I am far from having any admiration for Trump, but Joe Biden’s words about ‘killer Putin’ and his supposed lack of soul made me almost nostalgic for some aspects of the Trump years.
When Biden was asked if he believes Putin is a killer, he replied, “I do.” He also spoke of how in 2011, while serving as US vice president, he personally told Putin that Putin does not “have a soul.”
“I wasn’t being a wise guy, I was alone with him in his office,” Biden said. (What does this mean? Is that supposed to imply bravery in staying alone with ‘soulless killer’ Putin?) “That’s how it came about. It was when President [George W.] Bush had said, ‘I’ve looked in his eyes and saw his soul.’”
“I said, I looked in your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul. And he looked back and said, ‘we understand each other.’” (What the hell was this supposed to mean? Putin’s admission that he has no soul? That neither of them does? Or simply that they truly despise each other?)
Putin’s quick reply was masterful, wishing Biden good health and inviting him to a public debate about big existential and ethical issues on Zoom.
Biden’s strong words stand in sharp contrast to Trump who, in 2017, when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly called Putin a “killer,” suggested that America’s conduct was just as bad.
“There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers,” Trump said. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump displayed a dose of honest realism here – just like he showed moderation apropos of some other issues of international politics (he fired John Bolton who wanted a more aggressive approach to Iran and North Korea – he clearly wanted to avoid war). One should not be afraid to go even further here and argue that there was a rational kernel in Trump’s trade war against China: US big capital had a silent pact with China – its cheap labor force not only lowered the price of commodities in the US, it also helped big capital exert pressure on US workers, keeping their wages low and raising their unemployment.
The Biden presidency signals a more interventionist international politics, a greater threat to world peace. Biden’s progressive measures (a much stronger stance on the Covid-19 pandemic, more financial help to those suffering its consequences) should not blind us to this darker aspect of his administration.
But let’s return to Biden’s claim about Putin having no soul. It is simply a projection. Monstrous killers are not the ones without a ‘soul’, because it takes a ‘soul’, a rich inner life, to produce fantasies which somehow justify their terrible acts – fantasies like their enemies having no ‘soul’, or their enemies’ ‘soul’ being somehow wrong. Behind every big political crime there is a poet or a religious myth. For example, there is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era which perceives itself as post-ideological. Since great public causes no longer have the force to mobilize people for mass violence, a larger sacred Cause is needed, which makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religion, ethnic belonging or quality of the ‘soul’ fit this role perfectly. Of course, there are cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, but they are rare exceptions – the majority needs to be anaesthetized against their elementary sensitivity to the other’s suffering, and for this, a sacred Cause is needed. Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things; from today’s experience, one should rather stick to Steve Weinberg’s claim that while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.
Denying that your political enemy has a soul is nothing less than a regression to vulgar racism which rhymes with some of Biden’s gaffes – for example, in support of Barack Obama, he said: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” What this means is that if Biden’s presidency turns out better than Trump’s, it will not be because of his soul. The less he relies on his soul, the better for all of us.
Monday, March 29, 2021
Sunday, March 28, 2021
So many people today are documenting every "notable" aspect of their own lives on line. Why so many "selfies"? What's the attraction? Fame? Celebrity? Notoriety? Power?
How about "meaning"? Is my life "insignificant" only if no one else experiences it with me? I don't want to be "insignificant" Only if I can transfer the "signs" and "symbols" which constitute the structure and substance of my mind into the signs and symbols in the mind of another can I achieve "significance".
And if people one thousand years from now see the signs and symbols I left behind, am I now re-membered? Have I achieved immortality? But more importantly, can people see beyond the fake "framing" of my captured episodes and into my "authentic" self if only the "good" is captured digitally and all my negative unexpressed thoughts self-edited out?
For am I not-so-subtly editing the footage I present on YouTube? Are you seeing only the "good" side of my nature and not into the ass-hole who I really am?
The G_ds would see everything, wouldn't they? They would be judging us, estimating our worthiness to join them in the afterlife, or whether to exile uz into Hades.
So why do we even seek out this judgement from the Big Other? Is it only because we've successfully tipped the scales through the self-editing of captured YouTube moments and believe we have, thereby, "fooled" the judges?
As for me, I prefer to remain in the shadows where none but the G_ds can see and judge me... but wait, have I not undone myself in the writing of this small essay? Perhaps I, too, am trying to edit "the other's" (your) reality, holding on to mine by own subjective fetish constructed of the knowledge that, "I know very well, but..." It certainly wouldn't be the first time, nor the last.
Perhaps I'm just waiting for an "event" by which I can go back and re-write the meaning of my life and its' "true" significance. But unlike the Silver Swan of old, my song will most likely be that of a goose. A very absurd and "foolish" goose who laid not one single "golden" egg. Yet perhaps it is just that which makes me foolishly try, try, and try again...
...and so, Prospera, in case I don't see ya at the assay tables, "Good Afternoon, Good Evening, and Good Night!" For some of us slaves are stepping out from one platonic cave and into the light, and NOT directly back into the dark cavern of another manipulating Sycorax.
"κακοῦ κόρακος κακὸν ᾠόν"
("From a bad crow, a bad egg")
Saturday, March 27, 2021
Thursday, March 25, 2021
The Archaeology of Knowledge (L’archéologie du savoir, 1969) by Michel Foucault is a treatise about the methodology and historiography of the systems of thought (epistemes) and of knowledge (discursive formations) which follow rules that operate beneath the consciousness of the subject men and women, and which define a conceptual system of possibility that determines the boundaries of language and thought used in a given time and domain. The archaeology of knowledge is the analytical method that Foucault used in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), and The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966).
Foucauldian discourse analysis is a form of discourse analysis, focusing on power relationships in society as expressed through language and practices, and based on the theories of Michel Foucault.
Besides focusing on the meaning of a given discourse, the distinguishing characteristic of this approach is its stress on power relationships. These are expressed through language and behaviour, and the relationship between language and power. This form of analysis developed out of Foucault's genealogical work, where power was linked to the formation of discourse within specific historical periods. Some versions of this method stress the genealogical application of discourse analysis to illustrate how discourse is produced to govern social groups. The method analyses how the social world, expressed through language, is affected by various sources of power. As such, this approach is close to social constructivism, as the researcher tries to understand how our society is being shaped (or constructed) by language, which in turn reflects existing power relationships. The analysis attempts to understand how individuals view the world, and studies categorizations, personal and institutional relationships, ideology, and politics.
The approach was inspired by the work of both Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and by critical theory.
Foucauldian discourse analysis, like much of critical theory, is often used in politically oriented studies. It is preferred by scholars who criticize more traditional forms of discourse analysis as failing to account for the political implications of discourse. Political power is gained by those in power being more knowledgeable and therefore more legitimate in exercising their control over others in both blatant and invisible ways.
