Archive for January, 2007

Which Science Fiction Writer Are You?

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

I took this test: Which Science FIction Writer Are You?, which I found out about via Warren Ellis, who himself found out about it via Cory Doctorow.

It turns out that I am Octavia Butler: a better result, I think, than either Cory or Warren got. But it’s an identification that I don’t really feel I am worthy of.


Friday, January 26th, 2007

Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) manages to be both visceral and abstract, playful and savage, intellectual and infantile, all at once. Watching it last night, I was literally trembling with joy and exhilaration. I felt the same way when I first saw the film, nearly thirty years ago. in graduate school.

Daisies is a film of the Czech New Wave, but it doesn’t have much in common — aside from the rejection of traditional narrative, and of the aesthetics of “socialist realism” — with the other works of the movement. Chytilova, you might say, plays Godard to Jiri Menzel‘s Truffaut. (Chytilova and Menzel went to FAMU, the famed Czech film school together, become close friends, and occasionally worked together — see the biography of Chytilova here). Daisies is a riot of color, jump cuts and shock cuts and deliberate mismatches, garish pictorial inserts, incongruous nondiegetic music and sounds, and anti-naturalistic special effects. Sometimes the screen is in color, sometimes in black and white, sometimes tinted with monochromat filters, and sometimes awash in crazed pixelation (? — or whatever the pre-digital equivalent of this might be) effects. The film as a whole is a relentless assault — against film conventions and forms and indeed cinema itself, against social norms and rules and indeed society itself, and finally against the spectator. This assault is violently nihilistic, but it is also utterly joyous and gleeful: an explosion of affect, in which I share as I watch.

Daisies delights as well as shocks — probably, at this point, delights more than it shocks, if I can judge from the responses of my students viewing it last night. And yet, despite a certain degree of cult devotion, it hasn’t ever been given its rightful due in histories of film, or even in histories of experimental, radical, and avant-garde film. Owen Hatherley writes brilliantly about it (and I am deeply indebted to his analysis of the film); but his is the only discussion I have been able to find that is in any way adequate to the film’s astonishing force and radicality. Even those of us who love Daisies have trouble finding the proper terms to account for it.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the wake of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), there was a lot of debate on the subject of what it might mean to break away from conventional cinematic pleasures. Such pleasures, as Mulvey compellingly demonstrated, are embedded in structures of heterosexual male domination and female subordination. Mulvey herself calls (somewhat ambiguously) for an effort “to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment.” But the main thrust of her essay was upon the “destruction of pleasure.” Mulvey called for a practice (both of criticism and of alternative filmmaking) that “destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege” of conventional film viewing.

Much of the debate, after Mulvey, was over the question of whether feminist filmmaking would therefore have to be didactic, “alienating,” and intellectualizing; or whether other regimes of pleasure and affect, besides the patriarchal one, were attainable (or even conceivable). Did anyone notice that, a decade before Mulvey, Chytilova had already answered this question, in the affirmative? For the sheer joy of Daisies owes nothing to the mechanisms of identification and objectification, sadism and paranoia, that Mulvey dissects in her article. Daisies works, it works very powerfully indeed; but we don’t have a good language to describe how and why it works, and that is a large part of the reason it has been relegated to the margins of film history.


So, we have two girls — or young women, if you prefer; the actresses (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova) are probably in their early twenties. (The IMDB doesn’t list their dates of birth, and says that neither of them ever acted in films again, aside from a couple of minor roles just after Daisies, in 1966 and 1967). We don’t even know these characters’ names — indeed, they are both called by a number of different names over the course of the film — though most discussions, and the credits list on IMDB, call them “Marie I” and “Marie II.”

After the opening credits — which are printed against a montage combining, on the one hand, shots of something that looks like a 1920s Constructivist or Dadaist machine-sculpture, and on the other hand, grainy video footage of wartime bombings and destruction — we see the two Maries seated, side by side and facing the camera, in some sort of open box or proscenium stage. Their bodies are stiff, their movements are awkward, as if they were puppets. Every time either of them moves a limb, we hear a loud creaking on the soundtrack, suggesting a kind of clumsy mechanical animation. They are bored. They tell each other that, because the world is “bad,” their only alternative is to be “bad” too. (Another translation has “spoiled” instead of “bad”).

The two Maries go on to indulge themselves in various sorts of antisocial behavior. They continually complain to one another, and squabble. But they don’t seem to have any stake in these arguments, and it’s impossible to make any consistent distinction between their points of view. (One is blonde and one brunette, and that’s as far as their differences go). They go out on dates to fancy restaurants with evidently well-to-do older men (what does this mean in the Communist context? We know that socialist society wasn’t as classless and egalitarian, nor as gender-equal, as it was supposed to be). The men buy them expensive drinks and food, hoping (presumably) to seduce them, but instead finding themselves having to cope with the girls’ raucous behavior. Marie and Marie wear short dresses; one of them wears her hair is in ponytails; both of them put on lots of eyeshadow. They seem less like vamps than like little girls playing dress-up, or (more disagreeably) like objects of pederastic fantasy (do I have the right word here? what is the heterosexual equivalent of “pederastic”?). The men never get the sex they were hoping for; instead they are hustled off to catch a train, and abandoned. The girls just laugh giddily, and go off to make more trouble.

The two Maries gleefully trash their own apartment, as well as all the public spaces they wander through; they are constantly on the move, from the latrine of some lavish restaurant, to the banks of the river, to the train station, and finally through the corridors and up the floors (riding in a dumbwaiter) of an imposing official building, where they find food and silverware lavishly and meticulously laid out for (we presume) some sort of State banquet. In the climactic sequence of the film, they proceed to trash the banquet room, stuffing themselves with giant portions of meat and poultry, devouring cake and booze, smashing plates and glasses, having tumultuous food fights, and finally swinging from the ceiling chandelier. Meantime, the soundtrack music is either portentous or martial, taken from Wagner’s Ring among other sources. Surely this is the greatest “food” sequence in the history of film.


A word of distinction is in order. The two Maries’ bad behavior isn’t anything like the girls-can-act-like-raunchy-frat-boys-too stuff we’ve seen so much of in recent years, whether in TV shows like Sex and the City, or in fashionable public behavior like that analyzed in Ariel Levy’s recent book Female Chauvinist Pigs. These are situations in which women displace men in order to take over the dominating phallic role for themselves — and end up, therefore, behaving just as stupidly and oppressively as men do.

But the two Maries’ behavior works in an entirely different register. It is completely infantile. They seem uninterested in sexuality per se: they only dress up in swinging-sixties-”sexy” garb the better to confound and humiliate older men (something they are interested in) and to create general confusion and disorder. Instead of sex, they are interested in food. They lose no opportunity to gorge themselves. And they take a child’s pleasure in breaking stuff, shredding stuff, and burning stuff. In particular, they are continually cutting things up with scissors. This latter action resonates with “cutting” in the cinematic sense; their aggression is matched by Chytilova’s anti-continuity editing, which often cuts correctly on action or on an object, only in order to place everything abruptly into a totally different setting. In one sequence, the Maries cut up parts of their own bodies on screen — one’s arm suddenly disappears, followed by the other’s head; finally the screen image itself gets cut, breaking up into small squares squirming all over the frame.

In Freudian terms, one might say that sexuality has been repressed in favor of a regression to oral — narcissistic, incorporating, and aggressive — drives and pleasures. But I think the Maries’ behavior is better seen affirmatively, as a positive construction, rather than as a reaction or regression. The movement from sexuality to food is, precisely, a detournement in the Situationist sense, rather than a “failure of development.” It is also a Rimbaudian “systematic derangement of the senses,” and a Nietzschean movement, a striving “to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming — that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction.” Though certainly Nietzsche never imagined this happening in so delightfully “girlie” a manner as it does here.


The two Maries’ delight in gorging themselves on food and drink is intimately connected with their delight in cutting. Their play with scissors evidently implies castration. Besides newspapers, bedspreads, and their own and others’ clothing, they are also continually snipping up phallic objects like sausages and pickles — as well as presumptively feminine ones like apples. (Castration, figurative or literal, seems to be a recurring theme in Chytilova’s work. One of her far more recent films, Traps (1998), which unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to see, aroused much controversy for its story of a woman who castrates the two men who raped her).

Destroying the phallus doesn’t just mean undermining male power, but undermining the power of the whole “Symbolic Order.” Among othet things, it means destroying the opposition — or undermining the gap — between things and words, or more broadly between things and their representations (whether these be verbal or visual). At one point, one of the Maries cuts out a picture of food from a magazine, then stuffs it into her mouth and chews it up with the same avidity she shows for actual food. This is in the course of a scene where the two Maries roast sausages by setting fires and burning down parts of their apartment. Then they spear and cut the wieners with an enormous cook’s fork, and an equally enormous pair of scissors. All the while they laugh at the complaints of a jilted lover, whose pathetic pleadings are heard over the phone. During the entire scene, some sort of sacramental choral music plays, nondiegetically, in the background.

Everything the two Maries do is destructive. They revel in sheer waste, in “unemployed negativity,” in “expenditure without return.” Above all, Daisies expresses utter scorn for any sort of productivity, whether economic, social, or semiotic This, of course, is a major reason why the film was denounced by Party authorities for wasting the resources of the State, and insulting “the working people in factories, in fields, and on construction sites.” As production was the highest value in all the socialist states, the general derision which Daisies pours on the very concept is actually more disturbing to official ideology than a more explicit, specific, and immediate criticism of the social system would have been.

There is one sequence in Daisies in which the two Maries watch a farmer watering his crops. He doesn’t notice them, despite their outlandish attire. They then stand in a square they are passed by a squad of bicyclists, probably workers going off to their work in a factory. Once again, nobody notices them. They start to wonder whether they even exist: obviously, there is no place for them in the world of “actually existing socialism.”

(It’s dubious whether they could exist in “actually existing capitalism” either. Their orgies of expenditure might be seen as a sort of consumerist excess, except that they never pay for anything. They steal money, but they never spend it. They have no regard for, and no sense of, property; no sense of material goods as a source of power or prestige. Their infantilism, unlike that of the capitalist consumer, unegotistical. They have no interest in possession and accumulation).

After the Maries destroy the State banquet, the film ends with their display of remorse, and punishment for their bad behavior. This formulaic recantation is done so sarcastically that it only further accentuates the film’s overall childish glee in pure waste and destruction. (Is it worth noting that, after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Chytilova and other Czech New Wave directors were similarly forced to make critiques and recantations of their work?) The Maries mumble their sorrow, and say that now they are happy to be socially useful, as they ostensibly put everything back in order: this involves putting the shards of broken plates back next to each other, and throwing handfuls of crumbs back together on large platters. Finally they lie down on the top of the banquet table, wearing body suits made of newspaper and papier mache, murmuring that they are finally at peace… until the room’s enormous chandelier falls from the ceiling and crushes them in a final swoosh of multicolored pixelation. Though Chytilova claimed, under political duress, that this was a moral punishment for the girls’ transgressions, it seems rather to extend their reign of destruction, consuming not only the two of them, but the film itself.

What’s great about Daisies is that, even as it revels in negativity and destruction, and even as its protagonists are motivated (to the extent that such language can be used in a film like this at all) by a kind of malaise, there is no sense of lack or incompletion here, no alienated subjectivity, no Lacanian not-all, no Mulveyesque dialectics and detachment, and even no Adornoesque revelation of the work’s own insufficiency — but only a joyous plenitude, an overabundance that is both affective and material, embodied in the sheer exuberance and formal inventiveness of the film itself.

The early modernist endeavor to align radical aesthetics with radical politics came to grief over the horrors of Stalinism, not to mention the ultra-conservative aesthetics of “socialist realism” that Stalin imposed. In post-War, post-Stalin, Communist Eastern Europe, Dusan Makavejev is nearly alone in endeavoring to renew the link between radical aesthetics and radical politics. Chytilova’s late modernist radical aesthetics doesn’t share any such project. It is explicitly, not just apolitical, but virulently antipolitical. Rather than simply affirming the rights of the individual against the collective — a move which would still be “political” in the conventional sense — Daisies obliterates both individual and collective in its fervidly antisocial jouissance. (The two Maries cannot exist without one another; their duality is as irreducible to any sort of heroic or existential solitude and individuality, as it is to any sort of social bond or collectivity). And this antipolitical virulence is precisely the film’s (crucial) political import: one that perhaps we need today, in our “connected” world of inescapable networks and ubiquitous commodification, as much as it was needed 40-odd years ago in the world of “actually existing socialism.”

What would a history of film, or of modernism, or of the avant-garde, or an account of strategies of resistance and evasion and refusal, that took proper and full account of Daisies look like?

Loves of a Blonde

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) uses many of the same comic strategies that he subsequently employed in The Fireman’s Ball, though the two films differ greatly in terms of the subject matter to which the comic touch is applied. As I wrote of The Fireman’s Ball, so here “throughout the film, pointless arguments go on at almost excruciating length, without ever reaching a moment of open conflict, let alone resolution.”

In both films, comedy arises mostly from delays, misapprehensions, failures of communication, and a general sense of awkwardness and self-consciousness. In Loves of a Blonde, this is exacerbated by an awareness of, and the unsuccessful attempt to emulate, fashions from the West. Loves of a Blonde dates from the period of Beatlemania and swinging London; the people in the film are evidently at least somewhat aware of the consumerist styles associated with these developments, however much such styles were disparaged and repressed by the Czech regime at the time. Over the opening credits, for instance, we see and hear a young woman, with an acoustic guitar, singing a rock ‘n’ roll ballad which is notable by its contrast to the older-fashioned dance music heard elsewhere in the film. (One of Forman’s earliest films, which I’ve never seen, was a documentary that juxtaposed the rehearsals of a Czech rock band with those of a traditional brass band).

But in Loves of a Blonde the subject is sex and gender and romantic illusions and fantasy and familial relationships – rather than the pompousness of an overbearing bureaucracy that is the main theme of The Fireman’s Ball. So the effect is far less satirical and abrasive than will be the case in the later film. Instead, Loves of a Blonde works in a more intimate and affective register — though its results are largely disillusioning.

The protagonist, Andula (Hanu Brejchova) is a young woman who works in a shoe factory out in the provinces, and lives and sleeps in a barracks or dormitory with lots of other young women workers. There’s almost nothing to do in this town, and the gender ratio of women to men is something like 20:1. (Apparently, according to Dina Iordoanova’s invaluable book Cinema of the Other Europe, this situation was quite common in Czechoslovakia at the time: pp 130-131). The factory work is presented as boring, repetitious, unfulfilling, and alienating, if not as horrific as (more or less accurate) cinematic portrayals of capitalist sweatshops tend to be. The evident failure of “actually existing socialism” to meet its promises is doubled by an equally evident, and all too traditional, gender hierarchy: the only men we see in the factory (or even in the town) are far older than the women, and have managerial positions.

Loves of a Blonde

To rectify the boredom and gender imbalance, the factory authorities convince the army to bring in a bunch of troops to have a party at the local pub — basically it is one big mixer — with the girls. The trouble is, the soliders turn out to be, not young draftees, but reservists: i.e. middle aged men who have been called up for a brief tour of duty, and who have wives and children waiting for them back home. Much comedy ensues as these men try to hide their wedding rings, and figure out what lines to use to pick up the girls who evidently don’t find them the least bit appealing. There’s a great sequence where Forman cuts repeatedly back and forth between a table at which three sad-sack reservists sit, trying to work up their nerve; and the table where Andula and two of her girlfriends sit, commenting snarkily but also nervously about the grossness of these men who are all too evidently staring at them.

The comedy here is largely behavioral. It arises out of the awkward feelings of the characters, together with the tension coming from the obvious mismatch between them. Everything is uneventful and anticlimactic. It’s like a joke whose nervous humor comes precisely from the fact that there is no punchline, no release from the vague uneasiness of the situation. (Surely early Forman is one of the inspirations for Jim Jarmusch, whose existential comedy has often been described as “Eastern European” in feel. But Forman shows none of the hipster smugness which sometimes vitiates the work of the otherwise brilliant Jarmusch).

Loves of a Blonde actually does have a three-act structure, despite Forman’s de-emphasizing of plot and deliberate causalness of presentation As is characteristic of the New Wave (either French or Czech) there’s a kind of simultaneous naturalism and formalism. Naturalism, because the tight narrative motivation of traditional film is deliberately rejected. Scenes and incidents are dwelt on for their own sake, even when they have no significance for the larger story. This is in order to let us perceive in greater, more intimate detail the minute-to-minute feelings and experiences of the characters, and the nature of the milieu in which they live. Formalism, because at the same time we are made more aware of the camera and the editor than would be the case in traditional narrative film. The formal nature of the film is pointed up by the deliberate arbitrariness of editing, the frequent elisions when we move from one scene to another, the often deliberately posed and composed nature of many of the shots, which give the impression of being stills (and sometimes even are).

Loves of a Blonde nevertheless, as I said, maintains a three-act structure. The first act is the party I have already described. The second consists in the depiction of a one-night stand. Andula flees the reservists, but she is picked up and seduced by a man her own age — Milda (Vladimir Pucholt), a pianist from Prague, who has come down to the provinces as part of the band providing dance music for the mixer. Gradually, he coaxes her up to his room, out of her clothes, and into his bed. It’s kind of a game: the moves on both sides, his insistence, her reluctance, her ultimate acquiescence, are all familiar in gender-stereotypical ways. As if to emphasize this, the editing here is especially elliptical, the two-shots of Andula and Milda especially picturesque and composed. The beauty-in-fragmentation of this section of the film reminded me a bit of the parallel scenes — reduced almost to a sort of Cubist abstraction — in which the protagonist of Godard’s A Married Woman has sex, first with her husband, then with her lover. Forman’s staging is a bit less alienating than Godard’s — he wants to make us feel Andula’s romantic illusions even as he exposes them as self-deceptions, whereas Godard is after a harsher critique of the zombification and alienation to which consumer society reduces women. Forman’s scene is also funny in ways that Godard’s could not be — there’s a whole bit with a windowshade that keeps on rolling back up when Milda pulls it down, and eventually falls out of the windowframe entirely. This bit of slapstick is, however, framed and edited in the same coolly abstract manner as the rest of the sequence.

In the third act, Andula — either unaware, or unwilling to accept, that Milda’s fling with her was just a passing whim and nothing more — shows up at Milda’s apartment in the big city. Only Milda isn’t there — he’s out performing, and chasing other women — and, it turns out, he lives with his parents anyway. Andula’s presence sets off an interminable round of bickering — first between his mother and father, and then involving Milda himself as well, when he finally does get home. Everyone’s stuck in their roles in the eternal familial triangle: we get a whole panoply of generational conflict, gender conflict, conflict of tradition vs. modernity, etc etc. The somewhat bitter humor of the situation — this is something that clearly can, and does, go on forever, as the parents and adult child are united in dysfunction, bound together by their squabbles as much as by anything — is the sort of thing that is often said to be quintessentially Czech; though I recognized it as something quite closely akin to (Ashkenazi) Jewish humor. I suppose it’s our common East European heritage.

The final sequence of the film returns us to the beginning — at both the start and the end of the film, we see Andula in bed, in the barracks, with another girl, telling her tales of romantic desire and success. She says, in this last sequence, that the visit to the pianist was wonderful, that it all went well, and that she will be going back to see him every weekend. It doesn’t seem that she is lying, so much as that she semi-believes her fabrications herself. The more tenuous and insubstantial the event, the more fleeting the memory, and thereby the more it is available to be woven into romantic fantasy. Forman doesn’t condemn the fantasy; rather, he suggests, given the grimness of her actual life, this sort of illusion is the only thing that Andula has. We in the audience are disabused of whatever romantic illusions we may have; but at the same time we are gently, insidiously seduced into accepting them — for Andula, at least, of whom it’s impossible not to feel somewhat fond — as a comfort and a compensation.

I tend, in general, to have an almost visceral dislike of the idea that art, or romance, ought to comfort us with lies, and shield us from the harshness of the real: in this way art and romance render themselves complicit with the injustices and oppressions of the dominant social order. The delight we receive from fictions ought to impel and incite us to demand something better, rather than reconciling us to what is. Today, under the reign of the neoliberal world market, it is almost an Kantian moral duty for us to continue to hope, and to resist our leaders’ assurances that there is simply No Alternative. — I think, however, that what Forman does in Loves of a Blonde is precisely to demonstrate how, under the demoralizing effects of “actually existing socialism,” the pallid comfort of self-deception through romantic illusion really was the best that one could hope for.


Sunday, January 21st, 2007

Andrzej Munk’s Eroica (1958) was made just before Bad Luck (which I discussed in a previous post). It’s less ambitious than that later film, but displays a similar anti-heroic and myth-deflating sensibility, as it reflects on the calamities of Poland’s 20th-century history.

Eroica is composed of two separate episodes (each about 40 minutes long) set near the end of World War II. In the first episode, “Scherzo alla Polacca,” a small-time opportunist, who dislikes the thought of doing arduous work or taking risks, nonetheless finds himself having to cross the German/Polish frontlines several times, in order to deliver messages vital to the Resistance. In the second, “Ostinato Lugubre,” a bunch of captured Polish officers fail to escape from a German POW camp, in which most of them have been interned for the entire duration of the War.

In “Scherzo alla Polacca,” the protagonist Dzidzius (Edward Dziewonski) is farcically anti-heroic. He drifts into Resistance work almost by accident; he finds his wife cavorting with a handsome Hungarian officer, and wants to get out of town. He learns from the officer that the Hungarian military unit occupying the town would like to change sides, abandoning the Nazis (who are clearly losing the war by this point) and giving their weapons to the Resistance, in return for favorable treatment from the Soviet Army whenever it arrives. Dzidzius has to deliver messages back and forth across the frontlines in order to help negotiate the terms of this exchange. He makes his way, confronted both by Nazis who find him suspicious, or Resistance people who worry he is a spy, first through bribery — until he runs out of money — and then by grovelling and play-acting. Since he’s easily distracted from his mission — getting drunk on vintage wine he loots from a half-destroyed house, and getting it on with a woman he knows in the Resistance — he really only completes his task by accident. But it turns out at the end that the entire exercise was useless: the Resistance and the Hungarians cannot come to an agreement.

The most famous shot in the movie (sorry I am not including it here, but I returned the DVD before I got a chance to scan it) shows Dzidzius sitting on a riverbank, getting drunk, and not even seeing a German tank that approaches him from behind. When he finally notices the tank, he convinces the Germans not to kill him by rolling around on the ground, making a big spectacle of his drunkenness, and wailing, in broken German, about his aged and infirm mother (this latter part seems to be pure fabrication). We hear laughter from inside the tank, which then turns and rolls away, instead of shooting Dzidzius.

“Ostinato Lububre” takes place entirely within the perimeter of a POW camp, near the end of the war (probably in late 1944). Two new officers, just captured and interned, meet their bunkmates who, it turns out, have all been there ever since surrendering right at the start of the War, in September 1939. Their life as prisoners — governed scrupulously by the Geneva Convention — is relatively sheltered, peaceful, and comfortable, compared to the lot of anybody who is actually out there back in Poland, suffering under the Nazi occupation. Since they have almost nothing to do, they spend their time in petty squabbles and stupid games. They endlessly bemoan the impossibility of escaping — but it is clear that they don’t really want to. The one exception is Lieutenant Zak (Jozef Kostecki), who hates them all and wishes only to be placed in solitary confinement so he can be free of them; Zak, as a sort of demonstration, easily slips through the camp’s barbed wire and out to “freedom,” only to let himself be recaptured, a minute later, by two peasant women out for a stroll. Even this stunt fails to get him placed in solitary — he is just returned to the same barracks as the others.

The prisoners comfort and coddle themselves in their inactivity by frequently recalling the almost mythical exploit of the only one of their number who escaped, Lieutenant Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki). But it turns out that Zawistowski never actually did get out — he is simply hiding in a crawl space in the barracks, fed by the few fellow prisoners who are in on the secret. Not only does the myth of heroisim serve as an alibi for stupidity and inaction; it isn’t even based on anything true in the first place.

Both episodes work to deflate and demystify national myths, of heroism and patriotism and resistance. Munk excels at a kind of comical emptying-out: not only of the false ideals he seeks to satirize, but of the very notion of a cinema of action. His farcical incidents all occur in a void: they are what happens, you might say, when nothing is happening, when there are no real Events. I’m reminded a bit of Howard Hawk’s semi-absurdist John Wayne/Dean Martin Western, Rio Bravo, made around the same time (1959). In Rio Bravo , too, nothing happens for most of the movie: the protagonists just sit around having aimless conversations while they wait for an event that takes its good time, before arriving. But of course, Hawks’ film does culminate in a real Event — the final gunfight — and thereby it does affirm, if not the full myth of Heroism, then at least its Hawksian mutation into a seasoned, committed professionalism, which emerges as a source of both pride and redemption. In contrast, Munk offers the viewer no such outlet, no such conclusion. We are left stranded, instead, with the sense that you can never be on the right side of History, but only make more or less cowardly, more or less stupid, more or less dishonorable, accomodations to its unavoidable weight.

Against the Day

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

I just finished reading Pynchon’s new novel. It took me two months. I only read it in the late evening, just before going to bed. Sometimes I would only read for 15 minutes or so, sometimes for an hour and a half — it depended on how tired I was, and how late it was. But I read at least a few pages every single night.

The phenomenology of reading is important, when it comes to a novel that is 1085 pages long. (This makes it, I think, the third longest novel I have ever read cover to cover — after Proust, of course, and Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling). With a very long novel, you need to sink into the rhythms of the prose; these rhythms have to insinuate their way into your dreams. If a long novel doesn’t put me into an altered state, there is no way I will ever finish it; but if it does, then I will go on reading it, in a sort of trance, and — when I finally reach the end — feel regret that there wasn’t even more. One way to read a great long novel is to take a vacation from the rest of your life — reading it all day, picking it up and putting it down, and picking it up again — doing nothing else in between the bouts of reading, except for household chores and physical exercise. There was no way I could do this with Against the Day, given how busy my life is at the moment — so the only alternative left was reading it at bedtime, when I was already starting to slip into an oneiric state, and when I could let all the concerns of the day just concluded slip away…

You will gather that I am utterly unable to comprehend the most frequent comment people have made about Against the Day: that it is impossible to read, that its size is just too imposing, that forcing yourself to go through it is a chore, etc. etc. To the contrary: for me, reading it was an extraordinary pleasure, an epicurean delight. Pynchon’s supple and sinuous prose is something I have to savor, reading slowly and carefully, letting my mind wander in the labyrinths of clauses and associations, in the twists and turns and continual modulations of tone, from the crassly comic, to the urgent, to the elegiac. There may well be other writers who are more profound than Pynchon; but there no other living writer of the English language whose sentences I enjoy anywhere near as much as I do Pynchon’s.

1085 pages? I was only sorry that the book had to come to an end, when the lives of the characters, and the flows of History in which they found themselves immersed, clearly were able to continue…

Against the Day is set mostly in the two decades 1893-1913; that is to say, from the great Chicago World’s Fair, up until just before the outbreak of the First World War. In geographical extent, during these years, it covers most of the northern hemisphere: the US, Europe, and Asia. Pynchon passes over the War itself in just a few pages, and the novel ends with a sort of post-War coda, in Hollywood and Paris at the start of the Roaring Twenties.

If the book has an overarching theme, it is that of people trying to live their own lives, despite being overwhelmed by the forces of History. The two decades in which most of the novel takes place are a time of ferment and imagination and invention, but also a time when everything is hurtling towards disaster. The characters are dancing on the deck of the Titanic, even though they do not realize it. (The Titanic disaster is itself absent from the pages of the book, unless I missed it somehow, which is always possible with a text as encyclopedic as Pynchon’s).

The novel is filled with politics: capital versus labor in the mines of Colorado; the Mexican Revolution; Anarchist agitations and bombings of all sorts; the jockeyings of the European Powers for influence and control in the Balkans, and in “inner Asia.” There are also ongoing quests of a more esoteric sort: searches for mystical cities hidden beneath desert sands; passages through the “hollow earth”; speculations on the secret cause, and hidden significance, of the Tunguska Event of 1908; psychedelic journeys of the Tarahumara; crackpot inventions of time machines, and of devices for exploring additional dimensions.

Most of the characters — the American ones, especially — just want to be left alone to live their own lives. But this (very American) desire is constantly being thwarted by the depredations of Capital, and the machinations of the Great Powers. And so, most of the characters also have ethico-political committments and allegiances: they are mostly Anarchists, sworn enemies of State and Capital (if sometimes a bit lackadaisical in their actual commitment to the cause). The politics of the novel are perhaps best summarized in an essay one of the characters, a teen-ager and high school student, writes on the subject of “What It Means to Be an American”: “it means to do what they tell you and take what they give you and don’t go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down” (page 1076).

This being Pynchon, the novel is also highly concerned with science and technology: we get some bits about Nikolai Tesla, and a lot of talk about the mathematics, of the time, particularly quaternions and vectors, the legacy of Riemann, and the new sorts of mathematics that are associated with the Theory of Special Relativity (the novel mostly precedes any consideration of the Theory of General Relativity, which Einstein published in 1915, or of quantum mechanics, whose major principles were only worked out in the 1920s).

These mathematical and scientific developments are related, on the one hand to war, and the technologies behind the machinations of the Great Powers — there’s a good deal here about the transition from balloons to airplanes — and on the other hand to the possibilities of Escape from the horrors of war and political repression, and, more generally, History.

The way that Pynchon so casually passes over, or through, World War I in a few distant and allusive pages is itself expressive and meaningful: the war’s horrors simply defy representation, cannot be narrated in this otherwise amazingly capacious volume. Almost at the end of the novel, in Paris in 1920 or so, one of the characters remarks that “We’re in Hell, you know… The world came to an end in 1914. Like the mindless dead, who don’t know they’re dead, we are as little aware as they of having been in Hell ever since that terrible August” (page 1077). And arguably, we still are, to this day.

The daytime is the realm of History with all its horrors — which is one reason why the novel is entitled Against the Day: a retreat into the hoped-for safety and shelter of the nighttime, but also the quest for another sort of illumination, one that is not bound to the imperialism of the Day. (Hence all the talk of time travel, and vectors, and additional spacetime dimensions). The epigraph of the novel (attributed to Thelonius Monk) is quite beautiful: “it’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.” Stephen Dedalus called history a nightmare from which he was trying to awaken; for Pynchon, the daylight world is itself a waking nightmare, from which his characters are always trying to escape, through an alternate sort of illumination which is also a kind of blissful sleep. (And which none of the characters ever finds, though the book does end with a kind of respite; the War is over — or, it is not yet apparent that an even worse one is a mere two decades ago — and the characters are paired together and reunited in a sort of reconciliation that is characteristic of comedy as a genre. Even though, really, nothing is resolved. Pynchon did something similar with the ending of Vineland).

But let me get back to the prose, to the sentences of Against the Day. For all its historical and geographical and scientific and pseudo-scientific detail, the novel is largely an affective text. What really makes it work is the beautiful expression of various affective registers, and the ways that these registers continually shift and modulate. I love the way the novel works itself out moment by moment, with all its impressions of landscape and of memory and desire. At one moment we are reading about the subtle distinctions of light in Venice, at another about the ambivalent emotions animating the vaguely s&m, and overtly bisexual, menage a trois in which certain of the characters have become involved, at still another moment about the perils of drowning in a river of mayonnaise. As a reader of the novel, I cannot avoid the modernist tendency of trying to fit it all together, trying to discover some grand plan, finding a schematics that draws all the metaphors and all the situations into one overarching structure or system. But I also feel the need to resist this tendency; I love the novel most of all for its sensitivity to microclimates of feeling and desire, to the various sorts of yearning, nostalgia, satisfaction (sometimes, rarely), envy, imagination, and lust that it bathes me in moment to moment.

I do not agree with the tendency of so many readers to fetishize Gravity’s Rainbow as Pynchon’s one great book, and to ignore, or dismiss as uninteresting and second-rate, all three of the novels he has written and published since. To my mind, Mason & Dixon, and now Against the Day, both of which are longer than Gravity’s Rainbow, are both every bit as wonderful — and indeed as timely, or as untimely — as that earlier book — even if they do not overtly display all those kewl proto-cyberpunk dynamics.

Closely Watched Trains

Friday, January 19th, 2007

Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966) is probably the best-known film (though probably not the best) from the Czech New Wave of the early 1960s. (It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968). It is the first of five Czech New Wave films (actually, four Czech and one Slovak) that I am showing in my Eastern European Film class this semester.

Closely Watched Trains is a film of many little virtues. With an emphasis on the “little,” as this is a film which eschews larger ambitions, much as its young protagonist, Milos (Vaclav Neckar) does — he tells us that he is glad to work as a train dispatcher at the local station, because he is basically lazy, and this job is one that doesn’t demand too much of him. The film is set during World War II — a politically safe subject to choose in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia. But it is much more a coming-of-age film than a war-and-heroism one, even though this latter is what it becomes at the end. Aside from doing as little work as possible, Milos is most concerned with losing his virginity — or overcoming the condition of “premature ejaculation” that has thus far prevented him from losing it. In his despair over this, he even tries to commit suicide at one point, though the film doesn’t take this happening very seriously.

So, we have a film with quirky, singular characters, each of whom has his (generally it’s a he) own little obsessions; with finely observed details, organized around the slow and sleepy pace of provincial life; with an abundant, but wry and very dry, humor; with an empathetic but somewhat distanced point of view; and with a bittersweet tone. My description comes very close to being a cliche: both of a certain type of unambitious but much-beloved art film, and of an alleged Czech sensibility. What then, distinguishes Closely Watched Trains in particular? (aside from the fact that it more or less set the pattern for what I am calling a cliche).

Closely Watched Trains has antecedents, of course, both in Czech literature — Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk, as well as the novel by Bohumil Hrabal on which the film is based — and in cinema — I sense the presence here of Francois Truffaut’s early work. But it feels fresh nonetheless. The question is why. I notice that both Richard Schickel’s notes for the Criterion Collection’s DVD of the film, and Tom Keogh’s notes on the film at Amazon both approach the film by way of expressing a certain degree of (rhetorical) surprise at how well it holds up after all these years (and all the imitations).

I think the power of the film has a lot to do with its cinematography, and its pacing — both of which are far less laid-back and casual than they might at first appear to be. (Of course, the appearance of casualness actually requires quite a lot of difficult planning and work on the part of the filmmaker). As was the tendency for the Czech New Wave (as for the French New Wave a few years earlier), Menzel does not interested in elaborately setting up the film’s plot events and situations: he just plunks us into the middle of them. Also, he makes us infer motivation and mood from behavior, and from visual and sonic set-ups, rather than bringing us more directly into the minds of the characters. Once past the opening titles, the film begins with Milos’ first-person voiceover narration — but this is quickly dropped, and does not reappear later in the film. There are almost no close-ups, and no elaborate speeches or other indications of the characters’ motivations for doing what they do. Camera angles are continually varying, which has the effect of suggesting variation and change even when not much is happening, and which generally works against sort of deep identification with the characters (not that ti is “alienating,” but just that it denies us the sense of repetition which is necessary in order for identifications to form). Non-diegetic music is used sparingly, and then mostly just for ironic contrast (like the somewhat comic martial music that comes up whenever the local Nazi boss makes a visit).

All of this makes for a film that is more concerned with sensation and observation than with affect. And thus for a film that privileges wry humor and sympathetic distance, rather than the far more frequent cinematic mechanism of hysterical overidentification (I am using this latter phrase in a purely descriptive, rather than pejorative, sense). I am tempted to say that Closely Watched Trains is something like an inverted Rube Goldberg machine. That is to say, in this film the chains of causal relations are as oblique and surprising as they are in Rube Goldberg machines — it is always a question of external relations. But whereas Rube Goldberg machines rely on an absurdly hyperbolic and methodical, even paranoid, overorganization, Menzel’s film makes its (equally contingent and absurd) associative links through subjective states of drift and inattention. The film’s humor comes from its incongruities, but the narrative moves forward through incongruities as well. There is a series of connections, but these connections unfold at seeming random, sort of like a Rube Goldberg machine in slow motion.

