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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

[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.

In One Plus One, Godard films a neo-Nazi pornographic bookseller reading from Mein Kampf as his customers buy lurid novels and magazines -- each person who makes a purchase gives a Nazi salute and slaps two captured hippies in the face. Is Godard making fascism easier to understand as a historical reality? More likely, the viewer is confused at this unrealistic scenario, but hopefully intrigued (or entertained) enough to contemplate what all these component images are doing there together in the middle of a rockumentary, e.g..: What does pornography have to do with fascism? What does any of this have to do with The Rolling Stones (the ostensible subject)? Just what the hell is Godard saying?

Rosenbaum refuses to regard Tarantino with any sort of reflection (I suspect too much identification, aka “entertainment,” and not enough distanciation, aka “intellectual thought”). Inglourious Basterds is a film about other films, about movie conventions, and for that reason alone, “it loses its historical reality.” However, aren’t all of Godard’s quotations from films, news media, advertising and literature committed to the exact opposite point, that these images do have a historical reality in the way they construct/mediate who we are? If one is going to be derided for his narcissistic cinephilia (filtering everything through film), then the other should be, too. Rosenbaum mockingly quotes from an interview with Tarantino where he relates the 9/11 event to the spectacle of action films -- not one of the director’s prouder moments, to be sure. Now consider Godard’s statement from La Chinoise’s press book:

Fifty years after the October Revolution, American cinema dominates world cinema. There’s not much to add to this state of affairs. Only that at our modest level, we must also create two or three Vietnams at the heart of the immense empire, Hollywood-Cinecittà-Mosfilms-Pinewood, etc. as much economic as aesthetic, that’s to say struggling on two fronts, to create national cinemas, free, brotherly, comrades and friends. [p. 182, MacCabe]

Although MacCabe gives this a sympathetic spin, noting how Godard has always been aware that his “oppression” isn’t as “grievous” as what was done to the Vietnamese, there’s not much he can do with the foolhardiness of the director’s feeling “solidarity” with them because “his own experience” is “the very same predicament.” I’m going to assume that the imperialism of having too many theaters showing American movies is quite obviously not the oppression of a napalm bath, as a spectacle or otherwise, and move on.

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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.

There is a real world practical implication to this question of self-determination, namely that to be without agency makes morality (presumedly a very human characteristic) dubious. How responsible is a member of the Borg, or one of the inhabited human bodies in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? (All of this is much more complicated than I'm making it out to be, see here or particularly here.) While it's true that most people haven't spent much time reading about mind-body dualism, the fractured self, or determinism, they have experienced what it feels like to be treated as a product, which is ultimately what the death of the subject adds up to.  Modern-day capitalism relies on such an instrumentalist reduction; like the Borgesian dreamer of the dreamer, it creates the world which makes the reduction possible and even tolerable (the oneiric creation of a "real" man can only work if reality is illusion; capitalism only works if we accept its spectacles as reality). I suggest therein lies the intrinsic allure to Inception, a heist genre reworking of Borges, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard (to my mind, three of the most relevant writers to the 21st century). Some spoilers will follow.


While the telling of the story is somewhat convoluted, the plot is pretty basic, and not all that different from movies starring Jean Gabin or Sterling Hayden: in addition to his long-term partner, Arthur, Cobb is to assemble a team of experts for one final score initiated by Saito. Cobb is to enter the subconscious of Robert Fischer, planting the seed of an idea, which will turn him against the dying wish of his father, Maurice, for global dominance over energy resources through their corporation. Thus, the theft results by leaving something. Inception is the name of this subliminal procedure, but also provides a certain irony in the film's title, since it's never clear where the dreamscape actually begins, as is constantly alluded to throughout (e.g., walls close in on Cobb as he's running, despite being in the supposedly real world; his children don't age or change clothes from the memory of the last time he saw them). The additional crew members are: the chemist, Yusuf, who provides the specialized soporifics needed to enter dreams; Eames, the forger, who can become dream simulations of other people; and the architect, Ariadne, who's responsible for mentally designing the Möbius labyrinthes that they'll work in/are trapped by. The oneiric architecture is something like a M.C. Escher print, or Ballard's "Concentration City," which creates the illusion of space, but when an inhabitant takes the subway far enough, he ends up where he started (as the global networks connect us, the world seems smaller, yet we increasingly lose the ability to get anywhere different). If the team succeeds, Cobb will be free to return to his children in America through a simple phone call by Saito (yet another sign that reality is artifice).


Mal framed Cobb for her own suicide years ago, and he's been on the lam ever since. After spending too many years in the dream world, Mal lost her grip on what was actually real. When she awoke (through Cobb's use of inception on her), she no longer believed that reality was anything more than the mental architecture of another dreamer (as is the case in "The Circular Ruins"). Rather than accept this, she believed suicide was the only way of returning to reality. The frameup was her attempt at forcing Cobb to join her. He turns to a life of crime, blaming himself for her delusional state. He tries to lock away a guilt-derived simulacrum of his wife in his mental basement, but she constantly escapes to interfere with his thought crimes (such as warning his victims that they're in a dream). Of course, it's not clear who's actually delusional here.

In Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"), Quaid's a bored construction worker who pays for a virtual memory implant of an adventure where he's a spy with a forgotten identity. Something goes wrong with the programming, so that either he's really a spy who's just been awoken by the implant, or he's losing his self-identity to the malfunctioning computer. When a doctor tries to warn him of the latter, Quaid kills him to remain in what is quite likely virtual reality. Analogously, Mal tries to warn Cobb that he's lost in mental limbo, but he's convinced that she's too imperfect to be his real wife.  She points out the ridiculousness of how he's supposed to see his kids again (why would a phone call free him of suspicion?) and how there's no clear beginning to any of the settings Cobb finds himself (there is no memory of how one gets to the beginning of a dream sequence). To increase the confusion and give the narrative a patina of unreality, Nolan de-emphasizes transitional sequences (the primary source for tension and pleasure in a heist film like Rififi) -- the characters seemingly pop up in one place and then another with little sense of time passing or distance traversed.

Furthermore, each member of the team has a totem, which functions as a reality anchor. A totem has to feel the right weight and function according to physical laws if the person is awake, unlike when he or she is dreaming. It should never be handled by another, since that could alter its functioning in a dream (an architect could otherwise account for the object's phenomenal qualities in his or her design so that it behaves as if it were really there). Cobb doesn't have one of his own, only the spinning top that was once his wife's, suggesting that his anchor is compromised. So when he decides to complete the mission and rejoin his children (which Mal tells him are nothing but virtual projections), it's possible that he's retreating from reality, deeper into his subconscious, which might be controlled by some unknown architect. Nolan leaves the ending ambiguous.
 
 


Yet, despite all of that, Inception is kind of  a bore to sit through. Cobb spends too much time spouting technobabble, an attempt to somehow make the fantasy sound more plausible. At least a quarter of the film is spent detailing arbitrary rules. A few writers can do this well (e.g., Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem) by using invented explanatory concepts to critique real world social structures (scientific, literary, political -- e.g., the way Solaris tells its story through fictional research articles), but here it's more like midi-chlorians. Relatedly, the dreams are too weighed down by a realistic aesthetic. Each layer of the constructed dreamworld (corresponding to increasingly deeper layers of the subconscious) is causally tied in with the other layers. When a van in one level is falling, the sleeping characters inside begin to float in the next dream within a dream they're collectively having as if there was some shared physical space with attendant nomological properties. Similarly, when Saito is shot on an upper level, he begins to bleed on the lower ones. And time behaves in standard linear fashion, only at different speeds depending on the layer (avatars age more slowly on the more subconscious levels). Not only does none of this make sense (in dream logic or the realistic kind -- e.g., we can fly in a dream regardless of our waking state, so why would such a causal connection obtain between two levels of dreaming?), but it serves to make the dream world mundane. Worse yet is that the majority of the mission involves bombs, machine guns and car chases. Maybe Nolan dreams of The A-Team, but mine look and feel more like Kwaidan.


"The Black Hair" from Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan.

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
 

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 sort 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 potential 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.

Thus, when it comes to diversionary entertainment, Pac-Man remains for me the most virtuous example, its abstract design never letting the player forget the line between simulation and reality. It might distract us from ideological concerns, but at least it doesn't indoctrinate us.

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:


Note how the cityscape of TRON Legacy:


looks more like the realworld city of TRON:


rather than a digitally enhanced improvement on something like this:


But, then again, the original movie ended on a false note of optimism, where Quinn returned from the authoritarian fantasy world of TRON into a reality that was increasingly becoming that fantasy. Maybe the more mordern-realistic design of TRON Legacy is way of showing how the fantasy and reality are merging. The fantasy becomes duller, more concrete, as reality becomes more of an image, simu

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 of 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.

Perhaps my own revulsion at Casper's (or any) realistic cartoonishness is informed by a recurring childhood nightmare wherein I was trying to escape a carnivalesque labyrinth while avoiding the four-fingered clutches of a monster who looked a lot like Madame sitting in one of those coin-operated fortune-telling machines. Sometimes she would be a cartoon, other times a puppet, but her mitts were always fleshy and grotesque. When the "wish it into the cornfield" episode of Twilight Zone was remade for the movie, with the omnipotent kid (originally played by Billy Mumy) conjuring cartoons into his reality, it dredged up all kinds of phobia for me.

Had the 3D animators chosen to increase Casper's literalism with dashes of gooey blood, the demographic family might've found the style as threatening and horrific as I, even if the character behaved in the same cuddly manner. The second half of these flesh and blood cartoons must remain implicit, because versimilitude isn't ultimately the point -- the wanton display of technology is. It's a despotic aesthetic when style is driven solely by the "because we can" of technology -- nothing but a licentious technophilia. Showing Casper's bloody ties to reality would've actually given the "live action" version a raison d'etre, forcing the realism to serve a darkly comic purpose. Instead, all the computer added to Casper was the ability to watch real people interact with cartoons in a more "realistic" (i.e., technophiliac) style than was possible back in the days of, say, Song of The South. But wasn't the attraction of "old fashioned" cartoons to enter a fantasy where anything was possible? Didn't the moral play of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? teach us that when the twain of physical and cartoon worlds meet, it's because of evil machinations?

I guess not:

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