The absence of regret frees us from pain – Christopher Nolan’s message in Inception

The Hidden ‘Inception’ Within Inception

By Bilge Ebiri

July 18, 2010

As pretty much everyone knows by now, Inception‘s titular concept is the placement of an idea into a character’s subconscious — a notion that the film presents as being more or less unprecedented. And the plot mostly concerns the efforts of our heroes, led by master dream extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to somehow convince Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to a major energy titan, to split up his father’s empire, without realizing that the idea came from them. But since this is a Christopher Nolan movie, we’re not convinced it’s all that simple; the director’s films almost always turn in on themselves. We think there might be another inception going on in Inception. Needless to say, there are spoilers here, so you should probably not read this if you haven’t seen the film. (Though if you haven’t seen the film, you probably won’t know what the hell we’re talking about anyway.) Continue reading

Sex with strangers and other tales from Sook-Yin Lee

Globe and Mail 

Sook-Yin Lee: Her movie found its roots in her adolescence, when she found a community of fellow artists.

Guy Dixon

Tuesday, Jun. 22, 2010

There’s a secret to understanding Sook-Yin Lee.

She actually cares what other people think of her. A lot.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who saw her masturbate in the film Shortbus. Or appear naked in the short film she directed and starred in for Toronto Stories. Or those who listen to her unconventional CBC Radio show Definitely Not the Opera. Or follow her presence on the highly uncommercial fringe of indie rock. Her new film Year of the Carnivore, however, is the first feature film she’s directed, and that makes it personal.

The film was inspired by Lee’s teenage years in and around Vancouver’s Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods, when she was a socially awkward young woman trying to impress a young guitarist by becoming more sexually experienced. “There are people who are going to embrace this movie, and there are people who are going to deride this film. And it profoundly affects me!” Lee says, sitting on the grass outside the CBC building in Toronto on a warm afternoon.

“It profoundly affects me,” she repeats, “and I wish it did not. I wish I could just go, ‘That is just their interpretation,’ and not feel hemmed in by any definition stated by anyone else. And also let [my own definition] of myself move. Do you know what I mean?”

Some artists pretend they don’t care about labels attached to their public personae, or about turning themselves into a brand. Lee cringes at the idea.

“It sucks to be Ronald McDonald! I’d hate to be, like, this walking brand, ‘Hey, I’m Sook-Yin Lee!,” she says, holding up her arms like a marionette and shouting in a mock-obnoxious voice.

Lee began fighting limitations and being pigeonholed at 15, when she left home and the confines of suburban life in North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley.

“It was a very exciting time. I broke out of a very, in some ways, traditional family. I hung out at the mall. I watched a lot of television. And suddenly in the middle of my parents’ really messy break-up, I jettisoned out and found freedom,” she recalls. “And it was so exciting. It coincided with my discovery of punk rock and existential writing. The only punk guy in my entire suburb: We became friends, and he introduced me to all these great bands and stuff.

“Then I found myself an orphan with a lot of freedom. I was a very socially awkward teenager, unable to speak verbally and very shy. I found myself always expressing myself through painting and art. These were very meaningful and cathartic expressions for me. And suddenly I found myself in the company of a number of other artists.”

It’s that period which was the genesis for her film Year of the Carnivore. When preparing the actors for their roles in Shortbus, director John Cameron Mitchell asked the cast to make personal videos about love. Lee wanted to explore the story she told in her video about her cluelessness back then about love and her body – which she tried to address by having sex with strangers in a number of befuddled ways.

Lee embellished the script with many fictional details, often for comedic effect, but the essence of the young woman’s confusion resembles what Lee went through. “I think with [the film’s lead character], it was more like looking at a relationship with a fella, and being in a quandary about what it is to be a woman. I still feel that. I don’t quite comfortably fit into what seems like the culturally prescribed gender roles. And sometimes when I’m faced by a majority of people who fit [in] better, I feel, like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

She’s currently working on other scripts about relationships and identity. “I am challenging this notion of what makes me,” she says. “This attempt to define self seems so slippery.”

Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — 50 years ago this year

The New York Times

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 breakthrough, “Breathless.”


May 23, 2010

A TIME-HONORED tradition: Stand outside a movie theater with a camera and microphone and poll the audience members for their reactions. What did you think of the film? A grandmotherly woman makes a face and waves her hand in disgust: Revolting! Idiotic! A middle-aged gentleman, stout and respectable, takes a more tolerant view: This is a movie about how young people live today, he says, a movie made by young people, and he is generally in favor of young people. But a sober-looking, well-dressed younger fellow demurs. “I don’t think it’s very serious,” he says dismissively.

This little scene of impromptu amateur film criticism — or market research, if you prefer — occurs in Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, “Two in the Wave,” about the filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, whose friendship was a driving force and a central fact (as well as, eventually, a casualty) of the French New Wave. Those people outside that Parisian cinema in 1960 have just seen “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s debut feature, starring Jean Seberg as an American exchange student who teases, loves, protects and betrays a French hoodlum played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who smokes and runs his thumb pensively over his lips. Some of the patrons are baffled, some enthusiastic, some noncommittal, a mixed bag of responses that seems a bit deflating. Aren’t they aware of the historical significance of what they have just witnessed?

Is it possible now, 50 years later, even to imagine seeing “Breathless” for the first time? Mr. Godard’s film quickly took its place among those touchstones of modern art that signified a decisive break with what came before — paintings and books and pieces of music that have held onto their reputation for radicalism long after being accepted as masterpieces, venerated in museums and taught in schools.

Somehow, the galvanic, iconoclastic force of their arrival is preserved as they age into institutional respectability. So even if you were not around to hear, let’s say, the catcalls greeting Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or to unwrap a copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” smuggled over from Paris in defiance of the postmaster general, or to examine Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans when they were first exhibited, the works themselves allow you to place yourself among the brave vanguard who did. And even if you did not see “Breathless” during its first run at the dawn of the ’60s, surely every frame carries an afterimage of that heady time, just as every jazz note and blast of ambient street noise on the soundtrack brings echoes of an almost mythic moment.

At the same time, though, such legendary status can also be a burden, weighing down what was once fresh and shocking with a heavy freight of expectation and received opinion. There is perhaps no episode in all of film history quite as encrusted with contradictory significance as the cresting, in 1959 and 1960, of the Nouvelle Vague. It was a burst of youthful, irreverent energy that was also a decisive engagement in the continuing battle to establish cinema as a serious art form. The partisans of the new — Truffaut and Mr. Godard, along with comrades like Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer — were steeped in film history. Before taking up their cameras they had been critics, polemicists and self-taught scholars, and yet, like other aesthetic insurgents before them, they attacked a reigning style they believed was characterized by unthinking and sclerotic traditionalism. And their drive to reassert the glory of French cinema was grounded in an almost fanatical love of American movies.

Mr. Godard, who had made a handful of shorts before turning to a true-crime scenario that Mr. Truffaut had been working on, was perhaps the most extreme and paradoxical figure in this movement, and would go on to become a prolific and polarizing filmmaker. He would pass through a period of intense, if not always intelligible, political militancy in the late ’60s and early ’70s before settling into his current status somewhere between grand old man and crazy uncle of world cinema. His most recent feature, “Film Socialism,” showed up at the Cannes Film Festival last week, though the director himself did not, offering as explanation for his absence a cryptic reference to the Greek financial crisis. He has, for as long as some of us can remember, walked the fine line between prophet and crank, turning out films that are essayistic, abstract, enraging and intermittently beautiful and issuing variously grandiose and gnomic statements about his own work, the state of the world and the future of cinema.

But that is now. Back then it was surely different. An immaculate and glowing new print of “Breathless” will be shown, starting Friday, at Film Forum in Manhattan, and while no restoration can scrub away the accumulated layers of history, its anniversary can be taken as an invitation to take a fresh look. What if, instead of seeking out an artifact of the past, you could experience the film in its own present tense? Not, in other words, as a flashback to 1960, enticing as that may be, but as 90 minutes of right now.

That kind of time travel is part of the special allure of movies, and “Breathless,” precisely because it so effortlessly, so breathlessly, captures the rhythms of its time and place, erases the distance between the now and then. And yet even as Mr. Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, record the sights and sounds of Paris with documentary immediacy, the images are infused with an unmistakable nostalgia. This is not something a latter-day viewer — perhaps besotted by secondhand memories of vintage cars circling the Place de la Concorde or pretty young women selling The New York Herald Tribune in front of cafes — brings to “Breathless.” Rather, the film’s evident and self-conscious desire to tap into a reservoir of existing references and associations is a sign of its director’s obsession with other movies.

You don’t have to recognize this film’s overt cinematic allusions to be aware of its indebtedness. When Michel (Mr. Belmondo) pauses in front of a movie theater to admire an image of Humphrey Bogart, he is confirming what we already know about him, which is that he is a cinematic construct, a man who has perhaps seen too many movies invented by another man who has spent his adult life doing almost nothing else. As a satellite orbiting the twin suns of the Paris Cinémathèque and the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Mr. Godard was an ardent champion of the Hollywood directors whose reputation as artists is one of France’s great gifts to America and the world. Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Fritz Lang — and perhaps above all Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchock: these were not just influences on “Breathless,” but axioms in its universe of meaning.

The phenomenon of movie-mad moviemakers is a familiar one by now. The young American directors of the 1970s — including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich and George Lucas — used to be identified as members of “the film generation” because they had grown up compulsively watching movies, assimilating genre conventions and shot selections that would become the raw material of their own work. Twenty years later, Quentin Tarantino, whose production company is named after Mr. Godard’s 1964 film “Bande à Part,” would refresh and extend this tradition of film-geek filmmaking. Mr. Tarantino’s career consists of a series of genre pastiches and homages that manage to feel startlingly novel, esoteric formal exercises that are nonetheless accessible pieces of popular entertainment.

“Breathless” was there first. Which is to say that it was already late. Seen from its most unflattering angle, it is a thin and derivative film noir. A generic tough guy steals a car, shoots a policeman, sweet-talks a series of women, hobnobs with his underworld pals and tries to stay a step ahead of the dogged detectives on his trail. His poses and attitudes seem borrowed, arising less from any social or psychological condition or biographical facts than from a desire to be as cool as the guys in the movies.

The wonder is that he surpasses them, and that “Breathless,” quoting from so many other movies (and shuffling together cultural references that include Faulkner, Jean Renoir, Mozart and Bach as well as Hollywood movies), still feels entirely original. It still, that is, has the power to defy conventional expectations about what a movie should be while providing an utterly captivating moviegoing experience. A coherent plot, strong and credible emotions and motivations, convincing performances, visual continuity — all of these things are missing from “Breathless,” disregarded with a cavalier insouciance that feels like liberation. It turns out that a movie — this movie, anyway — doesn’t need any of those things, and that they might get in the way of other, more immediate pleasures. You are free, in other words, to revel in the beauty of Paris and Jean Seberg, the exquisite sangfroid of Jean-Paul Belmondo, and the restless velocity of Mr. Godard’s shooting style. And style, for those 90 minutes, is — to phrase it in the absolute, hyperbolic terms Mr. Godard has always favored — everything.

In a way, that skeptical young man was right: “Breathless” is not serious. It is a lark, a joke, a travesty of everything earnest and responsible that the cinema can (and perhaps should) provide. Is it a love story? A crime story? A cautionary tale or an act of brazen seduction? All of these things and none of them. It proceeds entirely by its own rules and on the momentum of its director’s audacity. That music! Those tracking shots that seem to snake through the streets of Paris in a single sprint! That long scene — almost a third of the movie’s running time — in which the two main characters laze around in a long postcoital seminar, talking about love, death, literature and music while the camera floats around them.

“Breathless” is a pop artifact and a daring work of art, made at a time when the two possibilities existed in a state of almost perfect convergence. That is the source of its uniqueness. Much as it may have influenced what was to come later, there is still nothing else quite like it. Its sexual candor is still surprising, and even now, at 50, it is still cool, still new, still — after all this time! — a bulletin from the future of movies.

[FILM] Nicole Holofcener still likes to shock – “PLEASE GIVE”

Even though she’s ‘so damn ancient,’ the director still defies Hollywood convention

Johanna Schneller

Johanna Schneller

“You know,” I said in a phone interview this week with Nicole Holofcener, the writer and director of the new film Please Give, “from Hollywood’s perspective, you do everything wrong. You make small, smart films that are dialogue-heavy and character-driven. The emotions are subtle, not super-sized. You focus on female characters, usually well past the ingénue stage, who are prickly and discontented. You use –”

“ – the same actress [Catherine Keener] over and over,” Holofcener jumped in, way ahead of me. “I write ensemble films, so I can’t get a huge star because there isn’t one clear lead character. My movies are too dark, or the humour’s too weird. They’re hard to market, because they don’t have a hook – they can’t be reduced to one line.”

I tried to come up with a few. For Walking and Talking (1996), Holofcener’s debut feature: Amelia (Keener) can’t manage to be happy that her best friend (Anne Heche) is getting married. For Lovely and Amazing (2001): Despite their closeness, a mother (Brenda Blethyn) and her two daughters (Keener and Emily Mortimer) continually baffle one another. For Friends with Money (2006): Four women (Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Jennifer Aniston) feel empty in lives that appear full. And for Please Give, which opened in select cities yesterday: When married Manhattan furniture dealers (Keener and Oliver Platt) buy the apartment next door but allow its elderly occupant to live there until her death, strange and complicated relationships arise between the couple and the woman’s granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall).

“You’re right, it’s pretty tortuous,” I said. “The movies are so much fuller and funnier than a tag line can convey.”

Holofcener sighed. “I have no idea why I can keep getting movies made,” she said. “I write a script on spec – which means nobody pays me – and then shop it around. Mostly I hear, ‘Great script,’ or even, ‘One of the best scripts I’ve ever read.’ And then I hear, ‘But we’re not going to make it.’ It’s always the same. Studios will say, ‘We want to make your next one, but notthis next one.’ It’s always the script I haven’t written that they want to make, not the one that’s in their hands. It’s really hypocritical and so full of shit. Or they want, I don’t know, some Nicole Kidman vehicle about a woman crossing the desert. It’s like, ‘What? That’s not what I do!’”

I thought I should tell her that she’s not supposed to be this honest, at least not to a journalist. But I didn’t, because I really wanted to hear what she’d say next.

“But somehow eventually I can convince the right people,” Holofcener continued. “For Please Give, Sony Classics first said, ‘This movie is so sad, I think I’d want to kill myself after seeing it. Why should we make it?’ So I went through it page by page and said, ‘This scene’s gonna be funny.’ They said, ‘You’re joking. It’s tragic!’ I said, “It’s tragic, but it’s also funny.’ That’s what the process of trying to get financing has always been like.”

In between features, Holofcener is in demand to rewrite other people’s scripts, or to direct episodes of smart-talky television shows, including Sex and the CityThe Gilmore GirlsSix Feet Under and Bored to Death. She’s just adapted her first thriller, Every Secret Thing, for producer/star Frances McDormand, which they’ll soon be shopping around.

Almost every profile of Holofcener – who is 50, recently divorced, and the mother of twin 12-year-old sons – mentions that she grew up in New York and spent time on Woody Allen’s sets. (Her stepfather, Charles Joffe, was Allen’s long-time producer.) At Columbia Film School, her peers called her “the female Woody Allen.” But she says her connection to him was slight: “I was so young when I was on Woody’s sets. I worked as a production assistant on one when I was 19, but I was with the bagels and cream cheese. And Woody whispers to his actors, so the very few times I was allowed on the set, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. The only thing I picked up is what everybody picks up from being a huge fan of his early movies and watching them over and over: His long takes, and the dolly shots, and the natural performances. And his brilliance.”

What most profiles don’t mention is that Holofcener’s first professional gig was as a writer on the hit Canadian tweener TV series Ready or Not, for creator Alyse Rosenberg. “I have wonderful memories of us sitting on living-room floors bashing out ideas and memories from our own tween lives,” Rosenberg told me.

The intense female friendships, the long and winding conversations, the delicate calibrations of emotions – all the characteristics of Holofcener’s movies were nascent in Ready or Not. “It’s all the same, yeah; I think it’s all exactly the same,” Holofcener said. “You try to put your feet in someone else’s shoes and go. I tend to like things that, I don’t know, tell the truth.”

I’ll say. Holofcener boldly strides into conversations that others would consider minefields. She admits to “freaking out” prior to turning 50: “It just seems so damn ancient, and it’s the unsexiest number, in our culture anyway. We should be dead, right, because we’re useless to the population. But I would never lie about my age. I think women especially have to stop that.”

On money, the focus of her last two films, she says: “I feel it’s one of the last taboos, like race. It evokes such strong feelings of shame or greed or envy, whether you make too little or too much. My screenwriter friends might make $700,000 for a script, which of course is obscene – and not even the highest amount. When I ask, ‘How much?’ you should see the embarrassment on their faces. I feel ashamed of the amount of money I make, compared to normal people who have normal jobs.”

And on Please Give’s opening credits, which show a panoply of older breasts being squished in a mammogram machine, she says, “I’m aware of being shocking, and that a lot of people might not like it. But I think it’s funny. In French movies, women are topless, and they have these big hanging boobs. But in this country people say, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’ That’s sad.

“I guess I like to be shocking sometimes,” Holofcener sums up. “When I was younger, it came from a more immature place. At least now when I’m doing it I’m aware of it.” I’d say hyper-aware. And thrillingly so.

‘Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology. Film studies isn’t what it used to be, one father discovers.’


Written By David Weddle, Special to The Los Angeles Times

July 13, 2003

“How did you do on your final exam?” I asked my daughter.

Her shoulders slumped. “I got a C.”

Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?

“It’s not my fault,” she protested. “You should have seen the questions. I couldn’t understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds.”

She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: “Here, read the test  yourself and tell me if it makes any sense.”

I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor’s degree in cinema. I’d written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.

On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:

“Neoformalism posits that viewers are active that they perform operations.  Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, ‘The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.’ “

Then came the question itself:

“What kind of pressure would Metz’s description of ‘the imaginary signifier’  or Baudry’s account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?”

I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. “Welcome to film theory,” she chirped.

Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory  class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. “Tell me where I  went wrong,” she said.

The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as  “diegetic,” “heterogeneity,” “narratology,” “narrativity,” “symptomology,”  “scopophilia,” “signifier,” “syntagmatic,” “synecdoche,” “temporality.” I picked out two of them “fabula” and “syuzhet” and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. “They’re the Russian Formalist terms for ‘story’ and  ‘plot,’ ” she replied.

“Well then, why don’t they use ‘story’ and ‘plot?’ “

“We’re not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to  use ‘fabula’ and ‘syuzhet.’ “

Forget for a moment that if Alexis were to use these terms on a Hollywood  set, she’d be laughed off the lot. Alexis wants a career in film. She chose UC Santa Barbara because we couldn’t afford USC and her grades weren’t  lustrous enough for UCLA. Film programs at those schools have hard-core  theoreticians on their faculty, as do many other universities. Yet no other  undergraduate film program in the country emphasizes film theory as much as UCSB, and the influence of those theoreticians is growing. We knew that much before Alexis enrolled. In hindsight, we had no idea what that truly meant for students.

I flipped through more pages and landed on this paragraph by Edward  Branigan, the premier film theorist at UCSB: “Film theory deals with basic  principles of film, not specific films. Thus it has a somewhat ‘abstract,’  intangible quality to it. It is like looking at a chair in a classroom and  thinking about chairs in general: undoubtedly, there are many types and

shapes of ‘chairs’ made out of many kinds and colors of materials resulting  in different sizes of chairs. What must a ‘chair’ be in order to be a ‘chair’? (Can it be anything? a pencil? a car? a sandwich? a nostalgic feeling? a ledge of a building that someone sits on? the ground one sits on and also walks on? Can a ‘chair’ be whatever you want, whatever you say it is?) Here’s another question: what must a chair be in order to be ‘comfortable’ (i.e., what is the ‘aesthetics’ of chairs?)?”

My daughter was required to take 14 units of film analysis and theory before she could graduate with her bachelor’s degree in film studies. That’s the equivalent of going to school full time for one quarter, which made it  relatively easy to crunch the numbers. Including tuition, books, school  supplies, food and rent, it cost about $6,100 for Alexis to learn how to distinguish between a chair and a nostalgic feeling. I don’t like to complain, but that just didn’t seem like a fair return on my investment.

Is there a hidden method to these film theorists’ apparent madness? Or is  film theory, as movie critic Roger Ebert said as I interviewed him weeks  later, “a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a  New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented that only the adept can communicate in”?

At USC cinema school a quarter-century ago, one of the most popular teachers was Drew Casper, a young, untenured professor with an unbridled love for movies. Casper didn’t lecture, he performed: jumping on a chair to sing a song from the musical he was teaching, covering his blackboard with frenetic scrawls as he unleashed a torrent of background material on the filmmaker’s life, the studio that produced the movie, and the social forces that influenced it.

Casper, and most other film studies professors at USC, approached film from a humanist perspective. He taught students to focus on the characters in the movies, the people who made the films, and the stories the movies told and what they revealed about the human condition, our society and the moment in history they dramatized.

Yes, students read theoretical essays and books. But they were about the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Aristotle’s “Poetics” laid out the basic  principles of dramatic writing. Sergei Eisenstein explained the intricate mechanics of montage editing, which used quick cutting to provoke visceral emotions from audiences. And André Bazin described how directors Orson Welles and William Wyler used a “long-take” method of filming scenes that was the opposite of montage, the camera and actors moving poetically around one another in intricately choreographed shots.

Students also studied the first French cinematic doctrine to reach American shores, the auteur theory. It held that directors were the primary creators of films and that they, like novelists, created bodies of work with recurrent themes and consistent world views. At the time, the auteur theory  seemed revolutionary, and in Hollywood‹particularly among members of the Writers Guild it remains controversial because many argue that movies are created not by a single auteur but by a complex collaboration of hundreds of craftspeople, beginning with the screenwriter.

Whatever its merits, the auteur theory remained solidly within the humanist  tradition Casper once taught. Perhaps he knows what happened to film theory in recent decades.

He does. “Unfortunately, film studies has moved away from humanist  concerns,” says Casper, who now holds the prestigious Hitchcock Chair at  USC’s School of Cinema-Television.   The change began in France in the late 1960s, he says, offering explanations echoed by other film and English professors interviewed for this article. French theorists of the New Left pushed their own liberal social agendas. They discredited the auteur theory as sentimental bourgeois claptrap. Auteurists, they believed, had constructed a pantheon of great directors, almost all them white males, whom they worshiped as demigods. Moviegoers passively allowed the genius to spoon-feed them his interpretation of their socio/political system, and they never dared question the validity of those perceptions.

New Left theorists decided film viewers should liberate themselves, bringing their own thoughts, interpretations and responses into the process. Moviegoers should look at films not as the product of a unique creative spirit, but as cultural “artifacts.” Films could be analyzed as a series of  Rorschach inkblots, providing insights about the collective unconscious of  the society that produced them. Thus it was no longer the artists’ views of  the world that counted. They were merely channeling the zeitgeist. Theorists became the new high priests of culture, and they followed their own  concrete, left-wing social agenda.

By the ’70s, film theory was spreading to the United States, and moving beyond simple politics. A kind of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of  cinema was underway. Discussions about movie characters, plots and the human beings who created them were on the way to being replaced by theories such as semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalytics  and neoformalism.

Film metaphysics, to use an Edward Branigan-style analogy, is like looking at a statue of a man and instead of asking what it expresses about the human psyche, wondering what it reveals about the nature of marble. Or studying a painting to find what it says about the meaning of the color red.

Hershel Parker, respected author of a two-volume biography of writer Herman Melville, says the transformation of film studies mirrored that in many  college English departments. “There’s no room for anyone in English departments who wants to talk about author intention,” says Parker, who goes into Old Testament rage at the mention of the subject. When the New Left  theories invaded American English departments, Parker believes it all but  wiped out serious scholarship. “I was a freak for wanting to go into the library manuscript collections.”

Since authors no longer matter, Parker says, many researchers believe they  no longer need to go back and read the author’s correspondence and working  manuscripts, or study the events that shaped his or her sensibility. “It’s  naïve New Criticism, where all you do is submit yourself to the text,” says  Parker. “These people have no clue about going to do research. They don’t  know you can find out about a person’s life or work. They have not, and  their teachers have not done real research.”

Annette Insdorf, director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia  University, recruits film theorists for her faculty because she believes her  students should be exposed to a discipline that has had a major impact on cinema scholarship. But she remains ambivalent.

Film theory caught on in the 1970s and 1980s, she points out, a time when many cinema professors were struggling to win the respect of their  colleagues. “Don’t forget that film studies always labored under the  handicap of being perceived as too easy and fun within many universities,”  Insdorf says. “I sometimes suspected that professors were trying to ensure  their own job security by utilizing an increasingly obfuscating language.  The less understandable film theory became to faculty from other  departments, the more respectable it seemed.”

As curriculum shifted, students moved further from the practical  considerations that have always driven filmmaking‹and continue to drive  Hollywood today. “You get people who are graduating with master’s degrees  who know nothing about the history of movies,” Casper says. “They have never  even heard of Ernst Lubitsch, have never even seen Hitchcock movies. They  know the different film theories, they know their    Marx, their Freud, their  Althusser, Derrida.”

Constance Penley is a thin, plainly dressed woman in her late 50s, her short  white hair combed forward in the manner of Gertrude Stein. She speaks in a soft Southern accent, her slender ivory hands shaking ever so slightly as they gesture to illustrate a point.

Penley is director of the UCSB Center for Film, Television and New Media.  She also is one of the founders of Camera Obscura, a highly influential   feminist film journal, and is one of the primary architects of film theory  in the United States. As author or editor of nine books on film and media  theory, she is constantly on the move, whisking off to speak in Rome,  London, Warsaw, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and at UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard.

