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Cinema After 9/11

Film after Film, or What Became of 21st-Century Cinema” is a collection of articles by J. Hoberman published by Verso this year. Most of them appeared originally in the Village Voice, the N.Y. weekly that employed Hoberman for 33 years. With his termination in January of this year, the paper cut its final ties to the long and storied journalistic traditions that made it a must-read each week. As a social critic with Marxist leanings and a partisan of the cinematic avant-garde, Hoberman was a symbol of the paper at its best. The undistinguished bunch that has taken his place are mostly interested in advising the readers how to be entertained for $12 or so. As such they perform a function not that much different from the massage parlor ads at the back of the paper that probably provide most of its revenue nowadays.

The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with the film versus digital debate that provided the substance of this year’s superb documentary “Side by Side”, produced by and starring a remarkably informed and articulate Keanu Reeves. The second is a look at Hollywood blockbusters and a handful of documentaries and indie films that Hoberman investigates as commentary, often unintentional, on the war on terror following 9/11. The final section is a look at some fairly obscure films that would probably be of the most interest to Hoberman’s students at Cooper Union and NYU but the general reader might find it useful as a guide to the Netflix inventory on those occasions when you simply do not have the stomach for another Bruce Willis car chase/smash mouth extravaganza.

When you look at the question of digital filmmaking, there are two aspects to be considered. The first is the use of CGI, a technology that can be used in film or digital. The second is the choice of camera, with the latest digital models threatening to overtake film in satisfying the criterion that lead traditionalists to favor film, namely its ability to capture the warmth and lushness of the visual experience, thus evoking the same distinctions drawn between vinyl records and CD’s in the audiophile world.

With respect to CGI, Hoberman tends to place it within the context of epistemology: What is really real? This is a burning issue at film schools everywhere as I discovered through a brief and vexing encounter in Columbia University’s. Leading edge cinema then becomes fodder for the postmodernist mill:

In August 2000, Time Warner announced that a record-setting 3 million Matrix DVDs had been sold. What’s more, in addition to promoting itself, The Matrix also popularized certain ideas associated with French philosopher Jean Baudrillard—namely the notion of the Hyperreal, “a real without origin or reality,” which might be one way to characterize CGI, as well as The Matrix itself.

One cannot be sure whether the creators of the Matrix series saw themselves in these terms when they got started, but the inclusion of Cornel West in the second and third installments surely demonstrated through a wink of the eye that they were doing something “philosophical”. Perhaps this was to their detriment since the quality of the Matrix product sunk with each release that I attribute to a questionable desire to pose daring but confusing questions about the nature of reality.

On the film versus digital contest, Hoberman comes across as an undecided voter. Although he does not question Jean Luc Godard’s judgment in “In Praise of Love” that we should mourn “the loss of photographic cinema”, he also greatly admires Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”, a digital production shot in the Hermitage Museum in a breathtaking single take. One of the interesting points made in “Side by Side” is that traditional film allows no more than ten minutes per film can, something that militates against the single take goal of “Russian Ark”.

Part two is titled “Chronicle of the Bush Years” and as I read it I was reminded of how difficult it must be to review crap like “Rambo III”,  especially if you, like Hoberman, have a brain. As a decade-long member of New York Film Critics Online (http://nyfco.proboards.com), I review films strictly as an avocation. If I were forced to go to the local Cineplex each week and sit through Adam Sandler movies, I would have dropped out of NYFCO long ago, feeling no more remorse than when I resigned from the Socialist Workers Party in 1978. There is some pain that nobody can endure.

But if you are going to make your living going into the Cineplex like those emergency workers who went into the Fukushima reactors after the Tsunami, then you should do it with the flair and the deep insights of J. Hoberman who saw Hollywood blockbusters in terms of what they had to say about 9/11 and ancillary social and political issues, such as the treatment of immigrants.

The one conclusion you can draw from reading his reviews is that the more stupid and dishonest the film, the more inspired his words. Consider his takedown of “Team America: World Police”, the supposedly edgy satire on the war on terror made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind “South Park”:

Often funny but seldom uproarious, Team America purveys a post–9-11 irony that’s founded on a combination of schoolyard insult, belligerent patriotism, and the absence of irony. The villains are Kim Jong Il, an irate little puppet who furnishes Arab terrorists with WMDs; Michael Moore, who appears outside Mt. Rushmore with a hot dog in each hand and a bomb strapped to his belly; and a gaggle of prominent Hollywood stars led by Alec Baldwin, head of the Film Actors Guild.

