Spurlock, he of Supersize Me (USA, 2004) fame, has made a film that exposes to what degree product placement – or what we might call just plain advertising – is a common practice in the film, television and new media industries.

I hope that such people do not exist (because they’d have to be what I might uncharitably term morons), but we can hypothesise that not everyone already knows this. And if not everyone already knows this, then bravo Morgan Spurlock for bringing it to our/their attention.

Beyond that, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not necessarily as brilliant as all that. And I’d perhaps even go so far as to say that it is disingenuous.

The Review Bit (in which – enviously? – I reproach Morgan Spurlock for thinking that a wink and a smile mitigates the trick he is playing on me)
The film is smart and ironic, sure – but its disingenuous nature comes through when Spurlock takes (seeming) swipes at bizarre North American corporate practices, such as the weird psychoanalytic branding exercise that he goes through early on in the film.

We see Morgan subjected to countless questions that seem to go on for hours – and after being grilled in this intense manner he is told – entirely anticlimactically – that he/his brand is a combination of intelligent and witty (I can’t remember the exact phrase – but it was cheesey).

My point is that if Morgan expects us (as at least I seem to think that he does) to laugh, somewhat bitterly, at how people can make money selling transparent clothes to the Emperor (psychoanalytic branding that tells anyone with a modicum of self-awareness what they probably know about themselves already), then why does he not expect us already to know precisely the other ‘insights’ that his documentary reveals – namely, that advertising is everywhere?

In this way, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is not really about advertising, but about Morgan Spurlock – and his access to the beautiful classes (even if he has not in fact ‘made it’ in ‘real life’).

The film claims that he is not selling out but buying in. To be honest, I think that both of these terms pertain to the same logic of capital-as-justification-of-one’s-existence that Spurlock might not necessarily critique, but the critique of which is surely a strong part of his No Logo-reading target audience.

Spurlock might aim for ‘transparency’ – but this in itself is problematic. As pointed out to me in the past by an astute former colleague, if something is transparent, it is invisible. While Spurlock might make apparent something that advertisers themselves have for a long time been wanting to make as apparent as possible – namely their brand – Spurlock also seeks to make transparent – i.e. invisible – his very conformity with the practices that his film might otherwise seek to critique.

Irony and humour are aplenty in the film, as Spurlock seeks to make a doc-buster that is corporate sponsored in its entirety while being about the prevalence of corporate sponsorship. There seems no room in this world for gifts or sacrifices, or any of those things that might otherwise suggest a spirit and sense of community beyond the quest for material profit. And for all of Spurlock’s success (and his failures) in getting money from the brand dynasties, it does seem to lack, how do I put it?, soul.

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, USA, 2007) opens with Homer shouting from an onscreen audience that the Simpsons Movie within the Simpsons Movie that he is watching is no better than the TV show, and a rip-off. Similarly, Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, USA, 1992) has a protracted sketch in which Wayne (Mike Myers) explains how he will not sell out to corporate sponsorship while simultaneously advertising a host of products from pizzas from trainers.

In other words, Hollywood has been pretty up-front about the fact that it has been peddling advertisements to us/short-changing us in the form of films for a long time. Hell – although I am here shifting slightly into the realm of the online viral, but some ‘advertainments’ – such as Zack Galafianakis’ wonderful Vodka Movie – are pretty good.

In this way, Spurlock does not take his film to the level of, say, the Yes Men in their critique of contemporary corporate practices. In their far-too-little-seen The Yes Men Fix The World (Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno and Kurt Engfehr, France/UK/USA, 2009), there is a scene in which the titular Yes Men try to convince a gathering of corporate bigwigs that they could make a shitload of money by, literally, repackaging shit back to consumers (that’s vaguely how I remember it, anyway – perhaps someone can correct me if I’m wrong). Hollywood also does this – but given that shit stinks and causes disease if not carefully disposed of, sometimes it’s good to rub it back in the noses of those who deposit it, as per the Yes Men. In comparison, Spurlock just seems to enjoy wading through shit to get to the silver screen a little too much.

Anyway, now to…

The Real Blog – not about but inspired by the so-branded Greatest Movie Ever Sold
At one point in Spurlock’s film, he talks to Martin Lindstrom of Buyology, which is also the name of a book about marketing and its effects on the brain.

Lindstrom shows to Spurlock images of his brain while watching a Coke commercial.

Lindstrom explains that at a certain moment in the commercial (it is not made particularly clear which moment, since Spurlock – like many neuro-whatever evangelists – tries to blind us with ‘science’ rather than a precise explanation), Spurlock’s brain releases dopamine, which suggests an addiction of sorts – inspired by the commercial. That is, or so the film seems to suggest, Spurlock underwent the same effects of a ‘Coke high’ thinking about Coke – which in turn suggested his avowed desire for a Coke at the time of watching the advert – as involved in actually drinking a Coke.

What is not clear from this is whether Spurlock’s ‘addiction’ is to Coke, or at the very least to its effects, or rather to images that can spur desire through their very presence for that which they depict.

My critique of the lack of clarity offered by Spurlock and which I extended to neuro-evangelists is not because, Raymond Tallis-style, I wish to dismiss ‘neuromania.’ Indeed, I personally think that neuroscience has enormous amounts of insight to offer us.

But I am not sure that the right questions are being asked of neuroscience at present in order for us fully to understand the implication of its results.

I have written a few papers, published and forthcoming, on what neuroscience might mean for film studies, particularly in the realm of images attracting our attentions through fast cutting rates, through the exaggerated use of colour, and through various acting techniques (associated predominantly with Stanislavski’s ‘system‘ and Strasberg’s ‘method‘ – which are of course different things, but I group them together because the former spawned its offshoot, the latter). And it is this area of studying film that I wish to pursue further – and on a level of seriousness far greater than that more playfully adopted for a previous posting on sleeping in the cinema.

This will sound quite outlandish – particularly to academic readers – because it is a crazy, Burroughs-esque proposal. But I think that a neuroscientific approach to cinema will help bring us closer to answering one question, which I formulate thus: can there be such a thing as image addiction?

Why is this an important question to ask/answer – and what does neuroscience have to do with it?

It is an important question – at least in my eyes – for the following reason: there is a long line in film studies history of people who argue for and against (predominantly against) the possibility that humans can or do mistake cinematic images for reality. This question, however, is all wrong – even if slightly more interesting than it seems easy to dismiss.

Far more important is the following: it is not that humans mistake films for reality (or if they do, this is not as significant as what follows), it is that humans commonly mistake reality for cinema.

What do I mean by this? I mean every time we feel disappointed that we are not in a film. I mean humanity’s obsession with watching moving images on screens at every possible opportunity such that life – and even ‘slow’ films – become boring and intolerable to people who must have their fix instead of bright colour and fast action. I mean the widespread aspiration to be on film, or at the very least to become an image (what I like to refer to as ‘becoming light’) on a screen (the final abandonment of the body and the ability to be – as an image – in all places at once [travelling at ‘light speed’]). I mean our inability to look interlocutors in the eye because we are too transfixed by the TV screen glowing in the corner of the pub. I mean – and I know this sensation intensely – the sense of immersion and loss of self that I feel when I watch films.

This is what I call image addiction.

But why neuroscience?

Because neuroscience might be able to help show to what extent – be it through conspiracy or otherwise – moving images and their accompanying sounds literally wire our brains in a certain fashion, such that we do all (come closer to) thinking in exactly the same way, repeating the same bullshit mantras to each other, dreaming only minor variations of the same things, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. If we adopted a psychoanalytic – instead of a neuroscientific – discourse – we might realise that the literal wiring of our brains is heavily influenced – and perhaps even relies/historically has relied upon – ‘fantasy’ of other kinds beyond the cinematic, and which we might even more broadly label the ‘culture’ in which we live.

But a neuroscientific demonstration of how this is so (if, indeed, it is so – this is only my hunch at the moment) might then open up debate on every philosophical level: ontologically, to what extent is reality determined by fiction? Ethically, how many images, of what kind, and using what styles, can or should we see if we want to retain some sense of a mythological self that – impossibly in my eyes – is ‘untouched’ by the world (be that by cinema in the world or the world itself that contains cinema) and belongs ‘purely’ to us? Indeed, this might open up debate not only about which ontology and which ethics, but regarding the entire issue of both ontology and ethics – and how historically they have been framed…

For those interested in what academic researchers do, I am trying at present to create a network of scholars interested in ‘neurocinematics’ (which is not to deny that various scholars are already working on these issues in their own ways). I am sceptical that I will be successful in attracting funding, not because the idea is not ‘sexy’ but because I am not sure, at present, whether I know enough neuroscientists to work with, and I also figure I might be too much of a no-mark academic to land a plum grant from a funding institution that has never heard of me. But I shall try nonetheless.

In conclusion, then, Lindstrom’s comment to Spurlock is unclear, but it raises the issue that I think is at the heart of where I want my academic research to go (even if I want to retain strong interests in other academic areas, predominantly film studies, and even if I might ditch all of this to write and/or direct films if anyone ever gave me the money to do so beyond my breaking my bank account every time I put light to lens – my filmmaking being my own desire to become light): is Spurlock addicted to what is in the image, or to the image itself? Can we separate them? Does looking at Coke can yield the same effect as looking at the stylised Coke can in the image (i.e. it is the properties not strictly of the can, but of the can in the image) that trigger the response of which Lindstrom speaks…

I suspect that both the advertising and movie industries are funding this kind of research as we speak. If the corporate giants can go straight to your brain, they will do. Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010), then, becomes no lie (not that inception/influence of some sort has not always been in existence – as I argue here). In some sense, then, such research is morally indispensable; what I mean by this is that if corporate giants discover and protect methods of accessing the brain directly, then it is up to academics to let humans know how this happens, to make them aware of ‘inception,’ to bring people back to that most unfashionable of approaches to studying film, ideological critique.

In some senses, then, this is simply the rehashing under new paradigms the same old questions that have been banging around since cinema’s, ahem, inception, and even before. Only the stakes are now higher.

Might I say that a full neurocinematic programme might simply prove according to some scientific paradigm what many of us have known all along?

Wait a second, isn’t this also what I accuse Morgan Spurlock of doing with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, accusing him of being a self-serving hypocrite for doing something that I myself seem to want to do?

Maybe Spurlock’s film is better than I thought, then. Maybe it is important and ingenious, because of its invisible transparency, not in spite of it.

There probably is no academic study that is devoid of corporate sponsorship somewhere along the line these days. There certainly will be even less if the politicians do not open their ears at some point and listen to what people are beginning literally to scream at them with regard to higher education and other issues. That is, that is must be as free of outside interests as possible, even if the quest for true objectivity is impossible to achieve.

Indeed, if we are talking about the possibility of corporate – or even gubernatorial – brain control (which is not the same as mind control, I hasten to add, though one could lead to the other), then we need to know whether it is possible, how it might happen, and what we can do about it. Before our bodies are all snatched away by the light (note: even now I cannot escape movie references) of the screen and before we are all turned into dependent image junkies who need the images just to feel alive – the over-dependent equivalent of the good, small dose that a movie like Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, UK/Denmark, 2011) seems to offer – as written about here.