Tarnation

Jonathan Couette’s Tarnation is an astonishing, heartbreakingly beautiful film. It’s autobiography transfigured, and life as performance. It’s a survivor’s diary, and it’s a love letter without hope, yet unquelled by the absence of hope. It’s a psychedelic, avant-garde, experimental film, and yet it’s a pure documentary, concerned with the Real, only the Real.

Jonathan Couette’s mother Belle was and is crazy: after an incident of (what Freud would have called) hysterical paralysis when she was 12, she was given hundreds of shock treatments, which unhinged her for good. She gave birth to Jonathan when she was 19; his father was already gone from the picture. Jonathan remembers seeing Belle raped in front of him when he was three. She got even crazier after that, and he was taken from her; after a few years in foster homes (where he remembers being abused), he was raised by his grandparents (Belle’s parents), while Belle herself spent years going into and out of various psychiatric institutions. Growing up, Jonathan suffered from “depersonalization disorder” (a sort of dissociation that leads to one’s viewing oneself and one’s body affectlessly, as if from the outside, and being tormented with a continuing sense of unreality). But he also discovered that he was gay, and found in his gayness, and in his passion for acting and filmmaking, ways of escaping the familial horror that nonetheless continues to haunt him.

Tarnation is about — no, Tarnation is — Couette’s self-healing and self-overcoming, together with his infinite love for Belle, the mother who was literally never able to be “there” for him. The film contains some reenactments, but mostly it’s composed of the Super-8 films (and later the videos) of his own life that he started shooting when he was 11 years old (he is now 31 or so). Footage of himself and his family and his real-life dilemmas; and parallel footage of his acting, his trying out of different personas. On the one hand, we see him at 11, in drag, putting on the role of a Southern belle with a young child, who was raped much like he remembered his mother being: there’s incredible nervousness in this performance, but also an over-the-top melodramatic flair, as if such role-playing could exorcize the pain by some sort of homeopathic ritual. On the other hand, we see him as an adult, in the present, trying to interview his mother, trying to make some sense of her mood swings, her inconsistencies, her bitterness and anger, her inability to focus or to make anything of herself.

But Tarnation is not a film of pathos and victimization. It’s quite harrowing in parts, depressing and devastating and overwhelmingly sad; but it’s also a powerful act of reimagining and reinventing, the creation and projection of a new sensibility, a new subjectivity. And as such, there’s something exuberant, even (dare I say it?) exhilarating about it.

A formalist would call it a triumph of montage. The film is a swirl of fragmentary images, unexpected leaps and associations, and soundtrack music that both intensifies and distances the material being presented on the screen. Couette mixes his personal, archival footage with bits and pieces of movies, TV shows, and pop songs; he cuts his images up, sometimes playing them out of sequence, or repeating them like musical motifs or dividing and multiplying them on the screen. A lot of the recorded speech is barely audible, while crucial details of his life story are distanced by being narrated only by terse third-person printed titles.

In all these ways, the form of the film matches the content. Not just in terms of schizophrenic disintegration, but much more importantly as an act of reconstruction. For Tarnation doesn’t try to restore a “normal” life, to establish a straightforward (or straight) narrative; it doesn’t offer consolation. What it does do, beautifully and astoundingly, is produce a subjectivity (for the film, and hopefully for the director/protagonist as well) that is capable of enduring (of living through, of not just surviving, but persisting in the face of) the traumas and tribulations of its history. Tarnation expresses and embodies a mode of being-in-the-world that is absolutely singular, rich and strange, yet at the same time completely comprehensible and recognizable to the spectator (watching the film, I find myself utterly captivated by and immersed in its alien and unsettling world, while at the same time understanding that this world is not all that strange and alien after all, since it is also my own, the very same world that I myself inhabit). It’s something about the third person titles, the acting and role-playing, the interweaving of personal footage with media footage, the continual metamorphoses of images in the frame, the rush of events punctuated by moments of stillness.

The emotion that makes it all work, and that is embedded deeply in every frame of the film, is Couette’s love for his mother: a love that is absolute and unconditional (as any true love must ultimately be), at the same time that it is impossible (and recognized as impossible): impossible for anybody, in any circumstances, of course, but all the more so with a mother as unstable, unavailable, unreachable as Belle. Tarnation is, you might say, a melodramatic fiction: not fiction in the sense of illusion, however, but a fiction that is entirely actualized, wholly present, in Couette’s own life, and that also becomes actual for us, as we watch the film.

Jonathan Couette’s Tarnation is an astonishing, heartbreakingly beautiful film. It’s autobiography transfigured, and life as performance. It’s a survivor’s diary, and it’s a love letter without hope, yet unquelled by the absence of hope. It’s a psychedelic, avant-garde, experimental film, and yet it’s a pure documentary, concerned with the Real, only the Real.

Jonathan Couette’s mother Belle was and is crazy: after an incident of (what Freud would have called) hysterical paralysis when she was 12, she was given hundreds of shock treatments, which unhinged her for good. She gave birth to Jonathan when she was 19; his father was already gone from the picture. Jonathan remembers seeing Belle raped in front of him when he was three. She got even crazier after that, and he was taken from her; after a few years in foster homes (where he remembers being abused), he was raised by his grandparents (Belle’s parents), while Belle herself spent years going into and out of various psychiatric institutions. Growing up, Jonathan suffered from “depersonalization disorder” (a sort of dissociation that leads to one’s viewing oneself and one’s body affectlessly, as if from the outside, and being tormented with a continuing sense of unreality). But he also discovered that he was gay, and found in his gayness, and in his passion for acting and filmmaking, ways of escaping the familial horror that nonetheless continues to haunt him.

Tarnation is about — no, Tarnation is — Couette’s self-healing and self-overcoming, together with his infinite love for Belle, the mother who was literally never able to be “there” for him. The film contains some reenactments, but mostly it’s composed of the Super-8 films (and later the videos) of his own life that he started shooting when he was 11 years old (he is now 31 or so). Footage of himself and his family and his real-life dilemmas; and parallel footage of his acting, his trying out of different personas. On the one hand, we see him at 11, in drag, putting on the role of a Southern belle with a young child, who was raped much like he remembered his mother being: there’s incredible nervousness in this performance, but also an over-the-top melodramatic flair, as if such role-playing could exorcize the pain by some sort of homeopathic ritual. On the other hand, we see him as an adult, in the present, trying to interview his mother, trying to make some sense of her mood swings, her inconsistencies, her bitterness and anger, her inability to focus or to make anything of herself.

But Tarnation is not a film of pathos and victimization. It’s quite harrowing in parts, depressing and devastating and overwhelmingly sad; but it’s also a powerful act of reimagining and reinventing, the creation and projection of a new sensibility, a new subjectivity. And as such, there’s something exuberant, even (dare I say it?) exhilarating about it.

A formalist would call it a triumph of montage. The film is a swirl of fragmentary images, unexpected leaps and associations, and soundtrack music that both intensifies and distances the material being presented on the screen. Couette mixes his personal, archival footage with bits and pieces of movies, TV shows, and pop songs; he cuts his images up, sometimes playing them out of sequence, or repeating them like musical motifs or dividing and multiplying them on the screen. A lot of the recorded speech is barely audible, while crucial details of his life story are distanced by being narrated only by terse third-person printed titles.

In all these ways, the form of the film matches the content. Not just in terms of schizophrenic disintegration, but much more importantly as an act of reconstruction. For Tarnation doesn’t try to restore a “normal” life, to establish a straightforward (or straight) narrative; it doesn’t offer consolation. What it does do, beautifully and astoundingly, is produce a subjectivity (for the film, and hopefully for the director/protagonist as well) that is capable of enduring (of living through, of not just surviving, but persisting in the face of) the traumas and tribulations of its history. Tarnation expresses and embodies a mode of being-in-the-world that is absolutely singular, rich and strange, yet at the same time completely comprehensible and recognizable to the spectator (watching the film, I find myself utterly captivated by and immersed in its alien and unsettling world, while at the same time understanding that this world is not all that strange and alien after all, since it is also my own, the very same world that I myself inhabit). It’s something about the third person titles, the acting and role-playing, the interweaving of personal footage with media footage, the continual metamorphoses of images in the frame, the rush of events punctuated by moments of stillness.

