Monday, April 11, 2011

The There There

When there is a there there

Last Friday night, Noah Baumbach introduced Brian De Palma's Sisters at BAM. Standing with a microphone in front of the screen, Baumbach, who looked like he'd been hit by a truck and then changed his clothes and washed and styled his beautiful long floppy hair, mumbled in Fantastic Mr Fox-fashion about how he is friends with De Palma and about how he first approached him twenty years ago and drunkenly tried to insist that a scene in one of his films was indebted to some French New Wave film. Apparently, De Palma was really unimpressed. We've all been there. Well, not quite there; we weren't a young Noah Baumbach trying to impress Brian De Palma. But you know the feeling: young, over-eager, drink-disinhibited accolyte trying to strut his stuff with old master who is far wiser and far less excitable (and probably far more drunk).

The thing is, with De Palma's movies, we're always still there: watching his films is like being in a drunken argument with the screen about how scenes are references to other films, they're obviously references to other films, and yet the entire film treats those observations with a sort of disdain, and just goes on about its business. In other words, just because you get it, just because you get the reference, you aren't in a better position to understand the movie or speak about the movie, and, even worse, you feel like you're left in the position of stating the obvious while missing the point. It's a peculiar, disorienting feeling. And, what's worst of all, getting a sneaky reference and being able to lean over to your date to whisper, "Remind me, I'll explain it after the movie", is one of those things that makes being a man worth it. But with de Palma's films, the references are so obvious; there's nothing subtle about it. If your date had seen the movie being referred to, then your date would get it; if not, not. Saying "That's scene was right out of Psycho or Vertigo or Rear Window" is then answered with, "Okay, and?" and you're left saying, "Yes, but, it's right out of that film!"

I am not a De Palma critic; I suspect that I've been flailing towards something that smart people have thought a lot about and handled much more elegantly: how de Palma is and is not an original film-maker; how he watches other films and other oeuvres very closely, and makes use of what he knows, loves, is impressed or moved by, in order to tell a story of his own.

But what excited me about this particular perspective is that it undermines the expectation that reference is richness, that intertextuality enlivens your understanding; I wonder if de Palma is not using reference in a much more clinical, if you will, way, not to make the film more "profound" but to manipulate the audience ("So, you think you know what will come next . . . do you?") Reference is no longer a gift to the audience, a gesture of indebtedness, a desire to make your work deeper: it's a way of telling a story. There is no there there, it's all here.

When there's no there there

This has been coming up in an extraordinary way with the quasi-Presidential run being announced by Donald Trump. So far, he has gained the most traction in the press by insinuating that he is a birther.

Like so many businessmen and corporatists when it comes to politics, he's a concern-troll:

Trump insisted he didn't introduce the citizenship issue, but he isn't letting go of it either. Since he was asked about it during an interview several weeks ago, the real estate executive said, he's looked into it and now believes "there is a big possibility" Obama may have violated the Constitution.

"I'd like to have him show his birth certificate," Trump said. "And to be honest with you, I hope he can."

He's not just a concern troll about Obama:

Asked in the interview how genuine his presidential ambition is, Trump said, "I always take things seriously, but I've never taken it seriously like this. I wish I didn't have to do it."

"I wish this was the greatest place in the world," Trump said. But he said the United States is losing respect in the world at a time when jobs at home are vanishing. He accused Obama of giving the country "a terrible presidency."

And he's very serious about running:

Of Obama, he said, "I want him to do well. ... I love this country, but this country is going to hell. ... The world laughs at us. They won't be laughing if I'm elected president."

Okay, so that last line really made me laugh. Trump comes off like a hand-wringing villain threatening to rain down the fires of hell across the people of the world. "They won't be laughing then! You're all fired!" (Plus, it reminded me of Bob Monkhouse's great line: "People used to laugh at me when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well they're not laughing now." Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.)

Trump really isn't really wishing for or hoping for the things he's saying he wishes and hopes for; it's a perfect example of the concern-troll language of corporatists who have to pretend they're playing by the game, but want to make it clear that they're barely making any effort. They'll do it for as long as they're bothered.

When it comes to the entire phony birther narrative that has Trump so perplexed, about which he is so deeply concerned, there is no there there. It is, instead, an obliquely-deflected racism posing as constitutionality; a way of engendering and maintaining a background thrum of pervasive distrust for everything Obama; and a fuck-you to everybody for whom the last President of the United States was dubiously promoted to the office by Republican members of the Supreme Court and then, by way of Swift Boats and Diebold, dubiously maintained there. Just because there's no there there doesn't mean there's not a there here.

There there

One of the problems with seeing a De Palma film like Sisters in a large audience is that the audience is going to laugh at some of the grotequeries, the B-movie touches, the big thrilling references; one of the problems Trump is facing is that nobody is really taking his run seriously - something he addresses in a very non-serious way about him being a man who takes "everything seriously", which has no credibility, then adding he's never "taken it seriously like this" (I don't actually know what that means).

The "serious" is a guarantor, an anchor in reality, an insistence that there is a there there: my words out there mean something, speech acts affect the world; the comedic is exceptional not because it is the opposite (the comedic means something, pace Channel 4's implication about "absurdist satire") but because the guarantee is not quite made, it can thrive on the implication that there is no there there - and it doesn't matter. When faced with something that might be serious or it might not, like a gaudy scene in Sisters (which, Baumbach observed, can seem so campy . . . and yet he's sure that De Palma was not intending anything camp) or Trump's run for the Presidency, you've reached a crisis: the serious denounces its twin; the comedic does not: so is Gertrude Stein right that there is no there there, or is there a there there? Choose an answer at your own peril.


Daniel F said...

I sure wish I had been at the Sisters screening. I had never even heard of the movie until I started working through De Palma recently, but Robin Wood called it the best horror film of the 70s and the ultimate feminist horror film, and here's Baumbach making it the gala night of the BAM season. It's certainly true that one of the things that De Palma does with Hitchcock references is say, "You think you know what's coming...? No you don't!" There's a remarkable example of this in Raising Cain, which uses a moment from Psycho. There is also the sense that De Palma is saying Hitchcock is all I need to make my films (in fact not even all Hitchcock, just the three mature masterpieces you mention), let me show you what I mean when I say (as he famously did say) "Hitchcock is grammar". And I love that he is not slavish or reverential; he steals from Hitch, he vulgarises him, he even improves upon him.

sw said...

Once again, you remind me of one of Eliot: immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.

Daniel F said...

Tonight I reached the final destination in my journey through De Palma's thrillers: Obsession. An aptly named film, it turns out to be the most outrageous of his Hitch-jobs. And that is pretty outrageous.