What a pleasure it was to interview experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack for the “Back and Forth” series of INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media.
It was a true pleasure to write a short essay for multimedia artist Liz Rodda’s exhibition of Total Body at the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, Texas. You can see the dual-channel piece in LAC’s project space until June 13, 2015 and watch an excerpt of it on her website. My thoughts on her excellent work below.
Where is the human body in the twenty-first century? At the gym, in traffic, outdoors, or home alone? Wherever the emblematic sites of embodiment for the present day might be, they are always also online. We pass bodies and their parts to one another via smartphones, we post them on websites, and we find them—absurd, touching, sexy, troubling—when streaming digital video from all sorts of online caches. We can ignore our bodies and those of others, choosing to withdraw into the abstract thoughts that our bodies house. Even so, we can never empty those thoughts entirely of the sensations our bodies produce.Despite its wry title, Liz Rodda’s dual-channel video piece doesn’t explainwhat it means to be flesh and blood. It doesn’t identify the mishmash ofexistential musings that make up its soundtrack, or distinguish humanistic, virtual actions from those that are virtually human.Total Body shows us the extreme irreconcilability of each “small fraction of a human that is human” mentioned in its voiceover. This is no tragedy. Paradoxically enough, Total Body suggests it may be a primary source of life’s pleasure. Rodda is one of the most distinctive artists working in expanded media today. Her aesthetic is cerebral—and rousingly funny. Her work in digital formats as well as her installation practice avoids obvious moral questions of consumer culture and identity, zeroing in on the uncanny forces that drive our media and object-based interactions.
A free copy of DOX Magazine that I picked up at this summer’s Flaherty Film Seminar reintroduced me to the work of Nicolas Philibert. I had seen and enjoyed To Be and To Have (2002) without knowing anything more about the director’s work.
In the interview DOX ran, Philibert stresses that the category of “documentary” filmmaking doesn’t mean anything for him. He strives to make films whose philosophical purview becomes much more expansive than either the film’s initial subject or his subjective process of learning about the topic at hand.
In the print interview, Philibert references the first feature-length documentary he made with Gérard Mordillat–His Master’s Voice (1978)–and criticizes their over-usage of “talking heads” style framing. Despite this critique, the film’s description was intriguing to me. His Master’s Voice is a montage of interviews with twelve French CEOs that constitute a bourgeoning managerial discourse on global corporate multinationalism.
The internet’s magical video treasure trove offers it to us at the Youtube link above, complete with English subtitles. It doesn’t disappoint, especially the wry and self-reflexive first ten minutes in which the CEOs unhappily try to rebrand the film that has been produced about them.
The framing is indeed quite basic, but the historical insights the film reveals are not. Philibert and Mordillat intercut the forecasting, tactical defense and careful posturing of each CEO with several minutes of actual work accomplished on the factory floor–working bodies and machines that are the foundation of each manager’s long-winded dialogues, yet somehow never directly described or addressed.
The film demonstrates how exquisitely formed these men were in the humanist canon as well as in the strategies and economic theory of their chosen business. They seem to be the last of a certain breed of carefully-groomed French grand écolier. In their statements, they repeatedly try to couch their increasingly ravenous market share acquisition in the terminology of some sort of civic project. This is markedly different from the “proferential speech” that so many contemporary business school visionaries employ, a way of talking cribbed from motivational coaching and used to promote their company as product.
As old-fashioned as their citation of literary classics seem, the actual changes in global business that the French CEOs describe are totally prescient and reflect the transformation since then in worldwide business. It’s highly instructive to hear how completely they misunderstand workers’ rationale behind organization and unionization. On this issue and a host of others, Philibert and Mordillat don’t provoke or antagonize their interviewees, but rather patiently give them enough rope to hang themselves (or at least get uncomfortably knotted up).
Maurizio Lazzarato has argued that the separation between enterprise and factory of which Philibert’s and Mordillat’s film documents the beginning is now complete. It is “emblematic of a deep transformation within the capitalist mode of production” (188), he writes. This transformation is one from capitalism as a mode of production to capitalism as a production of modes, from productive labor to immaterial labor. His Master’s Voice for 2014 would be a found footage film, compiling the TED talk rhetoric of twenty-first century CEOs as a way of demonstrating the managerial discourse of immaterial labor (with Benjamin Bratton’s bracing, clear and efficient throwdown of the TED model as a chaser).
A couple of weeks ago, I learned through friends on social media that Happy, Pharrell’s latest earworm, had become a sort of current day revolutionary anthem. I reacted with surprise and skepticism. Where, in a song called “Happy,” could the catalyzing negativity so necessary for direct action be found?
I took a closer listen. “This song isn’t about happiness at all,” I thought. “It’s about imperviousness. It’s about self-empowerment, about transcendence. Boundlessness. Agency.” Perhaps these emotions can be found embedded within individual life and romantic love, but they are also crucial ingredients for collective resistance. Suddenly it made more sense that Brazilian students might want to claim the song as their own as they protest the mismanagement and misuse of national funding for World Cup preparation whilst so many of their fellow citizens live in appallingly poor conditions.
The sheer inner resolve that this pop song celebrates can be directly matched to the “joyful wisdom” that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about:
“Joyful Wisdom” : that implies the Saturnalia of a spirit which has patiently withstood a long, frightful pressure patiently, strenuously, impassionately, without submitting, but without hope—and which is now suddenly o’erpowered with hope, the hope of health, the intoxication of convalescence.
The proof? Below. Slavoj Žižek eat your heart out!
(Pharrell Williams, 2013)
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said (let me tell you now)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down… my level’s too high…
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down, I said (let me tell you now)
Certainly this man, notwithstanding his youth, understands the improvisation of life, and astonishes even the acutest observers. For it seems that he never makes a mistake, although he constantly plays the most hazardous games. One is reminded of the improvising masters of the musical art, to whom even the listeners would fain ascribe a divine infallibility of the hand, notwithstanding that they now and then make a mistake, as every mortal is liable to do. But they are skilled and inventive, and always ready in a moment to arrange into the structure of the score the most accidental tone (where the jerk of a finger or a humour brings it about), and to animate the accident with a fine meaning and soul.
Here is quite a different man ; everything that he intends and plans fails with him in the long run. That on which he has now and again set his heart has already brought him several times to the abyss, and to the very verge of ruin ; and if he has as yet got out of the scrape, it certainly has not been merely with a “black eye.” Do you think he is unhappy over it? He resolved long ago not to regard his own wishes and plans as of so much importance. “If this does not succeed with me,” he says to himself, ” perhaps that will succeed ; and on the whole I do not know but that I am under more obligation to thank my failures than any of my successes. Am I made to be headstrong, and to wear the bull’s horns? That which constitutes the worth and the sum of life for me, lies somewhere else ; I know more of life, because I have been so often on the point of losing it ; and just on that account I have more of life than any of you!” (The Joyful Wisdom, Part IV, Sanctus Januarius, Thesis 303.)
No ! Life has not deceived me ! On the contrary, from year to year I find it richer, more desirable and more mysterious—from the day on which the great liberator broke my fetters, the thought that life may be an experiment of the thinker—and not a duty, not a fatality, not a deceit !—And knowledge itself may be for others something different ; for example, a bed of ease, or the path to a bed of ease, or an entertainment, or a course of idling,—for me it is a world of dangers and victories, in which even the heroic sentiments have their arena and dancing-floor.
“Life as a means to knowledge”—with this principle in one’s heart, one can not only be brave, but can even live joyfully and laugh joyfully ! And who could know how to laugh well and live well, who did not first understand the full significance of war and victory ? (The Joyful Wisdom, Part IV, Sanctus Januarius, Thesis 324.)
Dance, oh ! dance on all the edges.
Wave-crests, cliffs and mountain ledges,
Ever finding dances new!
Let our knowledge be our gladness,
Let our art be sport and madness.
All that’s joyful shall be true! (The Joyful Wisdom, Appendix, “A Dancing Song to the Mistral Wind.”)
I stumbled upon this documentary about Jean Cocteau (dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1985) several months ago, and saved it to my bookmarks. Last weekend I re-discovered the link, and spent part of Tuesday’s April Central New York snow flurries watching it.
Nothing special, but I took pleasure in Cocteau’s repeated insistence on two contradictory artistic impulses: his ambition to know himself and become known, and his desire to keep himself hidden and obscure to himself and all others, as an unmappable and untappable source of creativity.
Some of Cocteau’s bon mots from the film:
We are the workers of a darkness that belongs to us, but eludes us. This profound man–we don’t know him well at all–is our true self. He is hidden in the shadows. He commands us. I decided to plunge down into myself, into this formidable hole, into this unknown mine, at the risk of running into explosive gas.
Honors–one must envision them as a sort of transcendent punishment.
We are the very humble servants of a force that lives in us. We are led–we are led by a force that isn’t external to us–it’s internal. We are led by this night that is our true self.
This is the second in a series of reflections that evolve from the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.
Home (2009) is a film that didn’t get anywhere near the attention and critical acclaim it deserved when it was in theaters several years ago. It is a film that ingeniously explores an environment as allegory. My students and I were in awe (admittedly, sometimes agonized awe) of the radical associative openness that director Ursula Meier constructs and sustains for the entire hour and a half of her fictional story.
Set nowhere in particular in France (but actually filmed in Bulgaria), Home takes place within a family that dwells at the edge of an abandoned highway. Abruptly, the highway is reopened. The reasons for its reopening remain as mysterious as its closure– and the family’s move to the house beside it ten years earlier, for that matter.
Is the highway a metaphor for the “information highway” of images and data that saturates 21st century life? Is it rather a psychoanalytical symptom of the traumatic passage to adulthood, the transformations that this nuclear family is on the verge of experiencing in their interrelationships? Can we interpret it as the repressed past of the family’s mother (Isabelle Huppert), surging back to threaten the present? Is the highway just a highway, a wound cut through the paradisiacal landscape surrounding the family?
Home nurtures all of these associations, and more. It is a fascinating, funny and discomforting mediation on the seductive Gezelligheid but also the sure stagnation encompassed in the notion of home, hearth and belonging.
To catalyze our discussion of the film, our seminar read three diverse texts.
We began with selections from Gaston Bachelard’s classic, The Poetics of Space. We weighed Bachelard’s thesis that we create in our lived spaces physical extensions of our various psychologies.
We then contrasted spatial poetics to the spatial dystopia inherent in Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992). We had a great debate on the continuing merits of Augé’s paradigm in a quotidian so throughly pockmarked with experiences of non-place.
In every seminar session, I include a reading that represents a clear counterpoint to the meanings evoked in the film we have studied. This represents a challenge to students to argue dialectically between two diverse narratives of place and the practices of looking that they do or do not solicit.
In contrast to Home, we discussed the phenomenon of smart homes. Smart homes represent a domestic application of technological advances in entertainment, building automation, controlled sensory environments and data analytics. We read Lynn Spigel’s “Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” which wisely examines the gender implications of technological homes as threat and promise. We discussed Google’s corporate interests in diversifying their stronghold over informational products to include smart home technologies, and what the implications of that prospective market lockdown might be.
Our session ended with Home‘s ambivalent ending, scored sublimely to Nina Simone’s cover of Wild is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington, 1957). I’ll leave you with that wonderful song and the encouragement to view this film sometime soon.
What a pleasure to receive this publication in my mailbox this week.
It was also a pleasure to contribute a number of short-form essays to it.
an overview of Belgian Surrealist cinema,
and of the short film analyses the book contains, I wrote on Chantal Akerman’s Tout une nuit (1982) and on her magnificent directional tetralogy of the 1990s and 2000s: D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De L’Autre Côté (2002) and Là-bas (2006).
To celebrate, my text on Là-bas (2006), reproduced here below, and an excerpt of the film in accompaniment.
Director: Chantal Akerman
Producer(s): AMIP, Paradise Films, Chemah I.S., Le Fresnoy
Cinematographer: Chantal Akerman, Robert Fenz
Sound: Thierry de Halleux
Editor: Claire Atherton
Assistant Editor : Fabio Balducci
Duration: 78 minutes
Là-bas concludes Akerman’s series of films made between 1993 and 2006, based on the themes of place and displacement, physical and emotional space. While D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De L’Autre Côté (2003) and Là-bas (2006) are frequently grouped as a foursome of essay films, a pairing of two and two seems more apt. D’Est and Sud examine a socio-historical event of the recent past, showing the wake it has left in the lives of local inhabitants. In them, a major transition has taken place, and the films’ subjects must find a way to remember and rebuild. De L’Autre Côté and Là-bas are about the presence of containment and isolation in the everyday; the subjects in these films must themselves become transitory in order to cope with chronic problems or unmoving obstacles.
Là-bas takes place in Tel Aviv, Israel, but the film is never directly about Israel or its culture. Nor is it directly about Akerman, herself; viewers catch only a fleeting glimpse of her, and her rough and sensuous smoker’s voice is only heard intermittently in voiceover. In one of these voiceovers, Akerman gives a wry description of her project: “I stay here in the apartment, and I eat what my landlord has left, and I read very complicated books about the Jews. I take notes, I reread them, I try to understand. Sometimes I understand. Or I get a whiff of something, something that is already there inside of me, but I can’t express.” At the beginning of the film, she juxtaposes the suicide of her aunt and of the mother of Israeli author Amos Oz, the former in Brussels and the latter in Tel Aviv. “Was it for both of them a sort of exile, wherever they were?” she asks. These diaristic soliloquies and the partitioned images which accompany them evoke the difficult negotiation of exile and return that Akerman and others touched by the Jewish diaspora must undertake.
Là-bas is comprised almost entirely of static long shots. Most of these are of the high-rise apartment buildings directly opposite Akerman’s own vacation apartment, seen through the rattan window blinds. Twice, we see footage shot outdoors at the seashore. The first sequence is a welcome release from the confines of the apartment, but by the second sequence, this watery expanse overwhelms the senses, triggering a desire to return to the familiar, dark living room. In the last four minutes of film, the camera pans and zooms rapidly across the open sky. The montage provokes anxiety and a dizzying feeling of disorientation, the same emotional states Akerman has been describing, perhaps suggesting an ontological state of Israel itself.
At first, it seems Akerman is spying on her neighborhood. The subject matter, the fixity of the camera, the medium of digital video and its generic deep focus immediately calls to mind surveillance footage. The film’s ambient noise, however, complicates this interpretation. Sounds of street traffic and hollering children mingle liberally with sounds coming from the unseen interior of the apartment, like the click of a gas burner on the stovetop, footfalls, objects moved around on a counter or table, or the tapping of computer keys. There is a profound ambivalence between what can and cannot be seen. The gaze of Akerman’s camera is not all-seeing and impassive, but rather unseeingly subjective in nature. This, too, she supposes, is linked to Belgium and her past, as she spent much of her childhood gazing out the window at children she was not allowed to go play with. “Now I’m in the habit of looking out the window,” she says. “I look and I get all up inside myself.”
If, amidst these dark meditations on personal and national prisons, Là-bas also affirms life, this affirmation is found in Akerman’s devotion to creative work, in many senses a direct result of and an antidote to her non-belonging. The man with a balcony and a rooftop garden directly opposite Akerman’s window embodies this devotion, suggesting that Akerman’s work as a Belgian Jew reconciling herself to Israel is in many senses collective work. The man tends restlessly to his potted plants, watering, inspecting and repositioning them as a contemporary Candide would, cultivating his garden. Akerman does the same, learning through her filmmaking to “put down roots in space.”
This is the first in a series of reflections I’ll post that are related to the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.
Transatlantic travel is always my chance to catch up on all of the films with talking animals, explosions and successful romantic pairings that I tend to miss out on during the school year.
This December in the air, I treated myself to a marathon viewing of interplanetary disaster: Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013), World War Z (Marc Forster 2013) and Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). The plane binge was in large part inspired by Ed Halter’s smart and troubling op-ed in December’s Artforum about the recent bumper crop of catastrophe movies. Ed writes,
…[T]he boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction authorKim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.
To these, I’ll add a couple more that Ed’s piece brought to mind:
– Fredric Jameson’s Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indiana Press, 1992). If, as Jameson claims, late 20th century conspiracy films are “allegories of each other, and of the impossible representation of the social totality itself,” (5), we might conclude from Ed’s observations that 21st century disaster films represent the total impossibility of the social.
– Mark Fisher’s ultra-noir “Its Easier to Imagine the End of the World than the End of Capitalism,” The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 307-312. In it, Fisher also points to turn-of-the-21st century films that disseminate “‘capitalist realism,’ the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (307)
– Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent two-part series in the New Yorker, “Annals of Extinction: The Lost World.” Kolbert ends her reportage with the bittersweet, Proustian pleasure of scattering fossils from the Palaeozoic era or earlier amongst fast food debris of the Anthropocene.
Ed’s piece in Artforum concludes,
In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of Elysium, After Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.
I’m planning to make this proposal of militarization disturbing to my students with some of the films in the spring senior seminar I’m teaching: Sight and Site in Film and Media. (Disturbing…but rewarding!)
The class will watch a range of films–experimental and commercial, short and long, documentary and fiction–from 1926 to 2013. We’ll be thinking together about two different aspects of mapping and place: 1.) the different ways that diagrammatic or illustrative site is employed in film narrative and 2.) the different ways that digital media narrativizes our sight of actual places and maps. Over the next months I’ll probably write a number of posts inspired by the class.
I’ll teach Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) together with La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), selections from Marc Augé’s Oblivion, the Mark Fisher excerpt mentioned above, and Mark Andrejevic’s “The Work of Being Watched: Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure.” I want students to consider how Oblivion and La Jetée are both social panegyrics, but I also want them to use the screening and texts together as an unexpected springboard for considering their everyday experiences with surveillance, interactive screens, and memory.
In lieu of an ending: an “inspiration board” for Sight and Site in Film and Media that I sent to my class to whet their appetite (click to enlarge):
A few nights ago I watched Eberhard Fechner’s sublime and shattering Nachrede auf Klara Heydebreck (60 minutes, 1969).
I first heard of the film in the context of its monteuse, Brigitte Kirsche. She was one of the interviewees on the double DVD that the Deutsche Filmmuseum has released on the art of editing, Schnitte in Raum und Zeit (2006). Her insights on weaving together still photograph documentation and diverse sources of interview testimony were profound. It seems her long film partnership with Fechner was truly rich.
Fechner’s 1969 TV-commissioned documentary investigates the life of a 72-year-old, single German woman who was born just before the 20th century and took her own life in 1968.
The film sets out to answer the question, “Who was Klara Heydebreck?”, collecting and displaying for us her personal belongings, official records, correspondance and snapshots. These materials are the base support for the memories of the interviewees who knew Heydebreck: her surviving family, from whom she had become estranged, the policemen assigned to her suicide case, the neighbors in her apartment building whom she anxiously avoided, and her closest friend from childhood.
Interspersed with these interviews are the unsentimental and studied findings of Fechner himself. In voiceover, he attempts to reckon together her passion for the arts, her failure to thrive after the death of her mother, her unknown suffering in the aftermath of World War Two and her pauperism, reclusivity and loneliness after middle age.
What traces do we leave on life? Can others see and comprehend the traces it leaves on us? These are the more fundamental questions that Nachrede auf Klara Heydebreck asks without answering. The film leaves us with a resonant sense of how expansive and yet how negligible every human soul can be–or more accurately, how expansively or negligibly it can be treated by its fellow human souls and the socio-economic systems in which all human souls exist.
This is one of the finest, most moving and most sparing documentaries I have ever seen; it is a terrible shame that it isn’t available with foreign language subtitles. Translator friends: a project for the new year? We’ll take a cup of kindness yet…
Participating in Bryn Mawr’s Visual Culture Colloquium was a true pleasure!
I appreciated the stimulating feedback on my work in progress and reconnecting with Rebecca DeRoo, a fellow hybrid art historian/film theorist/Francophone.
At lunch afterward, a fun and very thought-provoking exchange with Homay King, Katherine Rochester and Johanna Gosse prompted me to record these thoughts on Paris’s May 1968 and commercial fiction film:
For Anglophone audiences, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) is more or less the go-to ’68er historical adaptation. The Dreamers is interesting in passages, but generally a quite empty viewing experience–neither historically nor politically nor emotionally insightful.
Unfortunately, most of Olivier Assayas’ Après mai (2012) doesn’t succeed in distancing itself from this kind of momentarily interesting, prettily erotic, socio-politically empty narrative.
I believe the weaknesses in both films lies in their misguided attempt to allegorize May as an individual love story–one that purports to be a lover’s triangle, but in reality is just two sets of couples that happen to have one person in common.
If Paris’s May and its paradoxes are to be accessed, the way to do so is in exploring love, sexual awakening or elective affinities more generally in juxtaposition with the idea of collectivity or collaborative projects. This is why the most arresting and contemplative moments of Après mai (disappointingly titled Something in the Air in English) come at the very end, as Gilles takes his first steps into film production and, ironically enough, also cracks open the Situationist International’s ode to collective dissolution La véritable scission dans l’Internationale (1972) whilst riding in the RER.
One pick for teaching France’s May ’68 would be Louis Malle’s Milou en mai / May Fools (1990), a disturbing homage to Marx’s idea that history repeats itself as farce (farce and cuckoldry, it seems).
Two other films released much closer to the bitter disbelief and disillusionment following May’s moveable feast would be Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain / The Mother and the Whore (1973) wherein the love triangle turns out to be a kind of triple-edged weapon, injuring everyone in turn…
…and Jacques Rivette’s epic Out 1 (1971), in which the social revolt is an unacknowledged MacGuffin that motivates the relationships of all characters to one another.
A final film we spoke of that afternoon: Sally Potter’s excellent Ginger and Rosa (2012). Although it’s not a film about France’s ’68 per se, the themes it treats are extremely resonant and provocative when considered in that context. I disliked the fact that the film transposes the backlash against consumer society into family trauma, but I thought that move was highly creative and very worthy of scholarly close looking.
A second post soon that gathers together some excellent French shorts on the subject of May ’68.