Tuesday, October 25, 2011



What-- for it is a question not of who, but indeed of what-- is Karmen Gei? For it does seem inadequate simply to treat her as just one in the multitude of characters in Joseph Gai's adaptation of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, set in contemporary Senegal. She does not function according to the same rules as other characters, she does not operate in the same economy of relation, she occupies a separate ontological status. She cannot quite be fit into the scheme of the social order, in terms of occupying a functional productive slot within its system, but seems at the same time to be at the center of everything. What is she?

She is, for her community, the sacred, or the gate of the sacred. Karmen Gei is "she who creates havoc"-- not in the sense (necessarily) of chaotic destruction, but as a primordial chaos, the chaos of the sea, of an unrestricted current of energy. She dissolves the relationships of a restricted economy and liberates the energies and flows which it has contained.

A brief brief brief note on Restricted Economy/General Economy for those not familiar with the work of Georges Bataille: Bataille regards the world in terms of the flow and distribution of energy-- the base state being a vast powerful well of unrestrained energy with a maximum state of potential. In a civilization, some of this energy is naturally used towards satisfying the basic needs for survival-- the question is how does the rest of the energy get used. In what Bataille calls a Restricted Economy, all energy is directed toward some productive end, toward some utility or measurable yield (very often, the production of an economy) with no surplus energy left over. For Bataille, this is generally a pretty repressed and oppressive state of affairs. A General Economy (which, it must be noted, is not a state that can be fully realized; one instead takes steps toward it) expends energy with no quantifiable yield. For Bataille, these sorts of interactions are where serious gestures can be made and serious realizations can arrive. That's the brief brief brief version.

Is Karmen Gei not a force of excessive expenditure? What function does she play in her society? What does she "produce"? She certainly does not fit into the scheme of the repressive political authority of Senegal; even in the Dakar underworld, there is an order of functions-- the club runs, the lighthouse is manned, the drugs are smuggled, money is made-- an order which Karmen stands outside. Her contribution is the dance, the ritual (not commercial) performance, the dance for the sake of itself. The act is without quantifiable yield, but not without effect. Karmen's presence and performance works to sacralize spaces, to reterritorialize sites of oppression as occasions of celebration. Under her influence, the women's prison becomes a place of joy and freedom-- it is almost as if it becomes her temple.

How does a space become sacralized? It becomes sacred when it is removed from the relations of restricted economy. Karmen supersedes restricted economy by way of the gift. The nature of Karmen is to give, and give freely, but not to take. She gets money, she gives it away freely. She may love but will not accept a suitor ("Let's go away together," Lamine says after the smuggling transaction. She rejects him).

This transformation initiated by the gift is displayed remarkably during the arrest of Karmen by Lamine. As he leads her off to jail, her manner becomes coy. She is a gift to him, she suggests, and she plays with the rope by which he has bound her, looping it around a lamp post, forcing Lamine to come to her. For Karmen, what had been a detention now becomes an offering. For Lamine, what was seizing has now become receiving.

If there can be an exchange for Karmen's gifts, it must take place only in the mode of ritual-- in song or dance. These occasions open up a space outside of economy, a discourse that can comment on the present situation but is not fully anchored within it, which instead seems to float above it. The manner in which Karmen may be approached is embodied by the blind woman on the beach who sings to the sea, an expenditure without stake to a force that cannot be measured.

In the latter section of the movie, both of Karmen's rejected lovers mount separate attempts to "contain" her, and it is by this entanglement in restricted economy that Karmen's luck, her grace, ultimately runs out.

Monday, September 5, 2011



The 1997 David Lynch film LOST HIGHWAY was not well received by critics, who labeled it a "surrealistic" "neo-noir" and "incoherent." I contest these charges on all counts. While Lynch's style is strongly expressionistic, his work contains little in the way of non-sequitur or the gleeful anti-rational assault characteristic of Surrealism. And, though it borrows some of the genre's iconography, LOST HIGHWAY is not particularly concerned with the moral philosophy of the Noir genre and cannot properly be labeled as such. As to the charges of incoherence, one must wonder if the confounded parties were paying attention at all. While the world of LOST HIGHWAY may not behave like ours, there is a powerful internal logic at work, and the learning curve is not much higher than anything in the director's prior work. Indeed, the film fits comfortably in the continuum of Lynch's filmography as a particularly bold foray into the director's longtime thematic concerns. The film is good, and you should watch it.

But my intention here is not to mount a defense of LOST HIGHWAY or a tirade against its brainless fuckhead critics, nor will I attempt a top-to-bottom analysis (if you are looking for a thorough working of the film, I suggest Slavoj Zizek's ON THE ART OF THE RIDICULOUS SUBLIME, which I found quite astute). Instead, I wish only to say a couple words regarding one facet of the film, which is objects. So let's talk about objects.

Strange Objects abound in the work of David Lynch-- a mound of dirt on a dresser, a severed ear, a log, a blue rose, and the list goes on and on. There are a number of these in LOST HIGHWAY; I'm thinking in particular of Fred and Renee's cavernous house and the photograph at Andy's place. These are not just scattered around for the effect of ambient weirdness, although they are, in a way, content-empty.

The theme of strange objects is a familiar one in the cinema tradition. We see them often in the form of the MacGuffin, the object desired by all characters, the pursuit of which drives the film. The characteristic of the MacGuffin is that it is not the unique nature of that object which causes it to be desired; rather, it is a repository of desire and a placeholder for their fulfillment. The object itself is unimportant. It could be anything.

Because of their position within the economy of desire, MacGuffins are a pretty good place to start as we try to unravel the nature of the Strange Object. After all, in Lynch world, desire is the name of the game. Lynch's films take place at the contact points where the undercurrent of repressed desire starts to rub against the fabric of the constituted self. In Freudian terms, we might say that Lynch films deal with intrusions of the id into the domain of the ego, and the attempts of the superego to regulate these intrusions.

Lynch toys with MacGuffins (what is behind the door in Ben's apartment in BLUE VELVET?), but this is not exactly what we are talking about when we speak of the Lynchian Strange Object. After all, these objects are not merely abstract vessels beyond the vanishing point of desire, but play active roles in the drama, transmitting messages, triggering realizations, initiating changes. Frequently, they erupt with elemental energy, streaming fire, dust, smoke, light. A lamp is never just a lamp! These objects are nodes through which libido flows, coursing with energy that pours through from the world of forbidden desire!

In one magnificent scene from LOST HIGHWAY, Lynch diagrams the construction of a Strange Object. It happens in the midst of a vision; Fred Madison sees a burning cabin in the desert fold the fire back inside itself. Now the power is contained in the structure; we know that this is a contact point, the edge of the abyss, and when Fred goes there it will transform him.

Within this context, it is worthwhile to consider the idea of The Woman As Object as it pertains to Patricia Arquette's character, who manifests in two different forms over the course of the movie. In her initial form, she is Renee and is a subject, that is to say, a real character, though she is sketched from the perspective of Fred Madison. For Fred, Renee is an embodiment of mystery and terror, the impenetrable "feminine mystique" which he is unable to comprehend and therefore master. The contours of her desire elude him; she comes to be a symbol of his impotence, which we see played out in his pathetic attempt to sex her up. Renee is a brunette, and Lynch shoots her in dark hues, forever moving through the shadows, impossible to grasp.

Renee reincarnates as Alice Wakefield, who is not a character but an object, constituted in the fantasmatic reality of Pete Dayton. Alice is blond, filmed in light, sexually responsive, radiating energy like a battery. She is the object upon which the Pete Dayton fantasy is constructed, the nexus at which it has split off from reality. As he draws closer to her and the fantasy starts to degrade, she becomes more and more intense until, at the site of the desert cabin, that crypt of memory, that libidinal furnace, she glows like a light bulb, impossibly bright, impossibly charged, then folds back into the void as the fantasy splinters.

Monday, August 15, 2011



A big chunk of the last two days has been dedicated to tearing through a couple volumes of Enrique Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet's TORPEDO 1936, which has been such a pleasure in part because of the book's sheer nastiness and pitch black humor. TORPEDO is a Spanish comic, and began publication in 1981, running through the late 90's (I believe-- not 100% on the end of its run). The book takes place in the New York of 1936, following a Sicilian immigrant named Luca Torelli (not to be confused with Rhapsody guitarist Luca Turilli) a.k.a. Torpedo, who has found his calling in the new world as a hired killer.

That's about it. There is not a lot of genesis to his character, or variation to his exploits. Torpedo takes a job, figures out a clever way to kill his target, sometimes kills the guy who hired him, and once in a blue moon gets outwitted. Torpedo is not a hero, nor is he an antihero. He has no hint of a conscience, and has no prospects of redemption. A pure motherfucker. He kills for money, he kills for revenge, and sometimes kills for a punchline. He abuses his partner, Rascal, and takes advantage of women. Sometimes he rapes them. In one episode, he shoots a priest, splashes his face with holy water, and steals the alms box on the way out. In another ("The Tip Off", one of my favorites), Torpedo pretends to spare a target who has renounced his life of crime and is shipping off to fight Franco, then shoots him in the back as he goes toward his train.

The nihilism of the series was intense enough to drive off its original artist, the legendary Alex Toth, after two installments. However, it is my claim that the function of art is not the instruction of ethics, and the real question is what can be gathered from a story with an irredeemable protagonist.

A way into this riddle might be to look examine Torpedo's world, his place in the social order. Torpedo is contracted by all sorts of people, rich and poor, hardened criminals as well as "upright" citizens in a jam, and is thus granted a unique mobility, moving comfortably through all social strata. He also exhibits these chameleon properties in the course of his work, frequently employing disguises-- clown, nun, cop, groom, Santa Claus-- and passing effortlessly in every role (there is a bit of Souvestre and Allain's Fantomas in him).

The unifying factor is that he deals exclusively with people who are at their basest states-- desperation, greed, obsession, vengeance hungry, etc.-- and these conditions permeate through every level of the social body. Torpedo is really an agent of misanthropy and malevolence, a do-er of the dirty work, a genie of secret desire. He may pass himself off as anyone and anything, but in his true form-- killer-- he is repugnant, anathema, loved by no one. Indeed, he is a dangerous figure, not just for his tendencies toward bloodshed. He is evidence of a social undercurrent that undermines the mythology of the social order (ethical, just, evolved, enlightened, Land Of Opportunity) but is necessary for that social order in practice (savage capitalist, commodity reductive).

The brilliance of Jordi Bernet's pulpy style really comes through in these moments where the primal face of the social order is unmasked. He is an expert at conveying the mania that overtakes men on an obsessive kick, and his scenes of stylized violence give way to reveal an ugly brute intensity.

I want to say a few more words about the politics of disguise and substitution, particularly with regard to Torpedo's speech. The killer puns constantly, passing on grounds of his ostensibly bad english. "I've deformed," he tells a prison warden who inquires why he would snitch of the escape plans of his fellow prisoners. "I said I've reformed!" Torpedo's language forms a sort of shadow dialectic, drawing connections between the manners of a social order and the ugly condition beneath the signifier.

It ain't for the weak-in-the-guts, but for those interested in crime books, TORPEDO 1936 is definitely worth a look. It's currently being reprinted by IDW, who have been on a real winning streak with their crime books, also publishing Darwyn Cooke's excellent adaptations of the Donald Westlake's PARKER books (worth examining too to see the influence of Bernet on Cooke, which is clear).

This is some cold blooded shit, folks. Just the way I like it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Other assorted thoughts while writing the previous essay:

1. Interesting that the image of the murder is drawn on the wall of the old house, preserved invincibly beneath the paint. It is difficult to image a realistic circumstance in which this picture could have been drawn on the wall and not seen by somebody else, but of course that isn't really relevant. This seems evident of another tendency which strikes me in DEEP RED, which is that The Truth Must Be Revealed, or perhaps The Truth Must Be Uttered. Haven't quite fleshed this idea out, but started thinking about this theme (a recurrent one in horror films) while watching John Carpenter's third best movie THE FOG a couple of weeks ago. A secret can never lie still. In DEEP RED, Helga Ulmann refers to thoughts of a crime hanging around a place like cobwebs-- it lingers past the presence of the murderer, and rises to the surface of its own accord. In THE FOG, clues literally disgorge themselves from the walls into the public stage. In DEEP RED, it's as if the building inscribes itself with a memory of the crime.

There is something going on here with mouths as well. Mouths do all sorts of spewing and getting bashed in over the course of DEEP RED. Something to do with the fact of uttering, perhaps? Those that know the crime must lost their ability to speak? Both Helga and the killer release liquid from their mouths, what is the parallel there?

2. I realize that there is a kind of scene that I always enjoy, which is when we get to watch a character have an idea and put something together without getting too far inside their heads. The scene with Dr. Giordani in the bathroom is a really good example of this, and really captures the excitement of things clicking in your mind. Other similar sequences of note: Travolta matching his tape to the photographs in De Palma's BLOW OUT. McNulty and Bunk figuring out the trajectory of the bullet in the "fuck" scene during the first season of THE WIRE? Others that come to mind?



I want to propose a methodology for looking at horror films, although it certainly need not be strictly confined to that genre alone. The method is this: consider the protagonist, and consider the menace, and imagine that the protagonist is at the center of the whole universe of the film and has somehow called the menace to him, has conjured it despite himself like a repressed dream. Now consider the protagonist at the beginning and the end of the film and the transformation that he has undergone, and often this is what indicates to us what the film is really about. What desire has called this horror, this one and not another? What emerges from him when he faces it, and what is shed to make way?

This is hardly an original approach, and it may not work in every single instance, but for me it certainly helps to crack Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece DEEP RED. A few notes on the film before we get any deeper. The film was made in 1975 and looks like it, which I mean as a compliment. It is often called Argento's best film, and though I do not like everything about it, I do think it is pretty terrific and one of the best giallos I have seen. It is basically a slasher movie, and though it attains transcendent heights that most of its peers do not approach, it adheres pretty close to the slasher premises. Getting your head around it will certainly provide some insight into that subgenre as a whole.

It is also the earliest Argento film to star an actor that I have seen in anything else (for whatever that's worth), the actor in question being David Hemmings a.k.a. Mr. Miserable a.k.a. The White Slacks King a.k.a. Frowny Starks. If I had infinite time, I would compile an epic montage of David Hemmings moping around and looking irritated and being unpleasant to women in movie after movie. I do not have infinite time, so you will have to do the research yourself, but trust me, the evidence is out there.

DEEP RED concerns a serious of imaginatively grisly murders committed by the requisite black-gloved killer. Ol' Black Gloves, you scamp! The whole affair is set in motion when a psychic catches a whiff of murder-mind in her audience and proceeds to publicly flip out. This psychic is of course the first victim to be dispatched, and the act is witnessed by conservatory pianist/perennial gloomboat David Hemmings. The rest of the film concerns his attempts to uncover the original crime while eluding a cleaver to the melon.

The thing unfolds in a surreal, baroque Italian cityscape, captured beautifully by Argento. Despite its miraculous ornamentation, it seems like a fairly miserable place. Figures sit on benches smoking idly, people stand unmoving in the nearly empty bar, the palate is all grays and pale greens and anemic blues and off whites, the characters move and speak with a sort of woodenness amid all their marvelous rooms. Can we blame Mr. Hemmings for being so dour? The absurd dub (I watched the American version) actually works in the film's favor, adding a further level of disembodiment between the characters and the words that come out of their mouths. The photography through most of the film is actually rather stagy; the camera fixes or slowly pans across meticulously composed sets as the characters awkwardly shuffle through them.

And suddenly the rigid composition breaks. It happens at moments of action, of revelation, of violence. Abruptly the camera spins in a frenzy to disorienting angles, the phantasmagoric theme erupts while diegetic sound attains a startling intensity. We must notice the camera during these moments; sometimes we are behind the killer's eyes and sometimes we are floating in the third person. This is not a HALLOWEEN perspective-of-the-killer trick. Rather, in these moments we are coming up against the walls of the stagnant symbolic order and passing over into the furious libidinal economy which churns beneath it like a swirling sewer. Water streams out of an open mouth, steam fills a room-- sudden explosions of elemental force intrude into the pacified civilized domain in discharges of repressed erotic and violent desire (note the steaming pot on the stove in the background of the origin-of-the-crime scene!). The signifier for all of this is, naturally, the "deep red" of the title, the red which surrounds our doomed psychic as she first senses the presence of murder and of the glowing ring of Hemmings' flashlight as he nears the hidden secret and of the blood that spurts over the rococo interiors. A red message glimpsed in a school lavatory: "KILL YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER". It may as well read "DEATH TO THE SYMBOLIC ORDER!"

"I'm the proletariat of the keyboard, and you're the bourgeoise," Hemmings is told by his drunken piano player friend/double Carlos, and this turns out to be the critical statement of the film. Poor, repressed David Hemmings! How isolated is he from the elemental, grounded in his plastic modernist hell filled with soulless set pieces, toying constantly with cigarettes that he never manages to smoke (his ashtrays are empty too)! Contrast this to the mad world of the killer, whose assortment of objects are cathexes of powerful energy. Can we blame him for being drawn to this world of primal violence?

(I will intrude here to say SPOILER ALERT sort of)

Much of the criticism I've seen regarding DEEP RED focuses on gender, which I am not very interested in, as the film's gender politics seem fairly incoherent to me. To that end, however, I will say that it seems relevant that the "original crime" involves the murder of the patriarch. It is this act that banishes Marta from the symbolic order (hetero-bourgeois-materialist) and strands her in its underbelly. Her pancake-makeup look seems kind of like a burlesque of the feminine object, the corpse of the iconic female.

(end spoiler alert)

Escape, David Hemmings! Escape wooden world, escape endless drudgery! Find power! Find desire! Find violence! He does, and by this is animated, and is immersed, at last glimpse, in deep red.

(This trailer is pretty super great, but gives away most of the kills and some of the plot as well, so I'm going to go ahead and SPOILER ALERT it for those who haven't seen the film and are interested in its intrigue as well as its sensual pleasure.)