Archive for the ‘Film’ Category
My book on Post-Cinematic Affect, and my subsequent discussion of post- continuity have received some interesting responses recently.
First of all: in the latest issue of the open-access film journal La furia umana, Therese Grisham, Shane Denson, and Julia Leyda hold a roundtable discussion on the role of post-continuity in recent cinema, with particular reference to District 9 and to Hugo. This complements a previous roundtable discussion in the same journal a year ago, in which I participated, that focused on the Paranormal Activity series of films. There are a lot of important insights here, and I regret that I didn’t have the time to participate in the roundtable myself. However, we are trying to continue and expand this discussion. If our panel proposal for next spring’s SCMS is accepted, then I will be joining the roundtable participants for more discussion on post-continuity. My own contribution to this prospective panel will be focused on the late Tony Scott’s amazing 2005 film Domino.
And secondly: on her blog It’s Her Factory, Robin James considers how my observations on developments in contemporary film might be related to recent developments in contemporary music. I have argued that certain constellations of affect, composing a “structure of feeling” that is basic to our current neoliberal moment, are reflected or expressed or generated (I do not want to choose between these verbs for now, because I think what’s happening involves a bit of each of them) by certain formal changes in film and related media. The displacement of continuity editing by editing styles that are no longer centered upon a concern for the transparency and intelligibility of narrative go along, not just with new digital technologies, but also with new forms of subjectivity that are emerging in a world of just-in-time production, precarious labor, and neoliberal techniques of quantification and management. James suggests that analogous processes are at work in current popular music production, in response to many of the same shifts in the current (neoliberal) mode of production. Music production is of course quite different from film/video (or more properly, audiovisual) production, so we should not expect any sort of simple correspondences between what songs or dance tracks do and what movies do. But in both cases, there are mutations in media technologies and in principles of formal structuration, which in both cases respond to (or index, or express, or help to constitute — once again I would like to leave the equivocation between these terms intact) the social, political, and economic changes that we are currently experiencing. I hope to get the opportunity to continue this discussion as well.
Today marks the inauguration of REFRAME, “an open access academic digital platform for the online practice, publication and curation of internationally produced research and scholarship” on film, media, and music. REFRAME is edited by Catherine Grant, of the School of Media, Film, and Music at the University of Sussex; she also runs the invaluable Film Studies for Free blog.
Among other things, REFRAME is publishing Sequence: Serial Studies in Media, Film, and Music, a new, peer-reviewed open-access scholarly journal.
And I am proud to say that the first issue of Sequence features an article of mine about Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, entitled “Melancholia, or the Romantic Anti-Sublime”. This is the most sustained work I have done since my 2010 book Post-Cinematic Affect; it is about 18,000 words long — which is too long for a conventional academic article, but too short for a book. I am thrilled, therefore, that it can now be published digitally, as the online format allows for more varied lengths than is possible with conventional print. I am also thrilled that this publication is open access: which is something that, I strongly believe, all academic work should be. In this way, my essay is available to contribute to future work by others, who may respond to it in all sorts of ways.
Just out from Wiley-Blackwell: A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas, edited by Aniko Imre. However, the book for the moment is hardcover only, at the ludcrious price of $175.13 (this is the Amazon price, a bit less than the official list price of $199.95). My own contribution to this anthology is “Body Horror and Post-Socialist Cinema: Gyorgy Palfi’s Taxidermia.” It is an expanded and vastly improved version of the article, which initially appeared in the open access journal Film-Philosophy. Since the book is so expensive, I have made the revised/expanded version of the article available here.
This year, quite to my excitement, I was asked to participate in Sight and Sound magazine’s once-per-decade poll of film critics to determine “The Ten Greatest Films of All Time.” (Previous decades’ results can be found here).
Making lists of this sort is always somewhat arbitrary. I added to the arbitrariness by saying only one film per director. In any case, six months from now the list I would make might well be quite different. Also, when I make a list like this, I inevitably forget and leave something out; there are always omissions that I later regret. Nonetheless, here is the list that I sent in this week:
- Vertigo (Hitchcock)
- Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi)
- The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis)
- Rules of the Game (Renoir)
- Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Godard)
- Ordet (Dreyer)
- Red Desert (Antonioni)
- Golden Eighties (Akerman)
- Imitation of Life (Sirk)
- Mouchette (Bresson)
Notes: Fassbinder is my all-time favorite director, but I couldn’t decide on a particular single film. Probably I should have included Berlin Alexanderplatz, but since it is a long TV miniseries, I am not sure that it would count. — I also hesitated over which Bresson film to include; I could see voting instead for A Man Escaped or Au Hazard Balthasar or The Devil Probably or L’argent.– I also regret the non-inclusion of a few runner-ups (runners-up?): Andrei Rublev (or maybe Stalker), Playtime, Celine and Julie Go Boating, India Song, The Devil is a Woman, Shock Corridor, Beau Travail, Daisies, WR:Mysteries of the Organism, Three Crowns of the Sailor, Teorema.
The new issue (#12) of the film journal La Furia Umana is out; it’s a special issue on Jerry Lewis! There are 23 articles (!!!) on Jerry, including my new piece on his late masterpiece Smorgasbord (aka Cracking Up). (Besides the Jerry Lewis material, the issue also contains, among other goodies Kim Nicolini on Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and something I haven’t read yet by the great film critic Nicole Brenez).
UPDATE: Since the pdf available from the Furia Umana site has formatting problems, a cleaner pdf of my article on Smorgasbord is available here.
In other news, my web posting about “work for hire” has been translated into Haitian Creole by John Obri — for which much thanks.
In my 2010 book Post-Cinematic Affect, I coined the term “post-continuity.” I used this term to describe a style of filmmaking that has become quite common in action films of the past decade or so. In what I call the post-continuity style, “a preoccupation with immediate effects trumps any concern for broader continuity — whether on the immediate shot-by-shot level, or on that of the overall narrative.”
In recent action blockbusters by the likes of Michael Bay and Tony Scott, there no longer seems to be any concern for delineating the geography of action, by clearly anchoring it in time and space. Instead, gunfights, martial arts battles, and car chases are rendered through sequences involving shaky handheld cameras, extreme or even impossible camera angles, and much composited digital material — all stiched together with rapid cuts, frequently involving deliberately mismatched shots. The sequence becomes a jagged collage of fragments of explosions, crashes, physical lunges, and violently accelerated motions. There is no sense of spatiotemporal continuity; all that matters is delivering a continual series of shocks to the audience.
This new action-movie style has not been unnoticed by film critics and theorists. The first writer to come to grips with this new style, as far as I know, was Bruce Reid in the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger. More than a decade ago (2000), Reid wrote, with tongue not quite in cheek, of Bay’s “indefensible” vision:
“I had to train everyone to see the world like I see the world,” Bay states in the DVD commentary to Armageddon. That world is apparently one of disorienting edits, mindless whip pans, and rack focuses that leave the background in a blur to reveal the barrel of a gun. Colors are treated with equal exaggeration: Entire scenes are lit in deep blue or green with no discernible source for the reflection. It is an anarchic, irresponsible vision, despite all the macho, patriotic chest-thumping.
Reid went on to slyly suggest that, despite being a “crushingly untalented” hack, Bay nonetheless shared with avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner “the same headlong thrill of the moment, the same refusal to dawdle over or organize their material.”
Much more recently (2008), David Bordwell has complained on his blog. of the way that in recent years,
Hollywood action scenes became ‘impressionistic,’ rendering a combat or pursuit as a blurred confusion. We got a flurry of cuts calibrated not in relation to each other or to the action, but instead suggesting a vast busyness. Here camerawork and editing didn’t serve the specificity of the action but overwhelmed, even buried it.
More recently still, in the summer of 2011, Mattias Stork gave a well-nigh definitive account of these changes in action editing in his two-part video essay “Chaos Cinema,” which led to a storm of commentary on the Internet. (A third part of the video essay has since been added, in which Stork replies to many of his critics). Stork directly addresses the transformation from action sequences (like those of Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, and John Frankenheimer) which offered the view a coherent sense of action in space and time, to the sequences in recent action films that no longer do this. Stork says:
Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits. Directors who work in this mode aren’t interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what’s happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.
Stork’s video essay is extremely interesting and useful. He really makes you see how action editing has changed over the course of the past decade or so. I have been showing it to my students in order to explain how editing styles have changed.
But I can’t help feeling that Stork’s focus is too narrow, and that his judgments — about the badness, or “illiteracy,” of “chaos cinema” in comparison to the older action-editing styles of Peckinpah, Woo, et al. — are too simplistic and unequivocal. Stork deliberately adopts a provocative and polemical tone, in order to get his point across. But he only talks negatively about the new style; he points out what it fails to do, without giving enough credit for the positive things that it actually does. To my mind, it is inadequate simply to say that the new action films are merely vapid and sensationalistic. Ironically, Stork’s dismissal of action films today sounds rather like the way in which, in years past, Hollywood fare in general was disparaged in comparison to self-conscious art films.
When I showed “Chaos Cinema” Part 1 to my Introduction to Film class earlier this semester, the students agreed that they could really see the stylistic differences that the video put on display. But many of them also said that, having grown up with “chaos cinema,” they enjoyed it and weren’t bothered by the failings of which Stork accused it. New forms and new technical devices imply new possibilities of expression; I am interested in trying to work out what these new possibilities might be. This will involve picking up on Bruce Reid’s not-entirely-facetious suggestion of ties between the most crassly commercial recent filmmaking and the historical projects of the avant-garde.
In the third part of his “Chaos Cinema” video essay, responding to criticisms by Scott Nye, Stork grudgingly admits that Tony Scott’s Domino (2005) — surely one of the most extravagant examples of post-continuity style — is not devoid of aesthetic value. But Stork complains that, because of its radical “abstraction,” Domino doesn’t work in a genre context — it isn’t really an action film. I note, however, that Bruce Reid had already credited Michael Bay with pushing filmmaking “to the brink of abstraction,” and yet making movies that mass audiences love. Stork complains that Domino is an avant-garde experiment; the avant-garde, he says, is “a hermetically sealed environment,” with “different audiences, reception spheres and ambitions” than the commercial genre film. But I am rather inclined to agree with Reid; the mass vs. avant-garde distinction just doesn’t hold any longer. After all, there isn’t a technique used by Jean-Luc Godard that hasn’t become a mainstay of television and Internet commercials.
One way that we can start to work out the potentialities of post-continuity styles is by looking at their genealogy. Stork notes, as I also do in my book, that what he calls “chaos cinema” is an offshoot, or an extreme development, of what David Bordwell’s intensified continuity. Bordwell demonstrates how, starting with the New Hollywood of the 1970s, commercial filmmaking in America and elsewhere has increasingly involved “more rapid editing… bipolar extremes of lens lengths… more close framings in dialogue scenes…[and] a free-ranging camera.” But although this makes for quite a different style from that of classic Hollywood, Bordwell does not see it as a truly radical shift: “far from rejecting traditional continuity in the name of fragmentation and incoherence,” he says, “the new style amounts to an intensification of established techniques.” It still tells stories in the classical manner — only more so, with a vengeance.
I think that Stork and I are both arguing that this is no longer the case with the 21st-century developments of action cinema. (And Bordwell himself might even agree with this, as witness the blog posting I quoted earlier). In my book, I suggested that intensified continuity has “jumped the shark,” and turned into something else entirely. We might call this, in the old Hegelian-Marxist style, a dialectical reversal involving the transformation of quantity into quality. Or we might see it as an instance of Marshall McLuhan’s observation that every new medium retrieves an earlier, supposedly “outdated” medium; and then, at its limit, reverses into its opposite. In the 21st century, the very expansion of the techniques of intensified continuity, especially in action films and action sequences, has led to a situation where continuity itself has been fractured, devalued, fragmented, and reduced to incoherence.
That is to say, the very techniques that were developed in order to “intensify” cinematic continuity, have ended up by undermining it. In using the word continuity, I am first of all referring to continuity editing as the basic orienting structure of Hollywood narrative cinema. But I am also pointing toward a larger sense of the word, in which it implies the homogeneity of space and time, and the coherent organization of narrative. It is continuity in this broader sense, as well as in the narrower one, which has broken down in “chaos cinema.”
Michael Bay himself can be quoted on this point: “when you get hung up on continuity,” he says, “you can’t keep the pace and price down. Most people simply consume a movie and they are not even aware of these errors.” It’s noteworthy that Bay seems equally concerned with “pace” and “price,” and that he sees his movies as objects which the audience will “simply consume.” As far as Bay is concerned, the frequent continuity violations discovered in his films by hostile critics are not “errors” at all; they are just nitpicky details that only matter to those few of us who analyze films for a living. It’s easy enough to ridicule this sort of attitude, of course; and I have done so as much as anybody. But beyond ridicule, the crucial point is that the classical values of continuity simply don’t matter to certain contemporary filmmakers any more.
This is why I prefer my own term, post-continuity, to Stork’s “chaos cinema.” Film today is post-continuity, just as our culture in general is postmodern — or, even better, post-literate. Even if weve discovered today that “we have never been modern,” this discovery is itself a product of modernity. And it’s not that we don’t read anymore, but rather that reading itself has been recontextualized, and subsumed within a broader multimedia/audiovisual environment. In the same way, it is not that continuity rules are always being violated or ignored; nor are the films made in their absence simply chaotic. Rather, we are in a “post-continuity” situation when continuity has ceased to be important — or at least has ceased to be as important as it used to be.
You can still find lots of moments in post-continuity films in which the continuity editing rules are being carefully followed, as well as moments in which they are thrown out the window. And it’s also true that, as Stork notes, continuity cues that are not provided visually are instead provided subliminally on the soundtrack. (The role of sound in post-continuity cinema is something that I will need to address elsewhere). In any case, however, the crucial point for post-continuity films is that the violation of continuity rules isn’t foregrounded, and isn’t in itself significant. This is in sharp contrast to the ways that jump cuts, directional mismatches, and other violations of continuity rules were at the center of a film like Godard’s Breathless more than half a century ago. Today, neither the use of continuity rules nor their violation is at the center of the audience’s experience any longer.
In other words, it is not that continuity rules — whether in their classical or “intensified” form — have been abandoned, nor even that they are concertedly violated. Rather, although these rules continue to function, more or less, they have lost their systematicity; and — even more — they have lost their centrality and importance. And this marks the limit of Bordwell’s claim, in his “Intensified Continuity” essay, that even the flamboyant camera movements and ostentatious edits and special effects of the “intensified” style still serve the same ultimate goal as classical narration: putting the audience in the position of “comprehending the story” and “surrendering to the story’s expressive undertow.”
Continuity structures, however, are not just about articulating narrative. Even more importantly, perhaps, they work to provide a certain sense of spatial orientation, and to regularize the flow of time. Where Bordwell sees the establishment of spatiotemporal relations as crucial to the articulation of narrative, I am inclined to think that the actual situation is the reverse. Even in classical narrative films, following the story is not important in itself. It is just another one of the ways in which we are led into the spatiotemporal matrix of the film; for it is through this matrix that we experience the film on multiple sensorial and affective levels.
I am making a rather large theoretical claim here, one that I will need to justify, and further develop, elsewhere. But I think it has major consequences for the ways in which we understand post-continuity.
In post-continuity films, unlike classical ones, continuity rules are used opportunistically and occasionally, rather than structurally and pervasively. Narrative is not abandoned, but it is articulated in a space and time that are no longer classical. For space and time themselves have become relativized or unhinged. In this sense, Bordwell is wrong to claim that “in representing space, time, and narrative relations (such as causal connections and parallels) today’s films generally adhere to the principles of classical filmmaking.”
Part of what’s at stake here is the relation between style and significance. Of course, we know that it is impossible simply to link a particular technique, or stylistic device, with a fixed meaning. This is why Bordwell rejects the sort of theorization that I am pursuing here; it is also, I think, why Stork can only say of the “chaos cinema” style that it is poorly made. But against this, I’d like to cite some remarks by Adrian Martin. Martin begins by giving Bordwell his due:
In his droll 1989 book Making Meaning, the American scholar David Bordwell makes fun of a standard procedure in discussing film. Let us take shot/reverse shot cutting, proposes Bordwell. Critics like to say: if we see, as part of the same scene, one person alone in a shot, and then another person alone in another shot, it means that the film intends us to see them as emotionally far apart, separated, disconnected. But (Bordwell continues) it can also be taken to mean the exact opposite: the rhythm of the cutting, the similarity of the positioning of the figures in the frame – all that signals a union, a oneness, a deep connection between these two people! Bordwell repeats the same mock-demonstration with camera movement: if a panning or tracking shot takes us from one character, past an expanse of space, to another character, critics will unfailingly say either that this means they are secretly connected, or (on the contrary) that there is a gulf between them.
However, Martin suggests that there is more to it than Bordwell is able to properly recognize; and in this, he moves from Bordwell to Deleuze:
Maybe we are not asking the right question. It might be enough to answer Bordwell by pointing out that such meanings, of interconnectedness or disconnectedness, are not just the handy hallucination of the critic; and that each film, in creating its own dramatic context, will subtly or unsubtly instruct us on how to read the emotional and thematic significance of its stylistic devices. OK, argument settled – at least within the framework of an essentially classical, organic aesthetic. But there is another way to attack this matter, and it is more philosophical. Let us turn to Gilles Deleuze’s meditation on the films of Kenji Mizoguchi in his Cinema 1: The Movement-Image: “this seems to us to be the essential element in what have been called the extravagant camera-movements in Mizoguchi: the sequence-shot ensures a sort of parallelism of vectors with different orientations and thus constitutes a connexion of heterogeneous fragments of space, thus giving a very special homogeneity to the space thus constituted. (…) It is not the line which unites into a whole, but the one which connects or links up the heterogenous elements, while keeping them heterogeneous. (…) Lines of the universe have both a physics – which reaches its peak in the sequence-shot and the tracking-shot – and a metaphysics, constituted by Mizoguchi’s themes.”
What a concept to boggle Bordwell’s mind: the camera movement which is (to paraphrase Deleuze) a line which connects what is disconnected, while keeping it disconnected! Yet this is precisely the complexity of what we are given to see, as spectators, in a film by Mizoguchi or so many other filmmakers: this ambiguous or ambivalent interplay of what connects or disconnects, links or unlinks, the people and objects and elements of the world.
Without necessarily endorsing Deleuze’s particular mode of analysis, I’d like to suggest that Martin gives us the way in which we can indeed assign some broader significance to the larger phenomenon of post-continuity: to see what it connects and what it disconnects. In classical continuity styles, space is a fixed and rigid container, which remains the same no matter what goes on in the narrative; and time flows linearly, and at a uniform rate, even when the film’s chronology is scrambled by flashbacks. But in post-continuity films, this is not necessarily the case. We enter into the spacetime of modern physics; or better, into the “space of flows”, and the time of microintervals and speed-of-light transformations, that are characteristic of globalized, high-tech financial capital. Thus in Post-Cinematic Affect, reflecting on Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer, I tried to look at the ways that the post-continuity action style is expressive of, as well as being embedded within, the delirium of globalized financial capitalism, with its relentless processes of accumulation, its fragmentation of older forms of subjectivity, its mutiplication of technologies for controlling perception and feeling on the most intimate level, and its play of both embodiment and disembodiment.
I think, however, that there is much more to be said about the aesthetic sensibility of post-continuity styles, and the ways that this sensibility is related to other social, psychological, and technological forces. Post-continuity stylistics are expressive both of technological changes (i.e. the rise of digital and Internet-based media) and of more general social, economic, and political conditions (i.e. globalized neoliberal capitalism, and the intensified financialization associated with it). Like any other stylistic norm, post-continuity involves films of the greatest diversity in terms of their interests, committments, and aesthetic values. What unites, them, however, is not just a bunch of techniques and formal tics, but a kind of shared episteme (Michel Foucault) or structure of feeling (Raymond Williams). It is this larger structure that I would like to illuminate further: to work out how contemporary film styles are both expressive of, and productively contributory to, these new formations. By paying sustained attention to post-continuity styles, I am at least trying to work toward a critical aesthetics of contemporary culture.
I would like to conclude by suggesting that the notion of “post-continuity” may well have a broader cultural scope, rather than just being restricted to what Stork calls “the woozy camera and A.D.D. editing pattern of contemporary [action] releases.” Consider, for instance, the following:
- On his blog, the cinematographer John Bailey interviewed Stork and commented extensively on the ideas from his video essay. Bailey proposes that the real hallmark of “chaos cinema” is “spatial confusion,” even when this is accomplished without “eruptive cutting.” He therefore suggests that even films that “embrace the long take”, and mimic the hypercontinuity of first-person computer games, may also partake of what I am calling post-continuity. Gus van Sant’s Gerry, for instance, accomplishes “such a complete spatial dislocation that it slowly, inexorably becomes the heart of the film.” Bailey’s observations are quite congruent with work that I have been doing on how space time relations, as well as audiovisual relations, are radically changed by the new digital technologies (cf. my essay “Splitting the Atom,” forthcoming).
