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Archive for the 'Film' Category

Friday, March 14th, 2014

“Do you believe in fate, Neo?” Law, Freedom, Representation, and Identity in THE MATRIX

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

Happy Friday, everyone! But before we continue on with the University Press Roundup, we’d like to conclude our week-long feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies. In the except below, Kahn illuminates the underlying philosophies of the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix. Drawing from Kant’s delineation of the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, Kahn examines the ways in which the matrix, as an absolute manifestation of representation through law and code, separates itself from identity. This act eradicates any opportunity to “freely give the law to ourselves,” prompting violence, here the sole remaining performance of human freedom.

And of course, don’t miss Morpheus’s explanation of the matrix–troubled with the same issues that disturbed Descartes almost four hundred years ago.

Here’s your last chance to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Philosophy as Narrative, Dialogue, Disruption: An Interview with Paul W. Kahn

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

Next up for our feature on Paul Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we highlight excerpts from the author’s recent interview with Critical Margins. Here, Kahn details some of the themes found in his book, as well as touches on some of the problems faced by philosophy today and how film can help to address them.

First of all, Paul, one of the first statements in your book is the following, “philosophy begins with narrative, not abstraction.” Could you give us some examples from both ancient times and our own day?

While there are fragments preserved from the pre-Socratics, Western philosophy begins its written tradition with Plato. Plato, however, wrote nothing that we would identify as a philosophical text. He wrote something that looked considerably more like drama. They were dialogues that addressed particular questions in a dramatic context.

The tradition of writing dialogues continued for some time in classical thought. Cicero and Seneca, for example, wrote dialogues. In modern philosophy, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion may be the most famous. The narrative form of reflective inquiry is rooted for Westerners in Christ’s use of parables. Modern philosophers have sometimes used a narrative form – most famously in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In popular culture, I am reminded of the very successful work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

You say, “Increasingly, what we have in common is the movies.” Is that mainly because so many movies now are of the blockbuster type that millions flock to whereas other forms of media that we once shared (e.g., the evening newscast) have declined?

It is true that the movies that we most share are the blockbusters, which link us to audiences around the world. There is nothing else quite like that, except perhaps some television series that endlessly rerun, and maybe the Oscars. Movies with less popular appeal than blockbusters often link the members of smaller groups. We share the viewing habits of those with whom we are likely to find ourselves. I suspect that whatever we see, we want to talk about with our friends, partners, coworkers, and associates.

One of the aims of your book is to discuss the relationship between film and philosophy. On that note, could you please tell us what films you think reflect this statement from your book, “To imagine the possible is to construct a narrative?”

Every movie imagines the possible through the construction of a narrative. An account of natural development does not include the possible. We don’t say that an earthquake was one of several possible events. We say it happened and it had to happen because of shifts in the tectonic plates that preceded it. A narrative does not work that way. A narrative always sets the actual against the possible. We are interested in human stories because of the choices made, but choice requires a belief that other possibilities were present – the choice could have been different.


Monday, March 10th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, by Paul W. Kahn

Finding Ourselves at the Movies

This week our featured book is Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation by Paul W. Kahn. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies. To enter our Book Giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, March 14th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Quadrophenia: Album, Movie, and Now, Book!

Quadrophenia, Stephen GlynnThe newest entry in the Cultographies series is Quadrophenia by Stephen Glynn. The 1979 film is, of course, based on the Who’s concept album Quadrophenia (1973) and tells the story of young mod Jimmy Cooper and the 1964 clash between Mods and Rockers in Brighton.

In Quadrophenia, Glynn argues that the “Modyssey” depicted in the book opens the hermetic subculture of the Mods to its social-realist context and dares to explore cult dangers. To help in understanding the particularities of Mod culture, Glynn’s book offers a very helpful glossary of essential Mod terms. Here are some selections and we’ve also included the trailer for the film:

Aggro: aggression: a common manifestation of the Mod mood.

Blues: small blue amphetamine pills aka French Blues.