The emotion that makes it all work, and that is embedded deeply in every frame of the film, is Couette’s love for his mother: a love that is absolute and unconditional (as any true love must ultimately be), at the same time that it is impossible (and recognized as impossible): impossible for anybody, in any circumstances, of course, but all the more so with a mother as unstable, unavailable, unreachable as Belle. Tarnation is, you might say, a melodramatic fiction: not fiction in the sense of illusion, however, but a fiction that is entirely actualized, wholly present, in Couette’s own life, and that also becomes actual for us, as we watch the film.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is so dense, graphically, verbally, and intellectually, that I find it difficult to write about it after just one viewing. It’s the film The Matrix wanted to be but failed to be, a profound pulp-fictional exploration of virtuality and cyborg-being. (There’s even a character called “Haraway”). Though plot-wise the film is a direct sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell, conceptually and affectively Innocence moves onto an entirely different plane.

Visually, the film is quite “advanced,” with its fluid cityscapes and technoscapes, and mixture of flat and more 3D animation techniques. Oshii of course does not have the technological resources of Pixar or Dreamworks, but then his aims are far different from theirs. He isn’t interested in the kind of “realism” that is the holy grail of Pixar animation. Nor does he go for the sort of iconicity that is frequently the strength of both comics and animated film. Rather, Oshii aims for a sort of abstraction that is both expressive and representational. Forms are abstracted and simplified, as befits the animated medium; there’s no attempt to reproduce the shades and subtleties of emotion that would go through a live actor’s face. And the environments and backgrounds — though their surfaces are often lovingly rendered, and they are active, and metamorphize, in ways that would be impossible with “real” locations — never seem (as Pixar’s often do) like advertisements for the use of massive amounts of computing power. But these abstract visuals are expressive, because of the way Oshii draws upon, but mutates, what I think of as the “heavy metal” style of certain comics, together with borrowings from such cinematic sources as film noir and post-James Cameron action editing. And Oshii’s abstraction is also representational, because of the way it conflates physical/urban space with virtual/informational space. Schematic (though messy) abstraction is a form common to the film’s futuristic cityscapes (which draw heavily on the already-abstract languages of modern and postmodern architecture) and its depictions of computer datascapes. The point is that these two necessarily flow together, because all the human characters in the film have cyborg enhancements which allow them to experience “cyberspace” more or less sensorially; and because computing is so thoroughly embedded into physical places, machines, and landscapes that physical and informational spaces have come to be thoroughly isomorphic in any case.

In terms of visual style alone, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has accomplished what no live-action film ever has (no matter how expensive and brilliant its special effects): it makes visible (and audible; though without repeated exposure I am able to say nothing concrete about the film’s electronic sound track) how computational technologies have penetrated and transformed the real itself. (It’s important to maintain that these technologies are themselves thoroughly real, constitutive and constituent of the real, in short part of the very fabric of the Real; against the fashionable claims that they have murdered the real, denatured it, reduced it to spectacle or simulacrum).

(One side note. Several reviews that I have read have made the well-nigh inevitable comparison to Blade Runner; but I think the similarity is greatly exaggerated. Yes, Oshii places high-tech androids and cyborgs in dark and gritty, but media-pervaded, urban settings; but in terms of lighting, editing rhythms, pace of action, and so on, Innocence could not be more unlike Blade Runner).

I won’t try to summarize the plot of Innocence — which was too detailed, too economically expressed, and with too many subtle twists for me to grasp all of it on a first viewing — except to say that it revolves around a police investigation that is also, equally, a metaphysical investigation. The cyborg detective protagonist is trying to find out why “gynoid” robots (basically, animated female sex dolls who have been devised to service men sexually) have suddenly started killing their owners (which should be impossible according to Asimovian laws of robotics). But he’s really trying to find out what it means to be posthuman (a question which assails him, not only because he is dealing with sentient machines, which in this case basically means sex dolls, but also because of his own cyborg enhancements — not much of his original human body remains with him — and because of his former partner, who — at the end of the first Ghost in the Shell — had cast off her human embodiment entirely, choosing instead to vanish into the Net). This question comes up thanks to the very nature of the case, but also through the interchanges between the protagonist and his new (still mostly human) partner/sidekick: in the course of their investigation, they exchange aphorisms and citations deriving from a wide range of religious, philosophical, scientific, and science-ficitonal sources of both East and West.

The film explores both different levels and layers of reality — from the purely physical, through the hallucinatorily virtual — at one point, the protagonist and his sidekick pass through a series of virtual-reality loops, whose imagery, both idyllic and horrific, is ironically far more “organic” or biomorphic than anything else in the film — up to the machinic and the spiritual. What’s noteworthy — especially in contrast to the Manicheanism of The Matrix, and so much other Hollywood SF — is how the distinctions the film draws are never dualistic. Innocence is not monistic either: the differences it draws between body and soul, and between various degrees and circumstances of embodiment are never abolished or dissolved into oneness. But the film espouses a pluralism, in which body and soul, or human and machine, or living organism and doll, or materiality and virtuality/information, are neither fused together nor conceived as opposites. They are more like different floors of the same mansion (to use Deleuze’s metaphor to describe the relation of body and soul in Leibniz). There’s certainly a lot of tension between body and soul; indeed, the solution to the mystery of the criminal investigation (and perhaps to that of the metaphysical quest as well) turns on what happens when they are put into violent conflict. But Oshii doesn’t present this conflict as inevitable, or as essential and all-embracing. Boundary displacements are inevitable, but they need not be seen as absolute and definitive. The film defuses Cartesian paranoia together with the kinkiness of its initial erotic premise. Oshii suggests that Descartes’ Evil Genius (whose challenge is taken up in The Matrix, as well as in the novels of Philip K. Dick) and the sexualized uncanniness of dolls (a theme which one can trace, in the West, from Hoffman through Freud to Bellmer and other Surrealists; it apparently has great resonance in Japanese culture as well, but of this I know little) are really just two sides of the same coin. And in displacing and rearticulating the energies present in both these myths, he opens up the possibility of thinking them in different terms, telling them in different narratives. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is too skeptical, as well as too sensuous and affectively ambivalent, to offer a new philosophy of cyborg-being; but it powerfully points up the inadequacy of our current conceptions. Events are outstripping the categories we apply to them; the most difficult thing, but also the most necessary, is to be “as radical as reality itself.” Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence takes us a few steps in that direction.

Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is so dense, graphically, verbally, and intellectually, that I find it difficult to write about it after just one viewing. It’s the film The Matrix wanted to be but failed to be, a profound pulp-fictional exploration of virtuality and cyborg-being. (There’s even a character called “Haraway”). Though plot-wise the film is a direct sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell, conceptually and affectively Innocence moves onto an entirely different plane.

Visually, the film is quite “advanced,” with its fluid cityscapes and technoscapes, and mixture of flat and more 3D animation techniques, as well as of hand-drawn animation (for the characters) and computer-generated (for the intricate backdrops). Oshii of course does not have the technological resources of Pixar or Dreamworks, but then his aims are far different from theirs. He isn’t interested in the kind of “realism” that is the holy grail of Pixar animation. Nor does he go for the sort of iconicity that is frequently the strength of both comics and animated film. Rather, Oshii aims for a sort of abstraction that is both expressive and representational. Forms are abstracted and simplified, as befits the animated medium; there’s no attempt to reproduce the shades and subtleties of emotion that would go through a live actor’s face. And the environments and backgrounds — though their surfaces are often lovingly rendered, and they are active, and metamorphize, in ways that would be impossible with “real” locations — never seem (as Pixar’s often do) like advertisements for the use of massive amounts of computing power. But these abstract visuals are expressive, because of the way Oshii draws upon, but mutates, what I think of as the “heavy metal” style of certain comics, together with borrowings from such cinematic sources as film noir and post-James Cameron action editing. And Oshii’s abstraction is also representational, because of the way it conflates physical/urban space with virtual/informational space. Schematic (though messy) abstraction is a form common to the film’s futuristic cityscapes (which draw heavily on the already-abstract languages of modern and postmodern architecture) and its depictions of computer datascapes. The point is that these two necessarily flow together, because all the human characters in the film have cyborg enhancements which allow them to experience “cyberspace” more or less sensorially; and because computing is so thoroughly embedded into physical places, machines, and landscapes that physical and informational spaces have come to be thoroughly isomorphic in any case.

In terms of visual style alone, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has accomplished what no live-action film ever has (no matter how expensive and brilliant its special effects): it makes visible (and audible; though without repeated exposure I am able to say nothing concrete about the film’s electronic sound track) how computational technologies have penetrated and transformed the real itself. (It’s important to maintain that these technologies are themselves thoroughly real, constitutive and constituent of the real, in short part of the very fabric of the Real; against the fashionable claims that they have murdered the real, denatured it, reduced it to spectacle or simulacrum).

(One side note. Several reviews that I have read have made the well-nigh inevitable comparison to Blade Runner; but I think the similarity is greatly exaggerated. Yes, Oshii places high-tech androids and cyborgs in dark and gritty, but media-pervaded, urban settings; but in terms of lighting, editing rhythms, pace of action, and so on, Innocence could not be more unlike Blade Runner).

I won’t try to summarize the plot of Innocence — which was too detailed, too economically expressed, and with too many subtle twists for me to grasp all of it on a first viewing — except to say that it revolves around a police investigation that is also, equally, a metaphysical investigation. The cyborg detective protagonist is trying to find out why “gynoid” robots (basically, animated female sex dolls who have been devised to service men sexually) have suddenly started killing their owners (which should be impossible according to Asimovian laws of robotics). But he’s really trying to find out what it means to be posthuman (a question which assails him, not only because he is dealing with sentient machines, which in this case basically means sex dolls, but also because of his own cyborg enhancements — not much of his original human body remains with him — and because of his former partner, who — at the end of the first Ghost in the Shell — had cast off her human embodiment entirely, choosing instead to vanish into the Net). This question comes up thanks to the very nature of the case, but also through the interchanges between the protagonist and his new (still mostly human) partner/sidekick: in the course of their investigation, they exchange aphorisms and citations deriving from a wide range of religious, philosophical, scientific, and science-ficitonal sources of both East and West.

The film explores both different levels and layers of reality — from the purely physical, through the hallucinatorily virtual — at one point, the protagonist and his sidekick pass through a series of virtual-reality loops, whose imagery, both idyllic and horrific, is ironically far more “organic” or biomorphic than anything else in the film — up to the machinic and the spiritual. What’s noteworthy — especially in contrast to the Manicheanism of The Matrix, and so much other Hollywood SF — is how the distinctions the film draws are never dualistic. Innocence is not monistic either: the differences it draws between body and soul, and between various degrees and circumstances of embodiment are never abolished or dissolved into oneness. But the film espouses a pluralism, in which body and soul, or human and machine, or living organism and doll, or materiality and virtuality/information, are neither fused together nor conceived as opposites. They are more like different floors of the same mansion (to use Deleuze’s metaphor to describe the relation of body and soul in Leibniz). There’s certainly a lot of tension between body and soul; indeed, the solution to the mystery of the criminal investigation (and perhaps to that of the metaphysical quest as well) turns on what happens when they are put into violent conflict. But Oshii doesn’t present this conflict as inevitable, or as essential and all-embracing. Boundary displacements are inevitable, but they need not be seen as absolute and definitive. The film defuses Cartesian paranoia together with the kinkiness of its initial erotic premise. Oshii suggests that Descartes’ Evil Genius (whose challenge is taken up in The Matrix, as well as in the novels of Philip K. Dick) and the sexualized uncanniness of dolls (a theme which one can trace, in the West, from Hoffman through Freud to Bellmer and other Surrealists; it apparently has great resonance in Japanese culture as well, but of this I know little) are really just two sides of the same coin. And in displacing and rearticulating the energies present in both these myths, he opens up the possibility of thinking them in different terms, telling them in different narratives. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is too skeptical, as well as too sensuous and affectively ambivalent, to offer a new philosophy of cyborg-being; but it powerfully points up the inadequacy of our current conceptions. Events are outstripping the categories we apply to them; the most difficult thing, but also the most necessary, is to be “as radical as reality itself.” Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence takes us a few steps in that direction.

La Habanera

La Habanera (1937) was the last film Douglas Sirk made for the Nazis, before he fled Germany in 1938. It stars Zarah Leander, the Nazis’ answer to Garbo and Dietrich.

The film is, of course, a melodrama. Leander’s character, a Swede vacationing in Puerto Rico, is charmed by the romance of the tropics and swept off her feet by the romantic local landowner. She jumps ship, stays in Puerto Rico and marries the landowner. Cut to ten years later; she is miserable, and dreams only of returning to Sweden. But her husband, revealed as a corrupt dictator and a jealous sadist, won’t let her take their son away with her if she leaves. Meanwhile, an old flame of hers, a doctor back in Stockholm, comes to the island with the double aim of rescuing her and finding a cure for the mysterious “Puerto Rico fever” that kills hundreds yearly. You can imagine where this is going. The picture ends “happily,” with the landowner himself dying of the fever that he didn’t want cured, and Leander returning home with the dashing doctor.

The film works as Nazi propaganda, since the bad guys are associated with US-style capitalism, and since the Aryan woman is recalled from the dirty tropics to her pure and proper racial roots at the end. Still, there are many signs of Sirk’s irony, undercutting the official ideology of the film in much the same way that irony worked against the overt messages in Sirk’s 50s Hollywood melodramas. (By applying the same doubling strategies to the films he made for Goebbels as to those he later made for Ross Hunter, Sirk in effect validates Theodor Adorno’s gloomy observations on the similarities between out-and-out fascism and the ultra-commodified “administered society” liberal democracies were more and more turning into; though Sirk of course has a lighter touch, and an empathy with the characters whom he depicts as subject to these constraints; Sirk is utterly free of Adorno’s elitist disdain and condescension for anything even remotely popular).

For one thing, Sirk’s irony is evident in the ways that he makes the heated tropics seem appealing; so that when Leander is about to return to Sweden at the end of the film, she seems to be more regretful than anything else at the prospect of leaving the island. The use of the title song, “La Habanera,” as a leitmotif throughout the film, sustains the mood of fantasy and romantic regret (both of which would be utterly repressed in the Aryan homeland). At one point, Leander sings this song, wearing sort-of ‘native garb,’ in a hypnotic performance, with the camera lovingly dwelling on her face in a moment that nearly attains a von Sternberg/Dietrich level of camp hysteria.

But the greatest scenes in the film are those betweeen Leander and her nine-year-old son, who comes out as a perfect, idealized specimen of blond Aryan youth (despite the swarthiness of his father). The child is an utter mama’s boy, who yearns desperately for the Sweden he has never been to, playing with a sleigh and dreaming of the snow he has never seen. Leander sings several duets with him, all about snow and winter and longing for the homeland: these scenes are cloying, static, suffocatingly oedipal, and gorgeously designed in exquisite contrasts of extreme light and dark, black and white. These scenes are as over-the-top delirious as anything Sirk later did in Magnificent Obsession or Written on the Wind; they theatricalize and estrange the film’s ostensible ideology in ways that were presumably not available to the original audience, but which seem glaring in retrospect.

La Habanera (1937) was the last film Douglas Sirk made for the Nazis, before he fled Germany in 1938. It stars Zarah Leander, the Nazis’ answer to Garbo and Dietrich.

The film is, of course, a melodrama. Leander’s character, a Swede vacationing in Puerto Rico, is charmed by the romance of the tropics and swept off her feet by the romantic local landowner. She jumps ship, stays in Puerto Rico and marries the landowner. Cut to ten years later; she is miserable, and dreams only of returning to Sweden. But her husband, revealed as a corrupt dictator and a jealous sadist, won’t let her take their son away with her if she leaves. Meanwhile, an old flame of hers, a doctor back in Stockholm, comes to the island with the double aim of rescuing her and finding a cure for the mysterious “Puerto Rico fever” that kills hundreds yearly. You can imagine where this is going. The picture ends “happily,” with the landowner himself dying of the fever that he didn’t want cured, and Leander returning home with the dashing doctor.

The film works as Nazi propaganda, since the bad guys are associated with US-style capitalism, and since the Aryan woman is recalled from the dirty tropics to her pure and proper racial roots at the end. Still, there are many signs of Sirk’s irony, undercutting the official ideology of the film in much the same way that irony worked against the overt messages in Sirk’s 50s Hollywood melodramas. (By applying the same doubling strategies to the films he made for Goebbels as to those he later made for Ross Hunter, Sirk in effect validates Theodor Adorno’s gloomy observations on the similarities between out-and-out fascism and the ultra-commodified “administered society” liberal democracies were more and more turning into; though Sirk of course has a lighter touch, and an empathy with the characters whom he depicts as subject to these constraints; Sirk is utterly free of Adorno’s elitist disdain and condescension for anything even remotely popular).

For one thing, Sirk’s irony is evident in the ways that he makes the heated tropics seem appealing; so that when Leander is about to return to Sweden at the end of the film, she seems to be more regretful than anything else at the prospect of leaving the island. The use of the title song, “La Habanera,” as a leitmotif throughout the film, sustains the mood of fantasy and romantic regret (both of which would be utterly repressed in the Aryan homeland). At one point, Leander sings this song, wearing sort-of ‘native garb,’ in a hypnotic performance, with the camera lovingly dwelling on her face in a moment that nearly attains a von Sternberg/Dietrich level of camp hysteria.

But the greatest scenes in the film are those betweeen Leander and her nine-year-old son, who comes out as a perfect, idealized specimen of blond Aryan youth (despite the swarthiness of his father). The child is an utter mama’s boy, who yearns desperately for the Sweden he has never been to, playing with a sleigh and dreaming of the snow he has never seen. Leander sings several duets with him, all about snow and winter and longing for the homeland: these scenes are cloying, static, suffocatingly oedipal, and gorgeously designed in exquisite contrasts of extreme light and dark, black and white. These scenes are as over-the-top delirious as anything Sirk later did in Magnificent Obsession or Written on the Wind; they theatricalize and estrange the film’s ostensible ideology in ways that were presumably not available to the original audience, but which seem glaring in retrospect.

Unknown Pleasures

Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures drifts entropically as it chronicles the desultory, unfulfilled lives of young people in a Chinese provincial backwater. Long shots, long takes, natural lighting, flat affect, disjunctive edits, and elliptical narration have almost become cliches of a certain sort of international art cinema. But here, as in his earlier, and equally remarkable Xiao Wu — I still haven’t seen Platform, said to be the best of his films — Jia makes the style really work: not only does it mirror the anomie and hopelessness of the characters (form matching content), but it also performs a subtle yet incisive political critique.

In trading Maoism for capitalism, Jia suggests, China has merely substituted one form of tyranny with another. Instead of the totalitarian frenzy of mass mobilization, contemporary China in Jia’s eyes now offers only random drift and impoverished imaginings; gangsterism and currying favor with the bureaucracy are sometimes capriciously rewarded, but most people find themselves doomed to passivity and empty consumption, even if they are lucky enough not to be victims of social predation. Jia’s style establishes and embodies the topography of such a world.

In one telling moment of Unknown Pleasures, one of the protagonists describes to his girlfriend the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, which he has seen on video, and which for him only signifies the distant allure of a glamor he can never hope to attain. The point is precisely that we never get to see anything like Pulp Fiction in the actual world of Unknown Pleasures. Even when the protagonists plan a bank robbery, there is nothing exuberant or crazy or Tarantinoesquely tongue-in-cheek about it; instead, it just goes stupidly and humiliatingly awry. By the end of the film, the characters have nothing left to lose; but they certainly don’t experience their situation as any sort of freedom or release. Instead, they are trapped in a world in which only money talks, even if there isn’t much that money can buy.

Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures drifts entropically as it chronicles the desultory, unfulfilled lives of young people in a Chinese provincial backwater. Long shots, long takes, natural lighting, flat affect, disjunctive edits, and elliptical narration have almost become cliches of a certain sort of international art cinema. But here, as in his earlier, and equally remarkable Xiao Wu — I still haven’t seen Platform, said to be the best of his films — Jia makes the style really work: not only does it mirror the anomie and hopelessness of the characters (form matching content), but it also performs a subtle yet incisive political critique.

In trading Maoism for capitalism, Jia suggests, China has merely substituted one form of tyranny with another. Instead of the totalitarian frenzy of mass mobilization, contemporary China in Jia’s eyes now offers only random drift and impoverished imaginings; gangsterism and currying favor with the bureaucracy are sometimes capriciously rewarded, but most people find themselves doomed to passivity and empty consumption, even if they are lucky enough not to be victims of social predation. Jia’s style establishes and embodies the topography of such a world.

In one telling moment of Unknown Pleasures, one of the protagonists describes to his girlfriend the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, which he has seen on video, and which for him only signifies the distant allure of a glamor he can never hope to attain. The point is precisely that we never get to see anything like Pulp Fiction in the actual world of Unknown Pleasures. Even when the protagonists plan a bank robbery, there is nothing exuberant or crazy or Tarantinoesquely tongue-in-cheek about it; instead, it just goes stupidly and humiliatingly awry. By the end of the film, the characters have nothing left to lose; but they certainly don’t experience their situation as any sort of freedom or release. Instead, they are trapped in a world in which only money talks, even if there isn’t much that money can buy.

Time of the Wolf

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is a powerful film, and a thought-provoking one. Haneke’s films have always been about imagining the worst — or close to it — and savagely dissecting the pretensions and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. But Time of the Wolfmoves in something of a different register than Benny’s Video or Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. The view is more detached and contemplative, though this certainly doesn’t mean it is more optimistic or hopeful.
Some sort of (unspecified) catastrophe has emptied the cities, poisoned the water and food supply, and left people to wander nomadically about the countryside, or to gather wherever shelter can be found. Many wait by the railroad tracks, hoping for redemption or rescue in the form of a train that never comes.
Haneke’s brilliance comes in the film’s everydayness. Time of the Wolf doesn’t depict the descent into utter savagery that you might expect. Yes, people are murdered for no reason, and some ugly squabbles develop; but on the whole, the film is as far from the extremes of dystopia as it is from the idyllic. People form groups, and these groups have hierarchies and power relations, and bigotry and sexism rear their heads; but for the most part, everyone gets by and has enough to eat, and there are instances of compassion as well as greed, and quarrels are usually resolved without violence. Conditions are unpleasant, but they are still, largely, livable.
By frustrating our melodramatic, dystopian expectations, and instead instilling in us a sense of the routinization of misery, the everydayness of discomfort and deprivation, Haneke makes a film that in retrospect is far more disturbing than a facile Lord of the Flies expose of human beings’ innate savagery would ever be. Civilization hasn’t collapsed in Time of the Wolf ; what we get instead is a social order without the comforts that privileged people have in our own, but with much the same blend of obedience, complicity, half-assed conformity, half-assed rebellion, smugness, and despair.

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is a powerful film, and a thought-provoking one. Haneke’s films have always been about imagining the worst — or close to it — and savagely dissecting the pretensions and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. But Time of the Wolfmoves in something of a different register than Benny’s Video or Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. The view is more detached and contemplative, though this certainly doesn’t mean it is more optimistic or hopeful.
Some sort of (unspecified) catastrophe has emptied the cities, poisoned the water and food supply, and left people to wander nomadically about the countryside, or to gather wherever shelter can be found. Many wait by the railroad tracks, hoping for redemption or rescue in the form of a train that never comes.
Haneke’s brilliance comes in the film’s everydayness. Time of the Wolf doesn’t depict the descent into utter savagery that you might expect. Yes, people are murdered for no reason, and some ugly squabbles develop; but on the whole, the film is as far from the extremes of dystopia as it is from the idyllic. People form groups, and these groups have hierarchies and power relations, and bigotry and sexism rear their heads; but for the most part, everyone gets by and has enough to eat, and there are instances of compassion as well as greed, and quarrels are usually resolved without violence. Conditions are unpleasant, but they are still, largely, livable.
By frustrating our melodramatic, dystopian expectations, and instead instilling in us a sense of the routinization of misery, the everydayness of discomfort and deprivation, Haneke makes a film that in retrospect is far more disturbing than a facile Lord of the Flies expose of human beings’ innate savagery would ever be. Civilization hasn’t collapsed in Time of the Wolf ; what we get instead is a social order without the comforts that privileged people have in our own, but with much the same blend of obedience, complicity, half-assed conformity, half-assed rebellion, smugness, and despair.

