postmodern notebook

We have learned to trust the photographic image. Can we trust the electronic image? With painting everything was simple. The original was the original, and each copy was a copy – a forgery. With photography and then film that began to get complicated. The original was a negative. Without a print, it did not exist. Just the opposite, each copy was the original. But now with the electronic, and soon the digital, there is no more negative and no more positive. The very notion of the original is obsolete. Everything is a copy. All distinctions have become arbitrary. No wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state. Identity is out of fashion.

~Wim Wenders, 1989

The following screengrabs are from Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). They are all of images within images, and represent/re-present places within places and ideas within ideas.

My mind wanders over these images and then wanders beyond them, both outside their frames and to my own presuppositions and fetishes, and I think of Baudrillard’s quote:

It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image.

-from Photography, or the Writing of Light (2000)

Of course Baudrillard is wrong if we take him literally. Reality has not disappeared. But Baudrillard is right, as all postmodernists are, that the way we understand reality is heavily mediated for us (and by us) to the effect that reality, or “reality”, would seem to be an image created for us, is an image presented to us, is an image we carry with us, is an image we remember, and is an image we create. And, as an image is worth a thousand words, or a million, and therefore images are stories, fragmented or otherwise, connected and intersecting with other stories, stories referencing other stories, images referencing other images, we can apparently say all is reference. With Wenders we have the added question of the ever changing and never original (or always original) electronic image coupled with the question of what is fashion.

I suppose this blog plays a part in how I mediate the world for myself. I write for an audience, largely imaginary, but I also write for myself. Subconsciously, and maybe sometimes consciously, I write so that I can understand the world and my place in it. In this sense I can say that I have my take on reality. But the question is, are all distinctions truly arbitrary? And can this notion apply beyond the world of images to the rest of life?

So some degree Wender’s position hearkens back to his explorations in such films as Paris Texas and Wings of Desire. In those films we see characters struggling to communicate across great barriers (physical, psychological, spiritual) with those whom they love, or believe they love. In Wings of Desire the barrier is the difference between the world of human beings and the world of angels. The film’s story revolves around the idea that to become fully human one has to give up being merely an observer and enter in, that is, to immerse oneself in the tangible messy world we humans call reality. To cross that chasm is to take a leap of faith.

But is faith a leap? In the so-called Western/Christian tradition the word faith has a lot of gravity. Faith is one of those words, like love and happiness, whose meaning we all know and yet can never seem to finally pin down. For many the word has precisely to do with some kind of existential or spiritual leap. And for some that leap is a leap into the unknown or the unsure, or even the absurd. Interestingly, when we read the word faith used by the early Christian writers, such as the Apostles Paul or Peter or John, it is, in fact, the ordinary Greek word for belief. It does not appear that the Apostle’s intentions were to convey any idea of a leap of faith, or of faith being a kind of spiritual ecstasy. For what I can tell they were merely telling others to continue to believe what they have heard about Jesus because it is true, and that they can know it is true because the Apostles were eye witnesses.

Which brings us back to Notebook on Cities and Clothes and the idea of mediation and its relationship to truth. The fact is we are immersed in a world of images, and we seem to understand our world more and more in terms of those images rather than words, and those images are increasingly potentially untrustworthy. We are also in a world in which, while many of the barriers between people and cultures still remain, we are intersecting more and more with an increasingly broader scope of people(s) and a multiplicity of voices. Which means that we live in a world of references, that is, a world in which everything begins to reference something else and is built upon other references.

Maybe no other living filmmaker has more fun with playing with references than Quentin Tarantino. Part one of Death Proof immerses the viewer in a 1970s pastiche, full of faux antiquing of the film, samples from 1970s films, and stylistic choices right out of now classic B-movie road and slasher films. The film is designed to draw attention to itself. Tarantino winks at the audience and the audience winks back, along with the occasional high-five and an “oh yeah!” If a drinking game were devised for Death Proof, where viewers had to down a shot for every meant-to-be-obvious filmic reference, players would die of alcohol poisoning after ten minutes.

Examples include this appropriated “restricted” card from the early days of the MPAA rating system:

And this created title that looks like it came directly out of an early 1970s Disney film starring you know who:

Other examples include faux scratches and dust on the film and numerous jump-cuts that simulate a worn out film jumping in the projector gate because of splices and damaged sprocket holes.

But what is so fascinating is that Tarantino is not making a 70s film. He is making modern film. Consider that while the characters seem to live and play in a archetypal film of a previous era, and while the film makes a point of looking aged and worn out, characters still drive modern cars and use cell phones – like Jungle Julia below.

