The third of three ‘raptures’.
By NIGEL WHEALE.
HE IS COMPELLED to watch the exhibit for as long as possible, the silent projection of Psycho onto a freestanding, transparent screen, about ten by fourteen feet, in a darkened, otherwise bare room. The film is run so slowly, through twenty-four hours, that every movement by the actors is broken down frame by frame, a ‘slow-winged Psycho’ (77). He knows every gesture that Anthony Perkins makes as he approaches the shower curtain, every frame of Janet Leigh’s infinitely delayed reaction. He has observed the performance on each day of the screening, six days in all. ‘What he was watching seemed pure film, pure time. How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film’s time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen?’ (7–8).1
He stands at the rear wall, motionless, for hours at a time, then checks the movie from the back of the screen, Psycho as mirror image. Other gallery-goers try the room, give the show a minute or so, drift out to the main business of the venue, and the books, the cards, the café. There is always a guard present, standing by the door, ‘The guard was here but did not count as a presence in the room. The guard was here to be unseen.’ (8) It is as if he himself has become a part of the installation, the necessary witness to what is shown. He watches two visitors, an elderly man with long white hair gathered into a braid, and a young man, somehow paying him court:
He watched them a moment longer, the academics, adepts of film, of film theory, film syntax, film and myth, the dialectics of film, the metaphysics of film, as Janet Leigh began to undress for the blood-soaked shower to come. (9)
He understands that this film needs to be silent, and black-and-white, for the solitariness of the true cinematic experience, even though, as he knew, he was watching videotape images, which lack the mystic glow of true film stock. What he really wanted was to attend for an entire performance, through all twenty-four hours, alone in the museum, to undergo the ultimate sensation of this ‘radically altered plane of time’ (15). We have all experienced this, leaving the cinema, perception reconfigured by the screen, after Toy Story how the streets appeared pixelated and color-adjusted, and full of automata.
John Cage’s performance of Eric Satie’s Vexations at the Pocket Theatre, New York, 9 and 10 September 1963 (what is it with early September?) played Satie’s bare page of music as per the composer’s wish, 840 times, for which ‘one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities’. Twelve pianists stepped up to this austere plate; Andy Warhol, among others, was attentive, inspired to make his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building in 1964. There was an attendance-recording clock at the entry; stay twenty minutes and you were refunded five cents. Persist through the entire event, you got your money back. In 1984, the austere modality of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston offered another kind of spiritual reductio over just five hours.2
Four or was it six curtain rings spin endlessly, toward the stained water circling a shower drain. Detective Arbogast for ever falls backward down the flight of stairs. Outside the installation space, there’s sound and color, ‘the strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that’s not the movies’ (19), that white machine.
We never learn who this unnamed man is, consumed by a certain conception of motion picture, through the first nineteen pages, ‘Anonymity, September 3’, of Point Omega, Don DeLillo’s 148-page novella. The central narrative then begins. Richard Elster, 73, has retreated to a desert, maybe the Mojave, where there are only distances and where time is ‘blind’ (81); he lives in a semi-derelict shack. ‘The desert was clairvoyant, this is what he’d always believed, that the landscape unravels and reveals, it knows future as well as past’ (109). He drinks scotch with water, from a coffee mug strapped to his belly. He reads mostly poetry, Pound, Zukovsky, his youthful enthusiasms, but Rilke too, reciting aloud from the Duineser Elegien, working on his German.
He had spent two years on the ‘third floor of the E ring at the Pentagon’, as a top-level academic theorist, with no experience of war-fighting, logistics, but recruited to provide overall legitimacy for invasion, the ulimate koan of military supremacy, above and beyond the fluid kinetics of any battleground. He operated, he said, in the war room, among all the ‘Bulk and swagger’ (24). He was author of a notorious essay on the etymology of ‘Rendition’, which had brought him to their attention. He was a ‘defense intellectual’.
Elster has been pursued to the desert by Jim Finley, a documentary filmmaker (‘Deadbeat Films’) who is consumed by another austere vision: a film ‘about his time in government, in the blat and stammer of Iraq’ (26), which would be just Elster, straight to camera, a plain brick wall behind him, no interlocutor, no cutaways or documentary footage, an unedited, continuous take of his complete account, preserving the pauses, reformulations. Up against a wall, in black and white, ‘primate filmmaking. The dawn of man’ (90). Elster and Finley were the casual visitors to 24 Hour Psycho, the elderly man with braided hair, which gave him ‘a flair of distinction, the intellectual as tribal elder’ (29), and his memorialist. Finley is single-focused, also possessed by the idea of film, ‘Every project becomes an obsession or what’s the point’ (51):
My wife said to me once, ‘Film, film, film. If you were any more intense, you’d be a black hole. A singularity,’ she said. ‘No light escapes.’ (34)
Finley guesses that Elster has exempted himself from present time, he is now focussed on geological process, the ‘protoworlds’ of millennia past. He is consumed by thoughts of extinction. Should we die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. The troubling ‘American obsession with emptiness’.3
Jessie, Elster’s daughter, arrives; she is enigmatic, an original, though she describes herself as ‘totally disregardless’ (59). Elster remarked that she hadn’t been a child ‘who needed imaginary friends. She was imaginary to herself’ (89). She has had no serious boyfriends, her father thinks, but her mother (from whom Elster is estranged) now worries that she has some involvement with a man who might be a problem. Jessie fascinates Finley, ‘she heard words from inside them’ (50). Her father had told her about his visit to the silent Hitchcock installation with Finley, and had said that it was like watching the universe die over about seven billion years, he had managed ten minutes then fled, without making any remarks to Finley. Jessie chose to go herself, stayed about half an hour. She sometimes talked to strangers.
Elster is possessed by the idea that a grand climacteric is on the way, a final conclusion when everything will reach a point, even the point. When he was young he had read voraciously, at lunchtime in the college cafeteria he didn’t need a tray, eating off open books. He had read the mystics and philosophers, possessed by that lovely need for truly massive explanation. Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of ‘the omega point’ was one such, a final introversion when the human species moves beyond, or back from its biological basis and out of present consciousness altogether, ‘We want to be stones in a field.’ (67) He wishes for a paroxysm, ‘where the mind transcends all inward direction … a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen’ (91).4
When Elster and Finley return from a trip to buy groceries, Jessica has vanished, taking nothing with her, leaving no letter, simply disappeared, in her disregardless way. ‘Passing into air, it seemed this is what she was meant to do, what she was made for … Had she strayed past the edge of conjecture … ?’ (101). The local sheriff and park rangers make endless helicopter sweeps while they also search for Mexicans brought across the border and abandoned among the parched badlands. A knife is found in a canyon not far away, nothing else. Elster is broken, ‘inconsolably human’ (121).
THE FINAL TWENTY pages of Point Omega return to the nameless, fixated viewer in the Psycho room, now the following day, September 4. A woman breaks into his meditation with some pointed but oddly random remarks, she has come straight to the installation, not bothering with the rest of the museum. She was ‘a shadow unfolding from the wall’ (141), and he becomes inwardly agitated, needs to check his appearance, urgently thinks how they might take dinner together somewhere. He imagines pinning her to the wall, as she continues to watch the movie over his shoulder.
Museum guards should wear sidearms, he thought. There is priceless art to protect and a man with a gun would clarify the act of seeing for the benefit of everyone in the room. (142)
He follows her out into the streets, they talk some more, and he asks for her number, which she rapidly recites then walks away into the midtown crowds. He returns to the installation for its final half-hour, paying full-price for his entrance. His thoughts begin to afflict him, the guard shoots himself in the head, for instance. He cannot be responsible for these thoughts, he waits to become one with the figure of Norman Bates, before the endless movie has to end.
There are moments when you can feel as if you are brushed by, even caught up with, changing times; you come across work which seems utterly new, that can take you immediately to a different level. Film-text has given me some of my most shockingly new perspectives, works that become obsessions over years, even decades: the first sight of a 20-second TV trail for Blade Runner; a late-night C4 showing of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil; Don DeLillo’s remarkable TV essai, The Word, the Image and the Gun, which surely laid out the development for his fiction from Libra right through to Point Omega. The attempt to describe a new category of culture and affect during the 1980s, the ‘postmodern’, is now of its own past moment. Maybe it is best understood as a birthing process, a labour that would bring forth the current stage, of global virtual exchange, courtesy of the Internet. The Web accelerates and intensifies so much of what was being described as ‘postmodern’, but to the point where there is no point in trying to categorize the infinity of data and the potential that it offers. This will be the mode for the foreseeable future, with ever more integrated transactions between technology and flesh, babes WIFI-readied before they leave the maternity unit, USB implants tucked discretely behind each ear.
THE IDEA OF ‘postmodernism’ was a harbinger, a sensing of what was about to be born, it was Juan the Baptist before the final revelation – digitalia and the Web. These have become the true acceleration toward an infinity of the new. What is now most compelling is the planetude of micro-cultural moments, the universe of blogs, the accessing of all areas (an illusion, of course) about which it is frankly uninteresting to theorize within one grand paradigm, unless it is that of the silent supervision, the algorithm within the data stacks, of ultra-state superveillance.5 All of which renders the notion of ‘the postmodern’ as quaint as Jacob Burckhardt’s ‘Renaissance and the Discovery of Man’.
Rapture or rupture? At the last possible moment of Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner performs a handbrake turn through 180 degrees, and in the final phrase of his novel, sheds all irony. Adam Gordon’s inauthenticity becomes a self-knowledge, decently self-reconciled, to himself, his writing and his life – ‘Teresa would read the originals and I would read the translations and the translations would become the originals as we read. Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.’ (181) The poet now accepts that his poetry can be transformed through collaboration with another and its metamorphosis from English to Spanish, the lingo which he claimed never to know. It is of course entirely possible to ironize this declaration too, but James Wood also reads the gesture as true-hearted, because ‘one of the paradoxes of this cunning book [is] that what might seem a sceptically postmodern comedy is also an earnestly old-fashioned seeker of the real’.6
Does this confirm the death of postmodernist irony, the infinite play of all that knowingly evasive reference? As in Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), Adam Gordon ultimately chooses to renounce the conventions by which he was created. Can we read Lerner and Coupland (DeLillo got there first) as voices for the new New movement, the post-ironic, a decisive move beyond the crumbling stockade of the post-, but toward what? Resurgence of a new Naturalism, the return of Realism, even? There is, after all, plenty enough these days to be getting real about.
Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). He lives and works in Orkney. This is the third of three ‘Raptures’ he has created for The Fortnightly Review.
Note: Updated 28 July 2014 to correct posting errors.
- Don DeLillo, Point Omega. A Novel, (Scribner, 2010; references to Picador edn, 2011). ↩
- This paragraph based in Alex Ross, ‘Bob, Rock, and the Minimalists’, The Rest is Noise. Listening to Twentieth-Century Music (Farrar Straus, 2007; Fourth Estate, 2008): 473–83. Douglas Gordon also created 5 Year Drive-By in the Mojave Desert just outside Twentynine Palms; this was John Ford’s The Searchers slowed to a projection speed that would have taken the entire five years during which John Wayne searched for Debbie, his stolen niece, to play the complete movie, that is, about one frame in twenty minutes – ‘it makes 24-Hour Psycho look like the Keystone Cops’: Geoff Dyer, ‘Don DeLillo, Point Omega’, in Working the Room. Essay and Reviews: 1999–2000 (Canongate, 1010): 194. ↩
- Wilfrid Mellors, Music in a Newfound Land, quoted in Ross, The Rest Is Noise: 486. ↩
- Martin Paul Eve argues that this ‘contracted minimalism’ of DeLillo’s twenty-first century fictions focuses on the consequences of the tragedy of 9/11 2001 and the catastrophe of the Iraq invasion, bound up with a pervading sense of American imperial decline. ‘DeLillo, Aesthetics, The Cold Iraq War’, Alluvium. 21st century writing | 21st century approaches, 2/3 (2013). ↩
- Andrew Hultkrans, ‘All Watched Over. Did Philip K. Dick Predict the Future of Surveillance?’, frieze 161 (March 2014). And see Hultkrans, Forever Changes (Continuum, 2003), for a remarkable essay on Love’s third LP, Forever Changes (November 1967), and the genius of Arthur Lee, in the cultural context of LA and the US, of that moment. ↩
- Wood,The Fun Stuff, 326. ↩