State of the Cinema Address

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

State of the Cinema Address

By Jonathan Lethem July 9, 2014

Jonathan Lethem delivered the annual State of Cinema Address at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival on Saturday, April 21, 2012. An edited transcript of his address is published here with permission from the author. 


I’ll begin with a joke. The title of this joke is “The French Magician.”

A young American woman was visiting friends in Paris, and they explained to her that they’d purchased tickets to a magic show that evening and hoped she’d join them—the magician was the most celebrated stage magician in France. The young woman demurred; she really wasn’t interested in magic, she explained. But in fact, she was naturally shy and found the idea of a live magic show intensely embarrassing. Yet her friends insisted that the show would be something special and she really shouldn’t miss it. Reluctantly, she agreed, and when they arrived at the theater, she was horrified to find herself seated with her friends in the front row, center stage. The theater darkened, a spotlight came up, and the French magician appeared, only a few feet from her, to thunderous applause. He immediately tipped his cap to the young American woman, and much of his subsequent patter seemed to be aimed in her direction, to the great discomfort of the young American woman and to the great amusement of her friends.

After a few preliminary sleight-of-hand and handkerchief-swallowing demonstrations, all seemingly devised to charm her personally, the French magician announced his showstopper: an escape act. A curtain was parted, revealing a giant tank of water. The French magician produced blindfolds and handcuffs and asked that a volunteer from the audience assist him in confirming the solidity of the chains that would bind him, and he immediately offered his hand to the American woman in the front row: “Please, Madamoiselle.” The American woman tried to refuse, but it was of course impossible. “Madamoiselle, you must give me the honor, please…” Her friends virtually shoved her onstage. So, as reluctantly as possible, she helped to chain and blindfold the magician and then served as his spotter as he climbed into the tank. The magician began a fascinating and horrible struggle in the water, bubbles rising to the top of the tank as his last lungful of air leaked from his mouth, while the young woman stood horrified, to one side of the stage. Many minutes passed, and then suddenly the magician at the bottom of the tank was completely still. A gasp rose from the audience.

At that moment the curtain was closed, and the young woman found herself brushed aside by stagehands who hauled the inert form of the magician from the tank and began attempting to revive him. The woman was asked to leave. She found her friends, and with the rest of the stunned audience she went out into the night. Her friends told her not to take it personally, but she was inconsolable. She insisted that they bring her to the hospital where he’d been taken, and she asked to see him but was of course turned away, for the French magician was under intensive care.

Unknown (French Photographer). A magician and his assistant, ca. 1920s; © Bridgeman Art Library / Private Collection / © The Advertising Archives

The next day she returned alone and was shown to his room. The French magician was in a coma, and the doctors couldn’t say whether he’d recover. The young American woman sat by his bed and held his hand. She felt connected to this man now; she couldn’t account for it. Though she was supposed to return to America the following day, she cancelled her flight, suspended all her plans indefinitely, and began spending every permitted visiting hour sitting with the comatose magician, reading to him from books, singing him little songs from her childhood, keeping his perfect moustache trimmed, bringing him flowers he never saw. She became a poignant figure in the life of the hospital; the French nurses always spoke of her in murmured tones, as if she were a tragic figure, much like the magician himself. Years went by. The woman’s friends gave up on her, both in America and Paris. Her world had shrunken to that hospital room, the still form of the French magician, the fallen petals.

One day when the American woman entered the hospital, the nurses rushed to her and seized her hands. “It is a miracle!” they said. “He is awake. You must come. He has asked for you.” “Really?” Was this possible? “Yes, yes, come quickly.” They rushed her down the corridor, into the room. The French magician was sitting up in his bed. When he saw her, he smiled, touched the end of his moustache, and then, making a grand and theatrical gesture with his hands, said, “Et, voila!”

The French magician’s escape act was a brilliant success: it defied time.

Now, what are my qualifications for standing here today? Just this: that I’m quite a bit like the American woman in the joke about the French magician. I was once, long ago, cajoled into a darkened theater, never knowing that when the curtain rose I would encounter an object of devotion that would destroy my life—or, anyway, replace it with a life of devotion: to stories, to magic, to waiting for magic to appear even when the last petals have wilted off the bouquet in my hands. For what astonishes me about my life as a moviegoer is cinema’s staggering capacity to collapse the decades of my life into one continuous responsive daydream, a telescoping of my discovery of a culture I could live inside, that could help me explain what it was to be conscious, nervous, mixed-up, hungry—to be a body born involuntarily into history, into the hurtle of time.

Bob Dylan said, “The purpose of art is to stop time.” Elsewhere Dylan used the beautiful variation, “to defy time.” I suspect every moviegoer recognizes that standard as a sensation recorded in the body, a literal suspension of our lives in the medium of cinematic time. By that standard, the French magician’s escape act was a brilliant success: it defied time.

