Wednesday, November 28, 2012
One of my favorite ever Brando monologues comes from Sidney Lumet's 1959 Tennessee Williams adaptation The Fugitive Kind, in which Brando played drifter Valentine "Snakeskin" Xavier (the source of Nicholas Cage's snakeskin jacket in Wild At Heart.) It's a hypnotic example of Brando's narcissistic lyricism:
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly free psychopathology.
JG Ballard, High-Rise (1975.)
2012 was the year of the existential stretch limo film, or so say Cashier du Cinema, having voted Leos Carax’s Holy Motors and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis their top two films of the year. There are certain intriguing, if superficial, similarities between the two movies. Both are set during the course of a single day, and both their protagonists experience episodic adventures while being ferried around in stretch limos. The limousine has lost much of its mystique as a symbol of wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption in recent years; in Holly Motors and Cosmopolis it becomes symbolic of how technology tends to insulate and isolate modern individuals from the world, operating as a womb, a shell, and a prison. Both films remind me vaguely of the John Cheever short story and subsequent Burt Lancaster movie The Swimmer, in that they are long day’s journeys into night, or stories of men who are gradually exhausted and disillusioned by the close of their compressed odysseys. A more comprehensive comparison between the two films might make for an interesting essay, but since I’ve only seen Holy Motors once, and wasn’t overawed by it, I’m going to concentrate on Cosmopolis, which strikes me as the first real Cronenberg film since 1999’s eXistenz, and the first really good Cronenberg since his adaptation of Ballard’s feverish prose poem Crash in ’96. In fact, Cosmopolis feels like a mature companion piece to Crash, and a long awaited return to the weird and coldly fascinating shared universe in which the director’s best work takes place.
The quintessential theme of early Cronenberg was the transformation of the body through its marriage with technology. In Videodrome, James Woods’ flesh was subject to a literal transformation; in Crash, with the exception of copious flesh woods, the body preserved its integrity, but the mind underneath was transformed. James Ballard and his wife Catherine (played by James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) have a cold, oddly affectless quality; they appear to have moved past emotion as it is conventionally expressed, and regard their bodies and sexual compulsions with the rapt but clinical interest of physiologists examining a cadaver. It could be argued that Cronenberg was always primarily concerned with the mental rather than physical transformations engendered by technology, and in this sense both he and Ballard were pioneering theorists of an idea which only acquired a name much later on: the idea of the posthuman, or the radically transformed new species that emerges from our increasing symbiosis with technology. Ballard’s fictions constantly present aspects of the topography of modern life as potential incubators for new types of human behaviour and new species of human being: automobiles, motorways, high-rise apartment towers, and luxury gated communities become the behavioural laboratories of emergent social orders and pathologies:
“A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like and advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere.” (Ballard, High-Rise.)
Cosmopolis finds Cronenberg exploring a similar kind of detached, posthuman ennui to that which characterised the fusion of his vision with Ballard’s in Crash. In Crash, however, the technologies which transform the psychologies of its characters are primarily those of the first Machine Age – the mass produced automobiles and crowded motorways which also formed the centrepiece of Godard’s 1967 consumerist apocalypse Weekend.
In the 21 century Information Age vision of Cosmopolis, both people and technologies have become subservient to the transfer of information which they facilitate – the idea of clock-time which facilitated the physical, labour-based capitalism of the Industrial Revolution has given way to a permanently encroaching present or future-present of instantaneous information, and a wholly abstract economic system where “money talks to itself”:
“You don’t believe in doubt. You’ve told me this. Computer power eliminates doubt. All doubt arises from past experience. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing,” she said. “We need a new theory of time.” (DeLillo, Cosmopolis.)
With Burroughs and Ballard in his earlier movies, Cronenberg proved adept at finding literary sensibilities which could be merged with his own thematic and stylistic concerns to the point where it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where one begins and the other ends (influence as a perfect viral infection or parasite.) In Don DeLillo’s source novel he has found that perfect symbiosis again, and the result is one the year’s most exciting and original films.
Just as the Greeks saw fire, atoms or water as the ultimate constituents of matter, so we now see information flowing through all things.
