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A Reflection on the Past and Now

I haven’t been writing recently due to constraints of time and technology. I have things to look forward to, though. I’ll will be attending York University for an M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies in the fall. I regret not writing. Hopefully I’ll rectify this shortly while my beloved finishes their final weeks of undergrad.

I’ve been reflecting on the journey I’ve taken from graduation until now. From Spring 2013 until now, it’s been a constant uphill struggle for me, learning the practicalities of life. I emerged from graduation in 2013 tired and broker, with no jobs lined up and finally stumbling into a housing situation. I scraped by the summer unemployed by donating my plasma, finally landing a job as a cashier in the fall.

I’ve held the position for over a year and a half now. I slowly healed from my mental and physical exhaustion (exacerbated by hours-long commutes the first month), living on auto pilot for a while, because that was all that I could handle. Days after work involved vegging out with snacks for hours, a cycle that finally broke out of scholarly necessity for my partner.

Slowly paying off the daunting school loans and medical debt, I grew to understand the “daily grind” minimum wage labor quickly. It wasn’t until a year later I briefly considered applying for another job here and there. Of course, I have a Savings Plan now with the company, and the amenities which keep me tethered for now.

I have had a stable place in my life financially for a while now, which is a wonderful thing that enables me to do so much more with my life. Part of it came from self education. I’ll write about the various resources I found to help me learn how to manage post-graduate life. But a more substantial part came from the kindness and generosity of friends and family, something that I am greatly privileged to have. The past two years have sometimes feel like waste, and sometimes feel like a necessary time to recollect myself and prepare myself for graduate work. I know now at least that I am eager to leave it behind for better prospects in the future, carrying the hard-earned knowledge with me.

My Dinner With Andre and the Cost of Enlightenment

My Dinner With Andre Two Shot - Wonderfully cinematography to illustrate the characters connecting over conversation

I watched My Dinner With Andre (1981) almost out of a sense of obligation. It’s a generally well-regarded film, and Community did a wonderful parody of it, so it felt that my film knowledge was lacking without what I’m sure is a transformative experience for many viewers.

The film is merely the filming of a conversation, a long one over dinner among two esteemed colleagues, mourning the death of the conversation. Death is what bookends the discussion, for as the film puts it, to truly know life, and therefore really understand reality, is to also know death. In fearing death, we become insular, merely perform roles in our lives, and never truly communicate with anyone on a sincere level in fear of pain, and ultimately, death. For a film directly expressing philosophical beliefs, I am surprised the phrase “hedgehog’s dilemma” never came up.

Of course, the script, written by our two leads Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, essentially playing themselves, is more natural and expressive than a mere philosophical tract. The film is consistently engaging as the two beautifully act their lines, the film making at its bare bones realism to support the words above all else. This doesn’t mean the camera is completely static, but rather, director Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]) moves the camera only when necessary. The camera zooms only once, making Andre’s face an inescapable presence as he describes being prepared for death and experience that immanent reality. It shifts to show the waiter preparing to serve the next dinner item. But mostly, this film is composed of faces and torsos, demanding the audience recognize that we are all connected and need that connection for a truly happy life.

While the film laments the lack of good communication and notes the phoniness of everyday life, it fails to fully examine the source of these maladies of society. Only twice does the film brush against the beast of capitalism, in meaningful and articulate ways, but all too brief. Wally mentions feeling rejected when he mentions he’s a playwright of middling success, but never realizing the depravity of capitalism’s mechanical methods of finding worth in human beings. Andre fairs worse, telling tales of friends who merely wander the earth to avoid the phoniness of everyday life, advocating retreat rather than radical change. While Wally grounds his claims with good counterpoints (not everyone can afford to visit Poland, Tibet, and India for their own self-enlightenment, Andre), Andre’s comments dominate the conversation and the film.

The film is essentially two elites (or at least, have connection with cultural elites) unintentionally committing volatile snobbery. They lament the death of the conversation and meekly chastise the unenlightened masses to fight against the consumerist habits that put us to sleep, while speaking from a place of privilege, a place where from a secure sense of life they might have time and energy to think about such things. Rather than a systemic analysis (I.e. how did society get here), the film tends to place the blame on the individual level.

I was reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when watching this film (I suppose it’s nice to hear my intro psychology course was indeed worth something.) As beings whose primary needs are satisfied (physiological, safety, etc.), Wally and Andre have the time and energy to invest into cognitive needs, and ultimately self-actualization. Now, Maslow’s ideas had no scientific backing data whatsoever, and fell out of vogue after the great humanist enthusiasms of the 50s and 60s, but I find some truth here. Of course it’s easier for these two intellectual gentlemen to discuss such high notions of human existence, they aren’t worried about their next meal. Poverty does not tax their brains.

Ultimately, I find Talking Head’s work on Remain in Light (1980), especially “Once in a Lifetime,” going over many of the same concerns about performance in everyday life with a less contemptuous point of view. While My Dinner With Andre does not outright scoff at the unenlightened masses, its lack of systemic analysis results in upholding individual enlightenment as the answer, not realizing that it’s ultimately a privilege of elites.

Notes on Video Revolutions

I recently finished Michael Z. Neuman’s short book Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium. It’s a quick read (excluding notes, bibliography, and index, it’s just over 100 pages), but the content is an encompassing look at public reception towards the nebulous medium that is video. Neuman takes a cultural approach to his analysis, noting how reception of video changes as the medium and its cohorts (television, cinema) evolve. It’s a brisk, accessible historical overview of how the cultural force changed over time, and reveals the limitations of our own conceptions of media. Is video a tangible thing, like a VHS tape? What about streaming video? As Neuman illustrates, media is a combination of its physical properties and their surrounding cultural scripts.

Neuman’s book serves a general overview to the medium, and illustrates many places where scholarship could and does flourish, such as the democratization and politicization of the medium in the 21st century. It thus serves not only as a good overview text, but could as a launching point for others to explore.

Blue Velvet

“It’s like saying that once you’ve discovered there are heroin addicts in the world and they’re murdering people to get money, can you be happy? It’s a tricky question. Real ignorance is bliss. That’s what Blue Velvet is about.” – David Lynch

Blue Velvet (1986) is a film that looks at looks at the utter depravity of humanity and realizes the redemptive power of love. It’s beautifully directed by David Lynch, making it a work that overwhelmingly demands discussion.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a college student back home in Lumberton due to his father’s illness. He begins tracking a mystery surrounding night singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and how the obsessive, sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) controls her life through kidnapping her husband and son. While Jeffrey unveils the darkness lurking under this paragon of small town America, he also falls in love with Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), daughter of a police detective, while also having a passionate relationship with Dorothy.

The film opens with a scene depicting the normalcy and beauty of small town life, ending on a zoom into the grass, finding vile bugs underneath. Throughout the film, Jeffrey finds the depravity lurking under the surface of his hometown, acting as a voyeur into the life of Dorothy, and experiencing firsthand the twisted nature of Frank. Later captured by Frank and his gang, Jeffrey is “taken for a ride” as Frank takes Jeffrey to his drug dealer’s den, run by a coded queer character and is posse of oddballs. After this encounter, Frank takes him to an abandoned lot and has him beaten, but not before forcibly kissing him while wearing Dorothy’s lipstick. While an earlier scene depicted Jeffrey witnessing Frank’s rape of Dorothy earlier (mixed with an element of castration), his entire “ride” sequence confrontation adds a strong queer element to Frank’s character.

In a final cat-and-mouse confrontation, Jeffrey initiates his first act of violence within the film, and kills Frank in Dorothy’s apartment. Immediately after he fires the gun, Sandy bursts into the apartment, panting and shouting his name. The film ends with Jeffrey and Sandy together, noting that Robins have come to feast on the bugs. Sandy explained to Jeffrey earlier in the film that she had a dream where Robins were symbols of love bringing light to the dark world. Her prophecy (which to told Jeffrey in front of a church) seems to have come true. A relative of Jeffrey, however, remarks that she wishes she didn’t have to see the disgusting act of the Robin consuming the bug. With deviancy crushed, the film ends with a montage just like it began, beautiful suburbia with its flowers and white picket fences, and with Dorothy finally reunited with her son.

The final act of Jeffrey shooting Frank is coded as an act of heteronormativity, Sandy panting and gasping, shouting his name right after he uses his phallic weapon. It symbolizes a sexual and violent act of normalcy exorcising deviancy. We must consider a queer reading. We see the queer illustrated as evil, perverted, corrupt, disgusting. Their expulsion forms what appears to be a happy ending. In the end, on the surface it would appear true harmony returns to the town. though it looks the same as ever. The ending, while seeming to appear that all is right in the world, still retains an unnerving element, a hint of creeping fear within. A man friendly waving while riding a fire truck feels so normal that it’s weird. Is this film showing what happens when sexuality is confined, that it will inevitably explode? Perhaps it’s this reestablishment of conservative norms that is the root of the problem.

While symbolizing sex, a union of heteronormativity to erase sexual deviancy, the climax also symbolizes a Oedipal killing of the father. As Laura Mulvey notes, Dorothy, Frank, and Jeffrey from a Oedipal family, Frank’s abuse representing domestic violence itself. Various elements of the film help support this notion, from Frank calling out to his mother as he preys on Dorothy, to Jeffrey and Dorothy having sex, falling into the Oedipal notion of sons wanting to sleep with their mothers.

While I am still processing what Blue Velvet ultimately means, I am also grappling with the exploitation of actors for art. Roger Ebert has famously panned the film to its harsh treatment of Isabella Rosselini’s character, a character who undergoes experiences the brunt of the depravity.

I believe that art, like humor, can tackle any subject. I also believe that the torment Rosselini’s character undergoes through is earned throughout the film. But is it exploitative regardless? Exploitation of actors is a question that always proves the most difficult for me to answer. Are there things that are too far for a person to do, even though it’s for the sake of good art? I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll find and answer.

Teaching Film

A collection of essays written by the best in the field, Teaching Film (Eds. Lucy fisher and Patrice Petro) offers a beginner’s introduction to most basic topics of film, from elements of films, to styles, to genres, to theories, to geographic film cultures. Many essays name keys texts in each specific discipline and outline the history of teaching that element. I find it an essential addition to my collection as an accessible text acting as an introduction to many specialties, and as a launching point for my own explorations.

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