Archive for February, 2007

Provincial Actors

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Provincial Actors (1979) was Agnieszka Holland‘s first internationally distribued feature film (she had previously made a number of feature-length movies for Polish television, some of which sound very interesting, but none of which seem to be currently available in the US). Provincial Actors is a powerful, claustrophobic film; more interesting, I think, than the later features, made in the West and dealing with World War II and the Holocaust (e.g. Angry Harvest and Europa Europa) for which Holland is best known.

Provincial Actors takes on a less overwhelming subject: it’s about the tensions and conflicts among the members of a theater troupe, putting on a production of Stanislaw Wyspianski‘s Liberation (unfortunately I know nothing about this play; lines from it are quoted many times in the course of the film). Provincial Actors alludes to, but entirely subverts, the genre of the “backstage genre” (people struggling to put on a show, a play or a movie). Though the production is continually being talked about (or, more accurately, argued about), we never get to see it. And though the film ends on opening night, with the production apparently being at least something of a success, there is no celebration, and the success doesn’t resolve anything in the lives of the performers. The actors are not caught up in their roles, but alienated from them — even as they are from one another.

All we get in Provincial Actors, then, is tension without release, without catharsis. The main characters (to the extent that there are any; this is, in many respects, an ensemble film) are the lead actor in the troupe, Chris/Krzysztof (Tadeusz Huk), and his wife Anka (Halina Labonarska), who is not a member of the troupe, but a puppeteer. They argue, continually and bitterly, throughout the film — though their strife never reaches a flash point of direct confrontation — until finally she decides to leave him. They both feel trapped by what seem to be dead-end lives; he can only confront his troubles — as she bitterly points out to him — by retreating into his acting, and quoting poetic lines from his favorite plays.

Other members of the cast and crew share a similar sense of atrophy and unresolved strife. Everything stagnates; there isn’t even the measure of relief that might come from bringing any of the conflicts out into the open. The stifling, poisoned atmosphere is evidently as much political as it is personal. Or rather, what’s political about it is precisely the absence of any possibility for the characters of addressing the implosive closure of their lives in something like a political way. The director, who seems to have connections back in Warsaw, deletes any sort of political content from the play, excising all the lines that refer to the “liberation” of the play’s title. He tells the actors that, in his staging, this is not a play about politics, but rather a play about actors putting on a play.

There are multiple ironies here that need unpacking; though I lack the knowledge thoroughly to do so. Wyspianski was a turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th) early modernist; from what I can gather from the film, Liberation has at least something to do with the cause of Polish national liberation. This makes the director’s excising of political content all the more significant: calls for national liberation — from the time when Poland did not exist as a nation-state — would seem to resonate with calls for liberation from Communist Party rule and the Gierek regime, which is why they have to be cut. The director thus retreats from a more open sort of modernism to a very constricted, narrowly self-referential modernism, almost a cariacture of modernism’s initial project. (The film dates from shortly before the rise of the Solidarnosc movement. Holland subsequently left Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981, and worked thereafter in the West).

It is often said that the turn from the political to the personal and existential, evident in many Polish, and other Eastern European, films, is an act of dissent and resistance, in response to the relentless politicization of everything under Communist rule. But here things seem a bit more complicated. Provincial Actors presents a retreat to the personal and existential (with emphasis on the negative connotations of “retreat”) that is precisely a result of the fact that the political dimension has been effectively foreclosed. The Party’s politicization of everyday life has effectively resulted in a situation where nothing can be addressed in political terms, since the meaning of “politics” has always already been predefined. The existential is then not the realm of freedom in any meaningful sense: it is entirely closed, entirely negative, the stifling residue that is all that is left when any prospect of a larger social and political engagement has been shut off. “Actually existing socialism” was demoralizing, not because it made everything political, but because it banalized and circumscribed politics to such an extreme extent that political action became unthinkable. (And it was only by literally doing the unthinkable, that a movement like Solidarnosc was able to become an effectively political force, and to oppose the State).

What really gives Provincial Actors its power is Holland’s intensely claustrophobic mise en scene. Most of the film takes place indoors. There are almost no establishing shots or even long shots (except in the few outdoor scenes). Nor does the camera move very much. Yet there are also very few extreme close-ups; we never get to concentrate on anyone’s face. Instead, there are mostly two-shots (or shots with three or four people) at such a distance that we see their upper torsos and faces, as we hear their conversation. The spaces in which the characters interact (cafes, bedrooms, backstage rooms) are usually small and crowded, but in any case we get very little sense of any one of these spaces as a whole. Often, in nighttime scenes, the screen is so dark that we can barely see the speakers at all. And significantly, we never get to see what is happening on stage, or what this production of Liberation is like, despite the fact that all the characters’ energies are directed towards putting on the play.

As far as the film’s editing goes, time is as ruthlessly compacted and fragmented as space. There are no set-ups or indications of how we get from one scene to another; so it often seems as if the camera has opened onto an action that is already in progress. The camera sometimes also cuts off actions before they have been completed; at other times, it lingers on in the dark, well after anything has “happened.” The reappearance of light on the screen after a shot in darkness, and a sharp cut, is all there is to indicate a new day. The film’s action doesn’t progress in anything like a smooth narrative arc, because the characters do not feel any such progression in their lives.

When crucial events do occur, Holland treats them quite elliptically. One of the (minor) characters commits suicide by jumping out of a window. But nothing in the film prepares us for this: we do not see his determination, his preparations, or even his motivation. Rather, the camera is with Anka in her apartment, when we see the falling body flash by, in the background, out her kitchen window. An unprepared-for event on screen always comes as a shock; but here the shock is backgrounded and muffled, which has the effect of making the film’s overall sense of disconnection and isolation even more extreme.

The soundtrack often contains music that is ominously dramatic, indeed melodramatic. But we only hear this nondiegetic music discontinuously, and not always at the ‘right’ time. In one of the few reviews of the film that I could find online, Janet Maslin of The New York Times complains (writing when the film was first shown in the US, in 1983) that Holland “approaches [her themes] clumsily, and with a surprisingly heavy hand. On more than a few occasions here, a bold chord on the soundtrack will accompany one melodramatic event or another, and the film’s key occurrences are awkwardly presented.” I think that Maslin is apprehending, but completely misunderstanding, Holland’s strategy throughout the film. Everything in Provincial Actors is clipped and discordant, by design, because the characters are unable to connect meaningfully with one another, and “the time is out of joint.”

The Cinematic Mode of Production

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

Jonathan Beller’s new (but long in preparation) book, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, is, I think, the most important work of film theory since Deleuze’s two Cinema volumes appeared more than two decades ago. Or, even better, forget the qualifier “film”: Beller’s book is the first important work of aesthetics, or of “theory” generally, of the new century. (I don’t usually find myself agreeing with Le Colonel Chabert; but the Colonel is right on the mark as concerns Beller).

The Cinematic Mode of Production actually accomplishes what many of us have been trying to do for some time now: to give an account of the crucial role of aesthetic culture — what Adorno called the “culture industry,” what McLuhan called the electronic media, what many thinkers have called the “postmodern” — in our age of globalized, neoliberal capitalism. Fredric Jameson argued, nearly a quarter century ago, that, in the postmodern era, “everything in our social life — from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself — can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and yet untheorized sense” (Postmodernism 48). And he added that this dominance of the ‘cultural’ needed to be understood in terms of the development of mass-dissemination media (film, television, video, and — in the years since he wrote — digital, computer-based media as well; together with telephony and other media of instantaneous global communication). But neither Jameson nor anybody else has been able to theorize this process, to give an adequate account of just how it works. Until now. Beller’s book is at once audacious in its overall conception, cogent in its almost obsessively detailed argumentation and presentation, and far-reaching in its implications. Nobody who wants to deal seriously with the fate of “culture” in this age of astonishing new technologies, and equally overwhelming new mutations in the forms of exploitation and domination, will be able to ignore this book.

Beller argues that “cinema” (a term that needs unpacking, as I will discuss below) is not just the typical art form (or what Jameson would call the “cultural dominant”) of the last century; but that it has become — actually and not just metaphorically — the reigning mode of production of what we now know as “post-industrial” capitalism. That is to say, it is not only the case that the dominant world economy of today — with its massive production and circulation of commodities, and its continuing accumulation of capital, through the extraction of more and more surplus value in processes of hyperexploitation — is represented, or epitomized, in the cinematic production, circulation, and accumulation of images. But also, these basic economic processes (production, circulation, exploitation, and accumulation) are actually accomplished in and through the cinema. Capitalism today is machined, or machinated, by the cinematic apparatus above all. We have passed, in the course of the past century, from an industrial mode of production to a cinematic one.

In making this assertion, Beller draws heavily, not just on Jameson, but also on Horkheimer and Adorno, with their analyses of the culture industry; on Guy Debord, with his prescient intuition (in The Society of the Spectacle) that, in media society, “the spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image” (Paragraph 34); and on Baudrillard, with his accounts of a society of hyperreal simulation. But he fleshes out the work of these theoretical precursors in several ways. Beller takes full account of the fact that, today, the commodification of experience, of the everyday, and of “leisure time,” has progressed still further than Horkheimer and Adorno imagined; and that the proliferation of media images that we take for granted today has exceeded even the hyperbolic terms of Debord’s account. And he registers the full force of Baudrillard’s descriptions of simulation, but thankfully without giving way to Baudrillard’s reactive hysteria, or Baudrillard’s compulsion to throw out the (Marxist) baby together with the bathwater (of a certain tired metaphysics of Labor and Production).

[Side note: It is remarkable how quickly Baudrillard -- whose apocalyptic rhetoric was oh-so-chic in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- has gone from being a prophet of urgency and extremity to somebody whose observations are now so banal, obvious, self-evident, and taken-for-granted, that it is scarcely possible to imagine any longer what the fuss was about, or why anyone thought there was something earth-shattering about making such assertions. Today, Baudrillard just seems like a nostalgic whiner, yearning for a past that never existed, and failing to grasp that what he described, with rhetorical grandiosity, as "the extermination of the Real", is in fact nothing more than capitalist business as usual.]

Beller argues that cinematic images are not just representations of capital, but that they actually are capital. In several senses. First of all, in the sense of circulation. In Marx’s account, capitalism is characterised by the commodity form, and by the incessant circulation of commodities. Without this circulation, all the exploitation in the world would come to naught. Profit (surplus-value) could not be realized, and production would come to a halt (as indeed happens in times of crisis, i.e. depression). But commodities, as Marx famously argued, are marked by a curious duplicity, that of the split between use-value and exchange-value. We (as workers/consumers) are presumably buying commodities for their use to us. Yet we pay for them in an exchange of equivalents (we get money for our commodified work, and we purchase commodities — necessities and luxuries — with that money), a process which foregrounds their exchange-value rather than their use-value. Commodities are objects of desire, or fetishes, because the “value” that seems magically stored in them, rather than on account of how we actually might make use of them. Thus the split, or alienation, of workers from what they produce by means of their labor (since the products of that labor are expropriated from them) is mirrored and doubled by an alienation, on the side of the object produced, of its monetary worth (its exchange-value) from what it actually does, or even from the desires and fantasies that it sustains (all these can be chalked up to use-value, which — contra Baudrillard — has nothing to do with any sort of nostalgic essentialism — as I discussed here). The exchange-value of the commodity is something more like its aesthetic appeal, or the value it embodies as a brand, as an object of prestige or emulation, as an entirely stereotypical and conventional sign of what is nonetheless imagined to be a personal “expression.” [You might say that things like prestige, expression, and emulation, which are the very point of pre-capitalist systems of exchange, but which are banished from the (supposed) rationality of exchange in capitalist society, return in spectral, alienated form as exchange-value]. And this is why, as Debord postulated and as Beller explains in great detail, the commodity increasingly tends to the status of an image.

