Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Reality of the Virtual Part One

As always I find Žižek’s comments about movies to be needlessly convoluted and quite over-intellectualized. Near the beginning of the “lecture” he argues that Sound of Music is popular because it purports to be about fascist resistance, but really it just re-inscribes and normalizes domestic fascism. Of course this is true. Indeed, how else could it possibly be popular? This is how kitsch works. What I find frustrating about Žižek’s conversation about movies, is that he seems to think this is a particular achievement of Sound of Music. It is for similar reasons I imagine that he named Fountainhead the greatest American film. They are both brilliant illuminations despite themselves of American Cultural ideology. I would ask: Why these films specifically? Isn’t this how Hollywood works in general? And do we really need all the verbal and conceptual gymnastics to say that Hollywood movies which purport to sell rebellion and freedom merely maintain the status quo?

Žižek is a unique, adventurous thinker on so many subjects (often vehement and confrontational), so it is surprising that his views on art line up so neatly with current academic trends.

Where does value come from? I find that philosophers will often focus on questions of ontology to demonstrate that values are unstable. Fair enough. Are we then left with no limits? I can agree that nothing should be taken for granted, that all should be scrutinized and interrogated, but at some point we must get on with it, no? At some point one must choose, yes? I would argue that in the world in which we live, that choice can easily be made for you. One who refuses to get off the path of relativity, one who endlessly deconstructs and upends everything as inherently illusory, will eventually find that his conceptual clarity makes for a quite shallow practical world. Society will not stand for relativism (and I am not sure that consciousness will either, but that is another matter). There will be values, and if one does not determine them according to morals, ethics, aesthetics or what have you, they will be determined by the market.

For all the bad philosophizing of the previous paragraph, I stand by the conclusion, and I reject the practice of indiscriminately treating everything as if it had significance. I am unsure whether this idea began when Freud started applying his technique of dream analysis to his interpretations of art and artists (see especially what he has to say about Leonardo’s Notebooks) or when Freud’s followers began using his myriad analytical practices as approaches to understanding society and culture, but Freud is a key source. I would argue that this methodology really comes to fruition in Roland Barthes Mythologies, the most important book to read for anyone who wants to understand where cultural theory as we know it today came from. Whether or not he states it outright, Barthes makes possible the absolute relativism that we know today. Professional wrestling, laundry detergents, automobile designs, toilets, Guernica, The Wings of the Dove, The Well-Tempered Clavier – all of it tells us something and we are not in the business of assigning value to what it tells us. The consequence of treating all culture as equally significant is that it is only a matter of time, within a society that mass produces and sells its culture, before the market replaces morality, ethics, aesthetics, faith even reason.

I heard Robert Rauschenberg say once that he feels sorry for anyone who cannot see the beauty in a coke can. Indeed his whole project was to transform the ugly, discarded trash and byproducts of mass production and mass consumption into works of art by reconfiguring and recontextualizing them. What Rauschenberg fails to acknowledge, in my view, is his agency in that perception. I believe underlying his statement is the view, held by many westerners, that seeing the beauty in all things is the equivalent of understanding that everything has Buddha nature. I will just say that I think westerners who use this as excuse for their relativism do not understand the eastern idea. Not that I claim to know what it means, just that I don’t think it is meant to be a defense for relativism. I would be inclined to argue that such a statement is not intended to be taken a conceptual at all, and to make reason out of it is a mistake.

Reason may be the root of my conflict with Žižek’s ideas about art. He seems to think that he can submit the world to the power of his mind. Everything is significant because he can make it so, and what’s more, it would be insulting to his great mind to suggest that he does not see right through the market that I submit shapes his values. Such are the limitations of my own mind and my own rhetorical style. I can only evaluate Žižek’s conclusions and speculate about where I think they come from. I do not find his discussion of cinema particularly interesting. For my own part, I do not believe that the sheer force of my will can make meaning. The time I spend browsing the internet, playing video games, watching television and thinking about sports is time unquestionably wasted on insignificant diversions. The less I do those things the better off I am, not just in the sense that all those things make me dumber, or atrophy my intellect, but that they cloud my awareness, they deaden my sensitivities and make my perceptions less acute.

Let me conclude (or rather draw to a close by blowing the whole thing up instead of concluding) by addressing the quote at the top of the page, from the Symbolist poet and philosopher, Viacheslav Ivanov. I anticipate that the notion of “new forms” can be misleading because it carries a lot of baggage about “formalism,” especially to anyone who has studied Modernist Art History. I think what he is getting at is the difference between what the conceptual idea and experience as idea. In other words, it is a lesser art work of art that seeks to embody a particular concept. It is a lesser artist that would have specific conceptual goals that he would use art instead of philosophy or science to address. It is a lesser spectator or critic that would expect to find concepts in a work; that would judge a work of art based on what he or she can glean from it. To experience a great work of art is to be plunged into states of perception and awareness that are ahead (maybe just ahead, but ahead nonetheless) of the categories one keep around to help make sense of the world. Part of making sense of this experience will be the spectator’s effort to revise those conceptual tools, but something happens to perception first. One does not come away from a masterpiece with new knowledge as such, but with sharper perception, enhanced sensitivity and the like. It is more akin to the professed benefits of psychotropic drugs or a profound religious conversion, than to a lesson learned.

Does this sound mystical? It is actually the most pragmatic thing in the world. At the root of it is the simple principle of constant change. As one grows, he or she gives up past interests and amusements. One stops listening to a particular band or a host of bands, one gives up on an author at a certain point, one finds that he or she cannot eat McDonald’s hamburgers anymore. Why? -- Ostensibly because new experiences have put past experiences into perspective. This part of life, this part of consciousness, is often neglected, because it is difficult to use conceptual language to talk about it. Yet it is just as much a part of our perception as reason, except in individuals where it has been ruthlessly subjected to the supposed superiority of reason.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is there a place for violence in the cinema?

I have been arguing a bit with a friend about various movies, many of which feature graphic scenes of violence and murder (Among the directors we have touched on are the Coen brothers, P.T. Anderson and David) We have argued plenty, and in my estimation have yet to get anywhere. Then he boiled it down to a succinct, fundamental question: Is there a place for violence in the cinema? Here are some of my thoughts.

The short answer is no. Sex and violence are such easy button pushers that to show them at all is almost always to invite cliché. This is one of the primary reasons that the Frankfurt school and Benjamin in particular thought cinema was inherently pornographic. I would say that it has to do with the indexical reality (a term I first came across reading Bill Nichols book about the documentary) of the cinematic image. It is not inherently pornographic, but the psychological predisposition of most people makes it so. It is difficult to turn away from violent images. Since most directors know this their use of violence is intentionally exploitative. It is mere button pushing and not aesthetic experience. For whatever reason the intellectual inclinations of many thoughtful viewers is precisely to equate violence with substance and weight as if the director would not show us something so horrific unless what he was saying was very important and very deep. This too is exploitation. The Spielbergs, Coens, Aranovskys and P. T. Andersons of the world certainly know that when they make a violent movie it will be taken very seriously by the critical establishment.

When I watched Burn After Reading I was horrified by image of Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) hacking away at the head of Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) at the end of the film. It is easily one of the worst things I have seen recently. It is the kind of thing one cannot unsee. I would describe it as poison to the imagination. I can recall the image right now when I close my eyes. My question is: What did I learn from this movie that warranted such an image? Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Ozu, Cassavetes, Akerman – they show me the world inside and out, and he does it without hatchets to the face, without feet sticking out of the wood chipper and without pools of blood creeping across hardwood floors.

That is the short answer, the somewhat shallow answer. The real answer is that I reject the question. I am not interested in defining the limits of cinema, as if there were abstract rules to which all works of art were subject. I am not interested in the rules. If I see a good movie that has violence in it, my interest is in the movie’s goodness, not in its violence. If I see a bad movie with violence, my problem is with its badness. One of the most crucial aspects of movie-making is how the director resolves the problem of indexical reality. Part of art is artifice, but filmmakers of both the kitsch variety and the Salon variety seem to want to dissolve the artifice.

Consider Los Muertos. It is about a man who has been in prison an undetermined/unrevealed amount of time for committing a double murder. The film begins with what turns out to be a dream sequence. The camera dollies through the jungle, lifting, falling and tilting through the trees, branches, grasses and undergrowth. All you hear are birds and bugs chirping and buzzing. The two murder victims are revealed in turn. They are presented not graphically, but abstractly, almost as a matter of narrative course. They lie face down, motionless, a bit of red liquid on their backs, but no severed limbs (though we are led to believe the protagonist has killed them with a machete) and no gore.

The remainder of the film follows a man from his prison release to a home in the jungle where he thinks he will find his daughter. The pace is languid and there is very little talking. I should mention that I watched this movie because I read that the director was influenced by Tarkovsky. Let me say that his pace is quite beyond anything Tarkovsky ever imagined. Most of the film is like the handcart ride in Stalker but with only one person. I am exaggerating just a little to indicate that one gets caught up in the pace of this movie. One forgets the character because one is so immersed in the rhythm.

Half of the film is the protagonists paddling a small boat down a river. At a certain point he drifts past a small goat standing on the shore. He paddles over to the animal, and, as matter-of-factly as you please, proceeds to slit its throat, drain it of its blood and gut it, all of which is shown in graphic detail. Let me impress upon you that this is utterly real. Real goat, really killed, really butchered by the main character. It is astonishing.

I want to say a couple things about this. First, this image does not haunt me. It was surprising, but t did not upset me like Malkovich did. Of course I am still thinking about it, but I am thinking about what it means. Film is probably inherently pornographic, but some images stick with you because they are evocative and pregnant, while other stick with you more like shit that you can’t get off your shoe. Malkovich with the hatchet in Burn After Reading is the shit on my shoe.

Anyway, the important thing to understand about the meaning of slaughter of the goat is that it is created narratively. Granted the slaughter of the goat is a dense image, in itself. It is real death and as such it explodes the artifice of the form, and the whole suspension of disbelief thing because here is an actor playing a character in a made up scenario, but he really just killed a living creature. But this movie is not The Slaughter of a Goat. It has a narrative trajectory, and that image is contextualized within that narrative to have a different meaning than it would have if it were a simple piece of raw footage. On a very basic level, this is how cinema functions as a narrative art. The slaughter of the goat means one thing. Put a different image before it, and it means something else. Put another image after it and it means a third thing, and so forth. The narrative is the meaning, not the shocking image. I am not talking about story-telling, or plot or Aristotelian dramatic structure. Narrative is like laying bricks, and these bricks are like levels or modes of perception.