Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Real Mavericks: Folk Rhetoric in Harlan County, USA

Come, all you young fellers / So brave and so fine
Seek not your fortune / Way down in the mines
It’ll form like a habit / And will sink in your soul
Till the streams of your blood / Runs as black as the coal

Despite what becomes its heavily-vested, partisan approach, Harlan County, USA stands as a folkloric achievement. Though it is a hybrid of sorts, by using ritual, folksong, romanticization, and emphasis on the past, Harlan County becomes its own genre, that of political folklore. Today, while rich, corrupt politicians tout their own “folksiness,” it would be wise to remember this film and what it can teach us about the throngs of “folks” that really populate cities and towns across the United States. As the politically progressive Maverick family of Texas recently complained about the usurpation of their name by conservatives, the streams of miner blood are being co-opted here as well, but in this case to further their own political means.

Musically, Harlan County is rife with folklore. Writing of Give My Poor Heart Ease, Sherman states, “Although technically good, the film is too loosely structured to actually present the role that music plays for more than a few selected members...” (Sherman 1998: 86), and Harlan County could perhaps be seen here as the complete antithesis. The concept of music in HC is a central one, and the film is - though masterfully edited and by no means too dense to be fluid – an exercise in folk rhetoric. It aptly presents the role that music plays for just about all of the protagonists. Many sequences in the film are filled with music. The miners themselves, showing how important a role music plays in their lives, are oft seen singing or playing themselves. Right after the canary calls in the beginning, a rousing tune is struck up and the honorable, hard-working southerner that many of us Americans feel inside of us stands up and takes notice. While the images are of the sparse, hardscrabble lives of the workers and the environment, there is a non-diegetic soundtrack not so much wafting as hurtling through the air. In an environment where every movement and sound must be studied, and our biological ability to use auditory scene analysis is pushed to the forefront in a very survivalist way, it is no wonder the fast picking of banjos, mandolins, and guitars keep our ears attuned with each passing second, with each 64th note. The miner mind has become so attuned to auditory “busyness” that the music of the Kentucky hills, the bluegrass itself is very busy. Later, an old man sings unaccompanied on his porch in his rocking chair. This liminal space, sans picked mellophones, becomes a cry that he is retired and no longer requires the instrumentation to help him survive each and every second underground. Here, with these examples, music and folklore become inseparable.
The movie opens with a shouted, ostensibly common aspect of coal-mining; the canary, in the form and shape of a coal-covered, slightly shrouded man, calls to his co-workers that an explosion is about to occur. This ritual becomes a sort of touchstone for the rest of the film, and sets us up to enter the world of its subjects: the rural, poor masses and the boss and his cronies. Immediately, we flash back with photos of old miners, and voiceovers explaining the historical context of strike in “bloody Harlan.” A ritual only has power in its use to a culture through repetition, and we instantaneously feel that here. Indeed, documentary and journalistic filmmakers, especially in regard to the poor, Appalachian Hillbillybelt, seem to engage in a sort of ritual of their own. Abject poverty, as WE see it, finds a willing demographic in many people not living there. Barbara Kopple and Nancy Baker talk about their process of creation for Harlan County in their film-length Criterion commentary from two equally-fused angles; that of the actual process – their lack of money, film, bias – and their singular preoccupation with story. Baker speaks of first seeing it at a theater in New York, and noticing just how involved people got “with the story.” As we can see stories of poor vs. rich, exploited vs. exploiter, it is not difficult to feel an overwhelming sense of something approximating déja vù. This is where filming and viewing become ritual of their own, a sort of cultural meme in which compassion and schadenfreude mingle.

“The special success of Harlan County, however, is that even though it is documentary in format – and a “political documentary,” at that – it has much of the dramatic power and emotional impact of a fiction film, thus accounting for its potential to reach a general audience.” (Crowdus 1977: 564) This romanticizing of a strike storyline, with one side as inevitably heroic and never fully winning, and the other side as inherently cruel and bestial, is a very important sort of folkloric device. There can be no question as to the success of this Academy Award-winning piece. The folkloric interpretation is “[e]xplicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others.” (Sherman 1998: 2) Here, with this film, we are understanding ourselves by understanding others in a very dichotomized fashion. Social theorists such as Saussure and Adorno argue that capitalism creates many false dichotomies – indeed, post-structuralism argues that many of the classic black/white polarizations merit a good deal of blending, and this is probably something along the lines of the Crowdus' critique when he writes of the climax, “which to a certain extent opens the film to the charges of emotional voyeurism so often leveled against TV news journalism – obscures the importance of other events...” (Crowdus 1977: 567) Sherman writes, “folklore film and video highlight this interpretive function” (Sherman 1998: 2) where this “emotional voyeurism” can be seen in much on television, even journalism aside. These have both exacerbating and enlightening side effects. So we have a highly evocative set of images which helps us define ourselves as pro-worker or pro-owner. Kopple romanticizes, focuses on several individuals as “representative figure[s] for a culture,” (Sherman 1998: 7)) - in this case, the coal-mining hillbillies of Eastern Kentucky – and her participant observation style which John Sayles, in an interview on the criterion disc, says proved to the people there that they could trust her. All of these conventions have their documentary root in the originator of the genre, Robert Flaherty, and, as Sherman states on page 7, “are the elements of a filmic model that folklore documentary filmmakers emulated.”

The film evokes the importance of the past by contrasting today with yesteryear, in that there is a smattering of archival footage of a similar situation from the 1930s. Though this underscores the importance of the past, Kopple also has many instances in the film where the “characters” themselves mention this. Their experiences are thusly contextualized and reinforced. The film however, doesn't serve to diminish the power of the present, but rather strengthens it. It pulls its might straight from Nietzsche's philosophy of history – the past matters only in how it can motivate us today.

There can be no doubt that Kopple is documenting these people as rural and important for it. Indeed, when the film goes to a rally of mineworkers in the city, it seems a bit of pleading for the city dwellers amongst us to connect our mutual plights and stand together. In the first year in the United States, 2008, where more people dwell in cities than rural communities, we start to sense nostalgically that Kopple's film is even more past-centered, despite it's political preoccupation with the present. Her narrative style, despite politics, is slow and methodical – one could argue, “homey.” She lived with people for 4 years in order to produce a sub-2 hour documentary. In a crazy, hectic, computer-saturated, profit and time-obsessed nation, the Kopple style alone evokes a desire to return to simpler days, something most folklorists – nay, social scientists in general – would smile at.
In its portrayal of the constant struggle between worker and owner, Harlan County partially uses the mechanics of folklore. Not intentionally rushing to save any particular part of hillbilly culture, the film nonetheless has a certain amount of latent urgency. Similar to the Red Queen Effect in evolution, where species must run non-stop, as fast as possible to keep up with the competition from their own and predatory/parasitic species, here there is depicted a certain amount of this. It is no wonder that social Darwinists, who certainly side with Basil in this film, will mime “survival of the fittest,” and probably is a counter-motivation behind the humanistic, full portrayal of the workers, and not their bosses. Here, Kopple falls into the trap discussed by Weinberger: “They have typical members. We do not. They are unusual[ly greedy, stupid, and slovenly], but can be comprehended. We are usual[ly just, benign, simply fighting for what is duly ours], but ultimately incomprehensible [due not to our vast complexity but the immediate and immense threats to our survival].” (Weinberger 1992: 58) The owners aren't portrayed with nearly as much depth as the strikers. Here is Godard's “lie” of editing, or a self-admitted bias – of course owners have depth and a personality every bit as subjective and potentially interesting as a miner (or even more), but the documentary maker, especially the political one, must make the unusual seem usual. The folklorist, to the contrary, doesn't make anything. The things are made and the folklorist strives to be a clear window, both of this world, and of a filmmaking world.

As an interesting aside, John Sayles was interviewed on the Criterion disc about Harlan County, USA. His 1987 film, Matewan, deals directly with the Matewan massacre of the 1930s, and is something that added more mystique to Barbara Kopple's approach. Sayles' film contains some similar music but in a more polished and glossy overall vibe. Both films contain musicians playing on-screen. If we consider western music as an attempt to progress in skill toward perfection, do we not consider folk music the same way? Probably not, but there is that secret inner analysis when we watch film. Chronologically our brains place simple and off-key well before slick and compressed. When we consider Matewan and Harlan County then, we see a progress of time and a regression of sound quality. In this sense, Harlan County becomes more folkloric still, as she seems to put more emphasis on spontaneous song and less skilled musicianship. This romanticizes the past simply because in our brains, while considering coal-mining music, Harlan County seem chronologically older, even if it's about a much more recent event. Rather than post-modernly collapsing time, as in Gardner's films, this becomes folkloric in that it puts higher value on the past and works in a reverse vortex of Gardner (Weinberger 1992: 160-161).

“What I'm really saying is that those people who think they own the city—who are the wealthy—while they're at sleep during that night air, there's forty radio stations transmitting Huayno music” (Sherman 1998: 91), and this could just as easily symbolize the protests of Harlan County miners against Carl Horn, Basil, and the others, “who are the wealthy.” In Harlan County, music goes from a sort of symbolic underground railroad – see Sherman's discussion of John Cohen – to an overt form of protest. Gone are the days of Victor Jara being butchered to quell the Allende uprising, or so we'd like to hope. One man does lose his life here, and its better to remember Hugh O'Connor before we jump to such conclusions, let alone other places in the world where music feeds the struggle of small groups against large, of guerilla against State. There is an unresolved note that never reaches cadence here: no matter how much money you have, we harken back to the conversation between miner and police officer, when the miners bring their strike to the city. “See that electric light there (pointing, officer looks up to follow line of gesture)? These people don't know that one of us dies everyday for that, everyday in the mines.” No matter what injustices are dealt with, we are quickly brought to the fore of this high, lonesome sound. We're reminded of our own mortality, and of the humanity that struggles daily to place that anxiety in a lockbox, to rise out of bed and fight back the cresting of the wave. If that isn't folklore's goal, than what is it?

Though ultimately it is difficult to argue against Kopple's bias, for one from a working family especially, we must be able to see it, name it, and realize that our experience of the realities that we are so luckily able to perceive here is at times clouded and opaque. In the ragged battle for meaning, however, we have to realize that being scientists at times must take a back seat to our inner aesthete. The beauty here isn't in establishing eternal truths – though that may be arguable to a degree – but in depicting humanity. The human experiment is an ongoing one, and at times, otherwise quiet, downtrodden, or dispossessed peoples will stop being Sisyphus and become bold, daring Icarus – we may touch the sun but nobody gets out alive. The wax will, alas, finally melt. A banal, but true aphorism can sum this up better than a standard essay conclusion: Einstein's “imagination is more important than knowledge,” and this is Kopple's fine-tuned and folkloric message. The real mavericks out there already know it.

-Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple, 1976.
-Matewan, John Sayles, 1987.

-Crowdus, Gary. 1977. "Film Comment."
-Sherman, Sharon. 1998. Documenting Ourselves: Film, Video, and Culture. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Oh, Grand Wheel!

The atheist demagogue Richard Dawkins, speaking of the cultural equivalent to evolutionary psychology, has written of its equivalent to the gene: meme. These tidbits of information survive the fall and collapse of civilizations, at least as some sort of pastiche in the very least, because they aid humans in their selfish biological quest.
Though the existence of some sort of "pure" altruism is still being debated by academics, the idea that these cultural constructs repeat themselves throughout time is a concept both implied and parodied by Gavin Heffernan's "Grand Wheel."

This film is listed as experimental, and though it contains no dialogue or narration, the shot selection tells a pretty simple story. Going from the opening merry-go-round to the ending sequence of a zoom-out of graves, the sun glinting off the middle portion, we are never consoled that this repetition of history will end. The entire middle portion of the film, which consists of protest footage and a gasping shark certainly provides no hope that this cycle of history can or will every cease.

Despite the good feeling we get when we attend a protest and stand with those of a like mind (or the memories that such a film evokes), we ultimate feel as though we're preaching to the choir, and this film illustrates that well. The haunting notes of Godspeed You Black Emperor add to this frustration: yes, war repeats itself, bloodshed, violence, mass graves - they all repeat themselves.

The power of this film, however, lies in its mocking undertone. Though all of these bad things come cyclically, like some vast, circadian, cultural truth, so too repeats the congratulatory protest, the tears of the just, the denuding, entropic reality of the cycle of life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New Noise: How Fares' Jalla! Jalla! Manipulates Stereotype to Challenge Tradition

“...and every desire that we earn will guide us
alive, living, loving & searching. ”
“And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice?
We need new noise - new art for the real people”
New Noise,
both songs by the band The Refused, both used in Jalla! Jalla!

Jalla, like many words, is a word with multiple connotations, and could be seen as symbolic of what can become of our current age of communication: a ziggurat of power, with each stage ascending toward a smaller, dominant post which looks down upon the subsequent stages and can use their constructs, such as language, to ridicule and further dominate them. Fares is aware of this, and his film Jalla! Jalla! is used to subtly counteract this notion, in a very realistic way.

Not a lot about Jalla! Jalla! Is subtle. The story, though not formulaic, borders on simple; Roro is in love with Lisa, whom he can't introduce to his family (insert cultural stereotype/mos1 here), which in turn introduce him to Yasmin, who Roro – being a nice guy – decides to help out through marriage so that her family (re-insert cultural stereotype/mos) won't send her back to Lebanon. The only person Roro can talk to about this is Mans, his best friend, who is preoccupied with his own relationship failing, mainly due to his inability to face up to his erectile dysfunction problem. These stereotypes or mores are challenged in the film, and thus challenge this formal communication structure, but along the way we get a lot of crude humor and scenes that allow the movie to be palatable to those who may not normally find the social critique of the film immediately interesting.

One of the bases of the movie is that, despite tradition, marrying outside of your traditional “race” or ethnicity is acceptable. In fact, the movie celebrates this as its central theme. The only part that seems all that unbelievable is that, in the end, when he couldn't do it in their house several times, Roro finally tells his family of his love for Lisa, and the wedding is entirely ruined. Perhaps he thinks this is the only way that he can shake up Yasmin's family and show them how stodgy and traditional they have been acting, or perhaps it is a bombastic combination of refusal of tradition and pure love. This movie celebrates this term of pure love, unhindered by tradition, or perhaps bolstered by it in order to break through barriers of the past. Roro's uncle, at one point in the film, asks why that is all Roro talks of, “love love love. Is that all you think of?” We can definitely understand this if we have relatives that lived through the great depression or a war, as this kind of story is heard often: the forsaking of love is justified on the basis of necessity. How can we argue against this? Likewise, in today's world, where many countries (especially those of the first world) enjoy a good deal of affluence, shouldn't we try and seek a type of love based on something more than necessity? This is the central theme of Jalla! Jalla! and even if we know nothing of the mores of weddings in the Arab world, we can still understand the resonance of this message.

Likewise, we have a subtle challenging of masculinity in this movie. Despite the fact that Roro and Mans interact with a sort of cheeky homophobic banter, still we are shown how silly it is to base masculinity on matters of the penis, literally and figuratively. Mans is a sufferer of ED and despite his many efforts to the contrary, he simply can't find a way to make it work – the humor is of course in that he won't submit to a real doctor and confess his problems so that he could possibly overcome this. He tries shamanism, a penis pump, and several other ploys and finally he loses his girl because he can't resign himself to see a doctor. The irony is that he finally learns to overcome this problem when he is put in jail, in an entirely powerless situation.

Jalla! Jalla! Isn't meant to be a political doctrine to reform all life, but it challenges two very powerful constructs, those of masculinity and traditional “love.” It succeeds not because it takes these two concepts to their absolute ends, as there are still nods to tradition (which is very important) and homophobia (which is quite sad, really), but because it is on the side of the battle that is trying to change things that it can.

Friday, May 2, 2008

One Blueprint For Reconstruction: The Circumvention of "Us vs. Them" in Friðriksson's Cold Fever

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11:9
“Every single constituent of any linguistic system is built on an opposition of two logical contradictories: the presence of an attribute ("markedness") in contraposition to its absence ("unmarkedness").”
Roman Jakobson
"Space and force pervade language. Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studied.”
Stephen Pinker

In Cold Fever, Fridriksson provides us an out to our evolutionary nature of forming boundaries, coalitions, and using the fractious and nationalist modes of language to separate. Whereas an immature filmmaker could have stopped far short and ended in the desperate and dramatic flings of the Babel effect, such as Coppola's Lost in Translation, we wonder if she's seen this gem. Cold Fever goes beyond the romance novel melodrama of sadness-borne-of-personal-despair-cum-happenstance-meeting -in-foreign-country-assuaged-by-quasi-adulterous-affair to a much deeper understanding of the human dilemma. Here, despite no romantic interest, we find a hope for something better.

Hirata travels to Iceland to right the wrongs of his past and we become him. He repeatedly notes that this place is “strange,” and considering the aptly chosen series of events, we can't help but agree. He meets a “psychic,” or at least one endowed with what she thinks are extraordinary gifts, and he is just desperate enough to accept her attention to him as truth; he buys her car and begins driving across the landscape. Introductory college courses of Archaeology aside, we're painted a pretty bleak picture here of wintry Iceland; Bob Ross has gone off of his SSRI and the mis en scene is one of stark contrasts. Though many of the scenes could have been shot in black and white without much loss, the rusty red of his newly purchased car, the grays of spirits in the middle of an ice field, and the funereal Johnny Cash black of Hirata as he wanders from the stop sign where he was kicked from his car to the village where he finds redemption are very important to this film's dramatic shape. Fridriksson to viewer: the world is bleak, cold, and unforgiving place but if you can make it through the tunnel, there is something glowing at the end.

Spirituality is a huge factor here. A spirit actually appears to warn Hirata of impending doom if he continues along his way (unfortunately she doesn't warn him of the upcoming psycho couple who will rob him – perhaps we find the limitations of foreign-language-speaking spirits here), and she even starts his car for him, in case the ice-breaking avalanche in the distance of his desired direction isn't enough. Hirata, as Job, is then faced with this faith-challenging ordeal: the American couple. Its easy to pick on Americans, and these are certainly the quintessential ones. Jack and Jill (haha) like hot dogs and the New York Yankees. Jack and Jill (read: Bonnie and Clyde) also like shooting innocent people and the lure of the GTA (before it was popular, mind you). So this comes off as a bit cliché, but Lili Taylor – of Six Feet Under fame – is great and so is her Jack, and so it's meant as tongue in cheek a bit, certainly. It comes across more as delightful, quirky humor than banal nation-bashing.

Ultimately, Hirata (and us) find a sort of quasi-spiritual salvation in Siggi, whom he meets at an Icelandic cowboy celebration. They share a bottle of black death, and then Siggi offers to take Hirata to the river where he must peform his parents' ritual burial. After having a “strange” dream, where Hirata alone is confronted with scores of whiteclad people (spirits?), Siggi says he can't go any further. In Cold Fever we find Hirata on his hero quest forsaking past ways of conquering a nation.

The message here is clear. Do not fall prey to full modernism and becoming the golf-ball swinging boss who scoffs at his employee's tradition and dedication to the Shinto burial. Do not let a stark landscape and foreign language keep you from being a good and civil person, even if it means you'll have to suffer some. Finally, do not think that you know everything. Remember that “stupid people believe in only what they can touch and see.” It's not a shame that the Tower of Babel fell and separated us; this created the melismatic abundance of diversity that we have today. The shame is that this separation makes it all to easy to cling to nationalism, which leads to hate and war.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Generally, this page will not come from the "I." That should not make anyone think for a second that I am not biased or that this page has any sort of empirical merit, beyond being true to citing sources where it is appropriate, and the citing of miscellany from various traditions, and various countries. Furthermore, I will attempt to update this site once or more weekly, but due to previous engagements (i.e. life), I can't guarantee that.

Why start a blog when I already have one (here)? This is an attempt to be scholarly with each and every post, and my personal blog is a mixture of venting, memoir, and quasi-scholastic writing, not to be mistaken for this site - which will be a conscious effort to enter the public arena and tear out the mouldered and desiccated drywall that has begun to fester. I shall then attempt to proceed with a certain degree of positivity, at times, with the hope of offering a contrapuntal melody.

Why am I an evolutionary psychologist? There are numerous reasons, but they distill down to my leaning toward evolution as a tentative and as yet unfinished way of explaining humanity's origins and hoping we can find a way to understand one another. You could lump this under the liberal doctrine of idealizing education. Though our evolutionary past and present is a litany of war, jealousy, greed, and general malfeasance, our evolutionary future is certainly unwritten. It takes hundreds of generations before a mutation can take place, and become a trait, but if we don't start doing something soon we'll either end up like Mad Max or a cretin in Idiocracy.

Why am I a humanist? To sum it up:
"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity," from the American Humanist Association. How radical? Radical enough to be fed up with the Republocrat chokehold on American politics.

Last but not least, why cinema? I have a huge passion for movies, regardless of genre. The key for me is that they be intelligent; if not, they should prepare for a lashing.

What is up with the title? Mozi was a Chinese philosopher who established enough of a name to have people attribute amazing things to him in our day and age, such as Newton's first law of motion. He also invented the Camera Obscura, which is the predecessor to Camera and Film.

Please stop by and see if anything interests you here. There will be many forthcoming essays, and links about evolutionary psychology, humanism, cinema, and how they're all linked.

Thank you