Spectacular Attractions Podcast #9

[Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)]

This podcast contains strong language. But then, in some ways it’s about strong language, the way words become weaponised and reveal inadequacies of self-expression that might spill over into exasperated physical violence. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing deals with race and racism in contentious, provocative style but with a wit that is often disarming, and a complexity that belies its more brusque and partisan grandstanding moments. The podcast features excerpts from Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and dialogue from the film itself. It is, consequently, not for tender. My own language, on the other hand, is as clean as a whistle made of Cillit Bang.

There will be one more podcast next week, and then I’ll be taking a break from the recordings. I’ll polish up the old recordings and repost them on iTunes with a proper feed and other technical tricks I haven’t figured out yet (it’s actually a little more complicated than I thought at first, which is why, you may have noticed, iTunes only hosts five of my podcasts at a time. I’ll rectify this and come back a little more learned. There’s still nothing to stop you downloading them all directly from this site, though. Thanks for your support. Suggestions for future shows are still welcomed.

DOWNLOAD: Spectacular Attractions Podcast #9

[Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here. Read the original article on Do the Right Thing here.]

Spectacular Attractions Podcast #3

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

In this week’s podcast, I discuss Back to the Future, now 25 years old and itself the subject of much nostalgia. I talk about its political subtexts, its depiction of the 1950s, and its clever-clever structure. There’s also a guest appearance by Ronald Reagan as himself. I wouldn’t do the voice myself, so I took an extract from his 1986 State of the Union address where he invokes Back to the Future as setting a good example to the kids or something. I think I’m getting the hang of this podcast thing now, so it’s a better recording than before, and I’m now more comfortable speaking into a microphone and pretending there’s a listener (maybe even two). I would still appreciate any feedback on how things might improve in any direction you might suggest.

You can now subscribe to the Spectacular Attractions podcast via the iTunes Store, which is very exciting. Once subscribed, each new episode will be automatically downloaded to your computer as soon as it is published. Which means you won’t have to check back here and click on these posts every week. But for now, you can always just click here and download the whole thing for this week:

DOWNLOAD Spectacular Attractions Podcast #3

[If you want to read the original article, you can find it here. Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here.]

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Double Take Double Take

To coin a Gumpism, studies of Alfred Hitchcock are like a box of Jaffa Cakes: even though I’ve probably had enough, I always think that one more can’t possibly do any harm. How fortunate then, that Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is a fresh and fascinating look at the big guy. The film plays upon motifs of doubling, repetition, and the cyclical broken-record rhetoric of Cold War paranoia, but itself seems at times like a doppelganger. Is it a coincidence that I feel like I’ve seen and heard most of this before?

Of course, I could have been just as entertained by watching a compilation of Hitch’s trailers and introductions for his TV show: these are always arch, often hilarious and ever-so-slightly threatening snippets of self-promotion, authoring a detached and knowing view of his work for the benefit of his spectators. Hitchcock loved to play upon his public role as master of ceremonies, posing as the only participant unaffected by his tales of obsession, terror and perversion. You can see it in his advertisements for Psycho, where he acts a as a nonchalant tour guide for the locations where the film’s murders take place:

Double Take intersperses archive footage of the Space Race, TV debates between Kruschev and Nixon, Nixon and Kennedy, Reagan and Gorbachev, Reagan and anyone who would listen, and Hitchcock himself, along with a bunch of Hitchcock lookalikes. On the soundtrack are sinister quotations from Bernard Herrmann‘s Hitchcock scores, the Supremes, and a reading of Jorges Luis Borges’ essay 25th August 1983, with the dates changed and Borges’ name swapped for Hitchcock’s. In this short fictional anecdote, Borges recounts the tale of a meeting with his double, who is on the brink of death. Given Borges’ recurrent interest in mirrors and simulacra, he seems like the perfect gatekeeper for a  series of allusive musings on the ways an author might exist independently of the persona he creates and unleashes for public consumption.

I wasn’t familiar with the “kitchen debate” between Kruschev and Nixon in 1959. At the American National Exhibition in Moscow, the two leaders met in a specially built house that was designed to show the kinds of home all Americans could afford, with domestic appliances and mod cons that demonstrated their facility with labour-saving equipment, presumably in stark contrast with the drudgery of bread-and-water existence in that land of commies. Nixon’s attempt to explain the idea of colour TV to his opposite number is a wonderful bit of patronising idiocy, but the staging a TV debate in a fake house compounds the problem of a system of facade and surface sheen.

I think I’ve had my fill of collage documentaries cross-cutting between footage of militarised horrors and perky advertising: pointing out the contradictions of a culture built simultaneously on apocalyptic dread and aspirations for trivial crap. It’s all very Adam Curtis in its juxtapositions of mushroom clouds and coffee commercials, lending an air of menace to archive footage that urges new contemplation of the deceptive purposes for which it was originally forged (though I would suggest Barbara Kruger as an uncited influence on this kind of sloganeered montagery).

The end titles produce a breakneck montage of bellicose and paranoid speechifying. Ronald Reagan’s ramble about aliens is laid over shots from Independence Day of shadows cast over Washington by offscreen invading spacecraft (doubling the earlier shots from Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956)), and Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known Unknowns” (c)rap, surely the orthodox citation for a reductio ad absurdum of this sort of thing, has the last word.We are told that Hitchcock was invited to the White House in a memo dated the day before Kennedy was assassinated, clinching the links between Hitchcock’s knowing deployment of scare tactics and their po-faced political analogues. Hitchcock has been our guide through a densely packed nest of impersonations, mirrorings, twins and duplicates. But his fictions effortlessly transcend the ham-fisted attempts of government and advertisers to ensnare an audience and keep it in a perpetual back-and-forth between fear and covetousness.

I liked Double Take a lot, even if I had to generously attribute its familiarity to a deliberate commitment to doubling. It piles up its own connected inferences, such as the repeated use of the Empire State Building as a mutable symbol of technological primacy, a magnet for threatened disaster, or a transmitter of symbolic importance (and less figurative signals). Hitchcock himself is a monumental master of ceremonies, an artist who seemed to absent himself from the business of commenting on the historical moment, preferring to probe less contingent, more universal questions of human identity. He always disingenuously implied that he was only interested in provocative entertainments, but his observers have repeatedly extracted social commentaries and prescient, oracular wisdom from his body of work. There’s always a thrill to be gleaned from these polemical documentaries that suggest the interconnectedness of things; they comfort us with an impression of clarity amidst the infinite chaos of history. That it also exudes a whiff of paranoia and sensationalism doesn’t prevent it alighting on some truths about how enemies circle each other, ignoring the similarities in their ideological anatomies, wishing to see as opposites the people who end up closer to their mirror images. This sort of film ought to be the spur to, not the settlement of, historical narratives.

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Elephant (Alan Clarke, 1988)


39 minutes. 18 killings. 3 lines of dialogue. Alan Clarke’s Elephant is shark-simple in its relentless depiction of sectarian assassinations in Northern Ireland. It’s Bresson with guns, as a monotonous procession of shootings takes place with rhythmic repetition. A few shots establish a location into which a man will walk. He seeks out another man and shoots him. Then leaves. He doesn’t flee the scene: the drama of the murders produces no changes of pace or fluctuations of facial expression. We linger on a sullen corpse for a few seconds, then the process repeats again with a different shooter and a different victim. Occasionally the man we see turns out to be the victim, not the assassin. Occasionally, there is a second victim at a single scene. On one occasion there is a brief, mundane exchange of words. But for the most part, the formula stays the same throughout the film. Little attempt is made to exploit the format for a wide variety of murder methods – guns do the trick efficiently enough, thankyou.

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The killings are covered predominantly with wide-angle lenses on a Steadicam. This gives the shooters a purposeful, inexorable force, and as superior field of vision, as they carry out their task. Gus Van Sant used a similar technique for his massacre-based Elephant, which takes its title from Clarke’s film, but there it expressed ineluctible lines of fate that would converge devastatingly at the conclusion. Clarke’s tracking shots are heat-seekers, zeroing in on a target with no meandering, accident or deflection. And there is no connection between them, no sense of a conspiracy being rooted out, or a ring being smashed, just a string of squalid slayings. You want to scour people’s faces for signs of remorse, conflict, fear or other emotional nuances, but these attempts will always be frustrated, either because figures have their backs to the camera, or because their faces are sternly illegible. This is as easy as getting out of a car. And then getting back in again. The victims are benign and ordinary in their shirts and woolly jumpers. Almost all die immediately, barely having chance to register more than a dumb recognition that there’s some guy at the door. They slump or fall like the overpacked shopping bags you put down when you get home.

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Dennis Lim’s DVD review from the Village Voice puts it quite nicely, and uses most of the adjectives I wrote down in my notebook while watching:

Almost wordless and purposefully numbing, the film alternates between queasy motion (someone walks, walks, walks, and the Steadicam follows) and sickening stillness (someone is shot, and the camera likewise stops dead in its tracks). Clarke’s masterpiece, Elephant is detached and diagrammatic to the point of abstraction—it pares a cycle of senseless violence down to cruel, anonymous geometry.

Aside from the obvious shock value of seeing a set of killings that never coalesce into a narrative, there’s also a palpable sense of being kicked hard in the genres. Ouch. Isn’t TV drama, especially when its broadcast by the BBC, supposed to be a public forum for talking about political problems, current affairs and historical events? Isn’t it a way of making the news seem a bit more manageable, to situate it within a pleasingly contained, story-shaped vessel? Where is the context, the background, the psychological, character-developed, method-acted, micro-for-the-macro-allegorised, self-importantly-hyphenated drama of it all? That title comes from Bernard McLaverty’s description of “the Troubles” (itself an evasive, palliative descriptor) as “the elephant in the living room”, the enormous issue that people get used to and stop acknowledging. Well, elephant looks like the offcuts of a sanitised news archive, the deleted scenes of a war made to look like it wasn’t a war. It sounds like a trite concept, to show the human cost of conflict by excising everything else, but as a confrontational viewing experience it is a peerless pachyderm let loose in the lounge, refusing to play by genre rules: its perfect home, then, was on TV, becoming a cyclical installation piece in the corner of your front room.


Do the Right Thing: “There it is. Love and Hate.”

Do the Right Thing poster

Do the Right Thing is motivated by and structured around ambiguities of knowledge, clashes of righteous views and irreconcilable communication problems. At one point, an argument between Mookie and his sister Jade (played by Lee’s own sister, Joie, herself a writer/director/producer) takes place in front of a wall that is shown to be graffiti’d with the statement “Tawana told the truth”. This refers to the Tawana Brawley rape allegations that surfaced in 1987. You can read the Grand Jury’s report on the investigation here, but the gist of it is that Brawley accused an unnamed group of white men of abducting her and subjecting her four days of sexual abuse in the woods before returning her in a rubbish bag. The Grand Jury found evidence to contradict her claims, and a New York prosector alleged to have been one of the attackers countered by successfully sueing for defamation.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee, Joie Lee

What are we to make of the slogan’s inclusion in the film? Is it one of Lee’s editorial flourishes, like the “Dump Koch” graffiti that represents the director’s admitted hopes for the outcome of the New York Mayoral elections? Is Lee so certain about Brawley’s allegations that he can confidently side with her in this way? Or is it a more subtle ploy? The argument undermines Mookie’s/Lee’s authority, and so the tension of the exchange fights with the unequivocal tone of the backdrop, where an assertion made publicly goes unchallenged. Whatever one’s opinions on the Brawley case, the inconsistencies in her story are enough to raise serious doubts. If you’ve ever read an interview with Spike Lee (there are some links at the bottom of this post), you’ll know that he’s a sparky character with very strong views that he’s not shy about sharing but, to his credit, Do the Right Thing shows the destructive, disunifying effects of entrenched prejudices and misdirected enmity. It shows a community under pressure from heat, disenfranchisement and municipal authorities whose petty problems pull the lids off deeply held historical resentments and create an explosion of violence that ends to nobody’s advantage.

The film finishes on the following pair of quotations, worth repeating here:

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-xViolence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense. I call it intelligence. (Malcolm X)

The two activists are often portrayed as polarised in their views on how best to achieve civil rights for African-Americans, and Lee uses the two quotations to suggest the ambiguities and conflicts in the debate, but the picture  (above) that Smiley pins up in the smouldering shell of Sal’s pizzeria shows them united, harmonised, as if non-violence and direct action could be interchangeable selections from the same menu, or as if an insoluble difference of approaches to the same problem might be transcended by common cause. This is surely Lee’s most compelling, gripping film to date: he’s managed to balance the tonal diversity of his earliest elements to paint a nuanced portrait of a time and place where good people lose control. Most of the characters oscillate between worthiness, righteous indignation and ignoble inaction, making it difficult to take sides.


Even if one sympathises with Buggin’ Out’s plea for pictures of black cultural heroes on Sal’s Wall of Fame (it is, after all, a justifiable wish for proportional representation), he’s an obnoxious, aggravating figure who ignores the similar lack of Korean or Puerto Rican icons in the pizzeria. Nobody would support the chokehold killing of Radio Raheem by the police, but Lee refuses to make him a noble innocent; throughout the film he is an aggressive, threatening presence, accentuated by the closer-and-closer close-ups that the director pushes on the viewer.

Do the Right Thing: Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)

This confrontational style is a key part of the film. Always fond of some direct address, Lee frequently makes his characters talk directly to the camera, or uses canted angles to dynamise dialogue scenes.

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These techniques really come to the fore in a famous scene in which an argument over cultural representation between Mookie and Pino (John Turturro) reaches a stalemate and gives way to a montage of direct-to-camera torrents of racial abuse from various members of the community:


Ed Guerrero is very eloquent on the topic of the racial slur montage:

By pitting various races, identities and groups against each other on the rawest emotional level, regurgitating the vilest, innermost thoughts and stereotypes about one another, Do the Right Thing depicts the danger and futility of bigotry and racism at a personal level, from which no social formation is exempt. As importantly, this montage works to reveal the how of racism while not necessarily addressing the racism’s greater structural and strategic why. That is to say, this litany of racial slurs functions to show how racism works on the interpersonal level, between individuals as targets, representatives of groups, while, perhaps inadvertently, masking the greater why of racism’s workings at an institutional, structural level, as a strategy of hidden elites – “the powers that be” – to keep races, classes and movements divided and fighting among each other, thus distracted from the ignored or concealed, truth of their mutual exploitation. Notably, all of the participants of this montage as working-class males share the same gendered, social orientation. Rather than following Do the Right Thing‘s thematic hip-hop call to “fight the power”, these angry, isolated figures representing different races scapegoat and fight each other instead.

In these lists of racial slurs, many of the attacks resort to insults to cultural icons: Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, etc., and this thread runs through the film as characters use them as visible markers of ethnic difference. Buggin’ Out extrapolates a territorial argument from the scuffing of his Air Jordans, and then objects to the pictures of Italian Americans on Sal’s Wall of Fame; Mookie takes Pino to task for mouthing racist language while appreciating black athletes and musicians; Radio Raheem battles a group of Puerto Ricans over the relative volume of their music. INn all these instances cultural iconography seems to be territorial tags, masks for deeper ethnic hatred: it’s a struggle over the equal representation of cultural preferences, but also a transference of furious energy onto prominent symbols. This is summed up in a verse from Public Enemy‘s Fight the Power, which plays several times in the film:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes dont appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Dont worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, cmon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

The film’s title is a firm injunction to act positively, to take a stand, but it’s never quite clear what doing the “right thing” might be. Everyone seems to have a personal opinion about what is right. The most prominently contentious moment is when Mookie instigates the final assault on Sal’s by throwing a dustbin through the front window. This might be an altruistic gesture to divert attention from Sal and his sons, saving them from a mob attack, or he might just be taking sides, marking definitively his refusal to keep acting as neutral mediator between Sal and his objectors. But if this is taking a stand and “doing the right thing”, then it certainly doesn’t solve the roots of the problem. Just as with the team-up of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it suggests that there might be many right things, and that right things are rarely easy, and might not make everything OK.

Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee


For a complete change of tone, one of my colleagues put me onto this great little mash-up of Do the Right Thing and Sesame Street (not suitable for kids – it really is brought to you by the letter “F”):

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Back to Back to the Future

Back to the Future[Should you need a plot synopsis, try hereYou can also download this article as a podcast.]

I first saw Back to the Future when I was eleven years old. Probably not the most discerning consumer, but always good for a poster quote, I immediately declared it “the best film I’d ever seen”. A year on from Ghostbusters, and weeks after The Goonies, with Highlander a year away, competition for my all-time-favourite film was stiff in those days. Oh, for that time when every new Hollywood blockbuster was more marvelous than the last, and the wait for a sequel was an interminable, indefinite one. I bought a skateboard as a result, and tried to get my mum to tow me around behind her car; eventually, this request was granted, but only at low speed around the Sunday school car park. The soundtrack album was the first cassette I bought with my own pocket money. I bought the Panini sticker album and filled it: if you never saw one of these, they’re books that tell the whole story of the film scene-by-scene, and you buy packets of stickers until you’ve collected the whole set; I have a vivid recollection that, accidentally or not, several of the Back to the Future stickers were taken on set showing things that weren’t in the film – Einstein the dog in the front seat of the time machine being played by a stunt driver in a dog mask, Michael J. Fox rehearsing the Johnny B. Goode number in a tracksuit, Fox’s stunt double taking a fall in the skateboard chase. This may say something shocking about the randomly exact nature of my memory (I dread to think how much art and culture has been shunted out of my brain to make way for these obscurities), but it’s also a testament to how auxiliary products and merchandise extend the life of a film in the minds of its viewers, anchoring remembrances of the text with a range of prompts across several media. I think I saw it twice at the cinema and never again. Until now. I’m teaching it this week on a course on American cinema. We’re up to the Eighties now, and this is one of the films up for discussion. Thankfully, my memories of the film are not crippling partialities that might prevent me from thinking about it critically: this is, after all, a film about nostalgia.
Back to the Future: Crispin Glover Back to the Future: Crispin GloverWhat was impressive about Back to the Future a quarter-century ago (ouch!) remains so today – it’s a tightly structured, internally consistent piece of work: in shuttling between two time zones, 1985 and 1955, it sets up a mass of cues to link them; Marty McFly’s skateboard ride to school seems like a minor transitional scene (and a chance to squeeze in another hearing for ‘The Power of Love’), but it’s a guided tour of Hill Valley, feeding you a set of memories that will later be referenced in similar shots of the town in 1955.Back to the Future: Twin Pines Mall Back to the Future: Lone Pine MallIt’s a remarkably efficient set-up that ensures that Hill Valley 1985 feels familiar, a home to return to, and keen-eyed viewers will be attuned to the little differences between the two versions of the place – Twin Pines Mall becomes Lone Pine Mall after Marty runs over one of the saplings in ’55; the same episode of The Honeymooners is on TV in both times, a technical marvel in 1955 that becomes a background flicker thirty years later – its resonance changing  over the years (watching it in the 80s, his hair still oiled, his body still twisting like an awkward teenager, George is shown to be stuck in the past);  Doc Brown ’55 is seen holding a portrait of Thomas Edison that was seen in the opening shot of his automated home; on his way to school, Marty waves to the girls at the gymnasium, an action he will repeat during the skateboard chase back when the gym was a diner; Clock Towerthe clocktower is the centrepoint of the town, the film set and the plot throughout. Nearly every element of the opening ’85 section will be shown to resonate with 1955, or will later be altered by his actions in the past. This is a very contained sort of butterfly effect, where disruptions in the course of history affect components of the narrative without affecting world events. It’s a solipsistic kind of time travel: even as a kid, I recognised that this version of time was nonsensical, throwing up all kinds of paradoxes; why is Marty’s personality unchanged by his parents new-fangled go-gettery when he returns to 1985 (they notice nothing strange about him)? Who wrote Johnny B. Goode before Marty went back in time and gave Chuck Berry something to plagiarise? Where did the earlier versions of the McFly family go after Marty returns to a changed Hill Valley? This was time travel as narrative framework rather than as scientific possibility: the ability to travel in time is a magnificent gift to screenwriters, since it makes events malleable in the same way that word-processed scripts are malleable. The life of the McFlys becomes an adjustable plot. It’s a teen movie that eschews the social problem aspects of other teen movies, and tilts towards the wish-fulfilment end of the genre; Marty gets to outwit the school bully, and outsmarts his parents with his privileged knowledge of their time – instead of agonising about turning into his parents, he gets the chance to go back in time and make them turn into people closer to himself. Imagine if Rebel Without a Cause‘s Jim Stark (the James Dean film was released in the US a week before the setting of the 1955 events in Zemeckis’ movie) could go back and sort out his emasculated dad, and you’ll understand what kind of play Back to the Future is making with the conventions of the youth drama – Back to the Future II even references Rebel directly, with McFly going nuts whenever anyone calls him chicken, and climaxing with a Chickie Run car chase.
Back to the Future: Michael J. Fox, Crispin GloverBack to the Future cuts against the grain of dystopian science fiction that emerged in the 80s (see, for example, Escape from New York, Outland, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop). It also seems to exhibit what Stephen Prince refers to as “ideological conglomeration”, where ambiguous politics prevent the film from alienating sections of its potential audience:

Given their high production costs, American films need to attract as many viewers as they can, and the broad-based appeals they offer are often incompatible with strict ideological or political coherence. This is why the tradition of ‘message’ filmmaking in the American industry is so minimal and toothless. To maximise its commercial (audience) base, Hollywood film operates through a process of conglomeration, mixing a variety of sometimes disparate ideological appeals into an ambiguous whole. American film foregrounds narrative and character emotions, and while those narratives may manifest on occasion a political view, more often this is a matter of metaphor and implication. To be overtly political except in the most general terms (e.g., affirming patriotism or family) is to risk loss of market share. Thus, Hollywood has mostly regarded political filmmaking as being incompatible with box-office success, except in times of exigent circumstance, such as World War II. But here is a paradox. Box-office success requires a degree of topicality. Filmmaking that is vital, vibrant, and connected with the concerns people feel in their lives offers a powerful incentive for going to the movies. In many cases, the indsutry resolves this paradox by designing films so that their sociopolitical dimensions are matters of implication, material forming the background of a narrative, and conglomerated values. This process is a basic mechanism for linking film to a multitextured society from which viewers and profits alike come.

Back to the Future is not a political film. It avoids broad commentary on the politics of either of its time zones, except to make swipes at the apparent absurdity of Ronald Reagan’s ascent from gunslinging movie star to rocket-stockpiling president (the 1955 cinema is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, in which he co-stars with Barbara Stanwyck).Back to the Future: Michael J. FoxReagan even referred to the film in his 1986 State of the Union address, citing it as a good example for young people, but also using it as a springboard for some “creative” extrapolations of science into religious, then patriotic territory:

Tonight I want to speak directly to America’s younger generation, because you hold the destiny of our nation in your hands. With all the temptations young people face, it sometimes seems the allure of the permissive society requires superhuman feats of self-control. But the call of the future is too strong, the challenge too great to get lost in the blind alleyways of dissolution, drugs, and despair. Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”cattle-queen-of-montana

Well, today physicists peering into the infinitely small realms of subatomic particles find reaffirmations of religious faith. Astronomers build a space telescope that can see to the edge of the universe and possibly back to the moment of creation. So, yes, this nation remains fully committed to America’s space program. We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station. And we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours. And the same technology transforming our lives can solve the greatest problem of the 20th century. A security shield can one day render nuclear weapons obsolete and free mankind from the prison of nuclear terror. America met one historic challenge and went to the moon. Now America must meet another: to make our strategic defense real for all the citizens of planet Earth.

It’s a tenuous, opportunistic leap from “say-no-to-drugs” rhetoric to “missile defences in space” via “squeeze-God-in-there-somewhere” grandstanding, but it shows how flexible the film is in allowing all of those associations to bounce off it. It’s worth remembering that a later Robert Zemeckis film, Forrest Gump (another one in which an outsider is dropped into a history of which he never seems a part, and manages to affect its course, even inventing rock n’ roll again by teaching Elvis to dance), was similarly co-opted by right wing conservatives during the 1994 campaign to re-elect George Bush to the Presidency; attempting a return to “traditional” family values as their key electoral theme, they promoted a view of Gump as a damning indictment of the counterculture of the Sixties and invoked an ideal nuclear family epitomised, at least in the public consciousness, by the 1950s. So, in both cases, the 1950s Golden Age America was posited as a quasi-mythical place of good, wholesome values.
Back to the Future: Michael J. Fox, Lea ThompsonTo be honest, I suspect Back to the Future of being politically timid rather than sinister, but watching it again it’s hard to ignore the soft-pedalling of the era’s social conservatism and civil rights issues. The imperatives of “family entertainment” are not enough to explain the convenience of the fact that Marty McFly travels to a pristine and glorious past set just a couple of weeks before Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on the bus and gave Martin Luther King Jr. a prominent public platform in defending her cause. Portrayals of the 1950s as a prelapsarian museum-piece of innocence and virtue are themselves outdated, now that the era is just as likely to be shown as a site of repression, racism, mind-numbing conformity, social control, paranoia and institutionalised sexism and emasculating office-dronery (see season one of Mad Men for the most recent version of this revisionist approach). Back to the FutureIt’s not that there wasn’t prosperity and optimism in postwar America, but that it was defensive and exclusionary, and historical depictions that elide that downside and efface those inequities are increasingly intolerable, coming across like a wish for a time when things seemed to an empowered majority to be just fine, rather than a wish to rectify the actual problems that were present: it’s probably no coincidence that the nightmarish marker of McFly’s deadline is a fading photograph, a nutty bit of physics but a blatant sign of the destruction of the nuclear family or, more importantly, Marty’s erasure from the sphere of representation.
vlcsnap-25143 vlcsnap-34538For Zemeckis and executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose influence on such a high-concept, family-orientated blockbuster can be felt throughout, the 50s are memorialised as a set of cultural references, especially the music, television, and the kinds of science fiction they had both clearly been influenced by: Zemeckis directed an episode of Spielberg’s SF anthology series Amazing Stories (1985-87), and the latter’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. had set out his desire to revisit and revise the lexicon of tales of alien visits to Earth.  Marty McFly gets to become a SF character, and to observe credulous 1950s-folk being whipped up into terror when faced with advanced technology. Sandbagging the film against the weight of social history by hiding behind harmless pop culture is a crafty technique. But, to return to that idea of conglomerated ideology, I’m left uncertain about how exactly the film wants us to remember the 1950s. It’s not a simple case of showing it as a time sexual innocence: although Marty’s mother evokes 1955 as a time of chivalry and virtue, time-traveller Marty gets to see that she was far more “experienced” than she let on, hinting at the hypocrisy of soft-focus remembrances of the period. But it might also be seen to allegorise and reinforce the Reaganite notion of power as self-assertion, as George McFly changes the entire course of his life by beating down his enemy, seizing his woman (who conveniently likes a guy who can defend her physically) and effectively turning the tables to make the bully servile. Freedom, it seems, requires the suppression of someone else, or at least, unfreedom is simply a product of your own state of mind, and can be corrected at the throw of a punch.Back to the Future

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Irony Man

I could start by fabricating the excuse that I was queueing for the Jia Zhangke screening and it was sold out, but whatever lie I come up with, I ended up foregoing more edifying entertainment in order to watch Iron Man. I’d been softened up by some warm reviews, and the assurance that its politics couldn’t have been more right-on if Hans Blix himself had been transformed into a cyborgic weapons inspector and spent two hours of screentime failing to inspect any weapons.

How surprised was I to find out that Iron Man is not the liberal avenger and “ally of the United Nations” that he was purported to be in a Guardian Guide cover story? A bit surprised. This is the latest in a long line of films that deals obliquely with America’s post-9/11 situation, tentatively probing areas of moral ambiguity, but rarely with a whole-hearted commitment. Certainly, it seems to be about an arms dealer who makes a moral choice to withdraw from his position of complicity in the networks of retributive, territorial destruction that his trade fertilises, but it is actually less a fantasy about how a moral interventionism might work and more a vision of how the Bush administration seems to think it already acts.

The film dresses up tortuously complex geo-politics in a fantasy of precision-engineered bodies, a convenient replacement of diplomacy with kicks and punches. To most of us, a Middle Eastern warzone is a distant, scorching, no-go area of torn limbs, twisted wreckage and unreasonable locals. Iron Man can be there at a moment’s notice, picking off bad guys (with no stray “friendly fire”), thumping some sense into those toothless desert types. He can get in and out unscathed and withdraw to his default position of non-involvement, the ultimate in convert interventionism. Surely this is meant to be cathartic, a vision of weaponised body armour that does its job as surely and precisely as the algorithms used to make the CGI happen. Digital effects make it all seem effortless – there’s little in the way of tangible physicality, so there’s an over-compensation in the thudding sound effects and rock-solid violence, and since all the effects are plotted so carefully, there’s little in the way of chaos to make it feel like real, rough-and-tumble combat with lives and limbs at stake. If nothing else, this kind of eye-defying, lightning fast action can only show up the elegance of the superheroic mayhem in Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk. In Lee’s film, the customary “get me the president” sequence that announces the monster as a national threat finds the Leader of the Free World on a fishing trip, barely interested in news of the green giant that is currently trashing the fixtures and fittings of the military industrial complex. There’s a grander political statement in that one moment than in all of Iron Man‘s hand-wringing.

As a character, Iron Man is not as interesting as Robocop, whose metal prostheses were permanently forced upon him, bringing on an existential crisis that makes Tony Stark’s yearning for a cheeseburger seem like a state of luxury. (Neither character is as afflicted as the protagonist of Colossus of New York, which deserves more recognition than it gets, if only for having a mournful solo piano score at a time when the theremin was the 50s sf instrument of choice.) After Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil and Batman, it has become customary to see superheroes grappling with the internal crises created by their public status and physical difference, so it’s a big surprise to find Robert Downey Jr’s character embracing the diplomatic impunity and celebrity that goes along with his alter ego. It’s just a bit of a boring surprise.

P.S. The pun in the title of this post no longer matches the way my argument turned out, but I liked the sound of it, so rather than teasing out some sense of irony from my reading of the film, I thought I’d just leave it there anyway. Who’s going to notice?

P.P.S. I should also note that in Iron Man Gwyneth Paltrow ‘tackles’ the most thankless decorative role offered to an Oscar winner since Orson Welles advertised fish fingers. But I have nothing substantive to say about that fact. Unless a sigh of resignation counts as comment.

Gwyneth Paltrow Iron Man Premiere
Extra: Since I published this post, AP at the Movies‘ review of Iron Man has drawn my attention to an intelligent and far more evenhanded discussion of the film than I could manage here, and it sounds like Dana Stevens has put a positive spin on exactly the kind of thing that energised my little rant about the film:

[The] middle section, in which the newly energized Tony tinkers with his emerging superpowers like a kid in shop class, is the movie’s finest and funnest hour. But when he starts to actually use those powers, zooming to random corners of Afghanistan to save cowering villagers from evil warlords, the movie’s sharp intelligence gives way to a dopey wish-fulfillment fantasy. This is what we’d like our wars to be: a clearly defined moral crusade against a bald, glowering meanie who proclaims his Genghis Khan-like ambition to “dominate all of Asia.” (With an eye on potential box-office buzz kill, the movie cannily stays away from the mere mention of the Taliban, the war in Iraq, or domestic terrorism.) Tony’s invulnerable, omnipotent, impossibly expensive armor is an almost touching overcompensation for the moment of extreme vulnerability in which our country finds itself.”

So, is Iron Man a soothing piece of geo-political wish-fulfilment, or a deluding bit of geo-political evasion? The choice is something akin to yours.