Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Now We Are Perfect

Stranded in Canton (2008) has been assembled by Robert Gordon from approximately thirty hours of videotape William Eggleston shot in the ’70s in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi. The video has been screening as part of “The Democratic Camera,” the recent retrospective of Eggleston’s photography; I was lucky enough to see it on a big screen at Cinefamily, at an event affiliated with LACMA’s mounting of the “The Democratic Camera.” Gordon, the author of a cultural history of Memphis, has done a sensitive job of crafting a film out of something larger than a film--the archive that came to be known as “Stranded in Canton”--yet the Stranded in Canton we do have can’t help but make us think of the outwork we don't have. The next thought, though, is that even if I could see every moment Eggleston shot--which I might well want to do--I still wouldn't “have” “Stranded in Canton,” because “Stranded in Canton” is neither an object nor a story.

Gordon starts the film with Eggleston’s long takes of his young children and his then-girlfriend, Marcia Hare. He uses titles and light retrospective narration by Eggleston to introduce the friends and relatives, which is also to say the drug addicts, transvestites, and exhibitionists, who are its protagonists and whose powerful performances of art-as-life and vice versa compose most of the film. He builds up to some of the intenser scenes, creating a musical texture of variation and refrain, tension and relief; then the film crescendos again and stops with a bang. Before too long we understand that the opening scenes of loved ones are emblematic, that they have been chosen because everyone in the film loves and is loved by Eggleston. The children are puzzling at first, since we may not immediately grasp that they are Eggleston’s children, and their actions are otherwise incomprehensible. Physically beautiful (in a classical sense) and apparently accustomed to the camera, a little girl and boy approach and seem to try out expressions, but they're not the stereotypical ones that children deploy for home video. They’re slow, meditative, and tonally unparaphrasable, seeming to border on pain without completely going there; it's like Warhol's Screen Tests for children. The girl may be wearing makeup and is vampish. (She grew up to be an actress, it's said: but in this film, there's no difference between acting and not acting.) Family relation appears here as a nonpejoratively perverse, sideways complicity. The girl’s intense gaze and symmetrical beauty spill over into another early scene which features Marcia Hare smiling on her back on a bed. Eggleston touches her lips: “There's a little bit of ash . . . . Now you’re perfect.”

While we will need to think about the unequal burdens of erotic community, Stranded in Canton presents such a community, which exceeds the family but does not exclude it, from a perspective that has come to rest in its warmth. The warmth is entirely literal, since Eggleston equipped his camera, the early Sony PortaPak, with infrared so that it could run on heat instead of light. To get more light, Eggleston had to come close enough to a body for the camera to sense more heat. Much of Stranded in Canton is shot at night, which means that many of its closeups are very, very close; so close that often only part of the face can be in the frame, glowing white as a light bulb where it’s hottest. But we don’t get the impression that Eggleston would want to be any further away. The camera seems to be constructed as it is to give him an excuse to stay close (as his photographs also often are). It sways and lingers in beautiful ways in the space between meditation and actually touching. There is no “establishment” of any environment or contrasting it to another. There is a kind of real-time, on-the-fly editing, but it would be difficult to describe in conventional vocabulary the protocols that shape it. Even when his angles are diverse, Eggleston mainly looks at the people performing at the time as if no one else existed.

Gordon’s setting up the film as he does hints to the audience that it should transfer the erotic pleasure, aestheticization and even idealization—“perfect[ion]”—of these opening scenes to all the scenes that follow: scenes in which self-denigration runs to self-glorification, nothing seems more eloquent than modes of expression that are obviously inadequate, and failure ceases to have any social meaning. Afloat in alcohol and various blood-contaminants, Eggleston’s friends display and comment on their bodies, dilate and divagate, argue, and most of all improvise verbally—with indefatigable invention—their mythically proportioned abjection. They act out the significance of their exploits, the audacity of their sexuality, and the heroism of their continuing to exist at all while “stranded in Canton”—a figure for wreck that turns into a festive wail. (Simultaneously a city in China, a town in Mississippi, and many other towns, “Canton” is a nowhere, a Utopia. The Egglestonians distinguish it from Canton, Mississippi by pronouncing it Canton.) People give each other the time for long soliloquies, although they may also yell and talk over one another. The sense of solidarity is both impressive and claustrophobic. While it’s entirely possible for people in the Eggleston circle to die from drugs or bullets in the course of the life depicted—as we are told they sometimes do—it doesn’t seem possible for them to elicit any material judgment from one another or from Eggleston. That fact seems more important than the part about living or dying. Here Eggleston is the antithesis of Diane Arbus, in whose work people who don’t know each other stare at one another with incomprehension. In Stranded in Canton we experience what it would be like to have a surfeit of understanding. It would mean re-approaching the infantile world of imagined omnipotence, in which each surface is animate and sparkles back when we smile at it. No doubt this world is a little creepy; but we don't think so when it's our experience and we're in love.

