It might shock and disappoint you to know this, but even though I am (sometimes) a film critic, I don’t actually watch that many movies. I consider this one of the great luxuries of writing for this particular website and one of the benefits of being both lazy and hubristic enough to believe that I know what a bad film looks like before I see it. Of course, there’s plenty that I do watch – and love – but there are a great many people out there who saw more new films than I did this year, and I’m never sure if this means that I like cinema any more or less than they do.
So, while most of the year-end summations I’ve been reading lately have noted how good a year for film 2007 has been, I can’t in good faith disagree with them. Of course, from what I can tell, this statement is true (particularly in comparison to last year), and with films like No Country for Old Men, Persepolis, Killer of Sheep, 4 Months, 2 Weeks and 3 Days, and Offside, it’s hard to find fault with a transnational cinematic landscape that is so vibrant and so variously engaging. But such perceptions are always a bit hazy, especially when made in such proximity to the release of these films. Awards and year-end accolades notwithstanding, there’s no quotient for greatness that definitively ranks Joel and Ethan over Satrapi and Paronnaud, and similarly there’s no index that weighs the invigorating merits of Syndromes and a Century against the numbing failures of Spider-man 3. Whatever their polarities of aesthetic approach or quality, the one does not counterbalance the other, and sadly the excitement prompted by the former does not help me forget the boredom prompted by the latter.
Summing up a year’s worth of cinematic ups and downs – Harry Potter sequels and rip-offs, semi-relevant political dramas made by big-name stars, dithering cross-promotional tween-candy, and the occasional festival highlight – is just too dull a task, even though I am no less convinced of my own fantastic taste than any other critic. We live in an age of relentless imagemaking, and there’s just too much to see and consume and ponder and tally up for someone as lazy as me to bother making lists. So, rather than muster a defense of Transformers subtle enough to soften your already hardened dislike, or extol once again the abilities that you (and I) never knew Josh Brolin had, I thought I’d take this space to mention a few things that I saw this year that you, in all likelihood, didn’t. Given that you probably saw all the same good and bad films that I saw this year – and more – I thought this might be a better use of both your time and mine.
Just as Jafar Panahi’s Offside takes a ground-level view of soccer’s place in Iranian society, making the stadium the locus of a range of arguments about national and sexual identity, the German-Czech filmmaker and installation artist Harun Farocki uses it as a way of investigating the expansive reach and deep penetration of the media into our lives. I happened to be in Oslo while Farocki was showing work under the rather titillating title “Football” at the national contemporary arts museum, Museet for samtidkunst. This show featured as its centerpiece Farocki’s new installation piece, “Deep Play,” a thorough techno-visual examination of the 2006 World Cup Final. In the large, dark hall of the former bank in which the museum is housed, with green astro-turf carpeting and some cushions on the floor, twelve flat-screen TV’s presented the France-Italy match in a variety of television formats: the live broadcast of the match, the voice of the German director of this broadcast selecting shots from different cameras, graphs and statistics of the game-play, images from the various surveillance cameras around the stadium, images from outside of the stadium, and, perhaps most interesting, a variety of 2D and 3D animations of all of the movements of the match, from maps of the ball’s and players’ movements around the field to videogame-style animations of the players and their actions. What results is an overwhelming, totalizing representation of an event that was watched by some one billion television-viewers worldwide, here viewed from a strange panoptical command-center in which every angle, every facet, every feed is consumed, monitored, and analyzed by computers. It presents a great tide of televisual information which is at first empowering, then terrifying—perhaps in precisely the same way as the glut of new cinema and visual culture on offer to one each year might seem at first fully accessible, then oceanic in its incommensurability.
Farocki has been ruminating upon the ways we view filmed images since at least his 1969 film, Inextinguishable Fire, which concerns the production of napalm in the United States, its application in Viet Nam, and the very implications of making a film about same. (This film was itself the subject of a Farocki-like simulation in Jill Godmilow’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake, What Farocki Taught.) But lately his work has also been concerned with the way such images imagine us (often without our knowing it) and the ways in which we increasingly let machines to do our looking for us. So, just as “Deep Play” juxtaposes the images that are filmed for our viewing with those that result from a recreation or simulation of these images, Farocki’s Eye/Machine trilogy (2001-2003) juxtaposes various forms of visual-simulation technology: the flight simulators and “smart-bomb” camera images of the military industrial complex and the various mechanized visual devices used in factories, medical surgery, surveillance and other aspects of the civilian domain. Pointedly, Farocki suggests that all such technologies are driven by the needs of war, how it is fought and how it is represented to us. This, in turn, suggests a great deal about how the experience and representation of both war and everyday life are mediated for us, and how more and more we defer the responsibility of seeing – and fighting, and working, and producing – onto computers.
None of this experience of visual technology is particularly new to 2007, of course, and not all of it is inherently or irretrievably insidious (as the images of my newborn niece – in blurry ultrasound, on her photoblog, and on a neurotic-parent-friendly cribcam – attest with indescribable satisfaction). These new technologies undoubtedly expand possibilities, but it’s worth noting that there are often as many doors closed as opened—something that David Lynch notes in the special features of his self-released DVD of Inland Empire when he warns of the sadness of this troubled world in which movies are watched, not with the massive visceral impact of the big screen, but on computers and “fucking telephones.”
I watched exactly one film on my fucking telephone this year, and the experience was so uncomfortable and annoying (even in comparison to the soul-crushing experience of riding the New York City subway without entertainment) that I doubt I’ll do it again. But I had very little choice: the film in question was one of the BBC documentaries of Adam Curtis, whose films (The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, and this year’s The Trap) remain unavailable in the United States for what might be considered obvious reasons. Rigorously dismantling widespread assumptions about selfhood, freedom, democracy, consumer capitalism, and mass psychology in the West, Curtis’ series of films would seem to have little place in the landscape of American television, and their foothold in British television is probably increasingly narrow as well. Thus, internet-driven content might create new possibilities for finding films, old and new, long unavailable to us, even as the burgeoning culture industry tries harder and more desperately to feed us images that are perhaps less enlightening (on big screens, too, David).
Aired on the BBC in March and, like all of his films, easily available online, Curtis’ latest set of films, The Trap (or, What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom), sets out a history of the notion of personal and political freedom as it has evolved since the Cold War. In its meticulous dissection of our contemporary notion of freedom as one based entirely on empty self-interest, the film looks at the connections between John Nash’s work with the Rand Corporation in the 1950s, R.D. Laing’s destabilizing psychiatric work in the 1960s, and free market capitalism’s takeover of “big government”’;s role in satisfying the needs of Western society’s citizens. Curtis finds the foundation for this notion in Friedrich von Hayek’s ideas of a “self-directing automatic system” – a system based on striving for personal gain that will nonetheless inadvertently benefit all of society – and mathematics-based sociological ideas like Game Theory, and he locates its often disastrous effects in the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the collapse of psychiatric institutionalism in the 1970s and the epidemic neurosis and paranoia that resulted, and the increasing popularity of “MBA presidencies,” the resulting class disparities and public-service problems in the U.S. and U.K., and the consequent economic collapses in the “liberations” of Russia and Iraq.
The sheer depth and breadth of Curtis’ work is astonishing enough, but what is most interesting is that on the surface his format conforms totally to the usual fast-cutting, high-gloss, hyperkinetic medium of the contemporary television documentary. But in its relentless questioning, vigorous connection-drawing, and overwhelming detail, Curtis’ editing strategies become something far more revolutionary: a thoroughgoing interrogation of the presuppositions and tenets at the root of modern society, employing television itself, the very medium still used to propagate such beliefs. In this way, one can draw a straight line from Curtis to British left-wing thinkers from the field of cultural studies (like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, the latter interviewed in The Trap) and to the early work of Peter Watkins, who also exploited and upended the BBC’s supposed expository clarity and grandfatherly educational intentions in his meticulously self-questioning meta-documentaries. I’m not sure that Watkins would have much time for Adam Curtis’ work today, but I do think that Curtis has much in common with Farocki. On the cover of the program for Farocki’s “Football” show (wittily printed as on the pink newspaper stock of a European sports daily), he is quoted as advising that “One need not look for new, as yet unseen images, but one must work with existing ones in such a way that they become new.” This is to say, for both Curtis and Farocki (and probably for the Coens, Apichatpong, Panahi, and Parannoud and Satrapi, as well) that it?s not important enough to simply make images, but also to remake them, to look and look again at those images that we are constantly fed, and to find new meanings and new uses for them.
As unlikely as it seems, this idea of finding new uses for images reminds me of Ingmar Bergman, who died this year, and who noted in Jörn Donner’s 1998 interview film that he above all wanted his films to be useful, almost as household commodities, to be consumed and put to use in daily life. Reading Bergman’s emotionally naked, intermittently hilarious autobiography, The Magic Lantern, one gets the impression that the sometimes insufferable, often thoroughly self-interested director most wanted these films to be useful to himself, but I see Bergman’s point. His sixty-odd films (to say nothing of his novels and theatrical work) form their own indigestible mass of images, but it’s a remarkably consistent body of work, often circling and revisiting the same themes and questions and characters and problems that had been dealt with decades earlier. Intense and melodramatic as they may be, his films nonetheless seem to me to be applicable guides to an entire emotional landscape, revealing whole swamps of deceit and delusion, mountains of mania and passion, archipelagos of desire and mystery, and oceans of calm, quiet reflection. To many, they are probably just tired, arthouse clichés, the dour, blinkered musings of a small corner of Northern Europe; but to me, they’re still breathtakingly idiosyncratic, practically a whole genre of horror movies, soap operas, and musicals unto themselves, made no less useful or universal by their obvious prickliness and provinciality.
Perhaps in this sense, though the perpetual production of images doubtlessly yields many bad films, there is nonetheless something useful for somebody in each new visual product. I couldn’t help but think, watching the interminable end credits for The Golden Compass (a sequence at least three times as long as any scene in the film itself), that no matter how badly the film fails on almost every level of writing, editing, acting, direction, music, mise-en-scene, and special effects, at least it put food in the mouths of a small army of people. The culture industry being what it is – a diaspora of artisans, computer geeks, office-workers, year-end listmakers, and other hangers-on – perhaps the unstoppable flow of visual production is not something to be begrudged, as such films are at least useful as means of employment, if not as fantastical family-friendly entertainment.
But that doesn’t mean that we have to watch them all. There are much more useful things to do with our time.