Bovril: a hot and salty meat extract drink.

parka: the Mod coat of choice—notably the M51 fish-tail parka (named after its initial US army distribution), longer at the back with an integral hood.

Pie and Mash: a traditional London working-class meal, normally a minced beef pie served with mashed potato and an eel liquor sauce, aka “liquor”

Toff: a derogatory slang term for a member of the upper classes.

Vespa: Italian-made two stroke engine motor scooter. The Ace Face’s scooter of choice.

Here’s the trailer:

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the Book

Part of the Cultographies series, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Dean J. Defino explores Russ Meyer’s iconic, cult classic. (See the film’s trailer below—how could we resist?). In the book, Defino begins by describing his admiration for the film as well as his conflicted feelings about the film. However, as he explains in the passage below, he frequently uses the film in his classes as an illustration of American independent cinema:

I frequently use [Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!] to introduce the concept of independent cinema in the many film courses I teach. Meyer remains one of the few truly independent American filmmakers—having personally financed, written, directed, shot, edited and distributed nearly all of his twenty-three theatrical features— and Pussycat is an ideal illustration of the iconoclastic spirit of indie films because it is so accessible, engaging and well-made. It is a remarkably easy film to teach. And though I justify its place on the syllabus by pointing to its influence on filmmakers like John Waters and the way it raises questions later complicated in the works of John Cassavetes, John Sayles and Alison Anders, really I just want to see it for the first time again through my students’ eyes. Their responses to the film mirror my own to an uncanny degree. Most intuitively key in on the dark ironic tone and the Meyer style, with its low ‘Dutch’ angles, arch compositions and rapid editing tempered by the loose, jazzy score. Many find it, as I did at their age, oddly familiar and compelling. Our discussion invariably shifts from what we find ‘cool’ about the film to more weighty issues of film form, sexual politics and its place in film history and the Meyer canon, but time and again I am left with the feeling that I have failed to account for the film’s strange effect upon me.

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Contemporary Romanian Cinema and the Romanian Film Festival

Contemporary Romanian CinemaIn recent years, moviegoers have been become more aware of the innovative and inventive films coming from Romania. An in-depth analysis of the ferment in Romanian film can be found in our recently published Contemporary Romanian Cinema: The History of an Unexpected Miracle, by Dominique Nasta.

Romanian film is also getting a spotlight during this weekend’s 10th Romanian Film Festival in London: Turning the Page (Thu 28 Nov – Mon 2 Dec 2013), which brings the latest and most exciting productions from the the Romanian film industry. These films tell the story of a rapidly evolving society.

All films are in Romanian with English subtitles. Read the program here: www.rofilmfest.com
Screenings will take place at Curzon Soho (99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5DY); Buy tickets here: www.curzoncinemas.com/rff ; Tel. 0330 500 1331

Hugely popular actors and directors will lend their presence to the screenings: actor Victor Rebengiuc (Japanese Dog), actor and director Horatiu Malaele (Happy Funerals), actor Bogdan Dumitrache (When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism), actors Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Papadopol and Dorian Boguta (Love Building), director Stere Gulea (I Am An Old Communist Hag), and director Adrian Sitaru (Domestic).

For more on the Romanian Film Festival, you can watch this trailer and get a glimpse of what’s in store in the Romanian Film Festival in London!

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Wang Renmei and Mao Zedong

Wang Renmei

We conclude our week-long feature on Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai , by Richard J. Meyer with a look not at her film career but her early days living in Hunan Province. Though she later suffered during the Cultural Revolution, as a young girl she spent time with none other than Mao Zedong, then a student of Wang’s father.

In the following excerpt, Meyer describes Wang’s childhood and her time with Mao and the beginnings of the future leader’s political and class consciousness:

The future leader of the world’s most populous nation spent many happy days at the home of teacher Wang during the turbulent years after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911. In fact, one summer he spent the entire vacation living at the educator’s home. During that time, he had an opportunity to get acquainted with the entire Wang family, including the ten children and other relatives who stayed with the family.

It was a happy time for the teenage Mao, even though he was beginning to see the injustices of the contemporary Chinese society.

The young student was particularly fond of the youngest daughter of teacher Wang whose nickname was “Xixi,” which meant double slight or thin. She later took the name of “Wang Renmei” when she was older. Renmei remembers that she would sit bouncing on the knee of this young student and never contemplated what the future would hold.

What Mao discovered living with the Wang family was a typical feudalistic family with modern ideas. For example, none of the daughters had their feet bound, nor did the female servants. Wang Zhengshu was not only a famous mathematics teacher in the province, he also tutored his children and others in classical Chinese, calligraphy, and medicine. He collected rare books which Mao had the opportunity to read. At the dinner table, children were expected to discuss the great Confucius classics that they had read. Even the servants were asked to recite. No one laughed at the poorly educated servant who made amusing mistakes when reading these texts, but the kindly teacher believed that a classical education was the foundation of the future of a modern China. He believed that learning could rescue the country from foreign imperialists and industrial development would make the nation stronger. He encouraged his children to study abroad.

Mao, as a student at the First Normal School, was free and easy when he spoke, never getting flustered, losing his temper, or speaking in anger. However, when it came to the feudal autocratic work style, he was not as temperate. In his views, “he made absolutely no compromise.”

Each day, as Mao walked to school, he experienced firsthand the corruption of the ruling class. He “had a deep hatred for the entire old feudal order. He despised the gentry, whose mouths were full of benevolence and righteousness, for their meanness and their falseness . . .”


Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Wang Renmei, The Wildcat of Shanghai in Photographs

The following images are stills from the films of Wang Renmei, with commentary by Richard J. Meyer author of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai.

Wang Renmei
Wang Renmei plays Black Clown, who is killed at the end of Soaring Aspirations. Her death inspires the villagers to fight to the bitter end. She is reunited with co-star Jin Yan who married her after the completion of the popular film Wild Rose.

Wang Renmei
Wang Renmei, in the film The Morning of a Metropolis, plays Xu Lan’er, who visits her brother in jail. The movie was Wang’s second big hit and led to her being cast in the early sound film Song of the Fishermen. That film became an international success.

Wang Renmei
Wang Renmei performing on stage in Sons and Daughters of Wind and Cloud. The script was written by Communist Tian Han who was hiding from the Guomindang police. Throughout her career Wang acted both on screen and in live theater.


Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai

Wang Renmei, the subject of our featured book this week, Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai, was on the fast track to become one of China’s leading film stars of the 1930s. Her career and life, however, fell prey to the changes in Chinese politics. First marginalized because of her communist leanings in the 1930s and 1940s, she returned to China after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. However, years later, persecution during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s led to her hospitalization for mental illness.

Her film work, cut short and sporadic because of political shifts, is now enjoying something of a revival. Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai includes a DVD of her film Wild Rose. The film, considered a classic of Chinese silent film is an early example of the left-wing film movement that arose in response to Japan’s aggression against China during the 1930s.

Here is a clip from the film:

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Interview with Richard J. Meyer, author of “Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai”

Wang Renmei

The following is an interview with Richard J. Meyer, author of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai. In the interview Meyer discusses Wang’s onscreen career as well as her turbulent off-screen life and his own interest in Chinese film:

Question: How did you get interested in Chinese silent films?

Richard J. Meyer: I had the opportunity to visit the Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai film archives when I was a Fulbright Scholar at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in 1996. I had studied silent films at New York university as a PhD candidate. The first Chinese silent films I screened were at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy in 1995. I realized then that they had never before been available in the West.

Q: Is that why you have produced several DVD’s of Chinese silent films?

RJM: Yes. I restored the films and commissioned musical scores to accompany them. I also recommended that the publisher of my books include DVD’s of them with each publication.

Q: Why did you write about Wang Renmei?

RJM: I had written books about famous stars of Shanghai films before, namely, Ruan Ling Yu, whose funeral procession attracted 300,000 people in 1934, and Jin Yan, the handsome hulk referred to as “the Rudolf Valentino of Shanghai.” Jin was married to Wang Renmei and the story of her life captivated me.

Q: What in particular interested you about her?

RJM: Her life reflected the turbulent period of China’s history in the twentieth century. What is more revealing is that her life was intertwined with Mao Zedong. Wang’s father was Mao’s teacher in Hunan where both grew up. The young Mao stayed in Wang’s house and often played with her when she was a small child. Later, he helped her get out of trouble during the Cultural Revolution.

Q: What DVD did you include with Wang Renmei: Wildcat of Shanghai

RJM: Wild Rose is her first starring role and her co-star is Jin Yan. Wang demonstrated her ebullience and zest for life in her performance. She charmed audiences and became famous as a result of her exuberance on the screen.

Q: What do you like especially in the film?

RJM: There is a scene in which Wang as a peasant girl is introduced to the wealthy parents of Jin Yan who had purchased modern clothes for her in Shanghai. The story is almost a Chinese pygmalion. She is seen attempting to walk in high heels and falling to the floor at the feet of the father. Later, she knocks over a tea cart and is thrown out of the mansion.

Q: How would you describe Wang Renmei as an actress?

RJM: Before she was discovered as a movie star, Wang was the leading performer for the Bright Moon Singing and Dancing Troop. Wang had a haunting voice and sang the theme song in The Song of the Fishermen which was China’s first international award winner at the Moscow Film Festival in 1934. The skills she had learned as a stage performer translated to her performance on the screen. Her enthusiasm plus her singing endeared her to countless numbers of fans throughout China.

Q: How do the films produced in Shanghai produced during the 1930′s compare with contemporary Chinese films?

RJM: The films of early Shanghai were more daring in their criticism of social conditions in Chinese society and the anti-Japanese atmosphere. Even though the government censored all films, the directors and writers were able to camouflage the message by using the melodramatic soap opera formula.

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Book Giveaway: Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai (With DVD of Wild Rose)

Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai

Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai, by Richard J. Meyer tells the extraordinary story of one of China most famous film stars, whose dramatic life mirrored the tumultuous history of modern China.

Throughout the week we will be featuring Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai as well as a DVD of Wild Rose, one of Wang Renmei’s most famous films, on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Wang Renmei: The Wildcat of Shanghai to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, November 8 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Philip Kitcher on Luchino Visconti’s Morte a Venizia

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have a couple brief excerpts from Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses Luchino Visconti’s film version of Mann’s novella, focusing particularly on the film’s ending and on the ways that the film differs from the novella and Britten’s opera. We’ve included a couple of clips from and about Visconti’s film, as well.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

“Luchino Visconti’s film Morte a Venezia ends with Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach, hair dye and makeup streaming down his face, apparently suffering cardiac arrest on the beach–from which he is carted unceremoniously away by two attendants, The slow zoom out, with the figures becoming ever smaller and more anonymous, adds an ironic touch of Visconti’s own, a homage to Mann’s manner, even though both the ungainly configuration of the body–more like a heavy sack of fertilizer than the remains of a respected visitor–and the reduction of Aschenbach to a small speck seem quite at odds with the writer’s regained dignity in the novella’s final sentence.” — Philip Kitcher

Final scene


Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Philip Kitcher on Benjamin Britten’s Opera

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have a brief excerpt from Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses the opera, Death in Venice, by Benjamin Britten, followed by a couple of videos showing key parts of the opera.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

“Most obvious is the sensuality of the music, the opulent orchestral coloring and the lushness of some important motifs (prominent examples are the “Serenissima” and “View” themes). This musical backdrop creates a context in which Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio cannot be heard as anything other than erotic. The possibility of a disciplined artistic perception of beauty is never present: from the moment he encounters Tadzio and we hear the exotic vibraphone motif that accompanies the boy, Aschenbach must be understood to be in the grip of passions he refuses to acknowledge.” — Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice


Aschenbach’s Final Aria

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Hollywood and Hitler Reviewed in The New Yorker

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerThe debate continues. Writing for The New Yorker, David Denby weighs in on the competing interpretations of Hollywood’s complicity with Nazism advanced in two new books: Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty and The Collaboration Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand.

As Denby writes, both books argue that Hollywood studios were hesitant to produce films that criticized, either explicitly or implicitly, Nazism for fear of losing the German market. However, the studios were also restricted in what kinds of movies they could make by the Hays Production Code, which at that time was led by “censor-in-chief,” Joseph Breen. Breen, who is also the subject of Thomas Doherty’s book Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration pressured the studios not to mention Nazism and follow the Code’s ambiguous guidelines to treat other countries fairly. Denby writes, “The pattern was clear: no matter how vicious Nazi conduct was, any representation of it could be deemed a violation of the code’s demand that foreign countries be treated ‘fairly.’”

Given the pressures from Breen as well as the studio heads’ desire to appear as American as possible, Louis B. Mayer, Warner Brothers and others were extremely wary of producing films that called attention to issues relating to Nazism, Judaism, or anti-Semitism. As Denby explains:

By acting as they did, the studio bosses fell into the trap that they had allowed men like … Breen to set for them. Because they were Jews, they believed, they couldn’t make anti-Nazi movies or movies about Jews, for this would be seen as special pleading or warmongering. Breen tormented them with the spectre of what anti-Semites might do as a way of stifling their response to what anti-Semitism was already doing—and would do, in Europe, with annihilating violence. It’s as if the Hollywood Jews had become responsible for anti-Semitism. Of all the filmmakers in the world, they became the last who could criticize the Nazis. Their situation was both tragic and absurd.

Doherty and Urwand’s differing interpretations center around the extent to which studio heads ignored, abided, or collaborated with Nazis. As the title of his book suggests, Urwand views the studio heads as collaborating with and supporting some of the aims of the Nazis. Doherty argues, and Denby seems to agree, that “the studios didn’t advance Nazism; they failed to oppose it.”

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Between Sunrise and Sunless — Film by Rob Stone, Author of The Cinema of Richard Linklater

In this beautiful short film, Rob Stone, author of The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run, searches for Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in Vienna on Bloomsday, 16 June 2013. As their absence reveals the city, so this pilgrimage to places they have been becomes lost in time, and an homage to three films of flânerie: Before Sunrise, Sans soleil and En la ciudad de Sylvia.

Between Sunrise and Sunless from Rob Stone on Vimeo.

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Thomas Doherty and the Debate over Hollywood and Hitler

“I’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past.”—Thomas Doherty

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and HitlerThomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 has recently been involved in a well-covered and somewhat contentious scholarly debate. As reported in The Chronicle Review, the New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere, Doherty has taken issue with some of the conclusions made by Ben Urwand in his forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. *(Thomas Doherty will also be appearing on WFMU’s Too Much Information today at 6:00 pm)

Specifically, Doherty counters Urwand’s contention that Hollywood executives collaborated with Nazi officials over the content of Hollywood films. As Doherty argues in Hollywood and Hitler, Hollywood executives, particularly in the 1930s were acutely aware of the German market and did alter films but their motivation was profits and did not rise to the level of collaboration. In the article in The Chronicle, Doherty explains, “You use [collaboration] to describe the Vichy government. Louis B. Mayer was a greedhead, but he is not the moral equivalent of Vidkun Quisling.”

While Doherty praises Urwand’s archival research, he cautions against making moral claims about the actions of historical figures without understanding the contexts surrounding their decisions. Hollywood executives were grappling with a range of moral and practical issues when confronting how to depict Nazism and how to appeal to the German market. Doherty explains:

I’m always leery of history that allows the present to feel smugly superior to the past. I would have been so much more farsighted … scrupulous … I would have seen what was on the horizon…. We filter the 30s through the vision of what the Nazis were in the Second World War.”


Friday, June 7th, 2013

“Dirtied” Star images and Acting Against Type in “Behind the Candelabra” — Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait

The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh

The following blog post is by Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, authors of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: Indie Sex, Corporate Lies, and Digital Videotape. You can also read an interview with the authors.

In our book, The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: Indie Sex, Corporate Lies and Digital Videotape, one of the issues that we argue distinguishes Soderbergh’s filmmaking career is his work as an “actor’s director.” This is certainly evident in Soderbergh’s supposed last feature film, Behind the Candelabra, with A-List stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon’s unorthodox portrayals of Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson.

As we explain in our book, Soderbergh’s films are marked by extremes between the poles of realism, modernist and (sometimes) postmodern excess. This rule of thumb applies to Behind the Candelabra, which is marked by its precise attention to historical detail in the form of the film’s re-creation of Liberace’s tastes in decorating (which he describes as “palatial kitsch”) but at the same time, relies on the audience’s foreknowledge of its stars, their heterosexuality and, thus, their playing against type.

This is certainly the case in Michael Douglas’ performance as the famously flamboyant pianist. The role is not only one of the most complex of his career, but one of the most complex characters within Soderbergh’s oeuvre. In terms of realism, Douglas concentrates on getting the most important details right to play Liberace—the voice and his mannerisms—in order for the audience to accept Douglas as the Vegas showman. Similar to other biographical portraits in Soderbergh’s body of work (Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, Benecio del Toro as Che Guevara) this involved a great deal of research on the part of actors in order that they convincingly play the real-life figures.

On the other hand, there is a modernist streak in these performances which is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s concept of theatrical “distanciation.” In Candelabra, it is impossible to separate Michael Douglas and Matt Damon from the characters they play, adding intertextual weight to the film. Douglas’ performance is particularly striking in this regard, as the film relies on the spectator’s foreknowledge of Douglas’ star persona—seen in his most famous roles as uber-capitalist Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, put-upon adulterer in Fatal Attraction and disgruntled everyman in Falling Down—to present a radically different image to the audience. His portrayal as a gay man in this film, then, directly opposes his career-long trend of playing hyper-heterosexual and volatile characters in Basic Instinct and other movies.

That he is playing a gay man is perhaps secondary to the shock of seeing Douglas’s frail, bald, and saggy body. In our book, we label the willingness of actors to transform themselves within Soderberghian films as “dirtied stardom,” such as Matt Damon’s unflattering role in The Informant!, where he is mustachioed, obese and bald, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s character’s gruesome autopsy in Contagion. “Dirtied Stars” actively go to extremes in order to destabilize or shock the viewer by playing against their star image. In Candelabra, the most striking scenes involve Douglas and Damon displaying their bodies in very different ways than audiences are expecting—not only by way of their nudity but via graphic scenes of plastic surgery, which are far more visceral in their peeling back the veneer of stardom than the experience of seeing Douglas and Damon perform homosexual acts.


Thursday, June 6th, 2013

A Richard Linklater Moment — Rob Stone

The following is a post by Rob Stone, author of The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run. You can also read an interview with Rob Stone discussing the book and Linklater’s films:

When the British-Canadian film scholar Robin Wood wrote about Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) in his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 1998), he felt compelled to preface his analysis with the admission that “here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration but love” (1998: 318). His subscription to the kind of affective or appreciative criticism advocated by André Bazin sets a challenge for academics who commonly assume that the intellect must explain away intuition and that objectivity is our prime objective. Like many academics I was a closeted film fan allowed out to play with movies like Before Sunrise following the example of Wood, who not only shared his passion but made it an essential component of his craft.

Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much. I was living in Madrid at the time and used to frequent the art house cinemas off the Plaza de España and just see whatever was on. Yet, as the film started, the feeling crept up on me that the world was changing. I’d done a lot of inter-railing around Europe so I knew the sensation of timelessness in travel and the everyday fantasies of actually connecting with someone who was going the same way as you; but Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) somehow ignored the fear of rejection and amazingly invited me to travel with them too. At first, I admit, I observed them, sometimes cringing at the conversation but mostly admiring the eloquent dialogue that culminates in some convoluted argument about time travel that Jesse uses to convince Céline to get off the train with him in Vienna. There they walk, talk, drift into a record store and try out a listening booth. And then this happens:

It’s been eighteen years since I first shared that song, that booth, that moment with Jesse and Céline and the feeling has never gone away. Indeed, the sensation has only intensified by reconnecting with them in the Paris-set sequel of Before Sunset (2004) and their (our) present-day reunion on a Greek island in ‘Before Midnight’ (2013). Lacking Wood’s courage, I’ve often tried to understand (and perhaps disguise) my love for this scene in analysis, bolstered by the fact that it even lends itself to academic enquiry by combining two of the most evocative themes in film studies: time and the gaze.


Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Interview with Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, Authors of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh

“I think that [Soderbergh's] ‘final films’ from 2009-2013 after he announced his retirement reflect one of the most prolific and creative bursts of filmmaking in recent American cinema.”—R. Colin Tait, coauthor of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh

The Cinema of Steven SoderberghThe following is an interview with Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, authors of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: Indie Sex, Corporate Lies and Digital Videotape

Question: What made you interested in writing about the topic of Steven Soderbergh?

Andrew deWaard: Like many, if not most students in film studies, we were interested in the concept of film auteurs and the personal visions of film directors. Soderbergh presented a dramatic alternative to this school of thought; he seemed to radically change his style and subject matter with every new film.

R. Colin Tait: There was also the strange coincidence that we both arrived to graduate school with a similar idea—to work on Soderbergh—and that collaborating on a project would allow us to push each other in ways that I think a single-authored piece couldn’t. There was also the matter of why Soderbergh’s contributions had largely been overshadowed within an era that he was hugely responsible for defining, which became one of our central questions when approaching the subject.

Q: How about your subtitle: what do you mean by “indie sex, corporate lies and digital videotape”?

RCT: Well, it’s a play on and an update of the title of Soderbergh’s breakout film, sex, lies and videotape. In the book, we wonder aloud how Soderbergh might define the running themes throughout his work from today’s vantage point. By indie sex we intend to evoke the “romantic” account of the indie era of American filmmaking in the early 1990s, and how Soderbergh, often thought of as a cold, aloof filmmaker, has filmed some of the most cinematic, non-traditional love scenes (Out of Sight, Solaris) in recent years. For “corporate lies” we evoke the anti-corporate stance of many of Soderbergh’s movies, where the “little guys” face off against big business (as in the case of Ocean’s 11). And finally, for digital videotape, we wanted to highlight Soderbergh’s essential role as an early adopter of digital technologies and his role in changing the aesthetic of contemporary films.

AD: “Corporate lies” can be seen to be a significant concern throughout Soderbergh’s body of work, including those he directed — environmental pollution and corporate malfeasance in Erin Brockovich, the lobbying industry in Washington in K-Street, global price-fixing in The Informant!, environmental destruction that leads to a pandemic in Contagion — as well as those he helped produce — the geopolitical ramifications of the oil industry in Syriana (Stephen Gaghan), the psychotropic dystopia of A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater), and the corporate and legal corruption featured in Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), among others

Q: What did you intend to accomplish with this book?

AD: Primarily we wanted to shed light on a then-underrated yet prolific filmmaker. When we began writing, there wasn’t a single book dedicated to Soderbergh; there are now five, attesting to his recently realized significance. Once we started writing, it became apparent that Soderbergh wouldn’t fit into traditional auteur formulations, so we sought to expand our analysis to include some of the other important factors in contemporary filmmaking, such as economics, publicity, and technology. Similar to Soderbergh’s own filmmaking practice, we attempt to introduce a new idea or concept with each chapter, rather than adhere to any single paradigm.

RCT: I think that it was important to build a contemporary model for considering how authorship has become much more complicated within the Hollywood industry. I’m certain that the model we constructed can be used to consider other directors as well. There has also been a tendency on the part of critics to dismiss figures that don’t broadcast their own significance or possess an obvious signature. We wanted to explain that Soderbergh was not only significant, but his career was emblematic of the shifts within the industry within the past 20 years or so.