Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nothing is Real, Everything is Permitted: Park Chan-wook, William S. Burroughs, and Solipsism

Stoker, Park Chan-wook's latest film.
Regular readers of this blog will probably have noticed by this point that I am rather keen on the great, late American novelist William S. Burroughs.  At the beginning of his 1981 novel Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs asserts that “NOTHING IS REAL, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED” [BILLY MAYS-STYLE ALL-CAPS IN THE ORIGINAL] Now, if we accept the first assertion, the second assertion follows somewhat logically.  If everyone is a phantom and everything is a hologram, conventional morality can hardly apply to them.  There’s no crime in assaulting a hologram.  This is solipsism at its most extreme.  And if you’re the type who’s willing to conclude that everything is permitted, then you can probably tweak the “nothing is real” line a bit.  For instance, maybe only some things are real, and so one can still act accordingly.

This solipsism can be traced through the films of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, starting with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and reaching its apotheosis in the companion films, Thirst and Stoker.  Prior to his “Vengeance Trilogy,” Park directed—I believe—three other films.  The first two were made in the early nineties and were flops; the second was JSA: Joint Security Area, which catapulted him to fame and success and gave him the leeway to make the more unorthodox Vengeance films and the films that followed.  JSA is an excellent movie, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t accord with our argument here, so there’s nothing stopping us from just ignoring it.

In the Vengeance Trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance (2002, 2003, and 2005, respectively)—we find that some things are real.  The basic rules that govern reality are still real; people are real; but the social, economic, and legal structures that underpin reality have proven ineffective, and have essentially dissolved into anomie.  If the law worked—or was perceived to work—we wouldn’t have vengeance.  And in these films, the law and its attendant structures have failed, and so the characters have been left to pursue lawless campaigns of personal vengeance.

Park’s 2007 film I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok inverts the Burroughsian principle: within the confines of the mental institution where most of the action takes place, everything is very much real but nothing is permitted.  The inmates are there because they don’t understand that everything is real, and so they would act as if everything were permitted were they given the opportunity.

In 2009’s vampire romance tragedy Thirst (unexpectedly based on Zola’s Therese Raquin), we see the sociopathology that can lie at the heart of solipsism.  The film follows a once virtuous priest who becomes a vampire (because these things happen to the best of us) and is forced to abandon conventional morality in order to sustain himself.  When he becomes involved with a woman and ends up “vampirizing” her, she takes her newfound powers (super-strength, rapid self-healing, and the ability to jump very great heights) and sets about on a rampage; people are no longer people to her; they’re just bags of blood.  They’re no longer real, and hence everything is permitted to her in her conduct towards them.

Park’s latest film is his American debut, Stoker (and despite all the to-do about its being his first “American” movie, the main cast consists of Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode: two Australians and a Briton) depicts an asocial teenage girl (Wasikowska) who becomes involved in the machinations of her recently widowed mother (Kidman) and her mysterious paternal uncle (Matthew Goode).  In the process, all of the moral and societal conventions that once bound her fall apart, and her nascent solipsism blossoms upon exposure to the corruption and sadism of the adult world.  People don’t matter to her; everything is permitted.

The problem with solipsism as a philosophical position is that it’s almost impossible to maintain unless you’re a psychopath.  Most “solipsists” can’t help but try to convince other people that they don’t actually exist; if you were actually a solipsist, you wouldn’t care what these illusory automata think.  Even if we try to dismiss it, the world insists upon itself.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Viktor Shklovsky and the Unfilmable

Viktor Shklovsky.
I recently read a book by the Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky.
The book was called The Hunt for Optimism.
It was published in 1931.
Or maybe 1932, I don’t remember and I don’t want to look it up.
Whenever it was published, it came out after Mayakovsky’s suicide, and I’m pretty sure that was in 1930.
Shklovsky writes in short little bursts.  Most of his paragraphs are only one or two sentences long.
I could continue writing in this style—Shklovsky pastiche—but I’m not Michiko Kakutani and I have no desire to limn Mr. Shklovsky.

Now Shklovsky’s a good, all-around critic, and he was deeply engaged with Soviet cinema which, at the time, was some of the best in the world.  It was the early Soviet filmmakers—Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov—who, along with the American D. W. Griffith, invented the grammar for all the films that would come after them (in linguistic terms, they set up the “deep structure” of cinema, upon which all subsequent cinema is based).  Shklovsky was born in 1893, and there probably would have been very little film in his childhood.  The world would have been filtered primarily through literature and static pictorial art.  Imagine the shift in perspective that must have come about through the re-ordering of reality by the great filmmakers of the 1920’s.  Thanks to Eisenstein et al., reality could be chopped up and montaged. 

By 1930 or so, cinema had become a key mediator of reality for Viktor Shklovsky and many of his contemporaries.  He recounts an interesting episode in The Hunt for Optimism; he finds himself in Georgia, gazing at a landscape that Lermontov and Tolstoy would undoubtedly have found quite beautiful when they and the Russian army rampaged through the Caucasus back in the day.  But for Shklovsky, the beauty of the scene is sullied, because he knows that, were it to be filmed, “it wouldn’t come out.” This is one of the fundamental conditions of modernity.  A scene is only as beautiful as it looks when you record it through technological means.  Think of the people who go to a rock concert and spend the whole show trying to film the damn thing on their smart-phones (and it always looks like shit).  Or think of any tourist spectacle; you go to the Taj Mahal and, rather than looking at it, you take a picture of it.  Or the Eiffel Tower, or Alhambra, or what have you.  And this was already the case in Shklovsky’s time.  First photos, then cinema.  And it’s especially remarkable when you consider that in 1930, we had only had good, technically masterful cinema for about fifteen years (I don’t want to denigrate the Lumiéres or Meliés, but the only technical accomplishment in most of their films is that fact that the film exists at all; filming something was a technical feat in its own right).

I also don’t want to denigrate cinema in general.  Reality is generally a bitch, so if we can transform it through cinema, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  Speaking of Georgia, what do I know about Georgia? Only what I’ve seen of it in the films of Tengiz Abuladze and Sergei Parajanov.  And they both knew how to make it “come out.” Or look at Julia Loktev’s Georgia-set The Loneliest Planet, which uses the most crisp and up-to-date filmic technology to record scenes of ravishing beauty.  I can’t image there’s still anything in Georgia that doesn’t come out now.  Who knows, perhaps these filmmakers have even filmed the landscape that Shklovsky declared to be “un-filmable” in 1930.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Mohsen Makhmalbaf Films Himself Filming an Actor Playing Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Moment of Innocence

In a recent blog post, I made reference to a key incident in the life of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf.  When he was seventeen years old and consumed with revolutionary fervor (this was in the time of the last Shah), he stabbed a police officer in a thwarted attempt to steal his gun.  I should have noted that this was also probably a key incident in the life of the police officer he stabbed.  Well, I may not have thought of this, but Makhmalbaf certainly did, and in the mid-90’s he reached out to the police officer in an effort to make peace over the event.  This led to the creation of his 1996 film, A Moment of Innocence, in which Makhmalbaf plays himself working with the policeman to make a film about the stabbing.

There are so many levels of meta at play here, and they are accentuated by the fact that the film stock used to record this movie looks kind of cheap.  Now, I am somewhat ignorant of the technical aspects of film recording (much to my shame), but I notice that a lot of Iranian movies from the 1990’s (like Kiarostami’s Close-Up or Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema) have a grainy, faded kind of look to them.  I suspect that Iranian directors have subsequently gone digital, as recent films like A Separation and The Hunter look just as crisp as anything coming out of Europe or East Asia.  And they look lovely in their own right, but they lose something too; because the grainy mid-90’s films of Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami are so thoroughly grounded in reality (or what looks like reality, anyway) that, when they do veer off into whimsicality or oneiricism, these flights of fancy become all the more pronounced (a similar principle can be found at play in the “weird stories” of H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, who understood that the element of horror is most effective when placed in contrast to a well-defined, non-fantastical reality).

In fact, I wonder if shit didn’t get too real for Makhmalbaf in making A Moment of Innocence.  Although Makhmalbaf (or rather, “Makhmalbaf”) never explicitly apologizes to the policeman, his victim makes it abundantly clear that the knife attach seriously fucked up his life.  He was injured, he became depressed, he quit the police force.  Although, interestingly enough, we never hear any details about what exactly he did while he was in the police.  Did he ever break up anti-Pahlavi rallies? Did he assault protestors? Did he ever arrest or torture dissidents?  Or was he just a generally inoffensive beat cop?  When Makhmalbaf stabbed him, he was apparently just on patrol in a bazaar.  Makhmalbaf stabbed him because he wanted his gun, which he would presumably use to kill… who?

Makhmalbaf has some poignant exchanges with the actor he’s selected to play his younger self.  The actor is an idealist (like Makhmalbaf was, which is how he got the part) and he claims he wants to save the world.  While they’re trying to shoot the assault scene, the lines between reality and film blur, and the young actor becomes upset, because he doesn’t want to stab anyone.  When Makhmalbaf says, “Don’t you want to save the world?” the kid responds with something like, “Surely there are other ways to save the world that don’t involve stabbing anyone.” And Makhmalbaf has probably learned that himself over the years.  He hasn’t stabbed anyone since.  But the pain and the terror of his assault on the policeman is something that persists; it will stay with both men until they die.  No matter what Makhmalbaf feels about violence now, he can’t undo what he did.  One wonders what he hopes to accomplish by restaging the incident from his youth.  Does he want to supplant the memory of the actual incident with a cinematic reinterpretation, with different people in a different time?  Or is there an opposite impulse at play?  Does he want to leave us a filmic record of the incident, so that it will remain forever vivid and available to future generations?

As a side-note, Makhmalbaf does a remarkably good job of playing himself.  I mentioned Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), and Makhmalbaf plays himself here as well, in yet another fictionalization of a real-life incident.  There’s a self-awareness and reflexivity to Iranian cinema that we don’t often see elsewhere.  Iranian directors don’t have a problem with turning the camera on themselves.  I just recently watched This is Not a Film, a documentary by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb about a day in the life of Panahi as he copes with house arrest and a ban on making films following his involvement in the 2009 anti-government protests in Iran.  There’s a wonderful scene in that film in which Mirtahmasb films Panahi with his high-tech digital camera while Panahi films Mirtahmasb with a smart phone.  Like the Borgesian mirrors, these two recording devices theoretically reflect each other back and forth ad infinitum.  This is reflexivity taken to its furthest logical extreme.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges, Mirrors, and Kim Gok’s and Kim Sun’s White: The Melody of the Curse

The great Argentine man of letters Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) had a few treasured images that he returned to over and over again throughout his body of work: knives, tigers, labyrinths.  Also mirrors, which is interesting, because they scared the shit out of him (it would be sort of like Graham Greene populating his works with birds; Greene was terrified of birds).  For Borges, the mirror’s horror consisted of its tendency to replicate images ad infinitum.  If you place two mirrors in front of each other, they theoretically reflect each other’s images into infinity.  Infinity is a horrifying prospect, an abomination of space and time (and Borges wrote a famous essay called, “A New Refutation of Time,” from which Digable Planets got the title for their album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). It should also be noted that Borges wrote an essay called, “On the Duration of Hell.” Borges’s courage in confronting these terrifying concepts is impressive to me.  It would be like me writing an essay called, “Spiders, Lots and Lots of Spiders.”)

The mirror is also one of the most consistently used devices in horror movies.  It usually goes something like this: a person goes up to one of those combined mirror/medicine cabinets (and I’ve never lived in a place that had a medicine cabinet; for the longest time I thought they just existed in movies, but I’ve used friends’ bathrooms, and some of them have medicine cabinets), I say, they go up to a medicine cabinet, they open it, fish around in it for a bit, and then close it, and suddenly there’s some scary shit right behind them reflected in the mirror that wasn’t there before.  Now, the old ghost-in-the-medicine-cabinet-mirror gag is hardly original, but I understand why filmmakers keep doing it; it is the ultimate jump scare; I am never not scared when I see this in movies, even though I’ve seen it done to death.
White: Melody of the Curse.
Now, in the 2011 Korean film White: The Melody of the Curse (released in the U.S. as just White), writer-directors Kim Gok and Kim Sun up the ante; it’s not just medicine cabinets; the film is positively swarming with mirrors (like spiders! a swarm of fucking spiders!), featured most prominently in the dance the studio where the film’s doomed girl-pop quartet (or “showcase,” as the Koreans seem to call them) do their rehearsing.  Imagine the horror of ten mirrors reflecting an Asian horror ghost! (NB, the typical Asian ghost has bleached-white skin and black hair, but the ghost in this movie has bleached-white skin and white hair; variations like this, minor though they may seem, are rare in Asian horror; kudos to the two Kims).  White is probably the best mirror-centric horror movie I’ve ever seen; certainly it relies upon the horrifying potential of mirrors to an extent unprecedented in my movie viewing experience.

And hopefully someday the time will come when we can make a mirror-horror movie along Borgesian lines, where the implication of infinity will be enough to fill us with unspeakable dread.