Nick sent each of us - academics, writers, creative practitioners - a different still image from one of the 102 minutes of Requiem for a Dream. We were then asked to respond to the image in whatever way we liked, preferably on our own blogs and websites so that the project would be linked around the web. I had neither at the time so Nick posted me on the Tumblr, but here it is on my own blog, years late. You can see the whole project here.
Kinds of time
This is a still from a film I’ve never seen and in it I can see things I remember. These two people are reaching across an ideal version of the lower-middle class American kitchens of my childhood. I will even go so far as to say that they are coastal, though if I said which coast I’m afraid I might be wrong. Now in my mind I’m placing them in California, then Florida, then New Jersey. In each of these places the story I’m looking at changes, though, of course, the image stays the same. So there are all kinds of time in the space between myself and this frame. There are markers of historical time: the mustard-coloured electric oven of a particular class of American people, the glass fronted cabinet that makes me think, maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is Ohio? (Because I look at those people and know I’m not in New England.) And I think I can see … but I’m not sure… I think I can see the ghost of my dead brother’s glasses just at the edge of that man’s hair. The pot-holders hanging from adhesive hooks, the ugly containers on top of the refrigerator: I know all of these things intimately, they are the material of my own history. In them and in that dress—that dress, that dress—I can see time and place, but only because I know it already.
Then there is the clock, another familiar object that surely hung over some neighbour’s dining table, telling me that here it is 4:25. But even that will be right twice a day. If I see 4:25AM, this is a picture of trauma or tragedy, of something that keeps families up all night making Sistine gestures and exchanging piercing gazes. At 4:25PM I see his beseeching hand and her repressive stare. Pushing him down, the habit of a lifetime. Or maybe his pathetic gesture of apology and her final refusal. Cathartic and revolutionary. In all of these ways I am reading, making one kind of time out of another. This is something like, but different to, Bakhtin’s chronotope. Though there is no linear space to traverse here, as there is in a novel, there is still a thing which can only be time/space and it exists in the meeting of my reading and the image itself, in the way I move around the space of this image making narrative time. We are often told that the uniqueness of a still image is its arrest of time. But if I make narrative, I make order and sequence, I make time. I cannot read the image without it.
Even that red hair is historical. It is the dye my mother’s Italian friends used after they went grey. As a child in, say, 1978, I knew at least a dozen women with that red. They didn’t go to stylists, they went to hairdressers, and they got those very curls set under hair dryers. I like seeing this woman’s body displayed with so much frankness on the screen. Her chicken neck and the burden of those suburban breasts. The veined backs of those hands which moved the world in our childhood eyes. Those hands that one day become our hands. We become our mothers, I think, chiefly in the hands.
I can make a gendered reading here. Her display against his darkly clothed obscurity. I could say that his gaze, directed at her, is the place where I am invited into viewing. Except it isn’t. I go into that kitchen like the third person at the table of history, longing for them both. I go into the middle of that gesture, wanting to move back in time. The image is still. None of us will ever cross that space. All theories of identification are—admit it or don’t—psychoanalytic. They are, before anything else, narrative, and they want to make us actors. In doing this they will ascribe us to bodies: gendered bodies, aged bodies, bodies which resist or seek to transcend gender and generation. Our consciousness, as narrative identification, is ascribed to bodies (admit it or don’t–few people admit how much Freud owed to sexology) through relationships of equivalence and transposition. We call these fantasies, libidinal investments. We don’t call them reductive, but they are.
In fact I enter this image as a ghost, without a body. This image is material, historical, and my relationship to it happens in the place where my consciousness meets cultural representation. Fictions are the fantastic field where we imagine our individual relationship to a whole complexity of material relations. I can see my own childhood in this image, I can see my national culture, my class, the gendered bodies of my brother and mother in ghostly reflection, my kitchen, my suburban street, the collection of countless objects that defined the structure of feeling in which I was made into a conscious person. All of them were made in the complexity of work and shopping that was my America. That dish rack, that paper towel dispenser.
And that dress. That dress made to throw all of these things into relief. That dress that makes me think, maybe this is not the 70s, but la bit later? That dress that tells me that this woman is caught between two pictures of herself. One a much younger woman who dressed her body in the style of the very moment, and one a woman trying to go back there by going forward, by updating. Those dresses were always made (perhaps they still are, in some new version?) for ageing women who wanted to keep moving. That body in that dress is impaled by the lie of style and the limits of finance. As a teenager nothing terrified me more than the suburban housedress. I saw it as a shroud, an entire negation, clothing for the failed self.
I see all of those things through my own knowledge of my own culture. From any other point in time and culture everything would signify differently. The narrative I make is, of course, my own, in cooperation with this image. All reading, still or moving, visual or verbal, is made this way. So, we tell our students, there are an infinite number of texts here. That is one point, thank you Mr. Barthes. The other, less often made, is that those readings, and their infinity, are the place where culture happens. Culture is the irreducibly complex field of relations between individual consciousness and the material world. Thus the inadequacy of universalised readings which ascribe us all our places in the singular narrative template of the family romance.
But then none of these things exist at all. They have been imagined here. So this kitchen and its two people are evocative for me because they are ideally reproduced. Decisions have been made about palette and props. Those signals that trigger me have been selected to do so. If I look more closely at that actress, I can see that her body is only coded to remind me of those broken women of my past. I can see underneath a body far better cared for. And there is something too beautiful, a kind of desperate harmony, in this careful mis-en-scène of shabbiness. It is like a rear projection, caught on the veil between us and the past. More and more, I notice as time goes on, the sordid and the impoverished are becoming beautiful in the movies. (I have just seen Winter’s Bone.) The paint on the cabinets is beautiful even in its tackiness. The kitschy paraphernalia of suburban kitchens is juxtaposed so perfectly that it becomes pleasing in a way it never really was. Anomie becomes tragedy, which brings us back to that Sistine gesture.
This is an effect of production, of an industry where set styling sells itself in a competitive environment. Everything is aesthetic, the beautiful is on a J-curve. Objects cannot just be, in a film. They must be in a way that is better than other ways of being. They must be ideally. The conjunction of the imagined real and the aesthetically perfect is the selling point of set styling.
The already strange relationship between film and memory is coloured by this prettying of history. It is too bad that when we watch The Duchess, we cannot smell the 1760s. It would teach us so much more about history than all that extravagant fabric. Here, in this image, my own nostalgia is filtered through the screen of beauty and becomes more pure. The past is almost desirable. It’s violence is mitigated. Even The Wind that Shakes the Barley gives colonial suffering a tragic beauty.
And now I am wondering about this aestheticization of the past in cinema, about whether beauty has a sanitising force quite apart from any intention of narrative. Will aesthetic affect deaden any other potential response we might have to film? Can we be fully outraged by the behaviour of the British in Ireland at the same time as we are admiring the beauty of her landscape and an idealised version of her suffering men? Contemporary popular reviews talk as much or more about production values than they do about narrative and ideology. A heightened aesthetic field is a side of effect of marketing in any cultural product; it is a result of competition and commodity fetishism. This has been reasonably theorised, but we need to ask another question. What, after that fact, does this saturation of the beautiful and the harmonious do? What are its effects? Should we go back to Lukàcs and call it a retreat from the real?
This would mean moving out of the position, become anyway a cliché, of unseating the status of the real itself. Most, though not all, of us have and have had kitchens. We leave them to go to work or to riot. The objects which depress us and make us want to get away from them, or incite our desire until we smash windows to get them, are material. They are also, like the movies, sites where our fantasies meet the material conditions of our lives.
Could we think again about cinema, in this way?