Saturday, 24 August 2013

A Beautiful Con: The Tree of Life

The Tree Of Life is a very unusual film.  Not because of the dinosaur.  Well, partly because of the dinosaur.  But mainly because it uses the register of cosmological science fiction – in particular 2001 – to tell what is, it seems, by fairly conventional domestic story : the traumatic loss of a son and brother; father-son conflict; rites of passage in 1950s America; the failures of authoritarian patriarchal masculinity.  The film is presented in an extraordinary way, as a series of moments, often of striking beauty, in which dialogue is generally absent (crucial thematically), time is dislocated on a local, global and cosmological scale (seconds, minutes, years, decades, eons), but a sense of wonderment at (and the wonderment of) life is immanent.

This wonderment, even bewilderment, is carried not only in the extraordinary image-track, but also in the familiar Malick device of the disembodied voice over, in which baffled and self questioning voices express the interiority of key characters.  Or rather, the interiority of key male characters – boys and men – because the women in the film get short shrift.  I think this is for interesting reasons, though, as I will try to explain.

The narrative moves around in time.  It begins in what we must assume – by Brad Pitt’s glasses and hair cut – to be the mid- to late-1960s.  A young man brings a telegram to a house, and when the mother – Jessica Chastain – opens it, it brings news of the death of a favourite son, a trauma so profound that none of the surviving family members seem able to get over it. (I read his death as being, at symbolic age 19, in Vietnam.) The radical interiorization of this event, bracketing off social or political dimensions to make this strictly about the loss of a son or brother, made me uncomfortable – the response to the loss seemed an index of a more fundamental incapacity, of a howling lament rather than a shout of anger, a turning inward that marks both family and film, despite its cosmological register.  The film steadfastly refuses to connect the father’s overbearing patriarchal presence with a structure of feeling that allowed the drafting of their son to fight in Vietnam; if he is a sacrifice – and I certainly think he is – this is read theologically rather than politically. 

The film shows that it is the older brother, Jack – played by Sean Penn as an older survivor, still traumatised by his loss – who initially rebels against the father, and as an adolescent lad, he is the narrative focus for much of the film (the second half and in particular).  Younger brother R.L. – there are actually three brothers, for some reason, but the third is a spare wheel who gains no screen traction – does in fact present the most striking act of resistance, however: when Pitt tells wife and sons at the dinner table that they should only speak when they have something important to say, the boy wait a minute then interrupts the boorish Father (not ‘Dad’) by saying ‘Be quiet...sir’.  The father reacts violently, but in a sense he has not been disobeyed – what the boy said is in fact very important. Pitt blusters, but only towards the end of the film do his words carry real emotion and insight. The son, whose quietness is an index of his profound gentleness but also gives him a different kind of authority, speaks truth to power.

The younger son R.L. – beautifully played by Laramie Eppler – is the moral, or perhaps theological/spiritual  centre of the film.  When I watched The Tree Of Life with my wife, she plausibly suggested but the father presented kind of Old Testament authority, constituted by power and wrath, while the mother was the New Testament deity, full of love.  This works, but the mother is also a Madonna figure – at the end of the film, when she ‘gives up’ her son to God, she appears in a kind of pieta with female angels (or Graces) ministering to her.  This, of course, makes the younger son into Jesus; and indeed, the son appears to be the vessel of an unimpeachable and uncorruptible goodness. Twice, he says that he trusts his brother Jack, though the second time Jack lets him down badly, and R.L. is full of love, full of grace.  He is separate in his goodness, somehow – a crucial scene shows him on the porch, picking at his guitar, while Jack watches him in loving awe through the screen door.  The father, a talented organist, is too bound to the material world to approach the divine (though he yearns for sublimity) and confesses his failure to Jack at the end of the film, but R.L., who is not shown connecting with his father musically, seems to bear his gift as something different, other, divine.

The film begins with a voice-over by the mother, who declares that there are two paths in life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  (Jack takes the path of nature; the younger son R.L. the way of grace.)  This dichotomy striates the entire film.  After the trauma of R.L.’s death in the 60s, the film returns to the beginning – cosmologically.  We are shown the beginnings of the universe, of Earth, of life growing in the oceans, and then on land: the dinosaurs.  In a very curious scene, an enfeebled dinosaur lies on a river beach, while a raptor proceeds towards fallen prey.  But when it reaches this easy meal, the predator steps on it a couple of times, then moves off.  Is it simply not hungry?

There is clearly something else going on.  Although The Tree Of Life shows the development of life on Earth as a natural process, in events recognisable from conventional natural history, this is also signally a work of Creation. (The same mixture of natural selection and Biblical/ transcendent motifs can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  The title of the film is itself ambiguous, and could refer to either life as nature, the branching ‘tree’ of natural selection; or it could refer to the ‘tree’ of the ‘Great Chain Of Being’, a spiritually-invested understanding of nature which places human beings at the top (or end) of the ‘tree’ of nature.  In fact, what I think we have in The Tree Of Life is what seems to be a world of natural processes, but which actually privileges the theological, the immanence of the divine; for the dinosaur seems to show, if not compassion, then mercy: it decides not to eat the easy meal.  The raptor lies down with the lamb. The way of Nature is throughout underpinned by Grace.

This folds into the conception of gender in the film I noted above.  The mother herself is Madonna-like, a vessel of goodness.  Though one of the most happy scenes in the film is when Brad Pitt’s departs on a business trip, and she and her sons instantaneously transport themselves into a carefree, lively, joyful atmosphere of celebration and love, in the main the mother is sanctified, other, beatific, fay.  In one scene she floats in the air (by a symbolic tree); and she seems unchanged by the passage of time, unlike Pitt, who as an older man seems to be channelling Marlon Brando as Don Vito, playing monsters with his grandchild in the vegetable patch: and emblem of emasculated or superannuated (and thereby pathetic) patriarchy.  The fact that the mother does not change rather sentimentalises and reduces her, I feel, to a symbol of ‘the good’.  She is an angel. Brad Pitt’s Father is conflicted, complex; she is not.

Poor old Fiona Shaw, playing the children’s grandmother, attempts to comfort the mother upon the loss of her son by saying ‘life goes on’ – even while herself acknowledging that this is an empty platitude.  It’s another index of incapacity – but one that reveals the centrality of 'the way of grace' to the film’s symbolic structures.  Fiona Shaw’s banal rhetorical gesture is a straw man; she is entirely proven wrong.  Life clearly does not go on – the trauma is irreparable.  There is no coming to terms with the loss of the son/brother except in death, or rather, in the afterlife.  It is only when life does not go on, that grace, that redemption or salvation, enters.  This, of course, runs entirely counter to the huge cosmological narrative invoked in the first part of the film, which insists, visually, that life does go on, that death and life (and death) turn and turn about, are a part of the same natural cycle and process.  For Jack, and for the mother, the lost brother/son becomes a symbol of the ultimate reparation, the afterlife, and when all the characters meet up on the heavenly beach at the end of the film, this isn’t a jolly theatre like the ending of Fellini’s 8 ½, an acknowledgement that this is all but a play, but rather an attempt to shift into that transcendent mode of science fiction found in 2001, after Bowman has gone through the Stargate (or perhaps, as in Soderbergh’s Solaris, where Natasha McElhone tells Clooney ‘everything is forgiven’). We are somewhere else, where loves reigns o’er all.

That is why I have called this post ‘a beautiful con’, because that is what I feel The Tree Of Life is: it is, in many ways, brilliant, wondrous, sublime; but it rests upon a sentimental religiosity that runs entirely counter to the sophisticated pleasures of both its visual track and its ambitious time-frames.  It is a con because I don’t think it is true; life can, indeed must go on; traumas can be overcome; wounds heal.  Inevitably, The Tree Of Life is a post-9/11 film (and like The Thin Red Line a war film of sorts, though this is a guerre sans nom) where the traumatic rupture leads to a kind of millenarianism, when catastrophic loss may only be made meaningful (and thereby redeemed) with the onset of the Day Of Judgement.  If America sacrifices it sons in overseas wars, the longing for death to salve these losses is deeply troubling, not just ‘problematic’, in its evacuation of hope, in its erasure of the future, and in the avoidance of the political question of why they were sent to their deaths in the first place.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The gift and Twitter (science) fiction

In Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, the author uncovers the case of a strange book called Being or Nothingness by Joe K being sent out to unwitting academics, mainly those in fields pertaining to AI. The first chapter of the book narrates Jonson's attempts to get to the bottom of this literary prank, partly through the work of Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach and I Am A Strange Loop) whom Jonson at first suspects, but then discovers had been sent some 70 copies in English and 10 in Swedish of this very book. I won't give away the solution to his odd riddle, though it's pretty prosaic (and is really Jonson's book's Macguffin), but it fascinated me; not only that someone would go to the expense of producing a high-quality item but that they would send them out as gifts to unknown parties. I've thought of buying one - there's a couple on Amazon - but this would be a bit beside the point. I'd love to receive one through the post, though!

The idea of the gift - something which compromises our commodity fetishism, which is outside the economic system of exchange value constitutive of capitalism - has been a recurrent idea in critical theory over the past 40 or 50 years, from Bataille's economy of expenditure and the potlatch, to Derrida, to Baudrillard's symbolic exchange. Even if Being or Nothingness is just a provocation, a literary prank or puzzle, or even a strange marketing stunt, its status as gift renders it mysterious, enigmatic. The question is not only where does this come from, but who would do such a thing? The motivations are obscure, because in British culture gifts are usually motivated: birthdays, Christmas, thank yous, celebrations and so on. To be given something without motivation arouses suspicion. Is it a con? What do you want in exchange? 

