La nación clandestina

27 07 2011

The masterpiece of Bolivian filmmaker, Jorge Sanjinés. In this film, modernity and the traditional ways of the Aymara Indians in Bolivia clash and intermingle, creating a film that, while centered around one Aymara exile in La Paz, has as its real protagonist the Aymara people themselves. Sanjinés says that his film sought to deconstruct the idea of the modern narrative centering around the personal drama of one man. His film is rather about how one man has to overcome himself in order to re-integrate into the being of the community. In this case, his re-entrance into the community is only possible through a ritual in which he dances himself to death. In his walk back to the village, one sees the turmoil emerging all around him, and how his fate is indeed the fate of the entire, hidden nation. This film is about another, very different reaction towards modernity than the one we are accustomed to seeing, and the film can be found in its entirety on Youtube and in other places around the Net.

Many would also be interested in another Sanjinés film called Yawar Malku or Blood of the Condor, which is about forced sterilizations by Americans in an Aymara village. It basically ends (spoiler alert) by the indigeous people castrating the Americans in return (it is not shown, but the viewer well knows what happens). The feel-good, pro-life film of the year if you ask me.


In the Shadow of the Stars

20 07 2011

This was of course the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1991, and it is a refreshing blast from the past compared to the too-cool-for-school style of the post-Michael Moore world. The film in a nutshell is the Chorus Line for opera singers, documenting the struggles, joys, and triumphs of those who sing in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera. While it is at times evident that they are afflicted by the green devil of envy and would of course prefer to sing the solos of the repertory that bring down the house, all the same, the people interviewed seemed well adjusted and thankful that they can make a living doing what they love.

What was most revealing to me was a rather whimsical scene of one such singer driving a commercial truck for his “day job”. He said that he learned both his love for opera and his truck driving from his father, who was evidently a great fan of classical music. Such an anecdote from the early 1990’s was a painful reminder concerning how far the working class has fallen in terms of a certain criterion of cultural literacy. In the past, it was perhaps not so unusual for a truck driver (probably unionized) to be an aficionado of the high arts, such as opera. This refutes the idea that the plebs must necessarily love what is plebian: what is so natural for a regular person to love Elvis compared to Verdi: working people crooned both at different times in history while doing their menial tasks? Or what makes Mozart less popular than Rick Ross other than the marketing? Doesn’t our economic system have to create cultural crap just to stay afloat? There is nothing natural about the demand for such cultural dreck: it is manufactured like everything else.

Spiritual not religious

27 06 2011

My wife and I recently saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. To get right into it, I don’t think this is a religious film. Most religious reviewers would like to see films like this as a religious film since they are starved of any popular phenomena that reflect their own biases. These “religious” biases are also influenced by pietist concerns of the devotio moderna in which any given encounter must be pigeonholed into a “burning in the bosom” for Jesus, or whether or not it edifies. “Contemplation” is a whole other thing. I would argue that God is completely absent from this film, and Malick only employs religious themes only insofar as they are used to articulate a philosophical point of view.

A few words should be said about the mechanics of the film and plot. In terms of the actual filmmaking, I was impressed but not floored by the scope of the first hour of this movie. The opening scenes take us from the house of a family that has just suffered the tragic loss of one of their sons, to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Much of the imagery is grandiose, though I told my wife afterwards that the temptation for me was to see it in the same light as one sees those Imax presentations in museums on the death of the dinosaurs or hurricanes on the bayou. But these episodes never got to the point of kitsch in this film. Perhaps the most effective scenes came after this contemplation of cosmogony, when we see the emergence of a young family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950’s. Scenes of birth, sleep, and play take the viewer back to his or her own childhood, and are shot with a contemplative care that make these images by far the best of the film.
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9 06 2011

I have a fascination with the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, though I don’t uncategorically praise all of them. In fact, I think his films have been going downhill since his first film, Amores Perros, in 2000. I still consider his first to be his best film, with 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) being of far inferior quality in my opinion. 21 Grams, another story about how an accident changes the lives of people, is at least watchable. Babel is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a preposterous movie, one that collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. The most elementary critique that one could make of Babel is that human beings in real life would never act that way. A couple would never just up and leave their two kids with their undocumented nanny for an unforeseen amount of time. Such undocumented nanny would not risk crossing the border back into Mexico expecting that she could just waltz back over the border with two gringo kids in tow. In my opinion, Babel was a sprawling mess weighed down by its own pretension. I found the movie to be barely watchable.

Thankfully, González Iñárritu’s trajectory as a filmmaker has swung a bit upward with his newest film, Biutiful (2010). Here the Mexican director and producer abandons the many interlocking stories technique to just focus on one story: that of a dying man trying to do the right thing, only to be frustrated by the hands of fate at every turn. As in the other films, there are no satisfying endings, no conclusions that make one unambiguously empathetic with any one character. And, as in Amores Perros and Babel, one of the real stars of the show is the neo-liberal capitalist social order itself: one in which society seems to be falling apart, and it is every man for himself. Even within these situations, González Iñárritu’s films show people trying to search for very traditional things (love, justice, redemption), even in their own distorted and frustrated ways.
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Religion and revolution

8 06 2011

I recently saw a report from the BBC a couple of years ago on a shrine dedicated to St. Lazarus in Cuba. The report brings up again the rumor that many of the people who fought in the revolution were also believers in santeria. That is not surprising, as even in the films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, one of the fathers of Cuban cinema, one often sees portrayals of popular and African religiosity, as in the montage above from his last film, Guantanamera.
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The Linguists

5 05 2011

I liked this film very much. It reminds me of my suggestion to my in-laws to stick a tape recorder in front of my wife’s dying grandmother to get some words of her Creole French on a recording for posterity. (They say it can’t be released, because it is a conversation between her and my wife’s father fussing about a relative.) Such things make me sad. Even though French is not a dying language, it is in these parts.

On perverse fantasies

4 05 2011

The only real Ayn Rand I ever read was the horrible novel, Anthem. However, when I learned recently what the plot of Atlas Shrugged is about, I was more than a little amused. So, as I understand it, the government gets “too big” and all the talented people, the business leaders, actors, etc., go “on strike”, dissappear, sort of the same spirit of “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore”. That’s really too damn funny. It reminds me of the anecdote that Zizek tells in the book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, where he mentions how some magnate asked why one of his managers never took a vacation. The manager explained that if he took a vacation, things might fall apart without him. To that, the magnate replied, “Don’t worry, I am sure things will be fine without you.”

“That’s the other reason,” the manager replied.
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26 04 2011

The trailer for a promising new documentary.


13 04 2011

The above was a surprisingly good documentary considering that it was all about a particular font.

The impetus for this post comes from this interview in Salon.

On Being Human

9 02 2011

Blade Runner thus gives a double twist to the commonsense distinction between human and android. Man is a replicant who does not know it; yet if this were all, the film would involve a simplistic reductionist notion that our self-experience qua free “human” agents is an illusion founded upon our ignorance of the causal nexus which regulates our lives. For that reason, we should supplement the former statement: it is only when, at the level of the enunciated content, I assume my replicant-status, that, at the level of enunciation, I become a truly human subject. “I am a replicant” is the statement of the subject in its purest – the same as in Althusser’s theory of ideology where the statement “I am in ideology” is the only way for me to truly avoid the vicious circle of ideology (or the Spinozeian version of it: the awareness that nothing can ever escape the grasp of necessity is the only way of us to be truly free.) In short, the implicit thesis of Blade Runner is that replicants are pure subjects precisely insofar as they testify that every positive, substantial content, inclusive of the intimate fantasies, is not “their own “ but already implanted. In this precise sense, subject is by definition nostalgic, a subject of loss. Let us recall how, in Blade Runner, Rachael silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant. The silent grief over the loss of her “humanity,” the infinite longing to be or to become human again, although she knows this will never happen; or conversely, the eternal gnawing doubt over whether I am truly human or just an android – it is these very undecided, intermediate states which make me human.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology