Chaosmopolitan Cinema: Cinema, Globalisation, Holocaust

Yesterday (22 February 2017), the excellent scholar Celestino Deleyto gave a talk at the Centre for Research into Film and Audiovisual Cultures at the University of Roehampton, London.

In the talk, Deleyto outlined an argument that has also appeared in a recent article in Transnational Cinemas, where he discusses the way in which cosmopolitanism can function as a framework through which to understand contemporary cinema, which today is thoroughly transnational and thus cannot be properly understood according to old-fashioned nationalist paradigms (film history as a history of national film movements, with American cinema – Hollywood – perhaps as its defining centre).

In elaborating this argument, Deleyto engages with two films, Io Sono Li/Shun Li and the Poet (Andrea Segre, Italy/France, 2011) and Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2011). The first is a clearly transnational film, in that it is a film with a multinational cast about an immigrant Chinese labourer who befriends a man from the former Yugoslavia now living in Chioggia, a town close to Venice, Italy, where the locals speak a mixture of Italian and Venetian.

Deleyto outlined how the phenomenon of acqua alta, where seawater rises up above the banks of the city and into the buildings of Chioggia, functions as a metaphor for the film’s own engagement with border crossings and transnationalism of a different sort: that of the characters in the film, who find themselves in Chioggia having made various crossings of their own. There are literal borders that define the nations of the world, but these borders are porous while also moving: Li and the poet can get to Chioggia, but they cannot necessarily integrate into Italian society, even if the locals are happy enough with water seeping up into their buildings from the sea below.

It is through the lens of cosmopolitanism, then, that we can understand what the film is doing. That is, if cosmopolitanism is broadly defined as an openness to otherness, then we can see how the film is about openness – exploring the crossing of borders in various different ways – even if Io Sono Li ultimately has a pessimistic outlook towards the openness to others/cosmopolitanism of the Venetians who occupy the Chioggia of the film (they do not so readily accept the migrants, especially when they begin to form some sort of solidarity between themselves).

Margaret far less clearly is a transnational film in its story of a self-absorbed teenager, Lisa (Anna Paquin), living in New York. But it is about openness to otherness/cosmopolitanism in various ways. For, while New Yorkers might be believing themselves the most cosmopolitan people on Earth, as they sip Cosmopolitans while reading Cosmopolitan magazine, Lonergan’s film in fact skewers the small-mindedness of its characters in New York post-11 September 2001.

The film does this in various ways, with Deleyto using two scenes to highlight something important about the film. The first is during a restaurant scene in which Lisa, her mother, Joan (J. Smith Cameron), a friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) and her mother’s boyfriend, Ramon (Jean Reno), discuss politics over dinner.

As the conversation continues, Ramon in particular discusses authoritarianism, which he then equates to Israel and criticizes Emily for being a typical Jew in not being able to take criticism about Israel. During this conversation, the scene cuts to wider shots of the dinner guests, during which we see other diners enjoying their meals.

More significantly, the soundtrack of the film features the conversation of Lisa et al going quiet as we hear also snippets of conversations from those other diners. The technique in effect reminds us of the otherness that surrounds us everywhere, and yet to which we generally remain closed/unaware. Even though the film critiques the self-absorption of its New York characters – including people whose families come originally from Europe (Lisa, Joan and Emily are all Jewish) and Latin America (Ramon is Colombian, but lived a long time in France) and who talk consciously about borders and control – the film itself takes on a cosmopolitan form by opening itself to otherness, as Io Sono Li opens its fictional world to the real world phenomenon of the acqua alta.

Cosmopolitanism is not just a thematic concern, then, but it is also a set of stylistic/formal traits: having the soundtrack open up to other conversations, having the mise-en-scène feature real-world phenomena. Whether or not any given film is transnational or about border crossings, cosmopolitanism becomes a framework through which we can understand all cinema: to what extent is it in its form and content both about and in and of itself open to otherness?

In the era of globalization that has brought with it Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the Syrian refugee crisis and so on, the question becomes a pressing one – making Deleyto’s work both (un)timely and important.

To return to Margaret, Deleyto ended his talk by showing and analyzing the final scene of the film. At the Lincoln Center, Lisa and Joan watch a production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, particularly a sequence featuring ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour,’ a piece of music often referred to as the ‘Barcarolle.’

During this scene, Lisa begins to cry; Joan notices this and begins to cry herself; and the two embrace.

In other words, Lonergan’s film is cosmopolitan enough to give some sort of redemption to Lisa, who has actively sought to reject otherness throughout the rest of the film. That is, the scene shows that there is hope for Lisa as she opens up to the otherness of Offenbach’s opera, such that she has an affective encounter (she cries) – even if this is a muted hope at best, since even though art affects her, the opera remains a very classed and safe space that perhaps indicates a ‘false hope’ (we have no real evidence that Lisa will continue to be anything other than an unpleasant, self-absorbed human being).

Here is where we depart from Deleyto’s wonderful presentation and essay in order to push the argument further – and we shall start by considering the production history of Margaret and then ‘Barcarolle.’

As Deleyto made clear, Lonergan filmed Margaret years before it finally got a (minimal) release in 2011. The reason for it being stuck in ‘post-production hell’ is that Lonergan refused to budge on producing a cut of the film under three hours in length. Eventually, Martin Scorsese stepped in and finally the movie got released – albeit in few theatres, meaning that the film has widely been overlooked.

In addition to being unwieldy in its length, Margaret is also difficult to watch (or at least, this was my experience of the film – not least because Lisa is such an unpleasant character). However, too long for commercial release, difficult to watch, barely having been seen: somehow these elements also add to the way in which Lonergan’s film asks us to think about openness.

For, if his film is about openness in a transnational, globalized world, thus affirming that the national is no longer a suitable frame through which to consider cinema, then perhaps cinema, too, is no longer a suitable frame through which to consider… cinema itself!

My intention is not to sound crazy here. How can cinema no longer be a useful concept for understanding cinema? Well, my reasoning goes as follows: if there is one thing that a film involves, then it is precisely a frame – a border that surrounds every image that we see. And if a film is going to be cosmopolitan and to be open to things that are beyond our normal borders, then cinema must look beyond its own frame, i.e. beyond cinema.

We can see this in Margaret through the use of sound, which helps us to think outside of the frame – to think about spaces that lie beyond our usual purview. But we can also see this in the way in which Margaret does not fit into cinemas: it is too long, it is hard to watch. Even though a film, the film itself somehow eludes cinema.

This makes Margaret a film that is truly of its age. Digital technologies have created a world in which cinema is indeed no longer cinema, with stereoscopic cinema even taking images off the screen and out into the audience (what in my forthcoming book, Non-Cinema: Global Digital Filmmaking and the Multitude, I call ‘cinema unframed’).

However, what we get in this digital age is not openness to otherness, but more and more of the same: screens everywhere, each featuring the same old things, a kind of ubiquitisation of cinema through the digital, a homogeneisation of space that sees everyone seeing the same things everywhere at the same time.

Margaret is of its age, then, but it is not just a reinforcement of the dominant values of its age: it is a harsh critique of its age, which gives it the impression of being precisely not of its age, since had it been of its age, producers would have let it exist in its elongated version and more people would have seen it.

In being of its age but in seeming not of its age, Margaret is thus untimely. It is both a film, but also somehow not fit for cinema.

Being untimely, being non-cinema, we can reach here a way not quite of critiquing the cosmopolitan framework through which to understand film (it is a good framework!), but perhaps of expanding upon it creatively.

For, if cosmopolitanism is about borders, then there remains an overwhelming emphasis in it upon space.

This is not a bad thing, but (as Caroline Bainbridge also suggested during Deleyto’s talk) it comes at the cost of thinking about the role of time in these processes. If globalization (and the digital era) brings with it the homogeneisation of space – the same shops everywhere, with the local often suffering – then it also brings with it a homogeneisation of time. We can understand this through those ubiquitous digital screens that each show fast-paced movies that match our fast-paced lives, in which we have no time for reflection and no time for imagination. We have no time for Margaret, which is too long.

Time, then, becomes a question in part of rhythm, or tempo: under globalization, we all lead our lives at the same rhythm, which is the rhythm of commerce, whereby I am always looking at screens, checking my emails, being in bed with my phone, always working if not always at work. The temporality of the globalized era is the temporality of work, of business, and thus of capital, whereby everyone is always busy, always working and not open to different times (slow things and people annoy the hell out of us).

And yet, time is more than just rhythm or tempo, even if under globalization the rhythm/tempo of the world is becoming homogeneised, just as space is becoming homogeneised. For time also is change: and if change is anything – if change can happen – then it must involve being open to otherness.

Being open to otherness in terms of time means being open to different rhythms and tempo, not everyone moving at the same speed. In this sense, the very length and slowness of Margaret is part of the cosmopolitanism of the film.

But more than this, if we have to be open to otherness and thus to change, we must in some senses live in a world that is not ordered (a cosmos) and strictly urban (a polis, where space is controlled through walls and roads and wires and other lines), but a world that also is chaotic. In other words, not a cosmos, nor necessarily a chaos, but something that is a mix of the two, or what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might, after James Joyce, call a chaosmos.

Chaosmopolitanism, then, is perhaps the framework that allows us to think about both the spatial and the temporal dimensions of being open to otherness, and to think about not just borders in a spatial sense (where they lie) but also in a temporal sense (how they change).

Deleyto demonstrated that the space of New York in Margaret is very hemmed in, enclosed. In enclosed spaces, our world literally shrinks; we become closed-minded and self-absorbed. And in the contemporary, digital world, we close ourselves off from others in many ways, not least by only looking at our screens, headphones in our ears. And as the space of our world shrinks, so does the time, as mentioned: we become constantly on our screens, always working, bored – perhaps even offended – by times/rhythms that are not fast-paced and do not bear the stamp of modernity.

To be slowed down, to slow down: this demonstrates an openness to otherness in a temporal sense, a kind of change that sees rhythms multiply rather than reduce everywhere to one. Chaosmopolitanism is openness to other spaces and to other times.

A chaosmopolitan cinema, then, not only points beyond cinema and its typical frame, but it must also point beyond the fast-paced rhythm/tempo that defines contemporary cinema and much of the other images that we see on the ubiquitious screens that show audiovisual material, and which also must be fast-paced in order for us not to hate and to reject them. I may not like Margaret, but in some senses I must learn to like it, to acquire a taste for its time/rhythm/space in order to become open to its otherness.

But now let’s really take this analysis into its most important realm by returning to ‘Barcarolle.’

There are various things that we can note about the piece. Firstly, the song is about love and about the night – and thus in some senses it is about darkness.

If in a globalized world, it is to be the same time everywhere (instant telecommunications), and if in a world in which screens have brought about this singular rhythm/tempo (what we might call nuncocentrism – only the now of work exists), then in some senses this is to destroy the circular flow of day and night that is the constant movement/rhythm of the natural universe and to bring light to everywhere – for it always to be everywhere daytime, as we are illuminated via the light of the screens and never in darkness (not to be seen, not to be visible, and thus not to be lit, is not to exist). Making such light is, of course, the work of Lucifer.

To celebrate darkness, then, is to celebrate a world of difference, a world in which some things remain hidden, invisible, unspoken, unsayable. Only felt. Only thought. To celebrate darkness is perhaps itself then an act of openness to otherness that we might call love itself: to love not only what we see, but also what we do not and perhaps cannot see. To have a sort of faith: love is best in the dark, even if pornography wants to tell us that love is best in broad daylight.

In being about night and love, then, ‘Barcarolle’ also contains a chaosmopolitan dimension.

Oddly enough, given that the form of the ‘barcarolle’ comes from the boatsmen who pilot gondolas in Venice, Margaret also ends by taking us to Venice, the city that stands on the water and the straight lines of which (cosmos) are interrupted by the lunar, tidal cycles of the night (the chaos of water).

Furthermore, ‘Barcarolle’ is the piece of music that Guido (Roberto Benigni) plays in the concentration camp in order to tell his wife Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) that he is still there in La vita é bella/Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, Italy, 1997).

As the music plays, Benigni’s camera drifts across the camp – from the window at the Nazi party where he is working as a waiter – through the mist and to the dorm where Dora listens.

This is a very cosmopolitan camera movement that breaks down the barriers that have been set up between the Jewish inmates and the Nazi soldiers – a barrier that is broken through music – which like film is a temporal art form. The moment is thus also chaosmopolitan, as it allows Guido and Dora both to remember the past (their love for each other) and to dream of a different future (life outside of the camp). That is, the music allows them to feel/experience a different time beyond the time of the now.

Is it that Lisa is thinking of Life is Beautiful when she hears ‘Barcarolle’ in Margaret – and that she cries as she remembers the suffering of her Jewish ancestors during the Holocaust?

But we have further to go.

Giorgio Agamben argues that we live in a ‘concentrationary universe’ in which the concentration camp becomes the model of the contemporary world under globalization: closed off, not open, controlled, not chaotic, a permanently lit panopticon, that must of course use the techniques of cinema (lighting in order to surveil) in order to function.

If in the camp there is only the now of survival, then the contemporary world that features only the now of work is also a camp of sorts. As Deleyto discussed in his talk, the border can constitute an improvised camp (think of refugee camps near Calais). And so in the globalized world of now and the immanentisation of the camp (it is everywhere), then this is also the immanentisation of the border (the border is everywhere, and every infraction into it – into my personal space – is an offense and a justification of violence as I do not accept or tolerate otherness, to which I am not open, but from which I have instead closed myself off).

In such a world, where cinema has been a key purveyor of the values of the now, of the camp, of the border, a chaosmopolitan cinema must go beyond cinema – beyond the frame and beyond its typical tempos/rhythms. It must involve darkness and entirely different rhythms.

For, without such chaosmopolitan openness to otherness, to change and to difference, then we only have a cinema of light, a cinema of a single rhythm and a cinema of now (timely, not untimely, thereby not being quite of its age so much as destroying the concept of age itself, as nothing ever ages/changes – the capitalist quest for eternal youth).

Such a cinema may seem to make everything visible – but in fact it brings with it an occult crime that is beyond visibility, and which can never be figured on a screen, namely the unholy horror that is the Holocaust itself. If we do not embrace a little darkness everyday, if we do not reject cinema and its capitalist logic, then we lose our memory and we lose our imagination, and we allow for another Holocaust to take place.

But more than this. For if there is one other thing that cinema cannot capture in addition to the Holocaust, then it is globalization itself. Cinema can allude to it, but never really show it, for while globalization involves making everything visible (the permanent working daytime of the screen), globalization is, like cinema itself, invisible. Chaosmopolitan cinema must be self-conscious in order to show itself, it must be self-reflexive, and it must perhaps therefore alienate its viewers.

But yet more. If the Holocaust and globalization are not visible, and yet they are the inevitable consequence of a world that is only about the now of the screens and thus of visibility, then this is because globalization is a sort of Holocaust. In trying to destroy the night, in trying to wipe out darkness, faith and love, then murder becomes a perverted measure of ‘love,’ a jealous destruction of the other for their very difference/invisibility that is a love turned to hate.

The logic is something like this: if you will not show me your total self, if you will remain partially invisible to me, then I shall make you permanently invisible via death, because that is what you seem to be wanting. In this perversion, evil is most truly evil because those who commit it think that they are doing someone else a favour, even though the other did not ask for death. Instead, they just asked to be allowed a little space of their own, a little time of their own, something not controlled, in short some freedom.

As we move into a world of permanent light, permanent work, without sleep, and thus with no dreams, with no space of our own, no time of our own, and no memory, then the border becomes everywhere, and we create a new concentration camp (the camp is created through concentration, i.e. the shrinking of both space and time), a new Holocaust. Cinema plays a large part in that process. A chaosmopolitan cinema must take us beyond that, beyond the light of cinema, into different rhythms, and perhaps beyond cinema and the logic of the screens themselves, and into non-cinema, the non-cinema of night and love, where the water caresses the hard land as it feels the pull of the dreamy moon. A little bit of lunacy. If we don’t love each other, we’ll end up killing each other.

 

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, European cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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