Sunday, October 7, 2012


"I am not interested in dialogue or telling a story. I’m not trying to put over a clear message. My films are a dialogue with myself. At the moment my feeling is, that I want to discuss the body. Body language, bodily needs, bodily functions – what the body is trying to say, that we cannot articulate verbally. It is not important, what the film is trying to tell you – but what you feel about it. Think about, what you feel."
Tsai Ming Liang (on The Wayward Cloud)

Some time ago, I lent a handful of the films of Tsai Ming Liang to Eugenia Fragos, an actress that I admire enormously, after rambling on about his films to her for what probably felt at the time, for her, like hours. However, after watching What Time is It There? and The Wayward Cloud, she wrote to me a brief note on her experience and pleasure in discovering his films. There was a particular part of her message that has always stayed with me. She told me that viewing his films reminded her that, in performance, there is no possibility of transcendence without humiliation. That the sublime always goes together with humiliation, along with elements of fear and surprise. Humiliation. Precisely. I'd never thought in strictly these terms but, it was immediately clear, thinking through the prism of her note that for a performance to transcend material or visual limits there must always be a stripping down of the self, a complete laying bare. The act of humiliation.

The films I'm currently working on have, at their core, this idea of a performance of humiliation; yet the humiliation is, at once, subtle, moral, emotional and, only occasionally, physical. We've seen the extremes of physical humiliation in films by Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé. But, this is not the kind of humiliation I'm talking about, or the kind that Eugenia Fragos was speaking of. The humiliation that interests me; whether in the light hearted strangeness of Tsai Ming Liang or in the little films I've got stewing in my mind, is much closer to the etymological sense of humiliation: the abasement, humbling and bringing back to earth that suggests a change in state from a lofty station, disconnected from what makes us essentially human, to a state or station that is more organic, connected to the earth through natural impulses and, therefore, more distinctively human.

The Self
"The painter's gaze comes down on the face like a brutal hand trying to seize hold of her essence, of that diamond hidden in the depths. Of course we are not certain that the depths really do conceal something - but in any case we each have in us that brutal gesture, that hand movement that roughs up another person's face in hopes of finding, in it and behind it, something that is hidden there."
I recently read and re-read Milan Kundera's extraordinary essay on Francis Bacon and, in a forensic and forceful way, he explores this idea of humiliation in terms of portraiture and the paintings of Francis Bacon. He unravels the idea that Bacon was painting in a time when the 'self' was concealed in life and art; that the 'self' would run for cover or hide behind artifice or subterfuge, and this was as true for the subject as for the creator. Bacon, on the other hand, would reach deep, violently seeking some sense of the self of the subject that he was trying to capture through twisting and inverting the image, seeking an essence through brutality. His portraits, as are widely known, are laid violently bare. Torn apart on the surface of the image. Yet, his portraits are still clearly and powerfully, a strong incision into character and emotion. The stripping bare - the humiliation - allows for the inner self to transcend material limits.

"Bacon's portraits are an interrogation of the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does a beloved person still remain a beloved person? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognizable? Where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?"
I'm no painter, but these ideas explored by Kundera are, for me, why the performance of human drama remains the most radical axis for cinema. At the same time as discussion of film tends more and more toward the industrial and economic (a film cannot succeed without audience connection i.e. box office success), if story and visual storytelling, if cinema and narrative, are only made meaningful through human connection and not simply spectacle - which I firmly believe - then the ability to permeate what it is to be human is lost if the emphasis in film shifts from a story telling practice of investigation and intuition (internal) to one of exhibition and entertainment (external). Can we find a place in cinema in which distortion does not lead to alienation and the observational mode of the spectator, but, instead to proximity and the intimacy of a shared experience. This is what Kundera tests in his essay through the medium of Bacon. How far can the subject be distorted and deformed in their experiences and states but still be essentially human. And there is no mistake that he chooses to write "up to what degree of distortion does a beloved person still remain a beloved person?" as there is, in this violent, messy exploration of the painter's works, a search for the pure and positive forms of connection, be they desire, love, empathy or simple recognition. And, of course, in the idea of how this process of debasement can lead to the edges of the self, Bacon uses the material medium of painting to open the door to the transcendent realm.

In contemporary cinema there are some spaces where the limits of the self seem to be tested and where humiliation seems to be the basis of the drama. In the so-called New French Extremity films, for example, or in recent films like Shame - which I was so excited about seeing for this very reason, and so disappointed with for the same reasons - we are presented with an image of apparent physical debasement. Yet the sophistication of what these shifting states should mean is lost. What we see is a spectacle designed to shock without the accompanying shift in our perception as the process of humiliation takes place. We watch and move further away from the subject, rather than closer to the subject. The shared experience of moving from one state of being to another - as with Bacon tormenting the dignity of portraiture through distortions that still remain essentially true to the subject - is lost to the emphasis of the sight of physical degradation. In recent cinema, it is perhaps only rarely, as in the films of Lars Von Trier, that we see the genuine transitions of state and perception; where a character, through the process of self inflicted or externally inflicted humiliation, leads us through different states of human existence (encompassing both the sublime and ridiculous) to lead us back to earth.


Humiliation in pursuit of the sublime. The sublime which, for me, describes reaching a pure emotional response that exists between states; neither visual, nor aural, nor emotional, nor visceral, nor intellectual. In finding this sublime space between tangible experiences we have to find ways to shed our expectations of these states in the sense that humiliation is the stripping away of importance or significance, elevation or restraint:
To create visual states that require us to look beyond what we would normally see, or to look into moments which we would normally turn away from or which are so raw or vulnerable that we would never witness them in the first place. 
To create aural states that pierce the layers of what we normally hear, either through their proximity, intimacy or unfamiliarity (or the myriad sub sonic devices designers use to affect us without consciously 'hearing' sounds). 
To create emotional states in which the tension of what we should feel is torn at by what we do feel (the complicity of bad character behaviour, of thrills and desire in the face of transgression, of pleasure within darkness, or sadness within light). 
To create visceral states which puncture the comfort of the viewing experience, through arousal, revulsion, desire, horror, kawaii or physical empathy.


In the clumsiest terms, our obsession with reality television is humiliation expanded to the point of absurdity. Yet, still within that process is something unique and extraordinary that seems to be disappearing from much narrative cinema. Is it possible that I feel that I get a greater and more complex human insight into the characters in reality TV, particularly at the plotless, housebound, drunken end points of the genre - Jersey Shore, Big Brother, Geordie Shore etc. - than in sophisticated character drama. I hate to say it but, this is true because, within these banal dramas, is a seemingly endless process of laying bare; the process of humiliation.

Seeing beyond artifice, seeing human complexity seems to no longer be as vital to cinema as what is now called reductively 'story'. By that, it is plot that is meant. And, there is no doubt that the storytellers are more masterful than ever in the precision of plot. Even modest and sublime films like Ballast or Fish Tank or Winters Bone reveal incredible mastery of storytelling in a way that is elegant, driving and powerful. Yet, and this is not meant to diminish these films, will there ever be a time when cinema is allowed a space to return to allowing characters to be messy, to be human in ways that do not need to serve simultaneously as a means of propelling plot and story. Can it be that the process of being human, of being messy, of being humiliated, of being stripped back to our essence is in itself justification for a scene, a sequence, or a story?


One of the great and continual attractions of a canonised, revered filmmaker like John Cassavetes is probably because he allowed humiliation to form the core of his stories. Their reason for being was to strip bare characters; through madness, vanity, love, desire, macho bravado, greed. The apparent rambling looseness of his films - particularly Faces and Husbands and Love Streams - allows the shackles of a character's service to plot development to be loosened. In this space where the character is allowed room to fall into disarray or move without a visible service to plot, we become much more attentive to the gaps in performance, the human slippages, the errors in emotional connection. It's in these moments of disconnection, where the human surface unspools that we get closer to some sense of what lies beneath; in that swirling energy, that chaotic mess, that we dip into every time we decide to act, to speak, to engage. Out in the world, every time we miss these connections we are humiliated. Life, outside the cinema, is endless humiliation in the worst sense of the word, and good cinema, embraces life and it's constant humiliation in the best sense. Every time we are something more surprising, more fucked, more messy, more ugly, more human than our surface, we enter the process of humilation. This is the stuff of great performance. And great performance is the stuff of great drama. And great drama is the stuff of great art (so W.H. Auden says, it is this simple; "art is born of humiliation").

from Tsai Ming Liang's 'I Don't Want to Sleep Alone'

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