Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Caché: Film Analysis

So last night, in lieu of working on an essay that I probably should have been directing my efforts toward, I watched Michael Haneke’s celebrated film, Caché. I’d heard a lot about it–I knew it was one of those divisive films you either love or hate, yet I assumed I would like it (I’m usually a sucker for arty-cerebral films). So, after watching it, here are some thoughts on it’s construction and, well, “meaning.” I’m assuming you’ve seen the film if you’re reading this–if you haven’t, this will utterly ruin the rush of seeing it for the first time.

I’ve copied above the various translations of the word caché–we can note that it means, essentially, that which is hidden, or held secret. We see quite clearly as we’re watching what is variously hidden (the irony, of course, is that we know from the start that something is hidden, it’s given to us as the placard for the film): the ambiguous “filmer” of the tapes, Georges’ past history with Majid, marital trust, the motive of the filmer, Pierrot’s inner self from his parents. Often, we are derailed by watching a shot, thinking it’s objective narrative of the film, only to suddenly see fuzzy horizontal lines fill the screen, and we’ve been had–we were only watching a videotape of the real action. During these scenes, we are sitting next to George and his wife Anne, experiencing it with them for the first time. They analyze the actions of the filmer as George would pour over a book on his show–they search constantly for the root, the answer. The books which populate a wide slew of shots underlines this–seriously, watch it again if you didn’t notice. There are piles of books in a ridiculous amount of shots. It’s almost conspicuous how heavy-handed this motif is–but that’s exactly the point. Haneke wants us to search, wants us to be just as George and Anne are, watching ambiguous slow film, trying to divine deeper meaning. I’ll come back to this in just a minute–lets first gather some kind of foundation for this relationship between we as viewers, and the actors as performers.

The structurally formative long, long shots both confound and assist this motif of hiding: we scour the shots by necessity, we are actively looking for something as viewers, rather than being shown–and often, nothing is shown. We are kept on our toes. This is part of the power of these shots, they jar so coyly with our normal experience of watching a movie, and put us on edge. We wait at all times for something to happen–consider the shot of George closing all the windows, undressing himself, then lying on the bed in low indigo glow. The shots are not all truthful either: we learn that we are often not able to trust what we are seeing. Case in point–remember this shot?

This is the angle from George and Anne’s bedroom window, looking down on the spot in the street where the filmer must have planted the camera. Yet after some time on a steady cam, we are torn away, and walk backwards through the room in POV. We hear gurgling, sputtering. Suddenly we see a young Majid, actually spitting up blood. This is evidence of how George’s memory begins to leak into the film–like visual Freudian slips his subconscious past surfaces. This is how terrible events are suffocated, just as the mass killing of hundreds of Algerians (including Majid’s parents) is a cultural memory repressed from the French conscience, too ugly to revisit.

So what then do we make of the suicide scene? This is the height of the film, and it’s suddenness is so palatable after so much stillness. Majid calls George, wants him to watch as his life drains out on the floor. He will not let George write his past off as a dream–Majid is a casualty of George’s offensively brusque dismissal of anyone who is not him. We watch from the same vantage point of the cassette that was made days earlier–implying perhaps that this event is filmed. Or, even if it isn’t, we are watching, we are the ones who hold George accountable for his brutal selfishness.

And what of the mysterious tapes? Who is the culprit? We can, if we want, play a little game of Clue, though I think in the end it is not necessary. We initially peg Majid’s son for the videos–it was he who had access to his father’s apartment, he who had motive to be angry at George (for his father was educationally and economically disadvantaged by George), and somehow he knew that George was present at the suicide. Yet there’s the final shot confounding a closed case: years later, we watch as Majid’s son meets Pierrot on the stairs outside of school. It’s hard even to catch, but you can see Majid’s son entering from the right, and crossing leftwards up the stairs to Pierrot. They walk away, and the movie ends. Suddenly we suspect Pierrot as an accomplice: his churlish attitude, conspicuous absences, knowledge of what could be his mother’s infidelity. But it is at this point that I must stop playing detective. This is precisely what the film wants us to do, to bring to bear all of the analytic machines we have to discern the filmer, and the nature of his grudge. But it is no one who has made the films. Consider the film placed inside the doorstop as George is yelling in the street at their dinner party. I suppose, conceivably, Pierrot could have waited in the mud room while his father went outside, but to what end? And how would he have known the house that George grew up in? No, the films are a mystical element: they are the manifestations of George’s buried memories. It is history coming to take its toll.

