My new essay on Avatar, ‘Loving the Alien: Indigenous Protest and Neo-colonial Violence in James Cameron’s Avatar’ has just been published in the handsomely produced volume, Immigrant Protest: Politics, Aesthetics and Everyday Dissent (New York; SUNY Press), edited by Imogen Tyler and Katarzyna Marciniak. A pre-publication draft can be found on my academia.edu page here: https://lancaster.academia.edu/BruceBennett
On June the 9th and 10th I attended a two-day symposium on ‘Transport in the Media’ hosted by the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe) at Lancaster University and organised by Rachel Aldred from the University of Westminster. I was asked to give a 10-minute response to the first day’s presentations and discussions on the morning of the second day and an audio recording of my response is posted here on Rachel’s blog, along with an overview of the two-day event: http://rachelaldred.org/whatson/transport-in-the-media-write-up/
This extraordinary photograph says a great deal about contemporary Hollywood. Taken with a phone at the Oscars ceremony when the host Ellen DeGeneres stepped off stage to take a picture of herself with Meryl Streep as a stunt to try to get a record-breaking number of retweets, the photograph has indeed reportedly broken records for the most retweeted and most rapidly retweeted photograph circulated on Twitter.
The image itself reproduces a very familiar fantasy of Hollywood stardom, crystallizing the impression that life is a continual party for the wealthy and the beautiful, but at the same time it demonstrates the paradoxical double register of stardom, in which we are periodically reminded that stars are also just like the rest of us. On the face of it, the image appears to be an authentic, spontaneous snap; formally it resembles a photograph anybody with a smartphone might have taken at one time or another. This impression is reinforced by the presence of Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o’s brother, Peter in the bottom right, who accompanied his sister to the event and who has become in an instant a globally recognisable individual after joining the group of stars who pushed themselves into the frame. But of course, no matter how provisional and unplanned the photograph itself might appear to be, there is nothing accidental about the staging of the event and the distribution of people around the space. It is a contingent document of a very carefully staged industrial promotional event.
Nevertheless, there are a number of historically significant dimensions to this image. The most obvious of these is that at the centre of the picture is a lesbian woman, the host for the global TV broadcast, while just visible at the back is Lupita Nyong’o, who won the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ award for 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013), the film that won the ‘Best Picture’ award. It is therefore an attractive visualisation of the American film industry’s self-representation as a liberal, inclusive and historically reflective film culture. More broadly and more significantly, however, at a point at which Hollywood distributors are abandoning the distribution of 35mm prints, it represents both the integration of cinema with digital communications technologies in a shifting screen culture, as well as an increasingly indistinct and complex relationship between film and television (as embodied, for instance by the presence of Kevin Spacey who is probably best known right now for his starring role in the series House of Cards, which was produced by David Fincher and is the first in-house production by the on-demand internet streaming service, Netflix). The real historical significance of this image lies not so much in the speed with which it has been circulated, nor in its content, but in its status as a synecdoche for the contemporary global entertainment complex.
Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)
‘Deserting the human race’: Introduction to La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Dukes cinema, 27th Jan, 2014
(This was the introduction I gave for the screening of a new digital restoration of this film, which was screened within a series of ‘Gothic’ films)
La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is the second of the six extant films that were directed by the prolific French poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, artist and director, Jean Cocteau.
The film is an adaptation of the French fairy-tale that was first published as a novella by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and then later reworked and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Published in 1756, this is the version of the story that has become the key source for all subsequent adaptations. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well known examples of the ‘literary fairy tale’. These were first produced by groups of writers, chiefly aristocratic women, in 18th France who gathered in Salons. Thus they were initially intended for educated adult audiences, as upper-class women would entertain themselves and one another by retelling stories adapted from traditional folk tales, improvising and embellishing them. Storytelling in this context was a form of competitive intellectual game-playing as well as entertainment, a demonstration of the wit and creativity of the storyteller.
Literary historians have argued that these stories were often a coded means by which the women could imagine how their restricted lives might be improved – these fantasy narratives were a highly symbolic and oblique way of telling allegorical stories about contemporary reality as they experienced it. At a certain point in the 18th century, however, women such as Beaumont began transcribing and publishing the stories, which made them available to a wider audience and, in particular, to bourgeois and aristocratic children. As the audience for the stories changed, the function of them changed too so that one of the principal aims of the literary fairy tale became that of providing moral instruction to children – the very small minority of children who could read or were read to. For instance, the version of Beauty and the Beast that Cocteau worked from was published in a volume pointedly entitled, The Children’s Journal, or Conversations between a wise governess and several of her pupils of the highest quality.
There are certain features that came to characterise the literary fairy tale: they were short (so that they were reproducible – they could be easily read and memorised and lend themselves to retelling and adaptation); they were didactic or instructional (teaching the readers certain values or ideologies); and, in particular, they restate repeatedly the message that power lies naturally with the aristocracy.
For instance, in terms of its ideological significance, Beaumont’s version, is often understood as a story that asserts the importance of honouring promises, the value of women’s self-denial (sacrificing their desires for the interests of others), and uncritical devotion to one’s father. However, there is, of course, some ambiguity in the story, which is one of the reasons why Beauty and the Beast has remained fascinating to readers and audiences. Beaumont was a progressive thinker in the context of the period in which she lived. As a governess herself, she wanted women to have more access to education and more prominent social roles. At the same time, however, like many of the women attending the salons she was committed to the patriarchal social structure in which she lived. Similarly, Beauty can be understood as brave and determined (she is far more courageous than her father or the other men in the story) or she can be seen as submissive, while the beast, the symbolic epitome of masculinity, is both repulsive and fascinating, violently aggressive and loving, animalistic and civilised – as one of Beauty’s sisters observes in the film, for instance, in a sardonic comment on masculinity, ‘Lots of husbands are hairy and horned’. Jack Zipes suggests that what makes the story so powerful, and why it has been retold so regularly, and also adapted for film numerous times, is precisely that it lays bare and dramatises these contradictions. The story concerns characters wrestling with contradictory desires, instincts and obligations.
Production began on the film in August 1945 and it was apparently a difficult shoot. In the immediate aftermath of the war in which resources were limited, they were working with old, unreliable cameras that frequently jammed, damaged lenses, film stock of onconistsent quality, and even had trouble sourcing fabric for dressing sets and cutting costumes. It took them a lot of work, for example, to find unpatched sheets for a scene where they’re drying linen in the garden. The house where Beauty and her family live was also next to a military airfield and their sound-recordings were often ruined by training flights passing overhead. Cocteau himself suffered for much of the shoot with skin rashes and excruciatingly painful boils that led him to resume an opium addiction, and he claimed that his hair turned white over the months spent working on the film. In his production diary, he reconciles himself to these difficulties with the consolation that heroic suffering is essential for the production of poetry.
However, these difficulties aren’t evident in the film, which is visually sumptuous and has a lightness of touch and a clarity that belies the frustrations of the shoot, and it manages to capture the strangeness of the fairytale narrative very successfully.
Cocteau didn’t direct many films – although he enjoyed collaborating, he saw himself primarily as a poet, and preferred to work alone – but what drew him to cinema was the sense that it was the best medium in which to convey a sense of what he called the ‘Marvellous’ – inexplicable, irrational interruptions in the fabric of normality. As he explained it,
The Marvellous would be […] a simple human miracle, very commonplace, which consists of giving to persons and objects a certain “unusualness” which defies analysis. (43, 1977)
This is a concept that was central to surrealist art and literature (and André Breton’s writing in particular), and so it is unsurprising that Cocteau’s first film, Blood of a Poet (1930), is one of the avant-garde classics of surrealist cinema.
In terms of style and structure, Beauty and the Beast is a much more conventional film – Cocteau said that Blood of a Poet was a ‘film for fifty film connoisseurs’, whereas Beauty and the Beast was made for a wider audience. Nevertheless, it retains a number of elements – strange, unexplained details, photographic effects, abrupt edits, as well as theatrical tricks such as ‘Pepper’s ghost’ – that are familiar from surrealist cinema in order to render the ‘unusualness’ of the space inhabited by the beast. These include the uncanny living statues in the beast’s mansion, the candelabras supported by human arms, the use of slow-motion and reverse-motion cinematography, the rather disjointed narrative, the disconnected relationship between music and on-screen action and the use of silence, and the curiously theatrical style of some of the performances.
But, of course, the figure of the beast himself is the clearest embodiment of Cocteau’s concept of the marvellous – the inexplicable, irrational disruption of everyday reality. Perhaps the most fascinating and uncanny element of the film, he is played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, who had suggested the idea for the film in the first place. Like Cocteau, he too suffered during the film since Cocteau insisted that rather than wear a rubber mask, his make-up should be glued painstakingly to his skin so that his own face remained visible underneath the fur. As a result, he recalled:
It took me five hours to make up – that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes I scarcely opened my mouth lest the makeup become unglued: no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.
But the consequence of this physical discomfort is a very memorable cinematic figure. Indeed, for Cocteau, Marais’ commitment to art was an inspiration and he wrote that, as a consequence of this passion, when Marais played the beast he went through a transformation, ‘deserting the human race for the animal race.’ This vivid phrase describes both the transformation undergone by the actor, and also the decision made by Beauty within the narrative to offer herself to the beast. More broadly still, it is suggestive of the potential of cinematic fantasy to transport the viewer to an imaginary and impossible space.
The beast’s spectacular costume is the central attraction of a visually rich film – the production designer used paintings by Johannes Vermeer and prints by the French illustrator Gustave Doré as reference points for designing the interiors. This is a film that is all about light in one respect – it is central to the film’s aesthetic and the precise lighting scheme establishes a distinction between the glowing sunshine of Beauty’s world, and the shadowy world of the Beast, which is characterised by low-key chiaroscuro lighting, silhouettes and back-lighting, luminous smoke and fog, and dark rooms and corridors punctuated by sparkling highlights. Cocteau chose Agfa film stock over Kodak because, he said, he wanted the film to have the ‘soft gleam of hand-polished old silver’. It is a very accurate description of the film’s distinctive antiqued metallic lustre
Cocteau was in an unhappy situation more generally when they were making the film. He had lived in Paris during the occupation and was accused by the BBC in 1944 of being a collaborator having published an article in 1942 praising the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (one of Hitler’s favourite artists). He wasn’t a fascist, and he was investigated and acquitted after the war by two tribunals, but would no doubt have been especially keen to put the war behind him.
Jack Zipes has suggested one of the remarkable features of Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast is that it emphasises more strongly than any other film adaptation, the oedipal dimensions of the story: the daughter’s self-sacrificing devotion to her father. This is undoubtedly a plausible interpretation of the film, and the simple story invites a number of others; the American composer, Philip Glass, who has written operas based on three of Cocteau’s films including this one (wherein Glass’s opera was performed in exact synchronisation with the film), suggests it is a film about ‘the nature of the creative process’, as well as a love story. However, it seems quite likely that a powerful attraction of the film both for Cocteau, and for audiences watching it in the ruined and impoverished environment of post-war Europe, is also that it invites us to step into a fantasy world, a simpler, apparently innocent space (like the characters within the film who pass back and forth between normality and the magical space occupied by the Beast). The film opens with a written message from Cocteau, himself, inviting viewers to suspend their cynicism and watch the film with a childlike simplicity.
The film’s initial success – and the fact that it has been revived repeatedly culminating with this pristine new restoration – suggests that cinema audiences have always been very willing to take up the invitation.
Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Philip Glass on La Belle et La Bete’ from the booklet accompanying the 1995 CD release of Glass’s opera.
Arthur B. Evans (1977) Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity. London: Associated University Presses
Elizabeth Sprigge, Jean-Jacques Kim (1968) Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror. London: Victor Gollancz
Francis Steegmuller (1970) Cocteau: A Biography. London: Macmillan.
Jack Zipes (1994) Fairytale as Myth/Myth as Fairytale. Lexington: University of Kentucky
New Zealand: Like Lord of the Rings
One of the running gags in Flight of the Conchords, the sitcom about the eponymous ‘novelty music’ duo from New Zealand, who are trying to make it in New York, is that the walls of their manager Murray Hewitt, the deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand embassy, are decorated with posters diffidently promoting tourism to the country with such captions as ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE SCOTLAND BUT FURTHER’ and ‘NEW ZEALAND, ONLY 18 HOURS FROM NEW YORK’, and ‘NEW ZEALAND, WORTH A GO’; but one of the funniest is a mountain-scape with the caption, ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS’.
Visiting New Zealand six years later, it is clear that this similarity is a crucial promotional device. When you fly in to Wellington airport, for instance, one of the first things you see is the exterior of the terminal building, which is decked with a large banner proclaiming ‘Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth’, while the interior of the terminal is dominated by impressive and beautifully detailed statues of Gollum catching fish underwater and Gandalf flying on the back of a giant eagle.
These attest to the presence nearby of WETA digital, Peter Jackson’s visual effects facility, but travelling through New Zealand you are constantly reminded of the importance of these films to the country’s cotemporary cultural identity and international prominence. Bookshops across the country have stands dedicated to the second Hobbit film, and it is difficult to escape the various locations used for shooting the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as you move around the country – I jogged up Mount Victoria in Wellington one morning, passing the point where the hobbits hide from the black riders beneath a bank, and later took the ski-lift up the volcano, Mount Ruapehu, and walked around ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Mead’s Wall’, the location for several scenes including the severing of Sauron’s hand.
The neighbouring volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, meanwhile, also functions as Mount Doom in the films.
On sale in almost every bookshop around the country is a Lord of the Rings location guide, newly updated to include The Hobbit trilogy, allowing tourists to plot a route around the country visiting the numerous locations. However, this project of over-writing the terrain of the country with a fantastic cinematic landscape goes into over-drive in the small town of Matamata, the dairy-farming and horse-breeding centre of the North island, Te Ika a-Maui, that is also the site of the set of the hobbits’ village, Hobbiton.
In the town centre a sign welcomes you to Hobbiton, and the adjacent tourist information centre is housed in a thatched hobbit house, while the windows and walls of local shops have been decorated with imagery from the films.
The focus of a visit to Matamata is a 90-minute guided tour of the set. This was built as a temporary set on nearby farmland for the Lord of the Rings films with assistance from the NZ army who constructed a metalled road to the site – and the bus driver gave us a full account of the process by which the film-makers identified the location and negotiated with the fortunate land-owners, pointing out the famer’s house along the way, as well as his neighbour’s house which was commandeered by Jackson and his assistant as a production base for the shoot.
After being partially dismantled on the films’ completion, it was rebuilt as a permanent set-cum-tourist attraction for the three Hobbit films and is now maintained by a team of staff. The company managing the site extended the set by constructing the ‘Green Dragon Inn’, which serves food and drinks at the end of the tour of the 44 hobbit holes, which are built to different scales to allow forced perspective staging (and only a handful of them have shallow interiors). It is an interesting and popular tour – they were expecting 2000 visitors on boxing day but average around 1000 per day – and it is fascinating to see the amount of care with which the detailed sets were built, almost all of which is imperceptible in the films – such as the artificial oak tree above Bilbo’s house ‘Bag End’, or the apple tree that was changed to a plum tree (by art students who painstakingly replaced all the leaves), through to the artificial lichen covering the surface of the woodwork.
The long-term value to New Zealand, and in particular, to film production in the country, of hosting these transnational super-productions is perhaps questionable. They offer a case study of how small national cinemas are occasionally invigorated by injections of US money due to tax breaks, comparatively high levels of privacy and extraordinary government support – it turns out, for example, that a 5,000 feet no-fly zone was established over the Hobbiton set to prevent paparazzi photographs, and, incredibly, one pilot who flew journalists over a location on the southern island was subsequently arrested and banned from flying in New Zealand.
James Cameron has just announced that three sequels to Avatar will be produced in New Zealand after negotiating a controversial increase of the tax rebate from 15 to 20% with a possible further 5% increase. Among the conditions of the deal are that the DVD and Bluray releases include a documentary focusing upon New Zealand’s importance as a base for the film’s production. The rationale for this deal is that the production will bring up to NZ$500 into the economy and may boost NZ film production more generally. While the long-term value of such mega-productions to the New Zealand film industry may be disputable, what is clear is that New Zealand has been made-over by Peter Jackson’s films into a quite different place, its landscape and architecture having become fused with the fictional mise-en-scène of the films. Once you are sensitised to it by the barrage of publicity, you begin to see the film’s scenography everywhere in the rolling pastoral hills and mountainous, volcanic skylines. Like the poster says in Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand is like Lord of the Rings.
Everyday pleasures: cinema-going
As the term ‘cinema-going’ suggests, one of the historical pleasures of watching films has been visiting the structures in which they are screened. In An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, Annette Kuhn’s study of people’s memories of cinema-going in the 1930s, she found that for many of the people she interviewed, the cinemas themselves, the groups of friends they went with, or particular occasions on which they went to the pictures were at least as strong a memory as the actual films they saw. Cinema-going is, however, a vanishing pleasure since most of the films and audio-visual material we watch is viewed at home on TV screens and computer monitors, while the experience of watching a film at a multiplex is so expensive and alienating it can feel like undergoing a polite mugging. This is captured nicely in the episode of the sitcom Black Books when the protagonist, Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) pays a rare and reluctant visit to the local multiplex cinema after being locked out of his bookshop:
BB: ‘Excuse me. There seems to be some sort of mistake. I bought a drink and some popcorn and now I have no money left.’
Cashier: ‘That’s how much it costs.’
BB: ‘Why? Is it special popcorn? Does it produce some kind of dizzying high?’
By contrast, the community cinema on Waiheke Island is a rare exception of a cinema that it is a pleasure to visit. It is in the basement of the community art gallery in the island’s main town of Oneroa and was staffed by volunteers on the occasions I visited. It screens first-run commercial films as well as ‘arthouse’ films and local productions, and has a good surround sound system and digital projector, however watching a film there felt like going to a cinema in another period. It was recommended to us by a volunteer who worked at the local recycling centre who said it reminded her husband of watching films in barracks rooms when he was in the army. The room is decorated with film posters, reels of film, miscellaneous bits of projection equipment and an old 35mm projector, while the ceiling is dotted with stars and crescents. One of the most pleasurable aspects of it is that in place of rows of cinema seats, the room is filled with a varied collection of sofas.
It seemed appropriate to watch the new Peter Jackson film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in New Zealand for various reasons, but while I would like to have watched it in 3D and HFR, Waiheke community cinema seemed like the most suitable venue.
Annette Kuhn (2002). An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, London: IB Tauris.
Perfect and ephemeral: Chaplin as cinematic sign
Driving back and forth past this outhouse on the small island of Waiheke in New Zealand/Aotearoa over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the incongruity of finding this image of Charlie Chaplin at what feels like, from a Eurocentric perspective, the edge of the world. The figure of Chaplin dressed in the costume of his most familiar character, the tramp (or ‘the little fellow’ as Chaplin called him), must surely be one of the most universally recognisable individuals ever to have existed. Like portraits of Che Guevara or Bob Marley, this has become a free-floating signifier that is detached from its original context and is familiar to people who’ve never seen the films.
Although all the extant material is available on DVD now, Chaplin’s films are rarely screened in cinemas or on TV, and so it is odd that he remains such a familiar figure that even children who’ve never seen any of his films are nevertheless able to imitate his splayed-feet walk. The insistent after-life of this mute cinematic figure may have something to do with the effectiveness of the films; whenever I have taught Chaplin’s satirical and sentimental feature film, City Lights (Chaplin, 1931), the finely judged ending always leaves one or two of my worldly undergraduate students with tears in their eyes, and I’ve watched my children in tears of laughter at some of the early Keystone comedies. However, it’s also a testament to the perfect construction of this cinematic persona, which reduces a character to a few disconnected, reproducible (and easily imitated) visual elements – the dandyish cane, bowler and jacket with tails, outsized trousers and clown shoes, and pedantic moustache (as borrowed later by Oliver Hardy and, to Chaplin’s intense irritation, Hitler).
The costume was first used in the brilliantly simple Keystone production, Kid Auto Races in Venice (Lerhman, 1914) – the first film in which Chaplin appears – a short commentary upon performance and celebrity, in which the tramp, noticing that cameramen are filming the go-cart races on Venice beach, tries nonchalantly to insert himself into every shot, sidling into the frame as if he hasn’t noticed the camera. Although he wears normal shoes in this film, the costume is more or less fully-formed and is used with little variation thereafter in different narrative contexts so that Chaplin’s character stands apart visually from those around him, emphasizing his (self-) importance.
Writing about Great Garbo’s icon-like face (or face-object) in the Hollywood film, Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), Roland Barthes suggested that, ‘In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn, but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once, perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’. This captures very well the contradictory quality of Chaplin’s image – smooth, flour-white, fragile, perfect, totemic. It is not an image of an individual – and, indeed, in photographs of Chaplin out of costume and not wearing make-up he can be hard to recognise – but of an individual rendered as a pure cinematic sign.
Roland Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies