This essay by Walter Benjamin has profoundly shaped my thinking about the moving image in the last few years.
This article in the New Yorker fills in some really fascinating details about his life and his relationship with Theodor Adorno.
[Payne] told me, “Fellini used to say, ‘They’ve asked me to go to America many times to make films. But I don’t know how they drive there—I don’t even know how they hold their coffee.’ I kind of felt that way. Here in Nebraska, I feel comfortable with the details. So, as much as I’m trying to grasp something mysterious, the other side is that I know how things would be played.”
… via the New Yorker.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
-Canto I, Dante’s Inferno
When you’re an explorer sailing into uncharted territory, the first thing you do is map the coastline.
The coastline is easy, and relatively safe. It has a clear contour, you can see it from the security of your boat, and you can always sail away if you discover danger.
Inland, though, is another story – you never know what you’ll discover beyond the treeline, in the dense and unfamiliar forest. It’s possible that humans have an instinctual sense of unease many thousands of years old that arises when we can’t see the horizon – vivid fears of unseen predators pouncing from the treetops and devouring us.
The term “Hinterland” describes the geographical status of the forest dark – “hinter” is German for behind or beyond, and it originally described the land set back from the sea or the river, which could only be explored on foot, at great risk to explorers and settlers alike.
In metaphorical and psychological terms, the idea of land “beyond what is known” is rich with possibility for describing mysterious inner states of the heart and soul, which are often also shadowy and risky, awe-inspiring and fearful.
It seems especially significant to me that this is inland that we’re talking about – not an island beyond the horizon, but something relatively near in distance, but obscured from view by the thick living canopy of forest.
In terms of American history, once the East Coast was thoroughly settled, some attention was certainly paid to cultivating the middle of the country, but the collective imagination, I think, headed quickly for the vistas of the open West, and ultimately the Pacific Coast.
The ease of migration and relocation in the 20th Century led the majority of the population to leave the middle regions of the country for both coasts, and I think we’ve been stuck there, psychologically, since at least the Cold War.
What’s not to like about the Coasts? It’s awfully pretty out there, both East and West – the climate is mild, and you get to look out across all that sparkling blue, and listen to the waves crash on the rocks and the beach…
It also seems safe, on some level – even if you don’t have a boat, it feels easier to orient oneself when you know in which direction the water lies. Socioeconomic orientation is easier, too – the rich, in the nice neighborhoods, have the best access to beautiful views, beaches, and sea breezes. When in doubt, go towards the water.
In LA, even people who don’t see the ocean for months at a time seem somehow invested in being near it. LA is LA because of the Pacific, otherwise it’d be Orange County, or Phoenix.
There’s nothing wrong with the coasts, per se – as a geography, a place to want to inhabit, to feel at home. But the Coast is not the whole story, the whole of human experience: to stay on the Coast and ignore the Hinterland is both limited and limiting, and on some level I’m sure, perilous – because whatever is up there, watching you from the forest dark, will eventually come and find you in the night, on the beach, when your fires have gone out and everyone is fast asleep under the stars.
Coasts are for traders, for the rootless, for the exchange of culture, ideas and products. All of this is valuable. But meanwhile, important things are happening in the Hinterland, upon which the Coasts depend – and I feel that culturally we’ve forgotten this for at least a generation. Far too long.
It’s a truism and a cliche that most of the art and the culture in the US is produced coastally – New York and LA, certainly, and to a lesser extent, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston. For visual media, the appeal is obvious – so many pretty surfaces and bright colors.
Up to a point, surfaces offer plenty to explore – textures, colors, delicate nuances of how light interacts with contour and motion. Even surface psychology can provide drama, conflict, emotional catharsis, resolution, even the subtleties of human relationship, to a certain degree.
But you can only sail up and down the coast, or find creative new angles from which to photograph it, for so long, before things start to get repetitive, before the uncharted becomes fully, exhaustively charted. And then you’re just telling the same story again in a slightly different way. And then I begin to wonder, as an audience member: what more can be known about human existence on earth? What further depth and insight is possible?
