Erase and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is clearly one of the most important voices in British contemporary cinema and perhaps art more generally.

Her Taşkafa, Stories of Street (Turkey, 2013) is a fascinating investigation into the lives of street dogs in Istanbul – a precursor to Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (Turkey/USA, 2016), and in some senses unjustly overshadowed by the latter, charming though that film is.

Meanwhile, Estate, A Reverie (UK, 2015) is – alongside Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home (UK, 2012) – one of the most important investigations into the condition of housing in contemporary London, focusing especially on the displacement of long-term estate residents for the purposes of renewed property development (which is perhaps a euphemistic way of saying gentrification).

With Erase and Forget, Zimmerman provides us with an investigation into the life of Bo Gritz, a former soldier who supposedly is/was the real-life inspiration for John Rambo, the maverick soldier who is the central character of such films as First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, USA, 1985), Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, USA, 1988) and, latterly, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, Germany/USA, 2008).

However, where we might expect something go an aggrandisement of heroism and service to and for one’s country, instead we have really a quite extraordinary investigation into something like post-traumatic stress disorder (I say ‘something like’ because it is not revealed ay any point whether Gritz has been diagnosed).

Zimmerman’s film is not simply remarkable for having access to a remarkable figure. Nor is it simply remarkable for having been made on a shoestring.

What equally makes Zimmerman’s film remarkable is how its lack of budget is in fact one of its chief virtues, rendering Erase and Forget not just a powerful documentary, but also in many respects a work of art. That is, it is not simply the film’s content that is remarkable, but also its form.

To describe the film’s form, I am going to use the term non-cinema.

To describe a work of cinema as non-cinema may sound like the sort of thing that a wankstain academic who has nothing to do with their time but invent poncey-sounding terms would come up with in order deliberately to confuse people and in the process endeavour to use that confusion as a way of making the reader feel stupid and thus the author to seem clever.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this is not my intention – even if, as a feeble-minded human being, this ends up being the result.

But in a bid to stave off that result, let me do my best briefly to explain what I mean by non-cinema.

By non-cinema, I mean a set of values that typically are not found in cinema, and which perhaps are antithetical towards – not because one cannot find those values in certain films, but because those values do not conform to the drive for profit that is at the heart of cinema (and capitalism more generally).

The drive for profit (rather than, say, subsistence) requires permanent growth, which can be achieved in large part through (and thus in some senses logically demands) exploitation.

Exploitation requires humans to consider each other not as humans, but as things or objects or units of production – with my profit being predicated upon my ability to yield ever-greater production from my workers/units of production, while at the same time trying to reduce how much money I spend on protecting and ensuring the health and safety of my workers/units of production.

What is true of workers is true of resources: since profit is my over-riding goal, then I must find not the best but the cheapest way of creating products. In considering my raw materials and my workers as merely things, they become objects that are deprived of humanity.

A capitalist society, then, is a society in which we see people not as people but in some respects as symbols or as objects. This creation of people as symbols de-realises or dehumanises them (they’re just a symbol, so you can do with them what you want). It also creates separation where otherwise there might be connection.

That is, capitalism and its necessary exploitation leads to the creation of class divisions (rich and poor), as well as to the concept of (private) property (this is mine and not yours), which in turn leads to an ethos of selfishness and not sharing, and which in turn is linked to the idea that the self is a sovereign entity that does not rely on, want contact with, or which depends upon others, but which is entirely able to live on its own.

In the language of Simon and Garfunkel (and against John Donne), it is to say: I am a rock, I am an island. In the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is say that I am self-reliant. And in psychoanalytic terms, it is to create a phallocentric society, in that the individual stands like a hard, solid cock, not interesting in touching of making love with someone else, but interested in pumping and pounding the other – i.e. once more treating them like an object.

This is, then, the world of patriarchy, and it is also the world that, during the onset of neoliberal capital in the 1980s saw mainstream films characterised by the hard, phallic bodies of action stars like, precisely, Sylvester Stallone – who killed other human beings with impunity and without remorse (in the sequels if not in First Blood, as director Ted Kotcheff pointedly remarks).

Not only is the cinema of capital a cinema that reflects this hard-bodied, phallocentric outlook, then. But perhaps cinema, in being a medium that almost as a matter of course turns human beings into symbols dancing around hieroglyphically on a screen, is also inherently capitalist.

More than this. For, as we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, so does the separation of humans into classes not just involve a separation, but also a hierarchisation (rich above poor, both socioeconomically, morally, and on nearly every other level that we can think of).

More still: not only are we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, but we also are encouraged to respect richness and to disrespect poverty. That is, I do not respect the other as a human, but I disrespect them because they are poor (or I want to steer clear of them since they might contaminate me with dirt, disease, bad luck, and so on). That is, I see the other not as a human who to be poor, but as an incarnation of poverty. That is, I see the other not as a human but as a symbol. That is, the symbol becomes more real than the actual human. That is, symbols become the measure of reality more than reality becomes the measure of symbols (we consider humans to be inferior because they are poor, rather than considering poverty to be an inadequate concept since it discourages us from seeing the poor person not as poor but as a person).

Finally: as we see rich humans as being better than poor humans (and as everyone therefore pursues the goal of becoming rich, or special, or famous, or phallcentrically like a hard cock to be admired), so, too, do we see rich images (images that require a lot of money to create) to be better than poor images (images that are made on a shoestring).

If this is true (or if we allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that this claim has some truth), then the idea behind saying that something is non-cinema, then, is because it ignores or critiques capitalism, or it tries to find another way of depicting the world that is not capitalist. If cinema is capitalist, then non-capitalist cinema has to be something that cinema is not, i.e. non-cinema.

Put differently: while rich images might be created to critique the system of rich images as being inherently superior to poor images (as rich people are perceived as inherently superior to poor people as a result of the separation of rich from poor that was a necessary result of exploitation, which was demanded by the relentless pursuit of profit), it seems unlikely that, as rich images, they will do anything other than reinforce the idea that we should only look at rich images.

So, if you want to create images that challenge the system of validating only rich images at the exposed of poor images, then you have really to create what Hito Steyerl might term poor images. Or you have to create non-cinema.

Kedi opens with an aerial shot of Istanbul taken from a drone. Taşkafa, meanwhile, opens with a handheld shot of a dog lying in the street, its paws in the air in a heliotropic trance.

Where Kedi‘s opening shot suggests power and mastery through its technologically-enabled overhead drone shot, Taşkafa suggests something much more pedestrian and poor. Indeed, the opening shot of Taşkafa sees the camera film the dog for a bit, then approach it to reframe closer up – and then approach and go round the other side of the dog to reframe it again.

Rather than appearing as if made without effort (the drone shot from Kedi), Taşkafa makes clear the work that has gone into its making.

While the film is obviously made up of symbols (since it is a film), Taşkafa at least goes to the effort of demonstrating in its opening shot, though, that we are seeing nothing more than symbols, and that these are constructed. In revealing its own process of creation, the images from Taşkafa do not arrive as if fully-formed and perfect (like a god), but as imperfect and human. Taşkafa demonstrates its humanity from the get-go – in the process using symbols to undermine the system of symbol creation that is cinema.

In being a ‘poor image,’ Taşkafa runs the risk of alienating its viewers, since they may not like poor images – in a way that is similar to how they do not like poor people. But at least  in the process, the poor image points out to to the alienated viewer how their dislike of poor images expresses little more than their own prejudices and a subservience to phallocentric power – on an ideological level even if not on a physical level (it is common enough for poor people to dislike poor images, precisely because they are ashamed of poverty, a shame brought about not least as a result of being treated like a part of society of which to be ashamed; perhaps inevitably such tastes can veer towards the ‘gauche’ as any and every sign of wealth, be it sophisticated or crass, is better than a sign of poverty).

But perhaps enough explanation of non-cinema and discussion of Taşkafa. For this blog post is about Erase and Forget, and thus should do justice to that film by properly giving it its due.

In being a film about the real-life John Rambo, Erase and Forget is clearly in some ways about cinema – or about the way in which cinema reinforces a masculinist, hard-bodied sense of separation, individual heroism, personal sovereignty and violence.

And yet, Erase and Forget also in some senses deconstructs that myth, allowing us to see not just Gritz as a performer of ultimate masculinity and, quite specifically, as a symbol of American heroism.

Instead, we see a remarkable portrait that goes beyond the cinema of Rambo – and into the non-cinema of a human being. As cinema is part of a system that replaces humanity with symbols, Erase and Forget tries to replace symbols with humanity.

