A causerie on spontaneity, consumption, and film

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Ferdinand Nyberg, who published his last article, on the drug culture surrounding Berlin’s Görlitzer Bahnhof, last month. Enjoy!

In his essay ‘The Dehumanization of Art’ (and elsewhere), José Ortega y Gasset opines that it is to the domains of art and science that one should turn if one wishes to decipher the direction of change in a society. Artists’ methods and practices, in this reading, presage that which will (or at least what might) happen in wider society. The many objections to which this avant-gardist view of culture might be subjected do not interest me here. Instead, I should like to colligate this notion with the idea that an artwork’s ‘identity’ can be found in its minor details, as put forth by art critic Giovanni Morelli. An artist’s style, claims Morelli, and – if you will – an artwork’s ‘truth,’ isn’t found in the ‘big picture’; rather, it is located in its subsidiary features. If an artwork depicts a human, focus not on the body as a whole but on the hands, ears, or other body parts. (Many historians will be familiar with Morelli via Carlo Ginzburg’s essay ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes.’) What happens when we juxtapose these two ideas? I claim that reading art might indeed provide indicators of social change but that these often lie not in the ‘broad strokes’ or deliberate techniques of the artists (or here, auteurs) – instead, changes are best found in their apparently incidental gestures.[1] Below, I identify one such gesture (or gesticulation).

Artificial acting techniques abound, of course. Some of these are immanently tied to generic requirements or traditions. Thus the exaggerated facial expressions, overdone makeup, and high-decibel speaking of a theatre actor is totally acceptable and left unquestioned by viewers. It’s simply how theatre is done; and if actors were to stray from this tradition, the back audience would likely demand a refund. Other artifices, however, aren’t meant to be noticed – these proliferate in film.

There you are, in a dark cinema, blissfully immersed in a movie, when suddenly you realise that the cup of tea the protagonist is so dolefully clasping (taking pensive sips between lines), that this cup – so integral to the scene’s ambience – contains no tea! Artificiality confronts you head on. Or, a scene has persons smoking cigarettes on a porch when you unexpectedly notice that one of the actors, though apparently a smoker, doesn’t even inhale! Or – and this is the most common one of them all – the telephone rings. And not only is the ensuing conversation stilted and expository (why would you repeat everything said on the other line before responding?), but as the conversation finishes, no ‘good-byes’ are offered: the actors just hang up without prior indication. This is just not done in real life.

The artifice that concerns me here is of a similar kind, although, unlike the others – and crucially – it’s one firmly rooted in a moment, in 1960s cinema. And rather than being tied to convention or generic constraints, this one serves a clear performative function.

The 1960s witnessed wide-scale cinematic experimentation. Filmmakers tested out different angles, played around with diegetic conventions, reveled in thematic controversy, and many flagrantly transgressed censorship norms. Iconic directors and actors made some of their best work in this climate and films like The Graduate and Easy Rider, simultaneously mirroring and shaping the era, have become so enmeshed in the Sixties narrative that it’s difficult to imagine the decade without reference – conscious or not – to these representations. In Europe, some of the period’s greatest movies were metafilms, asking how cinema (and, often, its implied Americanness) was shaping contemporary culture. Clearly, then, filmmakers themselves were interested in how culture was changing, and what role cinema might play in this change. (I simply pursue this inquiry further, examining how these films can be read as reshaping culture, or portending cultural change.) Thus the protagonist of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless obsesses over American movies and styles his behaviour accordingly (a theme which Rainer-Werner Fassbinder would extend in his short film Das kleine Chaos[2]). In England, Peeping Tom was one of numerous films interrogating the relation between reality, representation, and mediation, preceded by Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and followed by Antonioni’s Blowup. This latter film, which brilliantly captures the spirit of Swinging Sixties London, has a protagonist eerily reminiscent of the one in Breathless.

Blowup_posterThomas (David Hemmings) is a high-fashion photographer living a fast-paced life of excess. Between and during photo shoots, he happily indulges in drink, food, women, and music. One might say he occupies an awkward position between 1960s bohemia and the upper bourgeoisie.[3] Throughout the film, this tension is apparent; Thomas is evidently uncomfortable with his role but unable to escape it. In one scene, he meets his friend Ron in a pub; upon entering, he almost compulsively has a sip of Ron’s beer. A waiter passes, carrying plates of food. Thomas stands up, points at one of the plates, and says: ‘And a pint.’ Here is his life of excess on display; and, combined with numerous other scenes depicting Thomas drinking wine or beer, it makes for a dizzying array of consumption-related behaviour. Tellingly, later but still in the pub, Thomas gazes at an attractive woman, complaining, ‘I’m fed up with these bloody bitches. Wish I had tonnes of money; then I’d be free.’

