Sunday, February 5, 2012

Making music from the miserable...

Chris Lohr, artistic name; DJplaceboing, has made some fascinating vids on YouTube. He's put together some wild tunes to go with his own video disk jockey edits.

He's gone to some lengths to autotune what were essentially monotonous gibberish and create from them some really addictive rhythms.

If he worked for the ultimate prince of darkness at the Cowell empire, 'You've Got (no) Talent' or 'X-Factor' would probably float on the stock market with Lohr's autotuning talents. The things he could do with the folks who pass for singers on those shows eh?

What is quite interesting is not just the catchy melodies, but the way he's made music out of real misery and confusion. Without a doubt, the source material is from the TV gutter.

Most of his DJ vids that are musically successful draw on news or publicly uploaded footage often about the disenfranchised and those living in economically deprived areas. Not only that, but the footage Lohr pulls together is drawn mostly from what passes as popular today. It is literally; music out of misery.

I've linked to some of his projects that include the press releases provided by BP crook Tony Haywood as the notorious oil spill spreads out of control, another includes Christopher Lloyd, and another; an unlucky fellow getting hit by an ice cream truck.

Is what he has done exploitative? Maybe. Although, the diverse footage and the themes across his videos reveal an observational agenda rather than one that is exploitative. He is creating something quite interesting out of material that is exploitative intrinsically due to its existence in media perhaps.

Its worth checking out DJplaceboing's work. You'll get pulled in by the funk as you peruse a slice of humanity YouTube loves to exploit.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cherries - 2007 - Zhang Jiabei

Zhang Jiabei’s film is, as Xiomei Chen writes, ‘at odds with the self-understanding of the indigenous non-Western cultures they purport to represent' (1995: 3)

Coming from a background in psychology, I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which disabilities / learning needs are visually negotiated and represented around the world. Cherries, directed by Zhang Jiabei, returns to the thematic combination of realism with melodrama leaked via China's productions after the Second World War. We are not talking about socialist cinema, more seemingly, a classical Chinese cinema with an edge of global neo-realist traditions; I found the film unwittingly Brechtian rather than softly realist (perhaps due to its tiny budget), but thats a matter of taste perhaps. Having traveled near Aicun (in Yunnan), where the film is set, I initially lamented that cinematographer Osame Maruike chose not to use more colourful film stock. Although the rich vegetation of this region is canceled out, what eventually becomes interesting about this film is in fact its relentless dark hues and reliance on natural lighting. In Chinese realist tradition, the focus on poverty with characters that express devout moral decency, is pummeled into your head. Its clear that Jiabei has seen way to much American cinema as far as his character exposition goes. I mean how many times do we need to be told that Cherry likes Cherries!!? The subtlety was out the window.

Failing in sentimentality but succeeding in obvious manipulative narrative, the reformative movements encountered in China during the 1980’s, as it was coerced into capitalism, are ruthlessly neglected. Yes, the single child policy is touched upon, but the jumpy narrative precludes Ge Wang’s laborious burden, highlighting instead Cherry’s overbearing love upon daughter Scarlett. As its been edited on this release (with an overt bleakness and emphasis on assimilated poverty), I felt it becomes open to western political criticism, and this is concerning considering today's climate of anti-Chinese rhetoric. What also bothered me was the syntaxical use of May Fourth visual stylisation, quasi-realist cinematic techniques. The hand held roaming camera and emphasis on shadows serves to provide an immediate visual experience, but could it break the suspension of disbelief due to over use? On the other hand, the film is worth seeing just for Miao Pu’s performance, which is without a single doubt mesmerizing, amusing (her commitment to procreating) and utterly convincing. Jiabei has put forward a mythological China which cheaply attempts, and fails, to clone Yimou's reverse orientalism. Instead perhaps what we find is an occidental view of China's 1980's.

Mind Game - 2004 - Masaaki Yuasa

Imaginative, frenetic and hallucinogenic, Mind Game further develops the surreal and expressionist agenda. Interestingly, with a style reminiscent of pioneers Rintaro and Katsuhiro, director Masaaki Yuasa claims his animation is inspired by Miyazaki's earlier productions, essentially his contribution to the Lupin franchise (Castle of Cagliostro). Yet, Mind Game could not be more different from Studio Ghibli productions. Whereas Miyazaki presents lush colours, folkloric landscapes, carnival and kawaii, Mind Game presents stark colour, visual cacophony, urban cool; and most of; unrestrained human energy.

In the short prologue we learn that Nishi is a nervous participant of society, preferring to live in the shadows. Neatly, we see him losing his childhood sweetheart Myon through some jumpy narrative. After a brilliantly drawn sequence, Nishi (killed point blank by a yakuza - being shot anally), out runs the grim reaper / god and resurrects himself. A second chance at life, he goes "at it" for the max. What follows is over an hour of non-stop movement and psychedelia.

The main crux of the narrative is reminiscent of the biblical story Jonah and the Great Fish or even Pinocchio. Nisha, potential girlfriend Myon and Co end up inside a giant whale. This is where Masaaki Yuasa blew me away, providing so many contextual sequences within this Unreal space. Ingeniously, the claustrophobic yet infinite caverns of the whale provide opportunities to explore the human condition within a liminal spacr. Turner once wrote that the liminal is ‘ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and between all fixed points of classification' (1975). Mind Game captures this perfectly. Supported by several musical sequences, from dance to classical, the film pushes the viewer into experiences beyond the Real and beyond that.

On a technical level, Mind Game presents nothing less than the finest aesthetics. This is not 'traditional' Japanese animation by any means; Yuasa plays with angles, lenses and animation styles. There is CGI, motion capture, 3D-modeling, still photography, line art and, in one of my favorite sequences, oil paint.

I've always been a fan of Yuasa's work. His brilliant drawings on my childhood favorite Shin Chan, the designs on his more recent and no less ingenious Cat Soup. He is mostly known of in the west probably for Samurai Champloo, which went on to inspire the poor American rip off, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Mind Game deserves the Noburo Ofuji award (amongst others) and I can't recommend it enough. The journey that one takes as a viewer is wonderful, stressful and dreamy. Enjoy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Vagina Dentata - (Sexual Parasite) Killer Pussy - Nakano Takao - 2004

A decade ago, after reading Verrier Elwin’s seminal study on the historical development of vagina dentata, I’ve henceforth been fascinated, not only by vaginas, but by Native Indian mythology. Especially, that mythical castrating symbol; the vagina with deadly fangs that gregariously snaps up phallic symbols. Who said the Mayan's never had a sense of humour?

Anxieties of castration, narrative and psychic, are hilariously vexed in KISEICHÛ: KIRÂ PUSSHÎ, a fascinating sex romp from Japan which sits and chews on Freud's face with sardonic glee. The film also visually mocks the bigotry inherent in Lacanian theory, whose phallocentrisms perpetuate the position of woman as the non-human, all engulfing beast. However, unlike the inferior American remake Teeth, what Killer Pussy also does is not only nod to Freudian castration anxiety and Lacanian phallocentrism, but subverts them through the disavowal of male pleasure, a denial of female lack and a provocative eroticism which posits the vagina as overarching power.

Following a hilarious prologue which seemingly tributes Peter Jackson’s intro for Braindead, the story follows a group of perverted youths who spend a night in a disused warehouse (with working Jacuzzi). Director Nagata interjects various references to other films, such as Carpenter's The Thing and Cronenberg’s Rabid / Shivers. The literalization of vagina dentata, presented in such a laconic manner, is what puts Freud in such bad light; along the way ridiculing Freud’s mirror stage; visualising this stage literally via pornographic singularity. Excluding the silly visual effects, it is this disavowal of the oedipal complex through the visualisation of Freud’s unconscious theories which makes this film so interesting.

Of course, this film has plenty of soft-core porn, the likes of which would make Dario Argento’s ears prick up. However, it’s the over-arching narrative of this piece that strikes me; (almost) total female centrality. In one of the first deaths, the male victim’s face is masticated when the infected girl sits on him, accompanied by a ‘crunching’ noise which sounds remarkably like the aural effect used when PAC-MAN munches the apples in the original Atari arcade. Through the gynaecological cinematography Nagata pushes the presented Freudian neurosis; vividly fetishizing the female body (note the use of gonzo style cinematography for the close ups of nipples and ass), leading the viewer to believe the unequivocal displacement of castration anxiety is momentarily successful, only to be followed by the seeping of menstrual blood pouring out of the infected girl. Pajaczkowska writes that the ‘fetish has been shifted from compensating for woman’s lack of a penis to the finding of the woman’s phallus in her sexual pleasure’. Both are denied here. Around the silly sex scenes, in which only the female achieves climax (the male loses his penis), the woman's pleasure is placed in the castration of the male characters. However, not by the traditional needs of the vagina dentata (which are to procure its lack). This is what is interesting about this little product; it subverts Lacan’s contemplative notion of woman as secondary to man via a multiplication of signs which abandon phallic need (including through language).
This is procured due to the transgressive nature of the vagina dentata (it is sort of an inverted penis or a phallus). The camera is often positioned deep within the vagina looking out, positing the vagina as clearly not lacking; rather the universality of sexual discourse in Killer Pussy is posited around the woman. Whereas Freud and Lacan’s hysteria see the vagina as merely engulfing receptacle, Killer Pussy ensures the viewer see’s the vagina as transgressive; an outer-jecting organ. The hand puppet that is supposed to look like an organ of abjection; a rabid, crooked toothed mouth that lurches out of the female to chomp anything it can. The transgressive nature of the toothed vagina is what advances this beyond merely Freudian castration theory. The Lacanian phallic signifier of the symbolic order is thus decimated by the centralised hyperbolic signifier of the vagina creature (in combo with its castrating centrality).

The emerging inverted vagina is not a phallic penetrating object, but rather a transgressing technology of castration, which simultaneously reveals the silliness of Freud's legacy. So try to masturbate away boys (and girls....and priests) because Nagata will ensure you do not succeed in climax, unless you're into this sort of thing.

Jacques Lacan 1954/1998b - The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, I - Cambridge University
Press – Translated by J A Miller – pp112 - 123

Horney, Karen. "The Dread of Women," International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 13 (1932), 348-60

Claire Pajaczkowska – 1992 - The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. London and New York: Routledge - pp184 - 197

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iron Man - Jon Favreau - 2008

Kill a few Arabs and enjoy your cheeseburger

A fanfare to director Jon Favreau's emphasis on "acting" in Iron Man1 — yet there was not much of this on display. Did the filmmakers intend the sardonic one-liners, misogynistic jabs and seemingly improvised yet forced-sounding words delivered by the actors to make this happen? Line after line of dialogue endeavours to coerce the viewer into finding the mass murderer Tony Stark, performed by Robert Downey Jr., an appropriate point of identification for the jingoistic wish-fulfilment that is Iron Man. Downey Jr.'s furtive expression throughout, testament perhaps to the actor's personal battle with drug addiction, may also reflect the actor's unconscious conflict in working on a film easily read as government propaganda. This kind of production that so reflects government doublespeak, that vilifies one race so hatefully and promotes its own so dutifully, carries with it mechanisms of persuasion we have seen throughout history. Within the first fifteen minutes it's clear that Iron Man is far more than playboy fantasy; it is American foreign policy realized without context. Favreau and his actors ensure the successful transmission of white supremacy centred on the dehumanization of Arab ethnicity. Recent Bushite foreign policy — beautified by Iron Man's designer brand action sequences — consistently extends beyond itself; without justification or debate, it transgresses its own limits.2

Mobilised ad nauseam is the all too familiar psychological assault on the people of the Middle East, creatures of the sands and desert that are destroyed in a phantasmagoria of Nintendo sight and sound.

Robert Downey and Shaun Toub Iron Man solidifies bigoted stereotypes that would make D. W. Griffith envious. A black actor in a supporting role, ostensibly privileged as the high-ranking Colonel James, turns out to be pining after Stark's odour of radical market capitalism. Like a nagging asexual slave, the token black man is a tumour on Stark's persona to be subtly belittled and hushed throughout. Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) — shadow feminist mannequin, petulant PA to Stark — eventually, like all the strong women in the film, falls for Stark's creepy charisma. The Middle Eastern Doctor Yinsen (Shaun Toub, above, with Downey), who thrice saves Stark's life, is the racial other, a shaking, hallowed other who also serves Stark's every request and demand. Yinsen implores Stark to let him sacrifice himself for the messianic good of American homeland security,3 so that Iron Man is ensured a spectacular, biblical montage of flames in the decimation of Arab land.

Iron Man, with narrative and directorial precision, once again provides the high-fidelity misogyny and anti-Muslim rhetoric Hollywood is known for.4 Favreau directs racial representations that echo the xenophobic statements that have been exchanged throughout the current U.S. presidential elections, especially those that herald racial double standards. There would surely be a public outcry if Iron Man was seen destroying American embassies in Africa or rabbinic businesses in Israel in such aesthetic hyper-reality. There are some truly distasteful scenes that present Iron Man burning dozens of "towelhead" freedom fighters. It's only Arabs again, so it's okay. The pantomime nemesis Raza (Faran Tahir), a typical Hollywood Middle Eastern hysteric, rages about in inflated, untranslated gasps of Arabic. Inevitably, there is an inordinate close-up of Raza’s fatal suffering, whereas his white manager Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is spared mutilation. He is given instead a dignified and spectacular death, a laser show for the finale with lugubrious musical accompaniment.

In a video-virtuosic sequence, we watch Iron Man's rocket flamethrowers decimate mythological desert bases and cook people of colour for the crime of living on their homeland; finishing the sequence with a "not bad" — a flippant comment of brilliant dry humour that reflects Stark's congenital cool.5 Stark incinerates an entire village of women and children, zips home, and then demands a cheeseburger. The burger becomes the essentialist symbol of the return to the U.S. homeland after a successful burnout of dozens of Middle Eastern bodies.

Faran Tahir as RazaSince Lyndon Johnson we have seen insurgents as a hyperbolic enemy of the American imagination. History tells us they are usually ordinary civilians who have lost everything, tired of long sanctions, defending their land and honour. Tony Stark, in Iron Man suit, rescues such refugees from such insurgents like a dream Fox News correspondent. As in Iraq, arrows are fought with bullets; a cyborgian superman confronts ancient Soviet rifles. Iron Man posits binary symbols of Arab as animal, white man as saviour; Arab as terrorist, white man — even one who makes weapons of mass destruction — as peacemaker. Moving beyond merely a stereotype of difference, the Arab becomes the fetishised symbol of hysteria; rational and collected American versus the dark skin of hysterical Middle Easterner. After disposing of the insurgents, reduced to turban-wearing maniacs, Iron Man says to the villagers; "he’s all yours," so that they may rabidly devour the remaining Arab insurgent Abu, having received the American saviour’s consent.

The screenplay, ironically, attempts to disavow a desire to display Arab massacre as unique spectacle. Stark's proclaimed moral epiphany is consistently juxtaposed to a narrative that posits white man's production of spectacular displays of destruction. Then this is countered by humanitarian sound bites meant to represent the supposed wisdom the billionaire weapons designer suddenly receives of its negativity.

At the end of the first act, Stark realises the long-term damage his weapons designs have on humans. Of course, during a press release sequence, he preaches how he witnessed his weapons used against his own race of people, white Americans. Nothing is mentioned about the indigenous children and women who have (not) suffered as a result of his weapons trading. Thus, the benevolent Arab is invisible in this film.

Like last year's pro-military blockbuster Transformers (Michael Bay), Iron Man finds ways to reinvent the quagmire of Iraq. One bizarre inversion of reality occurs involving the practice of water-boarding. In an attempt to reverse evidence of the notorious tortures carried out on Arabic journalists by American soldiers, reportedly used in Haditha, Abu Ghraib, and most recently in Guantanamo Bay,6 Tony Stark naturally becomes the latest victim of this act.7

As for the main actor of the film, the visual effects: Stan Winston's suit was uninspired; and it's hard to believe the same CGI company here, Orphanage, was responsible for the effects for the South Korean SF film The Host. Visual effects giant ILM still has a long way to go in getting their body physics up to scratch (can anyone forgive them for their motion capture in Star Wars II?). The musical score is not a score at all, merely a soundscape of digital Taiko drums, guitar riffs and the usual cacophony of television tension noise, as soulless as the film itself.

Through mediocre CGI, moronic contexts and unimaginative aesthetics, Iron Man attempts to subvert the national malaise currently bedeviling the American psyche. Despite two disastrous foreign occupations, Iron Man still chases the American military dream, that of global hegemony through "democracy." Through Tony Stark, the privilege of the American white man justifies its extension to other people's lands, with armchair-war glamour. Iron Man is a vulgar, weird myth; an Abu Ghraib in 70mm if you will. The American summer blockbuster has often been used to reflect government propaganda — think of Rambo in the Reagan era, True Lies in the Clinton regime, and Rules of Engagement under Bush. The social texture of Iron Man presents a particularly disturbing fantasy during this time of American military occupation. On a daily basis one hears of a rising Iraqi or Afghan civilian death count and extraordinary devastation; Iron Man transforms these tragedies into live cinema spectacle.


1. For one example of many positive reviews on the directorial/performance style , see here.

2. Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

3. Covering government fantasy. Bush said in 2001, "You're either with us, or against us." See here.

4. See Jack Shaheen's research in Arab & Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Muslim Studies, 1997).

5. As academic Edward Said wrote on Kinglake, "Easterners are best dealt with when intimidated, and what better instrument of intimidation than a sovereign Western ego?" (Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

6. See here.

7. Iron Man was advised by the U.S. Defense Department's Project Officer, Air Force Captain Christian Hodge.

Also published in Bright Lights Film Journal, August - November 2008 Edition

Sunday, July 13, 2008

I'm a Cyborg, but That's Okay - 2006 - Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook makes a contextual departure from his political commercial successes, such as Joint Security Area, and a thematic counterpoint to the films in which he is most known for in the west, namely the Vengeance trilogy. This film is inventive, whimsical and strident in its content and humor, but will this departure from 'extreme' cinema please western audiences?

Yeong-goon is starving herself as she is convinced she is a combat cyborg capable of surviving on (transistor radio) battery powered energy. Im Soo-jeong, still with the same apropos vitamin D deficiency from her take in Tale of Two Sisters is sleepily brilliant as the frail Yeong-goon. She is seemingly unable to express her universe to the outside world; the root cause of her trauma seems to be her grandmother's enforced hospitalization. Yet, kleptomaniac Il-soon, (performed by Jeong Ji-hun, incidentally winner of Time magazine's most influential person 2007) a fellow patient, takes the initiative to explore her subjective reality and in so doing cures a part of her mental illness. Il-soon, the main male supporting character certainly challenges many of the ideas in Kyung Hyun Kim’s Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, as his performance coincides with many of the new wave male, metro sexual presentations. All the performances, discussed a little later, are upbeat and fluffy, which coincide nicely with the crisp and iconic tone of the film.

In this film, Park Chan-wook is interested in issues of schizophrenia, isolation and its connectedness with love. The film's dealing of the theme is not in anyway loyal to the complexities of real mental health issues. Park Chan-wook’s exacting of the psychoanalytical narrative structure is what makes this film superior to those in the west that portray severe mental illness in a condescending or heavy handed manner. In accordance with the Vengeance trilogy, Park Chan-wook's presentation of mental illness is a black and white affair. If one recalls the caricatured performance for the character with cerebral palsy in Sympathy, the same is mirrored here for schizophrenia.

I suggest that the cultural differences in the way that mental health issues are dealt with in this film have the potential to offend some audiences in the west. The film's presentation of obesity, dementia, paranoia, speech impediment and motherhood may be interpreted as cruel clichés. However, the distinct disparages are appropriate to the diegetic method that Park employed in this film. Albeit from a western perspective understandably offensive, the nuanced sarcasm that prevails throughout the visual and contextual tone of the film in regards to the environment of an asylum is wholly appropriate. Additionally, the different understanding of what is politically correct in Korea should be taken into consideration. 'I'm a Cyborg But That's OK' keeps to the white hot crispness of Park's 'telenovela' meets 'extreme cinema' formula evident in his earlier cinema while introducing the dark sardonic and subtle cutesy often found in contemporary Korean romantic comedies.

All the performances are light and somewhat caricatured as all the characters seek to find some consistency to their lives. Some sequences in which characters develop an understand of themselves, their fellow inmates or the environment they live in are truly amusing and the visual manner in which these sequences have been composed is inspiring and interesting.

Cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hun and production manager Ryu Seong-hee create a wonderful design and colour tone for this movie. The hospital with its fruity hues and ageing walls work wonderfully with the mordant script. The opening credits sequence is dazzling and original, one of the most unique opening credits to be found in cinema for a while.

I'm not sure how this film will fit into Western audiences. The tone of this film is consistent with many romantic comedies coming from the Korean New Wave since 2003. I'm not sure how it will fit into the 'extreme' bracket that western audiences have allocated for Park Chan-wook's ouvre. I hope you enjoy this movie as much as I did. It takes some getting used to, but the combination of disturbing black humor with fluffy cutesy is how its done in South Korea. The combination of Chan-wook's inventive visual style is what strikes this film above others from the romantic comedy repertoire coming out frequently from this exciting cinematic region.