BlacKkKlansman, 2018 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

Infrequently, and not for quite some time, have I walked out of a theatre feeling viscerally shaken by what I just watched, forlorn tears filling my eyes while a seething righteous rage filled my gut, unable to talk about the film for fear that I might either cry or scream, or maybe both. Here is a film that pulls no punches, and lands every apoplectic jab one after another, right on the nose and right in the stomach, calculated to make anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear leave the theater feeling a double consciousness, equally outraged and hopeful, despondent and invigorated. And all this after a movie that for the vast majority of its run time is straight up hilarious, finding nuances of gallows humor and black comedy and social satire in truly bleak, hate-filled history.

Although the movie has near universal acclaim at this point—and I imagine that history will be kind to it, even if the film itself is unkind to history—there are a few common critical tropes I think worth briefly dissecting, including one that touches on the overwhelming affective mélange just mentioned. Some already have called the movie’s tone “inconsistent,” likely preferring the tonal blandness (as easy to swallow as mayonnaise) of the usual, vapid, insipid blockbuster fair. But what these critics miss is precisely the split, complicated, mixed nature of the black experience—explicitly mentioned in the movie by way of reference to Du Bois and the divided-against-itself quality of blaxploitation cinema. To have made a film with a simple, single tone is to betray the difficult experience of people of color for a false smoothness mythologized by white Americans. These critics want a cleaner affective experience, one that is easier to swallow with fewer jagged edges, one less politically urgent and more entertaining, one reduced to the black-and-white, clear-cut morality that Lee has refused ever since DO THE RIGHT THING, where answers don’t come easy and the fury of his community is mixed inexorably with the joy of their art.

Another common critique emerging, and one that the film shares with the similarly exigent and provocative and exasperated SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, is that the movie is “too on the nose,” not “subtle” enough, and to direct in the line it draws between the events of the narrative and the political situation today—and connection powerfully made explicit in the film’s coda, one of the finest endings to a film I have ever seen. This point makes absolutely no sense to me: So you want a political film, one that is trying to articulate a nuanced and complicated position, that is trying to imagine a morality beyond the binary configuration of black-and-white or cop-versus-villain, to be less clear, less pointed, and in effect, less political?

For me, this is the film’s greatest strength and its raison d’être: The modern tactics of white supremacists, first emerging in the early 1970s—when simultaneously the first films targeting black audiences and staring black actors are being made, and often are as bombastic as the earliest films made for a white audience and the white house—have reached their culmination in the Trump era. There is a direct line to draw between the work of the Klan under David Duke and the state brutality of the GOP under Trump, and this is a point that we are morally obliged to not shy away from or mince words about, nor should we criticize those, like Lee or Kwame Ture, who speak truth to power clearly and explicitly.

And on that front, there are also those critics who, while certainly celebrating the film, have cheered the “return” of Spike Lee, who is “necessary once more.” Well intentioned as such a sentiment is, it betrays how these critics miss the larger point of the work: Lee has never been anywhere else but right here, in the heart of America, making incisive and intransigent and important films about the racial hell that is this nation’s racist ideology from its birth (in land, in art, in economy, etc). Spike Lee has always been necessary, no more today than he was a few years ago when he made the riotous CHI-RAQ or when he made the razor-sharp BAMBOOZLED.

But then again, as Lee has said time and again, industry (and especially white) critics, bred and supported by the same politico-economic institutions that Lee’s movies take aim at, never have understood his work. As he so famously said near the beginning of his career, white audiences don’t and won’t get his films, which aren’t made to submit to the dominant white gaze. Those white viewers who think that the movie is supposed to be a clear history lesson, an anti-racist pill easy to swallow, who think that just seeing this movie is enough to make them “woke,” who think that they are supposed to identify with the main character (like David Duke does, because his voice can pass as white), who think that this film, like the rest of America, is *for them*—well, I think they have missed the point, even if they have heard the call. For here is a movie that offers no easy conclusion or tightly tied final bow, but which, in its final frames, demands action, a movie that exists outside the theater even more than it does on the screen itself.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

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Sorry to Bother You, 2018 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

To the chagrin of its critics—who seem to think that (some sort of idealized) politics-writ-large requires the seriousness of realism, whatever the utter ridiculousness and absurdity of our actual social era—this is truly a sui generis work of equal parts anger and hope, a magic realist embodiement of Marx’s famous witticism that history occurs “first as tragedy, then as farce.” In his brilliant debut, rapper-cum-director Boots Riley exposes the tragedy of our political moment, the exploitation of the American workforce and the double consciousness demanded by racist institutions, by making a farce of late capitalism, mocking the vulgarity of the wealthy with the bawdy strokes of broad comedy. If it seems unfocused, it’s because our era is so widely awful as to need a scattershot sort of satire; if it seems weird, it’s because this moment in our history is itself run through with unstable contradictions; if it seems manic, it’s because the movie merely is responding to and reflecting manic times.

“Sorry to Bother You” is not just meaninglessly repeated catchphrase of telemarketers at the end of their rope, as alienated from their work as they are from the prey on the other end of the line. Beyond that, it is also a call to wake up from the peaceful, easy false consciousness of capitalist ideology (hence the tagline, “Destiny is Calling,” which recalls the hopeful determinism of historical materialism). It is a call to cast aside the unreal excess and benefits afforded to the small portion of winners under capitalism—invariably white sociopaths, willing to overlook the suffering of the masses that they themselves cause—and to take up and link arms instead with the proletariat.

Because the film functions like a wake up call for the sleeping giant of the general populace, it inherently will make its viewers uneasy: There is no option to simply sit back and relax and watch the events on screen unfold, for the movie demands action of you, implicating every viewer either in a system of oppression or a movement of revolt—where do you stand? how will you answer this call? This is part of what makes the film so difficult to classify, what makes its postmodern genre of strange magic realist satire hard to digest for some critics. At every stage, “Sorry to Bother You” resists Hollywood’s standard humanist tropes and narrative structure, refusing to make compromises with the familiar filmic fantasy of happy endings for messianic heroes. It is that rarest of birds, a work of art that bastardizes and weaponizes the aestheticization of politics, turning the tools of fascists and neoliberals against their own power structures.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Oleanna, 1994 – ★★½ [Movie Log]

Cinematically, what appears on screen is stilted, confused, and lackluster, a visually indolent experience in a single monotonous setting filled with contrived dialogue expressed colorlessly and unconvincingly. That’s unfortunate, too, because the text of the drama itself is extremely provocative, intellectually stimulating, frustrating in its ambiguity and angry in its urgency. It’s as little wonder that the play caused such an uproar when it premiered as it is that this film adaptation—ripe for a remake in the current political climate—came and went without stirring the same level of controversy.

If the film is any indication whatsoever, the original play must really have been an event to see, something that roused extreme emotions, vastly opposed opinions, and addressed an increasingly important and relevant and necessary topic. It’s truly a shame that whatever dialogues and debates the play spurred at the time had ultimately so little material impact—but then again, part of that problem lies with the ambivalence of the text, which takes no side, presents two opposed positions in the extreme, taken to points of absurdity, making its two characters into straw(o)men to heighten the stakes and idealize their differences. In a sense, these are mythical characters, utterly inhuman and unreal, like figures from a Jacobean morality play or classical parable, which works to isolate and emphasize the underlying differend that puts them at such violent odds. Hence the tagline of the movie: “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong”—the movie doesn’t necessarily seek to answer the problem so much as it hopes to stoke a much needed debate.

Both of these characters are reactionary and invested in maintaining, to different degrees and different ends, the institutional structures that Mamet no doubt hopes to ultimately criticize: On the one hand, the professor seeks the power of tenure; on the other hand, the student seeks the protection of the institution—neither really seeks to dismantle or deconstruct (in the Derridean sense) the networks of pedagogical power, but instead to mold the educational structure to their own ends, to replicate or reverse (without upending) preexisting power dynamics. The point that Mamet seems then to be making—to quote another part of the tagline from the film: “Teacher and student or man and woman, how do you draw the line?”—is a call not for understanding or reconciliation, but for reimagining power dynamics beyond the traditional good and evil, right and wrong, powerful and prey dichotomies of power.

In the impossible extremity of their positions—the paradigmatically chauvinist pedant versus the stereotypically misandric feminist—it is precisely the vehemence of their polarity, the vastness of their divergence, the false and mythical purity of their dichotomy that illustrates why such binaries are absurd and function finally to strengthen institutional power rather than upset it. In their (often righteous and sometimes merited) anger, the dogmatist and radical don’t just reify the standard binary line that undergirds basic power structures, but ultimately (and I think what matters most) cross moral lines themselves, turning vengefully violent and repressive. It is these latter lines that I think matter the most, such that the point is not to draw dividing lines but to not cross them, to not assert power or reproduce its dynamics.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Finding Forrester, 2000 – ★★★★½ [Movie Log]

Movies about writers are notoriously hard to do, since writing by its nature is not cinematic. “Finding Forrester” evades that problem by giving us a man who wrote one good novel a long time ago, and now writes no more: He has turned into a recluse afraid to leave his own apartment. There are shades here of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” as Connery peaks out from behind a massive pair of binoculars, otherwise used for birding, watching for rare specimens perched to take flight—Brown’s character, then, is like a black swan, thought impossible by the stuffy pendant (F. Murray Abraham in perfect form), but a reality waiting to be discovered in a land untrodden.

What makes one a writer? This is the driving question at the heart of the movie: Is it sheer talent, like Brown’s character at the film’s beginning? Is it a matter of mastering the rules, as Abraham’s character has done? Is it about asking the right questions and being a good observer, like Connery’s character, who has gone some 50 years without writing another novel? In the end, what the movie suggests is that the genius of writing cannot be identified with a single individual, but is in truth about the network of relations a person cultivates: Having lost his family, Forrester can write again once he has formed new friendships; Jamal grows as a writer, allowing his work to be exposed, once he has found himself among peers and powers that support his talent; while Crawford will never be the writer he wants to be because he intellectually isolates himself, narcissistically imagines himself as above the fray of his students.

How telling it is, then, that Brown’s bedside table and Connery’s apartment are overflowing with classic works of literature, while Abraham’s classroom is watched over by the portraits of these great (dead white male) authors? Writing relies on and rallies signifying networks—the present review, for example, begins with words taken from Ebert’s 2000 essay on the movie—and this is what Abraham’s character fundamentally fails to understand. Jamal’s writing succeeds because it exists in conversation with the work of others—he is even faulted and penalized for this—while Crawford treats those texts as petrified, statuesque, unable to enter into dialogue, words to quote and criticize. Surrounded by extreme wealth and power, the originality of writing has everything to do with the monetary and copyright value it produces, and not the unique genius and voice it can express.

Crawford’s failure here is the failure of inflated certainty that arises from an apotheosis of egoistic mastery; Abraham’s character presumes that he knows what writing is, a presumption that reifies writing and makes it into a commodifiable Thing, rather than understanding it to be a practice, an unfolding that exists only as a becoming. Hence he thinks he can locate (that is to say, “find”) writing, which does not move and does not change: Crawford believes he can remove Jamal from his creative environs, from Forrester’s casual apartment to his own stuffy office, and still produce the same effects, because what matters is the man (the gender matters) and not the network and emplacement. No wonder, then, that Crawford completely misses Jamal’s writing potential, for he is like the hobbyist who believes the only place to watch for birds is in the park. In this view, it is as easy to overlook the possibility that creative genius could arise in the Bronx as it is easy to ignore the irony that this century’s “Great American Novel” was written by a Scotsman.

And here is the greatest differend (to borrow Lyotard’s term) of the film, around which its central division circles: On the one hand is an attitude best summarized by Joyce—”the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring”—while on the other hand is an attitude, not the opposite but from a reverse angle, exemplified by Lacan calling the author “only a pen-pusher.” What matters to Crawford is the biography of an author, a reading of the text as a keyhole into a person’s private life, a philosophy shared by so many critics (“what is the writer *really* trying to say?”) that it has sent Forrester into hiding; for Forrester, however, what matters about an author’s life is its potential for exciting creativity and genius, not biographical facts, but how experience can be transformed and sublimated into art. To do so is to practice the work of writing.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

On the Need for Perpetual Protests

With the Strzok testimony dominating the outrage cycle this week & reports of an impending Rosenstein impeachment haunting the news again, I have a few thoughts on our national inaction & apathy in the face of creeping fascism.

Every time the threat that Mueller is about to be fired or Rosenstein will be removed from office arises, someone (usually the top comment on the reporting Reddit or Twitter thread) always links to MoveOn’s Rapid Response protest plan. (Here’s the link, which I don’t mean to fault in & of itself, FWIW.) The problem with this pattern, however, is twofold: On one level, it promotes only a reactionary politics, suggesting no progressive alternative that would curtail the need for protests in the first place. On another level, focusing only on and formulating responses only to the possible (even probable) firing of just the top level brass ignores the whole host of other outrages for which Americans should right now be taking to the streets.

When only the most unconscionable & over-the-top actions warrant formal, nationwide responses, the line for what is acceptable inherently moves closer & closer to those extremes. Moreover, it has meant that we by & large do absolutely nothing in response to the innumerable other, smaller iniquities, which get treated as acceptable just so long as this final, arbitrary line doesn’t end up getting crossedIt’s as if we have collectively said that top-level actions A & B are totally out of bounds, while meanwhile those in power make their way through the rest of the alphabet, from C to ZZZ, without consequence. Simply put, as is clearly evident simply by looking around at the crumbling of our republic, as a plan of political action, this is an utter travesty & total failure.

What is instead needed is near ubiquitous & relentless protest without specific cause, organized from sea to shining sea every damn weekend until those making a mockery of our democracy are removed from office. Perpetual protests should be there bare minimum (while, at least as I see it, perpetual revolution would be the ideal. At this point, we don’t need any more reasons for protesting or resisting, we don’t need to see any specific outrages to take to the streets—we should all be out there, holding up signs & chanting every day, en masse. We saw an example of this already this past week in London, as huge crowds met Trump with scorn, & it should embarrass every American that our national response to authoritarianism on our own soil has paled so thoroughly in comparison. And frankly, considering where the real power lies in this country—to quote a film as true for today’s politics as it was for its era, “follow the money”—we should be organizing general strikes until these simple demands are met.

Until we confront our collective apathy, until we protest the general state of our failing republic, things will only get worse & our goals only harder to achieve.

Yellow Submarine, 1968 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

After finishing a screening at the Alamo of the new 4k restoration for the film’s 50th anniversary, a friend gushingly said that “movie’s like this are a gift”—and really, that could be said about nearly the entirety of the Beatles oeuvre. It’s striking to me how consistently great the band was, each song almost impossibly crafted on every level, from theoretical underpinnings of the songwriting to the pitch perfect arrangements and production, song after song, album after album, leading a culture wave for a decade. While their five film projects were somewhat more erratic in quality, considering how piss poor even the most fondly remembered rockstar “jukebox” projects are—think “Purple Rain” or “One Trick Money,” which lack in cinematic scope what they make up in musical brilliance—it’s still pretty astounding that two of the movies are so groundbreaking, thoroughly entertaining, and thoughtfully put together.

Ostensibly a movie made for kids, “Yellow Submarine” is a film overflowing with artistic energy and creativity, with political goals and social commentary. In typical Beatles fashion, the audience is all embracing, the point is pointless, hole-y (wholly/holy) love, lovingly made not to widen the burgeoning generation gap, but to bridge it. The jokes are clever, punny, referential, erudite in a way that only adults might pick up the punchline while kids nevertheless can revel in the playful absurdity; likewise the animation is both geared toward the hippy-dippy psychedelic set, and at the same time, perfectly attuned to a child’s sensibility for the strange and looney. The movie is working on so many levels, every gear turning, experimental yet commercial, subversive yet receptive, pop-art embracing its own paradoxical status; yes, this is absolutely a product that aims to fill a contractual obligation with a record company, but the logos of the band’s own label are the weapons of the bad guys!

While I remember liking this movie as a kid, even decorating my room with knickknacks and paraphernalia—not just a lunchbox (which I movie stubs in, not sandwiches), but a lava lamp!—I don’t think I really appreciated how intelligent and beautiful it really is until now. This is a movie both of its time, utterly and unmistakably of the 1960s, and timeless in its message and music, as engaging today as it was engaging in/of its own time. It is a core message worth remembering: To say yes to love, to each other, to art—and no to outright authority, to fascism, and to blue meanies.

It’s all in the mind, y’know.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.
Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Barry Lyndon, 1975 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

Of course, everyone who sees this knows already the story about how Kubrick chose to light the film with only natural sources—but consider the effect in a scene like the one where Barry chats late one night in a tent with his avuncular officer. Lit by only a handful of candles, the actors were told to remain as perfectly still as they could muster so as to stay in focus. Or in the many zoom outs, like the one with Barry gazing hopelessly over the edge right after being embarrassed by Bully during the recital: The camera pulls back slowly with Barry kept dead center, perfectly still even as he shrinks in comparison to the wider world just revealed. Or in the duels which bookend Barry’s ambitions, always underscored by the same instrumental variation from Handel: Unlike a chaotic gunfight in a mythologized western, here the participants stand utterly motionless, as if dead already.

The point is that this is a film of paralysis, where the lighting, camera movements, stage blocking, and even music contribute to the film’s sense of overwhelming stagnation—all this even as the story has a truly (albeit ironically) epic scope, ranging across a lifetime, social classes, combatant countries, Europe in war and in peace. In an age (and a genre of filmmaking) we often look back upon as deeply sincere, of a burgeoning romanticism, and utterly passionate, Kubrick drenches the whole thing in a comic irony truer to the wry spirit of Byron and Thackeray than period pieces ever know to try. A BBC adaptation of Austen or Tolstoy this is not, lacking all pretense of billowing emotion and heartbreaking sensibility.

Rather, Kubrick’s choices aim to show the romantic age with romanticizing it, without looking back with the artificial light and gloss of retrospection. What does it mean to portray an era with authenticity? Does it merely mean getting the costuming, the set design, and the specific cant right? For Kubrick—who here is following up his very similar speculative forays into the future—I think veracity means exposing how the accoutrement, the style and look of an age, in fact betray its bones, its spirit (this is all very Hegelian, obviously, and so once more true to the time). And what is more true of this pre-Napoleonic period than its sense of paralysis? It is an era when rising above one’s born lot was practically impossible, as it finally is for the futile Barry, whose efforts are for naught in the end. It is an era when women (to say nothing about people of color, who quite literally could say nothing, and so don’t here) have absolutely no political or social influence outside the confines of domesticity, utterly stuck in their patriarchal role. It is an era when change—in hat style (a very subtle detail in the second half), in musical variation, even in army uniform and allegiance—is only artificial, ultimately functioning to keep the social system fully in place.

It is Barry’s sole redeeming quality, and the thing that makes him both the most modern and the most human character in the whole affair, that he aims throughout for change, to break the cycle of social stagnation and personal paralysis through his great ambition. But Barry is still of his age, and so his efforts come to nothing but his own demise—there is a revolution happening somewhere in the wings, across the pond, but Barry is on the wrong side of things, giving money and men to the King, paying tribute to the phallic master signifier of the ruling order. And so the Oedipal cycle—for of course this all comes down the Oedipal dialectical, the son’s attempt to outdo the father and claim the love of the mother (country or personal)—remains unbroken, Bully replacing Barry at Lady Lyndon’s side, the (e)state returned to its “proper” lineage in a classically tragic ending.

 

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan