Saturday, December 23, 2006

Kung Fu Hustle

Kristi came down for a nice little visit this past week, and just before she left we watched Kung Fu Hustle, which might be her all-time favorite movie. With her and on my own I've probably seen the film a good four or five times now, and I'm a little surprised how little has been lost in the repeat viewings - it actually gets more enjoyable every time I see it. I like the way the film mixes and shuffles genres, which jumps not just from comedy to action to melodrama, but from Warner Brothers cartoon-style slapstick to traditional kung fu action tropes to more contemporary Yuen Wo-Ping/Matrix-y fight scenes, etc. It's pretty great how the film jumps between references and genres without ever being dragged down into Leslie Nielson territory. The allusions are never central to the plot or even to the film's enjoyment (and rarely even central to the joke - as witnessed by the huge popularity of the film among people like myself and Kristi who miss every single one of the kung fu genre references that many HK audiences would recognize instantly). The allusions are just kind of there, without any apparent purpose other than to ensure that the proceedings never get too serious - which they certainly could with the death of likeable major characters, the harsh social/economic conditions of "Pig-Sty Alley" and the unheroic protagonists who keep trying to do bad things to the film's most charismatic characters.

The film's about as close in feel to the classic slapstick of the silent era as anything since Tati, with the focus going completely the opposite direction of a film like Playtime. While the gentlemanly Tati oriented his films increasingly away from the body (particularly his own) and towards perception as the source of his comedy, Stephen Chow throws bodies all over the screen like a CGI'ed Buster Keaton. The interesting thing is that the old slapstick comedians are funny because they really dropped houses on themselves, or pole-vaulted into windows, or climbed the sides of skyscrapers. You take away that trust in the image and half the jokes aren't funny anymore. Think back to your favorite Buster Keaton film - would you have laughed if that drop from the two-story building into the villain's car, or the perfect timing that allowed the train to avoid the obstrutction, etc if there wasn't the implicit possibility that it might not actually work out, or that it might even be dangerous? That tension, which can make us squirm in our seats in anticipation, is central to the humor of those films. Bergson thought that humor came from infusing man with the properties of objects and objects with human properties, an part of what makes Keaton or Chaplin funny is their ability to perform truly inhuman acrobatic feats. They couldn't have been funny in the same way if they were digitally aided, because they wouldn't be humans acting like objects, but images/objects acting like objects.

But Chow is all about the CGI, enough that Kung Fu Hustle is practically a cartoon. So how is Kung Fu Hustle funny when digital gags in other films usually fall flat the moment the CG becomes apparent? (Or when, in another register, another film's CG monster isn't scary, or another film's CG action scene isn't exhilirating?) Again, I think that the allusions have a little something to do with it - the characters live in a movie world, so it's only naturally that they obey the rules of other movies, which in this case extends to slapstick and cartoons and kung fu action scenes and superhero movies all at once. And there's a certain consistency to the film's cartoonish logic, which only affects certain characters and only enters the action in certain kinds of scenes, and the consistent cartoonish-ness of it all means that the CGI never makes an especially jarring introduction. Because it's so much like a cartoon, the physical comedy is enjoyed as if it were a cartoon rather than classical slapstick, except that the cartoons are more detailed and familiar than most animations drawn by hand or computer because they're based originally on photography.

There's an insistence on the body throughout the film as well that is central to the physical, cartoonish humor. Not only is the body twisted, contorted and hurled across the screen through CGI, but there are repeated jokes about characters' appearances. It expresses a lot of anxiety about the body generally, in its jokes about the overweight landlady and the jiggling fat of Chow's sidekick, or buck-toothed Jane, or the general preponderance of seemingly mis-matched physiques, and also in the harsh grotesqueness of its violence (sliced limbs, body-throwing shotgun blasts, decapitations, etc). This location of cartoonish elasticity in the body feels like a part of the film's general thrust towards reassurance, and an unrealistic transformation of the body that's more akin to the Matrix and American superhero conventions (like in Spider-Man, which is referenced) than the physical sacrifice-heavy kung fu films. While the jokes are clearly parodic, in that they're intended to refer to a "normal" state of the body, the film tends to highlight them in order to minimize their ultimate importance. (One shouldn't overstate the case - the film doesn't dismiss them, and that line between "normal" and "abnormal" is most definitely present. It should also be noted that the most "normal-bodied" characters in the film are the axe gang members, who are anonymous, practically featureless, and don't have access to the cartoon exaggerations of the kung fu masters.)

