David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: aesthetics (page 2 of 4)

Nagisa Oshima: More Films

Violence at Noon (Oshima, 1966): Aesthetics triumph. Oshima aggressively shoots black and white Cinemascope in almost exclusively close-ups or wide shots, most of them quite short, and combined with a dissonant orchestral score (not familiar with the composer, but it is in line with Takemitsu’s excellent film scores of the period), the film builds up momentum through craft alone. Which is good, because the plot is a mess. It’s the story of a love triangle (or square) in which one of the men has killed himself and the other has begun sexually assaulting and killing women. The two female characters provide varying degrees of rationale for his actions and not much else. That they all lived on a collective farm years before the main plotline implies some kind of political message, but next to Night and Fog in Japan, it’s pretty weak stuff. There is more analysis of the plot at Strictly Film School, which does more for it than I can do. Technically brilliant but morally questionable.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Oshima, 1967): Not to be confused with Masahiro Shinoda’s beautiful but completely different Double Suicide from 1969. Here Oshima abandons realism completely and tells the story of two youths, a boy who just wants to die and a girl who just wants sex (this is Oshima, remember), who get mixed up in some sort of allegorical gang war and end up hiding out in a barn with a bunch of cowardly thugs. Not as technically impressive as Violence at Noon, there are still some gorgeous and abstract scenes on some odd sort of beach. The vaguely apocalyptic plot and characters throw off sparks without ever really gelling (think of Godard’s Les Carabiniers), but it keeps your attention, particularly the ending, which involves an American sniper who does not speak one word of Japanese.

Death By Hanging (Oshima, 1968): Humor, not especially noticeable in the earlier films, shows up here and it’s surprisingly effective. A Korean man is hanged but instead of dying suffers amnesia, and so the warden and others have to cause him to remember his crime so they can hang him again. Ostensibly a parable about the death penalty, Oshima can’t stick with one subject and things spill over into Japanese colonialism, racism, and bureaucracy. It’s effective satire; even when you can’t figure out what point Oshima is exactly trying to make, it’s biting anyway. It’s the colonial message that is clearest for me, making depressing observations on Japanese discrimination against Koreans and the alienation forced on them. Not as visually striking as the two above films, it still has some of the strongest content of any Oshima film.

The Ceremony (Oshima, 1971): Another nasty parable, this one telling the story of the extended family that constitutes part of Japan’s ruling class. Everyone is corrupt; redemption is impossible. The younger generation listlessly follow in the vile footsteps of their megalomaniacal parents, acting out all the self-absorbed and reprehensible pageantry funded by imperial and capitalistic thuggery. The famous setpiece is a wedding that goes ahead even though the bride has failed to show, but the film has a consistent brute-force power, and the actors convincingly portray hollow, soulless aristocrats. Appropriately gloomy and typically good score by Takemitsu.

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

I never thought I’d get the chance to see Partch’s Delusion of the Fury. The Japan Society’s production is the first since the premiere almost 40 years ago, and I get the feeling there’s not going to be another one anytime soon, since Partch wrote for his own unwieldy instruments and the requirements he placed on performers were rather strenuous. (Partch’s recommendation that his instruments be wheeled around on the stage during the performance, adding to their “corporeality,” was dropped in this production.) So I consider myself blessed to have the experience of getting some idea of what Partch had in mind, even if his full intentions were probably unrealizable. Partch was something of a magpie in stealing bits and pieces from other cultures–gamelan here, gagaku there–but the synthesis is so intensely personal as to be an unrecognizable miscegenation. His vaunted excursions into microtones are only a small part of Partch’s outre gestalt.

It’s because of the private nature of the work that I can’t easily assess my own reaction to it difficult. Partch may have thought that he was tapping into some universal mythos and music, but I have to say that at least in that regard, he failed. All of his work, and Delusion is perhaps the most fully realized work but not any more or less accessible than the others, springs from his willfully cultivated outsider status and mostly solitary development of his own musical theories and dogma. Partch was far from untrained, but he was not a social man, and it seems that estrangement came to him naturally, particularly from “The Establishment” and high culture in general. There are a number of other American composers that fall into this category, and they rank among the best the country has produced: Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese (not actually American, but tried his damnedest to be), Sun Ra, Lou Harrison, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. All of them resisted (and continue to resist) easy assimilation into a larger historical context, and many actively tried to divorce themselves from being associated with any larger movement. (I do not think it’s a coincidence that many of them, including Partch, also happened to be queer, but that’s all I’m prepared to say on that subject. See also Percy Grainger, who ironically was too establishment to make the list.) Partch, himself quite the curmudgeon, extended this autonomy to the very instruments themselves, ensuring himself an even greater degree of personal control over performance. The resultant effect, no doubt intentional, is that there is more work to be done to get inside the corpus of these composers than those who exist closer to the mainstream horizon of recent times.

So here’s the plot, in Partch’s words:

It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The “Exordium” is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end — with the supplication “Pray for me!” — he finds reconciliation.

There is nowhere, from the beginning of the “Exordium” to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but — due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness — a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.

Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.

The near-total lack of narration and speech (partly for copyright reasons, apparently) does not make it easy to understand what is going on without the accompanying program notes, and the partial doubling of the actors in the main roles in the two parts is more puzzling than anything else. To the extent that Delusion reaches for universality, it is to a totality of musical performance. Watching it, I could only feel that narrative and thematic drive had been subordinated to the physical performance of music (and dance) itself, which struggled under the heavy responsibility of evoking those very traits. There’s a hint of this in Partch’s own description of his aesthetics:

The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.

Where one might expect narrative, there is only raw experience and ritual, which I gather Partch intended to place in a prior and more fundamental place than what constitutes modern storytelling. The Residents, hugely influenced by Partch, drew upon this aspect in their own early work, particularly in the nonsense narrative of Not Available and the instrumental “narratives” of Eskimo and above all “Six Things to a Cycle” (off of Fingerprince), which is so Partch-like as to constitute a tribute. The plot: “Man, represented as a primitive humanoid, is consumed by his self-created environment only to be replaced by a new creature, still primitive, still faulty, but destined to rule the world just as poorly.” Its (entire) lyrics?

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

[Smack Smack Smack]

So yeah, I think that says it all.

The Fall and Romanticism

K-Punk’s wonderful series on the aesthetics of Mark E. Smith and the Fall is wonderful nostalgia for any of us who spent months or years obsessed with Smith’s verbal acuity and ruminated over the cryptic lyrics (transcriptions c/o the invaluable Fall Lyrics Parade:

So R. Totale dwells underground
Away from sickly grind
With ostrich head-dress
Face a mess, covered in feathers
Orange-red with blue-black lines
That draped down to his chest
Body are a tentacle mess
And light blue plant-heads
TV showed Sam Chippendale
No conception of what he’d made
The Arndale had been razed
Shop staff knocked off their ladders
Security guards hung from moving escalators

And now that is said
Tony seized the control
He built his base in Edinburgh
Had on his hotel wall
A hooded friar on a tractor
He took a bluey and he called Totale
Who said, “the North has rose again”
But it will turn out wrong

(The N.W.R.A.)

“The Fall’s Pulp Modernism:” Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

K-punk begins with two of Smith’s avowed heroes–H.P. Lovecraft and Blake–and from there spins a chronicle of Smith’s embrace of pulp materials in the service of anti-romanticism in the tradition of Wyndham Lewis. And there’s something to this. Horror, science fiction, and conspiracy theories figure prominently in the lyrics, but they’re never properly shaped. Nazis pop up repeatedly as sinister figures precisely because they are cartoonish and inhuman; Smith is fatalistic about these matters, not humanistic. The dog-fucker of “Impression of J. Temperance” who impregnates one of his canines (hat tip to pastemob for explaining this to me many years ago) is clearly on the other side of normal, and so is his offspring:

The next bit is hard to relate.
(There are no read-outs for this part of the track.)
The new born thing hard to describe
Like a rat that’s been trapped inside
A warehouse base, near a city tide
Brown sockets, purple eyes
And fed with rubbish from disposal barges brown and covered

(Impression of J. Temperance)

Even “Spectre Vs. Rector,” one of the more outright narrative pieces, turns abruptly when Spectre possesses the rector and two more characters (the Inspector and the Hero) have to show up to finish the storyline. Yet I don’t see the modernism in this. Smith ladles on Gysin/Burroughs-esque cut-up techniques and Artaud-esque writing processes, but what results is not modernism, not even the collage and nonsense modernism of Dada and surrealism. The psychology and historicism of high modernism doesn’t exist in his lyrics, but neither do the word-poems of Tzara and Huelsenbeck. Smith’s referents are slippery, but with the exception of things like “Levitate,” where he slips into outright language poetry, he remains attached to Blake’s idea of language as invocation, and not as reality in itself. When K-punk says:

If pulp modernism first of all asserts the author-function over the creative-expressive subject, it secondly asserts a fictional system against the author-God. By producing a fictional plane of consistency across different texts, the pulp modernist becomes a conduit through which a world can emerge. Once again, Lovecraft is the exemplar here: his tales and novellas could in the end no longer be apprehended as discrete texts but as part-objects forming a mythos-space which other writers could also explore and extend.

I would argue the opposite. When Lovecraft goes on and on about how inexpressible his horrors are, and when Smith invokes Nazis and spectres, the world does not emerge, but instead it subsumes. The disorganization and cut-ups are not manifestations of authorial process as with Dada, but mimetic representations of a reality that corrupts language. (K-punk’s reference to Smith as “channeling” is apt, but again, I think the flow goes the other way: it pulls the listener rather than pushes.) I do not see Joyce in these words. If I was going to trace a lineage, it would be from Blake to Baudelaire to Hofmannsthal to Rilke to Pynchon and others who have taken up the pre-modern mantle. Anti-romantic, certainly, but hardly anti-Romantic. The world triumphant over the word, represented immanently in the broken, strained language of visionaries. Blake, Coleridge, Byron. Like so:

Hail the new puritan
Out of hovel, cum-coven, cum-oven

And all hard-core fiends
Will die by me
And all decadent sins
Will reap discipline

(New Puritan)

Fun with Consciousness

I love the philosophy of consciousness. Is there any other field of philosophy that proceeds with so few objective reference points, where people spend so much time fighting over pure first principles? Yes, probably, but they aren’t as interesting to me as consciousness. Some (like a certain eliminativist I was arguing with earlier tonight) argue for its nonexistence; others (Descartes, anyone?) argue that it’s all that there definitely is. And throughout, language is thoroughly inadequate of providing referentiality to any of it. Late Wittgenstein isn’t the only one who would agree with that; early Wittgenstein would agree too.

Quick crash course for those who are not quite as obsessed with these things: consciousness = internal, subjective experience. It means that when I poke you, you don’t only react with behavior indicating pain (yelping, yelling, etc.), but you also have some internal, private sense of actual pain. These two things, as one can read over and over in later Wittgenstein, have no apparent necessary connection to one another. But at least for me, it’s a rather significant assumption I make that other people have rather similar private subjective experience to mine that matches up with their behavior in similar ways.

See also Thomas Disch’s Fun With Your New Head. “Taste, see, smell, and ‘pain’ with a HEAD. Every minute is different from the next minute in incredible thought-chaos of a HEAD.”

Steven Shaviro reviewed a new s-f novel called Blindsight by Peter Watts. It sounds a little pulpy, and it’s unlikely that I’ll get around to it any time soon, at least not until I finish Thomas Metzinger’s marvelous  Being No One. But Shaviro has conveniently described some of the consciousness aspects that come into play:

What really distinguishes the aliens is that they are zombies: not in the George Romero, living dead sense, but in the sense that the term has been used by cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. A zombie is a being who acts just as you or I do, who shows clear signs of language, intelligence, and so on; but who is inwardly devoid of sentience or consciousness. It’s the old Cartesian/solipsist dilemma: I know that I have consciousness, interiority, and a sense of self; but how do I know that you have all these things? For all I know–since all I really know (according to Descartes) comes from introspection, everyone else in the world may well be a machine, or an
automoton, only simulating consciousness. 

Now, there’s a caveat here, in that the aliens aren’t actually philosophical zombies, because these aliens don’t act like you or I do, or even as conscious aliens would. Watts provides clear behavioral indicators for what non-conscious intelligent beings would act like and how they would differ. I’ll get to those in a moment. A real zombie, in the sense that David Chalmers and all put it, requires the assumption that there are no behavioral or linguistic (or even neurological) cues that peg someone as having subjective experience or not. The Waggish-zombie would claim to be conscious, just as I do.

Given the possibility of true zombies, consciousness is epiphenomenal, i.e., it has no bearing whatsoever on physical events. Epiphenomenal consciousness lacks causal force, and it is superfluous to any causal chain of events. This leads to some fairly bizarre scenarios, like this one that Raymond Smullyan describes (he actually uses it against dualism, but it works against epiphenomenalism as well):

Then came the discovery of the miracle drug! Its effect on the taker was to annihilate the soul or mind entirely but to leave the body functioning exactly as before. Absolutely no observable change came over the taker; the body continued to act just as if it still had a soul. Not the closest friend or observer could possibly know that the taker had taken the drug, unless the taker informed him.

Then a person who wishes to have no more subjective experience (to escape various pains and traumas), but not to hurt anyone by committing explicit suicide, takes the pill. And of course, he promptly says, “Damn, it didn’t work!”

Right then. Epiphenomenalism also leads to boring books! Reading about the difference between people who do and don’t have consciousness but act the same either way is not terribly exciting. (Actually, I can think of one way in which it would be interesting, but I’m keeping it a secret in case I write about it some day.) So Watts cooks up a few differences to keep things going:

By the end of the novel, the difference between conscious beings and zombies seems to be that only conscious beings possess aesthetics. The aliens in the novel are a bit like logical positivists: they have no aesthetic sensibility, and find aesthetic and affective statements to be, strictly speaking, meaningless. They can carry on complex conversations, despite not “understanding’’ what the words mean; but they can only regard non-functional expressions as a sort of spam. In this way, Watts’ Darwinism ends up confirming Kant: the defining attribute of the aesthetic is that it is unavoidably “disinterested,’’ that its purposiveness of structure serves no actual (empirical or utilitarian) purpose. In other words, an aesthetic sensibility — which at this point we can pretty much equate with consciousness tout court — is not an evolutionary adaptation, but mere nonadaptive byproduct.

Again, though, this is ultimately an arbitrary and suppositional distinction. There’s no necessary reason why beings without consciousness and subjective experience couldn’t have an aesthetics, just as there could well be an aesthetics amongst a group of people who each saw a different color of the spectrum. Under Wittgenstein, aesthetics remains a series of rule-application speech acts, wholly independent from private subjective experience.

Shaviro hypothesizes that it is putatively nonadaptive behavior like aesthetics that constitutes “human-ness,” but I’m frankly surprised that a Marxist like him would claim that aesthetics ever indeed is disinterested. (He may simply be playing this out as a consequence of Watts’s views.) Yet the moment consciousness becomes more than purely epiphenomenal, it is completely up for grabs as adaptive, precisely because it must manifest itself in particular types of behavior, but without any contingent restrictions on what those behaviors could be. To imply a particular link between consciousness and certain types of behavior (such as the href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test>mirror test, which
proves self-awareness but hardly indicates anything about subjective experience) is wholly speculative. The epiphenomenalists go too far in the other direction by saying that there cannot be any necessary connections between behavior and consciousness; the answer is that we simply don’t know yet.

Now, the book is speculative fiction; my issue is that the speculation assumes too much. This is no worse a sin than many consciousness philosophers and neurologists, but as a hypothesis for behavioral differences, I don’t find the aesthetics argument particularly compelling at first glance. If there were general behavioral differences between beings with and without subjective experience, my intuition suggests that they would be far greater than mere aesthetics, and I’m all for the next writer who wants to take a shot at guessing what they would be.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [2]

(Also see Part 1.)

The story is always a part of the image. In my vocabulary, story doesn’t mean the same thing it means in American film language. There are human stories, natural stories, all kinds of stories. The question lies in where you put the emphasis on what’s most important. There are everyday tidbits that are very important. For instance, in DAMNATION, we leave the story and look at a close-up of beer mugs. But for me, that’s also an important story. This is what I mean when I say that I’m trying to look at things from a cosmic dimension. If I could describe a film fully by telling you the narrative, I wouldn’t want to make the film. It’s time that film frees itself from the shackles of linearity. It drives me crazy that everyone thinks film must equal linear narrative.

Bela Tarr in interview

The story of Satantango is stretched, almost absurdly so, and this may account for why the movie defies articulate enthusiasm. I’ve read many articles on Tarr in the last few days for research, and none of them have adequately made a case for the aesthetics or the meaning of Satantango. The usually articulate Jonathan Rosenbaum has little substantive to say about Tarr. Part of the difficulty is in the evident fact that Tarr is not a cinematic philosopher in the way that Godard or Herzog is. He presents an experience, and an elliptical one at that. Is it too much a leap to compare Satantango to Morton Feldman’s super-long late works, which similarly resist abstraction?

Leaving aside the plot for now, let’s see how Tarr’s style portrays the scenario. I’ve already discussed Tarr’s emphasis on tableaux and close-ups, and the depersonalized camera drift that he shares with Antonioni. The drift is the most telling. Tarr rarely moves the frame with the characters. He remains static while the characters move, or the frame moves while the characters remain still, or both move unsynchronized. Admittedly, he sometimes chases after characters with a steadicam as they walk away from us towards the horizon, but this hardly qualifies as traditional either.  Antonioni is a much more polemical filmmaker than Tarr, but he achieves a similar effect: by ignoring the traditional layering of characters on top of backgrounds, Antonioni flattens the scenes, so that we get the impression that the people are part of a scenic whole. Like Tarr, Antonioni makes his characters shallow and superficial so that we perceive their surfaces and are not drawn to any hypothetical interior aspects. Tarr’s shot of a fly buzzing around in a bar while all else is still is so close to Antonioni (see L’Avventura and, if you must, Zabriskie Point) that I took it as an homage. (It probably isn’t.)

Antonioni uses these techniques in portraying the bourgeois (early-60s) and the hip (late-60s and early-70s) to make overt yet vague statements about the horrors of capitalist culture. (See also Lindsay Anderson in if… and O Lucky Man!.) Tarr works with a more primordial brew of the exploiters and the exploited. I like him more than Antonioni, partly because he avoids the use of flashy visuals, which always smacked to me of hypocrisy in Antonioni’s films. But Tarr’s approach, like Antonioni’s, give a sense of finality and closure, a sense that this is all there is. Anything more, it is implied, would be false, a point that Tarr has explicitly made in interviews. Psychology? Not in this world. Character development? Such a thing does not belong here. Traditional narrative montage? Wholly extraneous. It’s not that I agree with Tarr’s exclusion of these things, but Tarr is adept at enveloping you in his version of reality, with all its exclusions, and this I believe is his greatest strength. The collective effect of Tarr’s flattening, his close-ups, his tableaux, his severe black and white visuals, is to compel the viewer, steamroller-style, to see the whole world in his terms, and only his terms.

It can be thrilling to be so overwhelmed, and I think that this may account for a lot of the raw enthusiasm that greets Satantango. It’s a visceral experience, but one that doesn’t seem manipulative, because Tarr takes such care to avoid all flash.

To be continued…


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