Saturday, December 28, 2013

Point Omega and Waveland: the Political Background of Literary Minimalism

“If the critical intellectual is in the process of disappearing, it seems by contrast that his phobia of the real and of action has been distilled throughout the sanguineous and cerebral network of our institutions. In this sense, the entire world including the military is caught up in the process of intellectualization.”- Jean Baudrillard in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

"There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create."- Don DeLillo, Point Omega

Don DeLillo’s 2010 novel Point Omega takes place at a ranch in the Sonoran Desert, “or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether”. The ranch is owned by Richard Elster, a “defense intellectual” who served under president Bush and aided in crafting the Iraq war; young documentarian Jim Finley joins Elster in the desert, hoping to film him commenting on his experience. Instead of offering a big, important, definitive statement on the war on terror, DeLillo offers a slow and vague book that has the most fleshed-out characters and least action of any of his works that I have read. I might go so far as to say that it is character driven insofar as it is plotless—DeLillo recognizes that we no longer have much to do with the grand narratives that ostensibly inspire and mobilize us.

Or with narratives at all. Point Omega begins and ends with an unnamed character (ostensibly Jim Finley) at MoMA watching a video installation called “24 Hour Psycho”- Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho without sound and slowed down to 2 frames per second, causing it to last 24 hours instead of two. Rather than exacerbating that movie’s claustrophobic suspense, this divorces the film completely from Hitchcockian narrative and reduces it to a succession of abstract units. “When an actor moved a muscle, when eyes blinked, it was a revelation. Every action was broken into components so distinct from the entity that the watcher found himself isolated from every expectation.” If one attempts to grasp scope through abstraction, one loses touch with whatever their object of inquiry is and ends up participating in idolatry. It is interesting that DeLillo chose to frame his meditation on the war on terror with descriptions of this video installation. Finley is obsessed with film, and the room where "24 Hour Psycho" is being screened is a safe haven for that obsession and from everything that lies beyond the screening room's door, "that strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there...". The fictional occupation of "defense intellectual" is an inversion on the real occupation of filmmaking; where the filmmaker creates realities on screen, the defense intellectual attempts to create reality itself. The Baudrillard quote I cited at the beginning is useful for understanding "Point Omega". Richard Elster, the main character, personally embodies the traits of an intellectual that Baudrillard lists. When he is brought into the Pentagon in the months preceding the Iraq war, however, he doesn't find what he expects- a well oiled machine dedicated to defending America- instead he finds a well oiled machine dedicated to obviating Western hegemony. When Baudrillard accuses the military of being "caught up in the process of intellectualization", he means that the military bureaucracy is as out of touch as an intellectual perched in an ivory tower. Islamic fundamentalism doesn't offer a real threat to our way of life, and a war waged against it is a theatrical affirmation of the rightness of our way of life rather than a defense of it. 
Michel Foucault
Philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Michel Foucault wrote about how enlightenment is a double- edged sword. Perceived increases in intellectual understanding go alongside actual increases in surveillance and control; the rational mind ends up merely rationalizing the existing order. "Defense Intellectual" is a contradiction—how can an intellectual play an instrumental role in a senseless police state? As a country with a bloated and paranoid military-industrial complex, the war on terror is a war on our own sense of terror, our inability to understand our situation.
Confronted with this morass, Richard Elster retreats to his desert compound seeking out "geologic time". The desert is "womb-like and world sized". The filmmaker Jim Finley joins him; eventually Elster's insular daughter Jessie does as well and the situation becomes familial. The film never gets made, and the three people fade into a routine of meals and idle discussion, Finley discussing film and Elster his intellectual preoccupations. This continues until, out of the blue, Jessie disappears without a trace. Search parties are disbursed to no avail and the case is declared inconclusive. The mystery is that there is no mystery. 

It seems that "Point Omega" attempts to engage with power and ideology by locating the contradictions of western progress in the character of Richard Elster, but the film meant to capture these contradictions never gets off the ground. Why is this? Elster is a richly drawn character full of thoughts and feelings, but if Michel Foucault's contention that individuals are an effect of power rather than possessors of power is true, a critique of ideology cannot take the form of a film criticizing Elster's personal foibles or "moral failings". DeLillo's character studies have an ambivalent tone because he is politically committed.

DeLillo's tone is an influence on the literary movement known as "minimalism" that came to prominence in the 80s, typified by writers like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore and Frederick Barthelme, and continuing today with the scene surrounding Tao Lin. While not all of these authors are as overtly leftist as DeLillo, I think that minimalism is an exemplary genre for situating societal critique within. Barthleme's most recent book is 2009's "Waveland". It documents middle class life in post-Katrina Mississippi.

"Waveland" revolves around three characters- a community college architecture professor named Vaughan, his ex-wife Gail and new girlfriend Greta. They are all able to "ride out" the storm and  continue living comfortable, if boring, lives  amongst the wreckage. Their resigned attitudes reflect the wasted landscape around them. They watch TV. They eat Thai food. Vaughan wanders around his house thinking about his failed marriage, plateuing career and splintered family. They watch more TV and eat more Thai food. At the novel's end he finds redemption not by rediscovering love or artistic fervor, but by gratefully accepting the anonymous stability of middle class life in a decaying society and curiously fading into normal existence:

"He imagined what his life with Greta might be in the future- isolated, inconsequential, apart from the world and yet in the world in a new, more immediate way, full of sensory things, a sampler of ordinary pleasures. He imagined their daily life as a succession of such pleasures, a river of tiny recognitions- the pleasures of sunlight, of the dark scent of wet dogs, of summer nights, of the crush of sudden thunder, the warmth of winter socks, the surprise of skin indented by furniture. These weren't the pleasures he had dreamed of, and it wasn't a life he had dreamed of, nor sought, nor even imagined for himself; but facing it, finally, he thought it was a life for which he was now well prepared."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

La solita cosa italiana: Tradition and The Great Beauty

Before it's about anomie, sex, death, politics or ennui, Italian film is about Italian film. I've heard this called "an Oedipal struggle," which you can take or leave, but the point is that the upper tier of the film industry in Italy is probably unique in the amount of energy it expends on its ongoing conversation with itself. Every composition, every soundtrack, every personality, every haircut, mustache and pair of glasses is fair game for appropriation, as if every filmmaker were a shade of Robert Altman. The hero of Nanni Moretti's Caro Diario visits the site of Pier Paolo Pasolini's murder. The prostitute protagonist of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria is named after the virginal heroine of Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria. The antihero of Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style, played by Marcello Mastroianni, attends a screening of La dolce vita, whose hero is also played by Marcello Mastroianni. It's a common domain of symbols as much as an industry.

Since the 80s, though, the ouija-like movements of these symbols have inscribed a story of decay—not catastrophic, but definitely pervasive. Both the auteurs and the Auteur are dead, movie attendance is down, and Cinecittà, the studio where Fellini built whole city blocks for La dolce vita, is largely disused. Moreover, the industry has increasingly cut itself off from the domain of symbols to which the auteurs devoted so much attention. Over the last three decades, Italy's international successes—mostly sentimental dramas like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful and Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room—have been what the Italian film critic Pino Farinotti calls "solitary efforts", disconnected from the tradition. Stirrings of rebirth—Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah and Nanni Moretti's impossibly well-timed Habemus Papam have all been critical darlings in the last few years—are therefore met with what might seem like an inordinate amount of jubilation. Everybody, the Italians as much as the foreign press, wants a return to greatness.

It's important to understand this if you want to grasp Paolo Sorrentino's new movie, The Great Beauty, as anything but an arty trip through the lives of the decadent Roman elite, because a return to greatness is exactly what Sorrentino is promising. Sorrentino's breakout movie, Il divo, earned him not only Italy's first Cannes Jury Prize since 1962 (!) but also a strange kind of mandate. The film's resistance to the conventions of kitsch and chamber drama, its treatment of history as a kind of myth, and its frantic editing style staked a claim in the visionary lineage of the great Italian auteurs. Sorrentino had earned access to the same symbolic domain as Fellini and Antonioni; now, with The Great Beauty, we get to see what he's done with that access. 