Charlie Callas Spinning Plates, (film still).

I’m not Bob Dylan or even the French magician; I’m not a stage artist of any kind. What I’ll attempt isn’t anything so dangerous as climbing into the French magician’s tank of water, and I won’t ask for volunteers. This talk is a plate-spinning act. I’ll be like one of those vaudevillians who put plates up on broomsticks and dashed around the stage getting them all spinning at once. My plates are a few things I’ve been thinking about—some of them quite recent, instigated by this remarkable invitation and therefore quite strange even to me, and some of them are things I’ve been thinking about my whole life, helplessly, which doesn’t ensure that they won’t seem strange to you. My hope is that these plates will create some interest, spinning together on the same stage. It’s also a plate-spinning act because I won’t have time to explain, or connect the dots, because in a plate-spinning act you must above all else move very quickly.

Let me tell you what a few of these plates will consist of. I’m going to begin with something embarrassing: why I find mumblecore films so arresting and vital. That’s one plate. Then I’m going to claim that the Occupy movement derives its power from its lack of clear articulation. That’s another plate. Then I’m going to mention neoteny, which is a concept borrowed from evolutionary science, and I’ll relate it to the arts generally and to David Foster Wallace and James Brown specifically; that’s a plate. Then I’ll talk very briefly about new media and about cinema’s place as an aging media in this new realm—another plate. Then I’m going to claim that cinema has no present. I’ll tell you what the difference is between the true and the real, and then I’ll tell you why I’m more interested in the real. I’ll explain the difference between sponge listening and obedient listening. And then if I’m lucky I’ll take some questions while all these plates are spinning, and then I’ll dash offstage, and you can watch them all crash to the ground.

What use or influence can art be if it remains inarticulate, unformed, or self-loathing?

If you read the comment sections on IMDB for typical mumblecore films, you’ll encounter remarks like, “This is like if John Cassavetes’s movies were about boring, dumb rich kids with shitty taste in everything.” That’s actually a real comment, grabbed more or less at random. Those fierce words encapsulate every grain of resistance out there, to a so-called grassroots movement that may appear to have contributed little to film culture besides its own name, a term which, like queer or Quaker, actually derives from someone else’s scorn. The accusation, even the name itself, seems to raise the question: what use or influence can art be if it remains inarticulate, unformed, or self-loathing? Everything about these movies is fundamentally embarrassing, and to stand before a sophisticated crowd like yourselves and embrace mumblecore is to wallow in my own potential embarrassment. Yet it is a kind of embarrassment that seems to me to bear inside it some potential for reciprocity with you and with cinema itself. For embarrassment is an affect with a high force of reciprocity: it’s embarrassing to embarrass others, and it’s embarrassing to witness embarrassment. So we’ll plunge together now into the ecstasy of embarrassment.

Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg. Nights and Weekends, 2008 (film still). Courtesy of Film Science and IFC Films. 

How do I explain what in these films has gotten under my skin? It’s not the shaky handheld camera work. I’m as skeptical about the contemporary fad for handheld camera as I am, as a creative writing instructor, about the fad for writing in the present tense: both seem to me an abdication of formal tools the artist might rather cling to. In both cases—handheld camera, present tense—a little goes a long way; less is more.  Yet I can’t quit watching them—the mumblecore characters, I mean—and wondering what they’ll do next, even though they’ve long since established the answer: not much. The films have a temper, and a tempo, which has seemingly turned the impossible trick of rewiring my synapses, attuning them differently. What more I could possibly ask of an artwork than that?

The mumblecore directors’ fundamental gesture is to split the difference between dramatic narrative and the textures of both cinema-verité documentary and of home movies, particularly those made since the advent of the handheld video camera, the cell phone, and YouTube. This distinguishes them from the French New Wave directors, who were less interested in documentary than in the difference between the brazenness of certain American studio movies and the stolid solemnities of a middlebrow French film industry. And Cassavetes, hero though he may be to many young directors, was trained as a theater performer; the strident expressivity of a Method actor lay at the heart of his directing. Cassavetes wouldn’t have known diffidence or inertia if they’d walked up and bitten him on the nose. His characters might brood, but they were always destined to detonate too, to go off like bombs. Neither Cassavates nor the New Wavers were looking to split the difference between drama and the humbling, half-assed texture of everyday life. Both wanted to exalt the work into the higher realms of capital-A art.

I suspect that, whether they know it or not, the mumblecore filmmakers’ real father is Andy Warhol. You don’t hear filmmakers talk about Warhol that much—his films are usually put in a fine-arts context—yet both Warhol and the mumblecore directors offer performers who seem barely willing to perform. In both kinds of films, the viewer’s attention floats in a medium of sporadic arousal, where the collective will for something to happen becomes tangible, becomes one of the subjects of the art itself. While watching Greta Gerwig’s and Joe Swanberg’s Nights and Weekends—not the best of the mumblecore films I’ve seen, nor the worst, but a quintessential example—I found myself often struggling with the stilted dialogue and so fell with relief on a splendid nonverbal moment when Gerwig is unexpectedly asked to handle a crying baby. As her supremely expressive features ricochet through terror, embarrassment, and yearning—all of which appear at that moment to be as much Gerwig’s own as any actor’s contrivances—I found myself thinking, “Why couldn’t this whole movie be about Gerwig and this baby?” Only later, as I tabulated the clues I’d barely registered as they floated unceremoniously past—clues like the presence of birth-control pills in an earlier scene where the characters played by Gerwig and Swanberg begin to fumble away their intimacy—did I realize that the baby was the film’s unnameable subject, the pivot for all the stilted talk: the baby and all the stuff we see in Gerwig’s faces as she cradles it. The abyss between language and expressivity, between language and desire, was the zone the film occupied.

If there’s one thing that’s certain in twenty-first-century art making, it’s that to present one’s vulnerabilities is to call forth the haters.

Thom Andersen’s stupendous compilation documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself mines the idea that, through the twentieth century, Hollywood captured an inadvertent social and architectural history of Los Angeles—in the edges of the frame, behind the main action—simply as a byproduct of using the city for a backdrop in studio films, melodramas, and comedies. Similarly, a fictional scene in a film is also an inadvertent documentary of the actor’s lives, of the human specimens captured at the tender moment they are trying to put on a show. An awareness of this tension is what distinguishes the Warhol films and the best of the mumblecore too. (It’s no coincidence both characteristically present a lot of unerotic coupling.) The slippage can be infectious, making you more conscious while watching any film of the fact that a group of real humans have gathered together and tried to make an unlikely occurrence persuasive to your attention.  The deeper result in the case of mumblecore is that the films serve to illuminate a real human milieu with floodlights—superbly exposing their creator’s own yearnings and vulnerabilities. If there’s one thing that’s certain in twenty-first-century art making, it’s that to present one’s vulnerabilities is to call forth the haters. For what the artist has done is show the troll-like critic’s vulnerabilities to himself, precisely at that instant when he is counting on the art to flatter him in the belief that he has mastered his world rather than succumbed to it.

There’s a cultural meme, floating around these days, of hipster hatred. And of course, also, of hipster shame—hipster hatred and hipster shame are pretty much the same thing. This feeling strikes me as a total and flaming red herring, a channeling of disgruntlement that ought to be reserved for greater evils into morose self-loathing on the part of people who are pretty firmly on the same team. Of course, a defense of hipsterism isn’t something I’d want to sink a lot of stock into because it doesn’t actually matter at all; it’s exactly one of the least important things you could be worried about. What seems urgent to me is grasping the motive: why this horror of hipsterism? I want to suggest it consists of people enraged at being themselves, in this time in history. People not wanting to be apprehended dressing the way they dress or feeling the way they feel, people not wanting to be apprehended being helpless beneath the edifice of everyday life precisely the way they happen to be. For a hipster is mostly just an unfinished person; I think that’s where the shame really comes in. People are eager not to be counted among the unfinished. But given the options, it might be okay to be unfinished.

Seung-Min Lee and Justin Rice in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation (film still), 2005. Courtesy of IFC Films.

It’s typical, lately, to dismiss a generation’s prototypical artists by suggesting that their susceptibility to congenital preadolescence disqualifies their larger claim on our grown-up attention—as if any of us can safely claim to be watching with grown-up attention! The counterargument is that late techno-capitalism has made spoiled children of us all, and so we desperately require our artists to negotiate a meaningful response to this condition, from the inside.

The mumblecorians neither master their world nor succumb to it. They abide with it; they dwell there. The calls for them to “grow up”—that is, to somehow outgrow themselves—really are calls for them to reassure us by properly collaborating with the mediocre imperatives of commercial culture. This demand on them reminds me of the demands on Occupy Wall Street: to quit unsettling us with their indeterminacy and instead unveil their agenda, and therefore to become a typically compromised and corrupted political movement like any other. The mumblecore directors’ refusal to do so, or to speak in the cynical terms of their critics, seems almost equally brave. In both cases, the power of a deliberately inchoate voice is in its ability to force the viewer to articulate the nature of his or her expectations, the invisible frameworks of desire and its frustration. I find that I don’t care if I never see a mumblecore masterpiece. I don’t even particularly care if their methodology excludes masterpieces. Simply by their obdurate refusal to be embarrassed out of being who they happen to be, to be scorned into invisibility, they’ve turned a screw in my head. We gaze into the mumble, and the mumble gazes into us.

Okay, that’s one plate.

Here’s the next, a briefer one.

When out of nowhere the Occupy movement sprang into being in September [2011], I was as befuddled as anyone else, as befuddled as I suspect some of those in Zuccotti Park were, to discover themselves there. And in a way, that’s what I did, though I was three thousand miles away: I discovered myself there, with them, anxious for them, breathing for them, waiting to understand what to do next. At the instant the movement rose to a level of visibility at which it threatened anyone, the request went out: Please state your demands. This seemed axiomatic; to protest should be to articulate demands. To protest should be to choose sides on issues. And yet, miraculously, Occupy managed to remain, on typical political terms, inarticulate. For me, this seemed exactly right. To offer a list of demands is, in the end, the privilege of those who’ve seized hostages, those who hold a gun to someone’s head. Occupy Wall Street hadn’t taken any hostages, hadn’t taken a position of privilege or power in any absolute sense at all. In fact, Occupy embodied the opposite of a kidnapper’s position: We’re all the hostages of a political structure, a political language that has silenced our capacity to respond sensibly to one another’s needs and presences—one that, it should be added, has done this most of all by insisting it isn’t a political structure or a political language at all but merely “market realism.” We are all, every one of us, silent and invisible hostages to the ravages of private enterprise, of the regime of the marketplace, over every alternative notion of value—over the commons, in the deepest and broadest sense of the word. And Occupy, it seems to me, achieved its brilliance precisely in becoming visible, becoming un-silent, refusing the erasure of the commons by occupying it bodily. It was a movement, above all, of bodies in space enacting a denied freedom. Yet this was the freedom of a hostage to say, “I exist,” not the freedom of a kidnapper to issue demands. To paraphrase the critic Judith Levine, Occupy doesn’t have demands; it has desires.

Again, it is the expression of vulnerability, of an inchoate expressivity—a condition that the marketplace tells us should be contemptible because it is unworkable, nonutilitarian, impossible to commodify—that is the genius of the gesture: a willingness to be unfinished, undecided, even inarticulate in making evident the desire for another kind of conversation about the future of our society. So, the request for a final set of demands, when it isn’t merely a cynical ploy, even when it’s a sincere expression of impatience, is a betrayal of the Occupy movement in two ways. First, it asks for something be finished that has barely begun, a thing which is in its deep organic basis, a process, a becoming—that is, basically telling it not to occur. It says that the search for something other than the status quo simply is too uncomfortable, too embarrassing, to be endured. Second, the request for articulate demands betrays Occupy by asking the movement to assume power within the current system, when the deepest expressive chord within Occupy demands that we examine our complicity with and tolerance of a system that is destroying every part of us, every thing we cherish. The movement’s greatest power, in the end, is as a mirror and a Rorschach blot. Through its diffuse energies, Occupy draws to itself the necessity of framing concepts: names. The names you gave to the anxieties aroused by Occupy’s tangible intangibility, its vivid incoherence, told you something about what you believed, what you felt, what you feared. Above all, and in a single instantaneous stroke, Occupy gave capitalism back its name. Market capitalism, the unspoken proposition legislating all of reality—a term which we have been asked to believe was synonymous with other terms like America, or democracy—was abruptly given back its name as a system. And by that sleight of hand, another possibility was made legible: it might be possible to make a critique of a system; it might be possible to be an anticapitalist. Et, voila! This was an abrupt and startling triumph, one impossible to revoke.

Behold, a spinning plate. I stand aside and reach for another.

I hope to make the idea of neoteny vivid and interesting to you.

Okay, this is probably the only really esoteric concept I’m going to introduce: neoteny. It’s a term from evolutionary science, and it’s one of my favorites, and even if you share my typical humanities allergy to that vocabulary, I hope to make the idea of neoteny vivid and interesting to you. The word neoteny is a name for the idea that in the evolution of certain species, one can see in the adult form evidence of the retention of certain characteristics of the infant form of some earlier species. For instance, human beings are a neotenic version of some ape species; our hairlessness and our large heads are typical of infant monkeys. So, humans advanced by holding onto some characteristics of infant apes; that’s neoteny. Another example is domesticated animals. Housecats resemble the kittens of larger cat species; their size, playfulness, and dependency are neotenic characteristics. I  learned of an even more amusing and extreme version: apparently certain toy dogs, like pugs and Chihuahuas, most closely resemble not infant wolves but wolf fetuses. Anyway, this principle can be seen throughout evolutionary history. The ultimate emblem of neoteny is a figure from cinema history: Betty Boop. She’s a fully sexualized adult woman, but she has the head-to-body proportions of a six-week-old baby. You can see in Betty Boop some sort of nightmare premonition of a deeply neotenic human future, when we’ll all look that way just because it’s so cute. Japanese manga is another window onto that same future.