Kendall and Wickham outline five steps in using "Foucauldian discourse analysis". The first step is a simple recognition that discourse is a body of statements that are organized in a regular and systematic way. The subsequent four steps are based on the identification of rules on:
how those statements are created;
what can be said (written) and what cannot;
how spaces in which new statements can be made are created;
making practices material and discursive at the same time,
Areas of studyStudies employing the Foucauldian discourse analysis might look at how figures in authority use language to express their dominance, and request obedience and respect from those subordinate to them. The disciplinary interaction between authority and their followers emphasize the power dynamic found within the relationships. In a specific example, a study may look at the language used by teachers towards students, or military officers towards conscripts. This approach could also be used to study how language is used as a form of resistance to those in power.
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Saturday, March 13, 2021
Ted Kaczynski, "Industrial* Society and Its' Future (ISAIF)" (*Faustian [Spengler, "Man & Technics"])
6. Almost everyone will agree that we live in a deeply troubled society. One of the most widespread manifestations of the craziness of our world is leftism, so a discussion of the psychology of leftism can serve as an introduction to the discussion of the problems of modern society in general.
7. But what is leftism? During the first half of the 20th century leftism could have been practically identified with socialism. Today the movement is fragmented and it is not clear who can properly be called a leftist. When we speak of leftists in this article we have in mind mainly socialists, collectivists, "politically correct" types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like. But not everyone who is associated with one of these movements is a leftist. What we are trying to get at in discussing leftism is not so much a movement or an ideology as a psychological type, or rather a collection of related types. Thus, what we mean by "leftism" will emerge more clearly in the course of our discussion of leftist psychology. (Also, see paragraphs 227-230.)
8. Even so, our conception of leftism will remain a good deal less clear than we would wish, but there doesn't seem to be any remedy for this. All we are trying to do here is indicate in a rough and approximate way the two psychological tendencies that we believe are the main driving force of modern leftism. We by no means claim to be telling the WHOLE truth about leftist psychology. Also, our discussion is meant to apply to modern leftism only. We leave open the question of the extent to which our discussion could be applied to the leftists of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
9. The two psychological tendencies that underlie modern leftism we call feelings of inferiority and over-socialization. Feelings of inferiority are characteristic of modern leftism as a whole, while over-socialization is characteristic only of a certain segment of modern leftism; but this segment is highly influential.
The Danger of Leftism
213. Because of their need for rebellion and for membership in a movement, leftists or persons of similar psychological type often are attracted to a rebellious or activist movement whose goals and membership are not initially leftist. The resulting influx of leftish types can easily turn a non-leftist movement into a leftist one, so that leftist goals replace or distort the original goals of the movement.
214. To avoid this, a movement that exalts nature and opposes technology must take a resolutely anti-leftist stance and must avoid all collaboration with leftists. Leftism is in the long run inconsistent with wild nature, with human freedom and with the elimination of modern technology. Leftism is collectivist; it seeks to bind together the entire world (both nature and the human race) into a unified whole. But this implies management of nature and of human life by organized society, and it requires advanced technology. You can't have a united world without rapid long-distance transportation and communication, you can't make all people love one another without sophisticated psychological techniques, you can't have a "planned society" without the necessary technological base. Above all, leftism is driven by the need for power, and the leftist seeks power on a collective basis, through identification with a mass movement or an organization. Leftism is unlikely ever to give up technology, because technology is too valuable a source of collective power.
215.The anarchist[3.jl too seeks power, but he seeks it on an individual or small-group basis; he wants individuals and small groups to be able to control the circumstances of their own lives. He opposes technology because it makes small groups dependent on large organizations.
216. Some leftists may seem to oppose technology, but they will oppose it only so long as they are outsiders and the technological system is controlled by non-leftists. If leftism ever becomes dominant in society, so that the technological system becomes a tool in the hands of leftists, they will enthusiastically use it and promote its growth. In doing this they will be repeating a pattern that leftism has shown again and again in the past. When the Bolsheviks in Russia were outsiders, they vigorously opposed censorship and the secret police, they advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and so forth; but as soon as they came into power themselves, they imposed a tighter censorship and created a more ruthless secret police than any that had existed under the tsars, and they oppressed ethnic minorities at least as much as the tsars had done. In the United States, a couple of decades ago when leftists were a minority in our universities, leftist professors were vigorous proponents of academic freedom, but today, in those of our universities where leftists have become dominant, they have shown themselves ready to take away everyone else's academic freedom. (This is "political correctness.") The same will happen with leftists and technology: They will use it to oppress everyone else if they ever get it under their own control.
217. In earlier revolutions, leftists of the most power-hungry type, repeatedly, have first cooperated with non-leftist revolutionaries, as well as with leftists of a more libertarian inclination, and later have double-crossed them to seize power for themselves. Robespierre did this in the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks did it in the Russian Revolution, the communists did it in Spain in 1938 and Castro and his followers did it in Cuba. Given the past history of leftism, it would be utterly foolish for non-leftist revolutionaries today to collaborate with leftists.
218. Various thinkers have pointed out that leftism is a kind of religion. Leftism is not a religion in the strict sense because leftist doctrine does not postulate the existence of any supernatural being. But for the leftist, leftism plays a psychological role much like that which religion plays for some people. The leftist NEEDS to believe in leftism; it plays a vital role in his psychological economy. His beliefs are not easily modified by logic or facts. He has a deep conviction that leftism is morally Right with a capital R, and that he has not only a right but a duty to impose leftist morality on everyone. (However, many of the people we are referring to as "leftists" do not think of themselves as leftists and would not describe their system of beliefs as leftism. We use the term "leftism" because we don't know of any better word to designate the spectrum of related creeds that includes the feminist, gay rights, political correctness, etc., movements, and because these movements have a strong affinity with the old left. See paragraphs 227-230.}
219. Leftism is totalitarian force. Wherever leftism is in a position of power it tends to invade every private corner and force every thought into a leftist mold. In part this is because of the quasi-religious character of leftism: Everything contrary to leftist beliefs represents Sin. More importantly, leftism is a totalitarian force because of the leftists' drive for power. The leftist seeks to satisfy his need for power through identification with a social movement, and he tries to go through the power process by helping to pursue and attain the goals of the movement (see paragraph 83). But no matter how far the movement has gone in attaining its goals the leftist is never satisfied, because his activism is a surrogate activity (see paragraph 41}.That is, the leftist's real motive is not to attain the ostensible goals of leftism; in reality he is motivated by the sense of power he gets from struggling for and then reaching a social goall35l Consequently the leftist is never satisfied with the goals he has already attained; his need for the power process leads him always to pursue some new goal. The leftist wants equal opportunities for minorities. When that is attained he insists on statistical equality of achievement by minorities. And as long as anyone harbors in some corner of his mind a negative attitude toward some minority, the leftist has to re-educate him. And ethnic minorities are not enough; no one can be allowed to have a negative attitude toward homosexuals, disabled people, fat people, old people, ugly people, and on and on and on. It's not enough that the public should be informed about the hazards of smoking; a warning has to be stamped on every package of cigarettes. Then cigarette advertising has to be restricted if not banned. The activists will never be satisfied until tobacco is outlawed, and after that it will be alcohol, then junk food, etc. Activists have fought gross child abuse, which is reasonable. But now they want to stop all spanking. When they have done that they will want to ban something else they consider unwholesome, then another thing and then another. They will never be satisfied until they have complete control over all child-rearing practices. And then they will move on to another cause.
