Archive for August, 2007

Go Go Tales

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales is both sweet and exhilarating. It’s almost Ferrara’s version of a Capraesque 1930s comedy, a pomo update of one of those films that was designed to make people feel good despite the Great Depression. It even risks a kind of old-fashioned corniness: since its theme is that, if you hold on and follow your dreams, there is always hope. And Ferrara pulls it off, with a panache that is all his own, but also with a kind of warm-hearted sincerity and sense of conviction reminiscent of the old movies: something that Hollywood today is utterly incapable of, being way too cynical, and way too driven by market research and special effects. Of course, nobody would confuse Go Go Tales with the old Hollywood, not when it is set entirely in a strip joint, and when it includes such scenes as the (already notorious) striptease by Asia Argento, in the course of which she French-kisses her Rottweiler.

Willem Dafoe stars as Ray Ruby, the proprietor of a strip club, and an obsessive gambler who blows all his money on the lottery. He’s beset by, among others: a landlady (Sylvia Miles, absolutely hilarious) who wants her back rent, but also threatens to close Ray down in order to rent out the space to Bed, Baths, and Beyond; a jealous medical student who has just discovered that his wife is one of the dancers; the dancers themselves, who are mad that Ray has fallen behind on paying them their wages; Ray’s brother Johnie (Matthew Modine) a successful hairdresser from Staten Island, who is tired of bankrolling Ray’s money-losing club; and many others. The film has almost no plot; Ray wins the lottery early on in the film, but then spends the rest of it looking frantically for the winning ticket, which he has somehow misplaced. Meanwhile we get a series of acts and vignettes, with various dancers, customers, sleazeballs and wise guys and befudddled passers-by. Pras from the Fugees plays the club’s chef, who is mad that Asia Argento’s Rottweiler has gone after his gourmet organic hot dogs; Bob Hoskins lurks around, as one of Ray’s tough-guy associates and general-purpose fixer and bouncer; and so on and so on.

So the film is really a frantic, never-ending series of vignettes, some of them things that are happening to, or between, the characters, and some of them explicitly presented as stage acts, the female dancers writhing alluringly for the benefit of the male customers (who are allowed to watch but not to touch, and who are never seen jerking off, but only sticking twenties (or hundreds?) into the waistbands of the dancers’ thongs. Ferrara has long been obsessed with strippers, who appear in many of his films (e.g., Fear City, Blackout, etc.), and with sex-as-exhibitionist display (e.g. Bad Lieutenant, in which Harvey Keitel does jerk off to an exhibitionist act he has coerced from a teenage girl, and New Rose Hotel), but here that whole obsession no longer feels sordid (or sinful, given the lapsed-Catholic twist of Ferrara’s obsession) — instead, it has been sublimated, beautified, so that both Dafoe’s character, and Ferrara himself via the camera, simply seem to be (respectfully, if you can believe that) worshipping beautiful women’s flesh.

In an odd way, I wouldn’t even call Go Go Tales voyeuristic, because the camera doesn’t isolate the dancers or their acts, but lovingly pans over them in the course of its restless, almost ADD-fueled (or cocaine-fueled?), explorations of the space of Ray Ruby’s Paradise. The dancers embody the little fantasies of the male clientele, but these dancers also have their own little fantasies, as is accentuated in the last part of the film, when the club is shut down and converted to a (non-sexual) cabaret, so that the “girls” (and Johnie as well) have the opportunity to express themselves artistically in ways that will hopefully (but obviously won’t really) appeal to the talent scouts and agents who are ostensibly (but not actually) in the audience. The club is an incubator of wishful fantasies — and as a whole, it is Ray Ruby’s fantasy of succeeding in the “business” by having a “joint” of his own — even though he is evidently clueless about how to attract an audience, let alone about holding on to his money instead of gambling it away. The club really is a paradise — one whose potential loss hovers movingly over the entire film — because of the way that it is a space of vicarious fantasy and redemption: not exactly a space of actual happiness, but certainly one of “the promise of happiness” (in precisely the terms of Stendhal’s famous quote: “La beaute n’est que la promesse de bonheur”). In so beautifully embodying this promise, the film as a whole (and Ray’s Paradise within it) implicitly expresses a whole theory of fantasy and desire — a theory that is quite different from the Freudian/Lacanian one with which we are familiar.

But I need to say more about the camera. As is always the case in Ferrara’s films — and as almost nobody seems to understand — the real libidinal force of the movie lies, less in the (often sleazy, and here somewhat de-sleazified, but still, let us say, “provocative”) content, than it does in the force field of intensities created by set design, lighting, and especially camera movement. Some of Ferrara’s films have an astringent visual austerity (I would put The Addiction and R-Xmas in this category), but many of them, including Go Go Tales, are lush and absorbing. Go Go Tales has only one location — the club itself, constructed in Rome on a Cinecitta sound stage — but the set is as alluring as anything in Fellini. Relative dimness, with relatively garish neon lights. The entire screen is split or multiplied into zones and patterns of garish, yet also dampened, color (is there a word to express what I want here? something like the equivalent for color film of what chiaroscuro is for black and white). There are also lost of shots mediated through video screens, or having the graininess of surveillance video footage. The camera roves restlessly through the space, usually gliding horizontally back and forth, in shallow focus, so that only one or some of the performers whose bodies are panned over appear clearly, while everything in another plane, either closer to or further from the camera, is blurred. Also, very often the camera is at not-quite-close-up distance: so that the pan passes over just a head, or just a torso, or just the feet, but there is always additional space to the left or right in the rectangle of the frame — it is rare (except at special climactic moments) to get either a distant shot that conveys a sense of the entire space, or a close-up that emphasizes the head, or head and upper torso, of a single character centered in the frame. The result is not a fragmentation of the body, so much as it is a melding of body and space, so that the bodies of the dancers, especially, seem to emerge out of the space of garish light and deep shadow, as if their glitter-sprinkled flesh were a sort of congelation of the club’s atmosphere itself. (The very fact of shallow focus and plane of obscurity only heightens this sense of congelation). The camerawork itself is what I can only call low-key ecstatic, never peaking to an orgasmic climax, but continually building intensity, alluring, seducing, expressing a desire that is not frustrated by its unfulfillment, but whose enjoyment is precisely its own teasing elaboration and elongation.

The acting is great, Dafoe and many others bundling life and energy into what, in other circumstances, could easily have been cornball roles. You can see how Dafoe/Ray is both a huckster and utterly sincere, whenever he makes one of his speeches about how he cares for his employees, how the club is “family,” and so on and so forth. In one scene, two of the dancers, evidently a couple, come in to Ray’s office to announce that one of them is pregnant and will not be able to dance for a while — but saying that nonetheless, in order to get by, they need for her to be paid during her time off. Ray is all solicitude and reassurance and caring while he talks with them; then he explodes into curses once they have left — this is yet another expense that he cannot afford when the club is about to go under. Yet, even though the solicitude is so evidently a shtick, it comes off with the sense that Ray actually means it. He’s sincere, even though, or precisely because, he is an actor. In the old Hollywood show biz sense, putting on a show is as “real” as anything else, and enaction makes the act genuine.

There’s also the scene where Dafoe/Ray is assuring Pras’ character that he enjoys his gourmet organic hot dogs. He takes a bit off a tray and sticks it in his mouth. Pras, a bit alarmed, says that these are the ones he hasn’t cooked yet; Dafoe continues to chew, assuring Pras all the while that his hot dogs are so good that they are even good raw, they are the “sushi of hot dogs,” etc. — even as the look on his face indicates how distasteful and indigestible this raw meat is. Ray is lying when he says that the morsel tastes good, but his desire to ingratiate, to reassure, to seduce and soothe both his workers and his clientele, is itself unfeigned. There’s an implicit theory of acting, simulation, becoming through performance here, alongside the implicit theory of fantasy and desire. To feign an affect is to put it on, to enter into it, and thereby to render it “true.”

