The recent weeks have provided us with movie galore: a feast for our senses and minds.
Beyond the obvious generic and thematic differences, the following releases offer tales of courage and endurance, resistance and resilience; they testify to our uncompromising (and uncompromised) ability to create. They are
tributes to the lasting legacy of our humanity: free will and agency, empowerment of oneself and others, and
At a time when cultural modes of storytelling have expanded and diversified, cinema reasserts its unique place as a storyteller able to show and tell through its visuality and narrative compression—its ability to expand fantastic imaginaries.
Its worldmaking legacy.
The following releases affirm, perhaps more than ever before, the unique power of cinema to transform and touch. They give us what Martin Scorsese called in a 2013 essay, “a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special” (NYRB August 15, 2013, p. 25).
As great cinematic pieces, they speak for the enduring place of American movies in the collective filmic imagination.
La La Land
We are treated to a long-lost pleasure: a cinemascope filmic experience that functions, right from the first shots and tunes, as an invitation to join in a celebration of life. Matisse-like bright colors and Degas-like graceful movements appeal to our sense of joy and lightness (and senses too). The older viewers remember West Side Story; older viewers still look back to the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And younger viewers discover—perhaps for the first time—the genius of the musical to transcend particular narrative boundaries, collapse the border between reality and dream, and blend music, text, dance and image in a dazzling choreography.
A screen romance and a chance to revisit founding cinematic principles—light, movement, time: in Scorsese’s words again, “it’s now and it’s then, at the same time.”
An unexpected common point with La La Land is the Meliès-like enchantment created by Star Wars.
As we enter the movie theatre and brace for the full filmic pleasure, we feel an uncanny sense of belonging. We experience the common thrill—not just of enjoying our shared knowledge of the past episodes but also of revisiting the past episodes from the vantage point of a future (in terms of the script) that tells us about a “before” we had not suspected until today. As viewers we feel empowered as our “memory knows before it remembers” in the faulknerian phrase.
The SF elements have become secondary since the world proposed to our (critical) gaze has become increasingly familiar and mundane, including the visual pyrotechnics and special effects now ubiquitous in video games.
Yet, our current predicament with Artificial Intelligence, for instance, gives us a different appreciation of the role played by the friendly robot on screen. The self-sacrifice (for the common good) enacted by the machine to help its human mate and equal (he/it? gets a weapon too) opens up the topical question: will our interaction with robots become a border (a wall?) or a frontier (a moving line)?
A journey? An adventure?
An opportunity or a curse?
Or a War?
With or without (the) stars…
Star Wars rehearses and reenacts its enduring ability to charter a new course for mythmaking.
NB. Footnote on war(s) : the movie visually revisits different modes of warfare, from Second World War combat to urban guerilla warfare in Iraq via drone “surgical” strikes.
A suggestive and unexpected piece of the epic puzzle given to Star Wars followers is a sneak postview of the genealogy of the Resistance effort…
Sneak preview for the newcomers to the ritual: now they can watch the other episodes knowing how the Team came about, what discussions and compromises had to be done to effectively create a union. And what sacrifices—human and robotic—were necessary for the early rebellion to take shape at all. It took individual courage and resistance before it took collective action.
Something to remember.
NB. Footnote on the grotesque aesthetics (human and mechanical): a starting point for an exploration of the question of Otherness—another key question in the current discussion around AI.
Star Wars: SF or cautionary tale?
The question is pertinent anew.
In our current “wised-up” context, the sight of Princess Leah at the end feels, perhaps, more uncanny than familiar.
Or does it?…
The Birth Of A Nation
The power of cinema in a different mode.
The wonder of cinema as it carries out /manifests the ability to stage Tragedy the way Greek drama used to do it.
Nate Parker’s characters are poised between Kerry James Marshall’s beautiful figures and proud people, and Kara Walker’s ghostly silhouettes and haunting presences.
An individual and collective tale of resistance dramatizing an attempt to circumvent the master and his tools, and the tyranny of bondage and fear.
If the tools don’t destroy the house this time, they do shake its foundations.
As a tribute to human endurance and resilience in the face of extreme oppression and violence, the movie emblematizes the question of agency and free will by revisiting a particular historical period and turning it, perhaps, into a parable of humanity and love and faith in the face of its most potent adversaries and Evil.
As an elaborate filmic piece—a direct response to Griffith’s skillful deployment of cinematic strategies in his infamous eponymous version—the movie shows “Why the Caged Bird Sings” in Maya Angelou’s poignant image. It also shows how words—sacred words indeed—circumvent the master’s discourse to be returned to their original demiurgic power beyond their distortion (perversion) and instrumentalization by “the peculiar institution”.
As a piece of History, it shows and tells: it deconstructs the plantation image, it peers into the pettiness and the sadistic cruelty; it explores the particular kind of bondage tying the master himself to his own addiction and corruption. It exposes greed and violence: there is no escaping from the reality of what human bodies did/have done/are doing to other human bodies.
Such is the truth told by the graphic scenes.
Of note: the portrayal of beautiful and strong women, in particular Nana and Cherry.
The movie makes, if indirectly, a hope-ful closing statement: within one generation, the rebellion that Nat started and the war he waged to uphold humanity found its outcome: the film ends on the character of a teenager who, as an adult, gets to enroll in the Union army, bringing Nat’s fight for freedom to its victory.
The focus on the film director’s life has marred the contemporary cultural work of the movie and muted the conversation that Nate Parker tried to open—an urgent and necessary conversation at a time when the worst prejudices and biases are conjured up against the background of unprecedented divisions and divides.
Not even an Oscar nomination? … Does such silence speak louder than words?
As for the not so recent…
Another tale of individual and collective courage. Sacrifice and resilience. Against a for-profit agenda (in this case, the insurance system). A welcome reminder about the power of individual decision-making in the face of collective fear. “Grace under pressure,” in Hemingway’s words. Grace indeed. A true hero leaving saved lives in his wake, gesturing towards an eschatological dimension beyond the biographical elements. A/The triumph of life.
The movie offers a complementary view on a controversial story as it was first told in the documentary Citizen Four by Laura Poitras. No matter what we think about the main protagonist of the tale (hero for some, anti-hero for others), the facts at hand are not “alternative”. Surveillance there was, surveillance there is. The Orwellian world we live in has recently provided more plot elements to flesh out Snowden’s character. For better and for worse.