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Archive for the 'Film' Category

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Iris Barry, the Askew Salon, and The Museum of Modern Art

Iris Barry

We conclude our week-long feature on Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film with an excerpt from the book.

Iris Barry had made her mark in England as a film critic for The Spectator in the 1920s. She co-founded the innovative London Film Society in 1925 and in the next year published a book, Let’s Go to the Pictures, explaining why film is an art form. Nonetheless, she struggled in New York from her arrival in 1930 until she achieved some measure of stability as the first Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. This reversal of fortune came through meetings at the Askew salon, where she was introduced to the young director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Iris Barry’s connection with Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr came through the Askews. Kirk Askew was a Harvard graduate who worked for the New York office of Durlacher Brothers, a major European art dealership. His wife Constance was much admired as a hostess and became Iris’ life-long friend. The Askew salon comprised a petrie dish of modernism, in which movers and doers in all the arts met to exchange ideas. In his Memoir of an Art Gallery, art dealer Julien Levy recalls that “the best and most culturally fertile salon I was to know in the thirties grew from little Sunday gatherings at Kirk and Constance Askew’s, where many of my Harvard and New York friends gathered. Kirk’s system of invisible manipulation kept the evening both sparkling and under control [and] combined the hidden rigidity of as carefully combed a guest list as any straight and proper social arbiter might arrange, with the frothy addition of the uninhibited of Upper Bohemia, plus, one at a time, to avoid jealousy and sulks, a single real lion. Two were asked together only if they expressed a desire to meet or already knew and liked each other and admired each other’s work. There developed and was maintained a colorful variety of conversations, many fruitful contacts, some light flirting, some sex, and a little matchmaking, with an occasional feud for spice. A small group of regulars came every week and provided the dependably witty core of the parties, so that on rainy or otherwise off nights there still would be no risk of boredom….”

Despite the fact that many members of the Askew salon were homosexual, the rules of conduct of the period discouraged overt activity. As Steven Watson, author of Strange Bedfellows, a study of the sexuality of modernist culture put it, “once a man made a pass at another man, the butler brought him his coat. The rule was, we do not camp in public.”

A second salon Iris sometimes attended, hosted by Muriel Draper, took on a more political tone and had rules of conduct more permissive than the Askews. Muriel Draper had entertained artists in a well-known London salon between 1911 and 1915, and since her return to New York carried on a successful interior design business among the well-to-do. Her leftist leanings later got her into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite her association with left-wing organizations in the 1930s, however, she was apparently not a Communist Party member. Esther Murphy, Paul and Jane Bowles and others in the Draper salon flirted with Communism, but political or, for that matter, sexual orientation made no difference at the Drapers. Virgil Thomson, a frequenter of both salons, referred to the group as “the Little People”, since many there, like Thomson himself, were of short stature. Of the two salons, even the Bowleses preferred the Askew’s. Paul Bowles’ biographer, Gena Dagel Caponi, noted that “despite living separately, Jane and Paul were very much a couple when they socialized. They regularly attended gatherings at the [Askews], who held what Paul called ‘the only regular salon in New York worthy of the name.’ There Paul played the piano and sang his own songs, while Jane visited, sitting first on one man’s lap and then in another’s. omposers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, and Marc Blitzstein could be counted on to be there, as could Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine and their dancers. Several connected with the Museum of Modern Art attended….Poet E.E. Cummings and John Houseman were often there as well. As Europe headed towards war, artists immigrated to New York and to the Askew salon. Among them were surrealists – Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dali — who dominated the intellectual tone of the Askew salon from 1940 on; Paul felt at home with them, but Jane did not.”

At the Askews Iris sized up Alfred Barr as “a kindred soul…a youngish Wellesley College art professor who was a simple, direct Harvard aesthete whose wanderings about the museums of Europe and the salons of Paris had led him to envision the Museum of Modern Art. If he was a visionary, he was so in the best sense of being an intensely practical one.” Possessed of influential friends, Barr “could think on his feet with the best of them and was, to boot, an elegant parlor orator, attributes which beautifully accompanied his deep and abiding sincerity.”

Iris found that she and Barr “entertained a similar outlook on the motion picture as falling within the Museum’s proper scope of activity.” She promoted herself to Barr as the one to head a film component of the Museum. “No time was lost in pointing out to him that the only noteworthy attempt to make the motion picture known as a living art rather than ephemeral entertainment had come from the Film Society in London,” which had been handicapped “by the lack of any central repository from which important films of the past could be booked at will. The inference was plain; the Museum, by its avowed purpose and very nature as an institution for the study of contemporary art, should logically become that central repository.

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Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Griffith, Pickford Rockefeller, and Bunuel: The Life and Relationships of Iris Barry in Photos

The following photos and captions, provided by Robert Sitton, author Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, depict not only Iris Barry but the figures who played an important role in her life and career. From Wyndham Lewis and D. W. Griffith to Nelson Rockefeller and Luis Bunuel, Barry’s life and work as film curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) put her in contact with some of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century:

Iris Barry
Portrait of Iris Barry by Sasha — As a young writer, Iris Barry attracted the attention of Ezra Pound, who read some of her work in Poetry magazine. This resulted in an historic correspondence in which Pound set down many of his ideas about literature

Iris Barry
Wyndham Lewis — Pound’s fellow Vorticist, the novelist and painter became Iris’s lifelong love and the father of her children.

Iris Barry
Pickfair guests — Left to right: Frances Goldwyn, John Abbott, Samuel Goldwyn, Mary Pickford, Jesse Lasky, Harold Lloyd, and Iris Barry on the evening in 1935 when Iris convinced the Hollywood moguls to donate their films to the Museum of Modern Art.

Iris Barry
Iris Barry and John Abbott — Examining film from their 1936 trip to European archives.

Iris Barry
Alfred Barr — the founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art, who hired Iris as the Museum’s first Curator of Film.

Iris Barry
D.W. Griffith — the American film director, subject of Iris’s major catalog and retrospective in 1940, and the source of some of Iris’s troubles at MoMA.

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Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Iris Barry at the Movies

As part of our week-long feature Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, we asked the book’s author to discuss A Color Box (dir. Len Lye) and The Last Laugh (dir. F. W. Murnau) some of the key films in Iris Barry’s career as a film curator:

The Last Laugh, directed by F. W. Murnau

Iris Barry appreciated that Emile Jannings was more of an actor than a movie star. As she once put it, “At no time does he play Emile Jannings.” She also viewed cinema as intrinsically realistic, in that the still photographs of which it is composed convey a correspondence with the subject filmed, however fantastic it might be. She nevertheless felt that movies were a form of collective reverie, and urged her audiences to “Ask for better dreams.”

In Murnau’s The Last Laugh she found one: a dream so human as to engage the Freudian principle that sanity is essentially a matter of balancing “love and work.” As a mighty hotel doorman reduced to the status of washroom attendant, Jannings conveys physically and wordlessly the effects of the loss of work on a person. In eleven minutes we watch him become aware of his fate, deny it, struggle against it, and finally succumb. Throughout, the camera participates in the action, and even brings in the hotel itself as a kind of character.

A Colour Box, directed by Len Lye:

In 1936 Iris and her husband, John Abbott traveled to Europe to find films for their nascent Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art. They visited archives in England, France, Sweden, Poland, and the Soviet Union, seeking to make exchanges facilitated by governmental approval that would exempt films from export duties and transport them as cheaply as possible. They already had the cooperation of American companies, due to their successful appearance at Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s house in Hollywood in 1935.

The prospect of exchanging films with an American archive appealed to the Europeans and their participation was forthcoming, resulting in a study collection that would later become iconic: Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Murnau’s Last Laugh, and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin among them. From England Barry and Abbott picked up Len Lye’s remarkable A Colour Box, a largely hand-made film skillfully coordinating abstract images with a Latin beat. It became one of the works animators worldwide revere as historically essential, as well as an example of how film can be engaging even when it does not tell a story.

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Interview with Robert Sitton, author of Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

The following is an interview with Robert Sitton, author of Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film:

Question: Who was Iris Barry?

Robert Sitton: Iris Barry (1895-1969) was the self-educated daughter of a rural British brass founder and a fortune-teller from the Isle of Man. After being kicked out of convent school, she began writing poetry and in 1916 attracted the attention of Ezra Pound, whose correspondence with her contains much of his thinking about literature. Pound introduced her to the Vorticist painter and novelist, Wyndham Lewis, with whom she had two children in 1919 and 1920. Lewis took film seriously, at a time when it was viewed at best as an amusement. Iris immersed herself in the movies and was hired to write film criticism for the Spectator, which under the proprietorship of St. Loe Strachey, was read by many people influential in London culture. With a group of these leaders in 1925 Iris founded the London Film Society, which showed notable films in a context in which they could be discussed and understood—often with the filmmaker present. This provided a model for the film component of the Museum of Modern Art, which Iris co-founded with her husband, John Abbott, in 1935. Barry led MoMA’s film department until 1950.

Q: What is her significance to the art of film?

A: Iris is the architect of the infrastructure of film as an art form, including its needs for preservation, presentation, study and appreciation. She is notable among early film theorists for identifying the differences between film and the other arts, an argument she outlined in her 1926 book, Let’s Go to the Pictures. Others tried to justify film an art by pointing out its similarities to established art forms. She also set the example for establishing film as a cultural resource, by founding the first major museum film program at MoMA, teaching one of the first courses in film with artists present at Columbia University, distributing films to college and university campuses along with study materials, and guaranteeing the preservation of the art form by founding the International Federation of Film Archives in 1938. She served as FIAF’s Life President. Subsequently, the New York Film Festival was dedicated to her in 1962 and in 1967 the American Film Institute was founded on principles exemplified by Barry’s career. Much of what we take for granted about film culture today can be traced back to her.

Q: Given the richness, importance, not to mention drama of Iris Barry’s life, it’s surprising there’s not been a biography of her. What explains the lack of scholarly or biographical attention to her?

A: Iris Barry lived her life in three countries, first in England, then in America, and finally in France. It took travel to all three to find documents of her personal and professional life, distributed among a bewildering variety of sources, from manuscript archives to personal collections.

Iris never returned to live in any of the countries in which she once resided. She did not look back. Nor did she leave an autobiography or any systematic notes. Some of the best sources we have about her came from letters she wrote to people she knew, either charmingly soliciting their assistance, recounting her impressions of people and places, or confiding in them. There are few examples of the latter, since she firmly kept up appearances as a self-contained professional.

Iris’s persona as an educated, articulate English intellectual presents another biographical dilemma. This was the persona she adopted in her professional life, one that led her to describe her aloof moments as those of a “Queen” in the “deep-freeze.” Virtually no one who knew her knew about her past or that she was a self-taught convent dropout. No friend or colleague at MoMA was aware of her humble beginnings or her adventures in Bloomsbury, and even those who helped her did not know they were also assisting two children she had borne with Wyndham Lewis. These things were not mentioned in polite society at the time, and on that custom hangs a feminist lesson. The one person she seemed willing to confide in was the novelist, Edmund Schiddel.

The things Iris chose to keep secret may also have included the fact that she had worked for the government as a spy. When she went abroad in 1936 looking for films for MoMA, the State Department asked her to keep an eye on how Germany was using films in its mobilization effort. Later, after the U.S. entry into the war, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services in support of a propaganda effort to preserve American hegemony in Latin America and facilitated the wartime documentary series, Why We Fight.

All this would seem to be to her credit, except that she found almost any political involvement problematical. Despite her wartime service and her election in 1949 as a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, she was interrogated as a suspected Communist by American authorities in Marseilles in the 1950s.

Finally, there is the weight of years since her abrupt departure from New York in 1950. Most of her friends long ago died, and there have been only occasional attempts to reassess her career by scholars. One article in the 1980s was fittingly entitled, “New Light on Iris Barry.” It took me almost thirty years to bring her life into focus, and none of the time was wasted.

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Monday, May 12th, 2014

Book Giveaway!: Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, Robert Sitton

This week our featured book is Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, by Robert Sitton. In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Lady in the Dark to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, May 16 at 3:00 pm.

Here’s what Peter Bogdanovich has to say about the book:

“Robert Sitton’s remarkably well researched and evocatively written biography of Iris Barry’s hitherto largely unknown position at the forefront of film appreciation is long overdue and most welcome. She led a fascinating private and public life and had an extremely complicated female odyssey in the world of her times.”

For more on the book, you can also listen to Robert Sitton’s discussion of Iris Barry on the Leonard Lopate Show:

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Camcorders, Democracy, Authenticity — from Video Revolutions

Michael Newman, Video Revolutions

In Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, Michael Z. Newman examines the ways in which video has been both valued and denigrated. While some associated it with the low standards of television and contributing to to the decline of the technical and artistic achievements of film, others prized it for its authenticity, its ability to capture the “real,” and its democratization of media:

In the following excerpt from the section “Camcorders, Democracy, and Authenticity,” Newman explains some of these aspects of video:

“The form of video associated with camcorders and citizen media produc­tion was closely tied to ideas about video’s capabilities to capture and document reality in ways that existing media systems had not accomplished.”—Michael Newman

One moment in which this association [with the real] was reasserted occurred on television in the fall of 1980. The FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s had caught state and federal legislators accepting bribes from agents including one pretending to be a wealthy Middle Eastern immi­grant seeking asylum in the United States. Secretly videotaped surveillance footage of acts of political corruption in a hotel room, where elected officials met the agents, proved to be sensational and irrefutable evidence in court, leading toward convictions. Soon after the sting was first made public, these events were parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch spoof­ing The Beverly Hillbillies, “The Bel-Airabs,” reinforcing the linkage between video recording and the real, and videotape’s familiarity as a medium of capturing and documenting actu­ality. After a well-publicized Supreme Court decision allow­ing it, the evidentiary videotape was broadcast on television evening news programs on October 14, 1980, an event marked in popular criticism as a historic occasion for both television and video. The Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales noted the “video vérité” look of the images, and essentially predicted what would later be called reality TV, as surveillance and other forms of taped footage were likely to find their way onto the airwaves in the near future as both news and entertainment. Shales imagined that this would “change the way we look at the tube—and the way it looks at us.” Video cameras had been available to consumers for more than a decade by the time of the Abscam case, but were not widely adopted in comparison to video recorders until the 1980s….

Camcorders also quickly became a way for amateur media products to find their way into professional broadcasts and cable news programs, much as Shales predicted. Some of this video was in the mode of home movies, but the availability of less expensive and easy-to-use new video gear expanded the practice of amateur media production of many varieties. Ama­teur videos were made more famous by the ABC network’s America’s Funniest Home Videos (AFHV), a long-running series based on user-submitted clips, which began as a 1989 special and continued to air more than two decades hence into the 2010s. AFHV and other audience-submission programs such as I Witness Video motivated and encouraged viewers to make and send in a certain kind of videotape, and in the later 1980s and 1990s, shooting camcorder footage was seen as a way for ordinary people to “get on TV” and participate in mass media discourse that had hitherto been closed off to them, claiming a place in the national media conversation…..

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Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Images from the Video Revolution

In Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, Michael Z. Newman examines how video has been seen in both a utopian and a negative light in terms of its cultural impact.

Newman also includes a variety of images that detail how video was depicted in popular culture and advertising as something that would revolutionize the way we consumed culture. Below are some example and for more images, you can also visit the book’s Pinterest page:

Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
Sony’s campaign sold the Betamax video recorder as a device for time-shifting programs taped off the air. By placing the product boldly in the foreground with the TV set in the background, Sony emphasized video’s value as a technology improving on television.

Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
Illustration by Doris Ettlinger for the article, “For Many, TV Tape Means Watching More—and Loving It,” New York Times, August 27, 1977, using the most popular movie of the day to represent the appeals of home video.

Michael Z. Newman, Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium
Newsweek‘s cover on August 6, 1984, announced The Video Revolution, picturing a VCR as a movie theater.

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Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Live Video, Then and Now — Michael Z. Newman

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, by Michael Z. Newman

The following post is by Michael Z. Newman, author of Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium:

“The non-linearity of videotape, digital recording, and services like Netflix and its rivals also speak to a long-standing fantasy, of media that satisfy personal desires for unconstrained agency.”—Michael Newman

Today there are two contrary trends in media temporality, which are also two competing visions for the future of entertainment. On one hand is the persistence of broadcast television, the most popular and profitable electronic media format ever. Many people and corporations would love for this kind of TV to go on unchanged forever. On the other hand is what Netflix calls non-linear TV, which follows no schedule. Think thirteen House of Cards episodes dropping all at once. The techies who speak in phrases like “disruptive innovation” are betting their venture capital that non-linear is going to be a live TV killer.

Since I have no time machine, I shouldn’t say which future is around the corner. But having looked at the history leading up to this moment in Video Revolutions, I do have some thoughts on how the past might help us to make sense of the present, and to recognize that the temporalities of both options have historically been invested with cultural value. Since ideas about technology tend to be much slower to change than technologies themselves, it seems like a good bet that the value of mediated liveness will endure.

When television was new, it was often distinguished by its capability for live broadcasting gathering audiences together, despite their physical separation, in communal experiences of performances and events of historical import. TV was to transport you from your comfortable chair at home to the stage or the ballpark, from your town to midtown Manhattan. This capability for immediacy and simultaneity made TV into the object of fantasies of improved communication. It also distinguished television from the most dominant mass medium of the first half of the twentieth century: the movies.

Liveness was an advantage broadcasting boasted over filmed news and entertainment, an advantage the commercial American networks used in setting the terms of their control of the airwaves under the sanction of the state. This might seem hard to believe today, but in the 1940s and 50s, movies were often held to be contemptible mass media trash, while the new medium of television promised to rise above them by offering a distinguished alternative.

This idealization of television and its close identification with liveness changed as TV’s cultural status declined and cinema’s improved. In part this was a function of TV’s adoption of recorded rather than live formats, though live production has never gone away. It was also a function of many other developments, including television’s quiz show scandals and more generally its reputation for fraudulence, and its close association with feminized and lower class audiences. When television’s reputation was that of a “vast wasteland,” sometimes the liveness of its early years, now considered a “Golden Age,” offered a contrast to the more culturally degraded kinds of programming that dominated in the 1960s and after.

In the early days of TV, video was a synonym for television, but the introduction of videotape in the 1950s began to change that. When video became a name for new forms and technologies, including video art and videocassettes for consumers, it was typically understood as a way of improving on television and ameliorating the problems associated with it, such as negative social effects and wasted cultural opportunity. This was often presented to the public as a solution to the problem of television’s control by the commercial networks who program a broadcast schedule of shows appealing most broadly, to satisfy sponsors and avoid trouble with them or the federal regulator. Video recording for the home, for instance, was presented as the liberation of ordinary viewers from the hegemony of the network programmer. Advertisements encouraged TV viewers: “make your own schedule” and “watch whatever whenever.” These were slogans for Sony’s Betamax in the mid-1970s. This notorious commercial for TiVo, which CBS refused to air a generation later (in 2000), makes the exact same appeal. You throw the network programmer out of the window and take his place as the one in control of your own viewing.

(more…)

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Book Giveaway! “Video Revoluations: On the History of a Medium” by Michael Z. Newman

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, Michael Z. Newman

This week our featured book is Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, by Michael Z. Newman. In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Video Revolutions to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 25 at 3:00 pm.

In Video Revolutions, Michael Z. Newman casts video as a medium of shifting value and legitimacy in relation to other media and technologies, particularly film and television. Video has been imagined as more or less authentic or artistic than movies or television, as more or less democratic and participatory, as more or less capable of capturing the real. Techno-utopian rhetoric has repeatedly represented video as a revolutionary medium, promising to solve the problems of the past and the present—often the very problems associated with television and the society shaped by it—and to deliver a better future.

For more on the book, read the book’s preface.

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The RV in Popular Culture: From Lucy to Walter White

In Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell also explores the depiction of the RV in the movies. Up until the 1960s, Twitchell argues, the RV was “an object of much interest and even yearning”. However, as “the epynomic Winnebago started to be mass-produced, the allure of escape grew double-edged” and “by the 1970s the RV had become a metaphor of middle-class uncouthness and was well on its way to becoming a symbol of wastefulness.”

A movie reflecting the more hopeful side of the RV is The Long, Long Trailer (1953), starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The trailer in the movie gleams and the film is “dedicated to a new phenomenon: the ability to move your house around the country whenever, wherever you want:

As attitudes toward the RV shift, a new kind of genre emerges, which features a middle-aged or older man “learning about things he may have missed earlier in life….The middle-aged American male is off on an adventure, to be sure, and he’s using this kind of transport because he’s a doofus.” Examples from this genre include About Schmidt (2002), in which Jack Nicholson plays “a sad sack, a gray man, and the RV is both a palliative and an escape.”

A more recent entry into the RV film is the aptly titled RV: The Movie (2006), starring Robin Williams. The movie according to Twitchell includes all the cliches of the contemporary RV film: “the picaro‘s frustration with his job, the long-suffering family, the problems with above-ground sewage, the deep allure of the gypsy life, the road hogging … and even a scene lifted from The Long, Long Trailer with the motorhome suspended on a precipice in the Rockies.”

The film that Twitchell cites as the most sophisticated of the RV genre is Lost in America (1985), starring Albert Brooks as a disgruntled adman, who “takes off to find himself in America….It’s Desi and Lucy all over again, with Mr. Brooks playing the Lucy part. This film abruptly ends in medias res because there is really no ending this kind of trip. It just goes on and on.”

Finally, while it is not quite in the same genre, Breaking Bad has featured perhaps the most notorious and famous Winnebago in recent years. Here is Bryan Cranston and, show creator, Vince Gilligan discussing the RV used to cook meth:

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.

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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 . . .”

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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.

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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: