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Saturday
Feb212015

“Seeing” Rodney King’s Arrest through Barthes’ Three Meanings

Reading William Mitchell’s classic digital imaging work The Reconfigured Eye, I had not expected to find mention of Rodney King, the single paragraph that it was[i], though I had decided twenty pages earlier to link the operative chapter, “How to Do Things with Pictures” to a disquisition on the Rodney King arrest video. It has not been quite a quarter of a century since King’s fateful arrest on March 3rd, 1991, but then I’ve never been into jubilees.

At the point of referring to the Rodney King arrest video, already Mitchell had cited Barthes’s notion of the press photograph in dialogue within a context, a linguistic one, with at least a title or caption[ii]. I find it likely that Barthes would have thought the same of press motion pictures, analog video for example, such as the edited, broadly TV-broadcast recording of the Rodney King arrest captured by hobbyist photographer George Holliday.

Mitchell himself uses parlance that evokes the legal procedure when discussing photography’s deployment of “larger signifying structures to report the significant facts (or ‘facts’) about states of affairs that are claimed to have existed and events that are claimed to have taken place, and how such reports are used to convince, to create belief, and to command assent.”[iii] Mitchell then goes on to write, “A piece of evidence is a fact with significance in some context, a fact that has been pressed into service, used to support some claim or argument. It serves to tell us about something in the past… Photographs then present facts but are frequently used as evidence.”[iv]

Which leads me back to Barthes, who despite writing about photography throughout his accomplished career, including in his final work Camera Lucida (1980), wrote on film in a single instance of which I know and even then referring only to a film’s stills and not to any “motion” photography: stills from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in his 1970 essay The Third Meaning. In this essay, Barthes lays out three levels of semiotic interpretation, tiers of sense making according to functionality: “communication,” “signification” and “signifiance.”[v] I wish to explore these three tiers in the hermeneutic experience of viewing the video of the motorist’s arrest, particularly within the courtroom, in a manner that applies The Third Meaning’s mode of analysis to the motion, instead of to the still, photograph.

Barthes’ first discussed level—or perhaps range is a better description—his first range of interpretation is the one he addresses only in passing in his noted essay, that of “communication.” Here is the interpretation concerned with transference of information. The experience of drawing information from viewing of the video recording of King’s arrest. Information was communicated to viewers in two distinct realms: the public realm, mitigated by press and broadcast (the internet would not have figured in public opinion then), and the realm of the courtroom, which subsumed the goings-on of the public realm since the video had been shown on national TV and discussions about it had taken place for months before the trial had begun.

The video of nine minutes and twenty seconds in total[vi] had its first thirteen seconds truncated, including the video’s first three seconds which depicted King rushing at one of the four arresting officers. The video was not consumed in its entirety by most  American viewers who saw a minute or two of it (I included, at the time), because news broadcasters opted to broadcast the most graphic segments of it, at a length of sixty-eight seconds. The jury, on the other hand, saw those same 68 seconds, but were persuaded to reconsider the pervasive account of brutal arrest by the 13 seconds noted, excised by the local TV station KTLA to whom photographer Holliday had conveyed his video, because seconds 4-13 were blurry.[vii] In court, expert witness Sargent Charles Duke going through the video frame by frame managed to convince the jury--of ten whites, a Hispanic and an Asian--that Officer Koon was justified in each blow he had administered to King. The jury acquitted the officers of ten of the eleven charges and was hung on the eleventh, concerning only one of the four indicted officers--Powell.

Sergeant Charles Duke, witness for the defense

Barthers’ second range is that of “signification” of what he explains as the “obvious meaning,” the decided and directed symbolism of the image. To mind comes the race and gender of the person undergoing arrest. “Driving while black,” King is dressed in clothes that do not connote “work,” unlike the officers, who are dressed in the regalia of government—of the authorities.

Then there were captions. After all, hardly any words could be made out of the video’s soundtrack, recorded from an apartment’s balcony nearby by an amateur photographer, as a helicopter hovered above the arrest scene. Instead, Sargent Duke narrated the action by explaining the developments as they progressed, one frame at a time. Duke did not describe what he saw on screen, but interpreted for the jury the actions of Officer Koon, based on his own occupational expertise.[viii]

What observers and analysts have missed about the conduct of the trial, however, is precisely Barthes’ third range of meaning—“signifiance.” Barthes describes this as the image’s obtuse meaning: “Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival.”[ix] Here Barthes refers to the disguised or the undeliberately revealing, the truth in the absurd. Several witnesses representing law enforcement testified in the case, all referred to by their occupational title despite wearing civilian clothes, including three of the defendants, two of whom engaged in a narration or explanation of the action in the 81-seconnd segment of Holliday’s video.

Theodore Briseño, one of the four defendant officers

The TV used was a large CRT set, perhaps even 40 inches in size, but it was of a concave screen variety and placed at a distance of at least several meters from the jury. Moreover, particular components of each frame were pointed to by what may be called a baton, that used by the police as well as a different a pointer of a baton, such as the sort that could be used in a classroom.

Sergeant Stacey Koon, another of the four defendants

Terry White, African American prosecutor in King’s case described the jury polemically: “They were people who believe there is this 'thin blue line' separating law-abiding citizens from the jungle--the criminal element.”[x] During the trial, the judge had permitted the inclusion into evidence of a remark made by Laurence Powell, one of the officers on trial, transmitted from his squad car, earlier on the day of King’s arrest, in which he had likened domestic trouble among blacks to the film Gorillas in the Mist[xi]. A gorilla in the jungle is not likely to wield a baton, but a police officer could wield one with authority, regardless of its shape or intent of use.


[i] Mitchell, William. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994. 212

[ii] Ibid. 191

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid. 192

[v] Barthes, Roland. "The Third Meaning: Reasearch Notes on Some Eisenstien Stills." Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 52-54.

[vi] The disagreement about the length of the video is curious: The ascribed length is eight minutes in a Los Angeles Times article. ("The Other Beating." Los Angeles Times 19 February 2006. http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/19/magazine/tm-holiday8.) Only that five years later, the same publication described the video as nine minutes long. (Rubin, Joel, Andrew Blankstein and Scott Gold. "Twenty years after the beating of Rodney King, the LAPD is a changed operation." Los Angeles Times 3 March 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/03/local/la-me-king-video-20110301), as did by Time, following year. (Gray, Madison. "Rodney King, Whose Police Beating Led to Los Angeles Riots, Dies at 47." Time 17 June 2012. http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/17/rodney-king-whose-brutal-police-beating-sparked-the-deadliest-riot-in-u-s-history-dies-at-47/). These errors are intriguing since a (near) exact length was reported much earlier, in 1993, in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Clark, Robin. "Life After Taping The King Beating Hasn't Always Been Easy He Has Been Hounded By The Media, Cursed By Strangers. His Wife Returned To Argentina." The Philedelphia Inquirer 19 April 1993. http://articles.philly.com/1993-04-18/news/25983219_1_george-holliday-police-officers-king-video) much closer to the length I have clocked in watching a version recorder from a camera pointing to a TV playback of the video, as posted on YouTube (Weinstein, Henry. "After the Riots: The Search for Answers." Los Angeles Times 8 May 1992. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-05-08/news/mn-1894_1_king-case), and the duration (9 min 20 sec) noted by the most extensive work on the King affair by Lou Cannon in Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.

[vii] Cannon, Lou. Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999. 23

[viii] "Expert Testifies Officers' Beating Of Motorist Complied With Policy." New York Times 20 March 1993. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/20/us/expert-testifies-officers-beating-of-motorist-complied-with-policy.html

[ix] Barthes, Roland. "The Third Meaning: Reasearch Notes on Some Eisenstien Stills." Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 55.

[x] Weinstein, Henry. "After the Riots: The Search for Answers." Los Angeles TImes 8 May 1992. http://articles.latimes.com/1992-05-08/news/mn-1894_1_king-case

[xi] "Judge Says Remarks on 'Gorillas' May Be Cited in Trial on Beating." New York Times 12 June 1991. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/12/us/judge-says-remarks-on-gorillas-may-be-cited-in-trial-on-beating.html

Monday
Jan122015

Non-linear Narrative Films--A Historical Analysis

“But I suppose film is distinctive because of its nature, of its being able to cut through time with editing.”—Oliver Stone

Ever since storytelling became the standard practice of movies has the depiction of time been instrumental. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Méliès stumbled upon the praxis of stop motion as early as 1896, a mere year after the first public film screening in history. Economic and narrative imperatives would have brought about such a development, by which the camera is stopped at the end of a shot before being rolled again once the next shot is set up for, sooner than later. Since humans experience time as moving forward (even when Time is cyclical, as it is in a number of cultural traditions), stories mostly replicate this, though not always.

Movies have hardly ever represented the passage of time realistically. A ninety minute film often tells a story spanning years. Representative moments significant to the plot are depicted, while ensuring that audiences acknowledge intermitting time through clues ranging from wardrobe changes to aging the characters using makeup to printing dates on frames ushering scenes. Yet, even when time is leapt across, most films have done so in a forward direction.

The cinema arrived along with a variety of technologies that, along with drastic sociopolitical changes, ushered the era of modernism. Modernist philosophy concerned itself with how humans responded to such changes, including in the phenomenology of time. Thomas Mann would make this central to his magnum opus The Magic Mountain (1924). Marcel Proust slowed time down to a trickle in In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927). Virginia Woolf and James Joyce isolated time in the moment. In the US, William Falkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) would deploy the same stream of consciousness yarn in its first of four parts, before confounding the reader by moving the story a generation earlier in the second part then returning it to the present for the remainder of the novel.

Such literary experimentation was not lost on filmmakers of the 1920s, two of whom would make a deliberate and uncommon filmic representation of time a dramatic instrument in and of itself—both Soviet. Sergei Eisenstein’s exceedingly influential Battleship Potemkin (1925), especially in its famed “Odessa steps” sequence, stretched out the duration of events overtly, so as to heighten the emotional charge relating, including a particular emotion that would figure in much of the tempering with linearity in future cinema—suspense. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) aimed to overthrow narrative filmmaking, in part by sabotaging the linearity inherent to cinematic depiction—through editing.

Soviet cinema did visit America—Eisenstein did personally—but 1930s Hollywood was not the time for formal experimentation in the medium of film, rather a time to ride out the Great Depression, while negotiating the cost of incorporating sound into film recording and exhibition. Moreover, the Hollywood studios by the ‘30s had minted aligned formulae to producing films that would insure profitability, formulae which did not welcome narrative presentations that would challenge audience understanding. Thus, it is not surprising that it took a filmmaker with a vision to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling and a contractual agreement to permit him to get away with it; the film was Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Well’s masterpiece opens with the protagonist’s passing then recounts it in two ways—first through a newsreel of Kane’s life that is watched by journalists in the film. Second through the depiction of remembrances of Kane by people who had been closest to him, remembrances told by these characters to one of the journalists who had watched the earlier newsreel. Citizen Kane’s storytelling methodology suggests to the audience that no story is told through an omniscient eye, because no such eye exists. Instead the stories of our lives are told through what others know of us, in patches drawn from different times. If the story is important enough it is edited by media people—just like movies themselves! The remembrances do conveniently recall Kane’s life chronologically, though convenient is not a description that befits Citizen Kane nor many of the films that have deliberately, even defiantly, presented human time in ways uncommon to our experience of life or of the movies.

Whereas the remembrances of Kane were assumed to be more-or-less truthful, the veracity of recollection would be questioned in a later film—Rashomon (1950). Witnesses tell divergent accounts of a violent crime that has occurred, including one witness who testifies to court as a ghost—accounts modulated to self-serve. Rashomon questions the veracity of memory, because of our impulse to protect ourselves, even our legacies (the ghost). So influential was this Japanese classic that an English language term has borrowed it—the rashomon effect refers to a condition whereby an incident is recalled in conflicting ways by different people. Nevertheless, it would take more than philosophical utility to convince Hollywood studios to greenlight scripts that challenged the default depiction of time as moving forward, permitting for the occasional leap backward in flashback, often made obvious to viewers by cutting to it using a dissolve. It would take a movement.

The French New Wave exploded on the world cinema scene in the late fifties and had a profound, enduring effect on it, even on hitherto trenchant Hollywood cinema. The best known of the French New Wave filmmakers was Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless (1960) deployed a time fracturing editing technique (introduced in Man with a Movie Camera) called the jump-cut. The jump-cut had the effect of deliberately privileging those moments when our consciousness resurfaces, before submerging while we carry out the perfunctory and the quotidian.

It was Godard’s contemporary, however, Alain Resnais whose works suggest his standing as the first great filmmaker whose foremost cinematic interest was the dissection of time—thematically and formally. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) takes semi-autobiographical material rendering it a conventional, albeit miscegenational, melodrama before disintegrating into a stream of blotted memories of discord and hurt, but also of amour. Resnais’s follow-up Last Year at Marienbad (1961) recast melodrama as an abstraction in which memory is only slightly more suspect than consciousness, a consciousness coinciding baroque opulence, shadowless trees, and ephemerality.

By the late 1960s, Hollywood studios faced two realities: diminished profits over the course of the decade and the emergence of a culture of defiance and rejection of societal strictures and subjugation, particularly among the youth, a target market considered the most valuable throughout much of the industry’s history. With a relaxing of restrictions on how stories should be told arrived the opportunity to deploy non-linear narrative. Two films that did so were Two for the Road (1967) and Point Blank of the same year. Two for the Road intercut scenes drawn from multiple road trips that the lead couple make to continental Europe over the span of over a decade, so as to serve a glossy, charismatic and intimate observation of a romantic relationship’s verisimilitudes, meanwhile generating suspense in unpredictable temporal movements, not only in looking forward. The film well represents two tropes common to such non-linear cinematic storytelling: They generate suspense inductively, instead of deductively, in that the audience is prodded to consider “I wonder what might have caused this?” instead of “I wonder what is to happen next?” Secondly, non-linear storytelling is often deployed reflexively, so that characters may assess how their lives have led them to where they currently are. Point Blank rendered its flashback scenes not only hazy, but also suspect by way of inconsistent semiotic clues, though no less suspect than the “present” in the picture, which itself is depicted as uncanny. Whereas Marienbad married incongruous narration and action, Point Blank does so for dialogue and sound effects.

The Godfather Part II (1974) broke new ground in serving as sequel and prequel at once. Boldly, the central character of Vito Corleone, performed by Marlon Brando, who dies in the first Godfather, is resurrected in the second as a younger man whom moves to New York from Sicily, as performed by Robert De Niro. The Godfather Part II intercuts scenes of the younger Vito with scenes that follow chronologically from where the first film had left off.

In 1980, Wood Allen delivered his commercially unsuccessful Stardust Memories, inspired by the Bergman masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957) in that it deploys prolonged memory sequences to reflect upon its protagonist’s career and life. While Betrayal (1983) was probably the first film whose narrative moves counter-chronologically throughout its scenes. Though this method would be redeployed in Memento (2000) not as successfully—Whereas Memento uses the counter-chronological approach to engender inductive suspense, it does so in augmentation to a rather humdrum genre plot, so that the audience is asked to piece the puzzle backwards. Betrayal, on the other hand, having exposed its audience to the dissolution of the intimacy in a love triangle, mines significant episodes of their earlier lives, so that the audience can trace the cracks back to their fissures—to haunting effect.

Not only did two films in the early 90s make use of non-linear storytelling, they have earned their renown to it in good part. Groundhog Day (1993) had its protagonist relive the same day—helplessly reliving it, while learning about then trying to improve himself. Pulp Fiction (1994) not only deploys flashbacks, but at one point has its lead character killed, before resurrecting him by featuring him in scenes to follow that had taken place before he had met his demise.

A number of films in recent years have deployed non-linear storytelling. The boldest of these and most gimmicky is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), which tries to locate poignancy in the ridiculous condition of its eponymous character whereby he begins his life aged then gets younger, ending it as a …, while all around him pass through our world normally. The financial and critical success of this film, which takes itself entirely seriously, is indicative of the gullibility of even professional observers to a finely packaged, handsomely rendered melodrama that foregrounds its nonconformity.

This year alone, a handful of films have skewed linear storytelling. Perhaps audiences at this point in the medium’s history are familiar enough with such an approach that their potential confusion is not the prohibitive concern that it was once. Perhaps filmmakers could take advantage of such a methodological allowance to render what has always matter about movies, that they tell their stories effectively and memorably.

Note: At least two renowned films thaat instrumentally employ non-linearity have come to mind since writing this essay--D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Certainly, many more have slipped my mind or had never entered it!

Thursday
Dec182014

Night of the Hunter (1955): A Blemished Gem

In the history of American cinema, rare films, perhaps no more than several, stand as inimitable singular works. Movies like Intolerance, 2001 Space Odyssey, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit qualify, as does Night of the Hunter. These movies boast not only a technical audacity, but also an admixture of quality source material and a marriage of talents whose synergy accounts for something that could not have been predicted, and as such could not have been planned for.

Released in 1955, Night of the Hunter was the directorial debut of venerated actor Charles Laughton, a movie vocational shift far less common in the days of classical Hollywood than it is today. Laughton's choice for lead also registered as unpredictable, since the film's sole star Robert Mitchum went against his cool, sleepy-eyed type in his portrayal therein. The movie's unsettling subject matter and grotesque milieu sealed the film's fate. It would flop commercially, denying Laughton a second directorial opportunity. Today, it is broadly acknowledged as a patent classic.

Night of the Hunter is quintessentially a Southern Gothic horror film, based on the 1953 novel of the same name, which had drawn from the actual case of a serial killer by the name of Harry Powers, who in 1932 was convicted of multiple murders of women and their children, women whose money he had been after and to whom he had connected through so called "lonely hearts" newspaper ads. The lead villain in the filmic adaptation does much of the same.

Harry Powell, played with reflexive, pungent menace by Robert Mitchum, is a psychopathic, sexually frustrated, false preacher who speaks to God about his plans to assail women in the name of the lord, so as to strip the world of their temptation. Harry understates in his one-sided chats with God his interest in these wicked women’s money. Thus, when early in the picture Harry is jailed for a month for stealing a car, with Ben Harper, a man sentenced to death for having murdered and robbed a bank, he decides to visit Ben's would-be widow and two children upon his release, since Harry’s cellmate had refused to cough up the location of the loot before being executed.
Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, notoriously brandishing "LOVE" and "HATE" on the knuckles of either handOnly that the secret has not died with Ben, as we have earlier seen him entrust the money to his tween boy John, as well as the caretaking of John's preschool sister Pearl, before being arrested in his children's presence. Thus, when we later see Harry through John’s eyes, after his release, in the ice cream parlor where John’s mother has been compelled to work, we can smell the blood before it has been shed.


Shelley Winters as Willa Harper in a most chilling post mortem shot

Harry ingratiates himself to everybody in the town, it seems, what with his charged scripture inspired proclamations and pontifications, except for John, who appears reticent toward the preacher at first then suspectful once Harry asks John about the money. Harry marries John and Pearl’s mother Willa (performed hauntingly by Shelley Winters), whom he spellbinds with fire and brimstone, before murdering her, once he realizes that she is of no use to him. All the while, Harry admonishes then, upon realizing that the children know of the money’s location, terrorizes them into divulging its location.

Only fate and John’s ingenuity intervene to temporarily protect the children as they escape their hometown, by taking a boat downriver. Temporary, as John notes, upon seeing and hearing Harry in their pursuit, in the horizon, ambling on his horse and singing his hymnal refrain as wont throughout the picture. Having been forsaken by every adult in their hometown--including trusted Uncle Birdie, who had promised John protection--an adult finally intervenes on the children's behalf, a farmer named Rachel (silent film star Lilian Gish), who lives downriver and who shelters John and Pearl (as she is doing already for three other children) from the sinister forces that have arisen during the Great Depression as she does from Harry once the preacher finally catches up to them.

At their best, Southern Gothic works embed their depravity in depravation, not through facile causality, but in illustrating the immorality that coincides indignity, an indignity born out of poverty. It is no coincidence, therefore, that genre exemplifiers written by O’Conner and Faulkner, as with Night of the Hunter, are set against the socioeconomic milieu of the Great Depression. Yet, Hunter aims for more, by framing itself as a theological morality tale—literally, since the film opens and closes with scenes in which Rachel looks into the camera as if telling the film’s cautionary tale. Rachel and John embody Hunter’s championing of behavior, not merely dogma, which rises above self-centeredness, into the realm of clemency and empathy.

Stylistically, the film seems most influenced by German expressionistic techniques (which the American noir subgenre absorbed), as evidenced by vivid chiaroscuro and constrained, distorted interiors. Hunter even deploys the iris shot, ubiquitous in 1920s cinema, but near-extinct by the 50s, evidently in homage to the silent era. One scene magnificently weds all such influence, the one in which Harry ritualistically murders Willa in their attic bedroom. The gloomy lighting within the room shaped like a Gothic church steeple (whose design originally meant to evoke passage to heaven), as Harry “exposes” himself by brandishing his knife, his substitute penis, in the direction of the room’s peak, looks as if inspired directly by the German expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), also about a serial murderer.

Expressionstic production design and lighting harken to German cinema of the 1920sIf Hunter is to be faulted for anything, it is for its over-richness within the constraint of a 92-minute movie, not surprising considering the abundant talents of the film’s principals: eminent critic and author James Agee as screenwriter, distinctive cinematographer Stanley Cortez, thespian prodigy turned director Laughton, and a superb cast. There are themes that are insufficiently explored: Is the second king about whom John asks Rachel Jesus or himself? What of the apples? John’s consuming them would make him into Adam, not Jesus. A few narrative strands are also unfulfilled: What of the prison warden’s family, abandoned after evoking a redolent comparison to the Harpers? What of the lynch mob at the end, which barley appears on screen before its being dispensed with? We may rightly suspect that footage relating had eventuated on the cutting room’s floor.

Nevertheless, as Pauline Kael once remarked, “Great movies are rarely perfect movies” and Night of the Hunter is an unforgettable, blemished gem.

Wednesday
Oct222014

Gone Girl (2014): Chilled Cynicism with a Dash of Misanthropy

Dear readers, the next few reviews will relate to non-Arab films, in fulfilling requiremments of a film criticism course that I am taking.

The truth is valuable only in so far as it is expedient, to our security then to our advancement. Otherwise, most people would have readily qualified as idealists and when was the last time you came across an adult who convincingly exuded idealism. In David Fincher’s Gone Girl only one could qualify; she’s a daft mother of triplets.

David Fincher himself is not an idealist; if he were he would be making microfinanced films about the imperative to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. Instead, he makes polished, meticulously crafted commercial vehicles. He appears most comfortable working within the crime genre and is keen to position psychopathy/sociopathy as the propulsion to such films’ stories, as he has in six of the ten movies he has made: Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, now, Gone Girl. I would have counted as a psychopath the creature in Alien 3, had it been human.

Nick Dunne ensnared in Gone GirlBenjamin Van Orton ensnared in Fincher's The Game (1997)A monster that was, as is Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, the engineer of its locomotive of doom. It is a role realized vividly and fervently by Rosamund Pike. Her face alone shown in the scene that brackets the film, but not her voice, rather the voice of her spouse Nick Dunne, performed by Ben Affleck in an appropriately minor key. In this scene, as Nick strokes Amy’s hair, he shares with us his innermost thoughts; he is mooning of murder. As such, we appreciate why his townsfolk would suspect him of murdering his girl once she’s gone missing, especially after they and we discover that his wife is not his only girl.

Once it is determined that she has gone missing, the story becomes Amy’s, as she narrates mnemonic sequences, beginning with when they had met in a party. In the scene, Nick woos Amy and a couple of years later he moves themselves from her New York City to his small-town, Missouri. That is about all the agency that Nick exercises in their marriage before her going missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. We discover that his bar is hers, his house is hers, his toys are hers and even his ties are hers. His career as a writer would have been hers, were it not for the Great Recession.

Only that her narration is not credible, as we discover halfway through the picture, once her narrated remembrances, which she notes in a journal, and which Fincher intercuts with sequences of missing person procedurals, conclude in having caught up with the present. Amy’s journal is not entirely fabricated, as Amy informs us once her narration switches from describing the vicissitudes of her life with Nick to explaining how and why she had decided to stage her own disappearance with the purpose of framing her husband for murder, a crime punishable by execution in Missouri. Amy reveals to us her method for credibly implicating Nick: to write entries truthful in their depiction of the couple’s early days, but fraudulent and indicting in their depiction of what had gone wrong in their marriage.

"What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?"Amy is certainly psychopathic. She is not only willing to send her husband to the chair for having cheated on her, having already undercut her own potential, Amy murders an old possessive boyfriend (a campy turn by Neil Patrick Harris) to whom she had turned, after her escape plan is foiled. Yet, she is not a misandrist. She is a misanthrope, a hater of humans, but especially humans who get in her way, who most often turn up as men.

Nor am I entirely on board in describing Gone Girl as misogynistic. Indeed, the picture does centrally depict a criminally insane woman, a type well overrepresented in cinema, considering the well-established disproportionality of violence by women, compared to by men. Nevertheless, beyond Gone Girl’s assigning its female lead principal agency in its tale, it boasts two other equally complex and empowered female characters. A Hollywood crime picture with a female lead is uncommon enough; one with three independent and intelligent female characters is bleedin' downright unprecedented!

Moreover, Fincher and Gillian Flynn (author of the antecedent novel and of the movie’s screenplay ) decidedly undercut the film’s own realism, not only by prodding us to question the veracity of what we had been told and what we had seen in the flashback sequences, but also by having camped up a couple of performances. Beside the mentioned performance by Harris, Amy affects before the other characters, expected considering her pathology, as well as to the camera. And then there’s the deputy played by Patrick Fugit, whose character sends up the wise-cracking sidekick as full-fledged jester, a contemporary harlequin.

Gone Girl’s misogyny is not what bothers me, nor is it the picture’s depiction of graphic violence. Rather it’s Gone Girl’s cynicism. None of the characters in the film is concerned with the truth in so far as it threatens their interest in self-preservation—not Nick, nor Amy’s parents, nor Nick’s sister, nor his paramour, nor his lawyer, not even the investigating officer. None but one—a neighbor mother of triplets who Amy describes as stupid, and who Fincher depicts as a suburban simpleton. It is in this depiction that the film veers into Kubrickian misanthropy.

The characters’ apathy to the truth notwithstanding, Fincher himself appears to call us out as amoral as well. It’s as if he is suggesting that since his film has given us the goods that we have paid to see in a Fincher film—the style, the craft, the mood, the violence—he needn’t tell us the truth about Amy and Nick, since Fincher figures the audience cares little about it.

Cynicism would have us suspect our capacity to motivate others, since it would have us distrust them. Thereby, Gone Girl raises the question, “Should art motivate?” I would think not, if I were a cynic.

Wednesday
Apr162014

Land of Fear (1999): Life Under Deep, Interminable Cover


Dear readers,

I had promised to review Land of Fear nearly two years ago, within my review of Daoud Abdel Sayed's Al-Kit Kat. Please refer to that review for more on Abdel Sayed's career. It remains inexplicable that Abdel Sayed's films, including Land of Fear, are not distributed widely. Perhaps I ought to do something about that...

There’s something about Daoud Abdel Sayed that gets to me. For years I thought it was his thoroughgoing, uncompromising approach to filmmaking or his films’ evident, grinning mischief. Now I realize that it’s more personal than that. I, like Abdel Sayed, have felt in my work an innate compulsion to prod, poke, and provoke as if to insist on disrupting conformity within nation-state societies that have left me—the eldest to Palestinian refugees—alienated, much like the characters that Abdel Sayed has continually depicted, characters whose lives represent society’s contradictions.

Could I also be alienated like Abdel Sayed himself? Abdel Sayed, who has never declared being Coptic (Mustafa) in anything I have read or heard, in October of last year remarked, “As far as I am concerned, what is frightening about the current condition is that I have terrorism. At the same time that I have terrorism in the sense of explosions and murder and so on, from the other side I have intellectual terrorism, as in McCarthyism … And this is what is frightening me, that we have found ourselves, that I have found myself between two forces: one that wants to kill me and one that wants to silence me. “ (Abdel Sayed)

For years, I have felt a guilty pleasure in relishing crime pictures. There are vociferous anti-genre voices in cinephile circles, voices that suggest that genre films are commercial, that genre films are lowbrow and that genre films target the undiscerning, unless, of course, they happen to be made by Hitchcock or Ford or a French New Wave director. Only that I’m not bonkers about westerns or war films or romantic comedies or sci-fi films the same way I am about crime films. For years, I thought this had to do with the high moral stakes of their stories and charged emotional states of their characters, but I now know that there’s more. As Palestinian American poet would put it:

“i have always loved

criminals and not only the thugged

out bravado of rap videos and champagne

popping hustlers but my father

born an arab baby boy

on the forced way out

of his homeland his mother exiled

and pregnant gave birth in a camp” (Hammad)

Land of Fear (أرض الخوف) observes what its criminals do intently and keenly, but it stands out because it so handily explores what being a criminal means, not only for oneself, but for society. If I’ve made Land of Fear sound like a lofty treatise, well, that’s because it is. But it is also a suspenseful mood piece of a high order, the greatest Egyptian crime picture of all.

Russel (Lawrence Fishburn) is assigned to Deep Cover (1992)Yahya is assigned to Land of Fear

Land of Fear stands for the title of the indefinite investigative operation to which a bright and incorruptible police officer Yahya al-Manqabawi (Ahmed Zaki) agrees to be assigned. Land of Fear is not your typical detail. It would position Officer Yahya to accept a bribe so that he may be arrested, convicted, dishonorably discharged then imprisoned, wherein he transforms into Yaha Abu-Dabbourah. Upon release, Yahya may begin his assignment to infiltrate the “underworld” (literal translation of the term used by Yahya--العالم السفلي) first as a smalltime hustler and drug dealer. Land of Fear is a lifetime assignment Yahya is told at the outset. He is to ambitiously pursue a career as a drug dealer with full immunity against any illegal actions he may take in pursuit of such a career; he is to operate with minimal oversight. The only proof of service being the reports he is to regularly submit, under the nom de plume Adam. Otherwise, a safety deposit box bound, failsafe document, signed by “people at the very top” guarantees the noted immunity, if his cover is ever blown or if Land of Fear unravels. He is told that nothing about Land of Fear is to be recorded other than in the failsafe document and that knowledge of the operation’s existence is to be passed orally from ministers of interior and justice and chief of intelligence onto their successors.

As Yahya’s station rises, from pool hall manager, to bodyguard, to cabaret manager—erstwhile moving increasing product—so does his star in the underworld. Yet, on the way to becoming one of Cario’s kingpins, spanning the decade of the 1970s, Yahya reports with increasing distress about the dissonance he experiences in leading a double life, especially with the passing and resigning of successive ministers and intelligence chiefs, who would have been privy to the Land of Fear operation. Such is his torment that he visits the location of the safety deposit box of note, more than to assure himself that the failsafe contract exists, but to assure himself that Land of Fear had not been a fabrication of his memory. He sends in a report beseeching his overseers to set up a meeting with him and when a decidedly reticent Mousa meets him, Yahya laments: “Memories have fused with dreams, with illusions, with facts, so that I no longer know anything.” The irony is that Mousa turns out not to know anything either… By the end of the picture, hunted by operatives of the underworld and repudiated by the law, though perfunctorily intromitted into the “above-world,” Yahya finds himself longing for his life in the Land of Fear, despite its having led him to rape, murder and an evident psychic schism.

Yahya learns from Mousa that he has been living a lie within a lie: the mise en scène is fractured, as is the protagonist's psyche 

Land of Fear is a rich, relevant picture, despite its allegory and its determinedly embellished, seedy milieu. We all project multiple personae. We act differently at work than we do around our families. We act differently in public than in private. How many times have I wondered how it is that a person could act so respectfully toward a boss that he abhors, while treating with disdain a life partner. How many of us have laughed at a superior’s daft joke, forcing the grin and churning the chuckle. We are all false, to some degree. Land of Fear compels us to confront this falsehood.

Land of Fear is also a luxuriant picture. Its dialogue is streetwise and lucid, its characters complex and cohesive. The story and its characters draw upon Egyptian modern political history—the vicissitudes of the successive regimes of Nasser, Sadat then Mubarak—upon monotheistic legend and upon American crime pictures. Abdel Sayed is not interested in realism; that is not to say that he is not interested in the truth—small t, for Abdel Sayed would intrinsically oppose any notion of Truth.

A subtitle declares the year of a pivotal scene in Land of Fear. The year is 1981, the year Mubarak succeeded Sadat as president. We see Yahya in the back of a luxurious car then we see it turning to park in a row of Mercedes S class sedans, an unmistakable sign of wealth in the Middle East, and we realize that he’s made the grade. Soon, a group of Cairo kingpins are meeting a representative from a non-local syndicate who proposes that they switch from selling hash to coke. He showcases a handheld parcel of boudrah (powder) and declares that it stands to earn a profit margin of 500%, against the 100% that the kingpins realize in selling es-sinf (literally the variety). He adds that the parcel once cut would deliver a return equivalent to a truckload of hash.

Vito Corleone says no to drugs in The Godfather (1972)

Hudhud says no to powder in Land of Fear

Two of the kingpins demur; one named al-Manzalawi earnestly protests, asserting that the two products are not the same, that the authorities would consider him a criminal if he started selling powder. The more vociferous protest, however, is issued by a most memorable movie criminal, one named Hudhud, played to potent poignancy by the marvelous Hamdi Gheith. He tells off the representative, alerting him that unlike himself the rep’s bosses will never know their customers and as such will never have to directly deal with the consequence of poisoning them. Hudhud later invites Yahya to his labyrinthine Old Cario home and confides in him that God has created and as such provides for kingpins like himself, that it is his divine duty to alleviate the struggle of the people by distributing god’s own creation. Hudhud asserts that he has nothing against the authorities, that they too serve a purpose, as do hashish dealers. Gheith imbues his part with an unmistakable sagacity and integrity, despite his criminality, which turns murderous when necessary.

HoopoeLand of Fear conspicuously draws on monotheistic scripture. Yahya’s codename is Adam, after all, a code name of which he learns when invited to a secret meeting wherein he is propositioned to undertake Land of Fear. To a backdrop of a stylized storm he bites into an apple. Hudhud, the wise kingpin, is also Arabic for hoopoe, a bird mentioned in the bible as abominable to eat (Leviticus), perhaps thence informing the Egyptian proverb, “It is not every bird whose flesh is edible” ("مش كل طير اللي يتاكل لحمه"), which may well paraphrase the threat that Hudhud issues to Ragab, the syndicate representative. Then there is Mousa (Arabic for Moses), the postal officer who unsuccessfully attempts to deliver Adam’s letters to his principles, failing to convey messages between creator and created.

Cop confronts criminal in Heat (1995)Cop confronts "criminal" in Land of Fear

Most potently, however, is the influence of American crime cinema on Land of Fear. The kingpins’ refusal to get with the new and deal in cocaine recalls that of the Don Corelone’s (Marlon Brando) refusal to back Virgil Sollozzo’s (Al Lettieri) investment in smack, because he feels that it would be bad for neighborhoods and would undermine his relationships with politicians. A late scene in Land of Fear,  in which Yahya’s nemesis, a competent and incorruptible cop named Omar al-Asyuti asks to meet him in a café, riffs on the central scene involving cop and criminal (played by Al Pacino and Robert De Nero respectively) in Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat. Most notable, however, is the film’s borrowing from the underrated American crime film Deep Cover, including the mode of the investigative operation and the arch of the undercover protagonist played by Lawrence Fishburn.

Those who scoff at the Land of Fear’s lack of originality must not realize how artistic influence works and must have not come around to reckoning that those who claim utter originality do so because they fear discovery of their fraudulence. All artists borrow; the best reimagine and re-illustrate, as has Abdel Sayed in Land of Fear.

Nevertheless, Land of Fear is not perfect. Makeup design underwhelms. Ahmed Zaki, despite his boyish face is not helped in passing for a 20-some-year-old man. Costume design is even worse. “Could they not corral some bellbottoms and wide lapels to depict action in the 1970s?” I wondered. Against these, however, are a number of standout facets. Beside Ahmed Zaki’s performance, among the best delivered by the actor who many rightly consider the leading Egyptian cinematic actor of his generation, Land of Fear presents us with Hudhud, as fascinating a screen villain as I have ever seen. Locations, from queries to cabarets to opulent villas to Nile delta marshes entrench the polemical state of luxury and decrepitude. The soundtrack, composed by regular Abdel Sayed collaborator Rajih Daoud, what with its tumbling angles and pleading chants, looped and electronically processed, immeasurably enhance the mood of falling and failing.

Abdel Sayed deploys a couple of distinct visual and auditory flourishes, but unlike his wont—and auteur beloved—sequence shots (plan-séquence) here they support the story. In a number of sequences, Abdel Sayed surveys the scene with an overhead shot, as if to deliberately distance audience from action, lest the audience regard what they see as realistic. Abdel Sayed’s interest in asserting allegory is even more pronounced in his blatant use of dissolves, which are rarely used today, but which in Hollywood classic films usually connoted a movement between a character’s lived and remembered states. In Land of Fear, dissolves serve the comingling of reality and memory in the mind of its disillusioned protagonist Yahya (literally meaning to live).

Such visual flourishes are enforced by the echoing of dialogue in pivotal scenes and especially by Yahya’s narration, which guides the film’s audience throughout, a narration which, as in Deep Cover, recalls an idiom of American film noir. Only here, Abdel Sayed has Yahya narrating in formal Arabic (لغة فصحى), unusual in non-historical Egyptian cinema, and not only when Yahya is voicing the letter of his reports. Abdel Sayed is unmistakably positioning the teleological tale in the land of fable, in the land of fear.

I have convinced myself that Daoud Abdel Sayed deserves to take the time he does to work on his films and am delighted to read of an impending conclusion to principal production on his most recent Abnormal Abilities (my translation) ("قدرات غير عادية") (Ma'moun). Yet, I fear for him as I do for all who express critically in Egypt at the moment, considering the alarming, reprehensible crackdown on journalists and activists. Abdel Sayed not only has the right to express as he wishes but should be celebrated for his unshakeable integrity and unmitigated ambition. Abdel Sayed does not wish to become an auteur; he always was one. He does not make independent films. He makes films independently--as independently as a filmmaker can work and live in the land of fear.

Works Cited

Abdel Sayed, Daoud. "Cinematic Censorship of Egyptian Selections." The Full Picture. Lilian Daoud. Cairo, 27 October 2013. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_07ItXOCbI>.

Hammad, Suheir. "Letter to anthony (critical resistance)." Hammad, Suheir. Za'atar Diva. New York: Cypher Books, 2005. 67. Document.

"Leviticus." Holy Bible, New International Version. Biblica, 2011. 11:13-19. Document. <http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+11%3A13-19>.

Ma'moun, Asma'. "Daoud Abdel Sayed: I Will not Realease Abnormal Abilities During the Eid Becauuse of a Clamour ." Al-Youm As-Sabi' 14 April 2014. Document. <http://www1.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=1611507#.U06Bu_ldWSp>.

Mustafa, Tariq. Coptic Artists ... Integrated with the Strength of Their Talent. 13 March 2010. Document. 10 April 2014. <http://www.masress.com/rosaweekly/44311>.