Bright Lights Film Journal

Tragic Cinema: The Death of Subjectivities in JCVD

“Once we are shown that JCVD is, in fact, innocent, we are likely to forget 1) that moments earlier we were calling for his blood and 2) the particular events and sequence of events, or types of evidence shown, that had us jumping the gun in the first place. What El Mechri is showing us is how painfully contingent our conclusions about the world are on the particular type of passage we are afforded, the particular unfolding we are privy to.”

Placing the tragedy of King Lear at one end of a cultural narrative and JCVD (2009) at the other may seem outrageous, even ridiculous. But the parallels between the two are less related to content than to form. My claim here will be that both use their respective mediums (i.e., theatre, cinema) to depict tragedy, but that the latter’s medium can only transfigure what we take tragedy to be, hence inherits, in a way, tragedy from theatre. The conduit through which tragedy passes on to cinema is a technology, cinema being encompassed by what Marshall McLuhan calls “typography.”1 In placing King Lear at the beginning of a discussion of “typographic” man (or woman) and cinema at the other, McLuhan, at the very least, invites speculation that cinema can inherit something of whatever it is we take King Lear to be doing. After that, it is merely a matter of making the case that JCVD is the right piece of cinema to bring this intuition to bear, which then does become a matter, or consideration, of content.

A working definition of tragedy which suits my purposes can be taken from Eagleton:

[Modern] society is awash with admirable ideals, but structurally incapable of realizing them … Since this stalled dialectic between an impotent idealism and a degraded actuality is inherent to the . . . social order, and incapable of being resolved by it, it might well be termed tragic.2

The formulation of the above definition that I will pursue is that society today is awash with answers but incapable of posing the (right) questions. This is a legacy of hyper-fragmentation, that takes us from a “modern” view of tragedy (above) to the “postmodern.”3

Tragedy, that privileged preserve of gods and spiritual giants, has now been decisively democratized — which is to say, for the devotees of gods and giants, abolished . . . Tragedy, however, did not vanish because there were no more great men. It did not expire with the last absolutist monarch. On the contrary, since under democracy each one of us is to be incommensurably cherished, it has been multiplied far beyond antique imagining.4

This multiplication of tragedy leads to sensationalism, as though for something to register as tragic, it must first be sensationalized — which, in a way, denies it the status of tragedy. It is not that tragedy has disappeared in our age; we simply do not perceive it anymore, hence are silenced in a way. This in itself is tragic. What lengths are we willing to go to in attempting to register a tragic effect? Does a direct-to-camera monologue suffice? I will say more about sensationalism. For now, I note that tragedy occurs when we find our lives do not, somehow cannot, square with the very ideals we live our lives to achieve in the first place. We have our ideals, but are (structurally) incapable of realizing them. Whether and how things go wrong (and/or how things go right) we can only know in hindsight. Cinema can remind us of this.

In making my case for tragedy, I am not saying anything new. I am certainly not out to formulate a “theory” or “definition” of tragedy. What I am saying is that cinema, through its unique depiction of passage, is best suited as an art form to depict what Eagleton takes to be tragic today — i.e., our structural inability to achieve our ideals, our supplication to passage. And a movie like JCVD stands on the vanguard of what we might consider to be tragic (popular) art in our time.

1. Il n’a jamais tapé sur les arabs / He never hit Arabs

This is as good a reason as any to document the life of an action star, that of Jean Claude Van Damme, whom director Mabrouk el Mechri praises not by presenting an a priori vision of this action star’s assumed strength, but rather, the (his) a posteriori acquisition of knowledge through experience and suffering. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that Jean Claude Van Damme, in life, plotted the trajectory of his career to ensure he never hit Arabs. Yet here we are — or, rather, there he is, onscreen before us in the hands of a brilliant French-Tunisian director, starring in a film that bears his name. The curiously eponymous title, which uses the star’s stage, and not real, name risks this film’s claim to seriousness, as though the reference to JC implies the unfolding of a story of biblical proportions. Yet the reference, in calling attention to the King of Kings, also suggests that JCVD appears before us a mere mortal King — not as “King of Kings,” but as, say, King VD, or King Van Damme, a character who shares more in common with a tragic Shakespearean King than any sort of Biblical one, prophet or otherwise. That is, JCVD may have more to do with the King Lear narrative than any traditional Bible story. Have we moved beyond the ridiculous yet?

King Lear certainly has crosses to bear. The reason I think it worth mentioning this play alongside this movie is not because JCVD is a retelling or mirroring of the Lear tale (the way The Lion King is said to mirror the Hamlet tale) but, say, a reincarnation of Lear‘s themes — mostly a thematisation of a particular relationship to knowledge. That is, in a world where answers are not so easily forthcoming, knowing the answers before hearing the question becomes much more urgent. For Lear, this means staging the love test, appropriating the answers he wants in hopes of circumventing or dodging answers he cannot bear. For JCVD, this means philosophizing after the fact, expounding on “awareness,” so that if parallels exist between JCVD and King Lear, it is because each operates from opposite ends of the philosophical pole. King Lear fights off uncertainty, or the unknown, before things go wrong; JCVD fights off the unknown only after things go right. Both flirt with madness.

The question of hindsight is particularly relevant for viewers of this film because just as JCVD is prone to take stock of his life from time to time, so too are we invited to take stock of our experience as the film progresses, which means that El Mechri is toying with our assumptions. We know, for the most part, when JCVD knocks at the rear entrance of the post office to a star-struck security guard that he is, in fact, innocent of the crime the first thirty-three minutes (roughly) suggest he is guilty of perpetrating (either alone or in collaboration with others). But why the delay? Can we forgive a director for holding out on us so? We may take issue with El Mechri’s selective directing, or we may say, more dangerously and with the benefit of hindsight, something like: “Of course we were fooled by the narrative; that was the point!” But what was the point exactly? To fool the audience? What is the lesson or moral (if any) to be drawn from this particular staging and sequence of events? We all know that our knowledge of the world is limited, never perfect, so to make conclusions or inferences about the world as we go along, as it passes before our eyes, is not ideal but something like the best we can do under the circumstances. Hence we need not be scandalized at all by our initial presumption of JCVD’s guilt; in fact, it is the director’s responsibility, if he cares at all about objective truth/reportage, to show us both sides. This El Mechri does beautifully, retelling the opening scenes in Schaerbeek (when Van Damme pulls up in front of the video store and poses for pictures with its proprietors before entering the post-office/bank) entirely from the other side of the camera axis line — a cinematographer’s faux pas because to do so is to ruin or break up narrative continuity, to disorient the audience.

Again we could reply: “Breaking up the continuity was the point!” But why? Because it was a cool thing to do? Or perhaps to reveal how easy it is to believe we have the whole story when we have only been shown half a story. But we only know we witnessed half the story once the other half is shown. Otherwise, the first half is itself the world, makes up all we know it to be. Moreover, once we are shown that JCVD is, in fact, innocent, we are likely to forget 1) that moments earlier we were calling for his blood and 2) the particular events and sequence of events, or types of evidence shown, that had us jumping the gun in the first place. What El Mechri is showing us is how painfully contingent our conclusions about the world are on the particular type of passage we are afforded, the particular unfolding we are privy to.

2. La réponse avant la question / The answer before the question

At least three of the four title cards which appear in the film highlight awkward philosophical phrasings which have been uttered at some point not by JCVD but by Jean Claude Van Damme in real life. In drawing attention once again to these remarks — which many in Belgium, if not Europe, are likely to feel are best put to rest — the film is asking us to take a second look now that the original sensationalism these phrasings caused (concomitant with Van Damme’s drug use) has subsided. But what could Jean Claude Van Damme have possibly meant by these phrases in the first place? The only time in this film he utters the one in question here (“La réponse avant la question“) is during his remarkable direct-to-camera soliloquy:

This movie is for me. There we are, you and me. Why did you do that? Or why did I do that? You made my dream come true. I asked you for it. I promised you something in return, and I haven’t delivered yet. You win, I lose. Unless, the path you’ve set for me is full of hurdles, where the answer comes before the question. Yeah, I do that. Now I know why. It’s the cure, from what I’ve seen here. It all makes sense. It makes sense to those who understand.

Jean Claude Van Damme’s astonishing reach out to his audience blurs the line between theatre and film and invites discussion of how or if JCVD inherits certain ontological characteristics from theatre. Cavell, writing on the ontology of film, discusses theatre’s relation to cinema:

The depth of the automatism of photography is to be read not alone in its mechanical production of an image of reality, but in its mechanical defeat of our presence to that reality. The audience in a theatre can be defined as those to whom the actors are present while they are not present to the actors. But movies allow the audience to be mechanically absent.5

When we watch King Lear, we understand him to be in our presence, or you could say, in our present, his drama unfolding before our eyes; we are not in his. Also, a King standing before your eyes can claim to be present. Elsewhere, Cavell makes note of tragedy’s “continuous presentness,”6 that the “conventions” of theatre demand that we are perpetually silenced by a world unfolding before our very eyes. That is, theatre presents a world alive to us to which we are (by matter of convention) dead. We are supposed to do nothing at the sight of Othello, immediately in our presence, strangling Desdemona. This is part of theatre’s pleasure and horror. But what horror could we possibly feel in doing nothing to prevent tragedy from unfolding before us onscreen? An image of a person or King who appears to us onscreen has no presence. What we see is a moment in time already in the can, dead to us. While we are absent to both the screen actor and the stage actor, we find ourselves at a further remove from the screen actor because neither is he in our present. Is Jean Claude Van Damme, in pleading with us as he does across the medium of film, making a sort of ontological mistake, demanding too much of his medium?

But Jean Claude Van Damme never says, or claims to be, in our presence; he says this movie is for him. This could mean that through this movie, he is trying to make sense of things, to put pieces of his life together. But the movie does not exactly depict moments of his (past) life; rather it depicts moments surrounding a single event: a bank heist. To think of JCVD as a biopic, or even a sort of retrospective, is erroneous. JCVD is happening in the present — not in ours but in Jean Claude Van Damme’s, so that he finds himself present to himself. He is in his own presence. And how this movie works as a reversal of Cavell’s claim, in its attempt to present Jean Claude Van Damme as truly present to us, is by showing us a character, dead to us but alive to his own presence, hence relaying that presence to us. This is how JCVD pulls off its wild attempt to cross genres, staking its claim as a piece of cinematic theatre.

So present to us, what can this mean? That we did indeed make him who he is today, that “we” made his dream come true? Yet our absence from JCVD has not been compromised, only rerouted. JCVD’s dream is obviously not to appear in this film, but to appear in movies in general, to have a movie career. But he is far less present to us in those movies than he is in this one. We certainly did not make his dream come true, unless his dream all along was to be consumed, to remain distant from his audience, from others. But why would anyone pursue a life of fame if his/her dream all along was to remain separate from others?7

If his dream all along was to discover some sort of intimacy with the world, and, upon discovering that such intimacy is not forthcoming (by appearing in movies), then the problem of intimacy becomes unsolvable for the time being — unless clearing the hurdles to achieve said intimacy represents some sort of spiritual test. That is, if it no longer makes sense to pose questions about the possibility for intimacy with the world (after pursing a life of fame as a movie star), then the answer cannot simply be that such intimacy is impossible. That would be unbearable. Rather, extending the problem — by proposing answers that at least allow the question to make sense, that hold out hope that the question is ultimately answerable — may be the only solution.

How does one achieve said intimacy? By being “aware.” We wouldn’t pose intimacy as a question otherwise. But as an answer, this merely begs the question: “what is ‘aware’?” So we have a question before an answer. And if things only make sense if we know the answers in advance, then to ask the question (of intimacy) is itself nonsensical. Now he truly understands why he does that. If it is our lot to live without the intimacy of the world we desire, it only makes sense to extend the life of the question not by asking the question and coming up with answers we cannot bear but by presupposing answers that show the question is (still) relevant.8 This is a humanistic gesture.