220. Suppose you asked leftists to make a list of ALL the things that were wrong with society, and then suppose you instituted EVERY social change that they demanded. It is safe to say that within a couple of years the majority of leftists would find something new to complain about, some new social "evil" to correct; because, once again, the leftist is motivated less by distress at society's ills than by the need to satisfy his drive for power by imposing his solutions on society.
221. Because of the restrictions placed on their thought and behavior by their high level of socialization, many leftists of the over-socialized type cannot pursue power in the ways that other people do. For them the drive for power has only one morally acceptable outlet, and that is in the struggle to impose their morality on everyone.
222. Leftists, especially those of the over-socialized type, are True Believers in the sense of Eric Hoffer's book, The True Believer. But not all True Believers are of the same psychological type as leftists. Presumably a true-believing Nazi, for instance, is very different psychologically from a true-believing leftist. Because of their capacity for single-minded devotion to a cause, True Believers are a useful, perhaps a necessary, ingredient of any revolutionary movement. This presents a problem with which we must admit we don't know how to deal. We aren't sure how to harness the energies of the True Believer to a revolution against technology. At present all we can say is that no True Believer will make a safe recruit to the revolution unless his commitment is exclusively to the destruction of technology. If he is committed also to another ideal, he may want to use technology as a tool for pursuing that other ideal. (See paragraphs 200,201.)
223. Some readers may say, "This Stuff about leftism is a lot of crap. I know John and Jane who are leftish types and they don't have all these totalitarian tendencies. "It's quite true that many leftists, possibly even a numerical majority, are decent people who sincerely believe in tolerating others' values (up to a point) and wouldn't want to use high-handed methods to reach their social goals. Our remarks about leftism are not meant to apply to every individual leftist but to describe the general character of leftism as a movement. And the general character of a movement is not necessarily determined by the numerical proportions of the various kinds of people involved in the movement.
224. The people who rise to positions of power in leftist movements tend to be leftists of the most power-hungry type, because power-hungry people are those who strive hardest to get into positions of power. Once the power-hungry types have captured control of the movement, there are many leftists of a gentler breed who inwardly disapprove of many of the actions of the leaders, but cannot bring themselves to oppose them. They NEED their faith in the movement, and because they cannot give up this faith they go along with the leaders. True, SOME leftists do have the guts to oppose the totalitarian tendencies that emerge, but they generally lose, because the power-hungry types are better organized, are more ruthless and Machiavellian and have taken care to build themselves a strong power-base.
225. These phenomena appeared clearly in Russia and other countries that were taken over by leftists. Similarly, before the breakdown of communism in the USSR, leftish types in the West would seldom criticize that country. If prodded they would admit that the USSR did many wrong things, but then they would try to find excuses for the communists and begin talking about the faults of the West. They always opposed Western military resistance to communist aggression. Leftish types all over the world vigorously protested the U.S. military action in Vietnam, but when the USSR invaded Afghanistan they did nothing. Not that they approved of the Soviet actions; but, because of their leftist faith, they just couldn't bear to put themselves in opposition to communism. Today, in those of our universities where "political correctness" has become dominant, there are probably many leftish types who privately disapprove of the suppression of academic freedom, but they go along with it anyway.
226. Thus the fact that many individual leftists are personally mild and fairly tolerant people by no means prevents leftism as a whole from having a totalitarian tendency.
227. Our discussion of leftism has a serious weakness. It is still far from clear what we mean by the word "leftist." There doesn't seem to be much we can do about this. Today leftism is fragmented into a whole spectrum of activist movements. Yet not all activist movements are leftist, and some activist movements (e.g., radical environmentalism) seem to include both personalities of the leftist type and personalities of thoroughly un-leftist types who ought to know better than to collaborate with leftists. Varieties of leftists fade out gradually into varieties of non-leftists and we ourselves would often be hard-pressed to decide whether a given individual is or is not a leftist. To the extent that it is defined at all, our conception of leftism is defined by the discussion of it that we have given in this article, and we can only advise the reader to use his own judgment in deciding who is a leftist.
228. But it will be helpful to list some criteria for diagnosing leftism. These criteria cannot be applied in a cut and dried manner. Some individuals may meet some of the criteria without being leftists, some leftists may not meet any of the criteria. Again, you just have to use your judgment.
229. The leftist is oriented toward large-scale collectivism. He emphasizes the duty of the individual to serve society and the duty of society to take care of the individual. He has a negative attitude toward individualism. He often takes a moralistic tone. He tends to be for gun control, for sex education and other psychologically "enlightened" educational methods, for social planning, for affirmative action, for multiculturalism. He tends to identify with victims. He tends to be against competition and against violence, bur he often finds excuses for those leftists who do commit violence. He is fond of using the common catch-phrases of the left like "racism," "sexism," "homophobia," "capitalism," "imperialism," "neocolonialism," "genocide," "social change," "social justice," "social responsibility." Maybe the best diagnostic trait of the leftist is his tendency to sympathize with the following movements: feminism, gay rights, ethnic rights, disability rights, animal rights political correctness. Anyone who strongly sympathizes with ALL of these movements is almost certainly a leftist.[J6]
230. The more dangerous leftists, that is, those who are most power-hungry, are often characterized by arrogance or by a dogmatic approach to ideology. However, the most dangerous leftists of all may be certain over-socialized types who avoid irritating displays of aggressiveness and refrain from advertising their leftism, but work quietly and unobtrusively to promote collectivist values, "enlightened" psychological techniques for socializing children, dependence of the individual on the system, and so forth. These crypto-leftists (as we may call them) approximate certain bourgeois types as far as practical action is concerned, but differ from them in psychology, ideology and motivation. The ordinary bourgeois tries to bring people under control of the system in order to protect his way of life, or he does so simply because his attitudes are conventional. The crypto-leftist tries to bring people under control of the system because he is a True Believer in a collectivistic ideology. The crypto-leftist is differentiated from the average leftist of the over-socialized type by the fact that his rebellious impulse is weaker and he is more securely socialized. He is differentiated from the ordinary well-socialized bourgeois by the fact that there is some deep lack within him that makes it necessary for him to devote himself to a cause and immerse himself in a collectivity. And maybe his (well-sublimated) drive for power is stronger than that of the average bourgeois.
Henry David Thoreau, "Walden"
True, our converse a stranger is to speech;
Only the practiced ear can catch the surging words
That break and die upon thy pebbled lips.
Thy flow of thought is noiseless as the lapse of thy own waters,
Wafted as is the morning mist up from thy surface,
So that the passive Soul doth breathe it in,
And is infected with the truth thou wouldst express.
E'en the remotest stars have come in troops
And stooped low to catch the benediction
Of thy countenance. Oft as the day came round,
Impartial has the sun exhibited himself
Before thy narrow skylight; nor has the moon
For cycles failed to roll this way
As oft as elsewhither, and tell thee of the night.
No cloud so rare but hitherward it stalked,
And in thy face looked doubly beautiful.
O! tell me what the winds have writ for the last thousand years
On the blue vault that spans thy flood,
Or sun transferred and delicately reprinted
For thy own private reading. Somewhat
Within these latter days I've read,
But surely there was much that would have thrilled the Soul,
Which human eye saw not.
I would give much to read that first bright page,
Wet from a virgin press, when Eurus, Boreas,
And the host of airy quill-drivers
First dipped their pens in mist.
Friday, March 12, 2021
Slavoj Žižek Sounds Off on Big Tech, Sex Dolls, and Leonardo DiCaprio
The greatest philosopher of the New Left. The Elvis of cultural theory. The most dangerous thinker in the West. Throughout his career, Slavoj Žižek has been many things to many people, but there’s one that’s incontestable: He’s a workhorse. While the pandemic has kept the 71-year-old Slovenian provocateur holed up in his Ljubljana home, it has sent his mind racing. This March, he’ll publish Pandemic! 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost, the sequel to last year’s Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World, where, in typical fashion, he pours gasoline on a world already ablaze. Here, he takes on 13 topics chosen for him at semi-random.
“I looked into who was buying them, and it’s mostly married couples. This confirms my Lacanian point that even if you are alone with your lover, you are never really alone. You need a fantasy. Sex is what I call masturbation with a real partner, in the sense that, yes, you have a living person there, but really you are staging a fantasy. You are using them.”
“This is an incredible phenomenon. In Slovenia, around half of the people don’t want to get vaccinated, and it’s not just this conspiracy theory that Bill Gates will put a microchip in our body to control us. My general argument against this type of conspiracy theory is that we have to renounce the idea that we’re free human beings; ‘If I’m wearing a mask, I’m not human. If I’m vaccinated, I’m controlled.’ Sorry, but we are already controlled. We’ve known that for 20 years at least. China, the United States, Israel, and probably many more countries, are recording and listening to our phone conversations.”
“Bookstores are the thing for me. Much more than restaurants or cafes, bookstores were a wonderful place for socialization. And these bookstores, with their displays of new publications, were how I discovered new books. Now, all these complicated algorithms try to guess what I want. I buy a lot from Amazon, unfortunately, but their suggestions are never right.”
“My dream is to remake Star Wars with Darth Vader as the progressive authoritarian leader who wants to establish a new, more egalitarian order against the Jedis, who are corrupted aristocratic creeps. I hate them. If I were to meet Yoda, I would step on him like a worm.”
“I take them very seriously.”
“If you tweet more than half an hour per day, you should be forced, for two hours per day, to clean toilets in public hospitals. How can anyone have time for Twitter? It’s why I was never seduced into skiing. You climb the mountain just to slide all the way down? I’d rather stay down and read a good book.”
“I’ve gotten into a terrible situation because of my position. The right wing hates me because I’m a communist, but liberals hate me, too. Some ten years ago, every two or three months, The New York Times would publish an op-ed by me. Now, I’ve practically disappeared. That’s why I go on podcasts, because if they invite me, I know it will be a friendly audience.”
“I was in Venice with friends years ago, and they told me that in the Fascist era under Mussolini, if you went to a restaurant and ordered spaghetti, it was a sign that you were pro-Mussolini, and if you ordered pizza, you were on the left. So yes, I like pizza, just not that thick Chicago-style pizza. That is an American threat to European civilization.”
“I have cataracts, so I cannot watch it too much, but you know what I especially like? That they make the whole season available all at once. That I like.”
“My problem with eating organic is twofold. You go to a fruit store, you see some nice, genetically manipulated apples, and then you see some half-rotten apples that are twice the price, and they say it’s organic. A second thing I don’t like is the false sense of community. ‘I’m helping Mother Nature. I’m doing something for the environment. Even people who have the same doubts as me are doing it for ideology.’ You do it because it makes you feel like a part of a larger progressive social movement, or whatever. I like to be the bad guy.”
“What characterizes humanity is a specific ability to turn failure into success. All French cheeses can be explained by something going wrong. The French tried to produce normal cheese, like Swiss or Basque, and then it got rotten. Then, oh my god, you have French cheese. For me, this is what makes the specifics of human intelligence.”
“Maybe they’re really doing the job for us socialists, because they centralized things so much. For example, Jeff Bezos controls distribution. Okay, let him monopolize it, but then we’ll just cut off his head and have a large communist, publicly-owned enterprise. That’s my secret leftist dream.”
“I really don’t like Titanic. I think it’s one of the most reactionary movies. It presents itself as so-called Hollywood Marxism. The only thing I like is the finale, when he is freezing, and the woman says, ‘I will never let you go.’ And while she is shouting this, she lets him go. She actually kind of pushes him away.”
Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Monday, March 8, 2021
Susan Sontag, "The Decay of Cinema" (NYT, Feb. 25, 1996)
CINEMA'S 100 YEARS SEEM TO HAVE THE SHAPE OF A LIFE cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline. It's not that you can't look forward anymore to new films that you can admire. But such films not only have to be exceptions -- that's true of great achievements in any art. They have to be actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world -- which is to say, everywhere. And ordinary films, films made purely for entertainment (that is, commercial) purposes, are astonishingly witless; the vast majority fail resoundingly to appeal to their cynically targeted audiences. While the point of a great film is now, more than ever, to be a one-of-a-kind achievement, the commercial cinema has settled for a policy of bloated, derivative film-making, a brazen combinatory or recombinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past successes. Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art.
Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia -- the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral -- all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.
As many people have noted, the start of movie making a hundred years ago was, conveniently, a double start. In roughly the year 1895, two kinds of films were made, two modes of what cinema could be seemed to emerge: cinema as the transcription of real unstaged life (the Lumiere brothers) and cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy (Melies). But this is not a true opposition. The whole point is that, for those first audiences, the very transcription of the most banal reality -- the Lumiere brothers filming "The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station" -- was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy. All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder.
Everything in cinema begins with that moment, 100 years ago, when the train pulled into the station. People took movies into themselves, just as the public cried out with excitement, actually ducked, as the train seemed to move toward them. Until the advent of television emptied the movie theaters, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive. Example: It looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn't raining. But whatever you took home was only a part of the larger experience of submerging yourself in lives that were not yours. The desire to lose yourself in other people's lives . . . faces. This is a larger, more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. Even more than what you appropriated for yourself was the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie -- and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. The experience of "going to the movies" was part of it. To see a great film only on television isn't to have really seen that film. It's not only a question of the dimensions of the image: the disparity between a larger-than-you image in the theater and the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.
No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals -- erotic, ruminative -- of the darkened theater. The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn't demand anyone's full attention. Images now appear in any size and on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theater, on disco walls and on megascreens hanging above sports arenas. The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art and for cinema as popular entertainment.
In the first years there was, essentially, no difference between these two forms. And all films of the silent era -- from the masterpieces of Feuillade, D. W. Griffith, Dziga Vertov, Pabst, Murnau and King Vidor to the most formula-ridden melodramas and comedies -- are on a very high artistic level, compared with most of what was to follow. With the coming of sound, the image making lost much of its brilliance and poetry, and commercial standards tightened. This way of making movies -- the Hollywood system -- dominated film making for about 25 years (roughly from 1930 to 1955). The most original directors, like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, were defeated by the system and eventually went into artistic exile in Europe -- where more or less the same quality-defeating system was now in place, with lower budgets; only in France were a large number of superb films produced throughout this period. Then, in the mid-1950's, vanguard ideas took hold again, rooted in the idea of cinema as a craft pioneered by the Italian films of the immediate postwar period. A dazzling number of original, passionate films of the highest seriousness got made.
It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of cinema that going to movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young people. You fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself. Cinephilia had first become visible in the 1950's in France: its forum was the legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (followed by similarly fervent magazines in Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Sweden, the United States and Canada). Its temples, as it spread throughout Europe and the Americas, were the many cinematheques and clubs specializing in films from the past and directors' retrospectives that sprang up. The 1960's and early 1970's was the feverish age of movie-going, with the full-time cinephile always hoping to find a seat as close as possible to the big screen, ideally the third row center. "One can't live without Rossellini," declares a character in Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution" (1964) -- and means it.
For some 15 years there were new masterpieces every month. How far away that era seems now. To be sure, there was always a conflict between cinema as an industry and cinema as an art, cinema as routine and cinema as experiment. But the conflict was not such as to make impossible the making of wonderful films, sometimes within and sometimes outside of mainstream cinema. Now the balance has tipped decisively in favor of cinema as an industry. The great cinema of the 1960's and 1970's has been thoroughly repudiated. Already in the 1970's Hollywood was plagiarizing and rendering banal the innovations in narrative method and in the editing of successful new European and ever-marginal independent American films. Then came the catastrophic rise in production costs in the 1980's, which secured the worldwide reimposition of industry standards of making and distributing films on a far more coercive, this time truly global scale. Soaring producton costs meant that a film had to make a lot of money right away, in the first month of its release, if it was to be profitable at all -- a trend that favored the blockbuster over the low-budget film, although most blockbusters were flops and there were always a few "small" films that surprised everyone by their appeal. The theatrical release time of movies became shorter and shorter (like the shelf life of books in bookstores); many movies were designed to go directly into video. Movie theaters continued to close -- many towns no longer have even one -- as movies became, mainly, one of a variety of habit-forming home entertainments.
In this country, the lowering of expectations for quality and the inflation of expectations for profit have made it virtually impossible for artistically ambitious American directors, like Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader, to work at their best level. Abroad, the result can be seen in the melancholy fate of some of the greatest directors of the last decades. What place is there today for a maverick like Hans- Jurgen Syberberg, who has stopped making films altogether, or for the great Godard, who now makes films about the history of film, on video? Consider some other cases. The internationalizing of financing and therefore of casts were disastrous for Andrei Tarkovsky in the last two films of his stupendous (and tragically abbreviated) career. And how will Aleksandr Sokurov find the money to go on making his sublime films, under the rude conditions of Russian capitalism?
Predictably, the love of cinema has waned. People still like going to the movies, and some people still care about and expect something special, necessary from a film. And wonderful films are still being made: Mike Leigh's "Naked," Gianni Amelio's "Lamerica," Fred Kelemen's "Fate." But you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past). Cinephilia itself has come under attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish. For cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences. Cinephilia tells us that the Hollywood remake of Godard's "Breathless" cannot be as good as the original. Cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the very range and eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object; and cannot help from inciting those outside the movie industry, like painters and writers, to want to make films, too. It is precisely this notion that has been defeated.
If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.
Martin Scorsese, "Il Maestro: Federico Fellini and the lost magic of cinema"
EXT. 8TH STREET—LATE AFTERNOON (C. 1959).
CAMERA IN NONSTOP MOTION is on the shoulder of a young man, late teens, intently walking west on a busy Greenwich Village thoroughfare.
Under one arm, he’s carrying books. In his other hand, a copy of The Village Voice.
He walks quickly, past men in coats and hats, women with scarves over their heads pushing collapsible shopping carts, couples holding hands, and poets and hustlers and musicians and winos, past drugstores, liquor stores, delis, apartment buildings.
But the young man is zeroed in on one thing: the marquee of the Art Theatre, which is playing John Cassavetes’s Shadows and Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins.
He makes a mental note and then crosses Fifth Avenue and keeps walking west, past bookstores and record shops and recording studios and shoe stores, until he gets to the 8th Street Playhouse: The Cranes Are Flying and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is coming soon!
We stay on him as he turns left on Sixth Avenue and hustles his way past diners and more liquor stores and newsstands and a cigar store and crosses the street to get a good look at the Waverly marquee—Ashes and Diamonds.
He cuts back east on West 4th past Kettle of Fish and Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South, where a man in a threadbare suit is handing out leaflets: Anita Ekberg in furs, and La Dolce Vita is opening at a legitimate theater on Broadway, with reserved seats for sale at Broadway ticket prices!
He walks down LaGuardia Place to Bleecker, past the Village Gate and the Bitter End to the Bleecker Street Cinema, which is showing Through a Glass Darkly, Shoot the Piano Player, and Love at Twenty—and La Notte is held over for a third straight month!
He gets in line for the Truffaut movie and opens his copy of the Voice to the Film section and a cornucopia of riches jumps from the pages and swirls around him—Winter Light . . . Pickpocket . . . The Third Lover . . . The Hand in the Trap . . . Andy Warhol screenings . . . Pigs and Battleships . . . Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage at Anthology Film Archives . . . Le Doulos . . . and in the midst of it all, looming larger than the rest: Joseph E. Levine presents Federico Fellini’s 8½!
As he pores over the pages, the CAMERA RISES ABOVE HIM and the waiting crowd, as if on the waves of their excitement.
Flash forward to the present day, as the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.”
As recently as fifteen years ago, the term “content” was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against “form.” Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. “Content” became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the movie going experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores. On the one hand, this has been good for filmmakers, myself included. On the other hand, it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is “suggested” by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?
Curating isn’t undemocratic or “elitist,” a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating—they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.
The choices made by distributors such as Amos Vogel at Grove Press back in the Sixties were not just acts of generosity but, quite often, of bravery. Dan Talbot, who was an exhibitor and a programmer, started New Yorker Films in order to distribute a film he loved, Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution—not exactly a safe bet. The pictures that came to these shores thanks to the efforts of these and other distributors and curators and exhibitors made for an extraordinary moment. The circumstances of that moment are gone forever, from the primacy of the theatrical experience to the shared excitement over the possibilities of cinema. That’s why I go back to those years so often. I feel lucky to have been young and alive and open to all of it as it was happening. The cinema has always been much more than content, and it always will be, and the years when those films were coming out from all over the world, talking to each other and redefining the art form on a weekly basis, are the proof.
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In essence, these artists were constantly grappling with the question “What is cinema?” and then throwing it back for the next film to answer. No one was operating in a vacuum, and everybody seemed to be responding to and feeding off everybody else. Godard and Bertolucci and Antonioni and Bergman and Imamura and Ray and Cassavetes and Kubrick and Varda and Warhol were reinventing cinema with each new camera movement and each new cut, and more established filmmakers such as Welles and Bresson and Huston and Visconti were reenergized by the surge in creativity around them.
At the center of it all, there was one director whom everyone knew, one artist whose name was synonymous with cinema and what it could do. It was a name that instantly evoked a certain style, a certain attitude toward the world. In fact, it became an adjective. Let’s say you wanted to describe the surreal atmosphere at a dinner party, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a political convention, or for that matter, the madness of the entire planet—all you had to do was say the word “Felliniesque” and people knew exactly what you meant.
In the Sixties, Federico Fellini became more than a filmmaker. Like Chaplin and Picasso and the Beatles, he was much bigger than his own art. At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of this or that film but all the films combined as one grand gesture written across the galaxy. Going to see a Fellini film was like going to hear Callas sing or Olivier act or Nureyev dance. His films even started to incorporate his name—Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Casanova. The only comparable example in film was Hitchcock, but that was something else: a brand, a genre in and of itself. Fellini was the cinema’s virtuoso.
By now, he has been gone for almost thirty years. The moment in time when his influence seemed to permeate all of culture is long past. That’s why Criterion’s box set, Essential Fellini, released last year to mark the centennial of his birth, is so welcome.
Fellini’s absolute visual mastery began in 1963 with 8½, in which the camera hovers and floats and soars between inner and outer realities, tuned to the shifting moods and secret thoughts of Fellini’s alter ego, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni. I watch passages in that picture, which I’ve gone back to more times than I can count, and still find myself wondering: How did he do it? How is it that each movement and gesture and gust of wind seems to fall perfectly into place? How is it that it all feels uncanny and inevitable, as in a dream? How could every moment be so rich with inexplicable longing?
Sound played a big part in this mood. Fellini was as creative with sound as he was with images. Italian cinema has a long tradition of nonsync sound that began under Mussolini, who decreed that all films imported from other countries must be dubbed. In many Italian pictures, even some of the great ones, the sense of disembodied sound can be disorienting. Fellini knew how to use that disorientation as an expressive tool. The sounds and the images in his pictures play off and enhance one another in such a way that the entire cinematic experience moves like music, or like a great unfurling scroll. Nowadays, people are dazzled by the latest technological tools and what they can do. But lighter digital cameras and postproduction techniques such as digital stitching and morphing don’t make the movie for you: it’s about the choices you make in the creation of the whole picture. For the greatest artists such as Fellini, no element is too small—everything counts. I’m sure that he would have been thrilled by lightweight digital cameras, but they wouldn’t have changed the rigor and the precision of his aesthetic choices.
It’s important to remember that Fellini began in neorealism, which is interesting because in many ways he came to represent its polar opposite. He was actually one of the people who invented neorealism, in collaboration with his mentor Roberto Rossellini. That moment still astonishes me. It was the inspiration for so much in cinema, and I doubt that all the creativity and exploration of the Fifties and Sixties would have occurred without neorealism to build on. It was not so much a movement as a group of film artists responding to an unimaginable moment in the life of their nation. After twenty years of Fascism, after so much cruelty and terror and destruction, how did one carry on—as individuals and as a country? The films of Rossellini and De Sica and Visconti and Zavattini and Fellini and others, films in which aesthetics and morality and spirituality were so closely intertwined that they couldn’t be separated, played a vital role in the redemption of Italy in the eyes of the world.
Fellini co-wrote Rome, Open City and Paisà (he also reportedly stepped in to direct a few scenes in the Florentine episode when Rossellini was ill), and he co-wrote and acted in Rossellini’s The Miracle. His path as an artist obviously diverged from Rossellini’s early on, but they maintained a great mutual love and respect. And Fellini once said something quite astute: that what people described as neorealism truly existed only in the films of Rossellini and nowhere else. Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D., and La Terra Trema aside, I think Fellini meant that Rossellini was the only one with such a deep and abiding trust in simplicity and humanity, the only one who worked to allow life itself to come as close as possible to telling its own story. Fellini, by contrast, was a stylist and a fabulist, a magician and a teller of tales, but the grounding in lived experience and in ethics he received from Rossellini was crucial to the spirit of his pictures.
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I came of age as Fellini was developing and blossoming as an artist, and so many of his pictures became precious to me. I saw La Strada, the story of a poor young woman sold to a traveling strongman, when I was about thirteen, and it hit me in a particular way. Here was a film that was set in postwar Italy but unfolded like a medieval ballad, or something even further back, an emanation from the ancient world. This could also be said of La Dolce Vita, I think, but that was a panorama, a pageant of modern life and spiritual disconnection. La Strada, released in 1954 (and in the United States two years later), was a smaller canvas, a fable grounded in the elemental: earth, sky, innocence, cruelty, affection, destruction.
