REVIEW – The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Goran Olsson’s archival documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

Back in the 60s, a group of Swedish journalists traveled to California in the hopes of understanding the American mindset. Once there, the filmmakers slowly found themselves gravitating away from ‘mainstream’ America and towards the burgeoning Black Power movement centered upon the Black Panther party. Nothing much was done with this footage at the time and so it sat in a vault for several decades until researchers uncovered it and turned it into a film. At its best, Black Power Mixtape is shining a fascinating and historically important light on a radical political movement whose reputation has long been unfairly tarnished. Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond the footage of the Black Panthers, the problems start to stack up:

Sadly, once the Black Power Mixtape shifts its emphasis from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam and the War on Drugs, the documentary begins to lose both its precision and its power.  An interview with Louis Farrakhan is eerie in its fantastical delusions and the documentary’s uncritical attitude towards the idea that the Nation of Islam offers a disciplined lifestyle heralds the arrival of a number of bizarre conspiracy theories including the somewhat inconsistent view that the authorities both turned a blind-eye to the drug trade in Black areas and cracked down on the drug trade in Black areas in a way that damaged the community and undermined the pursuit of civil rights.

Equally unconvincing are the documentary’s attempts to articulate the Swedish perspective on the civil rights movement.  While the amusing footage of Swedish tourists travelling round Harlem in a bus suggests that there is something vaguely inauthentic about Swedish concern for American civil rights, the documentary never manages to articulate what it is that is particularly Swedish about any of the footage or the interviews. Frankly, these could have come from the vaults of any European television station.

There’s no denying that this is an important film and I can completely understand why Sight and Sound magazine made it their film of the month. However, in an effort to expand the film to feature length and widen the scope of its observations, the film puts out a number of thematic feelers (war on drugs, Swedish opinions of 60s America) that not only fail to pay off but actually muddy the waters sufficiently that they distract from the power and importance of the film’s opening third.

Robinson in Ruins (2010) – Mould on a Dystopian Corpse

Back in the 1990s, the filmmaker and architectural scholar Patrick Keiller made a pair of films about Britain. As much video essays as they were documentary films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) were concerted attempts to find the true spirit of Britain that had been buried by a decade and a half of Thatcherite rule.  Sensing that the wheels were coming off the Tory juggernaut and that a fresh start would soon be required, Keiller used the eccentric academic Robinson and a wryly-comic unnamed narrator to sift the wreckage in search of gold.  Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Keiller’s intrepid explorers, the project was a political failure: Britain, much like its capital city, was a place devoid of any truth that could not be measured in pounds, euros, dollars or units of industrial measurement.  London and Robinson in Space are films about the defeat of the romantic spirit and the absolute victory of neoliberalism.

Over a decade later, Keiller returns with Robinson in Ruins, an unexpected addendum to the Robinson duology.  With the narrator dead and Robinson gone, the narration has fallen to an equally unnamed female public sector worker (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) who discovers Robinson’s footage and notes in an old caravan on a site destined for re-development. Made at the height of the credit crunch, when the towers of Capitalism tottered and nearly fell, Robinson in Ruins is far less pessimistic than either London or Robinson in Space.  Eerily apocalyptic and as visually arresting as all of Keiller’s work, Robinson in Ruins suggests that humanity’s salvation may lie in communion with non-human intelligences.

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REVIEW – Night and Fog (1955)

Videovista have my review of Alain Resnais’ sublime holocaust documentary Nuit et Brouillard.

Reminiscent in both its imagery and intent to Billy Wilder’s post-War propaganda film Death Mills (1945), Night and Fog is only 32-minutes long but each and every one of those 32 minutes packs a hefty punch.  Not content with directly addressing the somewhat thorny issue of France’s involvement in the deportation of Jews, Resnais attempts to universalise the cultural significance of the Holocaust in a number of ways.  Firstly, (like many films) he suggests that Jewish people do not in any sense own the Holocaust and that the stain of the atrocity marks each and every one of us.  Secondly, (somewhat more controversially) he suggests that many of the people inside the camps were far from innocent victims:

Between this and his continued insistence upon ‘denunciations’ and ‘thievery’, Resnais suggests that concentration camp inmates were far from blameless in the construction of some of the worst living conditions imaginable to man. While the film in no way lets the Nazis off the hook, it does suggest that the capacity for inhuman violence is present in all of us and that all the Nazis really did was create an environment in which man’s inhumanity to man could express itself fully. So detailed is Resnais’ accounting of social dynamics that one could almost watch Night And Fog as a sort of time and motion study. Given the film’s almost academic tone, the horrific imagery serves as a means of grounding the film and of reminding us what it is that we are discussing.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this review touches on many of the same issues as my recent review of Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s disappointing Sarah’s Key (2010), which is out this weekend.

The Hunter (2010) – America Unter Alles

Every morning, when I turn on the radio and hear of yet another wave of revolutionary uprisings or demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa, I invariably think that such events are long overdue. But what causes a popular uprising? What makes such a thing overdue?

In the West, we have an ageing and apathetic population ruled over by a largely corrupt political class who have little or no interest in rocking the boat. However, though archly conservative and hugely selfish, the mindset of the political classes broadly mirrors the attitudes of the ageing population they claim to represent and so, despite the odd march and protest, a revolution is not likely to take place any time soon. However, in the Arab World, the picture is startlingly different.

In the Middle East and North Africa, a similarly corrupt, conservative and selfish political class is currently in power. However, unlike the West, the population of the Arab World is not conservative and apathetic but young, vibrant and idealistic. For a while now, the older political class has managed to keep the young in line by making lavish promises and allowing them to blow off steam by whipping up anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment (despite their vocal outrage, Israeli atrocities have been a political godsend to the autocracies of the Arab world). When these fail to work, the ageing political classes use Western weapons and truncheons to put down the protestors while screaming about ‘foreign influence’. However, as the news reveals to us every morning, this tactic is rapidly starting to fail and the youth of the Arab World are starting to demand representation in the political classes of the countries they inhabit.

What makes this wave of uprisings feel overdue is the fact that they are largely the product of demographic weight.  The political algebra is quite clear:

Insufficient social and political mobility + high birth rate = revolution

But where does the truth of this equation come from? Where do revolutions start? Iranian director Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter suggests that, while revolutions begin with unhappy people, they seldom end that way as political issues have a tendency to outlive the people who first draw attention to them.

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BG 37 – The American Dream is SPENT

Futurismic have my thirty seventh Blasphemous Geometries column.

Entitled “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”, the column looks at two different browser-based business simulation games and shows how, despite both operating on the assumption that capitalism is a functional rules-based system, the games use their different depictions of that system to produce withering critiques of contemporary capitalism.

BG 36 – Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Futurismic have my thirty sixth Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column argues that the reason why we tend to swing to the right when we play games is because the video game interface changes the way we perceive the world.  Strategy games effectively make us see like a state and when we see like a state certain human values (like the cost of grand strategies in individual human lives) and concerns disappear but other values and concerns (such as stability of the international system and efficiency of government) appear to take their place.

The column draws quite heavily on the work of James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) but I am much more willing to lend the state an agency of its own than Scott was in the context of that book.  One reason why I did this is because I read and wrote about Scott’s more recent book The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), which really does present the state as a class of  entity in its own right.

What Makes An Idea Popular?

In my recent piece on James C. Scott’s toweringly excellent The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), I suggested that there are unwritten laws governing the up-take of particular theories.  Laws that have less to do with logic, reason and scientific rigour than they do with our deep psychological needs.

For example, Gibbons’ The History of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) argues that the Roman Empire fell into decline because the Romans lost their sense of civic responsibility and their hunger for military conquest.  This idea that power leads to moral corruption and that moral corruption leads to social decay seems to coincide with a similar pattern of rise and fall that features in the theories of both Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun.

These different works attempt to account for radically different societies and yet they all share a similar underlying narrative.  A narrative of rise and fall that even pops up in places such as The Bible and Plato’s allegory of The Cave.  In my piece, I suggest that the over-arching narrative described by Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed is so powerful that it may come to rival that of Vico and Ibn Khaldun as a source of inspiration for writers and artists (let alone academic historians and political scientists).  My aim with this piece is to delve further into this intuition and try to unpack some of the ideas contained within it.  Does it make sense to talk about selecting theories on the basis of criteria other than truth? Do these other criteria in any way relate to truth?  What are the aesthetics of ideas?  These are some of the questions I will try to address with this piece.

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REVIEW – Lebanon (2009)

Videovista have my review of Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon.

While I thought the film very fine to look at, I was intensely annoyed not only by the under-written and overly pretentious script.  To frame contemporary warfare as a theatre for psychological self-destruction is not only a terrible cliche (one thoughtlessly repeated by the thoughtless Hurt Locker) it is also politically suspect.  My reason for this sentiment is beautifully expounded in a paper that appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Foundation.

In “Hollywood and the Imperial Gothic”, Johan Hoglund draws upon the concept of ‘Imperial Gothic’ first laid out by Paul Brantlinger in his book The Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988).  The idea behind the Imperial Gothic is that narratives that deal with the end of an imperial civilisation do not actively weaken or subvert that civilisation.  Instead, they serve to bolster it by creating in the public’s mind further reasons for ‘cracking down’ or ‘surging’ against enemies either real or imagined.  Works like Maoz’s Lebanon and Folman’s Waltz with Bashir are essentially works of Israeli Imperial Gothic.

Indeed, by suggesting that Israel’s wars with Lebanon are places where young IDF soldiers go to lose their minds, films such as Folman and Maoz’s are lending credence to the idea that Israel must be tough in its dealings with Lebanon.  For if war with Lebanon is such a terrifying prospect then it follows that any anti-Israeli activity originating in Lebanon must be met with massive retaliatory force, preferably in the shape of air strikes.

Winter’s Bone (2010) – It’s a Man’s World… Thanks to Women

“The astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?”

So wrote the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his book on the psycho-sexual attractions of authoritarianism The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933).  Nowhere is this question more salient than in considering man’s oppression of women.  Indeed, the question is not why would a woman cut off her partner’s penis and throw it out the window of a speeding car but rather why it is not a daily occurrence.  A partial answer can be found in the concept of Kyriarchy.  ‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  This concept, designed to clear some of the clutter from the road to clarity, reflects the fact that society is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of power between men and women.  In truth, society is structured by an ever-changing swarm of inequalities that reflects the dynamic nature of our civilisation.  Yes, a man may well have an easier time rising to the top than a woman but at the same time a lesbian woman may well have an easier time of it than a trans man and a black man may lead a harder life than an asian woman while a one-legged Baha’i woman may find doors opening to her that have previously been shut in the face of a HIV+ Catholic.  Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity takes myriad forms.  We are ruled not by a Patriarchal father but by a Kyriarchal lord and the shape of that lord is forever changing.

The dynamic nature of human oppression goes some way to explaining the extent to which women can be complicit in the oppression of other women.  This is a theme that cuts right to the heart of Debra Granik’s cinematic adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006).  Set in the Ozark mountains, the film tells the story of a seventeen year-old girl as she navigates the terrifying network of hatreds, fears and obligations that holds together her impoverished rural community.

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Storytelling (2010) by Christian Salmon – Botching the Modern Argument

I am going to begin this piece by presenting you with some insights.  Hot off the digits and delivered fresh to your pre-frontal squire :

  1. Human neurology is such that we prefer engaging with narratives to wrestling with raw data points.
  2. This fondness for stories means that we are inclined to draw a line of best fit through the facts, eagerly accepting those claims that fit our narratives whilst turning a blind eye to those facts that contradict or complicate the story.
  3. This tendency to seek out narratives means that it is considerably easier for people to sell us a story than it is for them to convince us of isolated facts, even if the facts are more obviously true than the competing stories.
  4. Advertisers, politicians and all forms of demagogue are aware of these tendencies and factor them in to their dealings with the public.

These four insights can all more or less be inferred from the title of Christian Salmon’s book-length essay Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind.  They are also the only insights that the book contains.  Sadly, instead of fleshing out these concepts and painting a picture of the dangers inherent in such lazy thought patterns, Salmon prefers to indulge in a number of weak forms of argument that are, somewhat disappointingly, rife in the non-academic non-fiction sub-genre.

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