Grading and book-writing marathon for the next couple of days.
Archive for December, 2007
The controversy over Brian DePalma’s pseudo-documentary Redacted (IMDB), specifically the concluding montage which features documentary photographs taken during the Iraq War, has now more or less faded, and the film itself has more or less been forgotten amidst the other Iraq War dramas that have come (and mostly gone) in recent months. But because of my interest in documentary, I’ve felt compelled to see Redacted, and when I discovered that it was playing on demand, I decided to check it out, even though several friends, perhaps wisely, cautioned me against seeing it. And while most of the reviewers whose opinions I value have criticized the film, I’m trying to resist completely rejecting the film (like Karina, I think it’s a fascinating project conceptually, at least).
Redacted relates the story of a group of soldiers who inadvertently kill a pregnant Iraqi woman and her unborn child when she and her brother fail to stop at a checkpoint. The fact that she was about to give birth when her brother drive through the checkpoint and that her brother misinterpreted the soldiers’ signals seems to matter little to the soldiers who fired upon the car, Flake and Rush (I’m not entirely sure, but I think, just maybe, their names are meant to be allegorical). In response, the local militia kills a soldier with an IED. Rush and Flake respond to their comrade’s death by raping and killing a 15-year old Iraqi girl, as well as several members of her family. One of the soldiers attempts to report the crime but is depicted as psychologically unstable, and little is done to pursue the crime (the story is loosely based on the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi).
De Palma’s innovation–and it is a valuable idea–is to tell the story using a variety of “documentary” techniques, including a soldier’s video diary, a French documentary, an embedded reporter, an Arabic news channel (modeled, perhaps, on Al Jazeera), a fortuitously located surveillance camera, a video blog, and a video chat. The implication seems to be that even with all of these documentary forms, we are unable to gain access to the truth of what is happening in Iraq. At least, I think that’s the implication. De Palma seems to introduce his thesis at the beginning of the film during one of Angel Salazar’s video diary segments when one of his fellow soldiers admonishes other members of his battalion that “truth is the first casualty of war.” We then watch as the film’s story unfolds and the guilty soldiers (Flake and Rush) attempt to cover up their crime. Perhaps the biggest issue here, however, is that De Palma is remarkably uncritical when it comes to reflecting on his own representations of the Iraq War. I’ve been opposed to the war in Iraq since before it began, but if De Palma is going to assert that representations of the war inevitably fall short of the truth, doesn’t the same critique apply to his own film? I’m not sure he adequately addresses that point.
To be sure, I think it is important to acknowledge that representations of the Iraq War present unique challenges to those of us who are interested in documentary, precisely because of the often fragmentary, always partial representations that Redacted references throughout the movie. But I’m less convinced that De Palma has said anything interesting or new about these attempts at documenting the war. It’s quite obviously clear that embedded reporters, insurgent videos, and soldiers’ video diaries are going to provide us with vastly different perspectives on the war, but these perspectives seem so tied to a larger, allegorical (presumably anti-war) point that the distinctions between the various media seemed almost cartoonish. And also like Karina, I’m far from convinced that this film has done the anti-war movement any good whatsoever. If anything, it seems to reinforce stereotypes of those of us who opposed (or came to oppose) the war.
And say what you will about truth being a “casualty of war,” I’m also uncertain about what “truth” about Iraq De Palma was trying to convey here about the pursuit of the war in Iraq. I’ve been opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning, but I found De Palma’s attempts to portray the (lack of) representation of this specific atrocity to be profoundly simplistic. The soldiers are virtually devoid of personality, with most of them being either pathologically violent, sex-crazed lunatics, virulent rednecks (Confederate flags and centerfolds dominate the barracks), or both. While there is one “good” soldier, he seems to be the exception. He is also depicted as the only soldier who has gone to college, suggesting his elevated class status. I realize that there might be some larger point about US soldiers being instruments of state power, but no such thesis was suggested. In fact, the architects (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) of the war go virtually unmentioned. And, yes, I realize that some US soldiers have committed the crimes depicted in the film, but reductive depictions of the military bother me no matter the politics. The film also seems to ignore the fact that a vast majority of Americans now oppose the war, making the film’s arguments about truth seem rather reductive and simplistic (and making Elvis Mitchell, J. Hoberman and Roger Ebert’s praise of the film somewhat curious, although, upon seeing the film, I agree with Hoberman that the concluding montage is both unneeded and distracting).
If De Palma is correct in asserting that the first casualty of war is the truth, due in part to its mediation by photographers and reporters, then the first casualty of Redacted is the failure to think critically about its own mediation of these representations.
It’s probably no mistake that the first major feature to get the high-def 3D treatment is Beowulf (IMDB) one of the oldest stories in the English language. The Old English epic poem is a high school standard but one that mixes historical figures with mythic creatures (dragons, monsters), making it simultaneously familiar and alien. This uncanny quality makes Beowulf an apt vehicle for director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary to explore the ways in which digital 3-D can be used to reinvent cinema as a medium. And while Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Contact, Death Becomes Her) has often been dismissed as a gimmicky director, his Beowulf adaptation has some subtle touches that explore the relationship between cinema and embodiment in particular, but more importantly about the medium of movies themselves (can we even call it film anymore?).
The basic story of Beowulf is well known: King Hrothgar builds a giant mead hall where his subjects sing, dance, and celebrate, disturbing Grendel, who kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors. Soon after, Beowulf arrives, killing Grendel by ripping off his arm and setting up the second battle with Grendel’s mother (famously played by Angelina Jolie). However, instead of killing her, Beowulf finds himself seduced by her and returns from her cave claiming to have slain her, a fairly significant departure from the original poem, which Gaiman and Avary have justified by claiming that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. This seduction sets up the final scene in which the dragon attacks Beowulf’s kingdom, delivering a message from Grendel’s mother (“the sins of the father”), also a departure from the original text. In this sense, Beowulf is transformed from an epic hero to a flawed character, one characterized by his overreaching pride. More crucially, the film adapts the epic poem into a story about a crisis in masculinity, about Hrothgar and Beowulf’s failures to produce male heirs, an interpretation of the poem that I found mildly intriguing but deeply flawed in its execution.
The masculinity crisis is so overplayed in places that it became almost unintentionally funny. As Matt Zoller Seitz observes, the film contained “a few too many dick jokes, including elaborate attempts to shield a nude Beowulf’s mighty sword that just become ridiculous.” In fact, Beowulf’s action of ripping off Grendel’s arm is itself a symbolic castration, one that reduces the monstrous Grendel to a whimpering child (the depiction of Grendel was, in fact, one of the least intersting elements of the film). And Grendel’s mother’s seduction of Beowulf seems to revive fears of the monstrous female, as SMU medieval studies professor Bonnie Wheeler notes (Manohla Dargis also raises this point). But even with these flaws, I found myself fascinated by the depiction of bodies, by the use of 3-D to depict movement, and in many cases, the use of shape-shifting to depict Grendel’s mother, in particular.
And this is where I think that Zemeckis’s use of 3-D may be a little more subtle than other attempts at 3-D in the past. While Zemeckis does use 3-D occasionally to depict swords, arrows, or other objects flying directly at the viewer, Beowulf typically avoids many of these cliches. However, unlike Frank Rose, writing in Wired Magazine, I did not feel as if the 3-D was used to draw me into the sixth century world depicted in Beowulf. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I could never forget for a second that I was watching a movie. Part of this can be attributed to the physical discomfort of wearing the 3-D glasses, which were slightly too small, for two hours, but much of the effect was due to the amount of visual information “on” the screen.
