I recently saw Frank Pavich’s documentary on Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to film DUNE. The whole documentary is in the form of an extended anamnesis of a period of continual creativity, as Jodorowsky assembled the perfect team of “warriors”, as he calls them, to bring DUNE to the screen. Jodorowsky’s aim was to remain faithful to the creative energy invested in the novel, while changing the plot (especially the ending) to align it with his own vision.
He explains that he wanted to produce a veritable mind-expanding film, and declares that he had the feeling that his own mind was in a prison. He wanted to change people’s perception, his own included. He preferred younger talents and creators from artistic domains other than the cinema, privileging those who put imagination before technicity and financial gain. He calls his team “warriors”, in homage to Casteneda’s vision, but one could equally call them visionaries or dreamers. These were people who were not content simply to recount strange fictions but who lived estrangement.
One gets the feeling that just gathering the team was a visionary experience, and that the subsequent encounter with the potential financiers, where everything came apart, was itself a visionary confrontation with the forces of stupidity (Jodorowsky himself talks of “imbecility”) and of capitalist conformism.
This is why one should not divide the film solely along the line of demarcation between a creative surrealist past and a cynical realist present that consumed the creative fluxes of the project while throwing out the crazy director. Jodorowsky makes a good case for the influence that his film project had, despite remaining an unrealised “dream”, on other films that were actually made: STAR WARS, ALIEN, paving the way for BLADE RUNNER and MATRIX.
There is much nostalgia here, and much self-vindication. But there is also a surge of creative estrangement breaking the bounds of the external form of a localisable project. Jodorowsky explains that he doesn’t believe in loss or failure. If some obstacle blocks realisation on a path, he just changes the path, without changing the dream. He just bifurcates elsewhere, breaking the form, but keeping the dream (the block of intensities) intact.
Jodorowsky and Moebius used much of the visual (and metaphysical) work for the film in the French graphic novel series THE INCAL. One project was killed by Hollywood, but many projects rose up to take its place. This is a powerful moment in the documentary when Jodorowsky explains how he refused to change his dream, and exclaims “Don’t change the dream!”.
Read: Jodorowsky’s written account.
Watch: the trailer.
The other week, at the final Acid Communism reading group session of the year — a reading group I’ve written about on the blog once or twice or thrice — we had our Christmas social. Rather than talk about a text, we drank beers and ate snacks and screened and discussed a film instead: Paul Wright’s psychedelic folk horror film essay Arcadia.
I hadn’t seen the film before but it had been mentioned a bunch of times by people in the sessions. It was introduced by Laura Grace Ford and Nina Power, who had already seen it half a dozen times between them, as a film that visualises so much of what Mark Fisher’s later work was talking about and I couldn’t quite believe how true that was.
We began our reading group a few months ago with Mark’s essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — undoubtedly one of his best — in which he discusses this ongoing thread of folk frivolity that extends outwards from the (now heavily romanticised) rituals of paganism and pre-modern communities — the influence of which has nonetheless survived the shift from feudalism into late 20th century capitalism — as a sort of diffuse signifier for a proletarian libidinal economy that capitalism has long tried to subdue and seems to have only gotten close to squashing in the last thirty years or so.
This frivolity continues today, too, to some extent, but what is worth noting, for Mark — and presumably filmmaker Paul Wright too — is that this disappearance is due to the targeted legislation of neoliberal government after neoliberal government, from Margaret Thatcher onwards (if not before). All have sought to subdue a desire for collective joy. Today, with even inner city rave culture under threat, as night clubs and common spaces disappear from our city centres never mind our depopulated countrysides, we seem to be the furthest from these desires and their psychogeographic groundings than ever before.
With all this in mind, what we’re presented with in Arcadia is a weird and eerie acid communist trip ’round the British isles, exploring folk traditions, folk horrors and the unbound energy which has long connected the peoples of these isles to our wildest places. Archive footage of nudists and Morris dancers and maypoles and the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling race and the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss festivalwere mixed and contrasted with the footage of kids huffing glue on bombed-out estates, the last ravers and fox hunts, each representing a top-down imposition on the spaces that working class communities have long called their homes — whether due to austerity, the bureaucratisation of culture or bourgeoisie expressions of spatial dominance; the free use of space combined subtly with its most violent impositions.
For Mark, rave was most important here: the last great British folk tradition rooted as much in a libidinal relationship to landscape as it was to soundscape, echoing the extant fairground energy of our countries’ various Celtic and Gaelic ancestors, channelling a Bataillean relationship to our energetic excesses which resist the gravity of capital.
Here’s Bataille on the festival:
For the sake of a real community, of a social fact that is given as a thing – of a common operation in view of a future time – the festival is limited: it is itself integrated as a link in the concatenation of useful works. As drunkenness, chaos, sexual orgy, that which it tends to be, it drowns everything in immanence in a sense; it then even exceeds the limits of the hybrid world of spirits, but its ritual movements slip into the world of immanence only through the mediation of spirits. To the spirits borne by the festival, to whom the sacrifice is offered, and to whose intimacy the victims are restored, an operative power is attributed in the same was it is attributed to things. In the end the festival itseld is viewed as an operation and its effectiveness is not questioned.
What Bataille is channelling here is not so occulted as we might expect, although this occulting is incredibly important for its affect on the imagination.
Contrary to this framing, in our group discussion after our screening, many were more explicit in their readings. Much was said about how this film addresses, quite frankly, many of the questions around land, blood and soil that the left are today so squeamish about going near. But these are conversations which must be reclaimed.
British blood and soil has nothing to do with the National Socialist blut und boden. This is no rejection of nomadism but its celebration. Nevertheless, a reclaiming of nomadic cultures — from travellers to ravers — must also account for a negative national history.
As the film announces on a title card, for us it is a case of “blood in the soil”. The worked land of the British isles has been a constant site of class war and labour for centuries. This isn’t a romanticised peasantry championed by the state — it’s an acknowledge of the customs and practices that have attempted to exist outside the state’s grasp for centuries.
Unfortunately, we are more used to seeing examples of these desires being smothered than of their successful expression, from the witch trials of the 17th century to the Battle of Orgreave to the ever-persistent tradition of fox-hunting in which horse-mounted class enemies violently lay claim to still somewhat feudal territories. (I was struck by Nina’s framing of many countryside parishes as still being feudal, with many Tory MPs, until very recently, if not still to this day, still acting as major landlords in their constituencies.)
In light of this, many a Guardian columnist has sought the rekindling of this relationship to our wildernesses through a sort of romanticised primitivism but in charting and recognising our histories we mustn’t claw for an illusionary past. Rewilding is nothing if it’s devoid of a tandem cultural consciousness raising that is built around collective activity on the commons. We don’t need our spaces “rewilding” but “reweirding“.
These libidinous spatial attractions are essential for us to realign ourselves with again and anew.
As ever, it’s worth turning to Mark himself, who writes in “Baroque Sunbursts”:
Rave’s ecstatic festivals revived the use of time and land which the bourgeoisie had forbidden and sought to bury. Yet, for all that it recalled those older festive rhythms, rave was evidently not some archaic revival. It was a spectre of post-capitalism more than of pre-capitalism. Rave culture grew out of the synthesis of new drugs, technology and music culture. MDMA and Akai-based electronic psychedelia generated a consciousness which saw no reason to accept that boring work was inevitable. The same technology that facilitated the waste and futility of capitalist domination could be used to eliminate drudgery, to give people a standard of living much greater than that of pre-capitalist peasantry, while freeing up even more time for leisure than those peasants could enjoy. As such rave culture was in tune with those unconscious drives, which as Marcuse put it, could not accept the ‘temporal dismemberment of pleasure… its distribution in small separate doses’. Why should rave ever end? Why should there be any miserable Monday mornings for anyone?
Raves also recalled the interstitial spaces — between commerce and festival — that provoked anxiety among the early bourgeoisie. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, as it struggled to impose its hegemony, the bourgeoise was very much exercised by the problematic status of the fair. It was the illegitimate ‘contamination’ of ‘pure’ commerce by carnival excess and collective festivity which troubled bourgeois writers and ideologues. The problem which they faced, however, was that commercial activity was always-already tainted with festive elements. There was no ‘pure’ commerce, free from collective energy. Such a commercial sphere would have to be produced, and this involved the subduing and ideological incorporation of the ‘marketplace’ as much as it entailed the domestication of the fair. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White pointed out in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, ‘the fair, like the marketplace, is neither pure nor outside. The fair is at the crossroads, situated in the intersection of economic and cultural forces, goods and travellers, commodities and commerce’.
The concept of ‘the economy’ as we now understand it had to be invented, and this required the stabilisation of the unsettling and unsettled figure of the fair. ‘As the bourgeoisie laboured to produce the economic as a separate domain, partitioned off from its intimate and manifold interconnectedness with the festive calendar, so they laboured conceptually to re-form the fair as either a rational, commercial, trading event or as a popular pleasure-ground.’ Such a division was necessary in order that the bourgeoisie could make a clean and definitive distinction between morally improving toil and decadent leisure — the refusal of ‘the temporal dismemberment of pleasure’. Hence, ‘although the bourgeois classes were frequently frightened by the threat of political subversion and moral license, they were perhaps more scandalised by the deep conceptual confusion by the fair’s mixing of work and pleasure, trade and play.’ The fair always carried traces of ‘the spectre of the world which could be free’, threatening to rob commerce of the association with toil and capital accumulation that the bourgeoisie was trying to impose. That is why ‘the carnival, the circus, the gypsy, the lumpenproletariat, play a symbolic role in bourgeois culture out of all proportion to their actual social importance.’
The carnival, the gypsy and the lumpenproletariat evoked forms of life — and forms of commerce — which were incompatible with the solitary labour of the lonely bourgeoise subject and the world it projected. That is why they could not be tolerated. If other forms of life were possible then- contrary to one of Mrs Thatcher’s most famous formulations — there were alternatives, after all.
The Linklater trilogy is the obvious reference point for the film, spending time with the duo as they learn and indirectly help each other while touring the amazing architecture of Columbus, Indiana. Director, Kogonada, has made a film that is as beautiful to look at as it is heartwarming, writing a naturally conversational script that Cho and Richardson flow through perfectly. Almost every shot is impeccably framed to place it’s characters within visually arresting scenery, whether in or outdoors. The space between the two characters becomes as meaningful as the places in which we see them positioned. It’s an incredibly still and serene film to watch but one that is rich with life and character. There is a lot of re-watch value here too and it continues to linger in the mind long after it has finished.
The utter aimlessness isn’t propelled to you through great melodramatic romanticisation, it is carefully pushed towards you in small, delectable bits, assuring itself that the viewer delves deeper into the minds and lives that are at stake here rather than to force the common misconception on these characters that one must choose and must find a way out of it all, to strive for a greater future. Writer-director Kogonada opts for telling the story of a girl who sees more merit in staying in her safe and comfortable environment to help take care of her sick mother than to run out into the world to start pursuing lifelong dreams. He presents the delicate nature of choice at one of the most conflicting times of our lives without bombarding us with the emotional confusion. It’s a film so quiet and dare I say even introverted, that it almost doesn’t need to do the talking for us. In fact, it even presents its characters at certain points, having longwinded conversations yet being completely inaudible, merely being substituted by the sound of the world around them or the far-off score that carefully weaves it all together.
I love the focus on architecture, which is a topic I know next to nothing about. While I’m interested in basically all forms of art, architecture is one that I’ve never really explored, and like Jin (an audience surrogate, in some respects), I’ve never truly gotten what can be so powerful or emotional about it – I’ve always just thought of good architecture as cool or pretty. But this movie showed me why it’s powerful to people; no matter what happens, no matter how bad life gets, there’s just this building standing there, this constant, a work of art that doesn’t disintegrate or disappear. People exist inside of it, wandering in and out, and it remains the same. It’s comforting
Kogonada has crafted a wonderful ode to masterfully framed shots that highlight the subtle nuanced performances of all his subjects. The film’s Director of Photography (Elisha Christian) should most certainly be praised for his achievement that is the visual prowess in this movie. Every shot of the picture is framed with various types of the surrounding and almost omnipresent structures that’s seen to be Indiana’s pride. It also gives leeway for these buildings to express much more symbolic visual significance and emotional emphasis to the characters and the circumstances they are in. I’m so strongly affected by this film.
Stellar performances by John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Michelle Forbes, Parker Posey and Rory Culkin only punctuate this perfectly paced character study to the point that you don’t feel you can even blink or you’ll miss some tiny little glance or movement or pause. I was totally enrapt by this film, which is almost intentionally inaccessible to main stream audiences. The beauty of this motion picture is the picture, and you are allowed to participate as an observer, almost to a point of over stimulation.
watch the trailer below:
This post has now been included in a broader piece on Anthrocene cinema, which is here.
Watching the previews for the summer movies, they all seem to me to belong to the genre of the Anthropocene. They all seem to be narratives about a civilization confronting limits of its own making. Some movies respond by stressing the glorious expenditure of energy, burning it up with images of fast cars, fast planes, fast women. And guns, lots of guns. Other opt for apocalypse. If the present cannot go on infinitely expanding then it can only collapse. No qualitative change can be imagined in narrative form. After us, the deluge: the Sun King’s prediction democratized.
Edge of Tomorrow is an interesting variation. Yes, it’s a Tom Cruise action sci-fi concoction, but these are not without their charms. Tom’s face provides the machinic sheen against which robots and other otherwise all too techy images come to seem warm and somehow human. There’s a creepy shot of his right ear that keeps returning, again and again, with weird stretch marks, as if someone has shrouded a Mills grenade in cling-wrap.
Setting Cruise aside, Edge of Tomorrow is interesting for a few reasons. The story’s mechanic is pure video game. Cruise and his co-star have the special property, bestowed on them accidentally by invading ‘aliens’, of starting the action over again, every time they die. Edge of Tomorrow lives out – and dies out – a desire for do-overs, for digital time. The time of the edit suite, as well as of the video game, where real time is not duration but measured and metered time. As if Bergson had it backwards, and pure duration were more an after-image of clock time and clock speed.
Edge of Tomorrow is about video game time, where death is not final, not an end, but rather a beginning, a do-over. Tom and his co-star do time over and over, trying to beat the aliens, clearing levels, backtracking out of dead-ends, all the way up to the boss level. But the time against which they fight is not duration, it is rather the historical time of the Anthropocene. It’s a human wave assault, by the most advanced flesh-tech of this civilization, against the very limits it has itself created.
It is not an exaggeration to call this historical time one of civilization. The aliens have conquered Europe. Russia and China are holding it at bay. The decisive battle is a re-staging of D-day, across the English channel. The movie charmingly presents the Brits as nothing more than a front for American imperial power. But in a way all of the current variants of capitalism as a civilization confront the same enemy.
It is of course unseemly to talk about civilizations. That whole language has belonged since its inception to the apologists of empire. So one has to imagine, when I use the word civilization, that I say it the way Charles Fourier would – pausing to spit in the middle of such a long and encumbered term.
The fantasy, then, is that the digital time of this civilization – be it capitalism still, or something worse – has within its power the ability to overcome the almost shapeless, formless, seething tentacle menace. One which curiously seems to have some sort of mimetic power. It doubles us and confounds us. It erupts from the earth or out of the sea, or appears out of nowhere in the sky. Its an almost molecular enemy. It is techy, like us, and yet not. It is perhaps the shadow image of our own forces of production, mediating between earth and air and water, and bringing fire. It is very scary except in those moments when the film makers lose their nerve and give it a face.
Tom and co-star alone confront this alien with the digital power of do-over time, getting beaten again and again, restarting the game each time. The co-star is Emily Blunt. She is the perfect embodiment of the weaponized woman. We see her tanned and oiled arms as she does push-ups in a black-ops chic sleeveless number, the camera lingering just a bit over her ass. The casting is a masterstroke. Blunt plays the global archetype of the stiff-upper-lip-Brit, mixed in with a bit of thorny English rose. The femme-gun doesn’t really do feelings. Blunt’s performance is so on-point that she makes Cruise seem almost human.
I won’t give away where they confront the boss alien, but it is in a landscape under water. Weird weather as a feature of a lot of movies of the Anthropocene. It can be caused by anything at all, except the emission of green house gases from the collective labors of this civilization. This is key. The cinema of the Anthropocene is about anything but the causes of the Anthropocene. But it is very candid about its effects.
So the boss-alien is confronted in old Europe, from which this civilization’s mode of production sprang. We see old Europe under water, as indeed in a way it already is, in the future already pre-set for it.
Cruise and Blunt: perfect names for our heroes, for the two affects that dominate the action. And of course they win. There may be a point to this. If we could prefigure all of the permutations of the narrative resources of this civilization, run through them all, have all our futures over and done with in advance, we might be done with this whole narrative formation. Perhaps we need to play this game till we get bored with it. Perhaps we will get bored with it soon enough to discover that its digital time does not accord with the historical time of the Anthropocene. That other time is out there, like a formless alien.
Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina in Alphaville
Lemmy Caution –“Fuck yourself with your logic.”
Tagline – Suddenly the word is Alphaville… and a secret agent is in a breathless race against the Masters of the Future.
Natacha Von Braun – “Got a light?”
Lemmy Caution – “I’ve traveled 9,000 kilometers to give it to you.”
Alpha 60 – “The acts of men carried over from past centuries will gradually destroy them logically. I, Alpha 60, am merely the logical means of this destruction.”
Alpha 60 – Time is like a circle which is endlessly described. The declining arc is the past. The inclining arc is the future.
Lemmy Caution – “Dick Tracy, is he dead?”
It looks like Earth and it sounds like Earth, but it doesn’t feel like Earth. Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s idiosyncratic vision of a futuristic planet placed in an unknown location in the galaxy, doesn’t have flying cars or spaceships or fancy gadgets. Its inhabitants aren’t tall, bizarre-looking creatures with large heads; they look very much like us.
There are no elaborate sets; the style is as minimalist as it can get (this is a Godard film, after all). He shows us actual locations from Earth and wants us to imagine that this is an entirely different planet. (A similar approach will be adopted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder on World on a Wire). Any planet outside Alphaville is referred to as the “Outer Planets”, of which Earth is one – although the word ‘Earth’ is never mentioned.
watch the movie below:
Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Postmodern Artistic Re-Presentation
by MARY JOE HUGHES
Now that Michael Cunningham's The Hours has been made into a film representing yet another echo of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway it is worth investigating just how the later novel conceives its relation to its predecessor. Because The Hours directly lakes the role of literature as one of its subjects, it may provide a model for considering postmodern artistic representation more generally.
Such re-telling or re-presentation of an earlier work of art is rife in postmodernity, and not just in fiction. Consider Stoppard's Rosenrcntz and Guildenstern are Dead. Smiley's A Thousand Acres. Hwang's M. Butterfly, Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, the rock opera Rome and Jewels, or the gospel version of Messiah. Too Hot to Handel as a random sampling from a long list. Although this kind of postmodern re-presentation has been condemned as pastiche or ironic parody.' the practice is nothing new. The notion that art must be brand-new, a kind of large-scale urban renewal project forever starting lrt)m scratch is mostly drawn from modernism. Many earlier art forms acknowledged their predecessors and borrowed liberally from both the structure and content of earlier models. One has only to consider the various versions of Faust or the models for Shakespeare's plays or Palladio's borrowing from classical forms or the later borrowing from Palladio or the habits of composers writing variations on earlier themes to acknowledge a venerable tradition of artistic repetition. In echoing this history, the arts of postmodernism suggest something more traditional than modernism, but they may be attempting something new as well, a departure as well as a return. But the "something new" is not easy to characterize. It eludes our grasp.
Much has been written about giving voice to the silences within the tradition, about opening it up to alternative perspectives, and certainly this is one of the effects of several of the postmodern works cited above, and of many more besides. The attempt to highlight the perspective of the "other" underscores the postmodern preoccupation with difference. But these gestures toward pluralism, however desirable and effective, reduce the postmodern aesthetic to a largely political or ethical purpose. It is worth considering what else is going on besides this opening to new voices. For example, what can we discover about the postmodern idea of art in works that echo and transform their predecessors? Cunningham's novel is a rich source for investigating this question because of its explicit focus on the role of literature and by extension the role of art or creativity more generally.
I am not concerned here with the many ways in which The Hours both echoes and extends the narrative of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Let it suffice that the characters of the later novel recall those of the former: A woman named Clarissa plunges into the city to buy flowers for her party; a crazed poet who plunges to his death disturbs her party. Figures from the characters" pasts resurface in recollection and again in person on the day of the party, thereby breaking open the novel's temporal structure of a single day with myriad journeys into the past. In both works there is a luncheon party to which Clarissa is not invited, and in both works Clarissa worries about the questionable influence of a strident ideologue over her daughter. Although The Hours contains a similar cast of characters to those of Mrs. Dalloway and repeats the themes of love and death and time, Michael Cunningham does not simply ape the structure of Mrs. Dalloway and transpose it to New York in the late twentieth century. He takes an important but nonetheless minor theme in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa's intense youthful passion for Sally Seton, and considerably expands it in the later novel. Clarissa and Sally are lovers and many of the main characters are gay. Here we find the recycled fragments of the postmodern novel and the opening to new voices.
Those two elements are not my focus. Instead I am limiting our subject to the central image of the plunge in Mrs. Dalloway that is echoed in the later novel. In Woolf's novel this image paradoxically identifies Clarissa's plunge into life in preparation for her party (3) with the plunge of Septimus, the mad poet, toward death (184). The Hours repeats the same identification of the plunge into life (9) and the plunge toward death (199-203), continuing the watery imagery of the earlier novel, with its ripples widening in circles. These elements allow Cunningham to expand on the permeable boundaries between life and death that Woolf explores and on the widening circles that connect one person or event to another, moving toward the uncharted horizon. The plunge and its associated meanings are ultimately linked to the role of literature, especially in The Hours and, more generally in both novels, to the act of creation.
The Hours repeats from Mrs Dalloway a second image that is related to the idea of the plunge, the concept of moments when time "bursts open", as if defying the relentless procession of hour after hour by which chronological time unfolds. In Mrs. Dalloway. one such moment, experienced by Septimus, is explicitly related to both poetic inspiration and death:
The word "time" split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making ihem, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew lo attach themselves to their places in an ode lo Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang. among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself--(69-70)
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‘Mothers’ is a very strange film, sometimes sophisticated, poignant and often elliptical. […] One of the most interesting and original filmmakers of recent years [...] One of those authors who are not afraid to face the genres and to push the boundaries. (Diego Pierini, LoudVision)
Mothers debunks the notion that documentaries can tell the truth. (Virginia Wright Wexman, Offscreen )
Art or death. Opposing compromise, opposing image consumerism. (Fulvia Caprara, La Stampa)
Genius director […] Groundbreaking poignant films […] Dizzying dialectic […] Rave review […] Milcho wants us to think. Isn’t that what great art should do? […] Better than fiction in its outrageous irony. (Vanessa McMahon, fest21.com / filmfestivals.com)
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Structurally unusual, almost experimental and a very exciting film. […] A powerful punch in the stomach to the Macedonian society. (Dubravka Lakic, Politika) Provoking deep reflection and polemic. (slovesa.net)
Superior directing. (Märkische Oberzeitung)
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All three stories contain a hidden web of lies and betrayals, constructing a powerful final act about community and respect. (Radmila Djurica)
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Love in the city is hard. It’s a tricky beast, people weaving in and out of love under the London skyline. A lot of films have tried to capture this and portray it on the big screen. We end up with sickly awkward but genuinely sweet movies such as Love Actually or Man Up.
But Mercedes Gowers’ Brakes is a toe-curling and intimately emotional indie film about the pain of love. Bringing together our finest British actors, Brakes is a series of vignettes about couples breaking up before flitting forward to see how they got together.
We were lucky enough to talk to Mercedes about her new release!
How are you? How dies it feel getting a big release?
I’m quite nervous actually. Hopefully, there will be a time where I might enjoy it.
Must be quite nervous as a first feature.
It’s unusual. I’m not sure how the non-linear aspects are going to go down. I haven’t even been thinking about enjoying it. Hopefully we’ll have a celebatory weekend. Steve Oram was like “It is going to be great.”
It’s like putting your child out there.
Where did you draw inspiration from?
I’ve done comedy and dark comedy. I’ve just been thinking about people breaking up for year. It is just so personal and we all go through it. It’s so intense and weird. Warped, funny, and emotional. You are with this personal for a long time. You’re in a bubble on either side and at both ends, the break up and getting together, it’s very heightened.
I definitely wanted to do it backwards and get into the real life . You can play on it and it turns into this figure of 8. The whole thing was a jigsaw puzzle. We shot it backwards too: Filming the break-ups first. but the meet-ups worked so well as the actors new what the characters had been through. It was funny to plunge into a first meet from these intense break-ups, you can trace back exactly what went wrong.
How did you come about the stories? Were there any based in truth?
