23 January, 2011

On "Good Cat in Screenland", a film by Richard Cohen

On Good Cat In Screenland by Richard Cohen

Since the past has ceased to throw its light on the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity
— Alexis de Tocqueville

The beauty of narrative is that any story is full of other stories. That’s what Good Cat in Screenland is — full of stories. Or should I have said the beauty of narrative is that it’s not essentially linear, not unless you really straighten it out, but then that would be no way to make sense of the events. The point is to make sense of them, but to do that you have to work out how to tell them.

Los Angeles, at least for someone who’s never been there, can seem like a fantasy city of movie locations shuffled around in fictional worlds. The idea of a ‘Los Angeles itself’ almost sounds like a contradiction in terms. In fact Los Angeles itself is sometimes described as a shuffle of locations rather than a textbook city with a ‘proper’ centre. Good Cat In Screenland, like Richard Cohen’s other films, is set in the geography and society of this ‘Los Angeles itself’. The films are about the urban communities and politics of Los Angeles. They are rooted in urban, social, political and architectural locations.
Culver City is one of those Los Angeles locations. It sprung up as an early twentieth century development of real estate and movie studios in western Los Angeles. The City’s motto is ‘The Heart of Screenland’: It flourished in the movie boom, perhaps declined a bit along with the big studios, and by the late 1990s it looks like it must have been ready for an injection of capital, for resurgence and redevelopment. Good Cat In Screenland starts with a Chinese capitalist, Abraham Hu, riding into town.
Washington and Culver Boulevards cross at a sharp angle, like a pair of chopsticks. The Culver Hotel is held in the narrow triangle between them. It’s shaped like a slice of pie. It looks like a confection with a crimped, corbelled crust. It’s filled with show business history. John Wayne once won it gambling. After an opening shot of eucalypts on a hillside above the city, we have a long shot of the hotel standing above the skyline. Seen side-on from a distance it looks like a doll’s house or a movie set with nothing behind it.
The shot zooms straight in to start exploring the film’s slice through contemporary history. We quickly realise the hotel is at the cross roads of stories, of lives, of cultures, of countries, of places and of people in transition. Everything is in transition. Maybe any slice at a particular place at a particular time will reveal other places and other times. That’s the way we conceive history these days. But there is a lot of past here and it complicates things, scarcely throwing any light on the future. There are stories about China’s Cultural Revolution and then its capitalist revolution, about copper mining in Chile, about the Wizard of Oz and the shenanigans of the Munchkins, and about raw Chinese capitalism surging across the Pacific to encounter the middle kingdom of American capitalism.

Good Cat’s framing story is about the ownership and management of the hotel. It begins when Abraham buys the bankrupt hotel in the late 1990s. The filmmaker Richard Cohen first met Abraham back then. He leased a room in the hotel as an office. When he suggests to Abraham that the price of the hotel might have been $2m, Abraham corrects him. $3m he says, and a good investment. Like so many details this is ambiguous. It’s talking about money; it’s hard to tell exactly whether Abraham is being honest or boasting or discrete or polite, or all of them. Anyway, ambiguous or not, honest or not, it’s just one of those details in a great narrative pile of them that the film and the viewer has to take in and make sense of.
Then comes Joseph Guo who buys into a partnership with Abraham. Both owners have a business background peculiar to Chinese of their generation. Veterans of Mao’s China and the Cultural Revolution they now practice capitalism like it’s a kind of human nature they were always waiting to express. Joseph lives in the hotel with his wife Wendy, managing it while Abraham is off on other business ventures, like copper mining in Chile. This style of reborn capitalism with its resource mining, manufacture and multinational investment is a bit different from that of the American microcosm they’ve landed in though. Hotel management is service capitalism and demands a sense of the local cultural subtleties. Hotels scarcely existed in Mao’s China, let alone show business hotels. And although Joseph and Wendy try to get the feel of the hotel by trying out rooms on all the floors, the local culture comes with its own kind of inscrutable, mandarin system of consultants, restaurateurs, and service contractors, and it’s complicated by the culture of local developers and urban politics, all playing on their home ground, all more or less frustrating Joseph’s progress. Then there’s the hotel itself, enriched but complicated by nearly a century of show business history. And there are these filmmakers there too, interviewing, capturing events, people, and moments, Richard Cohen documenting he-could-not-have-known-what.

