Bright Lights Film Journal

The Film Criticism of Alexis De Tocqueville: Or, When Heroes Yearn as Clouds Drift

“These characters, alone or twinned, slumber in the blanket of the Natural Cliché and sit and wait, just as we long for a tinge of disgust, hysteria, or irreverence to dismantle stoic facades inherited from some icy cinematic factory.”

Weariness and fatigue, we believe, are the undeserved attendants of creeping age; the carefree — perhaps careless — joys of years past now require the summoning of great reason, vigor, and attention, and even then, the pleasure principle soon dissolves into sleepy idleness. Convenience and expediency now become unexpected virtues, and concision supplants grandiosity as the revered value. Every melodrama must be reduced to a gesture, every symphony to a chord, every poem to a syllable, every memory to a redemption. And so I, enervated and impatient with cinematic fictions, must extend my thanks to the masked villains of advertising, who have unwittingly become my heroes in the battle against time. As they magnanimously distill the essence of narrative into a single posture and a single poster, I become a little joyful and regenerated in my fatigue, for I realize I needn’t sit through entire films but merely glance at their advertisements and become magically omniscient. The culture industry, after all, has tried so diligently to convince us of the specious sincerity of its images that surely the image chosen to advertise the quintessence of a film must be transcendentally more valuable than the narrative of the film itself. If ads make us all hallucinate in the same way — that is, sterilely and singly — why not take advertising at its word, believe that meaning is encapsulated in a singular image, and dispose of the films themselves? A simple paradox: advertising is victorious, and we are released from its grip.

The poster’s singular image generally offers less than the snapshot of a narrative — unlike the thirty-second television ad, the poster is an encapsulation of tone rather than a compression of plot. Most posters or video box covers fit within obvious generic categories whose foremost criterion is gender: ads that reproduce modes of conventional masculinity inordinately feature neon-lit, itinerant criminals brandishing phallic handguns within public streets, while those that promote feminine archetypes are signified by pastels or white backgrounds, park benches, musing faces, prettier typographic font styles, and so on. Despite an ostensible trendiness, such archetypes are not merely bureaucratic but medieval in their cyclic ritualism — they are not scripted but scriptural. Yet the stereotypical “art movie” poster image of a glass-eyed loner staring ponderously into the distance is never really pretentious; to the contrary, its proposed individualism is wholly normative and within the novelistic, bourgeois routine of character, identity, and discovery. The inevitably lyrical background imagery of rolling clouds, misty shadows, or otherwise “floating” landscapes that ensconce the poster’s gazing protagonist suggests, furthermore, some kind of innocuous and non-denominational spiritual buttress, wherein the hero’s “floating-ness” can imply Christian salvation, Buddhistic solitude, or the ineffable and mythic consciousness the two rarefied dimensions of the filmic frame claim as their exclusive birthright.

Recently I’ve become sensitized to what might be a subcategory of the “feminized and floating” style of advertisement, which focuses intently on the bourgeois individualism of a human face lost in some misty landscape. While fixating on the face is not an inherently bourgeois move — busts of ancient emperors presented the bronzed or marbled visage as an icon of devotion — we are here confronted with the obvious irony of individualist gestures being sold to unified or totalized demographics (presumably, audiences expecting a romance). Moreover, the faces depicted are not characterological in the manner of an emperor’s physiognomic bust but instead portray situational moods or scenarios with entirely interchangeable youths and transposable faces. These “facial” advertisements seem particularly a symptom of recent East Asian cinema. Consider, for instance, the advertisement for Flower Island , which posits an ambiguously questing, long-gazing heroine whose individuality emerges from and possibly rebels against a starkly white landscape. Across a Gold Prairie introduces a love interest to the formula of the gazing female, as a smiling, solitary woman imagines her ostensible love interest soaring above her in a blue sky, while in a layered background image they both sit united in a verdant field. Not having seen the movie, I realize the floating man could well be her long-lost half-brother, not a love interest, with the nimbus signifying a painful separation of either time or space. But since I don’t intend to see the film, it ultimately makes no difference — I only note that the image is “feminine” not so much because it posits the reveries of a wistful and monadic woman but because it is not overtly aggressive and does not thrust forth images of pistols, grenade launchers, or other mass-produced munitions. According to the usual heteronormative formula, femininity is assumed and masculinity must be proven.

The advertising image for Club Butterfly is a more lachrymose and erotic variant, as the monadic female dreamer despondently pictures, with eyes closed, an encounter with her lover in a soapy bathtub, shown within the expected ghostly nimbus. Who Are You? offers another possibility, positing the heroine not as a dissociated monad longing for a reconciliatory laving but as a smiling face proportionately equal to her male love interest — yet even here, the man remains blurry and out-of-focus (rather than removed to a migrant nimbus), as if only the dull tortures of a plot could clarify his ultimate identity. The intended romance, whether doomed or sanguine, becomes crystallized into a more solid heterosexual dyad in the ad for Love Wind Love Song, whose two protagonists are now in full facial view; however, the female still betrays a sense of alienation, as her man looks pensively downward while she stars solemnly at us, as if asking why she must endure the two hours of narrative that presumably await her. In You Are My Sunshine, the generically attractive young Asian couple finally is allowed to kiss and experience long-delayed conjugation, while the DVD box art for Maria and the Inn offers a more sinister variation: though the solemn man once again stares away and the solemn woman once again stares at us, the woman’s hand extends claw-like over her lover’s bare chest, suggesting diabolic intents mirrored in the crimson used to color the poster art’s ideographic titles.

The transcendental aspects of dyadic heterosexuality become apparent in the poster for West Lake Moment, whose pictured man and woman float above the titular lake that separates them, while they also join their fingertips together in a cloudy realm, obviously recalling Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. The forlorn glint of hope signified in this beatific reenactment is quickly refuted by the oppositional image of Still Life: the stoic man and stoic woman once more stand against the de rigueur floating landscape of mountain and cloud, but are positioned obstinately back-to-back, their antipathy undoing dyadic promise and their stone-faced gazes directed beyond the frame, as if their eyes alone could touch the future. Here, at least, the characters’ obligatory forlornness is appropriate to their apparent antagonism. Perhaps the best retort to the dyadic advertisement thus far is the downcast cover art for Treeless Mountain, which depicts two young children lost in a gloomy gray sky — yet we see only half of the younger child’s head. Without seeing the film, we cannot know what this truncation or disorientation means, yet we are encouraged to see the proposed, presumed, and heretofore hallowed dyad reduced quizzically to a decimal.

When the possibilities of dyadic relations are exhausted, the triad inexorably emerges: the image for the bluntly titled Basic Love places our characters within the Natural Landscape to evoke the expected natural yearnings. This time the boy is flanked by two girls, with all three looking not at one another but into outlying existential horizons unimagined either by us or by what is likely a trite plot. Their countenances again are dejected, as if the slightest trace of pathos would render them no longer interchangeable with any other pretty face on the culture industry’s assembly line. The boy’s face, framed by thick-rimmed glasses and a fashionable haircut, imitates the posture of great philosophy — the fathomless gaze. We believe that he ponders the limits of the Earth’s aphelion, how the planetary orbits render him eternally saturnine, or whether the ghost of Gothic romance will inspire his insignificant love triangle. Then we recall that he, a generic pawn, only wonders how frequently he should change his hairstyle. The DVD cover for Plastic Tree inverts the gender of the triad, with a woman gazing skyward — or perhaps tangentially at the audience — as the two men flanking her in bed look, respectively, at her breasts and at the other man. That there are now two males and one female transforms instantly the pensive love triangle into a thriller, for any two males thus positioned are territorial and predatory. Regardless, this triadic relationality is expressed robotically, with each actor’s face a tabula rasa enigmatically blank and untarnished by experience. Their bland, borrowed, and degraded charismas fit too conveniently within Benjamin’s notion of mechanization; one almost wishes God existed to wipe the counterfeit aura from their airbrushed faces.

What these advertising images seem to share — apart from nondescript gestures of spiritual awakening and heterosexual unifications and/or decouplings — is the glamorous thousand-yard stare of pining characters so defined by their heads that their hands, legs, and torsos become vestigial appendages. Yet their collective gaze is as much codified as it is mystified. Leave it to cinema to ruin understatement. Though freighted with suffering, these characters evince not true alienation but angst without anxiety, and lack the implicit literacy that informs the introspective feminine look made famous in the advertising images of Bergman’s Persona. Their every fleeting terror is permanently replaced by a reassuring mask of melancholy, a perpetual sigh that signifies an interiority as ill-defined as the peripheral, invisible society that draws their poignant stares. The milieu of clouds and mountains, meanwhile, suggests only the East Asian lyricism whose nature imagery was already hackneyed by — and ridiculed in — the times of Tu Fu or Su Tong-Po. These characters, alone or twinned, slumber in the blanket of the Natural Cliché and sit and wait, just as we long for a tinge of disgust, hysteria, or irreverence to dismantle stoic facades inherited from some icy cinematic factory.

Beyond the relational triad lies the full ensemble, publicity for which generally depicts attractive young people heaped into a tangled romantic pile only a screenwriter’s convolutions can sort. More sociologically telling than this optimistically boundless or “heaped” romance — which perhaps follows the ad imagery for Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice — is Winds of September, whose video art shows nine protagonists in a symmetrical lattice framework, some in profile and some facing forward, all necessarily forlorn against the cloudy backdrop of drifting cinematic nothingness. The lattice pattern, though meant to signify relational difference and unrequited distances, reminds us more of Warhol’s soup cans, whose reproducibility makes a mockery of art’s alleged aura. As these young actors at once float and remain static in their cells, we recall the well-worn words of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through . . .” This “latticed” image goes one better, not merely betraying the sameness of those who fill its artificially lined framework but bragging that sameness — when subdivided within the frame — becomes erotic difference, seductive and sphinx-like.

Is it odd that I now think of Tocqueville? His small chapter “Of Individualism in Democratic Countries” could well refer to this advertising phenomenon, in which stoic individuals find succor in their loneliness, images of the whole of society are markedly absent, and the shape of human relationality is subject to the exigencies of solipsistic languor:

Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows, and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that . . . he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart.1

Rampant perversity of heart cannot be cured by the tonic of prefabricated romance or the fertile endings of festive comedy. Though Tocqueville is not remarkably prescient here — others have said more or less the same — his comments mirror well enough the formula we’ve so far outlined: the “mass of fellows” is conspicuously absent when human intimacy is at stake; society, left to itself, becomes invisible and is replaced by natural iconographies; and the characters depicted appear incapable of judgment, as evidenced from their gazes’ vacuity and imprecision. To be sure, such characters needn’t exert any intellectual judgment — they are only cogs in the mechanics of plot, which does all the judging for them.

If the femininely coded romance depoliticizes the ways in which the human face expresses angst, art borne of oppression provides an instant rejoinder. The head oppressed by Stalinism invariably bulges with pressurized veins, as do the skulls of Shostakovich (on the cover of the Emerson Quartet’s CD of the composer’s 8th Quartet) and the Czech modernist Miloslav Kabeláč (on the Czech Philharmonic’s CD of his Fifth Symphony). In the context of political oppression, lyricism is blasphemy, even if this, too, is an utterly conventional idea. The Shostakovich-face, riddled with wrinkles and aged with vodka, requires no mountainous milieu or transcendental charlatanism — he grips his forehead and stares into our eyes with tragic knowledge, not cryptic beauty. Of course, tragedy must stare us in the eyes; it is no accident that these romantic protagonists so frequently look up, down, and away, for if they were to meet our gazes head-on, their inherent emptiness and lack of authentic tragedy would be revealed straightaway. The Praga music label’s image of the Kabeláč-head is perhaps more revealing. As his temple veins pulsate with cerebral cum political resistance, the tortured composer looks downward within a black vacuum bereft of either Nature or Society; his only companion in the void is a communist-red isosceles triangle, a floating symbol of rational terror that replaces what might have been the dream of a romantic partner in another genre or another lifetime.

Humor offers an equally effective riposte to the naiveté of those romantic movie faces that conflate aloofness with alienation. Erotic comedy informs a Beethoven piano album whose cover features not soloist Daniel Barenboim but a young, naked woman who stares lustily into the camera while positioning two tiny, angry-looking busts of Beethoven over her tits. We needn’t wonder why Ludwig looks so angry: the obvious pun on the word “bust” at once downgrades the romantic sovereignty of his face and feminizes his genius, making him into life-giving milk, ably handled by a seductress. The humanization implicit in this image — which makes untouchable genius immanently touchable, even usable — subordinates the omniscient gaze to the role of disgruntled servant.

The Hagen Quartet, meanwhile, has created cover art that, though at first apparently silly, presents a satirical allegory of how art might truly broach the alienated spaces of modernity. Each of the four members is alternately (and precariously) placed on the girders of a metal bridge, presumably to signal that their performances of Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Schnittke will “bridge” the spatial gaps among their individual subjectivities as they unite in the recording’s immaterial and purely temporal sound-world. (Whether the gap between audience and performer is bridged remains an unrelated matter.) An earthier refutation of romantic seclusion is found in the album artwork for Chicken Coupe de Ville, which features the lead singer staring blankly not from a transcendental nebulosity but before his beloved red pickup; twirling hay lazily in his mouth, he is a man whose pastoral love story is limited to hog slaughters, wife-beating, and good barbeque.

More amusing is Sten Carlsson and Salta Mandlar’s Extrasaltat, an album whose cover features the presumable lead musician grasping a supermarket soup can from which pop his band members’ heads and their attendant relationality, all ready to consume and easily available, not at all sequestered in a distant cloud.2 Esoteric cover art for a recording of Bach’sBrandenburg Concertos (on the Naïve music label) provides an initially enigmatic but in fact spot-on parody of the spiritually untethered recluse: rather than a gazing human within a natural landscape, we see the exact opposite, a lovely deer staring from the man-made parking garage in which it incongruously and inexplicably finds itself. If Nature has here been conquered and removed from the organism’s quest, we also remember that the social world conspicuously absent in the “romantically floating” advertising image has been the true stake all along.

The mock-contemplative romanticism of this advertising genre actually does far worse than merely repeat clichés of gender relations or dyadic relationality — it pretends to float above political concerns, as though it were impervious to reality. A surprising parallel is found in the neoliberal philosophy so viciously disparaged by the Nazi legalist and political scientist Carl Schmitt, who argued that the liberal practice of futile diplomacy replaces true politics (i.e., clear oppositions of friends and enemies) with a permanent stalemate of dialogue and hand-wringing. The continual state of romanticism — of liberal hope — thus stands in for a decisive finality too terrifying to confront. In these advertisements (save the rare, happier ones in which the dyad actually kisses), the nomadic individual is, too, lost in a romanticism that is primarily negative, for he or she is always positioned asocially, gazing at the society that forever remains off-screen, beyond the image’s borders — in other words, a political society too terrible to confront. In Schmitt’s analysis, political romanticism is always a negative force, militating against authorities of church and state, if not the merciless unknown before which the individual hesitates. If it is true that the floating protagonist occasionally stares at us when she or he musters the courage (as in Love Wind Love Song), this analysis remains valid, for the audience is, after all, the actual and material society necessarily absent from the screen’s phantom drifts and wanderings.

For Schmidt, humanity cannot wage war as humanity, for humanity itself has no enemy — only subgroups have enemies. Certainly, at this moment the legal rationalism and Nazi underpinnings of Schmitt’s philosophy reach their preordained limit: the individual adrift in these images paradoxically sees his or her enemy as both the existential void and as a society that remains invisible and beyond the frame. “The justification for war does not reside in its being fought for ideals or norms of justice, but in its being fought against a real enemy,” Schmitt says.3 Advertising’s individuals clearly search for love by waging war with themselves in the void. If there is a “real” enemy in this fight, it thus can be only the audience, whose irrational fantasies and wish-fulfillments must be at once represented onscreen and easily solved — that is, destroyed — with artificial plots and contrived endings, whose “political” finality is never found in the teasing and unresolved images of an advertisement.

But we don’t need to worry about these fantasies any longer, for, you recall, we stopped long ago watching the actual films — we only glance at the posters, sideways.

  1. Tocqueville, Alexis De. Democracy in America. Ed. Richard D. Heffner. New York: New American Library, 1956, 193. []
  2. There are other variations on the theme of “heads and food” in advertising. Notable is Gerhard Polt’s Leberkäs’ Hawaii, which features the actor-singer’s disembodied head sitting unstably atop a ham steak and pineapple rings, ready to be eaten with a nearby knife and fork. Apart from the cannibalistic overtones and “Hawaiian” theme of ringed fruit, interpretation is problematic. []
  3. Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Translated by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 49. []