Thursday, November 3, 2011

'V for Vendetta' Screening at WSU

The Winona State University History Association is sponsoring a screening of V for Vendetta at 7pm on November 5, 2011 in the Somsen Auditorium on the Winona State campus.

Although I gave a mixed review to this film at the time of its release (you can find the review in the archive) , V for Vendetta has become an important motion picture. The Guy Fawkes mask worn by the hero has become an international symbol for resistance movements, popping up everywhere from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street.

Check out this video from the time of V for Vendetta's release, in which pundits debate the merits and political message of the film.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special

Don't miss the annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special.

Listeners to 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN can hear the special at 11pm on Sunday, October 30th.

Listeners to 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN can hear the special at 1pm on Monday, October 31st.

Remember, those not in the broadcast area can hear the show live streaming over the web or via an app for mobile devices. Visit each stations' website for details.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

KMSU Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato is currently holding its fall pledge drive. Please consider supporting this station with a financial commitment.

KMSU and stations like it are unique in the media landscape. In an environment where media is increasingly homogenized and the content of local airwaves is programmed by corporate offices in distant locales, KMSU is the rare place where local, original content is generated and broadcast. The station serves local businesses, organizations and artists and gives them a unique platform to express their ideas.

This is a very challenging time for independent radio. Although KMSU recieves some funding from Minnesota State University Mankato, the station is expected to generate a portion of its own revenue. In times of economic stress that expectation may become greater as other interests compete for state funding. Across the nation, many colleges and universities are abandoning their radio stations to make ends meet in these challenging economic times. When this happens it isn't just students who lose. It is the entire community.

If you are a listener to this station, or just believe in supporting community radio and local media, please consider making a pledge. You can make on online pledge here or call the station at 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sinclair McKay Interview Available Online

My interview with Sinclair McKay, author of A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films, is now available as a downloadable mp3. You can find it here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Interview with Sinclair Mckay on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, October 16th, Sounds of Cinema will continue the ongoing Halloween theme with a look at the films of Britain’s Hammer studio. This episode will feature music from films like Dracula: Prince of Darkness, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and She as well as an interview with Sinclair McKay, the author of A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sounds of Cinema October Programs 2011

Throughout October, Sounds of Cinema will feature a month-long Halloween theme. Every episode this October will be organized around some Halloween-related motif.

October 2, 2011: The Horror of Non-Horror Films
I'll take a look at films not categorized in the horror genre but use horrific images and themes. This episode will include music from films like Requiem for a Dream, Inglorious Basterds, and Apocalypse Now.

October 9, 2011: Folk Tales and Urban Myths
This episode will include music from films that are adapted from folk tales and urban myths, including Sweeney Todd, Candyman, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

October 16, 2011: Hammer Films
Sounds of Cinema will take a look back at the legacy of Hammer Films, one of the most important studios in horror film history, and feature music from James Bernard and others.

October 23, 2011: Weird Science
This episode will focus on the overlap of science fiction and horror and include music from films such as Bride of Frankenstein, Aliens and The Thing.

October 30, 2011: Devil's Night
The last regularly scheduled October episode will look at films featuring Satan or devil-related characters or themes such as The Devil's Advocate, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Lucifer Rising. (Those listening on 89.7 KMSU FM will hear a pledge drive episode.)

October 30, 2011: Halloween Special
A Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special featuring music and audio clips will air at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sounds of Cinema 9/25/2011

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was a replay of my look at the American Film Institute's list of the twenty-five greatest film scores. Check out this previous post, in which I provide a list of alternate scores and soundtracks.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Final Thoughts

The week of September 11 - 16th, 2011 I coordinated a 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack.

During the 2010-11 school year I began sponsoring campus film screenings as a way of promoting the show and expanding its mission. Initially I thought it would be good fun, and it was, to show a few provocative and important pictures and hopefully tie them into larger issues going on in cinema and in the culture at large.

Over the summer of 2011 I was struck with the approaching ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attack but when I tried to nail down a single film that would encapsulate the event or some piece of its aftermath, I felt as though I were neglecting the greater whole. So I decided that the only way I could really deal with the anniversary of 9/11 was to show a series of films that addressed, if not all, at least a broad spectrum of the issues involved.

Once I realized I’d have to show a series of films I knew I was going to need financial support and so I brought the project to a variety of campus departments, organizations, and individuals and the response was very positive. In all, the 9/11 Film Series was sponsored Winona State University's Communication Studies Department, English Department, Department of Housing and Residence Life, Department of Theater and Dance, Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Office of Student Life and Development, the Philosophy Department, University Programming Activities Committee, Vic Colaizzi and Anne Plummer of the Art Department, and Jim Williams of the Theater Department. This coalition got behind the project and I’m grateful to them for helping to make this happen.

As I set about devising the screening schedule there were of course practical considerations based on what was available and what I’d be able to afford. But I also felt that the selection and arrangement of films should not be random but should take the viewers through the event and its aftermath.

One element I wanted to avoid was deliberate political partisanship. I have my own feelings about 9/11 and its aftermath but I did not believe it was appropriate for me to use the film series as a soap box or to use films that did the same. A lot of Hollywood’s response to September 11th was made of liberal soapbox statements such as Rendition and Redacted (as well as a few conservative battle cries like 300 and The Path to 9/11) and most of those pictures weren’t very good anyway so leaving them out was not difficult. But even pictures that were successful such as Green Zone or documentaries that were important to the history of the September 11th period such as Michael Moore’ Fahrenheit 9/11 had to be excluded because including them would alienate part of the audience and obfuscate the issues that needed to be dealt with.

In 1974 director Peter Davis released the documentary Hearts and Minds, which remains, in my opinion, one of the finest documentaries about the Vietnam War. According to Davis, he developed the film around three questions: Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do when we got there? And what did that, in turn, do to us? As I selected and arranged the films in this series, I adapted Davis’ questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did our response do to us?

From there I assembled six pictures that would address these questions, starting with United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, which dramatizes and restages the 9/11 attack with an emphasis on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. That was followed by Osama, which is an Afghani film about a girl and her family living under the Taliban, and a pair of documentaries: Restrepo, which documents American troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which addresses the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the American military and intelligence services. The series wrapped up with The Messenger, which is a dramatization about soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team, and Four Lions, which is a dark comedy about suicide bombers.

United 93 gave audiences the unique opportunity of facing the horror of 9/11. The key word there is “horror” because this film functions very much like a horror film, which allows people the opportunity to submit themselves to trauma from the safety of a theater seat and face their fears. Doing that represents the beginning of addressing our unresolved feelings about that day and coming to terms with it.

While arranging the film schedule, I deliberately set Osama up next to United 93. This was partly to do with the realities of intolerance directed at Muslim community after the September 11th attack and the ongoing sensitivity about that issue. There are many things interesting and unique about Osama but within the context of this series and coming off of the intensity of United 93, what this film contributes is a sense of empathy for the people of Afghanistan and makes an important differentiation between the majority of peaceful Muslims and a minority of violent extremists.

Restrepo is an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking. Some of its extraordinary qualities are due to its objective style. There is no voice over telling us what to think, just a masterful collection of images and scenarios from the war front. In a way this film is more challenging to audiences because it forces them to think about the United States’ response to 9/11 and the blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in the process. It is also extraordinary because it is one of the few major pieces of documentary cinema about war that actually focuses on life on the ground in Afghanistan.

Taxi to the Dark Side is more deliberate in its theme and tone as it explores what the United States did to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. With the recent releases of memoirs by former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, this issue has returned to the talking head TV circuit which gave the film some fortuitous immediacy. But what is most important to take from Taxi the Dark Side, which will haunt this country for some time, is what it reveals about how our response to 9/11 affected us politically and militarily but also morally. After watching the abyss of horrors of United 93 and Osama, that abyss begins to stare back at us in Taxi to the Dark Side.

The Messenger’s story of soldiers returning home from the war confronts the audience with the aftermath of all this and explores how we treat the troops when they get here. Each character of The Messenger has their own issues to deal with, particularly loneliness and isolation. And when viewed after Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, this film takes on added dimensions. But what The Messenger also suggests is the possibility of hope through compassion and love in all of its forms: romantic, familial, platonic, and brotherly.

The last film in the series was Four Lions, which is a comedy but a challenging one. Four Lions bookended this film series with United 93. Where the first film showed us the terror of that day, Four Lions invites us to laugh at it. Although that sounds vulgar, Four Lions picks up the absurdity of all this and plays it for maximum satirical effect. And if the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize—that is, to cause fear—then laughing at them might be the most devastating retaliation of all.

Part of the reason I do this show is that I think movies are important. And not just high class Hollywood Oscar bait or prestigious art films but the cumulative effects of cinema from family films to grindhouse movies. It is important to remember that cinema can have consequences. We know, for example, that Joseph Goebbels used motion pictures as one of the primary tools of the Nazi propaganda campaign, especially in driving and shaping anti-Semitic attitudes that paved the way for the Final Solution. But we can also look at a film like Schindler’s List and appreciate filmmakers exposing the horrors of the Holocaust and coping with its legacy.

Motion pictures cannot change the world. Only people can do that. Film can light the way, showing us the possibilities, the hopes, and the fears. But when the credits are over and the film runs its last real we have to leave the theater seat and reenter the world. What we can hope for in the auditorium is illumination but that’s all for nothing if we forget about that on our trip back up the aisle.

You can find extended commentaries on each of the films screened in the 9/11 Film Series here:

Friday, September 16, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Four Lions

Tonight was the last film in the 9/11 Film Series: Four Lions, a dark comedy about suicide bombers.

As I designed the 9/11 Film Series, I felt that Four Lions would be an effective bookend to this film series with United 93. As I indicated in my blog entry about United 93, that film views very much like a horror picture, and horror and comedy and like brother and sister in that they often find laughs or scares in fundamentally the same things. A gory horror film like Hostel makes us squirm or scream in terror at the inner functions of the human body but a bawdy comedy like Bridesmaids makes us laugh at virtually the same thing. The horror filmmaker exposes social and individual anxieties and puts the audience through a traumatic experience that ultimately makes the viewer feel better about it. Similarly, the comedian is a social critic who stands before the audience in an accusatory role and exposes the lunacy and hypocrisy around him.

In the context of this film series, United 93 showed us the devastation of terrorism, Osama frightened us with religion inspired oppression, and Taxi to the Dark Side startled us with its depiction of institutionalized torture. Four Lions invites us to laugh at this horror.

That isn't as morbid or crass as it sounds, in part because Four Lions gets its tone right. Although anything can be funny, not everything is funny in every way. The Holocaust does not suggest itself as a comedic topic and there is certainly nothing funny about films like The Reader or Schindler's List. But Life is Beautiful manages to set a comedy in a Nazi death camp and use the humor as a way to cope with the horror. Four Lions does the same with terrorism. The film plays up the absurd and finds laughs in the stupidity of the characters while also nodding at the human loss of the situation.

One of the more curious qualities of Four Lions is its regard for Muslims and Islam. In my blog post for Osama, I made mention of my concern that the 9/11 Film Series not encourage prejudice toward the Muslim community. That was also a concern for this film, but Four Lions makes a few subversive choices that undermine stereotypes. First is the depiction of Omar, played by Riz Ahmed, the leader of the would-be terrorist cell.  His home life is very Westernized; he wears western clothing and has a strong marriage and a loving relationship with his son. This comes in opposition to the expectation of a anti-Western, ultra-conservative misogynist. Second is the character of Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay, the most militant of the group, who constantly uses Islam and his identity as a jihadist to justify himself. He is by far the least sympathetic character in the film and his attempts to use Islam to assert his authority come across as shallow and asinine, to say the least. Both of these characters are in contrast to Ahmed, played by Wasim Zakir, Omar's brother and a devout Muslim. Ahmed tells Omar that his plans are not justified and he later invites his brother to come to a study group, an offer that Omar rejects. The point here is clear: neither Omar nor Barry represent Islam or other Muslims. In fact, they are not really interested in Islam at all.

This distinction between Omar and Barry on the one hand and Ahmed on the other takes a final turn in the film's conclusion. In a cross cut sequence, the group of terrorists commit to their final bombing plan while British police arrest Ahmed, which punctuates the absurdity not only of terrorism but also of law enforcement's response to it. And in the final coda, Ahmed is shown being interrogated by intelligence officers, leaving viewers with a final impression of sympathy for the one character in the film who was actually a Muslim in word and deed.

What Four Lions provides, both on its own but especially in the context of this film series, is an opportunity for an exasperated release both by the audience and by the filmmaker. The picture uses comedy to give us a way to cope with a subject that is fundamentally tragic. If the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize—that is, to cause fear—then laughing at them might be the most devastating retaliation of all.

Recommended Viewing:
Also - Check out this video of Four Lions director Chris Morris introducing the film and this particularly astute review of Four Lions by film critic Mark Kermode.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11 Film Series: The Messenger

The 9/11 Film Series continued this evening with The Messenger, which tells the story of soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, 9/11 is generally thought of as a unique and unprecedented event that disrupted and fundamentally changed the world. We can take that assumption as at least partially true, in that the events of 9/11 reshaped the way Americans view themselves and the world, and that turned into an imperative to rid the world of so-called "evil doers." From there America marched into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and along the way disrupted our own identity as absolute good fighting absolute evil. In the wake of the the destruction wrought upon us, as dramatized in United 93, and later having to face the results of the destruction we wrought in response, as documented in Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, the culture and the individuals in it are placed in a vulnerable and uncertain place in which we have to redefine who we are and what we are doing.

And it is at this point in the 9/11 Film Series that we view This Messenger. This film continues the search for meaning in the post-9/11 (and post-Abu Ghraib) era and it dramatizes that search in the lives of the soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team and a widow of a recent casualty in the war. In The Messenger, that search is defined by the characters' interactions with each other and their gradual shift from isolation to companionship.

The Messenger uses a very realistic approach to its film making. Director Oren Moverman uses a lot of hand held cinematography, natural lighting, long cuts, and minimal music score. Yet, this is clearly a carefully assembled film. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster's characters are staged in separate shots or in opposing parts of the frame but gradually move together throughout the course of the film as their bond strengthens. The film uses a similar approach in the relationship between Foster and Samantha Morton's characters, as Foster starts out looking at her from a distance and gradually integrates himself into her life. That shift in frame is central to the film's underlying theme.

Although there are a number of terrific performances in The Messenger, it is in Ben Foster's role that the film dramatizes its central issue: what is a soldier to do when the fighting is over? Foster plays his role wonderfully; in the first act of the story his character is downright frightening. He is on a slow boil and the character's rage is palpable Foster's performance.

But over the course of The Messenger, Foster's character is changed and softened by the connections he establishes with Harrelson and Morton's characters and the pain he witnesses in his casualty notifications. Receiving compassion and engaging in it create the opportunity for all three of the lead characters to confront their losses and eventually come to some new level of consciousness. This development is illustrated in a subtle but cleverly placed image near the film's finale. Harrelson and Foster sit on a couch as Foster recounts his war experience while a television set across from them displays a tornado wiping out a group of homes. There are a number of ways to interpret that metaphor, but I'll suggest that this natural catastrophe mirrors what has happened to Foster's soul. His confession of survivor's guilt is in part due to living through a large destructive event whose causes and effects are larger than any one human being's ability to grasp. 

Without belaboring the point or sulking in melodrama, The Messenger explores the experience of soldiers returning from the war and more broadly asks what it means to live in the post-9/11 period. In the context of this film series, coming after after Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, this film takes on added dimensions. But what The Messenger ultimately suggests is the possibility of hope through compassion and through love in all of its forms: romantic, platonic, familial, and brotherly.

Recommended Viewing:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Taxi to the Dark Side

Tonight's installment of the 9/11 Film Series was Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States.

I selected and organized the films in this series based on three questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did that response do to us? This series began with the terror of the 9/11 attack as recreated in United 93 and the series continued with Osama, which dramatized the oppression of Afghanistan’s population by the Taliban. The documentary Restrepo focused on American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Within the design of this series, that film begins to answer the second question—What did we do?—as the film documents soldiers engaging in firefights with the Taliban and their allies but also interacting with the local Afghan elders. Taxi to the Dark Side addresses that issue as well but it also starts to broach the final question: What did our response do to us?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee." This could very well be the thesis of the film.

There is a key image presented early on in Taxi to the Dark Side that sets up everything that that is to follow. The voice over explains that Abu Ghraib prison was notorious under Saddam Hussein's regime as a place for torture and the disposal of political enemies. This information is presented simultaneously with the image of a mural inside the prison depicting Saddam. The former Iraqi leader's face has been scratched off the wall and all that remains is his general visage. The mural looks very much like the stand-ups of famous characters often seen at theme parks and tourist traps, in which the head has been cut out and visitors stick their own faces inside for a photo. Later, as Taxi to the Dark Side features pictures of abused prisoners and American soldiers posing with them as though in a petting zoo or a frat party, the parallel is clear. Americans entered an atmosphere of abuse and became the new face of oppression.

Taxi the Dark Side establishes a connection between the brutality in these prisons and the action-adventure stories of 24 and similar programs. Blaming the media is an easy excuse and it is ridiculous to suggest that the adventures of Jack Bauer directly or unilaterally led to the activities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But the repetition of images, namely the ticking bomb scenario and the use of pain to extract information, reinforced the idea that torture was in some way excusable or acceptable if the ends justified the means. This figures into the broader way 9/11 has been conceived and characterized in the popular imagination.

9/11 is generally viewed a freak incident without context or precedent, an attack on an innocent America by a group of evil thugs. Most film adaptations of the attack hold up this image, at least partly. In United 93, the passengers aboard the flight are innocents who act heroically in the face of fear. Similarly, Osama characterizes the Taliban as irredeemably corrupt. While this may be true, this characterization sets up a good and evil binary. And that binary grants America and our allies the moral high ground and a monopoly on goodness.

With the trauma of 9/11 still aching in our hearts and operating under the supposition of inherent virtue, America marched blindly toward a moral precipice. As one of the guards notes in the documentary, they were encouraged to view the prisoners as less than human. And when the prisoners were believed to be evil, inhuman terrorists who were (in the minds of the guards and the American public) at least tangentially connected to 9/11, it did not matter what was done to them. In this situation, good people are capable of the greatest evil because their moral compass is turned off.

What is probably most important to take from Taxi the Dark Side, which will haunt this country for some time, is what it reveals about how our response to 9/11 affected us politically and militarily but also morally. After watching the abyss of horrors of United 93 and Osama, that abyss begins to stare back at us in Taxi the Dark Side.

Recommended Viewing:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Restrepo

Tonight's installment of the 9/11 Film Series was Restrepo, a documentary about soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

Restrepo was co-directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington. Junger is a correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine and he collected his observations in the book War, which was released simultaneously with this film. Heatherington was a cinematographer and photojournalist and he had cooperated with Junger on a forthcoming book called Infidel. Sadly, Tim Heatherington was recently killed while reporting on the recent uprising in Libya.

In documentary filmmaking, the style is often described in one of two ways: objective and subjective. Subjective documentaries are told from a clear point of view and often employ narration and other techniques to present the subject from a specific perspective. The films of Michael Moore such as Sicko and Roger and Me are popular examples of subjective documentaries. These are pictures with a clear thesis that is usually stated early on in the picture.

Objective documentaries are generally told with a more ambiguous perspective. They often employ a cinema verite style, presenting the subject with a minimal amount of editorial intrusion. Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris, and Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis, are examples. Like subjective documentaries, these films do seek to present a truth about their subject but the truth of an objective documentary film tends to unfold over the course of the film’s running time; the truth or message of an objective documentary is found in the sum of its parts rather than in a specific thesis elucidated in the opening.

Restrepo is told in an objective documentary style. And like many films that use this approach, Restrepo can be confusing or overwhelming. Much of today's cinema--both dramatic and documentary--mico-manage the viewer's experience with voice overs that tells us exactly how to think and music cues and editing choices that tell us how to feel. The absence of that kind of direction can be challenging to an audience that is accustomed to it. This is a film that requires a viewer to engage with the piece, to think about the content and how images and sounds are juxtaposed together.

Restrepo is bookended by testimonies of the soldiers in charge at the post. In the pre-title sequence, Captain Dan Kearney admits that he did not do any research on the Korengal Valley before arriving there but that he was determined to go into the area and, in his words, "fix it." In the film's final sequence, as the soldier's vacate the valley, First Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell says "We've done our job. We did what we were supposed to be doing. And we're out of here." It is in the juxtaposition of those statements with what happens in between them that Restrepo is most revealing.

War is often described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. That cliche fits the portrayal of war in Restrepo; although the film is not boring it does have a cyclical construction. The middle of the film is a repetition of patrols and occasional firefights, the establishment and reinforcement of the operating post, and the meetings with the Afghan elders. What is most apparent by the end is that, despite the effort, the sacrifice, and the casualties, nothing has been accomplished. That point is punctuated by the text displayed before the end credits, informing the viewer that the Korengal Valley was later abandoned by the United States military.

Restrepo was released in 2010, which is curious because that year had one of the highest casualty rates for US forces in Afghanistan since we entered the country after the 9/11 attack but the year 2010 also featured the least amount of coverage of the war from the mainstream press. And, among the film's other attributes, that is part of what makes Restrepo extraordinary and exceptional. Despite all of the time and resources dedicated to Afghanistan and in spite of the extent to which daily life around the world is documented and disseminated, this film is one of the only significant pieces of documentary cinema to come out of the conflict.

Recommended Viewing:

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Osama

The 9/11 Film Series continued tonight with Osama.

Osama was released in 2003 and it was the first Afghani film to be released after the fall of the Taliban. The actors were not professional performers and a lot of them lived in the city of Kabul, where Osama was filmed. And since it was shot in 2002 the film literally captured life in Afghanistan just after the Taliban had vacated the premises. This gives the film a great deal of authenticity and authority.

This film series was based on three questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did our response do to us? United 93 began this series by providing a vision of the events of September 11th, 2001 and allowing us the opportunity to re-experience the fear and confusion of that day. I selected Osama as the follow up to that film because I see it as an important companion piece.

In the past few days I’ve heard a lot of people saying things like “We will never forget” about the events of September 11th, 2001. While remembering is important, what we remember and how we remember are also important. In the book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, David Simpson writes that the September 11th attack “has been widely presented as an interruption of the deep rhythms of cultural time, a cataclysm simply erasing what was there rather than evolving from anything already in place, and threatening a yet more monstrous future. It appeared as an unforeseen eruption across the path of a history commonly deemed rooted in a complacent steady-state progressivism.” To put that more simply, what Simpson means is that in most people’s minds, 9/11 does not have a precedent or a context. It is viewed as a freak event.

When we think of 9/11 we also tend to imagine it as an American event. That’s understandable since it did after all take place on American soil and most of the victims were American citizens. And as a result of that perception, 9/11 is understood not only as an attack on New York and DC but as an attack on all of us. And in the weeks and months that followed 9/11 there was a terrific sense of unity among the American people. However, that unity was limited. There was also a steep rise in hate crimes and harassment of the Muslim community or of people who fit some kind of general, broad profile.

When a group of people are attacked, they tend to circle the wagons and everyone inside the circle is considered an ally, no matter what divisions and rivalries existed previously, and those outside the circle are viewed with suspicion if not outright antagonism. That has serious consequences because the wartime mentality makes empathy for those outside of our circle increasingly difficult. After 9/11, this dualistic mind set took hold among the general American public who were traumatized by the attack but it also threatens to characterize the Muslim community if they feel persecuted and ostracized. And in that case dialogue goes down and tension goes up. This is where a film like Osama becomes so important.

I heard a wonderful quote from (of all sources) last summer’s action movie Captain America in which Stanley Tucci’s character says, “People forget the first country the Nazi’s invaded was their own.” I think that’s a great phrase because it makes a distinction between Nazism, which is a specific ideology and political movement, and the German people.

Similarly, we could say that the first people attacked by groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban were other Muslims. And if we think of 9/11 not just as an American event or as a historical aberration but as an outgrowth of ongoing and shared history between cultures, we find that the victims and survivors of Osama aren’t that different from the victims and survivors of United 93. And in that case maybe the first victims of 9/11 were not in New York but in Kabul.

Recommended Viewing

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Film Series: United 93

Tonight began the 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus with a screening of United 93.

United 93 is not the only film dramatization about the attack. In fact, there have been at least nine films dramatizing the events of September 11th and of those, four have focused on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Yet, United 93 is distinct among them. Although it is a dramatization, the film has a great deal of detail that makes it a mergence of dramatic and documentary filmmaking.

First, the cast includes a number of real-life participants playing themselves. Ben Sliney, the FAA's National Operations Manager, plays himself as do other FAA officials. Several civilian air traffic controllers in the Newark control tower also play themselves and the pilots and stewardesses aboard Flight 93 are played by real life airline pilots and flight attendants. In the scenes at the Northeast Air Defense Command Center, most of the military personnel are played by real-life military air traffic controllers, including Major James Fox who was in the command center on September 11th.

Second, because a few years passed between the event and the making of United 93, the filmmakers were able to reference the 9/11 Commission Report as well as other reporting on the event to recreate the details as fully as possible. This film also incorporates news footage from that day.

Lastly, the film was made in cooperation with the surviving family members of those aboard Flight 93 who were able to provide personal details about the passengers. In fact, proceeds from United 93's theatrical run were donated to funding a memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

United 93 was released in 2006 after some controversy. A few theaters pulled the trailer after complaints and production of the film was criticized for fear that it would exploit the tragedy. There is an important point to be taken from that criticism; filmmakers don’t want to be perceived as ambulance chasers.

However, two questions should be asked of the “it’s too soon” criticism:
  1. What are we waiting for?
  2. When will it be time to make films about this?
It would seem that we are waiting for a point of perspective from which we can say something interesting and relevant about the attack. The passage of time cools the passions both for the filmmaker and for the audience and allows the emotional and intellectual space for a more reasoned perception on the events, so waiting to make a film is reasonable.

But the real issue is not so much time as it is substance. Filmmakers must have a vision of what they wish to accomplish and the film ought to be evaluated on the quality and substance of that vision and how well it is achieved on screen.

This raises two additional points. First is how United 93 functions for the viewer. Although it may seem like a strange comparison, United 93 plays very much like a horror film. Just like a ghost story or a slasher film, United 93 puts the audience through a controlled trauma. By watching this film we are able to re-experience the fear of that moment and study both the attack and our reactions to it. And by (re)experiencing the awfulness from the safety of a theater seat, we are given an opportunity to come to grips with what happened and start to deal with it.

This leads to my second point, which is that it is important for filmmakers and other artists to engage with 9/11. There is an analogy to be made between what happened to the culture on September 11, 2001 and what happens to an individual after a traumatic event. If the anxieties and fears resulting from the trauma are not dealt with, they are likely to manifest themselves in other ways, possibly in negative or self-destructive forms. If these unresolved feelings are left unchecked it is quite possible that they form new prejudices or amplify existing ones, as evidenced by the intolerance faced by the Muslim community, or lead to a derailment of our critical faculties, as evidenced by the mainstream media’s compliance with the invasion of Iraq. When films, of whatever genre or style, deal honestly for these themes and issues, they offer the possibility—not the promise but the possibility—of moving the viewers toward an understanding of what 9/11 means.

There are two dominant themes in United 93 that suggest the film's take on 9/11. The first is the subversion of a complex system (the aviation system) by the actions of the terrorists, the establishment's inability to cope with that subversion, and the initiative of a few individuals who take matters into their own hands in order to solve the problem. In that, United 93 is a very American story and the picture reaffirms the values of independence, sacrifice, and individuality that are deeply rooted in American history.

The other dominant theme of United 93 is the contrast of the ancient with the modern. Prayers are uttered throughout the film both by the terrorists and by the passengers while technology transmits final messages to loved ones. Airliners, which represent the conquest of man's technology over the vastness of geography, are used as a weapon of mass death. The terrorists use crude edged weapons to take over a complex piece of transportation and the passengers similarly use brute force in their revolt. One of the final images of United 93 is a frantic struggle by various pairs of hands for control of the wheel of the airplane. That juxtaposition of imagery suggests that 9/11 represented a clash of the ancient and the modern and the age that the attack ushered in would be defined by conflicts over whether ancient or modern hands would steer humanity into the future.

United 93 is being presented as a part of a series. But this picture is an important first step in that it reminds us of the fear and chaos of that day and provides a metaphor for the larger conflict that would define the decade to come.

Recommended Viewing:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Sept. 11 - 16th

This fall is the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attack. With that in mind, a 9-11 Film Series will be screened on the Winona State University campus from September 11th - 16th.

All screenings are FREE and open the public. Films will be shown at 7pm in the Science Lab Center Auditorium (room 120, located between Pasteur and Stark Halls) on the Winona State campus.

The films included in the series were selected and assembled based on three questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did that response do to us? The goal of these screenings is not to provide simplistic answers to these questions, but to use cinema as a platform from which to discuss how we conceive and understand the attack, our resulting attitudes and actions, and ultimately pry at the broader question: what does 9/11 mean? These are challenging questions with possibly even more challenging answers.

Sunday, September 11th: United 93
Directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), this intense dramatization of the 9/11 attack focuses on the events aboard United Airlines flight 93. The film was named among the best pictures of 2006 by several critics and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. MPAA rating: R. 111 minutes.

Monday, September 12th: Osama
An Afghani film about a girl and her family living under the Taliban. This was the first Afghani film to be made after the Taliban were removed from power and it won the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2004 Golden Globes. MPAA rating: PG-13. 83 minutes.

Tuesday, September 13th: Restrepo
A documentary film about American soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. MPAA rating: R. 93 minutes.

Wednesday, September 14th: Taxi to the Dark Side
Called "one of the essential documentaries of the ongoing war" by The New Yorker, this film examines the enhanced interrogation techniques used by the United States in the War on Terror. The film won an Oscar and an Emmy for Best Documentary. MPAA rating: R. 106 minutes.

Thursday, September 15th: The Messenge
A wounded soldier (Ben Foster) is assigned to a Casualty Notification Team and partnered with an experienced soldier (Woody Harrelson) who instructs him on the procedures of his job. Coming Home for the September 11th generation. Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. MPAA rating: R. 113 minutes.

Friday, September 16th: Four Lions
Compared by critics to Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove, this dark comedy follows a group of bumbling terrorists who attempt to fulfill their dreams of martyrdom but constantly foil themselves due to their own stupidity. Fans of Life of Brian, The Daily Show, and Good Morning, Vietnam shouldn't miss it. MPAA rating: R. 97 minutes.

A webpage including links and trailers for the films can be found here.
There is also a Facebook event page here.

The 9-11 Film Series is sponsored by Sounds of Cinema, Winona State University's English Department, Communication Studies Department, Department of Housing and Residence Life, Department of Theater and Dance, Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Office of Student Life and Development, Philosophy Department, University Programming Activities Committee, Vittorio Colaizzi, Anne Plummer, and Jim Williams.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Go Ape on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, August 14th, Sounds of Cinema will dedicate an entire episode to The Planet of the Apes series. I will take a look at all of the films in the series, from the 1968 original to 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The episode will also feature an interview with Eric Greene, the author of Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Melissa Harris-Perry on 'The Help'

In this clip from The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, Melissa Harris-Perry discusses her objections to the new film, The Help. Her criticism highlights the perils of adapting history to the movie screen and the ongoing problems of representations of African American women in Hollywood films.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Final Thought on the Harry Potter Series

On today’s show I reviewed all the Harry Potter films, from The Sorcerer's Stone to The Deathly Hallows. Although individual films have their flaws, this series is impressive enough and (perhaps more importantly) beloved by so many, that it has earned a place next to Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek among the most enduring film series' of all time. It is safe to say that years from now these films and the books that inspired them will be shared by parents with their children, who are likely to be just as enthusiastic about this series as those who first read them, and that multi-generational appeal speaks to the effectiveness of the stories and the characters of Harry Potter.

Even though we live in a time when the American film market is flooded with science fiction and fantasy films, the Harry Potter films are unique because of their commitment to story. Re-screening and reviewing all the films in anticipation of the final installment was a surprisingly emotional experience in the same way that watching a student graduate from high school or college tugs at the heart strings. Yes, these stories feature characters who fly on broomsticks and use wands to cast magical spells, but those who dismiss the stories on those grounds are being facile. The story of Harry Potter and his friends is really a story about growing up, losing innocence, and facing fears and the films dealt with that (especially in The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix) much better than a lot of supposedly serious, Oscar baiting issue pictures.

Ultimately, the most important lesson to take from the series is this: the Harry Potter films were big Hollywood blockbusters that made lots of money. And yet, these were movies about stories, characters, and ideas. The Harry Potter films had something to say and mostly said it intelligently and with great artistry. In the end, this series is one of the best examples of why fantasy is a legitimate film making and storytelling form and it proves that big budget mainstream films can do more than just sell toys.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Harry Potter on Sounds of Cinema

On July 24th, tune in for a special Harry Potter edition of Sounds of Cinema. During the course of the show I will take a look at the entire Harry Potter film series and include excerpts for the scores.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Controversial Films 2011

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was the annual Independence Day program in which I celebrate free speech by taking a look at banned, censored, and controversial films. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial films, just a selection of noteworthy pictures that have rattled the cage. For more, see the links at the bottom and last year's blog post on controversial cinema.

Dir. John Schlesinger

Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969, when the MPAA ratings system had just been imposed, and the film was given an X-rating, meaning that no one under the age of 17 could see it. Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture although years later that rating was reduced to an R. The reasons for that reduction appear to be business related. When the adult entertainment industry adopted the XXX rating for their own films, the hardcore rating and the MPAA’s X-rating became indistinguishable in the mind of the public. Many theaters, especially national chains, cannot or will not show X-rated films and many newspapers and television stations will not carry advertising for them. The fact that Midnight Cowboy’s rating was changed from an X to an R without any changes to the film’s content was a sign of the arbitrary nature of the ratings process, a charge that has bedeviled the MPAA’s ratings board ever since.

Dir. Tinto Brass

Caligula is one of those films in which the story of its production is as twisted as the film itself. An unfamiliar viewer might assume that Caligula is fashioned as a classic Hollywood historical epic like Ben-Hur or Spartacus and in a way that isn’t far off. Its sets and design do show a comparable level of scope and production value, the screenplay was written by esteemed author Gore Vidal, and the picture stars an impressive cast including Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren. But behind the camera was producer Bob Guccione, who was also the owner and publisher of Penthouse magazine. Guccione funded the film on the condition that it include footage of hardcore pornography. Some of the actors insist that they had no idea that the hardcore scenes were going to be included and Vidal sued to have his name taken off the picture.

Caligula was savaged by critics on its release, with Variety magazine calling it a “moral holocaust.” That over the top assessment isn’t far off. The film is a messy amalgamation of Cleopatra and Behind the Green Door. Much of the hardcore footage was obviously shot separately and does not match when it is intercut with the other footage. The R-rated cut isn’t much better as a lot of the cinematography and blocking are clumsy and many scenes don’t cut together in any kind of intelligible way. However, there is a legacy to Caligula that is important. Caligula was an attempt to merge pornography with mainstream cinema, which in more recent years has become increasingly common with films like Pirates, The Brown Bunny, and Antichrist. And the film’s ambitions of a very violent and sexually charged historical epic later came to successful fruition on HBO’s dramatic series Rome.

Dir. Lars von Trier

Director Lars von Trier has cultivated a public image as one of the premier provocateur filmmakers which is actually kind of extraordinary considering the extent to which shock and controversy are used to sell cinema and other media. But the difference between von Trier and many other intentionally incendiary filmmakers is that von Trier’s filmmaking skill is extraordinary and his films aspire to big ideas. Antichrist deals with grief, guilt, and misogyny in the story of a couple mourning the death of their son. When the couple retreats to a cabin, their grief manifests itself sexually and violently, as the couple turns on each other.

Filled with extremely graphic and esoteric imagery, Antichrist caused an uproar when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Several people fainted during the screening due to the film’s violence and the Cannes Ecumenical Jury, which hands out prizes to films that celebrate humanist and spiritual values, gave Antichrist an anti-award on the accusation that the film was misogynist. But the film ended up getting nominated for the Palme d'Or award and Charlotte Gainsbourg won the Cannes best actress award. When it was released, Antichrist polarized critics. Christopher Kelly of the Dallas Morning News called the film “an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.” But at Empire Online, Kim Newman wrote, “Antichrist delivers enough beauty, terror and wonder to qualify as the strangest and most original horror movie of the year.”

Dir. Michael Moore

Michael Moore made a splash with his first documentary film Roger and Me but he became a household name after the release of Bowling for Columbine. The documentary is often referred to as an anti-gun picture, but that isn’t really accurate. Instead, Moore uses the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the media frenzy around it as a prism through which to examine America’s disproportionally high murder rate and make broad connections between the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado and American foreign policy.

Bowling for Columbine was hailed by critics but it was attacked, especially by conservatives, with accusations that Moore distorted his facts through selective editing and ambush interviews. However, the most controversial bit of Bowling for Columbine is not in the film. When Moore won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, he gave a scathing speech in which he called out President George W. Bush and protested the invasion of Iraq. It was the most provocative Oscar speech since Marlon Brando refused his award for The Godfather and it effectively set in motion the publicity for Moore’s next film, Fahrenheit 9/11.

BRAZIL (1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam

Brazil is a dystopian fantasy picture about a future in which bureaucracy has run amok. There is nothing actually offensive in the picture but controversy erupted between director Terry Gilliam and then head of Universal Pictures Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam completed the film, running 132 minutes, but Sheinberg deemed it too long and too confusing for audiences and blocked the picture from being released. When Gilliam refused to make changes, Universal attempted to take the film away from the director and created its own ninety-four minute cut, known as the “Love Conquers All” version. In an attempt to keep control of his film, Gilliam made the dispute public by taking out a full page ad in Variety magazine asking Sheinberg to release the film. This did little to improve his relationship with Sheinberg but it did make critics and the public curious about Brazil and cast the narrative in the press of an independent artist struggling against an oppressive studio system. The final stroke came when Gilliam began setting up clandestine screenings of the film on college campuses, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Brazil was eventually screened for the Los Angeles film critics, who awarded it the Best Picture of the Year award, at which point Sheinberg gave up on trying to recut it and released Gilliam’s version. Later critical judgments of Brazil were mixed. The LA film critics were accused of siding with Gilliam on his dispute with the studio and ignoring the actual shortcomings of the film. In retrospect, Brazil is an interesting but flawed take on government, bureaucracy, and identity but the controversy around it is fittingly consistent with its themes.

Dir. Wes Craven

Last House on the Left was the first directorial feature for Wes Craven, who went on to direct genre classics like The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. A loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Last House on the Left tells the story of two teenage girls who are tortured and killed by a group of criminals. The killers inadvertently take shelter at the home of one of the victims and when the parents discover what has happened they take bloody revenge.

Last House on the Left is a very nasty and difficult film. Even now, the torture and murder of the young women is still very difficult to watch but in 1972 very few films had ever portrayed violence this way and Last House caused a huge sensation. Allegedly, irate viewers at one screening attempted to break into the projection booth to destroy the film. At the time of the film’s release it was primarily shown in independent theatres and cinema owners made their own edits to the print, excising some of the grislier bits. When the film was being a restored, a complete print could not be found and various copies of Last House on the Left had to be spliced together in order to produce a complete version.

Dir. Johnathan Demme

Although The Silence of the Lambs was a critical and commercial success, the film angered the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. It was argued that the film’s serial killer, Buffalo Bill, was a continuation of the violent and predatory stereotypes of the GLBT community that Hollywood had relied upon over the years. Actor Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill, has disputed that. In the documentary “Inside the Labyrinth” on The Silence of the Lambs DVD, Levine argues that the character was a homophobic heterosexual whose identity was malformed due to childhood abuse. This reasoning is echoed in the film by several of the characters who point out that there is no link between transsexualism and violence. However, GLBT organizations held protests at theaters showing Silence of the Lambs and at the Oscar ceremony where the film won Best Picture. Perhaps as a result of this reaction to the film, director Jonathan Demme’s next project was the AIDS drama Philadelphia.

Dir. Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson

Song of the South was Disney’s adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories. Taking place in Georgia during the Reconstruction-era, Uncle Remus (James Baskett) tells folk tales to young Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) to impart important life lessons to the boy.

Originally released in 1946, Song of the South was considered offensive for its white-washing of the Jim Crow era and for its reliance upon racial stereotypes. With each rerelease, the film’s treatment of race became increasingly anachronistic and after a brief theatrical release in 1986 Disney announced that it had retired the picture and had no plans to rerelease it in theaters or home video. Disney’s decision to withhold Song of the South makes sense from a marketing standpoint and from a cultural sensitivity perspective as well.

However, Song of the South is a technically and historically significant piece of filmmaking. It mixes live action with hand-drawn animation almost two decades before Mary Poppins and the film won a pair of Oscars including Best Original Song for “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah,” which is now the theme song to the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. Indicative of the problems of this film was the honorary acting Oscar given to James Baskett. At this time segregation was still very much a part of everyday life in America, and the Academy Awards were no exception, hence the “honorary,” separate-but-equal acting award given to Baskett. (The “official” Best Actor Oscar was given to Ronald Colman for A Double Life.)

Despite the controversy, Song of the South is an important film both for American cinema and for our nation’s racial history. Disney’s public relations aside, the censorship of Song of the South raises two key questions: First, what, if anything, is gained by removing the film from circulation? And second, why has this film been withdrawn but Gone With the Wind is considered beloved and untouchable?

Dr. Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and stared in this film about an African American man who witnesses an act of police brutality, kills the police officers involved, and then goes on the run from the law. The film opens with a dedication to "all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man" and the picture is intended to provoke a revolutionary consciousness in the viewer. This aspect was seized upon by the Black Panthers who used it as a recruiting film but Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was also criticized for reinforcing negative stereotypes and encouraging militancy. But most controversial was a prologue sequence in which a juvenile Sweetback, played by the underage son of the director, engaged in a simulated sex scene.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an important film. It was a box office triumph not only for African American cinema but for independent filmmakers of any background. The film kicked off the blaxploitation trend of the 1970s that included pictures like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Super Fly and the band Earth, Wind & Fire, who provided the soundtrack, went on to major mainstream success. However, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is difficult to watch.  It was made on the cheap by people who didn’t entirely know what they were doing, which gives it a gritty authenticity but the plot, cinematography, and editing make the film nearly incomprehensible and it has not aged very gracefully. The film was a product of a specific place and time and the meanings and significance of the film are hard to grasp now. Like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, this is a film whose primary value now is as a cinematic artifact.

Dir. Moustapha Akkad

The Message tells the story Mohammad and the rise of Islam, culminating in the Prophet and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. Telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because Islam forbids depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. In addition, the script was written and revised to meet the approval of Islamic religious leaders.

Despite the attempt to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that the film was going to depict Mohammad on screen and commit other offenses against the religion. While it was in production, filming had to be relocated several times due to threats and protests. Eventually the film was sponsored by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Libyan soldiers were used as extras in the film.

At the time of its original release, The Message was banned from some Middle-Eastern countries because religious leaders didn't like the idea of the story of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad as a motion picture. And in March 1977 three buildings and over 100 people were held hostage in Washington, D.C. by a group of Muslim gunmen, who demanded, among other things, that The Message be banned from U.S. theaters for being sacrilegious. Although the film was not banned, theaters did pull the film and future screenings were limited due to fears of further violence.

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a hypothetical story about Jesus Christ in which he is tempted with the option of not having to die on the cross. The story depicts Christ as a passionate man who has desires but has to abstain from indulging them in order to fulfill his calling. The book had been highly controversial, with Kazantzakis nearly excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church.

With backing by Paramount, Martin Scorsese began production on the film Last Temptation of Christ in 1983 with a large budget. But when word spread among Christian conservatives that Scorsese was making the film, Paramount and prominent theater chains were swamped with complaints and the film was canceled while in production. Scorsese took the project to Universal and in 1987 he completed the film on a much smaller budget. Last Temptation of Christ was made and released in spite of an unprecedented level of protest that hasn’t been seen at any film since. After its theatrical release, the film was not available at major retailers like Wal-Mart or rental chains like Blockbuster.

Dir. Terry Jones

Monty Python consistently made religion a target of their features and skits, but the film Life of Brian, which satires the Gospels through a man who is mistaken to be the Messiah, faced protests and was censored in Britain. The film was banned by several town councils and organizations, and an effort was made to re-rate it so that audiences would be limited. Life of Brian was also banned for periods of time in Ireland, Norway, and Italy. Catholic groups condemned the film and suggested it was a sin to view it.

Defending the film, Monty Python member Michael Palin has said that the film is not blasphemous, as it does not lampoon actual religious figures, but it is heretical because it does criticize the use and abuse of religious authority by various groups.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

See Fish Frye on their Freedom Tour

Fish Frye, the official band of Sounds of Cinema, will be playing several shows over the Independence Day weekend. Check them out at:

The Trempealeau Hotel
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Time: 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Ages: All Ages

Wellington's Backwater Brewery Co.
Friday, July 1, 2011
Time: 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm
Ages: 21 and Up

Milton Fourth of July Celebration
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Time: 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm
Ages: All Ages

All shows are free of cover charges. Find out more about the band here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Celebrate Free Speech with Sounds of Cinema

Tune into Sounds of Cinema this Independence Day weekend. I'll be celebrating the First Amendment and freedom of speech by examining films that have been censored, banned, or were controversial. I've been doing this theme for the past few July 4th weekends, but this year's episode is full of all new material.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mutant Pride: Racial Metaphors in 'X-Men: First Class'

There has been a quiet grumbling over the new comic book film X-Men: First Class by some commentators and critics. Specifically, the film has been criticized for taking place in 1962, in the midst of the civil rights movement, and yet there is no overt acknowledgement in the film of the racial issues of the period. According to this argument, First Class white-washes history and distorts our understanding of the past. I take issue with this criticism. Although First Class does have its flaws, these critics are largely missing the point.

Primary to the argument against First Class is that the film ignores the political realities of the early 1960s by error of omission and as a result whatever the film has to say about race cannot be taken seriously. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that  First Class “appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield. Thus, ‘First Class’ proves itself not merely an incredible film, but an incredible work of American historical fiction.” From a storytelling point of view, this argument presumes that First Class is historical fiction, and that the story is meant to take place in a literal historical context. This presumption is short sighted. Stories create their own world in which people talk and interact in ways that adhere to the style employed by the storyteller and the internal logic of the story world. Fantastical stories generally get more leeway and can create hypothetical situations to act out the ramifications of what-if scenarios; Watchmen presented an alternate 1985 in which America had won the Vietnam War and Nixon was still president and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds reimagined the ending of World War II. It is true that prejudice and tension between ethnic groups are largely absent from First Class but that is because the human-mutant tension is a metaphor for that conflict as well as a conflation of other issues of the time period.

In this criticism about First Class, I’m reminded of the original Planet of the Apes. This film remains one of the most insightful and intelligent science fiction films ever made and much has been written about the film’s dealings with issues like race, class, and gender. Although it is a product of its time (the film was released in 1968 with a steady stream of sequels produced between 1970 and 1973) it remains a relevant film in part because The Planet of the Apes’ statements on those issues were broad enough to transcend the circumstances of the period in which it was created. Science fiction and fantasy engages with the topics of the day through metaphors and this process allows viewers the option of accepting and engaging with those issues or ignoring them and simply taking the story at face value.  To argue that First Class does not deal with racial issues or similar themes just because they filmmakers do not hit that nail on the head ignores the modus operandi of fantasy. Racial themes are all over First Class but they are presented indirectly through the mutant metaphor.

Other discontent over First Class‘ dealings with race is based upon the notion that it is supposed to be about racism in the context of American history, and that the characters Professor X and Magneto are stand-ins for Martin Luther King and Malcom X, respectively. Mikhail Lyubansky observes that in the original X-Men film, Magneto proclaims that a mutant versus human war is coming and "I intend to fight it by any means necessary."  Elaborating on the parallel, Lyubansky writes, “Despite what I assume are noble intentions on the part of the creative teams, for this generation of film-goers it likely means a distorted view of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement, an unrealistic understanding of contemporary race relations, and an unintended promotion of the racial status quo.” This argument is predicated upon the belief that Magneto is indeed intended to be a literal metaphor for a specific historical figure. If that were the case, this concern might be more germane. However, while the quote from the first film is a fairly obvious allusion to Malcom X, that does not mean that Magneto is a stand in for the actual historical figure. The Malcom X – Magneto argument is not sustained by multiple examples throughout the films. Instead the metaphor is taken in other directions, leading to X-Men’s actual target, which is much broader than a specific historical figure and is ultimately more subversive.

Both the original X-Men film and First Class begin with Magneto’s backstory as a Holocaust survivor. Reference to this backstory is made throughout X2 and The Last Stand. This backstory is the key to the thematic agenda of the X-Men films. Magneto suffered at the hands of the Nazis, who justified genocide under the auspices of a racial supremacy. Throughout the first half of First Class, Magneto tracks down his persecutors and kills them (shades of Munich, perhaps?). By the end of this film, Magneto has become the very thing he was fighting against by declaring himself and his fellow mutants as superior beings not by acts of virtue but inherently superior based upon their identity. This evolution from victim to persecutor is brought out very poignantly in the climax as Magneto turns missiles back on his attackers with the proclamation, “Never again.” Adopting and adapting Holocaust imagery and slogans and using it to suggest that our grasp upon moral virtue is slippery flies in the face of the kind of dogmatic moral certitude that often characterizes Hollywood action cinema. It also suggests a broader and more complicated message about heroism and villainy that is bigger than any particular historical figure or period.

Another film I’m reminded of is Paul Haggis’ 2005 picture Crash. Although the film won the Oscar for Best Picture, it was also highly criticized for an oversimplified take on race. I don’t want to re-litigate the defense of Crash, but I will restate this: Crash was not about race, at least not centrally. Rather, the film was about the alienation and isolation of contemporary life, with race playing an important part in that. As Don Cheadle’s character states in the opening scene, “It's the sense of touch  . . . We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” The criticism of Crash as an inadequate dramatization of race relations reveals less about the film and more about those who viewed it. Amid a culture that is drowning in bubblegum music, killer robot movies, emo-vampire books , and tabloid news coverage, there is a yearning by the audience for art that actually deals with the substance of life and among those issues are race relations. The disappointment with Crash wasn’t with what it was, but with what it wasn’t.

First Class needs to be evaluated based on what it is and what it does. The film does deal with race but that is a plank from X-Men’s primary themes of fear, prejudice, and intolerance. The reason that X-Men has remained such a viable series is that these themes can be reinterpreted and applied to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and any other matter of difference. The most recent incarnation of this story shows the roots of those themes and kicks off a cyclical relationship of fear and violence that plays out in the three X-Men films that proceed from it. This is the message of the X-Men series and First Class provides a metaphor for understanding the anxieties of oppressed populations and individuals and how the internal divisions within those groups are sown. It is an important theme, and while it is debatable how well or how accurately First Class depicts that theme, it is mistake to say that the film ignores it altogether.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fish Frye playing at Mid West Music Fest 4/16/11

Attention Winona-area listeners: Mid West Music Fest takes place April 15 and 16th in Winona. Fish Frye, the official band of Sounds of Cinema, will be playing on Saturday at 8pm at The Bookshelf/Blue Heron.

You can find out more about Mid West Music Fest here and you can find out more about Fish Frye here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Supplements to the 'Lake of Fire' Screening

I have made two supplements to the Lake of Fire screening available online.

The first is an audio file of guest commentaries from various individuals including Winona State University faculty and pro-abortion and anti-abortion activists. You can find a downloadable mp3 file here.

Second, I have published an essay on Lake of Fire at Winona360, explaining why I showed Lake of Fire, why I think it is an important film, and what can be learned from it. Here is an excerpt:
Before screening Lake of Fire at Winona State I introduced the film to the audience and read a short excerpt from The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer. He writes, “The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image.” This quote could well play as an epigraph to Lake of Fire as it encapsulates the underlying theme of the film. It also answers one of the main criticisms of the film: that it focuses on the extremists, particularly on the anti-abortion side of the debate.

It may be true that most people who hold opinions about abortion one way or the other (which accounts for the majority of Americans) are not violent nor do they approve of violence toward those who hold opposing viewpoints. But the loudest voices have been those who have declared the abortion debate a holy war and their battle cries drown out the rational or moderate voices. In that respect, the extremists are setting the tone. Because the moderate voices cannot get a word in, they are like a television program that no one watches or a blog that no one reads. This source may have the best material or the most accurate information but if no one receives it, then it may as well not exist at all. Perception is reality and the extremists, by dominating the discussion, are in the process of reshaping reality, for themselves and for the rest of us, to fit this holy war perspective.
Also, related to the subject of Lake of Fire, check out Rachel Maddow's interview with Stephen Singular, author of The Wichita Divide, a new book about the murder of abortion provider George Tiller:

Part 1:

Part 2