I was just thinking about making them as varied as possible and who’d work with each other. There loads of different ones like Julian (Barrett) being a stalker or Paul McGann and Kate Hardie having an affair. There’s also me and Noel (Fielding) having that innocent thing at the beginning. It’s interesting to see how dark it is going to go and making them as varied as possible.
Every break up is different. I find it funny how everyone shows so much of yourself to another person. We varied it up a bit. I loved Kerry (Fox) and Roland (Gift), to have all those pauses – it’s very deep and adult with the weight of a long time relationship. Me and Noel are more explosive, young and on the edge.
There’s a big character with London, how did this come into play?
I think any city will make you fall in love faster. Whether you are falling in love or breaking up, it becomes intense. There’s so much going on in the trees, the buildings, and the rooftops. I wanted to include some places I’ve gone too. But I think it’s intense no matter where – like the country-side would become all ‘Heathcliffe’ like . I was using what I had – the romance of London.
How did you get so many great British actors involved?
I was very lucky. The comedy bunch, I’ve known for a long time. Julian,Steve, and Noel are old friends of mine and thought it was fascinating to do a film like this. Everyone I asked seemed excited to do so, especially with the improvising. It was quite a laugh! I think Kerry Fox is incredible so I was happy when she came on board. She’s an interesting and extraordinary actress.
How did they form as couples?
It was more through timings and chemistry. I enjoyed Paul MccGann and Kate Hardie’s affair. Peter White and Julia Davies had to break up twice! Julia Davis is quite good at all that comedic darkness though.
How tricky was it filming your own scene?
I was very lucky that Noel suggested he’d do mine with me, which I had been putting off. We had quite a good shorthand together and I was glad it was him! We bounced brilliantly off one another and we had that great snow. It was brilliant to do!
Brakes is out in cinemas now!
Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!”….I am happy to report that there is no need for some mass panic. “Mother!” may start slow, but it proves to be a very enjoyable “descent” into sheer madness overall. The initial story here is Him (Javier Bardem) and Her (Jennifer Lawrence) settling into a married life in a country mansion, until one couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) become their pestering lodgers against the wishes of Her. Ironically, the main flaw of Aronofsky’s psychological horror film “Mother!” is that it is not his first film. If it were, it would have been a masterpiece of achievement. Instead, “Mother!” is just the “recycling” of the elements/tricks present in Aronofsky’s previous films. How does this affect this film, one may ask? Well, Aronofsky’s “recycling” of his ideas reduces the overall effect, impact and unpredictability of “Mother!” by as much as 80%. “Mother!” formula is quite simple to understand. The film is structurally and archetypically “Black Swan” (2010) + touches of some “over-the-top” home invasion and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). This is all to it. And, where it is not all, it also incorporates, quite evidently, Aronofsky’s artful orange-colour bursting creativity and philosophy we have all previously seen in “The Fountain” (2006) and biblical/allegorical references. The saddest thing here is that the film is quite entertaining and even brilliant in parts, and the premise would have been completely unforgettable had Aronofsky been more original in his work.
The film begins by showing Her (the titles call her Mother, but I will refer to her as She) (Jennifer Lawrence) and her husband (Javier Bardem (“Skyfall” (2012)), and their day-to-day life in their country mansion. While the husband struggles to write his novel, She is concerned with decorating their house. Of course, it is fairer to say that “Mother!” really begins by showing the end, but it will probably be saying too much at this point. Bardem character’s most precious possession is a mysterious stone-like object which he keeps in his private room. Things start to really get out of control, when a visitor, a doctor (Ed Harris (“A History of Violence” (2005)), arrives at their doorstep. Soon, the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer (“The Age of Innocence” (1993)) follows him to our main couple’s home, and things really start to get uncomfortable and spooky at their house. Now, there are a number of elements at play here: the “external” threat/danger, the “internal” threat and the focus on the relationship between the main characters. The “external” threat is the visitors which arrive to stay at the writer’s home. They start to probe the family’s affairs, and unsettle Her in particular. The “internal” threat is the fantasy element deriving from the house itself. Putting aside any biblical and symbolic meanings, this first half of the film is relatively weak and ineffective. It may have been shot by a film student, modestly experimenting with the psychological horror genre. The camera is often positioned at, and looks from Lawrence character’s shoulder, demonstrating the impact of the home invasion as experienced by Her. There are mysterious noises, strange, hallucinatory experiences, blood appearing out of nowhere, and spooky apparitions. However, the main problem here, which Aronofsky failed to consider, is that we, the viewers, after being introduced to “spooky”/unsettling happenings every thirty seconds or so, soon become “immune” to them. By the film’s fifteenth attempt at inducing an internal “omg” cry from the audience, the viewers become desensitised to all the horror, and the film’s attempts here to draw the audience into the film are not really that successful. Most of the tricks employed are predictable and unimaginative, with Mother becoming “too much of a victim” for any real sympathies.
The second part of “Mother!” has some of the most controversial and talked-about sequences. Here, Aronofsky lets his imagination run wild. The sequences are horrific, claustrophobic, very memorable. If there was any audience Aronofsky wanted to target, I was part of it. I previously enjoyed both: Lars von Trier’s artful and horrifying “Antichrist” (2009) and Martin Koolhoven’s heart-and-gut wrenching “Brimstone” (2017). I also loved Aronofsky’s depressing “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), and just could not get enough of his creative force in “The Fountain” (2006). However, with “Mother!”, all is not that simple. Firstly, “Mother!” has such unbelievable sequences, they are downright funny – laugh-out-loud funny, despite all the horror. A satire, an allegory, symbolism…well, perhaps, and, perhaps, Banksy was also an influence. After all, with “Mother!” all is possible. The second problem is that if one has seen Aronofsky’s previous films, there isalmost nothing new here to see. In “Mother!”, the philosophical/puzzling elements seem to be taken straight out of Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”; and “Mother!”’s “home invasion” theme is just the replaying (although now on a grand-scale) of one of the final key scenes of Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”. The similarities between these two films and “Mother!” are overwhelming, from drugs references and a merciless descent into sheer despair/madness present in both “Mother!” and “Requiem for a Dream”, to the focus on the colour orange present in both “The Fountain” and in “Mother!”.
Regarding the similarities between Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” and “Mother!”, it is safe to say that I can probably write a thick book on it. Aronofsky said that he wrote his draft script to “Mother!” in only five days, and I am surprised how he did not write his screenplay in only thirty minutes. Structurally and archetypically, “Mother!” is “Black Swan”, and, of course, “Black Swan”, in turn, “drew inspiration” from “Repulsion” (1965) and “Perfect Blue” (1997). In “Mother!”, the character of Lawrence is Nina Sayers from “Black Swan”. Both characters are true innocent victims, with the cameras in both films often closing up on their faces to show the horrors they are living through. Jennifer Lawrence even has the same mannerism and demeanour as Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”. If Nina in “Black Swan” undergoes transformation herself, in “Mother!”, it is the house which undergoes the transformation. Moreover, Javier Bardem in “Mother!” seems to play the role of Thomas Leroy from “Black Swan”. In both films, Bardem and Cassel play characters that are much older than the main innocent heroines, and both of them try to protect the younger heroines who are battling internal and external dangers. Such similarities seem endless and overwhelming, and they also include some particular scenes (for example, the scenes involving blood/wounds/toilets). Other clear “inspirations” of “Mother!” include “Rosemary’s Baby” and surreal “The Exterminating Angel” (1962). Why these similarities matter? Well, because they are one too many, and it becomes quite impossible to watch and enjoy “Mother!” without constantly having in mind the scenes and elements of other movies. I know of no other director who would employ his other films or other people’s cinematic work to such a great extent in his work, and then call it creative, original work. In fact, to some extent, Aronofsky’s (over)-use of the previous cinematic material is even more shocking and puzzling that “Mother!”s premise itself.
The cast and acting in “Mother!” are good, even though Bardem and Lawrence make an unlikely pairing. Javier Bardem is a pleasure to watch, because his character remains enigmatic throughout, and Ed Harris is always good playing a guy who is just too secretly eager to crash a family’s peaceful existence, recalling his role in “A History of Violence”.
It is a pity that Aronofsky blatantly and all too obviously borrows his previous material to make this film, with him taking the essential “body parts” of his (and others) films, cementing them together, and producing this latest “scarecrow”. Thus, sadly, “Mother!” is not as effective as it would have been otherwise. Especially in the film’s first half, it feels like a novice film student suddenly decided to write and shoot a parody on Aronofsky’s cinematography/films. The amazing fact here is that this student/person is Aronofsky himself. Though the film’s first part suffers from very predictable moments, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the role of the innocent, victimised Nina of “Black Swan”, the second part of the film proves that “Mother!” is an enjoyable and terrifyingly memorable experience overall. The real pleasure here is to be found in the film’s “over-the-top” sequences. The film is intense and hugely uncomfortable, but it does transpire into a “must-watch” film for any psychological horror fan. 7/10
The First Surrealist Film 'The Seashell and the Clergyman' by Germaine Dulac & Antonin Artaud (1928)
La coquille et le clergyman
When the subject of early surrealist film arises, most of us think of Salvador Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and not without good cause: even 86 years after its release, its nightmare images of piano-dragging and eyeball-slicing still lurk in our collective cinematic consciousness. But we can't call it the very first surrealist film since, 87 years ago, French critic and filmmaker Germaine Dulac, in collaboration with no less an avant-garde luminary than Antonin Artaud, put out La Coquille et le clergyman, better know internationally as The Seashell and the Clergyman, which you can watch free above.
Un Chien Andalou met with a pleased reception, to Buñuel’s delight and Dalí's disappointment. Dulac and Artaud's project provoked a different reaction. "Advertised as 'a dream on the screen,'" writes Senses of Cinema's Maryann de Julio, "The Seashell and Clergyman’s premiere at the Studio des Ursulines on February 9, 1928 incited a small riot, and critical response to the film has ranged from the misinformed – some American prints spliced the reels in the wrong order – to the rapturous – acclaimed as the first example of a Surrealist film."
The film takes place in the consciousness of the titular clergyman, a lusty priest who thinks all manner of impure thoughts about a general's wife. In another Senses of Cinema article on Artaud's film theory, Lee Jamieson writes that, in putting this troubled consciousness on film, it "penetrates the skin of material reality and plunges the viewer into an unstable landscape where the image cannot be trusted," resulting in "a complex, multi-layered film, so semiotically unstable that images dissolve into one another both visually and 'semantically,' truly investing in film's ability to act upon the subconscious." It capitalizes, in other words, upon the now well-known principle that what is seen cannot be unseen.
But it also pushed cinema ahead in a way that Buñuel and Dali could run with the following year. De Julio's article quotes Artaud's own description of the challenge he saw the form as facing, and the one which The Seashell and the Clergyman attempts, in its way, to address: it could either become "pure or absolute cinema" or "this sort of hybrid visual art that persists in translating into images, more or less apt, psychological situations that would be perfectly at home on stage or in the pages of a book, but not on the screen." He saw neither of these as "likely the true one," and many filmmakers even today (David Lynch stands as a guiding light among those now living) continue the search for how best to tell stories on film in a manner suited to the advantages of film.
Even overshadowed by Un Chien Andalou, The Seashell and the Clergymanremains a popular silent film to re-score today, and you can watch the movie with a few different soundtracks online: from dark ambient artist Roto Visage, from musique concrète composer Delia Derbyshire (see right above), from large-scale experimental band Sons of Noel and Adrian, and many more besides.
The Coens' grimmest film offered a prescient vision of a new world dominated by faceless corruption
The Sunday Matinee takes a look at a classic or beloved film each weekend. This week, we’re calling a coin toss as the Coen brothers’ masterpiece and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men reaches the decade mark.
This week marks 10 years since Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s sparse, devastating 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was released in theaters to rattle audiences’ nerves and immediately introduce one of film history’s most singularly frightening villains. Yet, for all of the terrors presented in the film by Anton Chigurh, or by the Coens’ signature cruel, omnipotent, and blind God presiding over the story’s events, the most skin-crawling idea put forth by No Country is one that proved prescient in the years that followed. There are no antiheroes, lone cowboys fighting for what’s right, or final battles between good and evil. There’s just a faceless, amorphous, constant violence in the world now, perpetrated by forces beyond anyone’s comprehension or control.
To be sure, No Country has a villain, but who and what it is shifts throughout the film. On its face, it’s Chigurh (Javier Bardem in an unbelievably deserving Oscar-winning performance), who wanders West Texas in the early 1980s, doling out sudden and brutal death based on the flip of a coin. Chigurh can be hired, but he truly works for fate and fate alone. Early, he menaces a kindly shopkeeper with that coin; when the soft-spoken gas station attendant asks him what he’s playing to win, Chigurh responds simply, telling him: “Everything. You stand to win everything. Call it.” He wins the coin toss, and Chigurh goes on with his day. Others throughout the film aren’t so lucky.
Fate and chaos and violence are the milieu of No Country, from the revolting early scene of Chigurh murdering a police officer with a cattle bolt for having the misfortune of pulling him over on a country road. And once Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) steals $2 million from the aftermath of a drug deal gone fatally wrong, those forces conspire to destroy everything he once knew. Soon his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), is in hiding, Llewelyn is forced to flee from small town to small town to Mexico and back again, and Chigurh is always just a step behind, the vengeful shadow punishing him for his sins. He may be tasked with recovering the money, but it’s an abstract concern to the assassin at best. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) follows both men all the while, with a mixture of weary, wholly Jonesian bemusement and a growing sense of horror at what the world has become and how the moral rot of it has slowly managed to find its way to even the most placid corners of the world.
No Country arrived near the tail end of a major turning point in American history. Released a year shy of the conclusion of George W. Bush’s time as president, a kind of grim nihilism had begun to blanket the nation, preceding the divides that exist today in an era of MAGA and fake news and so forth. It’s not as though social divisions were a new concept, but now they had a face. You were for the country or against it, loyal to white skin or traitorous to dark, obedient of God and country or unfit to accept its benefits. Once-gentle music turned angrier, with so much talk of putting boots in asses as the new American way. September 11th and a war that slowly mutated into a military occupation turned the country into a more constantly frightening place, and the infinite cable news cycle ensured that you were always fully aware of how much danger existed around every corner, how scared you could and should be, and who your enemy was.
The film preys directly on that latter fear by suggesting that the real danger is the one you’ll never see coming. After spending much of its runtime meditating on the riveting cat-and-mouse game between Llewelyn and Chigurh, the hunt suddenly ends when Llewelyn is gunned down in the doorway of an El Paso motel by anonymous drug runners for the briefcase of money. Chigurh, meanwhile, ends up in a car accident, and limps off into the night, bribing a pair of young boys for their discretion. In both cases, many audiences at the time took this as a disappointing anticlimax. One of the more riveting action films of the decade concludes in these scenes and in Jones recounting a sad dream about his father. But in the anonymity of their ends, No Country speaks to the comedown of so many triumphalist fantasies with the dawn of the modern era. There are no heroes, just people attempting to scrap for money and claim their small piece of stability and the manifest destiny once promised to all but clearly now restricted to the few. And there are no villains, just killers without names or backstories who destroy lives in the pursuit of the same. The battles are broader, and constant, struggling lives cutting down others to try and claw their way up a rapidly shrinking ladder.
After the political process gave itself over to a national acceptance of open corruption in the wake of the 2000 election — right and wrong surrendered over to party loyalty and piety to one’s winning or losing team — No Country imagines this process as a zero-sum game, the violence surrounding the film’s release an extra-textual backdrop for the carnage onscreen. Virtually every character onscreen either dies, accepts that death is drawing near, or experiences the quieter terror of having one’s identity diminished to nothing. In the film’s paranoid world, you simply wait for what’s coming to you, and there’s no dispute about whether it is or when it will. Like a wave crashing over shores, death and ruin is the only fate for us all, and more than likely it’ll be through no fault of your own. It’s just the way of circumstance. Given that the American economy collapsed less than a year later, the film almost now reads as less of a warning than a statement of fact. Your life was about to collapse, because of things you can’t understand done by people you’ll never meet, and you will be left to carry the burden.
Or, as Jones suggests in the film’s haunting final monologue, you wait to meet that other end, the one coming to us all if circumstance doesn’t beat it there. Jones muses about a dream involving his father, noting that “I’m older now than he ever was,” and speaks of how he sees the deceased older man off in the distance, carrying a fire, waiting for his son to arrive. No Country for Old Men wears the artistic auspices of the old-time Western, but in the service of something far more unforgiving. There are no duels, no last-minute rescues, no moments of respite in the saloon. The thieves and killers don’t ride into town and declare themselves anymore. They just take, until someone takes from them in turn, and the forces of avarice and retribution become an ouroboros, a death spiral from which nobody can escape once they’re pulled into its orbit. Perhaps the most despairing aspect of that monologue, and of the film at large, comes when Jones is forced to surrender even the hollow comfort of knowing that one day he’ll reach his father and that flame. He and the film both conclude with a flat statement: “And then I woke up.” The world will only grow more venomous, and he still has to live in it.
This very interesting "art film" from Russia by Dziga Vertov's "The Man with a Movie Camera" is considered one of the most innovative and influential films of the silent era. Amazingly modern, this film exploit a groundbreaking style of rapid editing and incorporates countless other cinematic effects to create a work of astounding power and energy. This is a powerful, totally visual film without title cards, actors or story-line.
Released: September 8, 1929.
Directed by Dziga Vertov
Written by Dziga Vertov
Music Michael Nyman
Watch the movie below:
Gabriel Range, black button-down shirt, shaved head, apparently 35 years old. A very personal, sensitive fella who easily strayed from the topic. This is the man who made a film that he knew would be talked about. Before the interview began, he asked the six interviewers present which publications we each represented. Range is keeping his eye on the papers…
The 213: You’ve done before what you called a ‘retrospective documentary’ with The Day Britain Stood Still. Why are you interested in that type of storytelling?
Gabriel Range: I think it’s a really unusual way of looking at the future. Or, a way of using the future to look at the present. It’s a bit of a complicated thing, because it’s told in the past tense, it describes an event set in the future, but it’s really about what’s happened in the past. I hope it works. I think that you engage with the material in a different way. When you look at a film that’s told in the vocabulary of the documentary, you have certain preconceptions which make you absorb the material in a different way. If it was told as straight narrative fiction, like an episode of 24, then you dismiss it, or just absorb it as fiction. Although this clearly is fiction, it is absolutely about the world we live in now. The intent is always for it to feel as realistic and authentic as possible.
213: Have you ever been personally involved in any activism?
GR: I was in London during the protests against the impending invasion of Iraq. I’ve been in New York for some of the protests there.
213: Nothing serious?
GR: Well, I absolutely took place in the protests against the impending invasion of Iraq. And I have witnessed a lot of protests here in the US, but from more of the journalistic standpoint.
213: Was it difficult to get funding for the movie?
GR: No. I think it would’ve been impossible to have got funding in the US. And so…there are plenty of American filmmakers that would’ve – if I had been American, it would’ve been much harder for me to get this film off the ground. You only have to look at the response that the film was being made as a pretty strong indicator that no American studio or company could’ve – politically – made this film.
213: What feelings do you want the audience to leave with?
GR: The jury at Toronto said that they thought the film distorted reality to reveal a greater truth. If that the audience feels when they leave the theater, then I’m thrilled.
213: What truth?
GR: Well, I think what the film does is offers a series of…I see the film as a reflection of…I mean, I hope the film poses some serious questions about the way the War on Terror has been handled, the way this War on Terror is presented to the media, and the continuingly corrosive effect of the war in Iraq. I mean, I think those are all things that are really important to think about. Specifically the way the administration sought to connect 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq is something that is…an extraordinary thing.
conducted and transcribed by David Ashley
by David Ashley
On October 19, 2007, Gabriel Range posits that President George W. Bush could be assassinated outside a hotel in Chicago. Brit TV journalist Range again experiments with “historical retrospective fiction” by creating this faux-documentary which pretends to be an actual documentary released in 2008, chronicling the president’s assassination. Range deftly combines recent protest footage from Chicago, a real speech Bush gave there, and faked interviews with actors playing the FBI and Secret Service to create a convincing illusion – if you don’t follow politics as closely as he does. As a fictitious documentary, Range succeeds. Beyond that…
The idea of the film is to illustrate the way our government operates when Terror hits home, almost like injecting a blood stream with dye to track its flow throughout the body. The problem? Simply, if you’ve lived in this country for the past five years, the perspectives this film offers are absolutely nothing new. Range would not have been able to receive funding for his film in the States, and viewed from here, the film is a regurgitation. Perhaps this film is best suited for non-Americans. At times it is quite gripping, reminding us that no matter how much criticism we may doll out at our leader, an event of this magnitude involves every one of us. But – Range’s grip eventually eases, and the viewer is left wondering, “Wait – why was Range just squeezing me? Gosh. Well I certainly didn’t appreciate that.” Perhaps Death would’ve worked better as a television special, or a short film, or simply a short story, because that’s exactly how it feels – a mildly interesting idea without an ending; a concept. A concept of supreme magnitude that starts at a sprint and tires itself out to a modest meander, Death is guilty of sensationalism parading as melodrama, and worse, of pretending to be fictionally interesting while really being merely topical – and worse, being topical without direction. Range is hereby sentenced to remain at least five years away from Narrative Fiction, until he grows mature enough to manipulate it accordingly.
Death of a President
FilmFour, Borough Films
STARRING Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker
WRITTEN BY Gabriel Range, Simon Finch
PRODUCED BY Gabriel Range, Simon Finch, Ed Guiney, Robin Gutch
DIRECTED BY Gabriel Range
SHOT BY Graham Smith
EDITED BY Brand Thumim
MUSIC BY Richard Harvey
DISTRIBUTED BY Optimum Releasing, Newmarket Films
by Mark Fisher
Cinelists- Existenz- Cronenberg- Jude Law- Jennifer Jason Leigh
“Can what is playing you make it to level 2?” asked Nick Land in his landmark 1994 on cyber-theory, “Meltdown” (Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Urbanomic, 456). Ominous and playful, Land’s intuition that computer games would provide the best way to understand subjectivity and agency in digital culture was also the gambit of David Cronenberg’s 1999 eXistenZ. eXistenZ takes place in a near-future in which games are capable of generating simulated environments which can barely be distinguished from real life. Instead of computer terminals or game consoles, players use organic “gamepods”, which are connected directly to the players’ bodies via “bioports” in their spines. (Cronenberg conjectures on the DVD commentary that if people choose to have laser eye surgery, they would also be willing to have bioports installed.) The lead characters are Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). We are first of all led to believe that Pikul is a neophyte gameplayer, being reluctantly initiated into the gameworld by Geller, who at this point seems to be the designer of the game, eXistenZ, which they are playing. The two are pitched into a complex intrigue: a struggle between rival games corporations, and between gameplayers and “realists” – those who believe that the games are corroding the structure of reality itself. This corrosion is performed by the film itself, with what one of the characters memorably describes as “reality bleed-through” effects, so that the reality layers – only very weakly differentiated in any case - become difficult to distinguish. By the end it seems that both eXistenZ the game and what we had taken to be real life are both embedded inside another game, tranCendenZ, but by now we cannot be sure. The last line of dialogue is “tell me the truth, are we still in the game?”
At the time, it seemed like eXistenZ was a late-arriving take on a series of themes and tropes familiar from 80s cyberpunk, and which Cronenberg had himself already explored (and did so much to shape) in Videodrome. In retrospect, however, it is possible to position eXistenZ as part of a rash of late 1990s and early 2000s films, including The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, which mark a transition from what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance” of the 1990s bubble economy into the early twenty-first-century War on Terror moment. There is an abrupt mood shift towards the end of the film, with a military insurrection complete with heavy artillery and explosions. But the dominant feel is more quotidian. By contrast with the hyperconspicuous CGI of The Matrix, with which it was destined to be most compared, eXistenZ was sparing in its use of special effects. As Cronenberg’s DVD commentary makes clear, most of the CGI deployed in the film was used to produce naturalistic effects. The film’s look is subdued, resolutely non-spectacular: brown seems to be the dominant colour. Looked back on now, this brownness looks like a refusal of the gloss that will increasingly come to coat the artifacts of digital culture. With its dreary trout farms, ski lodges, and repurposed churches, the world (or, more properly, worlds) of eXistenZ have a mundane, lived-in quality. Or rather worked-in: much of the film happens in workplaces - workshops, gas stations, factories. This focus on work is what now seems most prophetic about eXistenZ. Labour is never explicitly discussed in the film: it is instead something like an ambient theme, omnipresent but unarticulated. The key to eXistenZ’s self-reflexivity is its preoccupation with the conditions of its own production (and the production of culture in general). It presents us with an uncanny compression, in which the “front end” of late capitalist culture – its cutting edge entertainment systems – fold back into the normally unseen “back end” (the quotidian factories, labs and focus groups in which such systems are produced). The clamour of capitalist semiotics – the frenzy of branding sigils and signals – is curiously muted in eXistenZ. Instead of being part of the background hum of experience, as they are in both everyday life and the typical Hollywood movie, brand names appear only rarely in eXistenZ. The that do appear– most of them the names of games companies – leap out of the screen. The generic naming of space is in fact one of the running jokes in the film – a country gas station is simply called Country Gas Station, a motel is called Motel. This is part of the flat affect, the strange tonelessness, which governs most of the film. On the DVD commentary, Cronenberg says that he made the actors wear unpatterned clothes, because patterns would consume more computer memory.