The film places us beside Anne and George. We are witnesses of all, left to find some kind of larger meaning. Any time we see a long steady cam shot, we are conceivably watching through the filmer’s eyes. Just as George speaks of abstract nothings in his book discussion show, he leaves the set and suddenly the threat of the watcher is with him. Film itself is the hider, the concealer–it warps our perceptions along with a cultural history which is not objective. But in the end, what are we left with to consider? Who was the culprit? We’ve already explored the relationship between Majid and George, there seems to be no other hidden story. The meeting of Pierrot and Majid’s son only serves to poke us in the side, to laugh at us. The movie wants to break our conceptions of a modern movie, it wants to shock us in every way it can. And it does, but ultimately I don’t think we’re left with enough. It is probing in the way Beckett’s plays are–in that emptiness is the answer. There is nothing else. The enigma is the sole pursuit, and it leads us nowhere. I’m glad the film was made, but I think it needed a little more to leave the watcher thinking about.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Today in my Ulysses class, Professor Sherry spoke for a moment about Joyce's use of the word Nostos. It's a Greek word, meaning return, or homecoming. It's most common modern relative is nostalgia , which literally translates as the pain of forgetting. It made me think of the time I've spent in Nicaragua over the years: every summer, six years in a row, I would spend about a week and a half to two weeks in a northern village. I wrote a reflection earlier this semester about one summer in which I spent a bigger chunk of time there, and I've pasted it below with photos I took that summer. These were the only ones of hundreds I could find on my computer right now–I wish I had a few of the landscape, or the hacienda.

This is it. I whisper the words softly to myself, standing on a rocky, muddy overlook. Beneath me is a vast sea of green in a lush crater, a scar in the earth. There is a wind that ruffles my hair, and dries the sweat on my brow and neck, strong enough to make my eyelashes flutter. The trees below pulse in a fecund organized dance, leaves tossing in a shimmer. Beyond the green, there are mountains–a pale slate blue from the distance. I am in Nuevo Segovia, a region in the far north of Nicaragua, which is in Central America, which is a long way from my home. I turn around, and I can just make out the roof of the hacienda, the structure I am staying in. It is the central building for the community of Plan Grande Dos, a group of three hundred or so Nicaraguans (or Nicas, as we refer to them). I have been here for three weeks, though only in Plan Grande for two of them. I know little Spanish I am here now with four other gringos with whom I have toured much of Nicaragua. I have been to this community twice before, with a larger group of people from a constellation of Presbyterian churches. The five of us came to Plan Grande a day before they arrived this year, but the larger group left a week ago now. I will leave today, with the rest of my American friends.

My breath, slowing now that I am not moving, still has the dull robust tang of the beans and rice with hot sauce that I ate for breakfast. I don’t know what time it is–I have no watch, and I left my cell phone in America. But it is yet in the golden hour of the morning–I estimate my hike took me about an hour from the village to this point. The earth here is soggy and rich in clay. It is the rainy season, and the ground is usually wet from daily rain. My palms are caked in cracking mud from where I’ve supported myself when I slipped coming up here. Dried sweat and earthy grit lie in a thin layer on my arms and the back of my neck. I take a last look, trying to burn the image into my mind, and turn for the walk back.

I near the edge of the thick verdant sprawl, wet in sweat. Through the break in the leaves, I see thin smoke roiling from Luis’s house. This is good–it means water is being boiled for midmorning coffee. They do not have gas stoves, let alone many electric appliances–there are only two outlets in the whole village center, and one electric light. I could use some coffee–though I could use a shower first. Perhaps “shower” is not the right term–they have no running water, either. Maybe “staggered bathing” makes more sense. The water is collected from a reservoir a hundred feet or so down the southern side of the mountain every morning. So we can clean ourselves, the Nicas place a large barrel of water in, ironically, an old bathroom from thirty or so years previous. You take a dish, fill it with water, and pour it over yourself. The water is not heated. The very first dish you pour over yourself feels, I imagine, similar to being outside a commercial airliner at cruising altitude. You will never scrub your body with more vigor than in this moment, trying in vain to create some warming friction in the icy deluge. In between pours, you shiver maniacally in gelid nakedness. The bathroom itself taunts you–holes where the spigots used to be, a relic from the Nicaraguan civil war. The hacienda used to be a Contra prison, holding the Sandinista nationalists in concrete cells, who were occasionally taken out to be executed behind the hacienda to make room for fresh prisoners. The bathroom is a squalid symbol of the American money and influence that tore this region apart.

After I wash and dry myself, I climb briefly into the comfort of my sleeping bag, bringing my body temperature back up to a functional level. We are sleeping on the second level of the hacienda–downstairs is a covered open area with three machete hewn wooden benches. It serves as a sort of forum for the community. I walk downstairs, perfumed with the rich smell of coffee–warm rosewood and lavender, spiced floral fruit. I am handed a Styrofoam cup of coffee–a reminder that there is a parallel world somewhere out there that I distantly remember living in. Leno has given me the coffee, and he grins, wide and warm. Buenos dias, he greets me. I smile and say the same to him, nodding my head in appreciation. I sit in between Veronica and Mercedes, two of the matriarchs of the community. They are speaking in lively Spanish to some of the men standing around, including Leno. The women wave their hands for emphasis. The men rumble and grunt, guffaw, put both hands out, palms facing the women: oh please, that’s too much! Veronica giggles, lifts her fingers to her mouth, digits gathered in a tight bundle pointing to her lips, and then flips her hand backwards, exploding the fingers to full spread, palm facing her. This means: silly, overblown–or hyperbolically ridiculous for comic purposes. I know this. I know what they are talking about too–Domingo, who is a local jokester and prankster is coming to visit today from his cottage a few miles away. But I do not know what their words mean.

Later, I am packing my belongings into my oversized backpack next to my fellow travelers. The mood is somber–we are feeling already the dreary pangs of heavy nostalgia. We will leave this place at four or five in the afternoon, I am told. Will it be hard to go back? Says Nick, fixing me with a trenchant stare. He is four years older than I, and speaks Spanish almost fluently. I find I don’t know how to answer. I tell him this. His brow furrows, and he is silent. He is thinking of home. Home.

Lunch is delicious–we eat with the five of us and about the same number of Nicas, the leaders of the community. They have slaughtered one of their chicken for the meal–this is a sign of deep respect. They will have one less hen to gather eggs from. The pliant meat is bathed in a spicy sulfur yellow lentil sauce of some kind. We talk for a short while of our departure, how quiet it will be without us. But we are about to hear Joe speak about the war, and the anticipation makes everyone a little demure. Joe is not his real name, but we have always called him this. He wears a wide brimmed cowboy hat, and a yellow button down with dingy khakis–always. I have seen him speak only two or three times before, and never about the war. No one speaks of it–the rift it burned into this community of three hundred or so people is immense. The war was very intense in this region, and there were locals on both sides. Older men still have entry-wound scars, rippling satiny scar tissue in long strokes of machete slashes. Joe is ancient, no one is sure how old–not even he. We finish eating the main meal, and sit for a while eating slices of pineapple that is grown nearby. The women gather our plates as we slide forward on the seat of our chairs, slumping and patting our swelling bellies. We walk outside, where Joe is sitting.

We sit in a vague oval–Joe is the visual apogee, Omar beside. Omar can speak English well, perhaps the only one in the community with this invaluable knowledge. Only the community leaders who ate with us are there from the Nicas, standing apart from the circle, arms crossed or in pockets. Joe has his hands folded on top of his right knee, crossed over his left at the thigh. Everything about him is like paper–his folded wrinkly face, the fragile skin in clumps at his knuckles, the manila luster. He speaks softly, Omar translates only a little louder. Joe stares at his paper hands almost the whole time he speaks. He was in his fifties when the war began, and both his sons fought for the Sandinistas. Both were killed. It was years before the Contras came to my village. Our eyes are fixed on Joe’s slumping form. The Contra soldiers took me from my home, to this place. They had American rifles, automatics. The tortured me for two days, Omar nearly whispering, his voice thick with emotion–he too is aghast by what he is hearing. They cut–Omar trails off, his eyes wide looking at Joe, looking at paper hands, speaking steadily and quietly. He motions to his legs, stomach, and back with his right hand. Joe speaks for another ten seconds, then looks at Omar, who looks at us: they cut… inside of me. Joe looks at us, all of us, with a sad, deploring look. He tries to smile, the corners of his mouth winking, but instead he looks like tattered teddy bear, pulled out from the back of the closet–dusty and forgotten. Why did they do this to you? Says Dick, forty-three and almost bald, stomach pudgy. Omar relays the question–Joe looks at Omar, nods his head once, then looks back at Dick. He does not speak–only gives his teddy bear smile. There is a gentle breeze, children flick marbles nearby.

Now is the time. I hoist my backpack onto sunbaked shoulders, take a long drink of cool water from my stainless steel canteen. I am the last to walk downstairs from the hacienda, into a crowd of the Nicas, all gathered to see us off. When the larger group left a week ago, there were many more, but I know everyone who has gathered to see us off. They are my friends. I hug everyone in sight–Leno, Mercedes, Eva, Miguel, Domingo–who has just arrived–Léon, Tatiana, Omar. My family. Everyone is crying, it seems. I’m kissing cheeks of all the women. I even give Anayanca–with whom I’ve met several times in the past weeks for secretive midnight romance–a light kiss on the lips. She hands me a folded note on spiral bound paper with a heart on the top which I still have to this day. Her friends howl in laughter, Anayanca blushes and brushes a lock of hair behind her ear. I hug all her friends too. I take Joe’s papersoft hand both of mine, and he gives me a real smile–I see his teeth for the first time. He is frail and light, and his eyes are cloudy blue.

Slowly, so slowly, we get into the car we rented for the trip. All the kids are slapping the fenders and bumpers and yelling and jumping–the older women cry silently at the fringe of the group, loving smiles spreading wide on their faces. We roll down the windows, I grab every hand I can see and shake it, saying anything that comes to my mind in Spanish. Eventually the car begins to move, and we stare out the rear window until we have turned left up the hill, and they fade behind tree trunks passing between us.


The joys of getting a typewriter for your birthday–there's something about the visuality/physicality of watching the page unfurl as a substantive object (rather than a word document) that's just plain cool.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Summertime Languor

We, the Intranets

Lets talk about the internet. It's like talking about the air outside–the mediums through which we experience the world on a daily, regular basis are difficult to observe. Yet, I think, we must. Changes are underfoot which are drastic and vast, and whose effects we will see clearly only in the wisdom of retrospect–which makes cultural memory in the now all the more important. Priming myself for hopefully a deeper examination of it's substance, the two thoughts which seem most appropriate are: in what mode can we begin to regard this network which has become so pervasive–or are we too deeply imbedded within it's pathos? and, how do we, as users, form ourselves in a relation to it?. It appears outwardly that we, who are the component parts, the ground level rudiments of this ebullient hypermodern system, have been fundamentally morphed–our modes of communication and the experiences which mediate the image of the self have warped. We are indeterminately consumers and producers. We expect to receive data succinctly and instantly, and we reach out to others in the same fashion. Through outlets such as Myspace, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, we are allowed the freedom to upload our thoughts and works. We see ourselves displayed inside the planar web of the internet, gauge the subjective quality of ourselves through likes, views, stars, +1’s, favorites, tethered always to the opinions of others. It is the age of a new, radical form of critique and production, bedfellows whose creators do not discern between the output of either–the aim is simply visual product to be consumed by others. Yet in this moment, there is a wonderful freeing, opening of content. The line between professional and amateur is often invisible–if someone wants to practice any kind of art or craft, there is a medium, and perhaps there is an audience. Clearly my writing right now falls into this category.

Yet through this leveling, we have sacrificed the widespread availability and accessibility of products deemed professional–rendered for us as trusted, even elevated–for the innumerable proliferation of amateur practices. Videos abound of one person, stark before the camera (attached to their laptop as a cyclopean eye) speaking blandly of minutia, playing an instrument, doing a dance, always bathed in pearly cerulean blue glow, the aura of the screen. Suddenly we have emerged into a bizarre relationship between the public and the private. When we think of traditionally private activities for pleasure, what comes most readily are activities such as reading, listening to music, taking a walk, whatever appeals most to the person’s sensibilities. Private activities allow us to consider objects outside of ourselves, yet always relating them back to our conception of self–we are the medium through which all sensory activity is passed. Yet in the age of screens–now the principal valance of perception–everything becomes, by a visual necessity, private. We alone are in control of our meanderings through the web, and we skim along the surface. Early internet culture applied the term “surfing” to describe this activity (though certainly this was used to define television beforehand, the same principles hold true), which reminds the user of the planar element of the internet, each page representing a new two dimensional plane, existing within a four dimensional system–thusly surfing is ultimately an inexact metaphor, in that with surfing you are able to behold the scene’s totality in a manner you are not allowed in the internet. Though content and even ourselves, (in facebook form) have become property the public domain, it is always a private experience of discovery–there is no one to hold users accountable, or to wag fingers. This is why facebook “stalking,” or early cases of cyberbullying, or the pirating of all types of creative media is a reality. We are publicly shared, and privately plundered.

