Archive for March, 2012

An Attempt at a Film Review: Possession (1981)

The obvious comparison most will draw from watching Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) is to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The difference between the two for me was that I did not feel compelled to write anything about Antichrist as much as I, to use an awkward word here, enjoyed it. Possession is labeled a horror film and it is more terrifying than any genre horror flick. True to the genre, it has a monster, but it is a footnote to the terror of its exploration of madness. Sleep doesn’t come easy after Possession, because it feels like I’ve just woken up from a two-hour dream of reassuring and strangely comforting insanity.

The plot revolves around a crumbling marriage (and other vague elements which are mostly left unexplained), but all in all it appears to be about schizophrenia. The madness is Anna’s, played by the lovely Isabelle Adjani, and partly her husband’s, played by the equally lovely Sam Neill. The fragmented narrative delivers the impact of their insanity to the viewer and creates a disturbing projection of mental illness for us to embrace. The aim is to erase, for a moment, the fine line between everyday rationality and the threat of incomprehensibility.

The enjoyment to be had from the sublime mental disturbance that should perturb the viewer comes from the contrast between one’s immersion into the film and the sane and easygoing world of reason one has to return to, where bills have to be paid and small talk prevails. While I was coming out of it, my mind wandered to a brief conversation with an acquaintance in the office corridor. What did I say to him? Did I make sense? Or did he perhaps catch a candid remark and saw that I was so far gone as to not care about making sense anymore? Did I Charlie Sheen him? For a moment I was sure I was to be committed on the basis of that brief exchange.

Watching Adjani thrash about in the famous subway scene was not nearly as disturbing as seeing her abusing one of her pupils in ballet class, or listening to her monologue about fate and chance. The small slips that betray madness are always more interesting and shocking to watch — it’s a cliche, but things sold by the gram are always more exciting than things sold by the pound. Schizophrenic language has some qualities of poetry, although it is rarely as disciplined of course, and it is easier for these slips to be transferred to the viewer in art because similar linguistic exploration is licenced by the artistic medium. One seldom voiced rule of poetry says that it is on the same plane as madness, but nevertheless distanced from the register of actual lunacy.

Michaux was mentioned in Possession by Anna’s kooky lover Heinrich. In Michaux’s book on mescaline, the author at one point discards language and begins to draw nonsensical pictures. Language breaks down and is replaced by images. His simulated madness realizes language is mute at its core. Schizophrenic language — which should be distinguished from the language of the schizophrenic — doesn’t say anything and yet says too much by underscoring the impotence of language through free association and repetition, and this was very clearly conveyed by Adjani’s relentless performance. It’s a scary thought, if there really are such things as thoughts.

For the longest time, it has been fashionable to talk of language as being mere surface. Truth and meaning have been reduced to ciphers in communication and content (thoughts, ideas, call them what you will) has been deemed a mirage of the linguistic webs we weave to fool ourselves into thinking that there is something behind the veil of words we dress ourselves in. For the first time I find myself appalled by the thought; whether it is because I find myself using the word thought in an unqualified sense of the word or because I know I do so out of despair, I don’t know.

Perhaps the terror comes from precisely this catch-22: the only way to find faith in truth, or find faith in general, is to act in despair and deny the obvious, but a faith in denial is no faith at all and what in fact remains is a recognition of the hopelessness of faith. Something has been gained from this hopelessness, faith itself, but it is sullied by the very means of its birth. There is a word for this in religion: sin. Why accepting faith as an option in this situation is the solution religion offers is still a mystery to me.

If this is what Possession tries to hint at, it means to say the human mind is an aberration, a freakish accident of nature that never should have happened. The fall from grace, forbidden knowledge, consciousness, they all point to a rationalization of rationality by reason to justify its own sordid existence. It’s a rather bleak conclusion to draw from a fine film, but I hope it makes sense. God, I really do.

Away Once More You Go

How many times must you lose your faith before you get used to the roll
Of the mind as it goes off and shuts itself down? Of the phoenix of your soul?
Why would you assume enlightenment nears as away once more you go?
Why not be content with the warmth that is born in the humble yet pleasant glow
Of the pulse that beats through the thoughts of the few who’ve seen and understood
What it means to see and see again the true, the beautiful, the good.

French Psychoanalysts Are Ridiculous People: Sophie Robert’s Le Mur Banned in France

Not too long ago I watched the Norwegian documentary series Hjernevask and enjoyed the way the host of the series mocked close-minded academic blowhards. There seems to be a trend for these kinds of documentaries, because yet another one popped up on a mailing list. However, whereas it is usually enjoyable to watch the likes of Hjernevask, this particular documentary called Le Mur: La psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’autisme really got my goat. The main reason for that was that the victims of the psychoanalysts presented in the documentary are autistic children. The analysts appear as absurd fiction peddlers who not only deserve to be mocked but must be mocked as much as possible and as soon as possible. The whole documentary is on YouTube and a bit of googling gets more hits.

Awful people. Anyway, the second disturbing thing about the film is that my sources tell me that the film has been banned in France because the psychoanalysts’ feelings were hurt. The filmmaker, Sophie Robert, is now in a bit of trouble, although the ban should bring more publicity to the film and the child abuse committed by the psychoanalysts. Usually theoretical bullshit is fine when it does no real harm, but someone has to draw the line. Sophie Robert did just that and now the analysts are protecting their pride with lawyers. They seem like despicable creatures who preach Lacan and Lévi-Strauss like I sing in the shower: off key and laying waste to civilization. I actually couldn’t watch the documentary in one go, but it’s important I did finally manage it. Anyone reading this should try the same. I must warn you, though, that you have to withstand a pretty hefty dose of French psychobabble before the documentariste tells us that the point of the film is to advocate therapies that were adopted in the US thirty years ago. In case you need a palate cleanser afterwards, check out the Temple Grandin movie to see how that worked out.

Twilight — A Review of a Review

My film criticism site of choice is Ruthless Reviews and they don’t disappoint with their review of the new Twilight movie. Modern popular cinema is mostly rubbish, so it’s pleasant to read nihilistic and hateful reviews of its cynical attempts to tap the lowest common denominator. Sometimes these reviews are informative as well, like this one which equates the Twilight franchise with porn. It’s a meditation on the differences between men and women in the worst stand up comic tradition, but it brings out the way in which both porn and Twilight feed the vanity of the spectator.

If Twilight is considered cinema, then Busty Nurses 9 is too. Sure both happen on screen, but the screen is secondary. It’s your own reaction you crave. Everybody knows what will happen already: Bella and Edward get married and start a family, Nina Hartley does reverse cowgirl to the guy with the brain injury and cures his amnesia. We put ourselves inside these visceral simulations via cinema to harvest our deepest desires: Women want to be eternally worshipped by supernatural forces that fight over them while overdosing on praise from this world and the next. Men just want to get boned by sluts. And love has absolutely nothing to do with either of these things.

There is very little to add to this but to say that I believe Dan Brown’s junk seemed to work in the same way. Take one regular young lady with whom all the women in the audience can identify and make her Jesus Christ. The association is automatic and a woman will find herself Jesus Christ for a while, which apparently gives her great pleasure. As with Twilight and love, it has nothing to do with religion nor is it supposed to. It’s designed to make one think one is a god among men, worshiped and revered as divine.

I don’t get this reaction in any palpable way and the review is as close as I will get to watching Twilight, but thinking about it made me realize I do get Charles Bronsonesque revenge fantasies. It’s great fun to see Clint Eastwood or Arnie lose it and murder everything in sight. That’s fiction, by the way, and it should stay fiction, as Frank Miller’s crazy comments have recently shown. Ruthless Reviews reviews these action fantasies as well in their 80s Action section. I get porn, of course, but can’t experience Twilightesque porn in the same way, perhaps for lack of estrogen. Fantasies about being worshiped as a god or by demonic forces for whatever reason sound like nightmares to me, but it’s great to finally see a sensible explanation of the phenomenon that takes into account how some get off on Twilight like others get off on Busty Nurses 1-9. It has made me look at Twilight in a new way and, I hate to say it, even appreciate what the series is trying to do.

After a Fall

“Could you take me home, mate?” I asked a curious stranger who pulled up to the bus stop. I had waved at him and he was kind enough to stop and roll down his window. I was looking for a taxi, but there was none around. The phone was dead and I couldn’t simply call one over. He said: “Sure. Where do you live?” I told him and he opened the door. He was foreigner, I could tell from his accent, and we quickly changed language — the initial question had been posed in Finnish, but we spoke English after that. He pulled out of the bus stop and asked if I was alright. I said I had fallen and hurt my foot. Was I alright?

I remembered my Cioran: “To be lyrical from suffering means to achieve that inner purification in which wounds cease to be mere outer manifestations without deep complications and begin to participate in the essence of your being.” Had I began to participate in the essence of my being? Not really, it just hurt like hell. Later, two fractures would be found. The ankle took a hit and one my bones was now in three pieces. Where was the lyricism in this painful stupor if not close to a complete mental breakdown? Not wanting to alarm my new driver, I didn’t say anything, but tried to maintain smalltalk and uphold the private notion that I was now pure. Secretive saints have it easier.


I feel at home in Brighton where
The tat-too girls go hand in hand.
Bums shout at pigeons and they stare
At rocks they know that should be sand.

A junkie-hold at every corner,
The rest all looks a bit crusty.
’Most everyone’s a foreigner,
Or else they seem to want to be.

Where we all bleed flowers, petals,
Stab wounds splatter hope for some.
A stolen credit card settles
Your sins and life and death and fun.

It’s safer here than anywhere
I’ve ever known I want to be.
Hemorrhaging, intensive care,
Hung out to dry, soul by the sea.

Dante, Beatrice and Auerbach

Where did love songs come from? The sort of hyperbolic praise of lovers and love itself? An answer is not to be found solely in our biological need for reproduction, that is much too general a concept to make much sense in a world where we actually have to do our best to attract a mate and go through the motions and negotiate contingencies biologists can gloss over. It is a long way from Dante’s poetry to vapid love songs, but the path is illuminated by books such as Erich Auerbach’s Dante: Poet of the Secular World. It’s a short little thing, but it’s one of those books that is able to humble you however towering your scholarly pretensions are — anyone who enjoys taking beatings like this will absolutely love it. The weight of Auerbach’s vast knowledge looms in the background even as he gets carried away with his own prose and lifts his reader along with him to previously unimagined heights.

Beatrice is Dante’s love, his inspiration and muse. She was the name of an idea that gave birth to love as we have come to know it through song and verse. She became the nexus between the realm of the ideal and the sensuous, not Beatrice Portinari but the sign of imminent enlightenment and the ecstasy that precedes it. The poetic world and the real world, previously separated and only held side by side to make the ontological distinction clear in linguistic play, came together through her presence. Says Auerbach:

In Dante . . . each poem is an authentic event, directly set forth in its unique, contingent, and ephemeral this-worldliness; from personal experience it expands into the universal, whence by a kind of counteraction it derives its articulated form to become an immutable vision of reality in general, earthly particularity held fast in the mirror of a timeless eye. (68)

Auerbach makes Dante’s achievement epic in every sense of the word. Dante created a new way of thinking, a new metaphysical language, one is almost tempted to say he created poetry as we know it. But that would be saying too much, even if it were true, and it also seems too harsh to blame Dante for the kind of mindless wailing about babies and girls and boys you hear when you turn on the radio. That drivel is not Dante’s fault, but the reason it can exist perhaps is, the fault of him and Beatrice and the world they created together.

In Beatrice the oriental Christian motif of incarnate divine perfection, the parousia of the Idea, took a turn which has profoundly influenced all European literature. With his passionate, exacting temperament and his unflagging desire for a concrete embodiment of the truth Dante could only accept a visionary experience capable of legitimation by reason and act; he removed the secret truth, which in this case coincided with the first sweet enchantment of the senses, from the hazy private world of his [stilnovisti] companions and gave it a foundation in reality; his yearning for the truth did not turn to sterile heterodoxy or shapeless mysticism. (61-2)

Reading Auerbach, one begins to wonder if Dante did us all a disservice and drove us mad. What he came up with was not a new religion and, although a part of one, it seems to go far beyond any religious belief. Love blown up. Love encompassing the universe. Love whose praises we may sing forever. Inexhaustible love. Love godlike, His rival even. Dante made it possible to blow up the idea into something whose inexhaustible praiseworthiness and simultaneous concreteness made it possible for man to meet God face to face. Denying its otherworldliness made it of this world, albeit something that can never be reached, a thirst that can never be quenched or a flame that never goes out.