Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Yesterday's Liberation Has Become the Stagnation of Today

“Set the past conglomerates aflame” – Red Crayola- “Born in Flames

Lizzie Borden’s debut film Born in Flames (1983) is often labeled with the genre tag science-fiction, but this is misleading. Although the film is set ‘Ten Years After the Social-Democratic War of Liberation”, there’s no reason to think that the events of the film take place in a future world. No specific date is given for the events that take place on screen. Indeed, all signs actually seem to indicate that the newly formed socialist democracy of the film’s present, established after a triumphant fissure of the labor movement from the democratic party, is a uchronia set in a parallax 1983.

Besides the alternative historical timeline and a vaguely dystopic outlook, there are no new technologies, lifeforms, scientific theories, or other tropes that would associate the film with sci-fi. In other words, the film takes place in a world we completely know and understand. The only thing vaguely alien about the plot is the ideology of its citiens. It’s telling that a film from this period would be branded science fiction solely because it imagines a notional socialist framework in the United States (albeit an “actually existing socialism” model). But to a cold war America, nothing could be more outlandish.

Shot documentary style, much of the film’s visual content consists of stock footage of women in the workplace, organized protests, street actions, and police brutality. As the entire film seems to be made guerilla-style on the cheap, it’s unlikely that the B-roll was staged, thus reinforcing the idea that it’s a narrative is actually set in a United States that its audiences know all too well. Born in Flames takes the form of a film essay, the kind of ideas-oriented fictional talkie tract that has been a continual project spanning from Godard’s Week End to Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, despite almost universal repulsion from audiences and critics alike at the style.* As a deep underground picture, the film doesn’t seek to preach to its choir about the flaws of the existing power structure. Rather, it takes aim at failed movements, like the ones that were beginning to dissolve when the film began shooting in 1978 and which were almost remote dreams by its release in 1983.

Born in Flames’ radicalism is rooted not so much in a utopic futurist vision of egalitarianism as it is in a frustration with the then-contemporary tranquilization of the left. In the film, a feminist organization called the Women’s Army is singled out for policing by a paranoid state apparatus. There’s no evidence that the group has been militant in its direct actions. In fact, factions of the organization criticize the decentralized leadership for being too docile and acquiescent. There’s an early scene where the Women’s Army rescue a white collar woman from sexual assault by a couple of toughs, but contrary to media reports they do not attack the assailants. They merely circle them with bicycles and rape whistles until the toughs are intimidated enough to leave the scene.

Likewise, it’s never stated one way or another whether the aforementioned “Social-Democratic War” involved actual combat or was a symbolic struggle. The ten-year TV retrospective that frames the narrative makes the case that power was achieved democratically and there’s no reason to suspect it wasn’t, but whether that power was maintained by votes or seizure is moot. However, one can’t help but juxtapose this timeline to what took place in the nonfictional world during the ten years preceding the film’s 1983 release date.

1973 was a year still deeply defined by the spark of the 60s protest movement. It was the year of Roe v. Wade, the Paris Peace Accords, and the Watergate hearings (which gutted much of the executive branch that year and would lead to Nixon’s resignation in 1974).** It was a year when the left seemed to be gaining momentum, when it still seemed to have the potential to put a stop to the gears of the machine. But by 1983, it was clear who had actually won this civil war; patriarchy, militarism, capitalism, and a corrupt duopolistic political consensus (by ’84 many Democrats would even pimp for Reagan). Labor had never bifurcated from the Democratic party as it should have and it’s possible that the Democrats’ s capitulation to neoliberalism was the nail in the movement’s coffin. Concurrently, Reagan, once SDS’s number one foe, effectively marginalized and delegitimized unionized labor when we fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers.

The film emulates this defeat. Although there seem to have been some inherent post-“war” social improvements in the uchronia of Born in Flames, women, and in particular queer women, are still second-class citizens. Despite being a critical part of the workforce, women in the film still mainly occupy clerical, service, or blue collar roles. They have no relatively little access to power. At one point, several of the provocateurs of the Women’s Army are systematically purged from their jobs. The three female editors at a leading socialist journal*** are also fired for expressing sympathy with the group. Women are still objectified and attacked on the street and a news report talking about one such story interjects callous jokes about police officers picking up phone numbers at the crime scene.

The president’s seeming concession to the revolutionaries, charged by an incidence of prison neglect/abuse, is actually pretty radical- payment for housework, reparation for that final hidden corporate subsidy that a 1995 U.N. report on Gender and Human Development estimates saves the economy $11 trillion a year by its failure to be monetized. However, this is seen as little more than further pacification by the radicals, an attempt to keep female voices contained within the home rather than at the seats of power.

One of the ways that the Women’s Army are able to communicate is through radio, which serves as a kind of homebase for two separate factions of the group, lead by the mild-mannered Honey and the more militant Adele Bertei. On the one hand, radio’s a convenient route to dispense their agitprop, but music is also a liberating force for them as well. Although interspersed with bits of soul, funk, dub reggae, Lou Reed, and a brilliant cover of “No Woman No Cry” that I haven’t been able to identify, the recurrence of Red Crayola’s titular “Born in Flames” and the unreleased song “Undercover Nation”**** by former Contortions guitarist and organist Bertei’s band The Bloods pose this as something of a postpunk film.

Ulimately, the failure of the film’s New Labor (sic?) to accommodate the demands of feminism is indicative of a broader capitulation- an absorption of the terms of class struggle as a means of accommodating the desiring machinations of capitalism. The 10 year celebration itself is posed as a coda by its sign-off speech, which calls for a departure from collectivism into individualism. It’s an instantly recognizable speech that could have come straight from the neoliberal/neoconservative handbook:

“But has it gone too far? Is it time to ask if the politics and programs of yesterday’s liberation have become the stagnation of today? We cannot ignore the monumental inflation with which we are burdened nor can we ignore the widespread abuse rampant in our social programs. At home, we are becoming trapped in bureaucracy and throughout the rest of the world our influence wanes. The management of this station fears that oversocialization has transformed our democracy into a welfare state. If we are to survive our ideals, we must carefully consider their implications…”

* To those critics’ credit, the Born in Flames narrative is compelled by the acting and the acting is extremely flat at times, strung together by loud music over a B-roll that can seem a bit arbitrary. As such, it functions better as a historical artifact than a singular achievement of independent cinema.

** [Spoilers] It was also the year that the World Trade Center opened. Like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the twin towers seemed to be structurally designed to represent a next step in global evolution towards hypercapitalism, making its destruction a common daydream amongst Marxists, Islamists, and particularly Hollywood for the next 28 years of its existence. In the film, the Women’s Army’s final act is to blow up the antenna on top of one of the towers, which was broadcasting the 10 year retrospective. This destruction serves multiple purposes; condemning the decline of revolutionary intent, robbing the TV program of its final declaration of failure (to a project which had never been effectively conceived), removing a mouthpiece that spoke over or in place of the voiceless, and decentralizing media into more independent satellites like the two radio stations run by the Women’s Army protagonists.

*** One of these editors is director Kathryn Bigelow in her more radical days. Bigelow’s student film made at Columbia while studying under Vito Acconci amongst others, had been a literal deconstruction of film violence- two actors (one being Gary Busey) beating the crap out of one another while a play-by-play critique by two semioticians sounds over the on-screen action. Contrary to these polarizing origins, Bigelow has in the past decade committed herself to making what she terms “apolitical” films, which some argue actually celebrate state violence (perhaps unintentionally) by the very nature of their depoliticization.

****Fueled by a riff that more-than-a-little resembles Joy Division’s “Interzone”, "Undercover Nation" features Bertei’s voice before she went Scritti-pop, which sounds uncannily like Kathleen Hanna, who would become the voice of radical feminism for good or ill a decade later.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Tears in rain (refix)

Catherine Lupton notes, in her monograph on Chris Marker, that Sans Soleil (1982) is replete with instances of the last moments of things. The one the film opens with, and returns to at the very end, is that of a shrine “dedicated to cats” in the suburbs of Tokyo: a couple, who have lost their cat, Tora, kneel and light incense before an altar covered in identical maneki neko statues, to “repair the web of time where it had been broken”. When Tora dies, we are told, it is vital that “death will call her by her right name”: Tora's being will disappear, will be forgotten, in the proper manner, and thereby her former being, her memory, will take its proper place and substance within the “web of time”. This almost archetypal structure is itself repeated throughout the film: in the people attending with flowers after the death of a panda in Tokyo Zoo; the incineration of dolls in a pit; the Dondo-Yaki ritual of burning the debris that accrues during the Japanese New Year celebrations; the purification ceremony performed by a Noro priestess on Hokkaido, of which there will be no more, following the devastation of the indigenous culture by the American occupation in World War II. We find here articulated a dialectical structure encapsulated in Krasna's aphorism that “Forgetting is not the opposite of remembering, but its lining."


This corresponds, interestingly, with Walter Benjamin's remarks on the question of happiness and the mémoire involontaire in Proust: “Is not the involuntary recollection […] much closer to what is called forgetting than what is usually called memory?” The substance of involuntary memory is lost in the unconscious until the moment of recollection; things must disappear in order to assume their place in the scheme of time. Benjamin explicitly connects this with the structure of awakening, and “the Copernican [...] turn in remembrance” outlined in The Arcades Project. Proust's work seeks to catch at the “few fringes of the carpet of lived existence, as woven into us by forgetting”. His paralysis, his entrapment in the vast labour of Á la recherche du temps perdu, stems from the difficulty, at that juncture, of the task described by Benjamin in 'On Some Motifs in Baudelaire', the production of “experience, as Bergson imagines it, in a synthetic way under today's social conditions”. The reclamation of “genuine historical experience [erfahrung] in the context of “the alienating, blinding experience of large-scale industrialism” would be the recollection of modernity's dream-image, the utopian glimpses buried at the very beginning of that experience. The image stands on the threshold between “the world distorted in a state of similarity” – the memory-saturated world, that is, in which temporal correspondances reign, the intentionless, auratic world of dream – and the world of purposive action.

Stoppages punctuate Sans Soleil. In the Cape Verdean and Tokyo sequences images freeze for a handful of seconds: ; In the film's second half a number of sequences are composed of stills – the digression on a Japanese museum of erotic artefacts, the film's meander through Vertigo, that extracts images from the film whose Technicolor is rendered almost hallucinatory, as if lit from within. Marker's playing with stillness reminds us that forgetting is a part of the memory of the cinematic image: the individual film-frame, the material substrate of the image, is blocked in projection as many times as it is exposed, and half of the time in which the image appears on the screen is composed of darkness (persistence of vision permits us not to notice). When Krasna catches the gaze of a Cape Verde woman “for the 24th of a second, the length of a film-frame”, the reminder of the disappearance that awaits either side of this moment of connection (a version, perhaps, of the classic Hollywood star close-up) is palpable; it must be reduced to a still, an image in Hayao Yamoneko's Zone, its immanent amnesia erased, in order to be preserved. The theme is recapitulated in the traveller from the future who forms the protagonist of Krasna's imagined film Sunless: in his time, we are told, nothing is forgotten; for this very reason, it is difficult for him to experience the reality of the past (our present) – “memory without forgetting would be memory anaesthetised”. It is through his understanding of forgetting that he comes to begin to remember the “long and painful pre-history” embodied in Mussorgsky's song-cycle, “towards which, slowly and heavily, he begins to walk”. The utopia of the unwounded image, visible to a vantage-point “outside of time”, is necessary but insufficient; only in its glimpses of “the poignancy of things” as they depart can memory move beyond itself, decentering from individual memory into the collective daylight of historical action.


Another image does something of this work. In Blade Runner – again, 1982 – Rachael (Sean Young) sits at Deckard's (Harrison Ford) piano. The score on the piano's music stand is almost entirely obscured by photographs, which proliferate on top of the piano body too. (The notion of a connection between the two films is reinforced by the fact that this scene is quoted in Marker's short film Cat Listening to Music, later included as an interlude in The Last Bolshevik (1993)). She scrutinises one – an ovoid sepia picture of a woman's face that bears a certain distant resemblance to hers. Scott here cuts to Rachael's face, as if in a reverse-angle reaction shot, urging us to compare the two. Earlier, Rachael presents Deckard with a photograph as proof of the authenticity of her memories. He responds scornfully by describing a number of her most private memories, showing that they do not belong to her. (Leon, too, collects photographs.) Rachael's experience has the reality of images inscribed in media. These are, notably, analogue media, representing a previous stage of technology purportedly closer to authenticity than the high deception of replicant production, or the vast array of screen images that flash up in the urban environment. The normal epistemological operation here is reversed: the photograph does not derive its reality from indexical reference to the diegetic 'reality' of the film's world; the filmic image can appeal to no 'deeper' reality, no noumena, beyond its own intensely mediated phenomenal being and the seductions of the densely layered appearances of Scott's shots. The very presence of these photographs in his apartment suggests that this is the case, too, for Deckard. Certainly Ford's withdrawn performance, in contrast to the then-still-fashionable Method style, suggests there is little to him except for the surface borrowed from media – the look, movement and voice of the film noir protagonist. He, like the replicants, is an image in a reality objectively composed of images, of mediations without origin. Like cinematic images, they pass through time – too quickly for the liking of Roy (Rutger Hauer), who seeks to extend their lifespan – into the darkness of amnesia, destined to become the waste of industry. Their momentary appearance, and hence their disappearance, is their reality. Thus the desperation with which Deckard pins Rachael against the wall, with which he tries to know her reality: “Put your hands on me.”

None of this is new, at least as points to be noted of that moment. By the early 1980s Baudrillard had already theorised the detachment of the symbolic economy from production, the image communing with itself in the elaborate exchange-rituals of “seduction”. The image-economy of early neoliberalism, of MTV and Keith Haring, Wild Style and Heaven 17, 'Borderline' and 'Club Tropicana', Dynasty and 'Ashes to Ashes', 'The Look of Love' and Denis Piel, in parallel and at times intertwined with the vast project of the restitution of class power carried out on either side of the Atlantic, is one of permanent dream. But as a reconceptualisation of the problem of postmodernity, in which mass leftist institutions and their double in the cinema begin to dissolve, this is at least possibly productive. The cinematic image enacts at once intense, sensual desire and the impossibility of the making-real of that desire's object-cause. The visual effects of Sans Soleil – primarily the VCS3 synthesizer – belong to the same sort of interstitial technologies that Scott used in the visual composition of Blade Runner, technologies presaging the universe of digital filmmaking and connecting it to early videogames. Yamaneko's Zone eerily anticipates not only the cloud-archives of web 2.0, of Youtube and streaming film and television, in which every action and image in the hegemonic field of mediation is preserved, rendered timeless and unchanging, but the digital-surrealist reworkings of 1980s image-technology of Cory Arcangel's Mario videos. The image's historicity – its connection to a material history in which the image's dream can be recollected and enacted – is erased: when Roy, in his final speech, laments “all those memories, gone, like tears in rain”, it is exactly this extinction to which the memory-image, technologised since the late 19th century, is now subjected.

The reality or unreality of the Zone's synthesized images is related to the question of the cinematic image in general. The Zone's images, Krasna says, are at least honest in the sense that “they declare themselves to be exactly that, images, not the portable and compact form an already inaccessible reality”. Thus the image is objectively determined by the social: society's opacity to the penetrative gaze of cinema reduces the image to one more appearance to be circulated, or, at best, removed from time. Sans Soleil explicitly relates these questions to the failure of the international revolutionary project of the 60s, the historical damage that infects the image. Sans Soleil preserves the moment of ambivalence, before the movement to digital, before the assertion of a new order in Geldof's Wembley and Nicaragua, in the south Atlantic and south Yorkshire. The account of the image summed up in the concept of the Zone is not the film's conclusion: there are, as we have seen, other ways of treating the image in the film; we should treat it, as a proposition, as a moment in the dialectic, even if one that moves in the direction of despair. As Laura Mulvey suggests in Death 24x a Second (2004), the cinema's movement from analogue to digital (as the medium of both production and preservation), the threatened “extinction” of film as a medium, “draws new attention to the index”, to the historical-epistemological questions inscribed in the origins of cinema. The memory of cinema comes into dreamy focus in the moment it is threatened with liquidation. Film theory in its postmodern phase Some film theory has sometimes responded by abandoning the index as part of a theory of the image, sometimes reinterpreting earlier work to suggest it is still relevant to the present situation. Miriam Hansen for example, in Cinema and Experience, argues that Benjamin's treatment of cinema's auratic possibilities should not necessarily “be limited to cinema based on celluloid film”.

As film's material reality becomes a historical relic, the image is historicised; cinema's historical actuality – and its betrayal – becomes ever more visible and important. Cinema is not deleted, liquified, but turned into a ruin. Damage, darkness, seep into the image. An analogy can be drawn with the process described by Benjamin in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: as with the turn to allegory, the dissolution of analogue film is the eruption of history into the indexical image. This goes some way to explaining what Edward Branigan calls Sans Soleil's air of “premature nostalgia”This is not quite to say that the film mourns cinema and its attendant historical potentialities – the air of tragedy comes five years earlier, in the grief-numbed close of A Grin Without A Cat, ending on the brink of the neoliberal experiment in Chile. This situation, Laura Mulvey writes, “has rendered the presence of the index anachronistic”; passing into memory, “[t]he mechanical, even banal presence of the photographic image as index takes on a new kind of resonance […] The index can now be valued in its relation to time and as a record of a fragment of inscribed reality that may be meaningless or indecipherable”. The critics who've queued up since his death last July to describe Marker as the cinematic laureate of network society, as the filmmaker as multimedia entrepreneur (in other words,as not-film-maker), as metaphysicist of failure, memory and nostalgia, refuse or fail to reckon with the material desires, the promise of undeadened time bound up in the archive, accumulating with panic since the 1980s, as a correlate of "the only post-religious ‘infinite’ permitted to matter".

An earlier version of this post appeared at A Scarlet Tracery