Archives for category: On images

I didn’t want to watch Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol until I was in Dubai. It seemed appropriate, given how much ballyhoo (is that a real word? in 2012?) was made about the fact that Tom Cruise & crew had managed to break through the obdurate Virtuality Curtain that has kept Dubai out of international cinema’s prurient gaze since … well, sort of since forever. Bits of the city-state appeared fleetingly as a recognisable but fictionally named ‘other’ emirate in Syriana.

But, you’d have thought this confection of neo-liberal fantasy – what Rem Koolhaas once called ‘a film-set with real problems’ – would have been hounded by the silver-screen from the get-go, laden as it is with ‘iconic’ backdrops, many of which would have started out on the same kind of 3D visualisation software that goes into making something like Ghost Protocol. So, why the coy injunction all this time? And why alleviate that prohibition now?

I first heard about the Mission Impossible+Dubai equation from a consultant for the Dubai Media Authority in 2010. She told me, both frankly and in hushed confidence, that most film-scripts submitted to the government for permission had always cast Dubai in a stereotypical negative darkness: dodgy financial dealings and naturally as a nexus of Jihadist terrorism. Each of these scripts had simply been batted away by the DMA – as had Sex & the City 2, for different, un-coy reasons (or they can smell a stinking dud even before it’s been filmed).

Not until Dubai had hemorrhaged from sublimely silly levels of debt, exposed in the sandstorm of 2009’s financial crisis, did it decide to embark upon – awful phrase coming up – a ‘rebranding exercise’.  Suddenly it needed the supplement of fiction, now that the fiction of its so called reality had financially imploded, and begun to sink, like The World is sinking back into the sea.

That would be the second reason no major feature films – or indeed fiction of any kind – have been staged here, till now (FYI, the next James Bond novel is to be set, at least partly, in Dubai). From 2001 to 2008, the place was a torrid, twisted excess of fiction you could Google Map. A Utopia sans social teleological project. Endless epic billboards and smooth video-promotions promising an unbridled future – but without, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, a community to come.

Entertainment fiction had no work to do here.

It was unemployable.

When Tom Cruise – aka Agent Ethan Hunt – tells his colleagues that they’re, ‘going to Dubai’ in the next scene, the cinema audience at Dubai Mall cooed with self-recognition, and a smidgen of cringe. We’d all known about the Burj Khalifa as acrobatic prop (which I wrote about in conjunction with the skyscraper’s first recorded suicide here, which Sophia Al Maria portraits piquantly here, and footage of which exists mesmerically here) – but how smoothly would the unlikely setting fit within the overall arc of the film? (A similar moment occurs in Contagion: the deadly, unknown infection targets Hong Kong, Chicago, Macao, Atlanta, London – and Abu Dhabi. Oh, that’s right. They – Imagenation Abu Dhabi – co-produced the film. Sorry!)

Back to Ghost Protocol. What soaring symbol do you greet the audience with, to lull them into a sense of specific place?

Camels. Yes. That’s the preferred transition device from Budapest to the Burj. For some mysterious reason, Cruise and crew’s drive from Dubai airport to Sheikh Zayed Road involves careering past luscious, dappled, desert dunes – and thousands of free range camels. Some have even established home in the middle of the dirt-track. Watch out Tom! Those aren’t speed bumps! More like speed humps! (Camel jokes are always lame.)

Sadly, real reality contests this dromedarian account: the trek from airport to downtown Dubai actually passes hoards of mirrored towers, finished and under construction, six lane highways, sinewy underpasses, a Pyramidal Raffles hotel, the immense Grand Hyatt, and a lot of advertising. Notice: no camels.

The New Orientalist fantasy continues when they arrive at the Burj, and the only extras in the background are Emiratis. No indication that in fact, Emiratis comprise only approximately 11% of the entire population, which is made of some 200 nationalities. Typically, lobbies are one of the spaces par excellence where you feel this decentred complexion.

When Tom runs – and as we know, he is obliged, contractually, to run very fast at least once in each of his films – out of the Burj, into a Biblically sized sandstorm, instead of slamming his face on the side of Dubai Mall or get drenched in the world’s biggest dancing fountain display, Tom’s, like, lost in the smog of a ‘traditional’ souk – not dissimilar to the quaint olde market the harpies, I mean girls, in Sex & The City 2 go to to have an ‘authentic ‘Arabian outing. Bargains! Old Men with beards! Handicrafts!

Mother-fuckin’ jump cut. Galore.