As you might expect from a movie made under that kind of scrutiny, The Great Beauty is not only a movie in the high old style but also a movie about the high old style. The story of Jep Gambardella, an aging writer from the May '68 generation, The Great Beauty comes on like a The Artist for Italian modernism. The sweeping crane shots and choreographed dolly moves are only the beginning; the movie mimics the Italian classics in realms as cognitively subtle as its sound (voices feel uniformly close to the listener, as if they were dubbed, which was the standard for all Italian movies until the 70s) and its editing (we cut in and out of single gestures and expressions, like Fellini loved to do). Homages to the Italian pantheon are ubiquitous in Sorrentino's Rome: we pan over the Roman skyline as in Rome, Open City, a man jumps into the Tiber like Franco Citti in Accattone, a priest swings on an unearthly swing like Alberto Sordi in The White Sheik.

The writing, however, is less eclectic in its influences; it's fairly clear that Jep is an incarnation of Marcello Rubini, the hero of La dolce vita, and the movie keeps a closer ear on that than on any other resonance. Jep and Marcello are part-time writers and full-time socialites, struggling with cynicism, as they encounter a recurring cast of grotesques on a journey through a Rome whose contemporary vulgarity can't measure up to its beautiful past. Their titles mirror one another and are similarly equivocal, although Sorrentino's doesn't have the same branding potential for gelato places. (A gelato place called La Grande Bellezza had better be pretty fucking good.) Sorrentino is going right for the big one: this is Berlusconi's La dolce vita.

Pertinent differences, however, seep into the movie: Marcello's aesthetic failure becomes Jep's intellectual success and Marcello's weaselly cowardice becomes Jep's weary authority. Jep is a mirror image of Marcello, a version of Marcello who got everything he wanted (although, as Sorrentino shows, it doesn't really matter in the long term). This mirroring carries through to the movie's plot, which starts to feel like the other end of La dolce vita: the death of Jep's first love starts a journey at the end of which he reawakens to a modest kind of hope.

Of course, it doesn't really matter whether or not Jep the man emerges from his thirty-year depression; his thoughts are pretty inaccessible anyway. What matters is whether or not Jep the Embodiment of Italian Cinema emerges from his thirty-year depression, whether or not he's capable of imagining something outside his Fellinian gloom. You'd be justified if you thought this sounds disquietingly like Harold Bloom; after all, it's an Oedipal struggle.

Insofar as it dramatizes that struggle, The Great Beauty is an astonishing success, but the movie itself questions to what extent that success is worthwhile. Is it a struggle worth conducting? Is it worth making a movie in the high old style? Pino Farinotti has to write about movies that "make 'Italian cinema history'" in Tao Lin-esque scare quotes, and Jep Gambardella himself laces the human-condition speech that closes the movie with blah-blah-blahs. Working in the tradition of Fellini means employing a received idiom, an old language that may have lost all connection to the real world, and Sorrentino's movie is more an exorcism of that idiom than a vote in its favor.

This preoccupation with period style doesn't excuse the film for its misogyny. Sorrentino treats women like scrollwork, decorative or symbolic elements on the periphery of the text who only influence the narrative when they're naked. People seem to have waved that away as an entrenched problem in Italian cinema, but that seems based on a cartoonish level of misunderstanding—recall that the 60s gave us, to name a few, Mamma Roma, Seduced and Abandoned, L'eclisse, Bitter Rice and La strada, each of which on its own sets a high bar for female characters that Sorrentino has failed to meet pretty disastrously.

In fact there are intimations of another movie, underneath all of the Fellinian stuff, whose style differs pretty wildly from the upper strata. Slow-motion camera, neon colors, low-key lights, and recurring motifs like drunk salarymen all suggest an idiom more engaged with the contemporary world than the one Sorrentino has adopted, an idiom that, while acknowledging its influences, keeps them at defamiliarized distance, like the tourists Jep praises. I loved The Great Beauty, but I'm waiting for a Great Italian Film in that idiom.