"Confidently donning a pair of sneakers with green laces, a white striped shirt, professor glasses and a beige jacket, on April 21 2012 Jonathan Lethem delivered the tenth State of Cinema address at the 55th San Francisco Film Festival, a honor he shared with the likes of Tilda Swinton (2006) and WIRED magazine Senior Maverick Editor Kevin Kelly (2008).
click here to listen to my bootleg: 20120421 140702
Lethem opened his talk with a joke "About a French magician... Actually the most celebrated stage magician in France", a prelude to his own act, "A six-plate spinning performance". Lethem justified his presence in the packed Sundance Kabuki movie theater by explaining that, like the American woman of the aforementioned joke, he was once "cajoled into a dark room to stare at ghosts on a screen". And he never fully recovered from that experience. Au contraire, the magic of cinema became an "object of devotion that would destroy my life" as any reader of The Disappointment Artist and his masterful new collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence. Nonfictions, Etc. (reviewed here, in Italian), knows. Like Binx Bolling, Walker Percy's anti-hero, Lethem described his movie going fascination as "A long, uninterrupted continuous daydream, a telescoping of a culture I could live inside, one that could help me explain what it was like to be conscious, nervous, mixed-up, hungry... To be born, involuntarily, a body, hurling into history, hurling into time". Thus, cinema became a generator of role models, explanations, paradigms... A perpetual Lacanian mirror stage. In short, cnema provides narrative that help us remediate the existential trauma of "being-thrown-into-the world".
His six plate-spinning acts of bravura - "All spinning at once on broomsticks!" - required an attentive audience, an audience that was expected "to connect the dots" between "something embarrassing," "the mumblecore genre" which Lethem finds both "arresting" and "vital," and the state of media. A second topic, no less interesting, was "The Occupy Wall Street movement [which] derives its power by its lack of inarticulation". Third, "Neotony, a concept borrowed from evolutionary science", which Lethem cogently applied to the arts, and cinema in particular. Subsequently, Lethem talked about "the role of cinema as an aging character in the new media domain". "Cinema has no present," claimed Lethem, who then concluded his irresistible tirade by illustrating two key dichotomies: "true vs. real" and "sponge listening vs. obedient listening." Et voilà.
"Cinema, like art itself, has one goal and one goal only: to defy time", he said, paraphrasing Bob Dylan. "The purpose of art is to stop time," he said, after a dramatic pause. "Every moviegoer recognizes that standards as a sensation recorded in the body, a literal suspension of our lives in the medium of cinematic life". The listeners were inundated by waves of gravitas.
1) "Mumblecore is both an arresting and important genre", Lethem argued before an audience that was scratching their heads in disbelief (actually, no, it was just me). The comment section for the typical mumblecore film on IMDB will likely include remarks like "This is like a John Cassavetes' movies about boring dumb rich kids with shitty tastes and everything," ("Real comment grabbed at random," assured Lethem). "These fierce words encapsulate every piece of resistance against that grassroots movement otherwise known as mumblecore." Like "queer" and "quacker", the definition "mumblecore" derives from someone else's scorn, thus openly derogatory, but, with an act of cultural transcoding, it was first appropriated by the scorned subculture and then subverted, until it became legitimized, so to speak. "Everything about these movies is embarrassing." Why? "The embarrassment has potential for reciprocity, with cinema itself and with us," Lethem explained. In fact, "It is embarrassing to embarrass others and it is embarrassing to witness embarrassment". Therefore, mumblecore is really about "The ecstasy of embarrassment".
Lethem confessed his obsession for the "mumblecore character", the mumblecore type, a pantomime that he simply "Cannot stop watching". He is not a fan of the "Shaky camera aesthetics [and the cellphone, and YouTube] which define the very essence of this art form", a convention that he compared to "Writing in the present tense,", itself "An abdication of formal tools the artist could cling to". Nevertheless, he finds mumblecore absolutely fascinating, to the point that these films are "slightly rewiring" his synapses", he said. Lethem auggested that "Andy Warhol, and not John Cassavetes, is the real father of the genre." Both Warhol and the mumblecore directors, "Introduce characters that seem barely willing to perform. In both cases, the viewer's attention floats in a medium of sporadic arousal". According to Lethem, "a fictional scene in a movie is an inadvertent documentary of the actors' lives". "If there is one thing certain in 21st century art making, is that to present one's vulnerabilities is to call forth the haters". He added that, "Lately, it is typical to dismiss a generation's prototypical artists by suggesting that their susceptibility to congenital pre-adolescence disqualifies their claims on our grown-up attention.... As if any of us can safely claim to be watching with 'grown-up attention'". "The counter-argument is that late techno-capitalism has made spoiled children of us all. Or at least, wants to." "We gaze into the mumble. And the mumble gazes back at us", he concluded. Interestingly, the demands of the mumblecoreans remind Lethem of the demands of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. In fact...
2) The strength of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement consists in their "Deliberate indeterminacy", Lethem stated. The refusal to address the reasons of their protest is the ultimate form of resistance, suggested Lethem who was as befuddled about their sudden appearance in Zuccotti Park, last September, as anybody else, "Including probably the protesters themselves". OCW is really about "bodies in spaces." The protesters were repeatedly asked to "State their demands". Instead, they miraculously decided "To remain, on strictly political terms, inarticulate", and by doing so, "They refused to be compromised and to become like any other political movement in history." Thus, "Their own existence... Their own presence... became a declaration of intents", a comment that echoes a similar remark previously made by Slavoj Zizek. "They did not take any hostages. They became the hostages," said Lethem. Quoting philosopher Judith Levine, the novelist argued that "The movement does not have demands, only desires" and "It successfully rejected any attempt to commodify and objectify the protest". Therefore, their act must be considered "A declaration of inchoate expressiveness [...] An admission of vulnerability.... A thing the marketplace tells us should be contemptible because unworkable, uncommodifiable". Thus, the OCW protest showed us "the very possibility of a critique of our complicity and tolerance for the System," aka market capitalism, that is often confused with a concept like America. Thus, "OWS was a triumph, one impossible to revoke," Lethem concluded.
3) Neoteny, "a mildly esoteric term that [...] comes from biological, evolutionary sciences [...] refers to the possibility of seeing the retention of some infant forms of a previous species in a later, more advanced species". A form of juvenilization. For instance, "Human beings are a neotenous version of some apes species". Physical anthropologist Barry Bogin cites Betty Boop as an example of neoteny: "A fully grown-up woman retaining childlike elements," as Lethem put it. The same applies to Japanese manga and anime, which represent a "Window into the future of man". Lethem argued that the concept of neoteny could explain the evolution of media and arts, including popular culture genres. For instance, rock and roll can be regarded as "A neotonous development of jazz", insofar it remediates elements of jazz, but "With a new tempo, style, and purpose". "The transitional genre that connects jazz to rock and roll was derisively lebeled 'clown jazz', a term used to describe transitional figures such as Cab Calloway". Lethem also mentioned Pablo Picasso's fascination for early African art, adding that his reinterpretation of primitivism could be explained in neotonous terms as the persistence of playful, lusory, childish attitudes in the so-called grown-up artist. Neoteny can be also seen in the "Preference to the sketch over the finished painting, the demotape over the finished track or the rehearsal over the final performance on the stage". The "preliminary form" is, for Lethem, the very site of neoteny.
According to Lethem, several film directors, e.g. Orson Welles, Chris Marker, Michael Almereyda, show neotonous traits in their "essay films". The neotenous aesthetics revolves around the idea of leaving some "Unresolved elements or problems inside the works," that is, to showcase the nature of the problem without necessarily propose any solution. So why is this phenomenon important? According to Lethem, neoteny is particularly evident in our age, an age "We call postmodernity, apocalypse, globalization, hyper-connectivity, hyper-velocity". The common denominator of all these definitions is that they identify a problem, a problem requiring "An unprecedented level of playfulness". Thus, to survive today one must adopt a neotonous attitude: embrace hesitation and indecisiveness. "The Arts as a whole can be seen in a neotonous relationship to our world". According to Lethem, like play "Art is largely not utilitarian, and uncommodifiable activity, deeply typical of children". Thus, "All arts are a form of play". Huizinga would certainly agree. Lethem has been discussing neoteny for several years now (consider, for example, this conversation with Rodrigo Fresan in 2006), but this articulation was particularly engaging. Lethem ideas about the playfulness of art reminds me of Vilem Flusser's notion of the Non-Spectacular playful revolutionaries he described in his masterful Into the Universe of Technical Images.
4) The next spinning plate? Technology and new media, or better, the relationship between technology and cinema. Lethem, who lived in the Bay Area in the Nineties, described the state of hyper-excitement that accompanied the so-called "virtual reality revolution," prophesized, among the others, by Jaron Lanier. "It was supposed to produce a complete media convergence, which, in turn, was going to eradicate the differences among all media. Well, none of these predictions came true." Lethem, as a novelist, compared himself to a time traveler, a voyager from approximately a century ago, "A time when novels were supposedly ruled the world, before being thrown into obsolescence by the arrival of new media forms like radio plays or cinema". `"We all know the script, we have all taken it into our bodies: new forms and media arrive and destroy the earlier ones: painting destroyed by photography, theater destroyed by radio, radio destroyed by cinema, cinema destroyed by television, television destroyed by the internet, home taping is killing the record industry and so on... But such technological apocalypse never takes place. It is a mere fiction."
New media never truly annihilate old media, says Lethem, who confesses that he still owns - and regularly uses - a fax machine. He also noted how supposedly new forms of communication like Twitter are mostly used to deliver "old media content", e.g. "Gossip" about the reasons why the Pulitzer committee - "A bunch of old newspapers editors" - could not decide on a winner. If there is one thing that we tend to overestimate, Lethem said, is the newness of new media. He argued that the appearance of a new medium produces two main effects on the older medium that it is supposed to replace. First, the old medium becomes "Even older", that is, it further and deeper develops its "specificity". For instance, "When cinema entered the scene, writers experimented with new styles of writing that could not possibly be emulated or replicated by other media, e.g. stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narration, multiple subjectivities and so forth.". The same applies to painting which "exploded" with such styles as Impressionism, Expressionism when photography and cinema came along, as the documentary Picasso and Braque go to the Movies perfectly illustrates.
A second consequence or effect is that the novel "Started borrowing elements from cinema," that is, writers and novelists began to emulate cinema's narrative convention and tactics, a process that Richard Grusin and David Jay Bolter called "Remediation" in their seminal 1999 book. In short, the emergence of cinema "re-energized the novel, rather than killing it". Examples quoted by Lethem include Joyce, Nabokov, Greene, Robbe-Grillet... Lethem noted that the prevailing rhetoric of "apocalypse" and "disruption" - that is, media are allegedly competing with each other in a Darwininian media landscape - is just plain wrong, as, in reality, they appear to co-exist, interact, and influence each other. "Moral panics" vs. utopian views ("The new medium will free mankind from the chains of the pre-existing conditions"). Lethem talks about the "weird persistence of delivery systems and narrative frameworks that refuse to be dislodged, as if they were part of our own bodies." "New media bunch up" says Lethem, who calls himsenf "An emissary from his own undead medium".
In a sense, all media are like zombies insofar as they refuse to go away and rest in peace even after they are declared 'dead'. In this sense, "cinema is the ultimate undead," as it has been called "finished" so many times in history. Ditto for the novel. Cinema is dead, and yet, Lethem marveled at the fact that, in the multiplex of his suburban town of Pomona where he teaches Creative Writing, he was able to watch independent and foreign gems such as Joseph Cedar's Footnote and the Dardenne' brothers The Kid with the Bike "on large screens in dark rooms" and then catch on his couch Police, Adjective on Netflix. If there is one thing that new media has produced is a new form of cinephilia. We live in a perpetual "Festival era", concluded Lethem. Hard to disagree.
Thus, "Cinema has no present". Lethem briefly discussed - and dismissed - the stereotype that today's youth is drowning in a sea of information. As a teacher of undergraduate students he finds himself "On the frontlines of a generation which came to age with the cultural shift introduced by constant digital access". Lethem argued that "Today's kids are swimmers rather than drowners," as "They are able to navigate the flow of data much better than we think". In fact, he added, "Their appetite is strangely diligent". Therefore, "the digital divide is highly overrated". The truth is that we have always been facing information overload. And we have always survived thanks to filters, such as critics. Lethem quotes the legendary Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris. "We have always been able to find the things we love", which is to say that "We have always been postmodern," concluded Lethem subverting Latour's claim that "We have never been modern". Even more, "post-modernity is a description, nothing more It has the same characteristics described in T.S. Eliot's poems, and James Joyce or Julio Cortazars' novels..." [Additional details here]. What does this mean to Cinema? Lethm's conclusion is illuminating: "When I look at them [teenagers immersed in digital media, Ed.] I realize that cinema has no present, but multiple pasts... And multiple futures". There's more: "Cinema is closer than ever to a new beginning. Not because of the arrival of new media... Cinema is constantly reinventing itself. It is not coming to an end." Rather, it is simply restarting, rebooting, ever changing.
As an interesting aside, Lethem warned the audience of "Any time you hear a major media corporation - either an old and decrepit one or a bright and shiny new digital one - telling you that the imperatives of that media corporation coincide with the needs of the Artist, the Future survival of an art medium, or with the needs of the Individual, or the Collective, or the Commons... YOU ARE HEARING A LIE", You are hearing... TOTAL FUCKING BULLSHIT!". Lethem did not explicitly mention Google or Facebook, but it is clear he was referring to companies that pretend "To organize the world's knowledge" or "Connect everybody in a frictionless way."
6) To explain the difference between "the true vs. the real," Lethem referred to Samuel Delany's novel, Dhalgren. "We define what is true by a process of exclusion," he said. "True is what is not false,"(think Ferdinand De Saussure's explanation of 'language as a relational process', e.g. "the cat is not a dog"; signified > signifier). "The real, on the other hand, is inclusive. So inclusive, in fact, that it includes what we call the Surreal, the Trans-real, the Hyper-real, the Intangible..." The real, according to Lethem, includes ideology, power, language (notices that for Lacan, these belong to the Symbolic order, not the Real, which, by definition refuses symbolization).
What is filmmaking, then? "Art is a pursuit of the real, not of the true, for all art consists of artifice [...] Art is about the manipulation of symbols. Film language is a language despite of being made, usually, of photographic chunks, of photographic evidence of the actual. It is in every sense a construction of gestures, impulses, suspicions, evocations, and dreams. A compilations of fragments...". However, "If we consent that what appears as real in Art is actually instructed by plastic materials with deeply arbitrary properties, we make ourselves eligible to consider the notion that what is considered as natural of everyday life could be a construction as well". Echoes of Michel Foucault, but also Philip K. Dick.
Finally, Lethem illustrated the differences between what he called "Sponge listening vs. Obedient listening". He did so by describing his own experience as a father of two, a four year old and a two year old. "Obedient listening is when you ask somebody to get into a bath and they do not get into the bath or even acknowledge your presence or that you even said any words at all". Sponge listening is the kind of immature listening that absorbs all the information one comes in contact without fully understand its implications. "It is a kind of childish, playful, infantile behavior, the kind of behavior we see when a kid discovers a new toy." Cinema is not very good at obedience listening. "It does not actually bother with it at all. No matter how many times I say, 'Hey studios, don't mess with my toys, and comics books, and board games and sexual fantasies, they inevitably screw them up".
During the brief, but very interesting Q&A session, Lethem argued that internet culture brought the "closet into the open", that is, it gave ephemera, trivialities, and everyday activities, "A new kind of visibility". "People have always been producing weird stuff and have always been engaging in arcane activities," Lethem remarked. "What is really new is the fact the now we can see it. We can see it all. We can quantify what we do - or not do - online." Lethem mentioned the uncanny ability to track, in real time, "how many books I am not selling on Amazon". "Reality has acquired a new level of measurability". "The activities we perform in our digital age are not necessarily new. What is new is.That. We. Can. See. Them. All.".
This situation produced surprising situations. He mentioned the case of his four year old kid who was obsessed by whales and started watching a bunch of whales videos on YouTube. The kid incidentally stumbled upon John Huston's Moby Dick, "Which is available on YouTube in its entirety," and subsequently "became obsessed in Moby Dick rather than whales in general,". Lethem has not told his son about the novel upon which the film is based, but added that "He will eventually bring that fact into the picture, so to speak". Again, the point is that today's kids are way smarter than we think. Their curiosity and willingness to explore the media and art landscape is unparalled in history. In short, the kids are alright. It is the adults who might need some help.
Asked about the possible future adaptations of his novels, Lethem mentioned that David Lynch was once interested in bringing Amnesia Moon to the big screen. "He was not planning to direct the film himself," Lethem said, "He was going to ask Tim Hunter, who made River's Edge, to do it instead. Still, quite exciting, right?". He also mentioned that David Cronenberg had optioned As She Climbed Across the Table [which incidentally is my favorite Lethem's novel]. So far none of these projects has seen the light of the day, but "things could change". Lethem also confessed that he sent a copy ofFortress of Solitude to Pedro Almodovar who once "Expressed interest in directing a movie based on a contemporary American novel". "I guess mine was not that novel," Lethem joked.
"I really admire those directors who are able to completely reinvent a novel they adapt for the big screen [...] Using those parts that work in a cinematic context... Those who suffocate the book, drowning it under water until it becomes a mass of wet pulp. At that point - and only at that point - the novel - or better, its remains - can be successfully turned into a movie". Et voilà." (Matteo Bittanti, WIRED)