DVD Extras: 15 Movie Posts I Never Got Around to Finishing

by zunguzungu

I’ve been too busy to do any proper blogging, so this post is what it says: these are old posts I never got around to finishing, pasted in without any further editing, on the theory that tomatoes that have rotted on the vine might still be sweet.  

On seeing Quantum of Solace again:

Re-watched Quantum of Solace — which I first blogged about here — and I was struck this time how interested it is in the death drive of luxury. Bond’s insistence that he can’t stay with the random English secret service agent in a crummy hostel — “I’d rather sleep in a morgue” — leads to them staying in a super high class hotel, sleeping together, and eventually her death; as M points out, “they” can’t resist his charm and inevitably die, and his attraction is the same “Bond-ness” that could never stay in a mere backpacker’s hotel. And so she has to sleep with him and die because of a genre convention, the same genre convention that always finds ways to put him in a tuxedo, a hyper-luxury hotel, and a doomed first Bond girl (before the real one). The fact that the movie is also, sort of, about global warming seems appropriate; it wants to pretend to be about water but they keep talking about oil and climate change in the weirdest ways: our drive for luxury condemns us to destroy ourselves. The final shoot out in a luxury hotel in the desert is sort of inescapably overdetermined in that sense, and we’ve even been primed by those weird walking-in-the-desert-in-evening-dress shots.

On watching the first episode of the Roots miniseries:

  • Offers certain kinds of easy answers, the notion that slavers in 1750 were either amoral scoundrels or haunted northerners
  • noticeable how empty the Gambia is as a human space; we see an example of a single form of “culture” but it functions narratively to foreshadow the capture of KK
  • and while at manhood training, he sees slavers while capturing a bird: the difference between african hunting (safe and easy) and white hunting, (slavery) but both are hunting
  • northern captain has never seen africa before, and has no opinons about black people (thus allowing himself to be misled by his southern fist mate) because of course slavery comes out of nowhere
  • transforming enslavement into a bildungsroman: becoming a slave is as much a part of his growth as is his manhood training
  • they overcome tribalism and become one village on the slave ship
  • notably old fashioned dressed guy representing the old america gets corrupted by slavery and demon rum
  • there’s nothing strange about the fact that the actors speak in English, after all; what’s strange is when non-english words get used in english sentences (futo and toubab). By the same token, the stiff and proper “African” affect that most of the actors put on involves carefully avoiding contractions or slurred speech (to distinguish themselves from American black people apparently) but here and there pop up characters that don’t have that affect (OJ Simpson, for example, and KK’s grandmother, or one of the manhoo training
  • ultimately, however, it is important that africa is helpless to save him: he is caught alone
  • their best advice to him, essentially, boils down to avoiding bad neighborhoods and never being alone
  • every line of dialog looks forward to the  telos of enslavement (“I will not need to teach you courage; you’ll take that with you, wherever you go”); narratively, Africa exists to be enslaved

I wrote a bunch of posts about Iraq war movies around the time of The Hurt Locker, and this was a post about Green Zone that didn’t quite make it to the finish line (which was unfortunate, actually, because it would have brought together some interesting stuff from the other posts):

If The Hurt Locker is incoherent, it is at least incoherent for a reason; whether war is a drug or war is a time bomb (to follow Adam Roberts’ theory that war movies are determined by their choice of mono-metaphor), the interesting thing about the movie might be the grinding teeth between those two figures: fighting to defuse the bomb before it goes off but also addicted to it means war never ends, and he re-enlists. Or something. I enjoyed it, but the comparison with In the Valley of Elah was striking; the clarity of the latter’s position stands in stark contrast to the former’s grab bag of interesting — but obsessively un-thought through and disconnected — individual moments.

The incoherence of The Green Zone, on the other hand, almost aspires to the sublime. And in this it is, it seems to me, one of the best figures for the problem of the Iraq war genre, the fact that there is no available American position from which to argue a position with clarity. To repeat myself:

“…the war’s original supporters have now mostly given up defending the original broken-kettle reasons while the president who was elected to end it, hasn’t; it is a war we are in, which no one wants us to be in, but for which no one has any idea how not to be in…a permanent state of emergency that has, as such, ceased to be a state of emergency, ceasing to be anything at all.”

Part of the problem is simply that you cannot make a Bourne movie about the Iraq war. Bourne works as a character because of the self-loathing tension of the genre, because the killer who hates himself because he wants to kill still wants to kill. The drama is then his doomed struggle to be free of himself. In other words, it’s an interesting narrative premise to the extent it explicitly recognizes that we are, and have always been, the bad guy, good intentions be damned. And in this sense, Ross Douthat isn’t completely wrong when he laments that

“In “Green Zone,” everything is much simpler. “We” were lied to. “They” did the lying. The “we” is the audience, Matt Damon’s stoic soldier and the perpetually innocent American public. The “they” is the neoconservatives, embodied by a weaselly Greg Kinnear (playing some combination of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith) and capable of any enormity in the pursuit of their objectives.”

But he’s still mostly wrong. After all, we really were lied to, a lot, by people who could have easily known better, if they had cared to. That they didn’t care to know the truth, that they preferred to live in fantasy land, and that they were willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings because of their sick war fantasies is the sort of psychosis that In the Loop and In the Valley of Elah anatomize so well; in the former, the “in the loopness” that prevents the people pushing the paper from having any understanding of what it is they are doing beyond the day’s bureaucratic task, and in the latter, the “magical world” of military glory in which men imagine that manly war is a mission beyond the merest possibility of doubt or reproach. Those things are pretty damned important.

And the question of whether the Bush people intentionally doctored the evidence to make the case for war or allowed themselves to be manipulated because they were simply craven and stupid is irrelevant. As is the question of whether Douthat is being stupid or disingenuous when he pretends that only shades of grey are appropriate for this question. Who cares? Douthat has been carrying water for these people for so long that it doesn’t matter.

But then the thread of the argument came unraveled:

  • But this movie wants to imagine a good and pure American heroism being tarnished by a bad and corrupt American villainy; this movie comes from a place where it is possible to think that torture, pre-emptive invasion, and neo-imperialism are all un-American things, that “we” are not really like that.
  • Such people
  • that we can just elect Barack Obama to fix.
  • And such people will be unable to understand why the war has continued now that he has. After all, as bad as Bush/Cheney were,
  • became the repository of all that was evil
  • The movie invents the hopelessly implausible figure of a (sort of) crusading Wall Street Journal reporter itching to tell the truth about the war, a dupe in the hand of the real bad guys.
  • comes from a Democratic hawk perspective, a mindset that hates Bush but fails to realize that it is Bush too. The crime of this war is not — as The Green Zone seems to think — that the intelligence was manipulated, that we invaded under false pretenses, or that we failed to hand over the country to some bloodsoaked Baathist strongman.

A bit of a meditation on Quentin Tarantino that never quite came together, after a conversation with Dan Clinton made me revisit my initial loathing for Kill Bill:

What happens to “culture” when it becomes a thing that can be appropriated? A friend suggested to me that there’s something inherently dubious about getting all up in arms about cultural appropriations from Asia, as in Quentin Tarantino’s everything-sploitation Kill Bill. After all, the stuff QT is stealing from is itself a hodge-podge of stolen tropes and narratives. There’s nothing “authentic” about the kung fu movies QT appropriates; they themselves are stolen from elsewhere. That’s how the universe of culture goes round, init?

The conversation began because scrimshander pointed out that Kill Bill isn’t just a fabric of appropriations, it’s a text about appropriations. I wasn’t sure what to think about that at first; like George Lucas, Tarantino can come off so badly in interviews that it’s hard to even give him the benefit of the doubt.

after all, sploitation comes from a tradition not aligned with asia but with a people historically saddled with a blackface cultural ? associated with racial slavery

not the same

I had a QT put the “asian” in “silly Caucasian likes to play with samarari swords.”

the fact that Beatriz doesn’t read her daughter a story before bedtime but, instead (at the child’s suggestion), they watch Shogun Assassin is absurd in such interestingly self-aware ways, as is the fact that Bill’s Hatori Hanzo sword is on a stand above the TV. Nothing happens by chance in this movie; near the end, for example, QT engineers a scene around a dinner table only so that we can see three blonde beautiful white people eating sandwiches made on “Bimbo” brand “pan blanco.” White-bread bimbo in spanish? For serious? And naturally, Bill is using what could be a sushi knife to cut the corners off the sandwiches as they talk about how the daughter learned about death from killing a fish; a referent, inevitably, to when the bride got her sword from Sonny Chiba in a sushi restaurant. A few minutes later, we see that the daughter has a picture of her mother standing in front of a canal holding a baguette in a photograph that doesn’t so much scream out “France” as it screams out “tourist stereotype of France,” again, an identity constituted by white bread.

None of this means anything, it‘s hard not to conclude; if you listen to QT’s interviews and stuff, you don’t get the sense of a mind focused on producing meanings out of these structural consonances, you see a guy who loves them on a level approaching genius or madness, whichever we‘re calling it these days.

part of QT’s genius is the making unreal clichés into something living; the best part of Pulp Fiction, for me, are those moments when the walking clichés act like human beings without being less clichés for it. Samuel L. Jackson’s “I’m trying real hard” speech, for example. In this movie, there’s something quite powerful about putting conjugal and parental love at the heart of a revenge story, a narrative exactly as over-simple as the movie’s title yet suddenly interesting and complex when killing bill gets freighted with a ll the interesting baggage he freights it with,

There’s something beautiful in being symptomatic, I think, the way Point Break is so itself — so impossibly like itself as to transcend caricature — as to be sublime. To “get“ QT, it‘s necessary to put aside the “synthetic genius” ideal of the artist, the idea that a work of art should encode or transmit a meaning of some sort, that it should

The point is that, as in life, these back and forths of cultural referent are so complex as to be impossible to untangle

Like the ?? Kill Bill is far more itself than even the most impartial of documentary photography could reveal

did you feel a slight wave of euphoria (did you come?); he thrusts his sword into her scabbard (penetration) — how male!  while she causes his heart to explode (an explosion from within, a pregnancy and a death from excess emotion) — how female!

On viewing Once Upon a Time in the West:

–Transforming Fonda into the evil guy, transforms character into evil (while Bronson is the consumate spectator): he even plays the movie music himself (but most of the time just stands there and watches with a mixture of superiority and amusement)

–Leone’s known for his grotesques, of course, but Bronson’s face is a grotesque of a different sort: his tiny eyes, tight-smile, and weirdly unlined face makes him look like a mask cut out of paper.

–Fonda is no more sadistic than Bronson is, after all (and frankly, Bronson’s the scarier one, since there’s no reason for what he does)

–the idea (as in high plains drifter too) of women enjoying rape, by the way — note how far we’ve come from the horror of The Searchers

–??’s wordless arousal when Henry Fonda puts his hand on her stomach (the guy who killed her husband, kidnapped her, and is about to kill her). I can imagine a scenario where this scene is rendered less implausible — a Stockholm syndrome type affair where she begins to identify with her captor or something — but this movie doesn’t even need that. The last time we saw the two of them, he had appeared in her house holding a gun; now we simply cut into the bedroom scene, with him on top of her and her having apparently reverted to an animal state of some kind

–misogyny as high art

–doesn’t so much act as perform, a display not if interiority but of masks

–and the camera follows Bronson’s eye movements

–drives Fonda crazy that he doesn’t know who Bronson is

–vs. Frank, who’s “frank” about who he is

On watching the Peter O’Toole Becket:

–Why anyone would care about Henry II and Thomas a Becket in 1964 is an interesting question

–Henry II has no particular love for his Norman ancestors, he claims, scorning and disowning the way they conquered and raped their way across England. He does, however, like ruling the country and debauching Saxon peasant women; this, he doesn’t care to disown.

–He has become dependant on a Saxon, on Thomas, to make it possible.

–Thomas becomes complicit, ruling his own people in service of their conquerors

–This tableau resembles nothing so much

What did it resemble? I have no idea what I had in mind to finish that sentence.

Notes on watching the old karate kid movie:

–shockingly pretty okay movie.

–little touches like the sweeping vertigo of the shots of wide-open architecture when Daniel enters upper class social spaces

–the fact that he loses her at “golf n’ stuff” but gets her back at “pizza n’ stuff”

–Mr. Miyagi might have become a cliché at a certain point, and the model-minority idealism of the character is, to say the least, vexed, but he’s also — how can I put this — a great character. His strength is tempered with humor, his pain with joy. He’s human in a way that most characters are not

–Balance, after all, is not just a stereotypical trait of an imaginary Oriental

–it’s a movie about white privilege establishing itself by rigging the game against racial minorities, cheating to prevent them from even getting in the door. It’s a movie that reminds us how poorly this country has served its immigrants when it suits its needs to do so, a movie that reminds us of the time America’s greatest generation built concentration camps.

–and the “game” is as self-conscious as possible about being a metaphor for America.

A question I didn’t quite get around to answering:

What does it mean that Captain America comes to the present?

I ask this question for two reasons. For one thing, the story is so overdetermined by its original WWII setting that it will always carry with it at least a whiff of that moment in Western mythology, no matter where it goes. Which is maybe the point? The 2011 movie understands this, as when we see “Captain America” being performed on a stage (within the movie’s stage), over and over again, perpetually punching Nazis against a backdrop of spectacular feminine spectators. This is what he is. Captain America is so fundamentally about punching Hitler in the face that whoever he punches in the face sort of becomes Hitler, and just as he’s a kind of walking embodiment of Charles Atlas, he’s always doing it to impress the girls, defining masculinity in that gesture. Narrative space bends to fit the mass of this character as he was originally formed and narrated.

