Friday, March 19, 2010

Telescopic Cinema

Kieslowski’s tendency to aestheticization, the transcendent vision of a Europe-to-come from the end of Blue, and the Catholic humanism of his films are all liabilities for me. It’s not out of partisanship that I return to him, although I recognize that he is always thinking visually and visually thinking. Zizek’s attempt to rescue Kieslowski from his sublimative aesthetic by arguing that he rather makes available the fantasy of “reality” (The Fright of Real Tears: Krzystof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-theory [London: BFI, 2001]) doesn’t deal with the fact that, if so, Kieslowski sentimentalizes this very critique as one that is special to the sacred space of film art.

In A Short Film about Love (1988), the companion to A Short Film about Killing, Kieslowlski supposedly indulged his lead actress, Grazyna Szapolowska, by changing the ending from that of the corresponding segment of The Decalogue on which the film is based. In the TV version, there is only imaginary, one-way love, first experienced by the voyeur for his object and then by the former object for the former voyeur after he is no longer in love with her. In the film, the possibility of mutuality appears, but only within an even more explicitly filmic episode. As in A Short Film about Killing in which studio photography is the closest thing on earth to heaven, and as in Blue where European unity is expressed only in montage, A Short Film about Love closes when Magda (Szapolowska) looks through the telescope that Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) had used to spy on her in the apartment across the way from his. She then sees replayed, through the telescope, her actions on a previous night, when coming home after a quarrel with her lover, she had cried at the kitchen table, with the difference that Tomek enters the tableau and comforts her in ways that he is not able to achieve "in life." The tableau is set up, Rear Window-style, as a screen, with the edge of the window clearly visible, and in the hypercinematic mode of slow motion. The episode functions to unfold and defend the imaginary world of voyeurism by showing that its isolation shelters a dream of the common.

Even before Tomek enters the picture, while she is watching herself sobbing, Magda is already smiling: why? It’s as though filmic representation were inherently pleasing, no matter what it depicts: as though there were already pleasure in saying “Yes, that’s a picture of me, X looks like Y” (Adorno calls this the thrill of stage magic); or perhaps an eternal return-like pleasure in the resurrection of any past; or perhaps a pleasure in the self-distance achieved at such instants, in the out-of-body glimpse with its atmosphere of omniscience. The telescope is not only a lens but the extension of the lens, a world in between "here" and "there," literally moving looking toward a touching that never occurs. On the one hand, it’s only in cinema that what’s otherwise impossible is realized--“only in cinema” limits Kieslowski’s claim; on the other, the impossible happens only in cinema in the sense that cinema is a realm of special achievements, not merely exceptional but prosthetically superior. In the last shot of the film, a tightening close-up of Magda, Magda almost seems to be engaging in a sex act with the telescope, coming to love along with the images of requited love the instrument that gives them to her (which is, of course, kind of great). And that is what Kieslowski's cameraman is at that moment doing with her and what Tomek has always been doing. The telescope has been a spiritualized phallus, outdoing the fleshy one in extending without collapsing, caressing without touching. In an earlier scene of Tomek's too rapid ejaculation, Magda had said, brutally, "Love: that's all it is. You'll find a towel in the bathroom." She wants to say now that this is wrong, that there is something more, but it is in film that there is more. As the camera creeps nearer to Magda's eyes, we are invited to dream on her "forever" in an extension that will never collapse. Cinema becomes a high pornography for delivering humanistic fulfillment.

There's a more trenchant take on the exceptionality of film in Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds. The whole of Tarentino’s film is as explicitly counterfactual as this sequence in Kieslowski: fiction is what doesn’t happen and what ought to have happened. Tarentino’s self-criticism surpasses any accusation that the film is “ahistorical.” Inside the plot, the counterfactual events are able to take place because the cinephile heroine sets a theater on fire by burning the very flammable archive of films within it. In effect, Tarentino offers the proposition, “I would sacrifice all of film history if only this could have occurred.” Circumstances are imaginable in which film is worth more as substance than as substrate for images. Film comes closest to direct action when, instead of presenting itself as a substitution or place holder, it is able to stage the difference between itself and the content it projects. In this way, the merely-imagistic dimension of Inglourious Basterds can be the medium for exploring the ramifications of its anti-imagistic point and all the imaginary fulfillment it can summon. But cinema’s adequacies and inadequacies are explained from two directions--by the limitations as well as the potential of the ideal, and by the power of, for example, burning down a theater. You can't show a film about burning down the theater and burn down the theater at the same time. This double statement, instead of implying that “art is incendiary,” implies that art may be incendiary in its own best fantasies of itself, but there is no bridge between history and fantasy.


Susanne H. said...

I'm curious if you have seen Jarmusch's latest--_The Limits of Control_. It strikes me as a film that deserves to be considered in this context. I don't want to say anything more in case you haven't seen it, because it is best seen (like almost any film) with no preconceptions.

RT said...

Not yet, but it's high on my list... thanks.