subjectivity & unvitality

Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the Corner, ‘Surge’ Exhibition at PROA, San Telmo, Buenos Aires (Feb 2020)

“Why? Because it all belonged only in part to the private personality; the rest, however, came from something above the individual, was an expression of a collective sense that the means of art had turned stale and were exhausted by history, of being bored by all that, of striving for new paths. “Art advances,” Kretzschmar wrote, “and does so by means of personality, which is the product and tool of its time and in which objective and subjective motives are joined beyond differentiation, each assuming the form of the other. Art’s vital need for revolutionary progress and achievement of the new depends on the vehicle of the strongest subjective sense for what is hackneyed, for what has nothing more to say, for those standard, normal means that have now become ‘impossible’; and so art helps itself to apparently unvital elements: personal weariness and intellectual boredom, the disgusts that comes with perceiving ‘how it’s done’, the cursed proclivity of seeing things in light of their own parody, the ‘sense of the comic’—what I am saying is: Art, in its will to live and progress, puts on the mask of these dull-hearted personal traits in order to manifest, objectivize, and fulfil itself in them. Is that too much metaphysics for you? But really it is only just enough, and just the truth—the truth you ultimately know yourself.”

– Thomas Mann, “Doctor Faustus”.

clocks & hearts

Ex Biblioteca Nacional, México 564, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

 “The clock is to time as the mirror is to space. Just as the relationship to the reflected image institutes a closure and a kind of introjection of space, so the clock stands paradoxically for the permanence and introjection of time. Country clocks are among the most sought-after of objects, precisely because they capture time and strip it of surprises within the intimacy of a piece of furniture. There is nothing in the world more reassuring. The measuring of time produces anxiety when it serves to assign us to social tasks, but it makes us feel safe when it substantializes time and cuts it into slices like an object of consumption. Everybody knows from experience how intimate a ticking clock can make a place feel; the reason is that the clock’s sound assimilates the place to the inside of our own body. The clock is a mechanical heart that reassures us about our own heart. It is precisely this process of infusion or assimilation of the substance of time, this presence of duration, which is rejected, just like all other returns to inwardness, by a modern order based on externality, spatiality and objective relationships.”
-Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Objects”

Still Life & Stillness

Terrence Malick, in my opinion, made his two best films at the beginning of his career, before the abstractions of his style overtook the rest of his oeuvre, tipping the balance more in favour art (and not necessarily ‘good’ art) than cinema.

In Days of Heaven (1978), hints of his latter reliance and preference on fleeting and disjointed imagery as his primary mode of storytelling are evident. While his later films seem to float about restlessly in a cinematic and daydreaming montage, here, in Days of Heaven, there is a prosaic stillness, a classical formalism in the imagery (whether a wide establishing shot or a portrait shot of one of the protagonists) that seem ‘painterly’ or even ‘novelistic’.

The camera pauses long enough for the viewer to register certain details that would usually be consigned to mere costume or prop or background, or else considered superfluous in the present fashion for the fast-cutting and impatient cinematic eye (or, the literary equivalent of the minimalist, modern, MFA-style Realism).

Days of Heaven has something of Henry James and Melville, an unrushed narrative pace, images that demand time and attention, that believes in its own worth for its own sake and not in service of some narrow idea of how narrative should be ‘crafted’.

In this underrated film, Malick’s camera tells the viewer that every detail small and large are of the greatest importance (the elegant carafe of wine set to serve two; the singular locust and the swarm; the pheasant, briefly alive), at least as important as the human drama playing out in the foreground – and at times, it barely seems to be in the foreground.

These ‘still lives’ placed in the frames of the film creates a stillness that allows the viewer to take stock of the wider universe in which the dramas of the human characters play out.

I think of this in my own writing, when I have to justify so-called setting and description set in opposition to dialogue or character development, which to me, are only arbitrary labels of parts of a whole which I think of as one continuous piece of text.

pep talks & despairing men

As 2020 (Year of the Pandemic and Other Catastrophes) draws to a close, a couple of scenes from two films I have re-watched recently for a new work comes vividly to mind. Two cinematic men of God who have lost their faith gives hopeful yet despairing / despairing yet hopeful advice.

The question of the existence of God or some other higher meaning seems, at a glance, irrelevant and out-dated for the present moment: globalised, secular (by default), digital. Devastated by manmade disasters, environmental or otherwise. Yet the question of faith and meaning seem more urgent than ever in the absurdity of our alienated, post-truth, conspiracy-believing, fantasy-thinking, ever-radicalising, present.

That is what comes to mind as I revisited both of these films recently.

SPOILER ALERT: both monologues, intended to alleviate or at least put into perspective the despair in their listeners, fails to do either …

“… If there is no God… would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life. The dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness, and fear… all these things would be straightforward and transparent. Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation. There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.”

—Pastor Tomas Ericsson monologue in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light ( dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1963)  

“Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

—Reverend Ernst Toller, First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader, 2017)

“Chance, death, the irreducible pluralism of life and of truth, the unintelligibility of the real—all these are extremes of the absurd.”

—Jean-Paul Sartre on Camus, An Explication of The Stranger

invisble worlds & imaged lives

Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, 66 Bourke St, Melbourne, December 2014

Like many of my peers growing up in a media saturated culture, my imaginary life was largely formed by movies, television shows, video games and print magazines. The great Australian writer Gerald Murnane claims he has not watched television nor movies in decades as he did not want moving pictures to effect the images in the invisible world of his mind (I believe this is discussed in A History of Books although I can’t be certain: this in itself is very Murnane-esque, the uncertainty of a reader’s recollection over the contents of a book they have read, which is a theme repeated throughout the book), what he terms “true fiction”. It seems to me that this has something to do with an idea of the sanctity of imagination. (Interestingly, Murnane claims to have no imagination and that he merely reports and describes the images of the invisible world of his mind.)

A common critique of contemporary writers is that they are too image focused, too influenced by films and (prestige) television, and perhaps consciously or not, too aware of the possibilities of film or television adaptations, and that the novel’s greatest advantage is the ability of prose to capture interiority in a way moving images cannot. I don’t disagree. I believe novels are still the most profound way for a person to engage with the consciousness of another, and that no visual form is as powerful as the images formed by an individual’s imagination on reading the words of any particular work of literature, whether high or lowbrow. Yet I believe we are only the products of our culture and our artistic production, if it is authentic, will tend to reflect the culture, a culture in which images dominate every moment of every aspect of our everyday lives.

I myself—whether by nature or nurture—am wholly formed of images still and moving. I absorb them and recombine and reproduce them imperfectly through waking and dreaming life, through reading and photography, and finally through my writing. Images in of themselves are important and central to the formation of my own invisible, fictional world.

In terms of my writing practice, images are more than mere mood or inspiration. They are part of my fictional vocabulary although they have not formed part of my writing (in its original, visual form at least)—for the time being. For now they make up the dense (digital) folio of notes that I keep on my laptop along with all the various quotations, notations, ‘found objects’ and fragments of half-captured thoughts and all the bric-a-brac a writer collects in writing a book.

I will post these notes here from time to time, and I hope they are of some interest (and help) to someone.