Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Only Lovers Left Alive

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

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.

The new cinematography

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

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.

Spike Jonze’s HER

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

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.”

Spring Breakers talk and podcast

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

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: 

http://bernardg.com/sites/default/files/audio/Cult_Tech_012_Shaviro_What_is_Postcinema.mp3

The audio of the lecture can be downloaded here:

http://bernardg.com/sites/default/files/audio/Cult_Tech_011_Shaviro_Spring_Breakers.mp3

And the slides that accompany the lecture are available here:

http://www.shaviro.com/Presentations/Spring

 

Spanish translation of my Zero Dark Thirty blog entry

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

My blog entry on Zero Dark Thirty has been translated into Spanish, here.

New Ebook — TWO ESSAYS ON JERRY LEWIS

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

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:

Detention

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) is one of the best new films I have seen in the last several years. I have given a talk on it several times, and I have been meaning to write a polished, academic article or chapter about it. But I am too busy with other things this summer (namely, finishing my book on Speculative Realism and Whitehead). So what follows is basically an infodump of my disconnected and unpolished notes about the film. If this inspires any one else to see it, then I will feel that I have done my job.

[WARNING: MY DISCUSSION UNAVOIDABLY CONTAINS LOADS OF SPOILERS]

Detention mashes together multiple genres, including slasher horror and science fiction, with intimations of softcore porn; but it is mostly comedic, and it remains true to the general format of the teen/highschool comedy. It is hard even to describe the plot of the movie. It is extremely convoluted; and in addition, everything happens at a breakneck pace. The commentary on the DVD notes that (contrary to the usual practice) the filmmakers deliberately did not leave in any empty time for the audience to react to the jokes. There is more to be said — which I haven’t quite worked out yet — about the sheer speed of the film. To me, Detention is the perfect antidote to the current academic fad for “slow cinema” — which to my mind is a reactionary and reactive aesthetic move, wrongly championed as a form of “resistance.”

In the opening sequence of Detention, Taylor (Alison Woods), the most popular girl in Grizzly Lake High School, addresses the camera directly, boasting to the audience about her awesome life; at which point, she is attacked and killed by somebody dressed as “Cinderhella,” the slasher in a horror film series popular with the students.

The second sequence introduces us to our actual hero(ine), Riley (Shanley Caswell). She complains about how pathetic everything in her life is. She is the second most dorky student ever to attend Grizzly Lake High School. Fortunately, there was once someone who was even dorkier: the girl who went down on the school mascot, the enormous statue of a bear, nineteen years earlier. But Riley never seems to get anything right. She’s in love with Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), the most popular boy in the school; but he regards her as just a friend; so she is always the awkward third wheel at any social gatherings. As she walks to school on the morning the film begins, she even gets robbed of her iPod by a lame hipster — that just shows us how low she feels.

The elimination of the bitch/powerful character, which allows for the ascension of the timid or dorky one, is a staple of teen comedy and drama. But here it leads to the turning inside-out of affective regimes; a turn from irony to what the film itself calls “post-irony.” Thus: At the climax of the film, the “Cinderhella” killer reveals who he is, even as he is attacking and trying to kill Riley. The two exchange one-liners. She tells him how lame it is that he dresses up as a movie character. He replies: “Read a book — it’s called post-irony.”

Actually, I find this profound. There was a time when we found slasher films scary (say, the time of Halloween, 1978). Then, we became so familiar with the rules that we could only enjoy a slasher film ironically and self-referentially, “in quotation marks” (this is the moment of Scream, 1996, and all its sequels). This is the same time when postmodern academic theorists were reading Baudrillard, and deploring the alleged “death of the real.”

But today, the situation has changed. For now we know that all those citations and remediations and so on and so forth are themselves altogether real, part of The Real. The exacerbated irony of the “postmodern” 1990s eventually imploded into what we can see today as a multifaceted immanence. We have moved on frrom Baudrillard’s “death of the Real” to Laruelle’s sense of radical immanence, or the Real as One. Irony is dead, not because of some supposed “new sincerity,” but because all the hierarchies of reflection have collapsed. Today, there can be no ontological privileging of referentiality and self-referentiality. There is simply no difference between reality and the mediatic representation of that reality, because the latter is itself entirely real, in exactly the same way that what it ostensibly represents is real. Hyperrealism has been transformed into Bazinian or Laruellian realism. I am taking this formula from John Mullarkey’s recent article, “The Tragedy of the Object.” Mullarkey says: “Neither the observer nor even the film can be taken any more as pictures of reality: they are (in) reality. The film’s frame does not contain the film in isolation from the Real, but diffuses it into the Real.” Detention is one of the first films to express and register this shift. (Arguably Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which was made at almost the same moment as Detention, is also a film that expresses and registers this shift. In the horror genre, Cabin in the Woods addresses the same situation, but to my mind far less interestingly).

