Trying to comprehend Trump, Jacksonville, fake news, the World Cup and Crimea: Gaamer/Gamer (Oleg Sentsov, Ukraine, 2011)

Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized

It is perhaps strange to write a post about a film that is now seven years old.

However, I wanted to discuss Gamer, which I saw this week while staying in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, for a number of reasons – a couple of which are complicated by the deaths of three people, including shooter David Katz, at a gaming convention in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, this week.

Gamer tells the story of Alex, or Lyosha, whose gaming nickname is Koss (Vladislav Zhuk). He lives in a small town in Ukraine where he ditches school and shuns the company of others in order to spend his time playing Quake.

He is sufficiently good at the game that he progresses from his small town, Simferopol, to Kyiv and all the way to Los Angeles in the USA, where he comes second in a world championship.

However, this success seems to mean little to Koss, who remains affectless throughout more or less the whole film. As a younger gamer, Kopchick, comes to replace him as the leading gamer in his home town, Koss instead begins to find dignity in helping his mother (Zhanna Biryuk) work in a shop – with one reviewer commenting that this leads him to smile for the very first time in the film.

A movie about a kid who plays truant naturally recalls François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups/The 400 Blows (France, 1959), with director Oleg Sentsov being wise to this point of comparison by having his movie end with a freeze frame on Koss – much as Truffaut’s ends with a freeze frame on Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud).

But more than this, the film is also striking for the way in which it, like many a film from the French New Wave, takes to the streets, mixing documentary and fiction as the film involves real gamers and footage taken from real-world gaming tournaments.

Shot on an estimated budget of US$20,000, the film also involves direct sound, long takes in real locations and various other tropes that suggest the economic realism of cinema. By ‘economic realism,’ I mean that the less money one has as a filmmaker, the more one is likely to be pushed into the direction of long takes in order to save on time and money for set-ups.

But this is not a deficiency. On the contrary, it is a strength of the film that it does this, since the resulting intrusion of the real world (hence realism) into an otherwise fictional story is precisely what makes Gamer and numerous other films like it all the more powerful.

Indeed, it is the presence of the real world alongside the fantastic and violent world of Quake, from which we see a few play-throughs, that makes of the film an interesting investigation into the nature of gaming and virtual worlds in the present era – especially in a context like that of the contemporary Ukraine.

It is interesting how in games, the presence of cut-scenes would suggest that the medium aspires in some senses to become cinema. That is, games aspire to have the cultural clout of cinema, even if gaming is a larger industry than cinema worldwide.

Indeed, the cut scene, as well as the exemplary play-through, or the automatic action replay that takes place in some games when one performs a virtuoso bit of skill (or scores a goal) would suggest that the ‘best’ bits of games, and that towards which we should all aspire, become games not for us to play, but videos for us to watch.

In other words, gaming involves a logic of becoming image, or becoming cinema – since to become cinema bespeaks power, elevating the person out of the human realm and into the divine and supposedly eternal realm of the image, or light.

Given the presence of such ‘cut scenes’ in Sentsov’s film, one might suggest that Koss also aspires to become cinema, and to transcend his earthly identity, as marked by his change of names, precisely from Lyosha to Koss.

What is more, since such virtual images are placed alongside ‘mundane’ shots of everyday life, the effect is to suggest that the power of Gamer resides precisely in its not aspiring to be cinematic, but to express something like the outside of cinema, or what in my more academic writings I have termed non-cinema, and which may be something like reality itself.

That is, Gamer as a film charts Koss’ transition from aspiring to being cinematic (even if via gaming), a process that he finds ultimately hollow, and which is set against the smile that he achieves by becoming not cinematic, to his reconnecting with the real world (getting a job in a shop and working with his mum, who herself is also a translator/academic whose job does not pay enough for her to survive, suggesting that critical thinking is undervalued and discouraged in the contemporary world).

Notably, Gamer is also punctuated by other ‘cinematic’ moments during which a brightly lit Koss can be seen turning to the camera as dreamy music plays. A sort of set of fantasy sequences, these moments made me think that Lyosha was dreaming of an absent father – whom we never see and who is not even mentioned during the course of the film.

That is, Lyosha’s aspirations to be cinematic are also about him finding his father: to achieve success, to be famous, to become an image – these are all things that we are encouraged to achieve in our patriarchal and capitalist society (to ‘be someone’/to be ‘a man’ is our father, the thing that we pray for… and not to achieve it is to be a loser, perhaps not even to be human – as many a victim of cyber bullying might testify).

And so, as Lyosha ditches his cybernetic ambitions as Koss, and as he reconnects with the real world by taking a humble and dignified job in a shop as Lyosha, so does he also reconnect with his mother and a more feminine world.

Arguably this means that the film essentialises femininity as earthly and wise or some such. Nonetheless, it still means that the film’s story – together with its ‘realistic’ aesthetic – suggests a rejection of patriarchy and the myth of becoming cinema that lies at the heart of the contemporary capitalist world. Non-cinema is the way forward in a society dominated by the aesthetics and politics of cinema, or the aesthetics and politics of spectacle.

At one point we see Koss look through a window at his school and, using a speck of dirt on the window as a would-be rifle sight, he imagines shooting his fellow pupils.

Notably this moment takes place through the medium of a window. That is, Koss sees the real world through the medium of a separating screen rather than being directly in touch with it. And it is this separating screen that allows him to indulge his violent dreams, with violence itself being part of the logic of the cinematic world, in which we also repeatedly see violent images on screen, especially when playing a game like Quake.

Without wishing to pathologise the deeds of David Katz in Jacksonville this week, it is perhaps precisely because of the warping screen that media create, distorting our vision, that we humans go crazy and carry out violent deeds both in a simultaneous and paradoxical bid to become image (I become famous even if only as a murderer) and to destroy rivals who are seeking also to become image (Katz killing rival gamers, a crime that reveals the way in which the competition to become famous/cinematic perhaps necessarily involves violence, meaning that the murders are oddly and upsettingly a logical extension of the world in which gaming conventions take place – even if of course the absolute vast majority of gamers are wonderful, generous and loving people).

