Monthly Archives: April 2011

Onkalo, Into Eternity, and Faulkner’s homemade spaceship

In the forests of the remote island of Olkiluoto, on the shores of the Baltic Sea in western Finland, engineers are constructing a giant underground tomb to store all of Finland’s nuclear waste. The project is called Onkalo, literally meaning ‘hiding place’, and construction is expected to be completed in 2020. For the next hundred years the multiple tunnels and chambers of Onkalo, which stretch to a depth of 500 metres, will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, until it is filled with cement and sealed in 2120. To ensure its safety, the waste must lay untouched for 100,000 years. Onkalo is being designed to far outlast any institution ever created by man or his ancestors. Last year a Finnish filmmaker, Michael Madsen, released a documentary about it called Into Eternity.

The appearance of dates on their own can sometimes appear meaningless, so here are a few landmarks to put 100,000 years in some kind of perspective. The Great Pyramid of Giza was completed around 4,500 years ago, the transition from nomadic hunter gathering to farming and permanent settlement occurred between 7-10,000 years ago, the last ice age was 20,000 years ago, our Homo sapien ancestors only reached Europe 40,000 years ago, where Neanderthals did not become extinct until 30,000 years ago and the great original Homo sapien migration out of Africa took place between 125-60,000 years ago.

At the present time, the world’s nuclear waste is held in water storage facilities dotted around the globe. These facilities are expensive, reliant on power, need permanent maintainance requiring a constant human presence, and are completely at the mercy of world events. As one expert interviewed in Into Eternity puts it, ‘There has been two world wars in the last hundred years, the world above ground is too unstable’. A major war in itself would be enough to empty a facility such as this of its workers and scientists, leaving it without power and vulnerable, without considering an even more major catastrophe. Watching Into Eternity does what very few other documentaries can; it leads the viewer to consider the entire breadth of human history, and leaves us to think about ‘bigger questions’ that entirely dwarf the ‘big questions’ that, in our times, we have shied away from even considering.

Commenting on the continuity of history that he felt the culture of the postmodern world had rejected, what he called the ‘crisis of historicity’, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson considered that;

“there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current, multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life”

And the thought is a very pertinent one, if we consider our own era as independent or unconnected to our recent historical past, what we might read in a school history book, how on earth is it possible for us to consider the implications of something that is intended to last for 100,000 years?

In what is a thoroughly overused phrase, Into Eternity can be described as ‘haunting’. It shifts between images from inside Onkalo of engineers quietly working underground, to interviews with various experts involved with the project, including scientists from the company behind the project, and a theology professor. Madsen’s narration takes the form of a quietly spoken, Herzog-esque, message to a hypothetical person of the future who has discovered Onkalo, and he poses questions to this hypothetical viewer throughout. He asks whether ‘you’ were warned of the dangers of Onkalo by your ancestors, presumably through the form of folk tales.

The interviews with the experts themselves are the most interesting aspect of the film, and what we are presented with is a collection of completely fallible human beings who seem to be desperately trying to handle the metaphysical problems of the consequences of Onkalo as best they can. One, who is identified as a regulator from the Finnish Nuclear Safety Authority, looks as if he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and punctuates his slowly considered answers to Madsen’s questions with a continual nervous laughter. The questions and answers between Madsen and the experts have a roundabout feel to them, and their often jaded responses give the feeling of a collection of people for whom any questions about Onkalo will throw up a million others, and it is best to address them as best as they can, prepare in the same way for an eventuality, and commit to the project with a certain amount of fingers crossed.

The dynamic of the roundabout questioning in the film is not confined between Madsen and the experts, and the film reveals open disagreements between the Onkalo team themselves. One of these, and probably the most important, is over the question of how, if at all, future generations should be warned about the dangers of Onkalo.

For the time being, Onkalo is the responsibility of the Finnish state, but the idea of the Finnish state surviving for the next 100,000 years is far-fetched to say the least. Should archives be maintained to warn people? A war could destroy an archive or leave it forgotten along with any other official warnings and records, and could depopulate the entire area, or Finland itself, so even a historical warning provided by word of mouth and local tradition would be unavailable. War seems a predictable scenario, and over 100,000 years humans will have to deal with far more calamitous events, such as mass human migration, or probably several, or another ice age. Again, to put this in some perspective, the great Migration Period which saw the end of Roman civilisation and the resettlement of tribes across Europe occurred only 1,700 years ago, the Earth is due for another ice age in at least the next 60,000 years, and during the last one Finland, with the rest of northern Europe, was under a permanent ice sheet.

Aside from questions of responsibility for Onkalo, the experts are also split on whether or not to erect actual physical markers at the site as warnings. Some believe that is best to warn anyone who comes across the site to stay away, while others believe that any warning markers will arouse the curiosity of whoever comes across them. If warnings are left, what form would they take? The outlines presented in the film are shown as large stone towers, with various warning symbols designed to be universally understood as representing danger, as well as warnings in every major world language. These are problems in themselves, symbols in use today will certainly be meaningless in 100,000 years time, as evidenced by our lack of understanding of many ancient runic languages, and the languages used around the world in the 21st century will definitely be useless. We only have to look at the progression of English in the last 2,000 years to see this, as shown in these translations of the Gospel of Luke, verse 2:1, in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English, taken from the Wessex Gospels, the Wycliffe Bible, and the King James Bible respectively;

‘Soþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casere augusto. þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod

Forsoþe it is don, in þo daȝis a maundement wente out fro cesar august, þat al þe world shulde ben discriued

And it came to passe in those dayes, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’

Granted, it is possible for us to now understand and translate the progression of English, but this is only over a period of 2,000 years, a tiny proportion of the time these markers would be expected to last. Compare this to the origins of the Basque language; historically surrounded by Indo-European Romance languages, Basque is classified as a language isolate, it has no apparent relation to any other European languages, and almost nothing is known of its origins or how it came into existence.

Given these considerations, the Onkalo experts were honestly considering, at one point, displaying stone carvings of Edvard Munch’s The Scream as a universal sign of danger. Other ideas floated included erecting massive spiked stone structures around the site to give the effect of a giant thorn bush, creating a sense of foreboding ahead for any traveller.

Few arguments are made by the experts as an absolute guarantee of the safety of Onkalo, and it is obvious that any statements guaranteeing the safety of anything for 100,000 years would be folly, even if it is 500m underground. One expert adopts the position that any desire to interfere with Onkalo in the future would be directly prohibited by the technological level of whatever civilisation is doing the interfering, and this technological expertise would in turn render them intelligent enough to be able to carry out scientific tests and realise that what they are doing is dangerous. This seems to be another divergent point in expert opinion. One expert says that, ‘they should have some measuring tools to measure the radiation’, and when asked by Madsen what would happen if they didn’t have access to this technology, he says that, ‘they have to make a chemical analysis’, and when asked the same question again he says, ‘If they don’t have that, then they cannot do the drilling either’.

This is raised again by another expert who says that,

‘If someone in the future is able to dig down to the repository then it will probably be a civilisation of the same kind as we have presently, and in such a case they will also be knowledgeable to know that this is a radioactive material’,

His colleague then interjects, pointing out that pervious civilisations have achieved just as extraordinary things while lacking the obvious means to do so. She points to the mining industry in Sweden in the 16th century, and their ability to excavate hundreds of metres under the ground. Advanced knowledge of mining and engineering is also documented in the De re metallica, a book dating from 1556 that catalogued the process of mining and smelting metals hundreds of years before radiation was discovered. Making the connection between ability to excavate into the ground and scientific knowledge sounds even more dangerous when we consider that tin mining in Cornwall has been undertaken for at least 4,000 years, and the mines at Grimes Graves in East Anglia were mined for flint in Neolithic times, over 5,000 years ago.

And out of these contradictions and plausible predictions are aspects of the future that cannot be reasonably speculated on, one being the question of human evolution, which Madsen raises. Will humans appear the same as us in 100,000 years, will they have the same physiology as us, or even the same senses? Their needs, level of knowledge, and ways of life will certainly be completely alien to our own. The sheer impossibility of predicting for the thousands of questions and problems raised by Onkalo are shown when Madsen asks a blunt but simple question of the beleaguered nuclear regulator he is interviewing; whether or not he ‘trusts the future generations’. To do what, he doesn’t specify. But the question seems to take all the problems of Onkalo and unify them into one. At this, the man is speechless, and slumps down into his chair, the camera cuts to another expert and he answers with what seems like the only answer possible;

‘It may be a complete open question whether there is a possibility that someone will interpret anything at all in this timescale. The quick answer is that nobody knows anything…at all’

On a global level, the scientists interviewed view the idea of storing waste underground, and the idea of nuclear generated energy in itself as unsustainable. At the moment there is at least 250,000 tonnes of radioactive waste on Earth, Onkalo will be able to hold around 6,500 tonnes. With concern over global warming growing, so is use of nuclear power. It seems unlikely that the construction of Onkalo-like storage facilities will be able to keep up with rising levels of nuclear waste.

Onkalo is probably the most ambitious human endeavour ever put into practise, and in its quiet, reflective style, Into Eternity presents the project in its full madness. It makes us consider the big questions in a way that we, in the 21st century, don’t usually don’t do outside of theological and philosophical circles, and the big questions themselves, war, economic collapse, mass migration, ecological catastrophe, societal structure, all seem to pale away when we are faced with a time period that, in reverse, stretches back tens of thousands of years beyond our recorded history, to when Homo sapiens, or modern humans, were not the only species of human on this Earth. This is an idea that is almost inconceivable to us now. For all the questions and unanswered hypotheses thrown up by Onkalo, and of all the possible and predicted events occurring in its lifespan, only one can approach definite status as a likely event over others, and it is revealed in Madsen’s narration, directed at the hypothetical future explorer of Onkalo. It is inevitable that one day, in the next 100,000 years, Onkalo will be discovered by someone. Any argument against this seems the utmost in arrogance and wishful thinking. And in the face of this, a fitting addition would be William Faulkner’s timeless judgement on the quality of human persistence;

‘The last sound on the worthless earth will be two human beings trying to launch a homemade spaceship and already quarreling about where they are going next.’

A lot more people should be talking about Onkalo.

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Johnny Guitar; between John Wayne and Camus

After witnessing a stagecoach robbery, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) enters an unnamed frontier town in the Old West to start his new job as guitar player in a saloon. The saloon keeper, a strong-willed woman called Vienna (Joan Crawford), is hated by the town’s populace due to her support for a railway being extended through the town. She believes it will bring new money to the region, but the population believe an influx of strangers will threaten their livelihoods. She also allows a suspected robber called The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang to drink in her saloon, which draws the ire of the locals. The townsfolk suspect Vienna and The Dancin’ Kid to be responsible for the stagecoach robbery, and after a confrontation with a posse, led by a zealous local woman called Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) who is jealous of Vienna and The Kid’s relationship, it becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is in fact Johnny Logan, a famed gunslinger and Vienna’s former lover.

Later on, The Dancin’ Kid and his gang commit a bank robbery, for which Vienna is blamed for being the mastermind. With a posse on their trail, Vienna is caught hiding an injured gang member at the saloon, and Emma convinces the posse that Vienna must be hanged. At the last moment, she is saved by Johnny Guitar, and they flee in to the mountains, leading to a final shootout between Emma and Vienna.

On its release in 1954, Johnny Guitar left many American critics uninterested, while in Europe, and especially amongst the New Wave directors in France, who were already great champions of Nicholas Ray, the film was lauded as a masterpiece. Francois Truffaut ranked it amongst his favourite films, and Jean-Luc Godard was equally enamoured with its existential and social themes and Ray’s consistently pioneering filmmaking technique. A wonderful quote from a negative review that appeared in Variety on the film’s release uncannily sums up the two viewpoints,

“It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment. [The scriptwriter] becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle…The people in the story never achieve much depth, this character shallowness being at odds with the pretentious attempt at analysis to which the script and direction devotes so much time.

In this, it is not hard to see why the French critics were so excited by Johnny Guitar. Complex characterisation, long, idiosyncratic dialogue, and exploration of motivations and philosophical themes, rejected by the reviewer as ‘nuances and neuroses’, were the bedrock of New Wave. And it is equally easy to see why American critics rejected it; the main gripe of the reviewer in this case seeming to be the lack of action, ‘rearing up in the saddle’, usually associated with Westerns, in favour of a more measured film interested in character exploration and wider themes.

It is true that Johnny Guitar utterly falls down as a Western, and would have left many American fans of the traditional Western bewildered. Truffaut called it a ‘phony Western’, and it is probably best to initially compare it to other Westerns of the time, and then to view it outside the form of a Western completely, as its themes are much wider than this usually narrowly defined genre.

Regarding the characters, Johnny himself is not a typical Western hero, and many aspects of him fail to live up to the typical male lead in a Western; although skilled with them, he eschews the use of guns, his dialogue is often philosophical and idiosyncratic, he is often reserved and stays in the background, and his general demeanour and outlook are of a relaxed quietness that seems quite alien to traditional Westerns. When compared to the archetypal Western hero typified in the 40s and 50s by John Wayne, gruff, tough, straight speaking, often selfish, but ultimately good, Johnny and his wandering dialogue and far less ‘manly’ gait seem out of place, and in turn make a John Wayne character look incredibly one-dimensional to the level of appearing similar to Hollywood’s later ‘one size fits all’ action movie stars. With John Wayne being the John McClane of the Wild West, Johnny Guitar seems more the literary existential loner than action star. And, again in opposition to the traditional Western, and to the vindication of the previously quoted American reviewer, while there are lots of guns, there is very little shooting.

The film is overwhelmingly existentialist in tone, and the events that unfold during the course of it often seem farcical, pointless, and, as Albert Camus would have claimed in his theory of the Absurd, cruel twists of fate in a world without meaning. Vienna is being forced out of business by the irrational fear of the townsfolk to the coming of the railroad, and is blamed, through a series a chances, for masterminding a robbery she had nothing to do with. By chance, she is present when the robbery takes place, and the young robber, Turkey, somehow ends up wounded on her saloon floor. When the posse turn up to search the saloon, she almost convinces them of her innocence until Turkey inadvertently reveals his hiding place under a table, and they are then led away to be hanged. And what led to Turkey arriving at Vienna’s in the first place? His injury, farcical to the last, is caused by his failing to duck when riding his horse under a large branch. A fate far too inglorious for most Westerns, it is reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider, and the series of unfortunate events that Meursault is victim to that lead to his shooting of the Arab on the beach.

Adding to the sense that Johnny and Vienna are being persecuted by conditions and cruel chance rather than individuals is the presence of the posse, who appear throughout the film as an amorphous mass. Aside from the obvious individual of Emma, and a couple of others, such as the Marshall, the posse as a whole is anonymous, and this is emphasised by the uniformity of their appearance; they are almost all wearing exactly the same clothing, which Vienna makes reference to at one point as ‘funeral clothes’.

But the true personal conflict of the film is between Vienna and Emma, and it is interesting in itself that for a film whose title bears him name, the character of Johnny could almost be surplus. At times he appears weak when faced with these two strong characters, and the male characters as a whole are completely secondary to the two females, both Johnny and The Dancin’ Kid and his gang defer to Vienna, who is clearly the leader of the group, and the posse always seem unsure of what course of action to take unless instructed by Emma. It is jealousy of, and fear of what she represents that drives Emma’s relentless persecution of Vienna. While the rest of the posse are also opposed to Vienna and would obviously rather be rid of her, they are uneasy at condemning her for a crime they know she did not commit, and are reluctant to take her to the gallows, but do so anyway in the face of Emma’s psychotic urging. It is Emma’s zealous hatred of Vienna, in the face of a town otherwise reluctant to condemn her, that drives the film, and also throws up the obvious social aspects at stake.

It is unclear when Johnny Guitar is supposed to be set, but we can fairly safely assume that it is some time around the turn of the 20th century. The Old West is in its dying stages, and Emma and the townsfolk represent the hopeless struggle to defend their town from the march of modernity, represented perennially in the railroad, which will eventually render the frontier, and their old routines, broken. Emma and the posse can be seen as protectionists, economically, and in regards to their way of life. An interesting if more dramatic comparison to make would be to Spain in the mid-19th century, a steadily industrialising country that faced substantial opposition to modernisation that manifested in several civil wars known as the Carlist Wars. Finding their support base mainly among the ultra-conservative peasants of the mountainous northern Navarre region, the Carlists would march from the mountains, often led by priests, to attack the symbols of liberalism, secularism and modernity, often represented again, by train stations, which were attacked and burned to the ground at any opportunity. Another example of this resistance to the new world encroaching on the values of the Old West can be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, where we see the resistance of farmers and townspeople to oil baron Daniel Plainview’s plans to build a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, and their will is broken only by the extraordinary amounts of money he has to offer these struggling people for their land.

But, in true existentialist fashion, alongside these entirely rational themes there is, at its heart the irrational that would have appealed especially to European cinema and the New Wave;  that good, protestant settler Emma’s hatred for Vienna, strong enough to want to kill her for no good reason, is partly fuelled by her love for The Dancin’ Kid, by all accounts an amoral criminal. It is this irrationality, farce, and the existential twists of fate at the heart of Johnny Guitar, and its complete disregard for the traditional Western, that led to its poor reception in America, and in turn also led to its hailing as a masterpiece, a ‘Beauty and the Beast of Westerns’, as Truffaut called it, by European cinema.

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2 Or 3 Things Godard Knows About Paris, And Capitalism, Obviously.

The storyline of 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and released in 1967, is, like much of Godard’s work at the back end of the New Wave, completely secondary to the political message of the image and narration. In fact, its so unimportant to the film as a whole that describing it as a vehicle for the message would probably be too generous.

It is ostensibly about a housewife, Juliette, played by Marina Vlady, who lives in one of the many newly built housing developments springing up on the edge of Paris, who spends her day working as a prostitute.

2 or 3 Things can be termed a ‘Paris film’, as Godard makes clear at the beginning with a message in typically Godard-esque brightly coloured lettering, that the ‘her’ in the title refers to ‘the Paris region’. But instead of taking the shape of what are often called ‘love letter’ films to the city, defined through Godard’s own New Wave work in A Bout De Souffle or Masculin, Feminin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is intended as a warning about its future, socially, politically, and aesthetically.

The aspect of Juliette’s surroundings is the most important element of the film. We first see her standing on the balcony of a high tower block, and the film is puncuated throughout by bleak shots of depressing housing developments that contrast wildly with the, again typically Godard, aggressive colouring of the film. Nearly every scene is divided by a shot of a building site, a crane, a new motorway, an unfinished bridge, a rising towerblock, a cement truck, or containers on a river, and in this the idea that the face of Paris is changing is constant. Early on, Godard’s whispering narration puts this in the context of Charles de Gaulle’s economic reforms of the mid-sixties, and what he sees as the increasing encroachment of unopposed capitalism in to people’s everyday lives. France in the mid-sixties found itself in the middle of the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of almost uninterrupted economic growth that lasted from the end of the war to the mid-seventies, where the economy enjoyed unprecedented levels of productivity and consumer consumption supplemented by rising wages. By showing the estates in a state of constant construction, Godard is showing that, as if mirroring the rapidity of economic reform in France in the mid-sixties, the rising housing estates are produced with the same speed, aesthetically ugly, dull and grey, and alienating to those who live in them, or whom Juliette is the example in this film.

The film demonstrates time and again Godard’s concern for the impact capitalism has on the everyday lives of Parisians. This idea is taken to the extreme, where capitalism interferes with humans even in their most private moments, demonstrated absurdly but brilliantly in a scene where a woman enjoying a bath is interrupted by a man from the electricity company walking in on her. Completely uninterested in her nakedness and absorbed in his work, he merely asks where the meter is and informs her of the size of the bill. The other constant message is that of capitalism providing a fall back for itself; to supplement the alienation of one who is living an alienated existence, a constant stream of consumer goods are available, but, as Godard’s narration whispers;

‘The mere fact of suddenly enjoying an appliance spurs power consumption without regard for the bill. It’s the same old story. Either no money for rent or no TV, or else a TV but no car, or else a washer but no vacation. In other words, in any case, no normal life.’

Part of the film does take place in the centre of Paris proper, when Juliette goes in to the city for her work, but outside shots of the city itself are fleeting, and she soon returns back to the suburbs. Every shot we are presented with of a tower block, a building site, or a new motorway is a warning from Godard, that if left unoppossed, capitalism will render every city and the lives of its inhabitants lifeless, as it does to Paris in the construction of these new suburbs. He also condemns the apathy and passivity of the population as a whole, represented in Juliette, whose lacklustre observation that,

‘Nobody will know what the city of tomorrow will look like, some of its semantic richness will be gone, undoubtedly, undoubtedly’.

could not be more resounding as a statement by somebody who is alienated, but lacks the will or the opportunity to attempt to do anything about it one way or the other. Godard is willing the audience to condemn her for not being harsher in her lamentation. It is also a quick and effective testement to the extent to which Godard believes the rapid rise of consumer goods are pacifying the nation, both politically and culturally. A good contrast to make would be in the early films of New Wave, the apartment of the Doinels in The 400 Blows, or that of Jean Seberg’s character in A Bout De Souffle, austere and almost empty in comparison to Juliette’s flat with its collection of consumer goods and branded products, which, in the final shot of the film, are laid out on the grass outside her tower block, and the film fades over them.

As we see in this century, Godard’s observations and condemnation of the ugliness and alienating aspects of the new suburbs could not have been more starkly vindicated. The clean and new, although obviously dull and lifeless suburbs of Godard’s sixties have now evolved into the banlieues of the 2010s, notorious throughout Europe as being rife with endemic poverty, crime, unemployment, and making the headlines every few years when instances of rioting break out, as happened during the 80s, 90s, and most recently in 2005, when rioting spread to cities all around the country, from the Belgian border to Marseille, after the deaths of two youths in an electrical substation after being chased by police in the banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris. The perfect cinematic partner for 2 Or 3 Things can be none other than Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 release La Haine, a bleak depiction of a life of boredom, rioting, and unemployment in the banlieue of the nineties. Godard’s doubt as to the suitability of the suburbs for long-term human habitation have been proved correct.

This film should also be required viewing for students of architecture, and especially those who may still be unconvinced of the inherent ugliness and unsuitability for the practicalities of city life of the urban renewel schemes of the sixties. The disregard of aesthetic value is there to see in the film, and still obvious in many town centres across Britain. While French architects were tearing up the land on the outskirts of Paris in the mid-sixties, British architects, when not erecting tower blocks of their own, were systematically ripping up and redeveloping the historical centres of towns across the country to make way for larger roads and shopping malls. What was once a town square, the traditional meeting and gathering point of any urban area, became the Arndale in Manchester, or the Birmingham Bullring. If anyone had ever harboured an impossible desire to make bedfellows of an English Tory, lamenting the passing of the traditional town centre, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard, this may be a good place to start.

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her stands out among Godard’s films as one of the most pertinent warning for the future and the quietness of the film, urged by Godard’s soothing narration, does not detract from its apocolyptic tone. The subject for concern is Paris in this instance, but it could be any city around the world. Godard sees the rapid expansion of capitalism, and, more so than ever before, in to the everyday lives of people, and the film is a warning to the audience to reject passivity and adopt a permenant vigilance, because if we don’t, we may end up in the same tower block of Juliette, or at least the one next door. The serenity of the film, and its slow pace, only add to the urgency, and as if the director feels that the subject at hand has gone beyond the usual political grandstanding, instead, he quietly and politely attempts to persuade. Watched alongside earler New Wave films set in Paris, where we see the city in all its glory, it is Godard’s lamentation to the possible decline of a city that has yielded to the brutalising effects of capitalism.

Luckily, Paris has largely escaped the brutalising effect in regards to its appearance, partly through awareness and panic raised by those like Godard, and the city proper we see now looks much as it did seventy years ago. It is in these instances that France should be thankful for its cultural zealots. Through uncompromisingly strict planning regulation, often, I imagine, to the detriment of the city’s economy, the city proper retains its overall character. Londoners should look at Paris with a hint of jealously, for while the financial district of that city is relegated to its outskirts, a thankfully distant series of skyscrapers glimpsed through the window on a suburban train, few people would disagree that the square mile of the historical City of London, and central London in its entireity, has been mangled almost beyond recognition by faceless glass office blocks, the designers of which making no attempt to fit in with the aesthetics of their surroundings in any way. In turn, this has ensured that the centre of the city is no longer for people, but for companies and finance; unless you’re on a pretty hefty salary, you’re not going to be living anywhere near the centre of the London, even in a bedsit.

When considered in this way, the title of 2 Or 3 Things itself seems like a conversation response from somebody who has been away from Paris for a long time, and refuses to acknowledge its changed state. A friend could be welcoming them back, telling them about the new suburbs and warning him that things have changed for the worse, and the response to this is, ‘Well, there are two or three things I know about her’. Perhaps this is Godard’s belief that Paris will always have two or three things up her sleeve, and will never surrender to ugliness completely.

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Detour: Extremist noir

Detour, released in 1945 and directed by Edgar G Ulmer, was a product of the highly productive, if now largely forgotten series of low-rent movies produced through short-lived studios known as ‘poverty row’, B-movies produced by small studios from the late twenties through to the mid-fifties, typified by featuring relatively unknown actors, low budgets, basic set design, and short shooting schedules. Over the years it has found itself designated classic of film noir, has appeared on numerous great movie lists, notably the All-Time 100 Movies, and has been bestowed the label of ‘cult film’. A cult film is defined by a fanatical devotion from a small number of fans, and this can sometimes lead to a it being regarded as a novelty. This is an unfair label to be placed on a film like Detour, which I think should not only be regarded as a classic of film noir, but a film that subverted common practise of the time and took noir to its logical, and purest, extreme.

Detour is now in the public domain, and is available for download here;

http://www.archive.org/details/Detour

Detour tells the story of Al, played by Tom Neal, a hapless piano player from New York. He plays in a small bar, and is in love with Sue, an ambitious young singer he accompanies on the piano. We first see Al in a roadside cafe at night, unshaven, dishevelled, and argueing with the staff and other customers. His narration, in classic noir style kicks in, we learn that some misfortune has beset him, and a flashback begins.

Al and Sue are performing a rendition of ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’, and afterwards Sue tells Al she intends to leave New York for Hollywood, and after initially criticising her decision, Al eventually agrees to join her once she is set up there. She leaves, and, lacking money, Al decides to hitchhike the journey, and is picked up by convertible driving Charles Haskell Jr, a cynical chancer with the demenour of a small-time crook. Haskell spends most of his time bragging about his wealth, and Al spots some scars on his hands that Haskell attributes to ‘some dame’ whom he had also offered a life. Haskell is obviously unwell, and during their journey together we see him popping pills. Night falls, and as they drive through a lonely part of Arizona, Haskell falls asleep in the passenger seat, and it starts to rain. Al unsuccessfully attempts to raise him, to ask if he should put the top down, and opens the car door. Haskell falls out, and smashes his head on a rock and dies. After some initial moral to-and-froing, Al decides that the police would never believe that he hadn’t committed murder, and drags Haskell’s body to some undergrowth, swaps their clothing and wallets, assumes his identity, and a not inconsiderable sum of money, and drives away in the convertible.

Al sleeps the night in a motel, and the next morning wakes and continues his journey to Hollywood, not before picking up a girl outside the motel who is also heading for California. She tells him to ‘call her Vera’, and he introduces himself as Haskell. After some initial stilted conversation, she tells Al that she knows he is not Haskell, as she is the one who gave him the scratches on his arm, and that she knows that Al has killed him. She takes Al’s, or Haskell’s, money in exchange for her silence, and they both agree that on arrival in Hollywood they should sell the car with her keeping all the money.

They get to Hollywood and rent an apartment as Mr and Mrs Haskell, and while Al spends the time stalking the apartment with a worried look permenently fixed to his face, Vera sets about getting drunk and chastising him for his bad decisions, threatening every so often to phone the police and tell them everything. They attempt to sell the car the next day, but Vera calls it off after noticing an article in a newspaper that tells her Haskell’s father is dying, and he is looking to reconcile with his long lost son. Sensing an inheritence, Vera attempts to convice Al to play Haskell in front of his dying father and family, and Al refuses, believing he would be found out. They retire back to the apartment, where Vera gets drunk again and harangues Al, threatens to phone the police, and eventually runs with the phone to her room where she locks herself in. Al pleads with her to see sense, and eventually grabs the phone line under the door and pulls it, trying to drag the phone away from her. After a few moments tugging, he opens the door and Vera is lying dead, the phone cord wrapped around her neck. Al has another moral dilemma, and speculates on how life’s misfortunes have got the better of him, and we return to him in the cafe from the first scene, unshaved and dishevelled. He leaves the cafe, and while walking down a dark road, is picked up by a police car which then drives away without explaination.

The film itself is just over an hour long, and is surprisingly low-rent, even for a B-movie. The filming took place over six days, only three sets were used, a few scenes were shot on location in the California desert. Stock footage and a short location scene on a used-car lot is used to represent Los Angeles, and a street scene in New York is clearly just a set with fog used to obscure the background. This film has more scenes where the characters are either driving or being driven in a car than any other I’ve seen.

The low-rent nature of the film leaves us to focus on the main characters. Apart from fairly fleeting appearances by Al’s love interest, Sue, and the real Haskell, and a few lines from minor characters, Al and Vera take up all of our time. Vera, played by Ann Savage, is a classic noir femme fatale, but taken to a logical extreme that is often unnerving; she has all the sass and cunning of a traditional noir female lead, but is completely amoral and unsympathetic, and at times she makes for uncomfortable viewing. She spits out her lines, and is permenantly blackmailing, threatening, mentally torturing, or just plain insulting Al, berating him and calling him a ‘sap’ or a ‘sucker’ every other sentence. She assumes the dominant role in the parternship, with Al is usually either nervously following her plans or worrying about whether he should. Al is repulsed by Vera, and the viewer is left with no appealing qualities to see in her. In many of his scenes with Vera, except their last, he has the demenour of a kicked puppy, and several times we are led to think he may be on the verge of killing her. But even so, her cunning does not extend to her intelligence, and between whining and attempting to appeal to her better nature, or which she has none, Al is left to convince her that her plan to impersonate Haskell is front of his family is completely ridiculous and unlikely to succeed.

As a side note, Tom Neal seemed to exemplify the film noir male more powerfully in his private life than the uncertain and nervous characterisation of Al we get in the film. He was a successful college boxer, and in 1951 left actor Franchot Tone in a temporary coma after beating him half to death in a dispute over a mutual love interest, Barbara Payton, and in 1965 he was conviced of involuntary manslaughter and served six years in prison after shooting his third wife, Gale Bennett, in the back of the head, killing her.

Al’s narration reveals another dimension of the film, and unlike most traditional hardboiled narration in a noir, cannot be taken at face value. Throughout Detour we get the impression that the viewer is being deceived. In most noir, we take for granted that the  narration is the viewer’s exclusive access to the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. The protagonist has no reason to lie to the passive viewer. In Detour, given the unlikely nature of the deaths that occurr in Al’s presence, which he acknowledges and frets about continuously, and the almost pleading tone he adopts, we get the impression that the narration is a deception. Al has committed the murders of Haskell and Vera, and what we are hearing are his attempts to convince us of his innocence with ludicrous explainations of their deaths, and the pictures we are seeing on the screen are his lie to the viewer. This is where the cynical pessimism and lack of apparent morality in film noir is taken to its conclusion, where the viewer is in fact being deceived by a murderous protagonist, and the cynicism is reaching beyond the screen.

The very last scene, though, proves Detour’s place as the purest of noir films, and has to be seen in the context of restrictions on filmmaking at the time. Between the end of the silent era to around the late fifties, all American films were subject to massive censorship at the hands of the Motion Picture Production Code, an overwhelmingly conservative code of moral standards for cinema. Known as the Hays Code, after William H Hays, Hollywood’s chief censor until he retired in 1945, it was introduced in 1930, though for the next four years was mostly ignored This period, know now as ‘pre-code Hollywood’ produced many films that appear shockingly racy when compared with what came after them, dealing with themes of drugs, sex, murder, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and portraying women and blacks in a strong and favourable light, something later Hollywood often failed to do in regard to the former, and nearly always failed to do regarding the latter.

The Hays Code became mandatory in 1934, and was effectively enforced from then onwards, prohibiting, among many things; themes on homosexuality, depictions of mixed race relationships, favourable portrayls of sexual relations outside marriage, ridiculue or criticism of authorities or religious figures , ‘lustful kissing’, ‘scenes of unnecessary passion’, unnecessary portrayls of violence, and any nudity. Its intention was to capture cinema, seen by many conservatives as a deviant art form, and instill in it the virtue of ‘traditional values’. Even Betty Boop found herself transformed from flapper to long-skirted housewife. Few films managed to get past the restrictions, and when they did it was through minor transgressions. Hitchcock notably mocked the code’s ban on kissing scenes lasting longer than three seconds in his 1946 release Notorious; Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman engage in a prolonged session by breaking off their kiss every three seconds to nuzzle each other, and then start again. Amazingly, and to Hitchcock’s great satisfaction and amusement, he let this carry on for two-and-a-half minutes.

A victory over the censors, but one that seems incredibly tame when compared to a film such as the 1931 pre-code classic Safe In Hell, about a smart and savvy secretary-turned-prostitute played by Dorothy Mackaill, with its frank depictions of murder and sexuality, almost nudity, the presence of a strong and intelligent female role, and its allowing black actors to forfeit any ‘negro dialect’ required of them in later films. Between this, and Cary Grant’s extended kissing, we see the effect the code had on American film.

Not satisfied to restrict filmmaking on the moral plane, the code also extended to politics, with its specifications for ‘respectful treatment of the flag’, and that the nation, and authority were not to be made light of. All in all, the Hays Code set out to ensure that,

‘No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it’

Another important aspect of the code was that crime in film could not be presented as in any way rewarding, and criminals would always have to either apprehended or punished for their crimes by the end of the film. Although appearing to follow this rule, the last ten seconds of Detour completely circumvent it. As Al walks into the night, and the police car rolls up to collect him, we can almost imagine Edgar G Ulmer laughing behind the camera, and his audacity is astounding.

Al’s ‘arrest’ is so brief, so unnecessary, and presented in such an offhand way, almost as an afterthought  as though Ulmer had finished the film and suddenly remembered the existence of the censor, that we know it too to be a deception. Never has a token gesture been so purposefully lazily committed to film. Ulmer is winking to the audience, and telling us that, if not for the police car, the film would not have made it past the censors, but, as both audience and director know, in reality Al has walked in to the night, and has gotten away with murder. He may as well have flashed a message over the police car, ‘for the benefit of the censor’. Detour has performed the impossible task of completely subverting the Hays Code while complying with it, albeit with an obvious complete lack of sincerity, at the same time. The last ten seconds of the film are a middle-finger salute to the censor.

The fact that the protagonist has committed murder and gotten away with it, the unpleasant and unsympathetic characterisation of Al and Vera, compounded with the fact that Al has sought to deceive the viewer through the entire film and his narration, show Detour to be almost a pre-code film. Stripping away Al’s unvoiced deception of the viewer and the token gesture of the police car to save the shock of the censor’s imagined ideal of respectable filmgoer, the viewer is confronted with noir in its pure form; the unpalatable reality of a murderer who has gotten away with it. Because of its low-budget and technically strange presentation, and the almost ‘nothing to lose’ feeling familiar of many B-movie productions, Detour is noir in its logical extreme, a film that the big studios were prevented from, and would not have run the risk of, trying to make.

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The First Blow

I’m a big fan of French New Wave, and as this blog continues I’ll hopefully get a chance to write more on it. I’m currently working my way through the five films Francois Truffaut made charting the life of his restless alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played in each film by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 when he was just 14, Léaud and Truffaut give us Antoine realising unrequited love at the age of 17 in the 1962 short Antoine and Colette, through to his courtship and marriage of violinist Christine in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, and ending in 1979 with Love On The Run, by which time Léaud was in his mid-thirties.

Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is often held as the defining figure in French New Wave, due to his appearence in Jean-Luc Godard’s defining New Wave debut A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and his continued association with Godard throughout the sixties, Léaud’s claim to the title is resoundingly stronger. Along with his role as Antoine Doinel, he featured prominently in Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Week End, as well as appearing briefly in Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou. His involvement with both directors was such that when Truffaut and Godard eventually broke off their friendship, as documented in the excellent documentary Two In The Wave, released last year, Léaud was so torn between the two that he felt bartered with and bandied about like a child caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

Long before the degeneration of their friendship, when both Godard and Truffaut were critics and friendly rivals on the burgeoning film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and Truffaut had just released the opening volley of fire at French cinema in the form of The 400 Blows, Godard wrote of his friend’s film;

‘The face of the French cinema has changed.’

Just a year after being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival because of his uncompromising attacks upon the French cinematic establishment, Truffaut had successfully transformed his sobriquet from the ‘gravedigger of French cinema’, to its saviour. The 400 Blows was selected by de Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux to represent France at the 1959 Festival, at which it won Truffaut the award for Best Director.

If The 400 Blows was the opening volley against an out of touch French cinema, the opening scene in the film presented traditional French society with no question of what it was to expect from this new age. We find Antoine Doinel at school, in trouble with his teacher having been caught passing a picture of a bikini-clad woman amongst his classmates. He is sent to stand in the corner as punishment, and is not allowed to play with his friends at breaktime, leading him to scrawl on the wall behind the blackboard;

‘Here poor Antoine Doinel was
punished by Sourpuss
for a pin-up fallen from the sky
it will be an eye for an eye’

The scene plays out as a condemnation of the old forms of learning and expression, and the target identified can clearly be seen as French cinema and the cultural establishment. We see the disciplinarian teacher boring his pupils with rote learning of an uninspiring poem called ‘The Hare’, and the teacher himself is shown to be representative of the generation of wartime Frenchmen and women who confronted the sixties, and everything that came with it, including the New Wave, with disdain and a feeling of powerlessness. At one point, the teacher laments the rebelliousness of his pupils with a cry of,

‘Poor France! What a future!’

In the same way the New Wave was rebelling against the cinematic age its founders existed in, so too are Antoine Doinel and his classmates unwittingly rebelling against traditional French society. This is even more pertinent when we consider the political situation in France when New Wave was born.

The Fourth Republic had collapsed in 1958, after what was essentially a coup d’etat by army officers in Algeria, leading to the founding of the Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as president in an almost dictatorial capacity, having granted himself extraordinary powers and an unchallengeable seven-year term.

The radicalising effects of the Fifth Republic, the opposition to the war in Algeria, the continuous liberatory movement of the young through France during the 1960s, all these factors exemplified perfectly in the films of New Wave, manifested itself in the largest uprising in Europe for decades, and the largest since; the near-revolution of 1968. Students rioted and occupied their universities, and even more threatening to the established order, the country experienced the largest general strike in its history, with hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories and running them independently of their bosses.

The uncompromisingly emancipatory nature of the uprising, along with its potential for victory, was such that the workers and students were eventually forced back to work by ‘their own’ organisations, the French Communist Party and the official trade unions. The level of political liberation was such that workers and students found themselves in direct opposition to their traditional representatives, who sided with the state against revolution.

The changes in culture, sexuality, political structure, ideology, gender relationships, in France in the sixties were massive. Antoine Doinel and his classmates are at the age of twelve in The 400 Blows, and in 1968 they will be students or young workers, and likely to be involved in some way in the 1968 uprising, and it is easy to imagine an older Antoine with a paving stone in his hand.

In this way the opening scene of The 400 Blows is a metaphor for the changes France is about to experience, and just as many of the older generation felt a sense of helplessness when confronted with the liberated young of the sixties, and the ’68 uprising, the teacher can do nothing in the face of his rebellious pupils but lament for the future of the country. Their rebelliousness is not without a check however, for the immediate image we are confronted with when we leave the classroom is a looming close up of the powerful emblem of traditional French republicanism outside the school, the immovable ‘Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie’, carved in stone, a reminder of the power and constant presence of the state.

Refusing to remain passive observers and documenters, when 1968 came around Truffaut and Godard didn’t leave it up to Antoine Doinel and A Bout de Souffle’s eternal gangster Michel to voice their rebellion, and they became actively involved in protests, notably in the campaign for the reinstatement of the dismissed director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Langlois had been dismissed by culture minister André Malraux, who had by this time turned against New Wave and sought to replace him with a government-appointed board of directors. The incident was a massive error of judgement on Malraux’s part, who had vastly underestimated the symbolic importance of Langlois and the Cinémathèque to filmmakers around the world. The campaign for Langlois provided a major rallying point for filmmakers’ involvement in the uprising and the campaign attracted support from names such as Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Nicholas Ray was also a robust supporter of the campaign and attended demonstrations in Paris, including one a week after Langlois’ dismissal alongside Truffaut, Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marie Epstein, Bertrand Tavernier and others, during which the crowd was baton charged by the police.

After successfully forcing the Cannes Film Festival to shut down in 1968, Truffaut and Godard organised demonstrations in support of Langlois and he was reinstated later that year, although their partnership in the campaign was their last, and their friendship was bitterly broken soon after.

The 400 Blows heralded not just a new era of artistic and cinematic expression, but also the massive shifts that French society was about to experience. Antoine Doinel’s rebellion against his teacher and his parents exemplify this, as does his rebellion against the army in Stolen Kisses but nothing in the early New Wave films rivalled, as an opening declaration of opposition to all that had come before it, the first scene in which Antoine is chastised by his teacher. It is little wonder that the poetic lament for his situation and statement of revenge he scrawls on the wall is so reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans painted over Paris during the uprising of 1968. Sous les pavés, la plage – Antoine Doinel?

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The Red Shoes vs Black Swan

The similarities between Black Swan, which was released earlier this year, and The Red Shoes, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and released in 1948, are obvious. Both tell the story of talented young women engaged as ballet dancers, both relatively unknown, who are suddenly propelled to the limelight as prima ballerinas, dancing the principal role in a new ballet for their respective companies. In Black Swan’s case, a bold new reworking of Swan Lake, and in The Red Shoes, a brand new composition also called The Red Shoes. Loosely based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young girl given a pair of red shoes by a mysterious and sinister cobbler, which, as soon as she puts them on, possess her and make her dance uncontrollably until she dies from exhaustion.

Black Swan shows Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, who, having been a minor member of her ballet company, attempt to unburden herself of her self-consciousness and attain a near impossible level of excellence expected in her new role, while at the same time dealing with her fragile mental state which is exacerbated by her overbearing mother, herself a failed ballerina, played to an often frightening intensity by Barbera Hershey. In The Red Shoes, Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, is a relatively minor dancer in the Lermontov Ballet company, and is thrown in to the limelight when her director, Boris Lermantov, chances to see her dance in a small, run down hall somewhere in London in front of a handfull of people. She is offered the lead in the new play, The Red Shoes, and it is a resounding success, as proudly exhibited to the viewer in a magnificent, and completely hallucinatory and Fellini-esque fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film.

Nina struggles with her new role; she is precise in her delivery of the part of Odette, the angelic White Swan, but, in the eyes of her director, Thomas, played brilliantly by Vincent Cassell, passionless, restrained, and lacking in the sexual energy he sees as essential to the part of the Odile, the Black Swan. Vicky’s adaptation is smoother, although conflict soon manifests itself when she falls in love with Julian Craster, the young, up-and-coming composer of The Red Shoes.

Both women suffer the machinations of manipulative directors; Leroy is passionate and lecherous towards Nina, whereas Lermontov is an ice cold Russian exile, who fires Julian from the company once he finds out about their relationship, believing Vicky’s love for him compromising to her art. Vicky leaves also, in solidarity with her lover, leading Lermontov to sink in to a depression, believing no one else capable of dancing The Red Shoes but Vicky. She eventually returns, without the knowledge of Julian, and agrees to dance. However, moments before she is due to go onstage, Julian turns up, and, incensed at her betrayl, demands she choose between their love and the ballet. She chooses the ballet, he storms off, but as she is walking down the long corridor to the stage, wide-eyed before the camera, the red shoes she is wearing, representing her conflict between love and art, carry her off, and she runs out of the building and commits suicide by jumping from a balcony. In an equally dramatic parallel, Nina is broken by her fragile state of mind, and unwittingly stabs herself during the intermission of the opening night, then completes the second half to rapturous applause, and dies on stage.

The material likeness of both stories are obvious, but what is more important is the believability of the principal characters in their adaptation from obscurity to the unbelievable pressure of performance, and as both films adopt the familiar story-within-a-story formula, attention must also be focused on both Natalie Portman and Moira Shearer in their performances. The idea is to see the ballet in the film through their eyes, as we are seeing the film through our own eyes.

Black Swan opts for a simple psychological thriller angle, showing Nina’s struggle with her role through the prism of her faltering mental health. Vicky’s adaptation to her role stands on Moira Shearer’s performance alone, without the aid of any psychological gimmickry, and in many ways that is enough. Moira Shearer herself was a professional ballet dancer, a rising member of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, and The Red Shoes was her first film. It shows, and, as brilliant as she is, her nervousness and innocence is obvious, especially during conversational scenes, where she spends most of her time staring in to space when she is both listening and talking. Her nerves and earnestness are translated perfectly through Vicky, who through a quiet, although shaky at first, dignity confronts her own impending stardom. In comparison to this genuine manifestation of both a character and an actor/dancer’s response to art, in both Vicky Page and Moira Shearer’s response to ballet and film, the conflict of Black Swan seems artificial and forced, resting on the psychological angle alone.

The Red Shoes was a bold film for the time, a jump in to near fantasy when realism owned post-war cinema, and was a testement to art over real life. As Michael Powell later reflected,

“For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”

In the tragic endings to Black Swan and The Red Shoes, both Nina and Vicky lose their lives to their art; Nina after sacrificing her mind for it, and Vicky after sacrificing love.

As a side note, it is interesting to note the response of the ballet world to both films. Upon its release, The Red Shoes was celebrated as an accurate portrayl of ballet, as well as during filming when several ballet critics were given access to sets. With its later popularity however, it began to be criticised as portraying ballet in a cliched and negative light. The attacks often bore a resemblance to the condemnation by other art forms of early cinema, laced with ignorance and disdainful of the medium as a whole, which, in 1948, seems a bit of a stretch. Moira Shearer herself later attacked the film also, although this seems mostly from exasperation with the technical side of filmmaking; during the dance sequences she was only allowed to dance for short periods at a time, often having to repeat the same thirty seconds of dance continuously, and it took some time for her to adapt back to the structure and technique of a full ballet.

The response from ballet to the release of Black Swan was, by comparison, caustic. Critics saw it was portraying dancers in a negative light, as ruthless, selfish, and egotistical. Not entirely unfair claims, although I have no idea how cut-throat ballet dancers might be having spent little time with any, but it is no stretch to imagine competition in companies to be fierce. Reactions weren’t helped by the portrayl of Nina by a non-ballerina, and the dance scenes were attacked as amateurish (which, by their own definition, they obviously were) and the subsequent claims by a professional dancer to have performed some of the dance scenes only added to the controversy.

As a modern art form, ballet is distinct in the way it seems to be disdainful of publicity, and often actively hostile when it receives any. Following the reaction to Black Swan, various following articles criticised the ballet world for its insularity. These observations were not unjustified, for example, in an age where nearly anything popular to someone has an in-depth article on Wikipedia, the page on ballet, for a major form of artistic expression, is surprisingly short, and goes in to little historical or technical detail. In comparison, the page on the Basque variant of the sport pelota, hardly a pursuit with the same worldwide appeal, is over double the length. But maybe this is a positive attitude for ballet to take, and a perceptive one.

Those in ballet know it is never going to have widespread appeal today, and instead of compromise itself to the cheapening effects of mass culture in an attempt to broaden its appeal, as so many other art forms have done, it closes itself off, and retains its integrity. In refusing to debase itself to a lowest common denominator of pure entertainment value, it refuses to even engage in the arguement on the terms defined by those of mass culture, that of entertainment value itself. In this way its insularity is positive, and it can remain a pure art form. Of course, the attention ballet has received from the recent release of Black Swan will be unwelcome to many of those who wish it to remain anonymous from mass culture, and they will be hoping the momentary popularity will fade like many Hollywood-inspired fads.

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