But, of course, the main reason I ask that question is that the movie literally brings Captain America to the present: at the end of the movie, he’s been (nonsensically) frozen and woken up in some kind of present day moment, with Samuel L. Jackson delivering the (interestingly) bad news that while he slept, his love interest most likely grew old and died of old age or something. This is, it seems to me, the only interesting thing about the movie.

Before that point, by contrast, it’s been nothing but a completely uninteresting re-creation of the basic Captain America story, a simulacrum of the original that’s so thoroughly lacking in innovation or surprise that you have to wonder if they took a pride in it. Which, of course, they did: they re-created a period piece by making sure that every element of the script adhered to the (now incredibly outdated) standards of that period, producing a movie, therefore, that is not only boring by our standards, but boring because it is being made to adhere to a version of “then” that is produced by our present-day standards (which consider “then” movies to be boring).

On seeing Letter from an Unknown Woman:

I saw Letter from an Unknown Woman at the PFA a week or so ago, and enjoyed it a lot, though I felt the film series curator worked a little too hard to shoehorn it into a kind of generic category (revolving around the idea of “female voice”) that seemed to have little to say about the particularities of this particular film’s cinematic vocabulary. Not sure that was her fault, really; she had a tough task, and anyway isn’t that always the trick in making generic categories? Especially in making an appeal to generic affiliation with reference (in this case, for all extents and purposes) to only a single example, it’s very difficult to say something legible in both broad and specific terms without doing an injustice to one or the other. And maybe if I saw more of the films in the series, her remarks wouldn’t have seemed so like an attempt to shoehorn a film from 19?? into a set of conceptual and critical boxes formed by very present-moment concerns.

However, I only saw one, so it did. And while those kinds of subjective retrospective critical judgments are, to a certain extent, unavoidable — we are, obviously, living in our present context and people in the past lived in theirs — I missed any sense in her talk of the important (and revelatory) dissonance between, which seems to me to be the saving grace of those kinds of gestures. When we think about the ways our own now-ish critical categories fail to capture what was going on then-ish, we do so not only to try to transcend those limitations (if we do that; I think we do) but also to get a sense of parallax, a kind of perspective on both at the same time, the way an infant learns something about both a shoe and box by comparing them and discovering them to be different. Calling Cervantes postmodern is laughably anachronistic, of course, but it also teaches us something about both Cervantes and the postmodern to make the comparison.

That’s not where I started out going though; I wanted to ask a general question, occasioned by my reading of Freud and my interest in costume dramas. In most costume dramas, the concerns are always thoroughly and obviously present-ist; you can grouse at the anachronistic clocks in Julius Caesar if you want or the Cockney accents of Veronese comic-peasants or whatever, but if you’re among the groundlings at a play at the globe, you already understand that it’s about England. But that allegorical gesture — Italy is really England — elides the interesting work that gets done when England is transformed into Italy. After all, the choice of Italy isn’t arbitrary: by changing England into Italy (instead of China, France, or Sparta), a certain kind of work has been done, which we’d have to understand by reference to the dissonance between what England is understood to be and the contrasting connotations of the Italian.

Freud, for example, distinguishes between manifest content and latent content in these terms: “the dream content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose characters and syntactic laws it is our business to discover by comparing the original and the translation”

And then I stopped writing, it seems.

On Jason Bourne:

–The evolution of the Bourne movies tell us a lot about the war on terror.

–the first movie was made with the idea that government assassins are a bad thing, and then, when 9-11 happened (after the movie had been made, but not released), they had to completely change gears.

–There’s a moment in the last Bourne movie where evil guy refers to Pam as “our quarterback.” But, of course, it’s Madden they’re playing, not real football.

–real football is about planning, trying to guess who to best prepare, running a play, and then responding to unexpected variables

–turning The Battle of Algiers into a rooftop chase, competing intelligence fields

–the idea that intelligence cannot, itself, win has been lost

–After all, the Battle of Algiers was won (by intelligence work and willingness to use any method) but France lost the war

–this is a movie in which the rogue agent defeats the network, the system, the team: he wins because he can lose himself in a crowd of data which even their (preposterously exaggerated) powers of surveillance cannot sort through.

I really wished I’d finished that one.

Three quick mini reviews:

Che: I’m not sure if Josh Evans set out to make a cinematic version of that Che poster everyone knows, but that’s pretty much what he accomplished. Parts of it are actually quite compelling, unfortunately, because that only makes the lack of any real depth to the narrative all the more a missed opportunity that the title actor brings so much charisma to the role.

Bob Le Flambeur: If you’re ever wondering where Oceans Eleven came from, look no farther. I wonder if this one was metaphorically about moviemaking too?

Coming to America You can’t fault the movie for not being realistic, of course. Its vision of Africa isn’t just ridiculous, it’s the point that it’s ridiculous and that‘s where a lot of the humor lives, so don‘t even try it. But what’s fascinating to me is the absence of polygamy from the entire movie, even as a myth to be busted or something.

And then, I partly wrote this review of Soderberh’s Che, and didn‘t post it — if I’m remembering correctly — because I read someone else‘s Che post and decided that mine was not nearly as good. But here it is anyway:

I had heard that Soderbergh’s Che was an interesting film, so I accidentally watched ???’s Che and was disappointed; the actor that plays Che isn’t bad, but it’s not a good movie, at best a sort of unintentional feature length transformation of a Che t-shirt into a film, remaining so obstinately at the level of surface mystique and mythology as to seem almost intentional.

But Soderbergh’s Che, it turns out, is an interesting movie. Formally constructed around the difference between Cuba and Bolivia, it works because the first story is so perfectly matched by the second, the rising, building growth of Castro’s guerilla struggle so nicely mirrored by the eroding frustration of his failure in Bolivia. You are swept into the growth of a collectivity in Cuba as you watch rivals and adversaries become co-opted/recruited into Castro’s army; you are taken through a Lucan-esque saga of doomed tragedy as you watch Che’s little army, so cohesive and determined at the start, dwindle and be abandoned in the desert of Bolivia’s harsh uplands.

What makes Soderbergh’s Che so much better than ??’s, in other words, is that it makes clear what Che would have himself been the first to proclaim: a movement is built not of well known leaders but of unknown people. The glamour of the most famous guerilla in the world is irrelevant, and even the much more organized intervention of the US in Bolivia is not the most important thing; in the end, what mattered was that the Cuban people, even Batista’s soldiers, supported Castro while the Bolivian peasants Che wanted to liberate never joined him. “They don’t trust you; many of your men are Cubans,” is perhaps the most important line of the film, and the final judgment on his attempt to be the second Simon Bolivar. Though it never quite explicitly puts it in these terms, you can see the difference between a revolution built out of a dense society built out of organized slave labor and the revolution that never comes because the indigenous people, rightly or wrongly, were never convinced they had anything to gain from risking their lives with the man from Argentina. In any case, Benicio Del Toro’s Ernesto Guevara is the far more powerful figure in the second film than the first, far more Che the lonelier and doomed-er he gets. By the end, he is almost literally fighting the entire Bolivian army by himself, and it’s almost like that’s what the movie needs to truly make him into the perfect guerilla, the perfect myth. But Mao’s “fish in water” thing happens in Cuba and not in Bolivia not because of what the guerillas do, but because of what the peasants do, a thing over which Che himself turns out to have no control at all, and not even any real understanding.

The film’s historical accuracy is mostly a function of its focus; a lot of important stuff happens off screen, things like the larger factionalization of the left at this time, which effectively predetermine the outcome. When Che arrives in Bolivia, his political contacts have mostly already turned against him, and that has a lot to do with why he fails, why he never quite breaks through; the peasants never join because he’s abandoned by his allies at the start. And in glossing over Che’s bizarre Congo period, for example, the movie sacrifices a lot of the real mess of real life, allowing it to tell a simpler story not less by subtraction than simply by how it frames which part of the story you’re going to see. But I do appreciate the story it tells in a grand sense, because I think it’s a true one, even if it might be less true of Ernesto Guevara himself: below the headlines, history gets quietly made through imperceptible choices made by people whose names are never known, the currents in the tides of human society that we can use our famous icons, at most, to mark and track.

On the sublimely terrible The Philanthropist:

The only thing that’s interesting about The Philanthropist is the fact that it was made in 2009, well after what many have called the “crisis of legitimacy” that transformed the international development system in the late 90’s. It still isn’t that interesting, of course. The pilot is the same kind of “broken white person goes to Africa to become whole again” narrative that was already moldy and oldey when Elspeth Huxley read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and said to herself “I can do better than that.” It trots out so many of the usual bullshit tropes that it’s actually worth prescribing the Binyavanga. And that’s just the pilot.

But that stuff’s normal and banal; even the response to it is so clichéd that I can barely bring myself to link to it. Instead, that’s interesting about the show is that it has thoroughly internalized the kinds of critiques which — by the end of the nineties — were threatening to overturn the entire system of multilateral driven development that the IMF and World Bank came to represent. It is a show about rehabilitating the very thing whose shittiness it begins by admitting, incorporating the critique in order to forget it just copped to the charge.