Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Note On Media Literacy

One of the major causes for great social change in Europe in the 18th century was the role of literacy. While measuring actual levels of literacy and its meaning are contested by historians, there is no doubt that literacy reached levels that no longer included the upper class institutions, as evidenced by the numerous pamphlets spreading through France before the storming of the Bastille or the popularity of Thomas Paine's Common Sense. More people read, learned what was going on around them, and made judgements to change the course of history based around the persuasion of language.

However, literacy has always required a two way street of both education and erudition along with understanding of an audience's own proclivities. Write with obscure language and alienate your audience. Write without strong grammar or spelling and lose the other side. Literacy as both a skill of reading and writing takes time to hone and consider, and as a species, we've had numerous millennia to try and reach a state where words can perform actions.

In our myth of cinema's founding, media literacy was not innate. People ran from the train as it arrived in the station. Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs has remarked upon audiences members confused where the rest of the body of a woman was while her face was in close-up. These problems, however, quickly faded away. We all quickly understood what it meant to watch something, how editing worked, and most importantly, that often the images presented to us contained some sort of reality equivalent, the indexical.

This was a hyperbolic movement of the 20th century, much faster and expedient that textual literacy. The moving image as a democratic force soon took hold as the medium to communicate to masses, be it immigrant families in the Lower East Side, abused plantations workers in Brazil watching on a cloth sheet, or simply now streaming on the Internet. Maybe not everyone can read, but we sure as hell can understand the basics of a movie.

With that rapid expansion, however, the implications of the possibilities by those who were media literate became frighteningly unchecked. We've come to understand what we can show mass audiences and all of its potentials, but in many ways, the speed of media literacy in the 20th and 21st century has not allowed us to look further into why and how we are watching things. And thus, a person can now film himself willingly taking the life of two individuals, and then later his own, and gain an audience to watch his horrific acts. He has his reasons for shooting the video, as we have our reasons for watching. But perhaps we aren't as media literate as we thought. Perhaps we need to consider stronger implications of our democratizing technology, and more importantly, the low bar that media literacy allows for basic comprehension but not human comprehension. Media literacy can cause historical change, but more and more, its only aim is perhaps simply appealing to base emotions, abusing its indexical power to confuse us from reality instead of growing a larger social consciousness. Roger Ebert called cinema a great empathy device. I'm not sure I believe that anymore.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Recent Link Round-Up

New writing from November 2014 to April 2015

For RogerEbert.Com, a report on the 6th Annual Turner Class Movie Film Festival

A new essay on historical thinking, "Race and The American Movie"

For Filmmaker Magazine, Thom Andersen's The Thoughts That Once We Had.

2014 Best Of Writing

-Top 10 for The Film Stage
-Submission to the Village Voice Poll
-Capsules of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Two Days, One Night for In Review Online
-Episodes of The Cinephiliacs with Keith Uhlich, counting down #10-6 and #5-1.

Wrote capsules for The Film Stage's Top 50 of the Decade on Certified Copy, Mysteries of Libson, Cosmopolis, and Moonrise Kingdom.

On L'Avventura and Clouds of Sils Maria

Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America

On Criterion's Box Set of the Documentaries of Les Blank

Jean Renoir's A Day in The Country

Lucercia Martel's La Cienaga

Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

On Godard's Every Man For Himself and Truffaut's The Soft Skin

Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse

Reviews of new films: Paul Schrader's Dying of the Light, Gina Telaroli's Here's To The Future!, and Paul Harril's Something, Anything.

Episodes of The Cinephiliacs: Mike D'Angelo on Buffalo '66, Tina Hassania on You've Got Mail, Matías Piñeiro on Duelle, Doug Dillaman on My Neighbor Totoro, Kris Tapley on JFK, Jan-Christopher Horak on Her Sister's Secret, Calum Marsh on The Last Days of Disco, and Kiva Reardon on Leave Her To Heaven.

