Sunshine Recorder

"The Sea Horse" by Jean Painlevé, 1934

(Source: sissy-boy-slap-party)

Link: Surfacing Impunity: Emma Myers interviews Joshua Oppenheimer

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers to the sound of trumpets.” No one captures the problematic pretense of impunity better than Voltaire—except perhaps documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer. The director’s new and profoundly disturbing film, The Act of Killing, opens with a direct nod to the philosopher, if only to one-up him. In an effort to expose the moral murkiness behind Indonesia’s 1965 and 1966 government sponsored purges, Oppenheimer gets up close and personal with a group of perpetrators whose attempts at self-glorification are enough to make a full brass band seem understated.

Documenting a fictive take on reality rather than reality per se, The Act of Killing unfolds in an unnerving aesthetic overlap between the surreal and the hyperreal. The subjects of the film, former members of the country’s vigilante military Pancasila Youth Party, go to theatrical extremes to reenact the atrocities they committed. In addition to recruiting women and children to act out large-scale massacres, the men stage interrogations, beatings, and executions, as well as costumed and almost hallucinogenic musical numbers in which dancers emerge from the mouth of a gargantuan metal fish.

Despite the overall effect of visceral and ethical nausea, moments of uncomfortable humor arise out of the disjunction between what we know about the subjects’ past and the way we see them behave in the present. When they drunkenly belt out Bob Dylan lyrics or stop filming because the call to prayer demands a moment of spiritual reverence, the viewer is forced into a state of cognitive dissonance. But as the Oppenheimer observes, the Manichean divide of good guys and bad guys can “only exist in movies.”

Oppenheimer’s camera adheres most closely to Anwar Congo, the charismatic—and at times disarmingly open—leader of a small band of party alumni. We first meet Anwar on a Medan rooftop that once served as a primary execution zone. Dressed in a silk suit, he matter-of-factly describes his preferred method of killing: strangulation with a wire—the most effective and least bloody way to take a life. Anwar’s ease around Oppenheimer translates to a queasy intimacy that permeates the film. Oppenheimer remains all but invisible as Anwar switches between recounting his nightmares and the brutal highlights of his career, but when he does interject the effect is chilling. After Anwar claims that the reenactments have made him feel empathy with the victims, Oppenheimer flatly points out the key difference between drama and reality: the loss of life.

I sat down with Oppenheimer one dreary morning at his publicist’s cozy Soho office. Unassuming and exactingly articulate, for the duration of our conversation he never twitched or fidgeted or broke eye contact. His manner of speaking—slow, assured, and slightly sibilant—has a calming effect that commands rather than demands attention. Our discussion centered on his creative process and how he managed to maintain sanity and distance while producing his new work.

Guernica: You’ve been working in Indonesia for about twelve years now. What led you there initially?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I was developing experimental performative documentary methods in London and was asked to make a film [what would become The Globalization Tapes] by the International Union of Food Workers in a place where unions had been previously outlawed. I could have been sent to India, Colombia, Malaysia… but I was sent to Indonesia. I knew nothing about the country, but found myself in a plantation community outside of Medan. The biggest obstacle the workers had in organizing a union, I found, was fear: fear that stemmed from the fact that their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles had had a strong union until 1965, but were accused of being leftists and either killed or put in concentration camps for decades as a result. That was the first I had heard about the 1965-1966 genocide and it was clear to me that it had to be in the film. But even talking about it turned out to be scary for them, because the people who committed atrocities against their relatives were living all around them in this village. So I made the film with the plantation workers but realized I had to come back. I felt very close to this community. They were saying, “Please make a film about the genocide and how it has affected us.” I returned six months later to start working with them and found the process to be unsafe for them; the best way around this was to film the killers—who were much more willing to talk—instead of the victims.

Guernica: Anwar is an incredible central subject because he’s so charismatic and open. What do you look for when you’re casting and how do you know when you’ve found your subject?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I wasn’t actually looking for the right central character because what seemed most important throughout the journey was always changing. I began the project on behalf of the community of survivors and they didn’t know how their relatives had been killed; they just knew they’d been taken away and never came back. I was filming the perpetrators and moving my way across the region assuming I would make a film out of boastful testimony, for lack of a better word, and of these sorts of spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. I worked my way up the chain of command from the plantation region around Medan, to Medan, and then beyond to some retired army generals in Jakarta and ex-CIA officers living outside of D.C. Everybody was boastful, everybody was taking me to the places where they had killed. I expected to make a film that involved a great many people, but at some point I shifted from what had happened—how people had been killed—to how this whole society (and normality) had been built on terror and lies and mass graves.

It wasn’t like I was looking for my main character, but I lingered on Anwar because his pain was close to the surface. As he began to suggest what he called “improvements” to the reenactments, I started to understand that he was actually trying to run away from the meaning of what he’d done. In that first scene where he dances on the roof, I think he is disturbed about what he did on that roof, but he doesn’t dare say it because he’s never been forced to admit what he did was wrong. He takes that disturbed feeling and projects it onto his clothes, onto his hair, onto his acting and suggests “improvements.” Each reenactment was another incredible allegory for impunity and I knew that through these dramatizations we could hold a very dark mirror up to him and up to the whole society. It was much more a process of discovery than a casting process.

Guernica: There is a sense of intimacy between the two of you that comes through in the film. Was the sense of comfort immediate, or did it take time to build?

Joshua Oppenheimer: It took time. But he was fairly open—when he first says to me on the roof that he drinks and does drugs and dances to forget what he’s done, I think I was so shocked by his dancing on the site where he’d killed that I was not ready to receive his openness. I was seeing something monstrous, but he was open from the beginning. I would always condemn the crimes that these men had committed and were still committing through extortion and so forth, but one of my main principles was that I should never condemn them as a whole person. And I guess I realized that before I met Anwar. All the perpetrators I filmed before him were ordinary people with wives, with children, with grandchildren. They could be caring, they could be arrogant: they were normal people. And I realized that I would fail in my effort to shed light on how human beings live with our actions if I start condemning people in my head as monsters. If I did that, it would be primarily to reassure myself that I’m not like them—to distance myself from them. I don’t believe you can make an honest film about another person in all their complexities from a place of distance. You can make a journalistic report, you can judge someone from a distance, but you can’t really get to know them. So that was a rule I set for myself: every time during filming if I felt I was just starting to hate Anwar, I would force myself to stop and take a few days, pull myself together, and give myself time to process whatever it was I had heard and then come back.

Guernica: What was it like for you psychologically and emotionally to spend so much time with these men?

Joshua Oppenheimer: I started the journey feeling like I was working on behalf of survivors, looking for the men who had done this to them, seeing the killers as embodiments of evil. But there was also an element of fascination there—going into the heart of darkness—and that implicates me and it implicates the viewer, because that’s what we look for in movies. We go to movies to see people get their heads blown off—not all of us—but that’s something peculiar about what it means to be human. As I filmed more and more of them—Anwar was the forty-first killer I filmed—I quickly realized that I was meeting ordinary people, and that I could like them. On the one hand I was hearing these horrible things, particularly as Anwar started going through the worst parts of what he did with abandon. It was giving me nightmares, and for about six months I had insomnia. At the same time of course I became numb, which is a good thing, because you can’t make the film if you’re emotionally devastated at every moment. But it also meant that there were these very shocking pitfalls along the way.

The most memorable pitfall was the very last time I filmed with Anwar. Just as Anwar can’t look at the true meaning of what he’s done, I also would have to suspend my disbelief and not see—bracket my awareness of the horror. When we were on the roof the very last time I filmed him and he starts to retch, as a human being who actually has some kind of love for this man after filming him for years, I wanted to put my arm around him and say “its going to be OK,” which is this crazy thing we say in English. I remember thinking “but its not going to be OK.” And that’s what he’s going through now: the horror of realizing that somehow he’s damned, that he has destroyed himself. And that was awful for me too. The numbness was necessary, but it was also like a false bottom. Suddenly the floor would drop out from underneath you and you’d be standing above an abyss.

Guernica: Did you find yourself needing to buy into the killers’ justifications?

Joshua Oppenheimer: The challenge was that even though there’s a necessary numbness—and part of that was a kind of graveyard humor that my crew and I would develop—you have to always remember the moral significance of what you’re doing. Because my project was trying to expose a regime of impunity on behalf of the survivors—and not to Westerners, who don’t necessarily care, but to Indonesians—I really felt that I was harvesting these celebratory moments as metaphors or allegories for impunity. I was precisely not seeing them as moments of justification. I was resistant to the film being a psychodrama; it would be perverse to visit the killers on behalf of the thousands that were killed and then lead them toward redemption. There is no redemption in the end. It’s an anti-catharsis. Anwar exposes how corrupt and empty the system they’ve built really is. Nausea is shown to be the condition of a culture founded on mass murder.

Link: Indonesia’s Happy Killers

A trio of Indonesian men, dressed in elaborate cowboy outfits, are pretending to viciously beat a hugely overweight man who is wearing a curly black wig and a bright satin two-piece gown. Punching and striking the man playing the woman, the cowboys yell that she is a Communist, and that she is pregnant and will give birth to another little Communist. What makes the scene even stranger, more surreal and disturbing than it might otherwise be is that the men in the cowboy suits and the one in the dress belonged to a paramilitary death squad during the anti-Communist purges in Indonesia in 1965, and they are reenacting one of their crimes. The men are the subjects of Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant documentary, The Act of Killing, and they are filming a collective biopic about what they did during this most dramatic and exalted period in their lives. The cowboys’ attack on the woman is a scene from their movie.

As The Act of Killing begins, a series of titles outlines the film’s historical background. In 1965 the Sukarno government, which some Western governments feared was sliding into communism, was overthrown and replaced by a military regime led by General Suharto. Blaming the initial coup attempt on the Indonesian Communist Party, the country’s right-wing leaders recruited gangs of thugs to wipe out suspected Communists with messy, improvisatory, but astonishing efficiency; estimates of the number killed during this period range from 500,000 to a million or more.

The death squads’ victims were depicted by the Indonesian government and the press as vicious Communists conspiring to destabilize the nation and enslave its citizens. Included among these “Communists” were landless farmers, intellectuals, and union members, along with anyone the government didn’t like or whose money the killers wanted. The American government supported the regime’s harsh and thorough anti-Communist programs, and, worried that Indonesia’s tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese might feel some bond with the People’s Republic of China, our intelligence services suggested that the Chinese population be killed along with the rest.

But among the interesting and unusual choices that Oppenheimer makes is his decision to forego the structure of the documentary whodunit—Who gave the orders? Who in Washington knew? Instead, he concentrates on the killers themselves: who they are, how they see their lives, and the bizarre and appalling film they are enthusiastic to make about what they did. Rather than exploring the theory that the tensions generated by Muslim sectarianism were exacerbated to fuel the massacres, Oppenheimer shows us the gangster-actors suspending a torture scene to listen in respectful silence to the chanting of the evening prayers from outside. In its revealing examination of the genesis of moral conscience and of the psychology of evil, The Act of Killing is less like any film I can recall than like journalist Gita Sereny’s book-length interviews with Albert Speer and the commandant of Treblinka.

Eerily, the Indonesian gangsters whom Oppenheimer interviews began their underworld careers outside a movie theater in their native city of Medan, North Sumatra, where, as teenage punks, they set up a movie-ticket-scalping operation. They all admired the same idols—John Wayne, James Dean, Victor Mature, later Al Pacino—and aspired to dress, behave, and kill with impunity, like Hollywood tough guys. Their big grudge against the Communists was that the leftists were demonstrating outside theaters showing American movies. The Communists hated American movies. So they had to be killed. Otherwise, the gangsters don’t talk about how they were recruited to be killers. One day they were selling cinema tickets in the street, the next day they were crossing the street to torture and behead.

When, under the military regime, their new responsibilities required new professional skills, they learned from the movies that garroting was a relatively quick and bloodless technique of execution. Anwar Congo—the elderly former gang leader on whom The Act of Killing increasingly comes to focus—recalls dancing across the street to do his grisly job after he’d seen a tuneful Elvis Presley movie. “It was like we were killing happily.” I thought of the 2008 Italian film, Gomorrah, of the scenes in which the two novice Neapolitan hoods mimic their role model, Scarface, and it crossed my mind that Al Pacino might have done some damage.

When Oppenheimer proposed making a film about them, the former death-squad commandos had seen too many action thrillers to agree to appear onscreen as talking heads. They wanted to produce a feature about their crimes that would combine stylistic elements of the cowboy shoot-‘em-up, the musical, the gangster noir, the mafia film, the 1950s Hollywood Nazi picture—and the Bollywood extravaganza! What they had in mind, in other words, was a pastiche of their favorite genres, except that it would be about them—how they interrogated and tortured, how they used the garrote, how they carried out mass executions, and raped women and girls—and they would have creative control.

In The Realm of the Senses, the first sexually explicit movie I’ve ever watched. I was around 10 or 11 and it was aired one of France’s main state-owned television channel at prime time. For some reasons, I can’t imagine major US or Canadian channels doing something like that when words like fuck, or just boobs, are routinely censored.

In The Realm of the Senses, the first sexually explicit movie I’ve ever watched. I was around 10 or 11 and it was aired one of France’s main state-owned television channel at prime time. For some reasons, I can’t imagine major US or Canadian channels doing something like that when words like fuck, or just boobs, are routinely censored.

Link: The Ideal Apocalypse in Literature and Film

… Put together, I’m convinced, these two conditions—finality and inevitability—make for the most ideal apocalypse stories. They mirror the way the universe really works, at least as far as secular, scientific people such as myself are concerned. Someday, for whatever reason—entropy, a meteor, that giant volcano under Yellowstone—life on earth will end, and when it ends, it will end for good. Eventually, the human world will simply vanish, leaving behind only the affectless emptiness of space, which will continue on, unconsciously, without us. It’s not just that we’ll die, but that our values, and value, will end. There will be no one left to admire the nebulae through the Hubble; no one left to look at human life and consider it beautiful. No one will care about the things we care about—not even us.

An apocalypse of this kind doesn’t even have to be an event. It can—will?—simply happen as part of the natural aging of the world. A movie like “Threads” is committed to the human reality of the end of the world, and, like the Bible, or, for that matter, like “Dawn of the Dead,” it offers us a moral vision of the apocalypse as a day of judgment: on some level, we deserve the terrible ending. But apocalypses just as readily emerge out of the naturalist tradition, which is basically modern; they can be vast, abstract, and scientific. In “The Time Machine,” H. G. Wells sends his time traveller far into the future to witness such an apocalypse. He parks his time machine on a beach, and, as he moves into the future, he sees the waves slow, then stop. A line of salt builds up on the shore. The sky grows dark; the sun grows large, red, and dim. The world, Wells writes, “was silent…. It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.” In its place, there is only an “awful twilight.” Softly, on the shadowy beach, some dark, tentacled thing flops about. The world itself has wound down and died of old age, probably long after some now-unknown, human-scale apocalypse. There is no stopping this kind of ending, Wells seems to say, and there is no life after it. It is final and inevitable, waiting there in the future, visible to anyone who wants to look for it.

These sorts of visions are thrilling to contemplate in a purely aesthetic way. And they aren’t, necessarily, despairing visions; in a way, they’re fortifying. They put me, at least, in a broadly existentialist frame of mind. If the things we care about—goodness, love, beauty, intelligence, friendship, humanity, and so forth—exist only for a little while, and only for us, then that’s a reason to take them even more seriously than usual. If our lives are islands of meaning amidst a rising ocean of meaninglessness, then we ought to mean as much as possible to ourselves, and to one another.

An ideal apocalypse, it seems to me, must acknowledge this geological point of view. And yet, this way of looking at things is also a temptation and, on some level, a lie. Taken too far, the abstracted, naturalist apocalypse starts to ring false in its detachment. If the universe is soulless, then shouldn’t the end of our ensouled world bother us more? Aren’t we living beings the best part of that universe; isn’t it a mistake to shift our focus to the rocks and dust, the fields and vibrations? If our world matters to us, then our own demise, and whatever suffering that demise entails, matters a lot, too. It may be that it matters more than anything else.

At any rate, you can’t, in the end, make yourself at home in the naturalist view of things. Heidegger thought that part of what it is to be a person is to care about things—about your own projects and commitments, but also about yourself and what you mean and are. You can’t escape the caring. (Even if you want to, that just means that, for some reason, you care about escaping it.) Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher who studies consciousness, explains the problem this way in his book “Being No One”: “The universe may be a good place for evolution, but not such a good place for individuals.” It is, in any case, a place for both sorts of thing. The ideal apocalypse has to balance those two facts. It must acknowledge the competing claims both of the universe and of the individuals it contains.

This is very hard to do, obviously. Beckett does it well, in “Waiting for Godot”; he even does it apocalyptically, in short stories like “The Lost Ones” and “Imagination Dead Imagine.” Still, I’ve come to feel that the best writer on the apocalypse is Cormac McCarthy. In part, that’s because he is realistic and historical in his apocalyptic visions.

One of the insights in McCarthy’s work is that, in a sense, there have been many apocalypses. Many cultures have perished from the earth, and, to a person alive within one of those cultures, those ends were final. (Today’s so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” is, for this reason, a strange idea: there already was a Mayan apocalypse, and it happened in the ninth century, and perhaps again in the sixteenth.) “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy’s novel about a gang of scalp hunters in the mid-nineteenth-century American West, is based, loosely on historical fact, and it understands the extermination of the Native Americans as an apocalypse, at least from the inside. The world as a whole didn’t end, of course, and there are still Native Americans today, just as there are still people of Mayan descent whose culture is influenced by their history. Even so: if your people were being hunted down and murdered in the Mexican desert in 1845, you couldn’t take that long view; the threads of your civilization, ravaged by disease and harried by invaders, had been unravelling for more than a century. (In “1491,” a history of the Americas and their contact with Columbus, Charles Mann offers a startling image from inside this apocalypse: in 1784, a Lakota winter count—a kind of pictorial history that memorialized the year—depicted “a pox-scarred man, alone in a tipi, shooting himself.” As soon as I read that, I thought of McCarthy.)

(Source: sunrec)

Link: Werner Herzog: 50 Years of Potent, Inspiring, Disturbing Films

Herzog’s films portray humans as frail creatures caught in the gap between an indifferent nature and a punishing God. Ahead of the UK release of As Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, which Herzog executive produced, Michael Newton celebrates a unique world view.

For a man whose “social network” is his kitchen table, Werner Herzog's image is very present on the internet. You can see him (deceptively edited) discoursing in doom-laden tones concerning the “enormity of the stupidity” of hipsters or Republicans. (Originally he was discussing chickens.) He's there (or rather someone impersonating him is) intoning about the dark intensities of “Where's Waldo”. (The clip has had more than a million hits on YouTube.) And, most notably, he can be seen in Les Blank's short film (this time for real) eating his shoe to celebrate the successful completion of Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven (1978). While the shoe boils, Herzog remarks that the movie industry makes clowns of its artists, as happened to Orson Welles, and even, he claims, François Truffaut. And it can seem that the media has indeed turned Herzog into a clown an archetypal Deadly Serious German, a mockable, foolish “Ahrtist”.

It’s as though the apparent gloom of his world view prompts us to giggle at him. Herzog can be found online being shot by a sniper with an air-rifle during an interview with Mark Kermode. Somehow it is hard to imagine such a thing happening to any other famous director, and even harder to imagine that they would respond with the unconcerned, pessimistic sang-froid of Herzog. (He remarks: “It doesn’t surprise me to be shot at.”) Just before that air-rifle sniper shoots him, Herzog remarks: “InGermany … Nobody cares about my films.” Elsewhere they certainly do, though not perhaps as much as they ought; for the clown of those YouTube clips is also the maker of some of the most inspiring and disturbing movies of the last 50 years.

In Grizzly Man (2005), partly as a counterpoint to the saccharine, Disneyesque view of nature held by that movie’s bear-loving hero, Herzog glumly declares: “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” It’s no surprise that one of the last things Ian Curtis of Joy Division did before hanging himself was to watch Herzog’s Stroszeck (1977). Given the opportunity to shoot in the Antarctic, another director might have succumbed to the temptation to reproduce the anthropomorphic cuteness of Oscar-winning March of the PenguinsEncounters at the End of the World (2007) steers clear of the cuddly for as long as possible, and when it finally succumbs to the bird’s allure, Herzog focuses on “penguin prostitution” and the suicidal impulses of penguins, who for no discernible reason suddenly depart the colony, and head inland, waddling forlornly across the ice towards the distant south pole and inevitable death.

In overview, his movies can look like a series of Graham Greene novels rewritten by DH Lawrence. Just as Greene had Greeneland, Herzog has Herzogland, and the two realms, at the very least, share a border. Like Greene, Herzog would presumably assert that the place of his films is no invented country, but simply the world as in fact it is. The variety of locales and milieux in his films is astonishing: from the Peruvian jungle in the stunning Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) to the Biedermeier Germany of Nosferatu and Woyzeck (both from 1979); from the dusty pre-tourist Lanzarote of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1969) to the science-fiction landscapes of the Kuwaiti oil fires after the first Iraq war in Lessons of Darkness (1992). The richness of his interests is amazing: ecstatically devout pilgrims; prehistoric cave paintings; fast-talking American auctioneers; ski‑jumpers; TV evangelists; Siberian trappers; the blind, deaf and dumb. He has made more than 60 films, both fiction and documentaries, and, in total, they look like the life’s work of several directors, yet all maintain the spirit of one man’s view of this disparate planet. With their eye for the strangeness in the world, the unaccountable in human beings, these films can haunt you.

[…] There are few film-makers less interested in the everyday world of supermarkets, mortgage payments and Sky Sports. Herzog does not despise the “ordinary person”, for it is hard to picture him believing in such a rare creature and to imagine him despising anyone. Yet in the background of his films lingers a sorrowing contempt for the blithe, banal member of “the public” – that hypothetical person who accepts society as it is, who believes bread will always come ready-packaged, and who is too busy updating their Facebook page to notice how at any moment nature might sweep us all off the Earth. Thankfully, this putative character rarely appears in person in his films.

For all Herzog’s people – as much in the documentaries as in the feature films – are instead shown in relation to a moral or existential abyss. Hence his recent interest in the murderers on death row. In the most disturbing Herzog films, human life is a beleaguered property, a flicker of consciousness sustained within an equally flimsy civilisation. The experience of being a child of the ruins in Germany after the second world war perhaps injected him with this sense, living as he did in the moral and physical collapse of a culture.

His God is nature – but not a gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild tree-hugger’s nature, but a terrifying, unappeasable Old Testament Jehovah. Perhaps with Terrence Malick, he is one of the last film-makers to have a feeling for the sublime. His moral landscape emerges from this space – frail, plucky humanity holding the gap between an indifferent nature and a punishing God. There his people endeavour to make meaning in their lives. In the process he presents unimaginable people – as in Fata Morgana’s (1970) desert characters: the piano-playing madam and drum-playing begoggled pimp playing cabaret music in the Lanzarote brothel; the shellshocked Foreign Legion deserter clinging to a ragged letter from his mother; the lizard-loving German. One actor in particular will be associated with Herzog for ever – Klaus Kinski, who appeared in five Herzog films. To channel Kinksi’s rage and arrogance productively on to the screen was a huge achievement. However, a far greater one was to elicit Kinski’s tenderness, his joy, and even his reserve.

Herzog’s love is kept for whatever it is in human beings that strives for connection, for meaning – even when the form those strivings take seem weird, misplaced and mad. It’s there in Dieter Dengler’s passion for flying, an obsession for safety and freedom in the skies that began when, as a small boy, he gazed on as an American plane strafed his Bavarian village.

Link: Beyond Genocide: Stanley Kubrick’s Revisitation of Pagan Myth in ‘The Shining’

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a film of oppositions and dualisms. Mirrors and reflected images (re)appear in numerous frames; we are introduced to twins, of a literal and metaphorical nature; and all of the characters are involved in bipolar relations each to the other, framed by Kubrick as interdependent husband and wife, mother and child, hunter and hunted, hero and monster.

The film’s double nature was famously recast by Bill Blakemore, in his 1987 article The Family of Man,  as an allegory that re-stages and subtly denounces the extermination of the Native Americans by Western colonial powers. Blakemore’s study suggests that most of the relations in this film (familial, spatial, spiritual) can be re-projected as a relation between these two historical agents. The Overlook Hotel becomes a metaphor for the society built by an imperial West over virgin territory, and the blood that floods its corridors symbolizes the murders and atrocities that rest below its foundations, buried but never effectively repressed.

Blakemore’s article is probably the most original and influential reading of Kubrick’s effort in the horror genre to date; the allegory of genocide has certainly become a standard referent for critical studies of the film (even when they don’t completely agree with it). Even so, I would argue that the ‘genocide’ interpretation, while valid and highly suggestive in its own right, fails to account for some symbolic layers of The Shining, which are potentially just as fertile.

Perhaps the most notable absence in Blakemore’s nuanced analysis are the occasional ‘whispers of immortality’ (to borrow TS Eliot’s expression) that are voiced by the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel. When the spirits of the twin little sisters (whose murder at the hands of their father provides the back-plot for the events taking place in the film), appear to the little boy Danny (Danny Lloyd), the words they tell him are: ‘Come play with us, Danny. Forever and ever and ever.’ Lines like these are not immediately traceable to the genocide interpretation – they may refer to a cyclical reading of history, in which the massacres repeat themselves ad infinitum, but that certainly extends the thematic scope of the film beyond the colonization of North America.

Even more incongruent are the words pronounced by Grady, the ghost of the murderer who appears to Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). As he confronts Jack in the bathroom, he states: ‘You are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.’ If Jack represents the imperialistic invader, then it’s plainly contradictory that he (or Grady) should always have been there. Blakemore’s original reading only holds in this instance if we assume that Grady is lying; Jack would then commit murder under his own delusions of legitimate conquest, believing that he is entitled to a possession that in reality does not belong to him.

What I propose is a reading in which Grady is not lying, and in which his enigmatic words can be seen as a key towards the film’s more subterranean layers of meaning (rather than as an elaborate delusion). The ‘forever and ever and ever’ of the twins points to death as the timeless condition on and from which the ghosts operate, of course; but it also refers to a dimension on which the film itself is working – the domain of myth, mythology and mythopoesis—which transcends the specific historical contingency of the Native American massacre and which accurately links The Shining to the thematic preoccupations drawn by Kubrick in his other films.

Link: Melancholia or, The Romantic Anti-Sublime

…. As one of many recent Western European and North American films to imagine the end of the world, Melancholia is a product of the “structure of feeling” that Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism. This is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2009, 2). We have all internalized Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “There Is No Alternative” to the reign of the so-called “free market.” Anything and everything that we can imagine is immediately recuperated by the system. It is turned into a brand, and “monetized” through financial speculation. “All that is solid melts into PR” (39). We are faced with continual novelty and innovation; and yet nothing ever really changes. Somehow, the future has been exhausted: as Fisher puts it, “the future harbors only reiteration and re-permutation… nothing new can ever happen” (3). Under such conditions, Fisher says — paraphrasing both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek — “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” (2).

The allure of disaster movies, in an age of capitalist realism, is that they seem to offer us a way out — indeed, the only conceivable way out. Over the past few decades, endless rounds of privatization and austerity, not to mention widespread environmental degradation, have already deprived us of a future. The world of our hopes and dreams has in fact already ended: our day-to-day existence just needs to catch up with this fact. And so our only chance for release from the continuing soft disaster of our lives is for this disaster to become truly universal. If the world ends, then at least we will be freed from the rapacity of financial institutions, and from our ever-increasing burdens of debt. The cinematic spectacle of disaster is in itself intensely gratifying, as well: we see destroyed, before our very eyes, that “immense collection of commodities” after which we have always striven, upon which we have focused all our desires, and which has always ended up disappointing us.

Melancholia inverts this scenario; it gives us the other side of capitalist realism. The film withholds spectacle and refuses sublimity. It broods, rather than screams. It presents us with a deflationary, disillusioned account, both of the existing world, and of its disappearance. Disaster no longer gives us any sense of release. In von Trier’s dysphoric vision, we get as little satisfaction from the annihilation of things as we did from their existence in the first place. Instead, set as it is among the One Percent — the white, affluent few — Melancholia affords us a truly depressing realization. It shows us that these well-to-do people would rather see the whole world come to an end, than give up even the tiniest fraction of their wealth, power, and privilege.

Von Trier’s twist on the disaster scenario of capitalist realism is to take it entirely at face value. Heliteralizes the catastrophic deadlock of a society from which all futurity has been drained away, and from whose possibilities the many have been excluded, just so that the few may carry on with their privileged ways. From a strictly social point of view, the end of the world is a metaphor: an image of all our hopes and fears, and of our inability to imagine anything better. But by taking the prospect of disaster entirely literally, von Trier drags it beyond its social limits, and gives it a fully cosmological import. Melancholia pushes us to come to grips with what the philosopher Ray Brassier calls “the truth of extinction” (Brassier 2007, 205ff).

Link: Existentialism in Literature and Film

Lectures from the course Phil 7 Existentialism in Literature and Film by Hubert Dreyfus. Copied to archive.org on closure of the UC Berkeley podcast site in order to preserve access. Note: some lectures may appear to be missing (gap in numbering). This usually means that there was a holiday or no lecture on the day the recording was due, although sometimes it does mean that the audio is not available.

In the traditional Judeo/Christian understanding, God is the ground of all meaning. At the end of the Medieval World, Descartes and Kant attempt to promote Man as an autonomous ground, taking the traditional place of God. The promotion of man undermines the authority of God, but as an autonomous ground Man turns out to be existentially insufficient. The dual failure of God and Man as ground, leaves us with the threat of nihilism. The course asks: Can we preserve the existential insight common to both traditions that life needs some kind of ground, without finding such a ground in a Supreme Being or in autonomous Man?

The answer depends upon whether one can uncover an authority other than us that, although not a Supreme Being, nevertheless serves as a ground. The course will be devoted to a series of philosophical-religious thinkers who describe just such a possibility. Pascal speaks of God as essentially hidden and makes a virtue of his hiddenness. Kierkegaard holds that after the God-man appears in the world we no longer have, nor do we need, access to God the Father. Nietzsche embraces as liberating the sheer absence of any ground. In opposition, Dostoyevsky attempts to show how one can live a meaningful life that preserves the authority of our Judeo-Christian practices without recourse to a monotheistic metaphysics.

From The Seventh Seal by Ingar Bergman

  • Antonius Block: I want to confess, as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face, and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.
  • Death: Yet you do not want to die.
  • Antonius Block: Yes I do.
  • Death: What are you waiting for?
  • Antonius Block: Knowledge.
  • Death: You want a guarantee?
  • Antonius Block: Call it what you will. Is it so hard to conceive of God with one's senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don't believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe, but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart. But He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. But He is silent. I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.
  • Death: Perhaps there is no one there.
  • Antonius Block: Then life is a senseless terror. No man can live with Death and know that everything is [for] nothing.
  • Death: Most people think neither of Death nor nothingness.
  • Antonius Block: Until they stand on the edge of life, and see the Darkness.
  • Death: Ah, that day.
  • Antonius Block: I see. We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God.

Endlessly imitated and parodied, Ingmar Bergman’s landmark art movie The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) retains its ability to hold an audience spellbound. Bergman regular Max von Sydow stars as a 14th century knight named Antonius Block, wearily heading home after ten years’ worth of combat. Disillusioned by unending war, plague, and misery Block has concluded that God does not exist. As he trudges across the wilderness, Block is visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot), garbed in the traditional black robe. Unwilling to give up the ghost, Block challenges Death to a game of chess. If he wins, he lives — if not, he’ll allow Death to claim him. As they play, the knight and the Grim Reaper get into a spirited discussion over whether or not God exists. To recount all that happens next would diminish the impact of the film itself; we can observe that The Seventh Seal ends with one of the most indelible of all of Bergman’s cinematic images: the near-silhouette “Dance of Death.” Considered by some as the apotheosis of all Ingmar Bergman films (other likely candidates for that honor include Wild Strawberries and Persona), and certainly one of the most influential European art movies, The Seventh Seal won a multitude of awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. #

Endlessly imitated and parodied, Ingmar Bergman’s landmark art movie The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) retains its ability to hold an audience spellbound. Bergman regular Max von Sydow stars as a 14th century knight named Antonius Block, wearily heading home after ten years’ worth of combat. Disillusioned by unending war, plague, and misery Block has concluded that God does not exist. As he trudges across the wilderness, Block is visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot), garbed in the traditional black robe. Unwilling to give up the ghost, Block challenges Death to a game of chess. If he wins, he lives — if not, he’ll allow Death to claim him. As they play, the knight and the Grim Reaper get into a spirited discussion over whether or not God exists. To recount all that happens next would diminish the impact of the film itself; we can observe that The Seventh Seal ends with one of the most indelible of all of Bergman’s cinematic images: the near-silhouette “Dance of Death.” Considered by some as the apotheosis of all Ingmar Bergman films (other likely candidates for that honor include Wild Strawberries and Persona), and certainly one of the most influential European art movies, The Seventh Seal won a multitude of awards, including the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. #





The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 mobilizes a treasure trove of 16mm material shot by Swedish journalists who came to the US drawn by stories of urban unrest and revolution. Gaining access to many of the leaders of the Black Power Movement—Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver among them—the filmmakers captured them in intimate moments and remarkably unguarded interviews. Thirty years later, this collection was found languishing in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Göran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover bring this footage to light in a mosaic of images, music and narration chronicling the evolution one of our nation’s most indelible turning points, the Black Power movement. Music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith, and commentary from prominent African- American artists and activists who were influenced by the struggle — including Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli, and Melvin Van Peebles — give the historical footage a fresh, contemporary resonance and makes the film an exhilarating, unprecedented account of an American revolution.
Watch the trailer.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 mobilizes a treasure trove of 16mm material shot by Swedish journalists who came to the US drawn by stories of urban unrest and revolution. Gaining access to many of the leaders of the Black Power Movement—Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver among them—the filmmakers captured them in intimate moments and remarkably unguarded interviews. Thirty years later, this collection was found languishing in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Göran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover bring this footage to light in a mosaic of images, music and narration chronicling the evolution one of our nation’s most indelible turning points, the Black Power movement. Music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith, and commentary from prominent African- American artists and activists who were influenced by the struggle — including Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli, and Melvin Van Peebles — give the historical footage a fresh, contemporary resonance and makes the film an exhilarating, unprecedented account of an American revolution.

Watch the trailer.


A Ribbon of Dreams: Dreams and Cinema
From the Lumière Brothers to film noir to Inception, a film scholar on dreams in cinema.
The Lumière Brothers’ first public film screening in December 1895 was, on the surface, about as un-dreamlike as possible: showing workers leaving a Parisian factory, the one-minute film appeared as a vérité slice of life (though in fact it was staged for the camera). But what kind of street scene is this? Devoid of color, conspicuously silent, brimming with jerky, nonhuman movements (thanks to the hand-wound crank of the camera), these visions were obviously far from an everyday street scene that could actually be witnessed by Parisians of the time. The oneiric quality of the Lumières’ supposedly documentary films was heightened by another film shown weeks later, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, in which a locomotive steams headlong toward the audience; the now-archetypal account of this screening holds that numerous audience members fled the theater or ducked beneath their seats in terror. Of course, the fear wasn’t that an actual train would barrel through the wall of the theater; it was the newness, the strangeness, of the sights that cinema could now offer us, the uncanny blend of veracity and impossibility.
If the Lumières’ films were implicitly dreamlike, the movies of their contemporary, Georges Méliès, were outright phantasmagorias: manifestations of the ghoulish creatures and miraculous fantasies that could previously only be envisioned in children’s stories or picture books. Humans shed skin and turned into skeletons, devils wreaked havoc, mermaids posed luxuriously, objects vanished into nothingness, men took trips to the moon and encountered lizard beings: Méliès created waking dreams, as the darkness of the nickelodeon resembled the soft blindfold of sleep.
Ravished by the unique visions that movies could now offer, critics and commentators quickly drew the analogy between films and dreams. Liberated from the constraints of real-world visual sensation (not to mention the single, distanced perspective of much live theater of the time), writers recognized that, in movie theaters, space and time could be transcended in leaps and bounds, and any object, from a tin can to a fluttering eyelash, could be magnified to epic proportions. In 1907, Rémy de Gourmont wrote that the movie theater is “the best place to repose: the images pass borne aloft by light music. One need not even bother to dream.” Five years later, critic Jules Romains echoed his sentiments: as the projector stirs to life, “the group dream now begins,” he wrote. “They sleep; their eyes no longer see. They are no longer conscious of their bodies. Instead there are only passing images, a gliding and rustling of dreams.” And in 1919, in the words of the filmmaker and writer Jean Cocteau (whose 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is itself a pinnacle of dreamlike resplendence): “At the end of a cinema program, figures in the crowd outside seem small and lackluster. We remember an alabaster race of beings as if glowing from within. On the screen, enormous objects become superb. A sort of moonlight sculpts a telephone, a revolver, a hand of cards, an automobile. We believe we are seeing them for the first time.”
The movie world was more real than reality; a massive anthology could be dedicated exclusively to French writers from the 1910s who explored this very paradox. They even coined a new term—photogénie—to describe the cinema’s ability to transform real-world images into something radically, hypnotically new. At the end of the decade, Louis Delluc claimed that movie stars themselves were dreamlike creatures, larger than life and irresistibly magnetic. With Charlie Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa (the Japanese actor who starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 masterpiece The Cheat), Delluc wrote, “the spectacle of true beauty reveals us to ourselves. And to recognize, behind the tragic will of Hayakawa and the comic frenzy of Chaplin, an echo of suffering or dreaming, such is the secret of an infatuation.”

A Ribbon of Dreams: Dreams and Cinema

From the Lumière Brothers to film noir to Inception, a film scholar on dreams in cinema.

The Lumière Brothers’ first public film screening in December 1895 was, on the surface, about as un-dreamlike as possible: showing workers leaving a Parisian factory, the one-minute film appeared as a vérité slice of life (though in fact it was staged for the camera). But what kind of street scene is this? Devoid of color, conspicuously silent, brimming with jerky, nonhuman movements (thanks to the hand-wound crank of the camera), these visions were obviously far from an everyday street scene that could actually be witnessed by Parisians of the time. The oneiric quality of the Lumières’ supposedly documentary films was heightened by another film shown weeks later, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, in which a locomotive steams headlong toward the audience; the now-archetypal account of this screening holds that numerous audience members fled the theater or ducked beneath their seats in terror. Of course, the fear wasn’t that an actual train would barrel through the wall of the theater; it was the newness, the strangeness, of the sights that cinema could now offer us, the uncanny blend of veracity and impossibility.

If the Lumières’ films were implicitly dreamlike, the movies of their contemporary, Georges Méliès, were outright phantasmagorias: manifestations of the ghoulish creatures and miraculous fantasies that could previously only be envisioned in children’s stories or picture books. Humans shed skin and turned into skeletons, devils wreaked havoc, mermaids posed luxuriously, objects vanished into nothingness, men took trips to the moon and encountered lizard beings: Méliès created waking dreams, as the darkness of the nickelodeon resembled the soft blindfold of sleep.

Ravished by the unique visions that movies could now offer, critics and commentators quickly drew the analogy between films and dreams. Liberated from the constraints of real-world visual sensation (not to mention the single, distanced perspective of much live theater of the time), writers recognized that, in movie theaters, space and time could be transcended in leaps and bounds, and any object, from a tin can to a fluttering eyelash, could be magnified to epic proportions. In 1907, Rémy de Gourmont wrote that the movie theater is “the best place to repose: the images pass borne aloft by light music. One need not even bother to dream.” Five years later, critic Jules Romains echoed his sentiments: as the projector stirs to life, “the group dream now begins,” he wrote. “They sleep; their eyes no longer see. They are no longer conscious of their bodies. Instead there are only passing images, a gliding and rustling of dreams.” And in 1919, in the words of the filmmaker and writer Jean Cocteau (whose 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is itself a pinnacle of dreamlike resplendence): “At the end of a cinema program, figures in the crowd outside seem small and lackluster. We remember an alabaster race of beings as if glowing from within. On the screen, enormous objects become superb. A sort of moonlight sculpts a telephone, a revolver, a hand of cards, an automobile. We believe we are seeing them for the first time.”

The movie world was more real than reality; a massive anthology could be dedicated exclusively to French writers from the 1910s who explored this very paradox. They even coined a new term—photogénie—to describe the cinema’s ability to transform real-world images into something radically, hypnotically new. At the end of the decade, Louis Delluc claimed that movie stars themselves were dreamlike creatures, larger than life and irresistibly magnetic. With Charlie Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa (the Japanese actor who starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 masterpiece The Cheat), Delluc wrote, “the spectacle of true beauty reveals us to ourselves. And to recognize, behind the tragic will of Hayakawa and the comic frenzy of Chaplin, an echo of suffering or dreaming, such is the secret of an infatuation.”

David Fincher’s Career Long Response to Alien 3
In the wake of Prometheus, the Alien franchise has once again come into the spotlight. Opinions on the four film series remain the same: Alien is great! Aliens is also great! Alien 3 sucks! Alien Resurrection is really weird! Any discussion of the Alien films is incomplete without the haranguing of Alien 3, perennial whipping boy of the franchise.
Much of the critical vitriol came from the film’s decision to kill Newt and Corporal Hicks, as two characters survived the devestation of Aliens only to be killed during the opening credits of Alien 3. This criticism seems a touch unfair, especially considering that the only connections between Alien and Aliens were Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the titular creature. Alien 3 wasn’t just a sequel to Aliens; it was its own film in the Alien series. But even when regarded as its own entity, Alien 3 received less than stellar reviews. After the war-movie scope of Aliens, returning the series to its single-alien origins felt like a rehash, and many considered the prison planet setting offensive rather than inventive. The Washington Post summed up popular opinion as it declared Alien 3 the “most oppressive, most redundant movie in the series.”
But nobody seems more offended by Alien 3’s existence than its own director, David Fincher. “A lot of people hated Alien 3,” he told The Guardian. “But no one hated it more than I did.” Today, Fincher has two Academy Award nominations under his belt and critical acclaim as an auteur working within the Hollywood system. But back in the early 90s, Fincher was a kid in his late 20s trying to make his first feature film. And it was hard.
An interview with Fincher from 1991 shows the director openly admitting his unhappiness with the film while in the midst of production:
Interviewer: So you’ve been depressed?Fincher: I don’t know. It’s just… I don’t get any sleep any more. At a certain point, I just start waking up. Wake up at two, three, four on the hour.Interviewer: Thinking of things you could have done differently?Fincher: Why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that, how do I fucking leave the country without you knowing.Interviewer: I can’t imagine what it’s like, having spent a year of your life…Fincher: Two years, my friend, two years…
After Alien 3, Fincher told Sight & Sound: “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie.” Since making that statement, Fincher has directed eight feature films and appears to have remained cancer-free. Considering how awful his formative experience withAlien 3 was for Fincher – and how it nearly turned him off filmmaking forever – his career since can be viewed as a response to his first film.
David Fincher’s Career Long Response to Alien 3

In the wake of Prometheus, the Alien franchise has once again come into the spotlight. Opinions on the four film series remain the same: Alien is great! Aliens is also great! Alien 3 sucks! Alien Resurrection is really weird! Any discussion of the Alien films is incomplete without the haranguing of Alien 3, perennial whipping boy of the franchise.

Much of the critical vitriol came from the film’s decision to kill Newt and Corporal Hicks, as two characters survived the devestation of Aliens only to be killed during the opening credits of Alien 3. This criticism seems a touch unfair, especially considering that the only connections between Alien and Aliens were Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the titular creature. Alien 3 wasn’t just a sequel to Aliens; it was its own film in the Alien series. But even when regarded as its own entity, Alien 3 received less than stellar reviews. After the war-movie scope of Aliens, returning the series to its single-alien origins felt like a rehash, and many considered the prison planet setting offensive rather than inventive. The Washington Post summed up popular opinion as it declared Alien 3 the “most oppressive, most redundant movie in the series.”

But nobody seems more offended by Alien 3’s existence than its own director, David Fincher. “A lot of people hated Alien 3,” he told The Guardian. “But no one hated it more than I did.” Today, Fincher has two Academy Award nominations under his belt and critical acclaim as an auteur working within the Hollywood system. But back in the early 90s, Fincher was a kid in his late 20s trying to make his first feature film. And it was hard.

An interview with Fincher from 1991 shows the director openly admitting his unhappiness with the film while in the midst of production:

Interviewer: So you’ve been depressed?
Fincher: I don’t know. It’s just… I don’t get any sleep any more. At a certain point, I just start waking up. Wake up at two, three, four on the hour.
Interviewer: Thinking of things you could have done differently?
Fincher: Why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that, how do I fucking leave the country without you knowing.
Interviewer: I can’t imagine what it’s like, having spent a year of your life…
Fincher: Two years, my friend, two years…

After Alien 3, Fincher told Sight & Sound: “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie.” Since making that statement, Fincher has directed eight feature films and appears to have remained cancer-free. Considering how awful his formative experience withAlien 3 was for Fincher – and how it nearly turned him off filmmaking forever – his career since can be viewed as a response to his first film.