Cinema and Other Impossible Pursuits

A series of casual essays on film and culture.

Lessons from Tutoring – a start, at least

I have the weirdest job in the world. That’s definitely overstating it, but its the kind of thing that situates itself between salesperson (a job of infinite reproducibility) and a rockstar (a job of unique specificity), where I’m the thing I’m selling with limited infrastructure surrounding me. I feel sometimes like a weed guy, sort of off the grid, getting people their hookup, and like a con artist who cynically doubts the effective value of their work. I’m a tutor. I know no one like me. I have no collaborators, I have no coworkers. On a daily basis I am engaged in growing young minds, and on a daily basis I learn from my students, I learn from myself, I learn from what happens when we are working together, I learn from parental and educational systems that encase my students, I learn and learn and learn. I have a lot to say, but I do not know the order in which it will come out. So this is a beginning, a start, at least, at unraveling those lessons.

This is also a declaration to all parents, a desperate plea for ears, and it stems from a recurring frustration at breaking the cycles of control that work to traumatize and manipulate all of us, but that start in our homes and schools. We can unwork this damage, we can heal, we can move forward, we can change our educational system into something that aspires to a greater purpose than producing the future working class and elite, we can make changes. It is never too late. We can unwork the problems I want to describe in every interaction we have in a day, because they affect all of us, they were the first spaces in which came into an understanding of our worth – many of us may already be doing this in some way. But it starts with us, we are responsible for our own healing.

Our education system, our whole cultural mentality around education is toxic, broken, traumatizing, and obsolete to boot – a cultural artifact of the industrial revolution. I intend to write out things I’ve observed in my students over the last six years. I have worked with hundreds of students from different backgrounds and with different abilities and desires, though largely from families with a good degree of privilege, and every session is an experimental space in which I test pedagogic techniques I’ve been honing, and try out new ones, and learn from the results of my experiments. What I have to say here and in future posts is a consequence of conclusions I’ve drawn about the evidence I’ve noticed in my work. It’s also based on my experiences teaching in classrooms at multiple community colleges, and teaching at a high school in a teacher-tutor hybrid role. This can all be taken as my analysis of my experiments, not meant to relate to any other writing on the subject, nor meant to prove a thesis of some kind, these are observations and beliefs about what those observations mean, most likely flawed in their conception in some way throughout, but I can tell that few have the vantage point I have, and it seems worth writing about for that reason alone. So this will be the first of likely several (3-4) posts worth of lessons from tutoring.

So I tutor primarily high school and college students to prepare them for standardized tests. This would be my area of expertise, perhaps now above all things except cinema (and even there, it gives it a run for its money). I’ve worked with students on the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT and some of their minor forms (in addition to more generalized help on specific subjects). I assist sometimes with the application process as a whole, helping students plan and edit their essays for admission, their resumes, their search for colleges in the first place.

I had a parent ask me recently – “What’s your opinion: should we sign the student up for an extra test in December? I was talking to other parent and they were talking about how the seniors don’t take it then because its too late, so it’ll be a less packed place to take the test, and that could be helpful, right? Every little bit counts!” There’s a lot in here that is harmful and widespread. Let’s talk about a few things.

Lesson #1: The test is never a neutral space for a child. The test determines their value, it places a number on it, and that number is designed to place them relative to their peers in a relationship of better vs worse. This is instilled in us from such a young age that my framing it in this way will feel radical to most people, because they have internalized the mechanism of the test themselves, or view it as a natural/necessary part of the world’s functioning. In what way could you imagine an education that isn’t dependent on viewing yourself or your friend as “worse”?

Lesson #2: Does a test evaluate knowledge? Not especially, I would argue. There are more effective ways to evaluate knowledge, because there are lots of different kinds of knowledge. Some kids know how to do a thing while they are doing it with their body, but can’t find the words to explain it. In most cases, however, I find the question is one of access to knowledge, not possession of knowledge. Most of my students are extremely anxious kiddos. I’ve worked with them on material when they are in a calmer state and the information they seek comes readily. When they feel they are being judged or evaluated (precisely the phenomenon of the test), their anxiety shoots up and they blank and can’t remember a thing. I would say most teachers know there are other ways of evaluating students, as they have plenty of kids who don’t seem to do well on tests but are great in class. In truth, I’d say we need a multiplicity of ways to do this and work to give students more consent over their education.

Lesson #3: We need to try to keep the test, and the expressions of value from the school, from entering the home. Urgently. Listen to your kids, folks. Take their side. The school isn’t evil in some sociopathic way, but it is an institution of control whose evil is in its banality. We cannot be taking what is said there for granted. Teachers may act of their own accord relative to engagements with a parent, so teachers are worth trusting, but most people at a school are just not invested in your kid the way you are.

Something that was specifically frustrating in the example I’m expounding upon was the sense that “every little bit counts” – this is a most harmful expression. It’s not based in any reality, but spurs action and does so blindly. This parent was concerned with getting their student from a 29 to maybe a 30 or 31 or 32 on the ACT. This is of course the goal of any attempt at retaking the test, increasing the score. But this expresses in the home, from the parental models, the idea that the student’s performance was not good enough. In my sessions, regardless of how many questions are answered or missed, I always remind the students that they’ve done good work for the day, because they have. They’ve done mental gymnastics, they’ve tried to solve puzzles. Taking tests is hard work. Getting any score above a certain amount is a reason to celebrate, not cause to consider if they should run an extra marathon. It also reproduces the work of the test – which is compressed valuation – and normalizes its description. The test measures the test, this is all folks. We gotta stop repeating its truth at home, and that might go for grades too.

Lesson #4: As hinted at above – the test is a physical endeavor. The brain is a muscle, and we feel physically exhausted after doing lots of thinking. People do not need to spend all of their waking days in preparation for a marathon that they did not choose to run. But this is the regime of test prep, and it is widespread practice at this point for parents to have their students take these marathon tests up to 5 times. For the parent, the work done is clicking yes, and signing a check, and believing they’ve done the right thing for their child. It’s an endorphin rush, its the same kind of thing we get when we click Buy Now on Amazon or Like on Facebook… we register our kids for college and these tests through a deeply marketed space of competing advertisers, but we don’t see them that way because of the normalization of it all. The child, though, has to sit down and take the test approximately five times in practice for every time they take it in reality.

Taking the test is no small matter – it structures our sense of self worth while exhausting us and demanding we display our knowledge in a very contorted specific way (that doesn’t even resemble how we might deploy it in the real world).

My sense is that psychologically this is true across the board – the test I’m referring to here is all tests, though it is worse among standardized tests. Preparing for them is a closed loop, one learns skills for taking the test that are irrelevant elsewhere.

Lesson #5: Parents’ worst enemy is each other, the community of parents that they mark as their parental community. Oftentimes this is connected through the school – these are the relationships that are least well grounded, as they are expressed primarily through the scholastic relationship between the students, and so they carry forward in their dynamics the measuring that the school imposes on the two students, making the parents at least potentially competitive in ways that are harmful to their kids. This competitiveness can be of the form that they take the same side, and are both gonna make sure their kids get into top colleges (unlike the other kids), or it can make them competitive against each other, which is more transparently petty.

I have had to argue with as many parents not in the room as parents in the room about whats best for their child – too many will try to do something harmful, or pressure their kid into bad scenarios because they’ve heard from another parent about what “works.”

Lesson #6: “What Works” or “The Answer” — These are problematic constructions sometimes. When we typically talk about finding what works, its usually from a thing we’ve done a bunch, like cooking a steak or making rice, or putting up wallpaper – we know what works from trial and error. Boy oh boy does that meaning dissipate when it comes to future/college/education based anxieties for folks. They often seek a solution that works without being engaged in producing it, so they borrow the solutions of their neighbors in the hopes that it will work for them, when this is futile at it’s core. This is based, I believe, out of an inherited sense of the value of specific answers to questions. We need to have The Answer, because if we don’t have The Answer to a Question, then we become Wrong. The way I’m writing is a kind of parody of Freud, but I see it as a kind of primal scene for one of our own relationships to our minds. We experience the trauma of being marked as wrong over and over again, each test tells us all of the ways in which we are wrong. If we can internalize that, what it shifts in us is a desire for the right answer over the right pathway. If you hit a child for lying they don’t stop lying, they become better liars. We are all of us the children hit by wrong answers, and eventually we learned how to pretend we knew things, instead of working through them for ourselves. This is maybe the hidden goal of our broken system: it desires to produce individuals who know without thinking, who have so many answers they never start asking questions, because they can point at the answers and call it knowledge. Increasingly, what we refer to when we refer to “what works” isn’t based on our own experience or the experiences of people around us, but our fears, and the fears of those around us, masquerading as answers.

This deserves more unpacking in future posts, but these are the lessons for today.



On Montage and Alterity

Why is editing so important to understanding cinema? After all, what we see when we watch a film is never the cut, but always the shot – I can rank a list of my favorite shots in cinema history, but if I tried to do a list of my favorite edits, it would be an obvious struggle. The best version of that isn’t quite the splice from shot to shot, but the array of splices that coordinate a particular sequence. You get me started on sequences – the molecules of cinema – and I can make it happen. But the cut itself is so raw and personal that on its own it can be difficult to look at. It’s at the cut that we squeeze in. Its the place we insert ourselves into the apparatus.

Some films, as we well know by now, can abuse and exploit that fact. To be fair, all films, all works of cinema exploit the cut, exploit the entrance of the audience member into the work, but this is perhaps most visible in spaces of clear artificiality like advertising and what might be called “mainstream media.” How something is edited, how sound, image, and sequence intersect determine in some way how we are thinking about what we are seeing. But does order matter? I mean, if we’re seeing the same stuff each time, can’t we think for ourselves and discern what is worth retaining? Perhaps – and if so, this itself is a kind of alternative montage, a concept I’m hoping to lay out and explore in this essay. But it is very difficult, because it is precisely the sequencing that produces our mental images of what we are witnessing.

In the 1920s, and already the subject of much historicization and essaying, the Soviet filmmakers who were working to define a new national voice, and a new revolutionary possibility of cinema, began to theorize something called montage. The term was appropriated by Hollywood to refer to sequences of accelerated plot (like the training montage in Rocky), and while the term was being accurately applied, its meaning was diminished through that association. Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) wrote of montage as having a disruptive potential, a realization in cinema of the dialectical process – a way of producing a new image in the mind of the viewer that was not expressed or represented by either of the images individually.

The most famous example of this is the Kuleshov effect, a cinematic experiment in which the same expression was edited alongside countershots of rotting food, a baby, and other provocative images. Each case produced different results, even though the face was the same in each. Eisenstein figured these relations as math equations [FACE + ROTTING FOOD = DISGUST], where the product of the dialectic was the mental image he spoke of. The specific configuration of individual shots produces specific contexts for meaning through the specific variation that is imposed.  We may make the meaning ourselves, but the pieces we can use to form that meaning are given to us in a pre-established order. These are not choices made lightly, but they are choices that we are subjected to in almost all cases, meaning we do not have a say or full awareness of those choices as we experience their consequences. We experience films “Live”, and as a result can only reconstruct a secondary consciousness that begins to understand them after the effects of montage have already fused with our vision.

I would like to proceed with a discussion of the consequences of montage in relation to realism, the infinite, authority, culminating (though probably always gesturing towards) an ethos of alternative montage that responds to the hypermediated moment we find ourselves in, where the proliferation of texts/images creates a constant montage of information. As a person who creates “media” I think it essential to unpack the ways in which people walk into our cinemas already primed for a kind of viewing experience established by this prior montage of information, and find ways to undo or remake the forms that seem singular, to transform that priming, or conditioning, into new consciousness.

Part I – Reality and Infinity

Infinity and reality are both pretty tricky subjects, and people really like having solid definitions on things so that they can move forward in understanding a thing, but I’m not going to do that here. Both concepts exist beyond definition. I hope through my exploration of the concepts it will be more clear how I am deploying them specifically. My thinking here is influenced by Zeno, Nabokov, Cantor, Rucker, Descartes, Hilbert, Godel, and many more that I can’t think of, as well as the (new) mental images produced in my own mind through the montage of those thinkers, in the specific order that I came across them.

To start with infinity, let’s frame things first off as being in a kind of {FINITE vs INFINITE} dynamic. This isn’t properly speaking accurate, in that in mathematics, we have a sense of countable vs not countable, followed by an array of transfinite numbers, but it’ll do for now. We could say that there are grander infinities than simply infinity, and for my purposes, I’m compressing those into a sense of the infinite, because even as we travel into more complex lands, the problematic I seek to identify only intensifies.

Reality, so to speak, is difficult to talk about. Language is often a way of crystallizing complex ideas, through a process of designation or poetry. Talking about reality requires designating or distinguishing it from “unreality” but there is no unreality – it is all real. Saying anything about reality almost always seems to require un-saying it in some way, because it is both infinitely predictable and repetitive as well as being infinitely surprising and revelatory. We can identify patterns and grow our understanding through finding new patterns, new conditions, new rules that lend explanation to what is occurring, but there will always be something that forces us to reconsider what is happening there.