But more than the events of this week, Gamer benefits from a brief comparison with Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2018), another film that is about gaming and gaming culture, and which is one of the biggest box office successes of the year so far.

Indeed, where Gamer reportedly made only US$2,696 at the box office, Ready Player One has made US$582,018,455 worldwide. It is perhaps no coincidence that the film with the major special effects, the fast cutting rate and the conventional hero logic (replete with manic pixie dream girl who is there to help the hero to become a man) should make so much money. For, Ready Player One is patriarchy writ large.

Not only is it patriarchy writ large, but it also is an indulgence in nostalgia for the values of cinema, with a kind of weird fantasy posited at the end that maybe not all humans should spend all of their time playing games (or living in what the film calls the Oasis).

Aside from how closing the Oasis for a day a week would be commercial suicide (as other companies replace it by leaving their virtual worlds open 24:7, which is to say nothing of how to regulate different time zones into this fantasy logic), Ready Player One suggests that the Matrix is not something of which we should be fearful, but that being in the Matrix is great.

More than this, it also indulges a fantasy scenario in which the world of gaming really involves a sort of political activism (even though there are no hackers here), as ‘rebel’ gamers take on the corporate gamers in order to take/retain control of the Oasis.

(Forgive me; I am assuming some familiarity with Ready Player One, rather than explaining everything about it in too much detail. I sort of hope that readers can fill in the gaps if they have not seen the film; it really is all quite predictable.)

The point to make here, though, is that gaming is not rebellious, even if one believes that it is. Indeed, Katz is doing nothing more than committing an act of murder in taking the logic of the game (to ‘win’ by all means possible) outside of the game and into the real world. Indeed, gaming is always to, ahem, play into the hands of power (at least in the way that I am describing it here; I am sure that this view of gaming-as-patriarchy does not and should not always hold – except insomuch as it applies to patriarchal games, which not all games necessarily are, just as not all films are patriarchal; indeed some can be non-cinema, as per my argument above and elsewhere).

Here we come to perhaps the crux of my argument.

For as Gamer presents to us a vision of gaming as separating us from a real world with which we might do well to reconnect, so does Ready Player One suggest to us that gaming and virtual worlds are politically progressive.

To ditch digital culture and to ‘get back to reality’ naturally sounds like a conservative position. It involves a rejection of the novel possibilities that new technologies allow. To embrace those new technologies, meanwhile, sounds progressive, rebellious, young and hip.

And yet I am going to suggest that Gamer is a far more progressive film than Ready Player One. And this is not only because Gamer is not always-already creating spectacles for the purposes of making money/capital. That is, it is not simply because Gamer is not cinema but non-cinema.

However, in order to explain this point properly – and thus to explain the topsy-turvy-seeming logic of a kind of technological conservatism as progressive over a technological utopianism as progressive – we need to think about what has subsequently happened to the director of Gamer, Oleg Sentsov.

If you wander around Kyiv today, you will see numerous posters demanding that Oleg Sentsov be freed.

For, the #SaveOlegSentsov movement started when Sentsov was arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2014 on charges of terrorism against the Russian state and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Widely purported to be fake charges, Sentsov nonetheless was supposedly, according to Verity Healey, coordinating ‘relief efforts to help Ukrainian soldiers barricaded into their barracks by the Russian military.’

Sentsov’s reasons for doing this are that in 2014, Sentsov’s native Crimea, which includes Simferopol and which at that point in time was part of Ukraine, was ‘annexed’ by Russia – and which move remains to this day the cause of combat between the Ukrainian and the Russian militaries.

In late 2013 and into 2014, thousands of Ukrainians poured into and occupied the Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv in protest against, among other things, the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to withdraw Ukraine from signing agreements with the European Union – preferring instead to cement ties with Russia.

After police violence against the protestors, which involved c130 deaths (with Ukrainians referring to the victims as the Heavenly Hundred), Yanukovych was toppled and an interim government set up.

During the instability that followed (not least because some Ukrainians would prefer to side with Russia than to join Europe), Russia annexed Crimea – and during this period Sentsov suspended shooting his second feature film, Rhino, in order to take part in the EuroMaidan and then to protest the annexation.

Sentsov has since his arrest allegedly been tortured and ‘left to die‘ by Vladimir Putin after the filmmaker began a hunger strike while the rest of the world decided to forget about reality and to celebrate Russia as a result of its wonderful hosting of the 2018 Football World Cup.

In other words, for Sentsov active participation in the world is more important than filmmaking. Reality is more important than media. And while we watch spectacles like cinema, games and soccer, people are fighting and dying in an unofficial war over Ukrainian territory.

Let’s ratchet this blog up a bit.

As the UK’s England side, with its rather unremarkable Won 3 Drew 1 Lost 3 record, progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup, numerous memes began to circulate, often accompanied by the song ‘Three Lions’ by Skinner & Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds, and which encouraged England fans finally to ‘believe.’

What they ‘believed’ was that football might – after 52 years – ‘come home,’ in the sense that it has been 52 years since England last won a major international tournament (the 1966 Football World Cup), and in the sense that the English believe that they invented football since they were the first to formalise an enjoyable sport into a violent, money-making spectacle that today leads many human beings to be trafficked (as per Soka Africa, Suridh Hassan, UK, 2011), which is not mention alleged sexual abuse conspiracies within the sport and other human rights abuses that take place as a result of the sport.

It is interesting that the response of England fans to their team’s perceived success and possible chances of winning the tournament were framed by the word ‘belief.’ Football is not about being the better team, but about believing that one can win. But not on the part of the players, but perhaps especially the fans (which is not to rule out some irony in a good number of the memes, suggesting that people did not really believe that a mediocre England team could at all be the best in the world).

