Monday, August 16, 2010

Eastern Girls, Western Mags

Images from left: Steve McCurry, Magnum & Jodi Bieber, Institute

It's probably a little late to chime in on the debate surrounding the recent Time magazine cover featuring 'Bibi Aisha', a young Afghan girl whose nose was severed, apparently by the Taliban, but the cover is interesting on so many levels that it deserves a second look.

As carefully constructed as an election campaign and timed so meticulously to counter the release of the Wikileaks 'Afghan Papers' that it has left many with a sour taste in the mouth over Time's approach to how the magazine represents it's editorial content.

The controversy has centred mostly on Time's use of Aisha as some kind of portent of the future of Afghanistan without the continuing presence of the American 'occupation'
there. It has been read, quite obviously as an endorsement of the need for the US to continue it's fight there and to quote the great George W. Bush, to stay in country until the Americans can 'get the job done'.

The general public and champions of the American campaign in Afghanistan will no doubt heed the rallying call, shocked by the brutal image of an otherwise beautiful young woman mutilated almost beyond recognition by a radical, unseen enemy whose value system is barbaric and less than human and re-ignite their waning support for the war effort.

The detractors of America's campaign in Central Asia may however, read it as a wry image; perversely representing America's futile engagement after nine years fighting an unwinnable war. As futile a pursuit as cutting off your nose to spite your face perhaps.

What struck me most about the cover however was it's similarity to what many term the most memorable image in history, Steve McCurry's 'Afghan Girl' and Time magazine's obvious nod to this particular image in it's portrayal of Aisha.

The current incantation of the 'Afghan Girl' has been variously described as 'emotional blackmail' and 'war porn' and one is forced to wonder whether it is the cultural legacy of McCurry's photograph rather than the shocking image of Aisha itself that makes us feel so strongly opposed to Time's photographic gambit.

It was this thinking that led me to revisit Roland Barthes and his seminal look at the emotional draw of the photographic process in his book 'Camera Lucida'. In this work, Barthes draws a line between the types of images that we can engage on a base level with, those he terms Punctum and other images that rely on the technical proficiency of the photographer to seduce us: those he refers to as Studium.

Of the Punctum he states:

"Your eyes attach themselves to the surface of the photo, examining every film grain and rouge hair. Despite your efforts to pay attention to the entire photo, your mind returns again and again to the women’s ring. Something indescribable… maybe it’s the light playing off of it’s edge…or maybe it reminds you of your grandmother’s…whatever it is, something has happened. The people begin to feel alive, you become interested in their lives and their fate. This is the punctum."

In contrast, the Studium in Barthes eyes, is an image that relies on it's technical execution, in essence it's polished surface to entice the viewer. The Studium is less an emotional proposition as it seeks to seduce the viewer and their relationship to lifestyle, personal interest or simply just the technical content of the image to draw us in.

"Barthes makes the suggestion that when a photograph tries too hard to be political, it fails. It’s when it is subtle it has a tendency to haunt, therefore permeating the subconscious and achieving its goal in a much less radical but much more lasting manner. “Hence the photograph whose meaning (I am not saying its effect, but its meaning) is too impressive is quickly deflated; we consume it aesthetically, not politically.”

In the original 'Afghan Girl' it is clear that McCurry had not intended to capture the imagination of the world with his photograph, that the young girl, Sharbat Gula, that he found in a refugee camp near Peshawar would likely be ooohed and aaahed over at dinner parties twenty years later in civilized corners of the world with the epithet "...and those amazing eyes"..."simply haunting".

Barthes' distinction is one that helps us maybe understand the subtle differences in the nature of image making for the mass market and why McCurry's image will continue to stay with us while Beiber's, although shrouded in controversy just now, may remain just a little bit too media-managed, too gratuitous and ultimately too political to become such a potent symbol of this latest chapter western perceptions of Afghanistan's tumultuous history.

Sharbat Gula 17 years on: Still got it.

Quotation: Speaking of Art

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wisdom: Eric Stephanian


"Stop thinking in category of limitations. Remember that you are nobody. Remember that you are not a body. Remember that you are not a brain. Remember that you are not your senses. After try to find your being. It is big. Big as a "Universe". You're still searching for something there on Mars but you forgot that the "Universe" is inside you. You forgot that the "Universe" is YOU." - Eric Stephanian

Monday, August 9, 2010

Coast to Coast: Shameless Self-Promotion


Colony launches at the IFC Center. Come along and support the film!


Scion Gallery

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ah Eastern Europe...

Where people still accept that smoking is sexy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Void

It may be true that the first thing to suffer when you are busy doing other things is the act of blogging. Why would you bother telling the world what you're up to when you're enjoying just doing it. This is the first post of August however and I promise to be more diligent in future. Something's better than nothing right?

First off a huge shout out to Howard Feinstein, critic, film fan and benevolent father figure for having Colony included in his outstanding 'Panorama' section at the Sarajevo Film Festival last week. Great city and some great movies.

Among the stand out efforts that I managed to catch at this Balkan cinema extravaganza were Simon Brumley's smart, lean and brilliantly executed hipster shocker 'Red, White & Blue'. Someone and by someone I mean you Harvey Weinstein should give Simon a three picture deal asap.

A scathing look at the nature of American laziness and the culture of violence that seeps from within it's greasy, Budweiser drinking, flag flying heartlands, Red, White & Blue was not for the feint hearted or the weak stomached.

Needless to say neither were the check golfing pants that Simon selected to wear at his Q&A.

He's a true original all the way and I have no doubt that great things await Simon as a writer/director and horror meister supreme.

Here's actress Amanda Fuller discussing the film. Nice to finally see her with some clothes on...

Next up was 'The Temptation of St. Tony' by Estonian auteur Veiko Õunpuu.

An existential black comedy that I would happily tout as the Estonian 'Big Lebowski', this was a film to be seen on the big screen. Shot in mindblowingly beautiful black and white, 'Temptation' is one that audiences will either love or hate.

Structured in chapters rather than following a traditional linear plot it reminded me of being a kid and turning on the television late at night and seeing a film with subtitles in black and white and people...just talking.

It's only now, as an adult, that I feel able to embrace these things that I may not quite understand and enjoy what I'm seeing...rather than changing the channel to watch 'Tango & Cash'.

I loved this film and Veiko's admission that after the success of his sophomore effort 'Autumn Ball' his discomfort at being touted as 'the savior of Estonian film' prompted him to make this movie as 'a big Fuck You to all of those people' was typical of the bone dry humor that fills the movie.

Full of self-deprecating comments, Veiko claimed to have stolen many of the films shots from masters such as Pasolini and Tarkovsky but I just think he was being modest. It's fair to say that movies like this just aren't being made anymore and it was wonderful to see something with a true love of cinema, philosophy and comedy up there on the big screen.

It's such a beautiful film that I'm just not sure why this youtube clip is so rubbish: there's enough moments of transcendental black and white cinematography in this film to make a year's worth of car commercials out of.

Here's a taster none the less:

Among other films that I managed to see were mischievous Columbian helmer Oscar Ruiz Navia's 'Crab Trap', Canne Palm D'Or winner 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives' and finally I got a look at Lixin Fan's doc masterpiece 'Last Train Home'. Thank you to Lixin for one of the most incredible films I have seen this year. Having met the guy it's hard to imagine a more earnest person, full of integrity and talent. It's truly an amazing documentary film.

Taking the cake however was the long awaited 'Enter the Void' by perennial 'enfant terrible' Gaspar Noe. Introducing the film and saying it was inspired by his drug experiences kind of put me off and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat for a while before the film started. There's perhaps nothing sadder in my mind than some geezer in his early forties asking where you can score a few 'E's and talking up his love for the odd acid trip but in the end all credit is due as the film absolutely blew me away.

Inspired in part by innovative first-person perspective 1940s noir 'Lady in the Lake', 'Enter the Void' impressed me so much firstly because it completely eschews any of the kind of cinematic shoe gazing bullshit that is so prevalent in the 'auteur' filmmaking that fills festival schedules these days.

From the first frame it drops you straight in to a kaleidoscopic world that is part dream, part nightmare beginning at a million miles an hour with this Manga fueled title sequence scored by old techno supremo Thomas Bangalter. Classic stuff.

Noe is one of the most honest directors working today for my money and that's why I enjoy his films so much. Although 'Irreversible' remains nothing more than a video nasty for some, I still maintain it's the film 'Eyes Wide Shut' just didn't have the guts to be.

In many ways perhaps 'Enter the Void' is Noe's '2001'. Full of beautifully rendered visual effects, wild, dimension bending camera moves, flashing neon, dreamy sex and a healthy preoccupation with death, 'Void' may perhaps be on the verge of ruining the French film industry but I loved every minute. Well...almost every minute.

Props to all at the Sarajevo Film Festival.