Capsules from Letterboxd:
Contemporary: Run All Night, Jupiter Ascending, A Most Violent Year, The Congress, Beloved Sisters, Eden, Nightcrawler
Works from India: The Cloud-Capped Star, Gangs of Wasseypur, Jewel Thief, Awaara
Expressive Esoterica: Gone in 60 Seconds, The Avenging Eagle, Junior Bonner, Now I'll Tell, The Son's Return, Bed Time, Mr. Majestyk
Bullshit: Shame

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Michael Mann's Blackhat

Computer technologies, digital networks and interfaces, and mobile communications tend to intensify physical presence by paradoxically putting new emphasis on bodily knowing, communications, and tactile information. 
—Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise

Michael Mann has finally made a film about idealist individuals. Or at least a film about those who break the patterns of the streams they live in, as opposed to accept the inexplicable systems that form their societies. Clouds form abstract shapes above cities, where rigid and jagged materials form distinct lines. Even the streets of Hong Kong and its endless bazaars simply look like a grid from above. There is complex theory and there is chaos theory. Mann knows the world is the former, but he can’t help but shoot his camera up toward the latter—searching the heavens for freedom.

Blackhat is Mann’s first feature film since 2009’s Public Enemies, which was a film about a rebel in a world where systems of organization were developed into making him simply an anomaly to be targeted and erased. The protagonist of Blackhat, Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway, has yet to be erased, but now simply acts as another cog in a guarded system—he’s a hacker doing time in prisons, spending his days reading up on Foucault. He knows that simply because he’s surrounded by walls doesn’t mean the outside world is anything but a prison without them. When he first steps out onto the runway of an airport, he can only see material of grays and blacks, out of focus and without dimension. It’s simply a mass.

Then a hand grabs his arm, and everything becomes tangibly real.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Comic Ideology: Richard Fleischer's Mandingo

Less a cousin of Django Unchained than 12 Years A Slave, Mandingo addresses the issues of personal pleasure (sexual and violent) against the ideology of the South and slavery. But where McQueen's choice of a hyper-aware beautiful aesthetic created an awkward rift between his distanced attempt at an objective perspective and the cartoonish behavior he documents in the narrative's latter half (mostly thanks to Michael Fassbinder's performance), director Richard Fleischer's choice to embrace the exploitation tone makes this a more nuanced affair in many ways. Because everyone acts like they're in a bad version of Masterpiece Theater (just watch James Mason chomp up every line), the parts where their artifice often breaks feels more in tuned with ideological frameworks as a form of performativity, and thus a the film's sense of psychological nuance becomes a realism. The confrontation between Made and Blanche is full of very careful performance moments where they're intellectual desires slowly fall, and thanks to his zoom lenses, Fleischer captures the psychology changing before their eyes in a way that would make Béla Balázs shout with joy. The face in Mandingo becomes a tool for political discourse.

Fleischer shoots the film in 1.85 here as opposed to his standard Cinema-Scope 2.35, but space is often a factor. White characters are often centered with African Americans pushed off to the sides, the use of mirrors allows shots to run longer and put characters into unique spatial dynamics. And a great late dolly shows a stunning moment as it repeats the opening shot of a character looking down on the slaves, but it's about who's POV this shot ultimately belongs to and what they are looking at, which isn't even revealed until halfway through the dolly. For all its trashy gloss then, it's a film full of subtle details that feel only registered by the camera and thus the spectator gazing into the past. The way that Mason and King discuss "white ladies" is as crass and Othering as their discussion of their "wenches" and "fighting niggers." But often what's striking about the characters—both white and black—is how they look with distrust not because of ideological reasons but their own personal drives. It is simply that the system they live them allows those personal drives to be used for easy exploitation—Hammond discovers Made's fighting abilities while at a visit to a brothel, and will use his prowess to essentially supplant his sexual desire (a choice that comes back to haunt him).

Fernando Croce reevaluates the often dismissive comparison to Showgirls by noting, "both films are descendants of Douglas Sirk's sublime frenzies, utterly unafraid of looking the ridiculous straight in the eye." But it's the moments that are just barely noted—Hammond's quick-haste dismissal of his slave mistress during a moment of violent determination the most damning—that make Mandingo a film that captures ideology without centering it. It's a film that doesn't ask us to gawk at atrocities through a pristine lens (though really a prestige lens), but to really look beyond surfaces to see what really makes a mind work when living in an paradoxical ideology.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Philippe Garrel's Jealousy

Jealousy, a 77-minute brisk waltz through a series of relationships (always ending, never beginning), is my choice for the film of the year. It's a film by Philippe Garrel, a director whose work extends back to the New Wave, but works here like the era never ended. Shot in black and white 35mm, it often feels like a relic of lost time, a slippage of memories carefully stitched together in the hope that one may learn from past mistakes. It opens with a woman crying and closes on a man staring blankly before turning off a light, and in between these shots is a search for truth in others, a fool's ambition.

"Love has its limits," an old mentor relays to Louis, played by Garrel's own son (also Louis). Louis claims his power to love beyond anything, but by this point we know there's a difference between what he says and what he's done. He's gone one wife and one to a second, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), but it doesn't take him long to begin prospective kisses without any emotional warning. Louis and Claudia profess their undying love in one scene while always searching beyond the frame for something else. They occasionally hint at the deep seeded mistrust underneath their words of desire, which in fact only create the fuel for the titular emotion to begin a search outside their cramped apartment.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Three on A Doorway

"The lock isn't very practical, is it?"
"Not it's not so very practical...I guess it will serve its purpose."

"Outside your door was the last guy in the world I wanted to see."

Friday, November 28, 2014

Link Round Up: "Painless and Perfect"

Another near the end of year massive link round-up, covering everything I wrote (sans the book) since September.

I made my debut in Sight & Sound Magazine in November with a piece on Steven Soderbergh's TV series The Knick, which may not be the best series to grace the non-theatrical medium, but damn it—Soderbergh proves all my stray observations about how just because it's television doesn't mean aesthetics should come second. 

In lieu of New York Film Festival, Los Angeles provides us with the bigger, perhaps a bit more eclectic AFI Festival. Since most of the major titles were already at Cannes, I wrote about Joel Potrykus's recession-bro comedy Buzzard, the modestly quirky coming-of-age meanderer Tu Dors Nicole, the latest WTF from Takashi Miike Over Your Dead Body, and JP Snaidecki's The Iron Ministry. Plus I spoke about Lav Diaz's From What Is Before on a recent podcast.

Another recent film festival visit—New Orleans! I graciously served as a juror for the Louisiana Shorts section of the 25th Annual New Orleans Film Festival, and also wrote about the wonderful experience at RogerEbert.Com

Wrote about some movie called Interstellar. You may have heard of it. And also this other thing called Gone Girl.

Also wrote about two other new movies of relative merit: Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip (which is of great proportion) and Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (which deserves at least some consideration).

In the canonical masterpiece territory, on John Ford's My Darling Clementine, and finding a postwar poet of cinema.

And on The Cinephiliacs, New Orleans local Angela Catalano on starring a popup cinema and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Alex Ross Perry on his idiosyncratic approach to independent cinema and Husbands and Wives, and Kim Morgan on Marilyn Monroe and Something Wild

And on Letterboxd...
Hitchcock: Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent, Vertigo
Expressive Esoterica: Dark Passage (Daves), Cure (K. Kurosawa), The Blue Gardenia (Lang), Chicago Calling (Reinhardt), Notes on the Circus (Mekas), Whirlpool (Preminger)
Far Side of Paradise: Papillon (Schafner), The Country Girl (Seaton), Baby Doll (Kazan)
Contemporary Stuff: Abuse of Weakness (Brelliat)
Marxism: Class Relations (Straub/Huillet)