It’s important, I think, when you are in the publishing business, to open a piece in a catchy and compelling way, accompanying it, if appropriate, with an arresting image of some sort. So…
I was walking along the road the other day looking at the kerb and I thought “There’s dirt in the dimples in the kerbstones.”
Then I thought:
There is never dirt in any niche, crevice or depression in Virtual Reality (a popular idea from the mid 1980s). In ‘real’ Virtual Reality (the one with the goggles) you’re lucky if you get texture, let alone detritus. Even these days, when they can do hair really well (see CGI hair overview here) and texture has come along, nobody does dirt. It’s just too much work. They’ll do it as a laminate, of course, an aspect of surface, as in ‘soiled garment’ or ‘begrimed window’, where it replaces rather than lies upon that to which it adheres.
If it is there it’s because it’s a narrative requirement (see ‘Wall E’), not because it would be there anyway. In fact, and this is to jump the gun, its broad stroke depiction actually taunts the viewer, as if to say “Yeah, we have dirt but, like, do you really want it?”
Which, to embrace the gun, is the nub. What’s the point of a simulated reality if it has bad things in it? I can get that just by going out. The point of virtual reality is you never have to go out again.
I was in Manchester twenty years ago to see some people about some television. I was in the canteen. Someone said “Stand on that chair and look out of the window.” So I did. There, right outside, was Coronation Street.
I was near the end where the pub, The Rover’s Return, was located. It was very realistic. I remember looking at the kerb. No dirt. That’s why it was called The Rover’s Return. Because the Rover has seen enough dirt and now wants to go back to where there isn’t any. What’s the point of television if it has dirt in it? Come on!
The cleanest surfaces on television or, indeed, in their original cinema habitat, are to be found in cartoons, especially the short ones. Visit well-stocked showrooms from John Lewis to Richer Sounds and it is the cartoon channels whose wares radiate from most of the screens on display. Ask any salesperson and they will say this is because cartoons show the TV’s colours at their greatest intensity or brilliance or brightness or vibrancy, whatever it is.
The sulphurous yellows and barely stable reds demonstrate that the television set is really good. At first such a yammering, ferocious palette may induce migraine or the involuntary tightening around the eye of its orbicularis oculi muscles, a sphincter set which acts to narrow the eye opening and close the orbit of the eye. The promise of a dirt-free environment, however, is generally sufficient to accelerate the process of adaptation, after which the nursery colour range will increasingly stand for the world at the same time as making its predecessor – the world – seem rather lacking in gaiety.
The only problem with this is sport. People know what grass should look like and there is a fundamental disparity between cartoon candy settings and those that render the football or cricket pitch credibly. Sport is the most popular TV salesroom display content after cartoons and the grass usually looks okay, suggesting that cartoons shown on the same apparatus may look…what? Lifelike? No – cartoons can’t look lifelike (unless they have CGI hair).
Anyway, behind all this lie the excitements of mania and its surly associate, depression. Take a look at Donald, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester or Stimpy – mood swings de luxe! It is as if the lack of dirt i.e. detail, is the most marvellous lightener of being. Untrammelled by detail, the little fellows experience minimal emotional traction and thus need never tarry in the grey scale. They move, like quantum particles, from light to shade and back without covering the space that is conventionally seen as separating two points.
The cartoon character, in his chronic bi-polarity, reminds us what a drag life is. It really ties you down.
In an earlier post, part of a series, Strength Weekly referred to the notion of the ‘schizogenic society’ laid out by the anti-psychiatrist R.D.Laing. In his stirring and merciless new book ‘Capitalist Realism – is there any alternative?” Mark Fisher (blogging as k-punk) writes about psychological conditions that achieve wide social distribution in the context of particular economic systems: ‘With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational experience of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down. (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.’
Fisher notes that other commentators have argued that ‘schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism’ and goes on to assert that, if that is the case then ‘bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism.’
That cartoon characters, in the main, are emblems of capitalised mania and the risks pursuant to unanchored and tractable appetite, is not surprising nor, for that matter, is the notion that efficient communication is predicated on the winnowing out of detail. When I found myself musing on a dirty kerbstone, though, I did wonder if detail is under attrition in another way. In the the current glut of vampire entertainments, for example, analysis has been submitted hither and thither (here, for example) but the genre continues to offer a means of managing something that is not alien so much as enervating. Might this be related in some way to the death of detail?
Despite the rapacious and superhuman energies of the post-prandial vampire, he or she is also closely associated with pallor, listlessness and a suite of symptoms akin to chronic fatigue syndrome. This applies equally to the multiply pierced victim and their fanged immortal exsanguinator. Reduced affect, diminished detail – these effects are not tolerated in the everyday world where, if you give blood in a nice way, as a public-spirited donor, you get a delicious cup of sweet tea to build you up again afterwards. In this instance, however, sweetness is a reward for compliance in a transaction that otherwise leaves you languishing in lassitude.
Extended to the world beyond the Blood Donor Centre, sweetness may also be proffered in the form of bright colours, bright ideas or bright opportunities which no longer stand for the world but simply provide high contrast, conjuring a world before and after detail in which contrast replaces content.
In such a world transformation is instantaneous. There is no journey to be made, no interim state, you only have to wish. There are two ways of going about it: re-invent yourself or re-invent the world to suit yourself. Most of the difficulties previously associated with these operations have been significantly minimised thanks to the exsanguination of detail. Vampire narratives, from this perspective, offer an examination of the tribulations and rhapsodies that accompany the project either to increase or diminish detail. One bite delivers ecstasy. A few hours later you want another one.
You’d think that the world that delivers the box-set to your living room, the train timetable to your telephone and a comprehensive history of lighthouses to your computer screen would never run out of toothsome detail. Surely we live in a trainspotter’s paradise as far as detail goes. Even those with genuinely mild or benign attachments to particulars and specifics constantly run the risk of engulfment by small but enticing matters pertaining to their special interests. If bi-polarity is the psychopolitical disorder du jour then the manic could be sated and the depressed uplifted by a dose of train numbers. But it doesn’t work like that, it goes the other way.
That it is time-consuming to add dirt to the picture is accepted as a good enough technical excuse for the box-fresh look of animated imagery. What, however, if dirt were removed from the everyday, goggle-free world – so that this world started to acquire some of the characteristics of a manmade graphic artifact?
Despite the superabundance of data made available by digital technology, it is increasingly the case that paralysis and anxiety are as likely to compound our reactions as an enriching, vitalising celebration of unbounded opportunity. It is the fact of inundation that generates the contemporary bi-polar malaise. It’s the vastness of it. The sheer smothering unmanageability induces either suffocation or ecstasy. There’s too much to dwell on.
It is conceivable, if not provable, that a depressed public consumes less than a manic one. The yearning to alleviate depression is all very well but not much use to the economy if the subject can’t be bothered to get up in the morning. Mania is fun and risks – to the wallet , for instance – tend to be overlooked. Strictly speaking, mania is depression, insofar as it is, by definition, a flame doomed to gutter, for ever and ever. That said, mania is harsh on detail – it doesn’t need it. Depression finds solace in detail, it gives traction on the slopes.
Detail has peaked and is now disappearing. Everything is simpler now. At the moment this is a rather haunting, ugly feeling. Soon it won’t be.
David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ (2006) is three hours and twelve minutes long. The first hour is inspiring, the next frustrating, the third (on a second viewing) tragic and beautiful. Back in March 2007 I wanted, after 90 mins, to run from the cinema but felt I couldn’t because I like Lynch’s work so very much. A few months later I found on two excellent blogs two excellent essays about the film: ‘Something got out from inside the story – Lynch’s Unhome Videos’ in k-punk here and the second, ‘Inland Empire’, in the blog ‘American Stranger‘. (The essay was removed from the latter site some time ago but I am grateful to traxus4420 for kindly sending me a copy. However, on revisiting Strength Weekly for a major refurb after ten years, I found, alas, that the copy had vanished. I’ll keep looking for it).
k-punk observes that the film ‘often seems like a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality, a dreaming without a dreamer (as all dreams really are) – no frame is secure, all attempts at embedding fail.’ The protracted absence of ‘a dreamer’ may explain why the movie exhausts at a first viewing. Girded for a revisit as a result of receiving illumination from the aforementioned essays, I bought the DVD and determined to go back down those dark, scratchy corridors in order to put myself in the picture.
It’s good that there are people in the world who will synopsise movies with labyrinthine and intractable plots in order that the rest of us may clarify just exactly what it was we just saw. Such exactitude is only notional in this case but a robust public service is delivered by Wikipedia here and provides succour and encouragement for the return match, as does fourfour’s wry frame assembly here,(scroll right down when you get there). which serialises the consternation that envelops each of Laura Dern’s three characters throughout the movie.