- Dogme95-influenced handheld cinematography also produces a post-continuity style. Excessive camera movements, reframings without functional justification, and rough, jumpy editing lead to a vertiginous sense of dislocation. Writing about Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia on his Twitter feed, Adrian Martin complains: “I tend to dislike almost every stylistic decision made by Lars von Trier. Other things can be interesting, but the style! Where is the craft in this MELANCHOLIA thing ? Some of the actors are great, but nobody is being directed, it’s an amateur movie!!” Now, I value this film quite highly, as Martin evidently does not. But I think that his discomfort bears witness to something that is genuinely true of the film: its indifference to, and even feudal of, the traditional aesthetics of continuity, and the sorts of meanings that are produced by such an aesthetic. My own argument is that this is altogether appropriate to a film that rejects modernity altogether, and envisions the end of the world. (I try to discuss the positive effects of Von Trier’s post-continuity style in my essay “Melancholia, or the Romantic Anti-Sublime,” forthcoming).
- I think that post-continuity is also at work in the minimalism and stasis of such recent low-budget horror films as the Paranormal Activity series. These films are evidently not dislocated, as they are shot, and take place, in single locations. In each film, the point of view is restricted to the rooms and grounds of one single-family home. But these films are entirely shot with home-video and home-computing equipment; and the machines that capture all the footage themselves appear within the diegesis. This means that everything comes either from jerky handheld video cameras, or else from the fixed locations of laptop cams and surveillance cams. As a result, the patterns of traditional continuity editing are completely missing: there are no shot-reverse shot patterns, and no cuts between establishing shots and close-ups. Instead, we get a point of view that is impersonal, mechanized, and effectively from nowhere. Nicholas Rombes argues that the Paranormal Activity films are in fact avant-garde works, due to their use of fixed or mechanically-controlled cameras. (For further discussion of this, see the Critical Roundtable on these films, featuring me, Rombes, and Julia Leyda, and moderated by Therese Grisham, in a recent issue of La furia umana).
Although I have yet to explore any of these more fully, it strikes me that the following might also be considered as instances of post-continuity.:
- The casual, throwaway style of “mumblecore” slice-of-life films.
- The widespread integration of graphics, sound effects, and mixtures of footage emulating video games, that we find in a film like Scott Pilgrim.
- The promiscuous mixtures of different styles of footage that we find in such films as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Brian De Palma’s Redacted.
In all of these cases, the films do not altogether dispense with the concerns of classical continuity; but they move ‘beyond’ it or apart from it, so that their energies and their investments point elsewhere. What is common to all these styles is that they are no longer centered upon classical continuity, or even the intensification of continuity identified by Bordwell. We need to develop new ways of thinking about the formal strategies, as well as the semantic contents, of all these varieties of post-continuity films.
Here’s an abstract that I have just written on the subject of von Trier’s Melancholia. It’s my first attempt at getting a grip on what I want to say about the film. This will be subject, of course, to extensive elaboration and revision.
(I have left out any reference to how Melancholia can be seen, as several critics have already noted, as the radical opposite of Malick’s The Tree of Life. To my mind, it is quite noteworthy how many defenders of The Tree of Life have regarded the film theologically, as a sort of rapturous spiritual experience; criticism of the film is routinely — and not entirely playfully and ironically — referred to as “blasphemy,” etc. In this case, Melancholia provides a radical counter-theology. I leave open the questions of whether it is a-theistic or rather an other theology; just as I leave open the question of to what degree von Trier is reverting to Schelling, and to what degree he is reverting to Schopenhauer — for this distinction, see Eugene Thacker’s recent article. But in either case, von Trier is opposed, as both these thinkers were, to the Hegelianism of which Malick’s film is the most recent articulation).
MELANCHOLIA, OR, THE ROMANTIC ANTI-SUBLIME
Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011) moves from domestic melodrama to cosmic catastrophe. It works as what used to be called a “women’s picture,” giving the portrait of a female character’s clinical depression when confronted with the prospect of a bourgeois family lifestyle. But the film also envisions the extermination of all life on Earth; this serves as a kind of objective correlative to the protatonist’s depression. In contrast to other recent apocalyptic films, however, Melancholia refuses to present the audience with a grandiose and sublime spectacle of mass destruction. Its apocalypse is disconcertingly intimate. Melancholia offers a deflationary view both of ongoing life and of its extinction.The film rejects conventional art-house standards of construction and form, with its disjunctive structure and its use of Dogme-style unsteady handheld camerawork. But Melancholia is also filled with Romantic allusions, from the music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on the soundtrack, to visual tableaux that recall Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It treats these allusions in a strangely distanced way, however, framing them as beautiful objects of contemplation in a manner that, for some viewers, might even seem to border on kitsch. In deploying this Romantic imagery, and reverting to a Romantic pessimism reminiscent of Leopardi and Schopenhauer, von Trier breaks away from the Modernist obsession with estrangement-effects, self-reflexivity, irony, and the “unpresentable” (cf. Lyotard). Against the Romantic and Modernist sublime, Melancholia offers an aesthetico-ontological vision of desolate beauty. In its reference to a certain side of German Idealism, its radical anti-anthropocentrism, and its entertainment of the thought of extinction, the film parallels recent developments in so-called “speculative realism.” But in its own right, Melancholia offers at least one possibility for a new aesthetics of the 21st century.
The new issue (#10) of the online film journal La furia umana is out, and it contains lots of interesting stuff, including a roundtable discussion, featuring Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, Nicholas Rombes, and myself on the two (to date) Paranormal Activity films. I think this was a great discussion — my own remarks were very much stimulated by Therese’s questions, and by Julia’s and Nick’s own quite different takes on the films. I think that — whether in spite of, or more likely, precisely because of, our divergences — the discussion stands up pretty well as a whole.
The journal also presents web-readable reprints of two chapters of my last book, Post-Cinematic Affect: the chapter on Gamer is here, and the Coda is here. (The introduction and the three earlier chapters were intially published here; or you can simply buy the whole book).
This past week, there has been a symposium on my book, Post-Cinematic Affect, over at In Media Res. There were postings by Elena Del Rio, Paul Bowman, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Patricia MacCormack, plus lively discussions in the Comments sections. Today, my response to the various postings was published. I am reproducing it here:
First of all, I would like to thank Michael O’Rourke, Karin Sellberg, and Kris Cannon for setting up this theme week at In Media Res devoted to my book Post-Cinematic Affect, to the curators Elena Del Rio, Paul Bowman, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Patricia MacCormack for their postings, and also to Shane Denson for his comments. The discussion has been so rich, and it has gone in so many directions, that I scarcely know where to begin. I will try to make a few comments, at least, about each of the four curators’ postings in turn.
Elena Del Rio praises the power of affect, for the way that it “throws into disarray the system of recognition and naming.” She opposes the state of “exhaustion” and indifferent equalization that we might seem to have reached in this age of globalized finance capital to the way that “affect or vitality” remains able to energize us, to shake things up, to allow for (in the words of Deleuze) “a vital power that cannot be confined within species [or] environment.” While I remain moved by this vision — which has its roots in Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze — I am increasingly dubious as to its viability. I’m inclined to say that praising affect as a force of “resistance” is a category error. For we do not live in a world in which the forces of affective vitality are battling against the blandness and exhaustion of capitalist commodification. Rather, we live in a world in which everything is affective. What politics is more virulently affective and vital than that of the American Tea Party? Where is intensive metamorphosis more at work than in the “hyper-chaos” (as Elie Ayache characterizes it, following Quentin Meillassoux) of the global financial markets? It is not a question of a fight between affect and its “waning” or exhaustion (whether the latter is conceived as the actual negation of the former, or just as its zero degree). Rather than being on one side of a battle, affect is the terrain itself: the very battlefield on which all conflicts are played out. All economic and aesthetic events today are necessarily aesthetic ones, both for good and for ill.
Paul Bowman is therefore not being wrongheaded when he wonders “whether approaching the world in terms of affect offers anything specific for cultural theory and the understanding of culture and politics.” Indeed, I answer this question in the affirmative, whereas Bowman seems to lean towards the negative. But my saying this is not because I think that affect offers us “anything specific”; it is rather because affect (much like Whitehead’s creativity, or Spinoza’s conatus) is an entirely generic notion, one that more or less applies to everything. Affect is not a particular quality; rather it designates the fact that every moment of experience is qualitative and qualified. Eliminativist philosophers notoriously argue that “qualia” do not exist; at the opposite extreme from this, I follow WIlliam James and Whitehead in insisting that there is nothing devoid of qualia. For this reason, I am in agreement with the commentators who suggest that the two affective readings Bowman offers of the clip from Old Boy are not in contradiction to one another, and that sensual heightening and loneliness in fact go together. Bowman’s effects are inseparable from what I am calling affects.