In this light, although there is a lot of debate about the problems of 'free culture', and particularly of dissemination of artworks via the internet (that is to say, no-one wants to pay for cultural production, meaning that artists cannot subsist from their work), I find the idea of giving work away to be a very attractive one. (As an academic who mainly doesn't get paid for the writing he does, except occasionally the odd royalty from a book which might help fund the things I need to buy to research the next one, I'm used to producing work that seems to have little or no monetary value.) It is one of the reasons why I occasionally write this blog. I very much like the development of Creative Commons and buy into the aesthetic of the remix in a big way. I also find fascinating writers who use new media to disseminate their work.

I have experimented with this kind of thing myself, writing a Twitter fiction (in 140 parts) last year, and got part way through doing another one before abandoning it, and might be involved with a colleague in a collaborative project using new media (or even teaching it) in the future. Although Twitter sometimes appals me and seems to bring out the worst in a culture of instaneneity and shoot-from-the-hip anonymity, I also find some experiments with the medium highly interesting. The poet George Szirtes (@george_szirtes) is a great follow, for instance; Aksania Xenogrette (@gadgetgreen) too. Jeff Noon also used Twitter to publish his 'spores', 140-charcater fictions, but I have recently read on his feed that he is to publish Pixel Dust containing 1700 stories which I can only presume are these (and others) collected in book form. Now, this made me think. The transmission between Twitter feed and book form is an interesting one, and I can see why the texts might be collected up in such a form: book publication legitimates the writing, lends it a coherence and materiality it obviously lacks on Twitter. But that, of course, is the point of Twitter: it is a 'feed', in time, and if not ephemeral, then not subject to the archival dynamics of the codex book in the same way. If the texts were designed for Twitter, why publish them in a book at all? 

Here we return to the idea of the gift. Twitter fiction is surely a gift from writer to follower/reader, although its provenance is known; retweets allow stories, gifts, of unknown provenance to enter the feed, to be transmitted to you: and in the rest of the blog I would like to consider the work of two writers who have primarily used Twitter - but also book publication - to disseminate their work. One is a writer of fiction, of science fiction; the other a poet. I knew of neither before I started to use Twitter; both came to my attention as gifts, by happy accidents of transmission.

The first is Kneel Downe (@kneeldowne), whose Virulent Blurb world(s) (@VirulentBlurb) began on Twitter, but I subsequently bought Fractures when it was self-published on Lulu (I will return to Lulu later). On first reading the Virulent Blurb feed I was minded of a line from Iain Sinclair's introduction to the poetry collection Conductors of Chaos, largely formed of poets he curated while an editor at Picador for a short time. Sinclair wrote: 'The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don't claim to "understand" it but I do like having it around' (xvii). This perfectly expressed my initial response to Kneel Downe's feed: I didn't quite know what the hell was going on in it, but I was intrigued because I didn't know. A bit like Being or Nothingness, it was a gift without provenance, enigmatic, unusual, difficult to decode.

As sf, it had some clear generic pointers. It was post-apocalyptic, and the references to a lack of the Sun seemed post-Matrix; it was very definitely influenced by cyberpunk, and as the work went on, references to Noonian domes suggested an inflection through Jeff Noon's Mancunian cyberpunk Vurt and Pollen (as did later references to Alice); characters came and went, introduced then disappearing into the textural weave, but 'AJ' made me think of Burroughs, Sally of Gibson again;  behind it all seemed to be an interest in myth, in the apocalypse as myth (Wotan/ Woden?, the death of the Gods in the Ragnarok saga?), of histories becoming stories becoming myths and legends and then a kind of code, a code for time and a knowledge lost. But none of this was spelled out, only suggested in the compressed 140-character tweets: '50 years forgotten: the last missile fell. Megatonic and slime. Horizons halved. Weapon unknown - the enemy stole our sun and left us dust'. Or: 'Tomorrow's skull. Bone soothsayer. Spewing and maybes at clustered feet and floating free-forms. All that was and could. Fractals'. And next: 'I am Solar. Child of the fire. The Sun meme. Messiah incarnate. Threads converge. Deeds cry unfilled. ARM yourselves. Who stands against me?'

The density of the tweets intrigued me, a world boiled down to hard and sharp points, shards of language. Some parts worked better than others, some images were more striking than others, but the unevenness was part of the feed, like you were tuning into to a fugitive transmission on a broken radio. This was thematised in the story itself: some tweets supposed some kind of frame: 'INFO STREAM INVALID...DISC CORROSION...STAY PLUGGED FOR PHAZE 3...dream cream is available...apply to infected area...'. The whole narrative was coded as some kind of immersive transmission in itself, a SimStim or VR narrative, something out of Brainstorm. And it worked.

When I bought the book, which has a rather nicely designed cover with a butterfly superimposed upon the moon (or encased in it, somehow), I found the first 12 'phases' of the material, which still worked fine, but not quite as well as a feed; one reads it down the page, conventionally, rather than up, which is still estranging, creates a different response (like, for someone of my generation, the chatter of a teleprinter across the screen), somehow urgent and demanding attention. The tweets became a book, or rather, part of one; and on the page, the layout reminded me of David Markson's brilliant late quartet of novels which use fractured sentences, paragraphs, compression and repetition, quotation and confession. That's a very high bar. On the page, Virulent Blurb: Fractures becomes a form of experimental literature, experimental sf, and partly lost what made it so striking as a transmission. The tweets were also followed by other material, clearly part of a wider world-building strategy, and although these were designed in a variety of forms - screenplay, journal, prose - the material seemed more conventional somehow, less subject to the pressures of Twitter compression that made the original material so interesting. Kneel Downe is still developing several strands, and it's interesting to see where it goes. I'm a bit less engaged with the superhero stuff though.

As I wrote above, poetry can also be effective on Twitter, and one of Kneel Downe's confreres, James Knight (@badbadpoet), a member of the echovirus12 (@echovirus12) collective, has developed a very interesting set of texts on several themes, partly disseminated through Twitter. Knight's poetry is fractured and fantastical. He also has developed his Oneiroscope interactive bad dreams, which is a very interesting concept (respondents send ideas to him) well executed. I've bought three of James Knight's e-books: The Death of the Bird King, Thresholds and Head Traumas, the latter two both anthologies, and which both include material from 'The Madness of the Bird King'. The Bird King is an emblematic figure for Knight (which has a clear debt to Ted Hughes' Crow but developed in and interesting and individual way), a kind of uncanny assemblage of Jarry's Ubu, Gothic monster and Heath Robinson contraption:

The Bird King's heart:

a clunking clockwork contraption

wheels within wheels

            g r i n d i n g

triggering his body functions and rage. (The Madness of the Bird King, 8)

The Bird King is a fertile figure for Knight: monstrous, tragic, but funny and earthy. A kind of materiality is crucial to Knight's poetics, I would say, and his work is at its best when it concentrates on that materiality: uncanny objects, lists, a build-up of effect through concentrated description. Knight's '13' series are often very successful in this way: from '13 machines from the Bird King's private collection': 'Christ-in-the-box leaps heavenwards, eyes agog'; or from '13 disturbing objects, recovered from a hypnosis-induced nightmare': 'a fifty Pound note, on the back of which is a handwritten message, in thick black ink: NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING', or 'A cardboard box full of smashed lightbulbs'. There's almost a Joseph Cornell sensibility at work here, each poem a cabinet of curiosities, but adding up to something disturbing and intriguing.

As my references to Jarry might suggest, there’s a strong connection to Dada/Surrealism in Knight’s work; not only in his interest in dreams and dreamscapes, but on strange conjunctions, illuminating discontinuities, the poem itself as a collage or rickety machine. One can imagine the Bird King onstage at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, knocking over Hugo Ball in his cardboard wizard suit.

I feel that Knight's best work is when he does not strain for meaning or significance, as he sometimes does, as in '13 transformations': 'rose petals quiver in the breath of summer, glow like embers, become butterfly wings'. There's too much going on: it's visual but overstated, reaching for effect; rather than objects colliding, it’s metaphors, becoming overheated. But these stand out because usually the poetic voice is restrained, objective, even when describing the weird or uncanny. The work is smart, too, effectively using intertexts in poems like 'Josef K Through the Looking Glass' or 'Medusa Variations'. In the 'Snowmen' sequence, he can also be very funny; in his Mr Punch and Jack Ketch poems, an interesting variant on the Ubu/ Bird King type is pursued. Head Traumas is well worth checking out.

Both Kneel Downe and James Knight are self-published, through Lulu. Knight's books are often illustrated, and even the e-books have visual material in them; they have a very keen eye for design. Although Kenneth Goldsmith has written interestingly about the use of Lulu, neither of the writers here go down that route, but use self-publishing as a means of disseminating their work outside of the mainstream or even indie presses. This has advantages, in that it gives both a measure of control over their work that might be otherwise absent.

Both deserve a wider audience; at best, both writers use fractures and compression to great effect. As such, Twitter is an ideal medium. I still feel, though, that the relation between Twitter publication and book publication has still to be worked out.