Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cinema's "Forgotten Futures"

There is a moment in Miriam Hanson's essay "Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street" where I was reminded of the wonderful Preston Sturges movie _Sullivan's Travels_. I want to hesistantly claim that this film, as it comments on the dual and seemingly opposed demand to give mass audiences both "what they need" and "what they want," addresses or "solves" some of Benjamin's hopes and pessimistic fears regarding cinema. In other words, Sturges 's self-conscious portrayal of the demands of the film maker (Benjamin's "level of inscription") and the desires of the audience ("level of reception") are self-reflexively engaged and narratively entertwined in this particular film. It would seem that Sturges allows himself and his audience to "have it both ways." In order to see how this might work I'll have to explain the plot a bit, then I'll try to relate that to Benjamin's hopes and fears about the cinema, particularly as they converge toward a construction of an openness to or memory of "forgotten futures." [As of 6:15 on the Wednesday night before class Thursday, this is sounding a lot more like a paper project than a response paper, but F*** it! I'm just going to see how far I can go!]

Time constraints in mind and on second thought... here's a link to a lengthy but worthwhile plot summary of the film. Skimmable of course; I think the beginning and end are the important parts. What I want to focus on is how the ending, in which a chain gang in the rural south is invited to the viewing of a Disney cartoon called _Playful Pluto_ at an African American church, uncannily demonstrates and, I would argue, moves through and beyond Hansen's analysis of Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious in the cinema, which is described as a transformed mimetic capacity (through the linking of temporality and subjectivity in the two types of innervation -- inscriptive and receptive). First here's the summary of the Sturges films ending from the site:

Through the foggy mist rising off a swampy bayou and with low organ music playing Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, a rural Negro church comes into view. A black preacher (Jess Lee Brooks) instructs a helper named Charlie to pull down a white sheet tacked to a piece of wood - a makeshift projection screen. The black parishioners are told that there's going to be "a little entertainment" - a pleasure that they will share "with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves." The first three pews are cleared for the convicts, and the black worshippers are also instructed with a Biblical lesson that "neither by word, nor by action, nor by look to make our guests feel unwelcome, nor to draw away from or act high-toned. For we's all equal in the sight of God." During a community chorus of the old Negro spiritual Go Down Moses, an unconventional musical number with an appropriate, empathic refrain of "Let my people go," the downtrodden, weary convicts shuffle (with the clanking of chains) toward and into the church in pairs. At a low angle from the front of the center aisle of the church, the camera focuses on the men's chained legs - an unusual chorus line - as they march in.
After they are seated, the lights are dimmed and a creaky old projector begins showing a 1934 Walt Disney cartoon - Playful Pluto - starring Mickey Mouse and Pluto [one of the last B/W cartoons Disney made]. The organ player accompanies the silent cartoon with a musical score. The convicts and churchgoers immediately begin laughing, guffawing, and smiling at the crazy antics of the mouse and dog - especially when Pluto gets stuck on flypaper and attempts to extricate himself but becomes even more entangled - a relevant image for Sullivan's situation. Sullivan sits glumly at first, but then looks around with amazement at the uproarious laughter from the audience. Soon, he irresistibly joins them in the infectious laughter, rhetorically asking himself: "Hey, am I laughing?" Sullivan suddenly realizes that humorous movies, like religion, are the therapeutic solution to the pain of poverty or to the enmity between races - comedies help people temporarily forget their troubles, release their suffering and escape from the hardships of the world. Even the warden's face is lit up with laughter.

In a further diversion: Sturges's film is set w/in the present and uses its topicality to critique the film industry in an unexpected way. The "lesson" or moral of the film, seems to be the cliche that "laughter is the best medicine" a belief that dominated Hollywood cinema in the dark years of the Depression along with the sentimental "get the girl in the end"' plot. Both tropes are being ironically advocated and critiqued n Sturges's film through and at the level of cinematic cliche itself. That is, Sturges's movies draws from and assembles within its own convoluted tale a mash-up of cinematic techniques, plotlines, and genres-- the tramp or clown genre, the adventure story, the mistaken identity drama, the wrong man scenario -- a mingling of the humorous, the tragic, the noir, the absurd, the cartoon etc etc. In a way then the film works up and beyond the concept of montage by redistributing narrative devices, which would normally have been seen as cliched. We get it all but not in the way or order or unified style we have come to expect. One wonders of course what Sturges's contemporary audiences made of this mishmash. Where these plotlines already perceived as cliches by average American audiences in 194o's? What Sturges's film does is give us the "laughter is the best medicine" and the "get the girl in the end" at the exact site/sight of an awareness of a histoical moment within the film. Thus, the depression and social injustice is entwined into the cliches. the audience watching the Sturges movie would have been watching itself to a certain extent. Is this then a kind of meshing of optical/political unconscious that produces a meeting of the collective gaze, a moment of collective recognition?

But I've wandered from my attempt to link the ending to Benjamin. So let me locate the moment in my reading of Hanson where I was reminded of Sturges's movie: "Benjamin's reading of Mickey Mouse as a 'figure of the collective dream' maintains a sense of disjunctive temporality, the mnemonic/psychoanalytic slant that marks the optical unconscious at the level of filmic inscription .... The dream memory that Mickey innervates, however, is inseparable from nightmares, in particular modern nightmares induced by industrial and military technology" (340)

Looking back at the synopsis of the end of _Sullivan's Travels_ quoted above, it seems almost (dare I say it?) uncanny how it links these concerns in the director's dawning awareness of collective affect, an awareness predicated on both a nightmarish and literalized enchainment of the masses and what Hansen further calls their relation to Disney films function: [A] ''premature and therapeutic detonation' of mass psychoses, of sadistic fantasies and masochistic delusions in the audience, by allowing them to erupt in collective laughter" (342). Yet even though Benjamin claimed History to be a tale of both barbarism and civilization, it was impossible even (perhaps especially) for him to forgo the pessimism activated by his own lived historical moment. As Hansen notes:
"The heterogeneous mass public that congregated in, and was catalyzed by, the cinema of the Weimar period consisted largely of people who bore the brunt of modernization...It would have been conceivable to think of the moviegoing collective as being made up of individual viewers, with the kind of mimetic engagement Benjamin found in the surrealists, the child, the beholder of old photographs or, for that matter, Proust. But it is also historically understandable why Benjamin, unlike Kracauer, did not make that leap of faith -- why he submerged the imaginative, mnemotechnical possibilities of the medium into a presentist politics of distraction, renouncing the cinematic play with otherness in view of the increasingly threatening otherness of actual mass publics" (342).
So while Benjamin gave up on the figure of Mickey Mouse (rightly so!) do to his own historical fears of the moment, Sturges incorporates the sadism and fantasy of collective laughter into his story line and literalizes Bejamin's collective hopes and fears, thus politicizing cinematic cliches as cliche and as affirmation for his own historical present.

More tomorrow.....

No comments: