Friday, 25 April 2014

A certain melancholy

Over the past few days I’ve watched the first two films of two trilogies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, and The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. None of them I found particularly happy experiences, which is especially problematic with regard to The Hobbit (an adaptation of a children's adventure story, after all), which I found very gloomy, much more so than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit begins with an invasion, of Bilbo’s house; and yes, he’s a fussy, nerdy creature, but he becomes the unwitting victim of Gandalf’s social engineering: ‘if you return, you will not be the same’.  Both Bilbo and Jason Bourne are made into problematic heroes by authority figures whose motives are opaque, if not outright dubious. Each is sent on a ‘mission’ that may prove fatal; each loses their sense of themselves along the way. Each must adopt a ‘warrior’ masculinity, and in both films the personal body-count is pretty high. The saving grace is that, for both films, Bilbo and Bourne must come to question not ‘who am I?’, but ‘what have I become?’ The personal trajectory is, hopefully, also an ethical one.

In The Bourne Supremacy, the images that stay with me most powerfully are not the action scenes or car chases, but the shots of Bourne peering mournfully out of train and car windows, looking out upon the autobahn or grey suburban sprawl or the light industrial and mercantile infrastructures that tend to accumulate alongside train routes. These are, of course, physical analogues of Bourne’s own dislocation. One of the interesting generic revisions that both films make is to invert the jet-setting, hyper-mobile modes of the contemporary thriller. For Bourne, such mobility is not a kind of tourism, but instead a permanent state of dislocation or exile. Bourne travels externally, but is lost inside, in melancholy and grief.

The underpinning narrative topos of the Bourne films, of course, is psychological damage or trauma. Both Bourne and Bilbo often enter into dislocated states of mind – fragments of memory for Bourne, the haunted state of invisibility for Bilbo – but these should reveal to the protagonists themselves just how damaged they have been. Some shots in Supremacy, and the use of music to emotionally cue the scene, suggest this: a man aware of how much he is not there. In The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo seems to begin to understand the power of the ring he has found, how it has worked upon Gollum to make him into the creature in the cave, and how Gollum represents a possible future for Bilbo himself. The flashes of Sauron’s eye that begin to accompany Bilbo’s wearing of the ring are flashes both forward and back, to the events of The Lord of the Rings that cast a very long shadow over The Hobbit.

This perhaps accounts for its melancholia. There isn’t much real fun in either Hobbit film. Much of The Hobbit, as filmed by Peter Jackson, is anticipatory, signalling the beginnings of the return of ‘evil’ to Middle Earth: the hallucinatory pall that covers Mirkwood, for instance, or the presence of Orcs, or even Saruman’s lack of sympathy for Gandalf’s suspicions. This isn't really children's cinema; in fact, I found The Lord of the Rings to be lighter of heart (perhaps because evil is defeated at the end? Is this what also afflict the Star Wars prequel trilogy?) Gandalf, in The Hobbit films, becomes a kind of Cold Warrior, alert to the incursions of malign forces of which neither ‘men’ nor elves truly understand the significance. Gandalf seems to stand accused of paranoia for his fixation on Smaug (a Middle Earth WMD); his imprecation to Thorin Oakenshield to retake his Kingdom under the Mountain could be read as a rather rogue incitement to adventurism. The film, of course, and in particular The Lord of the Rings, proves Gandalf to be right.

This revision of Cold War tropes was also central to the most recent Bond film, Skyfall, but I was interested to note that in the Bourne films, and particularly Supremacy, the Cold War apparatus of secrets and espionage (and consequent ethical centrality of personal and political betrayal) is displaced by a globalised geopolitics of money and oil, despite the Berlin setting. Bourne is not betrayed, as such; the point is that his training, or programming, as a killing machine cannot completely override his ethical misgivings about assassination, one that results in his ‘death’ in The Bourne Identity when he cannot kill his intended target when Bourne comes across him with his daughter.  Bourne, an instrument in a corrupt ‘spy game’, malfunctions. The films’ thrilling action sequences show, of course, that much of the physical programming remains all too efficiently in place.

