Film, Reviews, Violence

Killing Happily…LOL/Hahahahahaha

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012. UK release June 2013)

To even talk of there being possible detrimental effects associated with watching excessive ‘acts’ of film violence is to open oneself up to ridicule. The terms of the debate over such effects often revolve around simplistic behavioral determinism where one looks for the presence or absence of direct causal links between fictionalized and dramatized ‘acts’ of screened violence and ‘real’ acts of violence. Whilst suggestions of there being direct causal links are often brushed aside with the same casual ease that humans are often seen to be violently dispatched on screen, perhaps the more urgent need is broader and more philosophical. What are the deeper effects of repeatedly depicting the lack of consequences associated with ‘acts’ of brutality, sadism, torture, rape, and murder when presented as spectacular cinematic entertainment. The cool affective enjoyment of spectacular violence towards people within the frictionless coordinates of popular film often outweighs any meaningful moral consideration of them as subjects. Perhaps what should be asked is whether the performative ‘act’ of killing in the dominant mode of popular cinema is essentially contributing to fatal erosion of awareness and belief in the moral ecology of the human. We all become cool detached sniggerers at cinematic spectacles of violence, torture and death.

Consider the late Roger Ebert’s review of the stylish post-modern superhero film Kick Ass (2010), which he prefaced with the remark – “Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?” Ebert proceeded to write of the film’s morally reprehensible quality, with its depiction of an 11-year old girl becoming the superhero Hit-Girl. In the film this child superhero is shown being brutalized in the most vicious way (at one point she is hammered around the head by the bad guy), as well as dishing out extreme ultraviolence. The stylish frisson of repeatedly depicting brutal and sadistic violence being done to, or done by, a child takes it into deeply dark moral territory. None more so than in the way it consistently depicts the lack of feeling on her part for any of the killings she engages in, as well the distinct absence of any consequence for her acts. She is shown brutally dispatching dozens of bad guys in a lengthy sequence, stabbing, shooting and kicking them to death. For Ebert this “isn’t comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead. And the 11-year old apparently experiences no emotions about this….As I often read on the internet: hahahahaha.” The star of the film, Chloe Moretz, who plays Hit-Girl, recently enthused – “am I supposed to be the normal girl who goes to school and has this great life, or am I supposed to kill people and be a vigilante and be someone who fights crime?” For Ebert, Kick Ass is yet another film that regards human beings like empty video-game targets, mere objects to dispatch – “They’re dead, you win”. As Jim Carrey, star of the much-anticipated sequel, recently realized when he decided to boycott any publicity activity around the film’s release in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, “when kids in the age range of this movie’s home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.”

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Anwar Congo, the dapper mass-murderer at the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing documentary The Act of Killing, might well conceive of himself in the same terms as Moretz’s Hit-Girl. He too imagines himself to be the vigilante superhero of his own imaginary movie, brutally dispatching the “bad guys” with the same lack of emotion, feeling, conscience or understanding, yet struggling with the quotidian banality of the his everyday life, drinking, dancing, and having a good time. In 1965-6, in the aftermath of the Western-backed Indonesian military coup, Anwar and his motley collection of sharp-dressing cinema gangsters (who, up to this point in time, had subsisted by scalping cinema tickets to Hollywood movies) were elevated to becoming chief executioners of those deemed to be the enemy – communists. As Anwar says, killing happily, like in the movies. He describes joyfully dancing out of the cinema having just seen an Elvis movie and heading over the road to the small office where they would torture, interrogate and kill their victims. To date there has been no reckoning for the barbarism of the past simply because so many of the perpetrators remain in political power. As one of Anwar’s former colleagues says, the truth is written by winners.

For this film, which took nearly a decade to realize, Oppenheimer decided to concentrate his attention on providing a voice for the perpetrators, who are only too happy to brag of their brutal ‘acts’ of genocide, rather than their victims. Anwar and his fellow gangsters Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Safit Pardede, along with the anti-communist paramilitary organization The Pancasila Youth, swagger on-screen like a nightmare of indulged children who see the world only in terms of the strong and the weak, the moneyed and the poor, the useful and the useless. They are clearly selfish and violent narcissists. However, this is no orthodox documentary that sets out to merely record their stories of the past. No camera records the discursive ‘truth’ of past events as they are spoken. Rather, Oppenheimer has them creatively recreate and re-present the past through their own efforts at cinematic reenactments. He hands them the camera and encourages them to wield it as a mirror on themselves and their actions.

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The Act of Killing employs the classic film within a film structure, which provides a powerful insight into the connections between a dominant cinematic reality where killing is without consequence and the minds of real sadistic killers which it has shaped. This all seems so horribly appropriate. As things unfold it becomes clear that they had all conceived of themselves as characters in a Hollywood movie, as a patchwork of noir-gangsters, cowboys a la John Wayne, and dancers and singers from an Elvis movie, as they carried out the sadistic torture and execution of communist suspects. Theirs was a form of killing without feeling and without consequence, just like in the movies. The empty nature of their human targets is only underscored by an interview with a newspaper editor responsible for naming communist suspects, who concedes that they fabricated all of the evidence, and just arbitrarily denounced people for being communists. Indeed, Anwar still seems in the grip of a particularly cretinous anti-Communist propaganda film made by the military in the early 1960’s which depicts communists as brutal and monstrous sadists. For him this film, together with Hollywood films, inspired his own sadistic acts of killing, and continues to justify his own actions nearly fifty years later. He is hopelessly captivated by the coordinates of film, and appears as somebody who has completely internalized the cinematic grammar where the absence of moral consequence to the act of killing rules supreme. Once identified as communists he treated his victims as cinematic avatars, bad guys to be dispatched happily with a certain cinematic flourish and jouissance. There seems no better way to capture some kind of ‘truth’ of this than, yes, to have them make an actual movie depicting what they did. For Oppenheimer this is a ‘documentary of the imagination’. The brutal reality of the past in the minds of these men appears as some kind of sustained cinematic fiction, and Oppenheimer’s genius is to have them create a cinematic externalization of that fiction. In the process this cinematic expression alchemically transmutes into a dark ‘reality’ for the first time.

The cast of emotionally retarded bullies, narcissistic thugs, rapists, extortionists and murderers (who repeatedly refer to themselves as gangsters and free men), are shown casting for their movie in the streets of Medan in Northern Sumatra. As work begins on their film they proceed to stage straightforward representations of interrogation, torture and execution of communist suspects (including a truly horrific re-staging of the burning of a village of communist suspects), but this soon transforms into bizarre and dreamlike recreations in which Anwar casts himself as his own victim, being interrogated by a crazed cross-dressing psychopath. As they descend into the hellish territory of their own cinematic imagination the film becomes more an attempt to capture their past actions through inhabiting the Hollywood genres they admire and wish to see themselves depicted through. The full fury of their cinematic narcissism is unleashed. So we have Anwar deciding to recreate the slow execution of a communist suspect in the Sumatran jungle by dressing in full Western cowboy outfit, killing happily like John Wayne. In another scene the decapitated head of Anwar is tormented by a cross-dressing sadist (played by his friend Herman), who proceeds to cut off the penis from Anwar’s headless corpse and rub it into his face. There are bizarre musical scenes set to the soundtrack of Born Free, with glamorous dancing girls and the singing ghosts of dead communists thanking their executioners for releasing their souls to heaven. Any temptation to laugh along with all of this grotesque surrealism is more than countered by the knowledge that what is being enacted actually happened, and that the acts depicted are being recreated by those who originally carried them out. Unusually, you also gain an insight into their very peculiar perspective upon the acts as they recreate them, becoming a witness to a slow descent into the void where perverse fantasies of sadism and murder abound. It is one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing experiences.

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The way Oppenheimer depicts the increasingly unhinged nature of the film Anwar and his colleagues are making is particularly acute. It is significant that it quickly begins to bear no relation to their own explicit concerns to record the ‘truth’ of the past so that others can understand and appreciate their actions as patriotic, heroic and noble. At one point during filming they are offered a tangibly true story from a perspective outside of their own – a man acting as one of their victims under interrogation (one of Anwar’s neighbors) tells them of his stepfather who was taken away and murdered in the middle of the night for being Chinese (i.e. communist). They reject his story and insist that they have enough of their own already. Clearly there has been a shift away from staging recreations in order to document the past, in favour of an almost total immersion into the realm of narcissistic fantasy. From here on they begin to film ever more surreal and grotesque reenactments of their acts of killing, beginning with bizarre recreations of their own fantasies, nightmares and memories by framing them within the cinematic genres that have inspired them. Any straightforward telling of the ‘truth’ disappears in favour of a different kind of truth, one rarely captured by documentary films – a truth of the imagination. In this case it is a truth of sadistically murderous imagination. In this regard it begins to resemble the documentary work of Werner Herzog (who was an executive producer attached to the film). As with Herzog’s films, by unhinging itself from the straightforward documentation of ‘truth’, the reality of the historical events surrounding the mass extermination (up to two and a half million people), Oppenheimer’s film flows deeper into the stream of the darkest realms of imagination to uncover what Herzog has termed ‘ecstatic truth’. This is a truth that cannot be empirically accounted for cinematically, but is revealed through a form of filmic poetry. The affect of this is to bring us closer than many other films to the luminous darkness of human cruelty.

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Ebert’s question resounds in the mind at the conclusion of the film; shall I have feelings or should this film make me remain cool? Anwar, having endured acting the part of being interrogated and garroted is shaken and brought to a limit of his endurance. This becomes evident as he watches the video footage on his television at home, and he expresses his view to Oppenheimer that for the first time he was really able to experience what his victims went through in their last moments. Oppenheimer replies that this is not true, it was much worse for his victims as they knew they were really going to die. The hermetic sealed vacuum of Anwar’s cinematic imagination appears to be undone in this simple moment. The realization of this ‘reality’ comes to dawn upon his soul, and is captured on his face. Later when he revisits the site where he carried out hundreds of executions this realization seems heavy upon his mind, and in a truly astonishing sequence he involuntarily vomits repeatedly. The sound and sight of Anwar trying to exorcise the bile of what he has done from his body is one of the most haunting things ever captured on film. There is a deep sadness in the sight of what little humanity Anwar has left trying to escape from his body, trying to vomit itself out. And through this deep sadness comes the concrete memorial to the countless voiceless victims of this specific brutal period in Indonesia’s history. A minor historical reckoning. Possibly because it is so anchored into the specific events of Indonesia in 1965-6, but not tied to exhaustively accounting for them, the film is able to ambitiously transcend this specificity and project us into broader realms where the question of the moral ecology of the human and the impact of film has upon it can be asked.

For all of popular cinema’s ambivalent success in creating the entertaining and consequence-free spectacle of the act of killing, it is with films such as Oppenheimer’s that film’s alternative capacity for opening up an affectively empathic space becomes apparent. The capacity for film to conjure up reflexive acts of conscience from the darkest abyss of acts of killing offers a possible filmic antidote to the toxic malaise of mainstream films. Film is revealed as being as much about empathic immersion, as it is in immersion in consequence-free spectacles of cruelty and killing. Nursed and comforted by the all-pervasive cinematic grammar of Kick Ass, Hostel, The Human Centipede, Inglorious Basterds, RED, etc., Oppenheimer’s film serves to remind us of the presence of the cinematically transgressed thresholds, that there are edges and consequences to killing, both personal and social. Quite rightly the film places us back into a state of deep discomfort over spectacles of killing happily, whether it is a child superhero killing bad guys happily or the spectacles of mass-killing indulged in by this year’s latest gangster movie or summer blockbuster. ‘LOL’ and ‘hahahahahaha’ have become replaced with the echoes of Anwar’s tortuous vomiting.

[First published on the New Left Project website in August 2013]

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Affectivity, Bresson, Dogs on Film, Film, Violence

Dogs on Film – Part 1

Some of my friends know that I have been threatening to write a lengthy book about dogs on film for quite some time. The idea originally came to me when I was writing my earlier book about film nihilism and belief. When I reflected on films, or specific moments in films, that had deeply affected me over the years, I realised that many of them involved dogs. I recalled my childhood obsession with the Lassie movies through to my deep love in later years for the anthropomorphized dogs in the remarkable sequel to Babe, Babe: Pig in the City (a criminally underrated film in my view!). Beautifully strange sequences haunt my memory like the dreamlike vision of the dog from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Or the bizarre hallucinogenic sequence from Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain where the running dog takes the spirits of those seeking the holy mountain Continue reading

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Affectivity, Art, Books, Film, Reviews

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

Some of the great works of literary impressionism – Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Zola’s Germinal, Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lowry’s Under the Volcano – harness the individual as a confluence of disparate sensations driven by a powerful and often only vaguely expressed desire. Often these kernels of desire are associated with feelings of love, regret, nostalgia, loss, disappointment, and death. All of these writers opposed the old literary fiction where the novel voiced by an omniscient spectator of the human scene is resisted in favour of the emergent unreliable spectator who is as confused by the whirlwind of events in life as everybody else. This is an individual who isn’t even certain anymore of what they are or if they are even an individual, who scrabbles around and searches for meaning in the flurry of disparate sensations, the ruins of time’s passing and death’s ever-present face. Here all ‘real’ experience is presented as elusive, fragmentary and irreducibly sensorial in nature. The world is suddenly no longer made up of stable things, including stable point of view, constructed upon a steady and linear flow of time. The extent to which it ever did being only the illusory effect of literature. With these writers time is fragmented and broken, qualitatively differentiated and non-homogenous, composed of different perspectives, orders of speed, folds, repetitions and echoes, echoes and silences. For them, quite simply, this hallucinogenic fragmentation and kaleidoscopic condensation of sensation is the ‘true’ nature of reality, as it was for impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Renoir. The fragmentary yet vividly coloured impressions through which we pass the fragmented temporality of our lives are more ‘real’ than any of the fabulated linear narratives and coherent sense we might wish to impose. Yet, is it possible that the literary assemblages composed by any one of these writers be any less fictional than any of literature’s previous forms? According to Celine, in a passage cited at the very beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty, it cannot, simply because the life that we experience Continue reading

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Film

I Serve at the Pleasure of the President – The Alternative Liberal Reality of The West Wing

During the Christmas period, whilst staying at a remote retreat in Northern Thailand, my wife and I have spent our quiet evenings watching the first season of The West Wing. This is a series that I chose not to watch when it was initially aired in the UK during the early 2000’s. Looking back now, I think my reluctance to watch the series was largely built on a misunderstanding of what The West Wing was. I think at the time I had imagined that it was either an attempt at an accurate portrayal of what was happening in US politics at the time, both in the immediate time prior to 9/11 and its aftermath, or as a kind of sharp satire on the goings on in Capitol Hill. However, it is neither of these things. Both possibilities were unappealing to me at the time, either Continue reading

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Books, Film, Philosophy

The Eye and the Razor

Today sees the publication of my first book, Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, which is available through Zero Books.

Here’s a brief extract from it, in fact it is the conclusion. anybody who knows me well knows that I do like to give away endings…

The Eye and the Razor

“I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution. What have we done to our images? We need images in accordance with our civilization and our innermost conditioning, and this is the reason why I like any film that searches for new images no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. One must dig like an archaeol- ogist and search our violated landscape to find anything new. It can sometimes be a struggle to find unprocessed and fresh images.” (Werner Herzog)

In the opening scenes of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 silent surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou a middle-aged man sharpens his razor at his balcony door before testing its sharpness on his thumb. He then opens the door, plays with the razor while gazing up at the moon, which is about to be engulfed by a thin white cloud. There is a cut to a close-up of a young woman being held from behind by the man as she stares, calm, straight ahead. Another cut occurs to the moon being overcome by a cloud; the man slits the woman’s eye with the razor, the vitreous humour spills out.

Cinema, like poetry, is capable of revealing dimensions of meaning that are deeper than the level of truth on the surface of things. Cinema has the capacity to disturb our perceptual Continue reading

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Film

Enter the Void – The Ultimate Trip

Enter the Void, the new film by French-Argentinian Director Gasper Noé, is a truly remarkable film. Its visceral affectivity is staggering, and is matched only by its total commitment to transforming the current state of cinema. Arguably it is just not like anything ever seen in the cinema before. This film is relentlessly experimental, and is unafraid to totally immerse and disorientate its spectators by placing them in the most abstract, frenetic and artificial of filmic landscapes. It is a classic example of a truly ambitious work of cinema which is completely unhinged from the realm of conventional representation, and operates according to a completely different schema. Continue reading

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Film

Herzog: Ecstatic Truth

Herzog has described his 1974 documentary The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner as one of his most important films. Ostensibly a “documentary” made about the Swiss ski-jumper Walter Steiner’s mammoth death-defying and record-breaking leaps made during the championships in Planica, Yugoslavia in March 1974, Herzog transforms the material on Steiner into a powerful meditation upon the capacity to ecstatically transcend the apparent limitations of the human condition. As Herzog, himself obsessed from an early age by ski-jumping, once said – “They dream they can fly and want to step into this ecstasy which pushes against the laws of nature – Ski-jumping is not just an athletic pursuit, it is something very spiritual too, a question of how to master the fear of death and isolation. It is as if they are flying into the deepest, darkest abyss there is. These are men who step outside all that we are as human beings, and overcoming this mortal fear, the deep anxiety these men go through, this is what is so striking about ski-jumpers”. Continue reading

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Film

Today we’re launching the website for our film Kleist. This film is a small collaborative project, and consists of a photo-roman documentary that tells the remarkable story of the mysterious disappearance of the German physicist Gustav Kleist. I have spent the last two years researching the life of the mysterious German physicist Gustav Kleist, collecting a sizeable archive of rare photographic images and recorded interviews with his wife detailing the mystery of his disappearance in 1942.

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Film

The Children are Guilty


In April 2009 in Edlington, South Yorkshire, two brothers aged 10 and 11 apparently lured two other boys,aged 9 and 10, into the woods where they subjected them to an abject catalogue of physical savagery and sexual sadism.

Watching the media coverage of their trial in recent days has laid bare the appalling cultural abjection to which we have all become subject. It is not the crimes themselves, which no one can deny are savage and appalling, but the utterly infantile and pathetic public, media, political and legal discourse around the case. These abstract and hysterical discourses all express a singular epistemology of ‘the children are guilty’. In 2010 in our seeming state of benign and complacent enlightenment we appear to be happy to asign absolute guilt and responsibility to two boys, aged 10 and 11. Surely this complacency screams of a massive collective failure to ‘think’ this event itself. I spent many hours watching a variety of media outlets report the boys’ trial, and read a great deal that was written at the same time. With only a few exceptions, such as Blake Morrison’s excellent piece (‘Let the Circus Begin’) that appeared in The Guardian at the time of the boys’ original arrest, the majority of the reporting and comment singularly failed to even think about the systemic ‘causes’ that led to such a terrible event. A single assumption has pervaded the discourse – ‘The Children are guilty’ – making it easy to condemn them as ‘evil bastards’ or ‘devil children’.

Evident from the discourse around the Edlington case, is an all too familiar failure to think about the unremmiting and abject ‘reality’ within which these events happened and will continue to happen…a failure to think at all. Can there be any more powerful spectacle of such a monumental failure in the capacity to ‘think’ than the trial itself. TV news and newspapers returned again and again to the pathetic spectacle, communicated through childish and badly executed pastel sketches of the two boys (aged 10 and 11) being brought to account for their crimes in front of the court.


Here the full assembly of the current judicial system confronted two isolated young boys (aged 10 and 11), alone with no parents or family present. No parents present. The spectral figures of parental failure (adults) apparently never having to account for themselves or their children (aged 10 and 11) before the ‘court’, and what’s more, it never really mattering since the only reality which matters to us is one where ‘the children are guilty’. As their mother articulated so brilliantly – ‘It’s got nowt to do with me!’ The accounts of their ‘toxic homelife’ are treated as familiar footnotes unconnected with the events that took place, just some kind of drab aesthetic backdrop to the real spectacle of their culpability, their guilt. It was reported again and again, with overwhelming cynical disdain, that when asked by police why they carried out the attack the boys had replied ‘because we were bored’. Why the cynical disdain? Do we not believe them when they say this? Are we so over-invested in the ‘interesting’ reality we have created,and into which these two children (aged 10 and 11) were forced to exist, that we simply cannot believe that a deep and catastrophic psychic death occurred to these children. A psychic death brought about by the sheer toxcity of their everyday reality that fundamentally undermined any connection whatsoever to the world. Is it not possible that a monumental boredom emerges from the most horrific developmental indifference and neglect, and this this leads to the most savage and nihilistic expression possible? Is it that to think in such a way undermines our almost mystic commitment to the axiom that ‘the children are guilty’?

The failure, by their parents and by us, to apparently be able to even begin to think about what these two boys (aged 10 and 11) did to two other boys (aged 9 and 10), and why they did it (with echoes of the 1993 Jamie Bulger case) is a truly nauseating spectacle.

Michael Haneke’s recent film The White Ribbon does seem to offer us some kind of a way of beginning to think about our failure to think through an event such as the one that occurred in Edlington. But it is an indirect and disturbing experience, often uncomfortable and deeply unsettling to watch.

Set on the eve of the First World War in 1913, and shot in black and white, the film is set in a north German village where a series of bizarre crimes and unexplained acts of violence (two of which are perpetrated against young children, and have clear echoes of the savagery evident in the Edlington case) are being committed. These senseless and savage acts may in fact be carried out by the children of the village, although the film never allows us to become certain of this. Haneke, in attempting to think these senseless acts uses an oblique approach whereby the children’s guilt is never actually assumed or established. This allows Haneke to do something quite remarkable and increasingly rare: to actually look and to think about what else is happening around the children. What is in fact happening to them is equal to, if not more horrific than, the ‘senseless’ acts of violence. It is all the more disturbing for the fact that what happens to them in their everyday lives supposedly has ‘sense’. What happens to them in this community has become so normal, so much part of the sterile homogeneity of accepted everyday reality that no one (no adult) really questions it. Systematic abuse and violence by adults towards children is endemic, the emotional neglect and indifference towards children by adults is rife, and the level of community endorsed repression is startling. The ‘white ribbon’ of the film’s title refers to the bands of shame that are tied round the arms of the pastor’s ‘naughty’ children who are subjected to his extreme physical and psychological discipline, and even (in the case of the village doctor’s daughter) sexual abuse.

Some critics have theorised that Haneke is attempting to explain the beginnings of fascism – that the generation of children who carry out these senseless and savage acts of cruelty on other children will grow up to be the generation that spawns the Nazis in Germany. But this seems to be a deeply mistaken understanding of the film; what the film is really about is the failures of the present. It is a film about our current failures with regard to our children, the failure to create a world that is not marked by absolutely endemic cruelty, indifference, greed, and stupidity. It is a film about the nihilism of the present. Haneke’s film is an attempt to re-engage the appalling moral complacency of present western societies that have become so sick and intellectually cretinous that we all easily accept a situation where we now have trials where we assign guilt to children (aged 10 and 11) where the fault almost certainly lies in their everyday lives, in the appalling reality we (adults) have created and go on reproducing, and into which our ‘guilty’ children are born.

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Film

Deleuze, Cinema and Belief: The Restoration of a Lost World

A podcast of my recent talk on Deleuze, Rossellini and the politics of belief is available here.

In this paper I argue that Cinema 2 can be read as a powerful manifesto advocating that what we ‘moderns’ need, existing as we do amidst the inhuman homogeneity of capitalist realism, is a renewed form of belief and hope in the world, and that it is modern cinema which has, and continues to, respond to this need. Deleuze asks whether we can go on living without hope and without a grasp on the situations in the world that surround us, and asks what it is that can replace the broken and nullified links of organic representation? For Deleuze the greatness of modern cinema, particularly Italian neorealism, lies in its capability to create other forms of agency and other forms of linkage to the world that are based on new forms of belief.

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