Maybe only one sequence is anthropological, defined against the rest. In that passage, a group of young guys in a New Orleans alley bite the heads off some live chickens, which is apparently something that goes on from time to time in certain New Orleans subcultures. No regulars are included in the action and Eggleston comments in a framing remark that he is "not too fond of the geek scene; too many other people were involved; it was not nearly as personal--like a circus act.” This value axis—personal/ impersonal—is the only one still operating in Stranded in Canton. “Personal” doesn’t mean “real” or “natural”; in the film people are personal in various kinds of costumes and altered states or while lying about themselves. But the very fact that the “geek scene” is a scene with a name means that a ritual determines the action to be taken. Because Stranded in Canton is not about that, it is not a film about "the South" (it "isn't about anything but itself," as Eggleston phrases it) and its action cannot be explained away by supposing that it's like this in Tennessee, that people are melodramatic and have a more casual attitude about guns, etc. For all that Eggleston’s friends use local props and in-jokes, they continually exceed or fall short of their own frameworks for meeting. "The South" is in many ways what they are challenging and reality-testing; they go nowhere, fall and are caught in their own idiosyncratic net of deadpan rapture.

Thus the paradigmatic scene of the film--juxtaposed by Gordon to that of the "geeks"--is one in which Eggleston’s friend Randall, who is corpulent, wild-haired, and maybe thirty years old, stands out in the kind of weed field that adjoins the gravel parking lot of the bar on the edge of town in a lot of places. He weaves, sheds some clothes, then seems to get an idea, the idea to put his half-full beer bottle into his ass--"Regardez-la!"--at which he makes a nominal effort, and then triumphantly, getting to the other half of the idea, he brings the bottle back around and takes a comprehensive swig. "It's like love for the asking--love for the ass king--for the ass skin!" In all seriousness, it's a sacred moment, one that merits an address to Posterity (the receiver of a lot of the dialogue in the film): “I'm gonna tell you one god damn thing. I'm tired of hearing all that bullshit about--bring that, bring that thing over here--bring that right down here." (For whom is he calling this press conference? Eggleston doesn't need to be told, and there is no audience beyond as yet; Eggleston isn't famous yet, the MOMA show is in the future.) "I'm tired of hearing all that shit about queers. I'm tired of it. You gotta realize that it's all right, baby." In effect, Randall summarizes what he wants realized through his gesture: this representative act, the "it," is right in its entirety; further, the equivalence of orifices and homophones it mobilizes exemplifies a larger system of equivalences that makes up the all: one could just keep going and it would still be right, all of it. It’s more than all right, it’s grand. He looks weary for only a moment, then it's on.

This episode strangely joins the trust specific to a (relatively) private relation with a dramatic publicity of utterance that offers the self as representative. The fact that the offer is made to no one seems to allow it to be made to everyone. The unpredictability and contingency of this occurrence, its experimental means as well as its content, puts to shame the narrow construction of “public” discourse, including the contributions of art and cinema. The seeming conversion of inconsequence into almost astral significance is one of the big paradoxes of outsider art and life, and it tends to push the audience toward a transcendental construction of truth as that which is usually invisible. We don't need to take such romanticism at face value in order to admire its ability to criticize what passes for public. Commentators predictably assert that because of the purity of the conditions of production (embedded filmmaker, unobtrusive camera, no art-market motive), Eggleston gives us a reality. But no world can give us that. Instead, he constructs a fantasy of the virtual as a space uniquely protected from any evaluation short of indifference to the impersonal. Now we are perfect.

