Sunday, 13 September 2009

What's Inside Adam Curtis' Blue Box?

A two part reaction to Adam Curtis' new documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, by way of the Blue Box from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

Part 1: Preliminary Results

Adam Curtis: Where people do set out to have conspiracies, they don’t ever end up like they're supposed to. History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who may think they're taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended. For example, you could say the Gulf of Tonkin was a conspiratorial action to accelerate entry into war, yes?

Errol Morris: Here’s the conspiracy argument. The Johnson administration wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam. But they needed a pretext. And so they provoked these two incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in order to get Congressional approval for escalation. The claim is: they had a grand plan. And the plan was war. I’ve never had much of an appetite for conspiracy theories. Here's my argument in a nutshell. People are too much at cross purposes with each other, too stupid, too self absorbed to ever effectively conspire to do anything.

Adam Curtis: “Just too self-absorbed” is the key element. To make a conspiracy work, you have to see it from all different angles to make sure the plan works. They don’t. Every time you ever read transcripts or detailed descriptions of what goes on at high level policy decisions - I'm sure it’s true of the Kennedy administration, I'm sure it’s true today in the Bush administration - The arguments, the self-absorption, the disagreements and the narcissism are incredible. And I'm sure the Gulf of Tonkin thing probably emerged as a compromise between lots of different people arguing as much as from a single, clear principle.

('Adam Curtis talks with Errol Morris' - link via Tom Ewing.)

Adam Curtis: I'm very suspicious of this idea of a balanced version of history, All history is a construction – often by the powerful. What I do is construct an imaginative interpretation of history to make people look again at what they think they know. I like to ask people, “Have you thought of this?” Like zooming up in a helicopter and looking at the ground, looking at the world in a new way. Because I think that so much of this interpretation of events is a deadening repetition agreed upon by certain people, a sort of collectivity of news reports. And often it’s completely wrong. But somehow, they all agree on it. People criticized my film by saying things like, “Why aren’t you balanced? What aren’t you putting in the other views?” And my response was, “What if the other view is wrong?” That’s the real problem of the balanced view - what's called ‘perceived wisdom.’ What if perceived wisdom’s wrong? What if – when you go and look at the evidence for sleeper cells in America – there doesn’t appear to be anything there? You know, that's the difficult area. And so it becomes up to you to judge whether to go against perceived wisdom or not.

('Adam Curtis talks with Errol Morris'.)

I think my jaw dropped permanently during the wordless encounter at the studio between "Betty", Adam, and "pseudo-Camilla", who is auditioning for the role of "love interest". The scene is dominated by crazy Old Hollywood closeups of intense longing and Linda Scott's maudlin/profound bubblegum version of one of my favourite Jerome Kern songs--"I've Told Every Little Star" (why haven't I told you?). But you can't tell the Other how you feel about her/him/it, and you can't even express these feelings very accurately to yourself.
So "opening the box" isn't just "waking from a dream"--it is, literally, death. Whatever's in there cannot even be thought by human beings--despite the fact that getting in there is pretty much all we think about! The way of "optimism" and the way of "despair" intersect at the abyss (although, as Camila notes, the second way is a "short-cut"!), and Lynch's vertiginous transition between narratives at the Utopian moment of expected fulfillment (after Betty and Rita have found the box together) is one of the most incredibly affecting evocations of the Sublime in the history of cinema. Without all of this preparation, the Diane scenes (masturbating, deliberating in the darkness about whether to accept Camilla's purred invitation, the walk from the car to the party, her quiet breakdown at the dinner table, and her suicide: the nightmare counterpart of Betty/Rita's lovemaking--both are the logical climaxes of their respective narratives, and neither succeeds in rescuing the dreamer from the necessity of dreaming!) wouldn't have nearly the impact that they do

(David Fiore's Ultimate Mulholland Drive Round-Up)

The Real of Mulholland Dr is not Diane’s supposedly waking world, but the paradoxically entrancing insomniac realm of Club Silencio (which, in acting as the gateway from the first section of the film to the second is like the ‘cut’ of the moebian band that when sutured together, transforms the two sides of the piece of paper into a single strip). I say ‘paradoxically entrancing’ because the scene is ostensibly demystifying. Yet only ostensibly so; like Magritte’s ‘This Is Not a Pipe’, Club Silencio, reminiscent of the Black/White Lodge in the first and final episodes of Twin Peaks and as intensely charged as anything in Lynch’s oeuvre, demonstrates film – and art’s - irreducible sorcery. Club Silencio’s scenario is thoroughly Potteresque. The entertainment is provided by perfomers who mime onstage to a pre-recorded soundtrack, much in the way that Potter had the characters in The Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven lip sync to thirties’ pop. Despite the complete ingenuousness of the magician-compere’s words – ‘There is no band. What you will hear are recordings.’- we (the audience) are nevertheless unable to resist the seduction of the spectacle. So when the apparent singer, Rebeka Del Rio, collapses but the music continues, we are shocked. Something in us compels us to treat the performance as if real.