Brian Appleyard, The Brain is Wider than the Sky.
Published in 2003 and ostensibly covering the period of the dot com collapse in 2000, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis feels remarkably prescient in 2012. It tells the story of Eric Packer, a 28 year-old billionaire asset manager who decides on a whim to get his hair cut in a barber shop across midtown New York. In order to do so, his limousine must travel through an urban landscape which has become as complex and fraught with variables and vectors as the financial system itself: a presidential visit is in progress, a Sufi-influenced rap star is publically being laid to rest, and an anarchist/anti-capitalist protest, operating under the symbolic banner of the rat, has exploded into a riot of graffiti and self-immolations. While the limousine is attacked by protesters, Packer’s “theoretical” advisor insists that the riot is “a protest against the future”, or against the reformulation of temporality into the perpetually unstable now of cyber-capitalism. (In 2010, protestors attacked the Royal Roll Royce; the expression on the faces of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was less of everyday fear and more of a kind of shock that the symbolic order of the world had been breached and shattered.)
Packer is himself making an unconscious protest against the future, however. His desire for a haircut in a traditional barber shop, and in an establishment which he used to visit as child with his father, represents a nostalgia both for his own childhood, and for the vanishing world of traditional, tangible commerce. He seems, in various inchoate ways, to be trying to remember what it means to be an authentic human being:
He felt these things. He felt the pain. It travelled the pathways. It informed the ganglion and spinal cord. He was here in his body, the structure he wanted to dismiss in theory even when he was shaping it under the measured effect of barbells and weights. He wanted to judge it redundant and transferable. It was convertible to wave arrays of information. It was the thing he watched on the oval screen when he wasn’t watching Jane. (Cosmopolis.)
He encounters his new wife, a young heiress and would-be poet, and attempts throughout the day to have sex with her, an act which he believes will be cleansing and cathartic. Failing this, he has intercourse with a female bodyguard in a hotel room, and tries to persuade her to stun him with her Taser gun. All the while, however, his world is crumbling around him. He is haunted by the fact that he has an asymmetrical prostate. Somebody is trying to kill him. Most catastrophically, he has gambled hundreds of millions against the rise of the yen (the yuan in Cronenberg’s adaptation) and his fortune is ebbing away. In his book The Quants: How Math Whizzes Helped Sink the Economy, Scott Patterson describes how Wall Street quantitive analysts dreamed of finding hidden patterns amid the chaos and complexity of the global financial system which would make it possible to gamble the markets with the predictive accuracy of a hard science:
Regardless of which signature trade each man favored, they had something far more powerful in common: an epic quest for an elusive, ethereal quality the quants sometimes referred to in hushed, reverent tones as the Truth. The Truth was a universal secret about the way the market worked that could only be discovered through mathematics. Revealed through the study of obscure patterns in the market, the Truth was the key to unlocking billions in profits. The quants built giant machines— turbocharged computers linked to financial markets around the globe—to search for the Truth, and to deploy it in their quest to make untold fortunes. The quants created a name for the Truth, a name that smacked of cabalistic studies of magical formulas: alpha.
According to Brian Appleyard in The Brian is Wider than the Sky, “the quants’ superstition that infected the financial markets is the most vivid example of a superstition that infected the entire world in the post-war period – the fantasy that maths could be applied to the human realm and, with the ever-increasing power of computers, arrive at truths that were as hard and testable as those of physics.” In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer embodies this mixture of venal hubris and Platonic mysticism:
He knew there was something no one had detected, a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field. There had to be a way to explain the yen.
The absolute fallacy of these notions is revealed to Packer in the course of Cosmopolis, as it was revealed to the world in the aftermath of the crash of 2008: the application of computerized mathematical models to the global financial markets didn’t make them more stable and predictable, it did the opposite. It created a volatile, perilously interconnected abstract monster that nobody could predict because nobody could really understand it. Cosmopolis was not warmly received when it was released in 2003, but it strikes me as a very prescient and original thing: a strange lovechild of David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Bret Easton Elis, and JG Ballard. It is a bone-dry black comedy and an intricately constructed prose poem where every recurring image and theme is very carefully interwoven.
Cronenberg’s adaptation has been similarly underappreciated on its first critical airing. It’s the type of film that makes you wonder what exactly you’re watching at first; it feels a little like movies do when you watch them in a sleepy, hypnogogic state of mind, and everything feels a little weird and austere and lifeless and hypnotic because your mind can’t quite follow what’s happening. The interior of Packer’s limousine is a striking creation, like a HR Giger sculpture without the explicit references to human biology. Cronenberg stresses its artificially, using green-screens that echo the unconvincing back-projection of film antiquity; when Packer eventually steps out into the world it startles us, because we hadn’t believed there was any world outside its artifice up to that point. The director and his cast – including the Vampire Valentino of the Young Set – do a remarkable job of performing the novel’s ultra-mannered, Mamet-like dialogue. Cronenberg himself responds to the challenge of the novel’s dialogue-heavy theatricality by producing a master-class in careful, arresting composition. “I feel located absolutely nowhere” one of the characters says, and Cronenberg’s compositions constantly wrap space around the protagonists, shrinking the world while it expands the constrictive bubble of the limousine. Most of all, it’s a joy to see the director firmly back in the very particular world he made his own in the 80s and 90s – a chilly, Ballardian world where oddly lifeless characters are absorbed and coolly obsessed by dreams of putting on a new flesh in a world of high technology. Ballard and Cronenberg and DeLillo’s posthuman fantasies may seem exotic and affected to many audiences, but as a recent New York Times article How to live without Irony suggests, we are a culture moving to some extent towards a kind of detached and distanced relationship with the world. What Brian Appleyard calls the superstition of the post-war world still presides over our lives today, despite the crash of ’08. The internet was once envisioned as the ultimate interaction with a vast environment whose positive virtues were its randomness and unpredictability; increasingly, however, it is being designed to reflect ourselves back at us – but not ourselves precisely, rather a version of ourselves and our interests which has been reverse engineered from our footprints by algorithms. Travelling, again, in a bubble. Cosmopolis articulates a pervasive underlying anxiety of our time: that in our intimate relationships with technology, we are willingly and even enthusiastically participating in our own obsolescence.
“He was thinking about automated teller machines. The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of muddled human personnel and jerky moving parts. The term was part of the process the device was meant to replace. It was anti-futuristic, so cumbrous and mechanical that even the acronym seemed dated."
Thursday, November 22, 2012
Part 1 here.
OPIATE, n. An unlocked door in the prison of identity. It leads into the jail yard.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
It is an unfortunate tendency of people to move with considerable ease and briskness from one extreme to another; if an idea lacks anything at all in certitude and perfection, to abandon it as beyond salvage or compromise, and go instead with an equal vigour to its opposite. Such was the case with Malcolm, although he would himself have been at a loss to define a specific or decisive moment when he had went from the light into the darkness. He knew many people in his later years that spent a great portion of their time sifting through their memories, like gimlet-eyed browsers in old antique stores, looking for the precise moment wherein things had gone awry with them. Malcolm wondered what it would have availed them to find such a moment; they could not alter their lives, but only know their overall shape with a greater precision.
Malcolm envisioned the overall shape of life in general to follow after the experience of moving to a new city. It is difficult to arrive in a new place without some sense of a renewal or heightening of life’s promise. A new city presents us with endless possibilities for adventure, self-discovery and fulfilment. When over-familiar with a place, we are over-familiar with ourselves; people know us, and we become in our own minds a quantity increasingly fixed, solid, and impermeable. To relocate to a new place, particularly a city, will instantly undo the rigidity of our posture, and the sluggishness of our nervous systems. We are no longer known by those about us, and hence our entire history vanishes away, and we feel as though we no longer know ourselves. The city itself in its novelty is a place without a precise geography, a world whose contours are ill-defined, unexpected, and somehow entwined with the fleeting moods of our own imaginations. We may come to know two specific places precisely adjacent to one another, and yet, arriving at them by wholly separate routes, conceive them to be worlds apart. Then, when we finally discover their proximity by means of an adjoining laneway or alley, we are reminded of the fluid topographies of our dream-worlds, where disparate places are connected by an association or chain of ideas and moods. This sense, however, is transitory. In time, we come to know the city, and to know, as people say, where everything is. The city becomes convenient and secure, but it ceases to surprize us, and we cease to surprize ourselves.
