25 July 2012

Notes on The Dark Knight Rises

First off, an admission: The teaser for Man of Steel keeps giving me goosebumps.  Apparently the music is taken from The Fellowship of the Ring (of all places!).  What I'm hoping is that the writing has some of the humanity suggested by the trailer, and that the editing has none of its clumsy redundancy. They try to surprise us with the fact that it's a Superman movie three times (!) in under two minutes.  Dividing the trailer into understated rainy-grey narrative, flight through the clouds, and fade in to the big "S" logo totally kills the effect.

Second, some thoughts on the increasing number of "reboots" of superhero movies.  They may be motivated by ticket sales, but they're not all bad.  Quite the opposite: they're a good thing for the art and for the public.  Why?  They're good for the art because the retelling of stories is the surest way to guarantee thematic development.  Nearly a century ago, Batman (for example) may have just been an idle fairy tale sold to kids with a taste for science fiction.  But tales grow in the telling, and as they pass through many hands, each trying to deepen and enrich the story so as to make this latest telling still worth hearing, two things happen: the art of the storyteller grows with his tale, as if to feed it; and the tale itself grows into something capable of nourishing those who hear it.  People talk a lot about how folk stories are always adapted to suit the moral needs of each individual era.  This is true, but it's true not because of the ingenuity of each generation of tale-spinners, reinventing the past or masking a useful ideology in an old mathom — rather, because over the years story cycles themselves become treasure troves capable of offering needed principles and categories to listening ears.

Now that those two are out of the way, I'm going to just transcribe my notes from my two viewings of The Dark Knight Rises:


The Dark Knight "Rises" — Random attack on civilians — Jonathan Lethem "we are the joker" — Organized Crime is the villain in Batman, not "super" villains, and the hero is a capitalist.

Keebler commercial: "what if everyone could be uncommonly good"

Superman next summer ... again — 2 Batmans in 20 years, 3 supermans in 30
"I believed in Harvey Dent"

Extremely clever airplane stunt

Sour dialogue ruins the delight
Police commissioner does not climb into manholes alone.

"Everything sticks." -- Catwoman
hope & despair

"when the structures fail you"

------[Second Viewing]-----

Utgard-Loki [Masks, deceptions, fighting battles unseen: attempting to drink the ocean, to out-eat fire itself.  By determining the terms in which the challenge is presented, we can change its outcome.]

Syncopy [Compare to other major directors' production companies: Zoetrope, Empirical, etc.]
"No one cared who I was until I put on the mask" ---> masks! [Notice also masks in the prison during the "time of plague".  Masks keep the pain at bay, protect from disease, eliminate individual identity, confer responsibility.  Broken masks: Batman's at the midpoint; Banes at the end.]
Leaving Gotham permanently — finding a life — Bruce has no life of his own as long as he's in the city. [Batman is a function of Gotham, not a person.  He cannot live unless Gotham is in crisis.]
"Now there's evil rising where we tried to bury it." [Id/Ego/Superego]
Ballroom conversation w/Cat is perfect.
"Letting the truth have its day."
Daggett has construction company.  [Typical of corrupt businessmen to be tied to contracting.]
"Plunge their hands into the filth so you can keep yours clean."
Storming the Bastille [Notice also that it's the weapons of the bourgeoisie that are used to undermine its grip on power — that by trying to consolidate the store of weapons he makes the takeover all the more powerful when it happens.  Very marxist.]
"Gotham is beyond saving and must be allowed to die."  [Note that he says "allowed to die" instead of killed or destroyed.]
—This was someone's house.
—Now it's everyone's house.
The fear of death is a powerful ally.  [The person who doesn't love things can't use them well.]
Bane, that guy from Bond with a bullet in his head keeping pain/death at bay.
Bane is the guy from Tinker Tailor.
At risk and orphaned children.
Robin leaves the police force. [Why does he leave the police force? Impatience with systematic "injustice"?  As demonstrated by the incident on the bridge?  Throughout the movie, he acts with a remarkable degree of independence.  Itching to be a vigilante like Bruce.]

23 July 2012

The Commodification of Relationships and the Solitude of the Modern Male

Lies engender solitude, and the liar is the loneliest man in any crowd.  What is most startling about Don Draper, then, is not just that his persona, his name and history are a fabrication, not even that he somehow manages to get away with playing a man more than a decade older than himself, but that in all this he suffers no more than his average compatriot.  Lies abound in the business world of Mad Men:  lies about trysts and affairs, histories and operations — in these few short seasons there is enough scandal for a century of soap operas.  And behind it all are the lies that make television possible: lies about products and about us viewers: constructions within the language of image and suggestion meant to shift the lines of power and desire to the advantage of arbitrary business interests.  Chiefly, though, there is a lie about the self-sufficiency of the central characters.  Everything else in this world is shown to us raw: we know who has been unfaithful and how many times; we watch as personal projects and ambitions tangle with each other — all of this is given with clean omniscience.  But the central lies of our characters have to be discovered slowly by careful viewing: Betty Draper's careful sanitization of her emotional life, Pete Campbell's sorrow over his lost child with Peggy, even Greg Harris's aggressive fight against recognizing his wife's intellectual and social superiority.  Where on the surface Mad Men is an amazingly good period drama about the witty work and changing field of 60s advertising firms, it shows its greatness in the psychological portrait of a group of people so caught up in the flux of business and the absurd ideals men like themselves have conjured up for the masses that their genuine desires are suppressed for fear of missing out on the glamour of success, stability, health.

Each of Don's many women plays one of two roles: a trophy for his success at work, or a simulation of a real relationship.  All of them leave him alone, however, and in finding himself truly alone we hope he will begin to change.

(Written after finishing the episode "The Suitcase".)

21 July 2012

Porphyria's Lover

To give oneself totally to another is to will one's own annihilation.  Humanly speaking, no person is capable of possessing another, since to enact such a total gift of self would necessitate the elimination of anything incapable of possession.  Ownership, however, is a matter of exclusivity in the right to use, and the mind of one can never be more than indirectly used by another.  Away with it then, let man be nothing more than a body — but a given body.  But if he is to be mindless flesh, then he must be a corpse.  Browning's madman, then, has shown us the fullness of the marital act according to that theory.

Where the fish for bait were trapped

There is a certain art to the direction of one's thoughts on a particular text.  We try to find something worth saying about Robert Lowell's lines, but perhaps all we can do is muse at the clever juxtaposition of images or verbal functions employed to paint a picture.  On one hand there is a "who will watch the watchmen" irony in the act of trapping fish for bait.  On the other hand there is a pleasant inversion: baited becomes bait.  The restraint necessary to bypass these easy points of interest in hope of something more fruitful reveals itself to be a kind of fortitude.  We stop at a third analysis of the line: that the cycle between bait and baited is sustained by yet another system of exchange parallel to it, but wholly exterior.  The two cycles are shown intersecting at a moment of opposition: one baited to become bait, the other baiting to become baited.  And throughout all of this is a wonderful play of desires.

12 July 2012

A Fragment

We begin with the supposition that the one who has nothing to say — that is, the one who intends nothing, who writes for the sake of words and not out of a calculating prudence — writes best.  This supposition, the premise at the doorstep of our "project", is obviously absurd.  Speech, says common sense, is a matter of good faith, communicating what was intended, what was held in advance, and rendering it in a way easily suited to the minds of others.  Speech is an art.  And rhetoric, the perfection of that art, is nothing less than the rogue's ability to shape men's souls with words.

Speech, then, at the outset, is a matter of exerting dominance, of turning the souls of others into the produce of craft; in speech we are all first of all social planners and demagogues.  Our premise then, our methodological supposition, is more a picture of unwarlike (un-human?) speech than a truth universally acknowledged.  Speech is first of all for persuasion and information.  But what happens if we change the goal of speech?  If speech is not for the communication of minds and production of mental states, but for its own sake?  Suppose we let language use our fingers and mouths to construct an image of its unrealized perfection.  What if words could describe themselves, and, not just gaping at the oddity of the fact, resolved into some structure that does them justice?  No irony, no recursive wittiness, no pedantic manuals of use, but language, a natural thing, blossoming and bearing fruit according to its inscribed end.  Then perhaps we speakers of words could rest a while in the shade of its branches, and quench our thirst with the dripping dew from its leaves.  Perhaps we could, learning to breath its aroma, be changed in our own dealings from petty thieves worrying about the balance of Self and Other, into something drawn out — to the stasis of a perfection, the value of which does not need to be numbered or termed, because it is for nothing.

11 July 2012

The departmentalization of Mind

The son of well-to-do parents who, whether out of talent or weakness, chooses a so-called intellectual occupation as an artist or scholar, has special difficulties with those who bear the distasteful title of colleagues. It is not merely that his independence is envied, that the seriousness of his intentions is doubted and that he is presumed to be a secret envoy of the established powers. Such mistrust is borne out of resentment, yet would usually find its confirmation. However the actual resistances lie elsewhere. The occupation with intellectual things has meanwhile become “practical,” a business with a strict division of labor, with branches and numerus clausus. Those who are materially independent, who choose out of repugnance towards the shame of earning money, are not inclined to recognize this. For this he is punished. He is no “professional”, ranks in the hierarchy of competitors as a dilettante, regardless of how much he knows about his subject, and must, if he wishes to pursue a career, display a professional tunnel vision even narrower than that of the most narrow-minded expert. The suspension of the division of labor to which he is driven, and which the economic state of affairs allows him, within certain limits, to realize, is considered especially scandalous: this betrays the aversion to sanction the hustle and bustle dictated by society, and high and mighty competence does not permit such idiosyncrasies. The departmentalization of the Spirit is a means of abolishing such there, where it is not ex officio or contractually obligated. It does its work all the more surely, as those who continually reject the division of labor – if only in the sense that they enjoy their work – reveal, by this selfsame measure, their vulnerabilities, which are inseparable from the moments of their superiority. Thus is the social order assured: this one must play along, because one could not otherwise live, and that one, who could indeed live, is kept outside, because they don’t want to play along. It is as if the class which the independent intellectual deserted from revenges itself, by forcibly pushing through its demands precisely where the deserter sought refuge.

— Adorno, Minima Moralia

09 July 2012

War and Ideology

War and ideology are two things as distant from each other as possible. Levinas says, “The state of war divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.” Nonetheless, the philosopher is drawn to contemplate war as much as the ancient explorer would have been drawn to the edge of the world. Here the very essence of humanity is divided in a great and gruesome game which operates by its own rules, distinct from the measured cadence of civilized life. But if war has traditionally divided the world into halves, its more advanced forms (those which, in fact, are even less than barbaric) destroy altogether the coherence which has normally held each partial reality together. Order is most stringently imposed at the fringes, like a hem on a garment, which must make sure that, even though the cloth is cut, the sudden cessation of the woven grid does not allow the entire piece to unravel. So in the military order is maximally enforced, a strict hierarchy maintained and rules enforced. But in guerilla warfare the order of war is itself challenged. Consequently, counterinsurgency tactics have arisen to create a military in which front lines no longer exist. Here, at the extremity of war, ideology is capable of making an entrance. Insurgents seek to re-form the cloth of society by slicing it into a million different fragments, which can then be rebound. What is challenged is not the placement of a particular seam in the garment (as it used to be, even at the time of the second world war), but the weave of the cloth itself. Counterinsurgents attempt to blot out irregularities in the weave, to create uniformity. But these basic questions of local structure, which are relevant everywhere in society, between all men at all times, are essentially philosophical. If Marx is right, and the point of philosophy is to change the world, then philosophers must always be terrorists of a sort, attempting to rip up the fabric of reality and reconstitute it under different conceptual forms.

04 July 2012

Memorable Movies of the Last Month

The Women on the Sixth Floor:  A delightful French comedy about the influx of Spanish maids in French households during the 60s.  The great failing of the film is that it ends up becoming a romantic comedy, instead of a Titanic-esque bourgeois-fling-with-the-peasants story, but we can forgive it for the last 25 minutes because the rest is so wonderful. (3)

Prometheus: Ridley Scott's latest is a return to an old science fiction trope: the search for our origins.  I'm struggling to remember where I've heard this plot before... digging into the hidden depths of things one ends up finding a hidden terror which could end up annihilating everything the love for which sent one on the quest in the first place.  It's a platonist's nightmare, in other words.  Or perhaps a Gnostic sermon: it was evil that created us and evil which means ultimately to destroy us.  The thing is dark and the script employs bizarre fragments of pre-nihilistic myth and ideology in order to drive itself forward.  But one wonders frequently while watching why really any of these people would go on such a journey.  There cannot be a reason, and our conclusion, as the protagonist sails off on another quest at the end, is that "science" of her sort is driven merely by the mystery of fragments retrieved from the more coherent civilizations it has destroyed. (3)

Never Let me Go:  Yet another riff on the dystopian clones-for-organs idea.  The photography is lovely, the movie is emotionally monotonous, and while it could be interesting to watch, there is so little actual drama in the thing that one can stop at any point without having lost any sort of emotional investment.  A good (negative) study in what tone does for a film. (2)