The ending of Go Go Tales is magnificent, as we get (for once) a classical medium close-up on Dafoe as he gives a long, inspirational speech, confessing his errors, pleading for another chance, defiantly insisting that he will not give up his dreams (or give way on his desire) etc. — and finally, at the very last moment, finding the winning lottery ticket in a pocket of his “lucky jacket” that has just been returned to him from the cleaners. Dafoe’s speech is as wonderful as any of the orations Jimmy Stewart delivered for Frank Capra, with that same combination of hysteria, hokeyness, and yet passional intensity proving its assertions by the very fact of their enactment. Several reviews I have read have compared Go Go Tales to Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie; I am inclined to say that Ferrara’s film somehow combines the acting theories, or acting-effects of Capra and Cassavetes, weird a conjunction as that sounds.

I was fortunate enough to see the “international premiere” (i.e. the first public screening aside from Cannes) of Go Go Tales at the Montreal World Film Festival. Ferrara himself was in attendance. Introduced before the film, he looked out over the auditorium (in which there were many empty seats) and said, “Every empty seat is a knife in the heart of the director.” Afterwards, taking questions from the audience, Ferrara was somehow both relaxed and hyper, informative but also very funny. He seemed both aware of his own achievement as a director, and having come to terms with the fact that he will never receive the recognition he deserves as a director. At this point, I think that Ferrara has created a more powerful, and also (despite his obsessiveness) more varied body of work than even Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee, let alone others of his American contemporaries. But he is probably too on the edge, with too anarchic and obsessive (even if these terms seem contradictory to one another) an imagination, to ever transcend his (merely) cult following. Yet this is one “cult” I am happy to be a member of.

Another Chapter

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

I have finally finished another chapter of the Whitehead book — the one I had been hoping to finish in July. Here it is. (Once again, consumer warning: unrevised state, probably contains errors and lamenesses that will have to be attended to eventually).

For a bunch of the other chapters, plus additional published or unpublished work, go here.

Spook Country

Monday, August 6th, 2007

Some notes on William Gibson’s new novel, Spook Country:

“The door opened like some disturbing hybrid of bank vault and Armani evening purse, perfectly balanced bombproof solidity meeting sheer cosmetic slickness.” William Gibson’s prose is cool and precise: minimal, low-affect, attuned to surfaces rather than depths. It’s overwrought, filled to bursting with similes and allusions; yet somehow it still manages to feel as if it had been executed skeletally, entirely without flourishes. There’s a sense of density built up in layers, but packaged inside a bland and featureless box; this writing is like a nondescript cargo container (one of the book’s main images) filled with everything from expensive brand names, hi-tech geekery, and the detritus of popular culture to micro-perceptions of psychological shifts that take place just beneath the threshold of conscious attention.

At times, the effect of this prose is one of deadpan absurdity, as when townhouses in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. are described as radiating “the sense that Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren would have been hard at work on interiors, together at last, sheathing inherently superior surfaces under hand-rubbed coats of golden beeswax.” At other times, it’s surreally dislocating, as when one of the protagonists is startled by the actions of her companion, so that “for an instant she imagined him as a character in some graphically simplified animation.” At still other times, it’s slyly mordant, as when one character is described as looking “like someone who’d be invited quail-shooting with the vice president, though too careful to get himself shot.”

But most of the time, Gibson’s prose is just a little bit spooky, dislocated, and unbalanced. Some details stand out disconcertingly, like the teeth of one character, “presented with billboard clarity” when he smiles. Other details are blurred out by distance; or better, they are muffled like when you’re addicted to downers, as one of the three main protagonists, Milgrim, actually is. Milgrim thinks of his drug-cushioned perception as being like “one of the more esoteric effects of eating exceptionally hot Szechuan… that sensation, strangely delightful, of drinking cold water on top of serious pepper-burn — how the water filled your mouth entirely, but somehow without touching it, like a molecule-thick silver membrane of Chinese antimatter, like a spell, some kind of magic insulation.”

Gibson’s prose style is his way of perceiving, and presenting, the world. And the world he presents is the one we live in today: a postmodern world of globalized flows of money and information, driven by sophisticated technologies whose effects are nearly indistinguishable from magic, saturated by advertising and by conspicuous consumption run amok, undergirded by murky conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, and regulated by nearly ubiquitous forms of surveillance. Distant points are closely connected, as if space had been altogether abolished; so that when Hollis, another major protagonist, in Los Angeles, talks on her mobile phone with a friend in Argentina, she is startled by “a true, absolute and digital silence” on the line, “devoid of that random background sizzle that she’d once taken as much for granted during an international call as she took the sky overhead when she was outside.”

At the same time that everything is global, specific localities become ever more important. Spook Country is centrally concerned with GPS tracking, and how it creates a “grid” so that every point on the earth’s surface can be monitored and distinguished. There is also a lot about “locative art”: which means site-specific multimedia installations that only exist virtually, and that can only be accessed by wearing a virtual-reality helmet with a WiFi connection, so that you see spectral 3D images (bodies, furniture, architecture) overlaying actual physical locations. Both GPS and locative art give new meaning to the local; and emphasize the point that, in our globalized world, every particular site is unique, not to be confounded with anyplace else.

William Gibson, of course, is best known as a science fiction writer. His 1984 novel Neuromancer was the seminal work of so-called “cyberpunk” SF, as well as the book that invented the word “cyberspace,” and influenced a whole generation of software engineers, who mistook its dystopian visions as the epitome of cool. But Spook Country is Gibson’s second book — after Pattern Recognition (2003) — to be set in the present moment instead of the future. (The narrative of Spook Country takes place in February 2006). Evidently Gibson wants to suggest that the actual world today is science-fictional enough as not to require fictive extrapolation. The technology that we used to think of as startling and different is increasingly being woven into the texture of our everyday lives. One of the characters in Spook Country even says that “cyberspace” is now an outmoded term. “It was a way we had of looking where we were headed, a direction.” But now, “we’re here. This is the other side of the screen. Right here… We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it.”

I’ve been writing about Gibson’s prose, and how it embodies a view of the world. But of course, Spook Country is also a genre novel: a high-tech thriller, or a “caper” story, to be precise. The title refers both to the spookiness of virtual reality and advertising simulacra, and to “spooks” meaning spies or secret agents. The story concerns — not to give away the plot — a cargo container, with mysterious contents, which is “of interest” to a variety of feuding CIA (or ex-CIA) factions, as well as to advertising entrepreneurs and elements of the underworld. The novel is carefully and elegantly plotted, and all the characters and plot strands come together in an action climax that provides some unexpected twists, while resolving questions about the nature of the cargo and of the various parties’ interest in it.

And yet, the slick narrative that I am describing is to a very large extent beside the point. It almost tends to dissolve, or to have its outline blurred, amidst the welter of details of which it is made up. And by the end of the book it somehow loses importance — it all turns out to be rather mundane, and of limited relevance to anybody. The illegal caper that the whole narrative has prepared us for is just a kind of high-tech, super-secret “prank” (as one of the characters comes to think of it), rather than an exploit that will make anyone fabulously rich, or that possesses any wide political significance. In our world of spooks and surveillance, there are conspiracies aplenty — but none of them seems to come to much of anything.

This odd sense of anticlimax and disillusionment is, I think, the greatest accomplishment of Spook Country. The novel moves us through a series of muted excitements and muted anxieties, to an endpoint of (relative) equilibrium. What are we left with? In the final pages of the novel, the former singer of a defunct post-punk band with a cult following is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to “sell out” (for a suitably high fee, of course) and allow one of her songs to be used in a car commercial, so that it may become “a theme, an anthem, of postmodern branding.” The erstwhile avant garde returns to business as usual. And Spook Country gives us an uncomfortably lucid glimpse of just those aspects of our hypermediated lives that we generally do not notice, because we take them so much for granted.

Antonioni

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

I’ve always felt that the people who describe Antonioni’s movies as being about ennui, anomie, and alienation are… not wrong, exactly, but largely missing the point. The point being that Antonioni’s movies, above all, are about seeing and feeling the world, about the look of things — including when those things seem to look back, or when they seem to look through us, to ignore us. There are so many scenes that continue to haunt me, years after I last saw them: some shots of the volcanic islands in L’Avventura, where the woman disappears; the final sequence of that same movie, in which Monica Vitti strokes the male lead’s hair, forgiving him (perhaps), despite the fact that he has been unfaithful to her, and has proved himself to be a worthless cad. There’s the scene of panic at the stock exchange, in L’eclisse, and of course the (justly) famous final sequence of that film, the montage of an entirely deserted city, scenes of the rendezvous to which neither of the troubled lovers managed, or was willing, to show up.

Of course, Antonioni is especially great at endings. There’s also the long travelling shot that ends The Passenger, moving out of Jack Nicholson’s hotel room onto and through a largely deserted square, baking in the hot sun, then eventually back into the hotel room to find Nicholson’s corpse. And above all, perhaps, there’s the ending of Zabriskie Point, with that hideous house in the desert exploding again and again, and all those commodities floating through the sky, slowly floating, to the unworldly music of Pink Floyd, until Daria leaves, and it blends into a pure colorism of the desert.

And so much more. There are scenes that I cannot even place — I will have to watch all those films again: deserted squares with the sun beating down (someplace in the trilogy, as well as in The Passenger). Even in Blow Up, which is sometimes deprecated, because it is Antonioni’s most “pop” movie, as well as his most popular one at the box office, there are astonishing visions, and not necessarily the most obvious ones: like the scene where Jeff Beck is playing in a club, and he wrecks his guitar and throws it into the crowd, and David Hemmings struggles against all the other fans in order to grab it; and finally, after he gets it, he exits the club and throws it down (negligently? disgustedly? I can’t quite remember) into the trash. Or that other scene, near the end, where Hemmings is at a party, he smokes a joint (I think?) with Verushka, in any case he is too stoned, too tired, too worn out to care any more… Not to mention the exploitation scene, in the middle, with the nude cavorting models…

I may not be remembering these scenes quite accurately; it’s too long since I last watched any of them. But even if I have distorted them in my mind, the very fact that I am groping after them like this, that they have the sort of insistence they do in my memory, and that my remembrance of them, however inexact, stirs up all sorts of emotional currents, is a testimony to how visionary a filmmaker Antonioni was — meaning this word in the literal sense of ‘having visions’ as well as in the sense of an obsession with the visual, with the visible (and the invisible), with “the surface of the world” (to quote the subtitle of Seymour Chatman’s 1985 book on Antonioni). Antonioni shows us the world — sometimes the “natural” world, but more often the human-built world, including the human beings who are figures in that world — as we scarcely ever see it: he shows us the world as image, the world retreated into its image, the world “made image” (in precisely the way that the Word is “made flesh”). Which is why one gets the vertiginous sense, watching Antonioni’s films that what we are seeing is not the least bit objective, since everything we see is inflected, affected, by the characters’ catastrophic subjectivity, by their narcissism, their neuroticism, their (yes) ennui and anomie; and yet, at the very same time , that what we are seeing is entirely separate from human subjectivity, that in fact we are seeing inhumanly, from an entirely alien sensibility, as if the camera were a being from another planet, for whom human behavior is as distant and enigmatic as insect behavior is for us. It’s the impossible combination of a subjectivity so excessive as to be sick unto death, and an inhuman distance so great as to defy explication, that makes Antonioni’s films so compellingly enigmatic, so alluring for their surfaces or their look.

Antonioni’s movies are also about time, about how time passes, about the feeling of duration. As Bergson said, you have to wait for the sugar to dissolve in your tea; it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Antonioni’s films are about waiting; the wait can be for something as trivial as sugar dissolving, or for something as momentous as death. But in any case, Antonioni captures this waiting, the way that (as Kant, Bergson, Proust, and Husserl all say) time passing is the very essence of our interiority (or of what we are perhaps too ready and eager to claim as an “inner life”): Antonioni captures this, in its misery and splendor, more accurately and more fully than any other film director (except possibly Chantal Akerman) has ever done. I think that his ability to plumb the depths of time — which like vision, is both deeply subjective and deeply inhuman, in his treatment of it — is why Antonioni has so often been taken to be either boring (which he never is for me) or about boredom and ennui (which I think he is only in a very limited and derivative sense).