Some years ago it occurred to me that Steven Spielberg has shared everything he knows about life in the world – no new insight will come from him, at least nothing that interests me. Likewise Scorcese, Woody Allen, even Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams. It’s not that these people haven’t contributed something valuable and meaningful – it’s that they’ve said what they have to say, and they seem, for the moment anyway, unwilling to go deeper, to venture further into the forests “savage, rough and stern” of their own souls, to take new risks, plumb new depths, and share what they discover there.
In short, they’re stuck on the Coasts.
As tempting as it is for a native Minnesotan to go out there seeking fortune, seeking trade with merchants of culture, I really believe that there are no new answers to be found out there. The Coasts at this point represent fully, thoroughly charted territory.
The real frontier is here in the Hinterland, the land beyond and within, into the forest dark of the soul.
Exploring the Hinterland is not glamorous. It’s slow progress with a machete, hacking through the underbrush. It’s thick with bugs and muck, and creatures in the trees, eyes watching you in the dark. It would be easier, safer, more pleasant to stay on the coast. The sole reason to go inland is simple: the desire to know what’s in there.
On the emergence of the Talkie, circa 1921.
I am fascinated by The Bachelorette and The Bachelor – long-running shows on ABC wherein a pool of eligible single people compete with one another for the attention, and ultimately, “the hand in marriage” of a desirable, always hetero, partner.
When I (rarely) admit that I find these shows fascinating, I always end up struggling to justify it. What is the appeal of The Bachelor/ette? Both are tremendously popular shows, which have been going strong for a dozen seasons at least, with no sign of flagging. They present an intensely conservative vision of Romantic Love, in the classical, western, monogamous, heterosexual sense of the word.
Objectively speaking, both shows are extremely boring. Not much happens for hours upon hours, and most of the meaningful conversations are pretty rote – talk about finding “the one,” falling in love, being here for “the right reasons” (to find love), spending the rest of our lives together – and the people themselves are pretty interchangeable. They could easily swap out one cast member for another mid-season without me noticing.
How can such a boring, processed, and repetitive show hold my attention? I recently discovered a clue, in a live performance of The Odyssey by a brilliant performer named Charlie Bethel in Minneapolis.
The whole thing was amazing – but the scenes that particularly caught my attention were the ones toward the end of the epic which feature The Suitors – men who are hanging around Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who has been waiting hopefully for her husband’s return from war for (by the end of the story) twenty years.
The Suitors are described as foul, lazy characters, who lay about the estate of Odysseus, eat his food, drink his wine, and wait for Penelope to choose one of them to marry. Watching The Bachelorette, one witnesses a group of essentially well-meaning, young attractive, successful people devolve into a bunch of vicious, calculating, douchey jerks. One might argue that the doucheyness was there from the beginning, merely disguised by normative social graces, but there’s a more interesting interpretation, I think.
Just as we all (arguably) have the capacity to be murderers under the right circumstances, I think that, consciously or unconsciously, the producers of The Bachelor/ette have created an environment that draws out the Archetype of the Suitor, which is latent in all of us since the time of the Greeks at least.
At the beginning of each season, the contestants insistently describe themselves as the Hero of the story – this is what we’ve been trained to do in western culture, for hundreds of years. “I am Prince Charming and I’m here to find true love with this Princess.”
Only, of course, they all say the same thing. Because they’re supposed to, because that’s what they’ve been trained to do: the only scenario that makes sense to them, from the worldview of the Hero, is one in which they struggle and prevail, which means winning, which means marrying the Bachelorette.
And, it would probably be easier on them psychologically if they were allowed to directly compete with one another for points or something – it would be more natural to frame things in terms of winning and losing, and defeat could be assimilated by their egos. But instead, maddeningly, they’re forced to just hang out with each other, day after day, while one after another goes off for a dream date with the woman they’re all pursuing in parallel.
The fascinating thing about the show, then, is the growing cognitive dissonance between the narrative of the Hero and the reality of the Suitor. The men who are discarded are the lucky ones. They cry because a pretty girl broke up with them, they cry because they lost, but at least they’re allowed to form a theory at that point – “life is unfair,” or “I learned something,” or “I’ll be alone forever” – whatever it is, they blissfully get to go back to being the protagonist of their own story, rather than a supporting player in someone else’s. The relief is tangible, as they wipe the tears away in the back of the limo, on their way home.
The Suitors who make it almost to the end suffer tremendously – their behavior grows erratic, they confess to obsessing endlessly about imagined life with the Princess, or the hidden motivations of their rivals – it’s a universally horrible psychological space to be in, and horrifying to watch – though, for many of us who have our own scars from relationship drama, familiar enough.
And of course, they’re not alone in suffering – I’m sure it takes a tremendous psychic toll to be the pursued party as well, to be the center of that much focused attention for that long, television cameras and all. And, winning the competition, having your Hero status finally confirmed, probably warps and distorts the ego of the heartiest contestant for years to come. It’s a trainwreck all around, no doubt, and watching it doesn’t feel great, to be honest.
And yet, the fascination holds, I think primarily because the producers of the show have, wittingly or unwittingly, tapped into this rich archetypal vein.
We (I) on some level distrust the Hero’s Journey, satisfying though it may be – because we know that we don’t always persevere in the face of challenges and succeed in life. Sometimes we just lose. We need the Hero stories, and they make us feel good, but we KNOW that they’re not the whole story. We get to be the Hero sometimes, but the rest of the time we’re not, we’re somebody else – we need a character, reflected by the culture, who feels crazy and jealous and erratic and makes a fool of themselves because they can’t stand the stress of trying to keep it together in the frustratingly amorphous competition of modern life, and knowing that (by at least some measures) they’ll probably wind up losers.
We may not LIKE the Archetype of the Suitor, but we need it, because some days, it’s us.
WAY ahead of his time…
“Our society’s true necropolises are the computer banks or the foyers, blank spaces from which all human noise has been expunged, glass coffins where the world’s sterilized memories are frozen. Only the dead remember everything in something like an immediate eternity of knowledge, a quintessence of the world that today we dream of burying in the form of microfilm and archives, making the entire world into an archive in order that it be discovered by some future civilization. The cryogenic freezing of all knowledge so that it can be resurrected; knowledge passes into immortality as sign-value. Against our dream of losing and forgetting everything, we set up an opposing great wall of relations, connections and information, a dense and inextricable artificial memory, and we bury ourselves alive in the fossilized hope of one day being rediscovered.”
– Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 185 (1976)
An older post from this blog, about Local, Whole, Slow Media, was accepted for publication as part of Otherzine, an online publication about experimental film.
I’m posting the link here mainly so I don’t lose it, but feel free to check it out!
… this piece is a simple study from my first year of grad school, but I just unearthed it and watch it again, and I find it really satisfying on a number of different levels.
I might go so far as to claim Hollis Frampton’s “Lemon” as an influence, here…
A camera does not see how an eye sees, and when an image seems to move, it is not actually moving as a thing moves – a “moving image” is always a series of still frames separated either by blackness or merged by algorithmic compression.
Since the moving image is captured by an instrument that gathers light and motion fundamentally differently than a human eye, and re-presents what it gathers at another time and place (even if only a split second separates gathering and viewing), what the moving image shows us is not this world.
All around us, we are presented with images, moving and static, that claim, overtly and implicitly, to represent our literal, living world: in the news, on the internet, on digital billboards along the freeway. Even in our fictional media, we believe we are looking at real live people who are actors playing roles. The “realism” of these “lifelike” representations grows day by day with higher resolution displays, 3D, and new, more immersive gaming consoles.
It is easy to believe that we are looking into this world, experiencing this world through our devices, through our facebook feeds. But what the moving image shows us is not this world.
What the moving image presents is far more analogous to a dream or an underworld, populated by the dead, than we are willing to admit. The actor in the show we love may not be dead, but his captured image in a frame, in a shot, in a scene, in an episode, in a season, in a series, is not moving, it is static. It is not alive, it is in fact digitally preserved, embalmed, will not change by a single pixel in a thousand years (if, in fact, the data is still retrievable by the digital devices a thousand years from now).
When we spend time immersed in our screens, we are in a virtual underworld, communing with the dead and the undead – a world which is timeless and formless, populated with unchanging figures and landscapes, and at the same time constantly shifting and burgeoning with new residents. We are communing with the dreams and spectres of our shared culture more surely than the PR guy who named Hollywood “The Dream Factory” ever imagined.
This is by no means a bad thing – if we know it. I am assigning no moral or ethical valuation to either the dream or the real life experience, the above, daylight world or the virtual, underground, shadow realm. But to confuse the dream with reality, to believe one is awake while one is asleep, is problematic. To sleepwalk out of the house is dangerous, to call the dead your friends will cost you something in the daylight world.
Today we can enter the underworld at will, multiple times a day, we can slide in and out of waking life smoothly – but like Orpheus, we cannot succeed in bringing the dead back to the daylight world with us. It is only possible to cross over, permanently, in one direction. We can foster relationships with our favorite shows and viral videos, revisit them again and again, but we cannot change a single pixel of their stories – except, I suppose, through the Necromancy of appropriated video art.
Coming to terms with the true nature of our media-saturated existence is profoundly important to our art, our culture, and our individual emotional and spiritual health. We have been complicit for too long in the comforting lie told by the moving image – that it is showing us our living world, that it represents real life. This sense of “connectedness” masks the more troubling concept that most of us spend many hours of our day inhabiting dream-space populated by the dead.
I am not saying we should turn off the screens. There are plenty of prominent media figures who periodically decry and denounce our plugged-in culture and exhort us to go outside, have real face-to-face interactions with humans – to no avail, of course.
Dreams are healthy and necessary, and the underworld is a healthy and necessary part of our individual and collective geography. We could not suppress them, wall them off, or banish them from our society even if we really wanted to, which we really don’t. We are drawn to our screens like moths to flame, they are absorbing us, swallowing us up – this is neither good nor bad, it just is.
But we can acknowledge them for what they are, for the role they play, for what they really represent. And, as artists who work with media (and everyone works with media these days) we can interact with them more authentically – we can use them, not to purport to create real-life experiences for audiences, but to trace a path into the dreamspace, a thread into the underworld, to present an unreality as unreality for visceral engagement, contemplation and reflection.
Experimental media, classical and contemporary, can be frustrating and challenging to watch, partly I think because it confounds the audience’s desire for an experience that convincingly mimics a literal, living reality – experimental media is willing to abandon spatial coherence, cause and effect, and narrative logic in favor of the free association, chaos and caprice of dream-illogic.
Neither making nor viewing experimental media is necessarily a safe and comfortable experience, just as dreams and journeys to the underworld often feel unsafe and uncomfortable. But just as dreams are necessary to human health, experimental media is necessary to the health of our culture, because it is willing to grapple more authentically with the disquieting truth of our experience of the moving image than mainstream media culture, which can be counted upon to choose a comforting and entertaining lie over an unsettling and destabilizing truth any day of the week.
“The major obstacle for amateur film-makers is their own sense of inferiority vis-a-vis professional productions. The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word–from the Latin amator, “lover” — means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur film-maker should take his cue. Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom–both artistic and physical.
Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words, words, to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot, or to the display of a star or a sponsor’s product; nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes. Like the amateur still-photographer, the amateur film-maker can devote himself to capturing the poetry and beauty of places and events and, since he is using a motion-picture camera, he can explore the vast world of the beauty of movement. (One of the films winning Honorable Mention in the 1958 Creative Film Awards was Round and Square, a poetic, rhythmic treatment of the dancing lights of cars as they streamed down highways, under bridges, etc.) Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc., as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.
Physical freedom includes time freedom–a freedom from budget imposed deadlines. But above all, the amateur film-maker, with his small, lightweight equipment, has an inconspicuousness (for candid shooting) and a physical mobility which is well the envy of most professionals, burdened as they are by their many-ton monsters, cables and crews. Don’t forget that no tripod has yet been built which is as miraculously versatile in movement as the complex system of supports, joints, muscles and nerves which is the human body, which, with a bit of practice, makes possible the enormous variety of camera angles and visual action. You have all this, and a brain too, in one neat, compact, mobile package.
Cameras do not make films; film-makers make films. Improve your films not by adding more equipment and personnel but by using what you have to its fullest capacity. The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both. Make sure you do use them.
– Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Film Poetics, p.17