And this is where I find Ted Pigeon’s review/reflections on the movie especially interesting and helpful, even if I’m not sure I share his conclusions. Ted describes being “distracted” by the layering effect, commenting that:
The 3-D experience is so “distracting” because it disrupts the spatial unity of the cinematic image. For those who approach cinema from a more formal theoretical perspective, 3-D technology makes cinema something else entirely. It is, quite simply, a betrayal of cinema.
Like Ted, I found the use of 3-D to be something of a “distraction,” but instead of seeing that as a weakness or flaw, the distancing effect was, for me, what made the movie interesting. In fact, the film offers a calculated attempt to make us aware of how we watch movies, openly defying the pictorial flatness that has come to define movies as a medium (see also Pat Graham of The Chicago Reader and, more crucially, Rudolf Arnheim on this point). But, again, rather than merely using 3-D as a gimmick, the 3-D serves to underscore a layered, hypermediated aesthetic. Matt’s suggestion that the movie essentially uses “a high tech version of Rotoscoping,” giving Beowulf an almost painterly aesthetic, seems about right to me.
I don’t know that I have any conclusions about the experience of watching Beowulf just yet. Unfortunately, there were only three or four other people in the audience when I saw the movie last night, so I did not get a clear sense of how a crowd might have responded to it. The relatively empty theater may have, in fact, distanced me from the movie even further, making the act of watching feel even more like an academic exercise (I’m planning to discuss Beowulf in my revised chapter on digital projection) than a piece of entertainment. I’m unwilling to embrace Wired’s wide-eyed futurism (note especially Roger Avary’s comments that “It was like a third eye opened up in my forehead,” and Fox executive Jim Gianopulos’ claim that “Talkies were an evolution of the medium. This is a complete transformation of the medium”). But I do think that Beowulf’s use of 3-D introduces some interesting challenges to traditional definitions of cinema as we know it.
Or more likely grading….Yours truly received a brief mention in Scott McLemee’s IHE column from Scott Eric Kaufman, of Acephalous fame, as an academic blog that deserved more attention. As always, it’s nice to know that I have readers out there who appreciate the blog, even if I’ve been somewhat lazy about posting this semester.
McLemee’s larger point that RSS feeders have significantly altered blog reading practices is also worth noting, and there’s an interesting discussion of how we define academic blogging in the comments over at SEK’s place.
I’ve been spending the morning enjoying the dual glow of celebrating both the end of the semester (90% of my grading is already done) and yet another birthday. It was nice to take some time off last night and escape from the grind of grading papers, interviewing candidates, writing articles, and pretty much everything else, although last night’s movie, The Golden Compass, left a lot to be desired (at least the company–Antony and his fiancee–was excellent). I may have more to say about The Golden Compass later, in part because of the controversy over the film’s alleged anti-religious aspects, but like this Cincinnati Post reviewer, I was more offended by the film’s reliance on fantasy cliches and its failure to entertain (I’m assuming the book is better).
I’ve often used birthday posts to reflect on the past year, and so I’ll mention briefly that I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot this year. Perhaps most importantly (if less visibly), I’ve made quite a bit of progress on the book this year, but I’ve also managed to produce one other book chapter on the future of science-fiction television (coming soon to an online bookseller near you), as well as some shorter essays for Flow and Art Signal. And, as always, my experiences in the classroom have been very rewarding. Finally, I even ran in my first half marathon a few weeks ago, which was a lot of fun (a full marathon may be in my future plans).
But I’m starting to get the feeling that I’ve been playing with this post for the last half hour because I don’t want to work on other things, so I’ll wrap up for now.
Update: Had a lovely evening with several friends here in town, but even a year and a half after arriving at Fayetteville, I still feel very much like an outsider when I go to the bars here in town, like I’m stepping into a movie scene. Last night, for example, the evening started out feeling like a cross between Beautiful Girls and Top Gun but ended up more like Road House.
Karina already lifted the best line from this faux-viral video created by the folks at Fox to sell Brawndo, the formerly fictitious energy drink featured in Mike Judge’s cult comedy, Idiocracy. As Karina points out, Fox did everything possible to bury Idiocracy when it was first produced, but they are going full steam ahead to market Brawndo using viral videos on YouTube, a Brawndo website, and other social networking tools. And, yes, you can “friend” Brawndo on Facebook and MySpace.
As Karina points out, the video contains only vague references–at best–to the original film and is now cashing in on the film’s critique of advertising and commercialism in order to–you guessed it–sell an energy drink that was the object of parody in the original film. And, yes, I realize that I’m now complicit in the marketing of Brawndo because I’m linking to the video and to the website, but this is more than a little insane. Isn’t it?
“Welcome to Costco. I love you.”
Also seen at pullquote.
Update: Corrected to fix misspelling of “Costco.” Talk about an idiocracy.
Update 2: The Guardian’s film blog also has a Brawndo post that is well worth checking out.
Here’s some late-night post-grading fun (not that I’m done with grading): A humorous video parodying the Web 2.0 hype. Warning: contains Billy Joel-like material.
No time for a longer post, but I just wanted to mention a couple of recent articles on the significant rise in the postal rates that would disproportionately affect small and medium circulation magazines such as The Nation, Mother Jones, and The National Review. As Eric Alterman and George Zornick point out, the increase in postal rates could cost The National Review $100,000 per year and The Nation as much as half a million dollars annually. But the increase in postal rates would also affect thousands of lesser known publications, including many that focus on minority viewpoints, with the result that our political discourse could be severely diminished if some (or many) of these publications were forced to close down or even cut back on their staff.
As Robert McChesney observes in a somewhat earlier article, the low postage rates are an important aspect of U.S. democracy. They were “crucial for the growth and spread of the abolitionist movement, the populist movement and progressive politics. More broadly, they have been central to development of participatory democracy in general.” It’s easy to suggest that many of these publications could migrate online, but as McChesney points out, if the print publications–and the subscription and advertising revenue they generate–cease to exist, these articles are less likely to appear online.
Making matters worse, the rate hikes will disproportionately effect smaller publishers while magazines with larger numbers of subscribers such as Time and Newsweek may even see their rates decrease, consolidating power within a smaller number of publications (in fact, according to McChesney, the rate hike proposal was submitted by Time Warner). As Alterman and Zorknick observe, these rate hikes are not inevitable and they are, in fact, bad for the democratic flourishing of ideas.
Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, My Kid Could Paint That (IMDB), focuses on Marla Olmstead, a four-year old child painter who took the art world by storm with her abstract paintings, and the subsequent controversy about whether (or how) her father, who had also been an amateur painter, might have contributed to some or all of the paintings. The film almost demands that we as viewers make a choice about whether Marla, who is now six, did all of the work on her paintings. In fact, the film is so adamant about introducing this controversy that I found myself resisting the particular question of whether Marla’s parents might be conning art world dupes, as the film implies, and wanting instead to ask larger questions about art and authorship, about abstract art and meaning, and about art and capital. While the film touches lightly on some of these questions, Bar-Lev’s stubborn insistence on selling the controversy rather than exploring what the controversy means left a number of important questions unanswered and, in some cases, unaddressed.
