Tuesday, February 15, 2011

let's have both

To discuss the ethical agency of our psyche, Slavoj Žižek often talks about Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, that of the 3 1/2 seconds shot of the airport tower: Casablanca eventually tells the two conflicting stories. The point of Žižek's reading is that a single audience have both stories. It's not that one interprets as "they did" and the other "they didn't." The film can satisfy both the part that enjoys it and the other part that censors it in one's mind.

Casablanca is a very old film. But it still appears to work that way, or, at least we can understand what Žižek says. But, how or what our mind enjoys and censors is, I think, ever changing. We today can laugh at old paintings that depict nudes under the name of mythologies, history, and biblical stories: "You just want to watch the naked body, don't you?" But, those paintings could have worked the way Casablanca does today.

In his Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Paintings, Wayne Franits discusses how the story of the Prodigal Son was subverted in the paintings and the play-writings in the 16th-17th century. He explains Frans Hals's painting so-called Jonker Ramp and His Sweetheart and W.D. Hooft's play Heden-daeghsche verlooren soon:

The play is filled with spicy language, lewd songs, provocative scenarios, and a finale in which Juliaen has returned home simply because he has run out of options. In contrast to his biblical counterpart, he is not sincerely repentant about his errant ways. If parallels can be drawn between this and contemporary paintings such as Hals's, they lie not in the presentation of admonitory messages (as is often assumed) but rather of rebaldry.

My assumption is that there were times the Prodigal Son simultaneously carried the two stories before W. D. Hooft. And yet it had taken a few centuries until Gustave Courbet brought his saucy paintings into the Salon in the 19th century. What Courbet did might have been like letting Wile E. Coyote know there was no longer the ground under him.

Back to Casablanca, if you, reading Žižek's discussion I linked above, think, "Oh, I didn't notice that," it is probably because whether they did it or not is not the center of the story. It is simultaneously important and not.

By the way, Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) is a Prodigal Son who finally repents.

I think I've seen the similar ambiguity in a relatively recent film: Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Whether the relationship is consummated is in fact ambiguous, or even may be not. Bob (played by Bill Murray) touches Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson)'s feet, and then the scene changes, that's all. The reason why Coppola does this may be different from Curtiz's. We don't censor it any more. In the case of Bob, seemingly the less important one is easily consummated. And we (I say, "we") understand that that is life. This is a story about avoiding the catastrophe and we sympathize for their honesty. Just in order to keep the dream alive, it has to be ambiguous. What have been and what might have been: let's have both.

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