You Were Never Really Here
The Neuralgia of Immediacy
What is an affect versus a feeling, what is a response to an image as opposed to an understanding of it? Can we be moved by Casablanca if we do not understand that Rick and Ilsa still love each other but there is a war to be fought and that must take priority? Can we feel the weight at the end of Chinatown if we haven't gathered that Mulwray was raped by her father, and the child that came out of that brutal crime will be abused also? If we understandably think not, this is partly because the films emphasise feeling over affect - they insist on relations that release understanding; they don't demand an instantaneous reaction. Yet there are instantaneous reactions that we wouldn't be inclined to call affects - those sudden moments of shock or surprise that horror cinema has trafficked in for many decades and that Robert Baird has usefully called the startle effect. (Film Quarterly) However, even if we react instantly, we respond relationally. In other words, we know we are watching a horror film and that there will be the characters we identify with and the killer whom we don't. When the violence takes place we might not have a worked through feeling as we find at the end of Casablanca, but we do have what we could call a relational shock. It is predicated on what Charles S. Peirce would call secondness, as described by Roger Dawkins. "Firstness is immediacy, firstness is the prereflexive. When reflection does occur, however, we enter the realm of secondness." (Peirce's Theory of Signs)
We cannot understand most films without a clear comprehension of how the elements fit together, and the evidential nature of these elements. In Casablanca, we know that Ilsa and Rick had an affair in Paris with Ilsa believing her husband dead and that she left Rick when realising he was still alive. We know that a war is taking place and that Ilsa's husband is central to the war effort and she must help him in his endeavours rather than prioritise her own feelings by returning to Rick. It is our understanding of these elements and how they all interconnect that can allow for the feeling on which the film concludes. We are inclined to feel sad but sober, aware of sacrifice but also believing in its necessity. It appeals to our moral intelligence. But could we imagine a film that appeals much more to our sense of firstness, acknowledging that horror for all its capacity to shock us without immediately knowing what we have been shocked by is not such an example? Peirce would describe firstness thus: "an instance of that kind of consciousness which involves no analysis, comparison or any process whatsoever, nor consists in whole or in part of any act by which one stretch of consciousness is distinguished from another, which has its own positive quality which consists in nothing else, and which is of itself all that it is, however it may have been brought about; so that if this feeling is present during a lapse of time, it is wholly and equally present at every moment of that time." Peirce adds, a feeling, then, is not an event, a happening, a coming to pass... a feeling is a state, which is in its entirety in every moment of time as long as it endures.", What is of interest to us is the idea that a filmmaker might be willing to keep the viewer in a state of suspended firstness, trying to bypass the moral intelligence films as varied as Casablanca and Chinatown practice.
To help us, let's think of Lynne Ramsay's recent You Were Never Really Here, a film that stays very close to the film's central character played by Joaquin Phoenix. Interviewed in the Observer, Ramsay described the hitman central character as having a head full of broken glass. He is a man suffering from what we might assume is post-traumatic stress disorder as well as vivid memories of abuse from his childhood. Ramsay makes the film in such a way that these shards of past meet with shards of present and never quite become a coherent world. This does not mean that we cannot piece the film together and work out the plot, but it does mean that to do so is not the purpose behind the material as it would be in numerous 'puzzle' films that insist the story must be put together again out of chronological reconfiguration. Whether it is The Usual Suspects or The Departed, the convolutions allow for a complicated relationship with secondness but that secondness is still the point. The films pursue an action-oriented narrative with hints of affect which work closer to the startle effect.
