Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Triptych of a Tree: Memoirs of a Film Goer

That Hitchcock's Vertigo  has been imitated multiple times is not surprising, but it is slightly curious that the same tree appears in two other films. The original scene takes place as Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) takes Madeline (Kim Novak) to the redwoods. It is a fiction within a fiction, we later learn that it is actually Judy imitating Madeleine who, at the moment, is channeling Carlotta Valdez a woman who lived decades prior. The lines on the tree make it possible for Madeleine to present a life that began before her life. The lines in its bark is a memory before memory. The tree stands as a mute witness to a life that has passed before. It is a living fossil of a life not lived. 

The first repetition is in  La Jetée. Its significance and temporality has changed. La Jetée is not a film about channeling the past, of a ghostly remnant, but of a man from the future returning to a past he barely remembers. His past is our present, a present infused with nostalgia. For a filmgoer, the sort that sees Chris Marker's film, the scene is in the past. It is part of collective rather than individual memory. To use Stiegler's terminology, it is a tertiary rather than a secondary memory, a memory recorded rather than lived, but it has the same effect. It places the viewer in the hazy half recollected place of something that has happened before but is only half recalled. Marker's cinematic citation has the effect of tying the memory of the filmgoer with that of the narrative. The audience feels that they have seen this all before--like time travel. 

12 Monkeys is a remake, or a Hollywoodization of La Jetée. It is not surprising that Vertigo appears in the reworking. Now it is no longer a hazy memory, but the actual film that is shown. The connection to the film is directly made rather than vaguely remembered. Its relation to time travel has changed. As Jim Cole (Bruce Willis) states, the film stays the same, but it only appears different due to perspective. Difference and repetition.

There is of course an other difference and repetition, the difference in seeing all three films, making this connection. Taken together one gets a lesson of the ambiguous passage from the heyday of Hollywood to Europe and back again. It brings to mind a passage from Alain Badiou's "Cinema as a Democratic Emblem." Badiou argues that the mass dimension of cinema is in contradiction with the aristocratic element of all art. As Badiou writes, 

To say that "art" is an aristocratic category is not a judgement. We simply note that "art" comprises the idea of formal creation, of visible novelty in the history of forms, and therefore requires the means of comprehending creation as such, necessitating a differential education, a minimal proximity to the history of the art concerned and to the vicissitudes of its grammar. A long and often unrewarding apprenticeship. Broadening of the mind. Pleasures, certainly, but pleasures which are sophisticated, constructed, acquired.

In "mass art" we have the paradoxical relation between a pure democratic element (on the side of irruption and evental energy) and an aristocratic element (on the side of individual education, of differential locations of taste).

Film as a mass art does not require any aristocratic element, one could enjoy or appreciate 12 Monkeys without knowing the references to La Jetée and Vertigo. It is not Terry Gilliam or Bruce Willis' best film, but it still can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the multiple references. (One could extract a definition of a "snob" from Badiou's essay, a snob is someone who adds an aristocratic element of education and distinction to a democratic pleasure, who enjoys beer but only microbrews or assess roasts and beans when drinking coffee. Or in this case insists that you appreciate all of the references that make up even a Hollywood film) In the case of 12 Monkeys am not sure if these aristocratic distinctions add anything to the movie itself. (I must admit that I like 12 Monkeys, but it works best if one does not think of La Jetée, which is groundbreaking in a way that a Bruce Willis film could never be). Taken together, however, they do reveal something of the odd time travel, the constant returns to the past, that make up contemporary popular culture. Hazy, half recollected memories of past films are part of the time travel we all undertake through the culture industry. We are always traveling back to a past we barely remember. 

I should add that I have not seen the 12 Monkeys television series. I have not taken that particular return to the past and I do not know if it has its own nod to Vertigo. 


Unknown said...

Not crazy about Twelve Monkeys, probably because I kept thinking as I watched it that I'd rather be seeing either La Jetee or Vertigo. Films based on repitition of simple elements and minimal plot don't mesh well with the over-plotted, three act structures of Hollywood action (I'm talking about you, Brad Pitt). But what astonished me a few months back was to discover by accident a Hollywood remake of La Jetee that actually channels the aesthetic and spirit of the movie. By accident means I was under nitrous oxide in the dentists chair and had to pick one of the seven movies that dentist could play through my movie googles while he was drilling in my mouth. So I picked "Oblivion" with Tom Cruise. I found it mesmerizing (which I attributed to the Nitrous) but when I watched it at home I realized. It's not an homage to La Jetee (a la Twelve Monkeys); it's a remake. Memory. Repitation. Black googles. Time travel. Long slow takes of post-nuclear landscapes of absence that are the director's version of Marker's stills. I don't now if you've seen, Jason, but you should check it out. Not on streaming because they've cropped the image but on Blu-ray.

unemployed negativity said...

I did not see that, but I would check it out. I think that Edge of Tomorrow was an interesting film despite Cruise and a generic title. I think part of the appeal of 12 Monkeys is its use of Willis against type, as an action hero who does not see the point of doing anything. There is a strange melancholia to the film. Plus some great set design, Philadelphia already looks destroyed.