The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: July, 2014

Snowpiercer

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I need to put it on record that I reject the phrase “income inequality” as one of the most bloodless euphemisms for the immiseration of the working class you can find. Like the word “middle class” it skates over the core issues of how capitalist social relations enrich a small minority at the expense of the great majority. It’s also a phrase that has enjoyed an awkward stint in the spotlight lately, with bestselling books, documentary and fiction films, and almost incessant news coverage since it became clear that “economic recovery” is never relevant concept to the vast majority. Even comparatively well-off First World workers have experienced only dim prospects, and the state of proletarian politics in the United States, despite all of this publicity, has remained dire.

Snowpiercer can’t be pigeonholed as a populist thriller, since it is luckily much more eccentric than didactic. Loosely adapting a French graphic novel, writer-director Bong Joon Ho guides us through the cars of a perpetual motion train containing all of Earth’s remaining population. Everyone outside froze to death after a misguided geo-engineering project goes awry, leaving most of the people who survived in the grip of a social Darwinist ruling class who are unafraid of using drastic measures to keep the train’s population in check. At the time of the film, there had already been several failed revolutions aimed at evening the score. Now, a new crew of agitators led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) make another attempt. Almost all of the film takes place in the metallic confines of the train, and the narrative progresses in a linear fashion from what is essentially the ghetto caboose to the opulent front cars. Formally, the film is largely effective, mixing visual styles and a variety of camera techniques that, while eclectic and sometimes disorienting, keep the film comprehensible and compelling on a surface level. For the first half or so, as the filmmakers illuminate the passengers’ suffering and their early encounters with the fascist thugs sent to pacify or exterminate them, Snowpiercer shows flashes of brilliance. Over time, however, its ability to surprise or even entertain diminishes, to the point where I had lost all interest in the final minutes. By that time, the film I had started watching two hours earlier was no longer running and another, far more banal, work had taken its place. Suffice to say that it changes from a story about an entire society to a story about one man’s revenge against another man, and the scope of the story progressively narrow, losing sight of its original stakes until the ending moves in several incompatible directions, muddying what should be clear as crystal.

Early scenes do a magnificent job of elucidating the fascist nature of the train. Exploiters at the front of the train live in a constant state of crisis; their resources are limited and, while they cannot exterminate the back passengers, they need to keep them in check. A charismatic leader named Wilford (Ed Harris) forms the literal and formal head of the train, and though he lives in a palatial front car, he imagines himself equally burdened by his responsibilities. Far from some cynical profiteer, he now imagines himself as the savior of humanity, who, like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged, happens to be in the train business. His mental labor is all that appears in his accounting; without him, there would be nothing left but snow and ice. When Tilda Swinton’s Mason, a kind of liaison between the front and back cars, appears early in the film, every word from her mouth is blatant mystification. Everything about the train appears divine to the people at the front, all flowing from the Gnostic mind at the front. Of course, the concrete fact of the train’s brutality is glaringly apparent to the less fortunate passengers. I would argue that Mason and Wilford are true believers, convinced in mind and body that they are the upholders of a righteous order in which all have their proper place. And though the perpetual motion engine at the front of the train is a marvel of engineering, Wilford and Mason––and the rest of the privileged passengers––treat it as a mystical artifact, an uncreated deity with its own consciousness. To an extent, the revolutionaries also fixate on the engine, but only in a far more pragmatic way, as the final goal they need to capture. This reading is complicated by the end of the film, which (literally) ruptures the entire story, but it holds strong for most of the running time.

Snowpiercer spends much of its time showing the audience how Wilford and the Engine’s fetish cult is transmitted and reinforced, including a wild, absurd scene in a schoolroom. Under the guidance of the chipper teacher (Alison Pill), the children watch propaganda videos, sing jingoistic songs, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into their studies. They’re not too recognizable as schoolchildren, and bear more resemblance to what 1950s educational films thought children should be like, but it’s an unnerving, insightful scene nonetheless.

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At first, I hesitated to classify the train’s social relations in a strictly Marxist fashion, since the back passengers were not producing surplus value or profits for the front cars. However, this could not have been more mistaken, based on a reductive and misplaced notion of what surplus value could mean. In particular, I overlooked the fact that the front cars seemed to have a routine “draft” in place, taking children from their mothers to keep the system going. In that way, the people of the back, especially the women, reproduced the system quite literally, providing an expendable surplus that had to be managed but ultimately served the decadence of the front. The film even has a mother named Tanya (Octavia Spencer) who plays a major role in the fighting, though the manner in which she dies irks me to no end. She dies as a sacrifice so that our white savior and protagonist can advance, and unfortunately the film largely focuses on his own personal struggle to the detriment of the people he fights with, to the point of showing them as helpless victims once the end of the journey approaches.

Despite the film’s endorsement of revolutionary violence, it has a terribly loose grasp of combat strategy and tactics. Because the film ultimately focuses on Chris Evans’ character and one or two other major players, it loses interest in the revolutionary war fairly quickly. This dulls the drama and, more importantly, makes the characters of Snowpiercer look like bumblers. They ignore obvious traps, make no precautions to protect gains they’ve already made, and send almost no forces forward to the front for no discernible reason other than dramatic convenience. Bong Joon Ho and company would rather take us on a photogenic tour of the front cars than show the inevitable bloodbath that would ensue. It certainly makes the people more believable as helpless victims, but exposes them as cut-rate revolutionaries. Paired with a late-film plot twist torn straight from The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect scene, it almost obliterated my political enthusiasm for the movie.

All the same, it would not do to dismiss Snowpiercer out of hand. It’s rare enough to see films with even this rudimentary consciousness at work, particularly in a commercial setting, and its opening scenes are truly excellent in formal and political terms. Alternately ridiculous and sublime, clunky and tight-wound, it’s a decidedly mixed work that remains largely enjoyable, especially compared to pseudo-progressive schlock like The Wolf of Wall Street. For future reference, I am planning on doing critical surgery on that debacle within the next year, so keep watch.

Fitzcarraldo: First as Tragedy, then as Opera

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In a fevered act of self-definition, Fitzcarraldo declares himself “the spectacle in the forest,” a capitalist intent on building an opera house to the forbidding South American interior. That self-bestowed name doubles as a fairly obvious tagline for a review of the film: “a spectacle in the forest.” Fitzcarraldo’s director, Werner Herzog, is a noted exponent of what he calls “ecstatic truth,” realized in personal humility before the power of images rather than in calculated dissection. Fitzcarraldo is first and foremost notable for its steel-clad commitment to a romanticized authenticity, as director Herzog discarded special effects to tell the story of a man who dragged a titanic ship (historical pun not entirely unintended) up a mountain. By this I mean that Herzog duplicated his tragic hero’s monumental, foolish act by actually hiring hundreds of native people to help him drag a ship over a mountain, all the while documenting it.

Roger Ebert, Herzog’s friend and fellow Romantic, always swooned for grand gestures. In his “Great Movies” entry for the film, he treats this act as a noble, almost sacred act of will:

The movie is imperfect, but transcendent; this story could not have been filmed on this location in this way and been perfect without being less of a film. The conclusion, the scene with the cigar, for example, is an anticlimax; but then everything must be an anticlimax after the boat goes up the hill. What is crucial is that Herzog does not hurry his story along; he seeks not the progress of the plot, but the resonance of the images.¹

This statement implies a kind of rapture for Herzog’s ability to enforce his will on nature and on the people the payroll. Our protagonist’s wife more or less asserts the same thing, insisting that because Fitzcarraldo had gone through many trials to see an opera, he had a transcendent right to see it despite having no ticket. Herzog, of course, obtained the images we see in Fitzcarraldo only by leaving a huge trail of destruction in its wake. Any critical edge the film might wield against colonial exploitation of nature and oppressed peoples collapses because its production involved a repetition of these very crimes. As Koepnick notes, “For Herzog the filmmaker, spectacle is the stuff of life.”² Like his protagonist and barely detached double, Fitzcarraldo, Herzog risks everything on an act of sheer will for the sake of a spectacle, for the sake of transforming the forest into a theatre for the civilized to indulge in primal awe. Our director is not unaware of this parallel, and makes valiant attempts within the film to put distance between his production and the co(s)mic nonsense to which his hero aspires. This is, I think, ultimately to no avail because it can’t escape the material fact of the film’s production process. At the end of a long, difficult project, a swathe of forest lay in ruin and numerous indigenous workers were let go after contributing to a fleeting, manufactured act of heroism. In contrast to attempts at revolutionary filmmaking in Latin America in Cuba and through projects like Blood of the Condor, Herzog here forges his art through unapologetic exploitation and self-aggrandizement. To paraphrase Koepnick, we can only believe in the critical dimension of this film when we forget the man behind the camera.³

The film’s narrative and conception are both rife with repetition. For the latter, it is an obvious successor to the earlier Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in that it recounts the river-bound journeys of opportunistic Western colonizers bent on bringing the West to the jungle. Fitzcarraldo’s repetition of this basic outline, though, is not without difference. By shifting our setting to the turn of the century, our conquistador becomes a suit-wearing industrialist. The colonial project is not some spectral nightmare but a material fact, evidenced by the grand imperial cities, vast rubber plantations, and thriving export business that define the economic landscape of most of Latin America (even up to this day in many places). Where colonial civilization for Aguirre and crew meant scattered outposts in the midst of a vast unknown, Fitzcarraldo struggles just to find a niche he can wedge himself into. Driven out of venture after venture by competition and poor planning, he is driven to desperation not because of the lack of Western “civilization” but because of its festering overabundance. Peru in the film is a neocolonial state, run by Creole “natives” in the interests of European importers and big industrial firms. Capitalism is only a newborn in Aguirre, still very much leaning on religious crusading ideology and mysticism. Fitzcarraldo’s world is a far more venal one, already diagrammed, cut up, bought, and sold by the time he stumbles onto his boat bound for the last scrap of good land he can find unclaimed.

This repetition reverberates throughout the narrative of the film as well. Opera performances both begin and end the film, and both times Fitzcarraldo is in a comic or at least awkward situation. He is late and disheveled at the beginning, broke and ruined at the end. Charmingly, the performance at the end of this expansive, tragicomic drama is The Puritans by Vincenzo Bellini.  Moreover, at the centre of the film there is a kind of literal and figurative whirlpool: the opera-obsessed man navigates the ship upriver and over the hill only for the Native Americans to sever the ropes and let the ship drift back down through the rapids, thus completing a circle. Viewed schematically from above, Fitzcarraldo is a structural wonder despite feeling curiously like a long and dreamlike digression.

When you wake from the dreams and get down to the concrete, down to the dirt and water, you find a film far more enmeshed in imperialism and capitalist ideology than at first blush. At its core, this is a result of its dualistic and antagonistic view of humanity and nature. Herzog, weary after years of production, unleashed this rant for a documentary crew:

There is a curse on this landscape, and whoever goes too deep into it has a share of this curse! We are cursed for what we are doing here! It is a land that god, if He exists, has created in anger! There is no order here, no harmony in the universe!⁴

Herzog thus construes the relationship between humanity and the rain forest as fundamentally alien and antagonistic. The two share nothing in common and hold each other in contempt. As writer Amaranta S. reflects:

The Western world still acts as though the man vs. nature paradigm is adequate because capitalism forcefully maintains these attitudes. Like many elements of Western culture, dualistic thinking has become just another tool to rationalize our capitalist economy…Within capitalism there is no theoretically sound way to engage in sustainable practices because the possibility of a fall in production or profit levels undermines the whole system. Therefore, people’s antagonistic relationship with nature cannot be resolved as long as capitalism still exists. This antagonism is both sustained and rationalized through dualistic thought.⁵

Fitzcarraldo’s spectacle is electrifying, and its dramatic powers are considerable, but they are also ultimately stupefying. Far from grasping some transcendent quality of human nature, the film’s images start from a grave mistake and go on blundering until the curtain closes. Like opera, it’s a characteristic work from a Western world bloated with the stolen riches of the colonial world, a shiny bauble reflecting all of the imperial nations’ arrogance and self-destructive pathologies back to it. It is grotesque and monstrous by design, but its birth, like that of capitalism itself, involved a boatload of monstrosity. It’s history once as tragedy, again as opera, an act of foolish daring that earns no right to respect just in virtue of its difficulty. It was “brave” of Pizarro and his thugs to topple the Inca Empire, and yet I hope no one reading this believes that wins them any merit.

