Saturday, July 30, 2011

“This is wreckage,” writes Stephen Lapthisophon toward the beginning of Writing Art Cinema: 1988-2010. “These fragments I have shored up against my ruins,” wrote T.S. Eliot toward the very end of The Waste Land. I can’t help but think that if Eliot lived in our age, an age when text is image, an age of textimagesound, he might have made art like Stephen’s and Jesse’s: elusive, fragmentary, elliptical. I am not at all certain that the library can be unpacked. Or, rather, that Unpacking My Library can be unpacked, at least in the sense of explaining it. In “Unpacking My Library,” the essay by Walter Benjamin to which this video alludes, Benjamin identifies himself “as a genuine collector” who appears to speak of his books, but who “on closer scrutiny … proves to be speaking only about himself.” The genuine collector of this film, a collector of books but also sounds and images, speaks of everything but himself: stark images of empty, open, dilapidation; bare light bulbs, unilluminated; unplugged power cords coming in and out of focus; shadows of tree branches on closed blinds, wafting in the wind, looking like a Franz Kline canvas come alive; Martin Heidegger; the this and that of everyday life given the attention it merits but rarely gets — a corrugated fence, an upside-down garbage can. We see hands and feet and finally, one assumes, Stephen and Jesse, but blurred in dirty mirrors. No, these collectors are not speaking only of themselves. Nor for themselves. And yet they are spoken for, by sounds and images. As if they and we stand mute, hoping what we’ve collected can speak for us. For whom do the automated and human readings of Derrida’s Of Hospitality speak? We are welcomed to the disorder and order we see, but by whom? Who is our host? And what norms govern our behavior as guests? Bergson’s Matter and Memory bids us to “choos[e] the key in which our own intellect is called upon to play” — but how to choose? Does anything guide our choices and render them coherent? Among the keys offered us are Dionne Warkwick singing “Walk On By,” the opening dialogue from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, the glorious cacophony of Goddard’s Week End, Auden’s “Old People’s Home” with remembers “when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,” Sonic Youth, the weaving saxophone from Bernard Hermann’s score for Taxi Driver, a history of modern American painting and architecture, the sound of the wind, a train crossing, a carillon playing a forgotten hymn, foreign language lessons (will the lost or stolen travel bag be recovered?). And yet one does not feel lost, anchored perhaps by fragments of imagetextsound, each of which, to borrow from Auden, “has [its] own nuance of damage.” Though much of the space the film inhabits looks like a war zone, it is far from clear that the video endorses Fuller’s analogizing a film to a battleground.
And the books. Of course, the books. Their titles remain a mystery: the camera pans across the shelves, but the spines are out of focus. I can pick some out: there’s Heidegger’s Basic Writings; there’s Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I know them from their look, their surfaces — but their contents are hidden from me. Yet inside the books, we see photographs of Robert Smithson’s work, of Merce Cunningham’s, of Goddard’s. Just as the camera pans left to right across the blurry spines and later right to left in one of the video’s structuring tropes, the books are flipped through front to back and back to front — flipped by someone’s hands, but not the hands of a collector who proves to be speaking only about himself. We can see the images — but a photograph of a dance robs the dance of its very life: movement. And while we can see text, we can’t see the text, until toward the end when we are bombarded by full-screen letters and words arranged, rearranged, and deranged. For more important — or at least more salient — than the text is the sound of hands gripping and turning pages, a displacement of the visual by the tactile, reminding us of how books feel, of their materiality, their individuality, their non-fungibility for the collector, who, Benjamin tells us, thinks that “not only books but copies of books have their fates.” The only title we clearly see is Durkheim’s Suicide. And then we realize that it is a photograph, an image of the book that we see, not the book itself — as if there were such a thing. What are we to make of this? Some viewers schooled in the foundations of sociology will no doubt think of Durkheimian anomie, the rootlessness so typical of modernity, of changing orders. And some will pessimistically find anomie exemplified in the film. Perhaps, though, what’s on offer here is the strong pessimism Nietzsche wrote of in The Birth of Tragedy, an inclination for what is hard, dreadful, problematic. Following Bergson, we can choose the key in which to play, and then choose a different key. We can bemoan our world in ruins. Or we can shore up fragments against our own ruin. That is something we can do. It would be easier if we came to a world that (to echo Heidegger) is already always meaningful. But that is not the world we inhabit — at the very least, that is not the world of this mysterious, exhilarating film

Sean McAleer
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

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