Archive for the ‘Kim Nicolini’ Category

carrie-ew-cover
The Corruption of the Innocent
by KIM NICOLINI

I had (with notable doubt) high hopes for Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Stephen King’s Carrie. I know that taking on Brian De Palma, whose 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in iconic history-making performances, was no short order to fill. On the other hand, I thought maybe a woman director taking on a classic female body horror narrative would give it a fresh take. Carrie was originally written by a man in 1974 and filmed by a man in 1976; perhaps seeing Carrie through Peirce’s eyes would lend a fresh vision to the story. Kimberley Peirce’s other films – Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss – are both very effective portrayals of class and otherness, two components which play in Carrie’s story.  So while it seemed like an impossible task to conquer a remake of a horror film that holds that holds such high theoretical, cinematographic and an acting import in the genre, I thought maybe, just maybe, Kimberley Peirce would be the girl who could do the job. I was wrong.

I read Stephen King’s novel and re-watched the De Palma film in preparation for the remake. While the King novel is written like crap, it does have nuggets that Peirce could have used to her advantage. Even when Stephen King’s writing is at its weakest, he is very good at describing environment and class. His books are very well crafted in the details of the characters’ lives. He is largely an author of place and the effect that place has on the people who occupy it.  (See The Shining for the most obvious example.) In the novel Carrie, King has many great descriptions of the environment that Carrie lives in – her house, the high school, the town in general including Sue’s house.

Most notable for grounding the book in place and class is the infamous trip to the pig farm where the villainous Chris and Billy slaughter a pig to get the blood to dump on Carrie in their great act of Prom Revenge. In the book, this is the scene in which King really exercises his chops, and we get a detailed scene of fucked-up working class suburban kids out for a blood thrill. De Palma handles this scene with the clean precision with which he handles the rest of his bloody masterpiece. Peirce turns it into a scene crafted more for shock value than social commentary, though her films generally lean toward the latter. In Peirce’s scene, we see a bunch of stick figure characters and watch as Chris ruthlessly cuts the pig’s throat. It is filmed more like “torture porn” than the American realism for which Peirce is known. Maybe Chris’s ruthless and gleeful killing of the pig is supposed to contain the heavy meaning of the film, which I guess is: “Look how bad and evil this rich girl is! She has no heart. All she has is privilege, envy, cruelty and greed.  She can cut a pig’s throat without flinching!”

 

carrie_shot1lSissy Spacek in Brian DePalma’s “Carrie.”

Yeah, girls are evil. That’s a large part of the subtext of the original book and movie. But some girls are lesser evil (the “outsider other”) even while seeming more evil (than the popular girls who run in packs). Carrie ultimately is a tale of the “other” as monster, and the other is largely female. The original book and film were released at a time when the market was glutted with stories about girls who come of age only to find themselves possessed by demons or supernatural powers (The Exorcist, Audrey Rose, Firestarter). In other words, female sexuality is the way to the devil. Carrie is a kind of “hysterical” narrative in the original sense of hysteria (the root of hysterectomy). Those female reproductive organs and the bloody mess they make sure can fuck things up and are scary. In relation to Carrie, I like to quote Sheila Ballantyne’s hilarious feminist treatise Norma Jean the Termite Queen in which she describes a caveman’s initial fear of women. When he discovers that she menstruates, he says, “She bleed all the time and never die.” (One of my favorite quotes ever.)

But Carrie isn’t just about female horror; it’s about other horrors as well: bad mommies, bullying, Christianity, and high school in general. All of these things should have given Kimberly Peirce something to dig her teeth into, and she tried, but she failed big time. The movie starts promisingly, on an entirely different note than the De Palma version giving it space to stand on its own. De Palma’s film opens in the infamous shower scene where Carrie gets her period and thinks that she’s bleeding to death. Peirce starts with the birth of Carrie (a scene which is in the book but not the 1976 film) and which is probably the best scene in the 2013 version of the movie. The camera closes in on an old house with a non-descript 1980s car parked in the driveway. We don’t know where we are in time.  Horrific howls come from the house. Surely a horrifying act of violence is being committed. The camera enters the house and follows a trail of blood until we find Julianne Moore lying on the bed screaming and giving birth all on her own. The scene is maternity at its most horrific. You’ve got the blood of the womb, the crazy mother, the baby being pushed from her vagina like some kind of abominable act, all covered with blood, blood and more blood. (“She bleed all the time and never die.”)  Julianne Moore raises a pair of scissors to murder her Devil Child, but at the last minute has a change of heart and decides to keep her baby. Which is good because then we have the story of Carrie.

From there, Peirce cuts to the shower scene. Here we see a different Carrie than DePalma’s. The girls in the shower room are skinny “Plastics” of the now. They wave their pink i-Phones in their hands, and waggle their bony asses in their Victoria’s Secret underwear. Carrie, on the other hand, is a voluptuous, curvy, sexpot of a freak played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Peirce has inverted the bodies of the original Carrie film in which Sissy Spacek is skinny as a rail and completely desexualized, but her tormentors, especially Chris and Sue, are curvy sexpots with boobs and hips. Peirce’s Carrie is somehow “other” because she is so overtly female (with a sexual fleshy unadorned body as opposed to the bulimic assless bitches in the locker room). This is interesting for sure, but Peirce doesn’t know where she’s going with it or how to get there. She piled on a sub-narrative where Sue is pregnant with Tommy’s baby  (who over course is a girl as Carrie points out at the end) trying to tie together the opening childbirth scene, Carrie’s sexuality, and Sue’s maternity, but it’s all very shallow and brushed over quickly because Peirce has to make room for all of the tedious special effects which weigh down and ruin the film.

carrie618x400Chloë Grace Moretz in Kimberly Pierce’s “Carrie.”

The shower scene is the last effective scene in Peirce’s movie. Carrie stands in the shower washing herself. She puts the soap between her legs. The soap comes out bloody and drops to the floor, and the image is terrific. The soap slowly falls to the drain with blood running off of it is cinematic poetry at its best. The dirty and the clean, the corruption of the innocent, all in one singular image.  It’s the last good powerful image in this film, and there are still 80 minutes or so left to go.

Peirce does allude to the idea that Carrie’s otherness stems from class as well as her mother’s religious fanaticism and her steaming uncontainted sexual power. Clearly her classmates are rich. Tommy shows up at Carrie’s house in a limo not a beat up pick-up truck like in De Palma’s film. Chris throws fuel on the fire of Carrie’s humiliation by posting a video of Carrie’s menstrual shaming on Youtube from her sprawling rich girl bedroom. Chris is kind of like the female equivalent of Mitt Romney and looks like a Kardashian knock-off. Tommy plays Lacrosse (the rich boy’s sport) not baseball like in the book or track like in the 1976 movie. In the meanwhile, Carrie’s mom slugs away hemming and ironing at the town dry cleaners, clearly a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. When Sue’s mom stops by to pick up a prom dress, the tension between the women is driven as much by class as by religious crackpotism.

Julianne Moore’s “Momma” is in some ways terrifying, and if Piper Laurie weren’t looming over her shoulder in every scene, perhaps Moore’s performance would be noteworthy. But because it’s impossible to watch “Momma” without the magnificent spectre of Piper Laurie (“They’ll all laugh at you!”) hovering close by, it’s hard to give Julianne Moore a place to breathe. The best scenes of her are when she says nothing – when she sits pounding her head on the wall, cuts herself with a seam ripper, or claws at her arms. Silence is Moore’s best ally in this film because every time she opens her mouth, we can’t help but think, “You’re no Piper Laurie.” This is a shame, because Julianne Moore is a great actor. She never should have taken on this role.

In fact, this film never should have been made. Peirce clearly wanted to do something interesting. She has the pieces – class disparity, female body images, religious fanaticism – but as soon as Carrie gets her period, the film is smothered with shitty special effects. Carrie does this ridiculous arm gesturing with goggling eyes every time she exercises her telekinetic powers (making books float in her room, lifting furniture off the floor, etc) This Carrie is actually kind of a snotty bitch getting her rocks off by exercising her superhuman brain power. She is not sympathetic, not Sissy Spacek’s confused woman-child. Chloë Grace Moretz’s Carrie is a total, though pretty, dud, and her pouty Carrie plays to the very teen audience that the movie and book supposedly critique. This Carrie is shallow and vengeful, ridiculously pretty without any tension to fuel the prettiness (e.g. overt expressions of jealousy from the bulimic crowd). She becomes a kind of special effects joke, and the real tragedy of the film is not her character but how badly she is depicted.

De Palma’s film is so clean and precise in what it’s doing. There is no extraneous anything. He very clearly knows exactly what he wants his camera to do and why. The changing “look” of DePalma’s film between Carrie’s house and the high school play in great contrast. Carrie’s house is a dark, grainy den of religious fanaticism whereas the high school is a super-crisp, uber-glossy place of artifice and social construction. De Palma masterfully manipulates POV as we actually occupy Carrie’s body, follow Carrie as she ascends stairs, and watch Carrie in horror as she slaughters us with her power. Peirce shows none of these nuances in perspective. The camera basically is a tool to show-off ludicrous prolonged unnecessary special effects. Do we need to see Chris’s face pushed through the windshield and still talking even when it’s sliced to bits? No, we don’t. Do we need to see Carrie reconfigure the pieces of the mirror after she breaks it with her powers? No, we don’t. These are devices used to sell tickets to high school kids who could care less if this adaptation of the film is any good or has interesting class, gender, and religion subtext.

The biggest thing that Peirce’s film is lacking is the complexity of its main character. In De Palma’s film, Carrie is both monster and heroine. We cheer for her even as we’re frightened of her. She is an innocent abused child (abused by her own mother and her classmates), and he is also a terrifying scary “other” girl. Certainly Sissy Spacek allows this effect to come through, but so does De Palma’s restrained though bloody filmmaking. In the prom scene, Sissy Spacek simply looking out of her eyes to wreak havoc is way more effective than Moretz’s twisted arm waving which looks like some kind of cheesy CGI overlay on her body.

Really, watching Peirce’s film only reinforces how great De Palma’s movie is. The sad thing is that the elements are in the film to make in interesting, but they fall flat and are smothered by an industry-produced FX extravaganza marketed to the teen market that the story attempts to critique. What a disaster.

 

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

war-witch1

 

Where Quiet Beauty is Meshed with Violent Reality

by KIM NICOLINI

 

Thirty minutes into Kim Nguyen’s film War Witch (2012) (simply titled Rebelle in its original French Canadian release) I knew I was watching something like nothing I had seen before. Nguyen’s film is based on true stories of child soldiers captured in Burma by rebels to fight against the government army. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo and told through the eyes and words of the young girl Komona. It follows Komona from ages 12-14 as she is torn from her childhood and thrown into the blood-drenched violent chaos of an unnamed African civil war. The story is harrowing, brutal and heartbreaking, yet the cinematography is so beautiful, the camerawork so sensitive and perfectly executed that the pain is brought to the surface not through overwrought melodrama but through quiet beauty meshed with violent reality. Komona’s tale will rip your heart out for sure, but her survival is not the result of some Western Deus Ex Machina, some prince on a white horse, or helicopter for World Relief.  Rather Komona’s survival is a result of her own will, her personal strength, her instincts, and her ability to continue to move forward and keep herself alive even as her world is crushing in on her.

So no, War Witch is not the kind of movie we usually see about Africa. This is not United Nations Cinema and a vehicle for white people to feel bad about Third World struggles so they can feel good about themselves for feeling bad. Rather, War Witch delivers African Realism like we’ve never seen on the screen before. It is experiential cinema, and the experience is not filtered through the propaganda of Hollywood or Western culture. War Witch is the tale of heartbreaking survival in an environment where the odds against survival are stacked as deeply as the boxes of AK47s which young children wield against an unnamed government army.  But through the set location, mechanisms of production, cinematography and acting, the film allows the audience to breathe even in a seemingly suffocating and hopeless world. We are given a chance to feel and experience the plight of Komona, yet without a didactic Western imprint.

Komona’s story could be called a coming of age story, but that is too tame a phrase for this film. If Hollywood made this movie, perhaps it would be a coming of age story. It would undoubtedly involve some sort of Western intervention – the Peace Corps, missionaries, the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, or maybe even Bono or Madonna. But the young protagonist in this film isn’t even allowed to come of age. Rather Komona’s childhood is violently ripped away from her, and she is thrust into a tale of survival against all odds in a landscape whose bloody and violent history rustles in every leaf on every tree and every blade of grass in the film.  For the entire 90 minutes we are immersed in Komona’s life within her African culture. There is not one single white person to offset, dilute, or Westernize this exceptionally harrowing and heartbreaking vision of life in the Congo. In other words, this is not Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener or Blood Diamond. War Witch is African Realism, and realism in the Congo includes traditional practices of African magic and ritual combined with guns, child soldiers, chaos and a landscape soaked with the blood of its violent history.

The only image of a white person who appears in the entire film is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s distorted and blurred face projected from a shitty VHS tape of Universal Soldier projected on a beat-up TV that is used for a theater to entertain (and indoctrinate) the army of children with guns. The children applaud with glee and raise their guns in celebration and victory as the credits of the movie role and they identify with the plight and victory of Van Damme’s vigilante rebel hero. Other elements of Western culture are strewn through the film like so much litter. The film begins with Komona’s face staring from behind a commercial banner which provides a makeshift wall for her shantytown house. The banner literally frames her face before the rebels arrive, kill off the adults in the village, and capture the children as soldiers.   The film ends with Komona playing out her final struggle while wearing a t-shirt with the brand ABERCROMBIE emblazoned across its bloody and dirt smeared front. So while Komona’s story is grounded completely within its Congo setting, the imprint of Western culture certainly exists but not in any heroic sense by a long shot.

In fact, the rebel army that captures Komona and is led by a leader simply known as Great Tiger barters in the mineral coltan and exploits his child soldiers not just to fight against the government army but also to mine this mineral which is exported and sold to make cell phones. Nearly 80% of the world supply of coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The children are taught to see the mineral as the source of magic power (particularly that of its rebel leader) when in reality it is just a natural resource being sold to the profit of few at the expense of many, including children. So ties to Western culture certainly exist in the film, but not in a very favorable light.

This brings me to the title of the film War Witch and Komona’s story. The film opens with a pan of the shantytown where Komona lives. Komona’s mother braids her hair as we hear Komona’s voice begin to narrate her tale in a voiceover that runs throughout the film. Komona tells her story to her unborn child, and she prays to God that she won’t hate the baby.  The words she speaks are so brutal in contrast to the image of the innocent twelve year old child walking out into the sun, her hair spiked with the braids her mother just gave her. Komona bounces playfully on a wooden war_witch_posterboard, and the fragility of the board, the fact that it can crack at any moment, sets the tone for the world that is about to collapse around this twelve year old girl.  Smoke from war rises beyond the grassy planes where Komona plays. Everything in this opening picture is a painful contradiction. Here we see a young girl carving childhood joy out of a precarious landscape of poverty and violence. She turns her head to a sound in the distance, and in a flash her world rips apart as she runs screaming for the people of her village to take cover. The rebel army arrives, slaughters the adults and captures the children to serve as its soldiers.

In a scene of unbearable pain and tension, the rebels place an AK47 in Komona’s hands and tell her to shoot her parents or the soldiers will violently butcher them with machetes. The parents implore Komona quietly to go ahead and shoot them. Komona pulls the trigger and rapid gunfire punctuates the tears that roll down her cheeks. Her braided hair is the last trace of her childhood as she walks out with the soldiers in a state of shock. At that moment, the twelve year old Komona is thrust abruptly into a violent adult world where all she can do is fight for her survival, a world where she learns “to turn the tears inside her eyes” so they can’t be seen and she won’t be beaten.

Enslaved by the rebel army, Komona covers her braids with a cloth band. In other words, the last trace of her childhood is covered with garments of war. She and the other child soldiers are given AK47s and told that the guns are their mother and their father now. Their ancestral traditions have been replaced by the violence of war.  The children walk through the Congo landscape weighed down by ammunition and sacks of coltan.

This all sounds brutally harrowing, and it is. But what moves the film beyond a relentlessly hopeless, bleak and violent tale of one girl’s struggle is the way in which Nguyen blends traditional African Vodun (spiritual magic) practices with the hard reality of war and violence and the way the cinematography heightens this blend. From the onset of Komona’s capture by the rebels, magic, war and violence are all mixed up. The cinematography literally saturates the screen with color and light, propelling this tragic and violent tale into a kind of magical realm that has been usurped by the forces of civil war. Magic is as much a part of the reality of this film as the war that is being fought. One young soldier tosses a handful of rocks and reads their position to determine the troop’s next tactical maneuver as if he is reading tea leaves. When the new children recruits are given their AK47s, it is done with ritualistic song and dance combined with a celebratory shower of gunfire, a coming of age ritual performed with bullets instead of herbs.

In order to make life in the frontlines more bearable, the child soldiers drink hallucinatory “magic milk” that comes from tree sap. This alters their sense of reality, and turns violence into a dream instead of a nightmare. When Komona takes her first drink, she wanders through the jungle hallucinating. She stumbles onto a road and has a vision of two ghosts of the dead. They warn Komona to run because government forces are coming. Komona yells at her rebel group to flee, but it’s too late. Gun fire explodes from the jungle as if the landscape itself has been transformed into a weapon, and every single child from Komona’s village is shot dead except for her.

As the lone survivor, Komona is named “War Witch” by rebel leader Great Tiger. The rebels celebrate Komona’s magical contribution to their guerilla efforts by shooting off their guns into the night. The night sky explodes with orange fireworks from gunfire from automatic weapons. The troops celebrate their new “War Witch” in an apocalyptic vision of chaos and ritual. Komona, on the other hand, sits quietly shut off from the revelry, her face a portrait of inverted stone. Great Tiger may have named her a War Witch, but she is a reluctant witch. All she knows is death, brutality, pain and blood. She is named witch simply as a tool for Great Tiger to exert power over his enslaved troops and hold them in his spell, and Komona will be killed off as soon as she ceases to be valuable. Not a lot of magic in that formula. The close-up of Komona’s resigned face cuts to a brief scene in the middle of the celebration when Great Tiger guns down one of his rebels for stealing some of the coveted coltan.

Guns, as witnessed in this scene and many others in the film, are directly connected to ritual and magic. They have been integrated into the violent culture as much as Vodun magic itself. Children wear rifles as if the weapons are extensions of their bodies, prosthetic limbs. Their young bodies are laden with ammunition straps like the costumes of ancestral warrior rituals. The rifles are lifted and fired in celebration. They are used to slaughter the enemy as if they are divine weapons. The powder from bullets is used to light fires. Komona is given a “magic” AK47 with carved Vodun images on its grip – the Witch Gun.  But there is no magic in these rifles, and Komona knows it, just like she is no War Witch. In Komona’s world, tradition has been replaced by ammunition. The kind of blood sacrifice witnessed in this film has nothing to do with offerings to the gods, but is senseless violence without reason or spiritual connection.

Komona hooks up with a fellow young soldier (one of her original captors) Magicien when she glimpses him performing magic in his sleeping quarters. Magicien, an albino soldier, shows her strings of stones and bones that represent his dead ancestors and a wing of a bird that represents freedom of the spirit. Komona looks on hopefully as if she can find a glimpse of something beyond the hell she is living.  Magicien opens her palm and places a string tied around a cluster of rocks in Komona’s hand. He shakes violently with the magical energy of the talisman, infusing it with Vodun spirit, and he tells Komona to keep it in her pocket to protect her from war. Magicien himself wears a similar talisman around his neck to protect him. But in the end, the talismans are made of rocks, string, and other junk and only allow for momentary glimpses of possible protection, a small taste for magic in a world where AK47s and machetes trump magical powers. Magicien and others infuse Vodun rituals and talismans with faith because they need to hold onto something that is greater than the sum of their reality (death, blood, death, blood).

In a bloody shoot-out on a great rocky expanse, both Magicien and Komona let lose all their anger, rage and confusion as they fire violently at the encroaching enemy. Komona lifts her “magic rifle” and fires while screaming. Magicien fires endless rounds through a mounted machine gun. After the battle, a lone AK47 stands mounted as Komona watches the ghosts of the dead move silently over the rocks. The ghosts Komona sees are filmed beautifully and subtly almost like whispers as their white bodies and empty eyes roam the war-torn landscape. Their beauty fills the ghosts with both grace and tragedy.

After the shootout on the rocks, Magicien convinces Komona to flee the rebels. He proclaims his love for her and asks her to marry him. In a momentary glimpse of real magic and sincere beauty and tenderness and an attempt to reclaim the ancestry that was stolen from her, Komona proclaims that she will only marry Magicien if he gives her a white rooster which is the African tradition she learned from her father. Magicien takes his charge seriously and embarks on an often humorous and heartwarming hunt for a white rooster, providing a window of relief in a film that is suffocatingly brutal. Magicien eventually finds the white rooster in a community of albinos like himself, and he trades his magic for the bird. The albino community is filmed through an overexposed sun-soaked lens and shows happy families, children and adults smiling and living freely. There is not a gun in sight. It is a tiny window of possible utopia in the hell that is Magicien and Komona’s world.

With the white rooster strapped to the back of a motorcycle, Komona and Magicien are happily married and in love. They go to live with Magicien’s uncle “The Butcher” whose entire family was slaughtered in war. Komona and Magicien laugh and kiss in the fields with the grass blowing around them. But there is tremendous tension under the laughter and the smiles. The fragility of their connection blows through the landscape. The cinematography captures a landscape in a constant state of agitation. We know that the rustle of the grass could be the result of a playful breeze or could be a disruption from the feet of soldiers moving toward them. The landscape is filled with beauty and potential danger. There are secrets lurking in its recesses, and those secrets come bearing weapons.  Danger rises violently and breaks the magic spell that briefly holds Magicien and Komona together. In a violent clash between love and pain, magic and reality, Magicien is butchered before Komona’s eyes, and she is taken as a sex slave to another rebel leader.

At this point, Komona goes into aggressive survival mode. She fights off her slave by combining magic with cold hard tactical strategy. She inserts a seed pod in her vagina, an act that could seem like a Vodun ritual, but which is actually a tactical maneuver to castrate the man who rapes her. She then wields a machete and brings him down with the force of a lion. The magic is gone for Komona, War Witch or not. The only magic she has is her own strength to survive, which proves to be a miraculous force.

Bleeding and pregnant with her rapist’s baby, Komona moves through her fourteenth year in a haze of extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She thinks everyone and everything is a threat. Her internal state of self-imposed disassociation turns into a toxic cocktail of unspoken outrage. She eventually wanders off alone where she rows a canoe back to her homeland, pausing along the way and doubling over in labor pains. She delivers her baby on the shore entirely on her own, pushing it out of her body as if she is pushing every bad thing that she has witnessed in her young life, every horror she has committed under force and that has been committed against her.

With her baby in her arms, Komona returns to her home to bury the ghosts of her parents who have been haunting her since she was forced to kill them. Komona stands in the spot where she held the AK47 in her 12 year old arms and fired on her parents. She looks at the bullet holes and blood stains on the linen blowing in a dirty breeze, and it is utterly devastating, the only material left of her childhood home.

In the dirt on the ground she finds the broken remains of the comb her mother used to braid her hair during those last moments of Komona’s childhood. The comb had been stomped on, crushed, and shattered by rebel soldiers. She takes the comb’s broken body and a shirt and performs a burial in the sand. In this scene, she sings a song setting her spirit and her parents’ spirits free as she buries the ghosts of her parents, her lost childhood, and everything that was stolen from her. Finally the tears she hasn’t shed run quietly down her cheeks.

We see these tears as we always seen Komona, in absolute close-up. Her face fills the screen. The emotions locked inside her stone face are as volatile a force as the landscape she occupies. Every moment she is filmed, the strength she exerts to contain her emotions pushes out of the frame of the screen. Rachel Mwanza, the young actress who plays Komona, brings such enormous emotional presence to the character that it feels like we embody her as we are immersed in this violent world through a child’s experiences. Every scene carries a tremendous sense of immediacy and shock.

One of the reasons the film is so emotionally effective is because Nguyen uses non-actors. Rachel Mwanza was actually a child living on the streets when she was recruited for this role. Most of the actors can’t read. They were given only a page or two of script at a time and had no indication of what was going to happen next in the film’s story, so every act in the movie played out as if it would in real life – unpredictably.  The actors responded with immediate emotion that was captured on film. This is not highly polished and rehearsed Hollywood filmmaking. This is largely unpracticed spontaneous human emotion, and it seeps through the film as densely as the beautifully rich cinematography.

By the end of the film, we have followed young Komona as she is forced to kill her own parents, pick up an AK47 to fight government soldiers, become enslaved by rebel leaders, go on a hunt for a magic white rooster, watch the ground literally drip with blood from those she is forced to kill and those who she watches get killed, and finally give birth to the child of her rapist. Certainly this could be the material of overwrought melodrama, but the film never once lapses into that exploitive Westernized territory. It stays true to its unique brand of harrowing cinematic magic grounded in the brutal realism of the Congo and the history of senseless violence and civil war that have soaked that land in blood.  In War Witch magic and the real are combined to show a tale of survival on its own brutal terms. At the end of the film, when Komona falls asleep in the back of a truck, she has saved herself through her own perseverance and resourcefulness, not from some divine intervention, magic spell or Western aid. Her baby resting in the arms of a stranger, Komona lays her head on a sack, and she finally falls asleep. At age fourteen, she has her whole life ahead of her, or maybe she doesn’t . . .

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

 

django_unchained-3

Blowing the Pulp Out of Dixie

by KIM NICOLINI

By now, almost everyone who’s reading this has probably either seen Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and loved or hated it, or feels they don’t need to see it to reach a conclusion. It’s not the sort of film to inspire a mild response. Django Unchained is a blood-soaked and bullet-fueled Spaghetti Western love story that takes on the subject of American slavery by making room for black characters in popular genre films that have predominantly been the territory of whites. Making copious use of the N-word, striking a delicate balance between the use of racial stereotypes and their dismantling, and exploding with blood, humor, violence, and pulp, Tarantino’s latest provocation, a worthy successor to the alternate history of Inglorious Basterds, leaves audiences unsure what to make of it, even as they cheer for its black hero.

Shouldn’t they despise the film for being so irreverent about the subject of slavery, which Hollywood has usually treated with sanctimonious reverence? Or does the film’s cinematic violence (both literally and generically) explode racism and bring the horror of slavery into a new, more visceral cinematic experience of the brutality of America’s role in the slave trade? I’ve seen the movie three times since it was released in December, and I have to confess that I have definitely reached the latter conclusion. I have yet to become bored with the movie. Nor have I been convinced that it’s racist or reactionary as some critics have stated. Ultimately, I see Django Unchained as a triumph against cautious liberal cinema, the safe packaging of slavery into distancing tidy narratives, and the limits typically imposed on black roles in popular Hollywood cinema. Django Unchained gives the audience a black hero who rises not only out of the abomination of slavery but out of the constraints of cinema itself.

Tarantino’s film has no pretense of being a reverent piece of historical cinema or a classic slave emancipation tale. In fact, Tarantino’s tale of slave revenge and romantic love in America’s Antebellum South intentionally disrupts history, much like its predecessor Inglorious Basterds, and blows-up the Big House of cinematic reverence to allow a mass audience to confront slavery and the role of blacks in film, thereby shining much-needed light on a very dark side of American history.

With the gun-slinging Django riding through the landscape and taking down bad white guys (and they are BAD!) to save his love and avenge his abusers, the movie does on many levels play like a mash-up of the Blaxploitation film and Spaghetti Western. Certainly, the movie contains elements of both genres, but it is also so much more. The film could be called a “Spaghetti Southern” (as Tarantino refers to it in the January 2013 issue of American Cinematographer). It takes elements of the Spaghetti Western (which features an outsider in an alien, hostile environment) and relocates them to the American South. What could be more alien in the Antebellum South than a gun-toting free cowboy black man? And what could be more hostile to this improbable icon of liberty than the white men of the South? As in a classic Western narrative, a very clear line is drawn between the “good” (the avenging slave and the man who freed him) and “evil” (the plantation owners and slave overseers) forces at play in the film, and, despite what some of Django Unchained’s critics have said, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever about who we want to come out on top.

The black hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in a performance as great as the one he delivers as the slick “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds). Once freed, Django learns the trade of bounty hunting as a student to Schultz and demonstrates his sharp-shooting abilities as he plucks off any number of bad white guys with clean precision, a skill set he will eventually employ to rescue his true love Broomhilda. Following a classic fairytale structure, Django and Schultz travel to the evil kingdom (a Southern Plantation known as Candie-Land) to rescue the damsel in distress (Django’s slave wife). Leonardo DiCaprio plays the evil king/plantation owner Calvin Candie who gets his rocks off pitting slaves against each other in a blood sport known as Mandigo fighting, in which black men literally fight to the death for the entertainment of whites. And Samuel L. Jackson tears up the screen with his over-the-top performance as Stephen – the Uncle Tom “House Nigger” who is glued to Calvin Candie’s side and proves to be one of the most diabolical characters ever put on screen.

Just summarizing the main actors in the film illustrates the big can of worms contained in Django Uncained. Besides the role of an Uncle Tom, the shocking display of Mandingo fighting and Tarantino’s use of pulp genres like the Western and the Romantic Fairytale to tell a tale of the most brutal institution in American history, we have to take into consideration the use of the N-word which flies as hard and fast as bullets in this movie. I’ve already used the word in referring to Stephen as the House Nigger, and that is only one of multitudes of times the word is fired during the three hours of the movie. Some critics (most notably Spike Lee) have taken issue with Tarantino’s use of the word. How can a white man use the word “nigger” in a film?

Well, if we want to talk about the historical record, a tale of slavery in the South and the racist and violent history of the American economy would be hard to tell without including the N-word, unless the screenplay were as whitewashed as the pristine monuments to white supremacy that Southern plantations were. But whitewashed is exactly what has largely been done to the subject of slavery in film, and it’s about time that someone pulls the white sheet off the face of the subject. Shockingly, because it’s played for laughs, Django Unchained even features a sequence in which members of a proto-Klu Klux Klan are forced to do just that — pull the white bags off their heads. Revealing the ugly and brutal truth of racism means disrupting reverent expectations of the subject by mixing it up with pulp cinema, and that means deploying the N-word in rapid fire as frequently as it was used in the time. To paraphrase renowned slavery scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. from an interview he conducted with Tarantino, to tell a tale of slavery and racism in America and not use the N-word would be to lie. So if we’re going to tell the truth about slavery and racism, the N-word must be spoken. Just to be absolutely clear, then, if I use the word in this essay, it is both because I am quoting the film and the historical treatment of blacks it refuses to whitewash.

Now that I’ve addressed the N-Word, let’s take a minute to think about what exactly Django Unchained is. The film opens in a dark Texas forest with a chain-gang of slaves. The black faces of the men merge with the dark forest, their white eyes glowing in the night. Two menacing white men on horses are leading the slaves to the market to be sold. This scene sets the stage for a traditional emancipation narrative. When Dr. Schultz arrives and frees Django, the camera closes in on Django’s bloody and brutalized ankle. Django’s entire foot and ankle fill the screen as Schultz removes the shackle and “unchains” Django. Django then shucks off his tattered blanket, bares his whip-scarred back and raises his arms in a gesture of freedom and vengeance (e.g. Black Power).

Certainly Django’s scarred and muscle-bound body could be seen as both a fetish object and a stereotype in this scene. This represents the traditional role of black men in film (when they’re not playing subservient emasculated “House Niggers” like Samuel Jackson’s Stephen). If Tarantino shows us this startling and unpleasant image, however, it is in order to set in motion a narrative that will undo racial stereotypes and cinematic expectations. He first creates the stereotypical scenario (the emancipated slave narrative), and then he dumps the black character into untraditional roles (the cowboy, the Western buddy, the chivalrous romantic hero).

Part of the reason Django Unchained succeeds in emancipating itself from the constraints of cautious liberal cinema and its safe historical distancing of the subject of slavery is by emancipating its main character from the trappings of traditional black roles in film. It undoes racial stereotypes by first exposing them and then either dismantling them by creating untraditional roles (Django) or blowing them up entirely (Stephen). Once Django shucks off that blanket and lifts his arms, he also shucks off the traditional emancipation story and everything that is expected from a “safe” film about slavery. Crucially, Django’s role isn’t so much to free the slaves as it is to free the image of the slave from the shackles of both the racism of classic Hollywood narratives and the political correctness of the post-Civil Rights Era.

Once Django Unchained leaves behind the traditional slave emancipation story, the story takes us through a variety of cinematic genres drenched with plenty of blood and humor as Django’s character develops and ultimately triumphs. Django Unchained uses popular pulp genres to take on the deadly serious subject of slavery and the bloody history of the American South. While some have criticized the film for turning the somber subject of slavery into pulp entertainment, the very fact that Django Unchained traffics in “low” stereotypes is what makes it effective. As we follow Django on his mission to save his wife through Tarantino’s network of pulp genres, not only do we grow to identify with Django, but we are able to share in his victory. Sure, guns are fired, walls are splattered with blood, jokes are made, and visceral violence plays before us, but through pulp, violence, and traditional popular narrative devices, Tarantino erases the cautious distance between the audience and his movie’s slave hero. We are able to feel, see and experience slavery without the desensitizing insulation of identity politics. This collapses the distance between the superficial safety of our times and the brutal reality of our history, making the horrors of the past more viscerally real than when they are neatly packaged in cautious historically accurate cinema.

To simply read Django Unchained as a slave revenge/blaxploitation/Western mash-up would short-change all the genre bending the film does to 1) effectively blow the fuck out of black roles in film and 2) make the audience identify with and cheer for the film’s black hero. When Django mounts one of his former captor’s horses and rides into a small Texas town with his emancipator Schultz, the film shifts gears, moving into the territory of the Spaghetti Western. We’ve seen this town before, its old wooden buildings and dirt-filled streets situated in the barren landscape between nowhere and nowhere else. White people walk out of buildings and stand on sidewalks shocked and outraged at the sight of Django riding on a horse alongside Schultz. One of the townspeople whispers, “Look! It’s a nigger on a horse!” When Schultz questions what their problem is, Django blatantly says, “They just ain’t used to seeing a nigger on a horse.”

The doubling of this line, first from the white woman and then from the black man is funny and the audience laughs, but it’s also damn true. Not only are the people in the town not used to seeing “a nigger on a horse,” but neither is the Hollywood audience. The Western is a white man’s genre, but Django rides his horse right through the genre when he rides into the town. This is partly how the film destabilizes white packaging of race in movies and in American history. When Schultz and Django force the town to accept the “nigger on the horse” because he is there as part of “legal business,” the audience also is being asked to accept him. And the audience does. All three times I saw the movie, everyone in the audience – black, white, old, young – cheered for this “nigger on a horse.”

It turns out that Schultz doesn’t just unshackle Django out of the goodness of his heart. Schultz purchases Django (and ultimately his freedom) because it is within his economic interest. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he needs Django to identify three dirty, rotten overseers – the Brittle Brothers – for whom there is a large bounty on their heads. Django knows the Brittle brothers from his former plantation, because they are the men responsible for whipping him and his beloved wife Broomhilda. Schultz tells Django that he abhors the institution of slavery, but that even he will use it for his economic advantage. Since he “owns” Django, he insists that Django work for him to identify the men who have a large price tag on their heads. When Django asks what a bounty hunter does, Schultz explains that he’s “in the business of selling corpses.”

Coupling bounty hunting with slavery is brilliant. The pairing of these two businesses that trade in human lives underscores the business of violence in this country and the bloody legacy of the American economic landscape. Slavery was an atrocity, an abomination, a dehumanizing and brutal institution that was perceived as acceptable because it was good for “business.” It fueled one of the most successful economic enterprises in American history – cotton. Interestingly, Tarantino also shows how the race card can be thrown out the window, when it is within the economic interest of whites. Everything comes down to business. When Schultz realizes that Django is a perfect shot and that he would make an excellent business partner in the bounty hunting business, race becomes transparent between the two characters.

(more…)

A Reign of Terror on People of Color

by KIM NICOLINI

I saw my first film of the new year last night – The Central Park Five, a documentary about the five black and Latino boys who were falsely accused, bullied into confessing, and then served time for the rape and beating of the Central Park Jogger back in 1989. After serving 6-13 years in prison, the boys were exonerated of the crimes when the true rapist confessed and his DNA matched that found on the crime scene.

Certainly this film is a devastating story of racial injustice and the failure of the American criminal system. The film was made by famed PBS documentary filmmaker Ken Burns based on a book by his daughter Sarah Burns, and it largely focuses on the stories of the surviving boys (who are now men), their families, and archival footage.

The police, lawyers, and District Attorney involved in the case refused to participate. They are included in the documentary via archival footage, including the videotaped confessions which were extorted from the boys, four of whom were fourteen years old at the time of the crime and one who was sixteen.

During their 30 hours plus of interrogation, they had no legal representation, no child advocates, no social services presence, and no contact with their parents and family. They eventually confessed, being fed the details by the cops, simply to “make it stop.” Their confessions were inconsistent, full of errors and mistakes. None of the boys’ DNA was found at the crime scene; likewise, none of the DNA of the victim was found on the boys, though the crime was brutal and bloody. The boys were convicted on the sole evidence of the false confessions that were forced out of them by the brutal interrogation of the Central Park Precinct detectives.

Certainly this is a tragic tale of race in this country. It is particularly resonant after recently seeing Django Unchained. (I’ll be publishing my essay on that film next week). What is most interesting to me is how this incident was used by the media and governing forces as a catalyst event to propagate and reignite racial fear in this country. The terminology used to reference the boys by the so-called liberal media was as dehumanizing as that of the Jim Crow south. The boys were referred to as a “wild pack” who were “wilding” and terrorizing white people. They were spoken and written about as if they were wild animals, something less than human.

I remember the incident well. I was a woman jogger at the time, and I recall how this single incident framed a new Environment of Fear which was based on the threat of the black man against the white woman. It is the same fear that was propagated during Reconstruction (post Civil War America), when it was within the economic interest of white power to keep black men demonized.

the-central-park-five
It must be noted, that the Central Park Five event occurred in the wake of the ongoing fallout from the economic recession following Reaganomics. During hard economic times, the country likes to find a scapegoat for the economic chaos and despair that permeates the environment. In the case of the Central Park Five, the media, police and government forces created Wilding and the fear of Blacks in Packs. Also, it must be noted that censorship of black music was instituted at this time.

Certainly demonizing “the racial other” is nothing new in this country, but I see the Central Park Five incident as a kind of historical pivotal moment in the Post Civil Rights Era when American governing forces began re-escalating its reign of terror on people of color, immigrants and the disenfranchised (see the institution of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security for evidence). We have to remember that this country and its economic base were largely founded on racial demonization and dehumanization. Slavery was the economic backbone of early America. When the slaves were freed, many of them ended up packed away in housing projects such as those that tower the streets of Harlem. When housing projects didn’t work to contain America’s Big Ugly History, prisons were expanded and race was largely criminalized. This trend has not stopped to this day and certainly played a role in the Central Park Five.

To me, the most tragic part of the film is that when the boys are finally exonerated of their crimes, they greet this news with a kind of quiet and devastating resignation and acceptance. Certainly they are happy to no longer have to be “registered sex offenders” for the crimes they never committed, but there is also a sense that they feel that “this is just how things are in this country.” And the sad truth is that this is how things are in this country.

One boy who is now a man says with tears in his eyes (I paraphrase), “I will never get those years of my life back. No prom. No high school. They have been taken from me, and I will always have this hole or gap in my life where those years were stolen.” Yet, he also seems to accept it as a fact of life in America, a country that was founded on “stolen lives,” the legacy of which still largely lives and breathes up in Harlem where these boys lived.

It is a sobering and sad film. It is also critical to revisit this case to remember what it stood for as emblematic of the paradigm shift that occurred during the Reagan years and continued as we moved into the era of ultra conservatism that continues to dominate our political landscape today. We have not come a long way, baby. Not by a long shot.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini gmail com.

 

“Argo, Fuck Yourself”

by KIM NICOLINI

I have to admit that the numerous times I saw the trailer for Ben Affleck’s Argo (too many to count!), I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. I wondered who the hell would want to watch this movie about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis as seen through a Hollywood-CIA covert operation. I tend to enjoy historical movies, but this one just looked so weird, scattered and unsure of its message. After seeing it the other night, I can say that while the movie is indeed a little weird, it is far from scattered. Its message is pretty clear and insidious. In fact, Argo is so un-scattered and linear that it is boring while also being politically dubious.

I checked out the reviews of the film before deciding to watch it. Metacritic turns up with an astonishing number of 100s from all the main press, and Rottentomatoes gives the film a 95% positive rating. I thought that maybe my initial impressions from the trailer were wrong.  Given the overwhelming positive responses to the film, maybe Argo really is a good movie. So I went to see it. I should have trusted my initial instincts. As a movie, Argo is a total dud. Besides the fact that it is an exercise in problematic revisionist history, it’s just a crappy movie. I’m fine with using historical material to create a movie that is not wedded to being accurate, but at least the movie should be good, interesting or entertaining. Argo is none of these things. It is a crappy movie with an insidious political agenda. It turns a fascinating “real historical event” into a lousy and tedious screenplay. It is so wedded to its CIA-Hollywood patriotic narrative that the film completely lacks complexity and tension. Its tiresome linear progression mirrors the film’s “Middle of the Road” politics and ultimately left me both bored and bugged at the same time.

The movie is based loosely on real events: Tony Mendez’s account of the historical rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran. “Loosely” certainly is the operative word here. Argo is a piece of cinematic revisionist history if ever there was one. Not only did I find the movie incredibly dull in its exceptionally linear narrative perspective of these historical events, but I was also more than a little annoyed by its historical manipulation.

For me, the only “good” thing about the movie was how it used the cinematic medium to recreate a historical time – 1979. Certainly Affleck’s recreation of history is visually accurate.  If you’re interested in indulging in Set Detail and Costume Fetishism, Affleck’s  cinematic recreation of 1979 fashions, technology and cars delivers the goods while also delivering six white Americans to safety. The cinematography perfectly mimics the look of late 70s film, and the integration of archival news footage lends a sense of authenticity. But there is only so much entertainment value that can be gleaned from indulging in late 70s fetishism. Once I oohed and ahhed a few times at the haircuts and television sets, I found the movie’s seemingly interminable 120 minutes so boring that I actually fell asleep twice.

The movie starts during the tumultuous riots in Iran when Iranians were demanding that Americans return their deposed Shah (Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī) for prosecution in their own country. The movie is packed with rioting American-hating Iranians with guns, yet the film has no tension whatsoever. Other than a brief history lesson in the beginning of the film and one scene in a public market when an outraged Iranian insists that the diplomats give him a Polaroid photo they shot and mentions that the Shah killed his son, the movie completely neglects to provide the Iranian’s side of the story. The film is a sanitized version of the events. It minimally alludes to the back story of the Iranian revolution but then turns the Iranians into window dressing. They are simply a backdrop that allows the film to tell its patriotic story of the American Hollywood-CIA heroic and covert operation to rescue the diplomats.

Speaking of authenticity, there is nothing authentic about the film’s manipulation of historical events. Its authenticity stops with its haircuts and its use of archival news footage and photographs to give a sense of historical accuracy. Underneath the set details, the burning American flag, and the mirror images from photo archives, Argo really is pure political propaganda. I have some questions to ask here. Why didn’t the Americans just return the Shah to Iran? Why do Americans feel it’s their right to take care of other countries’ business? Why not let the Iranians prosecute their deposed corrupt leader? What’s that old saying about “cleaning up your own backyard before . . .” Also, excuse me in advance if this sounds harsh, but given the vast number of people who have died in the Middle East (Americans, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis, etc.), why should we give so much attention to 6 white American diplomats who were saved by Hollywood and the CIA? What about all the other people from so many cultural demographics who have and are continuing to be massacred, murdered and tortured daily?

Needless to say, since it is based on true events, we know the end of the story before going into the movie, and that can take the wind out of a movie’s sails if the film is not done well. But why is it that Hollywood Lefties (Ben Affleck has a clear track record for leaning staunchly to the Left) made a movie about Hollywood joining forces with the CIA to save some diplomats right before the 2012 Presidential election? Why is it that in this film the fact that the hostages were released after Ronald Reagan was elected President and during his inauguration is completely ignored? Why is it that the film ends with the stamp of Jimmy Carter (the Official Voice of American Centrist Democrats) in an actual voiceover narration? And why does it manipulate the delivery of historical information and disregard all the covert financial wheeling and dealing that led to the release of the hostages?

I’ll tell you why. Because Argo, above all else, is a piece of conservative liberal propaganda created by Hollywood to support the Obama administration’s conservative liberal politics as we move toward the Presidential election. In addition, it also primes the war wheels for an American-supported Israeli attack on Iran, so that Leftists can feel okay about the war when they cast their vote for Obama in November.

This leads me to why this movie is one big bore. It’s not a movie at all. It’s exceptionally underhanded political propaganda created by Hollywood to try to win over right leaning war supporters to Obama’s conservative liberal politics while appeasing centrist Leftists (which Hollywood embodies to the max) to feel good about voting for a President who supports war.

Propaganda, as a general rule, does not make good film. So why do so many movie critics love this movie? I seriously don’t know. If they were looking at the film critically, they would have to see it as boring and flawed.

Perhaps it is because movie critics are also part of the movie industry. The movie industry plays a considerable role in the patriotic heroics of this film. In Argo, Hollywood works with the CIA to save the day and the 6 American diplomats. Not surprisingly, Hollywood as an “institution” is the most entertaining part of the film. For the record, the movie industry is played by a tremendously amusing John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their performances are enormously entertaining. They give us a chance to laugh, and they insert humor into this piece of propaganda as another level of making war comfortable by making it funny. Goodman and Arkin play the movie executives who work with Affleck’s Tony Mendez to create the fake film Argo as a ploy to get the diplomats out of Iran by “casting” them as members of a film team scouting for shooting locations for their science fiction film. The best part of the movie is Goodman and Arkin’s on-going joke “Argo Fuck Yourself.” After digesting the film’s conservative liberal patriotic agenda, I can pretty much say the same thing that Arkin and Goodman say about the movie they star in: “Argo fuck yourself.”

To wrap up the political agenda, the movie ends with Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez returning home to reunite with his family as a hero, a father, and a husband. If you’re going to make a 2012 election year propaganda film, you’ve got to have your family values! Then finally, we get the reassuring “stamp of authenticity” as the film pairs photos of the real diplomats with the actors who played them while Jimmy Carter assures us that there can be peaceful resolutions to international crisis (even if a few thousand people die along the way, ahem). But the movie never talks about those people – all the ones (Iranian and American) who actually did die just because we felt like we needed to clean-up the world’s dirty laundry (so we could keep our American dirty hands in the oil supply).

Personally, I found the movie hard to stomach, not just because it is boring but because it is so ideologically problematic. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no enthusiast for Obama’s centrist Democratic politics, and never have been.  However, I do understand how the politics of this country work, so I will be voting for Obama in November. I understand that as much as my ideals would like to believe otherwise, there are only two choices in this America – More and Less Bad. Voting for the Less Bad Democrats is the only way to beat the More Bad Republicans, and I do not want my daughter living in a world where Mitt Romney is President. She has already inherited the nightmare legacy of two Bush administrations. Despite my antipathy toward Obama and his policies, I sure in the fuck hope he does win the election because the alternative makes me puke. But Democrats are not saints by a long shot, despite what movies like Argo make them out to be. Argo is just another piece of Democratic Party Packaging made to win votes by walking a conservative line that somehow attempts to be liberal while also supporting the problematic politics of the conservative liberal agenda. (e.g. It’s okay for Israel to bomb Gaza on a daily basis.)

Am I sorry that I wasted my time and money watching Argo? No, I’m not. Watching a movie like this and thinking about why people like it so much when it’s so wrong is worthwhile. I put my money on this film to win the Best Picture Oscar (even though there is nothing remotely “best” about it) especially if Obama can pull off winning the Presidential election. Since Ben Affleck has made Argo, if Obama does win, Hollywood will be so happy with itself. It can give itself a big pat on the back for helping save the American diplomats back in 1979, for supporting the conservative Democratic agenda, and for helping the Democrats win the 2012 election. Argo may be the most self-congratulatory film Hollywood has ever made, but that does not make it a good film, not by a long shot.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

The Cult of Extreme Success
by Kim Niccolini

If you’ve read anything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film The Master, you’ve probably read a lot about how the movie is a thinly veiled biography of L. Ron Hubbard and the history the Church of Scientology and Dianetics. Then there are those who have expanded the interpretation of the film to include a vast range of weird religious cults that have infected America throughout history – everything from The First And Second Great Awakenings, to Transcendentalism, to snake handling Pentecostal Christians, to “est” and to believers in the Milton Bradley Company’s Ouji board which can be purchased at a store near you.  Interestingly, missing from these interpretations of the film are references to religious cults gone bad and which ended in violence (e.g. People’s Temple, Waco Texas, Heaven’s Gate, etc.).

In retrospect, it makes sense that the more violent cults have not been referenced in relation to this film because in many ways The Master operates on multiple levels that move beyond the mere surface level of its subject. It is a film about American opportunism, sexual repression, and religious fervor, but it is also a movie about how Hollywood itself, of which Anderson is part, is its own kind of cult, selling its own brand of transcendental relief through the silver screen. Maybe movies don’t offer a way to reach heaven or the mystical realm of our past and future lives, but they do give us a place to lose ourselves for the duration of a film. If a director is as adept at manipulating the audience as Anderson is, then the films can even lure us into their doctrine against our will, not unlike the cult leaders he depicts in his films. Even if we read the film as an idiosyncratic vision of the history of whacky American religious cults and namely Scientology as depicted through Paul Thomas Anderson’s eyes, we have to remember that Scientology itself is woven into the Hollywood landscape in figures like Tom Cruise (who plays a cult leader in Anderson’s Magnolia and John Travolta). The news headlines constantly remind us of the connection between Hollywood and Scientology.

Cult leaders are no strange territory for Paul Thomas Anderson. In his first feature film Hard Eight (1996) Philip Baker Hall plays Sydney – a Patriarch Gambler and Cult Leader of Casinos who takes in the young, naïve and fucked up and teaches them “his way” to beat the system and line his pockets with cash. In Magnolia (1999), Anderson gives us the insanely obsessive and hilarious Tom Cruise (a literal Scientologist) who plays the leader of his own Cult of the Cock, a cult that teaches men to be men by “worshipping the cock and taming the cunt.” Already in this film, Anderson has merged whacky American religious obsession with sexual repression. He brings Hollywood into the picture with the figure of Jason Robarbs who plays Tom Cruise’s father and a major Hollywood producer and executive. In Boogie Nights (1997), Burt Reynolds plays a guru of porn, a cult leader in the film industry who brings young people into his fold and exploits them to support his “vision” and his bank account. Finally, in There Will Be Blood (2007), Daniel Day Lewis – a foreboding  vision of megalomania—pares down American obsessive behavior and greed by connecting it to Western expansion, economic opportunism, and the oil industry.  In this film, which precedes The Master, Anderson shows America’s tendency toward relentless pursuit of success devoid of human emotion and connection. Success itself is an artifice and god to which one dedicates his life.

As Anderson’s images of cult leaders and American obsession have progressed over time, his movies themselves have become more and more hyper-stylized and emotionally removed. In films like Hard Eight and his epic masterpiece of ensemble cinema Magnolia, we could find place for human identification, where we could ground ourselves in sincerity and emotional identification. Both movies provided moments of enormous emotional catharsis.  But the more Anderson made films, the more the emotion became subverted by his own private style. The internal components of his films have become so private and so locked inside his own vision, that they resist emotional access from the audience. Yet, people like me continue to watch his work with the fervor and dedication of devoted followers. It could be that is Anderson’s point. He strips us of emotional identification, so we have no choice but to succumb to his vision just like we would to a cult leader, except that we’re watching movies and get to leave the theater when the film stops rolling.

This brings me to The Master in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (The Master and Founder of The Cause) and Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell (a fucked up veteran who becomes one of Dodd’s acolytes). The two actors play against each other with tremendous tension and energy. Both actors completely embody their characters – one showing his absolute obsession with power and control and the other physically embodying the inner torment of a war veteran and the emotional collateral he carries.

Much has been written about the acting performances (which are indeed superb) and the thread of Dianetics within the film, but very few critics have attempted to penetrate below the surface of the movie or analyze it at any depth other than commenting on its style, acting and historical references. One of the reasons so few people have attempted to dig below the surface of the acting and the overt subject matter is because the film intentionally resists analysis. Either what it has to say is written on the surface in its over-the-top performances and blatant reference to cult religions, or its subtext is deeply subverted by the intensely private vision of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like a cult leader, he resists penetration and doesn’t allow access to him or the interior of his film because that would make his “product” vulnerable.

From the onset, The Master is one of the tensest movies ever made. It immediately throws the audience into an uncomfortable state and then toys with the audience for the full 137 minutes of the film. It opens with Freddie Quell guzzling paint thinner or some other toxic concoction on the beach with a bunch of hyped-up and sexed-out soldiers wrestling on the shore in what is an overtly homoerotic war scene. If Jean Genet were to make a movie, it would have this scene in it. Freddie, however, does not engage in the Homo-Wrestling. Instead, he builds a naked woman out of sand, shoves his hand in her genitals, and then masturbates into the ocean, demonstrating his heterosexuality in the extreme. Freddie eventually passes out next to the giant naked sand woman with his head resting against her breast. If that is not a tense way to start a movie and make the audience immediately uncomfortable, then I don’t know what is. Certainly this opening scene does not allow any room for identification whatsoever. Joaquin Phoenix’s distorted and contorted body playing against the homoerotic wrestling scene on the beach, the glaring sun showing every drop of sweat and smudge of dirt on his twisted face, the close-focus askew camerawork – all of it is disorienting, unsettling, alienating and tense.

We then follow Freddie through various mumbled jumbled scenes in which he is fucked-up emotionally, wasted on his toxic drinks, and obsessed with sex. Freddie’s dialogue further alienates us. We can’t understand half of what Freddie is saying because he is so wasted emotionally,

physically and chemically. When he does open his mouth, it’s usually about pussy or cock. Freddie’s messed-up head and wartime trauma have led him to an addiction of drinking poison of his own concoction – cleaning fluids, kerosene, paint thinner, and who knows what else. In between he just wants pussy. While working the fields picking cabbages, he nearly kills a migrant worker with his poison booze. While the audience laughed at many of the opening sequences, it was uncomfortable laughter, the kind of laughter that says, “I have to laugh at this or run away.” There were those in the audience who chose the second option and walked out of the movie because this is a film that forces the audience to feel uncomfortable. Like a cult religion, it forces us to buy into its insanity or leave.

Speaking of religious cults, Freddie eventually ends up on the run where he lands on the (borrowed) cruise ship of Lancaster Dodd. So begins the tense and dysfunctional relationship between Dodd, Freddie and Dodd’s wife Peggy (a truly bizarre performance by Amy Adams). Dodd falls for Freddie’s “poison” – his paint thinner home brew. Dodd can’t get enough of Freddie. He wants to convert him into his fold, and he wants to drink down Freddie’s poison.  But really what Dodd falls for is Freddie in general. Much has been made of the “homoerotic nature” of Dodd and Freddie’s relationship and of the opposing acting styles and demeanors of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. I observed these two characters from a different standpoint.

Sure, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance of Freddie Quell portrays a man in enormous physical, emotional and psychic crisis. But that doesn’t mean Hoffman’s performance is one of austere purity like many reviewers have noted. When Anderson focuses on Lancaster Dodd’s face — with his day old stubble, his drunken and obsessive red face, his flaky skin and all the physical evidence of his toxic life – he is no pillar of cleanliness and stability. He looks as dirty and debauched as Freddie. In fact, he looks even more so. Dodd attempts to hide his debauchery behind his religious megalomania and The Cause. Freddie wears his dysfunctionality on the surface. As the movie plays on and Dodd seems to both want to heal and exploit Freddie, truly what is happening is that he is in love with Freddie.

In the meanwhile, Dodd’s wife Peggy stands by with her formidable presence and attempts to orchestrate The Cause from the sidelines. Amy Adams’ portrayal of Peggy is as disturbing as those of Hoffman and Phoenix. She is pregnant throughout the movie, an image of American domesticity and hetero stability, yet she does not exude wholesome feminine passivity; she is a portrait of menacing manipulation, spite, and control. Part of the way she orchestrates control takes place in a bathroom sink where Peggy gives Dodd a hand job while she stands there pregnant in her pajamas. When she finishes with “the job,” she wipes her hands on a towel and leaves the room. Surely, this scene is an uncomfortable moment for the audience. But, if you want to read below the surface, it’s Peggy’s way of handling (pun intended) Dodd’s homosexuality while also performing the role of the Public Wife so Dodd can sell his bizarre religious sham to the public. In American culture, you can’t be a religious cult leader and out of the closet!

The public, by the way, are a bunch of rich people who use Dodd and his bizarre melding of mysticism, eastern religion, and his own random thoughts for their entertainment. Dodd is just a fad. He is used by the rich people for entertainment much in the way that Dodd uses Freddie. Everyone is using someone in this movie, and in the eyes of the wealthy, Dodd is just a disposable fad who can be tossed away when he no longer suits their whims.

In the meanwhile, Freddie maintains his devotion to pussy to such a degree that when he attempts to go sober, he hallucinates that all the woman at one of Dodd’s revivals are naked. The camera cruises over every variety of pubic hair and boobs on women ages 17 – 70. At moments the camera holds still on close-ups of pubic hair or aging buttocks. In the meanwhile, the naked and pregnant Peggy looks out at us as a kind of dare. Yes, the uncomfortable moments are stacking up.

While much has been made about the homoerotic bonding between Dodd and Freddie, I beg to differ. This is a movie about opposing sides of sexuality in conflict and connection with each other. The issue at the core of the film is that Dodd is a repressed homosexual who is in love with Freddie, but Freddie is clearly entirely heterosexual to such a degree that his heterosexuality is seen as almost an aberration. Indeed Dodd calls Freddie “aberrated” when they first meet, but Dodd is the one with the aberration if we are to go by standard American social codes. The movie ends with Dodd professing his love for Freddie in song.  Freddie turns his back on Dodd and walks away. He lands in a bar and has sex with some bar girl. Freddie plays “The Master” game with the girl, and she just laughs it off. In the end, Dodd’s hyper controlling mystical vision is nothing but one man’s attempt to control his own desires more than others.

The filmmaking style itself does not make the sexuality any more comfortable. Paul Thomas Anderson has become a bombastic, epic, filmmaker whose style is so extreme that even if the subject matter didn’t make the audience uncomfortable (for example in the scene when the pregnant Peggy talks about fucking with dildos) the filmmaking style itself pushes the audience to the brink of acceptable bounds between the filmmaker and the audience. It’s extremely artificial and staged while also closing in on uncomfortable aspects of human nature – the traits that we would rather ignore. So the filmmaking style with its austere, hyper-stylized, a-historical settings is as impenetrable as the characters.

Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have reached the point where he intentionally pushes all the buttons he can push and produces huge alienating idiosyncratic films just so he can test his audience’s commitment to his films. As a filmmaker who makes films that intentionally alienate the audience from emotion but then also seduce the audience into succumbing to their obsessive vision, Anderson is not unlike Lancaster Dodd or L. Ron Hubbard. Like these cult leaders, Anderson tests the followers of his totally unreasonable doctrine, and by testing them he lures them in and holds them captive to his vision. (At least for those who don’t walk out.)

I’m a pretty hardcore film geek and have a very high tolerance for oddness, excessiveness and insanity in films, but even I was overwhelmed by the tension of the The Master for the first hour or so. Finally, I realized that the only way I could “enjoy” this movie was to give myself into it entirely. I had to relinquish myself to its obsessive excessive vision just like I would give into a charismatic cult leader who is completely off his rocker yet somehow irresistible. I did give in, and I came out with lots of interesting thoughts about the movie. However, all my thoughts were really about how Paul Thomas Anderson manipulates the audience by making the audience feel tense, uncomfortable and then converted.

All that said, I remain dedicated to Anderson’s films. I think it’s interesting that when his films contained the most authentic human compassion and expanded their cinematic worlds and emotions to places outside of the insular vision of this 21st century auteur that he referred to himself simply as P.T. Anderson. But the more and more insular, idiosyncratic and alienating his films became, he expanded his name to the complete Paul Thomas Anderson a name as long, wide and expansive as the 70 mm film he uses to record his compulsive visions.  I guess that’s Anderson’s point in this movie more than anything. He is Lancaster Dodd, and he won me over again.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

Warrior (2011)

Posted: October 14, 2011 in Kim Nicolini
Tags: , ,


Punching at the Heart
by KIM NICOLINI

I like to see a good boxing film. I always have. Part of me has argued that I accept boxing narratives because they don’t mask the brutality of men at battle with each other. No hiding behind a football or a basketball: boxing is fist-on-fist fighting for survival. Almost always set in the working class, boxing films provide a great arena in which to play out the struggles of men battling to survive by punching the daylights out of each other for money. This setting is ripe for allegories about trying to make do in an economic world that wants to beat them down. But boxing movies are more than just economic allegories. They also provide a place where myths of American masculinity rise to the fore, and ideas of honor, brotherhood, and strength are put to the test in the ring.
Continue