This curious yet common-sense equation of money and freedom serves as undercurrent throughout the film. And I think it’s precisely through Thomas’ relation towards his own consumption that we can see aforementioned change indicators. This is where the artifice enters the fray. It might be called the ‘order-and-leave’ syndrome. Because Thomas, after ordering that pint and plate of food (about which he seemed so enthusiastic) doesn’t wait for the food to ever arrive: he just ups and goes when something comes up. (The viewer is left wondering about the practicalities: who is going to pay for that meal? Did Thomas just ruin that waiter’s day?) And a subgenre to this is the ‘pour-and-go,’ in which the actor opens up a bottle of wine or beer, has a sip or two, only to leave the scene – without finishing, without pouring it back into the wine bottle, without sealing the bottle properly! This just doesn’t happen in real life. It’s a waste and the glass will be a bother to clean later.

À_bout_de_souffle_(movie_poster)And lest you suspect that this is a Blowup-specific feature: it’s not. In Breathless, the protagonist, having just arrived in Paris, enters a bistro and orders a beer, and lo and behold, leaves it at the counter without drinking up. In American films of the same period, examples also exist. What comes to mind is The Panic in Needle Park (a film otherwise also interesting for drug historians). Al Pacino’s character – his impulsiveness and general demeanour remarkably similar to the protagonists of aforementioned films – spends much of his time in a diner. And his credo – ‘I’m not hooked, I’m just chipping’ – seems to apply also to this establishment, where he frequently leaves meals and drinks half-consumed. (For a penniless junky, a rather thoughtless practice.)

Here we come then to indicators of social change. If the 1960s was a celebration of the ‘cult of spontaneity’ (or a culmination of a longer ‘culture of spontaneity’), it’s in these minor details – of a flippant, laissez-faire attitude to substances – that one realises that such spontaneity also entailed a ‘cult of consumption.’ I ask: Has there ever been a better example of the intimate relationship between the counterculture and consumerism? Has there ever been a better example of the Weltanschauung of the ‘68 generation enabling and facilitating the quick transition to neoliberalism which did ensue? Probably there has. Nevertheless, by scrutinising these apparently minor instances of consumption (and their attendant attitudes), one comes to similar conclusions as Nancy Fraser does in her account of second-wave feminism’s unintended complicity in neoliberalism’s advancement. 1960s activists, she argues, unwittingly abetted neoliberalism’s rise to hegemony by celebrating the liberal-individual subject as opposed to imagining a more radically reconfigured, collective selfhood. Similarly, through the characters that I have discussed – in their celebration of freedom, frivolousness, and a liberated, unbound self, exemplified by their noncommittal yet intimate relation to substances – we may identify indicators of 1960s left-field culture not only not resisting but indeed enabling and producing the capitalism we see today.

So in the practices of these maladjusts, these outsiders, these representatives of the Spirit of ‘68, we see promissory signals of The New Spirit of Capitalism. A capitalism which celebrates spontaneity, impulse and freedom, but of a kind always tied to consumption. In many ways, then, the practices of these characters can be regarded as paradoxical forebodings of the 1980s. ‘Paradoxical’ because their idea of freedom wouldn’t correspond with that of the free market: the budding neoliberal paradigm also entailed a conservatism (including a forceful drug war) which Thomas and his like would hardly have appreciated – the 1980s, in part heralded in by these maladjusts, would become a decade of competing ‘Justs’: Just Do It but Just Say No.

[1] The view that ‘what happens’ in history is largely contingent and only ex post explained as a necessary or logical outcome is explored at length in the recent Benjamin Steiner, Nebenfolgen der Geschichte: Eine historische Soziologie reflexiver Modernisierung (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015).

[2] The protagonist, played by Fassbinder himself, seems to use cinema as a behavioural guide. And as the narrative climax seems immanent, Fassbinder – in a moment of bathos – defiantly exclaims, ‘I’m going to the cinema!’

[3] Significantly, he drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, with the ‘Rolls-Royce’ representing nobility, Britishness, and class (in the normative sense) while the ‘convertible’ – a revenant motif in films of the period – standing for freedom, youth, and fun.