11.01.2015

The Horror of Beginning a Film, or The Limits of Sense

The beginning of movies holds a particular horror. The film has to go from zero — literally, a blank screen — to some kind of form, some kind of sense, in a flash. This space is absolutely uncertain, a nowhere, a no-sense, an abyss. Sitting in the audience, we reach, grab, and grasp as we try to assemble sense from the flickers before us, looking for a way in, something to stand on, some way to orient ourselves so we can say, perhaps silently to ourselves, I know what's going on here. 

The movement from no-sense to sense yawns with the possibility of infinite nothingness — and worse, infinite no-sense. It's one thing to face the black abyss. But it's another thing to be given something that you know should make sense, something that has apparently been created with the precise intention of communicating sense, and it still doesn't cohere into anything you can grasp, that you can recognize. Something is happening but you don't know what it is. This is madness, sense perception without sense, and it's terrifying.

We all know people who can't stomach this fear. They immediately begin asking questions: Who's that? Why's she doing that? What's going on? This seems to inspire universal hatred. Which makes sense. After all, what is life if it's not the very act of forging form from the flux, making sense from the no-sense? And to have someone else clinging to us for life is literally unbearable; it's the tug of the drowning pulling the rescuer under. 

Hollywood films, aware of this and having no respect for the intelligence of its audience, work hard to mitigate the horror of beginnings. Before the film is even out, studios plaster the world with ads and press releases, with talk show appearances and press screenings, all this to orient the audience before the film has even started. So when we go in, we already know what to expect. Oh, this is a romcom! A robot action packer! An indie drama? These designations come with certain modes and methods of assembling sense that are more alike than they are different; Little Miss Sunshine shares the same structure as The Rock (although The Rock is a far superior film). 

But this passage from no-sense to sense is never univocal. And there are infinite paths to sense, to all the different kinds of sense — conceptual, affective, local, fleeting, universal, transcendent. And, to make it more complex, that initial blank screen will never have been blank. It is always already filled with cliché, with inherited knowledge, with modes and signs of sense that are well worn, familiar, that come pre-packaged as sense-packages so we, the audience, don't have to do any work. The sense comes pre-cooked. 

The filmmaker has so many ways to go. She can give us a sense we think we know and then disrupt it — Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Or she can make the terms of sense making part of the sense making, as in Scream. Evil Dead 2 disrupts sense making, giving us local moments of sense that defy expectation — the room of objects laughing and our hero, at first disturbed, begins laughing as well, going with the event rather than fearing it until we in the audience do the same, laughing with the madness of it. (Horror movies have a license to play with sense making in Hollywood that other films don't seem to.)


The avant-garde, of course, loves this moment, this movement from no-sense to sense. Think of the beginning of Un Chien Andalou. It opens with the classic text, cliché of clichés, "Once upon a time...." And then we see a man sharpening a blade; he looks up at the moon; suddenly, there's a woman's head which he grasps and, holding her eye open, slices her eyeball with the blade. This is the figure of avant-garde sense making: forging gaps — literally cutting the tissue of sense. 


For me, great films are a bit horrific in that I know there's a sense there but I can't find it quite yet. This is in fact the entire logic of David Lynch's films: there is a sense, a logic, but it will forever elude you. He doesn't just give us nonsense or no-sense. He gives us images that do make sense on two orders: local and obtuse. That is to say, the images make a kind of local coherence, never adding up to a concept or clear narrative turn but offering an affective coherence, even if complex and multiple. 

And then he does something else: he gives us the sense of a sense we'll never understand, a logic that eludes. The end of Lost Highway finds Robert Blake whispering in the ear of Bill Pullman. They know what's happening. But we don't. Nor does Lynch, we presume. But there is a kind of master logic that will remain forever off screen, out of view, beyond our comprehension. 

This entire discussion begs the question: What is sense? I want to say that it's a cohering into a this that is multiple and may even be infinitely complex but which nonetheless is a this not a nothing. This this can cohere via a concept — all these different things are dogs or modernist art or love — or via a local magnetic pull, as when an asteroid collides with a planet. Sense can be affective — all these things feel this way. Sense is a form amid chaos, however nebulous. 

But to enjoy this kind of sense — these nebulous, less familiar modes of coherence — demands a certain generosity. Yes, the filmmaker forges a certain coherence. But so do we as viewers, as readers. Some watch Lynch films — or Cassavetes' or Marc Lafia's or Buñuel's — and they turn away, as if there were nothing there, as if no sense was being made. Not me. I want that sense that is precarious, tenuous, that comes into being as readily as it dissipates. There is a riskiness there — a fear, perhaps, but a thrill, a delight, a surging, an urging, a procreant urge of the world, life risking itself to be interesting, to be beautiful, to tease and dance at the limits of chaos and order — to play at, and with, the limits of sense.

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