Daily Archives: August 7, 2020

A Note on Mass Murder as Child’s Play

Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I don’t believe that Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, or Carter ever used the terms “good guys” or “bad guys” in public speeches, at least not without any trace of irony. Whether this started with Reagan, the first Bush, or the second, these terms have finally become coin of the realm in the campaign speeches of both McCain and Palin, seemingly as acceptable indexes of reality. If Obama and Biden have more recently used these terms unironically as well, out of some misplaced sense of self-defensiveness, then this may rule out the possibility that I’ve been idealistically entertaining, that Obama may be the first full-fledged grownup to have run for President in several decades.

I hasten to add that calling people you want to obliterate “bad guys” is hardly the same thing as calling Hitler and/or Stalin and what they stood for “evil”. The latter is an ethical position of some kind; the former is a reference to games played (and concepts played with) by children. And not being able to tell the difference between the two — which may bear some relation to not being able to tell the difference between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, or between any of the leaders deemed as “bad guys” and any of the civilians who would likely be the first to be hit by any bombs or missiles — is clearly related to a child’s desire to make contemporary warfare understandable in the same simplistic terms as Star Wars, thus helping to account for CNN logos and James Earl Jones intoning station identification. Read more

Happy-Go-Lucky (Vancouver International Film Festival)

Could Mike Leigh’s latest feature really be his “mellowest work yet,” as Alissa Simon maintained in her Variety review when it premiered in Berlin back in February? I guess it could seem that way if you focus on Sally Hawkins’ winning performance and factor out all the creepy characters in her orbit–including her nearly psychotic driving instructor (the terrifying Eddie Marsan, seen with her above), her pregnant sister, her flamenco dance teacher, and an incoherent tramp she encounters at one point (among others), most of whom are viewed as volatile monsters who are apt to explode at any moment. But for me this is probably Leigh’s scariest and bleakest movie since Naked, no less remote from any ordinary kind of realism (despite Hawkins’ frequent impression to the contrary) and packed with all sorts of disquiet, anxiety, and trouble. [10/5/08]

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Commissioned by Artforum‘s web site and published by them on December 8, 2010 in a somewhat different version. — J.R.

“The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly said to screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the late 1990s. “Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.” One of the most striking things about this remark is its placement of the Holocaust in the present and a film made half a century later in the past.

These are the priorities of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), 550 minutes long, widely and in some ways justly regarded as the greatest film about the Holocaust. But they’re also the priorities of Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), only thirty-one minutes long, which in many respects made Shoah possible. Shoah even quotes Night and Fog about forty-three minutes into the film — Resnais’s low-angle dolly following grassy railroad tracks that lead to an Auschwitz crematorium is virtually reprised and extended, though Resnais’ use of Eastmancolor is even more vivid.

One shouldn’t have to choose between these masterpieces. But it’s important to stress that they aren’t about precisely the same Holocaust and that their formal strategies for juxtaposing past and present are quite different. Read more

RR again (Vancouver International Film Festival)


Part of what makes James Benning’s masterpiece such a satisfying culmination of his prodigious work in 16-millimeter is the way it both clarifies and intensifies the tension in his work between formal and political preoccupations, which could also be described as his love-hatred for industrial waste–a near-constant in his work.

You can find an excellent account of many of this film’s formal preoccupations from Kristin Thompson, who has just posted her comments on RR (seen at the same festival). [2020: I can’t easily provide a link anymore, but go to davidbordwell.net and search from there.] The political preoccupations of the film are partially outlined in Mark Peranson’s interview with Benning in Cinema Scope; they figure in some of the added sound materials (most obviously, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Our Land”), but even more crucially in the way many of the images (perhaps most notably the very last) manage to be both nostalgic and apocalyptic in the way they sum up what trains mean and have meant in relation to both American life and the American landscape. (As the interview suggests, sometimes the trains have to be understood not as parts of the landscapes but as despoilers of them.)

After one viewing, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what seems somehow part of American literature–akin to the work of writers like Sandburg, Wilder, and Dos Passos as well as that of American painters and musicians. Read more