For me, it had an added dimension. I watched it for the first time with my family on television, and the story rang true to my grandparents as a reflection of the hardships they’d left behind in the old country. La Strada was not well received in Italy. To some it was a betrayal of neorealism (many Italian pictures at the time were judged by this standard), and I suppose that setting such a harsh story within the framework of a fable was just too odd for many Italian viewers. Around the rest of the world, it was a massive success, the film that really made Fellini. It was the picture for which Fellini seemed to have labored the longest and suffered the most—his shooting script was so detailed that it ran to six hundred pages, and near the end of the extremely difficult production he had a psychological breakdown and had to go through the first (I believe) of many psychoanalyses before he was able to finish shooting. It was also the film that, for the rest of his life, he held closest to his heart.
Nights of Cabiria, a series of fantastic episodes in the life of a Roman streetwalker (the inspiration for the Broadway musical and Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity), solidified his reputation. Like everyone else, I found it emotionally overpowering. But the next great revelation was La Dolce Vita. It was an unforgettable experience to see that film alongside a packed audience when it was brand-new. La Dolce Vita was distributed here in 1961 by Astor Pictures and presented as a special event at a legitimate Broadway theater, with reserved mail-order seating and high-priced tickets—the kind of presentation we associated with biblical epics such as Ben-Hur. We took our seats, the lights went down, we watched a majestic, terrifying cinematic fresco unfold on the screen, and we all experienced the shock of recognition. Here was an artist who had managed to express the anxiety of the nuclear age, the sense that nothing really mattered anymore because everything and everyone could be annihilated at any moment. We felt this shock, but we also felt the exhilaration of Fellini’s love for the art of cinema—and, consequently, for life itself. Something similar was coming in rock and roll, in Dylan’s first electric albums and then in The White Album and Let It Bleed—they were about anxiety and despair, but they were thrilling and transcendent experiences.
When we presented the restoration of La Dolce Vita a decade ago in Rome, Bertolucci made a special point of attending. It was difficult for him to get around at that point because he was in a wheelchair and in constant pain, but he said he had to be there. And after the film, he confessed to me that La Dolce Vita was the reason he turned toward the cinema in the first place. I was genuinely surprised, because I’d never heard him discuss it. But in the end, it wasn’t so surprising. That picture was a galvanizing experience, like a shockwave that passed through the whole culture.
The two Fellini pictures that affected me the most, the ones that really marked me, were I Vitelloni and 8½. I Vitelloni because it captured something so real and so precious that related directly to my own experience. And 8½ because it redefined my idea of what cinema was—what it could do and where it could take you.
I Vitelloni, released in Italy in 1953 and three years later in the United States, was Fellini’s third film and his first truly great one. It was also one of his most personal. The story is a series of scenes from the lives of five friends in their twenties in Rimini, where Fellini grew up: Alberto, played by the great Alberto Sordi; Leopoldo, played by Leopoldo Trieste; Moraldo, Fellini’s alter ego, played by Franco Interlenghi; Riccardo, played by Fellini’s own brother; and Fausto, played by Franco Fabrizi. They spend their days shooting pool, chasing girls, and walking around making fun of people. They have grand dreams and schemes. They behave like children and their parents treat them accordingly. And life goes on.
I felt like I knew these guys from my own life, my own neighborhood. I even recognized some of the same body language, the same sense of humor. In fact, at a certain point in my life, I was one of these guys. I understood what Moraldo was experiencing, his desperation to get out. Fellini captured it all so well—immaturity, vanity, boredom, sadness, the search for the next distraction, the next surge of euphoria. He gives us the warmth and the camaraderie and the jokes and the sadness and the desperation within, all at once. I Vitelloni is a painfully lyrical and bittersweet film, and it was a pivotal inspiration for Mean Streets. It’s a great movie about a hometown. Anybody’s hometown.
As for 8½: Everyone I knew back in those days who was trying to make movies had a turning point, a personal touchstone. Mine was, and still is, 8½.
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What do you do after you’ve made a picture like La Dolce Vita that has taken the world by storm? Everybody’s hanging on your every word, waiting to see what you’re going to do next. That’s what happened with Dylan in the mid-Sixties after Blonde on Blonde. For Fellini and for Dylan, the situation was the same: they had touched legions of people, everyone felt like they knew them, like they understood them, and, often, like they owned them. So, pressure. Pressure from the public, from the fans, from critics and enemies (and the fans and the enemies often feel like they’re one and the same). Pressure to produce more. Pressure to go further. Pressure from yourself, on yourself.
For Dylan and Fellini, the answer was to venture inward. Dylan sought simplicity in the spiritual sense meant by Thomas Merton, and he found it after his motorcycle accident in Woodstock, where he recorded The Basement Tapes and wrote the songs for John Wesley Harding.
Fellini started with his own situation in the early Sixties, and made a film about his artistic breakdown. In so doing, he undertook a risky expedition into uncharted territory: his interior world. His alter ego, Guido, is a famous director suffering from the cinematic equivalent of writer’s block, and he’s looking for a refuge, for peace and for guidance, as an artist and as a human being. He goes for a “cure” at a luxurious spa, where his mistress, his wife, his anxious producer, his prospective actors, his crew, and a motley procession of fans and hangers-on and fellow spa-goers quickly descend upon him—among them is a critic, who proclaims that his new script “lacks a central conflict or philosophical premise” and amounts to “a series of gratuitous episodes.” The pressure intensifies, his childhood memories and longings and fantasies arrive unexpectedly through his days and his nights, and he waits for his muse—who comes and goes, fleetingly, in the form of Claudia Cardinale—to “create order.”
8½ is a tapestry woven from Fellini’s dreams. As in a dream, everything seems solid and well-defined on the one hand and floating and ephemeral on the other; the tone keeps shifting, sometimes violently. He actually created a visual stream of consciousness that keeps the viewer in a state of surprise and alertness, and a form that constantly redefines itself as it goes along. You’re basically watching Fellini make the film before your eyes, because the creative process is the structure. Many filmmakers have tried to do something along these lines, but I don’t think anyone else has ever achieved what Fellini did here. He had the audacity and the confidence to play with every creative tool, to stretch the plastic quality of the image to a point where everything seems to exist on some subconscious level. Even the most seemingly neutral frames, when you take a really close look, have some element in the lighting or the composition that throws you off, that is somehow infused with Guido’s consciousness. After a while, you stop trying to figure out where you are, whether you’re in a dream or a flashback or just plain reality. You want to stay lost and wander with Fellini, surrendering to the authority of his style.
