Thursday, August 28, 2014

Anti-Paranoia in the Pacific Northwest: Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013)

*minor spoilers ahead*

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves (2013), continues the director’s trend of setting films in the Pacific Northwest. Reichardt collaborated once again with Oregonian Jon Raymond on the screenplay for the film, lending the film an aura of authenticity as it relates to the Pacific Northwest – although Reichardt probably knows the area well enough by now! Like most of Reichardt’s films, Night Moves centers on the loss of something fundamental to the subjectivity of the protagonist: an old friendship in Old Joy (2006); a life companion in Wendy and Lucy (2008); masculinity and (literally) the way forward in Meek’s Cutoff (2010). In Night Moves this loss is less corporeal than in these other films. While each character weathers the effects to different degrees, the protagonists in this film struggle with the loss of their own rationale or surety for the destruction of a local dam as an act of environmental activism.

As half the film follows the planning of the bombing of the dam, and the other half the fallout from this act, an air of paranoia pervades the film. The characters must buy truckloads of fertilizer to build their dam-destroying bomb, and post-bombing the group fears they might be ‘found out’ by whatever government agency is tracking them. Jesse Eisenberg’s nervous gestus, in the Brechtian sense, fits this film well, as he comes across simultaneously as paranoid and irrevocably resigned to his choices, even while vocally challenged by other mentor-type characters in the film. What I find most fascinating about this film is the way that this paranoia becomes what Thomas Pynchon and Friedrich Kittler referred to as ‘anti-paranoia’ through the film’s subdued cinematography, acting, and editing. Pynchon writes, “there is… also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long” (434). With paranoia, one assumes they will find the ‘Truth’ that has been obfuscated – Mulder says, “I want to believe,” and we as viewers always hang out the possibility that the global conspiracy/collaboration with aliens will be revealed to us, but in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, narrative directions proliferate to the point where there can be no single Truth in the end. Night Moves resists revealing anything beyond the immediate perception of its characters to the point where we, as viewers, take on their unrequited paranoia, but the film ultimately never delivers the conspiracy.

As I mentioned previously, this anti-paranoia comes through the formal construction of the film, and it shifts attention from the narrative to both the physical and mental environments these characters live in. Fans of Reichardt will recognize her subdued style immediately, with her long takes, focus on labor, and emphasis on environment/bodily gest over action. Eisenberg’s character works and lives on a farming co-op, and the film doesn’t shy away from his day-to-day labors. At one point, the three environmentalists interact with an exuberant camper, but barely even respond to his friendly gestures. After the bombing, there are long shots of Eisenberg staring offscreen intently at the sound of a car – the FBI pulling up to the farm? – but such shots eventually dissipate without confirming any paranoid expectations we might have. Tomas Hachard at NPR called this an “ultimately unsatisfying new film” and I’m not too surprised by this assessment, but I also think this is precisely the point. Whatever paranoid delusions of eco-terrorists or the thriller genre the film might fulfill are replaced with issues far too complicated for narrative summation.

I was fascinated by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s ability to capture these physical/psychological environments in beautiful detail. I posted a few images that illustrate the attention to the environment of the Pacific Northwest, but you really have to see the film to understand the way this is done with the mental landscapes. Dakota Fanning’s character develops pretty obvious rashes as a result of the stress of her anti-paranoia, but I preferred Eisenberg’s watchful gaze as he tries to connect imaginary dots. I also appreciated the honest look at the farming coop culture in the Pacific Northwest, with the film intimating the farm’s location not too far away from Portland. Cascadians might also be interested in the politics of the farming coop and its relation to the federal government. If you’re a fan of Reichardt, you know what you’re getting when you see this film, but I love the style she’s developed that is area-specific without resorting to flashing establishing shots of recognizable monuments.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies has a new e-mail blast. Alongside the TOC for their print publication, they are now promoting certain web-accessible venues of publication. One of these is the Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier, and they name the issue I am a part of! Exciting to see an arm of Cinema Journal  devoted to pedagogy/teaching. See the CJ announcement below.

Cinema Journal and have formed a partnership to develop a quarterly feature called the Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier. The goals of this partnership are to foster critical reflection on media studies teaching and pedagogy and to engender serious discussion of pedagogical issues via an active online platform. The current dossier is titled New Approaches to Teaching World Cinema.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Long Time No Blog, Pacific Northwest Edition

It has been a long time since I've blogged due to writing other things like journal articles (a bit on short film, SF film, global film, see here for titles), some SF starts, random internet threads about theory, and a dissertation. Those dissertation things sure take a while.

I've also transitioned back to the Pacific Northwest and I am teaching at Western Washington University this year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies. This is an exciting opportunity, because I will be able to teach classes based on some of my writing/research interests. This fall, for example, I am teaching a class on 'Film and Television in the Pacific Northwest.' Teaching in the Pacific Northwest, and especially at Western, offers so many opportunities for a class like this. Early on in the course I will be taking the students to the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies on Western's campus and the Whatcom Museum to look at archival materials. They'll be looking at these materials alongside The General (1927), which should give us a rich sense of the 'Pacific Northwest in the Past.' I am also currently organizing a multi-projector screening of Harry Smith's experimental Heaven and Earth Magic (1957-1962) particularly exciting, because Smith was from Bellingham, but I'll have to dedicate another post to this further down the road. I'm also having local filmmakers from Hand Crank Films ( come in and talk to the class about local film and video work, which will be exciting because a few students that are signed up for the class have been talking to me about their post-college career goals. Hand Crank's success illustrates the need for more graduates with a background in film. I'm also setting up an option to create a film for students interested in production – excited about the possibilities for video essays and documentary in particular! Part of my goal with this class has been to utilize the resources and community of Bellingham since we are, in a way, studying Bellingham! I hope that the student's work will contribute to local resources and future classes on the subject.

I recently got back from a working retreat set up by the Teaching Learning Academy and library at Western. The theme was 'Backwards by Design' and we looked at ways of approaching curriculum design from what we want students to learn in the end, rather than moving forward starting with content and assignments. It seems simple, but when you commit to approaching design this way I find that it results in subtle yet fundamental changes and innovative assignments. I think it is easy to get into a rut in assigning 'typical' assignments, but approaching these same assignments with a desired learning objective/threshold concept in the foreground reveals, at least to me, the ways in which such assignments aren't always sufficient if we're building real critical skills into our courses. The concept I'm working on in my Pacific Northwest class is the way that approaching an object of research from a particular method/discourse/theory presupposes a certain type of knowledge – borrowing from Feyerabend's Against Method, but we could also look to discourse theory in the vein of Foucault and Gee. This seems important to me for this class, because we will look at diverse types of film and television, each which provides a certain insight about the Pacific Northwest based on its formal and thematic modes.

I'm really happy that Western has these sorts of professional development opportunities, because it means that there is always a community for thinking through my work. The retreat was also an excellent opportunity to meet other faculty at Western! Glad to make some friends there and network with other Western folks interested in film. While I am teaching in the English department, I've made contact with faculty in Art History, Fairhaven College, the library, and Modern Languages who all research or teach film. There is some real interdisciplinary potential at Western for film students!

Well, I can't promise I'll start blogging more, but I'd like to repurpose this blog a bit and shift towards my teaching. I'll still probably post about films I've seen recently every once in a while, but writing about 'teaching film' seems like a useful exercise.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I've been busy with a number of articles, presentations, and projects, so I haven't had time to update the blog in a long time, but I thought I'd break the silence for a project I'm launching today with a team from St Andrews.

Deleuze Cinema (dot com) is a collaborative resource for scholarly and creative works dealing with Gilles Deleuze and film/media. We've spent a chunk of our time adding to the resource, but we'd like to invite others to contribute as well! If you're interested, use the contact form on the website.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Win Win (2011) *spoilers*

I just got back from Win Win at the DCA, and I have to say it wasn't the film I expected. I was expecting a quirky dysfunctional-family comedy cashing in on the trend of these movies - it was a fox searchlight production after all - but the film was far more subtle than others that adhere to the quirky-family genre conventions. Sure, it had some of that too, but not enough for me to throw it in the same boat as Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Juno (2007). Win Win is certainly a comedy, but a comedy haunted by a somber mood as it addresses the financial crisis in the US. I particularly liked this film for the nuanced way it addresses the financial crisis in neither an uplifting or fatalistic manner. Well, I also liked that it had Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Tambor. Also, Alex Shaffer who appears to be new to acting played his role perfectly.

In the film, Giamatti plays a small time lawyer who represents, it seems, mainly elderly clients. He isn't getting much work, which stresses him out a great deal. We see him having a panic attack that his doctor attributes to 'stress'. Giamatti explains his financial situation to a close friend, but at the same time hides it from his wife and family. It seems that Giamatti is determined to maintain his families quality of life (which appears to be fairly modest). He is constantly cutting corners: refusing to replace the boiler at his office, putting off hiring someone to cut down the rotting tree in his front yard, etc. Finally, he finds a way to make some extra cash by becoming the 'legal guardian' of one of his elderly patients that will otherwise go into state care. Of course, by becoming his legal guardian he is entitled to $1500 a month from his client's estate.

The issue at stake is that his client wants to live at home, but cannot due to the onset of dementia. If the state takes custody of the individual, he will be placed in a facility that cares for the elderly with dementia. Giamatti takes legal guardianship by arguing that he will allow his client to live at home, but immediately puts him in another facility (paid by the client's estate), because he doesn't have the time to take care of him and collects a $1500 check each month. Taking advantage of the elderly financially is a serious issue in cases where the elderly individuals no longer have the mental capacities to make the right decisions for themselves, as is the case in Win Win. Now Giamatti's character is in no way a 'bad guy', he is actually shown to be quite honorable in the beginning of the film in taking the cases of elderly clients. But the financial crisis pushes him to take this step. As he says at one point of the film: what am I supposed to do, become a bartender?

What I really liked about Win Win was the ending tone of the film. As the drama unfolds, his trick with his client's state is revealed (but I won't go into the details here... it is the real plot of the film which I haven't really talked about). Rather than cut and run, however, Giamatti admits his foul play to the interested parties and forks over his $1500 a month to his client's drug-addled daughter and decides to take care of him regardless. Without the extra income, the film ends on a sequence where he rushes home after work and puts on party attire. We then see his good friend show up at a bar, but as the camera revolves around his friend, Giamatti is revealed as the bartender. In the end, rather than exploiting his clients, Giamatti takes another job to maintain his quality of living. In this, he neither triumphs over the difficulties he endures throughout the film, but neither is the film a tragedy. Instead, the film finishes on a subtle note with Giamatti acknowledging his problems and actively working at a solution. I really enjoyed this realistic conclusion with a very down to earth example of a Deleuzian ethics: the way out not in some idealized solution, but by working through daily reality at a better future.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Inception's Ethics

There is a scene in Inception (2010) where Ariadne builds an infinite mirror, alluding to the thematic of possible worlds in the film. This scene visually mimics the moment in Citizen Kane (1941), where Kane sees himself reflected infinitely:

And here's a photo of Gilles Deleuze projecting himself infinitely for good measure.

Whereas in Citizen Kane, the reflection of images might allude to the many 'Kanes' created in the public eye, Inception's 'dreams worlds' are more visceral in that the characters actually inhabit them, even if only temporarily. This scene in Inception is different from other uses of this visual trope, however, as Ariadne presses against the infinite mirror, which breaks it to reveal a single, long road. While allowing the possibility of many worlds, Ariadne affirms just one of the many.

Throughout the film, her character serves a probing function. She discovers the secrets of Cobb's dream world, and explains Inception's dream-physics to the audience. Her declarative statement in breaking the glass and revealing a singular possibility is significant in terms of the end of the film, where Cobb's top comes spinning to a halt (or does it?). In spinning to a halt, the top affirms that Cobb's present experience is reality and not a dream.

Deleuze's pose between the mirrors illustrates his interest in the time/crystal-image, but ultimately his cinematic ethics was based on the affirmation of a singular existence -- or a 'belief in the world'. Here, 'the world' is something akin to what Deleuze described as life -- not fantasy, not an ideologically-inflected existence, but pure lived experience. As David Rodowick and Ronald Bogue point out, this ethics is based not only on film's ability to inspire a 'belief in the world' but also 'one's ability to change the world'. Because Inception is all about the layering and getting lost in dreams, the world becomes a questionable state. Cobb finally changes his world by taking action to become reunited with his kids in reality. In the very end, however, the film asks: is this reality, or is Cobb just playing in a fantasy world?

Of course, I think the film is ambiguous about this point -- it is questionable as to whether the top stops spinning or not -- I also tend to think the way it wavers at the end suggests that Cobb is in fact back in 'the world'. Does this mean Inception poses an ethical statement by illustrating how Cobb has indeed returned to 'the world' in his desire to change his reality, rather than hiding in the dream world he has created for himself? Although it would be difficult to say it inspires an ethics to the filmgoer the way a truly ethical film would, this sort of ethical question does seem to be at the heart of Cobb's predicament throughout the film.