Appropriation Art and Walker Evans

Photograph of Barack Obama incorrectly identified as source of Shepard Fairey print

Appropriation Art appears to be the topic du jour. Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer devoted two posts to what James Danziger had called “the biggest photographic mystery of the 2008 [US] election”: who took the original photograph that Shepard Fairey used as the source for the Obama HOPE prints? [edited for clarity] Reading the first TOP post, James Danziger Finds the Source of ‘HOPE’, my immediate response was: “No way!” Facial expression, eyeline, tilt of the head, curve of the mouth: all different. How could a visually literate person imagine the Obama print was based on that photograph?

The following day, another TOP post, The Actual ‘Hope’ Poster Photographer, revealed that the LazyWeb had found (via Google Image Search) a far more likely source image and that Tom Gralish had identified the photographer as Mannie Garcia, a freelancer who took the picture while working as a stringer for the Associated Press. Tom recapped the whole saga in A Last Word – HOPEfully – and Updates on the Obama Poster Photo Mystery.

Photograph of Barack Obama by Mannie Garcia identified as source of Shepard Fairey print

Although James Danziger obliquely admitted his error, of much greater interest was the completely polarized comment thread on his original post about whether Fairey’s use of the original photograph constituted fair use or plagiarism.

Some commenters saw no problem in Fairey’s reworking of Garcia’s photograph, others argued his print was a derivative work and therefore a breach of copyright, many were appalled at what they termed “theft”, a couple of them linking to a trenchant critique by Mark Vallen titled Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey, which suggests that Fairey has developed a profitable livelihood exclusively based on pilfering the artworks of others.

Apparently the Associated Press believes that Fairey has pilfered their artwork because on February 4, 2009 they issued the following press release:

The Associated Press has determined that the photograph used in the poster is an AP photo and that its use required permission. AP safeguards its assets and looks at these events on a case-by-case basis. We have reached out to Mr. Fairey’s attorney and are in discussions. We hope for an amicable solution.

Mike Johnston contacted Carolyn E. Wright, who wrote the Photographer’s Legal Guide and blogs as Photo Attorney. In response, she wrote a post about the case, summing up her position as: Therefore, would I take this case as an infringement? Yep, in a heartbeat.

Earlier in January TOP had linked to a post titled Richard Prince Sued For–What Else?–Appropriating Photographs, in which Greg Allen described a copyright infringement suit filed against Prince (as well as dealer Larry Gagosian and publisher Rizzoli) by photographer Patrick Cariou, who claims that works in Prince’s Canal Zone exhibition and book are copies of Cariou’s photographs of Rastafarians from Cariou’s book Yes Rasta .

Richard Prince, Back to the Garden, 2008

Richard Prince, Back to the Garden, 2008

Allen argued, I thought persuasively, that Cariou’s lawsuit has little chance of succeeding:

Collaging and reworking and changes in format, size, medium and styles, they’re all transformative creative techniques that were directly addressed in the 2005-6 case, Blanch vs. Koons, where the same court [the US Southern District] found that Jeff Koons did not infringe Andrea Blanch’s copyright when he collaged a pair of legs from her photograph–published in a 2000 issue of Allure magazine–in a painting. Blanch lost on appeal, too.

Prince’s process means his works, like Koons’s, will almost certainly be declared transformative, not derivative works, and as such, they’re fair use, not infringing…

Picasso's mixed media collage, Guitar

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1913

As with the Obama HOPE controversy, some commenters at The Online Photographer agreed with Greg Allen’s analysis, others (for example, Zlatko) were outraged:

What Prince does is morally reprehensible. It is like copying someone else’s homework. It was wrong in school. It is wrong in the business world. And it should be wrong in the art world.

I’m not a huge Richard Prince fan but I can see that his work fits comfortably within a tradition of Appropriation art that probably started a long time before Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubist collages of 1912 and 1913. If pressed, I’d probably agree that Fairey’s techniques are sufficiently transformative to constitute fair use. But my opinion counts for a lot less than Carolyn E. Wright’s, so it will be fascinating to see how the Associated Press vs Shepard Fairey dispute is resolved. In any case, I’d argue that Shepard Fairey is a much less interesting artist than Richard Prince.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, Untitled, 1981

After reading all those vehement comments about plagiarism and theft, I couldn’t help asking myself: “If they feel that strongly about Prince and Fairey, how would they react to Sherrie Levine? She simply rephotographs famous photographs, paintings, and drawings then presents the copies as her own (copyrighted) work, with no transformative intervention at all!”

