Alex Colville Sightings in Rihanna’s “Needed Me” Directed by Harmony Korine

Rihanna and Harmony Korine just released their collaboration on the music video “Needed Me” from her excellent album Anti. In the video, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between the following shot and Alex Colville’s “Pacific” — made especially famous for its inspiration on a similar shot in Michael Mann’s Heat. Compare below.

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Despite the the fact that Colville’s painting has been confirmed by Mann as a stated influence on the film (along with Edward Hopper’s work), I think for several reasons Korine’s shot and the painting share some closer aesthetic similarities than the painting does with Heat. First, the color palette and color tone is closer, since, among other things, both Colville’s painting and Korine’s shot are set during the day rather than at night. Compare Mann’s shot below.

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Second, while Mann’s scene, like Colville’s painting, has the gun on the table in the foreground and De Niro’s character (Neil) resting his hand on the window seal in the background, we don’t see both the subject and the gun fully in frame within a single shot. Rather, we see the camera tilt up from the the table as Neil walks toward the window and then stops to look out. In Korine’s shot, both Rihanna and the gun are fully in frame within the same shot. So, taken as two single fully framed images, they share the same subject-content (an individual, a window view, and a gun). Third, the individuals in both Korine’s shot and Colville’s painting are only partially dressed, or in similar states of undress, whereas Neil is in a full suit.

Of course, considered within the context of their respective narratives, Mann’s shot probably better captures the thematic tone of the painting, especially since we know that it was directly influenced by it. The brand of isolation we get in Korine’s shot is of a more nihilistic, anti-social bent, along the lines of the themes I discuss in my Spring Breakers, the Bling Ring, and Wolf of Wall Street essays. We also get the gender reversal. Mann’s cinema is largely a world of male professionals engaged in alpha-male competition under late capitalism, but in “Needed Me,” Rihanna is the purported anti-hero inflicting violence on some male criminal type. Given the absence of narrative setup, the violence itself lacks any straightforward moral content (could it be an act of revenge, assassination, betrayal, etc?).[1] Like Spring Breakers, the reversal also amounts to a kind of anti-noir, since the narrative concludes with our anti-hero as an ultimately successful protagonist (as Candy and Brit are in Spring Breakers), whereas the narrative trajectory of the subject (Neil) in Mann’s Colville-inspired shot faces a conventional noirish fate (some form of defeat, failure, or despair). At this point in the narrative, however, Neil is but a successful criminal presumably reflecting on the taxing demands of his vocation.

I think there are some other interesting similarities and differences, but these are just a few that immediately jumped out at me.

1. The lyrical content doesn’t settle the matter, but there are reasons to be skeptical of a moralist interpretation of the video. The narrative in the video might be taken as a metaphor for the song’s sentiment of apathy toward a man who has become too romantically attached. Lines like “You was just another nigga on the hit list (…) Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?” suggest that the appropriate narrative metaphor would be something like an amoral assassination rather than revenge or even simple betrayal, which is more thematically in line with the narratives of Spring Breakers, the Wolf of Wall Street, and certain recent trends in popular music (e.g, Kanye West and Lana Del Rey).

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Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes” and Police Brutality

Here’s an interesting video essay by philosopher Chad Kautzer on Run the Jewels’ music video “Close Your Eyes.” The song is from their critically acclaimed album Run the Jewels 2 released last year. The video is one of many examples of how music artists in the digital age are more aggressively using cinematic languages to convey their art. Kautzer points out how the avatars in the video are used to represent the structural relationship of racialized social dominance. As he observes, the video begins with a recapitulation of the ending, which emphasizes the systematic and cyclical nature of racial violence. I would also add that what’s significant about this is that we do not get any indication of a particular incident or event that can be said to have instigated the conflict. This in effect undercuts any tendency to isolate the struggle as just one between a pair of individuals, reduced to a particular moment in time where we can make simple demarcations of specific cause and personal blame, and instead forces us to see the situation as a fundamentally social conflict.

This taken in addition to the recurrence of the ending also divests the scene of narrative purpose, thus lending the scene more to an interpretative analysis that must rely on conceptual, representational, or symbolic resources rather than the mechanics of plot-driven storytelling. Under a Bordwellian lens, narrative is understood in terms of a causal sequence of events developing in time, and traditional cinematic narratives rely on characters with defined goals or motives who often undergo change. But without a specific individual cause responsible for rendering the conflict that we see in the scene, it is hard to trace the motives behind our avatars, and so they consequently emerge more as non-narrative paradigms representing a systemic relationship than they do individual characters participating in a local, interpersonal conflict of a traditional story. This lack of a causal precursor for the conflict has the effect of throwing us into the madness of the situation where nothing seems to make sense, which is reinforced at the end of the video when we see our avatars resigned to their exhaustion and confused frustration. It’s as if they too do not know the reasons for their conflict, or at least not as anything other than an ideological commitment to their respective roles as oppressor and oppressed in the system. I think Kautzer is correct in pointing out that the oppressed is in a higher epistemic position than the oppressor in understanding the nature of the system, as shown by the possibility of liberation revealed in the vision at the end of the video, but I would stress that the threat of cyclical stagnation and uncertainty is recalled as we remember that the video ends where the conflict begins.

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The Wolf of Wall Street and The New Cinema of Excess

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Introduction: Cinemas of Excess

Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Wolf of Wall Street is a raucous black comedy about corruption in late capitalism. As many commentators have already noted, 2013 saw a string of films dealing with the materialism and excesses of American society. [1][2][3] At the forefront of these films are Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Dennis Iliadis’ +1, and Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.  The first four of these listed — The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Wolf of Wall Street — also share strong narrative and stylistic similarities that I will argue suggests a new incarnation of cinema about American excess. This new brand of cinema in particular narrows in on depicting the hedonism, vanity, debauchery, and absurdity of American materialism. The Great Gatsby and The Counselor seem to be more continuous with previous styles of cinemas of excess. Dennis Iliadis’ +1 perhaps comes closer in style to the new cinema, but has qualities of both. Given my essays on The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, you could perhaps say the theme of this blog over the past year has been concerned with precisely this new brand of cinema. All of these recent films about excess are actually part of an even larger trend over the last year of films that deal with the effects of capitalism and often speak to the false, illusory, or destructive promises of the American dream, which include James Gray’s masterpiece The Immigrant, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, David O. Russell‘s American Hustle, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. We’ve also seen this theme more globally in recent international cinema with films that reveal dark and cynical visions of capitalism, materialism, and its effects, as in Costa-Gavras’ Le capital, Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, Claire Denis’ Bastards, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, Ursula Meier’s Sister, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. It’s the more narrower subset of these recent films that deal with American excess using a distinctive style or approach that’s continuous (or in reaction to) a certain tradition of American film, however, that I’ll be particularly concerned with in this essay. Cinemas of excess have a long tradition in the history of film, both internationally and in America, finding strong precedents in films such as Blowup and La Dolce Vita in Europe, and Scarface, Wall Street, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, American Psycho, Fight Club, and The Rules of Attraction in America. There are, of course, many others, as the tradition goes back well before 1960, but these films are some of the more paradigmatic and obvious examples that seem to have directly influenced or otherwise share strong similarities to these recent films. The thematic and stylistic consistency of the aforementioned films shouldn’t be surprising since the Italian filmmakers Fredrico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni are responsible for two of these and have influenced Martin Scorsese, who in turn has directed two, while Bret Ellis Easton wrote the stories for two others.  In addition, most of these films are also entries in the crime genre. The recent films about excess by Scorsese, Coppola, Korine, and Bay are the strongest and most paradigmatic of the new style of these films. In this essay, I will focus on The Wolf of Wall Street in particular, and by comparison, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and Pain & Gain. Yet, I would like to go further than other commentators have and really try to explore what’s unique about these films, what distinguishes them from previous films about capitalist or materialist excess, and why they are especially relevant to our current socioeconomic situation. In this, I hope to reveal why I think these films are important entries in this tradition and why they help to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about the crisis of late capitalism.

Some films take a more positive attitude toward the excesses of materialism and capitalism (i.e. Risky Business). Most films of this trend are rather critical of materialism, however. Films critical of materialist excess typically fall into two categories: Tragedy and satire. I grant the distinction is rough, as there is plenty of overlap, but I think some of these films are more satire than not. For instance, Scarface, Wall Street, and Goodfellas are in various ways tragedies. American Psycho, Fight Club, and The Rules of Attraction  are all at some level satires, if not also outright tragedies themselves. There’s also an interesting shift here reflected in these sets of films. Notice that the films from the first set that I’ve characterized mostly as tragedies all predate the latter set. In the first set, the protagonists undergo a dramatic downfall and reversal of fortune, and typically, “learn something” (some kind of moral lesson) or experience psychological anguish as a consequence of their actions. In the second set of films, lessons aren’t necessarily learned, thus the protagonists may lack dramatic character arcs, but there’s a clear mockery or skewering of materialist culture, which is represented in the ironic suffering of their characters. In Fight Club, for instance, consumerism is plainly depicted as an ill. The consumerist tendencies of Norton’s character leads to disaffection, self-loathing, and unhappiness, or as Tyler Durden explains, they’re “by-products of a lifestyle obsession.” The Rules of Attraction achieves satire through heavy use of irony and by showing the dark effects of hedonistic indulgence and material obsession on its characters, featuring sexual assault, suicide, drug overdoses, sexual anxiety/confusion, and deep emotional alienation. America Psycho is satirical by exploiting the analogy between a Wall Street broker and a psychopath. I shall be discussing American Psycho in greater detail throughout, as it will serve as a key point of contrast between previous cinemas of excess and new, and also because it deals with Wall Street in particular. Along with American Psycho, I will also be focusing on Oliver Stone’s Wall Street for similar reasons. In addition, I will be looking at Scorsese’s Goodfellas, since Wolf is a direct continuation of its themes and is stylistically similar. In the latest incarnation of films about excess (2012-2014), what I’m calling the New Cinema of Excess, the irony is completely front and center and the moral critique is now completely absent. As I will argue, these new films are neither tragedies nor satires. Lessons aren’t learned. Catharsis is denied. Real negative psychological consequences are averted. The films ostensibly depict the downfall of their principal characters, but their downfalls do not come with real punishment or consequence, neither in terms of guilt, personal demise, or great personal cost. In cases where real consequences seem to occur, the film diminishes, downplays, reverses, or otherwise undermines the effect. We might also characterize this cinema as palpably postmodern (the use of playful irony to resist falling into the traps of ideology, the reluctance to infer moral meanings, etc) as previous films of this style fall closer to a species of modernism (the use of irony to render moral critique/conclusions) or otherwise classical constructions and conventions (tragedy, catharsis, and morality play).

A Brief Comment on Parallels in Popular Music

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In almost the same time frame as these recent films about materialist excess that have come out over the past couple of years, there have been several albums dealing with the very same theme and in similar fashion: Kanye West’s militant materialism on Yeezus, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s ode to excess on Watch the Throne, Lorde’s Pure Heroine, and Lana Del Rey’s maudlin anti-American Dream narratives on Born to Die. Materialism, of course, has always been a subject in popular music, particularly in Hip-Hop music, but what’s interesting is how the shift in attitude toward these themes closely mirrors what’s happened in American film. For one, Kanye West’s earlier work (The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation) exhibited a social consciousness about materialism. Take the track “All Falls Down” from The College Dropout for instance: “I’m so self conscious/That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches (…) It seems we living the American Dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem.” His recent work, however (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, Yeezus) has been characterized by an unabashed embrace of debauchery and materialism. This has closely corresponded to a rise in his celebrity and networth. We see a shift from self-doubt and guilt to an ironic embrace and seeming lack of conscience toward materialism. On “Black Skinhead” from his album Yeezus (which is especially apropos here as it is featured in the fantastic trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street), he says,  “I’m doing 500, I’m outta control (…) I’m aware I’m a wolf,” but there’s an almost suspicious lack of remorse coupled with a surge in anger and outrage at his enemies, namely corporate types in the fashion industry keeping him from making product. His gripe with capitalism is no longer that it’s materialistic, but rather that capitalism’s classist structures are preventing him from creating more capital and product. Yeezus also featured a promotional video that was a remake of a scene from American Psycho. Similarly, on Lorde’s album Pure Heroin, she sings, “But every song’s like: Gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom/Bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room/We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams (…) But everybody’s like: Crystal, Maybach, Diamonds on your timepiece/Jet planes, Islands, Tigers on a gold leash/We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.” Lorde’s song is in the fashion of critique or satire, but her technique is largely one of a detached irony, which, as I argue, is a key characteristic in the New Cinema of Excess. Her approach is in any case critical in ways that Kanye West’s and arguably Lana Del Rey’s music isn’t, however.

The Excessive Style: Montage, Irony, and Black Comedy

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The films that I describe as belonging to the New Cinema of Excess (Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Pain & Gain, and The Wolf of Wall Street) are characterized by a very distinctive style. The important thing to note about their style, however, is that in each of these films what’s depicted or emphasized through formal technique is not a glamorization of culture. To glamorize is to make something appear more alluring, attractive, beautiful, or otherwise appealing. These films do not do this. Otherwise, it would not be a cinema of excess. This sense of ‘excess’ is rather established by the use of several devices. In Korine, the technique evokes excess through its disorienting camera work, dub-step music, and heavy reliance on repetition. In The Wolf of Wall Street, a common device used is the close-up. We see, for instance, intense close-ups of bloodshot eyes, wet nostrils filled with coke, or the drool from the mouths of Quaalude-induced paralysis. These close-ups encourage discomfort rather than something that’s attractive or appealing (compare these to the shots of the utterly claustrophobic and seedy, fluid-filled hotel rooms in Spring Breakers). This is consistent with the film’s theme: it’s to present a culture of excess, debauchery and degeneracy, not one of comfort, glamor and allure. The emphasis is sensory overload, the effect is numbing, disorienting, overwhelming, and exhausting. As Martin Scorsese said in an interview about the film, “You alternate between enjoyment and thinking, ‘When is it going to stop? How can they possibly survive this?'” [4]

Perhaps the most salient stylistic feature or device employed in the cinema of excess is the use of montage. Michael Bay’s entire cinema might be described as one of montage, but it’s undeniably put to best use in Pain & Gain where the theme gives his aggressive editing and repetitive events a robust sense of narrative function and significance. In The Bling Ring, we see montages of parties and house raids of luxurious mansions, but Coppola is also inclined to use longer-takes between these sequences in ways these other films do not. This gives her film a less aggressive or exhausting effect than the others. Often, these montage sequences are accompanied by voice over monologues with characters cataloging their many possessions in a collage of complementary images. In Spring Breakers, this is seen in Alien’s “look at all my shit” montage sequence that I discuss in my Spring Breakers essay. I will come back to this sequence in the following section. In The Wolf of Wall Street, nearly every montage sequence features voice over, since it’s told in the autobiographical format of the memoir on which it is based, as in the beginning for instance when Jordan Belfort tells us, “In addition to Naomi and my two perfect kids, I own a mansion, private jet, six cars, three horses, two vacation homes and a 170 foot yacht,” as we see images roll displaying all his property (among which he counts his wife and children). Montage has at least two important advantages or functions in these films. First, it allows the directors to display repeated events of materialist excess by condensing them into quick, tightly edited sequences. The use of repetition throughout the narratives here is key in establishing the excessive tone, and condensing these sequences helps maximize this effect. Second, it creates the sense of a “barrage” of narrative or visual information being thrown at the audience all at once, thus bringing out the aggressive, manic intensity of these moments and the overwhelming sense of exhaustion.  In The Wolf of Wall Street, this exhaustion is drawn out even further by featuring perhaps far more montage sequences than any of the other films and by also featuring the longest run-time of any of them at 3 hours length. It’s also Scorsese’s longest film to date. Each of Scorsese’s crime films that engage the theme of excess (Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street) are especially known for their emphasis on long run-times, quick editing, and montage, as he employs arguably the finest editor in Hollywood in Thelma Schoonmaker. The lengthy narrative in The Wolf of Wall Street furthers this sense of a repetitive fatigue, a kind of aggressive assault on the audience, bringing us deeper into this world of sensory overload that is experienced by the characters. In other words, the feeling one gets from watching these new films isn’t supposed to be comfortable. A comfortable experience is one that admits of some kind of moderation, fine-tuning, calibration, and restraint; here, everything is on overdrive. This isn’t a cinema of comfort, one of modest pleasure and enjoyment, but a cinema of manic highs and lows, or in a word, excess. In this respect, it’s easy to see why certain individuals or critics might by turned off by the proceedings.

