Why film?

Blogpost, Film education, Uncategorized

There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.
– Gilles Deleuze

Everywhere capitalism sets in motion schizo-flows that animate “our” arts and “our” sciences, just as they congeal into the production of “our own” sick, the schizophrenics. We have seen that the relationship of schizophrenia to capitalism went far beyond problems of modes of living, environment, ideology, et cetera, and that it should be examined at the deepest level of one and the same economy, one and the same production process. Our society produces schizos the same way it produces Prell [Dop] shampoo or Ford [Renault] cars, the only difference being that the schizos are not salable. How then does one explain the fact that capitalist production is constantly arresting the schizophrenic process into a confined clinical entity, as though it saw in this process the image of its own death coming from within? Why does it make the schizophrenic into a sick person – not only nominally but in reality? Why does it confine its madmen and madwomen instead of seeing in them its own heros and heroines, its own fulfilment? And where it can no longer recognize the figure of a simple illness, why does it keep its artists and even its scientists under such close surveillance – as though they risked unleashing flows that would be dangerous for capitalist production and charged with a revolutionary potential, so long as these flows are not co-opted or absorbed by the laws of the market? Why does it form in turn a gigantic machine for social repression-psychic repression, aimed at what nevertheless constitutes its own reality – the decoded flows?
The answer – as we have seen – is that capitalism is indeed the limit of all societies….

– Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

The last limit, between resource depletion and technological “progress”, not only remains but has become absolute – the death of the planet. This limit cannot be internalized by capital (although the nuclear arms race of the Cold War period that transformed the “advanced” nations into permanent war economies based on postponed conflagration was a delirious attempt to do just that). It can, however, be crossed. It is capitalism’s destiny to cross it. For although capitalism has turned quantum into its mode of operation, it has done so in the service of quantity: consumption and accumulation are, have been, and will always be its reason for being. Capitalism’s strength, and its fatal weakness, is to have elevated consumption and accumulation to the level of a principle marshalling superhuman forces of invention – and destruction. The abstract machine of consumption-accumulation has risen, [Donald] Trump-like in all its inhuman glory. Its fall will be a great deal harder.
– Brian Massumi

The social body is being laid bare, laid out, laid, excited, metamorphosed when hands clasp in greeting and in understanding and in commitment and also in parting. When the ear put against the cellular receiver is in contact with a voice from any tribe and any continent… Where the car on cruise control races the Los Angeles freeways, the hands free to dial the cellular phone, cut the lines of coke, or cock a handgun. Where the hearts, livers, kidneys of newly executed Chinese prisoners are rushed to clinics in Hong Kong, where ailing financiers and ageing media superstars arrive by limousine. When hands holding a video camera connect with hands on batons beating the black legs of a speeding motorist… Where hands extend into the Alaskan seas for oil-drenched seabirds. Where lips kiss the pain of the AIDS victim, where fingers close the eyes of the one whose agony has at length come to an end.
– Alphonso Lingis

Bombs exploding in Moscow. Landslides in Brazil. Floods in Australia. Haiti devastated. Over 34,000 people murdered in Mexico over the last five years in drug crime.

If the eschaton does draw near, and at times it seems to, then why (the fuck) are we reading and writing about films?

No doubt we are all simple beings who do the best that we can, but who fundamentally are not armed or invited to help with such bigger issues – and so reading and writing about film is our modest input into the world today. An engineer might honestly be more useful, though, in the face of a collapsing planet. Maybe the Arts and Humanities will just have to look after themselves for a bit while we ride through this (perfect?) storm.

Can film make a difference? This is a question that is often asked and which to me seems redundant: film of course makes a difference, as does every creative and critical act that we do, every thought that we have, and every breath that we draw. Each of these things, by involving rearrangements of molecules, fundamentally changes the constitution of the universe, making it different now from what it was before that work of art, that criticism, that thought and that breath came into existence. In a world of chaos and complexity theories, perhaps even these most trivial-seeming differences can have the most far-reaching consequences.

But are these real differences? Who knows? ‘I prayed to God, but he did not listen and so I stopped believing,’ say some converts, apparently unaware of Bunyan’s fable that those single-file footprints in the desert could be us hunched on the shoulders of a carrier God, not a sign of our solitude at all.

But we secretly know the score: if a film expert were shoved into an exploding Moscow airport, what would they do anyhow? Perhaps save someone, perhaps cower and cry, perhaps film it on their mobile phone in order to get news of the explosion online. But their being a film expert might not necessarily have shaped that response. We are all too human at the last, film experts especially so.

In the absence of being there, because as viewers of films we are never ‘there’ but somewhere else, in a safe and dark room, we might just wait for the inevitable films that will come out about these earth-ending events and then write about how they glorify these horrendous moments when they do. That’ll be useful, for sure.

Either way, I write this in the context of reading recent reviews of two films in particular that have elicited strong responses, namely The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, UK/Australia/USA, 2010) and Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2010).

These responses have been both positive and negative. I’m not going to rehearse what most of them are about, although I will take issue briefly with Ryan Gilbey’s review of the latter film here, because it might be able to help me to connect this film thing with that heavy real world shit that sits at the top of this blog.

Gilbey obviously hated Black Swan, his main accusation being that the film is pompous, overblown and without subtlety. To which the inevitable response: “Subtlety? I got subtlety blowin’ out my ass!”

Or rather, how Gilbey knows for certain what a troubled mind is in order to say that the film has failed to portray one… Well, how he knows this beats me, even if he could lay claim to having a troubled mind or having known a few troubled minds himself.

Indeed, while his negative comparison of Black Swan with Repulsion (Roman Polanski, UK, 1965) is silly in that Polanski’s film is not exactly a masterclass in subtlety (walls coming to life, men hiding in Catherine Deneuve’s apartment, dead animals gathering flies, phallic candlestick beatings, razor blades, blood), it is interesting to wonder against what criteria he is trying to measure this.

Or rather, the criteria are obviously personal (he does not like the film), but in order to legitimise his view, Gilbey lays claim to an understanding of reality (what a troubled mind is, such that this is not an accurate portrayal of one) that simply cannot be quantified with certainty. Aronofsky’s film does not need to conform to what Ryan Gilbey wants it to be. Instead, we should look at the film for what it actually does – regardless of whether it is realistic or not. And perhaps we might even argue that the real world is in fact bigger and weirder than any one person can fathom, and that there probably are some people who have a touch of the Nina Sayers about them (Nina Sayers being the name of Natalie Portman’s ballerina in Black Swan).

That Gilbey compares Aronofsky’s film not to reality but to… another film (by Roman Polanski) illustrates cinematic thinking gone mad. We have mistaken our road maps for the terrain when we believe that films are reality, even if I shall back track and say that this is or at least can be a good thing later on in this blog.

To justify this not-as-brief-as-I-thought-it-would-be-when-I-started-a-few-paragraphs-ago-aside on Gilbey, the point is not really that Gilbey’s review is silly (although I hope that this aside does serve to render somewhat void Gilbey’s other recent comment in Sight and Sound magazine that Henry K Miller’s writing is too ‘review-like’ for what Gilbey thinks that organ should contain – apparently Gilbey knows how everyone is supposed to act, write, and make films), but to point out the drag that everyone feels to reach an extreme verdict on Black Swan, and The King’s Speech, both of which are fine if not exactly world-changing (except in the fashion that everything is world changing).

This blog, then, is not about those films, although I could probably muster some thoughts on both (Hooper is a good cadreur, Geoffrey Rush is loveable, Britain needs some Somme spirit, apparently; Aronofsky’s film is more modest to me than people seem to want it to be; the ending is not ‘real’ because Nina’s bleeding and death are too conveniently timed; creative women are, apparently, dangerous). Rather, this blog is about how we are in the grips of cinematic thinking as I term it – and if we are to get back to looking at the eschaton and worrying about its rather alarming potential for autopoiesis, then we need to start rethinking our thinking cinematically.

I read ‘cinematic thinking’ everywhere in student essays that are supposed to be critical but instead rehash review speak. ‘X perfectly portrays 1970s suburban life’ and ‘The camera moves perfectly around Y’ are particularly odd phrases to me. How do we know what is ‘perfect’?

I don’t intend this as a critique of the descriptive powers of 19-year olds. I just mean to say how such phrases reflect the way in which we are gripped by review speak. In the absence of a language that might see a moment in a film for what it is doing (even if only to the individual watching it at that moment in time), we instead have kneejerk recourse to meaningless cliché that does effectively convey the individual’s enjoyment (it’s ‘perfect’, after all), but which also gets nowhere closer to the specifics of a particular moment, and which furthermore needs to convey enjoyment according to some nebulous sense of use-value. For, in rehashing the hyperbolic language of the film review, the student – and even Ryan Gilbey – puts into play the sales talk that gets arses on cinema seats, the sole end goal of which is to line the filmmaker’s pockets.

If anyone reads this to follow it, and I hope it is follow-able, what I am calling ‘cinematic thinking,’ then, can be refined. Really, it is review thinking that is repeated – and in particular capitalist review thinking that is not really reviewing at all, but masqueraded sales pitching.

I don’t wish to be boring, but I am going to have pick apart the above paragraph to make my point clear. So bear with me…

Ryan Gilbey is a reviewer. Reviewing is his job and I would only be a hypocrite if I told him what he should (or should not) write in his reviews. And, in some senses, to knife Black Swan at a moment when everyone is lavishing it with praise is to try to counter the review speak of which I speak. Furthermore, Gilbey, at least hypothetically, has to respond to the pressures of reviewing: time limits, word limits, keeping some movie industry insiders sweet for the sake of future exclusives, supporting the agenda perhaps of his organ, and other political intricacies that no doubt arise, not least when he is (as in one or two cases he must be) pals, or at the very least good-willed acquaintances, with the people whose work he is reviewing.

So Gilbey is the unfortunate straw man erected here for a wider point, but which I have perhaps only been able to reach through him (I am sure he is human enough to take it). And that point is the moment when language fails us as we talk about films. When language does fail us, we resort to repeating what other people have said.

Don’t get me wrong. Maybe no one has original thoughts, maybe no combination of language is original (although I refuse to believe this). Furthermore, being a believer in spoof movies, I also believe that the deliberate deployment of clichés can in fact explode them from within, in the same way that repeating a word to ourselves over and over can become amusing because we see ‘through’ the word to its arbitrary sound in relation to its meaning. In the same way that a Buddhist might repeat their mantra to the point of enlightenment.

And while I am never absolutely to know how much, when, or indeed if anyone is ever thinking for themselves even if/when they are talking in clichés, I will still hold that not using clichés is a better way of giving the impression of autonomous thought (a reliable impression?) than not doing so.

Because film is audiovisual and language is, well, linguistic, ‘translating’ the one into the other is possibly one of the hardest things for us as humans to do in terms of cerebral endeavour. Arguably we ‘understand’ pictures and sounds with no training and quite naturally (these are ‘unlearned’ skills), but to a certain extent we have precisely to unlearn these skills if we want to get closer to understanding this process and how we should describe it and the pictures that we see themselves. In other words, we need to find the language to describe pictures and sounds (or, alternatively, we need to reply with other pictures and sounds – something that humans are doing more and more, but debate of that will have to wait for another time).

To describe in clichés – be they linguistic or audiovisual – is, for me, deeply problematic, not least because, as I have tried to outline above, it is a short-hand form of capitalist thought because implicitly it implies sales speak. Our brains are shaped by the language that we use and by the images that we see (both in real life and on screens). Of this I have no doubt, not least because our brains change at every moment in interaction with the world. But simply to repeat the same phrases is, or at least runs the risk of, never evolving thought in new directions. If the world needs original thoughts to solve the problems that in part might have arisen from humans being in the grips of ‘cinematic thinking,’ then we need to evolve thought in new directions. We need to not think in clichés. We need to test our linguistic abilities to the limit, because language can draw new meaning and potential out of not just cinematic images, but the audiovisual situation that is reality itself. Seeing the world anew because described anew/describing anew because seen anew, is precisely what will help us to change the world.

And yet cinematic thinking encourages us to fold everything into a neat system of use-value and pleasure. Pleasure, in particular, is a tricky customer, here; things that are ‘perfect’ for us are not necessarily perfect for the world and our place in it in the long-term, and yet it is comfortable thinking and comfort in general that, potentially, makes the mind weak (even if one might trace a long line of intellectuals from deeply privileged backgrounds, which is slightly to miss the point, but this will also have to wait for another time). That discomfort of needing to find new words, this is perhaps the key experience that gives hope to existence, since it demands original thinking – not ‘cinematic thinking.’

More examples of cinematic thinking, although in and of themselves these are perhaps clichés, so beware: people who deal with reality by describing it in terms of films (11 September 2001 being the main case in point). People whose knowledge of the universe is based upon computer-generated images that convert raw data to look like what they wanted it to look like rather than what it is, and yet who, again, use the computer-generated image as reality rather than a modification/simulation of reality. Everywhere the road map, never quite co-extensive with the terrain, still seems more appealing than the terrain, because more simple and easier to navigate. Indeed, the road map was designed for the purpose of navigation. Real explorers go where no maps have yet been drawn.

So, winding slowly to a conclusion, am I saying that film is evil since it and the industries that spawn and surround it infect our thinking, which in turn limits our potential for certain kinds of activity? Sort of. But not only is this a battle between the cinematic and non-cinematic (although I do not really see it as a battle at all, more like a curious dance), but it is also a tango that takes place within cinema – and within the world – our ability to describe the world in audiovisual and linguistic terms such that we see new sides to it, new potentials that might help us find a peaceful way out of the eschaton.

I am not saying that we should destroy cinema, then. But I am saying, because I stupidly believe it, that when we don’t think for ourselves, we naïvely repeat the clichés that others encourage us to say in order literally if not deliberately or conspiratorially to control us. To keep us buying whatever it is, whatever the consequences (as long as money is made). And the major source of the clichés with which we think? The cinema and the various new media that are its children. So why film? Because here we can tackle head on the limits and limitations of human thought, be it verbal, visual, audible or sensual. By trying – which is all that we mere humans can do – we might arrive at some new thoughts, perhaps even at a new mode of thought. And seeing and thinking the world anew, this might bring about some genuine change, that might (God help us) make the world a not necessarily a better place, but a different place in which our desire and ability for free thought, for our own thoughts expressed our own way, are given space and time – rather than than the tiny flatshare that the commodified thought of cinematic thinking tries to make our brains one and all.