…is the new something else
In Sophia Coppola’s »Lost in Translation« and in the Coen brother’s »Intolerable Cruelty«, something suspicious occur. Both movies seem deliberately to be not good, not bad, not cool, not nerdy but half good.
In an American small town, lets say 1957, a young boy helps an older nun over the street. Holds her arm and makes sure she is cautious about the difficult step up on the pavement. Safe on the other side of the street the nun thanks the young boy, praising his virtues and assuring that the reputation of the youngest generation is exaggerated. The boy responds with a smile: “Well, any relative of Batman is a friend of mine!”
In both Sophia Coppola’s and the Coen brother’s recent films, “Lost in Translation“ and “Intolerable Cruelty”, something suspicious occur. Both movies seem deliberately to be not good, not bad, not cool, not nerdy but half good. In Coppola’s movie the classical gag: Japanese people can’t say ‘r’ is used exclusively for the first 15 minutes, and in “Intolerable Cruelty” I am during the same 15 minutes amazed of how the script writer Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote “Being John Malkovitch”, “Human Nature” and “Adaptation”, dives heads over heals into the most tremendous comical clichés, but not deep enough to make something really happen.
Sophia Coppola’s movie is a dissolved road movie, applying the often used trip/ballad motif as the basis for covering a melancholic-comical type love story. The problem is that the travel done by the two protagonists isn’t really doing anything else than we more or less can do our selves. It all happens in Japan but apart from that, the two meet the conventional cliché personalities of contemporary cultural surfaces. Coppola is not even proving to be brilliant when it comes to using cliché as an instrument to produce a self-referential frame such as Italian neo-realism did.
“Intolerable Cruelty” is at first sight a conventional mix up-comedy where marriage and divorce between utterly wealthy Americans is the centre fold, but something is wrong, radically wrong, however it never gives in to show that this wrong is wrong. Charlie Kaufman never let’s go of being fully conventional in how the jokes are brought over, how the scenes are cut and how the narrative is laid out switching from one silly combination of people and lovers to another. Dialogues throughout the move are exactly as uninteresting as they should be in a lousy comedy. The partner of the male protagonist George Clooney is as peculiar and eccentric as the fat guy in a college movie, crying at any slight sentimental moment. And Catherine Zete-Jones is dressed up exactly as tacky as she should, as if modelled on a silly version of a Bond babe. What is bothersome is that Kaufman still is getting the story together so eminently, and the choice of soundtrack (a cover version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”) and credits are simply splendid, even to the degree where it might tell too much.
Antonioni one said: to the same extent as clichés can be killed by it’s own means, they have an incredible capacity to resurrect out of its ashes. And has not Gilles Deleuze in his cinema books identified how the crises of action-images was defined by a number of characteristics, namely the form of the trip/ballad, the multiplication of cliché and the use of events that hardly concern those they happen to. In other words precisely what is taking place in the two movies mentioned, but this time we already know that this is what is supposed to happen so what is it then that happens?
Both films pass as something else, they are passing as… The first level of this passing is to address the notion of film as such, much in the way of how Tarkovsky stated that in modern film “time becomes the basis of bases in cinema, like sound in music, like colour in painting” (1), but where Tarkovsky still believe in an essence of cinema, film today must consider media specificity through other perspectives: to pass as a film that it is not. How grand isn’t it to remember Barnet Newman’s answer to what he wanted with his paintings: “I want the colour to look as brilliant as it does in the tube.”
In order to not participate in a proper contemporary discourse on film, which immediately would disarm the films, they have to produce themselves as something else. In the case of the two examples the choice is half done low cultural proposals, but it could of course be something else such as e.g. the recent OutKast hit “Hey Ya”, which comes across a conventional up-tempo soul hit à la 1964.
Sophie Coppola brings the passing much further than the Coen brothers as she also alludes to high-cultural frames. Coppola’s movie passes for a half good drama-comedy as well as a ditto indy-movie, say 1993, and an adaptation of high-brow cinema version 1958. Whereas the Coen brother simply brings a classical frame misused by for example the “Scary Movie”-series to yet another blunt state.
Concerning major critics response the films suffered both praising and condemnation which states their status as passing for, or perhaps one could say what-evers-movies, in so matter that some critics has not seen the passing and others (possibly including me) has announced their consciousness concerning the passing, what-evers. But has not both camps mistaken themselves. The first evidently for the mistake of taking the films for what they seem first hand, and the second by making the mistake of exactly announcing their aficionado attitude. The brilliance instead lies in the fact that these films can not be placed, can not be packaged, or packed in their already being packaged, and it is thus that they, instead of the easy smart-ass way which would be to walk the border of a cliché form, short-circuit notion of spectacle and global market economies. In other words by commenting on the basis of communicability instead of communication.
Philip Auslander states that there exist no capacities for an avant-garde within a global market economy, where commercial media is more efficient to produce look a likes of sub-cultural frames than what subculture were as long as such cultures where possible. There are no longer any cultural limits to transgress in the “seemingly limitless horizon of multinational capitalism”(2).
The governing epistemology of the Western hemisphere can simply not sustain any sub-cultural nor subversive statements or strategies. Life in a society of control offers no spatio-temporal coordinates for subversive strategies proper to glue it self to, but we will have to reconsider the experience of artistic practices in an altogether new framing, exactly because this shift implies an alienisation of politics from processes of actualisation. As our everyday experience is devoid the experience of the political, to enact this experience within art practices would evidently imply a performative paradox.
One can detect similarities to the above-mentioned films in the movies by Jerry Lewis, however there is a major difference in how Lewis directly applies the burlesque in his films. Coppola and the Coen’s would never hide behind the burlesque nor not, as when Bill Murray is having a kind of Buster Keaton adventure on a workout machine. The only difference is that Sophia Coppola is shooting the entire scene through a long shot and finishes it of with yet another what-evers. It is especially Jerry Lewis “Ladies Man” that passes for something else as it uses the burlesque-comedy not in order to be that but rather addresses notions of reality by inspecting the entire set-up of cinema. Lewis affirms this reading through his homogeneous use of facial expression. After each gag the very same face occurs including the gesture of deliberately putting his glasses out of place, though this enforces a smart-ass factor in Lewis film. In the golden years of Jerry Lewis film making he insists on stating a kind of too-smart-to-show-it attitude, and it is exactly this that makes the movies of Coppola and the Coen’s interesting as phenomena since they never comment on their own existence: they become what they are passing for and it is in detecting the passing that the viewer has to scrutinize his/her own position as a critical agent relative a desire to indulge in the above-mentioned performative paradox which precisely affirms a Bergsonian phenomenology, where intuition guaranties that the subject can grasp something in a non-mediated way . These films and the, so to say, proper viewer is not just ironic but conscious of his/her own ironic posture and further of how they shortcut contemporary notions of spectacle being both cause and effect. These movies can simply not be grasped proper through a Bergsonian spyglass just because they are both what and not, what they are, but are taking place as something radically new and simultaneously indifferent, and thus possibly subversive, as they are virtual insofar as they are actualised, in the process of being actualised, inseparable from the movement of being actualised.
In short the new cool (read subversive strategy) is passing for something half good else.
1. Gilles Deleuze: Cineam 2, (London, 1989), p. 42, 288.
2. Philip Aulander: Towards a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre, Theatre Journal #38, no. 1: 20-34, p. 23.
3. See Ana Teixeira Pinto in ed. De Assis / Spångberg: Capitals, (Lisbon, 2004), p. 204