Avant-Garde Realism (Redux)


Little did I know, 16 years ago when I wrote an article about the experimental uses of digital cinema, that one day I’d be putting theory to practice in my own film. The Removals—a lo-fi, sci-fi love story produced by the film production wing of Two Dollar Radio—conjures the genre of the paranoid thriller to explore the idea of replication and disruption in the digital age. What I had wondered in that original article at CTheory was this: how is it possible that deformations of reality in digital cinema somehow, paradoxically, take us deeper into a more authentic, natural rhythm of time. I was thinking specifically of boundary-pushing films of the time shot on digital, such as Time Code (Mike Figgis, 2000), Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002), and Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002). The nature of digital storage allowed for unedited shots of extraordinary length (i.e., the length of the entire film) in ways that were impossible previously because of the limits inherent in how much film could be loaded into a motion picture movie camera’s magazine. (Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope approximated a single-take film, the cuts being disguised through shadows and camera movement.)

But beyond that I had wondered about the philosophical and political implications of this new digital cinema. The replication of images and sound with no generation loss means that reproduction is immune to time. The gradual wear and tear of time on everyday objects—buildings, books, rocks, us—weirdly doesn’t apply to digital information, which exists, in theory, lossless and perpetual. At the heart of The Removals—whose plot involves a nefarious ideological group that tries to reshape history by removing it and replacing it with a replica—is this feeling of awe, and unease, about the power of our digital and socially networked mediums.

Not the power of surveillance, necessarily, but the fact that so-called artificial reality is, in fact, as real as the reality it reproduces. A sort of alienating, second-order reality. The film’s title comes from a captivity narrative written by Mary Rowlandson and first published in 1682 entitled A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Rather than chapters, Rowlandson’s narrative is divided in “Removes,” (as in “Fourth Remove”), twenty in all. These “removes” mark not only her physical removal deeper into the wilderness as the Native Americans (the Wampanoag, during King Philip’s War) elude their Puritan pursuers, but also her spiritual removal, as she struggles to understand why God has allowed this trauma to happen to her. “By now, the next morning, I must turn my back upon the town, and travel with them into the vast and desolate wilderness, I knew not whither,” begins her second removal, as the “wilderness” becomes metaphysical as well as physical. Later in the narrative, at a low point when she considers suicide, she refers, hauntingly, to her “wilderness condition.”

In The Removals the protagonist, Kathryn #1 (played by Milly Sanders) works for a group whose initial goals are utopian: to remove the “bad” parts of history by re-enacting them with happier outcomes. As a child of the 1970s my reference points are analog, and I had in mind the way that we used to copy new movies onto old ones on VHS, to spare the cost of buying new, blank, VHS cassettes. Rather than use two VHS recorders I’d simply insert a rented movie (i.e., Alien) into my Sears camcorder, and press “play.” The camcorder would be wired to a VHS player, with a tape of another dubbed movie (i.e., Casablanca) that I’d be taping over. The result would be imperfect, but serviceable—a dubbed version of Alien that had some moments and bleed through from Casablanca. I could never really ever fully remove the images on the dubbed-over tape; they persisted.

But of course making a film does violence to reality, as well, hijacking locations and objects to make it appear that they serve some other narrative, some other version of reality. When it was all clicking during the filming of The Removals it really did feel like what we were witnessing slipped from the realm of narrative film to documentary, as in Betty’s (Naomi Watts) audition scene from Mulholland Drive. So real it becomes hyper-real, obliterating the distinctions between fiction and fact.

Perhaps one of the social functions of art, today, is to distort the one-to-one correspondence to the perceived world that the digital image offers, to break it, to muck up its gears. Avant-garde realism. Against the disembodied immortality of information, of data, secured away in clouds of unknowing we call for a new realism, extended, distorted, pushed so far to the limits that what emerges doesn’t obey the limits of reality.

We already know that, at its bedrock layers, reality itself does not behave. It is unruly. Irrational. Radically unfamiliar. The most experimental of our novels, films, music, is on some level an effort to pierce through so-called realism to recover what we already instinctively know about the bizarre behavior of reality at its most basic levels.

But beyond this, a yearning for art that socially engages. Weirdly, the right-wing has inherited the mantle of the most reductive form of postmodern thought, dispensing with facts and reality and history as if it is all just one big construction. Karl Rove’s famous dismissal in 2004 of the “reality-based community” (“We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality”) seems like a prophecy now, come true.

The Removals is a small but deeply felt effort by a small band of people to reanimate and extend the committed, paranoid, theoretical workings of Horkheimer, Adorno, Kristeva, and Baudrillard. Perhaps it was overkill, but prior to us gathering to film The Removals I sent the cast a copy of Paul Virilio’s slim book The Administration of Fear, basically an extended interview, where he says: “We are facing of a real, collective madness reinforced by the synchronization of emotions. Emergency exit: we have entered a time of general panic.” In part, he’s talking about how instantaneous interaction across vast distances (something not possible prior to the Web) sets the conditions for something potentially very dangerous.

Is it possible for film to harness itself to both theory and genre to create a narrative space for reflection and then, hopefully, action?

We’ll see.


The Removals premieres at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio on May 4.

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