At the beginning… Inception, Genesis and the End of Time: Film History at its Best.

Posted in film, Uncategorized by Jen on August 3, 2010

*Spoiler alert: according to your level of intelligence, this blog post may or may not give away the ending. Then again, if you’ve ever seen a Christopher Nolan film and know a little bit of film history, you have nothing to fear. Fredric Jameson’s notion of pastiche is at work here and there is no way you won’t guess what’s coming. If you don’t have a film education, maybe you will get one from reading this blog. Perhaps you can also benefit from Nolan’s layers of dream… I choose to think of them as layers of homage or intelligent plagiarism; you choose which is the misnomer*

Where does one even start talking about a film titled Inception? The connections to beginnings are endless: from Ellen Page’s Juno and her troubled portrayal of the creation of a life to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, who fails to launch of an (in-plot) epic love story in (500 days of) Summer, Inception bursts with associations to foundation and origin. Oh, and it does so in its storyline too. Ok, since you insist in discussing the intra-plot intricacies, why not say what this film is really about: endings, or the difficulty of success when attempting to achieve them. Nolan is a crafty, young filmmaker. The end of his career is nowhere in sight. However, his opening sequence is dreadfully prophetic in showing a wrinkled Ken Watanabe remembering ‘better’ times. Time is at the crux of Nolan’s film: whether the one that has elapsed, or the one that will. Of particular interest is the present time, the 2 ½ hours that transpire as our eyes remain affixed to the screen watching a curious broken time/space continuum that unfolds in front of us linearly in life but not so on screen, and that may make the weak hearted question if it really does… or even what world we are living in. This “Matrix effect” is achieved in a not-so-similarly racially charged manner. Far from the progressive black savior who enlightens Neo (beginning again!) into the path of truth, Nolan’s film regresses to post WWII notions of the “yellow peril”.

In Inception, Saito (played by Ken Watanabe) is evil, manipulative and extortive, a real exponent of the ‘Nippon terror’ that flooded the US in the 1940’s. This villain makes our beautifully white-faced hero enter a dangerous ring of corruption, and for his own attempt to plant an idea in Cobb’s head or claim supremacy over a member of the land of the free, he must be punished with death. We have seen this story before… many many years ago.

Is Saito (Ken Watanabe’s character) a Japoteur?

And not just once, as his ailment translates to each and every single layer of the “dream”.

In addition to race, this film also scores points in the gender arena. Nolan may have learned the teachings of David Mamet, who in the film The Spanish Prisoner educates audiences of the devilish quality of the female gender.

The film’s tag line: “Can you really trust anyone?”

The answer is no, especially if she is a woman. Remember the “Femme Fatales” of film noir?

Like Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon’s character in The Spanish Prisoner), Marion Cotillard’s Mal is as evil as Brigitte Helm’s Hel/Robot in Metropolis. With a short name that in a different language can be associated with evil, the two latter women exemplify the evil that Ricci artfully conceals. Can you trust anyone?, Mamet asks. Dom Cobb and his subconscious representations of Mal prove that old noir adage that women are dangerous even in dreams. But luckily for us females, films and dreams are not real. The pervasive patriarchal structure of the allegedly “real world” unfortunately is. Will we ever wake up from it? Let’s spin a dreidel, shall we?

The totem dreidel in Inception

Centuries ago, philosophers wondered about the dreamlike quality of life. Calderon de la Barca and Descartes explored this notion in print, sparking endless pages of discussion. Many Earth rotations later, the so-called “Dream Factory” continues to do so, in updated ways. David Mamet circa 1987 in House of Games, and David Fincher after him in (the almost remake) 1997 The Game have posited that maybe life is some sort of entertaining ludic fantasy.

David Fincher and his notion of a game.

The structure of the unsettling final plot point has been explored ad nauseam by directors throughout the history of film. As a new chapter is being penned, Christopher Nolan’s name seems to appear written in indelible ink, and rightfully so. His intervention provides a crack at the age-old question but presents it in a novel way hence ensuring his page will not be ripped out of the Film 101 manual. In the long list of quotes on his IMBD page, he tells the world that “The term ‘genre’ eventually becomes pejorative because you’re referring to something that’s so codified and ritualized that it ceases to have the power and meaning it had when it first started. What I’m trying to do is to create modern equivalents that speak to me of those tropes that have more of the original power.” But indeed he is not the first who has tried to repackage film noir, though he may be one of the few that have succeeded. Looking at the bare bones of Nolan’s film and the predicament it poses, Inception is a long-treaded story with a shiny exterior, an absolutely brilliant execution of a clichéd desire to travel through time and beat death. Ending at the beginning, life is a circle. Sometimes, it can also be a dream.

Marion Cotillard. Enough said.

As a mere audience member (and perhaps a little bit of film academic mixed in to bring out flavor), I can only wish that while the credits of my life roll against the background of a black screen, Edith Piaf’s voice reminds me of Marion Cotillard’s overall fabulousness. And maybe of a mysteriously abandoned Dior handbag.

Seen above is one of the four episodes created for a Dior campaign (one of which was directed by Olivier Dahan in a noir style, also responsible for “La Vie En Rose”).  Shanghai, intrigue, a rarified atmosphere and lots of blue seem to line up perfectly with David Lynch, director of the short embedded here.

Michael, Michael, Michael… why the male privilege?

Posted in music video, Rant, Unsung Feature by Jen on December 22, 2009

Oh, Michael. It’s not that your name has a legacy of royalty. Nope, not that. It’s not that you are the cutest big band singer, and quite possibly the hottest crooner to ever walk this Earth (ok, except for Jakob Dylan, but I digress). It’s not even that you are dating an Argentine actress and model who is 12 years your junior. I love your voice, I love your songs, you’re easy on the eyes… you really have it all.  But that video… oh, Michael, that video. It just, let’s say, enrages me. Let me backtrack and explain a little more thoroughly what I am talking about here.

Crazy Love, Michael Buble’s new album, hit the stores in October 2009. Finally aware of the release of a much anticipated record, I awaited his soft voice in tunes that had earlier been graced by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Brook Benton, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and others. Between his caressing of notes with his vocal chords and his charming looks, this man is a feast for the senses. Therein lies the pleasure of the modern art of the music video. So far so good, and his track record made me believe that I was safe clicking on the new audiovisual Youtube link. Previously, I had always loved his videos. The video for “Home” showcased his girlfriend at the time in a story of how much he misses her, and the one for “Everything” was absolutely adorable. However, the one for my favorite track of the new album, “Haven’t met you yet”, not so much.

The video takes place at a grocery store, or as highlighted by the sign above the door, a market. This already gives us a hint of what the video will be about: Michael shopping for something, in this case, a woman. The analogy of groceries/commodities/you name it with a human being, especially of the female denomination provides, at the outset, the sense that something problematic is about to take place. The opening sequence, right after the establishing shot, shows a succession of: bananas, hands, cream puffs, yogurt and melons. Ok, call me dirty, but it is really not too hard to see the sexual implications of all this. To add insult to injury, as Michael’s soft voice lulls us with the lyrics “I’m not surprised, not everything lasts”, Michael shops in the frozen foods section, and later his video features a store clerk pricing canned goods. As his 22 year-old girlfriend enters the frame, also grabbing something from the freezer, the chilling message I take away from these images has to do with preserving looks, avoiding ageing and being frozen in time. All that matters in this market is to have the most appealing packaging, to be appealing. As the butcher wields his knife, we are introduced to the idea that this store really is a meat market.

While Michael waltzes down one of the aisles with a giant phallus, and other men blow on theirs (trumpets and other miscellaneous instruments), we are reminded of who really reigns supreme in this diegetic world. As the store patrons dance unprompted, confetti and all, the heteronormative patriarchy crucial to musicals of the 1950’s resurfaces in this modern context, one in which the male lead can sing big band music wearing sneakers. This patriarch, one that stands in all his Canadian whiteness, has conquered the Latin American woman, the locus of exoticism that has no other purpose in life than to turn herself over to the colonial power. Even the end of the video cannot alleviate this strong message. When Michael ‘wakes up’ from his musical reverie, he sees his dream woman entering the store. Firstly, the ability to conjure up the female he has imagined places him at a prime position as a creator, or somebody who, much like Scottie in Vertigo, can ‘make’ a woman exactly how he wants her. Secondly, her lack of agency throughout the whole video (he is the one speaking and singing, and she is not able to even mimic the sound of a word) also plays into this male dominated diegesis. And finally, her entrance into the store suggests that the place of the market, in which the female is a commodity, is simply inescapable.

What Buble’s video tells us, whether we like it or not, is that male privilege, money and fame can buy everything, maybe even a young, sought after female actress and model. I wish he would remember that Beatles cover he reprised in his 2005 album It’s Time. As much as you want to believe the contrary, the old adage still holds true: money CAN’T buy you love.

The Parts to the Whole: Community and Dismemberment in Seven Pounds

Posted in film, Uncategorized by Jen on July 2, 2009
The alienated, unfilfilled man

The alienated, unfilfilled man

Centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioned a world in which men could coexist happily and flourish through communitarianism. So did Karl Marx. And so did Tim Thomas, the protagonist of Gabriele Muccino’s Seven pounds, whose concept of sharing did not involve democratic forums a la Rousseau or a denouncement of the atomizing effects of capitalism a la Marx. Tim’s notion seems born out of a “one with the Universe structure” in which life ends but begins through the dismembering of his body that will endure in the physicality of others. His heart goes to Emily, a kind and open young woman born with a congenital failure, and his eyes go to Ezra, a blind and slow to anger gifted pianist. Other than a woman who is the recipient of Tim’s worldly possessions, the other beneficiaries remain more obscure that the aforementioned characters. In this way, Tim’s self and body become ubiquitous, occupying different spaces at the same time and able to defeat death by providing a fuller life to those who ail. Through these unusual actions, Tim’s vision is one that liberates the body from its prison, an ideal that allows humans to flourish through dispersion in a great time where the technologies that span the globe have managed to make the planet more interconnected.

The interconnectedness

The interconnectedness

Many would object to the technological era that has enveloped the present, claiming that its advances have alienated humankind by allowing an illusion of self-sufficiency thwart face-to-face interaction.  However, Muccino circumvents this issue allowing us to understand that technology has facilitated that connection: Tim speaks to Ezra on the phone, and conveys to Emily that she is the recipient of a new heart through a pager. Technological mediation either becomes a lifeline or the passage to a fuller life. However, this technology means nothing without the human component. Doctors cannot “fix” an unfit or incomplete body: the heart and the eyes that Tim provides are the real salvation. The interesting complication of this film resides in the character who receives Tim’s possessions. While health ailments follow the aforementioned model, human created problems such as a broken family (due to an abusive partner) are not mediated by technology but by heartfelt handwritten words and the gifting of material items. It would seem like this film is advocating for a return to those Rousseaunian values of community, or perhaps even a normative desire to believe in said philosopher’s state of nature. While technology and progress mediates nature’s faults, human conflict must be resolved through the traditional moral values of generosity and material detachment.
Believing in rescuing the old values in addition to his defense of technology, the director also advocates for an intelligent use of both. After all, Tim is the one who fixes Emily’s vintage press that others were unable to repair, while also “fixing” Emily, Ezra and others with his dismemberment and detachment. He is the vehicle of Rousseau’s communitarian values as much as he is the one character that finally understands (after his partner’s death) what it really means to strike a balance between human relations and an intelligent use of modern technology.
By donating 7 pounds of flesh, Tim can right a wrong, or so the director believes. The protagonist’s life is redeemed in this second chance: donating his organs and possessions gives him a different yet newfound life, a ubiquity that his dispersed self (body and possessions) weaves into a web. The interwoven humanity, best personified in that hug between Emily and Ezra in the last frame of the film, defends the Internet culture in which each hub connects to another and closes the distance across the world. The important thing to remember is that, despite threats like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, computers and any other technological advances are created and operated by human beings and without people loving, caring for themselves and others, and forming communitarian networks humans are unable to see and feel, to live a rich, long and full life.

One with nature

One with nature

Even though some lives may be cut short, such as Tim’s wife’s (who dies in a car accident he causes) the protagonist chooses to stage his death at the hands of nature: electrocution with a jellyfish. Once out his body, his organs will have a new beginning not fraught with thoughts of guilt or pain, but a Benthamian perspective of making the maximum number of people happy at the expense of the fewest, or in this case simply compensation with one pound of flesh for each death that he has caused. Muccino tells us clearly that, when used in the right way, the eyes and heart can and should be tools for good, aided by both technology and nature. This balance is imperative to achieving human flourishing.
Though Seven Pounds is not a great film, it is one that helps to gain perspective on our historical moment, of a world in which technology and its threats have been used both for progress and destruction, a planet where fear and war have atomized the world into distrustful nations, these nations into populations and populations into individuals. If every life lost upon the misuse of technology were to be compensated, no scale would be able to bear the weight. Seven Pounds provides a small-magnitude example of how this world can become an ideal place, just like Rousseau planned centuries ago. The scale that weighs those pounds of flesh seems to bear a resemblance to that being held by the blind, stoic trademark statue of justice. Perhaps what this film proposes, and what is in order in today’s reality, is stepping on that scale to see what kind of a balance we have created.

Oh ’08!

Posted in film by Eric on February 3, 2009

Teeth Poster

I refute the claim that 2008 was bad.  Sure, there wasn’t the stunning pair of There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, but there were some fine films – a lot of them much smaller on the release scale.  My short list follows, with even shorter commentary.  If I could summarize what I love about all these films, it would be the directors.  I admire them for the strong and difficult choices they made, often resulting in opposing moods and tones that I’ve never seen sutured together so beautifully.

  • Teeth – Pitch perfect in tone, this movie was smart, steadily directed (especially for a first feature), and downright hilarious.
  • Waltz with Bashir – One of the most stunning explorations of memory and forgetting ever to play upon the screen.  A perfect union of content and style.
  • Synecdoche, New York – The simple fact that Kaufman can always blow my mind puts him up here.  I’ll be coming back to this movie for a long time because it bent my brain in a way that only Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Dr’ ever has.
  • Mister Lonely – Almost like a beautiful collection of short stories, every scene in this movie stood alone as a tiny film.  Gorgeously shot and flawlessly cast.
  • In Bruges – A film that turned out to be far deeper than it’s advertisements led on, I was hugely impressed by the film’s flips between the darkly comic and the religiously existential.
  • The Dark Knight – It’s like Nolan made an action movie out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling”.  I’ve been quietly suposing that the man might be the reincarnation of Hitchcock, and now I’m just gonna come out and say it.  (Plus, Ledger is bat-shit crazy).
  • Up the Yangtze – Another documentary snuck its way in here, but well deserved.  A heart breaking and quiet observation of a singular incidence of suffering in the massive devastation that is the Three Gorges Damn Project.
  • The Wrestler – Aronofsky said that in his previous films he, “used the camera like a paintbrush.  Here, I tried to use it more like a camera”.  Aside from Rorke’s fantastic performance, I appreciate Aronofsky for boldly trying new things, new styles, and new formats (super 16!).  Many directors are too chicken shit to stray from the style that made them famous, so props to Darren for mixing it up.
  • WALL-E – There may or may not be complaints about the second half of this film, but the simple fact is that I was screaming with laughter for the first 30 minutes or so, and still giggling continuously after that.  Plus, any movie that can make me feel intense empathy for a steel box wins something in my book.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody Allen is smart and funny again!  Yay!!

Editor’s Note:  The rest of our team’s thoughts on the 2008 roster in future posts.

Once More Without Feeling!

