Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Soft Readings of Hard Pulp or Sometimes a Carrot is NOT just a Carrot

imageShoot’em Up is a subtle critique on the preponderant narcissism of violence and sex that is ubiquitous in the movie  industry by being painfully over-the-top.  It intrepidly parries violence with violence, originating from two different discursive modes, by setting the traditional "shoot em up" tropes over and against the violence done towards good “film sense” utilizing ludicrous, and on one level, mindless camp. Clive Owen's performance is so awkwardly pultaceous that it exposes the internal paradox within the movie, which is further highlighted by his child-like obsession with carrots. The carrot is really a semiotic exchange, the value of which in this symbolic economy represents the trade-off between action movie spectacle and a desire for narrative and aesthetic cohesion. In other words, the heteronormative obsession with violence will only be sated (temporarily) at the cost of a more neutered and dispassionate appreciation of film craft. The deployment of a gendered discourse is made clearer through an analysis of the gun and carrot, which are the phallocentric images that drive and divide the movie towards its climax. The close-up of the no-man Smith biting a carrot has an eerily Freudian implication. Those implications become fully realized psychoanalytic themes as we are introduced to pregnant and lactating prostitutes, a symbolic merging of feminine archetypes irrupting unexpectedly (the sort of unexpectedness a prostitute might experience if she was, in fact, expecting) into the hyper-masculine universe of the film’s gun-toting milieu. Furthermore, these symbols swirl around the simulacra of a public figure, whose images on TV are phantasmagorical projections concealing the decaying body politic as metaphorically exhibited by the suffering/conniving politician. Of course, the revelation of the connection between the dying Senator and the infant offers a further nuance to the previously considered juxtapositions-that of the interplay between Thanatos and Eros. Also, Monica Bellucci is smokin’ hot in this.

Friday, June 20, 2008

From Puppies to Wolves

“La guerre est la guerre”

clip_image002Randall Jarrell was an American confessional poet, a member of the so-called Fugitive Poets, during the middle of the 20th century. He has been described as, “perhaps the most skilled of American poets writing on the Second World War” (Hill 152). Indeed, the theme of the Second World War prefigures dominantly in many of his poems, including the three set for analysis in this paper: “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” “Losses,” and “Eighth Air Force.” As perhaps the most self-consciously psychoanalytical of the confessional poets, War itself offers a rich framework from which to construct a more universal theme, that of the loss of innocence (Willamson 283).

Jarrell in a number of his works adopts various voices, which may be related to his experiences during the war but at the same time distances himself as the particular Randall Jarrell in order to adopt an innocent or at least a voice not informed by the position of the omniscient author. This poetic strategy is described by one commentator as “the sweet uses of personae” (Beck 67). In a letter sent to a friend, we can gain significant insight to the sources of his personae:

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," resulted from his relief at not occupying that most vulnerable position in a combat plane. The composite voice in "Losses" intones, "In bombers named for girls, we burned / The cities we had learned about in school." Jarrell writes in the same letter that "your main feeling about the army, at first, is just that you can't believe it; it couldn't exist, and even if it could, you would have learned what it was like from all the books, and not a one gives you even an idea." The speaker of "Eighth Air Force," who judges himself along with the other "murderers" who sit around him playing pitch or trying to sleep, is but one remove from the flight instructor who describes to Tate how he would "sit up at night in the day room . . . writing poems, surrounded by people playing pool or writing home, or reading comic-strip magazines." (Beck 70)

