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On Kramer

Robert Kramer directed several acclaimed fiction/documentary-hybrid films throughout his career, including the well-known Milestones (1975) and Ice (1970). But his much later Route One / USA (1989) is my (new) favorite, a film made after about ten years spent in France. Ray Carney writes that Kramer has always been a “great cinematic historian of American life,” but I think that spending time away from the U.S. may have allowed him a more even-handed perspective on these lives. Indeed, Route One exhibits a Tocquevillian sensitivity to the habits and mores of Americans down the Eastern seaboard, and by depicting religious, conservative Americans for the first time, it accomplishes more than his earlier films. In a sequence at a New England sardine factory, we see a woman cutting fish in half. Off-screen, Kramer asks, “How long have you worked here?” Her answer: “Probably seventeen years.” Kramer cuts the interview there.

There are too many memorable sequences to mention, but highlights include an interview with a Christian dry cleaner who inflates clothing in order to more efficiently remove wrinkles; a woman’s fortieth birthday party; and a man who insists on a particularly aggressive pronunciation of Thoreau (THOROUGH!). Poetics both structure the film and anchor its narrative: the journey begins with Kramer’s companion Doc reading Whitman in the forest. In the sequence that takes place in Boston, there seems to be a wink toward Robert Lowell, as well. Here is the first half of his For the Union Dead:

“Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now.  Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back.  I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile.  One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common.  Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

The poem continues here. I have to believe that this isn’t just a coincidence; each shot above follows directly from the one before it. And though we don’t see yellow steam-shovels on screen, we see the concrete and dirt that they are moving directly. We see the tingling Statehouse, an archaeologist explains what the Boston Common used to look like. This is history written on light.

The Politics of Participation

Yard Work is Hard Work by Jodie Mack (2008)

The fifty-seventh Flaherty Film Seminar (“Sonic Truth”) just wrapped up in Hamilton, New York. This year the programmer was Dan Streible, who teaches at NYU. Dan is the founder of The Orphan Film Symposium and his selections included fantastic ‘amateur’ work like Multiple Sidosis, big-budget TV documentaries produced by Sam Pollard, and a range of exceptional work from Tan Pin Pin, Caroline Martel, Les Blank, Frank Scheffer, Lillian Schwartz, Laura Kissel, and others. Now that I’ve had some time to decompress after the hectic week, I think that Dan’s focus on participatory cinema was a particular strength of his program; both Melinda Stone and Jodie Mack asked the audience to generate sound effects and sing in the theater while other films featured live musical accompaniment. Some members of the audience were easily persuaded to participate – they shouted out the names of images onscreen and were rewarded with prizes – while others remained more restrained. It feels strange to shout in a darkened theater, especially when it is filled with hardcore cinephiles, but I think Dan’s embrace of this kind of sonic truth is worth closer examination.

Mulitple Sidosis by Sid Laverents (1970)

The power behind silence in the theater reveals a lot about the public space of the cinema. At an ‘important’ MoMA screening, for example, I’d never expect to hear anyone speak loudly or interrupt the diegetic soundscape with their own conversation. The audience at MoMA is usually rich, well educated, and prone to cinematic subservience. At most mainstream multiplexes, brief opening sequences expressly forbid the sounds of audience members (both electronic and vocal). I’ve even seen one sequence that featured images from The Notebook set to nonsensical dialogue. It closed with a warning: don’t let your conversations replace those onscreen. However, I’ve been at film festivals where people booed or walked out noisily: during Robinson in Ruins at NYFF last year, an older man yelled out “This doesn’t make any sense!” Someone quickly shot back a reply: “Philistine!” I’ve also seen mainstream films in predominantly African-American multiplexes where audience participation was the norm: many members of the audience shouted at the characters onscreen, talked to each other, and effectively expanded the sonic range of the film. When the audience breaks the rule of silence in a theater, the public space they occupy becomes more democratic. But it also becomes more chaotic.

Marvin Gaye Singing the National Anthem, edited by Sam Pollard

During Jane Weiner’s On Being There with Richard Leacock, “Ricky” tells the camera that his medium isn’t very good at conveying information, but that it can transmit feelings effectively. As an aspiring political scientist interested in film’s political affect, this comment made me think about where the feeling actually occurs – is it hidden in a film, waiting to be found, or is it in the public space of the exhibition? If documentary film is not able to impart the information necessary to generate political change, it must create a feeling of political efficacy, emotion mixed with agency. The sonic norm of audience silence could limit that potential.

