Wednesday, 31 March 2010

"They need to be reminded of the order of things" : Clash of the Titans

Not quite 3D, no longer really 2D, the new Clash of the Titans multiplex-filler, shot in two dimensions but re-processed into three to cash in on the success of Avatar, survives in an odd kind of not-quite-flatness. The credits come zooming out towards you, but everything else just seems to hang precipitously over the edge of the screen, like a limp phallus poking out of its fly.

As has become standard practice in mainstream action movies lately, the film is composed almost entirely of great, swooping aerial long shots, to show off the locations and the detail of the production design in the manner of the French heritage films of the 1980's. These are juxtaposed with fast-moving close-ups, edited in the style of an ADHD sufferer's stream of consciousness. What this means is that the film contains almost no mid-shots, and it is mid-shots that tell the story.

As in Deleuze's tripartite distinction (with the perception-image usually in long shot and the affection-image characteristically in close-up), the action or impulse-image takes place in medium shot and is the most important element of naturalism. Of course, this is not to say that nothing happens in Clash of the Titans, simply that when it does, it is enormously disorientating due to the lack of mid-shots - or at least it would be if it wasn't for the presence of Io (played by Gemma Atherton, last seen as tracksuit-wearing hostage in The Disappearance of Alice Creed).

The character Io plays no part, either in the original (1981) film, Clash of the Titans, nor in the myth of Perseus upon which it is based. Her function here is largely as a kind of onscreen narrator, informing the otherwise bewildered viewer what the plot is in lengthy expository dialogue during the rare moments of calm between fight scenes. Such characters have become increasingly necessary in recent Hollywood films due to the almost complete inability of contemporary directors to make the most elementary cinematic gesture of telling a story through images.

In mythology, Io is the lover of Zeus who is transformed into a heifer and sent to wander the earth, tormented by a gadfly. None of this plays any part in Clash of the Titans, but it does point towards the second function of this character in the film. One of the major changes made by Louis Letterier's new Clash from both the 1981 film and its classical sources, is that the mother of Perseus, Danaƫ, raped by Zeus out of vengeance for the hubris of mortals, is no longer the daughter, but the wife of Acrisius. This makes the prophecy sent to Acrisius, that his wife's son will grow up to kill him, the exact double of the prophecy revealed to Laius in the story of Oedipus.

Throughout the new Clash of the Titans, Io is cast in a maternal role, saying to Perseus, "I've watched over you for a long time now. I've always been there." So when, at the end of the film, after Perseus has slain Acrisius and been reunited with Zeus (his 'real' father), his final coupling with Io (despite her onscreen death several sequences earlier), must be seen as the ultimate completion of the film's somewhat contorted Oedipal triangle. The order of things is thus restored and Io, the only character in the film (barring perhaps the gorgon, Medusa) to do anything other than get raped, sacrifice herself or get saved, is safely re-domesticated.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In Praise of Hoarding

I have never watched more than a fragment of the Antiques Roadshow, nor for that matter Cash in the Attic or any of their ilk. I am nonetheless enormously pleased that such programmes exist, for the simple reason that they encourage certain behaviours.

Running since 1979, the Antiques Roadshow is a salutary reminder that television has been doing 'user generated content' for an awfully long time, and like all television of the 'audience participation' sort, its success depends upon persuading its audience that they too can be on television, if only they carry out some mundane task with enough dedication. In this case, the particular behaviour being encouraged is collecting, or perhaps more precisely hoarding.
It may seem strange to hear someone - a blogger no less - celebrating the gentle art of hoarding in these increasingly immaterial times. Aren't we all nomadic Deleuzians these days, riding an infomatic wave of pure immanence down a diagonal line of flight? Mustn't we, like Bruce Sterling in his recent short story for Icon magazine, "transcend yesterday's stifling consumer clutter" ? "Freedom is just another word for nothing", n'est pas? And wasn't all that acquisitiveness just a symptom of capitalism's irresistible seductions anyway?

