Friday, January 27, 2012

Movies from a library

By John, posted by Tracy

Watching movies involves so many compromises. Apart from power usage and how the energy for that is created, there’s the manufacturing of the hardware, and the general ecological and human cost of producing films. It’s a long list, taking us through multinational miners, industrial exploitation, pollution and destruction of habitats, to exploitation of underpaid factory workers at various degrees of separation from the product itself. And it is product. The moment film-makers begin to negotiate with the process itself, distribution, and the realities of ‘audience’, even the most independent-minded movie enters the chain. And if one thinks there is a way out of this, maybe it’s worth bearing in mind some of the funding compromises or interference with filming associated with some of the most challenging and created-under-duress films.

Nonetheless, I have always enjoyed cinema, and have watched a large number of movies over my life. When engaging with a library, I first engage with the book and journal collection, then the video/DVD collection. And I tend to work my way steadily through a collection, rewatching and picking up items I’ve missed.

Having mentioned the funding for movies issue, one might highlight the selection of Cassavetes films on the shelves. John Cassavetes (1929-1989) is almost the ur-indie filmmaker of ‘modern’ American cinema, who not only wrote and directed many of his films, but also funded and even distributed them. Often working with the same actors, especially his wife Gena Rowlands and the underrated Ben Gazzara, Cassavetes created one of the most impelling, original, socially conscious and multi-genred bodies of work out there. Often funding his films through himself acting in major studio films (Rosemary’s Baby being my favourite, though The Dirty Dozen may have paid better), Cassavetes pieced together movies how, when and wherever he could. His films are elusive revolutions, at least in part because of the drive for independence. And one has the sense that, though he covers so much of the production ground, of getting the film done, he is in collaboration with his actors, especially the brilliant Rowlands whose performances in Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, and Opening Night are disturbing, destabilising and epiphanic. And watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) to see how genre can be twisted and reconstituted by labouring a point rather than editing it into oblivion. My favourite Cassavetes will always be his first independent film, Shadows, which was a shock-wave of understatement with something immense, political and confrontational that was a tribute to a film’s sum of its parts.

Other films we’ve enjoyed or admired or even endured with enthusiasm, all from one library collection, and I say ‘we’ because I watch films together with Tracy (the discussion that comes out of experiencing a film at a given time and place is part of the whole for us), include a selection of noir classics. Among them are Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945) and the (literally) hypnotic melodrama, Whirlpool (1949) – even at his most laboured and illogical, Preminger has a chart of social concern and niceties he wishes to undo.

But for pure noir impact, it will always be the actor John Garfield for me (he was indelible in 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice), whom you can check out in Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948). I have always admired Garfield, who was born in poverty and was part of the Group Theatre Collective in New York in the 1930s, because he never named names at the House Committee on Un-American Activities, though he retracted his ‘beliefs’ shortly before his (early) death.

For me, in noir, it isn’t what the directors do with the male protagonists that matters, it’s what the women do to foil them, compromise, or undo them. Sherry is the femme fatale to watch in Stanley Kubrick’s genre ‘classic’, The Killing (which was a critical and commercial failure on its release in 1956 – often a good sign!).

Most recently, we rewatched Donald Cammel’s and Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, Performance. Cammel made few films but was a poetic director (and son of a poet) who obsessed over his vision and ultimately died of it. Performance was completed in 1968 but not released by Warner Brothers until 1970. And Roeg is at his best here – his cinematography is festering and disorientating (and said to be the forerunner of the MTV music clip, but I’ve always found that claim ludicrous in so many ways, not that Roeg probably minded). The studio (I detest studios) were disgusted with the film they ended up getting and had no idea how to read its mix of gangster film, darkest satire, parody-lite, psychedelic implosion, Borgesian labyrinths and mirrors, identity play, doubling, exploration of the many faces of the ‘performative’, porn (offcuts of the film were apparently shown as a ‘blue movie’) and sexual and gender ambiguity. And that short list doesn’t even begin to do justice to this intertextual tour de force. Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg (as respectively the jaded, ontologically compromised rock star and one of his girlfriends in a ménage that folds and folds into itself) are precisely what they had to be, and James Fox is overwhelming in the role that is said to have largely led to his leaving movies for a decade and embracing Christian causes. I’ll say no more other than that, much like Antonioni’s Blow-up, this film is a nexus for the construct of an ‘era’ and interpretations of such a construct.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sell-out to Uranium Miners in Western Australia

By John, posted by Tracy

In case any of you think the Western Australia (or Australian) Labor Party stand for anything more than greed, rapacity and a thirst for power at all costs; in case any of you differentiate them from the corporate fascists (they are fascists in so many ways) who are in power now, then think again. SELL-OUT is barely worth saying - that's the 'price' of so-called party politics, of a dictatorship of corporate 'democracy'. No consensus, only greed. The mining companies run Australia.

Read about it here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Highsmith day...

By Tracy

Patricia Highsmith was born on this day in 1921.

Problematic, contradictory, by all biographical accounts bigoted and not a pleasant person to be around -- yet strangely gifted, at times, in her fictional writing.

On the one hand, a critic (Noel Mawer*) can write: "Highsmith was radically concerned with morality, justice, guilt, and good and evil, and with the conditions in our society that define these concepts."

Another can state that she "loathed Patricia Highsmith's work for its inhumanity to man", that "her work was immoral" (Margharita Laski, cited in Mawer).

I am both repelled and compelled by it, and interested in the variety of conflicting (confused and confusing) critical responses to her oeuvre.

(*See Noel Mawer, A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith -- From the Psychological to the Political, The Edwin Mellen Press, pp.5 & 10)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

'Property is Theft' doesn't belong to Proudhon

By John, posted by Tracy

Equipage (via Rod Mengham at Jesus College, Cambridge) have recently brought out my anti-greed and pro-ecological long poem based on Beddoes’s Death’s Jest Book, Rapacity. The cover is below.

I want to take this opportunity to qualify my thoughts regarding the notion of ‘property is theft’, which I have cited many times over the years.

First, this from an unpublished article on (anti-) capitalism and poetry:

‘I object to the rapacity and selfishness, and have always believed that ‘property is theft’ (in the literal sense, not in the hypocritical and contradictory sense embodied by Proudhon who, as Murray Bookchin points out, was not in essence against certain forms of private property under certain conditions).’

and this from a published chunk of (new) autobiographical writing that’s come out of living at Jam Tree Gully:

‘…onto our place. Our property. I reject the notion of property. Custodianship sounds too appropriative, and for a non-indigenous resident, all too convenient. Really, that’s the issue that burns below the surface of all I write about this place. Proudhon is only halfway there with ‘Property is theft’. Some theft is more theft than others. He fails to investigate the nature of such theft: that’s more the key to understanding the implications of surveying, gifting, selling, claiming.’

and from a piece collected in the book Activist Poetics:

‘So much poetry does this and convinces us it’s best for our health. It’s not so much that I can’t celebrate, it’s just that I want to know what the implications of such a celebration are. Yes, Tim, as Proudhon noted, “Property is theft!” And so much poetry, art, and music are theft as well. The most “original” work is often the most property-like. We can only be custodians, and it is incumbent on all to recognise larger, more concentrated, and more defined custodianships. Wheatbelt Gothic is a style that allows for an observation of these considerations — it has no materiality, no claim.’
[note: ‘Tim’ here is not Tim our son, but a radical artist acquaintance]

I cite each of these to show that whenever quoting what for me is a truism in so many ways, I’ve always felt the need to qualify its usage. Murray Bookchin writes, in The Third Revolution:

‘Despite his famous cry, ‘Property is theft!’ however, Proudhon was no socialist: he definitely favoured private property, advancing an economy structured around small privately owned enterprises that would be linked together by contracts untainted by either profit considerations or by exploitation.

By making a distinction between ‘property’ acquired by ‘exploitation’ and ‘possession’ acquired by labor, Proudhon essentially smuggled into his vision a belief in private property, albeit with a moral aura. His statement ‘property is theft’ did not refer strictly to tangible economic property; nor was it intended to lead to the abolition of private property…’ (39)

When a statement becomes an aphorism or a saying, you’ve got to be wary. Anything that easy is bound to be glib and separated from its cause and effect. For me, property is theft because it denies mutual access. But property can have very different meanings in different cultures, so one must be wary of using ‘property’ as a blanket all-encompassing term. Furthermore, I suspect that Proudhon’s use of ‘property’ and concerns over control were deeply affected by his anti-semitism, which anarchists should not try to brush aside or minimise. Proudhon was a pathological bigot, and none of his words can be separated from this evil. As a statement in itself, ‘property is theft’ lives without ownership, copyright, or subscription. It is its own fact, but it needs to be given context to give it life and meaning, and needs to be wrested from the foulness of Proudhon. And if you wonder about Proudhon’s racism, look no further than his diary entry of December of 1847 with its calls for extermination and destruction. A proto-typical Nazi in more ways than one.