Against Franzen

lame NYT art

NYT 'art'

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

– Jonathan Franzen in the New York Times

I should preface this entry by revealing my prejudice: I deplore Franzen’s writing. The Corrections is so smarmy it makes my teeth hurt; Franzen’s recollection of David Foster Wallace’s death in The New Yorker is smug and strangely cruel. I didn’t bother with Freedom. But Franzen gave the Commencement speech at Kenyon this year, just six years after his deceased friend DFW gave his own, and so Franzen was forced upon my screen again (as a result of the New York Times’ insane populist recommendation sidebar). When you read the speech, you might hear echoes of DFW in the first several paragraphs – its conversational tone albeit big words, its “Let me toss out the idea,” “Let me suggest…” But that’s where the similarity ends. While Wallace’s speech builds to an unlikely anecdote about forcing yourself to show empathy in “a consumer-hell-type situation” – one of the “whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches,” Franzen closes with bird-watching, just the sort of activity that commencement speeches typically try to wring easy truths from. The man loves birds and the environment, sure, but he doesn’t give us any tools for loving each other or working together. Franzen, as the quote that begins this post suggests, believes that we have some magic individuality inside, some good old self, that we simply disguise with all our likes. The reality, as DFW realized, is that such a self is only worth loving when we attend to it, with attention, perception, and discipline. Franzen writes:

I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

David Foster Wallace, I think, would have rejected the very choice. The self is never ‘straight-up,’ and when ‘love’ for something greater fixes the self, I’d call it fascism. For Wallace, “the important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Paradoxically, in order to love, the commitment is made to yourself and not to some other.  You don’t go from ‘like’ to ‘love’ by picking a pretty bird to obsess over, but by constantly articulating, again and again, why you choose to care. Franzen doesn’t admit our responsibility – he wants us to ‘go for what hurts,’ and let the object that resists us shake things up. But that choice is just a reckless kind of consumption. It is riding a bike without a helmet and praising the thrill. Franzen again:

Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

Here Franzen reveals himself as the ultimate ‘liker,’ a defender of compassionate consumption with his own focus on the family. Identifying with the particular leads all too easily to forsaking the universal; it lets us off the hook with privatized good feelings. While I agree that trying to love all humanity at the same time easily becomes a self-indulgent trip, the kind of love with political implications is not about surrender. The Civil Rights Movement was not about loving a specific person, but attending to the moral and spiritual well-being of a nation of individuals. If we care about improving who we really are, not just revealing it, we need to work hard and work together. Those who would only ‘like’ such ends are non-participants, but those who would ‘love’ on Franzen’s terms are, ironically, too self-involved to care.

Wallace closes his argument about the necessity of disciplined attention with a disclaimer: “I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away.” Franzen, on the other hand, abounds with rhetorical niceties as he gives us bird-watching and the power of love. Which do we need more?

Naked Lunch

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, Manet (1863)

From Richard Boothby’s Sex on the Couch (2005):

The diminished importance of the public realm and the newfound taste for the intimate are directly reflected in the arts of modernity. The privilege accorded by the ancients to architecture and sculpture, for example, gives way to the modern triumph of oil painting. Of all the fine arts, painting most perfectly fits the bill for the emerging modern celebration of private life. Discrete and portable, paintings offer themselves as convenient decorations for private residences and are eminently suitable as commodities for a culture driven by personal acquisitiveness. Moreover, after the Renaissance, the characteristic themes of painting increasingly shift from treatment of religious and mythic subjects to depiction of details from everyday private life: still lifes, nudes, and domestic scenes. It is no accident that the first self-portrait, that of Albrecht Dürer in 1504, appears precisely at the dawn of the modern age. Oil painting becomes the mirror in which modern appreciation of the intimate sees itself reflected.
p. 163


Screencap from, May 24th, 10AM. Probably not the best decision.

New Urbanism

From an excellent comment at Peter Moskos’s blog:

I recently visited the Lower East Side in New York, the same LES where I was born, where my grandma lived for over fifty years, and where I worked as a cop for seven years in the 1980s. I felt like I’d stepped into an alternate universe. The Lower East Side that I knew back then was, to put it plainly, a drug-infested hellhole.

At the first “feeding time” (the early morning hours when junkies venture out to get their first fix of the day), the streets looked like an open-air market. Drugs were openly bought and sold, and hundreds of people congregated on the four corners of Avenue B and 2nd street. The neighborhood was overwhelmingly Hispanic — the only time you saw a white person down there was if they were on their way to cop or leaving after copping.

The city’s leaders announced that they’d had enough of the lawlessness and crime of the area, and to clean up the neighborhood, the NYPD started Operation Pressure Point in early 1984. The LES was flooded with cops who were given carte blanche to kick-ass first, take names later. I was one of those officers.

Maybe I was just young and naive, but I truly believed that we were cleaning up the neighborhood for the benefit of the people who lived there, people like my grandma, people who were just trying to get by and live a decent life among so much squalor. Because despite the crime, junkies, and dealers on every corner, there was still life on those streets. There were still the corner bodegas, the panaderias with their delicious cafe con leche, the salsa music coming from open windows.

