Archive | movie reviews RSS feed for this section

The Spectre of Bond

15 Nov

Last night, a couple friends and I went to see the new James Bond movie Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig, which has been the number one movie at the box office the past two weekends. As some readers of my blog post know, back in 2009 I published an essay entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory” in the journal CineAction in which I argued that the changing economic and social character of globalization had spurred a new kind of Bond movie in Quantum of Solace (produced in 2008). Although some consider Quantum to be one of the worst Bond movies, I thought it was more sophisticated and interesting than all the previous ones in terms of how it allegorized the problems of geopolitics and responded to a changing world order. Out of curiosity, as I began to compose this blog post today, I did a quick google search to see if anyone had responded to my essay and noticed it has been cited and discussed by other writers [here], [here], and [here], and was even put on the syllabus of a sociology class on globalization at the Charles University in Prague. Cool. When the next Bond movie, Skyfall, came out in 2012, my friends and colleagues asked me if I thought it followed the new paradigm for global action thrillers that I had theorized in my essay, so I wrote a post for this blog. In that post, I suggested that in some ways the genre had to grapple with the shifting conditions of globalization, but that the new director Sam Mendes had not continued the direction of Quantum. Instead, he had created an entirely new Freudian Bond that was in a sense the nostalgic double of its former self (a “self” that was already the nostalgic double for the defunct British Empire, so we have now a double of a double.)

Before I went to the theater last night, the questions I had about Mendes’s sequel to Skyfall, which is rumored to be the last of the Daniel Craig series, were (1) how he could resurrect the Bond ego-ideal after psychoanlyzing it (almost to death) in the previous movie, and (2) how he would situate Bond in the increasingly digitized internet world of global capitalism.

As have so many Bond movies produced after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Spectre obsessively contemplates the relevance of the sort of spy that was invented in the early years of the Cold War. Is the old double-O spy dead (or perhaps merely castrated)? The title and opening-scene metaphorically suggest how the movie is a meditation on death and on how the past haunts the present, as our new world appears to struggle to free itself from the tentacles of the old world. The key plot point is that the British intelligence MI6 is about to be made obsolete by a new computer spy program that networks the intelligence of different countries. What worries the double-O agents is how this inter-governmental computer program is sponsored by a private corporation. Meanwhile, Bond investigates the ghostly traces of a sinister underworld organization at the request of his previous boss M (Judy Dench), who speaks to him as if from the grave like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or in this case, mother. Something is rotten in the new world order. As it turns out (a minor spoiler alert, as nothing that happens in the movie is in any way surprising), the secret organization whose corporate logo appears to be half-ghost, half-octopus is secretly a part of the new intelligence network.

In this way, the mSPECTRE_Logoovie Spectre actually follows my argument about Quantum because in my essay I point out a fundamental difference between the old Bond and the new Daniel Craig version– the old Bond had to rescue the good global organization (e.g., NATO or the UN) from the evil global organization (e.g., SPECTRE or whoever), but in the new Bond both the good and the evil organizations are not so distinct from each other and are both part of the same complex network, which puts Bond in the awkward position of having to go “rogue” against his own government. Just as the super-villain of Spectre turns out to be Bond’s half-brother who has been monitoring Bond all these years, the evil organization turns out to be the Orwellian “big brother” (or evil twin) of our own governments. What is more, in this new movie, Spectre has been covertly orchestrating terrorist attacks around the world in order to frighten nations into adopting the new digital surveillance program that would override democracy and remove the human face of national security. (Presumably, that human face is Daniel Craig.)

As the reviews in The Atlantic and The New Yorker observe, Mendes seems to have made not so much a Bond movie, but a meta-Bond movie that deconstructs the genre by including as many allusions to the previous Bond films as possible. For sure, it has all the action, all the suspense, and all the sex that we expect — perhaps some of the most exciting action sequences ever in a Bond movie — but the action appears to be entirely performative and perfunctory, as if everyone is simply going through the motions. For instance, after a big fight-sequence is over, the hero and heroine look at each other and say, “what do we do now?” and then start undressing. Just as the sex happens always on cue but without much foreplay, events happen always on cue, but without much narrative that might explain why they are happening or what is motivating the characters. The style of the clothes, the cars, and the women is rarely the style of the twenty-first century and is instead an assemblage of styles from previous movies. It is as if the director Mendes is not making a movie about a secret organization called Spectre, but rather making a movie about how he as a director is haunted by the spectre of the Bond genre. Perhaps that is why Mendes, unlike any director before, makes Bond’s childhood (an Oedipal origin myth) such a key aspect of the plot. Mendes appears to be searching for the origin of his own movie. Hence, as Bond searches for the roots of Spectre, Mendes routes him through the symbols of Bond’s past. In the final scene, Bond revisits the site of MI6 that was blown up in the previous movie, and its ghostly ruins get blown up again in this movie. What could possibly be the point of blowing up something that was already blown up? Such is the repetition of an event that in Skyfall was the tragedy of British intelligence, but in Spectre appears merely as a redundancy or an echo.

In a sense, it occurs to me that the movie Spectre is an example of an amusing point made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (published in 2009 and later adapted to a ten-minute, illustrated YouTube video) about how we may know that what we are doing is nonsense — we may not believe in the mythologies of religion or capitalism or whatever that tell us how to live our lives, and we may have cynically demystified their truth — but we act as if we believe in it anyway because we have no choice. In other words, after Mendes psychoanalyzed Bond in Skyfall, the Bond ego-ideal became a character who acted out his role as an agent (including his role as a sexual predator) without actually believing in it. This may explain why all the characters appear so robotic, unmotivated, and sex-less, as several reviewers have noted. Likewise, the evil organization and its super-villain leader don’t seem to have much of a motivation either, in spite of the villain’s lengthy monologue about it, a monologue so villainously long and tedious that Bond requests that he shut up — a request that comes just in time, because if Bond hadn’t asked him to shut up, probably somebody in the theater’s audience would have.

Does that make Mendes’s film a cynical movie? Is it merely a postmodern simulacrum of a deconstructed cinematic form that no longer means anything? Not exactly. For Zizek, the cynical person who mocks the idealist is in fact the most naive because the cynic doesn’t realize the ways in which the symbolic order determines our reality not in a way that is natural but in a way that is entirely ideological. Thus, paradoxically, the idealist is actually more realistic than than the cynical realist precisely because the idealist understands how ideological our “reality” is. The cynic in Spectre is actually C, the head of the join-intelligence service who argues that democracy is dead and digital surveillance is the new world order whether the double-O agents like it or not. Since the audience obviously identifies with the double-O agents, one could read the film to be suggesting a problem with the symbolic logic of the capitalist world-order in which we live today. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida argues in his book The Specters of Marx (published in 1993), the death of communism revealed not the correctness of liberal capitalism, but rather exposed the fundamental untruths of capitalism’s mythology and its inherently self-contradictory form. In other words, once capitalism no longer had a nemesis, it was forced to examine itself for why the world continued to be such a damn mess. One could read the movie that way, but more likely, the obsessively deconstructive style of Spectre may simply indicate how a genre continues to function as a symbolic form even after that form has exhausted its content. The only semblance of a real human subjectivity that James Bond seems to possess in the movie Spectre is his desire to escape the symbolic logic of the Bond genre itself.

Globalization and the Ethiopian Sci-Fi Film

25 Oct

Last night, I went to the Cinema Village in New York with my wife and a friend to watch a new movie, Crumbs, which has been called “Ethiopia’s first post-apocalyptic science fiction film” by OkayAfrica and IndieWire. The premise for the story is typical of the genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi — a man and a woman trying to make meaning out of their lives after the entire planet and civilization as we know it has been destroyed by a world war. What they make meaning out of are the “crumbs” or detritus that remain after the war, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines and a basketball poster of Michael Jordan. As in other movies of this genre such as A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max, the “crumbs” of previous civilizations take on religious significance in the post-apocalyptic culture that emerges. The absurdly curatorial assessment of what we might consider to be trash serves as a satirical commentary on globalization today, as the valuation of such objects in the future draws ironic attention to what is absurd about the values of consumer capitalism today and its hegemonic dominance throughout the world. The satire of Crumbs is often hilarious and insightful. One might compare Crumbs to other surrealistic sci-fi movies that critique the forces of market-driven globalization such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. And one might compare the ideas expressed in the film to the critiques of globalization’s commodity fetish made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek. You can see the trailer here:

What makes the movie unique is not just that it takes place in Ethiopia but that the director used a contemporary Ethiopian landscape as a setting for a post-apocalyptic future. For example, the salt lake Beseka near the town of Metahara and the back of the defunct train station in Dire Dawa as well as some of Ethiopia’s popular tourist destinations such as the beautiful Wenchi Crater Lake. (I’ve included hyperlinks to webpages with pictures of these locations.) Hence, the juxtaposition of future and present is itself also an odd commentary on Ethiopia, which is currently one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but whose recent development is at the same time a striking contrast to its high poverty rate and the leftover detritus from previous political regimes and economic projects.

But we might consider the film an example of globalization in another way — not in terms of what the film is about, but in terms of how it got produced, distributed, and marketed. Although the actors and setting are Ethiopian, and although it is marketed as “Ethiopia’s first post-apocalyptic sci-fi film,” the writer, director, and producer, Miguel Llanso, is from Spain, and so are most of the crew. The movie is technically a co-production of three countries: Ethiopia, Spain, and Finland, though I’m not sure what Finland’s role was. It is perhaps worth thinking carefully about why this movie is being advertised as an Ethiopian film especially considering that none of the hundreds of movies made in the past decade by Ethiopian production companies have been featured at New York art-house cinemas such as Cinema Village — the sort of posh theater that would invite directors from around the world to answer questions from the audience. And indeed, after watching the film last night, I was able to ask Llanso exactly the question of how his film relates to the Ethiopian cinema. Llanso has lived in Ethiopia since 2008 and is somewhat knowledgeable about the place and its cinema culture and is admirably self-conscious and thoughtful about his own relation to its people, whom he clearly respects.

As readers of my blog well know, the question of an Ethiopian cinema has been on my mind for some time now, due to my work for Sandscribe Communications and my teaching of film theory to students in Addis Ababa, and also due to the fact that Ethiopia’s film industry has grown so rapidly over the past decade. One could argue that such international collaborations and co-productions will encourage the local industry, or one could argue the opposite that foreign filmmakers and investors have an unfair competitive advantage over local producers. I’m not sure how I would respond to either of those two views, as I’m still trying to figure that out and suspect that each specific situation is unique. What struck me about Llonso’s answer to my question — which was similar to something he has said previously in a published interview [here] — is that he very clearly asserted that the style and theme of his film was completely different from anything being done by Ethiopian filmmakers in Ethiopia. Moreover, he suggested that Ethiopia’s film industry was so dominated by commercial interests that its movies have tended to be formulaic soap-opera-like melodramas or romantic comedies lacking artistic value.

Llonso’s comments are somewhat problematic since they beg a lot of questions. One might argue that movie industries in all countries are dominated by commercial interests that produce movies that lack artistic value — “art house” cinema is generally the exception, not the rule, of the movie industry. Moreover, his dismissive statement about Ethiopia’s film industry begs the question of what artistic value is, since the genre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi is not necessarily more artistic than a romantic comedy. After all, Shakespeare wrote formulaic romantic comedies, and most sci-fi movies are quite commercial.  Moreover, as professor Aboneh Ashigrie of Addis Ababa University has recently written, many of Ethiopia’s directors actually use the genre of romantic comedy and melodrama to address serious social issues such as changing gender roles, the widening gap between rich and poor, HIV-AIDS, and even the effects of globalization on local cultures. Some of these movies reflect intelligently on the goals of environmentalists, feminists, and other progressive social movements.

So, it is curious that a film being marketed as Ethiopia’s first sci-fi film is being made by a Spanish director who quite explicitly says that his film is nothing like the films being made by Ethiopian directors and producers. This might provoke one to re-think what Llonso is doing when he makes a movie about the world’s post-apocalyptic future that features so much of Ethiopia’s present. What about Ethiopia today is any more or less apocalyptic than his home country Spain or, indeed, my own home in Brooklyn, New York? After all, Llonso’s production budget was obviously too small for him to design futuristic movie sets, so he was in some ways appropriating Ethiopia’s geography that is more available to him for his own artistic ends.

This appropriation got especially problematic, for instance, when his mostly European crew accidentally stumbled into regions of Ethiopia where there is some ethnic conflict. One of his film sites was near the town of Metahara in Ethiopia’s Fantalle district. In that district, for the past half century or more, the local Karayu tribe has been persecuted, kicked off their land, and denied access to water because the Ethiopian government has given the valuable land to multinational corporations. You can read more about this situation [here], but one can easily imagine that the economic and environmental conditions within which the Karayu struggle to survive are tough. Perhaps Llonso and his crew were unaware of this, and perhaps they were also unaware that they could have worked with a Karayu film-maker or with local Karayu environmentalist organizations that work in that area such as Labata Fantalle so as not to accidentally upset the people whose backyards they were filming in.

I don’t mean for my critique to be taken as a simple criticism, because I think Llonso’s film is brilliant, and my critique is intended to draw attention to the changing dynamic context of film production, distribution, and marketing in today’s global economy. As Llonso is himself very well aware, everyone operates within that dynamic context whether they want to or not, and my intent in this blog is to shed light on that context rather than to criticize Llonso’s film.

In many ways, we might imagine him participating in a new movement called “Afrofuturism” in which black and white artists creatively work toward a future that they build out of the detritus and “crumbs” of the present. One example of this is the very successful Kenyan short sci-fi film “Pumzi” which also presents an African hero in a post-apocalyptic world. The theme of “Pumzi” is clearly environmentalist, and its hero a strikingly beautiful woman. You can watch the entire 21-minute film on YouTube [here]. Below is the trailer:

The global “Afrofuturist” movement is in some ways a response to what many African intellectuals have called “Afropessimism.” Afropessimism is the tendency of American and European media to represent Africa as a place of war, famine, and corruption. Instead, we might see Africa as a vibrant place where artists work hard to create something positive out of the “crumbs” of an inherently self-destructive global capitalism. In the context of such conversations about Afropessimism and Afrofuturism, one might raise the question of why Llonso opted for a “diminutive hero” (quoting one review), a somewhat crippled man, rather than a more traditional heroic figure. On the one hand, if we consider the ways in which European and American media have repeatedly represented Africa as a “crippled” space, we might challenge Llonso’s choice, but on the other hand, since Afrofuturism is a movement highly conscious of the politics of disability and technology, we might see this as a smartly “futurist” choice.

There is more to say about this film, as it is the type of film that provokes conversations. One could read it is a European film, rather than an Ethiopian one, but one might also consider it in the context of the rapidly changing world and the new African artistic movements. One recent documentary, Afripedia, has attempted to capture this wealth of culture and creativity in six different countries in the new Africa. Check it out, here’s the trailer for Afripedia’s “Ghana”:


The Assurance of Belle, the Insurance of the Zong, and the Speculation of Cinema

12 Jun

Last night I had a delightful evening with my wife in one of the best places on earth, the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where we snacked on delicious Haitian-style hors d’oeuvres and sangria at the La Caye Restaurant and Bar before going to see the new movie Belle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM, as it’s commonly called. If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should. The film, directed by Amma Asante,  is a period-piece drama that critics (e.g., [here]) have compared to the many adaptations of Jane Austen novels such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, except that unlike the usual period-piece fare, the heroine of this film, Dido Elizabeth Belle, is biracial, and also unlike the usual period-piece fare, woven into the romance plot is the court-room drama concerning the infamous massacre of 132 human beings on the slave ship Zong. The film is important for its foregrounding of very important historical events that are somewhat unknown to the general public, as Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real person (as the famous scholar of African-American literature Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written about [here]), and the infamous Zong case was an event so horrible that it challenged one of the most important foundations of the transatlantic slave trade — a foundation that few think of when they think of slavery — insurance. I am hoping to do more research on the historical details behind this film, but since this movie is also a work of fiction and a speculative interpretation of history that aims to explore the complex emotions of its characters, I agree with critics such as Sheryl Estrada and Dodal Stewart who note that the movie is also worth seeing for its imaginative and narrative qualities, for its relevance to conversations about the ambiguities of racial identity in our world today, and for how young women of color see their potential illustrated in cinema.

The movie usefully connects with a considerable body of literature. As the director has discussed in an interview with NPR [here] and as an article in the Guardian [here] discusses at length, the movie was inspired by the portrait of the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray and resonates for historians with a recently published biography of Belle’s guardian, Lord Mansfield, who was the judge deciding over two important legal decisions about slavery, the Somerset and Zong cases. What the director of the film and critics neglect to mention are the many other recent literary works about the Zong case, including a book of poems by M. NourbeSe Philip entitled Zong! (published in 2011), a novel by Fred D’Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts (published in 2000), and an influential work of cultural theory by Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (published in 2005). What the director and film critics also neglect to mention is how much this film connects with what is now being taught in college seminars on eighteenth-century American and British literature, notably the now canonical autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who was a former slave and successful businessman and who also happens to be the individual who first brought the Zong case to public view, and the novel A Woman of Colour, a Jane-Austen-like story about a biracial heroine originally published in 1807 (four years before Jane Austen’s first novel) and only just recently rediscovered and published in 2007 in a well-researched edition that uses the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle as the cover art.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

It actually strikes me as somewhat humorous that the critics are suggesting that the movie resembles a Jane Austen novel, considering that we might just as easily suggest the reverse, that Jane Austen novels resemble the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the fictional character in A Woman of Colour (both of which, after all, did happen before Austen wrote.) In fact, one criticism I have of the movie is that it presents Belle as an anomaly, when in fact there were many wealthy black men and women in the cities of England at this time (e.g., Equiano, mentioned above, who was directly involved in the same Zong case that Belle began to involve herself in. Might we imagine that Equiano and Belle met each other? How would a conversation between two black characters change the movie’s story which so thoroughly, and so problematically, isolates Belle, the lone black character amidst an otherwise all white cast?)

I also think many of the critics (even Henry Louis Gates) who focus entirely on the simple historical fact of black presence are missing what is truly interesting about Belle — and also what is interesting about the movie that received far more attention last year, 12 Years a Slave — and that is the ways the movies reveal the troubling and complex legalities of property, debt, and insurance. In fact, in many ways, although the mainstream media critics wrongly asserted the groundbreaking uniqueness of 12 Years a Slave (as I discussed at length in this blog a few months ago [here]), which for the most part was pretty much the same story that people have been telling about slavery since the 1850s when the book was published, that movie was somewhat unique for showcasing how slaves were part of a network of debt relations. The best scene in 12 Years a Slave is, unfortunately, a scene that is not given enough explanation and context, and that is the scene when the slave’s life is protected from violence simply because he is the property that secures a bank loan.

In many ways, Belle is a more unique and interesting film not just in the way it presents a more complicated portrait of race relations in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than the racially and morally black and white movie 12 Years a Slave, but also in the way that it focuses more intently on the peculiar legal history of the insurance industry that underpinned the slave trade. The Zong case was a case of basic insurance fraud, as the owners of the slave ship claimed they had to throw the bodies overboard to protect the ship and so demanded compensation from the insurance underwriters; the underwriters argued that the ship’s captain did not need to kill the slaves and that he did so deliberately in order to collect the insurance money. Significantly, what was not a legal option for the court to decide at that time but nevertheless was repeatedly commented upon during the trial was the morality of treating human beings as little more than insurable cargo. Without insurance, such far-flung capitalist enterprises such as the slave trade would lack the financial backing to be so prosperous and also so entangled in every aspect of the modern economy. As Ian Baucom’s work of scholarship on the Zong case that I mention above points out, the slave trade may today be illegal, but many of the legal structures governing the economic system that emerged from it remain. This presents us viewers with a more complicated picture, which is why I think the movie Belle deserves far more attention than it seems to me it has received.

What is also very compelling about the movie is the growth of the characters, Belle becoming a self-assured, ethical person the more she engages herself in the court case about the Zong’s insurance claim and the more she becomes self-conscious of the confusing and unjust ambiguity of her social position. In fact, almost all of the characters (except one) appear to grow and mature under the film-maker’s speculative interpretation of history. In contrast to the almost pornographic brutality of abuse and incessant degradation in 12 Years a Slave, what is great about Belle is that it presents a positive image of a black woman in the eighteenth century, one who is self-assured, moral, and full of potential. In my criticism of 12 Years a Slave, I complained that neither white nor black audiences could identify with any of the characters, but in contrast, the moral and cultural ambiguities for all the characters in Belle are still with us today.

To conclude, I want to further complicate and challenge how all the critics have talking about the movie Belle. As you are reading my blog and perhaps wondering about the funny title of this post, I hope you are noticing the puns I am making comparing financial metaphors with narrative metaphors (e.g., growth, potential, speculation, insurance, assurance, etc.). What is wonderful about this movie is the way it allegorizes the ambiguous double-bind of the law through character of Belle. Just as the law governing insurance and the lives of human cargo are contradictory, so are the rules governing Dido’s position in the household. The story plots the contradictory rules governing both Dido’s life and the insurance claim beautifully. As Belle confronts the legal conundrum, she increasingly abandons the “marriage market” and stays true to her principles, as well as, financially, her principle — that is to say, her inheritance that empowers her. The speculation of cinema, like financial speculation, trades on assurances that the audience’s hopes for human potential and freedom can be realized. (And if it bothers you that my deliberately playful mixture of metaphors ironically juxtaposes the noble story of Belle’s assurance with the more dismal story of financial speculation, then good, because I think that it should, as that subtext is the real strength of the movie.) I am hoping to explore this theme further in a more detailed literary analysis, so I welcome any comments, advice, or suggestions for further reading.

Something of a post-script, for there is another detail to consider. Could the movie have given its audience more information about the Zong massacre and shown just how brutal it was? I half suspect that the movie may simply have lacked the budget to film this, or maybe the director wasn’t sure (or assured) how to do it  in a way that was both artistic and respectful of human tragedy. I don’t know, but I will simple end here with an 1840 painting of the massacre (that you can see up close and in person at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.)

J. M. W. Turner’s painting of the Zong massacre, painted 1840

The Reception of “12 Years a Slave”

18 Feb

I meant to write this blog post several months ago when I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, but my trip to Ethiopia in December and the stress of the new semester in January kept me so occupied that I never got around to it. Also the seriousness of the subject and the historical complexity made me feel like I had to do some research first, reading the other reviews, watching some other movies, and reading the original Narrative of Solomon Northup published in 1854 that the movie is based on. But now that it’s the middle of “African American History Month” and the Academy Awards are less than two weeks away — and it looks like Twelve Years a Slave has a good chance of winning best picture — I feel compelled to hurry it through. The movie is a spectacular achievement and deserves to win as much as any film does. Not having seen all of the other candidates, I must admit that I can’t say for sure, but in any case, that is not the argument I wish to make here. Rather, my primary concern is with the reception of the film in the media and with what that reception says about how Americans understand history — not only the history of slavery, but also the history of black culture — because I think the reception of the film in the mainstream media unwittingly betrays that history.

In quite a few of the interviews and reviews in the major venues (e.g., follow these links to the reviews in National Public Radio, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, and The New Yorker, and this interview with the director Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) we hear a common refrain. The common refrain celebrates the film as a groundbreaking achievement, long overdue, because the movie industry has neglected this important subject for so long that average Americans continue to have little understanding of the truly horrific realities of slavery. The comparisons the reviews make are with nostalgic, racist films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) made during the height of the Jim Crow era or with non-serious exploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) and the more recent Django Unchained (2012). (Even though it is surely the case that high schools don’t actually rely on such Hollywood movies when they teach the history of slavery, the point is still well taken.) What all these reviews aim to do is conjure up what Walter Benjamin once described in his seminal 1936 essay on the nature of film “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as an “aura” of originality and authenticity by showing how superior and different 12 Years a Slave is when compared to these other movies.

In part, I agree with the basic idea of these reviews that, considering the centrality of slavery to American history, it is remarkable how few films about slavery have been made. I would also agree that this movie has some visually arresting scenes that brilliantly capture some of the legal complexity of a system when human beings are treated as property as well as the insane gender dynamics that it caused.  However, several things are missing in all this praise of the movie’s originality. The first and foremost is any mention of other serious films that have been made above slavery (all listed on Wikipedia, incidentally) — an odd omission indeed in reviews that place so much importance on this film being so original. Never mind Spielberg’s Amistad. I’m talking about the well-known TV series way back in 1977, Roots (written by Alex Haley who also co-authored the Autobiography of Malcolm X), and the well-regarded movie Sankofa (1993) directed by the acclaimed Haile Gerima. Even more strangely, they neglect to mention that Solomon Northup’s book had already been made into a movie before called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey in 1984 by one of the most celebrated African-American photographers (and also the director of Shaft), Gordon Parks. I do not blame the average American for not knowing about these films, all of them written and directed by black artists. But I do blame a reviewer for not doing his or her job (in the case of the above, all the reviews were written by white men), especially since by ignoring the history of black artistic achievement, they are also ignoring the years of cultural work and social activism that has galvanized black communities for decades. These are the earlier films that made 12 Years a Slave possible.

In addition to the loss of a sense of black cultural achievement in the art of film-making, by ignoring these other serious films about slavery, we also lose a critical perspective on 12 Years a Slave, because by celebrating 12 Years a Slave as so profoundly original, we are offered no real point of comparison. Indeed, the question nobody is asking is what makes this movie produced in the year 2013 any different from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which was not just the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, but also one of the most popular stage plays and eventually adapted multiple times for the silver screen. It is also a novel that has been deeply problematic for black artists and leaders in the twentieth century, most famously James Baldwin’s scathing essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class (as well as hip hop such as Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb“) that indict the novel for its sentimental morality and disturbing fetishization of the suffering black body. The absence of any comparison in the mainstream media’s reviews is surprising considering that the original Narrative of Solomon Northup was dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and was advertised as “Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — alluding to the “Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that Stowe published in 1853 in order to provide documentary evidence of the claims made in the novel. Why this matters is that certain dramatic features of the movie 12 Years a Slave actually follow some of the themes and narrative conventions of mid-nineteenth century story-telling, and other features don’t. As this excellent essay in the Atlantic argues, the book in 1854 and the movie in 2013 have a different sense of reality and of how to make their audiences feel the “truth” of the story — hence, the movie takes several liberties with the original story in order to heighten the dramatic intensity of the film. However, some problematic nineteenth-century conventions remain unquestioned. For instance, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the movie traces the protagonist’s movement from a moderate master to a psychotic and abusive one who is an alcoholic. The evils of alcohol are somehow mixed in with the evils of slavery, and in the nineteenth century, many of the members of the abolitionist movement were also members of the temperance movement. The effect is to tell the history of slavery in terms of individual morality and psychotic brutality to which slaves are the victims — a narrative that simplifies history into a good-versus-evil story. What is hard to imagine in such a narrative is how such a system of slavery could have been economically so successful in America for two centuries if the slave owners were merely brutish, insane drunks.

To be sure, the brutality, terrorism, and constant threat of violence of the institution of slavery is an important story to tell, but in telling the story this way, the movie is missing two things, not just two things that are present in the original book, but also two things that are present in other works of literature and movies about slavery, notably the movie Sankofa, which I am arguing here is the movie about slavery that everyone should be talking about. These two things are (1) a conscious reflection on one’s roots and our enduring cultural connection to the past, and (2) a sense of the positive culture of resistance and survival that would give African Americans a sense of pride in their identity as a people who overcame this institution rather than an image of absolute deprivation and horror. Let’s contrast 12 Years a Slave with the more politically Pan-Africanist film Sankofa, since I think Haile Gerima’s Sankofa remains the best movie on slavery in terms of its narrative content. Sankofa‘s narrative technique is a bit more complex, since it begins with the present — a young black fashion model doing a photo shoot in Ghana near the ruins of a slave-trading fort. She experiences a deep psychic transference that puts her consciousness in the body of a slave. The narrative technique relates thematically to the title of the movie: the word Sankofa in the Akan language means that one must look back to the past in order to move forward in the future. (The image is of a bird looking backward.) This movie very directly asks the audience to think about who they are now and where they came from. In contrast, the relatively simple narrative of 12 Years a Slave shows us a past that seems to have no enduring relation to our present and creates a moral distance between the viewer and the movie that never really demands that we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the position of the slave or in the position of the slave owner. We the audience leave the movie theater with the feeling of moral superiority  to the slave owners in the film — what we have seen is the horrors of a past that has since been corrected, and we are not them. Hence, as much as the reviews of 12 Years a Slave claim to be righting the wrongs of the past, they may actually have the opposite effect, serving an aesthetic escape from any real questioning of our own ethical position today. After all, does not slavery still exist in the world, and are not the clothes that we buy manufactured in sweatshops for multinational corporations? How do we understand our identities as citizens of the United States still today in relation to the reality of our global economy and the legacy of our political institutions that continue to support that economy?

In addition, Sankofa tells the story of the positive attributes of slave society including a slave community’s efforts to organize a revolt. Much of  Sankofa focuses quite accurately on how slaves actually lived and supported each other, the day-by-day successes of the community to maintain itself despite the many tragedies and abuses and failures. It celebrates the cultural memory through the songs they sang, the traditions of medicine they brought from Africa, the food they cultivated and prepared, and the personal and social relationships they struggled to maintain. As much of the past century of scholarly research has revealed, the slaves were not simply victims, but rather they profoundly influenced American culture and actively resisted slavery sometimes through direct revolts but more often in subtle ways. Often the slaves were able to exploit legal loopholes and the inherent contradictions in a system that valued the slave as property and not as a human being.

But this is not the story 12 Years a Slave tells. Focusing on the deprivation of slaves under a brutal, terrorist regime, it has little about the positive culture of resistance and widespread political organization by blacks against that regime. If a white audience is never really asked to identify with the slave owners in the film and never really forced to ask the question of what we would do if we were in that position, likewise, the film doesn’t give the descendents of slaves much to identify with either. Ironically, here the movie and the book differ. The book includes many in-depth scenes of slave culture and forms of solidarity that the movie leaves out. The book also focuses more intently on the economics of running a plantation including the laws of property ownership and debt that actually keep Northup from getting killed by his master since he is not simply owned but actually is actually part of a network of debt relations among the wealthy elite. In the movie this is dramatized brilliantly (as is described in many of the reviews) when Tibeats tries to kill him, but he is protected by the overseer who leaves him hanging in a noose until the master Ford cuts him down. (Unlike the book, however, the movie does little to explain the contradictory legal structures and economic relations of debt that would cause all this to happen.) Likewise, the book also shows the efficiency of the plantation economy including the use of slaves as overseers. In the movie, this troubling history of black-on-black violence is represented only as the psychotic episode of a drunk master when Epps forces Northup to abuse Patsey, but the movie cuts out the part of the book when Northup is just an ordinary overseer who regularly manages other slaves with his whip. This reality of the lives of slaves was far more morally conflicted and confusing than the movie shows. In other books and movies about slavery, such as Sankofa, this common feature in the ordinary and efficient management of a plantation is presented as a very real political problem and challenge to black solidarity — an important issue for the black communities and audiences during the twentieth-century Civil Rights and Black Power movements to be sure, though not an issue explored with much nuance and understanding in 12 Years a Slave. The challenge of black solidarity was also an important issue for black abolitionists in the nineteenth century such as Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, though we never see much evidence of the abolitionist movement and black social networks in the new movie 12 Years a Slave (In contrast, we do see all this in the 1984 version directed by Gordon Parks.) Noticeably, although the original book indicates awareness of the importance of the abolitionist movement and organized resistance to slavery, as well as the challenges of black solidarity within a brutal, contradictory system, the movie emphasizes individual suffering and Northup’s exceptional personality.

What is my point here? I do not mean to detract from the importance of this new movie, which I expect to win the Academy Award for best picture. It’s a brilliantly made film, and probably I will include it in my own teaching of early nineteenth-century literature when I teach Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many other canonical authors who wrote about the issue of slavery. It may not be the original film on slavery or even the best film on slavery as the reviewers suggest, but it is certainly doing something that no big-budget film has done before (including the winning of the Golden Globe award for best picture already.) My criticism is directed less at the movie itself than at how the mainstream media has presented it to the public. Ultimately, in my view, the movie is a story of a black man who experiences the terrors of slavery and is eventually rescued by a white man (Brad Pitt), instead of the story that black film makers in the 1970s and 1980s were more interested in — the story of black communities working to rescue themselves. Indeed, what is missing from 12 Years a Slave and the mainstream media’s discussion of it is the same historical fact that is missing from Spielberg’s Lincoln (as I wrote about in this blog [see here] and discussed in a public forum [see here]) — and that is the heroic work not of individuals, but of organized communities.

The Voice, Image, and Story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

23 Jun

A few years ago, for my introductory course on post-colonial literature, I taught the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007 by Mohsin Hamid, which was reviewed very positively (e.g., see herehere, and here) and received numerous awards. Many of my students told me they liked it because it provoked them to think about the World Trade Center attack of 9/11/2001 in new and more complex ways; however, the highly emotional and complex issue of 9/11 and the American response to it were only one of the reasons I included the novel on the syllabus. A personal reason was that I really liked his first novel, Moth Smoke, and wanted to check out his second one. (I have recently also read his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, published just a few months ago.)  The more academic reason to include it on the syllabus near the end of the semester was to move the students from post-colonial literature as it had been originally conceived in the 1970s and 80s by theorists such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak toward the questions about globalization and international finance that came to dominate scholarly debates among those same theorists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The field has changed, and indeed Hamid has called himself a post-postcolonial writer. Last week, I was motivated to re-read the novel because it was made into a film by the well-regarded director Mira Nair. I went to the theater with much curiosity. Reviews of the film  were much less positive than those of the book, and in adapting the novel to the screen, Nair made some very significant changes — changes that were criticized harshly in this New York Times review for losing all the subtlety and complex ambiguity of the novel.

Although I generally agree with that review, I don’t want to repeat the so-often repeated refrain that “the novel is always better than the movie.” I don’t think that’s always true. I also don’t wish to simply lament the changes Nair made to the story. The medium is different, so changes had to be made, and we should receive those changes with an open mind. Some of the details that she changed were, in my view, actually an improvement. Instead, I want to raise some questions of more practical value for the aspiring writer and filmmaker about the idea of voice and its relationship to image, plot, and meaning.

The novel begins with the tantalizing line, “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” It is almost as if the novelist is addressing the reader, but of course it is one character speaking to another. The entire novel is a monologue, one man narrating his life to a stranger, while the two men eat dinner and walk around the city of Lahore, Pakistan. We never know who, or what, the other man is, except that he is American — an especially “quiet American” if I may make a joking allusion to the Graham Greene novel. Hints are dropped that he may be an operative for the U.S. government, but nothing at all is ever revealed, and we don’t even know why the narrator wants to talk to him in the first place. The structure of the novel creates a doubling effect so that we feel the narrator is not only talking to the unknown man, guiding him through Lahore and though his life, but also talking to us, the reader, explaining the feelings and complexities of people in Pakistan. Hence, the success of the novel — what keeps the plot and meaning alive and moving — is that we never see or know this American, because he is virtually us, whoever we might be.

To summarize the story that the narrator tells his unknown audience, it begins in New York City in the summer of 2001. The narrator’s name is Changez (pronounced Chon-guez, but it’s obvious that the name is meant to be a pun on the word “changes.”), and he has just graduated from Princeton University and been offered a job as a financial analyst for a prestigious “valuation firm.” His job is to assess the worth of other firms and make recommendations about how to increase that worth by cutting labor costs, selling off assets, etc. His company’s approach is described as focusing on the “fundamentals,” and although Mohsin Hamid never explicitly makes the connection, we might speculate that he has in mind the “market fundamentalism” of the Chicago school of economics that dominates the world of high finance and the International Monetary Fund. This approach to economics and policy has been criticized by eminent economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, journalists such as Naomi Klein, and even wealthy investors such as George Soros. One of the main twists of the novel is this play on the word “fundamentalism” since before we begin reading the novel we might assume that the sort of fundamentalism that this Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated man is “reluctant” to adopt is the fundamentalist Islam of terrorists, some of whom reside in his home country. However, what we eventually learn is that the fundamentalism the character is relectant to adopt and eventually comes to reject is the market fundamentalism of American financial institutions and his own employer.  At the same time that he begins his new job, he also begins a romance with a white, American classmate, who is an aspiring novelist, and whose name Erica is clearly a pun on America (Am Erica), since his relationship to her mirrors his relationship to the country and his job. She has not been able to get over a longterm childhood boyfriend, Chris, who died unexpectedly of cancer. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, things change for Changez. His love for America and for his job are overwhelmed by the anti-Islamic rage and prejudice he feels around himself and the policies of America towards his country. Erica is also affected by 9/11 and emotionally retreats into a nostalgic past centered around her dead boyfriend Chris. She removes herself from Changez, is put into a psychiatric institution, and eventually dies of melancholy. Changez quits his job and moves back to Lahore, Pakistan, where he becomes a popular college professor.

For the most part, the movie keeps this plot. But before I continue, check out the movie’s trailer:

One minor change that is an improvement is that Erica is less of a symbol in the movie and more a real human being. She does not waste away and die; rather she and Changez simply separate. Her psychological issues actually seem to have a more sensible cause since she was the accidental cause of her boyfriend’s death when she drove a car while drunk. Instead of being a novelist, she is a visual artists, which makes sense since the movie is likewise a visual medium. The catalyst for the breakup between her and Changez is not simply 9/11 but the work of art she makes about her relationship with Changez which he finds offensive in the context of 9/11 because of the Islamic stereotypes it invokes. This is one of the minor changes to the story that director Mira Nair makes, and I like it not just because the female character is more believable and human, rather than an imaginary construct of the male ego, but also because it draws attention to the key question of art, image, and meaning. The conflict between Changez and Erica begins because of a difference in interpretation, and this might alert the viewer of the movie that they too should question their interpretation of what they are watching. I say that “it might” do this, or it could have done this, but the movie’s focus on the sexual relationship between the two characters overwhelms this more cognitive, interpretive dimension.

However, the more significant and problematic change is the entirely new story-line that is added. Instead of an unknown American, the character is very much known. He is a journalist working as a secret agent for the American government. Somehow, Changez is aware of all this. The movie adds some rather complicated circumstances around the conversation between the two men in order to give the movie some dramatic action and suspense. The journalist has been led to believe that Changez might be part of a radical, anti-American Islamic movement that has kidnapped the American professor who works at Changez’s school. According to one reviewer [here], the movie is very deliberately grafting the real case of a kidnapped American journalist, Daniel Pearl (see this report in the NY Times) onto Hamid’s story. As the movie’s plot eventually reveals, the CIA and the journalist were mistaken about Changez’s politics. He is not the radical fundamentalist they assumed he had turned into. As Changez’s explains, he has come to reject all fundamentalisms, both the religious and the economic. The movie’s most obvious message is against prejudice and stereotypes. Mira Nair explains that goal in an interview here:

It is Nair’s committment to this message that probably led her to be far more blatant and heavy-handed in showing scenes of Changez experiencing such prejudice and abuse. In these scenes, the police are so obnoxious and stupid that the audience easily empathises with Changez, who is a somewhat heroic figure by the end of the movie. Most of these scenes are not in the novel at all, and others are given less description, so that the prejudice Changez describes in the novel is more abstract and psychological. In the novel, Changez is not such a heroic character, not quite so easy to empathize with, and not at all clear about his own agenda and reasons for talking to the strange and strangely quiet American.

In addition, Nair’s rather simplistic message of liberal openness to others is slightly different from the message of the novel. The novel poses a much sharper question about the contradictory feelings the character Changez has about how to understand economic and personal success. In my view, the novel could have done even more than it did to show in concrete terms what is meant by “market fundamentalism” and what market fundamentalism’s inherent, self-contradictory problems are. After all, there is plenty of material available for him to use, such as the Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen’s aggressive critique. But Hamid perhaps wisely refrains from such a polemic, which might have undermined the novel’s committment to moral ambiguity, the human psyche, and the play of semantic meaning. In contrast to the novel, whose plot twist is the meaning of the word fundamentalism, Mira Nair’s movie focuses on cultural identity and prejudices.  It almost seems as though the director Mira Nair has forgotten the Hamid’s double entendre on the word “fundamentalism” until one single sentence near the end, and instead of exploring what that could mean as Hamid does, she offers image after image of Pakistani culture and angry Muslims that her American and European audience already expect. The repeated refrain is that things aren’t always as they seem — a refrain that should remind us that we are watching a movie and that we should question our own points of view, except that it doesn’t.

