David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2008 (page 1 of 2)

Gregor von Rezzori: The Snows of Yesteryear

[The German is Blumen im Schnee, which sounds better to me.]

Cassandra’s superstitious awe of the reality of letters, and her ultimate and voluntary rejection of their decipherment, originated in a much more archaic insight. The serried rows of books on the shelves of my father’s library were truly demonic for her. That certain things had been recorded between the covers of these books which could be grasped mentally and transformed into speech and knowledge by initiates in the shamanic craft of coding and decoding those runic symbols–this could be understood only as a supernatural phenomenon. It irritated her to see that we had lost the sense of its terrifying uncanniness and that reading was an everyday custom, publicly performed, nay, that it could even become a vice, as exemplified by my sister. With the instinctive certainty of the creature being, she felt that such casual handling of the irrational was bound in turn to generate irrationality.

She realized that for those who had acquired it, the ability to read conferred power over those to whom the written or printed word remained a sealed mystery. But she also knew that this was a power pertaining to black magic–that it turns against its own practitioners and transforms them into slaves of the abstract. She saw in it a truly devilish power, since its manipulators, who also were its most immediate victims, were not even aware of its nefarious effects.

A little bit of anti-Calibanism from Rezzori’s well-wrought memoir, written in the late 80s, which portrays a family in the early part of the 20th century but reads as closely contemporary, as though he brought them with him into the end of last century to make them easily comprehensible to the younger generations. There’s a nice hesitancy to Rezzori’s irony that I enjoyed.

Krugman’s Anti-Cassandra

Following on from before. I like Krugman’s comment enough I’ll just quote the whole thing:

Reading some of today’s news, it suddenly struck me: we’re living in the age of the anti-Cassandra.

Cassandra had the gift of prophecy — she saw, correctly, what was coming — but was under a curse: nobody would believe her.

Today, our public discourse is dominated by people who have been wrong about everything — but are still, mysteriously, treated as men of wisdom, whose judgments should be believed. Those who were actually right about the major issues of the day can’t get a word in edgewise.

What set me off was the matter of Alan Greenspan; as Dean Baker like to remind us, news analyses of the housing and financial crisis almost always draw exclusively on “experts” who first insisted that there wasn’t a housing bubble, then insisted that the financial consequences of the bubble’s bursting would remain “contained.”

It’s even worse, of course, on the matter of Iraq: just about every one of the panels convened to discuss the lessons of five disastrous years consisted solely of men and women who cheered the idiocy on.

Now, none of this is entirely new. Consider what Keynes said in 1931:

A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.

Still, it seems especially extreme now. And think of the incentive effects. What’s the point of taking the risk of challenging conventional wisdom if, even after you’re proved right, only the guys who were wrong get invited to opine on Charlie Rose?

Cassirer on Gobineau, etc.

In order to grasp the purport of Gobineau’s book, too, we must not read into it these later political tendencies. They are quite alien to the meaning of the author. Gobineau did not intend to write a political pamphlet but rather a historical and philosophical treatise. He never thought of applying his principles to a reconstruction or revolution of the political and social order. His was not an active philosophy. His view of history was fatalistic. History follows a definite and inexorable law.

History is no science; it is only a conglomerate of subjective thoughts; a wishful thinking rather than a coherent and systematic theory. Gobineau boasted of having made an end to this state of affairs. “It is a question of making history join the family of the natural sciences, of giving it…all the precision of this kind of knowledge, finally of removing it from the biased jurisdiction whose arbitrariness the political factions impose upon it up to this day.” Gobineau did not speak as an advocate of a definite political program but as a scientist, and he thought his deductions were infallible. He was convinced that history, after innumerable vain efforts, had at last come to maturity and virility in his work. He looked upon himself as a second Copernicus, the Copernicus of the historical world. Once we have found the true center of this world, everything is changed. We are no longer concerned with mere opinions about things, we live and move in the things themselves; our eyes are able to see, our ears to hear, our hands to touch.

Myth of the State, XVI

I hear the heavy hand of Kant in Cassirer’s attack on Gobineau, even before Cassirer cites the individual stupidities that make Gobineau’s work garbage. The hubris of purporting to move into the noumenal sphere is enough to doom him already. (Note that this is an inversion of the “Enlightenment thinking” that is usually associated with Kant and used to damn him on the same grounds that Cassirer is attacking Gobineau on here.)

I thought of this point when reading Walter Pincus’s attack on journalism today (Pincus was the old-timer Washington Post reporter who wrote story after story questioning the administration’s Iraq WMD claims in 2002, only to see all of them shunted to the back page.)

Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.

At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have dropped the idea of having
experienced reporters provide analysis and context and turned instead to retired public figures or so-called
experts to provide commentary. It was not always this way.

Well, we can debate which of so many problems makes the current state of mainstream journalism so wretched, but the obsession with neutrality and apparent lack of bias is certainly one of them, and I wonder if it too is the same mentality at work that Cassirer attacks: that despite there being points of view, there is only one absolute News that presents them all equally, and that’s what to strive for.

I do hear that same absolutist arrogance in this little speech too:

“[The government] will not be satisfied for long with the knowledge that it has 52 per cent behind it while terrorising the other 48 per cent but will, by contrast, see its next task as winning over that other 48 per cent for itself…It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we want rather to work on people until they have become addicted to us…”

Goebbels, March 15, 1933 (taken from Evans, 396)

As with Gobineau, that’s when purported objectivity turns into propaganda.

Southland Tales

What an awesome disaster of a movie. Panned at Cannes, left for dead by Sony, eventually raking in $300K on an $18 million budget and forcing a promise from Richard Kelly that he will be more commercial in the future, I now say that it’s the major American movie of 2007 that I enjoyed the most, far more than limp critic-fodder There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. It certainly isn’t a good movie, though there are plenty of good bits in it, but the movie, at least partly unintentionally, has been constructed in such a way as to make such evaluations meaningless. Southland Tales will never be ridiculed and celebrated the way Showgirls or Valley of the Dolls or Manos: The Hands of Fate or Battlefield: Earth are. It doesn’t provide enough reference points. James Wood, in one of his bon mots, said of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “It invents its own category of badness.” Wood was wrong, for The Unconsoled is just a mediocre symbolist text (see Alasdair Gray’s Lanark for a far more brilliant effort in the same vein). But Southland Tales comes as close to that description as any film in recent memory, and where it is in its own category, there is no comparable “good” to be had next to the bad. Its idiosyncratic overambition lies alongside O Lucky Man! and its acknowledged antecedent, Kiss Me Deadly. I don’t know that it is as seminal as the latter film, which for me is one of the greatest American films of its era, but as with Kiss Me Deadly, it won’t be possible to tell until we are further from the present. It’s that sort of a zeitgeist movie; maybe it’ll look as awful as Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie or Jodorowski’s films, but I hope not. I got a real kick out of it.

Let’s start with the logo.

Does the oddly-colored shape under the title look familiar? I was pleased with myself for recognizing it. It’s a US electoral map from 2004, skewed by congressional district so that each district’s size is proportional to its population, and color coded red-to-blue to represent Republican-to-Democratic dominance. It’s ugly, oversaturated, politically allusive, and obscure all at the same time, and it’s a good synecdoche for the film.

The film fails in making any coherent political statement, because you can’t make any sort of political statement in the midst of such chaos. The plot, such as it is, has to do with The Rock playing an amnesiac actor married to the daughter of the Bush-a-like Republican presidential candidate (this film takes place in 2008; the Democratic ticket is Clinton-Lieberman). His name is Boxer Santaros, but he’ll come to be known as Jericho Cane, the lead character in a screenplay he has written (or has he???) about the apocalypse. Also collaborating on the screenplay is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Krysta Now, a porn star/talk show host who may or may not have Marxist revolutionary tendencies. (It may be possible to figure out the actual affiliations of many of the characters, but, like most of the plot elements, it is largely irrelevant.) What glimpses we have of this screenplay reveals that it is pretty much the sort of screenplay The Rock would have written: a macho action hero killing people, spouting banal dialogue, and chugging Bud Light. Here’s page 1:

(If you don’t find that funny, this movie might be extremely painful for you.) Anyway, through a combination of subversive revolutionary action, plain accident, and assorted other Philip K. Dick-ian causes, the screenplay is being acted out in reality by people who don’t even know of it, as well as observed by all the other characters and by the actors themselves. Since the script is about the apocalypse, things get very strange in a hurry. Some neo-Marxists attempt to fake a shooting to turn the population of California against the government’s draconian anti-terror laws, instituted after two nuclear bombs exploded in Texas. Justin Timberlake plays a mutilated Iraq veteran who spends his days spying on (and occasionally killing) people from offshore through a giant rifle sight. He and several other characters have had megadoses of the mysterious Fluid Karma, a substance that causes telepathy, shared dreams, the mixture of fantasy and reality, and so on and so forth, like Chew-Z in Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It’s also a clean fuel that will save the world, according to a bunch of German scientists led by Wallace Shawn. And at ground zero of this mess are a bunch of morons getting sucked into their own screenplay in the middle of Los Angeles, already shot, with the exception of one critical scene, to be apocalyptically unreal. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

As these stars act out their wretched screenplay, it’s obvious that at least some of the badness of the acting, dialogue, and plot is intentional. But Kelly makes it impossible to separate the intentional from the unintentional, because the crap script mixes with “reality” to the point that they are inseparable, and none of the “real” characters are any smarter than their in-script standins. This is obvious early on, from the moment Krysta Now says “Apparently, the future is much more futuristic then scientists thought,” but also evident from the sheer lack of any empathetic characters. And I haven’t even mentioned the Justin Timberlake video embedded in the movie, done up as a tribute to The Big Lebowski. The movie is impressive in its self-referential textuality, as bad actors play bad actors writing bad screenplays with bad characters that they then become the bad stars of. (The Rock does a magnificent job of acting like he has no idea what’s going on.) Most of the cast are famous for anything but dramatic acting and can only be recognized as themselves, not as characters within a movie. This movie oozes Verfremdungseffekt.

If nothing else, these factors ensure Southland Tales a place in post-structuralist theory for years to come, a bitterly appropriate result. Still, that’s not to deny the disorienting effect the movie has in providing no reference point whatsoever to what would be called “real life.” It’s spectacle all the way down. But what spectacle! Kelly has given himself over to the pop culture overload and distilled it more densely, and authentically, than anyone since John Oswald. (The opening pastiche of news channel graphics, logos, and crawls is dead-on, the best anyone has done since Chris Morris’s Brass Eye.) And to Kelly’s credit, he never loses his grip, never sacrifices the miasma to anything that could dare be called “art,” which is why Cannes hated him and loved Tarantino. Even if Kelly was trying to elevate (quite literally, at points) his material, he never does.

So let’s go back to Kiss Me Deadly, which appears twice in the film and is clearly a major influence on Kelly. Aldrich’s film is a joke at everyone’s expense, a contemptuous reading of a Mike Hammer novel portraying Hammer as a dull-witted thug incapable of understanding the true stakes of what’s around him. Even the entire genre of detective novels is held up for ridicule when the McGuffin at the center of the story turns out to be anything but irrelevant. The acting ranges from lumpen to histrionic and never matches the unstable material. But unlike Southland Tales, it comes together to damn every bit of its source material and America with it. In Southland Tales, things are inverted: the fools understand and we do not, because the fools are generating their own story, and we–and I include director Kelly in that–are getting caught in it.


It was certainly a result of the quick disappointment of early expectations of definitive total results that the idea of progress underwent expansion into that of ‘infinite progress.’ Descartes still seriously thought of the attainment during his lifetime of the final theoretical and practical goals of his program of method, that is, the completion of physics, medicine and (following directly from these) ethics. Thus the introduction of infinity here was hardly the winning of a divine attribute for human history; rather it was initially a form of resignation. The danger of this hyperbolizing of the idea of progress is the necessary disappointment of each individual in the context of history, doing work in his particular situation for a future whose enjoyment he cannot inherit. Nevertheless the idea of infinite progress also has a safeguarding function for the actual individual and for each actual generation in history. If there were an immanent final goal of history, then those who believe they know it and claim to promote its attainment would be legitimized in using all the others who do not know it and cannot promote it as mere means. Infinite progress does make each present relative to its future, but at the same time it renders every absolute claim untenable. This idea of progress corresponds more than anything else to the only regulative principle that can make history humanly bearable, which is that all dealings must be so constituted that through them people do not become mere means.

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, ch. 3

Whoever turned away from God, said the pious Christians and Jews, had to reach the point where he perpetrated or suffered the atrocities of Auschwitz. The Marxists claimed that capitalism, which had entered its final fascist stage, must become a slaughterer of human beings….Their kingdom was not the Here and Now, but the Tomorrow and Someplace….

Jean Améry, “At the Mind’s Limits”

(Thanks A.)

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