For one of her earliest and best-known “pieces”, Levine copied–from the book Walker Evans: First and Last–the portrait Evans made of Allie Mae Burroughs in Hale County, Alabama in 1936. The photograph, as it appears on page 73 of the Walker Evans book, measures 7.5 x 9.5 inches, the size of a contact print from the original 8 x 10 negative.

I haven’t been able to determine the size of the copy that Levine exhibited but my guess is that she would have printed it exactly the same size. If not, apart from a change in size, there was no collaging or reworking, nor any changes in format, medium, or style. But then, that was Levine’s entire point: to make an exact copy and to claim that copy as her own original (copyrighted) work.

This would be a joke were it not for the fact that After Walker Evans is so widely admired. Astonishingly, the International Center of Photography included Levine in a show last year called Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art:

The issues surrounding postmodernist appropriation, and critiques of authorship and aura, are central to Sherrie Levine’s daring, seminal deconstruction of the modernist myths of originality in many of her refabrications of well-known works by a gallery of male artistic eminences. Levine’s After Walker Evans (1981) is controversial because its principal conceptual strategy goes beyond simple appropriation: it bluntly challenges the authenticity of a work of art, the nature of authorship itself, and the sanctity of copyrighted material. Levine’s rephotographing of Walker Evans’s Farm Security Administration images was a deliberate provocation, both in its straightforward archival referencing, confounding likeness and resemblance, and, more profoundly, in the silent power of its analysis of the somber fetishization of impoverishment. The reference works Levine examines are the iconic images–from portraits to architecture–produced by Evans in the American South among white rural tenant farmers during the Depression. In a single cut, one is able to go from Evans’s documentary photographs, with implications of their ethnographic content writ large, to the very nature of their treatment by Levine as so much archival artifact. In other words, Evans may be the photographer of these works but not the singular author of the social and cultural phenomenon that engendered them. Looming over the field of representation in which the images of the tenant farmers and their families are contained is a cultural Weltanschauung, one which belongs to the archival memory of the American Depression of the 1930s. However, After Walker Evans deviates from this concern by slightly deframing the images within the landscape of modernist originality.

Alternatively, one could regard Levine’s appropriation of Evan’s work as juvenile feminist+postmodernist posturing. For although Levine’s After Walker Evans is hailed for challenging “the sanctity of copyrighted material”, the photograph she appropriated–which Evans took while working for the Farm Security Administration–is in the public domain and can therefore be copied and reproduced without restriction. As already noted, however, Levine claims copyright protection for her rephotographed version.

We’re in a hall of mirrors. In an essay titled An Attempt to Understand the Copy Artists’ Works in Terms of Ethics, Rifat Şahiner writes:

Some of Levine’s works contain the photographs of the works of some famous 19th-century [sic] photographers such as Edward Weston (portraits of his son Neil) and Eliot Porter (the landscapes). She, in her artistic appropriation, challenges the notion of the proprietary nature of the imagination. It is true that Weston created that image, but why should he maintain eternal possession of it? Why should that bit of “ideal” estate be forever turned into a representational sanctuary, fenced off for future use or speculation? The fences are in mind only. Anyone can copy. The troubling question is why won’t people appreciate as an equal the copy of the copy, when they appreciate the original which itself must be a copy?

Şahiner then adds:

To make things even more puzzling, Rosalind Krauss, in her defense of Levine, tells us that Levine’s activity is no more parasitic than Weston’s. He, after all, Krauss concludes, was borrowing the classic forms of order and representation of the past. Moreover, Weston with his camera produced an image, or copy, of something that had been constructed. Thus, Levine’s copy is nothing but the copy of a copy.

Hence, one can conclude that Levine’s photographic replicas challenge the status of the (typically male) artist as mythic genius.

But how is Weston, in alluding to the forms of classical sculpture in his photographs of his son Neil, copying “something that had been constructed”? After all, he’s not photographing a classical sculpture–he’s photographing his son. The explanation, according to Structuralist theory, is that:

the individuality of the text disappears in favor of looking at patterns, systems, and structures. Some structuralists (and a related school of critics, called the Russian Formalists) propose that ALL narratives can be charted as variations on certain basic universal narrative patterns.

In this way of looking at narratives, the author is canceled out, since the text is a function of a system, not of an individual. The Romantic humanist model holds that the author is the origin of the text, its creator, and hence is the starting point or progenitor of the text. Structuralism argues that any piece of writing, or any signifying system, has no origin, and that authors merely inhabit pre-existing structures (langue) that enable them to make any particular sentence (or story)–any parole. Hence the idea that “language speaks us,” rather than that we speak language. We don’t originate language; we inhabit a structure that enables us to speak; what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of some of the elements in the pre-existing system. Hence every text, and every sentence we speak or write, is made up of the “already written.”

I’m hardly unsympathetic to the idea that “language speaks us” for, after all, isn’t language the house in which we dwell? Yet even if “what we (mis)perceive as our originality is simply our recombination of some of the elements in the pre-existing system”, isn’t it also true that some recombinations are infinitely more beautiful/poignant/disturbing/revealing than others? Or, to put it a different way: all recombinations may be equal, but some are certainly more equal than others.

Şahiner also quotes a remark Levine made in an interview in 1993: It is something artists do all the time unconsciously, working in the style of someone they consider a great master. I just wanted to make that relationship literal.

To the contrary, “working in the style of someone they consider a great master” is something artists do consciously all the time. This is often refered to as working within a particular tradition. Jackson Browne’s song, For a Dancer, describes the process poetically:

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp quotes a well-known letter Mozart wrote to a friend: People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to compositions as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times. Tharp then cites the example of an acquaintance who taught himself the craft of fiction by retyping the stories of his favorite authors. She notes that Raymond Chandler and Marcel Proust followed a similar path.

Chandler believed Hemingway to be the greatest American novelist of his time and he wrote imitations of Hemingway’s style to absorb what he loved about it. Proust went further, spending twelve years translating and annotating the writing of English art historian John Ruskin. He also wrote a series of articles for Le Figaro imitating the styles of such nineteenth-century literary figures as Balzac and Flaubert.

The How We Work entry on writer Ethan Canin makes this process more explicit by linking to Canin’s explanation of how he copied John Cheever paragraphs out to learn what made the man (and his writing tick):

In my creative writing class I decided that I would write like John Cheever, that I would seek those elongated phrases, those elided leaps into the world of ardor and transcendence and unearthed human longing that shone in his stories like gems beneath a stream. How far superior this raw emotion seemed to me. How much more profound and complex a truth.

In Cheever I found rejuvenation, found his unbridled emotion electrifying. I began typing out some of Cheever’s great paragraphs…

I suppose this was as important an exercise as I have ever performed.

I discovered two things: first, that Cheever’s great, epiphanic leaps were almost invariably preceded (and followed, it turned out) by paragraphs that accumulated small, accurate detail. Initially, this seemed like a profoundly important discovery to me. I could absolutely engage the fever pitch of emotion that had seduced me into writing in the first place, so long as I balanced it with large amounts of pedestrian observation. I went back to the stories I had written and added detail, surrounded my epiphanies with line after line of small-scale particulars.

But this alone did not make what I’d written much better, and it was here that I made my second, although admittedly in Cheever’s case, unproved discovery: that the progression from detail to epiphany is not a technique used merely for its effect on the reader, but that this method is in fact how a writer discovers his own material.

Citing her own artistic practice, Twyla Tharp describes how as a beginning dancer she studied photographs of the female pioneers of dance: Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, and Martha Graham.

I could read their movement vocabulary from those photographs, keeping what was useful to me and ignoring what wasn’t… I was trying to absorb how their bodies worked, taking their movement potential out of their bodies and imprinting it on my own, just as I did every day in class as I worked in the footsteps of great dancers.

Why am I writing at such length about this? Wouldn’t my time and effort be better spent in studying particular Walker Evans photographs and making pictures myself? I guess so. But the disconnect between ideology and actuality in After Walker Evans really bugs me.

  • To illustrate the pernicious influence of copyright Levine used a photograph that is in the public domain;
  • The “unconscious” relationship she wanted to “make literal” is widely understood and has been practiced consciously for centuries;
  • Evans, the photographer she chose as an exemplar of the “(typically male) artist as mythic genius” actively supported and encouraged Helen Levitt: acting as a mentor as she was starting in photography; offering feedback on her portfolio; sharing darkrooms with her; lending her cameras (and, on one occasion, money); introducing her to the right-angle mirror attachment with which she would make many of her celebrated photographs of New York street life; writing the introduction to marvelous eponymous book. In 1948 he described Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson (and himself) as the only photographers with something original to say–hardly a stirling example of the “patriarchal oppressor”.

Ultimately After Walker Evans is neither useful nor enlightening, since the only admirable qualities of the work are those inherent in Evans’s original photograph. Moreover its aesthetic nihilism insults his substantial achievements and demeans the tradition of learning from one’s creative ancestors then integrating those lessons into one’s own practice.

Happily, since irony–as Dave Rogers saysis the fifth fundamental force of the universe anyone wishing to see the work of a truly accomplished appropriation artist need look no further than… Walker Evans.

Disintegrating poster on brick wall for J.C. Lincoln's Sunny South Minstrel show

Walker Evans, Minstrel Showbill, Alabama, 1936

Dry Cleaning advertisment showing tailor's dummy in dress jacket

Walker Evans, Outdoor Advertising Sign, Louisiana, 1935

Torn movie poster showing man and woman embracing and looking camera left

Walker Evans, Torn Movie Poster, Massachusetts, 1931

Snapshots pinned to wall: one of an elderly woman, the other of four children sitting on the ground

Walker Evans, Family Snapshots on Farmhouse Wall, Alabama, 1936

Engraving of middle-aged man viewed through window with plant in lower right

Walker Evans, Political Poster, Massachusetts, 1929

Outdoor furniture store billboard showing family in living room

Walker Evans, Furniture Store Billboard, Alabama, 1936

Hundreds of passport-photo size portraits in a window with the word 'Studio' painted on the glass

Walker Evans, Penny Picture Display, Alabama, 1936

Cotoneaster Berries

Red Cotoneaster berries on brown soil

Campbelltown, 1984

Petals

Red and wilted white gardenia petals on grass

Windsor, 1984

Travelling on Foot

Cover of Herzog on Herzog, showing tight head shot of the director

In my teenage years, desperate to bridge the gap between hope and fear, I would walk long distances. When I “should have been studying”, I would walk for hours. Perhaps, if I had been more willing to participate in team sports, I might have been too sore and weary to be so deeply troubled by hopes and fears. Yet I didn’t walk to become sore and weary so much as to escape from home, from school, from the Catholic Church. I had discovered the pleasure of solitude.

When I was a photographer, many of my self-assigned projects required walking. Sometimes I would travel light, with a Leica and two or three lenses. At other times, I would do it hard, lugging a 4×5 view camera, tripod, light meter, and film holders. I got the best results with a Hasselblad, 60mm and 100mm lenses, and a portable flash.

One successful project, inspired by a few Walker Evans pictures I’d seen, involved taking close-up pictures of the ground. I chose three outer Sydney suburbs — Campbelltown, Penrith, and Windsor — drawing circles 1.4km, 1.0km, and 0.7km in diameter respectively around the geographic center of each suburb on Army survey maps. I then plotted equidistant points around each circle: 7 for Windsor, 10 for Penrith, 14 for Campbelltown. Each weekend for months I would take the train to one of those suburbs, walk systematically around the perimeter I had established, and take photographs at the various plotted points. I lit the debris on the ground with a ringflash which, together with the 100mm Planar lens, produced a shadowless, flat picture plane in which every twig, pebble, cigarette butt, and blade of grass had equal weight.

In my heart I always knew that the pictures turned out well not because of my technical expertise but because of the distances I’d walked.

There’s no substitute, I had read somewhere (and discovered for myself), for being in and moving through the landscape.

After a long sojourn, I’ve recently come back to walking. Needing a new pair of trainers, I bought a pair of Garmont hiking shoes instead. And I started reading Herzog on Herzog, which had arrived in a recent Amazon order.

A couple of days ago I read Dave Rogers’ post (in which he wrote: I’ll walk Bodhi the usual amount today, something approaching ten miles or so), followed his pointer to Ethan Johnson’s weblog entry, A Man Who Walks, and thence to an earlier post about walking as a strategy for losing weight:

Here’s the news, for anyone who wishes to hear it: I don’t believe that weight loss solely through dieting is the answer. If you don’t make any other change to your lifestyle, you will see benefits (by and large) by walking 30 minutes a day, every day. As improvements are made, your brain and body will conspire to build momentum (and burn Omentum) and devise other ways to increase your activity and fitness level. I’m finding it harder to sit around idly, and prefer to be active. I walk outdoors at least once a day, but usually twice. I’m finding that walking allows me to think more clearly (and deeply) versus vegging out in front of the TV or reacting to the various stimuli available online.

That my (imagined) motivation for walking differs from Dave’s or Ethan’s matters little. Walking the dog, walking to lose weight, walking to make pictures… ultimately, our walking is a means of — as Herzog puts it — moving through [our] own inner landscapes.

Herzog on Herzog comprises a series of interviews, conducted by Paul Cronin, in which the legendary German filmmaker offers innumerable insights into the making of his extraordinary films and attempts to dispel the quite astonishing number of myths, rumors, and downright lies that have accumulated around Herzog over the course of his career.

I have seen many of Werner Herzog’s films at the cinema, starting with Signs of Life in 1971. A little over half of the 54 films he has made are available on DVD (I currently have 24 so I guess you could call me a fan). Reading Herzog on Herzog has then been an unalloyed pleasure. I vaguely knew that, on hearing of Lotte Eisner’s illness, he walked from Germany to her home in Paris but I didn’t realize that walking is fundamental to Herzog’s way of being in the world. Here are some excerpts…

The Importance of Travelling on Foot (p280)

Has travelling on foot always been very important to you?

Humans are not made to sit at computer terminals or travel by aeroplane; destiny intended something different for us. For too long now we have been estranged from the essential, which is the nomadic life: travelling on foot. A distinction must be made between hiking and travelling on foot. In today’s society — though it would be ridiculous to advocate travelling on foot for everyone to every possible destination — I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in my life on foot. If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it is clear that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose. For these things travel by car or aeroplane is not the right thing. The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.

Walking to Lotte Eisner (p281)

Your friendship with Lotte Eisner was so strong that when she fell ill you refused to let her die. You said German film just wasn’t ready for her death, that it still needed her. Was this the reason why you walked to Paris to see her, a voyage you wrote about in your book Of Walking on Ice?

In 1974 we German filmmakers were still fragile, and when a friend told me Lotte had suffered a massive stroke and I should get on the next plane to Paris, I made the decision not to fly. It was not the right thing to do, and because I just could not accept that she might die, I walked from Munich to her apartment in Paris. I put on a shirt, grabbed a bundle of clothes, a map and a compass, and set off in a straight line, sleeping under bridges, in farms and abandoned houses. I made only one detour to the town of Troyes because I wanted to walk into the cathedral there. I walked against her death, knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there. And that is just what happened. Lotte lived until the age of ninety or thereabouts, and years after the walk, when she was nearly blind, could not walk or read or go out to see films, she said to me, ‘Werner, there is still this spell cast over me that I am not allowed to die. I am tired of life. It would be a good time for me now.’ Jokingly I said, ‘OK, Lotte, I hereby take the spell away.’ Three weeks later she died.

When you travel on foot with this intensity, it is not a matter of covering actual ground, rather it is a question of moving through your own inner landscapes. I wrote a diary of the walk which I pulled out during the shooting of Nosferatu and decided to publish as Of Walking in Ice. I actually like the book more than my films; it is closer to my heart than all my films together, I think, because of the many compromises that filmmaking always entails.

Travelling to Film School, Alone, on Foot (p15)

Tell me about your ideal film school.

…vitally, aspiring filmmakers have to be taught that sometimes the only way of overcoming problems involves real physicality. Many great filmmakers have been astonishingly physical, athletic people. A much higher percentage than writers or musicians. Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you had travelled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.

I’ve written previously about the physicality of taking pictures (requiring a kind of athletic grace more akin to sports than making art) so Herzog’s words came as an affirmation. I sit in front of a computer too much. I’m better off walking — where I can think, feel, be in the world, make pictures, write essays in my mind…

Next on my reading list, after Herzog on Herzog: Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

300

As I sat in the theater a few nights ago with my friends, G and P, desperate for 300 to end, I kept thinking of John Robb’s description of the film as absolutely amazing… So unrelentingly great that it has earned a permanent place in my top 10 movies of all time.

Wherein lay the “greatness”, I wondered, and how had I managed to miss it?

Good works of art frequently provoke polarized responses. For example, James Rocchi’s review, cited in John Robb’s comments:

There are many reasons to see 300. Maybe you’re a 14-year old with a love of violent entertainment. Or you’re a classics professor who longs to get a splitting headache. Or possibly you’re an experimental gay pornographer, and want to see the newest techniques in ab-oiling. Perhaps you’re a special effects aficionado who’s curious about the state-of-the-art in faux decapitations and digitized blood spray. Or you’re a big fan of Frank Miller’s work, and Sin City just didn’t sate your appetite for writhing, speechless women, mutilated giants and two-dimensional tough guys. Speech pathologists may go to 300 to witness how the two-syllable word ‘Sparta’ can be quadrupled in length and extended even moreso with each bellowed repetition. Or, finally, maybe the phrase ‘moving pictures’ has always seemed a bit contradictory, and a movie that unfolds with the glacial pace of a series of oil paintings in a series of nearly-still images sounds soothing.

And this riposte, by Hale Seighton, in a comment on Rocchi’s review:

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, so here’s mine: You’re an idiot. That’s a pretty lame reason to deter people from seeing this. Because it’s a big-budget action movie!? Obviously you aren’t the target demographic and you’re apparently far superior to the troglodytes like me who occasionally enjoy a mindless action flick with a laughable plot… Maybe you should pull the coat rack outta yer hiney and just try to enjoy the visual effects, the character design, the art direction, jeez, at least the oiled muscular guys or any of the other things the film is actually good and are pushed in your face. Not everything can be a German art film with French subtitles.

I’m definitely not the target demographic but I occasionally enjoy a mindless action flick with a laughable plot. Apart from The Departed, the American film I enjoyed most last year was Snakes on a Plane.

John Robb conceded that Rocchi’s review was pretty funny, then added:

It’s certainly not fare palatable to the refined, urban ‘intellectuals’ who, by and large, make up the vast bulk of movie reviewers. It’s very visceral and therefore totally opaque to those that either lack or have lost the requisite nature.

By “requisite nature” I assume he means the capacity to respond emotionally or instinctively rather than intellectually.

I’m a “refined, urban intellectual” (or at least I’d like to think I am). Yet visceral films are not at all opaque to me. Among my favorites:

So I have no difficulty enjoying and appreciating films in which blood gushes, limbs are hacked off, and people are beaten, shot, impaled, pierced by arrows, or blown to smithereens. But I prefer that the violence serves to illuminate character or drive the narrative. A verbose description of the character development and narrative arc in 300 would fit on an arrowhead. Apart from a couple of moments of genuine emotion late in the film, all that I could perceive was unrelenting violence filmed with technical bravura.

Admittedly, I was briefly captivated by Larry Fong‘s silvery, desaturated images, the artful slow- and stop-motion photography which faithfully replicates Frank Miller’s two-dimensional graphic novel, and the remarkably effective use of bluescreen filming. But Zack Snyder’s more-is-more aesthetic philosophy proved simultaneously exhausting yet emotionally unsatisfying.

As the battle progressed, I began to wonder how just 300 Spartans managed to hold off a force of Persians estimated by contemporary historians to number about 200,000. The image that came to mind was of John Wayne killing fifteen Indians without reloading his six-shooter. So I was relieved to find an explanation by Professor Ephraim Lytle:

according to Herodotus, Leonidas led an army of perhaps 7,000 Greeks. These Greeks took turns rotating to the front of the phalanx stationed at Thermoplyae where, fighting in disciplined hoplite fashion, they held the narrow pass for two days.

The film reflects historical reality in one regard: Spartan women enjoyed greater autonomy and influence than in any other Greek city-state. But, given the film’s breathtaking indifference to any kind of political correctness, it seems reasonable to conclude that the commanding presence of Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo does not demonstrate deference to the new orthodoxy that all works of fiction should feature strong female characters but is simply a cynical manipulation of that part of the female audience who desire something more ideologically satisfying than 300 oiled muscular guys.

More troubling is the central deceit upon which 300 depends: the unrelenting heterosexuality of the Spartans.