Posted in Festival Circuit, film, Rave by Joie on January 25, 2009
Zooey Deschanel/Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Zooey Deschanel/Joseph Gordon-Levitt

With Sundance closing its curtains, the crowd-pleasing premiere of Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer, starring indie darlings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel (a festival regular and go-to-muse) marked the first stop on our 162 days to the film’s release on July 24. Ironically publicized as “not a love story,” and decked with linguistic magnets like “postmodern” and “indie,” this Fox Searchlight soon-to-be hit solidly caters to the lofty expectations of its vintage-groomed fans. Teaser already displays all the self-incriminating evidence:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

While most reviewers have found the Morgan Freemanish narration to be irritating, mechanically heralding “500 Days of Summer” at least 4 times (discounting subliminal echoes), I view this gesture by whoever made this trailer to be a giddy, uproarious send-up to the frothy romantic inquiries of Jean-Luc Godard, whose political ambitions were better explored in his earlier studies of male-female relationships as doomed transactions between need and desire, tedium and escape, Marx and Coca-Cola. Before embarking on his iconic Breathless, Godard was head of PR at Twentieth Century Fox’s Paris office for two years. No wonder he was so meticulous when it came to his future ad campaigns: leaving behind a unmistakable fingerprint on every poster printed and every teaser shown. Witness the assault of primary colors dropped on the viewer in the much iconic preview to Contempt, lead by an equally bold duet of voices listing all those moments one demands from art cinema: an unfulfilled caress, a forlorn glance, a cameo by Fritz Lang, and by default, those same qualities found in the budding business of trailers-as-art: black intertitles w/flashing words, and random clips from the feature film. Spot something similar?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Much credit must be given to the lost heritage of 60s and 70s advertisements produced in the post-studio-system Hollywood, characterized by a stoic, fatherly voice-of-God inviting us to view the latest gritty entry of urban corruption and social unrest. Repeating the title of the film excessively with in-between montages consisting of purely outrageous scenes, pins the perfect mental memo for any moviegoer who wants to have his camp and eat it too. With the corninest of strategy and the best of focus-group psychology, how could anyone fall into the cracks of amnesia? Most of these enduring titles also happen to be in the new classics canon including West Side Story, Don’t Look Now, Strawdogs, and Klute.

Circling back to 300 Days, why the anachronistic homage to a forgotten practice, distancing your core audience with the most “annoying” of marketing weaponry, when kids these days are more prone to easy breezy wit over heavy meta in-joke? Given the sums of money Fox Searchlight poured into their yearly investments, it’s almost granted that the trailer acts as an invitation to the film’s reportedly unconventional time-skipping structure, a disciplinary device to assuage familiarity through readymade musical popcoctions, and what a hypnotic song–-Sweet Disposition by Australian band Temper Trap—is, washing away the initial discomfort with a Greatest-Hits reel of contemporary rom-com’s triad of affections and affectations: boy, girl, photogenic city. Last year: Nick and Norah’s NYC, Micah and Jo’s San Francisco. This year’s crime-free lovers’ spot: Tom and Summer’s Los Angeles.

As a sidenote, we will be returning to the indefinable figure of the Indie Darling, a kept creature of her times, from Anna Karina to Zooey Deschanel. In a future post, spurred by an unsatisfactory aftertaste of Andzrej Wajda’s New Wave feature, Innocent Sorcerers, we hope to dig not deeper behind the surface, but let that surface says something about our investigation. For those of you who have seen this film, keep those thoughts in mind.

Repeat as Needed: Love and Death in Grey’s Anatomy

Posted in Television by Meg on January 18, 2009
Bataille's Erotism and Sandra Oh's "Ohh"

Bataille's Erotism and Sandra Oh's "Ohh"

“Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.”

– Georges Bataille

“Have you ever had mindblowing sex, the kind of sex that makes you just want to DIE?”

– Izzie Stevens to Cristina Yang, Grey’s Anatomy 5×10

Ahh it feels good to be back.   For our religious followers, you already know that after the Grey’s Anatomy Dogville finale of last season, I have jumped back on board the medical drama’s bandwagon.  I have renewed my addiction to the show, unfortunately (or fortunately?) for reasons based on comedic moments and fruitful interpretations of the unbelievably ridiculous story lines, instead of the original merits of the show.  As the season continues after its winter break, I thought it would be appropriate to do a mid-season recap on the thematic depths Crossroads-writer/Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes has delved into these past 12 episodes.  Might I say that Ms. Rhimes did not reach her peak in this season when borrowing a little melodrama from the Danes.

When the show began in 2005, the initial premise was to create a medical drama that emphasized the relationships amongst the characters as opposed to the actual medicine and surgeries.  As described in an initial review of the show by the New York Times, Grey’s Anatomy was to be an ER meets Sex and the City show, without veering to close to the romance-based General Hospital or the purposely extreme Nip/Tuck.  The introductory scene of the show set the tone as it illustrated the typical “Morning After” scene with boy and girl awkwardly saying goodbye, with Rilo Kiley’s Portions for Foxes playing in the background.  Introducing itself as the un-medical medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy opened its doors to a little more cushion to stretch the believability of stories the show decided to tackle.  Attendings sleeping with interns?  No problem.  Booty calls in the on-call room as quintuplets stand on the brink of life and death nearby?  Bring it on.  By setting a show in a medical environment, the testing waters between life and death will always be present.  Given its specific premise, these matters of life and death that occur weekly with the given patients of the week are paralleled with the love lives of the show’s doctors.

For the most part due to the definition of love and passion provided by the popular rom coms out there, the search for love and its final attainment revolves around life.  Fresh flowers, birds chirping, clouds parting to allow sun to shine.  However, Grey’s Anatomy takes a different approach.  Seminary dropout-turned archivist/philosopher Georges Bataille discussed that it is not beaming life that is present with sex, but rather death.  To Bataille, true eroticism exists only though the ultimate attainment of some kind of death.  Now in its fifth season, Grey’s Anatomy has decided to test the boundaries it set with its previous four seasons by truly focusing on this single thematic relationship of passion and death.

First, there is the storyline causing the most ranting, so much so that ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson had to publicly defend it: the Izzie and Denny storyline.  It is not enough that Denny appears to toy with Izzie’s heart.  The show takes the ultimate leap by giving Izzie the opportunity to consummate her relationship with her dead fiance.  Death is no longer an obstacle for this relationship.  If anything, judging Izzie’s conversation with Christina about a “kind of sex that makes you just want to die” and the noises from Izzie’s bedroom that caused McDreamy to ask “Who’s making a porno in Izzie’s room?,” death does a body good.

Izzie and Denny, 5x08

Izzie and Denny, Grey's Anatomy 5x08

Second, there are the nicknames of characters and couplings, both born in the show and within the fan forums, that are death related.  There’s Meredith as “Death” and Sadie as “Die.”  There’s also the phonetic similarity between the death-related term “murder” and the fan-created shipper term for the coupling of Meredith and Derek, “MerDer,” that cannot be ignored.

“Pick Me. Choose Me. Love Me.”

Lastly, there is the show’s use of repetition for dramatic effect in any scene pivotal in a given relationship.  Each “I care about you”, “Teach me”, or “I love you.  I freakin’ love you, ” is repeated with fervor, stabbing the recipient of the words until they succumb to the loving, pleasure-filled pain.  A new, positive meaning is brought to the phrase “beating a dead horse.”

“I care about you. I care about you. I care about you.”

“Teach Me. Teach Me. Teach Me.”

In an act of approval for his choice of Meredith as partner, Mama Shepherd in the most recent episode tells her son, McDreamy, in the most recent episode, “You see things in black and white.  Meredith doesn’t.  You need a spoonful of that.”  With ghost sex story lines and dramatic repetitions of love proclamations, Grey’s Anatomy has illustrated that the existence of love within life and death is not black and white, but Grey.

A Brother From Another Planet?

Posted in film, Rant, Uncategorized by Jen on January 14, 2009


About sixty years ago, Antoine de Saint Exupery created a fantasy in which a Little Prince hopped from planet to planet in his search for happiness. Much more recently, another member of the royal enclave (the king of pop) was engaged in a different kind of meandering: race hopping. From black to white, Michael Jackson not only traveled in his own life, but also in the diegetic world of his video clip “Black or White”. Whereas the Little Prince promised to never forget what he learned from a fox he had domesticated, Michael Jackson seems to have forgotten what every member of the imaginary royalty should know: the tenet that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. “Black or white” opens with an aerial shot of the suburb and home that we will later familiarize with, hence introducing us to the space as coming from the sky. The departure of the hopping and exploration of the diverse worlds that inhabit Planet Earth (as opposed to the diverse planets that compose our universe) is a white middle class suburban home, which sets the norm of our reality. In this home, the father, mother and son seem to have assumed primary psychic roles, which become reversed when the son blasts off his father to the other side of the world. The repressive patriarchal authority, in contrast with the Little Prince, is transported against his will to a world of Otherness. His voyage, in turn, leads the audience to a different double journey: that of the King of Pop walking from frame to frame into stereotypically depicted cultures, and that of Michael’s own real life travel, from blackness to whiteness. This double journey, as the images that compose the video indicate, takes on certain implications about racial difference and its importance in terms of white supremacy.


The representation of a number of diverse racial groups is what makes this video so unique. However, these representations are fraught with a “flawed mimesis” (Stam and Spence 881), stereotypes, and a certain colonial sensibility. In the introduction to his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the presence of a division, “as both geographical and cultural entities […] sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made” (5) By extension, I would like to argue that the video “Black or White” creates several imaginary geographies, adjudicating to each one a stereotypical image that when placed opposite whiteness can be redefined to mean ‘otherness’. This project becomes apparent during the first racial representation, that of the African Natives. The scantily clad men in painted faces are about to kill an animal, responding to their savage and primitive calling. However, out of nowhere, they begin dancing with Michael in a highly choreographed manner. He is within them, trying to blend his difference by yelling a guttural sound, but failing as his western clothing denounces him. Through the attempt to erase difference but by highly stereotyping the natives, the image is then in crisis: the imaginary African continent and its people as a locus of otherness conflicts with the blurring of the distinction with whiteness, because according to his own words “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”.

Enter the eroticized Asian female. These women move in perfect unison, wearing oriental outfits and moving in constrained and very slight movements, as they portray the essence of the truly feminine, “passive, subservient, dependent” (Marchetti 115). The male gaze within the diegetic world not only complicates this representation in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, as these women become highly sexualized racial bodies. As he continues to screen hop, Michael encounters the far West, with its Indians in red face and cowboys that shoot guns without a purpose. Herein lies an invocation to the most racially troublesome genre of American culture: the western. Michael interacts with the Indians like he belongs, and nobody looks at him any different, despite the long withstanding antagonistic relationship between whites and native Americans set up by westerns such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956).

Another locus of erasure of racial differences is Michael’s encounter with a traditionally clad Hindu woman, dancing in the middle of the streets of an industrialized India. The imaginary absence of borders manifests itself through the action and setting, as their dancing nonchalance suggest that, contrary to reality, the middle of a well-populated street is removed from dangers.

Many parallels run through these representations of the diverse cultures. Firstly, Michael seems to blend with the ones who accompany him in the frame, even though he leaps out of the screen for the audiences who see him as different. Secondly, he seems to be able to adapt quite well to each race through dance, which suggests his dexterity in the art of bodily adaptation and race hopping. Nevertheless, this argument becomes more complicated when taking into account the last stop on his diegetic culture trip: the Russian white Cossacks. This particular segment is the only one he can complete in its entirety and in perfect unison with his screen partners. This feat suggests perfect harmony with his fellow white dancers, inducting him, according to the video’s discourse, into The ‘Hall of Whiteness’. The white snowflakes falling only add to the sentiment of absence of color that permeates the screen.1banner
Furthermore, as the scene converts into a snow globe, a small hand holds it in its grasp. The camera pulls back to reveal a white baby sitting on top of the world, who right in front of a black infant shakes the snow globe that has captured Michael’s reality. Almost like a justification, these two babies are evocative of the Clark Doll Study, an experiment which asked children to choose between a white and a black doll in terms of their preference. Just as the study reveals, and as Michael represents, whiteness equals desirability. This not-so-novel discovery as a result of white supremacy explains why the snow globe resides on the white baby’s hand, conferring him and agency the black baby cannot have. The white baby is, in this world of binary divisions, the one that gets to hold the globe. The exposure of this experiment almost validates Michael’s escape from blackness, but also endorses the idea of whiteness as the top of the food chain, or literally in this video, as the agent in control on top of the world.

The same can be said about Michael’s trip to the flame of the Statue of Liberty. His positioning on top of one of the tallest structures of the world reinforces his status of privilege as a white male, but also stands as an emblem of the Ellis Island culture, that of the American Dream. In the United States, the land of possibilities, one can become whoever he or she wants to be. America becomes the place of dreams and reinvented identities, a space where most fantasies can become a reality because of that ‘freedom’.

It would seem that only white people are in the privileged position to say that skin color does not matter. “I’m not going to spend my life being a color”, he sings, mainly meaning that the prism by which we should evaluate people is not race, but equality. However, the suggestion of the erasure of color leads us to conjecture that whiteness is the ideal. Michael, occupying his throne near the crown of the Statue of Liberty, asserts this statement through more than his lyrics. His costume choice for this video becomes an interesting one to analyze: a white shirt, paired with black pants. If we were to deconstruct it, we would find that the whiteness of his outfit resides on top of the black, signaling the order of hierarchy of race, but also occupies the top portion of his body, the one valued because of intellect and reason, while the black one covers the bottom half, the portion that contains the genitalia and is often associated with the sexualized and the primitive. We can see this clothing choice as a reflection of cultural stereotypes: the rational and civilized white is above the primitive and hypersexualized black. Being that this is a video to try to disavow racial stereotypes and racial differences, the clothing selection surfaces as a huge oversight, or a fraught choice.

Whereas this video was released to repudiate certain racist accusations towards Michael Jackson, the image tells us a different story. Even though the video promises to challenge ruling discursive assumptions about race, it ends up reaffirming the status quo of white supremacy. The morphing of the faces that ends the musical portion of the video, as well as the transformation of Michael’s face through plastic surgery manipulation seems to suggest that the King of Pop is not looking to join the Little Prince on his quest of returning to the Earth to live happily ever after. Instead, it seems that he has reached the point of no return, and as his hopping from identity to identity progresses, his highly morphed body better suits a space within this galaxy, but out of this world.

Works Cited
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1978. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House, 1994.

Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism an Representation: An Introduction” in Film: Psychology, Ideology, and Technology. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th Ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004. pp 877-891.

Graphically Challenged: Why Covers do Matter

Posted in Books, Unsung Feature by Joie on December 8, 2008


Left (Design: David Pearson), Right (Design: Ralph Steadman)


Better famously known through its abridged snippets scattered among the master theses and PhD dissertations in collegiate dungeons around the world, the Ur-essay of all aesthetic manifestos still retains is ever mystical aura. A perpetually renewable source of enlightenment, Walter Benjamin, as pop historian Howard Hampton, rightfully notes, “has become become a convenient, all-points totem, one who blessing and validation are sought through the offerings of a host of supplicants…in this shopworn, once-upon-a-time-academe form, he stands for an indivisible synthesis of blissful disenchantment and unshaken theoretical faith.” Despite Benjamin’s dying belief that the age of Fascist fetishization has passed, that we should acquire a richer visual literacy unfettered by commerce and prestige, he couldn’t have imagined the marketing battle between publishing rivals for his 1935’s “Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (a second, much longer variant from the famous, widely circulating first edition, “…Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

Two editions released and refurnished this year, conspicuously with dissimilar translations in each, but ultimately (over)determined by their physical allure, their pulpy facade vulnerably exposed to the discerning consumer. Which book will be adopted, which book will be put to sleep in the inventory storeroom?

Intellectually-speaking, means I’m here for the “official” version (the right side, by Harvard University Press), this newly extended essay (“Reproducibility”) ventures into more prodigious discussion of film as a medium that can liberate art from its confined spaces to even more confining spaces, from museums to bedrooms, from Dennis Hopper to Joe the Plumber. Despite its fawning, tasteful cover, I’m sold only because it will bear me future fruits of critical rigor, as it attempts to say something about the insidious nature of repetition with the floating cartoon heads of the dead Frankfurt bookworm.  Thanks to Kevin from HUP for pointing out that the cover art was an original from Ralph Steadman, known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

To the left side is something else altogether, a dilapidated curiosity shop that rings true to its title, a familiar version, like a baby blanket, I’ve encountered so many times in all my undergraduate classes. Yet, it keeps me coming for more, with the outside matching the thematic aspirations of its insides. Radical to the end, old-fashioned only by appearance, the design (for “Reproduction”) captures the author as a brand, the modern equivalent of aura, a work of art itself thanks to the printing revolution. Replicating the experience of reading itself, as the same book is multiplied in the mind as many, the trompe-l’oeil of a cover unveils the material act of holding a book, with its stubborn dimensions and the endless row of spines awaiting at the library shelves. It thrives on minimalist simplicity and renews the reader’s interest in the cosmopolitan writer’s prismatic observations, contradictory projections, and his weary, utopian voice, alive through the incantation of reading, albeit still full of glory and melancholy.

Penguin Series

Penguin's Great Ideas Series, all covers designed by David Pearson

Like many unsung anti-heroes of any industry, the cover designer’s work exhibits the same fate as Poe’s purloined letter, open to the world, but everyone only noticing the “author,” (the director) the one whose existence rests on a prominent name, horizontally slashed on the surface. The success of one does not mark the success of the other, but the failure of either will lead both to the trenches of obscurity. In a parallel manner, taking a quick browse through the Criterion Collection yields an even more difficult decision. Since the auteur mantle is already a given, the real question lies in the search for the other auteur, literally, the winning poster child on the DVD.

In this post, my initial interest of these two books, sharing the same author, but lacking identical appeal, will now funnel down to a self-motivated promotion of graphic extraordinaire, industry-secret typographer, David Pearson, who is the executive designer of the Penguin Classic branch, which includes this new edition of Benjamin’s essay in novella form as part of their GREAT IDEAS series. Surgically beautifying the so-called masterworks of literature, Pearson may have already carved his own legacy among the great morticians of cultural remains.

Great Books Series

Great Books Series

History of Logos

History of Logos

Excuse my Slumdog Rage

Posted in film, Rant by Joie on December 5, 2008

I have more records than the KGB, BBC, NBR, so on.

FIRST HATER POST, oh the carnage

It seems futile to barricade the top ten lists of 2008 from the inspirational puppy-dog-eyes of the Hollywood/Bollywood brainchild, Slumdog Millionaire, another lucrative product from the folks who have succeeded, much like the Disney Channel, to clone a progeny of audience favorites (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), which makes the job of any ghost reviewer easier by dutifully proclaim “It’s this year’s _______.” When all the independent sidearms of the top studios have been liquidated to only a footnote in history, Fox Searchlight endures as it funds and buys out the better-tested of the best, safety features, that is. Radical risk-taking isn’t exactly part of the mission statement of the company, and their acquisitions have come to mirror each other in tonality and predictability, in which those legal last rites of the rolling credits should be appended to “All characters are purely fictional and frictionless.”

With the announcement from the National Board of Review that Slumdog Millionaire is supposedly the BEST FRAKKIN’ FILM of the Year, a no-surprise shrug was my first reaction, followed by an angry realization that a smug shutter would suffice instead. Sharing Meg’s initial and permanent assessment of our screening at Telluride, Slumdog’s only salvageable virtue lies in its ingenuity to wed MIA’s gangbang hum-a-thon, “Paper Planes” into the movie’s soundtrack, after a gleeful sham marriage of a teaser from Pineapple Express. Not once of course, but twice, including a DFA remix of the song, in a subsequent lull moment after a frenetic montage of the brothers’ joyous robberies aboard a luxury train across India, keep those Marc Jacobs’ limited edition LV trunks close to you at all times. Otherwise, the film suffers not from ADD, in threading together the lead character’s rags-to-riches flashbacks with utmost pandemonium editing, but OCD, carefully cleaning up the beautiful mess with a single-minded goal to get the boy his girl, these damaged goods are back together at last.

With the majority of its defenders celebrating its lush, odorous in-your-face imagery of contemporary India coupled with a national fable of upward mobility both idealized and envied, how could a small minority of critics muster their intellectual weaponry at such a PC crowd-pleaser of a tale of two cities, Mumbai, loud and dangerous, recent Terrorist events have only reinforce the social reality of racial tensions, and Mumbai, ambitious, modern, and Western-friendly, recent retaliation to the attacks have also indicated. The only offensive line of reasoning would lead to nowhere but the emotional indifference that possessed me at the time of my viewing, an unimpressive impression. With the exception of the MIA song that highjacked my feet off the ground, this Bollywood-lite musical was made for those who don’t really want to see a full-blown Bollywood spectacle nor the American epic poems of the 50s or 60s, their length and majesty truncated for the 120-min threshold of the action thriller. Australia falls on the other end, too much with too little to say.

With the DGA deciding its next saint coming early 2009, Danny Boyle may find himself accepting that honor and delivering what his auteur admirers would find consistently fitting into a future retrospective, but for me, Mr. Boyle is basically paying back Fox Seachlight the loan he borrowed for his flopped pet project, Sunshine, a sci-fi rumination on human-termite existence. Perhaps, one could fault this no-holds-bar acceptance of Slumdog as a cultural symptom of our downtrodden times, when happy endings sloppily hemmed together stand for larger wish fulfillments of a quick-bailout kind, from the government, or from media giants that finance get-rich schemes like “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”.

Has 2008 begotten such an impoverished roster of cinematic candidates that we must crown a pauper in place of a prince?

UPDATE: As much as I despise Slumdog Millionaire, discovering that Paste Magazine awarded its top prize, in a bold, but deeply calculated move, to Nandita Das’s Firaaq is equally distressing.  I prefer the inauthentic audacity of the former over the authentic affectations of the latter.  Please, has the same plague afflicting the Academy in 2005, when Crash triumphantly crashed Brokeback party, returned in a more menacing form?  Say it aint so.

“ALL I WANNA DO…is take your money” YES, so close your wallet and watch this clip, IT IS THE MOVIE.

8…8 1/2…9…

Posted in Adaptation, film, Uncategorized by Joie on December 3, 2008
Mama, Claudia, Liliane, Carla, Random Blonde Socialite, Luisa, Saraghina, Guido

Clockwise (by character): Mama, Claudia, Liliane, Carla, Random Blonde Socialite, Luisa, Saraghina, Guido

Yesterday, on Good Morning America, during Britney’s performance of her new single, “Circus,” also the title of the latest effort to reboot her career, I notice the familiar tune of Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) as the opening and closing bookends for the song. Transporting us to some carnivalesque wonderland because you know…Fellini/Rota equals garish circus freaks and a barely sweating ringmaster attempting to sell the greatest show (I mean, preview) on earth, Britney is less of a performer than she was before, now a vampish marionette in the grand tradition of female has-beens, like Lola Montes and Mariah Carey, wearing her setbacks as pity points for fans’ financial support. By even comparing herself to the incredibly cluttered yet fluidly warm style of the late Italian master is more insulting if it was an intentional homage than simply browsing through Itunes for mood music.

Then and Now

Guido & Carlo: Then and Now


Fellini and his harem

To her credit, Britney revived my interest for Rob Marshall’s film adaptation (filming in the UK, due out 2009) of the Tony Award-winning musical, Nine (also thanks to Meg!), simply due to its stellar casting stunt alone: Daniel Day-Lewis, as the womanizing (ha, Britney) artist Guido with writer’s block, Nicole Kidman as his on-and-off again muse, Claudia, Judi Dench as the witty French reporter, Lilianne, Marion Cotillard as his faithful wife, Penelope Cruz as the voluptuous dim-witted mistress Carla, Sophia Loren as his Mamma only in memory, Kate Hudson as a composite character of American/European socialites parading around the set, and of course, the Duchess herself, Fergie as Guido’s first sexual conquest, a misunderstood monster of a whore Saraghina. Even though the film is adapted from a theater show and not directly a remake of the original Italian film, creating a compare/contrast profile chart of the character/actors gives us however, tiny of a clue, that Marshall is referring to both sources for his project rather than the musical itself (look at the exact hair styles!) and hopefully unlike its dour box office cousin, The Producers, another film-to-musical-to-film inbred, Nine should absorb or borrow the exuberant energy that made 8 1/2 a sensational box-office draw of its time, a classic in the kooky genre of films about films, transforming the behind-the-scenes of the production process into an exquisite confrontation between fantasy and memory, the tempting desire to let go and the stubborn will to create meaning.

Sophia Loren on the set of 8 1/2.  Fellini and Marcello by her side.

Sophia Loren on the set of 8 1/2. Fellini and Marcello by her side.

As the reigning discourse around the word, “adaptation” brings to mind, the embarrassing accusations that the “film” didn’t do this or that justice to the “book,” or what I think is inevitably an impossible endeavor, one could distill the situations or more crucially, the sensual essence of the source, while taking liberties with how an actor will improvise spontaneously with words and gestures, or how a whole scene could be shot from a perspective that goes beyond what the book can imagine. Upon digging through the photo archives of 8 1/2, who could have known that Sophia Loren, visiting the set of the original film, would star in its redo’s remake. If originality is inherent in the original, could originality be transferable to a copy, cutting its ties to the original, plain and simple? I find it better to move away from the iron curtain of fidelity and towards a more conducive discussion around intertextuality. Excuse my academic jargon, but the term means what it says, suggesting the play of allusions and references that one cultural object refers to another. Rather than speaking in ad finitum about a singular piece, the plenitude of experiences between texts bring us closer to dissecting changing attitudes about times present and past, and how subjective interpretations are being filtered as objective criticism. If professional and amateur critics like to spin personal anecdotes only for the sake of attention, followed by defending their preferences through external standards of good taste, than for better or worse, in the probing spirit of 8 1/2, to think about the trivial and profound relations from one book to another, from one film to another, would surrender the human ego to the witness stand as its own judge and prosecutor…the artist have already sold his soul to the devil, it’s a matter of how long he can keep it.

Britney’s “I’ll just wiggle around the playpen” routine, listen for the beginning: