February 12, 2010

Ghosts and evidence


Up in the Air (Jason Reitman). In its quiet and slightly melancholy stretches this is good on the dispiritingly impersonal and temporary quality of the new work places of post-industrial capitalism, the offices and call centres that can be furnished or emptied at a moment's notice, and the airless "non-places" (phrase by Marc Auge) that support it: the conference rooms, the hotel lobbies, the airport lounges, interchangeable from one city to the next. When Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) gets out of the film's impersonality circuit, he is like a ghost wandering through a human past. Everything looks to him and us like nostalgia: a wedding and an old high school in Wisconsin, a family home in Chicago. If the warm human world seems quaint and nostalgic, impersonality seems like a historical force, and it's fitting that Reitman identifies his largely midwestern cities from the air. The inference is that you can no longer tell one American city from another when you're on the ground.

The Innocents (Jack Clayton) vs Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). In his famous essay on ambiguity in Henry James, Edmund Wilson speculated that the ghosts "seen" by the haunted governess in Turn of the Screw could be projections of her sexual fear and repression -- this Freudian reading, taken as gospel in Jack Clayton's adaptation of the story, The Innocents, has been influential on horror ever since. For Clayton, the hard part was to sustain the notion of doubt while showing us what she sees; the trick is that we only see the apparitions after she does. Fifty years on, the cheap but effective Paranormal Activity is more constrained: the pseudo-Real conceit, post-Blair Witch and Cloverfield, is that we are watching found footage edited into a documentary shape; the footage comes from a camera set up by Micah, whose partner, Katie, is experiencing hauntings. We are watching evidence. The camera runs while they sleep. The footage speeds up and then slows down as the scares approach and we hear what she hears, see what she sees. There is no room for doubt and maybe that's why Paranormal Activity will scare you like mad in the cinema and disappear from your memory soon after.

Secret films and Don DeLillo. There is the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination in Underworld and behind Libra. A rumoured Eisenstein film in Underworld. The suppressed Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues in Underworld. The rumoured Hitler film in Running Dog. Secret films: film is evidence but evidence disappears. So you need evidence of evidence. This is DeLillo on the Zapruder film: "What we finally have are patches and shadows. It's still a mystery. There's still an element of dream-terror. And one of the terrible dreams is that our most photogenic president is murdered on film. But there's something inevitable about the Zapruder film. It had to happen this way. The moment belongs to the 20th century, which means it had to be captured on film.'' American reviews of DeLillo's new, slim novel Point Omega tell us it is book-ended by descriptions of Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho, which famously slows the Hitchcock film down to a crawl, so that it lasts 24 hours. A line from the book describes the experience of watching the Gordon Psycho: "Suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it.'' Not a secret film but a widely-seen one, radically altered in the hope that it might reveal something new about itself or the viewer. Not just slow cinema but time-stretching cinema. Post-Underworld, DeLillo's books have been trying for the same kind of stasis.