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

American cinema, Blogpost, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief thoughts on People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (John Torres, Philippines, 2016)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Philippine cinema, Uncategorized

In 1936, Joseph Cornell reworked footage of East of Borneo (George Melford, USA, 1931) in order to create Rose Hobart (USA, 1936), an experimental short in which the meaning of Rose Hobart is changed as a result of how Cornell re-edits the Melford flick.

Meanwhile, east of Borneo is the Philippines, where another Rose – Vietnam Rose – was supposed to bloom in the 1980s, but who never really saw the light of day.

That is, Philippine director Celso Advento Castillo, the so-called ‘Saviour of Filipino cinema,’ in the 1980s tried to complete a feature film called The Diary of Vietnam Rose with the 19-year-old film star Liz Alindogan.

Alas, however, the film was abandoned after running into logistical and financial issues – with Alindogan herself being so traumatised by the experience that she basically disappeared from cinema for several years, having also functioned as one of the film’s producers.

It was only 30 years later, then, that John Torres put together People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose, a film that combines footage from some 20 reels recovered from the production of that film with original material made to look like it was shot at the time, and with various experiments in sound also playing a part of the film’s fabric (at times we hear dialogue from the characters in the scenes, but at other times we also hear voices delivering inner monologues and other sounds).

Being shot in 1986, the film was also made at the time of the People Power Revolution that led to the toppling of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Also known as the Yellow Revolution as a result of the prominence of yellow ribbons during the non-violent anti-government protests, and as the EDSA Revolution (EDSA stands for Epifania de los Santos Avenue – a chief artery in Manila), the moment brought about the end of martial law and the reinstatement of democracy in the Philippines.

In some senses, then, Torres’ film and the People Power Revolution resonate with each other – although the political aspects of the film are not what I shall focus on here. Suffice to say that as The Diary of Vietnam Rose fell apart, so in some senses did the Marcos regime. But it is not that Castillo or Alindogan are necessarily the equivalent of Marcos, or even that the film’s troubled production – in various ways involving but perhaps also exploiting locals in the remote location where the film was made.

Rather, the fact that the film fell into ruins bespeaks the state of the Philippines in 1986, such that the revolution took place. And where cinema as a force for change found it hard to survive under the Marcos regime, perhaps it is only since that the Philippines has  been able to develop a cinema worthy of the name.

The last paragraph is an overstatement. One need only think of the likes of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal to realise that oppositional cinema was in some senses doing well under the Marcos regime.

And one might suggest that much mainstream cinema in the Philippines today is pretty mediocre, melodramatic fare – suggesting that cinema as a force for change still struggles to eke out an existence in the Philippines, as it does in many other places around the world.

But what I mean by saying that the Philippines has since developed a cinema worthy of the name is that flowers do grow on the ruins of the Philippines, with People Power Bombshell being a literal case in point as Vietnam Rose blooms a new life – different to the one that Castillo and Alindogan had intended, but which nonetheless is alive, and which suggests future life for the country in spite of ongoing corruption and other controversies. And in breathing new life into the world, People Power Bombshell is thus exemplary of a cinema that can bring about social change.

What is most fascinating, then, is that new cinema, in the form of a rose (red, yellow, pink or blue – as per the blue tint that Joseph Cornell typically added to Rose Hobart by projecting the film through blue glass), flowers where old cinema is thought to have died – east of Borneo, in the Sulu Sea that separates Borneo from the Philippines.

This creates a kind of paradox: this is both cinema but also not cinema, a new cinema born from the old cinema, a cinema that is also a non-cinema – much as Adrian D Mendizabal suggests People Power Bombshell features non-images here.

Indeed, the film shows the original reels from 1986 converted to digital images, but which have not been cleaned up or restored, but which wear on their sleeves the rot and ravage of time. Akin to the work of Bill Morrison, then, Torres’ film sees glitches and imperfections in the aged image not as faults, but precisely as expressive forces in the film – which becomes visually arresting, hard to read, but truly beautiful as a result.

What is more, as flowers grow from the ruins of cinema, so do begin to think of the film as being like another plant form, the rush. For, being made up not so much of finished sequences as rushes, People Power Bombshell sees the rushes grow green, suggesting a sort of amphibian cinema that rises from the depths – again giving testimony to the power of life to continue in spite of the death of any individuals.

Yongchun Fu, Maria Elena Indelicato and Zitong Qiu refer to recent Chinese blockbusters that are aimed at global audiences and which sometimes even involve western stars, such as The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, USA/China/Hong Kong/Australia, Canada, 2016) as Huallywood – named after huaxia, or China, from the character 華, or hua.

However, perhaps we might make a semi-pun and suggest that this flowering cinema that blooms out of the ruins of the old cinema is also a different kind of Huallywood, but this time based on 花/hua, which is the Chinese for flower. Huallywood is cinema as a flower, which does not cut and shoot in the violent way that traditional (western) cinema does, but which produces new life from cuttings and shoots that grow upwards even amongst the ruins of the Third World.

In her recent Ex-Centric Cinema: Giorgio Agamben and Film Archaeology, Janet Harbord suggests that cinema is less about movement and scenes in which people set out to achieve pre-established goals via recognised and recognisable means, but more about gestures and bodies that move in strange and peculiar ways, which themselves affect us in ways that we cannot predict.

In this way, cinema in its commodified, mainstream form is about controlling bodies. But a cinema that moves away from itself (an ‘ex-centric cinema,’ which is not far removed from what I have – including in relation to Philippine cinema – called ‘non-cinema‘), sees bodies set free, as new life is breathed into them and where like a flower they flow.

Being made up of sometimes indiscernible, sometimes random and sometimes striking images, People Power Bombshell becomes a cinema that, in Harbord’s language,

deactivate[s] the smooth flow of commodity images. Cut, removed, repositioned and replayed, the naturalised sequences of ideal bodies and lifestyles become jagged-edged, unruly, uncomfortable to watch… In contrast to the perfect surface of the commodity image as it is put into circulation, the cinematic image comes to bear the marks of its exhibition, or to put it a different way around, it loses the sheen of its status as fixed record and moves into a zone where recording and transmission become indiscernible… [This is] the exhibition of cinema’s materiality as it surfaces in celluloid, video tape and digital video discs. In the glitches, sparkle and crackle that pattern the images… the commodity is subjected to the registration of its history, to contingency, finitude and decay. (Harbord 2016: 102-103)

In other words, in its very imperfection, the image demonstrates that the cinematic image is not eternal, unchanging and fixed forever – an eternity that is part and parcel of its power, in that only gods can stop time and are eternal, and if cinema is a commodity that has no flaws, then cinema as a commodity becomes, or at least aspires to be, god. That is the world of commodities, the world of capitalism.

In showing us that cinema, like the world, changes, and that it even dies… we learn to understand that life goes on, that things need not and will not remain the same, and that other worlds are possible.

May seven billion more flowers bloom on the ruins of cinema-capital and in the realm of non-cinema.

Many thanks to Aperture Asia & Pacific Film Festival for screening the film at the Close-Up Film Centre in London.

Trying to comprehend Trump, Jacksonville, fake news, the World Cup and Crimea: Gaamer/Gamer (Oleg Sentsov, Ukraine, 2011)

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized

It is perhaps strange to write a post about a film that is now seven years old.

However, I wanted to discuss Gamer, which I saw this week while staying in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, for a number of reasons – a couple of which are complicated by the deaths of three people, including shooter David Katz, at a gaming convention in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, this week.

Gamer tells the story of Alex, or Lyosha, whose gaming nickname is Koss (Vladislav Zhuk). He lives in a small town in Ukraine where he ditches school and shuns the company of others in order to spend his time playing Quake.

He is sufficiently good at the game that he progresses from his small town, Simferopol, to Kyiv and all the way to Los Angeles in the USA, where he comes second in a world championship.

However, this success seems to mean little to Koss, who remains affectless throughout more or less the whole film. As a younger gamer, Kopchick, comes to replace him as the leading gamer in his home town, Koss instead begins to find dignity in helping his mother (Zhanna Biryuk) work in a shop – with one reviewer commenting that this leads him to smile for the very first time in the film.

A movie about a kid who plays truant naturally recalls François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups/The 400 Blows (France, 1959), with director Oleg Sentsov being wise to this point of comparison by having his movie end with a freeze frame on Koss – much as Truffaut’s ends with a freeze frame on Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud).

But more than this, the film is also striking for the way in which it, like many a film from the French New Wave, takes to the streets, mixing documentary and fiction as the film involves real gamers and footage taken from real-world gaming tournaments.

Shot on an estimated budget of US$20,000, the film also involves direct sound, long takes in real locations and various other tropes that suggest the economic realism of cinema. By ‘economic realism,’ I mean that the less money one has as a filmmaker, the more one is likely to be pushed into the direction of long takes in order to save on time and money for set-ups.

But this is not a deficiency. On the contrary, it is a strength of the film that it does this, since the resulting intrusion of the real world (hence realism) into an otherwise fictional story is precisely what makes Gamer and numerous other films like it all the more powerful.

Indeed, it is the presence of the real world alongside the fantastic and violent world of Quake, from which we see a few play-throughs, that makes of the film an interesting investigation into the nature of gaming and virtual worlds in the present era – especially in a context like that of the contemporary Ukraine.

It is interesting how in games, the presence of cut-scenes would suggest that the medium aspires in some senses to become cinema. That is, games aspire to have the cultural clout of cinema, even if gaming is a larger industry than cinema worldwide.

Indeed, the cut scene, as well as the exemplary play-through, or the automatic action replay that takes place in some games when one performs a virtuoso bit of skill (or scores a goal) would suggest that the ‘best’ bits of games, and that towards which we should all aspire, become games not for us to play, but videos for us to watch.

In other words, gaming involves a logic of becoming image, or becoming cinema – since to become cinema bespeaks power, elevating the person out of the human realm and into the divine and supposedly eternal realm of the image, or light.

Given the presence of such ‘cut scenes’ in Sentsov’s film, one might suggest that Koss also aspires to become cinema, and to transcend his earthly identity, as marked by his change of names, precisely from Lyosha to Koss.

What is more, since such virtual images are placed alongside ‘mundane’ shots of everyday life, the effect is to suggest that the power of Gamer resides precisely in its not aspiring to be cinematic, but to express something like the outside of cinema, or what in my more academic writings I have termed non-cinema, and which may be something like reality itself.

That is, Gamer as a film charts Koss’ transition from aspiring to being cinematic (even if via gaming), a process that he finds ultimately hollow, and which is set against the smile that he achieves by becoming not cinematic, to his reconnecting with the real world (getting a job in a shop and working with his mum, who herself is also a translator/academic whose job does not pay enough for her to survive, suggesting that critical thinking is undervalued and discouraged in the contemporary world).

Notably, Gamer is also punctuated by other ‘cinematic’ moments during which a brightly lit Koss can be seen turning to the camera as dreamy music plays. A sort of set of fantasy sequences, these moments made me think that Lyosha was dreaming of an absent father – whom we never see and who is not even mentioned during the course of the film.

That is, Lyosha’s aspirations to be cinematic are also about him finding his father: to achieve success, to be famous, to become an image – these are all things that we are encouraged to achieve in our patriarchal and capitalist society (to ‘be someone’/to be ‘a man’ is our father, the thing that we pray for… and not to achieve it is to be a loser, perhaps not even to be human – as many a victim of cyber bullying might testify).

And so, as Lyosha ditches his cybernetic ambitions as Koss, and as he reconnects with the real world by taking a humble and dignified job in a shop as Lyosha, so does he also reconnect with his mother and a more feminine world.

Arguably this means that the film essentialises femininity as earthly and wise or some such. Nonetheless, it still means that the film’s story – together with its ‘realistic’ aesthetic – suggests a rejection of patriarchy and the myth of becoming cinema that lies at the heart of the contemporary capitalist world. Non-cinema is the way forward in a society dominated by the aesthetics and politics of cinema, or the aesthetics and politics of spectacle.

At one point we see Koss look through a window at his school and, using a speck of dirt on the window as a would-be rifle sight, he imagines shooting his fellow pupils.

Notably this moment takes place through the medium of a window. That is, Koss sees the real world through the medium of a separating screen rather than being directly in touch with it. And it is this separating screen that allows him to indulge his violent dreams, with violence itself being part of the logic of the cinematic world, in which we also repeatedly see violent images on screen, especially when playing a game like Quake.

Without wishing to pathologise the deeds of David Katz in Jacksonville this week, it is perhaps precisely because of the warping screen that media create, distorting our vision, that we humans go crazy and carry out violent deeds both in a simultaneous and paradoxical bid to become image (I become famous even if only as a murderer) and to destroy rivals who are seeking also to become image (Katz killing rival gamers, a crime that reveals the way in which the competition to become famous/cinematic perhaps necessarily involves violence, meaning that the murders are oddly and upsettingly a logical extension of the world in which gaming conventions take place – even if of course the absolute vast majority of gamers are wonderful, generous and loving people).

But more than the events of this week, Gamer benefits from a brief comparison with Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2018), another film that is about gaming and gaming culture, and which is one of the biggest box office successes of the year so far.

Indeed, where Gamer reportedly made only US$2,696 at the box office, Ready Player One has made US$582,018,455 worldwide. It is perhaps no coincidence that the film with the major special effects, the fast cutting rate and the conventional hero logic (replete with manic pixie dream girl who is there to help the hero to become a man) should make so much money. For, Ready Player One is patriarchy writ large.

Not only is it patriarchy writ large, but it also is an indulgence in nostalgia for the values of cinema, with a kind of weird fantasy posited at the end that maybe not all humans should spend all of their time playing games (or living in what the film calls the Oasis).

Aside from how closing the Oasis for a day a week would be commercial suicide (as other companies replace it by leaving their virtual worlds open 24:7, which is to say nothing of how to regulate different time zones into this fantasy logic), Ready Player One suggests that the Matrix is not something of which we should be fearful, but that being in the Matrix is great.

More than this, it also indulges a fantasy scenario in which the world of gaming really involves a sort of political activism (even though there are no hackers here), as ‘rebel’ gamers take on the corporate gamers in order to take/retain control of the Oasis.

(Forgive me; I am assuming some familiarity with Ready Player One, rather than explaining everything about it in too much detail. I sort of hope that readers can fill in the gaps if they have not seen the film; it really is all quite predictable.)

The point to make here, though, is that gaming is not rebellious, even if one believes that it is. Indeed, Katz is doing nothing more than committing an act of murder in taking the logic of the game (to ‘win’ by all means possible) outside of the game and into the real world. Indeed, gaming is always to, ahem, play into the hands of power (at least in the way that I am describing it here; I am sure that this view of gaming-as-patriarchy does not and should not always hold – except insomuch as it applies to patriarchal games, which not all games necessarily are, just as not all films are patriarchal; indeed some can be non-cinema, as per my argument above and elsewhere).

Here we come to perhaps the crux of my argument.

For as Gamer presents to us a vision of gaming as separating us from a real world with which we might do well to reconnect, so does Ready Player One suggest to us that gaming and virtual worlds are politically progressive.

To ditch digital culture and to ‘get back to reality’ naturally sounds like a conservative position. It involves a rejection of the novel possibilities that new technologies allow. To embrace those new technologies, meanwhile, sounds progressive, rebellious, young and hip.

And yet I am going to suggest that Gamer is a far more progressive film than Ready Player One. And this is not only because Gamer is not always-already creating spectacles for the purposes of making money/capital. That is, it is not simply because Gamer is not cinema but non-cinema.

However, in order to explain this point properly – and thus to explain the topsy-turvy-seeming logic of a kind of technological conservatism as progressive over a technological utopianism as progressive – we need to think about what has subsequently happened to the director of Gamer, Oleg Sentsov.

If you wander around Kyiv today, you will see numerous posters demanding that Oleg Sentsov be freed.

For, the #SaveOlegSentsov movement started when Sentsov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2014 on charges of terrorism against the Russian state and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Widely purported to be fake charges, Sentsov nonetheless was supposedly, according to Verity Healey, coordinating ‘relief efforts to help Ukrainian soldiers barricaded into their barracks by the Russian military.’

Sentsov’s reasons for doing this are that in 2014, Sentsov’s native Crimea, which includes Simferopol and which at that point in time was part of Ukraine, was ‘annexed’ by Russia – and which move remains to this day the cause of combat between the Ukrainian and the Russian militaries.

In late 2013 and into 2014, thousands of Ukrainians poured into and occupied the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv in protest against, among other things, the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to withdraw Ukraine from signing agreements with the European Union – preferring instead to cement ties with Russia.

After police violence against the protestors, which involved c130 deaths (with Ukrainians referring to the victims as the Heavenly Hundred), Yanukovych was toppled and an interim government set up.

During the instability that followed (not least because some Ukrainians would prefer to side with Russia than to join Europe), Russia annexed Crimea – and during this period Sentsov suspended shooting his second feature film, Rhino, in order to take part in the EuroMaidan and then to protest the annexation.

Sentsov has since his arrest allegedly been tortured and ‘left to die‘ by Vladimir Putin after the filmmaker began a hunger strike while the rest of the world decided to forget about reality and to celebrate Russia as a result of its wonderful hosting of the 2018 Football World Cup.