Why doesn’ it?

The answer to this question takes us back to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post about the difference between the medium of print and the medium of film, and this includes the relationship of voice to plot and meaning. The novel’s strength is the voice of the narrator and the first-person structure of the narration. The narrator’s voice appears so emotionally detached from the events in spite of the fact that he is telling about highly emotional events. It’s as if Changez has changed into a different person, now looking back on his life not quite objectively, but through a fog of time. The entire event of the novel — a complete stranger pouring out his life story to another — is somewhat improbable, and this reminds us that this is precisely the sort of conversation we never actually have, but maybe should have. The novel’s structure also keeps us skeptical about the truth of Changez’s story. We don’t know anything for sure. The American character is a blank that allows us to put ourselves in that place, and this along with the twist on our expectations about the meaning of the word “fundamentalist” forces us to think critically about ourselves.

I am reminded of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s joke about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In justifying the doctrine of preemptive strike, Rumsfeld claims there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. In other words, stuff we definitely know about the enemy, stuff that we know that we don’t know about the enemy, and stuff we don’t even know that we don’t know. Therefore, for Rumsfeld, to avoid another 9/11, preemptive strike is justified. Zizek observes that Rumsfeld neglected to take his logic all the way, that also there are unknown knowns — and these are things we ought to know but repress. This includes things about ourselves (our own guilt and culpability) and things about the basic humanity of the “other” that we repress in order to demonize them. My argument is that the structure of Hamid’s novel asks us to confront our own unknown knowns.

Of course, the movie is a very different medium. It can’t simply be a first-person voice, because then it would be just one person talking on the screen for an hour. Instead, it must dramatise the story, render it in a series of images, and as soon as it shows the image of something, then the characters and events appear to us as actual “events” rather than narrated story or “voice.” Hence, the movie gives us a back story to the American journalist who is listening to Changez’s tale, and we see other characters interacting with Changez during this conversation, and based on those interactions we get a sense of the complex and basically good man he “really” is. Ultimately, we feel like we understand both characters’ points of view, so we are never really asked to question our own. Moreover, another difference between the novel and movie is that the novel relies heavily on linguistic play with the names Changez and Erica and the concept of fundamentalism. The activity of reading is a slower, more reflective activity so that we are given time to think about the meaning of words. How can a movie accomplish such linguistic and conceptual play through images that move relatively fast?

In my view, the movie can do all the things that the novel does, and perhaps even do it better. Such movies as The Third Man, Memento, and Dead Again all force the audience to question the nature of what they see on the screen. The most important aspect of any film is not what it shows, but rather what it conceals. For instance, suspense is created when a character points at something but we the audience can’t see what he’s pointing at, or when something happens, but we can’t see the cause of it. So, considering that what gives a film its meaning is precisely what is concealed and how that concealment gives audience a space to begin using their imagination and think critically — and considering that this sort of game of showing and concealing is precisely also the structure of Hamid’s novel —  what should Mira Nair have done differently?

I will leave it at that.

Django Unchained, Lincoln, and the Use of History

16 Jan

lincoln-poster-gun-steven-spielbergThis January, it is common to find film critics such as this rather witty one comparing two new and somewhat controversial films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Along those lines, the comparison between the gun-slinging Django and the politically savvy Lincoln has been humorously and visually made in the Django/Lincoln/James Bond mash-up poster that you see here. Both movies are made by white men about the subject of slavery; both feature heroic white men who over the course of the movie become devoted to the cause of emancipation; both have been nominated for best picture awards this year, and both have been discussed in light of the directors’ earlier films about the Jewish holocaust — Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

So, it’s not surprising that people would compare them, but I’ve got a slightly different take on these movies than what I’ve seen the critics say, and I think the critics have been avoiding both the real question and the troubling implications not only for these two movies, but for most movies. The real question, of course, is the use of history — why? who cares? Or to respond to a sentiment I often hear from students sometimes about watching movies just for “enjoyment” and not for any deeper meaning, why is history enjoyable? And the more troubling implication of this question has to do with the anti-social quality of both films, and I will explain what I mean by that at the end of this blog post by comparing Tarantino’s approach to the blaxploitation genre with the older 1972 film The Legend of Nigger Charley upon which Tarantino’s movie is based. But before that, I will briefly summarize and respond to the things critics are saying.

First, although there are some similarities as I mentioned above, critics and the public in general have all pointed out important differences. Both of Tarantino’s films (Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards)are violent revenge fantasies that self-consciously play with the genre conventions of blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, and both of Spielberg’s are about actual historical figures and purport to teach us something true about history. Django features a black man who engages in trickery and kills a lot of white men in order to free his wife; Lincoln features a white man who engages in political trickery during a war in which millions were killed in order to free slaves. Django is a bromance between a white man and a black man in which both characters develop and change as they get to know each other; Lincoln is a solid rock of righteousness, folk wisdom, and pragmatic virtuosity who never wavers and never changes.

Probably the most controversial aspect of both films is their use and abuse of history. Since Spielberg claims his Lincoln is “true,” he has been criticized for many historical inaccuracies (e.g., here and here, though curiously these inaccuracies are less worrisome to the American Historical Association’s executive director here.) The most troubling inaccuracy of course is the film’s strange occlusion of the abolitionist movement, especially Frederick Douglass’s influence. Many historians and theorists, from Angela Davis to Eric Foner, have demonstrated the importance of these movements on American politics in general and on Lincoln’s own mindset in particular. Along those lines, popular culture has also responded to Spielberg’s movie, and here is a somewhat amusing satire most of which is pretty accurate (until the end, when he starts talking about hats and beards.)

But the exclusion of this historical information is not the only problem. The movie even goes so far as to suggest that such radicals need to be contained when at a key moment in the film Thaddeus Stevens pragmatically shifts to the political center, when in fact it was the radicals who did most of the real work before Lincoln even took office. In what is probably supposed to be a touching scene but for me was a nauseating one, Lincoln’s very difficult and controversial shift from a separatist position (blacks free but separate from whites) to an integrationist position — a shift that was brought about by Douglass and other white and black abolitionists — is contained in a rather sentimental conversation between Lincoln and his wife’s maid. (And I use the word “contained” deliberately — in terms of narrative, quite literally the whole issue is contained in that one conversation and appears nowhere else, and hence in metaphorical terms, the issue is contained and its historical and political implications are prevented from contaminating the heroic image of Lincoln that Spielberg wants to present.) The two black women portrayed in the movie appear to be mere domestics, but in real history they were activists and organizers.

In contrast, Django has been criticized by Spike Lee and others less for its inaccuracies than for its disrespectful attitude towards the seriousness of slavery as well as in his perverse delight in having his characters so cavalierly brandish about the n-word (e.g., here and here.) To put it another way, few people expect historical accuracy from this sort of film, but what’s troubling to Spike Lee is that the movie transforms something horrible and traumatic into something hilarious and enjoyable. It trivializes something that we ought to take seriously.

But what’s historical fiction for, anyway? Accuracy? Perspective? Patriotism? Honoring the past? Hating the past? In discussing Lincoln with a friend, we both agreed that what Lincoln did well was focus very intently on a single month of time and bring to light the sort of hard and dirty political maneuvers that might lay behind any piece of legislation that came to define the very soul of the United States and our political system. This is a movie we could imagine a high school teacher showing in a U.S. history or civics class. And indeed, the movie begins almost like a high school class, with some minor characters attempting like schoolboys to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. But of course, what’s missing from all the political maneuvers is any sense of why any of the political figures feel or think the way they do. We don’t get a rich sense of what motivates any of the political positions. The issue of race that other critics have brought up is part of this problem. We don’t see the years of hard work that the abolitionists put in to make that happen. We don’t get any sense of black people as politically organized. But this is just part it. In fact, we don’t see any social organization of any kind or any aspect of American culture. We only see the epiphenomenal political superstructure on top of the much more complex cultural base, and what’s insidious about that is that it isolates politics and political action from the very stakes that political representation is supposed to be for in the first place.

Of course, Lincoln would be a very boring movie if it were only about the politics. Spielberg has to humanize the characters and give them a semblance of depth, and this is especially important and hard to accomplish for the character of Lincoln considering that this is a character who does not develop because his heroic image is based on his rock-like consistency. Spielberg achieves this semblance of depth by shifting the focus of the story back and forth between the political intrigue and his family. The camera technique that Spielberg uses to achieve this is the deep focus shots pioneered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, where what is happening in the foreground relates to or contrasts with what’s happening in the background. But for Welles, this deep focus technique was used to create ironic juxtapositions that revealed a deep ideological and psychological conflict. In contrast, for Spielberg, the family man foreground functions to humanize and justify Lincoln’s politically unconstitutional maneuvers in the background. What if, instead of all the family imagery, we were given a broader view of the culture in which Lincoln lived? This might diminish his agency and his heroic image, and more to the point, it would undermine Spielberg’s hagiographic use of history to celebrate heroic, individualist pragmatism at the expense of radical social organization.

For me, for all its differences, Django has the same problems as Lincoln, even though its abuse of history is for entirely different ends. First, what I think is politically effective and amazing about Django can be summed up by telling my experience watching it in a movie theater in downtown Brooklyn. The audience was a mix of white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., but seemed mostly white. What I saw as Tarantino’s achievement is that every time the black character killed a white character, everyone in the audience cheered. But of course what’s missing from Django is precisely the politically and socially organized black community that is also missing from Lincoln. Just as in Lincoln, we see no positive culture in this film. Instead, in both films (and also in the new James Bond films that I just wrote about recently) we see individual heroism against a vague backdrop of a negative culture, and specifically in the case of Django, this heroism is mostly manifest in Django’s talent with a gun and with his partner’s ability to twist the law towards his own ends. (To qualify this, I would say that what’s actually really great about Django is that unlike Lincoln we do have character development as the two men become friends; by the end of the film, what Tarantino has carefully and brilliantly plotted is a very clever role reversal as the white man and black man gradually switch positions.)

It might serve us well to compare Django to its predecessor from three decades ago, The Legend of Nigger Charley and its sequels The Soul of Nigger Charley  and Boss Nigger which were also box-office hits. How does Tarantino’s new movie differ from the older blaxploitation film that inspired him?

Obviously, in the early 1970s, it was a new and astonishing thing to have heroic black men brandishing guns, beating up whites, and getting the girl at the end of the film. And these movies were not intended only for black audiences. White audiences liked them too. Of course, at the time, as the excellent documentary BaadAsssss Cinema showed, the black community was deeply divided over these films, some celebrating them for giving the same sorts of roles to black characters that whites had always enjoyed in the movies, and others condemning them for emphasizing crime, sex, violence, and derogatory language (i.e., the n-word) — things for which the black community had been stigmatized. What’s different about the debate in the 1970s and the debate over Django that people are having now is that in the 70s, these films really were doing something new and enacting a cultural transformation. One can’t say that about Django.

But there is a deeper and more profound difference. In movies such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Nigger Charley, we frequently see scenes of groups of black men having serious conversations about what to do and how to improve their lives and overcome racism. Nigger Charley even concludes with a multi-ethnic alliance between whites, Native Americans, and blacks against corruption. This important dimension of the plot was totally missed by the critic Roger Ebert in his review. The plots of these movies are not especially complex, but they allude to the ways that racism is complex and sometimes functions in ways that are not obvious. In contrast, in movies like Django, racism is simply the ideology that evil men have, and in Lincoln, racism is simply a back story that we’re already supposed to know about but is left unexplored. Additionally, in Tarantino’s homages to blaxploitation Django and Jackie Brown (and in my view Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best movie by far and is more attentive than Django to culture and society), the n-word is simply tossed around because Tarantino says “that’s how people talk,” but in The Legend of Nigger Charley, it is always a word that is spoken by white characters who clearly use it as a term of oppression until the end, when Charley appropriates it as a term of revenge in order to inspire terror in the very people that once terrorized him. That complexity which was central to the older blaxploitation films is absent from Tarantino’s.

In sum, the older blaxploitation films were attentive to the complexities of culture and the difficult labor of social organization in ways that Django and Lincoln are not.

But I am still begging the question I raised at the beginning of this post, what is the use of all this history? To say that historical movies educate — or even more complexly to say that we learn a lesson from the past about what we ought to do in the present — doesn’t explain why we enjoy them and doesn’t explain the necessary functions of simplification, anachronism, sentimentality, and fantasy. This should be obvious to anyone, and it should be especially obvious to those of us versed in the theories of Jacques Derrrida, Gilles Deleuze, Stuart Hall, Jacqueline Rose, etc. but most of the negative criticism has focused on the question of accuracy and representation, while the positive reviewers have responded that accuracy doesn’t matter. In fact, accuracy does matter, but neither simply for the sake of being accurate nor simply for the sake of fair representation to identifiable groups (blacks, whites, etc.) Rather, it is a question of our psychic relation to the past and how the past continues to function in our shared culture as a marker for who we are and who we want to be. The past is a screen that we project ourselves upon, where we imagine political agency and power, and in this sense, what is disturbing about Lincoln and Django is that the directors are projecting a profoundly anti-social vision of human agency that is both ruthless and divorced from broad-based cultural work.

Skyfall, Globalization, and the Ghost of History

14 Jan

A few years ago, I wrote a post in my other blog, Theory Teacher’s Blog, about how the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace was symptomatic of globalization, and I later expanded that post into a scholarly article entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory, Inside and Out,” for the journal CineAction that was published in the fall of 2009. The text has been put on the internet without my permission by the Free Library [here]. In it, I discussed many of the theorists of twenty-first century globalization who have argued that the old international order of nation states has been superseded by a new global order in which nation states are merely part of a larger network of transnational and local relations that include multinational corporations, finance capital, criminal organizations, non-governmental organizations, social and environmental movements, etc. Whether or not that is actually true, it is a way of thinking about the world that, I argue, is reflected in recent cinema. In my view, Bond was not unique, but rather typical of this paradigm shift within the movie industry in general and spy thrillers in particular, and I later blogged about the movies The International and Duplicity to expand my argument. So, when the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, was released this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond movie, I had to see it. And considering that this is the most profitable Bond film of all time,  scoring huge at the box office, I was very curious whether the new movie would confirm my theory about Bond films, and several of my friends and colleagues asked me whether I thought so.

In some ways yes, in some ways, no.

For sure, the actor Daniel Craig continues to play the constantly brooding, angry version of Bond, instead of the pithy, urbane version of Bond performed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and others. But my point is that the new Bond style is not just Craig’s acting — it’s the whole thing, and it’s a “whole thing” that relates to the history of globalization.

The question that the characters of Skyfall ask over and over again is whether the fictional Bond character, as well as the real British intelligence service MI6, is irrelevant in our globalized, postmodern world. The movie brilliantly layers this idea, as Bond appears to die, but returns, and at various moments in the movie, Britain’s Parliament debates the relevance of MI6 and the double-O agents. In one scene, Bond and Q sit in front of a painting of a “grand old war ship inevitably being hauled off to scrap,” and Eve Moneypenny jokes about Bond being an old dog with new tricks. As the gorgeous theme song by Adele begins, “This is the end,” and later Bond jokes that he specializes in resurrection. (By the way, Bond’s resurrection is not a new theme; consider You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye.) Amusingly, and not so coincidentally, critics have been asking the same question that the movie itself asks. Is the Bond film a dead genre, or does it have to reinvent itself or resurrect itself to stay current and hip… and… uh… not suck. And there appears to be a general consensus that Skyfall represents something new, some critics celebrating the movie for its innovative new take, and others trashing the film for failing in the attempt. However, I have a slightly different view than the critics. For all the obsessive worry about relevance and newness, the film actually asserts a troubling and ridiculously nostalgic return to the old Bond.

