Ray Carney Moment of the Day #14

July 15, 2011

Bleak Moments

States of consciousness are impersonal, because thoughts and feelings (at least in the shorthand terms in which these films render them) are generic. Inner states inevitably lack the variety of expressions. There are no fat intentions or thin intentions, no embarrassed or glib visions, no hesitant or assertive abstractions. Visionary forms of presentation lack the idiosyncrasy of individual expressions. Our visions are more or less alike; it’s the nonvisionary aspects of our lives (our personalities, bodies, gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice) that make us different. In this respect, a person’s ideas, theories, goals, motives, and philosophies are the least personal (and least unique) things about him.

The absence of expressive particularity, idiosyncrasy, and individuality in idealist film includes the props, costumes, and events. In the initial romantic rendezvous between Marion and Sam in Psycho, nothing is particularized or unique. The hotel room might be any hotel room; the uneaten lunch might be any uneaten lunch; the beep of a car horn outside the window might be the beep of any car horn. Even the lover’s quarrel is generic. The words and tones are generic. The lunch-time rendezvous is generic. One might reply that the hotel scene is a relatively unimportant one (and that hotel rooms are pretty generic anyway), but the deindividualized nature of experience is just as striking in subsequent scenes in Psycho: when Marion packs her suitcase and flees with the money in her car; when she is stopped by the policeman; when she flees in the storm; when Norman Bates spies on her in her room; when he attacks her in the shower; when Arbogast offers his services to Sam and Lila as a detective; when he cross-examines Norman about whether Marion stayed at the motel; when he sneaks into the Bates mansion; when Sam stalls Norman; when Lila prowls through the mansion — it could really be anyone absconding with any cash, any guilty motorist stopped by a policeman, any anxious driver, any voyeur spying on any woman, any psycho killer, any private detective, anyone searching for clues, etc. , etc., etc.. Anyone or no one. There are no individuals in Psycho. There are only generic events, generic responses, generic interactions.

It is not just external events and actions that are made generic; personal experience itself is depersonalized by idealist works. The uniqueness and individuality of characters’ internal states is denied. When one or another character looks up at the Bates mansion from the motel, into Norman Bates’ office, around Marion’s motel room, or at objects in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom, there is nothing to distinguish one act of looking, thinking, feeling, or knowing from another—absolutely no difference between Marion’s looks, thoughts, and feelings and Arbogast’s, Lila’s, and Sam’s. There is just the generic visionary act.

Actors are cattle in this expressive universe. You wheel them in, position them, light them in certain ways, photograph them from several different angles, lay in some music on the soundtrack, and the job is done: generic mental states replace unique personal expressions. As John Cassavetes said to me about mainstream film in general: “There’s no behavior.” The acting in most idealist/visionary works is as schematic and generalized as a Kuleshov experiment. Every gesture, facial expression, and tone of voice is generic. A pantomimed “indication” of an emotion, an abstract “look” (made meaningful by the mood music that underpins it or the narrative events that precede and follow it) takes the place of a distinctive personal expression. A statement of thoughts or feelings substitutes for the presentation of something too personally unique to be reduced to an impersonal idea.

The impersonality of the characters’ existences is driven home by their narrative interchangeability in idealist film. In Psycho, for example, as one figure after another is bumped off or given a new narrative assignment, the next one steps in to take over the previous one’s duties. Lila can frictionlessly fill in for Marion and Sam for Arbogast because they are more or less indistinguishable links in a substitutional chain—generic narrative placeholders in clothes. There’s not even any difference between the men and the women in this respect. At this level of abstraction, gender differences disappear. Everyman has become so generalized that he is no longer identifiably a man.

Far from being a failure or oversight on Hitchcock’s part, it seems clear that the omission of what Cassavetes called behavior was deliberate. As his entire oeuvre testifies, Hitchcock was not interested in expressive uniqueness, but cultural, emotional, and psychological archetypes—general, abstract, imaginative relationships and dependencies. His films are not about what makes us different and irreplaceable (our unique personalities and forms of expression) but what links us with everyone else (our dreams, dreads, desires, and fears).

Schematic understandings run throughout idealist film. Look at works otherwise as different from each other as Citizen Kane, Sabrina, 2001, The Graduate, Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, and Apocalypse Now. The experiences in them have the phenomenological thinness (and ontological generality) of an allegory or a dream. They aren’t depictions of individuals but types. The characters and situations are abstract markers for general imaginative positions. Nothing in them is unique or unprecedented. In fact, like all mass culture expressions, these films would risk illegibility if their characters and situations departed too far from types. To reach the largest possible audience, they deliberately attempt to give us everyone’s experience in general (which means they give us no one’s in particular).

In downplaying expressive uniqueness, idealist expression suppresses otherness. The loss is a significant one, particularly if we understand “otherness” in its deepest meaning—not merely connoting exposure to specific sexual, racial, or cultural differences, but exposure to alien consciousness in any form. Otherness in this sense offers the opportunity to know in new ways, to see and hear with new eyes and ears, to feel new emotions, to be granted new powers, to participate in new forms of sensitivity and awareness. Because of their generic understandings, idealist works look in the other direction — toward an all-encompassing sameness of point of view, feeling, and idea.

Although it’s often said that the “identification” process (which these works heavily rely on) encourages the viewer to “become” one of the characters, in fact the opposite is closer to what actually takes place: The viewer forces the character or characters to become him. Rather than inhabiting a different consciousness, the viewer makes the character over in his own image. It’s an almost inevitable side-effect of the nature of idealist expression. Because characters are kept expressively somewhat nonspecific, they function as Rorschach ink blots for a viewer to project his thoughts and feelings onto, empty receptacles for a viewer to pour his feelings into. Rather than being forced out of himself, crashing up against the brick wall of an alien consciousness, the viewer colors the slightly blank character in with own personal emotional and intellectual meanings.

In fact, it is precisely because these characters (and the actors who play them) are expressively nonspecific and open-ended that most viewers are so comfortable with them. The vagueness allows each viewer to feel that the character is him or her. Expressive individuality and personal particularity would only get in the way of instant intimacy. If the character were someone, it couldn’t be everyone. Precisely because the visions in idealist film represent the point of view of no one in particular, they can become the point of view of anyone in general. The seer is able to drop into what is seen because no unique individual is doing the seeing. Idealist art is committed to a fundamentally easy and relaxed relationship between the viewer and what is viewed. But where the chasm between self and others is bridged so easily, so rapidly, so painlessly, genuine otherness disappears. No real learning or discovery takes place.

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