The most powerful stylistic device in the film, however, is a narrative one rather than a technical one, which is the use of irony.  Irony gives way to the central narrative forms these films follow and why each of these films might be described on some level as comedies. The use of irony in these films will bear deeply on the question of to what extent these films are satires, which ultimately will give us some insight into the central troubling question or conflict at the heart of the controversy surrounding these films: the problem of depiction versus endorsement.

In satire, the name of the game is irony. It concerns presenting a contrast between what the characters do and say with that of a technique or tone that somehow undermines them. [5] In my Spring Breakers entry, I argued that the use of irony in the film wasn’t used for satirical purposes:

The first thing to get out of the way is to stress emphatically that Spring Breakers is not a satire. It is true the film contains many ironic juxtapositions or situations and sequences that are rather comical in their absurdity and implications, but to call it satire is to suggest that Korine wants to be criticizing or discrediting the culture he’s outrageously depicting. This simply doesn’t seem to be his intention.

The basis for my claim is that satire entails irony for the use of a specific or intended goal of discrediting, lampooning, deriding, undermining, or otherwise denouncing a particular subject. By comparison, these films do not appear to be using irony in this intended way, even if the function is quite similar. Comedy and irony in The Wolf of Wall Street is used to highlight the absurd. This isn’t a tool to discredit what’s being depicted, but to elucidate meaning and theme (the theme of excess). It’s not quite satirical because the characters own this absurdity. They’re aware of it and embrace it. They participate in the comedy, as they participate in the irony. Let’s consider some examples from The Wolf of Wall Street. After Jordan’s Quaalude episode, he says, “By some miracle, I made it home alive. Not a scratch on me or the car.” The next day, we see a flashback cutaway showing what really happened: The car is completely totaled. The punchline: “Wow, maybe I hadn’t made it home okay.”  Later in the film, in a fight with his wife, Naomi scolds him for coming home in the middle of the night and waking up their daughter. Jordan suggests she’s exaggerating until we get a cutaway of him literally being dropped out of a helicopter and drunkenly falling into the pool that sets off the alarm to the house’s entire security system. If anything, she was being modest. The irony (mismatch between saying and doing) here is patently comic, but the function isn’t satirical (as to be criticizing or discrediting), because, well, Jordan is in on the joke. He knows he’s lying and he knows he’s utterly obscene. He can appreciate the humor. He’s winking at us, not because he’s been exposed by the filmmakers, but because it’s his game. He’s not the punchline – she is, and so is everyone else. Perhaps in the film’s darkest moment of irony, Jordan’s co-conspirators crowd around him and cheer him on as he callously mocks a client with sexual gyrations while he cons him out of his money under the pretense of sincerity.

It’s this gleeful indifference and mockery of the characters’ crimes and their victims that makes the comedy a black comedy. It is not, however, satire. Why is this important? This is important because it establishes what distinguishes the new cinema of excess from previous incarnations of the genre. In American Psycho, satire is achieved by using irony to exploit the analogy between a psychopath and stockbroker, presenting the deceptive all-too-together image of the master of the universe and undermining this image by showing a character that underneath it is breaking at the seams. It gives lie to his appearance and the Wall Street identity, painting it as a deception, and gives truth to his actual nature, that of a psychopath. As in Wolf, there’s a blatant mismatch between saying and doing, presentation and reality, but in American Psycho the irony is exploited to draw a conclusion of moral hypocrisy and psychological crisis. We see in Patrick Bateman a clear sense of emptiness, numbness, alienation, and eventually, a complete psychological breakdown that leads to an emotional confession of his crimes to his lawyer. In the end, the catharsis is questioned and the possible dramatic arc undermined by his resolve that it all meant nothing, but the existence of crisis, suffering, self-doubt, and madness reveals the satirical or critical nature of the film, even if it’s ultimately cynical about the prospect of a truly reformed or evolved character. Prior to his confession, he is emotionally dead, perhaps only apart from his explosive acts of rage, but even then, the rage seems unsatisfying, mannered, choreographed, or rehearsed.  Bateman, as such, is checked out, out-of-touch, or as he tells us, that beneath the illusory vessel of this yuppie image, “I’m simply not there.” Conversely, the self-aware materialists in these new films do not undergo moral crisis or great suffering for their actions and behavior. Jordan Belfort isn’t a hypocrite suffering a crisis of personal identity. Neither is Alien, Brit, and Candy in Spring Breakers or Emma Watson’s Nicki in The Bling Ring. They own their madness, they don’t deny it or struggle to repress it. And if they do deny it, it’s only as a way of conning their victims to meet their ends, hence the irony, but it’s not an act of psychological denial that masks an existential crisis. There isn’t a secret unhappiness and disaffection lurking beneath the surface as suggested in American Psycho and Fight Club. It’s all just a big joke, and they know it.

Black Comedy in the Absence of Satire: The Problem of Endorsement

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I’ve so far argued that Scorsese isn’t discrediting the proceedings he is presenting. But we might ask: If Scorsese isn’t discrediting this culture either by way of satire or tragedy, then is he endorsing it? Is he approving of Belfort’s behavior? If there’s no moral condemnation, then isn’t Belfort morally off the hook in Scorsese’s cinema? To the contrary, Scorsese’s moral position couldn’t be any clearer: Belfort is a villain. Make no mistake about this point. Scorsese, unequivocally, thinks Belfort is a bad man. [6] Very, crucially, however, so does Belfort. And this is the crux. I’ve pointed out that the film isn’t satirical because its function or aim is not to make an argument by way of irony that somehow “reveals” that Belfort is bad, that “exposes” his badness by revealing layers of moral hypocrisy, as if his badness weren’t plainly evident on the surface. As a self-aware capitalist, he offers no apologies or attempts to justify his materialism as beneficial to the whole. The first evidence of Belfort’s self-awareness and acknowledgment of his wrongdoing is in the opening seconds of the film when he declares to the audience: “I also gamble like a degenerate, drink like a fish, fuck hookers maybe five times a week and have three different Federal agencies looking to indict me…. Oh yeah, and I love drugs.” This, to begin with, sounds like a man who is very aware of the transgressive and destructive nature of his actions. This comes very close to Alien’s “look at my shit” monologue in Spring Breakers. Here, as I observe in my previous entry on the film, Alien is equally aware of his wrongdoing: “Some people, they wanna do the right thing – I like doing the wrong thing. Everyone’s always telling me, you gotta change. I’m about stacking change, y’all… That’s it! Money! I’m ’bout makin’ money. That’s the dream ya’ll. It’s the American dream.” Alien is a bad guy and he knows it. In Wolf, Belfort makes it unambiguously clear that he’s the villain when he attempts to bribe FBI Agent Patrick Denham and Denham calls him on his bullshit: “Well, yeah, when you sail on a boat fit for a Bond villain, sometimes you need to play the part, right?” Denham presses him even further when he says, “You know Jordan, I’ll tell you something. Most of the Wall Street jackasses that I bust, they’re to the manor born. Their fathers are douchebags, just like their fathers before them. But you… you Jordan, you got this way all on your own,” to which Belfort replies with a cheeky grin, “Did I?” So even here, where we might begin to make plausible gestures at explaining Jordan’s behavior in terms of a spoiled upbringing and the bad values instilled in him, Denham dismisses this out of hand. Nearly everyone in the film seems to be in agreement: Belfort is a bad guy, as is Alien in Spring Breakers, notwithstanding their charm. But that’s all beside the point. These films aren’t making an argument that they’re bad. It’s not an exposé. In these films, we’re supposed to know fairly early on that we’re dealing with narcissists, gangsters, con artists, criminals, liars, and thieves, but this doesn’t mean the films are critical. Many films feature villains, anti-heroes, and bad people, whether likable or not, but that doesn’t mean it’s the narrative project of the film to be criticizing or disparaging them. In some cases, they may very well be incidental to the film’s narrative goals.

