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Images, Experience Absorbers and Self-Definers

A Comparative Exploration of The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers

 

I.

I’m not exactly sure what a chance encounter between the young female protagonists of Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring would look like, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be a positive one.

Upon first glance (or first draft of a comparative essay) a total disassociation with conservative ethics would seem to link both groups together effortlessly––more than one person has told me: “I think The Bling Ring is like a better version of Spring Breakers”––yet I think that the respective cliques would stare at each other with catty wariness and quickly masked embarrassment. Like funhouse mirror reflections, they would find their doubles too similar to ignore yet too distasteful to embrace. This is because, like communism and fascism, their functional similarities stem from vastly different ideological aims. Together, they provide a multifaceted portrait of millennial hedonism.

To some, engaging in close analysis of these two groups may seem akin toexploring the motivational differences between serial killers and serial rapists; a taxonomy of evil cannot resolve the problem of evil. It can even create undo fascination with evil. Acknowledging this possibility, I hope that this essay can help illuminate how these sorts of individuals actually exist (in reality, of course, embodying complexity and contradiction that no overarching theoretical structure can provide) and what truths can be gleaned through their cinematic manifestations.

 II.

Prada 2The Bling Ring is about people who no longer wish to be multidimensional people. The Bling Ring is about people who wish to become images. They shun internal complexity as if they don’t even know of its existence. This is most perceptively embodied by Katie Chang’s Rebecca, who leads her gang of upper-middle class deviants on their destructive romp through Celebrityville, L.A. Although she leads the criminal charge, Rebecca embodies the dull passivity of an observer, assuming the countenance of a sullen supermodel with high cheek bones and skinny wrists who stares out from her Times Square poster with a vacuous expression of existential detachment, made complete by the wonders of makeup and Photoshop (©!). These sorts of models aren’t allowed the luxury of an interior life or personal characteristics; they are defined by the objects they wear. As their dully pigmented skin is poignantly contrasted the vibrancy of their advertised clothes (or bags, or whatever), they become materiality incarnate.

The Bling Ring 1Rebecca has no qualms relating her future to others: she will go to the Fashion Institute of Design (The Hills girls went there), she will intern at Teen Vogue, she will have her own line, and fragrance, and host a show… She will become an image. And with her blasé, clippy-meets-monotonous tone, even under pressure, she’s already doing the hard work necessary to become irreducibly external. Cheerfully joining in the devolution that early sociologist George Simmel called “the hypertrophy of objective culture,” Rebecca gladly sacrifices internal nuance for varied external outfits. While she picks and choses articles from celebrity homes with fastidious focus, she grabs works of art with disinterest. An image doesn’t see. It doesn’t have the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. It merely appears.

One could also mention that Rebecca is unwittingly situating herself within the oft-mentioned discourse of Warholian nihilism. Warhol famously said: “I want to be a machine” because “machines have less problems,” embracing the dehumanization available through image replication. If one were to take Warhol at his word (something that any true student of Warholian irony will tell you is perhaps a naïve idea), Warhol embraces the process of increased externalization and shallow replication.

Rebecca MirrorRebecca’s climax occurs when she stares into Lindsay Lohan’s mirror, illuminated by the soft, seductive light of a fashion shoot, slowly spraying herself with Lindsay’s perfume. Decontextualized, the shot seems straight out of a Dior ad. Rebecca has become the image that she desires; she is like Lohan without any of Lohan’s internal particularities (including her acting capacity). As Rosalind Krauss notes in her essay on the reflective quality of 1970s video art, pure reflection creates a narcissistic feeling of “self-encapsulation,” “spatial closure,” and “the presentation of a self understood to have no past and…  no connection to any objects that are external to it.” Krauss would say that at this moment of ecstasy, Rebecca is having “intercourse with her own [mirrored] image.”

By appropriating the dreamy glow of fashion photography, The Bling Ring’s cinematographer, the late Harris Savides, indulges the gang in their sensual ambitions. This sort of cinematography cannot be properly labeled expressionistic—externalizing the emotions of the characters photographed––because there is so little internal expression to be conveyed. The aesthetic is all surface gloss, the diffused orangey warmth of Southern California days and the gauzy simmer of LA nights, and we get the sense that The Bling Ring wouldn’t have it any other way. They want to be reduced to images that are equally seductive and empty and Sophia Coppola has no qualms humoring them with deadpan interest.

Coppola’s cinematographic technique doesn’t grab you with the pell-mell assertion of Martin Scorsese or the poetic juxtaposition of Terrence Malick. That would be all too human. No, Coppola watches these girls the way they watch themselves. Conveniently absent is her inclusion of over-the-shoulder shots, the bread and butter of cinematic two-way conversation, signifiers of engagement and interpersonal connection.

Alone Together

She usually sticks to off-center wide shots and slowly gliding medium shots, situating the teenagers in tableau-like scenes where they stand (or sit, or steal) alone together.In a central club scene, the camera glides from left to right as they lounge at a booth. They take selfies, laugh, text, look out, and take more selfies, but they never turn a full ninety degrees and engage with each other. Images can’t interact with other images… they can merely sit and enjoy their lonely existence, whether juxtaposed on the same leather couch or in a Facebook (©!) photo album.

Perhaps the most brilliant tableau occurs as Max Nelson describes in his critical roundup for Film Comment: “one gang member’s family [is] preparing breakfast smoothies in a spotless, gleaming kitchen, with a pair of snow-white corgis under one chair and a maid at work in the corner, as the LAPD’s incoming sirens get louder and louder.” As every character minds his or her own separate affairs within this wide space, even their dogs decry a sense of intimacy, barking shrilly before being quickly derided by their fruit-chopping owner.

The Bling Ring is less about a sense of longing than a sense of banal entitlement, spawning from an upper-middle class Southern California milieu that I know quite well (go Irvine!?). An image doesn’t long, it merely is. Rebecca knows this. When her compatriots voice the sort of cliché tension-baring signifiers that they’ve probably learned from movies: “I don’t know about this,” “Are you sure we should do this?” “Let’s fucking leave,” ect., Rebecca knows better, deriding their humanity with a sense of weary frustration and without any hint of true anger. Images don’t get angry.

Images also don’t take drugs or drink alcohol for reasons of heightened experience. The first line we hear from Nicki’s Mother: “Girls, time for your Adderall!” quickly zeroes in on the sorts of drugs the girls will prioritize: drugs that sedate existence, that numb experience, that turn (in a hypnotically frightening instance) a gun into a mere plaything. Marijuana, Adderall, Vicodin. Sure, these girls take cocaine and all of the typical drugs that are essential to the image they desire, but these are comparably rare occurrences.

The Bling Ring’s eventual punch stems from the fact that the gang succeeds in becoming widely popularized images. The final shot of Emma Watson’s Nicki taking control of her television interview, staring at the camera from the center of the frame, instructing the viewers to check out her story online, is a nearly Brechtian move by Coppola. This fourth-wall breaking indicates that, yes, the gang was quite successful indeed. They are now part of the simulacrum, staring at you in your theater seat through the filter of pretty actors, immortalized in a big budget Hollywood film, alone on the screen. We learn that Nicki shared a prison cell with Linday Lohan. In a society dominated by the hypertrophy of objective culture, they are both commodified images, merely separated by different screens and gossip reports.

The KissI was most vividly reminded of The Bling Ring while encountering Klimt’s “The Kiss” and “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. Pictorial replications of these works don’t do them justice; these renderings equally emphasize the skin of the subjects and the material embellishments on them and surrounding them. The actual paintings appear quite differently. The subjects’ skin appears ghastly, grey, soft and hardly visible, while the embellishments glitter with the sharp gleam that only gold foil can provide. In “The Kiss,” the actual loving act seems rudimentary, even banal, whereas the square and circular patterns engage in vivid material intercourse.

Judith

In “Judith,” the Biblical subject appears at once in ecstasy yet nevertheless choked by her vivid neckpiece, crowded out and claustrophobically consumed by the gold surrounding her. Before the technological advances and democratization of “art” that allowed Warhol to play with individuals-turned-images, Klimt portrays individuals defined by externality, submerged in aesthetic vibrancy. None of these figures are Napoleon in David’s “Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass,” also in the Belvedere, a work that gives an “in vitro” royal heritage to a ruler by plunging him into a historical narrative through weighty associative symbolism.

No, these are individuals in the process of losing their very humanity to the objects on them and surrounding them. They are aestheticized unto corpselike decay, appearing like ghastly specters limply hanging on walls before us.

They are Rebecca and her Bling Ring.

 III.

American PopsicleThe opening credits of The Bling Ring slice and dice designer items in a still-life montage, informing us that external objectivity will be Copolla’s focal point as well as and her characters’ respective objet petit a (although maybe more attainable than Lacan would have us believe). Spring Breakers, by contrast, immediately propels us into a world of hypnotic, perpetual motion. There is a perverse aesthetic beauty to its hedonistic, misogynist beach partiers as they relish in beer poured down quavering, topless chests, liquor ejaculated into open mouths, Skrillex keeping the party pumping with the entrancing distortion of dubstep electronica. The sublime Florida sun still graces these gyrating bodies and the cool salt-water still licks their spray-tanned skin. But, as evidenced by a hilariously spot-on shot of girls sucking phallic red-white-and-blue popsicles, Harmony Korine’s American materialism is not primarily one of external display and internal decay, but one of orgasmic consumption, a rabid internalization of the external world. These girls want to become “experience incarnate,” continually absorbing and receiving with carefree, gluttonous abandon. They don’t consume to become internally bankrupt; they consume to become internally filled.

While this point is crucial, it can be countered by their exhibitionist tendencies and the voyeuristic nature of Korine’s camera. Isn’t exhibitionism the desire to immortalize the external? What is the true difference between a girl who shows off her Prada bag and a girl who shows off her… um… generous genetic endowment of upper-chest region?

This is a good observation, but easy amended when one notes how lucidly Korine situates these girls within a broader desire-fueled narrative. For them, engaging in this sort of exhibitionism is only part of their self-fulfillment process, only a means to a deeper end.[1] “Misogyny” and “exhibitionism” aren’t even words in their relative vocabulary. One could draw a connection to the old acting-lesson story of a man running from a bear up a tree. On first glance, one would assume that the man is thinking: “I have to get away from this bear!” But what is the man actually thinking? “I have to figure out how to climb this tree!” We are always thinking forward toward our ultimate goals and deepest desires.

MoneyAnd what are their deepest desires? They desire a life defined by absorptive experiences. Consider, for example, an early scene after they’ve stolen piles of cash. They push it into their chests, lay on it, bathe in it, one of them saying (and I apologize for the crudeness here, but it can’t be helped on my end) “This money is making my pussy wet.” For them, money doesn’t simply exist to be admired. It is immediately associated with the language of sexual consumption. The girls aren’t thinking: “How physically vulgar can I be?” They’re thinking: “How can I feel pleasure and physicality, intimacy and community?”

Spring Breakers KissThis defines their narrative trajectory. The drugs, the partying, the sex, and the eventual violence are all about experiences shared. In this way, their spring break is the hedonistic equivalent of a religious revival in which a large group of people gather to “take in” the spirit. The sense of absorbing the external, the transcendent, is a firmly religious idea. Korine explicitly sets up this connection with Faith, the Christian character, who is loyal to her youth group yet drawn into––and eventually repulsed by––this orgy of hedonism. During the film she says to her grandmother: “This place is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” And Korine’s hallucinatory, sublime camerawork does little to convince us otherwise. It seems far easier to take in booze, drugs, sex, and violence than The Holy Spirit, after all. The sense of physical immediacy and interpersonal presence Faith witnesses is as undeniable as it is assaultive.

The film’s later half allows the girls an opportunity to apply their learned hedonism in an environment where it was previously lacking. This is with Alien, James Franco’s now infamous white rapper and drug dealer. Growing up on the street, Alien has not had an easy life; he hasn’t had the financial recourses to “take it all in” like our girls. But he also finds himself more like The Bling Ring protagonists because he gets his sense of self-worth from his material possessions. He is on the stage during the Spring Break brouhaha, separate from the intimate crowd. While his exuberant show during the infamous “Look at my shit!” scene lacks Rebecca’s nihilistic poise (it is particularly hilarious to imagine the two of them interacting), it nevertheless demonstrates his desire to be defined by possessions that can be looked at. One could almost imagine Rebecca watching his enthusiastic display with detached amusement, smiling drolly, zoning in and out as she glances down at her iPhone.

Alien GunTherefore, a key scene in Spring Breakers occurs when the girls grab Alien’s gun and force it in his mouth, mimicking oral sex. This scene demonstrates the beginning of Alien’s transformation. Suddenly, his material possessions are not merely things to be looked at. They become things to interact with, to absorb, to pleasurably (if ridiculously) internalize. When he claims that these girls are “his soul mates,” he is obviously reveling in a level of connection and personal absorption (made disgustingly literal during a late swimming pool scene) previously unknown.

This emphasis on kinetic interaction and felt experience is vividly communicated through Benoit Debie’s hypnotic cinematography and Douglas Crise’s brilliant editing. The camera swings along, pushing here and pulling there, immersing the audience in a sea of color and stylistic excess. The editing feels, as many have pointed out, like a Terrence Malick movie. Just like his films, juxtapositions create a sense of life, motion, and an intensity of feeling. The camera is so enthusiastic to show all that is around, to immerse you in the world, that it takes your breath away with a peculiar mixture of delight and disgust. In a sense, Spring Breakers could be seen as the perversion of a Malick film. In one of my favorite explanations in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains how badness is merely perverted goodness. He points to the things that the girls in Spring Breakers most desire:

“Pleasure, money, power, and safety are all… good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much…. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”

Despite the fact that Malick explores this perversion himself, his camera is far more insistent on capturing goodness as “itself” than Korine, who is far more interested in its perversion. The sunset, the beach, and the natural world––all things that Malick would see as fundamental to his telling of this story––seem more incidental to Korine’s mise-en-scene. He shares Malik’s predilection for color juxtaposition, but his interests stay firmly attached to neon yellows, pinks, greens, and blues… all manmade amendments (some may say perversions) of natural color schemes. Korine bravely explores this perverted beauty and pleasure in a way that creates a sympathetic link with the shallowest of characters, yet, simultaneously, leads us to yearn for them to find pleasure, money, power, and safety through lifestyles that don’t––as we vividly witness––lead to eventual death, destruction, and internal desolation.

 IV.

Neither The Bling Ring nor Spring Breakers end in particularly happy places. As Emma Watson stares at the camera, we understand that the film concludes just as the process of simulacra is starting to escalate (and, at the same time, we are reminded how it has already escalated in the real world). She is already well on her way to becoming an image.

As Spring Breakers ends, our two remaining girls suggest vague longings to change their lifestyle. But these desires, even though they occur via voiceover (a commonly “all-revealing” level of diegetic discourse, molded into ambiguity with Korine’s light touch), are dubious because they occur in telephone conversations with their ignorant parents. Have these two been radically shocked by the violence that escalated as their reckless hedonism increased? Have they realized the emptiness of their experience? Have they grown, changed, or learned at all? Maybe. But they also––in a scene that also bares dubious veracity––violently destroyed all of their enemies. “Just pretend like it’s a videogame,” one of them says as they rob a restaurant near the film’s beginning. In the end, they seem to act inside a literal shoot-em-up videogame. And what is a videogame but an endless machine of continuous experience? Videogame characters don’t stop and think; they act. Violently, jerkily, instinctually, they act. Players absorb without any negative repercussions. Not unlike Watson, these girls seem to have accomplished their goals. We have no idea what they are going to do next.

Thus, the film artists turn to us. As these characters roll over into imaginary story-world-futures, they bleed off of the screen and into our collective conscience. We must either grapple with these unresolved conflicts in own lives or dismiss the films as mediocre (many have done so). Copolla and Korine have too much integrity to give us oversimplified solutions, but they’re too artistically provocative to let us off the hook. We cannot simply stare at these girls as they would stare at each other, with a mixture of catty repulsion and hidden embarrassment.

After all, the problems they present are relevant, postmodern problems. To an extent, both narratives explore the existential solution proposed by Sartre in “Existentialism as Humanism.” As an atheist, Sartre believes that existence precedes essence, and, therefore, “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is.” These girls, with their attempts to become images and experience absorbers, champion Sartre’s self-definition through personal action. They are brazen heroes of self-determination. Who cares if social norms, legal requirements, or older people look down on their actions? Following in the footsteps of their philosopher-leader Ke$ha, they shout (well, Rebecca wouldn’t shout, but you get the idea) from the rooftops: “Tonight we’re going hard! Just like the world is ours! We’re tearing it apart! We r who we r!”

So if you and I can define ourselves through our own moral actions, why do these poor girls frighten us, sicken us, disturb us? Sartre can help us understand these feelings, too, for as he explains the humanistic possibility of self-creation, he also illuminates the deep responsibility “inherent” to such a task:

“When we say that man chooses himself… we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be…. I am thus responsible for myself and all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”

For Sartre, this overwhelming responsibility creates a sense of anguish. I ask: “Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do?” Utter self-determinism is terrifying. Sartre does admit that not everybody thinks like this, but suggests that those who differ are merely “disguising their anguish or in flight from it.”

Perhaps the girls in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers are merely fleeing from the sublimated anguish of existential responsibility? Or perhaps they truly believe that all people should behave as they do, which, although disturbing, actually bares the courage of a thought-out worldview?

Neither suggestion seems accurate. It seems, most frighteningly, that these girls simply don’t care, period. Copolla and Korine refuse to suggest that self-definition necessitates feelings and emotions of existential responsibility understood, sublimated, or “fled from.” Thus, we are left to cope with the sort of frightening nihilism that humanists have such trouble dealing with. Humanists are forced to hold the assumption that these girls must be good people deep inside, an assumption that neither Korine nor Coppola authenticate.

To these filmmakers, in world where choice is king, we can certainly choose to do away with the burden of responsibility and conscience, giddily diving into utter narcissism. And in a world without some sort of Heaven-decreed moral absolutes, who would dare claim the authority to criticize our choices? Who would dare to suggest that there is more to life than becoming an Image or an Experience Absorber?

We r who we r!

Emma Bling Ring


[1] By “deeper” I’m utilizing the metaphorical language for internality, not the metaphorical language for value. It’s more of an ontological placement than anything else. To suggest that these girls are “deep” in a “deep thought” sort of way would be ridiculous.

“The Conjuring” Review

“The Conjuring” is a direct and unapologetic Haunted House film. Regardless of James Wan’s opinion on the actual existence of paranormal activity—it seems that Wan is a curious paranormal agnostic at the very least, or (a cynic would suggest) impersonating that attitude in order to enhance his cinematic craft—he is certainly a believer in the classic horror motifs. I spent a good deal his film feeling like Marty in “Cabin in The Woods,” questioning why its characters consistently made the mistakes that all characters are bound to make in every haunted house.

But these tropes must come from somewhere, and the real Lorraine Warren and Andrea Perron (consultants for Wan) claim that the film is “art” instead of fiction. Regardless of how you respond to their claim, it is this implied veracity that makes the film stand apart from other members of its wood-creaking, wind-blowing, door-thumping niche. Wan gives our demon-hunting protagonists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a level of intelligence, humanity, and confidence that is functions as the brain and heart of the entire film. And while Patrick Wilson is serviceable, the true center is Vera Farmiga, turning in another performance brimming with a remarkable blend of pathos and cool intelligence. As no stranger to genuine spiritual search,—her own directorial debut “Higher Ground” percolates with metaphysical wrestling—Farmiga’s Lorraine has the remarkable (and underrated) ability to look her husband in the eye and say “I believe that God brought us together for a reason” without sounding trite, sentimental, or shrill. Like a belabored psalmist, she trusts God in spite of her weary, frightened, and frustrated soul.

Ed and Lorraine are human enough to become annoyed with the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church (their priestless, self-initiated exorcism made this protestant feel an embarrassing twinge of theological satisfaction), but sensitive enough to recognize the vastness of evil that lurks beyond humanity’s control. The actual evil shown in The Conjuring amounts to smoke, mirrors, and CGI, but Farmiga’s performance gives testimony to a transcendent pain and suffering. Like Francis McDormand in the Coen’s noir-pastiche Fargo, Farmiga both grounds and elevates all of the ridiculousness surrounding her.

Yet while Farmiga and Wilson are impressive, and while the tormented family is believable as well, the true crux of good horror lies in its formal presentation. Wan is credited as saying: “…the irony has always been that horror may be disregarded by critics, but often they are the best-made movies you’re going to find in terms of craft. You can’t scare people if they see the seams,” and he is right. Classic horror is intensely indebted to cinematic craft, pacing, and what the camera can and can’t see (or chooses not see).

In this regard I am happy to report that The Conjuring has some remarkable shots. Before anything crazy even occurs Wan uses an expositional steadicam shot with the skill and audacity of Martin Scorsese. The slow, intentional zooms he uses throughout the film effortlessly evoke films of the 1970s, when motorized zoom lenses were all the rage; rotating gimbal shots make us feel like spirits floating through out the haunted house. The whole film feels as if it is shot through either a blue-grey or warm orange filter (depending on mood and location), a nice homage to the browns and light-blues that fill out our cultural imagining of the seventies.

However, while it is evident that Wan is a student of Friedkin, De Palma, and other masters of horror, he refuses to immerse himself in their classic cinematic language, settling for pastiche rather than full-on technique adoption. And while I admire his desire to find an original cinematic voice instead of beating a dead horse (oh, but what a beautiful dead horse!), his visual style ends up in a sort of lukewarm deadlock; “The Conjuring” shifts between traditional dollying/steadicamming and the newer “Blair Witch”-style first-person shakeycam. These shifts often accommodate the purpose of individual shots, but they often detract from the pacing and groundwork laid by previous scenes. While this stylistic potpourri isn’t as obnoxious as Abrams’ direction in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” Wan’s craftsmanship reflects on his generation in a similar way. He can clearly appreciate past styles and pull from them, but he seems to lack the slow, patient energy needed to build a coherent visual language that encompasses an entire film. He bears the DNA of a visionary, perhaps, but certainly lacks the perfection-driven legwork needed to get there.

Regardless, Wan’s sensitive, sincere approach to character and paranormal storytelling elevates The Conjouring into something that leaves you with a beating, compassionate heart long after you’ve exorcized its jolts and chills out of your system. And this summer, that’s saying a lot.

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 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.