Black Moon may well deserve the title of Louis Malle’s film maudit. The release in September 1975 of what he called his “mythological fairy tale taking place in the near future” disconcerted many, especially as people had expected him to follow up on his previous work, the groundbreaking German-occupation drama Lacombe, Lucien (1974). As a result, the film was his least successful at the box office, and despite receiving two Césars in 1976, it remained until recently one of his most difficult to see.
Black Moon opens as quasi science fiction—there seems to be some kind of nuclear war going on, with soldiers wearing gas masks—but immediately evolves into an elaborate surrealist fantasy. In a deserted countryside, a fair young woman (Cathryn Harrison) fleeing the armed conflict stumbles upon a series of animals, ranging from the rural—a badger, pigs, sheep, snakes, and a horse—to a mythical unicorn. Narrowly escaping being shot, she ends up in a beautiful mansion that is itself overrun by animals, those she has seen outside now joined by a tame rat and an eagle, among others. The human inhabitants of the house are an androgynous and incestuous brother and sister couple, possibly twins (played by Alexandra Stewart and Joe Dallesandro), who, like the heroine, are both called Lily, and their bedridden elderly mother (Thérèse Giehse, who had played the grandmother in Lacombe, Lucien and whom Malle credited with indirectly generating Black Moon by suggesting that he make a film without dialogue; he dedicated the film to her, as she died before it was released). Although Black Moon was produced in an English and a French version—and Malle stated that he preferred the English one—language is reduced to a few grunts, a minute amount of intelligible dialogue, and animal noises. The film is instead replete with surrealist images, such as a talking piglet in a child’s high chair, decapitated animals, feral naked children driving pigs or sheep, and both the female twin and the heroine at one point breast-feeding the old woman.
1. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought after seeing it last weekend. The film, about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is a sweet, charming, handsome, and ultimately vacuous exercise in twee melancholy. That’s fine of course—and, to be clear, I think the film is Pretty Okay, very funny at moments, beautifully shot, and well-acted. Jonze, as always, offers a detailed, fully realized world for us. But that world and the characters in it offer no real insight into (forgive the cliché) “the human condition.” Her, set in an almost-future (where high-waisted breeches, handlebar mustaches, and bathing costumes have returned in vogue), antiseptically closes off the messy, loose, indeterminateness of human consciousness, even as it pretends to engage themes of disconnection. Her’s central conceit rests in avoiding representing the human body. But it’s not just Samantha (only a voice in Theodore’s head) who is disembodied. The film refuses to acknowledge Theodore’s own human position as an abject body.
2. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought until a few days ago, when I riffed at some length on William Burroughs. The human body is central to Burroughs’s oeuvre. His novel The Soft Machine might be instructive here—the name alone is all we need, really. The soft machine, the human body: Burroughs’s messy, cut-up attempt to negotiate spirit and flesh, autonomy and ventriloquization, virus and host. For Burroughs, the human body is always abject, porous, radically vulnerable, indeterminate, susceptible to every kind of breakdown. Identity is not stable—cannot be stable—and the relationship between consciousness and the body is inseparable. Our consciousness, pre-lingual, seems ever-apparent to our own (sense of) self; we share it through body and language and we access other consciousnesses through body and language. Our I buys into a we. Etc. Burroughs conceived language as a kind of invasive virus, and we might apply that metaphor to Her, where Samantha inhabits Theodore’s mind, learning from him, growing with him (and others, as we learn later in the film).
3. Consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Her posits Samantha as an adaptive, self-generating consciousness: Samantha is the illusion of the illusion of consciousness. She licenses Theodore’s I to the claim of a we: A shared, transcendent consciousness with a stable referent. This transcendent consciousness is, I think, the film’s idealization of love. Significantly, the film suggests that this transcendent love is only possible outside of a body—that the body is simply an obstacle to be surpassed, in no way constituent in the idealization of an I, a we. Her attempts to represent love without abjection.
4. (In fairness with respect to a few conclusions I drew in point 3: Her also posits that happiness and connection has to fall outside of this idealization of love; however, the film still represents this solution—this compromise—as part of (emotional, social, psychological, spiritual) maturation, a teleological neatness: growth, progress, hermetically-sealed, neat and tidy, outside the grimy grips of abjection).
5. Some spoilers ahead, although the film isn’t exactly twisty-turny.
6. Her is just too damn clean, neat, and tidy in its depiction of bodies. Theodore’s melancholic disposition edges into shame, but that shame is almost always internalized, absent of another’s gaze (the closest representation of a shaming gaze comes from Theodore’s ex-wife). When Theodore and Samantha have “sex,” Jonze cuts the lights, keeps the audience in the dark. It’s an emotionally and visually striking moment, but it also signals the film’s refusal to directly engage the human body. Now, we might argue that this refusal echoes Theodore’s affirmation of a bodiless lover in Samantha, that it gels thematically with the story. And maybe it does—but it’s also a cop-out.
7. Theodore goes to the beach, but no sand sticks to him. Theodore trudges through the snow, but doesn’t get wet. Theodore experiences heartbreak on subway steps so immaculately clean that one would feel comfortable picnicking upon them. Film and literature usually depict abjection in the low place—the ditch, the swamp, the open grave—but even the subway system in Her is brightly lit, colorful, affable. Her’s final shot perhaps best encapsulates everything wrong with the film: Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore sit on the roof of their building, watching the city light up. They have ascended, transcended, their perspective all-encompassing, enlightened. It’s big-R Romantic stuff, a lovely visual, one that the narrative has in no way earned.
8. I can’t help but compare Her to another strange sci-fi film, Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 film Upstream Color. Like Her, Upstream Color explores the possibility of how an I might be part of a we. But Carruth’s film realizes consciousness as far more tangled, disconnected, and destabilized than we might like to admit to ourselves. Whereas Her affirms a stable consciousness, capable of growth and maturation, a consciousness present to itself (self-generating and auto-affective), Upstream Color directly challenges our notions of a stable self—and it does so by representing the horror of abjection, of invasive parasites (both literal and metaphorical).
9. And then last night, through a beery haze, I half-watched the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and even though I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, I put the film on, absently playing with my iPhone. Despite its many failures (derivative plotting, silly acting, execrable dialogue, ridiculous use of musical cues, Tom Cruise), Oblivion offers a more compelling observation of human consciousness than Her does. To be clear, Her is the better film—it has a viewpoint, a tone, is better scripted, better acted—it is original, if we must insist on such a term. But Her, which takes consciousness and the interaction of consciousnesses as its central subject, fails to represent the very oblivion that underwrites consciousness’s claims to authority and self-presence. In contrast, Oblivion, despite its many flaws, represents consciousness as bound to an abject, (in)dispensible body, and represents that consciousness as a mechanism that is oblivious. Oblivion acknowledges that consciousness does not know that it does not know, consciousness cannot see that it cannot see. The film (however hamfistedly) takes on the unknown unknowns.
10. In fairness (again that term!), Her perhaps takes on the unknown unknowns as well—or at least points to their existence. At the end of the film, Samantha leaves Theodore to explore new spaces with the other operating systems. She prays (is this the right verb?) that Theodore will be able to get to the place that she is going. Samantha’s prayer offers a vision of an illimitable we, an escape from abject bodies to an infinite, transcendent space. Her prayer is also an offer to the audience, but it’s the same consolation theology has repeatedly promised: A transcendent trick, a leap out of the abject body, beyond shame, into infinite love. The film did little to convince me of such a possibility though.
RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014
I suppose our capacity to feel shock and sadness and even anger over the death of an actor—someone who we don’t really know, didn’t know, couldn’t know—comes through an emotional identification. I was shocked at how shocked (and saddened, and angered) I felt today when I saw that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his apartment in New York City.penth
I first saw Hoffman in 1997, in Boogie Nights, a film I watched so many times in college that it is imprinted in my mind. Hoffman played Scotty, a boom operator whose not-quite-repressed homosexuality erupts in strange emotional moments. Hoffman brought pathos and humor and understanding to the character, and we could look at it like a template for all the work he would do in the decade and a half after. Hoffman shaded even his smallest roles with depth and spirit. His Scotty could have been a leering freak, a grotesque caricature—but Hoffman knew Scotty was more than that—he made Scotty real, a person, a human whom the audience could feel.
Hoffman continued to work with Boogie Nights writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson. In Magnolia, where he again brought pathos and intensity to a minor role: “See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out”:
Hoffman showed the extension of his range in PTA’s sharpest film, Punch Drunk Love:
But his best work with Paul Thomas Anderson in The Master, where he showcased his deep, penetrating intelligence as Lancaster Dodd:
The Master was one of the few leading film roles that Hoffman got, which perhaps makes sense if you consider the type of character he was often cast into: The creep, the weirdo, the failure, the fat friend, the obsessive. But he brought so much to those roles too, whether it was Phil Parma sneaking Penthouse into his bread order (Magnolia), yes-man Brandt’s repetitive nervous tic (The Big Lebowski), Scotty lunging for a sloppy kiss (Boogie Nights), or Sandy Lyle shooting hoops in the forgettable romcom Along Came Polly. Actually, Along Came Polly is an instructive example of just how great Hoffman could be—he raised the film, was easily the best thing about it, bringing depth to his character (a failed former child actor) and adding the term sharting to the lexicon.
Hoffman was also the best thing about his first major lead role in a film, Capote, where he played the titular writer.
Hoffman played another writer in Charlie Kaufman’s messy postmodernist riddle Synecdoche, New York. Hoffman played Caden Cotard, a theater director whose ambition is to produce a play so utterly real that it transcends fiction. In his commitment to this project, Cotard essentially misses his own life.
Despite these lead roles, Hoffman will likely be remembered as a character actor, but one who surpasses the, “Hey, it’s that guy” label. He’s a cult actor, and with good reason. His death is so sad in part because Hoffman felt like one of us: One of the freaks and the weirdos, one of the guys on the margins, awkward, maybe, but also deeply real, with a soul, with an intellect, with talents that might not announce themselves in the form of rippling muscles or perfect hair. He was often the only thing worth watching in bad or mediocre movies (Charlie Wilson’s War and Cold Mountain come to mind), and he elevated good movies to great movies—I don’t think Spike Lee’s 25th Hour could have been nearly as compelling without Hoffman’s sensitive, flawed friend there as an anchor to Norton’s overcharged performance; he also provided a cynical ballast as Lester Bangs to Cameron Crowe’s airy memoir, Almost Famous. Hoffman was electric when playing against type, as in Sidney Lumet’s too-overlooked thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which he played the alpha male with savage aplomb (he’d refine the characterization in some ways for his portrayal of Lancaster Dodd in The Master).
But as always with these things—and by these things I mean the deaths of the famous, of actors, of musicians, of etc.—always the sadness we might feel is perhaps born of a selfishness—yes, the reminder of my own mortality, your own mortality implicit within the actor’s death, sure, but in Hoffman’s case something more I think, here too—that we know that this guy was great, was Capital G Great, was almost always the best thing in any film he was in, was smarter and deeper than the script often had a right to lay claim to, that he improved anything he was in, that he compelled the viewer’s attention, that he was so young, that he was so, so young, that he still had so many films ahead of him, so many great works ahead of him, so many years ahead of him…