Monday, December 31, 2012

Blossoms & Blood update

I finished proofreading copy-edits on the manuscript and mailed it off this morning. Seems symbolically appropriate to finish the year by putting that project behind me (not really, of course; I'll probably spend the summer proofreading layout pages and doing indexing, but close enough--I'm really over it).

In honor, I thought I'd post one of my all-time favorite fan videos--a mash-up of Punch Drunk Love with Radiohead's "No Surprises" (two of my greatest joys in life). This is something I had really wanted to write about in the book once upon a time, but for whatever reason it never fit. Now, I suppose I'll just be content to set it aside, part of the deep affection I have for this movie which will continue to remain mine alone (as in, not part of the "research" per se).



And there is something in there, on more than one level, about the coming year, I hope. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Star Trek post over at Antenna

I haven't posted much lately, but since the traffic is pretty minimal, I suppose its not a big deal. Anyway, I have a post up on the mutually contemptuous relationship between Trek fans and JJ in anticipation of next year's Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) over at UW-Madison's media blog, Antenna. I wrote it awhile ago and would have posted it here but thought it might fit over there, where I haven't contributed as much as I would have liked in the last year.


Like Bond, I enjoy keeping my rabid Trek fandom to myself (meaning, as a scholar, I'm generally not interested in researching, or publishing, on it). The occasional blog rant is about the extent of my discursive production on those topics.

But that said, a lot of the ideas that come up in the Antenna piece are drawn from my current project on nostalgia and digital cinema. In particular, the ways in which fandom is not only mainstream but also thoroughly commodified by the industry today as another form of cheap (free?) labor on behalf of the studios. In fact, this is partly what I'm planning to present at SCMS in March--the difference is I don't talk about Trek (though the franchise comes up peripherally throughout Haunted Nerves). The proposed chapter on this topic instead focuses on the Disney corporation and the revival of the TRON franchise.

So, that's one of my projects for the break, along with finishing revisions on another piece from Haunted Nerves regarding the new "nostalgia film" in the digital age (focusing on The Artist and especially Hugo). I'm really proud of that one, and as I was revising it in the last week I realized it shifted from just being one chapter from the manuscript to really articulating the heart of what Haunted Nerves will encompass: nostalgia, digital cinema, postmodernism and industry studies. That project is coming into focus nicely, and my hope will be to begin book proposals next fall.

Speaking of books, Disney's Most Notorious Film is now out. There's a FB page up for it (hint, hint), and a review due from Slate any day now (fingers crossed). Also, my other big research task is finishing up proofreading the copy edits on the PT Anderson book, which I've put off for far too long.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall



There are at least two different movies awkwardly coexisting in the new Bond film, Skyfall. There is the one we’ve been sold by the previews—a generally quite solid and thoughtful revenge drama involving the triangle of Bond (Daniel Craig), M (Judi Dench), and Silva (Javier Bardem). However, there’s also the one that hides—in the shadows (one of the film’s dominant motifs)—and really doesn’t spring itself until the very end. What follows may be vaguely spoiler-ish, but I’ll try to avoid specificity as much as possible so as not to ruin the film’s two big (intertwining) plot twists at the end. About halfway through, I saw most of it coming, but honestly it never crossed my mind before then.

What we have here in the end is basically, almost literally, another reboot. Has Hollywood gotten so obsessed with rebooting franchises constantly that we now have a film series in James Bond which can boast two reboots in the last three (generally quite successful) movies? And I suppose that’s what is eating at me about this film, which for the most part is indeed I think one of the best Bond films ever made (though I could name several—including Casino Royale—which were better). 

The ending of the movie is ruined for me, despite (or maybe because of) its aggressively blatant nostalgia, because its feels too high-concept for its own good—attempting to start over, again, because that’s all movie franchises seem to know how to do anymore, instead of building off what’s already there. Skyfall says in the end “we’ll take Craig (even though he’s already starting to look too old to play Bond much longer), and strip the rest.”

Let me take a step back—I generally like where the film arrives at in the end, at least its potential looking forward. This is partially because I love the casting choices. But I don’t like how it gets there, or even the need to go there at all. Its feels like a lame gimmick when it finally arrives, and the wonderful story up to that point (including an absolutely stunning development that I can guarantee you has never happened in a Bond film before) goes from being an engaged meditation on the power of being haunted by the past, of guilt and (lost) redemption, to just feeling like a ruse that gets us where the franchise wanted to be all along.

Along those lines, I’m also disappointed that they’ve apparently scrapped the narrative arch of the Quantum organization that was nicely building across both Casino and Quantum. Although I didn’t like the second one overall, I appreciated the fact that for the first time since the 1960s the Bond films were actually attempting to tell a detailed, elaborate story across several films, rather than having each one be completely self-contained (other than some returning characters). I hope Quantum’s critical failure wasn’t the impetus for the filmmakers to scrape a nicely building story line in favor of starting over. Also, on that note, I’m really annoyed that Felix (Jeffrey Wright) wasn’t brought back. His friendship with Bond has really been a highlight of the Craig films. And makes this one feel a bit emptier, to be honest.

So what did I like? The story is very good, despite the usual lame Bond clichés that abound (i.e., Bond sleeps with woman/woman dies in the next scene). Skyfall could work as a character drama without the Bond baggage—hence, I suspect, the “two movies” I mentioned above. Although Judi Dench has been given meatier parts as M in the past (The World is Not Enough immediately comes to mind), here she really does make the most of it. There’s an obvious motif established early in the film, but it doesn’t ultimately refer to the person we first think it does. Her relationship with Bond is genuinely complicated, in no small measure because of the nice parallel Silva offers to their situation.

Generally speaking, Silva is truly a great villain—not perfect, but one of the best Bond villains to be sure. His role in the film is repeatedly counter-intuitive to what we expect a Bond villain to be, and I really appreciated that. I can see why Bardem signed on to the script. This isn’t just a scene-chewing paycheck part in a high-profile film. Silva gives Bardem a lot to work with, and the actor dominates every scene without ever feeling like he’s hamming it up. That said, though, I’m slightly disturbed by the fact that two of the last three villains (along with LeChiffre in Casino) express pretty blatant homoerotic feelings towards Craig’s Bond--which contains the potential for homophobia--although this time Bond has a bit more fun with it.

As to other new actors: unsurprisingly, Ralph Fiennes’ character, Mallory, is not who we might first think him to be. I say “unsurprisingly” because they wouldn’t cast such a respected star in what would amount to little more than a glorified cameo as an arbitrary bureaucrat. But, I’ll confess he didn’t turn out to be what I had assumed from the previews. Likewise, Naomi Harris as Eve. I like her casting by the end, but again the plot twist to get there is kind of annoying dumb. Which early rumors about her were true? They all were.

Finally, a note about nostalgia: as I blogged last summer, it was pretty obvious that this is by far the most blatantly nostalgic Bond film—establishing a dominant theme throughout about the relationship between innovation and nostalgia. That is, the often repeated idea that change and upheaval brings a desire to return to the past. The general appeal of Bond films is always intensely nostalgic, of course, but I don’t ever recall one which so explicitly interrogated the idea in the story (certain parts of OHMSS come to mind, but I think that was limited to trying to maintain continuity between Connery and Lazenby). 

But the theme doesn’t seem consistently realized here, and actually makes the ending that much more frustrating. Skyfall often wants to embrace the past fairly explicitly, as a way to keep Bond and M relevant in a changing technological and political world. But it also seems contemptuous of the past; its so determined to cut ties with everything by the end of the film, that the nostalgia which increasingly motivates Bond’s actions over the course of the film--in ways broad and subtle--feels jarringly undefined, even contradictory.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Some thoughts while waiting for the Sky(to)fall




The new Bond film did record business overseas this weekend. The movie doesn’t arrive to the US for another two weeks, and I’m beginning to feel the anticipation—which has been otherwise surprisingly light. Luckily, I have neither the time nor much of a connection to the internet these days, so I’ve not been too worried about spoilers, but still I’m becoming increasingly anxious.

