Monthly Archives: February 2013

Tools

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“In the first stone which the savage flings at the wild animal he pursues, in the first stick that he seizes to strike down the fruit which hangs above his reach, we see the appropriation of one article for the purpose of aiding in the acquisition of another, and thus discover the origin of capital.”

-R. Torrens, An Essay on the Production of Wealth, etc as quoted in Marx, Capital Vol. 1

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Top 5 Films of 2012

After all the heavy-handed political stuff lately, I figured it would be fun to do an overview of my top 5 films from 2012.  While I initially thought of doing a top 10, I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough films from this year to accurately make a list that size.  There are a number of films that, once I see them, will probably be included–Amour, Django Unchained, and Holy Motors, for example.  So keeping in mind that I haven’t seen everything for the past year, these are the top five of the films I did see, ranked from least best to most best.

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

dir. Benh Zeitlin

This movie has a lot of problems.  There are real pacing issues–it feels like either the first two acts of a movie or like an extra couple acts tacked onto a short film.  It lacks focus.  It has one particular special effect that is laughable–if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m referring to.  And unfortunately the trailer completely gives away the ending, although there are still plenty of surprises waiting in the middle of the plot.

With all that said, there’s also a lot going for this movie.  It really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and that’s saying something since I go out of my way to see unusual movies.  It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a film version of a folktale.  Made on a minuscule budget, it manages to utilize the setting of rural Louisiana to create what may be the most cost-effective ‘epic’ style filming ever.  Those with an ear to the ground may have noticed that epic is returning in a big way, both in the Hollywood blockbuster and as a new voice for the disenfranchised, and that’s what we have here.  The film is also aided by a wonderful performance not just by young Quvenzhané Wallis but by the whole cast.  Overall, while this movie may have more problems than the others on my list, it’s also much more ambitious, and charting genuinely new film territory.  I really want this film to have an influence, to force directors, especially low-budget directors, to consider how to utilize their resources to make films that are very non-Hollywood but very appealing.

4. The Cabin in the Woods

dir. Drew Goddard

I’m lucky I saw this in theaters.  At the time, I hadn’t heard much about it beyond that it was supposedly good, and that it had been written in part by Joss Whedon.  (I’m not as big a Joss Whedon fan as most–I didn’t grow up on Buffy, and while I liked Firefly I recognize that he has some problems to his writing, patterns he tends to fall into, especially with how characters develop.)  I was in the mood to see a good horror movie in theaters though, and decided to check it out.  It was definitely worth it.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, because everything that makes it so good is in the last half, but even the first half stands on its own as a parody of horror film in the fine tradition of Scream, Behind the Mask, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, etc.  The whole film stands as, in the creators’ own words (paraphrased) a defense of everything good in horror and an attack of everything bad.  Now, I don’t agree exactly with what is or isn’t good in horror–honestly, I thought the beginning of Scream 4 was a better attack.  But this is a clear labor of love that simultaneously works as a great film and calls out every other horror film on a lot of things they’ve gotten lazy about.  The only reason it’s not ranked higher on my list is that it has those same Joss Whedon problems to it–I know it was directed by Goddard, but either Whedon had a huge influence or Goddard is trying to imitate him.  The main problem is that it feels too sanitized to me.  Anyone who’s seen the film is probably wondering what I mean by this, given what goes down in the last act, but it’s not a matter of lacking gore or nihilism, it’s an approach to the medium of storytelling.  I hesitate to say that these filmmakers are too competent, but it might be better to say that they’re too comfortable.  While it’s a unique and original story, it’s told so smoothly that it lacks the kind of bite or edge that denotes genius.  It takes risks, but not enough or the right kind.  That said, it’s still a great film, well-crafted, and absolutely mandatory viewing for any fan of horror.

3.  Dredd

dir. Pete Travis

This is a bit of an odd one for me.  When I was putting together this list, I struggled with putting it on here at all, and yet somehow it’s in my number three slot.  The thing is, it’s exactly the sort of movie I don’t normally care much for, but I liked it–a lot.  It’s straightforward sci-fi action, with a real emphasis on the action.  The story is incredibly simple: in the near future, two Judges (cop/judge/jury/executioner) enter a housing project to solve a seemingly simple gang murder.  However, something is amiss, as they find out when the leader of the gang locks them in the project and goes on the attack.  That’s basically the whole thing, but it’s executed perfectly.  It made the world feel real, but more importantly it made Dredd feel real, in a way that the Stallone flick didn’t.

The thing about Judge Dredd is that he’s an asshole, a pseudofascist asshole, but he is this way because of the world he’s a part of.  What science fiction (or, potentially, fantasy) can do really well is to show you a fundamentally different way of being, and Dredd is just different enough to be intriguing, but just close enough to be uncomfortable.  The film itself is exactly what you want from an action film–a lot of violence, a lot of explosions, pretty awful villains, but all of them believable in the context.  It goes out of its way to show the tragedy of lost life that accompanies this kind of over-the-top action, but does it without undercutting the adrenaline-pumping thrill.  As a side note, it does a really good job representing female characters who are actually characters, not just cliche villains or paragons of virtue.  I would love to see more action movies like this, or better yet, a couple sequels.  Unfortunately, this film didn’t earn its way at the box office, and as such probably won’t have any sequels, which is a damn shame.  Here’s hoping for some fan support that might at least convince producers to make one more sequel, hopefully with the same cast and crew.

2. The Master

dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

This was a strong competitor for the #1 slot, but it finally loses to the lack of structure, or perhaps to its own peculiar structure.  I appreciate movies that buck the three-act structure, but the long pauses in this long movie were as frustrating as a Tarkovsky film.  However, this is sort of a case of praising with faint damnation, if the worst thing I can say about a movie is that it’s Tarkovsky-esque in pacing.  This isn’t really the story of Scientology that it was billed as; rather it’s a character study of one man who gets involved with a Scientology-esque organization.  It’s an interestingly amoral film in that it asks us to sympathize with deeply flawed individuals, people who may be making the world worse for their presence, and it never disguises that this is what they are.  As such, it’s also a vicious critique of everything post-war America was, even the supposed good.  The final scene and the title of the film are downright chilling once one considers them in depth–personally, it seems to me a much darker film even than There Will Be Blood, albeit in a much more subtle way.  Paul Thomas Anderson may be the best living filmmaker; he’s certainly in the top five.  If there is any justice in the universe of aesthetics, this is a film that will be remembered and talked about for decades, maybe even centuries to come.

Honorable Mentions

Before I get to my number one film, a few noteworthy films this year:

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson): This is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes-Andersony film, a straight-up trip into a nostalgic fantasy of a past that never really was.  What makes it great is that it’s not sentimentalizing.  Although downright theatrical in its presentation, it deals with real issues, and even talks about some things that big budget films normally stay far away from–like child sexuality.  I also appreciate the effort to reclaim the notion of family values for a liberal perspective.

Your Sister’s Sister (dir. Lynn Shelton): Alright, this is apparently technically a 2011 film, but it came to my theater in summer 2012 so I’m counting it.  Normally a romantic dramedy would not be on my list of interesting movies, but this is exactly how I like to see it executed.  It’s a very minimalist sort of film: only three substantial characters, a lot of dialogue between them.  It almost feels like a stage play.  But this creates a wonderful intensity of emotion.  The characters are flawed, to the point of unlikeability at times, but still relatable, and the film puts them in a very real-seeming, tightly focused dilemma.

Seven Psychopaths (dir. Martin McDonagh): Basically, Adaptation but for action movies.  Full of a lot of great metafiction commentary, and great acting by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell (as well as the rest of the cast, but those two compete for the stealing of the show).  Yes, it’s very violent and gory, but that’s the point, kind of, but also not, kind of.  It’s an ideologically confused movie, but worth seeing.

1. Cosmopolis

dir. David Cronenberg

I’m surprised this ended up at number one, because when I first saw it I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, but in retrospect that dissatisfaction was just because of the odd way the film confronted me.  I mentioned that I thought Paul Thomas Anderson was in the top five living directors, and I think Cronenberg is as well (for the curious, the others would possibly be Gaspar Noe and a couple others I’m not so committed to as to actually list them).  This film does not feel like a movie; it doesn’t really feel like anything.  The cramped, claustrophobic cinematography and eerie lighting combined with Don DeLillo’s inhuman-sounding dialogue and strange pre-Enlightenment style narrative create Brechtian levels of audience alienation, only assisted by the unpleasantness and absurdity of the subject matter.  I saw this at nine in the morning on the day it came out with two friends, and there was one other person in the theater, who walked out just before the ‘climax’.  It did not do well at the box office.  I’m not surprised by this at all; this isn’t a movie most people would want to see.  Several reviewers have compared the film as a whole to the prostate exam which forms such a key component of the plot (not kidding), and I have to agree: it’s a strangely cold, analytical, and unpleasant insight into the structure of capitalism, that bastion of meaningless action.  But it’s also a necessary examination for our health.  The world is headed to strange places, and while Paul Thomas Anderson may be perfect at anatomizing our past, it seems that only Cronenberg has perfected the art of anatomizing the future.  Indeed, reception of his films is often hampered by an inability to understand them because they come from a place in front of us, an ideological position we may not yet have access to–this explains, for example, those who see Shivers as purely an attack on free sexuality, or Videodrome and eXistenZ as Luddite anti-technology films.  Somehow, Cronenberg has tapped into the concerns of the future, and it may be that Cosmopolis will be better appreciated then.  However, I submit the opinion that it is a uniquely disturbing and wonderful film, combining the best of DeLillo’s ability with the best of Cronenberg’s (not to mention great performances by, among others, Pattinson and Giamatti) to create my top pick for 2012.

 

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On Plain Speech and Academic Language

Often on forum discussions of political language in contemporary academia we see the same tired examples trotted out to attack contemporary academic writing.  The most common bogeymen are Alan Sokal, who will no doubt be the subject of a sometime future post, and George Orwell, specifically his views on language as put forth in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”.  I want to first address the essay on a few points, and then focus on the way it seems to be used in contemporary amateur discourse.

The main attack of the essay is an argument on the perils of circuitous and imprecise language.  To be direct, this is all kinds of bullshit.  First of all, Orwell attacks phrasing that is indirect.  He seems to fail to understand the value of the way the first half of this sentence is constructed; no doubt he would prefer to simply ‘miss’ the value, and therein throw off the whole structure of pragmatic equivocating that makes English, for me, a fun language.  Language is not just the transmission of information, it is a form of social interaction.  Awkward subordinate clauses and circumlocutions are the body language of what could otherwise be a straightforward message, and straightforward direct language is as exciting as a social interaction with no physical cues.  There’s a reason contemporary textbooks on biology and physics tend to lull one to sleep much faster than Daniel Dennett or Michio Kaku.

At another point he attacks this language for its euphemistic approach to issues like the Stalinist mass-murder, but to be frank this is also a ridiculous critique.    Orwell says,

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

But of course he is attacking a straw man here: the English professor in question most likely does not simply believe in achieving ‘good results’–by cutting off the argument there Orwell makes the person sound petty and insincere, which he then goes on to accuse the person of being.  Wow, you proved that a character you created exhibited the traits you gave him, amazing,bravo,etc.  While I wouldn’t defend the Stalinist murders, I acknowledge that there is an argument to be made in their defense, and it doesn’t derive from the issue of good results so much as the fact that, for a Stalinist, those results constitute the eventual achievement of a Utopian society.  This becomes a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”–at least for one who genuinely believes in the potential of Stalinism to achieve Utopia, which I think few now do.  What Orwell has done is to obfuscate by directness: by stating the thing simply, he strips it of the context that gives it meaning.  Also, he makes the assumption that the reader is too stupid to figure out that the phrase “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” is a cover for killing, which may have been true at the time of writing (I wasn’t there, couldn’t say) but definitely doesn’t apply to a contemporary society that is used to drawing truth from complex situations–complexities that characterize the world we live in.

Complexities that characterize the world we live in dictate language.  That is what is at stake here.  After his listing of six rules, Orwell says “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  That’s great and all but it’s also impossible.  Once again, I acknowledge that the 1946 timestamp on this document puts it a good twenty years before Derrida and his friends started making trouble, but they were hardly the first to observe how the ambiguities of language and life interrupt the art of “expressing and not … concealing” in communication.  As I mentioned in the above example, a short, quick expression can be just as obfuscatory as a long circuitous one.  But the long circuitous one makes the reader aware that they are being confronted with complex ambiguities, whereas the short direct speech does not–it puts the reader at ease, and thus can be more misleading simply by implying the existence of non-misleading speech.  Again I will draw on one of my favorite pieces of writing, Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.  The language is full of that ‘not un-‘ construction that Orwell mocks, as well as other complex and circuitous phrasing, precisely because of its ability to create a fog over meaning, to show the fog that is always present.  The denouement is presented as a plain legal document which should be robbed of such confusion, but which is not because its context is already polluted by confusion.  The actual story of “Benito Cereno” does not lie in the text, it lies outside of the text, only implied by it.  (Likewise with Moby-Dick and a number of Melville’s other works–he was one of the great predecessors of postmodernity, and surpassed most of its own writers in expressing its ideas.)  By contrast one can think of the ‘plain speech’ of Ronald Reagan or John McCain.  The discourse of the GOP has largely been defined in recent years by a return to plain speech, a move away from ‘elitist’ college language, and it is precisely this plain speech which is misleading.  Reagan at one point, upon hearing about isoprene monomers naturally produced by plants which contribute to troposphere ozone immediately jumped to the conclusion and statement that trees pollute more than people.  There are ways this could be seen as true, but those simplistic ways are completely false to the nature of reality, a reality which is more complex than can be portrayed in plain speech.

So we return to the old forum debates over contemporary academia.  People in academia toss around terms like ‘reification’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘jouissance‘, ‘biopower’, and ‘ideological state apparatus’.  First of all, these don’t even precisely violate Orwell’s rules, since in many cases there is no better word to replace them.  The people who often attack this language as degrading the practice of English fail to realize that this is a specialized vocabulary, a jargon of philosophy of literature the same way that ‘RNA-transcriptase’ is a much easier term to describe a certain protein than a name in ‘plain speech’.  The reason this bothers people is because a lot of people don’t think literature needs a jargon–it comes back to that old hard science/soft science/liberal arts hierarchy that believes that something like studying literature is below the need of a specialized speech.  But more importantly, a specialized speech is important with political philosophy because it confuses the reader.  It stops the reader, disrupts the flow of thought while reading, and therefore confronts the reader with his or her own lack of knowledge about what is being said.  It thereby forces the reader to examine the work critically.  I would argue that those who get frustrated at the language have made a key error: they’re examining the presentation of the ideas critically but without making any effort towards reconciliation.  They stand on their shore of meaning and mock what they see happening without the effort to complete the bridge.  Granted, not all bridges need to be completed, and one must show discretion in where one is willing to put mental effort.  But if no attempt is made to understand the text on its own terms, then meaning really has been lost, and obfuscation is complete.  The worst English writing is not complex and confusing, it is the English writing that the reader can glide over without ever going outside their own perspective.

As a final case study, let’s look at a sentence that, according to ever-reliable wikipedia, Judith Butler won a ‘bad writing’ award for:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of course, this could be rendered into plain speech.

When people stopped thinking about capital as doing the same thing everywhere and started paying attention to how it did similar things in different ways at different times and places it made us think about how time is important in how things are being done and meant that people agreed less with the philosopher (Althusser) who said things all happen in about the same way and instead were able to think about how the place-and-time-dependent things-happening-ness means we can thing about all things happening as being made of little things always happening.

Yes, it’s a crude mockery, but no more so than that often held out against academic language, and I think it demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: words mean things that you don’t know.  They always do, unless you just wrote those words, and even then they still usually do.  We need to always approach language critically.  But tied into that approach is the way that words can direct our thinking to certain thought patterns.  What’s missing here is how a word like ‘hegemony’ conjures up for the right reader a whole lineage of Gramsci and Situationist perspective on capital, how ‘totality’ resurrects Lukacs and the discussions of the Frankfurt school–in a way, any specialized sentence can be unpacked like a line of Milton.  That is what ‘plain speech’ advocates are promoting: a true death of culture, a homogenized world where language would mean the same thing to everyone, as if that were even possible.  It is, indeed, the dream of a certain type of America, and even a certain type of England–but that dream belongs to the past, with all the corpses it was built on.  If we want a language of the future that will help us avoid mass graves we need a language that makes us constantly uncomfortable, constantly aware of the ambiguities and frustrations of existence, that will avoid the soothing lie of plain speech.

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