Day 2 Decent Films

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As the initial email and the first post seem to have scared people I will try to brighten up this blog by throwing around some thoughts regarding contemporary film. Seems like people have a limited sense of humor when it comes to their individuality–much like the Budweiser donkey.  Didn’t mean to scare you off.

Be that as it may:

I recently saw two films that I a) actually really liked and that b) made me further think about some arguments I am proposing in my dissertation. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (interestingly produced by Alfonso Cuaron) seem to function in very similar ways regarding the interconnection of their political project and nostalgia.

My general proposition is that it seems impossible to make a film that presents a commentary on fascism/totalitarianism/resistance to repression etc. in the present or future without having to rely heavily upon a nostalgic evaluation of previous revolutionary moments that have become etched into the US/international left’s imagination as representations of the “last good fights.” Specifically, I would like to propose that it seems quite curious that Children of Men, which is set up to be a dystopian narrative of a near totalitarian future (based on P.D. Wells’ novel that in itself presents a mix between, say, George Orwell and Octavia Butler), is entirely unable to envision a political project for this future.

Much like other recent filmic engagements with totalitarianism in the future, Children of Men seems to find its main merit not in the totalitarian narrative on the surface, but in the representation of an absence of the progressive left’s clear and unifying political program for the future that is not weighed down by a nostalgic engagement with moments in political history and cliche debates surrounding revolutionary programs that have no applicability for a situation of globalized capitalism. See here especially V for Vendetta, which is ideologically very close to Children of Men and presents a similarly nostalgic evasion of contemporary political reality. Both films must envision a future in which we have returned to a centralized leadership situation against which a traditional revolutionary project can be formed. Children, however, at least seems to do this in a self-conscious manner, which is precisely what made me really like it: the film is very self-conscious about its own nostalgia for the political activism of the 1960s (beautifully performed by Clive Owen and especially Michael Caine)–see the soundtrack, the relationship between Theo and Julian, the 60s paraphernalia and lingo, etc. It also mixes hippie and SDS elements in the character of Michael Caine, two elements that were quite contradictory in the political project of the 60s but that in combination add to the impression of the dangerously de-historicizing effect of nostalgia. The film then seems to engage less with a depiction of totalitarianism proper but seems to transport us back into the discussions surrounding the 60s regarding the nature of a progressive political project and the role violence should, or should not play in it (making this less a sci-fi film than a film working in close proximity to the classic engagements with the mentioned problem in the 60s and 70s, notable examples being of course Alice Walker’s Meridian and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time).

But here’s my real beef with the films mentioned above: both Children and Labyrinth transport us back to either the 1930s/40s, or the 1960s, which seems to be the only way in which we can imagine progressive political change. Contemporary cultural productions seems to have lost the ability to actually imagine a politics that responds to the present situation that is simply more complex than it used to be in the 30s and 60s. One can hence see in the mentioned films a general inability to address contemporary political complexity without having to simplify it via operations of nostalgia. The Wachowski brothers do so, as usual, without any regard for subtlety. Through their desire for the spectacular they (as usual) end up bordering on the demagogical in ways that in fact replicate the logic of the system of domination they are trying to critique. Children, however, is quite interesting to me in this respect (intentionally, or not, I am not sure). While criticizing both the totalitarian right, as well as a Stalinist, vanguard, leftist terrorist project, as totalitarian, humanism seems to appear briefly as the answer to the problem, obviously making me cringe. As the two main characters carry the baby out of the building, which presents the site for the final struggle between government militia and revolutionaries, everyone is silent for a minute, admiring the baby, which seems to have the ability to unite everyone. This humanist moment, however, only lasts for a little while and then everyone returns to the killing. Interesting. Is this a moment of gesturing toward a critical anti-humanism? Is this a part that ideologically makes the movie fold upon itself and undercuts its previous ideological narrative? Is the fact that the Human Project, the organization representing political and human salvation in the film, is never shown, that its political project remains entirely unknown, to be read as a representation of the fact that humanism is just not a real, tangible, concrete political project and often remains nothing but an inconsequential, lofty ideal? We only see what we are supposed to assume is the Human Project in a brief shot of one of their ships called “Tomorrow,” but how positive is the outlook the film seems to present really, as the entire narrative is precisely about the inability to concretely think a political tomorrow? Are there films left that are able to think such a tomorrow? What are they? Isn’t all we have resignation (as in Children), or outright nostalgia for the last good fight in Spain (as in Pan’s Labyrinth)? And is this really all the progressive left can do within cultural production at the moment–idealize accomplishments of the past? Let me know what you think and give me films that do present a more complicated engagement with present and future politics that can do without nostalgia for past accomplishments (preferably US films, shows, etc.)–my dissertation will thank you, as its argument will then potentially become politically less bleak.

P.S.: strange casting choices that may, or may not make sense politically (they are doubtlessly supposed to make somewhat of a statement): Chiwetel Ejiofor is the leader of the terrorist group in Children (who are willing to use the refugee’s baby for political purposes), as well as the doctor helping illegal immigrants in Dirty Pretty Things. Interesting.  And: Stephen Rea, the police detective hunting the terrorist V in V for Vendetta famously played the lead (as an IRA terrorist) in The Crying Game. Also interesting. Any substantial thought behind this, or just the same kind of principle that structured the second and third installments in the Matrix series? Welcome to the desert of the logical.

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6 Comments

  1. hey, mathias–
    i’m delighted to see you have a blog.

    a few thoughts:
    first, sentiment/nostalgia is a traditional component of bourgeois entertainments (like hollywood films, and, say, richardson’s “clarissa”). In the 18th century it functions as a revolutionary means of class conflict, i.e. the virtuous protestant bourgeois snow maiden who “humanizes” or at least chastens the aristocratic gent ripping at her bodice. [Leslie A. Fiedler’s _Love and Death in the American Novel_ discusses _Clarissa_ as the Ur-text of a tradition that continues, well, to the present. Fiedler’s anti-communism is a turn off, but anyway.]

    I would argue that films are not sentimental enough. Make our revolutionary films so sacharine sticky and sweet that we’re actually made ill by them. Not surrealism, but confectionism. Make us sick en mass. Not pleasurable illness, no jouissance, but non-cathartic retching.

    Can film do that?

  2. That is actually VERY interesting. What about nostalgia for a precise revolutionary program that has worked in the past, then? What are the precise relationships between nostalgia inducing a return to, or an awakening of revolutionary consciousness (as an ideological triple-shot red-eye to the past), reminding people of the success of civic action, and nostalgia as almost a method of counterinsurgency, meaning as a (potentially even planned) weight that slows down political progress and action suitable to the present climate (i.e. avoiding potentially necessary ruptures in political thought that may be necessary to account for systemic ruptures, or transitions)? In other words: when and how does it function as a motivator for consciousness and when as a planned and fully contained part of a system that productively integrates contradiction? I am personally still very unclear about all this–especially when talking about the increasingly inclusive structure of neoliberalism (this would be the Zizekian argument, or one arising out of Harvey’ s book on neoliberalism). Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s left (in both senses of the word).

  3. The inclusive structure is a bear. I worry that nostalgia for anything too specific looks like a market niche–tells wal-mart where to put it on the shelf, and teaches the consumer how to enjoy it.

    I’m thinking of “confectionism” as something more like a downloadable version of “The Ring.” Something that shows relations in the work place to be so sweet, so up by the bootstraps, so gee we accept people who look different, so look ma no glass ceiling, that we co-op (somehow) the bullshit narrative that everyone is already imbibing with their mother’s milk–and start messing with it.

    Which sounds fairly banal and like good old defamiliarization–but no one has sufficiently used the web for this, so far as I know. For some reason this also reminds me of “the footage” in Pattern Recognition. –Except we’re aiming for over recognition, the opposite of how the footage works.

    I’m still worried about how any of this will function as a motivator for consciousness. At the point (months? years?) when people have had enough off our brand of confected-realism, we start to slip in some of the footage of prior protests. Ideally it would get kind of out of control and lots of people would start making their own confections.

    It’s kind of pie-in-the-sky, but what the hell. The idea of footage collectives is pleasing.

    Networks of propoganda/art/weapons.

  4. Defamiliarization is actually not as simple a concept any more as one might think and that makes me totally agree with your footage plan. In a time where consensus is moving more toward simulation and hyperreality the idea of defamiliarization has largely been abandoned, since logically there can be no point to return to from a society shaped by simulacra. That, however, seems like a quite bleak version of pomo and poma pragmatism that, I agree, can indeed still be countered by simple processes of defamiliarization–see Hurrican Katrina.

    BTW: did you hear that they are currently filming _Pattern Recognition_??? Not sure about that one yet. Oh–and they’re also filming Alan Moore’s _Watchmen_ (of course without his cooperation)–the director of that one is in fact Zack Snyder (_Dawn of the Dead_ 2004).
    Also wanted to ask: where are you??? (Chicago, Pennsylvania, Houston, Havana…?)
    Do you still live in the Blood Dorm and did you make sure Jeremy is watering the fucking goldfish in your absence (one of my favority _Pattern Recognition_ quotes)?

  5. BTW: “the inclusive structure is a bear.”

    Like Faulkner’s bear? Isn’t that one nostalgia as well? Nice metaphorization on your part. Will put that in my top 5 next to Hegel’s “spirit is a bone.”

  6. Ha! Spirit is a bone. Faulkner’s bear (old Ben?) is nostalgia for nature as an outside to capitalism (and modernity) that is gradually being eroded.

    Jameson talks about nature in _Seeds of Time_ as [and here I’m quoting Cary Wolfe’s _Animal Rites_]:
    “a sort of flip-flop of outside (nature) and inside (the economic, the social) under postmodernism so that what was formerly “second nature” (the ideologically naturalized economic and social relations of capitalism) has now become the first nature whose end it is impossible to project” (30-1).

    Faulkner’s “bear” story nostalgically says something along these lines. It’s biblical cadences whisper something about a God being equally deforested. Interesting symptomatic stuff.

    I’m actually wintering (withering?) in frigid Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania–where Zizek is slated to marry his next betrothed. There are red stars on some buildings and in the sky–not so much political, as the sign of a Pennsylvania-Dutch god with whom I’ve yet to commune. It is not safe here. I’ve been thinking about sending a mostly fictional resume to Hugo Chavez in hopes of gainful employment. Will keep you posted.

    I had some dim primordial memory (over beers?) of you mentioning “Pattern Recognition,” the film. Will they play up the romantic comedy angle? Gratuitous CGI effects for the Micheline man? Start leaking footage online? And yet, I want it. I want it.

    Less familiar with Watchmen, though I’ve been advised (maybe by the aforsaid watered Jeremy) that it’s well sorth a gander.

    Appreciate your point about defamiliarization and Katrina. Brecht reading group upon my return from Havana?


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