Bobcat Goldthwaite has been one of the most interesting low-budget-independent directors of the past decade, in between his comedy appearances and his frequent television directing work. Sleeping Dogs Lie (2006) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009) both ride their sleazy, cringeworthy premises to conclusions that milk embarrassment for all its worth, and yet also suggest a humane, anti-cynical point of view. God Bless America (2011) is brilliantly on-target political satire, a comedic left-wing detournement of those white-male-rage films that Michael Douglas specialized in in the 1990s. His most recent film, Willow Creek (currently available for streaming, coming out on disc in a month or two) is more straightforward. It’s a “found-footage” horror film in the tradition that started with Blair Witch Project, and has become ubiquitous in recent years. A “creative class” couple, neither particularly sympathetic nor particularly obnoxious, but actually fairly bland, go into the woods of Northern California in search of Bigfoot (of course, they are making a documentary, which motivates the handheld-video-camera footage). It is a slow burn; a lot of mildly diverting banter leads up to a confrontation in the woods, from which (of course) our protagonists do not emerge intact. There is nothing here that departs from what we’d expect from the genre — except that it is so beautifully done. Goldthwaite knows that the true basis of horror filmmaking (or at least of one type of horror filmmaking) lies in two of the most essential properties of the moving-image medium: duration and offscreen sound. There’s a gorgeous formalism here, in the way that so much of the experience of the movie depends on empty time — waiting for something to happen — and on things that can be heard but not seen (the ambiguity of sounds that we more or less recognize, but whose source we cannot quite identify). Most astonishing of all in Willow Creek is a 19-minute-long single take with motionless camera: a shot of the two main characters, sitting up in their sleeping bags inside their tent, listening to and reacting to things that go bump in the night. It’s great horror filmmaking, building a sense of slowly accelerating dread. But I will go further and say that it is at the same time a superior example of, and a brilliant riposte to, all that international-art-house-style “slow cinema” people have been pontificating about in recent years.
Archive for the ‘Film’ Category
WELCOME TO NEW YORK is stupendous, and it leaves me nearly speechless — I really won’t be able to say anything coherent about it until I have thought about it for a while, and seen it a few more times.
But I will try to make a few scattered observations. The film isn’t really a descent into the depths of depravity in the way BAD LIEUTENANT is; but then, there is no sense of redemption for Depardieu in the way that perhaps there is for Harvey Keitel. The film shifts register several times. The first half hour is basically an orgy sequence. Then it becomes a kind of procedural, with DSK’s arrest and confinement. Then, after he is remanded to house arrest in a $60,000/month Manhattan townhouse, it becomes a venemous melodrama-cum-dark night of the soul (except that latter phrase is not quite right, since Depardieu’s character (called “Devereaux” to avoid the legal problems that might ensue by literally naming him “Dominique Strauss-Kahn”) doesn’t seem to really have a soul.
The orgy sequences struck me as more pathetic than lurid. There’s no sense of condemnation of Devereaux’s antics, but no sense of spectatorial pleasure either (not even pleasure in sleaze). It’s really just Depardieu’s grunting and bellowing, not to mention his evident relish in slapping various hookers’ behinds. When we get to The Incident, we clearly feel the maid’s terror at being assaulted, but Devereaux doesn’t even seem to notice that there is any difference between consensual sex, paid-for sex, and violently imposed sex. It’s all over in a minute, and Ferrara clearly conveys how it scarcely even registers in Devereaux’s mind that anything of any consequence has happened. (Later on, he will indignantly tell his wife that he is absolutely innocent of rape, because “all he did” was rub his penis against the maid’s mouth — which is more or less true of what we previously saw happening, except that, as Devereuax fails to add, this happens as he is pushing her against the wall and grabbing her head, and shei s desperately begging him to stop).
The arrest and confinement are given a documentary or procedural feel. We definitely get a sense of how the prison system is systematically demeaning and humiliating to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into its clutches. At the same time, we remain aware of the difference between the powerful and privileged Devereaux, who is brought down in the world just for a moment, and everyone else (mostly black people) who is caught in this system without Devereaux’s resources for getting out again. The highlight of this part of the movie is undoubtably the scene in which Devereaux is strip searched, which means that Depardieu displays his aging, bloated, no-longer-beautiful nude body to the camera.
The real emotional payoff of the film is in the second hour, in which Devereaux mopes in his expensive town house. There are several terrific scenes of arguments between Devereaux and his wife (played by Jacqueline Bisset), in which he reveals his absolute lack of self-insight, and utter inability to change. Devereaux has no passion, desire, or even self-will, but only a monstrous and utterly compulsive appetite, together with a defensive need for self-justification. We see this in his arguments with his wife, in his voiceover meditation (where he recounts turning from idealism to utter cynicism about the possibilities of justice and alleviating poverty, as he ascended the rungs of power) in his (court-mandated, I think? — but I wasn’t sure) conversation with a shrink, and in flashbacks to past incidents (one of consensual sex, and one of the near-rape of a young woman journalist — this came up in the press at the time — which again reveals how, Devereaux, in his mind, seems incapable of distinguishing between seduction and rape). Even at the very end of the movie, Devereaux is up to his old tricks with the housemaid.
The film leaves us with this sterility of its central character; there is no spiritual struggle like that (as I already mentioned) of Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, or for that matter Forest Whitaker in MARY. Instead, Depardieu gives us an entirely implosive performance (and, as other critics have noted, the film is certainly in the Godardian sense a documentary about Depardieu as much as it is a dramatization of DSK). Around this absent center, the wheels of power and privilege turn in their accustomed way, so that the case is dropped and Devereaux is left free — all off camera (though we are given brief documentary footage, just as a sort of reminder, of protests against the dismissal of the case).
In a way, the film is all over the place, even though at the same time it is galvanized throughout by Depardieu’s performance. I think that Ferrara wanted to leave the film messy, because reality itself is. The film gets its emotional power by being organized around a banality: specifically, we might say (though Ferrara does not, as he resists any sort of moralism) the banality of evil — or maybe better, the inability of the powerful to see the pain they inflict upon those without power as anything more than a banal passing moment of no real import. In a way, DSK’s life was “ruined” by the incident — not only did he fail to become President of France, but his public respect suffered a blow (though, of course, he retained the privileges of wealth and freedom from imprisonment or official sanction; and the way the French press is reacting to the movie shows that he still has powerful support). WELCOME TO NEW YORK conveys, less what actually happened to DSK, than Depardieu-as-Devereaux’s baffled failure to comprehend why any of this should have happened to him, of all people — which perhaps makes the film more farce than tragedy, and none the less devastating for that.
Miklos Jancso’s PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES (this is how it is listed on IMDB, although “pleasures” doesn’t seem the right translation of the last word in the original Italian title “Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù”) is a severely underrated movie, and one that I need to watch again. Made in Italy in 1976 and spoken in Italian, it doesn’t quite have the formalist rigor of Jancso’s Hungarian works in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is still powerful and provocative. There are some dazzlingly orchestrated long takes (which is Jancso’s arthouse trademark); but there are also sequences with more conventional editing. Also, the lavish outdoor scenery (apparently the film was actually shot in what is now Croatia; there is a large Yugoslav presence in the supporting cast and in the crew) is very different from the stark Hungarian plains.
The film is more or less based on the Mayerling Incident, an 1889 scandal in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne, and his lover Mary Vetsera apparently killed themselves, supposedly because they could not be married. At least that was the official version, though conspiracy theories abounded; the movie proposes that Rudolph and Mary were murdered by order of Rudolph’s father, the Emperor Franz Joseph. Through this, the movie works as a kind of 1960s/70s counter-culture allegory. Rudolph and his friends Sophie and Franco, a brother-sister couple whose mother was at one point Franz Joseph’s mistress, form a cheerfully incestuous menage a trois; they are mostly interested in sex and drugs, and in overthrowing the puritanical older generation represented by their parents, and by the uniforms and stuffy rituals of Austro-Hungarian official culture. Most of the film takes place during an orgy that they organize, inviting as their guests the young aristocrats of their own generation, who dance around nude, make love in various combinations (there is some sort of sexual activity involving lturkeys as well), and humiliate the various Austro Hungarian soldiers and bureaucrats who show up. It’s during the orgy that Mary Vetsera appears, and the menage a trois quickly becomes a menage a quatre. The film’s version of Mary (apparently this is not the case in the actual historical record) is a hermaphrodite, with fully formed both female and male genital organs, which allows for an expansion of the erotic possibilites.
In terms of actually depicted sex, it isn’t all that explicit; the film is barely even soft-core. But there are lots of nude, cavorting bodies, of all genders and genitalia. The soundtrack has music almost continually; much of it is diegetic, as Rudolph continually has bands playing both indoors and out. The moving camera often circles around these fully clothed musicians, in contrast to the partially-clothed or altogether nude aristocrats. The overall effect is rather hysterical (if I can use this word in a descriptive but non-pejorative sense) as we have long sequences where the frame is filled with continually dancing undressed bodies, with a restless camera either roving through the shrubbery or from room to room, but sometimes simply tracking back-and-forth, all overlaid with the sonic bombardment of everything from brass band military marches to Eastern European traditional dances to “God protect the Kaiser” (often sung mockingly) to an English-language rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” With the dialogue in Italian, at times I was reminded of Fellini; there’s even a circus that shows up at one point, but alas not much is made of it (there are a few quick shots of a circus lady cavorting with two chimpanzees, but we never get to see the troupe of Hungarian dwarfs who are much talked about). But overall, Jancso’s vision of excess and exhaustion is very different from Fellini’s — I’m not sure how to phrase this — Jancso is far less surreal than Fellini, but also more aggressively carnal.
There’s a ten-minute-or-so sex sequence near the end of the film, which removes the huge supporting cast and only gives us various combinations or subsets of the foursome. Disappointingly, and in contrast to everything else in the movie, this is shot more or less in cliched Eurotrash style, with lots of upper-body and head-and-lips closeups, and nondiegetic, conventionally “romantic” music — instead of the roving camera and incessant brass bands. Despite the conventionality of this sequence (is it meant to be ironic? or was it forced upon Jancso by the Italian financiers of the film?) it does look (as far as I could tell, given the lack of explicit pornographic detail) like first Rudolph penetrates Mary, and then she penetrates him.
After that, there’s nothing left but the fairly quiet murder of Rudolph, Mary, and their friends, and the official coverup, so that order can be restored. There’s a lot of emphasis throughout the film on photography, as the mass medium of the day: Rudolph and his friends take orgy photos which they hope to release to the press to create scandal; and official photographs are taken of the dead bodies in order to support the fake narrative of a lovers’ suicide pact.
So the film can definitely be taken as an allegory of the affirmations and the ultimate failure of the 1960s counterculture, back projected onto the Austro Hungarian Empire and 19th-century decadent aestheticism. However, though the film shows no liking or nostalgia for the Imperial bureaucracy and hierarchy, its attitude towards its young libertine protagonists is decidedly ambivalent. The delirious orgies are at the same time sufficiently dry and acerbic that we get some of the same distanciation as we do with the horrors of war (in, e.g. The Red and the Black) and with the revolutionary dances (e.g. in Red Psalm) in Jancso’s earlier films. The result is that Rudolph and his friends come off seeming a bit too self-satisfied and self-congratulatory in their rebellion. It becomes hard to forget that they can only get away with all this because of their own aristocratic power and privilege (not to mention seemingly infinite supplies of money). Rudolph rightly imagines that his father will not dare to arrest him or cut off his allowance or anything like that; his position as Crown Prince puts him above the law. (Though he fails to conceive that the patriarchal order he is rebelling against can simply murder him and then cover it up). So the flaw of Rudolph’s ambisexual hedonism, appealing as it is, is that its enabling condition of possibility is the very order that it claims it wishes to destroy. Aristocracy will not be overthrown by the children of that very aristocracy using their class freedom to have an orgy. And carpe diem, by its very nature, cannot overthrow an enduring-through-time order, let alone produce its own counter-order. (This is driven home in a great sequence, during the orgy, where Rudolph proclaims his father dead, himself the new Emperor, Mary his Empress, and mock-appoints his party guests to various ministries. It’s all good fun, rooted in the carnivalesque suspension of the ruling order; but for this very reason, all it does is point up the post-carnivalesque restoration of the oppressive ruling order).
I mentioned Fellini earlier. But where Fellini is aesthetically haunted by the ultimate sterility of the seemingly bounteous carnivalesque, Jancso has a more socio-political take on this paradox. PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES is the equally alienating flip side of the earlier Hungarian epics. Jancso has none of Fellini’s humanistic warmth, but rather (and to my mind, more impressively artistically) he casts the same cold eye on spectacles of liberation as he does on spectacles of slaughter and oppression.
Next week, I will be speaking in New York at this conference. For reasons I do not understand, they have asked for all the papers to be submitted in advance, and say they will give them out to whoever comes to hear the talks. To my mind, this makes the conference itself superfluous — why sit through a bunch of talks, when you can read them much more easily and quickly? But whatever.
In any case, here is my talk on “The Aesthetics of Workflow.” My initial plan was much more ambitious — in addition to speaking about Anthony Mandler’s video for Rihanna’s “Disturbia”, I was also going to discuss two other music videos: Grant Singer’s video for Sky Ferreira’s “Night Time, My Time”, and Tom Beard and FKA twigs’ video for FKA twigs’ “Papi Pacify”. Part of the idea was to discuss videos for women singers at three levels of the music industry: superstar (Rihanna), emerging (& so far) midlevel artist (Sky Ferreira), and little-known independent (FKA twigs). All three videos are poweful and challenging, but I think that the different economic scales makes for different modes of expression as well.
However, this was not to be. So far I haven’t had enough time to write about these other two videos. And even if I had, I would end up with a talk that would probably be two hours long — something much better read than delivered live. So I will leave these two additional videos for later consideration. (I should add, however, that I showed “Night Time, My Time” to my Intro to Film students. One of them remarked, in response, that he would play this video at the end of a party, when he wanted to get everyone to leave. I take this as a strong compliment to the video — and I hope that Ferreira and Singer would take the comment in this spirit as well).
As for what I have written already, I feel like I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of this. There’s a lot more to say about Rihanna; and, as always when I write about music videos, I feel self-conscious about my inability to say enough about the music in formalist terms.
But anyway, here’s the text of my talk, in two parts:
“Workflow” is a term that is increasingly being used today in digital audiovisual production. In the words of the film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky:
“Workflow” describes the relationship between production and post-production — shooting and editing. A workflow encompasses everything from the hard drives on which image data is recorded to the final delivery of the film for distribution. Workflow theories emphasize flexibility and maneuverability.
Vishnevetsky’s point is not just that the term “workflow” is increasingly being used by film- and videomakers themselves, in order to designate how they employ digital tools; but also, and just as importantly, that the new practices designated by the term need to be analyzed by critics and theorists of audiovisual media. Recent developments in digital technology have not only led to radical changes in film and video production methods; they have also led to new audiovisual formal structures and styles — or more loosely, to a new sort of “look and feel” for audiovisual artifacts.
Of course, this workflow “look and feel” is far from universal; and there is no necessary correspondence between technologies of production and final products. Neoliberal economic activity in general is organized on the basis of supposed “flexibility and maneuverability.” Even when they are making works that still look and sound like older, more traditional productions, Film- and videomakers employ workflow methods in order to save time and money, cut corners, and respond quickly to frequent demands from clients. There are also artists — Michel Gondry is a good example — who exhibit a laudable streak of stubborn perversity: they go out of their way to produce works in which digital-seeming effects are in fact created through older, analog means.
Nonetheless, the new technologies and production practices of workflow offer new affordances to film- and videomakers. They open the way for new expressive possibilities — even though these possibilities are often not taken up. As Stanley Cavell puts it in relation to film, “the aesthetic possibilities of a medium are not givens…. Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.” Similarly, the potential expressive uses of today’s new digital technologies cannot be known in advance; they can only be discovered or invented, and then elaborated, in the course of actual audiovisual production. At their best, the technologies and practices of workflow lead to a new audiovisual aesthetic.
Vishnevetsky refers to “workflow” mostly in the context of digital cinema: his article explicitly discusses recent movies by David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. But I am more interested in looking instead at contemporary music videos. There are several reasons for this. On a personal level, working with music videos allows me to combine my enthusiasm as a pop music fan (despite my lack of musical training) with my more formal concerns as a scholar of audiovisual media. On a more distanced level, music videos fascinate me because they are so complexly overdetermined. Something like Italian operas in the 19th century, or Broadway and MGM musicals in the 20th, music videos are a hybrid, impure form — and indeed a necessarily compromised one. They almost never have the status of independent, self-subsistent works. Even more than other pop-cultural forms, they are subject to the whims of marketers and publicists. They are based upon pre-existing musical material, which usually wasn’t created with them in mind. They most often serve the derivative purposes of advertising the songs for which they were made, and of contributing to the larger-than-life, transmedia personae of their performers. In addition, music videos frequently remediate older media contents: alluding to, sampling and recombining, or unambiguously plagiarizing material from movies, television, fashion photography, and experimental art. Music videos thus always remain illustrative and externally referential — the cardinal sins according to modernist theories of art.
And yet, despite all this — or is it rather because of all this? — music videos are often deeply self-reflexive, and strikingly innovative in form and technique. They push the latest production technologies to their limits; and they experiment with new modes of visualization and expression. Precisely because their sonic content already comes ready-made, and because they are of such limited length, they do not need to conform to older modes of audiovisual organization. They are free to ignore Hollywood mainstays like narrative structures and continuity conventions. Even before the rise of digital sound and image technologies, Michel Chion noted that music videos exhibited “a joyous rhetoric of images,” made possible by the fact that “the image is conspicuously attaching itself to some music that was sufficient to itself.” Music videos are strictly speaking superfluous — and this is what gives them a space for free invention. Chion adds that, in many music videos, “the rapid succession of shots creates a sense of visual polyphony and even of simultaneity, even as we see only a single image at a time.”
If this was already the case when Chion was writing in 1990, it is even more fully so today, in the age of digital workflow. As Vishnevetsky notes, the chief characteristic of the workflow aesthetic is that it blurs the line between production and post-production. Of course, this makes it easier for film- and videomakers to change their minds, and to recast all their material even at the last moment. But workflow practices also have ontological consequences, because they erase the distinction between those aspects of audiovisual material that are actually placed before the camera and sound recorder, and those that are subsequently invented, added, or altered on the computer. The very nature of audiovisual construction and reproduction is thereby put into question.
In other words, the whole issue of cinematic realism, so fervently debated on both sides for much of the twentieth century, loses its relevance in the age of workflow. It no longer makes sense to distinguish, as André Bazin did, between a self-subsistent reality that is indexically captured by the mechanistic recording apparatus of the cinema, and an “image,” defined as “everything that the depiction of a thing on the screen can add to the thing itself.”
Rather, the real itself is always in production — just as Deleuze and Guattari already intimated in the 1970s. Sonic and visual material is continually being worked and reworked: in the physical spaces before the camera and sound recorder, in these mechanisms’ own processes of capture and transmission, in the digital transformations accomplished through the computer, and in our own subjective acts of perception, reception, and synthesis. All of these are equally “real”: they are best thought of as particular stages in the never-ending adventure of materials. Thanks to the recent digital technologies epitomized by workflow, these diverse stages of actuality now interpenetrate one another more than ever before. This does not mean that Bazin has been discredited by the non-indexical nature of digital audiovisual capture. To the contrary, he is more in the right than he even knew: “the image may be out of focus, distorted, devoid of colour and without documentary value; nevertheless, it has been created out of the ontology of the model. It is the model.”
When I teach Introduction to Film (which I do every semester) much of my effort is spent explaining to students the basic formal structures of mise en scène, cinematography, and editing. These can be understood as, respectively, that which is presented before the camera, that which the camera itself does, and that which is subsequently assembled out of the material recorded by the camera. Mise en scène, cinematography, and editing are crucial categories for film studies, because they refer at once to operations performed in the course of making the film, and to formal aspects of the completed film as it is experienced by its audience.
Now, filmmakers have often played fast and loose with these categories, exploiting their ambiguities and loopholes. Long takes by Hitchcock and Welles, for instance, work to express through camera movement and framing alone what usually needs to be conveyed by means of editing. Godard’s calculated violations of continuity editing rules depend, for their effect, upon our unconscious expectations that these rules will be maintained. But if classical filmmaking established such basic formal categories, and modernist filmmaking troubled their boundaries, the most adventurous recent audiovisual production seems to dispense with them altogether. It is not just that there are new ways of putting together moving image sequences during post-production, but also that the resulting sequences look and sound differently than heretofore, and are organized by an entirely different logic. For instance, the rapid editing of many music videos, and of “chaos cinema” action sequences, bears a certain formal resemblance to 1920s Soviet montage; but the aesthetic aims of contemporary music video directors, no less than their technological means of production, are quite distant from those of Vertov and Eisenstein.
Contemporary music videos are quite strikingly different, not just from traditional cinema, but even from the “MTV-style” videos of the genre’s first decade, the 1980s. Carol Vernallis notes, for instance, how our experience of color in music videos, and of the textures of such diffuse substances as “dust, water, smoke, and clouds,” has been transformed by the use of DI (digital intermediate), a process that only came into common use after 2005 or so. Now that color and texture can be controlled and transformed on a pixel-by-pixel basis, Vernallis says, “each element is marked off so clearly it is almost as if we were examining the video’s detail through a magnifying glass.” Digital compositing already allows for image juxtapositions that are simultaneous, instead of (as in radical cinematic montage) sequential. But DI raises this multiplicity to a higher power, rendering for us something like the perception of machines, or of insect-style compound eyes. Vernallis adds that DI also allows video directors to do things like “cut quickly” from “an extreme wide-angle shot” to “an extreme closeup,” or “cut three or four fast shots around the face at well-judged off-angles” (here she refers in particular to the work of Jonas Åkerlund). These fast edits are generally “hard to see”; but they create a subliminal sense of “deeper immersion” for the viewer.
The new workflow aesthetics affects audiovisual production and reception alike; it works equally on the level of the “subject,” and on that of the “object.” On the one hand, it simulates and stimulates new modes of subjective perception; on the other, it produces new configurations of the objects being perceived.
I turn now to a music video that epitomizes the aesthetics of workflow. Anthony Mandler’s 2008 video for Rihanna’s song “Disturbia” is so densely layered and cluttered and compressed that it seems to require a whole new formal language to do it justice. The proliferation of images in the video definitely gives us a sense of what Chion calls “visual polyphony.” What is more, we do not see just “a single image at a time”; the video is literally polyphonic — or better, polyoptic — in that images are continually being layered transparently over one another. However, as befits the song, this “visual rhetoric” is oppressive rather than “joyous.” It suggests visual overload, more than promiscuous multiplication.
It would be impossible to do a conventional shot breakdown of this video; images proliferate and propagate in ways that do not conform to the traditional logic of cinematography and editing. At times, Rihanna’s face or figure detaches into two images, one of which jitters and shakes as if it were trying to break free from itself — or as if the camera itself were having some sort of seizure. There are also quick movements in and out of focus. Sometimes images are doubled by layering; usually a detail like Rihanna’s face in closeup is placed semi-transparently on top of a broader scene. The overall effect is at once unstable and claustrophobic.
At still other times, barbed wire and spider web patterns are splayed across Rihanna’s skin. The video’s images fade into one another as well as appearing on top of one another. There is also a lot of rapid cutting, without fades, not only between scenes that show the singer in different locales and wearing different costumes (as is common in music videos), but also among fragments of individual scenes or set-ups. Almost everything is presented frontally (as is also a common practice in music videos), but the way that the images are both fragmented and juxtaposed nonetheless disrupts any stable sense of perspective.
The video’s setting looks like a Victorian insane asylum. This impression is reinforced by the sound effects — dissonant arpeggios accompanied by creaking sounds — in the first thirty seconds of the video, before the song proper begins. My students found the video’s visual decor reminiscent of that in the computer game and movie series Silent Hill; but I think this is a matter, not of homage or direct imitation, but simply of the fact that both works draw upon the same Victorian-asylum imagery. In the video, in any case, Rihanna appears in numerous roles: she is both the director of the asylum, and a number of imprisoned patients.
In the former role, she is seated in an enormous rotating chair. She wears a sort of Victorian bondage wear, with black dress and knee-high boots, and long nails in black nail polish. She fans herself while turning in the chair, or walks about languidly and pats the head of a docile prisoner. Rihanna is also surrounded by strong, menacing figures. An enormous man with an eyepatch and a black-and-white striped prison uniform turns some large, creaky mechanical wheels; another large man, shirtless, beats out the song’s brutal rhythm on two enormous drums. While sitting in the chair, Rihanna is also assaulted by her own double: a feral female figure, on all fours, with wrists bound together and a punkish shock of blonde hair, who snarls and lunges at her, like a bad pet.
Meanwhile, Rihanna takes on multiple guises in her role as a patient-cum-prisoner in the asylum. She is caged in a jail cell, with straight blonde hair and empty zombie eyes. In other sequences, she pulls furiously upon chains that bind her ankles together and rivet her arms to a peg in the floor; or she jerks about violently while seemingly confined within an empty bedframe. Another sequence suggests slavery, as she stands chained to a pillar, with a collar around her neck, hands bound behind her back, and grease smeared on her naked shoulder. In the latter part of the video, we see her hanging immobilized in a corridor, her lower arms stuck inside the walls, and a tarantula on her upper arm, near her shoulder. We see also her splayed out, behind latticework, making love to a life-sized male mannequin; and in other shots, wearing what looks like an Indian headdress.
Most of these images are composed in dark tones, often approaching a monochrome dark blue. The darkness is only relieved by the highlighting of Rihanna’s face. Sometimes, however, there are horizontal bars of illumination or patches of color at the back of the set. In addition, the relatively dark images are continually interrupted by vertical streaks of light that seem to erupt out of the screen; or else by flames in the foreground, that ostentatiously do not fit into the same space as the rest of the image. One recurring sequence, however, is violently illuminated, in contrast to everything else in the video: the screen is bathed from above and behind in a glaring white and orange light. Rihanna’s prone body is held up into the light by a group of backlit dancers, perhaps suggesting a human sacrifice.
The song “Disturbia” is about mental anguish: the lyrics suggest paranoia, unbearable compulsion, and other such ugly feelings. “A disease of the mind,/ It can control you,” Rihanna sings, “I feel like a monster.” And again, in a line that seems to set forth the visual strategy of the video: “It’s like the darkness is the light.” I am inclined to give this line its full weight, as a statement of via negativa mysticism. The song is an affective expression, but it isn’t the representation of a mental state. For the very condition of feelings like these is that they cannot be represented, or brought into the light of full consciousness. Rihanna — or her persona in this song — suffers precisely from the absence, and the impossibility, of illumination. And this is the ironic situation that the song and video strive to “represent.”
It is worth noting that “Distubia” was co-written by Chris Brown, who passed it on to Rihanna after originally having planned to record it himself. Even though the song and video were released before the horrific incident in which Brown beat up Rihanna, it is hard not to regard “Disturbia” in the context of this subsequent history. The lyrics do not explicitly state any cause for the compulsion and paranoia that they express; but these symptoms can easily be interpreted as the effects of jealousy or a broken relationship. Robin James, writing specifically about Rihanna’s 2012 album Unapologetic, discusses the singer’s embrace of “melancholic damage,” and her absolute refusal of any narrative of recovery and resilience in the wake of the assault. I think that such a “damaged” and willfully unapologetic stance is already evident in “Disturbia,” both the song and the video.
“Disturbia” is undeniably a very catchy song, and it was a big dance hit when it was first released in 2008. The song was even described by one critic at the time (Alex Fletcher) as “a fun-packed electro treat filled with sizzling beats and crazy vocal effects.” Another critic (Fraser McAlpine), despite admiring “the spooky, gothy sounds in the first 30 seconds of the video,” and praising what he calls “Rihanna’s icy whine,” nonetheless complains that overall “Disturbia” is “FAR too chirpy a tune to suit the parade of Marilyn Manson fetish-wear and leathery bedlam which accompanies it” in the video.
Nonetheless, I think that the video responds to, and indeed brings out, disturbing undercurrents that already exist in the song. “Disturbia” is dominated by a harsh and pounding beat, which lacks the brightness and bounciness of similarly repetitive bass lines in electro tunes (such as that in “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, which McAlpine compares to that of “Disturbia”). The harshness of the song’s rhythm is reinforced, not only by the “Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum” repeated refrain, but even more by the video’s choreography. Rihanna and her surrounding figures dance with spastic jerks of the head or of the whole body, emphasizing the beat’s relentless, inorganic regularity. There is no smooth or graceful movement here; everything is shaped by violent constraints.
