'This September I was in the small city of Isfahan, in the heart of Persia. Persia is an underdeveloped country, as one horrendously says, but [its economy] is rapidly taking off, as one says in a likewise horrendous way. … One night, I was walking through the main street when I saw two monstrous beings among all those ancient, beautiful boys, full of an ancient human dignity: they were not really ‘capelloni’ [longhairs], but their hair was cut in a European fashion, long at the back, short at the front, straw-like, artificially stuck around the face, with two filthy tufts over the ears. What was this hair saying? It was saying: ‘We do not belong to this mass of wretched creatures, underdeveloped poor fellows who were left behind in a barbarian age! We are clerks in banks, students, sons of people who grew rich and work in the oil companies; we know Europe, we have read a lot. We are bourgeois: and here is our long hair that bears witness to our international modernity of privileged people.’
- Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The “Discourse” of Hair’, Corriere della Sera, 7 January 1973
There are those who have abundant, swollen hair … perfectly set and similar to the ‘perm’ that was popular with ladies in the forties … Others unintentionally quote even more distant eras: the twenties or early thirties: … their hair falls smoothly on both sides of the forehead, while over the forehead there is a small, long and accurate fringe. … Still others, whose hair is without resources, have let it grow wild: but it falls in extremely black and dishevelled locks: the exact hair of a neorealist hooker from the fifties. … There also those who quote men, rather than women: that is, they quote Great Men of the Past who are completely unknown to them: Christ, Cavour, a reactionary intellectual of the eighteenth century, a judge portrayed by an anonymous neoclassical painter.
- Pier Paolo Pasolini, Petrolio
The town where these lines are being written is a small meeting place for hippies, mainly British, American and Dutch; they spend all day here in a very lively square in the old town, mixed in with (but not mixing with) the local population who, either through natural tolerance, amusement, habit or interest, accept them, exist alongside them and let them get on with life without ever understanding them or ever being surprised by them either. … [O]nce out of its original context, hippy protest comes up against an enemy far more significant than American conformism, even if this is backed up by security on the university campus: poverty (where economics coyly uses the expression developing countries, culture and real life use the more honest poverty). This poverty turns the hippy’s choice into a copy, a caricature of economic alienation, and this copy of poverty, though sported only lightly, becomes in fact distinctly irresponsible. For most traits invented by the hippy in opposition to his home civilisation (a civilisation of the rich) are the very ones which distinguish poverty, no longer as a sign, but much more severely as a clear indication, or an effect, on people’s lives: undernourishment, collective living, bare feet, dirtiness, ragged clothing, are all forces which, in this context, are not there to be used in the symbolic fight against the world of riches but are the very forces against which we should be fighting. Symbols (which the hippy consumes frenetically) are therefore no longer reactive meanings, polemical forces, nor are they critical weapons that we appropriate from a well-off civilisation that conceals its image of overnourishment by constant referral to it and that tries to make overnourishment’s signifiers look glossy; if we think of them as being positive, these symbols become, not a game, or a higher form of symbolic activity, but a disguise, a lower form of cultural narcissism: as is demonstrated by linguistics, the context overturns the meaning, and the context here is that of economics.
Roland Barthes, ‘A Case of Cultural Criticism’, Communications 14, November 1969
Monday, 4 February 2008
Taken from Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
For the philosopher, the most interesting thing about fashion is its extraordinary anticipations. It is well known that art will often – for example, in pictures – precede the perceptible reality by years. It was possible to see streets or rooms that shone in all sorts of fiery colours, long before technology, by means of illuminated signs and other arrangements, actually set them under such a light. Moreover, the sensitivity of the individual artist to what is coming certainly far exceeds that of the grande dame. Yet fashion is in much steadier, much more precise contact with the coming thing, thanks to the incomparable nose which the female collective has for what lies waiting in the future. Each season brings, in the newest creations, various secret signals of things to come. Whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions. Here, surely, lies the greatest charm of fashion, but also the difficulty of making the charming fruitful.
Here fashion has opened the business of dialectical exchange between woman and ware – between carnal pleasure and the corpse. The clerk, death, tall and loutish, measures the century by the yard, serves as mannequin himself to save costs, and manages single-handedly the liquidation that in French is called Revolution. For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered through shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion. And that is why she changes so quickly; she titillates death and is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crush her. For a hundred years she holds her own against him. Now, finally, he is on the point of quitting the field. But he erects on the banks of a new Lethe, which rolls its asphalt stream through arcades, the armature of the whores as a battle memorial.
With Alphonse Karr, there appears a rationalist theory of fashion that is closely related to the rationalist theory of the origin of religions. The motive for instituting long skirts, for example, he conceives to be the interest certain women would have had in concealing an unlovely foot. Or he denounces, as the origin of certain hats and certain hairstyles, the wish to compensate for thin hair.
