Monday, May 16, 2011

Caves, History, Humanity, Herzog

by James Hansen

What is it exactly that is being forgotten in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Following his recent line of “nature documentaries” (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World), Herzog locates a strange, uninhabitable place in which he finds traces of unique humanity. Crucial is the idea of forgetfulness which is more present in Cave than the prior documentaries. And it is easy to forget. The humanity in the caves has been temporally displaced by 35,000 years and is, in some sense, unrecoverable.

Scientists and archaeologists speak with educated hypotheses. Herzog uses this model to grant himself leeway to make many of his boldest claims. Are these caves and cave paintings signs of the foundation of the modern human soul? Are the figures in the painting calling out to the present? Art lovers should find this of inherent interest, as art is the thing that crosses the void of time and space between the present day researchers and the mythic man with the crooked pinky finger who has forever left his mark on the cave walls.

Here, we may find the strongest link between Cave and Grizzly Man. If Timothy Treadwell used video and documentary to create a endless archive of his experiences with the grizzlies (and, perhaps, as Seung-Hoon Jeong and Dudley Andrew argue, it becomes a vision of man becoming-animal), history is written not in video, but on the cave walls – the nature of man inscribed in nature itself. What then of animals? Although there are exceptions which Herzog seems more drawn to in Cave, the majority of the paintings are of animals: skulls and ancient footsteps of wolves cover the ground of the caves. The paintings indicate a deep connection and fascination with animals – their movement, shape, and sounds. Is this a sign of a model of the world that Timothy Treadwell dreamed of? Was everything united? And would a permeable conception of history reestablish this supposedly utopian vision?

What can’t be overlooked in this equation, however, is Herzog. To some extent, Cave lets the caves speak for themselves. There are countless, stand-alone images of the paintings calling out to the audience (and in 3D no less!) Still, Herzog – as The Modern Man – plays an essential role. He not only writes Cave’s narrative, carrying with it his oftentimes tiresome, sometimes engaging, musings on art. In his attempts to recover the origin of man, companied with Cave’s mutant coda and a remembrance of Grizzly Man, Herzog brings in a new dose of old modernism. Given its failures, Herzog attempts to overcome this modernist gap. Cave won’t let us forget how rare an opportunity it is for the cave’s to be recorded. This is the last chance for them to be filmed, seen, experienced, and recovered. With Cave, Herzog reenacts Treadwell’s archival process as a means of capturing this fleeting place, space, and moment – a moment when recovery and origin appear possible.

Nonetheless, Herzog, in his brief coda, wipes out the aura crafted throughout Cave and turns us again toward a rehash Grizzly Man. Power plants suggest a transformation of humanity into contemporary mutants. If Grizzly Man captures a uniquely modern encounter with the violence of nature, then perhaps this is what is being forgotten – or, at least, what has changed. As humanities bond with nature has broken down, violence overtakes both nature and man. The violence of nature cedes to a nature of violence. Humanity has forgotten nature and, in so doing, has transmuted into a version of our own forgotten selves.

Yet even if the caves call to us from the past, Herzog wags his finger at the audience for not listening to them and puts himself in the place to be the man who hears. The power is placed in the creator and crafter of all images, whether an ancient man, Timothy Treadwell, or Werner Herzog. Herzog’s call for permeable history and interaction with the paintings, however, splits from this sense of grand arbiters of humanity. Is democratic, unified humanity to be celebrated by the trumpeting of a single man? Herzog interjects himself into the caves (and into his movie) too far and runs counter to his own method. It nearly becomes the mark of a man who came, saw, recorded, and went, leaving claw marks instead of bread crumbs on the way from the darkness of caves into the bright light of nature. When the researchers asked for silence to let the caves speak for themselves, it might have been best for Herzog to turn down the megaphone.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

Rubber (2011): Self-Destructing Detachment

by James Hansen

It would seem fitting to start this review by asking the question “What the hell is this movie?,” but I fear that already gives too much credit to Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, a puzzlingly simple-minded take on Hollywood’s recent obsession with object-based horror and the implicit violence contained within the simple-minded bemusement of captive audiences. Here, the killing object – Jimmy the Tire – is given a powerful subject position, while the viewing audience (in and outside the film) revert into dumb(founded) objects. Rubber tries to mediate these experiences and challenge the agency granted to subjects and objects in both art and industry. Dupieux hopes to do this through a Beckett-like strategy described by Adorno as “the abdication of the subject.” These lofty aims are difficult to meet – so perhaps I shouldn’t be as hard on Rubber as I’m about to be – but, in the end, Dupieux shows a misunderstanding of his own project. Instead of challenging the audience and moving the bizarrely relevant narrative basis to unique heights, Rubber sputters and implodes. But is that exactly what it wanted to do?

This is all quite unfortunate considering that Rubber, after a prologue which begins the film, has an incredible sequence with layered concerns central to its philosophical premise. The tire’s first moments of life establish a connection between subject and object, which is to be navigated and confronted. That this is a tire naturally adds to the allure of Rubber. Buried in a pile of dirt, the tire begins to spin and rises from the ground. It shakes some dust and tries to get to its feet. Moving slowly in circles, it travels short distances before collapsing. Again and again, the tire tries to roll but sputters to the earth. Like a fawn rising to its feet for the first time, the tire looks for traction and can’t seem to find it.

After several attempts and a night’s rest, the tire stays standing and strolls along peacefully through nature. Winding down the road, the problem’s begin when the tire confronts another object – a plastic bottle. The tire stops in its tracks, rotates back and forth and back and forth. The bottle, somehow, appears as a threat to the tire. The tire rolls on the bottle until it is flattened. Soon, the tire comes across several other things – a glass bottle, a scorpion, a rabbit, a man. Given animated life, the tire stops and destroys each of these object/subjects. The tire doesn’t talk, but, granted subjective agency upon its birth and independent movement, all other subjects with potential agency become a threat to the tire’s existence. Subjectivity immediately becomes a sign of life. The subject must establish power and dominance over the other subjects. Otherwise, they may position the subject as an object causing it to plummet into nothingness.

Unfortunately, Rubber’s problems started even before this scene. The failures don’t come so much in the repetitive nature of the killer tire. In fact, Dupieux may have done himself some favors in the long run by just making a horror movie about a killer tire. (Hey, it worked for Killer Condom). But he has larger, metaphysical aims not only related to the phenomenological concerns of subject/object, but also concerning audience engagement with objects, social aspects of viewing and its relationship to violence.

Perhaps because of this, Rubber is nothing if not prescriptive. It certainly doesn’t try and hide what it is. An opening monologue shows its cards and instructs the audience as to how its deck is stacked. Dupieux lays out what he calls the Hollywood history of “No Reason,” which Rubber uses to avoid a logical narrative and instill a detached audience. The audience is given binoculars (like in theater! kazzzzing) to view the story of a tire from afar. They comment as it kills a rabbit and moves about town. When night comes, the audience members are given sleeping bags. They sleep in the desert and are awoken when the tire’s story continues. They are given no food and begin complaining about the narrative and their hunger. When they are brought food, they devour it like insane animals. All things considered, the tire is perhaps the most sane character of this modified epic theatre. Still, no matter this up-frontness, the conceptual premise functions not as an experimental destruction of its own formal, narratological underpinnings, as in the work of Brecht and Beckett whom Dupieux is clearly channeling; rather, this socially and politically radical basis serves only as a cop out for tonal ambivalence, abject contempt, and heedless dawdling.

Each of these steps could be defended if Dupieux followed Brecht and/or Beckett’s mode of “interruptions,” but the strategies are merely a ploy and fail to disrupt. What Rubber regurgitates is pure bile – an elementary, if not completely vacuous, critique of detachment. That it purposefully uses detachment to critique detachment is a potentially brilliant move. Nevertheless, Dupieux misses the mark. His own destructive nature, mirrored by the complete demolition of all subjects by the tire, blows up everything in sight without stepping back and surveying the destruction site. Dupieux fails to recognize that the double bind he crafted (between object and subject, audience and story) is actually a triple bind. He has forgotten himself in it. The subjects in the story are detached from the unliving/living object of the tire. The audience wandering around witnessing the tire’s carnage watch captively, from a distance, until their ambivalent distance becomes carnivorous and they destroy themselves.

However, there is one audience member – a man in the wheelchair – who avoids this pitfall and remains committed to the story of the tire. Like Dupieux, demanding a complete narrative, he sits and waits for the story to progress, and, when it doesn’t, he makes suggestions as to how the story should operate. Yet, in the end, his attachment brings him too close to the scene of the crime and he too becomes a victim to the process. This moment shows Rubber’s unwillingness to commit to its own project and Dupieux’s ultimate failure in the triple bind. He only showcases destruction rather than any kind of contemplation. There is no escaping the destruction precisely because Dupieux condemns everyone and everything involved in this series of relationships. The man succeeds with distance until he comes too close. When he transforms into a narrative subject rather than a distanced object, he interrupts his safe distance and threatens his existence. He, Dupieux, and the audience have been placed in the position of the tire in its opening stroll through nature. In so doing, Dupieux ignores his own demands and never removes himself from the simple-minded bemusement and implicit violence he means to critique. He is stuck and we are stuck. The only thing that keeps moving is the tire, the wheel, the destructive object itself. By disowning its own conceits, Rubber becomes mere clay. But, then again, perhaps that’s the point.

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