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
“When an amateur photographs scenes of a trip he’s taking, a party or other special occasion, and especially when he’s photographing his children, he’s primarily seeking a hold on time and, as such, is ultimately attempting to defeat death. The entire act of motion picture making, thus, can be considered as an exteriorization of the process of memory. “Hollywood,” sometimes known as “the dream factory,” makes ritualistic-dramas in celebration of mass memory–very like the rituals of tribal people–and wishful-thinking movies which seek to control the national destiny…as sure as primitive tribes throw water on the ground to bring rain…and they make “social” or “serious” dramas, at great commercial risk to the industry, as a corporate act of “sacrifice”–not unlike the practices of self-torture priests undergo in order to “appease the gods”: and the whole commercial industry has created a pseudo church whose “god” is “mass psychology” and whose anthropomorphism consists of praying to (Buy this–NOW!), and preying upon (polling, etc.) “the-greatest-number-of-people” as if, thereby, the human destiny were predictable and/or could be controlled through mimicry. But the amateur photographs the persons, places, and objects of his love and the events of his happiness and personal importance in a gesture that can act directly and solely according to the needs of memory. He does not have to invent a god of memory, as does the professional: nor does the amateur have to appease any personification of God in his making. He is free, if he but accept the responsibility of his freedom, to work as the spirit of his god, or his memory, or his particular needs, move him. It is for this reason that I believe any art of the cinema must inevitably arise from the amateur, “home-movie” making medium.”
-Essential Brakhage, Stan Brakhage, p. 149
I’m with them on the likely “implosion” of the studio system – but of course I disagree about what the future holds, or what it should hold: they predict ever-increasingly immersive, technological experiences – wrap-around screens, virtual reality, brain implants, and entertainment that somehow taps into your actual dreams (yikes).
I don’t think the rectangular, flat screen is the issue at all – in my mind, it doesn’t really matter what kind of surface the images are projected upon – moving images have been profoundly compelling and complete ever since Plato’s Cave with its flickering firelight.
The screen is merely a portal, an access point for us to enter – and the act of entering itself is the crossing of the threshold into our own imagination / dreamscape / underworld.
Sometimes, or often, or always, I think less is more – the human imagination itself provides the landscape for the experience, and if the technology works harder and provides more of the experience, it will only lead to the enfeebling of the imaginative capacity of the audience member, making us more dependent on expensive toys. Better consumers, maybe, but not ultimately more satisfied with our cinematic (or videogame, or interactive) experiences.
A few months ago I saw a gifted performer tell the tale of the Odyssey – the whole thing, start to finish, as credited to Homer, on a stage, by himself. It wasn’t acting per se, it was straightforward, word-for-word storytelling. And damn, I tell ya, it was most definitely immersive and low-fi at the same time.
I’m not ready to give up on the moving image completely, in favor of live performance – I have far too long a history with the seductive power of film and video. But as the years pass I suppose I am becoming more crochety and stubborn that real innovation doesn’t require fancier new-fangled technology.
There are many lifetimes worth of creative, artistic, imaginative potential to explore yet with the most basic cinematic apparatus. Cinema is only 100-ish years old. No need (for me anyway) to rush on to the next thing.
I just finished a 12-minute film that I’ve been working on for more than two years, and screened it at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater last week. Roughly 100 people showed up over two nights, a healthy-sized crowd in the 70-ish seat theater.
Could I have made it faster? Probably. Could I have made it longer? Certainly. Could I have gotten more than 100 people to show up to see it? Possibly. But what if everything about it is the right size and shape? What if more, faster, bigger wouldn’t actually improve the experience or make it more meaningful, for me or anyone else?
I spend a substantial portion of my day in front of various screens already, by choice – and I make things for screens, for a living. Many or most of us are in front of screens for many hours each day. I don’t think screen time is bad, or wrong, but I do think that every moment that I ask people to spend staring at a screen on my behalf is both precious, and somewhat fraught – I want it to be a meaningful, dense, rich experience.
I worked briefly as a projectionist, and I remember unspooling a few feet from a reel of the Richard Linklater film Before Sunset one evening, in the deep solitude of the projection booth. That footage was a mere moment in the middle of some second-act conversation on-screen, but the frames themselves were just two heads, going on and on seemingly endlessly – a minute of 35mm film is 96 FEET long. That’s so many frames, if you think about it, to spend just staring at heads, not really doing anything – merely mouths moving and (on the soundtrack) sounds coming out.
In that moment, it seemed like an incredible waste of a visual medium, to point the camera at people sitting there, talking. That experience, in the projection booth, gave me a deeper appreciation of avant-garde filmmakers who get obsessive about every single frame as an opportunity to create meaning – even though those frames pass by at the edge of perceptibility.
When film is used as a literal device for recording and shaping a narrative scene, it seems to me that there’s a kind of threshold of meaning – it can be beautiful, it can be a full dramatic experience, extremely well crafted, but on some level, a shot is just a shot: we’re watching him walk from here to there. This person is shooting at that robot. The spaceship is exploding. But it’s all craft, relating the information that “these things are happening.”
Whereas, the moment one steps beyond the literality of “these things are happening,” the realm of possible meanings and associations expands kaleidoscopically. We can leave world of logical perception – our eyes seeing that’s happening and our brain making sense of it – so easily, so easily. We spend our literal days right at the edge of this wellspring of the imagination, the realm of the dream – where things make far less sense and mean so much more, simultaneously.
This isn’t always a comfortable place to be, which may be partly why we don’t choose to go there, as artists or as audience, very often or for very long. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it can even be frightening to not understand what’s going on. There are feature filmmakers who are willing to go there, such as David Lynch in his heyday, or Fellini or Bergman in a lyrical mode. More recently, the Beasts of the Southern Wild is the latest example that springs to mind, of a filmmaker successfully leaving the literal and entering the symbolic, the poetic, the not-this-world.
But it’s pretty darn rare, in either movies or television, and when strange things are allowed to happen, it seems like they’re often safely framed in genre terms – “this literal monster is destroying the city – literally!”
Perhaps it’s natural that films that leave the literal would make people uncomfortable, just as dreams are often uncomfortable. We’ve evolved for millions of years to really want to know what’s going on around us at all times. We don’t WANT to be overwhelmed by images that don’t fit neatly together into an entirely comprehensible world. We want our status to be clear – this is safe, that’s a threat, I like these people, I don’t like that person. If we think we understand what’s going on, we feel safe, and if we feel safe, on some level, we relax. If our experience pushes us in unfamiliar ways, we don’t relax, we have to work, and we look forward to the end of the work, when we can relax.
Reading good poetry requires effort, too – and the audience for poetry is tiny. But it persists, because there is that desire, I guess, I hope, for turns of phrase that mean many things at once, for relationships between words that are shifting and slippery, that buzz and crackle and flutter and tickle…
In the thrall of a good poem, I can feel my brain lighting up, and I can feel the vastness of possibility in the universe, forces acting on a greater-than-human scale, complexity beyond my grasp. I feel small and humble, yet connected to at least the intimation of the beyond – and grateful for that connection.
As a filmmaker, I aspire to something similar – it doesn’t have to be a short film, and it doesn’t have to be strictly experimental – but I want to at least attempt to leave the realm of the literal, to challenge an audience for at least a few moments to see beyond bodies in rooms, to recognize that these dream-realms are touchable, are out there… and it’s really a miracle that we can access them, that we have the tools and the techniques at our fingertips which allow us to attempt to draw the imaginary, to map the underworld, to erect the architecture of the dream space.
It’s ultimately an invitation, I think – not everyone is willing to accept the invitation, and nobody has to, it’s a free choice. But the invitation is present, as the lights go down – take my hand here in the mundane, step across this threshold, and follow me… elsewhere.