Code 46

Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is a film of sonic and visual textures. It’s science fiction, depicting a world in which genetic screening is the key to everything, including what jobs you can get, where and when you are permitted to travel, and — most important? — who you can have (reproductive) sex with. There are also wall-sized video screens, and everything is protected by personal (spoken) passwords and fingerprint scanners.
But the world of the film is largely recognizable, despite the high technology. Locations alternate between dense urban landscapes, with skyscrapers, anonymously bureaucratic offices and medical facilities, crowds, subways, and security checkpoints (these parts of the film were shot in Shanghai), and seemingly endless deserts (shot in Dubai). Like Godard’s Alphaville and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, there’s no fancy F/X, but rather a sense of how the future is already immanent, and imminent, in the present of when the film was shot and first seen.
Winterbottom’s images are flat, with ambient lighting; the camera is often handheld, though less skittery than handheld camerawork often is. Everything in this world is polygot: the people are ethnically and racially mixed (though white privilege has clearly not been altogether effaced), whether the locale is supposed to be Shanghai, Seattle, or the Arabian peninsula, and they speak an English mixed with scraps of other languages (mostly Spanish and French, though Arabic and Mandarin are suggested as well). The music, usually warm techno, creates a dreamy ambiance, one of longing and semi-detachment: sadness filtered, softened, and distanced through a calming antidepressant haze, perhaps.
This is the same sense of floating displacement, the same wavering affect (partly calm and partly vaguely nostalgic, neither sincere nor ironic, but giving a sense that indifference has become a sort of engagement), that we get in other pomo/internationalist films, like Lost in Translation or Last Life in the Universe, or any number of films by the likes of Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai and Shunji Iwai. Films like these are exploring, and articulating, the sensory feel, and the unfamiliar affects — at once frenzied and cool — of the new post-televisual, transnational multimediascape that we are starting to find ourselves living in.
Nomadic displacement is a positive condition in all these films — it is primary, rather than being seen as the negation of some supposed sense of place, or of rootedness.
What distinguishes Code 46 from these other films is that it shows how the “society of control” is inextricably interwoven with the sense of possibility that comes from decentered flows. For instance: access to everything is regulated by a series of personalizing markers (password, fingerprint, various sorts of permissions that can alter from one moment to the next –you are free to travel for the next 24 hours, but you will be blocked after that). These markers determine whether you can remain “inside” (in the metropolis) or whether you are relegated to the “outside” (which seems to be mostly desert. Inside is much more secure, and materially comfortable, than outside. But both inside and outside are nomadic and decentered, both seem to involve a life of slipping and sliding between alternatives, with nothing that is definitive. There’s a rigid binary, which is a real distinction, but the conditions on both sides of the binary are structurally homologous — both are exemplary instances of postmodern drift.
Genetics is the key to all this: it is the way people are coded. Travel restrictions have to do, for instance, with genetic susceptibility to various diseases that are dangers in various parts of the world. And most important, people with similar DNA are prohibited from having sex (the film is unclear when it comes to nonreproductive sex, whether this be because of contraception or because of same-sex encounters). The drama of Code 46 comes from the fact that the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton), are genetic siblings even though they have never met before — their mothers were clones of each other.
It all works quite oddly in the film. Their life circumstances are so dissimilar, that it would seem their mutual attraction is due to the genetic similarity of which they are both unaware. Yet the film also implies that, due to this dissimilarity of backgrounds and characters, there is nothing psychologically incestuous about their relationship. Indeed, Code 46 seems absolutely devoid of any Freudian overtones (or undertones), even thought it is ultimately about incest. Which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, suggesting how fully & successfully the film has thought itself into its “postmodern” sensibility.
Of course, this has to do not only with the look and feel of the film, but also with the characters of the protagonists. I adore Samantha Morton, and this film is no exception. The camera dwells on her face in closeup, but her face is too alien for this to work in the traditional “feminine mystique” kind of way. She seems alien, abstracted, withdrawn, as if all her attention were turned inwards, except that this “inwards” is nothing that I could possibly recognize by analogy with my own sense of interiority. She isn’t “mysterious” at all, but just sort of not there… elsewhere? or not anywhere? If anybody embodies a “posthuman” affect, simultaneously cool and intense, it is she. Watching her is like being somehow induced to empathize with something that is entirely beyond my (emotional or intellectual) comprehension. There is nothing blank about her; the blankness I feel watching her on screen is entirely mine.
Robbins, on the other hand, I usually do not like, and again Code 46 is no exception. Unlike Morton, he is all too comprehensible. He seems fussy and a bit condescending, and I’m not convinced that this is all because of the character he is trying to play. It’s as if he doesn’t really fit into this film, or into the world of this film. But perhaps this is the point. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and Morton, despite the fact that we are supposed to see them as a doomed, tragic romantic couple. But this mismatching is not to the detriment of the film; it seems precisely right, for an emotional connection that isn’t “plausible,” and that isn’t explicable in terms of depth psychology, nor even in terms of unconscious kinship/similarity (nothing in the film makes them seem like siblings, any more than like amour fou lovers).
Not everything in Code 46 works; there are problems in terms of the plot, as well as in terms of certain aspects of the film’s world that are left overly vague. But the film does have an opacity, a kind of affectively charged resistance to the usual sorts of categorization, that I found powerful.

Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is a film of sonic and visual textures. It’s science fiction, depicting a world in which genetic screening is the key to everything, including what jobs you can get, where and when you are permitted to travel, and — most important? — who you can have (reproductive) sex with. There are also wall-sized video screens, and everything is protected by personal (spoken) passwords and fingerprint scanners.
But the world of the film is largely recognizable, despite the high technology. Locations alternate between dense urban landscapes, with skyscrapers, anonymously bureaucratic offices and medical facilities, crowds, subways, and security checkpoints (these parts of the film were shot in Shanghai), and seemingly endless deserts (shot in Dubai). Like Godard’s Alphaville and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, there’s no fancy F/X, but rather a sense of how the future is already immanent, and imminent, in the present of when the film was shot and first seen.
Winterbottom’s images are flat, with ambient lighting; the camera is often handheld, though less skittery than handheld camerawork often is. Everything in this world is polygot: the people are ethnically and racially mixed (though white privilege has clearly not been altogether effaced), whether the locale is supposed to be Shanghai, Seattle, or the Arabian peninsula, and they speak an English mixed with scraps of other languages (mostly Spanish and French, though Arabic and Mandarin are suggested as well). The music, usually warm techno, creates a dreamy ambiance, one of longing and semi-detachment: sadness filtered, softened, and distanced through a calming antidepressant haze, perhaps.
This is the same sense of floating displacement, the same wavering affect (partly calm and partly vaguely nostalgic, neither sincere nor ironic, but giving a sense that indifference has become a sort of engagement), that we get in other pomo/internationalist films, like Lost in Translation or Last Life in the Universe, or any number of films by the likes of Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai and Shunji Iwai. Films like these are exploring, and articulating, the sensory feel, and the unfamiliar affects — at once frenzied and cool — of the new post-televisual, transnational multimediascape that we are starting to find ourselves living in.
Nomadic displacement is a positive condition in all these films — it is primary, rather than being seen as the negation of some supposed sense of place, or of rootedness.
What distinguishes Code 46 from these other films is that it shows how the “society of control” is inextricably interwoven with the sense of possibility that comes from decentered flows. For instance: access to everything is regulated by a series of personalizing markers (password, fingerprint, various sorts of permissions that can alter from one moment to the next –you are free to travel for the next 24 hours, but you will be blocked after that). These markers determine whether you can remain “inside” (in the metropolis) or whether you are relegated to the “outside” (which seems to be mostly desert. Inside is much more secure, and materially comfortable, than outside. But both inside and outside are nomadic and decentered, both seem to involve a life of slipping and sliding between alternatives, with nothing that is definitive. There’s a rigid binary, which is a real distinction, but the conditions on both sides of the binary are structurally homologous — both are exemplary instances of postmodern drift.
Genetics is the key to all this: it is the way people are coded. Travel restrictions have to do, for instance, with genetic susceptibility to various diseases that are dangers in various parts of the world. And most important, people with similar DNA are prohibited from having sex (the film is unclear when it comes to nonreproductive sex, whether this be because of contraception or because of same-sex encounters). The drama of Code 46 comes from the fact that the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton), are genetic siblings even though they have never met before — their mothers were clones of each other.
It all works quite oddly in the film. Their life circumstances are so dissimilar, that it would seem their mutual attraction is due to the genetic similarity of which they are both unaware. Yet the film also implies that, due to this dissimilarity of backgrounds and characters, there is nothing psychologically incestuous about their relationship. Indeed, Code 46 seems absolutely devoid of any Freudian overtones (or undertones), even thought it is ultimately about incest. Which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, suggesting how fully & successfully the film has thought itself into its “postmodern” sensibility.
Of course, this has to do not only with the look and feel of the film, but also with the characters of the protagonists. I adore Samantha Morton, and this film is no exception. The camera dwells on her face in closeup, but her face is too alien for this to work in the traditional “feminine mystique” kind of way. She seems alien, abstracted, withdrawn, as if all her attention were turned inwards, except that this “inwards” is nothing that I could possibly recognize by analogy with my own sense of interiority. She isn’t “mysterious” at all, but just sort of not there… elsewhere? or not anywhere? If anybody embodies a “posthuman” affect, simultaneously cool and intense, it is she. Watching her is like being somehow induced to empathize with something that is entirely beyond my (emotional or intellectual) comprehension. There is nothing blank about her; the blankness I feel watching her on screen is entirely mine.
Robbins, on the other hand, I usually do not like, and again Code 46 is no exception. Unlike Morton, he is all too comprehensible. He seems fussy and a bit condescending, and I’m not convinced that this is all because of the character he is trying to play. It’s as if he doesn’t really fit into this film, or into the world of this film. But perhaps this is the point. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and Morton, despite the fact that we are supposed to see them as a doomed, tragic romantic couple. But this mismatching is not to the detriment of the film; it seems precisely right, for an emotional connection that isn’t “plausible,” and that isn’t explicable in terms of depth psychology, nor even in terms of unconscious kinship/similarity (nothing in the film makes them seem like siblings, any more than like amour fou lovers).
Not everything in Code 46 works; there are problems in terms of the plot, as well as in terms of certain aspects of the film’s world that are left overly vague. But the film does have an opacity, a kind of affectively charged resistance to the usual sorts of categorization, that I found powerful.

Bruce Almighty

Jim Carrey doesn’t really cover any new ground in Bruce Almighty (2003), but the film reaffirms the comedic genius that was his in the first place. The film marks Carrey’s return to the bread-and-butter that originally made him famous, in contrast to his more “serious” efforts to extend his acting range (which efforts have varied from the dismal —The Majestic — to the utterly sublime — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Given divine powers, Carrey’s character Bruce (a disgruntled TV news reporter) goes off on a power binge whose utter narcissism is only matched by its infantile pettiness and lack of imagination. Unable to conceive the divine decadence of a Nero, Caligula, or Heliogabalus, Bruce contents himself with driving a new sports car, parting the Red Sea (a la Cecil B. DeMille) in a plate of tomato soup, and getting revenge by pulling a monkey out of a bully’s ass and causing his newsroom rival to babble as if he had breathed in a tankful of helium. Never has self-indulgence been so lacking in grandiosity. Bruce doesn’t have the manic energy of Ace Ventura; but like Ace and so many other Carrey characters, he is driven by an unconscious whose sole contents seem to be fifty years of television. No wonder the urges that roil in his raging id are nothing more than cheap special effects and lame one-liners. Above all, Bruce is characterized — like so many other Carrey personae — by a cringe-worthy need to ingratiate himself with everyone, and especially with his stereotypically whiny and long-suffering girlfriend (a role played, appropriately enough, by the sitcom queen herself, Jennifer Aniston).
I suppose my remarks are sufficiently snide that they could be read, in Adornoesque fashion, as a critique of the terminal mediocrity of American popular culture (a culture that is basically televisual, even when it is being enacted in the movies). But I don’t mean it that way at all. There is nothing mediocre about Jim Carrey. If you ignore the sappy moralizing and self-congratulatory complacency in which Bruce Almighty is wrapped, and focus just on Carrey’s physical and verbal performance, you will find it (as always, when he does comedy) utterly astonishing. It’s a miracle of embodiment. Every grimace, every twitch, every inflection, every pause conveys the predicament of the character — his narcissism without a self to be narcissistic about, his desire for recognition by others without any sense of otherness to pin that desire onto, the utter saturation of his inner experience by bland, public generalities: in short, the predicament of the quintessential postmodern “man without qualities” — every grimace, twitch, inflection, and pause of Carrey’s incarnates this predicament with energy, grace, intensity, and precision: so that nothing could be more profound and singular than the utter absence of depth and singularity that Carrey is depicting.
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (Blake).

Jim Carrey doesn’t really cover any new ground in Bruce Almighty (2003), but the film reaffirms the comedic genius that was his in the first place. The film marks Carrey’s return to the bread-and-butter that originally made him famous, in contrast to his more “serious” efforts to extend his acting range (which efforts have varied from the dismal —The Majestic — to the utterly sublime — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Given divine powers, Carrey’s character Bruce (a disgruntled TV news reporter) goes off on a power binge whose utter narcissism is only matched by its infantile pettiness and lack of imagination. Unable to conceive the divine decadence of a Nero, Caligula, or Heliogabalus, Bruce contents himself with driving a new sports car, parting the Red Sea (a la Cecil B. DeMille) in a plate of tomato soup, and getting revenge by pulling a monkey out of a bully’s ass and causing his newsroom rival to babble as if he had breathed in a tankful of helium. Never has self-indulgence been so lacking in grandiosity. Bruce doesn’t have the manic energy of Ace Ventura; but like Ace and so many other Carrey characters, he is driven by an unconscious whose sole contents seem to be fifty years of television. No wonder the urges that roil in his raging id are nothing more than cheap special effects and lame one-liners. Above all, Bruce is characterized — like so many other Carrey personae — by a cringe-worthy need to ingratiate himself with everyone, and especially with his stereotypically whiny and long-suffering girlfriend (a role played, appropriately enough, by the sitcom queen herself, Jennifer Aniston).
I suppose my remarks are sufficiently snide that they could be read, in Adornoesque fashion, as a critique of the terminal mediocrity of American popular culture (a culture that is basically televisual, even when it is being enacted in the movies). But I don’t mean it that way at all. There is nothing mediocre about Jim Carrey. If you ignore the sappy moralizing and self-congratulatory complacency in which Bruce Almighty is wrapped, and focus just on Carrey’s physical and verbal performance, you will find it (as always, when he does comedy) utterly astonishing. It’s a miracle of embodiment. Every grimace, every twitch, every inflection, every pause conveys the predicament of the character — his narcissism without a self to be narcissistic about, his desire for recognition by others without any sense of otherness to pin that desire onto, the utter saturation of his inner experience by bland, public generalities: in short, the predicament of the quintessential postmodern “man without qualities” — every grimace, twitch, inflection, and pause of Carrey’s incarnates this predicament with energy, grace, intensity, and precision: so that nothing could be more profound and singular than the utter absence of depth and singularity that Carrey is depicting.
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (Blake).

Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is a beautiful film, so languidly quotidian, and yet so dreamily gorgeous, that its utter naturalism verges on the surreal. It’s about an ordinary day at a suburban high-school; the day’s everyday banality is not so much disrupted as continued by the Columbine-style massacre with which the film concludes. The camera floats from student to student, with long tracking shots following one or another kid down the hallways or across the grass, looping backwards and forwards in time so that the same events are captured several times from several viewpoints. Van Sant (or his camera) is clearly in love with these boys (and to a much lesser extent, girls), but in a relaxed way: without any of the voyeuristic smarminess of a Larry Clark. The film is about teenage awkwardness and grace (which coexist in all the characters, in different proportions), and it is wonderfully attentive to the life of the body, to bodies in motion, with their microscopic habits and routines and glitches and disruptions, their momentary tropisms and encounters.
The film is, for the most part, devoid of moralization about the killers. It emphatically refuses to condemn the supposed disinterest, or pomo affectlessness, of today’s youth; if anything, Elephant is about the emotional richness, in its very confusion and unclarity, of this supposed affectlessness.
Elephant‘s only false step is a scene in which the two teenage boys who shoot up the school receive guns, ordered on the Net, via UPS, while a fatuous documentary about Hitler plays on a disregarded television. The scene is not presented as an explicit explanation or motivation, but it’s the one place where lazy stereotypes replaces the film’s otherwise passionate investment in quotidian detail, in how the characters live moment to moment.
Much more interestingly, Elephant hints that internalized homophobia is involved in the genesis of the violence (a theme that is explored more fully in Dennis Cooper’s equally beautiful, though far more oblique, “Columbine” novel My Loose Thread, which is the only work I am aware of in any genre that bears comparison to this film).

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is a beautiful film, so languidly quotidian, and yet so dreamily gorgeous, that its utter naturalism verges on the surreal. It’s about an ordinary day at a suburban high-school; the day’s everyday banality is not so much disrupted as continued by the Columbine-style massacre with which the film concludes. The camera floats from student to student, with long tracking shots following one or another kid down the hallways or across the grass, looping backwards and forwards in time so that the same events are captured several times from several viewpoints. Van Sant (or his camera) is clearly in love with these boys (and to a much lesser extent, girls), but in a relaxed way: without any of the voyeuristic smarminess of a Larry Clark. The film is about teenage awkwardness and grace (which coexist in all the characters, in different proportions), and it is wonderfully attentive to the life of the body, to bodies in motion, with their microscopic habits and routines and glitches and disruptions, their momentary tropisms and encounters.
The film is, for the most part, devoid of moralization about the killers. It emphatically refuses to condemn the supposed disinterest, or pomo affectlessness, of today’s youth; if anything, Elephant is about the emotional richness, in its very confusion and unclarity, of this supposed affectlessness.
Elephant‘s only false step is a scene in which the two teenage boys who shoot up the school receive guns, ordered on the Net, via UPS, while a fatuous documentary about Hitler plays on a disregarded television. The scene is not presented as an explicit explanation or motivation, but it’s the one place where lazy stereotypes replaces the film’s otherwise passionate investment in quotidian detail, in how the characters live moment to moment.
Much more interestingly, Elephant hints that internalized homophobia is involved in the genesis of the violence (a theme that is explored more fully in Dennis Cooper’s equally beautiful, though far more oblique, “Columbine” novel My Loose Thread, which is the only work I am aware of in any genre that bears comparison to this film).

