Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Law of Gravity

Gravity is both an incredibly useful, interesting and worthwhile film, and one of the most terrible movies I've seen in a long time. It is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and graceful use of 3D I've ever encountered: It feels like the camera is floating and spinning around in outer space and its long choreographed takes, though none come near as breathtaking as that one shot in Children of Men, can be vertigo inducing, beautifully evocative of space's emptiness and silence, or intensely fucking action packed. But that riveting, absurd and almost constant action, combined with the embarrassingly inept characterization and dialogue make it feel like Tarkovsky co-directing a Michael Bay film.

So, for the terrible first. Sandra Bullock's character: what a fucking mess. She's the least probable woman scientist since Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough. Bullock spends the majority of the film panting in fear, which, fair enough I suppose, but her actions point to her being a total bad ass. I mean, she's installing electronics she personally designed onto the fucking Hubble in open space as the movie opens, and yet later, in the film's climax, we see her bleating, moments before giving up all hope, that she doesn't know how to pray because no one ever told her how. She gives an unbearably inane, abject and pathetic speech asking the absent George Clooney to visit her four year old daughter in heaven and tell her that she found her favorite red shoe while she is performing an insanely complex and clever emergency procedure on a space capsule she's never piloted before. In Russian. And yet, she required an inspiring vision of George Clooney--a cowboy alpha-male with whom she has completely unnecessary sexual tension--to figure out the trick and convince her to not give up but to go on. Despite her ostensible brilliance, she can't do anything without someone else (preferably a man) tellin' her, she's single and pointedly sad about it, and she's a total emotional wreck due to her daughter's death some time before. She's the exact opposite of cinema's greatest space bad ass, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.

I watched the film with my partner-in-crime Sophie, and she pointed out that Gravity has the geopolitics of Independence Day. The Indian doctor working on the Hubble in the opening scene, upon completing his work, sings a little Bollywood ditty and manages the dubious feat of doing an orientalist jig in a space suit. To which George Clooney quips "Can you believe he went to Harvard?" Haw haw haw. It's foolish Russians, irresponsibly using ballistic missiles (yes, seriously) who set off the chain of events that dooms the spacecraft. Despite having proven herself a Russian-speaking telescope-inventing spaceship-flying capable-of-Lara-Croft-like-physical-feats type genius, when Bullock gets into a Chinese shuttle, faced with a control panel covered in pictographs, she actually says "No hablo Chino". And when Bullock finally arrives on Earth, she lands down in a jungle in Tahiti, or Indonesia, some South-East Asian tropical paradise, and weeps with joy to be holding the beautiful orange mud of the beach. To paraphrase Sophie here, we're meant to recognize this space as the communal bounty of the Earth, the birthright of all mankind, some sort of unspoilt Eden: this is Orientalism 101, the perfect colonial gaze.

Despite the obvious drama of the premise (total space disaster with only current technology) the film insists on making our protagonist, flying in the face of everything the context suggests should be true about her, an ingorant, weak-willed, emotionally traumatized single woman almost unable to do anything without having it mansplained to her. It pivots the entire emotional drama not on the fact of her survival--which we as an audience are assured of, I mean, after all, we paid £14 to get into the damn IMAX--but rather on the meaning of her survival in the face of her loneliness and maternal failure. In other words, the drama is transposed entirely within the bounds of bourgeois subjectivity, the family, and patriarchy: a drama which is completely and utterly not contained within the images of the film.

In fact, most of the characters' dialogue is spoken over headsets, from within space masks: you could almost completely redub the film and make it a totally different movie, because the psychological drama is entirely external to the film's visual narrative.

And this is exactly why Gravity is so interesting. Rob Horning said about Victorian novels that we should pay extra attention to the long, boring sections whose presence makes no sense to us now--this excess is precisely the ideological content of the novel. What is interesting about Gravity is that it reveals the extent to which the psychological centrality of family structure, the heterosexual desire between protagonists (aggressively instituted by the man), but most crucially psychological back-story itself is ideological excess. It is precisely the need--the economic imperative--for 'characterization' and 'relatability' no matter what it means or at what costs that makes Gravity a totally shit film.

If Gravity were better written, it would be an exceptionally beautiful and entertaining action film--the content of the images, the story of survival against the odds doesn't allow for much more than that, but honestly, that movie would be great. But its sloppiness, the way it insists on beating you over the head with Bullock's feminine weakness and reproductive failure, not to mention its totally overbearing and manipulative soundtrack, contrast tellingly with the overall grace and inventiveness of the visual film making. It's so pretty, so well shot and edited, the camera is so fluid and so capable of both putting you within the total chaotic terror Bullock is going through and capturing some beautiful ideas and images that contextualize that horror, that the script's total failure has an almost schizophrenic effect. The extreme contrast between the two experiences, and the fact that all of this dialogue is wildly, violently extraneous to the narrative, clarifies precisely what kinds of narrative moves are ideological.

After watching Gravity, you might ask yourself: why must every film feature a legible back story, clear-cut psychological motivation for action, the centrality of love and family to everyone's experience, weak women and strong men, racist caricature? Just like gravity, in Hollywood, ideology is a law.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Is de Blasio Better? Is Better Better?

The fart-smeller of Union Square is a short white man of about 30 years of age, perennially in a baseball cap and almost always standing in Union Square, holding a sign referring to his desire to smell your farts. His sign works, too: people will let him lean over near their ass, he will lie down on the ground and they will squat over his face, he will smile, the flatulent's friends will take pictures on their iPhones and laugh, he probably gets off on it, they get a "New York story", everyone is happy, I guess.
On #S17 this year, a pathetic and meaningless event even by post-May Day OWS standards, the Union Square fart-smeller held a sign that read "de Blasio will save us".

In 2013, for the first time in decades, the police were a major issue in the mayoral campaign, but crime wasn't. Every democratic candidate had to come out against stop and frisk--failure to do so was a major factor in Christine Quinn's inability to ride Bloomberg's coattails, although those coattails were already pretty oily and moth-eaten by 2012--and de Blasio has promised not only to end stop and frisk, but much more significantly, the quota system.

That de Blasio has floated Bill Bratton--inventor of Broken Windows Theory, the man who more or less built the NYPD as it is today as police commissioner to that friend of minorities and civil-liberties alike, America's Mayor Rudy Giuliani--as Ray Kelly's replacement hardly bodes well. But if de Blasio does, in fact, end stop and frisk and/or the quota system, it would mean a major improvement of life for subjects under the reign of the world's 7th largest standing army. Wouldn't this vindicate a pro-voting, pro-reformism attitude? What's a hardline anti-election anti-state anti-cap to do?

First things first: wait and see. The odds that de Blasio, a public advocate and not all that much of a hard-nosed politician, could win a dog-fight with the NYPD top brass and a largely reactionary city council seem as low to me as the odds that he actually has the intention to do so. And anyone who voted for any Democrat in the last, I dunno, 30 years? should be pretty cynical about left-leaning election promises of any kind at this point.

But the political-cycle focus of modern electioneering also hides the way that political issues come to the fore. Stop and frisk was a major issue in the mayoral campaign, but there is little mainstream discussion of how it got to be there: tireless activism in the streets and, to a lesser extent, in the courts, by predominantly POC youth. And it (sadly) took the spectacle of white protesters being beaten by NYPD during Occupy to broaden anti-cop feelings in the city beyond perpetually police-oppressed communities of color.

Some commentators have pointed this out: that the leftward swing among mayoral candidates, in discourse at least, is due to Occupy. Such accounts often leave out the equally significant role of the POC-led Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray and anti-stop and frisk marches, riots and campaigns--or how the spectacle of potentially revolutionary uprising around the globe has some capitalists quaking in their boots. But the point remains, without the action in the streets, NYC could've elected a hundred Democratic mayors without ending stop and frisk.

And here is where the liberal narrative around protest ends. Protest is valuable precisely because it changes the nature of the promises made and actions taken by the political class--it is the role of protesters, putting everything on the line in the streets, to give the liberals' vote meaning.

Obviously fuck liberals, but we should also reject the accelerationists and the miserabilists who argue that things need to get worse before they get better. The history of revolutionary movements does not map onto the history of economic crises, period, though conditions of possibility often appear in the gaps produced by economic and political crises. And if we really do subscribe to that most vulgar demand, that no one go hungry, there is no way we should be rooting for crisis. 

There is a revolutionary advantage to social democracy, and it is precisely this: it makes it easier to prepare for revolution. Often ignored in the narratives around protest, both from liberals and the revolutionary left, is the calculus of fear, risk and self-care that every person makes when they mask-up. It is easier to go out into the streets if you know that, for example, should the police break your arm with a baton, your treatment will be free. That if your employer fires you for political actions, or if you choose to quit your job to dedicate your time to political organizing, you wont be thrown out of your house or starve.

So that if de Blasio makes major reforms to the NYPD operating procedure, and I'm not holding my breath, it will be a material improvement for communities of color which is a direct result of their organizing and their actions, and which will open up potentialities for further struggle. Living in NYC, you come to learn that you can get a ticket for having your feet up on a subway bench, for not dismounting your bike before you go up on a sidewalk to park it: you take a risk having a picnic with a few beers in Prospect Park, and the awareness of that is a form of internalizing fear and control, of strengthening the cop inside your head.

Much more seriously, young people of color don't feel safe walking down the street when NYPD drive-by, they and their parents know that any encounter with a cop could be fatal: to go out into the streets to confront the police under such conditions takes more bravery, strength or rage than it does most white activists, and we should not pretend otherwise out of machismo or righteousness. Anything which lessened that fear and that risk would be a happy one.

But such changes can also be disastrous. The history of failed revolutions is also a history of liberal treachery and social-democratic selling out. Minor or even major concessions can satisfy or confuse a movement enough that it can be put down. It could prove true that replacing Ray Kelly and ending stop and frisk would be a materially small change in NYPD day to day practices, who would figure out a different way to terrorize communities of color, but have a massive Obama effect on NYC's view of NYPD, setting back anti-police activism by a decade.

Action in the streets can produce the sort of politicians who make it easier for us to take further action in the streets: de Blasio could well be better than Bloomberg. But there is no police-reform economic-inequality attacking de Blasio campaign without our actions in the street, and if he does reform the police department, we must not declare victory but ruthlessly take advantage of every opening he gives us, not confuse him with an ally but recognize that the streets are beginning to have an (incredibly limited) effect on our enemies, that bourgeois politics is beginning to have to respond to our (potential) power.

Reform is better than no reform. General population is better than a CMU. Living paycheck to paycheck is better than being homeless. Living a life of boredom and alienation is better than living a life of violence and starvation.

The most important thing that is better about things getting better is that it can make it easier to build the real movement that smashes the logic of better forever.

Update: Derp.