Tag Archives: film

Tarantino’s “Paranoid”

About halfway through The Hateful Eight, bounty hunter John Ruth is starting to worry that the people at Minnie’s Haberdashery aren’t who they say they are, or at least “one of them fellas (meaning Bob or Joe or Oswaldo or Chris) is not what he says he is.” John Ruth and Major Marquis Warren (and for that matter everyone at Minnie’s) will soon learn the hard way that these suspicions are well founded; but at this point in the story, John Ruth might just be imagining things, so Major Warren asks:

Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid?

The rest of the dialogue in this scene was lost on me, because I was taken out of the film and left wondering how or why Tarantino (and, for that matter, all the people who read the screenplay for Hateful Eight) had let this glaring anachronism stand.

The first known use of “paranoid,” according to Merriam Webster, is 1904, probably in connection with the introduction of paranoia as a clinical variety of dementia praecox by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin; the screenplay sets the action of The Hateful Eight “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War,” roughly in the 1870s. The term paranoia was around before Kraepelin, having been first introduced into English in 1857, but it didn’t come into use among English-language medical writers until the 1890s, and even then, the word in this more pristine form would not have been available except to medical specialists.

Major Warren’s casual and colloquial use of “paranoid” might have been possible as early as the 1950s, when psychoanalytic parlance became more widespread. I suspect the actual provenance of the Major’s “being paranoid” lies somewhere in the haze of late 60s and early 70s drug culture, a full century after the action of The Hateful Eight. Or maybe even later than that: “Almost Cut My Hair,” recorded in 1970, opts for “increases my paranoia” — casting paranoia as a constant affliction of varying intensity — as opposed to the Major’s use of the present continuous “being paranoid,” which suggests only a momentary lapse.

Not that Tarantino is trying, at all, to be strict about these things. His story might be set in the nineteenth century but his characters belong to the twenty first, and this is hardly the only anachronism in the language of the screenplay. (To take just one instance, O.B. proposes that he and Chris set out a line to the outhouse, because no matter how bad the blizzard gets, the people gathered at Minnie’s will have to “take a squat from time to time.”) To characterize these as slips or oversights — like the anachronisms I wrote about in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — would be to miss the ways in which Tarantino is playing self-consciously with anachronism throughout The Hateful Eight, from the opening Sergio Leone Close Up of the snow-covered crucifix to the mix of Ennio Morricone with Roy Orbison. We’re invited at nearly every turn to appreciate this directorial self-consciousness and to revel in this film’s constant references to other films, other stories and other times.

What strikes me about “being paranoid,” however, is how telling it is. The Hateful Eight presents a world in which everything (proper names, stories, letters, a song, coffee, the stew, the table, the floor, a peppermint stick, the gang in Red Rock, history itself) is contrivance. The most brutal, bloody violence is conventional and contrived, and artifice will either kill you or put you at risk of death. Even the act of dying can be wildly theatrical (like the deaths of John Smithers, John Ruth and Daisy Domergue) or one final act of deception, and there is no way out of deceit and contrivance except death. So it’s only fitting that Chris and Major Warren die together at the end of the film sharing and appreciating the finer points of Major Warren’s forgery. This is a world in which everyone is always plotting and everything is a plot. You’d be crazy not to be paranoid.

Two Upcoming Events In Marquette, Michigan

SWUP2015Gala

On Saturday, December 5th, I’ll be at Save the Wild UP’s December Gala, where I’ve been invited to give the keynote.

Save the Wild UP is a great local grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the nature and the culture of the Upper Peninsula. The people at Save the Wild UP (most of them are volunteers) do the work of educators, naturalists, social scientists, industry watchdogs and field guides all throughout the year, and I hear they throw a great party, too.

If you can’t make it to Steinhaus Market on the 5th, and even if you live far from Marquette or have never been to the Upper Peninsula, check out Save the Wild UP’s website, learn about the critical work they’re doing, and consider making an end-of-year, tax-deductible contribution to support their work.

I’ll post the text of my remarks here after I talk.

On Monday, December 7th, the Peter White Library in Marquette will be screening 1913 Massacre,, the feature length documentary film I made with Ken Ross about the Italian Hall disaster and the Woody Guthrie song it inspired. Part of the library’s DocuMonday series, the screening is free and open to the public. The film starts at 7PM and runs 70 minutes, and I’ll stick around afterwards to take questions, talk and say hi.

Hope to see you there.

12-7DocuMonday

Can Films Still Make a Difference?

What filmmaker wouldn’t be pleased with a critic like Joan Gibb Engel? Here’s what she writes about 1913 Massacre.

We were treated to a complex story, excellently told, replete with black and white stills from the period depicting the miners, the strikers, the town, the children, and the hall before it was torn down, and there were colorful scenes from the present of townspeople reflecting on the tragedy and their versions of what really happened. It had mystery, drama, sentiment, dance, and of course, the now-famous song sung in the film by Woody’s son Arlo.

Gibb Engel was in the audience when we showed 1913 Massacre at the Calumet Theatre in October of 2012, and she recalls the event in a paper she contributed to Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse: Ecological Integrity for Law, Policy and Human Rights. (The book came out last year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I came across her article, while looking for some notice of the film’s May Day screening in Oslo, Norway.)

It turns out that Gibb Engel comes to bury our film, not to praise it. She offers her experience at the Calumet Theatre as a “dispiriting example of the failure of a film to make a difference.” And it’s not just 1913 Massacre. “I don’t believe a film, even a beautiful one…can do much for us now. We are already too awash in virtual reality depictions of the future, and no generation has had more reason to question their respective validities.”

The question whether a film can still “make a difference” in the world is one I’ve struggled with myself, written about (e.g., here, here and here), and discussed often with friends and colleagues. Gibb Engel arrives at her pessimistic view mainly after viewing and thinking about another film — Journey of the Universe, a big-budget television documentary produced by Mary Eveyln Tucker and Brian Swimme — and then she finds that view reinforced by an exchange she has, or tries to have, with a young man seated next to her at the Calumet Theatre watching our low-budget, independent film.

He was “a local high school student” who had come to the theater that day with his girlfriend, and he “had been playing with his mobile phone prior to the lights going down.” When Ken or I — we usually take turns at this — asked everyone in the audience to please make sure their cell phones were switched off, “he turned it off as requested for the performance.” So far so good! The trouble comes after the film is over, when Gibb Engel

turned to the young man and asked what he thought of it. He answered in a voice completely devoid of colour: ‘it was interesting.’

And on the basis of that exchange, Gibb Engel concludes that 1913 Massacre failed to “make a difference.” What are we to make of this?

It’s worth pointing out from the very start that Gibb Engel seems to have nothing but praise for the film, but her argument in this paper is an exercise in a foregone conclusion: what she really wants to say here — what she in fact says immediately after having dispensed with Journey to the Universe and 1913 Massacre — is that there isn’t

any way forward except to do what GEIG [the Global Ecological Integrity Group: Gibb Engel’s husband, Ron Engel, sits on the executive committee] and its members have tried to do these past twenty years: make a personal connection with some part of the Earth and help others do the same; work for social and ecological justice; fight for people and policies that matter to the Earth’s flourishing; get our hands dirty.

Exactly how this noble or necessary or dirty work is to be accomplished, and why there should be only one way forward, she does not bother to say. There’s also a whole messy argument to untangle here about the possibility of unmediated experience (of nature) and the role of language, story and representation in forging “personal connections” and helping others do the same, working for justice and fighting for policies, etc. that Gibb Engel doesn’t come close to addressing here. I’m not going to press the issue. Instead, I want to go back to the moment where she turns to the young man sitting next to her in the Calumet Theatre and asks him what he thought of 1913 Massacre.

It’s an odd moment to focus on, and I am reluctant to allow Gibb Engel’s account of her exchange with this young man to stand for the audience’s experience of the film. There were plenty of reasons to think that 1913 Massacre did make a real difference to that Calumet audience — maybe even to that local high school kid.  And this isn’t just because I am one of the film’s producers. The house was packed for three screenings; the crowd gave the film successive standing ovations; the whole house laughed and cried and rode the film like a wave. (My diary of the Calumet Screenings is here). Gibb Engel enjoyed herself as well. But she wants to divert our attention from the audience’s experience (“we were treated to a complex story, excellently told”) to the experience of this one young man.

Now having been a young man of high school age, I can tell you that at that time in my life I probably would not have even managed “it was interesting” if asked by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me what I thought of a film. If I had been there with my girlfriend, as he was, I probably would have been even more reticent; or I might have said or done something awkward in an effort to impress my girl, or disentangle myself from the mutual attention of these two women, or get off the witness stand where this lady had put me. In other words, what Gibb Engel fails to consider here is that “it was interesting” was in all likelihood a social cue, meant to nip the conversation in the bud. (Remember when your parents’ friends used to ask you how things were going at school? “Fine.” It’s still a good rule not to trust anyone over 30, at least until you’re 25 or so.)

Even more puzzling is that Gibb Engel takes her cue from this high school student and then puts the failure to connect in a meaningful way on the young man. But surely Gibb Engel has an important part in the little social drama she describes, as the young man’s grown-up antagonist or interlocutor. That’s the position she’s in after watching the film and turning to the young man; maybe it’s fair to say it’s the position the film put her in. These two probably would never have had occasion to address one another were it not for the fact that they happened to be seated next to each other at the Calumet Theatre for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

So, as my friend Marc Tognotti pointed out when I shared the passage from Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse with him, 1913 Massacre did make at least one “obvious difference” in Gibb Engel’s world: first of all, it prompted Gibb Engel to turn to the cell-phone-wielding young man next to her and ask what he thought of the film. (And before that, it prompted the young man to turn off his cell phone — to take his life offline and participate in a public screening of a film, or at least sit quietly through it.) And when he gave her a cue “devoid of colour,” Gibb Engel by her own account seems to have let the whole thing drop, without adding any color of her own. She could have offered what she herself thought of the film, expressed the appreciation she later put into writing, asked what he meant by interesting, addressed his girlfriend and asked her what she thought, asked them both if they grew up in Calumet and had ever heard the story. And so on: the possibilities for improvisation, new relationship and conversation after the colorless “interesting” cue were many, especially because in Calumet nearly every high school kid has some family connection to the Italian Hall or the mining operations or the Finnish music Oren Tikkanen sings in our film. Gibb Engel didn’t pursue any of those.

What Gibb Engel doesn’t acknowledge here or anywhere in her discussion of 1913 Massacre or Journey of the Universe is that the difference film or any work of art makes is always one that we have to make, among ourselves. Marc puts it this way in an email:

Our tradition with film and with all art is to believe that meaning resides within the art object, or within the mind of the author/artist, etc.  But the meaning of art, if we take a pragmatist perspective anyhow, is actually something that is realized in the public domain, in how the artwork changes the conversation, changes the way in which people coordinate their actions with one another and towards the world, natural and artificial. Once we realize this, we can stop treating art as something for individual consumption, we can stop objectifying meaning in a way that renders us passive observers, and we can begin to take responsibility for creating meaning and creating change.

The work of art is not just the inhuman object that remains when the craftsman puts down his tools; it is the human activity that can begin only after the artwork is brought into the world.

Would Llewyn Davis Ever “Kick Back”?

ILD
About two-thirds of the way through the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn returns to his sister Joy’s house, in Queens, to collect his Master Mates and Pilots License. He’s just been to visit his nearly catatonic father at Landfall, a sailor’s retirement home. He plans to give up folk music and ship out.

Llewyn discovers Joy in the kitchen with her son Danny, who’s eating a bowl of cereal.

“How is he?” asks Joy.

Llewyn
He’s great. Good to see what I have to look forward to.

Joy
What. Llewyn.

Llewyn
No I’m not kiddin. I’ve got it all figured out now.  Put in some hard years, yeah, but eventually ya get to kick back, get your food brought to ya, don’t even have to get up to shit.

Joy
Llewyn! Danny is sitting right here.

Joy may be appalled by Llewyn’s use of profanity in front of her six-year-old son, but she should also be thrown by his anachronistic use of “kick back.” I was, so much so that it took me a while to find my way back into the film, which up to that point had me in its spell.  I half expected Joy to ask her brother what “kick back” means, or is supposed to mean.

It’s 1961 when Llewyn walks into his sister’s kitchen in Queens. Merriam-Webster’s can find no instance of the expression “kick back” before 1972. (Even then, I’ll wager, it wasn’t in wide use.) The expression carries with it the breezy attitudes and hedonistic aspirations of 1970s California, not the earnest commitments of Gaslight folkies.

Is this just nitpicking? I’m of two minds on that question.

On the one hand, in a film of such obvious artistic merit, there ought to be someone combing through the dialogue for anachronisms and other false notes, so that audiences can stay with the picture.

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane had even bigger problems suspending his disbelief: while he admires the “gleefully precise” ways in which production designer Jess Gonchor recreates 1961 Greenwich Village, he concludes that “something in the movie fails to grip”: Llewyn never looks “very down at the heel”; and the beauty of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography “hazes over the shabby desperation that…should plague the struggling artist.” Even Al Cody’s apartment, which he describes as a “dump…looks pretty neat and clean.”

Terri Thal, the ex-wife of Dave Van Ronk, the West Village folk icon whose biography inspired the Coen Brothers’ film, also notes that “the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew could keep soot out of apartments.” She wanted to see “roaches” and “fallen plaster.” (The American movie industry never seems willing or able to go there.) On a more serious note, Thal also finds it beyond any measure of credibility that Llewyn can sit down with a “respectable” doctor and casually discuss an illegal abortion: the only woman Dave Van Ronk impregnated, she writes, “rode a bike down several flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus.” Her situation was that desperate.

On the other hand, holding Inside Llewyn Davis to strict standards of historical authenticity will only end up limiting our experience of the film, which is as much a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey as a hard-luck story from the early 1960s. Part of the film’s magic lies in the way it discovers one of the Western world’s most ancient and most persistent narratives in Llewyn’s lonesome wanderings. This gives the film a magical-realist grace that neo-realist grit could never provide.

llewynsubwayA cat named Ulysses guides Llewyn to an underworld and seems, at one point, to offer a real chance at redemption. But Llewyn doesn’t take it. There’s no direction home, and no chance our hero will ever have the leisure or the luxury of just kicking back.

David Bromberg, who played with Van Ronk, put it simply: you’ve got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.

The End of the Three Mile Picture Show

With the very kind assistance of Kathleen Dow at the University of Michigan Library’s Transportation History Collection, I’ve gained new clarity since my last post about the fate of The Three Mile Picture Show, the 1915 film documenting H.C. Ostermann’s transcontinental journey on the Lincoln Highway.

In October of 1957, F. E. Sheldon, Head Film Librarian at Walt Disney Productions, wrote to Leo Natanson, Librarian at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, to request “the Lincoln Highway material.” Walt Disney Productions was making a film called – at the time – The American Highway.

The film would air six months later, on May 14th, 1958, under a different title: Magic Highway, USA.

That film, of course, is still extant, and it includes a few scenes from the Ostermann film; like most early footage in Magic Highway, USA, the Lincoln Highway material is colored and sepia-tinted, and comes in for comic treatment. The past in Magic Highway, USA is a series of blunders and advances, comical mishaps and lucky accidents, a happy but confused world of exploration and invention, a time when things looked odd and ran at different speeds to funny music.

But the film had a serious intent. Magic Highway, USA celebrated “the freedom of the American road,” and connected the highway to the American “pursuit of happiness.” It also looked ahead, to the future. As Sheldon explained to Natanson,”because of the congestion of today’s highways, we need planning, preparation, and equipment well in advance to build the proposed dream highways of the future.” Cartoon segments show a future of atomic reactors tunneling through mountains, elevator parking lots built around office buildings, and so on. This is the dream (though looking at it now, it seems a nightmare); the archival motion-picture footage describes the comic prelude.

Walt Disney Productions offered and the University accepted two dollars “per screen foot for material used in our film, with a guarantee of at least fifty feet.” One hundred dollars, total: this was in lieu of screen credit, which Natanson twice requested – apprehensively, one imagines; he was twice refused.

Natanson and staff packed the film reels in a large case, declared the value of The Three Mile Picture Show at one-thousand dollars, and shipped it Express Collect to Disney. On October 30th, Sheldon wired with this news:

four reels of film… have deteriorated to powder and bubbled condition. Extreme explosion or fire hazard. Strongly suggest you grant permission to destroy this material here or will return immediately at your responsibility. Four small rolls of negative in can appear to be alright.

On that same day, Natanson wired back: “You may destroy runined [sic] film.” And so they did.

Reading the correspondence, I see no reason to suspect anything sinister or even a lack of effort to save the film. The Three Mile Picture Show had become hazmat. Sheldon cited Burbank fire laws, prohibiting “the transportation of this type of material over city streets by waste film collectors unless it is immersed in a barrel of water.” Even the notes packed with the film had been so “contaminated” that the paper on which they were printed was “poisonous to breathe.” “It is regrettable,” writes Sheldon, in a December 13th letter, “that time had taken its toll of the four rolls that had to be destroyed. I feel there must have been valuable historical material in these rolls, but their decomposed condition made it impossible to examine.”

As for the small rolls of negative that remained, Sheldon recommended duplicating them immediately; their “rate of decomposition may be accelerated,” he feared, by exposure to the other film.

On December 18, 1957, that negative film made its way back to the University via Railway Express. 1000 feet of negative was all that was left of the original three miles of motion picture film from 1915. Natanson informs Sheldon he has no facilities available on campus for making duplicates, and wonders “if you people could do this for us or could recommend someone.” Sheldon helpfully suggests Jam Handy in Detroit, and offers to loan the University the 900-foot fine grain Disney made from the Transportation Institute’s negative rolls.

A duplicate negative and print at the going rate (in Sheldon’s estimate) of 20 cents per foot would have cost the Transportation Institute 80 dollars more than it had collected from Disney for the footage used in Magic Highway, USA. Here the correspondence trails off. Perhaps Natanson was confused about what to do, or just decided to cut his losses.