Life is Movement, Scorsese is a Square, and Pirates of the Caribbean is Brilliant

People compared American Hustle to Goodfellas. But whereas Goodfellas tracks moving bodies through stable space, American Hustle puts everything in motion. Its closest Scorsese relative is the liquid film, Casino.

Descartes is, of course, one of the great thinkers of being. And it's no coincidence that he invented (whatever that means) analytic geometry. Now, I have no doubt that the mathematicians amongst us will furrow their brows, at once singular and collective, but I want to say geometry is the study of shape in three dimensional space — you know, points and lines and tangents and polygons and such. In the more or less popular vernacular of such things, we talk of Cartesian coordinates. 

With things fixed in 3D place, it's easy to measure them, assess them, account for them. But when we introduce time, when things start moving, well, it all gets a tad messy. In mathematics, this is called calculus and it has such wacky things as infinite limits. Infinite limits! What's more beautiful than that, I ask?

Calculus is movement, change.
Geometry, while beautiful, is fixed in place.

Structural linguists (de Saussure) — not to mention structuralists (Levi Strauss) — consider things as existing in three dimensions. They claim language has two components, langue and parole. Langue is the structure of language as it exists outside and beyond all of us, outside and beyond actual use. It's the abstract system of language, its rules and laws and such. Parole, meanwhile, is the instantiation(s) of language, its use, its written and spoken form. They considered parole messy, too complicated, impossible to map and so they focused on langue, on the general rules of linguistic behavior.

And then along comes Derrida and says (and I paraphrase), Well, uh, wait. How would we know what langue is if it's not first parole? How could we ever know language except in its written and spoken form? What other form is there? It seems to me that the very structure of langue is predicated on something outside of it and something that is always changing and moving (that is, parole). So the very structure of a structure is the undoing of that very structure. And such is what we like to call poststructuralism. 
Matthew Ritchie paints the calculus of life.

But years before Derrida, there was Bergson who said movement cannot be reduced to plots or points in space. (And long before Bergson were the sophists for whom truth and propriety are circumstantial, in time rather than eternal.) Movement is not the sum of the quantity of space between points A, B, and C. No, movement is a quality that happens behind our backs, as it were — or at least behind the backs of those who would plot and measure it.

Movement, Bergson maintains, is not something added to matter but is immanent to matter, is of matter. Things are not three dimensional but four dimensional (at least): length, width, depth, and time. Time is not something added to the world. Each thing endures as it endures; that is its time. Time in general is all the different times of endurance of all the different things, the world happening at all times at once (or not, as the case may be).

Reading reviews of American Hustle, it was hard not to notice all the references to Scorsese, as if David O. Russell was just re-doing Goodfellas. But that missed what was happening all together. Scorsese, and especially Goodfellas, is about filming bodies moving through 3D space, as if the world were a stable background to the transience of human life. Scorsese's Casino is a different film, a liquid film, with three narrators projecting different images across the plane of the screen. In American Hustle, David O. Russell gives us just such a calculus of life in which everything is in motion all the time.

These are very different approaches to film, to life, to love, to the image. It's not a matter of  judgement, as if one were better than the other (Goodfellas is a brilliant, excellent film). But it is a matter of a certain kind of assessment, an assessment of will, of what world this or that filmmaker, artist, person wills in life: What cosmos do you live in? What cosmos do you want to live in? 

This is one reason I loved the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. Gore Verbinski gives us a vision of the world in which everything — yes, everything — is moving. These are not just characters on a boat as if the boar were a stage. No, the boat itself becomes a character. And it's not just a boat full of characters on the ocean. Here, the ocean itself comes alive. This makes those movies difficult to watch, a visual cacophony as everything is in flux.

But such is life. It just keeps moving, often creating blur. One day, one year, one decade you love Chinese food or a girl named Diane or the books of Milan Kundera only to find, later, that you don't care for any of those things. You're changing, always; the world is changing, always; your relationship with the world is changing, always. There is no stability, no ground, no home. We are nomads. Home is anywhere you hang your head (pace Elvis — Costello, that is). And I can't help but feel that it's not a question of stopping it — with ideas, philosophy, reason, with art — but of moving with it. So don't be a square. Be a differential equation.


Jim H. said...


Enjoyed the piece. I very much like the way you boiled down Derrida's deconstructionist move to a short paragraph. Not everyone can do such things.

Also, know the movies. Agree. I felt 'Wolf of Wall Street' was more like 'Goodfellas', following a naif, of sorts, who wittingly gets mixed up in things. But that's not the point of my Comment. I wanted to share a short page from the draft of my novel which is to your point re "differential". My protagonist has an epiphany of sorts into who he is, calls himself 'differential man'. Again, as often, I find points of agreement.

There was, to be sure, motion. Or the sensation of motion, call it that, rocking and irregular. I could feel it in the space where my spine fused with my hips, a dull ache that threatened to spark again into full-fledged agony. There was wind as well, though I could neither see it nor hear it, nor feel it against my face. The landscape swept by on both sides of my face, and but for the jostling of my body and the grinding of the steel wheels the illusion of its moving past like a pair of stock scenery rolls from an old movie would have been complete. My head drooped.
I was alone again. Nina had not come back with me. Picaro needed a good grooming, and, I suspect, she had a few things to say about the future of Shadowstone Fields. Her future. This was not my battle—yet. Li would drive her back into the city later. I succumbed to the strain and rested my eyes. More would be required of them this evening.
Alone? No. That wasn't the term for what I was feeling. I wasn't alone. There were others on the train, in my car, even across the aisle from me. What was it? Lonely? Not at all. Lonely implied I needed others to be complete. No, I was not lonely, had never really felt that way. My mind didn't seem to want to work for me. Solitary? That wasn't right either, though it was closer; still, it made one think of prisons.
A sigh escaped my throat. The woman across from me looked up from her paperback. I rolled my eyes and smiled. I wasn't even sure there was le mot juste in English for this sense I had of myself. Singular, unique? No, no: they didn't work either; too vaunted, smacking of hubris. Alienated? Too harsh, I thought, for it was a comfortable solitude, a safe one, in which I found myself. And besides, alienation had legal and political connotations.
Oh, what was that word? It was on the tip of my tongue, yet just out of reach like the obvious solution to a tricky clue in the Sunday crossword. It wasn't a common term. It even had some technical implications. It seemed like it was used in mathematics and maybe in medicine and mechanics, as well. What was it?
The train rounded a broad curve. I could see the engine out ahead from my side of the window. Work, brain, work. This is a good exercise. Find the word. You've got work to do in the city. A moment passed and then, the aha! moment. Yes, I remembered: differential. That was the word I was looking for. My body shuddered involuntarily. Differential gear: the unequal distribution of power to the wheels of a turning vehicle. Differential equation: motion, points in time. Differential diagnosis: ruling out everything that the symptoms did not support. Differential: was that the word? Differential man: Was that what I was feeling? Was that who I am? Did that somehow define my life? What I was becoming?
I chased this line of associations downward into an abyss of sleep. A body, an identity, forming, moving through time. An arc, a curve defining my life as I shucked off everything that was different from me, everything that was not me. Rejecting everything I could not use or become. Focusing my energies where I felt the strain. Until when? Going where?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Holy moly! I'd say this is uncanny but perhaps it's actually quite canny. Either way, I love love love this — the writing and the figure of differential man. Brilliant, truly. You say so much here, give such full life to the concept, fleshing it out with such elegance.

And, once again, oddly in synch.