gathering momentum

semi-regular newsletter #1

I originally started this blog at the end of my spring semester, hoping it would keep me on my toes/ give me a reason to write about what I’ve been exploring in the realm of film and some of the independent research I’ve been doing. Thing is, the world is incredibly depressing right now, and the combination of that + social isolation + throwing together cover letters for internships kind of prevented me from getting very far with the film writing I was attempting to do. I’ve been moving more slowly than I would like, although I do have a few articles in the works that will hopefully find homes at publications soon, and an academic book review that is forthcoming, likely sometime in the fall…

In the meantime, I’m gonna try to hop on here like once a month and just write some words about what I’ve been reading and watching that are too fragmented and meandering to really have a home anywhere else. I chose the name Phantom for this blog because I’m interested in how the past bears upon the present; which histories could be pointed to in order to illuminate the current moment. I mean this artistically, but also socially and politically. It might be a very American thing, but I’ve just been bewildered by the degree of historical amnesia that seems to rock this continent. Obviously it’s been that way for a while, but the last few months have felt even more “time is a flat circle”-y than usual. Regardless, I write a little something about every movie I watch on my letterboxd, but these capsules allow for a little more depth.

Films

Fred and Peggy in Kansas (Leslie Thornton, USA, 1989, 12 min)

Video Data Bank’s description says this about Thornton’s short: “Peggy and Fred, sole inhabitants of post-apocalyptic Earth, weather a prairie twister and scavenge for sense and sustenance amid the ruined devices of a ghosted culture.” It’s a pretty matter-of-fact appraisal of a film that is anything but concise. Part of a cycle called Peggy and Fred in Hell, this iteration finds our two juvenile protagonists holed up in some sort of hideaway in a post-apocalyptic Kansas. One can’t help but think to the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz, the type of media that the film renders both archaic and foundational in the same instance. When the two dance toward the end of the film, there’s a shot of Peggy’s slipper against her sparkly leggings that demands comparison to the Wicked Witch of the east. This comparison is only strengthened by the ensuing final shot: a house exploding in pieces.

I often think that the best science-fiction portrays the breakdown of language, or maybe how language acts as its own kind of contagion. This is well-trod ground in literature, what with the focus of authors like Samuel Delaney on how language configures our social world (see Babel-17), or the proclamation of William Burroughs: “What scared you all into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you: the word.” Lately, I’ve been wondering if this makes film an effective medium for realizing that: film has its own grammar, but the strength and danger of cinema is that images often have to speak for themselves, and if you can’t show well enough, it can be hard to tell without being a hack.

However, Thornton is anything but a hack. Artfully combining archival audio and footage with images of Peggy and Fred in their hideaway, she conjures an image of children trying to fit into a world abandoned by adults. The indelible traces of the 20th-century stretch across the film, particularly those of the cold war era. After all, the constant trope here is what the products of the nuclear family would look like if the family was itself displaced, and the other cultural referents seem to be based on radio and television from the 1950s. Fred and Peggy try desperately to fit the gendered and social positions of their adult counterparts, without ever acting more mature in the process. This leads to delightful and curious moments, as when Fred jumps up and exclaims, “Oh no! I forgot the milk!” or, when seemingly impersonating some kind of announcer, implores us to “clap for Amelia Earhart,” and drops his microphone, proceeding to give a jagged and uncanny applause. The world of Fred and Peggy is a world without any new or organic cultural forms; as they act out in their dwelling stuffed with consumer commodities and commercial detritus, all they can do is attempt to poach from preexisting gestures and signs.

(Fred and Peggy in Kansas)

Tower XYZ (Ayo Akingbade, United Kingdom, 2016, 3 min)

Tower XYZ is apparently part of a trilogy by Akingbade that imagines the future of social housing in Britain, which has been subject to an onslaught of attacks under austerity. Not just an attempt to reimagine space and architecture— although she certainly does so, framing buildings in visually stunning ways— it’s also an attempt to create a counter-representation of the lives of those, like Akingbade, who grew up and live in council estates: “in the history of cinema, the depictions are not the happiest; most protagonists are either drug addicts or some type of criminal. I want to present a different point of view, because in my reality people I knew growing up and now are not.

More than anything else the film is poetic, with a romantic presentation of place and people set to lilting synths. It appears to be shot on hazy 16mm, and very effectively captures what appears to be a mix of actors and people who just happen to be on the street. So, sure, it looks nice and it’s got that going for it, but this could also easily be the description of a music video, or maybe a particularly highbrow commercial. Akingbade transcends that though, through using the image dialectically. The constant refrain heard throughout the film is “Let’s get rid of the Ghetto.” Something which already reveals a relation to the “ghetto” as a concept of physical space, but also clearly as a social conception. Akingbade never makes the housing look grimy or in disrepair, yet at the same time there’s an acknowledgment that there might be better forms of organization; the question of why these particular individuals are bound to the council block is never elided. The film alternates between exalting the city, and lamenting what one line calls its “dead culture.”

All of this is done impressionistically and in three minutes, so it is never programmatic, only ever teasing out these contradictions. I think it is stronger for it. At one point the narrator says “When I’m old… I want to live in Peru, or the countryside,” and waits a beat before coyly finishing, “maybe.” Ultimately the question at hand is about how to reconcile urbanist and humanist visions of the city. One is reminded of Greil Marcus’ summary of the radical attitude of critics of architectural modernity who lamented that “the true function of Le Corbusier's celebrated ‘machines for living,’ was to produce machines to live in them.” Akingbade’s film is the diametrical opposite of this notion, which is also represented in the British State’s propaganda film Housing Problems (1935, Edgar Anstey), which shows the conditions of British public housing in the 1930s, and which consistently centers the voice of a posh British narrator over the more varied dialects of the subjects it represents. In Housing Problems, the emphatic focus is on the virtues of self-governmentality, while in Akingbade’s film, something remarkably different happens: subjects frequently kept outside of power structures get to speak on their own behalf, and imagine a future in the process.

(Tower XYZ)

Otolith I (Otolith Group and Richard Couzins, United Kingdom, 2003, 21 min)

A few minutes into Otolith I, the narrator, fictional Dr. Usha Adebaran-Sagar, recalls the oft-cited quote from the Martiniquan radical psychiatrist Frantz Fanon that “Each generation must discover its mission, and fulfill it or betray it.” She makes this remark as she reflects upon the words of her grandmother, who writes from the middle of the resistance to the Iraq War. Adebaran-Sagar channels her Grandmother’s voice as she attempts to research how exposure to microgravity on space stations has rendered newly born children unable to negotiate gravity on earth. For the first time, humans have been divested of their claim to the earth, throwing everything off balance, both figuratively and literally. As the text at the beginning of the films charges: “Earth is out of bounds for us now; it remains a planet accessible only through media.”

Otolith I is the first film in a trilogy by the London-based Otolith Group, which is made up of filmmakers and theorists Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, with additional camera work done by Richard Couzins. It is an unduly rich film, warranting comparisons to disparate works of documentary, essay films, and speculative science fiction. The epistolary form of narration reminds of Sans Soleil, while in so many ways the film is more literary and deeply historical: a reflection on how to make progress, the violence that can lie within that progress, cosmological histories, and possible futures of internationalist feminisms and solidarities across South Asia, a distant USSR, and a barely imaginable future. One title card reads: “IN A LANDSCAPE OF MEMORY.” Indeed, the primary mediation through which the film’s humans of future access earth is memory itself.

For a work that is at once historical and speculative, the only point where the film gets stuck can be its attempts to forecast the 21st century from the point of what is now almost a quarter of a century ago. Although the Iraq War is obviously relevant in 2020, with Joe Biden advancing his candidacy for presidency, and the imperial techniques of control increasingly trickling back to the United States in violent and disturbing ways, the footage of protests against the war seem dated in a way that throws one out of the spell that the film otherwise so successfully casts. Just like Fanon, the film asks both its characters, and us, to think about what the mission of our generation is, or has been, and how we have responded to it. Perhaps departing from Fanon though, Otolith I realizes that such missions are always at their core intergenerational and shared; the past is never safe from the future, and the future never safe from the past.

Garden City Beautiful (Ben Balcom, United States, 2019, 12 min)

Garden City Beautiful imagines the future by looking to the past; specifically, midwestern American socialism at the end of the 19th century. The film is adapted from a letter by Victor Berger, the Socialist Party of America member who represented Milwaukee in Congress for a stretch of years in the early 20th century. The letter, and by extension, the narraration, are so future-oriented that unless one knows this to be the basis before hand, it may come as a surprise following the final shot.

The film is lush utopian filmmaking, imagining what Jean-Marie Straub once called “the enormous dream of men,” the political horizon, in visual terms that only gesture towards the complicated actuality that Berger’s letter discusses. Beger’s socialism was always doggedly humanist; he focused on improving working-class life more than committing to any specific theoretical tendency. As such, the film is focused on the midpoint of the horizon: not the final product of communization, but a city where everybody puts their lot in, understanding that personal well-being is tied to collective liberation.

Balcom’s film comes at a time of renewed interest in the possibilities (both positive and negative) of the future and of building a better society; just like Otolith I, it is engaged in a kind of artistic speculation, although here that speculation is built on the back of a political movement that is practically buried in the past. It reminds one that debates about the relation of a socialist future to technology and leisure are not at all new; the past is still present with us, and with every change comes new challenges, as well as new pleasures. Again, there is never quite a resolution, only new tensions that continuously mutate and evolve.

(Garden City Beautiful)

Queen of Diamonds (Nina Menkes, United States, 1991, 75 min) CW: domestic abuse

Talking about his childhood in Las Vegas, poet and cultural critic Fred Moten says “A lot of people have trouble believing that people actually live in Las Vegas. But in order for what happens in Vegas to stay in Vegas, there has to be somebody there to keep it.” At the center of Nina Menke’s Queen of Diamonds is the story of one such keeper, Firdaus (whose name is only uttered once, and who is played by the director’s sister, Tinda Menkes).

Queen of Diamonds is the only film in this post that is a straight-up narrative. Despite that, it still skirts the lines a little. Brushing up against the limits of narrative in American cinema, the film is rarely forthcoming about what happens on screen. Patterns emerge: Firdaus works long shifts at a casino, she lives in a motel where her neighbor beats his wife, she has a husband who hasn’t been around in a long time, she wanders around the city looking alienated in open and banal public spaces. The whole thing is surreal, a kind of David Lynch-style story of dark americana-cum-Feminist slow cinema.

The 4K-transfer is stunning, and I would recommend that anyone who’s interested check this out on Vimeo, where it can be rented for a few dollars. I hadn’t heard of Menkes before watching this, but her praises should be sung: after Duras’ India Song, I think this is the most purely beautiful movie I’ve seen this year. As discussed above, however, there is serious substance to this film, and it is filled with haunting compositions that take advantage of the uncanny spaces of hyperreal Las Vegas (as in the screenshots below). Menkes makes us brutally aware of the slow violence of labor and gender in Firdaus’ life, and I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of languid story-telling used by another American director more effectively.

Reading

Walter Benjamin

I suspect that another post soon will be dedicated exclusively to Benjamin, because he’s someone I’ve really fixated on for a while, but whose words I’m just now beginning to struggle with in a much more devoted sense. I’m actually taking notes on him largely because I want to (attempt to) make a film in the near future that synthesizes his life and philosophy of history with the atomic age, as well as Kabbalah, the Jewish gnostic tradition that he was heavily interested in. His ability to reveal the social and political dimensions of memory continues to astound me, and I’ve been particularly impressed by his thinking about violence and the law, as I never really considered him a legal thinker. I have also been writing out the beginning stages of an essay discussing him and Roberto Bolaño, and their respective artistic lives on the run from fascism. Anyway, more to come, but until then here is his ever timely reflection on history:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable. (On the Concept of History, Thesis VIII)

Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore

I’ve been reading this one with a reading group in 20-30 page chunks every week, which has helped to explore some of the more challenging parts about economics. We’ve mostly just read through the section about California’s political economy so far, but it’s been very illuminating to examine the social history of California, and what happens when the train of economic accumulation and crisis, on the one hand, collides with the train of cultural and racial conflict on the other. It reminds me a lot of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, which I have yet to finish, but which has a chapter on how in the late 1980s, upper-middle-class homeowners became a rightwing activist power bloc that managed to leverage their power effectively; in Gilmore, there is likewise a focus on how groups and communities with unequal amounts of power and capabilities attempt to use the state to their own ends. She often recruits Stuart Hall, among others, to point out the contingent nature of prison development, or even government in general— the constant lesson of history that it could always have been otherwise:

Struggle, which is a politically neutral word, occurs at all levels of a society as people try to figure out, through trial and error, what to make of idled capacities.

For example, when a major employer leaves a place, the individuals and households dependent on it for wages face a crisis, as does the state—at all levels—dependent on tax revenues paid by capital and workers. What are possible outcomes of crisis? […] New power blocs can form around the remaining legitimate areas in which the state’s power can be exercised, such as law and order, local development, or moral directives for civilian behavior. Indeed, the weakening of old social, political, and cultural forms opens the way to a wide variety of new alliances, institutions, movements, all of which are coaxed, but not directed, by already existing practices. Nothing is guaranteed, but tendencies are hard to buck. (Golden Gulag, Chapter 1: The California Political Economy, Pages 54-55)

That’s all for now, more substantive writing soon to come. Peace.