“Psyche is extended,(but) knows nothing about it.”
“Walking is in fact determined by semantic tropisms; it is attracted and repelled by nominations whose meaning is not clear, whereas the city, for its part, is transformed for many people into a ‘desert’ in which the meaningless, indeed the terrifying, no longer takes the form of shadows but becomes, as in Genet’s plays, an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities, which is created by a technocratic power everywhere and which puts the city dweller under control…under the control of what? No one knows.”
Michel de Certeau
“We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality.”
from Encountering Directors
by Charles Thomas Samuels
In film, unlike theatre, the sense of ‘place’ is created out of various elements. It is this composite. The very best film often works to convince us of place, before all else. Let me digress a bit first…
There is a marked trend in Hollywood product, both in TV and cinema, that intensifies the scapegoating and demonizing of the underclass, and of immigrants, and the continued manufacture of specific racial and nationalist villains (lately that means Russians and all Arabs and muslims, as well as Chinese) to be vanquished. It is too tedious to really survey recent TV, but a couple examples. The Last Ship, a post apocalyptic sci fi series, about a U.S. Navy destroyer cruising the world looking for a cure to the virus that has killed most of mankind. In episode two, we already have Guantanamo Bay and Arab terrorists (even in a recently ravaged planet where 90% of the population has died within a month, there is still space for Arab terrorists) shooting at our heroes and a Russian ship bearing down on them. There is no sense of space, of horizon, of salt air or ocean currents. There is only the uniform, the servile attention to authority, the shiny metal of the weaponry. The inflexibility of these designations and character cliches speaks to just how firmly entrenched is this material. In the odious Tyrant, produced and developed by Israeli Gideon Raff, the theme seems to be, judging from two episodes, that evil is the only real inheritance of and for Arabs. Arabs just have shitty DNA. The liberal gloss (the would-be tyrant’s son is gay) only serves to reinforce the Imperialist agenda of the show. This is Obama style Imperialism. Its cool to be gay, but not Arab. Well, its even sort of OK to be Arab if you are the sort of Arab who desperately wants to be white and western. Gentrified fascism. But this is the defining element in kitsch Hollywood product, now. And again, no sense of place. But more on that below. There is another sub-text in a lot of narratives from the culture industry, and that is a resurgent Christian symbolism. From Dominion, to Leftovers, to Believe, to Resurrection, the backdrop is corn ball Christianity. The backdrop, increasingly, to science fiction is a Christian symbolism, and Old Testament names. That science fiction should trend toward a reactionary Christian cant really be a surprise (notwithstanding many faux left apologists for Science Fiction). What IS surprising is the extent of this new fascination with Rapture, and Angels, kitsch Devils, exorcism, etc, etc. in current TV and film. In a sense, this is the legacy, to a degree, of the Da Vinci Code, and before that, perhaps, to The Exorcist. It is also just the bankruptcy of imagination, the recycling of tried and true (familiar) symbols and ideas. Most of the writers for this junk, are not Christian zealots, but just poorly educated hacks. Now, that there might be, and probably is, a unified Christian producing entity. The ‘Christian right’ made that choice, to get into films and TV. The result is this growing discourse that traffics in these cliched theological ideas.
In Hollywood TV and film the idea of blue collar worker is blurring with that of criminal. The proletariat, the lumpen proletariat anyway, is almost synonymous with criminal. Notwithstanding the sentimentalizing of the “working class”. For that is also a trend. The noble savage as day labourer. One sees this condescension a lot in Hollywood, in fact. Actors as diverse as Nick Cage, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Dillon, Ben Affleck, and the list goes on; have all played lumpen under class characters, as sexy hyper masculine and most of all, *authentic*. The style codes are exaggerated, the accents exaggerated, and driving these mannerist affectations is a both envy and hostility.
“Narratives defining self become legible to others only in the concept of larger narratives of group identity.”
The first episodes of Tyrant take place in a fictional middle eastern country. The signifiers are there; sand, palm trees, heat, and a palace. There is sexual deviance, sadism, and psychosis. There is a sterotyped military leader, and so on. But there is no sense of place. No real location. There is no feeling of sand, no feeling of heat, no sense of the smells of sandlwood, musk, or bahkoor, or the vast quiet of desert nights. There is no sound of morning prayers or feel of the giant sun that begins to heat the landscape. The visiting Americans seem not to get suntans, not need hydration. Instead we get kitsch melodrama, racist and patronizing. The feeling is of being in an office in Century City or Beverly Hills. The show is filmed as it were a detergent commercial. I suspect that some of the neo colonial ideological backdrop of its creator has seeped into the sense of stasis and pseudo formality in the staging of scenes.
