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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room - take one

Emily Rust, in “Hitting the "Vérité Jackpot": The Ecstatic Profits of Freeze-Framed Violence(Cinema Journal 2011) has remarked that:

“… a number of American films from the late 1960s and early 1970s conspicuously employ freeze-frames in scenes of protracted brutality. The documentary In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968) as well as the fiction films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), Joe (John G. Avildsen, 1970), and The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), in addition to the primary subjects of this essay - Gimme Shelter and Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) - are but a few examples.”

Rust, shrewdly, conjoins violence at the highest levels – John F. Kennedy’s assassination as the prototype – to the popularity of this technique. The assassination films – in particular, the Zapruder tape – have been obsessively scanned and stopped, as though an explanation lurked in the absolute stillness imposed by the freeze frame. A stillness that, in good old high modernist fashion, comments on its own medium – since film is, after all, a sort of mirage, the movement being of the strip of film conveying a sense of the seamless jointing of the object. Zeno’s arrow at the boxoffice.

Rust’s makes a useful historical comparison, leaving adrift, however, the question of why violence and the freeze frame waited for the 60s:  “Like the slow motion and superimposition of experimental works of the 1920s, the early use of freeze-frames signaled the transformative power of cinematic vision, which promised to unveil alternatives to conventional perception and experience. Freeze-frames from the late 1960s and early 1970s share this revelatory spirit, but the relationship between photography and cinema that they mobilize also reflects and reaffirms the quest for authenticity that animates the period's preoccupations with ecstatic practices and violence.”

Left out of Rust’s catalogue of freeze frames in narrative film is Truffaut’s famous ending of The 400 Blows. In Truffault’s film the interest is less forensic than narrative – or, to make a distinction that is less confusing, the position of the freeze frame at the end of Truffaut’s film gives it a narrative weight that is absent from a freeze frame that allows us to gaze, say, at Kennedy’s head being blown apart. The motive force that drives the movie resolves itself here by – not resolving itself. The arrow stops, to reflect on the impossibility of its stopping.

All of this freeze frame rap has to do with something that isn’t a film: it is Rachel Kushner’s Mars Room, which I recently finished and am thinking about. As in The Flamethrowers, Kushner’s book ends with a woman going into the mountains and coming to some kind of endpoint to a theme in her life – to, in a sense, her narrative position in the story. All the references I’m making to 60s and 70s films are relevant to Kushner’s practice – her novels are startlingly cinematic, not in the sense that one feels that they are simply props for a future screenplay – which is what most action novels aspire to (I should say used to aspire to – now they aspire to being video games), but in the sense that they are thought through in a cinematic way. Just as the freeze frame in the sixties and seventies films so often meant: there’s nowhere else to go in this society – so, too, the ”freeze frame” that ends The Mars Room means: stories like these have an energy that finds no outlet – just as people like these have an energy that finds no outlet. Spinoza, somewhere, says that if a thrown stone could think, it would think, I'm doing this of my own free will. Imagine that stone having doubts. The story of Romy Hall, the main character in The Mars Room, is a correlative to the society of deaths of despair, which is the epidemic that was occurring, in the States, before our current epidemic.

I’m gonna continue this on another post.

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