I have an hour to write this blog. Let’s see what can get done in that time. Given the rush, though, apologies for ensuing typos. I guess they are a hazard of trying to type too fast and of restructuring sentences as one goes along.
That said, this blog is inspired by David Mackenzie’s latest film, Perfect Sense. The premise of the film is relatively simple: humanity is slowly losing its senses, one by one, starting with smell, then taste, then hearing, then sight…
While the film has snatches of this global pandemic – pictured as crowds in Asia and Africa eating, stumbling, touching and the like, the main action takes place in contemporary Glasgow, where epidemiologist, Susan (Eva Green), endeavours to tackle the problem while starting a relationship with chef, Michael (Ewan MacGregor).
This will not be the blog to question the ‘global’ images, which perhaps deserve some critique. No film can get everything right, but the short/sharp treatment that the rest of the world gets in comparison to the main bourgeois couple perhaps deserves greater discussion than I’ll offer here.
Nor will this blog really discuss the interesting illustration that the film provides of how memory is associated with the senses – figured here as ‘disappearing’ images, rendered in photographic (as opposed to cinematographic) form.
Furthermore, the blog will not really try to fit this film in with the ongoing cycle of cataclysmic films that have migrated from the mainstream (provide your own examples) into the more ‘art house’ strand (again, your own examples will suffice, although I also do not want to overlook older examples of artsy treatments of the eschaton, from Tarkovsky to Zulawski, etc).
In the above-linked article, the author, Michelle Scatton-Tessier, discusses how Amélie was linked to a discourse of ‘simple,’ often physical, pleasures: dipping a hand in a pile of beans, spotting continuity errors in old films, etc.
The reason that I start with this is to say that if – at least implicitly – Scatton-Tessier suggests a sort of light-weightedness in Jeunet’s film as a result of his foregrounding of such ‘simple’ experiences, then Perfect Sense is in some respects all about such pleasures. In a world without smell, taste, sound or, ultimately, sight (and beyond that, presumably, touch), our everyday experiences are returned to us in all of their glory – an affirmation that fundamentally we are alive and with the world.
Since such pétisme is one of the film’s main focuses, it inspires thoughts about the nature of joy. For your information, this idea of joy is inspired by the Jewish Portuguese-Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, as well as by the recent neurology-inspired treatment of Spinoza given by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.
So… what is joy? Well, joy is the feeling evoked when humans feel alive and with the world. Joy is, in this sense, both sensual and physical, but also supremely conscious. That is to say, were we in the world as unthinking zombies, we would still feel. But those moments when we become most intensely aware that we feel – these moments are what I would like to refer to as joyful ones.
Joy has, as Spinoza would argue, its own ethics. That is, joy is a feeling associated with enworldedness, and to be enworlded is to recognise others. In recognising others, we lead an ethical life that seeks to maximise one’s own joy and the joy of others, rather than frustrating or destroying the joy of others for the sake of selfish concerns.
In an hour (now 40 minutes), I do not have the time to explain in greater detail any empirical basis for such an argument, were a coherent one easily to be constructed even after 4,000 minutes of writing. So we must push on…
We live in an age in which joy seems a rare commodity. Perhaps it needs to be rare and the pain and sorrow that surround joy give to it its value in our lives. Nonetheless, I feel no embarrassment in connecting the need for joy to the absence of joy found in our current political, economic and ecological situation – and which has found expression in recent and ongoing movements towards social change. In other words, Perfect Sense emerges, in some respects, as a treatise on finding joy, even as we become increasingly disconnected from the world with which fundamentally we are inseparable.
In this sense, the affliction of senselessness that strikes humanity in the film is not uniquely an allegory of a vengeful nature, but perhaps most particularly an allegory of our own practice of alienating ourselves from the world. That is, the affliction is not nature, but humanity itself.
This is arguably a skewed reading of the film. No disservice is intended to David Mackenzie and his collaborators, in particular screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson. But these were my thoughts during and since the film, so I pursue them nonetheless – because as is my usual bent, I want to talk not really about this film, but to use this film as a pathway to talking about film itself (and for the pedants that may come across this blog, I do not strictly mean film in the material sense – polyester – but film as an audiovisual text).
For, humanity’s alienation from the world leads de facto to a reduction in joy. This is dangerous water: what myth of antediluvean joy am I evoking to suggest that at some point in time humans were in harmony with nature? None, I hope. My point would be that humans have always only ever been in, or better with, nature; it’s just that we have created precisely a myth that we are not. What I wish to evoke, then, is not so much a time in which humans are ‘once again’ reconnected with nature – but rather an understanding that we are, always have been, and for the duration of our crawling over the face of this – and perhaps other planets – always will be, with nature. Pétisme is not a silly little pastime; it lies at the root of understanding our place in the world…
If this sounds tree-hugging, then hold on to your underwear, because I am about to get more romantic still as I defend idealism, perhaps even naïveté.
Perfect Sense suggests that we most appreciate things when we are about to lose them. The loss of smell in the film is prefaced by tears, the loss of taste by gluttony, and loss of hearing by anger and the loss of sight by tenderness and love. Although tears, gluttony and anger might all be characterised negatively, they are also all intense feelings.
My point here, though, is that intensity is accompanied almost necessarily by its opposite; something perhaps that we might call neutrality.
In a not-necessarily-uniquely-metaphorical sense, we can say that the same is true of all experiences. Vision can only be appreciated by blinking. Without blinking, our eyes would become dry and/or burnt and we would no longer be able to see. What is more, our eyes move the whole time through a process called saccades. We cannot see, I have read, during the saccade movement itself, but only during the fixation that happens between each saccade.
Aside from the possibility that vision is based upon fixation and stillness – while change, or more precisely time itself, is invisible to us – this suggests, to me at least, that in some senses we can only see by looking away.
How does this relate to idealism and naïveté? Well, perhaps cinema, too, is a process that involves us turning our eyes (and other senses, of course) away from reality as we might normally define it, and placing them before an alternative, supposedly fictional world that is not our own.
While some argue that reality can be fundamentally disappointing after seeing certain films, I felt invigorated after seeing Perfect Sense, keen once again to marvel the minute details that all too often I overlook.
This is no doubt cheesey, but it is for me also true, so in the name of honesty, I cannot deny my own susceptibility to such romanticism. In other words, Perfect Sense itself – as well as the story that it tells – functions as a metaphor of how looking away (figured within the film as deprivation, figured in my experience as cinema-going) can help us to see – if not more clearly, then at least (and perhaps only temporarilty) differently upon looking back once again.
In other words, looking at the world not as it is but as it might be – via the ideal worlds of fiction – can help us better, or at least differently, to see the world as it is. Idealism functions to support our understanding of the world.
I don’t consider this to be a whole-hearted embrace of anything-goes illusionism. But then I also don’t believe that there is (access to) an objective reality against which we can measure how ‘realistic’ or otherwise our vision is (even if we can enhance our understanding of reality by repeating experiments and seeing how consistently our understanding of it is correct). We are not detached observers of reality; we are constituent parts of reality, co-constituting both ourselves and the reality that surrounds in an ongoing process. In this way, the ideals of idealism are not (to be mistaken for) reality; but they are a part of reality.
To switch vocabulary, we might say that in some senses, then, and as Gilles Deleuze might suggest, the actual is a product of the virtual. That is, the virtual is the realm of ideas – that which has no material being, but whose effects on the real world are undeniable in that the virtual is the ‘darkness’ (or the looking away) that allows us to see the light.
And contemplating ideas, or the virtual, is perhaps also to lead a life that is virtuous. Virtue here is not the turning away from and the rejection of the reality that surrounds us for the sake of living in a dream. But it is understanding that dreams, ideals, virtuality, and perhaps also cinema, have an important role to play in how we frame – and thereby co-constitute – both ourselves and reality.
The more we realise our interdependent nature – interdependent with nature/reality and with each other – the more – Spinoza again – our lives are virtuous. The more joy we let into our lives. The more, perhaps, we love. This is perhaps to live ecologically – and to realise that films are an important part of our (mediated) ecology.
I’ve not yet seen it, though I suspect I will, but Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA/United Arab Emirates, 2011) will probably overshadow Perfect Sense as the epidemic film of 2011. However, by turning away from the mainstream and towards the more independent-minded British film that is Perfect Sense, perhaps we can re-think our relationship with mainstream movies, rethink what constitutes a mainstream movie, and realise that independence in filmmaking – idealism of a sort – is what refreshes cinema. No disrespect to Soderbergh, but Mackenzie has produced a remarkable film on what is surely a fraction of the budget…