I say the film is about Joseph Guo and Abraham Hu, but Abraham is mostly absent, off screen somewhere doing serious business. In fact most of the film happens before he reappears, and when he does we hardly see him. He installs his son, Hu Xiang, a new generation capitalist communist. While Joseph is out of the hotel, the lawyers arrive, and like a band of powerful, unannounced knights they claim ownership of the shaky Camelot for Abraham. When Joseph returns, it’s all he can do to fight his way back in, and when he does, all he can do is set up his own camp. So we have two opposing claimants, camped in the heart of the hotel, battling to control it. Joseph has been paying off his share in the hotel, maybe he has already paid it off, but there are legalities: documents, conversations, interpretations. In a way it’s just one more challenge for Joseph — Good Cat has already been a series of trials and jousts all the way through — but this is like the ultimate challenge.

Like all the trials, the dispute over ownership will be ambiguous. It’s an uncertain world; we don’t really have all the facts. We just get claim and counterclaim. There is no commanding voice-over. All the way through Good Cat our sympathies just seem to have to align themselves.
In other films that Richard Cohen has made it’s a bit different. Taylor’s Campaign is about Ron Taylor who runs for local office as an advocate of the homeless in Santa Monica. You can’t help but side with Ron and the homeless. Even though it’s a gentle and unobtrusive style of filmmaking, and maybe Ron and the homeless have some rough edges, you know that is the intention. With the gentleness goes the tenderness for the people in the film. That’s how the film’s made, that’s the way the story’s told, right up to Ron, a couple of years after the events and his hair grown long, reflecting on how grateful he is not to have been elected. Going to School: Ir a La Escuela is even clearer. You can’t feel anything but tenderness for the kids and their parents struggling to get an education system that works with their disabilities — not when two kids smile with affection at each other, or extend their hands to each other, or when a mother is radiant and gentle in her pursuit of fairness. It’s full of love and grace.
Good Cat though is a kind of ‘bigger’ history: the people have more money and resources; there’s the back-story of world capitalism. Set in the Culver Hotel, it’s much more a revelation of events of ‘show business’ proportions. The events happen over a longer time and they are ambiguous. Like the other films though Good Cat just gently shows us the events — or that’s what it seems like — and because of that or despite that it’s all more unclear. You have to form your judgments of Joseph, whose predicaments dominate the film, for yourself. Reading over this essay nothing was more obvious to me than that I made too many judgements of Joseph; the film makes none. Joseph quotes Deng Xiaoping’s revisionist take on capitalism versus socialism: if the cat gets the mouse it’s a good cat. Joseph may be a good cat but maybe he might not get the mouse, not here where he finds himself in Screenland.

The Munchkins stayed in the hotel when the Wizard of Oz was being made. In fact when Joseph in one of his trials earlier in the film takes on a campaign to keep local parking space for the hotel, not only does he enter the whole world of urban development politics, but he does so like Dorothy, with one of the surviving Munchkin’s at his side. The material of Cohen’s films is serious. The strain on Joseph’s face often shows, but while the telling is understated, the world itself isn’t. Joseph takes up the Munchkin theme as a hotel attraction, he wonders about real yellow bricks or painting bricks yellow. None of this is exactly funny, except it’s shown like you’ve got to smile. Tenderly. Especially for Joseph who for all his energy and sincerity finds it hard to get on top of urban development or hotel management Culver City style. At one stage Joseph installs various ‘creative people’ on a floor in the hotel, but most of the local players that Joseph has to work with in order to make the hotel work never quite seem to fill you with confidence or hope. They are more like errant than shining knights. Joseph struggles, lurches between trust and suspicion, yet somehow makes the troubles that beset him seem unwarranted. Several of his partners and allies — whether through his misjudgement or inexperience, or whether through their own failings — don’t quite seem to match Joseph’s own besieged virtues. He doesn’t strut or lord it. Rather, playing the role of the man with the biggest burdens is the same as playing the role of the man with the biggest vision. It’s a role he partly makes for himself and partly finds himself in. History and events can do that to anyone.
Joseph’s vision of course may be sometimes a bit flawed. In the dispute with developers and the City over the parking, maybe Joseph expects too much. He wants the car-park kept next door for his guests. And even though the building of the new cinema complex begins with the sacrifice of a big beautiful tree, maybe cinema seats and urban redevelopment have more social or democratic value than public parking spaces for Joseph’s paying guests. And when Joseph decides to develop a restaurant in the hotel and call it ‘Munchkins’, maybe that’s not quite as grand as Abraham’s earlier vision of getting a ‘world class’ Chinese chef, especially when ‘Munchkins’ pretty much goes wrong. Or at least, no one involved seems too happy with it.
So far as Good Cat is about the meeting of cultural styles, the clash of the two capitalisms has a kind of gentle reflection in the meeting of the different types of music being made in the film. Joseph on Chinese violin and Wendy on Chinese mandolin bring their own kind of beauty with them, right from the start. It is like a refuge from the headaches of business. There are American musicians too passing through the hotel. The Jazz Bakery is a nearby venue. Indeed during the post-9/11 tourist slump, musicians seem to be almost the only guests. The saxophonist Lou Donaldson tells a little story about wanting to be a baseball player, back in the time of segregation. Just a little story like this seems to be important for the film that Good Cat is — even the bit about a ballpark being named after the musican back where he grew up in North Carolina. It’s another ingredient in the filling, like an American counterpoint to the Cultural Revolution. At one stage I think there was some bluegrass-sounding music being played on Chinese instruments — unless I was imagining it, which is sort of possible. Good Cat is a kind of hallucinatory experience, but not because the filmmaking isn’t true to reality, anything but. It’s because it’s sort of incredibly true. This is what the world is like: an harassed Chinese businessmen, schooled in the Cultural Revolution, playing traditional music with his wife in a Hotel haunted by show business, above a restaurant named after the ‘Munchkins’. And it’s all so tenderly witnessed and retold
Not only is Good Cat about ‘bigger history’ than Richard Cohen’s other films, in its own way it’s more intimate. Perhaps that is why the events are rendered with less of a guiding, political judgement. Narrative style is not so much about formalities, it’s about the ethics of content. And in documentary so much depends on getting this right. On a couple of occasions in Taylor’s Campaign people say things would have happened differently if the camera hadn’t been filming them — otherwise a local property owner or local police might not have acted so reasonably with the homeless people squatting on the footpath. In Good Cat there is no mention of this kind of ‘filmmakers’ presence’. Yet the filmmakers are always present in Good Cat. At one stage Julie Moody, an interior designer working for Joseph, has a difference with him about her fee — a fee that Joseph is unwilling to pay. It seems though that she doesn’t give up on Joseph; as she says, she invited him to give her a hug, and he did. And later, when the two camps are warring over the ownership she addresses the filmmaker: ‘Richard, you and I are the only one’s left’. You are aware of the filmmakers in Good Cat — someone has to be somewhere pretty close to all this to get it on film — but never by some kind of obtrusive self-reference, or obtrusive voice-over. Nor by the sort of obtrusive absence that plays as objectivity. The filmmaker is there in the film’s content as fellow citizen, resident, acquaintance and friend, as unobtrusive, sympathetic witness. It’s about the filmmaker’s experience too. The events asked to be lived or witnessed, and then if possible, somehow retold.
That’s the thing about Good Cat in Screenland: the way it’s told, its narrative richness. Events are unscripted and the art of the film consists in the way they are put together. The events are filmed over a number of years, and all the people bring different stories and different histories with them, and the filmmaker has to work with the events filmed. And then the events filmed are often events about other events — people reporting, telling or remembering things. And the events range from world historical to utterly mundane, and there is usually more than one interpretation. The narrative material in Good Cat is just so hard to handle. Just trying to describe elements of the plot of Good Cat In Screenland I’ve realised how difficult the material is. I’ve mostly written about Joseph, but it’s not just about Joseph. Looking at the film a second time it was still full of surprises. To understand the events is not only a matter of the attitude we are to take to them and the sympathies we feel; it’s a matter of how to order the events. I don’t mean it’s a matter of straightening out the chronology, I mean it’s a matter of giving the events the illumination of plot. It is quite a feat of narrative engineering; it succeeds as a labour of love.
On a number of occasions Joseph makes some philosophical reflections. He quotes Tao wisdom, and Mao, and Deng. Nearly always it’s with a kind of sense of the inadequacy of these things. They have their value but only as the wisdom of the past and not so much for forging the path to the future. When he’s struggling Joseph finds he has to fall back on the precepts of ‘image’ and ‘reputation’, and during his most difficult battles with staff and contractors all he can cite is ‘Reduce costs! That’s management!’ As it is for Joseph coming to terms with his experiences, telling these events on film seems like a matter of finding a way through. The beauty of Good Cat is that it manages to use events from different times to illuminate one another. This is the achievement of the writing and editing. It manages to do two things: it shows what is almost the objective obscurity of these events, at least for those who wander through them; but with its own kind of tender, narrative determination it leads us through, it manages to gather some light from the past to throw on the future.

17 January, 2011

The Meta-metacritic (The Tourist, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

In a year of craptaculars, The Tourist deserves burial at the bottom of the 2010 dung heap. It offers talented people trapped in creative inertia.
— Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

The Math(s) Teacher and the Down With Love Girl
Over-dressed, over-skinny, over-lipped, over coiffed, over-breast-supported, Angelina Jolie, the mysterious woman on the train to Venice, has never looked more grotesque. Glamour has never been far from grotesque though. And The Tourist is a dream of glamour and luxury. You just have to imagine a woman under the combination of Sophia Loren, upmarket Barbie and Angelina Jolie. Unkempt, unassuming, unfit, uncool, Johnny Depp, the maths teacher from Wisconsin, has never been less eye-catching in that elfin, goth way of his.

To put it too glibly: as Peyton Reed’s Down With Love was to Doris Day and Rock Hudson romantic comedies, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist is to Stanley Donen’s romantic caper Charade.  Caper? Romantic Comedy? The terms themselves ring with the glibness of pitch and marketing. For The Tourist takes the glibness of its genre and forebears and makes a metaglib spectacle of it. Not that its all cool and meta. It’s a procession of a few long slow sequences: On The Train; In The Hotel In Venice; The Final Rendezvous — broken by some bits of action and joined by some international police and criminals. Slowness is all. The film glides, the beautiful inertia of gliding. That is it’s pleasure — and its not really the pleasure of cool distance but of cool indulgence. That and the contrast between the two leads: with Jolie it’s affection and maybe even beauty masked by grotesqueness as in Beauty and the Beast; with Depp it’s character masked by maths, tourism and cheap spy fiction. And it’s got an ending as contrived as Down With Love’s, the dreamy bliss of contrivance. 

One of the pleasures of cinephilia is coming across something worth seeing where everyone said you wouldn't find it.

So there we were, deep in January summer holidays, desperate for a movie on those steamy rainy days, the local multiplex is providing pretty much nothing. It’s a giant serve of dismal movie distribution. How did we get there? Via ABC Radio National's 'Critical Failure Series 1 Film', via guest Mel Cambell, via  Stephanie Zacharek  we ended up with The Tourist and Morning Glory — of what we hadn’t seen. Tron, Yogi and Gulliver were further down the list. We’d already seen Love and Other Drugs; as Myles Barlow would say, ‘Zero stars!

The American metacritic had given The Tourist 37 (out of 100, Peter Travers at Rolling Stone gave it 0) and Morning Glory 56. Cf. Love And Other Drugs 55 (should have been <10) David Fincher’s The Social Network 95 (too many) and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech 88 (not seen yet). Probably two easy (and too easy) to like. I liked Tom Hooper's The Damned United) Stephanie Zacharev went The Tourist 90 and Morning Glory 80.

Cinema maudit and the Memetics of Criticism
We went and saw both bearing in mind the old cultural research principle that Mel Campbell’s puts thus: ‘that even really bad culture is still interesting because it reveals things about the context in which it’s created and consumed’. A sort of less enthusiastic rendition of the ‘Murray Principle’ as enunciated by the character of Murray in Don Delillo’s White Noise. There is a real ethics of the research question here. In my view you’re better off being a democratic Walt Whitman than a sniffy Tocqueville of culture. But to get this right, you've got to have a good prose style backed up a good heart. Anyway…

Morning Glory we can leave in the heap of inglorious data (Myles Barlow would say: one and a half stars). The Tourist was one of those finds of cinema maudit, cursed by a review meme that colonised, survived and replicated in the critical culturesphere., finding suitable habitat in the minds of reviewers. The question is what is this habitat? Let’s turn the cultural research on the reviews: even really bad reviews are still interesting because they reveal things about the context in which reviews are created and consumed.

Do critics want more clichéd romance? Do they expect more up against the wall sex? Do they expect more action and less interia? Did they only get Angelina’s grotesqueness subliminally and thus get put off by it. Were they a bit shocked at how unfit Johnny looked. Was it that they didn’t appreciate the Charade thing (If there actually was intentionally a Charade thing; anyway not my favourite movie and The Tourist was better.) or was it they really wanted Johnny like Cary Grant and Angelina like Audrey (or maybe Sophia, to whom, to me, she bore an eerie resemblance)? Do reviewers learn what they are expected to like from other reviewers? Hypothesis for empirical research: Reviewer expectations are the habitat of reviews.

16 January, 2011

Fun and The Rules of The Game (La Regle du Jeu, Jean Renoir)

Fun is just fun. The pursuit of happiness might be a right but fun is far too trivial. It’s just not a big ask. And being fun-loving may not be vice — not in itself — but is it any kind of virtue? Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) in Howard Hawks  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes advises Dorothy (Jane Russell): 'I want you to find happiness and stop having fun.' Is fun serious enough to deserve reflection?
Suffering is worthy of reflection. Not only does it make nonsense of fun, it makes nonsense of everything else. There is no quicker way to win an argument or earn a reputation for depth than by getting all of a sudden serious. But appealing to suffering to give you or your opinions some gravity is a desperate move. It uses those who suffered, or they may even be using themselves, as if they haven’t already suffered enough.
What makes happiness so serious, what makes even fun serious is that misery, terror and suffering are their absolute denial. Sniffing at fun for not being serious is used to mask a lack of being serious about human suffering. Those who suffer and have been abandoned utterly by happiness and fun, will be forgiven if they abandon courage, and with it, at best, stoicism, at worst morality. For they hope for the relief of sheer abandonment. Fun is pure sheer abandonment. To extol someone’s virtue merely for being serious or for making suffering the only benchmark of what matters is to play a false card. It is to renege on the virtues of good will and high spirits, even on the virtues — stoical or not — that serve us when suffering: courage, forbearance, and kindness. It is to descend to whinging. Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘there is no duty so much underrated as the duty of being happy’.
Philosophers, notorious for being burdened by their seriousness, could hardly take to happiness, let alone fun, as a foundation for moral judgement. Kant was explicit about this and combines his seriousness with a passion for the austerity of reason. Yet I can’t help appreciating his restrained reflections on reason and the moral imperatives and obligations that he took reason to generate. For all my admiration of an ethics of virtue rather than rules, there is something archaic about an ethics of virtue. No doubt we can scarcely hope to understand the virtues unless historically — not so much in the sense that one lives the good life as a kind of creation of a personal history but rather in the sense that whatever is a virtue depends on the times. Since this is so, we can scarcely understand modern virtues unless we understand the critical effect that Enlightenment disenchantment with and critique of the virtues has had. Without something of the universalism that modern ethics seeks, finds, declares or denies — what in Kant’s case was the product his grinding reason — living merely by ones virtues would be living under the nightmare of an archaic ethics. For even if we might find Kant’s rationality too divorced from experience and the moral emotions, and therefore somehow inhuman, reason has its own passion. It is a passion deeply implicated in the obligations felt by the virtue, for instance, of justice.
Being happy is a duty if and only if there is a virtue which is the capacity for happiness. Of less moment than happiness, fun has the virtue of being mere nonsense right from the start. If it pretended to be more it would lose whatever virtue it might have.
Only in fun’s absolute levity does its gravity lie. It can never become a weighty existential condition. If it did it would only offer a party in place of life. As an experience fun is no better than comfort, dispiriting in the absence of any relief from it. Likewise when fun only pretends to be just fun; it makes a show of its absolute levity with the result that it is anything but.
A generation ago now Cindy Lauper dressed up as Girlwoman and fought the mean spirit of parents downtrodden by superannuated cares like working poverty. She sang her song out of a fun mix of pleasure-feminism, generationalist pop sociology, and the hype of eternal youth, and in doing so marked the canonisation of the word as part of the enduring jargon of 80s zeitgeist. The moment it became jargon though it also became a marketing slogan. So ‘fun’ is not a pure and simple word; it’s not just ‘just fun’. It is more plastic than wood, more packaged now than gleaned or in bulk. Yet we still expect it to be just fun like it always was for those eternal parents who say they ‘used to make their own’. That is part of the lie about fun: its humble and timeless simplicity is used to conceal the latest fetish of consumption. But of course everything is a commodity now, or as they prefer to say, product.
Like happiness fun is not a sufficient condition for the good life, but for humans, if they don’t live the good life, happiness is not possible. I don’t mean happiness as when it is deliberately mistaken to mean pleasure. Everyone knows happiness and pleasure are quite different. I mean happiness in the sense it has when we speak of the question of how to live the good life. Aristotle’s word was eudaimonia, which in English we only hesitate to translate as happiness if we feel obliged, against our usual sensibilities, to misconstrue happiness as pleasure. If it were possible to have fun without living the good life, it would be an unhappy kind of fun. Like happiness, fun is different from pleasure, for there is little possibility of fun that is not somehow virtuous. A torturer can feel pleasure but not have fun.
Narrative art has fun in the funny ha-ha of comedy. Tradition has protected comedy against the charge of non-seriousness by nothing more serious than a mere formality: such is the evocation of suffering in the tradition of the memento mori. There is the wonderful ‘Fête de la Colinière’ scene in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu. After the players sing ‘En Revenant de la Revue’ and take their curtain calls, the ‘Danse Macabre’ starts up on the pianola. Under the distracted gaze of the now idle pianist the keys are played by invisible hands and Death begins his dance first on stage and then amongst audience, and then in the halls and grounds of the Château itself. La Règle du Jeu is a romantic comedy and therefore fun, but instead of the jealous gamekeeper’s bullets all missing, the last one, by a farcical misrecognition, kills the lovelorn hero. Either Renoir put fun into his tragic farce or death into his romantic comedy or both. Admirers of the film often seem compelled to praise the film as a scathing critique of French society on the eve of WWII. Complacent with gravity and hindsight, they can’t resist loading the film with the weight of the coming war. But this misses the film’s passions and its sufferings, the experience of the living, the emotional depth of the film, which are only there in the warmth and fun of the crazy, funny present. Lightness is all.

Happiness itself has not quite lost the levity that flees when things fall under the heavy hand of academic jargon, but if happiness studies get any more serious, happiness will take flight and have to take up refuge with fun. And then they will be hunted down together. Even to write these thoughts is to put fun at risk, like revealing its hideaway, or advertising it as a tourist attraction. Yet fun is happy-go-lucky. It might always dodge the jargon and come back even if under another term. When it doesn’t all hope will be gone.