But let’s get back to the plot of the film. Everything in Detention is so ridiculous, and yet so well and carefully articulated, that it almost seems like the movie is a parody of the “Screenwriting 101″ rule that everything has to be motivated, and all the loose ends must be tied up by the end of the movie. If you show a gun in Act One, they say, it has to go off in Act Three. For example: I mentioned how Riley had said, at the beginning, that fortunately she was only the second dorkiest student ever to attend Grizzly Lake. But it turns out, by the end of the film, that Riley was herself that girl. There is a time-travel device hidden inside the bear, which allows Riley to travel from 2011 (the present time of the film) to 1992; but when she tries to return to her own time, the mechanism gets stuck, and she has to tug at the lever to make it work, which places her in that apparent blow-job position.

What’s more, we also learn at this point in the film that the photograph of Riley apparently going down on the bear, which has circulated through the school ever since, was taken by a student named Elliott Fink (Walter Perez), who we met earlier in the film when he was in detention. In fact, Elliott has been in detention every day for nineteen years, ever since he took the photo — and he has not grown any older in those nineteen years. We now learn that it is because he took the picture that he was sent to detention in the first place; the 1992 principal was adamant that he be punished for being a “pornographer.” I should note that, in the course of the film, Riley herself gets accused by the school’s uptight principal (Dane Cook) of being a “porn star,” because, due to a “wardrobe malfunction” at a party, her breast gets momentarily exposed, an event that is of course video-recorded on somebody else’s phone and uploaded to the Internet.

Everything in Detention is like that: the plot of the movie is excessive and hilariously insane, but every last detail is tied together in the manner of a purely classical narrative. Indeed, there are many ways in which the movie combines old with new. Despite all the post-irony and post-post-modernism, we are still very strongly invited to identify with, and root for, the main character, Riley. As in so many teen movies, the dork/misfit character is valorized, and finally triumphs. Despite her many humiliations, Riley eventually succeeds in her passage through and beyond adolescent anguish. Her attempted suicide is averted: she tries to hang herself, but realizes that she wants to live after she is attacked by Cinderhella. Riley doesn’t overcome dorkiness so much as she becomes happy with it; by the end of the film, she has dispatched the slasher, and she even gets Clapton, the guy she was pining for all along.

So the film asks us to identify with Riley, and to enjoy her triumph at the end. To this extent, Detention offers us a traditional sort of subjective identification. (Of course, classical Hollywood had us identify with men much more than with women; but comedy was always a genre where female characters were able to hold their own — just think if Bringing Up Baby, where Katherine Hepburn manages to get the man of her dreams, an extremely silly but wonderful Cary Grant).

But what sort of subjectivity is this that we are being offered in Detention? We cannot really say that the film endorses authenticity, as opposed to cultural stereotypes. For it seems to go out of its way to suggest that everything we think or do is a cultural stereotype. The movie evidently prefers certain stereotypes to others, but it does not suggest that there is any position outside of all these stereotypes, defined as they are by how you dress, who you hang out with, what music you listen to, etc. Authenticity (if that is even the right word any longer) only exists within the stereotypes, within the incessant rhythms of cultural circulation. This is a new way in which subjectivity is embedded in the social, or in culture: in reality television, in pop music, in uploaded viral videos. Detention, embraces this situation, explores it, and tries to think about what it might mean. The movie, therefore, is not a critique in the traditional sense — though this suggests to me, not a failure of the film, but the inadequacy of traditional notions of critique.

Here’s another intuition I have, that needs to be thought out more fully and expanded: There is an equivalence (or an identity in the One, Laruelle would say) between the short-circuiting of reflexivity in what I am inclined to see for various reasons as the “nonphenomenological perception” associated with new media in terms of form, and the extended circuits of networked pop culture in terms of content.

Beyond these general comments, there are three sequences in Detention that I would like to discuss in detail:

The first is when Riley is at a low point. Almost everything that could have gone wrong for her, has. She has failed in love and failed at suicide. The police won’t believe her when she tells them that she has been twice attacked by Cinderhella. Her stint as the actual school mascot (wearing a bear costume) has ended ignominiously with the star of the football team puking all over her, after revealing that he has undergone a transformation reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum’s in Cronenberg’s The Fly. She has lost the school debate, where her ardent plea for vegetarianism was ridiculed by a meat-eating Canadian exchange student. The principal has just chewed her out for being a “porn star.” And so on. Riley sits despondently in the school gymnasium, while behind her wrestling practice is going on: two guys trying out all sorts of holds and flips and falls on one another. Riley sits in a heart-to-heart with a 30-something male teacher, why sympathetically tries to get her to reorient her chakras. “There’s always a new way of looking at each other,” he tells her, quoting the words of a “wise man,” Deepak Chopra. (Not everyone will find this hilarious; but I do).

Caught up in the moment, Riley starts coming on to the teacher. Our identification with Riley is both reinforced by the closeups of her, and disrupted by the wrestling in the background. In the conversation, we go from closeup shot reverse shots to the two of them in the same shot facing each other (with the wrestling precisely positioned in the space between them). Riley and the teacher embrace: we see this from behind him. Yhe camera moves in closer to Riley’s face as she starts to feel for him, then down his back following her hand as she caresses his back. Riley then puts her hand on the teacher’s thigh. He gently removes her hand, then gets up and walks towards the exit door — where his boyfriend is waiting for him; they kiss on the lips, and the boyfriend claps him on the ass as they exit together.

Then we see Riley’s reaction shot, as the camera moves back from the two men kissing to Riley sitting alone, and closes in on her facial expression, which changes from initial startlement to a broad smile. It is indeed the case, quite unexpectedly, that “there’s always a new way of looking at each other.” As Riley comes to this recognition, we follow the process of a movement of self-disidentification. For this is indeed the turning point of the film. Riley moves out of the self-pitying narcissism that has been her problem up to this point, and to a new understanding.and a new ability to do things actively. Something has changed, or broken free, within her.

I’m not sure I can articulate what the wrestling has to do with this moment of illumination, but the scene wouldn’t have worked without it. (Indeed, on the commentary track of the DVD Joseph Kahn says that he first shot the scene without the wrestling, but it just didn’t work until the counterpoint of the wrestlers was added in. Here, at least, absurdism doesn’t destroy emotion, but punctuates it and makes it seem more, well, real).

The second moment that I want to discuss takes place when the students are in detention, in the school library on a Saturday (it’s reminiscent of Breakfast Club, in yet another of Detention‘s many cinematic and pop-cultural allusions). Suddenly all the other students notice somebody sitting in the circle with them who they don’t recognize. It’s Elliott Fink, who I’ve mentioned already: the guy who has been in detention every day for nineteen years, without ever growing a day older. As he tells his story, the camera moves back in time with him, from 2011 back to 1992. It does this by going around in a circle; Elliott is always sitting there, dressed in a hoodie and working out equations on his desk by cutting them into the wood with a knife. The students in detention all sit in the same postures and places — but with different clothing styles, accompanied by changing songs on the soundtrack, as we regress from 2011 back to 1992. Only Ellliot remains the same.

What can we say about this sequence that moves back in time in the course of a (seemingly) single shot? I want to suggest that this scene suggests some important things about cinematic temporality. But that requires a theoretical detour.

Deleuze writes that “it is a mistake to think of the cinematographic image as being by nature in the present” (Cinema 2, 105). And he goes on to describe how, in Orson Welles, depth of field produces a profondeur of time as well as space; where pre-Wellesian flashbacks merely depict past moments when they were present, Welles’ explorations in depth of field present us with the past in its (Bergsonian or Proustian) pastness (105-116). Later directors of the time-image, most notably Alain Resnais, continue with this exploration of the past, in and as depth.

Today, however, we are no longer in the realm of Deleuze’s time-image, or of high modernist pastness and duration. David Rodowick complains that the digital lacks duration; I want to suggest that his intimation is correct, without accepting his nostalgic despair over what he is only able to regard as a loss. We have gone beyond the time image, to something else. Our problem is to determine the nature of this something else; to create a concept that is adequate to the current digital regime of audiovisual images, in the same way that Deleuze’s movement image (with time as the indirect measure of the primary movements of bodies in space, or in narrative) works to describe the form of classical cinema, and his time image (with duration freed into its own autonomy, and presented directly to the spectator) works to describe the form of modernist cinema (the French New Wave, the New Hollywood, etc.).

Several critics have recently made important suggestions along these lines, proposing candidates for a third sort of Deleuzian “image.” Patricia Pisters proposes what she calls the neuro-image, associated both with the multiplication of screens in digital culture, with the Eternal Return as an irruption of the future into the present, and with the increased importance of the nonhuman or the cosmic in cinema and in culture more generally. And Nick Davis proposes what he calls the desiring-image, active in recent queer cinema.

I would like to propose my own candidate for a third, digital regime of audiovisual images, although I don’t have a good name for it yet. I want to suggest that the Elliot Fink sequence in Detention gives us an exemplary figuration of what this third regime, currently still in process of emergence, might be like. Instead of penetrating back into the past through the exploration of depth of field, Kahn gives us a superficial or lateral movement, without deep focus, in the form of a repeated circling, a multiple-360-degree tracking shot. What we have here is a kind of “spatialized” conception of the past: exactly the sort of thing that Bergson and Deleuze disliked. It is like a Moebius strip: there is no depth, and no “other side.” If a modernist literary reference is needed, we might think less of Proustian duration than of Mallarmé’s “Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort” (“a shallow stream, much maligned, death”). There is sort of an infinite superficiality of time. I am still trying to work out the implications of this different approach to time and space; but I want to insist that it is not a mere regression back to the movement image; and that it has its own expressive powers, and shouldn’t been seen in the negative terms that Bergson and Deleuze (and Rodowick) use when they discuss spatialization.

This conceptualization of time seems to have more to do with 21st-century informatics, and beyond that, with 20th-century physics, than it does with psychological interiority. “Selves” are defined by things like clothing styles and musical preferences — these are infinitely swappable, but the same spatial configuration underlies them. This doesn’t mean that the teens don’t have real feelings — but it does have to do with the gap between affects that cannot really be spoken, and the data that nonetheless work to express them. It also suggests the multiple scales of modern physics: from the microscale of quantum mechanic to the macroscale of general relativity — as well as the idea that the universe is ultimately composed of nothing but digital information (as the physicist John Wheeler famously said: “it from bit”).(It is worth noting that, quite hilariously, all the classes in the high school seem to involve graduate-level quantum physics). I myself do not believe that everything is information; but it is certainly the common assumption of our digital age.

I should briefly mention that there are other instances of this new audiovisual “image” throughout the film. For instance, the credit sequence near the beginning involves a tracking shot down the main corridor of the high school. When the various 2011 students go back in time to 1992, we get a formally identical tracking shot, in the same location — though of course with different contents (different students, different fashions, different music, etc). I also haven’t yet worked through my ideas about the time travel body swapping section of the film: a mother and daughter swap bodies, so that the mother becomes a teenager again in 2011, while her daughter goes back to 1992 and becomes her mom back then, at her current age; and possibly even becomes pregnand, so that she will be able to give birth to herself. (To work this out, I think I will need to consult David Wittenberg’s recent book on time travel narratives).

In any case, I wanted to conclude with a brief mention of the third sequence in Detention that I found especially interesting. This is also when the students are in detention. They don’t know who the killer is yet; and in order to figure out his next move, they figure that they need to see the next film in the Cinderhella slasher series. But the new movie hasn’t been released yet. No matter; they are able to use a cell phone in order to access a work print that has been pirated on the Net. They view a scene of young people seated in a circle much like themselves, who try to figure out just how they are in danger by watching a pirated film on the Net. And in that film… well, the same thing happens, down to four levels of self-referentiality.

There is nothing more familiar at this point (as I have already mentioned) than modernist and postmodernist self-reflexivity, or fractal self-similarity at multiple scales. But Detention turns this whole idea into a joke. It proclaims, not infinite meta-levels, but rather the collapse of any meta-level. The reason for this is that the image quality progressively degrades as we move into the past, from one meta-movie into another. People watch on a cell phone a movie of people watching a movie on a desktop computer, in which the people watch a movie on q VHS tape. As we go back in time, the image quality degrades, and the movie productions themselves become cheesier and cheesierRather than self-reproducing, everything ultimately fuzzes out in an analog manner. We regress through the history of slasher horror films, and back to its coincidence with what looks like Italian softcore porn of the 1970s, something like an inadvertent collaboration between Dario Argento and the early John Waters. (I was also reminded of a film made after Detention: Berberian Sound Studio). I think that this sequence, by pushing the mise en abime to the point of its reductio ad absurdam, works as a reproach BOTH to postmodernist pop-culture’s ironic self-referentiality (as in the Scream films), AND to postmodernist highbrow-theory’s valorization of the infinite mise-en-abîme as ultimate expression of the simultaneous necessity and inescapability of self-reflexivity (as in Derrida). Once again, we have a new presentation of time: one that is neither simply past, nor simply present, nor a Deleuzian or deconstructionist “past that never has been present.” How do we conceive this new “image” (really, an audio-visual presentation, rather than just a visual one) of time? I think that this is someplace where the artists really are ahead of the philosophers. We need somebody to do for Joseph Kahn (and other innovative contemporary directors) what Deleuze did for Welles, Resnais, and Antonioni.

This post has already gone on long enough, so I will leave matters hanging there. — Or better, I will end my account with Riley’s decisively non-nihilistic words at the end of the film, after she has come through all this madness: “”The only way to change the past is to change the present… It’s just high school, it’s not the end of the world.”

Spring Breakers

Friday, June 28th, 2013

Audiovisually speaking, SPRING BREAKERS is utterly ravishing. It is so gorgeous as to negate or suspend the uneasiness one might legitimately feel about 1)the use of GIRL POWER as an alibi to empower a straight white dude’s jerk-off fantasy; & 2)the “wanna-be-black” fantasy by means of which straight white dudes compensate for (supplement, in the Derrida sense) their own feelings of impotent inferiority by adopting, with a vengeance, the most viciously racist stereotypes of “black masculinity” that our culture currently likes to circulate. I notice these things, but I am helplessly & successfully disarmed by Harmony Korine’s relentless audiovisual seduction: the sunsets, the colors, the slow-motion, the breasts, the throbbing but sublimated yearning of the electro score, the intellectual montage that layers Britney over thuggery, and gorgeous beaches over willful stupidity, the heartfelt spirituality of Selena Gomez’s voiceovers. with the mantra-like repetitions of her monologues and other fragments of dialogue… All this as an almost didactic demonstration of the way that, in our neoliberal culture, there is no distinction whatsoever between hedonism and self-help, or between transgression and hypernormativity.

SCMS response

Saturday, March 9th, 2013

Here is my response to the SCMS panel this afternoon on “primordigital cinema,” with talks by Jonathan Freedman, Richard Grusin, and Selmin Kara. Grusin’s paper is available at http://ragmanscircles.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/post-cinematic-affect-scms-march-9-2013/.

All three of these papers point to ways in which the new is never entirely new, but always involves a return to – and what Grusin calls a remediation of – the old. Technological transformation calls forth what Grusin in his paper calls atavism. Digital technologies have at this point entirely displaced the older technological bases of the cinema; this has led both to new forms and new sorts of content, but also to the surprising revival of older forms, contents, and techniques. Sometimes these revivals and remediations involve a nostalgic hearkening back to what has been displaced or lost; but at other times, we may see them as necessary or unavoidable consequences of the very process of social and technological change. All three of these papers consider, and shed interesting light upon, such mixed cases.

I think that Marshall McLuhan still provides us with the best framework for understanding such transformations. So I will use McLuhan’s schema in order to consider what we have learned from these three papers. McLuhan identified four tendencies, or what he called “laws of media”: four ways in which a new medium, technology artifact relates to its environment. This environment consists, in fact, of the older media, technologies, and artifacts that are in process of being displaced by the new. McLuhan describes the four tendencies as follows; each one provides a series of questions that we may ask:

  • ENHANCEMENT: “What does the artefact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate?”
  • OBSOLESCENCE: “What is pushed aside crobsolesced by the new ‘organ’?”
  • RETRIEVAL: “What recurrence or retrieval of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form? What older, previously obsolesced ground is brought back and inheres in the new form?”
  • REVERSAL: “When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will end to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?”

All of these films suggest a progressive movement of enhancement and forced obsolesence of previous modes, and an atavistic retrieval of such modes and reversal back into them, all at once.

Jonathan Freedman untangles the ambiguities of digital cinema in his discussion of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and HUGO. Quentin Tarantino uses computer-generated imagery precisely in order to celebrate the power of per-computerized, analog movie technology. The power of the old, analog cinematic image is celebrated in BASTERDS in “the shot of Shoshona’s disembodied face projected, ghostlike after her death onto the flame-engulfed theater”; this spectral image proclaims revenge even as the movie theater bursts into flame due to the combustibility of celluloid; so Tarantino both celebrates the power of celluloid, and portrays its destruction. Similarly, in HUGO, Martin Scorsese recreates George Melies’ lost or ruined films by means of 3D digital rendering. In both cases, new media technologies ironically allow the films’ directors to RETRIEVE certain of the lost powers of an older cinema. Digital film ENHANCES the powers of spectacle that already belonged to an older cinema; more specifically, it RETRIEVES the “cinema of attractions” that was made obsolete by conventional (classical) narrative (as well as certain old technologies, e.g. the hand-cranked projector –cf. Tony Scott’s use of hand-cranked cameras).

What is OBSOLESCED in this process, however, is a certain measure of naturalism or realism, or representational accuracy. This erasure of actuality, as a result of the new cinema’s ability to impose its own imagined events without impediment, potentially even reaches the dimension of historical falsification – this is the reason for Freedman’s worry about how BASTERDS achieves its fantasy of revenge against, and defeat of, the Nazis at the price of repressing the actual horrors of the Holocaust. He is less concerned with Scorsese’s mystification of early film history, because this doesn’t have the same ethical weight as Holocaust revisionism. But it still participates in what Freedman calls “the effacement of the signs of history by means of the perfections of digital technology.”

I am sensitive to Freedman’s point here, even if I am not as worried by the ethical and political consequences of this sort of “revisionism” and historical oblivion as he is. This is because I think that our new digital powers to alter historical images at will does not just mean a falsification of memory. But rather this transformation is one part of a whole new articulation of both (collective) historicity and (individual) memory: one that is no longer based in the sense of deep time, or of the density of Bergsonian duration, as was the case for much of the 20th century. David Rodowick deplores what he sees as the loss of duration in digital cinema, just as Fredric Jameson, more generally, criticizes the ways in which the spatialization enforced by postmodernity leads to a loss of history, since now all past moments are equally available for appropriation, outside of sequence, in a sort of eternal present, and with their import reduced to the status of commodified cliches. But it seems to me – and Jameson in certain moods would probably even agree – that this needs to be seen as an ambiguous situation rather than as a decline of formerly available powers. It is the terrain on which, for both good and ill, our political and cultural interventions need to operate.

In this regard, I would contrast INGLORIOUS BASTERDS with another Jewish revenge fantasy – one of its evident sources – that imagines Hitler killed prematurely, so that not only are the Nazis defeated, but the worst horrors of the Holocaust are, as it were, retrospectively averted in advance. I refer, of course, to Jerry Lewis’s 1970 film WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT?, which has no compunctions about transforming the traumas of the War into kitsche. In this film, Lewis’ character impersonates a German General and thereby manages to kill Hitler during the Allied invasion of Italy – hence well before D-Day. Despite its much earlier date than Tarantino’s film, and consequent much less technologically advanced use of (analog) special effects, Lewis’ film already takes for granted the “postmodern” image of history deplored by Jameson. But Lewis’ historical revisionism operates according to far different codes than that of Tarantino (comedy instead of war/macho cliches), to better and more progressive effect. I would even claim that Lewis’ film, despite its temporal priority, can be seen as the tendential REVERSAL of Tarantino’s digital reworking of history. (As perhaps THE ERRAND BOY is in relation to Scorsese’s nostalgic re-creation of early cinema).

Richard Grusin’s talk convincingly rereads Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA as a kind of mourning for the death of cinema. Grusin refers specifically to the death of an atavistic cinema of attractions, and suggests that the film refuses the audiovisual practices of contemporary “fast” cinema. I am not sure I agree entirely with this, since the first half of the film involves a Dogme95-style nervous handheld camera. (Does photographic cinema equate with the primitive cinema of attractions?).

But in any case, the apocalypse figured in the film is also, or perhaps even primarily, a self-reflexive technological one. Grusin thereby reworks my own reading of MELANCHOLIA, by pointing to aspects of the film that I overlooked. Von Trier, in effect, uses digital technologies – especially in the film’s Overture and in its imaging of the planet Melancholia coming towards and finally obliterating the Earth – in order to OBSOLESCE the myths of progressivism that were central to 20th century filmic narrative. He mourns the death of cinema by proleptically welcoming this death and finding it a source of comfort, and an opportunity to act humanely – as it is for Justine within the film. In this way, the film remediates, or RETRIEVES, a kind of archaic pictorialism that is found in images reaching back to the very birth of cinema (of a cinema largely of attractions) – and beyond this as well, to various pre- and anti-modernist visual sources. The affective “pull” of cinema is ENHANCED at the very moment of its disappearance – which is dramatized in the film by the way the end of the film, or of any film, is synchronized with the end of cinema itself. The end of the story is synchronized with the vanishing of the cinematic image.

In place of Grusin’s reference to the Lumiere Bros’ “Arrival of the Train,” and to the final shot of “The Great Train Robbery,” I would rather recall Godard’s WEEKEND, whose final title reads, instead of the usual FIN, rather FIN DU CINEMA. In 1968, Godard felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of cinema, both formally and politically. Recall that Godard also said that a film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Despite the militant Maoism to which Godard aspired at the time, I think that one can find a despair here that von Trier RETRIEVES in a depressive (instead of angrily nihilistic) mode. In this case, the REVERSAL is a kind of (implicitly endless) living-on of the very scene of catastrophic obliteration. By aestheticizing the disaster in this lyrical way, i.e. by using his digital special-effects technology to give us delicate double-moonlight and double-shadow effects, in contast to the FX apocalypse porn of so many other films, von Trier manages to find a sort of comfort in this final destruction precisely by lingering over it at the culminating or liminal point of its advent. And this means a kind of REVERSAL of the very apocalyptic culmination that he is mourning and deploring: which is precisely the way that the new digital technologies incorporate the atavistic.

