Tag Archives: lagging the popgeist

Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands (Denmark 2004) [415]

It’s taken me some time to get around to screening this second installment of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy— a mistake on my part, it turns out, because this is a crime film that demonstrates perfectly what a “genre picture” can do to achieve psychological depth. Given Refn’s reputation for on-screen violence, Pusher II is relatively reserved in terms of punches thrown and weapons fired. Instead the film builds to an increasingly inevitable violent climax, though the image the audience is left with speaks to a sense of fragile optimism. Mads Mikkelsen plays Tonny, a somewhat slow-witted, even child-like, criminal who is treated with barely concealed contempt by those around him. That he sports a skull tattoo of the word “respect” emphasizes his plight; Tonny gets respect from no one, whether it’s the junkie who claims he has fathered her son or his own father, the calculating leader of a car theft ring. Pusher II thus focuses on cruelty and intimacy, and in particular meditates on the pain and disappointment of family relationships that have been instrumentalized. The Duke, Tonny’s father, for example, holds Tonny to a debt he didn’t incur, demanding that he kill The Duke’s ex-wife (Tonny’s stepmother) to square things. Refn establishes Tonny’s vulnerability and bewilderment by tightly framing Mikkelsen’s wounded though artfully controlled facial expressions. But, again, it is the final sequence that underscores Tonny’s emotional nakedness. Having taken the infant that may or may not be his biological son, Tonny boards a street car. Seated against a black window streaked by street lights, the child on his lap, he looks forward out of frame. The identification of this new father with his son is asserted by a visual parallel between Tonne’s shaved head and the hairless baby.

The trailer below promotes the Pusher Trilogy as a whole:


Jesus Camp

Gallup polls suggest that 39% of Americans (out of 311,892,000) identify as evangelical christians, which translates into roughly 121,637,880 million people. Given the rise of the Christian Right in the United States, particularly since the 1960s, that religious identity constitutes a very significant political force. As we’ve seen with the Bush administration, the Christian Right has jettisoned any doubts about participating in the “fallen” world of secular politics.

It is in this context that the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp ought to be viewed. Briefly, the film follows several kids who attend the Kids on Fire School of Ministry. Though the film eschews a voice-over which would explicitly direct our response to the film, the editing– particularly the sequences which counterpoint the indoctrination of young children with on-air remarks by Mike Papantonio, a Christian talk radio host– clarifies the sympathies of the film-makers.  Papantonio clearly grasps civil institutions such as the separation of church and state and is exceedingly wary of the sort of evangelism which proselytizes pre-adolescents in order to imprint them with a set of religious views which are ultimately the source of political activism.

In my view the documentary represents a subculture which is, frankly, terrifying. Generally speaking, religion is based not on reason but in revelation– i.e. the evidence of things not seen. If a person simply believes strenuously enough then s/he belongs within the community of the faithful. Yes it’s true that earlier christian such as Thomas Aquinas attempted to conjoin spiritual belief and Aristotelian philosophy. Yet by and large the amazingly fragmented protestant sects present in the modern United States have tended to marginalize even the scientific method where it seems to conflict with faith. Thus the denial of climate change, a political project funded with millions by Exxon Mobil and other vested interests,* like skepticism about the principle of biological evolution, mesh somewhat seamlessly with a worldview governed not by the demands of empiricism but by strength of feeling.

You can watch Jesus Camp on netflix (instant view) or at


*Between 2005 and 2008 Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries, a petroleum and chemical company ranked second behind Cargill as a privately run US business, donated $8.9 million dollars and $24.9 million dollars respectively to organisations involved with challenging the science and politics of climate change. According to Greenpeace, “Koch industries’….funding of the climate denial machine… through a combination of foundation-funded front groups, big lobbying budgets… and direct campaign contributions makes Koch industries…amongst the most formidable obstacles to advancing clean energy and climate policy in the US”. (See http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=705&issue=129)

Lagging the Popgeist: Avatar

Avatar is well-suited for ideology criticism, and though I’ve not read many reviews of it (with the notable exception of Zizek’s, who apparently did not see the film before publishing an article in New Statesman) James Cameron’s blockbuster solicits us to flex our critical skills in order to excavate its “hidden content.”

The PG-13 rating, of course, was unavoidable, and largely an economic decision, though one that reflects a general tendency in American cinema to appeal to the pubescent in all of us. CGI-heavy films are expensive, and thus require large audiences to realize a hefty enough profit. This is why you’ll never see a Cameron-style spectacle rated NC-17, except, perhaps, as a director’s cut. To date, Avatar has grossed $2,772,605,563 world-wide, or over 10 times its $237 million budget.

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This weekend I watched Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Odds are it won’t be out for long, and because of the film’s extremely limited release you might consider watching it now while you can. Franco nails his character, particularly in the sequences representing Ginsberg’s interview and his reading of the poem “Howl.” All of Ginsberg’s charming verbal ticks– the nasal, incantatory drone of his elocutionary style, his tendency to toss out phrases and images in conversation in order to make a point– are referenced in this performance. Franco– whom a friend, on seeing Freaks and Geeks, once described as “alternately repulsive and hot”–  seems to have a genuine intellectual dimension, and for this reason– coupled with his apparent commitment to the roles he plays– he appeals to audiences who like to think about film.

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