In the previous article, which you may have mistaken for some sort of crumpled pamphlet which I dug out of the corner of the pocket of a pair of straight leg black jeans stolen sometime in the 1990s and regurgitated purely for the purposes of nostalgia, I outlined the concept of hyperreality, a means to describe a particularly modern sort of saturation-fuelled disorientation and disengagement from reality.
Now, I hear you cry, why is she digging up some outdated concept and calling it modern when it is over a decade old? And why is she about to label a very contemporary set of films with said term, when she has herself admitted that the concept is not of this century? Is she saying that is takes, on average, fifteen years for cultural ideas to filter down to the medium of cinema? Is she actually still wearing the same jeans she stole from Camden market in the nineties? And anyway, wasn’t this series of articles meant to be about the end of the world?
No, “well, yes, so?” and yes, respectively. The concept of hyperreality may have been borne of the 20th century but if we are to use it as a lens through which to view the world today then the picture which rears its head is that of an ascension towards the very peak of that state which the term hyperreal so aptly describes, the point of absolute saturation (there‘s a chemistry term on the tip of my tongue right now but as I‘m currently traversing the North Sea my hopes of Googling it are, I‘m afraid, slim) and of an inevitable pummelling, in the very near future (2012?), off some kind of precipice towards the ultimate conclusion of the hyperreality hypothesis - Baudrillard’s “inertial destiny”.
As a solely descriptive term hyperreality proves useful, but as with the cancer to which Baudrillard alludes, diagnosis is futile when the disease is inevitably terminal. What we are living through now is a this period of terminality, of future oblivion, of the end of capitalism (something utterly impossible for any of our well-informed, rolling news filled minds to comprehend) and consequently the end of the world. These are The End Times. And if we’re not already living it, our inertial destiny is right in front of our noses. But more of this later, lets get back to the movies.
I argue that the cinema of Lars Von Trier and Gaspar Noe is distinctively contemporary in its adoption of the hyperreality thesis. Melancholia and Enter the Void both go beyond merely describing the phenomena of modern simulacra - the Matrix and The Truman Show served this purpose relatively well in the nineties, when description alone was enough. When the end of the world was not quite nigh, we needed a little sugar-coating to get ourselves ready for the future (or lack of it).
Many crises later, Von Trier and Noe tread the risky route of the Fool, jumping off the cliff edge and consequently plunging into the abyss, facing the inevitable conclusion of all that has come before by stepping into the heart of oblivion. (It is worth noting that the personalities of both directors seem to embody something of the Foolish spirit - neither are exactly known for their skills in controversy-avoidance and both have been simultaneously portrayed in the media as idiotic exhibitionists and fearless geniuses). They do this by taking the opposite path to the relatively softcore Matrix and The Truman Show ; instead of packaging their messages into fun-filled, action packed, teen friendly fantasies, they go for full blown, adult-only brutality.
Rather than zooming out and exposing the bigger picture, the larger forces at work, they zoom in. Rather than portraying reality as possibly fictitious, they heighten reality to the point of fictitiousness, at which point it merges back in to reality. In ETV this takes the form of the enlargement of the microscopic - the unconventional sex scene is the most obvious example, whereas in Melancholia the opening credits, which feature the end of the world in extreme slow motion set to Wagner in full flight, serve a similar function. Whilst these techniques are not necessarily in line with Baudrillard’s definition of the hyperreal as “the simulation of something which never really existed”, they do simulate things which are never really seen.
Unlike the nineties cinema of the hyperreal, much of the sheer force of Melancholia and ETV stems from the way in which both films champion showing over telling. Neither adopt traditional narrative forms; ETV in particular is a largely visual and auditory experience, with long psychedelic sequences composed purely of colours, lights and patterns. This harks back to what Gunning termed, in reference to films of the early 1900s, the cinema of attractions, which “directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle”. The unique nature and possibilities inherent in cinema, which I have written further on here, were perhaps better understood in these early days of emergence and initial discovery. As a form of new technology, cinema’s power, its ability to conjure numinous experiences for purposes of both good and evil, were oft cited by both its champions and its fiercest critics. This power was achieved by almost entirely visual means - by utilising the sheer scale of the screen and a variety of camera and editing techniques as they emerged, to trigger the cogs and gears of the imagination, to kick start the subconscious.
Upon the introduction of the talkies, however, much of this understanding of the medium was lost and outside of the avant garde narrative and more literary forms of storytelling prevailed. Von Trier and Noe’s recent adventures in filmmaking, however, serve to reclaim cinema as a sensory experience, a workout of the imagination not unlike a session on Freud’s sofa.
Neither are afraid of using shock tactics, of risking puritanical accusations of vulgarity, pretentiousness, the utilisation of cheap thrills. For these ingredients form part of the director’s toolkits for raising the numinous experience- every time the audience is confronted by a disturbing image or sensory ordeal, such as the horrific car crash motif in ETV, the devastating final moments of Melancholia, or the notorious rape scene in Noe’s earlier Irreversible, they are catapulted out of the fictional story world by fright and forced to ask why it is that they feel confronted or assaulted.
Each ordeal acts as a wake up call. Why, for example, did I feel nauseous during the opening credits of ETV? Was it the strobe-like visuals, the pounding electronic music? Was I being manipulated entirely by what I was presented with? Or did the graphics trigger something else, a deeper primal instinct, a raw nerve, a buried fear? All of this before even being immersed in any form of narrative. The stimulation of visuals and audio had acted as a springboard back into my own life. I was thus able to discover the real, via the hyperreal.
Gunning says of the cinema of attractions, “ [it] is a cinema that displaces its visibility, willing to rupture a self enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator”. In the cinema of attractions the audience are, in a somewhat Brechtian manner, aware of being the audience. They are therefore also aware of being themselves. They are never allowed to be fully absorbed into the cinematic fiction; there is always an awareness that the film and the interior of the picture house are separate yet equally as vital as one another. What is more real, the movie or the screen it is projected onto?
This demonstrates the way in which, in the cinema of the hyperreal, the boundaries between the real and the hyperreal become blurred to the point of the two being indistinguishable. Reality is, it turns out, as complex, illusory and abstract as hyperreality. It too functions as little more than a descriptive term. Both ETV and Melancholia are meditative films existing on the plane of the hyperreal which serve very little purpose save the demonstration of the lack of there being a point, in anything. Of the unreality inherent in everything.
They seize all the illusions and artificial constructions of modernity to confront us with ourselves, not in the interest of improvement - there is no therapy to put one at ease.
As unpleasant as both films may be in their various ways, they serve an important function in the movie marketplace as antidotes to Hollywood’s cinema of dreams. Disneyland Nasties. In the hyperreal worlds of Von Trier and Noe there are no happy endings. Within the first half hours of ETV and Melancholia this is made absolutely clear; the boy will die a horrible death and his spirit will be trapped in the world of the living; the world will end and it certainly won’t be any fun, for anyone. Even Kirsten Dunst will look ugly and lost. Hollywood, on the other hand, continues to spew out heightened tales of “winning” (the girl, the job, the money…the girl again), offering two and a half hours on average of escapism in which our prescribed dreams and fantasies come true.
The Hollywood desire to entertain means that the world conditions that the films it produces should be fantasy. After all, reality could never be so satisfying. Anti-illusionalists, neorealists and new wavers, however, want to make films that show reality as it is. Unfortunately, the hyperreal world makes it impossible to "show reality as it is" (and this is not just a problem of memesis, but something more profoundly late modern) without resorting to the most extreme of illusions. And what exactly are the most extreme of illusions? Those fantasies of death and apocalypse harboured in every bedroom across the world.
Everyday, we are confronted with incidental details that contain within them the immanence (and perhaps imminence also) of the end of the world as our only possible satisfaction, our only joy and the only true form of valediction. Film differs from other aspects of reality only in that we can go to the cinema to enjoy the end of the world, to play it out as a fantasy. I have often declared the way in which cinema is a form of ritual and this is a very clear example of the form which this can take. The fetishistic enactment of our final days, where the object of our lust is, to use Epstein's words, the "dazzling incarnation" of the inertial destiny which looms over us. The presentation of life not as it is, but as it can never be in as much as life can never be anything, in all of it's agony, ecstasy and LSD-tinged fluorescence. The End Times, on acid.
Sounds fun, doesn't it?
*This article forms part of the series Rapture & Decay: The New Eschatological Cinema. You can read the Introduction here and Part I here. The series will continue and reach its inevitable conclusion in 2012.