Notes:

1. Roger Ebert, “Fitzcarraldo,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-fitzcarraldo-1982.

2. Lutz P. Koepnick, “Colonial Forestry: Sylvan Politics in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo,” New German Critique, no. 60 (Autumn 1993), 158. http://www.jstor.org/stable/488669.

3. Ibid, 157.

4. Todd Gitlin, “Review of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog,” Film Quarterly vol. 37, no. 2 (Winter 1983-84), 51-52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3697392.

5. Amaranta S., “Duality and Ecology,” Revolutionary Ecology, entry posted April 7, 2014, http://revolutionaryecology.com/2014/04/07/duality-and-ecology/

Techno Week After-Bonus: “Darthouven Fish Men”

While techno’s origin closely entwined itself with a kind of bleak futurism, the duo Drexciya takes its mechanical fascinations from the concrete jungles to underwater metropolises. Every EP represents another part in an evolving, serial account of Drexciya, an underwater “liquid dystopia” populated by mutant beings. The track above comes from The Journey Home EP, released in 1995. Though it shares the machined aesthetic that stamps all early Detroit techno and other instances of the genre that follow in its wake, it has a menacing quality all its own. Shorn of many of the bells and whistles typically associated with dance music, it maintains a mysterious aspect while retaining its ability to move you on the floor. While I’m not sure I entirely buy––or understand––this article from The Wire, this particular passage tickles my fancy, and makes for a good conclusion in our journey through the dark tunnels of techno. Humanity and machine have never been closer friends––or more bitter enemies––and techno is our way of wresting control back, at least as long as a night in the club can last. Drexciya submerges us in an aquatic world fraught with peril and semi-human terror. The least we can do is enjoy our time there.

“But Drexciya know better. For them, Techno’s electrification of consciousness is a world historical event in the machinic mutation of modern life. As imperceptible as the Net once was, Techno is an evolutionary phase shift in African-American history and therefore in the coevolution of humans and machines.”

Techno Week 5: “Parade” by Robert Hood

Robert Hood, who was also a member of Underground Resistance for much of his career, produced many of the most important tracks in a subgenre called minimal techno. While not formally affiliated with classical minimalist music––think Philip Glass or Steve Reich––minimal techno still shares much of the ideology associated with that style of music. Only the absolutely essential is included, and where changes occur, they tend to be subtle. “Parade” is a pristine example of this tendency in minimal techno. Everything directly serves as a rhythm track, from the 4/4 kick to the skittering synth patterns, which fold into the rest of the beats without much effort. At its worst, this kind of music can come off as dogmatic or austere, but the pared-down tracks are also laser-focused, meaning that nothing is wasted. Internal Empire, Hood’s first LP, was probably the most purely minimal collection of songs he ever produced, but the same “ethic” runs through all of his work to date.

Minimal techno is a sharp contrast to sub genres that evolved in Europe, particularly the UK, which tended to push up the beats per minute and add splashes of colour. In other words, while acid techno and other styles associated with rave culture in Europe tended to evolve toward greater use of ornamentation and pure drama, minimal techno is a self-conscious paring back of the style to its minimum essentials. It’s also, in my experience, much more explicitly mechanical and futuristic, which aligns more closely to the mechanical/futuristic vision that techno was built on.

Techno Week 4: “Eye of the Storm”

As techno progressed as a genre and culture, it tended to drift in two mostly contradictory directions. On the one hand, we had the drug-fueled rave music from the UK, which put a more carnivalesque tinge to the music. On the other hand, music from Detroit often deepened and darkened the sound and themes of classic techno. Underground Resistance is probably the most political and hard-edged group in the history of techno, at least as far as I’m aware. They refuse to be photographed in full view and claim the power to enact “sonic revolution.” As they say on their website:

Techno is a music based in experimentation; it is music for the future of the human race. Without this music there will be no peace, no love, no vision.

While that statement might seem optimistic, it comes loaded with complementary militancy. I tend to be skeptical of musicians who claim to be able to foment revolution with sound alone––rightfully, I believe––nothing can obscure the clarity and strength of conviction UR brings to its music.

Techno Week 3: “Strings of Life”

1987’s “Strings of Life” is one of the more sublime songs from the early days of techno. Derrick May, an early innovator, released it under the name “Rhythim Is Rhythim.” May continued to be an innovative force in the dance music world after this, but “Strings of Life” remains one of his most indelible contributions.

No advanced culture commentary today. Just let the strings and piano samples handle the communication. Actually, there is one speck of quotable material I would like to include before wrapping up. A-like so:

 

Techno Week 2: “No UFOs” by Model 500

Detroit techno, as I discussed in a skeletal fashion in the last post, took existing styles of black music, especially funk, and retrofitted them with a forward-thinking embrace of technology. To say that techno was “forward-thinking,” though, does not imply that the future it saw was conventionally optimistic. One would be hard-pressed to find a trace of Gene Roddenbery’s Star Trek, or, heaven forbid, The Jetsons in a track like “Cosmic Cars.” Like much of 1980s science fiction film––think Robocop, Alien, The Fly, and Blade Runner––Detroit Techno as fashioned by Juan Atkins and Richard Davis had a bleaker and grimier vision of tomorrow. It’s not as though the artists who had a hand in creating techno didn’t recognize the influence of their home city on their art. Derrick May, an innovator whose work will just possibly turn up later this week, had this to say about techno:

“The music is just like Detroit: a complete mistake, it’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

Stuart Cosgrove, “Seventh City Techno”, The Face, May 1988.

May, in a documentary called Universal Techno, also had this to say while walking through the gutted Michigan Theatre, now transformed into a car park:

“Being a techno-electronic-futurist, high-tech musician, I totally believe in the future, but I also believe in a historic and well-kept past. I believe that there are some things that are important. Now maybe this is more important like this, because in this atmosphere, you can realize just how much people don’t care, how much they don’t respect—and it can make you realize how much you should respect.”

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“No UFOs,” the song of the day today, is one of the first true techno songs, while Cybotron’s output has been more vaguely classed as “electro.” Techno is synthetic and electronic to the bone, sending out manufactured grooves at a steady, mechanical pace. “They say there is no hope/They say no UFO,” the vocal track intones. While UFOs––and cybernetics for that matter––are generally stock villains in American science fiction, the UFOs are more enigmatic here. Perhaps this is by necessity since there are so few words in the song, but the tentative “Maybe you’ll see them fly,” if anything, solidifies this ambiguity. UFOs are both hopeful and fearful symbols, invasive and yet undeniably compelling. In other words, they encapsulate the paranoid, almost fatalistic technological underpinnings of techno. Techno could probably have no fitter beginning than here.

P.S. Oddly enough, it captures the feeling of the city far better than Jim Jarmusch. Perhaps what we need in our Detroit films is less mope and more drum machines.

Detroit Techno Week 1: “Cosmic Cars”

<<Because my editor is now out of school, this humble tiger has been less preoccupied with stalking around campus and more invested in ~musical discovery~. Chicago House and Detroit Techno have preoccupied my listening time since the middle of June, but because these styles have a great deal of historical and cultural specificity, I’ve been reluctant to write about them. I further rationalized my lack of output with the fact that far more knowledgeable individuals have already published books, composed articles, made documentary films, and, of course, created innumerable musical pieces that explore the legacy of early dance music. But I’ve stalked these genres for long enough that I feel confident enough to say one or two things about them, even if only in small bits. Therefore, I’ve elected to post one song from a major Detroit Techno artist every day this week. A Chicago House week will, naturally, follow this one. These posts will be short, as I alluded earlier, but I aim to maintain the requisite degree of insight and quality you have come to expect from me. Which I hope is a high degree.>>

Now that I’ve acquainted you with my sinister methods, let’s listen to some music. We’re taking the time tunnel all the way back to 1982. Our location: Detroit. Robocop and Detroit’s recent bankruptcy are still a long ways away, but deindustrialization and urban decay had already hollowed out the Motor City. This left an indelible material impact on the city, which is reflected in its cultural production. Where Detroit produced Motown in the 50s and 60s, the heady days of the New Deal class compromise and the height of the postwar boom, the 1980s produced a considerably thornier musical tradition. Cybotron was Juan Atkins and Richard Davis. While you can read more about them and their early music in this article here (among others), for our purposes it suffices to say that the latter was a Vietnam War vet who enlisted to escape the racial violence of the late 60s and that the former became fascinated by futurism and the fusion of people with machines. This song forms part of Ground Zero for techno, which eventually became a global musician phenomenon but here seems far more culturally specific. In particular, it draws on the Afrofuturism of funk acts like Parliament and Funkadelic in addition to a far more anxious perspective on the city that helped create it. Both of these men would continue to develop what became techno throughout the decade following, but “Cosmic Cars” is a powerful early statement from a genre and movement that had just begun to gestate.

