Posts tagged Marxist theory

Feed Your Head with Jan Švankmajer’s Food

Life is ritual. You set alarms to wake up.  You arrive at work, punch in, take breaks, punch out.  Even your eating habits are ritualized.  In the morning, you eat breakfast, cereal, eggs, breakfast foods.  Noon rolls around?  Well, that’s lunch time.  There’s more leeway on what’s being eaten, sure, but noon is the time when, hungry or not, you start to kick around the idea of lunch.  The evening is for dinner, a big meal, and if you’re the family-type, there’s even more ritual attached.  You set the table, maybe you say a prayer, you talk about your other daily rituals, and then there’s dessert.  Yum.
Ritual is control, and surrealist animator, Jan Švankmajer is fascinated by the concept.  For Švankmajer, the human body, and its functions, eating, sleeping, making love, all point to the big question: who is in control?  Are we able to transcend our grotesque impulses and shape ourselves, or are the rituals we insist upon a clever mask for chaos, a world where at any moment the body can be stretched, squashed, or distorted like a ball of clay?
Švankmajer’s 1992 claymation short, Food, uses the eating ritual to expose the fallacy of order, deconstructing not only politics in the post-revolution Czech State, but also more terrifying notions of self-identity and functionality.  The movie, like our day, is separated into three sections, Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, short examinations of control that become progressively more absurd as the illusion of order becomes greater.  It’s interesting to note that Food’s genesis occurred before The Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, while production and distribution of the short happened several years after Czech politics abandoned socialism.  In this way, the narrative of the film can be seen as a commentary on the “evolution” from socialism to capitalism, governments which, according to Švankmajer, are simply two variations on the same obscene meal.
Food’s first segment, Breakfast, displays an unending loop of mechanized men, rigged-up as dumb waiters, each of whom receives his sustenance from the open stomach of the man who ate before him.  The men here are entirely devoid of control, waiting robotically for their chance to feed off their brother man, lined up like workers ready to punch the clock.  This is socialist politics, men who have given their identity to the State, but who are still responsible for the needs of their comrades, all living within the blinders of their ridged, daily functionality.  Everyone works and everyone eats the same, regurgitated meal.
Lunch finds two men, one upper-class, one lower class, attempting to hail a waiter.  This simple act of human connection proving impossible, the men begin to ravenously consume everything in sight, including their utensils, plates, clothing, and each other (the upper-class gentlemen, of course, emerging the victor).  Here, the idealism of the revolution crumbles.  The two men of different classes, free from the constrictive quagmire of the socialist régime, sit down to enjoy one another’s company.  The waiter, symbolic of the impossibility of connection, whether by the gap left from the previous government, or through simple human stubbornness and indifference, ignores the two men until they devolve to their basest animal instincts, and give in to the compulsive “gimme-gimme” of unregulated, free-market economics.  “You mean I can have my cake, and his cake, and eat them both?  Sounds good to me!”  The rich, through subterfuge and loopholes, take control of the market, as the upper-class gentleman vomits the silverware he only pretended to swallow, and uses it to devour the poor.
The shortest of Food’s segments, Dinner, takes place at the fanciest restaurant seen yet, the illusion of control at its most elevated, the self-consuming horrors of the free-market (and freedom in general) beautifully hidden behind an opulent farce.  The men and women of Dinner, lost in a world defined by their output, grasp desperately for agency by eating their own limbs.  The athlete cuts into his athletic leg, a woman garnishes her large breasts, and a man sets about consuming his penis.  This focus on functionality, the idea that in a political society what someone does is who they are, and who they are is what they sell, brings Food to its thematic apex.  Concepts of identity, whether grounded in ideology, or wealth, or functionality, are no more than a ruse (the man about to eat his penis, coyly hides the organ from the watchful eye of the camera, as if, somehow, this discretion can eliminate the truth of the act)  and the hunger for self-control can only result in depletion.  In Švankmajer’s world, stomachs open, faces distort, and limbs are replaced with wooden apparatuses that offer the appearance of humanity, all the while severing the flesh that built it.  Where does this lead, and in an all-consuming society, which part will remain, the mouth or the stomach?  What function is more essentially “human?”  Does it matter?  Doesn’t all food turn to shit?

Feed Your Head with Jan Švankmajer’s Food


Life is ritual. You set alarms to wake up.  You arrive at work, punch in, take breaks, punch out.  Even your eating habits are ritualized.  In the morning, you eat breakfast, cereal, eggs, breakfast foods.  Noon rolls around?  Well, that’s lunch time.  There’s more leeway on what’s being eaten, sure, but noon is the time when, hungry or not, you start to kick around the idea of lunch.  The evening is for dinner, a big meal, and if you’re the family-type, there’s even more ritual attached.  You set the table, maybe you say a prayer, you talk about your other daily rituals, and then there’s dessert.  Yum.

Ritual is control, and surrealist animator, Jan Švankmajer is fascinated by the concept.  For Švankmajer, the human body, and its functions, eating, sleeping, making love, all point to the big question: who is in control?  Are we able to transcend our grotesque impulses and shape ourselves, or are the rituals we insist upon a clever mask for chaos, a world where at any moment the body can be stretched, squashed, or distorted like a ball of clay?

Švankmajer’s 1992 claymation short, Food, uses the eating ritual to expose the fallacy of order, deconstructing not only politics in the post-revolution Czech State, but also more terrifying notions of self-identity and functionality.  The movie, like our day, is separated into three sections, Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, short examinations of control that become progressively more absurd as the illusion of order becomes greater.  It’s interesting to note that Food’s genesis occurred before The Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, while production and distribution of the short happened several years after Czech politics abandoned socialism.  In this way, the narrative of the film can be seen as a commentary on the “evolution” from socialism to capitalism, governments which, according to Švankmajer, are simply two variations on the same obscene meal.

Food’s first segment, Breakfast, displays an unending loop of mechanized men, rigged-up as dumb waiters, each of whom receives his sustenance from the open stomach of the man who ate before him.  The men here are entirely devoid of control, waiting robotically for their chance to feed off their brother man, lined up like workers ready to punch the clock.  This is socialist politics, men who have given their identity to the State, but who are still responsible for the needs of their comrades, all living within the blinders of their ridged, daily functionality.  Everyone works and everyone eats the same, regurgitated meal.

Lunch finds two men, one upper-class, one lower class, attempting to hail a waiter.  This simple act of human connection proving impossible, the men begin to ravenously consume everything in sight, including their utensils, plates, clothing, and each other (the upper-class gentlemen, of course, emerging the victor).  Here, the idealism of the revolution crumbles.  The two men of different classes, free from the constrictive quagmire of the socialist régime, sit down to enjoy one another’s company.  The waiter, symbolic of the impossibility of connection, whether by the gap left from the previous government, or through simple human stubbornness and indifference, ignores the two men until they devolve to their basest animal instincts, and give in to the compulsive “gimme-gimme” of unregulated, free-market economics.  “You mean I can have my cake, and his cake, and eat them both?  Sounds good to me!”  The rich, through subterfuge and loopholes, take control of the market, as the upper-class gentleman vomits the silverware he only pretended to swallow, and uses it to devour the poor.

The shortest of Food’s segments, Dinner, takes place at the fanciest restaurant seen yet, the illusion of control at its most elevated, the self-consuming horrors of the free-market (and freedom in general) beautifully hidden behind an opulent farce.  The men and women of Dinner, lost in a world defined by their output, grasp desperately for agency by eating their own limbs.  The athlete cuts into his athletic leg, a woman garnishes her large breasts, and a man sets about consuming his penis.  This focus on functionality, the idea that in a political society what someone does is who they are, and who they are is what they sell, brings Food to its thematic apex.  Concepts of identity, whether grounded in ideology, or wealth, or functionality, are no more than a ruse (the man about to eat his penis, coyly hides the organ from the watchful eye of the camera, as if, somehow, this discretion can eliminate the truth of the act)  and the hunger for self-control can only result in depletion.  In Švankmajer’s world, stomachs open, faces distort, and limbs are replaced with wooden apparatuses that offer the appearance of humanity, all the while severing the flesh that built it.  Where does this lead, and in an all-consuming society, which part will remain, the mouth or the stomach?  What function is more essentially “human?”  Does it matter?  Doesn’t all food turn to shit?

13 notes

They Live and the B-Movie Brecht

There’s probably no need for a close reading here.  Any film that ends with a whore being fucked by a corporate monster has its agenda front and center.  John Carpenter’s They Live is a direct attack on the capitalist paradigm, wrapped in the b-movie bacon the director had been perfecting since the seventies.  That it’s as scathing in a post-Shepard Fairey world as it was in 1988 is perhaps more indicative of the twenty-first century’s desperate consumer fortitude and the longevity of Marxist thought than any filmmaking bravado, though Carpenter brings a holistic vision to They Live that sets it apart from his previous efforts and cements the film’s subversive ideology in a fantastic world all its own. 
Carpenter’s collaborating DP, Gary Kibbe, reiterates the film’s binaries of seeing/blindness by alternating between a radiant color pallet, seeped in the loud, primary colors of 1980s florescent lighting and stark, newsreel black and white footage.  The color is the cover-up, a visual “watch the birdy”, and an effort by Kibbe and Carpenter to capture the ironic sterilization of a saturated culture.  If everything pops, nothing pops, and hiding in plain view just means turning it up a notch, bigger, better, and more, until the brightness is overwhelming.
When the movie’s antagonists bust up an underground rally or a Hooverville-esque outdoor slum, Carpenter and his art department flood the scenes with an oppressive red hue.  Road flairs, used as low source lighting, behind a swirling haze of fog give these scenes the detached, surrealistic quality of a music video, reemphasizing the underlying commercial intentions of all art, even cinema.  Casting Roddy Piper (at his rowdiest) as They Live’s disillusioned protagonist again delineates the film’s awareness of its own conflicting interests, one part incendiary political tract, and the other, palpable, box-office garbage.  The concept of professional wrestler as acting hyperbole recalls Brechtian distancing effects, severing the film’s suture, and bringing the phoniness of wrestling to the forefront.  This is a stage.  This is an act(ion movie).
They Live’s most daring moments come at the film’s climax, whereupon the mirage that sustained the corporate machine is shattered and the populace sees the rich for who they truly are, fakers and goblins.  However, instead of changing the film stock back to black and white, the raw medium in which Piper’s character saw reality, Carpenter choses to bring the news in bright, effervescent color.  After all, why would someone conditioned to the monotonous homogeny of bigger, better, and more, pay heed the dull vision of black and white?  To beat them, one has to join first, and throw them all the bones they can eat.  They Live shows up at the doorstep of consumers everywhere, and it comes with a professional wrestler, and an MTV aesthetic, then it flaunts its gloss, relentlessly, until the audience has no option but to take a look down and see just what’s been fucking them, what sort of monster, what sort of lie.

They Live and the B-Movie Brecht


There’s probably no need for a close reading here.  Any film that ends with a whore being fucked by a corporate monster has its agenda front and center.  John Carpenter’s They Live is a direct attack on the capitalist paradigm, wrapped in the b-movie bacon the director had been perfecting since the seventies.  That it’s as scathing in a post-Shepard Fairey world as it was in 1988 is perhaps more indicative of the twenty-first century’s desperate consumer fortitude and the longevity of Marxist thought than any filmmaking bravado, though Carpenter brings a holistic vision to They Live that sets it apart from his previous efforts and cements the film’s subversive ideology in a fantastic world all its own.

Carpenter’s collaborating DP, Gary Kibbe, reiterates the film’s binaries of seeing/blindness by alternating between a radiant color pallet, seeped in the loud, primary colors of 1980s florescent lighting and stark, newsreel black and white footage.  The color is the cover-up, a visual “watch the birdy”, and an effort by Kibbe and Carpenter to capture the ironic sterilization of a saturated culture.  If everything pops, nothing pops, and hiding in plain view just means turning it up a notch, bigger, better, and more, until the brightness is overwhelming.

When the movie’s antagonists bust up an underground rally or a Hooverville-esque outdoor slum, Carpenter and his art department flood the scenes with an oppressive red hue.  Road flairs, used as low source lighting, behind a swirling haze of fog give these scenes the detached, surrealistic quality of a music video, reemphasizing the underlying commercial intentions of all art, even cinema.  Casting Roddy Piper (at his rowdiest) as They Live’s disillusioned protagonist again delineates the film’s awareness of its own conflicting interests, one part incendiary political tract, and the other, palpable, box-office garbage.  The concept of professional wrestler as acting hyperbole recalls Brechtian distancing effects, severing the film’s suture, and bringing the phoniness of wrestling to the forefront.  This is a stage.  This is an act(ion movie).

They Live’s most daring moments come at the film’s climax, whereupon the mirage that sustained the corporate machine is shattered and the populace sees the rich for who they truly are, fakers and goblins.  However, instead of changing the film stock back to black and white, the raw medium in which Piper’s character saw reality, Carpenter choses to bring the news in bright, effervescent color.  After all, why would someone conditioned to the monotonous homogeny of bigger, better, and more, pay heed the dull vision of black and white?  To beat them, one has to join first, and throw them all the bones they can eat.  They Live shows up at the doorstep of consumers everywhere, and it comes with a professional wrestler, and an MTV aesthetic, then it flaunts its gloss, relentlessly, until the audience has no option but to take a look down and see just what’s been fucking them, what sort of monster, what sort of lie.

5 notes

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein; Cinematographers: Eduard Tisse, Vladimir Popov)

Life is destroyed in its infancy by tyrannous Russian tsarists in Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.  When a mother is shot, and her baby plummets down a flight of steps, past piles of corpses, a trigger-happy militia, and the agonizing howls of trampled townspeople, the propaganda is front and center, blunt as a blackjack.  Here are the good guys.  Here are the bad guys.  Battleship Potemkin was Eisenstein’s call to arms for the placated Russian public, urging them to organize under the banner of revolution, but the revolution was years past, and the solidarity of the Red Army – a convoluted wash of opposing factions.
This famous Odessa Staircase sequence, referenced everywhere from DePalma’s The Untouchables to a recent piece attributed to Banksy, is a classic bit of rhythm editing, building to a furious apex in which the carriage tips mid-motion, a tsarist soldier brings his weapon down on an unseen victim, and a peasant woman screams, her eye shot out, streaming blood.  The blood, unlike the hand-colored red flag on the titular ship, remains an oily void on the black and white celluloid canvas.  If Eisenstein’s brutal Odessa montage force-feeds viewers a nasty bit of interpretive realism, his shots of the waving, bright red, revolutionary banner only perpetuated the fiction that the united, heroic compatriotism of 1905, the year in which the film takes place, was still alive and well two decades later, following the August Uprising and the death of V. I. Lenin.
Esenstein’s film remains a stunning cinematic achievement, and the Odessa Staircase scene one of the finest action set-pieces to emerge from the pre-sound era, but as a political text, Battleship Potemkin can’t help but be swallowed up by the short-sighted folds of its own agitprop nostalgia.  There was, Esenstein suggests, a glorious moment for Russia and its people, when the revolution was young, powerful, and pure.  By 1925, that time had passed, and the patriotism of Battleship Potemkin was but a fleeting triumph for the divided Communist party, as it wrung out its oily flags, and prepared again for war, speeding blindly toward the bottom of the steps.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein; Cinematographers: Eduard Tisse, Vladimir Popov)

Life is destroyed in its infancy by tyrannous Russian tsarists in Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.  When a mother is shot, and her baby plummets down a flight of steps, past piles of corpses, a trigger-happy militia, and the agonizing howls of trampled townspeople, the propaganda is front and center, blunt as a blackjack.  Here are the good guys.  Here are the bad guys.  Battleship Potemkin was Eisenstein’s call to arms for the placated Russian public, urging them to organize under the banner of revolution, but the revolution was years past, and the solidarity of the Red Army – a convoluted wash of opposing factions.

This famous Odessa Staircase sequence, referenced everywhere from DePalma’s The Untouchables to a recent piece attributed to Banksy, is a classic bit of rhythm editing, building to a furious apex in which the carriage tips mid-motion, a tsarist soldier brings his weapon down on an unseen victim, and a peasant woman screams, her eye shot out, streaming blood.  The blood, unlike the hand-colored red flag on the titular ship, remains an oily void on the black and white celluloid canvas.  If Eisenstein’s brutal Odessa montage force-feeds viewers a nasty bit of interpretive realism, his shots of the waving, bright red, revolutionary banner only perpetuated the fiction that the united, heroic compatriotism of 1905, the year in which the film takes place, was still alive and well two decades later, following the August Uprising and the death of V. I. Lenin.

Esenstein’s film remains a stunning cinematic achievement, and the Odessa Staircase scene one of the finest action set-pieces to emerge from the pre-sound era, but as a political text, Battleship Potemkin can’t help but be swallowed up by the short-sighted folds of its own agitprop nostalgia.  There was, Esenstein suggests, a glorious moment for Russia and its people, when the revolution was young, powerful, and pure.  By 1925, that time had passed, and the patriotism of Battleship Potemkin was but a fleeting triumph for the divided Communist party, as it wrung out its oily flags, and prepared again for war, speeding blindly toward the bottom of the steps.

13 notes