Mothers and Whores
Problemitising the Post-Modern
In an essay in La Nouvelle Revue Francais, Marie Anne Guerin discusses at what point a story becomes objectified, becomes less an act of self-expression and more a depersonalised narrative. In doing so Guerin looks at the difference between films including Titanic and The Mother and the Whore. For Guerin these are mere launch-pads for an essay chiefly interested in the Barbet Schroder film, Before and After. And yet there is something so disparate about Titanic and Jean Eustache's great work that a discussion of the two films is worth an article in itself, an article that suggests one film is an example of extreme modernism; the other a Baudrillardian post-modernist movie mingling with conventional narrative classicism. For wasn't the low-budget The Mother and the Whore"as close to autobiography as one could get" according to Jean Eustache's post New Wave colleague Philippe Garrel? And isn't Titanic a film that rewrites cinema history for the purposes of blockbuster, special effects cinema? Where Eustache's film was so autobiographical the person whom the 'whore' was based on, Francoise Lebrun, also played the part. Titanic was so fictionalized that a whole village took umbrage over the way one of their local heroes had been traduced. A BBC news item shows 20th Century Fox executive Scott Neeson going to the small village of Dalbeattie and apologizing. Of course Titanic demanded a villain, and found one in the ship's captain; Eustache demanded a 'truth', and utilized his own life and his own relationship with the Lebrun to make his work of art.
Thus we notice two very different ethical positions being worked through. Titanic takes a very public fact and fictionalises it for the purposes of impersonal narrative; The Mother and the Whore takes a personal detail and fictionalises it for the purposes of self-expressive narrative. And while with Titanic the dead captain merely has his reputation questioned whilst his small fame becomes a grand infamy, not only did Eustache cast Lebrun, the person the 'mother' was based on later took her own life. James Cameron's film went on to win numerous Oscars, and led its directors to new heights of confidence: as he stood on the podium he boasted about being top of the world. Eight years after The Mother and the Whore, Eustache killed himself. Where there is perhaps something tragically logical about Eustache taking his own life in a 'radical decision exemplified', to use Garrel's phrase, could there be anything more absurd than Cameron ending his life because of the way he destroyed the reputation of the Titanic's captain?
One asks this question without frivolity. After all, it touches upon key issues of art cinema versus commercial entertainment, and may help us to understand why post-modern assumptions about the collapse of the art-commerce dichotomy don't really hold up. What we're talking about here is proximity, proximity to one's art that is simultaneously an amplification of the self (Garrel's comment on Eustache and autobiography) and the consequent risk of negating that very self: in the possibility of taking one's own life in the wake of the art work's completion and exposure. In The Savage God, Al Alvarez talks about the ever increasing suicide rate amongst artists - that modernism is almost a movement of suiciding. This can be literal: Hemingway, Pavese, Van Gogh, Crane. But it can also be life denying for the purposes of the affirmation of art: Cezanne and Proust for example.
From this perspective Foucault and Barthes' notions of the death of the author have a certain ironic ring. When they suggest the death of the author - the death of the signature of the artist, the sovereign right of the artist - aren't they consequently offering the artist their life back? For if Alvarez is correct, suicide, creatively, wasn't a serious issue before the 18th century, and if Foucault and Barthes are correct, artists in and around the medieval period left their work unsigned whilst it was the scientist who was expected to attach his name to an idea. Hasn't suicide become more and more likely the greater the presence of the artistic signature? However, whilst Foucault and Barthes from this perspective are allowing the artist off the modernist hook (as Barthes says, "it is language that speaks, not the author"), haven't they helped create the monster that is post-modernism? From this point of view, isn't post-modernism a halfway house between the depersonalised public narratives of Titanic, and the personalized narratives of The Mother and the Whore? That is, what we are offered is something that neither respects the classical unity of a work of art, nor the unity of the artist as creator. Post-modernism can thus lead to the meretricious, evidenced in what we could call the indeterminately post-modern, present, for better or for worse, in Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn, Gregg Araki's Nowhere and Harmony Korine's Gummo. In the first two films we have narratives that switch direction halfway through - the former moving from a lam movie to a vampire flick; the latter from a high school drama to a sci-fi movie. Gummo, meanwhile, has scenes the director claims could begin or end anywhere.
However, one filmmaker who has subtly post-modernized the modern is surely Jacques Rivette, so subtly that he still essentially fits into modernist notions of the artist, but tweaks them slightly. This is so in his early nineties film, La belle noiseuse, which is in many ways a pained artist film, and was released shortly after a wave of Van Gogh works including Paul Cox's Vincent, Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh and Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo. There was something in these fine paeans to Van Gogh (all commemorating the centenary of his death) that was elegiac, as if they were mourning not just the artist, but an artist's approach to his life and work. Yet in many ways Rivette's film, though thoroughly respectful of the modernist aesthetic, is a risposte. In La belle noiseuse Michel Piccoli's painter Frenhofer has left a painting unfinished for many years, a painting modelled for by his wife, Jane Birkin. Now a young woman (Emmanuelle Beart) attached to a young painter who admires the older artist's oeuvre, agrees to model for the painting of the title. Rivette shows the process in immense detail (the film is four hours long), but decides to deny us a glimpse of the final painting just as Piccoli refuses to show the painting to his dealer. Beart, who is shown the painting, looks at it with unequivocal indignation. If the Van Gogh films clearly indicate the sacrifice of life to art, Rivette shows art sacrificed to life. The painting Piccoli finally offers is a dashed off work that appears to give nothing away, but that will nonetheless have the Frenhofer signature attached. In Altman's film there is a hint of a complicit death wish between Vincent and Theo - Theo died with eighteen months of his brother's suicide - and as in other Altman films (most conspicuously Three Women) there is the suggestion of doubling as Theo increasingly takes Van Gogh's messianic aesthetic belief as his own. In Rivette's film there is instead something Rohmeresque about its approach to ethical confrontation. Piccoli's decision to brick up the work of art and offer an ersatz picture instead is based upon the opposite of modernist, aesthetic single-mindedness. It comes out of multiple motives. There is first of all Beart's sense of violation to worry about; secondly that the artist's wife has been effaced in this new version with Beart; thirdly has Beart's boyfriend not pimped his partner to get closer to the artist, and fourthly, is the dealer not chiefly interested in getting another Frenhofer signature on canvas?
Yet for all Rivette's denial of modernist single-mindedness there is a sly nod to modernist posterity - to the idea of the art living beyond the life - in that bricked up painting. This is something more than Georges Perec-like post-modernism explored in Life: A User's Manual where one destroys the art quite deliberately after making it), and also something more than a 'happening', which might have defined the Piccoli/Beart relationship were it not for that bricked up work. Rivette thus brilliantly questions modernist self absorption without necessarily negating its aesthetic. He puts, if you like, a profound ethic into the modernist ethos, an ethic he himself confronted when he re-released Out One: Spectreand insisted certain moments where actor Jean-Pierre Leaud was obviously showing signs of instability on screen should be removed. Yes the original film still existed for posterity, but while those close to Leaud and Leaud himself were still alive the ethical would impose itself on the aesthetic.
This is similar to Garrel and Le berceau de cristal. Garrel may have admiringly stated that Eustache's film was as close to autobiography as cinema can be, but such a comment would come back to haunt many a filmmaker who got so close to reality. Garrel himself withdrew Le berceau de cristal from distribution for a period of time. In the film we see his ex-lover, and heroin addict, the late Nico, shooting up and, at the conclusion, fictionally shooting herself. Here is another example of the modernist exposure superimposed upon by a post (after) modern ethic, even if, like Out One, at the one remove of re-editing and or limiting distribution.
If La belle noiseuse post-modernizes modernism, Titanic in some ways post-modernizes the classical, while nevertheless of course holding to conventional notions of story-telling. La Belle noiseuse respects the notion of, if you like, narrative uninevitability even as it questions the significance of the art work over the life. This gives an intriguing twist to Guerin's idea of the self-expressed narrative, because just as Rivette denies Frenhofer public exposure in relation to self-expression, Rivette allows himself that very freedom by making a film that so obviously touches upon his own ethical concerns. Titanic, like many a post-classical Hollywood epic - like Braveheart, like The Patriot, like U-571 - is chiefly interested in what John Orr in The Art and Politics of Film has called, borrowing from Deleuzian film language, the spectacle-image. Yes, Hollywood has always taken liberties with the historical, but this isn't about narrativizing an historical event; more about making spectacular that moment in history - even to the point where we're no longer talking dramatic license; more spectacle orgy.
From this angle, Saving Private Ryan proves a key film. There is nothing in Spielberg's work that is either dramatically adventurous (it takes as its story a ragbag mission through Normandy) or ethically challenging (the mission is to return a soldier son to his mother), but what it does offer is a new movie image of WWII. Spielberg has been up front about his references here: he was especially influenced by John Huston's war documentaries. But it's as if Spielberg wanted to go beyond the real present in Huston's work to the hyperreal made available by the special effects advances in Hollywood: and consequently we have that now famous opening half hour; just as we have that equally famous spectacle of death that rounds off Cameron's epic. Guerin's comments touching upon the absence of self-expressive narratives in Hollywood cinema has become yet more true. Here Titanicdoesn't just deny self-expression for dramatic exigencies, but denies dramatic demands for spectacle-image gluttony. If the self-expressive in the singular gives way to the expressive in the multiple - in the post classical Hollywood cinema of Titanic, the expressive becomes the digital.
And so we return to one of our initial points of inquiry: the possible comprehension of Eustache's death in relation to his art; the incomprehension of Cameron doing the same in relation to his piece of commerce. Eustache's suicide, if we decide to read it in such a way, is inextricably tied up with the ethic of his art; Cameron's self-glorification the result of a technical coup that allowed him to recreate a tragedy in glorious detail. If it all went wrong, who could we blame: the pixels?
Does this not draw out another difference between art and commerce? That while Garrel and Rivette reedit or withdraw their films in relation to an ethical position; the Hollywood film parades director's cuts that suggest auteur control whilst simultaneously indicating technophile impulse. Foucault's death of the author might also be the birth of the technology obsessed artist; that what matters, in this sense, is less the impulse to create, than the need to digitally remaster. It becomes all about the quality of the end product; where of course in the work of Garrel, Rivette and Eustache there is something unfinished both technically and narratively. Garrel's work immediately comes to mind, and a comment Jill Forbes quotes in The Cinema in France that one particular film was a work in the conditional. Elle a pass tant d'heures sous les sunlights had yet to exist, a film that was made on so small a budget that it relied on old film stock for its very filming, and was released several years after it was shot whilst Garrel cobbled together the material into some semblance of a feature after doing most of his own editing. "Film is manual work with the unconscious" Garrel once said; and by the same token is the hyper-modern epic not digital work by the slickly self-conscious?
From this perspective it is almost as if there has been a return to Foucault's formula for the justification of science through signature and its absence in art. Can we not see this, however, playfully, in the Dogmatists (Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg etc.) who ostensibly refuse to sign their films, and the technologists who demand a director's cut? And this signature on Cameron's part, and its albeit playfully apparent absence on von Trier's The Idiots, makes a certain kind of sense. For Cameron's film was a years in the making, ego on the line epic, with actors and crew at the director's mercy, von Trier's closer to a social experiment with a camera: the script was written in three days; the actors talked of the freedom available on set. Here we see that for Cameron and his producers the name meant something: Cameron's track record allowed him the huge budget; it was partly the director's reputation that created the pre-publicity buzz. So once again we see divergences in the post-modern. The techno-auteur's reputation becomes the blank cheque he's expected to cash, the ethical auteur offers an act of moral observation larger than his own act of creativity. Just as Rivette questions the status of the singularity of the artist, so von Trier questions it also. But where for Rivette it is the ethics of the individual that is explored, for von Trier it's that of the group. However, and this where von Trier's film is especially interesting ethically, it's a group without obvious political or social purpose as they pretend to be mentally disabled. It's as if they haven't so much dropped out of society as into von Trier's social experiment, an experiment where the absence of a hippie belief, an environmental urge or forthcoming political action, leaves the film with a bigger question mark than this type of film usually demands. Where, for example, Lukas Moodyson's Together placed itself firmly within the burgeoning feminist/hippie philosophy and was seventies set, von Trier's contemporary film leaves itself with a gaping hole it fills with a constant sense of questioning. This questioning may take the form of post-commune interviews, with the idiots trying to explain what they were getting at, or a commune self-questioning in the wake of sharing company with people with Down's syndrome, or, again, in a visit from one of the member's father's saying she's mentally ill and their playing is dangerously provocative.
