Category Archives: Week 2 (1/31): Pop Nihilism


Soft-Core Legacies

I just found this article and was reminded of the sensitivity with which Carolee Schneemann approached the act of love-making and the female body. Has anyone seen any of Mr. King’s work? I have not, but would be curious to … Continue reading

Jaap 2/1 9:30 Recitation Recap, and Sinatra Praise

Our February 1st recitation covered a good deal of ground, from the rampant social issues throughout the late 1950s and ’60s – in particular, the uprising of a younger generation fighting against the ideals of their parents – to the psychedelic and sexually-influenced films of that era.

The 1950s are often considered a golden age in America, a time of peace and prosperity. But many important disputes were brewing, both domestically and abroad. The decade saw the Korean War and the beginning of the Red Scare, which were portrayed in films like The Manchurian Candidate during Week One. However, our recitation during Week Two focused on some of the domestic problems arising over those years.

We saw a clip from the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, in which a defiant and inebriated James Dean ends up in prison. His motives are unclear, but he is clearly upset by his parents’ inability to listen to him and constant bickering. We discussed how his parents literally and figuratively “look down” on him in the scene – and how it represented two disparate generations: The older generation, who had to fight for everything they had – they overcame the Great Depression, battled Axis soldiers in World War II; and the new, younger generation, with ample free time, money in their pockets, and a great deal of angst.

The class also discussed how the MPAA came into place during the ‘50s, and its influence on Hollywood, which was seeing poor box office results at the time as a result of television proliferation. The invention of the MPAA allowed more freedom and less censorship in films; more risqué pictures (like Rebel) went unrated by the ratings board, and therefore became more young adult-oriented. It was a studio-designed tactic to recapture America’s youth, and it worked well.

We explored the drastic changes in filmic content over just a few years. Perhaps the most striking example was the two Frank Sinatra movies. In 1955’s Guys and Dolls, Sinatra plays a gambler who is also having problems with his fiancée, Vivian Blane. The film is very upbeat, and in the scene we watched, conflict is dramatized in very static, cheerful song and dance numbers. Compare that to The Man with the Golden Arm, released the same year, in which Sinatra plays a heroin addict. In the surprisingly blunt scene we viewed (I was going to say “frank”, but realized I couldn’t escape a pun either way), Sinatra prepared to shoot up horse. Audiences saw everything but the needle’s penetration.

Finally, after viewing a “scandalous” clip of Elvis shaking his hips, we talked about Fuses and Point Blank, as well as the related readings. (I did a recap on the “On Fuses” essay we read, specifically addressing the tactility of the short through its scratches and gender equality roles.) Though the films were very different in subject matter, their innovations in explicit sexual and violent content remain readily apparent, even if they haven’t aged particularly well. (We didn’t have too many fans of either in our section.) We drew connections to Nietzchian concepts and the first and second waves of the feminist movement.

Overall, it was an interesting class. I was actually very surprised that The Man with the Golden Arm clip was so intense – I would not have expected heroin depiction on screen in the ‘50s, especially with Sinatra in a lead role. On a somewhat related note, it seems Sinatra really embraced the social changes of the times (having starred in both The Manchurian Candidate and the aforementioned film), while still maintaining the credibility of a previous generation. I always knew the man was classy – but didn’t know he was so well aware of how to market himself.

Daniel Levinsohn

1/31 at 3:30PM Recitation with….!BRUNO!

I’d just like to start by saying that it’s terrible when I go to recitation with Bruno, because I can’t help but be reminded of this ridiculous and not-so-good movie mentioned above. Don’t worry Bruno, we love you (maybe?).

We started off our lovely recitation with a recap of “Fuses” (which we came back to at the end of recitation). The general consensus was that this film speaks a lot about how the personal experience can be politicized. Tis’ true, an artsy “porno” (said this way for a reason) made by a female starring herself would bring up a lot of controversy amongst an America dominated by masculinity. It definitely must be noted that personalities like her’s have the ability to change everything, or at least help the process. But, enough of her for now.

Bruno brought up an interesting point regarding the 60’s and specifically the Counter Culture: at this time 16mm camera equipment became available on a large scale. So what does this do? It gives the avant garde a chance to revive itself – a chance to flourish. So, how does Hollywood then respond? It makes theater screens wider. And what goal does Hollywood have in mind? Money, baby. Money. Cause’ that’s what its all about. They want to bring the audience back into the theaters. But it definitely isn’t just screens they made bigger, they followed the path of non-Hollywood films and changed their content completely. In essence, a new Hollywood was born.

With the end of this discussion came a presentation from none other than Melissa (I do apologize for not getting her [your] last name). She researched the article “Pop, Queer, or Fascist.” This article was an overview of the film “Scorpio Rising.” It recounted how this particular film was about the motorcycle culture and then went into a discussion of how that culture was represented. This representation became a pop phenomenon, utilizing pop music and ultimately pop icons. The film itself delves into deeper aspects of society, namely S&M in the gay community and where that collides with Nazism. It shows the archetype of biker’s being obsessed with mechanics – basically revering masculinity while also looking down on it. Ultimately, this film had a lasting impact upon mass culture, and led to an influx in biker films that revolve around the anti-hero and anti-establishment (Easy Rider baby).

*I included the acid trip scene from “Easy Rider” above since we didn’t get to see it in class. I personally love how it gives the feel of an acid trip without special effects. It is smart cinema – since nowadays a trip scene would normally be depicted with special effects (though still with the potential to be awesome) such as the DMT trip in “Enter the Void”:

However, if you read the comments on the youtube postings, it is clear that cinema can never really capture what occurs in the human mind, especially under the influence of psychedelics or other drugs. But it will always be a goal of cinema to try!

Now, back on track.

After Melissa’s presentation we watched a clip from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” After we watched it I was intensely disappointed in myself for having never seen the film. My girlfriend constantly quotes it, and it really is one of the more powerful scenes I have ever witnessed:

“I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to, but I am not a monster. I’m not.”

I can only imagine what the rest of the film is like. It is now number one on my list of films to see. And what I wouldn’t have given to see the play when it first existed! Woe is me. But anywho, this film received a Mature Audiences Only rating for several reasons that at the time were controversial, though now probably would have received a PG rating (possibly G). This film goes against the institution of marriage, which in the midst of the era of “housewives” would be anything but acceptable. The language that they use is meant to make the audience uncomfortable, and especially because the scene takes place on film there is an intimacy that the audience is allowed to invade. We should not be able to hear this conversation, but instead we are right in the middle of it, often in a close up. I myself questioned why this story was received more positively when performed on a stage, and Bruno met my question with a good answer: as a play this story is more subjective. In a film, as mentioned previously, we are in the middle of the heat of battle. It feels real rather than performed.

After this discussion came and ended, we went back to discuss “Fuses.” The first question Bruno asked was why this film was twenty minutes long. It was such in order to desensitize the viewer. People at this time were not used to seeing anything so explicit, so it was Schneeman’s goal to make visualized sex normal – and in doing so empower women rather than dehumanize them. Also, it was a work of art to her that took place over several years. If she loved making it, then why would she make it so short?

We ended our discussion with “Point Blank.” We discussed how the structure and dialogue of this film is meant to hint that something strange is going on. The way it is cut is meant to depict dreams – flashbacks, replacing characters with other characters, etc. We acknowledged how, as we watched the film (or any film), we began to develop certain expectations, but that the director would go against them so that the audience is never ready for the next event. Thus, the film itself becomes a bit convoluted (admirably so). We aren’t sure if we are watching a dream, a retelling of an event, or “truth.” Thus the result is a bit of confusion, and hopefully a loss of ourselves within this world the director has created.

This ended our recitation. Now, I would like to leave you with the Russian Super Singer. If you haven’t watched it, it’s a little ridiculous. Be sure to pay attention to the actual performance as well. Valete.          – James Berry

A Pointedly Blank Recap

Well, we started class in as good a place as any to begin: with some context. The 1960’s in America were fraught with turmoil: Vietnam, civil rights, the women’s lib movement, free love, a rediscovery of Nietzschian principles, and, in a headier realm, the duality between the individual and the institution. In the film world, change was also coming about in a literal way. Vertical integration was no longer allowed, meaning that big film companies couldn’t hold onto a monopolizing system of involvement with a film or an artist from beginning to end. Beyond that, television had overtaken the American household, necessitating some kind of revamp within Hollywood to keep people coming to the theaters. This resulted in a shift of content becoming increasingly explicit in nature. The problem, however, was that up until this point, films had been expected to fit into a margin of appropriateness deemed suitable for all audiences: the rules were made for the lowest common denominator, and no delineation between age or maturity of viewers existed. When “The Moon is Blue” and “Rebel Without a Cause” were released, they were screened without the endorsement of the MPAA as they were beyond the restrictions of appropriate material. Despite uncertainty that the films would garner any kind of box office success, they did well even without MPAA support. We then watched a clip from Mike Nichols’ 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” as it demonstrates the shift from Hollywood’s glorification of the American family unit to a focus on and appreciation for the grittier side of great performance. This all came in the wake of a 1956 decision allowing films to use the words “hell” and “damn,” IF deemed relevant and not excessive. This also yielded the category within the MPAA of “for mature audiences only.” This demarcation allowed for films to be released with increasingly explicit content. That simple disclaimer allowed for a marketing gestalt shift; suddenly all content didn’t need to be appropriate for all audiences, just for the age group the MPAA rendered suitable, and television assumed the moral responsibility previously held by the cinema. At this point we began a discussion of “Fuses” – a large majority of the class, including myself, seemed underwhelmed and generally found the film boring. It seems important to take the film within a greater context: in it’s time, it was shocking and revolutionary in a way that it perhaps is not today. Someone then brought up the concept of scopophilia, or the love of looking, that makes “Fuses” intriguing. There’s something about sheer voyeuristic pleasure that will always be interesting to us. The class largely agreed that the film was overwhelmingly aesthetic/visual in nature, and adopting a somewhat dirty feel, not in the subject matter but in the treatment of the film (the underexposure, the painting with browns and yellows, the grain). We then finally discussed whether or not the beauty of the people involved in the sexual experience changes our viewpoint as an audience – how would the film change if the protagonists were uglier? We then got around to talking about “Point Blank” – a film that many in the class found inconsistent in both tone and performance. The protagonist remains largely motionless for the majority of the film, in a debatably nihilistic way. There was some debate as to the narrative structure of the film – was it a dream/deja vu, or was it a straight narrative about a man that escaped death in an unlikely way? The consensus seemed to be that if the film was a dream, it stood as a clever piece of filmmaking, and if not, it really amounted to not much more than a shitty action film. And that was last week’s class, in an overly verbose nutshell.

Jaap’s Recitation / Section 4 – Feb. 1

In recitation this past week, we explored the meaning of the phrase “pop nihilism” in relation to such emerging cinema of the late 1960s as Point Blank and Bonnie and Clyde, as well as observed the continuing change of the apparent American mindset of that time.

We began by viewing two clips of popular Frank Sinatra films released in the same year, 1955.  The two clips were from Guys and Dolls, a musical, and The Man with the Golden Arm, a drama involving drug abuse by Sinatra’s character. This extreme contrast in characters for Sinatra, as well as the fact that one year yielded such different productions that were both so well-received, displayed the changing attitudes of Hollywood filmmakers at that time.  A clear turn from morally upstanding stories to more mature and troubled themes was easily observed through the juxtaposition of these two extracts.

Next, Evan presented a slide show discussion of Carolee Schneemann’s provocative 1960s film Fuses and David E. James’ correlated article “On Fuses.” Evan high-lighted James’ commentary of the making of Fuses: Schneemann’s response to fellow filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s depiction of female sexuality in his films.  The article points out that Schneemann made Fuses with similar non-narrative structure and exploration of altering the physical film (i.e. painting the film strip, scratching the emulsion, etc.) as Brakhage.  It seems she was interested in adopting his modes of film making, without using the typical male gaze that she felt objectified portrayals of her sexuality.  Evan also discussed how Fuses is considered proto-feminist, having been released a bit before the second feminist movement, but still inspired many women to embrace their bodies and sexuality due to Schneemann’s unabashed depiction of both male and female genitals.  Lastly, Evan made an interesting connection, inspired by the conclusion of James’ article, linking the word “amateur” to “lover,” coming from a common root word for “to love.”  We followed up the presentation with a discussion of what should or should not be considered pornography.  Several students felt that “pornography” has a negative connotation.  However, because Fuses depicts sexual acts on film, it is pornography.  This doesn’t mean, though, that it is not still art.

Considering both Fuses and Scorpio Rising, Jaap proposed the idea of personal politics, and asked how Schneemann and Anger’s film utilized personal depictions or perspectives in a political way.  For example, the graphic performances of Schneemann and her husband in Fuses serves something other than a scandalizing effect; it serves a political purpose or statement: something along the lines of “make love, not war.”  Kenneth Anger also makes the personal political in Scorpio Rising, using his homoerotic interpretation of 1950s-60s youth and biker culture to make statements about both counterculture and appropriation of mass culture.

Clay and Catherine, then, worked together to present a summary and thoughts on last week’s reading from Jon Lewis’ “American Film: A History.”  Clay focused on discussing the shift in Hollywood productions from family-friendly material to more mature content, citing this change as attempts by Hollywood to   make up loss of ticket sales due to the 1948 “Paramount Decision,” which stripped Hollywood studios from their theaters, destroying the vertical integration they had established and thrived in, as well as the gradually mounting threat of television entertainment conquering that of cinema.  Clay also discussed Otto Preminger and films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, labeled with a “For Mature Audiences Only,” as helping to establish the rating system we still use to classify the maturity of distributed films.  Catherine followed Clay by commenting on how American cinema was globalizing in the 1960s, as more imported films gained acclaim and success in this country at that time.  She also pointed out that films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde incorporated not only the sex and violence, but also some of the different artistic and cinematic flairs seen in European cinema.  She concluded the presentation by discussing how different styles promoted in Hollywood really caught on with audiences, citing such unique styles from Marilyn Monroe’s to Alfred Hitchcock’s.  We watched the short piano bench scene from Monroe’s film The Seven Year Itch to observe this style.

We concluded class by very briefly commenting on last week’s feature, Point Blank.  The class noted the influence of foreign film making on the film, and thought that the role of money in the story correlates with the shifting American mindset of the time.  Jaap pointed out that there is a great lack of certainty in the film, for any fixed meaning is fleeting, at best.

Week 2: Pop Nihilism

Excellent work on the recitation summaries this week. Glad to hear that some good discussion was spurred by the week’s screenings!

Eros and Thanatos, what can be shown and what can be seen, belief and its absence: these were the themes addressed in this week’s class on the 1960s. Topics discussed included:

The cultural backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, troop escalation in the war in Vietnam, LBJ’s “Great Society” legislation, the Summer of Love, the rise of the counterculture, and the outbreak of race riots in major US cities such as Detroit and Newark.

The “God is Dead” Movement, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882), nihilism, existentialism, and Gabriel Vahanian‘s The Death of God(1961), and the ensuing search for other forms of enlightenment and transcendence via LSD, other belief systems such as yoga, transcendental meditation, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967):

We discussed how the film’s depiction of the past resonated with the  countercultural stirrings of its contemporary audience, particularly in its depiction of the titular characters as anti-authoritarian, media-savvy self-promoters. Pauline Kael beautifully summed up the film’s cultural impact in her first film review for The New Yorker:

How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? “Bonnie and Clyde” is the most excitingly American American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate.” The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies—go too far for some tastes—and “Bonnie and Clyde” divides audiences, as “The Manchurian Candidate” did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard. Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it. “Bonnie and Clyde” brings into this almost frightening public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about. And once something is said or done on the screens of this world, once it has entered mass art, can never again belong to a minority, never again be in the private possession of and educated, or “knowing” group. But even for that group there is an excitement in hearing its own private thoughts expressed out loud and in seeing something of its own sensibility become part of our common culture.

We also looked at the film’s famously violent finale, about which Jon Lewis writes:

Even today this climatic scene is remarkable in its depiction of violence, not because it elides the distinctions between good and bad—it doesn’t—but because it offered viewers a peek at the future of American cinema, one without strict guidelines governing content, an American cinema less tied to strict genre conventions and suddenly free to show and tell a far wider range of stories than anyone could have imagined less than a decade before.

We then moved onto personal filmmaking, and the idea that underground films granted viewer’s access into spheres–private, domestic, and taboo–that were not available in mainstream commercial filmmaking. In particular, we talked about what Juan Suarez analysis of Anger’s Scorpio Rising as “a demfamiliarizing reading that ‘outs’ the repressed homosocial and homoerotic significations of these specific popular texts,” as well as that film’s violent and even fascist tendencies.

We looked at Carolee Schneemann’s proto-feminist Fuses, and considered how this work, once thought to be scandalous and pornographic, illustrated the artist’s desire to demonstrate how: “A depiction of woman’s pleasure, authentic pleasure, created by herself of her lived experience is rare….I just wanted to put everything in Fuses that seemed normal and ordinary.”

Finally we screened John Boorman’s Point Blank, and raised the questions of how the film’s elliptical editing, vision of the built environment, and expressive use of color informed its themes of an individual facing off against a faceless corporation; the corrupting influence of capital; and the absence of meaning.

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.