Directing only four features, Lynne Ramsay has been interested in firstness in various manifestations, as if trying to defy the secondness that is the norm of Hollywood and UK filmmaking - the countries her feature films have been made in. Though scriptwriting gurus like Robert McKee and Syd Field have no interest in Peircean categories, that doesn't mean underlying their work is a set of assumptions that we can link philosophically to secondness. When Peirce talks of secondness as a question of real objects in real spaces, Roger Dawkins notes, this is where we see action over affect: situations over feelings. As McKee says, "Event means change. If the streets outside your window are dry, but after a nap you see they're wet, you assume an event has taken place called rain. The world's changed from dry to wet. You cannot, however, build a film out of nothing but the changes in the weather...Story events are meaningful, not trivial." (Story) This is McKee coinciding with a remark of Hitchcock's yet without Hitchcock's nuance. "But suppose we could make really artistic films for the artistically minded minority," Hitchcock says, "Could we not then make as beautiful a film about rain as Debussy did a tone poem in his "jardins sous le pluie". ( Hitchcock on Hitchcock) This is Hitchcock suggesting a cinema of firstness: a cinema where affect takes precedence over secondness, where action is subordinate to perception. We needn't exaggerate Ramsay's distinctiveness, and she is not at all an experimental filmmaker who attends to affect without action, to perception without purpose, but what would seem to interest her is allowing action to come out of perception: that she embodies within her work a perspective that doesn't see action as the point of the film but only the consequences of the affect it brings into being. While we want chiefly to concentrate on You Were Never Really Here, it might be useful to say a few words about Ramsay's other features, Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin and indicate how this interest in affect imposes itself on action.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film about a difficult child who reaches adulthood and becomes a spree killer. The film has little interest in the psychology of the boy even when it flashes back to periods of his childhood as we view the mother trying to recover from the atrocity that also led to the death of her daughter and husband. The film would seem to want to understand more the mother's coping mechanisms and nightmarish memories than attend to the narrative of the boy's development. With rich uses of red, especially, and also bright blues and yellows, the film could best be described as a cause and affect film as it tries to comprehend the nature of the event not through understanding character, but through comprehending colour. As if in homage to great Nicholas Ray films of the fifties, Rebel without a Cause and Bigger than Life (passing through Nic Roeg's opening scene in Don't Look Now, whose son Luc, produced We Need to Talk about Kevin,) Ramsay shows us the pressure cooker of domestic life, with red the colour of impending danger even if the mother will never quite realise it. We follow the film's intensity of colour as readily as we follow the film's developing storyline, and perhaps one reason Ramsay played with the chronology was to try and find a way of retreating from the psychological. She wants us to feel the danger not comprehend it. This is strength of affect at work. Though the camera is often keeping its distance, the colour keeps drawing us in, warning us of dangers to come. This is the very specific sort of foreshadowing Roeg worked so well in Don't Look Now. We sense danger, we don't narratively understand it.
In Ratcatcher, the focus is more tactile, seeking the tragedy at its centre as a crisis at the young boy's nervous core. (He is implicated in a friends downing.) In one scene, the other kids try and take his dead mouse from him while the camera gets caught in the middle, moving between the flurry of action, and leaving the viewer unsure what exactly it is going on. We see aggression at work but the focus is on firstness rather secondness. It isn't chiefly that the other kids want something that Jamie doesn't want to give them, it is the aggression as a state in itself that interests Ramsay. In Morvern Callar the camera moves in even closer still, evaporating where possible the relation between things and focusing on singularities. This isn't necessarily about close-ups per se; often Ramsay allows the music that the central character listens to on her headphones to keep her in a state of immediacy, with the outside world of less importance than the inside one of immediate feeling.
Thus we notice in Ramsay's earlier work that she was interested, in various manifestations, in firstness over secondness: feeling over action. Yet in each instance the type of film she was making lent itself well to this avenue of feeling. But surely a hitman movie is nothing if not an example of secondness? When we think of US hitman films like The Mechanic, Collateral and The American, what we see is the importance of collision, clear examples of secondness in action, so to speak. The point is to get your man as you see them as clearly in opposition to you. It might occasionally allow for humanity that will undermine one's self-preserving instincts (as in The American), but it is a sub-genre predicated on the precision of aggression. When we discussed the scene in Ratcatcher what we saw in the sequence was the imprecision of aggression, a messy, chaotic forcefulness that bursts out of the situation and indicates something of the low-key insensitivity in an environment where many people seem raw and fretful. Discussing growing up in Maryhill in Glasgow with a Catholic dad and protestant mum, Ramsay says, "there was that tension in our family that is there when somebody keeps messing up, and then keeps coming back for forgiveness, which is what he did with my mum. I do think she hated him at times, and him her. You could see a look in her eye sometimes that said: 'You fucker! I don't like you.'" (Guardian) This is closer to the messy aggression of firstness over the clean violence of secondness, but Ramsay manages to bring in this messiness to You Were Never Really Here, making the film dissolve into a category of immediacy that makes it hardly a hitman film at all.
And how better to dissolve the genre further than by casting Joaquin Phoenix? Ramsay said working with him was like finding her soulmate." "Neither of us are very verbal," (Indiewire) Phoenix said of his relationship with Ramsay. "We don't like to intellectualise about the character. It was all in the doing." (Indiewire) Garth Davis who also worked around the same time with Phoenix on Mary, said he was a "beautiful wild animal...You have to give him the space to be free, so his performance can roam freely: raw, uncontrived and truly natural." David adds, "If he smells the design of the scene, you lose his free spirit; if the script is weak, he will expose its flaws. He is fiercely intelligent and almost completely instinctual. And he has this immense sensitivity that can be both his curse and his gift, but for me, that is what it means to be human." (Indiewire)
Phoenix gives to the film his own messiness, his own relationship with the quality of impression over comparison, where he acts the feeling rather than the action. If Davis notes how Phoenix can see through the flaws in the script this would no doubt rest partly on what can seem important to the structure but that doesn't capture the experience. Digressing for a moment we can note that many actors are good because they are better with comparison than impression, giving the film its pace but denying it its grace - there are actors who cannot give the film its soul and would thus unlikely become the soulmate of the director as Ramsay proposes. When we think of comparative actors anyone from Katharine Hepburn to Cary Grant, from Kevin Spacey to Julia Roberts, from Tom Cruise to Jack Lemmon comes to mind. We offer no judgement on the quality of the acting in each instance. What we want to observe is the comparative nature of their performances. Most of their key roles are in films where they act opposite others and are consequently fine actors of secondness. Watching Hepburn and Grant in Bringing up Baby we do not witness actors immersed in their own instincts but colliding with the social behaviour of another, while Jack Lemmon is a marvellous actor of discomfort, never quite feeling at home in his own body as long as there is company to which he must attend. He is always talking a bit too quickly, ingratiating himself too much or irritated too completely by his friend, neighbour, work colleague, family member or partner. When we see his boss persuading him without much effort to give him the keys to Lemmon's flat in The Apartment, we see in Lemmon a weak character so unimmersed in himself that the other person's needs will easily trump his own. There he is chock-full of the flu desperate to lie in bed; instead the boss insists he goes off to the theatre while he takes the flat.
But we can also usefully think of actors from the point of view of Peirce's categories. Who are the great actors of each approach we might think, as it helps us understand anything from miscasting to the notion of under or overacting? Which other actors are those of firstness? Brando, certainly, but also perhaps James Dean, Samantha Morton, Gerard Depardieu and any actor who gives us the sense of touch oversight, a sense of something rather than its comprehension. In secondness would lie many of the great action men of film, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, but also those actors very good at calculating on the spot, making a situation work for them in comedic terms as they know how to take advantage of an opportunity. Cary Grant is one the great comedic actors because he can give the impression that he will compete wonderfully for a woman's affections and win, as we find in His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth, but also someone who can take the seriousness out of a serious issue, as in North by Northwest. In Hitchcock's film he can take the crisis of mistaken identity and give it the lightness of touch which can make everything seem absurd rather than paranoiac. There is the duel, the clash, the struggle and the fight, but all incorporated within minor terms.
In other words, while the action heroes take the situation very seriously indeed as they take on others, frequently in Grant's work the potential seriousness is diminished just as in Wayne and Eastwood it is hyperbolized. His films are comedies of secondness not tragedies as Grant insists in winning by not taking the situation too seriously. His Girl Friday confronts serious issues: Grant is losing his wife to another and a man is on death row, but by refusing to acknowledge the magnitude of the events Grant shrinks them down to manageable segments that he can take facetiously and thus resolve. By not taking his ex-wife's new beau seriously he manages to make her not take the man seriously either. By playing lightly with the truth, and by using some dirty blackmailing tricks, he saves a man from the gallows. Here we can see secondness can play up the seriousness or the lightness of the ego: in Wayne and Eastwood (despite their occasional attempts at the comedic) the films remain films of action; Grant's of comedy.
And what of thirdness? One reason why we might believe Grant would have been miscast in either Rear Window or Vertigo is that these are films where the leading character doesn't think on his feet, but in his seat: either the wheelchair in Rear Window or the car in Vertigo. These are films where Hitchcock needs an actor who thinks slowly or hesitantly, and Stewart never possessed the cinematic confidence we see in Grant. If thirdness represents thought that can absent the thing itself and simply infer it, then we might think of the great actors of inference as the inversion of the great actors of immediate sensation. In firstness we have the evidential without the contextual; in thirdness we have the contextual without the evidential. In the latter what counts are the mental relations than can work out the nature of a situation without quite having the evidence to make it categorically the case. If for example we are sitting in a cafe window and we see someone walking down the street with a huge smile on their face and a dozen red roses in their hand, and ten minutes later see them dump the red roses in a dustbin and they are now walking with a scowl, there is a very good chance that their affection has been spurned. We wouldn't know for sure, but the evidence would strongly indicate this happened to be the case. Frequently we accept not what is in front of our eyes but what we can infer with our minds, making sense frequently of situations of which we do not have direct access. Astute awareness in the context of thirdness is often a sign of intelligence, just as its failure, comedically at least, would be a sign of stupidity, or at least bloody-mindedness. Someone might insist that the woman probably prefers geraniums and hence why the roses ended up in the bin, or someone may refuse to speculate on why the man dumps the roses in the trash. Comedy is full of misread signs, while anyone who insists they only trust the evidence of their own eyes would be denying a very important faculty of consciousness. James Stewart might not be the first actor we have in mind when it comes to representing this type of intelligence. We might think more of Gian Maria Volonte, Daniel Day-Lewis, Isabelle Huppert. But Hitchcock is one of the director's most concerned with this question and found in Stewart a useful figure to manipulate events according to the mental faculties: to produce in Hitchcock's terms, pure film. Speaking of Psycho he said, "my main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don't care about the subject matter, I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream...they were aroused by pure film." (Hitchcock) In the same Truffaut interview Hitchcock reckons, "one of the reasons most films aren't sufficiently rigorous is that so few people in the industry know anything about imagery."
Yet perhaps there are very different ways of creating images and they link usefully to the difference between firstness, secondness and thirdness. No one has done a more thorough job of exploring what this means cinematically than Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1, The Movement-Image, but for our purposes we want no more than to suggest that Hitchcock's idea of imagery is very specific to a certain type of image structure: to one that so privileges sight over touch that the object can remain always out of reach - hence the McGuffin so often evident in his work. Firstness reverses this priority and creates images in a very different manner from Hitchcock, and where the actor is of far more obvious importance. We would not expect Hitchcock to say of an actor that he had found his soulmate, but one way of looking at Ramsay's claim is to see that Phoenix possesses the capacity for the undifferentiated, to plunge himself into the given moment so that the context becomes less important than the tangible experience.
This makes You Were Never Really Here an unusual hitman film in a genre that is far more flexible and interesting than one might immediately assume: think of Le Samourai, Point Blank and The American Friend. There is in Phoenix's performance the idea that he will not so much destroy others as accept the others as somehow a metaphor for the destruction of himself. If the hitman is someone who usually must remain aloof from human concerns as they concentrate on the job to hand, Phoenix plays the role with a preoccupation that no narrative development can quite counter. It is one thing to be nursing pain (a dead wife, a lost buddy, a murdered offspring), but it is another if that pain one is nursing seems a constant throb. In You Were Never Really Here, Joe never quite happens to be, with the pain of his own past seeking metaphorical residue in a horrible present. When he goes in to slaughter various paedophiles and rescues a New York Senator's daughter, there is little suspense in the sequence as Ramsay distances herself from the adrenalised action. She looks instead for an askew perspective that emphasises pain rather project: the vulnerability of the human over the authority of the action. This rests partly on the CCTV footage used to show the damage Joe has done as we see bodies lying in the hotel hallway, but it also rests in the film's theme that finds itself slumped inside Phoenix's body: that this just more pain inflicted on the world. Describing Phoenix's physique, Ramsay says, "he started really bulking up in New York six weeks before. We had a small window, but I wanted him before I started writing it, which is unusual for me because I don't usually have someone in mind. He was changing before my eyes, he put on all that weight, and then for his next film he had to lose it all again within a few weeks." Ramsay adds, "he really puts himself totally inside something. It's important for him to come in early, so he can really understand the filmmaker, where you're going with something. He's very intelligentthat makes you look at things that might be more obvious in the script, clichs. It was like jamming, working with him. It was brilliant because he works so much on instinct. I just had to get into his head space as much as possible." (Film Comment) Making both You Were Never Really Here and Mary Magdalene around the same time, we can see that Phoenix whether playing a hitman or Christ plays the roles with a similar metaphysical exhaustion. Whether dealing with his own sins of the past or the sins of the world, Phoenix's characters illustrate a need to comprehend existence in that unindividuated manner which does not easily separate one thing from another; that feels the pain of everyone and everything. Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here is the exterminating angel who has himself been exterminated by a past that he cannot quite face and can neither ignore, a man who would seem to have spent his life aggravating his own pain with a series of aggravated assaults, often legitimised by the State in various manifestations - as the film flashes back to the war in Iraq. Conflicts are both internal and undifferentiated: Ramsay's achievement is to suggest not the moral equivalence between very different situations (Phoenix's abusive childhood, fighting in Iraq and infiltrating a paedophile ring) but a personal conflation where someone is so raw they can't easily separate one event from another.
This is surely the meaning of the title: that the nature of a person's history can leave them vacating the present not because they live in the past nostalgically, but they live in the present neuralgically, painfully aware of the past as an ongoing emotional flashback. If we can watch You Were Never Really Here without quite following exactly what is going on, as we cannot when we watch Casablanca or Chinatown, it rests on the film's firstness as rawness, watching Joe trying less to put his life together, as the film captures well its constant capacity for collapse, than finding the means by which to give experiences the nervous tension constantly evident in his body. To understand You Were Never Really Here is not chiefly to understand the story but to understand the emotional condition of its central character who will find some affinity with the fellow abused, evident in the oddly complicit scene that the film closes on. The film's purpose isn't to unfold a plot but to enfold a feeling: the plot is the vehicle in which Joe's chaos is contained. As Ramsay says "Samantha Morton came to the screening last night and was a bit shaken up by it. She said it was like a Francis Bacon painting. It's quite an experiential film, so the synopsis does it a bit of a disservice." (The Independent). We would not be inclined to say that the synopsis does a disservice to Casablanca or Chinatown: the films very much do service to their synopses: they are in very different ways wonderful examples of feeling over affect; they are not quite in Ramsay's sense 'experiential' films. You Were Never Really Here is a very modern film precisely because it is. There have been other neuralgic films, of course, from the toothache that Nick Nolte can't get out of his buzzing mind in Affliction to the horrible headaches the central character in Pi suffers from (and Bacon might be the great neuralgic painter). Yet few films have quite found a form to reflect the neuralgic state of a character who cannot but see the world as an immediate experience because his own nervous state cannot see things otherwise. Ramsay plays fair to that state and dissolves the conventions of the hitman film in the process. Some people might insist they are in so much pain they would like to kill someone. That is exactly what Joe consistently does, and Ramsay films it in a manner that makes us understand his pain without at all falling into the values and the form of hitman expectation.
© Tony McKibbin