Did Wes Anderson interview Robert Evans as a substitute host for Charlie Rose in 2002? You bet your ass he did.

 

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A short riff on a favorite scene from Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood

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I absolutely loved Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which is nominated for a few Oscars this year, including Best Picture. (Boyhood is too good to win best picture; I’m fine with that prize going to Iñárritu’s faux-art film Birdman). A rich and sentimental evocation of “reality,” Boyhood synthesizes the best elements of Linklater’s previous films, and like many of those films—Slacker, the Before trilogy, Waking LifeDazed and ConfusedBoyhood isn’t really about anything. Of course it’s also kinda sorta about everything: family, love, growth, education, life. Etc.

The central formal device of Boyhood—namely, that Linklater shot the film over twelve years using the same actors—has been remarked upon at great length by others, so I won’t touch on it, other than to say that I found watching Ellar Coltrane’s Mason grow up profoundly moving. The aesthetic experience of Boyhood is its greatest pleasure, much like its sister film The Tree of Life. And although Boyhood’s aesthetic power relies in large part on our witnessing its characters grow and age, its emotional tenor, its vibe, inheres from scene to scene.

Capture

There are many wonderful moments in the film, some more memorable than others, but a favorite of mine takes place at an overnight “camping trip” in a house that’s still under construction. Mason is maybe, what, thirteen here?—I’m not quite sure, but he tells his mother the truth about where he’s going, if not entirely the truth about what he’ll be doing there…which is, what? Not much really—the younger kids hang out with the older kids, drink a beer or two, lie about sex—stuff kids do. The scene captures the same not-quite-boring hangout vibe that permeates Dazed and Confused and Waking Life—a kind of familiar realness.

Linklater is a master at evoking a sense of place. And this place, this house—it’s simultaneously boring, calming, and horrifying. On one hand, we’ve been there before—the abandoned house, the empty parking lot, the little switch of trees that aren’t quite woods, not really—the free space where we can play at being adults. On the other hand, Boyhood has allowed us—or maybe I should not extend my pronoun to the plural? No?—Okay: Boyhood has allowed me, this viewer, a kind of paternalistic view of Mason (“my-son”) who is, after all, growing up before our very eyes (sorry for slipping back into the first-person plural there). And here Linklater has young Mason—whom we trust to do the right thing and all but still—here Linklater has staged Mason & co. in an abandoned house full of scrap wood and power tools and circular saw blades which the young men are of course throwing into the sheet rock with gleeful abandon.

I flinched as the blades flew forcefully past Mason and his friend; in any other film they would have to cut into flesh and bone, be tools for forces tragic or comic. Plot devices. But in Boyhood they are the toys of boys playing at growing up. Nothing happens. No grievous injury or terrible death—the sort of thing that usually licenses, I don’t know, the central character’s maturation. Not even a comic wound. Nothing. The blade-throwing is just normal bored stupid teenage amusement. It’s the sort of thing that Mason’s mom—and a paternalistic viewer like me—might find horrifying—You could get very badly hurt, Mason!—but he doesn’t. He’s fine. He’s alive.

For me, this particular scene—not the strongest or the strangest or the most memorable or moving—is nevertheless a key moment in Boyhood, not just because it disrupts audience expectations (the film is full of such gentle disruptions), but because it engenders and then discharges my own parental anxieties. That’s a form of catharsis, I guess, but not a catharsis of tragedy. It’s catharsis for reality.

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

 

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post last year. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Danse Macabre (Jean Renoir)

Cousins — Jim Jarmusch

The birds don’t sing, they screech in pain (Werner Herzog)

Riff on Aronofsky’s Noah

1. Noah continues director Darren Aronofsky’s streak of making films that I will never watch more than once.

2. (The film is new on DVD &c.; I dutifully missed in the theater).

3. (Although I did see Aronofsky’s first feature Pi in the theater—at my university’s student union. I liked the claustrophobic paranoia of Pi, but the film was also silly, histrionic even, and I did not understand the film’s handling of metaphysics—mostly because the film does not understand its own metaphysical vision).

4. (Noah, for its part, does seem to understand its own metaphysical vision; or, rather, it understands a version of its own metaphysical vision).

5. Aronofsky’s Noah takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape: Cities are failing, the world is barren, dry, the ground seems to be comprised of basalt and ash. The people in his Prediluvian world use a mishmash of technologies, some of which seem fairly advanced (strip-mining, metallurgy, advanced textiles, etc.)—but these technologies also seem stymied, stuck, abortive last grasps at progress. Noah looks at times like a Mad Max film, or even Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road.

6. Aronofsky’s Noah is a post-apocalyptic pre-apocalypse film.

7. Aronofsky’s Noah attempts an answer to both Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel.

8. Aronofsky’s Noah foregrounds the radical infanticide at the heart of the flood myth. 

9. From A. Samuel Kimball’s The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture:

. . . when he promises never again to subject the world to such destruction, God memorializes the irreversibility of his massively -cidal violence and binds the future that will transpire to the futurity that will now never come to pass. Indeed, God destroys an infinite number of futures with the respective deaths of the Flood’s victims, for whom the waters of the Flood will never stop flooding, never cease obliterating the future. When he ratifies his promise in the covenant with Noah and his descendants, God inscribes the future reproductivity of the Noahic lineage in the limitless infanticidism of the Flood.

10. Aronofsky’s Noah gains most, if not all, of its moral tension in depicting Noah’s attempt to negate the future reproductivity of the Noahic lineage.

11. Should humanity be allowed to exist after The Flood? is Noah’s (and Noah’s) central question. Aronofsky’s answer to this question is, I think, ultimately ambiguous. While Noah’s own infanticidal violence (an extension of his attempt to prevent his sons from begetting offspring) is suspended (by love!), Aronofsky represents this suspension with ambivalence. Noah, drunk in a cave, invites us to look on his naked failure. 

12. Aronofsky’s Noah is most successful as a kind of failed boilerplate color-by-numbers summer-popcorn-big-budget-action flick. It’s just too weird to fully adhere to its formula, but it hangs together by the formula nonetheless, jostling, uneasy. 

13. Aronofsky’s Noah features giant fallen angels encased in rock. These golems are probably the signal special effect of the film, and a sore reminder of the pervasive influence of the special effects battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

14. This was easily my favorite sequence of Noah:

15. (And yet that sequence still suffers from a kind of queasy supernatural cheesiness that infects Aronofsky’s work).

16. After watching the film, I sought reviews, which led me quickly to John Nolte’s paranoid (and unintentionally hilarious) take on the film at the right-wing website Breitbart. Nolte clearly enjoyed the film and he repeatedly praises its techniques, production values, and acting, but condemns it as “blasphemous” in depicting God as “some kind of tree-hugger.” “Aronofsky is the anti-Michelangelo,” Nolte declares, “a master craftsman using his talents to a dishonest and wicked end.” That wicked end is “using the story of Noah to twist Christianity into something it is not…[Noah is] a genius piece of propagandizing that is sure to lead many away from God under the mistaken belief that through left-wing environmentalism they are coming closer to Him.”

Nolte’s strident praise/condemnation is hilarious and hyperbolic.

Does he actually believe that this movie is aesthetically affecting enough to motivate any kind of change in belief?

17. (Reviews like Nolte’s are important to me because they help to remind me of the subjectivity of aesthetic experience. He saw a completely different film (with his completely different eyes) than I did).

18. My favorite Aronofsky film, and the only one that I would consider watching again, is The Fountain. I think that The Fountain might be a kind of precursor film to Noah, a trial-run even, although I have no evidence for this claim.

19. I started this riff with the claim that I have no desire to rewatch Aronofsky’s films, and that Noah continues this pattern. Aronofksy is an auteur, and like most auteurs, I’m sure rewatching his films would enrich an understanding of the themes and problems he’s trying to address. However, I find his films repulsive, by which I mean the opposite of compelling. I have never wanted to exit a fictional world as much as I wanted to escape Requiem for a Dream. I found The Wrestler depressing and empty. I’m afraid if I watch Black Swan again it will turn out that Aronofsky was actually not attempting to make a comedy about psychosis, but was rather actually serious about his melodrama’s tragic scope.

20. Noah isn’t repulsive, but it isn’t great either. Flawed doesn’t even begin to describe the film—yes, it survives its own competing impulses of spectacle-bombast and introspective-character-study, but never synthesizes them. It’s unclear who the film is for. The film resolves in a moment of supposed-uplift, positing “love” –of offspring– as a solution, but it also binds that solution/blessing in the cursing of offspring.

Both of these moments feel wholly inauthentic. In the end, what remains is the bitter aftertaste of Noah’s contempt—and his anxiety at failing to create a utopia devoid of humans.