More than this, that belief is spurred on not just by the performance of a football team and its fans, but also by the plethora of media artefacts that circulate around it (and I’d like to write a blog at some point about Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat and the role that it played in both creating that sense of belief, but also ultimately in betraying that belief as false).

That is, what we believe – what we consider to be real and true – is shaped by media. Hence it is that the pages and pages of British media covering men in shorts running around a grass field create a sense in which that sport is more important to many human beings than lives in Ukraine, where a covert war is taking place – simply because the British media do not cover it. (Perhaps rather than cover it, they cover it up.)

So while Sentsov was protesting the World Cup, England fans got all excited because they managed to stick six goals past a weak Panamanian side and score a few penalties. Sentsov could, in effect, go hang as far as the England fans were concerned; they were having far too much fun on Russian soil to want to think about serious matters like politics.

Indeed, if anything, the UK with its Brexit vote would seem to side with Yanukovych in wanting to be shot of the European Union.

More than this. The UK, with the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in a bid to shape what American voters consider to be real and true, seems increasingly to be the plaything of Russia, which itself seems increasingly likely also to have been involved in shaping what American voters consider to be real and true, and which thus led to the election of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America.

You may think that I am going too far and that this all sounds far too conspiracy theory-like.

But the point that I wish to make is that to embrace technological progress as unthinkingly and uncritically wonderful (Ready Player One) is to lead towards the post-truth world of digital fake news that characterises the contemporary era. Hipster rebellion is not rebellion; giving up games and filmmaking in order to fight for something that one truly believes in… is properly to lead a political life – even if that just means making human connections and working a modest but dignified life in a shop (Gamer).

Note that what I do not mean by evoking fake news is that Russian involvement in American politics is not true. On the contrary, we must critically examine what has happened if we are to work out the truth. But what the world of fake news does politically is that it allows everyone to be precisely uncritical and to dismiss as ‘fake’ that which simply does not please them.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant realities of a film director undergoing hunger strike in a Russian prison in order to prefer the spectacle framed by ‘belief’ of a football team doing well at a World Cup.

It is to dismiss from view the unpleasant possibility that we are all being manipulated by media in order to manage our perceptions. It is, à la Ready Player One, to prefer the Matrix to reality – reality not as something that lies beyond our attempts to find out exactly what it is, but reality as precisely our attempts to discover it. Reality as critical thinking and ongoing thought, rather than the matrix of no critical thought, a loss of human connection, a loss of humanity, a world of docile reception in which the only actions possible seem not to be ones of love (making human connections), but ones of violence against other human beings (murder) because one does not believe those humans (or perhaps anything) to be real. We love what we consider to be real, or rather what we love is what we consider to be real, and we love images more than humans. And yet to love should be to love humans (and perhaps images, too – but not only the images that one a priori loves; to love is to love what one does not love; to love is to love unconditionally; to love is only to love and not to love and to hate; to love and to hate is really just an excuse to hate).

In rejecting gaming, Gamer, then, tries unlike Ready Player One to take us back to the human realm (even if the hero of Spielberg’s film gets the one-dimensional girl and takes a day off gaming every week in a pseudo-effort to placate the notion that living in a fantasy world might not be all that it is cracked up to be).

Even if Ukraine cannot officially be at war with Russia, and if in this sense it must always already be complicit with the precedence of images over reality (no country can join NATO or the EU if at war, and so if Ukraine wants to join either of these institutions, it cannot be officially at war), we can nonetheless bear in mind that the fate of a Ukrainian filmmaker in Russia is still connected to Trump, Putin, the World Cup, fake news and the murders that took place in Jacksonville. And that Oleg Sentsov’s Gamer can help us to make sense of how this is so.

Understanding that this is so might be key to helping us not simply to accept by forgetting the corruption and the violence of the contemporary world, but also to believe in and thus to help create a better world. To believe not just that England might once again be ‘great’ (a true conservatism expressed through digital media and in the Brexit vote), but to believe that we can live in a world that ignores the divisive mechanisms of nations and nationality and which is based upon the shared humanity and life of our fellow human (and other) beings. To believe not in the patriarchal matrix of a society of control, but to believe in and to act towards a world of liberty and self-determination.

You can watch Gamer on the website for the International Film Festival Rotterdam for US$4. Money goes towards supporting Sentsov’s case.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Ireland, 2012)

British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

So, this blog post is not really a critique of Sophie Fiennes’ film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, but more a critique of things that are said in it by its star and writer, pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

The film contains many delightful moments, with the usual interesting insight from Žižek, but ultimately I completely disagree with its core philosophy.

I think that this is summed up by Žižek towards the end of the film, when he says that each of us must realise that we are fundamentally and incontrovertibly alone in the universe.

Perhaps I take Žižek out of context slightly; he offers up our solitude as the logical consequence of there being no God.

However, I’d like to consider this matter from a slightly different angle: humans are not, to paraphrase John Donne, islands – and they cannot be so. And yet, Žižek would seem to suggest ultimately that we are all lost in our solipsistic little bubbles, with no real connection to anyone else ever happening.

While I recognise the emotion of solitude, and while I recognise the inevitability of perhaps never knowing any other human being, never being inside their head, never sharing entirely their life, I still shall argue that ultimately humans are not alone.

In effect, epistemologically speaking, humans might be alone – each knows only what each knows, and one cannot – necessarily – experience the world from without one’s own self/being (although more on this later); meanwhile, ontologically, we are not alone.

And if our ontological ‘withness’ can be accepted, then Žižek’s solipsistic worldview might be forced to crumble accordingly.

But we have to build towards this. And this is a blog post. So we shall do so as succinctly as we can and, alas, imperfectly.

How we are not alone

I lie in my bed. I feel my toes touching the end of the bed – a wooden frame. I cannot see the wooden frame, but I can feel it. I can only feel it because it is solid, and because it is supported by a floor, which itself is supported by a building, itself supported by the earth. I feel because I have a body, which itself functions as a result of blood flowing around me, which is possible in part as a result of my breathing oxygen on a planet whose atmosphere can support the life that has evolved to inhabit it. And while I may have great thoughts, even dreams, when I am on that bed, fundamentally I can only do so because I have a body, which exists on a planet whose atmosphere allows me to exist, and whose atmosphere is allowed thanks to planetary age and distance from the sun.

In other words, I am entirely embedded within a physical universe from which I cannot be separated. I am not alone.

That I speak language – any language, but in this instance English – and that I can recognise other human beings as such, as well as their emotions, is as a result of my having all my life interacted with other human beings.

A thought experiment: humans could be raised by machines, and thus human existence is not predicated upon the existence of other humans.

Indeed – it possibly true. We might run the argument of ‘who made those machines’ (although this points to the need for other humans). And we could follow the Bifo line of thought and say that humans are already raised predominantly by machines (mainly televisions) and that this machine-led life leads to humans being autistic (although this does not mean that those humans are not real humans).

But while the thought experiment is valid(-ish), the fact remains that I speak and think according to the conventions that have come about as a result of social living. I am not alone. This is what, for example, mirror neurons tell us: that humans are hard-wired to be social and sociable, to imitate and to learn from others. If Žižek did not believe this, he would not make a film to communicate with us.

Did Žižek make a film to communicate with us? (Becoming light)

I am not convinced that communication is really Žižek’s primary ambition in getting Sophie Fiennes to make this film (or in going along with Sophie Fiennes if it was she who proposed this and its predecessor, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (UK/Austria/Netherlands, 2006) to him).

This is not to say that Žižek does not communicate a plethora of interesting thoughts in his film. He does. But I think the chief rationale for Žižek to make this film is – facile though it may sound – self-promotion.

Žižek believes that we are all alone. To make a film in which he stars, and which basically features only him, would reaffirm as much. Let’s delve into this a bit more, though, because there is a nexus to be worked out that features something along the lines of cinema-neoliberalism-solipsism-Žižek, and all of which can be encapsulated under the concept of ‘becoming light.’

Becoming light is, simply put, the desire to make one’s life cinematic. It is recognisable in the highly visual culture of the contemporary world: people posting photos on Facebook, Tumblr or wherever, and which photos conform to a certain quality and style of image (often to do with warm lighting and a particular Hollywood-inspired aesthetic); people feeling alive at moments when their life conforms to moments in cinema that they have seen; people taking selfies so as to exist more as an image rather than as a flesh and blood human being – since our image is now considered the ‘real’ us ahead of the, er, real us; people desiring to transcend their real bodies to exist as light, as a star, on a silver screen; our fame and celebrity obsessed culture.

To become light, though, is also to divest oneself of a real body and to exist instead on an immaterial plane, or at least on a photonic plane – on a screen, projected to everyone.

If it is as a result of having a body that I realise that I cannot but be with the world and with other people, then it is in a desire to divest myself of my body and to become light that I dream of becoming cinematic, of existing on a plane without touch. This is falling in love with images of other people – masturbating over images of other people – as opposed to living with and being with other people (co-itus = going with other people).

The desire to live one’s life as if it were a film requires one to buy the sort of props that people in films have. This is about advertising, it is about stuff, and it is about what I shall broadly fit under the umbrella of neoliberalism: looking rich costs a lot of money, but if one does not look rich, one’s chances of becoming rich are slim – so one is forced to enter into the world of chasing material products in the pursuit of becoming rich, becoming immaterial, becoming light.

In this way, the desire to become cinema/to become light is tied to capitalism more generally, its neoliberal mode perhaps more specifically. For, if in becoming light I no longer touch anyone, I become a solipsist, living on my own.

But it is not just in becoming light that the solipsism starts. It is in the pursuit of becoming light. It is in ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘competition’ and the need to go further than anyone else to be the one who is noticed. It is a generalised need for exceptionalism. It is celebrity cult. It is the desire to be ‘famous’ at whatever cost – and better to be famous than a nobody, right?, because a nobody, paradoxically, only has their body, while a famous person has become light, has lost their body (even if dreams of sexual union with [images of] people is what drives the desire to become light).

We are all alone: this is the ethos of neoliberal capital. And it is the ethos that Slavoj Žižek also puts forward in an attempt to critique neoliberal capital. But, then again, Slavoj Žižek is saying this in a film about himself, starring himself. Of course Žižek says that we are alone at the moment when he becomes alone as a result of, finally, becoming cinema (inserting himself into movies, a kind of documented truth about set-jetting and the desire to ‘feel a bit of the magic of the movies’). Because not only is he alone, but he also sets himself apart from other people at this moment to become the celebrity that he wishes to be. Žižek wants to convince us that we are all ultimately alone because he is also at heart a stooly for the capitalist system that he otherwise proclaims to see through via his ideological critique.

Žižek’s nose

Žižek consistently touches his nose during A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (and probably in his real life). There is something a bit obscene about this; but really it is Žižek’s ‘tell’.

What he is telling us is that he is indeed a pervert, but the perversion is not based upon any desire for a true encounter with the other, the nature of which is so twisted (say he likes copraphilia, or something) that he dares not speak its name. Rather, Žižek’s darkest desire is his solipsism – that he prefers masturbation over sex with another human being.

Of course, I am not making libellous claims about the ‘real’ Slavoj Žižek. We are in the realm of a metaphorical Žižek here. But the nose in the film is of course Žižek’s (metaphorical) cock, and of course he wants us to see him touching it in public, but he does not want to put it anywhere – because he must indulge in that most solipsistic and cinema-inspired act of jizzing not in his sexual partner, but on his sexual partner, or preferably just out in the open more generally (pornography’s infamous money-shot; sex becomes display and power games rather than going with someone).

Because of course a solipsist who believes in their own exceptional nature also believes that they cannot have offspring that will match them for brilliance, and so they do not see the point in reproducing. Instead, they just masturbate in public – asking everyone to behold their priapic prowess, while in fact being, ultimately, a solipsistic wanker.

The Void

So… Here we are with Žižek now indulging himself and asking us to indulge him by watching him become light while we mortals continue to lead our bodily existence.

That we are alone, that there is at the heart of reality, the Real of the Void itself is for Žižek the ultimate truth.

But in fact there is no void. The thing that is intolerable for humans is not the emptiness of the world and our sense of underlying solitude; what humans really fear through the capitalist ideology that demands solipsism as the most successful means to gain ‘happiness’ is touch, it is others, it is withness.

In other words, the void is the invention of capitalism. The void is not what lies ‘beyond’ ideology; it is ideology itself.

What lies ‘beyond’ ideology is the Real – but it is a Real so mundane as to be beautiful. It is our bodies, usurping our intentions at every turn, it is us bumping into things, tripping up in public, knocking into each other, seeing each other, smiling when someone else smiles at us, getting angry when public transport does not bend to our will. It is the everyday experience of waking up and getting frustrated and contradicted by a world that is always more profound and complex than our mere imaginations can wonder.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not an apology for leading a dreary life. On the contrary, it is an exhortation to find life in even the most dreary moment, rather than conferring to fetishised and cinematic moments a sense of being ‘really alive’. Because alive is all that we are ever are (and when we are not alive, we are, quite literally, not).

Otherness, withness, being not alone: this is all that we ever are. And to remember and to become as conscious as possible of this is the ultimate critique that one can enact upon the capitalist ideology that has naturalised the sense of the void, that has naturalised a sense of solipsism, that has naturalised a sense of being alone in the world.

Epistemology and ontology

Of course, Žižek probably knows all of this already. And the contention will always be: but even if we are with other people, how can we know this if we cannot know other people? And if we cannot know other people, or that we are with other people, then can we really be with other people? Upon what can one base this claim? Surely one bases this claim upon, ultimately, a leap of faith. An act of faith. An act.

This is a great contention. Here’s my reply.

Firstly, there is perhaps inevitably an over-emphasis in a capitalist culture like ours on the visual: one must have visible evidence to prove the existence of an object – and without it, it is as good as non-existent.

Well, if this perspective is indeed a by-product of a capitalist ideology, it perhaps can be re-thought. That is, we can perhaps consider what constitutes evidence through an alternative framework. And that framework might be touch – we can feel that we are not alone.

Furthermore, to stick to the visible realm, it is a question of what I shall term ‘incessant excess’. Black holes: we by definition cannot see them, because light cannot escape from them. And yet we know that black holes exist. Why? Because we can see the effects that they have on all that surrounds them.

Even if we cannot see, or know, others, because they are the equivalent of an epistemological black hole, we can nonetheless feel the presence of others, we can see their effects. Perhaps we cannot see them directly, but this speaks only of a deficiency in our perceptual systems (in our ideology) more than it does in anything else.

In other words, even if others exceed our perception, and even if it is in an incessant fashion that they do this, nonetheless, the excess always allows for something to ‘inceed’ from outside – an effect, a sense, a touch – not us touching ourselves, but a touch from the other.

We are not alone.

Notes from the LFF: Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, Uncategorized

Mourning is one of the three Iranian films playing at this year’s London Film Festival – and I will be blogging about all three once I have had a chance to see them.

Mourning tells the story of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents abandon him one night after a row.

The next thing we see is a car traveling through the Iranian countryside, a nice black 4×4 drifting along dirt tracks and surrounded by lush grass dancing in the wind.

Subtitles appear as if in error on the bottom of the screen – we can hear no spoken words. But after some time we realise that this is the conversation taking place in the car in sign language between Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), two middle-aged deaf and dumb people who have taken Arshia into their care after his parents’ departure.

En route, Kamran and Sharareh come across a car crash in a tunnel. Kamran leaves his vehicle and goes to investigate. It soon transpires that Arshia’s parents have seemingly died in this car crash, meaning that Kamran and Sharareh will have to look after Arshia from now on.

Mourning is not quite a real time movie, but all of its action takes place over a night and a day, as Arshia, Sharareh and Kamran try to come to terms with the death of the former’s parents, and to envisage a future for the young boy that has been left behind.

The car seems to be a staple motif – and setting – for various Iranian films, with Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/USA, 2002), 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2004) and the more recent The Hunter (Rafi Pitts, Iran/Germany, 2010) emerging as prominent examples. Given that director Farshbaf is a Kiarostami protégé, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The car suggests a simple paradox: it enables mobility while at the same time being an enclosed space. What is more, the use of tunnels along the way in this movie, and in The Hunter also, suggests further layers of enclosure – and darkness.

Given the prominence of these visual motifs – the car and the tunnel – it becomes hard not to read Mourning allegorically.

That is, the film does play as an affecting character piece in which Arshia, who seemingly can both lip read and sign, must learn in a brutal fashion about the death of his parents (which we never see), and in which Kamran and Sharareh run through a range of responses to the death of the child’s parents, from the pragmatic (they are the best placed people to look after Arshia) to the darkly comic (Kamran complaining about how Arshia needs the loo every few minutes).

But the film nonetheless – perhaps in a ‘bad’ way given Fredric Jameson‘s belief that Westerners cannot help but read ‘Third World’ literature, and by extension films, as national allegories – seems to be less about the characters whose lives briefly we share, and more about the place in which the story takes place.

Given the overwhelming silence of the film, the allegory is far from over-stated. And yet the abandonment of a child, his adoption by kind, mobile, but ultimately confined-to-the-car ersatz parents, whose voices literally cannot be heard, and whose language is alien to all but the happiest few, seems strongly to suggest an Iran whose youth has also been abandoned by rowing parents who will drive each other to death, and whose institutional support is minimal.

This reading is without question simplistic – as well as arguably problematic given the perennial issue of for whom this film was made and to whom it will most likely appeal (your average Iranian Joe, or well-to-do Westerners who have time to worry about a land so foreign to them as Iran). That is, in (over-)determining Mourning as a ‘message’ film, I have almost certainly overlooked its power to affect viewers in diverse ways, some abstract (such are allegories) and some physical.

But to stick to the allegorical, the film ends with Arshia in a tunnel. We see a protracted shot of the tunnel – a gaping black hole in the middle of the screen, the impenetrability of which suggests an uncertain future. And then we see a reverse shot: daylight at the end of the tunnel, but with darkness all around us. The light seems ever-so-close, but we do not approach.

Having also had the chance recently to see The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Germany, 2010), a guerrilla film involving tweets, amateur footage, voice recordings, talking heads interviews and animated versions of blogs concerning the Green Movement, Mourning becomes even more resonant.

The Green Wave documents the repressive violence that surrounded the wave of protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s seemingly fraudulent re-election to office in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.

There have since been arrests, murders and brutality aplenty – condoned if not directly authorised by the government.

And what is being protested is not just a stolen election but the deprivation of the right to a democratic society based upon choice.

Iran is a country with a huge youth population – not least in part as a result of the Iran-Iraq war that ran from 1980 to 1988, and which resulted in 500,000 to 1,000,000 deaths. In other words, with the adult generation of the 1980s depleted and scarred by war, it is those who have grown up since who now are the driving force, or the main constituent part, of the Green Movement.

As such, Arshia seems to stand for all Iranian youth – stuck in a tunnel, having lost his parents to internecine disputes, and with new, surrogate parents who do not necessarily speak his language – however benign-willed they are or wish to be.

Given the difficulty with which filmmakers can make films in contemporary Iran (and given the arrest of some 25 filmmakers recently in Iran), it seems that allegory is the only means through which filmmakers can make any political points – even if the use of allegory risks confusing that message (if the message could be anything but confused if it were to pay respect to the complexities of the world and perhaps of Iran in particular).

As such, my take on Mourning as being allegorical is reinforced, since films like The Green Wave cannot be made in Iran, as that film’s German production location makes clear. Farshbaf must be political – like Kiarostami his master – by avoiding the overtly political.

Once again, this is not to overlook the film’s poetic nature: beautiful landscapes filled with human and humane people who live and love like anywhere else on Earth. But politics and poetics do not have to be mutually exclusive; indeed, the film’s patiently long takes – especially of Iran’s luscious green grass – lend to Mourning not the howl that The Green Wave evokes, but a calm, reasoned, certain appeal to a better future…

On Facebook, On The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I’m not entirely sure I have that much to say about The Social Network that has not already been said.

Zadie Smith has written an excellent article on the film in the New York Review of Books, and countless others have chimed in with, predominantly, praise for Fincher’s film, some critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s rather too stylised dialogue and the possible sexism in the film aside.

As for Smith’s article, it seems strange that she had not yet come across ‘software studies’ before writing it, but this is perhaps only my own small-world view; given that I research the role of digital technology in cinema, among other things, software studies entered somewhere into my feeble brain a couple of years ago – and I just assumed that I was as usual late in thinking about software.

But either way, Smith is correct in thinking about how the choices given to us when using software are not necessarily liberating. Perhaps we should all learn how to write code in order to be able to write our own software that can allow us to express ourselves as opposed to having software (arguably) always compromising what it is that we want to say. Software, in other words, is as ideologically constructed, consciously or not, than is a film.

Facebook is, as Smith also points out, certainly a simplification of life, as is a business card, as is a biography, as is everyone else’s opinion of us, as Jerry Thompson has so memorably found out. As is a sled, for that matter.

Shopping malls and the likes of Tesco are successful, because they save us the bother of having to go to lots of different shops, or at least lots of different shops in different places. Everything is brought to one place – and life is made easier. And while buying everything in one mall/megastore is easier than traveling around town or further afield for the things one wants or needs, buying tout court is easier than having to source raw materials and make and/or grow everything one’s self.

You bet that Tesco has transformed, say, the book market because it offers to readers a small selection of choice titles that satisfy the need for books in most people. As a result, Tesco, HMV, and the Oprah Winfrey/Richard & Judy book clubs ostracise the majority of authors from the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson has argued that Amazon reverses, to some degree, the ‘Tesco’ trend (as I am terming it), since Jeff Bezos‘ baby allows buyers to find the books that they want – because they have a larger choice online than in, say, even the wonderful and massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London.

And yet even Amazon comes at a price. Even though the Amazon marketplace does help many booksellers to work with and not against Amazon, its sell-everything approach and its tight grip on the online book sales market has put paid to many individual booksellers in the flesh and cyber worlds.

Smith points out at the end of her essay that audience members laughed when the characters of The Social Network discussed the primitive predecessors to Facebook, such as LiveJournal. Strangely, I do not find myself laughing in a similarly superior fashion when I think about what would otherwise translate into the ‘ineptitude’ of the independent second- and first-hand booksellers that Amazon has put out of business. I find myself saddened in some respects. Some types of obsolescence, it seems, we can cruelly laugh at; others will always make us feel sad (especially when it is our own turn to go on the old scrap heap).

What is linking Tesco, Amazon and Facebook, then, is the fact that each unifies in a single place a bunch of things that might otherwise be dispersed and hard to find. As such, they are simplifications, of course, and saddening ones in certain respects. But their success is based upon the fact that they save humans from having to learn a computer language, hire some web space, and put themselves online – as seemingly we all should do (a position that is replete with its own ideological assumptions concerning the ‘superiority’ of a technical and mediatised presence).

In other words, Facebook is the internet redux before it is life redux; the internet, the bigger version of what Facebook is, is life redux, such that we have an order of largesse: Life > Internet > Facebook. In the same way that shops saved us from growing our own, so, too, does Facebook save us from making our own websites. Facebook is the fast food of the internet, its prefab apartments; if you want a mansion or even a nice house, you have to pay someone more dearly to build it for you, or you learn the skills to build it for yourself.