Pederastic scene: erastes (lover) touching chin and genitals of the eromenos (beloved)

It’s not as though I expected any kind of accurate depiction of homosexual relationships between the Spartan soldiers. 300 is, after all, a Hollywood movie produced by a homophobic culture and aimed, as the Cinema de Merde review points out:

primarily at boys aged 14-25. The bulk of this movie is made up of shots of muscled men wearing leather thongs. More than that, the primary theme of the movie is the glory and admiration of masculinity. And a lot of 14-25 year old boys can be made distinctly uncomfortable by spending two hours admiring muscle guys in leather thongs. Therefore, if the studios want this movie to succeed with its intended audience, they need to find a way to make it really, really NOT GAY.

Asked about the 60 million dollar budget, Zack Snyder explained: I wanted to make an R-rated movie and I wanted to make Frank Miller’s version of 300 with no stars. You present the studio with that formula and they go, ‘That’s a lose/lose/lose situation.’ I’m proud that they gave me that much money.

An R-rated movie based on Frank Miller’s 300 with no stars and a special emphasis on the pederasty that was codified into Spartan law. Sounds like a lose/lose/lose/lose situation. No money for you.

But I wish that the Spartan heterosexuality hadn’t been fabricated at the expense of demeaning homosexual relationships:

  • the Athenians ridiculed as “philosophers and boy-lovers” (whereas as Professor Lytle writes, while the Spartans were defending the pass, a vastly outnumbered fleet led by Athenians was holding off the Persians in the straits adjacent to Thermopylae); and
  • Xerxes, the Persian king, depicted as an effete homosexual with eye shadow, facial piercings, and a ton of bling (rather than a general capable of raising and leading an army of several hundred thousand).

Why am I bothered by this? Isn’t it, after all, just a mindless action flick with a laughable plot? Because I’ve always loved stories that depict a struggle against insurmountable odds, because the Battle of Thermopylae is a great story about the nobility of defeat, and because 300 is such a mediocre rendering of that story.

In his Variety review, Todd McCarthy suggests that 300 could have used some overhead or otherwise orienting shots to clarify the geography, just as some visual grace notes expressing genuine human emotion, rather than just macho belligerence, would have helpfully expanded the film’s range of impact.

Two scenes towards the end of the film bear out that view, offering a glimpse of how, with more intelligent direction, 300 could have been infinitely better: the grief and regret expressed by Artemis, Leonidas’ loyal captain and friend, at the death of his son is deeply moving, as is the overhead shot of the slain Spartans, its flattened perspective momentarily turning the scene of carnage into a still, elaborate fresco.

There are other films based upon the Battle of Thermopylae, including The 300 Spartans (which Frank Miller says changed the course of [his] creative life when he saw it as a seven year old boy in 1962) and Go Tell the Spartans (a low-budget 1978 film about American military advisors in the early days of the Vietnam War). I have both on order.

Hello world!

It’s been two years to the day since my last post.

I’d intended to come back to weblogging before this–especially since Dave Rogers predicted that I would “post something” before the end of 2006. For, even though I wasn’t writing for my own weblog, I never stopped reading weblogs. In fact, weblogs have been my primary source of information since I stopped reading newspapers, listening to the radio, and watching broadcast TV after the Federal election in October 2004.

Much of my spare attention since I stopped weblogging has been taken up with watching (and thinking about) movies and–since July last year, when I bought a Ricoh GR Digital camera–taking (and thinking about) photographs. In the limited time that was left, I installed (and played with) WordPress and worked at redesigning the templates and stylesheets.

A couple of weeks ago I was drawn to comment on a post of Tim Bray’s about high-end digital compact cameras. Tim’s subsequent description of my “paean to the Ricoh GR Digital” as “the most interesting part of the conversation” was flattering but his stout defence of DPReview (at which, in his words, I’d “sneered expressively”) and his stated desire that a camera’s output “approximate what [one's] eyes report to the brain” demanded a response.

A short comment about the damage done by sites like DPReview which fetishize the technical aspects of photography grew into a longer argument that photography has hardly anything to do with literally transcribing how our eyes and brain perceive the world. I caught myself thinking: “This should be an essay, or at least a weblog post.” That was the moment that I knew I’d relaunch the weblog.

Whereas the previous incarnation, The Heart of Things, dealt with subjects ranging from CSS to the Iraq War, this time I’ve decided to restrict myself to the things which lie closest to my heart: photography, the cinema, and (indirectly) the Japanese language. We’ll see how it goes…