A Quick Thought on Wonder Woman

The worst part about superhero movies is always the villains. (There is one exception, the greatest and most underrated superhero movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Seriously.)

My problem with superhero villains tends to be their generic and over-exaggerated evilness. The problem is that there’s nothing inherently interesting or even real about pure evil. It needs to augmented by motives, brought down to earth by context, or at the very least, given new life by a particularly good or idiosyncratic performance. The problem of villains exceeds superhero movies narrowly defined; we find the same issues in recent James Bond films, or in crime dramas like Sherlock or Hannibal. (I will confess to have watched very little of the latter.) Continue reading “A Quick Thought on Wonder Woman”

What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?

Last week I published an essay about Moonlight that is a bit tricky, or so people tell me. It’s an exploration of the movie through the lens of posthumanism, which I argue might be released from its bounds as an ethics of non-human animal relations, or as an exploration of cyborg hybridity, by returning to its roots in antihumanist theory. Check it out, but definitely watch Moonlight first; it hit Amazon Prime last month, and it might be the only movie in Academy Award history that both won the Best Picture prize and deserved to do so. It’s a rich film and I hope we’ll all be writing about it for a while.

I’ve written pieces of contemporary filmic criticism before but never anything quite so theory-driven. In hindsight, there are a couple reasons why I must have felt compelled to do so. First, I had been working on an analysis of films of the 1950s through the category of liberal humanism, which was brought to my attention by Mark Greif’s excellent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man. And I’ll have more writings on 1950s liberal humanism in popular culture soon enough. Last week’s essay was actually cut for length, and at one point it had a lengthy section on the racial liberalism of cinema in the late forties and fifties. I suggest that we might think of this approach as “racial liberal humanism,” for these old films tended to pose racism as a psychic problem, one to be defeated by strong individual wills, rather than social or state institutions, and they neglected the role of social experience in shaping identities and material realities. I even cut out a whole bit about Hidden Figures, which though I greatly enjoyed and admired the film, was clearly rooted in a model that I argue owes much to a liberal humanist episteme. Continue reading “What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?”

Petrified Politics and Cosmopolitanism

Continuing my tour of Cultural Front filmic cosmopolitanism, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1936 Warner Brothers film, The Petrified Forest. Like many of the Warners’ movies in the 1930s, The Petrified Forest (which was based on a 1935 play) was attentive to the social reality of the 1930s. But it wasn’t a “message” picture in the sense that it explored a social issue in order to find some kind of resolution; it’s more oblique than that. Instead, by offering a desolate western diner and gas station for a setting, and placing it on the outskirts of Arizona’s Petrified Forest, it poses a metaphor for the decaying status of America itself. Furthermore, because its two protagonists are not American-born, it suggests a cosmopolitan perspective that would be erased a decade later with the onset of the cold war and Hollywood’s red scare.

The Petrified Forest takes place almost entirely at a diner populated by its weary owner, his somewhat senile and alcoholic father—who is obsessed with the mythic west—and his daughter, Gabrielle, who is played by Bette Davis. Much of the film’s commentary is provided by European traveler Alan Squier who arrives at the diner, a disillusioned writer and intellectual from England played by Leslie Howard. Squier and Gabrielle fall in love, although the Brit is nearly too intent on giving up on life to pay much attention. They bond over her having been born in Paris, and her pining to return to France to see her mother. But importantly, the film suggests Europe is decaying nearly as America is; after all, in 1936, Spain had erupted in Civil War and Hitler was preparing to invade eastwards. As Squier explains, “world chaos” was being wrought because powerful men thought they could master the globe. “Nature,” he tells Gabrielle, is “hitting back.” Continue reading “Petrified Politics and Cosmopolitanism”

Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?

The latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, isn’t “political” according to Disney, the studio that produced the film. But according to Kate Aronoff of Jacobin, it is if we want to be. Aronoff argues that Rogue One is “politically substantive” from a leftist perspective, and a celebration of “rebellion from below.” Other outlets of cultural criticism, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, have published similar analyses of the film, ones that posit that Rogue One is anti-fascist, a much-needed boon to progressive discourse at the dawn of the age of Trump.

Aronoff is right to point out that the meaning made from the film will ultimately come from its viewers, and that the potential gains that may come out of making leftist meaning from the film, by coopting its narratives and signifiers, are such that we should not dismiss Rogue One and other pop culture blockbusters like it lightly. I want to argue, not contrary to this, but from a different perspective: that which sees Rogue One as a symptom of and contribution to what Nicole Aschoff calls the “meta-stories” of our neoliberal age. Rogue One may hold out interpretive promise, but it stands from the start as an expression of libertarian myths and symbols. Continue reading “Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?”

New England Pastoral

I’m finally finishing up an article I’ve been working on for a while, but instead of revising it, my mind is inexorably turning to the next one. While I was looking over my beast of a dissertation, I think I finally figured out how to turn the first chapter into an intelligible, useful, and provocative story that furthers my broader problematic.

The epiphany came, in part, because I was re-watching one of my favorite “Cultural Front” movies, 1940’s The House of the Seven Gables. Produced as a B-movie by Universal, the film transcends its low budget, and even more remarkably, its heavy source material, as a well-paced, smart, and at times, melancholy, little film.

Continue reading “New England Pastoral”

Tweep’s Agreement

Starting work on a new essay about the politics of Jews in Hollywood during the blacklist era, I started thinking once again about the 1947 Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Historians nearly universally dismiss the Elia Kazan film as dramatic and preachy and staid. They favor the other philo-Semitic “message” picture of that year, Crossfire, because that film oozes with noir style. They are, of course, absolutely right. But to dismiss Gentleman’s Agreement because it’s boring is to miss a great deal. Kazan’s picture is a greater success if only because it is so overstuffed with messages, it is a remarkable distillation of Popular Front ideas about the intersection between ethnicity and social justice.

Consider one scene in which Gregory Peck’s goyish journalist protagonist Phil Green, who is writing an expose on anti-Semitism, encounters a scientist at a dinner party. The scientist’s features are clearly modeled after those of Albert Einstein, one of the physicists that were wildly celebrated in the press in the immediate postwar years. He is on a “crusade,” the scientist remarks, to deny his Jewishness to those that he meets, not because he is ashamed or ambivalent about his identity, but instead because he looks so stereotypically Jewish that such a remark would be a provocation to others to rethink their assumptions about race and “type” (what we call “ethnicity”). He then casually changes his mind however, telling Green that he must abandon his crusade because to claim Jewishness is a necessary moral principle, at least until anti-Semitism ceases to exist.  He explains that Jews today don’t claim to be Jewish because they are religious – he is not – but because the world makes it harder to be one. Nothing in Hollywood since has so shrewdly conjured the tensions and complexities among religious, ethnic, and humanistic or cosmopolitan identities.

Continue reading “Tweep’s Agreement”

The Last Dragon and the Cult of the Small and Virtuous Producer

In my previous post, I read Berry Gordy’s 1985 martial arts film The Last Dragon through the lens of George Lipsitz’s concept of cultural syncretism put forth in his work Time Passages. In this post, I want to keep looking at George Lipsitz and The Last Dragon, but to look further at market logics in order to complicate things a bit.

In Time Passages, Lipsitz finds the formation of counter-hegemonic historical blocs primarily in the years that followed World War II, those that saw the birth of rock and roll and the television. For example, the scene on Central Ave. in Los Angeles was fertile ground for the mixing of rock and roll with Latino folk sounds. There the late great Johnny Otis, the son of Greek immigrants, firmly embedded himself in the black community much like the diverse inhabitants of Harlem did so with one another in The Last Dragon. Lipsitz has fun with the way that Otis, a Greek American who adopted an African American identity, produces hit Latino rock and roll made by Li’l Julian Herrera, who it turns out wasn’t Latino at all, but was in fact a Hungarian Jew. [1] Continue reading “The Last Dragon and the Cult of the Small and Virtuous Producer”