Who still knows, nowadays, where it was that in the last decade of the previous century women would offer to men their most seductive aspect, the most intimate promise of their figure? In the asphalted indoor arenas where people learned to ride bicycles. The woman as cyclist competes with the cabaret singer for the place of honour on posters, and gives to fashion its most daring line.
Hallmark of the period’s fashions: to imitate a body that has never known nakedness.
The impression of the old-fashioned can arise only where, in a certain way, reference is made to the most topical. If the beginnings of modern architecture to some extent lie in the arcades, their antiquated effect on the present generation has exactly the same significance as the antiquated effect of the father on his son.
In my formulation: ‘the eternal is in any case far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea’.
In fetishism, sex does away with the boundaries separating the organic world from the inorganic. Clothing and jewellery are its allies. It is as much at home with what is dead as it is with living flesh. The latter, moreover, shows it the way to establish itself in the former. Hair is a frontier region lying between the two kingdoms of sexus. Something different is disclosed in the drunkenness of passion: the landscapes of the body. These are already no longer animated, yet are still accessible to the eye, which, of course, depends increasingly on touch and smell to be its guides through the realms of death. Not seldom in the dream, however, there are swelling breasts that, like the earth, are all apparelled in woods and rocks, and gazes have sent their life to the bottom of glassy lakes that slumber in the valleys. These landscapes are traversed by paths which lead sexuality into the world of the inorganic. Fashion itself is only another medium enticing it more deeply into the universe of matter.
Does fashion die (in Russia, for example) because it can no longer keep up the tempo – at least in certain fields?
A contemporary fashion and its significance. In the spring of 1935, something new appeared in women’s fashions: medium-sized embossed metal plaquettes which were worn on jumpers or overcoats and which displayed the initial of the bearer’s first name. Fashion thus profited from the vogue for badges which had arisen among men in the wake of the patriotic leagues. On the other hand, the progressive restrictions in the private sphere are here given expression. The name – and to be sure, the first name – of persons unknown is published on a lapel. That it becomes easier thereby to make the acquaintance of a stranger is of secondary importance.
Each generation experiences the fashions of the one immediately preceding it as the most radical antiaphrodisiac imaginable. In this judgement it is not so far off the mark as might be supposed. Every fashion is to some extent a bitter satire on love: in every fashion, perversities are suggested by the most ruthless means. Every fashion couples the living body to the inorganic world. To the living, fashion defends the rights of the corpse. The fetishism that succumbs to the sex appeal of the inorganic is its vital nerve.
Where they impinge upon the present moment, birth and death – the former through natural consequences, the latter through social ones – considerably restrict the field of play for fashion. This state of affairs is properly elucidated through two parallel circumstances. The first concerns birth, and shows the natural engendering of life overcome by novelty in the realm of fashion. The second circumstance concerns death: it appears in fashion as no less overcome, and precisely through the sex appeal of the inorganic, which is something generated by fashion.
The detailing of feminine beauties so dear to the baroque, a process in which each single part is exalted through a trope, secretly links up with the image of the corpse. This parcelling out of feminine beauty into its noteworthy constituents resembles a dissection, and the popular comparisons of body parts to alabaster, snow, precious stones, or other (mostly inorganic) formations makes the same point.
Fashions are a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion. The more short-lived a period, the more susceptible it is to fashion.
There is hardly another article of dress that can give expression to such divergent erotic tendencies, and that has so much latitude to describe them, as a woman’s hat. Whereas the meaning of male headgear in its sphere (the political) is strictly tied to a few rigid patterns, the shades of meaning in a woman’s hat are virtually incalculable. It is not so much the various possibilities of symbolic reference to the sexual organs that is chiefly of interest here. More surprising is what a hat can say about the rest of the outfit. Helen Grund has made the ingenious suggestion that the bonnet, which is contemporaneous with the crinoline, actually provides men with directions for managing the latter. The wide brim of the bonnet is turned up – thereby demonstrating how the crinoline must be turned up in order to make sexual access easier for the man.
Extracted from Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (trans Eiland & McLaughlin, Harvard, 1999)
Posted by it at 11:54
Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.
-Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I – FROM BRAZIL TO THE HOLY MOUNTAIN: FASHION AND NUDITY AS DISCOURSE
The function of clothing in film differs from that of other theatrical elements in one critical aspect: unlike the elimination of props or elaborate stage sets, dispensing with costume as a dramatic technique cannot properly be termed ‘minimalist’. In von Trier’s Dogville the absence of scenery is reductive: by removing elements from the field of our contemplation it serves to shift attention to what is normally stifled or diffused by the absent scenery: action, bodies, pure drama. The absence of costume however does not erode the positive content or shift attention to the action; this absence draws our attention to a point half-way between background and action – nudity is itself a dramatic element.
Yet clothes do not simply conceal nudity: they also have the function of visually subordinating difference to identity. Clothing-fashion is the primary technique of visually constituting and representing the ‘fake’ identity of a fractured post-‘mirror-stage’ subject: as Joe Buck of Midnight Cowboy, decked out in a rodeo cowboy outfit, admits "I ain't a for-real cowboy, but I am a hell of a stud!" The principle of fashion is a hyperbolic extension of a primary function of clothing, homogeneity. It is no coincidence that the films and TV shows most noted for a certain fashion style tend also to be the most uniform: the futuristic outfits of Star Trek or Barbarella, the disco outfits of Saturday Night Fever, or the swinging sixties’ London of Blow Up. The underlying theme of fashion is uniformity, a profound uniformity beneath all affects of fashion. This theme is taken up in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which takes place ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ as we are told in a caption at the beginning; the costumes and sets in the film comprise a seamless melange of emanations thrown up by the century in question, a theme which neatly folds into the Orwellian 1984-esque storyline. From the viewpoint of fashion and historical ‘accuracy’ it may appear as an insignificant gesture – but there is a profound point here: actual trends in clothing are at bottom never definitive, it is always a matter of fixed boundaries imposed on an underlying field of overlapping intensities that traverse a network of singularities: if a whole decade can be boiled down to a ‘style’, why not a century? Brazil only takes this innate totalizing tendency of fashion a step further. Fashion implies fashioning, to fashion – fascio – ‘bundling together’ – fascism. It is one of the primary processes whereby our constitution as subjects is the very form of our subjection, to put it in Foucauldian terms.
This is not to suggest that nudity entails liberation: for the technique that produces our subjection is precisely the ‘incitement to discourse’, the call to express individuality through dress; and nudity is only another discourse amid a proliferation of discourses, another form of confession, another technique for producing the ‘truth’ that subjects us: “The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, “demands” only to surface; that if it fails to do so, this is because a constraint holds it in place, the violence of a power weighs it down” (Foucault 60) This is the lesson we may draw from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain when, for all its iconoclastic, surreal and grotesque imagery, short-circuiting nudity with high spiritualism and psychedelic trips, presenting a Christ-figure in the form of a thief who recalls the tarot card figure of The Fool; at the end leaves us with the cloaked immortals who turn out to be dummies, and in the final scene, the alchemist who reveals the film equipment outside the frame and reminds us that “Real life awaits.” This final gesture ruptures and discredits the work itself. After saying everything, it finally tells us that it has said nothing, confessed nothing – real life awaits.
II – TO THE LIGHTHOUSE AND BACK: THE SENTENCE-IMAGE AND THE EMPTY PLACE OF THE SUBJECT
If we conceive of clothing articles as words of a language, and fashion as discourse or statements (‘fashion statements’) in the sense deployed by Foucault – language not as semantic meaning-content or truth originating in a responsible subject, but the pure ‘taking place’ of statements that refer to a ‘vacant place’ of the subject that can be filled by any individual – ‘fashion’ in the broadest application of the term appears as the natural element of what Agamben calls a “metasemantics built on a semantics of enunciation.” There are affects of speech, ways of saying, fashionable and unfashionable statements, which anyone can adopt or ‘wear’; they do not originate in a subject, for anyone can adopt a particular fashion - ‘fashion’ is a perfect metaphor for this vacant place, the ‘I’ displaced in relation to itself, the “being reciprocally consigned to something that cannot be assumed by a subject”. (Agamben 130) We may even reverse the metaphor – language (meaning-content) is the clothing of the mind, equally subject to trends and affects of fashion. The “disjunction between the living being and the thinking being” that marks the “empty place” of the subject (ibid 143) – an antinomy or ‘parallax gap’ that precludes our access to the real, in Zizekian terms – is expressed in the disjunction between nudity and the clothed or ‘fashioned’ human body. This parallactic Real, the empty place of the subject, defies representation.
In The Future of the Image, Ranciere argues that contemporary art’s radical undoing of the representative relationship between text and image, the law of the ‘profound today’ or ‘the great parataxis’ – most powerfully expressed in the ‘young art’ of cinema – takes its cue in large part from the modern novel. Before Godard and the Marx Brothers, we had Balzac, Proust, Zola, and Hugo “could transform a book into a cathedral or a cathedral into a book.” (42) And indeed, some modern writers were aware of this potential long before cinema took up the project: Virginia Woolf, in a 1926 essay titled ‘Cinema’, spoke of a “cinema of the future” that would “make thoughts visible, like smoke pouring from Vesuvius.”
Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is rife with cinematic imagery – one could even call it a cinematic novel, cinematic narrative transposed into text. And it is in light of the above comments that we may interpret the pervasiveness of clothing in the novel: the “reddish-brown hairy stocking” that Mrs Ramsay is knitting for the lighthouse keeper’s boy throughout the first half; her green shawl tossed over the edge of a gilt frame to conceal its worn state and prettify the drab surroundings, later worn when going for a walk in pregnant silence with Mr Ramsay, and still later wrapped round a scary boar’s skull in order to conceal it and effect a compromise between her children when putting them to sleep(“how lovely it looked now…like a bird’s nest…a beautiful mountain” 124); Mr Ramsay talking “by the hour about his boots”; the brooch that Minta loses on the beach when her engagement to Paul is cemented. (“How extraordinarily lucky Minta is! She is marrying a man who has a gold watch in a wash-leather bag!” p 127)
The total depth to which this fetishism of clothing permeates becomes palpable in Woolf’s use of metaphor, as when Mrs. Ramsay reflects: “How did she differ? What was the spirit in her, the essential thing, by which, had you found a glove in the corner of a sofa, you would have known it, from its twisted finger, hers indisputably?”(55) In another case, Mr Bankes “felt rigid and barren, like a pair of boots that has been soaked and gone dry so that you can hardly force your feet into them. Yet he must force his feet into them. He must make himself talk.” (98) In ‘Time Passes’, the lyrical, evocative chapter that ‘bridges’ a period of ten years between the first and last chapters, this theme comes to the fore: “What people had shed and left – a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes – those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned…”(141) It is clothing items and fashion accessories that in these passages are made to fill the role of speech, or of enunciation, the ‘empty place of the subject’ – the twisted finger of the glove that speaks of one’s essence, the obligation to observe social mores symbolized by a rigid pair of boots that one must ‘force’ one’s feet into – be subject, subject oneself; Minta, upon getting engaged and losing her brooch on the beach, starts crying, and although “she minded losing her brooch, she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else…She did not know what for.” (Does the brooch symbolize her freedom, while the two are both lost by the engagement?) What better way is there to render cinematically visible the fractured ‘I’ in modern society, the split between the enunciated content and the subject of enunciation, than through the speech of clothing, the talk of commodities – the deflection of a subject’s speech onto a visual object one wears and which expresses visually its thought but is not intrinsically part of it, does not emanate from its being? (Joe Buck eventually sheds his cowboy outfit saying “I ain't no kinda hustler.”)
III – FASHION, FILM, FORGETTING: THE SHROUD OF NUDITY AND KITSCH
Films that in cultural memory become associated with an era and its fashion very often have a retroactive element - Saturday Night Fever, the epitome of 70s disco lifestyle, was made at a time when disco was fast becoming a thing of the past. Scorsese’s New York, New York, which produced one of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic hits, was filmed in 1977, years after the heyday of both the age it depicts and of Sinatra’s career. This signals the invoking of a pure past, an always-was in the form of Deleuze’s virtual object which is ‘found only as lost, and exists only as recovered.’ One doesn't see people on the street wearing clothes such as those paraded by celebrities on catwalks. Yet when the history of our era is recorded in the decades to come – the official, popular history – it will be constructed to an overwhelming degree in this element of kitsch subtracted from our actual present – the already-was cultural output of film, TV, music videos, etc – and rehashed. In Hairspray (2007), a musical comedy about segregation set in 1960s Baltimore, the costumes are not so much those of the era in question as they are of the 1960s as construed in kitsch. It is said that “if you remember the 60s, you weren't there.” As an effect of the fractured ‘I’, the same could perhaps be said, on some level, of any era. (with or without the LSD, weed, amphetamines, and free love –)…Even death is turned into kitsch: one may recall Villon’s Epitaph - “Freres humains qui après nous vivez…” – as a plea of essential forgetting; or Jeff Wall’s photographic reconstruction ‘Dead Troops Talk’, in which dead Russian soldiers killed by Afghan fighters, with gaping holes in their bellies and slit throats, joke and laugh with each other.
Just as there are different fashions, different ways of being dressed (statements), there are different nudities (silences), different ways of being naked, of extending the uniformal discourse of fashion into its apparent absence or silence in nudity. “Nudity is a shroud”, as Kundera ponders in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, when a group of friends meet on a nudist beach, “their naked genitals staring duly, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand.” One of the group pontificates on the decline of Western civilization, and “for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium.” (228)
The real split then is not between clothed and naked, but rather between the subject present to itself, the self-conscious subject of ‘shame’ confronted with the pre-individual inhuman core of its humanity, with its own emptiness; and the shrouded (nude or clothed) subject, fashioned and bundled, subjected, given a content that is not its own and which it can never fully assume; between pure presence and kitsch. In this broader sense, fashion finds in film, in moving photographic images, as hinted at in the modern novel by the likes of Proust and Woolf, its true home: cinema as the ‘pervert art’ that ‘teaches us how to desire’ (as Zizek puts it), as the “mystery machine” for “making something common…between the image that separates and the sentence which strives for continuous phrasing” (Ranciere 58), as the fluid form of the photographic image which itself is credited with carrying out a “Surrealist takeover of the modern sensibility” (Sontag 51). It flashes back at us a vision of ourselves in the guise of an other – completing the shroud, cementing the two halves. This is not to suggest a relationship of negative opposition between a ‘fake’ subject and a real, or its flattening; rather, an conjunctive antinomy between the living being and an emptiness in which it remains trapped as a subject but can never truly assume itself, its kitsch. Fashion – in the visual form of clothing, but by extension one may also speak of fashions of the intellect, popular ideas, etc – is a language of kitsch, of what Deleuze terms memory as ‘essential forgetting’ or pure past; and it is by precisely this type of operation, one could argue – essential forgetting as ‘lack’ - that Laclau’s ‘chain of equivalences’ is constructed and the distance bridged between competing political groups in a popular movement. It is this surreal shroud of fashion, the subject of the enunciated that founds the virtual object as ‘eternal half of itself’ – that even the most subversive, surrealist art cannot truly penetrate or undress, and which is the deliberate target of Jodorowsky’s resigned closing gesture in the Holy Mountain: indeed, ‘real life awaits’.
By Boris Knezevic
Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz : the witness and the archive (1999)
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, London (2004)
Foucault, The history of sexuality. Vol. 1, The will to knowledge (1998)
Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980)
Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1999)
Ranciere, The Future of the Image (2007)
Sontag, On Photography (1978)
Woolf, To the Lighthouse (2000)
Posted by it at 11:51
Let us juxtapose two mechanisms of modernity’s mass culture: mechanically reproduced media and fashion. Both fields have “manna” narratives, in that the concerns and technologies of the early bourgeois-capitalist oligarchs filter and descend down to the masses. Segments of these same consuming masses are, however, productive of the manufactured needs in these fields (i.e., tastes). Pioneers on the figurative and literal streets—the DIY brigades—constitute a kind of research and design department. They are an unpaid vanguard whose activities may set the pace for the stylistic advancements of capital. The latest wave of fashion (which is cyclical) and the most fashionable development in “technoaesthetics” (which is linear) are frequently produced by those who do not capitalize on this production.
Ernst Bloch wrote that “not all people exist in the same Now.” Among its other functions, fashion (as distinct from style or clothing) always acts as a semiotic policing to ensure the proper manifestations of this nonsychronicity. Meaning that fashion works as a single contingent set of checks and balances upon the system of power relations in any given society. This is not to claim, of course, that there is a direct correlation visible in all circumstances—a cipher key for What People Wear. But fashion as a system is not, is never, strictly rhizomatic. It has its sources in economic relations. It has its first justifications in moneyed interests. Fashion, an instrumentalization of nonsynchronicity, is therefore complicit. This goes for clothes, and it also goes for stylistic trends in cinema, television, and video.
I am oversimplifying matters here for the purpose of a premise that in the culture industry all activities, even ones of critical resistance, are necessarily negotiations rather than pure negations.
In Liquid Sky the character Margaret (Anna Carlisle) tells her old art instructor (a part-time lover and apparently something of an aging radical) that his generation’s blue jeans, free love sloganeering, and revolution were a costume—a performance, a posture—as much as her own generation’s self-stylings. The only difference is that her generation knows and acknowledges this fact.
The way Liquid Sky imagines fashion breaks down according to the specific level of engagement we isolate. On one hand, there is the depiction of trends. For example, Dave Kehr notes that the film “capture[s] the neopuritanism of the new wave movement.” That is, one can read the film as a document or representation of a scene—a scene that exists in reality, independently of this film that depicts it. From there one might pronounce judgments on the subject matter of the film itself.
On the other hand, there is apart from representation, the participation in trends. For instance homemade aesthetics—literally homemade (Liquid Sky was filmed in and around a penthouse), but also participating in a ‘leftovers’ type of mediascape, that imagined (differently) by something like Videodrome or Stephen Sayadian’s work, too, wherein the B-grade parsimony of the images is a deliberate aesthetic effect. The text is part of a low-budget sphere of image-making—costing only a half-million dollars, lacking truly round and convincing sets and bursting with DIY decoration (descended from punk—very): the film has the neon fingerprints of its creators all over it.
It is precisely this “low,” inexpensive, pop-musical, youth-oriented aesthetic Soviet émigré Slava Tsukerman and his crew enact that connects this film in some kind of unspoken international fraternity, a Cold War counter-discourse.
Much American film production in the 1980s was marked by jingoism and interventionism. Even irenics were often of an authoritarian bent (Rocky IV truly, unironically, is one of the landmark cinematic texts of the Reagan era). The consideration of geopolitical violence carried with it only rarely a consideration of geopolitical history. The inverse of this unthinking, unflagging chauvinism is, I would argue, a range of conspiracy texts that mark the years from Nixon through George H.W. Bush. (Fredric Jameson has written cogently on this theme in a chapter of The Geopolitical Aesthetic.) The conspiratorial accusations of much low-grade genre coding in the 1970s and ‘80s made for rather fascinating cinema all along the high-low divide. I am thinking of David Blair’s Wax, or the Discovery of Television among the Bees (1991) and Mark Rappaport’s Chain Letters (1985), for starters. This tendency to make sense of politics as arcane and perhaps extraterrestrial, the workings of an omniscient order of powerful beings, extends weblike through much of cinema. At its root, I think, it expresses the concerns of a mentality which—unlike that of the Stallonist-jingoist—do not identify with government (or US) power and do not trust the benevolence of its operators. Conspiracy was the narrative mechanism by which new and inorganic communities were produced—all as results of shadow powers. The dual video age themes of conspiracy and cliques sometimes converged—they converge in Liquid Sky. The film’s fringe vanguard fashionistas being orgasmo-murdered by vampiric aliens (depicted only as optic nerves) makes for an interesting comment on the unwittingness of the pop avant-garde cliques—the R&D departments of capitalism—in the post-Nixon, post-1960s counterculture Cold War milieu.
The nodal points of the early video age have in fact proven to be a rich mine to vein. The mining started early enough, as commercial films soon became weird and neon-gritty, too: recall not only the street/youth films like Beat Street (Stan Lathan, 1984), but also Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (1986) or Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984). If, by the mid-1980s, the “new wave” could be co-opted and “upgraded” to commercial cinema as a look, a feel, a selling point, then it isn’t until, say, 2008 that the unclean age of analog (the vital antithesis of neon new wave cleanliness) finds its synthesis realized. Meaning: the technology is as important, and as apparent, as the décor, the attitudes, and the mise-en-scène. Just look at the latest Snoop Dogg video, a brilliant work, “Sensual Seduction” (directed by Melina Matsoukas). At this point it is not simply the depicted image but the way the image is captured and produced that become a desired effect. To hold a screening of Liquid Sky in 2008 and to assume its continued relevancy or worth is, I think, a call to bear this technoaesthetic transformation in mind.
--Zach Campbell, January 2008
Posted by owen hatherley at 11:02
Liquid Sky and the Soviet fantasy of Amerika
The person seeing Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky for the first time would have every right to ask – where on earth does this come from? It all takes place in some kind of New York City, but hardly one you might recognise. The clothes resemble something worn in Blitz or Club for Heroes circa 1980, a Neuromantic, Bowiephile fastidiousness; the conversations are rhetorical and stilted; the music, meanwhile, resembles little else made before or since, an idea of synthpop created by someone who can’t possibly have heard any. And by all accounts, this was its (alienation) effect on New Yorkers at the time – that isn’t what the scene looks like! Who dresses like that, who talks like that, what music sounds like that? Accordingly, its only in the late 90s, when the film briefly became an electroclash cliché (Adult. covering ‘Me and My Rhythm Box’ etc) that it started to be assimilated back into pop culture. Regardless of whatever Tsukerman and his co-conspirators – fellow Soviet emigres Yuri Neyman, Nina Kerova, Anatole Gerasimov, and American collaborator Anna Carlisle (writer and actor as both Jimmy and Margaret) – thought they were doing, their version of early 80s New York presented a strange and intense fantasy, not an American reality, although it derives from a warped version of it. In doing so, they were recapitulating a move that was as old as the USSR they had fled from.
There was always an intense elective affinity between the Soviet Union and the United States, one that the residue of the Cold War continues to obscure. That is, what was generally called Amerikanizm. This we could define as the critical, alienating use of American cultural, technological and formal tropes in order to create a distinctively Soviet and Socialist aesthetic. The history of Amerikanizm has yet to be written, and it encompasses everything from skyscraper design, scientific management, assembly-line production (all those quintessentially socialist realist tractors were spawn of Ford’s heavy investment in the Five Year Plans), and perhaps most famously, film. In film Amerikanizm takes on its own particular name – Eksentrizm. While Godard’s 60s youth in Masculin Feminin were torn between their mother and father ‘Marx and Coca-Cola’, Eccentrists were the result of a three way love triangle between Alexander Bogdanov, Frederick Wilmslow Taylor and Charlie Chaplin. We may never know which was the true father.
Their fantasy Amerika, encapsulated in the 1922 Manifesto of the Eccentric Actor, signed by the future film directors Gregori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg and Sergei Yutkevich, was a meld of the mechanised movement of Taylorism (and in that, they were concomitant with Meyerhold’s contemporary experiments in theatrical ‘Biomechanics’) and the similarly unnatural stilted movements of Chaplin. As Walter Benjamin (a fan of the Eccentrists) pointed out on the release of Modern Times, Chaplin’s walking, dancing, and poetry of gesture was an immanent response to the very nature of film, which pivots on a dialectic between the Fordist, assembly-line continuity of image succeeding image; and the interruptive, discontinuous motion of montage, the edit, the cut and splice of entirely separate phenomena to create a ‘whole’. So his movement is jerky, yet fluid: balletic and awkward, smooth and graceless. The Eccentrist’s Manifesto spliced all these elements together along with a call for the total destruction of the old image order in favour of some combination of Hollywood’s slapstick disruptiveness and technological flair, Futurism’s iconoclasm, and the impossible movement of the onscreen comedian with Socialism’s promise of a world turned upside down.
Perhaps the most well known exponent of Amerikanizm and Eksentrizm (aside from Sergei Eisenstein…) was Lev Kuleshov, with a series of films beginning with The Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, in which a flag waving Yankee is baffled and overwhelmed by the vibrancy and excitement of the proletarian state. At this early stage the passage to the future and the attendant journey was always assumed to be in that direction. The Formalist critic Marietta Shaginyan created a sensation in the early 20s with Mess-Mend: Yankees in Petrograd, in which she and the head of the Soviet state publishers concocted an imaginary author, ‘Jim Dollar’, a hero straight out of the pages of the crime thriller, for serialised stories of solidarity, derring-do and fantasy technology. The baton of the future would be passing inevitably from the USA to the USSR, which would in turn create a socialist America on the vast steppe. Every pole of the USSR, from Eccentrist, Anarchistic currents to Trotskyists and Stalinists believed in this until the mid-30s, when the dead generations completed their strangulation of the revolution. In 1924 Stalin defined ‘Leninism’ as ‘the combination of Russian revolutionary sweep and American efficiency’, while his enemy wrote that ‘the Soviet system shod with American technology will be socialism,’ a conjunction that would define the form of the new society: ‘it will transform our order, liberating it from the heritage of backwardness, primitiveness and barbarism.’ This desire, common to the revolutionaries and the earlier Thermidorians, was dismissed later by Boris Groys as a soft-headed desire to create a ‘better America’, replaced by Stalinism’s so much more serious expression of naked power (as with many ostensible critics of Stalinism, Groys seems incapable of writing about it without his admiration showing through).
Kuleshov’s America, meanwhile, soon got its own descriptor: Kuleshovism, denoting an editing style indebted to D.W Griffith with a cast of characters taken from the work of Jack London. Kuleshov would live long enough to become the teacher and mentor of one Slava Tsukerman, in the late 1960s. Whether the excitements of his youth carried over into the work of his young student we can only speculate. Yet there is Eccentrist pedigree in Liquid Sky too – the director of photography, Yuri Neyman, who transforms New York so vividly into an alien city, was the cinematographer on the elderly Sergei Yutkevich’s film about his fellow Americanist Mayakovsky Laughs. Tsukerman and Neyman would make the journey that their tutors only dreamed of, although it would be a fallacy to claim that in so doing they discovered the ‘real’ America.
Actually, it’s as strange, and as fascinated by American style as a typical Cold War product. The 1963 Soyuzmultfilm animation Shareholder ridicules the stock-market’s pretence to participation in the economy, but does so via the loving depiction of Eisenhower-era modernity: those extraordinary streamlined cars, the zoot suits, neon lights and jazz that were ostensibly signs of decadence. Style for its own sake was the forbidden, and this is what Liquid Sky luxuriates in, the potlatch of panstick. In this least Americanist phase of the USSR, when Khrushchev would envy Nixon his kitchens and the latter all those rockets, America was still an underlying dream presence. In that most Soviet of works Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky Brothers’ novel of an alien holiday creating the fascinating, rotting industrial wonderland known as the Zone, the setting had to be transferred to America in order to speak so plainly about the Soviet war on nature, the industrial instrumentalism that Susan Buck-Morss considers the fatal poison of the Amerikanist conjuncture.
In 1920 Trotsky, an ex-New Yorker, claimed that just one NY-style building in Moscow might help shake the poverty and torpor created by the Russian Civil War. Americanism in architectural design was a complex, vexed question, as Cold War politicking obscured the essential interrelatedness and affinity. The Soviet skyscraper designs of the 1920s were strippings and rationalisations of the USA’s huge, atavistic fantasy-palaces. Aware of the mystificatory absurdity of a Woolworth Building, the extension of the Gothic up into the sky, the USSR’s early architects took their cue from the factories behind the facade. In one particularly memorable instance, this centred on the 1922 competition for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius proposed a tower based on the printworks at the back, extending their modules into a futurist vision of cool, precise technology. It was ridiculed, of course, in favour of flying buttresses and Gothicky ornament. So in another act of plunder, the Soviet architects Grigori and Mikhail Barkhin proposed to build a slightly modified version of Gropius’ Chicago in Moscow for the Izvestia newspaper – and got it built, albeit drastically reduced. Yet ten years later, in the contest for the notorious Palace of the Soviets, all the Soviet Modernists would be rejected in favour of a design by an obscure New Yorker, Hector Hamilton. The resultant design, modified by Boris Iofan, was a direct response to the Empire State Building. While it abhorred the art deco smoothness of the latter, it aimed to exceed its already ludicrous height.
It’s impossible to watch Liquid Sky without noticing the Empire State. Neyman’s camera lingers on it, caresses it, illuminates it as a neon needle or a futuristic phallus, as a correspondent to the queasy drugginess and bleak, loveless sex that pervades the film. The Soviet Empire State never got built, of course – but as Buck-Morss has pointed out, the colossal statue of Lenin at its pinnacle resembled nothing so much as King Kong hanging on to the Empire’s mast, swiping away the fighter planes. Cold War politics meant that when the USSR finally built its skyscrapers in the late 40s, they couldn’t resemble either Empire/Chrysler romantic futurism or Seagram/Lever Sachlichkeit, but instead reached back into the past – to the Gothick cakes that they had rejected as silly in their revolutionary period: ‘they preposterously decorate their fortieth storeys with some Renaissance piece or other, oblivious to the fact that these curlicues and statuettes are good enough at six storeys, but any higher they are completely unnoticeable. Of course, these high-class baubles can’t be placed any lower, or they’ll interfere with advertisements’ wrote Mayakovsky in My Discovery of America. Stripped of these objets d’art, technology might, in theory, have been more sachlich, and more socialist – yet the Soviet state took it on, baubles and all. Tsukerman and Neyman would only have known Americanism in the hidden forms of the 1940s Soviet Woolworth Buildings or in the bastardised Corbusier that surrounded all Soviet cities by the late 70s. Hence the real, original Skycity has a fascination for them, yet one pervaded with decadence and disappointment as much as the old live-wire excitement that their teachers had on the viewing of the latest Harold Lloyd film.
That’s where we find Liquid Sky: at the point where the collision of Soviet socialism and American technoromanticism had long, long since disappeared. Instead the film was made in the context where brutish geriatrics Reagan and Brezhnev waved their missiles at each other in the Cold War’s chilling early 80s sequel. Accordingly, it luxuriates in the glorious end. Though everyone moves through it as if in a trance, goes through their motions of scoring and screwing, it still conveys the sheer electric excitement of popculture, the gleeful destruction of gender boundaries, the transformation of ‘music’ into electronic scree and exhortations, and collectivity survives at least in a sense on the dancefloor. Dreams of equality become an aristocracy of the poor (everyone in Liquid Sky seems elegantly impoverished), where émigrés from the Midwest like Margaret are able to play out their fantasies on their body, via the masquerades and misappropriations of fashion. The world ends with a synthesised chill, but at least not with a whimper. There’s no hope, of course, and the only way out is up – like Bogdanov’s Red Star, the horrors of the terrestrial are transcended in the alien transportation. The logical conclusion of this reappraisal of Soviet Amerikanizm is that both are bankrupt, and the only escape is to disappear along with the aliens that feed on earthly jouissance.
Posted by owen hatherley at 09:59
Thanks to everyone who braved the transport problems yesterday to come to the Liquid Sky screening. Now we all know that the opiates resemble orgasms, the Empire State Building is a giant hypodermic and that aliens are the size of dinner plates...
Next screening will once again be at the E:vent Gallery in Bethnal Green on Sunday 24th Feb. The theme is boredom and we'll be showing Vera Chytilová's Daisies and Michael Haneke's Der Siebente Kontinent (The Seventh Continent).
We are looking for contributions - texts (200-2000 words), illustrations and images. Written pieces can be directly about one or other of the films, but also on the theme of boredom and cinema more broadly.
The deadline for submissions is: Sunday 17th February. Please send everything to infinitethought[at]hotmail.co.uk. Any questions about submissions to me as well.
Posted by it at 06:27
Saturday, 2 February 2008
Kino Fist is returning this Sunday at the E:vent Gallery, at 96 Teesdale Street, Bethnal Green London E2 6PU, on the theme of Film & Fashion. The usual - 2pm, 2 quid, nibbles and booze and smoking, with a free zine and the following features: Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky with support from Chuck Jones' Hare Conditioned, and the video to Bowie's 'Fashion'. Come along, if you know what's good for you.
Posted by it at 08:13