Author Archives: Nathan Roberts

Avengers and Point Break

Hey everyone. So today I was sitting in a theater watching the tent-pole superhero film of the summer (gasp! what ever could it be?), when our dear hero Tony Stark referred to  Thor as “Point Break.” I nearly choked on my popcorn and was the only person in the whole theater who laughed.

The legend of Bodhi and Johnny Utah lives on. And thanks to this class, I can be in on the joke.

Have a great summer everybody.

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Role Theory, Star Wars The Musical and More: Bruno’s 2PM Recitation

Hello everyone. Today, perspicacious Alex Greenberger gave a good summary of our recitation and more (his analysis of/love letter to Mulholland Drive is quite phenomenal, please read it). Therefore, rather than waste your time and rehash everything, I’ll bring up specific topics and use them as framework for discussion topics that I want your input on (yes, you who aren’t even in my recitation, I’m talking to you too). I’d recommend that you read Alex’s post first.

First, Hayne’s “I’m Not There.” Hayne’s film is particularly interesting in light of postmodernism and the idea that one constructs their identity, that the same person can have multiple identities. Indeed, the now-omnipresent catchphrase “The Social Construction of Reality” was coined by the sociologist Peter Berger who also came up with the concept of Role Theory. The basic premise of Role Theory is that we adapt to multiple different roles depending on what sort of social situation we are in. A businesswoman would not talk the same way to a client as to her daughter, for instance. Do you buy this theory? Do you see yourself adapting to different roles as situations require them? Does/did Bob Dylan adapt to different roles, or is Haynes playing with our own different perceptions of a celebrity?

I think the concept of Role Theory is also particularly interesting in the context of Mulholland Drive because during the first part of the film it would appear that everyone is acting (somewhat cheesily, I may add) in their specific roles according to Diane’s fantasy. One of my favorite things about the McGowan article is how insightfully he enlightens the ways every “role” in the first part of the film is crafted to appeal to Diane’s desires and wishes. I like Alex’s claim that “[Diane] has dreamed up a movie, one in which she has even edited the whole thing by herself, and one in which creativity goes unbridled.” And, in a sense, Role Theory assumes that we write ourselves roles in our own “films” due to social expectations. This is an interesting idea, one that I will get at a bit more in a second.

First, Vivian and the Jenkins text.  Jenkins is writing all about the tensions and (occasional) harmonies between media studios and their fans. One of my personal favorite examples of this tension is Star Wars: The Musical. Seriously, skip to the 4 minutes mark in this video and watch my favorite song from the whole show. I’m really jealous that I didn’t get to do this in high school.

Anyway, this piece of brilliance was written by a couple of high school kids who ended up creating a school show so popular that they received a “cease and desist” letter from George Lucas. This is ironic, considering the fact that I bet this musical made a bunch of people actually want to watch Star Wars. That, at least, would probably be Jenkins’s argument. Do you all have any stories about how you’ve appropriated or examined a world through film, costume, or fan fiction? Do you find copyrights on fan fiction as dumb and repulsive as myself?

Next, Carly and the McGowan essay. I have never read Lacan, which made me feel like I was grasping for the source text, but I found it fascinating and Carly did a pretty good job going through it considering the density and difficulty of the essay. I like Alex’s commentary on Hollywood, and I think it’s accurate, but I also give McGowan a lot of credit for showing how Lynch keeps desire and fantasy separate. Fantasy, as Lynch shows, is used when we create narrative coherence out of our lives. Without fantasy, we are stuck in the world of a desire that can never be fulfilled. Without fantasy, the Other is truly and frighteningly evasive.

For example, have you ever had a crush on someone? Yes, you have. When you have a crush on someone you desire to be with them and this desire almost instantly leads you to fantasize about the two of you being together. You imagine that you can control the Other and hope that things will work out in your favor. Well, without fantasy, you are left with simply desiring something that is completely unobtainable (at least, as far as you can know or control). What a sad, terrible place to be. By dividing desire from fantasy, Lynch shows how the true nightmare is to desire without the aid of fantasy. You’re left crying and masturbating in vain without resolution like Diane. Yikes.

Yet the greatest point of tragedy occurs when these separate spheres converge at the Silencio. How sad is it that the woman singing is an illusion! How sad is it that the narrative we find transcendent and moving is an illusion! Like Betty and Rita, we fall into the trance while we simultaneously know that it’s a lie. I can hardly think of a scene in film with such incredible longing and a scene that works as such an effective love/hate-letter to Hollywood and film itself.

Yet Mulholland Drive, with its unbridled fantasy, is filled with scenes of comparable power. It has the scariest jump scene I’ve ever experienced in cinema (somehow the juxtaposition of the “Bear Man” as my friends lovingly call him and California afternoon is far more frightening than most horror films), the most hilarious cameo (Billy Ray? Really?), one of the greatest rigged shots (the 50s music scene Alex mentioned), and it is in general arguably the most tightly wound non-narrative film ever. Newcomers and oldcomers alike, what did you think about Mulholland Drive? How did it affect you? I have some friends who riffed on it the first time they saw it, so be honest if you didn’t like it. I would, however, really encourage you to watch it again.

That’s all from me!

Cynicism and Carnage

In Carnage (2011), Roman Polanski demonstrates that his cinematic interests have hardly changed since he directed Chinatown (1774). Although it is often very funny, Carnage is also one of the most cynical films I have ever seen.

This trailer reveals Polanski’s strategy for the whole film, which is to have only one exterior shot, a super wide shot of children who get in the fight. As viewers, we see the interaction that spawns the rest of the film from afar, feeling a distinct detachment from the boys in question. From a distance, their behavior seems hardly abnormal for children playing in a park. Their characters aren’t even introduced into the film. This shot is in distinct contrast with the rest of the film, which features the four mature adults “duking it out” in a small, cramped apartment. Polanski fills his frame with close ups of their passive-aggressiveness, yelling and fighting, refusing to let the viewer look away from the bloodbath. Clearly, their metaphorical carnage is the subject of the film, whereas the boys are merely portrayed immature children. The trailer’s music also aids this feeling of cynicism because it juxtaposes cheerful classical music with the adults’ aberrant behavior. Classical music is commonly regarded as the music of the “cultured” and the “bourgeois,” and when pared with violent behavior the music creates a tone of biting irony. This same strategy has been used in films like There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007).

This trailer attests to the thematic content of the film, which is hell-bent on breaking down every layer of superficial American “niceness”. Based on the play by the French playwright Yasmina Reza, Polanski lets loose the disgust he’s felt for American society, which has, ironically, confined him to Europe. As the characters get drunk and snap, all sorts of culturally “politically correct” attitudes crumble: “good old boy” conservatism (alluded to in John C. Reilly’s line “You know my wife dressed me up as a liberal”), self-obsessed capitalism, and humanistic liberalism (poignantly portrayed by Jodie Foster). There is no hint of reconciliation, forgiveness, sacrifice, or “decency” in any of these characters. Polanski and Reza display their disgust for American social norms which they see loosely disguising an unquenchably violent hedonism. And throughout the film the overarching irony remains that as all parents try to defend the decency of their children, they tear down all façades of their own personal decency.

While it’s a comedy based on someone else’s material, it is easy to link Carnage to Polanski’s cannon. Polanski changed the end of Chinatown to erase all sense of hope based on his own experiences. As Robert Towne said about their work on the ending, “Roman’s argument was, That’s life. Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon had” (Biskind 166). Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Polanski seeing his four miserable protagonists leaving their confinement. “That’s life,” he might say, “People can’t escape their confinement and their indecency. I certainly can’t.”

Notes on Recitation Section 5, 1/1/12

During recitation Section 5, we began with discussing how during the 1960s the personal became political, and how an individual’s problems gained an immense amount of weight in society. It was very easy to understand Point Blank in that context because most of the film’s tension derived from the concept of an individual vs. society.

We began our discussion talking about what was physically happening to the business of Hollywood, including the dismantling of vertical integration and the old Studio System. Television was keeping people at home and the film industry desperately needed ways of getting people back in theaters. This let to innovations like 3D, Panavision, Cinescope, lavish Technicolor productions, and inclusion of edgier material. The Moon is Blue was a landmark film because it was the first one to be released without production code approval.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf PosterWe watched an intense and relationally volatile scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (Nichols, 1966) and examined how it revealed the disturbing underbelly of domestic life. We discussed the MPAA and how they tend to be uncomfortable with relational depictions that are too severe, vulnerable, and “too close to home.” Alex made a connection between Wolfe and Blue Valentine (Cianfrance, 2010), a film that was nearly given an NC-17 rating (arguably) not because of its literal content but because of it’s intense and brutal depiction of a failing marriage. We compared Wolfe to Cleopatra, a film released three years earlier. Cleopatra was approved and yet featured an almost naked Elizabeth Taylor, enshrined in beauty as an Egyptian queen, whereas Wolfe featured an Elizabeth Taylor who “looked like shit.” Wolfe also showed a convergence between the art of stage and screen, regarding both material and acting styles. The film helped change what was valued in a performance.

We then discussed Fuses and it’s connection to the sexual revolution. We discussed how its sexual structure was diverted through “equal-opportunity objectification.” A few people thought that the film was aesthetically ugly, but this tended to be a minority opinion. People really enjoyed its emphasis on naturalism and the beauty of physically painting on film. There was some question as to whether Fuses was voyeuristic in affect because the bodies of its leads were beautiful. We talked about how the length of the film made it possible to become conditioned and desensitized to nudity. And when one is desensitized, body parts become sort of grotesque and take on a completely different affect than parts shown in typical eroticism.

Point Blank      There were varied opinions on Point Blank. Some people like the beginning and grew weary of it by the end. Some people liked the end but were confused by it at the beginning.  We discussed Lee Marvin’s character and how he was interesting because he was so “minimalist.” We discussed the color palate, and how the colors started mute before getting vibrant. The use of memory in the film was compared to Memento and how it’s confusing structure or “deja-vu” works because we experience the film as the main character does. It has dream logic. We agreed that it was definitely a nihilist film, and that it reverted typical moral standards because everyone in the film was corrupt. It was, in a sense, it depicted the “id gone wild,” filled with 2 dimensional beings only motivated by basic egocentric, violent, and libidinal drives. Near the end of the recitation, there was a disagreement as to whether Walker was literally dead or not. Perhaps it was a metaphor? Or does it really matter? Isn’t the film really about what it is like to feel dead inside? Since the piece is surreal, these questions were not easily solved and the recitation ended in continued debate and mystery.

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich is one of my favorite films, and a film that works well as a companion piece to The Manchurian Candidate. John Malkovich and Raymond Shaw both become the victims of sadistic manipulation, where their agency is mercilessly taken from them by forces outside of their control. They embody a very Western fear that we could, potentially, loose control of our minds and our ability to act morally. We pride ourselves on our individual empowerment, and nothing is more frightening to a society raised on The American Dream than loosing that capacity for self-determination. This loss of self-determination is, of course, the ultimate ideological threat of communism, more thoroughly (or at least, directly) examined in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also present in the tragedy of Raymond Shaw.

Being John Malkovich is marker that after the cold war, films that dealt with this idea began to take it less seriously. Kaufman and Jonze use some similar surrealistic tactics to The Manchurian Candidate, but by and large the mood of Malkovich is lighter– sadistically light. Consider the scene I linked to, which is both nightmarish and hilarious, as Malkovich gives a series of incredibly brave performances. Part of the sadism of the film is that characters who take Malkovich’s free will are not frightening communists or incestuous, overbearing mothers, but pathetic individuals trying to make some money and live happy lives. Kaufman’s twist on the “brainwashing” yarn is that in modern American society, our threat doesn’t come from a conspiring group force, but from petty individual selfishness. The individual greed of those in power deprives individuals of agency.