So the tendency towards abstraction and rationalization that drives capitalist commodity exchange (and that, indeed, renders this exchange possible in the first place) can be described as a becoming-image of the commodity, which is to say, of all objects and subjects, of everything and everyone. Consuming commodities increasingly means consuming their images: buying them because they are “cool”, identifying with their brands, extracting experiences (which is to say, affects) from them, and moving through the process of their circulation and consumption at an ever-increasing speed. And cinema (together with its successors in video and television, and in digital media) is what most fully realizes this becoming-image. Think of the great scene in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (not mentioned by Beller), in which the father and son come home from the wars, and display to the wife and sister the plunder from their travels: postcards of all the wonders of the world). Beller describes cinema, in great detail, as a machine for circulating images and their affects, for exchanging them one for another, for inciting us to consume them in their very distance (or “alienation”) from us, and for swallowing up the entirety of society and social action (production) in this fantasmagoria of images and their circulation.

Beller argues all this, amazingly, through a bravura reading of Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera — the avant-garde, revolutionary Soviet silent film of the 1920s that is also Lev Manovich’s reference point for his (much more formalistic) account of the post-cinematic Language of New Media. In Beller’s reading, Man With A Movie Camera succeeds in giving a self-conscious and critical account of how society is bound together in processes of the circulation of commodities, but fails to move beyond critique and actually provide an alternative (“socialist”) mode of circulation. Later cinema “forgets” Vertov’s critique, but continues unconsciously to embody the circulation processes that Vertov at least gave us a critical awareness of, at the same time that he fell victim to it.

Beyond, or beneath, circulation, in Marx’s account of capitalism, lies production. (Though I am not sure that “beyond” or “beneath” is the proper preposition to use here). Beller’s second, and even more audacious, thesis, is that cinema is a scene of production, as well as being one of circulation. Production, for Marx, is where exploitation takes place, where surplus value is actually extracted from laboring workers — although this surplus-value can only be realized through a successful round of circulation. To say that cinema is productive is to say that labor is performed there — that the spectator or consumer is also a worker, and that the act of watching films or television or something on the Net is — literally, not just analogically or metaphorically — an act of productive labor, for which the spectator is paid (but paid less than the value produced, so that surplus value can be extracted).

In asserting this, Beller builds upon, but goes beyond, Horkheimer and Adorno’s vision of the commodification of leisure time. Movie and television watching is productive labor, for several reasons. In the first place, looking is productive of value because of what is sometimes called the “network effect”: the more a network or platform or piece of software is used, by more and more people, the more valuable it becomes. Beller argues that, similarly, the value of an image increases the more it is viewed; when we look at an image we are also looking at all the previous glances at it by others. The more people use the Windows operating system, or listen to music on their iPods, the more value is added to Windows and to the iPod, so that these commodities outdistance their competitors. In the same way, celebrity operates by a sort of positive feedback: it feeds upon, and is amplified by, its own success. The more people watch Brad Pitt movies (or for that matter, papparazzi photos of Brad Pitt in “real life”), the more the celebrity value of Brad Pitt increases.

In the second place, and even more importantly, cinema spectatorship (and its equivalents or replacements in television watching, computer game playing, and so on) is a kind of affective apprenticeship, an education (or better, a molding) of the senses. McLuhan taught us that any change in media works over our senses entirely; though Beller scarcely acknowledges McLuhan at all, his work can be read as an example of the McLuhanite Marxism I have long called for. As Beller argues, our perceptions and affects, and through them our entire subjectivity, are shaped and processed by how we interact with images, how we use (and are used by) media. Cinema makes each of us into the sort of psychological subject that meets the requirements of capital (i.e. that allows it to extract from us as much surplus value as possible). And more, cinema then itself enacts this very process of attraction, by capitalizing on our awareness, our effort, and our attention. This is most obvious in terms of content (if one thinks of product placement in movies and television shows, for example); but it works most profoundly in terms of form (the medium is the message), as we are in effect paid (in pleasure and affective intensity, if not in money) in return for the capture of our attention (which, like labor-power in Marx’s account, is a finite and therefore scarce resource) as itself a saleable commodity (think of television advertisements, or today the kind of individually-targeted advertising tha Google provides on the Web). The cinema machine extracts surplus labor-power from us, in the form of our attention; it pays us for this by affording us the resources that allow us to renew and reproduce our labor-power (in this case, our attention) so that surplus value can be extracted from it anew. The exchange is always a formally equal one, which nonetheless always involves a surplus on one side of the equation (so that Google grows and grows while we in effect tread water, or run continually, like the Red Queen, merely in order to stay in the same place).

Just as Beller uses Vertov to make his argument about cinema as not just a commodity among others, but the very scene of the circulation of commodities, so he uses Eisenstein — referring both to his extensive writings on the theory of film, and to his first feature, Strike (1925) — to examine how cinematic spectatorship is a form of productive labor. Beller goes into great detail on Eisenstein’s interest in, and use of, the disciplinary techniques of Pavlov (in the realm of individual psychology) and of Taylor (in the organization of the workplace). The Soviet Union’s adoption of Pavlovian psychology, together with its importation of Taylorist management techniques from capitalist America, are crucial to the story of how the Soviet state ended up reproducing the oppressive logic of capital, rather than resisting it. “The calculated orchestration of the audience’s emotions and activities, so much a part of Eisenstein’s filmwork, was in many ways in direct contradiction to the explicit thematics of Eisenstein’s films” (p. 127). But no McLuhanite will be surprised that the dictatorial form of the medium wins out over the supposedly liberatory content. Eisenstein’s instrumental rationality, his view of the audience as a target to be manipulated, or as a mass of individuals whose consciousness would be re-forged and transformed by his despotic cinematic machine, makes Eisenstein into much more the self-conscious inventor of the manipulative Hollywood template, than a revolutionary alternative to it.

Beller goes on to elaborate his argument, by specifying the actual ways in which the cinematic machine captures and capitalizes attention, molds the sensorium, and produces the particular form of subjectivity (a kind of lateral surface, without depths or interiority, without a grounding in any sort of “history,” and traversed by intensities or waves of impersonal affect) that we now recognize as “postmodern.” In the course of arguing this, he offers a radical rereading of Lacan (that I find brilliant, though it is so one-sided and tendentious that it will make orthodox Lacanians scream) in order to argue that the Freudian/Lacanian unconscious is itself an historical construct, an effect of capitalist social and economic relations. Beller also delightfully suggests that The Matrix is a “social-realist” film, and expounds on the virtues of Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Natural Born Killers as paradigmatic explorations of the cinematic mode of production today. (I cannot express how much I love Beller’s suggestion that Beavis and Butt-head Do America is, in effect, the “truth” of Wim Wenders’ insufferably pretentious Until the End of the World). But I will not further summarize Beller’s chapter-by-chapter argument, because I want to get on to some more general points.

In all his argumentation, Beller follows Marx and Marxist theory extremely closely, even though he adapts the theory to circumstances (the postmodern mediascape) that Marx never envisioned. To my mind, this is a much more fruitful revival of Marxist theory than one finds in the merely rhetorical/exhortational use of Marx that one finds (for instance) in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, or in the analogistic use of Marx one finds in Zizek (for whom surplus value becomes merely a premonition of Lacanian “surplus enjoyment,” so that exploitation, as a material process, is displaced by a subjective and psychological process that is merely transferred from an individual to a group level).

There is, however, one major revision Beller makes to Marxist theory. This is the recognition that, in the “social factory” (as the Italian Autonomists have called it) that we live in today, circulation is itself directly productive, and cannot be distinguished from production per se. That is to say, circulation no less than formal production is a process in the course of which value is added in the form of living labor, and surplus value is extracted. This contrasts with Marx’s own frequently repeated assertion that circulation involves a faux frais of production: that circulation costs are a wasteful consequence of capitalist inefficiency, and that for the most part these costs must be deducted from surplus value, rather than adding to it. I remember, when I first read Capital in a reading group, in graduate school, something like thirty years ago, how much difficultly we all had with Marx’s distinction between those parts of circulation which were productive, and those parts which were not. It seemed to us that Marx was (quite unusually) splitting hairs, or that he was making too much of a distinction that was more a transient problem of the 19th century, than something deeply (structurally) intrinsic to the movement of capital. Today, when we have passed from the “formal” to the “real” subsumption of all life processes under capital, and when everything we do (even outside the formal workplace) becomes a target for the extraction of surplus value, when capital puts our senses and our subjectivity to work, 24/7 — today all of circulation must be subsumed within production, as a place of exploitation rather than a faux frais. So I am very much in accord with Beller when he says that “if the circulation of capital is not grasped simultaneously as productive and exploitative, then there is no more Marxism… in cinematic spectatorship we are dealing with what the sociologists today call ‘disguised wage labor’.” (page 115).

In this way, Beller resolves a problem that has long been endemic to Marxist cultural and aesthetic theory. In endeavoring to describe the relation between “culture” and political economy, we have been stuck with the alternative of either adopting a crude reductionism that simply reduces the former to the latter, via some sort of reflectionism or functionalism (this is what has often been called “vulgar Marxism”); or else arguing periphrastically for the “relative autonomy” of the “superstructure” from the “base,” so that, although the latter is still acknowledged as determining the former, this is the case only “in the last instance,” and by means of a dubiously lengthy series of mediations (as Althusser writes almost plaintively, “the lonely hour of the last instance never arrives”). Beller cuts the Gordian knot of these unsatisfying alternatives, by proposing what seems to me to be (though he never calls it this) a Spinozistic solution. There is no dualism of base and superstructure in Beller’s model, just as there is no dualism of body and mind in Spinoza’s metaphysics. But neither is there collapse of one of these levels into the other — Beller rejects “vulgar Marxism” and cultural autonomy alike, just as Spinoza rejects mechanism and occasionalism alike. Instead, we have relations of immanence without identity. For Beller, in effect, money and image, finance and cinema, are different modes of the same substance (Capital), in much the same way that body and mind are different modes of the same substance (God) in Spinoza. Cinema and its images do not reflect or represent the Real of capitalism; they are that Real, under a different aspect. Capital logic and cinematic logic are, directly, the same logic, rather than the latter merely being a reflection or an illustration of the former.