The Wiki plot summary is thorough but a further order of compression may prove more workable. Laura Dern’s character, the actress Nikki, is preparing for a role in a new film. The film is not as new as it seems, it’s a remake of an earlier Polish movie whose male and female leads were murdered. The film is cursed. Something gets out from inside the story or, as American Stranger has it, ‘the staged events of the film shoot bleed into the apparently actual events of the actors’ lives…it rapidly becomes uncertain which of the two ‘worlds’ contains the other.’ As a consequence of this osmosis and confusion, Sue – the character in Nikki’s new movie – stumbles into Nikki’s world and Nikki gets lost in the world of the enchanted script. Further down the line, in Hour 2, elements of the original film also draw Nikki in, to the extent that she (or Sue) finds herself, from time to time, in Poland, embroiled in a murder scenario. Hour 3 sees Sue, who has become a hooker, dying from a stab wound among homeless people at Hollywood and Vine. When she is dead, the director of Nikki’s film calls ‘Cut!’ and Nikki gets up. She wanders into a cinema where she sees Sue on screen, acting in the film she has just been working on.
Hour 2 is fairly gruelling insofar as standard physics, geography and history are out the window. But as k-punk remarks ‘…the space involved is ontological, rather than merely physical.’ Hour 2 is not fantasy in any genre sense, nor can it be domesticated with reference to the unfolding of any psychological pathology within the protagonists. If madness is at hand it’s an effect of the shadow of an old, old reality that, some would contend, predates the individual’s acquisition of language. Take away that acquisition and where’s the physics that would keep the geography in the right history?
If Lynch is not toying with the psychic Jurassic then there is another way of categorising the effect he delivers: the films are, of course, ‘dream-like’ and, in this instance, ‘nightmarish’. It seems an obvious thing to say, and the terms are usually scattershot across arts commentary as if they explained something. They usually explain little and constitute a classic passing of the critical buck. Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ (1977) was more deserving of the terms insofar as people, objects and events in the scenario could be understood to stand for other less palatable ideas and urges, even if the act of interpretation itself was not a straightforward and convenient translation. The film is often described as Lynch’s ‘most personal’, suggesting that the dreamer himself is close at hand. If this is the case then the film has passed through him and can be passed through him. The absence of the dreamer, the absence of a conventional script, the low ‘strange object’ count (no severed ears, no babies made out of skinned lamb’s heads etc) place ‘Inland Empire’ adjacent to but not in Dreamland. Recalling k-punk’s description of the film as ‘a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality’ – the possibility arises that these are sequences that are more urgent than the urgently personal, their resemblance to dreams and nightmares is misleading, they are certainly unhome and uncanny but of the waking world.
It’s tempting to wonder if we believe that David Lynch has access to something that, by definition, no one has access to. He doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who would try to work out the qualities and logics of such an unrealm. Described hither and thither as an ‘intuitive’ artist, Lynch’s utterances, often elliptical to the point of blankness, and his body of work
pre-‘Inland Empire’, suggest a man who has cleared out (or was never encumbered by) critical and editorial processes to an extent that would have been the envy of Surrealist employers of cadavre exquis, scissor wielding cutupists, aleatory musicians and ether-sniffing jumblists in their attempts to override the rider.
Whatever – Lynch presents a take on a Place without Time and a Time without Place. Even he, according to reports, resorted to a degree of intuitivised jumblism on IE, starting the shoot without a script and delivering dialogue to the actors on a nightly basis. This is, literally, self-defeating and, no doubt, precisely what was required. It’s not that artistry must be defeated, however, it is applied later, after the contents have surfaced and must then be seized and shaped.
The movie depicts magical processes at work, insofar as ritual acts of concentration and refinement – as practised in rehearsal and discussion – are seen to dilute the barriers between categories of experience to the point where thought and desire actually reshape the world. Anecdote supports this magicality at many stages of the fiction-making process – writers are familiar with the conjuring of versions of their fictions into their everyday lives. Crudely – write a novel about someone breaking their leg and halfway through the first draft you sprain your ankle. (Note to young writers: this only happens now and again.) Not really magic but certainly a product of focused invocation.
A less debilitating aspect of fiction-making is seen in the business of affairs between directors, actresses and actors. There’s nothing like a collectively organised art-form for facilitating alliances and dalliances. Affairs spring up on film sets and in theatres as if there were something in the water. Attractive and usually young humans not only fondle each other in love scenes in a thoroughly professional way you understand but have often been led by their training to believe that the cultivation and maintenance of strong emotions (those which are relevant to the project in hand) outside of rehearsal and performance can only intensify and enhance performance. It’s probably true.
Similarly, given the great sense of responsibility, interdependency and attendant tension felt by directors and actors working on a project, directors and actresses/actors tend to fall in love. It’s a special kinda love, though, and not to be confused – as it often is – with setting up or settling down together.
We cannot, however, refrain from observing that Laura Dern, having worked on ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) with Kyle MacLachlan – an actor often seen as Lynch’s on-screen alter ego – subsequently stepped out with him for four years.
We should also recall Lynch’s own relationship with BV star Isabella Rossellini and remind ourselves that Rossellini’s father was Roberto and her mother Ingrid Bergman. If physics, geography and history are removed from these genealogies then we may find support for the presence of a pervading psychoanalytical fantasy of generational transfusion wherein intimacy with daughters secures intimacy with their fathers and vice versa. The vice versa, in this case, would secure intimacy for the father with the daughter if the surrogate son were the prime physical agent. Much as film scripts may appear to transmit the genius of their writers, the empassioned claustrophobias of rehearsal give rise to the sexualisation of transmissions that may actually be more concerned with the acquisition of skills.
To attribute magical power to a film script because it contributes to showbiz romances is, however, needlessly whimsical. Notwithstanding the tiresome ‘excitement’ surrounding ‘the Scottish play’ (wherein awful things happen to actors performing ‘Macbeth’) (here, if you must), at the end of the day a bunch of people sit around and concentrate on a sheaf of pages, applying their various skills and sharing developmental aspirations. A reality is suggested then consolidated. The resemblance to magic is structural only. Seen in these workaday terms, the phenomenon of ‘fiction leakage’ seems rather ordinary and predictable. In the case of ‘Inland Empire’, though, there wasn’t a script, despite the film being about scripts, and the pages came, one learns, in small instalments. Nor was there ‘character development’, that staple of the respectable fiction. In IE it’s location, location, location.
Laura Dern’s characters have a hard time whoever they are and wherever they are. This is because the geography is so fucked up. Dern herself is widely reported as not having a clue why she was where she was, in the course of the filming.
The spaces which constantly spook her are more than enough to be getting on with; character development is superfluous in these flared-out, migrained video hallways.
A reductive reading – not necessarily a bad thing – would see the spooking spaces as mental states inhabited by one person with three aspects (Nikki, Sue, the hooker). A slightly more expansive reading would posit a realm in which narcissism and restricted capacities for empathy enable the subject to experience others merely as elements of herself. These are psychologically wholesome readings insofar as they aspire to produce psychological wholes from psychological holes. They are conservative, however, and feel a bit old hat. Lynch has been there and done that (‘Lost Highway’ (1997) and ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)).
Anyway, things have moved on since the days of character development – the physics has changed. The artistry purportedly implicit in the gradual unfolding of character has been replaced by speedy teleportation. In LH and MD the shifts are shocking but they merely bisect the films. In IE shifts occur every few minutes.
IE is uncanny because the uncanny is premised on the familiar. What, then, is it that we recognise in all this punishing, protracted discontinuity? Dern’s characters struggle to escape places in which everything is in between, nothing is homely, nowhere is anywhere for very long, all is fiction and fictions contaminate all that they touch, including other fictions. If dependable identity is one such fiction then one of its functions is to innoculate the badge holder against less reliable badges. If you lose your immunity then other fictions become interchangeable, they have more in common than they have distinctions. If you lose your immunity you are both locked out and engulfed. You can’t get back home, even though there are doors and corridors that lead there. Immuno-deficient, you are entranced by anything that pops up and defenceless as it spits you out.
American Stranger says “Perhaps this is Lynch’s vision of how our world must end – ‘our world’ as a hyperreal, self-absorbed Inland Empire where everything is merely an advertisement in empty performance for everything else, an ultrasaturated luxury market poised for collapse into its outside.” A world of strident, heeby-jeeby micro-worlds choc-a-bloc with seductors and bullies, sugar highs and grinding lows, the cold sweat of homelessness and undomain.
As she dies in the street, ‘the hooker’ is told a story by another vagrant street girl. The girl tells the hooker about her friend whose vagina wall has a hole torn in it that leads to her intestine. System walls are breached. The systems work well when properly separated but once breached: contamination, fever, the long walks of the undead, ever between stations.