The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Writing the Reconciliation Scene

As a teacher of screenwriting I’m always amazed that in the scripts of my students, after setting up dramatic conflicts between characters, characters will often suddenly and abruptly reach a “new understanding,” defusing whatever dramatic tension the script has been building up to. This occasionally happens in actual films as well, such as in River’s Edge (1987). Written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim Hunter, the film establishes a dramatic conflict between the protagonist, Matt, and his delinquent younger brother, Tim, who has been stalking Matt and plans to shoot him in revenge. Matt, however, successfully manages to convince Tim to put down the gun near the film’s climax because after all “they’re brothers.” Yet this is not a very satisfying strategy for a number of reasons. When human conflict arises, reconciliation is never that easy despite the best of intentions, but rather involves a very difficult and complex process of human interaction.

David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (2003) can serve as a model of the inability of its two main characters to reconcile. In the film, Paul and Noel seem meant for each other. As in all romantic plotlines, obstacles prevent the two from getting together. Paul’s friendship with Tip turns out to be the initial one. Paul has a checkered past with women, and, hence, Tip would disapprove of Paul making a move on his inexperienced younger sister. Tip confronts Paul at the end of the first act, and beats up a bystander in a displaced display of anger and violence. Paul and Tip, however, manage to reconcile towards the end of the middle act. When Paul approaches his friend in an attempt to make peace following his own poor showing in the car race, Tip admits to behaving like Paul in terms of women, referring to them as “partners in crime.” Tip also reveals a number of personal secrets: he’s never slept the night with any of the woman with whom he’s had sex, still wets his bed and has to sleep with the lights on, and regrets yelling at his brother, Justin, for messing with his lady bug collection. These revelations come as something of a surprise until Tip confesses to Paul that he’s just gotten someone pregnant. Tip’s own personal crisis has worn down his resistance, which allows him to forgive Paul for dating his sister. Paul asks Tip whether he loves the woman. Although it’s not clear that he does, Tip cries and Paul responds by kissing him affectionately, thus completing their reconciliation.

Paul’s attempts to reconcile with Noel, however, prove far more difficult. For Paul, Noel embodies an important change in his life. Up until now Paul has been an insensitive womanizer, but once he gets together with Noel, he imbues their relationship with much larger hopes and aspirations, namely, a desire to make something of himself and to leave town. This point is underscored by his conflicts with his mother, a literal clown, who sees in her son a reflection of everything that has gone wrong in her own life. As a result of Paul’s determination to change, he and Noel end up being unable to consummate their relationship in the middle act for a variety of reasons. The second turning point occurs when Noel confesses to Paul that she’s had an affair while spending the weekend with her girlfriends at a lakeside cottage. Noel has altered her appearance by cutting her hair short, which serves as a visual sign that something significant has happened.

The ensuing scene becomes interesting for how the two lovers move in  opposite directions from each other. Being away from Noel has only made Paul love her even more. He tries to kiss her, but she begs off, indicating that she’s still a bit hung over from the weekend. Noel discusses an incident where someone named Patrick was mooning people at the lake. The mention of another guy and the sexual innuendo of her interest in mooning make Paul uncomfortable. When he insists on taking her someplace special and indicates that he has a surprise for her, Noel tries to talk to him about what has happened at the cottage. In the awkward silence she takes his hand and kisses it, but when he presses her about the guy at the lake and fears she’s been raped, she finally blurts out: “We fucked!” The bluntness of her confession stuns Paul. He warns Noel not to say anything, but she responds: “I’m just trying to figure out what I’m going to do here.” Paul shouts back: “Wait a second, what am I going to do, huh?”

The relationship between the two can possibly still be salvaged, but instead of apologizing and begging for forgiveness, Noel tells Paul that she loves him. Sleeping with someone else has made her realize that she actually does love Paul, but the discrepancy or incongruity between what she says (“I love you”) and her actions (sleeping with a total stranger, but not with him) is exactly what so injures Paul. He yells: “Why would you say that?” As Noel in her confusion discovers and recognizes her love for Paul, he is actually in the process of falling out of love with her. He criticizes her for using her declaration of love as a way of covering the fact that she “fucked up.” As she continues to profess her love for him, Paul responds: “I’m looking at you right now and I hear you talking and all the words that are coming out of your mouth are like they are coming out of a stranger.”

In a subsequent scene in the bar, Paul attempts to apologize to one of his old girlfriends, Mary-Margaret, but she answers: “You’re not sorry. You know how I know that . . . because you’re not smart enough to be sorry.” Noel and Paul’s dorky friend, Bust-Ass, turn up together. After Paul stares at the two of them, he tries to talk to Mary-Margaret, even though he’s too drunk to realize that things between them have long ago gone over the line where reconciliation is even possible. Paul tells her a maudlin story about a flock of ducks crashing into a big house. While this “mistake in nature” makes Paul cry, Mary-Margaret can only feel contempt for him. Paul then smashes his mug of beer on the floor and grunts like a wounded animal.On the way home with his Uncle Leyland, Paul’s car stalls. Noel comes by in her pick-up truck and asks Paul to go for a ride. This represents her attempt at reconciliation:

NOEL: What are you thinking about?
PAUL: I’m thinking about how weak I must be for sitting in this car right now.
NOEL: I wish we could talk.
PAUL: Well, it sounds to me like you got Bust-Ass to talk to.

Paul still cannot forgive Noel for her infidelity. He’s jealous of Bust-Ass for one thing. As Paul attempts to discuss his feelings, Noel makes the fatal mistake of bringing up Bust-Ass as a point of reference. He responds: “I don’t care what that fucking dick said.” Paul indicates his regrets about his promiscuous past, but Noel asks him: “Are you saying that we should just forget about each other?” When Paul doesn’t respond, she adds: “That’s the saddest thing in the whole world.” If Paul were to kiss Noel or profess his love for her, the two might be able to reconcile, but jealousy prevents Paul from taking this tack. Instead, Paul chooses to lecture her once again about “fucking up,” and then splits from her truck.

Noel chases after him and implores Paul to come over one last time. She gives a heart-felt apology: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I want to make sure that the words in my head come across to you. I want you to see the feelings I have for you.” He comes over to her house and the two of them end up making love, but because Paul still hasn’t forgiven her, their lovemaking is totally devoid of emotion. The next morning, as Paul puffs on a cigarette, Noel asks him whether he’s okay. She remarks despondently: “I don’t know what to say to you anymore.” He answers: “Well, don’t say anything,” causing her to respond: “Well don’t smoke in my room.” The two of them have reached a stand-off. Their physical intimacy has not resulted in reconciliation, but only left them even more estranged from one another.

In the following scene with his mother, Elvira, we learn the truth about what Paul really feels about Noel – he’s been sitting around and crying over her.

ELVIRA: It isn’t going to do you any good. I got news for you. You got to grow up and balance your personal life with responsibility.
PAUL: What am I supposed to do? Dress up like a clown . . . and change bed pans. I don’t understand why I have to listen to this crap when I’m fucking standing here with a broken heart, about ready to slit my wrists.

Paul may be ready to kill himself over Noel, but he remains incapable of forgiving her. Elvira slaps him in the face and cries, while Paul closes his eyes and tries to transcend the reality of the situation. Elvira is very critical of him for wasting opportunities she hasn’t had. Paul later tells Uncle Leland that he wants to wipe Noel completely out of his mind, but his uncle, who has lost the wife he loved through illness, counsels him: “No you don’t. I can tell you that right now.”

Paul takes his uncle’s advice to heart. We watch as he primps in front of the mirror and then shows up at Noel’s house. After Justin answers the door, Noel steps into view and says: “Well stop the world. You came to the door.” Paul responds, “I did. You know I got some stuff to say if you don’t mind.” Paul is finally taking the initiative at reconciling with Noel, but just at this moment Bust-Ass saunters in from the other room. Noel appears to be embarrassed. She tells Paul: “We’re making macaroni and cheese. Want some?” Paul shakes his head affirmatively, but after a long pause responds: “No.” Jealousy has surfaced once again, causing Paul’s internal conflict to register in his schizoid response. Noel also laughs inappropriately at Bust-Ass’s antics. His pride hurt, Paul turns and walks off with advice to Justin to “be strong,” as Noel stares longingly after him. Paul’s equation of strength (refusal to forgive) in opposition to weakness (forgiveness) is at the core of his problem and what has prevented the couple from reconciling. Had Paul accepted the dinner invitation as awkward as it might have been with Bust-Ass there, reconciliation might have occurred.

Paul walks to his car, and expresses his true feelings of anger and self-hatred when he punches out the side window. This causes Noel to race down the steps to find out whether Paul is hurt. This leads to a moment where the two of them finally talk to each other frankly and openly.

PAUL: I’m not the smartest guy in the world. But I guess what I was trying to do was become a better person. You know what I think? You know my problem is not anything that you did. It’s between me . . . and . . . me.
NOEL: Well I did what I did. It felt . . . so . . . wrong. And that’s when I realized that I love you. (Crying) You can’t understand it, but that’s when I found out. It’s an emotional thing too. Nobody tells you that part.
PAUL: It’s true.
NOEL: I miss your face. You know what? You’re not allowed to hate me . . . because I’m not going to let you.
Paul touches her face.
NOEL (Cont.): Nobody said we had to be perfect.

In response, Paul takes her hand and puts it to her face, a similar gesture to Noel’s before she revealed her infidelity. Noel confesses: “I wish it didn’t hurt with every thought of you.” As the two of them stare into each other’s eyes, she tells him, “You have my heart.” Having placed herself in a completely vulnerable position, Noel gets up to leave. This now puts the onus on Paul, who should not allow her to slip away. Paul, however, sits in the street and makes no such effort, as we watch Noel, in a wide shot, disappear back into the house. Sadly, Paul has let this critical moment of reconciliation pass, and this indecision on his part will no doubt haunt him for the rest of his life.

The entire third act of All the Real Girls has involved the attempt of these two characters to reconcile following Noel’s infidelity. As we have seen, there have been many opportunities, but the two characters turn out to be out of sync with each other in their various attempts at reconciliation. Noel has told Paul how much she loves him numerous times, but Paul remains too self-absorbed to realize the disconnection between his love for Noel and his actual behavior. Paul thinks he needs to remain strong, while he really needs to cry and admit what he truly feels for Noel if there’s any hope of saving their relationship. Instead of giving her a kiss, he touches her face. As she pours out her heart to him, he remains locked in a state of extreme jealousy and self-loathing. Noel’s single transgression has been something that Paul has done to other woman numerous times. Paul, however, can’t forgive Noel because he can’t forgive himself, and so the film shows how it’s possible for two people who love each other to fail to reconnect through an inability to enact the process of reconciliation and everything that entails.

An example of a scene that involves true reconciliation can be found in Running on Empty (1988), written by Naomi Foner (Gyllenhaal) and directed by Sidney Lumet. In the film, Arthur and Annie Pope are two former ’60s radicals, who have been on the run for blowing up a university building as a protest against the Viet Nam War. Arthur and Annie have two children, but the oldest one, Danny, now a high-school senior, has secretly applied to Julliard to study music. Annie sets up a meeting with her father, Patterson, whom she hasn’t seen in years, at a posh restaurant in order to ask him to take Danny so that he can attend Julliard. The tension between father and daughter is apparent immediately from the start. Annie sits down without Patterson giving her a hug or saying a word. Annie’s greeting is met with silence. She then tells him: “You can call the cops if you want to.” When he still doesn’t respond, Annie apologizes, indicating that this meeting is just as difficult for her. Patterson uses silence as his initial weapon against Annie, but he now switches to employing a guilt trip.

PATTERSON: I wonder if you’ll ever know what it’s like. Not to see your child for fourteen years. Not know whether she’s living or dead. Not knowing whether that child is responsible for the death and mutilation of other human beings. Not knowing whether to hold yourself for that death and mutilation because it’s your child pulling the triggers and setting the bombs.

Annie denies killing anyone and defends herself by claiming that her action was an act of conscience to stop the war, but her father retorts coldly, “The man was blinded and paralyzed.”

Patterson’s anger towards Annie is deep-seated – it has been festering for fourteen years after all – which is why he vents now that she has returned as a supplicant. When Annie defends herself by indicating that the building was supposed to be empty and by expressing her profound personal regrets for what happened, her father belittles her act of conscience by attributing it to Arthur’s influence. Responding to the put-down, Annie insists that it was her idea. Patterson then moves on to push another emotional button: “And your mother and me? Do you ever think of us?” Annie responds tearfully, “Do you really have to ask that?” Patterson does because he has a lot of resentment to get off his chest for her characterization of him as an “Imperialist Pig.” Annie offers as her defense the fact that she was young at the time. Finding a vulnerable opening, Patterson once again attacks: “Yes. You were that. And beautiful. And talented. And so full of love. My God, Annie. Why did you throw it all away?” Annie’s already clearly regretful, but her father can’t help but rub it in her face. When Patterson mentions that his wife misses her and Danny, Annie seizes the opening by asking: “Would you take him, Dad?”

We learn important exposition when Patterson reveals that Annie had also been accepted at Julliard and had the potential to be “a world class pianist.” In response to Annie’s request, however, her father turns her down by replying: “Don’t you think this is too much to ask?” He then offers her various excuses for the impositions this would create in his life. Annie answers: “Yes. I think it’s too much to ask.” The two have now reached a stalemate, but Annie keeps the communication open by mentioning her youngest son, Harry. Patterson verbally slams her again by indicating, “I heard it on the news.” Annie now opens up and reveals that she’s going to turn herself in once Harry is old enough. This confirms her regrets for her past actions. When her father asks about Arthur, Annie indicates that her plans are separate from his. She then asks him once again to take Danny: “Please think about this. I don’t want Danny to have to pay for my mistakes for the rest of his life. He deserves a chance to make his own. Don’t you think so, Dad?”

After making her final plea, Annie gets up to go. The onus for reconciliation has fallen on Patterson, who, after a brief delay, puts his hand on hers and prevents her from leaving. He then solemnly tells her, “He can come to us.” Patterson’s concession now enables Annie to admit the depth of her love and feelings for her parents and the tremendous sense of loss she has felt all these years on the lam. Annie tells him: “Please tell Mom that I love her. That I’ve thought of you both often. Called out for you. I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much pain. I guess I’m about to see what it feels like. I love you, Dad.” As Annie gets up to leave the restaurant, Patterson body quakes from an eruption of feeling that obviously has been repressed for a very long time, indicating that only now is he able to accept her sincere apology.

Earlier Patterson couldn’t respond to his daughter. He first needed to vent his pent-up anger at her for all the pain, suffering, humiliation, and guilt she caused both him and his wife by her radical actions. Patterson needs to become convinced of Annie’s true regret, which becomes confirmed once she announces her plans to turn herself in to the police at a later time, thus separating herself from Arthur. The reconciliation hangs in the balance when Patterson refuses her request initially. If Annie were to leave at this point, it certainly would not occur. Her intuitive decision to try one last time turns out to be the decisive factor. Only when her Patterson acquiesces to her request to take Danny can Annie then express her true feelings for her parents, which causes her father’s rigidity to begin to collapse. Patterson has cut off his emotions as a means of survival, but their reconciliation allows both of them to come to a new understanding only after they have undergone a process of working through the complexity of their feelings, allowing Patterson to prevent another life, that of his grandson, from being squandered through a second bad decision. Their reconciliation comes from an emotional understanding that the situation has become reversed now that Annie is willing to sacrifice herself for Danny. She will soon endure the same fate that he and his wife have experienced only too intimately – what it feels like to be estranged from your child.

Annie’s reconciliation with her father allows the two parties to bridge the gap in their respective feelings, enabling each to understand and empathize with the other’s perspective. Yet, despite numerous opportunities, Paul never manages to forgive Noel. Call it stubbornness or stupidity, Paul’s actions run contrary to his actual feelings, so that his failed attempts at reconciliation result in a tragic outcome. At a crucial moment, Paul allows Noel to walk away without reconciling, whereas Patterson, at least the second time, manages to prevent Annie from leaving. One major difference has to do with the fact that Paterson manages to vent his anger throughout much of the scene at the restaurant, whereas Paul keeps his true feelings bottled up inside. Patterson recognizes an important parallel between himself and Annie, which is why he ultimately accepts her apology. Paul fails to acknowledge the parallel, which is to recognize that Noel has made a terrible mistake that she now regrets, one that he, of all people, should be able and willing to understand.

As the two scenes from All the Real Girls and Running on Empty suggest, reconciliation is not something that can be willed by either party, but rather represents a delicate balance between two people, the outcome of which can often hinge on a single inappropriate response or a misspoken phrase or sentence. Even when characters love each other very deeply, the inability to respond properly in a situation in which one party has hurt the other, thereby causing an emotional rift, can either save or end the relationship. The act of reconciliation cannot be arbitrarily short-circuited, and always involves a heightening rather than defusing of dramatic struggle. Writing a reconciliation scene in a dramatic screenplay involves understanding how much is really at stake by demonstrating the treacherous terrain that estranged characters must navigate if they are to succeed or fail at arriving at a new and empathetic understanding of each other.

Posted 28 August, 2007

Jean-Isidore Isou (1925-2007): Venom and Eternity

It is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when Bosley Crowther routinely used to attack any novel or daring new film release, such as Cassavetes’ Shadows, or that Hilton Kramer had the final say about what passed as art in the New York Times. So it takes a certain cultural adjustment now that the New York Times has progressive art critics such as Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter, while Manohla Dargis covers film. In a review of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth – one of the truly strange recent films out there – Dargis writes: “Beautifully photographed this elliptical, sometimes confounding, often mysterious and wholly beguiling mixture of fiction and nonfiction looks and sounds as if it were made on another planet. And, in some respects, it was.” Later on in the review she comments of the current state of affairs regarding movies: “Ambiguity is rarely valued in movies anymore, at least for those in commercial release. The recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni have been, among other things, a painful reminder of how few genuinely novel, aesthetically and intellectually challenging films reach American movie houses. Our theaters are filled with junk, our heads too. Newspapers and blogs crunch box-office numbers far more than they engage in discussions about the art.”

Following the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni on the same day early last week, the notion that famous deaths always come in “threes” caused a number of bloggers to speculate about whom might be the third. Luckily, it wasn’t Godard, and, no, it wasn’t Jeremy Blake – that’s too ridiculous even to address. But Jim Kreul (citing Pip Chodorov’s Frameworks post) later reported the news on the “filmies” listserv that the Lettrist poet Jean-Isidore Isou had passed away in Paris at age 82. This actually occurred on July 28, two days before Bergman and Antonioni, thus completing the trilogy, even though I failed to see it mentioned elsewhere. The timing of Isou’s passing is ironic, given the fact that his infamous film Traité de bave et d’éternité or Venom and Eternity (1951) has just been released on DVD by Kino International. If ever a film seemed to be made on another planet, it’s Venom and Eternity. As a college student, I first saw the film in the late 1960s as part of a “History of Film” lecture by avant-garde critic Ken Kelman in New York City. The film struck me at the time as one of the craziest films I had ever seen in my life.

The same day I heard the news of Isou’s death, the DVD arrived in the mail from Amazon. I found the time to re-watch it this weekend. For those who know nothing about the filmmaker, Jean-Isidore Isou or Isidore Isou (Isidore Goldstein) was born in Romania in 1925. He founded Lettrism (Letterism) as a one-person movement in France in the mid-1940s. Lettrism privileged the new and original in art above all else, and attacked anything perceived to be the least bit conventional with a vengeance. Lettrism soon attracted a number of followers but eventually splintered into different factions, one caused by the protest by some of the members against Charlie Chaplin – an action which Isou denounced publicly. Other well-known members included Maurice Lemaître and Guy Debord. The latter eventually split with Lettrism to form the Situationist International, which helped to ferment the May 1968 revolt in France.

Made when Isou was only twenty-six-years-old, Venom and Eternity was supposed to have caused a ruckus when it first screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Raymond Rohauer introduced Isou’s work to American audiences, but edited the film down from 120 minutes to 77 minutes. According to Chodorov, his own French DVD company Re-Voir is working on a restoration of the film in conjunction with the French national film archive and Pompidou Centre, which made me apprehensive about the version I was getting from Kino on Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954. The two-disc set contains works by Gregory Markopoulos, James Broughton, Stan Brakhage, Sidney Peterson, Marie Menken, and so forth (and also contains notes about each film), but I’ll restrict my comments here to Venom and Eternity, which includes 34 minutes of film never seen in this country. The quality of the DVD, which comes from a print from Rohauer’s extensive private film collection, is pretty decent, though, partially due to Isou’s habit of putting some of the images upside down, not all of the subtitles are entirely readable.

Venom and Eternity begins with a five-minute sound poem of complete jibberish over black leader. It is dedicated to Griffth, Gance, Chaplin, Clair, Eisenstein, von Stroheim, Flaherty, Buñuel, and to others “who have contributed something NEW or left their hallmark upon the Art of Cinema.” Chapter 1 is entitled: “The Principle.” The film is intended above all else to be a manifesto of cinema. Whereas Alexander Astruc’s concept of “camera stylo” wanted the camera to become as flexible for filmmakers as the pen was for writers, Isou advocates for a cinema literally based on the pen. For him, cinema should be rooted in language rather than images. He wants to sever the relationship between the two. The narrator boldly proclaims: “The break between speech and image shall form Discrepant Cinema. I am launching the manifesto of the Discrepant Cinema.” Isou seems to want to transpose the novel directly into cinema. In denouncing the position that the basis of cinema is the photographic image, Isou as narrator comments: “Whoever claimed that cinema is the art of photography?” Take photography away and Cinema becomes radio . . . It’s like reading in a chair. . . Why shouldn’t Cinema, in turn, become a species of radio?”

Isou’s notion of cinema has no regard for industrial production. He characterizes craftsmen as “those to whom cinema has never been a creative art, but an industry organized in defense of current production.” The originality of the artist – not high production values – is the only thing that matters to him. Isou intones: “It is said that the public is stupid. That is why those who hold it in contempt never dare to offer it something original. The public is reduced to the smallest common denominator. . . . You can see ordinary motion pictures any day of the week in any neighborhood movie theater. I hope you will quietly watch the screening of this film which at least has the virtue of being different.”

As the narrator of Venom and Eternity, Isou also argues against conventional continuity, positing instead “a willful accumulation of errors.” Because Isou’s intention is to destroy the image, he insists on the primacy of written scenario – “a novel recited by a reader to friends” – as the basis of cinema. The narrator explains: “On the other hand, we have been able, for the first time in the annals of the Cinema, to complete a scenario independent in itself, without being forced to intercut it with ‘visual elements.’ Therefore, an attentive spectator will be able to hear the most beautiful scenario in the history of Cinema.” Throughout Venom and Eternity, Isou addresses the viewer directly, much like the San Francisco beat poet Christopher Maclaine would do two years later in his apocalyptic film about atomic destruction, The End (1953). Like Maclaine, Isou also includes the viewer’s imagined objections and reactions as part of the film. Isou claims that everything he has ever loved has been “hissed or booed at first.” He continues: “Bunuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or created a riot when it was shown. The audience broke the theater seats.” Isou humorously asks how such behavior possibly could affect him for the simple reason that “The seats do not belong to me.”

The narrator is given to hyperbole at times, with bombastic statements such as “I want to make a film that hurts your eyes” or “I would rather give you a migraine than nothing at all.” Venom and Eternity never really comes close to that level of intensity, but it does use a number of interesting formal strategies for disrupting narrative conventions. Squiggly white lines or black scribbles appear at times over the image. Images routinely appear upside down. Titles intrude in the middle of the film like in Warhol, as well as throughout the entire film. Images don’t follow conventional rules of continuity. Heads of people are bleached out. The film emulsion is scratched. A hand-drawn arrow – first black and then white – appears over an image of motorcyclists driving through water and a parade of people; a plus sign appears over an upside down shot of legs; the Star of David appears over one image. Isou includes stock footage, such as shots of Asian laborers, which have nothing to do with the narrative. Long passages of written text and black leader punctuate the film. Isou’s voiceover narration is intense and passionate, even if it’s free-associational at times.

Venom and Eternity is not only a polemic about cinema, but a political tract, a love story, and a personal confession. Isou often shifts between and among these various elements. Some images get completely obliterated, which seems to increase as the film continues. The discrepancy between words and images becomes manifest in various juxtapositions. Daniel and Eve’s dancing, for instance, is intercut with a moving part on a ship in a shot that is eventually revealed to be upside down. There are cameos by famous people such as the poet Blaise Cendrars and Jean Cocteau, the latter with whom Daniel has coffee in a café. Much of Venom and Eternity contains images of shots of buildings of St. Germain des Prés in Paris, mixed in with shots of the handsome Daniel, who is also played by Isou himself. As Daniel walks around, the camera often returns to him standing nervously and staring directly at us like a prize fighter before an important bout. The impression is deliberate.

In Part 2, entitled “The Development,” Isou shifts from theory to practice. Venom and Eternity contains not one, but two love stories. The first involves a woman named Eve. The dialogue is not sync sound, but recited as voiceovers. In describing the attractive blond Norwegian woman, Daniel remarks that Eve aped “the haughtiness of movie stars.” While discussing Eve, the film cuts to shots of fisherman on a boat from above, the feet of a skiers going down an incline shot from behind, and the shelf of a bookstore. Later he cuts to the fishermen again, as well as a shot of water flowing from a shower. The images appear to be arbitrary. Daniel includes provocative statements throughout the film. At one point, he laments the passing of slavery, “Man will never get used to not having other men do his bidding.” Daniel wants to experience the sexual pleasures of women without having to go through the formalities. He abruptly mixes in personal revelation and political statement. Daniel tells Eve that “Any man, innocent or guilty, Communist or anti-Communist who does not expect violent death is a fool. Today no one is master of his destiny.” He admits the sadness he felt at being expelled from the Communist party, which causes him to remember his breakup with another woman named Denise.

It turns out that Eve doesn’t like people whose ideas differ from hers. While the two of them dance, we get shots of a fishing boat upside down, an athlete, and a public statue. Daniel suddenly decides that she bores him. Eve asks him whether he wants to love her. The irrationality of love and desire becomes apparent when we learn that by morning, Daniel had taken a deep hold in Eve’s heart, which is visually juxtaposed a shot of a ship’s flag waving in the breeze. Daniel’s total sexism and misogyny rises to the surface, however, as Daniel brags that he was the complete master of her body. He indicates she would spend the rest of her life with him. Eve says: “My life would mean nothing. Only yours has a meaning.” We see a shot of men upside down and walking backwards. But as soon as she adapts herself to Daniel, his thoughts switch to his old girlfriend Denise, whom he had picked up on New Year’s Eve after having sex with yet another woman.