Of course, I don’t think Beller’s book is without flaws. There are things I disagree with, or have difficulty with. One of these concerns forms of response, or resistance. Beller fluctuates between a sense that capital logic is so totalizing, so all-embracing, that it is nearly impossible to escape it; and a contrary insistance, which is (unfortunately) more rhetorically asserted than theoretically articulated, that celebrates the possibility of resistance and revolution. This latter, optimistic strain takes the form of a repetition of Hardt and Negri’s thesis that the creativity of the working class (or, today, of the multitude) is primary, and that all the machinations of capital, which have resulted today in the nightmare of neoliberal, post-Fordist globalization, are merely secondary and defensive recuperations (or, in Nietzschean-Deleuzian parlance, reactive).

Yet little of the book’s concrete analysis supports this revolutionary optimism. Through most of the book, when Beller cites the possibility of an oppositional cinematic practice (or image practice) at all, he simply calls (rather lamely) for works that “relentlessly endeavor to decode the conditions of their own formation” (page 82, note 15) — which is just the old-style idea of self-reflexivity-as-critical-distanciation, something that was beloved of the avant-garde of the first half of the twentieth century, but that “postmodern” image practice has almost entirely co-opted and defanged. Anyone who watches contemporary music videos, for instance, knows that this strategy doesn’t work any more; the image/commodity’s explicit reflection on the the conditions of its own formation, only adds to its fetishistic allure.

The book ends with citations from theory (Angela Davis) and cultural practice (Immortal Technique) as examples of alternative, resistant cultural forms. The problem is both that these come across merely as isolated instances, and that the resistance they express seems to be articulated exclusively on the plane of content, so that they do not really address (or provide counter-examples to) the issues of media form that the book as a whole so powerfully addresses. (In fairness, I haven’t seen Beller’s other book, Acquiring Eyes, which he presents as the praxis-oriented companion text to The Cinematic Mode of Production. This other book is published in the Philippines, and is not available in the US through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Powell’s — which tells you something about international systems of distribution).

I think that the properly “dialectical” answer to this dilemma is not to assert that capital is merely “reactive” after theorizing its nearly omnipotent power; but rather to look at th ambiguities, and points of breakdown, in capital logic (which is also to say, cinematic/image logic) itself. We know today that crisis (whether economic, or aesthetic/affective) no longer provides the leverage Marx thought it would have for dislodging or overthrowing the system, because Capital itself uses its unavoidable crises in order to rejuvenate itself. But this doesn’t mean that what Deleuze and Guattari call lines of flight, or points of undecidability, are impossible. It just means that, when Capital has swallowed, internalized, and extracted surplus value from every conceivable Outside, it is from within its horizon that we can, and must, find (or manufacture) new Outsides, new points of articulation. Beller is very aware of this sort of slippery, ambiguous, yet absolutely necessary margin of slippage within capital logic itself in his wonderful discussion of Vertov; but it seems to vanish when he gets closer to the present moment.

And this brings me to my other point of contention. Despite everything Beller says, and despite the power of his genealogy of the commodity-as-image, I remain unconvinced that “cinema” is the right word to use for the image/commodity mode of production that we find ourselves inside today, in the age of neoliberalism and post-Fordism. That is to say, while I find Beller’s genealogy entirely convincing, I wonder whether we haven’t reached a point where (as Beller likes to say) changes in quantity have led to a change in quality, as we move from cinema (imbricated with the Fordist assembly line) to television and video, and today to computer-mediated communications and digital media of expression. I don’t think we live in a cinematic age (or mode of production) any longer, but in another media regime entirely. This is a case, I am afraid, in which critical theory is failing to keep up with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in which we still do not know how to be “as radical as reality itself.” Beller’s theorization therefore ultimately fails, in much the way that (according to his analysis) Vertov failed in his nonetheless brilliant and inspiring cinematic project. I certainly don’t have any of the answers that I find missing in Beller; but I think that, at the very least, The Cinematic Mode of Production is a necessary starting point for any future discussions.

Virtual Worlds

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

I’ve put online a paper I wrote last year, and have delivered at two conferences, reflecting on virtual worlds, or MMOs (massively multiplayer online games or worlds), through the lens of Julian Dibbell‘s two fine books on the subject:

“Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies”

Special Treatment

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Goran Paskaljevic’s Special Treatment (Poseban tretman, 1980), with screenplay (again) by Dusan Kovacevic, is a comedy, really, about what can best be called (today) the “soft” totalitarian management of affect. Dejan initially suggested to me that the film is not just an allegory of the Yugoslavian Communist regime, but also resonates with present-day endeavors to control — or better, to manage — “addictive” behavior, like the anti-smoking campaigns that have their origin in the United States, but have currently attained a worldwide reach. (For an excellent account of this, see Roddey Reid’s book, Globalizing Tobacco Control). In this way, the film sheds a disturbing light — which could not have been intended when the film was first made — on the relevance of the Yugoslav experiment with socialism for current post-Communist globalization.

[Just as a side comment: it's noteworthy, I think, that Slavoj Zizek can rehabilitate Lenin, and find positive things to say even about Stalin and Mao; but the one major historical Communist figure who seems to be beyond the pale for Zizek is precisely... Yugoslavia's Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Maybe, at least in the spirit of carnivalesque parody, a certain revival of Titoism -- and, for my Slovenian friends, Kardeljism -- is in order.]

Special Treatment is about an authoritarian doctor, Dr. Ilić (Ljuba Tadic — a well known Serbian actor: according to IMDB he appeared in over 170 Yugoslavian/Serbian films and TV shows) who has invented a “special treatment” for alcoholics. The treatment involves exhortations to willpower and the exercise of free will, together with bizarre calisthenics (the patients are supposed to run about in circles, flapping their arms as if they were birds’ wings — birds soaring through the sky being an image of freedom), and therapeutic psychodrama in which the patients re-enact the traumas of the degradation and humiliation that they suffered under the influence of alcohol. In order to demonstrate the success of his treatment, Dr. Ilich takes the patients on a trip… to a brewery (!), in order to prove that they have been “cured,” and will not succumb to temptation.

Of course, things go haywire in the course of the narrative, and everybody gives way to opportunities for enjoyment, and gets drunk. Even the prize patient — and Dr. Ilić’s stool pigeon — Steva (Danilo Stojkovic) ends up getting dunked in what the brewery proudly displays to the public as the world’s largest mug of beer. What’s more, Dr. Ilić himself is revealed as a hypocrite, a drinker who is incapable of heeding the Biblical call of “physician, heal thyself.” Everything falls apart, both farcically and (semi-)tragically, and on one level the film would seem to be repeating the (overly) familiar warning that “social engineering” cannot alter human nature, or penetrate beyond the body to the soul.

Special Treatment

But actually, I think that, in Special Treatment, matters are more complicated than they might at first seem. If one is of a sufficiently cynical and conspiratorial turn of mind, one might even suspect that the failure of Dr. Ilić’s “special treatment” is on a certain (non-conscious) level its intended, and hence effective, result. When the patients re-enact their alcoholic traumas — as they do at the very beginning of the film — the result seems to be, not to liberate them from their pain and dependency via some form of catharsis, but rather to reinscribe them ever more strongly within this prior condition. For this is what defines their subjectivity.

And indeed, by failing the “test” of freedom, the patients condemn themselves to return to the State institution in which they are in fact imprisoned (these are not people who have voluntarily come for help, but who have been legally committed to rehabilitation, after having deserted their children, attempted suicide, gone beserk, etc.). The collapse of the treatment is what necessitates, and authorizes, applying still more of it. Dr. Ilić is not discredited at the end of the film; rather, he is in position to require still more bizarre calisthenics from his patients, who will never be free as birds no matter how often they pretend to be flapping wings.

Dr. Ilić associates his exhortations about the power of the will, and the emulation of being free-as-a-bird, with sublime (mountainous) natural landscapes, and with the music of Wagner. The Liebestod from Tristan, and the Ride of the Valkyries from the Ring, are heard over and over, in the course of the film, both diegetically — in recordings played by Ilić — and nondiegetically. (At one point, Ilić even orders his patients to stop singing a drinking song, so that he can play them Tristan instead). This, of course, gives the “special treatment” Nazi connotations. But at the same time, this treatment, for all that it is supposedly “special”, seems thoroughly routinized, which is to say bureaucratic; this suggests, perhaps, that the gross impositions of Nazism have been emulated, in a smaller, “softer” way, by the day-to-day regulations of “actually existing socialism.” The Yugoslav experiment was, as it were, totalitarianism with a human face. (The film precedes, by seven or eight years, the insinuations made by NSK concerning the uncomfortably close affinities between Fascism/Nazism and Yugoslav Communism).

This suggestion is supported by an incident in the first half of the film, where the director of the brewery where Dr. Ilić has taken his patients confides that he is interested in Ilić’s therapy as a way of controlling the brewery workers, whose drinking on the job is harming the firm’s productivity. What could be a better illustration of Marx’s observation concerning the alienation of workers from that which they produce than this effort to stop workers from drinking their own beer? Yugoslav “self-management” was supposed to combine the best aspects of socialism (democratic control of the means of production) and capitalism (the efficiencies created by the market). But Special Treatment suggests, rather, that self-management synthesized the worst aspects of both systems: capitalist exploitation and alienation, and socialist disorganization, incompetence, and lack of motivation.

On a deeper level, Dr. Ilić’s therapy is founded on a contradiction: it appeals to willpower, and rests its authority on a noble conception of freedom, while in fact infantilizing the people to whom it is directed, and hence making it impossible for them to display willpower, or freedom, of any sort. Near the start of the film, Ilić takes his patients to a pub; when the waiter comes to take orders, all the patients “freely” choose to have mineral water, while the Doctor himself (as if to taunt them) orders a beer. After the drinks arrive, Ilić ostentatiously pours his beer out on the ground, instead of drinking it, as a demonstration of willpower. (But as we see, but his patients don’t, he has secretly swallowed down a quick drink at the bar). Not only is Ilić corrupt, therefore, but his therapy has more to do with the image management — and the affective responses to such carefully manipulated images — than it does with anything else.

During this entire scene, the camera repeatedly cuts to a boisterous, drunken group at another table, where one man bets his friends that he can entirely consume a roasted pig by himself. This is the life that the patients have been forced to give up, in order to be reborn as responsible, compliant citizens. And in this sense, even in their relapses, they are marked by their conditioning: precisely because any such relapse back into drink is now marked by feelings of guilt, abjection, solitude, and abandonment (the feelings instilled by the “therapeutic” psychodrama). None of them will ever be able to joyously consume a roast pig.

The film continually juxtaposes comic images of excess and abandon, with ones of cynically calculated (or inculcated) Foucaultian “care of the self” or self-regulation (might one even call this the real meaning, or the truth, of “self-management”?). One of the patients steals a liquor bottle from the brewery; he gets hold of an enormous hypodermic needle, and injects the alcohol into a bunch of apples, so that all his fellow patients can enjoy it undetected. (Ilić, with his worship of Nature, is always exhorting them to eat apples, because they are a truly healthy food). Later, Ilić seduces the brewery’s public relations manager Kaca (played by Milena Dravic, best known to me as the Reichian militant in Makavejev’s WR) to the sounds of a record playing (yet again) the Liebestod from Tristan, the very music that he uses to motivate his charges. Pleasure and manipulation, enjoyment and discipline, work and leisure, seem to have become inextricably intertwined; and this is what (as per Dejan’s suggestion) links the incentives and disincentives of Ilić’s system (or, more generally, of the Yugoslav socialist system) to those of the hypercapitalist (but nonetheless extensively regulated and bureaucratized) world of today.

Special Treatment isn’t a deep film, nor is it (from a formal point of view) a particularly interesting one. But it certainly leaves a creepy aftertaste — in large part because the system of management it depicts is one that is still very much with us today.

Who Is Singing Over There?

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Slobodan Sijan’s Who Is Singing Over There? (Ko To Tamo Peva?, 1980) could almost be a prequel to Emir Kusturica’s great 1995 film about the history and breakup of Communist Yugoslavia, Underground. In fact, both films were written by the same screenwriter, Dusan Kovacevic; and Who Is Singing Over There? ends at the precise historical point where Underground begins, with the Nazi bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941.

Of course, the two films are very different — and not just because nobody in 1980 (the year of Tito’s death, which occurred while Who Is Singing Over There? was being shot) could have foreseen the horrors of the wars in which Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s. But also because Sijan is a fairly classical director, with none of Kusturica’s extravagance and carnivalesque excess. In fact, Who Is Singing Over There? is (as has frequently been noted) something of an homage to John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939): it follows that earlier film’s narrative structure, in which a group of mutual strangers, all of whom are vividly drawn personalities, find themselves thrown together on a voyage beset with multiple dangers, and various unexpected plot twists and turns. Instead of Stagecoach‘s passage through Monument Valley and other iconic settins of the Wild West, we get a ride on a ramshackle bus that proceeds from “somewhere in Serbia” through the countryside and on to Belgrade. And instead of Indian attacks, showdowns on Main Street, and the travails of giving birth, we get a series of (semi-)comic incidents involving peasants, the Army, and the generally dilapidated economic condition of Yugoslavia in 1941.

In Who Is Singing Over There?, as in Stagecoach and other classic Hollywood films, the characters are all types, each of whom is defined by a number of particularities that get expressed over and over again throughout the film. Such an approach to character is pre-Method Acting (which is why, aside from comedy, which directly depends upon utilizing stereotypes, you don’t see much of this approach in Hollywood past the 1950s, when Method Acting first came into vogue), and indeed “pre-psychological” (as Todd Haynes characterized Sirk’s melodramas). (Another way to put this is to say, in comparison with English-language novels, that this approach to character is more like Dickens than it is like most 20th century fiction, whether “high” — Joyce, Faulkner — or “low” — Raymond Chandler, Stephen King; and whether committed to modernist depth, or to postmodern cartoony caricatures).

This pre-psychological approach is something that contemporary, media-saturated audiences do not find “realistic” — though Ford seemed “realistic” enough to American audiences of 1939, as did Sijan, as far as I can tell, to Yugolsav audiences of 1980. In any case, part of the power of this (now old-fashioned) approach is that it allows characters to function typologically and allegorically, and to “represent”, or stand in for, various national characteristics and tendencies. In Stagecoach, Ford leaves the racial and gender hierarchies of his time basically unquestioned; but in terms of the interactions among the white male characters, there’s a lot about class divisions and about the legacy of the Civil War, and the film comes off allegorizing the politics of the time in which it was made (instead of the time in which it is set), by taking a stance that is pro-New Deal, anti-big business, and anti-the rich’s assumptions of privilege.

Who Is Singing Over There? similarly works as a national allegory, and, like Stagecoach, this allegory refers at least as much to the time in which the film was made as it does to the time in which it is set. As Dejan suggested to me, the film dredges up and displays the considerable antagonisms that subsisted beneath the official Titoist ideology of bratstvo i jedinstvo (“brotherhood and unity”) throughout the time of Communist Party rule.

On an official level, the film was entirely safe and acceptable to the ruling order; it is set in pre-Communist times (so that it doesn’t say anything overtly against the Party or the State); and it makes no direct reference to Serban nationalism, or to relations between the Serbs and the other official nationalities of Yugoslavia (Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians).

The film does, however, address racism in the form of the relation between the Serbian characters and the two Roma (“Gypsy”) musicians who are also on the bus. The Roma have long been the disenfranchised of Eastern Europe, without any homeland to claim the way other linguistic or ethnic groups did in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Who Is Singing Over There?, the Serbian characters display disdain towards, or distrust of, these Roma at every opportunity. At the end of the film, what has been mostly a comic series of misadventures turns serious and ugly, as all the other passengers attack and beat the two Roma, and seem on the verge of killing them, on the basis of a false allegation that the Roma have stolen the wallet and money of one of the characters. (The racist stereotype at work here is, of course, the one that says that the Roma are thieves). The lynching is only interrupted by the German bombing raid, which (in a final ironic turn) kills everyone on the bus except for the two Roma.

Indeed, the Roma serve as a kind of Chorus for the film. We see them in the first shot, and in the last; throughout, they comment, with their improvised lyrics, on what we have just been seeing. In the film’s one departure from classical form, these songs are addressed directly to the camera, and to the movie audience, instead of to the other characters. The Roma characters, perhaps because of their outsider status in Serbian or Yugoslav society, thus partly step outside the diegesis and reflect upon it. They distance us from the other characters’ obsessions, putting into perspective how self-obsessed and self-congratulatory they are, and how oblivious to the larger forces that determine them or loom over them (the coming War, the class divisions of Serbian society, the parochialism and attachment to tradition, etc.).

(Dina Iordanova writes extensively about the depiction of the Roma in Balkan films in her fine and useful book Cinema of Flames. She remarks, apropos of Who Is Singing Over There?, that “this symbolic ending, asserting survival for the marginal and oppressed, is believed by many to be a prophetic vision of Yugoslavia — a country busy fighting imaginary internal demons while vulnerable to destruction from the outside”).

The hatred of the Serbs for the Roma is the only form of racial or ethnic antagonism that is dramatized in the film. But all sorts of other antagonisms come out in the course of the bus ride, even if they are mostly treated comically. One of the passengers is a Germanophile (Bata Stojkovic), who extols at every opportunity the order and efficiency of the Nazi State, to which he continally compares the waste, corruption, and inefficiency endemic to the Serbian/Yugoslavian condition. Then there is the hunter (Tasko Nacic), who seems to have a problem with guns — they tend to go off in his presence, whether he is holding them or not, and (in the former case) without his intending to fire them). There are constant arguments about money: partly because Krstic, the owner of the bus (Pavle Vujisic) is continually working out schemes to overcharge or rip off his passengers. There are questions about the role of the Yugoslav Army, which is always ordering people around, and commandeering their property, but doesn’t seem capable of actually defending the country (and indeed, the Army did prove utterly unable to stand up to the Nazi invasion).

Then there is an amazing, almost surreal (despite the overall naturalism) sequence of the funeral for a schoolteacher who, we are told, has been murdered by bandits or terrorists (I do not recall exactly; sinceI could only get the film on VHS, not DVD, it is too difficult for me to scroll to the spot). But while the funeral ceremony is still going on, the alleged murderers (apparently another family — this would seem to be one of those long-lived feuds that are the stuff of legend, or cliche) come riding by on horseback. The mourners take out their guns and start shooting, the horse riders fire back, and a miniature battle ensues.

The entire film is structured around a series of such conflicts, which are both (usually farcical) turning points that drive the narrative, and markers or condensation points of social antagonism. The film as a whole might be seen as a three-way conflict between the forces of social order (represented mostly by the Germanophile), of bureaucratic imposition (both the various Army officers they encounter, and the bus owner Krstic, are continually citing rules and regulations to back up their predatory behavior), and of chaos and anarchy and generally wild behavior (incidents of which are continually breaking out, though Sijan doesn’t quite carry this to extreme, carnivalesque lengths, or celebrate it, in the way that Kusturica does in Underground and his other films).

Order and bureaucracy are both Germanic (or German and Austro-Hungarian, respectively). They both stem ultimately from the Enlightenment; they are both rationalistic through and through, and yet deeply irrational in the ways that they regiment and pervert human and social impulses. The Germanophile is rigid to the point of inhumanity; it’s a fitting touch that he collects rock specimens for geological analysis. He is utterly intolerant of the way that human imperfection gets in the way of his idealizations of order and efficiency. This is rationality imposed from above, and destroying anything that gets in its way.

Bureaucratic regulations are another thing entirely; though they must be rigidly followed, once they have been invoked, they are so arbitrary both in their formulation and in their administration as to be little more than a smokescreen for venality and corruption. At one point, Krstic will not let the hunter onto the bus, even though the bus has in fact stopped: because, he says, the legally mandated bus stop is 200 meters further on. The hunter must run, trying to get to the bus stop before the bus has had time to pause and start moving again. Later, Krstic demands that all the passengers show their tickets — even though there is no doubt that everyone on the bus has already paid — just in order that he can charge anyone who has lost their ticket a second time. This is rationality, not imposed from above, but seeping into every pore of social space from below: instrumental reason in its tiniest and furthest consequences. (The Germanophile’s rationality is that of what Deleuze calls irony; the bureaucratic rationality of the bus owner and the Army, like that in Kafka’s novels, is that of what Deleuze calls humor).

Finally, chaos and anarchy are manifested as a sort of premodern and prerational “Balkan” way of being — though again, Sijan doesn’t push this, or affirm it, in the wild and crazy way that Kusturica always does. This is the space in which rituals of hospitality and generosity resist being reduced to mere calculation; but it is also the space in which antagonism maintains its full stupidity, resistant to any form or adjudication or compromise. It’s a space of continual violence (all those guns, going off when they aren’t supposed to) and of sexual desire, but also of a sort of low cunning (mercantile or peasant) that is always looking to extract a monetary profit one way or another.

Sexuality enters into the film in the form of a weird triangle, involving a newly married couple (the bride being the only woman passenger on the bus) and a would-be seducer (a small-town singer, who lays on really thickly the attitude of being suave, debonair, and cosmopolitan). The newlyweds are continually on the verge of quarrelling, even though they haven’t been together long enough for such a relationship to develop. At one point, when the bus has stopped, they run off to the woods to have sex. All the other passengers follow, and watch them from a distance. The Germanophile says they ought to be ashamed of themselves; other passengers seem, rather, ashamed by their own all-too-eager voyeurism. The singer takes note mostly of the groom’s sexual inexperience and clumsiness, and renews his efforts to seduce the bride. As always, one wants to avoid leaning too heavily on sequences that are basically being played for comedy; but — in the context of the film as a whole — these episodes do demonstrate how even the sexual bond (as the sort of most basic form of the social bond) is riven by confusion and antagonism.