In my Spring Breakers essay, I explained that Alien, like Nicki in The Bling Ring, can be best understood in terms of the phenomenon of enlightened false consciousness. The central insight here is that in late capitalism, those operating under the dominate capitalist ideology are not oblivious actors to its harm. They know very well what they are doing, but they do it anyways. Why is this relevant or interesting? These concepts allow us to parse out at least two attitudes toward capitalism depicted in cinemas of excess. The first attitude is a more oblivious one that attempts to rationalize or justify the harms of capitalism. The second attitude is one that is aware of its harms and ignores it.  In Wall Street and American Psycho, for instance, we see characters that attempt to offer moral justifications for laissez-faire capitalism (whether ironically or sincerely). In Wall Street, there is the famous Gordon Gekko speech:

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.

Here, the central insight is that unqualified capitalist self-interest and the obsession with profit ultimately promotes social welfare or collective benefit. In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman expresses faux-outrage over Anti-Semitic comments by his colleagues and warns of impending moral problems in the world:

Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.

The hypocrisy suggested is that Patrick, qua capitalist, at some level, takes himself to be of high moral character and even critical of materialism, but his actual behavior reveals this to be a falsehood. In these monologues, there is an unmistakable ironic detachment in this speech brought out in Bale’s eerie, impeccable delivery, which suggests that he’s enlightened about the false consciousness or pretense to goodness practiced by the principal actors of capitalism, thus isn’t really duped by his own rhetoric. The fact that this detachment masks an existential crisis or madness beneath the surface is what makes American Psycho more of a satirical film, however. Similarly, Nicki in The Bling Ring uses ironic rhetoric that suggests a desire to do good in a way very similar to Patrick Bateman, but it’s all a con, as the film’s final shot ends with her guiltless, as she looks at the camera to promote her website and notoriety after spending a mere days in jail.

We see this same level of ironic approach to justification by Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, as when he says things like, “I mean we were literally putting clothes on these kid’s back.” In another instance, he says “Money doesn’t just buy you a better life — better food, better cars, better pussy — it also makes you a better person. You can give generously to the church of your choice or the political party. You can save the fucking spotted owl with money.” This seems to come awfully clause to the “greed is good” maxim, but he reminds us, “All we care about is getting rich,” as if to clarify that sure, you can do some good with money, but that’s not what interests him. For Belfort and his co-conspirators, money isn’t a means to an end (charity, character building, or well-being), but it’s the end in itself. This captures the logic of a Marxist formulation for capitalism in M-C-M’ – where the M prime is profit from the maximization of wealth via the selling of commodities. Similarly, in the scene where he attempts to bribe Denham, he tries to explain how cops, fireman, and teachers, those that “built” this country, are deserving of more compensation for their labor, but his con is easily detected and dismissed. In another scene where he is to announce his resignation to his office, Belfort explains how he was generous to one of his brokers Kimmie Beltzer, a poor single mom with an 8 year old son that he made a bonafide millionaire now dressed up in Armani suits. But this isn’t a moral justification he’s offering here. It’s plainly an act of protecting his own. She’s one of the wolves. It’s a victory lap celebrating their unity, demonstrating his devotion to his team and their triumph over all the suckers. And even this pretense to family duty is revealed to be a lie, as he ultimately betrays and rats them all out. In retrospect, his claim that he “believes” in Kimmie and his crew rings as hollow and fallacious as the same lies he spins to his clients. They’re all duped, all victims.

Belfort has values and an ethics, of course, but a non-moral ethics. He expresses concern that his money and lifestyle might “get the best of him,” but this isn’t a moral ethic (or an ethic that’s concerned with the welfare of others). It’s an ethics of self-regard, and those values are greed and capitalism. They aren’t Randian, libertarian, Gordon Gekko-esque reinterpretations of those ethics under moral terms (adopting the pretense that greed, selfishness, or self-interest is inherently good and ultimately promotes collective well-being). He’s an unapologetic narcissistic with no regard for helping others. He gleefully embraces his materialism to the scorn of others: “Now if anyone here thinks I’m superficial, or materialistic, go get a job at fucking McDonalds, cause that’s where you fucking belong.”

The moral endorsement thesis, then, is patently false – not even Belfort morally endorses his own actions. But there is still yet a further question about endorsement, even if it’s of a non-moral kind. Belfort does promote his values. He undeniably embraces his materialism. This leaves open the following question: Does the film also embrace Belfort’s materialism? To this, I don’t think there can be any doubt. There is certainly some level at which the film is blatantly complicit in his materialism. For one, there are no heroes in this cinema. The villains are the protagonists. The fourth-wall breaks and prejudiced perspective on Belfort’s exploits seems to put Belfort in the director’s seat, or alternatively, Scorsese in the stockbroker’s seat, and us along for the ride. In this sense, that is, to the extent Scorsese is the mouthpiece or in the capacity of Belfort, there’s a legitimate question here as to whether Scorsese is mocking the audience, as familiar charges have been made of Michael Haneke. It’s plausible, but this assumes, of course, Scorsese is identifying himself with Jordan Befort – the villain. If the filmmakers are indeed mocking us, or at the very least provoking us, it’s at the expense of identifying themselves with the role of a villain. It’s a mockery, then, but a self-indictment in the transgressions of its protagonist in the process. [7] This complicity is stretched out even further by the fact that Belfort has profited from the making of this film and even makes a brief cameo (which I’ll come back to address). If that’s right, Scorsese’s the bad guy, then, at least for a moment, and it’s a role he seems all too willing to occupy. This is a plausible reading, but I think there’s more to the story. There are more layers to this, and this ultimately bears on the value of this brand of subversive cinema.

 The Value of the New Cinema of Excess

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I’ve argued that films of the New Cinema of Excess are (1) not tragedies, (2) not satirical, and (3) not moral endorsements of their characters. The result of these points leads to a very important question: Is this brand of cinema of any value? At this point, it’s very easy for me to understand the controversy surrounding these films and why they are disliked. As I’ve argued, they are are designed to provoke, cause discomfort, and subvert conventions of tragic drama and cathartic resolution. To answer the question of whether this form of abrasive cinema is worth valuing, we need to tease out some plausible explanations for the purpose or function of this kind of cinema. What are these films designed to achieve through these subversive formal ends? If these films are neither satire nor tragedy, what’s their value and purpose? It’s easy to see the appeal of these traditional modes of cinema that offer moral conclusions, resolutions, or insights. In cinemas of excess that employ tragedy and satire, both styles demonstrate a negative critique of capitalism. The former accomplishes this straightforwardly – a character undergoes a dramatic change after a reversal of fortune where moral lessons are learned, values discovered, strengthened, or otherwise obtained. The latter accomplishes this by revealing a character’s suffering, misfortune, or unhappiness against deceptive surfaces or appearances to the contrary. Comparatively, in the New Cinema, no lessons are learned and no real psychological misfortune is experienced by the protagonists. In my Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring essays, I argue that some of the characters may be subject to traditional critiques of capitalism or materialism, and may be better understood in terms of a more basic unawareness/false consciousness rather than an enlightened false consciousness, but I argue that the main characters in the film are not subject to this form of critique. [8] Pain & Gain falls along these lines. Daniel Lugo’s co-conspirators in Pain & Gain all seem to lack any real self-awareness, or as Ed Harris’ character tells us in voice over, “they were dumb and stupid.” They face real consequences with death sentences and long prison sentences, and some of them seem to have actually learned something. Yet, once again, this narrative conclusion is undermined as the film’s emphasis centers on Lugo’s character, the main protagonist who learns nothing, suggesting that his co-conspirators were seduced by his manipulations and vanity. The film ends in voice over monologue with him stepping up to a bench set in a prison yard and explaining, “All I ever wanted out of life was what everyone else had. Not more. Just not the less I was used to. (…) Maybe I did though. Maybe it got so I didn’t want to be equal to you anymore. I wanted to be better than. And that’s a recipe for injury. That doesn’t mean you give up though. You rest, you heal, and you get back on that bench. Life is going to give me another set. And I’m gonna rock it — ’cause my name is Daniel Lugo. And I believe in fitness.” In Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, the characters that actually seem to learn something and evolve are relegated to minor roles, downplayed or undercut by the narrative emphasis or tone, and in some cases, altogether abandoned from the narrative even half-way through the film (such as Selena Gomez’s character Faith in Spring Breakers). Sometimes this amounts to shifting the points-of-view or perspective away from would-be protagonists to more cynical characters in the films as in The Bling Ring with Nicki (who seems to replace Rebecca and Marc) and in Spring Breakers with Candy and Brit (who replace Faith). In each, the film resolves (or rather ends unresolved) with the characters either getting off scot-free (Spring Breakers), expressing no real remorse (Pain & Gain), or back to preying on more victims (The Bling Ring).

In The Wolf of Wall Street, there is a pretense to a dramatic character arc or an expectation of catharsis in that everything seems to come crashing down for Jordan Belfort in the last half hour of the film.  The manic downfall in Scorsese is a staple, and the clearest precedent of how it works in this film is in Goodfellas, a companion piece of sorts. Scorsese is really the father of this new cinema of excess in terms of style given how closely these narrative and stylistic precedents can be found in Goodfellas and Casino. The Wolf of Wall Street is more of an exaggeration and distillation of these themes. But there are very important differences between the downfall in Goodfellas and the one in The Wolf of Wall Street. In Goodfellas, the entire ending is marred by paranoia and fear on levels unmatched by Wolf. Henry and Karen ultimately go into witness protection, giving up their extended families and living in a constant state of suspicion and fear that they might be found out and killed by the mob. What does Belfort get? 3 years in a low-security prison that seems a lot more like a vacation at a country club. Henry concludes in Goodfellas, “See, the hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life. We were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking.” There’s real loss for Henry. He laments everything he gives up — the wealth, the drugs, the access, the prestige, the culture. He had it all, but as he says, “now it’s all over.” He’s relegated to his own personal prison in suburbia, an anonymous nobody with a death warrant. It’s a hard lesson in moderation. Conversely, in an almost blatant insult to the audience (both real and depicted), at a motivational talk at the end of Wolf, Jordan Belfort is introduced by the real-life Jordan Belfort as the “baddest motherfucker I have ever met,” that above even “rock stars, professional athletes, and gangsters.” That’s right, Jordan Belfort is “the baddest motherfucker” Jordan Belfort has ever met. Not to mention “the world’s greatest sales trainer.” And there he is, in the final shot, back to selling his garbage stock, his own brand, duping poor hapless schmucks as they sit in awe of his scheme.Which is to say, the last we see of Belfort he’s back to his exploits. Both figuratively and literally. There is no real sense of consequence. No fear of death. To the contrary, the film concludes on a note that suggests Belfort thinks himself invincible.

This lack of consequence for his actions is echoed throughout the film. Jordan is constantly reminded of how lucky he is. He concludes after driving home under the influence of a hand full of Quaaludes that, “It was a miracle I wasn’t killed.” Afterwards, the cops took him in for questioning, but they couldn’t charge him as they had no proof he was even behind the wheel, to which he observes, “Meanwhile, Brad did three months in jail for contempt because he wouldn’t rat Donnie out. The result, I was scot-free.” After he gets rescued from his sinking yacht, he looks out the window to see the plane that just rescued him explode right before his eyes as a seagull flies into the engine. To this he says, “You want a sign from God? Well, after all this, I finally got the message.” And later, after he’s indicted, his lawyer tells him, “You’re a lucky man, Jordan. You’re lucky to be alive, let alone not in jail.” This is a man that knows no consequence. The culture of capitalism has taught him otherwise.

But if cinema can, on principle, affect culture, or in any case seek to accurately reflect it, then what have these sorts of films really accomplished? Since the 80s, we’ve only seen capitalism seem to get worse and more reckless, bottoming out in the 2007-08 Financial Crisis. The New Cinema of Excess, unquestionably, is a post-Financial Crisis statement. There is ground to have skepticism about films like Wall Street where we’re supposed to identify with the dramatic transformation of Bud Fox and somehow properly condemn the actions of Gordon Gekko. Or as Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in 2008, “It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology. And today we are still cleaning up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.” [9] Perhaps the directors of these films have finally given up on the illusion that a moralizing cinema is the most effective means of addressing the ills of capitalism. Perhaps they feel this strategy has been tried and ultimately failed to address capitalist ideology. Or, alternatively, perhaps these directors have concluded, rather cynically, that films like Wall Street are simply dishonest. There are no Bud Foxs or heroes of the world. Or in any case, they aren’t the major players in capitalism. It’s a world of Gordon Gekkos, a world of villains, and we’re all complicit, everyone down from Wall Street to the director to the audience. As an alternative, these filmmakers offer something new. They don’t offer a moralizing cinema, but a cinema that demonstrates self-awareness about the destructive aspects of ideology and the seeming intractability of the problem. This is addressed in an interview with Jonah Hill on the film:

At Stratton Oakmont, says Hill, the philosophy was kill-or-be-killed, and ­Gordon Gekko was fetishized, but so were Scarface and GoodFellas. “Those were their models,” he adds. “They kind of ran their businesses with those sensibilities.” [10]

It makes sense, then, that Scorsese would shift his strategy from the gestures at moralizing seen in his previous films and those seen in films like Wall Street to one that’s more self-aware about his complicity and less dishonest in denying it. Rather than assume a moralizing position when these films may very well only contribute to the problem, he acknowledges his role by turning the camera against himself. It’s a reflection of a kind of disaffection with the culture of capitalism, one that includes himself and his audience, and the failure of the traditional critique of it in cinema. If these films can’t hope to be an effective critique of capitalism, then it can at least hope to be more honest.

We’re all complicit, so what now? I think it’s only by acknowledging the corruption of the system and giving up the fantasy that the only villain in the story is the “Other,” can we all really own up to the responsibilities of this culture, and only then can we reign in these criminals with an efficacious system of justice, else this lack of moral reckoning and sense of invincibility seen on Wall Street will only continue to worsen. The New Cinema of Excess is a descriptive project rather than a normative one, then. It’s a heavily stylized cinema of psychological transparency, description, and understanding. These films opt to imaginatively present the psychology of ideology rather than funnel in a more deceptive ideology through moralizing. The hope, then, perhaps, that indulging in the sin that we might better come to terms with the animal of capitalism and learn something of value from it. Which is to say, there is a moral end to at all. Films that intend to serve this moral function (i.e. to inform, to elucidate, to understand, or to reveal the collective psychology of a societal problem) are films that I would describe as deeply humanist in nature. Thus, I take the new excess films to be humanist in their intended program, but neutral in terms of narrative judgment toward their characters. [11] So while I think Scorsese is complicit in the materialist indulgence, identifying with Belfort’s perspective in the film and enabling his antics, I still think there is immense value in this cinema, much in the same way I do the films of Michael Haneke that have been charged for doing a kind of “violence” on the audience toward the end of elucidating and understanding violence. The hope is that by displaying a world where characters learn nothing, we learn something, and while that something may be cynical and depressing, it’s in any case something that’s hopefully honest. As far as this moviegoer is concerned, it’s an utterly fascinating and worthwhile project to discover, if not an altogether admirable one to pursue.

Endnotes:

1. Andrew O’Hehir. “The Wolf of Wall Street, Inequality and the Gatsby Myth,” Salon 28 Dec 2013.

2. A.A. Dowd. “Martin Scorsese tackles excess with excess in The Wolf Of Wall Street,” The A.V. Club 24 Dec 2013.

3. A.O. Scott. “A.O. Scott’s Top Movies of 2013,” The New York Times 11 Dec 2013.

4. Mary Kaye Schilling. “Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese Explore the Funny Side of Financial Depravity in The Wolf of Wall Street,Vulture 08 Aug 2013.

5. Cf. dictionary.com’s definition: (1) “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” (2) “a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule” (3) “a literary genre comprising such compositions.” And Merriam-Webster: (1) “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn,” (2) “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly”

6. Martin Scorsese said, “[I] didn’t want to stand back and say, ‘This is bad behavior.’ It’s not for us to say. It’s for us to present (…) And obviously it’s bad behavior. Obviously the values are twisted and turned upside down,” quoted in Jake Coyle, “Hedonistic High of Wall St. ‘Wolf’ Provokes Debate,” Associated Press 07 Jan 2014.

7. Martin Scorsese: “That’s one of the reasons we made The Wolf of Wall Street, not to show the greed, but to be in the greed, to be part of it, part of the exaltation of it, part of the excitement of it and part of the destruction it causes,” in Kaleem Aftab, “Martin Scorsese in Conversation: Guilt Trips of the Great Director,” The Independent 13 Dec 2013.

8. Re: here and here. I argue in my essay “False Consciousness and Commodity Fetishism in The Bling Ring” that most of the characters in the film may be subject to a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism outside of Nicki. It’s for this reason I conclude in my follow up essay on Spring Breakers that the The Bling Ring is more optimistic than Spring Breakers. But I want to maintain here that it’s still ultimately an uncritical film, as the narrative emphasis is actually on Nicki, or as I say, “The upshot is that Spring Breakers might seem to be the ultimately darker film. The portrait of youth it paints is far more cynical than Coppola’s, even if Coppola’s central protagonist would be right at home in the trashy spring break party culture of Korine’s film (and make no mistake, it’s Nicki’s film and not Rebecca’s).”

9. Kevin Rudd. “The Children of Gordon Gekko”. The Australian 06 Oct 2008.

10. op. cit., Schilling, Mary Kaye.

11. Cf. Leonardo DiCaprio to HitFlix:

“I think that anyone that thinks this is a celebration of Wall Street and this sort of hedonism — yes, the unique thing about Marty is that he doesn’t judge his characters. And that was something that you don’t quite understand while you’re making the movie, but he allows the freedom of this almost hypnotic, drug-infused, wild ride that these characters go on. And he allows you, as an audience — guilty or not — to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are. Because ultimately, he keeps saying this: “Who am I to judge anybody?” I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior. In fact we’re saying that this is something that is in our very culture and it needs to be looked at and it needs to be talked about. Because, to me, this attitude of what these characters represent in this film are ultimately everything that’s wrong with the world we live in.”

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The Cinema of James Gray: A Conversation Between Two Cinephiles, pt. 2

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This is part two of my conversation with Guido Pellegrini. Please read his part here.

That’s a great Tarkovsky quote. He’s right about the way ambient music and electronic music become indistinct from the sound. This is partially because, as in Gray’s case, the electronic music is often industrial; the sound, or the noise, is the music and vice versa. It’s difficult to tell in Gray when a certain machine sound, droning, echoing, breathing, or noise on the soundtrack is clearly digetic or non-digetic; the distinction collapses in Gray’s world as everything becomes so subjective and insular. I found a quote from Gray on the subject of atmosphere in his films:

Movies do mood and atmosphere exceptionally well; that is their strength. It’s a joy to be able to make a film and bring to them a sense of the world. Movies are like dreams, they’re almost primal, you know? They feel like an extension of your dreams. And the pleasures of your dreams aren’t always narrative. The pleasure of dreams is the mood of them; the unconscious beauty that you cant quite verbalize.(1)

Gray’s films are nothing if not atmospheric. The interesting thing is how crucial sound is to the creation of a truly absorbing atmosphere. The visual and the sound work hand-in-hand such that they meld into each other so that our experience of the film is so immersive and immediate that we are far too enamored by the experience to distinguish the boundaries of where the visual ends and the sound begins. The sound creeps into the frame almost unnoticed just as visual elements affect us inarticulately, like that of catching the shadow of a vague object in one’s peripheral. Very conscious technical devices such as lens choice, camera placement, lighting, sound mixing, ambient music, and framing contribute to a near unconscious, preconceptial, noncognitive experience of moods and feelings. The understanding comes later, the experience comes first.

I think it’s partially these factors that contribute to Gray’s mixed response among audiences. Like Lynch and Grandrieux, these elements are what make the director notoriously difficult to analyze. But unlike Lynch and Grandreix, narrative coherence, story, and classical drama and structure are important for Gray. This creates a rather interesting dynamic. On the one hand, you have very digestible, straightforward narrative elements, and on the other, you have almost impenetrable, but very aggressive semiconscious moods and feelings that wash over you and submerge every interval of the frame. As a result, Gray’s cinema has the ostensible trappings of traditional cinema that can be understood and assessed on standard terms, but has the look and feel of an art house film that communicates more through suggestion, sound, and space than through plot and exposition. This reflects Gray’s unique place in cinema as striking a balance between the styles of smaller art house fare and bigger budget mainstream cinema. The mistake by audiences, I think, is to see this as some sort of tension, or as reflecting a kind of schizophrenic style. This is because the more felt moods and feelings of oppression, paranoia, anxiety, and confusion only underscore the plot and narrative elements. They bring out the film’s themes rather than obfuscate them, but without proper appreciation of these visceral elements, and focusing squarely on plot and narrative, you walk away with a significantly weaker film and much diminished appreciation or understanding of what Gray’s achieving with his art.

I want to say a few things about your point on homelessness. I think this a wonderful point you make. I wanted to talk a little a bit about this last time, but I didn’t in the interest of space. I tried to distinguish two forms of oppression between local and social and how this affects the individual. The familial oppression can be seen very explicitly in We Own the Night, The Yards, and Two Lovers. In each film, the protagonists have individual or private ambitions that clash against the expectations of the family. The oppressive influence comes from the extent to which family attempts to impose these values and expectations on the protagonists. The social oppression comes from the social forces outside of the pressure of the family that prevent the protagonists from breaking free of their assigned familial roles and from realizing their personal goals. This is more straightforward in We Own the Night where Bobby tries to make a life for himself outside of the family structure, but this is confounded by both the criminality brought into his nightclub world and the role his family plays in addressing this criminal element. In The Yards, Leo is pressured by his family to go to trade school and join the family business, but this predetermined path doesn’t reflect his individual interests. Yet, when he tries to pursue more lucrative options outside of this path, he’s invariably thwarted by larger scale criminal forces (to which his family is connected). In Two Lovers, the goal is a romantic future with Michelle, a goal that’s blocked by both what his family expects from him on the inside (they want him to work for the family business and marry someone they approve) and on the outside from the erratic nature of a passionate love affair with someone who literally isn’t available (the more social/political aspect here is suggested in that he seems to lack the resources and status that the much older Ronald has to offer Michelle).

In each case, Gray’s protagonists are attempting to escape a suffocating home to achieve some unattainable goal. The goal eventually reveals itself as equally oppressive and it would seem the characters are faced with an ostensible choice – that between the suffocating expectations of family or of a shameful, torturous individual existence outside of the family. The noir overcast reveals this as a state of sheer anxiety. It reflects characters on the verge of dramatic shift; stuck in a transitory stasis, at a crossroads, or in Sartre’s analogy, standing on the precipice of the abyss. This is the existential element or dilemma of the noir seeping through and I think it is complementary to your point about the transitory nature of the intermittent locations/places between departures and destinations his protagonists find themselves in. The result, as you say, is one of homelessness, or put in more modern terms, alienation. But unlike the liberating vision and promise of existentialism, however, the choice in Gray’s cinema is illusory. His protagonists face a fundamentally false dilemma, since an oppressive outcome is inevitable, and because their real ambition is actual happiness, something which is unattainable to them. This is why my distinction between the social and local, between the political and familial is ultimately superficial. The upshot is still the same, which is the general oppressiveness of working-class immigrant life where the best (only) legitimate option for individuals often involves employment in family run businesses and a lifestyle they never had any real choice in the matter. Or as I said in my last post, pretensions of agency in Gray’s cinema are a wash.

(1) http://www.cinemaspartan.com/2009/02/in … ames-gray/

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The Cinema of James Gray: A Conversation Between Two Cinephiles

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This was originally a response to Guido Pellegrini, a Match-Cut, Rotten Tomatoes, and Corrierino forum member and excellent film writer as part of an ongoing conversation about James Gray and We Own the Night. Read his part here.

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Gray’s cinema is an oppressive one. He has perhaps the most oppressive sensibility of any filmmaker I know. A lot of people like to talk about the cluttered interiors of Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema, but Gray’s cinema is more thoroughly oppressive in both its look and behavior.

I’ll talk about two forms of oppression.

The first is the more familiar systematic oppression of the social against the individual. This is the oppression his characters face when they try to veer outside of the demands and expectations of the familial structure. The second is the more personal oppression of the family. This is the oppression his characters face from familial bonds of duty and sacrifice. The former is a more global kind of oppression, the second more local, but they are also closely related. In many ways, the distinction is superficial, but it’s useful in seeing how Gray’s style cinematically evokes the theme of oppression in different ways. For instance, the oppression of the individualist world stems from its foreboding tension and anxiety. When in closed quarters and family surroundings, it’s not tense and fearful, but it’s claustrophobic and overbearing.

Take how Gray evokes these sentiments in The Yards. Gray’s evocation of home is built around small intimate family gatherings. In the opening sequence of The Yards, the party scene (inspired partly by Visconti’s party scene in Rocco and His Brothers) he uses long lenses and shallow depth of field to create a suffocating intimacy. The entire film is shot with anamorphic Panavision C lenses with a graduated DOF that gives the film a cluttered, soft-focused feel and look. The “flat field” lens is notable for increasing the effect of the shallow depth and also sharpening the edges for a more flattened, less “curved” space that you get with the curved lenses. He also relies heavily on long lenses, especially in the opening scene and interior spaces. The distorted, collapsed perspective of the long lenses in these settings (as long as 135 mm) create a claustrophobic atmosphere, but also a warmth and elegance. It’s an inviting, congenial situation even if one you couldn’t bear to be in too long. You feel the care and concern of his family and friends, particularly his mother, but everything feels so heavy, so cluttered, and invasive, even if genuine and caring. It’s a love so focused and demanding that it verges on the point of oppression (look for similar effects in Two Lovers). The impression of shadows and the obscuring of the mise-en-scene with the soft focus lens only further tightens the space and collapses the interiors. The filmstock was also underexposed to give the film a brownish, amber like tint, which also gives the film both its intimacy and its dark, shadowy feel. (Check out this video where Gray and DP, late poet of cinema Harris Savides, discuss Gray’s use of watercolor paintings and “the voluptuousness of death” aesthetic).

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In contrast to these scenes, when Mark Wahlberg’s character is out on his own, the flattened space of the lenses is used to highlight the anxiety, stress, and oppressive chaos and criminality of the outside world. The effect is often distinguished by the score. When he’s outside, the sounds are often industrial, such as echoes of machinery, thick stormy bass, grinding piercing sirens, or the reverberating noise of trains, cars, and even plane engines drowning out the soundtrack, even when the objects that produce those sounds don’t seem to be nearby. This is essentially the same effect Gray uses in We Own the Night when he drowns out the sound of echoing gun shots to amplify the ringing in Phoenix’s ear as he stumbles through a chaotic, claustrophobic interior, or when the sound is drowned out during the car chase sequence as the massive rain storm obscures his vision as he’s trapped inside an enclosed, foggy interior, further evoking the feeling of dread and powerlessness. Conversely, familial interior scenes in The Yards are scored with a lush, symphonic drone. It’s interesting when this is used behind conversations. It drowns out the dialogue and heightens the overbearing nature of the conversation. It magnifies the overwhelming barrage of family interrogation, where it is turned into a kind of persistent, relentless, hypnotic force. It also heightens the melodrama of the situation in that it adds a thick layer of seriousness so that every glance, gesture, and whisper carries the weight and force of the world.

But in We Own the Night, which Gray consciously mirrored on the look of The Yards, the oppressive technique adapts to its unique thematic function in the story. The opening sequence does everything it can to capture the sexual euphoria of the 80s. The oppressiveness of the opening scene is its aggressive hedonism with Phoenix’s grinning, slow approach toward an almost desperately aroused Mendes and the feeling of being overwhelmed by the overstimulation of infectious iconic 80s pop, drugs, and eroticism. Gray stylizes the scene until we’re practically suffocated with the moment (which relies on close ups and flat space). It’s potent because it shows Gray dealing in extremes; pure uninhibited excess against the total restraint, duty, and self-sacrifice of the rigid lifestyle he ends up in. There’s no room for the possibility of a bland, vanilla existence (which is a point of contrast to modernists like Scorsese). The dichotomy is all or nothing; total inhibition or total resignation, pure euphoria or complete misery. The interesting thing is there’s a kind of exhausting, overbearing dedication in both ways of being. Alternatively, the ambient sounds and tones on the soundtrack in the suspenseful scenes (which almost remind of Lynch and Grandrieux) create an unsettling atmosphere, sounds that are just ambient enough to seep beneath conscious awareness but drone enough to affect your experience of the film.

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Your remarks about Coppola ring true. The way Phoenix blows the sting-operation and panics powerlessly in the car chase sequence display that Gray’s characters are far more common, but also that he operates in the mode of film noir more so than Coppola. The pressure of the family in immigrant America under capitalism is the unifying theme, but Coppola, a modernist, always creates space for either autonomous individual resistance or individual triumph under the circumstances of community clashing (as The Godfather pt. 3 reveals, it takes a particular breed of man to achieve what Michael Corleone achieves. The mob triggers the worst kind of evil in a man capable of the greatest kind of good, a duality of a perfect monster and superhero in one man). Gray’s characters are entirely unwitting victims of their circumstances. Their choices are always masked under the veil of illusion, their successes usually aren’t of their own making, or their perceived failings are made successes and their perceived successes made failings. In Gray’s world, pretensions of agency are a wash.

In some ways, Gray’s only accidentally a genre filmmaker. Crime doesn’t figure into his films the way they do for someone like Scorsese, where the culture of crime is explored at its very essence. For Gray, the culture of crime is part of a larger network, a socioeconomic network that ties family, ostensible ‘legitimate business,’ government, and society at large together as a complex entity. His films trace the individual’s (non)role in this entire network. Why is this significant? Because in Gray’s cinema, and Mann’s cinema, there’s something larger than local relationships that’s oppressive. Although it isn’t always explicit, their cinema is always suggestive of a more systemic oppression. This is more harrowing because the crux of the problem runs so deep and through so many layers that the individual’s fate is almost always a near certainty. To echo your point, so often characters in Scorsese’s films create their own downfall. They’re pulled into crime by the allure, prestige, and glamor of the culture. It’s so intoxicating that all else in life seems plain. In other cases, as in The Departed, there is a more aggressive oppression, a socialization, a fate-deciding, but it begins with one evil self-aware operant that is in many ways a puppet master that creates his own downfall. (See the opening monologue where Frank says “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want the environment to be a product of me.” I’d say only Age of Innocence really does away altogether with Scorsese’s individualism. Perhaps his only true noir).

This is why the Mann comparison is especially apt. In fact, I would suggest that the relationship is stronger here than anywhere else. I would only quibble about the social element in Mann’s cinema, although I know you were only working from memory. I’d actually argue that Mann’s approach to crime is more global and less local than Gray’s. It’s important to remember that in Heat, there is a specific context, a locality; Heat‘s world is quintessentially urban and post-industrial. He deals with the interlocked system of corruption from top-down in the modern metropolis. It’s a situation where white-collar business executives, blue-collar workers, subjects of youth culture, immigrants, upper-middle class doctors, detectives, and their families all traverse the same paths and become implicated in a larger-scale culture of criminality and corruption. You are right Mann emphasizes the paths of his characters primarily through focusing on the nature and extent of their personal relationships, but he ends up locating a larger context by displaying the level at which those relationships extend across socioeconomic boundaries. In order to bring this closer to the ground, think about a few situations in Heat. For one, would Breeden, the ex-con, have ever been killed as McCauley’s get-a-way driver if there wasn’t a corrupt institution in place that forced him into exploited, degrading labor? He was more than just vulnerable to McCauley’s offer. His fate was all but sealed the moment he fell into the system. Criminal options didn’t cease for him when he was convicted, they only magnified as other legitimate options disappeared. Similarly, we see in Roger Van Zant’s character the arrogance and gall of corporate CEO types attempting to meddle with dangerous criminals (we also see corporate corruption and avarice in The Yards, The Insider, and even Collateral).

won3

But in the end, you’re right that there is greater room for vice and choice in Mann’s cinema than in Gray’s. Mann’s cinema is a cinema of professionals, a cinema of excellence. His protagonists possess far more agency, more ways to assert selfhood, more capacity to resist oppressive forces from the outside (e.g. Heat, Collateral, Ali), but this just means Gray is more noir; his cinema is more fatalistic and tragic. The other difference is that Mann is interested in sustained moods and intensity, but builds tension sparingly and with great subtlety. Gray evokes fear and anxiety unlike any American filmmaker I know of since Hitchcock (only Fincher comes close to him in this respect). Gray’s poetic evocation of an overwhelming sense of dread is truly a marvel.

But in spite of all this oppression, Gray is not a nihilist. It’s debatable even whether he’s a cynic. Two Lovers, for instance, suggests an almost Bressonian transcendence in its conclusion, a hard-won struggle of redemption only fitting of a Bresson or Eric Rohmer film, but it’s also an artful study in resignation. The concept of resignation traced from its most oppressive, darkest corners to its potentially most fulfilling corners. But there’s an ambiguity in it as well. It’s not clear that in this moment Phoenix’s character is fully prepared to find peace in a future that has been predetermined for him, one that will also inevitably perpetuate the same cycle for future generations.

There is perhaps one more comparison worth mentioning. Abel Ferrara’s cinema bears much resemblance to Gray’s and Mann’s, but Ferrara’s noirish dread is more moral than strictly existential. Like the modernism of Scorsese, Coppola, and touches of Mann, Ferrara emphasizes personal responsibility, but like Mann and Gray, the social is still an aggressive element in Ferrara. His individualism is very robust, but there are perhaps more similarities than differences. In the end, Gray is certainly noir, but his take on noir is very fascinating, very complex. In my eyes, he is the face of current neonoir cinema. Perhaps its finest practitioner. That’s high praise, yes, but I think James Gray is a quiet master of cinema.

I really appreciate your message. I had actually been planning on writing about Gray for some time. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this great filmmaker.

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A Comment on Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring

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Recently many commentators have noted the thematic similarities between Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s dark pop-culture tone poem Spring Breakers. Both films clearly trade in themes of materialism and vain youth. In light of the the recent discussion comparing these two films, I thought it only appropriate to reflect on how some of the considerations about self-knowledge in my Bling Ring essay might pertain to Korine’s film.

The first thing to get out of the way is to stress emphatically that Spring Breakers is not a satire. It is true the film contains many ironic juxtapositions or situations and sequences that are rather comical in their absurdity and implications, but to call it satire is to suggest that Korine wants to be criticizing or discrediting the culture he’s outrageously depicting. This simply doesn’t seem to be his intention. Korine’s sensibility has always been one of empathy. He’s interested in understanding, driven by fascination and wonder, like that of a child. It’s a kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ aesthetic philosophy. Understanding doesn’t amount to either dismissal or endorsement, but rather honesty and earnestness; which opens its themes up to various possibilities of critique and analysis.

Korine has mentioned that he’s most interested in focusing on “surfaces” in this film, but not in a judgmental way. This explains the influence of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on this film. Mann’s cinematic world of cutthroat professionalism is one sucked of all drama and emotion and submerged with a stylized  digital obsession with mood, ambience, and visual presentation, whether scenic or material. His  ultra-chic professionals are gridlocked in an oppressive socioeconomic network of crime and violence displaying a world of workaholics obsessed with form, style, execution, and perfection (the film reflects back on itself as perfectionist Mann crafts a film obsessed with its own form). Such a world is ultimately alienating, as we see glimpses of interpersonal relationships breakdown barely held together by fleeting moments of intimacy, and where emotional bonds seem deeper between enemies who share the same kinds of goals than those between romantic partners.

But what good is a film that’s all about surfaces? How can such a film ever be anymore significant than the empty surfaces it depicts? I think the significance stems from how you depict surface reality. It is from here that layers of complexity emerge. It’s through using cinematic technique that an artist is able to analyze what the surfaces mean and what they represent. There is a lot to say about Korine’s use of technique in this film, and much has been said, especially in terms of the use of anamorphic lenses, digital editing, sound-mixing, jump-cutting, scene repetition, and so on, but I will limit myself mostly to a couple of narrative elements at present.

In my Bling Ring essay, I suggest that the materialism and vanity on display is an example of an unaware, misguided youth.  In particular, I argued that the supposed ironic hyper self-awareness of our (post)modern  age is not what afflicts these teens (they simply aren’t that clever), and that the basic tools of a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism might be sufficient for reproaching their behavior. The utter obliviousness of the characters is a key element of the film. I originally identified one possible exception to the rule that might resist this kind analysis by noting the seeming self-awareness of the character Nicki as portrayed by a superb Emma Watson (based on bling-ringer Alexis Neiers). Nicki’s media exposure and attention only seems to heighten her vanity. She talks about her ambitious humanitarian goals of helping others and doing good, but her stated intentions are clearly in marked contrast with her actual depicted behavior, where her public persona is a contrivance of Hollywood-manufactured do-gooder idealism set in opposition with her self-obsessed private persona. Coppola’s device for opening up this contrast is juxtaposing interview segments with cut-aways to the teens’ reckless partying and criminal behavior.  Korine uses similar ironic devices by overlaying dialogue of phone calls from his young spring breakers to their parents with images of them doing the exact opposite of the what they describe.

This is the distinguishing feature of Korine’s film. There is a knowing self-awareness about his characters that Coppola’s characters, outside of Nicki, simply do not seem to share. For instance, the much lauded James Franco character Alien makes it a point to establish the autonomy of his choices by highlighting his total self-awareness. He declares how he’s “Done about every illegal activity under the sun,” and perhaps in one of the film’s most telling, and in many ways even, most haunting sequences, he narrates, “Some people, they wanna do the right thing – I like doing the wrong thing. Everyone’s always telling me, you gotta change. I’m about stacking change, y’all… That’s it! Money! I’m ’bout makin’ money. That’s the dream ya’ll. It’s the American dream,” as a montage of images of drugs, money, and expensive merchandise  scroll across the screen. Alien’s perverse take on the American dream gives one pause because it’s clear that his motivation isn’t one of rising out of poverty to achieve self-actualization by misguided means, but it’s to pursue commodities and merchandise relentlessly for their own sake. For Alien, money, wealth, and excess is an end in itself rather than a means. It’s clear, then, that for someone like Alien, the classical Marxist formula, “they don’t know what they are doing, but they do it anyways,” doesn’t apply, and it’s rather the formula for enlightened false consciousness that obtains, where “they know what they are doing, but they do it anyways.”

It’s interesting that in The Bling Ring, Nicki is the exception to the rule with her cynical self-awareness in an otherwise oblivious culture of crime and materialism, whereas conversely, in Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez’s character Faith (with her name’s implications of naivety ever present) is the exception, but as as an idealistically unaware character in an otherwise cynically aware culture of crime and materialism. In contrast to Alien, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), Faith believes spring break is an opportunity to break from an empty and boring existence, a glimpse at an escape to a world of possibility full of rich meaning and novel experience. This is false consciousness in its most basic form. When we first hear her describe her trip to her mother, she may seem almost ironic, but it isn’t long before we realize that her words are genuine and reflect an exercise in wish-fulfillment. She’s utterly naive and oblivious to the reality of her surroundings, and her friends even mock her for it. It is for this very reason that once she realized “what she was doing,” she wanted to put an end to her seedy nightmare. She represents the perfect example of a successful critique of ideology in coming to terms with the reality of the situation, freeing oneself of a delusion and finally rejecting the harmful conditions of a false idealism.

This highlights perhaps the most interesting contrast between the two films and how they are slight, but very unique variations on the same theme. Faith is the naive and misguided ‘Alice’ figure that finds herself turning down a dark, unexpected path, and it’s her companions and the criminal culture she finds herself in that seems self-aware. Nicki, on the other hand, is the putatively knowing and self-aware agent of wrongdoing amidst a culture of  largely unaware, misguided youth. The upshot is that Spring Breakers might seem to be the ultimately darker film. The portrait of youth it paints is far more cynical than Coppola’s, even if Coppola’s central protagonist would be right at home in the trashy spring break party culture of Korine’s film (and make no mistake, it’s Nicki’s film and not Rebecca’s). The vision of Coppola’s film suggests a culture full of naive, misguided Faith’s, with people like Nicki as a dark exception to the rule. The vision of Korine’s film suggests a much darker culture full of cynical Nicki’s, with someone like Faith as a small glimpse of light. But Korine is quick to secure a particularly grim worldview, as it becomes plain Faith is ultimately a negligible exception when in almost L’Avventura fashion, she disappears in the middle of the second act and a complete breakdown of morals haunts the remainder of the proceedings.

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Update

After a long hiatus from this blog (and film more generally), I’ve decided to start updating again. I never really updated this blog regularly to begin with, but I hope to maintain a more consistent presence on here than before. I’ve started off with a new piece on Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. The essay ended up being a little longer than I initially planned, but hopefully it’s not too dense. The film certainty cements her status as one of my top 10 working directors. I also just recently watched Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. I plan on writing up something for that soon.

– Izzy

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