I’m Going Home
The Ethical Thespian
How does the philosophical idea of the technology of the self, an idea of ethical self-analysis explored by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality utilising Seneca, Epictetus and other Ancient thinkers, play out in Manoel De Oliveira's I'm Going Home, and can we see its presence in the life of famous, well respected actor Gilbert (Michel Piccoli)? Foucault talks of a certain sense of well-being pursued by the Ancients, and how much of this well-being Gilbert has been pursuing before his wife and daughter's death in a car crash we do not know (since the film opens on their demise), but there is a clear sense of a man of two things: of habit and integrity. Maybe the two have always come together in this man's life; and perhaps can help explain the way he copes with the deaths with what appears to be some equanimity. Is he a man who holds to Epicurus's fourfold cure for unhappiness: "Don't fear God, don't worry about death; what is good is easy to get, and what is terrible is easy to endure'"? Thus he can cope with familial death because it is outside his control, however tragic the event, but when he gets into a situation which is within his control and allows it to slip out of it a profound and very different unhappiness overtakes him.
What happens is that his agent tempts him with the possibility initially of a woman his daughter's age, and then with a part in a major action series. He turns both down; but gets caught when offered a role in an adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses by a well-respected American director. As the two august men meet in the agent's office, John Malkovich's character offers a compliment, and Gilbert reciprocates, though perhaps with too much of an awareness of the compliment he has just received. When immediately afterwards Gilbert is made aware of how small the role is, and that another actor who was first choice is in hospital and no longer available, and also how little time he has to prepare for it, we can see that he lost something in this brief exchange where he has praised too highly in the wake of another's compliment and has accepted a part he should have perhaps turned down. Gilbert now seems deflated and yet curiously committed.
His ethics appear caught in a double-bind. Where before the offer of a possible young woman and role in a TV series were easy to dismiss from the outset, this offer proves more troublesome. After all, a well-respected filmmaker has offered him a part, and the filmmaker's initial praise Gilbert wholeheartedly absorbed. When in the wake of the mutual praise he insists he needs a couple of hours to think about whether to take the role, this feels like no more than a concession to his usually much more austere ethical approach to his work, rather than a decision made in favour of doing the work because of the two hours he's given himself to think about it. We may feel he has given himself for just about the first time in his life a false interval: a gap between thought and action, certainly, but one where the thought hasn't been given the appropriate space to think through its choices, but is instead a reaction forced upon us by our own impulses or perhaps outside demands. In this scene in the agent's office we see how Gilbert allows his impulses and outside forces to work on him simultaneously and thus to rob him of his freedom. He impulsively responds to the compliment, and feels obliged to take the part. Now his wife and daughter's death, though obviously awful, nevertheless do not affect Gilbert's sense of freedom, nor his values.
This incident may seem utterly minor next to the tragedy that befalls Gilbert early in the film, but Oliveira's take on the notion of tragedy is consistent with the Stoics, and more specifically Seneca: "Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man's.' Seneca goes on to say 'You ask what that is? It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit. For man is a rational animal. Man's ideal state that is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born." Seneca adds, "and what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy - that he live in accordance with his own nature. Yet this is turned into something difficult by the madness that is universal among men; we push one another into vices. And how can people be called back to spiritual well-being when no one is trying to hold them back and the crowd is urging them on?"
Is this I'm Going Home in a nutshell? It certainly helps us get to the soul of the film, and it is this very notion of the difficulty of being that the director touches upon in interviews. When an interviewer asks him if Gilbert is a negative personality, Oliveira insists this isn't the case. "I think it is the result of the wisdom he has gained by experience. Just as I don't think his ethics were negative. It is from these same ethics that come the commandments, 'thou shalt not kill, steal, exploit, discriminate etc...'" Oliveira adds that Gilbert "respects his ethics, professed by the character himself. Whether as an actor or as a man, He may think ethics are fundamental for the rules of human relationships." But if one's ethics as an actor and a man are so at odds with the world in which one lives, how is one to sustain them? Surely personal codes need to coincide with social codes if the personal codes can function without neurosis? When at one moment Gilbert says "well...I live my solitudine", the agent asks if he's ever thought of sharing his solitude. Gilbert insists "you also know I like to preserve my solitudine", as though he's aware of the difficulty of living his ethics in the contemporary world.
It is this that raises an interesting question in relation to his career, and Oliveira's comment that Gilbert lives his ethics as an actor and as a man. Maybe we could say he lives his ethics as an actor because he can't quite live them as a man, that he's aware of the profound difficulty of living an ethical life socially, and so lives instead quite hermetically, and allows the inter-active aspect of ethics to function chiefly in relation to his career. That it is in his career he can allow himself to hypothesise and dramatise ethical dilemmas. This helps explain the two lengthy theatre scenes in the film. The first comes from Ionesco'sThe King is Dead; the second from Shakespeare's The Tempest. In Ionesco's play we witness Gilbert offering lines like "What a farce, I came into the world five minutes ago..." "Life passed me by so quickly I had no time to experience it." As other characters discuss the king, they suggest that for the first time in his life he is beginning to reflect on his existence. Then there are the lines from The Tempest: "Yea/all which inherit, shall dissolve/and like this insubstantial pageant faded/leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff/as dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." In many ways of course we might suspect that Gilbert near the end of the film does the reverse; instead of finding himself, he loses something within himself, however briefly. That for years his ethical code has been held in place, and then the possibility of playing Buck Mulligan perversely robs him of it. When in one scene his agent says he'll never learn, the agent is talking about Gilbert's unwillingness to accept the realities of the market place. From this point of view the agent is right, though Gilbert would phrase it differently: Gilbert would never accept being compromised, would never take money for work that he doesn't believe in. Yet taking a small role in a Joyce adaptation that would seem so utterly within his ethical and professional code nevertheless allows, however briefly, for disintegration. When Gilbert says in the exchange with his agent that ends with the agent saying Gilbert will never learn, Gilbert says "I act like who I am", as though every performance he gives is part of an ethical existence. But it seems so co-modified and compromised has life become that even an apparently safe-bet like a Joyce adaptation by a director he admires forces him to fall short of his own ethical standards.
We might say this is Oliveira's blanket statement on contemporary culture as impossibly compromised and leave it at that, or we could say so compromised is contemporary culture that we have to become ever more vigilant in our comprehension of that culture. Here it might be useful to return again to this notion of the interval, and the idea that we need to create as many intervals in our lives as possible so that we don't just have values on which to base our decisions, but the spaces available to us to make these decisions wisely. This would be a true interval, a loaded term admittedly, for how long do we need for a 'true' reasoning process? Yet when we look at Gilbert's false interval we can at least see what a true interval is not. By the same token it is as though Oliveira searches out the true interval aesthetically, by giving space and time to the image so that we feel we can make our own unhurried perceptual decisions.
We can maybe bring this idea out more clearly by contrasting the way a filmmaker like Jean-Jacques Annaud shows the shoe in The Lover, and Oliveira presents a pair of shoes here. In an intemperate article written on Annaud's film some years ago, republished in Sight and Sound, the great French critic Serge Daney says, 'Let us take an example. Let us take a single bad cut...the first thing we see of the lover is one of his shoes. The shoe, extremely fashionable and expensive, is pointed towards the viewer, rather like a face, in a long, vacant close-up. A close up which lasts long enough for the viewer to reach the following conclusion: these shoes don't come from Dolcis and the feet which are wearing them aren't just any old feet.' Now for Daney this shows Annaud's complete lack of interest in thought in cinema. The image serves a singular purpose - the shoe's luxuriousness. Yet there are ostensibly similar shots in Oliveira's film which seem very much to furnish the possibilities in thought. Indeed buying, wearing and having a pair of luxurious shoes stolen, and then discussing the shoes takes up several minutes of screen time. What interests the director here is not the general quality of the shoe, though the shoes are obviously not cheap, but the specific feelings Gilbert has towards the shoes he buys.
In Annaud's film they are the sort of shoes we would all admire and wish to wear, but in Oliveira's film there's a lengthy close-up of the shoes as Gilbert talks to his agent in a bar. Now throughout the shot Gilbert wiggles his foot as if simultaneously admiring and feeling the immense comfort of the shoe. When he talks at the same time of his solitidune it is with an awareness it seems that the shoes are part of that well-being. This is part of the sort of well-being we've witnessed him moving towards in the scene where he appear to be walking around and absorbing Paris for the first time since the death of his wife and daughter, and where the shoes were his first acquisition since the loss. They thus serve a symbolic purpose, we could say, but not a generally symbolic function but a specific one. We notice the degree to which Gilbert's emotionally invested in this pair of shoes, the way they're just a pair of shoes to most, but an item of some significance to him. It resembles Epictetus's claim that "it is difficult, I admit, to blend and combine the carefulness of one who is devoted to material things with the constancy of one who disregards them, but it is not impossible." Part of this possibility lies in our ability to make meaningful our material items, by investing them with an intangible aspect, yet an intangible aspect that isn't generally intangible, which we find in advertising's ability to invest junk items with a lifestyle significance, but that possess a very personal meaningfulness.
Thus we see how Oliveira creates a twofold interval around the shoes. The first lies in the way we see how Gilbert has invested emotionally in them; the second lies in the way Oliveira films casually, and unhurriedly, the significance of the footwear. If Annaud's shoe is given one lingering shot, Oliveira's shoe has a whole narrative line: it appears in no less than two shots, and later, after the shoes have been stolen, his old shoes show up again in close up as he seems more concerned with his new shoes' absence than with any part the agent can offer him. Later we see him leaving once again the shoe shop having bought another pair of the same shoes as before. There's a persistent willfulness here on Oliveira's part to focus on a material item not for its generalizing significance, but for the way material minutiae in our lives can prove utterly meaningful. But this meaningfulness doesn't necessarily come from luxury and a general notion of exclusivity, but a personal sense of well-being in relation to the things that add meaning to our existence. Generalizing filmmakers, failing to do this, thus often arrive at clich and short-hand, at the ticked-off image Daney describes.
There are no such ticked off images in Oliveira's film, nor in Oliveira's work on the whole. He searches out an image rather than ticks it off, or allows images unhurriedly to pass in front of our eyes, exemplified perhaps in the lengthy shots of the passing landscape seen in The Journey to the Beginning of the World, where a car trip by a film crew going through Portugal focuses as much on the road behind them, as the people's behaviour and psychology in the car, or the road in front of them. It's a device that could almost describe the director's ontology, where becoming and having been are inseparable from each other. Here though this inseparability rests in an accumulated behavioural code that Gilbert pursues through acting the way we sense Oliveira has pursued it through direction. But what is consistent is the aesthetic pursuance of ethics. Now this is surprising perhaps. Not just if we think of the way the actor is generally perceived as a vacuous vessel for the containment of others' work in common lore, but also the existential void that Nietzsche and Camus suggest is central to the actor's being. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche discusses "the problem of the actor", claiming the actor, and the artist generally, is "falseness with a good conscience." Nietzsche reckons there is a delight "in simulation exploding as a power that pushes aside one's so called "character", flooding it and at times extinguishing it; the inner craving for a role and mask, for appearance." There is "an excess of the capacity for all kinds of adaptations that can no longer be satisfied in the service of the most immediate and narrowest utility."In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus talks about the actor's ability to play out existentially many possibilities by virtue of his profession. He never really needs to be because he's constantly becoming different forms of being. Gilbert though is neither a Nietzschean figure of surfaces, nor a Camus figure of demanding, constantly, potentially nauseous choice, but a figure of ethical accumulation. It appears the parts Gilbert takes are consistent with the person he wants to be.
Thus a part isn't so much a move towards greater thespian range, but an evolution of his ethical stance, evident when Oliveira says, "whether as an actor or a man" Gilbert retains the same ethical position. Where Nietzsche sees in the issue of the actor the superficial existence exemplified, and gives as other examples of this existential superficiality, lower class families, the diplomat, the Jew and women, and sees what is central is the "ability to adapt to new circumstances", Oliveira proposes an actor who acts as if to find his ethical stance at its most aesthetically evolved in the characters he plays. When Gilbert talks about the part in the TV series he looks askance. In it he would be playing an old man who gets taken in by a young woman with whom he has a brief fling, before she goes off with his credit card in the company of a gang of friends. He determines revenge, but gets beaten up, ends up in hospital and his son takes over the avenging role, with rather more success. We could just say his refusal to take the part is based on personal vanity. It is what the agent seems to believe when assuaging what he thinks is Gilbert's pride by saying Gilbert would have to be made up to look older than his years. But what appears to cause Gilbert problems is the ethical laziness and assumption in the role, the simplistic way the father gets manhandled, and the younger man takes over, and the way everybody plays games with everybody else. Gilbert refuses to be the actor as protean being, but instead wants to play roles that simply expand his ethical self, and thus, in the process, expand the ethical possibilities in the audience.
In a chapter in Contemporary Cinema, John Orr explores how filmmakers would find an escape from the direct self-reflexivity of filmmakers commenting on filmmaking, to instead use photography, art, architecture, television and video to comment on the nature of the medium. Thus we have films like Blow-Up, The Draughtsman's Contract, Caravaggio, La Belle Noiseuse, The Adjustor etc. But we could also include here the actor: that Gilbert wants to live an authentic life through the apparent inauthenticity of playing roles. Orr believes "at its best, the self-examination of representing ends up as universal mystery. In such a scenario, the boundary between the cultural and the universal often become invisible and we do not know when it is being crossed." Now Orr seems to suggest this results in a fragile ontological condition, because "the film subject feel isolated not only from persona and objects but also from the technologies by which he or she represents them." A good example of this would be The Conversation, where Gene Hackman's bugging expert's sense of ontological certitude resides in his professional expertise, and his instincts in relation to this expertise, so that when he realises he's completely misread a bugging situation, a self-questioning presents itself that leads to him wondering whether he is also being bugged. His ontological crisis comes directly from his own professional status as a bugging expert. At the end of the film his flat lies in ruins as he takes up floorboard after floorboard, searching for bugging material that might have been planted in his apartment. But what's interesting about Oliveira, and makes him an especially good example of the move towards a technology of the self, is that he isn't interested in the kind of techno-fatalism Orr proposes, where "to investigate is to represent, to represent is to go out on a limb. It is to make the world, however banal, in one's own trivial image," and where it creates an "unacknowledged fragility". To make the world in one's own trivial image has clearly never been Gilbert's concern. He is been much more interested in making the world in an image much bigger than himself and to use his body and mind, his very acting ability, to make the world ever more significant. If Oliveira uses Gilbert as a foil for his own concerns at one remove, then this is finally to indicate ontological soundness not weakness.
What Gilbert seems to want to do is to see the world of art as the 'real', the ethical, the meaningful world that has to be protected against the onslaught of modern life. When the agent tells Gilbert the TV story is 'a modern tale' we can see as he explains it that it resembles in some ways the very experience Gilbert has just been through, where he has been mugged. But it as as though Gilbert sees films and TV about modern life as exacerbating the problem and adding to the meaninglessness of existence by taking simply an action-packed, loosely verisimilitude-driven storyline and ignoring a principle that can drive it towards a deeper ethical purpose. Now this isn't to say Gilbert is anti-modern (after all the film opens with Gilbert appearing in an Ionesco play), but he searches out a modernism that is also ongoing inquiry. If he feels a work of fiction is simply looking to take from life what it needs to exploit rather than explore life it is of little interest to him.
It is as though Gilbert isn't the actor as vacuum, the actor so described by Nietzsche when he says "the delight in simulation exploding as a power that pushes aside one's so-called "character"", but instead someone looking to find a deeper, yet more consistent self within the roles he plays. The acting is then less a performance given than a reality discovered. In some ways this turns the actor not into the shallowest of people, as we often perceive an actor to be, but potentially the deepest of individuals, because of the number of hypothetical ethical beings he's offered. At another stage in The Gay Science Nietzsche talks of loving brief habits, considering them "an inestimable means for getting to know many things and states, down to the bottom of their sweetness and bitterness. My nature is designed entirely for brief habits, even in the needs of my physical health and altogether as far as I can see at all..." He reckons, "I always believe that here is something that will give me lasting satisfaction - brief habits, too, have this faith of passion, this faith in eternity..." Can we not say then that Gilbert resembles the actor as a man of brief habits, that the parts one takes allows one to explore various modes of being, without committing oneself to set ways, nor, as Nietzsche proposes of the actor, avoiding any sense of depth at all?
But this still leaves us with a problem, the problem Oliveira addresses in Gilbert being caught out ethically right at the end of his career. He allows himself to be flattered, and though we might see acting as in many ways about flattery - that one assumes a role and allows the audience to admire the way we've transformed ourselves to fit it - this doesn't seem central to Gilbert's notion of acting. If in Hollywood filmmaking Oscars often go to actors who have transformed themselves radically for a part (Brando in The Godfather, De Niro in Raging Bull, Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Charlize Theron in Monster), when Gilbert's expected to look older than his years in the TV series, and made to look younger than his years with moustache and toupee in the Joyce adaptation, it seems as if his being has been supplanted in a meaningless way. What interests Gilbert much more isn't transformation, but what Milan Kundera would call, in relation to fiction, "experimental selves". Kundera says in The Art of the Novel that the novel "is the great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence", and in his own work he creates characters that aren't 'fully-fledged' in the conventional sense of the novel, but are hypothetical possibilities. Why can this not apply as readily to an actor who decides to see his career not in terms of the sort of development and fame the agent expects, nor the journeyman aspect of a variety of roles, but in terms of evolving ethos?
From this point of view the actor is potentially capable of more meaningfulness than most, because his or her being can hypothesize states that many of us are forced either merely to imagine or completely realize. In this sense there's a potential here for the sort of intervals explored by the Ancients, the sort of careful decision making in relation to one's own deepest temperament, combining with a thespian experimental self, and for one's well-being to evolve in a way that is simultaneously personally evolving and culturally evolving. Thus Aristotle's notion of cathartic release becomes something subtly different. It doesn't lead simply to catharsis, where the tragedy of the hero becomes our tragedy at one remove, but to a creation of intervals, where the actor plays out various ethical states.
