The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: September, 2014

Moodymann: “Desire”

Detroit techno veteran Moodymann has teamed up with José James to deliver this intimate dance piece. Ornamented with quiet piano chords and driven by a bass-heavy beat, the song feels like a natural extension of both James’ and Moodymann’s previous work. Clearly rooted in soulful, minimalist techno, it was released the same year as James’ new album, which has continued to dig deeper into the world of R&B and even rock. It’s the perfect song for saying goodbye to the summer.

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

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Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

One of the more prominent Marxist scholars working today is David Harvey, whose latest book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, I finished recently. It is an excellent text, open enough for a general educated audience to understand, but also nuanced and incisive in its criticism. As a novice to Marxism, I found it quite engaging.

Harvey’s intention is to articulate the contradictions that power and sustain capitalism, dividing the contradictions between three groups: foundational, moving, and dangerous. Foundational contradictions are present wherever capitalism has a foothold (which is everywhere), whereas moving contradictions are constantly changing and evolving (capitalism’s constant quest to update technology, for instance.) The dangerous contradictions are the most volatile, such as capitalism’s relationship to nature (treating the land as both valuable and utterly disposable.)

Throughout the book, Harvey is careful to guide the reader to the different contradictions, making it a very accessible text, particularly…

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Terror and Architecture in Branded to Kill

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“In my films, time and place are nonsense”

–Seijun Suzuki, in an interview with Midnight Eye

Branded to Kill is an unconventional yakuza (Japanese gangster) film with an uncanny sense of space and time. Nikkatsu, the company that produced it, fired the director, contract worker Seijun Suzuki, because they felt it was “incomprehensible.” While that’s too strong a charge to level at the film, it does embody the nonsensical manner in which setting and plot develop. Buildings and even smaller structures like fences oppress characters, the city fragmented into anonymous locations populated by unknown people and strange fetishized objects. Like a Magritte painting in motion, Branded to Kill combines heightened reality with a feeling of  inevitable doom. If the nonsensical space in the film is oppressive, the sense of time is circular, as the events we see unfold as if they are fated repetitions of earlier ones. Early in the film, two gangsters fall dead after a fatal embrace. Much the same happens once again later. Interspersed in this plot are darkly comic action set pieces that bring out a more humorous aspect to the film’s aesthetics, though humor never disentangles itself from the specter of death. Most of the visual jokes show death as a punchline, as in the clip below.

Here we have a sample of the outrageous as Suzuki built it: our protagonist Hanada kills his mark, an optometrist, by firing a gun through a pipe connected to the sink. The precise logistics of the scene are unimportant. What matters is that Suzuki can stitch these two moments together in editing and make them comprehensible to the audience. Similarly, earlier in the film when Hanada’s drunken partner rushes at the No. 2 assassin, Koh, Suzuki puts a harsh cut between running and impact. All of a sudden, the two men are caught, armed to the teeth, in a deadly embrace that leaves both of them cold on the ground. While film editing always “punctuates” scenes, here the grammar of the film is choppy and brutal, often creating surreal juxtapositions. The film’s lack of cohesive time and space becomes especially evident in an early scene where Hanada encounters one of the femmes fatales in the story, Misako. Suzuki cuts back and forth between Misako and Hanada standing in the rain by the side of the road and another scene of Hanada’s wife showering. Ambient sounds remain consistent between them, establishing water as a leitmotif and linking the two women together. They remain separate in time and space, but the film has a seeming difficulty distinguishing between them for a few moments.

In general, live action filmmaking, even on location, creates its own flattened space, an imaginary spectacle reflective of but distinct from the locations themselves. Innumerable films have taken place in New York City, but through selection and editing each work creates its “own” city. Suzuki’s use of location shooting in Japanese urban areas, however, makes a significant difference to the storytelling. Rather than building his eccentric dreamworld out of whole cloth, as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his film derives its expressionism as a reflection of the rapidly changing metropolitan areas in which he films. Indeed, I would argue that the architecture of the city, the houses, and the cramped apartments the characters inhabit exhibit a determining role in the aesthetics of the film. Branded to Kill, then, derives not only from particular aesthetic traditions––film noir, Kabuki theatre, gangster movies, a kind of sexually-charged existentialism also found in the French New Wave––but also particular aesthetic locations.

Two of the film’s lengthy standoffs between Hanada and his foe, the mysterious No. 1 assassin, takes place between two danchi buildings. These monumental apartment buildings are a common sight in postwar Japanese cities, looming over the streets like honeycombs blown up to superhuman proportions.

danchi

The mystery and anonymity of the rest of the film echoes in the architecture, which has that classic Fordist assembly-line quality that defines modern housing projects. Hanada peers out of the window of his tiny apartment at a wall of blank windows. Any one of them could house expert killer No. 1. And the cyclical nature of the plot also reminds one of the danchi, where every unit is private, separate from the others, and yet appears like an empty repetition. What might strike a passerby as the bland domesticity of such a building transforms into a terrifying unknown. Hanada frantically scans the landscape for any clue as to his rival’s location, but to no avail. Everything is too big, too disconnected, too vast to be comprehended in this nightmare world.  Even when No. 1, who is playing a sick mind game with our protagonist, moves into the apartment with Hanada, we get little sense of what his domicile actually looks like. Everything is veiled in obscurity, the small scale “cell” of the apartment appearing just as labyrinthine as the city itself.

These are all classic traits of film noir, and along with shots that voyeuristically peer through windows, chain fences, and railings, attempts to embed the psychology of the characters in the mise-en-scene. Yet Branded to Kill’s Freudian motifs––the dead birds, moths, water, and Thanatos bathroom imagery––don’t seem to find many meaningful connections. At one point, Suzuki just splashes flat white images on the screen, with rushing rain and fluttering bugs plaguing our apparently deluded Hanada. It goes one step further than most noir, breaking out of the scenery itself to assault the audience with a striking theatrical “layer” placed on top of the action. Once again, the nonsensical nature of time and space becomes dramatically apparent.

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Within this monochrome delirium, one can find a few comforts. Hanada and his wife Mami engage in rough, fairly explicit sex more than once, with Mami being depicted nude more often than not. She rarely has clothes on except for her prized furs. Misako, the femme fatale, is also intensely sexualized, albeit mostly through implication at first. But Hanada’s most consistent relationship in the film is with the smell of boiling rice.

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Rice cookers are an essential consumer item in post-war Japan, a symbol of modern conveniences and prosperity. In the shot above, we can see how fetishistically it’s framed; the language the film uses reminds one of advertising. Hanada, ostensibly a cold-blooded killer who can rattle off aphorisms like “women and drink kill a killer” blithely also has an unbounded attachment to cooked rice. Like all base desires, the cooked rice is a deadly temptation, something that top killers are supposed to transcend. Hanada, though, cannot purify himself. The sunglasses and slick suit are a façade concealing a flesh and blood human being, after all, albeit one who has no problem murdering for the mob.

We should ask ourselves, though, whether killing for the mob is a unique case that demands a special kind of asceticism––this idea resonates throughout Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime films, especially Le Samouraï––or whether the professional killer is just another kind of professional. Japan’s reconstruction, and its earlier development under the nationalists, depended on the mobilization of a pleasure-denying work ethic that the film explores in its own twisted way. While Mami claims that people are just beasts and should hedonistically milk all the pleasure they can, Hanada’s indulgences in sex and drink are the kind we expect from a salaryman. They’re retreats from a job he takes no particular relish in. Unlike No. 1, who sadistically enjoys toying with victims and killing, our hero wavers between his career and the trappings of success that the work allows him to afford. Eventually, with his house burned to cinders, his wife and love killed by his hand, and the cooked rice nowhere to be found, he dies in pursuit of the championship. The climax of the film even takes place in a boxing gym, framed about as naturalistically as a WWE fight.

Branded to Kill thus explores these tensions with an appropriately disjointed aesthetic, segmenting space and time into shards that thumb their nose at physics or plot convention. This is not only a sign of its aesthetic heritage in film noir and Japanese theatrical traditions, but also its own uncertain time and place in history. It’s pure escapism, yes, but with such a sense of doom and brutality about it that it ends up being a guilty pleasure of sorts. Of course, Suzuki’s film might argue, all pleasures are served with a steaming helping of guilt.

U2: Songs of Innocence

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As U2’s career drags into another decade, it starts to resembles a papacy than a typical tenure in the rock business. I doubt Bono would shrink from such an honor, given that his band has reigned unopposed as the “world’s biggest rock band” for more than twenty years. For at least that long, it has remained almost rigorously committed to the same religious and aesthetic principles. The band has deviated from its arena rock template on occasion––1997’s “Pop” comes to mind––but Tuesday’s surprise iTunes release “Songs of Innocence” is no deviation. It’s not even a gentle swerve despite the guidance of producer Danger Mouse, planting itself firmly in the mainstream of U2’s canon. In a rock genre stuffed with successive U2 heirs and imitators, it fails to convince this listener that 2014, or any future year, needs a new U2 record.

Though the record is thoroughly boring, it deserves more than a word of appreciation as well. Producer Danger Mouse’s contributions, including his signature distorted keyboards and sharply defined mixing, make enough of a mark to be noticed. His work doesn’t change the typical U2 formula. The echoing guitar “chimes,” marching drum beats, and titanic Bono vocals still remain, and the entire album still projects to the cathedral ceiling.

Relationship songs “Song For Someone” and “Every Breaking Wave” are perfect examples of this. Bono’s voice has stayed remarkably sharp and powerful as he ages but the effect has worn thin. The band fares much better on “Cedarwood Road,” which, tellingly, mines Bono’s memories of his youth to portray a sense of menace and distress. Youth and the past are primary themes in “Songs of Innocence,” but as usual in U2 it is difficult to parse specific events or themes from a tidal wave of universal appeals and vague gestures at questions of faith and global “issues.”

Most of the times the album deviates from the band’s anthemic template is to quote U2’s influences. “California (There Is No End To Love)” begins with a quotation from the Beach Boys, and tributes to Johnny Ramone of the Ramones and Joe Strummer of The Clash also appear. The latter song, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” could easily support a case that U2 differs from The Clash primarily in being blander, less rhythmically arresting, and vaguer.

One lyrical standout is “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” whose music and words skewer religious hypocrisy in the church. Even there, Bono’s use of his screeching falsetto seems intended to unsettle but merely annoys. “Songs of Innocence,” then, is not without enjoyments or technical precision, but those merits get lost in songs that usually fail to come alive. They’re so plagued by ambivalence and gazing backwards that they fail to justify their own existence except as a continuation of “the world’s biggest rock band’s” career.

“Songs of Innocence’s” primary virtue and undoing is its consistency from the outside in. This digital album’s cover is a mostly blank LP cover, perfectly encapsulating its mix of sentimental nostalgia and digital disposability. No one needs to listen to this album, and, as if to drive that point home, U2 and Apple have given it away to hundreds of millions of customers. Like U2 descendant Arcade Fire, this Irish band obsesses over its own youth and the loss of innocence that aging entails. What’s missing from both of those bands is forward thinking or any attempt to overcome the confusion and mistiness that plague their music. Instead of honesty, we get platitudes like “a broken heart is an open heart” or worse, “free yourself to be yourself.” Though its production is sharp and its marketing campaign ironclad, “Songs of Innocence” mostly muddles the issues it addresses, both personal and political, and ends up being just another U2 album. Fans will no doubt appreciate it and its tributes to the band’s predecessors, but for anyone else this record is utterly inessential.

Cracks in the Mirror: Pop Criticism’s Vulgar Reflectionism

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Today’s launchpad for discussion is David Bordwell’s article “Zip, zero, Zeitgeist,” a critique of film criticism published on his blog. In it, he excoriates critics for substituting vague appeals to “the zeitgeist” for substantial commentary on a film. Critics, he contends, pad their articles and think pieces with the idea that films and other kinds of art reflect a popular “psyche” that can be analyzed by piercing the movie screen. He sarcastically summarizes this phenomenon in the phrase “All popular films reflect society’s attitudes. How do we know what the attitudes are? Just look at the films!”

I’ve commented on this confusion before, this idea that because Hollywood produces and markets its films for a popular audience, they must reflect the “zeitgeist” or the cultural feeling of the people who consume them. Bordwell notes that this is an easy way to fill space with minimal effort, “the last refuge of journalists writing to deadline,” but I want to focus more on the way that analysis of a film’s social relevance can get sidetracked by this specious faux-analytical method.

At first blush, the “reflectionism” Bordwell despises bears some resemblance to the dialectical materialist approach to criticism. After all, Lenin argues that human thought “reflects” the material world, following Engels.¹ The latter writes:

“From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”²

Althusser summarizes this notion as “the primacy of being over thought” in his Reply to John Lewis.³ So, on first blush, the idea that you can read a film as a reflection of social attitudes and relations seems solid. Only at the superficial level, however, does the vulgar “reflectionism” Bordwell describes bear any resemblance to Marxist criticism. To see why, let’s look at one of the examples Bordwell cites as a reflectionist document. Stephen Holden’s Top Films of 2013 is a worthy candidate because it is the product of an established, well-known writer and perfectly exemplifies the specimen of reductive criticism we are considering.

Holden writes that, in 2013, “serious films are reacting to runaway capitalism and its fallout with suspicion, disgust and nihilistic exuberance,” citing examples of prestige fare like Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, and The Great Beauty as markers of this trend. Putting aside the controversial notion of “serious film,” we note that films themselves have agency in that sentence, as if they autonomously assess and react to economic dissatisfaction and the tumult of the capitalist world.

No doubt both “runaway capitalism” and “its fallout” are material concepts, and the films he cites do deal with narrative themes of greed, excess, and other capitalist vices, but films themselves are not reactive agents. Rather, they originate in the minds of individuals caught up in an organized, profit-driven production system that, as Bordwell observes, produces products over the period of years rather than months or weeks, making the claim that a film can anticipate or “capture” the feeling of a present time difficult or even impossible to substantiate. Such an observation on Holden’s part reveals a mistaken conflation of subjective attitudes with an objective “reflection.” Holden (and, we’re told, psychiatrists he’s spoken to) feels future shock and malaise, and projects these impressions onto a group of films that all, in myriad ways, capture some aspect of life under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Films are consciously constructed artifacts, and though we can certainly detect unintended meanings and resonances with historical events, we must remember that films are produced by and consumed by limited populations. Bordwell observes of Hollywood filmmakers: “these workers, living hermetic lives in Beverly Hills and jetting off to Majorca, are far from typical. How can the fears and yearnings of the masses be adequately “reflected” once these elites have finished with the product?” Because creating them is a complex and social process, movies often contain a variety of contradictory conscious and unconscious attitudes all flattened onto the surface of the screen. Film production is an elite business subject to corporate oversight, artistic whims, and rigorous market testing. This makes it difficult, and somewhat foolhardy, to try to account for an individual movie’s success at the box office. It’s doubtful that even a majority of people who saw Transformers: Age of Extinction in the theatre agreed with its regressive politics; they attended for a number of reasons ranging from schadenfreude to their attachment to a particular brand identity. Does Transformers in some way reflect the objective conditions of life in this era of capitalist society? Yes, but its reflection is more of a refraction, filtered through a particular class perspective and the individual labors of those who produced it.

It bears repeating Marx’s assertion in Capital: “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”⁴ Likewise, its success is likely attributable to the product of effective marketing and distribution strategies, mobilization of brand loyalty, the commoditized names of its director and cast, and the series’ reputation for confounding spectacle. Systems of production and consumption and the deliberate creation of public taste are social qualities that we can analyze in a film, but this is very different than simply arguing for a “zeitgeist” model of cultural analysis. Such an approach flattens art and allows us to shortchange the specific qualities of films, their narrative and visual techniques and the way they depict objective social structures through a highly subjective lens, substituting pat statements like “Forrest Gump is a typical Clinton-era movie.” Such stock characterizations can be useful conversational props but quickly show their shallowness as critical conclusions.

So what is a proper historical materialist to do when criticizing film? David Harvey argues that a proper interpretation of the mass media rests on “an analysis of cultural production and the formation of aesthetic judgments through an organized system of production and consumption mediated by sophisticated divisions of labour, promotional exercises, and marketing arrangements. And these days the whole system is dominated by the circulation of capital.”⁵ Marxist analysis has to contend with the wrinkles and twists through which the relations of production are reproduced and reflected in ideological forms, including artworks like film. In doing so we cannot appeal to the vague abstractions of a mass “general public” or “cultural moment” as if the class character of the producers and consumers vanished while we sat in the theatre. Truly understanding the political and social aspects of film depends on a close attention to details as well as a grasp of materialist theory and the general laws of motion within capitalism. We would do well to heed Walter Benjamin’s warning at the end of his essay on art and mechanical reproduction:

“The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.”⁶

Ignorance of the role of social conditions in the production of film results in criticism of objects suspended in aether with no political relevance in creating profit and shaping taste. On the other hand, analyzing films as mirror images of mass psychological states (if these even exist) debases the social itself and places it in an abstract realm. It makes it easier to add a “social edge” to one’s opinions, but ultimately doesn’t ground those notions in anything deeper than subjective impressions of what “everyone” is thinking.

Notes:

1. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/one1.htm#v14pp72h-040

2. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm

3. Louis Althusser, Reply to John Lewis. http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ESC76i.html#s1a

4. Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm

5. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 346.

6. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

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