30 March 2012

Derek Jarman Rides the Rain Taxi

The latest print issue of Rain Taxi includes an essay I wrote, "Derek Jarman and The Memory Palace Of Life", about Derek Jarman's books, particularly the ones re-released by the University of Minnesota Press. I incorporated a few sentences from the piece in my video essay on Jarman and Caravaggio a few months back, but to read the whole thing you'll need to pick up a copy of Rain Taxi. Here, to tempt you (or dissuade you), are the first two paragraphs:
Derek Jarman died in 1994, leaving behind him one of the most important bodies of work of any artist or filmmaker of his generation, an oeuvre that challenged orthodoxies of sexuality, politics, and aesthetics. Though best remembered for such films as Jubilee, Caravaggio, The Last of England, Edward II, and Blue, Jarman was also a prolific writer, particularly as a diarist, and The University of Minnesota Press has now brought all of these books back into print in uniform paperback editions. Additionally, they have reprinted Tony Peake’s 1999 biography of Jarman.

Though very much an artist of his time, Jarman’s work has sustained its power and relevance long beyond its creator’s death. Having found meaning and pleasure within the bohemian, anti-establishment world of the late-'60s British avant-garde art scene, Jarman never hesitated in presenting an identity for himself that was defiantly queer. At first, this was not a political identity. In his 1992 memoir/journal/manifesto At Your Own Risk, Jarman wrote that “I danced the sixties away but I didn’t see that as hedonism; it was a REVOLUTIONARY GESTURE — you should have seen the way the other students reacted to two men kissing in public. I believed we could bring change with individual actions, it wasn’t linked to any conventional political blueprint. One person in one room quite cut off could change the world.” During the early 1970s, Jarman attended many of the meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, but though he enjoyed the more pranksterish elements of their activism, Peake quotes him as saying he “disliked these well-meaning rather lonely people laying down the law … there was an element of joylessness about it.” His early films were proudly queer (a label he came to prefer to “gay”), but their queerness was in service to their countercultural core. Jubilee (1978), his second feature-length film, was an anarchic vision of an apocalyptic England (or an apocalyptic vision of an anarchic England) full of punk rockers. With the arrival of AIDS and Thatcherism in the 1980s, though, Jarman would become radicalized, his bohemian individualism and sense of humor evolving into furious, confrontational queer communalism.

29 March 2012


David Smith, untitled
I have to admit that while plenty of Damien Walter's "Weird Things" columns at The Guardian are interesting, and it's really wonderful to see a major newspaper paying regular attention such stuff, and Walter seems like a passionate and thoughtful person ... the latest one, titled, "Should science fiction and fantasy do more than entertain?" pretty much made me gag. Mostly it was that headline that caused the coughing and sputtering; the piece itself isn't terrible, is well intentioned, and seems primarily aimed at a general audience. I'm not a general audience for the topic, so in my ways, I'm a terrible reader for what Walter wrote. Thus, I'll refrain from comment on the main text.

But there's a statement he made in response to a commenter that didn't make me cough and sputter, it just made me question something I hadn't really questioned before: the term "formalist" and its relationship to criticism within the field of fantasy and science fiction.

In his comment, Walter stated, "The Rhetorics of Fantasy is a formalist approach."

I wonder, though. I haven't read The Rhetorics of Fantasy, so I don't really want to comment on it too much, since my perception is based on reading a few reviews, what some folks have told me, and glancing at the Google Books preview. So it's entirely possible that my question here has nothing to do with that book. I mention it only because it's the book Walter calls "a formalist approach".

What I wonder is how it's possible to have a formalist approach to fantasy or science fiction that is not also perfectly applicable to other sorts of writing. Is there a specifically formalist approach to SF?

To write criticism about SF is almost always to be stuck in content, not form. (We could, and perhaps should, argue about the soft borders between the two terms, the limits of the terms, the fact that content and form don't really exist outside of the words of the text, what that binary hides, etc. — but at the risk of inaccuracy, let's save such an argument for another time.)

There is nothing I can think of at this moment that formally differentiates SF from not-SF.

28 March 2012

Farewell to a Poet

photo by Robert Giard

The L.A. Times is reporting that Adrienne Rich has died.

Her words, discovered at an early and impressionable age, changed my life.

I return to them frequently. They are a gift she has now left behind for us.

Read "Diving Into the Wreck", my favorite American poem of the last 50 years at least. Read "What Kind of Times Are These".

I remember this interview with her from 1994, which I read so many times in The Progressive that I still have some of her responses memorized.

Make sure these books, at the very very least, are on your shelves: The Fact of a Doorframe; An Atlas of the Difficult WorldOn Lies, Secrets, and Silence; What is Found There.

The loss sends me into silence. Perhaps I will be able to say more later. For now, this:

I wanted to go somewhere
the brain had not yet gone
I wanted not to be
there so alone.

—from "Letters to a Young Poet" in Midnight Salvage
by Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

26 March 2012

Chaos Cinema, Revisited

In the chaos of the internet, I missed Matthias Stork's response to critics of his video essay on Chaos Cinema, posted at Press Play back in December as "Chaos Cinema, Part III" (with the other two helpfully embedded on the same page). I watched it today after reading Steven Shaviro's text from a talk, "Post-Continuity".

I was interested in Stork's response, because I had had a fairly strong initial reaction to his essays, and I've continued to think about it all, especially after using Gamer in a class last term. My own viewing of such movies has been deeply influenced more by Shaviro's approach than others, but I also like to show students the first two "Chaos Cinema" essays as well as Jim Emerson's video essay on a scene from The Dark Knight.

Watching the third "Chaos Cinema" essay, I discovered that Stork responded specifically to one of my criticisms. It's a very fair and, I think, accurate response to a point I raised about the video game aesthetic — he elaborated on that in a comment at the post, and I responded there that on reflection I basically agreed with him. The convergence of video game and action movie aesthetics is a topic that deserves study, but I don't have the background in gaming to do so, and my interests in the scholarship on action movies is primarily focused on the '80s and early '90s.

My differences with Stork's approach remain pretty much what they were in my original post — I'm averse to seeing techniques in absolute or moral terms — but he has done excellent, thoughtful work on showing how cinema, particularly action cinema, is changing. I fully agree with what he says at the end of Part III: "In his essay 'Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid', Ambrose Heron blames non-linear editing systems for the emergence of chaos techniques. This is how we should discuss chaos cinema, as an aesthetic and industrial phenomenon."

Faces: Garbo & Van Damme

A new video essay, this one about my two favorite faces in the movies: Greta Garbo and Jean-Claude van Damme:

21 March 2012


Like most words, mimesis is a nest of meanings. Shadings fly from it like fledgling birds: imitation, representation, replication, impersonation, or portrayal do for Plato; nowadays we could add copy, counterfeit, dupe. Grammatically different forms of what is called "the mimesis group" designate the action of mimicry — or the actor, mime, or mockingbird that performs the tune — while others aim at either the subject of imitation or its result, or sometimes indicate the arena of representation itself: the agora, law courts, or the stage. Mimesis calls the theater home, some say; it is derived from the dance; it belongs to mockery and mime, not always silent, and is often concerned with events and situations in daily life; no, it is the creation of effigies — statues, scarecrows, voodoo dolls — it is the means by which we call upon the gods. But did these meanings of mimesis really compete, or is the competition to be found in the disputatious pages of contemporary scholars, who prefer one meaning (theirs) over others, much as if, in a mulligan stew, one conferred honor and dominance to six pearl onions?
—William H. Gass, from "Mimesis"

19 March 2012

Trayvon Martin (1995-2012)

A black boy was shot dead in Florida.

His killer is known, but the police refused to arrest him.

The police said they had no probable cause to arrest the killer, who claimed self-defense.

The killer was a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. He saw a black boy walking in the rain. He called 911. The dispatcher told him not to follow the boy. But he did. He approached him. They wrestled. Witnesses called 911.

Trayvon Martin was armed with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.

A black boy was shot dead in Florida. His killer walks free.

More information:

17 March 2012

The Snowtown Murders

The Snowtown Murders (aka Snowtown) inevitably draws comparisons to another brutal and disturbing Australian crime movie, Animal Kingdom, with which it shares some general plot elements and stylistic moves (both films were shot by Adam Arkapaw). But where Animal Kingdom shows one young man's struggle to stay innocent in a family of thieves and murderers, Snowtown depicts the power of a small-time messiah to employ hatred as an excuse for torture and murder. Both films focus their narrative on a quiet (eventually traumatized) adolescent surrounded by monsters, but Animal Kingdom, for all its virtues, is primarily a drama of demons and angels fighting for a soul, whereas Snowtown is less allegorical, less schematic, and more deeply disturbing. (A more meaningful comparison than with Animal Kingdom would be with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.)

Though in some ways Snowtown is the story of how Jamie Vlassakis goes from being an apparently gentle and unassuming teenager to a participant in multiple murders, fundamentally the character is a conduit through which we get to know John Bunting, a charismatic, ebullient fellow who thinks all homosexuals are pedophiles and all pedophiles deserve to be tortured and killed. He happily expounds on his ideas to anyone who will listen, but only a few know how seriously he believes in what he says.

Jamie Vlassakis and John Bunting are real people, and Snowtown is closely based on actual crimes that occurred in South Australia from 1992 to 1999. Snowtown sits north of a Adelaide, and the crimes became associated with it because the murderers, who didn't live in the town, ended up storing the bodies there in barrels of hydrochloric acid hidden in a disused bank vault. Viewers of the film who know at least a rough outline of the actual story may go in expecting a dramatization of the events or a police procedural, perhaps an upscale version of the Discovery Channel's vulgarly ghoulish documentary.

Such expectations would be disappointed, though — more than disappointed: frustrated. We spend at least the first half hour of the film with little or no knowledge of quite who the characters are: names only come up now and then, people appear and disappear in Jamie's life. And that's clearly the point. Looking at the shooting script, we can see that some of this information existed in Shaun Grant's screenplay, but was either not shot or was removed in editing. As viewers (particularly as first-time viewers), we are only slowly given the information we need to sort out who is who and what their feelings, desires, or motives are, if we are given that information at all. Even in the second half of the film, where the story and characters have become clearer, numerous details are elided or hidden in hints. Bunting committed plenty of murders that Jamie Vlassakis was only vaguely aware of, or didn't know about at all, but the film doesn't simply keep us within his realm of knowledge (though often it does do that) — instead, it evokes his sense of confusion by denying us information easily known to the characters. More than that, it creates a sense of a continuous present by scrupulously avoiding any explication of the characters' pasts. We cannot know who people are in this film except through their immediate self-presentation and actions. We see their clothes, their facial expressions, their movements. We hear fragments of their conversations. Eventually, we see them as perpetrators or victims of torture and murder.

10 March 2012

The White Savior Industrial Complex

Teju Cole:
The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
See also Aaron Bady's excellent collection of reading material: "On the genre of 'Raising Awareness about Someone Else’s Suffering'".

06 March 2012

Science Fiction Transcendent

The latest issue of the film journal Scope has just been posted online, and it includes a review I wrote about three books having to do with science fiction film and tv (PDF), with a particular view to their expressions of spiritual transcendence and their use of religion as a plot device, character trait, and general motif.

The maximum length allowed for reviews at Scope is 3,000 words, and my original draft was well over that. I cut it down to the best of my ability, but some things got lost. Below the fold here, I'll put the longer version, which gives a fuller exploration of the three books. If you just want to get an overview of the books and what I thought about them, read the Scope version of the review. If you want more detail, keep reading here...