Why do we make art? This is a big question that is connected to many other big questions. This Cinematic Investigations Log is meant, at least in part, to explore intuitive understandings built up over time through exposure to one particular medium. The larger personal quest is to investigate how I think about art in general. I’m trying to gather my presuppositions into a basket, hold them up by the handful, and turn them around in the Friday sunlight (REASON). Whether or not you do anything with this is entirely your choice. However, the fact that I am submitting this publicly suggests that I am attempting to communicate; to clean house so that I can open up a spring window and let you in for a visit (yes, all my friends enter my mind-space through the window...just like Sam in Clarissa Explains It All). Cleaning house is important if you want to make space for the presence of others!
It seems important, especially in our confused Individualist post-modern times, for thought to be consistent with practice. In other words, our beliefs should line up with our actions and reinforce one another. In my life, I want both to aim toward coherent goals during each NOW moment of experience. That being said: If I have to ignore facts of experience in order that my ideologies be self-consistent, then I want nothing to do with such shallow systems. Violence must be committed to shake them loose. While such symbol systems may be useful and efficient (or even elegant) in the commanding of limited life factors, they tend to lock a person into a pattern that, regardless of how complex it may be, will fail the demands of the NOW miserably at some point. When the NOW kicks you in the Belief Privats, the whole structure is incapacitated, all previous constructive efforts rendered essentially useless. From a psychological perspective, this is an utterly devastating moment, so akin to physical death that some individuals don’t survive it. G.I. Gurdjieff liked to call this ‘crystallizing on a wrong foundation’. In order to avoid being destroyed by such a collapse, it is suggested that one do regular violence to self-concepts to shake them loose. In order to evolve with a world in constant evolution, one must become capable of killing that to which you gave birth in order that it may give birth to you. This is beginning to hint, I think, at the function of art in life.
Q: What is an individual?
A: An Individual is an actual occasion of experience.
Q: Do individuals endure through time?
A: No. Individuals are moments. Societies are collections of Individuals and endure through time.
Q: Do Individuals exist to serve societies?
A: The reverse. Societies exist to connect individuals so they may realize mutual goals.
Q: Can individuals exert influence on one another?
A: Individuals cannot exert influence on contemporary individuals. However, individuals are influenced by previous actual occasions before becoming determinant, then exert their self-will in such a way that may influence future actual occasions. In other words, individuals In-Form each other through conversations in time. They open their windows and let each other in.
Last week, we took a look at The Darkness - at a CHAOS that threatens to render our experiences completely meaningless. And yet, even amidst the perception of chaos in our environment, it is clear that we still presuppose much in practice. We presuppose the existence of linear time, of causality, of physical surfaces. We presuppose the existence of other minds because we still attempt to be understood.
Q: How is this so?
Q: Why does it seem that something actual must die in order that something actual might be born?
Q: Can we truly be possessing of a unitary ‘I’ or ‘Selfness’ if our mythology, art, and psychology is haunted by so many doppelgangers, doubles, impostors, and enemies?
Well, it turns out the opening epigraph for our next film serves as a perfect primer for the above questions.
Enemy (Dir. Denis Villeneuve // Canada)
“Chaos is order yet undeciphered."
This line is the first thing we see in Enemy. It is a quote from Jose Saramago’s The Double, the novel of which the film is intended as an adaptation. I haven’t read The Double, but I am a huge fan of Saramago. In general, I would consider adapting his work to film a fool’s errand. Blindness turned out to be a rather clunky film that sucked all the life and glow from the novel’s haunting poetry.
Director Denis Villeneuve is no fool, however. As an adaptation, Villeneuve’s Enemy is a truly rare film. This adaptation doesn’t attempt to emulate the author’s prose or style in the audio/visual format, but still manages to honor the deeper spirit of the book. Where most film adaptations cut away the novel’s details to reduce countless epiphanies to one central heart, Villeneuve ADDS major A/V detail to his film that are nowhere to be found in the book, but manage to unearth the plurality of themes in an additive, associative, intuitive way. The only other contemporary filmmaker I can think of that has managed such a feat (and multiple times) is David Cronenberg. The added sex scenes in A History of Violence were his creation and they strike right at the heart of the book’s themes in a way that utilized HIS medium’s strengths. I won’t spill the beans on Villeneuve’s theme-expanding A/V innovation, aside from hinting that the above poster is likely itself a visual puzzle piece, but I will affirm that if you wish to make sense of the film - to decipher the order - you’ll be grappling with this chilling symbol long after the credits roll.
Maybe it is because I just finished Infinite Jest, but it seems that the effect toward which Villeneuve is striving with his psychological thriller is very much in line with what David Foster Wallace was looking to achieve with his masterpiece. There is clearly an attempt to speak to the audience’s narrator (REASON) at the same time as speaking to their creative intuition - a double dialogue. DFW, in one interview, evokes a projector in the description of his novel’s movement:
“There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.”
and from a different interview:
“Plot wise, the book doesn’t come to a resolution. But if the readers perceive it as me giving them the finger, then I haven’t done my job. On the surface it might seem like it just stops. But it’s supposed to stop and then kind of hum and project. Musically and emotionally, it’s a pitch that seemed right.”
So, given that we’re talking about an experience that is meant to converge well after the final page or frame, I want to honor the sanctity of ‘NO SPOILERS’ and simply discuss a few aspects of the work meant to entice and intrigue. However, if you don't want any of my ideas clinking around on your first viewing, I'd say skip to the end here and come back to play later!
IMAGE/SOUND: Enemy basks in the stained yellow glow of amniotic fluid - punctured by brief smears of red, and the sick blue glow of technology screens. Smog permeates each frame that contains a cityscape. Harsh clean lines and grey slabs of concrete compose the cityscape. Is this a Westernized Montreal, and by extension the U.S., through the lens of an outsider Quebecer?
These images are grounded by barely there drones and the squawk (silence) squawk of sneaky reed instruments. Strings shudder with goose pimples, but the wind barely blows and the air looks stale.
PERFORMANCE: Jake Gyllenhaal has my deep respect after his work in YR 2014. The Oscars looked to honor his work in Nightcrawler, and I agree that his performance in that film was truly chilling. However, when it comes to film performance I find myself far less satisfied with films that seem to exist simply for said performance. Gyllenhaal’s work in Enemy, on the other hand, could emphatically be called the best ‘Male Performance’ (in the sense of articulating something fundamental and knotty and hidden in the male psyche) on screen all year because it was woven masterfully into the fabric of a film that was operating on many layers. This performance served those layers by infusing them with electricity and expanding them, as opposed to running parallel to them. Unlike Villeneuve’s additive A/V style, Gyllenhaal’s performance task with Enemy was a work of subtraction - of bringing two opposites so close that they became indistinguishable by physicality or language.
Contrasting this performance technique to Jessie Eisenberg’s work in The Double (the other double movie from YR 2014, making a Double-Double), we can feel how the easier route of distinguishing two identical characters using language or physicality alone tends to serve as a yellow highlighter marker - ‘THE MEANING OF THIS ARCHETYPE IS THUS...”. Enemy trusts its audience more, and by utilizing a subtractive performance to explore the double theme, the action in the psyche of the viewer is additive, turning over contradictions and ambiguities and discovering new surfaces that were hidden by preexisting structures or the paralyzing chaos of fear.
Gyllenhaal plays a college history professor. His lecture, repeated twice, is on totalitarian regimes and the way in which they gain control by censoring any means of individual expression. How is this done?
One way is to turn a self-determinate impulse from the outside, and turn it again, until the linear trajectory of said original impulse sticks to a loop instead of a ‘becoming’. Language can be drained of its constructive content and used as an ‘ideology suit’ for subversive content. Orwell’s double-speak: Extraordinary Rendition, Right to Work, etc. The examples of this are everywhere.
The study of history reveals one cluster of answers about manipulation tactics, but the experience of encountering one’s double crumbles ideologies into dust. It is sink or swim. It is kill or be killed.
Gyllenhaal II plays an actor, an extra, his IMDB page a parade of figurants populating the frames of entertainment cartridges. The bellhop. The bar regular. How does an individual become a double? Does it have to do with automatic reproduction? Did the master get into the wrong hands? Where is the master?!
It has been suggested that an individual made to experience isolation exercises one final act of irrational creativity, and does so completely unconsciously. The silence clicks, the fan begins to hum, and the SHADOW projector calls the Enemy to our doorstep. It is sink or swim. It is kill or be killed.
I leave you with a quote from one of Saramago’s other books, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:
“There is no lack of spiders’ webs in the world, from some you escape, in others you die. The fugitive will find shelter in a boardinghouse under an assumed name, thinking he is safe, he has no idea that his spider will be the daughter of the landlady...a dedicated nationalist who will regenerate his heart and mind.”
(Enemy can be found streaming for free on Amazon Prime. For some fun musings on the ending of the film, to be read AFTER viewing...don’t kill the fun!...check out this Slate article)
So, all the above gathered in fist let me make an attempt at giving an answer to my initial question: ‘Why do we make art?’ Can a worthwhile function be suggested?
The art practice is a cooperative self-determination process in which hidden interior darkness is brought to the light of conscious thought. It’s beginning is an act of self-will, and it is necessarily intuitive and irrational. The following impulse to share art is about embedding (birthing?) reference symbols into our environment that allow other individuals to apprehend the unearthed patterns directly. When other Individuals apprehend the symbolic results of the original impulse, this information mixes with the perceptions of the receiving Individual and is transmitted back to the source of the original irrational impulse and either confirms or denies it (or, shades tending toward confirmation or denial) through the rational process which identifies REASONS, VALUE, and CAUSES. Because the art process is bound up with both ecstasy and guilt, the level of sincerity at every stage of this process, from transmitter to receiver and back, directly corresponds to the actual value of the art process to life lived in the NOW moment by any Individual. Sincerity unearths possibility. The art process balances oppositional forces of creative intuition and analytical reason.
We create art because we know that individuals are not 'windowless monads'. We choose to open our windows to directly apprehend the creative divine impulse coursing through shared experience from moment to moment. This is the order that chaos can never fully obscure...
Obviously the above is a way clumsy attempt to put language to the ineffable. Music, film, dance, theater...now these experiences are capable of putting you right in the zone.
Stay tuned for next week! I’ll take a look at another Quebecer’s brilliant work: Denis Cote’s oddball fable Vic + Flo Saw A Bear.