Closely Watched Trains

Let me give an example, even at risk of both giving away the plot, and of making that plot sound convoluted and “difficult,” when in fact it is quite slack and laid-back, and altogether clear and easy to follow. Milos, after being rescued from his suicide attempt, goes around asking everyone, without any sense of propriety or embarrassment, for help and advice with his ejaculation problem. (This utter lack of shame or self-consciousness is part of what makes Milos, and the film in general, so charming and endearing). One of the people he asks is the stationmaster’s wife — as he approaches her, she is sitting calmly, and preparing a goose for the cookpot by smoothing or shaving (I wasn’t quite sure) force-feeding a duck, making the food go down by stroking its long neck — in what, in this context, cannot help but appear as a phallic gesture. The promise of this gesture is taken up a few scenes later, when one of Milos’ superiors, the womanizer Hubicka (Josef Somr) sets him up with an “experienced” slightly older woman, who does initiate him into sexuality with an attention to his needs such as that which the scene with the goose sort of implied. But this woman is a resistance fighter, delivering to Hubicka the bomb to blow up a German train; and it’s because Hubicka is made the subject of a (more ridiculous than scary) inquest by the Nazis on account of his womanizing activities (he is accused of offending the dignity of the State by stamping the official bureaucratic ink stamps of the train office on a young lady’s posterior) that Milos becomes the one who actually has to throw the bomb onto the train — which is what leads, at the end of the film, to his almost accidental death (he is shot by a Nazi soldier who acts more on principle — kill any of the locals who might be seen as stepping out of line — than by any awareness of the bomb — which the soldier has not seen, and which does successfully destroy the train a few seconds later).

In this way, Milos’ death at the end of Closely Watched Trains — and his thereby becoming, quite unintentionally, a hero of the Resistance — unfolds with exactly the same logic, and the same sort of weightlessness, as all of the comic incidents throughout the film. And this is Menzel’s way of describing the odd, and thoroughly contingent, ways that individual lives get inscribed into History. Throughout the film, the Nazi occupation is described as a burden, but nothing more — the employees at the train station have to pay obeisance, and pay attention, when the local Nazi little tyrant comes around, but as soon as he leaves, they go back to acting as they always did, ignoring whatever orders and exhortations they have received. Milos’ death reminds us that such a lackadaisical attitude does not provide any sort of exemption from the horrors of war and tyranny; but it does suggest (once again) that these relations are, in principle, external ones rather than innerly determining ones — however mortal they may turn out to be in practice. And that is how Menzel clears away a sort of free space, even amidst the horrors and traumas of 20th century history. Closely Watched Trains does skirt close to the edge of a certain cliche. as I suggested earlier (and to a postmodern taste, “charm” is far more troubling than any sort of sleaziness or exploitation or even frank stupidity could be), but it manages to remain deftly on its razor’s edge through its gaps and silences, its comic digressions, and its oblique meditation on history and contingency.

Knife in the Water

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Knife in the Water (1962) was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and the only one he made in Poland (and in Polish) before leaving for the West and English-language cinema. It is evidently of a piece with Polanski’s subsequent work, in terms of its nihilism, its chill and creepiness, its generally smothering affect.

Knife in the Water is quite strikingly different from the films made by the Polish directors of the previous generation (or half-generation, given that these directors were only a decade or so older than Polanski) like Wajda and Munk.. In Polanski’s fillm, there is no reference to World War II, or to Poland’s other historical traumas; and no sign of the Italian neorealist influence that was evident in Wajda and Munk.

Polanski seems to evacuate history and society quite deliberately, as his film has only three characters (no other human beings are seen, not even as extras), and unfolds first in a car driving through uninhabited forest, and then largely on a yacht, sailing through a series of lakes that mostly seem devoid of human habitation. We see, at best, the debris, byproducts, or tools of human labor: construction vehicles standing idle, because it is Sunday; logs floating in a lake, near the shore, waiting to be sent downstream. The car seen at the beginning of the film is left parked overnight; when the owners return to it the next morning, at the end of the movie, the windshield wipers have been stolen. But we do not see the vandals, or get any hint of who they were.

In the context of “actually existing socialism,” it’s hard to read this as anything but a violent, willful negation of historical consciousness, of socialist (or any other sort of) humanism, of social realism, and of political and social “responsibility.” Polanski’s attitude is brattishly asocial or anti-social, even though, at the same time, the film suggests that there is no escaping society. For we need other people to exploit, or to demonstrate our superiority over.

All this is expressed as much in the style of the film as in its script and story. There are lots of claustrophobic closeups, but rarely of just one character: usually two, or even all three, of the actors are squeezed into a single shot. Often one character is quite close to the camera, but the other two are also present, slightly further back. Thus we get the in-your-face, affect-heavy effect of close-ups, but — how do I put this? — without the kind of overflowing intensity that one gets from, say, the close-ups of Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (or for that matter, the close-ups in many of Samuel Fuller’s films). Instead, there’s a tension: the affect not of any of the characters, but between them, the affect of the void. In the background, and in the rare longer shots, there is always the wilderness, which never looks inviting, but either blank or ominous. There’s no identification with these characters, then, despite how we are almost thrust in their faces. The film is suffused with the affects of coldness and cruelty.

(I should also mention the soundtrack, as well as the images. The score, by Polanski’s frequent collaborator (until his untimely death in 1969) Krzysztof Komeda, has a tense, 50s-jazz sort of vibe. But this score doesn’t suffuse the film, it only punctuates it at certain moments — or rather, I should say the reverse: the score is itself frequently punctuated by silence, long stretches when all we hear is ambient noise. This punctuation, or scansion, makes for a lot of the tension in the movie).

The three characters are a 40-something married couple, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and a younger (20ish?) student or drifter, who remains unnamed (Zygmunt Malanowicz). [Digressive Note: I see from IMDB that Leon Niemczyk just died this past November, and that shortly before his death he appeared in David Lynch's Inland Empire, which is probably the one new film that I am most itching to see]. Andrzej and Krystyna are driving through the woods, when they encounter the young man hitchhiking; they give him a ride, and then invite him aboard their yacht.

The social world is present in the film precisely, but only, through what we learn of these peoples’ backgrounds. Andrzej is apparently a sportswriter, and he and Krystyna evidently belong to the Party elite (what in the Soviet Union was called the nomenklatura), as is evidenced by the very fact that they own a car and a yacht (as well as, Krystyna says at one point, a 4-room apartment). They also exude a sort of smugness, deriving from a reflexive sense of privilege, which they completely take for granted.

The younger man says very little about his background, and what he does say is unreliable. He describes himself variously as a drifter, a hiker, and a student; he seems, like most of the population in this alleged “workers’ state”, to have few or no possessions. Aside, that is, from the large, mean-looking switchblade knife he is prone to display at every opportunity.

Knife in the Water

Given the deliberate decontextualization of all these differences, and the limitaitons in what we know about the characters’ pasts, the “class struggle” — as well as the generational struggle between the two men — gets played out in a Hobbesian or Darwinian register, rather than in a Marxist (or Freudian) one.

All the exchanges between the three characters are driven by buried suggestions of aggression and violence. Andrzej’s and Krystyna’s relationship is evidently several degrees below dead. Andrzej insults and patronizes the hitchhiker, then invites him aboard through a sort of vicious condescension. The young man accepts the invitation through a kind of swagger — he seems anxious to take on a dare. (We first encounter him when he stops Andrzej’s and Krystyna’s car by standing in the middle of the road as it approaches — giving them the sole alternatives of stopping for him, or running him over).

The outing quickly turns into a macho duel (a pissing contest?) between the two men, with the woman serving as spectator and judge of the contest, as well as being its stake. Andrzej asserts the authority of his age, of his social position, of his superior knowledge as a seaman and a social insider, and of his authority as the “skipper” of the ship. The young man responds with arrogant cockiness, physical daring (he shimmies up the mast at one point, and — on a dare — holds a pot of boiling water in his bare hands at another), and displays of his superior virility (on account of his youth, and also through overt phallic displays — there’s no ambiguity as to the connotations of the knife). (It’s worth noting in this respect, and apropos of the title of the film, that Andrzej is unable to appropriate the knife — he can only deprive the younger man of it by throwing it overboard).

In this contest, the younger man gets the better of Andrzej — at least in the sense that he gets to bed the woman, and then walks away scot-free. But summarizing the plot of the film in this way is misleading. For one thing, the real “winner” (to the extent there is one) is Krystyna. She manages both to put the younger man in his place, and to get the sexual gratification from him that her husband fails to provide. And she manages thereby also to humiliate and subjugate Andrzej, taking his pretensions down a few notches, and altering the balance of power between them in her favor. At the end of the film, Andrzej is (metaphorically) paralyzed or castrated, stopping the car at a (both literal and metaphorical) crossroads, and not sure which way to go.

Krystyna’s “victory” also marks a defeat for the younger man. His virility has been reduced to a merely instrumental status. For all his confident and contempt-filled self-assurance, he turns out to have been nothing but a go-between, or a tool, in the power struggle between the couple. (We realize that Andrzej and Krystyna are the people who really hate one another, although this is not expressed openly at any point in the film. The young man does get to walk away at the end of the film: he’s not trapped in the situation the way the two of them are. But the young man also hasn’t gained anything from the contest, besides (we presume) a fleeting instant of pleasure; and he has amply paid for this with the loss of his knife.

I still haven’t managed to explain what is the most powerful thing about Knife in the Water, which is its obliqueness. Nothing of the contest (or three-way war) that I have been describing is quite there on the surface. I don’t mean that it’s hidden, exactly: the three characters are all fully aware of what’s going on, and so is the audience. But in this strange battle, no blows are ever thrown directly. Rather, the fighting is all done in the form of insinuations and implications. The young man doesn’t actually threaten the older couple with his knife, for instance. He doesn’t have to; the mere presence of the knife is enough. Throughout the film, even the most casual statements and gestures are fraught with heavy, and usually ugly, meanings. But for this very reason, nearly all the film’s statement and gestures are (merely?) casual and impromptu. One of the many things the film withholds from us is the hysterical sense of rising to a climax of craziness or viciousness.

By the end of the film, we are forced to realize that what we have witnessed is nothing more than a series of futile stupidities. And this, I think, is the deepest sense in which the film is nihilistic and anti-humanist. Polanski offers us no redemption; even more, he condemns our very desire for redemption (or for narrative resolution) by so deliberately frustrating it. This is profoundly subversive and unsettling, both to the “socialst” state in which the film was originally made, and in the hypercapitalistic state of things within which we experience the film today. Macho contests are a staple of Hollywood cinema, after all, and they generally end by promising some sort of redemption through violence. (Think of nearly anything from Straw Dogs to Reservoir Dogs, or from Charles Bronson to Sylvester Stallone to Mel Gibson). Even Clint Eastwood, who uses his iconic status as a hero of masculine violence in order to demystify and deconstruct such violence from within, never made anything nearly as disillusioning as this. In Knife in the Water, even the emblematic gesture with which the masculine hero tosses away his badge, or his gun, after having inflicted and survived all the violence — even this gesture is reduced to triviality and stupidity. Polanski leaves us with no alibis.

DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Manuel DeLanda has long been one of the most interesting (indeed, provocative) thinkers to work with Gilles Deleuze’s ideas — and to not just repeat Deleuze’s vocabulary and slogans, or apply them to a close reading of some work or artifact, but actually to rethink those ideas, and to rethink questions of history, society, and physical science with the help of those ideas. DeLanda’s latest book is quite refreshingly short and lucid, although it (rather immodestly) purports to offer nothing less than A New Philosophy of Society. (I should probably also cite the subtitle: “Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity”).

I find the book (like all of DeLanda’s work) extremely useful and thought-provoking, although my overall reaction is quite mixed. DeLanda actually does two different things in this volume. In the first two chapters, he argues, on philosophical grounds, for what he calls Assemblage Theory. The term “assemblage,” and the ideas behind it, are drawn largely from Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari; though DeLanda does not merely repeat Deleuze, but reformulates his arguments (and terminology) in some very crucial ways.

The remaining three chapters of A New Philosophy of Society are more empirical; with the help of theorists ranging from Erving Goffman to Fernand Braudel, DeLanda draws on the principles developed in the first two chapters in order to give a schematic account of how societies work on several levels, from that of the individual person (and even the sub-personal) and the “networks” in which he/she is directly involved, up to the larger aggregates which are “organizations and governments” on the one hand, and “cities and nations” on the other.

I like DeLanda’s basic argument: which is to insist on the exteriority of relations. Traditionally, positivist, atomistic thought has pretty much denied the importance of relations between entities: the entities themselves are the absolutes, and all relations between them are merely accidental. Thus neoclassical economics adopts a “methodological individualism” according to which “all that matters are rational decisions made by individual persons in isolation from one another” (4). On the other hand, what DeLanda calls the “organismic metaphor” (8) asserts that entities are entirely defined by the totality to which they belong, entirely constituted by their relations: “the basic concept in this theory is what we may call relations of interiority: the component parts are constituted by the very relations they have to other parts in the whole” (9). Hegelian thought is the most powerful example of this tendency, thought Saussurean linguistics and the “structuralism” influenced by it could also be mentioned.

Now, the partisans of both these views usually claim that the two opposed positions are the only possible ones: there are no alternatives. Partisans of methodological individualism simply deny the existence of units larger (or smaller, for that matter) than that of the “individual” (or at most, the patriarchal nuclear family): they see such formations as being metaphysical abstractions with no objective validity. Hence Margaret Thatcher’s notorious statement: “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.” Of course such “methodological individualism” is absurd, since it is contradicted by everything in our minute-to-minute and day-by-day experience. We are never as isolated as methodological individualism assumes, and we probably couldn’t survive for very long if we were. The very fact that we use language, that we use tools and techniques that we didn’t invent from scratch ourselves, let alone that we use money and engage in acts of exchange, belies the thesis. It’s a curious paradox that the most rabid partisans of methodological individualism tend to be free-market economists and rational-choice political scientists and sociologists, since their entire logic depends upon denying the very factors that make their arguments possible in the first place. But if you press the more intelligent methodological individualists, they will admit that their presuppositions are, indeed, “methodological” rather than ontological, that they represent a kind of abstraction, and that such a methodology, and such an abstraction, are necessary in order to avoid getting stuck in top-down, totalizing theories (their aversion to which is often justified with citations from Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, or Friedrich Hayek on the dangers of totalitarianism).

But on the other side of the divide, Hegelians and other proponents of the “organismic metaphor” are just as insistent that their systematic (or “dialectical”) ways of doing things are the only alternatives to the absurdities of atomistic reductionism. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had with Marxists, Zizekians, and others over the years, who insist that my Deleuze-inspired objections to the very notion of totalization, or to the idea that events occur only through a dialectic of negativity (usually up to and including the “negation of the negation”), is untenable: they claim that, to reject these “relations of interiority” is ipso facto to lapse into the absurdities of positivism and atomistic reductionism. The same is true for partisans of various sorts of systems theory (all the way from followers of Niklas Luhmann, to devotees of the Lacanian Symbolic order), who tell me that I cannot escape their system, because anything I say against it already presupposes it, and is already positioned somewhere within it. (Hardcore deconstructionists, despite their denial of the very possibility of totalization or a coherent system, are nonetheless also in this camp: as they argue — just like Lacanians — that one can never escape the presuppositions and aporias of Language. Deconstruction is entirely a theory of relations of interiority, even though it recognizes that such relations are never completed but always still in process).

What DeLanda says — which is indeed what Deleuze said before him — is that we need not accept either term of this binary (nor need we be stuck in the aporia of shuttling endlessly between them). What Deleuze and DeLanda offer instead is not the golden mean of a “Third Way,” but rather a move that is oblique to the very terms of the opposition. What does it mean to affirm the exteriority of relations? As DeLanda explains it, an entity is never fully defined by its relations; it is always possible to detach an entity from one particular set of relations, and insert it instead in a different set of relations, with different other entities. For every entity has certain “properties” that are not defined by the set of relations it finds itself in at a given moment; rather than being merely an empty signifier, the entity can take these properties with it, as it were, when it moves from one context (or one set of relations) to another. At the same time, an entity is never devoid of (some sort of) relations: the world is a plenum, indeed it is over-full, and solipsism or atomistic isolation is impossible.

Put differently, no entity can be absolutely isolated, because it is always involved in multiple relations of one sort or another, and these relations affect the entity, cause it to change. But this is not to say that the entity is entirely determined by these relations. On the one hand, the entity has an existence apart from these particular relations, and apart from the other “terms” of the relation (i.e. apart from the other entities with which it is in relation) precisely insofar as it is something that is able to affect, and to be affected by, other entities or other somethings. On the other hand, what the entity is is not just a function of its present relations, but of a whole history of relations which have affected it — or of “aleatory encounters” (as Althusser might say) with other entities, over the span (temporal and spatial) of its existence.

DeLanda distinguishes between the properties of an entity (which are what it takes with it to another context) and the capacities of that same entity (its potential to affect, and to be affected by, other entities). “These capacities do depend on a component’s properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities” (11). An entity’s capacities are as real as its properties; but we cannot deduce the capacities from the properties; nor can we know (entirely) what these capacities are, aside from how they come into play in particular cases, in particular relations, in particular interactions with other particular entities.

What this means is that entites of various sorts and scales — persons, but also (to use DeLanda’s own list) networks, organizations, governments, cities, nations — are all entirely real. (DeLanda resists putting “society” in this list, because he fears that such a term implies the logical topmost point of a hierarchy, a category that includes everything. He insists that entities always come in “populations” — taking the term in the sense it is used in “population genetics” — so that there can never be one, all-integrating topmost entity. Though I take his point, I also see no objection, on his own principles, to talking about societies in the same way we talk about any other level of entities. More on that in a moment).

To say that both individuals and wider social formations (and narrower, sub-personal formations as well) are real, is to be committed to what DeLanda calls “ontological realism.” This is in opposition both to the neoclassical economists who only recognize the reality of the individual, and think that anything of broader (logical or social) scope is just a linguistic fiction; and to the Hegelians (and Hegelian Marxists, and perhaps Durkheimian sociologists as well) for whom only the social is real, and the individual is regarded as a linguistic or ideological fiction. This means also to think entities non-essentialistically (every entity is historically contingent: its existence and its properties cannot be inferred, let alone be deduced logically; for the entity exists only as an effect of processes over time which could have gone otherwise). And further, it is to recognize that all entities (not just living things, but everything) are mortal — they have dates of coming-into-existence and passing-out-of-existence, they are not platonic forms but occupy a finite and bounded stretch of time and space).

To my mind, this overall ontological argument is what is important about DeLanda’s work, rather than the particular way he constructs a theory of “assemblages” — using terms from Deleuze and Guattari, but altering and simplifying them when necessary — in order to meet the requirements of his ontology. I think that other formulations that meet these requirements are possible — and indeed, that some alternative formulations are preferable. In particular, I would point to Whitehead’s metaphysics, which I think is better (more useful, more capacious, more cognizant of change, and more open to possibilities) than DeLanda’s. Whitehead also theorizes the externality, and non-totalizability of relations: his “actual entities,” or “actual occasions,” are stubbornly “atomic,” while at the same time relating to, and influenced or affected by, other entities. Whitehead insists, both that no entity can be what it is in isolation from all other entities, and that no entity is entirely determined by these other entities: this margin of indetermination, which is the “freedom” of the individual entity, but it is better described as a contingent “decision” than as a set of “properties.” Also, Whitehead distinguishes between these “actual entities” and what he calls “societies,” or aggregations of entities that possess spatial extent and temporal duration (whereas the actual entities themselves in a certain sense produce temporality and spaciality, rather than being located within them).

The distinction between “actual entities “and “societies” would seem to violate DeLanda’s dictum of a “flat ontology” (all entities at all scales have the same degrees of reality and sorts of properties) — though the “flat ontology” does apply for whatever we encounter in lived experience, since everything of this sort is a “society.” This seeming violation of the principle of flat ontology is something for which Whitehead has often been criticized. But what he gains by posing his ontology in this way is, among other things, that he is able to talk about change in a way that DeLanda is incapable of, and that he doesn’t need to share DeLanda’s phobia about extending his ontological realism to “society” itself. For DeLanda, saying that relations are external rather than internal means renouncing any sort of holism; Whitehead, however, is able to cheerfully embrace holism while at the same time posing the “whole” in such a way that it is irreducible to closure or totalization or full internal determination. For Whitehead’s actual entities are themselves events; whereas, for DeLanda, as much as he wants to proclaim the importance of (contingent) event over (fixed and closed) structure, events are still things that ‘happen to’ entities, rather than entities themselves. (For Whitehead, the things to which events happen are “societies” — which at the same time are composed of nothing more than these events, and the “routes of occasions” that link them together).

Note for further elaboration: a lot of this has to do with the way that DeLanda, through Deleuze, is ultimately channelling Spinoza, to whom the language of capacities to affect and be affected is originally due; and also Hume — again via Deleuze’s reading — in order to account for how the individual person exists as an “emergent property” of the assemblage of a quantity of impressions, ideas, and chains of association. Now, Whitehead writes a lot about Spinoza and particularly Hume, recognizing their importance but also their limitations, which have to do with the fact that neither of them think sufficiently in terms of events. Spinoza fails to think the event because of his absolute monism; Hume, because of his denial of “causal efficacy”, and development of a theory of mind entirely in terms of “presentational immediacy.” Where Deleuze uneasily juxtaposes Spinoza and Hume with Bergson, and DeLanda entirely ignores the Bergsonian side of Deleuze in favor of the Spinozian side, Whitehead is the one thinker who actually does — much better than Deleuze — integrate (using this term in the mathematical sense) Spinozian and Bergsonian imperatives. This needs to be explained further, in conjunction with Whitehead’s aphorism that “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming” (Process and Reality 35).

A lot more needs to be said about Whitehead — indeed, this is what I am hoping to write about in the months to come (for several talks that I have promised to give, and essays that I have promised to contribute to various anthologies). Hopefully my tentative formulation here of what he is doing, and how he both coheres with, and differs from, DeLanda, is not too cryptic.

The fact that DeLanda doesn’t say enough about, or give the right space in his theory for, becoming and events (which I think, would require more of a Whiteheadian language and approach than he is willing to adopt) leads to the other problems I have with his work. There’s a sense in which DeLanda adopts an overly cut-and-dried schematicism (dare I even say scholasticism?). Every phenomenon he discusses is classified in terms of its material and expressive components, its potentials for territorialization and deterritorialization, and so on and so forth. It’s quite disappointing, after DeLanda announces the openness that comes from rejecting the organicist internality of relations, that everything fits so neatly into these little boxes. Of course, this is always the problem with schematicim (going bck to Kant); but DeLanda seems inordinately and disappointingly reductive in the way that he schematizes. Deleuze is a big schematizer himself, of course; and it is important in certain instances to emphasize his schematicism, against those who see him (for good or for ill) as an undisciplined philosophical wildman. But on the other hand, there is a certain delicious poetic quality to Deleuze, and this is something that his acolytes all too often miss; this poeticism is entirely lacking in DeLanda.

The further result of DeLanda’s schematicism, and his inability to think about becoming, is that his actual discussion of society, in the later chapters of A New Philosophy of Society, is disappointingly bland, and entirely devoid of any consideration of such things as power, domination, inequality, or the production, appropriation, and distribution of a social surplus (I use this latter formulation to encompass both Bataille and Marx). He simply dissolves such things into a general description of aggregations of various sorts; he mentions negotiations and disputes between groups over the allocation of resources, but ignores the fundamental dissymmetry (and thereby, the antagonism) that are crucial factors in all such disputes. And he simply leaves out of his account the ways that Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault as well, are deeply concerned with these issues. Marxists and Zizekians would probably argue that DeLanda’s omissions in this regard are an inevitable consequence of his pluralism and non-totalism. But it seems to me, again, that DeLanda’s (often expressed) hostility to Marxist formulations is not an inevitable consequence of his ontology; and that adopting this ontology (or better, the Whiteheadian version of it that I have tried to point to here) actually has significant advantages for Marxist theory, as well as for much else. All this is something I can only assert for the moment — a lot of my effort these days is devoted to working it out. So stay tuned. In the meantime, and to summarize, I think that DeLanda’s book is enormously valuable for the way it works out, and states so clearly, its ontological argument — even if DeLanda’s more concrete development from his premises is enormously disappointing.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) was made by Jaromil Jires after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia put an end to the Prague Spring, and to most of the efforts of the Czech New Wave directors (for instance, Jires’ previous film, The Joke, was banned). Valerie is based on a surrealist novel by Vitezslav Nezval (which I haven’t read); it doesn’t involve politics in any direct way (though some viewers have seen an implicit, anti-Soviet political allegory hidden within it). The film’s eponymous heroine is a 13-year-old girl menstruating for the first time and coming to sexual awareness through a series of fantastic, oneiric events and encounters.

It’s hard to know what to make of this film, especially in its original Czech context. I remember its being marketed in the US, in the 1970s — though I never managed to see it back then — as a psychedelic, counterculture cult film, i.e. one you were supposed to see stoned. But I doubt that this was the way it was marketed, or received, in post-Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia. (By the way, pardon the digression, here is an amazing account, by the great Czech director Jan Svankmajer, of being given LSD in 1972 by the Czech military, as an experiment similar to ones the US military had conducted 10 or 15 years previously. Of course Svankmajer had a horribly bad trip — as who woudn’t under such circumstances?).

Anyway. Valerie is intensely, and quite classically, surreal. The plot is more or less linear, but filled with strange transformations and reversals, and involving themes and images of blood-menstruation, vampires and sex-as-vampiric-possession, and all sorts of suggestions of incest (father-daughter, brother-sister, mother-son). There’s a very beautiful shot, for instance, of a flower on which a drop of Valerie’s menstrual blood has fallen.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

The oneiric disassociations and repetitions/variations of bizarre sexual motifs are worthy of Bunuel (think of Belle de Jour) — but alas, the film entirely lacks Bunuel’s dryness and irony. Instead, Jires aims for a tone of rapture combined with frissons of horror. The images are suffused with light (for daytime scenes), and subtly shaded (in nighttime scenes) in ways that are often gorgeous, but also, often, so overdone as to feel rather cheesy or kitschy (terms that I intend descriptively, and not pejoratively); at times, the film modulates into the picture-postcard excessive prettiness of softcore Europorn (it’s not as explicit as, say, the Emmanuelle series, but we do get to see the breasts of the lead actress, Jaroslava Schallerova, who — like her character — was 13 years old at the time the film was made: this is something that would be impossible today. And then there are all those insert shots of a group of young women, all dressed in virginal white, cavorting and making out in a stream).

Still, despite this male-gaze prurience, Valerie does manage to maintain, for the most part, a female-sexuality based point of view, appropriate to its adolescent heroine. (Tanya Krzywinska, in the best article I have been able to find online about the film, rightly compares it to the fiction of Angela Carter, and to The Company of Wolves (1984), Neil Jordan’s film from Carter’s script). The look may sometimes be Europorn, but the narrative organization isn’t: there are none of those phallic climaxes that gratify the hetero male viewer, even when (as in Emmanuelle) the woman’s pleasure is being stressed. Or, to put it another way: Valerie is a film about female pleasure. But whereas in 70s Europorn, like so much straight porn, the male characters — and through them, vicariously, the male viewers — get the credit, or the gratification, for inducing and producing this female pleasure, in Valerie there is much more of a sense of the woman’s (I mean the girl’s) autonomous ability to acquire and sustain such pleasure.

