Sight and Site I: Oblivion, apocalypse, film and media

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 ElysiumAfter 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):

FMST 400

à tâtons

Two films in the Friday line-up at the NYFF’s Views from the Avant-Garde have had me flashing back to them the last couple of days. Both were puzzlers which kept audiences guessing on both the narrative and formal level. Both paid homage to the need to somehow move forward in an experimental state without clarity. Graspingly, stumblingly, failingly and yet wittily, continually.


Film still from NYFF site

French film director Nicolas Rey seems marked by destiny to make wordplay films which expose an absolutely foreign, cerebral and uncanny side of familiar, corporeal, and melodramatic fare.

In Rey’s wonderful anders, Molussien (2012), French and German culture wrap together like a piece of twine: the tone of the film is Brecht doing a riff on La Fontaine, the differently-colored, nostalgic intertitles are ornamentally bi-lingual. The premise from which the film departs is twisted, too: Rey is an avid reader of Günther Anders’ essayistic writings, but opted to make a film with passages selected by someone else from one of Anders’ novels which remains untranslated (and therefore inaccessible, at least directly, to Rey).

The novel, Die molussische Katakombe, is told from the bowels of a prison by individuals huddled together in the darkness, speaking of a world gone wrong that used to exist (if there is such a thing as a post-dystopian literary genre, this seems to belong squarely to it). In the film, the plight of this former world is given to us in snippets only–terse, aphoristic exchanges which begin with satiric wit and often end with a dull ideological thud in the pit of the stomach. In a further, ingenious complication of this philosophical game of telephone, Rey intends for the various reels of the film to be projected in a randomly determined order. Michael Sicinski’s review on nicely describes the odd sensation of open-and-closed-at-the-same-time that the film’s structural and textual logic produce in its viewers:

What is interesting about Rey’s treatment of reel randomization in autrement, la Molussie, I think, is that it enfolds the passages of Anders’ novel within a filmic time that is “flattened” or relegated to a universally applicable principle—it could be the first, the last, or some floating middle, a slice of what Deleuze might have called “any time whatever.” In this regard, Rey renegotiates the narrative time of The Molussian Catacomb into a kind of thinly spread simultaneity, an all-over “time field,” not unlike the colour field of a painter’s canvas. Not only does everything happen at once, but in a theoretical timeframe of perpetual diegetic present. The inescapable historical resonances within Anders’ imaginary tale of Molussia—to Nazi Germany, but to various other times including our own—all become equally present through Rey’s unusual presentation.

This is, of course, the same effect (in very different intervals) that still photography accomplishes in Chris Marker’s La jetée(1962). Rey’s film is shot on hand-me-down, aged Agfa-Gevaert stock, telling its story in grainy, desaturated imagery.


Film still from the NYFF site

Ferdinand Khittl’s Die Parallelstrasse (1961) is a nightmarish game show of a filmic conceit: five men have been charged with the task of ordering 300-something documents which appear to them and the film audience as audio-visual sequences of varying short lengths. The unknown amount of time the men have to complete this task is rapidly elapsing, and their feeble attempts at significational categorization break down repeatedly as the film progresses.

Their work is no match for the overwhelming richness of potential in the montage sequences, the most brilliant of which comes first, as a backwards “Kino-eye” revivification of slaughtered sheep, reborn in perversity by the magic of the voiceover. How can we make sense of this?” is the gist of one man’s complaint in response to the documentation. “It’s like asking directions and someone tells you to ‘go straight ahead until the path diverges into two roads, and then take the parallel road.'” The participants’ (and by proxy, the audience’s) dilemma becomes a formidable and triumphant testament to film’s ability to wheel and deal along with the most contemporary forms of new media.

Two or more separate thoughts linked together and juxtaposed with two ore more separate images: the possibilities, as both films show, are endless. Two roads diverged in a wood, and experimental film figured out how to take both.