But the priority in von Trier's film is the notion of ethical questioning. By refusing to signify issues, von Trier instead focuses on a liquidity of belief: what exactly are these idiots getting at? Here von Trier's post-modernism might look an awful lot like empty posturing - no concrete belief is expressed - but we should not confuse this political and social absence with whatever Rodriguez, Tarantino, Araki are doing. For if, as we've suggested, Rivette questions the modernist notion of sacrifice to one's art, von Trier's film equally questions the modernist notion in relation to the political collective, whatever that happens to be. While Rivette retreats from showing us the painting, von Trier eschews political motivation: as if, in each instance, we must judge the ethics on the situation we see and not on the possible results that they arrive at. What interests them is the first principle of art and politics, not their superficial noise.
Rivette and von Trier find a fellow traveller here in Abbas Kiarostami, and most especially his The Wind Will Carry Us. Like Rivette and von Trier, he is interested in withholding the essential element. Here it lies in one man and his crew arriving in a small, ancient village hundreds of miles from Tehran, for the purposes of some mission, the details of which are never divulged. If they were, would this not affect greatly our attitude towards Behrzani and his crew? If they are there for the villagers' benefit, or to their detriment, clearly this would affect our judgement of the characters in the wider scheme of things. Kiarostami asks us to focus instead on the specifics of the situation, so that moments seeming to demand negative judgement (Behrzani's chastising of the boy) or approbation (when Behrzani finds medicine for an old woman) remain harder to locate than usual.
In each instance - in La belle noiseuse, in The Idiots, and in The Wind Will Carry Us - such post-modernism doesn't negate the significance of the individual, the art work or of morality; it simply asks us more questions than usual about their significance. In Tarantino and Araki, as in Cameron and Spielberg and co., though for different reasons, the auteur signature is more obviously present. While Rivette, von Trier and Kiarostami retreat from conclusive meaning through the lacunary, Tarantino and Araki are more inclined to retreat from meaning through the ironically facetious: through the sense that what is shown has a veneer of self (auetur) consciousness asking us to take what is presented with a pinch of salt. How else to read the ear-lopping or the back seat pulping in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction respectively? Thus the signature is announced and pronounced; in Rivette and co it is in retreat and latent.
So from a certain perspective Hollywood seems to be more self-expressive than recent world cinema. But perhaps we should replace self-expression with self-assertion, with the Holywood auteur - be it Tarantino or Cameron, be it indie or mainstream - clearly foregrounding the egoism in creation, and the European and middle-eastern auteurs, in their retreat from singular meanings, involved in something closer to recreation, in the way they involve the viewer in the meaning process.
Claude Chabrol once said that one should avoid big subjects to focus on the specific emotions. Here we see that Rivette, von Trier and Kiarostami retreat so far from the subject that it can barely be named, while Spielberg, Cameron, and others, reinterpret an event to the point that the magnitude of the event becomes secondary to its cinematic recreation. Have more people not heard of the Titanic through the film, and more people know of William Wallace through Braveheart? Guerin may talk about the impersonality of the artist in relation to the storytelling evoked, but in post-modern Hollywood to some degree the vocation is bigger not just than the artist, but the actual event under scrutiny. This is surely a clear example of Baudrillard's belief in the simulacrum burying the real. In Rivette, von Trier and Kiarostami the significance of real locations, of the director respecting the performance, and the meaning of the film always larger than the cinematic recreation, suggests a far more hopeful post-modernism. Not so much the death of the author as the re-birth of complex reality. Maybe to call them post-modern at all counters usefulness. Maybe late modernists will suffice. Such filmmakers are mothers giving birth to new images; rather than whores playing to the demands of paying customers.
© Tony McKibbin