(K-Punk - 'THIS IS (NOT) THE GIRL'.)

In 2004 I coordinated Storybox, a small writing project for young refugees, using blogging as a medium. The Storyboxers experimented with ways to write about listening to dancehall pop star Sean Paul, for example, or growing up dealing with systematic abuse in a refugee camp — both types of experience were “everyday” ones for many of these people. It was a rewarding experiment, which I hope contributed a little to the participants’ capacities for autonomous expression. But when I tried to bypass the affective nature of their involvement in my first attempt to write this paper (which was originally going to be more about design and political theory), I found myself blocked. In the language of “trauma studies”, it was as if I myself faced an impossible task of representation. But following Giorgio Agamben’s insistence that just going along with the “unsayable” character of Auschwitz simply puts it on a pedestal as an object of worship (Agamben 2002: 32), I realised that rather than let my dilemma of representation freeze me in an act of genuflection, I’d have to grapple with what I’d put in the “too-hard basket”. I knew that these experiences weren’t ready to conveniently instrumentalised without a difficult kind of “accounting”— not in a way that attempted closure, but through a fragmentary, allegorical kind labour that makes suggestions.

(Antipopper - 'What's in the Box?')

The most “coherent" reading of Mulholland Drive identifies the narrative up to that point as a desperate fantasy of the mundane Diane, the “real” “Betty”, who has actually murdered her girlfriend Camilla, the “real” “Rita”. It is this violent act of sexual jealousy which apparently lies in the (vaginal?) box of repression, which resurfaces at the moment of confrontation with loss in Club Silencio. Not the most promising connotations for Storybox. But I chose the name partly because of the whiff of trauma. And what if there is another way to approach it? What if the blue box is indeed an allegorical symbol for trauma, but one which operates as a nexus for the different narratives of the film, which do not have to be organised hierarchically in such a boringly classical psychoanalytic scenario because they are actually vocabularies of a neveryday imaginary? What if the shift from Betty and Rita’s story to that of Diane and Camilla is analogous to what happens when NaturallySweet describes life at school in Sydney or under the Taliban as “soooooooooo boring” and “soooooooooo devastating”?

(Antipopper - 'What's in the Box?')

Adam Curtis has gone a bit mad. The insultingly gifted documentary maker behind The Century Of The Self and The Power Of Nightmares seemed rather quiet of late. In fact, since his 2007 BBC2 series The Trap, his only visible pieces of work were two short (and superb) mini-documentaries he created for my BBC4 series Screenwipe and Newswipe. People kept asking me what he was up to. I assumed he was chipping away at some new documentary which would be announced when he was ready.

He's ready now. He's made a new documentary called It Felt Like A Kiss. Except it isn't just a documentary. It's also a piece of interactive theatre, with music composed by Damon Albarn and performed by the Kronos Quartet. And it doesn't take place in a cinema or concert hall, but across five floors of a deserted office block in Manchester.

About now a sizable percentage of you will be thinking "that sounds wanky", and starting to back away. Don't. Because it's also ... well, it's also a funhouse. To be honest, no one really knows what it is. After a struggle, Curtis himself says it's "a psycho-political theme experience in which you become a central character. It's going to be frightening. A walk of enchantment and menace." On the official website, viewers are advised that it's "not suitable for those of a nervous disposition". "Please wear suitable footwear," it adds, ominously.

(Charlie Brooker on Adam Curtis' new documentary experience.)

Part 2: Myth or Anti-Myth?

I didn’t make it down to Manchester in time to immerse myself in Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss, so like most of you, I’ve only got the documentary to go on.

This is a shame, because even the negative reviews of the full theatrical experience can’t help but make it sound terrifyingly brilliant:
But there was too much of the smell of conspiracy in the air, splicing together patterns of meaning with a simplistic political intent. When our descent of the five floors began the enterprise descended into melodrama with heavy-handed references to Hidden Persuaders who, having failed to sell us dreams, are now offering us nightmares from which only they can now rescue us: Pick up the phone, Don't press the red button, Take the pill, Pick up the gun, Start the chain saw.

It was like being trapped inside the set of the Sixties cult show The Prisoner with surplus fake blood supplied by Hammer Horror.
Readers, I have to confess -- I've often wanted to visit the set of The Prisoner! Which is odd, given the nature of that series, but then again this blurring of dreamlike promise and real horror is part of the substance of It Felt Like a Kiss.