The digitization of culture which we take for granted now was only in its infancy in 1999; broadband was a few years off, as was the iPod. eXistenZ has little to tell us about the digital communications equipment that will proliferate in the decade after it was released. Communications devices do not play any major role in eXistenZ—the odd glowing phone belonging to Ted is thrown out of a car window by Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh)—and, with its longueurs, its lingering in dead time, the film is very far from registering the jittery, attention-dispersing effects of “always-on” mobile technology. The most resonant aspects of eXistenZ do not reside in thebody horror which was then still Cronenberg’s signature—although the scenes of the characters being connected to their organic game pod by bio-ports are typically grisly. Nor are they to be found in the perplexity expressed by characters as to whether they are inside a simulation or not—this is a theme that was already familiar from Videodrome, as well as Verhoeven’s Total Recall, both of which (in the first case indirectly, in the second more directly) took their inspiration from Phillip K. Dick’s fiction. Instead it is the idea—in some ways stranger and more disturbing than the notion that reality is fake—that subjectivity is a simulation which is what is distinctive about eXistenZ. In the first place, this emerges through confronting other automated (or rather partially automated) consciounesses: entities who seem autonomous but in fact can only respond to certain trigger phrases or actions that move the gameplay down a predetermined pathway. Some of the most memorable (and humorous) scenes show encounters with these Read Only Memory entities. At one point, we see one of the characters locked in a “game loop”, silently lolling his head, while waiting to hear the key words that will provoke him back into action. Later, a clerk is seen repeatedly clicking a pen – as a background character he is programmed not to respond until his name is called. More disturbing than the third person (or non-person) encounter with these programmed drones is the experience of having one’s own subjectivity interrupted by an automatic behaviour. At one point, Pikul suddenly finds himself saying, “It’s none of your business who sent us! We’re here and that is all that matters” He is shocked at the expostulation: “God, what happened? I didn’t mean to say that.” “It’s your character who said it,” Geller explains. “It’s kind of a schizophrenic feeling, isn’t it? You’ll get used to it. There are things that have to be said to advance the plot and establish the characters, and those things get said whether you want to say them or not. Don’t fight it.” Pikul later grimly notes that whether he fights these “game urges” or not doesn’t make any difference. The emphasis on the curtailing of free will is one reason that Cronenberg’s claim that the film was “existentialist propaganda” seems odd. Existentialism was a philosophy which claimed that human beings (what Sartre called the “for-itself”) are “condemned to be free”, and that any attempt to avoid responsibility for one’s actions amounted to bad faith. There was an absolute difference between the for-itself and what Sartre called the “in-itself” – the inert world of objects, denuded of consciousness. Yet eXistenZ, in common with much of Cronenberg’s work, troubles the distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself: machines turn out to be anything but inert, just as human subjects end up behaving like passive automata. Like Videodrome before it, the film draws out all the ambiguities of the concept of the player. On the one hand, the player is the one in control, the agent; on the other, the player is the one being played, the passive substance directed by external forces. At first, it seems that Pikul and Geller are for-itself, capable of making choices, albeit within set parameters (unlike in The Matrix, they are constrained by the rules of the world into which they are thrown). The game characters, meanwhile, are the in-itself. But when Pikul experiences “game urges”, he is both in-itself (a merely passive instrument, a slave of drive) and for-itself (a consciousness that recoils in horror from this automatism).
To appreciate eXistenZ’s contemporary resonance it is necessary to connect the manifest theme of artificial and controlled consciousness connects with the latent theme of work. For what do the scenes in which characters are locked in fugues or involuntary behaviour loops resemble if not the call-center world of twenty-first century labour in which quasi-automatism is required of workers, as if the undeclared requirement for employment were to surrender subjectivity and become nothing more than a bio-linguistic appendage tasked with repeating set phrases that make a mockery of anything resembling conversation? The difference between “interacting” with a ROM-construct and being a ROM-construct neatly maps onto the difference between telephoning a call center and working in one.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre famously uses the example of the waiter: someone who overplays the role of waiter to the extent that they (to outside appearances at least) eliminated their own subjectivity:
Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too forward. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. (Being and Nothingness: An Essay On Phenomenological Ontology, Routledge, 2000, p59).
The power of Sartre’s example depends upon the tension between the would-be automatism of the waiter’s behaviour and the awareness that, behind the mechanical rituals of the waiter’s over-performance of his role is a consciousness that remains distinct from that role. In eXistenZ, however, we are confronted with the possibility that agency can genuinely be interrupted by the “inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton”. In any case, eXistenZ compels us to re-read Sartre’s description of the waiter in its terms, especially since one of the most horrific scenes of automatism features none other than a waiter. Pikul and Geller are sitting in a Chinese restaurant when Pikul feels himself overcome by a “game urge”.
Pikul: You know, I do feel the urge to kill someone here.
Pikul: I need to kill our waiter.
Geller: Oh. Well that makes sense. Um, waiter! Waiter!
[she calls over waiter]
Geller: When he comes over, do it. Don’t hesitate.
Pikul: But… everything in the game is so realistic, I-I don’t think I really could.
Geller: You won’t be able to stop yourself. You might as well enjoy it.
Pikul: Free will… is obviously not a big factor in this little world of ours.
Geller: It’s like real life. There’s just enough to make it interesting.
You won’t be able to stop yourself, you might as well enjoy it” – this phrase captures all too well the fatalism of those who have given up the hope of having any control over their lives and work. Here, eXistenZ emerges, not as “existentialist propaganda”, as Cronenberg had it, but as decisively anti-existentialist. Free will is not an irreducible fact about human existence: it is merely the unpreprogrammed sequence necessary to stitch together a narrative that is already written. There is no real choice over the most important aspects of our life and work, eXistenZ suggests. Such choice as there are exist one level up: we can choose to accept and enjoy our becoming in-itself, or uselessly reject it. This is a kind of deflation-in-advance of all of the claims about “choice” and “interactivity” that communicative capitalism will trumpet in the decade after eXistenZ was released.
Autonomist theorists have referred to a turn away from factory work towards what they call “cognitive labour”. Yet work can be affective and linguistic without being cognitive – like a waiter, the call center worker can perform attentiveness without having to think. For this noncognitive worker, indeed, thought is a privilege to which they are not entitled. Writing in The Guardian recently, Aditya Chakrabortty (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/31/why-our-jobs-getting-worse) referred to a study of two of Britain’s biggest supermarkets by the sociologist Irena Grugulis. “A trained butcher revealed that most meats were now sliced and packaged before they arrived in store; bakers in smaller shops now just reheated frozen loaves. In their paper, published this summer, Grugulis and her colleagues note that ‘almost every aspect of work for every kind of employee, from shopfloor worker … to the general store manager, was set out, standardised and occasionally scripted by the experts at head office’. Or, as one senior manager put it: ‘Every little thing is monitored so there is no place to hide.’” According to the labour theorist Phil Brown “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers” in countries such as the UK and US. Most work will be routinised and outsourced to places where labour is cheap. Brown calls this “digital Taylorism” – suggesting that, far from being engaged in cognitive work, digital workers will increasingly find their labour as crushingly repetitive as factory workers on a production line. eXistenZ’s muted tones anticipates this digital banality, and it is the banal quality of life in an digitally automated environment - human-sounding voices that announce arrivals and departures at a railway station, voice-recognition software which fails to recognise our voices, call center employees drilled into mechanically repeating a set script – that eXistenZcaptures so well.
by Mark Fisher
Pikul: I don't want to be here. We're stumbling around in the unformed world, not knowing what the rules are, or if there are any rules. We're under attack from forces that want to destroy us but that we don't understand.'
Watching Cronenberg's Existenz while teaching existentialism recently, I found myself finally persuaded of the director's claim that the film is 'existentialist propaganda'.
Existenz has worn well, and repays re-viewing now. In retrospect, it is possible to position the movie as part of a rash of late 90s and early 00's films that can be seen as symptomatic expressions of the traumatic transition from the 'irrational exuberance' of the bubble economy to WoTerror. Along with Vanilla Sky, Mulholland Drive and The Matrix, Existenz' 'reality bleeds' anticipated the crashing into the US's simulated interiority of 'the desert of the real' on 9/11.
In a wonderful Zizekian shift, Existenz's Real is precisely not the empirical reality defended by the film's Realists (those committed to the destruction of the gamepods and the ontological contamination they threaten), but the Real of the cosmos as ongoing ateleological event: 'purposiveness without purpose' (Kant). The realists, by contrast, are those who treat whatever consensual hallucination they find themselves thrown into - and the random rules and protocols which make it liveable - as the only authorized reality.
Cronenberg: 'I'm talking about the existentialists, i.e. the game players, versus the realists. The deforming of reality is a criticism that has been levelled against all art, even religious icons, which has to do with man being made in God's image, so you can't make images of either. Art is a scary thing to a lot of people because it shakes your understanding of reality, or shapes it in ways that are socially unacceptable. As a card-carrying existentialist I think all reality is virtual. It's all invented. It's collaborative, so you need friends to help you create a reality. But it's not about what is real and what isn't.' (Sight and Sound interview).
Cronenberg's is a kind of ontological existentialism, then, in which the very nature of reality itself, not only the individual choices of subjects, is radically open. The Existenzialists precisely refuse what Nick Land in ''Meltdown'' called 'the dominator ur-myth that the nature of reality has already been decided.' Jude Law's Ted Pikul confronts the existential horror of abandonment, anguish and despair when he complains to Jennifer Jason Leigh's Allegra Geller (who at this time seems to be the designer of the very game, Existenz , that they are playing) that the game is without final purpose, that they are forever being accosted by malevolent forces intent upon their destruction. It's a game that would be hard to market, Pikul moans. And yet, as Geller tartly rejoins, it's the game that everyone is already playing.
The realists believe - or rather want to protect the self-delusion - that the particular world (=consensual hallucination) in which they find themselves is fixed and determined. What guarantees such fixity is of course the functioning of a transcendent designer - the game programmer, whose role is inevitably paralleled with what God does - or did - in/ for 'our' particular consensual hallucination. What Existenz demonstrates with admirable lucidity is that reality can only be authorized if it is authored - if, that is to say, its nature is controlled by an additional, allegedly 'more real' plane of reality, one level up from in which we find ourselves.
Thus Existenz turns on the Sartrean opposition between the in-itself and the for-itself. The players (Pikul and Geller) are for-itself, capable, or seemingly capable, of making choices, albeit within set parameters. (Unlike in the ludicrous Matrix, the players are constrained by the rules of the world into which they are thrown). The game characters are the in-itself, pre-programmed drones who can only respond to particular cues.
These in-itself pre-programmed game characters are one of the greatest sources of uncanny humour in Existenz. That's partly because their strange fugues and inability to act unless triggered by exactly the right stim are immediately reminiscent of so many interactions with 'real' human beings in late Kapitalism. In late Kapitalism, the experience of listening to a cheerful more-human-than-human robovoice announce, inevitably incorrectly, the arrivals and departures at a railway station and the experience of talking to a 'real live' call centre employee or ultra-trained estate agent, are all but indistinguishable. Professionalization = becoming as much like a bureaucratically controlled robozombie as is humanly possible. In none of these cases are there any signs of autonomy or ability to sensitively engage with either the situation or people around them. In the 'age of artificial stupidity' (Iain Hamilton Grant) , the tendency is for everyone and everything to be encouraged to act as if pre-programmed.
by Terence Blake
Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL is a brilliant film, thoughtful and moving, visually powerful and emotionally rewarding. I cannot recommend this film too highly.
However, just as his BLADE RUNNER 2049 differentiates itself from the original BLADE RUNNER by providing an explicitation of certain of its elements and themes, and even of its enigmas, Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL can be seen to modify Ted Chiang’s original novella STORY OF YOUR LIFE in order to render it more comprehensible.
The novella deals with an alien race with a different conception of time, one that is based on apprehending causality as a synchronic array rather than as a diachronic sequence. The film tries to concretise this alien conception in terms of an alien perception of time, one that involves precognition. It is never stated in the novella that actual foreknowledge is obtained from learning the Heptapod language. The synchronic vision of our life may be “just” a consequence of retroactive apperception of meaning. Saying yes to the event involves affirmation of its consequences, both good and bad.
This shift from synchronic conception to precognitive perception is useful to show how the alien language rewires the human brain and its vision of the world but the drawback is that it reintroduces linear causality in form of the use of inside information about the future to bring about a desired outcome.
Whereas in the novella we never know why the aliens came, it seems to be just part of their existential fatality, in the film they come to gift us with their language and with it their precognition, because they have foreknowledge of a future time when they will need our help. This reintroduces a sort of egoism, and reduces the exchange to our linear model, making it a sort of insider dealing.
In the novella there is an exchange between humans and aliens, but the Heptapods seem to have no idea of equivalence: each side gifts the other without a requirement of equal value. The only seemingly new “gift” of scientific knowledge, aside from their language (whose value seems more philosophical than practical) turns out to be a not yet widely publicised recent discovery.
Villeneuve adds the “insider futures trading” aspect as a pragmatic repetition of the more epistemological linguistic exchange. This pedagogical explicitation does not necessarily betray the original story, but can be considered to fill in a gap, or to spell out an implicit motive. The aliens bring us something we needed, a linguistic vehicle for the revelation and assimilation of the Stoical, and Nietzschean, Eternal Recurrence. In return, they may need our linearity so that their own seemingly passive habitus of willing the event may be redoubled into active willing.
The article is taken from:
The next few scenes catalog melancholy aspects of that life as Sandrine and Pierre live it. In the first, Sandrine again walls herself off from their quarreling with a pair of stereo earphones, listening to a lugubrious performance about loneliness at night. Pierre tries to break through her isolation with vicious names (whore, bitch) and complaints about their marriage.
In the second, Pierre offers suppositories to Sandrine, who is suffering from two weeks of constipation. She asserts her independence: "It's my kitchen, they're my children, it's my ass." But she admits that "too much" has accumulated, and that the situation is more "complicated" than Pierre's solution implies. He goes off to participate in a strike at his workplace, leaving Sandrine to droop over her coffee and tell Nicholas about her physical problem.
The third scene in this sequence presents two views of Sandrine at home. On one screen she continues to mope in the kitchen. On the other she returns from a shopping trip "all charged up," flops onto her bed, and masturbates, sending Pierre away when he shows some interest in joining her. "When we don't get on with a man we can always leave him," she soliloquizes. "But what do we do when it's a state, a whole social system that violates us?"
The next scene is more positive in tone, yet also more transgressive in its view of sexuality as a family affair. Naked on their bed, Sandrine and Pierre call the children for a sex-education session. Using their own bodies for the demonstration, they describe their genitals as lips (the vagina) and a mouth (the tip of the penis) that embrace during lovemaking. "It's like we're kissing. It's like we're talking," Sandrine explains. "It's love that teaches us how to talk," she adds. "And afterward when it's finished," Pierre continues, "death lays a finger on our lips and silences us. Off to school now, kids! Goodbye!" The idea of orgasm as petite mort or "little death" smacks of an old-school romanticism out of keeping with Numero deux as a whole. Still, it suits the more conventional aspects of the household's fundamentally bourgeois outlook; and a satirical undertone may be intended.
As an essay on family life, among other things, Numero deux has taken care to show mother, father, daughter, and son in a variety of situations and interactions. Largely missing so far has been the older generation, which now arrives with a near-ferocious energy that opens a whole new dimension within the film.
The grandmother peels vegetables, makes a bed, and scrubs a floor while her off-screen voice speaks on the sound track. Her activities are stereotypical "woman's work," but the words accompanying them - from The Female Eunuch, feminist Germaine Greer's pioneering 1971 study are hardly the innocuous pablum with which a nice old lady might pass her time in a traditional picture of middle-class life. Rather, they continue the movie's focus on abjection - on matters of the body, on female oppression, on oscillation between "high" and "low" states of physical and mental life.
"Women do not realize how much men hate them," the voice-over says. "She is punished as an object of hatred, fear, and disgust because of her magical orifices: the mouth and cunt." The text then indicts masculine domination and suggests that women should "deliver" men from sole responsibility for sexual power. "Women must have rights to their sexual organs," it continues, implying that female subordination results from suppression of bodily awareness and control. "Most women only become aware of their ovaries and womb when something goes wrong," the text goes on. "Which almost always happens."
This is followed by a word-and-image combination that might seem disconnected if not for the film's unifying theme of abjection, centered on "low" social states (the infantile, the feminine) and separation anxieties. On the screen, the grandmother cleans a floor; on the sound track, her voice-over turns to the subject of children, noting their desire to "become independent of adults." What is desirable for children is elusive for women, however, since they face ongoing burdens of social and sexual subordination. Given the difficulties of both celibacy and conjugal life, the narration goes on, "women must learn to view happiness as a victory. The greatest service a woman can provide to the community is to be happy."
This is followed by a key statement that crystallizes much of the film's radical philosophy: "The depth of rebellion and irresponsibility she must achieve to become happy is the only indication of the social metamorphosis that must be effected if there is to be sense in being a woman."
The voice-over repeats what may be the most important words in this statement: the depth of rebellion and irresponsibility. At the same moment, the scene's images of domestic drudgery are replaced by the old woman removing her robe and standing naked before a bathroom mirror and the camera.
This gesture confounds commercial-film notions of visual pleasure as exemplified by conventionally "beautiful" bodies. It also gives Numero deux a fresh infusion of vitality, welling from the unembarassed selfexposure of a woman whose nudity would be rigidly excluded from any mass-audience commodity that traded in traditional glamour or eroticism. While she washes herself, her off-screen voice proceeds with a diatribe from Greer that takes on a scathingly sarcastic tone, begining as a Utopian celebration of woman-as-Venus-figure ("The sun only shines to gild her skin and hair. . . . She is the crowning glory of creation") but passing to a catalog of death and depredation (pillaging of the sea, slaughtering of fur-bearing animals) committed in the name of fetishized beauty.
Might one argue that Numero deux itself fetishizes woman? Godard's use of female nudity in this and other films - to be discussed further in the next chapter - has led to charges of insensitivity, exploitation, and commodification not unlike the charges he levels at the prostitution business and other forms of sexual trafficking. If the unglamorized female images in Numero deux are simply the other side of this sexist coin, substituting gender-political novelty for old-fashioned titillation, they might be called equally problematic. Evidence can be found for either argument, here and elsewhere in Godard's work. However, it seems to me that the balance is tilted toward the progressive end in Numero deux by the film's innovative focus on cultural abjection, which is examined from a commendably wide range of perspectives, most of them centered firmly and sympathetically on challenges faced by women.
As the film proceeds, it adds to this interest a growing concern with social ramifications of the aging process. By paying sustained attention to young Vanessa and grown-up Sandrine, it examines the "low" status of both the still-developing child and the dominated wife. The grandmother's presence brings in the crucial subject of old age - to which Bakhtin accorded great importance in his carnival theory, regarding the last stage of life as a natural borderline state that should be greeted with humor, good will, and cheerful impropriety. The old characters of Numero deux seem somewhat in tune with such an attitude (the impropriety part, if not the humor or cheerfulness part) as they shed their clothing, bare their bodies and their thoughts, and help the movie accomplish its inversions of narrative-film convention.
Despite their feistiness in some respects, however, their lives are full of frustrations and sadnesses bred by their suffocating society. This becomes mournfully clear as the grandfather reminisces about his years at a warequipment plant. Death punched in every night at 8 P.M., he recalls. The plant was isolated from its community, he continues, by flowers that made it virtually invisible. (This revives a familiar motif; plants hiding a plant - is it a landscape or a factory?) A strike gave him and his colleagues time to reflect on their work as manufacturers of deadly devices that would inevitably hurt "women and children" as well as combatants. "I don't mind earning my living by death," he candidly admits, "but I won't die in order to live." So he found a new job, in the concession stand of a Gaumont movie theater - an amusing but not-quite-satisfactory outcome for this moral dilemma, as Godard and Mieville hint by throwing in an intertitle that says MERCHANDISE.
Grandpa is a central presence in three more household scenes, all involving the media saturation of daily life. He quarrels with Nicholas over whether to watch a soccer game or a Russian movie on television. He listens to a doleful, somewhat surrealistic Leo Ferre pop song about the modern world, briefly sharing his headphones with Vanessa and Sandrine, and commenting that he sees the world as one sees "the unbelievable," that is, what cannot be seen. Finally, he joins the family to watch a tangled TV show about a secret agent, a financier's daughter, skullduggery in Mexico and Dachau, and international communism.
He then becomes the film's main attraction again, sitting naked in a chair and recounting a misadventure he had in Singapore during his days as a communist organizer. "It was stupid," he comments, "but this is history, not the movies." Further insulting cinema, he says the movies are time-consuming in contrast with words, which can relate forty years of life in two minutes. Taking hold of his penis, he decides to give up moviegoing and look at his genitals instead. "This way to the exit, ladies and gentlemen," he sarcastically chants.
The films egues back to Pierre by way of a voice-over about the landscapeand-factory theme. The screen shows Sandrine's sleeping (dreaming) body appearing and disappearing over an outdoor shot. "In the end," Pierre's voice says, "there is not one factory and one landscape. There are two in one. There's a landscape that we cross like idiots, to punch in at home. And a factory, where we can never work while we sleep in the shade of the trees, because there aren't any."
By now we are well-schooled in Godard's criticism of the cultural divide between working life and private life, but he renews its freshness with another revealing household scene. Nicholas asks Pierre why he used the word "impossible" during an argument. Pierre describes the quarrel, saying Sandrine complained that he helped too little with the wash, whereupon he responded that it's impossible for a man to consider his "home" a workplace or "factory," as a housewife naturally would. To ask if her underwear is dirty, moreover, would be as embarassing as asking if her body were soiled.
Pierre's musing continues in the next scene, counterpointed by nonsensical static on two video screens. Nicholas brought home some pornography, he recalls. The boy quickly forgot about it, but Pierre himself fell to thinking about Sandrine's vagina and his irrational anger at the idea of other men occupying it. In their own lovemaking, he says, he sometimes feels their genders are reversed, especially when he asks her to touch his anus. This returns abjection to the foreground, evoking "low" or "dirty" behavior and using anal sexuality to blur divisions between male and female roles.
Indeterminacy also dominates the visual style, as we see Sandrine's face superimposed first over Pierre's body and then a prosaic shot of the couple doing domestic work. Sandrine has taken a shop-assistant job to get out of the house, we learn; but she has already decided to quit, realizing that more extreme measures are needed to make a woman's life fulfilling. "I know how to manufacture tenderness," she says of her role as a culturally conditioned woman. "I know how to cook. I know how to do Nicholas's homework. I know how to suck a cock." In the end, she concludes, there is too much in her life - and yet not nearly enough.
Sandrine probes this condition more deeply in a voice-over linked to images from earlier scenes: Grandma scrubbing a floor, herself touching Pierre's penis with her lips. In other words, two kinds of labor.
"I felt like I was producing," she says, "but they'd already distributed my products. I was producing at a loss. And who profited from this? Not him. Someone behind him. Something between us. Work." Once again the film sees behind and between as incredibly complicated places, capable of providing great pleasure and taking shameless advantage of anyone not fully aware of socioeconomic pressure points outside and inside the individual body. We have seen that between is the natural habitat of abjection, a state thriving on ambiguity and ambivalence. The mention of behind recalls Sandrine's opening speech (when she replaces "left" and "right" with "before" and "behind") and Pierre's sexual aggression.
Also important is Sandrine's statement that the "products" of her household work have been distributed in advance, at no profit to herself or anyone she cares about. Godard finds this a great tragedy, feeling that all production should be a joyful process linking creativity and dissemination; and he bitterly resents the frustrations that result when this is blocked or aborted. In a text written fourteen years after Numero deux, he contrasts the authenticity of true cinema - "freedom speaking" - with the commercialized deadness of mass-market television, which "doesn't create any goods" but rather "distributes them without their ever having been created."7 This describes the flip side of Sandrine's predicament, as she produces real benefits that society simultaneously exploits and undervalues, meanwhile draining away their possible rewards before she ever has a chance to enjoy them.