I’ve said that Jires aims for (and often achieves) a tone of rapture. But this is less a St. Theresa-esque bliss beyond words, than it is a continual modulation of affect (and, in cinematic terms, of lighting and coloring) in ways that skirt (or flirt with) terror (the erotic/horrific frisson). Valerie is nearly raped by the local priest — but she escapes; the priest then has her burned at the stake as a temptress (but she emerges unharmed). And adult sexuality appears to Valerie as something (literally) vampiric: the figures of father, priest, and lover tend to become confounded with that of Nosferatu, and the pious grandmother with whom Valerie lives is transmogrified into a raging demonic figure of ungratified lust (at one point, she attains what she hopes is eternal youth by drinking a virgin’s blood). But these demonic and vampiric elements don’t have the sorts of puritanical connotations (dread and sexual repression) that they would have in an Anglo-American context. I hesitate even to call them psychoanalytic. The film is quite easily (as Krzywinska notes) open to psychoanalytic interpretation, but this very openness and obviousness obviates the need for any sort of depth psychology.

Valerie is about surfaces, not depths: the innocence and lightness of a play of metamorphoses, rather than the weight of sexual fixations and intractable ambivalences. This is why its moments of (generic) horror are never particularly horrifying or dread-inducing. And I think that this is also the reason for what I called, above, the cheesiness and kitschiness that its extraordinary visual beauty is always just on the verge of lapsing into. (I should add, sonic beauty: the score, with its harmonic tinkling and its vaguely religious a cappella choruses, is also quite ravishing in a way that comes perilously close to something entirely generic). There’s almost nothing that separates bliss from banality: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is poised right on that nearly invisible edge.

Bad Luck

Friday, January 12th, 2007

In Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck (1959), the tragic history of 20th-century Poland is repeated as farce. The main character, Piszcyck, is a sort of hapless Everyman who stumbles through two decades of war, revolution, and political infighting without ever understanding what is going on, or why his life has taken the turns that it does. Piszcyck is played by Bogumil Kobiela, who (as my students noted) had already played a similar role in Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, where he provided a buffoonish counterpoint to the tragic ambivalences of the main plot. Here Kobiela dominates the movie, walking idiotically through history in a manner that prefigures Woody Allen’s Zelig and Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump.

Bad Luck is, however, a considerably harsher and more sardonic film than either Zelig or Gump. Piszczyk displays a boundless desire to conform, to fit in, to do what everyone else is doing; but he remains utterly unconscious of the moral and political stakes of everything he does. Before the War, he manages to be beaten up, both by fascist thugs who mistake him for a Jew, and by cops who misidentify him as one of those fascist thugs. During the War, he finds himself successively as a collaborator with the Nazis, as a black marketeer making money off people’s misfortunes, and as a courier for the Resistance. After the War, he works both as a fake lawyer engaging in shady, dubious deals, and as an enthusiastic bureaucrat helping to build the glorious Communist society of the future.

Actually, this is only a partial list; Piszczyk’s story, which he narrates in a series of flashbacks, is incredibly convoluted and self-contradictory. The only constant elements are: Piszczyk’s boundless enthusiasm and good faith (no matter what he is doing); his disposition to take credit for — and to recklessly exaggerate — whatever good or creditable thing happens to him, while at the same time disavowing as “bad luck” whatever disasters he brings upon himself; his inability to comprehend (thanks to his childish narcissism) either the motives and feelings of people around him, or the larger social significance of whatever situation he is in; and his rather endearing ability to shrug off one disaster after another, since of course everything he tries to do ends badly. A weathervane never changes; only the wind does (as Daniel Singer once wrote of Philippe Sollers).

Munk’s mise en scene is clearly influenced by silent film comedy. Indeed, scenes from Piszczyk’s childhood are played like a silent film (or, more accurately, like the way silent film is typically perceived in the sound era) with generic music, exaggerated gestures, no dialogue, and the film speeded up to reflect the experience of watching a silent film shot at 18fps, but seen at the sound speed of 24fps. The rest of the film unfolds with normal dialog and pacing, but the influence of the cinematic imaginary on Piszczyk’s sensibility is indicated at least once, when he goes to the movies and sees some sort of exaggeratedly romantic melodrama, which helps to fuel the fantasies that drive him. He’s always particularly deluded about women, and many of his more idiotic moves are made in order to impress them, or as a result of his failing to understand their lack of interest in him.

There are several scenes that wonderfully epitomize the many levels of irony at work her. In one (set in pre-War times) Piszczyk finds himself sandwiched in between two political rallies: a pro-government one ahead of him, and a fascist one behind him. He doesn’t quite know what to do, so he shouts slogans of both groups alternately.

The other scene is set right at the start of the War. Piszczyk is in a cabbage field, when German airplanes fly overhead. At the first pass, he naively waves at them. The planes return, and start bombing the field; Piszczyk runs away from them in a zigzag, continually changing direction in order to avoid the explosions. It’s sort of like a Keystone Kops mishap, but with considerably higher stakes.

Bad Luck

Piszczyk’s idiocy, or innocence (the two here are synonymous) does several things. In the first place, it clearly works (as critics have noted) as a critique of Romantic nationalist myths, which portray the Polish people as unfailingly noble, heroic, and courageous. It’s possible to see Piszczyk as, in spite of everything, a survivor, who manages to muddle through everything thanks to his weird combination of infinite adaptibility and an (unjustifiably) clear conscience. His pathetric delusions and stupidities are perhaps to be preferred to those grandiose ones which have led the nation to catastrophe time and again.

It’s revealed at the end of the film that Piszczyk has been telling his story to the warden of a prison from which he is about to be released — Piszczyk is begging to be allowed to stay in jail, because this is the one place where he is told precisely what he has to do, and therefore he is able to avoid the “bad luck” that inexorably awaits him in the world outside. I don’t know whether Munk and Wajda were carrying on a sort of argument by means of their films dealing with World War II; but the ironies of Bad Luck‘s comedic situation are as dizzying, and as deep, as the ironies of the tragic, existential situations of Wajda’s contemporary films Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds.

But there’s something more. Piszczyk is always characterized, as I have already mentioned, by his optimism and sincere good faith, his boundless enthusiasm for whatever enterprise he is involved in, no matter how this contradicts what he was doing, and what he ostensibly believed in, before. This comes out especially in the last long sequence of the film, when he is working as a socialist bureaucrat in the government statistics office. Not only is he enraptured by the vast quantities of data he is collecting (and for which there doesn’t seem to be any further use), he is also thrilled to be able to inform his superior about the bad (and implicitly anti-Party) behavior of one of his co-workers. The superior carefully writes down all the information Piszczyk gives him; but he also voices suspicion of Piszczyk himself on several occasions, because Piszczyk strikes him as being just too enthusiastic to be believable. He feels all his suspicions confirmed when the co-worker frames Piszczyk for similar anti-authority behavior, and gets him fired and jailed.

Now, numerous accounts of life under state socialism have emphasized that there was enormous pressure both to inform on others, and to express boundless enthusiasm for the state’s vacuous and deeply flawed and failing projects. The result was a kind of universal cynicism: everyone was complicit in the ostentatious public affirmation of ideals and rituals which they all privately knew to be hollow and false. Everybody goes through the motions; and everybody “knows better.” Piszczyk’s true “failing” is that he entirely lacks this cynicism and hypocrisy: this is precisely why his Party superior finds his enthusiasm suspect. How can anyone truly serve the Party, if he fails to be aware that everything the Party stands for is a sham?

This is something like what Zizek calls “overidentification” (see the discussions of this concept here and here). Only where Zizek praises (deliberate) overidentification as a subversive and critical strategy, Munk presents it entirely immanently: Piszczyk doesn’t intend, and is entirely unaware of, the potentially subversive implications of what he does. And even leaving aside questions of intent and awareness, Munk is far more pessimistic than Zizek, as he doesn’t see overidentification as having any power to disrupt the system, to gum up the works. (To use Zizek’s own Hegelian vocabulary, Munk suggests — contra Zizek — that, not only are Piszczyk’s actions not liberating “for themselves,” they are not even liberating “in themselves” or “for us”).

There are two points that arise for me, out of this comparison between Munk and Zizek. First: overidentification is one of those concepts that arose in the context of “really existing socialism” — where it is quite appropriate — but that Zizek brings over into his analysis of postmodern capitalism as well, where it is arguably far less relevant (because consumer capitalism’s ability to appropriate and co-opt is far greater than the ability to appropriate and co-opt that was possessed by socialist cynicism and hypocrisy). Second: overidentification doesn’t have the political efficacy Zizek would like to endow it with; it is only relevant contemplatively or aesthetically (which is not a problem in any way for me, as a self-proclaimed aesthete — but which is a problem for Zizek). Part of Munk’s genius is that he was able to see all this so clearly, a generation before Zizek and NSK.