January 22, 2015

Past, Present, Future, Etc.


[This text was originally published in The Coming Envelope Issue 8.]

I read this quote from Chantal Akerman. She is speaking about Jean Luc Godard:
You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner. For people like me, who started doing film because of him, it is a terrible fright. And the fact that the long evolution that Godard has been through can lead to this, almost brings me to despair. He was kind of a pioneer, an inventor who didn’t care much about anybody or anything. And that a man at this stage of his life isolates himself, should also be a lesson for us other filmmakers.
And I wondered if the same thing was happening to me. I have been thinking so much about blurring reality and fiction. I feel it is important to do so, that it is our zeitgeist, but am never precisely sure why. Why is it important to blur reality and fiction? It has something to do with a lack of reality in our lives. Gilles Deleuze writes:
The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events that happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.
In using these quotes it is as if I were trying to bring a piece, a moment, of outside reality into this text. It is still writing, still words on a page, yet it came from somewhere else, not from me. It is as if I think quotations are a small chunk of the world.

As I write, cinema is a little over 100 years old and its relevance already seems to be fading. But perhaps this is only a lull, and some time in the near or distant future cinema will begin its second (or third or forth) life. Writing books, I have often felt that cinema has won, while literature has lost. That reading can never compete with the mesmerizing, dream-state of the screen. But I mean this only for others. For me, I have always preferred to read. In fact, more and more, I find watching movies or television almost unbearable. How can I feel such a strong desire to be contemporary, while simultaneously being so much at odds with my time?

To bring ‘reality’ into a cinematic work is more direct, more straightforward, then attempting to bring reality into a work of literature. You point the camera at a tree, film it, the tree is reality and that reality, at least partly, is now in your film. This might sound stupid, but I’ve always felt this simple fact has so much to do with the energy and allure of film. When I stare at a tree and attempt to describe it in words (something I have no talent for whatsoever), the tree is already filtered both through my own particular subjectivity and through language.

I have always been fascinated by the use of voiceovers in cinema. I see within them a slight anxiety that the image is not enough, that the moving image requires words to add context or generate narrative. The use of background music gives me a similar feeling. Of course, like theatre before it, cinema is an art form that can eat everything: music, stories, pictures, action, the past, present and future. Very simply, I don’t like watching films because I feel I am being manipulated, and that I am far too susceptible to it. I also feel manipulated by books, but never as intensely. It is so much easier to put a book down.

Literature has something to do with time, with changing the nature and experience of time. You spend four years working on a book that takes two weeks to read. You can also spend four years working on a film that takes two hours to watch. But, if its within a single take, three minutes of film takes three minutes to watch, while a single page of a book might take days or weeks to write. Both cinema and literature are ways of playing with time, but within literature I often feel a difference sense of time than the one that most often surrounds me.

I am writing now in the lobby of a cinema. It is 10pm and I have just walked out of a film in the middle. My date is still inside watching and I am sitting here in the lobby. The film was Post Tenebras Lux by the Mexican director Carlos Regayas and it was very good, completely strange and unprecedented, but I had to flee, couldn’t continue. It was as if the stunning pictures in front of me were too hard on my nervous system, inducing panic. So many times in my life I have walked out of films in the middle. In the past ten years I have left in the middle far more often than I’ve made it to the end (and I of course don’t go to films frequently.)

Earlier in Post Tenebras Lux, there was a scene in which a man strangles his dog. The dog is off screen, you do not see anything particularly violent, just the yelps of the dog and a medium close up of the man hitting and swearing. I left just after a later scene where the same man had argued with his wife, stormed out of the room to go feed the dogs. There was a shot of the dogs in their pen just before the man entered. I thought it would be too obvious a choice, on the director’s part, for the man to beat the dogs again. Most of the film so far had been fragmented, one scene barely relating to the next. But the tension I felt at the shot of those dogs, with my nervous system already at its limit, was too much. This slight hint of possible (most likely mild) cinematic violence was too much for me to take, yet people watch considerably more violent films every day, and often seem to take pleasure in the visceral experience of conflict or gore. I am so far from being able to understand this difference I cannot even see it from here, sitting in the empty lobby of the movie theatre, watching the rather loud air conditioning blow a red, semi-transparent table cloth up and then back down over the legs of a folding table.

Post Tenebras Lux is a poetic film (at least the first half of it was) – random scenes of daily life, gorgeously shot, cut together so one is never quite sure how to place oneself in relation to them. As I watched, I had no sense of what might be holding it together. I feel bad walking out, would like to know what happens in the second half and now suspect I never completely will. I am wondering if there are any books I stopped reading in the middle then never picked up again. I have some memory of an Italian novel That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda that I don’t believe I ever finished. This must be twenty years ago. What’s strange was I thought it was an amazing book but couldn’t make it through. I often see it in bookstores and every time think about trying it again. I’m a different reader now, almost certain I would sail through it with ease.

And now it’s the next day and already I think Post Tenebras Lux wasn’t such a good film after all. In the second half, apparently, it became more narrative, with the dog-killer getting shot by a thief, his family rallying around him. The things I had liked about it, how fragmented and discontinuous it felt, now seem like mere formal constraints. On the level of content, upon further reflection, the film seems conventional, another story about a male jerk who is redeemed. Having not seen the entire film, I cannot think any of this with certainty.

As I get older, there are more and more people I don’t particularly like. I spend a great deal of time wondering why this is the case, if it has anything to do with a gradually increasing bitterness that constitutes my inner life. What does it mean to not like other people? That I would prefer to spend the time alone? That I am threatened by them in some way? Or competitive? Life can seem so repetitive: I feel I meet the same people over and over again. And the people I have known for years so rarely surprise me. (I don’t know any of them particularly well.) I wonder if there is some connection between not liking people and not being able to watch movies. The people I don’t like claim to love watching movies, as does practically everyone I meet. Does this love encapsulate some key difference between us? Is their pleasure in watching movies, a pleasure I am unable to share, analogous to a more general, unbridgeable divide?

I find movies manipulative and I find people manipulative. I find movies emotionally draining and I find people emotionally draining. (This reminds me of the following, told to me when I was young to demonstrate a certain kind of logic error: fire engines are red, and communists are red, therefore all communists are fire engines.) All of this has something to do with being too fragile, too vulnerable, somehow not tough enough for the modern world.

My last book, published in 2010, was called Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. There was a moment, before I started, when I thought of making it as a movie instead, but then realized I didn’t have the energy or will to make a film, to raise money, to convince producers and distributors, therefore decided it would work better as a book. Revenge Fantasies is about a group of activists who meet once a week to discuss politics. Because they are living in a dystopian near future, there is one rule for their meetings, that they are there only to talk, only to think together, and not to engage in any acts of civil disobedience or direct resistance, because they fear if they were to do so they might be kidnapped by the government, tortured, killed, that their families might come to harm or worse. I was thinking about Argentina during the disappearances, but also about the direction my paranoia reasonably tells me that much of the Western world is rapidly heading.

As I was finishing a first draft I suddenly went into crisis. What gave me the right to make a book set within an activist milieu, a world I’ve had few experiences with and know very little about. I felt I was writing something too disconnected from reality, my fantasy of an activism in which people got together only to speak about ideas and felt no concurrent pressure or responsibility to act. (Talking about ideas has always been one of my strong suits.) I had turned activism into a discursive art, one that played to my immediate strengths but in the larger world changed nothing. However, when the book was finally released, at least some of my fears were alleviated. A few activists I know liked the book, were enthusiastic about it, told me that for them, though absurd, the tone of the meetings rang true. I had captured some of the spirit of how things are organized, of how people behave in such situations, accurate enough, at times, to make them laugh aloud in recognition. I had fired an arrow in the dark and miraculously hit at least one part of the target.

It is arguable whether or not it is possible to disentangle the idea of progress from the realities of industrial capitalism. Progress is the idea that things will continue to grow, to improve, etc. As has often been mentioned, we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. If we remove the idea of progress from our thinking, how does the future change? In some sense it almost disappears. There is no question that everything repeats, in cycles, over years and over centuries, and yet the idea of progress implicitly averts its gaze from this fact. When something repeats, it is never exactly the same: there is an element of how it was before and an element of difference. Progress focuses on the difference, tradition encourages the similarity. But I find myself imagining something else, more like alchemy, that mixes past and future as if turning lead into gold.

So much of my life, like so many artists in the early 21st century, circles around projects. When asked what I’m working on, invariably I’m always working on something I am only able to refer to as a ‘project.’ I have always known one of the things I like about projects is that they end. If you are in a band, and you don’t want to be in the band anymore, the band has to break up, but a project simply runs its course. A project is agreeing to work on a certain set of questions for a certain period of time. I have often wondered if a project is the opposite of activism. With activism you need to keep fighting forever, since injustice is never solved, it must be fought against ceaselessly. A project ends, while activism must keep going. Of course, each project is followed by another project, the next one. In this sense a project is mainly a way of compartmentalizing time. (Perhaps compartmentalizing it in a way that changes it from political or historical time, into a more apolitical, ahistorical modality.) A project will usually take a couple of months, a longer project might take a few years, but activism is measured in generations. For activism to truly shift society, each generation needs to pick up the struggle then keep pushing. This is clearly impossible without some larger, active sense of cultural memory.

I keep circling round and round this idea that what politics needs today is a different way of thinking about time, that the problem with Marxism is it was working towards victory in the future, while what we need is more like a victory of living together in mutual loneliness, a victory-in-the-present-as-future-that-will-never-come, which sounds frustrating, and probably is. But how to imagine this impossible present-future hybrid as not frustrating, as something good, something desirable, a struggle and strength worth having, as possible. Trying to imagine the things I am not yet able to imagine.

I wish I were a better activist, a better citizen. I’m too defeatist. Whatever I undertake, I always have the overwhelming feeling it will fail. The one exception to this defeatism is art. In art, paradoxically, I often trick myself into thinking that failure is a kind of success. A ‘perfect’ work feels dead and sterile. (Also works that strive towards perfection.) For me, in art, it is only failure, imperfection, vulnerability that opens things up, makes them human, leaves room for the viewer or reader to enter the machine. I try to remind myself that activism too is about failure, is always incomplete. Sometimes I wonder if the only problem is that I like art, at times it still gives me energy, but I’m not particularly sure if I like the world. So much activism has a better world as its goal, so if you don’t like the world activism might reflect this desire to see it fundamentally change. What else do you have to believe, before you can believe that something is worth saving?

Perhaps I have an overly romantic idea of what activism is and means. In interviews, the artist Paul Chan has often stated that he tries to keep his art practice and his activism separate. The main reason he gives is that he wants his art to remain complex, controversial, full of ambiguity; and for activism to succeed you need to simplify the goal, so that everyone can agree, or at least agree enough to more fully work together, push towards the same objective in unison. The ambiguity of art rejects easy consensus, divides viewers, undermines clear solidarity. (Though solidarity is rarely clear or simple.) Activism requires the largest possible coalition to succeed, while art needs only one sufficiently passionate viewer.


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