This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Monday, January 30, 2012

All That Heaven Allows by Laura Mulvey

Douglas Sirk once said: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” When All That Heaven Allows was released by Universal Studios in 1955 it was just another critically unnoticed Hollywood genre product designed to appeal to the trashy “women’s weepie” audience. Now, in retrospect, it is considered to be closer to the art side of Sirk’s “dialectic” and one of his key films. But this is part of a wider process of critical re-evaluation, in which his entire body of work has been rediscovered and reappraised by successive generations of filmmakers and historians. 

No one seeing the film at the time would have imagined its director to be an elegant, extremely erudite European whose career started in the theatre of Weimar Germany and was an early director of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. After a short, but successful, career at the UFa studios in the vacuum left by the massive emigration of Jewish talent after the Nazis came to power in 1933, he made his way to Hollywood, directing his first film there in 1942. But after an unsuccessful attempt to return to Germany in 1949–50, he signed a contract with Universal Pictures. His movie career then culminated with his most high-profile films, the melodramas of 1952–58. By 1959 he was Universal’s most successful director. At that very point, he left moviemaking and America. Until his death in 1987, he and his wife Hilde lived in Lugano, Switzerland.

All That Heaven Allows marks the final turning point in Sirk’s strange and varied career. On the back of Magnificent Obsession’s success the previous year, Universal gave him the budgets and the freedom that enabled his mature style to blossom. All That Heaven Allows contains all the elements of characteristically Sirkian composition: light, shade, color, and camera angles combine with his trademark use of mirrors to break up the surface of the screen. Here are all the components of the “melodramatic” style on which Sirk’s critical reputation is based and that has made him the favorite of later generations of filmmakers, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Quentin Tarantino, from John Waters to Pedro Almódovar.

Continue to read here

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Borge's Streets

"The task of artis to transform what is continuously happening to us to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man's memory. That is our duty. If we don't fulfill it, we feel unhappy." 
Jorge Luis Borges

A little homage to the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest writers of all time. This video was shot in the winter of 2010 in Buenos Aires and Capilla del Señor, Argentina.

Directed and shot by Ian Ruschel with a Canon 5d. Edited and color graded it in Final Cut Pro using Twixtor, Knoll Light Factory and Magic Bullet.

Alcidez Zonco as Borges
Assistant Director: Max Laux
Production Manager: Arnoni Lenz
Production Company: Zeppelin Filmes

Track: Gustavo Santaolalla - 21 - The Motorcycle Diaries Soundtrack

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Defining the Photoplay by Hugo Münsterberg

Un chien Andalou (FRA, 1929) Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali 

We have now reached the point at which we can knot together all our threads, the psychological and the esthetic ones. If we do so, we come to the true thesis of this whole book. Our esthetic discussion showed us that it is the aim of art to isolate a significant part of our experience in such a way that it is separate from our practical life and is in complete agreement within itself. Our esthetic satisfaction results from this inner agreement and harmony, but in order that we may feel such agreement of the parts we must enter with our own impulses into the will of every element, into the meaning of every line and color and form, every word and tone and note. Only if everything is full of such inner movement can we really enjoy the harmonious coöperation of the parts. The means of the various arts, we saw, are the forms and methods by which this aim is fulfilled. They must be different for every material. Moreover the same material may allow very different methods of isolation and elimination of the insignificant and reënforcement of that which contributes to the harmony. If we ask now what are the characteristic means by which the photoplay succeeds in overcoming reality, in isolating a significant dramatic story and in presenting it so that we enter into it and yet keep it away from our practical life and enjoy the harmony of the parts, we must remember all the results to which our psychological discussion in the first part of the book has led us.
We recognized there that the photoplay, incomparable in this respect with the drama, gave us a view of dramatic events which was completely shaped by the inner movements of the mind. To be sure, the events in the photoplay happen in the real space with its depth. But the spectator feels that they are not presented in the three dimensions of the outer world, that they are flat pictures which only the mind molds into plastic things. Again the events are seen in continuous movement; and yet the pictures break up the movement into a rapid succession of instantaneous impressions. We do not see the objective reality, but a product of our own mind which binds the pictures together. But much stronger differences came to light when we turned to the processes of attention, of memory, of imagination, of suggestion, of division of interest and of emotion. The attention turns to detailed points in the outer world and ignores everything else: the photoplay is doing exactly this when in the close-up a detail is enlarged and everything else disappears. Memory breaks into present events by bringing up pictures of the past: the photoplay is doing this by its frequent cut-backs, when pictures of events long past flit between those of the present. The imagination anticipates the future or overcomes reality by fancies and dreams; the photoplay is doing all this more richly than any chance imagination would succeed in doing. But chiefly, through our division of interest our mind is drawn hither and thither. We think of events which run parallel in different places. The photoplay can show in intertwined scenes everything which our mind embraces. Events in three or four or five regions of the world can be woven together into one complex action. Finally, we saw that every shade of feeling and emotion which fills the spectator's mind can mold the scenes in the photoplay until they appear the embodiment of our feelings. In every one of these aspects the photoplay succeeds in doing what the drama of the theater does not attempt.
If this is the outcome of esthetic analysis on the one side, of psychological research on the other, we need only combine the results of both into a unified principle: the photoplay tells us the human story by overcoming the forms of the outer world, namely, space, time, and causality, and by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely, attention, memory, imagination, and emotion.
We shall gain our orientation most directly if once more, under this point of view, we compare the photoplay with the performance on the theater stage. We shall not enter into a discussion of the character of the regular theater and its drama. We take this for granted. Everybody knows that highest art form which the Greeks created and which from Greece has spread over Asia, Europe, and America. In tragedy and in comedy from ancient times to Ibsen, Rostand, Hauptmann, and Shaw we recognize one common purpose and one common form for which no further commentary is needed. How does the photoplay differ from a theater performance? We insisted that every work of art must be somehow separated from our sphere of practical interests. The theater is no exception. The structure of the theater itself, the framelike form of the stage, the difference of light between stage and house, the stage setting and costuming, all inhibit in the audience the possibility of taking the action on the stage to be real life. Stage managers have sometimes tried the experiment of reducing those differences, for instance, keeping the audience also in a fully lighted hall, and they always had to discover how much the dramatic effect was reduced because the feeling of distance from reality was weakened. The photoplay and the theater in this respect are evidently alike. The screen too suggests from the very start the complete unreality of the events.
But each further step leads us to remarkable differences between the stage play and the film play. In every respect the film play is further away from the physical reality than the drama and in every respect this greater distance from the physical world brings it nearer to the mental world. The stage shows us living men. It is not the real Romeo and not the real Juliet; and yet the actor and the actress have the ringing voices of true people, breathe like them, have living colors like them, and fill physical space like them. What is left in the photoplay? The voice has been stilled: the photoplay is a dumb show. Yet we must not forget that this alone is a step away from reality which has often been taken in the midst of the dramatic world. Whoever knows the history of the theater is aware of the tremendous rôle which the pantomime has played in the development of mankind. From the old half-religious pantomimic and suggestive dances out of which the beginnings of the real drama grew to the fully religious pantomimes of medieval ages and, further on, to many silent mimic elements in modern performances, we find a continuity of conventions which make the pantomime almost the real background of all dramatic development. We know how popular the pantomimes were among the Greeks, and how they stood in the foreground in the imperial period of Rome. Old Rome cherished the mimic clowns, but still more the tragic pantomimics. "Their very nod speaks, their hands talk and their fingers have a voice." After the fall of the Roman empire the church used the pantomime for the portrayal of sacred history, and later centuries enjoyed very unsacred histories in the pantomimes of their ballets. Even complex artistic tragedies without words have triumphed on our present-day stage. "L'Enfant Prodigue" which came from Paris, "Sumurun" which came from Berlin, "Petroushka" which came from Petrograd, conquered the American stage; and surely the loss of speech, while it increased the remoteness from reality, by no means destroyed the continuous consciousness of the bodily existence of the actors.
Moreover the student of a modern pantomime cannot overlook a characteristic difference between the speechless performance on the stage and that of the actors of a photoplay. The expression of the inner states, the whole system of gestures, is decidedly different: and here we might say that the photoplay stands nearer to life than the pantomime. Of course, the photoplayer must somewhat exaggerate the natural expression. The whole rhythm and intensity of his gestures must be more marked than it would be with actors who accompany their movements by spoken words and who express the meaning of their thoughts and feelings by the content of what they say. Nevertheless the photoplayer uses the regular channels of mental discharge. He acts simply as a very emotional person might act. But the actor who plays in a pantomime cannot be satisfied with that. He is expected to add something which is entirely unnatural, namely a kind of artificial demonstration of his emotions. He must not only behave like an angry man, but he must behave like a man who is consciously interested in his anger and wants to demonstrate it to others. He exhibits his emotions for the spectators. He really acts theatrically for the benefit of the bystanders. If he did not try to do so, his means of conveying a rich story and a real conflict of human passions would be too meager. The photoplayer, with the rapid changes of scenes, has other possibilities of conveying his intentions. He must not yield to the temptation to play a pantomime on the screen, or he will seriously injure the artistic quality of the reel.
The really decisive distance from bodily reality, however, is created by the substitution of the actor's picture for the actor himself. Lights and shades replace the manifoldness of color effects and mere perspective must furnish the suggestion of depth. We traced it when we discussed the psychology of kinematoscopic perception. But we must not put the emphasis on the wrong point. The natural tendency might be to lay the chief stress on the fact that those people in the photoplay do not stand before us in flesh and blood. The essential point is rather that we are conscious of the flatness of the picture. If we were to see the actors of the stage in a mirror, it would also be a reflected image which we perceive. We should not really have the actors themselves in our straight line of vision; and yet this image would appear to us equivalent to the actors themselves, because it would contain all the depth of the real stage. The film picture is such a reflected rendering of the actors. The process which leads from the living men to the screen is more complex than a mere reflection in a mirror, but in spite of the complexity in the transmission we do, after all, see the real actor in the picture. The photograph is absolutely different from those pictures which a clever draughtsman has sketched. In the photoplay we see the actors themselves and the decisive factor which makes the impression different from seeing real men is not that we see the living persons through the medium of photographic reproduction but that this reproduction shows them in a flat form. The bodily space has been eliminated. We said once before that stereoscopic arrangements could reproduce somewhat this plastic form also. Yet this would seriously interfere with the character of the photoplay. We need there this overcoming of the depth, we want to have it as a picture only and yet as a picture which strongly suggests to us the actual depth of the real world. We want to keep the interest in the plastic world and want to be aware of the depth in which the persons move, but our direct object of perception must be without the depth. That idea of space which forces on us most strongly the idea of heaviness, solidity and substantiality must be replaced by the light flitting immateriality.
But the photoplay sacrifices not only the space values of the real theater; it disregards no less its order of time. The theater presents its plot in the time order of reality. It may interrupt the continuous flow of time without neglecting the conditions of the dramatic art. There may be twenty years between the third and the fourth act, inasmuch as the dramatic writer must select those elements spread over space and time which are significant for the development of his story. But he is bound by the fundamental principle of real time, that it can move only forward and not backward. Whatever the theater shows us now must come later in the story than that which it showed us in any previous moment. The strict classical demand for complete unity of time does not fit every drama, but a drama would give up its mission if it told us in the third act something which happened before the second act. Of course, there may be a play within a play, and the players on the stage which is set on the stage may play events of old Roman history before the king of France. But this is an enclosure of the past in the present, which corresponds exactly to the actual order of events. The photoplay, on the other hand, does not and must not respect this temporal structure of the physical universe. At any point the photoplay interrupts the series and brings us back to the past. We studied this unique feature of the film art when we spoke of the psychology of memory and imagination. With the full freedom of our fancy, with the whole mobility of our association of ideas, pictures of the past flit through the scenes of the present. Time is left behind. Man becomes boy; today is interwoven with the day before yesterday. The freedom of the mind has triumphed over the unalterable law of the outer world.
It is interesting to watch how playwrights nowadays try to steal the thunder of the photoplay and experiment with time reversals on the legitimate stage. We are esthetically on the borderland when a grandfather tells his grandchild the story of his own youth as a warning, and instead of the spoken words the events of his early years come before our eyes. This is, after all, quite similar to a play within a play. A very different experiment is tried in "Under Cover." The third act, which plays on the second floor of the house, ends with an explosion. The fourth act, which plays downstairs, begins a quarter of an hour before the explosion. Here we have a real denial of a fundamental condition of the theater. Or if we stick to recent products of the American stage, we may think of "On Trial," a play which perhaps comes nearest to a dramatic usurpation of the rights of the photoplay. We see the court scene and as one witness after another begins to give his testimony the courtroom is replaced by the scenes of the actions about which the witness is to report. Another clever play, "Between the Lines," ends the first act with a postman bringing three letters from the three children of the house. The second, third, and fourth acts lead us to the three different homes from which the letters came and the action in the three places not only precedes the writing of the letters; but goes on at the same time. The last act, finally, begins with the arrival of the letters which tell the ending of those events in the three homes. Such experiments are very suggestive but they are not any longer pure dramatic art. It is always possible to mix arts. An Italian painter produces very striking effects by putting pieces of glass and stone and rope into his paintings, but they are no longer pure paintings. The drama in which the later event comes before the earlier is an esthetic barbarism which is entertaining as a clever trick in a graceful superficial play, but intolerable in ambitious dramatic art. It is not only tolerable but perfectly natural in any photoplay. The pictorial reflection of the world is not bound by the rigid mechanism of time. Our mind is here and there, our mind turns to the present and then to the past: the photoplay can equal it in its freedom from the bondage of the material world.
But the theater is bound not only by space and time. Whatever it shows is controlled by the same laws of causality which govern nature. This involves a complete continuity of the physical events: no cause without following effect, no effect without preceding cause. This whole natural course is left behind in the play on the screen. The deviation from reality begins with that resolution of the continuous movement which we studied in our psychological discussions. We saw that the impression of movement results from an activity of the mind which binds the separate pictures together. What we actually see is a composite; it is like the movement of a fountain in which every jet is resolved into numberless drops. We feel the play of those drops in their sparkling haste as one continuous stream of water, and yet are conscious of the myriads of drops, each one separate from the others. This fountainlike spray of pictures has completely overcome the causal world.
In an entirely different form this triumph over causality appears in the interruption of the events by pictures which belong to another series. We find this whenever the scene suddenly changes. The processes are not carried to their natural consequences. A movement is started, but before the cause brings its results another scene has taken its place. What this new scene brings may be an effect for which we saw no causes. But not only the processes are interrupted. The intertwining of the scenes which we have traced in detail is itself such a contrast to causality. It is as if different objects could fill the same space at the same time. It is as if the resistance of the material world had disappeared and the substances could penetrate one another. In the interlacing of our ideas we experience this superiority to all physical laws. The theater would not have even the technical means to give us such impressions, but if it had, it would have no right to make use of them, as it would destroy the basis on which the drama is built. We have only another case of the same type in those series of pictures which aim to force a suggestion on our mind. We have spoken of them. A certain effect is prepared by a chain of causes and yet when the causal result is to appear the film is cut off. We have the causes without the effect. The villain thrusts with his dagger—but a miracle has snatched away his victim.
While the moving pictures are lifted above the world of space and time and causality and are freed from its bounds, they are certainly not without law. We said before that the freedom with which the pictures replace one another is to a large degree comparable to the sparkling and streaming of the musical tones. The yielding to the play of the mental energies, to the attention and emotion, which is felt in the film pictures, is still more complete in the musical melodies and harmonies in which the tones themselves are merely the expressions of the ideas and feelings and will impulses of the mind. Their harmonies and disharmonies, their fusing and blending, is not controlled by any outer necessity, but by the inner agreement and disagreement of our free impulses. And yet in this world of musical freedom, everything is completely controlled by esthetic necessities. No sphere of practical life stands under such rigid rules as the realm of the composer. However bold the musical genius may be he cannot emancipate himself from the iron rule that his work must show complete unity in itself. All the separate prescriptions which the musical student has to learn are ultimately only the consequences of this central demand which music, the freest of the arts, shares with all the others. In the case of the film, too, the freedom from the physical forms of space, time, and causality does not mean any liberation from this esthetic bondageeither. On the contrary, just as music is surrounded by more technical rules than literature, the photoplay must be held together by the esthetic demands still more firmly than is the drama. The arts which are subordinated to the conditions of space, time, and causality find a certain firmness of structure in these material forms which contain an element of outer connectedness. But where these forms are given up and where the freedom of mental play replaces their outer necessity, everything would fall asunder if the esthetic unity were disregarded.
This unity is, first of all, the unity of action. The demand for it is the same which we know from the drama. The temptation to neglect it is nowhere greater than in the photoplay where outside matter can so easily be introduced or independent interests developed. It is certainly true for the photoplay, as for every work of art, that nothing has the right to existence in its midst which is not internally needed for the unfolding of the unified action. Wherever two plots are given to us, we receive less by far than if we had only one plot. We leave the sphere of valuable art entirely when a unified action is ruined by mixing it with declamation, and propaganda which is not organically interwoven with the action itself. It may be still fresh in memory what an esthetically intolerable helter-skelter performance was offered to the public in "The Battlecry of Peace." Nothing can be more injurious to the esthetic cultivation of the people than such performances which hold the attention of the spectators by ambitious detail and yet destroy their esthetic sensibility by a complete disregard of the fundamental principle of art, the demand for unity. But we recognized also that this unity involves complete isolation. We annihilate beauty when we link the artistic creation with practical interests and transform the spectator into a selfishly interested bystander. The scenic background of the play is not presented in order that we decide whether we want to spend our next vacation there. The interior decoration of the rooms is not exhibited as a display for a department store. The men and women who carry out the action of the plot must not be people whom we may meet tomorrow on the street. All the threads of the play must be knotted together in the play itself and none should be connected with our outside interests. A good photoplay must be isolated and complete in itself like a beautiful melody. It is not an advertisement for the newest fashions.
This unity of action involves unity of characters. It has too often been maintained by those who theorize on the photoplay that the development of character is the special task of the drama, while the photoplay, which lacks words, must be satisfied with types. Probably this is only a reflection of the crude state which most photoplays of today have not outgrown. Internally, there is no reason why the means of the photoplay should not allow a rather subtle depicting of complex character. But the chief demand is that the characters remain consistent, that the action be developed according to inner necessity and that the characters themselves be in harmony with the central idea of the plot. However, as soon as we insist on unity we have no right to think only of the action which gives the content of the play. We cannot make light of the form. As in music the melody and rhythms belong together, as in painting not every color combination suits every subject, and as in poetry not every stanza would agree with every idea, so the photoplay must bring action and pictorial expression into perfect harmony. But this demand repeats itself in every single picture. We take it for granted that the painter balances perfectly the forms in his painting, groups them so that an internal symmetry can be felt and that the lines and curves and colors blend into a unity. Every single picture of the sixteen thousand which are shown to us in one reel ought to be treated with this respect of the pictorial artist for the unity of the forms.
The photoplay shows us a significant conflict of human actions in moving pictures which, freed from the physical forms of space, time, and causality, are adjusted to the free play of our mental experiences and which reach complete isolation from the practical world through the perfect unity of plot and pictorial appearance.
Hugo Münsterberg

