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…in the (coming of) age (movie) of its technological reproducibility

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Haven’t seen the film yet, but strange, this from the New York Times review of Tiny Furniture:

One of the knots that Ms. Dunham requires you to untie while you’re watching “Tiny Furniture” is the extent to which she is playing with ideas about fiction and the real, originals and copies. Is the character Aura actually Ms. Dunham (the unique woman who lived in that loft) or is the director playing a copy of herself? Ms. Dunham doesn’t overtly say. One hint, though, might be the character’s unusual first name, which suggests that Ms. Dunham, at the age of 24 and herself a recent graduate, has read the social theorist Walter Benjamin’s 1930s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” one of the most influential (and commonly classroom-assigned) inquiries into aesthetic production and the mass reproduction of art.

Benjamin argued that an original work of art (say, a Rodin sculpture), has an aura, which creates a distance between it and the beholder. But aura decays as art is mechanically reproduced (say, for postcards). This decay is evident in cinema, where instead of individuals contemplating authentic works of art, as in a museum, a collective consumes images in a state of distraction. While there were dangers inherent in this shift, and while cinema could uphold what he called “the phony spell of a commodity,” its shocks might also lead to a “heightened presence of mind.” (“The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is criticized with aversion.”) Cinema, in other words, might spark critical thinking.

Strange move, if that’s what’s going on. Seems perfectly evocative of the way that certain “canonical” theoretical texts turn, via the way they are presented in undergraduate classrooms at liberal arts colleges and the like, into a generalized soup of “life philosophy” and gnomic multi-use utterances. Someone texts their girlfriend / or boyfriend: Please stop texting me to check what I’m doing when I’m drinking with my friends – it’s like I’m living in the panopticon! Or, on a bros night out, Dude, she’s like your pharmakon – the medicine that you need but also the poison that’ll kill you.

Loss of the aura indeed. Suppose it’s bound to happen. “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction…” and so forth.

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April 2, 2012 at 9:35 am

Posted in benjamin, movies, theory

meek’s cutoff

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Saw Meek’s Cutoff the other night – absolutely brilliant. Not sure how to put any of this without giving the game away, but it’s an incredibly artful piece and one that is in large part about what we can and can’t read / hear / comprehend / understand though it’s right there in front of our eyes / ears / heads. It’s a complicated film that fucks with the audience in all sorts of ways. (I’m usually ready for this sort of thing, as a modernist by trade, but I was actually complaining about the sound being too low in the cinema until the person I was with clue me in to the fact that it was probably intentional that we couldn’t hear what the characters were saying through large chunks of the film…)

And it’s a film that that vividly – and incredibly patiently – resists the probing, teleological impulse genetically resident in the Western genre that it’s subverting. Plus it plays all of this out in a way that makes the “American story” into at once a sort of impossible “back into the garden” narrative that’s biblically damned to fail and a haunting performance of the situation that I’ve always believed makes up the lion’s share of the American political unconscious. (Let’s put it this way: this is a settler and Indians story in which, well, there aren’t many Indians but the landscape is strewn with evidence that they once were here…. Just as the landscape is now, still…)

You should see it if you get a chance. Reminded me a lot of Lars Von Trier’s stuff, actually. Weird trees and all…

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May 18, 2011 at 10:38 am

Posted in america, movies

“with the thrill of a Tom Clancy novel”

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Makes me feel a little Deleuzian when I start thinking this way, and we’re all getting really tired of social media metaphorics, but there is something in the world that loves to pluck at webs until they become simply a set of separate strings, to boil down complex networks until they become linear romances of one sort or another. From the Guardian:

Producers Barry Josephson and Michelle Krumm, who have optioned The Most Dangerous Man in the World, say they are planning a “suspenseful drama” in the vein of All the President’s Men and with the thrill of a Tom Clancy novel. “As soon as I met Andrew and read a few chapters of his profound book, I knew that – with his incredibly extensive depth of knowledge – it would enable us to bring a thought-provoking thriller to the screen,” Krumm told Variety.

Makes me think (again, I know, enough with the social networking stuff) of a twitter feed vs. a police horse charge, the algorithm that runs YouTube vs. a battle scene in War and Peace. There must be other ways to tell such stories – wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world in which they were told otherwise and better?

(BTW: quite funny, the results that come of Google image searching “the most dangerous man in the world.”)

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January 21, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Posted in movies, narrative

wall street 2

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A Hollywood stuck in an endless circle of remakes, unable to conceive of novel characters or situations, meets and is mangled up with a world stuck in what promises to be perpetual economic crisis, ceaselessly recycling its heroes into vilains and back again.

The only way, it seems, that you can tell that time is passing at all is by the size and shape of the mobile phones.

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May 15, 2010 at 6:57 pm

south of the border

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It’s not really that surprising, but it seems that only the NYT business section is free from the mandate to inject some snide comment on the unsustainability of oil-financed socialism or a rumor about Lula’s alcoholism into every piece that mentions Chavez or any other Latin American left or leftish political figure. We’ll see what happens when Stone’s South of the Border makes the main section… Betcha dollars to doughnuts that the reactionary boilerplate returns…..

Anyway, here’s the trailer for the film:

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May 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

the hurt locker and the “fog of war”

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Just watched The Hurt Locker on pay-per-view, and sure it’s wonderfully exciting and slick. But the other thing it is, or rather does, is the same pernicious thing that “higher quality” American war films, films thematically-centered on the “ambiguities of war” have been doing for decades. That is, it repeatedly puts the viewer through the most baffling aspect of counter-insurgent combat – the serial inability to discern enemy combatant from native non-combatant, the guy peddling counterfeit DVDs from the guy strapped with plastique, the “good guy” family man from the terrorist plotter, the corner-working prostitute from the would-be assassin. In focusing on these moments of indiscernability, it trains its audience not in the art of making split-section distinctions (because films are wired to surprise – thus your best guess will always be a wrong guess) but in the fact that such distinctions can’t in fact be made.

I have no doubt, in other words, that The Hurt Locker captures (albeit, I’m sure, in a cinematically intensified form) something of what it feels like to be an American soldier in Iraq. I only worry that the visceral training that it provides means something different to the GI in the field and the citizen at home seated in the court of public opinion.

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March 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

Posted in movies, war

in print, then…

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Huh. A revised version of this post was just accepted for publication in a decent academic journal. First time I’ve ever done that, “properly” published something from on here…

Bittersweet stupidity… Nice to get things published, but if they aren’t REF acceptable (and this isn’t, as it’s too short) I just get in trouble for writing unpurposefully…

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February 10, 2010 at 3:29 am

Posted in academia, movies

the piano teacher and teaching

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Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher might just be the best film about teaching that I’ve ever seen. In particular, high-end teaching – the instruction of students potentially good enough to better their teacher. In the film, Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory. She once had hopes, it seems, of being a big-time pianiste herself – hopes which are still held by her tyrannical mother, who warns her daughter in an early scene “If you want your students to have a career instead of you… No one must surpass you, my girl… Ne sois pas maladroite.” But of course her mother’s words speak to (or around) the insurmountable problem, even paradox, at the center of high-end teaching. One teaches because one can’t quite do, but can nevertheless do well enough to instruct others – others with a hope (that’s why they’re there!) of doing better, even doing well enough not to have to teach. Erika, as it turns out, obeys her mother’s orders with shocking fidelity.

She’s an extremely demanding teacher, but what she teaches is a demanding topic – interpretation. We hear her again and again criticize her students for faulty comprehension of the composer’s directions as to tempo or dynamics, or in the case of music accompanied by song, their understanding of the relationship between the notes that they play and the words that go with them.  At one point, she berates one of her charges for missing the fact that “here, the mood switches to irony” as well as the “obstinacy of the complacent middle-class” expressed in one of the songs.  In the scene that I’ve clipped in here, it’s the question of what Schubert’s instructions mean – “Schubert’s dynamics run from scream to whisper not loud to soft.”

She is an extremely good teacher, it seems – but her aptitude only heighens the contradiction that I described above. In fact, it heightens it so much that the film has to shift registers, translating what had been an issue of interpretitive education into one of sexuality. Erika’s affair with Walter Klemmer starts where the piano instruction left off. He is desperate for her attention, and she responds by giving orders, and eventually composing an entire textbook of sexual interpretation for Walter to follow. The results are disastrous (and unfortunately, not English subtitled on Youtube….)

It is worth remembering at this point that Erika’s sexuality has been figured all along as not only masochistic but spectatorial. She doesn’t seem to get off, but what fun she has in this department arrives via the observation of the fun of others. She spies on people fucking in their cars at a drive-in movie theater, and retrieves the cum-rags in a porn shop video-cell in order to sniff them. Those who cannot do… But at the point in the film captured in the video above, Walter rejects her instructions as insane – in fact, insanely overly-instructional. She reacts desperately, but despite her desperation, anything beyond written instructions, anything beyond teaching, is too much for her. (In the next scene, as she apologizes to him and begs him to stay with her, she frantically offers him oral sex – but vomits when he ejaculates in her mouth….) Thus begins her plummeting fall from the position of the teacherly mastery at the hands (and cock) of a student who will both follow her instructions all too literally (showing up at her apartment that night to beat the shit out of her, breaking her nose, ignoring her pleas for him to stop – all per her previous written instructions) and at the same time asserting his own right to make up some rules of his own.

As he says just after breaking her nose, “You know, I do realise that all this isn’t very nice of me. But if you’re honest, you’ll admit you’re partly responsible. I mean, it’s true… Yes or no?” She answers in the affirmative. He repeats, “Am I right?” And she responds “Yes, Walter.”  And as he rapes her, he utterances take on an uncannily pedagogical tone, a series of imperatives and scolding prohibitions: “You have to give a bit… You can’t leave me now… You can’t humiliate a man that way and… It’s not possible.”

Stringent instructions on musical interpretation have given on to sexual orders, but this time Erika’s student at once fulfils and outsteps the paths that she has outlined in her teacherly instructions. It is the ostensibly blissful moment of the student’s supercession of the master, what we teachers all would say that we hope for, that we teach for, but which in fact – whether we know it or not – constitutes an act of fatal violence upon ourselves and the very authority upon which our instructorial authority is based. All of which significantly clarifies the stakes of the final scene.

Back during Walter’s initial admission interview, Erika had argued that he was too old to have a shot at a career as a professional pianist. But if he is too old, what does that make her? Her belated turn toward sexual adventurism in lieu of the intensities of work was always already a registration of her failures as an artist – in a sense, it was implicit in her taking up of a position, right from the start. She will never get her shot, it’s way too late – she can only give instruction and live on with he ambivalent hopes and fears that someone learns to obey them so thoroughly that they come to disobey them. That is to say, to learn to love her with all the sexualized violence and hatred that she displays toward her own mother. But unlike the the pathetic old woman with whom she shares a bed, she is enough of a professional to do herself in (if that is what she has done) just at the moment when the outcome – of all of it – is clear and she has finally lost and her student has in his own way won. But even this act, as you can see in the clip above, hovers undecidibly between stonecold hari-kari and some sort of apotheosis of childish passive-aggression. Whatever she has done in this scene, and whatever the outcome, she has missed the heart yet again.

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November 26, 2009 at 2:31 am

Posted in academia, movies

sunday post: back in the garden knowing what we know

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Lars von Trier is famous for never flying, and thus never visiting America, despite the fact that he’s set most of his recent films there. Some laugh about this; others compare him to Kafka when the latter is up to this sort of thing:

As Karl Rossmann, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbour of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before. The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

Back to Antichrist: Americans do not as a rule own Scandinavian-style summer shacks deep in the woods, unreachable by car, and which they arrive at on weekends via train and then taxi and then hike. We don’t have trains like that, and if we did we likely wouldn’t have taxis like that either. We drive. This even goes for psychotherapist/grad student couples who live in Seattle, who would pull the Subaru up to the sidedoor of their cabin just like any other red-blooder USAer.

That said, there’s a way that Von Trier’s strange euro-goggling of America and my own meet. When I lived where I lived before London, my little rust belt burg, I extremely often coped with things by imagining that I was actually living in some sort of small, Mitteleuropean city. I’d tool around the autobahns (interstate highways) in my VW, shop at a food-coop where all the brands were not the brands that I grew up with, eat lunch outside at a wine-bar cafe, buy furniture at IKEA and the like. It was a coping mechanism that didn’t really work – there weren’t any trains to take anywhere, and no one spoke any interestingly baffling languages on the streets.

One of the ur/unwritten posts of this blog is a post that I have been meaning to write for years about the IKEA catalogue and notions of Europeanness. I wish there was someplace where I could look through back issues, as there’s one image in particular that’s stayed with me for years, but which I’ll never find again in all likelihood.

At one point, I thought somewhat seriously about buying a little plot of land on the shores of the prettier of the two Great Lakes in the vicinity and planting on it one of those prefab little cabins, the sort where a truck pulls up and dumps your parts and an instruction manual and then you work on it every weekend until its done. This seemed like a very Scandinavian idea to me – weekends at a remote cabin without utilities, on a lake without tourist infrastructre. Obviously, I never did it.

At any rate, please don’t laugh. We all cope with America whatever way we can – it takes a lot of coping, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person with self-made psycho-visual filters and screens devised for such uses…. But think about it for a second. Von Trier consistently sets his films in America because he wants to criticize this place that he has never visited, but in setting his films there without really knowing the place, he ends up creating a strange Euro-slanted America, the America that is the America of my dreams when I am stuck there, hating the place. Or even, in a certain limited sense, the America that I’d love to see happen.

Of course, I dreamed these little waking half dreams mostly on weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays, as that was when I had the most time to look around and to worry about what I was seeing.

***

Saturday night I went out back for a cigarette and smoked while listening to the kids next door. Parents are away, teenager is having a party. She has had parties for three straight nights. They go on about this or that and then suddenly, at one point a phrase slips through my mind: When I am 18 again I wonder if..

Ah dumb brain! Tragic paraphraxis! The entire history of religious belief as merely a prolongation of a mechanical fault in the wires. How much of life do we live with stuff like that floating about in the back parts, only barely audible, visible, legible? How often do we ignore it? And what sort of deformative effect does it have upon the stuff in the foreground?

***

K-punk has a really good post up that brilliantly ties together his recent honeymoon at Disneyland Paris (huh!) and Michael Jackson. It ends in the following way:

Postmodernity has meant the repudiation of the Father. Fathers are either absent, bad or ineffectual. Cosetted by the maternal superego, no-one wants to say no… no-one wants to pay the price of success….

But the problem isn’t that childhood is curtailed too early, it’s that it never ends… This is how Jackson exemplified our plight… To truly overcome the Father-Thing you would have to occupy its place, but who is willing or able to do that?

I have been wondering the same thing lately, but (of course) in a more personally-directed and much less abstract way. That is to say, I have been wondering about what it would take for me to “occupy [the] place” of the Father-Thing, once and for all.

***

My wife is going to start guestposting on my blog so watch out for that! She’s a better writer than I am, so this can only be to the good. Unless she chickens out. I wonder what will happen… Sorting out an account for her tonight.

***

We worked that out – that is to say, I hired her – while we sat on Primrose Hill Saturday, one kid asleep and the other not. We’d already done the Zoo, and later we’d have dinner at Marine Ices in Chalk Farm, which, I must say, makes pizza good enough to eat and is kid-friendly so there you go. We lolled, we were run into by our neighbor (the husband of the woman who’s becoming my wife’s best friend, it seems….), we talked about writing.

The other thing we talked about – our theme of the day, really – was our disgust and incomprehension at the way modern day men in big cities of the developed world comport themselves post, say, 25. In particular, we were serially shocked by what we already knew, all too well, which is that grown men dress stupidly, childishly. The tee-shirts! Tee-shirts with cartoon characters on them! Tee-shirts with very dumb jokes written on them! The Arsenal-wear and the Hotspur-wear!

There is a dad of a kid at my daughter’s school, a normal looking guy who is probably in his worklife a lawyer or tv executive or something, who on weekends dresses up in his favorite CBeebies t-shirt and rides a fucking scooter around the neighborhood. It’s more than just a getting in touch with my toddlers sort of thing, as it’s a relatively common site to see the family at the park, mom watching the kids in the playground, while dad scoots or skates around the other parts of the park, trying out moves on an apparatus that is his, that does not belong to his children but was probably some sort of father’s day present or something.

We talk, my wife and I, about the women attached to these men. We talk about the deformative effect this sort of thing must have upon their sex life. Maybe some women would find that sort of thing cute and boyish and thus warm and maybe from warm get to sexy. But I, imagining things through a woman’s eyes (do I imagine anything any other way? Les femmes, ces sont toutes moi) can’t quite work out the erotomath. On the other hand, I’m sure the kids love it… Until they start to really, really fucking hate it.

***

Disclosure: I adore athletic wear, officially branded merchandise. I love soccer jerseys and baseball hats – there is perhaps nothing I love more purely and simply, though of course, as posted recently, it’s probably not all that simple a love at base. I will further disclose that I have a rather large collection of the stuff hanging in my closet. But I do not wear it out! I am not a child! I used to wear a River Plate windbreaker when I lived in Brooklyn, but that just had I’ve just been to Buenos Aires hipster appeal, the most hipster appeal I could ever muster. But even this has been left hanging in the closet now that I’m, you know, fully adult.

***

Engels lived for a long, long time in Primrose Hill. See?

***

I had a hard time finding a bank machine tonight with funds available after the long drunken weekend (London’s not mine) and thus ended up wandering past Blockbuster (yep, they’re over here too, sadly), did a little doubletake misstep on the pavement, and headed inside to rent LVT’s The Idiots, which I’d never seen.

(Worth mentioning, and definitely fodder for another post, but I am one of those people who can and does fantasize themselves the world’s leading expert on certain novelists and one filmmaker on the basis of reading (or, in one case, seeing) one or two or maybe even three of their works. Not sure whether it’s a fox / hedgehog sort of thing, or just delusion. But I pull it off, and it works, and who knows, maybe in a few cases I’m not that wrong.  I feel no responsibility to the oeuvre! What’s up with that? Another post, another post.)

Wow! What would it be to have the balls to waste your audience’s time for 95 minutes all in service of an astoundingly brilliant final 5 minute run? Un coeur simple meets Baader-Meinhof! A vertible cinematic thesis on the incisive question of the minor character.

We didn’t fail to note, as we watched it, that the male characters spent much of the film wearing really stupid T-Shirts. Is that part of the idiotic pose or not?

***

Today, we had a lovely picnic in the park and some wiffleball to boot (we use a bat that has a huge MLB logo on it, imported natch, so that the local yokels don’t think we’re playing fucking rounders.) We’re not – this is plastic baseball. My daughter has surprisingly sweet swing, liners to all fields, for a four-year old. She refuses to pitch to me or play catch so I guess it’s the American League for her, when it’s time. My broken finger, still untreated, forces me to throw with three rather than two fingers on the ball.

During and after the picnic we talked more about this whole “adulthood” and “child rearing” issue and decided that it’s impossible to speak publically about without sounding like a dick, generally a resentful dick. So perhaps we’ll leave it at that till next weekend.

***

The FT had lunch with Lars Von Trier this week…

Asked to “justify” the making of the film, he refused outright, reminding the members of the press that they were his guests, and attributing the work to “the hand of God”. And then, for good measure, he informed his audience straight-faced that he was “the best director in the world … and I am not so sure that God is the best God in the world.” Many artists cite divine inspiration for their work; not so many assert their overt disappointment at what their deity has to offer.

You know, as artist / divinity comparisons go, that’s not bad. I happen to think he is “the best director in the world,” and I certainly would agree with the God part, if there were a God.

***

LVT has four kids. I didn’t know this, and actually I was wondering in light of the child-death stuff in the film. But it makes sense… The first sign that She is going mad is an episode of phantom crying… And if you’re a parent, you totally understand the uncanny realness of that sort of thing. You’re sitting in your living room, having a drink, watching tv, when suddenly there it is clear as day. Somebody is crying, somewhere. You leave your seat, you go to the bottom of the stairs, and it is gone. I tend to think that it has to do with the attunement of your audial receptors to certain frequencies, frequencies that can be hit by other sounds but signal only child in trouble once you’ve got an infant.

Going through the process of having a couple of kids certainly does open up one aspect of the work that might be a bit harder for some to see. Or several aspects, actually. IT, who’s already written what looks to be a fairly definitive post on the film, labels the opening scene “almost comical” in her post. Here’s the full quote:

The moppet that dies in an almost comical opening scene manages to combine the trauma of the primal scene with the premature suicide of a little Oedipus in a matter of moments; the film is not about his death in any meaningful way, and the very creepy abuse – creepy because so utterly minimal – that we discover his mother has inflicted on him (routinely putting his shoes on the wrong feet leading to a mild distortion of the bones noted in the autopsy report but not deemed a significant factor in his death) says far more about Gainsbourg’s disturbed mind than it does about the child.

And it is comical, in a limited sense – the limited sense of the comical, always struck through with tragedy and gore, that pervades LVT’s work. The corpsestink grinning that he does is what makes him a properly (converted and now ex-)Catholic artist, and its really no wonder that the hacks keep comparing him to Bosch and the like.

The perfume-ad-quality of the sex bits of the montage, the obviousness of the primal scene moment (but these things do happen, don’t they?) and of the scenario in general might make you think comic, yes. But on the other hand, the child death isn’t played, I don’t think, primarily to comic effect, and it certainly won’t’t strike, from what I can tell, most parents who see the film that way. Rather, this is the very stuff of cliché, generic, yet all the more powerful for that, as it taps right into the deep parental anxiety, the nightmare dreams that I am sure all of us in the family way have and probably on a nightly basis. The reason why people worry about the height of the crib bar and install those awful fucking gates on their staircases (far more likely to kill you as you stumble to the toilet in the middle of the night than save your toddler), why I have to wear a jacket when I go outside to smoke (SIDS / smoke exposure), etc.

My own version of the dream is as stock as they come. I am getting myself and my daughters out the front door. The oldest one takes off out to the sidewalk, as she always does, and I am struggling and getting frustrated. I catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of her pink jacket disappearing between two parked cars. And then another car, this time moving, comes to a sudden stop in the street. There was a low thump, a thump knowable at once but which you only hear somehow a few seconds afterward and then likely forever and ever and ever after that. Stock, see… And just to get it from the other end of the montage (again, this is obvious, but I’ll go on anyway): There is almost nothing (sure, I mean there are some things, god) more psychologically disruptive to a couple’s sex life than the birth of a child. It’s not just a matter of having no time and the like. It’s that you’re constantly (if lucky!) sneaking away to steal a few minutes (can’t ask really for more than a few minutes) but once you’re there you don’t so much fuck as wait to get caught fucking. Phantom crying morphs into phantom footsteps and door creakings, and the funniest part of all is that even after you’ve stopped action several times because one of you has heard something, even then, with uncanny regularity just before the finish of things, then the door does in fact silently open, no footsteps at all, or if you’re lucky enough to have locks (there are other problems with having locks – Christ, do I have to explain everything on here? No but we should get some locks…) and everyone rolls away and covers up and curses under their breath and exchanges meaningful looks and takes care of the kid, who may or may not just have seen the scene (again? how many times can it still be primal?) that they talk about in the crazy-people books.

Sorry to be crude about it, but it’s like they somehow know when you’re about to, erm, finish. And really, why wouldn’t they – its a vexed issue for them on the wider level, the sibling thing. More partial gene carriers good, spliting up the family fortune very very bad, etc.

Anyway, all the reviewers who have kids seem to mention the disturbing power of the opening scene in what they write. From the FT piece again:

Forget the bloody mutilations, I say. As the father of a young son, it is the first 10 minutes that are the most unbearable to watch. “Yes,” he nods. “I have four children. You think that the more that you have, the easier it gets but that is not how it is. You worry more and more.”

I believe him on this score. And there’s more to it than that. The most bathetic thing in the scene, the way the kid’s little stuffed animal follows him down out the window, commits the same meters per second per second contortions on the way down, he’s not only playing yet another familiar, and familiarly evocative thing for parents, he’s setting up one of the major (and majorly ambivalent) rhymes of the work as a whole. The pacified animals that He sees at the end – animals that appear double-cooked in film, spliced in from some sort fading reel out of the archives labelled Bambi-vivant – represent a nature retamed, restuffed, a reversal of the children’s book trope of the stuffed toy come to life.

One last thing in this line. One of the things it’s principally about is the staggeringly heavy effect upon a couple of having an infant, in this case an infant that dies in the opening sequence of the film… But enough of the movie is invested in figuring out just what happened last summer, presumably the first full summer of the child’s life, that it remains a film about the fatal first two years of parenthood. All of a sudden, and despite all the good PC thoughts you were thinking when you decided to have the child, some very important things get set straight for you during the first few years of your first child’s life. The character axis of the film hits heavy on one of the most important things. He gets to keep working, gets to keep being the same indifferent rational machine-type being that he’s always been. She, on the other hand, gets all feral and animally. It’s hard to explain what it’s like, for both the male and female parties involved, the first time you see a new mother’s tits start to leak because it’s feeding time, a bit late for the feeding. Stigmata-y, except its animality rather than divinity that’s being revealed in the flow. The resentments that pass back and forth between the characters, but particular from her towards him, are familiar too. What else is She saying, other than something like I understand that this doesn’t accord with the rational plan for your life that you came up with when you were seventeen, but buddy, I’m bound up in something here and it’s calling the shots, not me. So get in line. What is that thing that’s calling the shots? “Nature” is one word for it, I suppose, but not quite the one I would want to use.

Under normal conditions, though, father and mother stay just too fucking busy to stop and fully consider the consequences of what has just been revealed to them, startlingly, about the way things really are vs. the way they’re talked about over shabby-elegant brunches on idle, childless Sunday mornings. But remove the child from the scene, and thus the busyness of parenting, and one might imagine all of this stuff coming back with a vengeance. We’ve been thrown out of Eden, and now lo and behold here were are again – except we’ve already learned the stuff about our nakedness, the fact that we’re more like the beast that we’ve named than the Guy who made us, as well as what the Guy said about bringing forth children in sorrow. There is an extra-therapeutic explanation for why She – despite the fact that motherhood seems not to have suited her – keeps jumping He for sex and why he keeps trying to resist her advances… It’s not him that’s throwing the thousand upon thousands of acorns on the roof of their place, it’s her…

I am going to keep writing about this film for a good while yet… I’ve not even started to say what I’d like to say about it. Despite the fact that IT seems slightly nostalgic for the hardy days of high child mortality and the survival only of the fittest of the brood (mourning the child becomes a bourgie “indulgence” in her post – as if they should just churn a few more out and see which ones can figure out how to use the can opener by themselves and certainly not waste time worrying over the ones that fall from the nest – where have we heard that sort of thing before, in another field of culture?) (UPDATE: IT has posted a response to this and adjusted her post slightly to remove the line I hammered on. I want to say that I feel pretty bad about what I did here… As I know very well that IT doesn’t support the things I’m saying here…) I’m extremely happy to live in a world where you have one or two or three and they’re likely to make it through to adulthood. But like most modern developments that I’m (we’re) happy about – like for instance sexual freedom in general, survival past the working prime, etc  – this development undoubtly is no doubt deeply out of sync with ageold and hardwired instincts and not easily adjusted psychosocial patterns. We, as a species, are very good at getting better at things, and that’s perhaps our biggest problem – and the problem that the film brilliantly takes up.

***

I only admire artists who work with a palette smeared in received technicolor, generic cliché. The only two moves are overmuch and undercut, and the rhythm of performing those two moves is what makes up the dance, the only dance, that I am interested in. Stock images make us feel because our feelings are stock. There is no shame in this, save for the very shame of being human and thus thrown and programmed, not really ourselves except in the sense that we are everyone else too. I admire LVT, admire him ever so much, because he understands this. The chatterering types get locked into a cyclic reiteration of this is too much and he’s having one over on us. They’re right, but they don’t quite understand the underlying point, the fact that there’s no other way to do it, not anymore or perhaps it was always already the case.

***

One last thing from the FT interview, something that perhaps overturns the entire post in the very act of tying it all up. As it turns out, LVT himself is one of those Child Men that were bothering us this weekend:

Von Trier, 53, is dressed in what I take to be Danish summer casual style, T-shirt, cargo trousers and sandals, which suits his portly figure.

Cargo-trousers? Sandals? Summer casual?

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July 27, 2009 at 5:47 am

“marx and montage”

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Frederic Jameson has a piece called “Marx and Montage” in the current New Left Review. I saw an earlier version of this paper last year as the keynote at a conference in the US, where it didn’t go down all that well. This is tighter and better. It deals, via Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity, with Einsenstein’s rough plans to make a film of Marx’s Kapital. He deals with, among other things, what Joyce’s Ulysses had to do with Eisenstein’s Marx project…

Commentators—and not only Kluge himself—have fastened on the jotting, ‘a day in a man’s life’ as the evidence for believing Eisenstein to have imagined a plot sequence like that of Joyce’s Bloomsday. Later on, they note the addition of a second ‘plot line’, that of social reproduction and ‘the “house-wifely virtues” of a German worker’s wife’, along with the reminder: ‘throughout the entire picture the wife cooks soup for her returning husband’, the unspecified ‘man’ of the earlier sequence having logically enough become a worker. This alleged routine cross-cutting—to which one should probably add the day in the life of a capitalist or a merchant—is being ruminated at the very same historical moment when, as Annette Michelson points out, Dziga Vertov is filming Man with a Movie Camera.

It is true: ‘Joyce may be helpful for my purpose’, notes Eisenstein. But what follows is utterly different from the ‘day in the life of’ formula. For Eisenstein adds: ‘from a bowl of soup to the British vessels sunk by England’. What has happened is that we have forgotten the presence, in Ulysses, of chapters stylistically quite different from the day’s routine format. But Eisenstein has not: ‘In Joyce’s Ulysses there is a remarkable chapter of this kind, written in the manner of a scholastic catechism. Questions are asked and answers given’. But what is he referring to when he says, ‘of this kind’?

It is clear that Kluge already knows the answer, for in his filmic discussion of the notes, the pot of soup has become a water kettle, boiling away and whistling: the image recurs at several moments in the exposition (Eisenstein’s notes projected in graphics on the intertitles), in such a way that this plain object is ‘abstracted’ into the very symbol of energy. It boils impatiently, vehemently it demands to be used, to be harnessed, it is either the whistling signal for work, for work stoppage, for strikes, or else the motor-power of a whole factory, a machine for future production . . . Meanwhile, this is the very essence of the language of silent film, by insistence and repetition to transform their objects into larger-than-life symbols; a procedure intimately related to the close-up. But this is also what Joyce does in the catechism chapter; and Ulysses’s first great affirmation, the first thunderous ‘yes’, comes here and not in Molly’s closing words: it is the primal force of water streaming from the reservoir into Dublin and eventually finding its way indomitably to Bloom’s faucet. (In Eisenstein the equivalent would be the milk separator of The General Line.)

I’ll admit to being slightly confused by what Jameson has to say about Eisenstein’s use (or non-use) of Joyce in this piece. He wants to deny Ulysses centrality to the project, but it remains somewhat unclear how or why.

I feel as though, in my ample spare time, I’m about to go on an Eisenstein reading / watching run, as this aggregate fiction that I keep thinking and taking about might be something like an intensification of modernist montage aesthetics, an intensification that does something more than just make more of it, make it faster and more total.

(Very disappointed to have missed this last night, I must say….)

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July 25, 2009 at 7:59 am

Posted in eisenstein, movies

antichrist 1 – when the political unconscious isn’t anymore

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It’s going to take me a little while to get there, but I’m going to say something about Antichrist, which I saw today and loved. Bear with me for a minute though – there’s some introductory material to get through first…

Funny thing about art, the way it relies for its power on a failure of knowledge on the part of the artist, a failure of knowledge about herself or himself. Awhile back, Jane Dark posted a nice, crisp definition of the concept of the artistic political unconscious in one of my comment boxes:

The most compelling approach to “truth” in the novel is probably Jameson’s account of “the real of history” in Political Unconscious and it is exactly what can’t be inserted via choosing to do so, as both Ballard and the bourgeois novelists would have us do.

The really nice thing about Jane’s definition is that he brings it forward as part of a list of “Some thoughts, not syllogistic, and based in part on extensive experience observing and teaching fiction writing.” What’s nice about that is that it focuses in on the problem of the political unconscious from a direction a bit different from that of Jameson in his book on the subject. That is, Jane stages it here as a problem of writing rather than simply one of reading, composition rather than interpretation. I hope Jane forgives me if I’m bending his comment away from what he was saying or would say, and whatever violence Jameson (rightly!) does to the truth-effect of literary art, it still seems true that one of the principle places from which a work draws its power (truth, “truth,” uncanniness, mysterious appeal, bend, break, heave, whatever) is the presence of this political or, slightly more broadly, ideological unconscious at work in/behind the text itself. And as Jane says (and his saying this is why I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating his comment in the direction I have) this unconscious is something that the artist can’t simply press into the work. In order to operate effectively, it can’t be chosen or even visible to the artist herself or himself. Unconsciouses are just that, unconscious.

So tempting to riff you all asleep on this point, but just one thought experiment for now. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a powerful (wish there was another word – there really isn’t though) novella in large part because it couldn’t come out and name and in naming critique the malign situation and system that it represents. If Heart of Darkness took the shape of either a political pamphlet polemicizing against the situation in the Belgian Congo or a fairy tale resolution of the problem of European imperialism in Africa, it might be a nicer work, but it wouldn’t be as interesting.

I suspect that I might get into a bit of trouble for saying all of this. I’ll admit being worried, and I’ll further encourage you to disagree with me. But if you do disagree, remember that you will be arguing for a work that tempts profound platitude, which is a different thing than just being boring, and will take some real explanation. Further, I understand that I am redeploying Jameson’s concept here in a radically simplified form. This is my version of the political unconscious – I understand Jameson’s very well, but I’d simply rather use this shorthand model for now.

So, as I said about the top, one of the funny things about art is that it relies perhaps as much on what the artist does not and really cannot know as it does upon things at hand, available for the artist to view. But we might go on to say that there’s something even funnier. And that is the fact that the artist, given what I’ve said above, might well find himself or herself in some deep shit were he or she to stumble upon, to discover, the unconscious material that’s been giving the work its power. If Conrad had, in the course of writing Heart of Darkness, become somehow enlightened about the political (and, I would argue, politico-personal) undercurrents that were informing his work, aesthetic disaster might well have ensued. Of course, another crop unconsciousness would grow up in its place, but there’s no guarantee that Conrad would have been the right man for the semi-articulation of the new one. Perhaps the creation of great art depends upon the fortuitous (non)emergence of just the writing sort of unconsciousness for just the right sort of writer.

I am quite sure that the politics of this piece, and the thoughts that inform it, are for sure political chaotic and perhaps deeply suspect. But I further believe that the politics of art are so complicated that no one else is getting them right, so I might as well try this out. So what the hell.

I believe that something like this even funnier turn of events, in which a strain of unconsciousness ceases to be unconscious and instead is directly and consciously dealt with on the level of thematics and plot, and thus screws up or at least severely problematizes the inner working of the piece or oeuvre as a whole, is fact what is afoot in Lars Von Trier’s new film Antichrist. The backstory: Von Trier has for quite awhile been accused of misogyny because of the treatment of women in his films. If I could summarize (or even develop, in some cases) the argument in this regard, the issue is that he makes us (or tries to make us) fall ever so deeply in love with his feminine characters – specifically with the “femininity” of his females, their spirit of (often sexual) self-sacrifice –  and then systematically inserts them into positions of rawly violent abasement. One his raped to death on a fishing boat, another one hanged by the patriarchal state, and so on. In doing so, he not only plays into age old myths and stereotypes of the woman, but the acts of violence that he subjects them to work along the unclear line between we love women when they suffer and we love to make women suffer. Of course, that ambivalence isn’t all that strange – its a basepoint artistic trajectory, the ideological-affectual DNA of tragedy, for instance. Still, we know what the critics mean when they make this accusation, and its hard not to see Von Trier’s treatment of his female characters as deeply retrograde if (for me anyway) at the same time incredibly affect.

The somewhat frightening, destabilizing thought is that it’s effective because its retrograde. It may well be true that these films work for me because they work with characters and plots in a way that we’re not supposed to do anymore, but in a way that is all the more powerful because it breaks a sort of high art prohibition. Then again, before I get too self-accusatory here, one would have to be a wee bit naive not to realize that the sudden reassertion of gender normativity – in art, in clothes, in sex – is something that has an extremely widespread and especially contemporaneous effectiveness at present day. I’ll say no more, but maybe you know what I mean.

There are some discrete and vivid signs that this may in fact be the case when it comes to Antichrist. For instance, the papers have been chortling over the fact that Von Trier lists a “misogyny consultant” in the credits whose job, according to The Guardian,  “was to ‘furnish ‘proof’ of ‘the fact’ that women are evil, beginning with Eve and the apple, through Shakespeare and in modern society'”. And just to turn the screw again, it turns out that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, listed simply as “She,” could well have been a good candidate for the consulting work. She is some sort of graduate student who has been driven a bit mad in the course of writing her thesis (tell us about it, right?) on gynocide. And, true to form, quite a bit of this “going mad” has to do with the fact that she, um, discovered in the course of her research that women are evil, and may in fact have deserved to be murdered. The logic behind this discovery is a little, well, complicatedly uncomplicated. We learn via some very fast talking between husband and wife that since a) everything human is natural and b) nature is evil that c) gynocide is natural and thus (?) that d) women, because part of nature, are evil too. I’m not sure that taking more time with this discussion would have shed all that much more light.

At any rate, we don’t even have to dig all that deeply into the film to see that the ostensibly unconscious or at least underdeveloped romantic misogyny of the earlier films has been drawn up out of the subtextual murk and pressed to the front of the stage for all to see. “She” is murderous and the early cliched self-blame that we reflexively want to talk away just as “He” does returns later with a vengeance. (Sorry for the spoilers, but evidence turns up mid-way that “She” was the softest, subtlest child abuser perhaps ever imagined – yet the very maternal softness of the abuse renders it rather mindbendingly fucked up – you’ll see what I mean when you see the film. I told my wife about it tonight, solid mom that she is, and it made her shiver…) Everything that was ambiguous and powerful in its ability to make us uncomfortable with the women in the earlier films is gone, melted away in the glare of the stagelights.

Now, retroactively, I’m wondering whether the reasons that the third part of the USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy, Wasington, hasn’t and likely won’t be made has something to do with all of this – he simply couldn’t put Grace through the ringer again.

All that said, I still really liked the film, and I want to say more about what’s good in it. Another post. The affectual energy does get translated elsewhere, and its not (or at least not primarily) simply into the gross-out stuff that you’ve read about – the cock spurting blood and the infamous cliterectomy, though it does have something to do with these things. The film seems to think that it’s shifting the issue to this question of “nature,” which I think isn’t quite right… More to come…

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July 25, 2009 at 1:29 am

Posted in lars von trier, movies

“the corroded state of the british imagination”

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The last few lines of Anthony Lane’s review in this week’s New Yorker of the new Harry Potter and, weirdly, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop:

Place Iannucci’s work beside the new Harry Potter film, and you get a perplexing report on the corroded state of the British imagination. The choice appears to be between a soaring escape into fantasy, where the actions of a teen-ager can be loaded with universal portent, and a descent into the rat-run of moral contamination, where the policies of a government are pushed through on a ruse. So much denial and self-hatred, for a small country, and behind them both the aggrieved memory of lost influence: what hope is there for the return of the steady, tolerant gaze?

Ouch. I mean, if we read recent American films as indices of national psycho-aesthetic pathologies, I’m sure we could come up an equally dismal either/or. Further, I’m not sure I agree with Lane’s choices for the two possibilities. The second one seems right, but I’d replace the “soaring escape into fantasy” bit with “nostalgic self-sifting and record collecting, where the remembered teenaged self and its tastes and traumas are forever loaded with universal portent…”

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July 23, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Posted in britain, movies

sontag glosses the girlfriend experience / nyc trustafarians

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From the journals, from the start of 1959:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here, even like Commentary. In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality – no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt… Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Except, of course, that TGE suggests that the last sentence should be reversed to read “Nothing except the frenzy of the bed, if that, and eating.” And I imagine she means real smells, the back-in-the-day real dirt, when the thing that stinks nowadays back in Gotham is something much more abstract. This sort of thing, for instance, the half-told story of the New New York and its Creative Industries.

Famed for its concentration of heavily subsidized 20-something residents — also nicknamed trust-funders or trustafarians — Williamsburg is showing signs of trouble. Parents whose money helped fuel one of the city’s most radical gentrifications in recent years have stopped buying their children new luxury condos, subsidizing rents and providing cash to spend at Bedford Avenue’s boutiques and coffee houses.

The concentration of people relying on family money in certain neighborhoods of New York – not just Williamsburg, though if you want to take a trip to see the ‘farians living in their native milieu, of course it is a good place to start – is extremely high. I don’t have figures, but there was a kind of standard deviation between job/salary and estimated cost of residence that make the state of play rather clear. When I sold my own apartment there, in 2005, I had four offers come in the first day it was shown. Three of the four were way, way over the asking price, and all three of those offers were formally made by family estates or by people who attached a very clarifying letter from their father’s broker in New Jersey.

It bears remembering that TGE incorporates a subtle and interesting reference to this situation. At one point, Chelsea explains that the reason she’s taken up the line of work that she has is because (and I paraphrase – don’t have time to find her exact words right now) she doesn’t or didn’t want to rely on her parents. The math’s not hard to do. Implicitly, the suggestion is that she could have relied on her parents, that they had the means to support her in the city. Her career as a high-end escort doesn’t originate in poverty, nor is it simply some sort of mindless / libidinalized cashgrab. Rather, if we’re all going to be on the anti-bburg-trust-fund bandwagon, and I’m sure we are and should be, Chelsea’s choice of a line of work represents a heroic refusal of exactly the sort of thing that the NYT article describes. Sure, she could have found something else to do, and lived elsewhere and otherwise… She’s like one of the “goodguys,” the recovering-fundees, who are meant to provide relief at the end of the trust fund article:

The culture of the area often mocks residents who depend on their families. Misha Calvert, 26, a writer who relied on her parents during her first year in the city, now has three roommates, works in freelance jobs and organizes parties to help keep her afloat while she writes plays and acts in films. There is a “giant stigma,” she said, for Williamsburg residents who are not financially independent.

“It takes the wind out of you if you’re not the independent, self-reliant artist you claim to be,” she said, “if you’re just daddy’s little girl.”

There’s a long, complicated, and in some senses counterintuitive story to be told about exactly what happened in New York from the mid-ninties onward. Giuliani (and his incredible good-fortune to be mayor during a prolonged bull market – nothing unbreaks the windows in NYC like a glut of finance sector bonuses), NYU, the coming of age of the progeny of a corporate managers of the post-Cold War surge of globalization and financialization, the inflation of a local real estate bubble that started well before the interest rates came down, and informalization of work in the wake of the rise of the unpaid internship, and the rise of what we might call hedged entrepreneurialism amongst the creative types. Lots more too, obviously…

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June 13, 2009 at 8:29 am

the girlfriend experience: “this number is the nadir of passion”

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tgeconvo

I really liked The Girlfriend Experience, but this is perhaps attributable to the fact that I am ultra-invested in something that I am from now on going to call the infra-interesting. The infra-interesting, on the surface, looks a hell of a lot like the boring – and it can be very tricky indeed to make a distinction between the two or to develop an argument that relies on anything more than inference and intuition about why something is the former and not the latter.

I learned about the infra-interesting by reading novels. Flaubert is the once and ever champion of the form, spreading the banalities of an upside-down world so thick that the world itself turns right-side up, as if automagically…. or maybe it’s the other way around. But this particular quality has a long literary history. Some, like Lukacs at certain moments, seem to argue that the novel is nothing but a materialization of the infra-int… Or at least that’s what great novels do. And it’s a continuing story. Apparently, according to Claire Messud’s recent review in the NYRB (mostly behind paywall, sorry) suggests that Colm Toibin’s new Brooklyn belongs under this rubric too… I’ll let you know when my wife’s done with our copy and I can have a looksee.

The difference between infra-interesting and just plain boring pivots on an often-very-complex deployment of irony, which can turn a dessicated film, for instance, that deploys lots and lots of cliched speech, whose characters never quite achieve the exit-velocity of intriguing interiority, whose dramatic events aren’t quite dramatic enough and whose scenarios are rote, and whose settings are unostentatious, banal, and so on, from a boring one to a sublimely infra-interesting production. The problem, of course, is to describe the lever, the hitch, the catch that makes the boring into something else. How can we be sure, except inferentially, that Eyes Wide Shut isn’t simply an incredibly stupid film rather than a meta-reflexive work of perfectly adulterated satiric genius? And how can we be sure, when we listen to the delirious banalities spoken by the characters in Soderbergh’s new film, whether we’re listening to something conceived in the spirt of the pseudo-realist pander or the hardcore-realist bonfire of the vanities?

Meta-ness, of course, is one way to frame a film preemptively as infra- rather than uninteresting. And TGE is stocked to the ceiling with meta-ness. The frame gets broken several times, you know the story about the leading lady, and there’s lots of winking discourse all the way through to clue the audience in to what’s going on. Of course, this is the sort of thing that Flaubert did (along with lots of other cutting edge stylistic technology, to be sure). One of the better moments in this line, perhaps, comes when Chelsea is “reviewed” (that is to say fucked and then written about) by someone called “the Erotic Connoisseur,” the proprietor of a site that reviews escorts. We get the review itself in voiceover, just after the ostensible dramatic climax of the film:

With her smoky-eyes, dark straight hair, and perky little body, Chelsea would appear to have the potential to satisfy in the goth or girl-next-door modes. Alas, Chelsea seems intent on marketing herself as a “sophisticated escort.” With her flat affect, lack of culture, and her utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest-Fucking-Gump. And that’s just where the problems begin. Just as her perky little tits seemed to literally shrink at my touch, so too did the connoisseur’s cock fail to launch at the clammy touch of her hand and the lukewarm and loose embrace of her mouth. To quote the great sage Jamie Gillis in Misty Beethoven, “this number is the nadir of passion.” A splendid time is absolutely not guaranteed for all.

The fact that the Connoisseur refers to his freebee sex with Chelsea as “review copy, as it were,” puts us on the right track. And further, of course, the fact that the review could hold valid not only for the character Chelsea, but probably for Sasha Gray herself (as IT puts it, she is known for “unnerving ability to look absent even (or especially) in the midst of some convoluted group penetration”) as well as for Soderbergh’s film, brings the meta in a thunderous way, is almost enough for the movie to achieve escape velocity into the Infra in a single talky bit.

But then again, meta-action is rarely enough anymore. Meta is all over the place – the shittiest film for the bored teenager market has that sort of thing in spades nowadays. Boring meta is still, or now, only just boring. It’s a base to touch, but it can’t make pseudo into hardcore all by itself nowadays, not without help.

So what is it then? Is it the fact that the film felt to me, as I watched it, like not only an illustration but even an expansion of Nina Power’s recent piece on  Nu-language (and Orwell), that does it? In the piece, she describes a recent “astonishing proliferation of coinages, buzzwords and neologisms. Rather than seeing a carefully controlled reduction in the number of officially sanctioned words, we are instead overwhelmed by wave upon wave of faddish expressions and tautologies – a kind of junk syntax in which there is no more reason for a word to be in one part of a phrase than another.” This language and its proliferation, according to Power, arrives via bureaucratic mandate – a mandate that is ultimately responsive only to the deeper mandate to seem productive despite the fact that no real production is taking place.

Sit in any meeting, whether at a company HQ or at a university, or be a participant in a focus group, and the discussion will invariably turn to questions of “benchmarking”, “quality assessment” and “blue-sky thinking” – as if one were sitting in sunny California rather than provincial England. People will “speak to” documents, forgetting that we generally speak to other human beings rather than to pieces of paper. “Clients”, whether they be students, consumers or voters, will be “consulted” as part of some “new initiative” or other. There will be “collaborations” and “partnerships” involving “stakeholders”. Participants will talk for hours and hours in an upbeat, aspirational way. And there will be coffee and biscuits, and people will congratulate one another at the end for such a “wonderfully productive session”. And yet nothing will really have been said. And certainly nothing will have been done – nothing good, at least. It’s not that we have to lie about production figures, as the Stalinist broadcasts by Orwell’s Big Brother did; rather that we have to compensate for the way we barely produce anything at all by becoming obsessed with “innovation”.

Nu-Language is, as she says, “an ominous word-cloud that drifts from one department to another, providing each of them with the illusion of activity and the false comforts of a discourse of dynamism that is incapable of recognising its own sterility.” But what’s really good about TGE, and why it both echoes Nina’s piece and provocatively focalises it into in a new and fruitful direction, is the fact that it demonstrates the spread of the “omninous world-cloud” beyond the meeting room, out into the realm of the officeless new economy of freelance worker. Becoming a yoga teacher, a magazine hack, or a high-end prostitute, it seems, doesn’t get you out of the mandate to repeat these sterilities – in fact, as we see again and again in the film, freelancing results in a deeper internalization of the same. No boss is looking because you are your own boss, but still your mouth moves and the same stuff trickled way, way down from CNBC and human resources consultants, Suze Ormand and the latest long-tailing, black-swanning pop business book.

Picture 6

But of course, this world of self-employment is in crisis – both in the film and the real world. (Serendipitously, the business section of the IHT on Saturday features a long piece about “The Self Employed Depression” – all those yoga teachers in Brooklyn faced with empty dojos and emptier wallets…) But on the other hand, the current economic downturn has only accentuated was was always already the case in the new economy of unteathered (that is, precarious, unbenefited, undercompensated) work. While the freelance prostitute has liberated herself from the protective tyranny of the pimp, freedom comes at the cost of the services of a reserve army of consultants and agents, web designers and moneyhandlers – who collectively take a piece of her or her earnings (in hourly fees and commissions) in order to hold off for as long as possible the inevitable loss of market share that she faces as she ages. Chelsea talks to her accountant about setting up her own retirement account, talks to consultants about diversifying her work into boutiquery as the clock is very much ticking down on her productive viability, and it’s hard to imagine that she has health insurance – though hers is a line of work where one would be well served to have a decent policy.

The precarity of work – especially when mixed with the tendency of that sort of work to fall under the rubrics of affective and/or communicative labor – is a particularly soil for the infra-interesting to grow. Stuck – as we all are in immaterial reaches of the economy, whether we have steady jobs or not – between the dual mandate to play things very safe and steady and constantly, incessant to rebrand and recast ourselves, to diversify our employable assets, and to handle rapid oscillations in market conditions and the tastes of the clients. And worst of all, because of the specific nature of this work, which depends upon in Chelsea’s case selling a fuck as desired, or engagement in yet another conversation about the market or the frigid wife at home as true – just as, for instance, the selling side of what I give my students is in the end based on the feeling of authentic engagement with which I endow my lectures or our conversations in my office – Chelsea, like all of us, ends up by market mandate going to work on herself, tweaking and retooling in order to summon up just one more drop of eau de presence for her customers to smell on her neck. If I were a prostitute (and I’m not sure, given what I’m saying, that I’m entirely not), I might have recourse to “personology” books as well… I too might consult a dice rolling system to trick myself into feeling just real enough about what has long since gone permanently flatline for the sake of keeping alive in my line of work.

But of course the problem is that the very strategies and discourse that we use to attempt to trick ourselves into creative / affectual productivity renders us incapable of the very productivity we seek to provoke. What comes of this, of course, is just the sort of tepid appeal, the enthusiastic benumbment, and mediocritized specialness that characterizes not only the film and the star of the film and the character that she plays, but further the culture at large from which it is drawn. The situation takes the shape of a vicious circle, a tragic trajectory. The infra-interesting, then, might best be characterized by the dramatic emplotment – almost always in tragic form – of the quest to render things interesting under conditions that would seem to prohibit such a development. Rather than simply watching a pornographic video and, you know, getting aroused, it is more like watching a video of someone watching a pornographic video and struggling, against all their boredom and jadedness and who knows, guilt, bad faith, psychophysical dysfuction, to get themselves aroused, to arouse themselves to the point of sexual functionality. It is perhaps a mark of our time that most of us know immediately, if darkly, which of the two options would be more, well, interesting to a contemporary audience of a certain demographic. Soderburgh himself certainly did way back in 1989 when he made his name on the back of another film preoccupied with vicious circles of impotence, desirelessness, frigidity, and talk.

eu

Finally, the presentation of New York in the film underscores and echoes much of what I’ve said above. The film refuses to indulge in a single “landmark” centered shot from what I can remember, instead presenting a cascade of generic looking street scenes from what could be any of the various dining and drinking districts of the city. In particular, Soderburgh sets many of the sequences that take place in restaurants and bars – and there are a ton of these, flipping through the film quickly suggests that it’s made of almost nothing but sequences like these – with opening shots of the front of the restaurants in question like the one above or this one below.

burger

I’ve been out of New York for almost four years now. I didn’t recognize any of these places in the film, and I wasn’t sure until I checked whether they were real places or fictional lookalikes. They are in fact real – or at least were, as one of the two pictured above is already out of business according to New York Magazine. But my non-recognition is probably in fact the point. A great deal of The Girlfriend Experience takes place in upper-middlebrow (upper middle-palate?) gastropubs and bistros – the film starts in one, and proceeds to fill itself with Chelsea’s appointments with clients, consultants, and friends that take place in a seemingly endless sequence of places just like these.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time – even in London, even despite the fact that I barely get out anymore – in places just like these. In fact, there’s one that I think of as something like the platonic ideal of the form. The first time I walked into Canteen, the place tucked into the netherparts of the Royal Festival Hall facing Waterloo Station, I thought to myself that I should take a picture of the place, as this is what the world looked like for much of my adult life, but soon, perhaps, would look no more.

I am not sure I have the interior design knowledge to do the place justice, but this snippet from a review online might do the trick, and in more than one way:

In keeping with a traditional canteen, the tables and seating are low and simply styled. The seats covered in olive leather are punched Aertex style, menus and cutlery are stored in shelves edging the seating sections, a long bar lines one wall and the open plan kitchen complete with school canteen shelves for trays, the other. This is how you’d expect the executive dining room at IKEA HQ to be styled.

Anyway, why am I so fixated on these places, both in real life and in The Girlfriend Experience? They are collectively, I believe, not only one of the most characteristic spaces of the period we have just lived through, they are further (it follows) perfect spatial correlatives of the infra-interesting itself. The highend and dinnertime version of the would-be-freelancer’s seat at Starbucks, these thirdspaces fall ever deeper into derivativeness and genericness the harder they try to assert, ever so subtlely, their greyscale idiosyncrasy. Whereas the mid-to-highend world once only had low and high restaurants (the pizzeria and the french bisto) to choose from, now we can stumble along the long-since gentrified streets of our capital cities or even our suburban enclaves and find all manner of teak trimmed imitations of the “executive dining room at IKEA HQ” in which to exchange bureaubanalities with our coworkers, to overshare with our lovers and acquaintances, or to contemplate – though not all that long or hard – another bottle of Shiraz with which to drown out the idle Nu-talk that we can’t help but produce when cornered in a “seating section.” They are the scenes of our infra-interesting evenings, after a long days of typing or encouraging or fucking, where we break it all down into words that will leave no mark by the time we leave.

Try to think. What else is there to do but eat and drink at this late stage of the game? What was there to do at night, back as far as you can remember?

The Decline of New York is a popular meme at the moment, but Soderburgh was cannier than most when we painted this decline in the earth-and-Thai tones of the rise of gastropub. We order our groceries and books on-line, we steal our music and our movies. Sex we have wherever we can, but always in places appropriate to the task. But there is nothing left to buy on our better streets than brunch mimosas and glasses of overpriced (and probably supermarket bought) Rioja. But the restaurants are steadily closing. Even in the film, set before the election, they are emptier than they are full.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 7, 2009 at 10:34 pm

auden’s anonymous songs for lenin

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Amazing find described in today’s TLS. As, in David Collard’s words, a “trial run” for his work on Night Mail with Benjamin Britten, Auden did the sub- and intertitles for Vertov’s Three Songs for Lenin for its first ever showing at Ivor Montagu’s New Gallery Cinema.

The supporting programme at the forthcoming October screening would include a dazzling abstract work by Len Lye, Edgar Anstey’s influential Housing Problems, and the premiere of the experimental Coal Face, the first collaboration between Auden and the promising young composer Benjamin Britten. The main feature, though, was to be the world premiere of a Russian propaganda film commissioned by Joseph Stalin to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death. The director was Denis Kaufman (1896–1954), better known by his adopted name Dziga Vertov (“Spinning Top”). His new film was called Three Songs of Lenin and was structured around peasant folk songs eulogizing the dead Soviet leader and promoting Stalin as his political heir. Montagu was busy arranging subtitles and intertitles, and soon realized that the songs deserved a more poetic treatment in English. He needed advice, and urgently. What about that chap working for the Post Office?

In December last year I was working through the Ivor Montagu papers, which entered the BFI’s Special Collections archive in 1985. My main interest was in the first screening of Coal Face, but the next item in the pile was a stiff white envelope that contained a typed note: “The following titles are ‘verse’ titles to be held up for a few days while wording is checked in consultation with Auden”, dozens of scruffy typescript sheets in an unfamiliar format, and three manuscript pages in Auden’s best handwriting, blue ink on cheap unwatermarked paper, held together by a paper clip, a 1930s original by the look of it. The Montagu collection is one of the most frequently consulted in the BFI’s archive, but until now no one seemed to have recognized the importance of this material. Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, confirmed that these poems had never been published and that this was a significant find.

I’d say! And look! I’m going to try to make this one…

Soon we shall have the chance to judge for ourselves, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Nathalie Morris, the Special Collections curator at the BFI, and her colleagues. Highlights from the original programme, including a rare print of Three Songs for Lenin, will be given a special screening at the BFI Southbank (formerly National Film Theatre) in London at 6.15 on June 8. Auden’s verses will be read by the actor Simon Callow and for the first time in almost seventy-five years Uncle Wiz and the Spinning Top will be reunited.

The titles themselves aren’t really all that interesting. But what is interesting is the thought that Auden must have had Vertov and the idea of anonymity in mind when writing the fantastic stuff that’s in Night Mail.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Posted in auden, movies