25 juin 2007

archives without explanation

“You see, I am an old anarchist — you have to destroy the power, not take the power. I think we are opening all the boundaries, and that with this tool, this media, people without writing can transmit their fantasies to some other people and to share that with them. And it was maybe the aim of the first anthropologists. But, unfortunately, they wanted to be scientists and to push their own explanation on the others systems. We are just making archives of that without explanation. The explanation will come later on. I think that's wonderful because it will change the face of the world.” - Jean Rouch

21 juin 2007

Wittgenstein and Oliveira 2

"If the human artifice par excellence is language, if that is our true nature, then the word constitutes the weave of existence itself."


"If the migrations of the soul are unutterable, if the possible transgressions seem too autistic, then the other is nothing more than a pretext for complaint or for one’s reasoning; meanwhile, life escapes us inexorably, as fleeting as the water of that river which flows on the other side of the train’s window, as the film shows us again and again. In the end, of these many forms of existence, no one is able to capture more than some vague explanations offered to the wind, whose secret seems to safeguard some sort of original sin of impossible redemption, lost in the darkness of time."

- from On the Uncertain Nature of Cinema (By Way of the Work of Manoel de Oliveira) by Victor Erice

I was going to write an in-depth piece on the significance of Wittgenstein's early work in establishing language as the only way to engage meaningfully with the world, yet still entirely lacking as a tool for engagement with certain meaningful things. Instead, I stumbled across a piece that cites all the passages I had intended and then some, and makes my case as effectively as I could have hoped for. So, with my endorsement, I point you to paragraphs 2 through 7 of Wittgenstein, Hofstadter, Varela by Matthew Segall. The rest of the piece goes in directions I don't agree with - the section on Hofstadter is especially disconcerting, as I think it misunderstands some main arguments from Gödel, Escher, Bach. Though I can't speak to his thoughts on Varela's idea of autopoesis, I do find his approach to Wittgenstein very much in line with my own. On the assumption that you've read the Wittgenstein section of the piece, I will now speak of Manoel de Oliveira.

I would say that Oliveira's work rests on the supposition that by speaking, we falsely believe that language contains the whole of truth (thus falling into the trap of Logical Positivism). What Oliveira does is perhaps to add the "that which cannot be spoken of," by way of hinting at it through rhythym, through observation, and through the image. Oliveira's camera, through its steadiness, subverts the passionate assertions of truth on the part of his characters (the 'objective' camera puts 'subjective' speech in context). By letting his characters carry through their arguments to their logical possible ends, we see the limits of argument - which is to say, language. It is as if Oliveira's work is the Tractatus in its complete form, without the Logical Positivist misinterpretation, where the emphasis has been re-placed on the final sentence. Oliveira, like Wittgenstein, explores language as a possibly complete system for engaging with the world; like Wittgenstein, he gives language a full chance and still finds it lacking. Oliveira's work fully explores that which can be spoken of to give a sense of that which lies beyond the posssibilities of speech.

Proposition 7

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
("Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen")
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

17 juin 2007

Oliveira and Wittgenstein

This is a comment I left on Danny's post on O Quinto Império - Ontem Como Hoje. Read my previous, more in-depth post on this film here.

"I wonder how much of Oliveira’s project is Wittgensteinian… I’m thinking not so much of the Investigations, but of his earlier work (esp the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), which asserts that the analysis of language is the only way to meaningfully discuss the facts that make up the world [”Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”]. That is the last sentence of the Tractatus, which to me means that Wittgenstein sees other things as important but they are, literally, unspeakable. Does the weighty absence of these things in Wittgenstein’s work connect to those moments in Oliveira’s work when things are not spoken (the Jesus in the tapestry, for instance)?"

The above is in need of an expansion, but not now; I'm off to see O Lucky Man! now, and If... a bit later on. Here's your bonus Wittgenstein content of the day: three clips from Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein (via the new Wittgenstein blog The Wittgenstein Forum):

11 juin 2007

Oprah discovers socialism

In a post entitled "universal is for everybody" - oprah discovers socialism, CR at ads without products embeds a video of Michael Moore on Oprah, in which they discuss the necessity of universal health care, and Oprah - Oprah! - does the heavy lifting of reclaiming the word socialism for the American public.

Transcript and further comments at ads without products.

Of course Moore is the P.T. Barnum of American progressive activism, but in the American marketplace of ideas, what you need more than a good idea is a good salesman.

Sicko comes out June 29.

09 juin 2007

Television Delivers People

Television Delivers People, Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman, 1973

Il Cantilena

"Il Cantilena" is the oldest known literary text in the Maltese language; the poem dates from the 15th century and is attributed to Pietru Caxaro. For me, it's one of the more eloquent, embittered portraits of love built on poor foundations -- or, perhaps, a good engineering lesson about the construction of wells.

Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
Bir imgamic rimitne betiragin mucsule
Fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Nitla vu nargia ninzil deyem fil bachar il hali.

Huakit hi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Mectatilix mihallimin me chitali tafal morchi
fen timayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
vackit hi mirammiti.

Huakit by mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
Mectatilix li mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
Min ibidill il miken ibidil i vintura
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura
hemme ard bayad v hemme ard seude et hamyra
Hactar min hedann heme tred mine tamara.


Witness my predicament, my friends, as I shall relate it to you:
never has there been, neither in the past, nor in your lifetime,
Such a heart, ungoverned, without lord or sultan,
That threw me down a well, with broken stairs
Where, yearning to drown, I descend the steps of my downfall,
Climb back up, only to go down again in this sea of woe.

She fell, my edifice, which I had been building for so long,
It was not the builders’ fault, but that of the soft clay beneath;
Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay
She fell, my building!

She fell, my building, her foundations collapsed;
It was not the builders’ fault, but the rock gave way,
Where I had hoped to find rock, I found loose clay
She fell, my edifice, which I had been building for so long,
And so, my edifice subsided, and I shall have to build it up again,
change the site that caused its downfall
Who changes his place, changes his fate!
for each place has its own shape;
there is white land and there is black land, and red
But above all, you must stay clear of it.

06 juin 2007

'Non', ou A Vã Glória de Mandar

Trailer for Manoel de Oliveira's 1990 film 'Non', ou A Vã Glória de Mandar / No, or the Vain Glory of Command:

2 IMDB user comments makes this seem like Oliveira's anti-colonialist masterpiece:

"Episodes from entire military history of Portugal are told through flashbacks as a professorish soldier recounts them while marching through a Portuguese African colony in 1973. He easily draws his comrades into philosophical musings, and the little contingent suffers badly at the hands of the local military opposition."

"The movie starts in the beginning of the end the of Portuguese Colonial Empire, illustrating the discontent of Portugueses Arm Forces concerning the development of the war in the Portuguese Colonies. At the same time, it demonstrates, in the words of a young Portuguese soldier (as a way of explaining why they are there,in the war), the evolution of the existence of Portuguese State (as a concept or an idea of building independent State). Which shows from Viriato (considered the "first Portuguese" to fight for the independence of the Roman province of Lusitania which now constitutes currently part of Porugal) passing by D. Sebastião (that was a Portuguese king that had a dream of building a Christian empire in northern Africa; from there reconquer the holy land, and after that crowned himself Pope of all Christianity and then overthrown the Pope in Rome)... It's a very profund film, and I consider it a one of the greatest achievements of the Portuguese moderno cinema."

Manoel de Oliveira's O Quinto Império - Ontem Como Hoje

"This historical and utopian obsession with the Fifth Empire seems to have become a reality again. One that has already been tried out by the U.N. and is now being carried out with deep conviction by the European Union. In the meantime, the world is today submitted to a sort of return to the Middle Ages, subjected to an implacable terrorism that victimizes the innocent and which disturbs the U.S.A. as much as Europe, attempting to destroy western civilization. This is a sort of return to an atavistic and incoherent struggle, which is also a return to the mythical Fifth Empire, to the desired one and the hidden one... These are the reasons leading me to give this film the title: THE FIFTH EMPIRE – YESTERDAY AS TODAY." – Manoel de Oliveira

Manoel de Oliveira's O Quinto Império - Ontem Como Hoje (The Fifth Empire - Yesterday As Today)

What is the Fifth Empire?

What does Camões have to do with it?
Luís de Camões, the singular Portuguese literary figure, wrote Os Lusíadas, the great Portuguese national epic. Os Lusíadas chronicles Portugal's voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries, and shares the sense of a people's great (divinely foreordained) destiny with Virgil's Aeneid. Camões printed the work in 1572, for which he received a stipend from Sebastião. Os Lusíadas, like The Aeneid, is a myth of the past that informs a near-messianic vision of the future of the nation. The poetry of Camões shows up sporadically in O Quinto Império.

"This film to which I am giving the title THE FIFTH EMPIRE - YESTERDAY AS TODAY is based on the theatre play EL-REI SEBASTIÃO, by José Régio. José Régio (1900 to 1968) was a critic, poet, playwright, novelist and essayist; he was a major figure of his time and of today, and the play, as he stated, intended to analyse the King, the Man and the mythical character of the Portuguese King Sebastião.
Sebastião, after the overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Alcácer-Kibir (1578), better known as the Battle of the Three Kings, after which his body was never identified, became the myth of the hidden one, having previously been the desired one and the one destined to receive the myth. A myth which is indeed sung and exalted in the sermons of Father António Vieira (XVII Century), by the philosopher Sampaio Bruno (XIX Century) and in the XX Century by the poet Fernando Pessoa and by the philosopher José Marinho, among other Portuguese writers and psychologists, as well as by some foreign researchers.
Curiously, this myth is also part of the Muslim mythology with the same nomenclature of the hidden one and, just like King Sebastião, the same is supposed to take place with the Muslim Imam (that of the twelfth generation) whose common belief is that he will come on a white horse on a misty morning in order to finally defeat the evil of the world and establish harmony among people." - Manoel de Oliveira

This Oliveira quote gets at why Sebastião is such an interesting figure from a Portuguese perspective, but sidesteps the actual plot of the movie. The film is the process of Sebastião deciding to embark on the crusade that leads to the Battle of Alcácer-Kibir. A bit of background:
In the 16th century, Christian Europe was in the midst of a centuries-long existential conflict with the Muslim world. In 1529 the Ottomans lay siege to Vienna (as would happen again in 1683). The Iberian peninsula had only been retaken from the Moors in 1492. In 1571, the Turkish Sultan had been defeated at Lepanto by Christian forces commanded by Don John of Austria, King Sebastião's grandfather. This film chronicles the leadup to Sebastião's 1578 campaign into Morocco (to choose sides in a civil war). Sebastião ignored the wisdom of his advisers and invaded, leading to the ruin of the Portuguese nation -- it disappeared as an independent nation from 1580 to 1640 (or, arguably, until the end of the Portuguese Restoration War in 1668).

Let's review: in the midst of a long, existential conflict with the Muslim world, a ruler tries to replicate the success of his father - sorry, grandfather - and embarks on an ill-advised mission against the advice of experienced leaders in the country, leading to the ruin of his nation. Oh, and he believes that God put him on the throne to begin with, and hears voices encouraging his actions? Perhaps now is a good time to remind you of the subtitle of the film...

It's clear, though that Oliveira is doing more than critiquing the Bush administration. His first quote tips us off that his critique is of the entire neoliberal order, and the quest to extend global capitalism. Oliveira's implication is that this extension of the values of the West - including capitalism, and even democracy and individual rights - shares essential characteristics with the religious and political aspirations of the Age of Empires. I'd argue that Oliveira doesn't oppose those values so much as recognize that the exertion of power taints both victor and victim, and thus calls into question the exercise of power in "defense" of (or rather, for the extension of) Western values -- rather than questioning the values themselves. Or perhaps I'm projecting...

Stylistically, this is very much a Manoel de Oliveira film. Oliveira uses long static shots of people seated and talking, often while not facing each other. In spite of this, the pace of the film is made (relatively) fast due to how much is being said; for Oliveira, content frequently lies in what we hear. This theatricality and staginess is important to Oliveira because he fully believes that sound is a more important storytelling mechanism than the camera.

And yet, the cinematography is stunning; the pictures I've posted do poor justice to a chiaroscuro brilliance that calls to mind the best of Rembrandt, or the most dramatic lighting of John Alcott's/Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin has shot 6 films with Oliveira (most of his recent output), 2 of Chantal Akerman's, and shot Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre. This film is like 3,000 frames of glorious renaissance art, full of vanishing points and shadow and candlelight.
The pace of the film and its artful use of light allow the embrace of architectural beauty; lancet arches and other Gothic forms become focal points in the frame, further historicising the film but also creating a pure formal beauty.

Portrait of Jan Six, 1654. Oil on canvas.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

still from Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

The Fifth Empire - Yesterday As Today [Official Site]

Further reading:
Against the Grain: On the Cinematic Vision of Manoel de Oliveira
by Randal Johnson (from 2003)

04 juin 2007

More on Amália

Inspired by my recent post on saudade and fado, here are some clips of the incomparable Amália Rodrigues.

First, 2 clips from the 1948 film Fado, História d'uma Cantadeira, directed by Perdigão Queiroga and starring Amália Rodrigues as a fado singer torn between love and fame.

Singing "Povo Que Lavas No Rio" in 1961:

A performance of "Lisboa Antiga" from 1969:

03 juin 2007

The Real Problem with Transformers

"Our enemy can take any shape... they could be anywhere..."
- dialogue from the forthcoming Transformers movie

Andy at Kino Slang posted some (preemptive) objections to Michael Bay's Transformers based on its complicity with the American military enterprise. While I also find this problematic, my real concerns with the film are the way in which it engages with the paradigm of contemporary warfare.

The film starts out as an allegory for 4th Generation Warfare (4GW), or perhaps even 5GW: enemies are hidden among us, yet to reveal themselves; they pose an existential threat to our society due to their capability to inflict huge damage instantaneously; these enemies emerge from the crowd of our everyday life, and have the ability to then slip back among us unnoticed, tainting all of our everyday routines and interactions with suspicion and fear. The film then renegs on this promised exploration of the enemy in our midst, in favor of a traditional (read: 3GW) military fantasy, where expertise with the tools of war provides hard-fought but ultimately inevitable victory. This military wish-fulfillment fantasy is on par with the power fantasies provided by comic-book superheros. It perpetuates the myth that the US Army can win a conflict -- any conflict -- due to its technological superiority and the grit of the soldier on the ground. The root of this power fantasy is a visible, stable 3GW enemy who need only be outthought and outmaneuvered to be defeated. This is the most ideologically dangerous component of the film: the perpetuation of an outmoded strategy -- and perhaps more importantly, an outmoded myth of warfare. I'm reminded of the experience of English soldiers in World War I (as relayed via Paul Fussell's excellent book The Great War and Modern Memory). Those men went off to war expecting the heroism of The Iliad, carrying with them ideals of personal heroism and sacrifice and expecting to return home "by Christmas." What they found was the mess and slaughter of a pointless and chaotic war, quite the opposite of the notions of heroism they had been fed. Fussell's book is predominantly about the development of a particular strand of literary irony in this generation of writers who experienced life in the trenches firsthand. If Transformers can be taken as representative of our present response to myth-disillusionment as much as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden were of the WWI generation, then the present response is instead one of nostalgia for the definable enemies of past days. It seems that few if any First World War veteran writers returned to the concepts of heroism expressed in Homer or the Romantic lyric. Those British soldiers experienced the disillusioning truth of war, but in 4GW [and 5GW] it is the citizenry who is made victim (with fear a main weapon of war). Thus a nostalgia arises from our desire for a defendable and secure social order, and no engagement with the realities of conflict in the modern age will do. Hollywood's machine pretends to do what no modern military apparatus can -- restore (the facade of) security to our everyday lives.

But, will the inevitable sequel-tease undercut this establishment of imagined safety?

For more on 4GW / 5GW, see:
John Robb at Global Guerrillas
Wikipedia on 4GW
5GW at ComingAnarchy
Truly Formless 5GW at ComingAnarchy
tdaxp on 5GW (in-depth)
Kung Fu Monkey on 4th Generation Media

Saudade and Colossal Youth

Fado, Portugal's traditional music that shares the intensity of emotion of flamenco or the blues, relies on an emotion called saudade. Saudade isn't limited to fado, though; it's a theme of many varieties of art from Portugal. Hard to translate, it's an emotion that reflects a deep yearning for something lost, something that can't be regained but that still leaves a flicker of hope... Saudade runs deeply through Colossal Youth.

Amália Rodrigues is to fado what Piaf is to Chanson. Here is what saudade is:
Listen to "Quando Os Outros Te Batem Beijo-Te Eu;" pay special attention at about the 2:07 mark.
[Update: Due to technical problems with the upload, the moment I'm talking about is not at the 2:07 mark in the piece you hear. Trying to fix that soon... any suggestions for alternate ways to embed audio appreciated.]

Amália Rodrigues - "Quando Os Outros Te Batem Beijo-Te Eu"

Wikipedia on Saudade:
"Saudade is different from nostalgia (the English word, that is). In nostalgia, one has a mixed happy and sad feeling, a memory of happiness but a sadness for its impossible return and sole existence in the past. Saudade is like nostalgia but with the hope that what is being longed for might return, even if that return is unlikely or so distant in the future to be almost of no consequence to the present. One might make a strong analogy with nostalgia as a feeling one has for a loved one who has died and saudade as a feeling one has for a loved one who has disappeared or is simply currently absent. Nostalgia is located in the past and is somewhat conformist while saudade is very present, anguishing, anxious and extends into the future."

"Colossal Youth has more doors than any movie in history" - Tag Gallagher

Pedro Costa: A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing

Werner Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly begins with a scene of Dieter Dengler opening and closing doors. He explains that doors to him represent freedom, in contrast to his time as a POW during the Vietnam War. (Herzog suggested the scene, in his quest for ecstatic truth).
The doors that are so present in Colossal Youth hint at this notion of freedom, but with same irony as the film's Portuguese title (see my previous post on CY for more). The doors in this film may be open, but their passageways lead to nowhere. This irony is not complete, though, for these doors also are imbued with the slight possibility that they do represent freedom, in spite of our knowing better than to believe it ("When they give us white rooms we'll stop seeing these things"). This is a hope we can only call saudade.

^ Suggested in response to a post by Darren at Long Pauses.

One final note: I've created a Wikipedia page for Colossal Youth (there wasn't one before!). At the moment there's just some basic info up; I could use some help fleshing it out.