Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Burning Down the Set
In the familiar pastoral trope of “breaking the pipes,” the poet announces retirement from poetry. This happens at the end of The Tempest, of course, and in the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the pages of memory blow away. One of the hopes of this lyrical figure is to get the audience to inhabit consciously the living outside and limit of the text; or, in a darker tone, be its destination and assassin. So, in Julio Cortázar’s story “Continuity of Parks” (and many of his other stories), the entire point of the plot is to simulate the impossible, the outside of the narrative, by getting the reader to imagine that the reader’s consciousness is the same shape as the negative space in the narrative. All this is out of Blanchot—the reader’s role is to witness that the writing has stopped, that (thank God) it proved to be capable of stopping, by accepting the symbolic position of the text’s euthanist. There’s something playfully mystified about all of this, since in the self-reflexive moment, along with the sensation that the text has a limit, we get the very strong illusion that it had been alive, and this illusion is the actual point of the operation. Something similar might be going on when films end, as they often do, with the physical destruction of their built environments, but here the libido of destroying for its own sake tends to surpass the bid for realism. This convincing destruction seems more interesting and enigmatic than the classical trope. I’m fond of the absurd end of Mario van Peebles’s Posse, in which van Peebles and his gang watch from an escarpment while the town for whose benefit they had been fighting corrupt enemies burns to a cinder because the climactic battle got so out of hand. “We’ll build a new town,” says van Peebles evenly. More logically, the suicidal and murderous gesture that ends Fassbinder’s Marriage of Maria Braun is the connected conclusion, the actual content of the plot that came before—the end of an equation between “world” and “nothing.” We aren’t supposed to regret watching the house burn down. Best of all would be never to have got started.
But that’s just more plot compared to what happens in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, in which thirteen hours of pathos is followed by an epilogue that cannibalizes everything that came before. In the epilogue, characters that died in the series proper walk and talk, more or less in character but acting as they never would in the series, the set is on fire and in disrepair, and we have to watch for two and a half hours while the actors travesty the previous work. The audience is asked, not only to realize the work’s outside, but to witness its defilement, not its “death” (to take up the animistic terms), but what would correspond to its rape and torture. It’s harder than anything Brecht requires—like watching a porn King Lear with the same actors right after the tragic King Lear. What gets exposed: we care more that the film is suffering than we did when the characters within the film were suffering.
Image: Chris Burden, Icarus (1973)