Spectacle as an End in Itself

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Recently, one of my peers brought Brad Brevet’s musings on Michael Bay to my attention. Though I initially dismissed it as mere vulgar justification for a lazy critical judgment, I reconsidered because I think it serves a good launching point for a discussion of the role of sincerity and spectacle in media criticism.

To summarize the article, it consists of a piece identifying Transformers: Age of Extinction as an “Abstract Expressionist” work made in a vulgar key––a mass-market Pollack, if you will. It also identifies Bay as a “vulgar auteur” and notes how the director has created a signature style within the Hollywood machine. At the end of the article, he argues that because of the “profound effect” the film had on him, it was deserving of more than a facile dismissal. He also compares Age of Extinction to Pacific Rim, another manufactured robot spectacle which he despises for its phony sentimentality. He prefers to embrace Bay’s unapologetic approach––his unabashed commitment to misogyny, lionization of excess, uncritical militarism and chauvinism, etc. In Brevet’s words:

“Bay’s Age of Extinction is 100% vulgar, aware of it, embracing it and wholly honest about what it is. Bay isn’t here to make you cry with his transforming alien robots or tug at your heartstrings, he’s bringing the awesome and here to bludgeon you into submission.”

And later, he asks the key question:

“How do you judge a movie such as Age of Extinction, decrying its sound and fury when that’s exactly all it is and all it’s meant to be? This is a film meant to evoke a mood and response through its visuals. That’s it.”

Though the film is reprehensible, overlong, and a tiring nightmare to sit through, he reasons, it cannot be criticized because it is those things fully and sincerely. While I see no evidence that Brevet associates with the New Sincerity crowd (he’s not religious or “spiritual” enough to fit into Jonathan Fitzgerald’s crowd), his question belies what has become a normative approach to criticism: you can only criticize something for what it is and not for what it should or could be.

There is some superficial logic to this argument if you approach a work of art from an idealistic position. After all, you cannot analyze a film that isn’t there; you can’t conjure up a speculative film substitute and use that to bludgeon poor Age of Extinction. Of course, to me this is where superficial criticism shorn of any commitments ends up: waffling on the most basic questions because it is incapable of criticizing a work of art at its very core. At no point does the question “should this have been made?” arise. I may be mistaken about that last point. Brevet points out in his original review that he was always “engaged” by the film, and that it produced “slack-jawed amazement.” So beguiling is this monstrous tumor of a film, apparently, that it was more captivating than offensive. This is film criticism imitating video game criticism at its worst. He celebrates spectacle for its own sake, and prioritizing sincerity and uniqueness over formal or political merit. He prizes the film from its context and treats it like a one-day carnival: don’t mind all the cages, whips, and chains. Just eat your cotton candy and appreciate it “for what it is.” Criticism that takes genre into account is one thing; this is another beast entirely.

What we lose in such a method, of course, is a sense of what it might be lacking. When we make the boundaries of a single film the extent of what we can criticize, we wall ourselves off from all wise analysis. Such isolation might be useful in certain instances, but it should not be the basis for film criticism, which needs to be rooted in a correct apprehension of the material conditions of the society that produced the work, how the work processes and produces the dominant ideologies of that society, and how its formal qualities interact with its political content. For me, this can obviously only take place within the bounds of historical and dialectical materialism within a Marxist political praxis. Criticism needs to be an intervention, and as such needs to be armed to the teeth, criticizing a film for what it includes and––and this can be even more important––what it conceals or omits. That is the essence of ideological criticism. Of course, Brevet isn’t trying to do that. He might argue that it is inappropriate for me to criticize him for this, to which I reply: why aren’t you attempting to make your criticism matter beyond generating page views and shuttling your readers to or away from one mindless spectacle after another? Doesn’t it bother you that your approach to evaluating films leaves you unable to make a lucid critical judgment?

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Lunacharsky disapproves.

One wrinkle in this story is the idea of vulgar auteurism, which blogger Girish elucidates at their blog. The idea is basically an extension of “auteur theory” in the vein of Cahiers du Cinéma to commercial Hollywood directors like Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and Paul W.S. Anderson. Vulgar auteurism in its current form basically exists to validate the works of masculinist action directors, though there could be a contingent arguing for the value of romantic comedies or other genres considered “feminine.” Auteur theory is essentially a critical lens that prioritizes the individual mark or signature of a particular filmmaker (usually the director). Hitchcock, Welles, and Wes Anderson are typically cited as auteur directors because they tend to address similar themes with similar techniques in their films. As Girish writes:

Let’s remember that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the time admired and championed two different and distinct kinds of filmmakers: European directors of what would today be considered “arthouse” cinema (Rossellini, Bresson, Renoir) and Hollywood directors whose work was considered “vulgar” by comparison (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray). One could go a step further and say that the latter directors were more central to the politique des auteurs because they managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production.

One can draw the comparison between this comment about the “factory-like system of production” and Walter Benjamin’s classic essay about film and the disintegrating “aura” of art. What’s notable about this paragraph, however, is that it highlights how Hollywood’s capitalist ownership has adapted to changing tastes and expectations. Whereas Cahiers critics might have been able to argue that the ability to produce “individualized” auteur work in the studio system was a subversive and remarkable achievement, I would argue that today this is no longer the case. Yesterday’s auteurs are today’s petty Hollywood princes, packaged and sold as brand names. Like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bay is just another brand name, a recognizable bit of language that gets butts in seats. Transformers is therefore not the only name recognition studios can wield. Bay’s own notoriety is a powerful marketing tool, both to the reactionary dudebros and the morbidly curious “critical” types who will fork over their money to watch Age of Extinction just to witness the “spectacle.” There is nothing oppositional about being an auteur in Hollywood, “vulgar” or not. Further, framing the question this way still establishes little of why a film might be of worth.

Can we even dispute that Wes Anderson's name is just another "franchise?"

Can we even dispute that Wes Anderson’s oeuvre is just another “franchise?”

This leads me back to Benjamin:

In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.

Given that that Benjamin published those words in 1936, we can see that little has changed in the last eighty years. The true danger, however, might be that the iron fist of spectacle is slowly crushing even the most vacuous humanism from the Hollywood system. Mirroring such wretched articles as this one from the Village Voice, Brevet makes apologies for the film as spectacle even if its has no other worth. There is no human element, not even an attempt to render humanity in a sympathetic way. Even Roland Emmerich, with his cast of thousands, attempts to ground his films in some kind of affirmation, a cursory nod to flesh and blood amid the digital chaos. Bay, however, appears to be completely subsuming his human subjects in machines and oil, akin to the Futurists only less heady and more cynical. I’m no humanist, largely following Althusser’s theories on that question, but what is occurring is the transformation of “popular cinema” into Olympic opening ceremonies. It’s something completely worthless, blatantly ideological (albeit in disguised forms), and completely ephemeral that, as David Harvey once put it, is materialistic only in the sense that it absorbs enormous amounts of capital. The only redeeming quality of such a work is that everyone has seen it. It is a shared experience, and on that basis alone, it seems, we can validate a work. It’s postmodernism taken to its most brutal, wasteful, deliriously capitalist end: the consumption of vast amounts of resources to create pandering garbage that endures for only one second at a time. As Brevet helpfully points out:

Bay and the digital wizards at ILM have reportedly built this film with a budget of $165 million, which is to say every minute of this picture cost $1 million each.

What a noble venture! And such brave critics! At least we can console ourselves with the assurance that they’re quite sincere in their committed mediocrity.

Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

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“What did you do when the poor suffered, when tenderness and life burned out of them?”| Apolitical intellectuals of my sweet country, you will not be able to answer. | A vulture of silence will eat your gut. | Your own misery will pick at your soul. | And you will be mute in your shame.” --Otto Rene Castillo, Apolitical Intellectuals

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