03 avril 2007

All Happy Endings are Counterrevolutionary:
Theory, practice, image consumption, and knowledge in Minority Report

This is a response to Ted Pigeon's post on Minority Report from March 2, Minority Report: Shameless Product Placement or Scathing Social Commentary?

Read it first.

Ted discusses the contradictory politics of Minority Report's view of the fascism of the market, and the way that consumer society takes over our lives to the exclusion of dissent. Minority Report's use of product placement as the embodiment of this market fascism is undercut by the film's use of real advertisements and product placements. Ted asks, "Is it not possible to use the elements of an unacceptable system to in a sense comment on it and potentially reach the people that it manipulates? Call me an optimist, but I think so." I think Ted's most astute comment in the article might be his summation of the opposite viewpoint: "any act we do to work within these massive systems of the corporations that run the 'free' market to turn their own elements against them is just playing into them further."

Here is why the second statement is closer to the reality of image-consumption:

Spectacle functions by way of presenting knowledge for consumption. The consumption of knowledge sets up a disconnect between large-scale dissent and small-scale assent. Capitalism is a series of small transactions, where the "wisdom" of the market is the aggregation of individual decisions made by consumers at specific moments. Even when we all "agree" on the large-scale solutions in theory, we can still sabotage them through our actions. Global thoughts are subverted by local action.

The commodification of rebellion increases this hierarchy of knowledge above action.
In a movie about the creation of reality and factual dissent, the viewer is given the illusion of intelligence about the (film's) world through MR's 'critique' of the film's social order. This critique is false because it is limited to the realm of knowledge.
Rebellion is not seeing, but doing. Critique does not exist without action.
"The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living."
- Guy Debord

"Theory" is the failure of the process of theory. To call something "theory" is to condemn its failure as praxis, to describe it as revolution tangled up in means. Film that functions as theory sets itself up as "an object of mere contemplation" when it ends its critique before the final frame. This is the realm that the cinema resigns itself to when appending a resolution to the narrative of a previously critical film. All happy endings are counterrevolutionary.

In watching a movie, we enter a world which resembles our own (often as a negative/pessimistic image). In the counterrevolutionary pseudo-critical film, the film then resolves the conflict that allows for the pessimistic association, leaving us its obverse optimistic image. It resolves the dilemmas of the negative image, expunging them in favor of the positive image - and that's how you walk out of the theater.
"Thought must play a catastrophic role, must itself be an element of catastrophe, of provocation, in a world that wants absolutely to cleanse everything, to exterminate death and negativity."
- Jean Baudrillard

A film is an emotional journey for the spectator (in most films, mirroring that of the character(s)). The happy ending of the pseudo-critical film restores order and resolves the conflict of the society's flaws. Whatever allegory may have existed in Minority Report is lost in the psychology of resolution. The criticism lives only in the realm of theory, which remains "theory" insofar as it is the failure of praxis. A film with a resolutionary epilogue eliminates the need for action (praxis).

This is Baudrillard called a "trompe-l’œil negation" (in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur discussing The Matrix). Like The Matrix, Minority Report traffics in these illusions of antagonistic criticism that by their nature as spectacle -- and the audience's fascinated adherence thereof -- forbid any true praxical alternative.

7 commentaires:

phyrephox a dit…

An interesting piece Dave. While I agree almost entirely with you in theory, I usually side with the response that while a film's structure may be working towards or ending at resolution, this by no means implies that a spectator's thought or criticism or interpretation spawned by the movie is thus resolved. How many people remember MINORITY REPORT *only* for the existence of the invasive advertising? I would venture quite a few. And this is not even getting into the issue of an audience accepting or not accepting a happy ending, as I believe MINORITY REPORT was the precursor to WAR OF THE WORLDS, two films that had an active and vocal response from spectators as to the unlikelihood of the wrap-up of the narrative.

dave a dit…

Danny -
I'm interested in is the possibility that films can leave the viewer feeling something other than resolution. If I can feel a lingering sense of dread for hours after seeing Elephant, then films that harbor actual critique should be able to sustain outrage (or at least, shouldn't be afraid of it). Think: Battle of Algiers, or Jacques Tourneur's underrated and terrific 1944 film Days of Glory. Why is it that so many films feel the need to blunt their criticisms with a finale that smothers the desire to take action?

Ted Pigeon a dit…

I am of the belief, in general, that endings are probably the least important element to a story. It's not a widely held view, but I think I could make the argument that it's fairly insignificant. Happy or tragic, most endings reveal the artifice of storytelling more than anything.

If one is concerned with plot and coherent themes, then I suppose the ending is crucial, as it is the culmination of the plot, themes, etc. Even tragedy, or open ended endings must "say" something or "mean" something. That aspect is built-in to narrative. Even an edning that deliberately attempts to not say something ultimately is saying something by its refusal to do so traditionally.

With films like War of the Worlds and Minority Report, I think you have a case of a filmmaker self-consciously inserting a happy ending out of a feel for neceissity. Both films are very dark and distrubing in many ways, and their endings somehow feel more artificial than more natural endings. But one could argue that since they do feel artificial speaks more to the power of the storytelling and stylistic execution of the rest of the film.

dave a dit…

I don't disagree with this reading of the way plots work in modern movies. And Spielberg is perhaps the most interesting case, as he does include such resolutions out of "necessity" but obviously doesn't seem to believe in them. (He seems to undercut his surface-level meaning with their very ridiculousness; is Spielberg doing with implausibility what Fassbinder does with camera movement?) But my concern is that even an appended happy ending resolves to psychological conflict at the heart of the emotional experience of moviegoing, and leaves the critique of the main section of the film as an academic one. For most audiences that emotional experience is the main thrust of the movies. Of course, maybe that's why Spielberg adds those endings - without them, an audience leaves the film feeling unsettled, an emotion they are apt to confuse with dislike. Or are they?

Ted Pigeon a dit…

Perhaps Spielberg is too affected by the own artificial pop-culture spewings about "who he is"; you know, the syrupy, happy-golucly storyteller only interested in fatasy and happy endings. Nothing could be farther from truth from my perspective, yet I definitely think the endings to both of these films really stand out. Your comment about shaping the rest of the film experience may be true. Spielberg clearly is challenging himself now, but you can almost sense an inner war he's fighting with himself.

As for the original post, you make many good points about spectacle. It's funny, actually, because my post was actually a rebuttal to colleagues I was discussing this with in one of my classes. We were discussing political economy, and we briefly touched on product placement, though didn't linger on cinema.

While I think there is a great deal of validity to the political economist perspective, but I find it insufficent as an exclusive approach to advertising and economic forces in all media. I just don't think it's fair to single out films like this because they're big budgeted and "Hollywood"; I think we're allowing economic context into the discussion too much, which can cloud how one views a film at all. Knowing that you're seeing a massively budgeted Steven Spielberg action film can greatly influence how you see the film.

I'm not haloing Spielberg here and deeming him infallible. By no means is this true. I just think that we need to consider the other side of the spectrum before pinning Spielberg as a whore, which many people seem to do who analyze product placement in his films (I'm not referring to you, Dave).

Given the circumstances and allowing for an approach of political economy (to an extent), yes he is guilty as charged in a sense. But then the question becomes: how does one get through to people about such issues that he may or may not be commenting on, regarding product placement? Obviously, this is being addressed in academia but I mean, if you're Steven Spielberg and are making a film that involves these issues, what do you do? Is it really "selling out" to accept real companies' advertising dollars, but (in my opinion) for an actual purpose, one far more subtle?

I tend to think that on the level of spectacle, we can't just dismiss such attempts at commentary. There's definitely plenty of criticism. I am merely offering a less common perpsective in claiming that it may be possible to pull off such a commentary. If we focus on the text of a film rather than giving too much credit to context, perhaps it's not so bad.

This is a great discussion though. Clearly it's something that can be discussed and viewed from so many different perspectives. I welcome the opportunity to expand my own.

dave a dit…

Ted -
I don't entirely disagree with your assertion that the product placement itself, in spite of using real products, is capable of expressing a critical viewpoint. However, stronger thasn the use of the market to criticise itself is the use of criticism to further the ends of the market. That is, rebellion has been thoroughly commodified and now exists simultaneously on 2 planes - that of criticism and that of salesmanship. In this context, the 'selling' wins out because the criticism itself exists in a market context. I'm not sure there's a solution to this, because criticism is distributed through the means of the market, and also because the very commodification of criticism means that in any distribution system this criticism will be reduced to spectacle. It's one of the things I struggle with daily as a filmmaker who thinks Debord provides the best description of our current environment. What it leads me to is that art is spectacle and thus the opposite of revolution, but better to have a critical art in that context than an uncritical one. Call it 'social democratic art' instead of 'Marxist art,' since I still believe in art's transformative power on some level. What I complain about here - with Spielberg as my prime example - is the hypocritical aspect of a critical art that hews too closely to the desires of the market (since the market is an agenda without an agent). I think that Spielberg (again, as an example of the Hollywood system's successful filmmakers) could get away with a much more radical vision, and I hope that that side comes out ahead in the war within his filmmaking self.

Ted Pigeon a dit…
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