Category: Arts and Entertainment

During my Crisis, before watching Güeros, I watched Parks and Recreation…Like, all of it. All seven seasons. Before that, I watched the first five seasons of Futurama. Before that, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Love, and every Best Picture winner since 1939 (minus a few bad eggs, not the least of which includes 2005’s Crash—c’mon, give me some credit!).

For all my talk of the “primordial power of cinema” in my last column, I would be remiss—and indeed, quite hypocritical—in failing to acknowledge cinema’s second primary function, borne out of its alluring spectacle quality: cinema as a medium for entertainment.

Indeed, cinema has always possessed a two-fold functionality—as emotional therapy and as spectacle—which was made apparent immediately following film’s inception in the late 1890s. This dichotomy is most obvious among the two towering French pioneers of this early era: Auguste and Louis Lumière (the “Lumière” brothers) and Georges Méliès. Today, these two are widely considered to be the “founding fathers” of cinema, though their bodies of work could not be more antithetical.

For Siegfried Kracauer, one of the most prominent figures in film theory, this opposition highlights what he famously coined as the two “tendencies” of the cinema: the realistic and formative tendencies.

The realistic tendency was first exemplified through the Lumière brothers’ archival films. Their most famous work, titled Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, takes footage of exactly what the title suggests—within the span of a then-whopping forty-six seconds. The Lumière brothers were interested in, above all, capturing “everyday life after the manner of photographs.” In other words, the realistic tendency strives to capture (or replicate, through staging) the “nakedness” of life, in the style of, say, a documentary.

By contrast, the formative tendency aims to go beyond the replication of physical reality, which, to accomplish, requires emphasis on cinema-specific techniques (special effects). Méliès employed these techniques more adventurously and innovatively than any other filmmaker of his time. The popularization of universally known modern editing strategies such as “time-lapse photography,” “dissolves,” and “hand-painting,” among others, can all be attributed to Méliès. His legacy as the founder of cinema as a “fantastical art” continues today, where he is most recognizably referenced in allusion to his iconic, anthropomorphic moon from A Trip to the Moon.

Although it is clear that most of cinema displays an overlap between these two tendencies, Kracauer’s teachings have nevertheless continued to serve as a useful starting point for many a timid freshman entering the daunting realm of film theory for the first time. All subsequent cases for a “purpose of cinema” tend to exist within Kracauer’s rough outline of these two core functions: cinema as verisimilitude, and cinema as spectacle.

Modern audiences would tend to agree that the best works of cinema employ a harmonious balance between these two. Films on either end of the spectrum do not hold the attention of mass audiences for very long. If anything, a quick look at any recent “highest-grossing films” list within the last few years will show the People’s obvious predilection for spectacle. Films like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story all feature fantastical worlds narratively rooted and motivated by traditional, realist plots—realist insofar as they thematically mirror the plights of our own modern world, whether at the level of the individual, community, or, as in Civil War’s case, nations. Such films succeed in achieving both awe-inspiring and emotional satisfaction. On the flip-side, this clear predilection for spectacle means studios will blatantly abandon substance by backing up projects that rely on the spectacle element alone (Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, The Legend of Tarzan, etc.).

(Note: the ongoing success of this era’s Golden Age of Television indicates an audience leaning towards verisimilitude, seemingly contradicting my observations thus far. However, one must take into account the different nature of the TV show, which is fundamentally distinct from that which be accurately deemed “cinematic”—but all this for a later time.)

Although it’s safe to say that the average Columbian is more cultured than the average person, outside of film majors and cinephiles, it’s also probably safe to say that the average Columbian isn’t as well-versed in film as they are in, say, literature, art, or music. The reason for this is obvious: much of the Columbian’s expansive cultural lore can be attributed to our beloved Core Curriculum, which sadly does not include a “Film Humanities” course.

Attempting to coin a term like “Film Humanities” might seem preposterous and naïve on the outset, but such a negative reaction is unwarranted as it is probably based on one of two (or both) fallacious assumptions:

  1. Film is predominantly a “spectacle-based” art, unqualified for the kind of rich and complex analyses other arts tend to incite.
  2. Film is too young an art form and lacks the historical breadth necessary for making any substantial claims about the human condition that are worth investigating in a scholarly fashion.

To the first, we have already discussed film’s two-fold capacity for realism and spectacle, which implies that there exists a whole canon of films predominantly concerned with verisimilitude, with dealing with subject-matters relevant to the human experience. The “spectacle-based” argument illustrates a biased account of cinematic history, whereby at the turn of the millennium the Digital Age pretty much ensured that film as a “fantastical art” would be the way of the future, rendering all previous cinematic periods obsolete in the public eye.

I would also add that to reject “spectacle” point-blank as an element abolishing any degree of humanities-based discourse in an absolute sense is also erroneous, for it fails to take into account the vast and rich spectrum of variations of genre within the real and fantastical (i.e. Ontological Realism, Psychological Realism, Aesthetic Realism; see Bazin’s “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”)—a spectrum evident in literature as well. Consider, for example, the tremendous difference, from a genre standpoint, between Homer’s The Iliad and Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, both of which are required readings for Literature Humanities.

I will counter the second point in a later column, it being deserving of its own thorough investigation.

For now, I encourage all Columbians—especially those for whom “cinema” is tantamount to “that which is relevant to the current cultural zeitgeist”—to voluntarily explore the history of cinema with the same level of seriousness with which the Core bestows the other, more “noble” arts.

To begin with, this will require a “survey of the greats,” for which I urge you to temporarily put your beloved Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Video TV show on hold and direct yourself to filmstruck.com, where you can subscribe for a two-week trial. This should be enough time to at least begin exploring the following list I have curated for you below. (And if it’s not, you can use this website to see what other platforms offer these films.) All of the following works share a “crossover” (to “artsy” films) appeal that I hope to instill in all you soon-to-be-cinephiles.

  1. The Red Balloon (1956), Albert Lamorisse.
  2. Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Alfonso Cuarón.
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche.
  4. In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-wai.
  5. A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Cassavetes.
  6. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, (1972), Werner Herzog.
  7. Three Colors: Red (1994), Krzysztof Kieślowski.
  8. The Great Beauty (2013), Paolo Sorrentino.
  9. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973),Víctor Erice.
  10. Seven Samurai (1954), Akira Kurosawa.

Enjoy.

P.S. Here is my favorite reference to Méliès, from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011).

Photo courtesy of Kuldeep Singh

 

This past week, Columbia Taal, the only South-Asian fusion dance team, hosted an event on campus called Samatva. This event included performances from Columbia Taal and Columbia Raaga, which is Columbia’s South-Asian fusion music organization. The showcase performance of the night, however, was led by junior Sophia Salingaros and her dance partner, Jeeno Joseph.

Photo courtesy of Kuldeep Singh.

Both Sophia and Jeeno performed a series of Bharatanatyam pieces, which is the most well-known form of Indian classical dancing. The Bharatanatyam style places great emphasis on the rigidity of the upper body as well as its nuanced use of hand and facial gestures as a sort of pseudo sign language. Historically, this style of dance was meant to be perceived as an interpretation of various Hindu myths, but it has in recent times become a source of resistance against its historical stereotypes. Sophia and Jeeno utilized this movement to create powerful and moving pieces of beautiful dancing to demonstrate that boundaries—religious, gendered, and political—don’t exist in art.

The notion of samatva, the word for “equality” in Sanskrit, can be seen throughout the entirety of their performance. Sophia and Jeeno, as a non-Indian and a Christian, respectively, demonstrate the ability to break through and transcend socially constructed historical biases. Their performance itself was extremely elegant and conveyed the richness of the Indian cultural tradition, which goes to show that art itself cannot be contained by external limitations, because it is the ultimate means of self-expression.

Raaga and Taal were both perfect complements to Sophia and Jeeno’s performance because they added the element of a group performance, which allowed multiple voices to come together in unison and create something incredibly powerful.

If you missed this performance, be sure to check out Sophia and Jeeno at the Battery Dance studios on November 11th and 26th, and be on the lookout for Taal and Raaga’s next performances on campus!

After twenty-one years of a beautifully reciprocal relationship, Television and I have hit a rough patch. What have I done to deserve this? For years, I have given him every spare minute of my time, turned to him in my hour of need, loved him unconditionally and completely. Our relationship was always new and refreshing, and every time I thought he began to take me for granted, he’d surprise me with an incredible new show and remind me why I loved him. But, things have changed. The enormous lack of fall television has left me brokenhearted, alone, and rebounding with not-so-good-for-me-but-incredibly-enticing Netflix.

Network television’s fall TV premiere line-up seemed promising. There were the obvious shoe-ins in the shape of returning series: Season Two of This Is Us, more Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and cult favorites like Empire, Scandal, and Supernatural. Personally, I couldn’t wait to find out more about This is Us’s Pearson family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg’s stint in jail, and I eagerly counted down the days until The CW’s Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend returned to prime time. I was excited to return to the ins and outs of Firehouse 51 in Chicago Fire and even willing to give Designated Survivor’s sophomore season a chance. But they all let me down.

This Is Us has gotten so predictable that even the background music seems cliché. Rachel Bloom’s strong feminist character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is suddenly acting like an immature child. Jane the no-longer virgin has a boring new love interest (I told you that Michael was the heart and soul of that show), and nobody significant has been killed off of Chicago Fire since Season Two (it’s now entering its sixth season), which makes the whole “will they survive?” vibe kind of ridiculous. To top it all off, Designated Survivor is no longer focused on the survivor, and Andy Samberg turns out to make a horrible convict.

Desperate to salvage my relationship, I turned to new premieres. ABC’s The Good Doctor had a fascinating premise (it’s about an autistic surgeon), but after the first episode I was already bored with every character other than the main one. Adam Scott and Craig Robinson’s new comedy Ghosted felt like an even less-funny version of Men In Black (and MIB isn’t even a comedy…), and Daveed Digg’s The Mayor is cute, but nothing to write home about.

So here I am: bored with TV, hoping for a better mid-season lineup, and watching Gossip Girl on Netflix to pass the time.  

So… it’s up to you now, Television: Woo me. Here’s to hoping we’ll rekindle our love in the winter.

Guests, pre-insanity (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, an opera based on a 1962 film directed by Luis Buñuel, is absurd. Aristocrats return to their mansion after an opera outing. They soon discover that they cannot leave the dining room. Naturally, they become crazy and turn on each other. It is the idle domesticity of Clue mixed with Lord of the Flies savagery.

I was initially concerned that Adès’s music glorified these lifeless subjects. How could he write high-strung heroisms for such ennui? Juxtaposed elements, though, frame the opera’s macabre. Lovers fondle each other naked. Luscious harmonies hug crazed language: “Birds of our coupled mouths, while death enters through our feet.” This is not a prototypical tragedy; we’re not meant to feel for the plutocrats. But the music points toward sympathy. Disparate moods compete in this creation of unreality.

Accompanying exhibition for the production. Human hands, lamb legs, and olive branches for dinner. Bon appétit!

Adès etches continuous, pulsating phrases in the love scene (See “O Albion,” from Arcadiana, for an example of this style). The music pictures a spaceship creeping through a mysterious fog. Cohesive linearity is rare in New Music aesthetics, which often favor disjunction and fragmentation.

The work clearly targets the aristocracy. After the richies go crazy, the mulling mob asks: “Are they all dead?’ Answer: “This is to be hoped.”

Could the affluent figures stand as representations of the one percent in tonight’s seats? Wealth inequality unabashedly lurks in the Met’s walls. Price of my ticket has $115 base rate, plus $7.50 service fee, and then a $2.50 facility fee (thank god for press tickets.). This is a hierarchized concert life. One price does not fit all.

The bottom-dwellers – those on the lower levels – finance opera. At intermission they chow down on über-expensive meals on the second tier, gazing out on Lincoln Center’s plaza, served by dressed-up waiters. It’s possible to witness the residual effects of aristocratic ass-kissing. Met employees grunt, curse, hold curt, stony expressions. At the ticket window, my ticket was flung at me with disgust. Misery swirls among workers. Yet, galas “celebrate” the one percent’s contributions. The Met wants to wrestle money from their coffers to supplement their seemingly-perpetually sinking finances.

Adès confronts the art form, crusting with opulence, and the Met, which stages stagnant, thoughtless “tradition” for commercial indulgence – here you will not find feminist productions of troublesome “classics.” Through financial support, donors implicate themselves in the opera’s demands: Adès skewers those who bankroll him. I wonder if ticket refunds will soon be in premium demand.

 

Image made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

Content Warning: sexual assault

As everyone reels from the news about Harvey Weinstein, the question of inequality for women in Hollywood finds itself once again at the forefront of conversation. Behind the camera, women are coming forward with stories of sexual assault, and we’re finally engaging in a conversation that should have begun years ago. But… what about in front of the camera?

In her acceptance speech at last month’s Emmys, Best Actress winner Nicole Kidman explained that she and Reese Witherspoon produced Big Little Lies to create “more great roles for women.” She was met with thunderous applause acknowledging her role in Lies as “great.” But I was lost.

Over the summer, I binged-watched probably hundreds of episodes of television and saw every movie in theaters. And there were, indeed, great female roles. Elisabeth Moss’s Offred was a strong feminist, Kimmy Schmidt made her way to college, Wonder Woman dominated at the box office, Anne of Green Gables made a triumphant return to television, and the women of This Is Us, Veep, The Crown, and so much more were complex and inspiring.

But when I turned to Kidman’s Big Little Lies, I couldn’t help but gasp at the tireless repetition of sexist tropes and same old plotlines. For those who don’t know, Big Little Lies follows four different mothers in an upper-middle class suburban town. Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the town gossip and an overbearing and self-centered mother. Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mom, new in town, with a troubled past. Her son, Ziggy, gets into trouble with Renata Klein, the hard-working businesswoman whose daughter claims Ziggy hurt her. And Kidman’s character, Celeste, is a stay-at-home mom who’s hidden the truth about her abusive husband for years.

If you look at the logline, you may buy Kidman’s claim about “great roles for women.” Save for perhaps Witherspoon’s one-dimensional character (who’s literally portrayed as if Elle Woods just grew up a tiny bit), the rest of the women indeed seem complex. But rather than focusing on the crux of the women’s troubled stories, the show spends the bulk of its time rehashing the fight  fight between Jane and Renata’s children. While the fight begins with a serious accusation, before long it becomes clear that Ziggy didn’t hurt Renata’s daughter, and that the fight has spiraled into an all-out war over who works harder: the working moms or the stay-at-home moms. By the end of the first episode, everyone in town has taken sides, and suddenly it’s like you’re watching a glorified version of a middle-school cat fight, but with birkin bags instead of friendship bracelets.

The subplots are equally uncompelling, and wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if you gave them all the leeway possible. Madeline can’t seem to get her new husband to get along with her old one, or convince the town to let her put on a production of Avenue Q. These are ridiculously privileged problems, yet the show makes them out to be as dramatic as the abuse Celeste is experiencing at home. Madeline finally connects with her teenage daughter by admitting that she cheated on her new husband. Oh great, isn’t that wonderful motherly guidance? Meanwhile, Renata doesn’t have sex often enough with her husband, and her poor daughter can’t get enough kids to come to her million-dollar birthday party.

But while all this is happening, the only two characters with the possibility for a compelling subplot also fall short. A few episodes into the series, we learn that Jane was raped and she fears that Ziggy will inherit his father’s violent tendencies, but this intriguing storyline barely gets any airtime. Celeste finally works up the nerve to go to a therapist, and the show’s only truly “great” female moments are in Kidman’s painfully accurate portrayal of a woman struggling to come forward about abuse. When Celeste finally decides to leave her husband, the depiction of women on the show finally feels empowered.

But within one episode, everything swings back again. In the final scene, at a ridiculously over-the-top school function, Celeste’s husband discovers she’s leaving and starts to hit her. Coming to her defense, Madeline, Jane, Renata, and one other woman hit him back, and we learn that Celeste’s abusive husband was the man who raped Jane all those years ago. Finally, the women accidentally push him over a cliff and kill him. It was an act of self-defense, and the audience breathes a sigh of genuine relief and hope for Celeste’s brighter future.

But then, they deny the murder. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. He simply fell, they say. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. Why? I’m not sure. In their silence, the women of Big Little Lies end their show not with a message of the importance of speaking out for victims of abuse, but of the harmlessness of staying silent. Suddenly, everything about the showKidman’s character and even Jane’s intriguing subplotseems far too convenient. For Jane, the question of her own PTSD and her son’s violent tendencies are suddenly resolved. And true, it seems like Celeste was about to finally stand up and leave, but by choosing to kill off the abuser, the writers eliminate the incredibly difficult period abused women struggle through, physically and emotionally, to take that step away. If this were a real woman, Jane’s and Celeste’s  struggles would not be over with a timely shove off of a cliff and a promise to never speak of it again. Abuse lives with people forever.

The show ends with a reconciliation. Like they’re in middle school again, Madeline, Jane, Celeste, and Renata are suddenly friends, joined together with a secret. But let me put it plainly: abuse is not a cute little secret you share with your friends. Abuse is not a problem that deserves less screen time and the same dramatic emphasis as does the question of whether to put on Avenue Q. Abuse is real, abuse is terrible, and abuse doesn’t resolve itself that easily.

Big Little Lies took home five Emmys this year. In her acceptance speech, Nicole Kidman said that the show helped “shine a light” on abuse. Maybe, but the small light the show shines is not enough. The women in the show aren’t “great”: they’re simple, naive, entitled, and don’t reflect the true complexities that women like Celeste and Jane (or even real-life Madelines) face every day. And in an industry where actresses experience sexual harassment every day and a world where men like Harvey Weinstein find success, Hollywood needs to do better.

So yes, Ms. Kidman: you’re right. Hollywood does need more great roles for women. But I’m afraid this wasn’t it.