If I have managed to touch upon some of the philosophical baggage Jean Claude Van Damme brings to this film, where does that leave JCVD in this film? JCVD first collides with Jean Claude Van Damme when, amazingly, the hostages in the bank are given the outrageous opportunity (and have the audacity) to play a clip of some of Jean Claude Van Damme’s real life philosophical transgressions! When the little boy, after seeing a clip, puts the question, “C’est quoi ‘aware’?” he is hushed by his mother only to receive a reply in English from JCVD: “It’s okay.”

Despite the fact that such an answer may indeed be colloquial in French, that the response is in English suggests it is not with European or even Belgian audiences whom JCVD/Van Damme is seeking, in this film, to (re)gain standing. Rather, he is making his particular plea to America, or to his American fans. So American audiences are given certain answers about JCVD before the question is posed. What is the question exactly? The little boy poses one, but none of us (North) Americans are in any position to answer because without the answers in advance, the question does not make sense. What do we know about what JCVD does or does not know about being aware? This discussion was given heavy air time in Europe, not America9 If these sorts of transgressions have become household notorieties only in Europe, why would JCVD care to risk whatever standing he may have with an American audience? Europeans may know better than to ask; JCVD is saying, however, it is still okay to ask. Despite his later insistence that things only make sense when the answer comes before the question, JCVD has afforded at least his American audience the opportunity to pose a question without knowing the answers in advance, which means that he risks appearing, to his American audience, nonsensical. Why would he risk such a thing? The short answer would be that he is looking for some sort of vindication; he has tried to peddle his philosophy of knowing the answers before the question to Europeans only to be rebuffed. He now says “It’s okay” to ask questions at the outset.

Presuming that answers come before questions, so we would never risk asking questions we could not answer is implied in McLuhan’s famous motto that “the medium is the message,” taken to mean, of course, that what we talk about is not nearly as important as the conditions which mediate the way we talk, or the manner in which we go about posing questions, in the first place. Even if we pose questions in earnest, the framework in which we do so limits or presupposes the answers we are likely to come up with (if indeed we come up with any). So the answers are derived from the medium, i.e., the medium itself dictates the message. McLuhan is certainly not the first to put form ahead of content. Yet he is unique in posing “technology” or “media” (rather than language, religion, nation, class, commerce, or, more recently, gender, sexuality, or culture) as the principal mediator shaping our lives.

But why choose “media” or “technology” to discuss tragedy in this paper? One answer would be that whatever it is we want to say about tragedy, we know or wish it to exist, or be taken up by, drama; and the medium which we nowadays employ (mostly) to depict drama is the cinema. Here is McLuhan on cinema:

The invention of typography, as such, is an example of the application of the knowledge of traditional crafts to a special visual problem … The mechanization of the scribal art was probably the first reduction of any handicraft to mechanical terms. That is, it was the first translation of movement into a series of static shots or frames. Typography bears much resemblance to cinema, just as the reading of print puts the reader in the role of the movie projector. The reader moves the series of imprinted letters before him at a speed consistent with apprehending the motions of the author’s mind.10

If the making of typographic man began in the Renaissance just after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, and if King Lear documents some of the psychic travails that occur when we find ourselves removed from a tribal communal order (marked by permanence and static art) to one which depicts passage11 as our thoughts begin to move in linear progression over pieces of moveable type — then a consideration of “media” is enough to account for a continuity between King Lear and cinema, to say the least. And since both King Lear and cinema are in the business of staging drama, then both, at the very least, have the opportunity to stage or say something tragic. We are generally in agreement about plays like King Lear; but what about the cinema?

3. Le temps et les heures passent a travers la plus mauvaise journée / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day

The quotation taken from Macbeth (1.3.146) may boost my claim that it is profitable to read JCVD as a reincarnation of a tragic Shakespearean King, though it seems I have chosen the wrong one. But Macbeth is a King who has the audacity, or is afforded the opportunity, to ask questions before imagining what the answers might look like — a risk he is willing to take because he is in the presence of seers who can give him answers immediately. Macbeth himself cannot infer the (or any) causal chain of events that would take him to the crown; hence he has no reason, initially, to covet it. Now obviously lots of people still covet lots of things despite being unable to imagine a specific chain of events leading to possession. But to lack such imagination is to deny desire a particular expression; imagining the means of obtaining possession is the first step to expressing desire. Macbeth is in the unique position of having his desires expressed for him. Nor does having the answers prove all that beneficial. What Macbeth shows is how we fumble with apriori knowledge or assumptions about ourselves, which might be to show how awkward we are, fatally so, with our desires.

Earlier I mentioned how JCVD takes care to extend the life of a question which is, for the time being, unanswerable. But what do we make of Jeff’s (his agent) more crass expression of the same sort of faux-philosophy? JCVD, after pleading with him for a studio gig, drowns out his voice momentarily and then resumes the conversation with an interjection: “I lost my daughter.” Jeff doesn’t skip a beat: “You’re gonna get over that. Hey, remember Shakespeare. Time and the hour. Through the longest day. Everything passes. You gotta believe me here man. Life goes on. Especially in this town.”

If the question in this case can be formulated as something like “why me?” — expressing helplessness — then what Jeff seeks to do is extend the life of the question because immediate answers are not available. JCVD does the same thing in coming up with answers that, unfortunately, presuppose the wrong question (“why me?” instead becomes “what is aware?”). The difference between Jeff and JCVD’s responses is that Jeff’s response is a dismissal of the question while JCVD’s is an acknowledgment of its seriousness, however awkward the reply. That is, Jeff’s catchall phrases are used when there is nothing left to say; to utter them is to remove the weight of the present for the time being, for it is of no consolation whatsoever to say, simply, “life goes on,” in iambic pentameter or otherwise. JCVD’s terse response is the only one warranted: “Stop it,” he says, forgoing conversation and even (this sort of) consolation. JCVD at least acknowledges the reality of the present by situating his answer in being, or awareness. Jeff forgoes an answer altogether reminding his interlocutor to look past the failure of the present and instead to an uncertain future, which may yield better fortunes. So is the passage of time a blessing or a curse?

A brief consideration of time is pertinent here and the following discussion, taken from George Poulet’s remarkable studies on human time, gets at the heart of the dilemma, if less at a definitive answer. Commenting on human perception of time in the late-nineteenth century, Poulet first quotes nineteenth century French poet Maurice de Guérin:

“Nature admits me to the most remote of its divine abodes, the starting point of universal life; there I detect the cause of motion, and I hear in all its freshness the first chant of souls.” Nineteenth-century time seems essentially a continuous motion which can only be understood in its trend away from its original cause: it is a becoming which is always future. Reality is no longer, as in the Aristotelian becoming, the thing completed, but the very genetic process by which cause engenders effect. I exist and I participate in the existence of things only insofar as I experience their generation. Speaking of this inner experience which allowed him to understand the personality of the people, Michelet writes: “I understood it. Why? Because I was able to follow it in its historical origins and watch it come out of the depths of time.12

The introduction of causality into human affairs — that is, isolating causes from effects and tracing out the implications of both, is the sort of denudation McLuhan discusses in The Gutenberg Galaxy. Here Poulet, Guérin, and Jules Michelet document a way to eternity in isolating the first cause, as though once discovered, we will have all the apriori knowledge we need to reclaim being and duration from a process of change, flux and passage. Understanding here, of nature’s causes, is liberating and celebrated as a significant spiritual achievement. Yet the backlash to this sort of “generative law,” expressed here by Jules Lequier, is also forthcoming:

In order to conceive [the generative law], the mind must exile itself from time to enter into a kind of negative eternity. From this point, it may again be possible for it to move onward once more into some sort of time, but this time is purely scientific, made of determinations and effects; it is not the time of the human being: “At one point in this vast world animated by a continual motion that is continually transformed, where from instant to instant nothing occurred expect that which had its origin in a former state of things, I saw myself, beyond my memories, in my origin: me, this new-born me, this strange me which began by being, I saw deposited unbeknownst to itself at a point in the universe: mysterious germ destined to become with the years what its nature and its complex environment required.” In these words of Lequier, lived experience of cosmic duration ends up in the thought of an existence in which everything is dealt out in advance: a dead duration; a diagram of time.13

Being, housed in a first cause which can be known through scientific discovery or, less dramatically, through cause and effect, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that our lives are suddenly ours to discover, with the means now to discover, or trace out, their causes. Yet a curse because the method of discovery itself is never in question; who can argue with causality? All answers are forthcoming if we simply follow the process because “everything is dealt out in advance.” When we find that the answers we need are not available, when our lives do not square with the narrative others insist is true, what is required is further supplication to form — to trace out our origins more carefully. Answers are not to be found in the present, but in the infinitely long and inexhaustible past. Form then becomes time, or passage, which is said to heal all wounds. When JCVD suddenly realizes that life is not unfolding, has not unfolded, as he expected, the only answer Jeff can give is for him to allow life to keep unfolding, which is not exactly a pessimistic answer. But why should JCVD believe that passage of time will heal his particular wounds this time around? To do so would be a way of denying the world. It is, rather, passage he seeks to understand, as though this knowledge will save him.

He makes a plea for it: “What’s going on here?” He is not given a straight answer but is taken for a ride: “I’ve never done bad by you! I’ve always done the right thing by you.” Jeff expresses as much amazement and incredulousness at the present state of things as JCVD; he does not know any better why or how things went wrong. It is quite likely that Jeff has done everything by the book; but he has no appetite for philosophy. Rather than question first principles, initiate something of the examined life, he simply reiterates the answers: “You’re an international fuckin’ movie star . . . You work all the time. You’re well protected.” All of which is true. So what exactly is JCVD’s problem?

Two reasons to view this film with suspicion and to insist, further, that it does not warrant the type of seriousness I am claiming for it here are 1) Jean Claude Varenberg has had his time in the spotlight as Jean Claude Van Damme. For the critic to applaud his crass attempt to cash in on his failure when the fates have (finally) tossed failure his way after a life of so much sex and drugs would be to abandon the sort of critical seriousness required to stave off philosophical charlatans and opportunists. That is, Jean Claude Van Damme, having exhausted the currency of his persona, now comes before us as JCVD. Do we owe him any sympathy? 2) To indulge in actually granting JCVD the sympathy he is after is to immerse ourselves in critical shadenfreude, so that what we take to be aesthetic pleasure in watching the film is actually our critical faculties basking in the misfortune of another. Is a man who falls on hard times after taking for granted too easily the good only deserving of a) critical suspicion or b) critical patrimony?

One immediate answer to both criticisms would be to say that it is not clear that JCVD is seeking to come to terms with his misfortune, but rather, his good fortune. His soliloquy goes on:

I saw people worse off than me. I went from poor to rich and thought, why aren’t we all like me? Why all the privileges? I’m just a regular guy. It makes me sick to see people who don’t have what I’ve got. Knowing that they have qualities, too. Much more than I do! It’s not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it. I asked for it, really believed in it. When you’re thirteen, you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me.

It seems likely that JCVD’s foray into philosophy, however strained, initially began when trying to come to terms not with any grave personal loss, but personal gain — or, rather, other people’s loss, those less deserving of such loss and more deserving of (his sort of) fame. If this sounds Pollyannaish to some, or if some balk at the idea of apologizing for one’s success (because where would it end?) what such (critical) attitudes risk is a denial of the (contingencies of the) world in order to affirm an authority and understanding over it which may yet be undeserved. Is this sort of existence, one tied so intimately to contingency, worth affirming? Each individual must answer.

JCVD discovers an answer. Rather than go back and try to ascertain, for oneself, the first cause (risking ridicule either because 1) questioning first principles is something one just doesn’t do or 2) it is no longer reasonable to suppose that an articulation of first causes is enough to achieve the type of spiritual standing in the world JCVD/Van Damme seeks), JCVD chooses to remain silent. That is, when the reporter asks him near the end of the film, just after he has been convicted of extorting funds from the Belgian state, “Do you agree with the court’s verdict?” he refuses to answer.

JCVD shrugs off the question, affirming his existence through silence. He forgoes explaining his actions to a sensationalist press more interested in obtaining answers which presuppose that JCVD has fallen from grace. This obviously fits in with a stale narrative of spiritual collapse followed by rebirth (JCVD says: “The snake, Adam and Eve. I don’t buy it anymore”). JCVD is “reborn” in a way, but the reason the media cannot make headway this time around is because JCVD can never hope to articulate the particular conditions of his new found consciousness.14 The answers he has found would not make sense to them. They insist on asking the wrong questions.

The first principle he has discovered is that there is no answer, certainly not to the meaningless questions the media continues to ask as cover for the meaningful questions they refuse to ask (for which there are not, or may not be, easy answers). If the climate is not suitable to say or voice what he now holds in his heart, to remain silent is both to extend the life of the particular question posed and to acknowledge the question’s failure. Is this a sort of spiritual hedge?

The sheer beauty of JCVD’s descent down the staircase depicts the spiritual standing he has acquired. Appearing before us in the manner of an American movie star, his glamour is tainted by the sensationalist reminders that he is indeed heading off to prison. Yet JCVD has achieved the knowledge, if less the intimacy, of the world he craves. He has learned not to make himself known to the world, but to survive it for the time being — if not exactly by concealing himself, then by not exactly exposing himself (needlessly) either. Moreover, it seems he requires jail time not to, say, sort things out metaphysically, but to figure out how to teach others what he has learned. When we see him in prison, he has assumed the role of a teacher, of the martial arts — beginning, that is, where his education began.

But what exactly are the moral implications of silence? I take it as crucial that JCVD finds a way to register his silence publicly, so that to remain silent without some manner of public engagement would be to invite silence as cover for moral cowardice. What does one need in order to register silence publicly? Obviously a certain standing or authority, the sort it may take a lifetime to achieve because no one can teach silence as any sort of moral stance, especially in a democracy. The test is to use standing to refuse or deny the need to be made or turned into a spectacle. This is a tacit admission that conditions at present are not favourable to speech, only to spectacle. Remaining silent is to extend the life of the question while rebuking the quality of the question. This clear moral stance is a reinterpretation of the “turn-the-other-cheek” motif hence a version of the good word, however silent. The temptation to presume we know the answers in advance — the “cure” to some, no doubt, for what they see — is ultimately an attempt to answer a question no longer profitable to pose.

4. Pierre qui tombe sur un œuf. Oeuf se casse / Stone falls on egg. Egg breaks.

This final philosophical parable (at least one version of it) is uttered by the man in the leather jacket, the movie’s nihilistic arch villain, who presupposes an answer of death to all problems posed, philosophical or otherwise. When the three thugs realize that no one on the outside knows they are holding JCVD as hostage on the inside, the thirty-year-old (Jean François Wolff) suggests they use JCVD as ransom, to ask for something like a million dollars15 The man in the leather jacket quickly overturns this idea saying, “So the hostages can go to the cops once we’re out?!”

Obviously the original plan was simply to rob the bank/post-office quick and dirty; hostages were never part of the equation. Once they become part of the equation, however, it remains to be seen what sort of solution could prevent the hostages from ever ratting out the lot of them, save for killing every one of them. Later the man in the leather jacket insists that they start killing hostages in order to gain the “upper hand.” But seeing as exit under the conditions he has articulated is impossible (i.e., in wanting to prevent any of the hostages from ever speaking to anyone), what could possibly constitute an upper hand remains wholly unclear. This disturbing lack of faith in negotiation and dialogue, and the ease with which the man in the leather jacket is willing to massacre innocents (for no good strategic reason) gives the film a particularly sinister feel.

To announce to the world that they have JCVD hostage seems the most expedient way out of this mess of contingencies. Yet after balking at their chance to escape, they then consider using JCVD as ransom for things they have difficulty formulating in the first place. We are never quite sure who is in charge. When they finally come up with their demands, they insist that JCVD be the one to voice them. It obviously helps that those on the outside believe JCVD is perpetrating the crime; the thugs may simply be improvising. But their improvisation less reveals their cunning than their incompetence; what it shows is their willingness to forgo their own authority, as though only a man of JCVD’s stature could make demands in the first place.

Here I am reminded of an exchange between Lear and Kent, when the latter, disguised as Caius, offers his supplication to Lear as a means of silencing himself:

LEAR: Dost thou know me, fellow?
KENT: No sir, but you have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.
LEAR: What’s that?
KENT: Authority (1.4.24-27)

McLuhan reads both Kent and Cordelia as victims in a world where “roles” are undermined by “specialists,”16 so lacking roles, they suddenly find they lack the authority to act, hence the authority to speak. Cordelia’s remark to “love and be silent” foreshadows the particular authority and standing she is able to command in the reader’s mind as the play unfolds. But in the immediate present, Cordelia certainly does not remain silent; her standing suffers for it. She is pressed to speak and pledges to love according to her bond, no more nor less. Her remarks are immediately sensationalized by the court. Kent comes to her defence; both are banished. Yet their silence has been registered in the public arena. It remains up to them to now figure out how, or if, to act, because if actions can sometimes speak louder than words, so too can silence speak louder than acts. The lesson, that is, is to love and be silent, not to act and be silent.

What does any of this have to do with JCVD? The inability for the petty thugs to make themselves heard, or even known, in any way to the police they are negotiating with reduces their standing in the world. Their silence is an attempt to gain an authority without risking, or ever having risked, their own skins. And why would they want to? One does not have to look very far to see why, merely to JCVD — particularly the JCVD we are presented with in the film’s first thirty-three minutes, the one who is presumed guilty until proven innocent. And it does not help merely to say that these particular individuals actually are guilty. The more pertinent question is to ask why they choose — or why, say, increasingly, men of a certain generation and temperament and locale — choose not to take such risks. Even JCVD can sympathize with this.

Film scholar Barna William Donovan gets at the heart of a male withdrawal from public life:

Men often do not like to publicly address their problems. Interestingly, on the one hand, they watch the morality plays of the action film because it gives voice and shape to their nebulous problem in the world today. Yet, on the other hand, the very language and value systems of these films reinforce the silent models of masculinity, all performed by action stars who wed their public personas to similar images of stoic, uncomplaining toughness.17

I will return to a consideration of gender. For now, let me say that a genre of movies which seeks to “voice” silence in this way — that is, in resorting to violence or swift justice or what have you — does indeed suggest that actions speak louder than words. I less cite this illuminating passage to suggest a propensity for males to remain silent breeds interest in action movies than to suggest, conversely, that violence is bred of silencing. The sensationalizing of speech, of words, first leads to their failure, hence to the attraction of actions which are said to speak louder than words. When these actions prove inadequate, however, we are left feeling that we have created, or at least further reinforced, the conditions of our own silence. What other response is there than (further) silence? Further violence?

When we first hear JCVD at his child custody hearing, near the start of the film, his defence attorney is conspicuously absent. JCVD is forced to pipe up in his own defence. He interjects repeatedly, through a series of jump cuts, as the plaintiff’s attorney begins listing off movie titles which JCVD has starred in during his film career. Eventually, JCVD relents, asking to use the restroom as the pile-on continues. Though the exchange ends comically, JCVD has been effectively silenced. And what is he silenced by? His actions, or, more specifically, his action movies. The DVDs pile up before the judge as some sort of index of (his) moral depravity, and from this, we (or the court, or both) are to assume that he is unfit to be a father.

The assumption would be that violence breeds violence, that Van Damme has a history of violence. Is this a form of sensationalism or a reasonable inference? But another sort of suggestion — also scandalous, sensational — is the one made at the beginning of the film, referring to 9/11, where it is suggested that Osama bin Laden got the idea to hijack planes by watching a 1980s Chuck Norris action film (Delta Force, 1986). “Haven’t you ever had an idea just to realize you’ve seen it before?” Which is to suggest, either reasonably or unreasonably, that America suffers from its own history of violence, of sensationalizing it, even though no one in the American mass media would care to sensationalize this sort of claim. Indulging in JCVD’s trials and tribulations, either fictional (in America) or non-fictional (in Europe), is the sort of violent bloodsport all of us play by proxy. Perhaps this is, and has always been, the function of civil society, so that action movies (as the case has been made) actually purge us of our violent tendencies rather than exacerbate them. But the violence in question here is not the sort carried out on or against corporeal bodies, but the sort carried out on our psychic experience of the world where we understand that we cannot claim or make claim to certain words because we risk causing a sensation.

Why should things be sensationalized at all? Is it because, otherwise, we risk asking ourselves questions to which we do not have answers, or, worse, that the answers we come up with we would find unbearable, as though if we go back far enough along the causal chain of events, we will not find a first cause around which to organize being, but an endless regress exposing not only the meaninglessness of our failures, but of our successes as well? What does a French-Arab video store owner know about why he consumes, or peddles (or both) American action films which portray Arabs unflatteringly? His answer — dismissive of the question, that “action films need bad guys” — is both an acknowledgement of a problem at hand and a simultaneous disowning of the fact that he has thrived from peddling violence. I do not mean he needs to be held to account. I mean the question no longer makes sense, cannot be posed in any serious way because we have no answers, as though addressing the human propensity for violence, for the time being, has been put beyond the reach of language.

Let me here say a few words about mothers, and what I take this film to be saying about mothers. What is conspicuously absent from this film is a strong female lead or supporting role. We do, however, see JCVD’s mother; she pleads with her son not to separate a female hostage from her child. There is an ominous standoff between the man in the leather jacket and JCVD, concerning their relationships to their mothers, and, finally, a fatal standoff between the man in the leather jacket and Arthur, the buffoonish security guard who ends up shooting the man in the leather jacket in the forehead after he makes a vulgar comment about his (Arthur’s) mother. So despite the absence of women, mothers are very much present in this film — present that is, through their silence, as though our mothers or the memory of our mothers haunts this film. Rather than strictly “gendering” the debate here, it seems quite clear to me that taken in the male or female register, what is happening in this film, tragically, is the systematic silencing of both men and women. You may say women are held silent from the outset of the film, while men are silenced as the film progresses, which says that the further pacification or feminization of men in (American) cinema has clipped now even its action stars, no longer able to act or speak. So men too are forced to love and be silent, a stance less expressing female subjectivity than survival. This systematic loss of subjectivities is tragic.

5. The invention of cinema

Presupposing the answers before the question is the sort of stance taken to ensure the question makes sense. It does not mean we have the answers, but insists the answers are before us, so all one has to do is merely pose a (logical) question and then follow the steps to reach the intended effect. Otherwise, why pose the question at all? Here is a final quotation from McLuhan, sketching out somewhat the topography of his Gutenberg galaxy. He begins by discussing not the “discoveries” made (about a given technology and the power it affords us) but the “method of discovery,” or the “method of invention” itself. Indeed, he notes that the “great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the method of discovery.”18

The method of invention . . . is simply to begin with the solution of the problem or with the effect intended. Then one backtracks, step by step, to the point from which one must begin in order to reach the solution or effect. Such is the method of the detective story, the symbolist poem, and of modern science. It is, however, the twentieth century step beyond this method of invention which is needed for understanding the origin and the action of such forms as the wheel or the alphabet. And that step is not the backtracking from product to starting point, but the following of process in isolation from product. To follow the contours of process as in psychoanalysis provides the only means of avoiding the product of process, namely neurosis or psychosis.19

So we have process and product, or, as I see it, questions and answers. To begin with the product we want and backtrack to find the questions suitable to ask is to make process subservient to human needs, desires and wants. We pose the answers, then look for the right sort of questions to ask and this is the method of discovery in the nineteenth century. This is true discovery, when we start from nothing and find something. But what happens, inevitably, when we cannot get all the answers we want, when we cannot isolate and identify the causal chain of events that will lead to the product we desire? Or what, as McLuhan says above, if we get some products we do not desire, like neurosis or psychosis? Do we abandon the process?

The question seems ridiculous, nonsensical, not worth asking. But psychosis still exists. We can follow the contours of process and attempt to circumvent certain effects of process for the time being, but not for eternity. In allowing process to take place, psychosis (for example) is always possible so we have run into a limitation of process, and not because process cannot address something that is, but because process creates something that never was. Is the violence of cinema a “psychosis” of cinema, so that if cinema is destined to depict passage, process, it is destined to depict certain products of that process not to our liking (such as violence)? And how do we reverse this trend? By following the contours of process perhaps, but this is ultimately defeating because the medium itself demands action. But surely not all action on film need be violent action.

Here is a bit by Noël Carroll discussing medium-specificity, which, at its boldest, predicts where and what subject matter a given medium of art is likely to be successful dealing with, based on preset ontological limitations and/or capabilities.

The doctrine [of medium-specificity] is . . . seductive for critics-at-large and ordinary audience members . . . because it gives them the means to account for why some films fly and others flop. Those that excel are cinematic — that is, they engage in and exploit the distinctive properties of the medium. Those that are insolvent can often be explained away on the grounds that they have failed to take advantage of the special resources and distinctive capabilities of film, often by stumbling into the realm of the medium of an adjacent artform (usually theatre). Thus, someone might claim that the doctrine of medium specificity explains why Hitchcock’s film Psycho is superior to his The Paradine Case. The latter, with all its palaver, crossed over into the domain of theatre, whereas Psycho — remember the shower-sequence montage — is pure cinema (cutting, that is to say, editing, every inch of the way).20

Medium-specificity is not the last word for Carroll. He recognizes many magnificent moments have been captured on film that are both palaver and shot continuously. But something of the promise of cinema is denied when people speak (too much), as if to reflect on life while living life is not our lot to do. Here is precisely why JCVD is tragic: JCVD reminds us that our lives only make sense to us after they have been lived, and, even then, in such a way that compromises our understanding of what we take process (a life) to be. The action star is attractive because he forgoes a life of dialogue, a life of posing questions, and commits to a life of process, as though one with it, taking the ultimate stance against contingency.

Furthermore, the best way for us to assert our dominance in face of being unable to obtain the answers we want is to pretend we understand, or are on our way to fully understanding, the particular unfolding of process, which is to hide from the burden of asking questions that may yield no answer or answers we do not expect — in short, to hide from the burden of discovering the world, or being blindsided by it. This line of reasoning suggests it already (fully) exists (somewhere, elsewhere). Putting our trust in process means we cannot speak to, or are no longer the authors of, our own narratives — that the narrative of our lives is being written elsewhere. We can only uncover our lives; we have no say or stake or authority in its makeup. It is not simply that as the action unfolds, we are not fully aware of what we are getting into. Rather, we have no means or right to ask what we are getting into, to demand certain answers and not others. We watch action movies which need bad guys, but beyond that, there is simply nothing else to ask. The genre, or process, simply entails certain products.

The violence of cinema is not the depiction of violence against corporeal bodies. Rather, the psychic violence carried out against subjectivities — in the depiction of passage, and in the authority of the image, hence of action over words — and the systematic silencing of both men and women, all of which is put on display explicitly in JCVD, is a characteristic of cinema that haunts its promise. Indeed, in presenting a world “dead” to us, cinema begs us to surrender to passage, to process, to flux — for better or for worse. I am not saying that films which respect medium-specificity are (exclusively) cinematic. What I want to say is that tragedy can be depicted by cinema, hence rendered cinematically. And this is not because film depicts what the theatre depicts, but because what we call tragedy as depicted on film is medium-specific. Tragedy on film, that is, is a recognition of process, passage and flux. If Renaissance tragedy was marked by the corporeal deaths of all its players in the final act, then cinematic tragedy marks the psychic deaths of all its actors.21 Stars once were able and likely to explore the possibilities of genre; now they are restricted by them.

A final word on the art of cinema and the ontology of film from André Bazin, who says that “an art’s origins provide us with a glimpse of its essence.”22 How he recounts the invention of cinema is noteworthy:

Basing ourselves on the technological discoveries that made cinema possible gives us a very poor account indeed of its discovery. Rather, an approximate and complicated elaboration of the idea almost always precedes the industrial discovery, which alone enables the idea’s practical application.23

Bazin touches on the problem of hindsight. It is easy, that is, after the fact, to imagine cinema was invented once the proper technological and scientific breakthroughs had been made. But Bazin says this is not the case. Cinema was not the inevitable result of a commingling of scientific discoveries. Rather, the idea of cinema, the “myth” as Bazin calls it, was and always has been for a “complete realism, the recreation of the world in its own image.”24 And the achievement of this realism in the form of cinema did not occur because process was simply allowed to happen. Rather, we started from product — the desire for realism — and worked our way toward cinema.

To posit the scientific discoveries and industrial technologies that have had such a significant role in the development of cinema as the sources of its invention is thus to invert, at least from a psychological point of view, the concrete order of causality. Those with the least confidence in the future of cinema were precisely the industrialists … The fanatics, the maniacs, the disinterested pioneers capable . . . of burning their furniture to obtain a few seconds of flickering images, were neither industrialists nor great thinkers, but men with imaginations. That cinema was born is due to the convergence of their obsession: the myth of total cinema.25

In its essence, cinema was not born by following the contours of process, scientific or industrial or otherwise, but by asserting the answers we wanted, making process subservient to our desires and needs. Yet the desire for “complete realism” also brought with it the desire for “an image upon which the irreversibility of time and the artist’s interpretation do not weigh.”26 Cinema does not annihilate completely the possibility for interpreting the world, but it does present us with a world in which we, as passive viewers, have a diminished say in the outcome. Film’s essence is ironic. Cinema was born by demanding answers, yet its depiction of passage is meant to circumvent the need to pose subjective questions, which is to deny, or at least lessen, our subjective claim to the world. And though the passage of time can be construed to a director or an editor’s liking, no doubt time’s irreversibility is presented to us on film, denying the present or presentness of its actors, affirming their pastness. If the medium is the message, and the message is (I’m saying) tragic, then film is a tragic medium — or, at the very least, a medium well suited to depict tragedy, at the level of both form and content.

So why this film? In order for JCVD to be doing what I take it to be doing, it is not only imperative that it be aware of the filmic (say, technical) conventions it is operating in and behind, but also, that it recognizes and acknowledges its existence at the end of a movie-cycle or genre.27 Clearly what is being thematized in this film is the death not of a particular action star, but of a genre — say, of action movies. The film’s acknowledgment of its existence at the end of a cycle comes in its opening minutes, when the Arab patron of the video store begins listing past Hollywood action stars and the movies they starred in: “Stallone in Rambo 3, Hauer in Wanted: Dead or Alive, Bruce Willis in The Siege, Steven Seagal in Executive Decision, and what’s his name, Mark Wahlberg who fights in Iraq.” Part of what this movie asks is what comes next when a particular genre of movie dies, leaving, say, questions unanswered.

Obviously other genres may pick up the slack, or the genre itself may descend into senseless spectacle to avoid its own shortcomings. JCVD does not chart out for us a way forward; rather, it leaves us hanging on a precipice. The movie ends on a particularly painful but sweet (sweet because so painful) moment of silence, with JCVD facing off against his daughter, with whom we are to understand the shame of his past to be most acute. All he can do is sit, not stand, before his daughter, responding to her initiation of conversation with a simple “Hi.” If Lear’s tragedy is sealed the moment he refuses to see Cordelia, concealing her away with him like “birds i’ th’ cage,” then JCVD’s tragic fate is assured the moment he unconceals himself to his daughter, sitting before her, vulnerable, armed only with speech and starting out once again with process under no presumption that the next round of dialogue will be any better than the last. He moves forward on faith. But the movie ends there. Neither cinema, nor action star, nor genre can (at this particular time) chart for us a way forward. The temptation for each (or the moral imperative for each) in the interim is to avoid spectacle.

  1. See Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: U of T Press, 1962). []
  2. See Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: the Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 208. []
  3. Ibid., 94. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. See Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1971), 25-26. []
  6. See Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), 97. []
  7. A stage actor might not pursue intimacy in the same way; he/she seeks union with a particular character, to feel less separate from others by occupying another’s psyche. But film actors do not supplicate themselves to character; they invent their character(s), become them, so suddenly, they find that their identities are only as good as the latest script they hold in their hands. See Cavell, The World Viewed, 28. []
  8. Cavell characterizes this as the tendency to believe that “we can save our lives by knowing them.” See Cavell, Disowning, 94. []
  9. Mabrouk el Mechri comments on the difference between North American and European reception of his film as part of the Midnight Madness festivities at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. See “Mabrouk El Mechri on JCVD” [Video]. (2008). Retrieved March 14, 2011, from []
  10. McLuhan, Gutenberg, 124-25. []
  11. Here is some salient prose from McLuhan: “King Lear is a kind of medieval sermon-exemplum or inductive reasoning to display the madness and misery of the new Renaissance life of action. Shakespeare explains minutely that the very principle of action is the splitting up of social operations and of the private sense life into specialized segments. The resulting frenzy to discover a new over-all interplay of forces ensures a furious activation of all components and persons affected by the new stress.” His emphasis; see McLuhan, Gutenberg, 17. []
  12. Poulet’s emphasis; see Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1956), 32. []
  13. Ibid., 33. []
  14. Whether “rebirth” is actually possible or only a “mythic” possibility remains to be seen. That is, despite all the hype of JCVD’s newfound “dramatic” prowess, it remains to be seen whether or not Jean Claude Van Damme can actually reinvent himself (in Hollywood or elsewhere) as anything other than an action star. JCVD registers this burden (of history) when he says “C’est tout la.” []
  15. The “thirty-year old” is a translation of “Trentenaire,” which is the name that appears in the closing credits. Also, who I am calling “the man in the leather jacket” is listed in the credits as “Homme au Bonnet,” translated elsewhere as “the man in the cap” — confusing because the man clearly does not wear a cap. []
  16. McLuhan, Gutenberg, 13. []
  17. See Barna William Donovan, Blood, Guns, and Testosterone: Action Films, Audiences, and a Thirst for Violence (Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 5. []
  18. McLuhan, Gutenberg, 45. []
  19. Ibid. []
  20. His emphasis; see Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures (Oxford: Blackwell. 2008), 38. []
  21. Stevie Simkin, in a very interesting survey of Early Modern tragedy through to more contemporary “violent” film, seeks to do more with the comment, often made by teachers in passing, that “works of Webster, Middleton or Shakespeare . . . may not be so very far removed from the entertainment of their own time.” Though he does not initiate an explicit discussion of tragedy, he distinguishes between “revenge tragedies” of the Early Modern period and those which provide “extended mediations on justice and revenge,” as though the latter encompasses what we take more successful examples of Early Modern tragedy to be.

    What I’m saying is that in JCVD, the genre of what Simkin might call contemporary “revenge tragedy” has been exhausted and for whatever reason, there is simply no room for meditations on justice and revenge. This may be a shortcoming of cinema, which does not accommodate such digressions (as theatre, say, can). But cinema is not the reason we cannot have such digressions. Passage (or process) slowly works to silence us; cinema shows this most acutely, even if we can only digress upon it after the fact (of watching a film). See Stevie Simkin, Early Modern Tragedy and the Cinema of Violence (Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 4. []

  22. See André Bazin, What is Cinema? trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), 17. []
  23. Ibid., 14. []
  24. Ibid., 17. []
  25. Ibid., 18. []
  26. Ibid., 17. []
  27. Cavell has it that “the familiar historical fact that there are movie cycles, taken by certain movie theorists as in itself a mark of unscrupulous commercialism, is a possibility internal to the medium; one could even say, it is the best emblem of the fact that a medium had been created. For a cycle is a genre (prison movies, Civil War movies, horror movies, etc.); and a genre is a medium.” See Cavell, The World Viewed, 36. I take this to mean that movies communicate directly through formal considerations of genre, so that a movie “genre” becomes a “concept” in itself — a word, so to speak — which carries the burden of respecting, extending, or transfiguring the conventions associated with it. (A genre presupposes certain “answers” which allows it to explore questions a certain way.) It is less that a movie cycle or genre dies than it demands rebirth — often taken to be the “same-old.” But what happens when a studio formula has run dry? If cinema is more dependent on its genres as mediums, then what were once distinct genres, it seems to me, are destined to merge, or share characteristics. Action films, for example, will become action comedies. Contrasting conventions will suddenly find themselves next to one another. []