Like many theorists, she exudes an almost religious fervor for film theory  and its power to transform. Penley vividly remembers the moment of her  conversion. She arrived at the University of Florida in 1966 with the  intention of becoming a high school or community college teacher. But the  campus’ burgeoning counterculture quickly radicalized her. She marched in peace demonstrations, got tear-gassed, worked on the underground newspaper,  attended feminist consciousness-raising groups and came to realize that  becoming a mere teacher would be to surrender to the pressures of a  patriarchal power structure.

One night she went to a screening of “Pierrot le Fou,” a labyrinthine,  perplexing, yet mesmerizing film by the premier French New Wave director,  Jean-Luc Godard. The plot was impossible to follow, but the spontaneity of  the acting, the unconventional staging and elliptical editing seemed to  Penley to burst beyond the screen. “I walked out into the steamy Florida  night and I was baffled. I set out to try and figure out: ‘How is this a film?’ “

She went to see more European movies, hallucinatory concoctions by Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini that catapulted beyond all traditional notions of genre or narrative. Her excitement and questions multiplied, even if she still didn’t know how to define what she was seeing.

Then she took a film class from W. R. Robinson, who had edited a book titled “Man and the Movies.” “He was one of these crazy English professors who loved movies and wanted to legitimize them so he could show them in class,”  Penley says.

At the time, only a handful of universities had film programs, most  prominently USC, UCLA and New York University. At most colleges, the notion  of seriously studying cinema was mocked or ignored. But gradually,  instructors on some campuses persuaded the English, philosophy, or even the  rhetoric departments to allow them to teach a film class or two.

At the University of Florida, Robinson taught a number of courses, including “Narrative Analysis.” One of the textbooks was “Structuralism,” by Jacques Ehrman. “It was one of the very, very first things on structuralism translated in this country,” Penley says. Derived from the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralism is an investigation of the “deep structures” found in a society’s myths, artwork, literature and films‹structures through which the society defines itself.

In it, at last, Penley had a tool for picking apart works of literature and these new foreign films, a tool for bringing order to the chaos,  understanding to her confusion.

After earning a master’s in English education in 1971, Penley wanted to go  to the “the most radical place, the farthest away I could get” from Florida.  “That was Berkeley.” There she found a fantastic Day-Glo wonderland, a  frothing kettle of New Left politics. She joined a Marxist study group,  attended classes at the East Bay Socialist School, screenings at the Pacific  Film Archive and film theory classes and seminars taught by professors in Berkeley’s French and rhetoric departments.

She abandoned the idea of getting a PhD in English. “I thought: If I go into  English, I’ll have to be like everybody else. I’ll have to find one Shakespeare sonnet that hasn’t been done to death and spend the rest of my  life doing it to death. Film seemed so wide open.”   She decided to get a doctorate in rhetoric and write her dissertation on  film theory.

Then the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Bertrand Augst, a French professor who taught courses in semiotics and structuralism at  Berkeley, started the Paris Film Program. American college students could  study in France with the great film theorists, including Christian  Metz whose name I encountered on Alexis’ final exam.

Metz founded the theory of cinema semiotics. He presided over a think tank in Paris where scholars did not make movies or interview filmmakers or do archival research. Instead, they pondered the metaphysics of film, the manifold neoplastic mysteries that semiotics revealed.

Semiotics is the study of the myriad “signs,” verbal and nonverbal, that  human beings use to communicate: body language, images, icons, social  rituals, and, of course, written language and movies. A semiotician sees an  ordinary advertising billboard as a complex “hierarchy” of signs: the  slogan, the image of the product, the people consuming the product, the  clothes they are wearing, the colors used in the graphics and so on. By  closely analyzing each sign, or visual element, and their relationships to each other, the semiotician can glean a treasure trove of insights about the social system that both created and now consumes this pattern of images.

First developed at the end of the 19th century by American philosopher  Charles Sanders Peirce, semiotics was later picked up by French theorists  such as Lévi-Strauss, who applied it to anthropology; Jacques Lacan, who  applied it to Freudian analysis; and Metz, who turned its prism upon the  cinema. “In his books ‘Film Language,’ and ‘ Language and Cinema,’ Metz was  trying to look at the way film is structured like a language and if we could  study its elements with the same precision with which structural linguists were studying language,” Penley says.

She spent two years in Paris with about 40 other scholars. “Metz was a  beautiful, beautiful, gentle man in his 50s, trained in linguistics,” Penley  says, with the I-can-hardly-believe-I-actually-got-to-hang-with-him glow of  a teenager who’s met a rock ‘n’ roll idol. She also attended seminars and  lectures by some of the great French researchers in the pantheon of semiotics: Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Raymond Bellour.

Penley returned from Paris after two years with the academic cachet to  establish herself as one of the leading film theorists in North America. She  earned her PhD at Berkeley and, in 1991, was hired at UCSB, where the film program was being methodically constructed by professor Charles Wolfe, who holds a doctorate in film studies from Columbia University.

“I wanted to build a strong core curriculum stressing film history, theory  and analysis‹the way I was trained,” Wolfe says. The practical side of  filmmaking‹how to write dramatically sound screenplays, elicit performances from actors, light a set, place a camera and edit film became secondary.   “Students who had strong interests in production could take classes” in  addition to core curriculum.

Penley joined Branigan, who had been on the faculty since 1984 after earning a doctorate from a leading film theory school, the University of Wisconsin,  Madison. Wolfe now had two major film theorists and the momentum to turn the film program into a full-fledged department in 1996.

Any way you slice it, UCSB’s small band of radical theorists has pulled off  a remarkable feat. They now hobnob with the Hollywood elite and are building a complex that will put their film studies department on par with UCLA, USC and NYU. They have overthrown the old school humanists and broken free of  the fascist thought control designs of the artistic genius auteurs.

How did they do it? “We were right, that’s how!” department chair Janet  Walker says with a triumphant laugh.

The department has 11 full-time and three tenured part-time faculty members and 456 undergraduates, twice that of a decade ago. Wolfe has in many ways  created a strong department. It offers courses in screenwriting, 16mm film production and animation, and a number of Hollywood professionals have come  to teach classes, including director John Carpenter, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and the late Paul Lazarus, a production executive who worked at  Columbia, Universal and Warner Brothers. Guest lecturers have included  Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Jodie Foster and screenwriter John Lee Hancock.

The cinema history classes are demanding. Students cannot get away with  regurgitating passages from encyclopedias; they are required to pull  original production files on movies from such archives as the Motion Picture  Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. But film theory remains at the core.  Students are required to take 14 units of film theory and analysis, and just  one four-unit production course that deals with the actual writing, shooting  and editing of a film or video project.

Wolfe argues that the rigorous intellectual regimen produces better  filmmakers, noting that for three consecutive years (1999-2001), UCSB  alumnae were nominated for Academy Awards. The most prominent is Scott  Frank, nominated for his screenplay for the thriller “Out of Sight” in 1999.  Frank has since written the script for “The Minority Report.”

It’s worth noting that Frank graduated in 1982, before Branigan and Penley  and the greater emphasis on theory. He credits Lazarus with helping him to hone his craft and says he learned a great deal from Wolfe’s film history classes.

Frank co-chairs the advisory board for UCSB’s Center for Film, Television  and New Media. The board is peppered with other Hollywood heavyweights,  including Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, “Ghostbusters” director Ivan  Reitman, TV producer Dick Wolf and Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman.  The center is scheduled to break ground in 2005 and will include an editing  room, production space and a theater.

When I show Frank examples of the film theory that mystified my daughter, he is bewildered. “This is the first I’ve ever heard of these terms.  ‘Narratology?’ ‘Symptomatic interpretation?’ ‘Syuzhet, fabula, analepses,  prolepses’, my goodness! I’m really shocked that they even teach anything like this.”

Other Hollywood professionals and film experts offered harsher reactions.  Some criticized the curriculum or the political agendas at work. Some simply  couldn’t get beyond the turgid academic language.

I read from my daughter’s study guide to Gary A. Randall, who has served as  president of Orion Television, Spelling Television, and as the executive  producer of the TV series “Any Day Now.” “That’s what your daughter’s being  taught?” he says. “That’s just elitist psychobabble. It sounds like it was written by a professor of malapropism. That has absolutely no bearing on the  real world. It sounds like an awfully myopic perspective of what film is  really supposed to be about: touching hearts and minds and providing  provocative thoughts.”

From movie critic Ebert: “Film theory has nothing to do with film. Students  presumably hope to find out something about film, and all they will find out  is an occult and arcane language designed only for the purpose of excluding  those who have not mastered it and giving academic rewards to those who  have. No one with any literacy, taste or intelligence would want to teach  these courses, so the bona fide definition of people teaching them are  people who are incapable of teaching anything else.”

From Kevin Brownlow, the world’s leading silent movie historian, author of  “The Parade’s Gone By . . .,” and co-producer, with David Gill, of acclaimed documentaries: “You would think, from this closed-circuit attitude to teaching, that such academics would be politically right wing. For it is a  kind of fascism to force people practicing one discipline to learn the  language of another, simply for the convenience of an intellectual elite.  It’s like expecting Slavs to learn German in order to comprehend their own  inferiority. But they are not right wing. They are, regrettably, usually left wing, quite aggressively Marxist, which makes the whole situation even  more alarming.”

UCSB’s film studies faculty is upfront about its political agenda. The  professors are, as in most other film programs, almost uniformly on the left  end of the political spectrum. Penley’s generation forged their political  beliefs in the 1960s counterculture, and they show a strong preference for  hiring younger professors who share their liberal beliefs.

Lisa Parks, 35, joined the faculty in 1998 as a specialist in global media  and broadcast history. While an undergraduate at the University of Montana  in 1991, Parks and other students lay down on the basketball court at the start of a nationally televised game to protest the Gulf War. She  passionately opposed the war in Iraq, and believes that film and media theory can win the hearts and minds of her students back from the mass media  conglomerates that Parks says are controlled largely by conservatives.

“Many of our faculty are really concerned about the relationship between  media images and social power outside of the screen,” Parks says. “Even  though in our classes we’re often watching stuff and trying to segment,  analyze and discuss it, we hope that by the time our students graduate, if  they do go into the industry, it affects the way that they actually produce.”

In some respects, it’s not fair to single out UC Santa Barbara’s film theory  and analysis curriculum simply because my daughter went there. On the other  hand, UCSB does consider its film theory program to be its signature.

Faculty members are aware that many students are reluctant if not outright  hostile to being force-fed so much theory, but they maintain that the  curriculum is valuable even for production-oriented students. “We want them  to be able to understand other ways of thinking and looking at these works  of art that perhaps exceed their own reactions,” Wolfe says. “That may be  people from different time periods, cultures, genders or social orientations.”

When I share the criticisms of film theory with UCSB staff, they look truly wounded, then quickly mount a vigorous defense.

“Film theory is philosophy, and people have made the same criticisms of  philosophy for years,” Branigan says. “They say, ‘What relevance does  philosophy have to the real world? It’s merely idle thought, personal  feeling, pointless speculation.’ If we listened to them, we would do away  with teaching and studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant,  Wittgenstein and Sartre. Do we really want to do that? I think not.”

Anna Everett, an associate professor who specializes in new media, says,  “It’s galling for me to hear those kinds of charges when we expect our  students to be able to grapple with complex ideas in math and science and a lot of them won’t go on to use them. Math and science are part of our  everyday lives. So why is it then illegitimate for us to ask students to be  just as rigorous with something that has a much greater impact on an  everyday basis?

“Art, film and video games really do help to shape their ideas and  experiences and their relationships. I think the critics are unfair. It’s a  way of thinking that doesn’t really take into account what the university is  about. We’re not a trade school. We’re trying to develop minds, to create a better world.”

Is it working? The voices of two students:

“I love film theory,” says Chris Scotten. “When I graduate, I want to write, direct and produce. I’m shooting for the moon. The great thing about UCSB  is, I could have gone to USC and sat around holding a microphone boom pole, but then I wouldn’t understand the theory behind filmmaking, to understand  how film exists in relation to our lives. We learn how film psychologically  manipulates us, and the power inherent in the language of cinema. It can be  two things, a useful propaganda tool in a communist revolution, or part of  the capitalist superstructure, a way of lulling the working class into a  haze to subdue them and give them an escape from the pressures of reality.  The old communists writing about film theory in Russia and Germany really  had something to say, and it’s still relevant today. You’ve got about six companies that own the biggest, most awesome propaganda machine in the  history of the whole wretched world. What are the consequences of that?”

Yoshi Enoki Jr., who graduated in 1995, believes he has succeeded despite the film theory classes, not because of them. He has built a thriving career  as a location scout and manager for such films as “American Beauty,”  “Terminator 3” and the Coen brothers’ forthcoming remake of “The  Ladykillers.”

Some of his fellow students were not so lucky, Enoki says. They took to  heart the portrayals of Hollywood as the embodiment of corporate evil that  inevitably corrupts authentic artists and crushes their spirit. “That world

view has given them a rationalization for failure,” he says. “So they don’t  even try to break into the industry. These kids, I call them kids because they behave that way, have developed this cynicism, so much so that it eats them alive. Everything becomes negative. They don’t want to connect with people. One of my best friends said to me, ‘When I’m in Hollywood, I can’t  be myself.’ But they don’t even know what Hollywood’s all about because  they’ve never really been a part of it.”

During my interview with Janet Walker, she glances at the clock and gets a  sudden inspiration. Branigan, the  department’s premier cognitive film  theorist, is teaching a class this very moment. “You’ve got to see Edward lecture,” she says, leading me to a lecture hall. “It’s a theatrical experience.”

Walker ushers me into a 147-seat theater that is about three-quarters full.  Branigan stands before a blackboard covered with rectangles and hexagons  heavily notated with abbreviations. They appear to be the complex equations  of an astrophysicist, but are in fact illustrations of semiotic theories of  “narratology.” Branigan has tangled brown-gray hair, a shaggy beard, large  glasses coated with flecks of dandruff and fingerprints, and wears an  oversized gray sweater and corduroy pants. As he speaks, his hands grasp at  the air, shaping it as he shapes his thoughts. He punches certain words out  with an odd, inflectionless emphasis. “The nature of the photography:  Benjamin says the camera strips people who are in front of the camera lens‹like actors and alienaaaates them from their labor! Alienaaaation!  False coooonsciousness!”

Branigan’s oratory mesmerizes many of the students. They lean back, deep into the seats’ red upholstery, eyes staring blankly into space. Some give up and close them altogether. A brunet with a Huck Finn cap pulled over the  bridge of her nose shifts about for a more comfortable position and drifts   off again. A fellow traces the stubble on his cheek and squints, trying to  follow as he takes notes. A tall young man in a backward baseball cap  doodles a series of spirals, and at the back of the hall another reads a paper. Two girls in the back whisper to each other.

Branigan takes no notice. He leaves them far behind as he ascends faster and  faster along a spiral of rhetoric into the pure white ether of theory.  “Benjamin says the camera does not show the equipment that’s used to make  the film. It obscures or hides or masks THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION! Now in  Marxism if you hide the process of production, you are obscuring and further  alienating the labor that goes into that, the BOOODILY labor that yoooou are  contributing to that manufacture. OK? Which is a bad, bad fact. . . .”

David Weddle last wrote for the magazine about comedy.

Me and You and Everyone We Know – Film

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a 2005 film, Miranda July’s directorial debut.

My two most favorite scenes: The Trailer: Me and You and Everyone We Know is a 2005 film, Miranda July’s directorial debut.

Directed by Miranda July
Produced by Gina Kwon
Written by Miranda July (screenplay)
Starring Miranda July John Hawkes Miles Thompson Brandon Ratcliff Natasha Slayton Najarra Townsend Carlie Westerman JoNell Kennedy
Music by Michael Andrews
Cinematography Chuy Chavez
Editing by Andrew Dickler Charles Ireland
Distributed by IFC Films
Release date(s) June 17, 2005 (limited)
Running time 90 min.
Language English