Becoming Light: on recent documentary film (In Memoriam Chris Marker)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, European cinema, Latin American cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

I rewatched Sans Soleil/Sunless (Chris Marker, France, 1983) today in honour of the passing of Chris Marker. It was as, if not more, beautiful than the first time I saw it.

Nonetheless, I want to write about four other things today: Madame Tussaud’s in London, and the films Nostalgia de la luz/Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Germany/Chile/Spain/USA, 2010), Swandown (Andrew Kötting, UK, 2012) and Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK, 2012). But while this post is not explicitly about Marker, I hope that his spirit infuses it somehow.

Time – the single most under-considered element of reality – will hopefully allow me one day to write the book, Becoming Light, that will draw upon what loosely I here wish to talk about. But in order to explain what this curious phrase, becoming light, means, I shall start today by considering Madame Tussaud’s.

There is plenty to say about Madame Tussaud’s, one of the most enduringly popular museums in London. For example, it is extortionately expensive (£30 entry). What is more, it also features a 4D cinema experience made in association with Marvel/Disney, which I may well mention at this blog’s conclusion.

One might also analyse the role – made prominent in the exhibition itself – played by waxworks in bringing an element of visuality to what we might call the news. That is, when old Mme Tussaud made waxworks of prominent people, the curious could finally get a sense of what the faces of those famous and infamous names looked like.

Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality (recently redubbed Faith in Fakes) has intelligently analysed the way in which waxworks played a role in constituting the age of simulation in which we now live. That is, for Eco, viewers of waxworks ended up mistaking the map/the simulation for reality, such that when the real was actually seen, it was somehow disappointing, or less than real.

This analysis is pertinent to what I want to say about Madame Tussaud’s (henceforth MT). For, when one enters the museum, one is taken via a lift up to the top floor, where one exits to the sound of flashing bulbs and paparazzo-style invitations to pose for the camera.

That is, MT opens up with glamour: one walks into a room filled with waxworks of, inter alia, Bruce Willis, the Twilight boys, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Helen Mirren, John Travolta, Johnny Depp, Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Russell Brand, Cheryl Cole and so on. Not all film stars, but predominantly so.

It is a deeply unsettling experience. Sure, some people perform humourous poses with, say, J Lo, by pretending to bone her from behind. But on the whole people walk up to the waxwork, put their arm around it, and pose for a photo taken by a friend as if with a real person for a normal photo: maybe a victory sign, maybe a thumb up, but basically just a smile.

Being a snob, I naturally refrained from posing in any photo. I want to discuss my snobbery. But first I want to think about what the posing by other people means.

I use the phrase becoming light to signify what I believe humans most deeply desire: to divest ourselves of our bodies in order to exist in a state whereby we occupy all places at once and whereby we move with total speed. To become light, then, is to exist purely as an image.

When I say we want to divest ourselves of our bodies, I need to clarify what I mean. We want paradoxically not to have our bodies, but we also want physically to experience the becoming of light, the being pure image. That is, to have no body but also bodily to know what this feels like.

This will only be possible when humans work out how to use light as a system of memory storage. From what I understand, humans are actually working on this process. I am more specifically referring to the creation of computers that use light as a system of memory (this is what humans are working on), but one might also read cinema as a whole as a system of preserving/outsourcing memory through the storage of the physical as an image via means of light and shadow. That is, cinema already is this external memory machine.

The reason that we need to know how to use light to store memory in order to become light is because memory is embodied: it is the system whereby we use our physical/embodied experiences in the world in order to understand reality and/or predict with as great accuracy as we can what probabilistically will happen in the future. Memory is a result uniquely of the physical nature of our existence – and if we can find a way of preserving memory as a process via light and without requiring a physical body to do so, then perhaps we will be able truly to divest ourselves of our crude skinbags.

What does this have to do with MT?

The desire to pose alongside waxworks of stars for me speaks of the desire to become light. One could read posing alongside waxworks of stars as consolation for the fact that the people who stand with them will never meet the real star. This is their brush with fame and glory. This is as good as it gets.

This is not wrong. But it also overlooks an important aspect of the desire to become light. For it is not that the waxworks can equal flesh and blood human beings. Rather it is that the flesh and blood human beings are already waxworks; they are already disembodied light. And what people want to become is not a film star who works or anything like that. The connection is much more metaphysical than that: it is the desire to become simply an image.

There are grounds to argue that the desire to become light reaches something like epidemic status when we consider that people are so in love with images that they prefer images to real people. Perhaps it is for this reason that the daughter of the family that I visited MT with actually blushed when she put her arm round the inanimate waxwork of Johnny Depp and placed her head on its shoulders for a photograph. So heavily do we invest our desire in images that their grip on us is more powerful than reality. Were the real Johnny Depp there, no doubt reality would have censured the girl from being so forward as to put an arm around him. Instead, the blush comes from the total honesty that is involved in showing publicly that one loves not a person but an image of a person. We are in the age of hyperreality indeed.

Now, the reason I did not want to pose with the stars is probably because I would also blush but do not wish to be exposed as investing more in images than I do in people. I know that as I looked at Kate Winslet and Cheryl Cole, I could feel desire. Not uniquely sexual desire – these waxworks did not arouse me, though this does not mean that they could not. But an intense, brain-burning desire to have the image look at me, to return my gaze, to render me also an image.

To thus feel in effect that my life is not complete because my body is not capable of transcending itself and of becoming light speaks of how powerful the desire to become light is. For it destroys the possibility to be happy with whom we actually are. To lead our lives in a bodily fulfilled fashion, rather than to feel shame, to blush, precisely when our bodies expose their very corporal nature before powerful images.

This discomfort at the waxworks in MT was alleviated as soon as one passed into the sports section – I do not invest in Sachin Tendulkar and Johnny Wilkinson with the same level of desire as I do film stars – only to resurface somewhat before Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé Knowles and others in the music section – because music stars are in videos. That is, they are also images.

(This feeling finally died away again in the politics section where, bizarrely, Mohamed Fayed had a waxwork – probably the only person, I speculated to myself, who paid to be featured as a waxwork, so desperate is he to become light.)

Now, the desire to become light – the illness/addiction that cinema and other moving image technologies has induced in human beings such as myself – is problematic because it is based upon exceptionalism.

This is to do with speed. Those who can afford to move quickly, they are closer to becoming light. They are closer to becoming images. And when your image travels around the world faster than your body ever could, then you have become light. (This is why people are addicted to Facebook.) And what enables speed – is wealth. And wealth is the remit of the few, the seldom few, not of the many.

Furthermore, the issue with overemphasising light is that it means that all that is not brought to light is overlooked. It is forgotten, since memory has become conflated with light and the testimony of those who physically bear the scars of history are counted for nil if those wounds cannot be exposed as easy-to-consume images.

In some senses, this strikes me as the theme of the masterful Patricio Guzmán’s wonderful Nostalgia for the Light. For, this film is about precisely the role that light plays in memory.

Let us work through this. To suggest that we can have nostalgia for the light suggests that the light is no longer with us. And this is in part Guzmán’s thesis. Both much of the universe and those who were disappeared in Chile under General Pinochet remain shrouded in darkness: invisible and therefore forgotten. And we should not ignore the darkness. Indeed, at one point Guzmán asks us to look beyond the light – paradoxically to see into the darkness, to see all of reality. In my own words, to concentrate solely on the light means to lead a Luciferean existence whereby only the lit is important. God, however, is in darkness. We must remember the crucial role that darkness plays in the universe. And while we might suspect that even the darkest secret will eventually come to light (because some enlightenment takes a long time, it must wade through darkness before any actual enlightenment could ever take place), the fact remains that some things will never really come to light, some mysteries will remain – unless we start to believe in that which we cannot see. And even though the slaughter of thousands of Chileans was and perhaps always will be invisible, meaning that we must feel nostalgia for the light because of its absence, we must also learn to appreciate darkness, to believe in things – perhaps God himself – even though/precisely because there is no evidence of or light to prove him.

When we look only at the light, when we mistake the map for the terrain, then we are in the realm of the hyperreal. And yet sometimes we must travel the terrain, not at light speed, but slowly – because this is the only way in which we will ever really know the world in which we live, when we experience it physically and not as an image travelling through it in an ethereal fashion/when we only travel through ether.

This seems to be the theme of Swandown, in which director Andrew Kötting and writer Iain Sinclair travel from Hastings to Hackney via swan-shaped pedalo. To go slowly, to see all of the dark, off-the-map bits of space in between the light, the emphasised areas of the map.

It is perhaps the film’s only pity that it involves celebrity interludes from the likes of Stewart Lee, Alan Moore and others. These are not bad per se, but nor are they particularly enthralling. It is nice to see how ‘normal’ they are as people – their ‘banter’ is mildly amusing, but not electric. Nonetheless, part of the brilliance of, say, Gallivant (Andrew Kötting, UK, 1997) is that it finds magic in countless regular people up and down the land as the director travels with his mother and daughter in search of authentic British people.

Finally – and apologies for being so circumspect/suggestive/imprecise on this blog – part of the brilliance of Searching for Sugar Man is the example that the film makes of forgotten folk singer Rodriguez. Not only does the film suggest the role that music can play in bringing about social change, but it also has Rodriguez adhere (with some economy of truth, no doubt) to a principle whereby becoming light, becoming an image, is not what he chooses for himself (even though this happens simply by virtue of his being in a film and/or being a music star).

As Rodriguez’s family make beautiful statements about the fact that class cannot make a human or their hopes and dreams more beautiful (that is, they criticise the common assumption that wealth is not simply an index of itself – i.e. wealth simply demonstrates material value – but also an index of human value – i.e. rich people are better people), and as Rodriguez refuses properly to become a star/an image/light (we are told he gives away his money to charity, friends and family, preferring simply to live in his modest Detroit apartment), so we have an object lesson – set against a deprived Detroit background – of a man who refuses to become light – or whose decision to come into the light is tempered by an acknowledgement of the benefits of darkness. This is not only signalled by Rodriguez’s career trajectory (although the film glosses over tours to Australia that the performer did in the late 1970s/early 1980s – long before his South Africa comeback but also long after his early 1970s flirtation with fame), but also by the first shot we see of the man – lingering at length in shadow behind a closed window, Rodriguez is at first pure image, before finally he steps forward, opens the window, and is seen in the cold-ish Detroit light of day.

In Sans Soleil, Marker repeatedly shows us shots of people. They are just images of people but, to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, to show images of people is also just. That is, Marker creates something like a democratic cinema, not based upon the individual, not one that reaffirms the desire to become light, but which instead looks at people who live in a world without light.

People here are not stars; we may see their images, but they are not stars, not images of people whose image is already moving at light speed, ubiquitous, disembodied, individualised, privileged.

Swandown asks us to move slowly, to appreciate the terrain itself (despite being a film that of course elides terrain in order to become a map/film of sorts). Its use of (admittedly minor) stars is problematic, in that it creates tension between Kötting’s otherwise democratic cinema and his film that, through collaborator Sinclair, seems to want to protest the London 2012 Olympics for precisely bringing light to a Hackney area that by definition casts into shadow those who are not Olympian heroes (even if I do not personally invest in sports stars as I do in film stars, as my MT experiences told me).

Nostalgia for the Light, meanwhile, also shows the importance of darkness in the contemporary world – and its insistent and beautiful shots of night skies and swirling galaxies demonstrate this: while we tend to fixate on the stars, they only stand out in such a beautiful fashion because of the darkness that surrounds them. Read socially, the 1 per cent needs the 99 per cent, even if it believes somehow that it can do without them.

Indeed,I am anticipating finding The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2012) problematic in what seems from the trailer to be a defence of the 1 per cent against the 99 per cent, but the jury is out since I am yet to see it.

But perhaps giving attention to Nolan’s film also runs counter to the way in which this blog tries to being attention to three far less glamourous and widely covered documentaries, all of which are worth watching, not necessarily instead of Batman (I can’t stop people from wanting to see a movie as hyped as this one), but certainly in addition to Batman (don’t forget the 99 per cent of movies).

Although it is slickly made and has some nicely visceral effects (as well as some uncomfortable ones, such as a rod being shoved into your back and some 3D shots that force you to look at eye-splitting flying objects), Marvel Super Heroes 4D (Joshua Wexler, USA, 2010) takes place in what at MT used to be a planetarium.

It would seem, therefore, that the museum – and its myriad visitors – prefer not to edify us about mysteries of the universe, the universe being so mysterious because so much of it is in darkness, but rather to transport into the fully lit world of Marvel’s superheroes, where whatever darkness there is, is simply dismissed in a Manichaean fashion as ‘bad.’

The love of cinema is not just based upon the light that shines on the screen, but also the darkness of the room that accompanies it, the darkness of the leader, the darkness of the frames between frames that are onscreen for 50 per cent of our viewing time, the darkness of our blinks, the darkness that the phi effect covers over as we saccade.

Darkness is key to life, or certainly key to the kind of dignified life that Rodriguez exemplifies/is made to exemplify in Searching for Sugar Man. The Luciferean enlightenment project is not necessarily entirely beneficial, accelerating us in general as it does towards an individualistic world in which only the chosen few get to be stars, while the abandoned rest are left to flounder in poverty.

We dream of becoming stars – this dream itself being a major obstacle in liberating us, because the dream of stardom promises to free us from poverty, when freedom will only arrive when we liberate ourselves from the dream of stardom. Indeed, the dream of stardom is what imprisons us in a world in which we are in fact already free, since all humans are born free, but they place themselves in chains, seeking to divest themselves of their bodies and to become light because we are force fed images, brought up on them, addicted and dependent on them, from the very earliest age.

It is paradoxical that Nostalgia for the Light, Swandown (which Kötting describes at one point as an anti-narrative – read mainstream – film in a world dominated by narrative/mainstream cinema), and Searching for Sugar Man are, of course, films that show light and darkness.

But they are films that each – in their own way – seek to emphasise the importance of darkness and not the surimportance of light. With this perhaps they share something that Chris Marker understood.

Chris Marker the alien is perhaps now only in darkness, a mystery we will no more see express himself. Nonetheless, as far as his films are concerned, with Sans Soleil standing in here as their figurehead, he was a truly dignified ambassador for making us remember darkness.

Now it is up to all of us to try to remember that we do not need to become light.

Leading the embodied life that we have to the best of our abilities, moving at whatever speed we want or need to, existing in our own time and not in the uniform speed of light – this is what we can learn from recent documentary film read in the shadow of Marker’s most sad passing.

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Neurocinematics

Killer Joe tells the story of trailer trash Texan family the Smiths. Son Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes money to some local gangsters and so hatches the plot to kill his mother, Adele (Julia Adams), in order to take home her savings via an inheritance.

To do this, he hires a local cop-cum-hitman, the titular Joe (Matthew McConnaughey), as well as roping in his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – with whom he’ll split the money four ways. The reason he has to involve the rest of his family is because Adele savings are apparently all to be left in her will to Dottie.

Since the money is going to come only after the hit, Chris and co offer Dottie as ‘collateral’ to Killer Joe. And Joe takes Dottie – presumably depriving her of her virginity in the process.

The film is blackly comic – with some amusing deadpan humour, plain funny sight gags, trailer park gawping, and unsettling violence – which is often sexualised.

The film is, as a former colleague of mine has pointed out to me, pretty harsh on its women: Adele barely features, Sharla is a conniving slut, and Dottie, having been deflowered by Joe, seems to fall for him pretty bad.

It’s not that the male folk fare better: most people in the film are copper nanotubes (Google it), the men included. But the women don’t really get a look in, being sexual objects, somewhat fatales, pretty incapable of autonomous action, and something of a backdrop for the men to be men together.

However, aside from these shortcomings, and no doubt some interesting things that could be discussed in terms of neo-noir and other films of its ilk – The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, USA/Sweden/UK/Canada, 2010) and U-Turn (Oliver Stone, France/USA, 1997) came to mind while watching it – the film is interesting for a couple of things that I’d like to discuss now and both of which, in short order, suggest that the film is reflecting on the cinematic experience.

I am in the midst of reading Gabriele Padullà’s In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators after the Cinema. The book basically tries to explain what the cinema experience is like – and while I have not finished it to know Padullà’s argument exactly, it seems as though he basically wants to account for how filmgoers watch movies because they enjoy them.

This requires a bit of explanation, since Padullà’s argument will seem obvious (duh, of course we watch movies because we enjoy them). How it is interesting, though, is the way in Padullà dismisses earlier interpretations of the film viewing experience.

For example, early film theorists often compared cinema to Plato’s Cave. The philosopher for Plato is the person who realises the most humans unthinkingly are sat in a cave watching the projected shadows of reality, but not reality itself. Cinema is a bit like sitting in such a cave and watching projected shadows of reality. Ergo, cinema might be a bit like Plato’s cave.

Except, for reasons practical if for no other, then cinema makes ‘philosophers’ of us all (but does it really?), since we all know that reality does not conform to the movies (but do we?). Now, the Plato model perhaps was employed for the political reason that to compare a mass medium like cinema to a great like Plato helps to legitimise cinema as an authentic art form. Indeed, that cinema can and perhaps does make philosophers of us (something I argue in my own published work – but not quite in this fashion/for these purposes) also no doubt helps to legitimise cinema as a ‘meaningful’ form – when most people view it as crash, bang, wallop blood-splattering fun.

However, the Plato analogy cannot stand up when it is clear that we choose to watch movies that we know are just illusions. Furthermore, since we now view films not in a darkened room but, as Padullà puts it, in broad daylight, further means that the Plato analogy is outdated.

Furthermore, Padullà rejects the idea that cinema is a mirror or something like a dream screen for the same reason: we can and do get up during film viewing, we talk, check our phones (my example, not Padullà’s) and the images are far more precise than a dream image.

So, given that these models of what the cinematic experience is or is supposed to be, Padullà’s suggestion (so far) that we watch films because we want to and because we enjoy them takes on some ‘revolutionary’ force.

Why this sidetrack into Padullà?

Because I wonder Killer Joe seems to reflect directly on viewing practices in the contemporary era – and I shall give what I consider to be two clear-cut examples. And I’ll give them in reverse order (in that the one I discuss first happens later in the film than the one I discuss second).

Minor spoiler: as Joe explains to Sharla and Ansel how he is going to deal with Chris following the (expected) botching of the plot to win Adele’s money, Ansel’s attention is drawn to a television depicting monster trucks.

Joe reacts poorly, heading over to the TV and destroying it.

Why this is important to me is because Ansel’s attention cannot but be drawn towards the monster truck screen – in spite of the fact that Joe is talking to him.

While Ansel no doubt likes shows with monster trucks in them, this also signals how the screens that fill our contemporary world are designed – even in broad daylight – to capture our attention. That is, even though we are supposed to be concentrating on something else (here, Joe talking), we find that we look at the screen not because we want to, but because we have no choice but to.

I know that Padullà addresses what we might call the attention economy in a section beyond where I am right now in In Broad Daylight, so apologies to him if I guess incorrectly the nature of his eventual argument.

Nonetheless, I wonder to what extent we are prey to the moving images on the ubiquitous screens that surround us the whole time (which is not to mention the loud sounds that we hear everywhere, too). Indeed, various essays that I have written argue that cutting rates and various other techniques, that colour, that the depiction of human emotions, and (this one’s not published – yet) that the beauty of film stars, are all designed – advertently or otherwise – to attract our attention, whether or not we actually like or enjoy a film. To this extent, cinema – and other screen media – draw upon our attention naturally, meaning that our minds are spent considering neither our natural environment (inasmuch as we might consider screens to be ‘unnatural’) nor attending to what we choose to.

No doubt the cognitive pleasures in having our attention aroused (we feel ‘alive’ when we are searching for prey, predator or mate – apparently) have caused a situation of feedback: that is, we go looking for rapid image fixes rather than attend to what we ought to – as my students looking at their iPhones during film screenings in class attests.

Nevertheless, not only would this seem to suggest that we do not strictly look at screens because we enjoy it (we can and do enjoy it, but how much choice we have in looking is up for grabs – anyone who has tried to hold down a conversation in a pub showing even the most banal television perhaps knows this feeling), but it also suggests that we might (wilfully!) be heading into Plato’s Cave – whereby we look at screens, at the play of illusions, rather than at reality, even though we know reality is out there.

In this sense, while Padullà’s critique of the Plato analogy is powerful, he might conceivably overlook the way in which the Plato analogy might also be prophetic.

(And note: when we do not look at what we want to, or when we cannot but hear the sounds of screens that surround us, then to an extent, these sounds and images are doing violence to us. I think of it thus: when I have been trying to sleep and I hear a television, I find the jolts from light sleep caused by the television to be truly jarring and disturbing, violent even. Perhaps you have had a similar experience…? Okay, so it is good for us to be alert and ready for violence – as the Darwinians would have us believe – but cinema and the other screen media would also have us believe that we were made to live in a hyperstimulated state, when a world without screens would have some – real – violence, but nothing like the constant barrage that we have now…)

The second moment, which comes earlier in the film, is when Joe ‘seduces’ Dottie for the first time. During this scene, Dottie undresses for Joe, who turns his back on her and then gives her orders as he undresses himself.

Okay – we the audience members see Dottie, and so there is a complex interplay going on here between our own voyeurism (heterosexual males if no others are drawn to Dottie’s figure for ‘natural’ reasons) and Joe’s projections.

What I mean by this is that in not looking at Dottie, but instead getting her to approach him from behind, he gets to imagine what she looks like – preferring his imagination to actually seeing or looking at her.

In other words, while Joe is pissed off at Ansel for looking at the TV and not at him, Joe himself has a strange relationship with reality, such that he prefers to create projected fantasy worlds rather than to engage in what is actually in front of him.

As much is borne out later when Joe gets Sharla to simulate fellatio on a piece of K Fried C that he holds over his crotch. Joe does not want real contact with Sharla, it seems, but gets off on simulated contact. In other words, it seems that Joe is also as addicted to images as Ansel, and that he prefers images to reality.

Now, since we do see Dottie undress, we might say that Joe has his own foibles, but that we as viewers prefer actually to look. Except, of course, that we are watching a film and not reality. In other words, director Friedkin seems to be bringing to our attention the way in which he, too, is constructing (male) fantasies that we see played out, and which perhaps we prefer to ‘reality’.

The fake BJ scene is most telling in this respect: Joe has just smashed in Sharla’s face when he forces her to suck the chicken leg. If Joe is somehow an ersatz viewer, then Friedkin seems in some respects to be throwing back into our (male) faces the fantasies of sexualised violence that Joe enacts. Indeed, Friedkin ramps this up by seeming to have the seem play out in a titillating fashion (even though the scene is shot from a combination of long, medium and low angle shots; the arch lighting might also enhance this effect).

Joe even suggests with Dottie that he and she are 12 years old as they enact their fantasy sex – an ironic comment, it seems, on the regressive powers of cinema for making us engage not with the real world, or with real people, but with fantasy images of people instead.

Again, then, it seems that Padullà might have been premature (though, again, he might twist back on himself in the book – we shall see) in dismissing both the notion of the mirror and the notion of Plato’s cave as analogies for the film experience.

For, the predominance of screens in the contemporary world – and their power to hold our attention ahead of the reality – seems to suggest that we might be moving willingly into something like Plato’s Cave. And the way in which film can muck about with our sexual fantasies, which of course are based on mental images as much as on reality, suggests that we cannot only watch films because we enjoy them (even though this is a primary motivating factor). But it can be for more perverse and deep-seated reasons than that, ones that cognitive psychology can do little to answer for, and which still need something along the lines of psychoanalysis (with warnings/provisos) to at least begin to contemplate.

Killer Joe is not necessarily a great film, nor the best by Friedkin. Nonetheless, Friedkin belongs to a generation of directors that Padullà says were obsessed with cinema as it was: busy, bustling, loud auditoria, not the museum culture of silence and worship that we have today. As such, it seems unsurprising that his film – in so many ways a throwback to an older generation of noir – would seem nostalgic for former film viewing experiences. Ones where we not endlessly distracted by other, smaller, faster moving screens. And ones where our own fantasies helped to fill in the gaps left by the film world – rather than seeing everything because the cinema shows everything…

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA, 2012)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

Why this film to blog about?

Well, I only really want to make a simple point.

But before the point, a rant: while I have of late missed stuff that only shows on one screen and at only one time that I really would rather not have missed, the local multiplex showed this and it was on at a time I could go to and is not the other side of town. It is a pity that basic pragmatics dictate what we watch, but there we go.

Now, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means the best film I’ve seen recently – but it is not the worst either. I’ll save my mini-comments about the other movies for another time.

But otherwise down to business. What is the point I want to make about AL:VH?

At several moments in the film, toys morph into real figures, evil vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell) morphs into an animated version of the story about himself that he is telling, moving shots of maps turn into fly-overs over supposedly real battlefields, and more.

It is this kind of shot that I want to discuss – the kind of shot where the map morphs into the terrain, such that the map is no longer separate from the terrain, but on a continuum with it – inseparable.

But this just sounds like a classic ‘postmodern’ argument, right? That is, in the postmodern era we are no longer aware of what is real and what is not.

This is not to say that we believe a film like AL:VH to be a documentary of some sort. Only a fuckwit believes that.

But it is to say that we live in an era when we can doubt and not believe whatever we wish to – since everything can be disproved, or rather since no one really believes in proof at all these days.

Since nothing can be proven or disproved, people believe what they want (and people refuse to discuss matters with people who do not share their opinion – perhaps the single most damaging human trait one can have, a kind of solipsistic closed-mindedness – meaning that the closed-minded person does not discuss at all, does not learn, and shrouds themselves in a discourse about rights whereby they declare their right to be a moron).

I can’t promise to argue that AL:VH suggests anything more profound than this in the kinds of shots mentioned above and which feature prominently in the film’s running time.

Nonetheless, I want to consider them in some detail, for the context of the film is also interesting.

That is, AL:VH is no normal vampire movie. It is claiming that the 16th President of the United States of America was a vampire hunter.

Again, no one believes this to be true (no one I would call sane, anyway). But what this means is that the film engages directly with history, which is something of a rarety for the vampire movie (as far as I am aware, and even though some prominent vampire films are also period costume dramas).

However, it is in keeping with the fluid shots of the film, in which model morphs into reality, that AL:VH should falsify history as it does. Here is a film in which there is no need to respect history – because it is all a bit of a joke and falsifiable anyway. So why not blatantly falsify it? This is in keeping with the spirit of the times we are living in, after all…

Perhaps only a post-Soviet filmmaker like Bekmambetov could do this. This is a generalisation – and as such in itself false – but without a god to fall back on, with the official history desecrated, the only rule left to follow is that there are no rules – and Abe Lincoln can be an axe-wielding ruthless vampire killer. Former Soviets know this; Westerners are beginning to know it better and better…

In the film, the vamps are made to stand in for the American South and for the benefits of slavery, in that Adam and his cronies live on a huge plantation down south and are implied as being slave owners and slave eaters.

However, the film here kind of mixes its messages. Okay – so slavery is indeed all about the consumption of humans, and so it stands to reason that the filmmakers would align slaveholders with vampires. But vampires are also people who wear black, who cannot come out in the day (a myth about vampires debunked in this film, as is the notion that it is only a stake through the heart that will kill them; plain silver does it), and who only function at night.

To me, this sounds at least in part similar to something trendy philosopher Slavoj Žižek says, when he discusses an

old European fairy-tale motif of diligent dwarfs (usually controlled by an evil magician) who, during the night, while people are asleep, emerge from their hiding-place and accomplish their work (set the house in order, cook the meals), so that when, in the morning, people awaken, they find their work magically done.

(For the full text, read here.)

I hope this is sufficiently clear – but what I am suggesting is that while vampires obviously consume human flesh, their behaviour is also like that of the slave already. While vampires are not going to set your house in order, their very invisibility (famously they have no mirror image) means that vampires are like slaves, too, together with all of the racial inequality that slavery has helped to produce.

In short, then, the film seems to argue that slavery is the invisible evil – both in terms of slaves (which in the USA has a distinct overlap with the country’s black population) and slave drivers (here, vampires).

But let us go further…

In another text, Žižek argues that batshit novelist Ayn Rand had one profound insight (and no more): that when money ceases to be in circulation, humans will begin to trade in flesh, using other humans as currency.

The reason that I mention this is because while AL:VH is set in the 1830s and onwards, it of course has been made in the early 2010s. And what is happening in the early 2010s is an economic meltdown that may yet prove to be the biggest since 1929, which in turn played a significant role in the development of world events between 1939 and 1945.

In other words, the shit might yet hit the fan as a result of this global economic crisis. And one of the ways in which that might happen is because without money, humans will trade in other humans. And perhaps even a film like AL:VH can imply something meaningful, then, in terms of how slavery remains an issue even today – and it is not something that is relegated uniquely to the past.

(This is, by the way, an issue – slavery, not vampire movies – that I have written about at greater length here.)

In this way, the ‘postmodern’ stuff – whereby we do not know truth from falseness – perhaps suits this film. It speaks both of how the invisible issue of slavery, believed eradicated, is in fact still with us today, and perhaps in more insidious (virtual?) fashions.

And, perhaps more importantly, it speaks of how in an age in which slavery is denied as existing, but which is also an age in which no one knows what is true anymore, then indeed there is perhaps only one logical truth that humans can accept – and that is their own experience.

What I mean to say by this is that people only know truth through their own bodies. It is not something to be read in a book or seen in a film. It is something to be experienced – with even thinking being (something like a) physical experience, even if a thought has no material reality for itself (you cannot touch a thought, though a thought can perhaps touch you).

If our truth is what is inscribed upon us, in that it is what physically marks us, it is our physical existence – then perhaps we already live in an age that is ripe for slavery and violence. For, bereft of any other marker, and cognizant of the fact that others are only ‘mere’ bodies, we perhaps decide to screw other people over – to trade in/with their bodies – before we choose to live a social existence.

In effect: there is no god and there is no law (Lincoln, played by Benjamin Walker, is studying the law, but basically sacks it off because the only law that slaveholders/vampires understand is the contents of a can of silver-tinted whoop-ass – i.e. learning the lesson that slavery is bad not in an abstract sense but through their bodies/experiences).

Since there is no god and no law, what is my incentive to be and/or do good by/with/to others? I have none. And since I live in a time in which only my own experience counts – in which, in effect, I cannot or perhaps will not learn from others, including the media and books, because those others are not telling me ‘the truth’ but are instead trying to ‘control’ me (even to enslave me and my precious tiny mind, I can kid myself!), then I have no reason to believe anyone who claims to lay down laws or hear from god.

How ironic, though, that it is the absence of ‘slavery’ (I lead my own life and no one else gets in my way) leads, within the context of a world also governed by economics, to, precisely, literal, real, physical, violent and nasty slavery.

A further irony: vampires function in films as proof of God, in that they are condemned to walk the earth forever as a result of their evil ways. In effect, the human propensity to be a slave driver, to be nasty to other humans, cannot be held in check by God. Even with God, even with the law, we make other humans suffer.

(Indeed, without God, or those who seeks to become powerful by claiming to be His representatives on Earth, Western slavery might never have taken the form that ultimately it did.)

So what emerges from a film as cynical as AL:VH is this morality: only violence solves problems, even though violence is also – more problematically – also the source of our problems. Do we solve our problems by addressing the problems, or by addressing the causes of the problems? AL:VH‘s AL decides not to use the law, to use thought and thinking, to encourage humans to think themselves ethically into a moral existence, but instead to use an axe.

He does not do what, ahem, university lecturers and some filmmakers try to do – and that is to try to encourage people to become better than what/who they are. Instead, he takes it as read that humans are bad and so just gets badder to get rid of the problem.

Indeed, as much is revealed in the person of Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who is Lincoln’s mentor and, lo, also a vampire. Sturgess is a ‘good’ vampire. I place ‘good’ in inverted commas, because while he helps Abe and does do some ass-kicking of his own, Sturgess nonetheless does kill people to live. Indeed, we and Lincoln see Sturgess kill a drunk. Lincoln is not so upright a human that he decides to do something about this (like dob Sturgess in), but instead takes mercy on him because of his lost girlfriend sob story – which he naïvely believes.

That Sturgess is a vampire but also ‘good’ functions not to suggest that not all vampires are bad; quite the opposite, it has a vampire tell us precisely that all vampires are bad and must be killed. In effect, Sturgess is the self-loathing Jew or black man who justifies the white man’s racism – thereby legitimating slavery, the Holocaust and other atrocities.

In some respects, AL:VH‘s seeming belief that we are simply our bodies (though we must remember that our bodies only exist in relation – with other bodies, with all that surrounds us), does not excuse AL:VH from the rather odd decision only to have one prominent black character, Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) in a film not just about vampires, but also about emancipation from slavery.

For, if we do wear our truth on our person, then the absence of prominent black characters in the film suggests something like a denial of slavery (that truth remains invisible in the body of the film, a secret hidden in darkness and travelling the roads only at night, when the film’s blacks are harder for the audience to see anyway; that is, we can pretend they’re not there).

It suggests that slavery was created to provide the conditions for white men to establish themselves as heroes and villains – to destroy an ethical life whereby we think about how we relate to others, and to create a moral life in which we blindly follow moral rules by rote. I would suggest that, contrary to an ethical life, such a moral life takes no real account of human life. Instead, other humans – as blacks do in this film – function as an excuse for white humans to feel good about themselves.

Indeed, by making slave owners out to be vampires – i.e. precisely not human – the film places ‘over there’ (beyond the human) an issue that is really right here, which is not carried out by literal bloodsuckers, but which is put into motion by regular people like you and me. A human issue.

In order to defeat the vampire scourge, Lincoln commandeers all of America’s silver. How he manages to convince people that collecting silver is a legitimate war effort is not entirely known, but we do know this: Lincoln cannot really tell people that this is all about vampires, because they would just be too scared or not believe him. In other words, AL:VH suggests that people should just do as they’re told (Lincoln as tyrant) because they wouldn’t be able to handle the truth – the real truth being, of course, that there is no truth, there are no vampires, but that people need to believe in something in order to keep them in order and there’s money to be made from convincing them that this is so, so why no tax the shit out of silver, claim to send it down South in a big anti-vampire bomb – without letting on about the anti-vampire bit – and instead keep all of the silver for oneself, like any good corrupt politician would do. Lincoln’s memory takes a shoeing in this film!

People pool their silver in AL:VH – for vampires fear it as it reminds them of Judas betraying Christ. As if Christ could have become Christ without Judas and without the marking on his body of all of the hatred that mankind bears towards those who come peddling unwanted truths.

This pooling of resources might seem to point to the possibility of a common wealth: we can all just share everything and thus overcome our problems.

Except that sharing is a phantom, suggested to the people by Lincoln who, as mentioned, does not use the silver for the purposes suggested at all (killing vampires). Does he in fact run off with the silver? Either way, there is no sharing, as the presence of Sturgess in the White House at film’s end suggests. As Sturgess offers to make Lincoln immortal, and as Lincoln goes to the theatre to die (he will be shot by pro-vampire conspiracist John Wilkes Booth), we get the sense that the vampires are here and will never go away. That the desire to share is not genuine; it is the desire to give away one’s silver in order to feel slighted by one’s government. To attest to one’s own powerlessness. To feel disenfranchised and misunderstood. To feel as though one cannot trust anyone. To feel as though one only has one’s own body. To be a closed minded solipsist who reinforces the system of consumption and waste that AL:VH claims to be defeating.

Vampires believe in God, but they are condemned for their bad faith. To believe nothing and no one, to be a solipsist who only relies on their self, that is also to have bad faith. To have no faith in anyone else. Perhaps not even in one’s self. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter suggests that we are all vampires now.