And yet, I doubt many viewers found this disconcerting, or even noticed, because there are no longer any meaningful distinctions (apparently). For a director like Tarantino there are no boundaries between films or genres or eras, there is only the magnificent cloth of cinema where every film participates in the weave, connecting and intersecting in the psychic playground cinephilia. For Tarantino, I would argue, faith is not a belief in what is true, but in what is cool and can be appropriated. And cool is another word for fashion.

In such a world where does one find one’s identity? Might one say that we are all only references built up from other references? That is the postmodern perspective, and it is the current version of “God is dead.” But is it true? I would say no. Ultimately there is no such world of only references, and we do not live our lives as though such a world were true. Wisdom would say one should always recognize the potential fallibility of our sacred ideas, but we are all creatures of faith, and faith knows there is a final reality that, at least, haunts us. Maybe, as we are immersed more and more in images, so increases the haunting.
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8 Comments

Filed under aesthetics, Art, artmaking, movies, Philosophy

8 responses to “postmodern notebook

  1. >Whew! I’m going to have to go back and read this post all over again. Several times, I think.Good stuff.

  2. >Megan, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comments.

  3. >As always, Tuck, your writing is lucid and thought-provoking. Some of the issues you raise were ones that I actually considered writing about in my Shadowlands piece: particularly that of the concept of faith not always being interpreted as “blind faith” but rather, as you point out, simply as belief. I personally have struggled to find a modern usage of the word “faith” that retains this classic definition and the best I can come up with is when a person tells someone else: “You can do it. I have faith in you.” In most cases, when such a statement is made it’s not simply because the person merely wants/hopes the other person to succeed but actually and truly believes that they can. In other words, their faith is not blind. It’s not just wishful thinking on their part, but instead it represents their honest predicition of the outcome based on the evidence (rather than a faith that exists in spite of the evidence which is how most people conceive of it today).There is so much in your blog to respond to that I won’t get into it now, but I will say that your remarks about Death Proof are interesting because it’s the only Tarantino film I haven’t seen yet. I want to see it, but I am somewhat confused as to what precisely “it” is because of the fact that, from what I hear, it is a contemporary movie using very traditional grindhouse style/aesthetics. Does this mean it is a “future relic?” In other words, do the scratches, pops and hisses signify the way the movie will look in thirty years? If so, why does he use “older” elements like the “R” rating card that you display here (not to mention the fact that more and more movies aren’t even being shot on film anymore)? Or is it supposed to be an “old film” that we are simply watching now? If so, how can the story feature modern technology and recent pop culture references? I had somewhat of a similar experience with Soderbergh’s The Good German: a very modern film (because of it’s liberal use of language, nudity, sex and violence that would NEVER have gotten past the Hays Code) but using techniques from the Golden Age of filmmaking such as wipes, dissolves, fades, obvious rear-projection during driving scenes and a very “classic Hollywood”-type film score (like something Miklos Rosza would’ve written in his hey-day). While I admire Soderbergh’s willingness to try new and different things, in my mind, the experiement didn’t quite work. So, I was interested in seeing whether Tarantino’s actually did work or not.

  4. >Damian, thanks for the comments. Lot’s of good stuff. I don’t know of a good replacement for the word faith. But like so many other important words, one just has to keep pressing the issue and get others – and ourselves! – to have clear definitions of what we mean. In fact this post began as something for the Film + Faith blogathon, but I couldn’t get it done in time. And I wanted to write much more. Ah life.Although there is no way for us to truly know Tarantino’s mind, I would say that, at least, he chose a vintage style because he likes it – it turns him on. Kinda like, “Those were the days weren’t they!? Ya know, I would like to make a film just like those old films.” “Yeah! And you could even make it look all scratched and jumpy like those films we saw in school.” “Cool!!” etc. etc. The vintage style is also only prevalent in the first half of the film, which begs the viewer to compare and contrast the two halves. It is in the comparison that the film becomes much more than a mere exercise in playing with references.Ironically, we rented Death Proof at the same time as The Good German, but we never got around to watching the latter.

  5. RC

    >what a thought provoking post. the wender’s stills are beautiful as well and make for a very unique analogy.

  6. >This post has given much to ponder. Have you read “rise of the image, fall of the word”? I have done a little reading in it as I have had time and think that it raises some interesting post-modern questions.Of course, I enjoy your thoughts on faith, and it not being a leap. I asked someone the other day if they were a believer and they had NO idea what I was even asking, even though once I explained they answered yes, they were a Christian. Funny how all the faith language has overpowered belief language.Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  7. >RC, thanks for your comments. I find much of the Wenders’ film to be beautiful, but these images stand out to me.

  8. >Marianne, I have not read Stephens book, although I have heard of it. It sounds like something I would enjoy. And yes, so many of the assumptions we have had regarding religious-related language have changed significantly. I think this is especially apparent with words like “faith”. Thanks for your comments.

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