REVIEW – Kika (1993)

I’m pretty sure that Kika was the first Pedro Almodovar film I ever got round to seeing. I can remember trailers for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but I also remember renting Kika based on the insane amount of buzz created by the film and the links it forged between art house cinema and the fashion industry.

If you look back at the comments on my What Have I Done to Deserve This? piece, you’ll find me discussing the importance of Tartan’s Asia Extreme imprint in developing a new generational audience for art house and world cinema. Much like my other area of cultural interest — literary science fiction — art house film reached the 1990s in a state of acute cultural decline. The flea pit cinemas that once dotted London’s West End had been closed by waves of 1980s gentrification and Channel 4 had stopped filling their schedules with cheap foreign films. To this day, whenever someone talks about what it was like to be a cinephile in the 1960s and 70s, it’s a bit like reading a fantasy novel when one of the characters talks about the fall of some great and benign magical kingdom. What-once-was, is now lost and What-shall-be, is yet to come.

Nowadays, when people talk about the popularisation of transgressive images in 1990s popular culture, they use terms like ‘edgelord’ and portray the whole thing as a rather silly and immature experiment in cultural machismo. As someone who was there at the time, I won’t deny that a lot of what drew me to transgressive works was an adolescent and post-adolescent desire for extreme imagery. That aesthetic and those values were fucking everywhere at the time. However, while that aesthetic did create grimdark and usher in a load of problematic tropes that are only now being exiled from common usage, it also served as a really good way of introducing people to culture that they would otherwise never have sought out by themselves. Tartan’s Asia Extreme label may have been constructed to make the most of the J-Horror boom that followed the breakthrough success of Ringu but it did get me used to seeking out and watching obscure and sometimes difficult films.

I remember seeking out Kika because the trailer and marketing materials stressed its transgressive credentials. I also remember thinking that it was all rather light-weight as Almodovar invariably presents his darker ideas and themes in quite a light-hearted manner. Returning to Kika nearly twenty five years later, I can see why I struggled and why I arguably should have struggled more. My FilmJuice review can be found over here.

“The problem with postmodernism is that when the moral purpose of the deconstructive process is overlooked or downplayed (as in films like Natural Born Killers), the techniques of postmodernism result in little more than the commercial process of updating old ideas in an effort to sell them to contemporary audiences. Almodóvar’s films have always been postmodern in so far as they subvert and distort elements of mainstream Spanish culture but while earlier films like Dark Habits and What Have I Done to Deserve This? use their transgressive images to articulate profound emotional truths; Kika seems content to transgress for the sake of transgression meaning that the film’s imagery winds up feeling not just insubstantial but actively exploitative. Turns out that even the most fabulous dresses struggle to conceal the emptiness inside.”



REVIEW – In The House (2012)

ITHFilmJuice have my review of François Ozon’s In The House.

The film is set in a devastatingly modernist French high school where a bitter failed writer grinds out a living teaching French literature to teenagers who can barely read or write. Suddenly, the teacher’s gloom is lifted when one of his students hands in an astonishingly dry and sarcastic appraisal of a middle-class home he recently visited. His interest captured, the teacher encourages the boy’s talent and soon every piece of homework becomes another wry take-down of middle-class life. What makes this film interesting is that, rather than focusing upon the emotional connection between failed writer and ambitious student (YOU’RE THE MAN NOW, DOG!), the film uses the relationship as a metaphor for the creative process as the student is effectively writing for an audience of one who gives him detailed feedback on what he wants to see in the next chapter. Brilliantly, the teacher’s requests that the student alter his plot results in the student doing things that directly impact the teacher’s life forcing the audience to suffer for their vicarious literary joy.

One way of looking at In The House is to say that it features a more restrained approach to the shaggy postmodernism of Charlie Kaufman. For example, as with Being John Malkovich, the characters in this film blur the lines between the real and the fictional. Similarly, as with Synecdoche New York, the entirety of In The House feels like an intentionally doomed attempt at capturing the entire creative process in a single unwieldy metaphor. The problem is that Kaufman realises that the cleverness of postmodernism is inherently less satisfying than the emotional payload of a sweeping narrative arc and so he builds these huge metaphorical structures in an effort to replace emotional closure with a sense of wonder. Ozon’s comparative restraint means that, unlike many of Kaufman’s projects, In The House works as a proper story right up until the end but it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that ending the film on a flight of postmodern fantasy would have been more effective than Ozon’s discontented trudge.

I’ve recently read two quite interesting books that attempt to deal with the issue of ironic detachment from the emotional manipulations of narrative. David Thomson’s typically shaggy and typically wonderful book on the history of film The Big Screen finds him deeply troubled by the way in which the rise of advertising appears to have somehow compromised the relationship between work and audience. Prior to TV and Radio, people would submit themselves to a particular narrative and stay with it till the end. Now, they find themselves jostled out of the flow by adverts… tiny self-contained stories injected into the flow of a film or TV programme but designed to sell rather than move or entertain. After combing through the history of cinema, the book ends with Thomson experimentally watching a film backwards:

You also discover what a sweet, artificial thing story is. That is not a mocking of narrative, simply a revelation that story is just a series of tricks or steps, a mechanism, not too hard to guess in advance, and as systematic and serviceable as, say, a staircase — and as logical and mathematical. A story is something made and made up; it is a disguise of life, artfully and kindly done, but not life. It is lifelike. And stories are so artful, so manufactured, that they might as easily run backwards or forward

This vision of narrative as a system of emotional control also runs through Douglas Rushkoff’s recent (and not quite wonderful) book Present Shock. Rushkoff argues that the world around us does often makes very little sense as decades of advertising have encouraged us to find ways of protecting ourselves from stories that would manipulate our emotions:

Aristotle was the first, but certainly not the last, to identify the main parts of this kind of story, and he analyzed them as if he were a hacker reverse-engineering the function of a computer program. The story mechanics he discovered are very important for us to understand, as they are still in use by governments, corporations, religions, and educators today as they attempt to teach us and influence our behaviors. They are all the more important for the way they have ceased to work on members of a society who have gained the ability to resist their spell.

While I am still in the process of digesting a lot of these ideas, I think there is a lot of meat on the bones of the idea that a lot of contemporary culture is post-postmodern in the sense that it is built with an explicit aim of overcoming the air of ironic detachment that postmodernism has encouraged us to adopt. Kaufman in particular is quite an interesting figure as all of his films begin in the real world, deconstruct the real world and end with mad flights of fantasy. I think Kaufman does this because he realises that a) neat narrative arcs are at least as ‘false’ as CGI fantasias and b) CGI fantasias are probably a more reliable way of having an impact on an audience than a happy or a tragic ending.

XCOM is NOT a Boss Fight

XCOMIt’s been a while since I’ve written anything about video games but the awesome group blog Arcadian Rhythms were kind enough to host a little something I wrote about the stylistic differences between the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and its recent re-make XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

The main thrust of my argument is that while the original UFO was an emotionally muted and ambiguous affair that conveyed its themes of cataclysmic social change and philosophical crisis using subtle shifts in tone and design, the new XCOMexplores this same set of themes using a stylistic palate that is not so much muted as it is hysterical:

XCOM resembles the Metal Gear Solid series in so far as its approach to narrative is as totalitarian as it is melodramatic. Rather than trusting their material and their audience to find one another in an organic fashion, the writers of XCOM drive home every beat and every emotion as hard as they possibly can. Where the original UFO allowed players to uncover the disconnect between terrifying world and bland corporate office on their own terms, XCOM displays humanity’s precarious position in every colour scheme, every piece of text and every poorly performed and written cut-scene.

Games like XCOM are the product of a creative environment in which there is no room for subtlety or nuance. Like advertisers and political demagogues, AAA game designers are convinced that the only way of making the audience care is by reaching into their heads and forcing them to do so. Once upon a time, game designers used certain top-down narrative techniques to break up the monotony of fighting the same three enemies over and over again. Now, game designers use variations on these same manipulative techniques to wring emotional responses from the same old poorly written stories.

The most worrying thing about this growing tendency towards melodramatic storytelling is that it is a trend that is playing out across pretty much all the major gaming platforms. A fantastic example of this emotional bloat is the difference between the beautifully low-key nihilism of Far Cry 2 and the racist power fantasies of the recently released Far Cry 3. Indeed, while Far Cry 2 had you wandering around killing people and getting progressively closer (both spiritually and geographically) to the nihilistic figure of The Jackal, Far Cry 3 presents this same journey as a sort of spiritual quest in which you become a sort of white Christ figure for a group of noble savages. As with UFO and XCOM, the two Far Cry games demonstrate a growing discomfort around nuance, subtlety and ambiguity. For the modern AAA game designer, a game does not have a message unless the message is spelled out in a reductive and simple-minded fashion.  This unease around ambiguity is beautifully apparent in what must be one of the most extraordinary interviews ever conducted.

John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun interviews Far Cry 3‘s Jeffrey Yohalem and pretty much accuses him of making a game that is a white power fantasy aimed at 20-something White Americans. Yohalem denies this and bizarrely supports his denial by pointing to all of the story beats and tropes that would lead you to think that the game is a power fantasy:

The sex scene [at the midpoint] – first Jason is shooting at that gigantic monster. He kills the monster, and it jump-cuts to him orgasming with Citra! He’s firing sperm at this gigantic monster, and then suddenly he’s on this alter with Citra, having sex with her, and then he thinks he’s the leader of the tribe and makes the big speech, and it’s his power fantasy! That’s the other thing – it’s all from first-person, so it’s completely unreliable. There’s a reason why Jason is a 25 year old white guy from Hollywood – these are all ideas that are in his head. You’re seeing things through his eyes.

Clearly, Yohalem believes that he is being satirical and yet the game he has helped produce is absolutely indistinguishable from a non-satirical white power fantasy. In other words, while Yohalem may have intended to express ambivalence towards traditional video game narratives, the ambivalence simply did not carry across into the final game. The game is so busy trying to manipulate the audience’s emotions that it simply does not allow for the fact that the game might intend you to call these emotions into question. Yohalem points to a number of clues supporting his ironic interpretation of the game but all of these techniques are drowned out by the game’s desperation to make the player feel like a gosh-darned hero.

Melodrama is an entirely acceptable emotional register when the aim of the game is to engender an authentic emotional response to a particular text. Consider, for example, Luca Guadagnino’s majestic I Am Love (2009) starring Tilda Swinton:

The film tells the story of a woman who marries into a large Italian family. While this family provide the woman with a luxurious lifestyle, it also forces her to exist in a repressed emotional universe that requires her to be be the perfect wife at all times. However, this universe is shattered when the women meets a local chef who unlocks her emotional core and drags her into a whole new world. Let me be clear on this: I Am Love is one of my absolute favourite films; I think Guadagnino’s ability to use music, lighting, architecture and colour to create different emotional worlds is absolutely astonishing and when the woman finally breaks free from her old life, I wept openly in the cinema. I did this because Guadagnino is an absolute master at emotional manipulation.

The difference between I Am Love and Far Cry 3 is that while I Am Love is all about the authentic emotional experience of love, transformation and happiness, Far Cry 3 is supposedly about questioning the very emotions that the game evokes. Far Cry 3‘s problem is that while the aim of the game might have been to question white racial privilege, the style of the game celebrates white power fantasies in much the same way as I Am Love celebrates the transformative power of love. Melodrama is a tradition that allows the audience to experience what the characters are experiencing, it is not a tradition that encourages us to deconstruct our own emotional responses. On one level, it is tempting to simply dismiss Yohalem as a simpleton who doesn’t understand the concept of style but games like Far Cry 3 point to a far deeper problem, namely that AAA game designers are now so used to melodrama that they simply do not realise that there are other emotional registers that might better suit the stories they are attempting to tell.

Game On (1995) – Comedy, Madness and the Irony of Postmodern Prejudice

There is something wonderfully sad and ephemeral about comedy. Consider, for example, the situation comedy and film franchise Sex and the City (1998). When Sex and the City arrived on TV screens, it reached out to a wide audience by challenging established attitudes towards sex and gender. Indeed, when Sex and the City first started, women (though sexually liberated) were expected to be less interested in sex than men. However, by the time Sex and the City graduated to cinema screens, cultural attitudes had moved on and it was now accepted that women could be just as crass and emotionally stunted as men. Thus, what began life as a critique of traditional values ended its life as a chest-thumping celebration of the status quo. The history of comedy is littered with examples of films and series that simply ran out of cultural currency as the attitudes they critiqued or embodied came to seem either more or less oppressive.

An excellent example of a series left culturally isolated by changing social attitudes is Andrew Davies and Bernadette Davis’s Game On.

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Cyclonopedia (2008) By Reza Negarestani – Madness/Theory/Truth/Nonsense

I once attended an academic conference where a member of the audience repeated a criticism made by the author of a rather successful book. In response to this criticism, the paper-giver smiled and began his response by saying “While I think that professor X should be praised for producing such an accessible work on the subject…” before going on to explain at great length why it was that he thought that professor X was both wrong and a grotesquely ugly freak. Though I cannot remember the subject of the paper, or the criticism made of its position, or the response given to said criticism, I can still remember the audible intake of breath and the appreciative tittering from the audience when the speaker applied the word ‘accessible’ to the work of another academic. The dynamics of this withering intellectual put-down are easy enough to unpack: if a work is accessible then it means that it is written with a non-specialist audience in mind and if a work is intended to be consumed by people who are new to the subject then it cannot hope to break new-ground. However, if the aesthetics of accessibility are ‘wrong’ then what are the right aesthetics?


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The Brothers Bloom (2009) – The Failed Re-Enchantment of the Postmodern World

One way of understanding the success of postmodernism is to ask what emotional need it satisfies and one need that always needs to be satisfied is the desire to feel smart.  To be on the inside.  Postmodern shibboleths such as the death of the author and the abolition of meta-narratives satisfy this desire by making it impossible to satisfy.  According to principles of postmodernism, there is no authority or font of knowledge that can be used to settle disputes.  Nobody gets to quote authorial intensions.  Nobody gets to cite historical precedent.  Under postmodernism, there are no outsiders because there are no insiders.  All opinions have some validity by virtue of the fact that they are opinions.  Nobody is excluded.  Everyone is smart.

One way of understanding the success of certain genres is to ask what emotional needs they satisfy and one need that always needs to be satisfied is the desire to feel smart.  Consider, for example, the spy novel whose Cold War popularity pandered to a desire to understand how global politics really worked once you stripped away the ideological posturing and the camera-friendly photo opportunities at which dead-eyed leaders whorishly proclaimed their desire to “do business” with each other.  The same goes for cyberpunk, a literary movement concerned with the lives of the mechanics who operate beneath the selective attentions of the first world’s pampered business-class bourgeoisie in order to keep the great machine of capitalism grinding ever-onwards.  However, while these fantasies of knowledge and agency pervade a great many forms and genres, they find their apotheosis in the twists and turns of the caper picture.  Films like Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1956), De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (2001) and Lee’s Inside Man (2006) enjoy a magnificently complex relationship with the societies they are set in.  Embodying a blue-collar vision of the examined life, they allow audiences to engage in vicarious fantasies of intellectual and social agency by following the adventures of characters who exists outside of the system whilst also displaying an insider’s familiarity with the workings of that system.  The ‘system’ can be represented by a digital universe, the bureaucracy of Whitehall or the mysteries of human psychology but the caper film is always about the guys who know how to work that system: how to be free of it and how to benefit from it.

Rian Johnson’s second film The Brothers Bloom is an attempt to address both solutions to the need to feel smart.  Ostensibly a caper picture featuring a gang of colourful conmen, it is also a fiercely ambitious work of postmodernist cinema that seeks not only to deconstruct the caper picture genre, but also those elements that make up the genre of postmodern cinema itself.  With targets ranging from the films of Wes Anderson to those of Michael Haneke, Johnson raises a question that cuts to the heart of postmodernism in the arts: Can a work of postmodern art still produce a genuine emotional response?

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