For what it’s worth, I saw no specific evidence that led me to believe, with any certainty, that Marla’s parents are guilty of the charges levied against them, although I’m not terribly interested in resolving that question. But I think it’s worth addressing the basics of the controversy in order to address some of the larger questions the film glosses. Bar-Lev hinges his own “crisis of faith” almost entirely on Charlie Rose’s hatchet job 60 Minutes interview with a child psychologist, Ellen Winner, who indicated that she regarded Marla as a “normal” child who could not have produced the paintings in question and that one of the paintings we see her produce is “less polished” than other works purportedly authored by Marla. Bar-Lev also seems to make much hay out of the fact that Marla doesn’t–and cannot–talk about her paintings in the language of the art world that voraciously consumes them, but he does little to explore how those meanings are constructed (although Bar-Lev’s comic depiction of a collector who claims to see figures standing next to a “blue door” in one of Marla’s paintings is treated with the right comic touch). Similarly, Roger Ebert has flatly insisted, without offering specific evidence, that Marla could not have produced some of the paintings attributed to her, speculating that Marla’s father is using her as a gimmick to introduce his own paintings into teh art world. In response to the authorship controversy, the Olmsteads have since recorded videos of Marla working on paintings from beginning to end, with some of them running about five hours (making them into cinema verite filmmakers themselves, although whether these videos are evidence that Marla has independently produced all of her paintings remains an open, unanswerable question).
But instead of taking the controversy at face value, I kept wanting to ask the question about why it matters that Marla is the sole author of her paintings and, perhaps more importantly, how that notion of authorship supports the incredible investments of capital in the art world (or, more precisely in the works of specific painters). As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about how authorship is constructed in other media, including film and literature. For example, no one would argue that T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is a lesser poem because he received help from Ezra Pound. There is no crisis of faith when we realize that a film crew assisted a director in the making of a movie. To be sure, the high finance of the art world is at least partially contingent upon what Walter Benjamin referred to as the “aura,” the uniqueness of the original object itself, but it seems as if this controversy almost depends on a Romantic notion of authorship that needed to be complicated.
The controversy over Marla’s art also depends in part on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge how abstract artists are engaging with thorny philosophical and formal issues. While Bar-Lev does interview Michael Kimmelman, an art critic from The New York Times, providing more context for how abstract art fits within historical and political contexts could have helped. Instead, we are generally presented with art collectors with too much money to spend projecting their own meanings into Marla’s paintings. Abstract art essentially becomes decorative, its meanings left up to the subjective appraisal of the viewer. Certainly, Marla’s family has benefited from this perception of abstract art, but the film does little to explain, as Doug Harvey points out, how “expertise” is constructed in the art world. By relying almost solely on Kimmelman as a representative of art criticism, we get a limited understanding of how professional critics read abstract art.
These questions about the degree to which abstract art might itself be a fraud become intertwined with the Binghamton, New York, art gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, who has been one of the most enthusiastic promoters of Marla’s work. We learn at one point that Brunelli is a hyperrealist painter who may spend months working on a single painting. While he has sold painting for thousands of dollars, it’s clear that he resents the art world’s clamoring over an abstract painting that could be completed in a few hours. Again, I’m not willing to play into the film’s insinuations of a specific hoax (someone is altering Marla’s paintings), but it is clear that Brunelli is fairly cynically manipulating a pliant art market in selling the narrative of Marla as a child prodigy (as a side note, the film does briefly address our need for child prodigies, but I’m not sure it takes this point far enough).
As my comments here certainly imply, there is a lot of interesting material here. I’m not quite convinced that Bar-Lev has handled these questions adequately, however. By focusing solely on his “crisis of faith” over Marla’s authorship, Bar-Lev seems to dodge the thornier questions about the degree to which concepts of authorship, value, and meaning in the art world are themselves contingent in the first place.
By the way, I’ve cross-posted this review over at New Critics.
Update: I haven’t been able to stop thinking about My Kid Could Paint That all afternoon. Whether that’s a product of the film itself or my desire not to grade may be debatable, but I just wanted to mention Cynthia Fuchs’ thoughtful review of the film. I think she’s probably right to identify the ways in which Bar-Lev is self-critical about the project about documentary, about the ways in which documentaries can lie, and especially the ways in which documentary filmmakers may exploit their subjects for the “documentary gold” of an unguarded emotional moment. Bar-Lev has clearly tapped into some of my own deep-seated questions about both the institution of art and the practice of documentary, so perhaps I should give the film a bit more credit than my original comments allowed.