Monthly Archives: November 2008

four thoughts on sensation

In prepping for Vera Wilde and in general over the past few years, , I’ve been thinking a lot about melodrama.

Linda Williams, in Playing the Race Card:Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, has an excellent breakdown of melodrama as the fundamental mode by which Americans deal with morality; and also breaks down melodrama itself between its poles of storytelling technique: the sentimental and the sensational. She argues, quite wonderfully, that action movies are the peak of modern day melodrama in how it provides moral legibility through sensation.

Then there’s the fine description (from John Russell Taylor’s Rise and Fall of the Well Made Play) of how “there is not one moment in the whole evening when the audience is not in a state of eager expectation, waiting for something to happen, for some secret to be uncovered, some identity revealed, some inevitable confrontation actually to occur,” the idea that theater should be a progression of bigger and bigger thrills, of sensation.

Sensation. It’s different from melodrama, though melodrama traffics in it. Many things traffic in sensation, of course, but some recent encounters with sensation, all in some way related to narrative if not melodrama.

Quantum of Solace

The only movies I see in the movie houses these days are the big smash-em-up-blow-em-up pictures. Movies that I would never consider (or admit to) spending money on 10 years ago. I can’t remember the last time I put down my $10 for a fi-lum (oops, no, yes I can. It was the Coen Brothers latest minor work, Burn After Reading, as slicing and precise a condemnation of the Bush administration as any news story or documentary or drama of the past 8 years. And before that, Nanking, and before that, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and before that, I’m Not There.).

That being said it’s easier to convince me to drop cash at the AMC (esp for IMAX!) than the art-house.

I guess this is the point I should confess some shame over this, but I believe that it is because when you see the big movie in the big theater, you are able to transcend the shitty quality for the experience of loud, noisy, crashy, explosive, sexy sensation. Whereas I don’t have a sense of how much the impact of sensation will be diminished viewing art film on our nice high def TV. Shame on me.

So this Friday night, we took ourselves to the gorgeous Grand Lake Cinema in Lake Merritt. I had never seen a movie in the main theater there, and it’s delightfully old school with a live organist playing pre-show, and the double curtain pattered with sparkly rhinestones, just a stunning place to see a movie.

We saw Quantum of Solace, which, Daniel Craig’s brute hunkiness and Judi Densch’s always fabulous presence aside, sucked. It sucked for the same reason that these movies, which I somehow still spend money on, have increasingly sucked over the past few years:

“Dump truck” editing. Has! Taken! Over!

Noise and breaking glass and thudding flesh and fire hits us in the face, but we can’t see anything–follow any visual or aurul logic, we can’t engage with the logic or suspense of well choreographed fight scene, chase scene, blow-em-up scene–so we don’t get invested.

Reminds me of the dance numbers in Baz Lurhman’s Moulin Rouge. Why go through all that trouble, hiring brilliant dancers and choreographers if you can’t control the camera enough to let us see the bodies?

They cut away before we can get anything–before we can notice that the evil French guy even has an axe he’s wielding and threatening Bond quite convincingly with, he’s already comically stabbed himself in the toe with it.

Such movies and sequences create only sensation, with no impact. A moment of all climax, no rising and falling action. But without the foreplay, a lesser orgasm, no?

Often this doesn’t bother me, but Friday it did, and it could be that I’ll be returning to spending my money at the art house.

2007 film fest darling, a Romanian film set during the end of the Ceaucescu totalitarian reign, as a university student shepherds her roommate through the process of procuring an abortion.

Very simple, clean and clear camera work: didn’t move much, framed the picture and let the actors do the work, let us see the world. Verite with discipline. The opening sequence of the movie, which shows Otilia in the dorms, utterly relaxed, buying cigarettes for bribes, doing favors, asking favors, could have been a short film in itself.

The opposite of Bond and Hollywood.

But my viewing of this film was compromised by the trailer, which splices together the most suspenseful 3 minutes of the movie to make it appear like it’s going to be a killer thriller.

So I spent the entire movie tense, waiting, unable to appreciate the true suspense it created: street-smart Otilia (played by the luminous Anamaria Marinca) negotiating a late-date crumbling bloc country that is suffocating, corrupt, passive aggressive, incompetent, secretive, watchful and cruel. Her friend, Gabita, the one getting the abortion, doubles the environment by embodying it.

A beautiful, precise fable. My expectation of sensation spoiled its own attempt towards sensation.

Haruki Murakami’s Underground (2000)

We wandered Japan for 2, weeks eating well and taking in sumo and walking through rural villages and being overwhelmed by the raw consumerism of Tokyo. But without a guide, it’s difficult to contextualize the clues we were gathering as evidence of some sense of the national character or culture. Being in Japan is like being in those countries that separated earlier from Pangea and just evolved differently. The wings of the bird are in different places, so to speak.

Underground takes the most sensational event of the past 15 years in Japan (the sarin gas attacks by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo) and, through interviews with survivors and former cult members, attempts to present the attacks as a reflection of Japanese society–in an entirely unsensational way.

Its very lack of sensationalism allows the disturbing quiet and regularity and conformity of Japanese culture, the society’s inability to prepare for the out of the ordinary: over and over, people who were poisoned couldn’t accept the reality of an attack and just went to work, stayed on subway trains where they could get a seat for once on the way to their jobs, left their jobs because their bosses couldn’t deal with their PTSD, felt shame for even sharing the details of their experience.

The sensational made unsensational, the banality of evil.

Hoax photo of breast disease

The most disturbing of all these. Such simple Photoshop manipulation, combining a breast with a lotus seedpod. A quiet, doctored image, more horrifying in its stillness than anything. I didn’t even know what it meant to be representing (a fake South American larvae infestation in a woman’s breast that comes from an unwashed new bra), and it still shocks me, unnerves me.

Sensation as hoax. Well done.

(Warning–below, it’s pretty nasty).

a-merican a-t last

I love this. I remember when I lived in NYC during the waning years of Clinton. I felt like my East Village/Lower East Side compatriots weren’t American or anti-American, they were “A-merican,” like being “amoral” or “asexual.” It just didn’t matter to them, they were above it all, or simply apart from it.

When I went on my road trip documenting populist theater in red states, and then on to Cornerstone and Mississippi, I got plenty of sneers about doing “social work” from folks who are now doing community-based art, or art about parts of American they don’t know, or art about being American.
It took Bush’s theft of 2000–and then the tragedy of 9/11–to shock folks out of their Clinton-era entitlement and apathy. And then, after 8 years of the terror and shame and humiliation his reign brought to our country (see Krugman’s latest), after 8 years of seeing this land–whose membership they didn’t even appreciate!–so very degraded, it took an inspiring leader who has the fastest learning curve in the history of American politics, who brought a brilliantly disciplined community-organizer strategy to his campaign–so this could happen.