Unlisted Signals
All text by Peter Bardazzi unless otherwise noted
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Western Revenge

Part 1

What I really found interesting about Kill Bill is the way three concepts were hotwired together, skill, ethnicity and revenge. And how this comes to life visually through the use of cultural stereotypes. 

It is very clear that skill is tied to ethnicity in this film.  The more Asian you are, in this case Japanese, the more skillful and deadly you are at swordplay. A good example of this is Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii.  A lot of time is spent graphically portraying her “mixed” ethnic background, but ultimately we see how she feeds off the Asian stereotype as envisioned by Quentin Tarantino. Her race authenticates her skill as being superior in the martial arts. Our attention is overtly drawn to this by way of contrast, when in the mist of bloody battle with the Bride, (Uma Thurman), she says "Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with Samurai swords".  But in the end according to Tarantino’s vision, it’s the sexy white girl that wins.  It’s her western revenge and rage that trumps Asian skill.

Yes, the sexy white girl kills Asian women, Asian men, black women, white women and a few white males to satisfy her vengeance (and the audience’s).  It’s important to remember the Bride’s vengeful rage comes from the fact that her dream of being mother and having a home is violently taken from her by Bill and his assassins.   At the beginning of the story she is willing to trade in her powerful warrior skills and give into masculine needs and a family. But things go very wrong and throughout the bloody process of revenge we see that race authenticates your skill as being superior in the martial arts. But we also see that revenge can authenticate your race and make your particular skills superior to all others.

I think the mixing metaphors and stereotypes takes place only with the metamorphosis of the Bride.  She starts from the role of top assassin (we don’t see that) to her trading in her masculine power traits, skills, and violence, for the role of domesticated married woman and with a family. She will kill anyone who threatens this, or tries to take it away and that’s exactly what happens.

In the end, its more important for the Bride to overcome and kill powerful female figures than it is to actually kill bill.  Everybody (especially Lucy Liu) has to play to a racial stereotype that gets shattered in the end by western revenge for the story to be successful in Tarantino world.

Peter Bardazzi

Copyright © Peter Bardazzi 2003

 

 

 

 

 

“Why are vampire movies always big in America”

Part 1

Answer: Well I think it is a very sexual thing - drinking someone’s blood.  But in terms of the horror/vampires genre you have to start by analyzing them as being the "other" just like Aliens was in the 80s film, other than us.  Remember vampire movies started very early in the entire horror genre.  Their sources were often portrayed as the dark barbarians of Eastern Europe from specific places like Transylvania.  They were seen as ungodly and categorized by Western Europe and America, as the  “other” to be feared. 

They also have the power of conversion, which resonates at the core of American culture.  In fashion, politics, religion, consumerism, entertainment we all want to be part of something larger and more powerful than we are.  The actual conversion, this act of intense initiation is satisfying to the viewer because it is both sexual and violent.  They insert their fangs into you and you become part of a greater evil. 

Frankenstein is different, because he a monster created by science on the screen with roots in western literature.  Still he is a monsters but with less cinematic staying power than vampires and zombies because he is missing a sexual component.  Even though he has faded, he may still have links to criminal robots like in the ones in Blade Runner.  They were synthetic and Frankenstein was made from human parts. 

I think Frankenstein was sort of a mirror or ourselves, and just combine him with the concept  “sometimes we are our own worst enemies” and you have something interesting.  But still they are not as interesting as vampires.  

On the other hand there seem to be plenty of zombie movies today though they are not as sophisticated as vampires.  The American viewer has a hard time dealing with zombies.  It is its edginess that directors think will sell the movie but what I think they are selling is the Frankenstein nature dressed as a zombie.  The modern zombie does not just appear, we create them and then they come back to punish us.  In the beginning there were just random zombies from an unknown origin with no reason to exist.  Then science steps into the later movies and we get science fiction mixed with horror.  There was even an attempt to remove sex as the normal reproductive process in  “ Village of the dammed”.

But in the end vampires are still kind of cool.  They can even be sad and loving like Gary  Oldman in  Coppola’s Dracula, a  sort of good guy just like the fallen angel Satan before he went bad. 

Copyright © Peter Bardazzi 2008


No Country fo Old Men, There will be Blood
Justice, Violence and the Oscars

 

I have some interesting ideas about two or three potential nominations, No Country for Old Men, There will be Blood, and their relationship to each other and the wider culture. There are some other points I have been
thinking about including the concept of the hero as exemplified in The Bourne Ultimatum, violence and justice, and TV’s influence on film etc. I will list below shortened versions of some of these ideas and the films
they point to (mostly No Country). They are in no particular order.

1.This is not a world of reason anymore where we could get rid of violence. Violence and rationality are married and compatible. This is the logic of geopolitical institutions and the way they behave in international relations. In even the most violent global actions there is rationality. What is most dangerous in violence is it's rationality. That’s what makes these two films so reflective of our times.

2. No Country for Old Men, and There will Be Blood have main characters that are administrators of uncompromising and violent justice that resonates well within the audience. Their justice is gruesome and carried
out in a grisly fashion abiding by its own laws. In Chigurh’s case his law is chance skewed by fate. Anton Chigurh and Daniel Plainview are not portrayed as traditional villains by performing meaningless acts of violence but people who abide by rules to enforce their justice similar to that of heroes. These films go beyond the concept of the hero and the villain including Sweeny Todd.

3. There is a parallelism between the uncompromising and violent justice acted out by these characters and those violent justices acted out within our society. Watching the conflict between justice and violence in our
culture makes most viewers feel awkward. But it is exposing a breakdown in our society when we are given absolute power to enforce our idea of justice. Plainview and Chigurh kill their victims because their victims fall inside a category of dishonesty and corruption. And those killed are just casualties in getting their justice fulfilled. There is an appearance of massive and mindless killing but it is the result of people who are given absolute power to enforce their laws and justice onto “others” like that done by America in Iraq and Afghanistan.

4. There are no pictorial mysteries in these two films that operate on the most basic level of being. You make a mistake in intellectualizing these films especially with the endings; they are simply isolated logical scenes
of a much larger picture where things are spinning out of control violently. In a sense we are revisiting the major philosophical position of Nietzsche that “god is dead”. But in this case god is being defeated
and retreating. Now the theater of violence takes on a different meaning. Ultimately these films break away from the Judeo-Christian influence on cinema in an interesting way. Usually the corrupt and criminal are
punished and the virtuous and courageous are rewarded. In these films, there are no heroes, god is vanquished and evil is expanding in the void. Again, violence itself is terrible but what is most dangerous in violence
is when come out of the form of the rationality.

5.These films have literary like endings, which are alien to most moviegoers. With No Country, the movie passes the story to the audience. It is reinforced with Sheriff Bell looking straight into the camera describing a dream as if he is directly engaging the audience. The wall between film, screen and viewer is broken. It feels uncomfortable as Sheriff Bell passes the responsibility of the film to you. The darkness of his dream is given to the audience and now the viewer is left to question their own darkness.

 

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Reality is here but existence is elsewhere: Pan’s Labyrinth

Reality is here and existence is elsewhere is at the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth. The idea our of existence being elsewhere in real and tangible dreams form comes from Andre Breton, the French surrealist theorist who was very close to the Surrealist filmmakers including Luis Buñuel. In 1946 Buñuel moved to Mexico to escape Spain's fascist regime and goes on to make a film about children who can’t escape, Los Olvidados. In Pan’s Labyrinth Ofelia escapes from the horrors of the same fascism through myth and dream.  A film made sixty years later.

The great god pan is dead, turned into the devil by civilization, the police state and a consumer society.  But Pan is reborn again in Guillermo del Toro Guillermo film and his fire and blood are back as guide to Ofelia to her “elsewhere” beyond death. In surrealist films and art it is the mixing of distinct states of reality with dreams that has the power to place the viewer their “elsewhere”. Also in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men there is  an escape to their “elsewhere” which is called the  “human experiment” from their dying civilization (their reality). This is clearly a surrealist influence and technique that could be traced to Bunuels films like Belle de jour, and The Exterminating Angel. Besides Buñuel, there were other surrealists and intellectuals that arrived in Mexico and left their artistic mark including Leonora Carrington, (child erotic art) Breton, Meret Oppenheim, and Remedios Varo.  Leonora Carrington did a painting called Laberinto in Mexico City.

 

 

 

 

Babel and the “Exquisite Corpse”

Babel is structured like the celebrated Surrealist game, the Exquisite Corpse more than one might think. In the paper version, unrelated images are connected to form a bizarre and unique final image.  What is important in the game is that the images and their connecting process are kept concealed from you the viewer until the end.  There are some other surrealist techniques used in this film including a photograph of the father with the rifle and its adolescent eroticism. The Japanese Chieko exposing herself erotically is right out of a Leonor Fini painting.  She was also was close to Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo who were all admired by Breton and Bunuel.  These paintings are readily seen in Mexico City.

Copyright © Peter Bardazzi 2007

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Panoptic Visions


"King in Paris"  image by peter bardazzi

Surviving Celebrity Scandal, Porn and Video Surveillance.

 

Panoptic Culture: We want to see everything that is visible all at once.  We are our own big brother and surveillance system with video recording as a means of control.  Everyone is watching and being watched and mostly waiting for someone to screw up.  There is an obsession with video recording (YouTube) in our country, which is comparable to our obsession with reality in TV. The public is the sniffing hound, and because we are hound dogs we keep each other in line, becoming hyper aware when something "wrong" happens.

Caught on video.
The culture now exists in our TV sets and on computer screens and not with the people.  This culture defines us and has been modified to work around computer media and TV. Paris Hilton’s celebrity career was built on bad porn and interestingly this has outlived her bad film-acting career. She played the celebrity porn card for the audience that needs to be told who they are. Scandal is the core to her empty career.

Caught on video: Rodney King
What makes the Rodney King video culturally important is that it’s the first people’s video with massive distribution under a new dynamic.  To be sure there has always been massive a distribution of images with television and film. The majority produced by the news media, filmmakers, and surveillance. The whole idea up to the Rodney King episode was that you are being watched by this watchman who makes you feel like you were being watched. That’s control. Now everything has turned around and the prisoner can watch the watchman.  And this is heavily evident in Rodney King beating because the authorities were being watched doing something wrong. So now even the authorities are afraid, that’s what’s so important.  We see more and more of this as a important plot devices, especially in films like the Bourne Ultimatum and Rendition.  

Pornography can only exist with consent.

Crime scandals are still better than sex scandals=Patty Hearst

Caught on video:
Pee Wee Herman (child actor): caught masturbating in a theater. His career went down because of child abuse charges pinned on him.  The real reason was that people didn’t like the fact that he was gay and may have liked young kids.

Learn to escape from video:
The P.Diddy and Jennifer Lopez shooting. Jennifer splits and her career survives. 

Caught on video picking up prostitutes: Hugh Grant, (went public) Rob Rowe (west wing)

Meg Ryan caught cheating on husband with Russell Crowe switches her Hollywood image to a bubbly sweet girl in order to survive.

The way scandal plays out has a lot to do with an actor’s media resiliency.

OJ survived the trial but could never survive the image of the black glove and the white Bronco.

Hale Berry and Martha Stewart’s strategy to survive scandal was to get it over.

Bill Clinton, Jennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, used the public media approach in their defense.

Tonya Harding becomes the most controversial person in figure skating history after her alleged conspiracy in the brutal attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan. Later Tonya Harding entered the world of the nude Internet celebrity with the appearance of a pornographic "Wedding Video". Stills from the tape were published by Penthouse when the tape was released to the media.  

Men survive scandals better than women.

Kathy Lee’s career slid after her husband the “All American” was caught cheating.

Straight by people think gay people are more promiscuous.

Britney Spears kissing Madonna - who cares.

TV is becoming our pet dog again, our friend that we see every day like our personal web page.  In a way the medium is getting worse.  All media is an illusion and but TV is trying very hard to say that it is grounded in realty.  They are always saying their thing is real.  They define what sex is for you.

This kind of realty can’t happen with film.  There is a cultural separation with the cinema.  The theater is not your living room. 

The ultimate message from the media is that nothing changes. This was not the 1950’s reality of Candid Camera

The topic of being caught on video and sex is fascinating in terms of the pop-culture especially because it operates differently within film then for TV and the Internet.  Also the audience’s perception and obsession with star scandal varies in interesting ways between film stars, TV stars and Internet popularity.  “Celebrity Scandal” to “Celerity Crime” should include Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart.

Points I covered for my MTV and VH1 interview.

  • Why sex scandals are more sensationalized for TV stars than film stars.
  • Film actors get away with scandal better than TV actors because there is no continuity in their art form.
  • TV is repetitious and continues and makes the “scandal phenomena” easier.
  • The celebrity recovery rate from scandal and why certain scandals or images stay with us longer than others.
  • Why sex scandals are hot now. You can’t have a scandal unless there are perceived moral, corporate and legal boundaries.
  • How information flows from the Internet to the major networks when the public thinks it is originating from the evening news.
  • For actors: porn as a means to success.
  • But most importantly is the way we perceive information and images on the Internet as compared to other media.  And even more importantly is how we gather scandalous information passively from TV and the tabloids or from the privacy of our bedroom (or den) searching for “secretive” images on the Internet.
  • Film actors get away with scandal better than TV actors because there is no continuity.  The public latches onto their life outside of film for scandal.  There is no continuity of space between the film star and the tabloids like there is for a TV star.
  • TV propagates itself with a different dynamic. TV is repetitious and continuous and cant become scandalous
October 26, 2007: Mr. Genarlow Wilson was 17 when he was caught on videotape having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s Eve party in 2003 was released from prison after serving two years of a ten year sentence

 

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Waging Online Propaganda Warfare
United Press International
and http://www.insightmag.com, 2004
By Gene J. Koprowski


image by Peter Bardazzi

"Four hostile newspapers," Napoleon Bonaparte once said to his generals, "are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets."

Today, the Internet is recasting that famous strategic dictum, still taught to promising military leaders at war colleges in the United States.

During the last two weeks, Internet sites around the world have distributed fabricated photos purporting to show American and British troops abusing prisoners in Iraq. Though quickly discredited by experts, these images of propaganda helped paralyze the Pentagon, created a controversy in England's Parliament and, to varying degrees, produced outrage across the public spectrum in many nations, and dismay and embarrassment among U.S. service personnel.

"The images play against our view of what it means to be an American," said Peter Bardazzi, a filmmaker and director of new media development at New York University. "There's an expectation with the American public that American soldiers are superheroes and that they have a morality," he told United Press International. "But the soldiers lose value as superheroes with the images that have come out lately -- this is a war of images."

Images that were proved false debuted on the Internet, some apparently originating on pornographic sites, and were picked up by leading news organizations, entering mainstream cultures all over the world.

The Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper in London, published photos purporting to show British troops urinating on prisoners. The Boston Globe -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper -- last week published a photo supposedly of American troops raping an Iraqi woman.

U.S. television networks also produced stories, based on an Internet-distributed video, of Nicholas Berg, an American citizen, being beheaded by Islamic terrorists.

"These images all contain bodies that are dehumanized," said Bardazzi, a former special-effects producer at Industrial Light and Magic, the company owned by moviemaker George Lucas. "There is mutilation and sexual humiliation -- the body has become the new landscape for terror."

Though TV reporters in the Middle East speculated that Berg already was dead when he was beheaded, U.S. reporters generally presented the story without questioning its visual veracity, Bardazzi observed.

"There's no question that without the ability to distribute over the Internet, that beheading image would never have been created," he said. "When people are left alone with new technology, they tend to do things they otherwise wouldn't do."

Bardazzi noted that the pose adopted by the terrorists in the Berg murder video was intended to be cinematic and was "straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. It's meant to portray the terrorists as warriors."

In London, Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, resigned under pressure for running the photos portraying British troops relieving themselves on Iraqi prisoners, after the House of Commons questioned the veracity of the images.

The paper ran a banner headline, "Sorry ... We Were Hoaxed," over its apology for the incident on May 15.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the controversy over the Globe's faked images generated less dramatic results. The paper apologized for the error, and Christine Chinlund, the ombudsman, published a column explaining how the incident occurred. But to date no editor has resigned over the matter.

The controversy began last week when Charles Turner, a local politician and city councilman, held a news conference and showed what he said were pictures of American troops raping an Iraqi woman. The paper then published one of the lewd, Internet-generated images, along with a story.

During Turner's news conference, it emerged that the source of the photos was an individual at the Nation of Islam, run by Louis Farrakhan, a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.

"It is an understatement to say that the paper erred," Chinlund told UPI. "There's no excuse for what happened."

The Nation of Islam's public-relations office in Chicago, affiliated with its newspaper, The Final Call, would not respond to questions faxed by UPI to a woman who identified herself as Dora Muhammad and requested that the queries be sent in writing.

"It has been alleged that the images are from a porn site in Europe," Chinlund said. "That may well be right, but I couldn't find them on the Web."

A leading free-speech attorney said the legal situation surrounding publication of images obtained from the Internet -- including those that are misleading -- remains unsettled.

"The law has yet to develop to cover situations of the digital age, like New York Times vs. Sullivan, the famous case in the early 1960s, which said that it was okay to make mistakes when covering a public official, as long as they were not malicious," said Gary Bostwick, a partner in Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP, a Los Angeles law firm. "There hasn't been enough experience with the law to work this out," he told UPI.

The Globe probably covered itself legally by stating, in the story that accompanied the photo, that the images were not verified.

Though there may be no legal damage due to the publication of the faked images, there may be lasting psychological harm for some, said psychologist Tina Tessina. "Lying is dysfunctional and the Internet is a source of a lot of lies now," said Tessina, author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. "I'm getting a lot of patients in here who have anxiety because of these urban legends that they see online. People are anxious."

There probably are no technological solutions to the problem of faked images being distributed over the Internet, an Internet security expert said. "If you are going to refer to or quote propagandists with a political agenda, you cannot rely on the old dictum that seeing is believing," said Larry Clinton, chief operating officer of the Internet Security Alliance, a project of Carnegie Mellon University and the Electronic Industries Alliance. "Journalists need to ask hard questions about these images -- before they publish them."

Bardazzi said photo editors and TV producers need to eye images from the Internet very carefully. They should check out the lighting, the range of reflected light and the color spectrum of every controversial image. "It's easy to fool someone who is not an expert and get shock value," he said.

The propagandists behind the recent fake images are students of American culture, Bardazzi explained. They understand American values and ideology, even though their productions are somewhat amateurish. Still, they are portraying U.S. troops as if they were like Col. Kurtz, the character played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now. U.S. troops are being portrayed as renegade warriors who are "operating outside of the ideology of America," he said.

Bardazzi said the propagandists also are playing off the "corporate" stance the Pentagon has adopted since the war in Iraq. The government exercised heavy control over images from that war, offering such scenes as the green-screen views of precision bombs dropping on buildings that were broadcast repeatedly on CNN and other TV outlets.

Using the embedded reporters in the Iraq war, the Pentagon attempted to control the imagery again and sanitize the perception of the war. "What's been missing is the pathos, the passion of the soldier in combat," Bardazzi said. "Now we're getting mutations of that, which are completely staged, over the Internet."

Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications media for UPI, a sister news organization of Insight.

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Television

Why are Reality Shows successful?

Shows like Survivor and more recently the popular American Idol, reveal the dynamics of hardship and competition. People going against each other for a prize or to be famous. Yet there is also the dynamic of being lucky, having a chance of a lifetime. The combination these dynamics unify the idea of the "American Dream". This "American Dream" is enticing for anyone, no matter what race. People come to America to make money or be successful and these shows unify that idea.
This concepts works very well in america, a producer consumer society. Reality as a deposable consumer commodity.  It is marketed through competiton, judgment, humiliation, failure and reward. The audience identifies with the contestants (who are not TV stars) forming a strong but temporary bond.

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A culture seen in terms of TV shows is hard to define. Inevitably a producer society is not able to attach its self to real art if its main cultural goods are reality shows. - TV gets old very fast. Today most show capitalize controversy, based competition, humiliation. - All media is an illusion and TV is trying very hard to say that it grounded in reality. Saying their thing is real. - Nothing in a movie is ever questioned. We assume everything is true because there is no reality as opposed to TV reality

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TV and Sex!

NFL Football / Desperate Housewives

Sex can propel technology but in each media it acts differently.  I think the TV medium is just now learning this.  But recently there has been a backlash from powerful groups that attach morality to TV under the illusion of attacking its content.  

Why does sex flourishes in some medium but not others?  Why does it get sensationalized so easily on TV and not in film or video games? Sex in cinema allows you to adjust to it and lets you let go of it if the story and cinematography work well.  In TV it’s completely different. TV is the one medium that’s always dying but never dies. It gets reborn through the process of repetition.  But sex on TV is not and can not be repetitive that’s why it’s always startling to some viewers.  It is out of step with the TV environment which never changes.  It doesn’t have the luxury of films fleeting moment.  