Now those bodegas and panaderias are mostly gone, replaced with organic wine bars and trendy art galleries. As it turned out, real estate developers had had their eye on the area long before we moved in to clean it up, buying up properties at bargain basement prices and waiting for the moment when the neighborhood became safe enough to be profitable. Millions upon millions of dollars were made in the following years. The city had no intention of cleaning up the neighborhood for the decent people who lived there — there was too much money to be made by forcing out the poor and working class residents and instead turning those buildings into luxury apartments renting for $3,500 a month. Rent control and rent stabilization did exist, but not nearly enough to keep the neighborhood intact.

The risks we took and the sacrifices we made back then were not to benefit the community I knew — a community that no longer really exists — they were to make money for the city and for the developers. It’s hard not to feel a bit resentful of that on some level. And to me personally, it’s upsetting to see that the neighborhood and culture I knew has more or less disappeared.

– Eddie Nadal

On Burnett

Twenty-three minutes into Killer of Sheep, a group of black children assemble the foundations of a house out of lumber in a junkyard. One child winds a spinning top, and non-diegetic music swells.  Paul Robeson sings “The House I Live In:”

What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see?
A certain word, ‘democracy?’
What is America to me?
The house I live in,
A plot of earth, a street,
The grocer and the butcher,
And the people that I meet;
The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That’s America to me.

As the song builds, the children sit atop a wall throwing rocks. Then Burnett cuts abruptly to a slaughterhouse, and the music is replaced with the sound of meat hooks sliding into place.  Sheep crowd into a corral and gradually the voice of Robeson returns, singing “all my friends are there…” Through that juxtaposition, Killer of Sheep reveals the tenuousness of democratic citizenship. The children face real hostility, poverty, and violence under the soothing strains of an imagined American democracy. But unlike the sheep, children are not powerless: at the beginning of the film, a character berates his son for not fighting to defend his little brother; later, kids throw rocks at a passing train. Indeed, Killer of Sheep contains a cast of characters that cannot be pigeonholed into narrative categories or limited expectations of agency. While the violence of poverty in Watts is omnipresent, Burnett shows how individuals renegotiate their material circumstances through music, work, theft, and love. There is no universal way to be American, nor should there be.

In an entry for his “Great Movies” series published in 2007, the well-known film critic (and respected member of the mainstream cinematic public sphere) Roger Ebert describes the film as observational, documenting the “quiet nobility of lives lived with values but without opportunities.”  But I want to suggest that in Charles Burnett’s first feature, the idea of ‘opportunities’ is challenged. Ostensibly, the film depicts the day-to-day life of Stan, a black man who works in a slaughterhouse.  Stan could be understood as a protagonist: he is likeable, hardworking, and resists his friends who want to involve him in illicit activities.  In one scene, Stan holds a cup of coffee to his cheek.  He explains that the warm feeling from the coffee reminds him of a partner’s face before making love.  But his friend remarks, “I don’t go for women that got malaria.”  Stan’s approach to life seems to be a sensible one, firmly rooted in the American tradition of the Protestant work ethic. He refuses a job offer at a liquor store because such stores are often robbed, he is a loving parent, he does not consider himself poor because he donates to the Salvation Army, and he seems to be constantly at work, either fixing the kitchen sink, picking up a new motor, fixing a car, or killing sheep at the slaughterhouse. But Burnett is not interested in showing his audience that Stan’s way is the right way to be a black American. Indeed, the sheep that Burnett kills are repeatedly linked to children through jarring cuts; after Stan and his wife share a tender dance in their living room, we see a room full of sheep oblivious to their fate.

Economic opportunities do not have inherent dignity. Burnett describes in an interview his intentions while making the film: “It’s about how Stan, the main character, loses his sensitivity and still tires to maintain a certain kind of dignity…I wanted to show what price it takes to survive.  How you survive is a personal choice” (Kapsis 2011, 19). Stan is not delivered into some perfect liberal equality by his job: by the end of the film, he continues to kill sheep in the slaughterhouse. However, the diegetic sounds of machines and sheep are cut entirely, replaced with Dinah Washington singing “this bitter earth / may not be so bitter after all.” While this may be a hopeful gesture, it is an artificial musical imposition: if Stan hears it, it is only in his head. Burnett suggests that black Americans can attain personal dignity through the struggle against systemic inequality, but also that economic equality does not necessarily result in dignity. Stan’s criminal friends actually appear much more confident and powerful than he does: their oppositional stance against society and willingness to break the law to attain what they need is a continuous, direct challenge to Stan’s philosophy. But the film does not offer a definitive point of view: as a work of cinematic modernism, it engages the difficulties of both psychological approaches to citizenship.

Black women are not passive, gentle matriarchs in Killer of Sheep: they cannot be typecast either.  Early in the film, two men solicit Stan’s help in avenging a murder.  They explain that “an animal has his teeth, a man has his fists” and thus they should be able to fight for their idea of justice.  But Stan’s wife responds: “You talk about ‘be a man, stand up;’ don’t you know it’s more to it than just with your fists? The scars on your mug? You talk about an animal, and what – now, you think you’re still in the bush some-damn-where? You here, you use your brain, that’s what you use.” Care and thoughtfulness are articulated as viable alternatives to violence.  At the same time, when Stan goes to buy a motor for an automobile, he encounters an injured man who has apparently worn out his welcome at the household where the motor is for sale, and the man’s sister-in-law confronts him.  He insults her: “you just an all-day sucker-bitch.” Immediately, she kicks him in his wound, silencing him. The man who owns the motor does not intervene. Black women in Killer of Sheep have varied habits, different ways to express their agency and opinion. They are not objects of male affection, but co-creators of community. When a young boy insults two girls walking down the street, they immediately respond in unison, twisting his words: “Your father!”

Throughout the film, the often-antagonistic activities of children might represent different modes of democratic citizenship. Although the children rarely figure directly into Stan’s quasi-narrative, they are ever-present, playing jump rope, fighting, and exploring the neighborhood.  I have already mentioned the construction of a rudimentary log cabin. Indeed, children seem to automatically embody certain democratic habits, including social organization.  During an early junkyard fight, stones are thrown until a boy is injured, and an older child says to the others to stop: “Can’t you see the man is hurt?” But the children sometimes act indiscriminately; when a young girl hangs up her garments on a clothesline, both black and white boys throw stones at her—the audience sees only her sad, ambivalent reaction. Stan’s daughter spends much of the early part of the film in a cartoonish dog mask: her own private sphere. Burnett’s willingness to visually link children to the sheep in the slaughterhouse does not send a clear message: in one scene, a newly pregnant woman mimes the shape of her future abdomen, and the shot dissolves into a sheep being raised on a hook. So are children victims, doomed by their material circumstances and the inadequacy of opportunity? Or does the playful, performative nature of their pre-democratic habits suggest a different citizenship, one that existing institutions are designed to erase?

Charles Burnett withholds his answers; he intends his films to be received by deliberative audiences with their own. In an interview about Killer of Sheep, he noted: “It’s not a film that entertains. It’s more sociological. It’s meant to provoke a discussion” (Kapsis 2011, 21).  The lack of narrative resolution in the film is not an oblique or pretentious gesture; it is precisely Burnett’s point. Killer of Sheep reveals the hollowness of mainstream depictions of poverty: Watts is a neighborhood inhabited by citizens whose habits suggest democracy, even when they are illicit. The decision to assert dignity as an African-American—either as a mother who refuses to be manipulated, as a man who wants to avenge an unjust murder, or as a father who works a pitiless, harrowing job—is the decision to create democratic opportunity in a nation that offers none.  There are no sheep in Watts.


Official Image; belongs to Mars Corp

This post won’t be about politics.

M&M’s are a pretty decent candy. I like them once in a while, especially the coconut, but I’ve found that eating a whole bag is pretty tough; I get tired of the same flavor for that long. So I propose a new bag:

M & Mix

The idea would be a bag of M&M’s that contains milk chocolate, peanut, peanut butter, coconut, and pretzel candies. Maybe more, and maybe not coconut. You couldn’t really tell what kind of M&M you’d draw, though the pretzel and peanut candies tend to bulge a bit more. Not recommended for people allergic to nuts, but then, neither are plain milk chocolate M&M’s. Anyway you mix it, this could be the bag of candy to beat.

On Philosophy

Magritte - Philosopher's Lamp

“Conscious thinking, especially that of the philosopher, is the least vigorous and therefore also the relatively mildest and calmest form of thinking; and thus precisely philosophers are most apt to be led astray about the nature of knowledge.” – Nietzsche, The Gay Science, no. 333

“Freud remained deeply suspicious of philosophers and their speculations. Fond of repeating his conviction that psychoanalysis has little to learn from philosophy, he more than once compared philosophical systems to the delusions of paranoiacs and suggested that the primary impact of psychoanalysis on philosophy might consist in affording new insight into the personal quirks that motivate philosophical theory-building. The most common error of philosophers, he thought, is their restriction of the sphere of the mental life to conscious activity. But equally questionable is their tendency to project for themselves a seamless account of reality, their penchant for ‘clinging to the illusion of being able to present a picture of the universe that is without gaps and is coherent’ (SE, 22:160). Among Freud’s favorite quotations was Heine’s derisive caricature of the philosopher: ‘With his nightcaps and the tatters of his dressing gown he patches up the gaps in the structure of the universe’ (SE, 22:161).”

-Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher p. 283