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A Film in a Scene

I want here to consider two film scenes, each of which seems to contain within it the en­tire plot of the film from which it comes, and to reflect on the role that the technique has within the two films. The first scene is the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The second is the final scene of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail.

Aguirre opens with a series of shots of a group of people descending a mountain. Eventually, we see them up close, but the opening shots show them dwarfed by the surrounding landscape, the mountain and the river. They resemble ants more than people. The sense that they are being swallowed up by nature is inescapable: it dwarfs them and they are nothing in relation to it. In a way, the rest of the film does little more than flesh out the details that this opening scene preordained.

In Beau Travail, by contrast, the scene in question comes at the end. The whole story has been told, and now we see a scene that seems entirely removed from it: Galoup, alone on a dance floor (seen in previous scenes), giving a two-part dance performance. This dance performance wordlessly recapitulates the entire film. In the first portion of the dance, Galoup moves tentatively, unsure of himself as he tries to seduce someone (Bruno). Gradually he gains confidence, and finally he lets loose. There is a cut to a page of credits, and then Galoup reappears, now with a horrible, enraged expression on his face. We may imagine that the interval represents the introduction of Sentain, who sets off Galoup’s rage. The remainder of the dance is out of control: arms thrashing every which way, until finally Galoup is rolling on the floor. The tonal shifts in the dance correspond exactly to the major shifts in Galoup’s behavior earlier in the film.

What is the function of these two scenes in their respective films? The scene in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, shows the “conquering” expedition being swallowed up by nature. The rest of the film show’s Aguirre’s crew gradually being picked off: by disease, by Indians, by each other, by madness. The film is often portrayed as following Aguirre’s descent into madness, but I think this is a mistake. For one thing, it cannot make sense of why his madness appears so abruptly—if the film is supposed to show him becoming mad, it seems not to fulfill its task. Rather than deem the film a failure (as some do on this ground), we should consider that his madness is present in the opening scene. That scene shows a group of puny humans trying to take on a vast environment against which they stand no chance—what is that if not mad? Aguirre’s delirium and hallucinations at the end of the film are nothing more than the natural consequence of the madness that put him on the river in the first place.

In this way, the opening scene renders the rest of the film predestined. What remains, after those opening shots, is simply for Herzog to flesh out the details, to chart the specific route to the inescapable conclusion. This is not destiny as a mystical principle. Rather, the opening scene establishes the destiny of the conquerers by saying: whoever adopts this task must meet this end, whatever route they take to get there.

At the same time, the opening scene offers one possibility of escape. This inescapable destiny is reserved only for those who fight against the mountains and river. But one can give oneself up to them freely, and not fight them. This is precisely what we see Inez (Ursua’s wife) do. After her husband is killed, she vanishes into the woods. We must presume her dead, but her death is heroic, the one instance of heroism in the film. To accept the superiority of the landscape is the only form of nobility, and should be compared to the slovenly king who pronounces the surrounding land his own, a farcical act. The opening scene, then, establishes everything that follows. The only question it leaves open is: how will you get there? How will you meet your demise? It leaves open the possibility of noble action, but even that is just another route to death.

In Beau Travail the placement of the scene at the end of the film denies this function. What comes later cannot preordain what came before. The scene is introduced by another scene that strongly implies Galoup is about to commit suicide: “serve la bonne cause et mort.” The film has been structured from Galoup’s perspective as he tries to tell his story in a way that preserves this narrative form: I, Galoup, have served the good cause; now I must die. Because of this introduction to the scene, one way to understand it is as Galoup’s life flashing before his eyes, not through a replaying of certain scenes, but through a dance that captures the shifts in intensity of his life. Everything external is stripped away, and we are left with only Galoup. Behind the narrative he has told about himself is bodily movement, wrapped up in a particular tone. The narrative is a falsification of that movement. When others are added into the equation, the narrative becomes plausible; only when stripped away does the real movement of his soul become apparent.

Of course, the story he tries to construct around himself is never particularly believable. Try as he might to portray things otherwise, he does not control the camera, and the camera makes it apparent that Sentain did not deserve the treatment he received at Galoup’s hands. The main body of the film, however, undermines this story without setting up any clear positive story to replace it. Only the final scene shows the forces running along his body throughout. In this way, the final scene doesn’t just undermine Galoup—it very likely also undermines the counter-narratives we, the viewers, have provided to explain Galoup’s behavior. In this way, like the sedation scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, the scene forces us to observe and consider ourselves.

That, then, is how these two scenes work. Interesting questions linger: To what extent are these examples part of larger patterns? E.g. do scenes like this at the beginning of a film generally have this function of making the rest of the events seem preordained? And are there any such scenes that occur in the middle of a film, and not at either endpoint?

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Poetry and the thawing wind

2013/06/23 4 comments

This post will be much more rewarding if you first read and reflect upon Robert Frost’s poem “To the Thawing Wind”. (It will also be more rewarding if you’ve read either of James Joyce’s last two novels, but I won’t insist on that one.)

In a variety of posts, I’ve tried to push the notion of art as a serious form of inquiry into the possibilities of being alive and human in various times and conditions, following up on a rich suggestion by David Foster Wallace. I urge this in opposition to the positions of those such as Alexander Rosenberg, who argues that fiction is merely fun, but makes no contribution to knowledge. While Rosenberg might not see it as such, I think this amounts to a denigration of art, amounts to seeing it as dispensable, alongside attempts to make sense of what art offers to us. He mitigates this conclusion by suggesting that, while science and naturalistic philosophy can do without art, that does not mean human beings can do without it. I think this is exactly backwards. While science may be able to do without art (Catharine Z. Elgin has argue to the contrary, though I found her position rather lukewarm), insofar as a naturalistic philosophy wants to address the Kantian question “what should I do” (or its Nietzschean/Deleuzean variants, phrased in terms of modes of existence), it must take art seriously. On the flip side, human beings may be able to do without art—and this we learn from art itself. Indeed, part of what it means for a naturalistic philosophy to take art seriously is to recognize the very real possibility that we could entirely do without art.

This post is my exploration of this possibility, through the explicit lens of Frost and the implicit lens of Joyce. The Frost poem linked at the start of this post explores the idea explicitly. The poet invokes the thawing wind of spring, which will bring the birds & the flowers and will free the brown earth from white snow. These tasks of the wind at first seem like orders—do this, do that, do the other—but they are soon revealed to be more like acknowledgments of the wind’s busy schedule. Why acknowledge these impersonal tasks of the wind? Because the poet has a personal request, a favor the wind can do for him, a favor that he needs the wind to do for him. “But whate’er you do tonight, / bathe my window, make it flow, / Melt it as the ice will go”.

What happens when the wind melts the window? It will “Run the rattling pages o’er; / Scatter poems on the floor; / Turn the poet out of door.” What the poet is invoking the wind to do is precisely to disrupt his poetry, to turn him outside so that he might experience nature directly. This happens when nature bursts into his surroundings, his shelter. We can imagine the wind not granting his request, with the result that he stays inside. He is inviting nature to confront him, to give him no choice in the matter, for if he can choose he will stay in, working on his poems. I cannot help but see here a pun in Robert Frost writing a poem about the thawing wind turning the poet out of door: what is the object of the wind’s thawing but the frost? With this pun in mind, the real request is that the wind thaw not only the ground but also the poet.

Why should the poet imagine nature disrupting poetry? If one function of art is exploring modes of existence, possibilities for being alive, then a fundamental problem that art must face is the distinction between recognizing a possibility and fulfilling it. To know that such and such possibility for being human exists is not to manifest that possibility in your own life. Seen in this way, then, art is an intermediary, and we can imagine skipping over it, moving directly into the mode of existence it envisions. “Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” Emerson wrote (“The American Scholar”). Experiencing a poem about the richness of nature is not experiencing the richness of nature. Nor, to impale Emerson on his own sword, is reading an essay about “Nature”. I imagine Emerson walking willingly and with great dignity onto this sword he has prepared.

Reflection on the content of works of art may make this more plausible. The modes of existence explored by art are rarely modes of existence in which one is wrapped up in art. Here I want to take Joyce as an example. I have long considered writing a post, half serious and half in jest, titled “Joyce’s (elitist) undermining of elitism.” Literature has always been for the elite (in social status, which of course I do not confuse with real worth) in that (written) literature is by default accessible primarily to the literate. Even with the increase in literacy (part of) the world now enjoys, there is still literature that confines itself to the elite. Joyce falls into this camp: his work, at least his later work, is accessible only to those willing not just to read it but to study it, to struggle through it.

While this is indisputably the case, we must nonetheless consider the nature of Joyce’s characters, particularly his heroes. Leopold Bloom is an intelligent and educated man, to be sure, but to call him “erudite” would be going too far. He is not the type of person who would read Ulysses, though he might use its pages for toilet paper. (Not out of disrespect, mind!) Yet he is, more clearly than anyone else in Joyce’s oeuvre, healthy. Stephen Dedalus certainly is not; he is much more likely to read Ulysses than Bloom. Nor is Gabriel Conroy—indeed, all of the characters of Dubliners are paralyzed in one way or another. I confess, my forays into Finnegans Wake are insufficient to say whether HCE or ALP can be called healthy. Probably they can. What matters, in any event, is that Leopold Bloom is cast again and again in heroic terms in a book that he would almost surely never read.

If we want to give the book its due, then I think we have to take this fact into account. Ulysses is an exploration of a mode of existence—Bloom’s—that does not have time for or interest in books like Ulysses. What does that say about the readers of Ulysses? That they are not Leopold Bloom, for one. And what does that mean? It means that, in recognizing the heroism of Bloom, we have to recognize as the flip side of that the possibility that Ulysses is dispensable. When we consider the juxtaposition in the book of Bloom and Stephen—Stephen who would read Ulysses and develop crazy theories about it, as he did for Hamlet—this thought should only strengthen.

Of course, I do not believe that art should stop existing. Nor did Joyce see no need for Ulysses, nor did Frost disavow his own poetry. The very fact of their art’s existence speaks against that belief. What these two examples (and, though I discussed it less, the example also of Emerson’s corpus) reveal is that art exists in a strange tension with the thought of its disappearance—indeed it may be the secret task of art to make us, as readers, viewers, listeners, etc., mindful of the possibility of its disappearance. Mindful of this possibility, moreover, not as a loss, but as a gain.

[I must acknowledge the influence of Richard Poirier on this post—his book The Renewal of Literature first got me to take seriously the idea of the disappearance of literature. The discovery of this idea in the poetry of Frost and of its implicit presence in Joyce, as well as its relation to Rosenberg, however, are my own.]

Perverting Pascal (on Mabel’s Madness)

2013/06/22 2 comments

Addendum to Is Mabel Longhetti Crazy

Fortuitously, I came across the following quote from Pascal’s Pensées tonight, only a few days after my recent viewing of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Though Pascal’s original intention must be perverted to make it so, it nicely summarizes the world of Cassavetes’ film, in which the only truly sane person is deemed mad:

Men are so necessarily mad that it would be another twist of madness not to be mad. (§31)

The madness of the world, seen most prominently in Margaret, permeates everything, infuses it so thoroughly, that to escape from the madness, as Mabel does, is to be mad, to need to be locked away. It is a further twist of madness: the non-mad cannot function in a mad world, and so are mad, insofar as inability to function is a sign of madness.

With due apologies to Pascal, who would not doubt be horrified by the tremendous violence perpetrated against him in this brief post.

Two Sedation Scenes

2013/06/21 1 comment

Continuing my run of posts reflecting upon my recent viewing of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I would now like to think about the sedative scene in Cassavetes’ film as it relates to the sedative scene in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

I have already written about the way the sedation scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice forces the viewer to sin. We, the viewers, are made so uncomfortable by the Alexander’s wife’s horrible, panicked yelling that we long for nothing more desperately than for her to shut up, and so we are gratified when Victor finally gives her the sedative. We get so swept up in the unpleasantness of the moment that we come to desire what, in hindsight, is not at all what we should desire. The wife’s response to the threat of nuclear warfare is, in its own way, entirely rational and understandable: the news is horrible, and too much for her. Does this mean she needs to be sedated, for her own good? Or is it simply that we project our own desires as her needs so that we may think of our selfishness as noble? In this case, I think it is the latter.

In the Tarkovsky scene, the object of our attention (the hysterical wife) is a relatively peripheral character, though there are so few characters that none is of little importance. Her breakdown and sedation serves to exemplify the concept of sin as that which is unnecessary, given voice (literally) earlier in the film—it is only in this scene that the impact of those words is fully felt. This scene, if we realize how it has made us sin, prepares us for Alexander’s sacrifice to follow. In this way, the scene marks a turning point in the film: we are brought to an awareness of our own wretchedness just in time to sympathize with Alexander as he confesses his own wretchedness to God.

The scene in A Woman Under the Influence is similarly uncomfortable, and similarly marks a crucial turning point in the film, yet it works quite differently from the scene in Tarkovsky’s film. The primary source of discomfort here is not Mabel, who is being sedated, but Margaret, whose repeated calls for Dr. Zepp to “do something” (because Mabel is “crazy”) are nauseating, a source of physical revulsion. But it is also uncomfortable for a second reason, which may become apparent only on a second viewing: we feel the injustice of what is being done to Mabel. We come to see just how cornered she is, and for no justifiable reason. We are made uncomfortable in a new way: we see the sick overrunning the healthy. (A sort of Nietzschean disgust.)

When we next see Mabel again, she is traumatized, having been locked away for six months in a place whose horrors of which we get a glimpse before, of course, Mabel is made to shut up, since acknowledging those horrors would be too “impolite” for a party. In what follows, we get the sense that the distinction between Mabel’s treatment in the asylum and her treatment at home is a difference only in degree, and perhaps not a great degree at that. The sedative scene thus marks a decisive turn in Mabel’s life: her being sedated marks the moment at which the world finally succeeds in breaking her, in which insanity finally prevails.

By contrast, the sedative scene in The Sacrifice works to prime the viewer, to make us more sympathetic to Alexander’s apparently “mad” actions to follow. By forcing us to sin and making us aware of our own wretchedness, Tarkovsky brings us closer to Alexander, puts us in a position to understand him, if only marginally. But, in a way, beyond this difference, the sedative scene in A Woman Under the Influence plays a similar role: if there is one scene in the film that proves that Mabel is not crazy, it is the sedative scene.

Sedation is, in the worlds at large of both films, seen as a way of dealing with insanity, whether that insanity is temporary or a lasting condition. But, in both films, the scenes in which sedation plays a role are scenes in which we are prepared or made to realize that what we would normally take for insanity is perhaps the height of human freedom. Tarkovsky and Cassavetes have very different visions of what that freedom is, but they share this: sedation will lead us astray.

Science and Art on Human Freedom

2013/06/21 9 comments

The general tenor of the “free will” debate, both today and in days past, revolves around issues of determinism and causality: if our actions are entirely the result of physical, insensate matter, then it seems we cannot be said to make free choices. Since moral responsibility is further said to depend on just this ability to make free choices, quite a bit is at stake. To save freedom, we apparently need to posit some mysterious causal influence that is not physical, but instead stems from our will, conceived as a thing. Or we can renounce freedom. (Or we can find some tepid compatibilist position, as most philosophers do.) These seem to exhaust our options. Physics and neuroscience have, as it were, taken human freedom hostage.

Philosophically, there is much to quibble with in this picture. For instance, one could argue (and I would argue) that it is only a quite mistaken analysis of phrases like “I did X, but I could have acted differently” that can make moral responsibility depend upon the results of various scientific disciplines. (I say the analysis is mistaken in that it is untrue to our actual use of such phrases, which are not sensitive to the results of science in the relevant ways.) One might also wonder what it means to say the universe is deterministic. I think I know what it means for a scientific theory to be deterministic, but I am quite sure I have no idea what it means for the universe itself to be deterministic. And, in any case, I think it’s clear determinism isn’t the real issue. Fundamental physical theory is no longer deterministic, but that’s no great relief for anybody. Indeterministic theories may still account for behavior (of particles or people). What really drives the debate is the contention on one side (taken as threatening by the other) that scientific theories, deterministic or not, are sufficient to fully account for our behavior. (We might ask what it means to “fully account for” something, which seems suspiciously related to the suspicious notion of a “complete” theory, but carrying out this line of inquiry would distract me from my real goals.)

This seems to be the heart of the issue. Saving human freedom seems to require positing a special region of the universe not open to empirical study, and that is surely a losing battle. But even if it weren’t a losing battle, I think the battle is still lost. If there is supposed to be this special region is that there is some non-physical causal force, then we should start asking of this force: well, is it deterministic, or indeterministic, or random? None of the options seem friendly to freedom. If this battleground is where human freedom is to be saved, the battleground of the will as a causal force, then the battle seems lost from the outset.

Since I think the notion of human freedom is a rich notion worth saving, I face the question of where it should actually be located. In my previous post, on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I spoke of Mabel Longhetti’s “freedom”, the flip side of which was her instability. I want to use that discussion as a jumping off point for exploring why I think art is especially apt to address questions of human freedom and to work out what this means about how we ought to relate to works of art.

In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel’s freedom lies in her relation to social conventions and clichés. Against them, she violates personal reaction bubbles, invites strangers to dance with her, and lets her daughter run naked around male children (I estimate the various kids’ ages as falling in the 8-12 range). Her violation of these norms—through a purity of ethical vision made possible only by her ignorance of the content of said norms—makes her seem crazy to others: Margaret, Dr. Zepp, etc. What is really going on, however, is that her freedom has an unhealthy side to it: she does not know how to live in a world where such norms are a driving force, and she is rendered unstable by it. That is why she breaks down when Dr. Zepp arrives to take her to the asylum: she is terrified and cannot handle herself.

Because this freedom has its unhealthy side, the natural question to ask is whether this same freedom is attainable in a healthful manner. Mabel’s freedom unsuits her for the actual world—must this sort of freedom always have this effect? And if it does, could we want freedom? (For what it’s worth, I think we could: Mabel’s position seems to me infinitely more desirable than Margaret’s.) What causes her instability is her inability to understand and respect (which does not mean obey) these norms. Her freedom makes no use of them, and they end up confronting her only as a mysterious and terrifying other.

The question whether healthy freedom is attainable thus becomes: can such norms be respected and understood without sacrificing freedom altogether? In the film, we see Nick (Mabel’s wife) struggling with just this. He respects these norms too much, is too concerned about his image and about how other people will misunderstand Mabel’s actions (which he claims, believably, to understand). This limits his freedom and poisons (non-lethally, though the threat is there) his relationship with Mabel. But Nick does have his moments of healthful freedom, namely when he is alone with Mabel. But they are only moments, and come, I wager, from his interactions with Mabel and not from himself. In the world of A Woman Under the Influence, then, such healthful freedom seems to be always under threat.

Looking outside of the film, I think we find in Nietzsche (a scathing critic of the notion of freedom of the will) and Emerson a model for such healthful freedom. In Emerson we find the person who can trope such conventions, twisting them to her own ends. Each such act of troping involves creative freedom that threatens to regress into cliché, and must itself be troped if it isn’t to become repressive. In Nietzsche, we are given the camel-lion-child progression: first one bears the heavy burden of established values, then one throws them off, and finally the child creates new values. Crucial to this is the first phase, in which such values are not only understood and respected, but obeyed. The lion phase undoes the obedience, but the understanding and respect remain, no longer yielding laws to be obeyed, but instead furnishing resources for the child’s re-valuation of all values. Read in an Emersonian light, these three metamorphoses no longer become distinct phases through which one passes, each stage superseding the last, but rather a cycle. Each revaluation threatens to become a load or burden of its own, which needs to be thrown off in its own right. Childhood passes right back into camelhood.

(Aside: I will not attempt here to argue that this is Nietzsche’s understanding of the three metamorphoses. I will note only that they are presented in part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Since the dramatic movement of that book significantly involves Zarathustra coming to reinterpret or revalue his early speeches and behavior, my interpretation is not ruled out by the presentation of the three metamorphoses as successive stages. Of course, close reading would be needed to establish that my interpretation is a viable one. I will also say, defensively I admit, that the value of such a cyclic conception of the three metamorphoses does not depend on it being found in Nietzsche.)

In Cassavetes, Nietzsche, and Emerson, we see an exploration of freedom as standing opposed, not to determinism, but to repression. Cassavetes is involved in the creation of scenarios that reveal the relevant differences between freedom and repression. Nietzsche and Emerson, for their part, create the concepts (circles, Over-soul, Genius, Übermensch, gay science, eternal recurrence, camel-lion-child, etc.) that allow us to recognize freedom and repression of this sort as they confront us. These are not scientific experiments and concepts, helpful in prediction and control of human behavior, but aesthetic experiments and philosophical concepts that allow us to go on in healthier ways.

I certainly do not mean to claim that, between them, Nietzsche, Emerson, and Cassavetes have exhausted the question of human freedom. I use them as examples because they show that there is an interesting notion of human freedom that has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of the will, where the opposition is not between freedom and causation but between freedom and repression. I also think they reveal a sense of freedom whose fate is not beholden to the results of science. Scientific questions are, by and large, irrelevant to the question of Mabel’s freedom and its pitfalls. Of course, scientific inquiry may here play a subservient role as handmaiden to the arts and the philosophies, but it too provides resources to be used much more than answers to the core questions.

I think this allows us to see art as, in one of its functions, as a form of serious inquiry. Of course, this is not its only function, but it is an important one, and one that should be taken seriously. David Foster Wallace once said that art is about locating and resuscitating the possibilities for being alive and human in dark times (if times are dark). This was a crucial task before the rise of modern science, and remains a crucial task after its rise. Of course, the rise of modern science changes the possibilities in all sorts of ways, and a responsible art will explore these ways and locate the new possibilities that have arisen and the old possibilities that have been closed off. Because the landscape of such possibilities is perpetually changing, the task itself is perpetual. If art, unlike science, does not progress, we may perhaps diagnose this difference as resulting not from the ineliminable subjectivity of art, but from the fact that, in the domain of art, unlike science, the truth changes over time.