It's easy to dismiss Curtis' work as having a conspiracy theory-ish vibe, because he tends to chase one idea through recent history with bloody minded determination. This concern is normally alleviated by the dryly cutting humour of Curtis' narration, which serves to remind us that we are watching a man (de)constructing history. Curtis' voice provokes laughter and invites argument, and the effect its absence has on the way It Felt Like a Kiss plays cannot be underestimated.

Stripped of voice over, It Felt Like a Kiss makes its argument using Curtis' other tools, a mix of endlessly enchanting pop music, collaged footage from the BBC news archive and bold textual statements:

It's these statements, as clear to the eye as they are in their implications, that make this feel like a conspiratorial work. In as much as it has a clear argument, It Felt Like a Kiss is an examination of the story that America tried to tell about itself in 20th Century. Naturally, Curtis includes military coups and barbaric shock treatments as part of this vision, but as his narrative charges towards September 11th 2001 and the current financial crisis it becomes obvious that he isn't going to spend too much time elaborating on the links he makes. Scenes of real life terror and fabricated wonder blend into each other, becoming one with the words that flit across the screen. This effect reaches its delirious peak in the section that deals with the movie that was made about Saddam Hussein's time as a CIA agent -- this passage plays like the brilliant dream of a madman, but its logic is irresistible and its poetry hard to deny.

Curtis layers fragmented connections upon fragmented connections, which makes
It Felt Like a Kiss seem both more and less open to argument than Curtis' other works. Less open to argument because words, sounds and pictures achieve a purity of composition here that matches that of a great pop song, or perhaps even a great advert. More open to argument because, well, who takes a pop song or advert at face value?

And so, tempting as it is to treat this beautiful film like a transmission from beyond, you can't help but find yourself thinking "Is that really all there is to the story of Brian Wilson, or 'River Deep Mountain High', or Saddam?" Where works like The Century of the Self or The Trap slowly and methodically deconstruct social theories, It Felt Like a Kiss is more like a dream on the verge of becoming a nightmare.

I keep mentioning dreams here, but that's only because It Felt Like a Kiss makes its status as a dreamscape obvious from the beginning. The movie starts with a series of clean white lines on black background. The movie starts with these words:
When a nation is powerful it tells the world confident stories about its future.

The stories can be enchanting or frightening but they make sense of the world.

But when that power begins to ebb the stories fall apart and all that is left are fragments which haunt you like a half-forgotten dream.
Like I said above, It Felt Like a Kiss plays out the moment where the dream starts to forget itself, where doubt has crept in but the sense of wonder has yet to fade. It foregrounds the rhetorical power of Curtis' collaged film fragments, which condemn the senselessness of our stories while being far too inviting in their own right. You might find yourself thinking that Curtis is overselling his own narrative here, but to do so is to accept the basic argument of the piece: that all of our explanations are mostly inadequate as either blueprints or records. This is why you can't really accuse Curtis of being a conspiracy theorist -- his recent work has been staunchly anti-mythological, and It Felt Like a Kiss is no exception. It demolishes certainty, but it's too weirdly emotional to salt the ground in the process, at least not if the rapidly flowering thoughts it left in my brain are anything to go by.

This is why I can't help of thinking of Mulholland Drive when I think about It Felt Like a Kiss. As the various clever bastards I quoted at the start of this post indicate, the Blue Box at the heart of Mulholland Drive exists as more than a route from dream to reality. For me, it's the point where conflicting stories and modes of interpretation bleed into each other, the disorientating heart of a disorientated movie. Watching It Felt Like a Kiss I feel like I'm just about to slip into the Blue Box, or at least I feel like I'm staring into the box and watching conflicting stories blur out into strange new shapes. I can see Doris Day and Saddam Hussein waiting inside, and I don't know what sort of room I'm supposed to find this box in (maybe I will if the full production goes to London), and I don't know what to do next but I can't stop staring.

What's inside the box? Maybe, like David Fiore suggests, it's something far too huge for the human mind to understand, something too big for any one narrative to contain. Maybe it's too much for us to question and contextualise all the stories we hear without succumbing to nihilism, but as always I can't help but feel that it's worth a try.


Todd C. Murry said...

Did you see Inland Empire? Sorry if you had a giant post on it a month ago, or something, but I'm a new reader (and archive-lazy to boot). Found you through Dave Fiore and Plok, BTW.

Anyway, I bring this up because one of the central unifiers of IE is the hole (cigarette hole in the handkerchief that is looked through, the "hole" of the movie projector that light spills through, the unshown by present idea of the rabbit hole - which additionally links the fairy tale elements to the rabbit sitcom without explicitly shoving Alice in our faces), which does same thing you posit that the box does (which is fine, because the box is just a door for the hole the box opens to). IE makes the liminality (liminal-ness? whatever) of the transitional space more explicit. Or some shit.

David said...

Hey Todd, always good to have new readers here, especially when they come via Fiore and Plok (ltd)!

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that while I have seen Inland Empire I've never really watched it. To explain: I once put it on at like 4 in the morning when I was struggling through the fuzz of some last minute vaccinations and trying to pack a suitcase, so my memories of that one have slipped right through the rabbit hole.

I think I liked it, but it's been sitting there, scowling at me since then, because it knows that I have no idea what really goes on in it.

So... yeah, I really need to watch it again, and when I do I'll be sure to bear your comments in mind!

plok said...

You've done me a really good turn here, as it happens David -- been struggling with a very thorny writing problem the last little while, and I think now I've finally cracked it! So, a couple of thoughts...

While not having seen Mulholland Drive (I know!), it occurs to me that any time you've got a box like that you're invoking a WHOLE BUNCH of accumulated grave-worship stuff that goes back into the mists...the grave-spot a treasure-site, obviously. This gets caught up with ancient representations of gold (for example) as the same thing as hawk's-heads, eyes, the Sun...treasures "hard to attain", and I guess it ain't that hard to figure out what my little writing-chore's about, eh? A little business about how weird old Christianity inflects the symbolism of pagan death-cults the world over, with its madly denotative "empty tomb" business...always a fruitful connection!

But the thing I like best is how the title goes along with the dissolution of confident stories...pure Hollywood romance, damn it, why I can practically see Rick's Cafe Americain right in front of my eyes, can't you, or hear Hoagy Carmichael playing down in Florida. "It Felt Like A Kiss" -- I guess that particular sentimental fog begins when the old American Popular Song begins, Jerome Kern and all the rest, the poignancy of rhyming "you" with "blue" and "shoe" and "too"...I do think it's a thread that makes its way into the movies, and then WWII comes along and it very nearly does seem a Biblical matter...a million movie posters float up before me, reading that title, real strong fin du siecle stuff in a very specific idiom...

Really enjoyed this! Now off to rent Mulholland Drive...

David Golding said...

I haven't seen Fog of War or any of Curtis's work. From the quotes and YouTube clips it looks like we might have a broad agreement that doesn't entice me to investigate further.

I have seen Mulholland Dr, a movie that initially drove me crazy trying to puzzle it out---luckily I'm not observant enough to have it neatly divide into two equal optical illusions in my mind, or I too might have wandered into the binary camp. It remains a chaotic narrative for me, where elements call to each other too strongly to simply be divided by the box.

Thanks for the Antipopper link---I can't believe I haven't seen this before. In fact, given I haven't seen it before, and that it also uses The Filth as a touchstone, I'm not even sure it existed before. It seems like part of a conspiracy! But what a conspiracy: the paper is both a great explanation of The Filth and Mulholland Dr, and also a great use for them. Makes me wish I'd gone to BlogTalk Downunder so I could have chatted with Ben about it.

I have been to Portmeirion in 2002, but didn't see The Prisoner till 2007. Seeing this strange place I'd been to around the clock as I operated on a newborn's two hour sleep/feed cycle is an experience I won't soon remember coherently.

David said...

Plok -- glad that I could help you out somehow! Also: you know, I'm actually slightly embarrassed that I didn't mention the title of 'It Felt Like a Kiss', because you're right -- it's rediculously resonant!

Also: fucking hell, go rent Mulholland Drive! It'll take the top of your head right off!

David -- see, this is why I find it hard to comment on your posts, but why your comments always improve mine: you can actually write!

Seriously though, there's no conspiracy here! That said, I was kinda hoping to finish this essay before anyone noticed that Jebni mentioned The Filth in his Storybox essay.

I should add that I don't see Mulholland Drive as being a movie of two halves either -- there's way too much creepy, haunting stuff in there that doesn't reconcile with any easy reading of the film. I just like the way the box serves to make obvious something that's already implicit in the movie itself, i.e. that there are many different stories going on here, and that not all of them are friendly with each other.

With regards to Adam Curtis' work -- I'm too tired to get evangelical about it this morning, but there's a definite poetry to his use of archive footage that's really beautiful on its own terms. I wish It Felt Like a Kiss hadn't been taken down from Curtis' blog now, because that film's probably displays this aspect of Curtis' work in its purest form.

David said...

Zom has good thoughts about the value of the movie of two halves interpretation here.

If pushed to clarify my postion, I'd say that while I do get why the "a=b" reading is very immediate and exciting, I think that the fuzzy distortions that Zom mention are maybe more powerful and interesting to me in the end.