By the end of Supremacy, it is somewhat moot in terms of how much Bourne still really understands about what ‘Treadstone’ was all about; I hope I will find out myself when I watch The Bourne Ultimatum shortly. Here, though, at the end of the second film in the trilogy, there is little sense of the alienation from the ‘mission’ that Bilbo evinces when, gazing after Smaug at the end of The Desolation, who is about to descend upon Laketown, he says: ‘what have we done?’ Bourne seems to feel nothing for the multiple dead he leaves behind him, nor for those (like the technical operator Nicky Parsons) he terrorises en route. Bourne’s own melancholia, his alienation and loss of identity, operates as an ethical bubble, a way of not seeing the destruction he causes about him. Smaug boasts that ‘I am death’; Bourne does not even understand this about himself. This is perhaps the heart of the melancholia in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy: a void that is the subject, Jason Bourne himself.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Critic as hack(er)

A couple of things last week made me wonder. The first was when I was invited to contribute an article to a journal. My first thought, as usual, was ‘Great! Yes, of course!’ But then I came up dry. I couldn’t think of a single thing that I wanted to write about.

The second was that I had a few ‘free’ days at the end of last week. It’s Easter vacation, but my daughter Isobel is still at school, and Deniz took my step-daughter down to Oxford. So three clear days for – what? I have a couple of pressing projects (a monograph to finish, corrections and revisions to another book), and this seemed like time I could use. But – no. I read a bit, thought a bit. Let my brain tick over without forcing it. And the days went by.

And I realised that I hadn’t posted on here for a couple of months. Traffic is still steady (thanks), but nothing had come to mind, nothing urgent that I wanted to write about. So I wondered: have I written myself out?

I asked myself this last night. I wanted to write for a long time, and in a sense becoming a university lecturer is the fulfilment of my wishes. I teach (which I love doing), and apart from that admin stuff, I read and I watch films and I write. But writing is now work, and sometimes it feels like hack work. I’m not particularly disciplined as a writer: I don’t have set times and patterns. Perhaps I should. But I realised that the reason why I’ve resisted doing so is that I’ve tried to cling to the idea that writing isn’t work, it’s something to do with inspiration or the critical moment when you see the pattern emerging, that this is connected to this and maybe means this. (It’s a version of the conspiracy narratives I enjoyed as a teenager. Everything connects.) 

That’s how I think of myself as a critic, I suppose: a recogniser of pattern. As I’ve written before about Amadeus, I’m no genius, no paradigm-shifter. I work, tinker with stuff, come up with interesting stuff (I hope), often on popular culture and its guises, because that’s where certain diagnoses can be found. Hardly any of my work can be said to be written on ‘high’ literature (except maybe the Sinclair work, and he’s a hybrid writer), though I have a distinct bias towards the experimental. In fact, experimental work in a popular idiom is precisely where my interests lay. When it comes to science fiction, I love the New Wave; and though I’ve read plenty of commercial hack-work, work written for payment by-the-word, and can appreciate it for what it is, the idea of writing like that, writing hack work, is kind-of where I find myself. Because that’s part of the deal of being a contemporary academic.

And I do too much, I know it. I say ‘yes’ too much. I’ve always had ideas and like to get them on paper (out of my head). I probably do ‘need to write’ in some ways, even though that might be detrimental (perhaps to quality). But is needing to write work, or is it to do with something else? Compulsion, inspiration?

In an essay titled ‘The Essay As Hack’, Ander Monson writes about the lyric essay as a form that ‘can potentially incorporate anything, draw from anything, in search of the range of human thought it attempts to match’. I like this thought, and try to correspond to that in my blog posts. (The strictures of the academic essay often mitigate against that fluidity.) If the essay is a hack, then the essayist is a hacker: a figure to conjure with in the post-cyberpunk, digital age, and used by critics like Andrew Ross or Mark Dery (as well as Monson) to indicate a cultural politics and practice as much as a writerly technique.

But I’m no hacker either. Or, if I am, it’s another kind of metaphor. Not for me the glamour accruing to the infiltrator of digital data systems, Gibson’s console cowboys, the liberators and disseminators of hidden information. Rather, I’m the hacker of the golf course, slicing and hooking his way along and across the fairways, swish and snick, losing the odd ball in the rough, but eventually (never mind the score) getting there, getting that damned white ball into the cup, and along the way there might be the occasional flash, the shot that flies true and lands just where you want it to.

I’ve no cultural (or social) affinity for golf, though I used to regularly watch it on tv as a lad and even tried it a few times, but I always liked Severiano Ballesteros, and now I know why. Seve was the sublime hacker, who would whang a drive into a car park and then strike the most outrageous, perfectly shaped recovery shot just a foot from the cup (and then might miss the putt). A fallible genius, an angelic hacker, but also a golfer who, despite fading powers and incapacitating back injuries, carried on.

So I will carry on. I will carry on hacking, hacking away at stuff, working, writing. It’s my job, after all.