An apt beginning to the beginning of the new year: the first few minutes of Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977).
This sequence is an earnest but wry account of the great determination needed and the great labor involved in taking leave of colonialist oppression, cultural constraints, parochial censure, social prejudices and stigmas, and not least of all, the isolating security of the familiar. Meanwhile, Tahimik notes, established powers and their followers parade across the thoroughfare. The bridge is mediation, says Fredric Jameson in The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992). The bridge is our bridge of life, says Tahimik.
May we make all crossings–metaphorical and real, difficult and effortless–with Tahimik’s brashness, tempered in equal measure with humor and critical skepticism. We choose our vehicles and we can cross this, any, all bridges!
“I go on as I began: for the beauty of the gesture,” says Denis Lavant’s character midway through the fantastic and fantastically sad Holy Motors. As he (Monsieur Oscar) utters those words, peeling the prosthetic skin off of his face and glaring strangely at Michel Piccoli’s character, I could feel the sparse and scattered audience around me in the movie theater stiffen slightly, as if a low voltage current had gone through all of us. This is what this film means, we all thought to ourselves, thrilling to the justification and the way it matched the wondrous and gross and disconcerting gestures we had been watching for the last hour.
A fine understanding of how astonishingly beautiful la geste can be unites all of Leos Carax’s films. In them, this gesture is a passionate and extreme employment of the body that encompasses and surpasses both use-value and exchange-value. These gestures are the panache from Cyrano de Bergerac. They are the synaesthetic moments in Rimbaud. They are the senses put to art, no matter whether the bodies that house these senses and the situations that result are hideous or obscene, funny or touching or elegant. Carax engineers these gestures on screen, but he hopes that as spectators, we will complete them.
It has been well documented by now that Holy Motors pays tender tribute to film history, from Carax’s own filmmaking to George Franju’s love of l’insolite to Étienne-Jules Marey‘s serial photography (with many in between). Perhaps film isn’t the only art form that can produce the gesture of which Monsieur Oscar speaks, but it might well be the only one that can capture the quest as well as the fleeting result.
“We always have, and we still love to watch human bodies in action. We also love to watch landscapes or things we have created, buildings or cigarettes, guns and cars… but above all, we love to watch human bodies, whether they’re walking, running, fucking, or anything.”
The plight explored in Holy Motors is twofold. First: how can art as a sensual gesture be created and recreated in a world which increasingly de-emphasizes the embodied use of the senses? Second: how can art be created and recreated by artists as their bodies and senses change, fatigue and deaden with the passage of time?
Carax suggests a multiplicity of answers to these questions as he takes us around his Paris. (Will this be the last film which manages to make Paris penultimately modern and eternal at the same time?) Viewers can choose to hold onto the ecstatic parts of Holy Motors (like the entr’acte above) or the maudlin ones. Or even accept la grande geste in all its complexity.
Like the young daughter Monsieur Oscar drops home in a fury after picking her up from a house party, Carax is brutal with us: our punishment is being ourselves, and having to live with that. Yet he clearly shows us the flip-side of this punishment, as well: our lives of the senses.
About a year ago, friend and colleague Nancy Ries recommended this article to me, correctly guessing I would be delighted at the resonance between the notion of stiob, my love of what the Situationists would call the parodique-serieux (I.S., number 3, December 1959) and my surname (plus an “i”). I came across the passage I had excerpted from the article during today’s end-of-the-year file clean-up, and thought I’d post it here for safe-keeping.
The Case of Stiob
The notion of stiob, in usage in nonconformist circles for decades, has recently received Western academic attention due to the work of Alexei Yurchak, who has integrated its explication into a broader theoretical framework (Yurchak 2005). He describes a ‘hyper-normalisation of form’ of official Soviet practices, juxtaposing this with their increasing lack of denotative semantic content in the late-Soviet period. Yurchak proposes the concept of a ‘performative shift’ to describe how certain formulaic acts (public eulogies for Communism, for instance—whether performed sincerely or not) often became ideologically vacuous means to totally different ends (Yurchak 2005, chapter 6). In lay terms, his diagnosis is of a mismatch of official form and non-official content.
In the late-Soviet culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, stiob practices exaggerated this mismatch, propelling it into the realm of the absurd. Unlike the sharply ironic and politically-engaged attitude of the Thaw generation (shestidesyatniki), stiob was performed with mischievous humour and a façade of deadpan nonchalance. It was considered successful precisely when it duped the audience into believing something impossible or ridiculous. Ideally, the issue of the author’s sincerity was indefinitely unsettled and ambiguous. As Yurchak says, stiob ‘refuses the very dichotomy’ between seriousness and irony (2005:250).
Ivor Stodolsky, “A Multi-Lectic Anatomy of Stiob and Poshlost’: Case Studies in the Oeuvre of Timur Novikov” (2011). My emphasis.
Great to see that a video artist has been awarded the Turner Prize: Elizabeth Price. This small snippet of her piece, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012) intrigues me. I’d love to see it in its entirety as an installation.
It’s difficult to know anything about the composition from what little can be seen online, but it speaks well of the piece that I’m immediately inspired to start piecing together and thinking over a couple recurring thematic motifs: the legibility/illegibility of emotive gesture and the commodification of femininity (in terms of news reportage of the tragedy, but also the erotics of girl groups). I imagine the snaps and clicks that seem to regulate the images as the sounds of these concepts locking and interlocking.
I’m also happy to see an artist who has been given this kind of platform valorize public art funding and stress the importance of keeping complex visual experience open to as wide an audience as possible.
I came across this wonderful oddity today: Juliette Gréco singing “Dans la rue des Blancs Manteaux,” a ditty that Jean-Paul Satre had penned for the character, Inès in his 1943-44 one-act, Huit clos.
Set to perversely light-hearted music by Joseph Kosma (complete with wheedling accordion, bien sûr), Gréco’s cover wasn’t much of a hit when it was released in 1950. It gained popularity and notoriety in the early 1960s…
A nice touch of Parisian existentialist macabre with eyeliner for the end of the semester! L’occasion de re-tomber amoureuse du patrimoine français, non?