Now, there is a difference between Tesco and Amazon and Facebook. Facebook is about people, while the former two stores sell stuff. Beyond truisms and urban myths about how family members have discovered the copraphilia of relatives, etc (if you’ve seen that fake, viral Facebook page), and the odd gaffe that most people do not notice (because most of us don’t have time to read other people’s Facebook profiles all day long – as most people don’t read these blogs – a pet hate: people who assume that you have kept up with their life because they report on it via Facebook), and beyond UK murders based upon slurs made on Facebook (revealing that we really do believe erroneously that everyone is looking at us and – more particularly – judging us?; as per one of Smith’s commentators, Facebook allows us all to be famous in our own postcodes; perhaps there is an element of ‘becoming light’ attached to Facebook that does appeal to the appeal of being mediatised, turned into an image, made into a star), Facebook is not really the be-all and end-all of our lives. Indeed, it is only when we confuse Facebook with the internet that we begin to think this way, while my ‘identity’ online consists of numerous email addresses, membership of various sites, some obsolete stuff, comments left in hundreds of forums (to which I never return), and so on. I don’t think anyone takes Facebook to be real life, in the same way that there has been a now-long-standing backlash against the ideological critique of films, because audiences are not dumbly passive to the questionable messages being peddled at them in movies. Facebook alone might constitute something of an implosion of the self, a shrinkage as Smith puts it; but the internet as a whole, especially when considered alongside that even greater medium for (compromised and intersubjective?) self-expression, reality itself, constitutes what Sean Cubitt once described (perhaps rather hyperbolically) as a ‘big bang of the self,’ so many ‘identities’ (or aspects of a single identity) can and do we have floating around in cyberspace.

Jean-Paul Sartre has said that looking at a dice in real life/in existence is a richer experience than imagining one. He says that while in our heads/imaginations we can see all six sides of the dice at once, in real life we can only see at best three or four (unless the dice is in suspension and we have mirrors, although this is my own cheeky contention, not Sartre’s). As such, existence trumps the imagination, hence Sartre as an existentialist who feels that it is better to engage in reality than to disappear into self-invented worlds.

Now, the internets as a whole might be self-invented worlds (though there is grounds to defend them, not least from a postmodern perspective). My invocation of Sartre, however, is not to call people to reject Facebook (as Smith has done), but to suggest that when we look at Facebook, we are only seeing two or three of the many sides of the people we are regarding. Reality is always more rich than Facebook; we know Facebook is a simplification, in the same way that we know a hammer makes simpler the task of making some shelves. Sometimes we would be fools to bloody our hands for the sake of not using simplifying tools to insert some nails in the construction of our lives.

By this rationale, The Social Network is a simplification of the story of Facebook, and this is not surprising given how stylised the film is, with its signature Fincher shady interiors, its dialogue that normal people can only think of after the opportunity, and other flourishes, including, as Smith has also explained, a memorable sequence in Henley, which, as Smith fails to mention, borrows the tilt shift technique made remarkable recently by Keith Loutit, and a good example of which, Mardi Gras (Australia, 2008), can be seen below.

I’m not sure how to interpret Fincher’s tilt shift sequence, except perhaps that, by rendering human endeavour into a cartoonish, or better a stop-motion-like and seemingly toyish form, Fincher is directly commenting upon how his film involves a simplification of a reality, a toyification of the raw material from which he ‘sculpts’ his work.

(It might also suggest that Fincher is uncomfortable shooting outside of the USA. Considered in the light of other of his films, especially The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [USA, 2008], it might also suggest that Fincher is offering a prolonged consideration in his work of the effects of cartoons/simplifications on the human psyche – though in some respects this is no profound thought.)

Even though my last paragraph has dealt with the use of tilt shift in The Social Network, it is time to say that, quite a ways into this blog, we finally are talking about the film as opposed to its subject matter. Smith makes no claims to be talking solely about the film in her essay, so this is not something to hold against her, but it is worth pointing out that no one – myself included – seems capable of talking or writing about the film without using it as a platform for talking or writing about the Book of Face itself.

So Facebook has us in its grips – but we really did not need a film to tell us that. Even several years after joining, I still use it regularly, still ‘stalk’ pretty regularly, and still feel that it is the best self-updating address book I have ever owned (and feel that the rest is fun when I want it to be, and annoying when I don’t). But it’s not as if Facebook is not working alongside various other bits of hard- and software in changing our worlds: mobile phones, the internets themselves, iPhones, iPods, iPads, YouTube, Bit Torrents, and more. Facebook is only a small component of this. We have quickly become habituated to them, so one wonders whether The Social Network might one day be the You’ve Got M@il (Nora Ephron, USA, 1998) of a slightly younger – but still Radiohead-listening – generation.

More important, then, than Facebook, is, after Sartre, reality and people. What does The Social Network have to say about society, about ‘the soul’ and things that Facebook no doubt slightly influences but which more importantly it simply allows to be expressed, whether or not what it expresses is only the Harvard sophomore in all of us?

Rather than being a rewriting of what has been written, and certainly rather than being the final word on The Social Network (which is a superior film by a superior filmmaker, but not necessarily his best), this blog, then, is only supposed to bring out an element of the film that seems to be overlooked by most commentators.

The element that I wish to discuss is the grouped idea of class, private property and commons in the film.

One thing that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants is to be recognised as the author of Facebook. The fact that Facebook for a long time in real life contained the legend ‘A Mark Zuckerberg Production’ on every page has been pointed out. This implies that the internet, like television before it, aspires to the movies in order to be considered legitimate, but it also implies that Zuckerberg is interested in authoring something that is supposedly a collective enterprise. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook,” says the fictional Zuckerberg, before he allows all of his collaborators to get screwed over. Zadie Smith reads this Zuckerberg as someone who wants to be liked, but he is also one of those odd types, whom I can see sometimes in myself, who will screw over his close friends, precisely, perhaps, because Groucho Marx-style, he disrespects anyone who actually does like him, because they must have lousy judgment in human beings.

I have no interest in the real Zuckerberg, but the fictional one at least is a self-absorbed but complex chap who wants to give to the world something ‘free,’ but who, megalomaniacally, also craves recognition for the same. And this is the real paradox in the Zuckerberg character presented here, which does make it perhaps a 2.0 Person created by a 1.0 Person, as Smith says, but which also hints at the 1.0 that holds back the 2.0 in all of us: he talks of an open and free society, but he walks in a privatised world of intellectual property. Zuckerberg’s real genius is not having written Facebook. Contra the ‘great man’ of history (or at least computer programming) that Zuckerberg self-servingly espouses (much like Steve Jobs has done recently on the similarly self-important TED), Zuckerberg’s real genius is in winning his legal battles. Someone else most certainly would have designed Facebook or something like it (indeed, we know this, because various other people are working on this idea in the film), in the same way that someone else would have come up with the fonts for word processing software that Jobs claims as making him/his computers so special. That it was this Zuckerberg – in the film – is simply a twist of fate, a moment of hazardous (inevitable?) chance. But getting the world to recognise that he was the author of this phenomenon – this was the greatest coup. And yet this recognition relies solely on the notion of being a 1.0 person – someone whose ideas are shaped by the rights of private and intellectual property – while claiming to be a 2.0 person – someone who believes in the common, the free, and the abolition of intellectual property. Someone who pretends to be a team player but, whether he ‘actually’ stole from the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) or not, is anything but a team player, as Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) finds out.

In this way, Fincher/Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg is not the face of the future, but the Janus face of the past in the present as it comes head to head with the future. Is Zuckerberg a breed that is dying out, however, as thousands of anonymous programmers work for minimal money or for free on open source software around the globe and around the clock in a real self-organising commons of soft wares? Or is he the lingering face of capitalist greed, regardless of whether the real Zuckerberg has pledged to give away a large proportion of his wealth during his lifetime?

The Social Network is not about Zuckerberg, then, but about a world that is on the brink of potentially undergoing huge social change, upon the brink of becoming, or at the very least welcoming into its fold a generation that is, a network society not of homogeneised kids putting their mindlessness down in their live feeds, but of heterogeneous and collaborating humans who will pool information and resources in such a way that private property, both intellectual and material, is replaced by a sense of a common wealth. A society in which, pace Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, emphasis is not on the individual, but, after Hardt and Negri (whom I am quoting a lot at the moment – apologies!), on the multiple singularities that we are both collectively and ‘individually.’ A generation that recognises its own participation in a reality that is far too complex and ‘existential’ than any single film or piece of software might be able to convey.

Zadie Smith should know well that Judith Butler has, among others, argued that gender is, or at the very least can be, a performance. And while Smith might decry Facebook as a reduced or impoverished life, I would contend that we must think about the performative aspects of Facebook, and understand that few are the people who take it for real. In fact, the performative aspects of Facebook are what make it a liberating tool. A tool for prevarication, perhaps, but also a tool that perhaps also makes a political statement out of prevarication; like the Goldman Sachs employee who preferred networking to making money.

To perform is to perform for others; it is fundamentally an act of communication. As such, performance is fundamentally a means of building relationships with others. Rather than isolating us, Facebook, and the internets more generally, can be considered as a means of bringing us towards a multitude.

To be circumspect, this is unlikely to happen with Facebook as it currently stands. Facebook is indeed too homogeneous/homogeneising, too simple, simplistic and simplified. But given how creative people are and can be with Facebook even now, when we all come to be contributing to an even more complex site at even more complex levels of creativity, and without laughing at Facebook as we would not laugh for poor, defunct booksellers, then perhaps we can see the creative impulses of Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg as a step in the right direction, a 2.0 wish, that was stymied by 1.0 desires.

As a meditation on authorship and private property, it is intriguing that The Social Network has Fincher and Sorkin stamped so clearly over it. Perhaps this film remains too steeped in the mythology of cinema as the work of a single auteur. On the other hand, Smith has attributed to Fincher a genius for casting in her article. In some senses, we need not attribute this to Fincher; certainly, we need not attribute the great acting solely to Fincher. For even if some elements and the general high standards of the film suggest the presence of his genius, it is not the only one, and actors, editors, cinematographers, writers, directors, and others all deserve credit for what they have achieved here.

Cinema, in spite of a(n understandable – and still in some ways rightly influential) detour into auteur theory as the main means of understanding it, has always been a collaborative process. Even for productions the goal of which is to make the maximum amount of money for the least amount of effort, many people contribute such that cinema is often a work of a/the multitude. Indeed, when one lets one’s collaborators do their own work, such that they are not just actors or crew members but what Gilles Deleuze might term intercessors, or people who truly bring their own genius to the pot, then something great can be born. Filmmaking is no doubt about teamwork, even if great teams also have great managers, trainers and captains.

Paradoxically, then, Smith might have it all wrong: cinema was always already (at its best? anyway?) the 2.0 endeavour, while the younger media, including the internet, are still stuck – as per the people versus Mark Zuckerberg court cases brought here – at the 1.0 copyright level. In some respects, Thomas Edison‘s insistence upon claiming copyright for his cinematographic invention stymied early cinema production, even though Edison shamelessly copied Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon (France, 1902). In other respects, by going away from Edison to the West Coast, and by in effect shamelessly pirating his hardware, the film industry got going.

Even though it is easy to decry Hollywood for its overriding power and seemingly (but unfairly) homogeneous products, sometimes perhaps we can interpret it in a different way. Whatever it has become, the film industry in the USA might well have been founded upon a collaborative, multitudinous principle. And software, or the internet, is still in its Edison stage, with Zuckerberg as the (counter-?)Edison of his time. Even if the movies have had to evolve, as Dudley Andrew contends (rather self-evidently) in his latest book, sometimes cinema has evolved in beautiful directions, perhaps because through its multitudinous and emergent means of production it is flexible enough to change. As software, similarly, evolves, hopefully it, too, will have some beautiful iterations that allow the multitude to realise itself.