Day 250: No Country for Old Men

I have no idea why I haven’t heard about this before: The Coen brothers directed an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (limited: November 9, wide: November 21). I am slightly scared to see the outcome of this gutsy project.

Personally, I don’t think the novel lends itself well to filmic adaptations. The outcome will doubtlessly focus more on the actual action of the novel than the psychological struggles, the political backdrop of immigration and globalization, which is juxtaposed with traditional US values, morals and narratives and the philosophical conflicts contained in the interaction between the characters–or so I fear. Maybe it is just because I am actually writing about the novel in my dissertation and fear that too many hack critics will write crappy CS criticism about the movie I will have to deal with when revising the dissertation for a publisher later on. In any case, the novel is fantastic. Especially memorable scenes include the final encounter between Chigurh and Llewelyn’s wife, in which Chigurh explains in painstaking detail the reasons that require him to kill her. In the novel this is a long, drawn-out scene that contains a very complicated argument regarding the attachment to universalizing teleologies, an argument that runs through the entire novel via the intersected passages that reflect the thoughts of the Sheriff on the “new world,” which is simply no country for old men. McCarthy’s novel, however, illustrates to us the pervasiveness of those desiring structures that are clearly outdated, but which at the same time appear to be difficult to supersede. Many of us, so McCarthy, are old men in a country that seems to travel faster through history than we appear to be able to.

Let’s hope the Coen brothers are able to at least capture a part of McCarthy’s extraordinarily sentitive and insightful exploration of the present US psyche.

Here a trailer:

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Day 162: Stauffenberg, 07.20.1944 and…TOM CRUISE???

Today a quick post regarding something that just pisses me off to no end. Yesterday marked the 63rd anniversary of the most well-known attempt to assassinate Hitler. Centered around Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, a small group that came to be referred to collectively as members of the “conspiracy of the 20th of July” organized the military resistance against Adolf Hitler and plotted his murder and a subsequent coup. The plan referred to as “Operation Valkyrie” ultimately failed to kill Hitler, the participants were killed or imprisoned and their families were severely punished (concentration camps etc.) and their last names were changed in order to try to erase their lineage (the Stauffenberg children were re-named “Meister”).

Just in time for this anniversary a new film project called Valkyrie, telling the story of this part of the German resistance against Hitler, was announced together with the pleasant piece of news that Stauffenberg’s role will be played by Tom Cruise. Now, we all know that Hollywood has a limited number of pretty, overpaid actors who are randomly assigned to roles in an utterly de-historicizing manner without any real concern for what the roles are, but letting Tom Cruise, a missionary for the totalitarian organization Scientology, play the role of a person who managed to turn away from totalitarianism and finally decided to wake up, opt for sanity and try to produce progressive change, is just beyond bad taste to me. I know I should not be writing this, since several German directors already proclaimed that too severe a critique of this ideological clusterfuck and affront to history may have negative effects on the appeal Germany has for Hollywood movie productions (“one call to L.A. by a disgruntled producer who has heard people in Germany make negative remarks about Tom Cruise may be enough to severely damage this industry for Germany”), but you know what? Fuck Hollywood! There, I said it. Scientology may be accepted in L.A. as well as among the Hollywood chiqueria who apparently see no contradiction between their assumed political “liberalism” and not speaking out against Scientology activity in their midst, but I for one would be glad to criticize the hell out of Cruise and his fellow Scientologists, especially if this were to destroy an industry whose primary function seems to be to obfuscate the precise history of ideological and political systems. I wish I could find the picture I saw of Tom Cruise dressed as Stauffenberg–let’s just say that, in typical Hollywood fashion, there is little difference between Cruise’s Stauffenberg and Depp’s Jack Sparrow. So much for historical movies coming out of great, fantastic, please-associate-with-us Hollywood. In reference to my earlier post on Die Hard and Bruce Willis: even though he is not from my hometown I will hereby add Cruise to my list of idiot actors I would like to challenge to a duel (since arguing with such people really does not seem to do any good–hence a stupid, boorish, reactionary and unpolitical whacking with a big stick may be the only way to keep them from … well, being themselves).

Sorry for the rant–I am not even that angry at Cruise. His relationship to Scientology is probably taking place on the same intellectual level as the relationship between Mike Tyson and Don King. I am just really annoyed at Hollywood today and maybe even more so at German directors (such as Volker Schloendorff!!!), who let themselves be strongarmed by that industry. It is really, really embarrassing.

P.S.: aaah…here we go! Please see for yourselves: http://www.valkyriemovie.org/.

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Day 89: _March_ by Geraldine Brooks

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I just read Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel March. It is a re-telling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women from the point of view of the absent father. March, a staunch abolitionist and chaplain in the union army during the Civil War, provides us with an extraordinarily broad perspective on race and gender politics, focusing, for example on the racism within the union army, or the complex nature of racism within the Northern abolitionist movement. The novel is a historically quite enjoyable trip back into the 19th century, well researched and full of neat little encounters with people such as Emerson (can’t seem to get rid of him lately). Apart from the fact that this was a novel I actually enjoyed (which I cannot really say for many of the novels I recently read), I feel compelled to ask the Lukacsian question: why this kind of novel at this point in history? While the novel itself is quite successful in what it is trying to accomplish I am in fact more interested in the desiring structures that motivated the “author as producer”–why re-tell that particular novel, why the phallocentric perspective shift, why this nostalgia for the father who makes history happen far away from his little women? I can’t quite figure it out, but I would be interested in hearing what people who have also read this think. Other than that today is a writing day again and I need to get back to dealing with the problem of reification (see Lukacs and Bewes).

Day 84: The MLG ICS 2007

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Yesterday, we finished putting together what might be the final version of the program for this year’s MLG Institute on Culture and Society to be held at the University of Illinois at Chicago from June 20-24, 2007. It looks like it will be a truly swell time this year and if you find yourself in the Chicago area at that time, feel free to stop by, learn, contribute, discuss, etc. Here, in no particular order, a selection of (keynote) speakers that may persuade people to attend the institute and/or join our fine organization (the Marxist Literary Group–we are an MLA affiliate–the MLG has a long tradition of bringing together excellent scholars and producing and disseminating cutting-edge theoretical and critical work–and reputedly has the most popular cash bar at the annual MLA convention):

Ato Quayson, Neil Larsen, Jeffrey Williams, Walter Benn Michaels, Susan Willis, Fredric Jameson, Paul Smith, Peter Hitchcock and many more (including also skunk and yours truly as minor players in the game–not even rookies, really–in fact I am still hoping to be drafted this fall).

Regarding the draft: we just had a departmental meeting for those of us that are going on the job market this fall–and it scared the crap out of me. It is not just the sheer number of different tasks that have to be accomplished between now and, well, next March/April, but also what we were informed will be the psychologically devastating pressure of throwing yourself on the market, requiring us to apparently see this as humorous experience if we want to remain sane and refrain from killing ourselves. At this point, however, I still do not quite see the humor in the potential to have worked my ass off for years, sacrificed and kind of social life I might have had, bleached my skin down to uncooked turkey level by never leaving my desk apart from the occasional teaching activity…and ending up with no job, or a crappy adjunct position! I guess you have to be tenured to find that funny. So I will just force myself to take baby steps and concentrate on the little things that have to get done in the near future in order not to drive myself completely insane. This means that prior to September (when the job list comes out), or early October (when you begin to send out applications) I will have to put together hundreds of pages of shite, including things like a “statement of teaching philosophy” (which at this point only reads “I do not like my students to be capitalist dumbasses without critical thinking skills and the desire the look beyond the dominant ideology”–but I might revise that). Apart from all this paperwork that includes more weird stuff than I expected (and I expected a LOT of weird stuff) I will have to finish my dissertation (still a tremendous amount of work to do there), prepare two writing samples, ideally write some stuff for publication on the side, prepare my classes for the fall, give a mock job-talk, work on and market an edited collection of essays I am trying to get published with a friend/colleague, go to the Library of Congress for a month to do the archival research I need to complete before June 30, present at two conferences, move to a new place and deal with the fact that I will be turning fucking 30 in the beginning of the fall. I could so easily freak out right now. Doesn’t really seem like I will be able to quit smoking this summer. But whenever a meeting makes me feel this way I just loudly listen to the Aerzte’s “Hip Hip Hurra!” and everything is fine again (well, not really, but at least I can smile again and make myself focus on the next baby step I need to take). Today’s baby step is to finally finish that freakin’ chapter that has been hanging over my head. It is just too long and I have serious problems cutting stuff. But I will finish that today and then begin polishing the next chapter, which should be done by May 15 (since I have another writing deadline for June 1). So: baby step number one: I will need to get back to exploring in depth what it means for the philosophy of history when we compare getting eaten by a prehistorical animal 500.00 years ago to getting eaten by a dinosaur in 1993. I have a quite interesting argument about that, which I will waterproof now.

Today’s ‘Dick Cheney for the Day’

Fuck you!

Today’s ‘Marcuse for the Day’:

The fetishism of the commodity world, which seems to become denser every day, can be destroyed only by men and women who have torn aside the technological and ideological veil which conceals what is going on, which covers the insane rationality of the whole–men and women who have become free to develop their own needs, to build, in solidarity, their own world. The end of reification is the beginning of the individual: the new Subject of radical reconstruction.

P.S.: regarding the representative accuracy of the above picture: when I freak out in front of my writing I am usually wearing two ties.

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.