Theory Teacher's Blog

Skyfall, Globalization, and the Ghost of History

A few years ago, I wrote a post in this blog about how the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace was symptomatic of globalization, and I later expanded that post into a scholarly article entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory, Inside and Out,” for the journal CineAction that was published in the fall of 2009. The text has been put on the internet without my permission by the Free Library [here]. In it, I discussed many of the theorists of twenty-first century globalization who have argued that the old international order of nation states has been superseded by a new global order in which nation states are merely part of a larger network of transnational and local relations that include multinational corporations, finance capital, criminal organizations, non-governmental organizations, social and environmental movements, etc. Whether or not that is actually true, it is a way of thinking about the world that, I argue, is reflected in recent cinema. In my view, Bond was not unique, but rather typical of this paradigm shift within the movie industry in general and spy thrillers in particular, and I later blogged about the movies The International and Duplicity to expand my argument. So, when the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, was released this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond movie, I had to see it. And considering that this is the most profitable Bond film of all time,  scoring huge at the box office, I was very curious whether the new movie would confirm my theory about Bond films, and several of my friends and colleagues asked me whether I thought so.

In some ways yes, in some ways, no.

For sure, the actor Daniel Craig continues to play the constantly brooding, angry version of Bond, instead of the pithy, urbane version of Bond performed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and others. But my point is that the new Bond style is not just Craig’s acting — it’s the whole thing, and it’s a “whole thing” that relates to the history of globalization.

The question that the characters of Skyfall ask over and over again is whether the fictional Bond character, as well as the real British intelligence service MI6, is irrelevant in our globalized, postmodern world. The movie brilliantly layers this idea, as Bond appears to die, but returns, and at various moments in the movie, Britain’s Parliament debates the relevance of MI6 and the double-O agents. In one scene, Bond and Q sit in front of a painting of a “grand old war ship inevitably being hauled off to scrap,” and Eve Moneypenny jokes about Bond being an old dog with new tricks. As the gorgeous theme song by Adele begins, “This is the end,” and later Bond jokes that he specializes in resurrection. (By the way, Bond’s resurrection is not a new theme; consider You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye.) Amusingly, and not so coincidentally, critics have been asking the same question that the movie itself asks. Is the Bond film a dead genre, or does it have to reinvent itself or resurrect itself to stay current and hip… and… uh… not suck. And there appears to be a general consensus that Skyfall represents something new, some critics celebrating the movie for its innovative new take, and others trashing the film for failing in the attempt. However, I have a slightly different view than the critics. For all the obsessive worry about relevance and newness, the film actually asserts a troubling and ridiculously nostalgic return to the old Bond.

But before I explain what I mean about this nostalgic return to the old Bond, rather than a further elaboration of the new Bond, let’s review how Skyfall repeats some of the stuff I mentioned in my article about Quantum of Solace. Most of the “globalist” ideas appear in a speech that the villain Silva gives when he and Bond first meet. Silva pontificates about all of Bond’s outdated attachments to the nation-state and the old order: “England… empire… MI6… you’re living in a ruin and just don’t know it yet.” (Ironically, they are having this conversation literally within a ruin that Silva himself created.) He goes on to explain how easy it is to destabilize nation states by rigging the stock market and elections. In a sense, Silva’s speech is somewhat similar to the argument I made about globalization and the withering of the nation-state in my article, but with one key and unsurprising difference. What was good about the previous Bond movie Quantum of Solace is its recognition that in the real globalized world of today, it is the U.S. and British governments who are doing all that “rigging” and often collaborating with clandestine and criminal organizations in order to do so. This was the first time in Bond history that the British government was not unequivocally on the side of good. The plot was complicated enough to map out a somewhat complex network of relations, which moved beyond the simplistic good-guys versus bad-guys story that was so typical of the older Bond movies. What’s stupid about Skyfall is the world’s geopolitical complexity is reduced to the character of Silva, whose insanity represents pure evil, and who would be a totally absurd character if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Javier Barden. What is even more troubling is Bond’s response to Silva, that Bond represents a “resurrection.” But a resurrection of what? Silva has just trashed the British empire, and who would want to resurrect that?

In a sense, the new Bond film reduces the complexity of history to an Oedipal drama. (I’m not the only person to notice the excessively Freudian structure of the plot; for instance, see David Denby’s review in The New Yorker and another in the Atlantic.) Whereas Quantum of Solace traces the return of history in terms of American geopolitical strategies coming back to bite America in the ass, Skyfall is strictly a Freudian fantasy where the injured MI6 agent with mommy issues and a bruised adolescent ego returns to attack his former boss, who is represented as a mother figure. The film is brilliant on this point, especially when Silva shows what the cyanide capsule did to his face when he tried to kill himself in order to protect Great Britain; in that scene, he is both figuratively and literally the monster that MI6 unintentionally created. We might pose an analogy between this monstrosity and the monstrosity of so many militant groups created by the United States and Europe in other countries that backfired — Ronald Reagan’s al Qaeda being the worst. But the movie doesn’t do that. Instead we have two ghosts (or, “the last two rats,” as the movie repeatedly jokes) — the ghost of Bond returning from the dead in order to fight the ghost of Bond’s evil twin. Both of them feel wronged by MI6, and for Silva, M clearly represents the “phallic mother” figure whose love he seeks but whom he also wants to master or destroy. However, unlike Silva who returns from the dead to wage a personal war against M and MI6, Bond returns from “enjoying death” to protect M and MI6 because, he says, “we are under attack.” In this way, the movie projects international politics onto the personalities of individuals, and any geopolitical context that could have been explored or even just alluded to in the background has almost entirely disappeared from view. The movie even attempts to justify its own narrative blindness by means of an odd version of globalization theory’s thesis about the reduced role of the modern nation-state when M tells Parliament that “our enemies are  no longer known to us, they are no longer nation states; they are now individuals…. and the shadows is where we do battle.” (Ironically, of course, their enemies are very much “known” to MI6, because apparently the “individuals” are former MI6 agents.)

Three quarters of the way through a very long movie, it appears that Silva’s postmodern, globalized insanity has got Bond and MI6 beat, so how is Bond to fight back? The answer is by going back in time, where, as Bond says, “we have the advantage.” And so we travel to Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, a mansion in Scotland. To complete this nostalgic image, the old home appears to come with its own endearing old caretaker, Mr. Kincaid, who appears with a shotgun on his arm as if just back from a pheasant hunt. Here, a number of things are completely unique and new about this Bond film. First, this is the only time in Bond history that Bond’s childhood is a major part of the plot. In all other Bond movies, Bond’s life before he became an agent is totally absent, and it’s hard to imagine him anything but, as if he sprang like Minerva, a fully formed agent with tuxedo, martini, and Walther PPK pistol from the brain of Zeus (or, in this case, from the motherly brain of M.) Second, this is the first time that most of the explosions happen inside of Britain. Usually, Bond goes to other countries where he and the villain callously destroy much of that nation’s cultural heritage, but in Skyfall, both MI6 headquarters and Bond’s childhood home are destroyed (and please note the Freudian connection between his childhood home where his parents died and his adult home at MI6 where the life of his new “mum” — his boss M — is threatened.) Lastly, and most importantly, this is the first Bond movie where Bond cries, and over what does he weep so many tears? Yes, the death of his surrogate Oedipal mommy, M.

Since the death of M (mum) is the climax of the movie, we might think back to when Judi Dench was first introduced as the new M — not surprisingly in the last movie to also question Bond’s relevance in a post-soviet era, Golden Eye, when Judi Dench calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” In the history of Bond films, GoldenEye represented a major turning point for three reasons. First, because it was produced after the longest gap in time between Bond films, as studios really did believe the genre had died with Timothy Dalton. Second, it was the first Bond movie to be produced after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, so it very directly raised the question of whether MI6 and Bond were still relevant.  Third, GoldenEye replaced the sexist, old-boys-club feel of the earlier Bond movies with more progressive roles for women, including Judi Dench as M, a more outspoken and capable “Bond-Girl” (e.g., Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco in GoldenEye). By the time we get the new Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the pathetic, Bond-worshipping Moneypenny character has also been dropped from the story. Curiously, while in her first movie, Dench as M criticizes the old agents like Bond, in her last movie she defends them, and she defends them just in time to signal a return to the arrangement of the older Cold-War-era Bond movies with a new male M and a doting Moneypenny. What excessively Freudian Skyfall stages is the death of the “phallic mother” (M).

I’d like to pause for a moment to emphasize the paradox and the curious contradiction. On the one hand, critics are saying this is a “new” Bond movie (which of course annoys me, because I argued that it was Quantum of Solace that was the “new Bond.”) But on the other hand, it is a movie that nostalgically gestures back to the older films and performs a wish-fullfillment fantasy of a return to an older world order.

But of course we can’t go back, and what really makes this movie “new” and interesting is the troubling Freudian discovery that it can’t go back. Bond blows up his childhood home, which he says he has always hated, and its image burns like the ghost of history, an uncanny and very un-Bond-like image that haunts the movie’s end. This is wonderful cinema. For a full minute of screen time, everything is dark except for this burning house. In addition, even more important than the destruction of Bond’s two homes (his childhood home and MI6 headquarters), I’d like to suggest that one other aspect of this movie also undermines the desire to return to a simpler time. As some critics have noticed, the “Bond girl” Severine was the victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking when she was just a child. Bond’s discovery of this, and Severine’s self-betrayal, is perhaps, the most interesting moment in the film — the only moment of a troubling Real of globalization in the entire movie which is otherwise little more than a Freudian fantasy. Actress Berenice Marlohe is brilliant here, her whole body trembling with fear, rage, and hate towards the world order that the movie represents. And for both Lacanian and Foucaultian theorists of the Real and of the body, it is important that it is the actress’s body that communicates this. I assume that the horror of this scene is meant to dramatise what a horrible villain Silva is, but the horror is so great it almost overwhelms the whole movie. As dozens of scholarly articles on James Bond have noticed, Bond’s relationship to women is, of course, symptomatic of the fallen British empire’s relationship to the world. We may recall that what was totally unique and unprecedented in Quantum of Solace was the chaste relationship between Bond and the Bond-girl, Camille Montes, with whom he does not even try to have sex, but instead gives a brotherly peck on the cheek. Instead, in Skyfall, what is unprecedented is that the history of Severine’s exploitation is admitted, and the tragedy of her situation more painfully understood. In a way, both the excessively chaste Bond and politically radical Bond-girl in Quantum of Solace and the realization of Severine’s history in Skyfall are two sides of the same coin — the horrible Real of globalization that can no longer be properly sexualized and neutralized by a debonair hero. In truth, it is Severine who is the tragic heroine of globalization in this movie. Bond is not.

Let me explain why not. Traditionally, most Bond films end with both Bond and the Bond-girl together in each other’s arms, but at the end of the new Bond, Severine has died, Moneypenny has been transformed from a badass agent to a cheerful secretary, and the woman in Bond’s arms is his mommy, M. If I may make a joke on Newsweek‘s infamous cover story in 2009 after the government bailed out the auto industry, “We’re all Socialist Now,” we might speculate that if the popularity of the latest Bond movie says anything about our culture today, as it anxiously looks ahead to a troubled brave new world, it says that “We’re all Children Now.” At the beginning of this essay, I promised that I’d say something about why Craig’s brooding style is more appropriate for the new Bond than the adolescent humor of the old Bond — Craig is a lovable, angry child.

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December 23, 2012 Posted by | global, movies | 2 Comments

Research Questions for Film Studies

It’s almost the end of the semester for my film class — the first time I have ever taught such a class — and I have to say that it’s been a lot of fun. The question our textbook, Engaging Cinema (2010) by Bill Nichols, presents to the students in the final chapter is how to write a research paper about film. And of course, part of this question is finding a good topic. As all my friends and colleagues well know, one of the research questions I’ve been working on for a long time is how films figuratively represent (or aestheticize) the complex issue of globalization, as I’ve blogged about before [here], [here], and [here]. I even taught a whole class on the subject of globalization and literature last year. A newer question for me has been how to develop a transnational Oromo cinema, as I’ve blogged about [here], [here], and [here]. Both of these questions continue to intrigue me. And as I’ve thought about them over the years, I find I am often changing my research question. The fact of the matter is, without a good question, it’s hard to come up with a good thesis.

So, for this blog post, I’d like to imagine a few research questions — things that I could imagine my students writing a research paper about someday, maybe for another class, or maybe just on their own.

(1) Do documentary films and dramatic films about war influence each other? I’m thinking not just about the content and social context of the films but also the formal, stylistic elements. I can imagine an interesting senior thesis that compares and contrasts one of the most famous war-propaganda documentaries Why We Fight, made by Frank Capra between 1942 and 1945, and one of the most famous Hollywood movies of all time, Casablanca, made in 1942. Not only the moral message of both films, but also the way they are shot, seem somewaht similar to me. I would think that someone might enjoy researching documentary films and dramatic films made during the war about the war. I’m not exactly sure what the exact research question would be. Maybe the question of influence is not the right question. Curiously, it seems like another World War II-era classic, Citizen Kane (1941), edits together documentary and innovative camera shots in a way that seems to sarcastically comment on the relationship between documentary and drama.

(2) How do national or local histories get told in film? I have blogged about this with regards to Chinese cinema and history before [here]. In my opinion, Chinese cinema is the best in the world, and a lot of it very consciously engages with controversial and complicated feelings about its long history. I think it would be a fun project for a student to pick a country he or she is interested in and try to learn about its real history and the way film aestheticizes that history. I’ve heard fascinating things about Iranian cinema, for instance, and I myself have raised a few questions about the cinema history of Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Senegal before in this blog [here]. Such a project might relate to the issues discussed in a post-colonial literature class.

(3) Are remakes and sequels always more ideologically conservative and thematically simplistic than the originals? In my class, we have noticed this trend in the re-makes of Shaft and Hairspray, but perhaps not in the new James Bond films. So, the commercial conditions and contexts of such remakes and sequels may be more complicated than one might assume.

 (4) There is a new genre out there now that critics are calling the “bromance” which is getting a lot of critical attention for what it suggests about gender relations and gender norms today. Has anyone done a thorough study of the new “bromance” genre in film?

(5) There are of course lots of contemporary issues that have been the subjects of dozens upon dozens of films just in the past few years — topics as different from each other as post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, immigration policy and the U.S.-Mexico border, and sexual relations between friends. What do these movies say about the anxieties Americans have and/or the confused and conflicted feelings that exist out there.

(6) Last year, I imagined teaching an entire class entitled “Literature, Philosophy, and Film after 9/11”. I was hoping to do it this coming fall, on the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, but unfortunately I won’t have the chance to. There are so many “post-9/11” movies that reflect upon the past ten years that it would take up an entire blog post to list them here, and likewise there have been so many poems and short stories that the editors of the Norton Anthology of American Literature created a new section at the end of its anthology on this very topic. Many of the world’s most influential philosophers have also weighed in, including Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004), and Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (2005),  just to name three books that I’ve read and considered teaching. But what would be the research question guiding this inquiry? I’m not sure yet.

(7) Finally, how do contemporary films re-write old literary classics? For instance, recent film versions of Gulliver’s Travels (starring Jack Black) and Robinson Crusoe (starring Pierce Brosnan) completely change the story. I am not so interested in the commercial motivations that the studio might have for making these movies. Rather, what are the political and ideological implications behind such changes?

(8) On a different note, other films borrow from an old story in order to tell an entirely new story. It might be interesting to investigate how different cultures have borrowed from Shakespeare, for instance. In my view, the best film version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is neither an American nor a British film but a recent Chinese film — The Banquet (2006). I loved this movie so much that I requested it for my school’s library. And likewise it is Japan’s most famous director, Akira Kurosawa, who adapted Shakespeare’s plays King Lear and Macbeth to Japanese culture in his movies Ran and Throne of Blood. What happens to a story when it crosses cultures? How might we theorize such instances of cultural translation (or what theorist Fernando Ortiz called “transculturation“)?

So, those are just some random thoughts on possible research papers I could imagine someone doing. I wish I had the time to do them myself. Possibly they’ve been done already. I don’t know, since I haven’t had time to check the library’s databases JSTOR, Project Muse, Academic Search Premier and MLA Bibliography. If I wanted to seriously take up one of these questions, I would have to spend a few days in the library searching through these databases.  The rather obvious point I’m trying to make here is that coming up with a good research question is not so easy, but without a good question, it’s hard to have a good thesis.

April 23, 2011 Posted by | movies | 1 Comment

Searchers 2.0, from Tragedy to Farce

It’s spring break this week, so among other things I caught up on my movie watching. The King’s Speech was great. (I don’t know about “best picture” but definitely great, and that’s not the kind of film I usually go in for.) In stark contrast, The Adjustment Bureau, based loosely on a Philip K. Dick story, is the kind of film I do usually go in for, but I didn’t like it at all because the whole story is organized around a simplistic, obvious idea that the director seems to think is really smart. It’s not smart. From my library, I checked out the comedy Due Date, starring Robert Downey, Jr., which follows the standard road-trip genre. It is sometimes amusing (and I unfortunately have a bit too much in common with Downey’s character), but predictable and forgettable. Another movie I checked out on pure whim turned out to be a surprising gem: Searchers 2.0. First shown in British theaters in 2007 and 2008, but just released on DVD in the United States in October 2010, it is a road trip revenge Western parody — an ironic blend of genres. As you might guess from the title, the movie alludes to the classic John Wayne Western, The Searchers (1958), and since I taught that movie just a few weeks ago in my film class, I’d like to say something about this new film. Here is the trailer:

The characters Mel and Fred are old, out-of-work Western-movie actors who decide to search out and take their revenge upon a screenwriter who physically abused them when they were child actors. Since neither of them has a working car, they convince Mel’s daughter Delilah to drive them to the famous location of so many Westerns, Monument Valley, where they believe the evil screenwriter, Fritz Frobisher, will be. During their road trip through the west, Mel and Fred constantly talk about movies, especially some of the classic westerns, and some of the scenes clearly allude to famous moments in that genre. Because it’s essentially a meta-film (a film about films), and because it was made on a tiny budget, just $180, 000, it is perhaps the kind of movie that only a movie nerd like me would find hilariously clever. And I did find it hilariously clever.

The movie satirizes American culture by having the Quentin-Tarantino-style dialogue meander back and forth from discussions of revenge tragedies, war films, and Westerns to discussions of the war in Iraq, gas-guzzling cars, the corporate film industry, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, and Chicano politics. The slogan the characters come up with for their quest is “justice, gas, revenge” — an obvious commentary on American foreign policy, except the characters don’t themselves see that connection. (And this is an example of dramatic irony.) The humor is based on the unlikely connections between movie worlds and the real world.

For some reason, the movie reminded me of Karl Marx’s sarcastic joke about Napoleon III in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte when he says, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” As the characters in Searchers 2.0 say, the first Searchers movie is almost a classic revenge tragedy (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet) of American racism against Native Americans, but the tragedy that happened in the real historical world is famously averted in the film world in the final climactic moment. The first Searchers was made right when the civil rights movement was beginning, and the second Searchers 2.0 was made during the post-civil rights era. So, the comic irony is that its characters are trying to emulate the pre-civil rights era hero. But of course the world has changed, and their attempt to reference an earlier movie world is clearly farcical. It is especially farcical since the character Mel is Chicano, so he both idolizes and hates the racist white hero of the classic Hollywood Western. (For example, he mentions that his father would not let his family watch any John Wayne movies.) All they can do is talk endlessly about the many manifestations of heroism that clearly they are not.

In the next paragraph of his book, Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” So, the characters talk and talk and talk, but can do nothing, so trapped are they by their cloudy memory, the role they want to play but ironically can not play. To conclude, the movie is a classic example of how dramatic irony reveals the disconnect between metaphorical identity and real identity (condensation) and exposes the narrative trick of displacing real political problems onto simpler moral stories.

March 18, 2011 Posted by | movies | Leave a comment

Looking for African Movies

In the United States, it’s hard to see movies from Africa.

And this is true despite the fact that Nollywood in Nigeria is one of the largest producers of movies in the world. Only Hollywood and Bollywood produce more. I discovered how hard it was to get movies from Africa a few months ago when I was planning my syllabus for my film class and wanted to do a unit on African film. I was inspired to do this because of my wonderful experience at an international film festival in Ethiopia last summer, which I blogged about at length [here]. As I talked about in that blog post, I read a bunch of books about African cinema and watched some movies, and so then, as I was sketching out the syllabus for my film class this year, I looked to see what my own library had.

Not much.

I was hoping my library would have one of Ousmane Sembene’s great classics, the movie Black Girl, which so brilliantly diagnoses the psychology of colonialism. It’s also a classic of the French 1950s realist style. But getting this movie would cost our library over $200 (over ten times the amount we usually pay for DVDs.) And our library didn’t have anything from Nollywood. And I don’t mean to pick on our library, because last summer I was hoping to get through interlibrary loan some of the classic movies that I had read about, such as Love Brewed in the African Pot, but couldn’t. I still haven’t seen it. All this goes to illustrate the point I made in my previous blog post, which is that one of the most important things affecting both film and the ideology of film is not the intentions of the director, but the infrastructure of production, distribution, and consumption. I’m not saying we don’t have anything. In fact, we have several of Sembene’s movies as well as a few by other directors, but the pickings are slim.

And here’s another thing that I discovered. Almost every single movie that my library had about Africa — whether those movies were made by Americans, Europeans, or Africans — all portrayed the people there as either suffering, corrupt, or screwed up. Or, they represented Africa as a place full of nature and animals. In other words, for the mainstream film industry, Africa is either a disaster or cute animals. And this is pretty much what the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina made fun of in his hilarious satire “How to Write about Africa” in 2005. And this is pretty much what the world-famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie was saying in her well-known TED lecture “The Danger of the Single Story” in 2009.

I was concerned about this. I knew that most of my students — if they knew anything about the many countries of Africa — probably got their information from the American media, which almost always focuses on the negative. In the American media, from stories in the New York Times to blockbuster movies such as Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener, Africa means disaster. Almost always disaster, unless you’re a child, and then it means the cute cartoon animals of movies like Madagascar. (And by the way, see my blog post about animals and nature in Kenya [here].) So, I didn’t want to show my students movies like that, because I thought those movies would just fit the stereotypes my students already had. Instead, I wanted to show them a movie that had characters that I liked — characters like the people from Africa whom I was friends with. People like the people I met during my trips to Kenya in 2009 and Ethiopia in 2010. Where were these people in the movies?

Probably the most famous African film-maker is Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, and he is very smart, but even many of his older movies just repeat the idea of Africa as a place of victims under the racist colonialism of Europe (e.g., the movie Black Girl) or as a place of corruption under neo-colonialism after independence (e.g., the movie Xala.) Now don’t get me wrong, I think Black Girl and Xala are great movies, but both of them are depressing.

So, basically the upshot is this. It seemed I basically had two choices. There were numerous American and European movies that illustrated what I think of as the “conservative” view of Africa, the chauvinist view of Africa in so many American and European movies that implies its culture is basically inferior. Or there were several African movies that illustrated what I think of as the “liberal” postcolonialist view of Africa, the view that suggests Africa is messed up because of European and American imperialism. Both of these ideologies miss it.

The only movie that our library had that I felt I could, in good conscience, show to my film class was one of Ousmane Sembene’s more recent films, Faat Kine, produced in 2001. I really like this movie a lot. It’s about a way-cool woman who raises two kids with the help of her mother and manages a successful business. At the beginning of the movie, her kids are going to find out if they passed their entrance exams for university. We eventually learn that the men who got her pregnant are jerks, but there is the possibility of romance with another man who is a pretty cool guy. She is a Muslim, and he is a Catholic, but this religious difference isn’t an overpowering issue. We see several conversations between her and her various friends. The characters talk frankly and realistically about sex. They crack jokes. Some are successful, some aren’t. These are like the people I know — like the people in the wonderful short stories by the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana. (By the way, you can watch a video of Doreen reading at St. John’s University in Minnesota [here].)

As critics have noticed, Faat Kine has a clever narrative structure, somewhat similar to the classic movie by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing. It starts in the morning and ends in the evening, and although the story actually takes place over several days, it feels like a typical day in Kine’s life. It’s a sophisticated movie, with a complex plot and a tight narrative structure, about the modern-day middle class in Senegal.

So, this is the movie I decided to show to my class, because this was the only African movie in my school’s library that had characters whom I actually liked. This was the only movie that I could be sure would challenge the stereotypes I suspected many of my students might have had. And the important thing here is that this is a problem not of production but of distribution. I can only imagine the many movies that are out there that I’d like to see…. I know they exist, and our library does have a few, but I need to learn a whole lot more so that my students can have better access to them…. I’m looking for suggestions if anyone has any.

All that said, aside from the question of distribution and ancillary markets, there is a lot more that one could say about the complex ideological issues and narrative structure of Faat Kine….

March 2, 2011 Posted by | movies | 3 Comments

Fighter or Boxer, from Metaphor to Genre

A week ago, after watching The Fighter, which I think deserves to win the Academy Award for best picture next week, one of my friends and I decided it would be fun to take a boxing class. She did some research and found a gym that would be good for both men and women, and we drove down to take its free introductory lesson. The Uppercut Boxing Gym in Minneapolis is a very cool place, owned by Lisa Bauch, a former boxer herself and now promoter of women’s boxing. What impressed me about Uppercut is the diversity of people there — age, gender, race, and skill level, from people like me to genuine competitors — all there to see what they could do and to get better. And what impressed me about my first boxing class is how hard it is. Boxing is not just fighting, and it’s not even just a sport; it’s an art that requires incredible mental concentration and self-discipline about the position and movement of your hands, feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and head. You may be strong, but if you’re not moving your whole body just right, your punch won’t have much force or accuracy. 

And of course boxing is also a popular Hollywood genre, and coincidentally I’m right in the middle of teaching the textbook’s chapter on genre in my film class, for which we’re watching two classics of the Western genre: The Searchers and Once upon a Time in the West. Inspired by how much I enjoyed the boxing class (and knowing I really didn’t have time this semester to drive down to Minneapolis to take another one), I decided to watch some more boxing movies: Ali, starring Will Smith (2001), Raging Bull, starring Robert Di Niro (1980), and Girlfight, starring Michelle Rodriguez (2000). I’d seen them all before, but it was fun to see them again all together, and watching them all together, I could get a good sense of the samenesses and the differences. And one of those differences, as I want to argue now based on my obviously very small experience at a boxing class, is that some boxing movies are about real boxing (the art that I mentioned above), and others are just about punching and violence. But all of them have some kind of politics to them.

