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notes on seeing a bad movie

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It shouldn’t be that hard to make a decent movie. It’s getting to the point where they all look like the last decade’s worth of Woody Allen’s stuff. I haven’t seen many first-run movies since I got to London: There Will Be Blood, Blindness, Revolutionary Road, a couple others. All complete and utter shit. (For some reason, I see decent to good stuff when visiting the US: Synechdoche, NY and Slumdog Millionaire were brilliant and fine, respectively.)

But those that I’ve seen in London make me wonder what exactly is wrong with the American movie industry – or even what (else) is wrong with America itself. Bad-to-middling movies used to be bad-to-middling, but rarely this bad. I’m busily retrofitting myself (seriously) as a Bordieuvian institutionalist, but I can’t quite write all this off as simply a meta-effect of corporate control, aesthetic champs and the money that makes their grass grow. Go see Revolutionary Road, seriously, and you’ll see what I mean. This is beyond moneytaint; this is something more akin to mass aesthetic brain damage, narrative aphasia.

The reviews are largely right, nothing much happens in the film, and this the first and easy way to describe the problem at hand. But it has to be more than this. Nothing much happens all the time and in all sorts of ways; it merits examination just how and why and to what end in each specific case. So here’s my stab at the problem – which is a tricky one, a hiding in plain sight sort of issue.

The primary characters are locked in a Major Crisis that is both a crisis of the couple as a dyad and of both members of the couple individually. All three crises (hers, his, theirs) feed on one another. (Spoiler warnings – seriously, who fucking cares!) And the movie flits along from one cliched enactment of this crisis to another: a community theater play that goes badly, an affair with a secretary, a neurotic decision to “change their lives,” screaming and yelling and crying, a new pregnancy that will then won’t then will be aborted, an affair with a neighbor, more screaming and yelling and hysterical over-reaction, and blood-dripping unlikely death.

Fine. Lots of terrible plot action to work with. But somehow, startingly, the film never gets outside all of these tears and near-fisticuffs, morning-after shots with lovers, and bad days at work. In a sense, like a marriage in crisis or a person in crisis, like the severely depressed, it sets itself on autopilot, too lazy or mindfucked to get outside of all this strictly cliched nonsense, can’t somehow find a way to register either the crisis’s lack of objective correlative (as when TSE leaves Hamlet a babbling neurotic here) or the crisis’s material foundations. (The film gestures unconvincingly, extremely unconvincingly, in the direction of unfulfilling work – but in the end signals to take this direction seriously would be to be as permanently adolescent as the protagonists themselves). Rather, it holds the shot, it plays along, it tries to force affect out of overacting, enlightenment out of the darkness of depressive repetition.

I actually think there is something startingly and performatively (in the bad sense) dystopian about a movie that allows itself to be this obvious and cliched without worrying about the fact, as if the entire issue of self-monitoring and, well, effort to say new things is well beyond its control. There’s a simple way to link together the string of good HBO shows – they were to a one aimed at genre renewal. The Sopranos brought among lots else social contextualization / analogization to the mob drama, Sex and the City brought vibrators to the sit-com, Deadwood brought eloquence and politics to the western, The Wire brought the dialectic to the cop show, and so on. The basic appeal of the programs is that they took the effort (or had the institutional opportunity) to do something new with old forms. Revolutionary Road, conversely, harrowingly, suggests a reversal of the tides, a yang to the ying of HBO. What if instead of vivification, we take the cards dealt by genre, arrange them on the table one after another, ace through king, and made not a single modification?

Revolutionary Road twice brings a “madman” onto the screen – a math Ph.D., son of the local real estate agent, who has been institutionalized and electroshocked until the math went away, but not the despair. But he’s not that scary; the opposite really as he is, perfectly according convention, the only person capable in the film of calling things by their proper names. But this is bullshit. Everyone knows that the truly frightening madman isn’t the one who brings enlightenment, but repetition, who ceaselessly breaks the basic contract of communication to keep saying the same thing over and over, the repeat long past anyone’s willing to listen. In this case, yes, it’s the characters who are mad but not as mad as Sam Mendes, the director, who fostered their performance without even the slightest registration of destructive irony.

The saving grace of the entire evening was standing outside the door of the cinema as my wife powdered her nose and listening as each and every fellow viewer voiced a variation on the same thing that I said: What the fuck was that? Thank god. One can easily, if one has a dark projective imagination, conjure another scene: this movie plays and you look around to notice the sympathetic tears and cathartic smiles of the other citizens in the hall. But then again, that is basically what it felt like to live in America for much of the last decade. The worst enactments of the most stale and conventional crises and the concommitant plotmoves (this time on the stage of domestic or international affairs), doused with cynical sangfroid or worse, mindless and heartless belief, would be again and again accepted by the others around you – family, the people they show on television, the people who vote, in some cases intelligent friends – with a smile or a smirk or a tear in the eye or even, in the worst cases, a flat, affectless, distractedly staring face.

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February 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

Posted in distraction, movies

and then suddenly he receives a MacArthur “genius” grant

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!!!!

Synecdoche, N.Y. Well, yes. And there’s lots for me to say about it, I think, but most of it’s still working its way out. And, look, I understand that there’s a certain (hohoho) degree of identification that’s at work in how I watched the thing.

But one thing for now.

One thing that is amazing is how hard Kaufman goes at, among so many others but in particular, Lars Von Trier and David Lynch. With Von Trier: Kaufman enframes the gesture of staging the epical theatrical work on the unfinished floor of the unfinished studio space, in effect thematizing and really psycho/aesthetico-pathologizing the primary formal conceit of LVT’s semi-completed, seemingly-halted two part triology. All of these actors carrying on daily life insanely in an unmarked, inapproriate production space in SNY slips into what it perhaps always was: not just a Brechtian estrangement technique, but more pressingly a seriously belated estrangement technique that slides over into directorial sadism verging on the pervvy interest in making people perform ordinary actions as if unobserved and in inappropriate locales. (The bit where Cotard [spoiler!] sees his daughter performing behind glass would be the underscoring echo here…)

I even wonder if the little tiny traumwitz about the set of twins with three names isn’t a sort of crosshanded smack at Von Trier and the fact that the third part of USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy has a name but no substantial presence. Three names for two films. And throwing Emily Watson into film – who’s never quite lived up to her early performance in Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves – only underscores what Kaufman is working through here….

With Lynch: Kaufman appropriates the movie-as-screen-fantasy-for-inappropriate-desire and relegates it to the status of just one of many possibilities for the ultimate “meaning” of the film. Further, it is distinctly a “relegation” because repressed or not-quite repressed homosexuality of the protagonist is perhaps the least interesting possibility of the many on offer. When (spoiler, I guess) Cotard’s daughter asks him for an apology for running off to have “anal sex” with his homosexual lover, we feel that we’ve arrived at a place where reductive resolution to the questions on offer in the film has been offered to us, and we’re glad when the film moves past it. In short, Synecdoche exposes the ultimate reductive simplicity of Mulholland Drive (lost Hollywood, yes, fucked up love affair, yes, broken career, sure) – which is an incredibly ballsy and unexpected bit of meta-critique, and incredibly effective for its ballsiness and unexpectedness.

(Oh, and the old lady in the hall outside his ex-wife’s apartment is the lady from Mulholland Drive, Coco, right? Sorry – I have crap for internet tonight, so my research opps are a bit crimped…)

He hits these two very, very hard, I think, while at the same time swiping enough from them that the entire film comes to seem to be something paradoxically like a retaliatory homage, a devastating genuflection. There’s lots of other meta-theatrical and cinematic work to talk about, ranging from the small but lovely joke about Harold Pinter at the start of the thing to the amazing homage to Samuel Beckett at the end.

Truly, the metatextual stuff is the easiest thing to talk about – there are way better things to take up. Not the least of which is Kaufman’s presentation of the particular sort of mental / spiritual illness whose primary symptom is having a career that teeters between miserable local productions (whether staged at the Schenectady community playhouse or they feature Nicholas Cage) and impossible ambition bent (but distractedly so) on nothing less than world encompassing hypermimesis (there’s 17 million people in the world and each one of them…) that nonetheless resolves down to death and dating. And further, CK’s contextualization of this malady in turn as a symptom of a particular sort of white male early middle-agedness and early-middle-aged life-situation is, well, similar at least to one of the barely but all-too-visible subthemes of this blog, among many, many other things.

Trying to work this shit out while living in a dying old company town upstate is at once something I’m intimately familar with (I’ve heard the local academics talking seasonal poetry on NPR, yes I have) and a consumately American theme that touches on the less-than-volatile relationship between intellectual and material production in the era of diminishing returns, returns that just keep diminishing and on all fronts at once.

Oh, and how all that there relates to an unstinting preoccupation with dystopian collapse. Yep, that’s there too. Jesus.

More when I can.

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December 23, 2008 at 8:00 pm

the secret life of investment bankers

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Somehow, accidentally, the movie Boarding Gate snuck from the bottom to the top of my mail rental list, and it’s been sitting on top of the DVD player for quite some time. With great anxiety and embarrassment I talked my wife into watching it with me last night – this despite the fact that it is, there is no doubt, mostly a vehicle designed to get Asia Argento on screen as many times as possible in a black bra and not much else. Awkward that.

But anyway… I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. Despite the fact it was only released in 2007, it is well on its way already to the status of period piece, as it does the good old sexed-up globalization bit. Let’s see, the checklist: stacks of cargo containers, freelancing incredibly rich people, wild shifts in venue (Paris to Hong Kong), lots of Asians (especially Asian bad guys), fantastic mostly-empty high-rise apartments, subtitling of more that one non-English language, interesting cellphone sounds, phonecalls taken with a laptop open, and last but not least a scene that takes place is a ridiculous karaoke bar. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check. It’s all there. I’ll freely admit that I’ll miss the genre if it – as it promises to – fades away under the pressures of backscaling and collapse.

For chrissake, look at the title of the film! I don’t remember an actual boarding gate appearing in the film – but, to hell with it, someone knew that the smart decision would be to attach the movie to one of the privileged locales of our period, whether it makes sense or not.

So I enjoyed it. I’m not sure it made all that much sense in the end, but it was very pretty to look at. And it ignited (I admit it) a desire that seems increasingly absurd nowadays. You know the one…. It goes something like shit, I wish, without wanting to actually do anything that makes that sort of money, that I could be the kind of person who lives out of my mobile phone and a overnight bag, dripping myself from exotic locale to exotic locale, spending time in the best of airport executive lounges and having multiple passports. I’d order in, stay at the second best places, and always read the Financial Times, especially on Saturday. It won’t ever happen, but a boy can dream. Or could. If I became a moderately famous academic, maybe someone, once in my career, would pay for me to fly business class, right? Nevermind – this is all shameful. Don’t take any of it seriously.

But. OK. I’ve been thinking about starting up work on a new project, one that helps me to shift from being a modernist to a proper contemporaryist (erk) – basically, I will have soon said all that I really want to say about the period 1890 – 1945. So maybe something on the aesthetics and politics of 1973 – 2008, the aesthetics of financialization, etc. Who knows. But if I did do this, I’d spend a chapter on the following subject, a chapter that would feature a bit of discussion of Boarding Gate, I think:

What I want to write on is a bit counterintuitive, at least to my mind. The first-thought thing to say about films like this, that wrap financial activity in sex and violence, is that they are allegories of the violence that works off-stage in the real world to keep the business running. A simple furniture import-export business is really a front for murder-for-hire and heroin dealing etc etc etc. But this is not that, well, interesting. We’ve done this – and perhaps culture is basically insensitive at this point to that sort of allegory. (We already know, down to our bones, that the tea and crumpets are bought with money from the Jamaican sugar plantations or whatever….)

Rather, what is more interesting about films like this to me is the fact that we can see plainly just what it takes to narrativize a period whose interest is actively hostile to narrative. Michael Masden’s character is basically an investor, but an investor who practices shooting a gun and who has had, to date, an interesting (if mostly impotent) sex life. A really interesting sex life, actually. Argento’s character ridicules him for the failure of his enterprises – a failure that crosses the bridge from the financial to the narratological. A couple that runs a business, a boring one, just as boring as those that at least one friend went into when he decided academia wasn’t for him, is actually tangled up with roofie-attempted-murder. And every sexual act is tinged with the aftertaste of violence and ill-gotten gains.

