Thursday, May 31, 2007

Out 1 of my mind?

by Ryland Walker Knight

my mind

By now I'm sure you think I'm crazy what with the Episode III and Pirates love. So, to further confirm your suspicions, I'm announcing that I will take the plunge and see Jacques Rivette's Out 1 Saturday June 9th and Sunday June 10th and hope to write out something each night so I can cull it together into a longer essay no later than Monday June 11th. I have a summer school essay to write that week (as well as some books to read) so the Rivette work may not be as grand as planned -- but it will happen. What's funny is this will be my first experience with a Rivette film. I missed PFA's retrospective last December when I was still in Seattle and I have not had time to track down a DVD of Celine & Julie, or any of his films, really, since my return to school.

Maybe I, too, think I'm a little out of my mind these days and feel the need to whole heartedly (and full bodiedly) commit myself to showing myself (and you?) that I still like foreign films as well as Ho'wood product. But hey, the last DVD I bought was a used copy of Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. That I haven't watched it yet in the days in between should make no difference: I still bought the sumbitch. Other recent purchases include
  • an early-release of a Korean DVD of The Host, which is somehow Region-1, and Ameoba somehow already has in stock (I think I'll be grabbing the "real" Region-1 disc later, but more on that development later);
  • a used copy of Japon off Amazon; need to write something more in-deapth about it AND Battle in Heaven;
  • I've basically stolen my friend's boss' copy of Dead Man's Chest; I should just get my own at this point;
  • a ton of books for summer school: the coolest being J.L. Austin's How To Do Things With Words, a hilariously on-point and semial Ordinary Language Philosophy text, which is also concerned with tacts Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations took up (which is also assigned), which is also discussed, along with the Austin book, in the other assigned text for that class, Jacques Derrida's Limited Inc, which means we're gonna have a great 103B with a great professor guiding us through these texts;
  • more than a few burritos;
  • a new MacBook to replace my busted three-year-old Power Book G4;
  • a pretty nifty all-in-one printer (it came with the MacBook for the fee of the USB cable);
  • Hemp Milk (actually, that was a gift, but I would consider buying it for myself);
  • and I'd like to buy some new clothes, but I need to save some money, too
since Out 1 tickets are $10 a day and I will probably have to buy more food and more DVDs and pay more rent and more credit card bills throughout the rest of the summer until I get my Fall Financial Aid dispersement. Cuz, you know, I refuse to get a job. I promise: I'm keeping it all together. I mean, I got straight A's last semester. Ever juggling, up and up and away and out.

[Keith says this one is fantastic.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Afraid to get wet? Plunging into and flipping At World's End.

by Ryland Walker Knight

Given all that surrounds the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, it is hard to believe these movies could be smart films, let alone films this smart. Not only that, the films are hard to believe, period. One's natural impulse is to resist. And there's a lot to resist. They're bloody pirate movies, for one. For another, it's a bloody fantastical pirate movie franchise inspired by a theme park ride and brought to light by Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer. In the third film, At World's End, there is a lot of exposition in the scenes driven by dialogue-as-interrogation and it barrels at the viewer without pause, leading many to think the film is incomprehensible, and dismissible. At first, I resisted, too.

[For the rest of the review click here and you will be forwarded to The House Next Door.]

02007: 168 minutes: dir. Gore Verbinski: written by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.

[Some crucial (anti-)climactic images from Dead Man's Chest in lieu of no screengrab possibilities for At World's End, here in the present.]
What's that smell?
Would you look at that?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Cavell for the Day

by Ryland Walker Knight

Many of you know of my newfound love of the great Stanley Cavell thanks to a seminar course I took this semester. I fell for him, for his work and his words, like, uh, hard. I have my issues with his work, as with anything, yet he synthesized a lot of what I've been reaching for in how to approach film as an art, and myself as a reader of film, or any art -- and subsequently identifying myself as a critic of the arts, and life. In one of his many welcomed verbal pats on my back, my professor told me I'm doing a good job of getting there. These words made me smile and I feel a tad silly putting them up here but they are offered with complete humility, I promise:
"I like what you're doing with your criticism. Like all good criticism, it not only values the object of interpretation, it also affirms the importance (and difficulty) of paying attention to the object of interpretation."

I'm trying my best. As he said, it's difficult. But I feel like I'm gaining ground -- and getting comfortable in my own critical skin. I point to my recent Revenge of the Sith appreciation. On Tuesday, I hope you read my defense of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. A lot of this new philosophy is in that work.

So, to better help explain my varied, complex shifts in perspective this semester, in regards to criticism and to life as well, I'm offering some choice quotes from the books we read of Cavell's this semester. I'm hoping to re-read Pursuits of Happiness sometime soon and write up a full-book response of an appropriate length. I may even pitch it to Mssr MZS & KU over at The House as it would be some kind of mission statement for me, one of their writers. But, honestly, with all the schooling I'm engaged in right now, I refuse a timeline on such a project. In lieu, here's the quotes:


"I have wished to understand philosophy not as a set of problems but as a set of texts." [Claim of Reason]

"I am not insensible, whatever defenses I may deploy, of an avenue of outrageousness in considering Hollywood films in the light, from time to time, of major works of thought." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"But when I thought about these eminent theories in connection with the lives depicted in the grand movies I had been immersed in, the theories and the depicted lives passed one another by, appeared irrelevant to each other. Yet these lives seemed and seem to me ones pursued by thoughtful, mature people, heavily in conversation with one another about the value of their individual or their joint pursuits. I could not understand my interest in them as unrelated to moral reflection. I claim for these films that they are masterpieces of the art of film, primary instances of America's artistic contribution to world cinema, and that their power is bound up in their exploration of a strain of moral urgency for which film's inherent powers of transfiguration and shock and emotionality and intimacy have a particlar affinity." [Cities of Words]

"It is a characteristic criticism of Emerson to say that he lacks a sense of tragedy; for otherwise how can he seem so persistently to preach cherrfulness? But suppose that what Emerson perceives, when he speaks of his fellow citizens as existing in a state of secret melancholy, is that in a democracy, which depends upon a state of willingness to act for the common good, despair is a political emotion, discouraging both participation and patience. So when Emerson asks of the American Scholar that he and she raise and cheer us, he is asking for a step of political encouragements, one that assures us that we are not alone in our sense of compromise with justice, that our sense of an unattained self is not an escape from, it is rather an index of, our commitment to the unattained city, one within the one we sustain, one we know there is no good reason we perpetually fail to attain." [Cities of Words]

"I am always saying that we must let the films themselves teach us how to look at them and how to think about them." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"Here is a place we come unprotectedly upon the limitations of criticism by the fact of something that is called personal taste. About It Happened One Night I said that its appreciation depended on a certain acceptance of Claudette Colbert; but my sense of The Awful Truth is that if one is not willing to yield to Irene Dunne's temperament, her talents, her reactions, follwing their detail almost to the loss of one's own identity, one will not know, and will not care, what the film is about. Pauline Kael, for instance, in her Profile of Cary Grant, has this to say about Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth: "though she is often funny, she overdoes the coy gurgles, and that bright toothy smile of hers -- she shows both rows of teeth, prettily held together -- can make one want to slug her." Whatever the causes of this curious response, it disqualifies whatever she has to say as a response to The Awful Truth." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"Who is this man, C. K. Dexter Haven/Cary Grant? When George, furious and confused at Tracy's refuseal, or rather acceptance, of his suggestion to let bygones be bygones, turns to Haven with the accusation, "Somehow I feel you had more to do with this than anyone," and Dexter replies, "Maybe, but you were a great help," we laugh both at the victory of light over darkness and also at the truth, hard to locate, of Dexter's power, apparently some mysterious power to control events. The magic invoked by the genre seems localized in this figure. Surely this has to do with the sheer physical attractiveness; he is after all, or before all, Cary Grant." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"I have also acknowledged that Dexter is more literally the magical Cary Grant. But who is Cary Grant? I mean, what becomes of this mortal on film? It seems to me that George Cukor is calling upon the quality of Grant's photogenesis discovered, as I suggested earlier, in the comedies Grant made with Howard Hawks -- I mean the air he can convey of mental preoccupation, of a continuous thoughtfulness that makes him spiritually inaccessible to those around him. This quality of the sage gives to his privacy, his aliveness to himself, a certainty and a depth." [Pursuits of Happiness]

"The question would be, as the question often is about philosophy, how to bring a reading to an end. And this should be seen as a problem internal to criticism, not a criticism of it from the outside. In my experience people worried about reading in, or overtinterpretation, or going too far, are, or were, typically afraid of getting started, of reading as such, as if afraid that texts -- like people, like times and places -- mean things and moreover mean more than you know. This is accordingly a fear of something real, and it may be a healthy fear, that is, a fear of something fearful. It strikes me as a more discerning reaction to texts than the cheerier opinion that the chase of meaning is just as much fun as man's favorite sport (also presumably a thing with no fear attached). Still, my experience is that most texts, like most lives, are underread, not overread. And the moral I urge is that this assessment be made the subjet of arguments about particular texts." [Pursuits of Happiness]


I wanted this to have a little more variation but time only permitted thus. Still, my hope is this may have been a happy read.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Appreciation: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

A contribution to the Edward Copeland-called Star Wars blogathon.

By Ryland Walker Knight

The third act is a killer. The third act resounds in a way no previous Star Wars film had since Vader goated Luke from hiding inside the Emperor's chamber within Return of the Jedi's all-over climax. The best moments in Star Wars, for me, are those naked emotional crises. Those, and, of course, the spectacular spectacles. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith has both of those in spades. And not just in the third act. The whole film is a visual wonder: from the you-gotta-be-kidding-me opening shot that still gets me giddy to the Yoda-Palpatine Imperial Senate throwdown to General Greivous's four-armed attack to (fuck it) a bunch of Wookies raging against machines to (fuck it) the dissolves in Anakin's dream sequences to (hell yes) the engulfing lava showdown and Ewan McGregor's pure-hurt pleas in that third act climax. And the whole film operates on affect effecting characters, characters' choices, camera angles, silly dialogue, audience involvement. You have to buy into the film for this part to work; for some, this proves too difficult because of the silly dialogue and the sorta-kinda spotty acting of said silly dialogue and the odd pacing and the typical silly sci-fi plotting choices. I understand this stance. But I cannot hold it. I love Star Wars. And for a final chapter in "the saga" this son of a bitch of a film is just what I want -- and just what Star Wars needed. Plus, if Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith had subtitles, English-speaking audiences would be much quicker to accept it, to buy into it, to (fuck it/hell yes) love it.

[For the rest of the essay, click here, to read it at The House Next Door. For the full blogathon listing, at host site Edward Copeland on Film, click here.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shameless Link for the Day: Brett Simon

I should be studying for a final I'm taking this evening, but I'mma press pause for a second: I took a final yesterday that was comprised of composing three short essays in three hours on three different objects presented by our professor, Kaja Silverman, who is pretty cool, and a real person inside her academic exterior. One of these objects was a video by Brett Simon called Counterfeit Film. I recommend looking at Simon's website for yourself, and the "Shorts" section in particular, because I think/hope you, too, will like what he's done as much as I did/do. It's wicked smart. And funny. And it starts with a countdown. It is a countdown. A wicked smart and funny countdown.
[Ryland Walker Knight]

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Fake Screenshot for the Day, or Evening

I think you're a fake
["Did it seem fake...when my best friend was bitten in half, right in front of me, and eaten alive, screaming? I think you're a fake. I think you're a phony. And a bad reporter. How's that feel? And tell me something... Does this seem fake?"]

Friday, May 11, 2007

Some brief thoughts on Spiderman 3, comix, and film.

by Ryland Walker Knight

It's dark in here

Spiderman, the hero, has incredible balance and poise, an ability to maneuver any which way he pleases at any moment. He defies physics at all times. Somehow, he's able to swing past multiple city-blocks from the top of skyscrapers down through traffic and back up again all on one web. And then he shoots some more goo and flies further, a lithe spectre slinging his way across the sky, around buildings, through alleys, dodging life. Sam Raimi's newest Spiderman film, the third installment in an ever-expanding series, isn't too dissimilar from its predecessors and not quite as nimble as its hero, despite a lot of swooshing, slashing camera moves: it's a little bloated, a lot silly, and, perhaps, a perfect rendition of comix on a film screen. Whether or not that perfect rendition satisfies you is another story. It's got the visual chops, sure, as there are bright, popping colors filling every corner of the frame and wild camera angles to frame the action. Raimi is at once a brilliant penciler and inker and colorist: the Spiderman films are beauties, made to be seen large, in a theatre. However, to behold an image is different from reading an image, or series of images. Comics are, basically, a series of images linked together to tell a story, just as film is, primarily, a visual medium. Yet one rarely reads a comic, even a good comic, for its writing. Good comic writing is pretty simple stuff, even in "classic" books like Watchmen. Good film writing, which includes not just dialogue and character but camera movements and editing, is a much more difficult, or complex, networked assembly. And, more often than not, there is better, or more complex, writing in films.

Wait a sec, there, Ry-Guy! Are you saying comix suck?

Well, no. I just don't care for them the same. I can no longer appreciate what they have to offer other than their artwork. The words in a comic rarely delight me. One of my favorite comix, to this day, is the Sin City one-off book called "Silent Night", which has no dialogue bubbles nor any narration commentary but rather 15 pages of blissful Frank Miller black-and-white ink art. Being silent, it lent the book a tenderness Miller's work so rarely engages. In re-reading my Sin City books before Robert Rodriguez literalized the series on (digital) film, I was struck by how cruel a world Miller had built. And the film was yet more cruel, which is my primary reason for hating its guts. That, and, as is my problem with the Spiderman films, it doesn't do anything filmic. All either film does is transfer a comic's celled images into free and continuous images without adding anything new, really, except maybe the delight of casting; in Sin City it's Mickey Rourke, in Spiderman it's any of the villians (Willem Defoe, Alfred Molina, Thomas Hayden Church, even Topher Grace). The thing that makes the Spiderman movies a little more bearable than Sin City is Raimi's unabashed melodrama, which, somehow, despite his poor skill with actors these days, renders some true pathos, shows some true heart. Plus, the special effects are good. And there's an occasional moment of poetry, a hint at what movies could do, and have done, with superhero stories.

In his generous review of Spiderman 3, my sometimes-editor Matt Zoller Seitz points to Superman Returns "as the most mature, emotionally complex, morally serious superhero movie yet made." Not to mention poetic, and devastating. It's routinely railed against for being boring and confusing but I'd like to side with MZS and say, hey, stop a second and take a look at what a great film this is, not simply a comic book movie. As I said in my first, rough, silly stab at a movie review on this blog, it's Bryan Singer who makes the film work. Everything in that film is a risk, and I'd like to say the risks pay off. Raimi's attempts to risk, to stretch himself -- and his film -- rarely work as well, if ever. At one point, in an effort to show how hard it is for Peter Parker... to live? to cry? to sit? Raimi holds a shot a lot longer than he should: Tobey Maguire sits on the end of his bed, erect, with his eyes bubbling up with tears and his face almost too serene, and Raimi moves the camera from low across the room all the way in front of Maguire's doughy face, and then around it, almost all the way behind Maguire's head. I couldn't stop laughing for the entire shot. Who does that?

But Spiderman 3 is occasionally, if briefly, inspired. Its most poetic moment comes in the climactic battle. The ever-gooier Venom's one weakness is sound. Loud, reverberating sound. So Peter Parker starts making some noise. He builds a cage of sound around Venom and rings it out, crushing Venom under a wall of sound waves. And then he blows him up. It's a cool moment. But then people start talking again. And then the score starts swelling again. And then the best metaphor in the film -- Sandman's very being is ephemerally mutable, like time, like sand in an hourglass, which visually manifests time -- is wasted once again by virtue of the hackneyed dialogue and what-are-you-thinking-writing/directing/acting. A colleague said, "It's like Raimi's a no-talent Hitchcock. He's got the visual style but no brains behind it. Watching [the Spiderman movies] is kinda like when you buy candy bars 3-for-1 after school. They taste alright but you come to realize, wait, that did nothing for me, for my body, for my soul." I'm apt to agree.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Drink Tequila

In honor of none other than yours truly's birthday on this holiest of holy drunken days here on the Gold Coast, we thought we'd offer a series of essays about Mexican filmmaking. What with the recent aint-it-cute trend to name Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu the Three Amigos, I, along with other colleagues, have thought to ask, what about the rest of the Mexican filmmakers that have made or are making seminal works?

My personal investment centers around a film I saw not too long ago, Battle in Heaven, and its director, Carlos Reygadas, who I'd like to argue trumps all Three Amigos. His cinema owes a lot to his admitted hero (and, yes, mine too), Andrei Tarkovsky as well as the hyper-aestheticized quotidian of Bresson's films: (1) the long take is preferred; (2) time in space is foregrounded, situating the film and the viewer inside the film's world; (3) all the actors are non-actors as to retain a level of realism -- and to deny viewers any pre-conceived notions of the actors, and by consequence, the characters, the film; (4) there's a religious aspect, of course, as the title alludes to; (5) there's a transcendence through both sex and violence, which links Reygadas to another Bresson acolyte, Paul Schrader; (6) sex is something of pageant but never exploitative, it happens as would anything else; (7) things just happen. But there's more of that below. For now, I'd like to cede the space to my fellow writers who will explain a bit of their approach to this project, this day, this neighbor of ours.
[Ryland Walker Knight]

* * *

I cannot claim to be an expert on anything related to Mexican cinema. I know that I have enjoyed everything else Mexican that I've experienced so far, including cuisine, music, and literature. Sure, I've seen some of the more modern, mainstream stuff like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Amores Perros. And I am not ashamed to have liked the hell out of those. So, after hearing such good stuff about Carlos Reygadas from RWK, I knew that the time was right to check out something that kinda flew under the radar screen for most of my fellow countrymen. I chose Reygadas' first feature length, Japón, which was released a few years back in 2002. My mind was blown, in the good way. I'll try to show how, below. Viva La Raza!
[Leile One]

* * *

Our first guest column, by Jennifer Stewart, speaks for itself. Her first paragraph:
I've tried to begin Pan's Labyrinth's apologia where the sting of your charge leaves it: namely, that its gory violence is voyeuristic, useless, and empty. This attack is a complicated one, I think. Without a principled objection to onscreen face pulverizing, then you must say what it is about the aesthetic and stylistic terms P'sL gives itself, such that its onscreen violence can't be justified (whereas it could, perhaps, in another film). Having said that, if you think such onscreen gore is never justified, then that's a moral highground which only ends the discussion. Instead, I assume that if I can provide an account of what the onscreen destruction of the rabbit hunter's face is doing, I'll have at least succeeded in providing what your indictment assumes is its lack of structural and thematic content. [What this kind of reading means for the status of a film being "good" or "bad" is - I find - a paralyzing question, but I'd welcome discussion from you less ataxic film buffs.]

* * *

Luis Buñuel ties with Shohei Imamura as my favorite cinema cynic, so, naturally, he's my favorite Mexican director -- even though he was born, raised and educated in upper class Spain. In Mexico, Buñuel was no mere artistic tourist. Some see his years of making cheap Mexican comedies and melodramas as a colorful detour; for me, El, Susana, Illusion Travels by Streetcar, Nazarin, and Los Olvidados represent the director's greatest, most personal work (the Spanish masterpiece Viridiana notwithstanding). His later European provocations may have shown a little more freakish surrealism (and, of course, a lot more leg) but Mexico is where Buñuel really got his groove on -- and left his heart, I dare say. Let me persuade you with some pix and text.
[Steven Boone]

* * *

Easy access:

CINCO DE VINYL: Negotiating Battle in Heaven

by Ryland Walker Knight


Upon its release, first at the Cannes film festival and subsequently here in America, Carlos Reygadas’ film Battle In Heaven was under imminent attack. It is a difficult film to attend to and it does nothing one has come to expect from films, even from foreign art house films. It refuses easy categorization or qualification or mediation. Even in positive reviews I read of the film there was an uneasiness, a resistance to approach the film and its imminent attack on an audience’s pre-conceived notions and perceptions of what film does, and how. I understand the resistance. What I don’t understand is the dismissal, the refusal to ask why there is a resistance, and what we are to do with that resistance. I’ve taken that route before — and been called on it — but I’m always trying to (get better and) base my reactions on some kind of aesthetic or formal judgments as well as my personal tastes. Plus, I like to think I know how to think about what a movie is doing beyond the simple dramatic elements; at bottom, when I get serious, I am a forever formalist. Battle In Heaven is a formal masterpiece. The film is so structured, so rigorous in its execution, I find it unendingly fascinating. Yet it is a difficult film to watch. At once drab and lush, bleak and optimistic, profane and divine, and despite a tendency to dwell on (and utilize) the “negative” end of those polarities, it occupies the middle ground, that space of negotiation, and this makes it a wholly beautiful master work of art. It uses those ugly tropes to negotiate, and move towards, the sublime.

Its very title alludes to that movement. It announces this will be rough, yet transcendent. The fight does not simply happen, it happens in the space it tries to negotiate, that ethereal space of the sublime we all define for ourselves: Heaven. For Reygadas, it would appear, Mexico and Mexico City are a kind of Heaven. And so is a blowjob. And a foggy valley. And the act of fixing an antenna, which by design is a means to mediate celestial waves of information.

As much as I do love the film, that affection makes the writing that much more difficult. How am I supposed to sound engaged intellectually when all I'm really doing is saying, Lookee here, this is beautiful, this is grand, this is life? In lieu of further effusive praise, and because school is kicking my butt here at the end, I’m offering some of Battle In Heaven’s more safe-for-work indelible images. All I ask is for you to look at what’s happening. And if you find yourself recoiling ask why, and how. Hopefully I’ll have more “answers” in the future.

CINCO DE VINYL: Everything is Everything: Beauty, Ugliness, and Universality in Reygadas' Japón

by Leile One

I wish we had more of a Mexican presence here in Boston. In case you didn’t know, Mexico is the best. Mexican food is the bombest substance on the planet. All the funniest, coolest kids I hung out with in high school back in Cali were descendants of the almighty Aztecs: funky fresh Vatos who could school you on American shit while maintaining a culture supreme. Hell, what would California be without the vast contributions of our Chicano brethren? And people are always talking about immigration reform...please. The West Coast wasn’t yours to begin with.

But how does it play out in New England? For the most part, the scene is non-existent. Indeed, La Raza is represented to a decent extent in a sizable Brazilian population in certain sectors of Boston, but there definitely isn’t much Mexican action going on. Which is why it seems weird that the city is hyping Cinco de Mayo so hard this year. Some of the local Irish Pubs are boasting celebrations for the holiday, which amount to discounted prices on bottles of Corona and perhaps a special on Margaritas. In special cases you may even get a live mariachi band (for a cover fee), but the whole thing seems kind of bizarre and out of place. Maybe Bostonians are just down to get drunk for whatever occasion? There’s my idea of a good time: a bunch of frat boys and blond chicks slamming Coronas and getting loud.

I’d give my left arm to be in the Mission District in SF this afternoon, fucking with some al pastor at El Farolito and getting in on the real celebration. Alas, it isn’t really an option, so I’ve elected to skip the weird bar scene here and instead take in some Carlos Reygadas cinema in the privacy of my own living room. I have rented a copy of his first feature, Japón, which is perhaps the closest you can get to visiting Mexico itself without moving an inch. Tell Tommy O’Doyle’s Pub I’ll take a rain check.

Japón is about decisions, actions, and consequences. It’s also about mountains. Additionally, the film contains graphic footage of horses copulating, and an extended scene featuring sex with the elderly. There’s a lot going on here.

This is my first experience with Reygadas’ work, and I find it challenging to say the least. Japón hits hard from multiple angles, reflected in stunning, spinning 360-degree camera shots of the Mexican landscape, as well as the multi-dimensionality of each situation presented. The film continually demands questions of morality, right and wrong, without giving any answers as to how the audience should categorize what’s happening in each scene. The result is confusion for the spectator, leading to an examination of one’s own beliefs, and it’s entirely intentional on the part of Reygadas.


The surface story is of a painter who leaves Mexico City in order to commit suicide on the countryside. Almost to the site of his mission, he stops in a village and ends up falling in love with an aging peasant woman with the heart of a Mother Theresa. The old woman gives and gives, and in the end it is this over-giving that results in tragic consequences. Her generosity may prove to be her downfall, but in the end we are unsure whether to conclude that we should therefore strive to avoid giving. Like I say, it’s complicated stuff. But I like that. I’d prefer for a film to test my reactionary tendencies to the point of moral confusion than to tell me how to feel. There is beauty here, no doubt, and there is ugly too. Sometimes the boundaries blur within the same image. When asked in an interview why he tends to favor the ultra-long shots, Reygadas responds with perfect justification: “To anyone who doesn’t like the long with it. There’s so much going on within the frame; look at it.”


At times the sheer lengthiness of the landscape shots seems to stretch time itself, making each scene seem to last even longer than it does in terms of clock-time. This can be disorienting to your average American moviegoer, who may become restless and wish for dialogue or tits or explosions. Sorry, dude. There’s a lot going on in that there canyon-side panorama, if it’s any consolation.

When there is dialogue, the picture appears at times even stranger. The protagonist’s sexual advances upon his elderly host may be disquieting, but even more surprising is her rather casual agreement to go through with the deed. She agrees out of a sense of generous holiness, not because she finds him attractive or thinks it’s a great idea. She believes that by committing this selfless act, despite her discomfort, she may be saving him from ending his own life. It all culminates in what is perhaps the most uncomfortable sex scene ever committed to film. Only to be followed by more glorious revolving shots of the Mexican countryside.


It is fitting that a film which insists on invoking such a wide range of emotional responses would be titled after a land as distant yet somehow similar as Japan itself. Why Japan? When one envisions Tokyo, do the images that come up seem synonymous with a tiny, barren village in rural Mexico? Or is it the mountain itself, towering over the characters in the film, like Mount Fuji which plagued the haiku masters time and time again. Perhaps we could apply the metaphor of Seppuku, the ancient Japanese suicide ritual, to the film’s protagonist whose aim is to end his own life. In the end, after spinning one’s head 360 degrees over this puzzle and all of the others in Japón, viewers potentially come to the conclusion that “everything is everything and let’s not worry our pretty little heads about it.” After all, Reygadas himself has mentioned that he would have rather left this film untitled.

Confounding title or no, the images are plenty evocative. Not only did I get to visit Mexico by visiting Japón, I feel as though I’ve in some ways visited an entirely different universe. This rugged landscape, desolate yet detailed, is a place where the subconscious shows better judgmental instinct than the intellect in most cases. I propose a toast, to the Cinco, and to our poetic and sensible neighbors down south, who often show an understanding of life that, if not better than your average gringo, wills a questioning of, and illumination of, how complex life is for everybody, from doomed Mexican painters to generous elders to copulating horses to your average gringo...

CINCO DE VINYL: Pan's Labyrinth's Apologia

proceed with caution

[Our first guest column! The ever-erudite Jennifer Stewart instructs us on how to read Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Ms Stewart is a graduate student in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley. Recently, she was plain shocked by my flippant and hate-filled dismissal of the film and offered to write a defense for its virtues. Apparently this is the first written film analysis she has performed but she's a good reader, a good Rhetor, so, naturally, this is an excellent and generous reading. I still retain my stance against the film in spirit but cannot delve into it again without sounding off all ire and limbs flown. SO! If you're curious what the hell a Rhetoric major does, this is it: this is the real deal. Enjoy! (-RWK)]
I've tried to begin Pan's Labyrinth's apologia where the sting of your charge leaves it: namely, that its gory violence is voyeuristic, useless, and empty. This attack is a complicated one, I think. Without a principled objection to onscreen face pulverizing, then you must say what it is about the aesthetic and stylistic terms P'sL gives itself, such that its onscreen violence can't be justified (whereas it could, perhaps, in another film). Having said that, if you think such onscreen gore is never justified, then that's a moral highground which only ends the discussion. Instead, I assume that if I can provide an account of what the onscreen destruction of the rabbit hunter's face is doing, I'll have at least succeeded in providing what your indictment assumes is its lack of structural and thematic content. [What this kind of reading means for the status of a film being "good" or "bad" is - I find - a paralyzing question, but I'd welcome discussion from you less ataxic film buffs.]

What's interesting about this scene of horrific destruction is that although it is explicitly a spectacle (the characters in the scene are watching, too), the camera shows the pulverizing blows rather than reactions from the troops or the son's father (who let us not forget is also forced to see). Everyone is watching, but the camera is not interested in this pathos. The Captain delivers the first blow after the son declares, "If my father says he was hunting rabbits, then he was hunting rabbits." The camera initially shows us the calm, cool face of the Captain as he delivers the first couple blows, then the darkening face of the son as his nose and cheekbones yield to the force of the Captain's blunt will. What provokes the Captain is precisely the son's hubris, not at talking back to him, but at declaring his father's power to nominally shape the world: if he says he's a rabbit hunter, then he's a rabbit hunter. What the Captain won't tolerate is this tautological claim from a competing will. The whole film can be read as showing us character foils operating in a fundamentally mutable world - a world that does bend and yield to a shaping will, and the Captain knows this.

What's perverse is that the Captain is trying to impose the kind of will which hordes that shaping power for itself. When asked by the doctor how he can be sure his bride's unborn child is a son, the Captain replies "don't fuck with me." When his supper guests countenance his "need" to confront what remains of the rebellion, he corrects them by declaring he is there not by need but by choice, since:

The war is over and we won. If we need to kill every one of these vermin to settle it, then we'll kill them all and that's that.

Technical military victory is insufficient to impose a Totalitarian order, so he must eradicate all those who do not act accordingly. The Captain is less a figure standing for the tyranny of uncritical obedience, so much as a figure who recognizes that the world can accommodate multiple interpretive claims, but attempts to collapse this by imposing a Totalitarian order. In other words, he is the figure who says, it doesn't matter what people believe, I will intervene and establish whatever order I want, imposing and sustaining it by sheer repetition: by insisting on rigid obedience to the mundane; a beaurocratized distribution of resources (Franco's daily bread, etc.), a hierarchy of manners (precise dress and punctuality; declaring his wife's caravan 15 minutes late on a multiple hour journey, and so on). Everything about the Captain involves absent repetition of routine (he rises, shaves, and dresses the same way every day, threatens his prisoners with the same speech, tortures them with the same instruments in the same order, etc.).

Yet his mistake is thinking an order can be established and maintained simply by instituted repetition. The problem is that this leaves too much room within those strict rules of daily life for free thought. You can run his household or stand in line for Franco's daily bread without obeying in your thoughts. Indeed, you can be dreaming about being a princess in an underworld. The Captain errs because he doesn't recognize what's undermining about this level of disobedience (he misses why it might matter that Mercedes ostensibly obeys him but is not loyal). It doesn't even matter to him, in the end, that he will die, as long as his son "knows what time his father died" - as long as his totalitarian influence remains as repetition (at the same time of day, etc) continually observed. Like all totalitarians, he errs precisely by not caring what people think, only that they obey.

The film fetishizes resistance to such a Totalitarian will, because revolution is what can be planned all the while looking like you are obeying. Mercedes and Ofelia represent this disobedient will because they share the ability to see and move through the "cracks" such a scopic regime leaves room for. Mercedes keeps the letters of the Revolutionary's correspondence in a hiding place purloined in the outlines of the floor tile, just as Ofelia reveals doorways by drawing their outlines with chalk.

More specifically, Ofelia can see through the outlines of this world, into the world described in her treasured books. Her second scene features the fragmented piece of stone statue she finds on the road and intuitively replaces - an act which in turn summons the flying stick-bug that Ofelia tells Mercedes is "a fairy." Of course later, this creature morphs itself when prompted to do so by Ofelia pointing to a profile in her book and declaring "this is a fairy." Unlike the Captain, Ofelia shapes the world by recognizing its ability to take on other forms. In short, Ofelia is the celebration of vision disobedient to the pretensions of one regime, and Pan (the Faun) is there to test her: although he ostensibly prescribes strict orders, the point is always to solicit a certain disobediance: What Ofelia's prophecy (to restore her spirit to the underworld kingdom) actually requires as its condition of fulfillment is resistance (it's Alice In Wonderland as Sophocles might have penned it). Pan's "Labyrinth" is precisely the bewildering complexity it would be to trying to satisfy conditions of fulfillment purloined in strict orders.

That said, the film de-centers Ofelia's fairytale story, for she and her unborn brother are really the parables of Mercedes and her adult brother leading the guerrilla force hiding in the forest. It is not her brother but Mercedes, after all, that the film positions as the true political revolutionary, since it is thanks to her guise of obedience that a revolution can be strategized and carried out in the first place. Just as Ofelia is comfortable occupying a world where one scopic regime can be penetrated by another (fairies and fawns appear, chalk can draw functioning doors, text appears in blank books), Mercedes is, too: by "finding" doors in the floor and she enables essential communication (not to mention medical supplies and other provisions) thanks to which the revolution continues to be possible. Mercedes is capable of the improvisation which takes place in the cracks and spaces opened up by an imposed rigid order (that of running the Captain's household just so). Ofelia's story is the mythic dramatization of how one learns, when one is gifted with the right visibility, to use those cracks and spaces (now it's Alice in Wonderland as Michel de Certeau might have penned it). Mercedes is the grown counterpart of this disobedient will.

In the end, Ofelia's blood is the triumph of the Captain's own conceit undoing him: he takes his son from her at the center of the Labyrinth, and shoots her in cold blood, right after Pan (once again) tests her ability to know when to disobey: she refuses to let Pan draw her infant brother's blood in the ritual which restores her as princess of the underworld by first sacrificing the blood "of the innocent." Ofelia instinctively refuses ("my brother stays with me"), and in apparently refusing to satisfy the conditions of prophecy, precisely meets them. The world is too mutable to insist on the strict interpretation of her brother's (an infant's) blood, since her innocent blood (thanks to the Captain) will do just fine. Except it is here, of course, that the film fetishizes disobedience, all echoed in the eulogy of Ofelia's mother: don't mistake the divine for its ostensible laws. What matters is the spirit who knows how to improvise an interpretation befitting the spaces and cracks. Precisely through the absence of strict law can innocence - an uncorrupted will - seek to act in a mutable world.

In conclusion, what happens when a corrupted, totalitarian will tries to act in this world? He must collapse it, and what better way to portray this than to show the Captain literally disfiguring a resisting countenance. The face - in some way the very metaphor of mutability - that declares the same power he wants to claim only for himself, is ruthlessly destroyed, and what matters in this scene is precisely to show the horrific violence it is (or so the film wants to say) to collapse mutability itself.

look, nerd
[Illustration by Arthur Rackham, from Wikipedia]