Now when Gilbert's wife and daughter die, their deaths are completely out-with his ethical realm, but taking a role that doesn't fit his ethical code would be well within his ethical comprehension and thus a destruction of that code if he fails to live up to it. But if the world in which one lives works so compromisingly, how does one hold on to one's ethics? By the end of the film Gilbert does and he doesn't. He allows himself to get into a compromised position by accepting a role for which he's woefully unqualified and for which he's had too little time to prepare. But, equally, at a certain stage he chooses to drop the role and walk off the set and heads for home. There may be this thespian idea that an actor's purpose is always to stay in work, but Oliveira suggests that whatever Gilbert's notion of being an actor is, it is better practised sitting at home playing with his grandson than playing roles that aren't stretching him but are in fact violating him. It is a professional ethical choice that of course has echoes in Oliveira's own career, where at one stage, with a public unresponsive to his work, he turned to farming and other interests, as if protecting his aesthetic sensibility.
This is we feel what Gilbert decides to do when he says he's going home, and we may see the importance of this retreat when the film closes on shots of Gilbert disconsolately making his way up the stairs to his house and we see his grandson watching from just inside the back door downstairs. It is, if you like, a performance the grandson shouldn't have to witness, and yet, in Oliveira's words, "he sees in his grandfather as a man who represents a past of wisdom and stability which collapses before his eyes, a tragedy which consciously or not the child applies to himself." In many ways this proves a conventional catharsis, in the Aristotelian sense, even if it takes place outside the theatrical context. Oliveira believes that the ending means that the baton has been passed on to the younger generation, but we could just as readily say that the baton has been dropped and the grandson forced to pick it up - a slightly different metaphor and maybe a way of exploring the difference between cathartic release, and the sort of immanent realization present in both Kundera's experimental selves and Foucault's notion of a technology of the self. In catharsis we could say we have sadness creating realization. Characters in a play will go through a tragic situation blindly, but that the viewer will avoid the situation by virtue of the characters experiencing it for us. But central to Kundera's notion of experimental selves, and more especially Foucault's technology of the self, is the way virtual states allow us to avoid the tragic for the constantly evolving possibilities in 'intervalistic' thought.
Now our experimental self might experience the virtual through a tragic play one sees, consistent with the Aristotelian, or it might think through an action before realizing it. But even if one 'experiments' with a tragedy, we may not require the cathartic element Aristotle talks of, but merely the hypothetical aspect lived through by another. This type of reaction would not be too far removed from the intervals we would give to ourselves in our own lives where we think through an action before making a decision. It would be absurd to think of such intervals as cathartic, but they can function similarly to the relationship we can have with art works. Now maybe what Aristotle demands is a certain type of ecstasy that we can call cathartic - that we step into somebody else's life so that we can temporarily step out of our own. But we can also talk about a type of non-ecstasy, the type suggested by Kundera in Testaments Betrayed when he says "Living is a perpetual heavy effort not to lose sight of ourselves, to stay solidly present in ourselves, in our stasis." Is this the type of actor Gilbert happens to be; an actor who feels it is less important to lose oneself in a role and to lose an audience in a play, than to find his ethics in the role and the audience to find their values in the work?
Of course there is the danger here of living a life without ecstasy, but maybe it is more a case of living simultaneously inside and outside a moment, so that a performance Gilbert gives is both a role he performs that offers freedom from his usually perceived self, but at the same time leaves him well aware of his own values. Ditto the audience who watches. This doesn't rule out pleasure, if we define pleasure here as no more and no less than simultaneously being in the moment and aware of the moment that we're gaining sustenance from. This requires an on-going vigilance of self and other, but not in a neurotic resentful way where we all monitor each other's behaviour, but in an empathic, concerned way. When the young boy looks at his grandfather going up the stairs, this is not the reaction shot of judgement we so often find in Fassbinder's nightmarish tales of acerbic observation, but the look of someone who watches a man he loves looking like he has lost meaning in his life, and wondering how that loss will impact upon him. A genuine care of the self is looking after oneself as one looks after others, a sort of reversal of Sartre's hell is other people. Has Gilbert's momentary lapse not been just that, and will he not wake up the next morning, see the beautiful sunlight, walk his grandson to school and feel once again the beautiful simplicity of life? He may need no ecstasy in his existence; the permeating possibilities in pleasure seem meaningful enough.
© Tony McKibbin