Of course, there's a problem with the Bergsonian-ish (emphasizing the "ish") formulation above that equates images and objects. They are entirely different. Perhaps most CGI effects aren't effective because they treat images as images, mere pixels arranged on screen to resemble something vaguely photographic. That is, regardless of what it's depicting, what's on screen is just an image, and CGI remains faithful to that. Altering the Bergson-ish formulation just a little bit, you could say that it doesn't pit human-ness against object-ness, but that slapstick brings to the forefront the object-ness of a person (with Keaton being the embodiment par excellance). This slightly revised formulation is not reversible in the same way as the original, but we could say that infusing objects with human qualities is comedic partially because it blurs the lines between human and object, naturally a source of anxiety in the machine age. So, when an object takes on human traits, it's as if it were a human whose object-ness had all but drowned out its human qualities - or at least that's the way a human relates to it. So, Chow's film emphasizes the image-specific qualities of characters, and, conversely, finds familiar, human-ness in even its most ridiculous images, rather than letting the film devolve into a mere string of 2-d images.

PS - I don't know Bergson all that well and I'm guessing I've misremembered, misunderstood or not taken into account important points that should have been addressed (or should have been differently addressed).

That's much more than I intended to say about the film. I guess the relaxation of this vacation has turned to boredom and restlessness, and, perhaps, idle speculation. Maybe I just like typing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I lugged in a large bag of books, which I sold, and still managed to make a significan dent in my credit card at Powell's this week. My level of indoctrination into the whole graduate school whatever can be measured by my excitement over the purchases I made, some of which are for a specific class, some of which are "for fun" (also because I know I'll need them and might as well buy them now, not that I have an excess of spending money or anything, just that I know they'll come in handy and Powell's had some good deals). I love Powell's, so much. The most I spend on any one of those books was $16.95, which was for required reading for the first week of class. The rest were all under or around $10. So goddamn great.

In Chicago the only used book store I know of is, actually, Powell's. It's the original Powell's, located in Hyde Park about a mile from my place. It's a different order of book store, small-ish and built for informal browsing rather than the Portland model, which is so large that you kind of need to know what you want beforehand (or stick to one of the poorly-stocked sections, like the entire film, art and music floor). You go to stores like the Portland Powell's in search of specific books, with a little browsing on top of that (and, naturally, careful inspection og all the "on sale" displays), while the Hyde Park version isn't large enough to reliably carry any specific title. But it's fun to spend an hour sifting through the poorly organized shelves of film books, breezing past the various randomly assigned sections on the ways in and out. Real good place. Even though I might prefer this to any one of Seattle's used book stores, I miss the variety and options you have there. Not that there aren't other great book stores in Chicago: Hyde Park's Seminary Co-Op, only five or so blocks from my apartment, is easily one of the best stores for new books I know of, but I can't justify a $25 new book purchase to myself as easily as I can four used books at $6.95 each, which you could find at any one of three places in the U-District and a couple on Capitol Hill. And Hyde Park's known as "the book district," sort of - I get the feeling that's intended as a vaguely derisory invocation of what the NYT called the neighborhood's, ahem, "nerdiness."

For the curious, the story behind the two Powell's is supposedly that Mr. Powell started the store in Chicago first, then moved to Portland. He sold the original store to somebody else, who kept the somewhat established Powell's name. The two developed independently of each other, with one attaining national prominence as the best book store on the West Coast, and the other being a fun, quirky hole in the wall that caters to the pointy-headed U of C crowd. I guess the biggest similarity for me is that I spend too much money at both.

Monday, December 18, 2006

And.... done.

And I'm now through with my first quarter of graduate school, recuperating in the delightfully uneventful city of Vancouver, WA. I'm enjoying the couch as much as I can. I guess it's a good thing I won't get my stipend check until I get back to Chicago, because otherwise I'd be spending a good chunk of it at Powell's. Already been once. Going back tomorrow with two bags of books that I don't really want to get rid of, but I realized that if I don't sell them they'll just sit in this house until my parents move (which might suddenly be a possibility for the not-too-distant future). Haven't bothered rereading the essay since I handed it in - too scared that I'll discover glaring, laughable mistakes all over the place. After shrinking the font and narrowing the spacing to 1.5 instead of the advised double spacing, the paper was a dense 16 pages that I hope to god are coherent, at least somewhat.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


I just discovered a good little note I'd jotted down a couple days ago in a discussion of Fassbinder's use of mirrors: Fassbinder's constant use of mirrors indicates what might be read as a heavy reliance of the acousmetre; by attaching voices to their 2-d mirror representations rather than the "real" subject on screen, Fassbinder grants many of his characters the status of semi-acousmetres. This both allows them to slip more easily into full acousmetric presences (such as the voice/body split that occurs in the slaughterhouse early in 13 Moons - also, in Fassbinder, as in Fellini, the voice dubbing is loosely synchronized, and, as Chion explains, "these post-synched voices float around bodies" rather than inhabiting them), but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, Fassbinder's conception of the image grants it so much power/primacy/control/whatever that the only way to compensate for that, and to compete with it, is by granting the voice a certain degree of acousmatic powers (hints of omniscience, omnipotence) that come from separating it from the mouth/body. The word I originally used to describe the image's power as Fassbinder conceives it was "overwhelming-ness" which is kind of poetic, in an awkward, accidental sort of way.

My favorite explanation of the acousmetric properties comes in Chion's discussion of Ordet (p. 129-30 of The Voice in Cinema, 1999):

"At the end of Dreyer's Ordet, the madman Johannes pronounces before the body of Inger the words that are supposed to bring the young woman back to life. Dreyer could have filmed this scene in either of two ways. He could have shown the face of Inger when the offscreen words of Johannes are heard, or the camera could remain on Johannes as the latter declaims the words of life.

"The first solution would be more magical - Johnanne's voice would function as an acousmatic voice with all the power of acousmetres. The second solution keeps thing in the human dimension - Johannes is nothing but a man, and the words have no power other than by the grace of God. That is the solution Dreyer chose. In the entire film, vocal production is filmd directly, head-on, with very few offscreen voices. Speech draws on the symbolic force of 'embodied' language here, not on the black magic of disembodied voices."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I think I've finally figured out where to start the Fassbinder paper - I've been writing and writing and writing, all in rough draft/note form and all relatively unstructured; the key hurdle has been trying to figure out that point of entry into everything, and then all of these notes I've been compulsively scribbling instead of actually writing this goddamned essay will be much easier to fit together. The theory, anyway, is that they'll all fall in line, magically, once I figure out where to start. The thing is, because I'm covering so much ground with this thing, the direction set by this first little bit can make a huge difference, up to and including which films the paper focuses on and which critics and theorists are privileged over others: the plan was to write about In a Year of 13 Moons and Michel Chion, utilizing eeeeeeeverything else as support, but I'm thinking a better intro might come from discussing Petra von Kant and a notion of cinematic space that comes mainly from Bordwell and Bazin. That doesn't mean that my main points can't still be Chion/13 Moons-related, but it's hard to make those the home bases around which the other arguments rotate if I'm unable to work them in until page 2 or 3. But I've kind of made up my mind, I guess. I was hoping that by concentrating on one film and one theorist and relegating the rest to supporting roles I might give off the (false?) impression of overall structural coherance rather than the anything-goes jumble I'm worried it will be.

The intro I'm currently thinking of ties the artificial-ness of Fassbinder's filmic space in general - the posing for the camera, the excessive audio-visual stimulation placed throughout the frame, the lack of 360-degree spatial representation (or, as I argue, the lack of 360-degree space, period; his films are shot along 180-degree perspectives, for the most part, although that's an assertion that requires some justification, evidence, etc), the self-awareness and emphasis on looking and the look, the lack of motivation on both the micro and macro levels, and the general (superficial) unreality of the acting - with the "abstract, unlocalized space" that opens so many of his films. In Beware of a Holy Whore, an actor delivers a lengthy monologue, filmed from below with a featureless blue sky his only background. In Petra von Kant, two cats rest on a set of steps, with no indication of whether this is occurring inside or outside. In 13 Moons, the shots alternate between extreme long shot and extreme close-up, a disorienting tactic that allows the viewer to follow the basic action but not to identify with any specificity the characters or, more importantly, how this space will relate to the rest of the story (it doesn't, standing out, paradoxically, as the most "natural" setting of the whole film). The American Soldier opens with three rough-looking men playing cards around a table, with a single overhead light illuminating the men and their cards, but everything behind them being hidden in total darkness. Fassbinder's first film, Love Is Colder than Death, opens in a more literally "abstract" space, with the walls either blank or covered over in solid-colored fabric.

Why this disorientation? Well, that's one of the big questions I need to answer, although the "why" is slightly less interesting to me than the "so what." My argument for the "why" portion of the paper has a lot to do with a similarly abstract notion of time, in which, for example, the past is thoroughly abstracted so as to exist only through its present representations (that's where 13 Moons comes in, as Elvira's past is literally carved onto her body). The temporal relationship between one shot/scene and the next is just as uncertain as the spatial one - which explains Fassbinder's tendency towards long takes when certainty is what a scene calls for. (That uncertainty is something that I'm still working through, but I'm tying it, at least in part, to the ways that space is actually explored in Fassbinder, mainly through the network of looks, stares and glances that play throughout his films.)

The "so what" is where the look/voice split comes in, in how the film cues the audience to interpret the sometimes "illegible" (according to Corrigan) scenes and construct spatio-temporal relationships between one character/shot/scene and another.

When it comes right down to it, though, Fassbinder's films take place in this kind of abstraction because space really doesn't matter. His conception of space is closer to the postmodern one that Corrigan describes, where geographical/physical distance cedes primacy to stress being placed on the hierarchy of information that populates any location. To be more specific, though, I think Fassbinder's films are organized (spatially, but also temporally/chronologically and occasionally dramatically) around sensations, around audio-visual experience of frame/image, of character, of location, etc. While not going so far as to say that, for example, his characters are mere placeholders in a greater aestheticized narrative, I'm going to fall back on the old postmodern cliche and say that his aestheticization - the highly theatrical posing, the audio-visual surplus, etc - is utilized neither in support of nor in ironic counterpoint to the narrative. It exists alongside it as an end in and of itself. A seeming paradox that lets Fassbinder have it both ways, so to speak - his films scream out their status as mere images, as cinema, but that doesn't mean they can't be "authentic."

Right now (cup of coffee #4 of the day, with the first two being very, very large - I guess I'm in place in which clock time doesn't matter all that much; my time is currently measured by pages left to write, caffeine consumed, and hours of sleep gotten), I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed because there's about five pages worth of arguments that I want to make just on Fassbinder's use of mirrors. But, if my dense ramblings above are any indication, I need to be more concise. So, here's the shortest possible explanation for all of the points I feel I should make about Fassbinder's insistent use on both filming in mirrors and on having characters look into mirrors:

1)a mirror reduces whatever it contains into a 2-d image, placing a character looking into one at same level as film viewer (sort of - the character can turn around at any time and see the rest of the scene, the camera cannot because Fassbinder composes his action for the frame rather than embracing Bazinian 360-degree realism... okay, that was too long)
2)mirrors distance characters from one another, wrapping frames around faces and bodies that separate them from the rest of the decor
3)mirrors double the character's image on screen - a typically German preoccupation, except that for Fassbinder this doubling produces both the character and his image, again drawing parallel to the viewer's perspective
4)looking at oneself in a mirror allows a character to understand and rehearse how others see him/her, and to try to control that in some way (a huge motivation throughout Fassbinder's work); plus, it allows characters to see themselves in relation to other people in the scene
5)this is my favorite one, and where I'm cutting off the list: the look has an especially important place in Fassbinder's cinema, and a character looking at someone else is not only communicative and revealing, but the fact that he/she is looking is usually more important than whatever's being looked at - which is a total reversal from traditional subject/object, shot/reverse-shot organization in the classical cinema. That's all been said before, much more eloquently (and packed with Lacanian jargon) than I ever could. The part I'm excited about is my realization that characters rarely lock eyes in Fassbinder, and when they do it's usually right before an outburst (usually very physical) or something climactic. Looks are mostly one-way, and conversations are staged with both characters looking towards the camera, or one staring at the back of the other's head. There's something far too intimate, and powerful, about the returned gaze to allow it casual use. So mirrors are kind of like those little boxes you use to watch a solar eclipse - they let a character see another character's face without actually having to look him in the eyes and meet his gaze. Bam. And it's directly related to 1.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Not the brightest bulb.

Have you ever used the bathroom in the middle of the night and, once you've finished, you flip the light switch instead of anything connected to the toilet? And then, because you realize your mistake, you try to be more alert and as you walk out the room you just stare at the light switch, not flipping it off, because you don't want to make the same mistake twice? Wild guess as to whether that happened to me early this morning

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Not dark yet...

But it's getting there. So, as a timewasting distraction before jumping back into my paper (which, I realized last night, only needs to be 15 pages, whereas I have notes for a paper that would be, oh, 50 or 60 pages - double-spaced, that is), I'm staring at the computer screen and doing my best to be non-productive and restful before writing a paper that will, undoubtedly, revolutionize R.W. Fassbinder scholarship... hehe, heh, *sigh*. I just kept watching, and just kept reading, and just have this huge surplus of disconnected notes about the relationship between voice (new!) and gaze (it's been done), and the weird abstract space/image/time in some, maybe most, of his films. The idea to connect Michel Chion's concept of the acousmetre (well, I guess it's a Pierre Schaeffer concept, but Chion's the one who applied it to film) to the semi-diegetic narrations of In a Year of 13 Moons was kind of a late-breaking lightning bolt that added an extra day to the writing and an extra $23.05 to my credit card bill (for Chion's The Voice in Cinema). The acousmetre is basically a voice that's not tied to a visible source, or, more specifically, a mouth. And, because it isn't attached to a body, it doesn't have to obey the same physical rules as an actual person, often taking on a kind of vaguely omniscient, omnipotent, panoptic quality - as in the old horror movie saw where the phone rings and the threatening caller tells the helpless, virginal blonde that "I'm watching you right now!!!" and then appears from out of nowhere brandishing a gigantic, sharp phallic object of some sort, like a knife or a harpoon.

And by expanding the Lacan-bating emphasis on the look and to-be-looked-at-ness in Fassbinder's films to the voice-inclusive idea of "perception," which explains not only the nicely avant garde feeling that his characters often seem to be posing for the camera, but that they often have a compulsive need to talk, usually either telling their own stories or talking either themselves or someone else into something. The visual is, of course, much more effective, and more trusted - by both characters and the audience. So, any time there's a reliance on the voice, usually as the alternative to an unseen image but sometimes when characters are trying to talk away visuals that are evident if not obvious, Fassbinder overcompensates. That overcompensation can come in the form of dramatic histrionics (though rarely if ever from the protagonist, with Petra von Kant being the most obvious exception), but usually this comes in the form of an excess of audio-visual artifacts and mannerisms scattered around the screen: cluttered frames, busy and distracting soundtracks, allusions to other films, music, etc.

Since I started writing, I've noticed sometimes, as with Querelle, In a Year of 13 Moons and Katzelmacher, Fassbinder seems to be pitting the voice explicitly against the image. In Querelle, the narration goes above and beyond what we're shown, commenting on the action without confirming or contradicting the image; the characters go through a ritualistic verbal denial of their own sexuality throughout the film, even when their pants are around their ankles; finally, Jeanne Moreau's character reads tarot cards at the beginning of the film, launching the action by mentioning Querelle, and then again at the end - when she discovers on her second reading that she was mistaken, with the words "I was wrong. You never had a brother!" she effectively erases the entire film as nothing more than a "mistake," a fever dream that never happened. But even though these various kind of verbal commentary actually do take control of the narrative, the vivid, hallucinatory images are powerful in an entirely different way, one that can't be erased by mere words. Etc.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


I spent much of the past week at the Bourgeois Pig, overcaffeinating myself in an attempt to stimulate my brain into, you know, working. Depending on who you ask, it's been effective, sort of. But I've been fundamentally exhausted in such a way that I get home from reading on the north side and fall asleep, or staying conscious in a state of near-sleep. Which is making it hard, and the solution is either more caffeine or less caffeine. Almost there, almost through with the quarter. One small paper down, one larger-ish paper left to go. In the meantime, my apartment's a disaster area (if only I could watch these Fassbinder dvds in an occasionally loud, crowded coffeeshop, I don't think I'd ever leave). I've been slacking on the swimming, too, which is bad, but the stupid little side effect of that is that when I do go, I'm completely rested and feel all in shape and stuff (which my finals-week diet most definitely does not do - based on a highly scientific informal poll, graduate students' cheese intake increases threefold in the final two weeks of the quarter).

Watching Fassbinder, I'm struck by how amazingly good this stuff is, and the thing is that the weirder films, i.e. Querelle and In a Year of 13 Moons, get more fascinating with each viewing. They're very dense films, and they grew denser as his output slowed to, you know, less than 7 per year (yeah, he actually made seven feature films in 1970). I've got a couple days to write, oh, 15-20 pages on this stuff, and I think I'm depending on coffee to provide me with inspiration, ideas, concentration. And I've been listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman, which I've discovered is the ultimate study music for me, more than Eno and his ambient/electro-brethren, more than classical strings, more than the soothing samba music favored by the Bourgeois Pig, etc. I suspect that something like "Lonely Woman" might be the kind of music we'd listen to if we were big, mutant, pulsating, disembodied brains (that somehow have ears?).

Until a week or so ago, I'd had maybe one cup of coffee in about six weeks. And now, now that my system's no longer accustomed to the daily coffee influx, that caffeine packs a punch. So, if you notice that I'm a little, um, jittery, think nothing of it. It's natural.

Today's inspirational verse, courtesy of Stephen Colbert:

"So the Christian Coalition are afraid they'll be called liberals. I don't blame them. After all, there's nothing more Christian than refusing to do good works because you might get called a name."