Ktismatics

31 May 2008

King of Hearts by White-Patarino, 2008

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 4:27 am

Last night we attended the world premiere of The King of Hearts. Shown at the local high school, this noir thriller delighted the audience of maybe 150 enthusiastic attendees. It’s the first (and probably the last) feature-length production of Reel Films, a film company comprised of three high-school buddies. Filmed and acted entirely by students over the past year and a half, The King of Hearts was finished just in time for the scheduled showing on the last day of their last year in school.

The movie begins: It’s the dead of night, and a smartly-dressed young man carrying a violin case walks alone. We see another man standing outside a building which we, the locals in the audience, immediately recognize as the high school. A single shot rings out, and the second man slumps to the sidewalk at the front door to the school. Someone stands above the corpse. Casually he flips a playing card onto the lifeless body: the king of hearts. It’s going to be another tough case to crack for Jack Hunter, private eye. Here’s the trailer:

The creative force behind this movie, the writer, director and lead actor, is Benjamin White-Patarino. It was in the wee hours two Halloweens ago when the three moviemaking partners-to-be started goofing on the noir genre. The next day Benjamin got to work on a script. It’s easy to make a movie, he says: every day countless kids shoot a snippet of video and put it up on YouTube. It’s not so easy to make a feature film, with actors, editing, sound effects, city permits for firing guns in public outdoor locations. It’s even harder when everyone involved is going to high school. This wasn’t a school project, so it was a work of love and personal commitment from start to finish. And the kids (or their parents) had to eat the production costs — $500 total. After collecting $3 per head from the audience they must have broken even, or just about.

My daughter showed me a photo in her high school yearbook: it’s Benjamin, sporting coat, tie and fedora. “Born in the wrong decade,” reads the caption. Throughout his senior year Benjamin White-Patarino WAS Jack Hunter, private eye.

The closing credits scrolled up the screen and the audience broke into applause. A tuxedo-clad Benjamin called on stage everyone who acted a role in the movie and introduced them one by one. There was one notable absence: the girl who played femme fatale Claire LaRouge. At the end of the movie Jack stands heartbroken as Claire boards a train back to Chicago. Maybe that’s really where she went. As the cast basked in the accolades of an adoring public we headed out the door — the same door where the murder was filmed — and into the mild and harmless Boulder night.

In the fall Benjamin starts film school in New York. I wish him well.

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30 May 2008

Bestiary by Christopher, 2007

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:07 am

The first beast I laid eyes on was my father.

Rarely do I come across a contemporary American novel that I want to read or, after having read it, that I like. My tastes run toward the fictions of foreign writers or dead Americans. Maybe I don’t look hard enough; maybe I don’t give some of these American books enough of a chance; maybe my tastes are too quirky or old-fashioned. But I think a lot of it has to do with conservatism in the publishing industry, which produces plenty of variations on only a relatively few themes. As with other areas of the economy, it’s hard to know whether the industry shapes popular tastes or responds to them — probably it’s both. Either way, you don’t realize the lack of variety until you start looking for a particular kind of book and realize there aren’t any on the shelves.

When I saw The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher at the library I thought I’d found something. “Borges with emotional weight,” a reviewer is quoted as saying about the author on the inside front flap. To a degree it’s Borges’s precise resistance to emotion that distinguishes his stories, but then again he’d never written a novel. The flap goes on to say that the book concerns “the quest for a long-lost book detailing the animals left off Noah’s Ark.” The rest of the description assured me that this wasn’t going to be either a fundamentalist screed or a DaVinci Code knockoff. “A story of panoramic scope and intellectual suspense,” promises the flap — good. “Ultimately a tale of heartbreak and redemption” — not so good, but worth a try.

Like the hero of The Bestiary, I’m on a quest for a long-lost book too — a book written by an American, similar enough to one of my two novels that I’d entertain some hope of either the agent or the editor for that book wanting to take a look at my stuff. So far I’ve had only one actual agent go beyond form-letter dismissal or no reply to an actual response: “intriguing, but too experimental,” was the gist of the one-sentence reason he gave me for rejecting my manuscripts. I don’t regard what I do as particularly experimental. While writing my first novel I was aware of certain influences on what and how I wrote: Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy, a little Henry Miller, Elie Wiesel for one chapter in particular, Borges certainly — these aren’t experimentalists; they’re canonical. I don’t deny experimenting with characters and situations and ideas, but that’s what fiction is about, isn’t it? I also wrote one letter to an editor at a publishing house, who said merely that she didn’t think she was the right person to work on my book. That’s probably the case, since shortly after I sent my inquiry I noticed that she’d paid big bucks to woo Jhumpa Lahiri away from a competing publisher, and based on her one attempt so far I don’t think Lahiri is capable of writing long fiction. But hey, her novel was a hit, Hollywood made a movie out of it, and her newest book (short stories, which is probably what she should be doing) is a best-seller.

Like The Bestiary, my first novel is a quest during which the narrator finds out about a mysterious manuscript that points back to the Biblical creation narrative. “Borges with emotional weight” — I’m prepared to see what that looks like. Though I’d never read anything by Nicholas Christopher before, he’s got several published novels and books of poetry under his belt, so somebody in the publishing industry must think this guy’s stuff is worth the time of day.

As I got close to the end of The Bestiary I encountered a scene that’s uncannily similar to one at the end of my book. The pilgrimage trail leads the hero through Europe to an isolated spot near the eastern Mediterranean coast, populated mostly by goats. There’s an ancient church, seldom visited by tourists, unimpressive both outside and in. Once inside he finds a stairway leading down to a grotto… At first I was dismayed by these parallels — I wrote mine first, but Chirstopher got his published first. But what struck me more forcefully was that, to the extent that I’m a passable judge of writing, my descriptions of this place at the end of the quest are more evocative and mysterious than Christopher’s. Maybe he consciously tries to distinguish his prose style from his poetry, but in comparing these two books I think mine is more poetic without being too precious.

Christopher has the reach for writing full-length fiction without losing coherence or momentum. A reviewer said that this is Christopher’s “most ambitious” to date. On page 229 he pretty much tells us straight out what he’s up to here:

I was reminded of my grandmother’s most important gift to me: her belief that we must pursue the beasts of this life, rather than allowing them to pursue us. If they consumed us in the end… at least we could confront them first on their own terms. This knowledge enabled me to survive my childhood without embracing the corrosive elements — cruelty, dishonesty, envy — that ate away at so many people I knew. Eventually it translated into my quest for the bestiary, which I had come to realize was all about seeking the beasts outside myself in order to understand those within.

It’s at this level that my book, despite certain similarities in the plot and setting, deviates significantly from The Bestiary. Maybe Christopher delivers the sort of personal redemption that betokens emotional weight in literary fiction, the sort of thing that readers are looking for when they pull a book randomly off the shelf, the thing that agents want to represent and that publishers want to buy. It’s a pretty good book, as good as the last couple by Paul Auster that I read in hopes of finding another contemporary American author to like. And I’ll write a letter to Christopher’s editor, maybe even telling her what I think: my book is better than this one, more worth your while. But I doubt my letter will set in motion the sorts of events that would bring to a satisfactory end my personal quest for authorial redemption.

28 May 2008

There Will Be Blood, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 2:33 pm

I remember some of the blog discussions about this movie when it came out. Now, seeing it for the first time, as the DVD ended, my first comment was, “that was a silly movie.” It wouldn’t take much to turn this overraught melodrama into a comedy. You wouldn’t even have to change very much of the story. If it wasn’t for Daniel Day Lewis’s intense seriousness and the oppressive ominousness of the score, the film could easily have played as a parody of itself, maybe call it There Will Be Gas.

The very beginning of the movie is my favorite part. We see a figure delving in the dark like some protean Titan, his pickaxe striking sparks against the solid rock as if he’s chiseling himself out of the stony womb that bore him. He climbs toward the surface, toward the sun. Night falls, and he sits alone beside a fire of his own making.

Strangely, Lewis’s performance reminds me of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack in the Pirates movies. It’s not that the actor inhabits the role, or that the role possesses him, or that he’s called up something deep in himself that could become this role. Rather, the character is a work of artistic creation. Johnny Depp may have borrowed Keith Richard for his construction; some people think Lewis did the same with John Huston. It’s also evident that Lewis started working on this character in Gangs of New York. The result is worth it I believe: a distinct and compelling cinematic persona that I’ll remember long after the movie itself fades from memory.

It is a beautiful film. A lot of it was filmed in Marfa, Texas, where Giant (James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor) was made in the fifties and, oddly enough, where No Country for Old Men was also filmed. No Country is one of Cormac McCarthy’s less accomplished works, and though I’ve not read Sinclair Lewis’s Oil! I understand it’s not a major novel either. Still, in terms of cinematic adaptation, the Coen movie succeeds where, in my view, Paul Anderson’s does not.