The film’s violent ending pulls the rug from under the comic mood that has obtained until that point — it forces us to re-evaluate, and perhaps take things more ‘seriously’ than we have done throughout — which is how I have approached the film in the comments that I have just written. In any case — and in direct contrast to Ford’s Stagecoach — there is no John Wayne figure in Who Is Singing Over There?, no point of audience identification, but only the Roma chorus, with its sardonic attitude towards the entire spectacle. Sijan and Kovacevic show us Yugoslavia imploding, though without making a heavy point of it, and also without any endorsement of any of the alternatives to (or, ultimately, successors of) the tarnished “Yugoslav ideal.” Bratstvo i jedinstvo is an ideal that, historically, never really worked — and the same can be said, of course, as well, for Tito’s other ideal of samoupravljanje (self-management). [A quick search through the IMDB reveals that a half-hour documentary called Samoupravljanje -- Jugoslovenski put u socijalizam (Self-Management: The Yugoslav Road to Socialism) was also released in 1980]. It’s enough to make me (a complete outsider) feel oddly, and dangerously, Yugo-nostalgic (as many of the present-day nationalists disparagingly say).

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism remains as stupendous and mind-shattering a film today as it must have been at the time of its first release in 1971. I hadn’t seen it for many years when I screened it for my class this past week; and, despite the fact that so many things in this film are burned into my memory, I wasn’t entirely sure how well it would hold up. But I needn’t have worried. WR is just as powerful as it ever was; indeed, its very untimeliness in our current cultural-historical context makes it even more disconcerting and destabilizing, perhaps, than it could have been when first released.

Many of the pre-1989 Eastern European films that I have been showing in my class are powerful in their evocation, and critique, of what living under “actually existing socialism” must have been like. Today, when that way of life has entirely vanished, even the negative aspects of these films work to display a fascinating otherness: to show us that political conditions, social relations, and cultural norms need not be eternally the way they are in today’s universal commodity culture. Though these films were intended, and indeed worked and continue to work, as powerful denunciations of the injustices and cruelties of Communist Party rule, they do not thereby comfort us in America (and in “the West” more generally) with the flattering thought that our own way of life, now triumphant worldwide (and under siege only by those whose desperation has driven them to cruel and barbarous counter-ideologies) is thereby justified. Rather, both these films’ depiction of other ways of life, and their protests against the miseries of those other ways, create a kind of opening. This process, which is implicit in so many of these films, becomes explicit and polemical in WR. Makavejev’s film is the only one on my syllabus that overtly proclaims itself as Marxist; in doing so, it dissects the ironies of both actually existing socialism and actually existing capitalism, and brings us elsewhere. WR is a “utopian” film, in Fredric Jameson’s sense of this term, less because of the sexual bliss (pornutopia?) that it promises, than because of its aggressive and stimulating disjunctions.

Much has changed, of course, in the years since WR was made. The film is deeply engaged with a particular location in time and space — America and Yugoslavia/Serbia at the end of the 1960s — and with a particular a constellation of ideas — the liberatory conjunction of Freudianism and Marxism, as seen in Wilhelm Reich’s theories and early “sexpol” work, and as promised in American countercultural ideals of self-realization via sexual freedom on the one hand, and Yugoslavian socialist ideals of samoupravljanje (“self-management,” or, as the film also calls it, “work-democracy”), on the other.

However, neither the American counterculture nor Yugoslavian socialism is much more than a (bad) joke these days. Sexual “liberation” has become ubiquitous, because it has been ubiquitously commodified. Sexual seduction and display are essential to the processes of marketing, advertising, branding, and economic circulation generally; the release of sexual impulses from repression, and their active solicitation in the marketplace, has not resulted in the liberation of human energies and potentials that Reich and Herbert Marcuse hoped for, but rather in a narrower confinement of desire within the circuits of consumerism and commodification than either of those thinkers could ever have imagined.

As for “self-management,” in practice it was little more than a cynical alibi for the same forms of regulation, regimentation, and corruption that existed in other, more orthodox, socialist countries — at least, this is what I am told by all the ex-Yugoslavs I have met who are old enough to remember it. It certainly didn’t result in, or correspond to, any liberatory change of consciousness, as the post-Communist disintegration of Yugoslavia attests. And if “self-management” still exists today, it does so, not as a socialist ideal, but, grotesquely, as a capitalist one. You can see “self-management” today in the exhortations toward “excellence” by business gurus like Tom Peters, who basically proposes that people become obligatory exploiters and entrepreneurs of themselves, and embrace their own precarity under the name of “flexibility”. You can also see “self-management” in the practices of “hip” and “innovative” corporations, which emphasize “flat hierarchies,” and encourage “creativity” and “decentralized decision-making” among their employees. One sees this in the emphasis upon the importance of the “creative class” for econimc growth today. But one sees it also in the way that even low-paid workers in retail are expected to absorb themselves in the corporate culture (whether of WalMart or of Starbucks), and to take the initiative in sales and promotion. In all these cases, workers are increasingly being charged with the task of policing and disciplining themselves, and (in Marxist language) actively exploiting (extracting surplus-value from) themselves. That is what “self-management” comes to today.

As for Wilhelm Reich himself, upon whose ideas and career the film is largely based, today he seems less like a sex radical than like a crypto-conservative without knowing it. Reich’s glorification of the orgasm is actually quite heteronormative and prescriptive, as well as being entirely caught up within the discursive deployment of sexuality-as-liberation, described and denaturalized by Foucault. (Indeed, as far back as the 1950s, Norman O. Brown had already denounced Reich’s privileging of “normal adult genital sexuality” over the multiple potentials of “polymorphous perversity”). Reich’s later ideas about orgone energy, for which he was prosecuted and persecuted by the US government, and which (in the late 1950s and the 1960s) had a correspondingly subversive prestige among writers and intellectuals (like Norman Mailer and William Burroughs), today seem little more than variants of today’s fashionable (and entirely conformist) New Age beliefs.

Where does all this leave WR: Mysteries of the Organism? I’ve been suggesting that the ideas and practices which make up the film’s subject matter have all been tarnished by the passage of time. In a certain sense, this means that what Makavejev proposed, in 1971, as images of liberation, have now become parts of everyday experience, in all their banality and obviousness, and have turned out not to be liberating at all. But I am trying to suggest that, in an important way, this only makes the film more visionary and more relevant. And this, of course, has as much to do with the film’s form and dynamics as with its overt content. WR begins as a sort-of documentary about Wilhelm Reich. But other strands quickly get woven in, and Makavejev’s montage becomes increasingly dense and delirious as the film proceeds.

In America, besides the materials on Reich, we see Tuli Kupferberg (of Fugs fame) wandering around New York City, dressed in military fatigues and waving around a toy machine gun, while on the soundtrack we hear The Fugs’ sarcastic song “Kill for Peace”; we see Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis wandering through the East Village, and speaking rapturously of the liberation s/he found in drag; we hear commercials on the radio for Coke and for Coppertone suntan lotion, among other products; we witness examples of Reichian body therapy in action; we visit the offices of Screw Magazine, and see one of the editors getting a plaster cast taken of his engorged cock.

On the Serbian side of things, we get the fictional story of Milena (Milena Dravic), a Party militant and Reichian, who believes that the Revolution is incomplete without free love. Milena has rejected her former proletarian lover Radmilovic (Zoran Radmilovic), whom she finds too macho and too crass. Instead she has fallen for, and works hard to seduce, the Soviet ice skating champion and “people’s artist” who goes by the Leninesque name Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic). This allegorical drama would seem to have much to do, therefore, with the strained relation between Stalinism and Titoism, between Soviet and Yugoslav Communism. To what extent did Tito represent a Third Way to socialism, beyond the deadlocks of the Cold War?

In any case, this all gets played out in a series of tableaus: Milena, dressed in partial military drag, haranguing the people of her tenement block on the necessity of sexual revolution; Radmilovic denouncing the “Red bourgeoisie” (one presumes he has read Milovan Djilas’ The New Class) , and breaking into Milena’s apartment to proclaim his undying lust and to shut up Vladimir Ilyich in the cupboard; Vladimir Ilyich alternating between lofty discourses on the beautiful ideal of communism, and physical brutality, as he tries to stave off Milena’s sexual advances; and finally, Vladimir Ilych’s murder of Milena after he accedes to her blandishments and she brings him to orgasm. These scenes are themselves intercut with Communist found footage, including scenes of the Red Guards during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and (most amazingly) sequences from an actual 1946 Soviet film made in adulation of Stalin.

As these various “Western” and “Eastern” strands of the film are themselves intercut and scrambled together, we get a film that is amazingly rich and complex. WR: Mysteries of the Organism is perhaps the most brilliant example ever made of the “intellectual montage” theorized by Eisenstein and put into practice by Godard. Watching the film, we are bombarded with a massive overdose of information and implication. The strands of the film could not be more disparate, nor the styles (from documentary rawness to mannered, deliberate staging) in which these strands are presented to us; and yet everything seems related to everything else, everything in the film affects and is affected by everything else. Makavejev probably calls this dialectics; I was more reminded of the ontology of William James (very much taken up by both Whitehead and Deleuze) according to which relations are external to the things that they put into relation; but these relations are themselves every bit as real as the things to which they refer (for more on this, see here). The result is a kind of expanding multiplicity of potentials and encounters and juxtapositions and resonances.

Let me give one example of this, from WR. Vladimir Ilyich, just before he slaps down Milena in order to punish her for her sexual aggressiveness, speaks (the actual) Lenin’s lines about having to resist the (implicitly emasculating) beauty of art (Beethoven, specifically) because of the iron necessity of remaining hard, and cutting off the heads of the enemies of the people. A few scenes earlier (or later? I don’t quite remember), in the offices of Screw Magazine, editor Al Goldstein defends his publication of pornography as a perfect expression of “the American dream,” and of the ideals of free speech. [This will later become the major proposition behind Milos Forman's fine film The People Versus Larry Flynt. Forman, like Makavejev, is an emigre from the Eastern Bloc, but he doesn't come near Makavejev's complex irony, or "dialectical" take on things]. These scenes resonate with one another, as well as with many other scenes, bits, or citations within the film.

In the first place, both of these scenes suggest a conflict rather than a harmony between the twin goals of sexual and political revolution. Vladimir Ilyich’s Lenin quote argues that aesthetic and sexual pleasure must be sacrificed in the name of revolutionary vigilance; if we let the tenderness of art, or the relaxing fulfillment that follows orgasm, fill up our souls, we will never have the ruthless strength necessary to destroy the bourgeois order. This is echoed in another scene, in which Milena reads aloud from a text of Lenin’s, to the effect that the State is necessary, not to give the workers what they desire (which can only be done by the workers themselves, when class society and the State itself have withered away), but to brutally repress the workers’ enemies. This, of course, is precisely the logic that leads (as Bakunin argued in the 19th century, and Djilas in 1950s Yugoslavia) to the Communist State’s self-perpetuation as a new organ of domination and exploitation. More generally, the political necessity to which Lenin appeals means the indefinite deferral of (sexual) satisfaction, in precisely the way that Freud’s Reality Principle does.

Meanwhile, Al Goldstein’s affirmation of the Americanism of porn resonates with other invocations of the “American Dream” in the film, most notably one by Reich’s daughter Eva, who contrasts American freedom with the enslavement that she sees as characteristic of Communist societies, who mold their children into “good citizens.” By extension, this gets linked to the evidence of commodification, via ubiquitous advertising on billboards and on the radio, which is a continual presence in Makavejev’s American documentary footage. It would seem that, in this way, Makavejev already anticipates the commodification of “free” sexuality, that I referred extensively to above, and that has only accelerated in the 35-odd years since the film was made.

On the more “micro” level, there’s a sequence that moves from a close-up of the dildo that is the final result of the “plaster-casting” process, to a shot of Kupferberg caressing his toy rifle like an enormous phallus, to footage (from the old Soviet film) of Stalin (actually an actor portraying him) receiving the adulation of the people as he speaks of the “arrow” that Lenin shot at the bourgeoisie (a phrase that Milena picks up as a sexual metaphor in her wooing of Vladimir Ilyich) to a shot of the “cloudbuster” (this Reichian invention is a sinister, multiply phallic-like device pointed to the sky, that is supposed to soak up and neutralize negative (deadly, cancer-causing) orgone energy). What do we make, then, of the power and signification, and the politics, of the phallus? How does commodification relate to authority, to war, to death and destruction, and to pleasure?
All this is just one small example (or series of examples) from the film. I have gone into it in such great detail only in order to suggest the way WR involves the viewer in spirals of mind-boggling, seemingly infinite, elaborations and ramifications. (Much more of this can be found in Raymond Durgnat’s excellent little book on the film). Eisenstein posited intellectual montage as a method for incorporating dialectical rationality (conflict and sublated resolution) into film. Godard extended intellectual montage into a principle of digression and discontinuity, not resolving conflict, but suspending the very narrative of conflict by a sort of indefinitely extendible parataxis, and thereby making possible a sort of meta-fictional, and itself potentially indefinite, aesthetic meditation. (Think of when he stops, in the middle of Two or Three Things I Know About Her to ponder the beauty and mystery of cream swirling in a coffee cup, and of what this implies about the encounter between subject and object. Or think — to emphasize how important this rapturous aestheticism is, even in one of Godard’s most explicitly “anti-aesthetic” films — of the Mozart sonata played in the barnyard in Weekend).

Makavejev, however, is neither as didactic as Eisenstein, nor as contemplative as Godard. Rather, he pushes intellectual montage in the direction of what I can best call a kind of energizing of potentialities (of what Deleuze would call the virtual, or what Whitehead would call the “mental pole” of a concrescence). Makavejev is concerned with multipying potentialities, even (or especially) when these potentialities (obviously) cannot all be realized (since they are “incompossible” with one another), and when they lead to an impasse. Which is why the film can both enthusiastically celebrate the potentials of free sexuality, and envision the way such a “liberated” sexuality is only a pseudo-liberation, as it issues either in rampant consumerism (the American way), or in the exaltation of a sort of phallic totalitarianism (which applies, in different ways, to both Stalin and Hitler), or to the panicked reassertion of male privilege via murder (Vladimir Ilyich loses his self-possession when he gives way to orgasm and to his desire for Milena; which is why, in classic masculine-domination mode, just like in all those American film noirs, he punishes the woman for having allured him).

That is to say, in comparison to either Eisenstein or Godard, Makavejev’s intellectual montage is… more intellectual, more world-significant in its ramifications. (None of this should be seen as criticism of Godard, for whom I maintain an undying love and allegiance). But, besides being more intellectual, Makavejev is also (how to best put this?) more material — no, rather, more corporeal, more deeply embodied, than Godard (or Eisentstein). This has much to do with Reich, whose insistence on the embodiment of affects and desires is perhaps the most significant and powerful aspect of his theories. Reich, for instance, thought and wrote at great length about how repressions and conflicts and erotic positions are manifested, not just in linguistic and intellectual symptoms (as per Freud), but also very much in bodily postures and gestures, in what might be called the visceral forms of expression. (This non-linguistic dimension is precisely what the Lacanians ignore, systematically and on principle). This aspect of Reich’s theory is in fact explained to us, on screen, by a Reichian analyst (Alexander Lowen, if I am remembering correctly).

Following this principle, Makavejev’s montage is as visceral as it is intellectual. The sexual scenes in WR have generally been the ones that have caused the most controversy: in the dvd of the film that I showed my class, during the plaster-casting scene the man’s erect penis is obscured by a ridiculous sort-of psychedelic efflorescence special effect. This is something that wasn’t there when I viewed the film years ago; it was added to the film by Makavejev in 1991 (he proclaimed it an “improvement” ) in order to satisfy British censorship regulations (is WR the only Eastern-bloc film that has been thus censored both by a Communist country and by a capitalist one?). But in fact, the most physically jolting scenes in the film are not directly sexual at all — they are documentary scenes of Reichian therapy, showing patients violently thrashing and convulsing their bodies while yelling things like “give it to me.”

This is supposed to be therapeutic: it is supposedly a way of breaking through bodily rigidities that are also psychological repressions, of cracking what Reich called the “character armor” in which we neurotically encase ourselves. But actually seeing this on the screen affects me physically in a way that is quite disturbing: it is hard to voyeuristically watch a body in such convulsion, it feels to me like pain even if I know that, for the person going through this, it is not supposed to be. And Makavejev heightens the ambiguity by juxtaposing a clip of another, much more overtly sinsiter, form of “healing” through the body: footage of somebody being subject to electro-convulsive therapy (“shock treatment”). It’s not in any sense automatically liberating to have done with Cartesian dualism, and to locate power and affect in the body: if we accept such an analysis, we must also ponder how fascism works in and through the body. (This is a lesson we very much need to learn, as we pursue work in Affect Theory. I think that recent theoretical writing by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning is exemplary in this regard).

Because of how it’s visceral and intellectual at the same time, Makavejev’s montage affects me in ways that no other work quite does. I’ve written in the past about visceral horror — even visceral/intellectual horror, as in the earlier works of David Cronenberg. But nobody approaches quite approaches Makavejev’s mixed intensities: the way he is utopian and darkly pessimistic at the same time. WR: Mysteries of the Organism is radically demystified and even disillusioned; the film has none of the naivete that characterised so many people’s utopian hopes and political and sexual (and pharmacological )dreams in the 1960s. Yet at the same time, it refuses to give up the radical potentialities whose difficulties and unconscious hypocrisies and ambivalences it nonetheless uncovers, and even mocks. There’s something so sweet about Jackie Curtis, as s/he describes his/her joy of becoming a “woman” (a joy that is very un-Reichian, let it be noted). And Milena’s harangue to the masses about sexual freedom is a hilarious send-up of a Party meeting, not to mention that it degenerates into a shouting match with Radmilovic, and then into some good-old-time Serbian singing and dancing; but the depth of Milena’s call for satisfaction, not in some future time, but in the here and now, continues to resonate throughout the film.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism ends with a scene of Vladimir Ilyich’s remorse, as he comes back to consciousness after murdering Milena while in the throes of orgasm, and becomes aware of what he has done. He sings a sad and oddly moving song, about loss and desolation and repentance, while wandering through a snowy landscape, past campfires around which (apparently) poor and homeless people are gathered. The song is addressed to God, which is a bit odd for a self-professed materialist and atheist. The song is moving, as I said, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking about how it was all very well for him to be sad, when (unlike Milena herself) he had evidently gotten through it all scott-free.

But before this, there’s another sort-of concluding moment. Milena’s decapitated head has been found in the river, and is set (facing the camera) on a platter. All at once the head begins to speak, of the cosmic joy of orgasm, and of regret (rather than anger) that Vladimir Ilyich turned out to be a “Red fascist,” unable to cope with the experience of pleasure. The last thing that Milena’s head says is, “in spite of everything, I am still not ashamed of my Communist past.” This is a motto that could apply to the film as a whole, with its multiplicities, its ambiguities, its understanding of the terrible ironies of history, and of the mobilization of the body, its rejection of closure, and yet at the same time its refusal to give way on its desire.


Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Marta Meszaros’ Adoption (1975) is a very special sort of “women’s film,” a naturalistic, understated melodrama — if that doesn’t seem like too much of an oxymoron. It’s a melodrama, because its focus is mostly domestic, as it deals with the emotional ups and downs of two women’s lives. It’s not that the film is detached from social and political concerns — quite the contrary — but these are reflected (or refracted) almost exclusively through the women’s inner, intimate feelings, the slender threads of hope they nourish amidst a general sense of constricted horizions, loneliness, and disappointment. The film is naturalistic, at the same time, because it shows nothing of the floridity and excess that we usually associate with melodrama; instead, we get the decors and surroundings of a small provincial town in Hungary, where people are free from abject poverty, but also not particularly well off. Most of the scenes are set in shabby apartments, on public transport, in various institutional settings, in the workplace, or in popular (not particularly luxurious) restaurants and cafes.

The two women are Kata (Katalin Berek), a 43-year-old woman, and Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a troubled teenager. Kata is a widow who lives alone and works in a factory; Anna lives at a state institution for troubled young people, as she is unable to get along with her parents. Kata has a lover, Joska (László Szabó) who is a married man with children; he professes his love for Kata, but he is unwilling to leave his wife and family for her. She accepts this more or less fatalistically, but it’s evident that she feels lonely and unfulfilled. At the start of the movie, she tells Joska that she wants to have a child by him, and that he needn’t worry, she will raise the child alone, etc.; but he absolutely refuses. She accepts this more or less fatalistically as well, though she clearly isn’t pleased.

Anna has a boyfriend, whom she wants to marry; but neither her family nor the institution in which she has been placed will give consent. She has the reputation of being something of a bad girl, always running away, or otherwise making trouble: but all we see of her, really, is vulnerability and need, and uncertainty as to what, if anything, she will ever be able to make of her life.


Kata and Anna get drawn together in the course of the film; Kata seems to regard Anna as the daughter she never had, though Anna fiercely resists being cast as the child — she is sick and tired of being dependent upon superior adults, and is looking for a friendship (or even, with this older woman, a sort of mentorship or sponsorship) that nonetheless entirely respects her autonomy. Given their disparate desires and emotional needs, the relationship between Kata and Anna, though intense, is marked by tensions, and is fairly transient. The plot of the film basically consists of Kata and Anna getting to know each other, Kata’s problems with Joska, and Kata arranging for Anna to marry her boyfriend after all. The film ends with a lengthy wedding party, in the course of which it is suggested that this marriage will not be the solution to all her problems that Anna has imagined it to be; followed by a shorter scene in which Kata adopts a baby (she looks 6 months old or so); the film ends with a freeze frame of Kata holding the baby, about to get on the bus that will take her home. So the plot comes to some sort of resolution for both protagonists, only Meszaros goes out of her way to remind us that this closure is provisional at best, and that the women have not really overcome their alienation, only transferred it to a new register. A husband and a baby represent decisive steps, or changes; but they are not final resolutions, because real-life experiences do not end (short of death), only stories do.

Adoption, then, is an affective film much more than it is a narrative one. None of the characters is loquacious; we don’t really know what they are thinking, most of the time. But we get a powerful sense of how they feel and think, nonetheless, because so much of the film is shot in close-up. The register of the face — and sometimes other parts of the body — is our main anchoring point. There are many shots and sequences that seem suffused with feelings of tiredness, longing, anticipation, and resignation; or irresolution and, conversely decision. We never see utter desperation, and only rarely do we see happiness — there is one wonderful scene in a restaurant, where the two women bond over cigarettes, cognac and a meal, laughing together as they simply ignore the men who stare at them, or politely but firmly refuse the efforts of the men to pick them up. (This is the only sequence in the entire film where we get a conventional shot/reverse shot structure; Meszaros is very aware of the gender politics of the gaze, I presume without having read Laura Mulvey, whose “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published the same year that this film was made),


Yet Meszaros’ use of close-ups is not isolating in the way that close-ups usually are. And this relates to how the film is naturalistic, as well as melodramatic or affective. The most famous — and most radical — use of the close-up in world cinema is probably that of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, where all the shots of Falconetti’s face in extreme close-up not only emphasize the emotions she feels (or perhaps, more accurately, the waves of nearly impersonal affect — passion and ecstasy — that traverse her body and her spirit), but also serve to detach her from her surroundings (which in any case are already quite minimal), and thereby from the craven and entirely temporal judgment of those who condemn her. The close-up, here, is a gateway to transcendence — it bespeaks an affirmation of the spirit, and a radical rejection of the overbearing oppressions of the here-and-now.

Meszaros’ use of the close-up is, however, entirely different. The most common sort of shot in the film — I would almost call it Meszaros’ signature as an artist — is a moving close-up: a pan or travelling shot in extreme close-up. Dreyer’s close-ups are, of course, entirely still (which is a necessary condition for their intensity); but Meszaros’ camera is perpetually restless, even as usually stays close to emphasize the characters’ emotions. So the camera will pan from one woman’s face to the other’s, in extreme closeup — rather than either placing the two faces together in a two-shot, or isolating them via separate shots. This emphasizes a kind of dual (though generally not harmonious) subjectivity. It also connects the character to her surroundings: these are entirely fragmented, but nonetheless basic to the composition of the shots, since space is being emphasized by movement, along with the fixity of facial expression. A frequent variant of this sort of shot is one in which the faces are captured in shallow focus, while there are other objects or people, blurry and out of focus, coming in between the camera and the faces that it is contemplating with clarity. Yet another variant is where the close-up doesn’t rest exclusively on the face, but moves over different parts of the woman’s body. This happens, for instance, in a scene early in the film, where Kata sees a (male) doctor in order to make sure she is healthy enough at age 43 to have a baby. Her body (together with the hands of the doctor palpating it) seems to be extrmely fragmented, broken into separate parts — breast, arm, back — except that the camera’s movement, grasping all these separate parts without a cut, suggests rather a kind of tour of the body at very close range, something that feels disconcertingly intimate. (I’m reminded of a legendary film that I have read about but never actually seen, Yoko Ono’s Fly).


I think that Meszaros’ style emphasizes her protagonists’ closeness to one another, together with their experience of their social environment — which does not altogether determine them, since their alienation from it is precisely what gives them a sort of limited, but nonetheless actual degree of freedom — but which does limit or constrain them severely, and which is the major component of their experience, however much they would like to escape it. (Meszaros’ film is in this sense radically anti-escapist; it insists on the real experience of constraint, of unfreedom, of non-autonomy, as a necessary background to any autonomous decision or action). Rather than focus on massive social determinations, Meszaros is attentive to a whole series of micro-determinations. For all that Adoption is a kind of “domestic” drama, it emphasizes at every step the role of social institutions, from the institutions of Medicine and the Factory (both of which have their own hierarchies of command, relation, and appeal) ot the social institutions of marriage and the family (which comes up in two particularly excruciating scenes: one in which Kata visits Anna’s parents, to get their approval for Anna’s hoped-for marriage; and the other in which Joska brings Anna home to meet his wife and kids, to whom he introduces her as just his “co-worker”; while she colludes with him in keeping them totally unaware that he is having an extended affair with her) to (literal) Institutions for wayward juveniles, with their own bureaucratic structures and chains of command. But these institutional components of social life (and specifically, in Hungary of the 1970s, of socialist life) are themselves observed within the film exclusively on the micro-level, in terms of the particular experiences the protagonists have with negotiating them, the particular steps they are always compelled to take. For Meszaros it’s not a question of the global structures of socialist authority, so much as of the way this authority mobilizes, engages, demands, and produces affect.

The moving close-up is also a way of expressing intimacy; Meszaros is not just concerned with the affects within the individual, but also, and perhaps above all, with the flow of affect between individuals. Adoption is a film about transpersonal affect. It narrates, not so much a single plot, as the multiple, and subtle, shifts of affection, attention, and concern between Kata and Anna — and to a lesser extent between these two women and their men. You could call it a balance of passion, in contrast to the more commonly discerned balance of power in intimate and social relationships. Part of the uniqueness of Meszaros’ approach here is precisely that she makes us think and feel in terms of passion rather than power. Though Joska, in particular, is something of a jerk, Kata never questions her love for him, and the film doesn’t allow us to question it either. The film certainly casts a critical eye on patriarchal institutions, and demonstrates their ubiquity in the society in which Meszaros lives, and in which the film is taking place; and the film strongly suggests the importance of relationships among heterosexual women, as opposed to their relationships with men. But there is none here of the denunciation of male power per se that we find in Western feminist writing, theory, and art of the 1970s (and beyond). Instead, Meszaros displaces our concerns away from power relations altogether, and onto trickier, but no less important, terrain. She doesn’t ignore power so much as… she renders it less important than we often think, less important than other sorts of relationships, other affective dimensions. This might be thought of as the sole “utopian” dimension of a film that otherwise takes a grim look at things, seeing only continued, unpleasant constraints, and the necessity of trying to live on while adjusting to them.


Intimacy is hard in the best of circumstances, and Meszaros never lets us forget the dis-ease, the vague sense of discomfort, the troubling ambivalence that underlies any act of giving oneself over to intimacy, to an Other. This ambivalence also permeates Kata’s desire to be a mother, an emotion that a sterner feminism might want to question, but that Meszaros just gives us without explanation or psychological analysis, as a given of Kata’s condition. We are sometimes tempted to think of babies — of our children — as blank slates on which we can impose ourselves; but of course this is never actually the case, no matter whether we give birth to a child or adopt her. In fully inhabiting this dimension of experience, Adoption gives a different twist than is usually given to the truism that the personal is political. In exploring the politics of intimacy, and in understanding this politics in terms other than those of either power and domination, or liberation, Meszaros creates a new sort of film, one that I can only call (by another hopeless oxymoron) affective social realism.

Conspirators of Pleasure

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) is the first of Jan Svankmajer’s films to use live actors almost exclusively; there are only a few brief animated sequences. But as Svankmajer himself says in an interview, “I work with actors exactly as I work with inanimate objects… I use the camera to photograph them as inanimate objects.” Svankmajer’s actors, like his marionettes and his stop-motion animations, occupy a strange half-world in between life and death, vitality and impassivity, subjectivity and objectness. The characters in Conspirators of Pleasure all inhabit the realm of what Mario Perniola calls “the sex appeal of the inorganic.”

Conspirators of Pleasure doesn’t have much of a plot; rather, it documents the independent, yet intersecting, itineraries of six obsessed characters and what traditional psychology or psychoanalysis could only call their “perversions.” It is not for nothing that, in the final credits, Svankmajer acknowledges the inspiration of Sacher-Masoch, the Marquis de Sade, Sigmund Freud, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, and Bohuslav Brouk (the latter was a Czech psychoanalyst with strong surrealist ties, about whom I know nothing — there’s an account of his life and work here, but I cannot read it, as I do not know Czech). Actually, one might well add Krafft-Ebbing to this list, as Svankmajer is much more concerned with symptomatology (the cataloguing and documenting of the minutiae of “perversion”) than with diagnosis (tracking the roots, and interpreting the meanings, of “perversion” as Freud does).

In any case, the film’s six protagonists are the following. A man makes an enormous papier-mache chicken’s head, and wings derived from five broken umbrellas sewn together, wearing them in order to perform a ritual in which he abuses and eventually destroys a life-sized mannequin representing his (female) next-door neighbor. The neighbor similarly performs a ritual in which she burns religious candles at a sort of altar, while she dresses in dominatrix gear, and whips and eventally destroys a mannequin representing the man next door. The postwoman who delivers their mail chews up bread and spits it out again to make a multitude of doughballs, which she stuffs in great numbers into her nostrils and ears, cutting off her senses and giving her a sort of meditative bliss. Then she delivers the doughballs to a woman newscaster, who uses them to feed some carp; these fish are kept in a pan of water at her feet, and trained to nibble her toes, which brings her to convulsive orgasm. The shopowner, from whom the first man buys the porno magazines that he uses for his papier-mache constructions, is himself obsessed with the newscaster; he constructs a complicated machine that strokes and caresses him while he watches (and videotapes) the newscaster on an enormous screen. The newscaster’s husband, meanwhile, constructs a variety of masochistic masturbation devices from fur from women’s coats, condoms, rolling pins, nails, and other such fetish objects. He turns out to be a cop, who, at the end of the film, is investigating the deaths of the two neighbors, whose mutual rituals of destruction against one another seem to have passed over from fantasy into actuality.

Conspirators of Pleasure

As this brief summary indicates, there are all sorts of links between the films’ six “conspirators.” But these links are all fortuitous ones. The two neighbors, united in mutual hatred, do not speak; neither do the cop husband and newscaster wife, whom at one point we see lying in bed together, not touching, until he gets up and goes to his workshop to tinker with his devices. Indeed, the absence of communication is emphasized by the fact that there is no dialogue whatsoever in the entire film. (There are lots of — often exaggeraded — ambient sound effects, and classical-music themes for each of the six main characters). Instead, we get — at most — knowing glances between them. The magazine vendor winks at the chicken-man, until the latter gets embarrassed and pays for his magazines, rushing out of the store without waiting to get his change. The newscaster wife weeps as she glances through the blinds at her cop husband’s workshop. The chicken man and the postwoman exchange looks as they accidentally bump into one another in the street.

Against these half-acknowledged looks, there are the furtive glances with which the conspirators check everything out around them, to make sure that nobody sees them indulging in their secret pleasures. For though these six characters are connected in various ways, to the extent that it seems that each of their perversions depends upon one of the others, or on other people more generally, nonetheless they are each alone. Their pleasures are all solitary and masturbatory. Even the newscaster, whose orgasm is (it seems — but this may only be a seeming) broadcast live on television for all the world to see, iis careful to hide her feet and the basin in which the carp are biting them. Each character, you might say, is like a Leibnizian monad, completely self-enclosed, without windows or doors, yet nevertheless in hidden, implicit communication with the entire universe. Svankmajer proposes a strange new sort of social bond, one that is irreducible either to Communist solidarity and communitarianism, or to capitalist atomism. There is no common interest, no togetherness; but also no competition of rationally calculating, autonomous individuals in the marketplace, and no Hobbesian war of all against all. Everything is irreducibly particular; but all these particularities are incomplete and uncontained, not to mention too compulsive and too partial to be recuperated as attributes of a “self.” We are faced, instead, with something like Agamben’s coming community, or Jean-Luc Nancy’s inoperative community, or Maurice Blanchot’s unavowable community — or better, to the common source of all these three, Georges Bataille’s “community of those who have no community.” The social bond is oblique and forever incomplete; it is embodied, not but public rituals and shows of empathy or solidarity, but precisely by the odd conjunction of private rituals, selfish passions, compulsions that can never be confessed, and that are characterized by shame and embarrassment as much as by orgasmic release.

Conspirators of Pleasure

Svankmajer’s formal strategy itself expresses these concerns. In one sense, the film is a deeply affective one: there are lots of close-ups, emphasizing the conspirators’ emotions. which range from furtive uneasiness to orgasmic release. But — contrary to the usual implications of cinematic syntax — these close-ups never lead to any sort of identification with the characters. This is partly because these characters’ practices are too singular, too compulsive, too intricately weird, in short too distant from common experience (or at least from any experiences that we are accustomed to avow in public, and see depicted on our screens) to allow for the usual sort of identification. It is also because, despite these close-ups, the characters do not really share their experiences with the camera — much of the time, they are masked as they perform their private rituals, or else they literally hide in the closet — diegetically away from any potentially prying eyes, and extra-diegetically away from the prying eye of the camera — at crucial moments in their process of self-gratification. And then, in addition, because Svankmajer tends so much to fragment space, and bodies, with closeups of hands and eyes and so on, as well as physical objects, that even these close-ups of emotional expressions in the face read more like exploded fragments than like points of concentration. This is one way in which Svankmajer indeed treats his actors in the same way as he does inanimate objects.

Throughout the film, there is an extreme emphasis upon construction and process: Svankmajer doesn’t just show us how his conspirators’ rituals of pleasure work, he also shows us — very materialistically — how the physical objects that enable these rituals are put together We really get to know the papier-mache chicken mask, the masochistic pleasure/pain brushes and rollers, circuit between bodily stimulator and video screen, and so on, because the film shows us in such careful detail how the materials for these instruments are obtained, broken down, repurposed, and put together in new combinations thanks to meticulous and lengthy handiwork (or, in the case of the postal worker, mouthwork). Finally, Conspirators of Pleasure is largely about machines: by which I mean, not industrial machines, but the conspirators’ ramshackle constructions. These are literally machines, but in the sense of the surrealist constructions of the first third of the twentieth century, or in the sense of Rube Goldberg machines, or in the sense defined by Deleuze and Guattari, for whom a machine is a concatenation of heterogeneous elements that interact precisely by virtue of their diversity, disconnectedness, and dysfunctionality. And the conspirators themselves are also parts or components of these machines that they have constructed, rather than fully active subjects who simply use the machines instrumentally. Their orgasms are functions of the machine, parts of its functioning, rather than autonomous ends for which the machines would be simple means. This is why they are Perniola’s “things that feel” rather than Kantian/existentialist moral subjects. Orgasms are not outpourings of the erotic body/soul, but convulsions inherent to the depths of inorganic matter.

In Svankmajer’s vision, the human cannot be separated from the machine, and inner desires cannot be separated from their physical instantiations. There is no “human spirit,” but only an intensive, affective materiality. And there are no wholes or unities, but only parts: units or components that are incomplete in themselves, always requiring conjunctions and collisions and ruptures with other parts, so that the combination of these parts is itself always incomplete, always an ongoing process without conclusion. Nothing is self-contained, “no man is an island”; yet there is also no communion, no higher community, no totality. Rather than pathologize the “perversions” that his camera so coolly tracks and records, Svankmajer suggests that there is no “normality,” no desire, no conjunction of bodies –whether organic or inorganic — that is not singular, contingent, fleeting, and disruptive: in a word, “perverse.”

Lauren Berlant

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Friday, February 16, 3pm
English Dept Conference Room (10302, 5057 Woodward)
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan

Lauren Berlant:
“On the Desire to be Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Professor of English and Director of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Project at the University of Chicago. She is author of The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (1991), The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997), and the forthcoming The Female Complaint: the Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008). She has also edited a number of volumes, including Intimacy (2000), Our Monica, Ourselves (2001), Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (2004), and the forthcoming On the Case (2007). This talk comes from her manuscript, Cruel Optimism.

The Witness

Friday, February 9th, 2007

Peter Bacso’s The Witness is a comedy about Stalinism, oxymoronic as such a description might sound. The film was made in 1969, but immediately banned by the Communist government of Hungary, and only released in 1981. The film is apparently famous and widely popular in Hungary, but it is not very well known elsewhere. The American DVD is marred by missing subtitles in a few scenes, though for the most part my class and I were able to keep track of what was going on.

In terms of form, The Witness is a thoroughly mainstream film, skillfully directed, but in no respect avant-garde or experimental. This, in fact, is part of the film’s interest. For one thing, it is what allowed The Witness to gain its massive popularity at home. For another, usually in the US (and, I imagine, more generally in “the West”) we generally only get to see art films from Communist Eastern Europe. As far as I know, there was a massive popular film industry in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary; but almost none of these films are available subtitled in English, and on VHS or DVD. (All I know about Communist popular cinema comes from the wonderful 1997 documentary East Side Story).

So an additional benefit of seeing The Witness is that it gives us a sense of the stylistics of Communist Eastern European popular film: and in fact, this stylistics seems very close to its Hollywood counterpart. The Witness is in color and wide screen. Its production values are a bit more modest than those of standard Hollywood films of the same period. But its invisible editing style is entirely familiar (Bacso favors broad shots, and expression through mise en scene more than through montage — but not any more so than was typically the case in Hollywood from the 1950s until the innovations of the “New Hollywood”). And Bacso works his sight gags pretty much the same way as Hollywood studio comedy of the time did. (Though, alas, there is nothing as visually outlandish as some of the things we get in Frank Tashlin’s or Jerry Lewis’ comedies).

Anyway, what distinguishes The Witness is of course its political content, of a sort that one simply doesn’t find in American comedy (nor, I would imagine in the great mass of popular films produced in Eastern Europe prior to 1989). The film is set in the Rakosi era (Rakosi was the dictator of Hungary from 1948 to 1956; his regime was known as the most hard-line Stalinist and repressive of any in Eastern Europe). The comic protagonist, Jozsef Pelikan, is a hapless fool, a bit along the lines of the protagonist of Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck. Pelikan is a naive, earnest, and loyal Communist, basically honest, and just wanting to do what is asked of him. Of course, his enthusiasm and “overidentification” get him in trouble time and time again. He starts out as a dike keeper on the Danube, striving to stop the river from overflowing, and also to keep his dog from pissing on the flower bed where the flowers are arranged to spell out a message of dedication to the Leader. But he keeps on getting promoted to higher positions, with greater responsibilities. Each time, he messes up in some way, and is sent to jail. But he is always released and given a yet better job. It turns out that he is being groomed to testify in a show trial against a friend of his, a former government minister, who has been purged from the Party and accused of being a spy in the pay of the fascists and imperialists.

The Witness

The rhetoric of the Communist regime is one of the main targets of Bacso’s satire. The film features such incidents as the successful growing of the “Hungarian orange” (though one of Pelikan’s children eats it, and it has to be replaced with a lemon) which will make the imperialists quake in their boots; and the socialist amusement park, where the haunted house terrifies visitors with its vision of the Communist specter that is haunting Europe. Or again, firemen arrive hours too late to put out a fire — the house has already completely burned down — and explain that they couldn’t have arrived any earlier, because they were conducting an investigation to make sure that the report of the fire was real, and not an imperialist provocation.

When Pelikan is rehearsing the testimony he is supposed to give against his old friend, he meets (among other “helpers”) a speech therapist who uses what are basically Method Acting techniques to try to get him to take on the role of an honest, indignant worker, and a hard-drinking scriptwriter who never wants to repeat himself, and is very proud of producing confessions and testimony that are free of cliche (because they are filled with accusations so absurd that nobody has ever thought of them before).

The whole movie is filled with a twisted logic worthy of Lewis Carroll (“verdict first, trial afterwards”) and Groucho Marx (“who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”), but which sounds familiar even to me as classic Stalinist bureaucratese, and must have been totally recognizable to the original Hungarian audience. Pelikan provides the perfect foil, as he patiently tries to understand, for instance, just how it could have been that, when he thought he saw his friend the ex-Minister fishing on the river bank, the ex-Minister was really sending secret, treasonous messages to fascist frogmen.

The most interesting character in the film, aside from Pelikan himself, is his Party contact, the creepy Comrade Virag (Lajos Oze). Virag is a bit like a vampire, effete and neurasthenic, and continually manipulating Pelikan through an amazing (and no doubt carefully calculated) combination of seeming self-pity, an excessive assumption of intimacy and familiarity, continual pleading and wheedling, and subtle threats. It’s Virag who plies Pelikan with delicious morsels only available to the Party elite, Virag who bombards Pelikan with the Groucho-esque argument that he should believe the Party in preference to his own memories, and Virag who puts on an act of suicidal despondency over the fact that Pelikan has let him down (by not wanting to testify).

The testimony, when Pelikan finally gets to it, is of course another disaster. Despite his loyalty and eagerness to please, Pelikan simply cannot believe the contorted tale that he is supposed to be telling. He really loses it when he meets, in the courtroom, a former secret policeman under the wartime fascist regime, who had tortured him back then, but who is now being rehabilitated for the service of testifying that the Communist ex-Minister on trial was indeed a fascist collaborator.

From there we get a telescoped conclusion — Pelikan is on death row, but he learns he is pardoned just as his execution is about to take place. The film then jumps via a brief montage sequence from 1951 to the present (1969, when the film was made), a time of greater prosperity and less paranoia. This being a comedy, it turns out that nobody was actually executed — which means that the film ends up pulling its punches a bit, I suppose. But the main point, about Stalinism’s surreal and paranoid logic remains intact. (Apparently Bacso made a sequel in 1994, satirizing the capitalist logic that by that time had entirely replaced the former Communist one in Hungary. But this, like so many other Eastern European films, is unavailable in the US).

The rhetoric of Stalinism, and more generally of “actually existing socialism” before 1989, is quite different from the rhetoric of fascism, or for that matter from the hypocritical and falsifying rhetoric that is deployed for various nefarious purposes (cf. Bush and company) in our capitalist-liberal-democratic societies. Though I’ve cited Lewis Carroll and Groucho Marx in comparison — and I could have cited Kafka as well, of course, who is so over-cited in situations like this that to do so verges on cliche — what The Witness really captures is the specificity of socialist/bureaucratic discourse, the ways that it is tied in both to surveillance (there are several scenes where the secret police come to Pelikan’s house to investigate rumors — which are in fact true — that he has illicitly slaughtered a pig) and spectacle (the show trial, the celebration of the “Hungarian orange”) of a particular sort — one that is quite different from the “war on terror”, the “society of the spectacle”, and the reign of the commodity as we experience them today in America (and at this point, I imagine, in Hungary as well). The Witness is brilliant in the way it communicates this specificity and (for us) unfamiliarity through a form that in itself is entirely familiar and accessible.