Obviously influenced by the Marquis de Sade, Daniel admits that he wants to pleasure Denise, but also break her heart. As the screen goes black, Daniel says: “He melted into her body. He cried tears of love, he, the cynic.” He gets her to repeat “I love you, Daniel.” Denise comments, “One feels as if every work opens up and crushes our soul.” She delivers a poetic rhapsody about words and love and death. She concludes (still over blackness): “And when two beings meet amid the words and the people who incarnate these words, when two beings discover each other and come together, they who since their birth and the birth of the world were divorced, the shock of their contact is cosmic.” Images reappear, as Daniel seems to vacillate in his feelings once again. He says. “And love itself has but the value of a lollipop.” Denise wants him to stop being a skirt chaser and hopes that he will grow up and become more mature. But Daniel responds over shots of boats in the harbor: “You don’t understand, Denise. There can be no solution between us. Let’s say I stay with you, as in a movie with a kiss finale.” We see shots of a couple with a young child – the most overt conjunction between image and sound in the film.

Daniel elaborates his misgivings about love. Referring to the conventional movie ending, he responds: “It says ‘The End.’ In reality, the drama has only begun. The decrepitude of getting old together: the kitchen, children, habits, wrinkles. Everything wears out in this hell. The very thought of our love will make people want to throw up.” He discusses seeing very old couples, whom he finds disgusting. He comments, “Each has been a witness to the other’s downfall.” He goes on to say, “But I hate love as much as I crave pleasure because the former commits my soul which I want free.” Daniel wonders whether he should drop Denise. She more or less removes his agony by announcing that it was merely a pleasant affair. Daniel’s friend, Pierre, suggests that a new girlfriend will no doubt make him forget the old one. But Daniel decides he wants to make up with Denise and can hardly wait until the morning to tell her the news. His conflicted desire ends up making him change his mind once again. He calls her two days later. Daniel describes his sexual desire as being so strong he leaves teeth marks on her body, “And she bore black and blue marks, like his rubber stamp of jealous ownership.” He admits to using her and wants to know whether she loves him above herself. The narrator continues his Sadean tirade: “And he broke her, he tore her, to feel himself within her. He ravaged her to make himself unforgettable. He installed herself within her.”

Daniel then has dinner with Denise and a businessman, whom he insults by saying: “Your face is like a pig’s. I don’t like it.” This is followed by shots of people on the street walking upside down and backwards. Daniel decides to leave but then changes his mind. More and more of the images are presented upside down as Daniel delights in his sadistic behavior. He calls Denise again, but she hangs up. He yells “merde” numerous times as the screen turns black, followed by images of countdown leader on the screen, and then more blackness. In a title we read: “The author of this chapter, Jean-Isidore Isou wrote this chapter during a spell of poisonous tenderness resembling that of the girls who emerge from his room with an ‘I love you’ meant for no one and bursting with desire like a fruit into which no one will ever bite . . . so monstrous does it seem at a distance. But upon reading these lines over, on a day of love-super-saturation he found this entire chapter insipid.” Isou criticizes conventional movies for serving up “a dose of tenderness,” and argues that “Only systems where form goes beyond story are of interest to him.” Daniel mentions that he and Eve managed to get together again at a Lettrist recital, which sets up the third and final chapter.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The Proof,” and a title indicates that it contains a number of Lettrist sound poems that “have no meaning whatsoever.” Isou rails against imbeciles who criticize such works. He comments that when confronted by something new in art, “one must either love or keep quiet.” Isou claims that Lettrist poetry is more popular than Surrealist poetry and he presents two examples by François Dufresne: “March” and “I Question and I Inveigh.” Both Lettrist sound poems are set to abstract images created directly on the film stock, including countdown leader, fingerprints, and occasional words that pass too quickly to read. Isou argues that since Schönberg atonal music aspires towards Lettrist poetry. He claims that Lettrism will one day be more important than jazz, and criticizes jazz as “phony primitivism.” He goes on to argue that African-American jazz artists use “civilized and complicated” mechanical instruments. He then makes the dubious claim that “Jazz is white-collar primitivism.” The real primitivism is based on the human body – “the barbarity of the throat” – namely, Lettrism. After another lettrist poem, Daniel and Eve leave the recital.

Someone objects that others have previously incorporated stock footage into their films. Isou answers that, while true, others have attempted to edit such footage more coherently through “logical montage.” Isou claims that he, on the contrary, gave himself up to the footage “just as Dostoyevsky abandoned himself to his downfall.” He invokes the surrealists: “The surrealist compared the eyes to flowers to make one forget the eyes and drown in the ooze leaking out of the comparison.” There’s an abrupt shift, as Eve gets to have her say about his movie. She points out that the images of the actors and the cutting in the film bear no relation to his scenario. Eve suggests that it’s almost as if Daniel became bored by knowing the story in advance, and that this lassitude contributed to the destruction of the cinema. The images don’t matter because he can manipulate them to say anthing he wants, making all images interchangeable. Or as Eve puts it: “All images are equally indifferent. . . I know that others before you have already destroyed the image. But you are the first to understand this destruction.” A friend and a stranger then discuss Daniel’s film with him, praising it as the most intelligent film in the history of cinema because previous film was so overly concerned with issues of cinematic style, whereas language is far more important to humans than images. Comparisons are made to Picasso and Alfred Jarry. Daniel claims “It took years of thought to reach the point of using film stock at random.” He concludes, “I know that my film is above all existing films today.”