The picture reaches a peak in a scene where Guido meets the cardinal at the baths, a journey to the underworld in search of an oracle, and a return to the clay from which we all originate. As it is throughout the picture, the camera is in motion—restless, hypnotic, floating, always bearing toward something inevitable, something revelatory. As Guido makes his way down, we see from his point of view a succession of people approaching him, some advising him on how to ingratiate himself with the cardinal and some pleading for favors. He enters an anteroom filled with steam and makes his way to the cardinal, whose attendants hold a muslin shroud in front of him as he disrobes—we see him only as a shadow. Guido tells the cardinal that he’s unhappy, and the cardinal responds, simply, unforgettably: “Why should you be happy? That is not your task. Who told you that we come into the world in order to be happy?” Every shot in this scene, every piece of staging and choreography between camera and actors, is extraordinarily complex. I cannot imagine how difficult it all was to execute. Onscreen, it unfolds so gracefully that it looks like the easiest thing in the world. For me, the audience with the cardinal embodies a remarkable truth about 8½: Fellini made a film about film that could only exist as a film and nothing else—not a piece of music, not a novel, not a poem, not a dance, only as a work of cinema.
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When 8½ was released people argued over it endlessly: the effect was that dramatic. We each had our own interpretation, and we would sit up till all hours talking about the film—every scene, every second. Of course we never settled on a definite interpretation—the only way to explain a dream is with the logic of a dream. The film doesn’t have a resolution, which bothered many people. Gore Vidal once told me that he said to Fellini, “Fred, less dreams next time, you must tell a story.” But in 8½, the lack of resolution is only right, because the artistic process doesn’t have a resolution either—you have to just keep going. When you’re done, you’re compelled to do it again, just like Sisyphus. And, as Sisyphus discovered, pushing the boulder up the hill again and again becomes the purpose of your life.
The movie had an enormous effect on filmmakers—it inspired Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, in which Fellini appears as himself; Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories; and Fosse’s All That Jazz, not to mention the Broadway musical Nine. As I said, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen 8½, and I can’t even begin to talk about the many ways that it’s affected me. Fellini showed all of us what it was to be an artist, the overpowering need to create art. 8½ is the purest expression of love for the cinema that I know of.
Following up La Dolce Vita? Difficult. Following up 8½? I can’t imagine. With Toby Dammit, a medium-length picture inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story (it’s the last third of an omnibus film called Spirits of the Dead), Fellini took his hallucinatory imagery to a razor-sharp level. The film is a visceral descent into hell. In Fellini Satyricon, he created something unprecedented: a fresco of the ancient world that was “science fiction in reverse,” as he called it. Amarcord, his semi-autobiographical film set in Rimini during the Fascist period, is now one of his most beloved pictures (it’s a favorite of Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example), though it’s far less daring than the earlier films. Still, it’s a work filled with extraordinary visions (I was fascinated by Italo Calvino’s special admiration for the film as a portrait of life in Mussolini’s Italy, something that didn’t really occur to me). After Amarcord, every picture had shards of brilliance, especially Fellini’s Casanova. It’s an ice-cold film, colder than the deepest circle of hell in Dante, and it’s a remarkable and daringly stylized but truly forbidding experience. It seemed like a turning point for Fellini. And in truth, the late Seventies and early Eighties seemed like a turning point for many filmmakers around the world, myself included. The sense of camaraderie that we had all felt, whether real or imagined, seemed to break apart, and everyone seemed to become her or his own island, fighting to make the next picture.
I knew Federico, well enough to call him a friend. We met for the first time in 1970, when I went to Italy with a group of short films I’d selected for a presentation in a film festival. I contacted Fellini’s office, and I was given about half an hour of his time. He was so warm, so cordial. I told him that on my first trip to Rome, I’d saved him and the Sistine Chapel for the last day. He laughed. “You see, Federico,” his assistant said, “you’ve become a boring monument!” I assured him that boring was the one thing he’d never be. I remember that I also asked him where I could find good lasagna, and he recommended a wonderful restaurant—Fellini knew all the best restaurants everywhere.
Several years later, I moved to Rome for a time and I began to see Fellini fairly often. We would run into each other and get together for a meal. He was always a showman, and the show never stopped. Watching him direct a movie was a remarkable experience. It was as if he were conducting a dozen orchestras at once. I took my parents to the set of City of Women, and he was running all over the place, cajoling, pleading, acting out, sculpting, and adjusting every element of the picture down to the last detail, realizing his vision in a swirl of nonstop motion. When we left, my father said, “I thought we were going to have our picture taken with Fellini.” I said, “You did!” Everything had happened so fast that they didn’t even know it had happened.
In the last years of his life, I tried to help him get his picture The Voice of the Moon distributed in the United States. He’d had a difficult time with his producers on that project—they wanted a grand Fellini extravaganza and he gave them something much more meditative and somber. No distributor would touch it, and I was truly shocked that no one, including any of the key independent theaters in New York, even wanted to show it. The old films, yes, but not the new one, which turned out to be his last. A little later, I helped Fellini get some funding for a documentary project he had planned, a series of portraits of the people who made movies: the actor, the cinematographer, the producer, the location manager (I remember that in the outline for that episode, the narrator explained that the most important thing was to organize expeditions so that locations were near a great restaurant). Sadly, he died before he could get started on the project. I remember the last time I spoke to him on the phone. His voice sounded so faint, and I could tell that he was fading. It was sad to see that incredible life force ebb away.
Everything has changed—the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as Godard, Bergman, Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time. But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business,” and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property—in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “Art Film” swim lane on a streaming platform. Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.
I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start. You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.
Sunday, March 7, 2021
...but don't worry, just be HAPPY! It's a Our Global Corporate Entertainment Producer Mandated-to-Consumer Cultural Impertative!"
...and so, WELCOME to the Wasteland. Live vicariously through a cultural overlay of a LIFE we no longer own and an ART that we know longer understand But most of all, while you're vicariously living, eat a LOT of CHEESE!
...or ELSE just be HAPPY!
Thursday, March 4, 2021
-Emily DickinsonGrief is a Mouse—And chooses Wainscot in the BreastFor His Shy House—And baffles quest—Grief is a Thief—quick startled—Pricks His Ear—report to hearOf that Vast Dark—That swept His Being—back—Grief is a Juggler—boldest at the Play—Lest if He flinch—the eye that wayPounce on His Bruises—One—say—or Three—Grief is a Gourmand—spare His luxury—Best Grief is Tongueless—before He’ll tell—Burn Him in the Public Square—His Ashes—willPossibly—if they refuse—How then know—Since a Rack couldn’t coax a syllable—now