Observing that James Bond is misogynist is like observing that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves: it’s such an important fact that it can be easy to forget how spectacularly obvious it is. I’m not going to say that the new Bond film isn’t misogynist — that’s a sucker’s game — but I want to start by observing something interesting about this new Daniel Craig version. Since Bond’s narrative arc now defines his character by the trauma of a particular loss/betrayal in Casino Royale*, the inherent misogyny of the character gets re-framed less as a natural attitude towards women (and thus a masculinity which implies an anti-feminine attitude) and more as a defensive, individual, and contingent response to that personal trauma. These two movies are, in other words, prequels in the most extraverted sense, for by providing a specific explanation for what has otherwise been taken for granted (and thus naturalized), they transform the misogyny of all the other movies. Or at least they do to the extent that we buy the fiction and let Daniel Craig function as a prequel for past Bonds.

In any case, Quantum of Solace is an interesting and strange Bond movie whether or not we let it retroactively re-narrate the franchise. After all, the franchise’s main misogynist institution is the “Bond girl,” the conceit that being a secret agent naturally implies having a lot of sex with a series of women defined by their replaceable uniqueness. To put it one way, this plurality is necessary to dis-imply any measure of personal attachment on the part of Bond himself, and to put it another, it’s a seriality that commodifies difference, transforming the “individuality” of each girl into the difference between flavors, like blonde flavored ice cream. More ominously, however, seduction in the Bond film has often suggested rape — especially when it involved “turning” enemy agents by overpowering them with sex — and the number of times it resulted in the women’s deaths is part of that logic. The Pierce Brosnan Bond not only embraced this paradigm, it perfected it; I found it deeply disturbing when Pierce Brosnan killed Sophie Morceau in The World is Not Enough, and while you can partially rescue that film by emphasizing the extent to which it makes plain what is usually mystified, you can’t really argue that there is any alternative in the universe of those films. Women are a threat, increasingly the threat.

Quantum, on the other hand, adheres to this convention in a pointedly agonistic way. After all, there are two living Bond girls in this film, one who he doesn’t sleep with (and who is essentially his narrative double), and another who he kills by sleeping with, a guilt he both addresses as such and suffers from. In other words, both serve precisely the opposite function as we have been taught to expect of them: instead of using guilt-free sex as an expression of masculine power over women (and an expression of “free world” supremacy in the cold war), the main relationship of the film is a celibate one, and the other only illustrates Bond’s impotent inability to use sex in a constructive way.

Bond’s character arc within the film is therefore a progression from a position of hatred towards the woman he loved and who betrayed him towards a position of what the movie narrates as understanding, catharsis, and transcendence. At the start of the movie, he is a homicidal maniac who has displaced his rage onto the a series of similarly different bad guys — making every kill an expression of sexualized rage. By the end of the film, however, his choice not to kill the man who is most directly responsible, at the same time as he “forgives” the woman that this bad guy is in the act of seducing out of her duty, is an indication of narrative closure. Perhaps more importantly, a classic Bond movie ending involves having sex with the good Bond girl while headquarters tries (in vain) to locate him, yet this movie ends with Craig and Kurylenko having parted ways, and with (something like) this exchange between M and Bond:

Dench as M: “I need you back”

Craig as Bond: “I never left”

If the classic Bond ending emphasizes the simultaneity of sexual power and duty — and even subordinateds the latter to the former — then Quantum explicitly places sex in opposition to duty, and Craig sacrifices the former for the latter. And while so much of the Bond movie is a touristic fantasy of never-ending summer vacation in exotica, Quantum’s Bond chooses to “come home,” and go back to work.

It’s worth noting, then, that the ending is made possible by this willingness to be brought home, by M’s decision to trust him, and finally by his proving to be worthy of that trust. M is a mother figure — it even sounds like “mum” — and while his earlier response a threat on her life had been psychotic homicidal rage, the ending is a “happy” one only because his response has changed: instead of expressing the problem of attachment to a female by displacing it onto an object of violence, he embraces her. In this sense, M is by far the most important Bond girl in this film, or she would be if it were possible to call Dame Judi Dench a “girl,” which it is not. And this is the thing I dig most about the film: the most important female character in the film, occupying the space where the Bond girl usually goes, is a person who really explodes the series’ most cherished fantasy. While the Bond girl represents guilt-free sex, power, the fantasy of freedom from attachment, and an infantilizing femininity, Judi Dench’s de-sexualized M voices his guilty conscience as a powerful (and deeply respected) maternal figure he cannot disavow, and he denies ever trying to do so. What makes the Bond franchise most questionable, in my mind, is the thing this movie works the hardest to stand on its head. Yet, all that said, where is home? Who is M really?

Since I wrote my Shirley Temple post, I think I understand better what bothered me about The Littlest Rebel: not merely that the movie is racist, sexist, and pedophilic (again, importance makes us overlook obviousness), but that its address to these characteristics is explicit, and that it tries to exploit them. The Littlest Rebel is not a movie that hides what it is; instead, it takes pleasure in being what it is, and by mounting an argument that this pleasure is legitimate, it invites the viewer to take part, even moralizing on its behalf. The fact that this film becomes a source of affective pleasure in ways novels traditionally aren’t thought to be — with the key exception of, for example, the sentimental novel tradition — makes the particularly passivity of the movie-viewer an even more significant site of meaning; not only are we urged to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, but that very “sitting backness” of it is the thing itself. This is something I’m thinking about after reading the late great David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and I wonder if the general point he makes about TV and fiction doesn’t translate nicely into why I distrust Shirley Temple’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: filmic/televisual media have the power to affect us in exactly the ways Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted her novel to do, but which novels are less good at doing. Reading brings pleasure, but it’s an active one and you have to work at it (at least by comparison with film). What makes me so suspicious of a film like The Littlest Rebel, then, is that its medium and message converge: it doesn’t just teach you to how to be enjoy being passive, it does so as you enjoy it passively.

Quantum of Solace is not as different from The Littlest Rebel as one might expect. While The Littlest Rebel works to transform guilt into pleasure, Quantum is a movie that urges us to take pleasure in guilt. Or perhaps it’s the reverse? After all, The Littlest Rebel transforms the spectacle of the civil war and southern guilt into a kind of joyous subjection, but the more I think about it, the more I find myself disturbed by the analogous pleasure Quantum teaches us to derive from Bond’s guilt. A friend called this the most “Christian” of Bond movies, in a largely pejorative way, and I think he’s at least partially right: this is a movie in which there can be no pleasure without guilt, and the sprezzetura and panache of the franchise has disappeared (if you’ll pardon the expression) into a Bourne from which no traveler returns. As in the Bourne franchise, the special service suddenly stands revealed as an agent of disorder and tyranny, less the fun-loving defender of the free world than an economic hit man, a sin which Craig can only seem to expiate by (improbably) fighting against American hegemony on behalf of Evo Morales and Bolivian peasants.

Part of me both welcomes the change and sees why it was inevitable. During the cold war, the pleasure loving Bond always stood in implicit contrast with a pleasure-less totalitarianism, and even the Brosnan Bond managed to burden the character with an imperial “free world” hubris. No more. As Juan Cole points out, this Bond is a radical departure from those older Bonds in both ideological context and intervention; the “lurking presence” of George W. Bush “appears to have almost single-handedly pushed Bond into championing the indigenous peasants against the white-tie global elite,” and “Craig’s Bond is an intimation of the sort of Britain that could have been if Tony Blair had stood up to Bush and refused to be dragged into an illegal war of choice.”

Yet the many critics and fans who have complained about how un-fun this new Bond might have a more serious point; however ideological the Bond-as-jouissance fiction may have been, it’s a powerful one precisely because it only champions “The Free World” as the free world, less the Anglo-American axis as it was than as it was imagined to be, thereby positioning the better Angels of our nature against a totalitarian command to enjoy as little as possible.” Put ins such terms, I’ll take the better angels. And while I think we should be careful about how the Bond films naturalize a misogynist performance of masculinity, as Lauren Berlant pointed out some time ago, sometimes attacking hypocrisy has the effect of damaging the ideals in question; after all, does rejecting misogyny have to imply rejecting love as well?

This, I think, is the danger in taking the movie on its own terms, for while it explicitly attacks the pleasures of the old Bond films, it also revels in the darkness of this very vision, transforming the very guilt by which its sins are remembered into a pleasurable aesthetics of ascetic denial and righteous denunciation. And if the movie’s politics are anti-right, they aren’t exactly left either; as a commenter at Juan Cole’s blog rightly pointed out, it is a massive exaggeration to say that Kurylenko is “so organically a figure of the left that no distinction can be made between her private quest for vengeance on Medrano and the salvation of the pro-peasantry government of Bolivia.” In fact, she is the daughter of a good soldier within a dictatorial junta, “a cruel man” whose death has left her with no option but a pleasure-less revenge, nothing to fight for but self-denial followed by self-destruction (from which Bond saves her).

But Bond is in the same predicament, and it would be just as much of an exaggeration to make Craig’s Bond into an organic anything. While it’s true that he fights (at one remove) both against the CIA and in defense of a nameless Bolivian president, that president is less an Evo Morales who nationalizes industry and redistributes income than simply a bugbear used to frighten right wing children of all ages. As a figure of revolution and opposition to US hegemony, he has been emptied of his content, less a Che Guevara than a Che Guevara t-shirt. And a re-investment in M as embodiment of maternal virtue only helps obscure that Bond is still working for the same slime balls he’s supposedly fighting against, a valorization of an empty “duty” that will endlessly defer the problem of why. And this, I think, gives a new meaning of Bond’s lost love: “Vesper Lynd” is a pun on “West Berlin,” a signifier of the lost cold war, when things made sense. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bond’s jouissance no longer works in those old terms. “That Bush’s America now appears in a Bond film in rather the same light as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union used to,” as Cole puts it, is a loss that he can mourn but which he can never, quite, let himself understand. The same is true for his audience: we can enjoy denying ourselves the pleasure of empire, but only as long as we forget to think about the cipher that comes to replace it.

* As Erich Kuersten puts it, “One of the many things which makes Daniel Craig the best Bond since Connery is his pain. He’s aware of the lost sense of intimacy that came with having license to both kill and “be a sexual heel.” In that vein, you can find an interesting “Bond Blogathon” over here.

Synecdoche, New York might be the most facile movie I’ve ever seen. It would be the thing left over if you took everything that was good out of Rushmore and replaced it with dishonesty. It is a sophomore college student who’s never been hurt, always thinks it’s the most clever person in the room, and has never had to notice how meaningless both of those things are. It thinks post-modernism is cutting edge and that representing representation is a meaningful thing to do. It is a self-indulgent and solipsistic masturbation to a poster of solipsism and self-indulgence, and it thinks this is an accomplishment. It says “do you see what I’ve done here?” as if ironically mocking its own pretensions. But it is pretentious. It is dull. It thinks wretchedness is art, but it’s not even art by that standard. It still thinks it’s cool to say “fuck” nonchalantly. It could learn a lot from the worst Woody Allen movie ever, but it won’t. It doesn’t understand that Kafka and Dostoevsky were real people who wrote about real people; it thinks they are brand names. Instead of a plot, it has deus ex machina, and instead of deus ex machina, it has a McArthur genius grant. Instead of characters, it has clichés. It’s an argument for why white people should not be allowed to use magic realism. It uses a monstrous caricature of homosexuality and an unselfconscious misogyny as tropes for life’s unfairness. It thinks selfishness is noble and its consequences, tragedy. Its jokes aren’t funny, so it tries to pretend that this is what it was going for. It thinks there’s something deep about the idea that people are going to die, and something genius about dwelling on it. Years from now, it won’t even look back and realize what a horse’s ass it was being. It is a bad movie.

There’s a director’s cut ending of Cameron’s The Abyss in which the aliens who live at the bottom of the ocean create huge tsunami waves so as to scare humanity into stopping with all the fucking around with nukes and instead getting together, smiling on their brother, and learning to love one another. Or something. The fear of nuclear annihilation often takes the form of an investment in environmental issues when it gets translated into film, I suspect. After all, turning earth into an uninhabitable place that can no longer sustain life is central to the apocalyptic imagery, and if it’s not incompatible, as such, with other versions of the end-times, the particular clarity by which we can know exactly what would happen does give the trope a certain psychological potency.

This special edition ending* is also quite clearly related to another product of the eighties’ obsession with nukes and whales, the Spock-dying-and-being-reborn-in-San-Francisco-to-save-the-whales sequence in the Star Trek movies, a similar dream worked resolution of cold war paranoia, and an illuminating comparison in several ways. After all, both movies foreground an apocalyptic foreclosure of the future which tropes as concern for the environment, but they then solve the problem with a devil’s brew of alien technology and an important character’s martyrdom, which (surprise!) suddenly turns not to be a sacrifice at all. Sounds like any good capitalist approach to stuff like climate change to me: we’ll just let technology solve the problem, and then we’ll all eat this cake and have it as well. But what really strikes me about the parallel is the way, in both, an environmentalism comes into existence that’s clearly against the cold war, but which gets to repress its relationship with dirty fucking hippies. In The Abyss, for example, there’s actually a moment where the female lead is trying to convince everyone she’s seen an alien and that the military types on board can’t be trusted, but when the character called “Hippie” starts in on the issue, she cuts him off cold; “Don’t be on my side, hippy!” And what else the hell is Star Trek IV doing in San Francisco if not to have the opportunity for dudes in uniforms to sneer at dirty social outcasts while co-opting their social agenda and moral authority?

Okay, that was a bit harsh; after all, Star Trek IV gave us this:

But I do wonder if these kind of movies don’t translate a genuine attachment to progressive social issues with a visceral distaste for people that look and act funny. Shatner and Ed Wood’s characters are awfully square, after all, and that seems like the point; you get to have some weirdos along for the ride, but ultimately your wish-fulfillment self in the movie turns out to be a hick or an Iowan in a uniform. But that seems to be the consensus view on the sixties, as pop-culture teaches us to remember it: the hippies may have been right, but they’re still hippies. And America hates hippies. So instead of getting concerned about the fact that the people creating the threat of nuclear annihilation are clean cut guys with clean suits, we learn to fear and despise the people whose “dirtiness” is almost an analog to the most vulgar conception of what environmentalism is, cleaning up litter.

The curious thing about Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel is not her highly sexualized performance, nor the extent to which her “Miss Virginia” is used to glorify a particular kind of subjection (the wife figured as slave) by using a child as its principle embodiment; if you’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or especially if you’ve seen the movie, you already know a little bit about how that works, how in the sentimental imagination of that “mob of scribbling women,” as an envious Hawthorne styled them, the infantilized African could be used to figure the childlike state of total subjection to masculine authority to which every Christian wife should aspire.

That’s not the curious thing; that’s the banal thing, and even if Shirley Temple manages the difficult trick of being even more painful to watch than Little Eva, the use of skull grinding racism as metaphor for patriarchy is just something you get used to if you read a lot of 19th century sentimental fiction. This isn’t a new observation, in other words; the entire creepy and weepy genre is filled to the brim with barely veiled sexual fantasies about powerful men forcefully bringing their infantilized brides to heel, and especially of making them like it. In The Wide, Wide World for example (the most popular American novel not named Uncle Tom’s Cabin) there‘s a truly disturbing scene in which the adolescent protagonist is metaphorically threatened with rape when a bad guy tries to take hold of the horse she’s riding, from which she‘s rescued by her foster-father who does exactly the same thing. The point being, you see, it’s better to be raped by your father because he‘ll actually marry you? No wonder they needed a civil war to resolve things.

Sentimental literature has its defenders, of course, but I’m not one of them. Instead, I would suggest that while pornography teaches its viewer a violent mode of desire and blackface teaches its viewer to desire a particular mode of violence, the really creepy thing about both (and about Uncle Tom‘s Cabin) is the way the seepage between the categories is precisely the point. Pornographic sex might not be completely reducible to rape fantasies and blackface may not may not only be about stolen labor masquerading as love, but they are damn close, and a vigilant psychoanalytic reading of The Littlest Rebel in this vein could go on forever. For example, the scene where Shirley Temple puts on blackface to hide in the closet with her slave (amidst all the food they’re trying to prevent the northerners from ravaging) until she’s caught because her dress catches in the door and they break down the door? And then a soldier “smashes his bottle on her table,” demands that she “pull off his boots” and threatens to “tan her hide” until he discovers that she’s actually white, pulls off her kerchief to reveal her hair, and concludes that her daddy told her to do it? And then her tears wash away the blackface? No sir, that’s just a cigar. And by cigar, I mean phallus.

But again, that kind of stuff is just par for the course. What might be different about a movie like this, I think, is the extent to which Temple manages to draw the viewer into its understanding of sex as violence (such that only hierarchal patriarchal love between a strong man and a childish woman is thinkable) while also sexualizing violence itself, employing a similar moral economy as both blackface and pornography to specifically render the rebellion of a child as a cute little indiscretion to be punished. And in that sense, the title does double duty: the “littlest rebel” is both the smallest member of the confederacy and a child who, by virtue of her identification with the cause, transforms the entire civil war into a childish indiscretion, to be spanked and expiated with tears. Of course, Shirley Temple could never be actually spanked, but if you grant the point in a general sense, it‘s kind of startling how many times she is either disciplined or threatened (the blackface ruse seems plotted in, for example, simply to make her subject to a kind of violence her white purity otherwise makes her exempt from).

In such a framework, it becomes possible for the mother’s death to be called “something very beautiful,” as Virginia’s father puts it, a phrase that is, if we de-familiarized it a bit, an absolutely bizarre thing to say. And the only plot purpose of the mother, so far as I can tell, is to be gloriously injured and killed, to have the honor of being cried over, like confederate dead more generally. But in this way it also becomes possible to think of the sins of war as motivated by love, and to excuse and forgive the civil war on exactly the grounds by which your Klan-types and southern democrats ideologically reconstructed it afterwards (the defense of pure womanhood in the face of Yankee aggression and rapine), but also how it was figured by northern liberals trying to bring the south into the union: the trauma due to a child whose rebellion makes her subject to loving violence.

To do this, of course, the categories of love and violence have to be almost completely hollowed out of meaning, but the movie does that too, with its overarching emphasis on turning that frown upside down, not into a smile but into the same rictus Bill Robinson adapts as he tap-dances around the kitchen (and when Temple dances with him, the resemblance is unmistakable). Love is abjection, the movie proclaims; ignore reality, sing polly-wolly-doodle all the day, and sit in the president‘s lap. Above all, make daddy think you’re happy by rebelling in a cute way so he can punish you. Just as blackface turns the violence of a black men taking a pratfall into laughter and pornography turns rape into love, the work of this film is to teach Shirley Temple to give you pleasure from the violence done to her, to turn her tears into your smiles and to transform the spectacle of a great civil rebellion into the jape of a child, to be spanked, on the bottom.

I watched Aliens last night, and other than confirming Scrimshander’s suggestion that it’s a dream-worked version of the Vietnam war, I didn’t have much to say about it. Though the question needs to be asked: has there ever been a more overdetermined line of dialog than Ripley’s “Get away from her, you bitch”? Discuss.

But back to the Vietnam thing, I found, after trolling through the intertubes that Mark at K-punk made the interesting suggestion way back in ought-six that “Aliens was the moment in which a new mode of the Military-Industrial-Entertainment became visible,” a mode which he calls “Conspicuous Force and Verminization” in a post of that name. It’s an interesting suggestion and rhymes thematically with some stuff I was talking about over here, the idea that American military force seems to be increasingly speaking in an idiom composed of spectacular technology and enemies figured as insects. But to quote Mark quoting Paul Virilio:

“Before Gulf War 1 had even happened, Virilo saw the logic of verminization rehearsed in James Cameron’s Aliens wherein the ‘machinic actors do battle in a Manichean combat in which the enemy is no longer an adversary, a fellow creature one must respect in spite of everything; rather, it is an unnameable being that it is more appropriate to exerminate than to examine or analyse.’ In Aliens, Virilio ominously notes, attacks on the ‘family [form] the basis of … necolonial intervention.’ The teeming, Lovecraftian abominations which can breed much faster than we can are to be dealt with by machines whose ‘awesome appearance is part of [their] military effectiveness.’ Shock and awe.

I’m assuming he means a review of Aliens in Cahiers du cinema called “L’engin exterminateur” which I am unable to read, being unable to read francais. But he goes on from here to say such things as this:

“Verminization not only transforms the Enemy into a subhuman swarm that cannot be reasoned with, only destroyed; it also makes ‘us’ into victims of its repulsive, invasive agency. As Virilo perspicaciously observed, Aliens itself operated ‘a bit like a Terrorist attack. Women and children are slaughtered in order to create an irreversible situation, an irremediable hatred. The presence of the little victim has no theatrical value other than to dispose us to accept the madness of the massacres…'”

This seems quite right to me. But I wonder a little about the work being done by the assertion that this is a “new” mode of practice (and the proleptic framing of “before Gulf War 1 had even happened”), just as these types of “paradigm shift” arguments always sort of nag at me. After all, the point of observing that Aliens is a fantasy of re-fighting Vietnam is precisely that the ideological dilemmas of the Vietnam era continue to vex, in some form, the Reagan era construction of America as superpower. And if the America war in Vietnam was a continuation of colonialism by other means — as it was — then the continuation of that “Verminization” trope from the Reagan era into the present day can also be understood not as a single dramatic leap into the now but as just one link in the larger chain that connects US Empire v.08 to the good old days when it was normal for white people to be burdened with Empire.

In other words, there are at least two possible historical emplotments you can use. On the one hand, you can carefully observe the fine-grained nuanced differences between, say, “Verminization” in Vietnam and “Verminization” in the GWOT. I think it’s responsible to do so; to pretend that nothing changes between these moments in time is a good way to do bad history. But on the other hand, sometimes you need the kind of broad perspective that sweeping (and somewhat irresponsible) parallels give you; sometimes it’s good to observe that when Colonel John M. Chivington ordered his men to “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice,” he could have been talking about the Vietnamese or about “terrorists,” but that he was, in fact, talking about the Cheyenne in 1864.

And conspicuous force, too, is not so profoundly new. As I wrote here:

Lynching, after all, was a spectacle first and foremost, and was quite “modern” in the ways photography was used to transform a secretive event into a fundamental structuring part of the national consciousness. The archive of lynching is not hard to find, if you look; it was the most open of open secrets, and it had to be if it was going to achieve its purpose. By the same token, controlling the news cycle is a huge part of what the GWOT is about: replacing grim stories of malaise with grand stories of morning in America. That, to me, is the significance of “the Surge”: it literally does not matter that what John McCain is talking about when he says those words is a fantasy: its real purpose is to exorcise the historical specter of Vietnam, replacing a narrative in which America “chose” to lose with one where America’s will to win conquers all obstacles. I don’t think Americans like McCain or Palin (and depressingly, there are many) give two shits about whether or not we’re “winning” in Iraq; they simply desire more spectacles of American “success” (=weak people being shocked and awed) and fewer of American “failure” (=people like Obama who choose to lose). And this, too, brings us back to the very origin of aerial bombardment: fantasies of imperial control (of RAF pilots surveilling and striking accurately at savage people below them) characterize the discourse from the very beginning, yet have never ever actually obtained in practice; “precision bombing” has always been an oxymoron. That too, didn’t matter: it was far more important for people in England to believe that their pilots were flying high above the chaos of jungle savage societies, dropping order in amongst it like gifts from the heavens.

Like Vietnam in the American historical memory, Aliens is the spectacle of technological failure, exactly the sort of horror that has to be repressed and papered over: what happens if our bazookas can’t save us? What if “they” can outbreed us? Nativists everywhere still wake up in a cold sweat over the prospect, very similarly to how they did in 1920.

But what does one do with that “very similar,” and with that evocation of both not quite the same and not quite so different either? How do we deal with the problem of a past that is both similar and different from the present? How do we narrate that change? I vacillate between these two modes of emplotment, and I note that I put the wild speculative gestural claims (lynching = GWOT!) on the blog, while my dissertation writing focuses in on much more minute links (how Henry Morton Stanley becomes Theodore Roosevelt, for example). One word for the difference is “responsible,” the distinction between good and bad scholarship. Another word is “boring”; how can TR and HMS be relevant for the world we live in today? But I also note that the former seems to fit its medium, and so does the latter; where better than the blogosphere for wnormous speculatice leaps? And where better than “the academy” for grindingly careful attention to fine-grained historical detail? But I wonder a little about the reasons behind that choice. I think Hayden White was correct to connect narrative emplotments to ideology, to link narrative tropes to the structures of power they prop up. So I wonder — and I really do wonder — what sorts of links link my writing together? What do I write about, when I write about movies writing about history?

Having just watched the first two terminator movies for the first time, this post makes me think about the weird kinds of simultaneity those movies are invested in: in the first, the son sends his own father back into the past to prevent his being killed before he’s even born and also to conceive him, and in the second, the machine that was invented to kill John Connor is sent into the past, eventually, to destroy the machine that invented him, a machine which it turns out was actually built out of him.

There’s something so bizarrely tautological about these experiences of time, a really interesting combination of simultaneity and linear (since the paradox of simultaneity can only be expressed by recourse to linear terms?), but what I really love about it is Cameron’s disinclination to play “Back to the Future” games with the temporal sequence; whereas BttF tries very hard to make it seem like there’s only one sequence (and changes in the past have more or less instant consequences in the “present”) the whole point of the terminator movies seems to be the incoherance of the nuclear age’s machine messianism, a simultaneity of all times that isn’t merely always present but is also never going to happen, and our heroine gets the message that “there is no future” from the future, in the hands of a person sent to save her from a future that, if it doesn’t happen can’t provide the seeds for its own not happening.

This is why leavening “judgement day” messianism with a quasi Donna Haraway-ist message (in which the machine is what makes us human, even though our humanity is defined by not being machines) seems to be exactly the point. While your Back to the Future wants to domesticate time, regulate it, and make it make sense, here the point of it is that tthe very terms we use to understand it fall apart if we try to make them make sense. They are self-consuming artifact, terminators, if you will…

Another reading would be that the movie evokes messianic time in the first movie because it was made at a time when it was morning in the American cold war — hell, it was actually 1984 when the film was released — so black could be white in a very particular and patriotic sense. But the second movie is definitely on the cusp of nuclear messianism being shunted off stage in favor of something else, perhaps a kind of postmodern soft city-ism which can only be defended against by learning to love the machine again. But how on earth do you historicize a movie about the incoherence of temporality?

Having just seen Terminator for the first time, I was surprised to find that it’s sort of a decent movie, in its hokey way. Some of it’s almost unwatchable–Linda Hamilton’s final few scenes, for example, and the times when 1984’s special effects bite off more than they can chew. But the idea of people from the future being more machinelike than the machines they’re fighting is sort of cute, and I feel sure that Scrimshander could find a way to quote Blake (the child is father to the man perhaps?) in service of his observation that there’s some kind of trauma narrative going on at the heart of it. The future goes back into the past in order to enact the inverse of an oedipal drama perhaps? Only Scrimshander knows.

But I do find it interesting that, in 1984, the humans in the post-apocalyptic future have won their war with the machines. After all, John Connor has to be killed because the machines have (in the future) already been defeated. The plot, therefore, isn’t a desperation hail mary play to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, as I had always assumed, but a last minute block of the other team’s goal line scramble. This surprised me. Think about it: how often do movies set in the post-apocalyptic future presume that the human race has a future? Practically never, I would imagine. Instead, it seems to me, the genre stems from a cold war fear that mankind’s machines have outstripped our humanity and destroyed our future, a fact having everything to do with the fact of The Bomb. This is why the idea of reproduction is always so central to such movies (and in that sense Children of Men is a lovely recent example); in the post-apocalyptic narrative, we suddenly ask ourselves if humanity has a future, and use the concrete example of physical reproduction to talk about the abstract idea of social reproduction.

So it’s interesting, at the least, that in 1984 this post-apocalyptic movie, with all the usual questions about whether or not humanity can continue despite its machines, decides to both assert that si, se puede, and to make the machines themselves the necessary cause for that lovely, stupid sex scene (after all, were it not for the machines, John Connor would never be born). Maybe this has something to do with Reagan era can-do optimism. Maybe it has something to do with learning to stop worrying and loving the bomb. Maybe, as Scrimshander suggested to me, there’s some kind of dream work being done.

Or maybe the filmmakers couldn’t think of any other plot that would necessitate a robot from the future returning to 1984 Los Angeles to kill someone. Which suggests to me a corollary to Occam’s razor: the simplest answer, all things being equal, tends to be the least interesting one to a blogger.

At the outset of Typee, Herman Melville’s factually irresponsible narrative of his time in Polynesia, a flotilla of Marquesan girls swims out to the author’s harbored ship. With his usual air of subterfuge, Melville describes their warm welcome to the sailors as an act of high-seas piracy:

The ‘Dolly’ was fairly captured; and never I will say was vessel carried before by such a dashing and irresistible party of boarders! The ship taken, we could not do otherwise than yield ourselves prisoners, and for the whole period that she remained in the bay, the ‘Dolly,” as well as her crew, were completely in the hands of the mermaids.

Starting with the conspicuous choice of “vessel” instead of “craft” or “ship,” Melville twists the martial idiom of swashbuckling into a sustained euphemism for the many acts of unbuckling that undoubtedly transpired on deck. The scene that follows Melville characterizes by its “riot and debauchery”: “the grossest licentiousness and the most shameful inebriety prevailed, with occasional and but short-lived interruptions.” The lucky spectator of Moby-Dick! The Musical is not unlikely to undergo a similar experience once the players of San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros have taken the stage.

More later, but the run ends on the 19th, so don’t wait on my last word to see this thing.

I’d never heard of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean before, but I think I understand why. Not only is it a determinedly strange Western, a genre premised on predictability, but there isn’t really a plot as such; it’s more like a picaresque except the adventures come to him, and he meets them all with the same solemn, ludicrous seriousness of a Don Quixote in west Texas. Paul Newman’s complete and utter lack of humor seems to be the point, as far as I can tell–after all, what‘s funnier than a buffoon with no sense of humor?–but even though the movie opens by noting that this isn’t so much how it was as how it should have been, it’s really not clear why. That said, if Don Quixote were a Western, it would be something like this movie, especially if you added a couple pinches of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‘s Court, and those are a pair of interesting books. Maybe the Judge is just a person who believes in things with his whole heart, and somewhere along the line he read the wrong books about the American West, or heard the wrong stories, and got the wrong idea. And like Twain’s “Boss,” fireworks must sooner or later ensue? In any case, much like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (which it resembles in many ways) or Dallas, the odd feeling of recognition on seeing the film’s narrative suddenly turn into a story about oil development, yet without the possibility of reference to the things those things, in my mind, now refer to is, to say the least, odd.

I’m blogging under the influence of Michael Rogin, but I can’t help but wonder if Grosse Point Blank’s strange marriage of 80’s romance comedy and 90’s spy thriller is intended to teach us to stop worrying and love, if not the bomb, then the idea of privatized political murder. The movie’s dominant theme is, after all, a certain kind of anti-nostalgia–nicely played by Cusack’s inability to tell whether he’s threatened by the past or being attacked by an assassin–in which the point is not so much that you <em>like</em> the past as that you can’t get away from it, so you might as well have some punch and pretend you didn’t hate it. And out of this move, the desire to become a better person seems to drain away: Cusack gives up analysis when he discovers that shooting people can be both fun and virtuous, while Minnie Driver closes the film out by vowing to accept rather than forgive. And she apparently goes off with him, after his his ability to shoot lots of people has convinced her father, for the first time, that he’s an alright guy. Other subtexts intrude, too: Cusack loathes himself, but as much as he might be troubled by being a lone gunman, there’s nothing quite as bad as joining a union, apparently. Far, far better thing to smash Dan Ackroyd with a TV.