So, the archetypal boxing story is about a person’s desire to be better than they are, to escape poverty or a bad neighborhood, to overcome his or her own personal demons, etc. Boxers are essentially at war on two fronts — at war with all the forces in their community that keep them down and at war with themselves. In that way, the boxing story is not just the story of a boxer; it’s also a story about the community the boxer is in. As one of my fellow bloggers, [here],  rightly pointed out about The Fighter, it’s not just a movie about an individual, it’s a movie about the whole town of Lowell, Massachusetts, a town suffering from a long postindustrial decline. The boxer’s ability to transform himself is a metaphor for people’s ability to transform themselves. And especially in this movie, the real fighter is not the boxer, but the boxer’s brother fighting his crack cocaine addiction and his failure to live up to his family’s expectations. Hence, the boxer is a metaphor for this struggle to transform oneself and escape the life and the place where one feels trapped. Those who analyze film and novels call this sort of metaphor condensation. Condensation is the essence of all story telling, but it’s especially apparent in genre films, since the vehicle for condensation is what defines the genre and the metaphorical meaning. A very different film from The Fighter, but also a good example of condensation, is Ali, which uses the boxing genre to tell a very political story about racism in the context of the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Mohammed Ali’s personal triumphs and his refusal to compromise his integrity are explicitly presented as a metaphor for the civil rights struggle.

But the metaphorical meaning is only part of the meaning. The ideological meaning is affected by the ways in which the movie displaces a complicated political reality (i.e., the real causes of poverty in a town like Lowell or the real problems of crack addiction) onto a simpler story with a clear moral. And so, if you want to make a decision about whether a movie is good or not, you have to look not just at the metaphor/condensation (which is obvious anyway), but at how the metaphor interacts with displacement or metonymy (which is more complicated and interesting.)

So, I want to compare and contrast The Fighter with a few older movies. First, possibly the two most famous and classic boxing movies are Rocky and Raging Bull, and noticeably they came out at about the same time: Rocky in 1976, and the sequel in 1978, and Raging Bull in 1980. Although Raging Bull is the critics’ favorite, always ranked as one of the best movies ever made, my guess is that far more people are familiar with Rocky. In some ways, the movies are the same in that neither of them actually has any boxing in them. In my opinion, they are both extremely violent punching movies, in which Rocky and Jake La Motta are able to win fights not because they box well, but because they can take a lot of punishment. Essentially, what we see on the screen for two hours is a man getting hit in the face over and over until the opponent’s arm gets tired. These are movies about endurance and survival, and that’s the metaphor. Personally, I don’t like either of them for this reason. In reality, nobody who boxed the way these two men box would ever win a professional fight, which are scored on points, not on how many times you can get punched in the face and still stand up. I’ve never seen a real boxing match in which the referee let a boxer get hit like that. It’s absurd and even a little grotesque.

But what’s also interesting is how different the movies are, and one might even speculate that Raging Bull was a political response to Rocky. Think about the character of Rocky. He is an ordinary, slow, passive, quiet, but resilient guy who loves his wife and wants her to be happy. It’s hard to imagine him actually fighting anyone because Sylvester Stallone plays him as someone who doesn’t even seem to want to fight. He acts as though he hardly has an aggressive bone in his body, until he gets punched enough times and then reacts. Symbolically, we can see the appeal of this film, since Rocky is also a film about a man fighting his own circumstances of poverty and illiteracy. Nobody chooses to fight those things, but we have to fight. Thus, in some ways, Rocky is a very working class film, but it is a conservative working class film that displaces the real social problems onto a sweet, innocent man who endures. And of course, there is also the racial element, since it celebrates a poor white man’s triumph over a rich black man in a way that is typical of Hollywood’s tendency to tell stories that are contrary to what is typically the case in reality.

Jake La Motta’s character in Raging Bull is the exact opposite of Rocky. As the Village Voice review notes, he is a paranoid, violent man who abuses his wife and lashes out at everyone. The boxing industry is corrupted by the mafia who ask him to lose a fight on purpose. The fights are filmed in a way that exaggerates the violence, and scenes are edited to move back and forth between the boxing ring and his home to emphasize how his psychotic rage carries over from one to the other. Often, the movie is so violent and disturbing that it’s hard to watch. Whereas Rocky is sentimental, Raging Bull is brutal.

We might be tempted to imagine that Jake La Motta is a more realistic portrait of a boxer than Rocky. We might even say that the modernist film style of Raging Bull takes the Rocky character’s ability to endure punishment to such an extreme that its brutal violence exposes the ways that Rocky‘s realist style actually conceals the violent implications of its own story. This is why it seems to me that Raging Bull was made in reaction to Rocky. However, Raging Bull is not really a boxing movie but an anti-boxing movie since the main character is an unlikeable anti-hero and goes against the basic archetype of the genre — a rather obvious fact that Joyce Carol Oates fails to understand in her discussion of all these movies in her incredibly stupid and profoundly ignorant review of The Fighter for The New York Review of Books [here]. So, which is the more realistic, the classic boxing story or the classic anti-boxing story?

In my view, neither of these movies, for all their pretences at truth, are realistic, and neither has much to do with boxing. They have everything to do with the politics of the director, and in neither of these movies do we get a nuanced or complex sense of the cultural location of these two men who are (presumably) struggling against their own cultural location. What makes The Fighter a better movie than both Rocky and Raging Bull is that we do get a complex sense of Lowell, Massachusetts and the difficult, daily choices the characters in a diverse community have to make. In addition, we also see real boxing, not just punching, and some actual discussion of boxing strategy. In some ways, the character of Micky is too sweetly innocent like Rocky — the kind of false image of a boxer that Raging Bull goes against — but Micky’s character is more complex than Rocky, and his whole family’s avoidence of his brother’s crack addiction adds layers of psychological depth to all the characters. And this is why I said at the beginning of this blog that understanding the metaphor of a film is easy enough to do, but to understand whether a movie is good, and to understand how it is working ideologically, we need to look at the metonymy — in other words, how the movie manages the social context by displacing complex and hard-to-represent factors onto simpler, more palpable images and plot-lines.

Similarly, Girlfight is a real boxing movie, in which the main character actually learns how to box. Its realism and understated style are appreciated by a New York Times review [here]. The main character Diana Guzman lives in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn with her emotionally and physically abusive father. At the beginning of the movie, she is full of anger that she can’t control. By the end of the movie, she learns self-discipline by involving herself in a community of other boxers, and figures a way out of her circumstances. In many ways, it is a standard, archetypal boxing story, but in my opinion it is far more realistic and less sentimental than the  romantic, patriotic, and gratuitously violent Rocky films, and still just as inspiring. In my view, Girlfight is a lot like The Fighter in that there is no gratuitous violence at all and instead mostly just a lot of good story, except that The Fighter is about the economic hardship and crack epidemic that followed Ronald Reagan’s economic and social reengineering policies in the 1980s and Girlfight is obviously about something else. The movie carefully explores the political issues of gender without giving us an easy answer as to how men and women relate to each other.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | movies | 1 Comment

Reading Apocalypto

Last night I forced myself to see Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. As a specialist in the colonial period of American literature, I feel obligated to pay attention to Hollywood’s many renditions of that time period — from Pocahontas and The New World to The Crucible, The Patriot, and even National Treasure. Sometimes they are better than I expect them to be (as in the case of New World) and sometimes they are worse (as in 1996 version of The Crucible.) Of course, they always get their history wrong, but as a teacher, my hope is that Hollywood’s misrepresentations of history might at the very least be useful by giving me something to talk about in class. Interestingly, like me, Mel Gibson also seems also to have a special interest in the colonial period, since he was the voice of John Smith in the Disney version of Pocahontas, the patriot in The Patriot, and the producer of Apocalypto. I avoided Apocalypto after it came out in 2005 because I had heard terrible things about it, but I was finally compelled to see for myself. This is a hard movie for me to talk about, in part because the film reviews I’ve read seem to have covered almost everything I might say. So, what I’d like to do in this blog is move through a series of questions in order to consider several different ways of reading the movie.

First, one simple and obvious question is how historically accurate is the movie? As many scholars immediately pointed out, Apocalypto gets its history very, very wrong. The list of errors is far too long for me to recount in my little blog, and a few film critics [here] and [here] and a few anthropologists [here] and [here] have already thoroughly done so at length anyway. The most bizarre error is that actually the Mayan Empire began to shrink in the 9th century, but Gibson has them collapsing five hundred years later, at the moment Columbus discovers America. Also, the Maya were known for their extensive agriculture and complex social organization, but the film only shows us hunters in a jungle. The Mayan Empire is also well-known to have been one of the most culturally, technologically, and economically advanced civilizations in the world at that time, but Gibson’s movie presents them as sadistic, superstitious, and insane. One could excuse Gibson by saying this was just a movie, but in the special features of the DVD he claims he tried to make his movie as “real” and “true” as possible, and he even hired specialists and experts in Mayan history to help him with the many various details. Gibson’s attention to historical accuracy make all the glaring inaccuracies stand out. It is not enough for us to simply dismiss these errors as simple mistakes or as necessary for an exciting plot. If he misrepresented history, he did it deliberately. But why would he do that?

So, a more interesting question than the film’s accuracy is another question: was Gibson ideologically motivated, and what might his motivation be?

Many Native Americans were very angry at the film and accused Gibson of racism and of deliberately misrepresenting their culture. See, for instance, [here] and [here]. Beyond simple racism, others have argued that the movie seems to excuse European colonization. This criticism of the movie is based on its beginning and ending. The movie opens with the quote “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within,” and it ends with the arrival of Columbus, whose arrival the hero of the movie heralds as a “new beginning.” (In fact, the word apocalypto means “new beginning” in Greek, and this new beginning is symbolized in the movie by the birth of his son and baptismal water.) In other words, the movie seems to suggest that the arrival of the Spanish would be good for the Native Americans who suffered under a brutal and corrupt Mayan Empire. Of course, anyone who’s ever read a history book knows that the opposite was true and that the Spanish committed acts of genocide, slavery, murder, rape, and torture (often in the name of Jesus Christ) on a scale far, far worse.

In addition, one can make allegorical comparisons between the movie and the present moment. In 2005 when the movie came out, the United States was in the middle of conquering Iraq (also an ancient civilization like the Maya), and by analogy, one might compare the way Iraq was being represented in the mainstream media to the way the Mayan culture was being represented in Gibson’s movie. President George Bush II’s argument for going to war, after all, was precisely that the United States was liberating the Iraqis from a brutal, sadistic regime.

Of course, one of the interesting things about movies is that their ideological meaning is never fixed or determinate, since one could just as easily decide instead to compare the United States to the corrupt Mayan empire that constantly attacked and brutalized its smaller neighbors. If read this way, the message of the movie might seem to be that the United States ought not go the way of the Mayan empire. And in fact, Gibson did publicly state his opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq by explicitly comparing Bush’s behavior to the brutal Mayan regime in his movie. (See [here].)

So, if the movie can be read in opposite directions in relation to the Iraq War, it would appear that ideology is less clear than we may have initially thought. Stories and films can move audiences in different ways depending on the audience’s expectations and the stylistic elements of the film. And this leads me to a third question.

My third question is whether form and style have any relationship to ideology. Defenders of the movie (including Quentin Tarantino) — see [here] and [here] —  argue that the ideological content of the movie is less important than its cinematic style and technical innovation. But it seems to me that the artistic form is all too simple. The form is basically bad guys against good guys: act one being the attack, act two being the sacrifice, and act three being the escape and chase. To make this plot work, the Maya are characterized as irrationally and insanely brutal, and many of their actions are so disgusting and excessive that they don’t even make any sense as an expression or strategy of imperial domination. In contrast, the good guys are represented as relatively innocent and childlike. The bad guys are all bad, the good guys all good, and never do they ever have a conversation. Moreover, apparently, they had never had any cultural or commercial interaction before the attack — an aspect of the plot that makes no sense considering the size and proximity of the Mayan empire to this small tribe. How could the small tribe not be aware of the empire just up the river? The style follows from the form. This is quite possibly one of the most brutal and sadistic movies I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot), with almost two solid hours straight of graphic, pointless, and stomach-churning violence. I was barely able to sit through it, I found it so disgusting and offensive.

It is important to think about this non-stop violence as an essential characteristic of the movie, because it is possible to imagine a different kind of story. Consider how American and European cinema tends to represent its own empires. For instance, the drama Rome that showed on BBC and on HBO from 2005 to 2007 (about the same time as Apocalypto) and is also about the corruption of an empire. But in this show, we see a very elaborate and complex political organization with a variety of characters who may do bad things but are all understandable as human characters. In contrast to the characters in Rome, the Maya in Apocalypto are totally inhuman and have no personality other than pure cruelty. Thus, the form and style of the movie Apocalypto contribute to the racist ideology of the content. Point being that we can imagine revising the form and style of the movie to be more realistic and human, and in so doing the ideology would in effect also change. Form and style matter just as much as content.

OK, so far, I’ve criticized the movie pretty harshly. To be honest, it’s hard for me to find anything redeeming about it, but I’m going to try. What if we read the movie a different way? There are other ways this movie connects with its audience. For example, this is probably the first movie ever made entirely in the Mayan language, which is really cool and which is why some were excited about its production (see [here]). And gradually, the movie encourages the audience to identify with the Indian Jaguar Paw. And indeed, over the course of the movie, he becomes more and more likeable and cool. This is an interesting aspect, especially if we compare Apocalypto to the movie Avatar. Both movies are about empires destroying innocent nature people (and in both movies, the innocent victims are painted blue, LOL), but in Avatar the main character whom we identify with is an Anglo-Saxon American. (And you can read my analysis of Avatar [here].)

Along these lines, even though Apocalypto seems to its critics to ideologically present a justification for Spanish colonization, it also does something else — we in the audience feel some nostalgia and longing for the Native American way of life before they were attacked by the Mayan Empire. We have no emotional attachment to the ships of Columbus that we see at the end, and neither does Jaguar Paw, who turns away from them. (This concluding moment has actually confused some critics who assumed Gibson was making a pro-Catholic propaganda film and wonder why Jaguar Paw doesn’t embrace European Christianity at the end. See this rather strange Time Magazine article, “What Has Mel Gibson Got Against the Church?“) Jaguar Paw’s turning away from Columbus at the end suggests that Gibson’s real desire is something of a fantasy — a desire for innocence and purity in the context of a brutal and complicated world.

And so, in conclusion… I don’t know….

December 9, 2010 Posted by | movies | Leave a comment

Easy A and the History of Sexuality

A couple years ago, I taught a class on postmodern revisions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, and I also have used his novel as a prooftext for teaching my introduction to literary theory class. The list of literary and pop cultural revisions is really long, including three novels by John Updike, two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, and episodes of TV shows The Simpsons and Popular, just to name a few. So, not surprisingly, when the movie Easy A came out a couple weeks ago, several of my former students asked me if I intended to see it. 

And of course I did. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:

As you might guess, the movie (which, by the way, has been quite successful at the box office) is pretty typical of teen-drama adaptations of Hawthorne’s story. The good-hearted but delightfully cynical Olive is rumored to have lost her virginity even though she hasn’t. The rumor spreads with lightning speed via cell phone text messaging. Later, to protect her gay friend Brandon from constantly getting beat up at school for being gay, she decides to use the rumor to Brandon’s advantage and pretends to have sex with him. (And this turn of events should remind you of Hester Prynne protecting Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.) In saving Brandon’s reputation, she loses control of her own, as the school erupts into a hysterical, puritanical rage, and soon everyone is using her as their scapegoat, blaming their own indiscretions on her. Just as in the “Caged!” episode of the show Popular (produced by the same person as the more successful show Glee), the high school students are reading the novel in their English class at the same time that events in their lives appear to mirror the novel’s main themes — in this case, the theme that religious conservatives are hypocritical jerks. Simple?

No, not so simple. Nevermind that Hawthorne’s novel is infinitely more complex than that — an obvious point and not very interesting; the movie also is infinitely more complex than that. So, let’s just talk about the movie on its own terms for a moment. The clever counterpoint to the puritanical hissy fit thrown by her classmates is the behavior of her parents and the parents of her friend Rhiannon. They belong to the 60s hippy generation, and the movie is set in the famously hippy-esque town of Ojai, California. Their own sexual permissiveness, devil-may-care worldview, and supportive expressions of love for their daughter no matter what she does is the antithesis to the rigidly judgemental behavior of her high school peers. So, what do we make of the dialectic between excessively oppressive judgement and the excessive lack of judgement in the movie? Is one good, the other bad?

To throw yet another monkey at the wrench (hahaha), one big difference between Hawthorne’s version and Easy A is that the geeky boys all claim to have had sex with Olive in order to upgrade their own reputations. So, in addition to the social pressure to remain virginal, there is at the same time the social pressure to score. In fact, some of the boys in the movie are almost on the verge of tears because of their reputations as unattractive virgins who will never get a girl. Is this merely a gender role double standard where boys are supposed to get as much action as they can and girls are supposed to remain virgins until marriage (or, at least, until true love)? No, it’s trickier than that. At the beginning of the movie, her friend Rhiannon is also pressuring Olive to lose her virginity, but then once Olive becomes the “sex star” of the school (instead of Rhiannon’s prominent and always-on-display boobs), then Rhiannon turns on Olive and joins the religious conservatives. How is Rhiannon so easily able to switch sides?

What the dialectic between extreme judgement and extreme permissiveness in the movie reveals is that they are not quite as opposite as we might think. Though Olive’s parents would appear to tolerate anything she does, she is unable to tell them the truth about what’s going on, and so she speaks through the scarlet A as a symbol of her inability to speak and her inability to successfully negotiate the contradictory expectations of her society. In so-called olden times, the patriarchal father is supposed to be the one to lay down the law, so we would hide our transgressions from him, but in our liberated postmodern world the lawlessness of the new-age father also traps us in his open-ended expectations. What do we say to “the law” when we aren’t sure what the law wants from us?

Now, let’s back up just a bit and think historically. The typical reaction of readers to The Scarlet Letter is “golly gee, them Puritans sure were tough; I’m glad we live in these here more progressive-like times.” So, what is a revision that sets an old story in our present context supposed to do? Does it show us how things are different now, or does it show us that things are basically the same? Or is the revision commenting on the older text, making an improvement, suggesting that the earlier version wasn’t quite right, that it was missing something, or that it just wasn’t fair to one of the characters? In any case, a common tendency is to read the older text with the assumption that our world has progressed and therefore is less repressed.

However, as two very different philosophers of culture Slavoj Zizek and Michel Foucault have argued, maybe something else is going on. For Zizek, what seems to be a liberal permissiveness is actually just a new demand — the demand that we must enjoy. The law of this seemingly new-age permissive father is actually the cultural logic of our age of consumer capitalism… the logic that says we absolutely must pursue happiness at all costs. For Foucault, especially in his classic book The History of Sexuality, volume 1, the apparent sexual revolution of the 1960s was nothing more than an intensification of the discourse about our sexuality. In other words, Foucault argues against what he calls the “repressive hypothesis”; this is the hypothesis that back in olden days before the liberatory work of Freudian psychoanalysis, things were more repressive. Instead, for Foucault, the cultural codes, institutions of morality, and modes of discourse — in other words, the way we talk about the sexual acts we’re not supposed to talk about — are not simply something repressive that we now pretend to liberate ourselves from. Rather, the repressive apparatus (e.g., the church, the school, doctors, etc.) actually invogorates and directs our desire. In other words, society is not just repressive of our desire; it is productive of our desire. In effect, the discourse of sexuality places us in the midst of paradoxical, conflicting demands that are perhaps even more intense now than they were before…

….and this is what I think the movie Easy A is about. In our supposedly liberated, post-60s world, things are not so “easy” after all.

And where does the movie end up? Exactly where you might expect — not the politically radical ending of Hawthorne’s novel where Hester refuses to capitulate to the hypocritical social order and where she instead invents an alternative ethos. Rather, it ends with Olive confessing “the truth” in public and finding exactly the safe romance that everyone wanted for her in the first place…. Sigh. Oh well, it’s still a good movie, full of the surrealistic, postmodern pastiche that we all love.

Now, what I haven’t said anything about in this blog post is another bit of cleverness in the movie — its allusion to another American classic often taught in high school. While Olive expresses herself by alluding to The Scarlet Letter, her gay friend Brandon expresses his own sexuality by alluding to Huckleberry Finn as he runs away from town with a black man. There’s a lot more to say here, but I’ll leave that thread for someone else to unravel.

October 3, 2010 Posted by | feminism, movies | 4 Comments

Mexican Independence, the Multitude, and “Machete”

Yesterday was Mexico and Chile’s Independence Day — a particularly important one for Mexico as it is the 200th year anniversary of their overthrow of Spanish colonial rule  and the 100th year anniversary of their overthrow of the capitalist dictator Porfirio Diaz. I decided to celebrate this important day by attending a scholarly lecture by Dr. Michael Gonzalez on the origins of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, then going to the theater to watch Robert Rodriguez’s new movie Machete (starring Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Segal, Cheech Marin, and Lindsay Lohan), and finishing the evening with a shot of tequila and a beer with one of my comrades at the little bar down the block from my apartment.

So, you may be looking at the title of this blog and wondering what Mexican Independence, the movie Machete, and the theoretical concept of the “multitude” have to do with each other. And of course what they have to do with each other is exactly the point of this post, so I hope you will keep reading in order to find out. But first, check out the trailer for the kick-ass movie Machete.

 

And second, if you aren’t familiar with the multitude concept, it was theorized somewhat recently by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their books Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) and by Paulo Virno in Grammar of the Multitude (2004) and Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (2008), but the concept can be found in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1513), Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive (1642), and Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). Essentially it is a category that can be contrasted to other concepts such as  the People (as in the phrase “we the People of the United States…”) and civil society, which are determined by a territorial, national government. The multitude are autonomous, plural, and deterritorialized, and might seem to have no foundation for political agency or even civilization, and yet — as such, despite that negative characterization — the multitude is very productive, innovative, creative, and positively resistant to the oppressive regime of capitalist social organization.

Third, if you aren’t familiar with the history of the two Mexican revolutions, the first “Mexican War of Independence” in 1810 somewhat resembles the United States’s 1776 revolution in which the basic racist power structure remained intact — i.e., for the U.S., merely shifting colonial rule from the elite bourgeois capitalist class in London to the elite bourgeois capitalist class in Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and Charlestown, and for Mexico from Madrid to Mexico City. But the second “Mexican Revolution” a century later was a social revolution of the working class, peasant farmers, and indigenous people to overthrow the capitalist dictatorship. Significantly, this dictatorship had been working on behalf of the interests of U.S. capitalists to expropriate land from farmers (many of them Native Americans) and to exploit laborers in mines, oil fields, and factories. One of the government’s political tools against labor organization, farmer’s unions, and the development of civil society was the threat of state violence and police brutality. Against the oppressive and exploitative regime, uprisings emerged across the state of Mexico, often autonomous of each other — the most famous of which was the romantically Robin-Hood-like Pancho Villa. What I most appreciated about the lecture I heard by Dr. Gonzalez was just how diverse, convoluted, and autonomous the various social movements that produced the revolution in 1910 were — often having very different origins, regional and ethnic commitments, political agendas, and styles of organization. In other words, one might say that this social revolution exhibited some of the characteristics of the “multitude” theorized by Virno, Negri, and Hardt. Nevertheless, what remained unclear to me at the end of Gonzalez’s presentation is how a singular, unified political form eventually emerged out of that multiplicity of creative revolutionary activity.

So, back to the movie. Its main character Machete is an ex-Mexican Federale police office who fled a government corrupted by a drug lord and became an illegal immigrant day laborer in Texas. He is “hired” to assassinate a senator whose racist political platform is anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican, but of course this is all a ruse. The person who hired him actually works for that senator, and they are both in league not only with redneck, anti-immigrant vigilantes but also with the same Mexican drug lord who is Machete’s nemesis. We soon discover that the anti-immigrant political rhetoric is all a smokescreen to cover their effort to monopolize the drug trade by building a wall between Mexico and the United States, a wall that they alone control. Meanwhile, Machete teams up with Luz — a.k.a., “She” — who is a leader of the underground “Network” that assists immigrants and organizes resistance to their oppression on both sides of the border. The police fail to understand how the “network” is organized, insisting that it must be a top-down organizational structure with “She” at the top. However, of course it is actually a loose organization in which all its members operate autonomously and according to their own moral conscience. 

How this relates to the theory of Negri and Hardt and the history of the Mexican Revolution is this: (1) The political form of capitalism is a network of groups that one would think would be opposed to each other (i.e., American senator, anti-immigrant vigilantes, and a Mexican drug cartel) but actually operate together to control the economy. The “wall” between nations is merely a tool of transnational capital. (2) The resistance to capitalism is also a borderless “network” of diverse groups and interests bound loosely together by affective social relations. In the movie’s climactic battle between the evil capitalist network and the good multitude network, we see pictographic representations of how the multitude operates — the multitude of many bodies — farmers, nurses, caretakers, automobile mechanics, and restaurant dish washers all coming together, all using the tools of their own trade as weapons. The way this multitude communicates with itself is shown when messages gets passed from one person to another and to another and so on through cellular text messaging. In fact, the innovative use of cell phones as an organizing tool is foregrounded when Machete says that he “improvises.” Or, to quote singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco (which Negri and Hardt do), “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” And this would include tools of communication and cultural identity. At the same time, the affective ethical bonds of the multitude are constantly demonstrated throughout the movie, for instance when the daughter and employees of the Senator’s evil campaign manager turn against him and side with the multitude’s Network. I can’t help but believe that the film’s director Robert Rodriguez has read Negri and Hardt’s work and was consciously parodying it in his movie.

The question for me is the effect of the parody. Rodriguez’s film is glitzy, gratuitously violent, and intentionally absurd. If you have seen his other work and his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, then you can imagine what I mean. For example, a woman pulling a cell phone out of her vagina after stabbing Machete, and Machete using someone’s intestines as a rope to scale a wall, and the absurd climactic scene where sexy nurses in short skirts are shooting machine guns. Does this parodic circus of clownish violence undermine the theory of Negri and Hardt by making it so laughable? Or is the entertaining cinematic romp actually a vehical (or tool) for imagining the future of political resistance… or a tool for exposing the idiotic, racist rhetoric of mainstream American politicians and corporate media…. It’s hard to say.

Sadly, whether because of the excessive violence or because of the pro-Mexican message, the movie was so unsuccessful in central Minnesota’s nowhere town where I live that hardly anyone was in the movie theater both times I saw it this week, and it only played for one week before the theater decided to cancel the movie because of the low ticket sales. This is a bummer because a lot of my students said they wanted to see it. I know it was more successful in cities like Los Angeles and Minneapolis, because of e-mails I got from former students who live there, but still…. Sigh.

Anyway, I am dashing off this blog quickly because I have to teach class and have a zillion other things to do, but in honor of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and all revolutions yet to come, I have just one last thing to say — ¡ya basta!

September 17, 2010 Posted by | movies | 2 Comments

Finfinne Diaries 8: Movies in Ethiopia

First International Short Film Festival in Addis Ababa

  As I mentioned in my first Finfinne Diary about my overall itinerary, one of the goals for my trip was to investigate the possibility of film and media development in Ethiopia. And serendipitously, while I was traveling around the Oromia region, Ethiopia just happened to be hosting its very first international short film festival — Images that Matter — to encourage and develop young talent. The festival included films and filmmakers from all over the world, including Morocco, Australia, Iran, Japan, France, Sudan, China, Brazil, and Kenya, and it was sponsored by a wide variety of organizations including Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the French government, the World Bank, Ethiopian Airlines,  BGI Ethiopia (a beer distributor), and Addis Ababa University… among many others. The guest of honor was the Somali-born supermodel Waris Dirie, whose autobiography Desert Flower was recently made into a movie that focuses attention on the problem of female circumcision. Luckily for me, extra tickets were being handed out on the street in front of the National Theater one morning, and I just happened to be walking by at that very moment, so I was able to attend several of the sessions and the final award ceremony. I was able to watch most of the short films competing for the East African film competition. This was a wonderful experience, and I almost can’t believe my good luck.  

So, the question for this blog is how to go about developing the film and media industry within Ethiopia. This was one of the stated goals of the film festival, and it is also one of the goals of organizations such as Sandscribe Communications, the Blue Nile Film and Television Academy, and the Goethe Institute’s Ethiopian Film Initiative. The two friends who most helped me with my trip — and who spoke with me on the phone almost every day I was there — are both aspiring Oromo film-makers, one living in the United States, one in Ethiopia. So, in a sense, my blog post today is in part a token of thanks to both of them, but it is also a critical inquiry into what is possible as well as into strategies for making that possibility a reality.  

Admittedly, although I have published a scholarly article about film and globalization, I knew nothing at all about the movie business in Ethiopia or anywhere in Africa before my trip this summer. So, after I came back to the United States I went to the local university library to check out a few books such as Francois Pfaff’s Focus on African Films (2004) and Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike’s Black African Cinema (1994), and I flipped through old issues of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Journal of Oromo Studies, African Studies Review, and Northeast African Studies. I also watched a few movies such as Ousmane Sembene’s classic Black Girl (1966) about colonial racism and Xala (1975) about postcolonial government corruption. (I probably should have done all this before I went on my big trip, but I didn’t have time.) Luckily, just a couple weeks after I returned from Oromia, the new movie Teza, by the Ethiopia-born independent film maker Haile Gerima (which coincidentally included two actors whom I briefly met at Addis Ababa University), was finally screened at an art-house theater in Minneapolis. Significantly, in all my research (which admittedly was far from rigorous or thorough), I found absolutely no scholarly  work whatsoever on the film industry in Ethiopia. Instead I found a few interviews with Haile Gerima and Salem Mekuria, but both of them live and work in the United States and in some ways are more African-American than they are Ethiopian. And I believe this absence of scholarly work indicates precisely the problem that my friends want to address: the lack of quality film and media in Ethiopia and the general disinterest among Ethiopian scholars. Moreover, based on my experience at the film festival and my follow-up research, the opportunities for someone to make a feature-length dramatic film in Ethiopia in a language other than Amharic are practically nil. What are my friends and I to do?  

Probably the most useful book for my purposes is African Cinema (1992) by Manthia Diawara (along with his earlier article available on-line [here].) Why I say Diawara’s book is most useful is because it comparatively analyzes the history of production, distribution, and consumption in many African countries from the colonial period of the 1930s through the postcolonial 1960s to the 1980s. Some nations (such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal) were successful at fostering a national cinema, but most were not. Although every country is unique, so one can’t simply emulate the kind of profitable multi-ethnic film production happening in Nigeria (or “Nollywood” as it’s called), the various successes and failures provide us with lessons we can learn from. In contrast to Diawara’s book, all of the other books on African film that I found focused either on the genius of individual directors or on the style and content of “good” movies. In my view, focusing on the “author” or on the “work” doesn’t actually go far enough to explain why and how some movies get made and others do not. And for all my students from my “English 243” class who might still be reading my blog from time to time, this is one of Michel Foucault’s main points in his famous essay “What is an Author?” and in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge. No matter what an individual’s talents, if he or she doesn’t have the right equipment or enough investment of capital, the movie won’t get made. And even if one has equipment and financing, that doesn’t mean one has a labor force with the skills and knowledge necessary to shoot some good pictures, as is evident from the awful stuff made by Ethiopia’s national television station. And even more important than production is distribution, as I will argue in just moment. Please note that my blog on movies in Ethiopia is not going to discuss the subject matter, plots, or style of any movies. Those questions are for individual film-makers to decide, not me. Rather, I am interested in what conditions make possible the successful production and distribution of movies, whatever they may be about.  

My argument is basically that we need to pay attention not only to the means of production but also to distribution and consumption. And we need to pay attention to how production, distribution, and consumption affect each other in complex ways. I think my students and colleagues in central Minnesota can sympathize with me on this one. Although there is an enormous megaplex with 18 theaters very close to me, it only shows crap such as the recent A-Team, Knight and Day, Killers, etc. (And yes, in case you are wondering, I actually saw all of those earlier this summer, even though they are crap.) Not only is it almost impossible to see a highly acclaimed movie such as Gerima’s Teza, it’s even difficult to see a movie as popular as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — despite the fact that that movie is based on the best-selling novel of the past two years. Ironically, I had a similar experience while I was in Ethiopia’s capital city. The same movies that were in the movie theaters in my small city in central Minnesota were also at the very same time in the movie theaters in Finfinne (a.k.a. Addis Ababa). In other words, it was easier to watch the A-Team in Ethiopia than it was to watch Teza.  

Why is that? My students often seem to assume it’s simply a matter of popularity, but actually that’s not at all the case. As Diawara shows in his book about African cinema, and as theorists Fredric Jameson, Masao Miyoshi, Barbara Trent, and Paik Nak-chung all argue in the seminal book The Cultures of Globalization, and as anyone who has ever talked to the manager of a theater would know, there are other factors. For instance, even an independent movie theater is obliged to show certain movies by large production companies, even if it doesn’t want to show them or knows they will be unpopular, because they will lose access to a lot of movies they do want to show if they don’t. Sometimes popular movies don’t get much screen time while unpopular movies do.  

Diawara narrates case after case across Africa when European-and-American-controlled distribution networks effectively shut down efforts by independent African directors to produce their work. Such neo-colonial European-American interests are able to do this directly by simply denying access to theaters or indirectly by scaring off potential investors. As a result, African filmmakers were often unable to compete with Hollywood romances and Hong Kong kung fu. And even today, it is very difficult to watch African movies in the United States; they are almost never shown in theaters and even the DVDs are not available through the usual commercial channels or public libraries. Ironically, both times I’ve been on a plane to Africa (Kenya last year, Ethiopia this year), I could watch movies made in the United States, France, Japan, and India, but not movies made by anyone from Africa.  

Likewise, movies are often financially successful because an audience has been mobilized, whether through advertising or through other means such as universities, churches, or activist organizations. For instance, the case of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is somewhat well known — the first African-American-made, African-American-owned movie in the United States, whose financial success in 1971 surprised everyone. Part of its success is owed to the Black Panthers who mobilized its members to go watch it. If one thinks of the future of quality film in Ethiopia, one will have to figure out how to organize an audience. A city such as Jimma may not have a good theater, but it does have a good university with an auditorium. Smaller towns have churches. And some African governments in the 1970s and 80s sponsored mobile crews that traveled from town to town to promote and show films.  

One of the ways that individual nations in Africa attempted to support their nascent film industries in the wake of their independence from colonial rule was to nationalize the industry. In other words, European companies were controlling the content and the distribution, which meant that it was hard for Africans to develop their own skills and take control of the medium and to make movies that criticized European colonial and neo-colonial policies. Governments built training centers, funded movies, and facilitated their distribution. However, nationalization has three problems. First, often nationalization meant government control, and the result was boring propaganda films (and mostly documentaries or news) that supported the government’s narrow political agenda. Second, movies were rarely high on the government’s list of priorities, so the fledgling film industries withered away. Third, if the national government only supported production but didn’t also work effectively to support distribution, the films simply could not compete or even attract investment. Fourth, American and European companies were extremely hostile to any effort by an African nation or African company to control its own production and distribution, and hence the Americans and Europeans would use any means necessary to assert their interests. In other words, the film industry has never been governed by free market forces. To imagine that such is the case is to indulge in pure fantasy. Rather, like all big businesses where a lot is at stake both financially and politically, it has always been about power.  

Clearly the subject of cinema in Africa is complex since an entire book has been written about it, but I’d like to finish this post by first talking about two successful policies and then applying the lessons of those policies to the specific case of Ethiopia. One successful policy was Nigeria’s Indigenization Act that enabled private Nigerians with business contracts to take control of film distribution and exhibition. Instead of the kind of direct government control and sponsorship popular in many African countries, this act simply enables private businesses to compete with the more powerful American and European companies. And today, Nigeria is not just the biggest producer of films in Africa but also one of the biggest producers of films in the world, so I think we should take their example  seriously. (Admittedly, this is due mostly to Nigeria having one of the biggest populations in the world, not to mention a heck of a lot of oil. Nevertheless, the case of Nigeria is especially useful example to consider while thinking critically about Ethiopia’s situation considering that Nigeria also has a history of ethnic conflict.)  

The other successful policy is evident in the film festival I attended. Instead of national governments simply promoting their own films, there is collaboration across national boundaries. This might take the form of a film festival (such as the famous Cannes festival in France or the festival in Addis Ababa), but more significantly it might take the form of a multilateral trade negotiation among several national governments or the form of a transnational business association.  

OK… so, this blog post is already quite long, but I’d like to conclude by focusing on the case of Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopia lacks any formal training center for film and media — though one of my contacts at Addis Ababa University said that something was in the works there. Ethiopian media also is controlled by a not-so-democratic government. As a result, the aspiring film makers that I met believed their only option was to be completely independent and do everything themselves. As you might guess from everything I’ve written so far in this blog post and in my other Finfinne Diaries, although I am sympathetic to the feelings that motivate this point of view and this desire for total autonomy, I don’t think it is wise. Instead, I think independent film makers will have to build up the infrastructure of film-making gradually by collaborating both within national boundaries and across them. And when I say infrastructure, I mean not just production but also distribution and consumption. And when I say collaborating, I don’t mean in the political sense, but simply the sharing of equipment, space, knowledge, ideas, labor time, and other resources that goes on all the time among artists struggling to make a go at it. 

Also in the case of Ethiopia, one of the obvious issues is the question of ethnic self-determination and governance. Having control of its own media is clearly important for any culture because such media is how identity is expressed, how values are articulated, and how issues are brought to the public mind. For the most part, although some gains have been made by the Oromo and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia since 1992 to have newspapers and other media in their own languages, the mainstream media is still mostly ethnically Amhara. And this was clearly the case at the film festival I attended, though because of the international nature of the event, its primary language was not Amharic but English.  

Oromo Cultural Center Complex?...

 How can such ethnic populations gain access to investment capital and distribution networks in such an environment? Honestly, I do not have the answer to that, but I’d like to offer some highly speculative ideas. Two obvious sources of funding might be the Oromia International Bank and the Oromo Culture Center, soon to be built by the Oromiya Culture and Tourism Bureau — i.e., a government project led by a political party called the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). What might make the Culture Center a problematic source of funding is that it is directed by a somewhat corrupt political organization that does not have the confidence of the Oromo people whom they are supposed to represent. 

... complex under construction...

For the non-Oromo folks reading this blog, the history of Ethiopia and Oromo politics is long and complex, and even after all the reading I’ve done and all the chatting with various peoples, I still don’t understand the in’s and out’s of it. But basically, ever since the mid-1990s, the political party of the OPDO has been almost completely subordinate to the dictatorial regime of Ethiopia and therefore is neither truly democratic nor truly representative of the Oromo people. From the perspective of the more radical and militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization outlawed by the Ethiopian government, the OPDO is simply part of the oppressive state apparatus. But of course the OPDO believes they are more pragmatic than their critics give them credit for, given the reality of the situation. As for the status of the Oromia Bank, I have no idea, except that I doubt it would be in any position to fund a movie perceived to be against the government’s agenda. 

In any case, I can understand why an independent Oromo film maker would shy away from the financial support of the OPDO or the bank because not only might their creative vision be hampered, so too would their credibility and hence their potential audience base. However, on the other hand, an effective development of an Oromo media infrastructure will certainly take a long time and require the input of many organizations and individuals. Even independent film makers benefit from the infrastructure of the mainstream built by large corporate interests. For example, obviously few film makers build their own theaters. And to use an analogy, just because your enemy made the weapon (in this case, the movie theater or the film equipment) doesn’t mean you can’t use that weapon against your enemy. 

So, what to do? There seems to be an either/or situation here. Either the film-makers collaborate with sources of financial capital that they don’t like or they don’t and instead try to maintain their artistic integrity and/or political purity. But perhaps there is a solution that avoids this either/or. What if independent film makers formed an association across ethnic and national boundaries but independent of political parties and the state? What if artistic collaboration and the building of a vibrant media infrastructure were a multicultural and transnational venture? Could they pool their resources this way so as to avoid the pitfalls of both partisan politics and moneyed interests?

August 3, 2010 Posted by | global, media, movies, Oromia | 1 Comment

China’s History through Chinese Cinema

Four of my English majors will be working in China after graduating this May, and since not all of them took advantage of their university’s excellent Asian Studies program, I thought I’d give them a crash course on China’s history through the delightful medium of its movies in my blog. Arguably, China makes some of the best movies in the world, and as the Renaissance poet Philip Sydney famously theorized in his Defense of Poetry, art should be a “delightful teaching.” Learning history through movies can be fun, but movies are not transparent accounts of the past, so I’m going to try to frame them in a dialectical, critical light.

I suppose I should start at the beginning, since, as we know from The Sound of Music, that’s a very good place to start — the foundational moment of China’s history, the beginning of the Qin Dynasty in the third century B.C. This is not the first dynasty in Chinese history, but it’s a foundational one since it is said to have unified China under one rule and eventually built the famous Great Wall. There are two hit movies about this moment. The one more well-known in the United States is Hero, starring Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, and Maggie Cheung and directed by Zhang Yimou in 2002. The lesser-known but perhaps better movie is The Emperor and the Assassin, directed by Chen Kaige in 1998. It is worth watching both movies for points of comparison and contrast. Both are beautifully shot martial arts movies, full of gorgeously choreographed action and brilliant spectacle. Interestingly, Zhang Yimou’s Hero is much more patriotic and simplistic, and has been criticized by the Chinese public for being so, in contrast to Chen Kaige’s investigation of the past which is more critical and multifaceted. I think it’s interesting that Americans tend to prefer Hero even though its ideology is clearly chauvenistically patriotic and monocultural instead of Emperor and the Assassin which seems to promote a more circumspect, pluralistic, and open society. A whole essay could be written about America’s preference, I suppose.

The two directors Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou have clashed before — both being the two most famous directors to come out of China in the early 1990s. Both made movies about China’s progress out of the troubled 1930s and the civil wars of the 1940s through the Communist Revolution to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige directed the groundbreaking and internationally celebrated Farewell My Concubine in 1993, and Zhang Yimou directed the contoversial To Live in 1994. Both star one of the most beautiful and internationally celebrated actresses of our time, Gong Li. Both movies were controversial in China, and both offer slightly different perspectives on the cultural revolution and its significance. They are also important statements that suggest how the generation of Chinese people in the 1990s feel about the recent past — critically, but not dismissively. Both movies are very dark and depressing but cover a lot of ground historically as they tell a beautiful and emotionally touching story. Personally, I prefer Chen Kaige’s style which is more ironic and self-conscious in contrast to Zhang Yimou’s, which is more sentimental.

Both directors have also made movies about gangsters during the gangster-ish era of pre-revolution China: Temptress Moon and Shanghai Triad. These are gorgeously made dramas, some of the best cinematography you’ll ever watch. But it’s sometimes easier to see how the average Chinese feel about their past by watching the more simplistic martial arts movies by Jet Li and Jackie Chan whose movies present an anti-colonialist position against the imperialism of Europe, the United States, and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jet Li’s Once upon a Time in China is probably the best and most patriotic Chinese filmic statement against European imperialism and European racism. Similarly, his more famous movie Fist of Legend (which is a remake of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury) articulates a Chinese position against Japan’s attempt to colonize China. Personally, I prefer the more comical early work by Jackie Chan, such as Project A, which mocks European colonialism in China. All of these movies are set in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. They have been very popular in the United States, which is interesting considering that all of them present a clearly anti-imperialist attitude. More could be said about why Americans (such as myself) like watching movies that criticize American imperialism, but I’ll defer that question for another day.

Coming to the present, one of the biggest issues troubling China in the 1980s was the relationship between the country and the city. After rapid industrialization, the economic and cultural gap between the country and the city was recognized by China’s government to be a problem that needed to be addressed. Hui Wang’s theoretically brilliant and sophisticated book China’s New Order explains the complexities and significance of this dynamic (and I also like this book because it’s by a literature professor in China, but he’s doing political science and history.) Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), blending Kafka-esque comedy and tragedy, brilliantly represents the problematic relation between country and city. Two other movies also explore this relationship in the more recent context of the globalization of the 1990s. Zhang Yang’s sweet and touching movie Shower (1999) and Wang Xiaoshuai’s much darker Beijing Bicycle (2001). Both received interntional acclaim. Also thoughtfully engaging with the changing post-globalization China is the surrealistic Zhou Yu’s Train (2002).

So, that’s my course in “China’s History through Chinese Cinema.” Unfortunately, I haven’t been paying too close attention to Chinese cinema since Zhou Yu’s Train. If anyone has any suggestions, please post a comment with your advice. Or if anyone wants to correct my sense of history or my opinion of the movies, please do. Meanwhile, for Shakespeare fans, probably the best cinematic interpretation of Hamlet is Legend of the Black Scorpion, a.k.a., The Banquet.

April 25, 2010 Posted by | movies, teaching | 2 Comments