Archive for October, 2005

Zombie Business

In the same DCUFF program that featured Burn to Shine, I also caught Zombie Business, one of the funnier and smarter short films I’ve seen in a long time. Zombie Business, as its plot summary suggests, “is unleashed as the “invisible hand” of “voodoo economics” produces disposible people. Shot in Super 8, the film evokes the silent era, while also mixing B-movie horror, experimental cinema and political satire.”

The film opens with a nod to one of Karl Marx’s best lines: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” From there we are introduced to a teenager reading headlines about Reagan’s “voodoo economics,” but the teen grows up to become a businessman who rides a train between his McMansion and a skyscraper in the city. The fleeting camera shots of advertisements for Dawn of the Dead and other 1980s zombie movies were probably unnecessary, but they do set the tone for Zombie Business’s playful satire.

Of course, beyond this political satire I also enjoyed the film’s wonderful use of silent film and B-movie horror conventions, including the silent film organ and the “gestural” camerawork often used in silent film, often used to communicate ideas when recording dialogue was impossible. These conventions are turned on their head late in the film when we get color footage of an anti-globalization protest (the specific protest is mentioned, but I forgot to write this information down).


Burn to Shine

Burn to Shine is a film series produced by Fugazi’s Brendan Canty and directed by film maker Christoph Green. The films feature a group of local rock bands performing one song each in a house facing imminent destruction. The second film in the series, filmed in Chicago, which happened to be playing last night at the DC Underground Film Festival, features bands including Wilco, Shellac, Tortoise, The Ponys, and many others. During the Q&A afterwards, one of the filmmakers mentioned future Burn to Shine films set for Portland, Iceland, and Louisville, so it looks like the series should thrive for some time.

Aside from the pleasure of watching several great bands perform, I really enjoyed the atmosphere set up by the film of a slice of time, conveyed in part by the changing amounts of sunlight coming through the windows, in this old, soon to be destroyed house. In voice-over at the beginning of the film, we learn a little about the history of the house and the reasons it will soon be torn down. The filmmakers made effective use of the house’s colors and textures and how those spaces might tell us something about the history of that space. The Chicago film culminates in the actual destruction of the house during a gray, wet midwestern day, the yellow of the bulldozer sharply contrasting with the rest of the scene.

The Burn to Shine concept is a cool one, and I’m hoping to go back and see the first film in the series, set in DC and featuring personal faves, Ted Leo and Bob Mould (blog).

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War Docs and the Interactive Database Narrative

KF has a fascinating post about a planned lecture on the “blog as narrative archive,” one which has helped me to connect some theoretical questions I’ve been trying to address. Like KF, I’ve thought about blogging narratives in terms of their diachronic, often diaristic, structure, and like her, I believe that the media focus on “serious” or political blogs often obscures the value of diaristic blogs that tend to focus on the private sphere. While I probably err on the side of the serious around here, I have a great appreciation of the anonymous academic bloggers who frequently address “private-sphere” issues. As KF argues, there is “a relationship to be posited between the dismissal of such private-sphere blogs and the historical dismissal of feminine modes of writing.”

In her discussion of this aspect of blogging, KF talks about teh overlap between this dichronic organization and the database model that is often associated with most forms of web-based or hypertextual writing. Here, KF’s argument is worth quoting in detail:

the blog might require some interweaving of theories of hypertext and theories of time-based media, such as film, in order to be fully explored as a narrative form. And in thinking through the private sphere blog in particular, the ways in which it constructs the self both as an ongoing narrative and as a historical archive, demands a hybrid mode of reading that brings together the literary, the cinematic, and the digital.

I really like this reading of blogging because it very much describes my blog writing and reading practice, especially when I’m able to go back and revisit my initial reaction to a film and to see how my thinking may have evolved over several weeks or months.

But KF’s comments are also helping me to reframe my recent consideration of both autobiographical and Iraq War documentaries (the two categories are not mutually exclusive by any means), a documentary style I tried to understand under therather clunky phrase, “the living room aesthetic.” Specifically I’m interested in the ways in which both of the prominent grunt’s-eye documentaries (Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland) have been characterized in terms of tedium or repetition. And, in some sense, I think this aesthetic might be linked to Marsha Kinder’s discussion of the “interactive database narrative” KF discusses. I’m still wrpping my head around this concept (and any suggestions could help), but my impulse is to link the narrative structure of these films to the role of the database, first on the technological and material level of construction, with editing technologies such as Final Cut Pro treating recorded (filmed? not necessarily) images as objects in a potentially vast database. But I’m also interested in the ideological level of this relationship between database and narrative. One might point to the “tedium” (or better the alternation between tedium and chaos) of the war documentary narrative.

This next point is somewhat unrelated to war documentaries, but I think Kinder’s discussion of Bunuel as a database filmmaker might also provide a productive avenue through which I can revise some of my claims about time-travel cinema. In particular, she cites a Bunuel reference to cinema as a time machine. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers or film theorists to refer to cinema as a time machine (D.W. Griffith certainly imagined cinema as a time machine), but Kinder’s argument may help me to frame some of these issues more carefully, particularly when it comes to alternate-reality films such as Sliding Doors, Me Myself I, and Run Lola Run (the ultimate database film). This is just a very rough sketch of some ideas that I’m currently trying to (re)shape, so any suggestions or feedback (or requests for clarification) would be much appreciated.

Note: KF also points out Kinder’s involvement in the Labyrinth Project, which might also be relevant to some of the ideas I’d like to unpack here.

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BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge

Like Occupation: Dreamland, Stephen Marshall’s BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (IMDB) seeks to present the war in Iraq from a perspective that goes beyond what we see in the nightly news. BattleGround, which played last night at the DC Underground Film Festival and will soon be available on DVD, attempts something a bit different (I won’t say “more ambitious” because all of these films are ambitious) in that it presents multiple competing narratives about the effects of the war in Iraq, particularly on the lives of Iraqi citizens.

On the one hand, we are introduced to a young man who joined the 1991 resistance and was forced to flee Iraq. As the film opens, he is returning to Iraq, where he will see his family for the first time in over a decade. In one of the most emotionally powerful scenes I can recall seeing this year, the man is reuinted with a beloved uncle, their speeding heartbeats captured by the microphone attached to the youner man’s shirt. The son later reunites with his mother in a similar scene, and it becomes difficult to question their optomism about a new Iraq.

On the other hand, other interviewees tell a different story. Former Al Jazeera worker May Ying Welsh describes the toll taken on Baghdad by the bombs that hit the city during the “Shock and Awe” phase of the war. Later, Raed Jarrar, of the blog Raed in the Middle, describes the dangers of scavenging for scrap in a local “tank graveyard” due to the depleted uranium that was used to coat many of the tank-busting weapons used by the US during the war. We also hear from a well-read US soldier who explains that the war is a product of globalization and US economic interests.

Marshall’s film carefully avoids consulting “experts,” at least in the traditional sense of the term, and I think that’s an advantage of the film. We are provided with several thoughtful, intelligent people who are trying ot make sense of the war, as the filmmakers seek to “highlight the humanity of all sides of the conflict.” As the indieWire reviewer (cited on the BattleGround homepage) notes, one of teh strengths of the film is the lack of awareness of the Iraqi perspective, especially as Iraq people faced the lack of electricty and water immediately after the first phase of the war (and rationing for a long time afterwards).

Because I watched the film almost immediately after Occupation: Dreamland, I feel like I need to see BattleGround a second time before I fully understand it, but it’s another example of great documentary work coming out of the war in Iraq. BattleGround ‘s director, Stephen Marshall, is part of the Gureilla News Network, which looks like a fantastic alternative news source for thinking about the war and other issues.


Occupation: Dreamland

During one memorable sequence in Ian Olds and Garrett Scott’s grunt’s-eye documentary, Occupation: Dreamland (IMDB), one of the soldiers glances at the camera and asks if the camera crew will be going with them on the mission. The moment reminds us that the lightweight documentary camera has become a crucial participant in the ongoing production of the war in Iraq, and throughout the film, Olds and Scott’s camera not only captures the soldiers in conflict but it also becomes a magnet for both soldiers and Iraqi citizens to reflect, to complain, and to air grievances. These candid comments–from both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians–gave Occupation: Dreamland a startling, raw power that I felt even more deeply as I reflected that over a year later, conditions in Iraq seem to have changed very little.

Occupation: Dreamland followed the sodliers of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division over the course of several weeks early in 2004 in Falluja, just as the city was beginning to destabilize (the New York Times review offers a helpful chronology), and we can see the relationship between soldiers and civilians deteriorating over the course of the film. In particular, the Iraqis complain bitterly about the soldiers having taken a local woman into custody. In other sequences a soldier candidly admits that he doesn’t blame the locals for their response to the soldiers, noting that “I’m sure it scares the shit out of these people.” Such comments are intercut with shots of street patrols and night raids, many of which were shot with infrared lighting to add to the “surreal” effect. At the same time, we get a sense of thetedium that the soldiers often confront, with one soldier confiding, “I kind of enjoy getting shot at.” At least, he notes, it gets the blood pumping. Washington Post reviewer Stephen Hunter views this sense of tedium (or “boredom,” as he puts it) as a weakness, but as with Gunner Palace, I find that the tedium, the lack of any clear narrative progression, actually reflects and implicitly comments on the “lousy narrative” of the war itself, to use Thomas Doherty’s descriptive phrase about Vietnam films (Village Voice reviewer Joshua Land also notes that bordeom is “primary mode” of the film).

The film has inevitably drawn comparison to Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s Gunner Palace (my review), which came out several months earlier but documents a similar moment in the war. As The Nation film critic, Stuart Klawans notes, Gunner Palace comes across as the “more entertaining” film, at least to the degree that soldiers are willing to play to the camera using freestyle raps. The surreal experience of living in Uday Hussein’s pleasure palace also gives the film an absurd edge. Occupation: Dreamland’s soldiers tend to be more somber and subdued, and the differences in the style of the interviews make the films nice companion pieces. More crucially, Tucker’s voice-over in Gunner Palace codes the film as a subjective experience, a journey of sorts, while Occupation: Dreamland eschews voice-over and a clear framing narrative. Instead, we get six weeks in the life of one squad. This lack of context frustrated Klawans, who faulted the film for being too stingy with these details. I tentatively agree with Klawans (the wartime cliche about truth being the first casualty of war faintly echoes), but the film’s effectiveness, in my reading, grows out of the fact that it isn’t overly pedantic.

Instead, the film allows the soldiers to offer their own critiques. Few of the soldiers defend the Bush or Rumsfeld line on the war, while others explicitly question their mission in Falluja (one soldier notes drily at one point that “we’re not securing Falluja; we’re securing ourselves”). In more subtle ways, the film also investigates questions of masculinity and social class as they inform the military. Many soldiers mention that they joined because they had “nothing better to do” or because they needed the money for college. In several sequences, one soldier flexes his Rambo-esque muscles in front of a mirror (and of course the camera itself), while Playboy-style pinups appear in the background in other shots in the barracks. The film doesn’t work through these questions in quite enough detail, but Dreamland was even more strikingly masculine than Gunner Palace. It would be easy here to fall into Stephen Hunter’s condescending “anthropological” reading of the film (he digresses for an entire paragraph on the soldiers’ use of dip), and I think the film carefully avoids that kind of treatment of the soldiers.

But what makes Occupation: Dreamland an indispensible wartime doc, in my reading, is the fact that it allows the Iraqi people to speak. These scenes never cease to fascinate me, as the people who do speak clearly appeal to the camera and believe in its ability to transmit their complaints against unjust actions (whether by Saddam or by the soldiers). I didn’t mean to write at such great length on this film, but it clearly affected me more deeply than I realized, and while I sometimes found the lack of context a little frustrating, Ocupation: Dreamland demonstrates why documentary filmmaking remains such an important, vibrant practice.

Note: If you’re in the DC area, Occupation: dreamland is playing this week at the Warehouse Theater, not too far from the Gallery Place Metro station.