It’s a mistake to think there is a universal sexual imagery. It gets broken down by producers before it can become unique. - Sex as ritual (sometimes using technology) in these shows use the body as a hierarchy with stereotypical good looks at the top. Emotion is not present. It is the use of the body as landscape. What’s missing is non-disciplinary eroticism, a state of frenzy with chance encounters and unplanned pleasures.

Charlie’s Angels: The Angels are women, who are able to take command when faced with danger using their martial arts combat skills. Yet despite this, they must do it under the terms of sexuality, flaunting their “beautiful” bodies for the male viewers. They are heroines defined under the male spectatorship. This also takes place in a lot in new asian films made for american consumption.

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Lil’Kim uses her sexuality as a form of empowerment and is not afraid to use her body publicly and privately to prove the point.   She is a star that has the same power as any dominate male including control through sexual illusion. 

In terms of her relationship with Old Navy it is important to understand that she defines herself and her audience through the way she looks.  She makes it clear that no male spectatorship or corporation is going to define her. 

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Film

M. Night Shyamalan
(USA TODAY interview with me)

The true monsters are within.

The calculated dread within the plots rests on the ultimate fear of your own vulnerability and not knowing whom you really are when faced with the unseen “monster”.  There is a fine line between your fear of the demon and the actual demon itself.  At that moment right before they become one you experience the height of terror.  This is what M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN is a master at.

He learnt a lot from Spielberg’s “Jaws”.  The successful terror of that film is about the “unseen” monster and our vulnerability in the dark murky waters of our subconscious. The visual monster is hardly seen but is alluded to as the deadly big white shark.

Any discussion of what makes M. Night Shyamalan good would cover what you don’t see in his films and how this establishes suspense in his audience through cinematography.

But more importantly, what makes Night good is how he uses the classical film styles of directors like Hitchcock. Where he takes the edge out of gore and places it in simple human emotions especially the emotion of the unknown. Not knowing of oneself can be scarier than a zombie.

Also critical is how Night uses mellow protagonists. He creates a world where no one is the hero and everyone is potentially the enemy. In all his films, he repeats the same character traits and uses the same cast like Bruce Willis and Joaquin Pheonix. Bruce Willis is often seen as ambivalent and confused, unknowing of himself. Night again builds on the fear of the vulnerability of the character. Also, Night emphasizes this with close up shots in between the establishing shots so that emotion and expression are more important than actual action.

 

Rule of terror #2: Don't show the monster more than you have to. Shyamalan prefers fleeting images of his creatures of the night. "He learned a lot from (Steven) Spielberg's Jaws," says Peter Bardazzi, associate professor of digital arts at New York University. "The successful terror of that film is about the unseen monster and our vulnerability in the dark murky waters of our subconscious. There is a fine line between your fear of the demon and the demon itself. At that moment, right before they become one, you experience the height of terror. This is what Shyamalan is a master at." USA TODAY interview quote by Peter Bardazzi

 

 

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Los Angles Times

Count on Johnny Depp to deliver eccentricity; The 'Pirates' actor is one of many who are regularly called on to take unpredictable liberties with their roles. (My interview with the LA Times)

Steven Rosen. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Aug 8

Abstract (Document Summary)

One clear way, it would seem, is if [Johnny Depp] is involved as an actor. At 40, he has been playing unusual and often quirky characters throughout his career, starting with his first major starring roles in John Waters' "Cry-Baby" and Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands." He has brought a unifying element to his eccentric parts, according to Peter Bardazzi, director of new media at New York University. Depp offers a contemporary vision of "the third sex." And in "Pirates," he says, it has proved resonant.

Bardazzi wonders if, in "Pirates," Depp has connected with a young audience (and maybe their nostalgic parents) in a way that recalls the impact of the longhaired, beaded male hippies of the 1960s. "It's a kind of expression of something that's not a traditionally male mold but also not female. Johnny Depp is a bohemian. He's countercultural."

[Jerry Bruckheimer] says he gave Depp leeway in determining his performance to a point. "You don't hire Johnny Depp and not let him do what Johnny Depp does -- create characters," he says. "He had something in his head he wanted to play, and I wanted him to do that. If I didn't want him to create a character, I would have hired someone else."

Full Text

"Eccentric" is not usually the first word used to describe a movie star's galvanizing performance. "Sexy," "tough," "romantic," "powerful," "charismatic" are far more common. In fact, "eccentric" often has been a code word for unpredictability or downright weirdness -- not words associated with box office success in a blockbuster world.

But Johnny Depp has changed that this summer. His turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is, first and foremost, eccentric. Bedecked in a resplendent array of post-Carnaby Street glad rags, wearing heavy eye shadow, beaded long hair and a braided beard, he is certainly not the typically fierce and fearsome pirate of lore.

He isn't romantic in any traditional sense, either; he weaves and tilts like an ambulatory bobblehead or a rock star on a high. (He has said Rolling Stone Keith Richards was a role model for the part, and his mellifluous voice is like David Bowie's.) And Depp's turn is not a clear-cut humorous performance, either. It's just exotically different.

And that difference has played a key role in making Disney's "Pirates" a massive hit -- more than $200 million in domestic gross revenue to date and going strong, with modest weekly declines and positive word-of-mouth ever since its July 9 opening. "I'm not sure how much credit I give him for opening the film -- he has not been the kind of actor who does that," says Reagen Sulewski, analyst for the Box Office Prophets Web site. "That belongs to [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer. But in terms of carrying the film, he lifts it and carries it on his back."

The effect of Depp's portrayal -- commercially and culturally -- is a victory for mysterious eccentricity (a very human trait) over computer-generated special effects. But by making eccentricity hip (and a hit) for a mass audience, it has also raised questions about what constitutes an eccentric performance and, to paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, how do you know it when you see it?

One clear way, it would seem, is if Depp is involved as an actor. At 40, he has been playing unusual and often quirky characters throughout his career, starting with his first major starring roles in John Waters' "Cry-Baby" and Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands." He has brought a unifying element to his eccentric parts, according to Peter Bardazzi, director of new media at New York University. Depp offers a contemporary vision of "the third sex." And in "Pirates," he says, it has proved resonant.

"In 'Pirates' he's a feminine influence, but not a gay one," Bardazzi says. "He's the only one in the film with eye makeup that's outstanding, and he doesn't have a relationship with a woman. And if you look at Depp's film history, he played Ed Wood, and that character was a cross-dresser."

Bardazzi wonders if, in "Pirates," Depp has connected with a young audience (and maybe their nostalgic parents) in a way that recalls the impact of the longhaired, beaded male hippies of the 1960s. "It's a kind of expression of something that's not a traditionally male mold but also not female. Johnny Depp is a bohemian. He's countercultural."

Bruckheimer says he gave Depp leeway in determining his performance to a point. "You don't hire Johnny Depp and not let him do what Johnny Depp does -- create characters," he says. "He had something in his head he wanted to play, and I wanted him to do that. If I didn't want him to create a character, I would have hired someone else."

Eccentrics on the rise

Oddball performances of one sort or another are showing up more frequently in artier movies. Certain postmodern directors, such as Waters, the Coen brothers, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, seem to encourage wildly surreal, often menacing performances as a way to ironically undermine our complacency toward movie naturalism. It's a way to be edgy. Lynch alone has given us Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell in "Blue Velvet," Nicolas Cage in "Wild at Heart" and Robert Blake in "Lost Highway." The Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was nothing but such offbeat performances, even while poignantly evoking the "weird old America" (to use writer Greil Marcus' term) of the past.

Should an eccentric performance be one that fits into the film's general tone and vision, or should it conflict with it? If the former, two famous roles in Billy Wilder films -- Gloria Swanson's haughty, reclusive actress in "Sunset Boulevard" and Tony Curtis' flippantly irreverent, Cary Grant-like turn in "Some Like It Hot" -- would fit the bill.

Is it one that playfully spoofs our expectations of an actor's existing image and past roles -- Humphrey Bogart in "Beat the Devil" or Marlon Brando in "The Freshman"? Or is that parody? Many of Brando's characters are intentionally extraordinarily peculiar. So is he at his most genuinely eccentric when his character seems most ordinary, as was his therapist opposite Depp in 1995's "Don Juan DeMarco"?

"To me, an eccentric performance goes against the grain of a movie and becomes a movie in itself," says Dennis Bartok, head of programming at Hollywood's American Cinematheque. "Sometimes it becomes so great in and of itself that it becomes more interesting than the movie."

He singles out Val Kilmer's "sly and fey" interpretation of the tubercular Doc Holliday in 1993's "Tombstone" as an intentionally eccentric performance. And he sees Tony Bennett's Hymie Kelly, the Jewish-Irish pal of Stephen Boyd's actor Frankie Fane in 1966's "The Oscar," as a perhaps unintentional one: "He rushes into every scene like a linebacker carrying a football."

Bardazzi tends to share that view and cites Donald Sutherland's intentionally contemporary (for its time) portrayal of Sgt. Oddball, the tank commander in 1970's World War II caper film "Kelly's Heroes," as another example of an actor choosing to give his character an over-the-top eccentricity that seems to stand apart from the movie he's in. He also gives an example of an actor who is never eccentric: Tom Hanks. "Even when he plays a gangster, he's all- American."

But other definitions of eccentricity are more expansive. "Eccentric acting means character acting," explains Lorinne Vozoff, artistic director of L.A.'s Theatre Group Studio, which teaches Method acting. "All it means is you grab a hold of something and use it."

She sees it as a way an actor fights predictability and resists becoming pigeonholed. "There's an enormous difference between being a movie star and being an actor," she says. "Once you're a movie star, they want to slide you into a slot and do that certain kind of role again."

She considers Maggie Smith's performance as the spoiled aunt in "Gosford Park" a quintessential eccentric performance. And she cites Edward Norton as an exemplary actor who always justifies his characters' eccentricities in their personalities.

Ultimately, Bardazzi gives this definition of a great eccentric performance: "It transcends what it's supposed to be." He believes Depp reaches that transcendent level in "Pirates" because "he remains human although you can't identify him with any recognizable human out there." Maybe that's why everyone seems to love him this summer, when movies seem so predictable.

Credit: Special to The Times

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Scorsese and Eastwood go to their roots: The Theater of Violence
and commercialization of two artists.
(my thoughts)

It is a good opportunity to look at the history of Clint Eastward and Martin Scorsese in terms of their being born in separate but beautiful cinematic theaters of violence.

• Clint Eastwood has a place in history as an actor and filmmaker, but it was Sergio Leone that made him the symbol of a great genre. This new mythical western genre was in part the saga of crime and revenge taken to hallucinatory levels by an Italian’s director’s vision of America. This was the new theater of violence, viewed through “close-ups” of killers in the act of revenge and brutality. Ultimately it was the creation of the first “shooter warrior” in the west. (Note: Kurosawa influenced Leone). Fast forward after a great career culminating with Million Dollar Baby to making a war movie as seen through the eyes of the Japanese, through the eyes of Clint Eastwood. It all come full circle when you see Lieutenant Ito with a samurai sword in hand and you think of Kurosawa.

• Letters from Iwo Jima lacks heart and emotion that young people can attach to, and does not make a statement. In its desire to be a-political it becomes political. It represents the apathy, of the people who are upset by war but won’t do anything about it.

• Also in war the enemy is a threat and has a deadly presence even off camera. In this film the enemy is always one-dimensional whether Japanese or American. Its actually very flat representation for the carnage that went on. There are there or four main locations and they lack cinematic depth and act more like sets. There are the beach shots, rocky crevasses
and the caves and tunnels. The caves could have been powerful metaphors for claustrophobic terror or Eastwood’s Labyrinth.

• Martin Scorsese is great but he was greater at the beginning. His desire to be crowned by Hollywood cost him his art. He was the choreographer of Brooklyn and Little Italy’s theater of violence. He was so deep into the super-charged image of the gangster that you thought
there was an unseen other world that would be his next film. But he turned around and went for the light and Hollywood. Beautifully still, Mean Streets, Ragging Bull, Goodfellas etc remain with us. What would have happened he went deeper into his original creation?

 

 

Academy Awards 2007

It’s the surrealist connection in Mexico to Guillermo del Toro Guillermo, Alejandro Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón. Other topics are Children, Terror and Eroticism, Reality and Existence, Scorsese and Eastwood’s theater of violence and Spielberg’s Hollywood. Below are my
notes in paragraph and list form.

A) I am interested in the way its visual information travels through the culture and attaches itself to us, but there seems to be something fascinating going on especially in terms of the Mexican directors, it’s the Surrealist connection by way of Andre Breton and Luis Buñuel to Pan’s
Labyrinth and Babel and to some extent Children of Men.

B) Reality is here but existence is elsewhere.

• Reality is here and existence is elsewhere is at the heart of Pan’s Labyrinth. The theory of existence elsewhere in real and tangible dreams form comes from Andre Breton, the French surrealist theorist who was very close to the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. In 1946 Buñuel moved to Mexico to escape Spain's fascist regime and goes on to make a film about
children who can’t escape, Los Olvidados. In Pan’s Labyrinth Ofelia escapes from the horrors of the same fascism through myth and dream. A film made sixty years later.

• The great god pan is dead, turned into the devil by civilization and the police state. Pan is reborn by Guillermo del Toro Guillermo. Pan’s fire and blood are back as guide to Ofelia’s elsewhere beyond death. In surrealist films and art it’s the mixing of states of reality with dreams
that place the viewer in that elsewhere. In Children of Men there is also an escape to the “human experiment” from a dying civilization to the other elsewhere. This is clearly a surrealist influence that could be traced to Bunuels later films like Belle de jour, The Exterminating Angel, etc. I
could explain this if we speak. Besides Buñuel, there were other surrealists and intellectuals that arrived in Mexico and left their mark in mexico including Leonora Carrington, (child erotic art)
Breton, Meret Oppenheim, Remedios Varo, etc.

For the surrealist the labyrinth was not a place to be lost in, but a place to lose yourself.  It is governed by chance not order. It is also a door to enter the world of existence. It’s Ofelia door to freedom.

• Note: Leonora Carrington did a painting called Laberinto in Mexico City.

B) Babel, children and the “Exquisite Corpse”.

• Babel is structured like the celebrated Surrealist game, the Exquisite Corpse more than one might think. In the paper version, unrelated images are connected to form a bizarre and unique final image. What is important is that the images and process that you are connecting are always concealed from you the viewer till the end. There are some other surrealist techniques used in the film including a photograph of the father with the rifle and the child/adolescent eroticism. The Japanese Chieko exposing herself erotically is right out of a Leonor Fini painting.
Leonora Fini was close to Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo who were all admired by Breton and Bunuel. These paintings are readily seen in Mexico City.

• There are other surrealist implications like the title Babel and more on the horrible reality of children in our culture and their erotic tension etc. but more importantly these films seem more like art than most of the other nominations that are more like commercial products.

• Mexico as a vantage point: Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico to Touch of Evil. Like in the 60’s and early 70’s in Italy, France, Germany and Spain.


 

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Akira Kurosawa

 

"You are not human unless you are afraid of the dark" said Akira Kurosawa after the fire bombing Tokyo. There must have so little left inside of him when he saw the fiery carnage around him. It was the raid on the night of March 9, that the US Air Force dropped 1,700 tons of bombs, destroying 16 square miles of the city by fire and killing over 100,000 people in the fire storm. It was the most destructive conventional raid of the war against Japan. The first thing he saw when venturing out of the bomb shelter was a pile of dead soldiers. I don't under stand he thought this is something worse than all wars put together. Here and at the end of every world lies death and destruction.

He had dreams and saw omens of death and blood everywhere before that night. He was not yet the Buddha. He knew that faith would would show him the way and ambition world get him through this gate. He would walk the rest of the way with demons and meet his best friends and worst enemies. The demons did show the him the way and he understood that we do not exist through ourselves but through the world that shapes us. This in return shaped the filmmaker in him. For Kurosawa you are the movies and the artist at the same time or your nothing. His stories are the stories that one wants to forget, they are the ones that release the child in you.

All through his career he made honest and extraordinary films like Rousseau and Picasso paintings, always honest. To understand this process you have to comprehend his idea that the filmmaker chooses to look at life and let the nature of what he sees expose the mystery within us. That was his art, with mystery at the core of stability and survival. We all want to forget something but the power of memory gives rise to the imagination. He knew that all along the way and gave us the best plots, treachery and moving paintings.

 

 

 

 

Iraqi War Images

The true definition of war is: men hunting men and killing them. It is humanities most horrible pursuit. But today there is a new view of war that is complex and dangerous; it is the new presentation of the medias images. They, like the rest of TV are repetitive and they reinvent victims and threats forming a newkind of acceptable illusion. There have been rapid successions of powerful images of combat videos, suicide bombings, war dead, burnt bodies and now decapitation. All these images move through the networks and the Internet quickly and have an amateur quality compared to Vietnam War photos and videos, which almost look like art when viewed today. Now not only are “you” a target in the terrorist game and the Iraqi war but so is your “body”. 

The body becomes a landscape married to the camera to inflict pain on the designated viewer.  We think of the body for pleasure and to see it as a humiliated copse or an organic entity outside of humane life or desire shocks us in unnamable ways.  They say one side is winning, the other is losing and yet we move farther and farther away from reality forgetting the ones who suffer and die.
In the week of April 16, 2007 we went from 33 killed at Virginia Tech killed on Monday, to 200 killed in Iraq, to the 6 finalists voted for on America Idol. The American Idol contestants got the most “active” attention by way of votes during this week. In the next few days more than a 100 more were killed in Iraq and we payed little attention. There is a disconnect and void between the average American and the massive violence inflicted on others when presented by the commercial media. But there is a strong attachment to the images of the American dream on TV shown by the millions of "active" viewers for shows like American idol.

 

 

 

Media Images

“Nazism was a political movement that was very much involved with ritual and pageantry.  This included uniforms, propaganda films and extravagant rallies. Today, ritual is replaced by massive manipulation by corporate advertising and media images.  The 2nd World War was the greatest event of the 20th century, and was the subject of American pop culture films glorifying America’s victory in the war through big budget Hollywood movies. Media, the government and the global economy’s way of processing ideas and images for consumption or war is to objectify them by removing historical and emotional contexts from the consumer view. One global economic strategy within our culture, including fashion, art and movies is to extract and objectify past financial successes in America, as in war movies  (i.e. by taking isolated elements like the Nazi look within that phenomena to be used as marketing devices for profit). This marketing drvice can be devastating to the feelings of people whose identity and history are related to this objectification. The more images  become detached from any references to human characteristics the more marketable they are .  When images are replaced by strong symbolism (like Nazi symbolism) the more easy it becomes to get the consumer to believe in the illusion that they are unique. In the West the reverse is true with the newly found success of Hong Kong martial art movies. Producers turn highly choreograph martial arts and its metaphor into violent homogenized images of action, with the assumption that America likes action for the sake of action devoid of any cultural and historical content.”

 

 

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The Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart trials

Comparing the trials of Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart can give us an opportunity tosee into the personality image power of America’s popular culture.  Both are superstars, icons and powerful representatives of different ends of the entertainment spectrum. Both will use any means possible to win their media trials and in the process expose our fascination with them.

It is important to note that the entertainment media has enthusiastically enhanced the Michael Jackson image and music through out his career, which shaped our emotional reaction to him since the 80s.  It has never passed judgment on their sense of morality.  The strategy of the media and Michael Jackson has always been in sync, while generating enormous sums of money.  But the media can sway in any direction at anytime even though during the pre trial period the networks and Jackson have made special interview deals worth millions. Agendas can shift and even become hostile but Michael and Martha are always “produced” by the media in order to be consumed.

 Jackson and Stewart owe their superstar status to television more than any other media.  This would not be the case if they were film stars.  Michael Jackson’s biggest leaps into stardom came with music videos, especially Thriller. The early music was always good but the dancing, combined with sound and images blasting into your living room made him the king of pop.  Martha Stewart’s presence was softer but the connections with her viewers were always strong.  TV stars become part of your family and you tend to fantasize about them more than you would with a film star.  You constantly want to know more about them and when something goes wrong with your fantasies reaching hallucinatory levels.

With these trials different cultural images have to be promoted and yet in a strange way remain the same.  But these changes could get ugly, as was the case with the OJ Simpson trial.  At some point during the OJ trial, truth and justice was lost and race became an issue.  American was divided along racial lines: races rooting for their own race.  This was never a thought with Michael Jackson.  This is an important aspect of Michaels superstar image that his audience have a hard time identifying him with one race or his sex.  Even with the insertion of the Nation of Islam you still have a difficult time identifying Michael and associating him with the “real world”.  Michael Jackson’s power comes from his ability to be spontaneous, change himself in unpredictable ways and not be identified with reality.

This is a TV drama with only one unknown factor, the jury.  Ms Stewart is playing all right cards and is acting perfectly subdued for the cameras.  She is the woman who wants it all to go away fast with her new passive TV image.  There is still a large American audience that wants to see women being passive homemakers anyway. It is clear she is not pushing the self made star that could be a bitchy.  Michael is playing it perfect also.  He is showing that he is the same pop star that you loved fifteen years ago, even though change is critical to him. Change has been synonymous with his career, but he can’t change now in the wrong way, it’s too dangerous.  His main public support still comes from his generation, the people who have enjoyed his music during the eighties.  He not like Stewart, must stay in character and not be passive.  Coming late to court and dancing on cars is cool; he knows the jury would have a hard time sending a kid to jail. Here is the critical convergence of the pop culture and entertainment media clashing with the judicial system.  In both cases it depends on what aspect of the culture the jury’s symbolizes, how it is perceived and how the stars play to it.

In the end inevitably, the media is incapable of feeling string attachment to its past expressions the longer the trial lasts.   Consequently, Jackson will suffer the most when the public fails to recognize any evidence of his early works.  At this point Jackson and Stewart are trying to sell an image of themselves that would appease and win the hearts of the jury and public.  With each image there comes a high marketing value for the media. They will, in the end, be utilized in cultural consumption.  

 

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The Passion

THE BOX OFFICE

NEW YORK, March 3, 2004--The movie, The Passion, produced historic sales over the past week.  This weekend, “while Hollywood was out gift wrapping its starlets at the Oscars, Mel Gibson was out giving himself his own Academy Award,” says Professor Peter Bardazzi, Director of New Media Development at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

As interviewed on the NBC Today Show this morning, Professor Bardazzi is available to talk about the many driving forces behind the controversy and popularity surrounding this movie. Professor Bardazzi believes The Passion may have the potential to bust a hole in the colossal hit – Titanic for several reasons:

  • With The Passion, there is a paradox of contemporary images and history.  TheTitanic was a hit because it was nostalgic and audiences believed they were viewing authentic history wrapped in a love story. Both films ignite a crazy dynamic in our psyche in terms of believable history.
  • Moviegoers are drawn to the uncertainty behind the movie. Gibson’s Passion adds intensity to the movie’s controversy by raising the question: Who wrote the script, God, the Gospels or himself?  
  • A steady outpouring of three main groups of moviegoers will keep the numbers climbing for The Passion-the original Christian base, those who go to see movies because they are popular, and those that are intrigued by the cinematic phenomenon itself.

 

 

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Modern Media Notes

 

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Notes from Rome

I am in Rome about to fly home from the Leonardo Di Vinci airport. In the headlines, nineteen dead Italian soldiers are coming home from Iraq as war casualties. I am reminded of a scene in Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” when the innocent green troops arrive in DaNang while corpse filled black body bags are being loaded on the C130s for their trip home.  This was part of an illusionary chain of images that I was exposed to during my trip. The Italian audience was enthusiastically receiving Van Sant’s “Elephant”, “Buongiorno Notte” made its opening debut in theaters, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in the West” was released on DVD and the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination was here. There were anti-war demonstrations in the streets, but essentially the country was in shock. They had one day of what we’ve been having for years.  We accept the death toll and the lie thats it's a war on terror. It was interesting to think about a national response to real violence and violence in art.

Something became clear when talking to Italians about the differences between contemporary Italian and American cinema and their relationship to the images of violence, the culture of violence, and the theater of violence.  For Van Sant’s “Elephant” there was as split view message conveyed through the violent acts of American high school teenagers. For the Italians, the intensified imagery was a view into reality. But was “Elephant” a window into the heart of the America society? Van Sant creates an eerie sense of foreboding, the anticipation of violence through detachment. This violence is neither institutional nor social. When we look at American movies with violence, there is always a conflict between hero and goal. The achievement of that goal can only be reached with the use of violent action. When we watch Van Sant, we see that there isn’t a clear-cut separation between hero and enemy. The distinction is masked under a shallow veil of stereotypical teenage emotions where no one is the hero.

Are we an out of control culture with razor sharp teeth, inflicting death and destruction on the planet and its inhabitants for profit?  Or is it our collective media and popular culture with its supercharged imagery and sounds creating illusions that make us appear that way?  Maybe yet, there is an underlining American madness that mixes beautifully and keeps pace with our media’s selling of its pop culture.  If we have an international image and it’s imperialist and hated, then what is our identity as seen through art/film?  Our true collective identity is hidden but our films and media have built the most extensive and elaborate façade wrapped consumerism.  We are different and the difference  very clear when you look at the flow of images we produce.  When I watched “Elephant” and “Buongiorno Notte”, Italian, directed by Marco Bellocchio, I saw the difference.

Immersed in the American culture, one can only see this Van Sant detachment as a metaphor for a video game. However, it is important to make the distinction between reality and an artistic license. This is evident through his Kubrick-like tracks in the narrow hallways of the school giving a sense of isolation from society. The shallow close ups of the student’s backs create a facelessness and lack of identity towards the characters.  It is as if the students are moving like automobile traffic through the corridors. When the American audience is confronted with such portrayal it can only be seen as part of an American myth.  For an Italian a different reaction happens where the theater of violence becomes the culture of violence.  They see America’s powerful global image as almost imperialist and these “violent teens” as the future foot soldiers of expansionism.  The idea of seeing into the bowels of the American monster is a tantalizing force for the audience. Even more so, to see detached violent teenagers go mad, only seems to prove their criticism politically.  It is interesting that the specter of American corporate greed was never raised.  It’s always political imperialism and violence carried out by young Americans, that is the substantial part of our foreign image.

Van Sant builds a sense of foreboding, a coming of an unknown violence, by detaching the viewer from the characters and having the characters move around like video game ghosts. When we watch “Elephant”, we see that there isn’t a clear-cut separation between hero and enemy. The distinction is masked under a shallow veil of stereotypical teenage emotions where no one is or can be a hero.  Usually in American action films there is an achievement of a goal through the use of violence against the enemy.  When the lack distinction between hero and enemy is heightened to the point where the viewer becomes either numb or paranoid, then you have entered the world of invisible cultural violence.  Everybody in America is either a shooter or potential target. To my amazement Italians think that this film is an accurate window into the heart of America society and the way it works.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that they also believe American youth like the spectacle of killing.  “Elephant” is the terrorist film of the two; it’s a handbook on how Americans inflict emotionally detached horror on each other.

The first person shooter game has a place in world history.  Its architecture was used as a set design metaphor in “Elephant” with its foreboding passages allowing Van Sant to give the viewer a sense of an adrenalin infused hunt.  This is not a documentary of the Columbine massacre but a metaphor of the theater of violence that intrigues us all.  It is amoral violence, with no emotion or passion, and crowds cheering, just killing with the best weapons possible.  America and Japan are the biggest producers of video games but America is responsible for creating the genre and making the majority of violent first person shooters, including classics like “Doom” and “Half Life”.  In Italy, soccer is the popular video game genre but should not be seen as a metaphor for real Italian life, even with its over the top frenzied enthusiasm by the whole male population.  What’s interesting is that Italians come up with a definition for the American culture of violence by mixing video games plots and film and seeing reality.  Their violence stays in their emotions and does not spill into video games, but instead come out in their films.

“Buongiorno Notte” is a film that tells us about a violent episode of recent Italian history.  It was a time of left and right wing terrorism, demonstrations, bombings, kidnappings, kneecapping and the beginning of the great mafia wars.  It is very clear that Italy is not a country that is unfamiliar with violence but it always seems to be wrapped in a passionate morality motivated by politics, revenge or love.  This wave of political unrest ran parallel to the war in Vietnam but continued into the 80’s long after American student demonstrations ended in 1974 with the war’s end and the beginning of Watergate.  The culmination of the Italian period was the Aldo Moro kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigade and all the intrigue that surrounded it in 1978.  In Bellocchio’s narrative all the characters constantly live in an extreme set of circumstances.

One terrorist, Chiara, begins to question violent means to justify a political end, but more importantly she begins to emphasize with the victim Aldo Moro (the target).  This does not even come close to what’s happening for Van Sant’s America.  The more separate you are from your emotions the more chilling it gets.  For Bellocchio, the more you are in touch with your emotions the more terrifying it gets. “Buongiorno Notte” draws you into questioning chilling philosophies in the face of compassion.  It’s a tortured political action running against dignity (Moro), betrayal (the police and Christian Democrats) and time that make experiencing this film interesting.  In “Elephant”, philosophies are never questioned and you never identify with the killers, their victims, or their thoughts.

America as subject and metaphor has figured prominently in the Italian cinema startingwith Brignone's "Passaporto Rosso" (1935) and peaking with Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” and still continues.  Immigration and the mythical saga of the crime family with its brutality and revenge were prominent themes.  Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” takes this to hallucinatory levels.  His “Fist Full of Dollars” released right after the Kennedy assassination, is the new theater of American violence seen through the expansive west and the “close-ups” of individuals, mostly killers in the act of revenge and brutality.  Ultimately it’s political because it’s about the organized theft of money that is undermined by a lone “shooter warrior” that the audience identifies with.  In “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” the struggles between Death, Blonde and Tuco operate on a plane different from the masses, which are locked in the wasteful horrors of political war.  Their quest for gold through a “shot first and don’t bother with questions” approach is more noble than political war.  Both “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”(1964) and “Once Upon a Time in the West”, (1968) make an antiwar point through the use of an opera of violence.  The political left in Italy loved this but they also loved the expansiveness of Monument Valley and mythical characters that fill this landscape while screaming at us to get out of Vietnam.

It is important to note that this was the period of television’s worldwide explosion and America’s two major exported extravaganzas were the Kennedy Assassination, and the Vietnam War. Now with the release of “Buongiono Notte”, a film that speaks of the most violent episode of recent Italian history, we get an interesting picture.  It was a time of left and right wing terrorism, bombings, kidnapping, kneecapping and the beginning of the great mafia wars.  The culmination of the period and the window, through which Italians see these events, was the Aldo Moro kidnapping, murder and all the intrigue that surrounded it.  It’s their Kennedy assassination (Falcone and Borsellino come later), but missing all the hot TV images like the fantastic Zapruda film and Jack Ruby blasting Oswald on live TV. Mark Bellocchio’s  “Buongiono Notte” which gets its name from Emily Dickinson’s “Buongiorno-Mezzanotte”.  It’s violence is buried in the cinematography and narrative; it is not a represented event, it’s a mysterious clarity that you never see.  In this narrative all the characters live in an extreme set of circumstances.  One terrorist, Chiara, begins to question violent means to justify a political end, but more importantly she begins to emphasize with Aldo Moro (the victim).  You are drawn into questioning chilling philosophies in the face of compassion.  It’s the tortured political action running against dignity (Moro) and betrayal (by the authorities) that makes this film interesting.  In Elephant, no philosophies are questioned and you never identify with the killers or their victims, nor get into anyone’s thinking.  Van Sant gives us a video game overlay to represent his story and its violence.  Soon after “Buongiono Notte” was released there were arrests of supposed members of the Red Brigade.  Art spills over easily into politics more easily in Italy and then into the hands of the magistrates and police. Oliver Stones “JFK” could not achieve that, though in some ways it wanted to.

When violence is used in film it can be good and sometimes brilliant whether you see it or not.  Scorsese, Tanintino, Leone, Kitano, (to mention a few) portray it like colors from a palette.  Problems of perception, cultural misinterpretation, and political expediency arise, when the theater of violence, is overlaid with the media’s presentation of the culture of violence.  Globalization has made things worse.  People in other cultures are fascinated or overly criticize our culture and ignore what we detest or are struggling with. The wrong stuff travels to foreign markets adding to the misconceptions.  Film festivals help, but most people see films in their local theater controlled by laws distribution and profit.  Democracy does not help because it can’t guarantee the freedom of expression.  Ultimately it about us as spectators not being trapped in the media’s hall of mirrors and taste.  Maybe it is this simple: American violence just sells better.  Films like City of God are a different case.  They are always foreign and have the exotic allure of taking you in to another world, that is violent and cool. . 

Both films are great examples of the theater of violence. The beauty of “Buongiorno Notte” lies in the grand embellishment of a dark force that you never see. The character masks constantly change from political power, to passion, and ultimately to the mask of death.  In “Elephant” the dark phantom is the impending violence that waits for you behind every turn of a corner.  There are no embellishments; all the demons and victims wear the same costumes.

Peter Bardazzi

November 2003

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“Caravaggio Police”

Assassin: #1, secene:2

Ray always walked around with a gun in his head and if you looked into his eyes you saw it.  He was scary but he was not like the rest of them.  The others were thugs; they killed for greed, saving face, pleasing a boss and power or were acting out some deep bestial rage.   When Ray whacked some guy it was like he was solving a problem.  Lou and I knew he had fallen from a hell to a far worse place and was constantly plotting his way out.  We liked talking about the guys who were different and who had intense style.  We put them in this bizarre imaginary comedy that we constantly ran especially during school fire drills. But for Ray it was one giant chess game going off in a hundred directions with some of the moves requiring death.   The other thing about Ray is that you always felt like he was leaving the space he was occupying.  Not coming or going but leaving the whole planet.   It was weird, even if he was coming towards you felt like he was leaving.  There must have been power in that because none of the crews had a hold on him.

One day coming home from school Ray asked to look at the book I was carrying.  It was an art history book.  He went through it and stopped on the page where there was a reproduction of Caravaggio’s David Holding the Severed Head of Goliath.  He looked at it a long time, which surprised me.  Then he turned the book upside down and asked me “where is he from?”   I said “Italian 17th century”.  That wasn’t the right answer for him but it didn’t matter, Ray liked me.  Many years later I learned the answer to that question and wanted to tell him, but it was too late.  The superstar assassin was gone.   

 

 
copyright peter bardazzi 2006
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