Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 30, September 2003

 

 

John Orr

 

Right Direction, Wrong Turning:

On Zizek's _The Fright of Real Tears_

 

 

Slavoj Zizek

_The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory_

London: British Film Institute, 2001

ISBN 0-85170-754-8

240 pp.

 

I.

 

Lover of Lenin and Lacan, Slavoj Zizek is a talented culture critic whose recent work reveals the many pitfalls that come with campus fame. This is particularly true of his writing on film. His treatment of Hitchcock, Lynch, and now Kieslowski is provocative and cavalier, powerful yet patronising, fertile but sterile. [1] He is the maestro of the seminal insight but also of the tired distraction, an expert at getting straight to the point and then going straight past it. Here, though, in his strange homage to Kieslowski he does not get straight to the point at all. The opposite happens. After an unctuous preface by Colin MacCabe preparing the way for a Zizek Performance of Greatness, Kieslowski barely gets a mention in the first sixty-five pages, being left with no more than a walk-on part at the end of Part One. But if you then re-read the book's subtitle: 'Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory' you can work out its true import. The Polish filmmaker is there for a dramatic purpose, for glowing intermissions between bouts of academic head-banging that have their own agenda. Zizek's genuine insights in this book come later, but an impatient reader could be forgiven for thinking the Pole is merely being used as a tool for more critical infighting that has precious little to do with cinematic vision.

 

Zizek starts with a rant against 'post-theory', (meaning David Bordwell and his followers), and promptly gives it a pride of place in film discourse it barely deserves. En route he attacks with great fanfare but little coherence Bordwell's bold claim of aesthetic universalism in his best essay in years, 'Convention, Construction and Cinematic Vision'. [2] Yet amidst his anxiety Zizek fails to notice just how thin on the ground, outside of Bordwell and one or two others, post-theory is. He has nothing to say about the most obvious weakness, its crass cannibalisation of the term 'cognitive'. For if post-theory is staffed by cognitivists, how can it not be theory of some sort? Well it can't for Zizek simply because it is theory and not Theory. The capital 'T' tells it all. Theory is deified but only if it is the right kind. To argue, as some 'post-theorists' do, that film critique should be founded on modes of cognition, shifts debate into realms of one-sided abstraction. Zizek's response is to be even more abstract, though a more accurate word is probably abstruse. In a weird way he allows his new enemies to shift the goalposts, and his defensiveness is baffling. Unusually he has no resort to 'post-modernism', the term he used (with Fredric Jameson) as a neo-Marxian trope for tying the information age into consumer capitalism. Though it loomed large in his Lynch monograph _The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime_, you sense he now feels post-modernism is passe. He might well be right. You sense too more than a tinge of desperation in his actual solution. In searching for an irreducible core of Theory Zizek falls back on that demon in the Hollywood machine that has so often been the subject of his love-hate: suture.

 

Suture of course is the Lacanian Word-in-Passing made Text by a whole generation of disciples, cue 'film' disciples, and no one knows, outside of its surgical meaning, what it really means. But as a word-in-passing that fell from the master's lips, that means it can mean whatever you want to make it mean. And that is what Zizek does. What it seems to mean for him is that through the very mechanics of film editing in shot/reverse-shot sequences, anything fragmented or uncertain in the filmic image can be stitched back into something falsely unifying for the spectator. Usually this is done mechanically, but now and again suture can be done subversively to expose its own strategy, by exploring the gaps between action and reaction in shot/reverse-shot stylistics, that is with ingenious variations on a basic theme. As a concept of film critique, suture, either mechanical or subversive, tries to be inclusive in a way that flaky, diffuse 'post-modernism' can never be. The unity of a conniving Devil, hatched in the studio system of classical Hollywood, seems preferable to the agnosticism of a purposeless world.

 

For Zizek subversive suture, or should we say alternative medicine, is something both Hitchcock and Kieslowski do well. And it should be noted that these favourite directors, along with his current favourite David Lynch, do employ shot/counter-shot techniques quite widely along with a strong use of close shots and close-ups. Here the reference point for the Polish Kieslowski who never went to the United States seems more American than European. For a Marxist Slovenian who claims to champion the dispossessed in post Cold War Europe, Zizek has little to say about Kieslowski's contemporaries in Central or East Europe, or the Balkans. 'Kieslowski definitely belongs to Mitteleuropa', he claims early on (7). But where are the comparisons? Polish cinema does not get a look-in: no naming here of Wajda, Skolimowski, or Polanski. Other omissions are even more odd. Wide-shot or sequence-shot stylistics are never discussed. Innovating directors like Angelopoulos, Sokurov, Haneke, Kusturica, and Bela Tarr are never mentioned. Tarkovsky is accorded a brief four pages as 'Kieslowski's Russian counterpart', where Zizek wants to stress their 'cinematic materialism' against the claims of New Age mystics (102). But Tarkovsky's very different style of filming, with its slow sequence-shot tracking, is never contrasted with Kieslowski's fast hand-held shots, fast editing, or decentred reverse-angle close-ups. The two filmmakers appear to be identical by default, perhaps because of Kieslowski's admiration for his Russian predecessor. But there *is* contrast in their approach to narrative duration, of which the Pole was only too well aware and to which Zizek seems oblivious. Kieslowski admitted that in the _Three Colours_ trilogy he was concerned to edit down to ninety minutes to hold the attention of a contemporary audience. As much as he admired the efforts of others like Angelopoulos to persist with the long narrative, it was not for him or, he implied, the contemporary spectator. [3] Aided by the talented editing of Jacques Witta, he succeeded with the Trilogy in creating a poetically dense system of montage whose impact on the spectator still needs to be analysed. Such analysis, though, is not forthcoming from Zizek. His purpose is very different. In patronising his English-language readership, Zizek uses the terms 'Kieslowski' and 'Mitteleuropa' as signifiers of a cultural exotica to which he alone, as Theory's maestro, can unlock the door.

 

This is partly why Zizek's long prehistory of Kieslowski does not lie in the *history* of Mitteleuropa, but in the realm of subversive suture that is totally outside of it. For suture inhabits a very different landscape where the turf wars of Theory are taking place. Or rather, his weird version of Mitteleuropa provides a perverse feed-in to his even weirder version of Theory. Mitteleuropa's earlier love of Karl May's 'western' fiction and its current love of pseudo-Irish folk bands signify, he grandly claims, a love of things Western achieved only through kitsch imitation. Kieslowski's use of suture is deemed something similar. Never mind Solidarity and Martial Law, for that is 'a historicist trap' (8). Let's see Krzysztof instead as a surrogate Hitch, deconstructing suture for the 1990s; and if we can do that we can surely forget uncomfortable History yet rescue Theory from the new barbarians at the gates, the 'cognitivists' of post-theory. It is an absurd proposition based on false premises and the book goes wildly wrong from the start. Later on when things improve, Zizek's history phobia prevents him from making anything of the crucial differences between the _Decalogue_ and the Trilogy -- Kieslowski in Poland and out of it. One suspects that for the unreconstructed Leninist 1985-95 were a bad ten years. Instead, his critical turning point is one the book's title directs us to, Kieslowski's early shift from documentary into feature narrative, prompted because, in the director's own words, 'I'm frightened of real tears' (72). The statement is more enigmatic than Zizek thinks. Predictably he tries to read it as a variation on suture aesthetics when, historically speaking, it was anything but. Yet his profound error is vital to his flimsy argument.

 

So what is this tenuous link between Hitchcock, who never made documentaries, and Kieslowski's 'fright of real tears'? Unlikely though it seems, there is one. But it is not the one Zizek gives. As ever, the Slovenian critic finds a new approach to an elusive subject and at the crucial point turns in the wrong direction. He knows that Hitchcock and Kieslowski make effective idiosyncratic use of the close-up in shot/reverse-shot sequencing to clinch key dramatic moments, and can surprise us by the way in which they do so. But he also knows that such an insight falls short of Theory, that cultic enterprise which for any true lover of Lenin and Lacan must be holistic and bind us into the One. Here Lacanian Suture is the way in and out, but crucially the Lacanian Gaze functions as the go-between. It is a neat solution on paper, but meaningless onscreen. In Zizek's neo-Lacanian formulation the Gaze is pure off-the-wall metaphysic, something returned by the eyeless object, anthropomorphic, bounced back by any Thing devoid of the power of sight: hence its perverse attraction for Theorists of a certain persuasion. In movies, the gaze for sure may be decentred, mirrored, reflected, or made invisible to the eye of the spectator, and it often has been to great effect, but it is still the gaze of some creature in the animal world with the power of sight.

 

To revert to the eyeless gaze as the epitome of that which cannot be sutured, except in extremis where effectively you kill the technique you love to hate, is an even more absurd solution to the absurd conundrum Zizek has set himself. And his own examples undermine this perverse Purity of the Empirically Impossible. On the stair of the Bates Mansion in _Psycho_ Martin Balsam may be staring up at the Horror his audience cannot see, but retrospectively we do come to guess what he has seen. Hitchcock's startle-effect is a function of narrative suspense, ingenious and original. [4] But the returning, invisible gaze is still that of Norman Bates in drag, not the mansion, not the house, not the cosmos. Bates may be maximum deranged but he is neither a Thing nor stand-in for a Thing. He is flesh and blood, even though his mum is now a skeleton in a wheelchair. Elsewhere, creatures with wings, the birds that terrorise Bodega Bay -- who fly into their own point-of-view shot, high above the mayhem they have helped to create (suture high in the sky) -- are also creatures with eyes, and can see their human victims. The fact that Hitchcock in his modernist period plays ingeniously on different variations on the point-of-view shot -- the objective shot as subjective, the subjective shot objectivised -- does not alter this one bit. While Bates may be a paranoid schizophrenic, Zizek seems to be something else: a paranoid anthropomorphic. For sure, Hollywood horror can suggest anything: hence _The Hills Have Eyes_. But Zizek's inverted suture seems to inscribe one formula: Only the Hills Have Eyes. At this point Theory, or what is left of it, flies out of the window.

 

Yet the gaze with a small 'g' is vital in Hitchcock and Kieslowski. In elevating it to a capital 'G' the Slovenian critic and self-styled materialist shows how anxious he is to expunge context from pure metaphysic. Let us take two key gaze examples: one from Hitchcock's _Spellbound_ (1944), that he never mentions either here or in his Hitchcock collection; and one of the few Kieslowski illustrations, from _Decalogue 6_ (1988) (television version of _A Short Film about Love_), that makes it into Part One of this book. _Spellbound_, as that confused film in which Hitchcock both condoned and condemned the Science of Psychoanalysis, is the strange aporia in Zizek's reading of Hitch. Since the film not only uses Dali designs for its dream sequences, but boldly links Gregory Peck's war-trauma with his childhood traumas, its overlooking is truly curious. So let us turn to Hitch's filming of the first embrace between de facto patient, amnesiac Peck, and loving analyst, concerned Ingrid Bergman. A swift series of moving reverse-angle close-ups of the couple, that give the spectator a brief sense of vertigo, are followed by a cutaway to a set of doors opening consecutively and mysteriously down a long corridor in the asylum. It shows how 1940s Hitchcock operates at the edge of genre convention. Romance is acclaimed and sabotaged: analysis is acclaimed and sabotaged -- and all in the same sequence. The love of Romance is an amour fou: the new passion for a Science of Mind is equally an amour fou. And here they first copulate.

 

Let us now return to Kieslowski. In _Decalogue 6_, Zizek's illustration of Kieslowski-suture is the sequence where Tomek sees Maria Magdalene at the post office after spying at her at home through the telescope in his apartment (39-40). As we see a close-up of Tomek looking out at her, her image is refracted, larger than life, on the glass screen above the counter -- Tomek and his object of desire are thus seen within the same frame. Zizek calls this a 'spectral dimension' (39), used in a shot/reverse-shot sequence to indicate lack of closure -- in a word subversive suture. For him it shows the spectral image that opens up 'a door of perception' upon the drab reality of everyday life. Yet it is much more precise than this for Kieslowski. It highlights the way that Tomek consciously pursues voyeurism as a form of magic to lift himself above the everyday in the dire and depressed decade of Martial Law. The reflection may be spectral, yet we know Maria is there in the flesh too since we see her in reverse-angle from his point-of-view, and we also know by this time that his ruse to get her to the post-office, by sending her a note about a non-existent money order, is in order to see her in the flesh where previously he had seen her only through his telescope. Kieslowski's subtle irony in this shot is to infer that the lens image, the image seen through glass, remains more powerful in Tomek's imagination at this stage than the image seen without refraction. He cannot substitute in his fantasy the immediate for the mediated. But an attentive spectator coming to this sequence and aware of its prior context is able to read the irony in the situation. Maria is not 'fantasmatic' like Madeleine Elster, but a woman maddened by the bureaucratic difficulties in her daily life. Indeed any cinema screening of the feature-length version shows up the relationship that then develops between the two protagonists as tense and tactile, raggedly sensuous and not spectral at all. Finally the immediate does take over from the mediated, but with tragic results. The climax to their relationship, where the touch of hand upon thigh precipitates Tomek's orgasm, is the opposite of _Spellbound_. It ends in humiliation not consummation. It is purely metonymic, not spectral at all: there is no recourse to a metaphysical moment, a metaphor-cutaway, as there was in _Spellbound_. As we have seen, it was Hitchcock not Kieslowski who literally opened up the doors of perception.

 

 

II.

 

In trying to dramatise Kieslowski's shift from documentary to fiction as the crucial turning-point in his career, as a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus, where the director agonises over intruding into people's lives and becomes frightened by real tears, Zizek overlooks a crucial and unifying factor in Kieslowski's style. Even in his early documentaries like _First Love_ (1974) and _Hospital_ (1976), he was never Bazinian in procedure. Deep-focus, the medium-long shot, stable shoulder-and-eye-level equilibrium, all are conspicuous by their frequent absence. From the start his camera is intrusive. It dwells long on the figure and the face of his subjects: it searches out in extreme close-up the nuances of facial expression. It explores the intimate, unguarded moment. When it is this intrusive the camera circulates close in, jerky, hand held. In the 1970s Kieslowski was nearer to Cassavetes than he was to Ken Loach or neo-realism. During one or two of these moments in _First Love_ the microphone also comes into shot. Elsewhere Kieslowski uses a long lens to film, for example, aspects of the wedding party that is framed tight in from a distance in order to make the camera invisible. Yet this brief short of a young schoolgirl who gets pregnant and then married in tough circumstances stresses resilience and vulnerability, two of the human qualities that Kieslowski's later developed in the fiction-fables of the _Decalogue_. Here it is docudrama, an episode in a life told and edited with its own dramatic rhythms, and telling its own story. Yet it is still documentary, unlike _Camera Buff_, his first reflexive feature about a filmmaker so obsessed by his new craft he deserts his family in order to sustain it. Zizek reads this as a fictional version of Kieslowski's own life that follows from the crisis of his documentary period. Yet he ignores crucial distancing effects as the film goes in opposite directions at once. The subject is a modest factory-worker turned camera buff, definitely not a student from Lodz film school as Kieslowski was. Conversely no modest factory worker plays the part. Instead it is Jerzy Stuhr, one of Poland's best film and theatre actors, who reappears in _Decalogue 10_.

 

Here we have two unifying factors in all of Kieslowski, from _First Love_ to _Three Colours: Red_, which also connect him to Hitchcock. The first lies in a series of original variations on the presence of the camera: the second in the repetition of what Deleuze has called the 'affection-image'. [5] In Griffith, Pabst, Eisenstein, Dreyer, and Bergman, Deleuze asserts, the expressive close shot or close-up is put into context by what the film cuts to or away from, and by what the face in the frame looks to and away from. Yet it is not only relational in this external sense. It is also an image-in-itself that has its own affective qualities, qualities that inhere above and beyond the immediate situation. In the powerful use of this mise-en-scene there is always a recurring hiatus between action and re-action, between the in-itself and for-itself of the image. Like their great predecessors, Hitchcock and Kieslowski use the close-up and close shot as affection-images founded on this hiatus. They combine the internal and external dimensions in unexpected ways that remain open: that is to say enigmatic, ambiguous where deframed meanings must be filled in by the spectator's active look. This generic openness is unacknowledged in semiological formulations of suture and has nothing to with the metaphysic of an Absent Gaze.

 

 

III.

 

While these two factors, the reflexive and the play upon affect, are a key to continuity, critical differences emerge between the Kieslowski of the 1980s and the 1990s. Again Zizek senses some of them, but still makes a hash of it. He regurgitates Alicja Helman's stupid statement that _Decalogue_ women are all frumpy, malicious, and destructive, [6] while those of the Trilogy are serene, beautiful, and, it seems to Zizek, mouth-watering. No matter that in _Three Colours: Blue_ Juliette Binoche starts off in hospital nearly dead, with a neck brace, a bruised and bloated face, and an eye patch. Along with Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob she is sumptuous Image of Desire as opposed to all those drab, self-dramatising females in the Warsaw Tower Block -- great actors all of them, incidentally -- who give the Eternal Feminine a bad name. Because of his exclusion order on Polish film, Zizek also misses out a point of contact with Polanski, the role of 'the girl-child' as the screenplay of _Cul-de-Sac_ calls the young Francoise Dorleac. What Polanski consciously fashioned with Dorleac, Mia Farrow, and later Emmanuelle Seigneur re-occurs here -- but less consciously -- with Jacob (twice over) and Delpy. From _The Double Life of Veronique_ onwards Zizek sniffs out Romance -- and seems deeply in love with the Tricolour trio -- but fails to connect it with Polish Romanticism. How is mighty abstraction here overthrown! Yet the Trilogy is precisely where Kieslowski renews a Polish tradition his films had previously denied. Sensationally, it does so only in a European idiom where national boundaries are crossed. Unlike Wajda, agonising the ironies of fraught and futile Romance in the oppressed Nation, Kieslowski, courtesy of the Cold War's sudden end, leaps the border and finds himself in the bosom of Poland's great friend in time of need: France, home of the Tricolour and beacon of national liberty. Perhaps Geneva is stretching things a little but the move is clear. The 'Symphony for the Unification of Europe', the bedrock of _Blue_'s would-be transcendence, only embraces two to three countries. This is no upmarket Euro-Pudding. It is unbridled Francophilia. Zizek also misses the other point about it. It is the moment in the Francophile tetralogy (_Veronique_ and _Three Colours_) where Zbigniew Preisner's musical score for once transcends its Mitteleuropa kitsch. It's a pity, then, that Zizek finds no place to compare Kieslowski's Preisner, his 'Van den Buddenmayer', with Karl May and The Kelly Family.

 

At the book's midway point, framed by tedious digressions -- pompous ramblings on Heidegger and the Holocaust, in-depth 'critique' of Minghella's utterly vacant _The Talented Mr. Ripley_ -- Zizek comes up with a tantalising apercu, the strength of the whole work. In the 1980s with _Blind Chance_ and _No End_ Kieslowski began to forge a cinema of parallel lives and so engaged the wider issue of time-travelling, back and forth, that has exercised the minds of physicists and evolutionists alike. It is something that affects us all: 'a new 'life-experience' is in the air', Zizek claims,

 

'a perception of life that explodes the form of the linear, centred narrative and renders life as a multiform flow . . . Kieslowski's seemingly 'obscurantist' dealing of the topic of the role of chance and parallel alternative histories is to be perceived as yet another attempt to articulate this new life-experience in the old cinematic medium that promotes linear narrative' (78-9).

 

Well never mind that Resnais, Chris Marker, and _Sunset Boulevard_ all did parallel worlds well before _Mulholland Dr._, Zizek has a clear point. Cinema's narrative turn at the end of century has been precisely this, and Zizek is smart in teasing out the two main variations of that turn, the narrative of crossing points, or tapestry-narratives, like _Short Cuts_ or _Magnolia_, or the virtual and parallel re-enactments of the same plot in _Veronique_, _Blue_, _Red_, _Lost Highway_, and now, one guesses, he would surely add _Mulholland Dr._

 

In a way the Californian strategies of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson are obvious. It is the second category that fascinates. In the last few years we could well extend this list outside of the American orbit (though Zizek declines to do so): the delicately interwoven yet parallel time frames of _Ulysses' Gaze_ and _Eternity and a Day_; the forked-path narratives of Wong-Kar Wai that culminate with the offscreen couple shadowing the onscreen couple during _In the Mood for Love_; the tight collage of interwoven sub-plots without a main plot that characterises Haneke's eerie _Code Inconnu_. Other films suggest themselves from just about anywhere with their own distinct variations: _Close-Up_, _The Wind Will Carry Us_, A Moment of Innocence_, _Satantango_, _Calendar_, _Afterlife_, _Amores Perros_, _Intacto_ . . . the list goes on. Although they come from different sources for different reasons, there is now a global feel to this narrative turn. Kieslowski has shared with Kiarostami, for example, the ideological constraint of an officially determined universe, though the ideologies in question are as day and night. Yet such narratives surely undermine the One Way whatever it is, and in doing so they sit uncomfortably with Zizek's holistic ruminations in the first part of this book. Just as Zizek is reluctant to see the source of Kieslowski's virtual narratives in a conscious anti-determinism, a resistance to holistic ideology, he is equally reluctant to see the parallel worlds of American film narrative as a response to the sheer diversity of that country's open cultures, and their search, amid perceived chaos and destruction, for transcendental meanings. As a result, the protean history of the contemporary world is constantly running away from the dogmatic concepts by which he tries in vain to pin it down.

 

University of Edinburgh, Scotland

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See Slavoj Zizek, ed., _Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)_ (London: Verso, 1992); and _The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway_ (Seattle: Walter Chapin Center for the Humanities, 2000).

 

2. David Bordwell, 'Convention, Construction and Cinematic Vision', in Bordwell and Noel Carroll, eds, _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), pp. 87-107.

 

3. Paul Coates, ''The Inner Life is the Only Thing That Interests Me': A Conversation with Krzysztof Kieslowski', in Coates, ed., _Lucid Dreams: The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski_ (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1999), p. 173.

 

4. Robert Baird, 'The Startle Effect; Implications for Spectator Cognition and Media Theory', _Film Quarterly_, vol. 53 no. 3, Spring 2000, p. 16.

 

5. See Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: The Athlone Press, 1992), pp. 87-122.

 

6. Alicja Helman, 'Women in Kieslowski's Late Films', in Coates, ed., _Lucid Dreams_, pp. 119-121.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

John Orr, 'Right Direction, Wrong Turning: On Zizek's _The Fright of Real Tears_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 30, September 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n30orr>.

 

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