Category Archives: Essays

What in the World Am I Studying at NYU?

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on May 14, 2013.

Throughout the past couple years, many of you have wondered what in the world I’m actually studying at NYU. This is a very good question, and not one easily answered. In the Gallatin School of Individualized Study I have flexibility to form my own major and over the past two years I’ve been developing my area of specific interest, my “concentration,” as it’s formally called.

Since I am almost halfway done with college (*cue profuse sweating*), I was required to write a short “Intellectual Autobiography and Plan For Concentration” that describes

how I acquired my interests and the future trajectory of my education. It’s a bit formal and stuffy, so if you don’t want to read it I totally understand. But I figured that some of you may find this helpful, and if it cuts down the amount of time I have to spend explaining my schooling to people by even a smudge, then that’s all the better in my book (not that I MIND talking about it… it just requires a fair amount of explanation. Frequently).

Feel free to ask questions. No question is too stupid. My responses might be stupid, though, especially related to my eventual career… but oh well. I’ll try.
So without further ado:

On My Expected Concentration: Cinematic Philosophy

I chose to apply for the Gallatin School after working as a youth camp videographer durin

g high school. Although I dreamt of going to film school since I was young, filming and editing footage in familiar patterns for months on end made me realize that working as a sole cog in the film industry wouldn’t be ultimately satisfying. I was (and am) enamored by broad conceptual investigations into the world of cinema, but apathetic toward the glut of technical minutiae that film school would inevitably require me to master. Call it teenage narcissism if you must, but I preferred to be the experimental captain venturing into unknown waters than the dutiful shipmate keeping the ship on course.

Fortunately, Gallatin prides itself in institutionalizing this sort of “narcissism”––or cross-disciplinal academic curiosity, as I’d prefer to call it­­––and my academic trajectory at NYU has been equally invigorating and diverse. However, my concentration initially sprung out of my First Year Interdisciplinary Seminar, “The Social Construction of Reality.” We began by reading Plato’s “Simile of the Cave,” an allegory that appeared shockingly comparable to a cinematic experience. [Side Note: If you don’t know what this is, here’s a great cartoon of Orson Welles reading it. It’s really worth a watch.] If we replace the fire in the cave with an electric light bulb, the shadowy figures cast on the wall with the projection of chemically developed film (or perhaps digital pixels, but let’s not go there), and the voices that prisoners (cinema watchers) hear with an electronic soundtrack, it seems like Plato was referring to a traditional movie theater.

To my delight, I found my intuition rearticulated a couple weeks later when I read an article for “American Cinema: Origin to 1960s” in which Maxim Gorky responded to his experience at the Lumiere Cinematograph by invoking Plato. He claimed that the images on the screen portrayed “not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its… spectre… It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned… unto eternity.”[1] Of course, the significant difference between cinematic experiences and Plato’s analogy is that, in Plato’s conception, the philosopher who escapes the cave “would congratulate himself on his good fortune and be very sorry for [the other prisoners],” whereas people continually return to the cave of the movie theater.[2]

This realization planted the seed that burgeoned into my expected concentration: “Cinematic Philosophy.” Since philosophy is dedicated to rationally investigating the fundamental nature of reality, it is hard to deny that cinema is an essential aspect of modern life. It is not a “shadow” that an educated philosopher must turn from, but a physical, aesthetic entity with its own ontological structure—one that unsettled Gorky and probably would have unsettled Plato as well. And just like the shadows in Plato’s cave, cinema typically lies at the curious juncture of simulation and reality, sensory experience and worldview articulation through narrative.

However, it is important that I avoid overgeneralization in this short essay for several reasons. First, most of the cinema studies classes I’ve taken tend to emphasize historicity more than theory, an exception being Gregory Zinman’s “American Cinema: 1960s to Present,” a class that investigated issues of representation, realism, formalism, and cinematic time. Secondly, I have only just begun my journey in actual philosophy classes, although I can already tell that aesthetics, phenomenology, cognition and metaphysics will greatly inform my concentration. Thirdly, it seems that the intersection of philosophy and film already has its fair share of problematic overgeneralizations. One prominent area is what David Bordwell (pejoratively?) refers to as “Grand Theory,” a number of politically galvanized theories from the 1970s that can “function like the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live: equipped with some French or German proper names and fashionable buzzwords, graduate students are given the power to see through cultural objects for the concealed messages underneath.”[3]Richard Allen and Murray Smith also note that many philosophically informed theories from this time period, greatly influenced by the Continental tradition, tend to be dogmatic, uncritically pluralistic, and vague in their argumentation.[4]Therefore, while I intend to wade into Grand Theory, I want to skew my education toward the tradition of analytic philosophy and cognitive theory in order to aim for precise, approachable arguments and broad application.

 I ultimately desire this sort of lucid precision because cinematic philosophy can no longer remain an esoteric interest among academics. From the recent documentary Side By Side(Kenneally, 2012), to speculative articles (“Are Animated Gifs a Type Of Cinema?”[5]), to Stephen’s Soderbergh’s recent public address that has taken the internet by storm (“Cinema is a specificity of vision… as unique as a signature or fingerprint,” he adamantly claimed[6]), the world is scrambling to determine what the substance of cinema actually is. Now that moving images are democratized and culturally ubiquitous, it is more important than ever to understand what cinema signifies––what it should be, shouldn’t be, and can’t be. Although philosophers never achieve unified agreement, I would be thrilled if I am able to grasp onto some nuanced ontological perspectives that avoid the trappings of naïve metanarratives or uncritical pluralism by the end of my study in Gallatin. As our world is saturated with moving images and cinematic representations that are continually gaining influence, ignoring their philosophical implications would leave us voluntarily chained to Plato’s cave, unwilling to truly examine the projected shadows of cinematic representation that dominate reality.

[2] Plato,and John Ferguson. Plato: Republic. London: Methuen, 1957. Print.

[3] Baumbach,Nico. “All That Heaven Allows.” Film Comment Mar. 2012: 49.Web. 25 Apr. 2013

[4] Allen,Richard, and Murray Smith. “Introduction.” Film Theory and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. 2-3. Print.

The Transcendence of the Unintentionally Absurd

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on February 18, 2013.

Due to several requests, I meant to post this final essay for my “Writing About Film” class a couple months ago. Please forgive my tardiness. Some of the subject matter in this essay is a bit pasé now, but that’s not necissarily a bad thing. As Chuck Klosterman points out, “temporality is part of the truth.” The passage of time can (hopefully) help sharpen an arguement about the ephemeral half-lives of pop culture commodities. Now, without further ado, let’s get a little ridiculous.

 

Nicole Westbrook, a 12-year-old brunette, sits on the edge of her bed and sensually thrusts her shoulders back and forth. Her eyes are glazed over and she’s smiling in slow motion, staring longingly into the distance. As the Lynchian steadicam floats aimlessly in space, her autotuned voice softly croons: “I’m wide awake and I should take a step and say thank you, thank you.” A hypnotic slow-mo sequence shows her preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal by herself (she cooks, among other dishes, an immaculate butterball turkey) as she explains in song: “It’s Thanksgiving, we we we we’re gonna have a good time. With the turkey, ay! Mashed potatoes, ay!”

A variety of other pre-teens show up at her front door, smiling vacantly with their own immaculately prepared plates, holding delectable barbequed ribs and canned cranberry sauce. The last person to arrive is a muscular, tattooed, goateed, middle-aged black man sporting a sequined turkey outfit and a broad, mechanical smile. He skips into the house and sits down at the table with the group of kids. As they hold hands to pray Westbrook begins to rap, much to her company’s collective shock: “Yo it’s thankgiving givin’ and I’m tryin’ to be forgivin’. Nothin’ is forbidden, you know we gotta have…. Can’t be hateful, gotta be grateful, mashed potatoes on my table. I got ribs smellin’ up my neightbors cribs.” As her friends eat and jive at the table, Westbrook stands and sings the chorus again into a turkey-leg-substitution for a wireless microphone. The steadicam continues to swing left and right while pushing toward and pulling back from Westbrook with hypnotic ease.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” the newest viral “hit” from independent music producer (and turkeyfied muscleman) Patrice Wilson, has twelve million YouTube hits and nearly universal disdain. Wilson, commonly accused of poisoning the ears of millions through exploiting wealthy, fame-hungry families, is also the producer of Rebecca Black’s infamously despised music video, “Friday.” That beauty was the most-viewed YouTube video of 2011, worldwide.[1]

If these music videos are “terrible,” why do they become enormous hits? There are a number of potential answers to this question. One theory is that people are masochistically fascinated with things they find absurdly disgusting. This fascination has fueled the enduring popularity of “B Pictures” and cheap exploitation flicks, John Waters films, Jackass, and newer TLC stunts like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hoarding, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and Toddlers In Tiaras. This masochism is often associated with feelings of self-congratulatory irony, superiority, and an implicit desire to reinforce dominant cultural tastes.[2] If we can keep talking about how terrible “It’s Thanksgiving” and “Friday” are, we can reinforce our opinion that bands like Radiohead and Beach House are “amazing.”

I think there is a lot of truth to this argument. When “Friday” and “It’s Thanksgiving” were released, my friends and family watched the videos slack-jawed, laughed, called them atrocious, and moved on with their lives. Feelings of irony and superiority are fleeting, ego-boosting pleasures. “Friday,” once an international phenomenon and the butt of many Late Night jokes (Jimmy Fallon’s rendition with The Roots and Taylor Hicks is a particular standout), has been nearly lost in cyberspace, trashed alongside other mockery-worthy scraps of digital debris (When was the last time you heard someone mention the once-so-hilarious “Numa Numa” or “Star Wars Kid” videos?). As I ‘close-read’ “It’s Thanksgiving” while writing my opening paragraphs only three weeks after it’s original release, both of my roommates ran out of my room and slammed the door behind them in disgust. They had their laugh when they first saw it; the fun was over.

However, for some reason, I don’t get tired or infuriated with either video. They give me a sense of joy that is undeniable and lasting. When I tell people about “It’s Thanksgiving” in particular, I get the same rush of excitement I feel when talking about Mulholland Drive. I’m sure I feel superior to the video in some sense––it’s not like I’m able to feel a genuine sense of thankfulness for anything except It’s Thanksgiving’s existence while watching it––but the video gives me a glorious vision of film unbound from narrative conventions and the self-seriousness of modern cinema. Why are these pre-teenagers preparing and celebrating Thanksgiving (and every holiday, I must add—I skipped over those equally brilliant holiday montages in my opening) by themselves? Is Nicole Westbrook some sort of orphan who is able to afford an upper-middle class suburban home? How does she know how to cook elaborate dishes? Do her parents really leave her during every holiday? How did these kids get to her house (if this is the same world as “Friday,” it seems that all preteens drive illegally)? Is the frequent use of slow motion indicating that this is her hyper-realistic dream? Why does this middle aged black man celebrate with them? Is he some sort of pedophile or emotionally manipulative child-porn-producing pimp, the son of Jodie Foster’s pimp in Taxi Driver, perhaps?

The film gives us no answers to these questions (or at least, no answers within its bizzaro diegesis) and nor does it need any to be enjoyed. True to the spirit of surrealism, “It’s Thanksgiving” is the cinematic manifestation of the illogical subconscious. It creates a type of dream logic that pushes conventions until they pop, situating us in a realm where the rules of cause-and-effect have minimal sway. However, I believe that videos like “It’s Thanksgiving” accomplish something even more daring and invigorating than traditional surrealism because their absurdity is, as far as we can fairly interpret, unintentional.

That said, some of my favorite films are intentionally surreal works; intentional surrealism is often fascinating and evocative. The first film I ever saw that could be considered “surreal” is David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. It is a flawless work of tone and mood, a noir-tinged examination of two identity-shifting women (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, delivering raw, brilliant performances) in Hollywood who long for… something. As Roger Ebert puts it in his recent “Great Movies” review, “it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.”[3] The film is as captivating as it is elusive, a fearless examination of fantasy and desire.

A more recent piece of quality surrealism is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Unlike Mulholland Dr., everything in that film occurs according to temporal succession, but it captures a linear amalgamation of surreal events. Denis Lavant (giving a brilliant performance demonstrating his remarkable range) plays Mr. Oscar, a man who travels in a limousine to a variety of “appointments” where he plays a variety of roles in a variety of genres. By freely and fantastically playing with the purpose and scope these individual scenes, which are never given a logical purpose, Carax demonstrates how cinema can move you even as it admits its own artifice. You know that Mr. Oscar is acting in his many “appointments,” but the scenarios he acts in are full of tremendous power regardless. Even the final scene, where limousines in a garage talk about the inevitability of their eventual demise, is surprisingly moving. Yes, the limos are as artificial as Mr. Oscar’s performances, but Holy Motors demonstrates the many ways that meaning can manifest itself in absurd, artificial vessels.

However, if there were one critique worth giving intentionally surreal films like Holy Motors, it would be that they occasionally try a little too hard to remind you that they’re eschewing narrative conventions and being absurd. In Holy Motors we are consistently reminded that Oscar’s whole life is an act; even the film’s most bizarre situations break their fourth wall. Sometimes Holy Motors feels less like surrealism than a piece of metafiction contemplating surrealism. It’s like having a dream in which you are continually reminded that you are dreaming. This sort of problem is evident even in early surrealism. For example, Luis Buñel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 short Un Chien Andalou is a wonderful example of freeform dream logic––except for its overly formal intertitles. Throughout its loosely related sequences the film displays intertitles that are overbearingly absurd and have no relevance to the sequences presented. “Once upon a time,” the film starts, then “Eight Years Later,” then “Around Three in The Morning,” then “Sixteen Years Ago,” and finally “In Spring.” The dream logic of the film is continually interrupted by this formal mockery of narrative convention. With every intertitle you can almost hear Buñel and Dalí obnoxiously laugh at their own mischievousness, dully distracting us from the freeform dream they’re presenting. As Pauline Kael points out, “Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.”[4] Dalí and Buñel really want to eschew cinematic conventions? We get it. Over and over again, we get it.

This “relentless march” is the problem you inevitably face when you begin making intentionally surreal films. As you decide that you’re creating an absurd film, you immediately begin to make conscious decisions about how absurd your film should be. And the irony here is that the more conscious your filmmaking becomes, the less absurd it can be. When you try to consciously recreate the experience of the subconscious, you’re not actually opening yourself up your subconscious. You’re recounting an impression of the subconscious, sure, but it’s not the real deal. Trying to consciously recreate the subconscious is like trying to turn sand back into rocks; it’s too late. You can’t undo the transformation that’s taken place.[5]

This is why unintentional absurdity is so exciting. When “It’s Thanksgiving,” made to be a sweet and pointless cash grab, unintentionally turns into an brilliantly absurd short, we know that the video’s absurdity just happened somehow. A similar gem is “Johnny Football Song,” a YouTube video showing a cleavagey 50-something woman seduce the camera to a tinny karaoke track of 1963’s “Johnny Angel.” She rewrote the lyrics in honor of Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M quarterback and recent recipient of the Heisman Trophy. The mise-en-scène is framed by garish maroon Texas A&M attire. As she smiles sensuously, sways bizarrely, and sings her banal rewrite, the unintentional sexual provocation of the scene is completely unnerving. The top comments acknowledge this: “It’s like I’m watching an episode of Twin Peaks!” one top commenter says. “The surreal quality of the video is certainly entertaining,” says another. Yet the beauty of this video is that it doesn’t even know it’s like Twin Peaks. It simply is. “Johnny Football Song” reveals the subconscious liberated from narrative pressure and liberated from the pressure of intentional surrealism. The video attests to the fact that life itself is absurd, whether we know it or not.

Perhaps the best cinematic example of this type of unintentional absurdity exists in the 2001 cult classic The Room. The Room was produced by, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau, a greasy, wrinkly, black-haired European man who won’t reveal where he’s from or how he acquired five million dollars in order to finance the film. The entire production of The Room was fraught with difficulties. Actors dropped like flies and were haphazardly replaced. Simply making the script legible was a challenge. Wiseau had very little technical cinematic expertise and, unable to decide between the two formats, decided to shoot every scene on film and digital cameras strapped together. The ending result was a disaster, critically decimated. However, soon after its humdrum release The Room grew to have immensely popular midnight showings in Los Angeles and deemed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies.” By 2012, Wiseau is constantly touring with the film, attending Q&As at screenings around the world.

I have seen The Room multiple times, in and out of theaters, and it is one of my favorite films because it is so unintentionally absurd. Wiseau wanted to make a melodrama in the style of Tennessee Williams and James Dean, not a surreal film. It tells the “heart-wrenching” story of Johnny (played by Tommy Wiseau), perfectly kind and hopelessly devoted to his fiancé, Lisa. They are about to get married, but Lisa is unapologetically evil. She decides that Johnny’s “not enough” for her and seduces Johnny’s strong and beardy best friend, Mark. A surplus of excessive sex scenes and predictable drama ensue.

While the plot is laughably predictable, The Room is far from a conventional melodrama. Much of the film is extraordinarily bizarre. For example, its characters’ favorite hobby is throwing a football to each other from very short distances. In one remarkable scene a group of men in tuxedos decide to toss a football in the street and a minor character falls violently on the asphalt. We don’t see him get up. When the character appears again (at least, we must assume it’s the same character), another actor is playing his role. Lisa’s mother, Claudette (equally demonic), passively breaks the news that she has breast cancer to Lisa. Lisa’s reply is extraordinarily trite: “You’ll be fine, mom” she didactically says. The cancer is never brought up again.

It often looks as if Tommy is copulating with Lisa’s belly button. The same belly-button sex scene is shown twice. Characters inexplicably make chicken noises on more than one occasion.  All of the artwork in Johnny and Lisa’s apartment depicts spoons. Scenes go in and out of focus. Johnny and Lisa mix scotch and vodka; Tommy ends up drunk wearing a necktie like a headband. An unnerving kidult named Denny shows up from time to do nothing but creep on Lisa. Lines of dialogue dissolve into non-sequiturs; Johnny chuckles a deranged giggle at inappropriate moments. Unnecessary tracking shots of the Golden Gate Bridge break up scenes. Random characters show up to have sex in the apartment without purpose or exposition. This list could go on and on.[6]

These unintentionally absurd moments are what make The Room such an endearing experience. While it is almost impossible not to feel superior to the film’s poor writing and acting, if you want to ironically watch poor cinematic craft you don’t have to go further than Netflix. As Pauline Kael points out, “movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”[7] Cinematic trash is commonplace.

By contrast, The Room is so endearing because it manifests a surreal, artistic vitality that wasn’t even intended to exist. While audiences openly mock the film at midnight showings, they laugh with delight at its originality and uniqueness even more often. Kristen Bell told Entertainment Weekly: “There is a magic about that film that is indescribable.”[8] And she’s right. Through the structure of a poorly made melodrama, The Room demonstrates more daring and surreal ingenuity than most “serious” Hollywood films ever will. After seeing it in the theater for the first time, I realized––with a mix of shock and giddy delight––that Tommy Wiseau’s unintentional absurdity had given me a transcendent experience. Gasping and laughing and throwing plastic spoons at the screen and yelling zingers with my friends in the safety of the darkened theater, I felt an old rush: I felt like a silly kid “playing pretend” again. We weren’t superior to Wiseau. We weren’t mocking Wiseau. No, Wiseau was leading us on a rampant, random dance through the goofy wilderness of the human psyche. We were free.

The current zeitgeist insists that even the most lackluster film must treat itself like a “serious” artistic statement. This is partially Christopher Nolan’s fault for demonstrating that a Batman film could pull off taking itself seriously. Yet now every routine genre film must be treated like the important work of a great auteur. For example, the newest trailer for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel makes it look almost like a shot-for-shot remake of The Passion of the Christ. The film may be top-notch, sure. Or it may be pretentious and mediocre. Regardless, this impulse for seriousness generally smothers the impulse for surrealism and unintentional ridiculousness. This sort of seriousness takes an emotional toll on Mr. Oscar in Holy Motors and it takes a toll on us as well. It hammers a film’s rough, zany edges blunt and dull. Fortunately, due to the democratization of filmmaking technology, we still have amateurs and innocents willing to put their videos on YouTube and make independent films. There are still idealists willing to naively manifest the zaniness of the human subconscious on camera in order to giddily, surreally break down tropes and social norms without pretense, irony, or even intention.

Because of them, I’m wide awake. And I should take a step and say, “Thank you, thank you.”



[1] Since the video was taken offline for a period, its exact view count isn’t readily available. The “most viewed” title also excludes videos from major music labels. Source: http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-were-we-watching-this-year-lets.html

[2] One of the most recent, illuminating, and controversial incarnations of this point of view is explored in Christy Wampole’s New York Times opinion piece: “How To Live Without Irony” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/

[3] Ebert, Roger. “Mulholland Dr: Great Movies Review.” RogerEbert.com. N.p., 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121111/REVIEWS08/121119998>.

[4] Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Library of America, 2006. N. pag. 341. Print.

[5] As a caveat, I should note that some of my favorite intentionally surreal filmmakers do various exercises in an effort to harness purely subconscious energy. David Lynch, for example, is a longtime advocate of spirituality and transcendental meditation. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, use improvisational tactics in their comedic shorts. I am not a psychologist, but their work seems to demonstrate that these sorts of tactics can help harness subconscious energy to impressive (if varying) degrees, helping them skirt the trap I mention in this paragraph.

[6] Much has been written about the absurd elements of The Room. This piece at The AV Club is particularly good: http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-room,25723/

[7] Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Pg. 356.

[8] Collis, Clark. “The Crazy Cult of ‘The Room'” EW.com. Entertainment Weekly, 12 Dec. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20246031,00.html>.

Teaching Simulations, Provoking Reality

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on November 17, 2012

My most recent Writing About Film assignment was to write a “book review” of sorts. Specifically, the piece was supposed to be an essay loosely inspired by a book about film. Naturally, beacuse I’m a bonehead, I chose to write about a book chock full of difficult philosophy. While you may have to stick with me a bit on this one, I think this is a piece worth sharing simply because it’s about my plan of study at NYU. People ask me what I’m studying and I tell them that I’m in an individualized study program. They frown. I explain that I’m studying “The Philosophy and Psychology of Film.” They seem intrigued but don’t quite know what I’m talking about. To be honest, neither do I–– exactly. But this piece touches on some of the ideas that fascinate me, ideas that inspire me to get up for class in the morning, ideas that I sincerely believe manifest themselves and resonate in all of our lives. Ideas worth investing in.

Plus, you’ll get a taste of why I don’t like The Matrix and why I’m a sincere fan of Cloud Atlas. I think (particularly after more people see Cloud Atlas. Like you. Today.) my position will be unusual and unpopular. Come at me, bro.

With sincere apology to Slavoj Žižek for the numerous ways I’ve probably misrepresented his work, here we go:

One afternoon this past summer, as I was sitting on the porch of a mountain cabin with my father, we began to discuss postmodernism and the role of the academic “provocateur.” As an example of this sort of figure I referenced Slavoj Žižek, one of the philosophers I had to try to wrap my head around as a NYU Gallatin freshman.  My dad—Harvard educated, BA and PhD—half-listened to my muddled attempt to explain Žižek’s style before shrugging: “If someone wants to call himself a provocateur, I’d be more inclined to call him an asshole.”

Through this simple phrase he plainly articulated the tension that surrounds most postmodern philosophy. Is this sort of heady writing about reality, subjectivity, and deconstruction “profound” academic work or is it—to use a vulgar phrase—“academic masturbation”?

To be honest, I’m not sure. And I don’t think philosophers like Jean Baudrillard or Slavoj Žižek are sure either. But I do believe that if taken seriously, postmodernism is the academic equivalent of a waving white flag in surrender, not a having a self-satisfied jerkoff session. In fact, the term “academic provocation” implies skirting the edge of ideas bigger than us, poking something far vaster than the limits of our own consciousness. And, once we get past the head-trips, I think this sort of provocation leaves us somewhere surprising and exciting: it leaves us longing to engage with art and see the world anew.

Žižek’s provocation fills the pages of his 2002 book Welcome to The Desert of the Real! Its five essays form a broad tapestry of thoughts on how the bombardment of media simulations has made it impossible to conceive of reality unmediated by images.  Writing in the wake of 9/11, the destruction of the Twin Towers is his primary example of an important paradox: trying to evoke “`the Real’ [through fantastic violence]… culminates in its exact opposite, in a theatrical spectacle” (9). While the destruction of the towers was meant to shock Americans out of self-sustaining fantasy with the reality of painful violence, most watched the event as a simulation mediated through a television screen. It appeared to America like an extremely compelling disaster movie, horrible and amazing at the same time. The mediation of a machine, a television, turned a really horrible event into something virtual and cinematic.

So how do we experience unsimulated reality? Is there a way out? Žižek doesn’t know. The title of his book, and how he uses it, says as much. “Welcome to the desert of the real!” is a line by Morpheus in the Wachowskis’ 1999 hit, The Matrix, and a reference to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (which Neo uses to hide an illegal disk in the film). Morpheus says the line to Neo when showing him that the world he’s come to know, the prosperous world of the late 1990s, is actually a virtual illusion created by machines. The real world is a spectacular post-apocalyptic city.

Yet Žižek points out that this post-apocalyptic “reality” isn’t actually real at all; it appears to Neo and viewers as a theatrical spectacle. The scene itself is literally made with computer animation, mediated by a complex machine. To Žižek, this irony represents how there’s no conceivable way out of virtual reality. Even “The Desert of the Real” is a spectacular virtual conception.

Personally, I find Žižek’s critique of The Matrix only one example of what makes the film unsatisfactory. If the film is, as Žižek assumes, a prime example of postmodern media (the whole cast was required to read Simulacra and Simulation), it makes postmodernism look incredibly vapid and self-serious. The world inside The Matrix isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s tinted green a little bit and Neo doesn’t look very happy, but isn’t that Keanu Reeves on a good day? There’s no inclination that people can’t have meaningful relationships inside the world of the machines. Agent Smith even says that keeping people happy makes them act as better energy sources. People aren’t actually slaves or subservient in any obvious way. And outside of The Matrix clothes seem to be made of burlap and food sucks and everything sucks.

Only the concept of being duped for your entire life, the “twist” of being fooled, makes the premise of The Matrix interesting. It isn’t grounded in the reality of physical persecution or the actual denaturing of reality through mechanized images; it is an action film based solely in abstraction. When Neo dramatically tells the machines that: “I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible,” I thought: What is he talking about? He’s just going to show them a world without comfortable clothing. Machines don’t actually seem to denature much in The Matrix. The Wachowskis actually make virtual reality seem pretty damn awesome, especially if you’re “The One.”

People often say to me that I’m taking the ideas of an inventive action movie too seriously.  However, The Matrix takes its intellectual conceits very seriously and wants the viewer to take them equally seriously. Unlike Žižek’s writing, it doesn’t provoke; it knows everything and didactically tells you what it knows. If Žižek waves a white flag of surrender, The Wachowskis are masturbating in their own cleverness. Juxtaposing the Welcome to the Desert of the Real! with The Matrix shows interesting role reversal from the common norm: with Žižek’s work academia is pondering, in The Matrix “art” is teaching.

My weariness of the Wachowskis’ work helped me try to rein in my excitement about Cloud Atlas when I first saw it. But since it was adapted from a well-regarded literary source I was vaguely hopeful that maybe this time their intellectual cleverness wouldn’t overshadow the film’s emotional substance. Maybe this time they wouldn’t show off their complex philosophy only to underrepresent it. But I was a bit wary; in a film full of six story lines in six different times, would the human element be any stronger than it was in The Matrix?

I was happily surprised by how much I liked the Cloud Atlas; I have seen it twice now. While there was a fair amount of didacticism and philosophizing (including humble questions and varying perspectives, though!) filling its edges and its characters’ speeches, Cloud Atlas was most successful when did what The Matrix refused to do: it let its philosophy stay implicit.

Every film, even the most mind-numbing comedy, is implicitly philosophical. Every script and every decision in a film promotes a specific narrative worldview. If your protagonist is miserable until he begins to help others, a la Groundhog Day, then your film implies that helping others is the best thing you can do with your life. If doing good only ends up making you miserable, a la Chinatown, then your film implies a nihilistic worldview where nothing can give you lasting happiness. You don’t need Baudrillard, science fiction, and endless exposition in order to have a philosophically complex film.

Cloud Atlas has a philosophical conception of how the world functions, of the Darwinian “status quo” that transcends eras, of enslavement and resistance, of kindness and sacrifice rippling through time. But at its best moments it makes you come understand to these grandiose understandings yourself. You have to wrestle with the stories to make connections and see why they even belong in the same film. In fact, it is the narrative worldview that ties these otherwise unrelated stories together at all (beyond a few multi-storyline characters and surviving books). This is a heady process, but unlike The Matrix, there are human stakes involved this time. I found watching the film to be an exciting and engaging task, even more on my second viewing. Seeing the film is more like figuring out how you’re similar to your parents and your grandparents than figuring out why humans work as a good mechanical battery.

And at the film’s most pleasurable moments, juxtapositions between the six different storylines lend meaning and nuance to each other. There is a joy that comes from witnessing the same motif creatively applied to different genres. Within the span of a few minutes we see a Korean clone escape enslavement on a Tron-esque motorcycle in 2144, British senior citizens flee a Cuckoo’s Nest-inspired nursing home in 2012, and a tribal burlap-garbed Tom Hanks (again, the burlap!) run from a Hugh-Grant-cannibal in post-apocalyptic woodlands. Cross-cutting and parallel motivations lend pathos to all three storylines. This concept of meaning created by juxtaposing clips was coined the “Kuleshov Effect” in the 1920s (distinct and unrelated shots drew emotional reactions when assembled together cinematically, transcending their original diegetic purposes) and became the foundation of Soviet montage, but it has been largely ignored in conventional American narrative cinema. Cloud Atlas merges montage-tactics and narrative momentum at a level of formal complexity that is both daunting and thrilling. Unlike The Matrix, a film that forces the viewer to buy a premise based on meager intellectual conceits, Cloud Atlas allows viewers to find meaning within the madness and it has the formal intelligence to help them along the way. It provokes rather than preaches.

Finally, in very important ways, Cloud Atlas provides a possible answer to Žižek’s concern about media denaturing reality. In some ways the film is very postmodern, relying on familiar tropes thrown in a blender. It is pastiche upon pastiche. However, the juxtaposition of these stories, the merging of their themes, and the opportunities for an individual viewer to make connections takes full advantage of the cinema’s power to create meaning. It doesn’t simply turn physical reality into virtual reality. No, Cloud Atlas takes the elements of pop culture, the elements of pre-existing virtual realities, and puts them together to create new realities, to find new connections, to reshape the nature of individual “tropes” and “clichés.” If we can’t escape desert of virtual simulations we live in, the Wachowski’s newest film gives us hope that we can boldly innovate inside the system. We can challenge our narrative preconceptions, our minds and our worldviews. And there’s no theatrical effect to diminish that humble, exciting process. It’s unsimulated reality.

“The Shining:” Well, What About Hell?

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on October 31, 2012.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d share with you all my review of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, a film that I haven’t seen in its entirety before a couple weeks ago. Like the Fargo review, this was for my Writing About Film class. If you want to watch something truly scary on this fabled night…. well, the review speaks for itself. It isn’t exactly spoiler free, but spoilers aren’t the name of the game here. What I tell you will hardly reduce your experience watching the film. Enjoy.

  Well, What About Hell?

One morning, Stephen King stood in his bathroom hung over and shaving. His wife burst open the door, wide-eyed, and emphatically whispered: “Someone’s on the phone who says he’s Stanley Kubrick!” Stunned, King jabbed the razor into the side of his cheek and ran out of the bathroom. Blood dripping down his face, shaving cream still coving half of it, he gripped the phone and heard a gravelly Bronx accent exclaim: “Hi, Stanley Kubrick here. I actually think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?

“I don’t understand exactly what you mean by that, Mr. Kubrick.”

“Call me Stanley.”

“What do you mean by that, Stanley?”

“Well, supernatural fiction and ghost stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death. If we survive death, that’s optimistic.”

King retorted: “Well, what about Hell?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the telephone before a grim retort resounded with foreboding finality.

“I don’t believe in Hell.”

According to King, this is the only pre-production discussion he had with Kubrick about adapting his book The Shining into a film.

  *****

  The idea of Stanley Kubrick soberly denying the reality of Hell seems ironic and slightly absurd. For it seems that, in the pantheon of 20th century “auteurs,” Kubrick labored most relentlessly to immerse audiences in a Hell of his own creation. In particular, The Shiningdid leave me optimistic: optimistic that if someone didn’t believe in Hell before watching it, their mind would at least be full of hellish provocation by the end credits.

  The Shining is a surreal, expressionistic, and perversely evocative horror film. It situates its protagonist, Jack (Jack Nicholson), in his own personal hell before letting his narcissism trap his family there with him. From the first time we see his disheveled face, Jack bristles with an uneasy, nervous energy. And as the film progresses, Jack Torrance seems more and more like the demonic lovechild of Nicholson’s previous roles. Bobby Dupea famously asked a diner waitress to hold chicken between her knees. Mac McMurphy­ nearly goes crazy with rage while pretending to be crazy. But unlike these characters, Jack is not even initially portrayed as the story’s “everyman” or even a moral man; in his first scene, a job interview, he seems a little too confident that he’ll avoid cabin fever when taking care of the Overlook Hotel for the winter, a little too confident that his wife and son will like it, a little too confident that they’ll be unperturbed by the murderous tragedy that took place in The Overlook. In reference to the murders, he says: “You can rest assured, Mr. Ullman, that’s not gonna happen with me. And as far as my wife is concerned, I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.”

Who would talk in such a way about a real-life tragedy? Who would say, “My wife loves disaster films, so she’d love watching footage from 9-11”? Meta-jab aside, Kubrick is giving away the game from the beginning: Jack is self-absorbed and incapable of empathy. Nicholson’s nervous energy is enough to give it away and learning how he hurt Danny simply adds a concrete fact to what we have already felt. Yes, Nurse Ratched, this time he really is insane.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kubrick extends no more empathy or warmth to Jack’s sane wife Wendy (Shelly Duval). Duval makes for a homely and likeable mother, but she seems almost too likeable, too much like the hollow echo of an innocent Hollywood archetype. Danny asks: “Mom, do you really want to go and live in that hotel for the winter?” She responds like a peer on the playground: “Sure I do! It’ll be lots of fun.” Wandering around the Overlook on arrival, she gawks at it like a kid in a candy store. After her first couple days there, she giddily tells Jack, “It’s amazing how fast you get used to such a big place. I tell you, when we first came up here I thought it was kinda scary.” Wendy has naïve energy but she isn’t portrayed as a person with much depth or fortitude. When things get rough she is very good at being terrified (her wide eyes do more acting than anyone except Nicholson), but Kubrick gives her character little textured zeal. She’s eighty-percent vulnerability, twenty-percent tepid resilience.