26 May 2008

Deep Tropical Paintings by Pellet

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 11:52 am

When I posted on Deep Tropical Ciné-Musique I said I wished I had images from Christian Pellet’s paintings to put up. Christian was kind enough to send them to me. He says that the files weren’t in good shape, so the images aren’t quite as crisp as they are in the book.

25 May 2008

Brother Sun Sister Moon, 1972

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 2:44 pm

Here’s Francis of Assisi’s humble proto-hippie church…

Here’s the Pope’s church…

I’m afraid the moral was lost on me.

24 May 2008

Diving Bell & the Butterfly, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 3:07 pm


23 May 2008

Thin Red Line by Malick, 1998

Filed under: First Lines, Movies — ktismatics @ 9:48 am

What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? l remember my mother when she was dying. Looked all shrunk up and gray. l asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. l was afraid to touch the death l seen in her. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. l wondered how it’d be when l died. What it’d be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. l just hope l can meet it the same way she did. With the same… calm. Cos that’s where it’s hidden — the immortality l hadn’t seen.

Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness from light. Strife from love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.

21 May 2008

Dekalog 8,9,10 by Kieslowski

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:37 am

19 May 2008

Inside Out, 2005

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 3:33 am

Inside Out seems to be a popular film title. I’m not sure how this one got in my Netflix queue — maybe it was a different Inside Out I’d read something about and I picked this one by mistake. Maybe this was the one after all.

By strategically selecting screen shots it’s possible not only to convey the tone but also the gist and even the audience appeal of a movie. I’ve not seen a trailer for this particular Inside Out, but I think one could be assembled that would bring people into the theaters.


The screen shots in this particular montage were gathered from about a 5-minute sequence near the end of the movie. They show the characteristic Cronenberg- DiPalma themes and surprise turnaround ending, the “inside-out” inversion of subject and object. One might be led to believe that this is a good movie, both entertaining and insightful, a portal as well as a mirror — the kind of trashy genre movie that becomes a cult classic among cinephiles possessed of a certain postmodern sensibility.

16 May 2008

Deep Tropical Ciné-Musique

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 12:41 pm

[A month ago I wrote an engagement of Days of Ciné-Musique, text by Patrick Mullins and artwork by Christian Pellet. Now, having just finished reading Deep Tropical Ciné-Musique, the prior, leaner work in the ongoing collaboration, I find myself wishing I could post some images of Christian’s compelling paintings, which play a more central role in this book. Arrayed in a portrait gallery of alienation, Christian’s ordinary, even familiar-looking figures appear formal, placid, almost classically statuesque, yet they are flattened and oddly distorted in Christian’s renderings: lopsided, smeared, effaced, decapitated — other. Here are some text grabs from Patrick’s prose-poetry, obliquely recounting the brief collaboration of the “outrageously educated and alarmingly gaudy” Lace Racy with a young unnamed protégé, beginning at the beginning…]

* * *

A non-verbalized metaphor of a dirndl — symbolizing the silent, pervasive presence of Lausanne/Ouchy, Switzerland, throughout this novella that does not take place in Lausanne, and is not about Lausanne — is occasionally in evidence.

* * *

The space could be rented indefinitely; and there was little danger of pressure from the garishly bejewelled and darkly encrusted enclaves not more than twenty miles away, to furnish it coarsely with classical allusions. Where there were people who liked to fund the arts, as long as “the arts” were preponderantly moribund, which kept them from having to know what art was. “Funding the arts” was a contrived term that gave many moneyed persons that they knew what art is. It followed quite logically that they liked their racy separate, pretentious, ugly and even painful a good bit of the time.

* * *

One of Lace Racy’s gifts was to talk so much that he seemed he was telling everybody everything. Most of what he had to say remained unspoken.

* * *

Youth: “I am like a god.”

Lace: “You are not a god, but may be like one in that they probably bleached their hair, too.”

* * *

Boy: “If we were famous, as we are — this would be a good place to go, because nobody would recognize us.” Lace had liked this and had copied it onto a napkin at the restaurant, and found it again in early May.

* * *

Later, Lace left some fairly rough answering machine messages at the Hamburg number, which would close off any possible chink the boy might try to find in getting the Office Spot back, which he wanted to take without earning. Lace also purged the Office of every item the boy had left, even a towel and a shirt he had given Lace. All this made Lace Racy suffer pangs of guilt, till he realized that these outwardly rough words had diagrammed the underlying discord that could surface frighteningly were they to try to undertake any discourse too soon. The discord was now fully exposed. This opened the possibility that he could serve, much as a pivot chord does in musical harmony, for the purpose of modulation out of a sad mode, a really sad, obscure one like Locrian, and into a happier key — although the advent of the public nature of A Major seemed a ridiculous hope, to be sure. The worst guilt Lace experienced stemmed from the fact that he was essentially telling the boy that, for now, he had failed his Course in Thought; that he could be said to have vandalized the Club.

* * *

Did he hate himself that much for making a disastrously inaccurate calculation of logic that had hurled him into a hideously dilettantish arty empiricism that reeked of odious opaque smells, both animal and holy. Oh, yes, it was certainly possible, no matter the struggle against it: There were far too many who had walked with heads held high, profundity exuding from every vain pore who had been known to wake up and find themselves having chosen to “circle the drain,” living on the crumbs of the innocuous, the pedestrian, the unspeakably art-alien.

“How infuriatingly weak I am,” said the proud and gifted Lace Racy aloud to himself in the New York Office.

15 May 2008

Singing Detective by Potter, 1986

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 2:42 pm

O Lord God, who loves and saves and watches, and admonishes all of us miserable and unworthy sinners — O Lord God, look down on us now in Thy awful majesty. Search out our hearts; look into our heads; seize hold of our innermost thoughts. Dear Lord, you can see. You know. You are looking down now upon one boy. One particular boy. One boy in this room. You are entering the bones; You are piercing into the space between the bones. Dear God, almighty God, terrible in wroth, with the stars to guide, with the whole earth to turn, with the flowers to grow, with the rain to make fall, with the sun to make shine — with all this, all of these things, You stop, You look, You watch. Because all of these things — the weight of the mountains and the deeps of the oceans, the day and the night, the cares and the troubles of the whole slow spin of the whole big world — all, all of these things You O God, Thee O God, almighty and awful Creator, You leave for the moment to point down at the one…


13 May 2008

Elizabeth, 1998

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 3:47 pm

12 May 2008

Owl Service by Garner, 1968

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 7:18 am

[After I read Dominic’s observations about Alan Garner’s Red Shift I went looking for it at the library but came up empty. I did find The Owl Service though, in the children’s section. The first two paragraphs of Dominic’s post capture well the mythos, the eternal return of the repressed, that haunts this Welsh valley. Here are some excerpts, beginning as usual at the very beginning of the book.]

* * *

“How’s the bellyache then?

Gwyn stuck his head around the door. Alison sat in the iron bed with brass knobs. Porcelain columns showed the Infant Bacchus and there was a lump of slate under one leg because the floor dipped.

“A bore,” said Alison. “And I’m too hot.”

* * *

At first he thought that Huw must have finished with the coke, but when he came to the yard he saw Huw leaning on his shovel, and something about him made Gwyn stop.

Huw stood with two fingers lodged in his vest pocket, his head cocked sideways, and although his body seemed to strain he did not move. He was talking to himself, but Gwyn could not hear what he said, and he was dazzled by the glare of the sun when he tried to find what Huw was looking at. It was the whole sky.

There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white toward the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountain made his heart shake.

“That’s daft,” said Gwyn.

He went up to Huw Halfbacon. Huw had not moved, and now Gwyn could hear what he was saying. It was almost a chant.

“Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come.”

“Huw?”

“Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come.”

“Huw?”

“Come, apple-sweet murmurer; come, harp of my gladness; come, summer, come.”

Huw looked at Gwyn, and looked through him. “She’s coming,” he said. “She won’t be long now.”

* * *

When she heard the shouting Alison rolled off her bed and went to the window. It was Roger’s voice. She opened the fanlight. Gwyn appeared below the window, wheeling a barrow toward the stables.

The sun had warmed the ledge. Alison leaned her head against the glass. Some distance away the long stone fish tank by the lawn sparkled where the inlet broke from the ferns, and she saw herself mirrored among halos that the sun made on the water. The brightness destroyed the image of the house, so that all she saw was her face.

I’m up here and I’m down there, thought Alison. Which is me? Am I the reflection in the window of me down there?

Gwyn came back from the stables. He was walking with his shoulders hunched, and he kicked at every pebble. He sat on the edge of the tank, right next to the Alison in the water; he seemed to be watching her.

Now am I here, and you there? Or are we together? If I’m the reflection here then we’ll be able to talk to each other. “Hello, Gwyn.”

Gwyn said nothing. He reached out to touch her hair, and she was at once gold and whiteness over the water, and Alison was back in the window and the metal frame was hurting her cheek. And Gwyn looked up.

Alison was in the window. She did not move. The stillness he had tried to enter was now all around him, and Gwyn sat, and watched. But the gong sounded for lunch, and Alison hurried downstairs, while Gwyn went to drain the potatoes and put them in their dish on the serving hatch.

* * *

“There, Ben. Lass. Good, Lass. There. There. There.” The dogs changed direction at a whistle. He looked for the men, but they were not on the mountain. “Bob, there, Bob, Lass, good, Lass, there.”

The dogs came on and the sheep bunched together. The dogs were in a bent line, the horns of the line pointing up the mountain. The dogs reached the sheep. “There there there there. Ben. Lass. Ben. There. Bob, Bob, Bob.” The whistles followed sharp and urgent. The dogs swept past the sheep, the horns of the line drew in, pointed to the Ravenstone.

“There, Ben. There, Ben. Good, Lass.”

He looked behind him. There were no sheep on the top.

“Bob, stay, Bob. There, Ben, there. Lass, there, Lass.”

The dogs came for the Ravenstone. Their tongues rolled with the climb, but they came, and when they were near they dropped their bellies low, and crept. They moved in short spurts, eyes fixed.

He could not watch all of them at the same time.

They moved past the Ravenstone, turned, and lay between their haunches, and then ran at him, low quick darts from all sides. When he faced a dog it stopped, and two others closed nearer, and lay still when he looked, and the first came on.

“Get out!”

He waved his arms.

“Ben. Good, Ben. There, Ben.”

A wall-eyed dog reached him first, in with a nip to the ankle and away. He ran to kick it, but other teeth pinched his calf.”

“Lass, Lass, Lass, there, Lass.”

“Call your flaming dogs off!”

But his voice went into cloud, and the wind spread it over the peat moss.

9 May 2008

Decoding Reality on The Wire

Filed under: Culture, Movies — ktismatics @ 12:01 pm

Recently I put up a post about Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera as seen through the interpretive lens of Jonathan Beller’s The Cinematic Mode of Production. Vertov recognized that producing a film isn’t just another kind of industrial commodity: by turning the camera on its own producers, a film can illuminate the process of industrial production itself. As Beller says, it is cinema that confers self-awareness upon a humanity embroiled in and scaled by industrialization… Cinema is the becoming-conscious of social relations — literally, the relations of production.

Captivated by the image — the sleek design, the slick packaging, the entertaining TV ad campaign, what Beller calls “the sheen of the commodity form” — the consumer loses sight of the human labor that goes into making and distributing a commodity in the marketplace. Through packaging the mode of industrial production is repressed, sealed off beneath the image of the object like an unconscious. In probing the quotidian bustle of 1930s Odessa, Vertov functions like a psychoanalyst, turning his camera on the scenes taking place behind the image, detecting traces of repressed industrial processes and focusing our attention on them, making them conscious. In contrast, most commercial cinema is a work of stagecraft, emulating and exemplifying the commercial enterprise, using theatrics and editing tricks to hide the work of production behind the spectacular image. Beller describes Vertov’s “communist decoding of reality”:

It was because the acted cinema mystified the relations of production — leaving them in the obscure world of the director’s fantasy — that Vertov detested it so profoundly. Political economy, as a set of necessarily unthought relations, is the unconscious of the objective world dominated by capital. Like the political economist, the psychoanalyst, and the author in modernist literature, the camera breaks apart the objective world and enters into it in order to bring forth the repressed or the unconscious elements and bring them to the level of consciousness… In Vertovian cinema, the objective world is revealed as frozen subjectivity; it is seen to be composed of historically sedimented, subjective practices and activated by subjective application. Thus, as Benjamin notes, “By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.” With Benjamin, Vertov’s film theory utilizes scientific precision and “the dynamite of the tenth of a second” in an effort to liquidate the aura or, what in mass production will evolve intensively as the fetish character that accompanies objects in modern bourgeois society, despite Vertov’s efforts…

By unpacking the object and revealing it as an assemblage of individuated processes, the subjectivity impacted in its form comes to life. The visual analysis that is tantamount to a de-reification of the object and therefore of the objective world is the unique content of Vertov’s phrase “I see.” …What we learn from Vertov is that the image is constituted like an object — it is assembled piece by piece like a commodity moving through the intervals of production… the endeavor to de-reify the commodity necessarily reveals the general commodity-structure of the image. Vertov articulates from a Marxist standpoint an implicit relationship between images and objects under modern capital.. The image as a social relation is a direct consequence of advances in the industrial production of objects.

Modern life is mystifying and alienating; it passes before our gaze without our being able to process it consciously. The spectacle of the manufactured world functions like an external unconscious: it has a structure that we’re unable to formulate consciously, it affects us without our being aware of it. Overwhelmed by the totality of the spectacle, we lose sight of the individual objects and people, as well as their codified interrelationships. The concept of totality, says Beller, is the specter of capitalism. Vertovian cinema offers what Beller calls a strategy of re-mediation: his cinematic interventions slow the world down so we can pay attention, bringing at least part of its unformulated and mystifying flux into conscious awareness. Beller relates Vertov’s visual destruction of reification to Lukacs’s project of recognizing that the totalizing image of everyday life occludes the “simple and sober ordinariness” of “the whole of society seen as a process.” Lukacs says that only consciousness “confers reality on the day-to-day struggle by manifesting its relation to the whole. Thus it [consciousness] elevates mere existence to reality.”

Previously I put up two scenes from the television series The Wire: the first one shows two Baltimore police investigating the scene of a homicide; the second, a drug lord evaluating and adapting to local marketplace conditions. Both scenes show people undertaking a conscious detailed analysis of specific social processes that contribute to the mystifying totality of the world. While creator David Simon frequently explores the drug underworld from the producers’ perspective, the program concerned itself primarily with the police’s efforts to understand production in order to undermine it.The name of the program refers to the electronic surveillance equipment police use to piece together the drug distribution network from encoded telephone conversations between anonymous bosses and suppliers and with neighborhood distributors. Police on rooftops watch the street action through long-lens cameras, photographing dealers making phone calls in order to match voices to bodies; photographing dealers’ face-to-face interactions with customers, subordinates, suppliers, and bosses in order to piece together the mechanics of the drug operation. The camera shows us what the police see, using stop action and long-angle focus to zero in on the nodes and synapses in the world’s neural matrix that continually produce the totalizing image as an epiphenomenon. In short, The Wire exemplifies Vertov’s cinematic strategy of decoding reality.

In producing this demystifying probe of the drug trade is Simon operating within Vertov’s Marxist framework? In a way he is: although the inner city drug gangs operate in a secondary countercultural economy, they run their business just like any other capitalist endeador. Simon also shows us the connections between organized crime and legitimate society: the payoffs to stevedores who unload contraband from ships and bypass the official tracking systems in order to transfer the product to the suppliers; the schemes for laundering drug money through legitimate businesses; the investments in real estate development facilitated by “campaign contributions” to politicians. The drug trade is embedded in the larger economic system, its very illegality adding monetary value to its operations.

At the same time, the illegality of the drug trade provides an arena in which legitimate society gets to demonstrate its power. The very politicians who take the kick-backs are also mounting re-election campaigns built around getting tough on crime. Police top brass, charged with cleaning up the streets, rely on the perpetuation of criminality to justify their manpower demands and budgets and thus their power in the city. As one of the police captains observes, antidrug enforcement isn’t really a police operation, the purpose of which is to ensure the safety of ordinary citizens; rather, it’s more like a state of perpetual war being waged in part to justify the covert surveillance and overt control that the state exercises against the citizenry. (The episode in which this insight is presented was originally produced shortly after GW Bush won his second term in office.)

As we watch the police watching the criminal underworld, we also watch the police assembling their surveillance and control systems, operating them in order to obtain information and to secure arrests. But this kind of surveillance works only if it remains covert, undetected by the subjects under scrutiny, disguised behind mystifying screens and charades. At the same time the drug gangs maintain constant vigilance, trying to detect the eyes and ears hidden behind the ordinary surfaces of the world. The work of surveillance and counterintelligence unfolds like a chess game, with each player responding to his opponent’s last move while at the same time trying to anticipate the next one.

For Vertov, showing objects and states as processes creates sites of potential action. He depicts all moments of social production as both part of a conscious process and part of a process becoming conscious… Thus are previously individualized consciousnesses — the people who work on their products and who formerly disappeared into them, as well as the people who enjoy the use of aspects of the social product — seen in the theater by the audience and producers alike in their collective interdependence.

By probing the details of the quotidian social spectacle and subjecting it to conscious understanding, the producers of The Wire aren’t just demystifying the social relations of capitalist production in order to dismantle the system. They’re demonstrating that the owners of the system employ these very same tools to build and maintain the system and to hide it behind a totalizing spectacle. Those who would undermine the system succeed to the extent that they adopt the strategies and tactics employed by the owners of the system.

7 May 2008

Being Dead by Crace, 1999

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 8:31 am

For old times’ sake, the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes of Baritone Bay. And to lay a ghost. They never made it back alive. They almost never made it back at all.
* * *
It must have seemed her leg had moved, a shrug of skin, a spasm of muscle, enough to dislodge some calf-sand and to shake the longer grass under her foot. Joseph tried to bark and squeak her name. His arm was heavy and numb, dislocated at the shoulder. The air seemed too thick to penetrate with anything as soft as flesh. Yet somehow, fortified by his self-pity, Joseph found the will and the adrenaline to reach across towards his wife. He wanted to apologize. He had to twist his wrist against the broken angle of his arm and weave his fingers through the heavy air. His hand — bruised a little when the wedding ring was stolen — dropped onto the stretched flesh of her lower leg, the tendon strings, the shallows of her ankle. Blood from his damaged knuckles ran over her skin but not enough to glue his hand in place. He spread his fingers and tried to grip a solid bone to steady himself. He had to stop his body being swept away, by wind, by time, by continental drift, by shooting stars, by shame…

It was as if they had been struck by lightning but the thunder, separated from its faster twin, had yet to come with its complaints to shake and terminate the bodies lying in the grass. Time was divided into light and sound. There was a sanctuary for Joseph and Celice between the lightning and the thunderclap. Such were their six days in the dunes, stretched out, those two unlucky lovers on the coast.

This is our only prayer: May no one come to lift his hand from her leg. Let thunder never find its voice. Hold sound and light, those battling twins, apart. There is a meadow that separates death’s chilly gate and the tumbling nothingness beyond, in which our Joseph and Celice are lying, cushioned by the sunlight and the grass, and held in place by nothing firmer than his fingertip.
* * *
By four the rain had stopped, although the sky stayed overcast and dull. Again the crabs and rodents went to work, while there was light, flippantly browsing Joseph and Celice, frisking them for moisture and for food, delving in their pits and caverns for their treats, and paying them as scant regard as cows might pay a turnip head.

So far no one had even missed Joseph and Celice. They were not expected back at work till Thursday. Their daughter, Syl, would not phone until the weekend, if she remembered. The neighbours were used to silence from the doctors’ house. So their bodies were still secret, as were their deaths. No one was sorry yet. No one had said, ‘It’s such bad luck.’ They’d perished without ceremony. There’d been no one to rub their skin with oils or bathe and dress the bodies as they stiffened. They would have benefited from the soft and herby caresses of an undertaker’s sponge, the cotton wool soaked in alcohol to close the open pores. No one had plugged their leaking rectums with a wad of lint, or taped their eyelids shut, or tugged against their lower jaws to close their mouths. No one had cleaned their teeth or combed their hair. The murderer, that good mortician, though, had carried out one duty well. He had removed their watches and their jewellery. There was a chance, depending on the wind and sand, that even their bones might not be found or ever subjected to the standard rituals and farewells, the lamentations, the funeral, the headstones and obituaries. Then they’d not be listed with the dead, reduced by memory and legacies. They’d just be ‘missing,’ unaccounted for, absent without leave. His hand could hold her leg for good.
* * *
Their wedding photograph was on the wall. Syl had looked at it a thousand times before. Her parents seemed so old in it, even though they had only been in their twenties. Her age now. They were not flattered by the wedding suits or by the hard light of the flash. She stared at it as if their faces would reveal a clue. Do faces in a photograph transform on death? Were their smiles a little more fixed and thinner now, as if their mouths had reached the point beyond which there is no going on?
* * *
There’s nothing more sincere than death. The dead mean what they say.

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