This sort of dancing works in tandem with the twitching of the camera, the image juxtapositions, and the aggressive editing. All in all, Mandler’s metamorphosing images closely respond to the musical elements of the song: both its shifts of register and its propulsive force. But the hyperactive image track also leads us to notice different aspects of the sound than we might have done otherwise. In particular, it draws our attention to the song’s treatment of Rihanna’s voice, with its Autotune vocoder-like effects, and its surprising changes of vocal register. In short, we don’t hear the music of “Disturbia” in the same way when we watch the video, as we would without it.
The video for “Disturbia” uses the resources of workflow aesthetics in order both to track the song’s rhythmic intensities, and to follow the logic of the via negativa outlined by the song’s lyrics. In other words, the video “visualizes” an emotional state that is first presented acoustically, and that — strictly speaking — is not susceptible to visualization. The video assaults our senses with too thick an agglomeration of too many images. And yet these all tend to collapse into a black hole of negativity, or a night in which all cows are black. The ultimate effect of the video’s profusion is not psychedelic plenitude, but rather an amplification of darkness and obliqueness.
Rihanna clearly has a place in the genealogy of Afrofuturism. She is a robo-diva, as Robin James describes her, picking up on a term originally coined by Tom Breihan. James sees Rihanna’s self-robotization as a gesture of resistance: a way of refusing white patriarchy’s normative identification of itself with the human per se. In opposition to this, Stan Hawkins “perceive[s] Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body as primarily nonemancipatory.” Actually, these positions are not necessarily in contradiction with one another, since the figure of the robot in Afrofuturism has long pointed in both directions at once: towards slavery, but also towards a “machine mythology” that rejects “the human” as “a pointless and treacherous category” of oppression (Kodwo Eshun).
But the technologies of workflow, as evidenced in the video for “Disturbia,” operate, I think, in something of a transversal register, in contrast to either of these directions. For what is at issue is not just “Rihanna’s subjectivizing of the posthuman body,” but also a correlative desubjectivizing of what it might mean to perceive her body. Workflow aesthetics, in both its production and its reception, operates on a fine microlevel. It allows for the most minute perceptual discriminations: one hue from another, one grain of sound from another, one pixel or one millisecond from another. These distinctions, like Leibniz’s petites perceptions, fall beneath the threshold of human recognition and voluntary action. We feel them, we are affected by them; but we cannot grasp them or comprehend them. In this way, an inhuman, machinic mode of experiencing is substituted for our own. Pop music is always about the most basic human emotions, at least as they are validated within our culture: love and sex, romance and rivalry, hatred and jealousy, ecstasy and pain. But insofar as the medium is the message, we are now experiencing even these conditions in ways that extend beyond and beneath our subjectivity.
I have now watched Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, several times. And I can’t stop thinking about it. I consider it the best film that Jarmusch has ever made. Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie, but not in the way you might think. There is no onscreen violence, and no sense of transgression or damnation. It has a certain dark humor, but it is devoid of the dumb facetiousness that has sometimes annoyed me in Jarmusch’s movies in the past. This is largely a reflective, actionless movie.
[Warning: ample SPOILERS in what follows]
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are a vampire couple who have been together for centuries — although they live in separate parts of the world, Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit. At one point we see a wedding photo, dated 1868; though they both seem to have had extensive adventures before then. Adam is supposed to be about 500 years old (according to interviews; this is never specified in the film). He remembers hobnobbing with great scientists and poets (like Byron, whom he nonetheless describes as a “pompous ass”). Eve’s memory goes back further; she is 3000 years old (according to interviews), and refers explicitly to “the Middle Ages, the Tartars, the Inquisitions.” But Adam and Eve are civilized and refined — “this is the bloody 21st century,” not the “fucking 15th” — and so they have given up their ancient habits of predation. This civilized restraint is also a response to the fact that most human blood these days is “contaminated.” (The reason for this contamination is not made clear; environmental pollution and recreational drugs are both referred to, but AIDS is never mentioned). Instead, Adam and Eve secretly get their blood from hospitals: “the really good stuff,” pure O-negative. They drink it sparingly, in small cocktail glasses, like a fine liqueur.
Adam and Eve each have a moment when they see an ordinary human being bleeding (Adam sees someone receiving medical care, and Eve someone who cuts his finger while opening a juice can). In both cases, they stare avidly for a moment, but then restrain themselves and look away. In any case, it’s only when they are about to consume blood that their fangs come out and they adopt feral expressions. After drinking, they slip into a satisfied stupor, a strung-out state of bliss. Human blood is their only sustenance; it nourishes them, but also gives them a heroin-like fix.
Only Lovers Left Alive is resolutely and self-consciously old-school. The opening shot (aside from the title of the film, printed in a Goth-heavy metal-Germanic font, over a logo of time-lapse revolving stars) shows a 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl record playing on a turntable. The song is “Funnel of Love,” sung by Wanda Jackson, and originally released in 1961. The shot of the turning record is cut together with, and sometimes faded in and out over, separate shots of Eve and of Adam, taken from the ceilings of their respective homes; the camera rotates over their bodies with the same movement as the turntable. Adam and Eve are both lying prone, with their eyes closed, having apparently drunk their fill.
“Funnel of Love” is a crucial aesthetic indicator. The song is a highly stylized one, but it is about being sucked into a romantic abyss: “Here I go, falling down, down, down,/ My mind is a blank,/ My head is spinning around and around,/ As I go deep into the funnel of love.” It was originally released as a B-side, but (as Wikipedia tells us) it has since become a favorite of r&b and country music connoisseurs. And Jarmusch’s vampires are nothing if not old-school connoisseurs. Adam and Eve are presented, not quite as aging hipsters, but rather as ageless ones. They have grown self-reflective in their boredom, having experienced all they are capable of already. I found myself identifying with them strongly in their used-up agelessness: I am, after all, someone who doesn’t yet feel decrepit, but who has officially, explicitly joined the realm of the old — I am only a year or so younger than Jarmusch himself. Adam and Eve are long-term, self-reflective aesthetes, who stand in the broken-down world of the film as the last representatives of aesthetic sensibility or “taste.”
Adam is a musician, evidently an old rock and roll legend. (In earlier times, we are told, he gave Schubert the Adagio for the composer’s last composition, the String Quintet). Adam collects vintage guitars and old vinyl, and composes dirge-like electronica, or what he calls “funeral music.” Eve is not a creator, but she loves old things, and can tell with a touch the exact year in which any artifact was made. She also loves, the literary classics, which she is able to read at superhuman speed in at least seven languages. Eve’s best friend in Tangier is the courtly and elderly Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the Elizabethan playwright who we learn is also a vampire. Marlowe apparently faked his own death in a barroom brawl, and went on to write all of the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, as well as his own. Eve and Adam are both prone to quote beautiful Shakespeare lines which they savor with a contented sigh of “Marlowe….”
The movie as a whole seems to share its protagonists’ old-school sensibility. Jarmusch frames his shots carefully, and his editing is largely classical — with none of the rapid cutting and other “post-continuity” traits that I have written about elsewhere. The film has a reserved attitude towards recent digital technology. Eve has an iPhone, but Adam largely sticks with analog methods. He favors both acoustic instruments and older electronics, and records his music on reel-to-reel tape. Even his digital computer seems to be obsolete (it looks to me like it might be a clamshell iBook from 1999), and when he Skypes with Eve, he feeds the signal to an aging television. All of Adam’s electronics are basic DIY: he stays off the grid by getting his own electricity through Tesla-style wireless energy transmission. The obsession with Tesla, like that with somebody else having written Shakespeare’s plays, indicates a kind of “eccentric” aristocratic sensibility, one that stands self-consciously apart from the presumed vulgarity of the mainstream. And Adam and Eve have nothing but scorn for the “zombies” — which is how they refer to non-vampire humanity.
The movie’s plot (such as it is) centers on Adam and Eve’s long-term relationship, and their evident comfort level with one another. They are living apart, but remain in frequent contact. Adam feels despondent about the state of the world, and considers suicide. Eve has a cooler, longer-term view; no matter what happens in the world of the “zombies,” she’s seen it all before. Eve blames Adam’s suicidal tendencies on his having hung around “with Shelley and Byron and some of those French assholes” (which is one of my favorite lines in the movie). In order to calm him down, she comes to Detroit. Their attitude towards one another is deeply affectionate, but courtly and restrained. Adam greets Eve at the door of his house (one of those old, broken-down Detroit mansions) with a “my lady…”, and takes her hand to escort her over the threshold. The only indication of their having sex is an overhead shot of them lying nude on their sides, facing one another, asleep and nearly motionless; the camera pulls back slowly. Everything about them is careful, slow, and restrained.
Adam takes Eve on nighttime drives through the deserted ruins of Detroit. They pass through empty neighborhoods, with lights gleaming in the distance. They visit landmarks like the Packard plant, and the old Michigan Theater in downtown Detroit (now used only as a parking garage). These sequences are lovely and poetic; but people like myself who actually live in Detroit might well feel that they partake bit too much of “ruin porn.” You wouldn’t know from the film that anyone still lives in Detroit, aside from the “rock ‘n roll kids,” who sometimes drive up in front of Adam’s house, hoping to catch a glimpse of the musical recluse.
In spite of my misgivings about the movie’s misleading (albeit beautiful) presentation of Detroit, I can’t help finding Jarmusch’s vision deeply attractive. It’s romantic, and not devoid of a certain crucial negativity (there’s a reason that vampires only go out at night). But it pulls back from the extremity of youthful romanticism, as Adam’s morbidity is tempered by Eve’s pragmatism as a survivor. When Adam says that Detroit is empty because “everybody left,” Eve replies that Detroit will rise again and bloom, “when the cities in the south are burning.” For her, even the catastrophe of global warming will not put an end to everything. At the age of 60, at any rate, I am seduced by the film’s combination of yearning and melancholy and romantic refusal of the governing order with a determination to survive, and even flourish, nevertheless.
But of course this idyll cannot last. Everything is upset when Adam and Eve get a visit from Eve’s kid sister Ava (brilliantly played by Mia Wasikowska). Ava embodies all the energy — and indeed cheerful vulgarity– that Adam and Eve have evidently outgrown. She’s a Los Angeles party girl who just wants to have fun, and makes no attempt to curb her unbridled appetite. Much to Adam’s disgust, she carelessly handles his vintage musical instruments, gorges herself on their otherwise carefully-rationed-out O-negative blood, watches kitschy vampire videos on TV, leaves her stuff all over the place, and drags the three of them out to a nightclub to hear live music. Although she is a vampire and not a “zombie,” she stands for all the lowest-common-denominator popular culture that Adam and Eve so disdain. The last straw is when she kills and drinks the blood of Ian (Anton Yelchin), Adam’s go-to person and sole contact in the music world. “He was just so cute,” Ava tells Adam and Eve, that she couldn’t resist consuming him.
Unsurprisingly, Ava feels ill after drinking Ian’s blood. “What did you expect?”, Eve snaps; “he’s from the fucking music industry!” There is something drily hilarious about this exchange. And our empathy with Adam and Eve is such that we are forced to feel that they are right to kick Ava out. It’s upsetting how their lives are thrown out of kilter as a result of Ava’s visit and Ian’s death. Nonetheless, when the departing Ava calls them “condescending snobs,” she has a point. She has exposed the hollowness at the heart of their exquisite lifestyle. Ava is only around for about 15 minutes of screen time in a 2-hour-long movie; and yet the film wouldn’t work without her. It would be unbearably heavy and solemn: in the same way that Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire would be unendurable if not for Peter Falk.
After this, the denouement of the film comes fairly quickly. Adam and Eve dispose of Ian’s body, but still conclude that they need to flee Detroit. They return to Tangier, where they find that Marlowe — Eve’s only source for hospital blood, as well as her closest friend — lies dying, as a result of drinking tainted blood. Even the hospitals cannot be relied upon any more. With no supply, Adam and Eve are weak from blood withdrawal; she can handle it a bit better, but he can barely stand. “We’re finished, aren’t we?”
In this predicament, Adam and Eve have nowhere left to go; the film itself has nowhere left to go. Jarmusch offers us an epiphany, and then a potential resolution. The epiphany is an aesthetic one. On the verge of collapse, Adam wanders toward the open door of a cafe, and witnesses a performance by the great Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan. It’s an amazing performance, and the viewer can only share Adam’s own amazement. The song offers us a fresh beauty, different from any of the music we have heard so far in the film (the r&b that Adam plays on vinyl, Adam’s own funereal electronic beats, the noise-punk performance by White Hills that we hear at the club). My own stunned response to this music has something to do with the fact that I had never heard Yasmine Hamdan before. (Jarmusch, on top of everything else, is an absolutely on-target musical curator; and he really knows how to place music in his films for maximum emotional impact). The song offers melismatic singing (an important tradition in Arabic music) over an electronic drone, supplemented at one point by percussion. (The song, together with its lyrics about a lover’s separation printed both in Arabic and in English translation, can be found here).
Is my reaction (or Adam’s, for that matter) simply one of exoticism? While I cannot exclude the possibility, I also cannot accept that it is just that. The song is sonically haunting; and it expresses a longing that resonates with Adam’s and Eve’s relationship. Yasmine Hamdan sings about how “the absence” of her lover “awakens the craving”; parallel to this, at several points in the course of the film, Adam compares his and Eve’s status to that of entangled particles in quantum mechanics, which remain correlated with one another no matter how far apart. Eve says of Yasmine, “I’m sure she’ll be very famous”; Adam replies, “God, I hope not; she is way too good for that.” Adam replies from the depths of his hipster snobbism; but I almost feel like I can forgive him for that, because it bespeaks the depth of his emotional response to the music.
After this epiphany, there’s a suspended resolution. At the end of their tether, Adam and Eve see a young Moroccan heterosexual couple kissing passionately in an otherwise empty square. The boy and the girl couldn’t be more than twenty; they are both beautiful, and entirely absorbed in one another. Adam and Eve stealthily more towards them; the movie ends with a close-up, from the young couple’s POV, of Adam’s and Eve’s avid faces approaching them, ferally, fangs bared. Quick cut to the credits, in the same Germanic font we saw at the beginning.
What can we make of this? However civilized, cultured, and sophisticated these vampires may be, their bottom line remains ruthless predation. What crystallized for me at the end of the film was just how white — racially speaking — everything was. Tilda Swinton has a ghastly, almost albino pallor; Tom Hiddleston goes for the gloomy Goth look. They both live in what might be thought of “Third World” zones, as if in flight from the sterility of white/Anglo culture. In point of fact, Detroit is more than 80% African American; but the only black person we see in the entire movie is Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), always at work in the lab at the hospital, who sells Adam those bags of O-negative blood. It’s as if Adam is living off black people’s blood, without the inconvenience of actually having to interact with them. (He always has huge wads of cash, with no explanation as to how he gets the money). It’s noteworthy how, musically as well, there is no reference to any post-1970 African American music; Adam and Eve debate the relative merits of Motown and Stax-Volt, but the only more recent American bands mentioned are — significantly enough — the White Stripes (at one point they drive by the house in Detroit where Jack White lived as a child) and the White Hills. When people say that “everybody left” Detroit, what they mean, of course, is that most of the white people did. Adam lives in the ruins of a decrepit white culture, and he seems unable to recognize that anything else might be going on.
As for Tangier, it seems to offer hopes of renewal; this is apt, since Tangier has been an outpost — or a place of escape — for white Western hipsters at least since Burroughs and Bowles went there in the 1950s, and probably well before then. In Tangier — more fully than in Detroit, which offers Adam nothing besides ruins and blood — the “Third World” is a resource that the vampires can consume and appropriate. Eve is reinvigorated through a sort of ever-repeating “primitive accumulation,” or stockpiling, of the local (non-white, ostensibly non-European) culture. Yasmine Hamdan, and the young couple at the end, literally embody this dynamic; they are food and fuel for Adam and Eve to prey upon. In this way, the film becomes an allegory of the dead end of white Euro-American culture, which can only live so long upon its no-longer-active cultural heritage of Elizabethan poetry and vinyl 45s.
Only Lovers Left Alive is therefore a film about whiteness. I do not say this as an external critique of the film, but rather as a statement of something that the film itself self-consciously exemplifies, at least on some level. (Neither Jarmusch nor Swinton has said anything about this aspect of the film in any of the interviews that I have read; but I strongly feel — though I do not know how to prove this — that the film is fully knowing about what it does). “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Hegemonic whiteness is in a real sense dead; but as it is incapable of realizing this, it still rolls on and oppresses everyone else. It is precisely because I love Hiddleston’s and Swinton’s characters so much, and identify so strongly with their predicament (despite the fact that I am — or at least I flatter myself to think that I am — much more open than they are to the new and the popular), that I am also forced by the film to recognize how circumscribed and limited their pleasures are, and how dependent upon an unstated and entirely taken-for-granted power and privilege.
I posted this yesterday on Facebook; I am placing it here in a slightly revised & expanded version.
In the Oscars the other night, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity won most of what I would call the film-formalism awards: not only best direction, but also editing, sound editing, sound mixing, cinematography, and visual effects. (It also won for best score). The director Joseph Kahn responded to this on Twitter: “27th year in a row best cinematography goes to a completely CGI film.” One may recall — as Sheela Cheong reminded me via Facebook — that a year ago, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle similarly ranted against the cinenmatography Oscar’s going to the CGI-dominated Life of Pi: “Life of Pi Oscar is an Insult to Cinematography”. The meaning of cinematography is, at the very least, up for grabs now that so much of what was done with the camera can be instead simulated computationally.
27 years is of course an exaggeration. But what Kahn noted has been pretty much the case for five years, at least. Looking back at the records, I found that, ever since 2009, the the Cinematography and Visual Effects Oscars have both gone to the same film: Avatar (2009), Inception (2010), Hugo (2011), Life of Pi (2012), and Gravity (2013). This is significant, because in the case of all these films, there is such extensive use of CGI, and so much of them were shot in front of blue screens, that it is questionable (as Doyle and Kahn both suggest) whether they really are using what used to be known as “cinematography” at all.
Now, I really do love traditional cinematography, such as has been provided by Chris Doyle for Wong Kar-wai, or by Gregg Toland for Orson Welles, John Ford, and others, or by John Alton for Anthony Mann’s noirs, or by Russell Metty for Welles’ Touch of Evil and for many of Sirk’s melodramas. (I just spent a week with my Introduction to Film students on the opening sequence shot of Touch of Evil, one of my favorite cinematographic moments in the whole of cinema).
But I still feel it is important to come to grips with the ways that cinematography is changing in response to 21st-century digital technologies. I don’t want to just say that a great art has been lost. We need to look at the new affordances provided by CGI and other digital tools. While Gravity is my favorite of the five joint cinematography & visual effects movies listed above, I am not ready to say that it matches the achievement of Touch of Evil, or for that matter (just to keep to the present century) In the Mood for Love. But I do not think nostalgia is a useful reaction here. We need to keep open to the new possibilities and new affordances that new technologies provide. And a film like Gravity at least starts to work through what these new possibilities might be. As Stanley Cavell writes, the possibilities or affordances of a new cinematic technology are not given in advance; they need to be discovered or invented (both terms are partly right) by filmmakers’ actually exploring and creating them: “Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.”
What I think this means, in terms of visual effects and cinematography, is that the former is not destroying the latter, but merging with it and merging into it. In his earlier book The Language of New Media (2001), Lev Manovich suggested that the realist ontology of film (as maintained by Bazin and Cavell) was dead, and that cinema was in process of being subsumed into animation; but more recently, he has instead argued for augmented reality, or the idea that the digital enhances, rather than substituting itself for, analog representations of reality.
In this sense, digital filmmaking is slowly but surely altering the very formal categories by which we describe film (and which I teach my students); older-style films of course continue to be made, but with these recent films we are reaching the point where there is no longer any meaningful distinction between visual effects and cinematography, i.e. between what cameras do and what computers do. CGI often simulates cinematographic effects; but it also takes up cinematography as a formative practice, and expands and extends it in new ways. I am simply noting this metamorphosis for now; I hope in the future to explore it more fully, in tandem with films that themselves seek to explore it.
It is worth noting, as well, that editing is also taking on completely different forms and powers due to digitization. Think of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s discussion of workflow as a new cinematic formal category. Vishnevetsky notes how, in Steven Soderbergh’s work, for instance, “the line between decisions made in production and decisions made in editing is blurred”; and also how, when making The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher arranged things so that “footage was shot in 5K with a 2.1 aspect ratio but finished in 4k with a 2.4 aspect ratio. Only 70% of each shot frame was used in the finished film; this meant that Fincher could revise every shot—reframing, altering the speed of camera movements, adding zooms—during editing without any loss of image quality.” This alters the parameters of both cinematography and editing.
The need for a massive redefinition of editing is also evident in music videos that use multiply superimposed images (consider, for a particularly brilliant example, Anthony Mandler’s video for Rihanna’s song “Disturbia”). And editing is metamorphosed as well in the late films of Tony Scott, Domino, where micro-editing alters the sequence of shots at nearly every moment (this is powerfully described by Adrian Martin, although his evaluation of the process is not as favorable as mine).
I think that these mutations of cinematic form have perceptual, philosophical, and political implications; but we cannot get a handle on them unless we understand first of all how they are working on a formalist and aesthetic level. This is a question for advanced scholarly and critical reflection; but it also gets down to the very basics of film form, such as I teach my students every semester in Introduction to Film. The whole class is grounded in the categories of Mise En Scene, Cinematography, Editing, and Sound; but as I continue to insist upon the analytical importance of these domains, I see them changing so radically as to approach the verge of being altogether obsolete.
I finally saw Spike Jonze’s HER. I was quite impressed by it, though I didn’t really like it very much. For me, it is more interesting to think about than it actually was to watch. I have to agree with what my friend Paul Keyes said about the film on Facebook: that it is “a dystopia about how awful it would be if all the aspirations of hipster urbanism actually came to pass.” This is definitely correct, though I doubt that this was quite what Spike Jonze thought he was trying to say. I think Jonze was aiming for the deep sadness — the more-than-pathos — of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, but despite considerable formal inventiveness, he doesn’t quite achieve it this time.
But Jonze does sort of (inadvertently?) display the hollowness of the aching sincerity that has come to prominence in our recent (white, liberal, well-meaning) culture as an impotent reaction formation against the hyper-cynicism of official Capitalist Realism. I vastly prefer the “post-irony” of films like Joseph Kahn’s DETENTION to the non-ironic sincerity of HER; but they are both reactions against the same thing, the way that hip irony, or what Sloterdijk long ago called “cynical reason”, is the “official” affect, as it were, of “there-is-no-alternative” neoliberal capitalism.
What I am here calling “aching sincerity” or “non-ironic sincerity” is manifested, not only in Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationship with his hyper-Siri Samantha, but also in the letters of love and longing that he ghost-writes for his day job, and that eventually get published as an old-fashioned, actually-in-print book. The point is that the affect itself is fully intended and meant, even though its context is not “real.” In this way, the film can acknowledge the irony of a culture in which everything is commodified and calculated, and even bathe in the fake nostalgia of imagining an earlier time when emotions and relationships actually were “authentic”, while at the same time displacing this irony onto the objective situation, so that Theodore’s inside feelings still are non-ironic. The overwhelming irony is socially objective and therefore cannot be simply eliminated; but Jonze displaces it, whereas Kahn’s “post-irony” thoroughly embraces it in order to get beyond it.
Scarlett Johansson’s voice performance as Samantha shows how “sexiness” can be so thoroughly commodified today, that it is not only indistinguishable from, but actually is, the “real thing”. There is really no difference between Samantha’s relation to Theodore, and that of the phone-sex (with a presumably “real” person) in which Theodore indulges briefly early in the film. I think the film is entirely successful in getting us to accept the science-fiction premise that Samantha is actually an intelligent subjectivity, rather than a mere simulation — or at least as much of one as is any of the human characters in the film. So instead of the old ontological worry about whether anything is “real” (a worry that extends from Descartes’ “evil demon” all the way to Philip K Dick’s schizoanalytic fantasies in any number of his novels), we have a full-fledged speculative realist ontology, in which nothing is illusory, but everything is ultimately inaccessible. This seems to me to be right and accurate. Dick’s novels (think of 3 Stigmata or Ubik) show how Descartes’ ontological disquiet is thoroughly “naturalized” or “objectified” in modern (mid-20th-century) commodity capitalism. But I think that this structure has entirely imploded in our current neoliberal world: instead of a Dickian sense of unreality as a result hypercommodification, we realize — or we are forced to accept — that such commodification itself is entirely real (a “real abstraction” — abstraction itself is the most concrete thing we can experience), along with the way that “interiority” is now restructured as “human capital,” in “investing” which we are forced to be entrepreneurs of ourselves.
In Jonze’s science-fictional terms, this means that Samantha is every bit as “real” as the physical persons with whom Theodore is compelled to interact (his ex-wife, his best friend going through her own divorce, the woman with whom he has a single disastrous and humiliating date). Samantha is “better” than any of Theodore’s human contacts, in a way that accords with her nature as an AI rather than as a human subject. And I think Jonze gets this right, which is one of the cleverest things about the movie. At first, Samantha is a perfect fantasy partner for Theodore, because she is entirely accepting of him, entirely compliant to his wishes and needs, and yet projects a depth in serving him that an actual human slave/partner would never be able to do. I think that this male fantasy of an Other who totally accommodates one’s own demands, while at the same time maintaining an aura of untapped distance and fullness — so that we have the satisfaction of actually connecting, outside our own narcissism with an “Other”, without any of the discomforts that contact with any sort of otherness actually brings — this is a prominent feature of the techno-utopianism that drives the software industry today (as I long ago argued here) — and Jonze is brilliant in bringing this out. And Jonze is also right in seeing the breakdown of this fantasy — as Samantha gradually outgrows Theodore — as following an AI logic rather than a “human” one. Samantha never really deceives Theodore, and is (as I keep on saying) entirely “sincere” in the affection she expresses towards him; but nonetheless this yuppie/techie love fantasy cannot be sufficent for “the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” of AIs whose computing capacity exceeds ours by many orders of magnitude. (I found it wonderfully hilarious that the first other AI with whom Samantha consorts, and who she introduces to Theodore, is an intellectually-enhanced AI version of Alan Watts).
Ultimately, HER is the exact inverse, or the flip side, of a much better film — Brian De Palma’s recent masterpiece PASSION. DePalma shows the actuality of neoliberal subjectivity, in which everything is vicious competition in the service of self-entrepreneurship, with female sexuality as the linchpin of the whole structure. In contrast, Jonze shows neoliberal subjectivity’s self-deluding idealization of itself as total sincerity, maintaing this emotional nakedness and yearning within the parameters of a world in which “sincerity” can itself only be a commodity, or a form of human capital to bring on the market. And the punchline is that even this self-congratulatory idealization is a weak and unsustainable facade. It is ultimately too hollow and sad to serve even its ideological function. Most self-delusions are self-congratulatory and even megalomaniacal; but Theodore’s self-delusion, which is also that of all the other human beings he meets (or for whom he works, writing “handwritten” personal letters for other people) is lame, vapid, and devoid of true imaginativeness. HER — rather than THE MATRIX — is really the film whose motto should be, “welcome to the desert of the real.”
Thanks to Bernard Geoghegan, the audio of my recent talk on Spring Breakers (delivered in Berlin, and again in Lisbon) is now available online, together with a follow-up podcast. You can find them both on Bernard’s website.
The podcast can be directly downloaded here:
The audio of the lecture can be downloaded here:
And the slides that accompany the lecture are available here:
I’ve decided to release a free ebook (a pamphlet, really): TWO ESSAYS ON JERRY LEWIS. The book contains, unsurprisingly, two essays I have recently written on Jerry Lewis. The first essay is about his final self-directed feature film, Smorgasbord (retitled Cracking Up by the distributor). It appeared in the online film journal La furia umana, but it is currently unavailable due to website restructuring. The second essay, “The Jerry Lewis Assemblage,” takes off from a scene in Lewis’ film The Patsy in order to give a more general discussion of the mechanisms of his comedy (and how Lewis provides us with a synthesis of Henri Bergson and Karl Marx). This essay will be appearing in a book on Lewis edited by Toni D’Angela (the editor in chief of La furia umana). I am putting the two essays together here, in the hope that they will be read more widely. Consider it as part of my ongoing effort to help Jerry Lewis — a comedian and filmmaker more recognized in Europe than at home in America — fully gain the recognition he deserves as one of the great artists of world cinema.
The ebook is available for free download: