Sunday, November 30, 2008

Luminous Being (III)

Still from Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Antonioni and Merleau-Ponty

Lately, I have been thinking about the “interior alliance” between the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. There are a number of points of convergence between their respective works. Among them one might note a shared interest in 1) the complex workings of human perception 2) the relation between objectivity and subjectivity (and the way art falsifies the boundary between them) 3) the embodied nature of thought.

I will say more about Merleau-Ponty in a future post. For now, I’ll focus on two films by Antonioni, both of which touch upon the points mentioned above. First, Blow-Up (1966). Early in the work, the protagonist Thomas states, “I am a photographer,” and much of the film can be understood as an attempt to come to terms with the force of this claim. While Thomas seems to pride himself on his objective distance from what he photographs, what he learns through the course of the film – and the spectator alongside him – is the role desire and belief play in the act of looking, and hence in the act of photographing the act of looking. Thomas learns that beyond the realm of empirical facts, there is more to be seen, more to be perceived. (This allows Thomas to understand the relation between his work and that of his neighbor, an abstract painter who only comprehends what he has painted after the fact, when his eye discovers something in the image that he can "hold on to.") In the final scene of the film, Antonioni uses the movements of the camera to make us “see”, along with Thomas, an imaginary tennis ball as it bounces on a tennis court and whizzes through the air.

This is clear enough. But it really gains in complexity and interest when we compare it to the end of another Antonioni work, The Passenger (1975). Here we are given something like the obverse image. In this film, the protagonist David Locke (a journalist and documentary filmmaker this time, but you see his connection to Thomas) is given the opportunity to exchange his identity for another. He does so only to discover that the man whose identity he has assumed is a gunrunner, a man of action (i.e., everything he is not). The film is typically read in terms of the impossibility of leaving the self (one's subjectivity) behind. David Locke cannot escape his own ennui, his own inertia, his distance from life. Yet, a closer inspection of the film reveals something else: despite his ennui, inertia, etc., the protagonist manages not only to replicate the itinerary of the man whose identity he has assumed (David Robertson) but also his fate, which is to die on a bed while in a desert-like landscape which can be seen through the large window adjacent to his bed. (Note, for example, the careful way Antonioni underlines – through images, sounds, lines of dialogue – the parallels between the opening scenes in a hotel in the Chadian desert and the closing ones in a hotel in rural Spain.)

In other words, David Locke shares the same passage from life to death as Robertson, and this passage is made manifest in the tour-de-force seven minute long take in which the camera executes a slow, beautiful dolly across, and through, a hotel room. In this long take we are made to “see” something like the reverse image that concludes Blow-Up. The passage, this time, is from subjectivity to objectivity. Locke truly loses himself, his subjective armature, and this dispersal is communicated through the movements of the camera as it traverses space. Now, one might argue that this kind of objectivity is impossible or unthinkable in that it is connected in the film to death, but let us not forget that this is not merely the theme explored within the work but also the “image” that we (the viewer) are asked to form through its duration, an image that we come to share with David Locke/Robertson, each of us one and the same traveler, each of us one and the same passenger.

But where does embodied thought come into this? Precisely, I would argue, in Antonioni's experimentation, here and elsewhere, with the durative quality of the cinematographic image. It is within the physicality of time that thought occurs. This explains in part Antonioni’s idiosyncratic approach to narrative. In a typical narrative the emphasis is placed on a series of plot points that keep the story in forward movement. In Antonioni, the emphasis shifts. There is a suspension of the cause-effect logic, grounded in character psychology, that drives most films. Antonioni is interested instead in having the character and viewer both inhabit the moments of uncertainty or hesitation between events, the wait between events, or the wait as event. His concern is with the interval between plot points, the interval before something happens – the interval in which (or through which) something begins to take shape, flickers, comes into being. The seven-minute long take that concludes The Passenger is where everything that the film has shown us, everything that it has stimulated us to think and to perceive, culminates in an idea, a thought. The film does not represent this idea or thought for us. It is the spectator who is left to envision it, to actualize it for themselves, within themselves.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Practice of Reading

Surely the most unfortunate line that Roland Barthes ever wrote is the one that concludes his essay "Death of an Author": “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Endlessly quoted, yet so poorly understood. I don’t know how many readers have read this as a slogan that what is important is not the literary work itself (and by extension the work of art) but what the intrepid reader – the intrepid graduate student – does with the text. Thus, while the “author” is cast aside as a useless or outmoded concept, the reader affirms himself or herself as the true creative source – or, more precisely, destination – for a text’s meaning. (One consequence of this: a shift from “difficult” modernist texts to an emphasis on the artifacts of popular culture, to be pillaged at will. Why does this occur? Precisely because it is believed that creativity is now the art of the beholder. The text is secondary to its usage.) Let’s not forget that the “death of the author” was meant to signal the death of the sovereign subject, i.e., the belief in the author as the punctual source for a text’s meaning. It was meant to question the fallacy of the intentional subject – whether this subject is understood as an author, a critic or a reader.

Barthes statement, it seems to me, should always be accompanied by another, this one by Maurice Blanchot: “What most threatens reading is this: the reader’s ability, his personality, his immodesty, his stubborn insistence upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads – a man who knows in general how to read” (emphasis added). What Blanchot valorizes here is not the reader but the act of reading, and what this act means for both the author and the reader, each destabilized by the same experience (or event). This, I would argue, is fundamentally Barthes’ point as well, but his inability to resist a stylistic flourish led him, and several generations of students, down the wrong path. Reading is an encounter between oneself and another. What is affirmed is neither the author nor the reader, but the act that binds one to the other. Blanchot: “To read is thus not to obtain communication from the work, but to ‘make’ the work communicate itself. And if we may employ an inadequate image, to read is to be one of the two poles between which, through mutual attraction and repulsion, the illuminating violence of communication erupts – one of the two poles between which the event comes to pass and which it constitutes by its very passage.” These two poles are the author and the reader, and the event occurs in the (anonymous) passage between them.

Giorgio Agamben makes a similar point in a recent article "The Author as Gesture", which revisits Foucault's essay on authorship. At one point, Agamben considers a poem by César Vallejo. He asks, where does the thought or sentiment expressed in the poem come from? It would be a mistake, he says, to assume that the thought or sentiment first existed "in" César Vallejo, who then diligently transcribed this pre-existent idea or emotion. Rather, "this thought and this sentiment became real for him, and their details and nuances become inextricably his own, only after – or while – writing the poem." This thought or sentiment cannot therefore be said to originate within the poet, but it is equally wrong to suggest that it in any way belongs to, or should be attributed to, the poem's reader. The thought or sentiment emanates from neither; it comes from elsewhere. And yet it only exists because, once upon a time, there was a writer who sat down to write a poem, and then, some time later, a reader who sat down to read it. "The place of the poem – or, rather its taking place – is therefore neither in the text nor in the author (nor in the reader): it is in the gesture through which the author and reader put themselves into play in the text and, at the same time, are infinitely withdrawn from it."

Luminous Being (II)

Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit
Pasolini, Mamma Roma

Ettore Garofolo, who plays Ettore in the film, was a waiter who Pasolini saw in a restaurant one night. He wrote the part with this boy in mind and later presented the script to him, asking him if he wanted to star in the film. What struck Pasolini when he first laid eyes on Garofolo was his resemblance to the youth in Caravaggio's painting, which Pasolini recreates in one of the loveliest scenes in the film. Garofolo, in his physical awkwardness and uncertainty in front of the camera, is perfection as Ettore. The film is itself a permanent record of a moment in Garofolo's life that passed as it was being filmed. The film captures this moment and preserves it for all time. This is Pasolini's gift to Garofolo, and it is one we share with him.

Poetics of the Everyday

Cesare Zavattini, one of the key figures of Italian neo-realism, wrote a series of articles in the early 1950s explaining the significance of this movement for himself and for cinema. (These articles would later be combined into one essay, “A Thesis on Neo-Realism.”) In this article he writes, “The most important characteristic of neo-realism, i.e., its essential innovation is, for me, the discovery that this need to use a story was just an unconscious means of masking human defeat in the face of reality; imagination, in its own manner of functioning, merely superimposes death schemes onto living events and situations”

Narrative, the will to fiction, is imagination’s weapon against the senseless nature of existence. It is what allows us to perceive the world as intelligible and interesting – as meaningful. Neo-realism, according to Zavattini, rejects this need to escape our boredom in the face of the everyday. Instead of facilitating our aversion, and evasion, of life, neorealism discovers, allows us to discover, the “radiance” “in things, events and in men.” This is why neo-realism begins with the world itself, with the people and things that populate the world. Instead of imposing our imagination on the world, instead of imposing our petty “death schemes” on existence, we are asked to discover the beauty of the everyday, the beauty of the ordinary. In so doing, we discover that reality is in fact “extremely rich”, complex, involving – but the trick is to “learn how to look at it” without impatience, without fear. (This makes it the opposite of Hollywood, which promises not to bore us by eliminating all traces of our world from its deathly empire.)

This changes the nature of cinematic narrative. Now the story is left open to chance, is left open to life. Neo-realism moves away from the causal form of narrative that typifies classical mainstream film. In this type of work, each situation is only relevant in terms of the chain it forms with what precedes it and what is to follow. The narrative is organized as a “centrifugal force”. In neo-realism, to the contrary, a situation may develop its own “centripetal force”. As Zavattini says, “when we imagine a scene, we feel the need to ‘stay’ there inside it […] it has within itself all the potential of being reborn and of having different effects. We can calmly say: give us an ordinary situation and from it we will make a spectacle.” This is because, he adds, every moment of our lives has infinite potential: “everything is full of infinite potentiality.”

Zavattini proposes a “cinema of encounter” in which the director, working outside of the studio, places himself in “direct contact with reality." In this future cinema, the act of filming and the act of telling a story are one and the same event, “there will be no scenario written beforehand, and no dialogue to adopt.” The filmmaker will capture the event as it occurs, and the film will itself become a document of this immanent practice in which documentary and fiction, life and art merge, become one.

This is the legacy of neo-realism, and this is its infinite potential.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Luminous Being

Still from Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park

Life as Work of Art

"What strikes me is the fact that in our society art has become something that is related only to objects, and not to individuals or to life. That art is something specialized, which is done only by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not life?"
– Michel Foucault

This is a quote from Foucault's "late period", when his focus shifts from genealogy – as an analysis of power and its imbrication in discourses of knowledge and truth – to the ethics and aesthetics of subject formation (what he calls subjectivation). It's a beautiful passage which is resonant of the attempt in modern art to extinguish the distinction between art and non-art, between art and life. Foucault's reference to furniture clearly evokes Duchamp, as well as the Surrealist objet trouvé

In one of his last essays "What is Enlightenment", Foucault speaks of Baudelaire as an exemplar of this mode of subjectivation. Why? 1. Baudelaire demonstrates an acute awareness of the contemporary moment in which he lives, a moment defined by "the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent" (in other words, the advent of what is typically called "modernity"). 2. This insight leads Baudelaire to ask an ethical and aesthetic question re: how the subject should live the "perpetual movement" that is modern life. According to the poet, the modern artist doesn't merely (passively) record impressions of modernity, but actively seizes them, works with them, works on them, transfigures them as he transforms himself. "Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself." 

Likewise, the goal for Foucault is to affirm the self without falling back on notions of depth, interiority, essence; to affirm the self as a process (a becoming-subject), an opening, a practice. An aesthetics of existence.