The text just quoted also supplies another reason why Godard and Mieville use video - a form including TV, although not limited to it - in Numero deux, which takes blockage of private and public fulfillment as a primary subject. "To program is the only verb of television," Godard writes in this 1989 statement. "That implies suffering rather than release."8 This comment about the public world (television) applies ruefully well to Sandrine's private world. In the next scene, she tells Nicholas of a biological blockage ("I haven't shit for two weeks") that mirrors the social blockages of her domestic life. Her constipation is not a simplistic symbol for psychosomatic discontent, moreover. In another transgressive maneuver, Godard and Mieville stress the productivity of defecation by likening it to childbirth, also a natural human activity. "Eight years ago, in a sense, I shit between my thighs," Sandrine muses. That was a normal event, but she can no longer function so harmoniously. "Now everything is blocked," she laments.
My tissue is cracking. I feel like everything I say is shit. . .. Everything that should happen in my ass happens somewhere else. In my ass nothing is happening. It's me who does the cooking. It goes in and it goes down, but nothing comes out. I'm becoming both a giver and taker of shit. I wonder if there are many women in France like this?
And with this large, difficult question Numero deux starts moving quickly toward its end - not by achieving some conventional sort of closure, but by falling apart in a deliberate and purposeful way that echoes its step-by-step coalescence some eighty minutes earlier.
Godard sits in his studio, slumped over a recording console. "Suddenly it's over," Sandrine says, continuing her last voice-over. "Something happens. My role is finished. What are we playing at? He interprets me - but he shouldn't, because it's me who understands." What she understands is the eternal scam whereby men order the times and places for everything from work and dishwashing to sex and vacation - and, too often, filmmaking.
To whom, however, are we listening here? Is it Sandrine the movie character speaking of her problems with Pierre, or Sandrine the movie actress (i.e., Sandrine Battistella, who plays the part) departing from her fictional role to address the deficiencies of our age? And where does Godard figure in the situation, especially now that he has returned visibly to the film?
Answers begin to emerge as Sandrine notes how difficult it would be for a man to occupy or understand her place. Godard raises his head from the console, watching the video screen that now carries her image. He is one who "tells the news about others," in Sandrine's sarcastic phrase. "That's special work," she continues, "especially if you get paid for it. But letting others tell you news about yourself is a crime. Especially if we don't get paid for it."
Women conspire in this crime against themselves, she continues. "We go to the movies. We buy a ticket, and in exchange we sell our roles as producers." Also guilty are women and men who purchase "news" as disinterested observers. "You turn on the TV and become an accomplice. Worse, you become the organizer of the crime. We look for news about ourselves where there's only news about others. We want others with us, but without danger. An animal would never do that. But we are men and women, we are superior," she says with withering irony.
Vanessa's face, visible over the edge of a bathtub, has now appeared on another monitor. Sandrine's voice muses on, offering a brief catalog of paired concepts that correspond to the Number i and Number 2 that have run as leitmotifs through the film: again and already, yesterday and today, child and parent, today and tomorrow, now and later.
"And me?" she concludes. "Finally in my place, Number 3.... Between my past and my future, between a girl and an old man. I invent the grammar, I find the words - and those 'shes' and 'hes' who have already invented music."
Godard is still at the control panel, but Sandrine is not without power of her own. As she mentions "words" and "music," her image disappears from the monitor (Vanessa has already vanished) and, as if she had willed it, a Ferre song replaces her monologue on the sound track, with lyrics conjuring up nostalgia for the night and the past.
The movie continues toward dissolution by recalling that while society attempts to order and discipline its members, its oppressive efforts face ultimate limitations. Pierre recites the rules for living in a rented home ("The lessee ... should meet all the orders of the city and the police, and fulfill his role as head of the family") to Vanessa - and she responds by asking whether he'll still be her daddy when he's dead.
The screen fills with a close-up of the sound-control panel. Sandrine and Pierre ask Vanessa two questions: "Do you know what a landscape is? Is Papa a factory or a landscape?" Godard's hand slides a switch on the panel and pop-song lyrics take over again:
These eyes look at you night and day,
Not just at numbers and hatred, as they say.
These forbidden things you're creeping toward . . .
Nicholas's voice returns: "I'm carefully studying my plan. I see that it can't be realized." Vanessa repeats the beginning of the film: "There was a factory and we put a landscape around it." And finally, Godard's gliding fingers fade in the song-poem that terminates Numero deux:
These eyes look at you night and day,
Not just at numbers and hatred, as they say.
These forbidden things you're creeping toward . . . which will be yours . . . when you close the eyes . . .
Of oppression. . .
Godard closes the cover of the sound console as the song reaches its last lines. His hands leave the frame. Lights go out, one by one, until the screen is dark. A blur of random noise continues for a few seconds, followed by a single orchestral chord. Its orderliness and finality assure us once again that this seemingly chaotic film has been firmly under the control of its makers from first moment to last.
Godard's appropriation of pop-culture material dates to the early stages of his career, but the song lyric that ends Numero deux is almost uncannily apt for its context, and the importance of its message is clear. Godard and Mieville have indeed been creeping toward "forbidden things" in this movie, which oscillates between politics and pornography via purposely transgressive devices - reenacting the primal scene, mixing childhood innocence with adult sex and power games, looking closely at anal sensuality and other manifestations of the abject. This fascination with the forbidden will continue in future Godard films; pungent examples include the father's incestuous fantasies in Sauve qui peut (la vie) and the anal sex in Passion, where this is not abusive but romantic. Never will it be elaborated as single-mindedly as in Numero deux, however.
In addition to their self-contained meanings, the words of the song join with the film's visual conclusion to create an elegant cinematic equation. The lyrics tell us that forbidden things will be ours when we close the eyes of oppression - and immediately the lights of the screen go dark, closing the eyes of the movie itself. The lesson is clear: image = oppression. This is an enduring Godardian theme, stated directly and economically.
The reference to oppression also takes us back to Godard's familiar feud with notions of "normal" and "decent" in our stifling society. The oppression evoked by Numero deux is identical to the conspiracies of "official" power and "authoritative" knowledge that Foucault warns about in his analyses of social self-regulation. An earlier philosopher calling for rejection of "civilized morality" was Herbert Marcuse, who also anticipated Godard's cry against alienated labor by noting that its limited pleasures have "nothing to do with primary instinctual gratification" or the satisfactions of a healthy erotic sensibility.
"To link performances on assembly lines, in offices and shops with instinctual needs is to glorify dehumanization as pleasure," Marcuse writes,9 in a critique that Sandrine and even Pierre would surely endorse. Marcuse calls for a new "reality principle" based on freedom rather than repression. "No longer used as a full-time instrument of labor," he predicts, "the body would be resexualized." Sexual energies would spread across all zones of body and personality, "genital supremacy" would decline, and the polymorphous eroticism of infancy would be joyously reborn. "The body in its entirety would become ... a thing to be enjoyed - an instrument of pleasure," blasting away the suffocating institutions that hold us in their grip, including the "monogamic and patriarchal family"10 that Numero deux so critically examines.
As dark and disturbing as this film frequently becomes, therefore, its conclusion can be seen as Utopian. Freed from the division of labor that bisects life into separate domains of work and domesticity, Sandrine would no longer suffer from blockages of mental creativity, bodily productivity, and sexual gratification; and Pierre would stop channeling his energies into exhausting work, alienating arguments, and alternating fits of sexual aggression and dysfunction. Their relationship with the children might be modeled on the convivial sex-education session rather than the morbid dynamics of the domestic rape scene. The older generation might exchange its drudgery (Grandma) and nostalgia (Grandpa) for a productive and companionable role in the household's daily life.
Might our culture actually see the changes that would enable such bright metamorphoses to occur? Only tentative responses to this riddle will emerge from subsequent films by Godard and Mieville, whose explorations of aesthetics and mysticism will search more for suggestive clues than definitive answers.
In the end, the filmmakers' response to the question may be most clearly visible in the very existence of the movie that raises it. "Art attracts us," wrote Godard as early as 1952, "only by what it reveals of our most secret self."11 His own secret self is never closer to the surface than in Numero deux, his most radical effort to close the eyes of oppression and glimpse whatever visions this passionate blindness may provide.
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
If this "charging and discharging" refers to the body's built-in biological functions, then this "hurt" may simply be the existential pain of what Freud called the "ordinary unhappiness" of life. One suspects Sandrine is less worried about this "natural" human discomfort, however, than about humanly caused sufferings brought by social, economic, and political abuses specific to the industrial and postindustrial eras - sufferings not limited to the "factory" or "power plant" aspects of capitalism, as conventional reformers would often have us believe, but wreaking more havoc as they spill into the domestic sphere with which Numero deux is largely concerned.
The porn movie is back on the upper-left monitor and brassy jazz has joined the sound-track cacophony as Sandrine continues, "We play music. But why play music? To see the unbelievable." The monitor with the little girl now fills much of the screen, displacing commercially jaded sex with a reminder of how promising childhood is before dehumanizing forces have a chance to sour it.
"What is the unbelievable?" Sandrine concludes. "The unbelievable is what we don't see." This is of course a resonant phrase for Godard and Mieville, who are dedicated to exposing the limitations of the visible and locating the invisible dimensions where power and influence often reside. Here as before, their goal is to refute two propositions: that seeing = believing (which allows film to deceive us) and that believing = seeing (which allows us to deceive ourselves). Numero deux wants to explore the unbelievable by probing the limits of "what we don't see," as Sandrine puts it. This focuses the film on two sorts of material: that which is socially forbidden - a child should not witness the sexuality of its parents, for instance - and that which is psychologically inaccessible, such as the repressed desires that surge through our subconscious minds. (Later films by Godard and Mieville will approach the "unbelievable" from another angle, using cinema to locate a spiritual dimension within the material realm.)
The child works away at her blackboard, meanwhile, writing a very unchildish slogan: "Before being born, I was dead." As noted, many elements of Numero deux evoke childhood: the girl and boy who speak at the beginning, the nursery-rhyme cadence of "once ..." and "twice upon a time," the composite image of adult sexuality and a young girl's face. The child's blackboard phrase now implies concern with a still earlier stage, speculating on the nonexistence that precedes birth. What both separates and joins the obscurity before birth and the self-awareness of life is, of course, the pivotal moment of conception. Numero deux follows Freud in recognizing the disavowed but unbreakable links among eros, the sexual drive; thanatos, the desire to reclaim the equanimity of nonexistence; and the lifelong urge - beginning in infancy - to understand and resolve the tensions generated by these powerful forces.
More than one contemporary thinker has investigated the territory that Godard and Mieville delve into here, and a glance at some of their ideas will illuminate Numero deux and its place in an important cultural tradition. I recognize that the movie is dense and strange enough in itself, without bringing in a host of cultural references to complicate it further; but Godard and Mieville are ardently intellectual artists, and to trek through a work like this without at least touching on its philosophical "backstory" would be antithetical to their spirit. Since one of the movie's most striking (and controversial) qualities is its fascination with the interplay between sociopolitical norms and the body's indecorous demands, I focus on modern theorists who give intellectual weight to aspects of human experience that have traditionally been considered too "low" or "base" for consideration by serious-minded persons.
One we have already encountered is Mikhail Bakhtin, who celebrates the carnivalism of freethinking works that challenge the social, cultural, and political norms of their day. Such writings frequently dwell on urges of the body (especially the lower body, where sexuality and excretion blur the boundaries between self and other) at the expense of rules, regulations, and laws designed to squeeze the unbridled individual into governable patterns. Another is Georges Bataille, whose concept of the informe argues that materiality is irreducible and "unformable," and that theory must resist the impulse to shape it with abstract schemes and systems. Still another is Julia Kristeva, who states that infants pass through an abject stage of development, during which they cannot conceive of being either part of on separate from the mother. At this time they inhabit a borderline mental realm that oscillates among the exhilirating prospect of independence, the smothering fear of being entrapped or reabsorbed, and the dread of unmoored existence in an outside world of solitude and instability.
Numero deux refers directly to none of these authors, but its concerns are rooted in the tradition they represent. Like the outwardly chaotic Weekend, with its casual cannibalism and cartoonish violence, it exudes a subversive spirit through polymorphous sexuality and a seemingly disjointed structure; both movies also have quick-as-lightning mood changes that reflect the proud instability of carnival grotesquerie. The superimposed video images in Numero deux are especially effective in this regard. Although their implications can be unsettling, as in the primal-scene material, their fluid form and provocative content create a transformative atmosphere in which ingrained rules may be bent, broken, or reshaped beyond recognition in the blink of an eye.
Two facets of Numero deux would have earned Bataille's particular applause. One is its rejection of linear narrative in favor of a thematic density that foregrounds the physicality of word and image. The other is its focus on "unformed" materials, defining this territory broadly enough to encompass phenomena as different as the still-developing mind of the young child and the presence of excrement as an intimate ingredient in daily life. Moreover, the filmt reats such "low" material without necessarily twisting it into shapes held acceptable by social convention. Bataille calls for a new brand of theory that he names "heterology" - actually the opposite of a theory since it "is opposed to any homogeneous representation of the world, in other words, to any philosophical system." Such systems, he says, always aim at deflecting our "sources of excitation" and developing a "servile human species, fit only for the fabrication, rational consumption, and conservation of products." What needs to be reclaimed are the substances rejected by these processes, "the abortion and the shame of human thought," so that philosophy can become a servant of "excretion" and introduce "the demand for the violent gratifications implied by social life." Those gratifications took center stage in Weekend, which asked how cultures and classes might "consume" and "excrete" one another in acts of war and revolution. The same gratifications assert themselves in Numero deux, here taking more homely forms (power games linked with bodily functions) but still charged with potentially disruptive power operating within and around the individual human being.
Kristeva's notion of the abject is perhaps clearest of all in a movie preoccupied with intersections of "low" and "high" material, and with a wide variety of borderline conditions: political/pornographic, natural/ artificial, public/private, sound/image, attraction/repulsion, and so on Among the most important of these is film/video, since even the production methods of Numero deux are designed to blur conventional boundaries. For the infant, Kristeva suggests, the abject stage is marked by profound ambiguity as to where the parent leaves off and self-identity begins. Manifesting this condition in cinematic terms, Numero deux embodies the ambivalence of a young medium (video) caught within its parent medium (film) at precisely the moment when its newly acquired powers, purposes, and sensibilities are ready to assert themselves but are still uncertain as to what their own distinctiveness and usefulness will be. One of the qualities that make Numero deux unsettling is the fact that it doesn't just allegorize but vividly actualizes - one might even say incarnates - the abject.
Numero deux is also concerned with the difficulty of crossing sociocultural barriers, be they physical or psychological. Rarely has a film concentrated on the concept of blockage in so many forms. This starts at the beginning, when the title has trouble appearing on the screen, as if the movie were facing some invisible block or obstacle on its way to the audience. The film does get started eventually, but various devices keep the sense of blockage going. Some operate through the film'ss tyle: the uneven progress of the story; the frequent interruption of one scene by another; the competition between filma nd video images, which sometimes seem to get in each other's way. Others operate through the movie's content: the stopand-start pictures on the monitors in Godard's workshop; the image of a primal scene that must be repressed as soon as it is witnessed; the linkage of birth (commencement) and death (cessation) in the girl's blackboard sentence. When the narrative proceeds a little farther, we will encounter the film's most blunt metaphors for blockage: the constipation and impotence that plague Sandrine and her husband, respectively. When she compares her mother with a "factory" that "hurts" when it "charges and discharges," Sandrine is also describing herself and many others - women who feel cut off from life's flow by the demands of work, and deprived of healthy sexuality by the insensitivity of their husbands. We will also learn that Sandrine's spouse is abusive, using anal intercourse (blocking a channel) to punish and control her.
One more aspect of Numero deux that Kristeva's ideas illuminate is its Godardian use of sound (immediate, surrounding, ungraspable) to combat the tyranny of the image (distant, hard-edged, authoritarian) that dominates commercial cinema. Kristeva holds that early infancy is bathed in sound as the child develops within the "chora," which is both the fleshly envelope of the womb and the sonic envelope of the noises (most notably, the mother's voice) that filter through to the infant's hearing. Nostalgia for this stage of life persists long after its peace and plenitude are ruptured by the rude awakening called birth. This helps explain the power of music (increasingly important in Godard's cinema) to touch us in ways for which rational considerations can't wholly account. It also helps explain the cacophonous sounds in Numero deux, a film that extravagantly favors physical immediacy over coded communication. Numero deux loves noise - noise for the ears, such as the gobbledygook of overlapping sound tracks, and noise for the eyes, such as video static and on-and-off television pictures. Godard told us earlier that language games can cure sickness, so it isn't surprising that verbal and visual puns are a major component of this movie (which was produced after he himself had recuperated from his serious motorcycle accident). The way to heal blockage is with slippage - and nothing slides more easily, or with a more liberating effect, than a word or image whose meaning has no fixed abode other than in-the-moment dialogue with its audience.
Even as it pursues its fascination with the materiality of sight, sound, and cinema, Numero deux has ideological goals in mind, with specific analyses to conduct and sociopolitical messages to convey. Accordingly, some of its mostly brief episodes reduce the frequently high level of verbal and visual "noise," presenting lucid images with synchronized sound - in other words, coherent "scenes" appearing one at a time. Though these often range from difficult to obfuscatory, if measured in ordinary movie terms, they gather significance and force as the movie progresses.
As we would expect, many episodes continue the film's concern with culturally "low" subjects, focusing on women, children, housework, and biological details that transform the "abject" from an abstract category into an everyday affair. Inflecting their meaning are Godard's familiar intertitles, drawing our thoughts from the manifest content of the scenes to the ideas behind them, generally in punning, allusive ways. As the girl writes her "before I was born" statement on the blackboard, for instance, the intertitle REPRODUCTION appears and then changes to REGULATING, suggesting a long list of possible meanings and interconnections.
Soon afterward, Sandrine irons clothing in her kitchen while the little girl, Vanessa, paces restlessly about. Perhaps prompted by the seminudity of her mother, naked beneath an open bathrobe, Vanessa asks whether she herself will have "blood between [her] legs" when she is older. "Yes," replies Sandrine, adding, "You'll have to watch out for guys. They're not reliable." (Intertitle: REGULATING becomes EDITING.)
The composite image of sexual intercourse and the face of a girl (Vanessa) returns, and now the child makes an apparent reference to it: "Sometimes I think what Mama and Papa do is pretty, and sometimes I think it's caca." (Intertitle: MONTAGE becomes FACTORY.) Then we see Vanessa's lower body as Sandrine washes her in a bathtub. "Do all little girls have a hole?" the child asks, and a bit later, "Is that where memory comes out?" Answered with a cheerful "yes," the child asks where memory goes after it "comes out," and Sandrine replies, "It vanishes. It vanishes into the landscape. There's a factory in the landscape now."
The film's chain of associations is becoming more complex: Factory and landscape are still tightly connected, but the latest intertitle uses FACTORY as a link between MONTAGE and the body, which produces memories (residues of images previously consumed?) that disappear into the landscape, where (completing the cycle) they join another factory! It would be a challenging task, and perhaps an endless one, to count up all possible meanings of this visual-verbal rebus; but its most important point may be the comparison of the (female) body to a factory, at once physical (complete with "holes" that produce both excrement and new life) and psychological (there is a memory "hole" too).
We have seen the foregoing shots on a video screen that almost fillst he larger surface of the movie screen. Doubling this arrangement, two video screens now appear. A little boy (Nicholas) sits at a school desk, doing calculations and reading from a book about a "stupid wolf" who is ignorant, hungry, and lost. Then we see him at home, sitting moodily apart as his mother and little sister (Sandrine and Vanessa) dance nearly naked to a song with political lyrics. Sandrine likes the song's message that "anarchy is not a bomb, it's justice and liberty."
Intertitle: SOLITUDE becomes NUMBER ONE. A pop singer yowls about loneliness on the sound track, and we cut to Nicholas and Vanessa conversing about pop culture. More accurately, they are trading narratives obviously borrowed from pulp fiction or B movies - as they gaze at each other across a table. Nicholas begins, "She's the one who betrayed him, eight years ago.... She decided to kill everyone in her way." Vanessa continues, "By way of welcome she plowed five bullets into his belly. He'd committed two murders, but he loved her. What an odd time!" The scene is photographed to favor Nicholas, with the camera facing him over Vanessa's shoulder; yet her image often scrolls videographically over his, and her face dominates the whole screen for a moment near the end.
Once again, two important points emerge from a moment with little story or character development. For one, this represents a new approach to improvisation in cinema, made possible by video technology that allows artist(s) to manipulate or "play" the contents of the screen as spontaneously as if it were a musical instrument or the canvas of an "action painting." Godard's longtime interest in improvisation (dating back to Breathless) thus finds a new outlet and a host of fresh possibilities.
As for this particular improvisation, it is as if the two makers of Numero deux were making their own voices heard through the on-screen children, with the lesser-known Mieville wrestling the world-famous Godard for her fair share of attention. Reinforcing this interpretation (and the notion that Numero deux deals largely with gender politics) is the intertitle reading NUMBER TWO that appears just as the girl starts to speak. For years now, the names of Godard's films have cropped up at odd moments during the action; but this particular instance does not seem merely random and interruptive, especially since NUMBER ONE materialized just before Nicholas began his turn in the spotlight. These intertitles remind us that society indoctrinates even the youngest males and females into their "natural" places: Number i and Number 2, respectively. Fortunately, this movie is named after the "lesser" person, and an invisible hand at the video panel makes sure her image gets fair representation, despite the primary camera's all-too-typical position privileging her male companion. This is improvisation with an agenda.
The adult world returns on side-by-side video screens. On the left, the grandfather of the household tries to amuse a clearly bored Nicholas by burning a piece of cigarette paper and exulting over how completely the paper is consumed - a Godardian joke, perhaps, suggesting the minimal value placed on (old-fashioned) paper in the age of (fashionable) cinevideo. On the right, Sandrine and her husband (Pierre) quarrel violently as he tries to remove the stereo earphones that allow her a temporary escape from domestic life.
Two new screens then appear. On the right, Sandrine lies sleeping while factory-and-landscape imagery scrolls and unscrolls over her image, as if revealing her dreams. On the left, Pierre soliloquizes about city discomforts and the inadequacies of education; then he explains his job (as a recording technician) to Sandrine. He keeps talking after she leaves the room. "I've had kids," he says. "I never screw them. It's not allowed. I agree with that. I screw my wife, but it's no good. Thanks, boss." This remarkable speech points in three directions at once: toward the id impulses raging within him, toward the social norms restraining his behaviors, and toward the domestic unhappiness brewed by these unresolved tensions.
Intertitle: LANDSCAPE becomes NIGHT. Compressing to a single screen, the film returns to physical blockage as a metaphor for the repression of abject urges. "Shit! It's blocked up again! Awful plumbing in these projects," Pierre complains, moving from the toilet to the bathroom sink, where he urinates after getting Sandrine's permission. Talk then turns to sex:
SANDRINE: Do you want to tonight?
PIERRE: I don't know. We'll see.
SANDRINE: Thanks, boss.
She grasps his penis and massages it, complaining that he or "his job" always determine whether they'll have sex. He agrees with her anger, adding that getting an erection is often impossible for him nowadays. She sympathizes with him, but he makes a wisecrack about her periods and stalks out. "It all has to change," Sandrine wistfully laments. "But where does this [change] happen?"
The quarrel continues in the next scene. As a static-filled video monitor pulses on one side of the screen, Pierre does a household chore on the other, arguing with Sandrine about his reluctance to spend time with her. "There's always other [available] guys," she says - apparently a casual threat, but actually a turning point in the film'sm inimal story. An abrupt cut brings back the jolting primal-scene image, and Pierre finally reveals what this image means in narrative terms, integrating it into the movie's plot structure for the first time. "Something awful happened," he tells us. "Sandrine screwed another guy. She wouldn't say who. I wanted to rape her. She let me, and then I screwed her in the ass. She screamed. Afterward, we realized Vanessa was watching. Family life - maybe that's what it is."
This is strong stuff, and the filmmakers take immediate steps to defuse any melodramatic effect it may have, following it with a sort of grim comic relief: Pierre tries to help Sandrine figureo ut the controls of a new washing machine, and Sandrine's bent-over position echoes her posture when Pierre violated her. She wins this round by managing to start the washer - a victory for woman as "domestic engineer" in her household factory and fixes Pierre with a told-you-so look.
The next scene returns Pierre to dominance, however, as the couple has intercourse in what we learn is his favorite position, with Sandrine straddling him and facing toward his feet. She ostensibly has some control in her on-top location; but the camera views the scene from his perspective, and he tells Sandrine that he likes this position because it allows him to see parts of her that she cannot see herself. He then describes the view, offering (his) words as a replacement for (her) images. His description turns out to be surprisingly poetic, likening Sandrine's body to a river and its banks; yet the scene's visuals are deliberately awkward, as we stare past Pierre's nose to Sandrine's buttocks. His dominance of the situation is suspicious at best and unacceptable at worst, given our knowledge of his capacity for sexual violence.
Accordingly, the film counters this scene with another bedroom episode that privileges Sandrine, who faces the camera across Pierre's body as she masturbates him (without much effect) and delivers a monologue far more practical, poignant, and meaningful than his:
Every morning you leave. You get out of here. I'm not criticizing, but / don't have a job. I see your ass leaving, going off to work. That's a part of you that you never see. At night. . . and when you come home, I see your prick. ... I think love would have to be a job for you. ... If we were rich, I think I'd pay for it.
They aren't rich, Pierre quickly points out. The next scene finds Sandrine looking for a job of her own, while turning away a politically active neighbor who wants to interest her in the oppression of Chilean women. Problems in Chile are too distant for a woman preoccupied with difficulties close to home; but then again, oppression is a phenomenon Sandrine knows something about. As the right-hand video monitor reminds us of Pierre's sexual problems - his penis remains flaccid as she repeatedly takes its tip into her mouth - on the left-hand screen we watch her read a pamphlet describing female Chilean prisoners who are blindfolded, manipulated, and subjected to the desires of male guards.
"They are other women," she concludes. Then she adds, "Me, too." Could this be the beginning of a radicalized consciousness, or at least a politicized one?
We will not find out right away, since Sandrine must still give most of her attention to household chores, which she does not associate with political thinking. Raising her children is one of these, and a new challenge may be looming here, since Vanessa appears to be brooding over sexual subjects. While this is normal for a growing girl, it is surely more complicated than usual in this case, given the violent sex scene that Vanessa recently witnessed.
Sandrine greets Pierre cheerfully, then scrubs at Vanessa's shoes while the girl questions her about intimate matters: "Does Papa touch your breasts when you sleep together? Is it he who likes it, or is it you?" Sandrine answers directly: "Both of us do. But it's not the same. Sometimes it hurts. I like it anyway." Vanessa asks if she can watch them sleep together, and Sandrine replies with a noncommittal "we'll see," as if they were discussing a favorite dessert or some other casual treat.
This family is uncommonly candid about sexuality, and Godard and Mieville see this as a mixed blessing. It has liberating aspects, such as the parents' willingness to discuss sex with the kids; and it has oppressive sides, such as the sexual threats and abuses thrown heedlessly about the house. In any case, the family's day-to-day dynamics are steeped in the bland regularity of middle-class routine, suggesting that the filmmakers see sexual openness in itself as a weak defense against the bitter forms of alienation brought by blockages and brutalities of contemporary life.
excerpt from the book:The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
Printed words fill the screen again: A L'ARRIVEE, signaling the delayed arrival of the film proper. Godard starts it off by noting that many kilometers away, the Vietcong are thinking about Saigon - while "three meters away, in this factory, you have to produce. Have to produce. But what to produce? And to go where?"
The notions of work, creation, and manufacture, here centered on the punning word "produce," will be central to Numero deux as it proceeds. For now, the words meaning ARRIVAL turn into THERE WILL BE, and the screen lights up again with a pair of video monitors, showing an old man at a stove and an old woman on a sofa. Looking distinctly unhappy in their domestic setting, they call out impatient phrases like "Always that!" and "No more of that!"
The word REPRODUCTION takes shape, and the video screens display a soccer match on the right and a household scene (grandparents, father,child) on the left. Reproduction has obviously taken place in this family - that is how families are made! - and reproduction now establishes itself as one of the film's subjects.
As the older folks sit in the background, the father leans down to talk with the young girl, then leaves with an abrupt swipe at her head, just as the sports announcer reports a penalty play on the sound track. Have we finally settled into an absorbing domestic drama? Evidently not, since the film's title appears again, and then we are back in Godard's studio, with two stacked-up video monitors dominating the screen. Godard is dimly visible, too, watching and occasionally adjusting the monitors. The upper one fast-forwards through the beginning of Vincent, Francois, Paul... and the Others, a French commercial drama (Claude Sautet, 1974) about male buddies whose hard knocks are softened by weekends of shared friendship. The lower one shows a news report on Southeast Asian developments (Saigon's name has changed to Ho Chi Minh City after a "pure and hard" revolution) and on Paris's traditional May Day parade, surely a poignant event for leftists like Godard seven years after the near-revolution of 1968. (May Day now focuses on conventional union demands, according to the report, but left-wing demonstrators are present, suggesting the continued possibility of radical change.) Occasionally the image is replaced by more printed words that change their messages one letter at a time, THIS SCREEN is transformed into A FILM THAT, foregrounding the movie as a material object. The capitalistic MERCHANDISE becomes the cultural MUSIC, calling attention to the Sautet film's lugubrious melody, as well as to the commodification of art in the commercial marketplace. Most important, WORK becomes SHIT and EQUALITY becomes LIBERTY - two pairings that foreshadow major themes of the film.
Numero deux then undergoes a larger transformation. We still see the video workplace with its two monitors juxtaposing news and entertainment, but we hear the voice of a new narrator: a character called Sandrine, adding her presence (invisible so far) to that of Godard, until now the film's dominating voice. Her delayed appearance suggests a subordinate status - she might be the "Number Two" of the title - but her position within the movie is not passive, as she shows by commenting on its content. "What about this film called Numero deux}9 ' she asks, competing for attention with continued sound from the TV monitors. "It shows incredible things. Ordinary things. Shitty things. Good things."
At about this point, the attentive viewer will notice that the Sautet movie on TV has been replaced by a different production: a hard-core sex picture with an emphasis on oral pleasures. "Pleasure isn't simple," observes Sandrine, ringing a less melancholy variation on Nana's discovery in My Life to Live that "pleasure is no fun." Printed words do another on-screen dance as CINEMA changes to POSSIBLE. "I think pain is simple," Sandrine goes on, ratifying Godard's earlier statement to that effect. "Not pleasure. Unemployment is simple. Not pleasure. I think that when unemployment is pleasurable, then fascism moves in." A sign in the porn movie reads "Dead End."
Sandrine then speaks again about the movie itself. "Numero deux is not a film of the left or the right," she informs us, "but a film 'before' or 'behind.' Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government... les enfants de la patrie .. . the nation. You learn that it's a factory." As she speaks the words "before or behind," the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop is replaced with a jarring new image: a composite video picture that combines a little girl's face with a superimposed view of a couple having sexual intercourse; both partners are standing as the man (his pants around his knees) penetrates the woman (her skirt over her hips) from behind.
So much is going on here that again it is necessary to dwell in detail on one fleeting moment. By combining images of a child's face and two adults having intercourse, the composite shot strongly suggests that the girl is watching this sexual activity. This makes it a reenactment of what Sigmund Freud calls the "primal scene": the moment when a child witnesses (or fantasizes) intercourse between the parents, is seized with jealousy at being excluded from this intimate act - and also stunned with fear of such overwhelming physicality - and instantly represses the experience into the unconscious, where it will retain its haunting (and tantalizing) emotional energy forever after.
Heightening this moment in Numero deux is the image's interplay with Sandrine's narration. At first, her replacement of "left and right" with "before and behind" appears to be a whimsical example of the "word games" defended by Godard a little earlier. However, the sense of whimsy diminishes as her monologue continues: "Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government.. . ." If children are "before" or "in front," they must be in the position of the woman on the screen; and if the government is "behind," it must be in the position of the man, mechanically "screwing" its passive and possibly unwilling partner.
If government = power and children = innocence, Sandrine and Godard clearly see modern society as corrupt, brutalizing, and sick. Moreover, the government is not some alien entity that exercises power through its own self-generated strength. Sandrine links government with les enfants de la patrie - the "children of the nation," as citizens are called in "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem. She then labels this hydra-headed monster a "factory," thus returning us to the film's opening words, about a factory and a landscape locked into close but uneasy coexistence.
By this point it is clear that Numero deux aims to analyze and criticize a number of interlocking phenomena: the home, where children must cope with such daunting existential challenges as the primal scene and other parental mysteries; the education system, which ill prepares them for present or future tasks; the industrial world, where people's lives are not their own; the government, which uses and abuses us; and the mass media, including the film and video technologies used to make Numero deux itself.
Continuing the latter thread, the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop returns to the screen, its monitors still showing a commercial movie and a news report. "Film is also a factory," Sandrine observes, "a factory that manufactures images, like television." She then offers a sort of mediasavvy nursery rhyme, again confirming childhood (and its comparative innocence) as an organizing factor in the movie:
Once upon a time there was an image.
Once upon a time there were two images.
Twice upon a time there was a sound.
Once upon a time there were two sounds.
Number One and Number Two.
This leads (at last!) to the credits of Numero deux, which Sandrine recites aloud. But wait a moment - surprises are frequent in Godardian cinema, and this turns out to be not the credit sequence after all but a "coming attractions" teaser. "Numero deux: coming soon on this screen!" announces Sandrine, with typically deadpan delivery.
Has the film actually started, or are we still in some kind of preamble? Does Numero deux have an "official" beginning at all? It is probably better not to worry about such things, turning our attention to the momentby-moment progress of whatever it is we are watching.
Sandrine encourages us in precisely that direction. "This screen is on a wall," she notes, pointing out the obvious. Then she problematizes her simple statement by asking, "A wall between what and what?" We know from earlier films that Godard loves to challenge the commonsense borders, boundaries, and dividing lines - that is, the conceptual walls - that we customarily use to organize our everyday thoughts and activities. He is willing to grant that movies and videos materialize on screens, an these screens generally have walls behind them. What, however, do those (metaphorical) walls separate the movies and videos from? Is it the multitude of real-life problems continually thrust at us by families, governments, schools, factories, and the market forces that determine what cinema and television will comprise? If so, our fascination with screens and spectacles - our willingness to gaze at them without really thinking about them - ties in with far-from-ideal social situations that cry out for critical reflection.
The two-sided coin of separation and combination is a fundamental theme of Numero deux. The movie's interests range from common yet ambiguous categories like "before" and "behind" to such filmic phenomena as the juxtaposition of different shots, which are separated by "cuts" in conventional film, but can merge and combine in video composites like the "primal scene" image we've just watched.
Most profoundly, Numero deux is concerned with the hazy boundaries between different people - boundaries that are both affirmed and erased by sexual activity - and between different aspects of a single person. These aspects may be conflicting facets of the mind, forever split between conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, influences of the past and imperatives of the present. Then again, they may be various parts of the unruly human body; we have noted Godard's tendency to see the body in fractured terms, using strings of words or images to represent bodies as collections of separate part-objects rather than coherent wholes.
All of which explains why Numero deux is itself simultaneously divided and unified in its interests and methodologies. "So another political film?" Sandrine asks rhetorically. "No, it's not political," she immediately answers, "it's pornographic. No, it's not pornographic, it's political. So is it pornographic or political? Why do you always ask either-or? Maybe it's both at once."
She then restates the phrase "twice upon a time," which is becoming an unofficial motto of the film, and another video screen lights up with a little girl writing on a blackboard. Sandrine proposes that we put aside "talk, talk" and attend to quiet looking and listening.
"Look at what?" she queries. "You don't always need to go far. There's a lot to see.... Your sex, for example. Have you ever looked at it? Did you let others know you looked at it? Honestly. Not like in commercials or adventure movies."
The idea of gazing at a part of one's own body, instead of at manufactured body-images in entertainments and advertisements, suggests that visual pleasure can be found by (a) distinguishing between two ways of seeing and (b) choosing the one that is most often overlooked. The overrated way is institutional, fabricated for consumption by a wide, lowestcommon-denominator audience. The underrated way is introspective, focused on the everyday and close at hand.
Another key metaphor of Numero deux then reappears in a new form, further blurring divisions between personal and public, animate and inanimate, natural and artificial. "Didn't you ever ask yourself if Papa is a factory or a landscape?" Sandrine asks. "And if Mama is a landscape or a factory? In my opinion, a factory.... Or maybe a power plant. It charges and discharges. And it hurts."
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
Abjection - at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion. ... Its symptom is the rejection and reconstruction of languages.
- Julia Kristeva
Weekend does not mark the dawning of abjection - that drastic preoccupation with the low, the dejected, the discarded - or the beginning of narrative breakdown in Godard's work. He had been traveling in these directions from the beginning, picking up speed when My Life to Live brought new radicalism to his complex relationship with movie conventions. His skepticism toward linear narrative made a major leap with A Married Woman in 1964, grew more pronounced in Pierrot le fou and Masculine/ Feminine over the next two years, and became a dominating factor in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her and La Chinoise, which show their disregard for storytelling by largely ignoring it - rather than disintegrating it in full view of the audience, as Weekend does.
Pulverized beyond repair, narrative remains mostly absent from Godard's work for a dozen years after Weekend. What replaces it is an ongoing extension of the Weekend scene where the Arab and African laborers deliver their ideologically charged speeches - bringing the already tenuous plot to a standstill in order to address the spectator as an alert, thinking presence who is engaged with the film's ideas as actively as Godard himself.
Le Gai Savoir (1968), his first picture following Weekend, consists largely of political conversations held by a young man and woman who are seeking what theorist Roland Barthes calls a "degree zero" of language - a verbal "style of absence," to use another Barthes phrase, emancipated from limiting burdens of conventional meaning. Following this in Godard's filmography is a series of radical cinematic experiments, including a group of collaborative Cine-Tracts, revolutionary essays lasting a few minutes each and intended for distribution outside the theatrical circuit. Other works of this varied and provocative period include Un Film comme les autres (1968), the first movie bearing the Dziga-Vertov Group signature; One Plus One, alternating record-studio footage of the Rolling Stones with stylized dramatic scenes about race, revolution, and violence; and Wind from the East (1969), cinema's first Marxist western.
Adding notions of authorship, individuality, and identity itself to the list of conventions he wanted to interrogate, Godard put a disorienting spin not only on the styles and subjects of his movies during this time but on his own auteur status as well. Seven projects completed between 1969 (the year of British Sounds and Pravda) and 1972 (the year of Tout va bien and Letter to Jane) are attributed either to the Dziga-Vertov Group or to Godard and one of his collaborators, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Henri Roger, both as committed to radical cinema as their famous partner. Still, it was Godard's established (if contentious) reputation that played an essential (if ironic) role in getting such outlandish projects out of the discussion group and onto the screen.
Not many screens, however. Godard's determination to revolutionize society by contesting the pleasures of bourgeois entertainment was audacious in theory, problematic in practice: As one critic wrote, the audience for the Dziga-Vertov Group shrank and shrank until even Godard and Gorin were no longer speaking to each other. In their penultimate project together, Tout va bien, they sought wider attention by employing movie stars (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) and telling the more-or-less linear story of a strike by angry workers against an exploitative factory and the greedy capitalist who runs it. The result was a qualified artistic success but an unqualified commercial failure, reinforcing the growing suspicion that whatever the potential might have been for an effectively subversive cinema in the years immediately after 1968, there was little prospect of its realization now that the 1970s were in full swing.
Events in Godard's personal life - never all that separate from his professional life - provided more impetus for change. His marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who around 1967 had initiated him into the ways of Maoist idealism, ended as unhappily as had his earlier relationship with Anna Karina. His new companion, Anne-Marie Mieville, helped him recover from his serious motorcycle accident a few months before Tout va bien started filming, and soon became his artistic as well as domestic partner. Godard's last collaboration with Gorin was the 1972 essay film Letter to Jane, a fifty-two-minute critical analysis of a still photograph of Jane Fonda, star of Tout va bien and all-around leftist agitator of the period. This was followed by two years of cinematic silence and then Here and Elsewhere (1974), the first of several Godard-Mieville collaborations. Here and Elsewhere grew from a 1969 trip that Godard and Gorin had taken to Jordan and Lebanon, where they shot material for Until Victory, a documentary on the Palestinian revolution. A year later the Palestinian effort was smothered by events of Jordan's civil war, and the two filmmakers proceeded to terminate both their Palestinian project and the DzigaVertov Group itself. Godard was learning to capitalize on seemingly unusable footage, however. Shots from the unfinished 1 A.M. I One American Movie had been recycled into the proudly eccentric 1 P.M. I One Parallel Movie (1971) under a joint Jean-Luc Godard-D. A. Pennebaker signature. In a somewhat similar move, Godard and Mieville now edited material from Until Victory into the very different Here and Elsewhere, which deals not with the Palestinian movement as such but rather with the ways in which media representations conveyed (and distorted) its meanings for people close to it (here) and in distant places (elsewhere). The result is as radical and polemical as anything the Dziga-Vertov Group produced during its three years of existence; yet along with a now-familiar dissection of political issues and cinematic forms, it also suggests a renewed interest in self-examination by Godard and his collaborators. Much the same can be said of Comment ca va, a 1976 docudrama that uses discussion and debate to seek ideologically acceptable ways of spreading information about progressive activities.
It was between these two political-essay films that Godard and Mieville produced their signature work of this period: Numero deux, a picture steeped in dissidence and dissonance. Although rigid sociopolitical norms had been on Godard's enemies list for years, his partnership with Mieville appears to have stimulated his outrage on this subject to new intensity. If moralizing, standardizing, and circumscribing are the weapons used by cultures to enforce "proper" thinking and "correct" behavior, thereby erecting arbitrary borders around our potentially unlimited lives, then he and Mieville would attack these insidious practices without mercy. They would do this not through the abstract theorization that had proved so hard to manage in the Dziga-Vertov Group films, however. Instead they would make an aggressively concrete movie capable of grabbing attention and galvanizing imagination through the sheer extremity of its approach.
The arrival of Numero deux in movie theaters was surrounded by what amounted to an elaborate practical joke. Godard was still a celebrity in 1975, despite his years of "hiding" from conventional audiences behind a barrage of unpopular films. He also knew that revolutionaries of his generation had a tendency to "mellow" and "mature" as they grew older, particularly as the widespread radicalism of the 1960s gave way to a more conservative Zeitgeist. Playing on expectations that he might follow this pattern, he let it be known that he planned to leave radical cinema and return to the "mainstream" filmmaking that he had done so much to energize in bygone years. The impression spread among his admirers that his comeback vehicle was called Numero deux, or Number Two, because it was a remake of Breathless, the hugely acclaimed film that had launched his filmmaking career; evidently they overlooked the fact that his partner in the production was the same Anne-Marie Mieville who had worked by his side on the demanding Here and Elsewhere, and few observers took his hints about the new film to mean it would be as drastic in style and confrontational in content as any of the works that had lately been testing their patience.
Whether despite this misunderstanding or because of it, Numero deux was greeted respectfully by thoughtful critics who looked far enough beyond its sensational elements to see that it contained an effective set of solutions to many of the problems Godard had been posing for himself and his audience. The movie told a story without being enslaved by narrative; it developed characters without being confined by their insular concerns; it probed social, political, and philosophical issues without sliding into rarified abstraction.
None of this means that Numero deux is a remake of Breathless in any readily detectable sense, of course, or that it recognizably returns to some earlier form of Godardian cinema. Among its other new departures, it is his first feature-length work to make extensive use of video footage, much of it filmed from video monitors that retain their television "look" within the larger motion-picture frame. During much of the film, two monitors with different images are shown at the same time; filmmaker and critic Harun Farocki suggests that Godard picked up this idea from his recent experience in video production, since video editing is normally done with a pair of monitors showing edited and unedited material, respectively.
The film does mark a clear continuation of theories and practices Godard had explored earlier, however, and its logical place within his body of work is confirmed by three of its central qualities. One is a deep concern with modern society's division of everyday life into separate domains of "labor" and "leisure," allegedly a "natural" arrangement but really an unnecessary attack on human fulfillment, perpetuated by its own alienated victims. Another is a continued interest in sexuality as both human behavior and artistic metaphor, dissected here with a psychosocial intensity that makes Weekend look almost well-mannered. The third is an undimmed enthusiasm for discursive interruption, cinematic interference, and creative obstruction of the image flow that seduces us so effortlessly in regular movies.
All three of these interests can be traced back to Godard's early features; yet they acquire extraordinary force and clarity in Numero deux, indicating the undiminished desire of its makers not merely to communicate with but (in proper Brechtian fashion) to stimulate and activate the widespread audience they hoped to attract with this "return to mainstream cinema."
As previous chapters have indicated, perhaps the most straightforward way of reading Godard's career is to see it as a steady trajectory away from conventionally seamless cinema (resisted since the early shorts) and toward an energetic fracturing of the film-watchinge xperience. From the impulsive jump cuts of Breathless to the collagelike rhythms of Weekend and the wholesale rejection of narrative in the Dziga-Vertov Group films, Godard shows growing interest in fragmentation - of movies, of the creative processes that produce movies, and of the places and objects (especially bodies) that appear within movies.
Numero deux is another milestone on this path, as its very first images make clear. The screen is divided into three distinct areas. On the left is a patch of bright red video static. On the right is a rectangular patch containing close-ups of a man and woman, who turn to gaze into the camera. In the center are printed words, some (the column on the left) steadily readable but others (the two on the right) blinking on and off
SON IMAGE SON
Translations are easy: mon = my, ton = your, son = his, image = image. However, the word son also means "sound," and we certainly hear sounds as we read these words: chirping birds, distant voices of children, and kitchen or household noises. (Note also that Numero deux is the second film - after Here and Elsewhere the preceding year - from the Sonimage production company, set up by Godard and Mieville as an alternative to the commercial studios.) Instead of inviting us into a story, therefore, the movie starts by establishing the screen (and sound system) as a place not of narrative illusion but of visibility and audibility for their own sakes. This explains the barrage of disconnected images, random sounds, and printed words that assert their punning personalities here (also getting in a plug for the outfit that made the film!)
The next scene is equally fragmented. We see two side-by-side video images. On the upper left is a city view with a plaza in the foreground, trees in the midground, and buildings in the background. On the lower right are two children, a boy and a girl. "There was a landscape," the boy says, "and a factory was put into it." The shot of the children then starts alternating with a shot of two adults, a man and woman, puttering in a kitchen and talking about injustices faced by workers who lose their jobs or labor in unsafe conditions. The little girl speaks a variation of the little boy's comment: "There was a factory, and a landscape was put around it." Since this is still the very beginning of the movie, one might hear in this sentence a hint of "Once upon a time. ..."
Preceding these images, we saw the film's title in provisional form: NUMERO 2 / TEST TITLES. Now it returns more formally, with NUMERO DEUX fully spelled out; but no sooner does it materialize than it starts to change, one letter at a time, until the screen spells out AU DEPART, meaning "departure." (The metamorphosis happens in stages, so evocative fragments like ERO and DEO make fleeting appearances along the way. This happens with intertitles throughout the film, and although the transformations are generally simple letter-by-letter replacements from left to right, some produce more puns and double entendres than space allows me to trace here.)
The movie then begins all over again, this time with Godard himself appearing as a sort of host or master of ceremonies. He stands at the right of the screen, resting his hands on a TV monitor that displays his face, which is otherwise hard to see because of the camera's angled position. He faces various pieces of audiovisual equipment, including a couple of movie projectors. Talking in the manner of an introductory speaker leading up to a main topic, he remarks on subjects that have long been important to him: language, politics, control. Given its in-person delivery and its position at the beginning of a major work in a transitional phase of Godard's career, his monologue is worth sustained attention.
"When the delegate makes a speech," he begins, "he reads the words of others. I think it's the paper that gives orders, and that's the trouble." Assuming that Godard functions as a sort of "delegate" in this movie appearance, he is evidently criticizing the scripts that supply conventional films with their prefabricated, predigested content. Like a jazz musician (or Beat poet) warming up some favorite riffs, he then launches into a few vague anecdotes based on puns or slippery definitions. In one he uses the word "machine" in both its standard meaning and its specifically French meaning (machin) of "what's-his-name." In another he calls his roomful of audiovisual equipment a "library" with no books. In a third he speaks of "paper" in the different contexts of books, printing, and money.
He then introduces a subject that will be central to the movie as a whole: the factory as a metaphor with a wide range of applications, from the intensely personal to the sweepingly social. "In biology, you know, this is a factory here," he says, still speaking in his free-associative manner. "You could call it a factory. The body's a factory, too. I listen to the machines. That machine's going faster. That machine's going slower. And I'm the boss, but I'm a special boss because I'm a worker as well. And because I'm not alone as a worker, we've taken power."
Godard is probably being ironic here, since his "power" is only that of an independent film artist operating far from the financialr esources of commercial cinema. Nevertheless, this speech appears to come from his heart, and its personal nature is underscored by a reference to his stillrecent road accident: "I was sick for a long time, and that made me think, about the factory." Also sincere - wistful, even - are subsequent remarks about his "factory" being different from others with names like Fox, Metro, Mosfil'm, and Algerian National Cinematography, all connected to "a multinational company that does the programs." He then complains that people are programmed, too. "You can't ever use what you learn in school," he gripes. "If I did literature, I'd tell you that the government programs people with methods that are full of holes. Stepping stones: workers, the children of workers. They go to school, and after school to the factory. It's all the same."
Good point. Still, in a monologue that slips so mercurially from multinational film factories to shortcomings of the French school system, we may be wondering by now whether Godard is wholly in earnest or if he has shifted into his stand-aside-and-ironize mode.
Staying a quick step ahead of us, he anticipates our question - "Games with words, you say?" - and affirms the importance of hard-to-pin-down language that ambushes our ingrained habits. "In democracies there's something that doesn't surprise me: Word games are banished in a certain sense.... We say they're not serious. But puns - a word that slides on a thing - it's a language, and after all, love taught us language." Wordplay should liberate instead of enslaving, he continues, expanding on a perennial theme. "It slides. That shows short-circuits, interference, and so on. We use it to cure sickness sometimes. So it's serious. We say it's complicated ... but it's things that are complicated. Pain is simple."
The monologue ends with a lengthy anecdote about a friend named Georges (probably Georges de Beauregard, his erstwhile producer) who came to visit, saw Godard's machines, and said the filmmaker should put them to use. Godard replied that he needed money, and the two repaired for a drink at a nearby bus station, where Godard agreed with the proprietor that provincial Grenoble is "smaller, sweeter, softer" than Paris, his former home. Georges then boarded a Paris-bound plane, promising to raise 600,000 francs for a movie. Godard concludes his story, "A newspaper would have said, 'It was a chilly November morn. The tires squeaked on the runway....' But no literature. Money, commerce, beauty."
That last phrase is Godard's three-word definition of modern filmmaking.
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
by Dijana Knežević
The grotesque implementation of Marquis de Sade's novel "120 Days of Sodom" (O Le 120 Giorante Di Sodoma) is a film about which for almost forty years there has been a strong debate. The reason for this is the brave genius of the director in his attempt to show us the atmosphere from the darkest depths of human nature.
One of the most powerful of Pazolini's "tools" here is the context and time of the film itself: the 1944th and the arrangement of Mussolini's, fascist Italy (as the film itself says "We Fascists are the only real anarchists") and the blasphemy and misery of distorted minds in the free space .
The main actors, four representatives of the authorities (Duke - Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, President Aldo Valletti and Umberto Paolo Quintavalle), with the help of fascist units, capture the group Young people and imprison them in a luxurious villa. They become former prostitutes in their old age (prostitutes Castelli - Caterina Boratto, Prostitute Vaccaari - Helena Surgere and Magi Maggi - Elsa De Giorgi) which tell young prisoners stories from their own experience, and, based on these stories, the film itself is structured, divided into three parts:
Antechamber of Hell
Circle of Obssesions
Circle of Shit
Circle of Blood
The inspiration for such a structure, Pazolini found in the "Divine Comedy" (La Divina Commedia) by Dante Alighieri (Dante Alighieri).
Although in the original Marquis de Sad has placed his novel a couple of centuries earlier, Pazolini's ingenious idea of transferring the film's work to the time of the most monstrous in the history of mankind has absolutely brought forth the fruit.
Visually and emotionally, this Pazolini film might resemble the worst-ever ever-fictitious thing, but its artistic and aesthetic value is more than noticeable.
For a deeper understanding of this story, it is important, even partially, to know the work of Marquis de Sade, whose story is directed and directed. Namely, in each of his novels, the "role" is more or less the same: the very top of the social scale that impairs those listed below. The distortion of the Sadow's mind found the most incredible ways to explain this, but the very essence would lie in (De Sade to say) the fact that there is no God, but only nature, and nature, besides beauty, creates destruction. How life is governed by the laws of nature, claims that it is clear that the law of the stronger must be respected. Man's destructive impulses are also part of nature and must be distributed. In his novels, this usually happens in the form of the most horrible (mostly sexual) tortures and revulsions. What is emphasized in his novels, and what is in the film, it would be said, "propelled" to be transmitted (in De Sade's always emphasized) the importance of human unbridledness, in some way (and again, first of all, sexual).
The movie "Salo" is considered one of the most controversial films of the twentieth century. It's not by chance, because rape scenes, fecal eating, cutting off language, homosexuality, etc. Leave the viewer, and not only the one with a weak stomach, maximally disgusted. Nevertheless, this Pazin's directing achievement should in no way be viewed outside the context in which it is located. Whether we do this, apart from directing and photographic genius, we will remain purely grotesque, devoid of aesthetic values. Pasolines in this film represent the world, a cold, hopeless, apocalyptic era in which evil wins, but also implicitly suggests that such a regime can not survive (which is why the action is located in the area of the Hall). He deliberately rejects the subtle approach and choices explicit (to him and, in all likelihood, irritating), portraying fascism as a transformation that, at the same time, refuses and attracts.
Here, at the same time (as is often the case in De Sad's novels), it could also be said of a nature that is long overdue, most often imposed, imposed social norms, and becomes distorted and in constant search for the ways in which their interference could channel. In this case, this results in total sexual harassment, revenge on innocent victims, etc.
While prostitutes, in their enthralling costumes, tell the worst stories of their sexual and business life, the victims (most often) are seduced, humiliated, on the floor, until some of the main actors, encouraged by the "hot" story, take it and do not use it for The "revival" of what has just been listened to.
The epilogue of the film is also the most stressful and almost resembles culmination, rather than the epilogue:
The four commanders choose young men and girls who were not absolutely obedient, and the guards take them to a nearby yard and kill them in the worst ways. The commanders, almost indifferently, are looking at the binoculars, from the remote room, that scene. An aggravated pianist, who played and worked for them, spotted a scene and committed suicide by dropping from the window. The sound of "Carmina Burana" by Karl Orff (Carl Orff) is radiating from all the time. After all, two young guards change the station on the radio, play the happy song and cheerfully, and still indifferently, dance. One asks another for his girlfriend's name. "Margarita," he replied.
These final scenes, accompanied only by calming music, deepen the damages that the scenes themselves bring.
Whatever, even today, criticized and forbidden was, this Pazolini film is absolutely a huge artistic achievement (at the same time, the last ones that the author worked, because it was just before the premiere of the film and he was killed). Only the "revival" of the novel, and even of the Garden, reflects a great knowledge of the director's work, but also of the aesthetically fascinating experience and appreciation of reality. Imminently, the filthy picture of Italy and, in general, the humanity, which Pazolini sent to the world with this film, is also a jewel in the sea of cinema, which gives us a chance to see the reality through absolutely black, and with its grotesque glorious, glasses.
Translated from Serbian by Dejan Stojkovski
This article is taken from:
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by Greg Olson
Lynch has said that Blue Velvet is “a trip into darkness, as close as you can get, and then a trip out. There’s an innermost point, and from then on it pulls back.”93 Jeffrey makes his journey to the center of night in the hour after he struck Dorothy in bed. As he says goodnight to her, she makes plain her raw need for him and calls him “my special friend” (the next time MacLachlan works with Lynch, he’ll be a special agent). While the youth and Dorothy talk, Lynch disconcerts us with an out-of-context shot looking down the apartment’s staircase. Sixteen years earlier, in The Grandmother, the director surprised us with a shot looking up a staircase in the midst of a narrative about a parentally abused boy. The lad eventually discovered that the stairs led up to the nurturing world of his grandmother, while Blue Velvet’s harbinger steps will take Jeffrey down into purgatory. When he steps across Dorothy’s threshold into the hallway, there are Frank and three of his depraved, cackling pals coming up. Previously, Jeffrey has only seen Frank from the relative safety of Dorothy’s closet, and now he’s faceto-face with the monster. Frank mixes a “Howdy, neighbor” mock joviality with his deep rage as he suggests a “joyride” to the trembling youth, who, with good manners, declines the invitation. But social niceties and personal boundaries are like dry fall leaves to the flaming furnace blast of Frank’s will to power. He already holds Dorothy’s family hostage, and now he spirits off her and Jeffrey in his roaring Dodge Charger, whose grille and headlights Lynch frames so that they look like a fierce animal’s jaws and eyes devouring the night.
Along with Frank’s three loony cohorts, they go to Ben’s Pussy Heaven where, as did Eraserhead’s Henry, Jeffrey must endure a bizarre and punishing social evening. Pussy Heaven is a low-rent-district bordello stocked with fat women who sit silently aligned against a living room wall as though trapped in the numbing stasis of a Diane Arbus photograph. This blasphemous Heaven is presided over by the marvelously effete Ben (Dennis Hopper’s pal Dean Stockwell) who, with his lip rouge and ruffled-front shirt, is, as Frank proclaims with deadpan Lynchian humor, “One suave fucker.” Ben and his scarlet women hold Dorothy’s little boy, Donny, behind a locked door. And when we hear her visiting him, it sounds like she’s been accused of being an absentee parent, for she says, “No, no, Donny, Mommy still loves you!” Perhaps this moment is a guilty projection of Lynch’s own sense of being, to some degree, an unavailable father to his children.
After Frank and Ben use Jeffrey as a punching bag and reveal their majorplayer role in Lumberton’s clandestine drug-dealing network, Ben does a special performance at Frank’s request, lip-synching to Frank’s audiotape of Roy Orbison singing “In Dreams.” This song and “Blue Velvet” are Frank’s anthems; both speak of men weeping over lost loves. When Ben does his unforgettable pantomime, holding a construction-site electric lamp under his chin like a microphone so that the glaring light makes his pasty face glow, Frank is transported. He seems lulled as Orbison-Ben sings “Go to sleep, everything is all right,” but his face stiffens with apprehension as the singer falls asleep “To dream my dreams of you,” and he winces with pain when the narrator walks and talks with his now-vanished love. Many commentators simply characterize Frank as the Anti-Christ, an incarnation of abstract evil. He is certainly loathsome and terrifying, but Lynch as writerdirector and Hopper as actor invest him with a wrenching pathos. We sense that Frank has grown monstrous because of some wounding loss or horrible abuse visited upon him. Frank and Dorothy, a sadist and his masochist partner, are ultimately both victims. Frank is possessed by some eros-perverting past trauma, as Twin Peaks’ daughter-molesting Leland Palmer is possessed by the evil force of BOB. Both Lynch and Hopper say that Frank truly loves Dorothy, and when he watches her sing at the Slow Club, he weeps tortured tears, simultaneously grieving for her and himself.
Lynch understands the nuanced shadings of those who express themselves with malevolent behavior, just as he allows his upholders of righteousness to manifest a full human complexity. And once, years before Blue Velvet, he was surprised to learn that his daughter, Jennifer, was dwelling seriously on such matters. As she remembers, “I was very young, and I was fearless when it came to the grotesque. My father got upset with me when he found me reading my dog-eared copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which detailed Charles Manson’s horrible crimes and how he was apprehended and brought to justice.”94 Just as Lynch, in his art, presents two characters with their heads almost touching when things get intense, “He leaned his head next to mine and said, ‘This is beyond darkness, it is not the opposite of light, this is evil.’”95 As though anticipating Blue Velvet’s “areyou-a-detective-or-a-pervert” dialectic, Jennifer replied, “But Dad, I’m not fascinated with Manson—what I like is the guy who caught him, the guy who figures everything out and captures him.”96 Still, Jennifer responded with humane empathy toward Manson: “Here’s a soul tortured throughout his life, shunted from home to home, beaten, turned wrong by hatred and fear,”97 just as her father sees Frank Booth as both a monster and “a man who’s deeply in love but can’t express it in a normal way.”Jennifer feels Frank “is a poignant character: I have a sadness and a pity for Frank. When he does his baby voice and his whimpering it’s so revealing, the way he’s violent to get what he needs.”99 She agrees with my thought that Frank was the victim of incestuous sexual abuse: “Yeah, all the Mommy/Daddy/Baby roles are fucked up in his head. My father puts such interesting details of humanity in Blue Velvet, it seems so absolutely real to me psychologically.”100 So the bestial Frank has a human side, the humane Jeffrey harbors animal impulses, and Roy Orbison will bring them face to face.
When Frank, Dorothy, Jeffrey, Frank’s hoodlum trio, and one of Ben’s fat whores drive off into the night, Jeffrey does something no one else in the film has had the courage to do: He defiantly glares into Frank’s eyes after being ordered, “Don’t look at me, fuck.” Frank fires back a damning truth at the youth: “You’re like me.” And Jeffrey, as if to both acknowledge and defy Frank’s insight, lashes out and punches him in the face. Jeffrey’s shocking aggression inspires Frank the warped artist to pile out of the car and stage a perverse ritual comparable to his sadistic sexual theatrics with Dorothy.
While Frank’s gang holds a knife to Jeffrey’s throat, the fiend exhibits some of the homosexual leanings of Lynchian villains in The Elephant Man, Dune, and Twin Peaks. When Frank was ready to leave Ben’s place he showed that his animalistic appetite encompassed all sexes (and perhaps species) as he declared,” I’ll fuck anything that moves!” (Frank’s form then suddenly vanished from Ben’s living room and was next seen driving down a highway. This split-second jump from one point in space to another could be Lynch’s conscious or subconscious reference to The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy’s observation that in Oz, “People come and go so quickly here” [regarding the Witches’ magical transports]. Blue Velvet’s Lumberton is far from the land of Oz, but near Twin Peaks on the map of Lynch‘s imagination, and the supernatural aura of Frank’s uncanny mobility in this one instance prefigures BOB’s [another evil force with a hunger for men and women] otherworldly coming and going every time he travels.) Frank calls Jeffrey “our pussy” and “pretty-pretty,” and, after forcing the youth to feel his biceps, says, “You like that, huh.” The villain then grabs Dorothy’s lipstick, paints his mouth, and kisses Jeffrey repeatedly, smearing his face with red: a visual signifier of the dark erotic linkage between Jeffrey and his two netherworld guides, Dorothy and Frank, that makes all their mouths taste the same. Now Frank, his face harshly lit by a handheld electric light as Ben’s was, does his own rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.”
As the song plays, Frank exhibits a deranged intermingling of love and hate, sex and violence. First, he growls at Jeffrey that if the youth gets out of line, “I’ll send you a love letter. Do you know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fuckin’ gun, fucker. You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.” This passionately delivered physical threat is terrifying, but Frank’s next mood swing is even more disturbing. Lynch stages arguably the most intense of his two-heads-in-confrontation clinch scenes, as Frank breathes into Jeffrey’s face with the erotic ardor and cold malevolence that a predator holds for the victim he controls. In stunning close-up, his eyes burning cool blue, Frank intones with Roy Orbison, “In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk with you. In dreams, you’re mine, all the time.” Throughout the film, Dennis Hopper has given Frank expressive gestures: He always points with two aggressive fingers, like a child forming his hand into a revolver. As Frank says, “You’re mine,” he bunches his extended fingers together and holds them next to Jeffrey’s head, as though he could reach in and own the young man’s psyche. Because of the dark, mirrorimage symbiotic bond between the two men, Jeffrey knows that Frank is capable of stealing his soul. Indeed, the youth may already have precious little of it left.
In Lynch’s script, Jeffrey was to wake up lying on the ground after being beaten unconscious by Frank. His pants were to be pulled down and a lipstick “FUCK YOU” scribbled on his leg in the aftermath of a homosexual rape. Kyle MacLachlan pleaded with Lynch to delete the sexual violation details, and after giving the matter some thought, the director agreed. Lynch will sometimes acquiesce to his actors’ strongly held opinions, as when he let Anthony Hopkins keep his beloved beard in The Elephant Man and, in Twin Peaks, he abandoned a certain romantic storyline for Agent Cooper that MacLachlan just didn’t think was right.
Jeffrey has reached the heart of Blue Velvet’s darkness and seen it as the murky shading of his own psyche, and now it’s time to start to pull back and journey toward the light. Lynch is interested in the full range of human emotions, and has said, “If you’re a man, you can cry.”101 Jeffrey reaches his turning point sobbing in his room alone. But banishing Lumberton’s darkness (and his own) isn’t as easy as switching on a light. When he sits down to breakfast with Mom and Aunt Barbara, and Barbara starts to chatter about his beaten-up appearance, Jeffrey’s answer sounds like Frank Booth: “I love you, but you’re gonna get it.”
The youth nurtures and strengthens his capacity for goodness by staying away from Dorothy, telling Detective Williams all he’s learned about Frank’s law-breaking activities (without mentioning Sandy’s investigative help), and telling Sandy he loves her. She returns his feelings, and they dance and kiss to the music that accompanied her dream-of-the-robins narrative, the chorale-like melody which now has lyrics by Lynch sung by Julee Cruise: “Sometimes a wind blows / and the mysteries of love / come clear.”
Jeffrey is going straight and staying clean, but his choice to indulge his dark side has repercussions, as it always does in Lynch’s world. The shadowy force that beetle-churned beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn has spread all over town, and now it pops up in Jeffrey’s living room. When Lynch and his brother were boys in a small Northwest town, they looked out their bedroom window one night and saw an unclothed woman walking in the street. Now, in the director’s fiction, after Jeffrey and Sandy’s dance, the achingly vulnerable, bruised, and naked Dorothy Vallens steps into those bastions of domestic propriety, the Beaumonts’ front porch and the Williamses’ living room. Once again, Lynch displays his gift for staging excruciating embarrassments and violating social niceties. As Jeffrey consoles the dazed Dorothy, hugging her exposed body against him, in front of Sandy and her mother, the clandestine sexual relationship that he’s hidden from his golden angel comes gushing out. Dorothy calls him “my secret lover” and, looking directly at Mrs. Williams and Sandy, tells them, “He put his disease in me.” Sandy and Jeffrey have not yet made love, but this grotesque revelation of his emotional unfaithfulness and untruthfulness causes her to break out in deep sobs, with the corners of her mouth curved down like the traditional Greek mask of tragedy. As with Sandy’s narration of her robins-and-love dream, some viewers snicker at the extreme gestures of her weeping and think that Lynch is making fun of her. But, as Laura Dern has said more than once over the years, “that’s how I cry.” True, her manner of weeping in other films resembles her Blue Velvet behavior, but her sadness seems most gut-wrenching under Lynch’s direction.
Sandy and Jeffrey speak words to try to repair their rift, but the youth’s actions are needed on the dark side of town, for Dorothy has called from a phone booth to say that they’ve hurt her husband, and entreated Jeffrey to “help him.” Jeffrey first entered Dorothy’s apartment to see what the police couldn’t, and now he will be the one to precede the law and strike the decisive blow against the powers of night. As he approaches Dorothy’s door, he knows he is in the realm of insect energy, for there’s a buzzing from inside. A TV has been kicked in and a lamp is ready to short out. Like Jeffrey’s father’s hose caught on that bush, the natural pathways of electrical flow in this room have been kinked and disturbed. What Jeffrey next sees in the room defies the laws of gravity and mortality.
Earlier in the film, the youth discovered that the man in the yellow blazer who came to Dorothy’s door is Detective Williams’s partner, and also a partner to Frank’s dope-dealing cabal. Now the Yellow Man, his head a travesty of oozing red, a police radio crackling in his pocket, stands frozen like a statue, not lying flat like a proper corpse should. Aside from Frank Booth’s bizarre behavior, Lynch has exhibited plenty of evidence in Blue Velvet that would make Jeffrey declare “It’s a strange world.” One of the director’s subtly disturbing motifs is to put people in places and postures that are a few degrees removed from normal. While Frank sang and punched “In Dreams” to Jeffrey, one of Ben’s fat whores incongruously danced on the roof of Frank’s car, and at Ben’s, one of Frank’s goons had stood on the arm of a sofa while Ben sang. Lynch once said, after viewing a music video of animated store-window mannequins, “Anything that looks human, but isn’t, is frightening,” and he creates this haunting quality in Blue Velvet by showing people who don’t move. In an early establishing shot of the town, there’s a large, immobile man positioned by a store for no explained reason. And when Jeffrey begins his first night walk to Detective Williams’s house, there’s an eerily inert man standing under the trees with a little dog on a leash. We’re clearly not in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Back in Dorothy’s apartment, the seemingly dead standing Yellow Man scares Jeffrey and us when his hand twitches out and knocks over a lamp: Throughout his work, Lynch makes the boundary line between life and death ambiguous, a road that travels in twin directions. There’s no question, however, that Dorothy’s husband, Don, is dead. He sits bound in a chair, displaying the hole where his ear used to be, and in true Lynchian maximally disturbing fashion, littering his wife’s kitchen countertop with the contents of his head. And where there is death, there is Frank’s touch, for a length of blue velvet fabric spews out of Don’s mouth like a frozen scream, recalling the attenuated animated scream line that flowed from The Grandmother’s Boy’s mouth. Lynch is adept at making pain palpably visible.
Jeffrey goes to leave this house of carnage, but he sees Frank coming up the stairs and Frank sees him. The youth must manfully face the responsibility of his decision to walk on the wild side of town, for there’s no place to go but back into Dorothy’s apartment. The first time Jeffrey laid eyes on Frank, the youth was invisible, hiding within Dorothy’s closet. Following Lynch’s characteristic scheme of balances and parallels, Jeffrey again takes refuge in the dark little room within a room. And if the hearing function got Jeffrey in trouble before (his toilet flush made him miss Sandy’s warning car honks and get caught by Dorothy) it now benefits him. He calls Detective Williams for help on the Yellow Man’s radio, and when he realizes that Frank can hear him on his radio, misleads the villain by telling Williams that he’ll be hiding in Dorothy’s bedroom. Jeffrey then grabs Yellow Man’s pistol and dives into the closet just ahead of Frank’s entrance. Now all of Dorothy’s men are in attendance.
Lynch underscores his homosexual-villain subtext by having Frank call out, “I know where your cute little butt’s hiding.” Jeffrey’s radio may be making noise in the bedroom, but the youth’s not there. Frank yells “prettypretty,” makes some animalistic grunts, and fires bullets into the empty room. Enraged and calling out, “Where are you?” like some wicked hideand-go-seek player, Frank comes back to the living room. He is the maker of final deaths and when, in frustration, he pumps a bullet into Yellow Man, the standing canary figure must at last fall over and prostrate himself before the Lord of the Flies.
Through the slats in the closet door, Jeffrey has watched Frank commit brutal acts of sex and violence, and the youth has stepped through those doors to act out the parts of himself that are like Frank. Jeffrey is now fully aware of his capacity for good and evil, and that he can consciously choose which path to follow. In the next second or two he must use violence to save his own life, as well as to smite the predatory-animal powers that seethe in darkness a mighty blow. Frank throws open the closet door, and Jeffrey fires a single shot into his forehead. As the monster loses the back of his head, Lynch mixes the scream of a beast with the gunshot blast. If Dorothy and Frank have been Jeffrey’s benighted parent figures, nurturing him in the ways of the netherworld, then the young man has now closed the Oedipal circle, having slept with his mother and killed the father who wanted her all for himself.
On this night, the police have closed in on Lumberton’s web of criminals, and as Jeffrey and Sandy kiss in the apartment hallway, their true love is irradiated with white light, and outside we see light-flashing police cars descend on the building like robins pouncing on beetles.
Jeffrey has entered a severed ear and probed deep beneath the surface of his own and his town’s consciousness, and now Lynch pulls out of a ruddy canal that is Jeffrey’s sunlit ear, as he snoozes in the Beaumonts’ backyard. When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is a plump red robin on a branch. As if to codify his status as the hero who has mastered darkness and light, Jeffrey wears black pants and a white shirt. Having destroyed his bad father, Frank, the young man’s good father has been restored to him. In Lynch’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, far-traveling Dorothy concludes that “There’s no place like home,” and now Jeffrey enjoys the most wonderful of homecomings. For the first time in the film, the Beaumont and Williams families are conjoined, as if to bless Sandy and Jeffrey’s union. Tom Beaumont is “feeling fine,” and Detective Williams tends to the barbecue in the backyard. Sandy and Aunt Barbara are fixing lunch, and Jeffrey’s and Sandy’s moms can’t wait to eat. Sandy’s original involving of Jeffrey in the ear mystery, which she’s regretted all along, has resulted in the vanquishment of evil. For there on the windowsill is her dream come true: that fat robin, a squirming black beetle in its powerful beak. Sandy looks at Jeffrey, recalling all the terrible and wonderful things they’ve shared, and there’s only one way she can put it into words: “It’s a strange world, isn’t it.”
The warm, sweet music of “Mysteries of Love” carries us to another homecoming. For the first time in the film, we see Dorothy Vallens in daylight, sitting on a park bench in the sun. Her little boy, Donny, now free as the wind, is enfolded in her smiling embrace. If any character in Blue Velvet has been as torturously entrapped as The Grandmother’s Boy, Eraserhead’s Henry, and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, it is Dorothy. She evinces a shift in Lynch’s sensibility toward a growing concern for the victimization of women. Each of the director’s earlier characters escaped their bondage through the transcendent grace of love, and Dorothy also seems to have thrown off her web of darkness.
But Lynch knows how complex the world really is and he remains haunted by Dorothy’s suffering. Her smile fades, and there’s a tormented look in her eyes as we hear her voice sing the words that symbolize her unholy union with Frank: “And I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” As Lynch pans up from her and Donny to a beautiful blue sky, we remember that Don and Frank, Dorothy’s good and evil husbands, are both dead, and Jeffrey has chosen to stay on the side of the angels. But maybe some night the young man will again take a walk on the shadow side of town and Dorothy will find him in her closet. There are countless more hidden insects in the world than there are robins. The last thing we see in the film isn’t the wide-open sky; it’s a curtain of blue velvet that’s being rhythmically moved, as though the darkness behind it would never stop breathing.
Lynch says he is able to visualize thoughts and behavior more horrific than anything he has put before our eyes. In an earlier conception of Blue Velvet, the director let Frank Booth’s death-dealing perversity lunge out, violating the boundary of his own physical demise, and touch Dorothy one last time, making her, at this point in Lynch’s career, the director’s ultimate female victim. In a script-dialogue line not in the film, Lynch has Jeffrey say that Frank “had to have Dorothy cause her whole life was blue.”105 As the film ends now she’s still the Blue Lady, but being reunited with her loving little Donny and the exultant atmosphere of a sunny afternoon have let some light into her life and dispelled some of her soul’s gloom. Yet just as Lynch had initially planned for Eraserhead’s Henry to perish without the saving grace and love of his radiant Lady in the Radiator, Dorothy was originally to be swallowed by the ravenous black insects of darkness.
We would have seen the bloody body of little Donny, killed by Frank, found under Dorothy’s bed, as though birthed into death by the twisted, violent sex his mother was at first forced to practice, then loved to practice, in this room. Then, looking up the towering facade of Dorothy’s apartment building at night, we’d see a single red shoe fall toward us. Unlike Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, this poor Dorothy has no hope of finding Oz or getting back to Kansas, so she throws her unmagical ruby slipper into the abyss of night. Then her naked body, which we’ve previously seen stripped of protective clothes for sex and bruising, leaps from the rooftop toward us and past, into a final embrace with death, making literal her panicky words from earlier in the film that had summed up her plummeting spiritual state: “I’m falling!” Then her blue velvet robe drops toward us—can Lynch be providing a glimmer of redemption even in this darkest of endings?
The ruby slipper may not have gotten Dorothy where she wanted to go, but by throwing off the blue velvet robe that symbolizes her oppressive bondage to Frank, she has leapt into a transcendent freedom. (In Sunset Boulevard, which Lynch dearly loves, William Holden’s character removes the expensive cuff links that symbolize Norma Desmond’s oppressive hold on him before meeting his death.) As Lynch has said to me, he likes to “get people trapped in a hellhole”106 and then he often shows us, or implies, that there is an escape route. For Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, the process of achieving a final release involves their own death, as it will for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’s Laura Palmer and Mulholland Drive’s Diane Selwyn. Perhaps, as death enabled John Merrick to merge with the spirit of his truest love, his dear mother, so Dorothy will unite with her husband and child who have passed on before her.
After Dorothy leaps to her death, her blue robe would have fallen into our faces and frozen there, filling the screen as Bobby Vinton’s words “and I still can see blue velvet through my tears” hang in the air. Dorothy would be gone to some other place. We the living would be the ones still seeing blue velvet, still haunted.
David Lynch had found himself. He was home again, back from the dream-convolutions of Eraserhead’s mind, The Elephant Man’s nineteenthcentury England, and Dune’s interplanetary future, to the small-town streets where America lives. Blue Velvet was just as he wanted it to be, for it sprang from his innermost feelings about a young man becoming sexually and psychically mature, the terrors and exhilarations of acquiring knowledge, and the sustaining potency of love and family. In Isabella Rossellini, Lynch had a passionate and devoted love of his own, and he would face the eruptive response to his film, both the veneration and vilification, with a renewed personal confidence. The lucid, reality-based style of Blue Velvet seemed to heighten the director’s ability to convey resonant ideas, dreamlike poetic associations, and complex states of being. Just like Jeffrey, Lynch was growing, learning, and maturing, but some things would always remain the same. There would be a beautiful cherry tree in a boy’s backyard, and red ants swarming on it. Robins and bugs, blue skies and blue velvet, a curious young man and a severed ear, an FBI detective and a dead high school girl. Born amid Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo in Missoula, Montana, David Lynch would forever reside between twin peaks.
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson
by Greg Olson
Reflecting the time-honored American myth that equates urban precincts with evil, Sandy and Jeffrey’s night walk takes on an ominous air as they leave her tree-lined, homey street for the wide concrete boulevard downtown. He protectively takes her arm as a slinky black 1950s car cruises by and men leer from the windows, “Hey babe, hey.” This is the seedy Lincoln neighborhood, the zone that Jeffrey’s parents have warned him to stay away from all his life. Sandy points out the singer’s forlorn, old brick apartment building and turns to go. “Come on,” she admonishes, but Jeffrey stands transfixed, staring at the building for many moments as Lynch holds a traffic light on red in front of the dilapidated structure, a motif warning of infernal danger that he will memorably repeat in Twin Peaks. Sandy is intrigued by mysteries up to a point, but she knows when to pull back, her sense of self-preservation is strong. Jeffrey, on the other hand, is obsessed; like so many of Lynch’s characters, he will risk his body and soul in order to learn the secrets that the night holds.
Back on home turf, heading toward the Williamses’, Jeffrey lightens up, spouting a bit of Lynchian grotesquerie as he recalls “a kid I used to know who had the biggest tongue in the world.” Sandy, who’s in perfect synchrony with Jeffrey’s moods, laughs. Then she turns solemn with him as he laments, “All my friends are gone,” and we remember that this boy’s father lies near death. Lynch has talked about a giddy feeling he’s had while “saying goofy, corny things” to a woman he’s fond of late at night. Jeffrey suddenly asks, “Do you know the Chicken Walk?” and parades up and down the sidewalk with his knees bent low and his torso and head held unnaturally stiff. Sandy breaks up in laughter and Jeffrey touches her shoulder for a second in affection. Lynch ends his masterful night-walk sequence with a moody image worthy of an Edward Hopper painting. From far away we see the small forms of the boy dressed in black and white and the girl in pink strolling slowly under the canopy of dark trees, we hear their faint laughter on the wind, the spark of their shared joy clouded by the mournful low moan of a far-off foghorn.
Even in broad daylight, filling in for his father at their bright and clean family hardware store, Jeffrey finds mysteries. Working with him at the store are two older African American gentlemen who’ve been there forever. They radiate affection for Jeffrey and he just calls them Double Ed, since they always walk and stand together. One of the men is blind but he can tell you which shelf the overalls are on and correctly ring up cash register sales. When Jeffrey holds up four fingers and asks, “How many?,” the blind man instantly answers, “Four.” With an awestruck grin, the youth replies, “I still don’t know how you do that!” In Lynch’s script, there was just one Ed, who could see just fine. Aside from showing the director’s love of twinning and doubling, the film’s Double Ed scene projects his and Jeffrey’s need for some mysteries to remain unsolved so that they retain their preternatural power. Like Lynch, Jeffrey wants to remain a little naive about some things; he seems to be willing himself not to guess Double Ed’s secret. Even though we in the audience see the two men facing us from Jeffrey’s point of view, it’s pretty easy to realize that all sighted Ed (Leonard Watkins) has to do is tap blind Ed (Moses Gibson) four times on the back.
Jeffrey can cruise on past Double Ed’s puzzle but he’s compelled to burrow deeper into the ear. He plans to put on those store overalls, grab an insect-exterminating sprayer, tell the woman singer he’s from pest control, jimmy a window in her place while he’s spraying, and sneak back in at night to search for clues. On the surface, he seems to be an idealistic Hardy Boys–style junior crimefighter, but he isn’t playing detective primarily to help Williams or impress Sandy: Subconsciously he’s on a profoundly personal quest, an involved process that will make him a fully integrated human being.
Sandy is part of Jeffrey’s plan, and he verbally pulls her away from her high school girlfriends and takes her to the local diner, Arline’s (as she leaves with him, she tells her friends not to mention this trip to her boyfriend, Mike). Symmetrically left and right of Arline’s front door are red drapes drawn back like theatrical curtains. These draped fabrics, which Lynch also features in The Grandmother, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Twin Peaks, frame narrative details and concentrate the audience’s focus. They also alert us to intermixtures of reality and illusion. Lynch echoes the entranceway’s symmetry by placing Sandy on the left and Jeffrey on the right in a booth, each sipping a Coke. The stage is set for Jeffrey to convince Sandy to help him, and his words recall Dune’s Duke Leto’s words to his son, Paul, which Lynch had screenwritten from Frank Herbert’s novel. Lynch had Leto say, “But a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside: the longing to grow. Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” Lynch pares this down for Jeffrey: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk.” Jeffrey is gathering steam to take some major chances, and through them Lynch can live out hazardous fantasies through his art, as can we, the viewers, gaining some measure of Jeffrey’s self-knowledge.
Lynch then has Jeffrey speak the director’s own adolescent fantasy virtually verbatim. “I could learn a lot by getting into that woman’s apartment. You know, sneak in, hide, and observe.” Sandy shows how much she cares about Jeffrey by speaking right up when his notion violates her empathetic sense of his safety: “Are you crazy? This is too dangerous, she could be involved with murder!” But like an artist pursuing an alluring, dark muse, Jeffrey won’t be deterred by mundane, cautionary worries. Lynch wants us to share Sandy’s rational, common-sense concerns, but he, and we, are most interested in pursuing Jeffrey’s imaginative scheme. Like Dune’s Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam, Sandy’s attempts to curb male initiative and enterprise will be overridden. The prevailing males in both films are played by Lynch’s screen alter ego, Kyle MacLachlan, and there’s the sense that we’re witnessing some of the artist’s uncensored psychodrama, his own obsessive pursuit of creative endeavors despite the curtailing entreaties of wives, friends, and business advisors. Perhaps Sandy is a version of Lynch’s ideal woman, expressing her heartfelt feelings with spirit, then going along with his plan. Jeffrey wins Sandy over by saying, “No one will suspect us because no one would think two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.” This awareness of their square, straight-arrow image in the community bespeaks Lynch’s own understanding of the persona that the media have created for him: a friendly, grinning, Jimmy Stewart and Eagle Scout type who’s secretly a crazed, far-out artist. Lynch is attuned to the multivalenced nature of things, the interplay between what is and what appears to be. We recall that Jeffrey told Detective Williams that he found the ear “behind Vista,” referring to a street or neighborhood. The ear is the youth’s mysterious ticket-to-ride, a portion of the secret world hidden behind the vista of Lumberton’s wholesome facade, and Jeffrey wants to see the whole show.
Lynch, in his opening montage, symbolized the town’s hidden world with the seething black insects and their ravenous, endless cycle of carnage and copulation. Jeffrey, dressed in his exterminating gear, enters the Deep River Apartments (deep waters being an ancient symbol for the human subconscious mind). Upon crossing the threshold, he hears the insectoid buzzing and humming of a “no vacancy” sign that’s shorting out: This is indeed the entrance to the netherworld. The low-rent building’s elevator is out of order, so he climbs seven flights of exterior stairs, as Lynch gives us the feeling that Jeffrey is beginning the exertions of an arduous quest.
Up the stairs, down the gloomy dark-gray hallway, Jeffrey travels deeper into the ear. The youth gets no response when he knocks on Dorothy’s door, so that Lynch can build to her dramatic entrance into the film. The door suddenly cracks open the width of a safety chain, a vertical shaft of light falling on the ripe, red lips of the director’s original Blue Velvet vision, and the anxious eyes of a woman teetering on the edge of fear. She spits out a foreign-accented challenge: “Yes, what do you want?,” but Jeffrey’s roleplaying gets him past her defenses.
The exotic strangeness of Dorothy’s accent is matched by the look of her living room, which is unlike anything Jeffrey has ever seen. It’s as though his penetration of the ear canal has brought him deep inside a human body, or mind, where the walls and floor are dark red and the curve of an armless couch seems to have grown out of the wall like a fleshy organ. And, in contrast to the normal-looking plants that grow in the Beaumonts’ garden, there are two green erections of frond foliage shooting up from unnaturally tiny pots against the red walls. These phallic plants reflect the surrealistically part-plant, part-animal growths that sprouted in Lynch’s early animated film passages (The Alphabet, The Grandmother).
As the ants crawling on the newfound ear and the bug-like buzzing lobby sign indicate, Jeffrey’s pursuit of the ear’s mystery will lead him into the zone of raw animal impulses, a fearsome region that will both surround and inhabit him. As he sprays Dorothy’s kitchen, he bends over at the waist, a creeping-animal posture that Lynch will assign to the feral BOB of Twin Peaks. There’s a knock at the door, which Jeffrey expects to be Sandy posing as a Jehovah’s Witness to divert Dorothy’s attention. But instead there’s a big man in a canary-yellow sports coat, who takes a good, hard look at the youth. To explain Jeffrey’s presence, Dorothy says, “It’s only the bug man.” This line wasn’t in Lynch’s original script, so the director must have decided during filming to add this phrase that describes Jeffrey’s pretend occupation, his low-bending posture and dark, beetle-like jumpsuit that covers him from feet to Adam’s apple, and his psychological metamorphosis into a darker self.
While Dorothy bids goodbye to the Yellow Man, Jeffrey spies her house key and pockets it. Back outside, Sandy apologizes to him for not coming to the door because she figured the Yellow Man did her diversionary job for her. That night, she lies to her boyfriend and father in order to be with Jeffrey as he plans his next step. At the Slow Club, Jeffrey, in true Lynchian food-and-beverage-appreciation style, rhapsodizes about the Heineken beer he’s drinking. He and Sandy watch Dorothy Vallens sing two numbers, the stage set in what will be the standard for Lynch’s performance scenes: red curtain backdrop with blue spotlighting. Indeed, the vertical folds in the Slow Club’s curtains, and the white light behind them emphasizing the fabric’s ruddy membranes, anticipate Twin Peaks’ iconic Red Room. Starting out in what seemed to be the 1950s, the film has mixed in 1970s cars, 1980s computers, and now Dorothy sings into a 1930s art deco microphone. In Blue Velvet, Lynch is pioneering a subtle stylistic motif that other filmmakers will try to copy; he’s giving us an evocative dream time, an ambiguous mix of various decade signifiers in which we float around, subtly disconnected from the waking realities of our own time-bound lives.
As Dorothy sings “Blue Velvet” on stage, we notice an incongruous talisman of bestial energies at her feet: the wicked six-foot-wide horns of a longhorn steer. Dorothy is not herself essentially animalistic, but she is a body in which bestial men deposit their impulses, debasing her emotions into a desperate sadness that’s like an unsatisfied hunger. Sometimes Lynch’s character’s names are literal descriptions (The Man in the Planet, The Lady in the Radiator, The Blue-Haired Lady), but Dorothy’s name at the Slow Club, The Blue Lady, refers more to her hidden bruised soul and midnightstained grief than to her blue eyeshadow makeup and the light that bathes her on stage. She sings her last number, whose lyrics are Lynch’s: “Shadows fall so blue; as lonely as a blue, blue star.” The director then accomplishes another of his elegant, expressive scene transitions by taking the last musical note of Dorothy’s lament and flowing into a progression of descending musical chords, which dissolve from the singer in shadow on stage to Sandy and Jeffrey driving into their nocturnal mission of mystery. The falling chords not only give a sinister gravity to the evening and Sandy’s worried look, but the music’s linkage to Dorothy is a prelude to her wish to end her miserable life by plunging from a great height. In his script, Lynch alludes to the possibility of Dorothy leaping from her apartment roof, but in the film he condenses her feeling of a panicky plunge into the abyss to a scream at street level: “I’m falling!”
In Lynch’s aesthetic, the two primal modes of moving through space are floating and falling. Floating is the positive pole. The artist has spoken of how he “fishes”80 for ideas and intuitions that “float” by, and how he tries to transfix and float the viewer into his films and paintings and musical/song compositions. Floating figures are found in Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Wild at Heart, Industrial Symphony No. 1, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, various paintings, drawings, photographs, and song lyrics (“You and I float in love and kiss forever,” “We’re floating as one”. Falling is the negative pole. The Grandmother’s Boy falls over after his granny dies; Industrial Symphony No. 1’s bereft heroine, who floats singing 60 feet above the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stage, suddenly falls; figures plunge in drawings; the doomed Laura Palmer of Fire Walk With Me speaks of “falling forever until you burst into flame”; and song lyrics bemoan “Falling through this night alone.”84 Floating and falling are the physical equivalents of those heightened states of being and emotion that fascinate Lynch: times when our feet aren’t firmly on the ground.
Sandy can feel the darkness pulling at Jeffrey, and she worries that he’s going to fall. Parked in front of Dorothy’s apartment, she regrets having told him the police-case details that got them to this moment, but she will help him by honking the car horn four times when Dorothy arrives, so Jeffrey will know she’ll soon enter her flat. Just as Jeffrey’s declaration, “It’s a strange world,” crystallizes the viewpoint of both Blue Velvet and the man who wrote and directed it, what Sandy now says to Jeffrey applies to both him and David Lynch. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she wonders, as Jeffrey heads up to hide in a strange woman’s room.
Lynch’s films delve deeply into disturbing realms of human emotion and behavior. The director is a detective scanning the psyche’s netherworld for clues to the big mysteries of existence and death, but the fierce persistence of his fascination with the darkest veins of fear and desire seem sick and perverse to some viewers and critics. What really gets under our skin about Lynch’s work, and causes some to demonize him, is the realization, if only subconsciously, that we ourselves might be capable of the thoughts and actions the director depicts so intensely. Even if we can’t admit this, we like to watch.
We who view movies are voyeurs, we sit in the dark gazing at the often intimate behaviors of (albeit) fictional people who don’t know we’re looking at them. Of course, we’re actually watching actors playing characters, but the aesthetic contract enforces the feeling that we’re indulging the privilege of spying on other people’s lives. While voyeurism is the subtext of the movieviewing experience, some films consciously acknowledge the concept in notable scenes (Psycho) or extended thematic treatments (Rear Window, Peeping Tom). The watchers in these films are looking at sex and death, the twin aspects of human experience most guarded by societal taboos: Once again, the movies fulfill our secret desires, our urge to see all that human beings can do. Jeffrey wants to gather clues in Dorothy’s apartment and help solve a crime, but, we’re sure, he (and we) also want to see her naked. Perversion denotes abnormality, and the wish to see another’s bared flesh is not unusual. It’s the context of Jeffrey’s viewing that will be transgressive: He’s an uninvited, hidden spectator whose gaze will have power over the one that he’s looking at.
To Sandy’s “detective or pervert” musing, Jeffrey replies, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” In Lynch’s original script, we would already know of the youth’s lascivious leanings by now. There was to be a scene early on in the film before Jeffrey was called home from college. Hiding in the shadows, the youth watched a male student “trying to rape his girlfriend. She is crying and telling him to stop but the boy keeps forcing her down toward the ground. . . . The boy is now hurting the girl.”85 Only when Jeffrey hears his off-camera friends calling for him does he (still concealed by the darkness) yell at the rapist: “Hey, shithead. Leave her alone. . . . Don’t force girls!,”86 at which point the boy releases the girl. Watching this scene, we would have noted that Jeffrey’s fascination with what he was viewing allowed the crime to progress, and it was a reminder of outside social sanctions (his calling friends) that prompted his intervention. Without interruption, how long would he have watched? Though this is clearly a strong scene, Lynch chose to leave it out. So when we meet Jeffrey in the film, he’s absolutely identified with the benign and wholesome small-town universe, against which his gradual descent into the ear’s mystery and his own sexual and spiritual darkness will provide a more dramatically potent contrast.
Beginning with the wildly feeding beetles in Blue Velvet’s opening montage, Lynch has linked rampant animal appetites with primal evil, and as Jeffrey began to penetrate Lumberton’s netherworld, he was called “the bug man” by one of this sinister realm’s denizens, Dorothy, who ought to know one when she sees one. Now, as the youth breaks the law to enter her apartment, his appetites, and his penis, immediately get him in trouble. Because of all the Heineken beer he consumed at the Slow Club, Jeffrey is loudly peeing into Dorothy’s toilet and flushing it when Sandy gives her warning beeps that the singer has entered the building. Jeffrey’s cut off from Sandy’s lifeline in this place; he doesn’t hear her warning. The youth, in detective fashion, is starting to carefully examine Dorothy’s dressing table for clues when she starts to open her front door. He dives for her living room closet where, hidden inside and peering out through its louvered doors, he looks more the pervert, recalling the image in Psycho where Anthony Perkins peeped through the wall hole at the undressing Janet Leigh. Lynch has realized his adolescent fantasy on film: His cinematic alter ego is secretly watching a woman in her room at night. Jeffrey provides a textbook example of the nefarious “male gaze” that feminist critics deplore. A man has written his visual sexual reverie into a film, shot by a male cinematographer, in which a man looks at an unpersonalized woman as a sexual object, and then a higher percentage of males than females watch the film. These are the facts in the case, but Lynch’s truth is more complex and balanced than his detractors care to admit, or notice.
Lynch may be visualizing his teenage fantasy, but he presents Jeffrey’s view of Dorothy stripping to her bra and panties and doffing her performance wig without a hint of erotic spark. She arouses no prurient interest as she has a desperate phone conversation with someone named Frank and, burdened with spiritual malaise, retreats to the bathroom where, far away from the camera, she quickly strips in rear view while standing straight up. Not only is the leering male viewpoint absent from this scene, but Lynch turns the traditional male power position topsy-turvy. For Dorothy hears (ears again) a rustle in her closet and, wearing her blue velvet robe, rousts out the frightened Jeffrey at the point of a butcher knife. Her surprisingly commanding voice is harsh and ragged: “Get on your knees. Do it!” Concealing his detective persona, Jeffrey takes refuge in a pervert’s defense, saying he’s the bug-spray man who “just wanted to see you.” In a stunning reversal of Jeffrey’s expectations for his spying session, Dorothy spits back, “Get undressed, I want to see you.” The narrative surprise of this moment parallels the sudden revelation of the beetles churning beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn, and it won’t be the last rude shock that Jeffrey will endure as he ventures deeper into Lumberton’s underworld. He’s dealing with powerful, scary forces that he can’t control. But like young David Lynch going down into that menacing New York subway tunnel, he can learn something about himself if he keeps riding into the darkness.
Lynch believes that both the malevolent and the benign aspects of life can teach us a thing or two, and Jeffrey’s guides into the dark realms he doesn’t yet know about will be Dorothy and Frank. The curriculum will let him experience the roles of both victim and sadistic perpetrator, the teaching tools will be sex and violence, and there will be minor electives in pain, weeping, degradation, and corruption. Homework will be inescapable; sleep-learning will consist of nightmares. Like the girl in The Alphabet, Jeffrey will be absorbing the horrors of learning. Lynch, aside from having Dorothy and Frank give Jeffrey life lessons in depravity, will use the pair as benighted, underground reflections of the youth’s warm and loving aboveground parents. And the director won’t shy away from pushing Oedipal logic to the nth degree. Dorothy makes Jeffrey take down his underpants, which are, naturally, all-American red plaid boxers. Kneeling in front of him, she invitingly asks, “What do you want?” He says, “I don’t know,” and she does what he wants, but won’t speak, taking his penis into her mouth at an angle the camera can’t quite see. Jeffrey gets a teasing few seconds of pleasure, but Dorothy is in control, holding her big knife a breath away from his genitals, and barking orders: “Don’t move; don’t look at me; don’t touch me or I’ll kill you.” Dorothy is playing a sadistic game, but Jeffrey is no masochist, and tells her he doesn’t like that threatening talk. They move to the fleshy couch that seems like an organic outgrowth of the wall, and enact one of the film’s iconic tableaux of melded six and violence: Dorothy in her blue velvet robe straddling Jeffrey’s pelvis and bending forward to kiss him, her ready blade glinting against the ruddy wall. She makes a potent dominatrix, but a sudden, thunderous pounding on her door announces the arrival of this underworld’s alpha male predator, the power of Lumberton’s darkness.
The Frank Booth that Lynch wrote and Dennis Hopper acts out is a phenomenal creation. If Jeffrey is trying on the role of bug man, Frank is the real thing. Wearing a stiff black leather coat like a beetle’s carapace, sucking in nitrous oxide gas from a plastic inhaling mask that covers his nose and mouth and gives him a gleaming bug-like jawline, his eye popping, Frank is an insect ready to feed on flesh. And he’s got a bug in his noggin: a buzzing sexual obsession with Dorothy, the Blue Velvet Lady. Like a demented artist of the libido, Frank has devised a theater-of-cruelty ritual that he enacts with Dorothy. As Jeffrey watches aghast and fascinated from his closet, he encounters a new mystery: Why does she put up with it?
Dorothy douses the electric lamp, lights a squat, white candle (like the ones at Laura Palmer’s Twin Peaks murder site), and Frank intones the archetypal Lynchian incantation: “Now it’s dark” (which isn’t in the script). Repeating an established pattern, Dorothy brings over a small chair and sits on it, and gives Frank a glass of bourbon. As in some perversion of a 1950s sitcom, Frank casts himself in the role of Daddy coming home, but Dorothy slips and calls him “Baby.” An understandable mistake, for there’s a maelstrom of Oedipal confusion in Frank’s psyche. He next calls her “Mommy,” and in a plaintive, childlike voice, declares, “Baby wants to fuck” and “Baby loves blue velvet.” Then, as Lynch’s script specifies, he gives commands to himself, which degrade into vocal self-abuse, “Get ready to fuck! You fuckers, fucker, you fucker.” And when he throws Dorothy to the floor, jumps on top of her and, with all his clothes on, bounces up and down frantically for a few seconds before ejaculating, Frank is “Daddy” again, and keeps assuring us that “Daddy’s coming home.” (Many critics’ theories about Frank being mad at the world because he’s impotent—based on his staying zipped-up during his frenzy of sexual thrusting—are vaporized by a line in Lynch’s script: “faster and faster, then he has a climax in his pants.”)
Whether Frank is seeing Dorothy as herself or his mother, he heaps abuse on her. His harrowing expression of sexuality is an act of rage against the world, women, and himself. Fueling his assaultive acting-out with hits of nitrous oxide gas, Frank attempts to hide his vile self-image by repeatedly yelling, “Don’t you fucking look at me!” and striking Dorothy if she seems to disobey. To see himself in her eyes is more than he can bear. If Frank loathes himself, he also abhors Dorothy’s femaleness. Before climbing on top of her, he roughly jams his fingers into her vagina, and after climaxing he looks at the hand that touched her, as if it wasn’t part of him, and makes a splayed-finger throwing gesture like he’s trying to rid himself of slime or the hand itself. No wonder Daddy chooses to come home in his pants.
Lynch stresses the brutal animalism of Frank’s behavior by having Hopper growl and slaver vocalizations that aren’t words. Frank’s snarling sounds as he hovers over his victim recall The Grandmother’s Father barking and looming over his hapless Boy, and prefigures similar configurations of characters that will show up in the director’s future works.
After Frank is finished with Dorothy, he stands above her supine form and cryptically says, “Stay alive, baby. Do it for Van Gogh.” This data convinces the watching Jeffrey that Dorothy is suicidal, and adds to the youth’s sense that Frank has kidnapped her little boy and husband, and has cut off her spouse’s ear (“Van Gogh”). Frank then uses his control over Dorothy’s loved ones to manipulate her any way he wants.
It now becomes clear that Dorothy’s sadistic sexual bossing of Jeffrey is a pale reflection of the way Frank treats her, a way of coping with her hellish situation by taking on some characteristics of the man who has power over her (she commands Jeffrey using Frank’s words, “Don’t look at me”). Given Lynch’s penchant for casting parents and parent-surrogates as potential and actual sexual abusers of young people (The Grandmother, Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), it’s reasonable to surmise from the “Mommy loves you” and “Baby wants to fuck” of Frank’s perverse sex ritual that the man has been traumatized by a past, perhaps incestuous, sexual experience. (Freud believed that a boy witnessing the primal scene of his father and mother having intercourse would develop a sadistic sexuality fixated on the power of the strong male dominating the weaker female. He also surmised that the last object a boy sees before he first glimpses his mother’s genitals becomes fetishized: It wouldn’t surprise us if little Frank Booth’s mother wore a blue velvet robe.) Frank’s victimization has compelled him to visit sexual violence upon Dorothy, who continues to cycle with Jeffrey. Foisting rough sex on Jeffrey may help Dorothy cope, but she’s most deeply conditioned to express her erotic nature through victimhood. When Frank has left and she and Jeffrey are alone again, the youth gently comforts her and they both get aroused, and she implores him, “Hit me, hit me.” He won’t, so their first evening is over.
Or so Jeffrey may think as he’s putting on his clothes. But walking away from Dorothy’s building in the darkness, his black-clad form starts to glow with phosphorescence; then we see Jeffrey’s father struggling in vain to speak, the guttering flame of Frank’s white candle, Dorothy’s face begging “Hit me,” and a Dorothy’s-eye-view of a grimacing Frank mashing his fist into our face to the sound of her scream. Then Jeffrey is in bed in the morning, his head reeling from a nightmare (“Man oh man”). Lynch has not only toyed with our sense of reality by slyly immersing us in what we now realize was a montage of Jeffrey’s dream, but he’s emphasized how profoundly the youth’s consciousness has become immersed in the ear-mystery, and how dangerous his quest is. He’s awake, his bad dream is over, he’s in his own comforting bed. But on the wall above him is an animalistic rubber Halloween mask that’s all devouring mouth and hungry teeth—a reminder of the metaphysical evil of the dark beetles gnawing beneath sunny lawns, Frank’s brutal appetites, and the unsettling fact that the mask fits Jeffrey’s face. As artist Vito Acconci says of Lynch’s oeuvre, Lynch shows us that we are both “scared and scary”: We are threatened by shadows from outside and inside.
Twenty-four hours after Jeffrey’s dark introduction to Lumberton’s underworld with Dorothy and Frank, the sober and sad young man sits in the Williamses’ car with Sandy. Whenever Jeffrey drives, they go to the wrong side of the tracks. But when Sandy’s at the wheel, they stop in front of a stone church with stained glass windows, in which we can hear an organist practicing a beautiful melody. Sandy, the agent of angelic goodness, would naturally guide them to this site. (We note that Jeffrey drives a convertible, signifying his dual nature as wholesome, upright youth and dabbler in darkness; Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer, Laura’s demon-possessed father, also drives a convertible.) Gazing at Sandy’s blonde loveliness, Jeffrey gathers himself to speak of the raven-haired Dorothy’s inferno. He first said, “It’s a strange world” to Sandy on their initial night stroll, when an amorphously defined forming mystery could be contemplated with innocent enthusiasm. Now, having gained some experience of the mystery’s shape and lived some of the life its main characters lead, he says, “It’s a strange world” with a melancholy whisper. Jeffrey has discovered a secret realm hidden within the world he thought he knew by heart, and it’s tainted him. His account to Sandy keeps secrets from her: He makes no mention of the sexual activity of he and his two netherworld guides. Wanting to believe that people can be either all good or all bad, Jeffrey condenses the evil of the ear mystery into the form of Frank Booth, and passionately asks Sandy, “Why are there men like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in the world?” Sandy doesn’t know the answer to this major mystery, but, given Lynch’s love of opposing forces in contrast, she offers an antidote to the world’s evil.
Sitting at the steering wheel, the church and its uplifting melody softfocus in the background, Sandy says with sweet exultation, “I had a dream,” words that are a Lynchian declaration of principles. “The world was dark because there weren’t any robins, and the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free. And they flew down and brought this blinding light of love, and it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So, I guess it means there is trouble ’till the robins come.”
If Frank’s sexual abuse of Dorothy is Blue Velvet’s most searing statement of malevolence, then Sandy and Jeffrey’s car talk is its antithesis. And, as evidence that the powers of shadow and radiance are equally valuable to Lynch’s sensibility, each scene runs about the same length of time. As Laura Dern has said, “David believes in the robins as much as in Frank Booth.”89 Some viewers, whose sense of wonder is dimmed by an overdeveloped need to find everything ironic, are convinced that Sandy’s dewy-eyed dream description is a put-on, a way for Lynch to mock her corny credulity. But this artist who calls himself naive, who meditates on Eastern concepts of spiritual transcendence, values dream states, and in previous films has portrayed the ability of higher powers to deliver benighted souls, most certainly has his ears pricked for those robins’ song.
Other than his creepy human animals, the critters that appear most in Lynch’s work are insects and dogs, though there are a few other birds outside the precincts of Blue Velvet. The graceful, feathered creatures that can defy gravity have a positive connotation for the artist. There’s the cheery robin on a fir branch in the Twin Peaks credits. The joyful feeling in Lynch’s song “I Remember” that’s “So happy, so warm / That sent seven little red birds up my spine / Singing.”90 The way the director compares a well-made film to the “perfect composition” of a mallard duck’s anatomy, the bird’s eye having been positioned “in exactly the right spot.” And there are Lynch’s angel figures, one of whom, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, has white-feathered wings.
Sandy’s dream has the resonance of a prophecy but, unlike in Dune, where it’s telegraphed ahead of time that Paul’s visions will come true, Blue Velvet trades in true moment-to-moment existential mystery and revelation. (Every frame of this film shows how much more at home Lynch is here than in the imperial throne rooms of far-flung galaxies.) Sandy had her dream the night she met Jeffrey, so maybe he’s the one who can make the robins come, though he seems more interested in debauchery than birds. Lynch cuts directly from Sandy and Jeffrey’s sanctified scene in front of the church to Jeffrey on the prowl in night town, anxious for Dorothy to open her door, and more, to him.
There’s something murky in him that responds to the dusky pull of her blood, and Jeffrey thrusts himself into Dorothy’s desperate body. He can see that she’s half crazy, looking for Jeffrey in her closet every night, scared of Frank and soul-sick over what he may do to her entrapped husband and little son. She’s sunken so low in abuse that she keeps entreating Jeffrey, “I want you to hurt me.” One night, when the youth says he’ll tell the police of her predicament, she gets furious with him and literally starts to kick him out of bed. Up to this moment Jeffrey has maintained, “I want to help you, not hurt you” but, with relief, he yields to the darkness within him, and whacks her hard in the face with the back of his hand. (Following Freud’s logic, Jeffrey, having psychically processed and absorbed the primal scene of his netherworld surrogate father and mother Frank and Dorothy having punishing sex, is now able to model Frank’s sadistic erotic power-plays.) Like a visual reverberation of the blow, Lynch shows us a huge close-up of Dorothy’s chipped front tooth, which dissolves in a gust of flames that becomes Jeffrey pouncing onto her in a sexual slow-motion embrace, over which we hear distorted animal roars and the sharp-end punctuation of a woman’s scream. The scene goes to black and Dorothy says, “I have your disease in me now.”
The question of the exact nature of this disease generated much discussion after Blue Velvet came out. In the mid-1980s, America and the world were still trying to comprehend and cope with the concept of AIDS, a horrendous, fatal plague spread from person to person primarily through sexual contact. A number of commentators thought that Dorothy’s “disease” was AIDS and that Lynch was making a sociopolitical point about the Reagan administration’s avoidance of this crisis-magnitude public health issue. Indeed, many hip viewers were sure that Lynch, by exposing the moral rot behind the sugar-sweet facade of smalltown USA, was subverting Reagan’s Up With America ethos. Of course, these cognoscenti were shocked to learn that their radical-director hero was a supporter of the Gipper. Lynch wants his art to mean different things to different people, to speak to the individual viewer’s needs and imagination: The connection between artwork and public is what matters, not the communication of a neatly formulated and circumscribed message from the author.
The “disease” in Blue Velvet is one of the director’s beloved abstractions, which he wants us to interpret as we will, but his original script gives us some clues about his take on the concept. On the page, Dorothy ruminates, “You put your disease in me—your semen. It’s hot and full of disease. Men are crazy. They put their craziness into me, then it makes me crazy—then they aren’t so crazy for awhile. Then they put it in me again. . . . [Starts Crying] It’s burning me!”92 This from the supposedly male chauvinist director who lives to abuse women onscreen: These script words could have been written by Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot artist Andy Warhol and founded the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). For Lynch, the disease is the evil that men do, which can invade another’s personality and bring out their worst. Bad, twisted thoughts and actions can be contagious, and the director will further explore the question of whether evil is a possessing or an intrinsic force in Twin Peaks.
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson
When People Cannot Differentiate Between Internal and External Worlds And Then Take One For Another
Behind the credits of the “Hour of the Wolf” we hear noises of a set being made ready for the shot – a black frame… a black screen in fact, an image (if one can so describe it) of total darkness before the first real, luminous images… All this – night passing into day, darkness into an image – to anchor the narrative in a kind of primordial night… Liv Ullmann is revealed… confiding the story… This second narration (the first is the introductory darkness) is soon “illustrated” – a third narrative, this time peopled with “characters” follows on from her confession. This narrative proceeds up to the point when Liv Ullmann discovers her husband’s diary… So, there is a fourth narrative superimposed onto the first three… Her reading is in turn illustrated: a fifth narrative is grafted on to its predecessors. Phantasms of extreme violence are unleashed by this new proliferation of the unfolding narrative. Up to the moment when Liv confesses to her husband that she has read his diary. Now begins a long night, in which the couple’s phantasms… begin to develop in common… After the night in the castle, the climax of this eruption of dreams, the house of cards begins piece by piece to collapse. The characters evaporate, melt into the night… Liv resumes her confession at the point where we left her in the start, in the same close-up.
Cahiers du Cinema 1960 – 1968, Harvard Univ. Press, p. 313, 315
The worst are the ‘hours of the wolf’… between three and five. That is when the demons come: mortification, loathing, fear and rage. There is no point in trying to suppress them, for that makes it worse.
Ingmar Bergman, “The Magic Lantern”, Penguin, 1988, p. 226
Of course, works of art create themselves, and dream of killing both father and mother. Of course, they exist before the artist discovers them. But it’s always “Orpheus”, always “Oedipus”. I thought that by changing castle I’d change ghosts and that here a flower could make them flee.
Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”
Bergman’s film is about a psychological phenomenon that is quite widespread in our time – when a person’s impulses, intentions and desires go out of the control of his/her psychological wholeness – of his personality and holistic identity. In US in the 21st century we observe more and more people with the inability not only to control their impulses, but to rationally take into consideration the consequences of their actions. Even people’s everyday actions and decisions become impregnated with their instinctive impulsivity, impatience and expectation of quick results. More, this is true not only about regular people – even the decision-makers are like this – immature and not capable of self-reflection, whose calculations are not thought through and made angrily, often belligerently and with electronic speed. “Thinking” for these people means to justify the decisions they already instinctively have made. It expresses itself in all the areas of life – in personal relations, in politics (Bush Jr. type of bravado decision-making, the neo-conservative politicians’ adolescently blind and wide-sweeping passions, today’s policemen’s panicky shooting unarmed people, erroneous profitmaking of the financial entrepreneurs, with disastrous consequences for global populations because of their inability to resist the imaginary profits, arm-chair killing of civilians by sitting in air-conditioned offices drone operators, in general thinking about life as moneymaking and fight for more power, the inability to keep the sexual impulses and private addictions under control, impersonalized and depersonalized consumerism, etc.)
The socio-psychological phenomenon of pluralism of social life which was always a point of pride for democratic systems, is perceived in the 21st century as an adversary factor – for people ruling democracies today the international versatility is not only a burden but an obstacle and a menace. They encourage in masses suspicion for otherness and paranoid reactions. Bergman’s film shows the process of pluralization of reality through multiplication of narrations, characters and situations which the main characters cannot assimilate and tolerate without extremely defensive reactions and frustrations. Collapse of the artist’s psychological wholeness and transformation of peoples into (shattered) phantoms and ghosts – shadowy creatures without identities – here is Bergman‘s comment about the future of human societies which becomes a reality for us today. In this sense Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” is a dystopia not without a political connotation. When individuals are no longer able to think without fear deforming their thinking, when philosophers become just specialists in philosophers of the past, when artists become entertainers, then the regular people are transformed into phantoms without identity and humanity (contaminated with aggressive, dangerous unconscious energies).
Bergman masterfully personifies this situation as a problem of the artistic self’s failure in the talented painter Johan Borg, whose partial creative impulses as a result of his psychological fragmentation are going out of control – when his imaginary constructions (his phantoms, his aesthetic interpretation of various people, his figurative imagination) started to rebel against his artistic will. But let’s be sure that in Bergman’s film these imaginary personages which are the inner images of the artistic unconscious/conscious are also real human beings who are like appendixes to their obsessions and suffer from existential depravity – the ontological incompleteness producing a basic “inferiority complex” fixating people on external achievements as a result of their internal emptiness. Psychological fragmentation tends to flatten the human psyche, reduce it to partial interests, which are always impulsive and unable to provide human being with a solid ontological rootedness and existential perspective. That’s how people today hunt after jobs and consumer items, after images ripped away from the context, after ideological sound-bites and crumbs of bliss provided by rock concerts and mass events, alcohol and drugs. So, Bergman in “Hour of the Wolf” simultaneously analyses the situation of a talented artist who is losing creative control over his figurative images – his phantoms (his internal objects), and the psychological condition of regular people who pursuit false (absurd) goals (like the inhabitants of Baron von Merkens’ castle) because they are ontologically deprived and unconsciously feel that they are “inferior” and for this reason are restless and over-agitated to achieve and be rewarded with social status and power.
As a result of his sensitivity and talent the artist repeats in his sub-conscious the condition of people he comes across in social settings and through his imagination reinvents them for the purpose of his art. By the logic of artistic creativity Johan Borg shares his social phantoms’ ontological deprivation to the horror of his wife Alma. The artist (Johan Borg) registers the condition of people as that of his inner objects which “represents” inside his psyche the truth about the psychological condition of people in the real world.
But the artist (Borg) personifies not only his own inner objects and not only the psychologically regular people (the members of Merkens family and their entourage), but also the condition of human culture in the times of cultural fragmentation (much like this period we live in today in the Western societies when culture cannot democratically control (humanize) the psychological state of its people who dramatically regress from the more rational way of psychological organization into chaotic and impulsive feelings and behavior). Bergman’s film is a diagnosis of today’s planetary culture (symbolized by Johan Borg’s psyche which reaches the point of anomie).
A big part of the film is dedicated to the depiction of the artist’s relationships with figures of authority, stylistically enigmatized and demonized by his imagination, while also reflecting truth of these personages with their self-confident manners, the imperative verbalizations, rather of mature age, materially very prosperous and socially influential. Amongst them there are modifications of parental figures (paternal and maternal) – Baron von Merkens (spider-man) and Corinne von Merkens (his wife), of grand-maternal (Countess von Merkens, Baron’s mother), of grand-grand-maternal (The Lady with a hat) who not only takes away her hat, but also her face (in order to hear better the music of an imaginary composer). There is also an uncle-like Ernst von Merkens. Besides that Bergman introduces us to the personifications of two aspects of an intellectual art-criticism – the performative aspect (archivist Lindhorst, the bird-man) and the “public relation” aspect (curator Heerbrand) in two incarnations – as a “homosexual” attracted to the artist’s exhibitionism, and the development of the theme of “schoolmaster with the pointer in his trousers” – a despotic (self-imposing and intrusive educator).
Johan Borg in the film represents rather a modernist painter with the ability to perceive other people critically – the ability which contributes to the artist’s conflict with society (that contradicts the traditional “romantic” concept of art as a beautiful alternative to the reality). Archetypal figures of the Western psyche whom Bergman represents as Borg’s neighbors, want to be idealized, worshiped and adored, and they strike back for a lack of reverie towards them on the part of the artist. Johan Borg becomes the hero of modernist (critical and democratic) art, fighting with the despotic images and social structures from the past and falling in this battle while trying to deconstruct and to debunk the traditional authoritarian values. Before his psychological collapse, Johan Borg was existentially oriented and didn’t want the images of art to be grandiose, superhuman, eternal, over-beautiful as they are supposed to be in the traditionally understood “great art”.
Another extensive topic Bergman touches on in this film is the antagonistic relation between the artist’s personal life on the one hand and his fixation on the archetypal images of his imagination on the other. “The art of living together is Bergman’s central concern.” (P. Livingston, “Ingmar Bergman and the Ritual of Art”, Cornell Univ. Press, 1982, p. 244). Johan’s inability to stay with his wife Alma (who personifies the human wholeness), incompatibility between his more and more shattered psyche and her holistic personality refers to a tragedy not only for art, but for human culture when both losing wholeness and becoming an appendix to the drive for material success (art-makers) and immediate satisfaction (the audience). Traditional forms of despotism are activated in democratic societies under new masks, and purity of the soul (Alma) is unable to withstand growing irrational fears armed with animosity. The intellectual artist must fight alone and is doomed. Johan feels farther and farther from Alma’s love. She is a metonymy of existential genuineness, of ontological presence. Three Alma’s gazes are registered by Sven Nykvist’s camera – one at Johan when he is going through his sleepless night hours, the other – at the puppet representation of Mozart’s opera, and third – at Johan’s portrait of Veronica Vogler – represent the abyss between life and art in a condition of disintegration. In these three gazes Liv Ullmann expresses a mixture of curiosity and disgust, a combination of disappointment and compassion, of disbelief and contempt for the miserable human condition of being obsessed with pleasures of darkness, with self-aggrandizement inside a cave (with the same expression Alma could look at the TV or movie screen showing commercial TV programs or entertaining Hollywood films). The artist cannot reach personal happiness – he is too divided between his concentration on the images of ontological inferiority and the reality of human wholeness.
Johan Borg is involved in two relationships – with an existential woman (Alma) and with the object of his “romantic” obsession – Veronica Vogler. The coexistence of these two types of love refers to a clash between an elevated seductive love – a greedy-consumerist one, and a pure but artless and wingless, even, somehow a prosaic love of “real life”. Then the scene of the film where Johan Borg is searching for Veronica Vogler in the castle of voyeurs and vampires is Bergman’s surrealistic parody not only on “Magic Flute” – on Mozart’s idea of ordeal which the beloveds have to go through on their way to happiness, but on the very tradition of romantic love and conventional idea of love between man and woman. Johan is successfully passes through the five ordeals, all of which violate and go against his morality and integrity.
But the real comedy of horrors starts when Johan Borg approaches his beloved who, according to the code of behavior suggested by the endless tales of Western culture, is lying as if dead while waiting for his resurrecting gaze-and-touch (her nakedness is covered by a white sheet like in morgue). Parody on traditional concept of heterosexual love here has an impressive intensity. Woman is supposed to pretend that she is completely sexually inert so as not to shock man and by this inactiveness to arouse him. Then he will be able to feel his vigor and assert himself with her with his magic touch/kiss which will bring her to life from her natural state of passivity. Under Borg’s desiring palm Veronica not only resurrects but becomes feverishly, maniacally excited and starts to hysterically kiss him with an uncontrollable urge. This is a caricature version of how a woman ought to react on a man’s touch, according to traditional cultural expectation. Not less symptomatic is the fact that when our great lovers Johan and Veronica are on the way to sexual culmination, the phantoms who with voyeuristic voluptuousness watch the scandalous love affair, started to jeeringly laugh at the romantic pair. With this humiliating laughter announcing to the oblivious couple their presence, the phantoms express to the lovers their jealous revenge. Borg’s vampires here behave like majority of American public in the situation of Clinton-Lewinski affair – they watched this affair while holding their breath and with secret pleasure, but unanimously scolded the president for immorality.
Today, the psychological situation of American public is even worse. With the intensification of neocon austerity agenda the suspiciousness and paranoid emotional predisposition in political and world views and personal relations become intensified, like relations between Johan Borg and the inhabitants of the castle – his neighbors, and eventually, between him and his wife. Psychological tolerance of others and ritualistic politeness (civility) are in a process of being transformed into despair armed with crimes and hysterical violence (like in road rage). If in a situation of Bergman’s Johan Borg his figurative images become mutually repulsive, in a situation of regular people the very perception of others become more prejudicial and impregnated with suspicion and hate – in terms of Bergman’s film people start to see others as demonic figures. A wave of hateful suspicion struck Russia and Germany in the 30s and US during the presidency of George Bush Jr. in the very beginning of 21st century. Today, the American civil population is under the most extensive surveillance in human history. American culture today is losing its humanistic and democratic orientation. The young need education and guidance and not police brutality. Non-commercial art and humanistic education (liberal arts) are losing support, and more and more students have to turn to technical and applied professions to be able to work for corporate Tyrannosauruses.
By showing the collapse of Johan Borg’s internal world Bergman points at the weakening of positivity in human relationships inside and between countries, a growing hate between people in parallel with diminishing rationality and kindness towards others. The film analyses the brutalization of the emotional environment between people. Johan Borg was an intellectual artist who became mentally sick and lost his creative ability. In the “Hour of the Wolf” Bergman warns our culture about the decline of our psychological health through losing our existential taste for humanism (this situation is visually expressed in the film by the loss of mediation between light and darkness – stepping into a world of extreme contrasts).
In Johan Borg’s disturbing psychological portrait we not only see the predicament of today’s humanistic intellectuals but the situation of ordinary people who have lost control over their inner and external environment.
“Flower is made from your blood (said Cegestius in Jean Cocteau’s “The Testament of Orpheus” to the artist) and has adopted the same rhythms as your destiny.” Bergman’s Johan Borg was “devoured” by his figurative images/psychological objects (and people incarnated them) because he lost his “phoenixological” ability to restore “flowers” to life in and through his art.
posted on 11, 11 2015 – “Hour Of The Wolf” (1968) By Ingmar Bergman by Acting-Out Politics