In the service of human interest, Team America recruits a replacement commando from the Broadway hit Lease. (He’s first seen singing “Everybody Has AIDS.”) His job is acting, something that intrinsically amuses animators Parker and Stone. Their marionettes vomit, bleed, and explode into organ parts. Indeed, these puppets show more guts than the filmmakers, who direct their fire at very soft targets: French and Egyptian civilians, a Communist dictator, and a bunch of Hollywood showboats. Despite some pre-release Drudge-stoked hysteria regarding an “unconscionable” attack on the administration, no American politicians appear in the movie. (The movie has since garnered Fox News’s seal of approval.) Nor do any media moguls. The filmmakers never satirize anyone who could hurt their career—not even Michael Moore enabler Harvey Weinstein.

Turning to part three of “Film After Film”, I discovered that I was probably wise to drop out of the film program at Columbia University since cinema aesthetics are of so little interest to me. No matter my admiration for J. Hoberman, which is second to none, I found myself scratching my head over some of the reviews. It should be said that this is understandable given that he was assigned by the Village Voice to write about experimental film, while Andrew Sarris—his senior—covered the more conventional beat. Hoberman has stated that Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures” is the greatest film ever made. I have not seen it myself but can’t say that I am encouraged to track it down given the Wikipedia summary: “The film features an array of transvestites, hermaphrodites, drag shows, a sexually ambiguous vampire, a drug orgy and a well-built cunnilingual rapist. Sexual ambiguity is a prominent visual theme, which is particularly shown by overlapping images of flaccid penises and breasts.” Call me a moldy fig, but I’d pick “Battle of Algiers” as the greatest film ever made.

Of the few films that Hoberman covered in this section that fell within my purview is Steve McQueen’s “Hunger”. My take on it differed sharply from his. This McQueen is not the motorcycle-riding hunk of the 1960s, but the British artist who has begun to make movies after the fashion of Julian Schnabel, another lion of the galleries. Not surprisingly, McQueen and Schnabel have prioritized bold imagery over conventional narrative. Hoberman observes: “Perhaps because of McQueen’s experience making video installations, Hunger is a compelling drama that’s also a formalist triumph.”

There is very little dialog in “Hunger”, except for a very long scene involving the character Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker, and a Catholic priest debating the consequences of armed struggle. Here’s what you get for the most part, according to Hoberman:

Hunger is less a narrative than a cycle of stories or a series of routines: A new prisoner is brought in and stripped—ecce homo—then thrown into a literal shit box with a naked, hirsute madman who has apparently been decorating the cell walls with fecal mandalas.

Again hating to sound like a moldy fig, I prefer narrative to a series of routines especially those involving cell walls covered with fecal mandalas. Hoberman concludes:

Hunger‘s harrowing final movement is informed not only by scripture, but by a thousand years of religious art—with Thatcher, or at least her voice, brought back to play Pontius Pilate. The subject is now exclusively Sands—or rather the physical state of his emaciated body—as he lies on a prison-hospital cot covered with running sores and stigmata lesions. One can barely watch this living cadaver or the bedside food tray that is his constant temptation. I’ve seen Hunger three times, and with each screening, the spectacle of violence, suffering, and pain becomes more awful and more awe-inspiring

Here are the first few paragraphs of my review of “Hunger”, submitted with the understanding that I am not a real film critic but only get to play one on the Internet.

If you expect “Hunger”, Steve McQueen’s new movie about Bobby Sands and the hunger strike at Long Kesh prison in 1981, to be anything like Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, you will be bitterly disappointed. I had to restrain myself from bolting from my seat several times at last night’s press screening and only stuck around to the conclusion in order to gather sufficient material to put a nail in the coffin of this dreadful movie.

The most obvious antecedents to McQueen’s movie are Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Alan Clarke’s plague-on-both-your-houses “Elephant”. Like Gibson, McQueen has a sadomasochistic streak. The last 15 minutes or so of “Hunger” is devoted to a clinical study of the consequences of Bobby Sands’s hunger strike, with close-ups of bedsores and bloody bowel movements. Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands, lost 33 pounds in order to lend credibility to his character, inverting Robert De Niro’s bloating up for the roles of Jake LaMotta and Al Capone.

If McQueen was truly interested in conveying reality, he would have had his screenwriter put the right words in his main character’s mouth rather than having him lose weight. In the entire movie there is only one scene in which the characters actually discuss politics. That consists of Bobby Sands in a dialog with a Catholic priest who warns him that a hunger strike would be devastating to the families of the strikers. Suffice it to say that Sands defends the tactic as only a “hardened revolutionary” would.

For McQueen, the stubbornness of the IRA prisoners is detached from their politics and mainly serves as a device to move the plot forward in a series of scenes that pits the British cops against the prisoners in a test of will. He is not interested in conveying the thinking of the embattled prisoners but in dramatizing their largely futile resistance. In one scene, the naked prisoners run through a gauntlet of cops who beat them bloody. For me at least, these ever-increasingly violent set pieces have about as much interest as the average sadistic horror movie like “Saw” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at http://greenhouse.economics.utah.edu/mailman/listinfo/marxism.

 

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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