The sheer contrast between Jack and Wendy is obviously intentional; they mix like oil and water. Even before things get violent, the couple embodies the disintegration of the nuclear family in a way that is as scary and unbearably empty as the Overlook Hotel in winter. However, Kubrick’s nearly satirical portrayal of this family seriously hinders the rest of his film. Part of the masochistic pleasure of horror is seeing good things perverted: young people dying, good people in pain, sane people turned insane, innocent children turned bitter and evil. Yet Kubrick never gives his leads, even the young boy Danny, enough pathos for us to be horrified by their demise. We see them disintegrate, but we never saw them integrated to begin with; we see the tail end of a long train wreck without witnessing the train smoothly traveling down the tracks. This may be an attempt at realism on Kubrick’s part (after all, real families don’t typically go from loving each other to killing each other in the span of two and a half hours), but it makes the rest of his film seem more like a formal experiment than an emotionally-grounded story of tragic psychological corrosion. Kubrick seems too cold a director for that type of emotional investment.

This is not to say that Nicholson’s performance isn’t consistently entertaining; Kubrick wastes no time in giving Nicholson a stage to perform on. And Nicholson takes the stage like a skilled jazz musician giving a virtuoso solo performance; his face lurches and twitches with improvisational ease, with unpredictable moods and mounting tension that build into the film’s spectacularly famous climax (One of his best deliveries, often overshadowed by the “Here’s Johnny!” zinger, takes place when he’s confronting Wendy on the stairs: “Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just gonna bash your brains in!”). Is Nicholson a little too over the top to give Jack’s presence much weight? Yes, probably. But his beardy, beady-eyed, white toothed, grimacing mug deserves its place on the film’s poster and in our collective conscience simply for its menacing excess.

In a larger sense, Nicholson’s performance is the prime part of a yin-and-yang dynamic common to the best auteur filmmaking, fusing disparate elements: total directorial control and unpredictable, improvisational acting. During The Shining, you never feel like you’re out of Kubrick’s obsessive, calm direction, but Nicholson fills the frame with a manic unpredictability. The synthesis of elements makes you feel like you’re watching a perfectly practiced balancing act. Nicholson gives life to his own personal hell and Kubrick shows us what that hell looks like.

And what a hell Kubrick wants to show us! In cinematic form, psychological horror should be incredibly expressionistic. Cinema has immense power to turn internal fears into external realities and suppressed nightmares into perceptual truths. And in the hands of a good director like Murnau, Hitchcock, or Aronofsky, horror films can vividly realize our deepest anxieties.

The Shining pushed expressionistic horror to a level of nightmarish resonance unsurpassed to this day (except, arguably, in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive). The garish Overlook Hotel set is so large and paradoxical in its purpose that it is consistently uncomfortable for the viewer. It externalizes the hollow, empty nature of the family’s relationship, the vast chasms between them, while simultaneously trapping them together in unbearable emptiness. The dissonance builds when Jack refuses to let Wendy into his writing room while he’s working—a room made to accommodate hundreds of hotel guests. Yet at the same time, wide-angle shots of Danny riding his bicycle down the skinny halls or running in the narrow hedge maze create a sense of distorted claustrophobia, expressing his increasing terror his family gets sucked into supernatural violence.

Some of film’s best scenes are its most hypnotic and show Jack’s fantasies come to vivid, surreal life. Room 237, the shape-shifting epicenter of Jack’s perverse fantasy, is beautifully constructed. It contrasts strikingly with the rest of the hotel, purple furniture and green walls giving it a 70s feel that undoubtedly places us in Jack’s self-imagined pornographic film. Its imaginative set design is as vivid as the slow-motion pool of blood seeping out of the elevator. Equally stunning is the modern, all-red bathroom where Jack decides to kill his wife and son.

Less impressive to a modern filmgoer are the more conventional movie scares: the skeletons and cobwebs in the lobby, the ghosts and bleeding figures that randomly appear. A modern day horror trailer has more affective jump-cuts than Kubrick uses in this film, and these innocuous figures undermine the plot when they begin to scare Wendy as well as Danny. They make Danny’s “shining” seem more like a plot device and his imaginary friend Tony seem more like a foreshadowing tool than a fully realized story element. In fact, the hotel’s residents are only sparsely and lamely picked up from Stephen King’s original novel in which they have far more purpose and resonance. In Kubrick’s hands, at the very least, they do add to the film’s sense of unpredictable surrealism. The Shining deftly defies logical analysis and structural cohesion. It’s not about what happens or why it happens but how it makes you feel.

For the long-standing achievement of The Shining is not its dramatic twists (“All work and no play” revelation aside) or its literal scares. No, The Shining is a masterpiece of conjuredatmosphere. Its vivid, surreal, perversely beautiful style stays firmly lodged in the mind. Its hissing, forebodingly experimental soundtrack and its cries of moaning winter wind may literally make you squirm in your seat. And while you may not feel for its characters, The Shining will trap you in a miserable hotel for over two hours and slowly, seductively dig its way into your mind.

There’s no Hell, Stanley?

Well, I’ve seen The Shining and I politely disagree. You’ve taken me there.