What's the deal with passages and doorways? I'd like to find out. Zama is constantly having difficulty moving through entryways, which are never quite framed in an accessible manner. He passes through rooms and moves from interior to exterior all while being watched. The enslaved servants are almost entirely speechless, but are always looking back at their colonizers. It feels a deft move to deny these performers linguistic speech, but given the primacy of the gaze I wonder how much can be communicated through looks? Oh, and just one more thing: the oscillation between still wide shots and claustrophobic moving camera work makes this an unpredictable film. It recalls for me Bartleby, the Scrivener or The Metamorphosis in its deft handling of absurd bureaucracy that might erupt into violence at any moment.
II. MCU rewatch
I rewatched a number of MCU titles with my wife in anticipation of Avengers Infinity War. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) exemplifies white America's founding myth in the narratives of World War II, and not those of the Revolutionary or Civil War. Imperialist culture scavenges these narratives in contradictory and paradoxical ways. The fight against fascism always leaves out American white supremacy, from the KKK to actual American Nazi parties; the inspiration that Hitler and company drew from uniquely American forms of racism like eugenics and zoning ordinances; and the anti-black racism of the U.S. military during the 1940s as well as the concentration camps for Japanese Americans. One could also include the poaching of Nazi scientists at the end of the war and the U.S. occupational force's preference to keep UFA Nazi's in the film industry rather than risk commie's shaping visual culture. Some of this pops up in Captain America: The Winder Soldier, but only as toothless winks to historical complexity, the very DNA of patriotic slop. The Avengers is a uniquely Obama-era fascist work (and one of the shoddiest MCU films). The image of Captain America commanding the police, who ask why they should listen to this guy, only to fall lock-step into command after a flashy display of Olympian force is a perfect distillation of the Ayn Randian politics of contemporary Marvel. The Avengers also extends the Obama drone policy ideologies of the Iron Man films: a celebration of weapons that only kill bad people. The venal tragedy of "surgical precision" that functions as a cynical euphemism that erases the murdered innocents at the hands of Obama's drone war. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is one of the few well-crafted one of these things, flips (or flops) into a somewhat critical commentary on Obama's foreign policy regarding drones. Emerging from the film's attempts to feel like a serious post-Watergate political thriller, Robert Redford plays a Kennedy-esq bureaucrat with giant drones and a literal kill list of targets. In a common mode of cognitive dissonance, the fascism threatening America values is posed as an outsider: it's Hydra! Captain America becomes a center-right libertarian who wonders what happened to the romanticized America he knew from World War II. And just like audience members who ask themselves this question, he was asleep for the decades that would provide an answer (where's the MCU film where Cap engages in a Foucauldian genealogy of American imperialism?). Avengers: Age of Ultron continues this central fixation on drones, the Bush Doctrine, and Randian libertarianism. Another Joss Whedon hack job with such egregious and retrograde gender politics that one wonders how he was ever mistaken for a feminist. Age of Ultron presents another Frankenstein's monster born out of an amalgamation of technocratic power and billionaire tycoons. Elon Musk meets Eric Holder. Avengers Assemble! Captain America: Civil War brings these simplified frameworks into a poorly framed contention. The rugged freedom-loving libertarian heart of Captain America's benevolent right-centrism goes head-to-head with the techno-fascism of the Musk-Holder-Obama Doctrine. Political readings of films are also incoherent as films are never ideologically coherent texts. Drone warfare is beloved by liberals and libertarians, who both struggle over the right to hold the flag for their imperialist enterprises. But as always, these editorially mandated events in Marvel Comics are never true clashes of ideology, but hoaxes and elaborate misdirections at the hands of Hydra or some other villain. In this case, Baron Zemo emerges as one of the MCU's many twisted appropriations of the consequences of the imperialism that they celebrate through the primacy of the image. Terrorism is fueled by the aftermath of drone strikes, and this adds some heady political complexity, but the villains are always villains. Zemo, like Killmonger, is politically correct, but within the Byzantine politics of these films becomes partially muted. Like The Watchmen and The Incredibles, the registering of superheros is a popular libertarian fantasy exposed in the shoddy plots where a society screams at the heroes, blaming them for collateral damage despite saving the world from annihilation from Loki or Ultron. In the real world, there is no Loki or Ultron, only fascists desperately trying to justify their violence by making Palestinians or Iranians seem like world-ending super villains. Much like the homesteader gun loving death cults, conservative ideologies in narrative form always require the constant threat of non-existent fantasy villains to justify their trauma-response hyper vigilance, which might be why these Avengers films always features hordes of faceless henchmen.
III. Some Capsules
* = rewatch
Far From Vietnam* (various, 1967): to me this is a Chris Marker film, made in the montage, and its interesting to see him try out tricks and techniques that would be put to better use in The Grin Without A Cat and Sans Soleil. The claims that this is too diffuse and never coheres are outrageous. How can one capture the sentiment and proportionality of Western opposition to Western imperialism in a single mode? Such cultural and social fracturing requires a fractured approach; the subjectivity of the filmmakers placed within networks of meaning. Its refusal to be one single thing is a political act, one that I wish there were more of in contemporary filmmaking.
Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018): who goes to a Spielberg film for the politics? Every one of his films is problematic liberal schmaltz (just like John Ford), but that's not why we love him. RPO might be a masterpiece of the mutogenic cinema, of layering transformations through detached CGI camerawork and layers of reference. Why criticize the references? It's not like this Family Guy. It's the landscape we live in. Although this doesn't hold a candle to The Lego Batman Movie.
Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks, 1965): this has a kind of laxness that gives way to an expansive emotional cosmos in a similar manner to The Quiet Man and Donovan's Reef. I'm not quite sure yet how to describe it, but these late masterpieces from classical Hollywood auteurs who began with silents is definitely a big mood and one that I'm invested in exploring more deeply. The film eschews plot, genre, and even coherence at times to map the mutating trajectories of a community built on constantly transforming relationships. This is weird cinema that moves from a sort of documentary style action photography blended through montage with an uncanny studio artificiality that is almost dull. Those hotel rooms feel like a sleek poverty row cinema. I can't stop thinking about this one.
Mur Murs (Agnes Varda, 1981): there is a passage from Chuang-tzu's The Inner Chapters that has stayed with me for years: "let the stream find its own channels." Don't force the development. I've long thought of how a film could be made from this philosophy without ending up a rambling mess and Mur Murs seems to capture it somehow. Varda and her crew move weightlessly through a type of snowball method, connecting one person and image and story to another by association. Varda is one of the great essayists because of how she simultaneously centers herself in her film, but does not force the construction or connections of the material. Of course, her authorial hand is doing this labor, but the sign of a master is to make it seem effortless, natural even (another tenant of Chuang-tzu's writing).
Lost Highway* (David Lynch, 1997): [adapted from my Letterboxd entry] When I first saw this as an undergraduate I was mesmerized by it, but I didn't really understand it. Seeing it through the lens of Lynch's professed fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial and with a better grasp on Lynch's features as Hollywood genre cinema, it is much more coherent emotionally, but I struggle to maintain interest in it. I don't find Lynch to be a mysterious filmmaker, and I balk against the bastardization of "Lynchian" to be a lazy catch-all for weirdness in the same way that "surreal" has become. His work is far more straightforward in terms of noir tropes, but he places an emphasis on intuitive mood and emotional structuring than through narrative coherence (i.e. exposition). Lynch achieves this through cinematic tricks that push the boundaries of what can be captured in the medium that he is working with. The biggest problem for Lost Highway is pacing. This is really slow and it lacks the bold and inventive mood work of Lynch's better films. It seems stranded between Lynch's exploitation of the limitations of celluloid to create effect and his later exploitation of digital cinema. Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive do what Lost Highway does so much better, both in terms of narrative beats and style. This isn't to say that Lost Highway is a total wash. Patricia Arquette is phenomenal and I can't totally dislike a film with a track from Bowie & Eno's Outside, Rammstein, porno Marylin Manson, and peak 1990s nostalgia for the 1950s.
I also watched and loved the phenomenal short films Shuffle (Gakuryu Ishii, 1981) and Cry When It Happens (Laida Lertxundi, 2010), both of which I watched several times. I revisited The Time We Killed (Jennifer Reeves, 2004), a masterpiece of a kind of bygone personal feminist/queer filmmaking that is more at home in the 1980s. And my mind was absolutely blown by Gold Diggers of 1935 (Busby Berkeley, 1935). That lullaby sequence!
IV. 2018 rankings
1-5 are films I loved