In the last couple of months, I’ve seen a ton of traffic to the blog, despite my own (usual) inactivity this time of year. Most of it, unsurprisingly, has been to this old, long popular piece, a few thoughts about what it meant at the end of Quantum of Solace (2008), the previous Bond film, when James Bond told M (Judi Dench) she was right about Vesper—a reference that only makes sense if one’s seen Casino Royale—the first Daniel Craig Bond film. Even then, I’m not sure it does make sense, though, since the exchange seemed to me to be a rare gap in Casino Royale—Vesper didn’t “save” Bond. The Quantum organization spared his life because he knew the password to access the money from the high-stake poker game. Perhaps it just speaks to the limitations of M’s knowledge.

Anyway, a lot of people get to the end of Quantum of Solace and don’t know what to make of Bond’s final, cryptic line—which is less mysterious and intriguing than it first sounds. And when they get to that moment, a lot of them then seem to end up at my blog—though I’m not sure if I really clear it up for them, because I think it’s a mess to begin with (and, really, that last line is one of many reasons why Quantum of Solace is just not a very good film). Anyway, I’ve chalked the uptick in traffic to the notion that a lot of people have been revisiting the 2008 film lately in preparation for Skyfall, even though by all accounts there is little, if any, continuity between the two movies (Quantum’s sole redemption, to me, was that it at least attempted to be a direct sequel to events in Casino Royale).

*   *   *

Something I never really mentioned here before, I think, was that my essay on Casino Royale was actually published a couple of years ago in Christoph Lindner’s collection from Wallflower, Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale. No surprise given the publisher, I never received a copy myself, but I did once track down one through interlibrary loan when I taught at Northwestern. Its a solid collection overall, edited by one of the good guys in the profession. My contribution wasn’t as good as I remembered, though I usually tend to feel that way once something of mine is actually published. The idea, I always feel, is better than the reality. But it’s not too bad, if anyone wants take the time to track down a copy—the writing style feels surprisingly rushed and bloated, a relic from my more indulgent, autobiographical days. But the content is still solid, accurately reflecting some of the narratological reasons for why I was so taken in by a movie I still feel is possibly one of the 3 greatest Bond films ever made.

Last summer, I re-watched Casino Royale for the first time in probably three years and I was amazed at how well it held up. I don’t think there’s a major false note in the whole thing. I really don’t. It’s a true action epic. Anyone who thinks it’s too long doesn’t really understand what’s at stake—for Bond’s development and for the narrative (and doesn’t understand the original book to which it’s oddly faithful despite being completely different). Or they are trying to fit Bond’s origin story into a blockbuster formula that doesn’t really work. It was just as good as I remembered, and it felt surprisingly fresh too. It’s a reminder not to overdo one’s favorite films. Once every several years really allows one to savor it with fresh eyes.

*   *   *

Speaking of “greatest Bond films”: some of the hype for Skyfall has bordered on obnoxious. While I’m glad to read that it’s a major improvement on Quantum of Solace—though that’s not hard to do—I don’t believe a single soul who argues that it’s the greatest Bond film ever, and there have been several anxious to make that careless claim. The main downside to having some of my personal favorite franchises revitalized in recent years (Bond, Star Trek) is that a lot of so-called experts who claim to know the franchises so well have come of the woodwork. But really they are just general movie buffs whose first loyalty is to the shining allure of the “New”—and the perpetual insistence that newer equals better. 

“Dark Knight is the greatest superhero movie ever because . . . Christopher Nolan!  Because . . . Christian Bale!  Because . . .  IMAX!  Because . . . I don’t really remember any of the other ones that well.”

Star Trek is the awesomest Trek movie ever because . . .  J.J.!  Because . . . BIG budgets and special effects!  Because . . . everyone is so much younger and sexier than the old cast.  Because . . . they cram so many non-sequitors into two hours that I don’t have to think about anything!  Because they take everything I didn’t care for in the originals—like character development, intelligent pacing, deep philosophical themes, and basic story logic—and ditched it all for great CGI and beautiful people.”

I don’t hate the Nolan Batman movies or JJ’s version of Star Trek so much as I loathe how historically ignorant the indiscriminate hype around them is routinely is.

