A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) “A Veiled Body”

We question a country’s self-mythology. Perfect town and perfect family are – like Westerners – part of America’s mythology, involving notions of past innocence and naïveté. But is it possible for innocence to exist while something heinous transpires elsewhere?

David Cronenberg

 

In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence something heinous transpires underneath the presentation of mythological innocence. The film starts with two gangsters who are on a venture across America; we see two bodies in a pool of blood in a convenience store and a child is being murderered. The scene is abruptly cut to the one showing a girl screaming in her bed, because of the monsters in the closet. Her father, Tom Stall, says to her that there are no such things as monsters. And yet, we have just witnessed the scene with monsters which are not imagined but live among ordinary citizens.

 The other important motif is the monsters in the closet. They are concelead, hiding, waiting to come out, perhaps not wanting to. Tom Stall is a family man, living in a nice town, with nice people, as the sheriff says later in the film. He runs a small business, a diner, has a beautiful wife and two children. William S. Borroughs once wrote: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.” There is a myth of an idyllic family life in America, but there is also evil, waiting to come to the surface.

The other important motif appears when Tom’s colleague at the diner says that he had a girlfriend who thought he was a “murderer” and stabbed him with a fork. Later, he married her. This detail foreshadows the doubt in one’s partner, in this case irrational, and the possibility that beneath the appereance there is something sinister, murderous. Two men come into the diner, trying to rob it and Tom kills both of them with the efficiency of a skilled murderer. The news present him as an American hero, since, as we know it, the Americans love heroes. Tom’s son Jack is bullied at school, and before the killlings, he says that the threat of violence directed toward him is “cruel and pointless.”

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When the bully says that his father is “a tough guy” and starts harassing him, Jack beats the bully. Violence which his father commits, although in self-defense, provokes an ethical shift in his son and he reacts with violence. When his father says that in their family they do not beat people up, Jack responds: “No we shoot them!”. The film is called A History of Violence, and the title suggests that the film presents one history of violence among many, but it also presents that violence in itself has its own history, which starts with mankind itself and it evolves from one generation to the other, it is a neverending circle which begins with the sins of the father.

 Soon, two men come into the diner, one with a severely damaged eye, calling Tom “Joey Cusack” and that he comes from Philadelphia. Tom denies it, and when he sees the black car in which the man was driving, he becomes paranoid and runs toward his house, for fear that his family will be assaulted. No one came to the house and Tom says that he fears that he is losing his mind. With the attitude of a trained killer, he says to his son that if someone comes, they will deal with it. The man with the damaged eye encounters Tom’s wife Edie in the shopping mall and says to her that her husband is Joey Cusack and that he damaged his eye with a barbed wire.

This happens precisely in the middle of the film, and in this moment, Edie starts to seriously doubt her husband’s identity. This anticipates the revelation that her husband is indeed Joey, wich happens when her husband, with the skills of a killer literally breaks the face of a man who tried to take him with them. As Tom/Joey’s personality is split into two, so is the film. When Carl Fogarty, the man with the damaged eye, tells Joey to drop down the gun, he complies and symbolically assumes his abandoned role as Joey Cusack. Fogarty is murdered at the hands of his son. The sins and the violence of the father are now a part of his son as well.

 

Vigorous lines:

I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer… the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?

Edie Stall

Joey did, both. I didn’t… Tom Stall didn’t.

Tom/Joey

 

David Cronenberg once said: “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don’t lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you are photographing is people, bodies.” In this scene, when Tom/Joey says that Joey did the killings and Tom Stall didn’t, he is filmed in a close-up and the only part of the body we can see is dressed in a patient’s gown. In other words, the character which the camera films is disembodied. In his book The Divided Self R.D. Laing writes that “in the schizoid condition… there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be the part of the false-self system.”

If Cronenberg’s films are primarily body-oriented and in the central part of the film Viggo Mortensen’s character’s body is not shown or is clothed in a gown, we can say that in this manner Cronenberg portrays a schizoid personality, which is characterized by a split between the identities. Edie asks if Joey is dead and Tom/Joey replies: “I thought he was. I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I went out to the desert, and I killed him… I spent 3 years trying to become Tom Stall.” Edie asks him if he is a “multiple personality schizoid” and is it “like flipping a switch back and forth for him.” It seems that there is certainly a schizm in Tom/Joey’s personality, but that there is also an approaching awareness regarding his identity.

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This schizm is not permanent, and the reappropriation of the former identity takes place soon enough.  When they come home, sheriff asks them if Tom is in fact Joey and Edie starts crying, denying it. The officer leaves their home and she says to him “Fuck you Joey”. Now, he assumes his former identity and his body is filmed as they have sex, which starts with violence on both sides. Cronenberg films Joey’s body during a sex act, we can now be certain that Tom Stall is no more and he is again Joey. He seems to be fully aware of his body, and camera is not afraid to show it.

His brother Richie calls him, who ranks high in the mob hierarchy back in Philadelphia, and a clash between two brothers commences when Joey comes to Richie’s mansion. This is an “Adam and Cain” encounter and both brothers are Adams, and Cains as well. Richie tries to kill Joey and in the end, Joey manages to murder him. He washes his hands in the water, as if purifying himself, and comes home to his family, now as another man. In a memorable scene, his daughter takes the plates and puts them on the table for him, and his son hands him the food. American dream is shattered for them, in a most violent manner, and they reluctantly decide to live on.

 

References: 

R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness, Penguin Books, New York, 1990

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) “Path to Completion”

 

Title card: The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

Never Let Me Go is based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro; the film describes the dystopian reality which takes place more than 50 years before the film was made. It seems to imply that the portrayed reality could occur now, as it could occur 50 years ago. It can occur at any time when the principles of civilization are rejected at the prospect of progress of “mankind” by the murderous enslavement of others. Clones are raised in a boarding school, they live a life which is both artificial (they buy stuff with tokens, simulate ordering tea in a bar) and deeply human. They are told horrific stories about the destinies of children who transgress the boundaries of the institution, most probably false. They are surrounded with lies, barriers, yet they live in accordance with their roles with almost joyful compliance. Throughout the film there are practically no warm colors, sunlight is scarce and the atmosphere is of damp sadness, accompanied by static shots of nature with dazzling beauty.

Raised to be donors for the human population, they use the term “completion” to describe their death, when they cannot donate more organs. The ironic term, since completion can be used to describe the completion of a spiritual path, and the establishment of harmony in the soul. The film centers around Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, a love triangle is formed. Tommy and Ruth end up together, while Kathy lives a rather solitary life in the Cottages, where they are sent before donating. They are in search for their original models, in other words, in search for who they are. Kathy browses through a pornographic magazine and Ruth sees that act as an attempt to understand sexuality. Yet, we find out that she does it because she believes that her model might be in there, since she posseses strong sexual craving. We can see that her act shows that she understands little about her urges, as it is difficult for her to order food and beverages in a bar. They are almost extinguished socially as they are raised for one simple function.

Someone described the government in the film as “fascist”. The term can be applied to the system of authority described in the movie if we consider Michel Foucault’s understanding of modern state and racism. In his lectures Society Must Be Defended he says: “What is racism? It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die… It is in short a way of seperating the groups that exist within a population. It is… a way of establishing a biological type of caesura within a population that appears to be a biological domain.” In one word, racism establishes a relationship which purports: “If you want to live, the other must die”. Clones are obviously a type of species, human in every manner, biological organisms capable of producing life for others by giving their own organs. In the process, they “are completed”, they die.

                                Tree-lung

This is the realm of thanatopolitics, as Foucault understands it, which forces one to die. The relationship between the clones and humans who raise them to be donors is a biopolitical relationship, the power which operates is power over life – biopower. In one word, the government in the film can be seen as fascist, since it employs the racist distinction between the ones who are entitled to live, and the others who are to forced to die because of their objective characteristics (they are clones). The film is a critique of the path modernity can take when its own fundamental values are renounced and the bleakest side of modern state prevails (Foucault believed that racism is incorporated in every modern state, to some degree). Namely, that the power over life becomes total, and forces some to die so that the majority of population can be biologically empowered, their lives prolonged and diseases eradicated. At the institution where clones grow up, Hailsham, Madame finds a few cigarettes which clones smoked. She says that they are  explicitely forbidden to smoke. Their organisms are of essential value and power which operates over them is the type of power which maximizes the vital functions of their biological organisms.

Utilitarian moral theory emphasized that it is  ethical to maximize total happiness while minimizing total pain. To save lives of many, it is ethical to let some die, since, in that case, total happiness is greater than if you let many die. Utilitarians were often of liberal orientation, which holds the human life sacred, yet there is a tension between these principles and the utilitarian ones which emphasize the importance of happiness of as many people as possible. The famous trolley problem implies an ethical choice which gives an agent a choice between causing one death and saving five lives, or letting five people die, but not causing the  death of anybody. According to the surveys, most Americans would choose causing one death and saving five lives. In the film the offical in the institution of Hailsham, Miss Emily, says: “Hailsham was the last place to consider the ethics of donation. You have to understand – cancer used to kill almost everyone. Now it kills no one at all… You see – it’s not an ethical issue – it’s just about the way we are. If you ask people to return to darkness, the days of lung cancer and breast cancer and motor neurone disease… they simply say no. Do you understand?” In one word, Miss Emily presents the problem as if there is no ethical question at all. It is who we humans are, prepared to sacrifice some individuals to escape death and suffering.

 

Vigorous line:

We didn’t have the Gallery in order to look into your souls. We had the Gallery in order to see if you had souls at all.

Miss Emily

Tommy hears that a couple who is truly in love can get a deferral and spend a few more years together. This seems to be a desperate illusion which celebrates romantic love to the extent that it produces the opportunity to live, when life is denied. He comes up with a rather creative idea that the Gallery, in which the artworks they made as children are stored, exists because the administration needs proof that the couple is in love. This idea is shattered and along with it the notion that “love conquers all”. Tommy succumbs to despair. The administration’s endeavour to see if they had any souls is interesting. Wouldn’t it be easier to raise clones so they can give organs, if one thinks that they are soulless?Maybe the intention was to find out that they are. In this case, creating art is a way of examining one’s authenticity, in other words, humanity. In the end, Kathy ponders: “I remind I was lucky to have had any time with him at all. What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.”

Kathy’s ruminations equate the clone’s destiny with the destiny of men – “we all complete”. What’s given to the clones is an authentic attitude toward their death. Their strong bonds shatter like glass in the storm, the angst makes them even more alive. Left with memories, they cherish them with care, knowing that their own end approaches. They have a strong sense of purpose, especially Kathy, who nurtures her kind while they slowly fade away with less and less strength in them. The clones are sacrificial lambs, but the ones which nurture authentic sensitivity, the sense of duty and the need for forgiveness, as we can see in Ruth’s case. They seem to be the answer to the questions about our own existence, most particularly our relationship to the finite nature of our lives.

References:

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Picador, New York, 2003

 

 

One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Dominik, 2016) “Nick Cave Speaking the Unspeakable”

 

William Faulkner once wrote: Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

These words, from the novel Light in August, have the quality of a prose poem. Their meaning eludes me, just like the understanding of this documentary eludes me. Its elusion is associated with its nature, the articulation of feelings and thoughts which accompany a loss beyond imagining: Nick Cave’s young son Arthur died by falling from the cliff in Brighton when he was 15 years old. When it is observed on the surface, one can tell that the documentary is about many things. It is about trauma. About the creative process which is hampered, yet endures. It is about change, our desire to stay the same (with modifications to the original model) and the wondrous ever-changing nature of women. It is about communion with fellow men. It is about the danger of words, the articulation of one’s feelings and thoughts, their implications. It is about art as a “metaphysical consolation” and, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “victory over suffering”. It is about transformations: we see the improvised interviews and the process of filmmaking – the transformation of the raw material of physical and mental pain into an expressionistic film.

