Climbing-Over the Ordinary

The transcendent surpasses the range of an ordinary human experience. For Aristotle, this meant beyond enumeration in his ten Categories of the kind of things higher than the physical and concrete world of objects, the subject of human propositions, contrary to the world existing apart from limitations of the material universe. Transcendent stems from the Latin verb transcendere, ‘climbing-over’, which can be interpreted from late Middle English as a leaping-over, into the imagination; knowing something from the inside-out. Once one has climbed, then a slight notion of the truth is revealed, or grasped – nearly all philosophers have spoken at some length on the subject; Kant termed it ‘realisation’, Burke thought of it as relating to the ‘sublime’, and so on.     

Jordan Peterson, the recent Canadian scholar making public rounds, has spoken of the transcendent as that which is richer than our apprehension, and is therefore a reality outside of our perceptions and memory. A somewhat Aristotelian approach, this suggests that the human being is in a state of ignorance and can only transcend once they realise this error of ourselves. In other words, the reality on the other side is more real than the reality we perceive. This has other-worldly connotations with exciting possibilities: the chance of a glorious Kingdom beyond the senses, behind the veil, above the clouds; wherever we immediately are not, as limited by our physical appearances. C.S. Lewis said something similar of ‘Nature’ when he suggested that ‘we are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.’ This ‘splendour’ beyond is something that we all desire, and, according to Lewis, it is very familiar to anyone who has come close to a transcendental experience, or the Christian faith.

What are some of the ways to get there? Peterson pleads with his students to appreciate art, literature, and music, with an unprecedented love; to restore their faith in the transcendental properties of beauty within the arts. He suggests that one can start out with the small things in life, for example, by hanging a favourite painting on their bedroom wall, therefore finding reconciliation within beautiful surroundings, and, as a result (presumably from feeling good), being more open and able to love thy neighbour, and so on, until he talks about forgiveness, and ultimately, the virtues bestowed upon us by Jesus Christ. Increasingly, the transcendental becomes a Christian theology, communicating something to us from beyond, transcribing the life of all Souls, whom are belonging to God. If you transcend, for example with Nature, then your soul opens up to the universe and God’s creation, leading to an experience of praise and gratitude. The world, or God, addresses you, and ceases to be a mere accumulation of facts. 

Gifted authors offer us a glimpse at this. If you have read great fiction, then you know that it can become very real indeed. The fictional character of interest becomes a composite of many people that you somehow already know; things described are those belonging to a common humanity, and once you place yourself in their position, be it the prosecutor or the accused, or both, then you actively begin to participate in the event: the suffering, the redemption, the love, the trials and tribulations, and so on. The key to the what might be termed a transcendental experience here, is the reader ‘living’ as ‘another’ and not as a ‘self’. This acceptance in the direction of a story being told, if it is told well, teaches us, the reader (or the audience of a good film or a stage-play), to love. It celebrates in us the acceptance, and the triumph, of whatever morality act has been staged – all the great works of literature have thankfully been love defeating negativity, or good over evil, virtue against vice, and so on, therefore according to Gospel wisdom.

Perhaps then, the transcendental mode of being is that which chiefly involves love; a strong desire to willingly participate in what you have loved (in the humanities and Nature), and repeatedly to do so, until it turns inside-out; until one climbs-over the imagination into an interpersonal relationship with love, or, as I like to experience it, with God.  

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“People are perverts”

Before you get your fists caught up, David Fincher is first and foremost a great filmmaker. Okay, now we are on the same page, I want to essentially deconstruct Fincher’s comment that “people are perverts”, which equally means that the spectator is a pervert when they engage with cinema. And the reason for Fincher being a pervert himself is because to direct the audience, the filmmaker must act as spectator, deciding exactly how perverted they want the audience’s experience to be, and therefore manipulating them. In other words, you can’t lure the pervert (the audience) without understanding how to seduce them (the film).

But what does Fincher really mean? I don’t believe it is a throwaway comment, he claims to have based his entire career on this notion of the pervert. A filmmaker has to have the conviction that an audience will want to sit through what they create, as a writer for his reader, and a painter for the onlooker, and so on. Why would an audience wish to sit in a dark room and have the floodgates opened into another psyche if they weren’t fascinated or even a slight bit curious about other people? We go to experience the upheaval, to be entertained by the pain of somebody else, and in doing so, project and release many of our own problems into this fantasy space. It may even leave us feeling cleansed, but only for so long. A pervert seeks this pleasure in which they will not become the obstacle, and not have to face the consequences for their actions, thus leaving their conscience unmarked. A pervert wants this, to go lengths at revealing the disturbing elements of nature’s truth, turning life upside-down without paying for the ramifications. Fincher’s cinema does a great deal in favour of stretching this viewpoint – Seven and Fight Club implode the pervert’s fantasy; truth is a very dark subject matter.

A pervert is not only a Peeping Tom, but somebody who wishes deeply to satisfy their own desires. We all carry this element of ego, but the cinema exploits it in an almost dangerous fashion. It is a pure ego formulation, our ego drive is solely at work when we view a film, there is no concern of the Id or Superego (no need for survival or ethitcal/moral regulations – when using the Freudian conception of the terms). So when Fincher stated that “people are perverts” – he means that, quite literally, as the very reason why people go to the cinema and enjoy watching his films – he know very well that you’re a pervert for liking it!

David Fincher himself must be a voyeur par excellence!

To learn more about cinema spectatorship and Lacanian theory on the gaze, the voyeur, and so on, I recommend the following text by Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze.

In good spirits, here is an illuminating video essay on Fincher’s works:

 

There IS a Secret Language of Film

jean-claude-carriere

Most people have probably never heard of Jean-Claude Carriere, but he is the man behind over seventy-five ingenious screenplays and a long time collaborator with Luis Buñuel (they worked together on Buñuel’s late work from Belle de Jour to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Carriere says it himself, “If you want fame, don’t be a screenwriter.” Despite writing numerous great screenplays and stage-plays, he has also written a few novels and books on film. I want to bring attention to his book The Secret Language of Film. It is a fruitful read, rich in allegorical poetry and insight into the language of cinema and its audience. Carriere begins by telling us to keep our “eyes open” to cinema and what he has to say in his book.

Carriere raises all the key questions of film theory (ontology, aesthetics, critique etc.) yet he doesn’t dwell on them and offers invaluable insights passing most of his attention onto us, as the ever-important audience of this medium. He moves from our perceptions of the real into how we dissect time through the medium and finally how it cheats us and may end up cheating (or obscuring) history, as we know it. This may sound like a lot to take in at once, but Carriere is vigilant in his approach, giving visions into his own case studies and experiences as an avid cinemagoer and writer for the medium.

Carriere wrote the book in 1994, before the on-slaughter of digital cinema and proliferation of online media. But, he has his senses about him and talks a great deal about the attention span of audiences and audiences becoming desensitised to images, at which time television was the main culprit. Leading on from this, Carriere is clearly concerned with the over emphasis of the technical and technique; he points out that story is always more important. Of course, today this is a big debate, with stunning visuals at the forefront of cinema. For an independent filmmaker, the big question is commonly should I put more of my budget into camera so we can shoot with an Arri Alexa instead of a Canon C300? Or, should we put that extra expense into validity for the story, for example locations, cast or costume?

Another big question this raises though is whether modern audiences are actually more concerned with the visual scope, outwardly, than anything else. Put them in front of a grainy, 3 by 4 black and white movie and you will probably find your answer. Or, look to the recent Gravity that swept up awards this year for its visual beauty (of space), but which fooled many critics into thinking it had a script worth its weight.

On a more positive note, Carriere, the screenwriter that he is, fits in some top tips on the craft amidst his discussion about the language of film. After all, a film is initially the written word, a completely different language – say hello to the screenplay. Or, as Carriere duly discloses, swiftly say goodbye! A screenwriter should be aware that “what he is writing is fated to disappear, a necessary metamorphis awaits it.” This metamorphis is principal photography of course. “A screenplay is always the dream of a film,” in this case, producing the film is simply about making the best compromises one can make. In other words, choose the compromises wisely, as there will be plenty, and you should have a good film. I like to think of this in terms of the pure nature of filmmaking, that of copying what is real. You can’t expect reality to lend itself lightly to being contrived of its origin, thus, expect some ramifications during the process of trying to capture it.

One of my favourite lines in the book comes again, from this notion of bleaching the real. “Writing a story, or a screenplay means injecting order into disorder.” In other words, a screenplay is clearly structured whereas life is not; in most cases life is wondrously unpredictable. However, of course there needs to be some unforeseen drama in a screenplay, to cite Hitchcock, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” It isn’t often that in a film you will find long sequences of someone on the toilet, brushing their teeth, hanging up the washing, or going out for their groceries, unless the director has purposefully chosen an attempt to turn the ‘dull bits’ upside-down.

To gather this drama, Carriere suggests that the screenwriter be completely open to letting their imagination wonder, we are talking of the following extremes: “Imagine everything; he must kill his father, rape his mother, sell his sister…” and the list goes on. As screenwriters, we must welcome everything. Carriere talks of him and Luis Buñuel telling each other their dreams first thing in the morning, this session would be followed by a read of the daily papers for stories. At the end of the writing day they would split, Buñuel would go off for his cocktail and Carriere would meet him there half an hour later, in which time they would both have to come up with a story and pitch it to one another. No wonder the two came up with some charming ideas, the lesson here is don’t seclude yourself, interact with others, including the media.

Finally, I want to comment once more on the perception of the audience, in this case, the audience’s eye. Carriere raises an easily overlooked question, “is the eye truly supreme?” Cinema and its contingency of the real are wholly based on the fact that it is a visual medium, one that mechanically represents reality. It is placed there before our very own eyes, up on the big screen, but what is so special about it that the written word can’t convey? Is the written word more real? On this notion of seeing, we must not forget the power of what is not seen, a key device at the disposal of any director. This doesn’t necessarily have to be ambiguous signals (an example of the ambiguous would be in Casablanca when Rick and Isla may or may not have had sex during a three second dissolve to a shot of the airport tower at night and then back to Rick’s room), but it can, on the contrary, be very obvious and even barbaric. An example of the barbaric would be if I, as the director, just showed the face of my victim, as the murderer slowly goes about cutting her legs off with a chainsaw. I could hold this shot for as long I wanted, maybe five minutes or so to really show the extent of misery and trauma that my character is going through. But, what’s the point if everything is shown? Sadistic play is more fun when you can’t quite predict the root of worsening pain.

I have only touched on some of the theoretical offerings in this book. Though rather speculative, Carriere is certain to provide ample example and experience. You may also chuckle quite a lot.