As it relates to the loss of innocence we can see more specifically how this sweet use of personae is performed in his single most famous poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The poem begins mentioning “my mother” and then shortly thereafter using the word “belly,” implying an infantile or womb-like setting indicative of the settings of a child. The poem describes in indirect, uncomplicated detail the events that transpired. The loss of innocence is marked by the juxtaposition of the images “dream of life” and “nightmare fighters,” and the last line in which the author states his demise is both marked with a sense of bitterness at the casualness of his treatment, and resigned acceptance of the Gunner’s fate. The adoption of the innocent persona is also deployed in Jarrell’s poem “Losses.” The speakers attempt to offer an analogy as to how they died mentioning, aunts, pets and foreigners. This list at first is a bit eclectic and strange until the next line explains the selection, “When we left high school nothing else had died/For us to figure we had died like.” The list represents things that children, who are generally unfamiliar with death on a personal level, might have experienced as dying: a distant relative, clearly implying that these boys in their “new planes” were too young to have a parent die, a childhood pet, disappointing but commonplace, or someone they see on TV or hear about on the radio, too far away to really care about. The personal and tragic experience of their own death is an all too vivid and impactful event; such an event jolts them from their relatively quiescent relationship with death into the stark realities of war and suffering.

Another important rhetorical device employed by Jarrell in his work is to exploit the confusing, ambiguous and hectic nature of war as expressed by its inveigling and indirect language. Orwell notes this phenomenon of the fluidity and moral flexibility of war language:

In war and other times of political crisis, direct, forceful language becomes "transformed" and used in defense of the "indefensible." According to Orwell, political forces make use of the ambiguity and flexibility natural to language and metaphorical thought to further their political goals, making them more palatable to ordinary people through sterile terminology and euphemism. (Hill 153)

clip_image002[5]The use of military jargon is an effective means of obfuscating the blunt trauma of war, shielding innocence from its own crimes, obviously in one particular instance in “Eighth Air Force,” this language is betrayed when the speaker refers to himself and the other members of his troop as “murderers.” However, the presence of such language in his poetry foregrounds the awkwardness of military language, the narrative and rhetorical tension of the military phraseology is made apparent in the first two lines of “Losses”: “It was not dying, everybody died/It was not dying we had died before.” Dying is inherently personal and private, thus militaristically it does not, and cannot apply. Even the poems title, “Losses,” reinforces this sense of euphemism (Hill 154). It is not deaths or even casualties it’s…losses. As the poem progresses, however, the further exploitation of deflected discourse continuously builds the narrative tension in the work the “counting of scores,” as if it were just a game, the “turning into replacements” negating the individuality of one soldier or his death and thus annihilating a distinction between them. This tension maintains the innocent oblivion of the speaker until at the end, an overwhelming bitterness breaks the mood of the poem when the speaker asserts: “It was not dying --no, not ever dying.” Finally, the weight of the deflection becomes too much and the coming of age, the recognition of the reality of the situation becomes apparent as the speaker switches out of military code and style and questions, “Why are you dying…Why did I [my emphasis] die?” In remembering Tennyson’s mantra in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” we can see why this questioning is a rhetorical break from the previous mode of the poem, to question one’s death, one’s dying, is indeed a violation of duty-“their’s is not to reason why, their’s is but to do and die.” This questioning not only marks a rhetorical break, but the putting aside of childlike concerns about the scores of missions, and girls and coming face-to-face with one’s own mortality. This individualization marks both the maturation of the speaker, as self-awareness is a hallmark of maturity, and the finality of the poem as for the first time the speaker refers to himself as “I,” in a manner highly uncharacteristic of “military speak.”

Another method of elucidating the ambiguity of war as a metaphor for the ambiguities of life is through the use of dream imagery, “the dream is a favorite motif of Jarrell's, both in his war poems and in his other poetry” (Calhoun 2). Dreams by their nature are confusing, and vague, but at the same time can be vividly intense, clarifying and extremely specific. The fog of war can often mimic the fog of adolescence, the whirlwind of emotions and hormones, the transition from childhood to young adulthood can be a confusing, intense and taxing period. Jarrell using dreams as a proxy for the fog is able to extend the metaphor from war to the battles in life. In “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” Jarrell performs an interesting reversal of the dream metaphor. Initially, the innocent womb-like existence of the gunner is the “dream of life” and he wakes up to a nightmare. Life is the tenuous dreamlike reality of the gunner, and reality is the distorted nightmare, the gunner literally wakes into death from his sleep of life (Cyr 94). This confusion is emblematic of the hectic and turbulent nature of war, which again is further emblematic of the confusion of life as one attempt to grapple with the realities therein. The inchoate distinctions between life and death, dream and reality are resolved in stark detail by the materialistic, “hard” description of being washed out of turret by a hose-there is no unclear dialogue, no deflected discourse in the action being described at the end of the poem. The dream trope is also utilized in “Eighth Air Force” in the final stanzas in attempt to display the difficulties in resolving the moral ambiguities that soldiers are faced with during war. In this poem the puppy has become the wolf, though admittedly through no fault of the puppy but through the routine of war as the speaker sighs, “Still this is how it is done.” Yet, the moment of moral clarity is brought through to its apotheosis through a dream. Jarrell in the line preceding the final stanza shows that the speaker has given into his moral responsibility invoking the phrase, “behold the man.” That phrase, Ecce homo, is used by Pontius Pilate when he is presented a scourged and thorn-crowned Jesus shortly before his Crucifixion. That religious imagery is maintained into the final stanza as Jarrell, “Using a complex allusion to the dream of Pontius Pilate's wife just prior to the crucifixion of Christ (Matthew 27:19), Jarrell's speaker obliquely refers to having "suffered, in a dream, because of him / many things" (Hill 159). It is many things suffered in the dream of that man “this last savior,” that transcends or at least clarifies the transition from puppy to wolf, from child to adult, from innocence to deep guilt. Jarrell does not exculpate the speaker, but neither does he condemn him when he comments that though men lie and wash their hands, in blood, he “finds no fault in this just man.” It is not just man that is responsible; it is the system of war, which manipulates individuals to becoming wolves, though these wolves are responsible, ultimate responsibility lies elsewhere.

Jarrell in the post-World War II saw the final primacy of the machine, its subjugation of all human feelings and intimations to the mindless "systems" of technology (Fowler 120-121). It is these “systems” that not only operate in wartime, but at all times, which pulls us along from sweet childhood to a more sour adulthood. It is at the teats of these systems where puppies are suckled into wolves.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Photography Redux or the Randomness of a Monday Morning

I am always impressed by those who have photographic vision, though I am always at some pains to grasp exactly what it is about that kind of seeing, if it exists at all. Photographic seeing if it exists allows a photographer to capture a moment in history. That captured moment can entertain us, horrify us or educate and enlighten us. The more talented the photographer, the more we are made aware of the world around us. Photographic vision not only allows us to see more of the world, but allows us to see through different eyes. Henri Cartier-Bresson whose work spanned the 20th century, Margaret Bourke-White who worked primarily before 1950 and Cindy Sherman, a currently living and active artist are three photographers, who capture what I appreciate about photographic vision.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was present at many important events of the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War, to the German occupation of France, the partition of India and the Chinese revolution, Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist of the highest rank. Throughout most of his photographic career there was one constant, his Leica 35mm. The French novelist and critic Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues once said that Cartier-Bresson used his Leica "rather as the Surrealists tried to use automatic writing: as a window that leaves one permanently open for visitations of the unconscious and the unpredictable" (Ebony 2004, 188). Cartier-Bresson in his most famous collection The Decisive Moment, sought to capture life in its singular essence, the living essence of life. In his own words he offers upon discovering the Leica, "It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it…determined to "trap" life-to preserve life in the act of living" (Sontag 1973, 185). This act of trapping of capturing the decisive moment would become the hallmark of his photography. Cartier-Bresson's vision allowed him to capture those decisive moments where most of us would only see the mundane. Nietzsche suggests that, "To experience a thing as beautiful means to experience it necessarily wrongly" (Sontag 1973, 184). Cartier-Bresson understanding of the world often flew in the face of such a dour supposition. clip_image002

One photograph that uniquely and elegantly captures that moment in which one's attention is immediately and intensely drawn to the beautiful out of the mundane is Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare St. Lazare. On the face of it we see a man running across a large puddle behind what is a train terminal in Paris. However, a formal analysis of the image reveals delightful similarities that would otherwise be missed in the instant (Savedoff 1997, 208-209). Initially, the fortuitous timing of the picture as the man has just stepped off the ladder and has not broken the mirror-like surface of the water. Secondly, the slats of the ladder match the repeated metallic bars of the fence behind him. The poster on the wall features an image of a dancer leaping recapitulating the main action of the photo. Finally, the ripples in the puddle repeat the circular elements peeking out from the surface of the water. The schematization of the moment in time reveals an aesthetic symmetry between the environment and action, between the animate and inanimate, which is awe-inspiring and elegantly beautiful. Some might complain that the fortuitousness of such an image is perhaps too fortuitous, and indeed such a complaint might be legitimate. We are apt, when it comes to photos, to lend our confidence too quickly in its veracity (Savedoff 1997, 207). This easily given confidence evidenced by the mischievous appeal of "photoshopped" pictures, in which images are digitally altered in such a way as to appear legitimate. In a painting, the repetition that is envisioned in Cartier-Bresson's photo would seem contrived and strained. Because the nature of the photograph imputes an "as is" structure as it is an imaging of reality, which appears to us "as is," it is then the case that the repetition is unique, surprising and thus beautiful. It might be argued that the scene presented here is indeed contrived, but the "truth" of the moment is nevertheless maintained through Cartier-Bresson's unique photographic vision. As a world traveler Cartier-Bresson caught many decisive moments around the world, in doing so the viewers of his photographs became more aware of the subtlety and complexity of the world around them.

clip_image005In another photograph of his travels, not the city streets of Paris but the remote mountain province of Kashmir on the border of India, Pakistan, and China we see four nomads watching out over the land. Kashmir is a heavily disputed territory and the sight of much bloodshed and violence. Though Cartier-Bresson was an insightful photojournalist, his photographic vision saw more than just that violence but the calm and peacefulness that could be found even in this war torn region. By presenting a view of Kashmir that did not consist primarily of violent upheaval, Cartier-Bresson offered a vision of social hope and social connection even in times of turmoil through an appeal to the senses.

clip_image007The next photographer's sight we will explore is that of Margaret Bourke-White. A photojournalist for the Luce Empire, her photos in Time, Life, and Fortune documented the world with a spectacular realism and emotional appeal. She was one of the first western photographers to witness the industrialization of the Soviet State, and one of the first women photographers to gain international fame and currency. Photojournalism as a medium of expressing information was brought into its golden age through her work. Though according to Barthes there is no code in the message of a photograph, a photograph can open up a moment in a way that a painting, or a story cannot. Sometimes, photographs can express an actuality that is behind the reality of daily life. Because reality has its own codes, that door to actuality can sometimes be closed off to us. The photographer as documenter and expositor can open those doors as Bourke-White explains, "Nothing attracts me like a closed door. I cannot let my camera rest until I have pried it open" (Fletcher 2007, 54).

The depression of the pre-WWII era was devastating to many families and individuals, in the South and Midwest. A number of journalists and photographers collaborated to document this plight, to draw attention to those who would not otherwise get attention. Notably James Agee and Walker Evans work, Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's, You Have Seen Their Faces highlight in raw actuality the reality of the depression. One photo is particularly revelatory in this regard. "Louisville Flood Victims," juxtaposes to provocative effect a line of poor blacks huddled on a bread line beneath a billboard of a happy white family in their car and the banner: "World's Highest Standard of Living" (Fletcher 2007, 54). The exquisite acuteness of the message is intentional and thought provoking, and intentionally so. Much about photography is subtle and complex, Bourke-White's photo here is most definitely to the contrary. The contradistinction between the bright, shining, and oblivious faces of the family in the car coupled with the stern and dark faces of those waiting in line for bread underneath brings a poignant and legitimate note of irony to the phrase, "There's no way like the American Way." Other photos from You Have Seen Their Faces, such as this one of poor farmers in Yazoo City, Mississippi document the plight of the South during the Great Depression. Here we see their faces and realize that this group, this region of the United States had been forgotten. The text of the book reads, "It is that dogtown on the other side of the railroad tracks that smells so badly every time the wind changes. It is the Southern Extremity of America, the Empire of the Sun, the Cotton States; it is the Deep South, Down South; it is The South" (Caldwell and Bourke-White 1995, 1). By photographing the faces and people of the American South, Margaret Bourke-White made the rest of the country aware of the social circumstances of the hardest hit, forcing the American polity to see what they did want to see.

image The final photographer whose vision reveals insight is that of Cindy Sherman. Cindy Sherman is a conceptual artist and photographer whose works often include herself installed in iconic and recognizable scenes. Her work tackles many subjects including ones of gender roles, identity, issues of sexual politics and the "gaze." As such, much of her corpus is described as "feminist" in nature. However, this questionable label aside, the work of Cindy Sherman offers a vision of culture, which is unique insofar that it re-consumes images from other forms of popular media and then represents that re-consumption back onto itself. Thus philosophically, her photographic sight is a mirror of itself. In other words, her work offers a method of understanding how visual media understands itself, or for us how photography might see itself (Mauer 2005). In one of her most recognized set of works Untitled Film Stills, Sherman interposes herself in a number of non-specific yet eminently recognizable scenes. In Untitled Film Still #6, the twisted pin-up girl trope is played upon to slightly diabolical effect. The classic pin-up girl of the 40's and 50's should offer a sense of invitation and not seduction. There are specific bodily dimensions that must be offered, she must look ecstatic to be there. Here Sherman's proportions are intentionally photographed askew, by rotating the trunk of her body and arching her back her breast and hips look narrow and small instead of the canonical strictness associated with pin-ups. The clothes that she is wearing are clashing and mismatched and the facial expression is stultifying, she looks lifeless as a mannequin. The scene in general looks messy and disorganized, the sheets are wrinkled and the flower pattern is confusing. The overall rhetoric from the scene clashes inherently from what such a photograph would send as a message. Hence, the paradox of the photo offers a vision of the pin-up girl that is inherently accusatory, even morally imposing. Yet, despite this moral approbation, there is something undeniably attractive about the scene. Something that exudes a particular residue of sexuality despite the intentional mocking is evident.

Much of the work of Cindy Sherman mocks the kind of role that sex and sexual politics play in our society. At the end of the 1980's during the H.W. Bush administration, funding was cut to artists such as Andre Serrano, and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who pushed the boundaries of social norms. The National Endowment for the Arts deemed that their work was morally licentious and corrupting and as such could not be publicly supported. In response, Cindy clip_image002[7]Sherman created a series of photographs in a collection entitled Sex. In this series of works, she photographed assembled parts of medical dummies in blatantly sexual positions and formations. How one chooses to understand these pictures, either as a pornographic depiction of the human body or as a random assemblage of plastic parts, it generates pointed queries about what is going to count as indecent expression and the philosophical underpinnings for those determinations. Though much of Sherman's work is both amusing and somewhat mischievous, it also asks very serious questions about issues of national morals and values and the role of art and photography to be mediums of free expression in a modern and ostensibly open liberal society. Cindy Sherman's photographic vision allows us to examine culture from a slightly askew perspective in order to fundamentally reassess its foundations.

Through the work of Cartier-Bresson, Bourke-White, and Sherman it is possible to understanding the concept of photographic seeing as an educational process by which we can examine who we are as individuals, as a culture, as a nation, and as a world through eyes that are not our own. Such a process can be beautiful as in the work Cartier-Bresson, poignant and informative as in the photos of Bourke-White, or somewhat disturbing as often the work of Cindy Sherman is. Photographic seeing draws our attention in unexpected and unusual ways, and because of this we are all the more richer.