 The documentary, like Faulkner’s quote, has the quality of a prose poem. Within that prose poem we can hear Cave’s prose poems beautifully expressed: Sometimes I get the elevator to the top of the Burj Al Arab/And shoot my guns across Dubai; My housefly tells me not to die/, because someone’s got to sing the stars/and someone’s got to sing the rain. The documentary and aforementioned Faulkner’s words have one more thing in common. Memory believes, and does not cease to believe its validity. It is solid. As Cave says toward the end of the film, the elastic nature of time brings one back to the memory. It is unavoidable and one is drawn back to it by its magnetic force. It is the nature of trauma. The documentary is eerie, yet beautifully eerie.

The title of the film most likely alludes to the rehearsals when one makes the record, the allusion points to the originally conceived nature of the film – it was supposed to be a documentary about making the record, yet, due to the tragic event, it turned out to be something completely different. Nick Cave was angry with the final cut since he found it exploitative, but later he embraced it as a gift to his wife, his son Arthur and himself. Like in the songs from the album Skeleton Tree Cave exposes himself; he did not cross out the words in the songs he wasn’t completely satisfied with and that contributed to the unparalleled nakedness which characterizes both the documentary and the album. The main difference between exploitation and sincerity in presenting oneself naked to the light of the public is in that very sincerity, which characterizes One More Time With Feeling.

The documentary is not only about Nick Cave, although his monologues, introspections and fragments of thought take the central position; it is about a community, mainly family, which is given the task to endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable. We can see the ruminations on everyday struggles which accompany the simple act of going to the bakery or buying a pack of cigarettes. In his review of the documentary for the Esquire, Ryan Leas writes that the documentary is “less explictly about Arthur Cave’s death and more about the ripple effects of that sort of catastrophe, the way everyone else finds their way back and keep working”. We can see his wife’s compulsion of moving the furniture around accompanied by “untapped creativity” which finds its expression in fashion design and is thus a victory over suffering.

 

Vigorous line:

You need… the imagination needs room to move. It needs room to invent. Um… and to dream, and when a trauma happens that’s that big… there’s no room, there’s just no imaginative room around it. It’s just the fucking trauma.

Nick Cave

 

James Dawes writes about the paradox of trauma: “it is unspeakable, but must be spoken. What makes a traumatic event traumatic is, in part, the impossibility of making it comprehensible. ‘Whatever pain achieves’, writes Elaine Scarry, ‘it achieves in part through its unsharability through its resistance to language.’” This understanding of trauma which Dawes presents helps us reveal the nature of the documentary and Nick Cave’s (at least speculatively) motivation to make the documentary, apart from desire to avoid the pressure to speak about the event in the press.

Although trauma is unspeakable, Nick Cave, with the face resembling that of a “battered monument” as the director Andrew Dominik said, Cave tries to put the unspeakable into words, as a significant part of what might consist the process of healing. Yet, the paradox seems unresolvable. The answer might lie in Frey’s speculation: “Only fictional accounts can come close (though still inadequately) to creating an understanding of trauma.” This brings us to the fact that Nick Cave is an artist who expressed his trauma in the album Skeleton Tree; the songs are sung in the documentary and can be a key, if not to understanding of trauma, then at least to a way in which trauma can be expressed through music and language.

Although Cave says that life is not a story in the documentary (i.e. it is non-linear, there is no narrative) in a rare interview Cave gave after Arthur’s death he said: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience. I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux.”

It would be an exercise in schematism to understand Cave’s words solely in terms of their connection to the traumatic experience – Cave’s 2013 album Push the Sky Away followed more or less the same premises – yet, the connection with trauma cannot be completely dismissed. Hoffman wrote that “to make a sequential narrative of what happened would have been to make indecently rational, what had been obscenely irrational.” The turn from a sequential narrative may have been aggravated by a trumatic event, but, on the other hand it is a form of creative victory over trauma. William Faulkner wrote in the similar unsequential fashion in his Sound and Fury for example: what is incomprehensible is turned into art.

                  

References:

James Dawes, Evil Men, Harvard University Press, Cambridge/London, 2013