Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
Taking Baudrillard to the Movies (To Talk About Death)
(Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia)
In a venomous obituary Carlin Romano (2007) says that Baudrillard’s writing was “simplistic and outrageous”. This sort of criticism, which refuses to take Baudrillard (or any French Theorist) seriously, has been around for some time. In 1990 Christopher Norris suggested that French continental philosophy in general is a deceptive waste of time, perhaps even worse than nonsense. If we take a thinker like Baudrillard seriously however, there are profitable readings available to us. This is to embrace his writing as a form of challenge and to be open, as Romano and Norris are not, to discover reversibility inherent in all theory. It also means that we must be open to the possibility that a good deal of theory is devoted to framing a ‘real’ that we can never fully know. Baudrillard’s reversibility in this case is simply the oppositional as an energizing force, suspiciously challenging the more universalizing tendencies of text trussed up as the Good. Text, whether written or visual, attempts to reposition us, to seduce us into other ways of thinking and behaving. But we can do better than accept the text as gospel and ask before we sign up: ‘what is the agenda – what is the libidinal fine print?’. It is vital that we question any attempt on the part of text to align itself with the Good. We must be suspicious of all text which attempts to think for us – to arrive at conclusions on our behalf rather than encouraging us to work things out for ourselves.
Hence the form of rejecting the fine print, this reversibility is not limited to morality but is a fundamental facet of dueling with all textual systems often masquerading as meaning, calling itself implicitly and explicitly the Good. An example is the anti-depressant Prozac which, according to its publicity, one would assume by now to have made the world a happier and more benevolent place (Good by proxy-pharmaceutical). What we have in its stead, regardless of the market medico-babble is a dreary homogenized faux stability, a world often lacking creativity and originality because the most modest and natural form of melancholy is prescribed a mind altering drug as a first resort. Stability is often a disincentive to creativity and can be evil because it ensures and mandates prohibitions on the self, the seductive place where art often lurks. Prozac promotes this form of non reversibility, an end of the line equivalence of emotional content where ‘my sad’ equals ‘your sad’, and the blues become something singers pretend to have.
Baudrillard’s great contribution is in challenging the colonizing potential of what many systems claim on behalf of the Good. Totalizing declarations of what are Good can become manifest through the power of the commercial media and often go under-examined. In opposition, we might see Baudrillard as the most provocative and illuminating encourager of such an examination. His methodology, divorced from the Good factory of the academy, confronts the commercial media’s attempts to inscribe a specific version of the social Real into the social consciousness and pass it off as natural or unproblematic. Nowhere is this more remarkable than in popular culture. In some ways popular culture is popular precisely because it is unexamined. The ‘Real’ produced by the media become both voracious and territorializing because it is constantly re-symbolizing the visual image at the expense of considered meaning and examined effect – infused with its own non enchanting, seductive homogeneity – a script written on Prozac.
In Baudrillardian terms the “hyperreal” potential of the image denudes the capacity to politically engage with itself at any meaningful level. Media theorists who take Baudrillard seriously, see him as consistently attacking this version of the media constructed Real. To challenge this territorializing mediated social ‘Real’ we can offer an imaginative Baudrillard inspired counter gift. In this essay this takes the form of applying aspects of his thought to concrete examples. In this way the existence of the colonizing Real signals its own fatality by opening a space for theory to attack it. What may be a stake in this struggle is the future of imagination and creativity.
II. Media Nightmares
a) Hostel: death’s hyperreal other
I have two dominant work-a-day nightmares. Both challenge the mediated social Real by offering a theoretical contest or duel, emblematic of Baudrillard’s reversibility. My first nightmare is of being locked in the cinema and forced to watch Eli Roth’s (2005) horror film Hostel (repeated forever). It’s not the disturbing content on the screen which perturbs me but the thought of being trapped for eternity in front of such an aesthetically impoverished film, devoid of either ideas or nuance. I am not as worried about expose to this gore-fest of torture porn on the screen, but am overwhelmed by the complete lack of a point for the film other than to sell tickets to adolescents (the cinematic equivalent to taking Prozac?) who are themselves puzzling in their keenness for an undifferentiated viscerally bloody experience. This reminds me of what Baudrillard called “pure machinic violence” (2002:178), a recurrent theme in his work where he alludes to an unsymbolized form of systemic destruction, an image devoid of a stable or stabilizing referent, something so fully exposed we cannot exchange, challenge or reverse it. Where the mis-en-scene becomes the mis-en-obscene revealing to us too much so we do not need to wonder at any metaphoric or allegoric level because we do not have to think. Here the cinema takes the places of the passivity drugs – a kind of film that resists finer interpretation because it constantly forces our attention to its surface of sensations.
We can witness Hostel’s vocabulary of appreciation reduced to adolescent (hyperreal) accolades like ‘cool’ or ‘sick’ not because of their meditation on death but because of their gossip circling on technical effect. Writing this diatribe against Hostel is a positive attempt to use it as a tool to talk about filmed death because I cannot see how to use it any other therapeutic manner. Hostel forces us to respond – to seduce our minds back to the point where we need them if we are to speak of death. A benefit thus comes from the engagement with the function of the text rather than swallowing an ideologically territorialized meaning-line peddled by Hollywood. Hostel thus becomes an interesting film, in Baudrillardian terms, only because of the negative ideological spaces it discloses when we confront it. A Baudrillard inspired analysis brings back to the surface the mental terrain which Hollywood attempts to submerge, and allows us to bring forth filmic concepts against an imposed social Real. Hollywood’s fixed and universalizing mode becomes a constantly sliding construct. To turn our attention to death in the contemporary cinema is to ask whether its symbolic weight and its referential gravitas is being effaced by films such as Hostel . The most acute and realistic means of feeling this loss to my mind, is to examine popular cinema, which in many ways is by necessity drawing us away from a symbolic accounting of death and replacing it with its hyperreal other, as in Hostel.
In Symbolic Exchange and Death Baudrillard writes of the power of controlling all aspects of death, as a means of elevating the status of the living (1993:130). In a similar way we can see filmed death shift from its traditional roots whereby death was the ultimate horizon of the living to a point where death now is the domain of the special effects department, not something existentially disclosed to us but which we arrive at ‘semiotically’ as the pre-eminent sign of the LA times, conceding the aesthetic control of the depictions of death away from the poets and over to the film moguls. This is the negation of the aesthetic value of filmed death by the elevation of an insipid inarticulate aesthetic, selfish and immature in creation and execution. More than mere “desensitization” what is taking place here according to Baudrillard is cinema ‘abolishing itself’ (1994:47).
b) Blow Up blown up
In my second nightmare I am privy to the Italian film auteur Michelangelo Antonioni being asked to direct a remake version of his 1966 masterpiece Blow Up. In the new version he has to work out new castings and locations (David Hemmings is replaced by Colin Farrell who himself will have to affect a New York accent as the producers demand the film must be made in the US). Antonioni also has to work out, in our age of digital cameras, how the famous grainy indeterminate image that he used at the centre of his film to enlarge (blow up), the photo which reveals the possible murder. Baudrillard offers a poetically correlative tale of how we have moved from the grainy to the digitally perfect. His explanation draws metaphors that provoke a re-examination of how social reality is determined, suggesting a form of cultural descent, as the image becomes ‘more real than real’, where special effect overtakes actuality and technology usurps what was once an ‘enchanted world’ that couldn’t be as readily decoded. Under these circumstances cinema creates its own reality that bears fleeting reference to any previous or traditional meaning, seducing the indiscriminate viewer, reducing their capacity to engage with the film beyond the world of appearance. Baudrillard thus describes the milieu in which Antonioni will now have to reframe death. But the problem will be that today the (digital) camera is so much more precise that the image will be crystal clear, that detection of the alleged murder will be assured, and the entire motivation of the original film will be have to be reconfigured.
This is, in Baudrillardian terms, where we all find ourselves – at the crossroads of having an image of filmed death that is so powerfully real that we do not know how to effectively process it. In 1966 Antonioni filmed a poetic essay on the illusion of certainty and knowing. It was an epistemological film questioning what we can really know in a world that was rapidly developing a postmodern technological attitude. The camera was an instrument capturing enchanted moments, singularities that allowed the viewer to work towards a meaning. In 2009 Antonioni would have to shift focus to a much narrower framework for producers who anticipate a less discriminate audience which demands not only a body, but a mutilated one. However, he might still remake the film to evoke some of the same sentiments he was explored in the original such as: the waning of determinate value in Art, the social construction of reality, the intense ‘corrupting artificiality and falsity of the modern world’ (Cameron, 1968:136). Of course to do so would mean that he could not remake Blow Up at all. Antonioni would have to ditch the whole notion of the precarious grainy image. Perhaps in the new version Colin Farrell, after photographing the lovers in Central Park is kidnapped and tortured by Vanessa Redgrave (now played by Katie Holmes). As I listen in Antonioni muses that the new film will be called Blow-Torch in homage to Katie’s weapon of choice.
By now I realize that my nightmares are bleeding into each other like an ecstatic symptom, not up from my subconscious, but down from the market system that helps nourish it. Because digitalization has provided images more real than the real Antonioni’s original grainy photograph now appears simultaneously aesthetically symbolic and nostalgic. Technology has given us an enhanced capacity to display visually but the form has superseded the content to the point that the image has become increasingly drained of symbolic of the kind encouraging deeper reflection. We now find it hard to talk about the resonance of death through film, but easier to talk about the actuality of the filmed death itself. The filmed death becomes quintessentially hyperrreal. Actual death approaches equivalence and grotesque political assassinations exampled with Benazir Bhutto are played out, reported through Hollywood filmic paradigms (handheld camera enhances effect), tending away from more engaged explorations of geopolitical significance that take place such as in most non visual accounts. Back in the 1980s Baudrillard noticed that our lives are as ‘simulating animals’ (1994:153) and as such the journey to the cinema to watch filmed deaths is a form of death itself. Filmed death becomes more real than reality in a Hollywood generated social reality which prefers explicit imagery over thoughtful consideration. If the “evil demon of the image” has seduced us it has been largely through the efforts of a cinema industry which, not respecting its own intellectual capabilities, has taught us to under appreciate our own.
Yet my film mind wants to stave off accepting Hostel as cinema because of what it does not have to say about death as it wishes to hold on to Blow Up for what it does. This is where we take Baudrillard to the movies because tracing a line from Hostel back to Blow Up can be affected by using him as a guidance system where we open a space for reflection upon what has happened. The benefit to be had here is both aesthetic and political. By challenging Hostel and asking viewers to reject its aesthetic claims as legitimate expression of cinematic significance we destabilize the coded ‘amour’ of the market that attempts to territorialize what the nature of art is in film. When Hostel attempts to define what the aesthetic of film is we refuse by showing it Blow Up. This is the challenge to the producers of Hostel: To say something other than this film will make a lot of money which is what this market does so well decoding the aesthetic veil for us so we are left with a raw and superficial entity. As director Eli Roth proudly tells us ‘The truth of the matter is, the numbers speak for themselves’. Hostel has made $70 million dollars in the theaters before the DVD (http://www.reallyscary.com/interview.asp). Roth’s assessment of a film’s worth is box office receipts has become the true bottom line. But the problem is much deeper than that. In his rush to make money for his investors, the film takes the easy way out when it comes to talk about death. It merely reveals it in a hyperreal way that we forget death is being discussed at all. Death designated to fetish, the filmed experience of the sign of death which castrates the symbolism of death itself. The filmed death de-socializes mortality, making the soon-to-become corpses deader than death itself. We then forget what death is in its arbitrary, mysterious finality (Baudrillard, 1993:131).
III. The ecstasy of communication of death
Something has happened and filmed death provides a clue. Like the charms of the detective mystery we can glimpse the evidence at centre of everyday life – in the popular culture. Yet we are not talking of nostalgia because we are not yearning for some idealized world of the 1960’s but any other world where Hostel is laughed out of existence before it can even be made. We focus here not on Blow Up but against the torture porn film industry using Hostel as its focus. What we need to see is that when we talk of death depicted in the cinema, when we see filmed expirations of human life, we are witnessing ‘the games of the cool and cold universe’ (Baudrillard, 1987:26) as filmed cinematic death reflects an expression of death becoming interested only in itself as a technical form. When we watch characters die on the contemporary screen we start to glimpse Baudrillard’s ‘ecstasy of communication’, an ecstasy that we could say was announced in Blow Up nearly forty years ago by talking quantitatively about the image (and its destructive capacities) with the symbolic qualities of its referents, the ecstasy of its referents, an ecstasy which is ultimately an ephemeral, impotent ejaculation of the banal.
When we traverse these years we see the gradual encroaching elevation of the hyperreal death in its strongest form, where the fuller richer and more sacred symbolic notion of death is eroded away to be replaced by death which has according to Baudrillard ‘doubled itself as signs’ (1993:186). Hostel makes it very difficult to discuss any transcendent nature of death or torture enveloped in the films content because the viewer is mired in the technical depiction, making assessments not against some normative scale to outrage of injustice, but as how this torture compares against those in similar films (such as the Saw franchise) ‘Wow how did they do they that?’ and similar sterile clichés.
The aestheticization of the technical exposes a difference between one form of aesthetic sensibility and its successor. As we enter a world of technologies with which everyone can create, the creative impulse itself moves towards the operational as machine creation implies a democratic opportunity towards the aesthetic experience. But this using of the machine to create ‘art’ has put machines, and by default what we could loosely term makers of quality film at the increased mercy of the commodity form. This may well only elevate the machine form over the content, the special effect over its thematic intent. In this way a film can just as easily be judged by ticket sales whatever cerebral benefits it may pose for audiences. In any event these audiences have long been educated by Hollywood to seek “escapism” rather than engagement. The machine that is Hollywood can therefore create seductive simulacra in terms of film models that have no symbolic referent and can only be judged in terms of films of similar ilk. With declining box offices themselves an issue in Hollywood these past three years perhaps movie goers as preparing to escape from Hollywood as well? With Baudrillard irony must always be considered and it is quite possible that “the death of cinema” may actually turn out to only be the death of Hollywood.
Whatever the future and irony may bring, for now we see judgments made about film premised more pressingly upon special effects. For example Titanic, one of the largest money making films of all time, was judged by many principally for the spectacular filmed action sequences and its “look” rather than its excess of historical and logical inaccuracies. What this means for the filming of death is that the highly technological filmed death helps to ‘flatten out the meaning’ of death itself. We see a defusing of values through the establishment of specific universalizing values to filming death as spectacular. The ticket holder can now say ‘wow’ to all this death, but little else as the ship sinks into the icy waters of the Atlantic. The effort is to create a sentiment of exhilaration at the images of the hundreds of floundering passengers entering the ‘radical utopia’ of oblivion (Baudrillard, 1993:126). For Baudrillard it is not normal to be dead, and as such we can help to (falsely) re-normalize death through its representation on the screen hereby foreclosing the viewing subject’s capacity to feel the symbolic gravitas of what that catastrophe actually was. Here is where death belongs, on the screen dominating the collective psyche, disenfranchising (or in Baudrillard’s terminology) “exterminating” the possibility of greater and perhaps more complex meaning. Dying on the Titanic becomes equivalent to dying on the Battlestar Gallactica or Planet Express. History becomes a great toy – and before long we meet the good Stasi officer, the one who never existed, in The Lives of Others (see Coulter, 2010).
IV. Territorialization by stealth… ‘welcome to the desert of the real’
The horizon of film history is being eclipsed by an ecstatic use of technology which has come to dominate concerns for a film’s theoretic and poetical elements. We have what Baudrillard saw as a ‘slow endemic extermination of the real’ (1998:39), in this case – the social real of the traditional symbolic aesthetic engagement between the cinematic viewer and the film. Hostel moves away from what was once entertainment and towards a new aesthetic that territorializes the imagination while colonizing the discourse surrounding how and why we film death. While doing so it subtracts the poetry and metaphor of death and reduces it to trans-aesthetics where filmed death is seen solely in relation to other filmed deaths. We cannot therefore speak of Hostel metaphorically but align it to other films of a similar kind. Death becomes an end process of the computer wizard and fascination is leveled at the technical process. Death has excellent virtual graphics and leads to the ‘degree Xerox of violence’ (Ibid.:92) where once filmed death stood a real conviction that interwove the filmed death to connect to its ultimate singularity, a deeply personal confrontation with our own mortality.
In Baudrillardian terms what we are witnessing is retreat of film history (1994:41) as art ‘falls into value (2005:63). But these hi-tech graphics accentuate something about death that is palpably absent from Blow Up. We can see here the destiny of the filmed death as an art form outstripping itself whereby the stakes are continually raised shifting from the seemingly innocuous filmed death of the cowboy or gangster movie where there was an absence of blood and a presence of almost balletic performance. But this innocuous filmed death was reverential; almost taboo laden in its presentation. We filmed these cessations of life with metaphorical intent. The cowboy, the gangster or the solder dies clutching his gut with a complete absence of blood or real pain. He simply fell over signifying he was removed from the action. Here we can think of James Cagney in William Wellman’s 1931 Public Enemy or the infamous shoot out at the end of Fred Zinneman’s 1951 High Noon. These filmed deaths had determinate value in the sense they enhanced or concluded the plot, tied together the themes but were always visually unobtrusive. This was a form of sacrifice to the aesthetic dimensions of the film form and resonated because they were metaphorical and dramatic, infused with the kind of poetic violence that leads us to reflection and action. This is only possible through the rumination on the implications of the death, not the fascination with the event itself. Therefore they left death alone and thus it could not be compared to other filmed deaths because they were not filmed deaths, but more ways of signaling the end of the character involved, initiating the moment for refection on the implications.
Technology, in the form of the slow motion camera, allowed these genres to move to the next level as filmed death. But this level becomes aleatoric, shifting the focus away from metaphor to blind fascination with form. Consider Peckinpah’s use of this technology in the Wild Bunch and Arthur Penn’s similarly graphic Bonnie and Clyde. These deaths suddenly acquired a form of exchange value because not only did they draw attention to themselves they highlighted the form in which they were shown which became cinematic currency. Moreover they could be compared, for the first time, to other filmed deaths. What is important to consider here is the thematic texture of the film was not compromised as the deaths implications still overshadowed the technical effect. But what was portended here was that the technical effect was going to intrude and overplay its hand. Death and violence still has passion and instinct but is soon to become a transparent violence standing in front of nothing.
By taking Baudrillard to the movies we see that when we believe that the special effect enhances cinema we are missing that it brought death to cinema as we once knew it. In Baudrillardian terms we have a fatality of banal cinema couched in the special effect but delivered to us as a cinematic miracle. In other words by exploring the torture/death scenes in Hostel we see how technology has changed the founding epistemological questions about cinematic form from ‘What does that mean?’ to ‘How did they do that?’ Instead of searching for the seductive nature of metaphor in the cinema we are left assessing the commutations and combinations of the computer as it produces ‘celibate’ cinematic effects (1993:52). It is in the computer micro-processing chip itself where we locate the viral effect that it has on representation whereby the palpable ‘otherness’ of cinema is replaced by the sterile precision of the hyperreal. Where once we were happy to know that the ‘bad guy’ was dead (he fell over) – we now watch his death in all its ‘ob-scenity’ with the computer generated image cajoled and conceived by the technology of the chip (we watch his exploded brain run down the wall). In the commentary accompanying the DVD version of Fightclub, director David Fincher says he shot the death of Brad Pitt’s character with those who would view it in stop action freeze-frame in mind. But does this filmed death signal more than an advance in technology? Hostel suggests to me that it does. The greatest concern is that Baudrillard may have overestimated the power of reversibility. If he did, we are all dead.
Michelangelo Antonioni (director, 1966). Blow Up. Metro Goldwyn Mayer films.
Jean Baudrillard (1987). The Ecstasy of Communication. New York, Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death. London, Sage.
Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.
Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm. London Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2002). Screened Out. London: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy of Art. New York, Semiotext(e).
Robin Cameron (1968). Antonioni. London: Studio Vista Books.
Gerry Coulter (2010). "Visual Story Telling and History As A Great Toy – The Lives of Others". Forthcoming in Widescreen:http://widescreenjournal.org/index.php/journal
Florain von Donnersmarck (director, 2006). The Lives of Others. New York: Sony Pictures
Christopher Norris (1990). What's wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Sam Peckinpah (director, 1969). The Wild Bunch. Warner Bros.
Arthur Penn (director, 1967). Bonnie and Clyde. Tatira-Hiller Productions.
Carlin Romano (2007). “Death of a Clown”. International journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007) [Special Anthology Issue: Baudrillard Obituaries and Remembrances]: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol4_3/v4-3-article28-romano.html
Eli Roth (director, 2005). Hostel. Lionsgate Films. USA.
William Wellman (director, 1931). Public Enemy. Warner Bros.
Fred Zinneman (director, 1952). High Noon. Stanley Kramer Productions.