Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Links and linkages: Michael Mann, George A. Romero, and Ben Stein

Although my own writing has been admittedly lacking of late, due to the unexpectedly steep rise of of academic, social, and personal engagements, there has been no shortage of great writing on the web. (I don't mean to suggest that film writing in the blogosphere is generally rising in quality; this is both impossible to support, and plainly a boring idea.) While browsing some of my blogroll links this morning, I found myself caught in a seemingly perpetual whirl of thought and response, link after link. Of course, I admire the consistent quality of all of those whose sites/blogs are linked on my blog, but rarely do I encounter an streaking crest of great writing about such different topics. Today, though, I had the benefit of wtinessing an influx of potent ideas and sensations. Aside from the lucidity of these writings/postings, many of the subjects discussed represent critical debates and filmmakers that personal significance to me, i.e. mediation and re-mediation, digital cinema, Michael Mann, George A. Romero, and, oh yeah... Ben Stein.

Below are some highlights and reflections:

First, I visited Reverse Shot (via the indispensible "Links for the Day" at The House Next Door), where this month's issue focuses exlusively on digital cinema. In particular, each article in the current issue focused on a filmmaker who has worked with film and digital video (or effects). Filmmakers covered include Robert Altman, David Lynch, Robert Zemeckis, Terrence Malick, and so on. I haven't gotten to all or even most of these yet, but I did read Ryland Walker Knight's essay on Michael Mann. I was drawn to it immediately for two reasons: First, Michael Mann's Miami Vice is one of the most significant movies in digital filmmaking, and contemporary cinema on the whole, so naturally I anticipate reading something about it. Second, Ryland Walker Knight is a unique voice in film blogger-demia. So forgive me for expecting to like this piece. Although it's short, Ryland's description of Mann's ability to shrink and expand cinematic space evokes similar sensations as the images themselves. His description of Mann's films is direct, yet elusive, capturing the director's binary fixation as well as his aesthetic fluidity. He writes:

"Mann does not move his (often handheld) camera for the same aesthetic reasons as always on-the-go Paul Greengrass, who means to splinter space; despite all that shattered glass in Collateral and those brutal shoot outs in Miami Vice, Mann’s cinema is after a boundlessness, not a fragmentation. Video affords Mann an endless skyline, where things collapse and collide, day or night."

Mann is a pioneer of DV in commercial cinema. His films are commercial in numbers only. He is essentially making hugely budgeted experimental films. Proving the cinema has very little to do with plot, Mann is making cinema "collapse and collide." It's not about digital or analog technologizing or storytelling, but a massive shift in the construction and consumption of images. For Mann, cinema is about sensation. Thought, memory, and experience are images drifting away in front, behind, within, and around you.

Ryland goes on to discuss Miami Vice, effectively evoking the sensuous nature of the film's images and sounds, and how it compresses and expands time:

"The whole opening sting sequence is characterized by this urgent dynamic, this insistent movement of bodies in space. One might see the entire film in miniature in this club: each body pushing its neighbor, everything tactile and in flux, compacted in Mann’s digital camera, speed not a byproduct of the mise-en-scène but a fact of life in this world of collapsed boundaries/spaces/timelines. Miami Vice is, by nature, a fast film. Mann rarely pauses and when he does it’s not for exposition—it’s to look outside the story (as if there is one) and its relentless movement (if not forward then sideways; never backwards). The most obvious moment of reflection comes early when Sonny looks out a window at the ocean and the sound drowns out for only one line of dialogue. Even rest ends quickly here. Where Collateral draws a single night out, stretching time forward, Miami Vice says “Time is luck” and stretches time in every direction, forcing viewers to play catch-up from the get go. (The “director’s cut” compromises the film’s argument by slowing things down.) The frame is collapsed not strictly in the climax but immediately, from the first shot—the field of the dancer and the splay of light behind her made one image—because of digital video’s omnivorous capabilities to devour light."

Digital images don't just devour light, but redefine its properties and effect. Miami Vice shatters the binary of form and content. It epitomizes digital culture and demands the viewer become an active participant in its processes of sensation. These processes seem to be elemental, and yet they are always mediated and situated by the fluxes of the greater culture of which one is apart. My own reflections on Miami Vice have been long in waiting, but whenever I do get around to offering my own opus on the film, I will likely be returning to this one.


The next article is from Steven Shaviro, whose academic prowess continues to inspire me. Although his ideas are often challenging and complex, he streamlines them in such a way that makes it seem easy. Typically, the intricacy of one's argument correlates with its presentation (in terms of complexity), but Shaviro has mastered the art of the argument and the art of writing so well, and his blog is evidence that academic writing isn't necessarily "for its own people," but can be both relevant and accessible. The cinema-related topics he discusses also helps in that regards, as he reviews films of all kinds and usually advocates a positively fresh perspective about them. (His gushing review of Southland Tales is particularly memorable.) His most recent posting is an in-depth analysis of George A. Romero's latest film, which, despite the best efforts of some critics, slipped into critical oblivion.

Sometimes, the selection of films that make it into the film criticism contemporary canon seems completely arbitrary, unfortunately, and Diary of the Dead is among the many interesting films that caught the short end of the stick, so to speak. That doesn't stop Shaviro, though. He rips through the film's themes, dynamics, and moments in one of the best pieces of criticism of an invidual films I've read in a while. He argues that the movie, despite its apparent broad thematic strokes, offers a nuanced perspective of media saturation in the digital age. Here is an excerpt:

"We have moved from being a “society of the spectacle” to being a society of participatory and interactive media. And Diary of the Dead is thinking about this change — not to say that the new media regime is either better or worse than what came before, but to try to delineate just how it is different. The great unitary spectacle of which Guy Debord wrote has been shattered, and replaced by new forms of distraction and activity in what Deleuze called the “society of control.” We are no longer passive, voyeuristic spectators; instead, we actively both give ourselves over to surveillance, and eagerly surveil (is that a word?) both others and ourselves. We fragment, multiply, and network both ourselves and whatever we encounter. This no longer falls under the dipolar schema of subject and object; but rather has the form of a network in which everyone and everything is a node. This also means that we have moved on from representation to simulation: instead of trying to capture the Real via mimesis, we actively produce bits and pieces of a reality that is directly composed of images, rather than merely being captured or reflected in images. The regime of simulacra is not an “extermination of the real” as Baudrillard claimed; it is rather a state in which the real is effectively being micro-produced and virally disseminated. In consequence, the real and the imaginary have become, as Deleuze puts it, “indiscernible”: reality pushes toward a “point of indiscernibility,” as a result of “the coalescence of the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time” (Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 69). Every imaginary simulation becomes altogether real, even as every reality is dissolved in simulacral multiplication."

The most intriguing notion in this paragraph is that representation may have morphed into simulation, in the sense that the relationship of the signifier (representation) and that which it signifies (object of representation) is completely obliterated. We have endured innumerable waves of representation that it is now impossible to distinguish between the two. Subject / object relations, therefore, hold little significance in the debate of agency, identity, and culture.

Although the above quote is denesely theoretical and philosophical, you'd have to read the whole piece to understand that Shaviro seamlessly interweaves these concepts with his descriptions of the film itself. A true Deleuzian, he takes on the image in its most pure state and with complete disregard for easy distinctions.


Finally, the last piece I'll mention here is by Chuck Tyron (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at SCMS several weeks ago). His blog is a great source of a variety links on media and cultural affairs. From time to time, he will provide his own lengthy commentaries, sometims on individual films. His latest is a review of the new, pro-Intelligent Design documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, starring everyone's favorite pop intellectuallist, Ben Stein. Part of the reason I enjoyed reading this is that it was refreshing to read the perspective of a film and media scholar/critic rather than a so-called pundit. As many are aware journalistic critics were shut out of the movie, which picked up the bulk of its momentum from promotions on Fox News and others members of the so-called liberal news media. In the following excerpt, Tyron cites the film's biggest atrocity:

"The critique of the theory of evolution would be bad enough on its own, but Expelled is also one of the most transparently manipulative films I’ve ever seen, with Frankowski comparing an utterly homogeneous scientific community to the Communists and the Nazis at various points and referring to scientists who study evolution as “Darwinists,” as if Darwin is just another ideology on par with these political philosophies. One of the film’s structuring elements involves black-and-white footage of the building of the Berlin Wall alongside color stock footage of the major Washington, DC, landmarks in order to position intelligent designers on par with the founding fathers, Lincoln, and conservative hero Ronald Reagan, virtual freedom fighters on the front in the battle against tyranny and totalitarianism. Darwinism becomes or at least logically leads to eugenics, the film seems to argue, and Stein drops a couple of ominous passages from Darwin’s research to reinforce this point, as if all scientists accept Darwin’s theories to the letter. In fact, Expelled crosses a line that few films do in establishing its analogy between evolutionary theory and Hitler’s theories of eugenics by actually entering the concentration camps and showing the ovens where hundreds, if not thousands, of victims were cremated. Such a manipulative use of the Holocaust dead to score relatively cheap political points should not be tolerated."

In light of all of the anti-war, anti-corporation, and anti-Bush documentaries, I suppose it's natural that conservative fire back with their own ammunition. And pretty soon our film artists may embody the same rhetoric of politicians, meaning that film lover will be treated to hours and hours of slanted, essentialist views. This notion is fascinating, as is the booming popularity of these political documentaries. Opponents of this kind of filmmaking are arguing that filmmakers are abusing the term, "documentary," but, in my mind, that's the wrong argument to make. Of course, these are documentaries. Who ever said anything about documentaries representing objectivity? The images and information presented in them are situated and partial, but are often handled more recklessly than the situated, partial information within scientific literature.

More interesting is the notion that media are continually employed for exploitive ends, despite the capability of achieving so much more. New media provide us new ways of thinking. And yet, even in the most progressive atmosphere for the development of knowledge and media, a large majority of people seem to view media and knowledge as little more than a means to a political end. It's tragic, really. Documentary filmmaking is a rare art that demands empathy, vision, and immense courage from its makers, evident in films such as Helvetica, Manufactured Landscapes, and even the politically-charged (in terms of subject matter) Lake of Fire. Hopefully someday these are the types of movies stirring so much debate and interest. But if the current presidential campaign and media coverage is any indication, that day is a long way off.


Interestingly, the content of the above pieces --despite covering a diverse span of films and concepts-- oddly reflects the awkward phase we as film critics and cinephiles find ourselves in. Media are converging, morphing, and expanding in manners that challenge the structured, linear means by which we could previously separate and categorize knowledge, memory, and experience. As a medium constituted by countless other media, cinema is not just affected by these changes, but is the locus of that change. However, the subtle reminder with all of this talk of change that runs through all three of these articles is that although the landscape is changing, many of the same sociocultural conventions and assumptions are preserved in spite these morphings and alterations and sometime they are reified by these apparent changes.

Who would have thought a discussion Michael Mann, George Romero, and Ben Stein could ever result in such a twisted synthesis?

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