Reality is infinite, then. Our perception of it, however, is always finite. We take the whole unfolding field laid out in front of us, and produce meaning through selection – selection that can occur in our lives much like the editors produce it in their films. We choose schools to go to, cities to visit, friends – then again we also receive these things. Think about what it means to be a good friend, to listen to someone, to engage with them in conversation. Think about how a finite view of your fellow person is a process of objectification. Think of all the conversations you’ve been in with someone who doesn’t seem to be talking to you, but an idea of you. Truly listening is being attentive to the infinite, to reality. Truly being a friend is invested in a desire to see and know the parts of them that are not expected. We do not see our loved ones as finite, predictable beings we know them as the infinite, mutable individuals they are, singular in the universe, however full of repetitions it might appear to be.

We all build mental frameworks, or schemas, to process the information we receive from the world. These schemas are kind of like blueprints for what we already have learned and know about the world, and we often find we are dependent on them to navigate unfamiliar settings. We also know that these blueprints produce false sensibilities – based out of fear and ignorance of the Other. I wouldn’t disagree with the sentiment that would reclaim the categories established by our schema(s) as survival mechanisms, as necessary in many, if not most, circumstances just to get by. I think that a sense of survival and fear might even be precisely the instrument through which these systems get their power. There are people who can’t think of Chicago without mentioning “gun violence” and a fear of omnipresent danger that wouldn’t recognize the beautiful city I live in every day.

But these schema, being finite, are (or rather, should be) in a constant state of readjustment. Constant might be to much to ask for – I think we maybe struggle through the discontinuities of a framework until we feel forced to construct a new one, and then rest until that one begins to show its own erosion and need for replacement. So depending on the individual, we probably go through waves and cycles of adjustment and readjustment, but I want to fixate here on the fact that even the new, emergent, better approximation of reality that brings us into new consciousness is itself still incomplete and will one day find itself to be insufficient to account for reality.

Part 2 – Bernhard Riemann and Infinite Sums

One way that mathematicians engage in games with infinity is through series and sequences. A classic example of this is Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles. Zeno largely seems to be directing our attention to the ways in which our conceptions of reality as fixed and finite breakdown in certain contexts, by focusing on concepts that early Greeks clung to around movement, plurality, and time. His paradoxes seem to be all tongue in cheek, feigning towards a disruption of the possibility of movement while it remains an observable fact of existence. Even though Achilles is faster than the Tortoise, Zeno claims, essentially, that if the Tortoise had a head start, Achilles would never be able to catch up with him – something that is hard to argue against without the tools that calculus brings us a couple millennia later. Through an investigation into the infinitely small and infinitely large that come with the so-called “Age of Reason” we develop tools for understanding how infinite series of numbers can converge to specific finite numbers.

So let’s thing of series as being either convergent or divergent for a second. What this means is they either converge to a number or trail off to infinity, respectively. If I added all of the whole numbers that exist {1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + …}, this would be a divergent series. If, however, I added numbers starting with 1/2, and defined my sequence so that i was dividing each term by two to find the next term {1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 + …}, this would be a convergent series. The more numbers you add to the stack, the closer it gets to equalling 1. There is no point at which you could stop where it would equal 1, but try it in your calculator on your computer or something, watch as the numbers get closer and closer, never quite reaching 1. That tantalizing closeness is the same thing Zeno was identifying, and is a similar kind of tantalizing closeness we have vis a vis Reality – no matter how fast we go or how much we learn, at any finite point we remain infinitely far from understanding it. It is true simultaneously that we are in a constant state of growth, and yet never closer to our destination.

I do not seek to construct a grand metaphor for these species of series and their ramifications in film, but I want to open up a context for thinking through the infinite and how we engage with it in an array of mechanisms. Divergent or Convergent series are interesting in themselves, but I really bring them up to bring us to a radical disruption in how we might think of series brought about by the mathematician Bernhard Riemann, who did the majority of his work in the middle part of the 19th century.

Riemann found, crazily enough, that certain series could be described as “conditionally convergent”, meaning that they did converge, but didn’t always do that. Trust me, if you are unsure about how this can be true, ping me on here or in real life for a deeper explanation and illustration of how it goes, but Riemann actually proved that a conditionally convergent series could be rearranged in such a way that it could produce any desired outcome. I’m saying with a straight face that in actual mathematics, that arena of certainty and pure logic, that I can take a certain set of numbers and add them up to produce totally different results based on what I would like to produce. With the right series, I can add up an infinite number of positive real numbers and have the sum be zero, or even negative.

So while some things can appear to us as frankly infinite and immeasurable – like the hues in a sunrise – others can seem to be easily dissected and categorizable – like the number of dollars in my bank account. The third category here, which straddles the line, disrupts the dichotomy and uncovers a kind of transgressive space within mathematics where numbers lose their fixity, where equations don’t produce equality, where our sequencing and the construction of our infinite experience actually produce our sensibility of what is fixed in opposition to the infinite complexity of reality. I don’t mean to gesture towards bits of knowledge or apprehension that are in one category or another, only to point out that more categories exist, to expand the sense of reality and the infinite so that it includes things in the room we assume are not there.

Math class is traumatic for lots of us, so I appreciate your willingness to be reading still. It instills a sense of straightforward order to the world that is factually absent, and then often is organized through a punishment reward system that privileges our repetition of what the teacher says without accessing our own pathways to the information. What I’m suggesting might go against how you think of math playing out most of the time, and if so, I hope you’ll comment with questions and concerns so that I can point you in the right direction, or try some other suggestions. My main point here is to identify that in the land of right and wrong answers, there remains a space where right and wrong lose meaning, where we construct instead of interpret value.

Part 3 – “Master Cuts” vs “Alternative Cuts”

One corollary to be drawn to editing and montage from our sojourn into the infinite has to do with curation. Making a film boils down, in a certain sense to a curation and sequencing of particular moments and specific events. The sequencing, as discussed is highly important, because it channels the information to us in a particular way, and seeks to keep our stream of consciousness engaged (or disrupted depending on the project of course). But how might a different edit of the same material look? Could we have a version of the film made for theaters that feels substantially different than a longer cut? Which do we consider to be the film? What breaks down when we look at films with complicated release histories? I suppose let’s look at a few examples.

I want to start by laying out the difference between what I’m calling “Master” and “Alternative” cuts. A Master cut here functions in relation to the authority of its author, is attached to a sense of final cut, and is often imposed upon a work through mechanisms of power associated with that authorship. Power, here, is often without real victim, but when thinking through how a film is made and how a studio goes through the process of creation, it is useful to think of the various participants in the project engaged in a kind of network of power, pushing and pulling to make a project. Input from a grip or an extra can be as essential to the final object as any other contribution, and the resulting object is a consequence (if not even more directly, the trace) of those power relations. Master cuts imply finality, imply singularity, imply that they are “the real version,” and we often encounter them in the expression “Director’s Cut” or “Final Cut”. Both expressions reveal the authority of the maker, and the trap of so-called genius in thinking through creativity in cinema.

Alternative cuts, by contrast, undermine the sense of a singular work, they exist in both intentional and unintentional forms, legitimate and illicit versions, and they decenter authorship from its throne (even if they pay it lip service through other means). These exist in multiple, and the presentation of the work is dependent on circumstance, access, and personal/group preference. Here, it becomes much more clear that the film exists between each cut – the mental image of the film as a whole produced through specific versions is analogous to the mental image produced through montage of individual shots, and our preferences and tastes are often deeply dependent on the order in which we discovered them. Let’s look at a few different cases of each.

Perhaps the best examples of Master Cuts can be found in cinematic works made for television. Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is a five act, five hour long masterpiece, but many come to see it for the first time through the three hour television edit. This version details the main gestures of the plot, but suffers from an impoverished vision as well (this is not true of all shorter cuts of ultra-long flicks, but is true here). The television cut is watchable and great, but for all of the reasons that the full cut is great – but the full cut spends more time and useful energy detailing the themes it works through. The five hour version, then, would be the rightful Master Cut, the superior vision. I’ll point out that this does necessitate a kind of reverence towards Bergman, and we will see that there are numerous cases where this kind of authority/author/auteur is invoked to gesture towards the definitive fixed version of a work, almost to authenticate it, to name it as THE version, not A version (among versions).

Ben Affleck has made four films since returning from actor jail, but my favorite of them is The Town. I watched this film in theaters, and thought it was a great hardboiled thriller with an extra act to its plot, making it a complex heist movie with few parallels. When the film came out on DVD, it came with an extended “Director’s Cut”. There was an option to view the film with a marker that would pop on the screen during a “newly inserted scene,” so I could track what kinds of changes existed between the two versions. This is just one fella’s take, but boy oh boy is that extended cut great. There were arguments that I thought came out of nowhere that were given new context, whole scenes that had been left on the cutting floor, but which I felt were needed to make sense of what we were witnessing. Whenever I show the film now, I do so with the extended cut. There is an interesting flaw that comes up, though, where new discontinuity emerges. A story told in one scene is later repeated for a different effect in the extended cut – the tale served a function in both places and couldn’t be seamlessly removed, but the editors there felt that we’d make sense of the slippage, and that we were getting something to go with it. To that end, the extended cut of The Town is actually less coherent, and still I prefer it.

There are also instances where we can see the studios taking control away from the filmmakers during the process, resulting in a strange “producer’s cut” and often an alternative (and less coherent) cut that follows. This happened with Dune, a film David Lynch refused credit for, but later was able to release his own cut of. In other instances, we are forced to imagine (that is, form a mental image) what a director’s cut might be, because none ever arrived. A great example of this is the prison escape movie Civil Brand by Neema Barnette – a film stymied by political issues during production for the problems Barnette hoped to expose and discuss in her film (primary revolving around mistreatment of women in prison, and how sex/gender power dynamics play out in relation to the prison industrial complex), and later by unhelpful producers. This would be a film we’d be lucky to all know of and see and learn from, but its been hard to find because the version that exists was the consequence of great struggle, and only gestures towards a sense of the film that Barnette sought to make. Thankfully for us, Barnette is now working on Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, so we can see her genius given space to breathe on television where it previously was restrained. Erich von Stroheim’s Greed is another great example. Considered a classic, there is no one living who has seen it, because the producers cut down the 10-hour epic to a 2 hour mess without the consent of any of the filmmakers, and lost the original. So even our practice of historicizing film is dependent on the “versions that survive” – and survival gives the impression of a singular direction, a singular reality, a finite set of problems, solutions, and consequences. We imagine that what survives is the fittest, but the fact that it survived instead of its siblings just means it has a taste for its own kind.


This is where I stopped writing this essay several months back. I intended to continue it with conversations about confirmation bias, alternate cuts, and how we can take the same bits of information and make them speak differently according to the montage that pre-exists our encounter with it, but perhaps those will be handled at length in other essays.

Treatment for a Film on Traffic

My primary mode of transport is a bicycle – in Chicago, that means I ride my bike during half the year and public transit during the other half. It’s not bad living, keeps me healthy and healthily conscious of next door dangers, but it is a source of regular anxiety. A thing that feels helpful to express is something like the content of that anxiety, or if not the feeling of being anxious in that space at least a different externalized sense of that space, a reconfiguration of the space based on a kind of tendency towards observation.

I would hypothesize that traffic is especially bad this year. I see it everywhere, as a pedestrian, as a cyclist, as someone who rides in Lyfts and on buses, people are going nuts out there. I think aspects of this are connected to the ways in which the road has become a planar space of productivity, so that not only time, but inches determine the measure of our work – making people increasingly anxious to be included in the last light, or to smoothly roll through stop signs because they don’t see anyone. This field of vision, on the part of the driver, is complicated by the rise in smartphone use and mapping services while driving, keeping eyes fixed to a simulation of the road instead of the road itself. People are disconnected from the bodies they orchestrate in the world, lost in a virtual sense of their surroundings, and the nature of traffic in 2018 is a peculiar beast resulting from these and other forces.

I recently had a driver drive around me in a provocative and dangerous way on a residential street. This has happened before but they parked, and I decided to have a conversation with them instead of stew over it and feel pissed and angry at a person who was just pissed and angry at me. But this conversation was fruitless and left me more frustrated – the driver stayed in his car, didn’t even look at me, and screamed the whole time at how I was in his way. I told him I was his neighbor, that I lived across the street, that I was glad to be home so slowed down, but he was yelling at me like I was the asshole. Maybe a lesson is “Don’t Engage” – but I think another lesson comes from how he wouldn’t look at me. He wasn’t even engaging me as a person, he was engaging the idea of me, venting at every cyclist he had bones against, and using my physical presence as a cue for it. This happens a lot when I voice something on behalf of cyclists, people sort of stop talking to me and start talking about cyclists that have gotten in their way before, repeating a kind of internal script.

My sense is that the gentleman in the car was living in a little isolated box of existence, a little mobile cinema where the world passes by on an array of screens, sounds muffled, the real external world kept at a sensory distance, disembodying drivers in a certain sense. This is made most absurd in these ridiculous traffic jams that I see – they happen almost every changeover of a light during busy traffic, but because no one has any patience on the road any longer, everyone piles on top of each other blocking roads, almost swiping other cars or pedestrians or cyclist, in a kind of mute orgy of awkwardly colliding bodies. It makes me think of the conveyor belts in factory farms, shuttling animals to a grisly death, but our belt on the road is a Google Maps voice saying “turn left” repeatedly.

So I’m proposing a project of quiet and patient observation. I don’t know yet what will come of it, whether it will resemble a kind of urban symphony in the style of Shirley Clarke or an absurdist array of compositions stemming from Jacques Tati. I start this not knowing what the proper reality or structure of the end result ought to be. But what I desire to do is mark out specifically troubling intersections, and find angles and positions to film them from. My goal in selecting a frame is to a) graphically access the layers of cars that will assert their presence in the image and b) avoid the high angles of surveillance. We already possess a visual lexicon for traffic cams that desensitizes us to the action taking place, keeping us secure in an observing tower. I would prefer to find a way to be in the thick of it. To that end, it seems difficult to choose corners that don’t abut a park or location for me to find ample, stationary, and relatively obscured positions, but each intersection should present its own visual challenges. In a certain sense, filming the intersection is a process of refining the gaze so that the truth of the intersection, or a truth of the intersection, can be seen with clarity.

A part of the project would be engaged in waiting through periods of 6 hours or more, waiting and filming. The camera, if possible, should be recording at all times, except in instances of relocation. The day’s images should be edited at the end of the day, or before the next jaunt, eliminating dead space and useless footage. The partial goal is to find unpredictables, to see things that occur without anticipation, so more than just images of gnarly traffic can be culled. This file will be exported with the date and added to the file, and a film might begin to emerge after I attempt journeys to 10 intersections. The more intersections and days I spend filming the more interesting footage I get to make something with, but after some time shooting and editing I will need to decide what I want to make with it. This, then, is just the treatment.

On Some Things That Are Also Films

I love timelapse videos. I used to take them on my way to and from work when I taught in Indiana, keeping my phone pressed against the train window so I could watch the sunrise. I’d do similar things propped outside of certain windows to track changes in the sky, or facing a room I was busily rearranging. I never really revisit them later on; I watch them immediately. It’s all about seeing the recent voluptuousness of time reduced to a digestible handful of seconds, to see the movement, force, dance of my body or the world abstracted from time.

(mute sound on this one)

I think this might have begun with the amazing sequence in Aronofsky’s Requiem – I can recall fastidiously reading behind the scenes accounts of how he managed the technical logistics of the sequence, in which Ellen Burstyn cleans up her apartment as the sun sets. Maybe that’s why I like that kind of shot for myself. I also dug the middle sequence of Hollis Frampton’s Surface Tension, especially it’s apparent mischievousness. Frampton’s journey from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park appears to be a continuous walk, but actually took place on different days, and at different times of day – in certain places, cars appear to jump around or disappear because by the time he returned to continue they had moved.

The first sequence reveals to me something about the passage of time and how hard it can be to feel in the now, but also how that movement can be made visible through a different kind of looking. Here, something that appears static (a shadow) is rendered mobile through a change in the frame rate, allowing enough time to pass, and light to shift for movement to become perceptible. The second sequence reveals to me something about how we can experience a continuity amidst a co-present discontinuity. We travel through NYC, continuously neighborhood to neighborhood, block to block, and so the continuity of space is intact while time is out of joint.

Time is continuous, and infinite. It cannot be divided into fundamental, indivisible units. So why do we pick 24 of them in film, or 25 on TV, or 48 (if we’re James Cameron/Peter Jackson/Doug Trumbull)? The historical answer exists and is well-documented, I ask more to gesture towards it’s relative arbitrariness vis a vis our awareness of it. In a certain sense, cinema isn’t even bothering to duplicate time – given the limitations that automatically present themselves, illusion suffices.

I think too of how perception is often dependent on a question of scale. Forest/Trees type stuff is one way to think of that, but also think of how we experience the vastness of space to how an ant experiences the vastness of space. Trees experience the vastness of time in a way that we could never fathom – an idea Hitchcock explores in the redwood forests of Vertigo. In fact, the shot of the tree rings (in which Madeleine can identify the time when Carlotta Valdez was born), is its own kind of timelapse video, hundreds upon hundreds of years of time condensed into a second.

“Somewhere here I was born”

So what kinds of films would trees make? Would they look something like the works of Jonas Mekas’ As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty or Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson? What kinds of films would ants make?

In at least one sense, cinema could be thought of as an accumulation of specific moments that direct the viewer to sense of Time. I’m not even trying to say that that’s all of what cinema is or does, I’m just saying that an element of our experience of it as time-based medium is that it is often a particular reconstruction of time – in this sense the filmmaker is a curator of time. Films by Ahwesh, Brakhage, Conner, Schneeman, and others who experiment with materiality might not necessarily fall into this category, but even they compress a series of visions and materials into a time-based experience (perhaps taken to its limit in Shirley Clarke’s 24 Frames per Second).


A TREE is also a film, every RING a frame.
A CLASS is also a film, every SESSION a frame.
A NOTEBOOK is also a film, every PAGE a frame.
A DAY is also a film, every HOUR a frame.
A MONTH is also a film, every DAY a frame.
A YEAR is also a film, every WEEK a frame.
A PAINTING is also a film, every BRUSHSTROKE a frame.
A CAST IRON SKILLET is also a film, every MEAL a frame.
LIFE, like TIME, is INFINITE – but HISTORY, NARRATIVE, IMPRESSION, BEING are curated accumulations of TIME, and so each is also a film.
The REAL is INFINITE, every FILM is incomplete.

Kanye Intertexts, Annotated (2018)

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“Mood board” – @kanyewest 4/28/18

Contemporary artist Kanye West has announced that he will be releasing his eighth studio album on June 1st, surrounded by a slate of releases (each produced by West) by his colleagues Pusha T, Kid Cudi, Nas, and Teyana Taylor. Shortly after announcing these albums, Kanye tweeted his purported support for Candace Owens, Scott Adams, and Donald Trump.

Every Kanye West project is a curatorial project, at least in part. This blog post is an attempt to keep track of and annotate those things that Kanye is curating and bringing into conversation with each other. It will be a living, breathing creation, annotating as we go, as much a reference for myself as anyone else who stumbles across it.

Initially, I thought this project was about exhaustion, trying to trace out each of the existing reference points – and I’ll endeavor to do this to some degree – but I think it’s also about curation in turn. How we view an artist, public figure, celebrity, or even just fellow person is often enabled and limited by the information about them that we pay attention to, either through bias/prejudice or through other kinds of subconscious association. Too often our biases are reaffirmed when there is a lot of charged, loaded information, and a cultural stock in properly decoding it. Being able to say “What Kanye West Means” is beyond most of our ability, I’d imagine, but I’m sure everyone has a take. I’m less interested in that, and more interested in “What is Kanye Thinking About?” as a guiding question, because he’s effusive in citing those things himself. So this is at least a sampling of the things he is thinking about and referencing, especially tilted towards what goes unnoticed.

The art made by Kanye West is endlessly obscured under layers of derision directed at him, fame clothing him, and a refusal to explain himself to others. To understand it, it is necessary that we pay attention.

Jean Luc Godard/Jim Jarmusch/Pablo Picasso – “Nothing is original”
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This quote is often attributed to French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, but attribution is difficult to come by.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 2.05.01 PMThe source for most folks is from Jim Jarmusch’s 5 Rules for Filmmaking: “Rule #5: Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 2.04.52 PMfuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 2.04.40 PMSelect only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—

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celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
Pablo Picasso “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” … I FEEL LIKE PABLO


David Hammons

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 1.38.01 PM“One wintry day in 1983, David Hammons peddled snowballs of various sizes. He laid them out in graduated rows and spent the day acting as an obliging salesman. Calling the unannounced street action Bliz-aard Ball Sale, he inscribed it into a body of work that, from the late 1960s to the present, has used a lexicon of discreet actions and consciously ‘black’ materials to comment on the nature of the artwork, the art world, and race in America.”
— from the description on the back of the book

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“Outrageously magical things happen when you mess with a symbol” – David Hammons

Hammons often re-interpreted loaded symbology in his work, a direct influence on Kanye’s use and redirection of the MAGA hat. Some of those are pictured here. “Other works play on the association of basketball and young black men, such as drawings made by repeatedly bouncing a dirty basketball on huge sheets of clean white paper set on the floor; a series of larger-than-life


 basketball hoops, meticulously decorated with bottle caps, evoking Islamic mosaic and design; and Higher Goals (1986), where an ordinary basketball hoop, net, and backboard are set on a three-story high pole – commenting on the almost impossible aspirations of sports stardom as a way out of the ghetto.”
– Wikipedia

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Joseph Beuys

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Who is Joseph Beuys? I’m still finding out, honestly, but glad to have found out about him through this process. He was a “Fluxus, happening and performance artist” who was active in the middle part of the 20th century through the 70s and 80s. He is famous for many things, including a tendency towards the Messianic (which Mr. West would identify with), and a prankster mentality. He was also a Nazi in his youth, which reinforces a larger emerging thematic focused on the good ideas and positive qualities of otherwise problematic folks.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 2.13.01 PMOne of his most famous pieces is “I Like America and America Likes Me.” It would seem that this piece in particular, perhaps more than any other so far, is indispensable in making sense of this release. You can read the full account here, but the short version is that Beuys flew to America, was secreted off to a gallery space where he lived and slept with a coyote for three days. From the linked article: “Despite the coyote being represented as an aggressive predator (and, amazingly, as an intruder) by European settlers and their descendents, who sought to eliminate it, to Beuys, it was America’s spirit animal.
Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 2.30.19 PM.png“You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted,” he said of his performance. For those three days, he attempted to make eye contact with the coyote while regularly performing symbolic gestures, such as tossing his leather gloves to it or gesticulating wildly at it with his hands and walking stick.” At the end of the performance, Beuys embraced the coyote, and the coyote allowed this.


Andy Kaufman

In the above tweet (also featured at the top of this post), Kanye has sketched a caricature of someone’s face next to the name Andy. This Andy could signify in multiple directions (Kanye has done this previously with BIG Pun/L/Notorious, Russell Simmons/Crowe/Brand/Naomi, Michael Jackson/Jordan/Tyson/Phelps, and Pablo Picasso/Escobar/the Apostle), but it seems most likely to be a representation of Andy Kaufman, postmodern comic/prankster of the 70s and 80s. He notably performed duplicitously, often in character or as someone else in ways that seemed to be awkward, uncomfortable, or disorienting. He took the social sphere as his medium as a comic, famously getting into a public feud with a wrestler and getting decked on live TV.

Tupac Shakur

Kanye has repeatedly invoked commentary from Tupac Shakur from slightly before his death, often without a complete citation. Tupac says, “I want, when they see me, they know that every day when I’m breathing is for us to go farther, you know. Every time I speak I want the truth to come out. You know what I’m sayin? Every time I speak I wanna shiver. I don’t want them to be like they know what I’m gonna say cus it’s polite. They know what I’m gonna say. And even if I get in trouble, you know what I’m sayin? Ain’t that what we’re supposed to do? I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world, or that I’m gonna change the world but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world. And that’s our job, is to spark somebody else watching us. We might not be the ones, but let’s not be selfish, and because we not gonna change the world, let’s not talk about how we should change it. I dunno how to change things. But I know if I keep talking about how dirty it is, somebody gonna clean it up.” This fits in with some of Kanye’s more messianic leanings, but also feels linked to his utopian theories and his song with Big Sean and John Legend “One Man Can Change the World”

Jean Baudrillard

In his interview with Axel Vervoordt, Kanye announced his plans to write a book called Break the Simulation, something he proceeded to publish live on Twitter for the foreseeable future. It seems to revolve around the theory that the real world has been supplanted by an illusion, like photographs that we get lost in, and a sense of being programmed to perceive the world in a particular way. He’ll continue to elucidate this over time, but it’s clear he’s referencing the work of French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who wrote Simulacra and Simulation in the 70s. His argument is very theoretical and depends upon theories of “signs” and “signifiers” but he predicts a kind of apocalypse of Sense bound up in the disconnection between symbols and their referents. He charts out a proposed future of “that which signifies” and argues that we will soon reach a point where the image/sign refers to nothing but itself (this, after all, is one of our colloquial definitions of celebrity especially in relation to the Kardashians – famous for being famous). Think of drivers who don’t look at the road in front of them, or think about the city they navigate, but depend on mapping/direction apps to find their way. A digital road, and a digital city have replaced the “real”.

David Bowie

Throughout his career, David Bowie changed personas and styles every couple of years – a dynamism shared by Kanye’s own career. The Thin White Duke was the character he adopted from 1975 to 76, largely following the end of his Young Americans album, and predominantly associated with Station to Station, modeled partially after the character he played in Nic Roeg’s Man Who Fell to Earth. From Wikipedia: “The Thin White Duke was a controversial figure. While being interviewed in the persona in 1975 and 1976, Bowie made statements about Adolf Hitler and fascism that some interpreted as being positive or even pro-fascist.The controversy deepened in May 1976 when, while acknowledging a group of fans outside ofLondon Victoria station, he was photographed making what some alleged to be a Nazi salute. Bowie denied this, saying that he was simply waving and the photographer captured his image mid-wave. As early as 1976, Bowie began disavowing his allegedly pro-Fascist comments and said that he was misunderstood. In an interview , he explained that while performing in his various characters, “I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theatre, and only theatre… What you see on stage isn’t sinister. It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness.” In 1977 (after retiring the Duke), Bowie stated that “I have made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I am NOT a Fascist”.

Bruce Lee/Enter the Dragon

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 10.35.14 AMIt’s entirely possible that Bruce Lee hold the secret to the “Dragon Energy” that Kanye and Trump apparently share, but in any event it is clear that Kanye is engaging with Bruce Lee’s personal philosophy and especially the film Enter the Dragon. Lee writes and speaks a lot about how important feeling is, as opposed to thinking, how to organize your body and senses towards the pursuit of victory. He opposes the concept of enemies, and concludes that the primary battle is always with the self. These are consistent with some of Kanye’s latest maxims. He also spoke about his identity as a person associated with multiple nationalities. In the third clip below, Lee is asked whether he views himself as a Chinese man or a North American man, and he responds by saying he’s a human being. This has been an element of Kanye’s recent philosophy as well (at TMZ he spoke briefly about how important it was to develop a language that felt it could apply to all, because “we aren’t white and black, we’re all one race, the human race” – which sounds goofily post-racial, but here is almost perfectly a quote from Lee).

Adam Curtis – The Century of the Self

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 2.12.26 PMKanye surprised the film world by posting a 4-hour long documentary by the esoteric political filmmaker Adam Curtis, titled The Century of the Self. While it might be easy to be distracted by his claim that the main point is made in the first 20 minutes, the fact that this was posted at all is remarkable. Curtis has been making incisive documentaries examining culture, politics, media, and power with the BBC for several decades now, though his work is under-appreciated. His most recent film, HyperNormalisation is an analysis of what might be called a politics of deception through media, or a history of terrorism, that culminates with the election of Trump in 2016. It was one of the most groundbreaking documentaries of the last couple years and is available, like most of his work, for free on YouTube.

It’s not hard to see what Kanye gets from Curtis – his speech at the VMAs a few years ago focused on the latent harmful effects of brands and branding, and he has spoken at length about how “wanting to be cool” or “wanting to be someone else” are the things that our culture uses to control us. In spite of his apparent class/wealth, Kanye has consistently critiqued the effects of consumerism on our psyches.

AMAN resorts – Amangiri, Utah & Amangani, Wyoming

Image result for amanganiThese two luxurious resorts, apparently costing up to $10k a night, are the primary locations where the recording and producing of this summer’s albums occurred. They vibe greatly with the interests Kanye has expressed in relation to architecture, with an emphasis on natural proportions, and his framework for describing the luxurious (“one of one”).
Image result for amangiriBoth resorts are designed to exist in the location they are built in, using materials sourced nearby, and with an ethos of natural harmony. LINK.



Candace Owens

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 9.55.22 AMThe woman who ushered in Yeezy Season 2018, Candace Owens, is a spokesperson for the political organization Turning Point USA. She’s famous in many respects for repeating many of the same talking points as other pop conservatives, like Tomi Lahren, emphasizing the importance of personal empowerment as a salvo to the effects of racism. This is a generous way of putting it. Many of Owens’ arguments feel out of touch with the weight of history, maintaining a disdainful and contemptuous view of the power of social movements, and she speaks at great length about how protestors and political activists engaged in struggle against a system that oppresses them are in fact falling right into it’s trap, that their political energy is being sapped and used by others who would also wish to control them. Famously, she talks of how black folks voting Democrat is a sign that they are still “on the plantation.”

I’m not particularly interested in vetting Candace Owens’ ideas, I don’t know too much about them, and even those things I mentioned above are more examples of hearsay than actual consequential research into her views. It’s honestly just hard to watch some of those videos with an empathetic ear, and that’s what’s needed to fully make sense of them, so I’ll leave that for someone else.

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 9.54.32 AMThat said, Kanye said “I love the way Candace Owens thinks”, breaking the internet in the process, and it’s worth addressing what he might love about how she thinks. He gave some context in a tweet a week later, featuring a whiteboard that Candace had written some ideas on. The image purported to describe the formation of a mind, through multiple stages of development. First is family, then Education, then Culture & Media. It seems to suggest that this is how a person’s politics comes into being, or how ideology is formed. I mean this whole thing is honestly Althusserian, even if we want to say that Candace Owens doesn’t know what she’s talking about, this drawing is something that reflects other understandings of how our “political selves” are produced by hegemonic forces. Kanye proceeded to tweet several of Owens’ catchphrases about self-victimization and not being able to get past the past, meaning that at least he vibes with these specific ideas of hers – though I would caution that Kanye probably likes something about these ideas that Candace herself doesn’t mean. The next section will elaborate the dynamic that I think this relates to.

Kanye, Children, and Acting 

Kanye has a working theory of psychological development, based on a vast number of things, but especially the teachings/pedagogical theory of Donda West, and developed and expanded as Kanye has aged. In this framework, our true selves are most visible when we are children – this is when we don’t about what others think of us, this is a time before the hard concepts of the world reinforce themselves. In an imaginative sense, the child figure here also represents an image of utopia, a pre-racism, a pre-sexism, a pre-income inequality – though this is not to suggest that children exist outside of those systems, far from it. This has entirely to do with how we view the world, and how that view becomes regulated over time. Stan Brakhage has a quote, one of my favorites, that goes “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of green?” As children, we are pre-linguistic, and experience reality in a way that isn’t clouded by these later definitions, though we could of course challenge to what extent this constitutes knowledge/thinking/consciousness…

So as children, we inhabit the world freely. As we grow up, as we learn “to adult,” as we face the “real world” (as though everything else were unreal), as we decide on “jobs” that define us, we lose track of that inner child. Kanye believes that we are all capable of being great artists, that we all have the spark of light within us, and that being in touch with your inner child is being in touch with that spark – those in touch with their inner child are likely to make the stuff they think of, or act in ways to bring their brief unreasonable wishes to fruition.

The artist bit there is a bit hazy, but I definitely think there’s some legitimacy to the idea that we are taught to “act right” in ways that discipline our bodies and minds into being something that functions for “society” – while the truth is that “society” functions for the very powerful, who keep us in our lanes by making sure they are very clearly marked. If art is the threat to authority, it is because art exposes us to our feelings and our shared humanity, and when we are on that wave, we can see each other much more clearly, understanding each other’s motivations, and working together to make whatever project, big or small, album or prison reform, come out right. While we are in our lanes, and especially while we have faith that the lanes correspond to reality, we cannot.

In this sense, Kanye’s work can be chiefly described as “aspirational” – he seeks to connect his audience with their inner child to help liberate them from their narrow sense of what’s possible, a sense which they inherited from the institutions that disciplined and tamed that inner child in the first place. Those institutions are identified by Candace Owens in the picture above.

“Listen to the kids bro!” – Kanye West

Emma Gonzalez

Famously, Kanye only follows Kim on social media, but with this rollout, he added Candace Owens and Emma Gonzalez, calling the latter his hero, posting a pic of her, and then shaving his blond hair off (cf. “Black Skinhead”). Before album rollout began, Kanye, Kim and North were all spotted at the March for Our Lives, and they have been vocally supportive of those kids.

Amma Mata

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 10.26.48 AMAmma Mata is revered as a saint and guru, known, as Kanye points out, for giving a great number of hugs to people. She also wrote and spoke extensively about the possibility of “liberation while alive”: “Jivanmukti is not something to be attained after death, nor is it to be experienced or bestowed upon you in another world. It is a state of perfect awareness and equanimity, which can be experienced here and now in this world, while living in the body. Having come to experience the highest truth of oneness with the Self, such blessed souls do not have to be born again. They merge with the infinite.” This sense that we can transcend our prisons in life seems useful to Kanye, in his recent framings of “mental slavery”, “mental prisons”, and his goal of Breaking the Simulation.

[TO BE CONTINUED, w Lauryn Hill, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, The Prestige…]





Three Encounters with Burrel Farnsley

The first time I met Burrel Farnsley, he was in a frumpy suit, partly shaven, toting around a box full of science posters on UofL’s campus. I was on my way to the Honors Building for quiz bowl practice, held there on the second floor on Wednesday nights most semesters. I’m the kind of guy that really is terrible at worming his way out of conversations, so I’ll usually humor a person, even if I’ve got somewhere to be, far longer than I really should.

Anyways, Burrel struck up a conversation about what I was interested in, majoring in, planning to do with my education. This was clearly a man who came from a wealthier background than I; he spoke of education like it was a thing one invested capital into, not where one pursued passion, but I told him I was studying film and the humanities, and he was overjoyed. “My father was good friends with D.W. Griffith before he died, did you know?” Never mind that I didn’t know this person, of course I didn’t know his father, nor any of their anecdotes. I took it the way anyone would take it, as the obscure ramblings of an older man recalling names and dates out of order to make a connection with someone, and I appreciated that, even if I didn’t believe a word he said.

I took one of his posters and went upstairs to practice, same as normal. That night was the first in countless repetitions leading up to right this very instant – the first time I told the story of this kooky old guy who left a trace of his presence without me knowing a thing about him. I wasn’t interested in finding out more, but it was the kind of thing that would happen in a gothic novel or a del Toro film, some old spectre, rattling off the echoes of their life to any observer and disappearing into the night, awaiting their next repetition.

The second time I met Burrel Farnsley was perhaps over a year later. The first encounter, by my best estimate, would have happened in the Spring of 09, while the second could have been as late as Fall of 2010. At this point, I was living in Old Louisville, the neighborhood adjoining UofL’s campus, and had begun working at Old Louisville Coffee House, which no longer exists. It was never a busy café, but it was also a business that couldn’t really afford more than one person on shift at a time, so I often stayed there solo for long hours at a time.

One rainy afternoon, I saw a man outside sifting through the trashcan. This man would turn out to be the same person who was in a suit, mostly clean-shaven a year earlier, but who now was unkempt, in dirty clothes, in need of a shower. He was unrecognizable. And I felt bad, in my youth, witnessing, watching, ogling this man empty out the trashcan on the corner, I felt like I was prying into something humiliating. Before long, however, it became clear he wasn’t looking for food. He was working on something, and as he finished his strange task he came inside and asked for a cup of coffee.

We talked for hours. I don’t even remember all of that conversation and would do it a great injustice pretending to recall the specific details. We talked about his father and his family, we talked about his name and his transience, he told me story after story after story, and who knows which ones are true and which are myth, but this man and I shared a few hours there that changed my life.

Burrel’s dad, Charles Farnsley, was mayor of Louisville from 1948 to 1953. A decade later he went to Washington to act as one of KY’s Representatives. I want to tell you about two things that Charles did, because they are the two that caught my eye, and far better and more knowledgeable historians can speak on his greater network of accomplishments. Charles Farnsley is responsible for making the fleur-de-lis a symbol of Louisville. He also engineered the Fund for the Arts initiative as mayor, an organization that made much of my arts engagement possible growing up. When he went to Washington, his project in Louisville was emulated and he helped create the National Endowment for the Arts.

To me, these accomplishments are profound. I think of how many lives have been affected by those two Arts organizations, especially the NEA, and I’m shaken. Here was a historical person who so greatly affected the world, in incredibly small, nearly invisible ways, and here was his son, combing through the trash, in need of help. There’s a line from Nathaniel Hawthorne, by way of The Departed: Families are always rising and falling in America. This got stuck to the roof of my mind for the months following my conversation with Burrel.

I got some clarification on his D.W. Griffith story – Griffith came to Louisville at the end of his life and career to convalesce, and during that time became friends with Charles Farnsley who was a young lawyer and recent UofL grad. Burrel told me twice that his father was with Griffith when he died at the Brown Hotel, but this was not true, as Griffith died in Los Angeles.

I asked about his, so to speak, financial problems. He talked at length about struggling with mental illness, not being able to keep certain jobs and being disowned by his immediate family following the death of his father in 1990. I want to be clear that I’m not accusing anyone or saying this is true, reliable account of events, but its how Burrel felt, and it’s what he was most upset about on that day. He talked about how his illness had become too much for the family to handle and they just let him go, stopped picking up the phone, left him to his own devices. He felt in the way, the kind of feeling you get when people stifle groans as you begin a story you’ve repeated a thousand times.

I spent the following months tracking down everything I could. I got in touch with a local historian, Chip Nold, and found my way to the Filson Historical Society. I was digging up obituaries, details, records, trying to find how Burrel, the scion of this local dynasty could be found so adrift, so far apart from the things his name continued to stand for. It’s not like the Farnsleys had finally got their comeuppance; their name continued to be associated with local power and capital, but Burrel was just outside of that bubble. I can see from his obituary that he was in some sort of care in the final weeks of his life – I’m very grateful for that, especially in this cold winter we’ve had raging on.

I discovered, while doing this research, that Burrel was very inspired by his father’s political career and often sought to become a local representative, in a variety of ways throughout his life. He was never successful – I think in something like dozens of elections he never really got more than 5% of the vote, but there were plenty of oddities that went along with it. I found the address of his campaign headquarters, but it didn’t exist. He seemed to run on a lark every other year, and to try for the sake of trying without being concerned with his great heap of losses. Trying was connected to his sense of civic duty, and what did it matter that he wasn’t chosen in a given race. He didn’t have marketing funds, he didn’t have any way of getting his name out there except from the value his father brought to it. I’ve seen videos of him at debates for these sort of occasions, but he never seemed to stand a chance, politically. I love that he did it though, year in and year out for decades, never batting an eye.

So why was he digging through that trashcan back there? Burrel was homeless, as I suspected, but wasn’t looking for food. He seemed to be emptying and refilling the trashcan, so my second thought had been to assume a sort of obsessive compulsive type thing. That was partly right, but Burrel was happy, ecstatic even, to explain. You see, when people leave the café with to go cups, they often just throw them right in the trash. And Burrel sees this trash can every day, and watches as it piles up and no one from the city comes to empty it often enough, and it just doesn’t look good. So Burrel had made it a part of his “rounds” to go to trash cans that were overflowing in the neighborhood and rearrange the trash so that it didn’t look so bad. He was stacking up all the cups that had been throw out. Unstacked they could take up bags on bags on bags of space, because a closed, empty cup is mostly air. Stacked, however, the cups easily fit into the can with space to spare.

Some time passed before I saw Burrel again, but I had been busy. I only recognized that it was the same person because of the D.W. Griffith yarn, and before I had simply suspected him of being a man who told tall tales and nothing more. Following our conversation I was relentless in attempting to separate fact from fiction. In the middle of my research, I realized with a fervent clarity that I would make a film about him. I was a few years into my study of film, and had struggled to really write out a film that I wanted to make – something I still can’t really do – and I was overjoyed to have a kind of subject to photograph and document and capture. I even thought to myself how great it would be to use the quote from The Departed, and give this kind of local-historical portrait of a city. I was excited to try and sit Burrel down and extract all of his stories from him. And the more I thought about it the more entranced I became with visions of indie film darling success, of taking it to Sundance and becoming a big deal. I’ve always struggled with those kinds of visions for myself, I both crave that kind of attention and abhor it. And it dawned on me that I’d be taking this person’s life and churning out the rest that they have to offer, the rest of their stories and the rest of their life, I would be taking it and I would be making it into something that benefitted me alone, and I would get to feign at modesty and humility around it, but I would not do that, and I would not grow and would not see clearly. I could see a whole pathway of success and exploitation available to me – and that’s still all imagined. But I could not make the film any longer. It was poisoned to me, this film: the thought that “sharing Burrel’s story” was co-constitutive with “destroying Burrel’s story” made me fastidiously pack up my research and decide that I was sticking my nose where it didn’t belong and taking over this man’s life without his consent. Before I saw Burrel for the third and last time, I had gone through the whole process of making a film in my head and then destroying the film in my head.

The last time I saw Burrel Farnsley was on the bus, riding up Fourth Street, near St. James Court. He was on the opposite site of the bus as me, and was going off about how his dad was mayor and did you know and would you believe, and just telling stories the way Burrel tells stories. I was delighted to have found him, and to hear the familiar repetitions of the story, as engaged and effusive as when he was telling me the first time. He was worse than I’d ever seen him, toting an oxygen tank/mask, and his hair was very thin. He looked frail and brittle, but he rambled on with those same stories I had heard years earlier.

He was trying to make conversation with a neighbor who simply wasn’t having it. This man was dressed in a clean suit, and would clearly much rather have been left alone than badgered by this man who looked destitute and who would not shut up. I don’t know what Burrel’s situation was at this point, it was at least 2011-12 at this point, and he may have been able to reconnect with the folks he was struggling to, at least enough to get that oxygen tank. But as I said, he didn’t look good. And this guy Burrel was talking to – this fucking guy – has some stuff to say once Burrel gets off the bus, and he thinks that I’m the one who’s going to agree with him. He made a quick remark about how ridiculous and full of shit this homeless guy was. I asked him simply “Do you know who he is?” And the guy could not care less than he did. I told him that it was all true, that his name was Burrel Farnsley and his dad was mayor of Louisville, I confirmed those details. This guy blows a raspberry, and says “yeah, and I’m the Queen of England.”

What do we take from this story? I don’t know. I think the guy on the bus needed the same kind of affirmation of his reality as Burrel did, and that vision is not always to be trusted. I feel like Burrel stands in for me as a kind of symbol, a diamond in the rough, a testament to experience in the unlikeliest of places – and it provokes me to rethink my senses around those likelihoods. More than anything, his story was like the cavity a tooth leaves, something altogether beguiling that I spent a good amount of my life troubled by, endlessly working over in my head trying to figure out how the world could produce this particular nugget of a thing. Intelligence and insight became disconnected from material success; the beautification of a neighborhood demands action of us, not theory. And someone can end up poorer down the line than they once were while still remaining the same person, someone can have whole chapters of their life ahead that are their own struggles to come, unimaginable from where we stand in the present.

I left something out before because to me it is the most important detail and you should always save the most important detail til the end (that way you actually have an ending instead of an accumulation of weird, nonsensical insights). Burrel was doing something else that day at the café when I found him organizing the trash. He had a can of gold spray paint, and in our conversation he explained that as a part of his rounds in the neighborhood he would organize the trash cans and touch up their paint job. In Old Louisville, the public trash cans all featured the name of the neighborhood and a fleur-de-lis in wrought iron, and those fleur-de-lis all had gold paint jobs.

So here is a fragment of a man. I don’t have the complete picture, but then again, no one does anymore. Burrel used to tell as much of it as he could to anyone who would listen. He died last week, and will be buried today or tomorrow at Cave Hill. But whenever I see those golden flowers blooming throughout Old Louisville, I’ll hear those yarns start to spin for one more telling. I hope he rests in peace.

Hey Jude, or Boyhood – a collage

vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h39m48s664Jude Swanberg, son to filmmakers Joe and Kris Swanberg, has been stealing scenes throughout his infancy. To date, Jude has appeared in 8 films, in roles of varying capacity, but it’s been clear for some time that we are witnessing his earliest years through the cinema of his parents. It seems likely that this will decrease as he ages – babies are much cuter to photograph, and have less bodily autonomy with which they can resist their exploitation. However, the intersection between his real world identity and his on-screen vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h39m35s817development produces curious resonances, that at minimum deserve some contemplation.

Joe and Kris are both members of the virtually defunct mumblecore movement of the mid-aughts, a style that focused on naturalism, spontaneity, and the authenticity of place and relation. In some ways, it look a leaf out of the hard-line principles of the Scandinavian Dogme 95 movement – led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, et al. – in the necessity and pursuit of so-called reality. But they were vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h40m56s391also motivated by a DIY tendency, a desire to produce films using cheap materials speaking truths that might only be worth showing to their closest friends and acquaintances. That’s the kind of intimacy these filmmakers sought, as if you were living in their own home with them.

It makes sense, then, as Joe Swanberg in particular has transformed from making films about disaffected 20-somethings resisting attachment to domestic strife and family vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h41m39s944dynamics, that his own family would come into play as a subject of his films. Much more ought to be explored along these lines, as Swanberg’s cinema has changed greatly since the release of his film Drinking Buddies, a few months before the birth of his child.

The following video is a collage of clips and sequences from 7 films in which Jude appears. Those films are Marriage Material (2012, Joe Swanberg), Empire Builder (2012/14, Kris Swanberg), Happy Christmas (2014, J Swanberg), Uncle Kent 2 (2015, Todd Rohal – sequel to Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent), Digging for Fire (2015, J Swanberg), Joshy (2016, Jeff Baena), and most recently Win It All (2017, J vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h42m08s674Swanberg). In each of these films, Jude is appropriately cast as himself, or some screen version of himself, named Jude.

Some things that I noticed as I was editing the final version – Jude is often doing one of three activities as an infant, eating, bathing or playing. That elemental triad dissolves over time, but it also solidifies and hones: Jude plays more of a role in preparing meals or doing chores; by the penultimate film he makes everyone breakfast! There is also an interesting overlay of a surrogate family structure that appears in each film, mirroring vlcsnap-2017-04-11-11h42m43s224Joe/Kris/Jude in real life, often with one or both portraying a parent. [In EBHCUK2J,
Joe plays the role of Jude’s father; in WIA, J, and UK2, Kris plays the role of the mother.]
Kris also appears as the “landlord” in Happy Christmas, a wry reference to the fact that that house, which reappears in Win It All, is Joe, Kris, and Jude’s actual house.

<p><a href=”″>Hey Jude, or Boyhood</a> from <a href=”″>Ben Creech</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Lists and Self-Portraiture

Lists are an indispensible part of my encounter with the world, especially when it comes to art. When I was younger, it was lists like AFI’s Top 100 &co and eventually “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?” for film, but it was also Rolling Stone and Empire’s lists of movies, albums, books. Time put out a list once of the 100 best novels of the modern age, and it spurned me to seek a number of them out, just because they were on the list. In my travels, I’ve always felt like my own navigator, but lists were my maps. They were the primary means by which I discovered new things to love. I discovered Funkadelic, Lou Reed, Earl Sweatshirt, John Coltrane, Wong Kar Wai, and countless others because they were compiled in someone’s list.

But they are funny things, these lists. There’s an inherent suggestion that a hierarchy is being produced, a ranking, subjecting each object in the list to a specific numeric value. This is part and parcel of the form, to be sure. But art’s not that simple, the world’s not that fucking simple – translating the great complexity into a numeric value is and has always been a fool’s errand. What then is the goal of making lists? It’s kind of an unanswerable question, one that I’ll probably continue to seek to understand each time I end up going through the process.

My approach has always been pretty straightforward. I don’t think that you can even access or conceptualize an “objective” side of something, so I reject the idea that the order of items on a list should tend towards a standardization – that is, if Citizen Kane or Vertigo isn’t at the top of my list, that doesn’t make it wrong. However, given the numerical form of the project some kind of objectivity sneaks in somewhere – you are, after all, forced to make some kind of choice through the process. So I tend to think that what I’m producing is the “objective-subjective” – an accurate and honest depiction of my account of these works and the world. I’m not freed from the prison of my perspective, but I can focus on it and attempt to describe it accurately. As a result, whenever I make lists, it tends to be a very introspective, meditative practice. It’s an examination of the ways in which I make myself in relation to the particular sphere I’m thinking of as I work through the process.

Lists have a tendency to crescendo towards the top, like a countdown, where maximum anticipation is withheld til the final moment. What this often produces, especially in the one-page-per-entry culture that has emerged from “listicles”, is a sense that the final one is “Best” and all that precede lose that race in some capacity. Second on the list is second place, and the same with third; even through the top ten this remains true. Then suddenly the reasonable gaps get larger and larger. We might say top 20 instead of top 18. Or top 50, top 100 – these make sense to us as well. Something strange emerges when you zoom back from a list’s pinnacle that intrigues me to my core.

An example, to maybe clarify what I mean – it is almost a rule that the works that most intrigue me in someone else’s list are between 13-18. Why is that? I don’t know exactly, but I have theories. At some point it could be confirmation bias, like I’m just wondering if I will already. But I honestly think it has something to do with the deference many lists play to canon, earned or not. Because the first film is thought of as “Best,” the film you choose ultimately speaks volumes. Same with top five – these are THE five films that make the top five. Dial it on back to top ten, and we’re still going. But suddenly the pressures off just past ten, and the list-maker is able to relax a little bit, and let slip some titles that they really hoped would make it further. As I type this, I don’t know what my 13-18 are, but I bet it speaks volumes about me in ways that I’m not necessarily familiar with. If this makes no sense at all, I understand. Some of what I’m trying to describe is stuff that makes some intuitive sense to me from years of poring over lists of works, of noticing differences between publications and personalities, between institutional canons and underground pantheons. And yet, I think there is something to the idea that we perform the items that make it into the upper echelon of a list, to such a degree that it signifies differently.

At the end of the day, though, this is all pretty much relative. If I’m sitting down, and Vertigo keeps getting higher and higher, it’s not because of some obligation to put it up that high, it’s at least out of some internal belief that it should be – whether that’s out of deference to my individual sense or the world’s. What system we use to organize our thoughts around making a list is itself already such a part of our personality that a list can reveal it just the same.

Which is really the point I think I’m leading to – that lists have the ability to show us another person. Sometimes it’s a bunch of people that vote, and in those instances we are shown the composite portrait of those participants, and the list is like a child with many parents. But list-making is often a form of self-portraiture, or at least it can often aspire towards that.

In that sense each item in this list (and trust me, countless more) is like a small picture in one of those dope mosaic photos of my face. And because of that, it requires that I think about each entry in a fundamentally different way than I’ve grown accustomed. Some folks, like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Oscar Best Picture Nominations group their canons alphabetically, sidestepping the numerical problem. I like to keep it in, though, because it’s part of how I go through the process of making a list in the first place. That makes the numbers in my list more of a residue of its production than a grand assertion of objective value.

Susan Sontag wrote something I’ll be repeating until I die in her famous essay Against Interpretation: “In the place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” One of the reasons I reject the search for that “objective value” is that it is a hermeneutics, a translation that compresses a soul into its bare essentials. But I also reject it because it produces a way of thinking about art, and thinking about people and the world, that is fundamentally based in domination, exclusion, cultural rigidity (which produces close-mindedness), and a class-based hierarchy of taste.

In the place of that, I would rather see an expansion of love. These are collectively movies I love. The ones near the top I do love a bit more than the ones near the bottom, but to the bottom of my gut these are great fucking movies, every one of them. And they have made me who I am at this moment. I hope the list never stops changing.

  1. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
  2. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. City Lights (1932, Charles Chaplin)
  4. Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  6. PlayTime (1968, Jacques Tati)
  7. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
  8. Sunrise (1927, FW Murnau)
  9. Ugetsu monogatari (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)
  10. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
  11. Partie de Campagne (1935, Jean Renoir)
  12. Wings of Desire (1988, Wim Wenders)
  13. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
  14. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
  15. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
  16. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  17. Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks)
  18. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1975, Jacques Rivette)
  19. Voyage to Italy (1963, Roberto Rossellini)
  20. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
  21. Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
  22. Rashomon (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
  23. Grand Illusion (1937, Renoir)
  24. Vivre Sa Vie (1962, Godard)
  25. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
  26. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard)
  27. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
  28. Life, and Nothing More… (1992, Kiarostami)
  29. Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick)
  30. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
  31. Stalker (1977, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  32. The Tree of Life (2011, Malick)
  33. All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)
  34. 8 ½ (1963, Federico Fellini)
  35. The Devils (1971, Ken Russell)
  36. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
  37. Man With a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
  38. Videodrome (1982, David Cronenberg)
  39. Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodore Dreyer)
  40. I Am Cuba (1964, Mikhail Kalazatov)
  41. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
  42. Peeping Tom (1960, Michael Powell)
  43. Chungking Express (1994, Wong Karwai)
  44. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
  45. Magnolia (1999, PT Anderson)
  46. Down By Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch)
  47. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Bergman)
  48. Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma)
  49. Shock Corridor (1963, Samuel Fuller)
  50. Inglourious Basterds (2007, Quentin Tarantino)
  51. Pulp Fiction (1994, Tarantino)
  52. Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
  53. Solaris (1972, Tarkovsky)
  54. My Own Private Idaho (1991, Gus Van Sant)
  55. Dekalog (1989, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  56. Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders)
  57. Red (1995, Kieslowski)
  58. Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
  59. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
  60. The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
  61. La Jetee (1967, Chris Marker)
  62. North By Northwest (1959, Hitchcock)
  63. High and Low (1963, Kurosawa)
  64. The Rules of the Game (1939, Renoir)
  65. The Exterminating Angel (1961, Luis Bunuel)
  66. Daisies (1966, Vera Chitylova)
  67. Distant Voices, Still Live (1988, Terence Davies)
  68. Diary of a Country Priest (1954, Bresson)
  69. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Victor Erice)
  70. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Jacques Demy)
  71. The Killing (1956, Kubrick)
  72. Ran (1985, Kurosawa)
  73. Contempt (1963, Godard)
  74. The Godfather, Pt. II (1974, Coppola)
  75. A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes)
  76. Satantango (1994, Bela Tarr)
  77. Don’t Look Back (1965, D.A. Pennebaker)
  78. The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, Max Ophuls)
  79. Jules and Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut)
  80. 3 Women (1977, Robert Altman)
  81. M (1931, Fritz Lang)
  82. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1998, Godard)
  83. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne)
  84. Good Morning (1960, Yasujiro Ozu)
  85. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  86. Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)
  87. Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa)
  88. Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)
  89. Singin’ in the Rain (1954, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
  90. Pan’s Labyrinth (2005, Guillermo del Toro)
  91. In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)
  92. In the Mood For Love (2000, Wong)
  93. The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  94. The 400 Blows (1959, Truffaut)
  95. Hard Boiled (1992, John Woo)
  96. Kes (1969, Ken Loach)
  97. Mothlight (1963, Stan Brakhage)
  98. Boyhood (2013, Richard Linklater)
  99. Germany, Year Zero (1948, Rossellini)
  100. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Tarr)
  101. Barry Lyndon (1975, Kubrick)
  102. Fitzcarraldo (1982, Werner Herzog)
  103. A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Powell & Pressburger)
  104. Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)
  105. Bigger Than Life (1956, N Ray)
  106. Dr. Strangelove (1964, Kubrick)
  107. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron)
  108. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan)
  109. Taste of Cherry (1997, Kiarostami)
  110. Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
  111. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971, Monte Hellman)
  112. A Man Escaped (1957, Bresson)
  113. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais)
  114. The House is Black (1964, Forough Farokhzad)
  115. Ace in the Hole (1961, Billy Wilder)
  116. The Master (2012, PT Anderson)
  117. Act of Killing (2013, Joshua Oppenheimer)
  118. F for Fake (1974, Welles)
  119. Rebel Without a Cause (1955, N Ray)
  120. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965, Russ Meyer)
  121. Adieu au Langage 3D (2015, Godard)
  122. Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood)
  123. The African Queen (1951, John Huston)
  124. Mommy (2015, Xavier Dolan)
  125. Rumble Fish (1983, Coppola)
  126. Carlos (2011, Olivier Assayas)
  127. Army of Shadows (1969, Jean-Pierre Melville)
  128. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, Scorsese)
  129. Punishment Park (1971, Peter Watkins)
  130. World on a Wire (1972, RW Fassbinder)
  131. Damnation (1987, Tarr)
  132. Gimme Shelter (1970, Albert & David Maysles)
  133. Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick)
  134. Floating Weeds (1959, Ozu)
  135. Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)
  136. The Tarnished Angels (1957, Sirk)
  137. Le Samourai (1967, Melville)
  138. Holy Motors (2012, Leos Carax)
  139. The Mirror (1975, Tarkovsky)
  140. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1974, Herzog)
  141. Some Like it Hot! (1959, Wilder)
  142. Late Spring (1948, Ozu)
  143. This is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi)
  144. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
  145. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)
  146. La Haine (1995, Matthieu Kassovitz)
  147. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
  148. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, W Anderson)
  149. The Big Sleep (1946, Hawks)
  150. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Bunuel)
  151. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Bunuel)
  152. Dazed and Confused (1993, Linklater)
  153. Lessons of Darkness (1992, Herzog)
  154. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)
  155. Django Unchained (2012, Tarantino)
  156. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2013, Terrence Nance)
  157. Ikiru (1952, Kurosawa)
  158. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967, Godard)
  159. The Life of Oharu (1952, Mizoguchi)
  160. Grindhouse (2007, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, et al.)
  161. On the Waterfront (1955, Kazan)
  162. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Welles)
  163. Goodfellas (1990, Scorsese)
  164. Boogie Nights (1997, PT Anderson)
  165. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
  166. (nostalgia) (1971, Hollis Frampton)
  167. Charulata (1964, S Ray)
  168. Nights of Cabiria (1957, Fellini)
  169. Nashville (1975, Altman)
  170. To Be or Not To Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)
  171. Computer Chess (2013, Andrew Bujalski)
  172. West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
  173. Under the Sun of Satan (1987, Maurice Pialat)
  174. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, Paul Schrader)
  175. Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
  176. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, W Anderson)
  177. Johnny Guitar (1954, N Ray)
  178. Chronicle of a Summer (1960, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin)
  179. Written on the Wind (1956, Sirk)
  180. The Searchers (1956, Ford)

The Hamlets of Tombstone


Lately, I’ve taken to watching films a lot like I listen to albums. Sometimes I pull out lyric sheets and follow along with an album, attentive from beginning to end, constantly activating my mental response to the work at hand. I link together passages of poetry; I connect the literary components between songs, and have a much fuller glimpse of the themes that underscore the album. But at the same time, this leaves less and less to discover upon later encounters, and the experience can be a little overwhelming. As a result, most of the time I put on an album until it commands my attention, until it says something that forces me to take note. This way I get a feel for the album’s vibe, for it’s stylings, the sounds that make it unique. I hear first what it offers generally, until my thought is more provoked by something it says, usually a single lyric or passage that I can’t shake, and I return until I get a better sense of that initial kernel. Unpacking it often leads me directly to the album’s core, giving me a framework for looking at, listening to, making sense of the work; it also stands as a reminder that the work itself is busy at the same task, and either of us (or both) will likely fail, because the questions that need art in order to ask them are not easily answered.

As I watched John Ford’s My Darling Clementine this morning, the contradiction that grabbed my attention presented itself almost immediately with the one-two punch of the opening scenes. Wyatt Earp is moving cattle through the Old West with his two brothers, and he stops a pair of veteran cattle rustlers to ask directions, when they offer to buy his cattle for a price by the head. Not being very familiar with the economics at the time, it’s hard to say for sure, but given the reactions of everyone involved, it would seem they made a very good price for his cattle. Wyatt’s brother in a later scene drools over a $25 trinket of silver, so when they offered $5 a head for cattle it must have been quite a lot for him to turn down. Earp’s reaction didn’t upset them so much as baffle them, though; he simply was not interested in money. So they direct him to Tombstone off in the distance, wishing him a fun, late evening.

Wyatt Earp walks into town and all he really wants is a shave. After getting lathered up, the barber cannot take more than one go with the razor before bullets start flying through the shop. Earp walks out, beard still lathered up, demanding some order, some police/sheriff/marshal presence that will stop the gunman and protect the citizens. They are all terrified of a drunk “Indian” who won’t stop shooting, and even go so far as to hand in all their badges, seconds before Earp enters the scene. When he sees that no one is willing to silence the man endangering the town, Earp storms in, and seconds later walks back out, dragging the man by his heels. This spectacle of Wyatt Earp, US Marshal, has them all aflutter – here is a lawman who won’t crumble under pressure, who knows how to handle situations efficiently, and who, moreover, has the restoration of order as his primary motive. They offer him the post of town marshal, in almost the exact same way that the earlier cattleman had offered him a price on his cattle. He similarly refuses both their low- and high-ball offers before retreating with the same goal in mind – he simply wants to take his cattle to California. He is merely passing through town, and has no desire to stay.

These two juxtaposed scenes are magnificent. They reveal a jaded lawman, with a mysterious past (what exactly happened at Dodge City, Earp’s old marshal post, is left unclear throughout the film, though it is referred to), who seeks the simply pleasures of having his own herd, the ability to make something for himself. He does not want to stand up for any code, or to really even do much of anything. This is surprising in a protagonist. If left alone he would have continued on to California, raising his cattle, enjoying the ride. Or maybe, being who he is, he would have found trouble anyways, who knows? What we do know is that our protagonist, our “good guy,” isn’t particularly interested in being our “good guy.” He has had his story, his moment in the sun, his crisis, and loss and grief, all back at Dodge City, and wants something a little harder to find than drama – the lack of it. Perhaps this isn’t the best formulation of the thing Earp seeks (it may evade words for a while), but it’s the beginning of understanding his position for the rest of the film.

As perhaps you can imagine, what happens next upends Wyatt Earp’s goals for himself. As he walks back to his camp after finally finishing his shave, a rainstorm has begun, and a symbolic one at that. The deluge erodes what was left behind, begins the process of erasure. The open vistas that were even visible in Tombstone’s night are gone – the backdrop could simply have been a black cloth for how much we see outside of the foreground. And then there’s the foreground: Wyatt’s youngest brother has been killed, and his cattle stolen. Pots are full of water, and overflowing, but the water has nowhere to go. We face a crime scene wiped of all evidence, we see a tragedy that is hours from the possibility of prevention; the rain cleanses the world of all but it’s facts; it obscures presences and reveals absences. The absence of a brother, the absence of a herd; these absences are made visible by the rain, by the blackness that waits beyond the downpour, reminding us there’s nowhere to run.

So the herd Earp wanted to raise is now gone, so he can’t really go anywhere to get it, he can’t take it to California, he has nowhere to go, and a brother to bury. He doesn’t want to be a lawman, in spite of his apparent gift for it, but he is put in a position where he is in need of justice, or some structure by which he can make sense of the tragedy that has happened to him. This project with his brothers, remember, is of utmost importance to him. It is valuable in itself, not for what it brings him, not for the money he might earn, nor the notches he might add to his belt as the new marshal. He turns down glory, money, respect, even the knowledge and power that come from doing good – “doing good” is no longer valuable in itself the way it was back in Dodge City. So when he becomes the marshal of Tombstone it should at least be clear to us that our “good guy” has no interest in “doing good” and acts as an agent of the Law while also containing within himself a profound contempt for the Law.

Wyatt Earp becomes Marshal Earp again, and the first thing he does is establish a friendship with local saloon owner Doc Holliday. Doc is a profound alcoholic, who seems to be in the middle of his thousandth recovery, and is mostly driven by his self-loathing. He’s got a clichéd sense of where he is headed, always on the run, but as with Earp the past that he runs from is perpetually obscured. We see some of it, though, through the titular character, Clementine. She’s an old girlfriend, or maybe an old wife, but someone he left behind years ago, who has been chasing him ever since. The way she tells it, the road to Tombstone is meandering and several years long, with way too many stops along the way. Doc has been coasting from town to town, never staying very long, always moving on. In a sense he stands in for a demented, lonely version of Earp’s dream – to just keep moving and enjoy the view. But Doc never enjoys the view, always swapping his empty glasses for full ones until they’re empty again. There’s a sort of awkward situation with a local girl sleeping with Doc, but after Clementine’s arrival it’s clear that his current flame is simply the nth repetition of the pattern that began with Clem. Each town that he passes through is only interesting for being part of the sequence of towns that led here, which is only accidentally where Clementine caught up with him – it could just as easily have been the town prior or after.

The beleaguered dream team has their first situation the next day, at a local theater performance. Granville Thorndyke showed up the night before on Earp and Doc’s first meeting, but as a comic anticipation of the crisis that would follow. Thorndyke doesn’t show up to his performance and almost as a result incites a riot, where the townsfolk (strangely) want to take the theater manager on a rail around town. It’s almost as if they are asking permission to have fun, as if the people will be entertained one way or another. But Earp insists that they give him a chance to rectify it first, saying that he believes he can find and bring back Thorndyke so he can put on his Shakespearean show. They find him at a bar, being taunted and goaded by the Clanton boys – the sons of the cattle rustler at the beginning. They mock his “poems” and demand that he sing or entertain them in some fashion, and with accompaniment by the local “minstrel” he begins reciting the most famous monologue in Western literature – Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” speech. Here it takes on a dimension of immediacy that it tends to lack.

You know the words, right? By the time you get to the end, almost all of the lines are classics: “To sleep, perchance to dream,” “shuffle off this mortal coil,” “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I’ve heard these words a thousand times, and I can ramble off the first few lines like a math student reciting digits of pi – by rote. Words, just like that, removed from a context, can simply become facts, bounded by hard and soft syllables, signifying nothing. They become habit, especially with this individual text. It is perhaps the most parodied of Shakespearean lines, and yet also his most somber. (Though Hamlet doesn’t speak for the bard – his asking the question and spending so many words on it is reflective of an aspect of his character as well, but that then is the context through which we can understand the monologue.) They could have chosen anything from anywhere, but they went with this, and this works very well in this scene. The actor’s fear for his life is precisely the motivating force behind the monologue he delivers. Should he perform for them, be their pet actor, or should he refuse? Should he suffer the slings and arrows that is his outrageous fortune? To act here is to live, and so he asserts his presence, his will in a space disposed against him, but to act here is also to die, to bow down to a thug twisting his arm with a pistol.

Wyatt Earp and Doc are also present for the monologue; they discover him moments before he begins and sneak in to watch what happens instead of make their presence known. Doc actually has to finish it out for Thorndyke, since he becomes too drunk to finish, and it’s a sight to behold, realizing Doc knows the rest of the speech. It reveals something about his past, his education, and the life that he keeps trying to squash that keeps rearing its head. But when Thorndyke rattles off the bit: “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s [insults], the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the [abuse that virtue takes from vice],” you get the sense that he’s speaking directly to the two men, who are confronting in that precise moment the delay of the law, the scorn of the Clantons, the two women that Doc has to choose between, as well as the expectations of their ostensible office. “To be or not to be” is bound up in what the two men want outside of the present moment as well – Doc seemed determined to Not Be as efficiently as possible, drinking himself to oblivion as his mysterious illness advances, and Wyatt’s actions are motivated by some of these same questions that he might ask himself – do I do nothing? Let them kill my brother? Do I seek justice? Is justice possible? The question that Hamlet is asking throughout is whether or not it is worth dealing with a knowable pain, and enduring something that is difficult, painful and hard, or going forward into the unknown or unknowable. For Hamlet, death is that beyond, but here it needn’t be a self-interrogation over the possibility of suicide. In this context, what we are talking about is the exceptional difficulty of action. Do we “rather bear the ills we have [or] fly to others that we know not of”? Hamlet’s speech ends by asserting that our resolve for a particular course of action only makes sense if we haven’t thought about it – that thinking forces us into a kind of paralysis, whereby the currents of a particular enterprise might turn awry, and lose the name of Action.

Doc finishes the speech, and utters those closing lines. They take him by surprise almost, as if he didn’t have to finish the lines, but found that he was the only person able to. It goes against his whole persona, and the words that he knows by rote, but never revisits render themselves anew to him. Which is to say that it doesn’t violate his character but reveal that we lacked a complete understanding of it. There is a brief standoff with the Clantons and Wyatt Earp, but everyone leaves safely and heads back to the theater (which we don’t really see). This is a transformative moment for the film, for the characters, as the poetry commands each of their attentions in turn. Even the Clantons are visibly disturbed by the monologue, dismissing it scornfully as a pretty transparent way to try and banish its significance from their minds.

It is shortly after this sequence that Clementine actually comes to town, and begins looking for Doc. She means to reunite with him, to assure him that she is on board with whatever his life is, that she wants to be his partner in it – she has come virtually prepared to move to Tombstone. She looks for him several times, but even though she has found him, out of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she can’t actually locate him for a while. She disrupts his Tombstone-life, presenting herself (and alongside herself, his self, and his past) as an option that he must choose or deny. If he denies it, it means he chooses his newly jealous and newly possessive girlfriend Chihuahua, whom he has no intention of choosing either. Doc has stumbled for what must be a decade through the Old West, never having had to make a decision. There is a brief sequence where this indecision, or the pressure of this decision, leads to his fleeing town, and being cornered by Wyatt Earp in the middle of the desert. He needs Doc’s help if he is to find justice for his dead brother, and so cajoles him, finally, into action, away from choice, away from reflection. But in a certain other sense, Earp also solidifies Doc’s problem, by offering him a route that still resists making a choice. It’s an odd ontological moment for choice and action – what precisely would it mean for Doc to act, here? Would acting be showing up for Earp’s call to justice? (Is Earp’s call to justice something more than selfish?) Would Doc be acting if he chose Chihuahua, or Clementine? Does he desire something more or less? And speaking of Earp’s presence as the town marshal, what crimes is he seeking restoration for aside from the ones done to him? He decides to go after the Clantons, but only because he knows they killed his brother. Is his decision to take them down action? Or is it the lack thereof?

It seems to me that each of these men (the women in the film are frustratingly lacking in complexity, making this a drama mostly between like 6 or 7 men, with women arriving as options among a spectrum of action – they make few choices themselves) faces something inchoate, beyond understanding, beyond restoration. They stitch themselves to some structure, because they see within that structure some redemption, and that redemption is so enticing because it places them squarely within a register of meaning and significance, whether it is Doc’s self-destructive drinking and isolation as a kind of punishment for “the kind of person he is” or “what he deserves,” or Earp’s return to the Law in the hopes of finding justice, but also being an agent of the “good” (ensuring conversely that his vengeance will be justified by the system he has enmeshed himself within). They have the ability to stitch themselves to anything – Doc could very well decide to be concerned about running a good saloon, Wyatt could buy another lot of cattle, they could find love and start a family, but they have to stitch to something in order to organize their lives, to demonstrate and plumb their meaning. But inevitably something happens to disrupt that stability. This happens without fail, in films and in real life. People find that the structures that produced meaning for them fail to do so after a certain time, usually because something happens that rips the two apart at the seam. I imagine we’re all probably just like this – bundled up nonsense struggling to form words, to express ourselves, always being betrayed by the spaces we set our sights on for self-actualization. Doc wanders into a bar and finds himself reciting Hamlet, Wyatt wanders into a town and can’t leave without dead brothers and stolen cattle.

The rest of what happens in the film is mostly predictable. The Clantons make their situation worse by killing Earp’s other brother, and provoke the famed shootout at the OK Corral. Doc dies here, hilariously because of his cough (he coughs, and in coughing lets down his guard, and reveals his position; his hand is still at his mouth when the bullet hits him). So too do the Clantons. Wyatt hangs up his badge (again), and gets out of town (again), but this time with very direct plans – he needs to find his father to tell him of his two dead brothers. His plans have cancelled for the moment – its unclear if he’ll ever get a herd of cattle to take to California – but he is also set on a new path, with a new purpose. Before he was attached to the Law, and found by exhausting it that it only added dead bodies to the account. Now he is driven by his responsibility to his family. He’s also taken a shine to Clementine, Doc’s old lady who has decided to settle in Tombstone and help build their school, promising one day they might see each other again. But Clem has nothing to chase in Wyatt, and Wyatt has other pressing concerns to attend to.

There’s no promise of resolution here. I used to be good at faking that, at whipping up a final paragraph that expressed the complexity of the problem in such a way that demonstrated it’s importance, and offered a potential answer, but I don’t really see a way out of this forest. I feel kind of like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, stuck in a forest, uncertain if the way I’m headed leads me out or deeper in. But that’s not too different from Wyatt Earp at the precipice of Tombstone, just looking for directions. Not too different either from Doc ending up in a bar and having to provide the words to complete another person’s speech. Both of them were just kind of coasting, feeling out the vibe until something commanded their attention, too. I dunno. Keep asking questions, keep refusing answers.


Artificial Realism, or the Reality of Images in A Woman is A Woman

“Et moi, qu’est-ce que je suis?”

“And I, what am I?”

There is a palpable contrast, almost shockingly so, between A Woman is a Woman and the films preceding it in Jean Luc Godard’s career. The earlier works seemed to delimit a very clear stylistic register: black and white, 16mm film stock, handheld cameras, jazzy editing, free form storytelling, a presumed naturalism. These are, for the most part, the chief identifiers of the first stage of the French New Wave, and are to be expected from the time period, but with A Woman is a Woman, Godard shifts gears: shooting in color, using glitzy filters, lens flares, quasi-diegetic music; the films manages to transition from the rugged, macho gangsterism of the prior features to a glamorously staged musical. On the one hand, the film could simply be said to be aping the styles and conventions of a different genre – namely, the Technicolor musicals of the 40s – and exploring the extent of its mutability. After all, Godard has already indicated an attachment to the plethora of genres in American cinema. But on the other, it marks a violent shift outward, to the exterior of images, to the thinness of their artificiality, and the realisms that can be found on the frontier between performance and identity.

But first, a detour: Andre Bazin was a prominent film and cultural critic for a decade and a half before he founded the influential Cahiers du Cinema, which we know featured Godard on its staff. Much of what he is remembered for now is espousing an aesthetic of realism, based on his belief that the essential quality of the photograph is its relation to reality. In 1950 Bazin wrote an essay on the Norwegian film Kontiki, directed by Thor Heyerdahl, in which a group of sailors-cum-filmmakers attempted to recreate the Polynesian voyage, sailing across the Pacific with limited technology (e.g. their camera) and documenting it. The film is captivating, in part because it is incomplete – every time the filmmaker-voyagers encountered some obstacle, like a large whale or a storm, they were forced to put down the camera and manage the events at hand. The event of the film’s production, and the film’s object are virtually indistinguishable, and because those two zones overlap and obscure each other, each image takes on a kind of crystalline quality, where two conflicting realities become visible. It is not one or the other of these that is significant, but the contradictory co-presence of both.

The reality effect produced by Kontiki’s incompleteness has a sort of corollary in Godard’s features up to this point. Both Breathless and Le Petit Soldat feature jump cuts, a jagged rupture of visible continuity, in which a character or background changes abruptly. This, prior to Breathless, was conventionally regarded as an error made during the production of the film; usually the sign of a small budget in which the filmmakers could not afford to remedy their mistake. This sign of sloppiness also confers a kind of reality effect; this is perhaps most visibly exploited by the contemporary genre of found footage horror films. However, in Godard’s films, they are not errors, but affectations – grace notes, chosen intentionally for the sake of style. They reveal the films as ostensibly amateurish while also acting in opposition to a legacy of film editing conventions. It is this affectation that distinguishes the two gestures and threatens to position Godard’s cinema against the realist polemic of Bazin’s writings.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h54m36s36If Godard’s flourishes are simply a mode of duping the viewer into a secure sense of reality, they work in opposition to what Bazin wrote about, and against the whole project of realism in the age of ideology. Filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica in Italy, and theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer and Christian Metz had already realized how easily realist strategies are manipulated to entertain audiences (cf. the aforementioned found footage horror films), and all called for new images of realism. The Italians had already begun their attempts, which we have come to know as neorealism, and to which we can already see connections with Godard’s early films. But Godard saw the way their images could be used to deceive as much as reveal, and in A Woman is a Woman, he seems to create a new kind of image. Having recognized the various artifices of realism, it is almost as if Godard abandons the project of realism in toto, substituting the artificial for the real, the mask for the face, and producing, through style, the crystal images Bazin saw in KonTiki.

“It’s mostly just bad theater.”

A Woman is a Woman tells the story of a crisis between two lovers, Angela and Emile, who are at odds over having a child. Angela has decided one afternoon that she would very much like one, and is ovulating to boot, but Emile is reticent for various reasons. They fight and yell and Angela ultimately threatens to sleep with the next person she sees: Emile’s best friend Alfred (who flirtatiously courts Angela on the side). Much of this is carried out with an air of performance: the characters address the camera, their actions are exaggerated, they reveal a kind of showmanship, theatricality that exists between them, as if the social roles they embody are as thinly fictional as characters in a film. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Emile, Angela and Alfred are actually just characters, ontologically speaking, who do enact a brief drama in pictures – but more on this later.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-14h06m15s117There are two fights in particular where this theatricality erupts, shows its face. In the first, the couple is fighting over the central drama: they feel differently about the possibility of a child. The scene begins with Angela’s suggestion, and Emile’s mild acceptance. He is willing to have a child, but at some indefinite point in the future, when they are both stable. And of course he wants her to be happy, but not necessarily at his own expense. This escalates, to the point where they are traversing their apartment amid mutual protestations, all shown in the limited time and space of a single shot (as Godard is wont to do). Immediately after Angela makes her threat to sleep with the next person she sees, a knock comes at the door. It is a strangely ironic knock – we practically expect it, and are halfway expecting Alfred, the only character we know so far to walk through the door. At the very least we expect Angela to stay true to her hastily made promise, at least in service to the drama at hand. But instead, two police officers enter, and their fight dissipates over the officers’ concern for finding a local serial killer. The real world asserts itself, lays claim to their private drama and reveals its inherent smallness, its limited relevance. Their drama only matters to them (and us), but where we often substitute the stage for the world, here the world is far more inchoate and resistant to reduction.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-14h05m55s168Later in the film, the couple is bickering again; only this time language begins to break down for them. Language is clearly a struggle for Angela, whose French is often broken, and the cause of many a pun (including the film’s title), but simply struggling with one’s second tongue is not necessarily a reason for the gulf that separates the couple. Rather there is this immeasurable distance between them, a distance that language helps to bridge, and yet it has failed them. So they resort to an iconic game of grabbing books off the shelves and using the titles to insult each other. “Monster,” “Eva-te faire foudre” (“Screw off!”), and other insults are not quite hurled at each other as read, shown, revealed through found objects in an almost surrealist turn of events, but it isn’t long before the couple gets up together and tries to collect all of the best (read: most insultingly titled) books before the other. It’s an odd scene, one where the frustration between the two becomes a replacement bridge – they both feel they cannot speak and be heard, and so they each emphasize the thinness, futility, and subjectivity of their frustrations through blocks of language that were neither uttered by them nor intended for such a dispute. What is particularly interesting about this, though, is that the breakdown of language is not something that the characters experience alone. We, too, are searching for hidden meanings in the books they bring, and struggle to make sense of the chasm that separates these lovers.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-14h00m26s194This surface of theatricality is doubled in Angela’s occupation. Angela works as an exotic dancer at a club not far from where she lives. She sings cabaret songs, dances, strips, and all to a vivid panoply of expressionist lighting. She performs. She puts on a show. She plays a part. During whole sequences here she addresses the camera, confronting its gaze, making visible the transaction of voyeurism taking place. During one such dance, the camera cuts away from the boldly lit Angela to look at the projector mounted near the ceiling at the back of the room. vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h59m39s245We watch as the color filter changes, and realize that the shifts in lighting, which evoke passion, lust, sensuality, are themselves just textual effects meant to elicit those sensations. The narrative rug is pulled out from under us, and we see precisely the manner in which we have been duped by the show. I associate this move with German playwright/theorist Berthold Brecht, an idol of Godard’s, and one of the most influential writers on theater in history. Reductively, his aim was to reveal the stage to the audience, to assert the power of the Real by making visible the contours of the fiction he was creating. This alienation effect produces and reveals the schism between the stage and the action played upon it. But, more on that in a moment.

“I wish I were in a musical, with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly.”

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h54m41s91A Woman is a Woman is rarely described without Godard’s own genre mash-up term – Neorealist Musical. It’s something of a nonsensical designation, but jamming the two words next to each other, a la the same principles of montage we’ve discussed, does produce a strange kind of synthetic meaning. Neorealism, as I discussed in this essay, was a movement in postwar Italy, where non-professional actors, diegetic music, working class subjects, location shooting, and a focus on the struggles of day to day life produced a kind of new realism, outside of the tropes of Hollywood and other cinematic conventions. Musicals, on the other hand, are known for their glitter and glamour, wild expressionism, where actors sing the thoughts they might otherwise act, and a kind of conventional narrative structure, with happy endings and good feels in abundance. It seems impossible to simultaneously care about the “reality” of something and also watch as a group of people breaks into song to talk about their emotions. And yet, watching this film, and the way it plays with music and image, it is clear that Godard’s term is intensely useful for discussing it.

As the film begins, we are met with a jarring series of musical themes that begin and trace a classical kind of melody, one rife with possibilities for sing-alongs. And just when it hits its peak, the soundtrack drops out and we hear banal street sounds, all traffic and horns and footsteps on cobblestones. But then the music picks back up again, and we remember we are in a musical; it lifts us up, carrying us higher, elated by just the feeling of the music. And it drops us just as quickly. Already the film is telling us “This music is a sham.” It is pulling the Brechtian rug out from under our musical aspirations and reminding us of the hard concrete that awaits us when we fall. Music here is fiction, fantasy, illusion – all of the things that are the opposite of reality. Right?

Let’s think back to that first fight, the one where Angela and Emile are interrupted by the police. The fact that their fight is revealed to be inconsequential, theatrical, excessive doesn’t change the fact that it is really what the characters feel. They live in the heightened states of emotions that the film gives them license to portray. They aren’t calmed by the fact that they are acting emotionally. They aren’t assuaged by the essential unreality of it. So is it even false to begin with? I don’t think so. Just as their fight is real to them, just as their emotions and desires ricochet around that room, just as Angela bathes herself in a deep purple glow, and just as she sings her way through problems, these are the manifestations of their lived experiences. The music and the musical qualities of the film are not opposed to that realism; they are the texture of it. When we witness the apparatus, when we see the fights reduced to book titles, when we lapse into song and dance, we see the artifice by which their world is constructed; the musical sequences are not violations of the neorealism, they are the fictions themselves which organize the characters’ various worlds. We might even say that these fictions are both untrue and real.

vlcsnap-2014-07-30-13h56m47s50There is one song that isn’t cut short though, and it’s a fantastic moment in the film. Angela is at the diner with Alfred, and she goes to the jukebox to play a song she likes by Charles Aznavour (recently star of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player). As it begins, the two of them stop talking and simply listen to the song. A whole silent abstract narrative unfolds over the course of the song, as Angela weeps silently and Alfred retreats into himself, both revealed as the lonely individuals they are, even as they share a two-shot. The song is not interrupted, it is not cut short. Instead we listen to the entire piece, over a solid three minutes, and experience an actual song in real-time. It’s such a small moment of true encounter. Only instead of seeing them nakedly, we see more clearly the masks they hide behind. For Alfred, this is a mask of braggadocio and goofiness (where now is his smile?). But for Angela what we see is that the refuge of music is no longer able to keep back her tears. Both of them confront, if not each other, themselves and their secrets, their lies, their escapes.

“I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.”

What’s with this title, though? A Woman is a Woman? Are we supposed to agree with it? Is it ironic? Do we jump and say “Aha! A woman is more than the word woman!” Or can we talk about womanhood being a thing produced by language? Or how about the discursive contours of our existence, where any thing is always and only the word that designates that thing? A cup is a cup? An essay is an essay? And if we were to protest and say that the statement is false, that a woman is almost certainly not a woman, where would that lead? The only point of departure is at the edge of language, where we’d lack a word to tell us what a woman were instead. So, is it simply a banal utterance of tautology? Does it say anything? There is a reference to the title somewhat late in the film, where Angela mishears Emile’s wry comment about how “Une femme est infame (A woman is nefarious/infamous).” But even this doesn’t fully account for the strangeness of the title. Perhaps we should come back to this beguiling issue.

The question remains – is this film a comedy or a tragedy? We are used to the convention of distinguishing between the two narrative drives, the former indicating the perseverance of life, continuity, even pleasure and happiness, while the latter signifies death, the harshness of reality, the inevitability of conclusions. Well, the film is a bleak film, filled with emptiness, loneliness, unrequited love, unconsummated desire, loss, and profound struggle. It is also punctuated by moments of joy and happiness, communication, bonding over pop songs, connections between people, poetry, beauty. It’s immediately clear that this is not an either/or scenario but a both/and, it is an upheaval of a false dichotomy that we use to distribute our experiences into dramas that are intelligible.

When Angela disappears on stage behind her theatricality, and sings wistful songs about cultivating male desire, we can sense a staggering loss behind her words. As much as she puts on her masks to entertain, to maintain, to manage her relationship, to brighten her world, it is only that will to brightness that illustrates precisely how dark it is. So when the film reaches it’s points of highest comedy, these reflect in turn, the darkest passages; and when the relationships seem at their most stressed, when it seems impossible for it to get darker, comedy erupts. Tragedy and Comedy here only direct us to each other, like a never-ending circuit. Each only points to its own inability to account for reality, so that the tragic becomes a kind of cosmic joke while the comic elicits the deepest sadness. The two are co-constitutive.

Maybe this is because they are themselves simply other masks. They don’t reveal or reflect the world, so much as already stand to interpret its events. They pare away the rest until a clear vision emerges, but this vision is artificial, manufactured, delimited from the world it appears to show. The unreal and the true are here merged, so that comedy and tragedy simply become additional untruths that structure our world, and pale in comparison to the genuine article in all its inchoate complexity. What A Woman is a Woman serves to reveal, then, is not the thing itself, out there in the distance, the real world, the truth, as it were. It opens us up to the falseness of our own images, the limited nature of our narratives, the unrelenting closed-ness of our attempts to reduce the world.

So, then, are we wrong to do so? Are we doomed to simply make false images, images that are untrue and yet pervade our discourse? I don’t know, but I don’t think the film speaks towards some mass condemnation of this instinct. Rather, it lights upon the notion that it is through producing images, through producing artifice and illusion, regardless of intent, that we produce meaning. And meaning is hard to come by in the grand indifferent universe that we inhabit. But meaning can only be made, it cannot be found, and the process of making it is through our countless daily theaters.

In another essay, Andre Bazin distinguished between two modes of filmmaking that he could see developing in the 20s through the 40s. There were those filmmakers who privileged the image, the spectacle, the artifice, and those who privileged reality, the things that the image could not access, but which could direct the viewer to contemplate those very things. We might think of Neorealism and Musicals as occupying opposite ends of that spectrum, but here they are brought together. Here, we don’t get reality, or even simply images, but the textural reality of images, the artifices of realism, the contours of language. To say “a woman is a woman” is both to say everything and nothing at the same time, and it is that simultaneity of speech that concerns me here. What are the fictions that structure our lives, and can we glimpse them? Can we see the image in it’s own truth? Both as an actual and virtual image?

Angela asks, while appropriately looking into a mirror – an object that reproduces a false, two-dimensional version of herself – “Et moi, qu’est-ce que je suis?” which translates to “And I, what am I?” or perhaps even better, “And me, what is it that I am?” The answer, which doesn’t really exist, will always be incomplete, if taken to mean something beyond the language with which it is uttered. But the essence of this film seems to be the recognition of that incompleteness, and our reconciliation with that fact. I don’t really have answers here, but then again, the answers would be only false, perpetually incomplete renderings of what I’d hope to express, so that’s alright. In the end, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.


This is the fourth entry in my year-long Godard Project. The other entries can be found here.