Adrian Ivakhiv asks “whether there remain breathing spaces and sources of transcendence outside of hypercapitalism’s ever-modulating codes.” That is to say, he worries that my account of what Marx called the “real subsumption” of all social forces under capitalism in contemporary leaves room for anything else. Do I not run the risk of painting so totalizing a picture that Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s vision of an “open universe” becomes impossible? Imust admit that I present a rather pessimistic view of our prospects. I fear that under the sway of what Mark Fischer has called “capitalist realism” we suffer today from a general paralysis, both of the will and of the imagination. I do not share Gibson-Graham’s happy vision of all sorts of wonderful utopian alternatives burgeoning under the surface of actually existing capitalism. If I instead present what seems like a totalizing picture, this is only to the extent that capitalism “itself” — however multiple and without-identity it may actually be — involves an incessant drive towards totalization. This is capital’s essential project: the ever-expanding accumulation of itself, of capital. It’s a process that is both economic (quantitative) and aesthetic (qualitative). The goal of complete subsumption is of course never entirely realized, precisely because accumulation can never come to an end. Also, we cannot see, feel, hear, or touch this project or process: in itself it is a version of what Ivakhiv calls “magic.” And to my mind, this makes the aesthetic a kind of counter-magic, a spell to force the monstrosity to reveal itself, an effort to make it visible, audible, and palpable.
Patricia MacCormack generously expands upon the aesthetic and affective stakes of what I was trying to accomplish in Post-Cinematic Affect — as opposed to the concerns over “capitalist realism” that also play a large role in the book, and that were the focus of the other posts. I thank her for calling attention to the Whiteheadian and Deleuzian themes that, as several of the other commentators noted, seemed less present in this book than in my earlier ones. Indeed, this is a tension — or a problem that I have been unable to solve — running through pretty much all of my work. Mallarmé’s maxim defines everything that I am trying to do as a critic: “Tout se résume dans l’Esthétique et l’Economie politique” (“everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy”). This seems to me to be a necessary truth about the world; but I am never certain where to draw the line, how to partition the world between aesthetics and political economy, or when they are absolutely incompatible with one another, and when they are able to partially coincide.
In conclusion, I offer a media object that I hope responds to at least some of the tensions and confusions that we have been discussing this week: the music video for Janelle Monae’s song “Cold War.” The song, from Monae’s concept album The ArchAndroid, works as a kind of Afrofuturist counterpoint to Grace Jones’ “Corporate Cannibal.” It addresses the unavoidable conflicts of a world that is increasingly posthuman (as well as post-cinematic). The lyrics to “Cold War” reflect upon the demands and meanings of Emersonian self-reliance and authenticity, and of subjectivity more generally, in a world that is entirely manufactured and commodified. The Metropolis Suite, of which The ArchAndroid is a part, narrates the plight of a robot/slave — a commodity, all the more so because she is nonwhite — who has been slated for demolition because she has fallen in love. She is therefore forced, not only to flee for her life, but to invent out of whole cloth, and without models, what it might mean for her to be a “person” with a “life,” that is to say, with feelings, needs, and desires. The lyrics of “Cold War,” in particular, speak both to the absolute requirement of self-integrity and to the near-impossibility of defining what it might be. The video is a single, continuous take: we even see a time code running in the corner, and a title reading “Take One” appears near the beginning. Against a dark background, we see an extreme close-up head shot of Monae as she sings the song. But at some point, there’s a glitch: she flubs a line, looks to the side and seems to be bantering with someone off-camera. Then she clenches her face and seems to be barely holding back tears. Through all of this, her voice and the music continues to play, indicating that she has in fact been lip-synching all along. The extreme intimacy and emotionality conveyed by the close-up on Monae’s facial expressions coincide with the revelation of the video’s artifice. The video thus resonates with the “Club Silencio” sequence in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (which was sampled in Elena DelRio’s video). I don’t think that the revelation of technological artifice undercuts the affective intensity of the performance (as might have been the case in some twentieth-century modernist work). Rather, the incompossibles coexist, without negation and also without synthesis or resolution.