Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Burning Down the House: Revisiting Bradbury and Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451

Immersing myself so intensely in Solaris this past week has proven unexpectedly powerful. Last night, I dreamt of my parents, both of them dead four years now. They were at an age I remember them at their happiest, in their early 60s, just before my father retired. They were smiling warmly and a feeling of great kindness suffused the scene. As Cixous writes, in "The School of the Dead," dreams "give us the marvelous gift of constantly bringing back our dead alive ... writing originates in this relationship." This is not a claim I would have endorsed till now.

Likewise, thinking about Tarkovsky has put me in mind of one of his favorite SF writers, Ray Bradbury. I devoured much of his work in my teens, but later lost my taste for his particular brand of American whimsy, though I think Martian Chronicles, for the most part, still holds up. My review of Fahrenheit 451, from 15 years ago, is pretty hard on the old Grand Master as well as Truffaut's adaptation of it. Beating up on Ray is easy sport, I fear. But I think the review does a good job of locating the real concerns of the novel as a severe case of brow-anxiety, as Menand might put it. In other words, 451 bears all the symptoms of the Cold War struggle to identify and fix cultural values.

Oddly enough, I once met Bradbury, in the early 80s, when Filmex was still holding its annual film festival in Century City. He was a sunny, avuncular presence. To my lasting regret, I turned down his gracious invitation to join him at a showing of John Huston's Moby Dick, for which he'd written the script. The screening was at midnight, and I was worried about missing the last bus back to Hollywood. Maybe I missed it anyway...

Here, then, is my take on 451:

Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 wants to be a chilling portrait of a future totalitarian state in which reading books is banned and the books themselves are burned. Instead, it's a rather quaintly dyspeptic take on dystopia. Bradbury's trademark whimsy and lyricism is poorly served by his choice of theme here. He lacks the behavioral savvy of a George Orwell; he also lacks Orwell's political sophistication. 451 (the temperature at which paper ignites) has little to do with the terror of the modern state. Awkwardly didactic at best, its real purpose is to chastise the subscribers of Reader's Digest and other middlebrow cultural elements, like TV, which Bradbury perceives as eroding the bulwarks of the cult of High Culture's purity.

For reasons best known to himself, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut decided to adapt Bradbury's novelette to film in 1966. What resulted was probably Truffaut's stiffest film; it's certainly his least characteristic one. Even so, he manages to breathe some life into Bradbury's heavy-handed social message through the inventive use of rapid montage and some camera work that fetishizes the book-burning fire brigade in their black outfits and incongruously innocent looking red fire truck.

On the whole, 451 the movie seems to have been no more than the result of Truffaut's desire to respond to compatriot Jean Luc-Godard's earlier - and far superior - futuristic thriller, Alphaville. Alphaville is much smarter, though, at playing with the conceits of a modish futurism than 451, although Truffaut, following Godard's lead, makes excellent use of present day settings to suggest the gleaming and soulless metropolis of the 21st Century. (Alphaville, with its blend of noir and sci-fi, is the unacknowledged cinematic inspiration for Blade Runner).

The story follows the conflict of state book-burner/fireman Guy Montag as he wrestles with his conscience and gradually undergoes a less-than-Saul like conversion from repressor to underground resister. It's a lackluster transformation, devoid of conviction and suspense. This is partly due to the flabby nature of the material, partly to the miscasting of Truffaut veteran Oskar Werner (Jules and Jim), who assays the befuddled Guy with his usual mordant Weltschmertz.

Julie Christie plays a dual role here, filling in as both wife and mistress, status quo seeker and subversive agitator. It may strike one as merely a clever gimmick, but Truffaut seems to be implying that both positions contain elements of seduction and distress for the hero. Unfortunately, this suggestion, which is purely visual, never rises above the level of subtext.

The movie is almost, but not quite, dull. Unlike the novel, Guy's giving into the desire to read forbidden books is presented fait accompli. There's never any genuine build up of suspense or tension, just a vaguely ominous sense of something sinister about to happen. Only it never does. The storyline is weakly resolved -- petered out would be more accurate -- as compared to the novel, but at least we're spared the silly business of the Mechanical Hound (which sniffs out traitors) and the disgraceful eugenicist notion that humanity could be regenerated by the purgative fires of a nuclear Armageddon.

Bradbury wants to engage us in a thoughtful debate about the evils of censorship, but his analysis of the problem only goes skin-deep. To his credit, he attacks intellectual and moral complacency, thought it's doubtful that our society would blossom into maturity overnight if everyone put aside his detective novel or her romance book and took up Kant and Jane Austen instead. Any "culture of compassion" to come will be founded not on books, but on a new ethos transcending our previous concerns. The world of 451 in some ways anticipates today's university wars about what makes up a literary canon. It fails, however, to take into account the vitality and subversive power of popular forms of culture (music, films) and how the interplay between highbrow and lowbrow feeds into and invigorates the mainstream.

Bradbury's vision of culture is suspiciously purist: there's room for Plato and Dickens and other elitist shibboleths; no room for Danielle Steel, Snoop Doggy Dog, or Pulp Fiction. Exclusive and pretentious, this is scarcely a democratic vision of culture. Bradbury inveighs against the evils of repressing free thought, but it never occurs to him that by championing the great works of Western Civilization at the expense of popular genres (like science-fiction, for instance), he's exercising his own equally pernicious brand of censorship. In the end, his self-congratulatory elitism is alienating and, ironically, just as philistine as the broad target he aims for.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Solaris Problem or, Then and Now

In the beginning there was Solaris, the film by Andrei Tarkovsky, and it was good. I’d never even seen it on the big screen, the only way any film by Tarkovsky should be seen, so I’d never had the opportunity, as I’d had with Nostalghia, or Andrei Rublev, to submit to the full immersion in the optical-temporal distension of which he is the peculiar master and which his films demand. Nor had I read the Stanislav Lem novel. I merely accepted as given the occult genius of AT, wholly prepared to take on faith his agonistic cinema as something verging on mystical experience.

But that was then – sometime in the late 80s/early 90s – and now, in 2011, re-watching it as I prep my SF class for the fall, some small doubt has begun to creep in. Is this ghost story, this tale of spiritual affliction, a work of genius, or a lot of hokum? Or have I somewhere along the way lost my own faith and begun to mistrust Tarkovsky’s obsessions with the innocent rituals of childhood and his na├»ve nature mysticism, as Jameson has called it? What has changed?

For one thing, I’ve now read the Lem novel, which is very obviously brilliant, but more to the point, grounds the experience of Kelvin, the fraught psychologist, through a mordant, yet deeply intimate and humane, first-person narrative. The film’s abstractions don’t come close to it. Kelvin, in Tarkosky, is maddeningly opaque. For another – and this is more to the point – what once struck me as profound and enigmatic now seems closer to stilted and camp. Bad Bergman or Antonioni, or what Kael used to mock as "the sick soul of Europe" -- a stunningly insensitive remark to make about what, after all, is really a post-Auschwitz cinema. Profundity always runs the risk of seeming merely pretentious). Still, at the level of character, Solaris is inhabited by little more than strained silences and darting cryptic glances; everyone looks distraught, isolated, leeched of all discernible affect save exhaustion and alienation. At least this seems true of the first 2/3rds of the film. The final third, however, unexpectedly builds on much of that tedium; it accretes into a frisson of melancholy glory that marks Tarkovsky’s work at its most penetrating.

The sense of paralysis, of lassitude, of confusion and ambiguity, that seemed like spiritual values in themselves (or the necessary preconditions for them) is still there, conveyed, not through the denuded storyline, but by Tarkovsky’s elliptical style, the richness of his slow absorptive eye, that invests the most ordinary surfaces – the metallic sheen of the station, the worn leather of its couches – with the uncanny threat of some impossible meaning. Hari’s suicide and resurrection still contains an awesome power – all the pain of mortality exudes from her violent recovery from rigor mortis. Resurrection makes her both more vulnerable and even more lonely than she was before. And yet ... what’s missing is the deep, unbridgeable sense the novel gives of a Total and Alien Otherness that is the planet Solaris. Without that, the rest teeters on the edge of Cold War allegory, merely a moving story of the human overcoming the institution, of love triumphing over duty.

For the resolution to Kelvin’s dilemma is highly problematic: he retreats, unequivocally, into the limpid island of the past, undergoing a kind of regression that Tarkovsky orchestrates as transcendence. This does not signal rescue, but surrender. It's the defeat of mortal knowledge -- the awareness that some things can never be made right or whole again; that the bitter logic of life is not about innocence regained, but learning how to live with loss, with exile and failure. In Lem, the ending is ambiguous, haunted, as everything in the novel is. He refuses to quiet the ghost, choosing instead the more difficult commitment – to wait in abeyance for the possibility of redemption. Lem’s finale is truly messianic; Tarkovsky’s theologically overdetermined.

Soderbergh’s Solaris is a different creature altogether. As Steven Dillon observes in The Solaris Effect, rightly, I think, despite his disclaimer that he is adapting Lem, Soderbergh’s Solaris is really a remake of Tarkovsky. It’s a brilliant one, too, in many ways more satisfying than the original. I won’t dwell on it at length, but among its many virtues is its brevity. It compresses the dilated Russian version without sacrificing any of the enigmatic qualities of Lem’s story, which also compresses Kelvin’s backstory with Rheya to a series of strategically deployed, emotionally powerful snippets. The sentimental node of the dacha is erased, with no ill effects. (Of course, dilation and distension, what Tarkovsky refers to as “sculpting in time,” is the whole point of his cinematic philosophy. The camera becomes the aperture of duration: a mechanism that erases its mediation).

Seeing Clooney in this you realize that this was the film that enabled him to play the title role in Michael Clayton. There are very few leading men among American actors capable of conveying the moral fatigue and spiritual emptiness of midlife with such desolate austerity. As for Natascha Mcelhone (and here, reader, I yield to mere idolatry), I wish we saw more of her in major film roles, and not just because she possesses the most arresting face of any female actor of her generation.

Soderbergh’s Solaris, like Tarkovsky’s, is concerned with the sublime of memory – the dream of forgiveness, of redeeming one’s mistakes – in effect, the erasure of the very conditions that endow mortality with meaning. His ending, beautifully wrought (his signature play with temporal sequence is masterful here), nevertheless succumbs to the temptation, negated by Lem, of making over the donation of Solaris into a form of grace. The central idea of the novel – that of the failed god, the weak god who resides solely in matter – is beyond the imaginative capacity of either filmmaker. The final enigma goes begging.

The real Other, for both Tarkovksy and Soderbergh, is not the alien planet that invades the unconscious, but Woman. This resort to binaries is tiresome. Both versions -- and Lem's, too, for that matter -- cast Hari/Rheya as emotionally unstable and suicidal, while Kelvin is the rationalist par excellence (for all the good it does him). Following the hoariest of traditions, Rheya is introduced as "tricky" -- a seductress who may also be deeply disturbed. And indeed we learn later, in an awkward bit of backstory, that her mother suffered some form of schizophrenia.

As the insane muse Rheya becomes the via negativa, the opening of the way to the Beyond. Soderbergh makes this Langian trope explicit in the dinner party scene (one of K's flashbacks) where he and Gibarian debunk consciousness as epiphenomenal, a mere mathematical probability, overriding and silencing Rheya's impassioned defense of an informing Logos. The medium-range close up of her face as she falls silent is harrowing; her withdrawal from Kelvin becomes a metaphysical rebuke at this point while earning our sympathy. All this is recovered in the denouement, when Rheya becomes the rescuing angel of history, leading Kris to heaven/haven, even if it's only the eternal recurrence of the domestic same.

All three versions of Solaris cry out for a Lacanian reading: Woman as Symptom, Symptom as sinthome, the continual play of doubling & mirroring. Her phantomic status as the revenant of the Real exemplifies the crisis of the self, whose status can be read as a Symptom, an irreducible kernel or remnant of the trauma of the mirror stage.

As Zizek comments: "How do we account for patients who have, beyond any doubt, gone through their fantasy, who have obtained distance from the fantasy-framework of their reality, but whose key symptom still persists? Lacan tried to answer this challenge with the concept of the sinthome.... a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as a bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense.... [H]ere is the radical ontological status of the symptom: symptom, conceived as sinthome, is literally our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives any consistency to the subject... the way we "choose something instead of nothing".... That is why the final Lacanian definition of the end of the psychoanalytic process is identification with the symptom.".

In T's Solaris, the persistence of memory-as-symptom leads to some unintentionally parodic moments in which Kelvin tries to rid himself of this unwelcome -- clingy? -- lover. Poor Hari/Rheya, in both films, suffers some grotesque punishments at the hands of men. Her immortality becomes a source of horror -- a perversion of the Christic promise, or else the final expression of its logic.

Yet, as with Rachael in Blade Runner, she also proves herself more faithful to her own ontology; more fully human because she does not reject her doubt about who she is, but embraces the uncertainty. At the dramatic level, she grows, becomes more than she is, so that by the end her example leads Kelvin to an act of transcendent empathy. All the same, I like Lem's conclusion better -- it rejects the ease offered by theological solutions, opting to stay true to the complicated doubt of hope.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On "Battelstar Galactica"

It’s inexplicable, but I’ve only just discovered Battlestar Galatica. Oh, I caught a few random installments on the Syfy channel back when I could afford cable. But the timing was never convenient and I’m simply not a destination viewer. Ron Silliman’s touting it piqued my interest and I’m finally catching up with it now, thanks to Apple TV’s on-demand system, and have become totally, ridiculously hooked. After sampling what looked to be some of the choicer episodes with a view to possibly adding them to my Posthumanism course, I’ve settled into routine watching and am almost done with Season One.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist paging through a few of the BSG and Philosophy books (there are three, at least, so far), and while all turn a well-informed scrutiny onto the show’s complex themes – its engagements with gender, religion, terrorism, and posthumanism – I never came across anything that put its finger on the show’s draw. The religious angle, for instance, is a terrible mess – riddled with metaphysical inconsistencies and offering up one theological red herring after another. And, as many commentators have noted, while BSG is exemplary in its use of strong female characters, this dedication appears to fall off sharply in the last two seasons.

Yet BSG is deeply compelling, whether as a mature meditation on the post 9/11 state of emergency and the ethical challenges it poses ("West Wing" meets "Star Trek TNG"), or as a fabulous mashup of Blade Runner and Star Wars. The question of why machines would naturally “evolve” into humans is one the show doesn’t directly address (at least so far). It seems they want feelings, too – access to the full range of affectivity that only embodiment can make possible. Also, deep space dogfights are cool.

But finally the appeal of this show, I think, is very traditional. I’d sum it up as John Ford’s cavalry trilogy in outer space. Which is to say, there’s a helluva lot of bro-love gushing through all the military ceremony and grace under pressure derring-do. You can almost hear Ben Johnson growling off-stage, “Get ‘er done, Starbuck.” The growling, though, in this case, is usually done by Edward James Olmos, in what is surely his finest performance, a minimalist masterpiece of restraint and understatement that is often very moving.

BSG openly glorifies military culture, offering its values as co-terminous with civilization's with only the occasional demural, and this is troubling. Yet beyond the pleasure of all the Fordian male bonding rituals and the Hawksian gratifications of men "just doing their jobs," it also asks the question the best SF has always asked -- in the face of the alien, the other, in the wake of genocidal catastrophe, what does it mean to be human? To want to be human?

Wakefield Press and The Return of Surrealism

Surrealism has had few out-and-out practitioners in America. Its greatest exponent here was Philip Lamantia, who navigated the oneiric pathways with narcotic logic. Among contemporary poets, Will Alexander has created a poetic idiom unlike anything that’s preceded it: a mixture of Aime Cesaire’s political engagements and a wild sonic shamanism openly in quest of transcendence.

Meanwhile in Boston, the least likely of havens, two presses have re-kindled the Surrealist flame: Black Widow, which mounts large, authoritative editions of major works such as Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man and Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain; and the newly formed Wakefield Press, which focuses on exquisitely tailored minor works. Wakefield ( is the brainchild of Marc Lowenthal, a book designer for MIT Press, who together with a crack team, has begun producing beautiful editions of the French Surrealists and others, all newly and expertly translated, and appearing under the rubric of imagining science. The latest of these is Andrew Joron’s translation of The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, by Paul Scheerbart, which brings an obscure fantasist of the technological imaginary into English.

Last Friday, my wife and I drove to Boston to hear Andrew read at Raven Books, in its attractive Newbury Street location. The evening, which was very well-attended, began with Lowenthal’s giving us a brief excerpt from his translation of Benjamin Peret’s The Leg of Lamb. He prefaced this with some remarks on Surrealist humor, noting that while Bergson stressed how laughter is provoked by the spectacle of the human taking on the properties of a thing, the Surrealists reversed this by giving things the qualities of the human. So, in the section he read, a humble pile of manure pleads with a gentleman not to assault it with veronese green. The pile, it turns out, is none other than Paul Claudel, the right-wing Catholic poet who had quarreled with the Surrealists, who never missed a chance for some payback.

Joron read then from Perpetual Motion Machine, a short work that struck me as part Novalis, part Bruno Schulz – a gently ironic mix of genuine Romantic yearning and whimsical satire that chronicles the author’s evidently very real efforts to construct, through an elaborate system of wheels, that holy grail of energy production, a perpetual motion machine. Needless to say, these efforts are crowned with failure. Yet the final pages of Scheerbart’s feverish little book radiate triumph as he turns, with moving eloquence, from a consideration of his contraption to a cosmic vision of the spinning dynamo of the earth itself, “the earthstar,” as he calls it, a humming bolus of gravitational power and infinite force that fuels all life.

The evening closed with Andrew reading a few poems from his own work – selections from the dazzling collections The Sound Mirror and Trance Archive.

I enter history
As a secret agent or stone effigy
dedicated to communism
but eaten away by music.

As Joron noted in his remarks, poetry must court a special kind of failure, one that opens the possibility for language to begin speaking otherwise, pushing it beyond “the poverty of fact” to the irrational, the vatic, the visionary. To imagine science is to think poetically.