Bright Lights Film Journal

The Tomb of Thingness and Self-Doubt: Against the Cult of Infinity

“One concept corrupts and confuses the others. I am not speaking of the Evil whose limited sphere is ethics. I am speaking of the infinite.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Arseny Avraamov’s 1922 Symphony of Sirens was a singular, revolutionary musical event impossible to recreate beyond the terrific bounds of Soviet futurism or socialist realism. The machineries of the entire city of Baku were mobilized and orchestrated into a whirring cacophony with which the style mécanique of George Antheil could never compete: the “horns of the entire Caspian flotilla, two batteries of artillery, several full infantry regiments, trucks, seaplanes [and] 25 steam locomotives”1 were coordinated across great distances, and then joined by strategically positioned (human) choristers to construct a uniquely evanescent metropolitan cantata. The Symphony of Sirens was quite a literal “City Symphony,” long before Walter Ruttmann and others transformed a material sound-world into a mere visual metaphor. The 2009 CD recording of Avraamov’s legendary piece of agitprop does more than unearth a politico-aesthetic curiosity; it reminds us that the digital approximations of a music studio, employing expertly sampled and spatialized taped sounds, can never truly compensate for a vanished material history. There is an analogy here, I think, to the much-despised CGI syndrome of 21st-century cinema, beloved of technophiles and witless children, and loathed by all those who no longer conflate bloated technique with meaning. In each case, the material world, whether audial or visual, is supplanted by hi-tech simulacra that briefly enthrall before they deeply demoralize, reducing the earthily improbable to the offensively easy.

It is expected that novel technologies will be equally revered and reviled, that every forward lurch into computerized verisimilitude will be answered in short (or long) order by a bittersweetness not entirely reactionary. Perhaps it’s appropriate that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) was among the first Hollywood blockbusters to perfect CGI: the technology’s luxury and decadence was well suited to filling a Roman Coliseum with thousands of bloodthirsty, phantom spectators. Recall that in the earliest days of CGI (circa 1997 or so), the technology had great difficulty representing liquids without undue pixilation: every computer-generated waterfall or monstrous wave was betrayed by a blurry, even smoky appearance, as if the technology of discrete pixels were confessing its inability to properly rationalize fluidity, that which is most markedly organic. At first, we were embarrassed for the nascent technology’s shortcomings, and blushed on its behalf. To science, pillar of rationality, the elements remained inscrutable! The sophistication we’d projected has since come to pass, and in addition to rather less blurry battle and crowd scenes, the flowing gore of, say, the cable series Spartacus: Blood and Sand demonstrates a better approximation of the density, pressure, and gravity of what we already know flows within us. Yet as digitized ogres increase in realism, human actors (now less and less talented) retreat into the backgrounds of films whose gloomy color palettes ape the metallic militarism of videogames. In contemporary Hollywood fantasy, language is an afterthought: the scraps of dialogue that stitch together the spectacular digital scenes in Clash of the Titans (2010) are so useless and tautological that the filmmakers might as well have made a silent film. At least then the cult of visuality could have a bit of consistency.

One could argue that CGI has its root in the magic tricks of Méliès, whose synthesis of a real actor (himself) and technological trickery (sneaky editing) also employed mechanical reproductions to subvert reality and warp spatiotemporal perceptions. The difference, however, is that Méliès always winked in his dexterous fakery and made no bombastic claim that seemingness can become truth; indeed, he self-reflexively aimed to dissolve the cult of appearance and expose truth as a human manipulation, even a joke. Were he alive today, he would be appalled not by CGI technology per se, but by its stumbling faith in the power of verisimilitude. Méliès’ joy in illusion, furthermore, is shown in the ways he, as both actor and director, often directs his illusions at himself, not some alien monster. In Four Troublesome Heads (1898), he places four identical replicas of his disembodied head on two tables, strums a banjo, and then bashes the superfluous heads into dust, finally flipping his one true, remaining head onto his decapitated torso. In his similar, if more complex, The Music Lover (1903), Méliès tosses up his disembodied head, which is then reproduced seven times; each head then lands within a great music stave positioned above and becomes a smiling, singing musical note (a matron below the stave hoists placards instructing the audience to join in). Beneath the sutures of the magician’s visual jest is a commentary on the nature of embodied representation. As the subject splits himself apart, one part “real” and necessary and the others replicated and disposable, viewers become so busy trying to tell fakery from reality within the frame that they forget everything is fake, for the frame itself houses only technological reproductions. The magician would be delighted for the audience to realize this Brechtian truth — the CGI artist would be mortified. Of course, as younger and younger audiences become enthralled by computerized fantasies, their false consciousnesses make what is beyond the frame as unreal as that within the frame.

Though we cannot turn back the clock, old materialities can conjure new enchantments: matters as diverse as the expensive castle set of Robin Hood (1922), the zigzagging, painted backdrops of Raskolnikov (1923), the childlike rampages of the daikaiju, and the beggarly shocks of Nekromantic (1987) resonate with crumbling truths lost in a culture of spectral bombast. The violence glamorized by CGI may impress for its virtuosity, but it can never move us because we are privy to its pretense. The vivisected, panting foxes Carlo Rambaldi crafted for A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) could no longer create the legal controversy they did when patrons at four different Italian theaters believed real animals were being abused. Today we would assume technology is capable of rendering anything realistically, seamlessly, and, above all, safely — we needn’t trouble ourselves any longer about the legitimacy of pathos or the necessary rebellions of criminality.

The overdone, slow-motion violence in which CGI wallows has gone beyond every previous bound of excess, but its inherent lack of humanity always strikes us hollow. Pathos can never be virtual. Christian flagellants and self-mutilating psychotics cannot find catharsis in binary code, and computer screensavers that portray scenes of palm trees and coconuts only painfully remind us of — rather than deliver us from — our alienated cubicles. The ten-minute orgy of death that concludes the Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong Godfather (1985) titillates more than any Hollywood CGI because its mix of the apparently real (the “hard” stunts of 1980s HK cinema) and the crudely unreal (overdubbed smacks and glowing-orange gore) creates an ideologically correct partial realism in whose partiality we see both known and unknown, the achievable and the fantastically longed-for. The obsessive cult of CGI obviously results, too, in a classist hierarchy of cinema that legitimizes only those films that can afford the technology. When we ridiculed, for instance, the imperiled actors who inhabited the plastic lizard-man costumes of Ratno Timoer’s Devil’s Sword (1984), we engaged in more than schadenfreude. We also realized the wondrous impossibility of existing on a planet where such hopeless, terribly human aesthetics might exist, and empathized with the impoverished Indonesian schmuck whose ignoble triumph as Lizard Villain #4 maybe — just maybe — fed his family for a day.

But we despise CGI for a psychological reason that runs deeper than self-interested nostalgia or even economic injustice. Roland Barthes’ analysis of the appeal of Jules Verne explains why the illimitability of CGI’s imagery depresses us, and why it in fact opposes the realm of the fantastic:

Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure, and the compatibility between Verne and childhood does not stem from a banal mystique of adventure, but on the contrary from a common delight in the finite, which one finds in children’s passions for huts and tents: to enclose oneself and to settle, such is the existential dream of childhood and of Verne.2

Though Barthes’ language has a hint of the improvably Freudian (the desire to enclose oneself signals longing for the womb), the fantasy that captivates is indeed grounded in an already-understood finitude, in the ways in which human innovation must forever struggle against social, personal, and even scientific boundaries. If we remove every bound and every struggle — much as CGI conveniently transcends materiality and makes any image as possible as the next — our fantasies become facilely gratified and therefore meaningless. The romance of the fantasy always lies in its impossibility; what we long for must remain impossible, lest our psychological fantasies devolve into mere art. A world in which everything is possible was, in fact, never the world we desired as children. Perhaps this is why Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay “Two Books,” claims that reality must always be anachronistic: to live as a human being means to live in a past the present always misrepresents.

The overtly mechanistic attractions of Terry Gilliam’s gadgetry remain within Barthes’ (correct) notion of fantasy. Even if CGI does creep into The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Gilliam’s deliberately anachronistic world — in which flights of cinematic fantasy are curiously juxtaposed with the material remnants of the 19th-century stage — creates a necessary tension between the hi-tech and the literarily antiquarian, reminding us that our fantasies must be meaningfully bound and relevant to history. This is the idea behind The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988): the Baron rebels against time best when he is performing theatrically, yet he must also act heroically within the present world of reason and rebellions. That the Baron is able to climactically reconcile this tension, acting both idealistically and politically by the film’s end, is a kindness that Gilliam obviously refuses in Brazil (1985), in which the ideal world is a far darker enclosure than the warm cave Barthes imagines.

When a disproportionate amount of film imagery is produced through CGI, when the bounds are removed and the creation of one digital image is technologically, philosophically, and morally indistinguishable from the creation of any other digital image, the hut of Barthes’ enwombed child is swept away and chaotic illimitability reigns. For all its faux attentions to detail, physiognomy, and anthropomorphism, CGI’s brush paints far too broadly and indiscriminately, and indiscriminate (and undiscriminating) fantasies are no longer fantastic. Within the realm of worldly rebellion, the libertine is obliged to seek boundless freedoms; the fantasist, paradoxically, must squirm in his box and dream, lest he become a politician.

When the Einsteinian fluidities of time and space become understood as pixilated constructions and the fetish of technological mimeses, we have no choice but to confront this paradox. I was prompted to confront it anew when an acquaintance recently sent me an advertisement for a fellowship at the New School, which now offers a program that will:

evolve around focus themes of particular urgency and broad resonance. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences…when concrete barriers continue to brutally define boundaries, when engineered food has forever altered what people eat, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences, the center will focus on the material conditions of our lives and examine “thingness,” the nature of matter.3

Though I imagine myself as someone generally ineligible for fellowships, I have given considerable thought to this trap of “thingness,” though I don’t particularly care about engineered food, and hardly believe it’s any less ethical than devouring organic4 livestock specially raised for murder and digestion. But the ways in which The New School plans to confront “thingness” soon become more specific and fearsome. Enlisted fellows would need to participate in “public and transdisciplinary conversations, roundtables, workshops, and on-line programs, involving scholars, artists, policy makers, journalists and cultural workers5,” and certainly, no one in his right mind would want to do anything like that. I am, in fact, rather surprised that local policy makers — perhaps including New York City school board members, city comptrollers, and biannually elected ombudsmen — would have an overriding interest in “dissect[ing]…topics such as […] speculative materialism” and plumbing the depths of nuomenal objectivism or Dasein.

The ultimate scholarly question is finally posed according to the categories of an inescapable history: “How can the conventional dichotomy between subject and object be overcome? What is the impulse sustaining this separation?” If such questions have not been answered by Kantianism or Buddhism, I doubt I can do any better. If I could answer such questions, I would surely be somewhere else, far away from thingness, brick institutions, the labor of writing, and the process of egoistic humanism. I might also note the irony of an academic institution critiquing material boundaries only by encouraging applicants to compete for a modest $10,000 stipend. Perhaps the money is only residual thingness.

To redress thingness in aesthetic terms (we must put aside the political ramifications here), we might turn to the feminist critiques of Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972) or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Glauber Rocha’s oppositional cinema of poverty, or Buñuel’s notion of surrealism as the unadorned presentation of the infinitely improbable (any of which is superior to the sanctimoniousness of Dogme). I will finish, however, with another option: the stretched, eighty-something face of Mae West in Sextette (1978). Her visage drawn taut with countless and unknown surgeries, she saunters through a gymnasium of half-naked men a quarter her age, mimicking her seductive poses and sexy drawl of the 1930s. Her plastic surgeries deny biology and oncoming death, yet make her the anachronism she must be: the emblem of the past the present strives to — but cannot — represent. Were CGI available in 1978, she might have been rendered miraculously young again. But we are thankful for the wondrous imperfection of her well-surgeried face, for in that blatantly flawed technology, in that partiality, she is betrayed — she is revealed as pathetically human and, by extension, so are we.

  1. From the CD booklet and product description provided by distributor RéR Megacorp. See here. []
  2. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat.” Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1973, 65. []
  3. See Veralist Center. []
  4. I generally recoil at the meaningless term “organic food.” Every food item that originates from an organism is, by definition, organic. []
  5. Ibid. []