Tag Archives: Film

Highlights from Berlinale 2017

It had been a long time – too long, in fact – since I had been able to go to the Berlinale film festival. This was the year we finally corrected that. The joy of the Berlinale is what would seem to make the event frustrating: the hunt for tickets and the duds you see are as much a part of the fun as the surprise discoveries. The duds can themselves be the most memorable part: I still get a laugh when I recall one unfortunate case done in blindingly overexposed sepia.

While a bit of Mystery Science Theater quality has to be, the point of going is to take in films one would never otherwise have encountered. This year, for instance, we saw another film by Naoko Ogigami, whom we first discovered at the Berlinale in 2008, and whose other works we have followed, even though they can be hard to get in Europe and America.

The consensus in the German press this year was that Berlinale 2017 was rather ho-hum. Monday morning I listened to a discussion on Westdeutscher Rundfunk that essentially concluded that the festival’s organization needs some fresh blood. This conclusion seems mostly based on the competition category, and I’m of the school that would just as soon wait on those films. The other categories hold more promise for delivering some insight onto the world we live in.

We took in seven films and a series of shorts over the two weekends we spent in Berlin this month. A few of the highlights:

Honeygiver Among the Dogs: a Buddhist themed film from Bhutan following a detective tasked with investigating the apparent murder of an abbess. The prime suspect is a young woman assumed to be the embodiment of some sort of demon. The film borrows and reworks elements of the noir tradition, as the detective comes to realize that he has unwittingly become an actor in a contest between the spiritual community and those plotting to take the land from the monastery and exploit it for mineral resources. The film was beautifully shot, and I was glad not only that I saw it, but that I saw it on the big screen.

Centaur: We left Honeygiver Among the Dogs only to get back in line for this second screening. The protagonist in this film from Kyrgyzstan steals the occasional thoroughbred out of an affinity for horses. He identifies with an origin myth of his people as nomadic riders, and as such cannot stand to see the abuse of the animals in modernity. His affinity is his tragic downfall. This film, too, has some remarkable shots of the countryside, and while I have an intellectual and political commitment both to the representation of landscape and non-human animals, I confess to having found the main character’s motivation a little forced.

The second weekend we had the chance to take in a couple of films from the NATIVe category, which this year focused on the peoples living in the Arctic circle. Sumé – The Sound of a Revolution was a first-rate documentary on the band Sumé, which made waves in Greenland and Denmark for songs with anti-colonial themes at a time when Denmark exerted tighter control over Greenland. The cover of their first album shows a native Greenlander smiling over the corpse of a Norseman shot full of arrows. The history of the band opens up some of the complicated dimensions of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland. For instance, the band formed when its Greenlandic members were studying in Denmark, they were produced by a Danish label and they performed for Danish audiences before touring Greenland. The story of the band also invites reflections on art and politics, as the two members portraited had different feelings on just how political the enterprise should be.

The Tundra Book was our second film in the NATIVe category. The title and division into “chapters” stake an interesting claim to Kipling’s colonial work, and the kind of “soft” colonization by Russian society threatens the dissolution of the community of reindeer herders. The movement of the reindeer herds made this film particularly remarkable from a visual standpoint.

City of the Sun was an understated documentary depicting Tschiaturas, a former Soviet mining town in the Georgian Caucasus on economic margin. We follow the miners into their workplace where night and day are indistinguishable, and observe as one of the characters demolishes a concrete hulk with a sledgehammer in order to remove the frame for scrap metal. The film had a number of aerial shots of the town and its industrial remains couched in a heavily forested valley. I wonder, though, if this kind of photography isn’t quickly on the way to becoming cliché as filming from drones becomes easier and far more common.

Naoko Ogigami’s film Close Knit was a big reason why we returned to Berlin for a second week of the Berlinale. The film was about a girl on the cusp of pubescence who leaves her unstable household and lives for a time with her uncle, who is in a committed relationship with a transwoman. The fact that trans issues have been very much in the spotlight – and have been featured in series such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black – made me wonder if this film could be pulled off convincingly. But the film linked the story of its trans character to larger reflections on family and bodily changes in a way that didn’t seem as if something topical was simply being shoehorned.

And finally there was the dud. In fairness to the film the topic was one that was perfectly fair game for cinema, but that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. We ended up in the theater anyway because I was in line for tickets, studying the board for what was available, and slipped into a Kaufrausch. About five minutes into the film I remembered that I had made a mental note NOT to buy tickets for this movie. Its themes notwithstanding, the film was freighted with a heavy-handed symbolism I found exasperating. I won’t we name and shame, but I will say it would not have been a complete film festival experience if we had not seen one film of that kind!

 

The Salton Sea: The Pleasures of Ecocatastrophe

I was recently alerted to the existence of the 2006 documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, now available on YouTube. The film is a curious short history of the Salton Sea, essentially a century old environmental accident. The area was supposed to become a major resort in the middle of the twentieth century, but the film tells how flooding and the vicissitudes of speculative capital ended up killing those schemes, so that today the Salton Sea is a landscape of spectacular devastation.

John Waters narrates the film, and given the landscape of the sea and the people whom we meet, it’s not hard to imagine what drew him to the film. The documentary is done in a screwball style, but its humor does not trivialize the environmental dilemma that the sea poses nor the economic bind that the characters living there find themselves in. What it points to instead is a way to love a blighted place. The lake is fascinating, both in the film and in real life, as the site of the detritus of the sort of grandiose visions of American capital that at least appear to be more intact on the coast.

On a personal note, I’ve always had something of a fascination for the Salton Sea. I grew up in San Diego, and I had found out that the lake existed in a unit on the geography of the region when I was in third grade. As it happened, the family of a friend of mine had a cabin in Salton Sea Beach, one of the resort towns built on the shore during the boom years. Having read about the lake in school, I was excited to pay it a visit. I had not expected the sight that actually greeted me. To get to the shore, we walked first through a line of trees, whereupon we crossed a field filled with trash, including a half buried, rusting automobile. The ground was white, and with each step my foot sank in inch or so directly into the earth. We had to climb across some dunes to the beach itself. I heard a crunching beneath my feet, and was startled to see a band of dead fish stretching as far up and down the shoreline as the eye could see. The actual condition of the lake was startling, but I had a fantastic weekend, and I hope to have the chance to go back some day.

Anyway, the film is worth watching. It will be an hour well spent.

 

The Dubious Politics of “Interstellar”

Techno-optimismInterstellar_film_poster is not a necessary ingredient to science fiction, but one can appreciate more of the genre by looking past the rosy view of human innovation. It’s a stance that holds together Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, which may be no worse than Star Trek in envisioning space as an arena for cowboy-like adventurism. But its political content papers over the murkiness that the Star Trek franchise has had five decades to confront, however indirectly.

The film sprawls over two hours and forty-nine minutes, giving it plenty of time to hit lots of bad notes before finally arriving at its core thought: parent-child relations through the lens of the theory of relativity. The first third of the film is centered around a farmhouse somewhere in the corn belt. The earth has experienced some sort of ecocatastrophe, where dust storms terrorize the community and crop blight destroys one source of food after another. The character of the catastrophe is unclear, but it has forced Cooper, a former NASA engineer and pilot, to take up life as a farmer. Cooper harbors open contempt for the occupation, complaining at one point that whereas humans used to reach for the stars, the species is now oriented towards the earth. The film endorses Cooper’s contempt; his son, who embraces farming more willingly, becomes an antagonist of sorts later in the film, and the others in this agrarian society harbor what the film presents as a reflexive and irrational suspicion towards science and technology. It is as if the only possible ways of thinking about modernity were an all-or-nothing embrace or rejection of an absolute notion of progress (that assumption is also what allows people to toss around “Luddite” as a pejorative, which it most certainly is not).

It’s not hard to imagine a disaster scenario that might produce a very justifiable suspicion towards science. Withholding the backstory makes space for us to share the film’s scorn for characters such as the teacher who insists the moon landing was a fake, or the brother who will not leave his farm to take his asthmatic son to fresher air (even though there is no such a place on the planet). The lack of context also strengthens the film’s trafficking in right-wing imagery. An enormous dust cloud descending on a mostly white community of corn growers somewhere in the “heartland?” No symbolic associations there, surely!

