Sketches on Hoberman, Sylvia, looking and difference. [Part 3]

[Note: On Sunday, April 27, 2008, I attended a San Francisco International Film Festival event with fellow House Next Door contributor and blogger Ryland Walker Knight and his friend Jennifer Stewart. After the SFIFF presented Jim Hoberman with the Mel Novikoff Award (named for the famed San Francisco film exhibitor), Kent Jones quasi-interviewed Hoberman on stage for about an hour, and then we were lucky enough to watch José Luis Guerin’s In the City of Silvia. Following the screening Ryland initiated an email conversation with me and Jennifer.  Ryland’s initial email and Jennifer’s response can be found on his blog.  You might want to read them first to pick up on the thread of conversation – though it helps even more to have seen the film.]

Hi Ryland and Jen,I guess I’ll live up to the blogger stereotype offered by Kent Jones in his answer to my question during the Hoberman interview and offer more fragmented responses than a thoughtful cohesive reply.  But this is not to say that Kent has us pegged – like I assume you were, Ryland, I was nonplussed by his focusing on the negatives of blog social behaviors (trolling, escalating shouting matches, etc) without equal description given to what’s good about this forum. Maybe it’s the product of having engaged in online discussions for several years, but I pretty much have developed a filter to extended ranting and dead end discussions and can move on to find better stuff elsewhere.  I’m sure you know what I’m talking about and practice the same casual scrutiny – it’s pretty much a must-have skill if one spends extended periods looking for useful content online, at least until some 15 year old in a basement concocts a filter for this. I’d pay.

On to the film – I have to agree you Ryland that as a work about the cinematic properties about the mere act of looking and existing in the world, this film is hard to beat.  And perhaps making the protagonist this sketchy, borderline sociopathic guy is a way of ensuring that we as viewers maintain a gaze that is ours and not closely aligned with that of anyone in the film, and that we get to partake in our own journey of making meaning as Artist Man does.  I just wish it would rely on something other than the tried and true Suffering, Intense, Misunderstood Young Male Artist pining relentlessly after his Idee Fixe – and what if the roles had been replaced, if this film had been about an intense young woman artist gazing at different men before stalking an Ideal?  Would it have been a different film; would audiences have reacted differently? For some reason I find that far more exciting a prospect for a film.  This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way – as soon as I finished watching Broken Flowers I wished the Bill Murray character had been played by a woman (Sharon Stone? Tilda Swinton?) journeying through her past flings to find the father of her grown child.  How much do these casting and gender issues matter in one’s pursuit and appreciation of “pure cinema”, a label which this film no doubt aspires to claim for itself? There’s no clear answer, but for me it most definitely got in the way.

It gets in the way of credibility – funny because we were discussing this very issue on the way into the theater, I think referring to one of Jen’s students writing about how a film didn’t work because they didn’t believe in the plot – a tricky and not wholly fruitful basis for an argument, you both seemed to suggest.  And yet things like that can and do throw one out of a film. Look at how Ideal Girl finally confronts Intense Young Artist on the train. She was gracious beyond belief, to the point where she was strongly suggesting that she wants his attention and for him to keep pursuing her.  And I’m like, who the fuck is this chick, if not some projection of a male masochistic fantasy of how such an encounter would play out.  There’s no real dialogue, no depth to the girl’s character – sure, she’s not the girl he was looking for, but that disruption is not nearly as important as the one that would cause him to be jolted from his mental onanism.

I have to wonder if this film offers a wish fulfillment of its own, one radically different on an aesthetic level from the increasingly maligned Judd Apatow, but startlingly similar in its regressive pursuit of male fantasy, accompanied by an objectifying idealization and willfull alienation of the opposite sex. (btw I scanned those YouTube clips of Sylvia to see if any of them had a shot of “Laure Je T’aime” scrawled on the walls – I would love to match those with “I’m so over you Sarah Marshall!!!” Same difference?)

So as much as I love to celebrate cinema, I don’t dare to conflate cinema as solipsism. There’s plenty of that going around that we don’t need the movies to serve as enablers, no matter how masterful they are.  But I guess the difference between your view and mine is how much we align the man’s perspective with the film’s, how much it acknowledges the danger of solipsism inherent in its protagonist as opposed to glorifying his gaze, and how much of that solipsism refracts onto the film itself, despite its attempt to celebrate the variety of human existence – is it still a one way mirror?

Jen, those moments you mention when the gaze is returned is really the heart of the film’s mystery for me, because that is the locus of the kind of disruption from the monadic existence I’m advocating.  It’s where things get really interesting. But what does he really do with those pregnant seconds? 

I read that Calvino novel many years ago (found a copy in China of all places) and enjoyed it very much.  But I’m not sure how much it parallels this film, if only because the Calvino had a very disjunctive structure whereas this film seems to flow from one moment into the next through a continuous way of looking.

 I think him hitting on that girl and sleeping with her amounts to an attempt to reject his past following that humiliating debacle on the train. But it fails because the next day he’s at the train stop looking for that girl who reminded him of Sylvia.  It’s a really creepy moment the night he and that chick bed together and he’s staring at her so intently, as if trying desperately to drink in her beauty.  Who knows if six years later he’ll be looking for her? 

That lady with the disfigured face was no illusion – she takes off her sunglasses and there she is, an infeffable reproval of all the hot young ladies that, from this film, you’d think constituted 80% of the Parisian population. 

Ultimately I’m not sure if this film subverts or overturns anything Mulvey wrote, or at least anything she wrote about Vertigo.  It still plays to me as the scene where Scottie mistakes Judy for Madeleine, only extended to feature length.


Author: alsolikelife

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  • Ryland Walker Knight

    “– is it still a one way mirror?”

    That’s the big question. Because the two leads were definitely cast to mirror one another with their unreal good looks (dark hair, vulnerable and hurt eyes). The thing I’d like to suggest is that maybe El isn’t “borderline sociopathic” — maybe that’s just our own projection onto his character. Because, as silly as his following her may be, he’s still pretty harmless. Jen said she thinks this is a movie about action, not thought, but I’m still thinking it’s about thought because he’s not really doing much, even when he confronts her (finally). That whole dialogue is punctuated by him thinking out loud, “What a disaster,” and apologizing, not more objectifying/idealizing. They’re even shot side by side in that train with their opposite arms up to suggest they are, indeed, mirrors of one another. Perhaps her generosity is meant to reflect our generosity (or edify us in how to be generous) to such a situation. Now, if El looked like, say, Steve Buscemi or Willem Defoe (who aren’t terrible looking but aren’t great looking like Xavier Lafitte here), I think the scene would play different. Anyways, I ended my comment on Jen’s reply with this:

    I will have to see the film again to trace all this out but that’s the kind of reading I’d like to work towards; that is, away from Mulvey’s Vertigo reading and nearer to, hmn, VF Perkins or Stephen Mulhall (or any of those Brits who contributed to this book (dig that progressive, so to speak, ratio of male-to-female writers there within), which Mulvey actually contributed to as well) and their understanding of style as philosophy. Or, more simply, towards a more generous and less reactionary (oddly politically correct?) posture in relation to the film. We should learn from El’s “mistakes” of mis-recognition and proscription/projection, right?

    Clearly I don’t have any “answers” yet but this has been a nice little exchange. Thanks for participating. I would love to hear what other people have to say — especially if we can live up to the potential of the ‘sphere and prove (the affable, talented) Kent Jones wrong by developing a continued conversation about this. You know, just like at Girish’s comments sections.

  • Jen

    Ryland, here’s why I say it’s not about thought but action. I’m interested in the significance of the transition from, and return to, El attempting to occupy a static vantage point: sitting in the cafe, where occlusion and two-dimensional collapse challenge his attempt to ‘fix’ his intentional object (as I explained in my earlier post). As Kevin observes, El returns to this static gaze at the train stop after the “3e soir” with Another Ella. His circumambulating pursuit of Ella made the core of the film, accelerating (literally) the analogy of film watching and tropes of (dis)identification with gaze we’ve all been analyzing.

    I agree with you that we shouldn’t restrict reading this film as all about gaze in Mulvey’s sense. When I suggested the film could be seen as an updated and improved Mulvey thesis, I was thinking partially of how it troubles that reading. As Kevin said, to stick with that kind of reading ultimately gives us a tired unfolding of gendered logic. Tilda Swinton as El sounds amazing to me!

    I think the difference between your reading and mine, Ryland, is us trying to work out exactly what you said about shifting to film reading that asks about style as philosophy or film as philosophy. I’d agree that, for example, the amazing sound design of this film bespeaks attention to how a film, say, thinks itself a guide to our movement through it (the cues of that glass bottle and El and Ella’s footsteps on cobblestones, just to name a couple). But I say you can’t ignore how important the action, their movement, is to all this: Ella tries to loose El by weaving in and around the city; how the camera cuts and shows this makes that analogy with the guided movement of film viewing. El’s pursuit of Ella just strengthens his conviction that she is Sylvia.

    In other words: To be En el ciudad de Sylvia is to be in a film that takes us on a circumambulation after the frustration of a static vantage point. El doesn’t recover from this but perhaps we can. Ryland, cue your point about how El’s character is designed to leave room for our bypassing him. What do you guys think of this as a reading? I’d like to know, Ryland, how you think thought fits in here, and Kevin, whether this assuages your weariness.

    Oh and Kevin, the Calvino novel: I was thinking of how – if you remember – Readerguy (the ‘you’ character) pursues Ludmilla through misrecognitions both of her person (her sister Lotaria and her mutations are Ludmilla’s dopplegangers) and of her objects of desire in terms of reading. Ludmilla offers accounts of what she wants to read, but whenever Reader (“you”) solicit confirmation thereof, she provides a different account. Reader never incarnates Ludmilla as fixed object and so never secures/resolves what it is he desires. Not to mention, this is another story where characters are named only with anonymous pronouns and differentiated only with number or gender.

  • Ryland Walker Knight

    I see what you mean, Jen, but the idea of “action” still gives me pause. Can we say “movement”? I still think of action as doing and what El does in the film is really more about moving through space (and thinking) than it is doing something — he’s always at a remove, just like us in the theatre, looking, even when he’s following “Sylvie” around town. But I think you’re right to look at how his looking is different in different times in the movie since the differences make a difference. I think our understanding is closer than we may say it is; we’re just expressing how we understand a little differently. Hermeneutics, yay!

  • Sunglasses

    this photo seems to be an abstract even its clear that its a woman, you better think of what does it mean.

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  • Narinder Singh

    a label which this film no doubt aspires to claim for itself? There’s no clear answer, but for me it most definitely got in the way.