Nashville (dir. Robert Altman, 1975) – Amazing how much you can forget about a film in five days. Nashville came across as so much more scathing this time around than last time (around 4 years ago). The attention Altman pays to the triumphalistic attitude of nationalism that defines his vision of the South in the 1970s is so in-focus, despite the conceit of a wandering, objective camera, is so flagrant as to seem fictional. And maybe it is. However, the title to the film is Nashville, the place of its setting. So much about the film is couched in the apparently real, that it’s hard to deny something is being said about a specific place. Arguably, all the quintessentially American imagery makes Nashville synecdochic, a stand-in for a larger idea. And this position would have some merit. A number of the characters in the film are not from Nashville, although they gather there. For that matter, Geraldine Chaplin’s character isn’t even American, and she’s at least as ridiculous as the most ridiculous American character. Unlike Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, it doesn’t seem like he enjoys the music in Nashville, since nearly every song has a subtext, either in its lyrics or its performance or both, that renders the character singing it or the song itself deeply problematic. Whether it’s Keith Carradine’s character singing “I’m Easy” with three different women in the audience thinking they’re the object of his affections, or Haven, decked out in a messianic white suit while treating anyone who is weary or heavy-laden with contempt and singing songs glorifying an intangible American ideal, the songs veil so thinly the ugliness behind them that the veil is quite transparent.
Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950) – Screened this for a seminar in film and architecture, making it an excellent choice and offering a certain lens through which to recognize new features. It’s called Rashomon, named after the gate where the main storytelling takes place. The gate is heavily dilapidated, reminiscent of the look of structures in Japan following the atomic bombings. The gate is a liminal structure connecting two different spaces, and so it’s an ideal structure in which to house a few wanderers who are defined by their uncertainty (i.e., in between knowledge) as to what happened in the forest. The figure of the woodcutter is the most interesting, apparently as a figure representing humanity in Kurosawa’s time and place. He gives an account as to what happened but is discovered for having deliberately omitted part of the truth. This makes him guilty not of everything but certainly of something. His felt guilt ends up transforming into resolve to live better, to be the very hope that he had lost for the world. He’s a woodcutter, after all. It’s a fundamentally destructive occupation, tearing down the natural order, or, tearing down nature. His own human nature, too, is fallen. Only once he recognizes this fallenness can he become constructive (another essential part of being a woodcutter – making the wood available for building). He is the optimist in this story and the priest is the pessimist. They’re both equally foolish, too able to be dragged down by the crushing realities of the world. It’s the optimist, though, who finds the determination to defeat his own nature and move forward. The third wandering fellow is simply cynical. There’s more hope for the optimist and the pessimist than there is for the cynic, the one who is so jaded by the world that he doesn’t even care anymore. This is manifest architecturally when the cynic tears down part of the gate structure from the inside in order to make fire. Without a thought that his action is ultimately counter-productive, dismantling the structure that gives him shelter, he’s too focused on his own immediate need to think about greater matters. He does this same thing to the child at the end of the film, scavenging an abandoned baby for a blanket and neglecting the child to die. The woodcutter’s intervention has been identified as a display of Kurosawa’s humanism. Within the text of the film, though, it’s just hope. Kurosawa always insisted he was making films for the Japanese people who were watching them at the time, and he saw Japan as in a transitional period in the postwar era, passing through a gate moving into an uncertain future.
Terms of Endearment (dir. James L. Brooks, 1984) – Watched for a film & melodrama seminar, and this appears to be the piéce de resistance of the genre. It, along with so many defined by the melodramatic style/mode, is a walking and talking contradiction in ideological terms. In this case, it upholds the values and, more importantly, the identification with women characters, but it also displays the ultimate impossibility of those values within the quote-unquote system of capitalism what-with the nuclear family and so on and so forth. (That sounds positively Zizek-ian!) This film is distinguished from a “romantic comedy” by virtue of the women’s conversational preoccupation with themselves, only including men as a topic of discussion by extension, as opposed to everything centering around men and women acquiring their identity through the desired men. The film hones in on and insists upon the traditional family. The Debra Winger character gets married and has children, to the disappointment of her widowed mother, a character defined by repression and frustration. The daughter, on the other hand, is more of a free spirit who expresses herself through language and sexuality in a way that eludes her mother. When the family inevitably starts to break apart, the male is vilified for his infidelity while the film seems to embrace the woman’s philandering. She’s frustrated at home and expressing herself, after all. When she’s on her (also inevitable) death bed, she and her husband make arrangements for her mother to take the children. Career comes first and foremost for the traditional man; he can’t be bothered by children. They’re relegated to the domestic and maternal sphere. So naturally, they go to their grandmother, who conveniently marries a self-made career man (an astronaut, no less), thus returning the children into the realm of a nuclear, traditional family. The formulaic nature of this narrative, particularly with its highly episodic structure and huge jumps forward in time in order to get to to the meaty parts, reflects basic assumptions that pervade its audience. The film’s amazing box office success seems to confirm this claim. The film’s appeal lies in its melodramatic content. It’s a tear-jerker designed to elicit empathetic pangs of loss and love and so on, and it does so in that blatantly contradictory way that maintains the status of melodrama as a mode of escape that, unfortunately, finds its referent in an all-too real world.
Broken Blossoms (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1919) – Another screening for the melodrama seminar. This one can be subjugated to any number of readings, but we’ll try to avoid tinted lenses (unlike this film itself – ha) as much as possible to look at what’s there and what the film itself wants to highlight. A couple readings brought to light the inherent conflict, contradiction, even, that comes with the territory of melodrama. You have something like the ideals into which everyone would like to escape juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the reigning ideology. In this case of tragic melodrama, we have a narrative utopia at the outset: in China, Cheng’s world is nearly perfect, other than the presence of the Western sailors carousing in the midst of an otherwise peaceful and gentle society. (This foreshadows the impending conflict once Cheng relocates.) Once Cheng moves to Britain, the utopia is very much gone. We see him in an opium den with a variety of figures, most males being foreigners and the women apparently British prostitutes. He’s immediately disenchanted by, well, capitalism. This is emphasized by Cheng’s identification as a shopkeeper, a job that is brutally unforgiving and shatters Cheng’s idealistic vision of moving to the West and spreading the Buddhist gospel. On a less narrative level, however, we can still locate what we might call the melodramatic utopia. It exists at the level of pathos, wringing emotion from viewers through the perverted love triangle among Battling Burrows, Cheng, and Lucy. By milking this drama for all that it’s worth, the film attempts to elicit strong feelings from the viewer that empathize with Cheng (while also revealing him to be a rather impotent hero), sympathize with Lucy (we never really seem to identify with her), and despite everything about Battling Burrows. The infamous rape scene can be read in different ways. Some would say it constitutes the moment when we are, finally, identified with Lucy. Others would say it’s a moment of melodramatic intensity, zooming in on her countenance and the little doll she holds in order to amplify Burrow’s perversion and Lucy’s fundamentally childlike status. Further still, some would say this scene is pornographic, giving the viewer a sinister gaze into the closet to enjoy, illicitly, Lucy’s symbolic rape. The ending has all three main characters dying at one another’s hands, completely removing narrative utopia but cranking up the affective utopia. That is to say, we feel more strongly at this point than ever, or are supposed to. This feeling is the substitute for a failed utopia in reality and an escape from the wiles of a post-sacred age.
Hannah and her Sisters (dir. Woody Allen, 1986) – It’s been awhile, and I’m way behind, so I’ll just mention the scene that popped. Woody’s character has just sort-of attempted suicide, with comic results that still shake him up considerably. He starts wandering around New York (demonstrating something akin to Ed Dimendberg’s “walking cure” from his book Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity), and he eventually walks into a movie theater. He’s telling the story to someone, narrating the action as it happens, so he observes that he had no idea what was playing; he just went in. So far, what stands out as being unusual about this scene is that he doesn’t walk into a church; he walks into a cinema. This is significant on a few levels. First, part of what led the character toward suicide was a quest for meaning that included trying out some religions, like Roman Catholicism and Krishna. Without other options, he can’t be expected to wander into a cathedral or temple, so he enters a movie theater. The narration that overlays the shot-reverse-shots of his character while watching none other than the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup is too rich to recall in enough detail right now. However, it suffices to say that this perfectly illustrates an important point about the relationships connecting (or as the case may be, separating) cinema and human beings and transcendent truth. Being in what is commonly called a “post-sacred age” now (i.e., an era in which the authority of religion has been largely supplanted, despite more than just lingering traces throughout much of the world), the cinema functions as an alternative to religion and transcendent truth. It provides narratives through which to escape the dreaded effects of life, particularly the abjection of death. This is exactly what happens to Woody’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters. Further still, the role of religion is most often a ritualistic one, offering (ha – pun) moments of narrative pause, as it were, from mundane routines for the purpose of enacting meaning existing beyond a quotidian level. This is, again, exactly the function of cinema, with the exception that cinema often doesn’t concern itself with the more “transcendent” experiences of existence and replaces them with something else that negotiates the life-death gap. For example, comedy functions to laugh off the severity of existence, which, once again, is what Woody’s character does in the scene just described. If it helps, the scene that he watches from Duck Soup is a song-and-dance number that includes comedy. Musicals are chock full, defined, in fact, by their moments of narrative pause that allow these little ritualistic moments of concentrated entertainment that create a certain escapist affect in the viewer. Of course, according to Linda Williams, a few other modes of cinematic escape would be the “body genres” – along with melodrama, these would be pornography and horror. They elicit profoundly bodily effects from viewers who cooperate with their mode of presentation, bodily effects that function as ritual and as escape. They jack us up on affects so we don’t think too deeply about the fundamental crisis of existence. Supposedly, this is supposed to help us create our own narratives rather than falling back on a grand metanarrative. Does it, though?