D. Appleton and Company, New York / London, 1916

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Nothingness in Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer: An Analytical Essay

According to Andras B. Kovacs' Screening Modernism, the concept of nothingness is “a series of everyday situations where man is alone, desperately looking for something solid in a situation where his own identity is called into question.” This nothingness is created when one’s expectation reaches a point of frustration, and it is also the central concept of existentialist philosophy. This is due to the human condition, or rather, the “nonbeing of something” or of something that should be. This concept thus defines the nature of the human existence, where feelings of helplessness are faced with the repressive forces of the exterior world. Given the nature of these ideas, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer (2008) is a prominent exemplary form of the concept of nothingness. Set in the near future, it depicts a world where Mexican workers provide the United States with labor, while eliminating their physical presence. Therefore, Mexicans do not migrate; rather they are plugged into a computer to operate robots in the United States. The film highlights many issues we struggle with today, technology versus alienation being one of the more prominent themes. This essay will deconstruct and analyze the film following Kovacs’ concept of nothingness to depict the extent of which technology creates alienation through the elimination of the basic experiences of everyday life.

Kovacs states that nothingness is created from the interaction of consciousness and the world. Additionally, through nothingness, people come to define themselves. This is evident from the beginning of the film as one of the main characters, Memo, describes his living conditions. Rather than describing the physical properties of his inhabited village, he states that it is “a village dry, isolated and disconnected.” In this description, the viewer enters into Memo’s physical and mental world all at once. He wanders into the emptiness in silence, a notion that well describes his state of consciousness. In this particular scene, the director sets up the notion of alienation as the imagery presents vast and wide spaces of empty and deserted land. The viewer begins to understand Memo’s personality through his stream of consciousness. Although he is a man of few words, it does not take long for the viewer to decode his persona. This young man is detached from his personal and physical surroundings, even when his family surrounds him. As the family dines together, Memo’s lack of mental presence overshadows his physical presence. The only time the viewer feels his presence is when he picks up signals on his radio that transport him to far away places. They connect him to the outside world, to vibrant and lively cities where people are living a fast paced life, something he has never experienced. However, as he listens in on the hustle and bustle, this electronic connection makes him feel all the more disconnected.
Furthermore, as the viewer watches Memo work in the fields of the empty village, the feeling of nonbeing is furthermore explicated. Through his work, a lack of purpose and fulfillment is captured. Moreover, this notion is shown in several different sequences in the film. First, the viewer witnesses the technological and corporate takeover that has ensued, which has completely blocked the Mexican-American border. This technology has eliminated much of the everyday human interaction the residents of village experience. They are only able to speak through machines in order to obtain goods and services. This also highlights the barrier that technology has created, which has severely decreased and burdened human communication. The director translates this idea further by showing that much of the communication is between people and computer programmed machines that do not require any human control. This emphasizes the feeling of disconnection between Memo and his environment.
As events transpire, Memo’s father is killed in his home by a robot controlled by a pilot in the United States. This is due to Memo’s signal capturing radio that was deemed as a threat. Memo leaves the village in hopes of finding work outside town, and he encounters a woman who introduces him to the ‘Sleep Dealers’ factories. This woman, Luz, faces her own form of disconnection in a rather bizarre way that will be discussed shortly. Memo begins working for the sleep dealers as a construction worker in San Diego. Visually, he is able to experience a life he had never known to be possible. His previous feelings of needing to escape the village have been somewhat alleviated; yet he is always brought back to reality once he is unplugged from the labor harboring machines. This creates further confusion for Memo as he seems to be living two separate lives while inhabiting one body. He questions his identity more so than when he was living in the village. This technology has forced him to call into question the meaning of his existence. The only way he feels a sense of purpose is by sending his family the money he earns. However, it is not gratifying as he witnesses their living conditions in the hot and dry village as they are lacking water. This is due to the indestructible dam that was built to secure the border between the two countries. Here, the viewer is able to empathize with Memo’s feelings of being lost and isolated as he is stuck in world that seemingly prioritizes technology over humanity. What furthermore exacerbates these feelings is the lack of control Memo has over the way he lives his life, his surroundings, and his means of survival. There is no room for change, and everything is beyond his control.

The ‘Sleep Dealer’ factories give insight into a world where corporations have taken over the complete human living conditions through the use of technology. In the film, this is depicted in several ways. As the process of working has been previously examined, we now turn to the experience of memories and interpersonal relationships. Luz, one of the main characters in the film is involved in the memory market. She transfers her memories to a program where they can be viewed and even purchase. This technological breakthrough in the futuristic society portrayed by Rivera highlights the breaking point of communication, forming relationships, and sharing experiences. Luz transfers her memory of her meeting and interaction with Memo (photo above), and at one point the program requests that she states the truth about the experience as it can detect a lie. This is significant as later on while we enter her stream of consciousness, she reveals that she is able to tell the program the truth about her feelings towards Memo, yet she is unable to share her true feeling with him. This highlights the barrier that is created between people in terms of personal relationships. As Luz shares her memories, a feeling of alienation is created because she is not capable of expressing her true self in real life, rather only through technological means. She states that people can see what you see, therefore instead of communicating; you transfer a series of images and lines that depict your emotions. She faces a problem similar to Memo’s, which is the rarity in feeling connected. This inability challenges the formation of one’s identity as it becomes difficult to define oneself when one cannot identify with their self, environment, or lifestyle.
In his need to escape, Memo now lives a new life yet he is as lost as he previously was. The only difference in his current state is that he is more aware of the reasons behind these feelings. His work has allowed him to witness the downfall of society up-close as he is now an avid participant in the technological barrier that has been created by humans. In the village, he used his radio to escape and live as if he were somewhere else, yet now he is closer to the source of his agony. Luz described Memo as someone who is lost, clinging on to what he left behind. His new life did not help his situation as he has experienced two lives, yet neither experience has filled the void of finding his place in the world.  Rivera emphasizes these notions in revealing that the state of the current world promotes feelings of alienation regardless of a person’s location. Whether it is a small town, village, or a city, the impact of technology in displacing human necessities such as communication and everyday experiences can be felt the world over.
Rivera allows the viewer to delve into the characters’ psyches prominently through their stream of consciousness. In this form of narration, Kovacs’ concept of nothingness is truly illustrated. Sleep Dealer is deeply philosophical as it depicts the central concept of existentialist philosophy. The central characters each portray their own method of finding their place in the world. Through that method, they attempt to find the purpose of their existence. While this is a feeling that is universal in nature, and transcends from generation to generation, and civilization to civilization, it is the element of technology that truly exacerbates this concept. Technology has greatly impacted and influenced the way of life, making it harder for one to find their place in the world when much of the communication and interaction is eliminated. It is only logical that we define ourselves through our experiences with our fellow people, therefore when those experiences are marginalized; it makes it all the more difficult. This is one of the main reasons this film truly captivates the senses. It allows the viewer to enter a world that could very well exist in the near future, and without the dramatic use of special effects, we witness the possibility of our very own alienated future. Drawing on Kovacs, it is the interaction of consciousness and the world that shapes and defines our being. Therefore, living in a world where this interaction becomes so minute and impersonal, we should be fearful of finding our place and purpose.
Drawing on Kovacs’ concept of nothingness, this essay has analyzed the film Sleep Dealer, directed by Alex Rivera to expose the relationship of technology and alienation and their affect on one’s identity. To that effect, it can be concluded that the film exhibits central philosophical concepts pertaining to existentialism. The film was successful in highlighting a futuristic society where technology is the main form of work and communication, therefore creating barriers that lead to feelings of displacement and alienation. Two of the film’s main characters, Memo and Luz, have been deeply analyzed to show their different ways of dealing with the harsh conditions of this impersonal world. In analyzing these characters, Kovacs’ explicated, predominantly through their streams of consciousness. It is a key factor in their evaluation since much their thoughts are not exposed to their peers and colleagues. Hence, this process was crucial to understanding the motives behind the director’s intentions. His portrayal of the near future, a society well on its way to existence, provides the viewer with insight into his or her place in the world. Additionally, it examines the basic necessities for humans in the face of fast paced technological advances, and the way they influence the very core of our being.

Reem Al Mousawi
Ryerson University
(CPHL 710 - Summer 2011 - Instructor: Hudson Moura)

Sleep Dealer as a modern melodrama

In Chapter five of Andras Balint Kovacs' book Screening modernism: european art cinema, he puts forth his view on the difference between classical and modern Melodrama.  Kovacs' criteria for what makes a modern melodrama can be broken down into a few main ideas.  In a modern melodrama the source of the conflict in the film is not something concrete, rather it is represented by a lack of something, in other words a nothingness.  The protagonist does not have a complete awareness of his or her situation.  The protagonist has a passive reaction to the provocation caused by their situation. Finally, concrete narrative events are just representations of the greater crisis of the world that the character inhabits. (Kovacs 89, 90)  In this essay I will discuss how Sleep Dealer fits Kovacs' criteria of a modern melodrama.  I will also discuss how the same events in the film contribute to the theme of disconnectedness.

Sleep Dealers and Kovacs' modern melodrama.
“The bigger power in modern melodrama is represented by something that is stronger not by its presence buy by it's absence.”(Kovacs 89)
In Sleep Dealer the “greater power” is not some singular enemy that we can pin point, rather it is the general societal situation that the protagonist inhabits.  In the world of Sleep Dealer corporations have taken over water supplies, and people's labour is exploited using dangerous technology.  In Sleep Dealer, the bigger power is the unchangeable societal situation, where Memo has to face “ existential lack of these positive values.”(Kovacs 90)  Some examples of this lack of values are when he first arrives in Tijuana he is robbed.  After that he gets a job, but the labour practices are exploitive.  Even his relationship with the girl is temporarily ruined when he feels he is being used by her.  All of his money is being sent back to his family, so he can't even enjoy that.  All of these things add to the fact that there is a positive values in his world.  The Greater Power in Sleep Dealer is a lack of hope and connection to people and the fruit of his labour.

       The protagonist Memo was born after the damn was built, and his community (Santa Ana) was left dependent on a corporation for it's water.  Memo never knew any other situation, unlike his father, who live before the damn was build.  For Memo “Santa Ana was a trap. dry, dusty, disconnected.”.  Memo had the sense the community was futureless and he pined for a more interesting life, and he felt no connection to the land that provided for him.  Memo's father on the other hand, was angry about the damn and longed for the old days, when he was allowed to provide for himself and his family with the fruit of his own labour.  After Memo's father dies, Memo moves to Tijuana to find work as a remote labourer and succeeds, with the help of a young writer.  He works as a remote labourer and supports his family and he now has what he wanted, to live in the city and have a more interesting life.  Despite having what he wants, his life is still hopeless, because the of lack of job advancement and the fact that the technology used slowly makes its users blind.  In Kovacs' book he describes one aspect of modern melodrama:
“We talk about modern intellectual melodrama when the protagonist finds herself in front of an existential situation that she cannot understand, and this lack of understanding provokes passivity, suffering and anxiety.”(Kovacs 89)
The father, because he has memories from before the situation was so hopeless, he recognizes the lack of positive values in his world.  In other word because he has memories of positive values he sees the nonbeing of these values, he recognizes the nothingness.  In this film we can clearly see that Memo dose not understand his situation, in the film he never seems to consider the unfairness of his situation because he has known nothing else.  Memo does not recognize his situation, as a result he feels bored, hopeless and anxiety.  Sleep Dealer fit into Kovacs' definition of a modern melodrama Because Memo Doesn't understand his situation.

       Kovacs says that in a classical melodrama Characters react at first but then “abandon themselves to pure emotional suffering”(Kovacs 89). In the case of modern melodrama he says that: “The reaction of modern melodramatic heroes to the provocation of the environment is even more passive.”(Kovacs 89)

Memo clearly fits into the archetype of a modern melodramatic hero.  When faced with the provocation of his world he does nothing in response, because there is nothing he can do.  Memo simply moves through his world not responding to provocations physically.  The forces that are causing the conflict are far to insurmountable for him to even consider doing anything in retaliation.  Memo is face with several provocations most notably when: father is killed, he is robbed, the working condition at his are exploitive.  His response to all these provocations are completely passive.  At the end of the film Memo is track down by the remorseful pilot who killed his father and the pilot want to make amens.  The pilot with the help from Memo damages the Damn in Santa Ana letting water through.  Memo plays a passive role in this plan, he merely allows the pilot to do it, and once it's done it is clear that very little will change in the long run.  Sleep Dealer fits Kovacs' idea of a modern melodrama because Memo reacts passively to the provocations he faces.

       The event that triggers the narrative in Sleep Dealer is when Memo's father is killed by an american military aircraft that bombs their house.  Kovacs says that in a modern melodrama:
“No matter what concrete event triggers the narrative action, it is but a superficial manifestation of a deeper and more general crisis for which no immediate physical reaction is possible.”(Kovacs 89)
      The Inciting incident in Sleep Dealer (the fathers death) is representative of the greater crisis in the world being represented.  Namely the marginalization and oppression of mexico and it's people by america and corporations.  This crisis also brings with it the existential consequences: hopelessness, anxiety, etc. Furthermore there is no possible physical reaction to either Memo's fathers death or the greater societal crisis.  This further show that Sleep Dealer fit into Kovacs' description of a modern melodrama.

Disconnectedness and Nothingness
       One of the themes of Sleep Dealer is the idea of disconnectedness, this idea is manifested in the protagonist Memo.  At the start of the film Memo feels bored and disconnected from the world, and he blames that fact that he lives in rural mexico.  After he moves to the city he meets a girl who he forms a  connection with but he later finds that it was partly contrived by the girl because she was using Memo to sell memories.  so even though he moved to the city he is still not able to form real human connection.  Another aspect of the film that reinforces the theme of disconnection is his job.  At Memo's job he works for hours on end and when he is finished there is very little tangible reward and  Much of his money goes to supporting his family.  The only thing to show for his hard work is his slowly degrading vision.  This theme of disconnectedness is related to nothingness in that Disconnectedness is an absence of connection.  This theme relates to Kovacs idea of nothingness in modern cinema.

Keifer Wiseman
Ryerson University
(CPHL 710 - Summer 2011 - Instructor: Hudson Moura)

Nothingness as the human experience of being

Alex Rivera’s 2008 film Sleep Dealer has everything to do with nothing. Or to put it more precisely, the film delves deeply into the philosophical topic of nothingness. Utilizing the conflict of connection (in the form of technology) versus alienation, Rivera exposes audiences to the inescapable nothingness that permeates our human existence. Whether the protagonist Memo is alienated from technology in his remote village of Santa Ana or connected using the latest technology in Tijuana, he is still faced with overwhelming amounts of nothingness.

But what is nothingness? How does one describe something that is not?
Kovac’s Genre in Modern Cinema draws attention to three of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas about nothingness. The first is that nothingness is “a product of human intentions and at the same time the essence of being” (Kovacs, p. 92). As such, nothingness is a central part of our world, and it is inescapable.

The second principle is that nothingness is born of unmet expectations, or the “non-being of something that should be” (Kovacs, p.92). Human expectations, frustrations and memory are the creators of nothingness.

The final Sartrian idea is the notion that nothingness is freedom. Nothingness is “an empty moment in the world where man is liberated from his past and must choose” (Kovacs, p. 93). The nothingness as the gap between what was and what could be creates the opportunity to make a choice.

Sleep Dealer encompasses all three of these Sartrian ideas. Because nothingness is a central element of human existence, Memo can never escape it, whether he is alienated from or connected with technology.
The nothingness is first presented when Memo is alienated from technology. To be alienated is to be absent. Prior to Memo’s migration to Tijuana, technology, the fast-paced lifestyle of the city, work, and etc. are all absent from his life. There’s a nothingness in their place and this nothingness presents a gap.
Furthermore, this nothingness exists because Memo has created an expectation of what could be were he not alienated. While still in Santa Ana, he uses amateur hacking skills to overhear the conversations of various node workers around the world. From these slivers of conversation, he paints a fantasy image of how being connected with the technology of the big cities will provide him with everything he has ever wanted. It is through these fantasies that he is aware of their “non-being” in his own life. He does not have nodes, nor is he living in a bustling city or working as a node worker. In their place is a great nothingness.

And in this gap he has the freedom to choose. Will he stay in Santa Anna or will he move to the city?
Ultimately, an even greater nothingness – the loss of his father at the hands of
military node worker – stimulates Memo to choose to move to Tijuana and get connected. There is an irony here; Memo moves to Tijuana to fill a gap created by technology through using technology. Technology is both the cause and the solution for the nothingness. It is inescapable. 

The inescapability of the nothingness becomes even more apparent when Memo moves to Tijuana and gets his nodes. Although he has filled the absence of technology in his life, he finds even more absences in its place, i.e. the absence of: meaningfulness/satisfaction in what he does, contact with his work and connection with others.

Again, the absence of meaningfulness/satisfaction is due to an unmet expectation. As it turns out, being a node worker is not the fulfilling career choice Memo had dreamed it to be. In fact, his whole endeavour to get connected was terribly disappointing; he gets mugged by the first “coyotek” he attempts to do business with, he works 12-hour night shifts to the point of exhaustion and he does not even have a proper home to retire to at night. And in the end, all of these sacrifices are for nothing.
Memo’s job as a node worker is loaded with nothingness. At the start of every shift, Memo plugs into his personal terminal and puts on his contact lenses. He no longer sees the factory environment where he really is or the other node workers standing beside him. He simply becomes surrounded by nothingness. Although he operates a robot that exists in another real location, there is an absence of contact with the environment in which he works. Once plugged in, he could be in California, or China, or anywhere, without ever actually being there. Furthermore, the robots operated by node-workers such as Memo bear little semblance to humans. They look and operate like robots. In effect, there is a complete absence of humanity when Memo plugs into his terminal and becomes a robot.

But the final and most ironic way in which Memo encounters nothingness in Tijuana is in the absence of connectedness. The very technology that was meant to cross borders and connect people actually serves to alienate them. For example, Luz states that the whole reason she became a “writer” (or rather a memory merchant) was to promote connectedness. But in recording Memo’s story and selling it, she actually alienates herself from him – as seen from Memo’s rather negative reaction when he discovers her true motives for spending time with him. The military node worker Rudy serves as another example of how technology removed the connectedness it was supposed to promote; rather than connecting him to his country and the people he is supposed to protect, the technology has alienated him from them to the extent that they become nothing more than targets – as in the case of Memo’s father. Lastly, Memo also experiences the lack of connectedness in his factory job, as described earlier. The very nothingness that incited the need for technology is the same nothingness that the technology promotes.

Throughout the movie, the audience comes to realize that the true conflict of the film is not alienation versus connection, but alienation versus alienation, or nothingness versus nothingness. In the film, the pervasiveness of nothingness is much more powerful than the characters’ abilities to fill it. In watching the film, audiences realize that the same is true of reality and that there will always be more nothingness than can be filled. Overall, Rivera successfully captures how central nothingness is the human experience of being. 

Jessica Tremblay
Ryerson University

(CPHL 710 - Summer 2011 - Instructor: Hudson Moura)

Node Life: Nothingness and Sleep Dealer

Technology has changed our lives greatly. We no longer use it just to aid us at our jobs, but rather, in many cases today, technology is the one that completes our jobs for us. Our lives have greatly become dependent on technology. With this dependency however, consequences have resulted. One main downfall of our lives revolving around technology is human alienation. The central theme of Sleep Dealer is the widely spread yet increasingly invisible prevalence of alienation in the world today that questions the affect of the relationship between man and technology.

Memo Cruz, the protagonist in this film, lives with his family in the small village of Santa Ana del Rio in Mexico. This small farming village is the kind of place that seems to be frozen in time in itself and the people living there. The only one who doesn’t blend with this frozen mould is the hi-tech, militarized dam that controls Santa Ana’s water supply. Memo doesn’t care about his town. He loves technology and dreams of working in the hi-tech industry in the big cities. One night, while playing around with his radio, Memo stumbles across something he’s never heard before; the communications of the security forces that are patrolling the area around his village to protect the dam. Unfortunately, security agents have spotted Memo’s radio intercept and concluded that it is a threat. Memo is then forced to realize his dream of leaving Santa Ana in the worst possible way when his house is destroyed in a remote-control bombing. Driven by feelings of guilt and the need to earn money to support his family, Memo leaves to the big city to find work and help his family start again. He heads to Tijuana to only end up losing himself to the “node” world. Once connected to the net, workers are able to earn money by working in factories where they build skyscrapers, care for children and the like without having to cross the border.  Alex Rivera’s, Sleep Dealer simply imagines a world of vanished identity and virtual everything where the mood is lonely and abandoned.
Alex Rivera’s artistic purpose is to show the dramatic character in a situation that lacks humanistic values which in return makes him suffer and become lonely. This lack is ultimately the reason for Memo’s unhappiness. Rivera has created a thriller of the vanishing: the character’s vanished ability to depend on themselves as their lives seem to be controlled by the modernization around them has become the source of their own suffering. Memo knows what he’s lacking but he can’t help it disappear. In the opening scene we see how Memo deeply wishes his family would leave his small village and move to the city for a better life style. His emptiness and loneliness make him a victim in this film. The dynamics of emptiness make “nothingness” the ultimate explanatory tool for Memo’s situation.
“Emptiness” or “nothingness” is an existential situation that is within him but functions as a “disease” of which he is not the cause of and can’t fight against. The title of this movie already gives an idea of disappearance of humane elements and identity. The plot is built upon a series of disappearances. First we learn that Memo’s village lacks water supply. Then we discover that Memo lacks any interest of wanting to stay in his town. Memo then loses his father after his house was bombed, forcing him to flee to the city. Then we see that after he gets his “node” job, he begins to lose his energy and self to the technology. Memo also loses his trust in Luz when he discovers that she is selling her memories of him online. The ending of the story shows that despite the village having gained its water supply back, Memo refuses to go back, enforcing the idea that he has lost his identity to his “node” self or in other words, technology.
The concept of nothingness developed by Jean-Paul Sartre is an important one in this film. The main aspect of nothingness is that it’s not only recognized when something is missing from what exists but rather it is linked to it. Nothingness has become the central concept of existentialist philosophy (Kovacs, 2008). Nothingness has become a key player in the relationship of man to the world or in this film, Sleep Dealer, man to technology. Nothingness is a series of everyday situations where man is alone, disappointed by his beliefs and expectations, desperately looking for something solid in a situation where his own identity is called into question (Kovacs, 2008). Throughout the film Memo questions why his family is staying where they are despite their poor living conditions. He is lonely in this world which is why he spends his days and nights with his technological toys. This gives him a place to run to, a place for him to let himself be, a place where he can try to find himself and understand who he is and what he is about. Him being lonely and feeling as if he belonged somewhere else is in essence the foundation of his being, of his existence as we later discover in the film. His love for technology was the cause of his father’s death yet it also saved his small village as it supplied them with water.
Nothingness is the Sleep Dealer is a human memory.  All expectations, all disappointments and all memories are tied to concrete contents (Kovacs, 2008). In Sleep Dealer, we see many flashbacks of Memo’s memories from his small village. By closely looking at these images, most of these flashbacks show images of an empty village, a waterless, deserted, lifeless and most importantly a “kingless” one. By seeing these images with those missing elements, nothingness is produced by their absence.  We also see this concept in the supporting actress. She too left home without a plan and is now empty on the inside. She introduces herself to Memo as an inspiring writer which we later discover her “writing” is not the conventional writing we know about. Rather, it is all about her memories being recorded and uploaded to the virtual net to be purchased. This shows that even the one thing she stands by and the reason why she left home has lost its reason. When someone finally showed interest in one of her uploads, that of her encounter with Memo, things brighten up for her and she sees some purpose to her “writing”. When she also learns about Memo’s family and what his father did to support them, she asked him “how did it feel like to work with something so... real?”, to which he responds with; “I guess I never really thought about it.” This again shows how the character is accepting his loneliness and is sinking more into misery as he begins to realize what he has abounded, a life that was much better and closer to the heart than this “node” life.     

From another perspective, nothingness can also be positive in the sense that it is an empty moment in the world. Between what happened to Memo and what can change in the future in empty space that Memo can shape and control its outcome.  In other words, nothingness is freedom. “In freedom man invalidates past and creates his own nothingness... Nothingness is freedom intercalated between past and future.” Nothingness created by free of choice obligates man to make a choice. After his father’s death, Memo felt responsible for what had happened to his father and decided to flee his village and find work in the city to support his family. In the city, Memo is presented as a lonely man, freed from his past to a certain degree, but forced to choose and to look out for himself. He begins to work in a factory environment in Mexico. There, they don’t make products, however, they connect their bodies to a network that allows them to control machines in America.  What the director Alex Rivera is trying to establish is this cause and effect. As the character move is this far away place, the machine moves in America is some sort of “puppetry” scenario. He is trying to make the audience see and feel how this futuristic, alienated worker, which in a lot of ways is the same way many people feel like today.  In the sense that there are people who live in the shadows, a ghost work force, like that of unrecognizable workers in our society or those who work in the outsourcing fields.
Modern art cinema tells stories about the “individual” who has lost his or her contact with the surrounding world. This film tells the story about the lonely, alienated, suppressed and helpless man who is faced with repressive forces of the exterior world. The happy ending is unexpected as it happens by chance and even then the main character was not freed from his “nothingness”. The bigger power is represented by something that is stronger not by its presence but by its absence. Memo found himself faced with an existential situation that he couldn’t understand, and this lack of understanding provoked loneliness, suffering, and anxiety. In the ending of the film however, this “modern authentic individual” accepted nothingness as the fundamental aspect of his freedom and gave up the search for traditional metaphysical values as he decided to stay in the big city and continue to work as his “node” self. The concept of “nothingness” has shaped his new self and the world around him.

Ola Jayzeh Al-Hallak 
Ryerson University

(CPHL 710 - Summer 2011 - Instructor: Hudson Moura)