On Watching Films: Identification & Confrontation
Most Hollywood films work through this mode of identification. They give us a character — someone safe, someone we like, someone we trust — and then throw us into the mayhem. We identify with someone in the film, as if the film were a representation of real action and this character was our tour guide.
It sounds almost obvious, doesn't it? Of course a film is a representation; of course we identify with a character. What else could happen? But identification is just one mode, one architecture, of the cinematic experience. There is real life; there is the camera that records; there is the projector and screen that plays it back.
Here, then, is a different mode. Rather than the film representing reality, it becomes an event in and of itself. So we don't identify with a character in the film; we don't move through action per se. Rather, we confront — and are confronted by — a visual event, namely, the film. The action then moves from an elsewhere that the camera captures and puts on the screen to the screen itself. The screen shifts from being a way to see what's elsewhere to being the thing we're viewing, that we're confronting. Instead of mediating reality and viewer, the film becomes an immediate experience.
Think of Cassavetes' "Faces." We never identify with a character; we can barely understand what the fuck they're saying. In some sense, very little happens — it is not an action packed film. The story, such as it is, is achingly banal. But, holy moly, the action is non-stop. The film moves relentlessly and at near infinite speed — not in real space but in affective space. The mood — of the characters, of the film — shifts at a maddening, delirious clip.
We don't identify with anyone in "Faces": we confront, and are confronted, by the film, by its relentlessly shifting affective terrain. (The face, for Cassavetes is a screen, always already playing the flux of affective resonance that is a life.) The film does not seek to confirm who we are and what we know. On the contrary, it is a different kind of event, an event of difference, an affective teem. We come to it and it comes to us and together we move somewhere new. As Henri Bergson might say, the film endures — it is itself a constitution of time and not just a record of another time.
Of course, the line between identification and confrontation is not so neat. Consider Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" in which we intimately follow the titular character, played by Harvey Keitel, through debauchery to quasi-redemption.
The film no doubt entails a certain narrative trajectory, a recording of action through real space rather than a purely cinematic event at the site — as it were — of the screen. And, in some sense, we identify with Keitel, even if he's grotesque and morally questionable at best.
But watch the scene above. If it were purely informational, that is, just trying to move us through the action, the scene would be shorter and to the point. But it lingers just a bit longer than it presumably needs — she has trouble opening the door; it stays a bit longer on him rubbing his neck; she can't find her lighter; she re-fixes the pipe for him.
This is all to say, the film confronts us with the possibility, and impossibility, of identification. Within its filming of action, it drifts with affective flow, with a certain insistence: the action is all on the screen, right there — not somewhere else. At this point, it is no longer a recording but an event in and of itself.
Making My Way as a Misanthrope, or Writing a New Social Contract
This aversion does not stem from a principle. I don't find humans inherently or even practically abhorrent (not in general, anyway; I find particular people abhorrent). No, my aversion is constitutional — it's just how I roll.
Crowds, needless to say, freak my proverbial shit (this is why I prefer Candlestick to the new Giant's ballpark — Candlestick was empty; I'd have a whole section to myself. The new park — whose corporate name I refuse to mention — demands I sit, eat, and piss arm to arm with my fellow man). But that's easy enough to avoid.
What's more difficult is social crowding. That is, when I have too many or extended social interactions, I become exhausted in profound ways. Just as a photophobe avoids too much light as well as light that's too bright, I tend to avoid the social. Which is just to say, not only do I spend a lot of time alone, I need to spend a lot of time alone.
Perhaps my constitution is more porous — too much leaks into me, leaving me waterlogged. Some people fare the social exquisitely — they are out and about non-stop and healthy as can be. Such is their constitution. Not me: I get inundated and then can't operate well.
The only time this becomes complicated is when there's a woman involved. Oh, man, dating as a misanthrope demands a lot — a lot — of verbal assuaging and negotiation. And, any way it falls, I come out looking either like an asshole or a freak — or both: either I don't want to be with the lady in question or I'm a neurotic.
This is the difficulty of operating in a different social logic. The prevailing logic is that the social is the assumed term; the only reason not to participate is health related — sickness of body or sickness of mind. Choosing to be alone is construed as not wanting to be with this or that person, as a negation of the other rather than an affirmation of myself.
This is my social logic. I always try to assume that everyone does — or should do — as he or she deems fit, as he or she is best served. And so if someone "blows me off," I don't care at all: I assume he or she is tending to whatever needs tending. Of course, it may be personal — perhaps she loathes me. But then what do I care? Who wants to be with someone who loathes you?
The difference is this: my social sense begins with selfishness, with self affirmation. This is not a selfishness that comes at the cost of the social but operates as part of the social — and, in fact, to me makes the social work better. But it only works if others enter the same contract — that is, they begin with their own selfishness, their own self affirmation. If the terms of the social contract demand that the social be sated, then the misanthrope such as I becomes anathema.
Now, I'm not talking about the selfishness that leads one to ignore the plight of others. No, I'm talking about the ethics of what William Burroughs calls the Johnson — mind your own fucking business but a) don't throw anyone under the bus; and b) if you can lend a hand, don't let the guy who's been thrown under the bus get run over. This is a social contract of respect: we assume individuals are individuals, affirming themselves.
My misanthropy, then, is not born of a desire to shun people but to roll with the social in a way that best suits me. And if others want or need to be social all the time, power to them — truly. Just don't assume that my solitude is a problem or says anything about you. Assume it says something about me.
Family and Friends
Friends are another sort of relationship all together. We choose our friends and they, in turn, choose us. There is no necessity. The relationship exists through activity by both parties (unlike family: a brother is a brother regardless of what he does). Friendship is active. It demands work — a negotiation of, and between, at least two people. (Family, too, involves work — my god, it demands more work than any friendship — but not by definition.)
Friendship, then, is not inherently conceptual or abstract. It is built from worldly interaction, by and within the behavior of all parties.
And yet both family and friends demand an unconditional love. But the conditions of this lack of conditions are different for family than they are for friends.
When I was married, my wife used to get frustrated with me for not calling back my friends — I often go weeks without returning calls. But, to me, that is the definition of a friend: a person you don't have to call back. Family implies a certain duty. Work, of course, holds a paycheck over my head — so I call back. But friends? Ah, friends are people I choose — and so I can choose not to call them back.
Indeed, far from being a rebuke of that friend, my decision not to call back is an affirmation of my friendship. If I feel obliged, then the friend is no longer a friend, no longer someone I choose to be with but someone I must be with — that friend becomes family. And I don't want my friends to become family. I already have those obligations, those duties, those very special forms of torture and pleasure.
No, what I want from a friend is all the complication and messiness of choice, of negotiation, of desire and will. I want to want to be with this or that person; I want that person to fuel me, vitalize me, just as I want in turn to fuel and vitalize him or her.
When I am being a real dud — when I'm slow witted, cranky, depressed — I feel it is my obligation to avoid my friends. My mother, however, is different: she can get my worst self. But not my friends. My friends deserve, need, my best self. And they feel the same way.
Of course, things are not always so clear cut. Sometimes, friends do become family and that can be beautiful — to have a choice become a necessity. This often happens with old friends — there's no longer that immediacy of vitality but there is something else there, an abiding love.
Other times, a friend may be feeling shitty but I can try to make him feel better so that I can get him back to his vital, witty, zestful self. Which is to say, the condition of love for my friends is different than the condition of love for my family. With family, I'm just "there for them." With friends, I'm there for them, too — but so they can get back to the on-going negotiation, that mutual fueling and enlivening.
Faces and Things and Such
I was particularly fond of this Otto Dix portrait. I tried living in Paris after college (it turns out Paris is not particularly fond of 21 year old Hebrew hippies who, to Parisians, look Arabic — oy vey; I learned to carry my passport with me to avoid beatings from the thug ass cops) and this painting — I'd known it as a poster from a college friend's apartment — hung in the Pompidou. Having no friends and nothing to do, I'd often go and sit for hours in front of this hilarious, exquisitely grotesque image.
And then one day, it was gone. It wasn't even replaced by anything. Where there was once a painting was now nothing but wall.
Years later and I've come to read that moment as propitious: the movement from face to thing, from humanity to the landscape of life (not landscapes per se). What I would later come to understand is that everything — yes, everything — is a possibility of being. That I can go like a rock, a wall, a street, a mountain, or like that swirl of paint or very, very still video of the Empire State Building. I began to understand that art is not about representing possibilities of human being but of creating affective possibilities.
Suddenly, the world — of art and the world at large — yawned. Everything became an inflection of being and everything a possibility. The face then moved from a privileged space into being part of the landscape, an inflection point amongst infinite inflection points, human and not, organic and not. Humanity — and humanism — was limiting me, to say the least.
I began to see the world as an endlessly shifting landscape of visible and invisible bodies, all moving at their own speeds, in their own styles, ricocheting, merging, blending, drifting, insisting, dissipating, cohering. And the face became one moment, one shape, one style of this landscape (pace Deleuze and Guattari, "What is Philosophy?")
I Am Metabolism
Our very selection of things — friends, recreation, location, literature — stems from our appetite, from our taste. ("Stems" is not quite right because it suggests there is a self before taste, which is not quite right. We are our taste; or our taste makes us; or we are our tasting.) Each of us desires — and needs — different things. We are drawn to different things. The strong, according to Nietzsche, are those who instinctively desire those things that fortify health, that enliven, that strengthen. The weak — the decadent — are those who choose things that make them sick and tired, that make them weak (a tautology? No: the weak are, well, weak — they perpetuate their weakness).
We know these people (usually in our families or jobs). We know this weakness in ourselves — we find ourselves doing things that are shitty. I don't mean things like drinking and fucking and getting high; I don't mean shitty in a moral sense. I mean shitty in the sense of how it affects our fundamental health. (A certain amount of booze, and certain booze, fortifies me for sure. There is a line between alcoholism and a certain metabolic need but this line can, at times, become confused by some.)
This, to me, is what's so troubling about watching someone absentmindedly eat through a bag of Doritos or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of Jim Beam. Of course, there is the rare person for whom such things are in fact enlivening. But these are rare people. Witnessing such flagrant displays of bad instinct is painful (especially in oneself). It's watching someone — sometimes oneself — die badly.
We eat the world and, in so doing, make ourselves: a productive consumption. And metabolism sits at the juncture of self and world (along with taste — taste is the tongue and fingers of metabolism). We take in the world and make sense of it within the elaborate engine of our being, an engine that includes intestines and moods, erections and dreams, burps and ideas. Metabolism is the function of taking in and spitting out the world, of distributing the world in a particular manner, at a particular speed, making sense and making self.
All things have some kind of metabolic function. A rock, for instance, takes in sun and dirt and earth and bugs and rain in its own way. Different rocks do it in different ways and certainly in ways that are different than what you or I do — although certain people have rock-like metabolisms (not a bad thing, mind you).
We choose books, we choose recreation, we choose work, we choose friends and lovers just as we choose food. It's all a matter of appetite, taste, and metabolic distribution.
From time to time I like to pause and look at my life, at how I make my way through the day, through the week, through the year. I consider how often I find myself in distasteful situations — fighting with friends, with co-workers, with family members, cursing at cars (I never fight with friends — perhaps because I don't have any friends. Which may be why I don't have any friends. But I'm always surprised to learn that people do, in fact, fight with friends. This seems odd to me, But many things are odd to me). These are signs of a sickly metabolism at work and is a call for change.
According to Nietzsche, the strong are those who discipline themselves, who train their instincts (another great move Nietzsche makes: we can train our instincts!). The strong work themselves over like a piece of art, like a sculpture, chipping away the poor instincts, strengthening the strong ones.
To consume this life well — and hence to make oneself well — is an on-going negotiation. Of course, metabolism is itself the act of negotiating — which makes negotiating one's metabolism tricky. But such is this Mobius life: a hammer making itself with a hammer.
A good friend of mine, the inimitable Chloe Weil, made an interesting comment to me the other evening: "I'm not sure energy can be stored" — or something to that effect.
This comment emerged from a conversation about music — and, in particular, the modes of writing about music. A film, she said, has a way of staying with her, leaving her in a mood, affecting her for a period before passing. Music, on the other hand, passes through her: she may feel its pulse during its play but once over, so is the energy. She doesn't store music.
I've since been obsessed with this idea. What does it mean to store energy? In what ways can we say that we do, in fact, store energy? And how do we store different kinds of energy?
I went directly to the things I know: my philosopher and writers. I have my little canon. And each member runs through me, pervades me to a greater or less degree, with greater or less intensity, in ever varying shapes, potentials, and possibilities. Can I say that I store the energy of these writers — that I store Nabokov's alliterative play, Deleuze's folds and proliferation, Burroughs' vaudevillian dreamspacescapes?
I like that image: they give me energy that I store, that I make use of to perpetuate the functioning of this body, this mind, this life I call me. Of course, storing suggests limited supply, that I can somehow use up Burroughs and be left with none of him. Maybe that's right. Maybe that's why I return to the same writers again and again, why I've read "The Western Lands" dozens of times and will, every few months, pick it up again and peruse, snatching up phrases and figures: I'm refueling my Burroughs power cell.
Then I thought of visual art and of the way Calder and Klee and Matthew Ritchie and David Shrigley have shaped me, have provided me fodder for living, ways of going, modes of being, inflections of my own metabolic propensity. Have I stored the energy of them? Is this just memory? And vice versa: is memory actually the storing of energy from and of the world? I like that quite a bit.
So what of film and song? A film, as Ms. Weil suggests, does have a way of crawling inside and fueling the viewer in some way. I know there are certain films that, after watching, I am exhausted, as if it depleted my energy store rather than fueling me.
Song is trickier. A song can totally take me over, thoroughly transpose my mood. And that feeling may linger a bit but it does tend to dissipate. And yet my body is fueled, in many ways, by Led Zeppelin, by Ween, by Broken Social Scene and Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan; by The Smiths and Miracle Legion and even Beach House. Each, like a philosopher or writer or visual artist, gives me a possible way of going — a vital energetic thrust of living.
This is to say, a song may do this — but rarely. But a body of work — a series of songs — begins to take on a life as it becomes a way of going, as it becomes a possible mode of living (for me, for others). And this possibility is potential energy — an energy we store in our lives and utilize to continue living.
Suddenly, the world is all energy being shared, ricocheted, stored, refined, wasted, multiplied. The world does not just abound with energy; it is energy. And each thing is a way of storing — and making — energy. Just as a rock baking in the sun maintains its warmth for a spell after the sun has set, I maintain Deleuze-Burroughs-Ween-Dylan-my son-my lovers as I enter my solitude. These are the things that fuel me, that along with Uni and pork chops and coffee and tequila, provide me the energy of life.
We store the world for a bit. But we are always gathering more sources of energy — just as we are always (hopefully) producing our own energy supply.
Thoughts on Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"
"The Tree of Life" is an odd film that seems, like its arboreal title, to branch in different directions.
On the one hand, it seems to make a distinctly Bergsonian argument. The first hour or so of the film is relentless motion — the camera moves as it films movement. All is flux. All is change.
And human being, including its emotional complexity, is just another inflection of the great flux that is life. Just as fire and lava and water and amoebas and jellyfish and air and wind are the ever changing, ever moving stuff of life, so are human beings. We are not fundamentally different than any of these things — than air, fire, water, animal. It's all just stuff; it's all movement; it's all flux; it's all life.
In this sense, the film is thoroughly worldly. The camera loves this life, all of this life — even its brutality, its indifference. It's all so freakin' beautiful, relishing everything, even the banality of suburban life.
On another hand — there may be more than two hands here, there seems to be a transcendence that lurks and hovers. The camera pans up over and over again, as if there were a god in the sky overseeing it all. The mother says it at one point, in a near whisper: "God lives there," pointing to the sky. And all the worldiness, the lushness of the images? That's the power of God — a God who is different than those waterfalls, different than the Big Bang, transcending it all.
Indeed, the ending seems to give us heaven, resurrection, angels.
And yet we can read that ending differently — rather than transcendence, it gives us the power of memory, the fold of time on the banks of the great oceanic teem of time.
I love this ambivalence of the film — at once thoroughly of this world and transcendent.
Thoughts on Style & Comportment
This is a snippet from a much longer piece I wrote a few years ago. I feel some odd obligation to proclaim this, as if Blogger were a priest of spontaneity and this my sin....
Style is not an essence. It does not exist prior to the thing. Nor does it reside deep inside, pushing the buttons, driving the ship. Style is not the means one adopts to liven up an otherwise boring performance. Style shows itself, or rather, forges its very existence, in the process of production, emerging at the point of contact between and amongst bodies.
Style is not just a heeding of the world. It is this manner of heeding the world, a singular mode of engagement with things. Style is what this body does with the world, how this body does with the world. Style is metabolic, a singular body's manner of consuming and distributing the world and, in the process, of creating itself: a productive consumption. It is the rate and mode of consumption and distribution, the manner and speed with which a thing takes up the world and put it to work.
Look around. See the different ways different bodies hold themselves, the different speeds and postures with which they tend, and attend, to everything around them — other people, information, light, hair, eyes, scent, air. Every thing consumes the world in its own way and, in so doing, creates itself. This is called comportment, the way a thing hangs in the world, the way it carries itself in the world. Comportment is at once a mode of interaction with the other things — an appetite as well as a touch — and the manner in which a thing holds its different elements together. A swimmer, a linebacker, a German Shepherd, a Chihuahua, a toddler, an adolescent, an elderly woman: each carries itself differently, assembles itself differently, emphasizes certain things and not others, leans more or less forward, more or less quickly, more or less upright, more or less attentive to different things. Each thing is more than a set of traits. Each thing is a way of going.
Style is not something done to the world but with the world. Our very perception of the world is already a particular configuring of that world; it is a giving shape to the many elements that present themselves to the perceiver. You and I are walking down the street. I notice some things, you others. And we do very different things with those perceptions. There is no moment we can possibly experience that is free of our styles.
Even so-called inanimate objects enjoy a style. Put any two drinking glasses together and you’ll quickly see two modes of making sense of beverage, container, and consumption. And these different styles, these different glasses, interact with other styles. Drink tequila in a whiskey glass and you’ll lose the delicate nose of the agave; drink whiskey in a tequila glass — tall and thin — and the whiskey will fail to open. This world calls for the right style for the right thing on the right occasion.
A thing — a text — is a multiplicity of elements, physical and affective, hanging together by the emergent, and ever singular, function of style.
Perverts and You
The very premise of this game is that there is something, deep down, that defines us. There is a real you. And, thanks to the rise of a certain fear of sexuality, this reality is often thought to exist in one's sexual proclivities, in one's perversions. But perversions aside, we still assume there is a real lurking within.
I've recently come upon this in dating. I'm sitting there with some more or less random woman, trying to size her up and she tries to size me up. Usually, I'll say something no doubt inappropriate — or considered as such — and I'll watch as she withdraws. Suddenly, what was charming and safe about me has become suspect, refracted through the lens of being that kind of guy — a pervert, a player, a motherfucker of some sort. And, once so categorized, there's very little chance of escaping the box — "you are a pervert all the way down, you horny hebe" — and even my most generous, kind gestures become construed as perverse.
I, no doubt, do the same thing. "Oh, she's just this or that kind of woman," and I'll dismiss her nuance — and hence her very humanity.
But people are more complicated than just being this or that. I may be a pervert in this way but that doesn't mean I am a pervert in all ways. Which is to say, our assumption that there is a real self, some defining nugget of self truth, shuts down the complexity of what it means to be a human being. This insistence on truth, on authenticity, becomes a sledgehammer of judgement.
People are complex. We are different things, always. And we are different things to different people at different times. This doesn't necessarily make us fickle or false. It makes us human.
So imagine that people — you, me, your parents, friends, strangers — are made up of dozens, hundreds, thousands of strands. Don't look for the real person. Instead, enjoy (or don't) the experience of being with that person. Does this performance please you? Make you feel strong, healthy, vital, capable, beautiful, sexy, smart?
If we assume people are complex, that people are different things and don't have to be one thing, then perhaps we can become more generous in our judgements, in how we deal with others. And then perhaps we can enjoy a bit of perversion without the fear that it will overcome us like some alien invader.
The Real Put On
I love Joni Mitchell's album, Blue. Fucking love it. It's beautiful — thoroughly emotional without being maudlin or cliche. I will admit that when I was a freshman in college, I listened to it everyday.
But what really gets me going is not that raw, exquisite emotionality. What really gets me going is the put on, the doubling and tripling of self, a play that doesn't relent, that will never give way to a true self. For me, the band that follows The Beatles' legacy is Ween.
Ween puts on the world. They take every genre imaginable — from Philadelphia soul to Sonic Youth to The Beach Boys to Jimmy Buffet and so on and so on. Yet they don't just play that genre straight: they take it up and let you know they're taking it up. And yet this knowing that they're donning a disguise never gives way to a revelation. There is no true Ween underneath. Who would that even be — Dean and Gene Ween?
No, the put on never stops: it's play all the way down. I know this annoys some — understandably — in that it feels false, it feels cheeky, it feels insincere, it feels like some kind of false irony.
But what's strange to me is that it doesn't feel false. But nor does it feel sincere. Ween exists in a much stranger place in which all there is is a put on — and that put on is real. In fact, what would make it insincere is if we thought that it was just a disguise, that underneath it all there they were, winking. Then it would seem like a false put on to me; it would seem insincere. But there is no there there: all there is is play. And hence there is no falsity just as there is no truth: pure play, relentless play, disguise upon disguise upon disguise.
Recently, I've become more attracted to the rap and pop music the kids love so much. What I like is the play, the play acting, the posturing, the put on of it all. It's not music that demands sincerity; it's music that demands a posture.
I love this relentless put on, this refusal to expose oneself once and for all. The 60s and the psychoanalytic nonsense it spurred (not Freud but what was done to and with Freud) created this will to authenticity, to a version of self-expression that is focused on personal emotions — think: Anne Sexton (whose poetry I like, by the way).
But self-expression can be about more than one's inner feelings. After all, it's expression: it's outward facing. So to express oneself can be about how one takes up the world, how one puts on the world, rather than how one feels and reacts to the world. Self-expression, then, would not be an excavation of self — a turning inside out — but a hurling of oneself into the swirl of life.
Of course, things that ring false ring false — and who wants that? So I want to suggest that there is this other place of the real put on. What makes it real is that there is no wink, no revelation.
Does this mean I have to love every put on? Of course not. Certain things just don't resonate well with me. This is called taste and we each have our own way of making sense of things, of enjoying things. But my criteria of taste do not involve the distinction of authentic/false. I want to begin with the put on as the basis for existence.
I love Joni Mitchell and Anne Sexton not because they're emotionally honest but because their art is beautiful, moving, it resonates with me. In some sense, I enjoy them as a kind of put on — their way of putting on the world.
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