Amoeblog

The Ruse of Analogy: One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 8, 2012 08:02pm | Post a Comment
one plus one cinemarxism godard

[This essay originally appeared as part of The Hooded Utilitarian's roundtable on Jean-Luc Godard here.]

To begin with, a generalization: Godardians really don’t like Quentin Tarantino. But, fear not, this post isn’t going to be about the latter, only the reasons expressed by the Godardians for their contempt. Wasn’t it Jean-Luc Godard himself who argued against a clear distinction between the fictional film and the documentary? For him, being even more opposed to naïve realism than Andre Bazin, the camera always had a perspective, a position, or as Colin MacCabe puts it: “there is not reality and then the camera – there is reality seized at this moment and this way by the camera.” [p. 79] It was this foundational belief that led to Godard’s dismissal of the anti-aesthetic implicit within cinema vérité, that reality comes from letting the film roll. Yet, Jonathan Rosenbaum (and I might as well mention Daniel Mendelsohn and HU’s very own Caroline Small) condemns Inglourious Basterds for “mak[ing] the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality,” because “anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong.” Evidently, contrary to Godard, fascism is just there waiting to have a camera pointed at it. No truth could possibly come out of a fantasy involving Nazism.

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Inception: A Borgesian Heist Film?

Posted by Charles Reece, July 18, 2010 08:34am | Post a Comment
He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres -- much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting a coin of the faceless wind.
-- from "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges
 
 


Christopher Nolan's Inception is another one of those sci-fi tales confronting the problem of infinity lurking behind subjectivity. Because it uses dreams instead of virtual reality, the film is structurally closer to the short story quoted above than the cyberpunk-influenced Matrix (although the action puts it closer to the latter). In Borges' tale, a sorcerer spends years dreaming a man into reality only to learn that he, too, was given life via the same method. And it's just as likely that the dreamer of the sorcerer is himself being dreamed, etc., ad infinitum. This is the old phenomenological problem of the Transcendental Ego.

In order to have a collection of intentional states (which are always regarding some mental or physical object) cohere as a self (the 'I' that's doing the believing, desiring, etc.), Edmund Husserl posited a transcendent pure subject that couldn't be objectified. This I was pre-reflective, the guy who was there each time an intentional state was being reflected upon (the I thinking "it is I who likes pizza" at one time and "It is I who hates the rain" at another). As with all such metaphysical "buck stops here" explanations (cf. the final cause argument for God), the question soon arose as to why this Ego didn't require another, more transcendent one to ground its reflective relations.  And since then, many theorists from various disciplines have been perfectly happy with the notion of a fractured self, that the I is nothing but a comforting mask for deterministic forces (cf. the death of the author, social Darwinism, or connectionism). Causal language is more scientistic, but problematic for suggesting the possibility that we humans have free agency, that there is something of a self not purely reducible to objective control, or material determinations. Thus, philosophical libertarianism sounds suspicious to many, like a new agey charlatanry.

A Few More Thoughts on Technology and Realism: Pac-Man and Surrogates Trailer

Posted by Charles Reece, August 9, 2009 10:16pm | Post a Comment
pac-man game  pac-man skeleton death

I gave up playing video games when I encountered the second button. I was alright with jumping, but combination moves and shit like that tended to take me out of the formal (as in Platonic) perfection of a Pac-Man or Space Invaders. If I want gritty (as in non-Platonic) realism, I'll read Bukowski, or watch a Cassavetes film. I've since played a few of these realistic "moving" games where one drives through a simulated real city, running into other cars or over innocent bystanders (other variations of this game type have the player as a superhero, vigilante, soldier, or cute creature on some ostensible quest -- e.g., killing zombies -- but they're more about just moving through a virtual environment). The only thing they add to the endless struggle (at least, ideally) of a little round guy eating dots is more detail -- the ontology remains unchanged. Pac Man already had the truth of its and the player's existence written into its elegant design. That is, it said everything that needed to be said: keep playing, desire can now be quantified by the score; the goal never changes, nor will you ever get closer to it, no matter how fast things start moving.

Speaking of existence being reduced to the score, the reknowned junkie William S. Burroughs once narrated a video game based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe called The Dark Eye. Looks interesting, although I hear it bombed:


But back to the yellow fellow: Speed, color scheme and fruit are pretty much the only differences in its levels. The game's "progression" is a matter of pseudoindividuation: slight variation to keep the player committed to/distracted from/entertained by the standardization. The techno-realism of a Grand Theft Auto only adds more complex layers of novelty to Pac-Man, bogging the player down with data (more places to visit, more visual detail, more complex controls), keeping him or her lost in the details. If Pac Man was sortcronenberg existenz poster of an existential map, the purpose of which was to lead us temporarily away from life's troubles, the more realistic derivations seem to be moving us in the direction of cyberpunk dystopias, where the map (virtual reality) is just as convoluted as the mapped (old-fashioned reality), eventually rendering any distinction seemingly useless, like in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Most games now have to supply the player with a map, so can the possibility of getting lost "in there" be that far off? And isn't that the fantasy behind realism, to get lost within the simulated reality, to not be able to distinguish the depiction from the depicted? If reality can't be controlled, substitute its image, which (supposedly) can, or, to appropriate Theodor Adorno once again:

Reality becomes its own ideology through the spell cast by its faithful duplication. -- "The Schema of Mass Culture"

I remember a bunch of criticism directed towards the blandness of Cronenberg's design for the gaming environment in his film, that it looked too plain. However, I took his point to be Adorno's: that no matter how much a game (or movie, or any other art) allows us to fantasize about being in control over our surroundings, someone else is doing the programming that sets the rules. The technologically enhanced realism furthers the fantasy, while ultimately decreasing our (the players') control on reality. The endgame of this fantasy -- where reality itself becomes its own simulation for our avatars to play in -- is the conceit of the new Bruce Willis vehicle, Surrogates (adaped from a comic book):


An intriguing idea, even if the execution looks like standard Hollywood sci-fi cheese. I guess what I've been angling for is this: If one of our primary fantasies is being in control, then it would seem that its logical, utlimate, fantastic realm would not look like some weird alien world, or an abstract dimension of colors and shapes (such as Pac-Man or TRON), but exactly like the one we know, only without any of the risks and vicissitudes of the real deal. That's why with all the technological innovations in film production, with a near boundless samuel r delanypotential to create increasingly bizarre (ir)realities, the fantasy genre (in which I'd put science fiction, cartoons and whatever else I've been talking about lately) has been getting more realistic. Barring the occasional fetishist, I suspect most people would have sex with a simulated human on Star Trek's holodeck, not some sentient squid creature. Rather than expanding, or questioning, the predisposed ideas wrapped up in our common conception of reality as a good fantastic yarn can do (e.g., pick one of Samuel R. Delany's books), the realistic capabilities of technology are limiting the possibilities of imagination, of counterfactual situations, to think outside the box, when it makes the fantasy look like reality.

Techno-Realism Killed the Videogame Star: TRON Legacy

Posted by Charles Reece, August 2, 2009 11:42am | Post a Comment
Disney premiered a concept trailer for TRON Legacy at the San Diego Comicon (click the link for high-def version). Further evidence of the destructive effect techno-realism has had on the design of fantasy:


I found the little bit of dialog telling: The fallen player yells out, "You won, okay? This is just a game!" To which Quinn (TRON's hero) replies, "Not anymore." Indeed, the game within the movie has started to look more like quotidian reality rather than the beautiful design of the original fantasy.

First, compare the new light cycle crash:


to the old one:


And look how boring a dangling guy is now:


compared to back then:

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Technophilia, The Trailer Hitch of Realism: Previewing Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Despicable Me, and Alice in Wonderland

Posted by Charles Reece, July 26, 2009 09:43am | Post a Comment
One thought that never crosses my mind when watching a classic Bugs cartoon is how it could be  improved with a richer palette of colors, more shading for 3-dimensional effect and a better use casperof perspective -- you know, so it would appear as if this anatomically incorrect bunny might actually exist in our world. Call me crotchety, but I don't like aesthetics being reduced to technology. Just because the average Macbook now has millions of colors at its disposal, this shouldn't matter a whit to a modern audience watching an old Chuck Jones cartoon. But it does, if the average CGI-toon that dominates production is any indication.

When Casper the Friendly Ghost received the CGI treatment, he became a true monstrosity, a virtually embodied horror, the mishapen spectral remant of a literalized infanticide. Yet, it was in a movie aimed at kids and no one seemed to mind. If he'd been covered in blood, I suspect it would've been a different story. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll suggests two major defining features of the monster proper: that (1) the creature be threatening and (2) it be impure. Now, it's probably not much of an overgeneralization to suggest few feel threatened by Casper, not even by his 3D deformity. But he's clearly impure in two ways: First, obviously, he's undead, kind of like a zombie, but one who's rational and apparently takes showers. That is, he violates the cognitive categories we have for what living and dead bodies are supposed to behave like -- mixes the contents. Second, and perhaps less obviously, in the 3D version, he is a violation of the formal abstraction that was part of his 2D cartoon body. This formal impurity wouldn't have existed had the animators decided to go with a realistic form for their adaptation, something like the ghosts in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners.

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