Today sees the publication of my first book, Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, which is available through Zero Books.
Here’s a brief extract from it, in fact it is the conclusion. anybody who knows me well knows that I do like to give away endings…
The Eye and the Razor
“I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution. What have we done to our images? We need images in accordance with our civilization and our innermost conditioning, and this is the reason why I like any film that searches for new images no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. One must dig like an archaeol- ogist and search our violated landscape to find anything new. It can sometimes be a struggle to find unprocessed and fresh images.” (Werner Herzog)
In the opening scenes of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 silent surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou a middle-aged man sharpens his razor at his balcony door before testing its sharpness on his thumb. He then opens the door, plays with the razor while gazing up at the moon, which is about to be engulfed by a thin white cloud. There is a cut to a close-up of a young woman being held from behind by the man as she stares, calm, straight ahead. Another cut occurs to the moon being overcome by a cloud; the man slits the woman’s eye with the razor, the vitreous humour spills out.
Cinema, like poetry, is capable of revealing dimensions of meaning that are deeper than the level of truth on the surface of things. Cinema has the capacity to disturb our perceptual habits and everyday patterns of thought, to suggest new ways of perceiving the world, new emotional affects and new ways of thinking. These dimensions of truth can be immeasurably deeper than those reached by much contemporary Hollywood cinema. A realm beyond prosaic reality, it provides some of the most fertile areas for filmmakers.
Through its reduction to instantaneous and easily consumed mass-media representation, the complex ontological stratum of the world has become increasingly levelled. Everything represented has become surface without depth – a screen. Many of us feel alienated from this surface, having lost our grasp upon its smooth and depthless skin. We have become marked by less and less commitment to the reality of the world; its past and its future are impossibly removed from us. We exist enchained to the present, unencumbered by either the layers of the past or alter- native visions of the future, floating in a frictionless surface state without any depth coordinates.
This ontological nihilism cannot be challenged through the straightforward cultivation of ‘facts’ or by an obsessive raking over of the actual, it must also be confronted by a rejuvenated sense of our own capacity to transform and rediscover deeper ‘truths’ in the world. It is absolutely vital that we strive to become simultaneously historical and futural. In other words, we must work towards discovering the means to cut ourselves free from our present state and become something else, the coordinates of which cannot be found in the ‘factual’ conditions of the present. The succession of imagery in cinema can recount our inner lives – our complex psycho-spiritual histories, our hopes and aspirations, our dreams and fantasies, and our collective madness. Through poetry, it chronicles our inner spiritual voyages, the adventurous spirit of humanity’s extraordinary exodus, and enables us to collectively experience the least understood truths about ourselves.
A process of poetically re-enchanting a world that has become fatally commodified and eroded by the viral forces of contem- porary capitalism, has to be activated through cinema. This filmic re-enchantment offers the hope of an emergence of a vital faith in the possibility of living differently again; of seeing, thinking and being in ways that can circumvent the myopic present, a present in which certain disastrous drives and desires have been unleashed and allowed to dominate all life. The counter-sensible strategies, oneiric explorations and poetic myth-building associated with the art of cinema carried out by some of the film directors discussed in this book (e.g. Haneke, Lynch and Herzog) offer powerful tools for the recreation of a visual space of open possibility capable of confronting the shrinking boundaries of the present. However, cinema does not remain confined to such paths – other, perhaps stranger, crueler and more mysterious byways await cinema. It just needs to take the risk and to sever the ties that presently bind it.
As Herzog recognizes, the familiar cinematic language of common sense, which remains anchored to the reality of surfaces and to a naturalistic understanding of human cognition as something invariable, is utterly ill equipped to bring us back into proximity with the complex and multi-faceted nature of ourselves and the world. It is even less capable of challenging the disastrous cultural nihilism that confronts us. Stranger and less familiar approaches are required in order that we might once again catch a glimpse of hidden truths and to begin to cultivate new forms of optimistic belief in the world as it is – oblique, elliptical and counter-sensible cinematic means. Within mainstream Hollywood cinema, despite its hyper-technological prowess, there exists an impoverished palette of images that reify a grotesque caricature of what both we and the world are. Myopic narcissism of the present results in forms of cinema that simply orient us repeatedly back upon a monolithic set of narrow possibilities – this is a nightmarish amphitheatre where films such as Dennis Dugan’s Jack and Jill (2011), Stephen Sommers’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Roland Emmerich’s 2012 are screened back-to-back, twenty-four hours a day, every day. Repeated trips to the cinema feel like an eternal circle in which everything is different yet fatally the same. Like the never-ending quest for a sharper razor with even more blades that will provide an ever-closer shave, we are still essentially being sold the same old thing – a razor. We must grasp this razor, in the manner of Dali and Bunuel, and slice apart the eye of the present so that a future vision is unleashed, or slit our throats from boredom.