The balance is fragile. At one point a couple of “normals,” as Erving Goffman would call them, wander into a bar in the middle of a song being murdered by Lady Russell, whom Eggleston calls the “travesty of transvestism.” Eggleston notes their horrified, self-protective bafflement. Their presence creates a slight anxiety, something to get over, a reminder to the audience that sociology indicates an infinitesimal level of support in Memphis, 1973 for the kinds of activities in the film. Lady Russell's performance could be physically dangerous in only slightly expanded circumstances. So the tightness of Eggleston’s closeups is also a defense. Another uncomfortable example, not of exclusion but of inclusion that nonetheless draws attention to the radius of the circle: Gordon incorporates Eggleston’s footage of the blues musicians Furry Lewis and Johnny Woods. The footage itself is neither token nor racist, but the appearance of tokenism is created as soon as “Stranded in Canton” the archive is edited into Stranded in Canton the film. For editorially, no choice is right. Leaving it out would give the impression that Eggleston was only interested in white people, while including it creates either a false continuity or an undue contrast with the Eggleston regulars: unlike a couple of other African-American men who appear more passingly, Lewis and Woods are not pursuing the derangement of the senses, and in no way cultivate ruin as a form of expression. That doesn’t mean that doing the latter is necessarily elitist and elective; rather, Lewis and Woods are not barometers of authenticity, these options are not necessarily comparable at all, and no one would be comparing them if it were not for the fact that the film had to either include or exclude these dignified men. Under those circumstances, if you've got footage of Furry Lewis, you can't leave it out. But in the archive, they are neither in nor out of anything--no claim and therefore no comparison is made. The passage from nonart to art here destroys value ambiguity. It is not that the archive is whole and the film is not; just the opposite, the film is a whole film, and thus necessarily partial, while the archive is no whole and does not order our reaction. Further, even though a stack of videotapes in a box is the logical conclusion of, the adequate form for, Eggleston's project, as I pointed out before the edited film doesn't show reality just because it came from the box. Similarly, what is in the box is not reality either, even if remains unopened. It's only the image of perfection, the construction of perfection projected by Eggleston's desire.

So I return to the creepiness or not of the desire for polymorphous perfection: can we endorse its pursuit? It must be said that Marcia Hare’s beauty isn’t perfect in the same way that Randall’s beauty is perfect. Hers bears the pressure of change and of noblesse oblige to men. Hare is the muse of plenitude, whose generosity has to be as even as Eggleston’s sustaining glance. At one point she is sitting on the lap of an elderly man, V.L. Richards, as though allowing him to take pleasure in the (unaccustomed?) proximity of her young body. She lets him touch her breasts, and declines when he asks if he can kiss one. “I’m not a wet nurse,” she says, as gently as though she were in fact talking to a baby. “Well, I think I can make you a wet nurse,” he returns, and everybody laughs, especially her. I know that laughter: it's called on to demonstrate that the fact that she is "not a wet nurse" does not mean that the man has to act like a grownup. She does not have to have sex with him, and yet he can and will keep on wanting her to. She accepts that state of affairs and absorbs the tension of it; on the ground of her acceptance, the group founds a community of erotic innocence. In Freudian thought civilization is supposed to be a compromise, forever unsatisfactory, with the asymmetry of desire—the fact that people want all of their wishes granted, but not all of everybody else’s. In "Canton" there’s a consolation prize: you may not get your wish, but you are supported in continuing to wish it. (This appears to be the conspiratorial message that passes between father and daughter, as well, in Gordon’s opening move.) The fantasy is that this group’s relations have refined themselves to the point where that is possible without cost. The issue of Hare's wet-nurserie shows where the cost is, and who is likely to pay. Play with a loaded gun at the end of the film similarly indicates the border of Canton--what non-contingent event could possibly break up the community. Still the sense that something important is going on between the members overrides any attempt to look ahead. They tacitly agree not to expose the fact that the omnipotence of desire is fictive. To keep it up, they have to push, pull, and experiment; but the underlying agreement holds, like a natural right.

Although Eggleston’s video seems to complement his photography—black and white where the photography is in color, unfocused rather than sharp, dealing with people dynamically instead of with objects or people-as-statuesque-objects—it may also suggest that the photography too treats objects as animate. At least, an animating desire turns toward these objects despite their mass production and sometime neglect. Each is the center of its universe, dryly lodged in eloquent muteness and adequate inadequacy. Far from exposing the “real” world, Eggleston is constantly subordinating the rest of the world to the right of the singular to assert its pre-eminence, and refusing to dwell on the contradictions in serial omnipotence. Eggleston’s voice is seldom heard in his own video, but when Eggleston’s loquacious dentist friend T.C. opines that “You don't want to go around all fucked up all the time,” it’s Eggleston who responds, “Why not?” There are a lot of ways to answer that. There are a lot of reasons to decline the fantasy of Stranded in Canton, yet room to wonder whether anyone really does.

Thanks to Eyal Amiran, Michelle Cho, and Toshi Tomori.

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