In other words, for Sentsov active participation in the world is more important than filmmaking. Reality is more important than media. And while we watch spectacles like cinema, games and soccer, people are fighting and dying in an unofficial war over Ukrainian territory.

Let’s ratchet this blog up a bit.

As the UK’s England side, with its rather unremarkable Won 3 Drew 1 Lost 3 record, progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup, numerous memes began to circulate, often accompanied by the song ‘Three Lions’ by Skinner & Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, and which encouraged England fans finally to ‘believe.’

What they ‘believed’ was that football might – after 52 years – ‘come home,’ in the sense that it has been 52 years since England last won a major international tournament (the 1966 Football World Cup), and in the sense that the English believe that they invented football since they were the first to formalise an enjoyable sport into a violent, money-making spectacle that today leads many human beings to be trafficked (as per Soka Africa, Suridh Hassan, UK, 2011), which is not mention alleged sexual abuse conspiracies within the sport and other human rights abuses that take place as a result of the sport.

It is interesting that the response of England fans to their team’s perceived success and possible chances of winning the tournament were framed by the word ‘belief.’ Football is not about being the better team, but about believing that one can win. But not on the part of the players, but perhaps especially the fans (which is not to rule out some irony in a good number of the memes, suggesting that people did not really believe that a mediocre England team could at all be the best in the world).

More than this, that belief is spurred on not just by the performance of a football team and its fans, but also by the plethora of media artefacts that circulate around it (and I’d like to write a blog at some point about Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat and the role that it played in both creating that sense of belief, but also ultimately in betraying that belief as false).

That is, what we believe – what we consider to be real and true – is shaped by media. Hence it is that the pages and pages of British media covering men in shorts running around a grass field create a sense in which that sport is more important to many human beings than lives in Ukraine, where a covert war is taking place – simply because the British media do not cover it. (Perhaps rather than cover it, they cover it up.)

So while Sentsov was protesting the World Cup, England fans got all excited because they managed to stick six goals past a weak Panamanian side and score a few penalties. Sentsov could, in effect, go hang as far as the England fans were concerned; they were having far too much fun on Russian soil to want to think about serious matters like politics.

Indeed, if anything, the UK with its Brexit vote would seem to side with Yanukovych in wanting to be shot of the European Union.

More than this. The UK, with the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in a bid to shape what American voters consider to be real and true, seems increasingly to be the plaything of Russia, which itself seems increasingly likely also to have been involved in shaping what American voters consider to be real and true, and which thus led to the election of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America.

You may think that I am going too far and that this all sounds far too conspiracy theory-like.

But the point that I wish to make is that to embrace technological progress as unthinkingly and uncritically wonderful (Ready Player One) is to lead towards the post-truth world of digital fake news that characterises the contemporary era. Hipster rebellion is not rebellion; giving up games and filmmaking in order to fight for something that one truly believes in… is properly to lead a political life – even if that just means making human connections and working a modest but dignified life in a shop (Gamer).

Note that what I do not mean by evoking fake news is that Russian involvement in American politics is not true. On the contrary, we must critically examine what has happened if we are to work out the truth. But what the world of fake news does politically is that it allows everyone to be precisely uncritical and to dismiss as ‘fake’ that which simply does not please them.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant realities of a film director undergoing hunger strike in a Russian prison in order to prefer the spectacle framed by ‘belief’ of a football team doing well at a World Cup.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant possibility that we are all being manipulated by media in order to manage our perceptions. It is, à la Ready Player One, to prefer the Matrix to reality – reality not as something that lies beyond our attempts to find out exactly what it is, but reality as precisely our attempts to discover it. Reality as critical thinking and ongoing thought, rather than the matrix of no critical thought, a loss of human connection, a loss of humanity, a world of docile reception in which the only actions possible seem not to be ones of love (making human connections), but ones of violence against other human beings (murder) because one does not believe those humans (or perhaps anything) to be real. We love what we consider to be real, or rather what we love is what we consider to be real, and we love images more than humans. And yet to love should be to love humans (and perhaps images, too – but not only the images that one a priori loves; to love is to love what one does not love; to love is to love unconditionally; to love is only to love and not to love and to hate; to love and to hate is really just an excuse to hate).

In rejecting gaming, Gamer, then, tries unlike Ready Player One to take us back to the human realm (even if the hero of Spielberg’s film gets the one-dimensional girl and takes a day off gaming every week in a pseudo-effort to placate the notion that living in a fantasy world might not be all that it is cracked up to be).

Even if Ukraine cannot officially be at war with Russia, and if in this sense it must always already be complicit with the precedence of images over reality (no country can join NATO or the EU if at war, and so if Ukraine wants to join either of these institutions, it cannot be officially at war), we can nonetheless bear in mind that the fate of a Ukrainian filmmaker in Russia is still connected to Trump, Putin, the World Cup, fake news and the murders that took place in Jacksonville. And that Oleg Sentsov’s Gamer can help us to make sense of how this is so.

Understanding that this is so might be key to helping us not simply to accept by forgetting the corruption and the violence of the contemporary world, but also to believe in and thus to help create a better world. To believe not just that England might once again be ‘great’ (a true conservatism expressed through digital media and in the Brexit vote), but to believe that we can live in a world that ignores the divisive mechanisms of nations and nationality and which is based upon the shared humanity and life of our fellow human (and other) beings. To believe not in the patriarchal matrix of a society of control, but to believe in and to act towards a world of liberty and self-determination.

You can watch Gamer on the website for the International Film Festival Rotterdam for US$4. Money goes towards supporting Sentsov’s case.

F for Fake: Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, Malta/USA, 2017)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

One of the key scenes in Murder on the Orient Express involves Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) exposing Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) as a fake Austrian scientist as a result of his failure correctly to pronounce Turin. Hardman – if that is his real name – pronounces it TURin, whereas a genuine Austrian, as Poirot reminds us, would have pronounced it TurIN.

Given the importance that the film places upon pronunciation as a sign of authenticity, it is notable that on two occasions we hear the Belgian sleuth incorrectly pronounce the plural of the French word for eggs. The singular, œuf, involves the pronunciation of the f: ‘urf.’ However, when said in the plural, French speakers drop the f sound and say ‘uh’: des œufs (‘des uh’). Poirot, however, on both occasions persists incorrectly with the f and says ‘urfs.’

If it is an incorrect pronunciation that exposes Hardman’s act, then by the same token Poirot’s incorrect pronunciation exposes his own act. That is, if it is because he cannot correctly pronounce words that Hardman is revealed as not Hardman, then because he cannot correctly pronounce words, Poirot is similarly revealed as not Poirot. In other words, it is because of an f that the Poirot of Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as a fake.

What are we to make of this?

On a primary level, we can simply say that it is an error that any actor (here, Kenneth Branagh) might make when saying words in a language that is not his own. That is, the slip is meaningless – the sort of slip that should not be the basis of an entire argument about the film.

But, given that the film itself involves sleuthing based upon such slips, then by the film’s own standards, we can mount a case against the film as a result of its linguistic inaccuracies. If Hardman’s slip is deliberate, in the sense that it provides a clue as to the real nature of what it is that we are witnessing, then so must we read Branagh/Poirot‘s slip as deliberate.


Hercule Poirot finds himself on a train where 12 people have gathered ritually to murder a man (Edward Ratchett/John Cassetti, played by Johnny Depp) who himself abducted and killed a child in the USA some time prior to the titular train journey taking place. Each has a link to the victim and the victim’s family – and each is sufficiently devastated by the original murder that they are willing to take part in the murder from which the novel – and subsequently the film – takes its name.

The film presents to us as if it is by chance that Poirot happens to be on the titular train. Indeed, the murderers would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for the pesky Poirot’s presence – and an avalanche that happens to keep the train stuck for a day or more near Brod, in what at the time of the film’s setting (1934) was the recently formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and which today finds itself in the Muslim-majority country of Kosovo.

But what are the odds that all of these people with a connection to Cassetti happen to be on the same train – at precisely the same time that the world’s greatest detective happens to be there, too?

As the odds are extremely slim that so many people with connections to Cassetti can be on the same train as him by chance, so, too, are the odds slim that Poirot would be on the same train as all of these people and as Cassetti by chance.

Indeed, as it is not by chance that all of these same people are on the same train as Cassetti (they are here specifically to murder him), so might it also not be by chance that Poirot is on the same train. For, as Hardman is not Hardman, so is this Poirot not Hercule Poirot.

Instead, as indicated by his fake f, this Poirot is in fact an actor playing the part of Hercule Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – precisely so that he can uncover the crime and then use his credentials as a great moral arbitrator in order to excuse those who commit the murder of Cassetti.

That is, this Poirot is not on the train by chance, but, like all of the 12 perpetrators, he is equally on the train as a result of engineering. This Poirot is there not just to uncover the murder, but to justify the murder. He is part of the plot to allow murder to happen justifiably. For if the world believes that even Hercule Poirot allows these people to get away with murder, then everyone will allow these people to get away with murder. It is necessary to fake Poirot’s presence in order to justify murder.

But why do this?

On one level, this must be done in order to keep the train’s owner, Bouc (Tom Bateman), at bay. Where Bouc might otherwise blow a whistle about the murder, thanks to Poirot’s presence and his condonement of the killing, Bouc will keep quiet and let the killing happen ‘in peace.’ Bouc thus is a kind of bouc émissaire, or scapegoat, for the murder – not because Bouc literally takes the rap for what happens, but because Bouc’s naïve belief in the fake Poirot reconfirms (the fake) Poirot’s (fake) verdict that the killers are justified in their actions.

Except that Bouc specifically invites Poirot to take the train when Poirot is called to London to investigate the Kassner case. That is, Bouc is necessary in order to corroborate that this curious man whom we see is Hercule Poirot, while at the same time providing the necessary setting for the murder to take place. Bouc is in on it, too.

It is not simply that Poirot is part of the plot to murder Cassetti, then. It may even be that Poirot – this fake Poirot – is the mastermind behind the plot, a man playing the role of the Belgian detective in order to allow a murder to happen that he himself will expose and then condone precisely so that it takes place without consequence.

What evidence do we really have that Ratchett is Cassetti? None. That is, we have 12 liars who insist that this man is Cassetti, a child murderer who was never caught and the evidence for whose crime is never revealed to us. And then we have the word of a fake Poirot, whose explanations of the crime may be ingenious – but they explain to us neither who has been killed nor why.

Murder in Yugoslavia, or more specifically Kosovo, is therefore justified by the word of a fake authority. Indeed, because of the authority of a fake Belgian who justifies it, it becomes the perfect murder. Collective murder is perfect.

At the outset of the film, we see Poirot asking for the eggs that are the centre of this argument. Four minutes, he says, which presumably means that Poirot likes his eggs with a bit of unboiled snot in them given that five minutes is in my experience the best time to achieve a soft-boiled egg – give or take 30 seconds depending on the size of the egg.

(Furthermore, the boiling point of water falls with decreasing atmospheric pressure, and so it takes longer to cook an egg when one is at a higher altitude, since the boiling water there is not as hot and thus not as speedy a cooking medium as it would be at sea level.)

Having received two eggs that simply by appearance he does not like, the fake Poirot dismisses them and demands two more, which duly arrive.

Poirot (the fake Poirot) then takes out a ruler and measures the eggs, even though the eggs are visibly not the same size.

What is more, having dismissed the initial pair of eggs, he now accepts the second set of eggs, even though they are visibly disparate – and even though measuring them will not help him to know whether they have been boiled for the four required minutes.

In other words, first the insistence, then the refusal and then the nonsensical measurements are carried out in order to convince those around him (and we viewers) that this man is Hercule Poirot, the sort of man who would do such nitpicking. But of course, this is simply a performance by an impostor.

When Poirot makes it on to the Orient Express, he is served two much more equally-sized eggs for breakfast by the train steward Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari). How Michel knows to prepare the eggs this way is not revealed to us – and this is Poirot’s first experience on the titular train. In other words, Michel would seem already somehow to know Poirot. And Michel will eventually be revealed as yet another part of the plot to kill Ratchett, whom the murderers also claim to be Cassetti.

What is more, when Ratchett endeavours to employ Poirot to protect him from what he senses is imminent danger, Poirot (the fake Poirot) refuses – in part because he does not like Ratchett’s face.

In other words, not only would it seem that Poirot (the fake Poirot) is known in advance to at least one – but perhaps more – of the criminals who murder Ratchett. But it would also seem that Poirot himself has something against Ratchett. Perhaps it is for this reason that this detective who jumps up and who leaves his berth upon the slightest sound also somehow manages to sleep through 12 humans piling into a berth, stabbing a man and leaving again… because he also was a part of it.

But then who is this fake Poirot?

When the fake Poirot arrives at Istanbul train station with Bouc, he is told that there is no room left on the train – and that he therefore cannot travel in spite of his friend Bouc’s promise that he can.

At the last minute, however, someone suggests that an Englishman named Harris has not made it on time to catch the train. Passengers must arrive 30 minutes before departure, otherwise they forfeit their right to travel – and Harris has not arrived before departure and therefore cannot travel.

What has happened to Harris? Harris may have forgotten or missed his train. Or, given that Harris was otherwise booked on to a train where all of the passengers and even some of the staff members know each other, as an outsider he has been conveniently forced to miss the train – so as not to disrupt the murder that is about to take place (Harris is the victim of a second, earlier murder?).

Or, more simply, Harris does take the train. For the man who claims to be Hercule Poirot is really an Englishman called Harris, hence his inability correctly to pronounce the plural for eggs in French (des œufs/des ‘uh’).

Perhaps it is for this reason that MacQueen (Josh Gad) initially expresses surprise at seeing Harris/Poirot – for he does not recognise his friend in disguise, prompting Harris/Poirot to express his own dismay at MacQueen’s appearance. That is, Harris is indirectly expressing his own disappointment at having to look like Hercule Poirot.

Everything that follows is persiflage, pure show, or simply noise like the whistle of a train (per-siffle-age), including a somewhat nonsensical ‘action’ sequence in which Poirot chases MacQueen along a wooden bridge.

Indeed, this would explain the highly theatrical opening of the film, too, in which the fake Poirot supposedly solves the case of a missing treasure of which a rabbi (Elliot Levey), a priest (David Annen) and an imam (Joseph Long) are accused of stealing.

The fake Poirot himself points out that this is almost a joke scenario to the assembled crowd, who for some reason accept that a trial can or should take place in the open air and under the authority of a fake detective hired by the British government. That is, the trial is indeed a joke.

For, it becomes immediately obvious that there are not just the three religious men involved in this case, since the fake Poirot quickly explains to us that the last person to see the triumvirate was the British Police Chief Inspector (Michael Rouse).

We are told that Poirot (the fake Poirot) solves this crime as a result of a mark left by a shoe on a painting that lines the wall beneath the treasure. But far more simple a solution is to include among the suspects the very man who has known to accuse these three religious figures in the first place.

In other words, the ‘trial’ at the film’s opening is a pure show, a sham that is also put on in order to convince the assembled crowd and we viewers that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot.

The Chief Inspector supposedly steals the treasure, but it seems more logical to this viewer that the crime itself is a set-up so that the trial can be staged and so that the fake Poirot can be inserted into the story world.

That is, the fake Poirot is really engineered by the British – not to sort out who is responsible for the looting of valuables in Jerusalem (where the film opens), but in order to justify the British looting of valuables from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Empire.

Supposedly called to London for the Kassner case, the British have in fact set Harris up as Poirot so that he can go on to the Orient Express to mastermind and then to justify the murder of Ratchett.

Why do this? Because Ratchett, too, is involved in the business of buying and selling antiques, including fake ones. That is, Ratchett wants to get involved in the very same racket that the British are operating throughout their Empire: stealing antiquities and replacing them with fakes that are sold at high cost.

As an upstart possible competitor, Ratchett must naturally be neutralised – otherwise the claims to power of the British will be exposed as fake. The Empire will be exposed as fake, its pretences to power merely an illusion staged to fool the assembled crowds that its figures of authority (the so-called Poirot) are in fact more powerful than their religious authorities (the rabbi, the priest and the imam).

Only two people will know the identity of the murderer, says the fake Poirot: God and Hercule Poirot. But if Hercule Poirot does not exist, then God may not exist. Or if Hercule Poirot is fake, then God may also be fake. That is, all who claim to be authorities on this Earth are fake, actors in a spectacle that is put on in order to create the illusion of power and in order to convince the spectators to believe in that illusory power.

(It is by this token important that the fake Poirot exposes corruption among the occupying British forces – the supposedly criminal Chief Inspector. In doing so, the fake Poirot would claim to show that the British bring their own people to justice – in the process covering over how the system of Empire will itself never be brought to justice. That is, the small crime is used as a mask for the massive crime that is taking place in broad daylight: the undermining and replacement of the local figures of authority for the purposes of ransacking the territory that the forces of Empire are infiltrating.)

Given the presence among the perpetrators on the train of three to five further Americans – MacQueen, the fake Hardman, Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr), the fake Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and the fake Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) – it would appear that the British are not alone in ransacking the rest of the world.

Let us not also forget the Russians, including Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), who seems expressly to take pleasure in the murder (as well as being prone to violence in general).

The group is rounded out by naturalised Americans Biniamino Marquez (Manuel García-Rulfo) and Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), as well as British citizens with strong American ties, including Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi), as well as Jewish émigrée Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman).

In other words, the major world powers are all united in a front to frame and to justify the murder of a man, Ratchett, whose crime is to seek to get involved in their game. Whose crime is to seek also to be a criminal. And who for his effrontery is branded a child abductor and murderer such that his assassination for theft and the peddling of fakes becomes morally justified.

When the fake Poirot performs his charade of egg inspection before a young boy (Yasine Zeroual), the fake Poirot explains that the disparity in size is not the fault of the eggs, but of the chicken. Or rather, that it is an inexplicable mystery.

To what end this prologue, which does not appear in the novel?

Perhaps Branagh is trying to tell us that as no two eggs are the same, so are a film and a novel not the same. That is, one can never get the original to match the copy. And so Branagh is suggesting from the very beginning that this is a fake version of Agatha Christie’s story that we are watching – and that it would be pointless to try to get the one to match the other.

Similarly, the film’s opening by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem does not happen in the novel, which rather opens in Aleppo, and which sees Poirot travel by train (on the Taurus Express) to Istanbul, rather than by boat (as happens in this film).

We have already established how the film’s opening takes place simply for show – in the sense that it is a show designed to convince the world that this fake Poirot is the real Poirot and that the British are thus justified in their dominion over Jerusalem (which of course the British celebrate as being theirs whenever they patriotically sing the hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ as written by William Blake, to whom we shall return shortly).

But here the opening, with its overhead shots and its supposedly reliable flashbacks to the dispute between the rabbi, the imam and the priest, are all designed to convince us not just of the authority of the fake Poirot, but of the authority of the film.

This is especially clear in the fake Poirot’s illusory ability to predict the movements of the Chief Inspector. Firstly, he sends a guard to stand at the south gate in advance of denouncing the supposedly corrupt policeman, while also placing in the wall his walking stick, which eventually the fleeing Police Inspector will run into.

But this miraculous ability to predict the future is not so much magic as simply stage management: it is easy to seem to predict the future when it has been prearranged in advance for the policeman to go to the south gate and then to run into the walking stick.

In other words, the film wants us to believe in the power and authority of the film, when all of this is really staged, a fake that is a far cry from Christie’s novel. This is not Murder on the Orient Express that we are watching, but a fake film created by an impostor.

Put differently, cinema as a whole is an illusion machine that is used to give authority to those who peddle it. Like Ratchett, of whom the fake Poirot and his friends must get rid, cinema passes off fakes as if real, making handsome profits in the process while also stealing real local treasures via Empire, and as rendered here through the use in this film of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.

Which of course is not the real Wailing Wall, but a fake filmed in Malta.

More than this. As the fake Poirot is put into motion in order to justify the murder of Ratchett, so is cinema put into motion in order to justify murder more generally. As the disappearance of Ratchett is a conspiracy between the British, the Russians, the Americans and various naturalized Americans, so is the disappearance of Aleppo, for example, a conspiracy that is made to look like a struggle between the major world powers.

The point that I wish to make is not specifically about Aleppo, nor Palestine which was the nation in which Jerusalem resided at the time in which the film is set.

Rather, I am using Aleppo and Palestine here as examples of Empire and the role that cinema plays in the continuation of Empire. In bringing this fake magic trick to the world, the power of those who create cinema is justified.

The film regularly features extended sequences filmed from the exterior of the train, such that the train itself becomes a ‘character’ in the film. We might venture further yet, though, and suggest that it is not simply as if the train itself were a key player in the events that are unfolding, but as if the train demanded these events.

That is, the train is like cinema a tool for the creation of modernity. And what is modernity? Modernity is the creation of a system of power whereby some use the trickery of technology in order to demonstrate their power over others, whom they then ransack in order to consolidate their power – a perfect feedback loop of empowerment.

But this empowerment of some over others also involves the disempowerment of others for the benefit of some. This disempowerment is in effect murder. As a human seeking to become god kills others in order to use their life force and blood in order to prolong, increase and perhaps render permanent their own, so does modernity involve the sacrifice of many to sate the claims to divinity that a few are trying to make.

Naturally, anyone who sees through this fakery and who aims to achieve their own power must be removed – hence the murder of Ratchett. Revolution, or not to believe the proclaimed divinity of those who would have power, and to seek to establish via the same means one’s own power, similarly requires suppression, or else power will not be consolidated but distributed.

(It would seem all too human for humans to seek to become gods.)

In order for power to take on magic qualities that reinforce its power (power as appearance), power also seeks to hide its origin. As the projector from which images originate is hidden in the cinema, so is the provenance of power generally hidden. Power comes as if from nowhere, via sleight of hand. It is magical. And thus its authority is not to denied since it is beyond the ken of other, uninformed humans.

The status of Murder on the Orient Express as a Maltese-American co-production, then, functions as a means to hide the film’s own source of power (and that of cinema more generally). This is a film that comes from a ‘small’ place (Malta), but which really just reaffirms the big interests of cinema (Hollywood) – with Malta itself a screen enabled by the tax breaks that drew the production to it in the first place, and which tax breaks function as an invitation to under-pay local, Maltese workers, thereby justifying under-payment and exploitation as a whole.

What is more, as Malta functions as the home of an infamous Masonic order, and as small islands generally function as tax havens, or what the recent leak of documents would confirm to be ‘paradises’ on Earth (or what Nicholas Shaxson further defines as islands of [stolen] treasure), so does the presence of Malta in this production function as a means of burying treasure, turning theft into an illusion – something the reality of which cannot be proven, and which therefore is both godly and not real. To believe in it is to be an insane conspiracist. To be part of it is never to be discovered.

This is how Empire functions: power is nominally regulated through the creation of taxation systems, with the powerful then placing themselves outside of the jurisdiction of such regulation. Regular humans who are too stupid to be crooks are punished for their honesty (their money is stolen from them, and they receive next to nothing in return), while the so-called gods are never punished for breaking the rules that they impose upon other people.

(Europe/the West must be defended from Islam by the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta, a specifically Christian group that aims to put down the revolutionary religion of Mohammad, who is not divine but human, and so who threatens to undermine the claims to divinity of other humans. Murder in Kosovo is justified.)

And what of William Blake? The fake Poirot is called to London for the Kassner case. To what might this refer? Perhaps it refers to the work of author Rudolf Kassner, the man who translated Blake into German and who also was influenced by Laurence Sterne, whose Tristram Shandy is a novel in which fabulation becomes impossible to tell apart from truth as we are presented with illusion after illusion.

(Tristram Shandy as a deconstruction of power, and as a deconstruction of cinema avant la lettre/avant la caméra. In famously featuring a black page, Tristram Shandy renders itself antithetical to cinema, which relies upon darkness, but which cannot make darkness visible since this would be to bring to light and to humanise its otherwise invisible and would-be divine workings.)

(And so the ‘Jerusalem’ of Empire is not the real Jerusalem; it is a fake, builded elsewhere in England. But in building that fake Christian as opposed to that multi-faith Jerusalem, so are the dark Satanic mills of Empire put into motion.)

It is a kind of Blakean demonic energy that Ron Rosenbaum attributes to Adolf Hitler in a bid to explain his ascent to power – as if Hitler were the ultimate revolutionary little man born to rob power back from the gods in which he did not believe, and who thus provoked global war as the gods naturally demanded his blood to prove that Hitler was human as Hitler demanded blood to transcend his humanity and to become a god. With their nuclear light, the winners of the war demonstrated that they verily were gods.

The fake Poirot is perhaps, then, called to investigate the rise of Hitler and the role that literature, translation and perhaps even cinema played in that rise. Hitler is one more upstart, like Ratchett, whom the fake Poirot and his British, American and Russian friends must help to put down in order to perpetuate the balance of power as is. America, Britain and Russia may squabble over who has most power between them, but these squabbles merely cover over the bigger question of why they have power at all. They are a cinematic show that plays out so that people believe in their divinity as they rob the world of its treasures, selling back fakes to make yet more money and to consolidate all power in their own hands.

So for the sake of an f, Murder on the Orient Express is revealed as fake.

Or perhaps a simple show of ignorance on the part of Kenneth Branagh (he does not know how to pronounce his œufs) sets in chain a conspiracy theory that nonetheless reveals the very humanity and not the divinity of the world’s systems of power – and the role that cinema plays in creating and maintaining them.

Or perhaps this is just idle conspiracy theoretical fabulation, patterns where there only is chaos, and to be disproved in an ongoing apocalypse of false idols.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Ireland, 2012)

British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

So, this blog post is not really a critique of Sophie Fiennes’ film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, but more a critique of things that are said in it by its star and writer, pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

The film contains many delightful moments, with the usual interesting insight from Žižek, but ultimately I completely disagree with its core philosophy.

I think that this is summed up by Žižek towards the end of the film, when he says that each of us must realise that we are fundamentally and incontrovertibly alone in the universe.

Perhaps I take Žižek out of context slightly; he offers up our solitude as the logical consequence of there being no God.

However, I’d like to consider this matter from a slightly different angle: humans are not, to paraphrase John Donne, islands – and they cannot be so. And yet, Žižek would seem to suggest ultimately that we are all lost in our solipsistic little bubbles, with no real connection to anyone else ever happening.

While I recognise the emotion of solitude, and while I recognise the inevitability of perhaps never knowing any other human being, never being inside their head, never sharing entirely their life, I still shall argue that ultimately humans are not alone.

In effect, epistemologically speaking, humans might be alone – each knows only what each knows, and one cannot – necessarily – experience the world from without one’s own self/being (although more on this later); meanwhile, ontologically, we are not alone.

And if our ontological ‘withness’ can be accepted, then Žižek’s solipsistic worldview might be forced to crumble accordingly.

But we have to build towards this. And this is a blog post. So we shall do so as succinctly as we can and, alas, imperfectly.

How we are not alone

I lie in my bed. I feel my toes touching the end of the bed – a wooden frame. I cannot see the wooden frame, but I can feel it. I can only feel it because it is solid, and because it is supported by a floor, which itself is supported by a building, itself supported by the earth. I feel because I have a body, which itself functions as a result of blood flowing around me, which is possible in part as a result of my breathing oxygen on a planet whose atmosphere can support the life that has evolved to inhabit it. And while I may have great thoughts, even dreams, when I am on that bed, fundamentally I can only do so because I have a body, which exists on a planet whose atmosphere allows me to exist, and whose atmosphere is allowed thanks to planetary age and distance from the sun.

In other words, I am entirely embedded within a physical universe from which I cannot be separated. I am not alone.

That I speak language – any language, but in this instance English – and that I can recognise other human beings as such, as well as their emotions, is as a result of my having all my life interacted with other human beings.

A thought experiment: humans could be raised by machines, and thus human existence is not predicated upon the existence of other humans.

Indeed – it possibly true. We might run the argument of ‘who made those machines’ (although this points to the need for other humans). And we could follow the Bifo line of thought and say that humans are already raised predominantly by machines (mainly televisions) and that this machine-led life leads to humans being autistic (although this does not mean that those humans are not real humans).

But while the thought experiment is valid(-ish), the fact remains that I speak and think according to the conventions that have come about as a result of social living. I am not alone. This is what, for example, mirror neurons tell us: that humans are hard-wired to be social and sociable, to imitate and to learn from others. If Žižek did not believe this, he would not make a film to communicate with us.

Did Žižek make a film to communicate with us? (Becoming light)

I am not convinced that communication is really Žižek’s primary ambition in getting Sophie Fiennes to make this film (or in going along with Sophie Fiennes if it was she who proposed this and its predecessor, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (UK/Austria/Netherlands, 2006) to him).

This is not to say that Žižek does not communicate a plethora of interesting thoughts in his film. He does. But I think the chief rationale for Žižek to make this film is – facile though it may sound – self-promotion.

Žižek believes that we are all alone. To make a film in which he stars, and which basically features only him, would reaffirm as much. Let’s delve into this a bit more, though, because there is a nexus to be worked out that features something along the lines of cinema-neoliberalism-solipsism-Žižek, and all of which can be encapsulated under the concept of ‘becoming light.’

Becoming light is, simply put, the desire to make one’s life cinematic. It is recognisable in the highly visual culture of the contemporary world: people posting photos on Facebook, Tumblr or wherever, and which photos conform to a certain quality and style of image (often to do with warm lighting and a particular Hollywood-inspired aesthetic); people feeling alive at moments when their life conforms to moments in cinema that they have seen; people taking selfies so as to exist more as an image rather than as a flesh and blood human being – since our image is now considered the ‘real’ us ahead of the, er, real us; people desiring to transcend their real bodies to exist as light, as a star, on a silver screen; our fame and celebrity obsessed culture.

To become light, though, is also to divest oneself of a real body and to exist instead on an immaterial plane, or at least on a photonic plane – on a screen, projected to everyone.

If it is as a result of having a body that I realise that I cannot but be with the world and with other people, then it is in a desire to divest myself of my body and to become light that I dream of becoming cinematic, of existing on a plane without touch. This is falling in love with images of other people – masturbating over images of other people – as opposed to living with and being with other people (co-itus = going with other people).

The desire to live one’s life as if it were a film requires one to buy the sort of props that people in films have. This is about advertising, it is about stuff, and it is about what I shall broadly fit under the umbrella of neoliberalism: looking rich costs a lot of money, but if one does not look rich, one’s chances of becoming rich are slim – so one is forced to enter into the world of chasing material products in the pursuit of becoming rich, becoming immaterial, becoming light.

In this way, the desire to become cinema/to become light is tied to capitalism more generally, its neoliberal mode perhaps more specifically. For, if in becoming light I no longer touch anyone, I become a solipsist, living on my own.

But it is not just in becoming light that the solipsism starts. It is in the pursuit of becoming light. It is in ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘competition’ and the need to go further than anyone else to be the one who is noticed. It is a generalised need for exceptionalism. It is celebrity cult. It is the desire to be ‘famous’ at whatever cost – and better to be famous than a nobody, right?, because a nobody, paradoxically, only has their body, while a famous person has become light, has lost their body (even if dreams of sexual union with [images of] people is what drives the desire to become light).

We are all alone: this is the ethos of neoliberal capital. And it is the ethos that Slavoj Žižek also puts forward in an attempt to critique neoliberal capital. But, then again, Slavoj Žižek is saying this in a film about himself, starring himself. Of course Žižek says that we are alone at the moment when he becomes alone as a result of, finally, becoming cinema (inserting himself into movies, a kind of documented truth about set-jetting and the desire to ‘feel a bit of the magic of the movies’). Because not only is he alone, but he also sets himself apart from other people at this moment to become the celebrity that he wishes to be. Žižek wants to convince us that we are all ultimately alone because he is also at heart a stooly for the capitalist system that he otherwise proclaims to see through via his ideological critique.

Žižek’s nose

Žižek consistently touches his nose during A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (and probably in his real life). There is something a bit obscene about this; but really it is Žižek’s ‘tell’.

What he is telling us is that he is indeed a pervert, but the perversion is not based upon any desire for a true encounter with the other, the nature of which is so twisted (say he likes copraphilia, or something) that he dares not speak its name. Rather, Žižek’s darkest desire is his solipsism – that he prefers masturbation over sex with another human being.

Of course, I am not making libellous claims about the ‘real’ Slavoj Žižek. We are in the realm of a metaphorical Žižek here. But the nose in the film is of course Žižek’s (metaphorical) cock, and of course he wants us to see him touching it in public, but he does not want to put it anywhere – because he must indulge in that most solipsistic and cinema-inspired act of jizzing not in his sexual partner, but on his sexual partner, or preferably just out in the open more generally (pornography’s infamous money-shot; sex becomes display and power games rather than going with someone).

Because of course a solipsist who believes in their own exceptional nature also believes that they cannot have offspring that will match them for brilliance, and so they do not see the point in reproducing. Instead, they just masturbate in public – asking everyone to behold their priapic prowess, while in fact being, ultimately, a solipsistic wanker.

The Void

So… Here we are with Žižek now indulging himself and asking us to indulge him by watching him become light while we mortals continue to lead our bodily existence.

That we are alone, that there is at the heart of reality, the Real of the Void itself is for Žižek the ultimate truth.

But in fact there is no void. The thing that is intolerable for humans is not the emptiness of the world and our sense of underlying solitude; what humans really fear through the capitalist ideology that demands solipsism as the most successful means to gain ‘happiness’ is touch, it is others, it is withness.

In other words, the void is the invention of capitalism. The void is not what lies ‘beyond’ ideology; it is ideology itself.

What lies ‘beyond’ ideology is the Real – but it is a Real so mundane as to be beautiful. It is our bodies, usurping our intentions at every turn, it is us bumping into things, tripping up in public, knocking into each other, seeing each other, smiling when someone else smiles at us, getting angry when public transport does not bend to our will. It is the everyday experience of waking up and getting frustrated and contradicted by a world that is always more profound and complex than our mere imaginations can wonder.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not an apology for leading a dreary life. On the contrary, it is an exhortation to find life in even the most dreary moment, rather than conferring to fetishised and cinematic moments a sense of being ‘really alive’. Because alive is all that we are ever are (and when we are not alive, we are, quite literally, not).

Otherness, withness, being not alone: this is all that we ever are. And to remember and to become as conscious as possible of this is the ultimate critique that one can enact upon the capitalist ideology that has naturalised the sense of the void, that has naturalised a sense of solipsism, that has naturalised a sense of being alone in the world.

Epistemology and ontology

Of course, Žižek probably knows all of this already. And the contention will always be: but even if we are with other people, how can we know this if we cannot know other people? And if we cannot know other people, or that we are with other people, then can we really be with other people? Upon what can one base this claim? Surely one bases this claim upon, ultimately, a leap of faith. An act of faith. An act.

This is a great contention. Here’s my reply.

Firstly, there is perhaps inevitably an over-emphasis in a capitalist culture like ours on the visual: one must have visible evidence to prove the existence of an object – and without it, it is as good as non-existent.

Well, if this perspective is indeed a by-product of a capitalist ideology, it perhaps can be re-thought. That is, we can perhaps consider what constitutes evidence through an alternative framework. And that framework might be touch – we can feel that we are not alone.

Furthermore, to stick to the visible realm, it is a question of what I shall term ‘incessant excess’. Black holes: we by definition cannot see them, because light cannot escape from them. And yet we know that black holes exist. Why? Because we can see the effects that they have on all that surrounds them.

Even if we cannot see, or know, others, because they are the equivalent of an epistemological black hole, we can nonetheless feel the presence of others, we can see their effects. Perhaps we cannot see them directly, but this speaks only of a deficiency in our perceptual systems (in our ideology) more than it does in anything else.

In other words, even if others exceed our perception, and even if it is in an incessant fashion that they do this, nonetheless, the excess always allows for something to ‘inceed’ from outside – an effect, a sense, a touch – not us touching ourselves, but a touch from the other.

We are not alone.

Notes from the LFF: In film nist/This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2011, Uncategorized

On 20 December 2010, filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in Iran and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and banned from making films for 20 years.

He is not alone: plenty of other filmmakers and artists have been placed under arrest in the last 12 months and more in Iran – including this film’s co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was arrested since the completion of this project.

Before seeing This is Not a Film at this year’s London Film Festival, organiser Sandra Hebron read aloud a letter signed by various Iranian filmmakers in exile, including the whole of the Makhmalbaf family (Mohsen, Samira, Hana, and Mohsen’s wife, Marzieh Meshkini), calling for people worldwide to put pressure on the Iranian government in whatever way they can in order to release Panahi.

His crime? Being critical of the current Iranian regime, which – as per my previous post on Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011) – seemed illegitimately to install itself in power after the 2009 general election.

Being a filmmaker, not least a filmmaker with a global standing, Panahi is a dangerous man: he has the power to influence people, to rouse a sense of injustice in the (already-roused) masses of Iran who are in search of a more democratic society than the one currently on offer. He can also rouse anti-government support beyond Iran’s borders.

Given Panahi’s global standing, and given Iran’s refusal wholly to endorse films that – even if only ambivalently or allegorically – critique Iran’s status quo, it is no surprise that Panahi’s films – like those of many of his fellow filmmakers in Iran – have sought funding from outside of the country, principally Europe (and principally within Europe from France, Germany and the UK).

I am surely not the first to argue this point, but I must say that even if undertaken innocently, there is little to no true innocence with regard to the politics of who funds what films and for what reason. Representation is an awesome and persuasive tool. That is, all films have – or at least one can read into all films – an element of propaganda: incapable as we are of perceiving the whole of reality, consigned as we are only to partial truths, no film will present things as they are. But this does not stop a filmmaker from portraying events/the world as he sees them/it.

For this reason, to stand accused – as Panahi does, according to the letter that Hebron read out – of being an agent for French and British power in Iran seems to overstep the mark as far as his filmmaking is concerned. Panahi is a filmmaker trying to find the means to make the films that mean the most to him; if his funding comes from the UK or France or anywhere, and if that funding comes with few or no conditions with regard to the kind of film that he is supposed to deliver, then Panahi is, or should be free, to work with those funders.

In light of the seemingly stolen election, in light of the evident lack of freedom of speech or filmmaking in Iran, and in light of the documented and murderous brutality of the present Iranian regime towards dissident elements within contemporary Iranian society, it seems that any filmmaker concerned with anything but the most reactionary escapism must give room for elements that are critical of the contemporary regime.

This does not necessarily make Panahi an agent of British or French interests in Iran – even if as a filmmaker his outlook and approach finds favour with foreign (predominantly educated, middle class – i.e. festival) audiences as much if not more than it does with domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, to be denied the right to critique the country in which one lives and which with much probability one loves is a betrayal on the part of that country.

And this is what Panahi has suffered: a betrayal.

If we are to get all up in arms about Jafar Panahi and other filmmakers, we should not limit ourselves simply to their plight. Others have suffered terribly under the current regime, including, for example, Neda Agha Soltan, whose death can be seen on YouTube (but to which I shall not link here). And beyond Neda Agha Soltan, there are many more people who have suffered at the hands of the current Iranian regime. In other words, this is not just about filmmakers. This is about the fate of an entire nation, perhaps even the entire world.

Even if Panahi himself is only one of a multitude of Iranians adversely affected by the current government in Iran, Panahi is still very much to be admired.

For what he has done is to produce a film – playfully, perhaps rightfully, termed a non-film – in spite of the ban that has been imposed upon his creative output. Furthermore, in total defiance he has had that ‘non-film’ distributed globally, including at this year’s London Film Festival.

How did he achieve this? Remarkably, by hiding the film on a Flash drive in a birthday cake – which then found its way out of his apartment block, out of Iran and – first of all – to the Cannes Film Festival, before making its way – among other locations – to London.

Panahi’s non-film is what we might term minimalist in execution: Panahi is under house arrest – pending an appeal on his sentence – in his flat/apartment block in Tehran, and so the majority of the film takes place in the few rooms to which he is (was – is he still?) confined, and it features for its greatest part only Panahi and Mirtahmasb.

The non-film starts with Panahi taking breakfast, talking on his mobile phone, and then missing a family phone call while he is in his bathroom. These moments are comprised of two static shots in which Panahi refuses to recognise the camera.

In other words, the non-film starts almost as though it might be a fiction film as opposed to a documentary – Panahi is acting rather than ‘being himself.’

This fictional feel is broken, however, when Panahi picks up the camera that has been left rolling in his bedroom and carries it through his house: the refusal to recognise the camera’s presence is immediately broken.

Nonetheless, once Mirtahmasb arrives and takes over the filming, Panahi prepares tea and feeds his iguana, Igi, as if the camera were not there.

However, it is when he receives a phone call from his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that Panahi definitively casts off the illusion that this is a film in the conventional sense of the word, thereby taking us into the realm of the non-film.

Gheyrat explains that the ban on filmmaking might well be rescinded by the courts, but that Panahi surely will face some prison time. She then affirms passionately that the ruling against Panahi is not legal, but political. That is, the judiciary is not in charge anymore; Panahi is a plaything of the political powers that be. As such, Iran is no longer a country in which all are equal in the eyes of the law, but a country in which the law is changed according to the whims of politicians.

(Britons: take note. One should not call for ‘special punishments’ for the perpetrators of crimes, for example looting during riots. The crimes committed – damage to property and theft – should be punished according to the law and not, to use Gheyrat’s words, according to ‘current social conditions.’)

This phone call is enough for Panahi to say to Mirtahmasb that he cannot act anymore. Referring to a moment in his own film, Ayneh/The Mirror (Iran, 1997), Panahi does what his child actor, Mina Mohammad Khani, did in that film – and refuses to act. This he calls ‘throwing off the cast’ in reference to how Mina in Mirror refused after a while to wear the cast she had been given and stepped off the bus on which they were filming.

Of course, Mirtahmasb keeps the camera rolling even though Panahi says he is not acting anymore. If this is no longer acting, but if the camera is still recording, what is it that we are seeing now? As per the greatest of Iranian films, and as identified by a host of scholars of Iranian cinema, the line between fiction and reality becomes definitively blurred here – in a fashion that befits the more ‘art house’ branch of Iranian film.

(The argument that Iranian films blur the boundary between fact and fiction has been used persuasively to argue that we should not take Iranian films to be immediate representations of Iranian life. That is, we should not believe everything that we see in Iranian films as being real. In fact, it is an Iranian artistic tradition to blur this boundary. Even though Panahi has made not a film but a non-film, then, its artistic credentials are high, perhaps even beyond question.)

This ambiguity between fiction and reality is only heightened when Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut – only for Mirtahmasb to refuse, because Panahi is not entitled to make films and so therefore cannot direct the very film in which he currently is featuring.

(Humour, perhaps surprisingly, but also in a very human fashion, features prominently in This is Not a Film, as hopefully this blog will make clear.)

Not only is the non-film only ambiguously a documentary and/or a fiction, then, but the question concerning whose film/non-film this is also becomes ambiguous. That is, who is the filmmaker here? Panahi or Mirtahmasb? This ambiguity is further heightened during moments in which the camera is simply left rolling with no operator, as happens towards the film’s climax. No one is making this film at such moments; as such, this cannot be a film, since a film needs a maker, no?

Further to complicate matters is Panahi’s ingenious use of mise-en-scène. As Panahi shows to Mirtahmasb on his TV the sequence from The Mirror that Gheyrat’s phone call brought to mind, we have a mise-en-abyme effect whereby there is a film within the non-film that we are watching: if This is Not a Film is not a film, perhaps it is so because films like The Mirror lie within it and not necessarily beyond it. In this way, This is Not a Film is not a film because it has its own reality – such that it contains even other films.

Panahi pauses The Mirror, and Mirtahmasb pans over to him, stood as he is next to a shelf that houses a variety of DVDs. Most of the DVD sleeves are illegible – at least to this viewer – but prominent among those that are legible (to me) is the DVD of Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, Spain/USA/France, 2010).

Buried is about an American truck driver in Iraq, Paul (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up to find himself buried alive in a coffin. Practically the whole of Buried is set within the confines of the coffin. To have the DVD of Buried so prominent in the frame, then, is to suggest a parallel between that film and this non-film: Panahi’s house arrest is also akin to some sort of artistic death, as if he, too, were buried alive.

What is more, the way in which Buried functions for some viewers as a film that raises awareness of the complexity of contemporary Iraq and, by extension, the Middle East in general (including Iran), makes of it a truly canny choice. It is contemporary, relatively fresh in the minds of those who have seen it, and politically relevant. Without wishing to over-read what could, after all, be a random detail, the prominent placement of the Buried DVD also suggests Panahi’s desire to send out coded messages about his imprisonment specifically to Western viewers, knowing full well that it is most likely only Western – or at the very least non-Iranian – viewers that will be able to see his film.

If the reader thinks that the above is the over-reading of what is arguably a random detail, then I would respond thus: in fact it does not matter whether the DVD of Buried was prominently placed in frame on purpose or by accident. What is important is that this non-film makes us question this very issue. It is when we are not – and perhaps cannot – be sure about the fabricated nature or otherwise of the images that we are seeing that Panahi’s film works best: is this a film or not?

Panahi then speaks to fellow filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, who tells him that she is trying to rally support for his cause. Panahi discourages her from doing so, repeating the advice of his lawyer, Mrs Gheyrat, that it is perhaps better for him to court the support of foreign artists and Iranian artists in exile than for domestic artists to risk trouble of their own by speaking out against the government’s persecution of Panahi in particular and Iranian filmmakers more generally.

Bani-E’temad replies by saying that too many artists in Iran are living in fear of the present regime and that they must be more defiant. This truly is a bold act of defiance on her part to go on record as saying this.

(Even if Panahi cannot leave his home, his trusty iPhone keeps him in touch with well-wishing supporters. If anyone thought Iran were a backward country – if anyone took a Kiarostami film to be a ‘transparent’ depiction of life in Iran, then they should remember that the protests against the stolen election in 2009 were not for nothing known for their innovative use of Twitter and other social networking tools for their organisation.)

Panahi then decides that he will not make a film, but instead will read a screenplay of a film that he wanted to make before he was placed under house arrest (although, Panahi tells us, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, the government agency responsible for approving films at script and edit stage in Iran, did not approve this script when he sent it to them).

This script tells the story of Maryam, a young woman from Isfahan who wants to study the arts in Tehran. Her parents, however, refuse to let her go to study and so instead lock her in her room – such that she has little to no contact with the outside world – a kind of young adult version of the two girls in Samira Makhmalbaf’s beautifully poetic Sib/The Apple (Iran/France, 1998), who also are confined to their house and who pass messages over their courtyard wall in order to communicate with the world beyond.

In the style of Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/UK/France/Germany/Netherlands/Norway/Finland, 2003), Panahi lays tape down on the carpet in his living room (which also houses a beautiful old Lumière-style cinematograph) in order to show us the borders of the set that he had created for his film about Maryam.

He then talks us through the story. It is as if Panahi here has become Scheherazade, who must make up stories in order to stay alive. That is, like storytelling for Scheherazade, filmmaking is for Panahi not a money-making pastime, but something that he feels compelled to do, something that he must do because he has no option (and on a level that is above and beyond all those who in the blush of youth claim to feel the same about filmmaking – “I don’t think I can lead my life without making films” – and yet who never do it – a chiding I give to myself more or less everyday). Without filmmaking Panahi might as well be buried…

Even without the ideal tools (sets, actors, lights, etc) to make a film, Panahi nonetheless films; he will make a non-film if he cannot make a film. The important thing is to make, to create. This is the gift of the filmmaker and other poets and artists: it is not uniquely the gift of skill in art-making that they have, but the compulsion to give that skill to the world, the inability to stop that need to create from bursting forth. A gift to and a gift from the artist.

At one point, Panahi (a gmail user) checks what is perhaps his own website, or at the very least a website featuring news about him. It is pure propaganda, with the website supposedly reporting that Panahi has turned to political filmmaking recently (by which is meant a turn to pro-government films), as well as stating that he ‘directed’ the recent Berlin Film Festival – even though in reality he was not allowed to travel for it – in February 2011 as in 2010.

This manipulation of the truth, then, may in its own way make artists of the Iranian government in their participation in the falsification of websites such that we cannot tell fact from fiction anymore. But whereas Panahi is intelligent and playful, in this case we can tell that the website in question is spreading downright lies.

What sound like gunshots outside begin to become increasingly common on the soundtrack. Panahi receives a phone call from a friend who offers to pick up his wife and daughter – since many people are taking to the streets, since traffic is heavy, and since the police are beginning to turn out in force.

Whether this is a staged phone call or simply a fictional device weaved into the film, the caller hangs up – saying that he is being pulled over by the police. Minutes later he calls again – safe, but saying that the police had spotted a camera on the passenger seat of his car and had pulled him over to ask him what he was doing with it.

In spite of being asked in my own experience to stop filming by the police on various occasions in public spaces and for a variety of reasons – most of which have seemed to me unreasonable – there is something sinister about the police pulling someone over simply for owning a camera and not for using it.

But as the non-film goes on, we begin to realise that those are not violent protests in the streets, but rather fireworks being set off for Chaharshanbe Suri, or Fireworks Wednesday, which typically takes place in Iran on the Tuesday night before ‘Red Wednesday.’ This takes place on the last Wednesday before Nouruz, which is the Persian New Year.

(This means that – if it were filmed in one day, which in fact seems unlikely – This is Not a Film was filmed on 15 March 2011, which partly tallies with the coverage that we see on television of the Tōhoku earthquake, which took place on 11 March 2011. That said, Panahi seems to react to the earthquake news as if it were brand new to him, which surely it could not have been had four days elapsed since the earthquake. This renders ambiguous the true timeline of this non-film’s making – made only worse when the IMDb credits the film to 2010 – while at the same time showing that even in his confinement, Panahi is once again in touch with the outside world – most of which simply cannot be faked – thanks to the media.)

As is explained in the film, Fireworks Wednesday (which, coincidentally, is the name of a film by the excellent Iranian filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi – he also responsible for the recent Darbareye Elly/About Elly (Iran, 2009) and Jodaeiye Nader az Simin/Nader and Simin, A Separation (Iran, 2011)) has been ‘called off’ by the government, and yet people go out and do it anyway – including Panahi’s downstairs neighbour, Shima, who at one point tries to leave with him her yapping dog, Mickey. Amusingly, Panahi ejects Mickey swiftly when it turns out that he and Igi do not get along.

Therefore, the soundtrack to the film sounds something like a war zone, while at the same time being charged with political resistance, as people light fireworks and street fires to celebrate the coming of a new – dare one hope for a better? – year.

This is Not a Film reaches its climax when Panahi starts to film Mirtahmasb on his mobile phone as Mirtahmasb films Panahi with the professional camera. Mirtahmasb quips amusingly – one of various moments of genuine humour in this otherwise anxiety-ridden film – that they are like hairdressers, in that when they run out of people whose hair to cut, they start to cut each other’s.

(Panahi also recounts an amusing story about how he and Bani-E’temad dream of starting up an Idle Filmmakers’ Mobile Kitchen during the periods when they are not making films – simply so that they can meet people.)

