November 3, 2009

Love Streams in Data Streams? – Cassavetes, Lynch and the Spectacle in digital culture – by patricia pisters

Filed under: film,new media politics (k3),patricia pisters — ABRAXAS @ 12:08 am


Many things have already been said about the importance of Cassavetes films, both in the lectures today and in many writings and documentaries about his work. His DIY / Dogma avant-la-lettre style, his emphasis on human values, relationships and love, the influence he has had on filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, Abel Ferrara, John Sayles, and Sean Penn and other independent filmmakers. So, in speaking last at this seminar, I see myself presented with a challenge: what to add to the richness of this acknowledged legacy of Cassavetes in contemporary culture?

Over the last weeks I was thrilled again by the intensity of the sometimes awkward but always ultimately deep rewarding sensations of films like Gloria, A Women under the Influence and Love Streams. Online I saw many Youtube-clips on and of Cassavetes. I felt the bewilderedness and embarrassment of Dick Casset and his audience when John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, invited guests to the famous TV show on the occasion of the release of Husbands in 1970, behave like fools: Cassavetes throwing himself on the floor every three minutes, Gazarra taking of his socks and shoes showing his hairy legs, and Falk ignoring the host of the show only addressing the audience; in another Youtube clip, a 1965 episode of the French film programme Cinemas Cinemas, Cassavetes gives a guided tour in his house while he and his team are working on Faces; and the documentary I’m Almost Not Crazy reveals (in four 10 minutes parts) insights about Cassavetes philosophy of love; In ‘Cassavetes in 60 seconds’ and other clips Cassavetes repeatedly expresses that he thinks the world is very ‘chicken’. However, slowly but surely other images started to impose themselves to me, not from the wonderful Cassavetes retrospective or the DVD-box, not from Youtube’s viral archive, but images from my memories of another film, namely David Lynch’s Inland Empire.

Many filmmakers have acknowledged their direct or indirect dept to Cassavetes, but to my knowledge Lynch never did. Moreover, Lynch’s often surreal and dark enigmatic images do not seem to connect easily with the earthly world of Cassavetes. So I wondered, was my own mind playing tricks on me, or is here actually something that is worthwhile exploring? I decided to investigate this unexpected Cassavetes-Lynch connection, the results of which I will present to you in the next 30 minutes. Let me start by proposing the thesis that Cassavetes and Lynch are indeed actually soul mates – although this becomes only perceptible now. By ‘going digital’ with Inland Empire, Lynch’s work reveals more explicitly than ever before similar concerns as expressed in Cassavetes’ films, especially in respect to the role of spectacle and madness in contemporary media culture. Let me explain this further.

Youtube aesthetics
Cassavetes’ films seem a no-budget celluloid precursor to the DIY/Dogma digital aesthetics that are currently common practice both in Independent cinema, European cinema and on Youtube. Lynch on the other hand, is much more known as a ‘celluloid fetishist’ who likes high production values who, arguably, even has set the standards for high production values of contemporary quality television series when he shot in the beginning of the 1990s Twin Peaks, the series, on 35 mm and with budgets of over 1$ million per episode.

However, with Inland Empire he has jumped into the digital with a big leap. Lynch is a fast adaptor. ‘Film is like a dinosaur in a tar pit’, he even declared in an interview recently. Inland Empire was shot on a relatively primitive Sony PD-150, a consumer-grade model that was introduced in 2001 at a retail price of less than $4000, a medium of home movies and viral video, a DIY medium indeed. As a reviewer argues, this movie is great on the big screen but its natural home is in fact the small screen: ‘Watch Inland Empire on DVD and you sense that this lurid, grubby fantasy springs from deep within the bowels of Youtube as much as from inside its heroine’s muddy unconscious. (…) And not only does Inland Empire often looks like it belongs on the Internet, it also progresses with the darting, associative logic of hyperlinks. Indeed part of the movie originated on David Lynch’s Website, davidlynch.com, itself a labyrinth of wormholes and worlds within worlds.’ Others have described the film as ‘random access cinema’, typical for the digital age, characterized by a database logic and a digital poetics.

So all of a sudden, this switch to the digital has brought Lynch’s work immediately closer to Cassavetes, if only in terms of a shared frayed aesthetics. In terms of production, with the camcorder, Lynch too, has discovered the kind of freedom it grants to allowing for a smaller crew, and no accountability to the money men. A kind of freedom and independence that have always already been dear to Cassavetes. Let’s see if there are further points that can be made about the aesthetics.

Bodies and Brains
With this suddenly shared aesthetics and production freedom, I absolutely do not wish to argue that Cassavetes and Lynch make the same films. One layer below the surface of the looks of the films that now show some similarities, there is a basic difference in the source from which the their respective films are made, namely the body or the brain. If Cassavetes is a very physical director of a cinema of the body, Lynch is a cerebral director, who makes ‘brain cinema’, so to speak.

As Gilles Deleuze has argued in his book The Time-Image, ‘body or brain is what cinema demands to be given to it, what it gives to itself, what it invents itself, to construct its work according to two directions, each one of which is simultaneously abstract and concrete, each one being equally emotional and thoughtful. But they constitute two different types of cinema: ‘either the body gives orders to the brain, which is just a part of it; or the brain gives orders to the body, which is just an outgrowth of it.’ One could argue that Cassavetes and Lynch are like body and brains of contemporary screen culture.

Cassavetes really works from the bodies of the actors, theatricalizes or ‘spectacularizes’ them – not in the sense of glamorizing them, but in the sense that the characters are brought back to their bodily attitudes that become expressive of a feeling (tiredness, boredom, despair, depression, love) and that constitutes the truth of their character. In Faces bodily attitudes are expressed in the face, in A Woman under the Influence Gena Rowlands expresses and constitutes a housewife ‘under influence’ of social norms and boredom by her bodily attitudes and gestures, in Gloria the abandoned child sticks (literally) to the body of the women who first pushes him away, which constitutes a powerful bond between the two when they are on the run in NYC. Cinema of the body. Full of intense feelings, full of unconscious thoughts.

Lynch on the other hand, has always been intrigued by mind matters. His main inspiration is in surrealism, which insists on the mental sur-reality of dreams, visions and the delirium. And his films have always been presentations of characters emotions by presenting their inner life. In Blue Velvet the passage into the inner and dark fantasies of the main character is still marked very clearly and quite literally when the camera zooms into a cut of ear – and a zoom out at the end of the adventure of the mind. But Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are much more ambiguous about the status of images. And the title of Inland Empire most probably should be taken as inner/mental empire, where the virtual and the actual are completely indistinguishable. Cinema of the brain. Full of intense thoughts, full of unconscious feelings.

As a footnote I have to remark that while Lynch has become more ‘Cassavetian’ in allowing more frays and sloppiness in his aesthetics, It also has to be remarked that Cassavetes in his last films also presents sometimes mental images, such as the dream (or is it a flashback or flashforward) and a delirium at the end of Love Streams. Sarah, the sister, dreams a loving dream of her husband and daughter – Robbert, the brother sees a naked hairy man in his room (‘who the fuck are you?’) that turns into his dog / or turns out to be his dog.

The role of spectacle
So if the source of their filmmaking is so very different, where or how do Cassavetes and Lynch meet – because, as you know, that is what I am arguing. Well, here we have to dive again one level deeper into the worlds of Cassavetes and Lynch and see how they direct their actors and how they see how they conceive role of ‘the spectacle’ or ‘mediation’.

In A Constant Forge, the DVD documentary on Cassavetes, Peter Falk explains how he did not understand at all what he was doing or saying in A Woman under the Influence (for instance on the dinner table when he starts talking about seeing babies everywhere), in any case he never knew what his character’s motivation was. This ambiguity makes that the actors had to rely on their bodily performance. And very often it was only on screen that they saw what this performance revealed.

Laura Dern, the main character in Inland Empire has expressed a similar experience of confusion for her as an actress having no idea what she was doing, why and in what kind of world she was operating (real, imaginary, Hollywood, Poland). In 2007 the Foundation Cartier in Paris exhibited David Lynches paintings, one of which with the title “Bob finds himself in a world for which he has no understanding”. This, Lynch comments in the DVD extra’s, is a common condition for us human beings.

So, although they both have a different starting point to construct their films from, both directors share a basic feeling of ambiguity about the nature of behavior, about the nature of reality, about the possibilities of knowing. Nothing is crystal clear in both Cassavetes and in Lynch’s world. In both worlds characters are quite lost, in identity crisis. Nothing is familiar, so the only reliable way of ‘understanding’ is by intuititive performance or unconscious acting.

Here we see how Cassavetes and Lynch are moving towards each other in terms of an uncertainty of knowing and an ambiguity of reality that calls for ‘a constant forge’ into the unknown territories of life, hidden in either the body or the brain. Moreover, both filmmakers, even though that might be stating the obvious, use ‘the spectacle’ as a form of exploring these territories. For only in ‘the spectacle’ true creativeness can emerge, and some truth about (emotional) life can escape.

We must understand here that this is a very different conception of ‘the spectacle’ than Guy Debord’s critical understanding of ‘the society of spectacle’. In the society of spectacle, mediation (film, television other media) absorbs life and returns it only as a shallow simulation (think of Baudrillard as well; reality, real life disappears in the copy of the copy of the copy in audio-visual culture). The spectacle numbs and dumbs people in this conception of the spectacle. In the way Cassavetes and Lynch look for dramatization, theatricalization, performance, mediation and spectacle, life is constituted or reconstituted in front of the camera. This, it seems to me, is an important insight that is relevant if we look at contemporary mediated culture and see how it relates in different ways to spectacle that both Cassavetes and Lynch show us.

For Cassavetes his life and his films are completely intertwined. In Opening Night he and Gena Rowlands are a couple on three levels: in real life, the film and in the theater play within the film. It is well known that his own house served as location for most of his films. And in order for the husbands in Husbands to become friends Cassavetes, Falk and Gazarra really had to spend time together and become friends. And out of that intimacy and friendship, out of the playing together as performance, something true emerges.

Lynch is much less personally involved in his films, but at several moments he has investigated the opposite borders of the spectacle: where for Cassavetes actual bodies, actual friendships, actual relationships create something genuine in a spectacle that makes you forget that you are looking at a technologically mediated form, Lynch shows precisely the opposite, namely that technology and mediation can create real experiences and emotions. Think of the famous scene in Mulholland Drive in Club Silencio, where the host of the show announces it is all a show, all playback, and yet the performance of the singer Rebekah del Rio of Roy Orbinson’s ‘Crying’ is so moving that it is one of the most really intense and dramatic moments of the film. And in Inland Empire the most realistic moment in the film, where Nikki/Sarah dies among the homeless on Hollywood Boulevard, is revealed as spectacle when the camera is revealed by a widening frame and we hear ‘cut’.

Both Cassavetes and Lynch also know that their own approach of ‘the spectacle’ is not a common one. Cassavetes has expressed his contempt for Hollywood as an industry and repeatedly argued that ‘television sucks’. And Lynch comments on Hollywood and the false illusions of stardom, wealth and happiness it creates in Muholland Drive where the dream career as an actress turns out to be the delirum of a junkie. Laura Dern’s character Nikki in Inland Empire (or Sue in the film within Inland Empire) ends op ‘stabbed in the gut and staggering along Hollywood Walk of Fame, leaving a trail of blood…’ It’s not so difficult to read that image as a commentary on the Hollywood industry.

So again, Cassavetes and Lynch have different approaches but both reveal the reality in and of the performance which makes them so interesting ‘blood brothers’ of the truth of the spectacle – and thus exemplary for a shift of thinking about the spectacle that contemporary culture demands.

Collecting and Connecting
Another aspect of Cassavetes and Lynch late works that relate to contemporary culture has to do with ‘collecting’ and ‘connecting’.
Love Streams is about a brother and sister, Robert Harmon (played by Cassavetes) and Sarah Lawson/Harmon (played by Rowlands). Sarah has just been divorced from her husband who also got custody over her child, and Robert is a famous writer and womanizer. They are both collectors: Sarah collects luggage and animals that she offers to her brother, Robert collects women.

Ch. 9 ex-vrouw met zoontje Alby aan deur → huis vol vrouwen
Ch 12 stukje terug (aankomst taxi met al haar koffers) &
Ch. 21 (aankomst taxi met dieren)

Deleuze describes these collections as the desire for connecting by collecting:
‘How can one exist, personally, if one cannot do so alone? How can something be made to pass through these packets of body, which are at once obstacles and means? Every time, space is made up from these excrescences of body, girls, luggage, animals, in search of a ‘current’ which would pass from one body to the next. ‘

It seems to me that here we have another image – a metaphor almost for contemporary culture, where within the quantity of data, we look for the quality of relations and connections.

In Inland Empire Laura Dern does not so much collect things, objects, or persons, as that we are offered a walk through the seemingly wild and random collection of worlds and images that she enters in her mind. Like Cassavetes’ film, it is hard/impossible even to give a plot summary, or in any case a plot summary just does no justice to the experience of the film. But it is clear that the heroine is emotionally in turmoil by what she experiences when she tries to make sense of the different type of images, among which Eastern European women (prostitutes, women traded?) and double or doubles of herself, a bunny family (‘It had something to do with the telling of time’), shifting places.

How do these collections of mental images connect? Note that Nikki/Sarah regularly sees the word ‘axxonn’ written on walls. (Axxonn is not only the title of an online drama series by Lynch but as you know, also the neurons in our brain that send out signals to other neurons, dentrites – in other words neurons that are looking for connections).

58 min. Axxonn (also online mysery drama 2002)
1.07.50 ‘Strange what love does’ – 1.12.13
1. 24.56 ‘Locomotion’

As in Love Streams the connections fail for large parts, and yet, something passes through. Something of a current, a connection, a stream passes through the body, passes through the brain.

A Woman in Trouble – A Woman of Mystery
There is one more element that needs to be raised, a strong and striking similar concern that both directors share, which is the image of a ‘Woman in Trouble. Both Cassavetes and Lynch have portrayed more than once women in trouble (think of Mabel in Women under the Influence or Dorothy (Isabella Rosselini) in Blue Velvet).

In an article on Cassavetes Jonathan Rosenbaum describes his experience of a theater play That Cassavetes directs right after Love Stream, which he considered as an afterthought and postscript to Love Streams. The title of the play was A Woman of Mystery and according to Cassavetes himself in his notes ‘About the Play’ the play has to do with an unexplored segment of our society referred to as the homeless, bag ladies, winos, bums. It has been difficult to explore this particular woman of mystery. She is not only homeless (if homeless means without the comfort of love), but she is nameless, without the practical application of social security, or any other identity. Alone, she clings to her baggage on the street. (…) The woman has been permanently disabled by the long discontinuance of feelings of love.”

As such, this nameless woman of mysteries resembles Sarah in Love Streams, the aging actress in Opening Night and Mabel in Women under the influence (who also temporary looses her home when she is put into a clinic). Both in the film and the play Cassavetes brings the image of a homeless women who lives in a state of suspended identity, not knowing where to place her continuing love (love is a continuous flow, it never stops, she says in the film) with such an intensity that this love actually jumps on the spectator, affects the spectator directly. And as such, Love Streams – and other Cassavetes films, restores ‘a belief in the world’ even though this belief is broken by personal disappointments, trauma’s and the incapacities to ‘connect’ (because of jealousies, pettiness, ignorance, or whatever reason). And, as Deleuze indicates ‘surely a true cinema can give us back reasons to believe in the world’, but the price to be paid, in cinema as elsewhere, was always a confrontation with madness.’ As we know, Cassavetes has never been afraid to show this confrontation with madness either.

Interestingly enough, when asked about Inland Empire Lynch responded that it is “about a woman in trouble, and it’s a mystery, and that’s all I want to say about it.” Here too, we can argue that the woman in trouble, the woman of mystery is homeless: Laura Dern, Nikki, Sarah does not where or when she is (she has trouble recognizing the order of things), and the film even suggests that even in her three identities, she could be the dream of yet another women. All women relate to a group of other homeless women, prostitutes, bag ladies. In fact all women are in trouble in Inland Empire, and the emotions are often of panic or despair.

Nevertheless there is also room for more affirmative motions. In any case the lyrics of one of the songs in the film which also features on the Dvd menu are ‘Strange what love does, so strange what love does’. At the end of the film, Lynch with all his dark emotions and scary places, even stages a strange family reunion (was it Nikki/Sarah’s alter ego?), and the film ends with the word “Swwueeet” and cheerfully dancing women (the eastern European smuggled women from earlier in the film) and happy faces even if the whole mise-en-scene is somewhat absurd. Contrary to Cassavetes who is actually less optimistic about the fate of his homeless women, or in any case leaves their fate even more open than Lynch does.

In final analysis it is clear that neither Cassavetes nor Lynch are afraid to torture their audience by presenting emotionally disturbing images, by annoying us with ambiguities in characters behavior and confusion of spatial and temporal references. Both directors undermine all our habitual forms of recognition of place, time and fixed identities. Their unconventional attitude towards the centrality of the spectacle, of filming in a free and independent way, looking for connections and intensities to escape from the spectacle, makes their work very relevant for digital screen culture. When asked about his digital cinema, Lynch frequently compares film to a spiderweb: “We are like a spider. We weaves our life and them move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe”. In the documentary I’m Almost not Crazy, whose title indicates again a confrontation with madness, Cassavetes points towards the importance of the spectacle without the metaphor of the spiderweb. Indicating first that philosophy means ‘to know how to love’, he then says: “You start thinking about life, and you realize everything is a movie.” The spectacle brings love and life. Life itself is not enough.

However different they may be, in digital culture (of which Cassavetes was ahead in spirit, and which Lynch with highspeed catches up), both ‘body’ and ‘brain’ need to connect to others. With their emphasis on the search for love and the confrontation with our emotions, especially (but not exclusively) embodied in the spectacle of the ‘woman in trouble’ both directors show that indeed, love streams in datastreams, or in any case it should…

this paper was first presented at Filmmuseum / Universiteit van Amsterdam
John Cassavetes Seminar
‘Life is not Enough’ -Cassavetes, creativeness and contemporary screen culture
Saturday 31 October, 10.00 – 17.30

2 Responses to “Love Streams in Data Streams? – Cassavetes, Lynch and the Spectacle in digital culture – by patricia pisters”

  1. Julie Sokolow Says:

    This is fantastic! Just linked to it in a related article. Thanks!

  2. A Woman under the Influence « Julie Sokolow Says:

    […] thorough look into the connection between Cassavetes and Lynch, check out this fantastic article on Kagablog. Share it:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized and […]