This was how Malcolm, extrapolating from his own experience, conceived of life: the exultation of arriving in a new place, the giddy shock of self-conscious existence, the sense of timelessness and Protean possibility, gradually corroded by familiarity and deadened by habitual experience and perception. The scientists had invented a way of looking into the brain whereby when a subject preformed a new task, they could see great clusters of electrical activity erupting across the strange tissued pathways and networks of the brain. But once the task had become habituated, the electrical arabesques ceased to dance, and the structure appeared dormant. So it was with life: a bright flash bursting outwards, and then receding back on itself into cool, mineral stillness. From time to time, a certain part of the city would remind Malcolm of how he had felt when he first arrived there at the age of twenty, but these were memories in outline, like photographic negatives of an irretrievable emotion, and he apprehended a world washed out by an interminable sound like that of the traffic on the streets.
When he was twenty-three, Malcolm got a job in a factory that produced medical devices. The devices were assembled and packaged in the factory, and then they were loaded into trucks from a warehouse to the rear of the building, and transported to the docks where they were then shipped to various foreign markets. The different languages on the devices that Malcolm assembled were unfamiliar to him, and nobody on the assembly line knew precisely where they went. They go to the warehouse, somebody told him. It was a constant cycle: trucks arrived from the docks with the various component parts, and these were removed from their packaging in the docking area to the fore of the factory, and sent down along a conveyer belt to the main factory floor, where Malcolm and his colleges assembled them piece by piece into finished products; from there they were packaged and shelved in the warehouse, ready to be loaded onto the trucks and taken back to the docks as fresh, transformed commodities.
The factory was located in an industrial park in one of the commuter belts on the fringes of the city. Every morning, Malcolm rose at six for the two hour bus journey which would take him to the factory. With his mind foggy and half-awake, he watched the gradual shift of the city’s topography: the beautiful older houses from the preceding centuries were concentrated in the centre, dwarfed by the office towers which had been built in the concluding decades of the last; these finally winnowed out into residential districts, where houses of various vintages were dwarfed by the gleaming apartment towers which had been the mirrored dream of the last economic boom; the residential districts eventually connected up with the old, outlying villages which the city had gradually absorbed in the slow march of its prosperous years; the villages and the suburbs then giving way to the commuter belts, to mazes of identical semi-detached houses broken up by identical chains of supermarkets and restaurants, the effect strangely that of a child’s toy or a designer’s miniature; finally, the bus passed through a visually anonymous lattice of traffic islands and motorways, into the industrial district, where motor showrooms and outdoor furniture emporiums formed little arcades around the parks themselves, and various multinational manufacturing centres were marooned in eerily sterile affectations of decoration and amenity. Malcolm then went to a cleanroom where he washed and sterilized his hands, donned a pair of rubber gloves, white coat, and hair-net, before finally taking his place on the line. He then day-dreamed and nodded off; a radio played behind a soothing white-noise hum of machinery. At elven o’clock, they took their first break, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes along the banks of an artificial lake.
For the first couple of years, Malcolm envisioned the job as a temporary necessity, and regarded the hours he worked as a waking dream, a dissociative and unreal adjunct to his authentic existence and identity. He realized that the industrial parks were designed to facilitate this mentality; located in distant and anonymous zones on the fringes of the city, they allowed each worker to divorce their working hours from the rest of their lives, and believe ultimately in the unreality of their work. In time, his sleeping dreams became those of his waking ones: he saw everybody sitting contently at their places while the factory autonomously carried out its own work. The indolent workers were all happy and beaming. The wrinkled old women looked like wide-eyed children. Sometimes they performed comical pantomimes for one-another; these comical shows were interspersed with sudden, profound expressions that seemed to convey volumes of information. Then the bell rang out, and they filed gravely towards the cleanrooms, exchanging final, pleading backward glances as they went.
The paradox and peril of the idealistic tendency is that it expends a great deal of energy and time cultivating perfected, ideal, and ecstatic realities; and yet the activity of cultivating these realities must by its very nature negate the time and energy available to even begin to actualize them. The idealist becomes adept at imagining and increasingly untrained in actualizing his imagining; in this sense, so as the grandeur and depth of his idealization increases, so the reality of his existence shrinks in perfect proportion. The dream of the true idealist is that peculiar and deceptive lure which must always recede with just as much alacrity as we approach it, like the point where the curving arrowhead of the rainbow pierces the horizon.
Of course, most of us are at least partially idealistic, since we maintain in adulthood some measure of the fully idealistic psychology which characterizes the greater part of our youth. It is in fact considered an integral part of the process of maturation that we should shift both from a solipsistic or interior tendency to a socially integrated one, and, in a parallel and mutually reinforcing motion, from an idealistic to a realist perspective, the two primary meanings of the term idealist being in this sense very closely aligned. Hence, the real idealist is he or she who does not, at least at first, yield up their idealistic conceptions to the inevitable upheavals and disappointments which maturation foists on all of us in greater or lesser degree. Exhibiting a measure both of tenacity and belligerent stubbornness, the idealist refuses to accept the world as it must be in opposition to the world as he or she would fashion it; hence, the idealist refuses to meet the world on its own terms, but rather increases their own narcotic capacity to dream and imagine, the need of the imagination becoming more acute in proportion to the extent to which the reality of the world belies its productions.
Another qualification must be added: the type of person who actually succeeds in large part in actualizing their interior designs and conceptions cannot be regarded as the type of idealist which we have in mind. This type of person is rather a realist whose peculiar strength of will renders the actuality of their existence indistinguishable from that idealized by the average person. If the true idealist, on the other hand, were ever to realize but one of their dreams, then its effect could only be that of an extreme deflation or disappointment. It had never been the object of the dream, but rather the dream itself, which had so intoxicated the imagination; never the thing itself, but rather the patient interior sculpting of things at best only dimly possible. As Narcissus mistook his reflection for another living person, so the idealist squanders all the world for gazing at its reflection in a mirror of their own precise framing.
In this sense, there must come to every idealist a moment of crisis, wherein they can no longer persuade themselves that their dreams are ever to be realized; the realization that their dreams have been all along an escape from life, rather than an engagement with its higher possibilities. They would, of course, have experienced many minor upheavals of confidence along the way, but those would always subside, and give way to the idealist’s habitual condition, his peculiar sense of happiness and equilibrium which borders on a kind of liminal ecstasy: the feeling of things just on the giddy brink of their realization, the rapture of old and tenaciously guarded dreams come finally to the verge of their full fruition. But there must come the time when this liminal ecstasy can no longer be regained or ever more credited; and time is itself the crucial ingredient in the undoing of the idealist. Given an unlimited surfeit of time, the human mind would tend towards a general idealism, contemplating all conceivable things and infinitely delaying action; if the body were not subject to the gradual excoriations of time and the inevitability of its final closing of accounts, then materialism would be a perverse and esoteric doctrine of the few. It is precisely because of our relationship with time that most of us are idealistic in our youth. It is then that we have, or feel ourselves to possess, that great surfeit of time in which everything yet appears possible, and action can yet be delayed. When the slow, boundless, novel time of childhood fully gives way to the familiar, repetitious, and ever accelerating time of the adult, then comes the call to action, and the sense of the meagre insubstantiality of what was only inwardly contemplated or imagined, as opposed to that, however imperfect, which might have been attained in actuality.
When he was twenty eight, Malcolm drifted into a mood of peculiar, affectless despair. It was a despair which had a quality not of emotion, but rather of an idea, of a logic pursued with detached and analytical rigour. It came upon him not as a swoon of unrealized desire, or a tender sense of loss or incapacity, but simply as a precise conviction of how he stood in relation to the world. Having this calm, cerebral character, his despair did not interrupt the outward flow of his life during the daylight hours, but at night he began to suffer from an acute insomnia. He considered taking sleeping tablets, but this idea troubled him for some obscure reason; he felt as though he were being nudged into a necessary wakefulness during the hours of darkness, as though there was something there which he was meant to find. He started to take short walks along the canal adjacent to his apartment, and as the duration of these walks gradually increased, so Malcolm slowly became a habitué of the city at night.
Initially, this nocturnal existence merely took the form of long and aimless walks. To walk aimlessly has a character significantly different to that of walking with a set destination or purpose. The anticipated destination – or some sense of a further removed eventual destination – provides a colouring on the places that intervene along the way. Knowing our own door to be open to us, and some warmth and comfort to reside behind our shuttered windows, makes all those other doors and shuttered windows that we pass seem less oppressive and unfriendly. To the habitual street walker, however, to he or she who has no home, and no appointments or destinations, this comfort is denied, and everything they pass is coloured only with the absence of a destination, and the knowledge that no quietude will ever dim the noise of the street. The street walker becomes intimately acquainted with those merely functional or abandoned in-between spaces that constitute the swift and shifting points of transition along the journeys of others. In many regards, these spaces make up the greater part of the city’s constitution – the bulk of the people flow towards its few and widely dispersed vital organs, passing through the larger net of transitory and anonymous spaces that knit the system together. In this sense, the maze of outlying motorways, traffic islands, and footbridges capture the essence of the city: austere and nominally designed spaces which were only ever meant to be passed through. The sound of the city, similarly, is generated by individuals all with individual psychologies and motivations, and yet each one working together produces a sound as motiveless and alien to human psychology as the ceaseless sound of the ocean. In this manner, cities become simultaneously the most populous and the loneliest spaces on earth; in aggregating human intentionality and purpose, and refining them down to an all-encompassing calculus of concrete and machinery, the city finally attains to the ineffable abstraction of the natural world.
At first, Malcolm confined his strolls to the canal, enjoying in a limited sense the comparative solitude of the city in the early hours. Having stolen away from his bed with an at best obscure sense of purpose, he felt as though the spaces which he moved through were unoccupied, as though he himself were not present to them. In this manner, the scenes he observed all had the quality which the city will sometimes assume in a heavy frost or snowfall: the quality of a frozen and unoccupied pictorial exhibition, or an abandoned amenity whose erstwhile function remains discernible despite a lengthy abeyance. Feeling his own presence to be somehow insubstantial and ghostlike, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees and rushes filled him with an intimation of the continued life and animation of empty places, of its obliviousness to the more variegated and unsteady human tempers which moved through them. Swans occasionally glided along the surface of the canal, unruffled and unmoving as the current carried them with an almost dreamlike mixture of purpose and hypnotised submission to the disposition of their environment. Malcolm passed by various human architectures which had in the past concretized the aspirations and identities of specific socioeconomic classes; in the last decade, these distinctions had tended to fall away, retaining their character only in the architectural forms themselves, and abandoning the lives within to an increasing similitude of aspirational horizons. In this sense, he felt that his own dreams were aligned to those of the landscape, as though one had been memorialized by the other, and both rendered distant and historical.
From time to time, he encountered petrol stations whose shop floors were still open. The majority were closed and served their customers via hatches, but some remained open all night. These were the first nocturnal social environments which Malcolm explored, and they offered comparatively little scope for human drama. They were frequented by a very sporadic flow of policemen, late-shift workers, revellers, and the hard-pressed and aging prostitutes who worked along the canal; for the most part they were empty with the exception of their impassive Indian proprietors. Malcolm spent an inordinate amount of time browsing the isles of those cramped shop floors, gazing intently at rows of confectionary and packaged sandwiches as though they were exhibits in a gallery installation. He dreamed of encountering others like him – a new subculture of somnambulists who had mutually and simultaneously disavowed the tide of purposeful existence, congregating instead with a kind of animal instinct in the abandoned and in-between spaces of the city, moving with affectless and lazy grace between the isles, communicating only through body-language to avoid the tedium and dishonestly of words, a congregation of beautiful and despairing souls whose sleep was troubled by vague intimations of reason, and whose wakefulness was spent walking aimlessly amid the ineffable dreams and non-sequiturs of the world.