Tuesday, August 16, 2016

NBC Coverage of Men's Springboard Qualifiers

Notes from watching the Men’s Springboard qualifying on NBC live (8/15/16) 

NBC does not show all of the athletes. They show only two other countries and the U.S. athletes. These other two countries are not simply the highest ranked during the qualifying process, but they are Russia and China. Throughout the coverage, athletes from Mexico held the second and fifth spots; higher than either of the U.S. athletes. The narratives were focused on Russia and China. These national athletes became surrogates for the two most discussed countries in the US election-crazed 24hour news cycle. One could make a compilation of Trump alone speaking these names: Russia, China, Russia, China, Russia, China, Russia, China. However, the Russian and Chinese athletes are among the best in the world.

Drama was created by the conditions of the outdoor diving pool. Diving pools are typically indoors, but in Rio the pool is outdoors. On this day they were facing 40 mile per hour winds. This had a dramatic effect on the diver’s performance. At one point a Russian diver was blown into the diving board. Perhaps it was a plot! The CIA pressured the Rio Olympics committee to build the pool outdoors so that their athlete could humiliate Russia and China on the world stage; to make American Men’s Springboard Great Again.

The NBC coverage immediately framed this as a “battle of the minds” wherein the wind is said to play tricks on the diver’s minds, causing them to make mistakes. NBC interviewed a coach for the American team who said that wind plays tricks with the mind and the US team practiced to not have wind affect them. NBC then cut to an expert commentator who reiterated this line of thinking. She said that wind has a mental effect on the divers, and sometimes can have an effect physically as well. As in 40 mph winds could possibly impact the direction of your dive but that the US athletes trained to not let this affect them through the sheer power of will.

NBC cycled through the coverage of these five athletes: two American, two Chinese, one Russian. When these athletes were not on the diving board NBC cut to commercials featuring the US athletes selling liquid dish detergent and bank finance options. Thus, the NBC coverage alternates between two things: selling the superior stock of its white male athletes against the precarious mental states of its largest economic boogeymen and selling consumer products.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
Cool surprise! Police hand drivers ice cream instead of tickets (The Today Show, Aug. 5 2016, original video by Kevin Landis)

Monday, August 1, 2016

July Viewing Diary

extant thoughts on some visual culture highlights of the month.

Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Dallas. Two all-too-familiar examples of systemic police racism and one the tragic-but-not unexpected response. It was Malcom X who described the violence sweeping across the American continent as “chickens coming home to roost”. America is not only a society built on systemic inequalities and violence, but is wholly incapable or unwilling of conversing about these complexities. The visual evidence of these murders circulated the viral culture, picking up interpretations along the way: concrete visual evidence of the systemic racism inherent in the police, a dark legacy carried through from histories of militant slave patrols and KKK lynch mobs. For the angry white nationalist only Dallas mattered: a scene ripped from a Christopher Nolan Batman film of chaos and murder gussied up as protest. The calls for “law and order” threaten to overpower the demand for dialogue by Black Lives Matter mobilization.

Aping Richard Nixon, Donald Trump dons the sash of the “Law and Order Candidate” and for the first time in over a decade I opted out of watching either party's national convention. I cherry picked speeches on YouTube and gleaned bits of information from the streams of networked social life and algorithmic newsreels. Of all the images and all the stories and all the speakers what remains most striking is the image of Trump standing before a rectangular jumbotron projecting his giant face. But it’s not the aesthetic lineage of dystopian cinema that made the image utterly fascistic, but the throbbing cock terror dreams of his nightmare speech. Vivid images of brown bodies “pouring” over borders and “roaming” suburban white communities. His theme music: Neil Young’s Mideast Vacation.

Was it Max Weber who said that communism tries to politicize art, but fascism aestheticizes politics?


A curio from my research on internet pornography that has stuck in my mind like a brainworm. This Webm, which I ripped from 4chan, has popped up repeatedly across various forum sites in threads dedicated to fap culture and sharing the things that "get you hard as diamonds". The video is sourced from a 2011 YouTube upload titled "Hot Girl doing Matrix on mechanical bull 8-|". The music is "Bitch" by Allie X from 2014, a romantic synth drip with echoes of Grimes' "Oblivion". The lyrics of "Bitch" present a romanticized nostalgia for traditional gender roles, albiet without reference to anatomical sex: "Gonna bake and make your dinner / I'll be your cook / You can bring me home the bacon / And chop the wood" and "Make the bed and do your laundry / Tuck the corners in / Read the news, the business section / Tell me how it's been." And while the chorus sings "Whatever it takes to get you off" the song repeats: "We do things a different way / It's up to you and it's up to me / I'm you bitch, you're my bitch", lyrics that suggest a consensual partnership or a restructuring of traditional roles without the inequalities that provoked revolt against them. Yet in the context of this video's remix, the nostalgia for an atomic family partnership is re-inscribed into a heterosexual matrix: the bull rider's dance of seduction doing "whatever it takes to get" the presumed male viewers off.

Circumstances had me seeing Star Trek Beyond  twice in one week, something I wouldn't normally have done but am glad that I did. It's a strange and beautiful film, but first viewings always highlight the problems. While many decry Abrams' abandoning the vision of Roddenberry, it is quickly forgotten that his utopian future Earth is not without its serious problems; problems that can be seen circulating the discourses on Hilary Clinton (is the vision of a multicultural liberal utopia, or a nascent imperalist that has rooms for gays and blacks and women?). Beyond signals a return to the Roddenberry vision of a multicultural liberal utopia, one that jumps over difficult questions of class and race and capitalism in favor of a united body politic. There is a strange nationalism in Star Trek, not unlike Verhoeven's vision of a future fascist utopia in Starship Troopers. Verhoeven gets what so many filmmakers forget: that fascism is beautiful for those who benefit from its structures. For a fleeting second the film seems to tackle this very subject. It's arch villain (another mindless rubber goblin bent on vague revenge) is a product of the frontier, the border pushed by the Federation. Echoes of the Hollywood Western and dispatches from Occupied Palestine ring forth. The great function of Hollywood (if there can be a single coherent function) is often to transform critiques of the nation into existential threats to its very existence. But we soon learn that these rubber goblin are actually specters of the nations' violent militaristic history, mutated through the centuries and back with a vengeance to unravel peace. Justin Lin's Star Trek is more Byron Haskin than Abrams.

Star Trek Beyond is a gorgeous meditation on finding one's footing in a polysemous universe. The set pieces of the York Town space station, with multiple centers of gravity, the camerawork from the opening shot that uses tilts to displace the center and orientation of the objects and characters, the frequent use of mirror images, the physical mutation of bodies. The only constant is transformation itself. Lin's figures, here a dynamic family unit akin to his Fast & Furious work, must navigate these changes; must find their footing. These figures are searching for a tenable ideology in a universe that enables nihilism to take hold. Lin's sense of movement and space create a visual universe of transformation and of shift where bodies, images, and ideas coalesce into a single kaleidoscopic vision.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Take A Look At These Hands (Vertov, Varda, Marker)

Dziga Vertov's first Kino-Pravda ends on a curious note. After glimpses of what has become proper newsreel footage like national figures, marches, a refugee crisis, and a political trial of note, Vertov "plays out" the remainder of his film with pedestrian shots of everyday workers. Specifically, he ends with a prolonged sequence of a toy-maker's booth and the customers purchasing his wares. 

The camera frames a street scene, but someone (is it Vertov?) holds up the products of his labor and displays them for the camera. Here we not only end the short film on common people and daily market-place life, but with an ad-hoc representation of the filmmakers: their hands touching their own subject.

At one point the toy-maker turns to view this activity, thinking the hands belong to another customer. When he realizes these are the filmmakers, he returns to his actual work.

This technique, of filming one's own hands to display objects, becomes a trait of the essay film. It is one of the many reflexive techniques that reminds us of the authorship of the work: that this is primarily a tactile medium constructed through one's labor and individual perspective.

It is possible to view Vertov as the progenitor of these practices. Not only the use of hands, for what does that matter removed of politics, but of weaving common people and laborers into a hand-made document of a social and cultural moment. We see this again with Varda in The Gleaners and I, a film that traces national and cultural currents through a vox pop approach among those who occupy the margins of free society.

Woman with a Movie Camcorder:

There is a third example here, just as committed to social revolution but here focused on an individual man. I am referring to Chris Marker's AK.

The distinctions are written in the images. Marker here is not using his hands to frame objects in the physical spaces that he found them. Instead, he is using a similar technique within a staged cerebral space that in the context of the film is contrasted with his "raw" verite footage of the production of Ran. Instead of objects his hands "hold" the media that construct his essay: the audio of Akira Kurosawa speaking, something that could have easily been played as voice over to images of the director, but here is attached to the very technologies that produce, store, and exhibit them. The hands still function as reflective signatures of the construction of the essay film; both personalizing the work and undermining the erasure of construction and perspective that mark the traditional documentary form. I also think it just looks neat.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Description of a Struggle (Chris Marker, 1960)

Description of a Struggle* (Description d’un combat) Chris Marker 1960

* a note on titles: The use of the English language title refers to the version with the English language narration, where as Pahn's La France est Notre Patrie was viewed in it's original French version.

How does Marker work? That is the question I keep coming back to, and stalling. I have good reason to be wary of diagraming Marker’s essay films, but I also want to study his technique like an apprentice. I’m wary of close scrutiny because most—though not all—scholarly work on Marker fundamentally undoes the political and poetic work of the films. They tend to violently force their complexities into taxonomies of knowledge production; into grist for the academic mill, as Dave Hickey would say, which is demanded of scholars in the neoliberal academy. Or the opposite is true and the writing endlessly repeats its programmatic thesis of how mesmerizing and complex the works are, actively obscuring their direct political aims. I’m left with a dilemma not unlike Mark Twain’s reminiscences of life on the Mississippi: through careful study he gained a mastery of the river, a complex knowledge of how it works, but he mourned the loss of the majesty it once inspired. Can the devotional awe that a work like Sans Soleil inspires only be maintained through willful ignorance? Is mystery the antithesis of a practitioner’s knowledge? Perhaps this is a challenge Marker wanted to inspire in the viewer: a direct political engagement that obfuscates simplistic diagnosis and prescription.

What follows are some notes on how the “thinking image” of Marker’s film works from a recent viewing of Description of a Struggle (Description d'un combat). By what processes does he actually essay his quandary?

Description of a Struggle is almost always rooted in the present moment of its production. Its images derive almost entirely from footage shot by Marker and company on a trip to Israel in 1960 (among the assistant credits is one Alfred E. Neuman). Thus, his camera-eye (his term) is planted in the present while thinking backward and forward, back to history and toward the future. In doing this the present day images are made to reflect specific genealogies of the past while anticipating the immediate future. But what is contained within the small space of the almost? I will return to this question in a moment.

There is a sense of transient immediacy that emerges from these images. Their centrality is counterbalanced by the weight of history and the weight of possibility, placing the present moment in a continuum of time and memory. Things will change. Things will stay the same. In this film he draws special attention to the moment-ness of his images, directly asking if what we see will be there tomorrow—or even remembered by those who filmed them.

The peripatetic nature of the essay’s spoken narrative is a thematic counterbalance, adding a complexity to the images that is not readily apparent. This is the eye of Marker, the voice describing what he sees in his own images. The connections he is making. Marker’s words knit the past and future to the contemporary images. He reaches back to the Jewish experience, from Biblical stories to newspaper headlines, mostly centered on the circuitous journey toward statehood. He ponders forward to the problems of a nation state; of the nascent anti-Arab racism and capitalist ambition of the young Israel. He looks back at more than just World War II and the Holocaust, but the first Arab-Israeli war that has already taken place and the continuum of U.S. and European violence that extends beyond just the obvious horrors of the Third Reich and lay beyond the neat borders of the Holocaust.

Now to return to the question of the almost. It is with rare exception that he uses images to time-travel: newsreel footage and paintings of Sodom, photographs of European Ghettos used to illustrate how they’ve already been recreated in present day Israel and snapshots of the pedestrians they meet. Each have their own special a/effect in breaking with the present day. The echoes and parallels and repetitions are all there. Some are playful and irreverent while others gather like storm clouds on the horizon, anticipating future violence, racism, and the eradication of socialist projects in the new nation. “War is embedded in all memories”, the narration tells us. But why return to the past at all? There is an obvious answer in that it breaks up the homogeneity of the present-day footage and provides strategic variety. Sometimes this is shocking, sometimes refreshing. It also places Marker’s own footage into a continuum of images, documentation, culture, and history. It also provides a curation by Marker. It emphasizes the historical and cultural genealogies that he is tracing, but only in glimpses.

Like Marker’s oeuvre it is concerned with memory: memory as history, personal reflection, cultural memory, trauma. If there is a practice I would describe it as: Marker traces the currents of history through the prism of the present in order to ponder the future. He stops along the way to note precedents, predictions, and anticipations. But the images and reflections are often fragments. These fragments are crucial: the essence of his political praxis. He deliberately undermines the totality of knowledge production that Adorno framed as the political praxis of the essay as form.

The narrator says early on: “This is Israel. We’ve heard all about Israel. Twelve years of statehood, nearly thirteen. Two million people, soon three million.” But what is shown to correspond with “This is Israel”? What are the signs that say Israel? Description of a Struggle opens by way of Roland Barthes and a meditation on signs and meanings—Barthes’ Mythologies was published only three years prior. Marker opens with Barthes’ argument that everything is a sign; an index of meaning wherein we not only communicate, but exist. To return to my question of what signs correspond to “This is Israel”: the answer is no one thing. The larger implication of the film is to expose the porousness of the nation state—physically, culturally, temporally. And this is delicate work. Perhaps its subtlety or demand for audience participation is partly responsible for the neglect of these early Marker films too often seen as mere travelogues or products of their cultural moment with nothing left to tell us. But if it’s not the information, it’s the process which is still important. Another question might be: what can such a process tell us today? How could it be put to use in a cultural moment of social revolution and the fetish of easily digestible information? Information requires form, philosophy, a praxis, all of which the essay provides, keeping in mind that I am referring to the essay of Montaigne, Marker, Farocki, Adorno and not the empty faux cultural studies of the "think piece" and its equally worthless cousin: the video essay.

Fragmentation is part of his mode of essay. The film—the travelogue—is of Israel, but Israel is at once an idea, a collection of people, images, moments, currents. As a travelogue Marker is subverting the very function of a travelogue: to produce stable and coherent meanings of place, what it is, what it means. This is the revolutionary act of Marker’s cinema in the way that Adorno proposed the essay as a radical form to break with the totality of genre, particularly academic disciplines and their ever-narrowing corridors of knowledge. A subject, a nation, a film, one cannot propose to work toward any understanding if it separates politics from art, stories from incident, people from figures. A poor Arab girl in the Arab quarters is as crucial as the Hungarian Jew who daily feeds the Hungarian speaking cats and so are Shakespeare and the latest communication technologies and weapons of war.

Marker makes political movements toward what? Agitation? Political awareness? A skepticism of the nation state? If it is true that to understand what a person values one should examine what pictures they take, than for Marker it is the proletariat, even the lumpens, despite his sardonic dismissal of them decades later in Sans Soleil. The modern day political movements that Marker spots in his footage of pedestrians have precedents: in the Bible, in Shakespeare, in American pop culture, in the Holocaust—preceded and anticipated to use Marker’s own words. And future uncertainties are always a mixture of political awakening and danger—of future resistance and Palestinian occupation.

Marker is using travelogue as a mode of rĂ©sistance. He is using the tools of the colonizer, those tools that mediate and manipulate reality into meaning, into signs: editing, text, music, voice over. Others do this to more direct effect: Rithy Pahn’s La France est Notre Patrie, which is perhaps more radical in the use of actual colonial footage, reworked by a colonial subject to do the work of de-colonization. The footage being reworked and re-seen by the critical eye of Pahn. Farocki does this too with Respite.

With the English-language narration Description of a Struggle has the feel of a colonial travelogue: a group of Englishmen traveling to the Orient and squeezing what they capture into a narrative that maintains Anglo supremacy (exoticism created through timelessness—a lack of history which is Said’s definition of Orientalism), but Marker isn’t doing that, even when in the beginning he is. He is building toward a mindset; a process that is the refusal of total narrative coherence by maintaining that which cannot be clearly articulated in language (or signs as the Barthes beginning suggests) and is beyond colonial control. Perhaps Marker's work is to expose the weaknesses in the facade and carry the revolutionary torch. A risky gambit and one that still loves to gaze at beautiful exotic women. What to make of that?