Interruption. No longer jostles us. We have become dependent on cuts every few seconds, obscuring any image of totality, favoring instead (e)motion which rushes at our eyes, a barrage of opulent digital dulcets, offering all substantive interpretation as a ruler dispenses handouts to the impoverished, securing his total control as a trainer offers treats to servile dog, to keep in check any potential work the brain might have to do–its happy hour at the opium den.

When speaking of the personal unit in American culture, the term “consumer” is readily applied. This would seem especially true of the internet and cloud user, chugging through streams of data, gorging themselves on endless entertainment. Though, through the portal of your screen, you are perpetually faced with the new. With inexhaustible content perpetually available to the user, the repeated newness of every visual experience actually serves to bore our minds–because everything is new, it is all the same. Thusly, we cannot be defined as consumers: as the user beings to engage with only pleasurable baseline of mental process, we become closer to grazers, lifelessly loping indeterminately, having long since sacrificed any hopes for reification. One only needs to regard the facial expression of a person engaged in prolonged exposure to the web to know this to be true.

I'll end with some some food for thought, circa 1924, from the terrifically apt essay for our times, Boredom by Sigfried Kracauer: "If one were never bored, one would presumably not really be present at all and would thus be merely one more object of boredom. One would light up on the rooftops or spool by as a filmstrip. But if indeed one is present, one would have no choice but to be bored by the ubiquitous abstract racket that does not allow one to exist, and, at the same time, to find oneself boring for existing in it."

Friday, November 25, 2011


It strikes me, as I come to write, how delicate a process trying to pen a first blog post is–I sit mute for moments. My character and image depend on this first impression! These blogs are more daunting than I thought, little sketches of you. But as I think about it–what is a blog? Collected catalogues, separated as serialized encapsulations of singular opinions, living in the abstract. (clearly I’m still bitter about their trickyness). But though that sounds bleak–what I mean is the form of blogs themselves is a strange one. I would compare the feeling of writing a post to writing a letter–yet unlike the composition of missives, posts have none of the targeted personal endearments and that letter writing does. Blogging, on the other hand, is a personal act, in that posts are constructed with no specific audience in mind–rather more like a shout in the dark, a black crack that either resounds, or withers into nebulous internet space. And, unlike their papery, physical brethren, blogs do not deteriorate, letters do not smudge from tears or coffee stains, they are not misplaced. They live, conceivably, forever in the planar web: each webpage a singular plane as it stretches over your laptop screen, yet tied through hyperlinks to eight or ten other pages–abstract and unreal until you summon it, now a new plane splayed out in view, suddenly real. If seeing is substance, and substance is real, that is. Furthermore, the work is expanded through its audience: as readers leave comments, their thoughts are recorded to the minute they were made, and a textual conversation can ensue, quick thoughts, questions, crystallized in HTML ink. Each page, each post, is a record of thoughts, moments of emotion and conversation as touches. It has been marked upon, and reflects the moment of its mark.

To guide this wandering conversation, I’ve pasted in one of Walter Benjamin’s opines on the subject of history and of historicism in Theses on History, which I’ve found illuminating and suggestive to consider. It was one of his later and more mystical works, and it reads lucid and supple for a piece of theory. It has assisted in my reification of the internet–a body consisting of a vast, ebullient mashing of spacetime, translating and comprising our culture, our history.

“Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus of various moments of history. But no state of affairs is, as a cause, already a historical one. It becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia. The historian who starts from this, ceases to permit the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary. He records the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one. He thereby establishes a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through”

What Benjamin presents here is a new type historicism: a hyper-historicism, or even meta-historicism. But on second thought, I think it might be wise to stay as far away from that oft-abused and meaning-warped word meta. Hyperhistoricism is the method by which we are able to conceive of history as a timeless beast–a continuum through which we softly reach to touch time’s silky cloak, ripwhirling perpetually around the present moment of existence. He abolishes the notion of linear time: rather, it is ever-present, throstling near, husky breathy whispers fogging the lens through which we perceive our moment.

Thusly, our modern condition is formed. We interact with this planar web–flattening time into frames living always in potentiality, waiting for splintered messianic time to rip through. Perhaps we ourselves become a splintered mirror of history as we touch, floatingly, these frames and planes which never disappear, only lie in wait. Through the internet’s vastly spanning fabric, hyperhistoricism is birthed not just for the historian, but for all who are raised nestled within the curls of it’s cloak, if even unwittingly.