But before I explain what I mean about this nostalgic return to the old Bond, rather than a further elaboration of the new Bond, let’s review how Skyfall repeats some of the stuff I mentioned in my article about Quantum of Solace. Most of the “globalist” ideas appear in a speech that the villain Silva gives when he and Bond first meet. Silva pontificates about all of Bond’s outdated attachments to the nation-state and the old order: “England… empire… MI6… you’re living in a ruin and just don’t know it yet.” (Ironically, they are having this conversation literally within a ruin that Silva himself created.) He goes on to explain how easy it is to destabilize nation states by rigging the stock market and elections. In a sense, Silva’s speech is somewhat similar to the argument I made about globalization and the withering of the nation-state in my article, but with one key and unsurprising difference. What was good about the previous Bond movie Quantum of Solace is its recognition that in the real globalized world of today, it is the U.S. and British governments who are doing all that “rigging” and often collaborating with clandestine and criminal organizations in order to do so. This was the first time in Bond history that the British government was not unequivocally on the side of good. The plot was complicated enough to map out a somewhat complex network of relations, which moved beyond the simplistic good-guys versus bad-guys story that was so typical of the older Bond movies. What’s stupid about Skyfall is the world’s geopolitical complexity is reduced to the character of Silva, whose insanity represents pure evil, and who would be a totally absurd character if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Javier Barden. What is even more troubling is Bond’s response to Silva, that Bond represents a “resurrection.” But a resurrection of what? Silva has just trashed the British empire, and who would want to resurrect that?

In a sense, the new Bond film reduces the complexity of history to an Oedipal drama. (I’m not the only person to notice the excessively Freudian structure of the plot; for instance, see David Denby’s review in The New Yorker and another in the Atlantic.) Whereas Quantum of Solace traces the return of history in terms of American geopolitical strategies coming back to bite America in the ass, Skyfall is strictly a Freudian fantasy where the injured MI6 agent with mommy issues and a bruised adolescent ego returns to attack his former boss, who is represented as a mother figure. The film is brilliant on this point, especially when Silva shows what the cyanide capsule did to his face when he tried to kill himself in order to protect Great Britain; in that scene, he is both figuratively and literally the monster that MI6 unintentionally created. We might pose an analogy between this monstrosity and the monstrosity of so many militant groups created by the United States and Europe in other countries that backfired — Ronald Reagan’s al Qaeda being the worst. But the movie doesn’t do that. Instead we have two ghosts (or, “the last two rats,” as the movie repeatedly jokes) — the ghost of Bond returning from the dead in order to fight the ghost of Bond’s evil twin. Both of them feel wronged by MI6, and for Silva, M clearly represents the “phallic mother” figure whose love he seeks but whom he also wants to master or destroy. However, unlike Silva who returns from the dead to wage a personal war against M and MI6, Bond returns from “enjoying death” to protect M and MI6 because, he says, “we are under attack.” In this way, the movie projects international politics onto the personalities of individuals, and any geopolitical context that could have been explored or even just alluded to in the background has almost entirely disappeared from view. The movie even attempts to justify its own narrative blindness by means of an odd version of globalization theory’s thesis about the reduced role of the modern nation-state when M tells Parliament that “our enemies are  no longer known to us, they are no longer nation states; they are now individuals…. and the shadows is where we do battle.” (Ironically, of course, their enemies are very much “known” to MI6, because apparently the “individuals” are former MI6 agents.)

Three quarters of the way through a very long movie, it appears that Silva’s postmodern, globalized insanity has got Bond and MI6 beat, so how is Bond to fight back? The answer is by going back in time, where, as Bond says, “we have the advantage.” And so we travel to Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, a mansion in Scotland. To complete this nostalgic image, the old home appears to come with its own endearing old caretaker, Mr. Kincaid, who appears with a shotgun on his arm as if just back from a pheasant hunt. Here, a number of things are completely unique and new about this Bond film. First, this is the only time in Bond history that Bond’s childhood is a major part of the plot. In all other Bond movies, Bond’s life before he became an agent is totally absent, and it’s hard to imagine him anything but, as if he sprang like Minerva, a fully formed agent with tuxedo, martini, and Walther PPK pistol from the brain of Zeus (or, in this case, from the motherly brain of M.) Second, this is the first time that most of the explosions happen inside of Britain. Usually, Bond goes to other countries where he and the villain callously destroy much of that nation’s cultural heritage, but in Skyfall, both MI6 headquarters and Bond’s childhood home are destroyed (and please note the Freudian connection between his childhood home where his parents died and his adult home at MI6 where the life of his new “mum” — his boss M — is threatened.) Lastly, and most importantly, this is the first Bond movie where Bond cries, and over what does he weep so many tears? Yes, the death of his surrogate Oedipal mommy, M.

Since the death of M (mum) is the climax of the movie, we might think back to when Judi Dench was first introduced as the new M — not surprisingly in the last movie to also question Bond’s relevance in a post-soviet era, Golden Eye, when Judi Dench calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” In the history of Bond films, GoldenEye represented a major turning point for three reasons. First, because it was produced after the longest gap in time between Bond films, as studios really did believe the genre had died with Timothy Dalton. Second, it was the first Bond movie to be produced after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, so it very directly raised the question of whether MI6 and Bond were still relevant.  Third, GoldenEye replaced the sexist, old-boys-club feel of the earlier Bond movies with more progressive roles for women, including Judi Dench as M, a more outspoken and capable “Bond-Girl” (e.g., Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco in GoldenEye). By the time we get the new Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the pathetic, Bond-worshipping Moneypenny character has also been dropped from the story. Curiously, while in her first movie, Dench as M criticizes the old agents like Bond, in her last movie she defends them, and she defends them just in time to signal a return to the arrangement of the older Cold-War-era Bond movies with a new male M and a doting Moneypenny. What excessively Freudian Skyfall stages is the death of the “phallic mother” (M).

I’d like to pause for a moment to emphasize the paradox and the curious contradiction. On the one hand, critics are saying this is a “new” Bond movie (which of course annoys me, because I argued that it was Quantum of Solace that was the “new Bond.”) But on the other hand, it is a movie that nostalgically gestures back to the older films and performs a wish-fullfillment fantasy of a return to an older world order.

But of course we can’t go back, and what really makes this movie “new” and interesting is the troubling Freudian discovery that it can’t go back. Bond blows up his childhood home, which he says he has always hated, and its image burns like the ghost of history, an uncanny and very un-Bond-like image that haunts the movie’s end. This is wonderful cinema. For a full minute of screen time, everything is dark except for this burning house. In addition, even more important than the destruction of Bond’s two homes (his childhood home and MI6 headquarters), I’d like to suggest that one other aspect of this movie also undermines the desire to return to a simpler time. As some critics have noticed, the “Bond girl” Severine was the victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking when she was just a child. Bond’s discovery of this, and Severine’s self-betrayal, is perhaps, the most interesting moment in the film — the only moment of a troubling Real of globalization in the entire movie which is otherwise little more than a Freudian fantasy. Actress Berenice Marlohe is brilliant here, her whole body trembling with fear, rage, and hate towards the world order that the movie represents. And for both Lacanian and Foucaultian theorists of the Real and of the body, it is important that it is the actress’s body that communicates this. I assume that the horror of this scene is meant to dramatise what a horrible villain Silva is, but the horror is so great it almost overwhelms the whole movie. As dozens of scholarly articles on James Bond have noticed, Bond’s relationship to women is, of course, symptomatic of the fallen British empire’s relationship to the world. We may recall that what was totally unique and unprecedented in Quantum of Solace was the chaste relationship between Bond and the Bond-girl, Camille Montes, with whom he does not even try to have sex, but instead gives a brotherly peck on the cheek. Instead, in Skyfall, what is unprecedented is that the history of Severine’s exploitation is admitted, and the tragedy of her situation more painfully understood. In a way, both the excessively chaste Bond and politically radical Bond-girl in Quantum of Solace and the realization of Severine’s history in Skyfall are two sides of the same coin — the horrible Real of globalization that can no longer be properly sexualized and neutralized by a debonair hero. In truth, it is Severine who is the tragic heroine of globalization in this movie. Bond is not.

Let me explain why not. Traditionally, most Bond films end with both Bond and the Bond-girl together in each other’s arms, but at the end of the new Bond, Severine has died, Moneypenny has been transformed from a badass agent to a cheerful secretary, and the woman in Bond’s arms is his mommy, M. If I may make a joke on Newsweek‘s infamous cover story in 2009 after the government bailed out the auto industry, “We’re all Socialist Now,” we might speculate that if the popularity of the latest Bond movie says anything about our culture today, as it anxiously looks ahead to a troubled brave new world, it says that “We’re all Children Now.” At the beginning of this essay, I promised that I’d say something about why Craig’s brooding style is more appropriate for the new Bond than the adolescent humor of the old Bond — Craig is a lovable, angry child.