Fahrenheit 9/11

I’ve finally gotten to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore has said he has no problems with anyone downloading his film for free — and so I did.
I got my copy via BitTorrent; the file you need to open in a BitTorrent client in order to get started is this. (I don’t know how long this url will be good, but if it isn’t, you can easily locate a copy elsewhere via Google, or Suprnova). The quality of this copy of the film is not great — it was made by somebody videotaping it off the movie screen — and 8 minutes are apparently missing, a segment about the Patriot Act, but it’s good enough to get the general idea of what Moore is doing.
The film is now also available for download directly in various formats from archive.org (link via BoingBoing) — I don’t know if this is the same copy I viewed, or if it is better.
In any case: It strikes me that all the people who are arguing about whether Moore’s arguments hold water, or if they are flawed in some way, are simply on the wrong track. Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a film-essay, or political commentary via film, in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker. It’s a piece of rabble-rousing agitprop. I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively. Moore is making an emotional or affective film, not an intellectual one. There’s room in the world for both. In terms of actually having a political effect, an affective film is arguably more valuable than an intellectual one.
(Think of everything Noam Chomsky has written post-9/11: usually he is right on an intellectual level, but his essays are totally off the mark affectively. Chomsky remains so unable to comprehend why so many people, myself included, were freaked out and terrified and crushed and upset by 9/11, regardless of our disapproval of the frequently vile foreign policy of the US government — Chomsky remains so incapable of grasping this, that his writings are utterly worthless for all of their intellectual insight, and accuracy as to what the US has actually done to the rest of the world. Moore, in contrast to Chomsky, understands how people feel, and shares these feelings).
So: Moore’s film is about feelings, not about analysis. And to this extent, F9/11 is pretty successful. Trying to convey artistically just how loathsome George W. Bush actually is, and how harmful and destructive his administration’s policies have been, is a thoroughly worthy endeavor. And Moore succeeds to a considerable extent in doing this (though I am inclined to agree with my mother that, if anything, the film understates just how awful and despicable Bush actually is). And to the extent that the film sets the record straight, by refuting some of the Big Lies that Bush and his administration have systematically deployed over the last three and a half years, it is doing an important civic service.
So it’s in F9/11‘s own terms, as an affective staging rather than a critical analysis, that I see both the film’s successes and its failings. The successes have to do with Moore’s ample demonstration of Bush’s callousness, and his fundamental upper-class agenda. And especially with the segment where Moore shows us Marine recruiters in action, and thus drives home the way in which the new volunteer armed forces are largely a miliatry of the poor, driven into the Service because they can’t find any other sort of decent job. And shows how Bush et al are betraying these young men and women, by having them risk life and limb for no good reason beyond power lust and greed. A Marxist analysis would no doubt back up all that Moore is saying here, but he isn’t pretending to make such an analysis; he is showing effects rather than causes, and he is leading us to feel the affects of these effects.
The weaknesses of the film, however, are also located in this affective register. The film is pretty xenophobic for one thing: not just America-centered (which is fine, since that is simply how the film is addressed, and where its hoped-for political effect is located), but perilously admitting, and making positive use of, the idea that people from other parts of the world are sort of “funny” and not really like “us.”
There’s also a kind of “personalization” that I found both irritating and lame. Moore spends far too much time trying to trace personal links between the Bush family on the one hand, and the Saudi royal family and the Bin Laden family on the other. What this does is to mystify power relations, by turning the everyday functioning of capital into an arcane conspiracy of family connections and nepotism. Presumably Moore does this, at least in part, because personal graft and corruption are easier to envision than are, for instance, the very abstract workings of international monetary flows. But in a very real sense it trivializes what has been going on. It’s not that Dubya’s policies don’t help make his Dad even more millions than he had already; but to turn this into his central motivation is to ignore such things as the workings of class (Marx always emphasized that it was not a matter of capitalists being individually bad people, but of the consequences of a full-fledged social and economic order of things), and the fundamental ideological investments of the neoconservatives on one hand, and the Christian fundamentalists with whom Bush is allied on the other. It’s not because a few Saudis sit on the Carlyle Group’s Board of Directors that the Bush administration is trying to convert the United States into a one-party theocratic police state, with wealth redistributed to the wealthiest 5% of the population from everyone else; and it’s not just in pursuit of Halliburton profits that the Bush administration has allowed its delusive fantasies of world domination to drag us into a quagmire of escalating misery and mortal danger, and to recruit more fanatical cadres for Al Qaeda than Bin Laden himself ever could have done.
These limitations are serious ones, precisely because the issues in question need to be injected into popular consciousness and public debate, rather than just being left for discussion in narrow academic and blogging circles (such as the ones that I inhabit). Moore ends up being not much more than the left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh; and though we certainly need one — and though it is good that the left has gotten at least some foothold in documentary film, given how completely the right dominates talk radio and cable news — it’s not enough.

I’ve finally gotten to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore has said he has no problems with anyone downloading his film for free — and so I did.
I got my copy via BitTorrent; the file you need to open in a BitTorrent client in order to get started is this. (I don’t know how long this url will be good, but if it isn’t, you can easily locate a copy elsewhere via Google, or Suprnova). The quality of this copy of the film is not great — it was made by somebody videotaping it off the movie screen — and 8 minutes are apparently missing, a segment about the Patriot Act, but it’s good enough to get the general idea of what Moore is doing.
The film is now also available for download directly in various formats from archive.org (link via BoingBoing) — I don’t know if this is the same copy I viewed, or if it is better.
In any case: It strikes me that all the people who are arguing about whether Moore’s arguments hold water, or if they are flawed in some way, are simply on the wrong track. Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t a film-essay, or political commentary via film, in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker. It’s a piece of rabble-rousing agitprop. I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively. Moore is making an emotional or affective film, not an intellectual one. There’s room in the world for both. In terms of actually having a political effect, an affective film is arguably more valuable than an intellectual one.
(Think of everything Noam Chomsky has written post-9/11: usually he is right on an intellectual level, but his essays are totally off the mark affectively. Chomsky remains so unable to comprehend why so many people, myself included, were freaked out and terrified and crushed and upset by 9/11, regardless of our disapproval of the frequently vile foreign policy of the US government — Chomsky remains so incapable of grasping this, that his writings are utterly worthless for all of their intellectual insight, and accuracy as to what the US has actually done to the rest of the world. Moore, in contrast to Chomsky, understands how people feel, and shares these feelings).
So: Moore’s film is about feelings, not about analysis. And to this extent, F9/11 is pretty successful. Trying to convey artistically just how loathsome George W. Bush actually is, and how harmful and destructive his administration’s policies have been, is a thoroughly worthy endeavor. And Moore succeeds to a considerable extent in doing this (though I am inclined to agree with my mother that, if anything, the film understates just how awful and despicable Bush actually is). And to the extent that the film sets the record straight, by refuting some of the Big Lies that Bush and his administration have systematically deployed over the last three and a half years, it is doing an important civic service.
So it’s in F9/11‘s own terms, as an affective staging rather than a critical analysis, that I see both the film’s successes and its failings. The successes have to do with Moore’s ample demonstration of Bush’s callousness, and his fundamental upper-class agenda. And especially with the segment where Moore shows us Marine recruiters in action, and thus drives home the way in which the new volunteer armed forces are largely a miliatry of the poor, driven into the Service because they can’t find any other sort of decent job. And shows how Bush et al are betraying these young men and women, by having them risk life and limb for no good reason beyond power lust and greed. A Marxist analysis would no doubt back up all that Moore is saying here, but he isn’t pretending to make such an analysis; he is showing effects rather than causes, and he is leading us to feel the affects of these effects.
The weaknesses of the film, however, are also located in this affective register. The film is pretty xenophobic for one thing: not just America-centered (which is fine, since that is simply how the film is addressed, and where its hoped-for political effect is located), but perilously admitting, and making positive use of, the idea that people from other parts of the world are sort of “funny” and not really like “us.”
There’s also a kind of “personalization” that I found both irritating and lame. Moore spends far too much time trying to trace personal links between the Bush family on the one hand, and the Saudi royal family and the Bin Laden family on the other. What this does is to mystify power relations, by turning the everyday functioning of capital into an arcane conspiracy of family connections and nepotism. Presumably Moore does this, at least in part, because personal graft and corruption are easier to envision than are, for instance, the very abstract workings of international monetary flows. But in a very real sense it trivializes what has been going on. It’s not that Dubya’s policies don’t help make his Dad even more millions than he had already; but to turn this into his central motivation is to ignore such things as the workings of class (Marx always emphasized that it was not a matter of capitalists being individually bad people, but of the consequences of a full-fledged social and economic order of things), and the fundamental ideological investments of the neoconservatives on one hand, and the Christian fundamentalists with whom Bush is allied on the other. It’s not because a few Saudis sit on the Carlyle Group’s Board of Directors that the Bush administration is trying to convert the United States into a one-party theocratic police state, with wealth redistributed to the wealthiest 5% of the population from everyone else; and it’s not just in pursuit of Halliburton profits that the Bush administration has allowed its delusive fantasies of world domination to drag us into a quagmire of escalating misery and mortal danger, and to recruit more fanatical cadres for Al Qaeda than Bin Laden himself ever could have done.
These limitations are serious ones, precisely because the issues in question need to be injected into popular consciousness and public debate, rather than just being left for discussion in narrow academic and blogging circles (such as the ones that I inhabit). Moore ends up being not much more than the left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh; and though we certainly need one — and though it is good that the left has gotten at least some foothold in documentary film, given how completely the right dominates talk radio and cable news — it’s not enough.

Last Life in the Universe

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe was the last film I managed to see at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. And I’m really glad I caught it: it was one of those rare films that, like the early works of Godard, or certain works by Wong Kar-Wai, made me excited about the potentialities of cinema. Or, to put the point a bit less pompously: not only was it a good film, but it renewed my sense of film in general, by making me feel that all sorts of things are possible, that the form has not exhausted itself, that cinema still needs to be invented, and still can be.
(There’s a link to Wong Kar Wai, in that his frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, also did the camerawork for this film. But Ratanaruang’s sensibility is very different from Wong’s).
The plot, in itself, isn’t particularly original or surprising: a nerd meets a voluptuous woman who renews him sexually, and expands his enjoyment of life. But this familiar set-up is barely more than a pretext.
For one thing, the characters are weirdly quirky. The nerd, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a Japanese man living in Bangkok and working as a librarian for the Japan Society. He is obsessively neat and tidy, and he is always trying to commit suicide, but never succeeding, because the doorbell rings or the phone rings or people come by and stop him. The woman, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) is Thai, works as a “hostess” (i.e a prostitute) and is the opposite of neat: her house is a virtual pigsty, with unwashed dishes, stuff all over the floor, etc. They are brought together when siblings of both are killed: Kenji’s brother by the yakuza, and Noi’s sister in a car accident after they have quarreled.
For another thing, Ratanaruang is more concerned with cinematic action and grace than with naturalistic plausibility in terms of plot. He moves effortlessly between comedy and melodrama, dwelling on instants when nothing dramatic is happening beyond the revelation of the characters, and moving the plot through absurdist twists and turns.
But what makes Last Life in the Universe great goes beyond the quirkiness of the characters and the plot twists; it has to do with the style of the film. Nearly every set-up is surprising and unexpected, in terms of camera placement, framing, or colors. The result is a strange kind of distancing: not any sort of alienation-effect, but an effort to take us outside the characters, so that we can view them, and their world, from an angle we’ve never experienced before. (Can an “angle” be “experienced”? I may be writing clumsily here, but the film actually convinced me that such a thing is possible). Rather than “identifying” with the characters, we are led to feel affectionately about them from a distance, as if we were friendly visitors from another planet (or as if, I am tempted to say, we were cinema spectators).
Also, continuity is frequently violated, because Ratanaruang is more concerned with emotional expression than with literal narrative coherence. When Noi falls asleep with her head in Kenji’s lap, for instance, the clothes she is wearing change from one shot to the next; including one series of shots where she is wearing the clothes her sister had on when she died (a death that Kenji witnessed; and it was this now-dead sister upon whom Kenji had first had a crush).
Other times, the film just takes off into the stratosphere. When Kenji, with his obsessive neatness and cleanliness fetish, insists on cleaning up Noi’s house, all of a sudden there’s a scene where we don’t actually see him cleaning; instead, we see the books and papers and other objects scattered all over the floor magically flying back, en masse, to their places in the cabinets and shelves. Noi first looks startled and uneasy that this is happening; but then she starts dancing, gracefully, in the midst of the flurry. Books and papers flit and twirl around her, as if in a gentle whirlpool. The camera observes, coolly, from a middle distance.
It’s unclear whether Noi and Kenji ever actually get it on; it’s implied that they do, once, but the camera does not show it. And the end of the film makes it undecidable how much of what we have seen has actually happened, and how much is fantasy (Kenji’s probably, but perhaps Noi’s as well).
Last Life in the Universe doesn’t exhibit either the exhilaration of early Godard, nor the melancholy romanticism of Wong; but it has an affect of its own that is as moving and impressive as either of these. It’s a kind of pleasurable coolness and lightness, sometimes flickering with quicksilver rapidity, other times mellowly dwelling on minute details (more for the sheer enjoyment of them than for any further significance they might have). Call it a sort of playful aestheticism, detached enough not to be momentous or anything, but adhesive enough to make you feel glad you are alive.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe was the last film I managed to see at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. And I’m really glad I caught it: it was one of those rare films that, like the early works of Godard, or certain works by Wong Kar-Wai, made me excited about the potentialities of cinema. Or, to put the point a bit less pompously: not only was it a good film, but it renewed my sense of film in general, by making me feel that all sorts of things are possible, that the form has not exhausted itself, that cinema still needs to be invented, and still can be.
(There’s a link to Wong Kar Wai, in that his frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, also did the camerawork for this film. But Ratanaruang’s sensibility is very different from Wong’s).
The plot, in itself, isn’t particularly original or surprising: a nerd meets a voluptuous woman who renews him sexually, and expands his enjoyment of life. But this familiar set-up is barely more than a pretext.
For one thing, the characters are weirdly quirky. The nerd, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a Japanese man living in Bangkok and working as a librarian for the Japan Society. He is obsessively neat and tidy, and he is always trying to commit suicide, but never succeeding, because the doorbell rings or the phone rings or people come by and stop him. The woman, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) is Thai, works as a “hostess” (i.e a prostitute) and is the opposite of neat: her house is a virtual pigsty, with unwashed dishes, stuff all over the floor, etc. They are brought together when siblings of both are killed: Kenji’s brother by the yakuza, and Noi’s sister in a car accident after they have quarreled.
For another thing, Ratanaruang is more concerned with cinematic action and grace than with naturalistic plausibility in terms of plot. He moves effortlessly between comedy and melodrama, dwelling on instants when nothing dramatic is happening beyond the revelation of the characters, and moving the plot through absurdist twists and turns.
But what makes Last Life in the Universe great goes beyond the quirkiness of the characters and the plot twists; it has to do with the style of the film. Nearly every set-up is surprising and unexpected, in terms of camera placement, framing, or colors. The result is a strange kind of distancing: not any sort of alienation-effect, but an effort to take us outside the characters, so that we can view them, and their world, from an angle we’ve never experienced before. (Can an “angle” be “experienced”? I may be writing clumsily here, but the film actually convinced me that such a thing is possible). Rather than “identifying” with the characters, we are led to feel affectionately about them from a distance, as if we were friendly visitors from another planet (or as if, I am tempted to say, we were cinema spectators).
Also, continuity is frequently violated, because Ratanaruang is more concerned with emotional expression than with literal narrative coherence. When Noi falls asleep with her head in Kenji’s lap, for instance, the clothes she is wearing change from one shot to the next; including one series of shots where she is wearing the clothes her sister had on when she died (a death that Kenji witnessed; and it was this now-dead sister upon whom Kenji had first had a crush).
Other times, the film just takes off into the stratosphere. When Kenji, with his obsessive neatness and cleanliness fetish, insists on cleaning up Noi’s house, all of a sudden there’s a scene where we don’t actually see him cleaning; instead, we see the books and papers and other objects scattered all over the floor magically flying back, en masse, to their places in the cabinets and shelves. Noi first looks startled and uneasy that this is happening; but then she starts dancing, gracefully, in the midst of the flurry. Books and papers flit and twirl around her, as if in a gentle whirlpool. The camera observes, coolly, from a middle distance.
It’s unclear whether Noi and Kenji ever actually get it on; it’s implied that they do, once, but the camera does not show it. And the end of the film makes it undecidable how much of what we have seen has actually happened, and how much is fantasy (Kenji’s probably, but perhaps Noi’s as well).
Last Life in the Universe doesn’t exhibit either the exhilaration of early Godard, nor the melancholy romanticism of Wong; but it has an affect of its own that is as moving and impressive as either of these. It’s a kind of pleasurable coolness and lightness, sometimes flickering with quicksilver rapidity, other times mellowly dwelling on minute details (more for the sheer enjoyment of them than for any further significance they might have). Call it a sort of playful aestheticism, detached enough not to be momentous or anything, but adhesive enough to make you feel glad you are alive.