Of course, block-buster films are, by habit, ontologically loose with the limits of reality (most of the Los Angeles we’ve ever seen on-screen is actually Vancouver in drag) – but – it’s nevertheless interesting that the cinematic shorthand preferred here, in Ghost Protocol, is a kind of retro-fictional ghost of the post-crash Dubai its Emir has striven for it to be perceived against. Camels, dunes, locals, and a lone, fiendishly sophisticated skyscraper that has to be thwarted to save the world. Remember – all this had to have been sanctioned by the authorities for it to have happened there at all.

When Sheikh Mohammed – Ruler of Dubai – published his book of poems in 2009, this was the front cover:

Note: no camels – but also no Burj Dubai (as it was known then), no serrated skyline denoting supermodernity, no hulking machinery of industrial transmogrification and heaving human toil. The ghosts of the future and the ghosts of the past that never happened combine – in cinema’s present – as a living fantasy that serves the best purposes for ideology. I mean, er, fiction.

What do we mean when we say, ‘life is imitating art’? Does some conventional causal logic flip around? Is art fancier than life, in a gilded, auction-house-happy kind of way?

If art once ennobled life by dramatizing it in stylish ways—the Woah Factor—early 21st century life has seemingly rendered art an impotent imposter to the real thing. The more art enumerates its importance—petulantly, waving a wad of cash in the air, citing Another French Philosopher—the less important it actually is.

This starts, for me, with those pictures from Abu Ghraib prison. Beyond announcing the reality of systemic torture by the US Army, the stylizations of the photos were an idiot-accident-collage of Francis Bacon’s flesh-mounds, Pasolini’s pleasure fascism in Salo and, most chillingly, the carefree snap-happy amateurism of soldiers on holiday. Thumbs Up! Thumbs down: this was no Disneyland. It was Iraq.

I challenge you to find any artist authored images from that moment on that can rival the unadorned wrecked humanity of these pictures. This is a trend—if that’s the right word—that has escalated since, empowered by those precious little witness-machines we carry in our pockets: mobile phone cameras.

We make searing images in a milli-second. We consume difficult images everywhere. We laugh. We shudder. We don’t need artists to do any of this. Do we?

Things once cordially hidden or silenced have made their way to the surface of our attention-deficit attentions. The word ‘leak’—once limited to usage by plumbers or seafarers—is now prefixed by ‘Wiki’, or Al Jazeera. Our ignorance has run out of excuses.

Take the Arab Uprisings. When foreign journalists were not allowed in to Libya or Syria, we relied on discordant choruses of mobile phone clips. We become remote-witnesses. These clips are chaotic, unedited, over saturated with clashing sounds and terrible, true images. There is nothing artful about this ‘style’—and yet they convey a fragmentary sense of what it is like to be a mortal body caught in mortally threatening situations. Goodbye artifice.

The natural habitat of these documents is not the gallery or the museum but television, in its expanded form. Here these documents are immediate, their witnessing still raw. The emotional effect is also immediate. If indecipherable, unverifiable.

The poet Rilke wrote, ‘Events move in such a way that they will always inevitably be ahead of us. We shall never catch up with them.’

You only need to try and piece together the death of Muammar Qaddafi to discover how true this is. The best approximation to his last few minutes comes shaped in a series of non-continuous amateur video clips. The roar of the crowd is deafening, but that’s also because the microphone on the camera is not sensitive enough. Qaddafi is alive. Then he is pulp. A universe of non-special effects make this a cinema of the most ethically and aesthetically troubling kind.

When asked, why do novelists tend to prefer writing historical stories, Hillary Mantel replied that because a novel takes so long to produce, if you try and write about the present, it always slips through your grasp. The novelist needs a target to appear to be fixed so they can reveal the slippery secrets repressed by history.

If there is going to be a substantial response by contemporary art to the currents events in the ‘region’ it is, sadly, necessarily only once the life of those events has subsided into the past—for better or worse, with body counts as tragic proof that the present happened. Until that moment, life wins.

*

Published in the first issue of Harpers Bazaar Art

 

Kim Jong-il’s cinephilia was one of the few things the outside world knew about the inside of North Korea. You could have asked his first consort, the famous 60s actress Sung Hae-rim, who bore him his first (later discredited) son. You could have asked the South Korean producer and director, Shin Sang-ok, who, along with his ex (and then future) wife, the actress Choi-Eun-hee, was kidnapped in 1978 on the orders of Kim Jong-il.

Not yet ‘Dear Leader,’ five years earlier, in 1973, Kim had written this book:

It is an elegy for Kim’s love of film, as well as a manifesto on how, following Stalin’s proclamations half a century earlier, cinema was to be Communist Party social cement. The story of the story of Shin and Choi’s four year long incarceration, and then instant beatification by Kim as spearheads of his nationalist cinema dream, is the stuff of cinema-fantastique.

It’s all there: megalomaniacal hubris, North Korean C-movie versions of Japanese B-movies, the entrustment of vision not seen since Hitler appointed Albert Speer as B.F.F. And then, the final, sinewy plot twist: Shin and Choi’s betrayal by defection. Of all the insights revealed by Shin in his memoirs of this period, the one that stands out for me is that Kim was fully aware of the artificiality – and limitations – of stagey Communist theatrics. At the 1983 dinner where Kim explained to Shin and Choi why they had been kidnapped (four years prior), he confided that:

“The North’s film-makers are just doing perfunctory work. They don’t have any new ideas.  Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”

On another occasion, a bevy of young women on stage were jumping up and down, screaming: “Long live the great leader!” Shin remembers that Kim shook his arm, pointed at the fawning display, and said:

“Mr Shin, all that is bogus. It’s just pretence.”

Fast forward to Wednesday 28th December, 2011, and the outside world is given a rare, brief peer into Pyongang, North Korea’s capital city. Why: it is the state funeral of Kim Jong-il. As snowy as Dr Zhivago and Dubai’s indoor ski-slope all combined, we see the funeral cortege comprised of American stretch limos (circa The Godfather), an immense billboard of the deceased Dear Leader, rendered in Social Realist Smiling style, schlepped slowly on a car-roof (viral movie poster). The corpse – which has been lying in a glass casket redolent of Lenin’s, which itself is a copy of Snow White’s – is ceremonially hauled through the city atop a padded, floral wig. There are hoards of soldiers too, frozen still not by the foreboding cold, but by unfaltering duty. Or, they’re CGI-clones, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic.

And of course, there are The People. In their teaming masses – perhaps all 24.45 million of them – “crying and sobbing” hysterically, the kinds of tears shed for a mother, or a father, or a brother, or a sister, or a husband, or a wife, or a daughter, or a son.

Or – the kinds of tears shed by actors.

No. Let’s be more precise than that.

By extras.

Amateur psychologists like to explain Hitler’s power crazed death-drive by the fact that he was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna – not just once (1907), but twice (1908). And that Albert Speer’s role of imagineering the grand, neo-classical pomposity of future Germania was in fact Hitler’s unrequited, unfulfilled alter-ego: that of a Great Artist.

Applying the same, shaky logic to Kim Jong-il’s unrealised dreams would have made him a wannabe Great Cinema Director who never truly consummated his true destiny.

But what if he did – by other means? By harnessing the resources – all 24.45million of them – made available to him once his father, Kim Il Sung, passed away in 1994? What if this most secretive and likely pernicious place on earth is a real-life, structured reality predicated on the directorial whims of the (now deceased) Dear Leader?

It makes the subjugated North Korean masses ‘extras’ in a similar – but distinctly different – way to all those extras employed on the TV set of The Truman Show. There, the entire planet – which included the cast, the crew, the other actors, a whole town of extras and the millions of viewing audience – was in on the fact that Truman Burbank’s life was made entirely for the edification of the camera. The only person that didn’t know was Truman himself. Seahaven – the town where he lived – was a solipsistic stage-set manicured around the delusion of his own (un)happiness.

In contrast, it could be said that Kim Jong-il’s epic production of North Korea (as much of a bubble as Seahaven ever was) inverts the Truman Show’s solipsism. Here, everyone – except Kim Jong-il – was to be in a Truman-like state of reality-delusion.

Film-set, real-life. What’s the difference? Just act the part you’re given. The best method-actors become the character they’re trying to play. I didn’t say ‘CUT’? That’s OK. The cameras are always rolling. You’re always on film. Remember that. I can see everything because I invented you, I wrote your part, your dialogue, your inner thoughts, your devotion. Remember – I’m the director. The producer. The leading man. You? You’re the extras. 

Extras. Think about the word – sanctioned by the film-industry everywhere. Extras: non-essentials, supplementary, add-ons. In a film – think Birth of a Nation or Gladiators – extras give the impression of crowds. Yet, the crowds assembled at Kim Jong-il’s funeral are not the same crowds that power revolutions (though they share filiality). These are crowds as unified, de-centred disempowerment. They are both essential and extra to absolute power. In Kim’s own words, they are “bogus…[ ] just pretence.”

“All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.” Kim Jong-il, 1983

Then, who did? It is too easy to dismiss the mass of mourning at the (cinematically charged) funeral as state-controlled and stage-managed. It fits the fantasy of a Western imagination to contrast ‘our’ free-will versus ‘their’ programmed predestination. It probably also allays the fear that we’re all most likely acting out roles we’ve been given by this superstructure or that, if we can point somewhere, over there, somewhere lost in 20th century time, where crowds beat their chests, wailing with all their breath, and the opposite of breathing, for the death of their beloved Dear Director.

Hollywood’s obsession with prequels and sequels comes from an age-old human preoccupation: how did things start and how will they end? Creation myths and the apocalypse. Birth, death. In between, this thing called life.

Famed careers are often the same. They actually begin before the biographers’ claim they begin. Did you know Don DeLillo used to work in advertising? Tadao Ando was a boxer? Richard Serra welded?

The film oddities 1, 2, 3 Rhapsody and The White Slave belong to Amsterdam in the latter part of the ‘60s and to a group called ‘1, 2, 3 enz’. Its members were journalist Rem Koolhaas; his high-school friend and film-maker Rene Daalder; Frans Bromet, a cameraman who later became a well known documentarian; Kees Meyering, future inventor of the Rolykit toolbox; and Jan de Bont, future director of blockbusters Speed and Twister. Other members came and went, in the spirit of the collective’s open-ended configuration.

Koolhaas started to work at the magazine Haagse Post aged 19, and would come to interview—in eccentric, satirical detail—the film director Federico Fellini, avant-garde artist-cum-‘hyper-architect’ Constant Nieuwenhuys, and pen a four-piece series entitled ‘Sex in the Netherlands’. Koolhaas’ father, the acclaimed author Anton Koolhaas, was director of the Amsterdam Academy of Film, from which most of the ‘1, 2, 3 enz’ group hailed. Koolhaas has said that his father, ‘did not have very good taste in film, and that is why I did not attend the academy.’

The short films entitled 1, 2, 3 Rhapsody (1965) are more notable for the ideology fuelling their production techniques than the merits of their bawdy scenarios. As announced in the group’s three-part manifesto, published in the cine-phile magazine Skoop, what mattered was acknowledging film-making as a collective, team effort—not as something heroically individual in nature. For them, the auteur cinema of the Nouvelle Vague deserved to be debunked. As such, Rhapsody places its protagonists on a merry-go-round where they each write, direct and act (or, more precisely, goof around). According to future co-founder of OMA, Madelon Vriesendorp, on-set laughter erupted (mainly from Daalder and Koolhaas) throughout the making of Rhapsody. Irreverence was paramount.

 

PERVERSE/REVERSE (SHOT)
1969’s feature film, The White Slave, is a very different effort altogether. Co-written by Daalder and Koolhaas, and directed by the former, it became the most expensive Dutch film ever made to date (after its nervous Dutch financiers had to be convinced by Luis Bunuel’s scriptwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, that the two twenty-something year olds actually had written a proper script.) It also went on to become one of the biggest commercial flops in Dutch cinema history. Ergo, its mythologized disappearance from view.

The White Slave’s plot centres around the trafficking of beautiful, young Dutch women sent to Tangiers allegedly as aid-nurses. On arrival, however, they are trapped in an Arab brothel, forced to belly dance and cavort with the white slave master, (played, not unironically, by an Israeli actor, Issy Abrahami). A ‘good German’, Gunther, keen to make-up for the war crimes of his people, helps to procure his newly found near feral niece and a bewildered au pair, whom he tries, unsuccessfully and repeatedly, to seduce.

The film both exaggerates and inverts grotesque colonial stereotypes, against an actual historical backdrop where African and Arab states were acquiring their independence. The ‘revenge of the post-colonial subject’ was imminent. Countries like Holland, France and Great Britain would experience an unprecedented flow of immigration from their former colonies, initiating the still troubled era of ‘multiculturalism’ and presaging post-9/11 Islamophobia by decades.

The atmosphere of The White Slave is somewhere between Luis Bunuel’s social surrealism and Russ Meyer’s 60s fast-cutting sex-fests. The latter dealt with the absurdities of male power and impotence. Meyer, a.k.a the ‘King of the Nudies’, was also Rene Daalder’s mentor, and occasional boss at the time. In one White Slave scene, doctors apply fake, trompe l’oeil wounds to perfectly healthy bodies. The doctor says, ‘With wounds, reality surpasses fiction.’ A year later, J G Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition would invoke similar, surgical themes, culminating in the erotic-masochism of Crash in 1973.

A number of palpable absences haunt the centre of The White Slave (a missing husband/brother, a missing wife)—around which Gunther assembles his own ‘harem’ of white women subservient to his whim. They all seem to congregate around fallacious motives (the central one being the need to ‘rescue Africa’). A low-level sadism pervades every human interaction. While the characterization of Abrahimi as a repugnant Arab may seem crude by the standards of our political correctness today, it is Gunther—the good, white German—that is the most ethically troubling of all. Why? Precisely because he sets out to have noble intentions.

TRUTH & METHOD
So, what to make of these filmic curiosities today? If we apply the famed Paranoid Critical Method, that technique of a posteriori fact-finding beloved of Salvador Dali and Koolhaas himself, what do we glean?

Firstly is the importance of the scriptwriter and the writing of a scenario, which becomes the basis of a plot. Right from Delirious New York (1978), this has also been one of the guiding principles for understanding the plan of a building: a plot waiting to happen.

Secondly, is a human universe where contingency and predestination seem to collude on a one-way course to tyranny, executed under the benign guise of moral, do-gooding rhetoric. The ultimate curse of morality is its self-destructive perversion.

And lastly, the same human universe is truly made manifest in details. Not the kind of details architects fetishize (shadow gaps, door frames, screws), but the idiosyncratic, unconsciously delivered details of human behaviour. Everyone is acting at being themselves all of the time. In the later Koolhaasian world of Bigness, Europe and the XL-ness of globalization, these telling, beautiful flaws of human nature will continue to manifest as narrative details against the immeasurable superstructure of economy and politics.

If life ever attains meaning, it’s either as a consequence of how it began, or, as a preparation for how it will end.

The End.
___

This essay was originally commissioned by The Architecture Foundation to accompany the UK premieres of The White Slave and 1,2,3 Rhapsody for its ongoing film programme at the Barbican, Architecture on Film. http://www.architecturefoundation.org.uk. With thanks to Rene Daalder for his invaluable insights and anecdotes during the course of writing this text.

For details into this period and the backstory to my text see Bart Lootsma’s phenomenally fascinating essay here: http://www.architekturtheorie.eu/?id=magazine&archive_id=108

On the surface, J.J. Abrams new film, Super 8, is just that: a heartfelt homage to his hero (and producer) Steven Spielberg that is nothing but successful surface effect. One reviewer has called it a pitch perfect impersonation. A friend I went to see it with said Super 8 was like a montage of immemorial Spielberg scenes. Another felt pesky disengagement because of all the pastiche-ing. Sum total result:  futile, formalistic.  #Fail.

So, why had venerated journal Cahiers du Cinema given it cover story this month? What subtle intellectual subtext had we totally missed?

I left the multiplex feeling we’d just witnessed a painstaking remake of a Spielberg classic, but not one that actually exists in his filmography. Rather, the ideal, Platonic Spielberg ur-movie, full of shaggy haired teenagers scuttling on BMXs, fragmented single-parent families, imagination-impoverished adults and a message about humanity that comes not from humans but from outer space. Remember how in The Tree of Life, the Mother tells the young Sean Penn character that there is ‘the way of nature, and there is the way of grace’? For Spielberg, the way of grace is often indicated by the compassionate nature of visiting aliens.

But J.J., dude, it’s 2011, and you’ve set Super 8—fetishistically—in 1979. That’s two years after Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind both came out. J.J., why doesn’t your new Goonie squad wanna make a Lucas or Spielberg homage? Why would they remake Romero-style zombie horrors? It’s 1979!

If there is a conceptual motive behind remakes (cashing in on established celluloid brands is not really conceptual, just bone-lazy), it is that something about the original harbours a universal message that applies today. All the story needs is a context shift.

So, in 2010’s Karate Kid remake, the symbolic national struggle is no longer between America and Japan (which during the 80s was being won by Sony et al), but now between a newly empowered China and an economically waning America. The latter has no choice but to disimburse its unemployed citizens—like 46% of its national debt—to the Chinese Communist Party’s eclipsing form of state-capitalism. In the end of the remake, unlike in real-life, America kicks China’s conceited ass. Woo!

There is, therefore, something innately post-modern in the logic of remakes. They tend to be knowing, winking, tongue pressed firmly against inside of ironic cheek. Gus Van Sant took this to an absolute extreme in his shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Imitation, flattery; homage, pathology.

Super 8 however is all absent of post-modern impulse. It’s full instead of cloying authenticity and periodicity. The biggest surprise in the entire film is how it’s so destitute of story surprises. Unless you count the fact that Alien Monster’s face looks a like a Transformer. Homage to Michael Bay?

It’s taken me a sleepless night under summer rain to realize that maybe I was looking in the wrong place. I expected to find meaning where we are accustomed to finding post-modern meaning: on the surface of the surface. But the more I focus on the Elle Fanning character (‘Alice,’ the lone female in a virtual triad of females where one has absconded and the other recently deceased), the more I suspect I ought to be looking under the surface.

Alice is a girl whose emotional intelligence transcends her modest teen-age tenfold. In a scene where she rehearses a scene for the Super 8 zombie-movie the kids are making, she abruptly leaps out of her of adolescent body into the affecting persona of a woman that knows intimately what it means to love and to lose that love. A switch so sudden. Like an alien possession.

This meta-scene has already been compared to Naomi Watts’ chilling read-through performance in Mullholland Drive. What makes both of these supra-acting acts so powerful is the violent irruption of the real just when there’s a complicit expectation of safe artifice. When representation is more life-like than life, you’re momentarily awake to how scripted reality can be.

Throughout Super 8, Alice seems to elicit exceptional compassion, tenderness, and judicious moral insight (look out for a scene where she wishes her father had died instead of the hero’s mother: it’s loaded with all kinds of theological ambiguity about predestination, the painful vacuum of personal loss and the responsibility of guilt). It seems that no one else around her is as consistently privileged to such human acuity. No one except perhaps the maligned and misunderstood Alien Monster.

And this is where lurking within Super 8’s surface pointlessness is something silently true. How sudden bereavement is like an alien invasion of the self; or like a zombiefication where you have to live despite inside feeling dead, dead, dead; or like a personality possession where your grieving childhood jump-cuts to adulthood.

It is no coincidence that the Alien’s exit away from planet Earth at the very end occurs at the very moment the two bereaving, suffering, possessed families find inner closure. Peace. Perhaps. The arachnid-thing can leave because it isn’t needed anymore.

Right, J.J.?

I had been waiting patiently, ever since trailers were being ferried around, for the new Malick movie, The Tree of Life. The net effect of time traveling through cosmogony and compassionate dinosaurs was: being over- and under-whelmed at the same time.

Theme-parks predicated on forcing you to be happy have always had the opposite effect on me. Disneyland was deeply depressing, all the more knowing that death was illegal on its premises. No one ever dies in Disneyland. At the same time, Snow White looked suicidal despite her strained smiles.

Maybe it’s the ‘teen spirit’ that won’t die, but, being told to feel something bullishly does not produce that feeling innately but as a matter of bittersweet coercion. In George Constanza lingua, it ‘does the opposite’.

Such it was for me with The Tree of Life.

Its epic-ness was relentless, even though the kernel of the story concerns a single family, and the vectors of love that vie between its constituent elements. Reputedly, 3 years were spent just on the editing. And it shows – but for all the wrong reasons. What starts out as a stunning technique of collapsing different befores and a singular now quickly becomes belaboured – and dare I say it, boring.

A major culprit is the music. There is no let up from the Big Orchestral Sound. Scientists may well reveal that the Big Bang actually did occur to a live Brahms accompaniment.

Some of the astronomical interludes were astonishing. Some were not as good as Apple’s similar looking screen-savers. The dinosaurs were not as believable as BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs. Both of these sections play a huge symbolic role and I so wanted them to work. But they felt unnecessary. Portentous.

Every work of art probably yields what each viewer or reader or listener brings to it. Their lives are keys that fit the lock or don’t. One friend identified strongly with the fraternal episodes,and  the ethereal mother. Another with the disciplinarian father. One more with the inculcation of religion during childhood. The friend I went with wanted to leave after about 20 minutes and said he felt absolutely nothing in the depiction of what it means to be young (other than a genuinely moving Oedipus-like moment involving a car jack).

This in itself may make The Tree of Life an interesting film for reasons that have less to do with itself and more to do with our own unfilmed lives.

Over on the Format stream, a quick reflection on the developments in ‘pseudo-reality’ TV, and how it accords with a world of our desires.

So, the last of Adam Curtis’ recent ‘documentary’, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, aired this week (importantly) on terrestrial TV (Thank you BBC2. Really, thank you!). Over the course of around 175 minutes in total, we’ve swerved from Ayn Rand’s ideologically authored affairs to Monica Lewinsky’s effect on the Asian bubble-crisis, from Buckminster Fuller to Richard Dawkins’ selfishness, gorillas, Belgian documentary film-makers turned genocidal phrenologists, vengeful nature, cute bunny rabbits, and lots of images of very old computers that would fill football pitches and the minds of zealous techno-Utopian social engineers hell bent on turning reality back into the system it actually already is.

Much can be said about Curtis’ waywardness with ‘the truth’, and much of it would be true, so to say. He skips across cultural, political and scientific history with irregular bounces. Scrutinising the selectivity of the sources would lead you to make your own Adam Curtis like documentary on his documentaries, exposing their fallaciousness and fine-tuned factual fuzziness. However, this is to miss the point.

In a lovely interview with him in the new issue of Tank, what emerges is the import on how a story is told – as much as what is being told:

‘TANK: So you’re a storyteller?

ADAM CURTIS: There are lots of wonderful things on the internet, but the one thing that can never, ever die is, “I want to tell you a story.”

In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, I have a go at internet utopias. Internet utopians think we can make our own stories up, or have multiple endings in which you make the choice. That’s naïve. What you see on Twitter and Facebook is the modern equivalent of what, under Stalin’s time, was socialist realism.

TANK: I’m not sure I understand – you mean instead of buxom fieldworkers and strapping steelworkers we now have lots of people communicating in 140-character thought bubbles?

AC: Twitter is a happy little universe where everything is incredibly innocent and comes from within you. Well, no it doesn’t! What shapes your feelings are the structures of power around you. The tubes down which your feelings go are built by large businesses – these businesses shape how you see the world. It’s not manipulation, it’s just the way the world works. The way we see the world is as much shaped by the structures of power around us as the feelings we have within us. What shapes those feelings is reflected by the ideology of our time: that there is nothing more sacrosanct than our inner feelings. These days, the idea of immersing yourself in something grander than yourself is alien.’

All this is deserving of a longer rumination – for now I’m just going to bullet-point why I think AC is so GRT:

1. It’s on mainstream TV: I’m old enough to remember when there were just four channels in the UK. Less choice, numerically speaking, but, a much clearer territorialization. BBC2 and Channel 4, up till the very early 90s, made incredibly smart TV without the constitutional obligation of making it all palatable for a ‘mainstream audience’. This smacks of elitism, and so what? A healthy culture is one that allows the vital expression of heterogeneity as itself for itself. Adam Curtis reminds me – nostaligically, winesomely – of a time when intelligence didn’t have to justify itself or worse disguise itself (cf The Culture Show. Eek.)

2. It’s bloody reflexive! (But doesn’t bang on about it):  So much of AC’s films seem to be about the way in which power, and its obverse (traditionally we might call it ‘alienation’), find enthralling forms with which to en-trance us. Whether it is Freud’s theory of the unconscious in AC’s Century of the Self, or, a kind of Agamben-lite in The Power of Nightmares, the disjoint between what we are told, how we are told it, and what the actual power structure is that serves and is served by such propulsions, all this swirls around like some galaxy of glittery ungoodness that is simply known to all of us by the word: reality. Therefore, we have to bear this in mind when we are watching AC tell us stuff. If we don’t, we haven’t learnt anything, aren’t learning anything, other than how to continue to be aggressively passive. Oh!

3. It’s so unforeboding: I put this down to his voice. I find it strangely calming, yet authoritative. It’s never hectoring, or portentous. It is almost casual – and I think this is because it is slightly highly-pitched. This last statement is beyond scientific proof.

4. It’s neurology reified: How does the internet – its search engines, its correspondences between words and images, its windows, the pornography of sounds and images, the sounds and images of pornography piped directly into your eyes only – how does all this go into our brains and then come out as something like an understanding of the world, of ourselves, our inter-relationships with things and people and language and time? Our neurology must be modifying in weird ways according to (here comes an AC cited phrase) the feedback loops that pulse from our screens to our fingers to our eyes to our brains (and on to our skins, voices, and groins, depending on the time of day. Or not.) We take an image for a word, a word for an image. Yadda! All this, a tapestry of intake. An impoverishment of output. AC says he uses montage because it is pop – but it is the pop of Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, those retinal screens of screed. Stuff happens in between the stuff you think is stuff.

5. It’s not about machines: Nope. That’s a massive McGuffin. A neat thing to pitch to the BBC bosses. And it worked!

Blah.

Thank you Adam Curtis. [Fade out to the sound of St Etienne].

In the new Tank magazine, I talk to the founder of Demotix, Turi Munthe, about today’s news ecology and how, during the Egyptian revolution, Mubarak made a major mediaeval mistake. Here is an excerpt:

SB: Is it too easy to turn what we are seeing in the Middle East into a triumph for social-media technology over long-term historicity?

TM: By enormous good fortune, I happened to read Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 in early January this year. Two big take-away messages for me were, one: revolutions have the kind of failure rates of high-end restaurants, and if they ever do succeed it is all in the long game, and two: revolutions have always been contagious. 1830 was a pretty much continuous, European-wide explosion, and they did it without YouTube. So, caution. And caution also for the way these “technological/Facebook/Twitter revolutions” have been framed. No doubt, the fact that millions of young Arabs all have cell phones and Twitter accounts has made them more recognisable, and therefore more attractive, to the spectating West – some describe this as the famous “Arab street” finally getting a face – but there’s more than a hint of narcissism in the “Facebook topples Mubarak” story; as if the revolutions in the region were in fact the triumph of Californian values over despotism.

SB: Has social media played any part?

TM: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that social media has had a foundational role in what’s been happening, both in terms of news gathering and in terms of the actual protests. The theme here is flatness. Social media allows mass movements to coalesce without all the old pyramid structures required for past mobilisations. Nobody led these movements because nobody needed to. There are huge advantages here: when Mubarak, a week into the Egyptian revolution, declared that he and Omar Suleiman were meeting with opposition leaders, we all laughed – there were none; there was nobody to co-opt! But the downside is that it’s far harder to formulate policy thereafter. I’ve heard of a number of attempts by some of the Tunisian opposition groups to Wiki-write and Google-doc their proposed manifestos and constitutions, but we wait to see how effective that will be.

Werner Herzog, again, at the edge of the world. This time 35,000 years ‘before present’ (the term archeologists designate the now with), deep into the otherworldly, pre-worldy, post-worldly interiors of the Chauvet caves in France. Let me be clear: it is really one of the best films I have seen in years. It does weird things with your eyes, and that is only partly because it’s in 3D.

My hunch is this: that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is actually a museum. Of the very best kind. That goes back to the perennial Wunderkammer all the way forward to the Unreliable Narrators in our favourite ethnographic museums of the 19th and 20th centuries. In an interview, Herzog has said that he does not dream. Which goes some way in explaining his obsession with the dreams that are ‘stored’ in the Chauvet caves as well as all the dreams that its discovery has elicited from those intimately involved in its decoding and preservation.

Of course, the caves’ nominal content is innately impressive (oldest discovered ‘wall art’ – which include Marey-esque bison, lions, horses, and one rogue female sex, appropriately out of reach and only just partially in sight). The gooey, crystalline, amorphous, coagulated surfaces depict material deposits that could be landscapes of alien planets as much as nano-photography of our own entrails. The universe ultimately doesn’t have a scale.

But it’s how Herzog tells the story, how he takes us excavating – through the earth, through time before time – and then sends us back out, often on a radio controlled disembodied camera that is unruly and unpolished and – importantly – digital technologically but undigital in its CGI-ness (compare this with the disembodied “camera” in David Fincher’s Panic Room). There’s how Herzog speaks with – and through – the archeologists and specialists who literally hear the caves’ heart beating. Included is one ardent perfumer who topologises the surfaces by smell.

Parts of the film, formally speaking, could work on the National Geographic channel. But that’s just the bare bones of it. In the same way that the Chauvet caves mark an interzone between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens, in formal terms, Herzog’s film starts out as documentary and then builds up into a sort of pulsing montage of images of images, light and its absence – having invoked earlier on, Plato’s Timaeus through a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with three versions of himself.

Herzog sees the fore-coming of cinema in the dynamic drawings of animals. Later on, in a weird, warm pool that forms the excess thermal energy of a nuclear power station close by, Herzog introduces us to two albino alligators who mirror each other. They look like they’re made of chalk or white chocolate. Just the kind of thing that would become the centre-piece of a 16th century Wunderkammer (except it’d be nailed to the ceiling).

We know animals run all the way through Herzog’s films (dancing chicken, monkeys, bears, depressed, loner penguins) – most recently with the deviant use of “Lizard-Cam” in his Bad Lieutenant remake (thus eeking out Nicholas Cage’s latent lizard traits). But this is profoundly different, isn’t it, to the David Attenborough school of animal gazing? For Herzog, there is nothing sweet or benign about animals, as though they harbour some kind of default innocence that man crushes by being man. Herzog enumerated in very clear terms what he thought of the jungle where Fitzcarraldo was being (torturously) made:

Do animals dream?

To be human is already to not be non-human. Or, simultaneously, to be non-human too. To sort of agitatedly flicker between ontologies – which is of course not ever really “a choice”. You’re condemned to be both and enjoy the delusion that you are only ever one (human, all too non-human). Here, Zizek is onto something. So, I’ll let him have the last, spluttering word.

Go watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams.