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

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) “Fragments of Life’s Evening “

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

We might add that this applies to the filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino as well. Sorretino portrays the holiness of days passing and the divine in men with particular visual and stylistic eloquence in his La giovinezza (Youth). Sorrentino can be rightfully called Fellini’s heir, just like Kore-eda in Japan can be called Ozu’s heir. Being a “cinematic heir” does not mean that the following director is an emulator. It can be stated that the director manages to use central themes and cinematic style of his predecessor in an authentic manner, and develop them even further. Perhaps he never accomplishes the grandeur of his predecessor, yet he manages to evolve and adapt to the radically new environment and create admirable pieces of art.

For Fellini, life is akin to circus, it is a feast for the senses, and Sorrentino seems to take this basic assumption and develop it in a manner which is distinctly his own. For example, Fellini’s stance about Catholicism is less ambivalent than Sorrentino’s is. The celebration of the carnal and divine merge into one in Sorrentino’s La giovinezza. The Buddhist monk and Miss Universe are both an integral part of the same cosmos which celebrates life and its gracefulness.

At the beginning we see the composer Fred Ballinger (Michel Caine) browsing the magazine and pausing at the image of Miss Universe. She appears three times later in the film, symbolizing the eroticism and the voluptuousness of youth. She represents carnal Aphrodite for the aged composer and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel). The Queen’s emissary comes to the hotel in the Alps in Switzerland where they reside, and asks Fred to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Phillip’s birthday.

Fred says that he finds monarchy endearing “because it’s so vulnerable. You eliminate one person and all of a sudden… The whole world changes. Like in a marriage”. He dreams that he is surrounded with wondrous buildings with arches on the first floor (presumably of a hotel) which give light to the water around him; it is night and it imbues the water with blackness. A narrow  path is in the middle of the water, functioning as a bridge. As Fred walks across it, Miss Universe crosses paths with him and her breast touches his body as he moves by. The black water, similar to a melancholic lake, rises and he is drowned; he wakes up with a gasp.

The major part of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, in a resort similar to the one from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Mann’s novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the cultural elite comes to in the hope of recovery. Death plays a prominent part in Mann’s novel, it is concerned with time, the nature of its passing, the narration of time itself. In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is influenced by Settembrini, who advocates democratic republicanism and Naphta who is a romantic, conservative revolutionary. Sorrentino’s La giovinezza deals less with illness, and more with the joy of life and sensuality of youth. If it deals with time, it is concerned with the shifting of perspectives of the young and of the old, the time which has already passed, with the solidness of time.

Swiss Alps

The old are confronted with the irrefutable fact that the time has passed: “It’s too late”, Fred says a few times. Sorrentino is less concerned with the passing of time in the Alps; they are a place where the time which has passed is contemplated. The film is mostly apolitical, save for the fact that the overweight Diego Maradona has a huge tatoo of Karl Marx on his back. It seems that Sorrentino jokes about the Marxists in the film, just like he does in his La grande bellezza when he puts the words communismo puro in the mouth of a middle class woman. On the other hand, we can see that in La giovinezza the residents of the resort are an elite, actors, composers, filmmakers, the rich, and Karl Marx’s tatoo seems to be a form of self-irony on the part of Sorrentino.

In a distinctively Bergmanesque scene on the massage table, Fred’s daughter Lena, while her father is next to her, tells about her and her mother’s suffering regarding Fred’s behaviour throughout life. The camera is fixed on her face in a close-up and the scene strongly resembles the scenes from Bergman’s films, Autumn Sonata for example, in which a character shares his or her suffering with a family member. Her face is calm, without expression, yet her pain can be discerned throughout the shot. Fred cared only about music, and showed little affection toward his daughter, and had “a stream of women”, hurting her mother in the process. We find out that Fred’s wife was in Venice, paralyzed, and Fred hadn’t visited her for years.

He says to her later: “Music is all I understand. Do you know why? Because you do not need words, only experience to understand it. It just is.” Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.” When compared to Schopenhuer’s understanding of music, we can understand Fred’s relationship with music, which “just is” and is remote from the pains of reality. The music in the film gives the scenes a drop of the divine celebrating life’s youthful passion.

 

Vigorous line:

[Mick asks the Girl screenwriter if she sees the mountain across them. She replies affirmatively and says that it looks “really close”]

This is what you see when you are young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future. And now. And that’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.

Mick

In showing his screenwriter the mountain and telling how it looks really close, and comparing it to the young age, Mick points to the change in optics when you are older, when everything seems far away. This change of view is symbolically enhanced through a spyglass. La giovenezza is not only a film about youth and old age, it is also a film about time, although not in the same way The Magic Mountain is a novel about time. This change in optics is conditioned by the passing of time, when the past seems to be far away. It is also a change in perception; the film’s title La giovenezza points to the fact that Mick and Fred are constantly trying to perceive youth, their own youth in the past. They are surrounded with young men and women; Mick has young screenwriters working for him and Fred befriends the actor Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, who was possibly casted, among other reasons, because he looks younger than his age.

The interesting thing is that the passing of time is associated with seeing. It is not the question about “feeling” young or old, it is the question of perceiving through the eye, the distance of the past and the closeness of the future (when one is young). This change of perspective is also qualitative; not only does one see less when he is older, but the view is also distorted, when the close objects are shown through a spyglass. Nevertheless, the closeness of things in youth is also an illusion, since the mountain is only perceived to be close, but in reality it is not. In La giovenezza, youth is celebrated precisely for that reason, because it can easily come to terms with illusion, while contemplation of the past is left to the older generation. In the final scene, the music brings the two worlds together, with an aesthetic tour de force.

 

 

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

Death In Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971) “Beauty Amidst Decay”

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies. The main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. Gustav’s friend despises his self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world.

Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts.

 

When Gustav comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees.

The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. Since Gustav is a composer in Visconti’s film, this may imply the decadence of music in contemporary times, a topic interestingly explored by Theodor Adorno. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Gustav says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The  perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty is deeply present throghout Death In Venice.

 

Vigorous lines:

You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.

Gustav von Aschenbach

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. This form of “divine madness” is love that comes from gods Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; he does not engage in contact with him until the last part of the movie. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty.

No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Alfred

In the ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing sublime beauty. Symbolically it conveys the moment in which the artist  creates works of the purest aesthetic value and his decline as an artist commences. It also points to an aesthetic experience which is an everlasting benchmark for comparison with other objects of aesthetic appreceation, bordering on adolation.

When an artist reaches the zenith of his abilities, only decadence can follow, since all living things either grow or decay. Old age and decadence are contrasted with youth and purity. Gustav’s friend Alfred says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.” The film’s title Death In Venice (Venice is often called serenissima – “the calmest”) carries an explicit allusion to sickness and decadence (the plague) which are juxtaposed to purity and beauty (Tadzio); a synthesis is formed out of oppositions. Thus, art is only possible in the realm of finality and entropy; nevertheless, when the screen freezes, the beauty is preserved.