Time to take care of this blog’s failure to pay attention to Gilded Age pugilism.
He yearned, he sometimes said, to be other than what he was. “I wish I could be more like normal people — like these people here,” he told The Yakima Herald-Republic of Washington in 2003, indicating passers-by in Leavenworth, Wash., his hometown of the moment. “I don’t know how.”
But Mr. Hill did manage to find time for ordinary pleasures. As he often said, he never missed an episode of “The Sopranos.”
The latest Mad Men (“The Other Woman”) presented me with more to think about than I can currently wrap my head around, but so too did the latest Games of Thrones (“Blackwater”), albeit it for very different reasons. So instead of delving into “The Other Woman” or drowning in the sudden narratological shift in “Blackwater,” I’ll focus on a fine point about shot construction in Game of Thrones. Before I do, however, I should note that I’m by no means endorsing the more problematic elements of the show—the racial politics foremost among them—because those strike me as endemic to sword-and-sorcery as a genre, so anything I write about them will inevitably be general and uninteresting to a fault.
If you want a re-cap of the episode itself, I recommend Alyssa’s, but for my purpose all you need to know is that 1) the great Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister and 2) he commands an army that’s on the brink of being besieged. Tyrion, in the lingo of the show, is a “halfman,” and Dinklage’s height presents difficulties for directors—if they shoot a close-up or medium close-up of him in conversation, his wit and intelligence will be diminished by the fact that his head’s surrounded by a sea of crotches. The typical solutions to this problem are two-fold: have everyone he converses with sit down while doing so (as Thomas McCarthy did extensively in The Station Agent) or shoot him in extremely shallow focus so he’s surrounded by a sea of fuzzy crotches. In “Blackwater,” director Neil Marshall eschews both techniques, employing instead an exceedingly stylized compositional mode that would look ostentatious in almost any other context. To wit:
The 1930s: a decade where you could have mainstream cartoons about children going hungry that would resonate with people’s experiences.
I recently watched If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which came out last year. The film follows the story of Daniel McGowan, a radical member of the Earth Liberation Front. During the late 90s and early 00s, the ELF took to arson as a means of stopping companies and organizations it saw as destroying the environment of the American West. This included timber mills, SUV dealerships, and most famously, a ski resort in Colorado. McGowan was heavily involved in several of these actions and took the leading role in burning the offices of a tree farm the ELF believed was using genetically modified trees. It took years for the police to bust open this case (in fact, most of the arsons remain unsolved), but after nailing a ringleader in Eugene, Oregon, law enforcement arrested the Eugene cell. By this time, McGowan had quit the ELF, moved back to his home in New York, and was working for an organization fighting domestic violence while organizing nonviolent environmental rallies in New York. McGowan was arrested, tried to hold out against taking a plea deal, and finally agreed when he had no option. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison, received a “terrorism enhancement” sentence from the judge and was placed in the “Communication Management Unit” of a federal prison in Illinois, where he receives a single 15 minute phone call a week and a brief personal visit a month. He remains there today.
As an Oregonian who not only grew up in the middle of the spotted owl crisis but who writes on these issues (though not this specifically), I have deeply mixed feelings on the ELF and other environmental radical organizations. Some of these people were deeply committed activists, others were screw-ups who floated into the group because they had nowhere else to go. I don’t think arson was a good tactic, but I’m not opposed to it on theoretical grounds. I don’t see the endgame of the ELF resorting to it, but on the other hand, given what corporations have done to the planet, it’s hard to blame them for viewing radical violence as a logical answer.
It’s also important to place ELF actions in the context of police violence. We are beginning to have honest conversations about police violence again because of the awful responses to activists at Occupy protests. The protestor shot in Oakland, the pepper spraying at Davis, and the violence last weekend in Chicago reminds us that the police will use maximum violence against nonviolent protestors. In Oregon, environmental protestors faced this during the 1990s. The most powerful footage in the film wasn’t of clearcuts or McGowan’s discussion of his past. It was of the police doing horrible things to protestors. Pepper spraying protestors who were chained to objects in the eyes. Rubbing some kind of substance right on their eyeball. Cutting a man’s pants who was in a tree and applying pepper spray directly to his testicles. These are the actions that less fortunate Americans experience from police everyday and we don’t hear about it. Why police culture unleashes such horrible behavior on nonviolent people is probably better left for another post, but if you are an activist engaging in nonviolent protestor and you experience violence, it’s very easy to see why you would think that traditional means of protest are useless. This trajectory of radical activism is hardly unique to environmentalists; watching the film, you could have substituted some of the conversations for radical cells in the 60s anti-Vietnam movement or the Black Panthers.
Without question, the ELF did some really dumb things. They were central to the black bloc that took over the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, hijacking a well-planned protest to go break some Starbucks windows. They had no right to do that. Attacking small timber companies just seems pointless and stupid. The burning of the tree farm that McGowan helped execute was especially dumb considering that the farm had been sold to a new owner who stopped using GMO trees. If you are going to burn things, you’d better have your information correct!
The film itself does a good job giving voice to all sides. Marshall Curry, who also directed the outstanding documentary about Newark politics “Street Fight,” made the film; in fact, McGowan was working for his wife when he was arrested, providing Curry with an amazing opportunity. At the same time, he gave full voice to those negatively affected, such as the owner of a small timber outfit that ELF protestors burned, as well as the cops who investigated the case. Most of the other activists were unwilling to talk. Only Suzanne Savoie, who accepted a plea deal early on, spoke at length. Curry managed a brief interview with Jake Ferguson, the ELF member who rolled. A heroin addict and drifter, he didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the ELF ever knew what it was doing.
What really made me angry about the film was the concept of “ecoterrorism.” Such a thing can exist but the ELF were not ecoterrorists. They hurt no one. They specifically chose actions that would not cause damage to human life. When a few members did suggest upping the ante to target individuals, the entire group fell apart as most members, including McGowan, refused to even consider such a thing. To compare Daniel McGowan and Suzanne Savoie to Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh insults the intelligence of Americans. Yet the politics of terrorism are so politicized that so-called ecoterrorists get far more attention than right-wing loonies who actually could be terrorists. For example, the museum at the Oklahoma City National Memorial goes into all sorts of detail on domestic terrorism launched by radical environmentalists but says nary a word about the right-wing writers that influenced both Timothy McVeigh and the conservative wing of the modern Republican Party. It’s a sick joke. Burning an SUV dealership is not the same as flying a plane into the World Trade Center. Burning a sawmill is not the same as putting a truckload of explosives under the federal building in Oklahoma City.
And why is Daniel McGowan, a threat to no one, wasting away in a Communication Management Unit? When he gets out next year, will he still be sane? 7 years of almost solitary confinement? Savoie received 4 years in her plea agreement. For the first 3, she could not go outside. Why? What possible reason is there for this? It’s clear enough-these were people the Bush Administration could make examples of and distract Americans’ attention from their failures of stopping real terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the prosecutors notes in the film that nowhere in the terrorism laws does it say you have to harm people to be a terrorist. Of course–that’s because the government doesn’t want to define what is terrorism so it can charge anyone under these laws. They are a great threat to our already declining civil liberties.
Anyway, If a Tree Falls is a really fantastic, thought-provoking, and amazingly fair documentary about a controversial subject and I highly recommend it to anyone.
I’m still having trouble seeing Bill Murray as Franklin Roosevelt, but he does have the look down.
Also, I’m really glad Murray refuses to do Ghostbusters 3.
The problem with Tim Burton is not that he repeatedly casts Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. That’s silly. Was it a problem that Akira Kurosawa repeatedly cast Toshiro Mifune? That Ingmar Bergman hired Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow over and over? That Scorsese had an amazing 25 year run with Robert DeNiro? Of course not.
The problem with Tim Burton is that he has nothing left to say.
….An additional note. One useful thing in that linked piece is to suggest Burton might benefit from doing something entirely different. I do agree with that, though I’m extremely skeptical of his ability to pull it off. One thing I love about David Lynch’s The Straight Story is that not only is it a very fine film, but Lynch also clearly proved that he work in very different types of film with great skill. His weirdness is not a crutch, as opposed to Burton.
Geoffrey O’Brien has a great essay on silent films in the New York Review of Books. A very small selection:
The seduction of silent cinema is the seduction of a form as unique as opera or kabuki, a peculiar way of organizing one’s attention. It is a perpetual learning how to see, and a way of coming to the truth of one of Emerson’s observations: “The eye is final.” But there is the further peculiarity that what you see takes place in a world no longer there. Here are cities since reduced to rubble and rebuilt, stretches of countryside by now turned into interstates and strip malls, glaciated wilderness that has probably succumbed to climate change—and of course the faces of those now long dead, something too easily taken for granted but that haunts movies from the start. The inventors of the medium were already thinking about recording the living as a future consolation for their survivors.
There are really so many reasons to watch silent films: to see how people told stories without sound, to revel in the so very different styles of acting and filmmaking, to understand how Americans of all ethnicities could come together over entertainment that you didn’t need English capability to understand, because silent films often told amazing stories.
And of course because the past is weird. One thing I love about silents, particularly those before 1920, is that no one knew what they were doing. By this I mean that the standards of cinema and the creation of expectations on how to tell a story were still developing. So when turning on an early silent, you never really quite know what you are going to get.
Last night, I watched the remarkably bizarre and incredibly awesome The Mystery of Leaping Fish, starring Douglas Fairbanks. This 1916 film has Douglas as the Sherlock Holmes-esque detective Coke Ennyday trying to find out why a man with no discernible employment has so much cash (quite literally, he sleeps covered by money instead of blankets). Why does our hero have this odd name? Because he really loves cocaine. And other drugs. He constantly is shooting something into himself for uppers (he carries around a belt of syringes). He has a giant tub on his desk labeled “COCAINE” that he dips into rather liberally (by the handful). And when he discoverers a jar of opium, Coke Ennyday starts scooping it into his mouth with his fingers.
This is jaw-droppingly weird. Technically, cocaine had just become illegal under the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1915, but its use was well-known enough for audiences of the time. The best way to watch it is on Fandor, though there are incomplete versions available on YouTube. I guarantee it is worth your time.
Will the scenes on the boat be very, very slow?
Hey look, water!
The last structure from the early New York film industry is in trouble. The old Vitagraph studio lot in Brooklyn is long gone, but its smokestack remains. It is falling apart and needs restoration. Here’s a petition to make that happen. This is a neat part of our early film past and worth your 2 seconds.
(It goes without saying that this is another one of those posts.)
Poor self-defeating Pete, trying his best to become the very Draper whose misery’s invisible to him. Remember when Pete had hope, and director John Slattery hammered the possibility of it home via reverse shots? How Pete saw Peggy longing for him:
Returned her implicit, medium long offer in kind:
And was returned in kind:
And again, an almost final invitaiton?
Of course, between them in each reverse shot is the not-insignificant–and increasingly significant, given the racial aspects entering the series in future episodes–glass door separating the firm from the world it claims to represent. As I wrote in the post linked above:
The viewer is looking at Peter looking at Peggy in the first medium close up in the scene. (There is a slight unreality to this point of view shot: it zooms in on the pair in a way only cameras can. The zooming seems to act as a cinematic proxy for attention or concentration.) Slattery made sure the nearly invisible wall separating them remained visible, which creates a tension between the intimacy of the close up and the reality of the glass walls separating them. That he chooses a more intimate when these two are in different rooms is, for obvious reasons, significant. She sees him peering at her and, by its positioning, the camera acknowledges the bond that will remain despite the increasing distance between them: the baby they had together.
But now Peter’s a father, only not of Peggy’s baby, but of his own. Who’s screen presence exists as such:
See the baby? The one he had so he could be more like Draper? It’s sitting there, frame central, hovering invisible in that tacky chair he should’ve had the decency to replace if he’d had any sense of style. He’s becoming Draper–disappearing into the life he mistakenly believed he wanted. No children to greet him, just cold dinner and a warm shot of whisky. Don’t believe me? Let’s rewrind to the first season and remind you of a similarly framed shot:
In this case, however, Betty’s lying about going to the community center to watch them film the pool–she’s off to watch pretty things die, as per the episode’s title, for”Sport.” But there’s something more than sport to her deliberations. She wants to savor the experience of watching something die. First she feeds the children, then she does the laundry:
Then the camera acknowledges that she’s had an idea and zooms into a close-up to reiterate that fact:
Note the joy on her face. Knowing that her idea is one that–whatever joy it might bring her, society would disapprove of, she ponders her decision for a moment:
Moments are fleeting:
Her decision has been made. Cut to exterior:
Relief. Betty’s just a central figure staring at the sky in wonderment at all God’s creations:
Look at those birds? The fact that they’re incapable of being centrally staged only emphasizes their freedom. The frame can’t constrain them! They’re free! If only Betty had an equivalently symbolic emblem of relinquishing societal constraints:
She does. Her feelings of entrapment are nothing a healthy dose of nicotine can’t cure. Except why has she shifted stage-left? She had occupied the central portion of the screen, but now it’s as if she’s making room for something else. Whatever could that be?
Of course, she being an American, the only thing she can do with her symbol of freedom is shoot it with … another symbol of her freedom. I wasn’t able to capture her aiming the gun, which is why the space on the right side of the frame had to be cleared, but that’s why it was. Oddly, her cigarette still occupies the central portion of the frame, as if, like the nicotine it delivers into her blood, is calming her down, making her transgressive violence possible. Can’t be sure. However, visually speaking, the indication is that Draper’s created/creating a sociopath, and the implication is that Peter’s following a similar path. He began his morning commutes in “A Little Kiss,” you’ll remember, alone and engrossed in a paper:
His loneliness is highlighted by both the empty chair beside him and the man with the solitaire board across from him. By episode’s end, things seem a bit different, though:
Wonder why that might be? Couldn’t have anything to do with, say, this:
Nothing at all there. Not between Peggy and Pete. Not with a viable baby hanging out right there in a carriage.