Daniel’s thoughts return to Eve, and he now wishes to get rid of her. She responds, “You will croak, be hanged and be spat at by the very populace you hold in contempt. Like Mussolini.” She begs to sleep with him because she has become trapped in her romantic film role. Recognizing his disdain for her, she finally departs. According to Daniel, Eve soon went insane and was arrested and deported to Norway. Daniel decides on a name for his film. He quotes Nietzsche: “It takes a lot of chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Isou talks about Venom and Eternity as pointing in the direction of his future films. We see images of Cocteau smoking a cigarette. Isou makes an overt comparison to Blood of the Poet. He says “My first film will be rather a kernel and a promise.” His thoughts abruptly switch to Eve. We see an image of Daniel with the name “Jean-Isidore Isou. He shouts: “Never, never shall I accept their love, their good and their evil because they offer me what exists, and what exists is bad, because it is mortal.” A title announces that the film was originally four and a half hours long. He continues, “The youths of my age laugh when they see tear-jerkers affect our elders.” He ends on a more defensive note: “Ask yourself on the way out whether or not this film possesses at least the value of a gangster film or a love story – or any ‘realistic’ film which critics consider acceptable.” The film was started on August 15, 1950 and completed on May 23, 1951.

Cocteau posed the question at the time whether “Venom represented a springboard or is it a void.” If pressed, I would have to answer that it has proven to be both. It seems to be a part of the zeitgeist embodied by Christopher Maclaine, as well as a strong influence on Stan Brakhage’s brilliant work directly on film stock, Godard, and other members of the French New Wave. In that sense it has proven to be a highly influential work. But for all of Isou’s rants about Venom and Eternity pointing to a direction for his own future films, unless I’m mistaken, this turned out to be Isou’s signature film. As a work of unbridled male narcissism, youthful hubris, and utter contempt for convention, it is unprecedented. It’s hard to judge whether the elements that appear sexist or racist or offensive today were intended to be deliberately provocative, or products of their time. Isou’s comments about slavery, for example, seem to run contrary to the anarchic current that runs throughout the film. While this new 111-minute version seems overly long on a first viewing, Venom and Eternity still strikes me as every bit as audacious, thought-provoking, and downright loony as it did when I first viewed it. Whatever its problems, there simply aren’t many films like it out there, never mind at the multiplexes.

Posted 7 August, 2007

A Skeptical View of YouTube

Last week a number of folks on the “filmies” listserv tried to goad me into uploading my early films on YouTube as a way of gaining additional visibility. Karina Longworth at SpoutBlog only yesterday wrote: “Right now, YouTube is the closest thing we have to a comprehensive online archive of 20th century culture.” Since virtually everyone seems to love YouTube these days, why would I not want my work to be part of such an important Web-based venture? 

Susan Buice and Arin Crumley were actually planning to put their feature Four Eyed Monsters (aka FEM) on YouTube for free before came up with the promotion that gives them a buck for each person who signs up on the Spout site. I just checked and so far FEM has racked up 779,894 views on YouTube, made $37,290, and sold 1133 DVD copies – not too shabby! But what about all those people who’ve had millions of plays on YouTube, and haven’t made a dime? It’s a lot like screening your film at 50 film festivals, and then having nothing to show for it after two years, except a ton of debt. FEM initially went the festival route and the filmmakers quickly realized that it was a dead end financially. As my The Guatemalan Handshake post indicates, Buice and Crumley felt like losers when FEM didn’t get into Sundance, and the two eventually shifted their energies to the Web.

The pair turned out to be brilliant marketers by exploiting the potential of virtually every social networking Web site (MySpace, Facebook,, etc.). On Chuck Tryon’s June 14 blog about FEM on The Chutry Experiment, I expressed concern that the two filmmakers have become so obsessed with promotion that it’s preventing them from continuing to do their art. Here’s what I said at the time:

“I also wrote a very positive response of Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters on my blog, encouraging people to support the special promotional showing of the film on YouTube. Buice has been an articulate spokesperson for the marketing and distribution of indie films on the Web, suggesting that the consumption of indie films will be entirely different in five years. It’s really amazing to see how much time and energy these young artists have put into grass-roots marketing: the podcasts, interactive map, the DVD sales, the Thursday screenings, the ancillary products, sponsors, and so forth. Yet despite their real genius for promotion, the two filmmakers are still struggling to make this thing work financially. That, in and of itself, is a commentary on the current state of indie films. As my blog review indicates, I really like Four Eyed Monsters. I must confess, however, that the more time I spend on the Web site and the more podcasts I watch, the more I start to wonder whether it’s really worth all this effort. After awhile, the filmmakers begin to sound a bit like two carnies working a very large room. I can’t help but think maybe they would have been better off going the art-world route instead, which would have allowed them to make more money selling their art work through a gallery, but, more importantly, it would have enabled them to continue to make new work rather than spend so much of their creative energy on promotion. At some point you have to let it go, move on, and stay focused on doing your art work. That’s what some of their other mumblecore friends have done, which, in the end, means they’re being more creatively productive.”


Chuck Tryon responded: “I think you raise an interesting question about the promotion of FEM. In a sense, I see the video podcasts and the website as an extension of the film itself, as part of the story they are telling, but that could be due to the fact that I experienced the film on the web, not on DVD or at a festival screening. So I see the podcasts as feeding into their reflection on communications technologies in FEM.” I completely understand Chuck’s point about the podcasts and promotions being an essential part of an overall project having to do with new technologies. And if you’re interested in the whole project as an artistic activity – and the endless promotion via the Web is part of the story they are telling – that’s fine. But the filmmakers often seem to shift their positions. Sometimes it’s about this digital dream of using the Web to create a “theatrical jukebox,” while at other times it’s simply about trying to turn their actual feature film into an income-generating vehicle. I think everyone is interested in how FEM is testing the Web as a alternative distribution model. But isn’t FEM‘s larger story really every indie filmmaker’s soap opera?


Maybe I will try putting my films on the Web as an experiment, but I prefer something that offers some type of revenue stream like B-Side or Jaman rather than YouTube, where I struggle to see the obvious benefit other than self-promotion. For instance, I have a one-person show at Anthology Film Archives this winter. My personal bet would be that exposure on YouTube would substantially decrease rather than increase my audience. I also worry about the effect this would have on the two coops (Filmmakers’ Cooperative and Canyon Cinema), which are really struggling to survive these days. My point is simply that people are not going to attend screenings, rent films, or buy DVDs when the work is already available for free on YouTube. In fact, the actual sales of DVDs of FEM in contrast to the number of viewings would appear to bear this out.


By chance, Aaron Hillis wrote an article in the Village Voice last week that reiterates what I’ve tried to suggest. It’s entitled: “Internet Killed Video Star: Is YouTube Bad for Experimental Video Art?” His piece, which focuses on the career of Edin Veléz, suggests that YouTube has had a negative impact on more avant-garde works. In discussing the potential benefit of an expanded video program at Lincoln Center, Hillis writes: “It’s a frustrating unknown for Veléz, who has seen interest in work like his dwindle to a niche audience, as those who used to seek out experimental work are now content to just press play.” What Hillis says about FEM and YouTube as a viable option is pretty similar to my point about the tremendous amount of energy the filmmakers are forced to expend on marketing. Hillis, by the way, is no disinterested bystander in this discussion. Besides being a film critic and well-known film blogger, he’s also the Vice President of the newly formed Benten Films, which soon will be distributing the DVDs of many of the mumblecore films, such as Joe Swanberg’s LOL and Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake.


The other day Arin Crumley did a very long podcast interview with Erik Davis of Cinematical Indie. Crumley says that showing the film on YouTube was the most profitable thing the two filmmakers have done to date. Crumley claims that they are $100,000 in debt from making FEM. The debt, by the way, is not from the material costs of production, but what it takes to support two people working full-time on such a project for three-and-a-half years. He admits that it really takes a full distribution company to handle the sheer amount of work, which is one of the drawbacks of the DIY approach. He looks forward to a time where you could create a work and then push a “done” button, which would place it on the Web in “one democratic playing field of videos.” The film could then be promoted through email, iChat, and instant messaging. He admits this sounds like some type of digital utopia. 


When asked what he would do if he had another film, Crumley somewhat surprisingly indicates that he would submit it to Sundance. If that didn’t work, he would then give it away for free, either through some type of sponsorship, such as the one FEM currently has with Spout, or by trying to entice people to purchase DVDs. He indicates he would target some regional festivals. They could look at it online and determine whether to show it in the festival. He admits that the concept of buying films directly from filmmakers’ Web sites is proving difficult. Well, one reason might stem from security issues for credit-card purchases due to people’s concerns about identity theft.


Crumley talks about YouTube being what he calls a “long tail” platform or environment in terms of the Web distribution of film and video. He describes this as “the concept that there is a lot of profitability in the collective proceeds of obscurity.” He says film and videomakers should be taking advantage of long-tail platforms, such as YouTube. But despite Crumley’s utopian belief in these platforms, not everyone is going to be equally as successful, especially without the same expenditure of energy or money on marketing. In fact, mixed in with his ideas about web distribution is the fact that Crumley and Buice are in the process of making deals to have FEM shown on TV in this country as well as pursuing various foreign-sales opportunities. He claims that the prospect of such business deals contributed to them not having the time to continue doing the podcasts. Since Crumley admits he would submit a new film to Sundance, does this suggest that commercial distribution still remains the ideal?


Although I do think web distribution for independent work represents an exciting new challenge, I’m still skeptical of the value of having work on YouTube without any sort of compensation. After all, Crumley and Buice supposedly got into this whole thing because of credit-card debt. If they simply put FEM on the YouTube without all the hoopla, some people no doubt would have found it. But without the Spout marketing promotion and non-stop social networking I doubt I’d be writing this blog. In fact, Crumley discusses how difficult it was even to find a sponsor in the first place – that alone apparently took up a tremendous amount of the filmmakers’ time and energy.


Although I concede that there are certain benefits to having work on YouTube (for instance, excerpts for people to sample), not everyone derives the same benefit, especially not the unsponsored or independent content producers, who still aren’t making any money from having their work shown there. As a matter of fact, in some cases, it’s depriving them of financial gain that they might receive otherwise.

Posted 1 August, 2007