Mirtahmasb then says that he needs to leave. He leaves the camera rolling on the kitchen table, explaining to Panahi that ‘it matters that the cameras are ON’ (the upper case ‘ON’ appearing in the subtitles) – perhaps one of the clearest declarations in the film that filming whatever one can will help to make clear the would-be criminal nature of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

And as Panahi goes with Mirtahmasb to the door, there appears a good-looking young man who calls himself Hassan, and who claims that he is filling in for Akbar in emptying the bins, and that he is the brother of Nasrin, Akbar’s pregnant wife.

A strange encounter ensues: Hassan recognises Panahi, even though Panahi does not recognise Hassan. Mirtahmasb leaves, while Panahi questions Hassan about his life.

Oddly, though, Hassan becomes nervous, seemingly evading Panahi’s questions about his jobs (he has various) and his studies – only ever answering in the vaguest of terms: he’s studying the arts, but he provides no details that might make this response plausible.

To a westerner/to me (if not to everyone), there is something strange in this exchange. Hassan’s evasiveness in answering Panahi’s questions leads one to suspect that he is a spy of some sort, sent by the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, which is often referred to as MOIS or VEVAK. And that, seeing Panahi with a camera in his hand, he is about to do Panahi’s appeal case no favours whatsoever.

Furthermore, the sequence is immensely tense in that Panahi, filming Hassan at first with his iPhone and then with the camera that Mirtahmasb has left running in the kitchen, goes with Hassan in the lift. Here the conversation changes to half-charming, half-sinister, in that the now-greater levels of confinement in the lift only add to the claustrophobia of the film.

In addition, Hassan has told Panahi that he was working in the building on the night that the police raided the apartment building to arrest him, his wife, his daughter, and 15 others including filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, who was assistant director of Bahman Ghobadi’s underground film, Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

Why was Hassan there when the police raided Panahi’s place – in a fashion seemingly reminiscent of the party raid that occurs in Talayae sorkh/Crimson Gold (Iran, 2003)? Why does he specifically bring it up now, nearly a year later? The answer to these and other questions is repeatedly forestalled as Hassan takes the lift down level by level – from the 9th floor (Panahi’s) to the basement – stopping at each to check if there is rubbish to pick up.

Perhaps it is nerves on Hassan’s part – being stuck in a lift with a great director who is also filming him (Hassan does amusingly say that he is not looking good enough to be filmed). But there is something sinister about the way Hassan continually begins to explain his version of events on the night of the raid and arrest (which, incidentally, was 1 March 2010) – only to stop, leave the lift to check for rubbish, and then to start again when he returns.

What is more, it is only when Panahi prompts him to ring the neighbours’ doorbells that Hassan begins to do so to check for rubbish. Otherwise, Hassan explains, everyone seems to have forgotten to leave their rubbish out.

When Hassan does begin to ring doorbells, barely anyone answers. Hassan assumes that this must be because everyone is out at Fireworks Wednesday, but the viewer is nonetheless unsure – and this lack of security, which runs throughout this non-film but which is here redefined through the lens of the spy thriller, which – outrageously (at least for me) – seems to have surfaced from nowhere within Panahi’s film, only adds to the tension.

Further elements increase the anxiety: Hassan often steps out on to pitch dark landings that we cannot see – our inability to see enhancing our sense of uncertainty; one floor – the seventh – has raging party music thumping from its door, meaning that the non-film’s soundscape also creates tension.

Hassan and Panahi then reach the second floor, prior to arriving at which Hassan speculates that there will be lots of empty pizza boxes outside the inhabitants’ door. Once again, Hassan reminds us of Hussein (Hossein Emadeddin) of Crimson Gold, who himself is a pizza delivery man and whose sense of dissatisfaction with the world might be similar to Panahi’s in his current predicament.

However, comedy is unpredictably injected here into this prolonged lift sequence, when the door is answered not by pizza-guzzling neighbours but by Shima, whose voice once again we hear (we never see her) as she tries to fob Mickey off on to Hassan for a few hours so that she also can go out to Fireworks Wednesday.

(Hassan accepts – but he will look after Mickey in the lobby after the film has finished.)

The intrusion of comedy does not allow for a release in pressure, however; it in fact only renders us (or perhaps only me) further incapable of working out quite what is going on. Is Hassan a spy of sorts? Is this film – in spite of its ‘ramshackle’/improvised appearance – so well organised that it is only fooling with our expectations? Is this a comedy?

Bizarrely, Hassan tells Shima to try giving the dog to Panahi up on the ninth floor. She says that she has already tried, but that Mickey only survived two seconds up there. Suddenly what could well be a truly innocent conversation becomes once again sinister because the subject of the conversation, Panahi, is recording it. Panahi has now turned spy instead of Hassan. Perhaps Panahi as non-filmmaker is the intrusive one, documenting the strangeness of other people’s lives.

Nonetheless, down the lift goes – further into the darkness of the basement. All the while remaining immensely polite, Hassan then carries the rubbish he has accumulated through the underground car park (if I remember correctly – it is dark, after all) and towards the exit.

If Panahi has been playing with our emotions – is this real? is this staged? is Panahi in danger of being caught filming by a government that surely would use any excuse further to punish him? – then the unease only (impossibly!) increases as the film comes to its final moments.

Panahi steps outside of his apartment block and towards the gates of his building. Hassan turns and tells him that he must not be seen here – a gesture that seems to confirm, finally, that Hassan is not a ‘bad guy’ – but which only suggests, after so much claustrophobia upstairs on the 9th floor, a sense of liberation. This sense of liberation in stepping outside of the apartment further reinforces one’s sense of Panahi’s frustration and enclosure. That he might get spotted simultaneously reinforces one’s sense of paranoia – ‘they’ are, or at least, might be watching.

And as the film draws to its close, Panahi films a street fire taking place right by the gate to his apartment block and around which shadowy figures gather and dance. What had for a while seemed a generic film now becomes once again political: the fires are an act of defiance, suggesting the passion of the people, their desire for change in an Iran in which Panahi has been imprisoned for, it seems, nothing more than making a film. A beacon in the darkness.

But this final political charge does not resolve the question – defined as it is by uncertainty and anxiety – concerning whether we have just watched an elaborate hoax, or whether Panahi has managed to make a film that portrays a reality the weird and wonderful nature of which is more inscrutable and fascinating than any fictional world could be.

In creating a film that plays with our expectations in this manner, Panahi exposes the way in which cinema has ingrained itself in our thought patterns. An innocent man, Hassan, could be a spy, we/I fear. Paranoia perhaps characterises our times, but this paranoia is also linked to our secret belief that somehow we might be in a filmic reality in which people are spying on us.

Except that we know that Panahi is under house arrest; that ‘they’ probably are spying on him – regardless of whether or not he has managed to make a non-film and to have it distributed (how have the powers that be in Iran responded to this? is this all part of an even bigger hoax in which – crazily – Iran creates myths about its filmmakers in order to enhance their international reputation?).

It is not that we should take the content of these questions seriously (or should we?). It is that the suspicion that we could possibly be in a film, or what I shall call ‘cinematic thinking,’ suggests that cinema is our measure of reality – and not that reality is our measure of cinema.

This is not intended as disrespect to anyone who has suffered recently or ever at the hands of this or any political regime, but it seems as though repressive regimes (which I shall label as fascist, whether the regimes in question identify themselves with this term or not) themselves function cinematically. That is, fascism and cinema are inherently linked, in that the cultivation of fear that allows one to control the people is achieved not strictly in films, but in making people suspect that they might be in a (genre) film.

If we find the roots of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime back in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, during which cinemas were burnt down (with people in them), and during which the late Ayatollah Khomeini critiqued the cinema as a dangerous, but potentially useful, tool for controlling the people, then we could conceivably argue that Ahmadinejad has taken Khomeini’s lesson to heart. He has done so not by rejecting cinema, but by allowing cinematic thinking to penetrate the minds of his people, such that they live in fear. Such that they think that their lives could turn into a film, like Panahi’s life here, and that they, too, could be buried alive or worse…

If – paradoxically – the current Iranian regime asserts its power through the propagation of cinematic thinking, then, Panahi’s anti-regime film must by definition be non-cinematic. As he and Mirtahmasb themselves declare through their title, if it is Iran itself that has become a movie of sorts, then this film is not – and cannot be – a film.

What is true of Iran here becomes true of cinema as a whole – meaning that Panahi – whose films up until this point have always left me only lukewarm in comparison to some of the other Iranian filmmakers whose works I love – has made not just his masterpiece, but a true masterpiece of all cinema and – remarkably – under the most strenuous and minimal conditions.

This ‘truth’ is that ‘cinematic thinking’ infiltrates all of us – and the more we feel that we are living in a film, the more (potentially) we are prey to the logic of fascism, whether or not control is the deliberate or merely the unconscious aim of anyone anywhere.

That is, the more we prefer cinema to life, the more we wish our lives were cinematic, the more we will into existence the repressive/fascistic regimes that are required to bring this about. In a fashion akin to (of course) Gilles Deleuze, Hollywood and Hitler go hand in hand – such that cinema and fascism are inextricably bound the one to the other.

If this is the case, then Panahi’s non-film strikes a blow to fascism everywhere. But how is this so?

This is so because the non-film is not cinematic in the recognisable and generic sense defined above, hence its status as a ‘non-film.’ This non-film explores paranoia, but where mainstream cinema might make that paranoia real, not least by centering the film on an individual protagonist or on a small group of individual protagonists, here Panahi’s film leaves us to query whether the paranoia is real, or whether it is just us reading it into the film.

By raising the question that we are reading this paranoia into the film, Panahi exposes to us our susceptibility to cinematic thinking (rather than simply reinforcing it). Panahi, himself a political and not a legal prisoner, as Mrs Gheyrat argues (and if we are to believe her); in other words, Panahi himself precisely the person to say that the paranoia is justified because he has been placed under house arrest for his thoughts and for his creative endeavours, as if either could ever be crimes. If Panahi, then, exposes our susceptibility to cinematic thinking despite being entirely qualified to think it himself, then truly we must take note.

If Panahi – together with Bani-E’temad – refuses to live in fear, then none of us, be we from Iran or anywhere, should live in fear. By creating a film that in some senses destroys cinema, then Panahi’s film is justifiably ‘not a film.’ Panahi is superficially the centre of his film – we see plenty of him in frame throughout its duration. But his encounters with others, hopefully innocent as they seemingly turn out to be, remind us that we are not the centre of things and that we should not in an individualistic/paranoid sense believe that we are. There are always others; we are always with others; we do not – and cannot – exist without others.

And yet cinema has – in its more popular iterations, anyway – perpetuated the myth of the individual, written wider as mancruel against, and not with, nature. In this way, This is Not a Film is not the becoming cinema, or the becoming light, that most humans dream of. Rather it is Panahi’s unbecoming cinema that, paradoxically, lends to the film its great depth and power.

If cinema were not linked inextricably to fascism (again, defined here not as a single historical movement or moment, but as the repressive (and often self-willed) control of the people in all places and at all times – perhaps even in pre-cinematic times), then non-films like Panahi’s would not be necessary. They would have no existence, no meaning.

Perhaps the paradoxically mainstream nature of individualistic/paranoid thought justifies the artist, who tries to remind the world that we are with each other and with the world. That is, perhaps fascism has a mass psychology that is difficult for we humans to accept, even though we disavow our desire for fascism on an almost daily basis.

This is one conundrum I am not in a position to resolve – not during this [non-?]blog at any rate.

Nevertheless, in unbecoming cinema, Panahi exposes the cinema that has filtered repressively through Iran to allow Ahmadinejad to steal an election and to continue to impose his will on a people waking up to the realisation that this is not what they want, and that they need not live in fear.

As Panahi steps outside, he sees others who are also already outside. The example can spread beyond Iran: perhaps it is time for us all to step outside. To live not in fear. But to embrace reality and all that it contains. To think not just individually, but through a sense of withness. To reject fascism, to realise the extent to which we think cinematically – perhaps even to realise the extent to which thinking cinematically means that we think in clichés, and to realise that thinking in clichés means that we probably do not think at all.

If these are not in themselves clichés (and they could be), it is time, perhaps, to think – and perhaps to act by stepping outside, by exposing ourselves to encounters with others, by recognising that we are only ever with others and with the world. Not to have answers, but questions. Not to be certain but – as per Panahi’s film – to be asking about the truth-status of all that we see.

Perhaps there is no reality without cinema, no cinema without reality. Answering this question is not important. Or rather, not answering this question is very important. Buried in Iran, where paranoia/cinema is perhaps most justified as a mode of thought, Panahi refuses to answer this question. Again, for this reason his non-film is not a film in the conventional sense of the word.

But it is for certain a work of art that dances on the edge of cinema and non-cinema, of thought and non-thought, asking questions, inducing thought, living not in fear, even if the film also explores – consciously or otherwise – the politics of fear, making us aware that fear is not imposed from without but something with which we are all complicit.

Strangely, if we are complicit in our belief in the individual and the concomitant rise of fascism-enabling paranoia, then a paradox emerges in that individualism/paranoia/fascism is reliant on complicity/withness, while at the same time occulting that very withness that enables it; the job here is to bring withness back to visibility such that rampant individualism, paranoia and thus fascism might evaporate.

Since we are all together, we must all recognise this and each other. When we recognise each other – even when, like Panahi, we live confined to only a few rooms – then we can begin to live in a democracy, both in Iran and around the world.

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.

Sleeping in the Cinema

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

The below is a rough draft of a paper I was going to present at an academic conference in London this summer, but from which I have withdrawn because I can’t really afford it.

It is relatively ‘whimsical’ and not ‘hard science,’ though it flirts with some science in it.

But I offer it as ‘notes’ about what for me is a prominent aspect of the film viewing experience, falling asleep.

“You are 8 ½. What an age for a boy to ask about cinema and dream! It occurs to me that that same evening, Dadda was telling me that his falling asleep in the cinema is a particular honour to the film in question. He was telling me this as a compliment, his having snored through three of the four films released last year in which I appeared.”

– Tilda Swinton (2006: 111)

In an age when film studies wishes to map almost every aspect of the film experience – from ideological influence to affective response, from audience feedback to galvanic skin responses, sleeping in the cinema remains an overlooked aspect of spectatorship.

And yet, what does it mean to sleep in the cinema? Is it simply an index of a film’s failure to capture the attention of the viewer, such that they prefer instead to doze off in pursuit of more interesting thoughts? Or might sleeping in the cinema be something more akin to what Tilda Swinton playfully suggests is her father’s experience of the majority of her films – that is, an honour and a compliment to the film in question?

Theories of why humans sleep vary, although given that not all animal species do sleep, the prevailing logic would suggest that sleep does serve some function that benefits us, and which outweighs the dangers that are associated with sleeping, namely that one is not particularly aware of the potential dangers that could be lurking in one’s vicinity while in that particular state.

What is more, we spend roughly one third of our existence asleep, which reinforces the notion that it must serve some evolutionarily beneficial purpose.

The most common and seemingly plausible theory of sleep is that humans do it for the sake of information storage.

Various studies have shown that sleep enhances synaptic efficacy ‘through oscillatory neural activity providing “dynamic stabilisation” for neural circuits storing inherited information and information acquired through experience… Sleep, therefore, serves the maintenance of inherited and acquired memories as well as the process of storage of new memory traces’ (Krueger et al 1999: 121).

In other words, sleep fulfils some of the same functions that waking life achieves, namely our adaptation to the environment: ‘the major function of sleep is to maintain our ability to adapt to a continually changing environment since that ability is dependent on brain microcircuitry’ (Krueger et al 1999: 126).

By keeping our brains fluid and malleable, sleep enables us better to consolidate memories, which in turn enable us better to navigate our waking world.

It is perhaps useful at this point to explain that there are two separate modes of sleep, which some view as supporting ‘quantitatively different states of consciousness’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 685), namely rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.

Dreams only take place in REM sleep, which is deemed to ‘release hallucinosis at the expense of thought,’ perhaps because ‘the activated forebrain is aminergically demodulated compared with waking and NREM sleep’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 686).

What this latter phrase means is that the neurons used to regulate (or modulate) the size and intensity of certain brain waves (e.g. ponto-geniculo-occipital, or PGO waves) during NREM and waking life do not fire (the waves are ‘demodulated’).

As a result of this, and the hyperactivation and deactivation of other brain regions, REM sleep, or dream, is characterised by ‘the lack of self-reflective awareness, the inability to control dream action voluntarily, and the impoverishment of analytical thought’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 686).

Having differentiated between REM and NREM sleep, though, it is important to remember that both seem to serve a similar function: NREM sleep ‘could allow recent inputs to be reiterated in a manner that promotes plasticity processes that are associated with memory consolidation,’ while during REM sleep ‘the brain is reactivated but the microchemistry and regional activation patterns are markedly different from those of waking and NREM sleep.’

As a result, Hobson and Pace-Schott conclude that ‘[c]ortically consolidated memories, originally stored during NREM by iterative processes such as corticopetal information outflow from the hippocampus, would thus be integrated with other stored memories during REM’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 691).

If both REM and NREM sleep help to consolidate memory, albeit in different ways, during sleep, then the distinction is not necessarily a useful one to draw with regard to sleeping in the cinema, not least because it is hard to determine, even via introspection based upon personal experience, what kind of sleep goes on in the cinema – if there is a constant type of sleep that does happen in the cinema at all.

What is more, the case has been made that there is in fact slippage between REM sleep, NREM sleep and waking life. This is not just on account of the fact that we can ‘hallucinate’ during waking life, or have ‘day dreams,’ such that ‘all conscious states – including waking – might have some quantifiable aspects of dream-like mental activity’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 684).

Instead, this is based upon the fact that parts of the brain are always ‘asleep’ while other parts are more activated, meaning that even our waking life is characterised in part by areas of our brain sleeping.

In spite of this blurred boundary between waking, REM, and NREM sleep, however, the distinction might be useful for us in thinking about more ‘ecological’ causes of sleep.

The cinema is a darkened room; although light shines from a projector and is reflected from a screen, the room is predominantly dark.

Arguably (see Brown 2011), the light from the screen, particularly in the case of rapid changes of intensity and colour (i.e. lots of onscreen movement in the form of figural motion, camera motion, and cutting) in conjunction with loud noise, is enough to activate our attention in a quasi-involuntary manner.

However, the darkness of the room might also be important, since sunlight inhibits the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a compound that synchronises the biological clock; that is, once darkness falls, melatonin is released by the pineal gland, and this is useful as an anti-oxidant and for the immune system.

The darkness of the cinema, then, may also bring about a release of melatonin, which in turn prepares us for sleep.

I might add that melatonin is produced from serotonin in the human body. Both melatonin and serotonin have been considered as playing a role in human sleep, and both have also been used in the manufacture of recreational drugs for their hallucinatory qualities.

Now, cinema has been equated with the dream state since at least the 1950s (for example, Langer, 1953), but rather than the typically psychoanalytic slant given to the relationship between dream and film, I should like here to pursue a different, admittedly (equally?) speculative line.

Both serotonin and melatonin are neurotransmitters; that is, they help to transmit signals across neurons. When, as mentioned earlier, aminergic demodulation takes place, serotonin and melatonin allow the level of hallucinosis to rise.

Serotonin in particular is linked to feelings of euphoria (it is used in MDMA, or ecstasy).

It is interesting that as a transmitter – a guardian in the neuronal gateways – serotonin is between actual signals, but it modifies which signals travel through our brain – which connections are made.

Or rather, serotonin, from my understanding of it, enables brain plasticity; that is, it enables more, not fewer connections, to be made, and is comparatively inhibited, if still at work, during waking and NREM sleep as opposed to REM sleep.

As such, serotonin and melatonin (but the latter seemingly to a lesser extent) are a means of regulating not what we envision, but how we envision it; for creating and cementing new connections in the brain.

On a purely speculative level, in an era whereby scans of the human brain are being carried out during film viewing (see Hasson et al 2004; 2008; Kauppi et al 2010), it would be interesting to see if there are any similarities between brain function during REM sleep and film viewing – that is, whether the human brain considers film viewing in general, or certain types of film viewing, to be a form of hallucinosis.

As a neurotransmitter, which sits between signals or brain events, there is something intriguing about serotonin; as the interval between brain signals, we might consider a neurotransmitter to be more temporal than spatial: neurons themselves have extension, while a neurotransmitter is what decides whether to convert an action potential into an actual action.

As such, the neurotransmitter sits at the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious, between potential and action, between perception and hallucination, and between space (extension) and time (intensity).

Maximising serotonin levels, both in REM sleep and in hallucinosis (and maybe even in cinema?) is the foregrounding of the temporal and the intense rather than the spatial elements and extensive/motor processes of the brain.

Approaching the issue of sleeping in the cinema from the introspective point of view – that is, basing thoughts upon personal experience – during the period from 1 September 2007 to 1 September 2008, I went to the cinema roughly 150 times.

I fell asleep during roughly one third of the films that I saw at the cinema, which is of course a high tally.

I cannot say for certain, but based upon running times and/or conversations with others in attendance, my sleep typically lasted between 2 and 20 minutes.

There are several factors that contribute to my sleeping: typically I do not sleep particularly great lengths of time at night (six hours on average), and I do as a result often find myself tired during the day.

Post-perandial cinema visits, particularly in the early afternoon, would most often induce sleep, as to a lesser extent might early to mid-afternoon screenings before which I had not eaten.

In addition, early to mid-afternoon screenings tend to involve fewer patrons; the presence of other patrons in the theatre, in terms of atmospheric noise, temperature and perhaps also in terms of ‘emotional contagion,’ can affect the way in which we view a film – and the absence of others might also increase the likelihood of sleep.

What is more, my slouching posture and the comfort of the chairs, in addition to the potential effect that the melatonin-inducing darkness of the cinema hall can have on viewers, may also contribute to my nodding off.

Although these factors are important to take into account, I know from experience, however, that I also fell (and typically fall) asleep far more often during what we might term ‘art house’ films than I did (or do) during what we might term ‘blockbusters,’ if drawing such a crude dichotomy between film types be allowed for the sake of argument.

Rarely did I fall asleep for lack of enjoyment; if I may speak personally, very few are the films I do not like, and I like art house films most of all, at least in proportion to the number that I see when compared to the relatively few blockbusters that I actually enjoy relative to the number of those that I see.

Now, art house films tend to have smaller audiences than blockbusters, and given my desire to see them during the cheaper early to mid-afternoon screening slots, the small audience size may well have an even greater effect on my likelihood of sleeping than watching a blockbuster during the day.

That is to say, I suspect that each of these factors plays a role in my falling asleep in the cinema.

However, the most common factor seemed to be the art house nature of the films; that is, regardless of my (often high) level of enjoyment, the relatively slow nature of these films, in terms of movement onscreen, camera motion and in terms of cutting rate, helped to bring about sleep.

This stands to reason on a certain level: if we are aroused by fast action and the loud explosions of blockbusters, it is more likely that we will feel drowsy and/or fall asleep when no danger is clear or present.

However, I should like to offer a different reason, not necessarily in contradiction of this prior reason, but certainly alongside it.

The afore-mentioned work on what happens in the human brain during film viewing, or ‘neurocinematics,’ suggests that audiences in fact respond very similarly to mainstream films like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958), while there seems to be a much greater level of independent brain response during less action-packed films, the least amount of what Hasson and his team (2008) call ‘intersubjective correlation’ (ISC) taking place when viewers see a video of a tree in a park in which ‘nothing,’ so to speak, happens.

According to Hasson et al (2004: 452), the brain regions that are most commonly correlated intersubjectively during mainstream film viewing are the parahippocampal gyrus, the superior temporal gyrus, the anterior temporal poles, and the temporal-parietal junction.

The parahippocampal cortex has been identified as playing a role in REM sleep, in that it allows the sense of movement, emotion and affective salience to emerge (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 687).

Furthermore, in both film viewing and REM sleep, the fusiforim gyrus, which is useful for face recognition, has been found to function.

While circumstantial at best, it might be possible to suggest from this evidence that mainstream film viewing does function cerebrally in a manner akin to dream, especially because the movement associated with the parahippocampal gyrus is illusory in both cases.

Krueger et al suggest, contrary to much sleep research, that sleep is not dependent upon prolonged wakefulness, but rather upon synaptic use.

That is, ‘exposure to rich environments’ can increase the amount of REM sleep that we have (Krueger et al 1999: 124).

It is not entirely clear what they mean by a rich environment.

Since I do not typically fall asleep in mainstream films, we might conclude that these are not such ‘rich environments,’ for example. In spite of the rapid movement and motion in mainstream films, we could argue, that such films do much work for audiences and that they do not force the brain to work harder to comprehend what is going on. In fact, the ease with which we can understand mainstream films would in this case suggest that they are ‘simplified’ (and not ‘rich’) versions of reality (even if such ‘simple’ scenes also stimulate our attention through continued visual and auditory renewal/stimulation).

However, the greater levels of direct stimulation involved in mainstream cinema would suggest some ‘richness’ – and that it is the relatively ‘unrich’ environment of the cinema during art house fare that encourages us, or at any rate me, to sleep.

My point is not here to resolve this conundrum, even if all types of cinema might be said to constitute some sort of hallucinosis, in that we see objects that are only images, but which we might on a certain level take for real, as we do a dream during our experience thereof.

Rather, my point is to say that while cinema might be akin to a shared dream, in that it can induce similar thought patterns across multiple viewers in similar regions of the brain as fire during sleeping, it is the cinema that does not involve such synchronisation of viewers’ brain patterns that is more likely – if I am anything to go by – to induce sleep itself.

Since humans are collectively involved in a world that is always affecting us, it is hard to separate when its influence ends, if at all. If we were to cling to the notion of a subjective self, however, who wanted to think for itself, then we might conceivably argue that sleep is the time when, paradoxically, given that we have little motor control over dreams and do not remember NREM sleep, that our thoughts are most ‘our own.’

That is, we function (more) ‘offline’ when asleep than during waking, during which time our thoughts constantly are being shaped by the world around us.

If Hasson et al’s research is anything to go by, then mainstream film might well bring humans together (we ‘correlate’), but it increases the probability of humans all thinking in the same way, perhaps by virtue of the simplified version of reality that mainstream cinema has to offer.

This is not to say that mainstream cinema will make automatons of us all (unless it already has).

It is to say, however, that films that do not impose images upon us, but which allow us actively to explore the image in our own way (less intersubjective correlation, more ‘art house’) might naturally induce in us that state of maximised (if never absolute) ‘independent’ thought, which is sleep.

The fact that we must search through these environments, rather than have information delivered to us in an obvious if stimulating manner, might even make them ‘rich environments’ that naturally tire us, because we must process individual (new?) thought patterns and associations that we have created for ourselves rather than had imposed upon us.

In this sense, perhaps sleeping during a film is not only an honour for and a compliment to the film in question, but it is a gift from the film to encourage independent thought, it is an act of love in certain senses.

Anthropologically speaking, humans do not always sleep just anywhere and with anyone (even though inebriation, among other altered states of consciousness, might lead us to believe that we do).

And yet, humans do feel the need to sleep with someone, even if this so-called ‘need’ is cultural.

Indeed, the act of sleeping with another human, which often is synonymous with the act of love, is perhaps the most intimate relationship that two humans can have.

In Being Singular Plural (2000), Jean-Luc Nancy argues that humans must recognise the fundamental ‘withness’ of their existence.

That is, humans do not lead lives in which they can objectively observe each other, detached in their observations, but instead we are always at all points with each other, leading a relative existence, in the sense that we are always only ever coexisting, and that, indeed, there is no existence without coexistence and communcation.

Nancy writes:

“‘to speak with’ is not so much speaking to oneself or to one another, nor is it ‘saying’ (declaring, naming), nor is it proffering (bringing forth meaning or bringing meaning to light). Rather, ‘to speak with’ is the conversation (and sustaining) and conatus of a being-exposed, which exposes only the secret of its own exposition. Saying ‘to speak with’ is like saying ‘to sleep with,’ ‘to go out with’ (co-ire), or ‘to live with’: it us a (eu)phemism for (not) saying nothing less than what ‘wanting to say’ means [le ‘vouloir-dire’ veut dire] in many different ways; that is to say, it says Being itself as communication and thinking: the co-agitatio of Being.” (Nancy 2000: 92-93)

Picking apart this passage, Nancy offers communication as a means of exposing oneself, of opening oneself up to the other (and elsewhere, Nancy [2008] has written about how exposure is part of the cinematic experience, as we are ex-peau-sed to the skin (pellicule) of the film).

To open oneself up in this way is like sleeping with or going with: co-itus/coitus as part of this communication.

Paradoxically, it takes sleeping with someone else, that experience in which we are most ‘ourselves’ because ‘offline’ (even if never fully so), in order fully to ‘communicate’ or expose oneself to the other.

It is to accept and to be accepted by the other, a level of thought in which we are not the detached, thinking observer that Descartes proposes as the mind split from the body, and which finds expression in his cogito ergo sum.

In an age in which neuroscience has tried to overthrow the sway under which Descartes’ most famous phrase has held us (see, for example, Damasio 1994), because for neuroscience there is no detached thought/mind-body dualism since we are always only ever embodied, in that our ‘higher’ conscious processes stem from and cannot live without our so-called ‘lower’ viscera and emotions, then it would seem that we must abandon the mind-body dualism.

However, this does not necessarily mean that we must abandon the cogito entirely.

Descartes first proposes je pense, donc je suis as one of only three things about which he can have no doubt in Discourse on Method (Descartes 1998 [1637]: 53).

He refines this phrase in Principles of Philosophy (2009 [1644]: 17), where he argues that we might well imagine that there is no God and that we have no body, but that we cannot doubt our minds, because thinking determines that we must have a mind.

Descartes goes on to define thought, or cogitatio:

“By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it: and, according, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.” (Descartes 2009: 18)

If thought and the mind are precisely embodied, Descartes’ definition of cogitatio would seem misguided.

However, if, as Nancy explains to us, we remember that cogitatio is derived from co-agitatio, which etymologically speaking means to act, move, or do with, then even cogitation is always already a phenomenon done with others (and, after Damasio, with one’s body).

With regard to cinema, we might remember that there is a paradox in that to sleep/to do with another the thing that arguably requires the least ‘withness’ is in fact perhaps the most intimate or the greatest exposure than one can make of one’s self.

This paradox is logical, since if we are only with others, then one’s most ‘detached’ self is precisely that which is least ‘with’ others – i.e. self-hood is only defined with others, and so that which is most un-other-like about us, our sleeping self, is paradoxically that which is most unique to us; we are most ourselves when we are least ourselves.

Furthermore, this paradox is mirrored by the fact that to cogitate, which Descartes uphold as the highest indicator of the mind’s separation from the body, is in fact only ever a thinking with, both with our bodies and with others.

The cogito is in fact a co-agito.

Sleeping in the cinema, in which we are ‘most ourselves’ becomes in this way a communion with the film.

Many humans sleep alone, within spaces that are familiar to them. Perhaps it is as much the space of the cinema as with any particular film that we feel so intimate and safe that we can allow ourselves sleep.

That I do not sleep during blockbusters leads me to believe that I probably do not trust blockbusters; their fast movement may be arousing in terms of being attention-grabbing, but they also enervate me, making me alert and worried that something is about to happen.

The art house film, meanwhile, is a friend, or a lover, with whom I feel safe, and in a space that feels safe to me.

Since it exposes to me those things that are more intimate and meaningful than does the blockbuster, then I expose to it that which is most private in my life, my sleeping self.

We go together in a strange coitus, a co-agitatio akin to that of cogitation in the real world (and which perhaps we might differentiate from the egocentric survival instincts that the explosions of the action film seem to encourage).

I feel safe in the cinema perhaps because of familiarity, making it not a ‘rich environment’; but while a blockbuster may grab my attention, it does not necessary entertain me.

Art house films are the richest environment in which, or better with which, I think (I co-agitate) the most; blockbusters are not wholly ‘brainless,’ not least because the mind and the brain are embodied, and we can and often do have very visceral responses to blockbusters, which in turn can induce new, richer thoughts.

But the phrase ‘brainless’ is not unuseful in getting to the root of our relationship with blockbusters, of differentiating these simplified versions of reality with the complexity of art house films.

I love cinema, but if my willingness to sleep with art house film is anything to go by, I feel happiest with it.

I am promiscuous in my cinematic tastes, responding to and interested in many of the different experiences that cinema can offer; but I am happiest with the slow, thoughtful films, that sometimes even allow me to think ‘offline’ for a while, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Cinema has long since been associated with dream, and yet sleeping in the cinema is typically thought of as being a negative experience, a sign of boredom.

Cinephiles, together with cognitive studies of cinema, seem predominantly interested in visual and aesthetic pleasure, and in attention and arousal.

And yet cinema can indeed send audiences to sleep.

Contrary to the ‘boring’ and ‘slow’ film argument, this can in fact be the most intimate relationship one can have with a film, even if paradoxically it means not even ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ the film (though we can still sense its presence).

To sleep with a film is a sign of cinephilia.

Brown, William (2011), ‘Resisting the Psycho-Logic of Intensified Continuity,’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 5:1, pp. 69-86.

Damasio, Antonio (1994), Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, London: Vintage.

Descartes, René (1998 [1637]), Discourse on Method and The Meditations (trans. F.E. Sutcliffe), London: Penguin.

Descartes, René (2009 [1644]), Principles of Philosophy (trans. John Veitch), Whitefish, Mass.: Wilder Publications.

Hasson, Uri, Yuval Nir, Ifat Levy, Galit Fuhrmann, and Rafael Malach (2004), ‘Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision,’ Science, 303: 5664, pp. 1634–1640.

Hasson, Uri, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmayer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin and Davd J Heeger (2008), ‘Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film,’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 2:1, pp. 1-26.

Hobson, J. Allan, and Edward F. Pace-Schott (2002), ‘The Cognitive Neuroscience of Sleep: Neuronal Systems, Consciousness and Learning,’ Nature, 3 (September), pp. 679-693.

Kauppi, Jukka-Pekka, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Mikko Sams and Jussi Tohka (2010), ‘Inter-subject correlation of brain hemodynamic responses during watching a movie: localisation in space and frequency,’ Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 4:5, pp. 1-10.

Krueger, James M., Ferenc Obál Jr, and Jidong Fang (1999), ‘Why we sleep: a theoretical view of sleep function,’ Sleep Medicine Reviews, 3:2, pp. 119-129.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000), Being Singular Plural, trans. R.D. Richardson and A.E. O’Byrne, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2008), ‘Claire Denis: Icon of Ferocity’ (trans. Peter Enright), in James Phillips (ed.), Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 160-170.

Swinton, Tilda (2006), ‘Film: State of Cinema Address, 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, 29 April 2006Critical Quarterly, 48:3 (Autumn), pp. 110-120.

Recent documentary clichés

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

In his new film, The War You Don’t See (UK?, 2010), Australian journalist John Pilger explains that ’embedded’ journalists are often ‘in bed with’ those whose story they are trying to get/represent.

That is to say, journalists are less likely to be impartial when embedded with soldiers in a military conflict zone, a practice that dates back to the First World War, and which in terms of specifically film journalism has happened at least since 1912 when Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had films made about him from the front line of his rebellion against Victoriano Huerta and others in the burgeoning Mexican democracy.

The reason provided is that one is given access to only that which the unit with which one is embedded wants the journalist to see. Furthermore, Pilger documents as best (?) as he can how journalism in the present day and age is a question of back-scratching. That is, if journalists ‘play ball with’ (i.e. do not criticise or seek to investigate the veracity or otherwise of what is told them by) governmental sources, then they get exclusive interviews with leading politicians, etc. Given that newspapers need to sell stories, stories that are often spun in a patriotic and nationalistic way, it is often (seemingly) in the interests of the news companies and journalists not to question what they are told. That and the fact that investigative journalists are systematically denied access to information and, according to a WikiLeaks document, are a worse threat to contemporary government than spies and terrorists.

Pilger’s film is a critique of journalism in the contemporary age; why did journalists go along with stories concerning non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when even at the time there was some evidence for and people willing to speak about how there were no WMDs. It is also an attack on journalists who privilege only the ‘official’ story – be that in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere. Although as much is denied by some of Pilger’s interviewees, journalists live in fear for their lives – not simply as a result of being in dangerous places, but because they will actively be targeted, like the Al Jazeera offices in Kabul, if they report on events in a way that does not please those who are trying already to write the history of events.

I shall return (briefly) to The War You Don’t See later, but in many ways the critique of embedded journalists that Pilger’s film offers does bring into question the potentially one-sided nature of the otherwise remarkable Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, USA, 2010).

Restrepo follows a year in the life of a unit of American soldiers in the Korangal valley, and who under the leadership of Captain Dan Kearney manage to secure an outpost that overlooks the valley and which is named after Juan Restrepo, a private and member of the unit who dies in combat.

The outpost comes constantly under fire from an invisible enemy, upon whom the soldiers fire back, although again we barely see their targets. One could easily criticise not the film for what it shows, which on the whole is an extraordinary display of endurance and bonding, but some of the behaviour that is shown. That is, one could easily take the film to be a critique of American attitudes towards locals in Afghanistan when Kearney and his men resort to the kind of foul-mouthed swaggering we expect from the movies when talks break down at one of the regular powwows he organises with the local leaders. One might also be suspicious of the soldiers who claim that they had to put the cow of one of the locals down after it got caught on barbed wire – for it seems that they enjoyed eating the cow as much as they carried out this slaughter for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Either way, when inevitably that cliché about winning ‘hearts and minds‘ is bandied around by one of the soldiers, it is spoken in such a way that one does not know whether anyone believes in this perhaps meaningless motto anymore. In other words, the film does show us these soldiers not so much in a negative light, but realistically: we see their flaws as well as their admirable coping strategies for being in such a remote and (as the reviews repeatedly tell us) desolate place.

(To butt into the discourse surrounding the Korangal: most mountainous valleys, particularly in that region, are not exactly oases. However, obviously vegetation grows and locals get by – and the region does have a relatively successful timber industry. I appreciate that this is not exactly Beverly Hills and the world of Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010), but it’s not the middle of the Atacama, either.)

In the light of, and in some respects against, Pilger’s documentary, then, Hetherington and Junger’s film does not necessarily come across as too one-sided. We do not get translated (or even untranslated) interviews with the local population without the presence of the soldiers, in which – perhaps? conceivably? impossibly? – they would speak their mind about the American presence in the valley. Nor do we have investigations into how the Taliban that are in the area – we know this since they shoot at the Americans more or less relentlessly – are supported (but – in a manner akin to Des hommes et des dieux/Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France, 2010), one wonders that the locals must see the ‘terrorists’ from time to time, since they will need to come to the village for supplies and medicine, even if the locals do not outright support the Taliban). We do not get too much access to the other side of the story, then, but the story that we do see has many sides itself, and by showing the behaviour of the Americans, the film implicitly involves at times its own critique/we see their bad as well as their good points – and if lingering on the bad is what one wants to do with the film, then one can happily do that.

Rather than an embedded reportage of any great victories, then, Restrepo gives us what seems to be a pretty even-sided take on its topic (although how we would ever know if truly it was even is impossible – since, as per another truth turned cliché developed during the Vietnam War, ‘we weren’t there’).

However, while I want to be clear in articulating the strengths of Restrepo, I also do want to criticise the film for perhaps the major scene around which the film is based. And this is a scene in which the soldiers come under heavy fire and are engaged in close combat.

This is the film’s ‘million dollar footage,’ and in some ways I understand how and why the filmmakers need to showcase this material in order for their film to have maximum impact. Besides which, they were not fooling around and this is not Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, USA, 2001), which, although based on a true story, is, after all, a realistic mock-up of events – but not footage from those events themselves.

I also understand how and why the filmmakers would want to build tension prior to this scene – giving us emotional testimony shot after the fact from soldiers including Misha Pemble-Belkin and Brendan O’Byrne. As they come to tears, however, then to ‘drop us’ into the combat situation seems, to someone of my frail sensibility, pornographic.

That is, I am grateful to see the effects of war on the soldiers who have been touched by it; this is knowledge that rationally I can use to understand the world in a better way. I am grateful perhaps to see combat footage for the same reason – to make me understand the true horror of war. But the way in which the testimony is deployed in this film before the combat footage seems exploitative.

We know that this is a manipulation: Hetherington and Junger conducted their interviews with the troops after they had returned home – and so we could easily have seen the footage and then gauged their reactions to what happened in order to understand it. But instead their emotional responses/recall of events is given to us first so as to lead us into understanding these events in the way that the filmmakers think that we should – and not necessarily in a realistic way at all (and by realistic, I hypothesise – admittedly, hypothesising is all I can do – that events happen and we do not understand them at the time, let alone in advance – and it is only in the act of remembering that we can make sense of them, which is the opposite of what Hetherington and Junger do to us here). Junger and Hetherington can hide behind the respect that they are showing to their subjects in privileging their understanding of events, as opposed simply to showing the events themselves. But this would be disingenuous in certain respects – for Junger and Hetherington, without giving us their reactions to events (and it is they who are also they and they who are also filming), show us the combat scenes anyway. If this was about the soldiers’ memories and their attempts to deal with what happened, then we might have seen their reactions after the combat sequences, or not even seen the combat sequences at all.

Where Werner Herzog decides not to play for us the noises of Timothy Treadwell being eaten alive by bears in Grizzly Man (USA, 2005), here we do see the combat sequences. (This is not to overlook Herzog’s strange decision to listen to the noises of Treadwell’s death and then to tell us and his mother that we should not hear them, but the implications of that choice will be left for another time.)

In other words, Restrepo verges on the exploitative and is a poorer film for it. Not only does this ‘objective’ film – which does not engage with the wider politics of the war in Afghanistan, as Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom have in part done in their recent Shock Doctrine (UK, 2009) – thereby reveal something of its allegiances (meaning that in part the film does, perhaps naturally and both for better and for worse, become complicit with the unit with which the filmmakers have been embedded), but it also proves that it is prey to the logic of sensationalism that drives the audiovisual media industry.

Whereas we might criticise The War You Don’t See and Shock Doctrine for being sensational and manipulative in quite obvious ways, since both are making large claims that it is hard to justify without being a bit knowingly one-sided, Restrepo is more subtly sensational perhaps, but sensational it is.

If hearts and minds are truly the object of war – that is, if wars truly are about ideologies, whereby people over there must be convinced of the truth and righteousness of the way of life over here, such that they adopt our ways – then not only does this reveal that war today is absolutely religious (in the sense that it is about convincing people of correct beliefs and codes of conduct), but it also means that cinema is a key ingredient to war. For cinema affects humans in two conjoined and inseparable ways: it makes us think (affecting our minds), and it makes us feel (affecting our hearts). One might say that there is not so much a battle between types of cinema, although this battle has surely been waged, as we have seen through Nazi and Soviet as opposed to Western/American propaganda, but also between those nations that are cinematic and those that are not.

By this I mean to say that it is not so much which cinematic images you believe in that is the root of today’s ideological conflicts (although of course this is the case), but it is whether you believe in cinematic images. In some ways, what I am saying does an enormous dis-service to a massively long history of icons and iconography – that is, the use of pre-cinematic images in order to convey ideas and feelings, in order to exert power, to impose fear, and to indoctrinate. But in other ways, the coincidence of modernity (and now postmodernity) with the advent (and proliferation) of cinema means that this technology, the cinematograph, be it analogue or digital, is the tool through which as much ‘shooting’ has taken place as has been carried out by humans wielding guns.

By making itself suddenly and at the last cinematic, and however perverse this might be in a culture in which that which is ‘cinematic’ is indeed esteemed worthy of the highest praise, Restrepo does itself a dis-service. And my reasons for arguing this will hopefully become clear in my consideration of another recent documentary, which has nothing to do with the contemporary system of warfare that governs the planet, Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA, 2010).

Catfish tells the story of New York photographer Nev Schulman, who receives in the post one day a painting of one of his pictures. The painting is allegedly by an eight-year old girl, Abby, who lives in Michigan. Nev likes the painting and so writes back to Abby – and soon becomes Facebook friends with Abby, her mother Angela, and her sister Megan. In particular, Nev and Megan start to talk online and then on the telephone. The photos of her on Facebook show a hot 19-year old whom Nev obviously fancies, and so they begin something of a long distance relationship.

One night, while photographing/filming some ballet in Colorado, Nev and the two filmmakers, Ariel and Henry, discover that a song posted online by Megan is not – contrary to her claims – by her, but is in fact a sound file taken from a video on YouTube. Nev investigates a bit further: not only are other of Megan and Angela’s songs in fact sound files of performances by other people, but the building that supposedly Angela had bought as a gallery for artist prodigy Abby is in fact a former JC Penney that is still on the market.

As a result of these incongruencies, Nev, Henry and Ariel decide to go to Michigan to investigate – and there [SPOILERS] they discover that Megan does not exist (or at least is estranged from Angela and her family), that Angela looks nothing like the photos she puts of herself online, that Abby does not even know how to draw, let alone paint, and that as many as 14 characters had been invented by Angela to flesh out the world of her Facebook avatars.

As has been said, at a time when The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010) seems to be dominating end of year polls, this is perhaps the ‘real’ Facebook film. But generally positive reviews aside, I want to discuss a key scene from Catfish by way of comparison to Restrepo.

Nev, Ariel and Henry arrive late at night at a farm that is supposed to belong to Megan. They have the address and they have seen the photos of this place – so they recognise it when they arrive. Nev decides that, late though it is, they will drive up to the farmhouse and take a peak at what is there. Naturally, the farmhouse is empty and no one is there.

Trying to describe the creepiness of this moment is difficult, but both I and the friend with whom I saw Catfish discussed afterwards how tense this film made us feel, particularly this moment. And for me, the reason why this moment was so tense was because suddenly, having thought that this was a documentary, I found myself questioning whether I had been the victim of some profound hoax – as if somehow this film was going to become [Rec.] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, Spain, 2007), and be in fact a fiction film that had strung out its documentary appearance for over 45 minutes. That is, I literally wondered whether suddenly a crazy zombie was going to ambush these three from the bushes. Certainly, a 3am arrival at an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the American countryside is the right setting for such a film.

Interestingly, it felt as if Nev, Ariel and Henry were also prey to this kind of logic. Not only is there a terrifying shot where Ariel (I think) approaches a dark window to see if, as per Megan’s reports, there are some horses within the barn, which is terrifying almost in a metaphysical way, since with the camera we approach the darkness and it is the sheer lack of knowing what we will see that scares us, but also when they go round to Angela’s house the next day, the filmmakers are worried that they are going to meet a bunch of psychopaths who will murder them.

In other words, both Nev, Ariel, Henry and I all felt scared when something that I/we had considered to be real life suddenly become uncanny, something that we did not easily recognise, and what was driving our fear/tension was not our ability for remain calmly rooted in reality, but the invasion into our thoughts of, precisely, images from movies – the psychopathic family of in-breeds that has some weird cult that lures in New Yorkers to feed their vampire children.

In and of itself, this is interesting, but I want to take this further. For while I criticise Restrepo for resorting to ‘cinematic’ tactics, Catfish holds off on the ‘cinema.’ Had zombies or in-breds actually attacked Nev et al, this would have been a jump-making moment to rival any we have seen in cinema, and we might normally have called this a ‘cinematic’ moment. But it is for me the fact that Catfish does not – indeed, it cannot – deliver this ‘punchline’ (because it is a documentary of a world in which zombies do not necessarily exist), that the film takes on its real power.

Angela, it turns out, is not a psycho; nor even, really, a pathological liar. She lies compulsively, yes, but she knows that she is doing so, and the truth, or most of it, does eventually come out. In fact, rather than being a liar, she seems a sweet woman who is far more creative than her lifestyle gives her opportunity to be, and so she paints, creates a kind of Facebook novel (which involves Nev), and more in order to occupy herself apart from looking after her husband’s two retarded and self-abusive children (from another marriage), her husband and, of course, Abby. In fact, Angela turns out to be, in many respects, lovely.

In other words, whereas zombies would have terrified initially, such an ending would, in comparison to the endlessly complex and brilliant weirdness of humanity/Angela, have been ultimately unsatisfactory. The ‘cinematic’ would have, as it does in Restrepo, cheapened the film. Paradoxically, by avoiding the ‘cinematic,’ a better film is made as a result.

And here I can talk about why Restrepo, The War You Don’t See, Shock Doctrine and even (as I shall explain) Catfish disappoint in some respects. And this is because all resort to clichés, by which I mean that they adopt the techniques of other films, the likes of which we have seen over and over again. They give us what we expect them to deliver – and as a result, they do not overwhelm us the way in which reality can and does overwhelm us by never conforming to that which we expect, but instead they deliver precisely what we (are supposed to) expect.

Of course, any fule know that documentary cannot grasp reality in its entirety, and any documentary is always a manipulation of reality. But how that manipulation is put together can be done in a brilliant and original fashion. And while so much of what Restrepo shows us is never before seen and fascinating, the ‘pornographic’ exploitation of the battle seems too hackneyed a device to give it its full power. The War You Don’t See in particular involves too many well-composed talking head shots, complete with non-continuous reverse shots of Pilger, typically nodding in approval of what is being said (why? do we need his approval? for whom does Pilger take himself?), while Shock Doctrine involves that image of napalm being dropped in Vietnam (as well as some dodgy inserts of its own, particularly around Naomi Klein, whose words are definitely manipulated via inserts, such that we cannot be one hundred per cent sure of what she is saying). When Pilger interviews Cynthia McKinney, the camera, sensing that she might well up as she discusses how disappointed she is in Barack Obama’s presidency, begins to close in. And this, too, is the cliché that Catfish finally falls foul of, too: the film does not rest until Angela has had her cry on camera, even though such a ‘redemption’ is entirely unnecessary.

Yes – so the shedding of these tears happened, what we see is ‘real,’ and we have no reason to believe that these are crocodile tears in any of these documentaries (even if they are tears shed with full knowledge of the presence of the cameras). But it is the hackneyed, exploitative and cynical way in which, like a shark closing in on its prey, the camera zooms on McKinney in Pilger’s film even though she does not cry, the way in which Catfish hangs around Angela until she cries, the way in which Restrepo builds the tension up via testimony before its violent ‘money shot,’ that gets me. In other words, it is not the ‘truth’ of the subjects that is disappointing here, but they way in which that truth is captured, edited, actively sought out that is disappointing.

This is what I am calling cliché – the need to simplify through symbols the larger-than-cinema reality that is rendered merely cinematic. I call these symbols, because rather than combat being hard to understand, rather than Angela being unfathomable, rather than McKinney being angry, the filmmakers reduce what they record to what they what it to mean, as opposed to letting tears fall onscreen for what they are. Tears are made symbols of; and given that these are tears from a human, to render them symbols is to demean the complex being from which they came.

Paradoxically, then, the ‘truly’ cinematic – that which exceeds our expectations, that which defies simple understanding because we have seen it all before – is that which avoids conforming to, precisely, the pre-existing cinematic clichés.

In the case of the Pilger and Whitecross/Winterbottom films, we might say that these filmmakers need to use shorthand because they have a bigger story to tell, an argument to put across – and peddling in images and types of images with which we already familiar is an easy way of doing this. But my point would be: why? What are the demands that mean that a film must take short cuts in order to make its point?

Recently, and by way of a final comparison, I was lucky enough recently to see Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (USA, 1979). This is not a ‘real time’ film, but in some ways it almost could be, because it is a document of a debate in New York involving novelist Norman Mailer, feminist scholar Germaine Greer, writer Jill Johnston, literary critic Diana Trilling, activist Jacqueline Ceballos, and various members of the crowd that attended the event (including the likes of Susan Sontag).

The debate is about the fate of feminism, and the film lasts 85 minutes – while the debate in real life itself probably lasted nearer two hours, maybe more. Given the discrepancy, there are omissions for certain in this film, and Town Bloody Hall is almost certainly manipulative in its own way, not just by shortening the debate to 85 minutes, but by choosing certain shots and angles that pick up on details during the debate that did not necessarily happen at quite the time that the film makes us think that they did.

But what is interesting about Town Bloody Hall, in comparison to Pilger and Whitecross/Winterbottom’s films, is that it is modest in ambition. It depicts a single event that took place and does not try to make an argument concerning an entire generation of foreign policy or journalistic practice. There is perhaps some ‘judgement’ in the film, but it is hard to discern. But in 85 minutes, we run through the philosophical, the political, the emotional, and, in short, the human, without any recourse to the cheap(er) trickery these other filmmakers feel obliged to deliver. No tears, no beautifully staged and lit interviews and slow zooms in when the tears start to flow; Town Bloody Hall is (deliberately) messy in terms of the cinematography. But in some ways this means that the cameras feel less like a trap waiting for a specific and money-making response to come out, and more like something that will emerge as unexpected and human. And in a single debate, rather than a year in the trenches, something remarkable comes out of it.

If we wait long enough or look hard enough, we can find evidence to confirm whatever beliefs we happen to hold. That life is messy, that humans are complex, that reality can be overwhelming are perhaps all the beliefs that I have and I wait patiently for the films (and moments in life) that can deliver confirmation of those things. Town Bloody Hall, meanwhile, despite being 30 years old (because 30 years old?) avoids the clichés that have become the norm of recent documentary practice, and which would have made Restrepo and Catfish the truly remarkable films that for so much of their running time I was convinced that they could be.

On Facebook, On The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I’m not entirely sure I have that much to say about The Social Network that has not already been said.

Zadie Smith has written an excellent article on the film in the New York Review of Books, and countless others have chimed in with, predominantly, praise for Fincher’s film, some critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s rather too stylised dialogue and the possible sexism in the film aside.

As for Smith’s article, it seems strange that she had not yet come across ‘software studies’ before writing it, but this is perhaps only my own small-world view; given that I research the role of digital technology in cinema, among other things, software studies entered somewhere into my feeble brain a couple of years ago – and I just assumed that I was as usual late in thinking about software.

But either way, Smith is correct in thinking about how the choices given to us when using software are not necessarily liberating. Perhaps we should all learn how to write code in order to be able to write our own software that can allow us to express ourselves as opposed to having software (arguably) always compromising what it is that we want to say. Software, in other words, is as ideologically constructed, consciously or not, than is a film.

Facebook is, as Smith also points out, certainly a simplification of life, as is a business card, as is a biography, as is everyone else’s opinion of us, as Jerry Thompson has so memorably found out. As is a sled, for that matter.

Shopping malls and the likes of Tesco are successful, because they save us the bother of having to go to lots of different shops, or at least lots of different shops in different places. Everything is brought to one place – and life is made easier. And while buying everything in one mall/megastore is easier than traveling around town or further afield for the things one wants or needs, buying tout court is easier than having to source raw materials and make and/or grow everything one’s self.

You bet that Tesco has transformed, say, the book market because it offers to readers a small selection of choice titles that satisfy the need for books in most people. As a result, Tesco, HMV, and the Oprah Winfrey/Richard & Judy book clubs ostracise the majority of authors from the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson has argued that Amazon reverses, to some degree, the ‘Tesco’ trend (as I am terming it), since Jeff Bezos‘ baby allows buyers to find the books that they want – because they have a larger choice online than in, say, even the wonderful and massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London.

And yet even Amazon comes at a price. Even though the Amazon marketplace does help many booksellers to work with and not against Amazon, its sell-everything approach and its tight grip on the online book sales market has put paid to many individual booksellers in the flesh and cyber worlds.

Smith points out at the end of her essay that audience members laughed when the characters of The Social Network discussed the primitive predecessors to Facebook, such as LiveJournal. Strangely, I do not find myself laughing in a similarly superior fashion when I think about what would otherwise translate into the ‘ineptitude’ of the independent second- and first-hand booksellers that Amazon has put out of business. I find myself saddened in some respects. Some types of obsolescence, it seems, we can cruelly laugh at; others will always make us feel sad (especially when it is our own turn to go on the old scrap heap).

What is linking Tesco, Amazon and Facebook, then, is the fact that each unifies in a single place a bunch of things that might otherwise be dispersed and hard to find. As such, they are simplifications, of course, and saddening ones in certain respects. But their success is based upon the fact that they save humans from having to learn a computer language, hire some web space, and put themselves online – as seemingly we all should do (a position that is replete with its own ideological assumptions concerning the ‘superiority’ of a technical and mediatised presence).

In other words, Facebook is the internet redux before it is life redux; the internet, the bigger version of what Facebook is, is life redux, such that we have an order of largesse: Life > Internet > Facebook. In the same way that shops saved us from growing our own, so, too, does Facebook save us from making our own websites. Facebook is the fast food of the internet, its prefab apartments; if you want a mansion or even a nice house, you have to pay someone more dearly to build it for you, or you learn the skills to build it for yourself.

Now, there is a difference between Tesco and Amazon and Facebook. Facebook is about people, while the former two stores sell stuff. Beyond truisms and urban myths about how family members have discovered the copraphilia of relatives, etc (if you’ve seen that fake, viral Facebook page), and the odd gaffe that most people do not notice (because most of us don’t have time to read other people’s Facebook profiles all day long – as most people don’t read these blogs – a pet hate: people who assume that you have kept up with their life because they report on it via Facebook), and beyond UK murders based upon slurs made on Facebook (revealing that we really do believe erroneously that everyone is looking at us and – more particularly – judging us?; as per one of Smith’s commentators, Facebook allows us all to be famous in our own postcodes; perhaps there is an element of ‘becoming light’ attached to Facebook that does appeal to the appeal of being mediatised, turned into an image, made into a star), Facebook is not really the be-all and end-all of our lives. Indeed, it is only when we confuse Facebook with the internet that we begin to think this way, while my ‘identity’ online consists of numerous email addresses, membership of various sites, some obsolete stuff, comments left in hundreds of forums (to which I never return), and so on. I don’t think anyone takes Facebook to be real life, in the same way that there has been a now-long-standing backlash against the ideological critique of films, because audiences are not dumbly passive to the questionable messages being peddled at them in movies. Facebook alone might constitute something of an implosion of the self, a shrinkage as Smith puts it; but the internet as a whole, especially when considered alongside that even greater medium for (compromised and intersubjective?) self-expression, reality itself, constitutes what Sean Cubitt once described (perhaps rather hyperbolically) as a ‘big bang of the self,’ so many ‘identities’ (or aspects of a single identity) can and do we have floating around in cyberspace.

Jean-Paul Sartre has said that looking at a dice in real life/in existence is a richer experience than imagining one. He says that while in our heads/imaginations we can see all six sides of the dice at once, in real life we can only see at best three or four (unless the dice is in suspension and we have mirrors, although this is my own cheeky contention, not Sartre’s). As such, existence trumps the imagination, hence Sartre as an existentialist who feels that it is better to engage in reality than to disappear into self-invented worlds.

Now, the internets as a whole might be self-invented worlds (though there is grounds to defend them, not least from a postmodern perspective). My invocation of Sartre, however, is not to call people to reject Facebook (as Smith has done), but to suggest that when we look at Facebook, we are only seeing two or three of the many sides of the people we are regarding. Reality is always more rich than Facebook; we know Facebook is a simplification, in the same way that we know a hammer makes simpler the task of making some shelves. Sometimes we would be fools to bloody our hands for the sake of not using simplifying tools to insert some nails in the construction of our lives.

By this rationale, The Social Network is a simplification of the story of Facebook, and this is not surprising given how stylised the film is, with its signature Fincher shady interiors, its dialogue that normal people can only think of after the opportunity, and other flourishes, including, as Smith has also explained, a memorable sequence in Henley, which, as Smith fails to mention, borrows the tilt shift technique made remarkable recently by Keith Loutit, and a good example of which, Mardi Gras (Australia, 2008), can be seen below.

I’m not sure how to interpret Fincher’s tilt shift sequence, except perhaps that, by rendering human endeavour into a cartoonish, or better a stop-motion-like and seemingly toyish form, Fincher is directly commenting upon how his film involves a simplification of a reality, a toyification of the raw material from which he ‘sculpts’ his work.

(It might also suggest that Fincher is uncomfortable shooting outside of the USA. Considered in the light of other of his films, especially The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [USA, 2008], it might also suggest that Fincher is offering a prolonged consideration in his work of the effects of cartoons/simplifications on the human psyche – though in some respects this is no profound thought.)

Even though my last paragraph has dealt with the use of tilt shift in The Social Network, it is time to say that, quite a ways into this blog, we finally are talking about the film as opposed to its subject matter. Smith makes no claims to be talking solely about the film in her essay, so this is not something to hold against her, but it is worth pointing out that no one – myself included – seems capable of talking or writing about the film without using it as a platform for talking or writing about the Book of Face itself.

So Facebook has us in its grips – but we really did not need a film to tell us that. Even several years after joining, I still use it regularly, still ‘stalk’ pretty regularly, and still feel that it is the best self-updating address book I have ever owned (and feel that the rest is fun when I want it to be, and annoying when I don’t). But it’s not as if Facebook is not working alongside various other bits of hard- and software in changing our worlds: mobile phones, the internets themselves, iPhones, iPods, iPads, YouTube, Bit Torrents, and more. Facebook is only a small component of this. We have quickly become habituated to them, so one wonders whether The Social Network might one day be the You’ve Got M@il (Nora Ephron, USA, 1998) of a slightly younger – but still Radiohead-listening – generation.

More important, then, than Facebook, is, after Sartre, reality and people. What does The Social Network have to say about society, about ‘the soul’ and things that Facebook no doubt slightly influences but which more importantly it simply allows to be expressed, whether or not what it expresses is only the Harvard sophomore in all of us?

Rather than being a rewriting of what has been written, and certainly rather than being the final word on The Social Network (which is a superior film by a superior filmmaker, but not necessarily his best), this blog, then, is only supposed to bring out an element of the film that seems to be overlooked by most commentators.

The element that I wish to discuss is the grouped idea of class, private property and commons in the film.

One thing that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants is to be recognised as the author of Facebook. The fact that Facebook for a long time in real life contained the legend ‘A Mark Zuckerberg Production’ on every page has been pointed out. This implies that the internet, like television before it, aspires to the movies in order to be considered legitimate, but it also implies that Zuckerberg is interested in authoring something that is supposedly a collective enterprise. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook,” says the fictional Zuckerberg, before he allows all of his collaborators to get screwed over. Zadie Smith reads this Zuckerberg as someone who wants to be liked, but he is also one of those odd types, whom I can see sometimes in myself, who will screw over his close friends, precisely, perhaps, because Groucho Marx-style, he disrespects anyone who actually does like him, because they must have lousy judgment in human beings.

I have no interest in the real Zuckerberg, but the fictional one at least is a self-absorbed but complex chap who wants to give to the world something ‘free,’ but who, megalomaniacally, also craves recognition for the same. And this is the real paradox in the Zuckerberg character presented here, which does make it perhaps a 2.0 Person created by a 1.0 Person, as Smith says, but which also hints at the 1.0 that holds back the 2.0 in all of us: he talks of an open and free society, but he walks in a privatised world of intellectual property. Zuckerberg’s real genius is not having written Facebook. Contra the ‘great man’ of history (or at least computer programming) that Zuckerberg self-servingly espouses (much like Steve Jobs has done recently on the similarly self-important TED), Zuckerberg’s real genius is in winning his legal battles. Someone else most certainly would have designed Facebook or something like it (indeed, we know this, because various other people are working on this idea in the film), in the same way that someone else would have come up with the fonts for word processing software that Jobs claims as making him/his computers so special. That it was this Zuckerberg – in the film – is simply a twist of fate, a moment of hazardous (inevitable?) chance. But getting the world to recognise that he was the author of this phenomenon – this was the greatest coup. And yet this recognition relies solely on the notion of being a 1.0 person – someone whose ideas are shaped by the rights of private and intellectual property – while claiming to be a 2.0 person – someone who believes in the common, the free, and the abolition of intellectual property. Someone who pretends to be a team player but, whether he ‘actually’ stole from the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) or not, is anything but a team player, as Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) finds out.

In this way, Fincher/Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg is not the face of the future, but the Janus face of the past in the present as it comes head to head with the future. Is Zuckerberg a breed that is dying out, however, as thousands of anonymous programmers work for minimal money or for free on open source software around the globe and around the clock in a real self-organising commons of soft wares? Or is he the lingering face of capitalist greed, regardless of whether the real Zuckerberg has pledged to give away a large proportion of his wealth during his lifetime?

The Social Network is not about Zuckerberg, then, but about a world that is on the brink of potentially undergoing huge social change, upon the brink of becoming, or at the very least welcoming into its fold a generation that is, a network society not of homogeneised kids putting their mindlessness down in their live feeds, but of heterogeneous and collaborating humans who will pool information and resources in such a way that private property, both intellectual and material, is replaced by a sense of a common wealth. A society in which, pace Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, emphasis is not on the individual, but, after Hardt and Negri (whom I am quoting a lot at the moment – apologies!), on the multiple singularities that we are both collectively and ‘individually.’ A generation that recognises its own participation in a reality that is far too complex and ‘existential’ than any single film or piece of software might be able to convey.

Zadie Smith should know well that Judith Butler has, among others, argued that gender is, or at the very least can be, a performance. And while Smith might decry Facebook as a reduced or impoverished life, I would contend that we must think about the performative aspects of Facebook, and understand that few are the people who take it for real. In fact, the performative aspects of Facebook are what make it a liberating tool. A tool for prevarication, perhaps, but also a tool that perhaps also makes a political statement out of prevarication; like the Goldman Sachs employee who preferred networking to making money.

To perform is to perform for others; it is fundamentally an act of communication. As such, performance is fundamentally a means of building relationships with others. Rather than isolating us, Facebook, and the internets more generally, can be considered as a means of bringing us towards a multitude.

To be circumspect, this is unlikely to happen with Facebook as it currently stands. Facebook is indeed too homogeneous/homogeneising, too simple, simplistic and simplified. But given how creative people are and can be with Facebook even now, when we all come to be contributing to an even more complex site at even more complex levels of creativity, and without laughing at Facebook as we would not laugh for poor, defunct booksellers, then perhaps we can see the creative impulses of Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg as a step in the right direction, a 2.0 wish, that was stymied by 1.0 desires.

As a meditation on authorship and private property, it is intriguing that The Social Network has Fincher and Sorkin stamped so clearly over it. Perhaps this film remains too steeped in the mythology of cinema as the work of a single auteur. On the other hand, Smith has attributed to Fincher a genius for casting in her article. In some senses, we need not attribute this to Fincher; certainly, we need not attribute the great acting solely to Fincher. For even if some elements and the general high standards of the film suggest the presence of his genius, it is not the only one, and actors, editors, cinematographers, writers, directors, and others all deserve credit for what they have achieved here.

Cinema, in spite of a(n understandable – and still in some ways rightly influential) detour into auteur theory as the main means of understanding it, has always been a collaborative process. Even for productions the goal of which is to make the maximum amount of money for the least amount of effort, many people contribute such that cinema is often a work of a/the multitude. Indeed, when one lets one’s collaborators do their own work, such that they are not just actors or crew members but what Gilles Deleuze might term intercessors, or people who truly bring their own genius to the pot, then something great can be born. Filmmaking is no doubt about teamwork, even if great teams also have great managers, trainers and captains.

Paradoxically, then, Smith might have it all wrong: cinema was always already (at its best? anyway?) the 2.0 endeavour, while the younger media, including the internet, are still stuck – as per the people versus Mark Zuckerberg court cases brought here – at the 1.0 copyright level. In some respects, Thomas Edison‘s insistence upon claiming copyright for his cinematographic invention stymied early cinema production, even though Edison shamelessly copied Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon (France, 1902). In other respects, by going away from Edison to the West Coast, and by in effect shamelessly pirating his hardware, the film industry got going.

Even though it is easy to decry Hollywood for its overriding power and seemingly (but unfairly) homogeneous products, sometimes perhaps we can interpret it in a different way. Whatever it has become, the film industry in the USA might well have been founded upon a collaborative, multitudinous principle. And software, or the internet, is still in its Edison stage, with Zuckerberg as the (counter-?)Edison of his time. Even if the movies have had to evolve, as Dudley Andrew contends (rather self-evidently) in his latest book, sometimes cinema has evolved in beautiful directions, perhaps because through its multitudinous and emergent means of production it is flexible enough to change. As software, similarly, evolves, hopefully it, too, will have some beautiful iterations that allow the multitude to realise itself.