Saturday, June 28, 2008

Time to Wander

"The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing, juxtaposed orders, like the shifting configurations of a Victor Vasarely painting."
—Learning from Las Vegas

I am standing on the ninth floor of the Maccabees Building on the Wayne State University campus in the heart of downtown Detroit, Michigan. The ninth floor of this tower houses the English department. I came here, I went to graduate school, to study film because I was a cinephile.

Because I loved the images, the sounds and the cultures of the cinema. I have so much love for the cinema, but I just don’t know where to put it. Not just love for what the screen shows us, but a love for what the screen creates beyond itself—its affects, but also its communities, its meandering networks of ideas and of visions. But I see now that academia is not an easy place to be a cinephile.

I’ve come to accept with little reservation what Christian Keathley, in Cinephilia and History (2006), aptly described as a certain “cinephobia” in academia—the distrust of the pleasure, and bliss, of the film, and to take comfort in the more sensible proposing, testing, validating and affirming of cinematic hypotheses and theories.

It is easy to look out across the landscape of cinematic history and to organize, even perhaps correctly, how every text, event, figure, date, archival document, fits together—but somehow the passion, the everyday immediacy, is lost. On the other hand, I’ve come to suspect that love at first sight, it would appear, can on occasion be a bit misleading.

I think more often than not academia gets it right, and I’ve given myself to working under that assumption. And that hard work and patience pays off. But there is still so much hostility to a love of film (or better yet, a love of your own love)—and hostility to first-person. So, I’m trying to think of if, or when, I cease to be a cinephile.

Somewhere in academia—I can see the Renaissance Center tower standing out over the city’s horizon, buttressed right up against the Detroit River. I never gave much thought to what it spelled, at least not consciously. But I have often thought about how that structure supposedly stands in for Detroit—how it “establishes” Detroit.

Just watch The Upside of Anger (2005) and you’ll see what I mean. I see the Renassiance Center—I can assume I am in Detroit. Seems easier than getting out and walking. Or Robocop (1987)—the movie that used stock footage of the city in the opening moments, but otherwise was shot in Dallas. According to the Criterion DVD of Robocop, the filmmakers thought Detroit just looked too much like Detroit to play Detroit. Funny how that happens.

I remember standing on Belle Isle, recounting that anecdote about Robocop’s production history to a friend visiting from out-of-town. I think I always remember it not because it’s mildly amusing. But because it was really my first memory of Detroit, more so than Robocop.

I can see it now—someone’s sitting in the back of the old Mottier Hall, Indiana University. They are preparing their question for the end of my colloquium on what I am proposing as “the cinephiliac practice of everyday life”—

Yes, I enjoyed your talk. I’m curious . . . because . . . you said during your talk . . . you made the point that Dallas was where most of Robocop was filmed, right? And then you said . . . let me see . . . you said that that your knowledge of the film’s production history was your first memory of Detroit. But as you note the film’s not really shot in Detroit. It has nothing to do with Detroit. . . So . . . I’m just wondering . . . I guess I’m not sure how you reconcile . . . I don’t see how it can be both. . . . I mean I’m sure you’re talking about some kind of imaginary space that signifies . . .

“ . . . So, I guess it’s really not so much a question as a comment

It’s hard not to write about film and ideas without that voice in the back of my head. If I am reading this at a presentation, what is going to raise the red flags? Academia has trained me pretty good. And I’m not complaining. I just always hear that voice—I always try to incorporate that voice into my writing. “Where’s your thesis statement?” “I don’t know. Where’s yours?” (if they ever read this, my students would find me a terrible hypocrite).

I’m not sure if that makes me a cinephile anymore, though. When I internalize digressions, reservations, caveats—do I express that love, that passion, still? It’s so hard to remain a cinephile when I am trained to be ambivalent. Indeed, after walking, driving, surfing, and exploring far enough, you realize the world itself is truly ambivalence embodied. There’s really nothing more to it than that. Well, that and waiting for Quantum of Solace to open on November 7th.

Cinephilia is making something of a comeback—both amongst some academics, and amongst contemporary cinephiles (many of whom now migrate mostly online). The last few years have seen Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, and the anthologies, Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (2005), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (2003), and Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2008).

Online, cinephilia is much more rampant—Girish Shambu, Ted Pigeon, Zach Campbell, Andy Horbal, Dan Sallitt, Harry Tuttle, K. Silem Mohammed, Brian Darr. But much of this development seems—as with the blogs—opposed to academic progress. I contribute to two blogs myself—this one, and Dr. Mabuse’s Kaleido-Scope, “an academic media blog community.”

I think this is because I cannot decide whether I am a cinephile or an academic. Is it another new media play on identity? When I log on, do I ask myself—will I be a cinephile today? Will I be an academic? Will I be “just” a movie fan, and slum it at “Ain’t It Cool News”? (Will I be a Chicago Cubs fan? Will I be a progressive? Will I give myself to YouTube?). At what point do I set aside being a cinephile?

As an IU colleague in one of my PhD seminars was so fond of saying in the middle of discussion, “Okay, so let’s bracket that for the moment.” In The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze wrote of painter Francis Bacon that he was a great artist because he was always sweeping away the clich├ęs of painting, what others did, or were expected to do. He attacked them right at the root and swept them away. His work was so shocking and provocative precisely because there was no point of reference—no easy safe distance at which to perceive what was being seen—and thus no way of easily comprehending the work. But perhaps that’s a bit too idealistic. Perhaps everyone has to start somewhere (I don’t know—I’m not a painter. And I like my vanishing points). And there is still the question of “so what.

The RenCen. “Renaissance.” As in to begin again—to start over. That probably didn’t take for Detroit. Not yet. I’ve written about nostalgia and Detroit before. A colleague said the essay was written like a blog entry—so ephemeral, so focused in its fragments, so first-person. Ever since I started blogging, I do think my academic writing has changed a bit.

The same architect, John Portman, who planned The Renaissance Center also designed the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in LA. In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that Portman’s work is representative of postmodern architecture which did not attempt to construct utopias of modernity, contemporary Babylons (maybe that’s not modernist, but Metropolis is, and that’s good enough for me), but rather attempted to enact the language of the city. That according to Jameson, is what we ‘learned from Las Vegas,’ to paraphrase Robert Venturi.

What did I “learn” from Las Vegas? For one thing, I learned not to underestimate what architecture theory has to contribute to film studies. Venturi wrote that Las Vegas was the location where we could first see just how much highway culture had so irreparably influenced architectural design. Buildings now had to be planned to attract people quickly—folks driving by at 40, 50, 60, miles per hour, and otherwise wouldn’t notice the nuances of elaborately detailed structures in their peripheral vision. Las Vegas (at least when Venturi was writing in the 1960s and 1970s) was all about minimalist, functional structures and the big sign—“the decorated shield”—out by the road to grab attention. There’s much to be said about how our perception fundamentally shifts in postmodernity—and on the highways. The cinema reflects that.

Cinephilia does, too. Too often cinephiles focus on the same national cinemas, the same critics, the same auteurs. Authorship is perhaps the single biggest reason that cinephilia’s been left behind in the academy. That, and the fact that there is no sustainable model for cinephilia, other than as historical periods of audience reception. Cinephilia could be a little more flexible, and a little more indiscriminate.

The paradox of intense desire, as Deleuze and Guattari explain in Anti-Oedipus, is that it is at its most simplistic at its height of greatest intensity. One used to have to be able to discuss Godard to be a cinephile. Now one must be able to discuss Haneke. Or Kiarostami. Fine filmmakers, and worth of virtual discourse. And it’s not a surprise they stick out—on the highway that is the internet, it’s hard to get someone’s attention.

Film blogs are everywhere. Few standout (Girish’s excepted, and mostly because it’s less a blog than a genuine community). But that doesn’t mean that one can’t be given to wandering. Cinephilia could exist in the gaps, the side streets. Eventually Las Vegas got so packed, people were better off getting out and walking. Perhaps the future of the internet holds such a similar overwhelming totality for the cinephile. Someday.