Friday, June 22, 2007

The All Seeing Eye

So I have made at least one mention of The Evens on this blog before, making a link to their song about vowels. However, I have not really expressed the particular fondness I have for this band, a fondness based in large part on their stripped down but intense sound. I also love the band for the way in which their aesthetic can be understood as an answer a very particular existential question: How to maintain fidelity to youthful rebellion as one gets older?

That is a little awkwardly phrased, but I thought that the Badiou term was appropriate. Let me explain. First, as a general background point, in the United States radical politics has been identified with youth culture, anarchism is tied to punks, peace to hippies, etc. (If I wanted to continue writing this in Badiouisms, I would say that radical politics has been sutured to adolescent counterculture.) Thus, making it very difficult to think of how one can maintain such political commitments into adulthood. A grown up anarchist, an adult anti-war activists, the phrases suggest the caricature of an aging hippy with a ponytail comb-over. Radical politics are for the young, for those who have not learned the ways of the world. That old saying about "anyone who isn't a socialist at twenty having no heart" and so on carries particular weight here.

One half of The Evens is Ian Mackaye, famous for such bands as Minor Threat, Embrace, and Fugazi. A living icon of sorts. Now he could perhaps follow the icons of a previous generation in continuing to market nostalgia, perhaps a Minor Threat reunion tour? After all it worked for The Sex Pistols. Or give up entirely. Instead we have The Evens. The Evens have what could be described a more mature sound, played sitting down, no more jumping around; so they have left some of the kid's stuff to the kids. At the same time they have not sacrificed the core of rebellion. If anything their songs are even more direct than at least Fugazi; the chorus of "Everyone knows," which is about the current administration is quite simply, "Everyone knows you are a liar."

So one can grow old and still be punk as fuck.

Of course given my age, I almost have to believe this to be possible. I just got back from seeing The Evens live. I wont say that I was the oldest person at the show, there were some adults who brought their kids to the all ages show. I did, however, run into a few students there. One of whom pointed out that I was probably old enough to have seen Fugazi. Yes, I am that old.

One final note on the show itself. Ian Mackaye was very much what one would expect. The title of this post comes from a comment he made about a kid who had brought his laptop to record the show for Youtube. Which prompted a rant about the all seeing eye, the desire to tape everything, record everything (one could add blog everything) rather than experience it. Mackaye's impromptu lectures are as much a part of the show as the music, and all of well known topics were covered, punk breaking down the wall between performer and audience, the war, and even a brief digression about cadence. Amy Farina has a quieter intensity, focusing on singing, only really speaking up to mock Ian as a walking encyclopedia . They complement each other well.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

My New Favorite Movie

I had heard about this six hour film about the Paris Commune, but for some reason I was under the mistaken impression that it was a film by Chris Marker. I am not sure why I thought that, other than the fact that Chris Marker is one of the few directors who I could imagine making a six hour film about the Paris Commune. Anyway, it certainly was not the sort of film that I would have expected to find at my local video store. Don't get me wrong it is a very good video store, a great one in fact, but even they cannot work miracles. They do not have much Chris Marker, for example, and whenever I ask about Europa '51, they calmly point out that it does not exist in any format.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across La Commune (de Paris, 1871) at the video store the other day. I was wandering through the video store looking for something to complete my rent one get one free deal on "Thrifty Thursday" (my primary choice was Fay Grim, a total disappointment) when it just sort of jumped out at me. Even as I rented it, I was not sure that I would have the energy to watch a film that long. I found it utterly compeling, however, a real joy.

The film was made with primarily amateur actors, filmed entirely in a large warehouse, minimally redecorated to suggest the alleys and cafés of nineteenth century Paris. I know that those do not sound like selling points, but they are. The movie is made of equal parts documentary verisimilitude and anachronism; the action is punctuated by texts that detail the events of the commune, while at the same time part of the narrative is told by TV Newscasts on the competing networks "Versailles TV" and "Commune TV." Reporters from "Commune TV" debate the role of censorship in the revolution, while the talking heads on "Versailles TV" dismisses the commune as the product of a few foreign agitators. The combination of fact and fiction really pays off in the final hours of the film, as scenes of actors in character debating the actions of the commune and its various committee and decrees are spliced together with scenes of the same actors, now out of character, discussing the meaning of the commune and revolution to day. As the text linked to above, and the documentary included with the film, indicate the making of this film was for many of the people involved a life changing experience. So much so that many of them continued to meet and act in the spirit of the commune. In the end the film convinces you that this is the only way to make a film of the commune. The only way to represent collective action is through collective action.

So, I am curious if anyone has seen this, or any of Peter Watkins other films, or has thoughts.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Zombie as Critic

If I were Slavoj Zizek, I would begin this post with something to the effect that each period in history gets the monsters it deserves. These monsters express a fundamental contradiction at the heart of reality, a particular social nightmare. Thus while the nineteen-nineties may have been the decade of the vampire, from the brooding Goth vampires of Anne Rice to the nightmarishly adolescent vampires of Buffy, the first decade of this century has clearly been the decade of the zombie. The zombie movie has come back in multiple forms, from horror to comedy, and has even given rise to various “pseudo-zombies” such as the rage infected of the 28…films and the “reavers” of Firefly. There are even zombie books such as Max Brook’s World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide.

The zombie film carries particular heavy symbolic baggage, placed upon it by the genre’s creator George Romero, to serve as a metaphor or allegory (to use Shaviro’s term) for something about reality. Ever since Romero’s “living dead” wandered through the shopping mall, the zombie film has been inseparable from a social critique. The political subtext is not just tacked onto these films as some kind of didactic message, but stems directly from the narrative of the film. Romero’s zombies are so slow and lumbering that any destructive power that they have must be an effect of internal tensions within humanity. In each of Romero’s films it is ultimately the fissures within society, fissures of class, race, and gender, that lead to the zombie’s victory over the living. It is true that some films have avoided this burden of subtext, case in point the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which eschews the original’s anti-consumerism for a vaguely nihilistic apocalypse. The 28… films seem to embrace the imperative of subtext, making allusions to everything from fears of contagion to the contagious nature of violence itself.

What interested me about the first film, 28 Days Later, is the way in which it uses the geographical isolation of the UK as an element of its plot structure. One of the central questions of the first film has to do with the scope of the “rage infection” itself: does it encompass the globe, or is it limited to the island nation of the UK? This question is answered in the film by the memorable shot of the jet contrails in the sky. This could be seen as a sign of hope, that all is not lost. However, it also suggests that the UK is simply quarantined from the rest of the world. There is something horrific about the contrast between the apocalyptic violence on the ground and the image of the jet streaming peacefully overhead. What makes it horrific is that this is not just something invented by the film, but is in actuality a occurring event. All around the world jets full of businessmen and tourists coast blissfully unaware of the struggles for basic survival that rages below. At one point in the film a character imagines that life goes on outside of the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the UK, conjuring up images of people watching “The Simpsons.” What the character of the film imagines is us, the audience who seeks out horrors on the screen in a world full of horror.

The first film deals with the relation between what Balibar calls “ultra-objective violence,” the violence of the quarantine or embargo that simply renders a part of society expendable, and “ultra-subjective violence,” not just in the form of the “infected” of the film, but the soldiers who have become violently corrupt. In Balibar’s thought these two forms of violence are never separate, but exist in a dense “overdetermined” dialectic that it is necessary to untangle. As Balibar writes, discussing Bernard Ogilvie’s concept of a “l’homme jetable,” a disposable human being, individuals left to the ravages of AIDs, malnutrition, and ethnic battles.

“The “disposable human being” is indeed a social phenomenon, but it tends to look, at least in some cases, like a ‘natural’ phenomenon, or a phenomenon of violence in which the boundaries between what is human and what is natural, or what is post-human and what is post-natural, tend to become blurred; what I would be tempted to call an ultra-objective form of violence, or cruelty without a face; whereas the practices and theories of ethnic cleansing confront us with what I would call ultra-subjective forms of violence, or cruelty with a Medusa face.”

In the second film, 28 Weeks Later, the dialectic of types of violence is almost entirely absent. The soldiers in this film are no longer the unstable but charismatic faces of violence of the first one, they are, for the most part, pure functionaries of orders, automatons of calculated risk and procedure. The narrative of the second film deals with the attempt to repopulate and repatriate London twenty-eight weeks after the rage infection, hence the title. The US Army is undertaking the mission that can only be called, quite literally, “nation building.” The soldiers are there not so much to protect the new population but to ensure the success of the mission, even if this means killing the people in order to stop the infection. The central horror of the film takes place in the scenes in which the military firebombs part of London. Thus, to paraphrase an infamous saying, “Bombing London in order to save London.” It is worth noting that the allusions to Iraq are quite heavy in this film, right down to a green zone and an enemy that cannot be eradicated.

What is somewhat disappointing about the second film is the way in which it dispenses with the structural conflict between types of violence in favor of a narrative focused around responsibility. The film opens with a horrific scene of betrayal, as the central character abandons his wife to the violence of the infected to save his own life. This sets up the question of guilt and culpability. What is more central to film is the fact that this act has unintended consequences that set the rest of the plot in motion. The focus of the film is thus not so much responsibility in the face of a horrific situation, which would be interesting, but the unintended effects of individual actions. In the end, the film would seem to suggest that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” in that the acts of heroism and responsibility only serve to further the spread of the infection.

I suppose it is possible to see the second film as indicating the inadequacy of individual responsibility in the face of both the objective violence of markets and law and the subjective violence of hatred and corruption. However, it seems more likely that it will be understood cynically as simply underscoring the impossibility of acting responsibly in a corrupt world.