I'm probably not the first to notice that the fanboys have become the new Hedda Hoppers.

Anyone who says Skyfall is the greatest Bond movie ever is not a real Bond fan, just someone who has caught a few of them on Spike TV the last few years and is easily distracted by whatever new toy comes along. I know Skyfall’s not that good without even watching it. Nothing would please me more than for that to be true--for it to be the best Bond ever. But a real Bond fan who knows the franchise in and out would know how extremely unlikely that possibility is—that a true masterpiece in the franchise only comes along once every 15-20 years. And the media's uncritical obsession with so often proclaiming how great new high-profile franchise films always are makes me that much more skeptical.

And what is troubling is how the raised expectations may end up ruining the experience for me. Just writing this, I know the hype now has robbed something from me as a fan. For various reasons, I knew Quantum wasn’t going to be very good before I walked into it, and so I wasn’t as disappointed as I might have been. I don’t need another Casino Royale. I only want to have mixed feelings about Skyfall because I don’t want to be let down. That cast is hype enough.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A master . . . any master . . .

I just finished sending off the afterward on The Master for Blossoms & Blood, which means that all new content for the book is complete. It came in right at about 4k words, which means that it will be less than half the size of the other chapters. This was partly for time reasons and partly because I just didn't go into the production history and critical reception, as I had with the others. In the end, its really just a lot of old-fashioned textual analysis, which is about the only framework which feels appropriate at this time. If I ever do a second edition of the book 10-20 years down the road, I will take advantage of hindsight and evaluate its larger historical context. But at the moment it all feels too premature.

I have to say that writing on The Master was an interesting throwback to (what I imagine as) the earliest days of scholarly film criticism--before videos and DVDs--when your only access to a movie was to just sit and watch it from start to finish, no rewinding, no freeze-frames, etc. It was both frustrating and exhilarating. I went to an early (11am) screening yesterday morning--my second viewing of the film--with the express intent of seeing anything I might have missed, as well as looking for specific details which fit the first draft I'd already put together. I ended up adding another 1k words yesterday afternoon, and spent this morning mostly polishing and proofreading. It was perhaps a good thing that I couldn't pause The Master, as then I probably would have written another 20 pages with all the details I left out/forgot.

It was actually liberating to write something under those circumstances, and with the understanding with UT that the length would be limited. It freed me to just focus on one or two key ideas, developing those as best I could, and then just letting go . . .

In truth, then, there was a great deal of sadness for me yesterday. For one, to know that this is finally the end of the book--not the end of the editorial process by a long shot, but the end of my new contributions to it after over two years of writing and another piece always just around the corner. For another, I know there's so much more to be said about the film than I got to in the afterward--but, as is life, one just keeps running out of time. Of course, so much as already been said too, and that may be part of the melancholia (at a certain point, I just had to block it all out to get the writing done). The material works better as an extension of the book than an analysis of the film on its own. But there was also a third reason--I've really, really, grown personally fond of Anderson's latest film. A second viewing really drew that out for me. Whereas the first time I watched it a few weeks ago, I was just anxiously trying to figure out what I could say about it--this time I was trying to fill in gaps in the argument but also just enjoying the film more without that anxiety since I knew the project was safely near completion.

Do I like the film more because I spent so much time thinking about it and trying to analyze it? Quite likely, but I have to say that I really noticed more so the second time through how much this movie speaks to me personally. That's ironic, of course, because of all of Anderson's six films, The Master is by far the one least interested in generating an emotional reaction from its audience, I think. Do I love it as much as Punch-Drunk Love? No. Do I think its as good as There Will Be Blood? No. But a lot of the ideas and themes and journeys in The Master have resonated softly and deeply in a way that has really taken me by surprise in the last month, and which my scholarly analysis does not really (explicitly) account for.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Revisiting Fedora

In preparation for the upcoming class on Billy Wilder, I recently watched a late film of his that I'd long been curious about but had yet to see (primarily because its one of many "forgotten" Hollywood films that never made the transition from VHS to DVD): 1978's Fedora. By the time it came to my attention, old video copies of it were long out of print, and there was never the urgency to track down a copy until now. Fedora intrigued me not only because it was one of his last films, or because it was his last work with frequent collaborator, a perfectly vintage William Holden (who remains one of my all-time favorite actors)--the intrigue was also based on its status as a symbolic sequel/remake of Sunset Boulevard (1950), arguably his most celebrated film.

The similarities between the two Wilder films are indeed unmistakable (and no doubt influenced by some intended ironic impulse, which for me never quite came into focus)--both star Holden as a failed Hollywood player (first screenwriter, now producer) who is forced to deal with an old movie star living in seclusion with her eccentric staff. Both are structured heavily around his not-always-accurate voice-over narration. Both feature cameos by established movie stars playing themselves. Both express open--if underdeveloped--disdain for the industry itself. And both even open with violent deaths which then lead into extended flashbacks explaining what happened. Wilder even spoke about the crossover here in a 1979 interview with The New York Times.

Fedora wasn't literally Wilder's final film. Three years later, he reunited again with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (a comedy team he helped create with 1966's The Fortune Cookie) on Buddy, Buddy--a lightweight but generally well-received, and similarly nostalgic, career capstone. Fedora features a cameo by Henry Fonda and makes direct reference to Mister Roberts (1955), which a close viewer will note is also the film which brought Lemmon to Wilder's attention. Yet, despite Buddy, Buddy, Fedora certainly feels symbolically like his final film, both in its stubborn, disorienting adherence to the old formal conventions of Classical Hollywood storytelling--both form and content--in the Post-Classical age, and in its defiant rejection of a changing industry its struggling mightily to understand. Some important spoilers follow.

Fedora is the story of an independent producer (Holden)--on his last creative and financial leg--traveling to a reclusive location in Greece to track down a retired movie star from the classical era named only "Fedora" (a commentary or foreshadowing of the likes of Cher or Madonna, I suppose). The producer's interest is both imminently practical--he has funding for an adaptation of Anna Karenina but only on the condition Fedora stars--and quietly nostalgic--he spent the night with her decades earlier when he was a young production assistant. Fedora lives with a Countess who keeps her locked up in a mansion. Or so it seems. People are struck by how good she looks for her age, but the twist halfway through is that Fedora is actually her daughter, who looks a lot alike, and the old Countess is really the original Fedora. Nobody seems to notice this, even after the "new" Fedora starts appearing in films again.

Part of the story involves an underdeveloped critique of plastic surgery--everyone buys the young Fedora because they think it speaks to the wonders of this "new" innovation, while the real Fedora went into seclusion because a plastic surgery procedure went horribly wrong and permanently scared her face, which she cannot bring herself to reveal to the adoring world. This also leads to a strange subplot involving the real Michael York and the younger Fedora's eventual suicide (ambiguously introduced in the beginning) which seems to exist narratively only to force the revelation of the plot twist. After her death, fans still believe the "real" Fedora has died--thus the Countess sits quietly in the shadows during the public wake, watching admirers who've come to mourn what they think is her death.

From a film critic's standpoint, the movie just doesn't work, even if we read the film with a heavy dose of irony towards the old melodramatic Hollywood conventions, which was no doubt intended. The film has its knowingly satiric moments--in the opening sequence, Holden begins the trademark Wilder first-person voice-over narration, only to be interrupted and pushed aside by another character. The final scene, meanwhile, works beautifully--but as a meta-commentary on Wilder's career achievements and not as a satisfactory resolution to a thoroughly messy plot. The premise stretches credibility, the performances are erratic, the voice dubbing is terrible (Wilder had the same woman record the voice for both mother and daughter, which results in a jarring experience on a number of levels), the larger themes seem confused, and the distant framing of actors (probably motivated by the convoluted plot twist) is frustrating and off-putting. Even the use of Holden and his familiar voice-over feels like little more than a nostalgic throwback to the classical period.

Meanwhile, the humor seems often out-of-place--whether its the obnoxious Greek hotel owner whose entire overdone performance feels lifted from an old screwball comedy, or whether its the trademark zingers directed towards the industry. Consider this one-liner that Holden delivers midway through:

The guys with beards have taken over [the "New" Hollywood]. They don't need a script anymore. Just give them a hand-held camera with a zoom lens . . .
Its a mildly amusing observation and accurate to a point--but if the idea is to mock someone like Robert Altman (who, perhaps aside from the hand-held crack, would seem to fit the description) then it falls pretty flat as an incisive comment on the industry. Not to belabor the point, but Altman was doing far more interesting work in the 1970s and beyond than Wilder was by then. Its one thing to critique the crass commercialism of the emergent blockbuster mentality, but that's not what's going on here. In the end, Fedora feels like an awkward anachronism which painfully foregrounds how out of touch Wilder and Diamond were by the de facto end of their careers. In Fedora, we see a brilliant filmmaker unable to adjust to the times, and, with that, perhaps some better understanding of why he didn't--or couldn't--go on making films (even though Wilder lived another 25 years).

Yet those evaluative comments miss some more interesting historical aspects of the film. The idea that it was originally written for Garbo as a comeback (with whom Wilder was always obsessed) helps its existence make a bit sense. She reportedly turned it down, believing--rightly--that the whole premise was insane. But had she appeared in it, then Fedora's inherent power over audiences, her fear of mortality and the appeal to old Hollywood, would have been more convincing and absorbing to audiences than a movie starring a couple of unknowns who are completely unsympathetic and even deliberately kept at a distance. The result is that we never have an connection, let alone sympathy for her, which is a sharp departure from the delusional, dangerous but nonetheless genuinely sympathetic Norma Desmond.

The weird mix of professional frustration and uncritical nostalgia directed at Hollywood in Fedora is a striking contrast to the unrelenting bitterness of Sunset Boulevard, where the studios do nothing but chew you up and spit you back out. The reversal from the earlier film is telling--in SB, the industry has ungratefully tossed the bitter old movie star aside, whereas in Fedora the industry is still enamored with its old icon, who willingly plays the part of the recluse because she cannot accept her own changes (unlike Norma, whose in complete denial about her own mortality, let alone the transition to sound films). Rather, in Fedora, its the struggling filmmaker (sound familiar?)--and not the still beloved star--who cannot deal with a rapidly changing Hollywood.

And perhaps therein lies its confusion. Fedora still believes in the power of old Hollywood glamour, even as it tries to mock the emptiness of that facade, which the final scene makes clear--fans of movie stars are ultimately more in love with an idea, a fantasy, than with a person. The film is nostalgic for the old ways, and critical of the new trends, yet it also presents Hollywood as just as enamored with the Fedoras (i.e., the old stars) of its past as ever. Holden's character is struggling, and filled with bitterness and anger. But, like the film itself, he doesn't know who he's really angry at.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Indy "Art" Theatres, Auteurs, and Historical Ironies


In the preface to The Kubrick Façade (2006), I wrote briefly about the historical irony of my being back in Indiana right as the book was finishing. In the late 1990s, I lived in Indianapolis for a little bit. While there, I saw Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in an unremarkable theatre on the north side. Around the same time, I also happened to catch a screening of A Clockwork Orange at my beloved, since demolished, Castleton Arts Theatre just down 86th street. A couple years later, meanwhile, I saw AI (2001) at a multiplex in nearby Crawsfordsville. Every theatrical experience I’ve ever had--directly or indirectly--connected to Kubrick was in this state.

And so I noted in the book that it was an appropriate irony that I somehow ended up back in central Indiana (specifically, Bloomington) while I finished the project. Why ironic? Because in the intervening 5-7 years between those experiences and the publication of the book, I had just finished living in Oklahoma, Michigan and two different parts of Illinois. The odds just a year earlier that I would be inexplicably back in Indiana were slim at best. In fact, every time I move out of this state, I assume I won’t be coming back to do anything other than visit. Regular readers will note that I am loathe to bring up the Kubrick book, since I don’t like how so much of my career ended up being defined by it. So, I don’t mention the preface randomly.

But I’ve been thinking about that anecdote a lot lately, and not only because I find myself once again unexpectedly back at IU (after again just living in Illinois and Michigan—should I be again noticing a pattern here?). No, the more specific parallel irony is that I saw There Will Be Blood (2007) during my last year living in central Indiana, at the Keystone Art Cinema on the north side, a few blocks down from Castleton Arts Theatre—where I had seen Hard Eight (1996) during its first release. I blogged about that memory several years ago—right around the time I first began to suspect I would try to write a book about Anderson, spurred in part by the suggestion of an IU professor. There was another amusing irony then to be back in the north side of Indianapolis, going to see a Paul Thomas Anderson film.

So, guess what? After being away from this state for five years while I pursued my academic goals, somehow I find myself back in Indiana again, right as Anderson’s latest, The Master (2012), is set to hit theatres. And, thus, this coming Saturday I will find myself back at the Keystone Art Theatre, watching another Anderson film. Not from choice, mind you—this is the only theatre in the state of Indiana which plays first-run “art” films early in their releases. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure these two Anderson films are the only two movies I’ve seen at this particular theatre (it opened relatively soon before I moved out of the area in 2008).

No, this has gone from the nostalgic to the slightly disquieting, as all these ironies seem to suggest a deeper truth—that some unseen, some unrevealed, force will not let me escape this state for too long at any time. Despite all my years living all over the Midwest, my cinephilia--or more precisely, the interests which keep compelling to write auteur studies--keep coming back with eerie regularity to central Indiana, despite the fact that I’ve lived here rather infrequently, relative to the number of years I’ve lived elsewhere. In the past 20 years, I've only lived full-time in Indiana for four (now five) of them. It’s not nostalgia, because I really haven’t had that much control over the fact that I keep ending up in Indiana.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Odds and Ends

Deep into teaching this time of year, so not much in the way of contributions lately.

*On Friday, I'm finally going to see The Master, up at the Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis. By complete coincidence, this is the exact same theatre where I first saw There Will Be Blood in February of 2008. I will try to blog more about this later in the week, as there's a whole host of ironies at work here.

*My digital cinema article, "I'll (Always) Be Back: Virtual Performance and Post-Human Labor in the Age of Digital Cinema" is now online here--it may or may not be subscription-protected. I'm sure most academic libraries probably have access to Culture, Theory and Critique. This is the most recent piece I've published from Haunted Nerves, and the first to deal explicitly with the digital.

*Saw today that someone is trying to sell Kubrick Facade on Amazon for $177. Good luck with that. No, its not out-of-print yet, and there are cheap copies everywhere, so I'm flattered, but if there actually is a market like that for it, let me know. I've got more. I think that's probably more than I've made in royalties on it in the last four years.

Herzog, answering questions after his Thursday night lecture on the role of music in film. IU Cinema Director Jon Vickers is to his right.

*Finally, Werner Herzog was on campus last week doing lectures, interviews and visiting classes. Amazing experience--I was also at a reception Thursday night which he attended. I wish I had more to say on it--it feels like a dream now. Hard to believe now that the moment's passed. The film scene at IU has really exploded since I last lived here in 2008. They have a restored cinema, which shows an amazingly eclectic group of movies and attracts top talent to visit.

Across several days, Herzog was exceedingly generous with his time. A wonderful man. Herzog made a lot of random observations in his various engagements--some of which stuck with me. He recalled an experience at a festival where he argued with fellow documentarians about the role of the filmmaker--when one said they should be a fly on the wall, he responded by saying, no, they should be the hornet that strikes. Is there a better metaphor for documentaries?

Friday afternoon, Herzog was interviewed by IU professor Greg Waller at the cinema, which of course was also screening many of his classic films throughout the week. Herzog himself attended the screenings.

During the interview the next day, he talked about why he watched reality TV and he mentioned that a poet must not avert their eyes. To be in the world, we must be willing to see everything. I found that particularly poignant, especially these days.

js

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Photo


The image I use for the blog header above was taken in the mostly-abandoned hallways of a Madison, WI, mall in the summer of 2011. Its a variation on a photo I took about two years earlier but lost (the so-called archiving technologies of the digital lend itself to the perpetual present instead of the past). So, when I returned to my hometown, I made a point to revisit this site and grab more photos.