I’m sure that some “investors” had interesting sex-lives back during 1973-2008, but probably not as interesting as they hoped. And I’m sure some carried a piece, but it was mostly for kicks and paranoid aura. Mostly the hours spent expensively in airport lounges are boring – boring drinks in a boring place.

Think again of The Sopranos, and the perfectly-tuned demographic fantasy that it massaged. Your next door neighbor, the fat ethnic guy next door, could well not just be in waste management, but could rather be clipping guys down on the Newark esplanade and taking the girl he wants at the ‘Bing. The show was a tailor-fitted fantasy about professionalism and the lifestyle that should justly accompany such difficult and morally-compromising work.

Somehow the world wants investment banking to be a task populated by the feral, the oversexed, the trigger-pullers. But it is not. Somehow the world wants something, something with ripped panties and shell casings, to be going on behind the hedges of the hedge funds. But I guarantee you – it is not. We lived – though may live no more – where all of us, deeply and darkly and perhaps with significant embarrassment, wish that our betters – the winners of the meritocratic game – live fuller and more interesting lives than they do.

Because if not them, then whom, exactly?

(Too tired to go on – but for a better read of Boarding Gate you could always take a look at Shaviro’s read, which is very helpful indeed….)

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October 6, 2008 at 12:26 am

did you get that on record or what?

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We all, today, walk around with a portable archive of Historical Video Clips in our heads. Without checking, we can picture a secondary explosion on the doomed space shuttle challenger, Germans swinging torches and axes as they exuberantly tear down that wall. We all have that green lit gamescape of the anti-aircraft guns firing aimlessly and ineffectively into the Baghdad sky the first night of the first war on Iraq. Perhaps we have Clinton and Hilary swaying to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Thinkin’ Bout Tomorrow,” though we definitely all possess a whole panoply of views and perspectives on the day that the World Trade Center fell – we have two towers burning, we have the cloud of dust, we have Bush at Ground Zero.

But in this line what do we have – all of us, or even most of us – of the new Iraq War? The firework displays of the first moments of Shock and Awe? And then the day that the huge statue of Saddam fell? Saddam as he was about to die? For a present day, ongoing event, I am willing to bet that most of us carry around precious little in the way of those little mental mpegs that start running the moment the concept comes up. The reports of the embedded journalists at the start of the war were too banal to fix in the soft gray spot, and the ugly remainder of the war seems to be strangely (is that the right word?) under-represented on the nightly news, aside from the days death toll, and, in certain situations, accompanying photographs of dead soldiers when they were clean and young and alive.

No, the current war has not been, in the way that both of the previous major US engagements were, a television war. Bad news and ugly scenes make it difficult to sell retirement services to the increasingly elderly viewers of the network’s programs and CNN alike, and from the first days of the conflict the military has done all that it can to keep its arms tightly around the shoulders of the dwindling number of journalists actually working anywhere outside of the Green Zone in Baghdad. And even if the poll numbers have changed dramatically, the news organizations still seem to be extremely hesitant to do anything at all that would provoke the “Support Our Troops!” crowd.

But even if the images and streams never quite make it to our television screens, it is not the case that we have seen nothing or that there is nothing to see. In a perverse fulfillment of some of the irrationally exuberant predictions of the late nineties and early part of this decade, the scenes that are most pressing, the most real, appear via the efforts of what in a somewhat more hopeful time we used to call “citizen journalists.” They arrive, that is, via YouTube and similar video hosting sites. There is something incredibly strange about the fact that many of the most vivid and terrifying images that I’ve seen arrive via a site whose architecture and design seem ideally suited to dumb pet videos, teenagers glamming against the backdrop of their favorite song, or collections of rim shots from yesterday’s already obsolescent sitcom. These videos are forwarded to us, bloglinked, or, especially when we’ve grown a taste for them, we search them out. We view them during stolen moments at the office, late at night in our sleeping clothes – anytime but at an pre-ordained time. They are, true to the time and its habits of consumption, on demand.

The videos are at once, in general, incredibly simple and dauntingly complex to read. They solicit from us prefabricated modes of critical approach, the automatic and issueless discovery of the message in the media and a whole series of parallel pomo-lotry. Or they simply make us cry – for the dead civilians, for the soldiers that are doing the killing, for ourselves. This has happened to me a few times, viewing them in my office. (It is an unlikely scene – I’m a large guy, I don’t look like a crier…) I get choked up, the tears come, and then, eventually, I stop crying and eventually, I do something else.

I remember having this reaction, for instance, after watching this one in my office. It was one of my first.

You cry and you think. You wonder in what possible scenario these people in the car could have be, beyond any doubt, fair targets. There is the body on the road, another that we cannot see but only hear about just inside the door of the building. Perhaps there are others, also invisible, encased in the cars. Unfortunately, perhaps irresponsibly, you think perhaps what a great title or tagline that magic utterance, the Did you get that on record or what? would be. In order to hold off the tears, or maybe just in spite of them, you wrap yourself in this little puzzle of representational intention, in the contradictions and inconsistencies of the piece. It is a trophy on digital media, today’s ear necklace or captured Luger, but how did it reach the web and why? What do we make of the almost altogether unconvincing claim at the end – that no unarmed people were hurt during the shooting, despite the fact that the dead bodies don’t appear to have been armed.

There is a large subgenre of Iraq videos on YouTube that focus on children. Fortunately they are, from what I have seen, less bloody than the ambush above, but in a distinct sense they are even more disturbing. More dangerous to say, they are perhaps the most interesting of the videos available on-line.

It sometimes seems like a generic mandate that the videos include a self-referential phrase, a mention of the fact that the video is being made…. Are you getting this? Can you see this? But what exactly is this anyway? Is it, simply put, a slice of hideous if halfhearted cruelty informed by a viciously instrumental relationship to the occupied other? Or, are we getting it wrong if our readiness to assume the worst? Is it just a game, a moment of absurd interaction between the soldiers and the children? Children do love to run, to race, after all. We are left in a bind, unable to confidently read the clip, and inevitably turn again to the meta-issues. What about this scene made it camera worthy? And what about this video, once captured and, perhaps, sent along to its initial audience, inspired the wider dissemination of it, a dissemination wide enough that we – you and I – can watch it today?

The playful humiliation of children is in fact one of the dominant themes of the posted videos.

The videos stage and restage the intersection of everyday life – and do children ever have anything other than an everyday life, whatever the circumstances? – and the very different tedium, the anxious and defensive routine, of the US soldiers as they attempt to entertain themselves away from identification with the Iraqis least like to assume the position of antagonists. They all wanna be on video. Like they’re gonna see it ever. Like they’re gonna see themselves ever on video. But they all wanna be on it. Fuckers. Recording these moments is an act of cruelty that parallels the cruelty of the soldier’s actions themselves, but both acts share

At times, and despite their brevity, the videos featuring kids threaten to evolve into semi-allegories of the situation of the whole. The never quite fit the bill, but they come close. And in the closeness, they reveal, like some of the better known iconic images of the conflict, the way that patterns of thought and behavior circle up and down the ladder of rank, the hierarchy of violence.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To be sure there are lots of other clips that feature sunnier moments of contact, soldiers who haven’t been (haven’t allowed themselves to be?), distorted enough by their context to treat children in ways that would land one in prison almost instantly back home. But even in these softer moments, violence or the playful relaxation of violence seem to be the only options available on the menu.

My collection of clips, of course is selective, but is still, I believe, representative of a large number of similar videos available for viewing on YouTube and the like. And perhaps it is just my idiosyncratic way of approaching texts (I teach literature, I am something of a formalist) that tells me so, but it seems to me that the specificities of the medium in question – the very short video clip – has everything to do with the complex feelings and questions that these pieces engender. Or, of course, it is the close synchronization, the uncanny affiliation, between the formal organization of these pieces and the content that fills the container of the form that makes me feel that they are somehow

That is these clips, because of their atomic, episodic nature, the fact that they are too short to allow for backstory or substantive development, too narrow to permit even a glance at context, and the world surrounding the shot. They bring us right up close to where the action is, the real stuff that evades the propaganda strips, only to end abruptly – always abruptly – and, quite literally, provide us only with another set of videos that the formula has deemed “related.”

At moments, I feel like these YouTube videos are the distinctive aesthetic form of our time and place. They show us what we know, and hide what we cannot know. Often what is revealed during these disjunctive moments is a dead body, innocence or guilt unknown, there is no time for that. Or a smiling child who should be crying, or a crying child who should be smiling, but we have to go – there isn’t the bandwidth or server space to stay. And what would we do if we could stay?

They are like episodes, one starts to feel, in some sort of inchoate dystopian work, one which borrows extra intensity from the fact that it is composed of nothing that isn’t drawn from the real world, the world that we share with the children in the videos. Considered together, watched in a sequence, as I have had you do (if with a few interruptions) they come to seem a slow montage rather than a collection of autonomous shorts. As such, we might well expect them to have the disruptive effect that we have long heard arrives of such starting juxtapositions.

One of the persistent tropes of the “speculative” literary works and films involves the fantasy of the subject transformed by the forced viewing of images. Whether the object is reformation or ruin, submission or transformation, nightmares about the idea that somehow we might be reached and altered, or even controlled, by locking our eyes to a series of disjunctive images, a montage.

And in a sense the reach of this trope extends far beyond the realms of speculative and science-fiction and art film into media theory and notions of ideology, as well as more vulgar conceptions about the relationship between, say, represented violence and violent actions, school shootings and the like.

We wait for the image, the conjunction, that will blind us or make us at last see, that will reset the operating system and let us move under a power “not our own” but all our own, just differently, newly, once and for all.

But the right image, the effective conjunction, never comes. We have flags and mothers and cheerleaders, we have the soft core and the hard core, the lynchings, the bombings, and the children. We have the ambush and the dead and the dirty jokes about tiny girls and the flag, and we pang and parallax, but we do not snap.

These film clips lend us access to a world that has passed. The YouTube videos bring us back to the present. We see them, you have seen them, and they will stick, but they will not transform. Nothing does the trick anymore. It is hardly an appropriate message to draw from the digital stuff that we’ve just watched and the bodies that we can barely imagine behind it, but I am not sure what else there is to say.

Just as Theodor Adorno once argued for the reduction of speculation about emancipated society to a basic, simple demand – “There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more” – perhaps we need to develop an aesthetic, a form, that could ground itself in the coarse demand to stay close to children like these, to follow them from start to finish, and not look away in shame and boredom. We must, in short, find an aesthetic with which to break ourselves into compliance with our baser, animalian, that is to say human, enlightened, imperatives.

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September 5, 2008 at 11:10 pm

apocalypse now

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If we Lombrosoed the best, wide-panning footage from recent collapse/catastrophe/dystopian films, we might well come up with something like this still I’ve just sniffed out of a HD version of the trailer of Blindness. From what I can tell / remember, looks like downtown Shanghai, though I’m probably wrong. The empty-tank abandoned cars, the gray-scale midrise blocks smothering the tight highway in the center. No one’s been around to sweep up casual debris for awhile.

Whether from environmental catastrophe or meteor strike, heatwave or coldwave, terror attack or ultra-SARS, vampires or the end of female fecundity, the mass blindness or bad politics or cannibalistic rage, we always end up here, under a gray sky, walking where we shouldn’t with shopping bags.

We even build the scenario into our fanciest new parks:

There’s lots to say about this. The least interesting thing, perhaps, is that, sure, everyone’s writing allegories and slantsenses of the same imminent catastrophe that really is around the corner, involving peak oil and the like. (It’s a bit more interesting to consider why they don’t simply make a movie about that. No fun, I guess, to see the shit that’s really about to hit the fan, but I don’t think that’s it. More pertinent is the trouble it takes to narrativize / visualize it, as it moves slow and mostly out of sight).

And more interesting, I think, are a few things that are a bit more obliquely there. A sense of possible or even manditory trespass on public grounds where you’re not, in normal times, supposed to walk. It’s a form of desperate liberation, and has a childlike fun adhering to it I think.

Also, there’s the entire question of the role of these gray ersatz buildings, the way they signal a catastrophe that had perhaps already started, that began perhaps even when the first nomadic sheepherders decided to put their tents up along a single path, then some travelling salesman came along and decided to stay put and just sell to them. Or maybe it’s the modernness of the architecture – the way the non-descript individuality of each building mirrors and matches that of the folks walking on the street. A generic family, a kid generically holding a parent’s hand, just as the building on the left has balconies you can enclose if you want, and the one next to it has a different sort of balcony, etc…

The uncollected rubish (you can imagine a crew sprinkling the set with little strips of paper, cuttings of plastic bags. Maybe someone even wedged that one down in the sewer inlet) brings to mind both a street party, a parade, before the cleanup crews pass through. Or is it just the everyday trash that flutters on city streets that aren’t well kept (like mine, I’ve quickly noticed…) because there’s no one left to collect it. The failure of services, of the civic, of public employment. The wind will take care of that, the ocean will collect it, as there simply isn’t the cash on hand, we’re in a crisis don’t you know, structural adjustments will have to be made, sacrifice the clean streets for the sake of…

The gray sky, of course, is more than just a marker of the weather. Sure, of course, it’s global warming, polution, the hot and damp that will soon enough mark the other season, all over the world, in its oscillation with hot and dry. But it’s also the lidness that keeps us in, that keeps our thoughts cycling on two-axes, the axes that run through this picture and these films and our gasping lack of hope for change – the wider weather that means the furtherest left we know how to get is the circulation of fantasies, like this one and all the rest it stands for, of our imminent and increasingly visible demise.

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June 26, 2008 at 12:56 pm

london, for free

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Hey, I didn’t know that Patrick Keiller’s London is available on-line… You have to watch it very, very small though.

Strange thing, how centrally important this film is over here, how relatively unknown it is on the US side. (I have to admit, I’d never heard of it before I arrived…)

(I hope this link works outside of the UK – please do let me know if it doesn’t…)

A question for another day: why is it that New York City seems to resist or at least has proved unfertileground  for the production of psychogeographic / hauntological materials? Is it simply the relative youth of NYC as a city? Does it have something to do with the wider arc of political aspiration / disappointment that exists in London? An issue of the co-location of political and economic and cultural power in London, whereas NYC only has two of the three? Or is the answer more material, more architectural? London’s weird (to me, anyway) chaos of hub-and-spoke villages provokes more ruin sifting than the rectilinearity of NYC? Or does the significant difference lie at the site of intellectual production, the funding of a documentary culture in the UK that’s missing in New York. (The exception, in a way, proves the rule on this point – as WNET has made forays in this direction…. such as this series, but it’s still far too sunny and touristical to qualify). Or, there’s the last chapter of Marshall Berman’s generally under-appreciated All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which is far far closer….

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June 20, 2008 at 11:15 am

Posted in distraction, movies

nostalgie de la boom… and ads without ads

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My wife and I have introduced a thing where each of us takes one night a week out by ourselves while the other watches the kiddo. (We’re late getting to this – it was suggested long ago – but what the hell were we going to do with our nights out in the old place, so the time is right…) On my night, I headed down to see the Rodchenko exhibit, but the damn place was closing (nice opening hours here, god). So I had to come up with something else to do with myself. Good movies were out – they’re reserved for some barely imaginable time when we can see them together. So I saw Cloverfield instead. I feel an obligation to see such things, which my wife definitely does not share, and so… 

(Parenthetically: $26 to see a fucking movie? Are you out of your minds? I saw the damn thing in the worst and likeliest of all possible places I guess, but back in the states there’s a constitutional right to affordable consumption of crap movies. I think it’s administered by the Dairy Board, whomever it is who gives the free milk and bread to the starving grad student moms… But I digress…)  

So. Not much to say about Cloverfield. Fun I guess. The genre’s looking very, very tired. But in the very fatigue of the form, I do think we’re seeing something new and interesting afoot. Semi-new anyway. The producers and writers of the thing are all at least my age, but the presumed audience, I guess is a lot younger. Young enough, in fact, to have the same relation to the attacks so heavily quoted in this film as my students are starting to have. For a few years there, we were all in it together. Now, it’s getting a bit strained. Shocking when it dawns on you that your youngest students weren’t even teenagers when the shit when down. In a year or two, when we’re dealing with kids that were seven or so in 2001, it’s going to feel even stranger – for them as much as for us, who somehow can’t stop threading it into our conversations. 

In Cloverfield, I think we see early signs of an anxiety not about terror, but about its absence. It is a movie tailor-made for a demographic that has grown up hearing about 9/11 but which has only vague, mostly false, memories of it. A generation who parents worried about shielding from the tv, even when they were far too young to distinguish the threat of annihilation from the threat of, dunno, the scary shit that lives in your closet. 

(Heard Bush mention the other day the “attack that occurred six-and-a-half years ago.” It’s been a long, long time. Wow…)   

The yupster parties in loft spaces (hahaha) on the Lower East Side (hahahaha) are going to feel something missing, are going to long for the crisping threat that something will happen downtown, that there will be a reason to run up to the roof, that their emotionally desolate choice (just for instance) to leave the girl behind to take a VP position in Japan (? – oh, i see, godzilla. Try Dubai…), the iron continuities in play behind that, will come to a sudden and abrupt end when some rough beast inaugurates another round of trauma sex, epiphanies of “what really mattes,” a war or wars to momentarily back and then, later, pretend that you opposed from the start etc etc etc. 

But unfortunately, this dystopian fantasy is positively utopian in its impossibility. The crows won’t come home to roost, not here, not anymore. The world, dearies, has moved on. The Time Warner Building ain’t the double-barreled omphalous of the world anymore – it’s in the wrong country to matter. No one’s going to expend good fissile material on a nation and an economy doing a great job fizzling out on its own. The catastrophes to come for the kids that were meant to see this film are going to be far less picturesque, and certainly won’t be available for videotaping. 

Anyway, wow. At least I’m blogging again, right?

One other thing, on a related note: saw this little number at the end of the extremely long strand of ads (mostly for cars and other new dystopian movies) that ran before Cloverfields:  Brilliant, and very very strange indeed. And strikingly beautiful! An ad for adlessness, if there ever was one. It may become the totemic youtube of this youtube intensive blog!

And even better, way better, is that the damned thing looks like the opening sequence of an absolutely incredible (and a good deal more horrifying, to many in the wider audience, than Cloverfields, which isn’t very horrifying at all) of a very different sort of speculative fiction, one about a specter lurching back from the place where dismissed specters go in order to decapitate the idols of the era, break open the walls of the buildings in the expensive neighborhoods, and leave most bedazzled and exhilarated at the sweep of violence that has rubbled so many things we thought could never go, that we believed, despite ourselves, that the world simply couldn’t live without.  

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February 15, 2008 at 1:12 am

obsolete forms

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We wait for the image, the conjunction, that will blind us or make us at last see, that will reset the operating system and let us move under a power “not our own” but all our own, just differently, newly, once and for all.

But the right image, the effective conjunction, never comes. We have flags and mothers and cheerleaders, we have the soft core and the hard core, the lynchings, the bombings, and the children.

These clips lend us access to a world that has passed. Nothing does the trick anymore; we must find another aesthetic with which to break ourselves into compliance with our baser, animalian, that is to say human, enlightened, imperatives.

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September 3, 2007 at 1:58 am

“something wrong with the way movies are made today”

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This is exactly the sort of thing I was trying to talk about here, especially in the comments.

Frustrated with the rightward drift in Portuguese politics and the scarcity of financing, [Pedro Costa] ventured abroad — to the West African islands of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony — and made “Casa de Lava” (Down to Earth,” 1994). The story of a nurse who accompanies a comatose laborer home to Cape Verde, it changed the course of his career.

The Cape Verdeans he met sent him back to Lisbon with gifts for relatives who had emigrated there. The delivery mission led him to the shantytown of Fontainhas, where many Cape Verdeans had settled. He decided to set a film in the neighborhood, using residents as actors.

The result, “Ossos” (“Bones,” 1997), centered on the newborn infant of two hapless teenagers, is a parable of economic and spiritual desperation as oblique and concentrated as anything by Bresson. Mr. Costa was dissatisfied with the shoot, not least for having invaded a residential neighborhood with the unwieldy machinery of film production.

“We would be shooting late at night and shining lights into people’s houses,” he said. “I realized there’s something wrong with the way movies are made today.”

Mr. Costa set out to address not merely logistical headaches but also the responsibility that comes with picking up a camera. The act of filmmaking is premised on a discrepancy of power. As Mr. Costa put it, “The balance is off between those behind and in front of the camera.” His next film, “In Vanda’s Room” (2000), went a long way toward redressing the inequality.

Encouraged by Vanda Duarte, an actress in “Ossos,” he continued to film in Fontainhas, which was being demolished. This time he did so with a small video camera, often by himself. He grew close to his subjects and shot for almost two years. From 140 hours of footage he shaped a three-hour film.

A series of shadowy domestic tableaus (the camera never moves, and Mr. Costa used only available light), “In Vanda’s Room” is a stark, intimate portrait of a community whose world is literally falling apart. (Bulldozers are continuously heard on the soundtrack.) It feels at times like a documentary but is actually the result of long conversations and multiple takes. Ms. Duarte and her friends, who sit around, talk, prepare heroin fixes, smoke and shoot up, are not documentary subjects so much as actors playing themselves.

Sounds wonderful. Now where am I going to get my hands on the movies?

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July 30, 2007 at 2:27 am

Posted in movies

from the inside

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Jane Dark has a great post up about the Transformers movie… and far more than the Transformers movie. One thing, though, and a thing that I can’t really go into sufficient depth on right at the moment, as I have neither text nor time. Jane writes:

And yet it is by far the most detailed reconstruction of the iconic violence from the events of September 11, 2001. Indeed, among acts of imagination, this is the one that has been pointedly disallowed: the image not recreated in the increasing wealth of historical recreations. To think that image from a perspective too close to reality would be, as we are all given to understand, somehow pornographic; one way to understand this movie is as a sort of measuring device displaying the necessary distance of fantasy at which the events in question can be screened. Or as a particular registration of the certainty that this one day in history is to be the Rosetta Stone of American cultural imagery for the foreseeable future.

It is worth mentioning that Don DeLillo’s new Falling Man [SPOILER WARNING!] does actually conclude with a ramped-up, tour-de-force type rendition of what went on inside the towers. I’d say more, but I need my book, which isn’t at hand… Exception that proves the rule, I think…

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July 23, 2007 at 1:27 pm

Posted in distraction, movies

dude, where’s my right-wing thinktank supplied talking points?

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loder.jpg

I haven’t watched much MTV since I was a teenager. Actually, I haven’t watched any MTV, that I can remember, since then. It’s all the death of Kurt Cobain and then things get foggy for me on that front. But I do remember Kurt Loder, the talking head of the MTV news division (?), and the guy who famously broke the story on Cobain’s demise…

So I’ve been out of the loop for a bit. But what in christ’s name is going on with Loder’s review of Sicko, which is new to me, but is apparently generating major blog juice from the look of the google results. Someone over at Daily Kos does a pretty good job on the surface level bullshit in this piece, which feels like the fruits of some major right-wing foundation research help, and whose subtextual message could be more or less summarized as: “Lissen up, kiddo. You vote for Edwards, and the text time you do funnel shots in the backyard of the college Eating Club, you’re going to be waiting in line at the hospital behind some smelly black dude who just got his head clubbed in my the cops. Mommy and Daddy might as well not call, there will be no strings to pull. It’ll just be your unconscious ass rationed right to the back of the line while people who haven’t even gone to college, let alone successfully pledged at Alpha Sigma Sigma, get treated in the order they arrived. And you wanna talk about the boob job that daddy promised you if you make all Bs this semester. Forget about it. It’s A cup for you, cupcake, while the cleft-palate kids take all the surgical aestheticians for their greedy selves.”

Enough of that. One other thing though. Loder takes up the Cuban medical tourism meme that I last engaged with over at Acephalous.

What Moore doesn’t mention is the flourishing Cuban industry of “health
tourism” — a system in which foreigners (including self-admitted multimillionaire film directors and, of course, government bigwigs) who are willing to pay cash for anything from brain-surgery to dental work
can purchase a level of treatment that’s unavailable to the majority of Cubans with no hard currency at their disposal. The Cuban American National Foundation (admittedly a group with no love for the Castro
regime) calls this “medical apartheid.” And in a 2004 article in Canada’s National Post, writer Isabel Vincent quoted a dissident Cuban neurosurgeon, Doctor Hilda Molina, as saying, “Cubans should be treated the same as foreigners. Cubans have less rights in their own country than foreigners who visit here.”

God is this little argumentoid getting wide and fast circulation. Without taking up the reasons why
Cuba might need to sell medical services for hard currency, let’s just remember that 1) the only reason why the US isn’t a bigger player in the medical tourism business is because medical services are so frigging expensive that you’d be crazy to come here rather than other places with cheap, quality medical care and 2) on the upper-end of the medical spectrum, we already do do a bristling business in selling medical resources to foreigners. I’m sure there are statistics, but for brevity’s sake, an anecdote: my mother suffers from, and has suffered for more than 30 years from a certain chronic-progressive, and ultimately fatal disease. (I’d rather not say which, for pseudo reasons… But you can probably fill in the blanks yourselves….) And for the past five or so years, she has been under the care of the guy who is commonly known to be the very best practitioner in the country when it comes to her condition. How did she get in with this guy? A friend of a friend happened to be president of the research hospital where said doctor works, and got her an appointment – no easy task. So, yeah – if your mom suffers from this disease, she’s just basically not getting in to see this guy. (Obviously I don’t begrudge her the care – I just begrudge the system that generates results in this fashion…) And when she goes for her quarterly checkup, the waiting room is largely stocked with non-Americans of one sort or another – petrodollar spending middle-easterners seem to be the best represented demographic. The office, I believe, keeps a block of rooms at a local hotel reserved for their exotic patients. Perhaps this situation would even continue after the arrival of single-payer health care in the US – there are exemptions that allow it to happen in Canada, and maybe they’d build them in here too as a sort of kickback to doctors.

In the end, whether homegrown or imported, it is the wealthy and connected who have exclusive access to the best care in the US… But let’s just not mistake the equation at hand: even in the worst case, the question is between an egalitarian system with a sliver of free-market capitalism at the very top, or a radically inegalitarian system with the same sliver at the top. In other words, our entire system is structured along the lines of the fractional element of the Cuban one that Loder calls out in his piece, that he deploys as evidence of the hypocritical downfall of socialized medicine…

Above all else, it is a bit strange that Loder would write a piece like this. I’ve sifted through his other reviews looking for a similar level of, what to call it, contextual-investment as in this one and I can find nothing like it. Smells like a bit of prefab work to me…

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July 2, 2007 at 11:55 pm

Posted in movies, socialism

“stands still and has come to a stop”

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(xposted to Long Sunday)

It is helpful, if also a bit unnerving, when media culture generates near proofs, direct materializations, of theses that you’ve already been walking around feeling smugly smart about. The thesis that I’m thinking about right now isn’t exactly mine, but it is one that has held my attention for a little while now. And I think I can localize the origin of this line of thought down to a single passage from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, a passage that clues us in to the significance of the novel’s title.

“Of course,” he says, “we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.” (Clipped from here).

It is an argument about science fiction that is also an argument about the experience of time at present, or vice versa. And it is in an excellent description of the state of speculative films today. In one of the DVD extras for Children of Men (unfortunately not available on line) the set-designers and stylists discuss the fact that Cuaron wanted everything in the film to look like stuff from today, only older and more weathered, which is exactly what we get. The future as present-less-infrastructural investment. Disaster movies set themselves in a next year that looks a lot like last year, while Al Gore’s apocalyptic infomercial confusedly quivers between easy futural solutions (buy carbon indulgences!) and a deeper, more convincing sense that we are always already fucked.

Newsmagazine features on future stuff has morphed into special issues on What Is About to Happen, and What Are They Doing to Stop It. From this…

to this…

(Survival Guide???? See what I mean…)

What set me to writing this post (the “near proof” mentioned above) was the trailer for a new PKD film-adaptation, reportedly quite terrible: Next.

A PKD symptomatic in with the protagonist can only see into the proximate future – a future that apparently climaxes with the detonation (or do they stop it???) of a nuclear device in an American shipyard. Right. It is tough to think of a premise that comes closer to exactly mimesis of the dominant temporal strategy of the first four years of the Bush administration, which I was only half-gulible enough to half-take serious, as I anxiously sort-of awaited the truck bombing of the synagogue and the two cop cars constantly parked in front of it at the end of my street in Brooklyn.

The progression of PKD films over the past quarter-century is vividly emblematic of the recision of the future; with each iteration, we draw closer to the present, and even drop at times back into the past. First, there’s Blade Runner, with its replicants and super-huge video screens and so forth, even if things are dusty and noirish. Then there’s Total Recall with the robot drivers and Mars Today and tennis sim that Sharon Stone practices with. But A Scanner Darkly is a retro future, set in a Californicated past of stoners and beautiful losers, no matter where (when) it thinks it is. (I know I’m leaving a few out, but bear with me….) And then there’s Here.

When I teach utopian / dystopian fiction from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to my undergraduates, I usually start by taking them on a little mental journey back to a time when the question future was actually up for argument, and then bring them back to the here and now to ask them what, if anything, they can imagine significantly changing during the course of their lives. More and better video games, older and older people, fewer and fewer good jobs. But, of course, no fundamental alteration in the political or culture organization of things – their kids, if they have them, will live in the same sort of world as they do. Maybe someone will cure cancer, perhaps there will be free tv on the internets, but mostly things will rest as they are.

The first time I used this ploy, I actually waited to hear what they thought the future might look like. I have since learned to lecture straight through the socratic counter-point. They don’t answer; they’ve never, it turns out, even considered the question – at least the vocal ones haven’t. It is all entirely new to them…

It is tough, though, to know exactly what to make of this development – the foreshortening of the future from way, way out there to quite soon to almost now down toward in selben Augenblick. On the one hand, of course, it marks a foreclosure of the concept that the world might be radically otherwise, as there will never be any time for it to radically change. On the other hand, the whole scenario calls to mind Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and its resistance to the Social Democratic concept of progress as a “progression through a homogenous, empty time” in favor of a “notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop.”

At any rate, perhaps this sort of issue is exactly the sort of thing that the present day literature department should take up as a task. We English professors love the conjunction of the aesthetic and the political. But something has happened that makes it nearly impossible (save through pseudo-blog) to make this argument publically.

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April 24, 2007 at 12:35 am

Posted in aesthetics, benjamin, movies

“because we live here, and they don’t”

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Need to upgrade that last link (to a trailer for Red Dawn) into its own post.

For some of you, the hallucinatory and insane apropos-ness of this film will be old hat. But if you’re not familiar with it: that there is as quick an introduction to the long and almost entirely hypocritical history of US foreign policy towards national movements of self-determination as you’re going to get. And since we’re all talking about this sort of thing, it also is a crystal clear materialization, for the benefit of the baffled, of our gun laws…

A nice summary of this theme in the movie from wikipedia:

The private ownership of firearms is also presented as part of the film’s anti-Communism. Early in the film, a bumper sticker seen on a truck states a classic gun owner’s creed; “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The shot moves down to a dead hand holding an empty Colt pistol as well as shots of the same pistol being pried from the dead person’s hand by a Soviet paratrooper, presumably from a police officer or armed civilian gunned down earlier during the invasion of Calumet, Colorado. As the protagonists flee the initial invasion of Calumet, they stop at a local sporting goods store owned by one of their fathers. He tells them to gather supplies and gives them several rifles and pistols along with boxes of ammunition. (The father and his wife are later executed because of the guns missing from the store’s inventory.) In a later scene, a Cuban officer orders one of his men to report to the local sporting goods store and obtain the paperwork of local citizens who own firearms. The Cuban officer specifically refers to Form 4473, which is the actual form used to record the sale of a firearm by a dealer to a private citizen in the United States. These scenes speak to the long-standing issues of government gun control.

Whether these principles apply to the citizens of the states the US has invaded is another story, of course. Relatedly, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really noted the uncanniness of all of the those hoisted AK-47s, until now.

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April 23, 2007 at 2:05 am

Posted in america, movies

first person (plural) shooter

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(Xposted to Long Sunday)

I’m sure soldiers, ever since there have been soldiers, have hooted adolescently in the throes of combat. What would we expect, that they’d go about their work gravely, constantly reminding themselves of the seriousness – the mortal seriousness – of the things that they do, the weapons that they discharge? That is undoubtedly too much to expect. The stupid talk and yells undoubtedly represent a release from the psychosis inspiring and inspired actions that they are committing.

It is not new, it is not groundbreaking, to think: “They sound like the subset of students that you see hooting and unawarely spewing stuff they heard in a movie somewhere. They always talk like this, yell like this. They likely feel most themselves when they most completely give themselves over to the canned material they have been served, night after night, for their entire lives.”

What we hear is not the organic, the militaristically gnomic, the earthy – it is the sitcomedic. MTV trashtalk, some Full Metal Jacketisms (Kubrick would have loved this, at least in a way) thrown in.

And, because you too have seen the same movies, at least a lot of them, you are able to try to reconstruct any possible reason, any scenario at all, in which the cars that speed in, crash, disgorge their occupants, who then are blown away by the Americans. The sniper was in a car? The insurgents, after a lengthy pause, get into their little cars and attempt, as an act of insane bravery perhaps, to speed past the marines’ position? Why?

Unlike the talk, no, the actions of the “insurgents” don’t fit into any plausible script, especially not the one posted at the end of the video.

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March 27, 2007 at 10:30 pm

Posted in impersonality, movies, war

awp indeed

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What a day. One horrendous thing at work (not horrendous for me per se… but horrendous in just that way that brings home minus abstraction and distance, all joking aside, what a shit place the world is), followed by a delightful moment of post-mla schadenfreude (my sector of the world seems a little more just and competent), but to top it all off……………

…………….this:

Oh lord do I love it. (What is it you ask? A reel of the faux media/design content developed by a firm called Foreign Office for Children of Men, of course…) Half the delight I take in the speculative genre comes of this sort of material. I don’t really love gizmos and the like, but neo-brands, speculative graphic design and media accouterments, yeah, that’s all me. Why? Um, see this blog. Have you noticed the title?

I especially love this sort of thing in a movie like Children of Men. Why bother advertising in a world in which there are no new consumers to capture, the market must have self-destructed decades ago, there really is no point to any of it anymore? But what the hell. You know they’d still be there, the ads… everywhere…

(Special note to the folks that made this stuff for Children of Men, if you happen to technorati by: Though it might seem at first glance that I am unlikely candidate for employment with your firm – as I’m not trained in design, I’m kind of an almost religiously-intense communist, I’m an English professor, I’m just post-30 so not really in the market for an internship or such like, I really do think it would be in your best interest to give me a call, and then a job for life. I would say goodbye to all that for the chance to tinker away at faux-ads, faux brand identities. I will learn to use photoshop. I will learn to edit videos. I will make videos of dogs wearing fur-lined jackets. I will even make real ads for nasty corporations, so long as I’m permitted, at least some of the time, to make up brand identity kits for fake corporations in dystopian movies. In short – and I’m not kidding – I’m pretty good at what I do now, fully employed and so forth, I have a phd from an internationally elite university in totally the wrong field to do this, but I will move * tomorrow to where you are and, well, be really intensely ready to make faux ads.

I mean, seriously, look at the f’ing name of my site. Born to do this.

Drop me an email.

* so long as you’re located in New York, London, Shanghai or any smaller city that’s ever been profiled in Wallpaper.)

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February 28, 2007 at 11:12 pm

Posted in ads, movies