Gritz is an inspiration to children who want to grow up to be like him. That is, Gritz clearly is understood by many people as a symbol.

And yet, Zimmerman then includes in her film a sequence in which she plays back an encounter between Gritz and two young men who wish to follow in his footsteps – only for Gritz to comment while watching the video that these kids are wasting their time as they will only get killed in combat and/or scarred irreversibly by their otherwise-desired experiences of war.

This moment is significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, it undoes the myth of violent heroism, suggesting that war as a process of ensuring separation between countries is in some senses futile.

Secondly, it does this by showing Gritz watching a video of himself at a moment that we have already seen as a part of Erase and Forget. That is, akin to the opening shot of Taşkafa, Erase and Forget shows its own process of being made, thus also undercutting the very process of symbol-making that is cinema itself.

What is most remarkable is that in being so honest about its own imperfections – in being a human cinema – Gritz allows himself to become more human, too.

That is, Gritz clearly develops a close and trusting relationship with Zimmerman, such that he is willing at times to let his guard down and to express his disillusionment with war and perhaps with various other aspects of contemporary life more generally.

In other words, in not treating Gritz as a symbol (which is how most people do treat him, including his lovers from what Gritz says), we get the most remarkable aspects of this film, namely access to intimate parts in which Gritz is not necessarily not performing, but in which he offers to us a performance that is different from the one that he is carrying out most of the time as a war hero.

It is important here to emphasise that Gritz is not consistent. That is, Zimmerman’s film does not show us the ‘real’ Bo Gritz that lies underneath the ‘fake’ Bo Gritz that walks around performing heroism and/or performing being a war hero.

Indeed, if the film did this, it would not demonstrating that symbols are constructed as simply trying to replace one symbol with another (this symbol of Gritz is the ‘real’ one).

If the film is to deconstruct the system of symbols as a whole, then it has to show the many Gritzes alongside each other: he is all of these different sides to his personality, and he is inconsistent, and sometimes he does believe in his heroism and at other times he does not. And sometimes he seems to prefer to recount his life as if he were a legend, and sometimes he feels sorry for himself.

It is not in his singularity that the humanity of Gritz will emerge. It is precisely in his plurality, his multiplicity, his complexity. And it is not that the film will give us the full complexity of Gritz. In some senses, cinema, as a system of symbols, cannot achieve this. But rather than presenting us an incomplete picture as if it were the complete picture, it can make clear that we are seeing is incomplete. It can point to the outside of cinema, to the human, and thus be (or at least point to the realm of) non-cinema.

The Bo Gritz story is truly remarkable, with the man having played a role in Vietnam, Panama, the Middle East, Ruby Ridge, and more. He is a man who has struggled with life – having attempted suicide at one point and being surrounded by violence at many points (with a violent death also taking place during the film’s making).

Zimmerman’s film is all the more remarkable for not shying away from this complexity, while also embracing its own limitations (being self-conscious – including by having the film’s original images feature alongside images from various Rambo and other films – but taking low-grade DVD-rip YouTube images from these films, thereby creating a shift in image quality in the film, again bringing to mind/making the viewer conscious of the how we somewhat arbitrarily put out faith in rich images more than we do in poor ones).

Gritz is a fragile human being. But in showing his struggle with reality and with himself, the film highlights the very impossibility of being human in an era when we are supposed to see each other and to turn ourselves into symbols. Since the human is inferior to symbols, we are encouraged to hate ourselves and our human aspects, and to eliminate them for the purposes of being only symbolic or existing only in the symbolic realm.

Rather than pick apart Gritz’s possible insanity, then (in the sense that Gritz is inconsistent), Erase and Forget instead takes us into that insanity, depicting how a certain kind of schizophrenia is the logical result of an inhuman world in which to be human is shameful. It does this by itself being a ‘crazy’ film – perhaps in some ways not even a film at all (not a ‘proper’ film made with a ‘proper’ budget).

[In this way, there is some resemblance between Erase and Forget and William English’s recent It’s My Own Invention (UK, 2017), which likewise takes us into insanity not in a bid necessarily to bunk or to debunk it… but show it as a kind of logical extension of a world where humans suffer from the collective insanity of mistaking symbols for reality.]

Zimmmerman’s refusal to buy into the language of symbols makes Erase and Forget about the most human, if non-cinematic, piece of cinema going…

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