Guest post by David Carl.
This by way of introduction: we enjoy answering the question, “What’s your favorite . . .” (fill in the blank here), because it give us a chance to talk about ourselves, and to tell others who we are by ostensibly talking about someone or something else (a favorite book, movie, author, artist, band, album, etc.). By telling others what we like, we try to tell them who we are. Perhaps it is even a manifestation of our higher impulse to obey the Delphic Oracle’s injunction to strive for greater self-knowledge, for how often do we turn to art precisely to learn, not about the work in question, but from the work about ourselves and the world around us?
For those of us who care about art, literature, film, (“culture” as they used to call it), nothing says “who we are” more than the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to . . . So when someone asked me recently who my favorite movie directors were, I responded with enthusiasm, despite the fact that the answer I gave was accompanied by the kind of unsubstantiated generalizations that generally drive me crazy when I hear other people spouting them:
Jean-Pierre Melville, for his unfailing portrayal of “cool” in cinema.
Michelangelo Antonioni, for his relentless depictions of post-Marxist “alienation,” not among the working class, but among the wealthy and privileged bourgeoisie of post-war Italy.
David Lynch, for just being plain weird in the most provocative ways.
Cool, alienated, weird. What else do we want from the movies?
It also occurred to me that Melville, Antonioni, and Lynch are all deeply western filmmakers, obsessed with a uniquely western response to the struggle between good and evil as a kind of spiritual crisis. Melville’s heroes are often criminals, but they live by a code (like the bushido code of the samurai evoked in Melville’s 1967 Le samouraï) which allows them to live with a sense of honor and distinguish right from wrong, even in the moral gray of the criminal underworld. Friendship, loyalty, courage—these are the virtues of Melville’s heroes, and these qualities add up to a certain “cool” that he may derive from American actors like Bogart, Dean, and Brando, but to which he gives a uniquely French twist (different from the kind of “cool” we saw developed by later American actors like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). It is within this sense of “cool” that Melville explores his own sense of spirituality, in the context of a kind of warrior ethic that is simultaneously an aesthetics of style. In Melville’s hero the ethical and the aesthetic are gracefully blended in the notion of cool.
Antonioni’s characters, on the other hand, although not criminals, are far less heroic; and while they occupy eminently aesthetic surroundings, they are wholly unethical—not because they are evil, but because they are weak. Melville’s three virtues—friendship, loyalty, and courage—are wholly lacking in Antonioni’s world. These characters are too close to pathetic to be tragic, but they are not contemptible because they are often too much like we are, and even in the fantasy world of the movies we find it difficult to hate ourselves. They are living through a kind of modern crisis from which all the heroics have been drained, and what is left behind is lush, indulgent, stylish and visually gorgeous, but spiritually bereft. It is in their response to this sense of bereavement that Antonioni’s characters regain a kind of antiheroic charm, especially in the case of the female leads played by Monica Vitti in the four films she did with him between 1960 and 1964. Anything that can still be affirmed against this backdrop of modernity takes on a new significance.
Finally, with Lynch, cool and despair join hands to occupy a landscape that is alien in direct proportion to how familiar it seems on the surface. Unreal things happen in familiar places (our homes, our neighborhoods, inside our own heads), proving that these landscapes are not so familiar after all. What we thought was the comfortably familiar is revealed as concealing dark, hidden corners. These may be the corners of our own imaginations, which tend to run away with themselves, at least if Lynch has anything to do with it. But here too there is a kind of spiritual struggle going on; and a struggle between good and evil that is very real for Lynch, even if it is a rather narrowly conceived western (it would be Manichean if it didn’t keep doubling in on itself and implicating his films’ various heroes with a sense of their own moral ambiguity) sense of good and evil. The devil, last seen in the works of Milton, Goethe and Dostoevsky, is still alive and well in the films of Melville, Antonioni, and Lynch. He is still charming, still tempting, and still leaves a wake of despair that demands some sort of spiritual response from those he encounters. For filmmakers, with all the resources of the visual at their disposal, these responses, no matter how ethically grounded, must always be aesthetic as well.
All this may or may not be true, but it isn’t really what I want to say about these directors, or how I’d like to write about their films. These comments are marked by the kind of unsubstantiated generalizations that one expects to hear at cocktail parties (at least the kinds of cocktail parties I’m always hoping to be invited to—as long as they’re serving good whiskey along with the small talk), but they are not really the stuff of careful observation of the visual details that makes watching great cinema a great pleasure. What I would like to be able to do is discipline myself to greater acts of seeing. I’d like to see more, when I look at a movie, in the hope that great movies would reciprocally teach me to see more when I look away from them.
Also by way of introduction: I’m sure its curmudgeonly of me to admit I’m uncomfortable with the word “blog”—not because it makes me feel old, but because I am old, and it makes me feel like I should be doing something to compensate for that fact, rather than merely sitting back and enjoying it as the result of the long and laborious process of having stayed alive long enough to earn the dubious title. Instead of “blog” I prefer the old-fashioned word “essay,” which is more dignified, more accurate etymologically, and more representative of something that someone has labored over and taken time and care with. Whether or not someone has something to say, they should say it thoughtfully. “Blog” sounds like a particularly unpleasant body function. Something that happens to you when you’ve put down too much ambrosia salad on a hot 4th of July afternoon after drinking flat beer and eating some baked beans that weren’t quite right to begin with. An essay, on the other hand, is the record of an earnest attempt, the written vestige of an effort that calls on you to try your very best, no matter how embarrassing the results, or how inadequate to the hopes and ambitions we brought to them.
Any essay that is not, on one level, a failure, is an essay that stopped too soon, when we were still feeling safe and secure in our own thinking. Often the failure is where things get interesting, where risks are taken and uncertainty and insecurity allowed to crawl out from under the rock we’d like to hide them beneath. A “blog” on the other hand, sounds like what it too often is: a spewing forth of whatever comes to mind without thought or reflection, without the care of craft or the craft of care. (This, for the record, is neither a blog nor an essay, but merely a rant. An inferior but satisfying form of literary production much older than the blog and not nearly so interesting as the essay.)
And this idea of the interesting failure is germane to the movies as well. One distinguishing characteristic of a great movie director (and perhaps this is true of great artists in any area of production) is that there is as much to learn from their failures as from their successes. Along with their masterpieces, Antonioni, Melville, and Lynch all made bad movies; but they are bad movies I’ve learned a lot from watching and thinking about. There is such a thing as a provocative failure. (Who was it that said, “I would rather be a successful failure than a failed success”? I think it might have been a character in one of my novels, but perhaps it was the author consoling himself after the completed project.) Merely competent directors are capable of making good movies, but their bad ones will be devoid of interest.
There is such a thing as a “merely bad” work of art, one that is not even interesting in the way it fails. I care most about the work of those directors who not only risk going wrong, but actually precipitate themselves into the breach, knowing that the only alternative is to remain perpetually on the safe side of what they are comfortable and familiar with (what they are “good at”). The comfortable and familiar being antithetical to art however we choose to define it.
Next time: some thoughts about seeing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for The Curious Oyster (a private adult education project committed to Contemplation, Conversation and Conviviality) and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.
December 4, 2013 · Print This Article
GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.” -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist
Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynch’s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com
The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film like Eraserhead, to a later work like Blue Velvet, or in any general summary of Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”
As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:
Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik
But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?
Lynch has come to be known for his “surrealist films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed ‘Lynchian’, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”
But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?
Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.
Only three films were actually ever designated “exclusively surrealist productions,” created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s Un chien andalou.
Though not necessarily “better” than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien Andalou is undoubtedly “different” than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou “flaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was made…the genre ‘narrative feature film’, and the genres of the contemporary European art film…Buñuel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather ‘a desperate appeal to murder.”
Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artists’ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis Buñuel wrote, the group sought “to explode the social order, to transform life itself,” an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.
Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artists’ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artists’ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films “the pinnacle of the Surrealist films…the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits…resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:
Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer, has called himself a “militant surrealist.”And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him “one of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,” and cites Surrealism only as “a major influence” on Švankmajer’s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Švankmajer’s participation in an actual group a notable link.
The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Village’s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: ‘Three Abandoned Films – a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A Study in Choreography for the Camera’. Deren took the word ‘abandoned’ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaire’s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.
Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynch’s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artists’ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Breton’s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Deren’s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artists’ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.
It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.
Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com
Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.
Excluding Švankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be here but always elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. Whether Fire Walk with Me explodes any staid order, I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.
I love art books. My bookshelves bow with them and they offer thoroughgoing diversion when I can’t sleep. Monographs work best for this. I prefer thick paper, with big images that fill the whole page. Although I always read the introduction and biographical essays that start these sorts of books, I prefer the artwork to stand alone on the page. Maybe a date, but that’s it. These books offer what all books offer, the ability to experience what I haven’t experienced in real life, or to re-experience what I have. I’ve never been to the Tate or Van Gogh Museum, or even the Frick. But that’s the beauty of books, right?
Still, this same warm fuzzy argument doesn’t extend to all mediums, at least not for everyone. There was recently a spirited Facebook debate between some friends of mine about Art Project by Google. The pro Art Project folks said that for the first time in history some of the world’s best art was available directly to our homes, that with our personal computers we could access images of great (and maybe not so great) art. Because the images are high-resolution, we can zoom in close, see the paint, the hairs left by the brushes, the hand of the artist, all at a quality even more detailed than an actual book, even more detailed than standing in front of the original painting. And what about the detractors? They argued that when we log into Art Project we are not looking at art, we instead are looking at digitized reproductions. Even reproductions in books are still ultimately objects. These same folks also argue that we are on a slippery slope, where a virtual experience becomes a replacement for the experience itself.
Recently museums have started making apps for smartphones and tablets. Personally, I have apps for The Louvre, Hermitage, The Art Institute of Chicago Impressionist collection, and the MoMA Ab Ex Exhibition. Some of these apps are better than others. For example MoMA’s excellent Ab Ex app takes you through a tour of their recently closed Abstract Expressionist exhibition. You click on an image to make it larger and to access information about the artwork. But along with the images we also get a video of Ann Temkin discussing why she mounted the show and how she selected the works that would be included. She discusses the history of the Abstract Expressionists and why we should care about them today. Arguably, if I had seen this show at MoMA, I wouldn’t know any of these things. Perhaps what is lost by not seeing the works in person is made up for by added information and contextualization.
David Lynch said, “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” I do see Lynch’s point, a smartphone or even an awesome tablet doesn’t equal a real-life experience with a work of art. But my question for Lynch is, does he extend this to all non-theatrical viewing? I mean before we watched movies on our phones we watched them on DVD, and before that video, and before that broadcast television if we were lucky enough that the one of three stations would re-run a movie we might consider “art.” Where exactly is he drawing the line in the technological sand? What technology is an acceptable mediator for art? The harsh tokes are that once your art is in the world, you don’t control it anymore no matter how hard you try (I’m talking to you, Anish Kapoor).
Over the years we have grown comfortable with new technologies. By now, no one is threatened by a book. When records were introduced people argued that this reproduction was not the same as a live performance. Then CDs were not as “alive” as the sensuous analog sound of vinyl. MP3s not as “lush” as compact discs. Without exception this is all true. What is also true is that we now listen to music all day instead of just on special occasions. So perhaps we trade quality for quantity, but we also gain access to music we could never hear live and we can also control when we listen to it.
All through college “The Birth of Venus” hung over my bed. Never once did I confuse this poster with the real thing. The original hangs in Florence at The Uffizi Gallery. I’ve never been to that museum and sadly enough, I probably won’t ever. Mechanical reproduction and digital technology has acted as a mediator between viewer and artwork for centuries. How is an exhibition app any different than a catalogue? Even with all its bells and whistles an iPad is still on the same trajectory as moveable type. After all those years of looking each morning at Venus, I never saw her so clearly as I did when I saw her on Art Project.
*Why not take Aderall? (Chicago Weekly).
*Forget the death of print–the revival of cassette tape is well underway.
*In second round of layoffs, MOCA cuts Robert Hollister, its director of registration and collections (Culture Monster).
*Curator Jeffrey Grove to leave High Museum for Dallas Museum of Art (UnBeige).
*In the nick of time, Scope Basel announces new location (Art in America).
(above image credit: Bertrand Goldberg Associates. Marina City South Elevation, ca. 1962. “Marina City” on view at ArchiTech Gallery from June 5-August 29, 2009).