Antonioni is also — paradoxical as this may sound — a great poet of the body. As Deleuze says, Antonioni is very largely about “the immense tiredness of the body”, as well as other “attitudes or postures of the body.” In these attitudes or postures, Antonioni portrays “no longer experience, but ‘what remains of past experiences’, ‘what comes afterwards, when everything has been said’.” (Cinema 2, page 189). Antonioni gives us the vision of what is stirring when nothing has yet appeared, and of what remains when everything is gone: and this vision is embedded in the flesh, or at least in a certain sort of flesh, in attitudes and postures which are devoid of consciousness, and perhaps entirely inaccessible to thought. That is to say, Antonioni is a poet of the body, because he shows us what cannot be said, captures on screen what the body feels but does not know. It’s there mostly despairingly, in some of the scenes that I have already mentioned — like the ending of L’Avventura, or the pot-smoking party in Blow-Up; but also — if rarely — ecstatically, like the moment in Zabriskie Point when the protagonists are making love in the desert, and then, in a long shot, they are multiplied, a whole army (?!) of lovers stretching as far as the eye (or the camera) can see.

In all these ways, Antonioni gives us his own, highly original and unusual, inflection of modernism. The combination of ravishing (if severe) visual beauty and an underlying despair is, of course, very much a familiar modernist stance or trope. But Antonioni gives it a particular inflection, through the ways his characters are absorbed into a landscape (usually not a “natural” one) that changes them even as it reflects them: both expresses them and absorbs and digests them. The relation between human figures, and the spaces they inhabit (or feel uncomfortable in, and in that sense fail to fully inhabit) is a unique one in Antonioni’s films, and I am not sure I have adequate words for it.

But it’s here that I can best raise the question of the politics of Antonioni’s films. The Italian trilogy (or tetralogy, if you include Red Desert — and one might also group with them their later echo in Identification of a Woman) does indeed focus on rich, or at least haut-bourgeois, characters who haven’t a care in the world financially (despite that stock market panic in L’eclisse), but who suffer from loneliness, from an inability to connect with other people except on the most superficial level, and from — not frustration so much as anhedonia, an inability to take pleasure, and also (more deeply) an inability even to have the desires whose unfulfillment might lead to frustration. Often these characters are women; Antonioni treats them with considerable sympathy, even if he objectifies them sexually at the same time.

One common criticism of Antonioni is that any leftist critique of the privileged classes that he might have is subverted by the way he glamorizes these protagonists and their money-fueled lifestyles. But I think this objection is misguided. Antonioni’s films work as critiques of class relations, and of gender relations, precisely because they don’t at all moralize (and also because they don’t portray any working class alternatives to the lives of the bourgeoisie, in the manner of the neorealist films that Antonioni was reacting against). Rather, these films draw us into a paralysis, which we as viewers share with the characters whom we are watching on screen. This paralysis is the absurd consequence of what happens when class domination and gender stratification are pushed to the extreme points that they are in a certain sort of (medium-late) capitalist society. The characters’ neuroticism, their narcissism, their sterility, is the rigorous ‘subjective’ consequence of an ‘objective’ regime of accumulation for its own sake.

But this paralysis, is also, and as it were in spite of itself, a precondition for aesthetic rapture. Paralysis is Kantian “disinterest”; it is also what Deleuze — describing the neorealism that Antonioni is both the heir to and the rebel against — calls “pure optical and sound situations,” in which the sensori-motor linkages of “ordinary” perception are ruptured (see Cinema 2, pages 3-6). Antonioni’s characters don’t experience aesthetic bliss; but their paralysis is the precondition for the bliss that Antonioni, and his films’ spectators, are able to feel. As Deleuze also says, “the old curse which undermines the cinema” is that “time is money,” and that “there is not, and there never will be, equivalence in the mutual camera-money exchange.” (Cinema 2, page 77-78). Unequal exchange, the extraction of a surplus even when there is formal equivalence of the items exchanged: this capitalist logic is at the heart both of the neuroses of Antonioni’s characters, and of the delirious aestheticism that serves as an always-unequal counterpart, or counter-payment for those neuroses.

The situation is a bit different in Antonioni’s English-language films, where the paralyzed voyeur-characters are photographers (Blow-Up) or journalists (The Passenger), or even would-be radicals (Zabriskie Point who try (unsuccessfully) to escape the logic of equivalence/surplus/paralysis that is inscribed into the logic of capitalist society. I’m aware that a lot more needs to be said about Antonioni’s ambiguous treatment, in these films, of what Deleuze and Guattari call “lines of flight” or (when they are not successful, as is generally the case in Antonioni’s films) “lines of abolition.” More needs to be said, as well, about how gender relations (in addition to class relations) factor in here. But I think my general point stands — about how Antonioni’s aestheticism is both consciously inscribed within, and also mobilized against, the unacceptable social relations that remain Antonioni’s starting point.

I still haven’t said anything about my favorite Antonioni film — or at least the one that I have seen most often, and with which I am most familiar: Red Desert (1964). This was Antonioni’s first film in color, and its scenes of belching factory smoke, and overall muted, depressive palette, are unforgettable. These hideous colors are only accented by their contrast with the one fantasy sequence, the story Monica Vitti tells her son about a paradisaical beach: here the lighting and the colors are excessively bright and clear, too much so, with the airbrushed perfection of the most expensive advertising. This is the bourgeois vision of beauty as compensation and escape, as unrealizable ideal: Antonioni shows it to be only the flip side of the industrial pollution that dominates the rest of the film. Antonioni’s own aestheticism resides, rather, in the waste and pollution itself. I think of his use of the color red, as in the scene in the cabin, where Vitti tries (unsuccessfully) to transform herself into orgy mode; and also the scene in the hotel room, her tryst with the engineer, where the wall subtly changes color behind them as they writhe on the bed. Related to that, in turn, though with a different palette, is the scene in the ship yard, at night, where Vitti wandering alone is briefly propositioned by a foreign sailor: not speaking Italian, he tells her, in English, “I’ll love you, I’ll love you,” as she passes by. It’s a scene that could be an epigraph for all of Antonioni’s movies, with their pain and blocked eroticism, and with the force of the disinterest by means of which Antonioni transfigures them.

I will stop here, though I feel I could ramble on indefinitely. But I need to watch these movies again, before I write more about them. I will only add that, for all that Antonioni’s critical reputation declined over the past thirty years, he only became more and more influential among the younger generations of art filmmakers. As David Hudson notes, “now as we head into the late 00’s, the almost standardized “festival film” bears the mark of no other director more than Antonioni’s.” Indeed — where would Tsai Ming-liang, Bela Tarr, early Edward Yang, and Theo Angelopoulos be without Antonioni?

The Axiom of Choice

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant shows us a double, or split, subject. On the one hand, there is the subject as a rational being, whose will takes on the determining form of universal law; on the other hand, there is the empirical subject, whose will is determined extrinsically and contingently. The “autonomy of the will” is thus opposed to the “heteronomy of the power of choice [Wahl].” Kant’s association of “choice” with the heteronomy of a will that has been extrinsically determined, and in opposition to an act of freedom, especially needs to be recalled today, given the current hegemony (in both theory and practice) of neoliberal economics and “rational-choice” political science. For these approaches, everything is, and ought to be, determined, by individuals making choices among various possibilities in a world of scarcity or limited resources. From a Kantian point of view, this sort of market-driven “choice” is absolutely incompatible with any genuine notion of freedom or autonomy. To put it a bit crudely, but not inaccurately, you can have consumerism and the “free market,” or you can have democracy and self-determination, but you can’t have both.