What makes the film a right-wing play, though, is the basic plot of projecting a kind of white masculine Americana vision into outer space. The North American continent is an inhabitable wasteland, but the stars and stripes flutter on space stations and planets in other galaxies. Cooper’s frustration at the beginning is that historical circumstances prevent him from a kind of self-realization in a space cowboy career. The film ends with a happy restoration, where we glimpse an idealized vision of small town America recreated in the interior of a space station. Special narrative concern is given to Cooper’s status as a parent, and while the father/daughter plot has its moments, it is mostly there to give Cooper a reason for confronting the adversities the plot presents him with. Supposedly he is interested in saving his family and (and other families, too!), but this ethical motivation ultimately really bends back on himself. The children are extensions of Cooper’s self, the fact that his daughter has children, and has established herself as a savior of humanity in her own right, does not change this, not in the least because her scientific career his contingent on her father’s space adventures. And in one scene on the ice planet between Cooper and Mann, Mann gives voice to what really motivates Cooper: self-preservation for him is really about their surivival. But if that is so, isn’t that equivalent to saying that their survival is important because they are an image of him?

It’s the narrow ethical field that makes Interstellar particularly problematic. The characters’ ethics of care do not extend to anyone beyond the immediate tribe, and we have to listen to extensive dialogue positing this stance as “natural.” It certainly does not extend to the earth, as the characters’ sole objective is getting off the planet and leaving it to its wretched fate. We may have been born on earth, we are told, but that doesn’t mean we have to die here. And if that weren’t enough to complete the film’s death-denying fantasy, we have a selected quotation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” offered as a leitmotif. It’s a far cry from, say, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its retelling in Blade Runner, both of which are profound as explorations of broken people living on a broken world.

Interstellar, on the other hand, is a very safe film, delivering an ideology that comports with a view of the world from Silicon Valley while making sure that we get a good cry in at the end. The director Christopher Nolan is famous for giving us such ostensibly mind-bending films as Inception. But like Inception, the film relies on its curious but empty visuals to reach that effect. That’s why it falls short of Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has no choice but to borrow from. Kubrick knows to pull the rug out from under our feet, as with the final minutes of 2001, or the last shot of The Shining. In Nolan’s films we see worlds folding into themselves hoping, perhaps, that we don’t notice that the film is reinforcing our conventional assumptions about narrative, cinema, and the world more generally.

On Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Watching Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin brought to mind the infinitely cheesier 1995 film Species. Both share a similar premise: an alien is loose in the world in the guise of a human seductress, and male specimens of our own species had best watch out. Species is a fairly conventional entry in the horror film genre, Under the Skin aims for a more muted Grauen.

Laura, the alien in human form, drives a van (no horror there) through numerous environs evocative of different aspects of Scotland: elegant commercial districts, gritty urban streets, the preserved ruins of a medieval castle, and of course the Highlands.The film is beautifully shot, and savors the effect of each of the places it visits. There is a subtle exploration of spectatorship and the way that nature is experienced here. In one scene Laura is standing on a stormy beach at the foot of some cliffs attempting to lure in another victim. Nearby a woman has gone swimming into the surf to rescue her dog, only to be followed by her husband; all of them are ultimately doomed, and their baby is left abandoned on the shore. Together with Laura, we regard the destruction of the family from a distance, so that the catastrophe taking place at the level of the individuals seems very far away as they are destroyed at the foot of the cliffs.

Later in the film, after Laura has begun to experience something of moral agony over her actions, she is wandering in a forest trying to come to terms with her own increasing humanness. She runs into a logger there who asks if she’s out for a ramble, and stutters on about the forest as a space of solitary contemplation. There’s something more going on here other than the ominousness of a woman alone running into a strange man in a forest, although the man will later attack her. The film touches here on the commonplace of landscapes as being devoid of humans. That is, the interruption of the forest solitude (yes, Tieck’s Waldeinsamkeit), the experience the man blubbers about, is precisely what makes the scene alarming.

The film is all about gender and performance, and in that sense it is a very self-conscious film. Sady Doyle points out in her essay “Under the Skin’s Weird Feminism” that in the scenes where Laura finally does her victims in (if they are “done in” in any conventional sense), the film reverses the convention of directing the gaze away from the male body and making the female the object of visual consumption. That is to say, we see some erect male appendages. I might add that this film deserves lots of credit for casting someone who actually has neurofibromatosis in the role of the character with the condition, as opposed to slapping prosthetics on an actor and having him represent somebody else’s experience of social marginalization. In the end, we get to see Laura stripping off her own skin, and contemplating the face that she has been wearing.

Undertheskin2Under the Skin 1

The climax of Species offers us a showdown between final girl and monster. In Under the Skin Laura transitions from being the monster to someone hunted in the forest by a rapist. Without saying too much (my love of spoilers notwithstanding), the more one considers the roles of each character in the resolution, the more deeply unsettling the film becomes.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer_posterIf you happen to be of an eco-Marxist frame of mind, it’s tempting to regard global warming as the moment when capitalism will finally hit its limits. Endless growth cannot be sustainable, and so it is not difficult to imagine the planet itself as the ultimate barrier to capitalist development. While it is not outside the realm of possibility, it is a grim fantasy for the incredible human suffering that will likely have to happen first, and moreover it is one that severely underestimates the dynamism of capital. What’s more, it is not impossible to imagine a “sustainable” mode of production that also allows for continual growth.

This is the world of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s entry into the eco-apocalypse genre. The film is set in 2031, after a 2014 geo-engineering project to reverse the effects of global warming left the Earth in perpetual winter. What remains of the human race live in a self-contained environment aboard a train that continually circles the planet. In the front of the train the people live a life of comfort, the rear is a site of immiseration. Poor conditions and political repression of the dwellers of the rear spark a revolution that aims to reach the front of the train.

The train is an interesting space, as all divisions and functions of society are projects linearly, so that in each car the revolution moves into, we glimpse some new aspect of what sustains the hermetic environment on board: food production, water supply, and in the front education, relaxation in “Nature,” and recreation. The train distills spatially what readers of Foucault will recognize as a kind of biopolitics. Remaining in one’s place is the reigning ideology of the train, as Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, makes clear in a lecture that is laughable for the fact that she is filling the time while the rear dwellers watch brutal punishment meted out to one of their own. As we learn at the end, the biopolitical program extends beyond the organization of the train.

I get pleasure out of seeing the return of decadence topoi as anxieties over economic inequality seep into the motion picture industry (the outlandish fashions of the Capitol in The Hunger Games films comes to mind), and it makes a productive appearance in Snowpiercer as the revolutionaries push their way through a dance club car where the revelers are tripped out on Kronol, an industrial by-product that is also a drug.

We are treated to plenty of views of the world outside, as snowy mountains give way to the icy ruins of civilization. As we move through the train, we see the front dwellers sit by the windows and watch the scenes of devastation with the detachment in which train passengers have always experienced the sliding landscape through a train window (a history documented by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century).

How one feels about the film will probably depend on how one reacts to its farcical element. Mason’s party line speeches are comically banal. We witness indoctrination at work in the school car in a way that is laughably over the top. I found the violence too to be quite farcical – and there is a lot that could be said about the mutilation of bodies in the movie. The film is even complete with an indestructible Übermensch of the variety that you get in the early James Bond films.

So the train is a distilled image of late capitalist society, complete with the violent policing necessary to maintain the system. But this is where “sustainability” comes in. The term is a pillar of the ideology that structures life on board, it is invoked to justify the sentence of mutilation at the beginning, and it is invoked in a bizarre scene where the revolutionaries sit down to dine on sushi. But it is also a code word for the eternal recurrence that really underwrites the experience of the train, the maintenance of which turns out to be the end of the biopolitical program (without giving too much away, this is the crux of the major revelation in the film). It is not an accident that the train eternally follows a circular route.

While I personally roll my eyes at “spoiler alerts” (because I believe everything should be “spoiled”!), I’ll limit my comments on the ending to this: the film spares the protagonist the full weight of the final ethical dilemma, which from a storytelling standpoint could not have been resolved in an especially satisfying way, I suspect. What we get instead is a perspectivization on eco-apocalypse. In spite of what we thought we saw through the windows, Nature’s history has not ended, and in the last shot it looks back at humanity with a somewhat puzzled indifference.

Official Versions: Reflections on Teaching “Blade Runner”

Students in my first year writing seminars are often surprised to discover that the supposed intention of the author is not the ultimate measure of literary criticism. The confusion is understandable for a readership with the luxury of being unconcerned with intentional fallacies and the death of the author. Because the writing seminars are about making the transition to college-level writing and argumentation, rather than casting discussions of authorial intent as a literary studies no-no, I bring in texts where “intent” is a serious critical problem that in turn helps the students practice looking at an object of study and asking first, “what kind of argument can I build with the materials at hand?” In the “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” seminar I taught in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, I did this with Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.

Blade Runner is part of a unit I have on Los Angeles, in which I pair the film against the first chapter of Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz. This chapter covers various “myths” of Los Angeles, and Davis reads this film and the noir genre in general as a “great anti-myth” (37) to Southern Calfiornia boosterism (Davis’ section on the German exiles is also a handy way for getting the Frankfurt School on the students’ radar when we don’t have room to read the culture industry essay). Where Los Angeles and Southern California in general is famous as a happy land of sunshine, it constantly rains in Blade Runner, and moreover a pall of sadness and decay hangs over the world of the film, one that for Los Angeles’ detractors has more truth to it than the booster image.

Seven different versions of Blade Runner appeared between 1982 and 2007. The 2007 remastered version was released also included some “tweaks and enhancements,” as Scott put it in his introduction to the 2007 version, and he has given this last version an official sanction. I show students the 1992 version, but in order to investigate the question of intentionality, I like to compare one still from the 1992 version and a still from the same scene in the 2007 version. This scene is from the movie’s climax, the replicant Roy gives a very moving speech about the marvelous things he has seen, then dies. He realizes that it is death the gives those experiences meaning, and then we see a dove he has been holding fly off, rather obvious symbolism for the soul’s departure. The camera places us, the viewer, within the world of the film, and we look up as the soul leaves (as opposed to the possibility, one used very commonly, where the camera retreats into the sky and we look down on the scene of death from the perspective of the soul). Here are the stills I show my students, both showing the dove’s flight. The first is from the 1992 version, the second from the 2007 version.

dove 1

Dove’s flight, “Blade Runner,” 1992.

Dove2

Dove’s Flight, “Blade Runner,” 2007.

Clearly we have here one of Scott’s tweaks/enhancements. When I show these I ask the students to break into partners and do two things. 1.) Describe exactly what you see on both images, and how one differs from the other then 2.) what is the effect of each version of the shot for the scene and the film as a whole (now you can bring in a little interpretation)? The objective is to help the students practice thinking of the text on its own terms, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s terms, and to take seriously this scene as a moment that does its own work in constituting the meaning of the film as a whole. Change the scene, change the meaning.

How would I answer the question of the effect of the shot for the scene? First a bit of context: Roy dies in a rainy landscape bathed in the blinding light of advertisements (the “D” in the background is from a TDK product placement).TearsinRain

After he sinks into death, we cut away to the dove. But in the versions up until 2007, his soul flies off into a seemingly sunny sky. The 2007 version creates more consistency between shots, as the weather is the same and the architecture is more consistent.

Prior to 2007 the realism of the world breaks down at the moment of Roy’s death, and we see the soul retreat into a blue sky. But the smog and cold buildings remain in the shot; the world that we have seen throughout is not suddenly gone or forgotten. Were that world to be completely wiped away, we would have something more like the happy ending of 1982, where the city is gone completely and our main characters fade into a mountainous “natural” landscape.

From the final scene of "Blade Runner," 1982 theatrical release.

From the final scene of “Blade Runner,” 1982 theatrical release.

I always read the scene of Roy’s death pre-2007 as an image of hope and even redemption that does not collapse into some kind of simplistic escape. But in the 2007 version, the dove’s flight is more uncertain. The course out of the sad, rainy, overbuilt LA of November 2019 is less direct, the clouds form a kind of iron grey ceiling. Maybe the cloudbreak that seems to be forming gives us back some hope, but that seems to invest a lot in that one small spot on the screen. In making the environment of the scene more consistent from shot to shot, the 2007 version also makes the world of this LA much more tightly sealed.

Closeup 2007 Dove's flight

Closeup 2007 Dove’s flight

According to the commentary on the 2007 DVD, the sun was coming up as they were shooting the scene, and without 21st century digital technology it more or less had to look that way until it could be “corrected.” So in one sense the hope and redemption reading derives from an accident. But my aim in the class discussion is to guide the students to a point where they can view the pre-2007 version as a document that has its own legitimacy as a historical cultural artifact that is still out in the world. The fact that we living after 2007 have access to a more “realistic,” or more accurately a more consistent version does not invalidate readings of the prior version. It just makes the 2007 version different. Whether that difference amounts to more artistic merit is a matter that individual viewers can decide for themselves. The point is that a text will always be more than the vision of a single creator, and not just because of technical limitations, external pressures from editors, publishers, and audiences, or the creator’s own status as historically contingent subjects. Instead my objective is to bring the students to a place where they reflect on the text as a living thing out in the world, and in cases where we have multiple versions. Examples from literature include Goethe’s Werther, Shelley’s Frankenstein, most of Stifter’s stories, Raabe’s Ein Frühling, and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich. In most of these instances preference for one version or another has shifted over the years for different reasons, even though we know there is one version the author endorsed over others. What texts with competing versions reveal is that even in instances where we can safely speak about the author’s intention, that does not mean that we the critics have to yoke ourselves to the figure of the author. This may be self-explanatory for people who already have degrees in literary studies, because it legitimates our own practice, but when we teach it is important to remember that for the students this is an unconventional way of thinking about an object of study.

For the record, my preference is for the 1992 version, and that is the version I show. It splits the difference between Scott’s vision and the technical contingencies that determined the making of the film in the early 1980s. I am not in principle opposed to “tweaks and enhancements,” even though these seem to me not substantively different from the practice of colorizing classic black and white films. But I do care about watching a film as a product of a particular historical moment, flaws and all.

 

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2006.

Disneyland Dream: Zeitraum – Zeittraum

Looking over the New York Times this weekend I was alterted to a very interesting video by Frank Rich in his editorial “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” One learns interesting things from Rich’s articles now and again, but unfortunately like most of the other New York Times columnists, his articles are lack are rarely insightful or profound.  So it was not surprising that he gave a rather impoverished reading of the film he used as his jumping-off point, the small amateur film Disneyland Dream.  It’s a somewhat longish film, but the first ten minutes or so give all the background to the trip, and then the actual visit to Disneyland begins around minute 20.

This film was made in 1995 with footage shot in 1956, a year after Disneyland opened.  The story is that in 1956, the Barstow family entered a competition offered by 3M on who could basically create the best advertisement for their brand of Scoth tape.  One of the children won with a poster that read “I like Scotch brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it” ( a ringing endorsement!).  The family won a trip from their home in suburban Conneticut out to California, where they visited Los Angeles, Catalina, and, of course, Disneyland itself.  This film made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it is definitely worth a watch.

I like this film for a number of reasons.  While it is, on the one hand, just some film from a family most of us never met, it is a rather interesting one.  First off is the way that the nostalgia functions both in the film and in the film’s subject, Disneyland.  The narrator explains events, many of them clearly stages, almost forty years after the fact carefully explaining how it was back then.  On the surface there is what, to some audiences, may appear to be a sort of pleasant innocence, when neighbors were friends, when the willingness to work hard seemed to guarantee a person a certain standard of living, and when corporations such as 3M and Disneyland appeared benevolent.  Of course this picture leaves a lot of things out (immigrants, minorities, non-nuclear families, political undesirables, etc).  The scenes in the neighborhood make this painfully clear.

Secondly there is Disneyland itself.  One of the most interesting things for friends and family of mine who have seen this film is Disneyland as it was shortly after it opened.  Of course much has changed and been redeveloped in the following decades, so the film captures a park that has been lost to its devoted fanbase, and which most of us never knew anyway (the website Yesterland is dedicated to these fans, and this nostalgia for Disneyland as it used to be).  This then leads us to the rings of nostalgia that Disneyland builds around itself.  If we view them in chronological order, I suppose the first ring of nostalgia would be Main Street, USA, which offers a verklärte representation of an American small town at the end of the 19th century (I used to joke that it was the “saubere Königreich.”  Say it out loud and think about it, German speakers.  It really is punny).  Then there is the way that the Disney Corporation mythologizes its own origins, and the way that Walt Disney himself is elevated to the status of some sort of kid friendly Prometheus.  Just think of the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse at the center of the Disneyland park in Anaheim.  Then there is the marketing, most evident, perhaps, in the periodic celebrations of the park’s founding.  I think Yesterland.com and Disneyland Dream also represent another ring of nostalgia.  It is interesting to hear the opposition that comes when Disneyland decides to make alterations, especially to its “classic” rides.  I remember this very clearly when Disneyland tried to remove the sexual innuendo from “Pirates of the Carribbean,” and I confess that on my last visit, in 2006, even I was unhappy when a Johnny Depp automaton was added to that same ride.  Really, isn’t that strange?  Why should anybody really care?

This nostalgia in general is all very strange.  How is it that we came to think of a corporate run theme park as a historical artifact that we would think of in the same way as a medieval cathedral?  Maybe Disneyland Dream offers us a clue.  Isn’t it right there in the title?  It’s a dream of what the nation, of what our system in general should bring: order, cleanliness, pleasure.  As the narrator tells us, it offers us a vision of what was. Now the period in which it was built, the 1950’s, has been subjected to similar romantic idealization.  Just listen to politicians talk about the 1950’s.  This is not a new phenomenon, as others have noticed.  There is a long tradition of selecting some past period as the temporal locus of goodness, virtue, etc.  What we get from the different levels of temporality in Disneyland Dream (1956 and 1995) is Disneyland as a representation of a better time (late 19th century America) and as in its essence an artifact from a better time (the 1950’s).

It’s this dream of what capitalism could be that Frank Rich seizes upon in his article, but this alone is an impoverished understanding of the film, in my view, because it misses yet another level of meaning one can find in the film.  There is something unsettling in the way that the entire community so completely embraces the fantasy.  The family buys a bunch of tape and creates free ads for the corporation.  The arrival of a “representative” of the corporation is hailed as a major event, as if a visit from a 3M employee were akin to a visit from the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  The entire neighborhood is somehow emotionally vested in this family’s fortune.  And, of course, for having created the free advertisement, they are able to go visit a corproate fantasy land all expenses paid!  This is a big thrill, and yet, the exaggerated way in which the narrator, the family, and the community reacts (see, for instance, the way that the whole family falls over in an artificial way) casts all of this in an extremely ironic light.  There is something overly performative in the behavior of everybody on screen.  Sure, Mr. Barstow was amusing himself by making a film of the event, and having his family act in this way, but within the logic of the film their extreme performativity alienates the viewer from the story unfolding and forces us to consider the film far more critically.

On a final note, it strikes me as interesting and, actually, wonderful that that they travelled all the way across the country to gaze mostly upon simulacra (movie sets, Disneyland itself, and Southern California’s phantasmagorical (ex/sub)urban developments). Of course, if that’s the kind of thing you’re in to, Southern California is the ideal place to be.

ON EDIT:  Speaking of the way the park in Anaheim is marketed, I wonder if the layer of history and nostalgia wrapped around Disneyland was a shift that could be linked to the park’s reproducing itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, etc.?

SECOND EDIT:  It is also worth noting that, in addition to the simulacra of Southern California, the Barstow family saw a lot of fortifications of different kinds, or places that, by nature or by design, serve to keep people out.  There were the homes of the wealthy and movie stars, the castle set and the castle at Disneyland (both hollow representations of fortifications, a combination of both), Catalina Island, and, of course, the Los Angeles highway system.  Roads and highways are a classic technology of separation, and it is interesting that being on them inspires both wonder and fear in the narrator.  Here we might bear in mind the etymological connections of “boulevard” to French bouleverser, boulevard, German Bollwerk, English bulwark.

PG Kino: Alice in den Städten

The PG Film Series “Neues deutsches Kino” continues this evening with a showing of Wim Wenders’ film Alice in den Städten. Come out to Kaufmann Auditorium tonight at 8 PM in Goldwin Smith Hall on the Cornell Campus.  The film will be presented by a grad student, and followed up by discussion.  Intro and discussion in English, film in German with English subtitles.

More information can be found here!

PG Kinos Filmvorstellung: Liebe ist kälter als der Tod

Am Mittwoch findet die erste Filmvorstellung von PG Kino statt! Wir zeigen den Film Liebe ist kälter als der Tod von dem berühmten Regisseur Werner Fassbinder. Mehr Informationen auf der PG Kino Webseite.

Klicken Sie hier für eine Vorschau!