The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. - Vladimir Nabokov
When we try to imagine the end of the world, we tend to conceptualise it in terms of a grand scheme that encompasses a global or universal ending to existence. We ask ourselves: “Surely, there can be no cessation of the individual without a shut down of the whole of existence?”
But there are more personal and certainly more existential forms of ending available to mankind. The subsuming of the individual ID that takes place in certain Buddhist belief systems may seem a viable option and within the understanding of most people. It isn't that hard to approximate an idea of what it would be like to 'not exist', but only from the safe and comforting position of the existing identity.
Perhaps this difficulty is one of the reasons we create art works that give us a window though which to view this ending? It's easier to divorce ourselves from the ending of existence through art than it is from the reservoir of ideas, preconceptions, memories and assorted ephemera that make us, 'us'. We can switch off, turn away and walk out while still retaining a firm grasp on the self.
Within the many paths of Buddhist philosophy, the idea of the death of the self lies at the end of the path of enlightenment. To really understand the nature of the universe, so Buddhist thought goes, you have to allow yourself to be consumed by it without the pretensions of the self. Sounds straightforward enough. Except what we most often imagine as being a relinquishing of the self, is actually a replacing of the self with another identity. It's easier to place another self in the position of our body than it is to imagine there being nothing at all. This attainment of Selflessness, known as Anatman, is the gradually becoming aware that there is no fixed identity and that once we've let go of it, we're free to fully understand the universe or attain Nirvana.
Philip K. Dick approaches the idea of the death of the individual in much of his writing, but in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed as Blade Runner) he has his anti-heroes exploring what it means to know you are facing the end. What measures would you take and where would you end up? Although different from the novel, the film explores these same themes. The famous showdown at the end between Roy Baty and Deckard, in which the actor Rutger Hauer (as the dying android Baty) improvised the final speech where he recites a litany of the fantastical, life-affirming things he has seen in his life:
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those... moments will be lost in time... like... tears..in rain"
A lyrical and positive viewpoint, which is probably at odds with the reality that most of us would experience in the face of imminent death. In train fires in the London underground, passengers scramble and crawl over each other to escape the heat and flames of destruction. Despite the heroic and selflessness in the stories arising from the events of September 11t h 2001, there are bound to be numerous stories of selfish actions and people turned against each other trying to survive the collapse of the towers. But these aren't the stories we want to hear about. We want to know that our ending will be glorious and a positive statement about mankind and more importantly, ourselves.
Roy Baty's ending is an ideal one, in which the beauty of existence and the importance of life is revealed to him. Facing death and annihilation of the psyche, he realises that life is an amazing glorious, wonderful thing. Perhaps this is the reason we dwell on the idea of the apocalypse and try to envision it within the arts? We want to hope that life is a reaffirming experience and that the ending will be worth looking forward to, being the one unavoidable experience guaranteed to us. If the attempt is futile and we ultimately just fizzle out without any glory or dignity, washed away by an orange flare of nuclear rage or just petering out in the cold dark night of a solar winter, the one function our imaginations can give back to us is to remind us of how alive we are and how much more we all have to live for.
Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Monday, 6 October 2008
Ostensibly a straight if harrowing made-for-TV docudrama about the run up to and aftermath of a full-scale nuclear strike on England, Threads is also one of the great examples of the dramatic and representative powers of television as a medium.
Threads as Docudrama.
Threads lays claim to the imagination through a number of exegetic and diegetic strategies. Firstly there is the solidly professorial voice-over that ushers in the action and reappears at key points to explain the difficulties of particular situations, considerably more so in the more speculative second than first half. There is also the use of text overlaying images in order to establish location and population levels etc, hammered up onto the screen and accompanied by the whirring of an electric typewriter, as well as a more dramatic series of inter-titles. These provide the outer shell of Thread’s verisimilitude, enclosing the fiction, the main dramatic action of the piece.
But there is also a far more subtle intrusion into Thread’s fictional realm; from within. The use of Lesley Judd, a familiar face as a real-world newscaster within the film’s fictional world, allows the outside access. The TV as a portal or a trapdoor through which reality leaks frighteningly into the fiction. There is no safe, hermetically enclosed fictive world in Threads. The use made of television is vital to Threads’ power, without it we would simply be contained within the horizon of the docudrama. Here the fiction is put under pressure from both without and within
There is also a slow leakage of footage from the TV into the films real-world frame: all the genuine documentary footage within the film is initially contained within the TV screen, but slowly as the panic spreads and the television news becomes a more central focus the film begins to inter-cut stock footage with the filmed drama, until during scenes of protest and the blast itself the two schemes of representation have collapsed into each other. The stock footage is also complemented by what might be termed “realia”, the use of government emergency broadcasts and films to pressure the fictional realm further.
In Threads the creation of a world is more important than the creation of characters. This does not mean that the identification with the characters is weaker, quite the reverse. We identify more deeply with them, despite the lack of time the film can spend on them, precisely because the factors considered extraneous to most drama, the setting of the protagonists within a richly realized world, a world we recognize absolutely as our own and which is partially composed from the fabric of our daily lives forces a deep and immediate identification. The terrible poignancy in Threads is not what happens to its central characters, Ruth’s eventual death is dealt with perfunctorily, but in watching a world fall apart. It’s neither plot nor character driven, it is instead an act of assembly and disassembly on a cosmic scale. The making and unmaking of a world.
Threads as cold medium.
Threads power is dependent on its status as that most reviled of cultural artefacts, the Made-for-TV movie. Here, rather than simply producing neutered Cinema Threads exploits its own inherent and richly persuasive set of dramatic and diegetic possibilities to the maxim. Threads is to TV what “Man with a movie camera” is to cinema.
The cold medium forces a greater attention on the part of the observer, a deeper engagement of his interpretive abilities. This is why Thread’s seemingly underfunded apocalypse is so powerfully felt compared to the spectacle of New York being overwhelmed in, say, “The Day After Tomorrow.” The cold medium demands a suspension of disbelief that spectacular cinema can never enlist. This is why science fiction has been so much more effective on television, not despite but because of all the budgetary constraints. The symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the televisual world is the true and vital interactivity in the TV form, and it’s in it from the start.
Before and after the blast
With the blast itself comes a moment of total erasure, an unrepresentizable access to the real of the nuclear strike. Whiteout. Soundless, imageless, an overwhelming surplus of reality. The film itself winks out of existence for a moment and when it returns nothing is the same.
The blast divides the film technically into a before and after. The first half is filled with matching shots, beginning with the spider’s web and the shots of power lines and phone cables hanging over Sheffield, reaching a brilliant apex with the shot of Ruth opening a tin of cat food cutting into a letter from the ministry of defence being typed up. The shots are used as a way of reinforcing the interconnectedness of all lives and social spheres in the pre-apocalypse. In the second half of the film, with humanity scattered and divided, there are none.
The second half of the film also reverses the stealthy assimilation of found footage into the drama. Exploiting still, black and white images of ruined cities and civilian casualties the filmmakers slowly begin to use black and white freeze frames from the film itself, which then spill forward into movement and colour. Here, rather than reality invading the fictional frame in the speculative second half the fiction begins to take on the character of stock footage.
The first half of the film repeatedly focuses on hands, the hands that have been instrumental in building the world that is about to be laid low, knitting, keeping birds, playing games, the second is a portrait gallery of ravaged faces straight from Bosch or Brueghel.
In one of the few moments of hope in the film the hands reappear, sewing together the purple threads that have been salvaged from the ruins. Another world may be coming into being, but if so it will carry traces of the first. There is a deeply ambiguous snatch of Chuck Berry as Ruth’s daughter flees through the city, echoing the opening shot of her mother and father in the car the day she was conceived and the bad news from Iran was still just something to spin past as you hunted down the football scores.
Threads begins with an image of a spider. Hung in a void and spinning out its web, the sounds of an unseen nature chattering around it, the spider is gradually inter-cut with establishing shots of Sheffield. It is this first shot that suggest a more radical reading of Threads. Throughout the piece there is little suggestion that the events can be overturned or intervened in and this first shot is the only overtly symbolic moment in the piece, the only moment that stands outside Threads’ remorseless real world and seems to ground it. Some extra-human agency spins the world into being, crouched in the void at the centre of all things. The spider is there, endlessly spinning, throughout every sequence in Threads, the dark, alien engine of history itself. Even up to the final sequences of Ruth’s daughter giving birth in the semi-abandoned hospital the spider is invisibly present.
And that last scene is Threads' coup de grace, its masterstroke. After the excess of horror that has preceded it we are cruelly denied the catharsis of the girl’s final scream as her stillborn baby is delivered into her arms. The image freezes, there is no escape or release. Instead, we scream for her.
Posted by owen hatherley at 18:25
By Feathers Knox
It was the anniversary.
Motma was lying in a plastic tent in an open field, where he had been tugging at himself all day beneath his thin cotton bedclothes. His PDA lay on a pillow of wadded rags. He had been watching his newest downloads, and now bathed in a post-coital glow.
A client came online.
“Hi, I’d like a tour.”
Motma climbed to his feet and strapped on the camera.
“Crushed bodies, poisoned aquifers, that sort of thing.”
Motma secured the tent and set off across the lot, sweeping his head from side to side. He was careful to keep his head and neck panning in a smooth, jitter-free arc.
Last year’s earthquake had never been cleaned up.
Collapsed parking garages, office buildings, shopping malls and apartment complexes stretched out in every direction. Cement and rebar, bricks and shattered windows: it was all covered under a film of beige dust. The sky was a brilliant blue.
“Wow,” said the client.
“So this was Denver,” said Motma. He was walking downhill now, towards the old downtown. It looked like piles of chunky snow.
“Are we going to a grave site?”
Motma turned left at what he guessed had been Broadway.
A pit had been dug in the middle of Congress Park, in front of the Capitol. Bodies had been thrown in and burned. When the workers ran out of fuel, the bodies were just tossed in and covered with rubble. One could still see arm bones.
Motma could hear the client’s breath become heavier, quicker as he came to the northern edge of the pit.
“Shall I walk around it?”
“Yes… but slowly!”
The average client required about 20 minutes to cum, depending on the extent of the wreckage. Two weeks ago, a man in China had requested to see the Tumor Mill. The government had sealed it up after the ‘quake was triggered, but Motma broke in with a length of pipe and a sharpened rock. Bloated bodies hung from meathooks: Motma was careful to keep the neoplasms in focus as he highlighted them with his flashlight.
“Whoah, that is sweet,” said the client.
WretchedLives.com paid Motma 3 RU an hour for 60 hours of work a week. It was enough to buy him a few moldy ears of corn at the Work/Aid station. By saving 10% of each payment transfer, he would be able to afford a spot in the cargo hold of the service bus when it made its trip through the Midwest next winter.
Motma climbed down into the pit for a better view. There was a skull lying out in the open, a small woman’s skull with a dent in the left temple and a large, spidery crack on the forehead. The client moaned in delight. The skull still had red hair.
* * *
“You left more porn on the desktop.”
Motma was silent. It was hard to remember she used his computer.
“Did you hear me?”
He heard her. He always heard her. He just never did anything about it.
"Motma, you know I care for you…"
The conversations always began like this. She even sat across from him at the table, like last time.
“…but this isn’t fair! I worked at the office all day long, I went to the gym to work out, I went shopping, and I just cleaned the bathroom. What did you do today?”
“I looked for a job on Craigslist and did some videos.”
“And you watched porn!”
“Maybe one or two clips.”
She stormed out of the kitchen. He followed her with his eyes, then saw the figure she’d scrawled on the dry erase board by the front door a few weeks ago.
“Motma owes: $72,000.”
He thought about his videos. They had not been shot yet: they were in script form. The script lay in a notebook on the coffee table. A bag of weed and a pipe rested on a page opened to a description for the opening scene for the second video.
“Hero is standing on a platform. Music starts. Hero walks from left to right. A first level Death Drone comes in from the right and walks towards him. Hero raises his Spree Shooter and pulls the trigger. The Death Drone is dissolved in a spray of blood.”
She came back in the room.
“You’re 27. Do something with your life or I am leaving you.”
The earthquake hit a day later.
* * *
The client had asked for a second tour after getting a glass of water.
“More skulls?” asked Motma.
“No. I’d rather see one of the office buildings up close. Can you show me the Wells Fargo Building?”
Motma’s neck was cramped. The soles of his Sauconys were getting thin: every pebble he stepped on sent a flicker of pain shooting up leg.
The Wells Fargo once stood halfway up the hill to Five Points. When the quake hit it had shifted to the right, and then to the left, and then toppled down the hill as a single, salmon-colored unit, like a tree falling with thousands of screaming secretaries inside. It was the one video that made it out of Colorado that day.
The client was already panting as the Fargo’s pink stones came into view.
Motma was careful to scan the entire corpse of the tower as he approached.
“Can I see into the windows? Are any of the offices intact?”
Somehow, there were. Motma shuffled up the cragged surface of the dead building, and paused to peer over the edge into a ravine that had formed where a storm sewer was uprooted. Two rats were licking the bones of a dog that died months before.
The client was panting harder. The lube made a soft sucking sound in the background.
Motma continued up the building. A hallowed-out cave of broken glass and cement sat towards the top of one of the piles, at what would have been the 6th or 7th floor. Inside there was a desk, and a woman was pinned between it and the wall. She was clutching a Post-It note. It was a list:
• buy bread
• call mom
• fire brad
Motma remembered when they found Wenda, his girlfriend. She was working overtime that night, hoping to earn him a lien on his loan before it defaulted. Her cubicle was on the 28th floor of the Qwest building, the one that caught fire. She didn’t look that bad: some burned skin, a gash on her neck, a broken arm bone.
“Can you lift the woman’s arm?” asked the client, nearly breathless.
WretchedLives.com didn’t like it when Motma touched the corpses – they had another contractor to do that for NecroPussy – but the client had paid for a double, and Motma was feeling generous. He tried to lift the woman’s arm by the wrist but it wouldn’t budge.
“How about her head?”
Things were shifting in the background. The client was close.
Motma leaned over, placing both hands on either side of the woman’s head and forcing it into view with a few crunching noises. The left eye was missing; the rest was intact.
"Ohhhhhh!" said the client. The sucking sound in the background had increased in pace, and then stopped.
Motma thought about his unfinished videos, sitting in a notebook under the 30 feet of rubble that had once been his apartment complex. It would have only taken a few days to hire the actors, shoot the footage, edit it all down or upload it to the Internet. Now it lay in a tomb of pulverized concrete, twisted steel, and decayed human beings.
And this was before the war started.
Bio: Feathers Knox works in the service industry in a suburb of Bloomington, Indiana.
Posted by owen hatherley at 18:19
In an age of deadened aesthetics, there is at least one narrative trope that has come to life during the past seven years as a site of political negotiation. The seemingly simple matter of the representation of passing time - the ticking of the clock while something doesn't happen - has proven itself both to possess propaganda value and potential as a tool of critique. Above all else, it is in the way that the passage of ordinary time has been deployed in the apocalyptic visions presented in films and television programmes (both fictional and factual) that we can best see the way that it materializes some of more important and complexly ambiguous ideological developments of our period.
The most obvious manifestation of this trope is by far the most sinister - and, disastrously, perhaps the most politically effective. In the months and years after the attacks of 2001, a pseudo-philosophical meme began to circulate around the American media and punditocracy that is usually referred to as the "ticking time bomb scenario." The most famous enunciation of this scenario came in a column that the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2002, but the idea soon after spread rapidly out to blanket the cultural and media spheres.
The scenario goes like this. Somehow, the authorities have learned that there is a Weapon of Mass Destruction hidden somewhere in or on its way to a Major American City. Fortunately, these authorities have captured a terrorist who happens to know the secret location of this weapon, but of course said terrorist won't talk. Tick, tock, tick, tock. It's not even a true bind; there's only one answer. The authorities are forced by the situation to abandon their better principles and torture the information out of their captive. It is a modest but bloodthirstily utilitarian logic, and one that perfectly combines the adaptability of loose metaphorics (for "ticking time bomb" one can substitute... just about anything) and the audience-capturing grip of a stirringly noir-ish fictional situation.
You are probably most familiar with the trope from its appearance on the show 24, where it was not only the guiding conceit of the programme (literalized in the ticking clock pictured above which appeared before and after each commercial break), but also an incessantly deployed plot device. In the course of almost every episode, the troubled hero Jack Bauer, against his principles but for the benefit of the many, would torture the bad guys in order to obtain the just-in-time information needed to save the president's life / the city of Los Angeles / America itself.
In this scenario, the passing seconds are indexed toward an imminent event, but they are only eventful in and of themselves in that they are filled with an extreme form of police violence that is summoned by the ticking of the clock itself. A secondary apocalypse - a soft catastrophe of illegality, ethical compromise, and human bruise and blood - is required to keep time ordinary, to keep the clock ticking. And, as we have seen time and again in the real world, the anticipated event that throws the whole process into motion is able to recede, indefinitely draw back, or even disappear altogether without disturbing the ticking of the clock and the brutality that it enables.
The second form - less pervasive but much more interesting - is a bit harder to spot. It can be found in almost any representation - fictional or otherwise - of catastrophic events from the past seven years. It can be found in the opening scene of Children of Men (http://tinyurl.com/4lh3yr) or the footage that you can find on YouTube of the first minutes of CNN's coverage of the 2001 attacks (http://tinyurl.com/4tkmm3). But I don't even need to refer to a specific film or television show for you to see it. The family, at home, is settled into their quotidian affairs. They are eating or readying a meal to eat. The children are playing, or everyone's settled into the living room to watch tv. The scene is actionless, nothing is happening but the ordinary things that happen everyday. Everything is OK, OK, OK. But the longer we stay with the scene, the more unsettling it becomes. When we spend more than a certain amount of time with this family, when it starts to become clear that we've exceeded the customary time that it takes to deliver a telegraphic visual rendering of normality, everything tilts on axis, and suddenly we know that we aren't watching so much as waiting. We are waiting for the tv set to go funny, for the breaking news graphics to appear, for the distant rolling thunder that breaks through a cloudless night, for the lights to flicker, for the knock at the door, or for the sudden and irreversible fade to black.
We are canny enough, by now, to pick up on this even before we get the punch line.The still shot on the news, the movie's trip into the coffee place, gives us all that we need to know that the explosion is on its way. In fact, one might start to wonder whether the blast, the crash, need arrive at all, so prepped and ready we are to read the ordinary as run-up, to presume that the shock is on its way. The family in front of its television, the tourists gaping at the skyline, the plane bissecting the city's airspace during its final approach, the routine shopping trip, the subway ride into work - when we stay with any of these scenes, in mind or on screen, the anticipatory faculty rustles, the reflex draws us tight and down. Why would these everyday events be happening - why are they showing us these non-eventful happening - if they aren't about to be interrupted, interrupted by their end?
Of course, in one sense, these related forms of rendering the passage of time are simply contemporary versions of the oldest bylaws of narrative construction. It might be a bit reductive to say that this trope used to live in the genre that we call "horror," before horror grew tired of it, drifted into self-referential pastiche, and loaned it to the renewed genres of apocalypse and catastrope. (The blonde combing her hair in front of her mirror, at night, in a big house, alone. We wait too long, we have seen this film before - we know what is about to appear in the window behind her...) Narrative, at its essence, relies upon a rhythmic relationship between ordinariness and eventfulness. A novel that is all climax isn't a novel at all. The crisis and the material in which it swims (all that local color, all that slow development of character and scenario, all stuttering elaborations of the realistic "reality" of the thing that we're consuming) are dialectically related, can't be broken off from one another.
But sometimes - and this may be one of those times - the rhythm becomes confused, the dialectical dance turns in on itself, the ordinary can't quite find it's way to the event that makes it what it is, that makes it ordinary. As Walter Benjamin noted in his essay on Baudelaire, the most interesting thing about shock isn't what happens when it arrives, but what the anticipation of it does the the anticipator. "The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the most efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]." We slip swiftly from the baffled pain of the unexpected shock to the probing anticipation of it - our consciousness itself is transformed by the process into an index of traumas past and future, Similarly, as a culture, we are perhaps in the process of sliding from the anticipation of the imminent apocalypse to the immanent registration of the apocalypse that is already here, the apocalypse right now.
Children of Men enacts this shift in the relationship between its first scene (the coffee shop, the television news, the protagonist steps outside, and the shop he was just in explodes) and the rest of the film, which stages the end of the human world not by terrorist bomb blast or heavy weather, but rather by the simple cessation of life, the animal reproduction of the species. Despite the fact that human life itself is dwindling out, that these people are living in either the aftermath or the final stages of what looks to be the ultimate catastrophe, one which will surely culminate, within a few years, in the end of the human race, they go about their business - commuting to work, stopping for coffee, watching tv, etc. The film pounds us with the savage uncanniness of the thought of rejiggering our retirement accounts, redoing the kitchen, and, of course, seeing movies as the world quietly ends around us…
This temporality has spread out beyond the borders of movies and television to the point that it's hard to see whether the representation is driving the reality or vice versa. The current financial crisis, to pick just one example, is quickly revealing itself to be another film in the same genre. Collapse is promised daily by pundits and analysts. Collapse has been promised for a decade now. But the collapse never comes, the fissuring event never quite happens. Perhaps it will - perhaps it has happened by the time you are reading this - but every indicator points to the fact that the charts will hold their lines, sink and then rally. And they will do this because, just beyond the edge of the chart, something else is afoot. They will not let it fall; they will not let the crisis come. The remnants of the state, the remaining strength of the currency, the jobs and spending power of the citizen - all will come to their own apocalyptic end, out of view, in service of maintaining the forward progress of that thin, vibrating line. As all else fails, the numbers will still tick up and tick down on the screen of the world, perhaps even if there weren't a soul left in the world to see them.
We are shattered, our perceptual apparatus is on the blink. We look around us, at any thing at all, and find reflected all these premonitions of disaster. It is not, I think, a good thing to be this way - it is not a happy thing for the world to take on the dark red tone of apocalypse. It is the mark of an unhealthy time, and a signal that the hope of change is so buried that perhaps we can't even anticipate change for the worse, let alone for the better. On the other hand, the lingering theology of consequence, of telos, may well be losing its hold, giving way to a sliver of perspective on a secularly "Messianic cessation of happening." As Walter Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given.” That may be what we are starting to learn, and learn the hard way, from the films that run outside us and the films that run within.
Posted by owen hatherley at 18:12
‘It may be true that the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it.’ (1)
The ‘uncanny’, which is the English approximation of the German word unheimlich, was described by Sigmund Freud as an especial form of fear. Difficult to define, the term provokes philosophical debate, reaching far beyond everyday shorthand for the ‘eerie’ or ‘strange’ to re-examine central ideas concerning perception, identity, narrative and language. ‘Freud writes that the uncanny is associated with the bringing to light what was hidden and secret, distinguishing the uncanny from the simply fearful by defining it as ‘that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.’ (2)
In his seminal essay on the subject of the uncanny, Freud uses Ernst Hoffmann’s short story Der Sandmann (1816) to illustrate the central, yet subliminal phenomenon associated with the uncanny; the unsettling sensation of the familiar discovered at the heart of the unfamiliar, or vice versa. Nathanial, the protagonist of Der Sandmann is troubled to the point of hysteria by fears developed in childhood, which he embodies in the nursery tale figure of the sandman. Nathanial’s arrested child-like terror is further augmented by his inability to separate the imagined figure from actual occurrences in his own house, thus elaborate constructed fiction and reality converge and blur as the story proceeds. (3)
In Freud’s recounting of Hoffmann’s work, other important factors in defining the uncanny are revealed. There is the sense of the bizarre, foreign and ungraspable. It is present when involuntary patterns repeat. It can arise from a sense of déjà vu, when inanimate objects appear to be conscious. It is felt in the presence of doubt, in the company of ghosts, and in the dark, alone. In contemporary life, it is perhaps present in the glitch and hum of modern technology; disembodied voices on the phone, computer generated imagery and virtual realities. The uncanny can be ugly and horrific. But it can also be disturbingly beautiful and verge on the ecstatic in complexities; the shifting and unstable gap between narrated past and narrating present, the fallible, selective and manipulative nature of memory, the subjective and relative status of the ‘reality’ of past experience in constant temporal and narrative slippage.
Film theory historically stresses temporality at the expense of spatiality, promoting complex narrative rather than compelling visual environments. Contemporary digital filmmaking overrides these conventional frameworks and assimilates the uncanny through the manipulations of environment, form and narrative. These creative possibilities have been unleashed relatively recently and reflect a shift from the computer as a tool, primarily understood in terms of information storage and numerical calculation, to the computer as one-stop medium for creative production, communication and global distribution.
The effect of computers in the motion picture industry has been profound. Until recently, external image montage, in which shots are inter-cut for emotional and associative impact (think of an impressionistic series of rapid edit shots in a movie, often used to convey a dreamlike, drunk, or drugged sensation to the viewer), were the only visual tool available to subvert narrative in film.
Now, through the work of computer generated imagery companies such as ILM and Digital Domain, we can experience the unsettling disquiet of the uncanny as montage within a single film frame. The traditional warning signals we are subconsciously trained to look for to alert us to the artificiality and construct of the manufactured image we see on the screen are now often absent; no matte lines, differences in film stock grain, or inaccurate image-scaling. Images within images are a visual language we recognise. Images seamlessly bonded to images within the same frame are not. We are no longer aware of any manipulation of the filmic image precisely because of the perfection of CGI manipulation; film becomes ‘unreal’, ‘unnatural’ or uncanny.
This paradoxical effect has a name: the ‘uncanny valley.’ A concept coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the uncanny valley argues that computer created simulacra of reality seem alive and convincing as long as they’re relatively low-resolution. Think of a comic strip for instance; with only a few lines on a page Charles Schulz created a vivid world and convincing emotions for his characters in Peanuts. When simulacra are low-res, the human brain fills in associative detail to help the image seem real. But when the CGI image approaches photo-reality, a reversal occurs. In Ryan Gander’s Is This Guilt In You Too (the study of a car in a field), we subconsciously scan the image in much greater depth and begin to focus on missed detail. The image realism suddenly plunges into a valley and becomes uncanny: unnervingly real, yet flawed and alien in an indefinable sense.
Freedom of image manipulation with film footage shot in the ‘real world’ and ‘cut and paste’ appropriation of archival footage through sophisticated computer editing is also freely accessible to anyone with time and a little money to spare. The rapid advancement of technology and recent availability of affordable-yet-powerful digital cameras, image capture equipment and editing software create complex narrative possibilities in the box-bedroom. As little as a decade ago similar possibilities would have been near impossible to achieve in a high-end post-production studio. The same technology further provides an instantaneous global distribution point for grassroots cultural production and self-publishing, as web outlets such as YouTube and flash file sharing sites proliferate.
The divide between documentary and artistry is blurred by technology, yet the credibility of a lens-based image still often relies upon the concept of ‘truth’ or reliable reportage. If a scene is constructed to appear real or spontaneous, or to provoke a specific reaction from the viewer, truth and honesty will be disputed. At the same instant, capturing a scene ‘as it is’ is impossible, as the photographer ultimately determines the look of the image, as in the Phil Collins film How to make a Refugee. When it comes to photography, agency, truth and representation are often discussed in moralistic terms, as dilemmas, and artistic freedom is not readily granted. In his last significant work Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes reflected on this symbolic meaning of the documentary photographic image, and its subjective quality, ‘that which pierces the viewer.’ Barthes explained that a photographic image is not a solid representation of ‘what is’ as ‘what was’ and therefore ‘what has ceased to be’. The photographic image does not make reality solid but serves as a reminder of the world’s inconsistent and ever-changing state. (4)
Today, this process of theoretical deconstruction has become cultural lyricism. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdidge defined punk’s ordered anarchy: ‘The punk subculture… signified chaos at every level, but this was only possible because the style itself was so thoroughly ordered.’ (5) Recently we witnessed a global saturation of the personal camera through the convergence of technology in the cell phone. Nowadays, nearly every citizen in the developing world is armed with a powerful recording device, and with the addition of a laptop, a powerful editing studio. It is this ordering or administration of newly deployed reality, signified by raw camera work and imperfect images (imperfections which confirm their status as ‘real’ images), that we witness the final codification of destruction.
Ironically, the radically deconstructive narrative and aesthetic possibilities of our digital age are currently almost entirely absent from mainstream cinema. The more experimental, raw aesthetics of filmmaking emerge in some strange quarters, the most startling cinema of recent times perhaps coming from the Iraq conflict: the 2003 United Sates military film of a dishevelled, recently captured Saddam Hussein in what looked like the prologue to a snuff movie, or indeed, the grainy colour saturated footage of Hussein’s undignified execution in late 2006 recorded on a cell phone camera.
Sergeant Wesley Wooden, a combat cameraman has said that ‘Basically, what we’re trained for is that the camera is our first weapon… We’re lucky enough to carry pistols. It gives you some more protection. You can shoot and shoot at the same time.’ (6) In a surreal culture clash, the joint Combat Camera Program, part of U.S. Military Visual Information Directorate, adopts the tactics of guerrilla filmmaking, the New Wave and the shoot-and-go immediacy of post-punk film in it’s ‘Video Flyaway Kit’, described thus: ‘All items are fitted into one case which can easily be handled by one person. It provides a single videographer with the capability to acquire video imagery, edit and compress the imagery using the laptop, and transmit the video clip via INMARSAT. This is an ideal system for use by a two man documentation team.’ (7)
The military producing some of the most arresting cinema verite of our age is something Paul Virilio predicted, writing that the gestures of surveillance, speed and vision have for a long time linked cinema and the military: ‘one could go on forever listing the technological weapons, the panoply of war, the aesthetic of the electronic battlefield.’ (8) The pre-eminence of the military as a movie production company using guerrilla film-making tactics is understandable given the collision of theory and irony jamming the channels of cultural distribution during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. The self-aware, ironic statement by Sgt. Wooden, who recognises that the languages of warfare and perception are bound together, is made possible because cultural theory has been extensively mainstreamed into popular culture over the past twenty years. Post-modern theory, which essentially worked to make visible the codes that underpin cultural production, has been replaced by a context that has assimilated and ingrained theory into cultural production. Thus divisions such as avant-garde and mainstream, theoretical and naïve, are rendered practically meaningless as filmmaking in the digital present struggles to define its fluid, hybrid multiplicities.
The assimilation of cultural theory into the material of popular culture is evident not only in production and content, but also the permanently archived format of the consumer DVD, easily available and garnering publicity in multiple virtual cultural arenas, ranging from Amazon.com to personal blogs. Films are permanently demystified, stripped of their aura with the addition of a wealth of extra material: out-takes (often produced specifically for the DVD), production notes, secondary narration, cast and crew interviews, in ways described by Walter Benjamin in his prescient 1935 essay The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2006 a short CGI movie entitled Elephants Dream was released for mainstream theatrical distribution. Made entirely with ‘open source’ (copyright free) software, it was also released on DVD under creative commons licensing. The film was groundbreaking in that all 3D models, animatics and software are included on the DVD free for any use. In a further model of cultural assimilation, the Warp record label recently released advertising promos and short experimental films in the ‘Director’s Label’ DVD series by Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry, and Chris Cunningham, illustrating the extent to which film culture has changed: both media and content melding into a powerful new cultural form that exists at the far edges of what used to be called film or video.
This assimilation of theory not only in terms of narrative content, but also in terms of self-deconstructing format such as the DVD, suggests that digital video has the potential to archive the breakdown of the real, in real time. A feature film such as 28 Days Later, is significant because the attempt to capture realistically a hypothetical future only highlights the artifice of the medium. Ironically, the realism of films like The Blair Witch Project, the output of the experimental Dogme ‘95 group, and even to an extent the Saddam Hussein footage, rests precisely on their uncanny momentary anti-realism.
Contemporary films deploy shaky, hand-held cameras and self consciously hard lighting as shorthand for realism, but this only serves to reinforce the sense of bizarre ‘otherness’, and of the camera behind the image. Keith Griffiths has said that what ‘gave cinema part of its value, a confident, assured and unchallenged recording of reality, and one that was extremely difficult to modify or manipulate; has now been changed by the new digital technology.’(9)
It would appear then, as with the human replicant in the film Bladerunner, the closer digital technology takes us to the ‘real’, the closer we must re-examine that ‘reality’ and the more seamless and uncanny constructs will become. Image and narrative can no longer be trusted.
Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919), ‘Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers, Vol. 4’, trans. and ed. Joan Riviere, Basic Books, 1959.
Mike Kelley, Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny (1993), ‘Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism’, ed. John C. Welchman, MIT press, 2003.
Ernst Theodore Hoffmann, ‘Tales of Hoffmann’, trans. and ed. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Classics, 2001.
Roland Barthes, ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’, trans. Richard Howard, Flamingo, 1984.
Dick Hebdige, ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, Verso, 1979.
Virginia Heffeman, ‘Camera Down a Hole, and the World Follows It’, New York Times, Dec.16, 2003.
Paul Virilio, ‘War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception’, trans. Patrick Camiller. Verso, 1989.
Keith Griffiths, ‘The Manipulated Image’, animateonline.org.
Posted by owen hatherley at 18:08
As he walked along, the carrier bag hung heavy on his fingers. He had tried resting his hand inside his pocket with the handle twined around his wrist, but the bottom of the bag only clunked rhythmically against his knee as he moved. There seemed to be no other way but to endure one cold hand. He stopped. At the end of the road, in the distance, where the cracked tarmac dipped away, he saw a greygreen band of light on the horizon. The sun was coming up. The light which melted upwards showed a bare morning sky: no milky wisps of cloud, no winking Cinderella stars. Just an upturned bowl.
He shifted the bag from his right hand to his left, looking at the stripes of bloodless skin it had left across his fingers. As he blew into his fist, the tins he’d bought clinked against his thigh. A car sped past. Treating his right hand to a spell inside its pocket, he wiped his wet nose on his other sleeve and carried on, hunching his shoulders against the cold, and whistling vapour into the freezing air.
As he strode along, he looked down at his feet, picking his way through the oily puddles in his path. Presently he looked up and, with something of the squint, peered forward to see where, far up ahead, a figure moved jerkily towards him. No harm in being careful, he thought, and crossed the road. A streetlamp, bent at the base by some collision, arched awkwardly over the road and flickered silently to itself. He stopped again to change hands.
He could now see the figure was pushing something in front of it – something like a pram or a small trolley – and that it was the erratic jumping of the wheels on the potholed ground which caused the person to move so strangely. The figure itself looked short and robust, and was zipped up from knees to head in a thick jacket. He stood and watched as it drew closer on the other side of the road. Over its head was a large fur-lined hood, leaving only a small porthole. The figure kept this hole constantly focused on the ground in front, making sure to pre-empt the more violent bumps of the pram with see-sawing arm motions. At the crossroads ahead it stopped and stared fixedly downwards, its hands never leaving the pram’s handle-bars. All lights showed green in all directions. The figure hesitated a moment, listening he supposed, and then abruptly began again, pushing out with confidence into the empty road. As the pram trundled crazily past he saw its contents – a huge plastic bottle of water, the kind which he’d once seen bubble and gurgle in the corner of an office. Around twenty litres, he guessed.
As he approached the crossroads on the other side, with the pram now moving off some way behind him, he glanced both left and right. Nothing coming. He took a light step down the kerb and spun around, letting the bag’s weight and momentum take it in a wide circle around him. With his arm extended fully, the bag swung in a circle wide enough to encompass both lanes of the road, its loose plastic fanning and rippling in the wind. He slowed down, stopped, and then stood for a moment, looking south down the huge hill towards the motionless rubble of the city. A pigeon flapped lazily along. It was getting light. Setting the bag down at his feet, he wrapped one fist over the other and blew warm air into both of them. It made a broken duck-call noise. He did it again.
He picked up the bag and skipped up the far kerb towards home, staggering happily from one side of the pavement to the other like a drunk. Far behind him the streetlamp stopped flickering.
At the corner of his road a bus lay on its side. None of its windows had survived, and scattered around were a few remaining cubes of glass. He kicked lazily at one of the wheels, trying to make it spin. It didn’t move - it never did. Clambering onto the side of bus, he sat down and fished about in the bag, eventually pulling out a tin of tuna. This he opened slowly, pulling the ring-pull back, enjoying the feeling and sound of metal scraping on metal. He dug two fingers into the oily contents and brought them quickly up to his mouth. He did it again, licking his lips. After scraping out the remnants and sucking his fingers clean, he threw the tin off to the side and jumped down from the bus, landing with a glassy crunch. Yawning and scraping his boots against the tarmac, he set off towards home.
In his front garden a path led from the gate to the front door through a large patch of bare earth. The gate had long ago disappeared, as had its hinges, leaving four rusty holes in the stone pillar which had once held it up. He looked up at the first floor windows. They were tinted brown at the edges. Through a small gap in the curtains he could see the piles of newspapers that they kept up there. These were vast, like haystacks – bundle upon bundle of grey paper right up to the ceiling.
He made his way along the path, inspecting the contents of the bag as he went. Everything seemed to be there. Tinned this and that, wads of cloth, sterilising powder. When he reached the door he shifted the bag to his left hand and with his right pumped the door handle three times, up and down. After a ten second pause he did it again. Through the frosted glass he saw her moving towards him down the hall, laying her hand on things to steady herself as she went. And after a moment he listened contentedly to the rattle and clicks of their seven locks being carefully undone.
Posted by owen hatherley at 18:05
‘Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.'
-Nietzsche, The Gay Science
‘…he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.’
-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Apocalypse as Shock Therapy
The basic thesis of Naomi Klein’s book on ‘disaster capitalism’, The Shock Doctrine, can be paraphrased thus: the real disasters of our age are not the wars, natural disasters and economic crises that occupy the daily news, but the more lasting tectonic shifts that pass unnoticed beneath these phenomena; the surreptitious elimination of the public and the democratic, the brutal remaking of the world in the neoliberal capitalist image. The cataclysmic shock of the surface phenomena functions to distract and pre-emptively extinguish dissent and opposition. Collectively immersed in the act of mere survival, in world events, mesmerized by the forces of nature or of evil and tranquilized by our powerlessness as individuals, by our fear of being taken over by aliens, murdered by nuclear-armed terrorist thugs, swamped by floods, etc – we fail to see the gradual and hostile takeover carried out under our noses by the very people whose job is to protect us.
It is through this politicised version of Heideggerian Dasein that we may read the proliferation of apocalyptic themes in cinema in the past two decades: contrary to the conventional wisdom that apocalyptic cinema is an expression of ‘millenial fears’ and anxieties about the future, the fear of apocalypse is a psychological tranquilizer that shields us from a revelatory Angst in the present. As the ultimate objectification of biological death in the far-off spectre of some final fantastic showdown between humanity and its other – aliens, nature, God, etc - it blinds us to the true nature of Dasein, our being-towards-Death. By obscuring the way that death intervenes in life at every point, it hides the true cost of our obedience to power, and exaggerates the cost of resistance.
In the films of Michael Haneke, by contrast, the external spectacle and the subterranean Angst have reversed roles: existential dread derives from the pervasive sensation that the cataclysmic event, which has always-already occurred, intrudes unnoticed into ordinary everyday reality, while the latter takes centre stage. Death is no longer the objectified finality external to life; it is a reality embodied in the present. In Hidden, the life of an ordinary French middle class family is disrupted when they receive anonymous tapes and children’s drawings that evoke the personal repercussions of a massacre of Algerian immigrants in Paris 30 years before. We never find out who sent the mysterious tapes and child’s drawings, let alone who made them. The guilt cannot be explicated or objectified; the ethical position is deliberately left ambiguous, and we are permitted no distance.
Similarly, in The Seventh Continent, based on a true story, a family inexplicably destroy all their possessions and commit suicide. One can easily imagine a Hollywood version of this film: some pathological explanation would inevitably be provided – the family were in financial trouble, or the father was an abusive monster, or one of them had a fatal and incurable illness, etc. Yet it would be a mistake to treat Haneke’s subversive gesture as one of mystification. It is precisely the opposite – it is a revelatory step which sweeps away the cultural debris and clutter of cliché, pathology and explication to reveal behind our immersion in the world, our ‘fallenness’, the true state of Dasein. Haneke’s aim is to permit no distance; one cannot leave the cinema comforted by the knowledge that ‘that’ happens to other people, who fit a certain pathological profile. It is pathology and explication that obfuscate the true picture, the slow trickle of Being towards Death.
It is the latter notion that Haneke conveys even more explicitly in the final scene of 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, as we watch for an entire minute or so the slow oozing of blood from the body of one of the victims in the bank; a body which is not dead, but dying. It is not simply TV that objectifies historical events, we collectively objectify them, and have done so long before TV existed; even the notion of ‘war’, as illustrated in 71 Fragments with the news footage of global conflicts (Bosnia, Somalia) interspersed throughout, is ultimately a quasi-apocalyptic objectification suggesting the simple dichotomy war/peace, which shields us from an acute awareness of the ever-present threat of violence in our midst. As the heroine in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis declares, “I had been through a revolution and a war, half my family were either dead or in prison, yet this trivial love affair nearly finished me off…” This is not a simple contrast, and there is no real irony here: it is not that in spite of having experienced the terror of revolutionary Iran she cannot handle a ‘trivial love affair.’; rather, the emotional trauma has deprived her of the ability to cope rationally with a betrayal, leading her to homelessness, starvation, and near-death from bronchitis. The war is not only over there – it extends into the apparent tranquillity of refugee life. Complementary to this insight is the inverse or vice versa operation in 71 Fragments, where among the footage from wartime Sarajevo we see a boy and girl decorating a Christmas tree at home during a relative ceasefire.
It is thus by pervasively undermining all forms of objectification that Haneke provides the most effective critique of ideology. In mainstream cinema, cataclysmic historical events, especially when they involve human guilt, are portrayed from a safe distance. Films such as Schindler’s List and Amistad leave us content in the knowledge that the tragedy at hand – the Holocaust, slavery, etc – has been properly dealt with, safely buried in the past, never to repeat. This is complementary to the apocalyptic film, which objectifies the threat of the future. In Haneke’s work, on the other hand, the past and future are always-already here; the historical burden must be continually reassessed. (A Haneke film dealing with slavery, one suspects, would not take place in 19th century New York but in the present-day ghettos of Philadelphia or L.A., for instance.)
This is the point about what Arendt calls the ‘banality of evil’ - it is neither the blind systemic or objective violence of a bureaucratic machinery nor simply the subjective violence of guilty individuals; any such concretization of evil is ultimately an objectification that safely distances it. It is Eichmann’s “normality” that was “much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together”; this was a “new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani…”1 There is no clear pathological reason why the student in 71 Fragments decides to go on a killing spree, or why the family in The Seventh Continent decide to commit suicide, or why Georges in Hidden lies about his adopted half-brother. ‘Evil’ is always partly hidden from view, the key struggle against it is always internal - the very gesture of totally isolating it in an object is what ensures its re-emergence. When Bill Clinton declared ‘never again’ at the opening of the Holocaust museum in New York in 1992, a genocide was taking place at that very moment in Bosnia – with concentration camps, mass rapes, and the like – and was quietly ignored for several years.
It is Haneke’s embrace of Heideggerian temporality that is most subversive: what gives his work such terrifying immediacy is the fact that everything takes place in a pure present, the terrifyingly ‘normal’, eternal now. Irredeemably trapped in the moment, his characters are on one side haunted by a tragedy that has always already-occurred, on the other overshadowed by a repressed anxiety about what will happen next. Yet this true picture is to the characters themselves obscured – for the most part and most of the time - by their ‘fallenness’, their tranquilized immersion in the world mediated by the notion of apocalyptic death. In one scene in 71 Fragments the bank security guard secludes himself in the bathroom before bedtime to say a prayer; after asking God for the usual – good health for himself and family, etc – he pleads “please do not let a nuclear catastrophe or a third world war happen….” While praying to avert the apocalypse-to-come, we avoid confronting the actual tragedy, the evil already in our midst.
The Banality of Death: Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears
This always-already aura of apocalyptic time is tacitly or even unwittingly (subconsciously) deployed in mainstream cinema. As Mike Davis points out, Hollywood’s “pop apocalypses and pulp science fiction” with their carceral inner cities, high-tech police death squads, sentient buildings, urban Bantustans and the like, only “extrapolate from existing trends” in urban development in “post-liberal Los Angeles.”2 These post-apocalyptic dystopias do not reflect anxieties about the future, but about the present as a future that has already taken place. It is in this sense that we can reformulate (or twist) Primo Levi’s claim that Kafka’s The Trial, written in 1925, foreshadows the Holocaust. The Holocaust appears in Kafka in the same way in which apocalyptic death appears in Haneke – not a foreshadowed death-to-come, but Death that is always-already here. The horror of Kafka’s world is not merely the horror of modern totalitarian bureaucracy – it is the horror of a world in which the Holocaust has already taken place.
The courtroom thus yields the perfect metaphor. Even more than Hollywood films, the language of the law is the objectifying mirror that limits any possibility of an authentic ethics: “Despite the necessity of the trials…they helped spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome.”3 This is the gist of Bob Dylan’s ballad ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol’; after repeating “now ain’t the time for your tears” with each verse, it is only when he delivers the court’s decision that Dylan cynically urges, “bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.” When the crime is objectified in legal judgment (and precedent), the tragedy is no longer only that of ‘Hattie Carroll’; it is the tragedy of a society in which a certain kind of (class) crime is partly pardoned in advance. (always-already) It is only with this collective, unchallenged submission to power that Hattie Carroll truly dies.
In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha urges his followers to ‘practice charity without abiding in the notion of practising charity.’ By the same token, Slavoj Žižek holds that “the moment democracy is no longer 'to come' but pretends to be actual - fully actualized - we enter totalitarianism.”4 This is just the kind of insight Haneke is after: by abiding in the notion of apocalyptic death-to-come, or inversely that our being is synonymous with biological existence, we obscure the way in which death conditions our entire being, regardless of external threats. When we avoid death at all costs, we risk a death-in-life, whole or partial; we risk submission to power. To rephrase the standard existentialist wisdom in the Buddha’s terms, in order to be truly alive, one must live without abiding in the notion that one is fully alive; one must take risks when necessary, and live each day as if it were the last. The moment we pretend that life is fully actualized in biological existence, we enter death.
The muselmann, the ‘living dead’ of Auschwitz, is the epitome of a life fully surrendered to death, shocked into submission (‘abiding in the notion’ of living) by the cataclysmic spectacle. In Auschwitz - “the gray zone in which victims become executioners and executioners become victims”5 - the Muselmann “makes it forever impossible to distinguish between man and non-man.”6 It is the point where the division between subject and object (man and non-man/victim and executioner) dissolves in a perverse culmination of the liberal notion of equality before the law - the Hegelian ‘end of history’. The apocalypse has already occurred, is occurring – the ‘end of history’ is always-already here, not a utopian end-to-come, but a catastrophic failure of humanity that one must struggle against in every moment of the present. The terrifying voice that haunts much of Haneke’s work, that emerges in the background of all those pregnant dinner table silences, passionless routines, and clicking movements of machinery like a slow, bewitching incantation, sounds very much like that final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
A whimper – a sentence. (“now’s the time for your tears...”) The entire poem, written in the aftermath of WWI, can be read as a tribute to Haneke’s themes…”Paralysed force, gesture without motion…Lips that would kiss/Form prayers to broken stone…In this last of meeting places/We grope together/And avoid speech…” We are all post-apocalyptic ‘hollow men’. Our fear – fear of death – is what prevents us from truly living.
Yet this conclusion is not quite as dismal as may at first appear. For if we accept the possibility of a death-in-life – its most concrete form being the musselmanner of Auschwitz, whose plight for Agamben documents “the total triumph of power over the human being”7, we simultaneously invoke the inverse possibility, of life-in-death – the revolutionary possibility that death is not purely and simply the end; that through love one may continue being, not in some religious ‘afterlife’, but in this world, beyond the limits of biological existence – Love, the total triumph of the human being over power, over mere death.
1 Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), 253.
2 Davis, Mike, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (2006), 223.
3 Agamben, Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz : the witness and the archive (1999), 18-19.
4 Žižek, Slavoj, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion (2002), 155.
5 Agamben, 17.
6 Agamben, 47.
7 Agamben, 48.
Posted by owen hatherley at 18:02
In the 20th century, the apocalypse happened more than once. In a perceptive 1978 essay on Surrealism, Angela Carter wrote: 'the 1914-18 war was, in many respects, for France and Germany, the end of the world. However, the Russian Revolution of 1917 suggested the end of one world might mark the commencement of another world, one in which human beings might themselves take possession not only of their own lives, but also of their own means of expressing the reality of that life, i.e. art. It is possible for the true optimist to view the end of the world with sang-froid. What is so great about all this crap? Might there be something better?'
Carter recognised that the apocalyptic impulse, at its inception, is an optimistic one – in fact, a revolutionary one. Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium makes quite clear that eschatology emerges from the religion of the poor, in the context of oppression and betrayal. From the book of Daniel onwards, the apocalyptic mode is based on denunciations of Rome or Babylon, of Priests and false prophets, and lurid descriptions of the various misfortunes that will befall the evil, and the pleasures that await the righteous ones. So why is it, that in the 20th century, the apocalyptic imaginary has largely been a series of horrific images, of horrendous catastrophes from which no-one can be safe?
The short answer is that, after 1918, a vision of apocalypse took form in the imagination that was very closely based in reality. In 1914-8, millions directly experienced a blasted landscape in which it was impossible to discern the corpses, with all life obliterated by the most advanced technology. One of the earliest cinematic apocalypses takes immediate inspiration from this. William Cameron Menzies, Alexander Korda and H.G Wells' Things to Come (1936) stages a series of Hegelian catastrophes, in which first, 'Everytown' is obliterated in a (still horrifying) blitzkrieg, then we have a decades-long war in which aerial bombing manages to destroy all of the world's cities. By 1970, the remnants of Enlightenment civilisation are just about legible as the backdrop to an atavistic, tribal world of local chieftains, disease and obscurantism. What follows this, in a manner familiar from the similar apocalypses and rebirths in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, is a rationalist Bauhaus world beneath the surface of the earth, in which finally nature has been mastered and war eliminated. The film ends with the prospect of that world too being destroyed by its restive inhabitants, demanding that technological development be ceased.
Things to Come establishes many of the conventions of apocalypse cinema – the blasted post-apocalyptic landscape, the terrifying depiction of instrumentalised slaughter – but what is missing in its successors is the utopian element, the promise that technology could, in the right hands, promise a paradise as much as a hell. After Hiroshima, the apocalyptic imagination was provided with the genuine scientific and geopolitical possibility of destroying civilisation, and after 30 years of the arms race, all life on earth. This prospect is luridly visible in hundreds of 1950s Cold War schlock films, in which usually some sort of atomic contamination has literally created a monster, from Godzilla to the giant ants of Them! One of the most interesting of these films is Roger Corman's self-explanatory 1958 shocker The Day the World Ended. This film is heralded by the magnificent introduction 'what you are about to see may never happen...but to this anxious age in which we live, it presents a fearsome warning...Our film begins with...THE END!'
Cue a succession of nuclear explosions, and images of depopulated, devastated cities (no doubt taken from stock footage of Coventry, Dresden, or Tokyo), and then we come to the survivors. Our leading protagonist has built a (rather Eames-like) house in the only geological area in the USA which can withstand an all-out nuclear war. He has been planning this for a decade, making sure that he and two others have exactly enough food to last through the fallout. The radio doesn't pick up any signals, from New York, San Francisco, Paris, or Moscow. Yet as the house begins to fill up, this post-apocalyptic serenity is broken. In a Cadillac, not far from the house, are a young couple, a gangster, and his girl, a burlesque dancer. Nearby, a drifter with accompanying donkey. Initially, none of them seem able to imagine the catastrophe that has occurred. Corman makes grim comedy out of this inability. 'When are we going to be able to get to San Francisco?' asks the hood. 'There is no San Francisco any more.' 'No Frisco!? I don't believe it'. The survivors quickly fall into atavism, with fights, sexual rivalry, battles for supremacy and the house's gun. The only moment when the horror of what lies outside really occurs to the characters is when the dancer gives them a run through of her act ('here's where I would start to peel') and collapses into tears. Meanwhile, the survivalist tries to interest his daughter in one of the men, telling her she must bear children for the future. 'There is no future', she replies.
Corman's film doesn't manage to sustain this relentlessly claustrophobic atmosphere, resorting soon to the requisite (and here, fairly silly) radioactively modified humanoid monsters - but the first half of the film prefigures what are the undisputed masterpieces of apocalyptic cinema, George Romero's trilogy Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). The house bunkered in against apocalypse is here, as is the speculation that radiation has caused some strange and horrifying change in the human race, into a bestial creature of reflexes – but most of all, the films attack any notion that the best side of humanity will surmount and fight out the apocalypse. The trilogy shows society completely collapsing, with any notions of solidarity falling apart in a wave of violence and martial barbarity. This isn't mere Lord of the Flies pessimism about 'human nature', some abstract notion of inherent atavism – rather, what we see in these films is this society collapsing, one in which solidarity is already scarce. Near the end of Night of the Living Dead, we see vigilantes and national guardsmen combing the countryside for zombies, shooting them all on sight with glee – as one of the horrified protagonists of Dawn of the Dead points out, there are some who are actually enjoying this.
Romero's films are also extremely adroit in outlining the likely role of communications media in the apocalypse. The radio and TV in Night offer regular updates on the catastrophe, films-within-films that are compelling and convincing in their dread and matter-of-fact awfulness – the unsteadiness of the camera as government spokesmen are interviewed, the uncertainty of the newsreaders. By Dawn this has become even more horribly compelling, perhaps to reflect the attendant brutalisation of television in the intervening decade. One of the film's most memorable images is the talk show discussion of the massacres, where a presenter with an eyepatch repeats, as if to himself 'we have to remain rational. We have to remain rational'. Later on, even this signal has disappeared. By the third film, there is no radio, no television, no communication at all with the outside world – the implication being that the final breakdown of society can be ascertained from the non-existence of the media.
From its first scene - a couple in a car on a hill, in a clinch to 'Johnny B Goode' - Threads is wholly conscious of its status as scientific, geopolitical horror film. 'The early post-blast scenes - with survivors huddling into barricaded-in basements, fearful of and hostile to outsiders - were reminiscent of nothing so much as Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Near-total anomie, society stripped back to its Hobbesian bare minimum', wrote Mark Fisher on Threads' unbearable, truly nightmarish vision (backed up here by with a veritable list of scientific advisers in the credits, rather than zombie folk tales). In Mike Jackson and Barry Hines' TV film, we see a humanity which, like shell-shocked protagonists of Night, can't truly believe what's happened to it – what is most terrifying is that the world doesn't end in a flash, via Dr Strangelove's Doomsday machine, but somehow endures, in a grotesque, devastated form. The comparison made between Romero's trilogy and Threads seems especially appropriate in its portrayal of a mediated apocalypse. The ambient televisual noise in the film provides an ever-more terrifying countdown to Armageddon as a counterpoint to the quotidian worries of the characters themselves, who are largely either unaware or incapable of reacting to the approaching horror. Both films share a documentary realism that seems particularly apt for the depicting the unimaginable.
The apocalypse is particularly mediated today, in the queasy expectation of something appalling (nuclear, climatic, economic?) being announced every time the 'BREAKING NEWS' strip appears on News 24. In essence, the tropes of apocalyptic cinema are borrowed by every news bulletin. Yet one of the most convincing apocalyptic films of the last 15 years doesn't feature so much as a radio. In Mike Leigh's atypically brilliant, relentless Naked (1993), where the setting is merely an unflinching but televisually realistic depiction of London, we return to the source of the apocalyptic imaginary - the force and fervour of the prophetic voice. Only here, there's no sense that the apocalypse will lead to the smiting of the evil and the ascension of the righteous. Here, we openly hear discussion of what even Threads can't countenance – the total elimination of the human race itself. 'By the very definition of apocalypse, man will cease to exist!' Johnny yells at a hapless security guard. The sermon ends with two images – God ('who is') as a malevolent, amoral force, initiating the apocalypse for his own amusement; and the possibility of transcendence, of an evolution out of humanity into something else, 'a species of pure thought, are you with me?' This is what the optimistic apocalyptics are reduced to, in a world where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. 'There is hope, but not for us'.
Posted by owen hatherley at 17:51