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Archive for August 2009

Afterthoughts on Tarantino

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IB11Jonathan Rosenbaum has written more on what troubles him about Inglourious Basterds. He makes, much more articulately, the point I wished to make about how it fails to convey any meaning: how its talk is idle. My response, one that JR claims to be waiting for (though it is not possible to reply directly as his blog is closed for comment), is that there will be no such reply: no one will be able to perspicaciously point us to anything Tarantino is saying about his subject or his medium (or persuasively argue that Inglourious Basterds is an experience worth having). What we might get, however, is analysis of the film as a phenomenon (a symptom): in the vein of K. Longworth’s post on Tarantino’s little omelette. She felt that I.B. seemed to be more symptomatic of the world of September 2009 than of the 2008 which threw it up. And when I watched the film, Slavoj Zizek’s preoccupation with the obscene fantastical popped into my mind (a similar connection was made by KL). Yet this film is the obscene fantasy of QT, and a select few peers. I am glad not to count myself among them, but also glad not to merely dismiss it as simple self-indulgence. It is, after all, quite obscene.

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Written by James P. Campbell

27/08/2009 at 22:13

News of the week

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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

My vote for most conventionally subversive trailer this year. This is SO exciting – directed by Werner Herzog, produced by David Lynch, starring Michael Shannon (of Revolutionary Road, and whose performance in The Missing person was awe-inspiring). Loosely based around the story of a chap who stabbed his mother with a saber, having recently been cast in a Sophocles tragedy. Read what you will into this video:

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Written by James P. Campbell

23/08/2009 at 22:01

Inglourious Basterds **

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IB11An extremely sensitive debate has unfolded around Inglourious Basterds (and rightly so). One opening salvo came from Daniel Mendelsohn at Newsweek, whose deep concerns with the film have peculiar resonance. Quentin Tarantino’s film is concerned with inversion – principally, the subversion of the violent 1950s and 1960s action films set in the theatres of the Second World War (within the mould of a classic spaghetti western). Put succinctly, Inglourious Basterds is about Jewish revenge. Obsessively drawing upon conventions from War and Western genres, then turning inward on the traditional auteurist subject of the cinema itself, Tarantino ultimately has the raw power of cinema defeat the Nazis (having already tortured, butchered, burnt and explicitly annihilated the Germans, as effigies of nemesis). Mendelsohn contends that this genre-mashing postmodern omelette leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and broke too many eggs in the process. “Using the Holocaust, even tangentially, as a vehicle for a playful, postmodern movie that so feverishly celebrates little more than film itself” is the first sin. I would happily defend a director’s choice to reject historicity, but by toying with several key symbolic aspects of Nazi terror and violence (mass burning, symbols carved into flesh, etc), Tarantino leaves himself open to hard criticism. By turning these acts against the Nazis, and moreover, by having Jews perpetrate the atrocity, his inversion amounts to either an exploitative leveling (that brings the victim into the fold of the condemned) or a vicious misreading of Jewish philosophy (an eye for an eye, ad absurdum).

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Written by James P. Campbell

23/08/2009 at 21:20

News of the week

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(500) Days of Summer

Widely celebrated in the US (ovations at Sundance; an opening weekend netting over 24 times its budget), this emocore indie monolith will soon reach these shores. I actually quite look forward to it – it has a guilty appeal, and for all its affected eccentricity (come on, just look at the title), derivativeness and nauseating too-cool-for-schoolery, it looks to be incredibly well written. Reviews so far have been mixed: see here and there.

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Elephant

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Elephant is a film it took a while for me to get round to watching. It is also a film which I had hardly heard of, beyond the brief buzz around its Cannes prize winning. I did get round to watching it, and its poetry moved me to try describe it in some aspect.

ElephantLike Russian Ark, it travels around its setting tracing a history, but this is a history in non-linear time, foreshadowing and backshadowing, rather than taking stock of a past. It follows ordinary people; we see them as an other, but we also trace their footsteps as though in their shoes, and we (as the camera, present as our eye) are not really seeing through a subject as in Russian Ark: there is no self, interpretation or discourse here. As if to underscore that fact the camera just flows through the halls, through the doorways, going where these people go, in absorbed, transparent coping, in basic understanding. And at the same time we are interpreting, we are conscious of a discourse by Van Sant on these people, in this place. Not only are we seeing (as them) how they effortlessly, unconsciously and intelligibly navigate their worlds, but we are also seeing them as subjects who are relating to the objects around them, (and so conjuring that intentional space in our own conceptual abstraction). And here is where Van Sant tells his story – a story which delves deeply into the observation of, first, Godard’s assertion that “les travellings sont affaire de morale” and more importantly, Luc Moullet’s primordial formulation, “la morale est affaire de travellings” – because these tracking shots are phenomenal manifestations of morality.

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Written by James P. Campbell

15/08/2009 at 00:47

An essay on film as art (III)

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Part III: Why ‘art’ cannot be defined in relation to conditions

So far, we have established several criteria which are neither individually necessary nor completely jointly sufficient conditions to classify a film as a work of art. Those films produced by an artist and presented to an artworld public, which exhibit representational, expressive and formal characteristics, and which were intended to have the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest, can be works of art. However, if art is to be defined in terms of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, in lieu of such conditions, film cannot be described as an art form.

Dean argues that such conditions are not discoverable. Both cognitive science and (select) philosophy support the view that the structure of concepts mirrors the way humans categorize things: in respect to their similarity to prototypes, not in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions (Dean, ‘The Nature of Concepts and the Definition of Art’ in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61). Against this it has been contended that such psychological theories of concepts afford, at best, an account of how people seem to classify things, but cannot account for the correct classification of extra-psychological phenomena; and that such theories are presently too controversial to draw substantive philosophical morals from. On the contrary, I urge that by mobilising certain philosophical arguments, the quest for a definition of art that states individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions can be proven misguided. We do categorize things in respect to their similarity to prototypes. This is clear both from psychological theories of concepts and Berkeley’s subjective idealist analysis of general names. Therefore, if we are to determine whether film is or can be an art form, art should be defined in relation to prototypes, rather than by assembling conditions.

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Written by James P. Campbell

09/08/2009 at 18:01

An essay on film as art (II)

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Part II: Aesthetic definition

Beardsley argues that what defines an artwork is “the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest” (Beardsley, ‘An Aesthetic Definition of Art’ in Lamarque and Olsen, p.58). Aestheticians refer to the most concentrated (complete, unified or intense) perceptions, and those which are controlled by the object experienced, as ‘aesthetic experiences’. ‘Aesthetic interest’ incorporates two ideas: the audience takes an interest in the aesthetic character of the experience they hope to gain from the work; and they have an interest in obtaining the experience, for its intrinsic value.

In discussing Persona and Cries and Whispers, several examples of film arousing aesthetic experience have been called to account. The beauty of Nykvist’s images in Persona is undeniable, as is the case in Cries and Whispers. In the former, novel techniques such as the merging of two faces further piques aesthetic interest. In the latter, we have seen that the audience has an interest in obtaining the aesthetic experience in the most literal sense – to fully make sense of the film and its search for the truth of the soul in suffering, one’s perceptions must be heightened to make the necessary representational connections. Sounds (whispers, screams, chimes, music) arouse the most acute of aesthetic experiences (though less so in Persona, where the soundtrack of dripping taps, ringing telephones and dissonant avant-garde orchestral music creates unease).

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Written by James P. Campbell

08/08/2009 at 22:44

News of the week

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The Lovely Bones

Aww. Sweet thin Peter Jackson has directed The Lovely Bones, adapted for the screen by his usual team of Walsh and Boyens. Gladly, they have brought the magical tapestry of their visual imaginations to bear on the work, but the material does come across quite sickly. Little miss Salmon’s in-between is an extraordinary creation, evoking various works of Dali-esque surrealism. Unfortunately, the trailer sandwiches this between the deeply moving opening act, in which every reaction shot acts as a signpost, a bleary-eyed upward glance or a grieving burial in hands, and the third act’s hackneyed murder-mystery cliché. The actors are also distractingly starry, but on the whole it looks to be promisingly well-directed. Will its strength prove to lie behind the camera (“in my own perfect world”)?

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Written by James P. Campbell

08/08/2009 at 22:22

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ***½

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HalfbloodprinceReturning for his sixth year at Hogwarts, six months behind schedule, the sixth film adaptation of the Harry Potter series has arrived with a peaky pelvic thrust. Helmed by David Yates, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has excelled both at the box office and in critics’ notebooks. Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban was the last critical darling (and arguably the only truly self-sufficient cinematic installment to date) but now it has a peer with which to jostle. Like the latter, Half-Blood Prince adopts a darker, more adult tone (but unfortunately, rather bungles the sexual aspect to our heroes’ coming-of-age, reducing what was an integral and not insincere dimension of their last full year at school to diminutive comic relief). Yates doesn’t have quite the flair of Cuarón when it comes to blending light with dark, and what emerges is a film of two distinct halves.

On the one hand, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is plunged deeper into the dark intrigue surrounding the ascent of Lord Voldemort, riding on the tailcoat of Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Tasked with extracting a memory from the magically sealed recesses of the mind of new Potions master Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), Harry must uncover the secret of Voldemort’s turn to murder and evil, and make various inadvertent references to grooming in the process. Without giving too much away, I will point out that this involves horcruxes, which are something like the One Ring from that other big-money fantasy franchise (and not quite the amazing flight of originality some seem to believe; nor is the name itself big or clever – just another lazy Latin portmanteau from Rowling, who lacks the Tolkeinesque education to conjure a serious system of naming within cohesive mythical language).

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An essay on film as art (I)

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In memory of Ingmar Bergman.

Part I: Traditional definitions

Traditional definitions of art, as portrayed in contemporary discourse, take artworks to be characterised by a single type of property. According to Thomas Adajian,

the standard candidates are representational properties, expressive properties and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterised by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive and formal properties. (Adajian, ‘The Definition of Art’, p.2)

Each of these characteristics can apply to film. In fact, film often combines them simultaneously. However, traditional definitions do not necessarily apply to film in the same respect as they would to traditional art forms. Film frequently employs a complex interrelation of form, visual and aural, to convey expressive and representational elements. This is difficult for traditional, monistic definitions of art to account for. To explore the representational, expressivist and formalist properties which film exhibits we may turn to the specific example of Persona and Cries and Whispers, directed by Ingmar Bergman and shot by Sven Nykvist.

Representational properties

personaIn the opening sequence of Persona we are presented with a montage of starkly black and white images including an erect penis, a nail being driven through a hand, a sheep being slaughtered, several images of what appear to be corpses and finally a young boy reaching out to a blurred image of a female face. These are representational in several respects. Firstly, the events in the film’s narrative are echoed in the images on screen – the erect penis relating directly to Alma’s retelling of her orgy experience, the young boy reaching toward the face representing Alma’s hatred of and emotional disconnection towards her son. This is clearly self-reflective representation: an opening sequence which may be seen as a montage of metaphors for the themes about to be explored in the rest of the film. Secondly, this sequence represents the nature of subjective mental phenomena, particularly dreams. The disjointed, symbolic nature of the images coupled with their presentation in contrasting black and white lends an intensely oneiric quality to the sequence. The blurred faces to which the boy reaches out are a striking metaphor for Alma’s guilt concerning her feelings towards her son. The images of this sequence can be understood as from directly inside Alma’s mind. In fact, Bergman conceived of the blurring of the faces as he lay sick with pneumonia, and might well be presenting a representation of his own subjective and hallucinatory experiences. This is entirely plausible, particularly given the strong parallels between this sequence and those of archetypal surrealist cinema (Un Chien Andalou and Le Sang d’un Poète are both called to mind). Bergman also interrogates the nature of representation itself: the status of the image and the status of the filmic medium. Included in the montage are images of movie reels, projectors and broken film footage. The film presents a representation of itself breaking, another reflexive turn that refers to the internal states of the protagonists.

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