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Artists, Magicians, Alchemists, Capitalists

A festival report from the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.

One of cinema’s preeminent magicians welcomes us with his trademark corpulence and pastiched cigar to the IDFA at Amsterdam in a selection entitled Framing. A self-confessed charlatan making a film about yet another self-contained charlatan, Orson Wells takes immense pleasure in 1973’s F for Fake reminding us that film is by nature trickery whilst hoodwinking us one more time (but gently, a fatherly sort of magician—showing us shot, impossible counter-shot, whilst winking mischievously into the camera). F for Fake is an odd choice for a selection which is, to quote the guide, “investigating the borders between fiction and documentary,” since the film admits no such borders, and for Wells any film base enough to insist on its own reality is the most insupportable form of charlatanry (witness his childlike glee at elbow-jabbing the experts every time forger extraordinaire Elmyr Dehory pulls a fast one on a gallerist).

The pleasure of cinema for Wells is not a preposterous ‘suspension of disbelief,’ but rather a sweetly sinister pleasure at seeing ourselves duped. Wells the rotund, paternalistic showman (this image like all images a myth, one which he feeds tongue in cheek in an auto-derisory reference to his legendary obesity by ordering on-camera a colossal lobster at his favorite Parisian seafood restaurant) reminds us that the cineaste is nothing more than a trickster, and his films but sleights of hand.

The Magician fools the spectator of his accord, whereas the Alchemist presents his trickery as a true transformation; not just any transformation, but specifically a regression to a pure and original form. The original alchemic desire to transform lead into gold originated not from a base greed to transform a worthless metal into a valuable one, but from a metaphysical desire to purify metal into its essence. Gold, was for the alchemists a substance whose material essence was a manifestation of its philosophical one—that of eternal incorruptibility.

The Forecaster, a lopsided interview-driven documentary directed by Marcus Vetter, about market-maker and financial wizard Martin Armstrong, indicted by the SEC for fraud in 1999, takes great pains to portray its protagonist as a sort of financial prophet. In fact, as markets move from accountable rationality into the mystical obscurity of derived derivatives and secret algorithms, the prophet rather than the economist becomes the appropriately mythological figure of expertise, the only one who can disentangle the voodoo of market (ir)rationality. Unfortunately this picture of prophecy is composed from the sole testimonies of the friends, ex-colleagues, and family members of Mister Armstrong, leaving us with a film as critical of its subject as a documentary about the pope shot in a nunnery.

With Faust-like haughtiness Mister Armstrong and his acolytes put forth the legend of the capital market’s philosopher’s stone—a single secret formula, a lone number which will unlock the secrets to understanding all economics: in this case some manifestation of the number Pi which Armstrong used to decode the economic and historical real.

Appropriately for our age (and for this digitally shot documentary), rather than a chemical or verbal formula here the alchemical catalyst is the secret of the “source code”—the immaterialist operation which can change Information into Gold, but Gold in a yet more purified and advanced stage. Gold may have been the essential material of the middle ages, but today this act of purification is taken one step further towards essence, releasing the Gold from the necessity of any material bond by transforming it into Capital.

Like in every conspiracy theory the departure points of Armstrong’s critique are quite valid—the money game is rigged from the outset, and rigged to benefit those who have the most money. Yet, what makes conspiracy theories always manifest themselves on the extreme right is their tendency to take as an absolute given what is still changeable; their dark fantasy of absolute control (X occurs not because of a systemic ordering of power and money, but because person Y controls all the power and money). And like all conspiracy theories, The Forecaster is blind, because only viewing the system from the inside, it can never reach a systemic critique which is the source of a political act.

Government may be a big Ponzi scheme, as Armstrong pretends, but if so, it is one, firstly, which democratic citizens have willingly subjected themselves to, and secondly, which they can alter.  Wells’ abracadabra was a game, one in which the spectator willingly participates, but the abracadabra in The Forecaster is meant to be taken literal: “I create as I speak.” Pi has the force of transforming the essence of information into the essence of economic power, a disingenuous hypothesis, and one, if nothing else, which entirely asserts the impossibility to act against an economic system designed to privilege the most privileged, and enfeeble the most feeble.

Capital by nature may have no essence, but in many cases, it can make itself visible through its effects, which is the unfortunate case in the Russian documentary Something Better to Come, directed by Hanna Polak. The film follows over the period of nearly 12 years, the seven-year-old Yula, an outcast child living in Moscow’s largest garbage dump. The world of Yula’s family and companions is recorded as she navigates the wild liberty of an adolescence taking place on the vast infinitude of waste. Life in the garbage dump has a sort of elemental quality to it, a rawness which matches the material in which they conduct their lives. Garbage is for our protagonists, far more than societal excretion, the most visible byproduct of the excess of aforementioned capital, but also a source of potential, this selfsame potential that has attracted the dump dwellers in the first place. This garbage in which they play and work, elemental in color as it is in nature—red cans, white plastic bags, blue pots, a green tarp and the infinite brown of filth and mud—is appropriately recorded on this rough pixelated camera of a decade earlier, with a cinematic liberty and amateurishness, with a poverty of the image which grants it richness.

Yula, blessed with a great beauty and the glowing face of an icon, radiates at first liberty, hope and cleverness. She lives a hard life, filled with filth, addiction, poverty, although as Yula indicates, a poverty which has allowed them to build a sort of brotherhood amongst the destitute, so different from the pettiness and stinginess of the villagers of her hometown, who, forced into mutual competition, resorted to hoarding and jealousy and greed.

As we follow Yula over the years of her maturation and inevitable coming into both age and puberty, the film’s rough edges and this pixels are sanded into smoothness, and an unfortunate use of sentimental music creeps in with the threat and certainty of the ruination of this elemental beauty.

Something Better to Come becomes, like its title, a decontextualized citation taken from Gorky’s the Lower Depths, a consumable product, playing out towards what becomes an expected conclusion. After Yula gives up her baby for adoption as she knows she only must to provide her child the option of a more secure life, the film takes a three-year hiatus from its protagonist, to return to an ‘epilogue’ which takes place in 2012. Replacing the crude pixel, is the clarity of and sharpness of HD. Substituting the primal colors of the garbage dump, are the dull pastels of the soap opera palette. In this crisp reality, Yula ‘lucks out.’ We see her, big and pregnant (but less radiant, less free), preparing her newfound apartment with her boyfriend.

Assumedly, this divergent epilogue was necessary to placate the potential television audience and secure the necessary funding to complete such a film. (No television-slotted film can end with the hopelessness of the loss of child, no less a truth for it being censored). And it is an occasion to witness Capital transforming what must have begun as a work of care and devotion, (nothing alchemic here, on the contrary, the operation is unmagical and entirely explicable) into a lesson for its audience.

Rather than constructing a message of hope, as the film (or perhaps the production partners) attempt to do, the actual message transmitted is one of assimilation—Yula’s only hope is to submit to the bludgeoning system which had secured her poverty in the first place, as she is entirely aware of. Not only must she submit, but she is expected to be grateful of being granted the opportunity to have another child (one which incredibly, the narrative uses to attempt to efface the pain of having lost the first), to gain the privilege of a concrete cube in a slummy neighborhood, from which she can like every other privileged citizen at least order baby furniture on the Internet. The film, ends with contrite pink bubbles floating in the air, symbols of falseness and precarity. Ultimately they only deny the essence of the crude imagery which made Something Better to Come so attractive in the first place: that initial liberty, resourcefulness, street smarts, crudeness, brotherhood which made Yula so different.

Yet, as we witness too clearly, images of poverty and marginality will not do unless they are first alchemized into an edifying story, not so much of fiscal redemption as societal rehabilitation. And the final product becomes a false semblance—the elemental which it displays remains, but is  diverted from its significance to a utilitarian narrative of enrichment so that we may witness Yula elevating herself from a user of garbage, to a producer of one, and in so doing disculpate all others who do so.

If the element of garbage cannot be separated into the parts which make it up, neither can cinema be divided into its composing elements. Marcelo Masagão’s Act and Wind a collage film composed of cinematic citations, is a personal homage to the cinema impressed upon the director’s retina,. We have all the elements of cinema, but Act and Wind’s arbitrary editing drains the cinematic image of its elementarity. The cinematic gestures are categorized, rationalized, organized by similitude: the female gaze, the rolling object, the round object, mirrors, ringing door bells, opening doors, turning keys, running, desire, old age, youth, shadows, clocks, darkness…

There is, to be a sure, a certain pleasure that every film-goer will have in playing the game of identification in a film composed of films. Along with the pleasure of recognition, comes the sweet frustration for the films you recognize but can’t identify, a yearning for the films you can neither identify nor recognize, and a strange sort of prophetic foresight for those films you identify but don’t recognize. These intertextual gratifications aside, Act and Wind never elevates itself beyond being an arbitrary concatenation of images whose only decisive link is that created through taste. It is a film full of cuts but devoid of montage. Here, the cut is used never to compare, to clash, to generate; only to assimilate or smooth over (there are thematic cuts, formal cuts, rhythmic cuts, musical cuts, but no intellectual, political, ideological cuts). In montage theory 1+1=3, but here 1+1 is always equal to 0. And without thought, without idea, this collection of cinematic images becomes derivative, like a book of quotations, a gust of wind without the force of act.

Depleted of any motivation other than that of taste Act and Wind presents a assembly of cinematic citations, an illusion of choice which emphasizes only individual taste as its holy grail, while concealing the social, communal and class structures that create this taste. Cinema becomes an object purified of sense as well as significance, and all that remains are shrink-wrapped, hydroponic images, radiating from an automatic screen, whose only essence is the faint reverberation of ‘I like…’

In From Cagliari to Hitler, a film essay by Rüdiger Suchsland, the cinematic citation functions otherwise. The film is a re-vision of Weimar cinema through the filter of an essay by culture critic and theorist Siegfried Kracauer of the same name. Here the images are neither purified nor denatured, but left jelly in the gel of history and politics (the shockwaves of WWI, the murder of Rathenau, the stock market crash, the rise of the Nazi party). The Weimar wizards (with their wonderful Weimar names: Caligari, M, Mabuse, Nosferatu…) are all here in the fullness of their on-screen being, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the wild and liberal magic of its époque. Yet here too there is an alchemic operation, one which projects the knowledge of the present into the presence of the past to create the fantasy of a perfectly prophetic cinema. 

In Fritz Lang’s M the criminal overlord Schränker splays his black-gloved hand over a map depicting the city of Berlin: “We must cover the city with a net of informers. Every square mile must be under constant surveillance. No child in this city must take a single step without us knowing it.” In retrospect, it is tempting to give in to a fantasy of historical determinism, almost as if sometimes cinema was not just a diaphanous membrane of time-sensitivity, but an act which could actually bring a time to occur. Weimar film is here granted the alchemic powers of the crystal ball, a collection of visions whose vampires and monsters and murderers and cyborgs were a warning to be heeded. Yet, the vindication of history in this cinema can also flirt with a determinism which takes Nazism as the inevitable conclusion of the disorder of the Weimar republic, undoubtedly a historical fact, but one that might have been otherwise.

This informed and habile portrait of the diversity and glory of Weimar cinema cannot come without a matched sense of profound loss at the great epoch of German cinema actively destroyed by the march of Nazism. From Cagliari to Hitler ends with a credit roll that is a fitting testimony to this destitution, in the names of all those forced to flee the end of this greatest of era of German cinema, a calamity from which German cinema has yet to recover.

The one recurring false note in this otherwise spirited cinema-essay are the wholly unnecessary testimonies of ‘film experts’ - film historians and makers. The essence of Weimar cinema suffices in its image, and the manifestation of talking heads to grant a semblance of authority which it does not need, only makes our magician break the spell of hypnosis in order to give in the temptation to inform or instruct.

In Messi, a celebratory biographical docu-soap on the life of the Argentinean footballer, the contrived interviews are constructed to convey not the expertise of knowledge but the privilege of proximity. Assembled in a fancy restaurant for this documentary are Messi’s acquaintances and friends so that they (and through proxy, we) may bask in the near-deific glory of the superstar footballer. Dressed in their Sunday best, cine-lit and gathered around the altar of an HD flat-screen TV, the childhood friends, trainers and ex-teammates, discuss the life and qualities of the moving soccer god icon which reunites them.

To the casual or even devoted fan, Lionel Messi is an image of football god, and here the fan is given the privilege, like a peasant on feast day to come into (virtual) contact with those who have come into contact. The contrived proposition (almost as silly as it is banal) proposes the viewer a hierarchy of grace, in which the viewer, through the proxy of the screen (no different from the painted icon) can approach the exalted presence. This ordering of space and time grants to the Messi myth a structure which is Christ-like, containing the same contradiction: an image which will forge both a great intimacy and an untouchable holiness.

A second contradiction, the opposition between the genius of skill (nature) and the triumph of will (effort) vests upon Messi’s biography a mystical astrologically blessed destiny, yet one which can still be recuperated by the value of industriousness. These contradictory myths are mostly portrayed in congenial bright-eyed reenactments (see undersized Messi being bullied the ghetto) whose form take an admitted turn towards the telenovelic.

Yet, once the anecdotes exhaust themselves, once the mythmaking is depleted, and we have come to the point of time in his biography when Messi joins the image of the great footballer we know him to be from the screen, we are finally presented the true icon—Lionel Messi effortlessly dodging across the pitch, ball magnetically, magically hovering around his feet. Messi moves, rolls, taps, elbows, jumps, heads, passes, shoots, celebrates, with the grace and ease of a true magician of the pitch. Everything other image is entirely superfluous.

Like in From Cagliari to Hitler, in Messi interviews are supplemented to the essential image in to convey an authority, but needlessly, for as in the images of Weimar cinema, what can be more authoritative than the essential image itself?

Movies may be, as Orson Wells never ceases to insist, a form of trickery, but when they are magical, they demand our complicity, whereas in the alchemical image, the seamless and perfect story is one whose goal it always to impose its authority by postulating an ignorance if not powerlessness of the spectator. The alchemical image would have us throw away our critique, conceal the puppet-strings in order to deviate the image from its significance. The magical image, although certainly manipulative, resists the temptation to purify the image down to a perfection, to remove its potency; it not a cleansing, or dupery, but the essence of its (im)materiality—the garbage, the smile, the look of terror, the expressions which still represent a unity.

I am really touched by your paragraph regarding Weimar film, and the heeded warning of the coming WWII via the images and monsters of the Republic. As a prophetic genre, this one can be cracked open, and sunlight can be shed everywhere. That is a very powerful comparison. Thank you. Great work!
Max, Thanks for your kind comment. Although I have to give more credit to the film than to the criticism, as the director (who is also a film critic BTW) is the one who put forth this theory, interesting, and in retrospect very clear. Now, what we must do is think about what do our CG sci-fi Manichean monsters tell us about our own times?

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