All entries for March 2008

March 31, 2008

guard–passing drills.

Will the conference report ever appear?  Don't hold your breath, I got lazy last week and have lots of writing on my digital video chapter to do this week.  I'm trying to get a lot of sleep tonight, but I just wanted to quickly note today's class so I don't forget.

At BJJ class today, Chiu taught us a basic guard passing drill that is designed to practice the appropriate movements.  I haven't been taught this elementary pass before, so I was also learning the pass itself. 

Standing before your opponent, you should take control of both their legs by tightly gripping their gi somewhere around or beneath the knee.  If you push their legs towards them (moving your hips forward for additional pressure), then should push back and you can step around them.  Move your outside leg first, and effectively glue that to the side of their knee.  Then move your inside leg even further forward - taking your entire body outside of their legs.  Whilst you are doing this, DON'T let go of your grip on your opponent's legs (otherwise they will simply turn with you, and your body won't be free of their legs).  Pull the leg that you hold with your outside arm with you, and push the other leg in the opposite direction - crossing their legs if necessary.  That's the basic drill - just perfecting that movement.

If you opponent tries to resist by straightening out a leg, to block you from moving around them you can perform a 'sliding' pass.  Push the straightened leg down whilst, on the opposite side, slide your arm through the inside of their knee towards the floor (you need to be close with this, to restrict their movement in the bent leg with your forearm).  Your legs should be stretched outside behind you, creating a tripod-like stance.  Aim your head towards their chest or stomach.  From there you should be able to quite easily pass their guard.

We also did a knee-on-stomach drill.   Start with your right knee in your opponent's stomach, with your left leg out in front of you.  Control their hip with your right hand, and control their head or shoulder with your left hand.  For the drill, smoothly replace your right knee with your left knee on their stomach (they shouldn't not have a knee in their stomach at any point).  Control their head or shoulder with your right hand, and their hip with your left hand. 

Just wanted to note all this down before I forgot.  I even had to quickly borrow Rosie in the process of writing to remember the knee-on-stomach drill.


And here are some links you may or may not find interesting:

'Is this the big one?' by Jeff Faux (I recently discovered The Nation website, and think that it is quite brilliant).

'Crumbs from the SLIFR notebook' by Dennis Cozzalio - I really, really enjoyed this post by Dennis who I think is the one of the best film writers on the Internet.

And, because it's the start of the baseball season today, check out Fish Chunks - which will be my guide to Florida Marlins news this year, although as I write they've already conceded a depressing 6 runs in the 4th inning.

March 24, 2008

introduction to conference report.

As I had anticipated, the New Developments in Stardom conference at King’s College was a stimulating and enjoyable day – both in intellectual and social terms. I got to see a fair amount of old friends who have worked in the same department with me in Warwick at one time or another (Jon Driskell, Louis Bayman, Tom Brown, James Bennett & Richard Dyer), as well as spend a lovely day with my current department peers Laura, Jim and Sarah (I had written ‘colleagues’ instead of peers, but that sounds professional and horrible; then I changed it to ‘friends’ but that would imply that Jon, Louis et al reneged upon our friendship when they left the department – which is just a lie!).

The highlights of the conference itself were Su Holmes’ brilliant keynote address which, first thing in the morning, persuasively argued for the crucial need for scholars in celebrity studies to account for history, and Sarah Thomas’ fascinating paper about her research in Peter Lorre’s radio work. In her introduction to the conference, Ginette Vincendeau emphasised that this was the first major event organised by graduate students within the expanding Film Studies department at King’s, and the proceedings fortunately felt like a success. I think that I’m going to write three entries about the day (one about Holmes’ keynote, one about the ‘Contemporary Film Stardom’ panel, and one about the afternoon sessions I attended), which will appear gradually as this week progresses.

I have also been reading a fair amount about this week's WEC event, and will try to write a little about at least the main card (in addition to my lengthy preview of the main event) before the event on Wednesday evening.   A few recent articles have appeared since I posted that: 'WEC Champ Marshall is calm before the storm'(MMA Weekly),  'Marine Stann seeks mixed martial arts title' (New York Post), and 'Stann stands for more than himself' (Newsday).  The difference in the media outlets that are covering the two fighters should be pretty evident.

March 22, 2008

New Developments in Stardom conference.

Writing about web page

I'm away in London this weekend, attending the New Developments in Stardom conference at King's College London.  It has been organised by a trio of graduate students, including Jon Driskell who spent a year with us at Warwick (we both did the same Issues of Representation MA module with Richard Dyer back then!).  I'm looking forward to spending time in an extra-cirricular academic environment, and seeing some friends who I haven't hung out with for a little while.  I tend to find functions such as this, places where academic film studies will be discussed, quite exciting and it inspires me to get going on my own work.

The programme for this conference is commendable for its diversity across the scope of media studies.  The panels are ordered by disciplines (TV stardom, film stardom, non-cinematic stardom and, more generally, 'celebrity), and it appears that the keynote speakers, Su Holmes and David L. Andrews, will be talking broadly in areas of TV and film studies respectively.  Of course, these intra-discipline divisions are not exclusive or solid.  I anticipate attending the panel about cinematic stardom (because most of my work is in areas of cinema), and non-cinematic stardom (because my friend Sarah is giving a paper!).  Andrews' keynote, entitled 'The New Hollywood?: Sport, Stardom and the Celebrity Economy', looks particularly intriguing to me, if only because I have been unusually interested in sport recently.  Hopefully I'll take decent notes, and be able to write some here about the conference.


March 21, 2008

Preview of Marshall vs Stann WEC 33.

One of the interesting things about fight sports, such as mixed martial arts or boxing, is that, because the athletes compete relatively infrequently (3 times a year, as opposed to every week for other sports teams) each bout has some kind of story attached.  Why does a fight matter?  Where have these guys come from, and what can they achieve by winning?  Obviously I'm not at all connected to the industry, and so am unable to secure interviews or the like - my commentary is therefore less about the fighter's personal stories, than about their public and professional profiles.  I've written up a story about the main event of next Wednesday's WEC event, a second-tier organisation that I'm always interested in.     

WEC: MARSHALL vs STANN 26th March 2008

World Extreme Cagefighting has almost become synonymous with the lighter weight classes in the U.S., because it is the most prominent American organisation to feature featherweight and bantamweight divisions.  Its main stars - Urijah Faber, Jens Pulver, Miguel Torres et al - are fighting in these lower divisions.  Since the WEC is also owned by Zuffa (the company that run the UFC), the logic goes that they send any and all major talent in the higher divisons (WEC has weight classes up to light-heavyweight) to their flagship promotion.  Yet, on the next WEC card, we've got an interesting main event fight between two second-tier light-heavyweights - both of whom have made almost their entire MMA careers in the WEC.  We've also got a fight between two personalities so opposed on paper that you probably couldn't write a better pro-wrestling angle. 

Legend has it that the then-untrained WEC Light Heavyweight champion Doug 'The Rhino' Marshall (7-2) was at a WEC show in 2003 with his father, who felt that he was being too cocky and effectively told him to put up or shut up - inspiring Marshall to join a BJJ school the following Monday.  He's now primarily labelled as a Muay Thai fighter  You could understand if somebody, on seeing Marshall for the first time (particularly in his first few fights at heavyweight) thought that he had foregone the training and just climbed into the cage that night.  The guy just looks like a brawler - an image that not even the WEC commentators can get over, as every time he attempts a submission in a fight (which shouldn't be surprising, considering his submission wrestling roots) they act like something completely unprecedented is happening.  Before anyone has even seen Marshall fight, this image leads commentators to describe him as things like the 'anti poster-boy'

Yet, unless we're all in denial about this sport, Doug Marshall really should be a poster boy for the WEC.  He has, as a fighter, developed exclusively in this single promotion, and this long-standing has earned him the title of one of the most popular homegrown fighters.  After his father's (boozy, probably) challenge, Marshall rapidly moved to pro-MMA in the very same year, and blitzed through the rookie competition offered to him on WEC undercards in the heavyweight division (back when WEC had one of those): Anthony Fuller (Oct 2003, 0-0), Lavar Johnson (Jan 2004, 0-0), Anthony Arria (May 2004, 1-0) and Carlos Garcia (Oct 2004, 4-4).  Although the records of these fighters aren't too impressive (which is understandable as Marshall was only a newbie himself then), you have to stop and gawp at the fact that not one of these fights entered the second round.  Four fights in to this career, Marshall was 4-0, , and was now regularly headlining WEC fight cards.  

And then he fought James Irvin - already a UFC veteran with a 7-1 professional record, and the WEC Heavyweight Championship - in the main event at WEC 15, a nationally televised event on 19th May 2005.  This was, by a large distance, the biggest test yet for the hugely popular 4-0 Marshall; he had barely fought anyone with a winning record, let alone a UFC vet at the top of the WEC heavyweight division.  Watch the fight (warning it's NOT pretty)- it takes place in Lemore, California, and both fighters are Californian-based (Marshall from Visalia, Irvin from Sacramento).  Yet the crowd not only like Marshall more - they like him so much that they actively boo fellow home-grown (and champion!) Irvin.  In the fight though, Marshall looked outclassed - Irvin's slick stand-up and Muay Thai clinch made Marshall look like a drunk dude who had simply picked the wrong fight on the wrong evening.  He had poor to non-existent stand-up defense, and was rocked several times by Irvin.  The fight was a little more even on the ground (for the 90 seconds or so in the first round it was down there), and Marshall gives some good elbow shots and body blows inside Irvin's guard, and also manages a nice armbar escape (almost taking Irvin's back in the process).  The fight lasts until 30 seconds or so in the second round, when Irvin lands a flush knee from the clinch and drops Marshall out cold.  Following this Marshall took some time out, but made an ill-advised, nightmare comeback attempt at 195lbs in March 2006 (he weighted 234lbs for the Irvin fight) against WEC and Pancrase veteran Tim McKenzie (8-3) (the fight is here).  He was clocked by an inadvertant kick to the groin after 30 seconds (so bad that it leaves the announcers spectulating that the fight will be over), and is loses in just 3 and a half minutes.

Popularity is a good thing though.  Popularity can earn you a title shot, even if your record over your last two fights is 0-2.  So it's fortunate that Marshall was so darn popular - because I can see little other reason why he would've been granted a shot at the WEC Light Heavyweight champion (and veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 1) Lodune Sincaid (9-3) in August 2006 (fight is here).  This being said, Marshall completely dominated the then-champion Sincaid - early in the second round, he hits a four-shot combo (including a body strike) that puts Sincaid down and ends the fight.  And from then on, it's been for Marshall like it was when he first began in the sport - his opponents simply can't get him out of the first round.  He KO'ed Justin McElfresh (5-1) in just over 2 minutes in May 2007, and submitted a roided up Ariel Gandulla (4-0) with an armbar in less than a minute in December 2007. 

Of course, the event commentators once again feigned surprise that he executed a submission hold.  That's the stereotype of Marshall - the huge dude who just knows how to hit hard, and little else.  And that is the fighter that was exposed by James Irvin back in May 2005.  But the Marshall who has fought Sincaid, McElfresh and Gandulla has displayed better rounded stand-up - his footwork looks pretty good, he throws combinations to keep his opponent guessing (and keep them fearing those hooks, he's got power in both hands) and - despite what people may think - he is no slouch on the ground either.  It's not surprising to read that Marshall started training Muay Thai and conditioning with Mike Popp before the Sincaid fight - a man who he has publicly credited with playing a large part in his recent success.  When you read Marshall say things like he regrets some of his tattoos (he has apparently covered over the more explicit ones on his back), and watch his last three fights in the cage, it really makes you think that he's kept the best parts of being a brawler, but now mixed them up with tactics, training and skill.  Which makes me think that much of the negative rhetoric surrounding Marshall is frankly unfair.  

Challenger Brian 'All-American' Stann (5-0), on the other hand, just screams 'POSTER BOY', in the sense that most MMA commentators mean when they deploy the phrase.  He is a genuine veteran of the U.S army, having served multiple tours in Iraq and been awarded the Silver Star for 'extraordinary heroism' in combat.  He has an incredibly square jaw, respectable buzzcut and, in all his interviews, he respectfully foregrounds the importance and bravery of his fellow Marines (in a post-fight interview with Sherdog he stated that, "I'm sure a lot of it [his popularity] is because I'm a Marine and I have no issue with that.  Anything that attracts attention to my Marines and the Marine Corp in a positive light, I'm all about.")  This gives writers all manner of substance to create hero narratives - the 'getting to know you' pieces that make people want to see the guy fight.  This has become such a feature of Stann's persona in MMA that a 'don't talk about his war background' backlash has already begun.  Regardless of your position on this issue, you can't really deny that Stann projects an image inverted to Marshall's - he looks like Action Man compared to Marshall's Doctor X.

His job as an army captain was instrumental in the formation of his MMA career though, as Stann's first introduction to martial arts was on a military training course in 2004.  He didn't quite have the same quickfire entrance in professional MMA as Marshall, as it was 2 years before he made his pro-debut - in January 2006, at an Oregon Sportfight show against future IFL fighter Aaron Stark (0-1).  The WEC (perhaps sensing that they could be onto a marketing winner) quickly snapped Stann up to a contract - and his first fight in the promotion was five months later in June 2006, against Miguel Cosio (0-1).  Stann took just 16 seconds to drop Cosio - landing several flush straight punches. 

Before you can accuse any promotion of mothering him, Stann's next fight was against legit challenger Steve Cantwell (3-0).  In the battle of undefeated newcomers, Stann won in just 41 seconds - dropping Cantwell with a right hand, and finishing him off with a couple of shots to the ground.  The media began to take notice - Stann was written about in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Tapout Magazine, and was profiled on MTV News - all of which took stock of, and emphasised, his military background.  There aren't many other guys with a 3-0 record who can boast such visibility - but Stann fits into a bigger picture, a characteristic that is required to make these new mixed martial artists immediately interesting to casual observers.  He has been (and still is) involved in a major international conflict, something that grabs more headlines than sport, so by extension he makes sport look more important.

Fortunately, before the eyes of both the hardcore MMA world and those casual observers interested in an actual All-American legend become concrete, Stann has looked to be more than just hype and an easily told story - that much just earnt him a slot on the televised broadcast.  His next victim was Craig Zellner (4-1), who again was overwhelmed on the feet by Stann.  That fight lasted until 4:57 of the first - the longest anyone had fought with Stann so far (or since).  This earnt Stann a slot on the next WEC telecast (essentially setting him up as a challenger) - where he fought Jeremiah Billington (10-1, although the quality of his downed opponents was regularly thought to be suspect).  Again, Stann's striking power was the difference in this fight - he destroyed Billington on the feet, and when Billington tried to compensate by wrestling Stann to the ground, Stann retained a dominant position and was able to ground and pound a victory in just 3:07 of the first round.

And so, with Marshall vs Stann in March 2008, we have a fight much similar to Irvin vs Marshall in May 2005.  A hugely popular, undefeated newcomer (Marshall's record then was 4-0, Stann's now is 5-0) challenges for a WEC title held by a champion who will likely be villified by comparison.  For Doug 'The Rhino' Marshall, he will find himself in the opposite position to that he held in 2005 - his popularity hasn't dissipated as such, but he just doesn't fit with the zeitgeist as well as Stann (who does so phenomenally).  It's a time where fans are trying to legitimise MMA into popular sports culture - and most people see fighters like the 'All-American' Stann, rather than the shaven-headed, heavily tattooed Marshall, as the most effective vehicles for this goal.  If Stann does manage to beat Marshall, his position as 'future star' will be solidified, and his fight record will pick up its first 'name' victim.  If Marshall gets past Stann, then the 'haters' (as Marshall likes to refer to his critics) will just have to put up with the fact that The Rhino is a much-improved, devastating striker who is a little more versatile than he is given credit for.  One or two more defences like this one, and there will be nowhere for Marshall to go other than a shot at the upper echelons of the division in the UFC.  It's not a top-tier main event, but it does have interesting ramifications for the futures of both athletes.

Seeing as both guys are primarily strikers nowadays, and when they win they tend to win quickly - you can expect to see a fast-paced stand-up exchange that will see one guy on the mat before the end of the first round.  Stann's quick-fire strikes are more technical than Marshall's huge looping punches but, as we've seen, Marshall has developed the ability in his last few fights to mix it up with combinations and body shots.  It's ironic that Marshall will probably have the most successful ride in this fight if he takes Stann down, and manages to control his position - but that's not likely to happen, not with two fighters eager to impress a crowd who want to see the viscerality of a stand-up brawl.  We don't know how Stann's chin will hold up against a striker who hits as hard as Marshall - we know from the Irvin fight that Marshall can take a fair amount of direct attacks.  The only certain thing is that: at no point should you leave the television for any period of time (no matter how quiet the action seems to be), because a finish could come so quickly that you WILL end up watching the finish on an instant replay.        

March 19, 2008

at a thousand miles an hour…

Writing about web page

I've totally enjoyed both Stray Bullets, and Daredevil vs Punisher, both comic series written by David Lapham.  Therefore I was already predisposed to like 'At A Thousand Miles An Hour', the first story in Young Liars, his new series.  Yet, within the first two pages, the book self-consciously creates a hipster, happy-go-lucky character for itself, and matches that with one or two neat storytelling tricks.  After these it was almost impossible for me not to enjoy this book.

Let's begin: before we know anything about the comic's world or characters, it recommends two songs (a classic David Bowie song, and a lesser-known track by the more-contemporary Battles) displayed in white type on a pink, cassette tape-shaped background.  We're already plugged into the ultra-cool world of alternative music and mixtape trading, where recommendations from people you like and trust are more valuable than anything.  I like Lapham, I sort of trust him, and I went straight to itunes (rock'n'roll, yeah?).  This is already a little unusual, and pretty frickin' ace.  But it gets better...

By way of scene setting, the first panel is in a busy Manhattan nightclub - full of smoke, neon lights and a dancer in a cage.  There is a band set up in the background, and - into the microphone - the singer says 'Okay...let's get this shit started', matched with a BWAHHHHH guitar chord from his band.  I'm always fascinated with the way that bands begin gigs - you can do a stadium rock/Spinal Tap style 'Helloooo [insert city here]', or perhaps a very casual, humble 'Hello, we are [band name] from [town name]' that I remember a lot from the days of punk rock shows at the Garage.  On this scale, 'Okay, let's get this shit started' is cool-as-hell - it sounds casual (this isn't a gig, it is 'shit'!) but it is likely practiced to death.  Yet it isn't just the band saying 'let's get this shit started', it's the book and the series as a whole - it is a fabulous way to start a series.  But it gets better...

In the same panel, to the right of the band although a little further in the foreground, a woman is snorting cocaine on the bar (amusingly, right in front of the surprised-looking barman).  This action is emphasised by a 'snifffff' speech bubble.  The bottom third of this page (which has just two panels) is a completely different location, and shows a guy in extreme close-up being punched in the nose - blood sprays in all directions, and he can just shout "GUNGH!".  We've therefore got a first page of lots of non-verbal sounds - imagine all these sounds in quick sequence - "Okay, let's get this shit started", 'Sniffff', 'GUNGH!', and then the story starts proper on the next page.  Think of these sounds like the snare drum at the beginning of 'Like A Rolling Stone' by Dylan - one beat by one instrument, and then we're into the body of the song.  Here, we've got sounds of drugs and violence - and then we're into the body of the comic.  I love it.

But then this posturing is matched by a neat narrational trick on the second page, the kind of thing that I would use to disagree with Jason Michelitch (in the linked review - which does excellently make several valid criticisms of the book) when he describes the storytelling as mostly 'bland'.   The second page contains three horizontal panels - the middle of which is a little thicker than the others.  This middle panel most prominently shows an early-twenty-something girl with purple hair, wearing a Clash t-shirt; she's just thrown a punch, and an older moustached guy now has blood flying vertically out of his mouth(!) and is in the process of hitting the pavement.  It's the guy and the attack we saw in close-up on the previous page.  She's laughing, he's struggling to yell because he's having trouble breathing - that was one hell of a strike.  There is a crowd of white-collar looking people in the background, mostly looking on with caricatured horror.  In the same panel, there are yellow boxes containing text, the voice of our narrator.  It says:

I came to the city for two reasons.  To play guitar and find some excitement.  The guitar's long gone, but the excitement...?  ...Man, the hits just keep on coming.

I assumed that this tough-as-nails purple-haired was our narrator.  The narrator hasn't introduced themselves - the girl is foregrounded, there isn't anybody else in this panel that could be addressing us.  Hell, she writes that the hits just keep on coming - as she's hitting somebody!   But this assumption is subverted in the below panel - which focuses on the crowd in the background, and now illuminates the presence of a young looking guy, wearing a Violent Femmes t-shirt - the only unshocked face in the panel of distress.  In this panel, the narrator introduces himself - 'My name is Danny Noonan...' - the book had, albeit temporarily, tricked us into thinking that someone else was talking to us.  What else can't we trust?  Michelitch suggests that there is a moment where what the narration tells us, and what the image shows us, are different - and, by this, I think he means the book's revelation about Donnie (something that I had missed, or not fully comprehended, on the first time around!).

The book does fall victim somewhat to 'pilot episode' syndrome - crowbarring in different characters and their backstories in order to tell us everything we need to know for the series to begin.  It certainly looks difficult to begin a series.  There are all sorts of directions in which this could go though - the relationship between Danny and Sadie is most interesting to me (the moment when he declares his love for her, only for her to run off into the moshpit is pretty affecting), but there is also the potential for stories about drug abuse, gang warfare and, er, hidden treasure! As long as the series doesn't try to do too much too quickly, I think it'll be quite brilliant. 

But then again, I am a sucker for cool-ness.

March 17, 2008

i'm trying to properly understand technological determinism and film cultures.

I'm just entering a 'writing phase' at the moment - the end of term gives me that opportunity.  This is a period of time when I plan to write a large amount of words in a short period of time, hopefully enabling myself to give my supervisor a substantial piece of work that we can discuss at length.  These are periods when things begin to come together, on paper rather than abstract and disconnected thoughts and conversations.  I'm working on a planned chapter about the introduction of digital video to cinema production, and the different connotations that it accrued along the way.

One facet of this particular project is the investigation of different film cultures, how a technology travels through different cultures of cinema (in the case of digital video, it is very broadly 'dogme to modern auteurs to hollywood').  This compels me to read some work about film cultures (on which Barbara Klinger's 'Beyond the Multiplex' is the best book I've read so far).  This weekend I've spent some time reading Janet Harbord's 'Film Cultures'.  

There was an observation and an argument that I read last night that interested me - partially because it was the most difficult part of the first chapter, and so I spent much longer handling these ideas than others.  Here, Harbord is investigating the earliest formations of film cultures (defined, broadly, as 'sites where the value of film is produced' [2]) and their relationships to existing socio-cultural formations.  One of her main arguments here is that film cultures are always fluid, constantly susceptible to being altered or reconceptualised.  To illustrate this, she describes how Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer wrote about cinema in the 1930s, and suggests that it shifted away from existing conceptions.  To sketch out the context into which these discourses enter:

The reintegration of life and art in film, however, was to occur in the mainstream if it did at all, a film culture of psychological realism and narrative drama soliciting audience identification.  The formally 'radical' aspects of the cinema of excess, the Melies tradition of magic and trickery, was to take root in the avant-garde tradition of art and aesthetic experimentation, splitting once again a culture of mimesis from a culture of formal play.  It is a split that, I would argue, lives on in what becomes a reconfigured relation of avant-garde and mass culture in specific film cultures. (28)

Her point about Benjamin and Kracauer is that they, as Modernists, both wrote about cinema in a way that attempted to collapse any distinction between art and life - I think (and I'm perfectly prepared to accept that I've misread it) this means that they had in common a belief that, as an art, cinema was not 'outside' of life, and that the two could mutually affect one another.  Harbord references Benjamin as writing that "vision here is not an optical mechanism akin to the camera, but a bodily response, an 'intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment'" (31, Benjamin quote between apostrophes).  The 'bodily response' of the cinema spectator occurs in reality, creating a link between art and life.  In comparison, Kracauer is quoted as saying 'What they [spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen' (quoted on 31).  On writing out that Kracauer quotation, it feels less like collapsing any distinction between art and life rather than enforcing a distinction (the experience of watching a film like losing your identity in the dark?  sounds like escape from life to me...), but Harbord continues:

What we find in their work is a return of 'art' (or here mass culture) to life, a mixing of these Kantian divisions within practices of cinematic, mass culture: memory and screen image, street-life and cinematic narrative overlap, and converge at the point of the spectator....The potential for film to endlessly replay events, to present images and scenes from different moments and contexts in juxtaposition, butting up against one another, offered both writers an allegorical way of reversing the inevitability of history. (31)

The impetus for these writers to engage with history, its inevitability and society is said to be the rise of Nazism, the historical setting for this critical work.  Harbord goes on later to make the point in a different way when she writes, "From Benjamin through to Charney and Friedberg [two contemporary scholars], the cinematic form is itself endowed with the ability to transform audience perception to various political ends." (32)  These writers describe cinema in a way that, through the concrete figure of the spectator, conjoins it to life - this is, I believe, in contrast to the classic Kantian description of the aesthetic observer as maintaining a critical distance from the work, somehow 'outside' of life and within the aesthetic experience.

The most interesting part for me is when Harbord states her problem with this line of thinking about cinema.  She writes:

Yet, the difficulty of these theses which propose a shifted structure of perception attributable to cinema is a latent technological determinism.  The political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass; for Benjamin this is manifest in the shock of the viewing experience.  Yet, as Gunning and Huyssen argue, the shock effects of early cinema live on in both the avant-garde and mainstream cinema with no guaranteed return (special effects, for example, can claim no inherent radicalism).  For my purposes, this attribution of the political to the cinematic apparatus relocates politics within a generalized effect of technology. (32-33)

Technological determinism is a concept that I encounter frequently, and I'm trying to determine a precise, working meaning for it (hello, blog entry!).  Why are these conceptions of cinema technologically deterministic?  In Harbord's terms here, it is because the political potential is attributed to all cinema and all audiences, just by virtue of being cinema and cinema audiences ('the political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass').  Benjamin, Kracauer et al here create a 'generalized effect of technology' - whereas what Harbord implies is that we need to understand the different things that filmmakers can do with this technology, and the different types of audience that value the results.  These are the film cultures, I believe.  I've just finished work as a teaching assistant on a module about Italian neo-realism - and I do see films such as Roma citta aperta or Bicycle Thieves as having political potential, but it is to do with the way they use the cinema technology (rather than because they are cinema in the first place).

Harbord therefore utters the dreaded phrase technological determinism to criticise a methodology that theorises cinema, as a technology with specific common effects on spectators, in a particular way and therefore reads all uses of that technology along the same lines.  One aim of my investigation of digital video therefore should be to avoid characterising the aesthetic attributes of the production technology (i.e. digital video is used to make films that are somehow closer to reality) and then assuming that that applies to all uses of the technology.  As I mentioned at the beginning, digital video has travelled through different film cultures and so has potentially been used different in (and within) each. 

I need to look at some different works in which people describe something as technologically deterministic.  Because I would cry if someone called me that..         

That was a bit longer than I originally intended.  Oh well, I feel like I understand it a little better.  Do comment if I've made an error, or you can help me understand some of this stuff!

There is a report at Shooting Down Pictures from a conference that took place at NYU last weekend, about Film Criticism, featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin.  They've got some good things to say.  

The 'sweep from half guard' demonstration about half-way down here illustrates what I was describing on Saturday.  Rosie and I drilled it to death yesterday, and we worked on the same technique again this evening in class and I think I've got it down a lot better.  I was shooting the wrong arm through the legs, and not keeping my head low enough (both reasons why my back kept taken in sparring).  Chiu has taught us three different ways to sweep your opponent once you have their foot and leg trapped - I think I've done them all pretty successfully.


March 15, 2008

technique from half–guard.

First off - this article is quite brilliant: 'Nuggets of advice' by Aesopian (a writer about bjj who is quite prominent on the Internet).  A few of my favourite bits:

As a beginner, especially before you realize how understanding and supportive your school is, it’s easy to suffer from “feeling stupid”. So much is unfamiliar and unknown to you, and you’re being constantly required to do things before you know what to do...Realize that everyone else went through the same issues and understands what you’re going through. You’re not stupid if you don’t know something yet—that’s the whole reason you’re at class.

An optimistic outlook will aide you greatly as you learn and improve at BJJ.  Let’s say you get caught in sparring with a move you didn’t expect at all. You could react to this a few ways.  You could beat yourself up for getting caught, start muscling the guy so he won’t get you again and get a “revenge tap” out of him.  Or, as I’d suggest, you could admire his success and ask him to show you what he did so you can learn it too.  Your mindset, negative or positive, can affect how quickly and smoothly you improve, as well as set the vibe at your gym.

I had a really exciting lesson in BJJ last Saturday, which inspired me to buy a membership and actually commit to attending two classes a week.  Additionally, the Saturday mornings have been killing me so I've changed to evening classes - this week I've been to the 'basic' classes on Monday and Friday (rather than the Foundation ones I've been doing for the past few weeks), which are taught by Chiu, a brown belt (therefore, behind Braulio and Victor, he is the third most senior instructor at the club).  It marks a step-up in the difficulty of the class (the 15-20 minute warm-up in the Monday class was so tough that it made me feel like I was going to throw up), but there are a lot of familiar faces from my previous group who have been a lot friendlier and chattier since I've been around more this week - rather than just be that smiling weirdo who turns up every now and then.

Yesterday, we were taught a basic technique you can execute from the half-guard position in order to restrict your opponent's movement - with a view towards sweeping them and achieving a more dominating position. 

Okay, half-guard: you are on the bottom, resting on your side and hip (rather than flat on your back, which would be a weaker position to be in).  In the half-guard position you have trapped one of your opponent's legs, by having one leg between their knees/legs and your other around the outside of their legs.  If you cross your feet you've got one of their legs trapped, yeah?.   For the purposes of this description, you've got their right leg trapped.  To make sure that your opponent cannot put all their weight straight down on you (which is going to seriously restrict your movement), you need to have your inside leg bent and pushed into their midsection.  Your leg acts like a shield here.  So that's the position.

For this work optimally, you need to find a suitable moment in the exchange.  Ideally, your opponent would just be mounting an effort to pass your half-guard (i.e. recover their leg and get into a stronger position) so they can be caught slightly off-balance.  You need to extend your outside leg at the knee for balance, and then shoot one arm through their legs and the other arm around the right of their hips - basically you're looking to catch the foot of the leg that you don't have trapped.  When you've caught the foot, you need to secure it with one hand against their back - you are rendering that foot immobile.  (One detail: when I was using this in sparring later, when shooting for the foot, twice my opponent managed to turn the situation to his advantage and secure my back (and, eventually, a chokehold).  I think, to avoid this, when shooting you need to keep your head quite close to your opponent's body - or keep your half-guard tighter to restrict their movement.)

I'm a little less sure of the next step, and am going to try to practice it with Rosie this weekend to get a better grasp.  You need to cross your legs over, so that their right leg is being hooked solely with your left leg.  Therefore you'll be controlling their right leg with your left leg, and their left foot with your right hand.  From this position, you can drive forwards - take them off balance and hopefully secure the side position.  Chiu was very insistent that you needed to work out several ways to do this, because your opponent was likely to try counter-moves which would require something else.  

I think I've got the super-basics down though... 

I've written this whilst listening to 'A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation' by The Wombats, which is quite great.  They sound like energetic kids making a punky and fun racket with witty lyrics - perhaps like the Arctic Monkeys without the attitude.

I have bought 'Young Liars #1' from eBay, which is a new comic series by David Lapham.  I really like Lapham's stuff - the Stray Bullets book I have is brilliant, and his Daredevil vs Punisher was also more fantastic than most Marvel books.  Douglas Wolk describes it as 'awful' here (but says that he could be convinced yet), but on the same website Graeme MacMillan calls it 'kind of awesome' .  My enthusaism about Lapham's stuff is more than enough to encourage me to buy it and make up my own mind.

I'm looking forward to watching Marquez vs Pacquiao 2 tonight.  There's a really good preview write-up here

March 12, 2008

community is a good thing.

Writing about web page

Not a coherent essay, but some thoughts.  Like a blog should be.  From the BBC:

School-leavers should be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country, says a report commissioned by Gordon Brown on British citizenship.

Report author, ex-attorney general Lord Goldsmith, says it would give teenagers a sense of belonging.

Council tax and student fee rebates are suggested for people who volunteer - as well as a "Britishness" public holiday.

This is the type of idea that gives the concept of community a bad name.  It associates the act of belonging to the national community with the monarchy, which in my view is a pretty pointless institution.  This assocation seems an outdated view of what belonging to a national community is, leaving wide open the train of thought that it is something reactionary.  It encourages the point of view that being interested in one's country or wanting to belong to a national community, is not far from Nationalism or BNP-ness - caring about your national community at the expense of any and all others.  I grew up with this point of view, and as a result showed no interest in my country whatsoever.  I remember a chat with a friend sometime in the past 18 months, when he told me that he paid no interest to what politicians said or did in this country because it didn't affect him at all - I don't really want to subscribe to that sort of isolationism.

I'm starting to think that belonging to a community, even a national community, can be quite a beautiful thing.  It is about friendship, connection with other humans, and responsibility.  Which is why I sympathise with this report in its aims, but not in its methods towards those aims.  I've been thinking recently about the communities that I belong to, and what I can do to participate in them.  There is the community of place - the town (Leamington Spa), the nation, (increasingly) Europe and the human community more generally.  On a more localised, measurable and down-to-earth level, I'm a member of the university community, the Film Department community, a stand-up comedy community (national and local), and I'm currently trying to get accepted in the BJJ community in Birmingham.  It feels better to be doing something as part of a community - since I've started thinking about these recently, one advantage I've thought about is that the work that you do feels like it has worth for other people, and you can also turn to others in your community for encouragement or advice. 

It shouldn't really be about ritualised false gestures of respect to someone who many people actively dislike or don't understand the point of.  This gives community a bad name, and encourages people to think about themselves and little else.       

March 10, 2008

for anyone who got caught in the super rain.

                                                     walking home monday march 10th 2008.

It is wet today.  Made even worse by the fact that my poor right shoe has a hole in its sole, which gives rainwater free reign to drench my foot.  My Milverton home has never seemed so far away.  It made me think of this passage from Neil Gaiman's American Gods:

Ten more minutes of walking, he guessed, and the bridge seemed to be no nearer.  He was too cold to shiver.  His eyes hurt.  This was not simply cold: this was science fiction.  This was a story set on the dark side of Mercury, back when they thought Mercury had a dark side.  This was something out on rocky Pluto, where the sun is just another star, shining only a little more brightly in the darkness.  This, thought Shadow, is just a hair away from the places where air comes in buckets and pours just like beer.

The occasional cars that roared past him seemed unreal: space ships, little freeze-dried packages of metal and glass, inhabited by people dressed more warmly than he was.  An old song his mother had loved, Walking in a Winter Wonderland, began to run through his head, and he hummed it through closed lips, kept pace to it as he walked.

He had lost all sensation in his feet.  He looked down at his black leather shoes, at the thin cotton socks, and began, seriously, to worry about frostbite.

This was beyond a joke.  This had moved beyond foolishness, slipped over the line into genuine 24 karat Jesus-Christ-I-fucked-up-bigtime territory.  His clothes might as well have been netting or lace: the wind blew through him, froze his bones and the marrow in his bones, froze the lashes of his eyes, froze the warm place under his balls, which were retreating into his pelvic cavity.

Keep walking, he told himself.  Keep walkingI can stop and drink a pail of air when I get home.  A Beatles song started in his head, and he adjusted his pace to match it.  It was only when he got to the chorus that he realized that he was humming Help.

After deliberation, I decided that Leamington rain wasn't all that bad.  The fact that my main curses for the day are the rain, and the fact that the rubbish collection people allowed some eggshells and pumpkin seeds to spill from the top of a binbag outside, suggests that things are going pretty good.

Do note that you can read all of American Gods online at the moment.  I bought a paperback copy just before this was announced - but who wants to read whilst sat in a computer chair anyway? 

March 05, 2008

I have this, you want this, now dance for me.

I saw There Will Be Blood last night at the Apollo.  My original plan was to see In The Valley of Elah at the Spa Centre (because I love the Spa Centre), but when I arrived there I was told that there wasn't a film that evening as the medium Stephen Holbrook was on.  Why he couldn't just perform in the normal theatre - like Jimmy Carr, Dave Spikey and other entertainers would - and let me see the darn film was beyond me.  Fortunately I remembered that there was a 7.50pm screening of Blood (it was now 7.56pm), and I hightailed it to the Apollo to make it on time.  I even got there in time to see the second half of the Dark Knight trailer, which I've seen about 3 times now (my favourite bit is when the Joker says to a woman, 'A little bit of fight in you, I like that' and then Batman interjects with 'Then you'll love me!' before clocking him one) , and the whole of the Never Back Down trailer, which looks ridiculous fun (it's like the Karate Kid but with MMA!).

I thought it was good, very good.  Something about P.T Anderson, or perhaps his critical prestige, turns me off to the thought of him - but this is a great movie.  About this movie, my chum Jim MacDowell has already written:

In short, this is a film that (like other recent bold American movies such as The New World [2005] and INLAND EMPIRE [2006]) demands we meet it on its own terms, and requires a deeper engagement than a mere two viewings can provide us with. This fact alone should tell you that this is a fascinating and major work. If I am not yet liberally throwing around words like ‘masterpiece’, then it is because its great complexity also means that any critical evaluation of it - maybe short of a book-length study - must necessarily be considered a work in progress.

I'm not convinced that I see the same scary aesthetic beast as Jim does, but I definitely agree that it requires a mightily deep engagement.  I just wanted to write something short, about one of the film's concerns that I was struck by.  It is the little pieces and little ideas that help us to chip away at understanding something (hear the lament of one unable to identify or handle big concepts!).

Let's look at two of the film's key, and for my experience most powerful, scenes - two scenes, both located towards the end of the movie, that rhyme with one another.  In the first, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) attends the Church of the Third Revelation, the main hub of spritual (and all of any importance) activity in the Little Boston community, to publicly renounce his sins and be baptised by the young minister Eli (Paul Dano - who is ON FIRE right now).  We've seen Plainview at the church once before, in a scene where he maliciously mocks the proceedings to Eli ('that's one goddamn hell of a show you've got there').  His 'change of heart' now is precipitated by a demand from a local man called William Bandy, who owns the last remaining plot of land that Plainview wants to run an oil pipeline through.  In full view of the whole congregation, Plainview yells that he is a sinner, and - after pressure from Eli - screams that he abandoned his son (we know that this would be particularly annoying for Plainview as, in an earlier scene, he reacts extremely violently to a fellow oil prospector mentioning his relationship to H.W, his son).  

The second scene I have in mind is the final one, set 14 or so years later (dated 1928) in Plainview's mansion-esque abode.  Eli visits Plainview with the intention of finally selling him the Bandy estate.  The large temporal ellipsis means we have less information about the characters at this stage in their lives - but notably, Eli is drinking whisky (we've previously seen him criticise alcohol consumption) and he references 'these financial times' (which led me to consider the date's proximity to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression) which all displays a failing struggle to stay afloat in a society where money has become super-important.  Plainview agrees to make the deal if Eli proclaims that, 'I am a false prophet, God is a superstition!'.  In an inverted reflection of the previous scene, Plainview coaxes Eli into repeating the phrase louder and louder - "like you would in your sermons". 

These two scenes both investigate the things that people will do when they are desperate for something, and - on the other side of the coin - the type of things that those who 'have' will force those who 'have not' to do.  In both scenes we see a protagonist giving up - loudly, in public and without dignity - one of the central beliefs on which they base their self (in Eli's case his religion, in Plainview's case his atheism and, more importantly, the belief that his personal affairs should not be the concern of others).  The reason in both cases boils down to money.  Perhaps more disturbing is the glee that the other character seems to take in forcing this submission, and their active role in rendering it more and more humiliating.  There is a question of whether Plainview comes off 'worse' than Eli in this exchange (after all, we already know the intensity of Eli's sermons) - but I think that the direct rhyming scheme here seems to colour both human beings with the same brush: when someone wants something that another has or controls, the empowered individual both relishes and exploits that interpersonal power.  Do we really enjoy finding out quite what a desperate someone else is prepared to do?

March 2008

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