But why? The metaphor itself is fairly obvious--an abandoned movie theatre (not uncommon these days in the rush to digital projection) visualizes the end of film in the age of digital cinema. When I finally finish and publish Haunted Nerves (at least two years away), my only condition will be that some variation on this image must be used prominently for the book's cover.

Certainly, the image is powerful for other reasons as well--namely, the transparent relationship between film, its exhibition, and a larger culture of consumption which the "mall theatre" evokes. This image reflects movies' essential status as another random commodity produced for mass consumption. Tied into that too is the idea of the American mall as a particular form, and moment, in the history of late capitalism.

The power, though, is in the image's emptiness, I think. The eerie presence of absence here--both the closed cinema and the half-empty mall around it--draws out the metaphor of film after film, and of a hollow, self-sustaining consumer culture, into sharper focus. Part of this is the postmodern emphasis on space over time, that physical structures literalize the perpetual present of media consumer culture today.

And, of course, I'm dancing around the key issue with this photo--nostalgia. What haunts me about this image is not the empty poster frames, the passed era of a certain form of theatrical exhibition (the multiplex), or the dying mall--its the bricks around them. Its probably too much to liken it back to Barthes' notion of the punctum--but its certainly not what people would probably first notice, particularly as the masthead for a film blog.

Wonder around older malls and, occasionally, you'll see a big patch of brick in the corners, or on the ground, or (in the above case), down nondescript back hallways. During the 1990s, most US malls undertook a massive facelift--the dark yellowish-brown mise-en-scene of brick and wood was covered over by the whiteness of bright ceilings, clean, flat walls and lighter tile floors. In the photo above, we see both generations of the mall coexisting--the old brick surrounded by the illumination of its 90s remodeling. For me, the stylistic choice of bricks connote 80s "pastness"--although not quite a pastiche per se, since its a remnant of the past and not an attempt at recreating the past today (perhaps, "retro" malls will be the next trend--aka, brand new malls that meticulously attempt to recreate the look of indoor malls from the late 1960s and 1970s?).

Anyway, I remember this mall quite vividly from my youth. I've written elsewhere that--as a typical child of postmodern America--my strongest memories of childhood were of multiplexes and shopping malls. Tied into that is the notion that postmodernism is to me less a theoretical concern than a historical and cultural one. And of course this also implies that my personal childhood memories are nothing particularly unique, but rather typical of a certain socio-economic section of an American generation. This mall has a lot of memories for me, and I remember very powerfully a moment many years ago when I was eighteen and returned to it for the first time in a decade or so only to discover that it had been completely remade over.

I don't claim to remember watching any particular movie as a kid at this specific multiplex. But, I'm sure at some point I did, and probably more than once, since spending time at this mall was such a big part of my childhood. I do remember that by the mid-1990s it had been converted to an "arts" cinema--as many such old mall theatres did in any attempt to find a new niche in the wake of competition from newer multiplexes. As recently as 2008 it was still open--which I recall being stunned by (perhaps it closed and then reopened at some point in between)--but by November of the following year it was more or less just as it looked when I took the picture. But what it was showing in the 1980s--couldn't say.


So, the image evokes for me not simply a useful metaphor of "cinema after film," or of jamais vu (the feeling of newness in the presence of familiarity--or, "is digital cinema really different than film?"). Rather, it locates precisely, if also somewhat idiosyncratically, the co-existence of nostalgia, postmodernism and digital cinema within the timeframe of American culture during the last thirty years. This is the foundation for Haunted Nerves: nostalgia as an ambivalent site both for personal critical engagement with culture and for a larger cultural condition; postmodernism as the economic and aesthetic dominant of the time; and digital cinema--the histories of digital cinema--as the specific object of study--"film" as both present and absent.

I've been thinking a lot this summer about how Haunted Nerves feels like the book I was "born" to write--not that it will be the "best" thing I ever write, but that it will ultimately be the most (resolutely implicit) autobiographical book I ever write.

js