Friday, 19 June 2009


My PhD thesis, bound.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

'If you crash a helicopter, you probably die'

Or so claims a good friend of mine, who took time out from his own documentary film to go and see Terminator Salvation last week, returning with the above assessment of the film's mimetic shortcomings. But I'm feeling all conspiratorial about this, and I'm really not sure that the prevailing hostility towards the fourth film in the Terminator sequence is at all justified.

First things first, TS falls some way short of T1 and T2, and it would be unfair not to point this out. However, judging the new movie solely on such grounds seems to be an act grounded in an urge to be proved right, a not-so-latent wish on the part of the 'mainstream arthouse' devotees who staff broadsheet culture sections to strike a blow against an extremely abstract notion of 'Hollywood'. I'm not in the business of backing up my intuitions with any kind of factitious data, but I'm willing to guess that the reviewers in the 25-40 bracket who came down like a ton of London (Farringdon?) Bricks on TS, and did their best to murder The Dark Knight, and have almost certainly already written their reviews for the Robocop remake, would happily sit through repeat viewings of piss-poor whimsical bollocks like Juno, Broken Flowers, The Virgin Suicides, Before Sunset or any one of the ceaselessly proliferating Amerindie flicks that deal with bugger all in a style which signifies Incredible Meaningfulness. (By the way, that's two digs in three days at Richard Linklater, which isn't entirely fair because he made Dazed and Confused, a beautiful movie, and A Scanner Darkly, which, while not quite Blade Runner, did a passable job of making me feel as interestingly discombobulated as the work of Phillip K. Dick, from which it was adapted.)

Of course, it sounds like what I'm doing here is making a populist swipe against 'pretentious' films, but I think I'm actually pursuing the opposite. Perhaps the fact is that TS wasn't really very good at all, but my frustration at the perseverance of the 'oh, aren't we all so relaxed and unconcerned and emotionally literate' media to thrust the empty vessel of the abstractly 'arty' movie - not to be confused with the abstract art movie - in our direction led me to enjoy it more than it deserved. But, if I'm being perfectly honest, ninety minutes of Christian Bale and Sam Worthington machine gunning robots and crashing helicopters just has, to any sane person, be preferable to two hours of Bill Murray knocking on doors and wearing a tracksuit. McG's taking on of the Connor v. Skynet mythos might lean towards a rather reductive, underexamined philosophy - apparently, humans will always have the advantage of a vaguely defined 'humanity', AKA soul, which Skynet's otherwise unimpeachable AI cannot cow or acquire for itself - but at least it makes a less myopic engagement with a Big Question than any of the wan feasts of self-congratulation that I've listed above.

Maybe the question isn't so much 'is TS any good' - I enjoyed the cinema experience regardless of the film's eventual quality - but 'whither the arthouse film'. Two points here. One: since around 2001/2002 'artiness' has been the dominant ingredient of the perfume that marks one out as 'not in favour of illegal wars'. From the rather desperate attempts to conceive of an American 'lit rock' musical scene last year, which seemed to be engendered by little more than the fact that one of Vampire Weekend had read some Thomas Pynchon, to the pleasing on the ear but nonetheless essentially cosmetic rants of Charlie Brooker (one of the good guys, but effectively trapped within his own overly imitable sentential rhythms...), to weirdly Lacanian blog posts like this one, an unwillingness to tow the 'scent of art' line has you marked down as, oh, I don't know what, Toby Keith or Littlejohn or someone, and when you've just spent four years going half-mad trying to produce serious arguments about art and culture it's rather frustrating. Two: is there room for a revitalisation of the auteur? Common consensus seems to treat Jim Jarmusch and Linklater and even Sophia sodding Coppola as if they're the natural heirs to Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Godard, Rivette et al but they just aren't. Because you're all attentive readers you'll have read the article by David Thomson I linked to a week back in which he (rather painstakingly, for a comparatively short article) demonstrates how Hitchcock's films are held together by force of style rather than by any Aristotelian commitments. In the case of Jarmusch in particular, I'd argue that the modern pseudo-auteur film retains aesthetic unity through the force of the image of the force of style, by a laboured framing of the directorial tic and a carefully-planned strategy of homage to one or two of the masters. Of course, America has had its own genuine auteurs, but too many overlook the seventies directors - and hell, why not James Cameron and Ridley Scott as well - because of a poor gold-shit ratio. But there is surely much more to be gained by watching King of Comedy, or The Conversation, or Blade Runner, than by wasting one's time with a dressed-up undergraduate fantasy like Linklater's Before... films.

You know, I really want to stop writing gnarly stuff and tell some stories about Hungary, but this comes so much more naturally to me....

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

'They complained of "high maintenance" students who sought constant advice'

Although I'm surprised that anybody needed to be paid to produce a report bearing such strikingly obvious conclusions, I'm pleased that the disastrous consequences of rote-learning at A-Level have been properly recognised. The point about needy students sticks out, though: the demand for spoonfed information that arises shortly ahead of essay deadlines and exam periods is - if your experiential point of comparison is as recent as the beginning of this decade - really quite shocking. Whenever I prep undergraduates for an exam (usually the unweighted Year 1 test, which is effectively the HE equivalent of a SAT), I tell them how I went about making the step to sophomore. That process entailed sitting in the library for a few hours a day, reading and making notes on books which weren't on the course reading lists, but sounded interesting and relevant. Unsurprisingly, by dint of their not being on the lists, the books were always available, so I saved myself the three or four hours a day the usual panicking undergraduate expends running around the Short Loan room and the recent returns area looking for, I don't know, John Lukacs' Hitler and Stalin or Jane Eyre or Elementary Plant Biology 101. Of course, the approach worked because reading the new books with reference to the soon-to-be-completed course provoked a reactivation of my previous reading, so I could sit with my lecture notes on the desk, constantly reframing them according to my latest theoretical whim (I was discovering Propp, Shklovsky, and Jakobson at the time). I suppose this method is closer to the one applied by students who don't attend universities which use the (Scottish, if you like) modular system, in which case I might be seen to have been going several extra miles, but it more than paid off.

Anyway, I always explain to students how and why this attitude is better, and emphasise that it's completely pointless to sit there combing lecture notes if there is no critical subjectivity motivating what has been copied out over the course of a term. Generally, the response is a muted 'suppose so' mixed with a few people who come out and say more or less honestly that they'd been hoping that I would tell them how to pass the exam. It doesn't take a genius to see which system has been responsible for incubating such infantilism; it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to see that A-Levels have been subjected to the general and overwhelming pressure of Blairite glibocracy. The cultural logic of late, late capitalism - as manifested in, say, The Guardian's culture section or even by a platform as critically well-meaning and superficially corruscating as Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe/ Newswipe series (having finally seen them, I'll tentatively add the first two parts of the Red Riding adaptations in here) - has it that intellectual labour bears no reward, and that the ultimate object of a participation in any strand of cultural thought is a patina of 'artiness' which brings with it a lifelong obligation to attend the opening of (for example) each new film by Richard Linklater or Michael Winterbottom. One studies an arts subject at university because it's a passport to 'alternative', rather than due to any intrinsic interest in what being 'alternative' might possibly mean.

This is where the A-Level approach to EngLit both arises and is instrumentalised. According to a number of the theoreticians of literature's pedagogic value, 16-18 year olds must be taught the subject as a kind of hormonal complement. Anyone who has been, or known, a sixth former, will be aware of the absolutely paramount role of a loosely-defined individualism within their schema of ideas, hence the world of acoustic guitars, lifts to gigs, and self-consciously tasteless humour that they nearly all inhabit. For a text to have an impact, therefore, it needs to mirror the indignation of the teen, which is to perform the act of interpellating the 'rebellious' individual. There is no medium, only a Holden Caulfield-like message, and the message is - give or take a few lightly grazed political 'issues' - 'your individualism is sacrosanct'. The entire Western corpus becomes a drawn-out bildungsroman leading, with apparent inevitability, to the sanctioning of one individual in their easily-maintained, and thus unimaginable, historical moment. If 'high maintenance' and 'neediness' are terms drawn from the lexicon of romantic insecurity, their application to a pedagogic situation in which the student is reliant upon pseudo-plausible and easily digestible responses to the egotistical questions 'how did this text bequeath me' and 'how does this text sustain me' is entirely apt. There is far too little intellectual uncertainty in the experience of the arts undergraduate, and the suggestion that they be asked to cope with a little more is a welcome one.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Right, I'm planning to pull my finger out over the next few weeks and put a few things up here. As a precursor, a few links:

An absolutely magnificent article by David Thomson on Hitchcock - you could remove the specifically cinematic vocabulary and use it to make a case for abstraction in any medium. I love the stuff about the marriage of order and disorder in Hitch's frames: I've always meant to accommodate the 'plane scene' in NbNW into my 'terror and flat landscapes' paper for precisely this reason.

Bradford is the first UNESCO city of film!

And something previously unknown to me: Paul McCartney's 'Temporary Secretary'. It might induce queasiness.