Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Frankie Says See This Film

Third film viewed at the fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival was dir. Brendan Toller's Danny Says–a documentary about journalist-cum-punk prophet Danny Fields, who is credited with introducing Jim Morrison to Nico, with almost ruining the careers of the Beatles, with introducing Iggy Pop to David Bowie, with forming Patti Smith's band, and with managing the Ramones. This is worthwhile cinema solely for its historical and biographical content. But more so: it's an entertaining and engaging film about an atypical personage who happened to have impeccable and prescient taste in music at an extraordinary time in its history.

The more I know about the world, people, and music of this era, the more insatiable my nostalgic desire for it.

A couple of criticisms, however. Some photographs were shown multiple times without explanation. It was sometimes impossible to figure out what this image had to do with what Fields was talking about at that moment. Also, many times the image appeared onscreen for too short a time. With the difficult-to-read font and the quick scan of the text required, too often I was baffled about what or who I was seeing and why. Finally, despite the compelling stories and enormity of the archival material presented, I would've enjoyed even more personal narrative about Fields himself. Certainly, he had personal relationships that didn't involve big-name celebrities. Who were his loves? Did he have pets? Did his musical sensibilities come solely from his role as a listener? Simply: I wanted to know more about him.

Eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Trailer can be viewed here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Station to Station (or How Not to Make a Film)

Another film I saw at the fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival was dir. Doug Aitken's Station to Station. Billed as 61 one-minute films, this quasi-documentary of a 24-day, 4000-mile, celebrity/artist-laden train journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific gives the lie to the holistic notion that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. In the program, this film supposedly "fully conceptualize[s] the idea of movement from place to place."

The program misguided us.

Instead of each one-minute segment enticing this viewer toward a more comprehensive conceptualization of time-space, the abrupt shift at the end of each 60-second cycle felt more like a pop-up ad blocking the text I was more interested in reading.

The passengers, all of whom could easily interest me singly–Patti Smith, Beck, Suicide, Kenneth Anger, etc.– come across more as props. Or worse: caricatures. (Especially Cat Power and Gary Indiana.) To be honest, though, even the train itself–the only constant aspect of almost all the snippets–seems an under-developed afterthought.

You know that the one-minute restriction is artificial, that it is meant to tease you toward a much larger backstory, context, experience. But you're never given anything more. There's no conceptualization of movement that doesn't come off the screen in perfectly predigested cliché. The lack of map or itinerary further decontextualizes what's happening so much so as to spoil the overarching theme of the film, the idea behind it. And the artworks and performances developed aboard: derivative at best.

If the train should jump the track, do you want your money back? Yes or no? Y-E-S spells yes. And this train certainly jumped the track. Regardless, here's the trailer. The film is basically a longer version.

STS - Feature Film Trailer from Station to Station on Vimeo.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Tangerine Dreaming

"I won't be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick." - Missing Persons

The fourth annual Oak Cliff Film Festival opened last night with a showing of dir. Sean Baker's Tangerine at the historic Texas Theatre. Baker's practice is to find a location and then develop characters and plot that best lay bare that site. In Tangerine everything intersects at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave. in L.A. This physical intersection, though, is no mere two-dimensional trope.

There are far too many narrative threads to disentangle, plot structures to dismantle here, so let me just briefly mention some of them. The film begins with a homecoming of sorts on the day Sin-Dee is released from jail. It ends with having the very foundation of home pulled out from under the characters' feet. The rise and devastating fall of plot is punctuated by the tension (or "girl shit") between transsexual Sin-Dee and the "real fish" (whose name begins with D) that Sin-Dee's boyfriend/fiancé/pimp has been cheating on her with during her incarceration.

The structure of the family of choice (transsexual prostitutes, dealers, and street people) distorts–while perfectly mirroring the distortions of–the family of origin (the extended family of immigrant Armenians treading the furrow between ethnic identity and whitewashed American homogeneity). Members of both families seek to unmask as well as to collude in the masking of one another.

Technologically, this movie is significant because it was filmed on iPhones and actors were cast via Vine. With such social media savvy and such skill with personal technology, you would think that the film would be inundated with these prosthetic characters: the film as selfie writ large. The technological brilliance of this film, however, is how it strips the characters of such artifice, allowing for an almost overwhelming naturalism in and polished improvisation of the actors.

Much of the comedy stems from the fact that this is Christmas Eve. But except for the holiday meal and Christmas tree at the Armenians' apartment, there is no visual reference to this otherwise unbearably ubiquitous holiday. Despite the fact that this film takes place in L.A., it counters the old adage that nobody walks there. Unless, of course, we remember those other lines from that Missing Persons song: "Only a nobody walks in L.A."

Though there are indeed funny moments and comic lines, this is no campy romp. There are neither stock nor minor characters. Even if a character's screen time is only a few seconds, in that time you are induced to empathize, you are made to acknowledge her or his humanity. The surface humor is laced with a deeper, and insidious, pathos; what might otherwise be a throw-away scene casts a critical eye toward the injustices of gender, addiction, ethnicity, and sexuality. When wealth and celebrity can so easily lay siege to–and eclipse–the issues of identity politics, Tangerine offers a welcomed counter narrative.

Here, instead of an airbrushed covergirl, you get a sense of the depths of the economic, gendered, misogynist, racist, classist, homophobic (etc.) violence of our culture. Every line, every glance, reveals the easy, everyday kind of savagery of our systems of power. And you don't get off scot-free either: your gaze is implicated with several close-ups of the characters' asses as they walk across downtrodden Los Angeles. The audience's sympathy is wrenched even further with several shots of bare feet being dragged across the seedy concrete city. By the end of the movie we viscerally feel the characters' embodied pain.

The most dramatically delivered line: "I promise no drama." But we're glad the film didn't enforce that. Watching Tangerine was like seeing color for the first time or hearing a full spectrum of sound after years of the C Major scale. It is anti-Hollywood at its best. Hell, it's even Social Realism at its best, if we can use that term for a film saturated in orange. And even better: it is without any obvious ideological baggage. You'd be a fool not to be at Mary's at 7:00.

Monday, June 1, 2015

New Publication

Black Sun Lit published my essay about and translation of Edmond Jabès on Paul Celan. They are an exquisite literary journal who publishes extraordinary translations and works of literature, so I am especially proud that my essay has found a home with them. Please check them out, read them online,  and purchase their print journal Vestiges.

And please, if you do happen to read my essay, leave your thoughts, comments, questions, and protestations here. I adore both of these poets, and I've been working on them, researching them, translating them, and thinking about them and their friendship for years. I would love to hear from you.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Toward a General Hermeneutics

In the early nineteenth century Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher rejected the specialized hermeneutics of medieval philosophy (that is, theological, juridical, and literary hermeneutics) and in their place proposed a general theory of interpretation established not upon genre-based dissimilitude but rather upon the linguistic and grammatical unity of all texts. This new general hermeneutics would no longer have textual elucidation as its focus. Instead, hermeneutics would become the art of understanding. But how can a reader best understand a text?

Because Schleiermacher saw texts as having their source within the minds of their authors, he maintained that understanding is possible only by way of re-experiencing the mental processes of the text’s author. By reversing the procedure of composition, the reader could begin with a fixed text and work his or her way back to the author’s original mental state from which that text derived. The reconstruction and reconstitution of the grammatical and psychological aspects of composition could then lead the reader to having an even better understanding of the text than the author himself or herself had.

In this way, Schleiermacher left room for an element of divination or intuition in the process so that the reconstruction was not purely logical or formal. Rather, both elements—the formal grammatical nature of the text as well as intuitive congeniality with the author—were necessary before we understand and thereby can interpret properly that which is written. Nevertheless, the principal goal of hermeneutics for Schleiermacher was not the understanding of the author’s psychology, but rather a more accurate excavation or presentation of the meaning of the text itself. Language—not psychology—remained central to his hermeneutic project.

We can leave aside the problematic question of whether or not it is actually possible to reconstruct another person’s thought processes, especially someone whom we have not ever met in person, and the even more demanding question of whether or not a spoken or written text is indeed the result of some inner mental experience. Regardless, we must still acknowledge the fact that although psychology and subjectivity were not his main concerns, Schleiermacher did indeed formulate his definition of a general hermeneutics upon the notion of a psychological subject. Dilthey, however, can help reorient our understanding of the human sciences as autonomous from the natural sciences and thereby leave open the possibility of the rejection of neutral, scientific objectivity altogether.

Wilhelm Dilthey proposed that understanding is an impossibility unless we begin upon the firm foundation of lived, concrete experience. He saw hermeneutics as the heart of the Geisteswissenschaften and did not distinguish among specific discipline-based hermeneutics. Like Schleiermacher, he, too, grouped together historical, literary, and artistic texts in order to arrive at a more general hermeneutics. Yet Dilthey’s legacy remains conflicted, torn between the Romantic notion of the possibility of a complete immersion in life and an abiding desire for objectively valid data.

Rejecting the methodology of the natural sciences as being divorced from the lived experience of human beings, he offered a more precise understanding of historical consciousness than previously developed. We can understand life only in terms of life itself, and cultural artifacts can be meaningful to us only if they illuminate the inner life of human beings. But just as Schleiermacher’s interest lay with the text and not the author’s personal psychology, Dilthey concerned himself with the socio-cultural and historical milieus of the author and not simply with the author’s individuality as such. This shared world is what binds reader, author, and text together into a unity of meaning.

Perhaps Dilthey’s greatest contribution to hermeneutics, however, is his understanding of the human being as being primarily historical. It is only by way of our detour through and reliance upon history that we can come to any kind of self-understanding. Moreover, the limits of history define what human beings are; that is, we can escape neither our own historical context nor the trajectory of history that has led up to this present moment. Such historical relativism necessitates continual self-reinterpretation. By broadening hermeneutics to include the historical context of the shared world, Dilthey allowed for the work to speak of the inner experience of the human being not just in terms of subject-object metaphysics. In this way, he prepared the course for Heidegger’s notion of the necessary historicity of human being and his rethinking of hermeneutics as a mode of Dasein’s being itself.

For a more thorough examination of the history and development of hermeneutics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I recommend the following texts: Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. and ed. Joel Weinsheimer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994); Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift, eds, The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990); and Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, ed. John Wild (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969).