Still from Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Volume 1 [Blu-ray] (1932-1937). Courtesy of Olive Films.

What interests me is to consider neoteny as a principle outside of the biological sciences, to see it as a potential aspect of the growth of the arts. For instance, rock and roll can be seen as a neotenic development from other popular music, specifically from jazz. What are early rock-and-roll songs except novelty numbers—the joke and double-entendre songs that jazz musicians played when they wanted an amusing break from the serious stuff? All those nonsense syllables and smutty double entendres, all those simple, repetitive rhythms: these things were, basically, kid stuff. There’s even a music-history term, clown jazz, used to describe people like Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan, transitional figures who seemed to make their whole careers out of such kid stuff. Out of Calloway and Jordan came Chuck Berry and James Brown, and then in short order the Beatles and all the rest of the clowns came tumbling out of the clown car. So you can see rock and roll as neotenic. And then you can look at James Brown as a sort of doubly neotenic figure because he takes the instrumental breaks and vocal asides, the grunts and shouts and squeals—the most particularly rudimentary part of a soul or rhythm-and-blues song—and he foregrounds these minor parts and constructs a whole new form of music out of them, called funk, which led in turn to the creation of rap and hip-hop.

Any time we look to the preliminary forms and prefer them to the end result, we’re making a little vote in favor of neoteny.

Another such description is possible for Picasso and other proto-abstract artists. They’re often seen as incorporating elements of primitive art, but they could also be seen as holding onto aspects of childhood expressivity that had previously been shed by earlier generations of artists, precisely because these gestures seemed too anti-virtuosic, too embarrassing. Other versions of aesthetic neoteny can be seen in the preference for the sketch over the finished painting, or the demo tape over the finished track, or the rehearsal over the final staging of a performance. Any time we look to the preliminary forms and prefer them to the end result, we’re making a little vote in favor of neoteny. So, sketchbook or notebook or essay films—like late Orson Welles movies, or Chris Marker’s, or some of Michael Almereyda’s—could easily be described by this principle. John Cage’s 4’33” is a composition consisting of the music someone might make before they’ve even begun trying to learn how to play the piano.

The particular forms of neotenic aesthetics I’m interested in at the moment have to do with the idea of being willing to leave certain kinds of problems unsolved in the work: to articulating the terms of the difficulty, describing the horns of the dilemma, without needing necessarily to come to any resolution. Because I’ve come to believe that the results of our present situation—globalization, hyper-connectivity, hypervelocity, postmodernity, apocalypse, or whatever name you wish to give it (and no name is sufficient, which is really the problem; it could never bear a single name)—require an unprecedented degree of childlike fluency and hesitation and even indecisiveness from an artist, from any filmmaker or anyone else trying to make anything worth making. I’ve recently become, sort of involuntarily, deeply engaged with the legacy of David Foster Wallace. I took his job, basically, as the Roy E. Disney chair in creative writing at Pomona College and so found myself the recipient of a lot of people’s powerful and conflicted feelings about his work. And I realized that to speak to this adequately, I had to grasp what was going on in his work in a way I hadn’t before. I wanted to understand why so many people invested such a high degree of faith in his voice, and I came to feel that, in his very sophisticated and intellectual way, Wallace was a neotenic artist. What he does is, rather than settling on a single assertive approach as a writer—the way we’re told we ought to do—he vacillates. He foregrounds all sorts of reservations and second guesses and deep indecisiveness about the value of even trying to tell stories, all stuff that’s usually excluded by the “grown-up” writer on the way to becoming published. He makes it central to the work, and, given the perplexities of a contemporary reader, this vacillation, all these self-undermining gestures, earn him a vast fund of credibility and deep faith.

Of course, the arts themselves can be seen, as a whole, as a neotenic development in the human species: a completely nonutilitarian, non-survival-oriented, and largely uncommodified action deeply typical of children but now widely engaged in by adults. That’s to say, the arts are a form of play. We’re playing, or putting on a play, playing with the grown-ups’ stuff—playing with one another and playing with ourselves.

Chris Marker. Junkopia, 1981. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

So, I mentioned the terms hyper-connectivity and hypervelocity. I also mentioned apocalypse. If this is a talk on the state of cinema, what [do we think] about the technological apocalypse that is coming to destroy the world of cinephilia as we know it? Well, in many ways, as a novelist, I come to you as a time traveler, a voyager from approximately a hundred years ago, a time when—according to legends we novelists all cherish—the novel utterly ruled the earth and then was suddenly and tragically toppled into irrelevance by the appearance of new narrative mediums: radio plays and cinema. We all know this script, we’ve all taken it into our bodies: new forms and mediums arrive and destroy the earlier ones. Painting destroyed by photography, theater destroyed by radio, radio destroyed by cinema, cinema destroyed by television, television destroyed by the Internet, home taping killing the record industry, and so forth. Of course I also stand before you as a time traveler from a much more recent apocalypse, one quite geographically local, as it happens. We who lived in the Bay Area in the early 1990s all got the memo that the digital revolution was about to replace every existing form of visual and narrative communication with a polymorphous, synesthetic amalgam of them all, called virtual reality, a bodiless realm of pure unmediated communion, into which were about to download [our lives] out of our retrograde meat vehicles forever. Needless to say, that moment hasn’t quite arrived yet: for instance, I trust you'd agree with me about the easy recognizeability and relevance of many figures from the antique frontier of radio, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ira Glass, Garrison Keillor. I'm even willing to be most of you have seen some theater, witnessed a live musician in performance, and read a novel. If not, I do recommend trying to read a novel; it can be a surprisingly effective form.

The truth is, [forms of] media bunch up and stick around and talk to each other, and the talk between them can be pretty good. For instance, I still have a fax machine in my house, one of my novels is presently being adapted into a piece of musical theater, and I can’t help noticing that much of what passed for a hot topic in cyberspace last week was actually gossip about why the Pulitzer committee—a bunch of all-powerful newspaper editors—didn’t give an award in the fiction category this year.

The novel looks at cinema as a replenishing menu of new styles and tactics.

Even more interesting are the aesthetics of concurrent mediums: the twentieth-century history of the novel is, among other things, the history of a very excited, very nervous argument with cinema. When this rival form suddenly appeared bestriding the earth, a form that could do so many things that the novel did, the effect was twofold. First, the novel began to burrow deep into its own specialization, into the formal aspects of what it can do uniquely well, like stream of consciousness, unreliable narration, multiple subjectivities, and so forth. This isn’t so different from the history of painting, which explodes into Impressionism, Expressionism, and abstraction at the advent of photography. And second, at the same time, the novel looks at cinema as a replenishing menu of new styles and tactics: Basically, what can we steal from it?  How can we fend it off?  How can we beat it at its own game or invent a new game to play? When you consider the leaps made by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov, or the cinematic compression and quick cuts you find in Graham Greene, or the experimental camera crawls of Alain Robbe-Grillet, you’re seeing an art form reenergized by the concurrence of rival forms for depicting the human narrative condition.

Anyway, change is never as sweepingly utopian or dystopian as we hope or fear.  It’s usually much more peculiar and scattershot. If you look back at the rhetoric surrounding the advent of radio, you’ll discover a kind of glorious hysteria about what this meant for human civilization, that voices would now travel through the air—at the time, it was as though the dead were speaking to us. And sure, radio was transformative, but it was also Pepsodent commercials and bad crooners and terrible comedians jabbering at you between Pepsodent commercials. The biggest act on radio at one point was a ventriloquist. (I never tire of mentioning that fact. Similarly, several of the biggest network television shows of the present moment depict people trying to stage musicals or performing live auditions, trying to dodge a vaudeville hook.) When film and television come along, with claims that are similarly apocalyptic, you hear a tone of moral panic at what these technologies will produce, together with futuristic exultation at how they’re going to free mankind from its chains.  Every new medium or device always conquers the world and fails utterly; every one of them razes the competition and yet somehow leaves it all standing.  There’s a weird persistence to the human use of these delivery systems, as though they’ve been incorporated deeply into the human body and will not be dislodged. So, perhaps I’m here as an emissary from my own un-dead medium, my own zombie format, to welcome cinema to the realm of the undead. Come home to the grubby commons of cultural operations, where most of us have spent all our lives; there are worse places to be. (The headline in the Chronicle tomorrow: “Lethem declares the state of cinema to be either a French stage magician in a coma or a fax machine.”)

I’ll also add that as an almost-fifty-year-old cineaste—a proud and snobbish retrograde cineaste who grew up attending Godard double features at New York repertory houses—in the past few weeks, I’ve walked over to the suburban multiplex in my small college town and watched both Footnote and The Kid with a Bike on large screens in dark rooms and then gone home, laid on my couch, and watched a copy of Police, Adjective that I captured with my DVR, in this time of Criterion and Turner Classics. At a time like this, in what might be called the Festival Era, I find it difficult to feel I have to push the panic button.

Here’s another small plate, related to that last one: Cinema has no present. As a teacher of undergraduates, I find myself on the front lines of an encounter with the first generation to come of age, culturally, in the realm of digital access, the first to take YouTube and downloading as a way of life, as naturally as I took the proliferation of repertory houses in Manhattan or the “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9. We’re meant to look on this new state of being as matter of mystery: how will they think, how will they historicize, how will they concentrate, how will they quit masturbating? Well, one of my students just handed me an essay he’d written about Samuel Fuller, not because I’d assigned him Samuel Fuller or even mentioned Fuller to him but simply because he thought I might be interested in it. When I watch these students navigate and manipulate this cloud of data, this flood of context, I see a calm in them, actually; they’re not drowning, they’re swimming. The superabundance has made them into Manny Farber–esque termite consumers of their own culture, their appetites sporadic, individual, and strangely patient, strangely diligent. And when I look at them looking at film, I think: Cinema has no present. Not only that, but it never had one.

My suspicion is by now obvious to you: I think the digital divide is overrated. It may seem terrifically important to a businessperson who feels that his profitable platform has dissolved, or to a technician whose physical medium is altered or whose expertise is outmoded, but to you and I, to us filmgoers and film lovers and filmmakers who are in this for love not for money, this new realm of manipulability and access only exaggerates and exemplifies the delirious plight of our immersive life inside the cultural realm, the ocean where we can’t help but swim for our lives and even wish to happily drown. What’s more, I think it was always this way. Like my own students, I was born into a chaotic realm of cultural references which often seemed to be presented backwards, a Plato’s Cave of flickering shadows indicating the presence of deep cultural facts that were not always quick to come out of hiding. No one offered me a comprehensive compass or a dowser’s rod or a bullshit detector. I had to construct my own using Channel 9, Andrew Sarris, the Thalia screening schedule that my mother had tacked to the kitchen wall, and the word on the street, which in 1976 was that I should really check out Kentucky Fried Movie.

The first film I ever saw in a theater was Yellow Submarine, and the first television program I can recall seeing was “The Monkees”—two cartoon distillations of the real Beatles, who remained cloaked to me but whom I soon discovered in my mother’s record collection. Through them, and particularly by the jacket of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was soon enough led backwards to an entire twentieth century that included Mae West, Karl Marx, Wallace Berman, Marlene Dietrich, and Aldous Huxley—but YouTube certainly would have been of assistance. The point I’m really trying to make is that postmodernity, the only scare word I’ve got left in my arsenal after using up mumblecore and hipsterism, is a description, nothing more, and it describes a condition that has pertained for the lifetimes of each and every one of us in this room, at the very least. Using literary sources, which are the kind I’m conditioned to trust most, [I say that] postmodernity is the same condition [entangling] the characters in T.S. Eliot’s poems and James Joyce’s and Julio Cortazar’s novels and possibly even already glimpsed by the characters in Charles Dickens’s later novels—and that’s to say it is the opposite, nowadays, of a war between the old and the young, unless somebody here in this room is a hundred fifty years old. This condition, with all its pitfalls and opportunities, its bewilderments and exhilarations, is shared by every one of us. It isn’t some wave just now breaking on our shores; it is an ocean from which we can no longer glimpse any shore. We’re all in this together. Cinema not only has no present, it has multiple pasts and multiple futures, and we’ll have to abide with this deliriously fragmented state. We’ll just have to suck it up, folks.

The fact that cinema now has a history one can get lost in doesn’t mean that that history is coming to a close.

I think this is crucial to consider, especially when you get a little grey in your temples or [when you first learn that] something you love is torn down: it is crucial to consider the possibility that the natural tendency to believe that the arc of our lives under the regime of time’s arrow—which describes, inevitably, a terrible arc of loss, a systematic process of becoming bereft of things we love—does not necessarily translate to our understanding of our place in history or culture. And that, in this case, we may all of us be situated much nearer to the beginning of something than its endpoint. The fact that cinema now has a history one can get lost in doesn’t mean that that history is coming to a close. The fact of historical depth doesn’t require a feeling of belatedness in us, of arriving at the party only as the party is shutting down.  I want to emphasize again that I don’t mean a new beginning, one dated to the arrival of digital culture. I mean that we may still be enmeshed in the long, slow, hundred-years-and-counting beginning of cinema itself.

(And any time you hear a major media corporation— either an old and decrepit one or a bright and shiny new digital one—telling you that the imperatives of that media corporation are coterminous with the needs of the individual artist, or with the future or survival of the art medium, or, for that matter, with the needs of the individual citizen or the commons, you’re hearing a lie. You’re hearing balderdash, you’re hearing flapdoodle: you’re hearing total fucking bullshit.)

One or two more plates, and I’ll be done. I promised to tell you the difference between the true and the real and explain why I prefer the real. First of all, I derive my interest in this from Samuel R. Delany’s novel Dhalgren, which begins with an epigraph: “You have confused the true and the real.” What does it mean? It’s not in the form of a question, but it frames a question: What’s the difference between the true and the real? Lately I feel I may have an answer: The true is defined by a process of exclusion; anything untrue is excluded from the category of the true. The real is inclusive—it even contains the unreal, not to mention the surreal, the trans-real, and the hyper-real.  Realism in art must by definition include the unreal because the real includes it—the unreal being a grotesque category, including language, ideology, power, irrational tribal impulses, daydreams, and everything else irrational and intangible that nevertheless grips us. It’s the Maltese falcon, the MacGuffin, the dingus, “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Let me extend this to the world of filmmaking, specifically—art as a pursuit not of the true but of the real—for all art consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols. Film language is a language; despite being made, usually, of photographic evidence of the actual world, it is in every sense a construction of gestures, impulses, suspicions, evocations, and dreams—a compilation of fragments, a Frankenstein’s monster given life by the electricity of the artist’s gesture, his claim that the impossible has actually occurred (“Et, voila!”) by the viewer’s animating faith.

This is where a certain political implication comes out of hiding, one very dear to me. For if we consent that what appears natural in art is actually constructed from plastic materials with deeply arbitrary properties, we make ourselves eligible to weigh the notion that what’s taken as natural in our experience of everyday life could actually be a construction as well. To put it differently, if we pass time getting dreamy by watching stories about things that didn’t really happen, set in worlds that aren’t precisely our own, while acknowledging that such dreams are enacted by conscious means, by acts of intention and craft, it might suggest an analogous getting-from-here-to-there process: from this world to a different one.

We’re all bodies trapped in an unreal axis of memory and myth, in persistent negotiation with the unreal, in communion with ghosts. Yet this in no way disqualifies the artist’s passionate urgency of finding a language to make her experience, her dream, coherent to her chosen audience. The unreal, broken, even treacherous nature of cultural stuff—of language, film, or song—doesn’t make this pursuit any less fundamentally human, delicate, or crucial. It makes it more so.

Here’s another small plate, a quote from The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick:

A new ambulance is filled with gasoline and parked. The next day it is examined. The finding is that its fuel is virtually gone and its moving parts are slightly worn. This appears to be an instance of entropy, of loss of energy and form. However, if one understands that the ambulance was used to take a dying person to a hospital where his life was saved (thus consuming fuel and somewhat wearing the moving parts of the ambulance) then one can see that through hierarchical outranking there was not only no loss but in fact a net gain. The net gain, however, can only be measured outside the closed system of the new ambulance.

In other words, our full loving use as human beings also destroys us. As a parent of a two-year-old who wakes up five or ten times a night, I presently embody this knowledge. We are all ambulances. As filmgoers, we’re all like the young American woman rushing to the bedside of the French magician, abiding with him because we want to hear the awakened language of his magic giving sense to our long vigil. My two boys are four and two years old right now, and another thing parenting has taught me is the difference in types of listening: sponge listening versus obedient listening.

This is the last plate I will spin for you. Obedient listening is when you tell kids to get into the bath and they get into the bath, acknowledging your presence—or [with disobedient listening], they don’t get into the bath, and they don’t acknowledge your presence. Sponge listening is when you are watching Mitt Romney on television and you mutter between your teeth—with a force you have not measured in advance given that the four-year-old is in the room—“That’s balderdash!” and the next day you hear the four-year-old saying to the two-year-old, with equal force, “That’s balderdash, I say!” Or when the preschool teacher reports that the four-year-old has been overheard on the playground calling his companions miscreants. Sponge listening is when the two-year-old, who has not strung together very many sentences of four words to this point, asks to be excused from the breakfast table by shouting “Get me outta here!” in the exact intonations of Bugs Bunny.

Cinema, I’d like to suggest, isn’t very good at obedient listening; it doesn’t bother with it at all. No matter how many times I say, “Hey, studio executives, quit trying to plasticize my daydreams, my comic books and board games and sexual fantasies; quit trying to turn my forlorn private memories and precious and embarrassing vicarious impulses into your cash machine,” I don’t sense any obedience at all. I can’t get them into that bath, no more than when I say, “Hey, mumblecore directors, buy a tripod; they’re not that expensive.” Yet cinema exemplifies sponge listening; in that capacity, it still resembles my other favorite narrative form, the novel.  We shouldn’t fail to cherish this immaturity of ours, the state of neoteny that prevails over this set of activities and behaviors that we give the name cinema: that it is supremely engaged in a process of play and invention, in a constant and fickle infatuation with new toys, that it preoccupies itself with dress-up games and with fantasies about grown-up matters of sex and death, fantasies that remain polymorphous and reversible, in contrast to our painfully irreversible lives. Though we may still be nostalgic for the time when cinema was a two-year-old, when its every utterance seemed to consist of innocent poetry, we shouldn’t fail to notice that it’s only a four-year-old now.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content