I'm not necessarily talking about acquiring anything here though. No-one on Antiques Roadshow has gone out and bought anything - or at least I presume not. Surely the premise, at least implied in a title such as 'Cash in the Attic' is that this stuff was just lying around. Someone simply failed to throw it away.
We should be grateful to the collectors in our midst for they are like material historians. The archeologists of the future are unlikely to be piecing together our culture and society from flash sticks and external hard drives, but rather from comics, coins, nodding dogs, and Star Wars figures, from items of furniture and objets d'art, travel ephemera and false limbs. As one letter writer to Building Design recently put it, we may just be sleepwalking our way into a new Dark Ages. When everything lives in a cloud, nothing rests on firm foundations.

So digital information is fragile, ephemeral, and yet paradoxically, it is also diabolically permanent. In a sense, wandering around the web is like walking the streets with wet paint on the soles of your feet. Everywhere you go, you leave a mark, a trace, that can lead back to your precise location and identity. And that trace is virtually indelible (of course there is the odd way round such things - although police claim, even here there is a limit to one's supposed freedom).
Incidentally, the theme tune to Cash in the Attic is a pretty good example of what I have recently taken to calling 'D'n'BBC', to refer to the way certain rhythms appropriated from the hardcore continuum have, amongst purveyors of library music, become general all-purpose signifiers for 'youth' and 'edginess' in everything from political thrillers (the BBC's State of Play, for example), to advertisements for washing up liquid.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Images Forever

There is a wonderful moment in the super8 home movies of Jimmy Watts, in which his son, as a young boy, is dressed as a stage magician performing simple tricks by utilising the camera's ability to stop time. Pausing the film the boy can remove a cup from the table and make it look, via the magic of cinema, as though it had disappeared. It is an image from three or four decades ago, from what Jimmy calls "the good old days," when they first moved into the Market Estate. The images on the screen of a happy, thriving estate, a hive of activity in an exciting modern setting, reflect some of the utopianism of the estate's first residents.
On the 7th March, the Market Estate in Islington was demolished, its secure tenants having been moved to a new development across the street. The day before its demolition, an exhibition was held in the building's corridors and empty flats. Seventy-five artists, sixty-six different site-specific projects, engaging with the building, its spaces and its history. Somewhere up on the second floor, down the end of one of its 'streets in the sky', was the flat formerly owned by Jimmy Watts.
French artist Clarisse D'Arcimoles met Jimmy some two months previously, and, in her words, he "shared his life" with her, told her his story, showed her his old photos and home movies. He even gave her his typewriter. With these fragments, D'Arcimoles developed a work that Anthony Gormley would describe as "incredibly beautiful." A journey through his life, that is at the same time a journey through the life of the estate - as much a living character as anyone in this story.
In one room, his photos are presented with short pieces of typed texts, often poetic and only figuratively related to the image. The presentation recalls certain works by Sophie Calle. For one such image, of Jimmy thirty years ago, leaning against a wall in the grounds of the estate, she has had him recreate the same pose, in similar clothes, and placed the two images side by side (she has been doing a similar thing with her own family photos). The caption beneath, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall ... " attests to the fragility of memory, the irreversibility of time.
The living room had been left as it was, but the lights are down low and Jimmy's Super8 films are showing. Sat in his sofa, we watch them as he might have done himself. The recorded voice-over he provides becomes a sort of interior monologue. "I shall treasure these images forever," he remarks. One can't quite imagine today's amateur photographer, drowning under terabytes of images, to treasure each moment with quite the same expectation of permanence. Jimmy's films remind us of some of the magic in freezing time that gets lost with the ubiquity of the digital.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Piano Four Hands: Vladimir and Estragon

It is now several weeks since I saw the Vladimir and Estragon piano duo perform at nonclassical, but the performance remains imprinted on my mind for its freshness, its vitality, and its inescapable, bursting sense of fun. The above video captures something of the breakneck urgency with which they tackle Ligeti's Sonatina, a piece so often robbed of its hectic, urban rhythms and reduced to a rather stately pomp. Alas, the camera position does not allow the viewer to get a sense of how charming the pair are to watch. Whether playing Schubert or Samuel Barber, one can't help but think of Chico and Harpo Marx playing vaudeville tunes in Animal Crackers - and this is, of course, entirely to their credit.

There is a certain air of Victorian respectability clinging to the 'piano two hands' repertoire. Musicologist Philip Brett once said, "Piano duets tame the concert-hall repertory of symphonies and chamber music for the drawing room and substitute private intimacy for their busy public rhetoric." However, although there is certainly an intimacy to watching Vladimir and Estragon, a certain sense of being invited into their living room, or their private world, there is little to be considered tame. In their gleefully anarchic romps through a repertoire on the borders of respectability (Wolfgang Rihm, Edvard Grieg ... ) there is a kind of soft subversion, a teasing provocation.

Though in life, Samuel Beckett, a writer steeped in music, chose to collaborate with rather austere modernists like Morton Feldman and Charles Dodge, his characters (as in All That Fall) are perhaps rather more likely to listen to Schubert. A composer probably more associated than any other with the 'four hands' canon, Schubert's most notorious duet is the sexually charged Rondo in D, a sort of dance of seduction which ends with both players crossing hands, the music leading them quite literally into each other's arms. To Vladimir and Estragon then, a piano duo as sensual, as irreverent as Schubert himself.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

And another thing ...

There are two further senses in which we can see Avatar as a conservative film. As Socialism and/or Barbarism puts it, "Avatar is possible the most staggering display of pure plenitude ever committed to the American screen." But this fantasy of plenitude is nonetheless a nostalgic fantasy. As Jake Sully says to the Na'vi from the perspective of "our" future (2154), "Look at the world we come from. There's no green there. They've killed their mother." When the young marine goes to sleep he dreams of a lost paradise of infinite verdancy, an Edenic prelapsarian state of harmony with nature in which the Na'vi people represent a sort of archaic heritage. In his increasingly Mosaic delusions he imagines himself leading these noble savages to the promised land.

Now that Avatar has won its Oscars for cinematography and special effects, and predictably, perhaps even deservedly so, for there are some truly amazing moments, it is nonetheless all the more necessary to point out the degree to which even here, at the very heart of its appeal, Avatar remains ultimately conservative. For there is a sense throughout, here and there, poking through, that they have not quite got the hang of 3D yet. Certain cinematic standbys such as shooting dialogue by short-reverse-shot, simply don't work, come across as odd and jarring. Yet the film consistently falls back on them as if unable to get out of a 2D mindset - except for certain spectacular set-pieces. Thee first Avatar came to the UK was a series of short clips shown to journalists and perhaps Avatar would have been better staying as just a series of short clips, perhaps drawn out somewhat. More like a demonstration tape, or a novelty record. Imagine Avatar playing in your room while you were having a party, filling the whole room with the overflowing plenitude of Pandora ...

Avatar: Humane, More or Less

James Cameron's Avatar resembles, in its structure and function, a porno movie. But, just as Baise Moi does not resemble pornography because of the sex (no porn director who wished to continue working in the industry would film sex as badly as Mlles Despentes and Trinh Thi have managed), Avatar isn't like porn because most of the cast spend most of their time wearing slightly less than their underwear. After all, like many a fine cock tease, there is always a stray frond to cover a nipple when need be. No, Avatar can be compared to pornography more in the way everything revolves around, and is so relentlessly subjugated to, a limited number of 'money shots' scattered throughout the picture (floating mountains, flying dragons, and so forth). The acting is frequently poor, camera moves occasionally awkward, dialogue a mesh of cliches ("There's no such thing as an ex-marine," &c.), and the backstory is dispensed with immediately and perfunctorily in voice-over, so we can get as quickly as possible on to the familiar old story of the occupying soldier who, when he goes to sleep, fantasizes about erotic adventures with the native women.

In the phantasy space of the Na'vi's home, it is not just our hero who inhabits a computer-generated 'avatar' but just as much the music. Scenes around the space station generally follow a kind of standard, post-Hans Zimmer general MIDI neo-classicism. Once Jake dons the blue face of his Na'vi avatar, however, the magic of digital sequencing transforms the operatic western European motifs - a letter writer to Private Eye pointed out the similarities to Prokofiev's War and Peace, one could equally cite Rachmaninov's 1st Symphony and Wagner's Ring cycle, as hinted at by the army helicopters using the call sign, "Valkyrie" - into the kind of diaphonous worldbeat familiar from Barclaycard adverts (YouTube has even put one of those old Barclaycard ads in the 'Related Videos' if you look up the music clip from Avatar).

James Horner, thanks to previous Cameron collaboration Titanic, one of the most commercially successful composers of the 20th century, is somewhat notorious for his 'borrowings'. Alex Ross notes a sprig of Schostakovitch in Aliens, a soupcon of Schumann in Willow, and readers of Film Score Monthly have been known to sneer at his inability to mask such plagiarism. With Titanic, despite no Irish connections in the story, Horner's usual classical riffs were supplemented by Clannad in order to add a sort of all-purpose gloss of rootsiness. Similarly, in Avatar, Horner seems to apply the same tactic as linguist Paul Frommer did in creating the Na'vi language: a general sense of exoticism without resembling any specific language. So, Horner augments his synbrass with vocalese and 'ethnic' percussion to give a general impression of exotic orientalism Les Baxter or Martin Denny.

Zizek is right to call the film out for racism, "The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them." He claims, "In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man's fantasy." Few scenes in recent cinematic history can be as insulting as the one in which all the coloured people bow down before the heroic white man in 'blue face' - with the possible exception of the one almost immediately afterwards in which the death of one white woman causes a ceremonial grief amongst the Na'vi far outweighing that displayed for the several hundred of their own people just massacred. The skewed logic of equivalence noted by Judith Butler in her latest book, Frames of War, is here internalised even by the victims.

The film's true ideological core, however, is not revealed until we see the destruction of the great tree ("hometree") in which the Na'vi had made their home. In the shots of this vast arboreal tower coming crashing down, and equally in their ash-coated aftermath, the visual reference is clearly footage of the collapse of the World Trade Centre on September the 11th. In James Cameron's mind, the Na'vi are not supposed to represent the victims of American imperialism, but the Americans themselves, their post-9/11 phantasy representation of themselves as rootsy beleagured pioneers, beset by unknowably powerful and blindly hostile forces on all sides. Note, Cameron's insistence in interviews that the film is not "unAmerican" but reflects the fact "that we are living through war." Despite its superficial protest, the film directly supports the very phantasy which sustains and justifies US imperialism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so forth.

Their exists, then, a cruel irony behind the recent protest by Palestinians on the West Bank who 'blued up' in order to highlight the resonance between their plight and that of Cameron's Na'vi. For, as should be clear from certain references to Israel scattered throughout the film - a Na'vi who is said to be the best singer shares her name, Ninet, with a popular Israeli singer, and "Ey'wa", the deity of the Na'vi resembles a verlan pronunciation of Yahweh, while "Na'vi" itself is a Hebrew word meaning 'prophet' - should leave us with no illusions as to who Cameron sees as the innocent victims in that particular conflict. When Stephen Lang's bloodthirsty colonel promises to "fight terror with terror" it is not Bush and Cheney that he should remind us of, but videos of Bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, insisting on the terroristic nature of American military intervention.

This is not, however, in the slightest to disparage a heartfelt political demonstration that caught the eye of the international media and was, at least in the eyes of its organisers, considered a success. So broadly and internationally popular a spectacle can scarcely resist containing some slight latent utopian promise, some hidden potential for the detournement of its ultimately conservative agenda. What is striking about the testimony of one of the Bil'in protest's organisers, Mohammed Khatib, is the way the use of Avatar's iconography seems to have resulted in the prior fictionalisation of the action itself, "At first they were surprised," He says, laughing of the onlooking Israeli soldiers."But then they began shooting and we felt like it was a scene from the movie again, except it was real, and it was taking place in the village."

Monday, 1 March 2010

I look down at my laptop screen...

A curious thing about watching films on one's laptop is that one tends to look down at it. My eyes are more used to looking up at a cinema screen, or straight ahead at a television, looking down at a film seems to imply a whole different perspective. Television relies on its directness, its straight-aheadness, the eye-level shot and maximum potential for narcissistic identification. Cinema, on the other hand, has never quite lost a certain sense of awe and glamour. We look up to our cinema stars just as we tend to look up at rock concerts, gazing up at our idols in rapt supplication. In former times things were different. At the opera we still look down, as most of the great opera theatres were built not to the glory of their actors and singers, in those days somewhat lowly, disreputable professions, but to those nobles and royals in their boxes in the upper echelons of the audience. In some theatres, of course, the stalls were reserved for the lower classes. Now, we all look down. Flicking between online casinos, porn sites, opera extracts on YouTube, and the latest Hollywood blockbusters, with the same mixture of pity and contempt for everything before us. Artists and entertainers are our poor cousins and embarrassing uncles once more.

The Angola Three

A new film entitled In the land of the free... tells the story of the Angola 3, Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, each forced to spend thirty years or more in solitary confinement, ostensibly for the murder of a prison guard. Robert King is now free, having been exonerated in 2001, but Wallace and Woodfox remain in prison, having now clocked 37 years in continuous solitary confinement. All three initially arrived in prison for unrelated robberies, once inside they began organising one of the only recognised prison chapters of the Black Panther Party. It is their belief that their subsequent conviction for the murder of Brent Miller was motivated by their vocal support for the Panthers. Convicted by an all white jury in a trial riddled with innuendo and obfuscation, the transcript of which refers explicitly to "that Panther shit". The prosecution had two "eye" witnesses: one a blind man, the other compromised by the promise of release; yet refused to investigate the only material evidence, a bloody fingerprint. This clear, full print, found at the scene of the crime matched neither the accused nor the deceased, but simply must match either a prison inmate or guard, all of whose fingerprints would be readily available on record. Robert King came to Angola a little later than Wallace and Woodfox, in fact after the death of Brent Miller, but was still questioned under suspicion of involvement and subsequently convicted of another murder under equally dubious circumstances.
Combining the lengths of time spent in Closed Cell Restricted solitary confinement, it would stretch back to Louisiana State Penitentiary's former life as an 18 hectare complex of plantations. The site was known as Angola as that was where most of the workers came from. With a still heavily segregated population, three-quarters of whom are African-American, forced to complete back-breaking manual labour, harvesting cotton and sugarcane, the Angola Prison remains one of the last bastions of slavery in modern America. In 1952, after 31 prisoners slit their Achilles tendons in protest against conditions, Angola was named America's worst prison. 85% of inmates sent to Angola will die there. With such history, the persecution of Black Panthers is grimly predictable. The new film, directed by Vadim Jean (Leon The Pig Farmer), seeks, in the grand tradition of Errol Morris's Thin Blue Line, not just to entertain with its stylish camera angles and Samuel L. Jackson voice-over, but to actually intervene in the real, and set right a real world injustice. The appeals of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox are in process even now, and since the film was edited both have been transferred back to solitary confinement, and Wallace taken to a different prison, preventing practically any communication with Woodfox. In the land of the free... is an excellently constructed film with a brilliantly argued case and a pressing urgency. Robert King will be in the UK to introduce certain screenings when the film is released nationwide on March 26th.