Selmin Kara’s account of THE TREE OF LIFE, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, and (to a lesser extent) NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, directly links these films’ technological innovations – and especially the FX sequences of extinct life forms in the first two of these films – to the metaphysical questions that they raise. These films both involve the sort of ways that, as Lev Manovich has recently argued (in contrast to his earlier position) the digital enhances – rather than negates or substitutes for – the analog realism of traditional cinematography.

If these FX inserts are jarring to some audiences, because the compromise the otherwise-maintained sense of naturalism in the films’ depictions of families and their losses, Kara shows that these technological ENHANCEMENTS also work to disturb, and indeed to OBSOLESCE, the humanistic pieties that the films might otherwise seem concerned to maintain. They combine human an nonhuman temporalities. Both films RETRIEVE the sense of what Quentin Meillassoux calls “ancestrality,” or the primordial insistence of that which is irreducible to the human, since we cannot apprehend it even as a past presence; it is rather something that never was and never could have been present, never had the possibility of being “given” to an apprehending consciousness, since it absolutely precedes the existence of any such consciousness.

The crucial ambiguity of these films has to do with the way that this absolute antecedence is nonetheless “given” to us in a certain sense, through the “perceptual realism” of the computer-generated imagery, and through what Kara calls both films’ palpable “nostalgia for a proto-digital sense of naturalism.” I myself have no problems with speaking of speculative realism, despite the fact that the term has been criticized and rejected by the original participants.

Formally, TREE OF LIFE remediates, or works as a sort of remake of, Tarkovsky’s MIRROR. And the CGI sequence of creation and the dinosaurs seems to emulate Kubrick’s 2001. But, despite the atavistic reversion to the creation or origin of the universe, Malick’s film has a much lessened sense of thick temporality than Tarkovsky’s does. The scrambling of scenes via disjunctive editing has a thinness compared to Tarkovksy’s time traveling. It also entirely lacks the cynicism (if that is the word) with which Kubrick treats Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of cosmic evolution – despite the fact that Malick refers to Darwinian evolution as well as to Christian creationism. Unlike Kara, I don’t really see a “thanatological” alternative to Christian eschatology here. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that these are artistic failings; it has to do rather with the changes in our very conceptualization of temporality that I have already mentioned.

I think, actually, that this is more ambiguous than Kara says, since to my eyes the CGI doesn’t entirely succeed in its pseudo-naturalism, but retains a certain “uncanny valley” feeling to it. In this way, I think, the films in question (and Malick’s in particular) raise the question of the nonhuman that has become so urgent in contemporary speculative realism, and engage in salutary speculation – but also that they RETRIEVE, or retreat back to, the sort of existential sense of finitude that is precisely what Meillassoux and Brassier reject – Brassier in particular criticizes the adequacy of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s stances towards death. Malick’s film seems to me to recuperate the nonhuman temporality of cosmic origins into human terms. The question that for me still remains unanswered is to what sort of REVERSAL the tendencies of these at once forward-looking and atavistic films might lead.

A Brief Remark on Zero Dark Thirty

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Liberalism has often been criticized (rightly, in my opinion) for for its unwavering emphasis upon means rather than ends, procedures rather than goals. As Carl Freedman puts it, in his great account of Richard Nixon:

Liberalism begins by abjuring positive social policy in favor of a formal proceduralism, pragmatically trusting that the application of a certain set of rules will “work” in the sense of yielding the fairest attainable results. But such results are absolutely precluded by the initial liberal move of waiving the question of justice: for justice is a social goal with positive, determinate content…

In other words, liberal proceduralism is concerned that actions must be conducted “fairly,” and not at all concerned with the question of whether the outcome of the action is actually fair. If fairness or justice is a Kantian regulative ideal, then 20th and 21st century liberalism is obsessed with the “regulative” aspect in and of itself, to the point of entirely forgetting the “ideal” which is what really matters.

Liberal proceduralism is one aspect of the “instrumental reason” whose annihilation of true rationality Horkheimer and Adorno warned us of two thirds of a century ago. And if anything, this proceduralism has become even more pronounced today than it was in the mid-20th-century. It has become the nearly unquestioned basis of all aspects of government and social life. Everything from the “reforms” that are currently decimating the US educational system, to the way that American foreign and military policy is conducted, adheres to a strictly procedural logic. (In a full social analysis, we would have to say that there is in fact an end in sight: the further accumulation of capital by the tiny minority that already “owns” it, and the exacerbated dispossession of the “99%” in the US itself, not to mention the much more severely disadvantaged global poor. But of course, this “end” is not publically avowable. And as Marx long ago pointed out, the “end” of capital accumulation isn’t really an end or an aim, since it has no goal in view aside from its continuing exacerbated expansion. On the largest scale, capitalism is itself a “liberal” process of proceduralism without any additional or external aim).

I think that it is because we live in such an overwhelmingly “proceduralist” society that the genre of the *procedural* has become so ubiquitous in television and film. This genre used to be known as the “police procedural,” exemplified today by (for example) the ever-popular CSI group of TV shows. But procedurals have also become the staple genre for some of our most interesting film directors. Thus Olivier Assayas gives us a procedural of terrorism (Carlos), and David Fincher gives us procedurals of detective work beyond the police department (Zodiac) and of corporate strategy in the age of the Internet (The Social Network).

And this, to me, is the genius of Zero Dark Thirty. When I wrote before about Kathryn Bigelow, I noted that her characteristic techinque as a director is to immerse herself, and us, in the element, or environment, in which the story takes place (night in Near Dark; the seashore and the waves in Point Break; the realm of inner-psychic-life-as-virtual-reality in Strange Days; and the desert in The Hurt Locker). I also noted that The Hurt Locker marked her move to the genre of the procedural, in order to convey this elemental reality (which seems not to be “political” only because it is, in fact,the necessary precondition and container of the political).

Well, perhaps this is because I am such an unregenerate auteurist, but I find the same principles at work in Zero Dark Thirty as well.

Zero Dark Thirty is the ne plus ultra of proceduralism, its ultimate expansion and reductio ad absurdum. It’s all about the well-nigh interminable process of searching for, and then eliminating, Osama Bin Laden. The premise and initial impetus of this process is of course the mythological demonization of Bin Laden, as the ultimate culprit responsible for Nine Eleven. But in the relentless proceduralism that the film presents to us, this goal or rationale is abraded away. The torture which the film has become controversial for depicting is of course part of this. But so is the process of painstakingly correlating irrelevant information, the accidental discovery of leads in years-old records, the repetitive tracking of the vehicle of the suspected courier, the endless bureaucratic meetings at which officials seek to decide if the information is valid and what should be done about it, and above all the military operation in the last thirty minutes of the film (has military action ever been depicted in the movies with such relentless a focus on operational techniques, in a manner that is utterly devoid alike of the horror of war and of the glory and heroism that are so often invoked to justify it?). The goal has been so absorbed into procedural routine that the ostensible climax of the film, the actual killing of Bin Laden, occurs offscreen; and we barely even get a glimpse of the corpse, zipped as it is into a body bag, which is to say treated entirely (and literally) according to Standard Operating Procedure.

The film makes a sort of feint by implying that its real subject is the passion of its protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain), who continues to pursue the search for Osama when everyone else has given up on it. But her obsession is itself entirely contained within, and articulated by, the proceduralism which is her job as a CIA analyst, and which seems to be the only world she knows. Every potentially dramatic action in which she finds herself (bombings and armed ambushes included) is drained of drama, and subsumed within proceduralist routine. Every affect, and every reason for doing what one does, is sucked into a black hole. This is why Maya is so emptied out at the end of the film.

We are immersed into an overwhelming environment in Zero Dark Thirty, just as we are in all of Bigelow’s films. But in this case, the environment is the numbingly anonymous one of Big Data, of the numbingly repetitious accumulation of “information” (whether by torture, surveillance, physical search, or collation of records), and of instantaneity (the annihilation of duration) mediated through video screens and telecommunications technologies.

As I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, I found the relentlessness with which all this was depicted almost unbearably intense. I’ve never seen (or heard) so powerful a depiction (or better, I should say,so powerful an enactment) of entropic dissolution and decay. All meaning, and all feeling, was draining away before my eyes and ears, without even the prospect of any sort of negative finality or conclusion. I realize that this weird inverted intensity won’t appeal to everyone; it’s the reason, I think, that many people I know simply found the movie tedious and boring. (But such differences of response are of course, as Kant knew, beyond argument).

In any case, Zero Dark Thirty embodies the truth of liberal proceduralism as an organizing principle of all governmentality and all social life today. Embodying and testifying to a truth in this manner is not the same as offering a “critique.” In this sense, it is perfectly true that the movie does not offer any critique of our government’s systematic use of torture. It is also perfectly true, at least in a literal and banal sense, that (as the filmmakers have themselves defensively claimed) the movie doesn’t “endorse” torture either. But I think that to have an argument on this level is to miss the point. Critique is important, but it isn’t everything. It might well be argued that, at this late date, even the most accurate critique doesn’t accomplish very much; it is itself too much part of an all-too-predictable procedure. Embodying the truth of a situation, as I think Zero Dark Thirty does, has important aesthetic and political consequences, more important perhaps than those that come from making an accurate and moral judgment. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t show us a way out from the nightmare of liberal proceduralism, but it makes this nightmare visible at a time when its sheer ubiquity might otherwise leave us to take it for granted and thereby ignore it.