Across four and a half decades

July 9, 2012

I just watched the Blu-ray of Across the Universe, the musical featuring the troubles of the Vietnam-war era youth to the music of the Beatles. It struck me as a well-made movie and yet far removed from the era it depicted. Lucidity and clear thinking were alien to American youth of the time, and nothing shows it more than the cant that filled their speech. “Hey man, that’s a heavy trip man, blah, blah, blah.” Watch Woodstock and pay attention to the interviews. Plus there was a generational resentment at the time, where the previous generation was accused of hypocrisy and phony values that had landed the sixties generation in a mess that demanded a total break with the past. In its justification we can admit the the period of the movie was before the wave of fuzzy-headedness peaked around 1970, but still the success of The Graduate with its detestation of the Mrs. Robinson generation shows that the the generational resentment was already cresting in the movie’s period. So with its directness and simplicity Across the Universe  felt wrong. It was made with the sensibilities of another time.  The leaders of the campus radicalism (and this is something the movie seems to get right whether by design or accident) were pre-Beatles, pre-hippie people from a time when articulated theory still mattered, and by the period of the movie in graduate school. I remember when I started graduate study that the manager of the campus bookstore told me that book sales crashed with my generation. I was about a year ahead of my cohort, and the phenomenon had been around for about a year, so it was the generation graduating from college in 1972 and high school in 1968 who were the last to show an interest in ideas.

As it happens, I had just finished Richard Wolin’s The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Once again I am impressed by the great divide between the American scene in 1968 and the intellectual ridden French events of May and following on. People in America were reading Marcuse, which seems the closest analogue, but the French nonsense did not take effect here until much later, and by then nobody who was interested in anything with relevancy paid it any heed. By then it was just a game for useless professors and their graduate students (who were mainly trying to figure how with get though life with enough income to buy fancy wines, but without have to work a real job).  While the French students obscessed with how to achieve solidarity with the workers and thus become authentic, their American contemporaries, to the extent that they had adopted the sixties ethos, wanted to distance themselves as far from Joe Sixpack as possible. (See, e.g. Joe.)

Across the Universe reflects that divide as its awareness reaches no further than Liverpool, and it only crosses the Atlantic because it is a musical based on Beatles music. Vietnam is an unpopulated cartoonish montage of previous Vietnam war movie clichés. The real universe of the movie is that of media imagery and movie quotations. It is a celebration of pop-media memories of the sixties.

Icons of Nature

June 5, 2012

I took another vacation through the National Parks. Arches was not intended to be on the itinerary, but I got to Utah early and fit it in. I was there in the late afternoon and decided to go all the way to Delicate Arch instead of using the distant viewpoint.

When I reached it I found the photographers already starting to gather. Apparently, if you call yourself a photographer there are now some scenes that are mandatory, one of which is a sunset photograph of Delicate Arch. As soon as some motorcycle clowns got out of the way, I took some pictures and cleared out, but on my way back down I got to observe something more interesting. A steady succession of people was coming up the steep path, speaking French, German, Italian, Spanish, various Slavic languages, Japanese and Chinese. They were all on their way to experience Delicate Arch at sunset. Many were hauling photographic equipment such as tripods. The Japanese instead of tripods had big telephoto lenses. Not they it would do them any good. On the typical digital camera 50mm is about the limit of what you want on a lens. If you go much beyond that you can’t get the whole arch in the frame.

But besides the photographers there were many others on what appeared to be a nature pilgrimage. Old people were heaving they way up the slick rock with their canes, giving each other boosts. They were determined not to miss this experience.

So evidently there are now internationally recognized nature icons that people will cross the world to experience. In spite of the masses of Germans at the Grand Canyon, you don’t get the same sense there, as the Canyon is so big, and people can experience it from many locations.

Delicate Arch, on the other hand, is a very locally restricted experience. First one must go up the steep trail, then on a narrow ledge around a rock formation that blocks the view of the arch from below. Then there is a small area from which to view the Arch, and where everyone was trying to stake out a position for the sunset experience.

The existence of global nature icons presupposes a global cultural media that publicizes and canonizes, as it were, these locations. This suggests that an interesting project would be to catalogue these locations and come up with the criteria that account for their selection. These then are a category in a larger group of objects: painting that the whole world recognizes, movie scenes that everyone has seen at least stills of, and so on. Notice that we don’t list novels everyone has read. This is not just because many people don’t read much, but because the novel is extended in time as the Grand Canyon is extended in space and does not reduce to a single scene or image. The closest we get is poetry where a single line or couplet can contain a concentrated impact or can stand for the whole poem.

But notice the cinema is different. It is extended in time like a novel, but still what everyone recognizes are certain specific shots. In this way we see that movies consist of moments in a way that verbal narrative does not.

Korea takes the lead

June 5, 2012

Lately I have been watching a lot of Korean TV dramas. For some reasons it would be interesting to understand better, Korea has been moving up as a leader and provider of pop culture. Certainly the technical reasons are obvious. Korean dramas are made with style while preserving a contemporary edginess. There are good production values with the ability to provide sets, locations, good photography skilled script writers–enough to turn out the video at a rate the exceeds the ability of any one viewer to keep up with it. In short it is rather like the situation that prevailed in the Holywood studies during their so-called Golden Age. Why this happened in Korea with so much of the rest of the world still grinding out cheap trash it to me the most interesting question.

Besides this, one can observe in these dramas a sort of convergence of world culture with at lot of Euro-American cultural values now taken as common places. At the same time there seems to be an emerging Asian style that suggests a self-confidence and self-direction rather than imitation of foreign popular forms. Along side of this convergence there is still a lot of Koreanness to these dramas, which adds greatly to their interest to someone like me who is drawn to understanding the dynamics of different cultures. Dramas of this sort rely on a lot of clichés and caricatures, to set up the situations. This might seem a shortcoming to the more sophisticated members of the home audience, but is precisely what is fascinating to the outside viewer, because they are things that would not work to motivate and move things along in a foreign drama, but show the unique aspects of Korean attitudes. 

There seems also to be present in Korean drama some of the same antagonism toward traditional culture and values that the European and American media have long exhibited. There are frequent efforts to insert homosexual themes and other taboos, to condition people to their acceptance. This shows the hand of a certain self-regarding elite in effective control of Korean organs of popular culture. 

There also seems to be a preoccupation with identity. Drama after drama involves some switched at birth scenario where eventually DNA testing comes into play to resolve people’s true identity. But then, if circumstances turned their lives upside down until then, how real its this “natural” identity that is finally revealed? Similarly, class differences are constantly played off: the arrogant, corrupt, spoiled families of the corporate elite, vs. the downtrodden, but also vice-ridden (drunks and gambling addicts) poor who never get a fair chance at escaping their situations. Yet, as vile as the rich are portrayed to be, there is always a sense that that is what everyone wants to be. 

Religions are taken in rotation. Buddhist, animist, Protestant and Roman Catholic identities seems to be assigned by quota. Religion is seldom a determining factor in behavior, however, and often comes across as a bit silly. The drama consensus is that it is not really important. So class and family membership especially as it relates to wealth and power are important to identity, but not religion. 

Returning to the question of Why Korea now? it appears that the Koreans have some idea of a dualism in their identity. They are still an ethnic nation-state yet the Korean diaspora has also made them a world-people with a constant coming and going from abroad. Unlike a third-world country, the homeland side of this dualism is strong enough to maintain this polarity. Korea draws people back not just as a place for nostalgia, but as a center that is powerful, dynamic and with prospects to offer. It appears that this dynamic has affected the production of popular culture. And now it also affects its export, as Korean drama has become popular world-wide. 

Margot at the Wedding

June 23, 2011

I watched Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding yesterday. It belongs is the same general class as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe as an unflinching look at the mode of life of our cultured betters. It’s about the sort of people that writers and directors of “serious” films would be intimately acquainted with.

Empty time

May 4, 2011

It has been nearly a year since I posted anything, and looking back I can think of few films I have seen for the first time that stand out. The main one is Lars von Trier’s  Antichrist. Certainly it is a serious film, and made with talent, but at the same time rather misguided. But that seems to be the best that can be said of the current cinema, whose directors have now moved so far out of a framework of values that the only way they avoid seeming contrived is to seek psychological shock. In the meantime third world cinema seems more powerful because it is still made inside frameworks of value. This frameworks and the works that reside in them still get respected because everyone is supposed to respect all such non-Western frameworks.

I just came back from a trip in which I drove 5500 miles, crossing South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. I visited the Badlands National Park, Devil’s Tower Monument, Bryce Canyon, Zion, the Pacific coast, Sequoia National park and Yosemite. I took hundreds of pictures, and also of the thousands of miles of open spaces in between. In close up there is nothing much to distinguish most of these places from each other or from the “boring” seemingly endless places in between. What makes them spectacular is to seen them in panorama. To photograph this I had to combine multiple frames, sometimes as many as twenty, in Photoshop.

Of course right away we can understand something of cinema which has no problem in combining and giving us a panoramic view, whether literally, or in some way analogous to that at it covers some subject. I want on this trip conscious of the problem before me of trying to apprehend the immensity of what I would experience in some that that could be apprehended. Part of the idea of taking all those pictures was to see if some would turn out to be such captures and learn why. I still have to review them to see if there was any success.


May 11, 2010

Got through the last of my stack of Godard movies.  This one was Tout va bien. This one was unusually straightforward.  I suppose Godard avoided highjinks that would taken as a sort of  lèse majesté to the divine cause of the left. Doesn’t hold a candle to Getting Straight.

Juliet of the Spirits

February 22, 2010

Finally watched Juliet of the Spirits after hearing about it for forty years and wanting to see it. I could never bear to pay Criterion’s price for the DVD, but finally got it cheaper. I must say that it is not nearly as confusing and difficult as I had always heard. Supposedly the line between fact and fantasy was indistinguishable, and this was some sort of philosophical point Fellini was making. The line seemed clear to me. It strikes me that Fellini was a man with a lot of cinematic talent, but somewhat deficient in the sense of what to use that talent for. Yesterday I watched Goodbye, Dragon In (Bu san) by Tsai Ming-liang, 2004. Now there is a film that is hard to get into. Oddly enough, I watched it right after Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, where Godard sometimes does the same thing, of holding on a shot with nothing happening in it. I liked Goodbye, Dragon Inn a lot more. And about that, one little comment. People complain that it is too static, and that the shots are held way to long. Well, not as long as I have looked at still pictures, that were about as interesting, and both Godard and Tsai Ming-liang seem to want to shows us stuff. This is what home video is good for. You can’t watch films like these with other people, unless you know a different kind of people than I do.  (And I have watched Last Year At Marienbad four times.)