There is no real place in any of these shows. It is interesting to watch, as I did recently, Antonioni’s Blow Up. I was reminded of it because of a Belgian crime film I had seen the day before. Der Berhandling, a Belgian child kidnapping procedural that isn’t really very good, though its of side bar interest that Belgium seems fascinated with their own real crime stories of false imprisonment, torture, and paedophilia. But in this film there are train tracks and deep bushes and shrubs where the killer flees. And its a film with superior cinematography. And I thought immediately, Blow Up. So indelible is that London park, and the search for what isn’t there, or perhaps *is* there. There is a distrust of Antonioni in general, and of Blow Up in particular these days. As an example, it is described (by Asborn Gronstad, in a recent Film Comment) as “In retrospect it is not difficult to read Thomas’s and Blow-Up’s key narrative premise as epitomizing the 1960s art-film conventions of the cinema of ambiguity. What above all defined this “festival film” (of which Antonioni himself was a principal exponent, along with directors like Bergman, Fellini, and Godard) was a peculiar synthesis of the modes of objective realism, expressive subjectivism, and authorial commentary. A sense of indestructible uncertainty thus became the raison d’etre of films like Blow-Up. Much as we may still be able to admire Antonioni’s accomplishment, however, his purposeful orchestration of the ambiguous now seems, if not dated, if not too studied, then at least somewhat routine (as does the plethora of psychoanalytical readings-centering on Thomas’s voyeurism and misogyny-that the film has invited over the years).” This is a curious commentary, and not least of the reasons is use of the term “festival film”. It is received ideas, even if astute ones. But such descriptions are rife in Universities everywhere, in film departments everywhere. I am not sure what a synthesis of objective realism and expressive subjectivism might look like. But it wouldn’t look like Blow Up. Antonioni inscribes something of the uncertainty of life in swinging London, in the sense of alienation. Antonioni’s lens is not impassive (as Gronstad has it) but deeply Marxist, really. Antonioni’s camera, like Pasolini in a sense, was more radical and class aware than the director himself. It is the periphery, the background, the landscape only glimpsed, that creates the tensions in his films. Antonioni’s swinging London is always recuperated by the unemployed, the homeless, the lost. David Hemmings growing anxiety is driven by the fear that he is as lost as any of these men he encounters on the streets at dawn. Did a murder take place? Well, if not here, one took place somewhere. The park, the deep lush greens, the image that Hemmings wants to believe will reveal something, that beneath the surface there lurks a truth, behind the hedges, the shrubs, the truth can be found. Antonioni and his north Italian upbringing seared into his imagination the coldness of Industrial lanscapes, the malaise of modern urban life, the alienation. Blow Up is a film whose influence is almost impossible to calculate. If Hemmings character is a composite of David Baily and Terrence Donovan, the real protagonist of the film is the party, the rock stars, the fun.. the swinging…none of which is actually *there*. It was the era suddenly become a marketing campaign. “Swinging London”. It is a film about illusions of confidence, about the desire to be the center, even if the center of something gone missing. It is a film not too distant from La Dolce Vita, though the alienation is more acute in the Antonioni. Hemmings begins to suspect there is something wrong, with him, with his picture of reality (sic). One of the shifts in film since 1960 has been to erase uncertainty. There are films of confusion, but not of uncertainty. The protagonist’s spiritual death is reflected in the mystery at the heart of the film. It is a sort of detective novel without the detective.
” The denial of objective truth by recourse to the subject implies the negation of the latter: no measure remains for the measure of all things, lapsing into contingency, he becomes untruth. But this points back to the real life-process of society. The principle of human domination, in becoming absolute, has turned its point against man as the absolute object, and psychology has collaborated in sharpening that point. The self, its guiding idea and its a priori object, has always, under its scrutiny, been rendered at the same time non-existent.”
Under a system of domination, self help psychology (the adaptation to the status quo) is now a reinforcing of privilege and stigmatizing of the other. That is largely the message of shows like Tyrant. The acceleration of the trashing of Freud runs alongside the valorizing of the self. This is the secret impetus of pop psychology; an acceptance of alienation, and a cataloguing of its symptoms, and as a member of the status quo, the bourgeois white “majority”. The embrace of diagnostic categories helps define the individual as a non individual, but a recognizable one. A sort of faux individual. The titillation of these shows, the sex and violence, are there to be mildly condemned, but also mildly accepted, and even approved. One’s symptoms are one’s identity. In Antonioni, the narrative unravels leaving only the bottom layer of illusion, and hence of terror. And along the way, with these spatial models that equate the body as a core naked truth, the reality of there no being no core, or only a core of other different layers, is erased. And with that erasure comes the loss of dialectical thought. The Freudian spatial model always implied impossible complexity at the center of things, complex and perhaps unknowable.
Adorno pointed out that only those with nothing to sell, outside the sphere of exchange, can create refuge when refuge no longer exists. The self is under constant surveillance, and it is only in the figure of the stigmatized that some notion of freedom exists. This accounts for the envy of the poor, the desperation for Hollywood and its celebrities to participate in the ‘authentic’. And also accounts in part for the symbolic punishment (never mind the actual real) of the poor and marginalized. And again, anyone with a day job is represented as borderline undesirable, and a threat. The various outsiders, sexual, political, biological, are rewarded when they ‘come inside’, adapt, round off the corners of difference. The narrative is full of ‘neurotypical’, or ‘differently able’d’, but in reality it is those willing to submit to a homogeneous ideal that are accepted for their “difference”. Those who dont are ruthlessly stigmatized and shamed.
This is the paradox, or one of the paradoxes of mass culture today. And here is it worth noting the contradictions of post modern surface, again because it is the delivery vehicle for the ideology of a disposable underclass. Van Doesberg, in the 1920s, wrote “Man does not live within the construction, within the architectural skeleton, but only touches architecture essentially through its ultimate surface.” It is interesting how this primacy of surface was injected with a functionalist ideology at that time. I am reminded here how Le Corbusier, and tellingly, Wittgenstein (in the one house he designed, for his sister) were idealist ventures, and criticized for it. Wittgenstein’s sister said she could not live in this house her brother designed, for it was a house where only Gods could reside.
Today, the elevated aesthetic of an Antonioni is dismissed as dated. As self consciously obscure. The culture industry, and, more, the elite establishment, promote these ideas of revealing something by presenting another layer, which is one that is always reductive but attractive. The surface becomes the excavated core *naked* truth, in which certain decoration has been removed. The removal of the human is done by sleight of hand. The generic core of new age pop psychology is wrapped up in maudlin chintz of sentimentality or dehumanized ‘human-ness’. It pretends to celebrate human individuality, but reduces that individuality to a chimera.
It worth exploring these ideas a bit more. The absence of the human is not the same as an image without people. The marks left by the human display more, often, than bodies being present. De Chirico’s empty plazas and squares express a tension because of what has been either expelled or lost. Shadows, the monuments, the stark eerie light, all suggest portents and prefigure a quarantine, or curfew, or just abandonment. This idea of depth, a revisionist depth if you will, in which as layers are torn away, the closer one gets to the core, to the truth, also entails the idea that with each layer that is removed things become less complex. Until, finally, at the core, where things are no longer clothed, where we are naked, there is simplicity, there is the reductive and compulsively repeated banality of solipsistic cliches. This is the ideological imprint of this revisionist model of depth. Excavate away the complexity. What is happening in this model of depth is the argument of the fascist. Crude, one dimensional mystification being presented as hard fought truth. And this reduced simplified new age cliche is presented as a metaphysical liberation.
When I taught at the Polish National Film School, the screening of Antonioni was met with indifference, or even hostility. And now as I think on it, only he and Pasolini were quite so disliked. Even Bresson has God, after all. Antonioni does not. When L’Avventura was screened at Cannes it was famously booed. But it soon became clear that this was a seminal film. To my mind Antonioni made three giant films; Red Desert, The Passenger, and L’Avventura. In each, the sense of forgetting is primary. People are forgotten. Antonioni, like Pasolini, was anti sentimental. In his world, the existential search goes on, even as belief in the search dissipates. But there is also the confrontation between the miseries of daily life, and a kind of transcendent beauty and sexuality. Wittgenstein’s house was made as a residence for Gods, so Antonioni made films in which a certain ideal vision and beauty is in constant conversation with suffering. They are films made to be watched by Gods.
“It also showed—
and this was harder for audiences to grasp—that events in films do not have to be, in an obvious way, meaningful. L’Avventura presents its characters behaving according to motivations unclear to themselves as much as to
Antonioni’s films, or at least the work that began with L’Avventura, are about the camera, about what and how the camera captures. They have always felt to me close to still photography. Its probably no accident that photographs are prominent props for both Blow Up and The Passenger. My point here is not to do an overview of Antonioni, but only to suggest his relative unpopularity should come as no surprise. The Passenger (still probably my favorite Antonioni, and that I accept is perverse) is, first, a remarkable looking film, but it is also a perfect sort of parable for the paralysis of identity. And perhaps that has been Antonioni’s subject all along. The final long take remains one of the most perfect and beautiful and haunting shots in all of cinema. Modern identity had petrified even further between 1960 and 1975. Antonioni was preternaturally sensitive to the times in which he made his films, and the anomie of his mostly bourgeois characters is set against landscapes of dialectical knottiness. Class is never really absent. But Antonioni was not an overtly political director, nor one interested in messages or themes. He was a scientist of the sublime. His characters were not searching for revelation, but Antonioni was.
“Antonioni’s sense of locale is impeccable: the empty town in ‘L’Avventura’, sixties London and the magical park in ‘Blow-Up’, the highways and byways of Europe in ‘The Passenger’. As a child in Ferrara, Antonioni was fascinated by buildings. He would make models and place people inside them, making up stories as to why they were there. This interest in space, and the relationship between people and space, runs through all his work. ‘The Passenger’ is almost exclusively about people moving in, through or between buildings.”
There is that white light through the wrought iron window bars, in the penultimate shot in The Passenger, It reminds me a good deal (in terms of the framing here) of a shot in Out of The Past, the Jacques Tourneur noir fromn the 40s. In that film it was Mexico outside, in that white light. In the Antonioni it is Spain. It is the same light, it is Genet’s light, it is Juan Rulfo’s, transfiguring and absolute. And these details, sensory and metaphorical at the same time, are what is gone when you watch The Last Ship or Tyrant. Or the new HBO series The Leftovers (directed by the always turgid Peter Berg), which is more cheap Christian wet dreams about the Rapture. This is an expensive show, well photographed I have to say, but still lacking in that sensitivity to place. The entire project, from performances to photography to writing feels shallow and arid somehow. The best directors have an elusive mise en scene, a difficult to pin down quality, found in each frame, that gives them that ineffable quality of depth. The Leftovers feels familiar and unrealistic at the same time.
Pop culture, the VICE writers, those at all the Murdoch run sites and papers, and Murdoch imitators, have become the sort of intellectual tempworker gatekeepers to defining what is hip and successful. None of these writers are in any way writing criticism. They are reviewing. With a lot of ‘tude. The Google search engine seems to be favoring a lot more of this junk lately, but that might just be my perception of things. Some new pop culture is better than others, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is the origin story of Microsoft, and its beautifully photographed (with the suburban nights looking a lot like Rut Blees Luxemburg) and the writing is surprisingly indirect and elliptical. I doubt it will get good “reviews”. The prestige cable product today is less and less about writing and narrative. It is more and more about concept. The overall concept of a project which means, really, is it marketable? But beyond that, Halt and Catch Fire is undoubtedly too oblique. It doesn’t pander to the intended 20%, educated and white, audience. Its criticizing them, in fact. Subtle criticism, to be sure… but the success of a show like Breaking Bad was due to knowing how to flatter the audience. In a sense the network and cable prestige shows today are all origin stories; but the origin in question is the audience. This ever less educated, or ever more badly educated, twenty perecent want their entertainments to function a bit like Tarot readings, or astrology charts. This is who you are and this is where you came from and why. Breaking Bad did that, Mad Men did that. The half decade earlier incarnations were more about a kind of revisionism of movie history. The Sopranos was, finally, about the history of gangster movies.
One of the ads for the final season of Mad Men read “Before feminism, there was Peggy”. This is the perfect example of the new origin fable. Radical feminism was only Peggy, trying to get promoted. And presto, the entire material history of feminist thought is reduced to a secondary character on an AMC series.
So, the filmic creation of place is, as I said at the very top, a complex of factors. But the reasons for its disappearance are growing, and there is something disturbing in the white baby boomer hipster University educated class now, in the U.S. and U.K anyway, in this visible loss of intellectual agency.
“All the ingenious devices of the amusement industry reproduce over and over again the banal life scenes that are deceptive nevertheless, because the technical exactness of the reproduction veils the falsification of the ideological content or the arbitrariness of the introduction of such content…Thought that does not serve the interests of any established group or is not pertinent to the business of any industry has no place, is considered vain or superflous.”
The 21st century idea of individuality is now the crypto-conformist, a member of countless transitory groupings, many economic but many more the product of pop psychology, which is to say the manipulations of marketing, of medical or biological designation, created by a mental health mega-industry. This bourgeois individual is constantly fine tuning his persona in response to mass culture (which includes politics). The rise of the city, post industrial revolution gave birth to the early versions of the new conforming individual. And the idea of place, which had for a couple centuries, been linked to a certain kind of denial of immediate gratification in the interests of long term stability for family and group, provided a defining idea of a personal future. But this imagined future has gradually faded and in its place is the ‘dead now’. The imprint of instrumental logic has helped narrow the imagination. This is what alienation really is. “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks”
That’s a famous quote of Benjamin’s, and it touches on the issues of space, and of place both, and of just how deeply and effectively the state and its propaganda (and mass culture following that lead) have colonized consciousness. The current culture industry products all operate within a deceptively constrained model of reality and behavior. And one that is consistent with the interests of global capital and of control. Universities and even high schools, arts institutions, all cultural bureaucracies operate under increasingly homogenized models of thought. Every official announcement of diversity when examined closely is actually doing the opposite, it is further homogenizing thought and values. Horkheimer wrote “The patterns of thought and action that people accept ready-made from the agencies of mass culture act in their turn to influence mass culture as though they were the ideas of the people themselves.” Nobody is allowed to get lost anymore. Getting lost is the final crime.