Fillip

Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Outside of the Mandrake Bar, Culver City, California. Photograph by Courtenay Webber.

To A From Z
Andrew Berardini

You have selected a format as an ABC primer, you have indicated to me some themes, and in this, I do not know exactly what the questions will be, so that I have only been able to think a bit beforehand about the themes. For me, answering a question without having thought about it a bit is something inconceivable. What saves me in this is the particular condition (la clause): should any of this be at all useful, all of it will be used only after my death. So, you understand, I feel myself being reduced to the state of a pure archive for Pierre-André Boutang, to a sheet of paper, this lifts my spirits and comforts me immensely, and puts me nearly in the state of pure spirit (pur esprit), I speak after my death, and we know well that a pure spirit finally can make tables turn. But we know as well that a pure spirit is not someone who gives answers that are either very profound or very intelligent. So anything goes in this, let’s begin. A-B-C, whatever you want.1 –Gilles Deleuze

Along a featureless stretch of brick and concrete buildings in Culver City, California, sits a nondescript door set into a low cinderblock building. Above it, in red neon, reads the word “BAR.” It neither blinks nor winks, and it almost refuses to seduce the general public. I’ve been to many secret bars, down dark alleyways and a dank set of stairs that stink of piss and stale perfume, and through an unmarked door that once opened reveals either a rough-edged speakeasy with sawdust on the floors or a velveteen luxury of chinoiserie and glass bottles that gleam like jewels in the dim light. Whether a thieves’ den or a bootlegger’s paradise, there is a sense of discovery and conspiracy when the door is opened. The Mandrake is not exactly a secret bar (remember the neon), but only those who know to go there, go. A former gay bar once known as the Manhandler, the Mandrake sits squarely in Los Angeles’ newest metastasizing arts district and exists as an informal meeting place for members of the art world.

Though always crowded during the art openings of the many commercial galleries that flank it, the Mandrake is usually quiet. The bar, founded by artists and funded by dealers, drums up business on the off nights by inviting a variety of artists, editors, writers, musicians, cineastes, and freaks to put together events. The Mandrake provides the space, and the attendees, it is hoped, will buy a few drinks.

On a Sunday night, I walk through the front door, past the long black granite bar and the wooden benches against the wall, to the back room, where twenty-five folding chairs sit quietly arranged in front of a grey screen. A crowd hanging out at the bar and smoking on the back patio talks in softened tones, occasionally interrupted by a loud guffaw. The air is filled with discovery and conspiracy. The topics of conversation range from contemporary art to politics to cinema, and invariably linger on the work of Gilles Deleuze.

They’re all here for Deleuze from A to Z, a film series consisting of twenty-four screenings based on a filmed interview between Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, directed by Pierre-André Boutang in 1988 under the strict instruction (later rescinded) that it not be shown until after his death, which occurred seven years later when Deleuze, after a prolonged bout with lung cancer, took his own life by throwing himself out of a window. Each screening shows a short film based on a “letter” theme from the eight-hour long interview—from “A as in Animal” to “Z as in Zigzag”—along with several other short films based on the theme presented by Deleuze.

So far, the screenings at the Mandrake have spanned A through J, with themes including animals, drink ( boire ), culture, desire, childhood ( enfance ), fidelity, the left ( gauche ), the history of philosophy, ideas, and joy. Each successive screening brings about not only the next installment of the interview but a new set of exciting films from rare work by French cinema luminaries such as Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais to music videos from David Bowie and The Cure. The arrangement of films sometimes forms a carefully curated visual essay, linking easily to the ideas from the interview with Deleuze. At other times, the films riff more freely on the week’s theme. Throughout, they are always astonishing—gems from a cabinet of curiosities that reflect the interests and good taste of the screenings’ organizers. And though some say the mix of art films, video art, and music videos might flatten the culture, I think it reveals a unique sensibility that’s part pop and part sophisticate. Though the screenings are open to the public and often end up with standing room only, the conversations on the back patio before and after the screenings make the series feel like both a collegial gathering of friends and a pre-May ’68 French cineclub. The original cineclubs were hotbeds for political unrest prior to the 1968 uprising—a landmark event that consistently informed the work Deleuze as well as his collaborations with psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, with whom he wrote the two-part work Capitalism and Schizophrenia, consisting of The Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus.

Begun as a collaboration between artist Marie Jager and Semiotext(e) editor Hedi El Kholti, the Deleuze From A to Z screenings are currently put together solely by El Kholti (in full disclosure: an old friend and colleague) under the aegis of Semiotext(e), a press that since its publication of one of the first books in English by Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, has been on the front line of theory and philosophy in America. In each screening, Deleuze, an author long in the Semiotext(e) catalogue, discusses each week’s theme chosen by interviewer Parnet with wry aplomb, their conversation deftly translated by Charles J. Stivale.

When the interview was originally released on French television in 1996 (and subsequently on a best-selling video in France), it was an immediate hit. Deleuze comes off as charming, funny, and forthright, and his conversation with Parnet flows naturally back and forth. Deleuze sits in an old sweater in front of a fireplace. Hanging on the wall behind him is a mirror that reflects Parnet’s face. The film includes the takes that mark the changing of the tapes. As Deleuze converses about his experiences and ideas in an informal way, he somehow became more real for me—no less a thinker, but more of a man. El Kholti has said that part of the reason he shows these films is that so many people he knows are scared of French theory and philosophy as if it were a impregnable monolith of ideas, and that seeing Deleuze speak in one breath about his childhood and in the next about Anti-Oedipus, all in conversational language, humanizes him and his ideas.

In the “C as in Culture” screening, Deleuze discussed culture, people, and encounters:

I don’t believe in culture, to some extent, but rather I believe in encounters (rencontres). But these encounters don’t occur with people. People always think that it’s with people that encounters occur, which is why it’s awful....Now, in this that belongs to the domain of culture, intellectuals meeting one another, this disgusting practice of conferences (cette saleté de colloque), this infamy. So encounters, it’s not between people that they happen, but with things....So I encounter a... painting, yes, or a piece of music, that’s how I understand an encounter. When people want to connect encounters to themselves, with people, well, that doesn’t work at all....That’s not an encounter, and that’s why encounters with people are so utterly, utterly disappointing. Encounters with people are always catastrophic.

It’s easy to chalk up Deleuze’s ideas about catastrophic encounters to simple misanthropy, but there is something deeper at stake. The place and the people in the case of the Mandrake screenings, for example, are almost incidental to the screenings. Yet this is not to undermine at all the importance of the community. Rather the place serves as the infrastructure that allows the audience, a collection of individuals, to encounter this thing, these screenings.

The “C as in Culture” screening presented the strongest set of films, pulling from the interview and radically expanding on the ideas found there. The other films that followed the twenty-nine minute interview segment included Alain Resnais’ All of the World’s Memory (1956), the Bernadette Corporation’s Hell Frozen Over (2000), Jean-Luc Godard’s Origins of the 21st Century (2000), and Sébastien Caudron’s music video for French rapper Passi, “Emeutes” (2000).

The first film, All of the World’s Memory, enacts with lyrical precision Resnais’ lifelong obsession as a director with memory, time, and psychological subjectivity. The film explores the depth and breadth of Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale. Although it masquerades as a public service short about a national landmark, Resnais makes the film into a kind of Borgesian fantasy, taking us down a labyrinth of hallways and past endless stacks of books. The music takes on a spooky grandeur in the style of an old Hollywood epic, dipping into the light and shadows of film noir before taking us to the glimmering mystique of the cinematic exotic. When books move from, to, and through the library, they are accompanied by a delightful romp, punctuated with pullbacks to the dark castle of knowledge. The library, in Resnais’ film, stands as a fortress for man to protect himself from being “engulfed by a mass of words.” The film follows the process of accumulation and classification, without which the fortress might become a maze.

The books in the library, as they move through the system, are abstract and universal, and the system itself becomes almost fascist in its totality. But the final scene shows the books finding themselves into the hands of readers, who, in their individual work, make up “a glimpse of the future where all mysteries are solved.” Culture, in turn, is evidence of the vast human experience that the library catalogues, and by taking his camera through the bowels of its storage house, Resnais underlines how little we can know of it. Or, as Deleuze says in the interview:

When I tell you that, I don’t see myself, really, I don’t experience myself as an intellectual or experience myself as “cultivated” for a simple reason: when I see someone “cultivated,” I am terrified, and not necessarily with admiration....But I am just terrified of a “cultivated person,” and this is quite obvious to “cultivated people.” It’s a kind of knowledge, a frightening body of knowledge especially....One sees that a lot with intellectuals; they know everything. Well, maybe not, but they are informed about everything—they know the history of Italy during the Renaissance, they know the geography of the North Pole, they know...the whole list, they know everything, can talk about anything....It’s abominable.

The second film, Hell Frozen Over, introduces a contemporary art collective with a strong relationship to ideas. The film intersperses a writerly mediation on Mallarmé by Semiotext(e) editor and writer Sylvère Lotringer on a frozen lake with shots of fashion models posing in an absurd environment, an anonymous room filled with sundry props and junk. Oddly enough the two intersect in Lotringer’s monologue. An example of this occurs when Lotringer states that Mallarmé creates a “continuous wall of words” that never lets you in. You never really understand something, but you understand how his mind functions. That’s why he’s so mental, so luxuriously mental, because to understand his mind you have to go to the form, as in fashion. The form is mind and it’s a beautiful mind.” These two different kinds of culture both exist in a luxurious splendour of form, though the connection might have never been uncovered except by Lotringer and expanded upon except by the Bernadette Corporation.

The third film, the very rare Origins of the 21st Century by Jean-Luc Godard, was originally commissioned by the Cannes Film Festival to be shown at its millennial installment and at the opening of the second full century of film. Godard manages in less than twenty minutes to take the viewer on journey back through the twentieth century (intertitles: 1990, 1975, 1960, 1945, 1930, 1900) using an astonishing montage of source films from the last hundred years.

While a haunting and minimalist piano work by Hans Otte from his Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds, 1979–82) plays in the background, the film shows various tragedies of the century: bodies piling up at Nazi concentrations camps, a Japanese kimono-clad woman being assaulted and raped, marching fascist soldiers, and a pornographic scene of a woman being pissed on. Between these are interspersed fleeting glimpses of happiness and beauty: a little girl letting a grin become a smile, a dance from a Hollywood musical, a violinist along an idyllic country road. Godard uses color and black-and-white news footage as well as scenes from movies to captures the spirit of the twentieth century. Throughout it, a man and a woman (sometimes Pierre Guyotat and in one instance Jean Seberg from Godard’s own Breathless) narrate, in cryptic and poetic pronouncements, a century of beauty and horror.

At times the differences between cinematic fiction and news footage are obvious, but here, gradually, the separation fades, and scene after scene of marching men and flying planes begin to separate the real from the fictive, our imaginary just as potent as the real. The totality of culture hinted at in Resnais’ film becomes shockingly real and wrenchingly visceral in the hands of Godard.

The “C as in Culture” screening concluded with the music video by French rapper Passi titled Emeutes (Riots), directed by Sébastien Caudron. Born in Congo-Brazzaville but for many years a denizen of France, Passi grew up, like many of the other prominent French rappers, in the Parisian suburbs. Shot in 2000, the video presages by a full five years the three months of riots by immigrants and their children that rocked France and Europe in the summer of 2005.

Using news footage from the May ’68 riots, Emeutes makes a comparison between the pressure of French youth in the 1960s and the pressure of the immigrants in the banlieues. The scenes of Passi rapping take place through the filter of classic leftist and Communist propaganda posters. The explodes with energy causing the image on the screen to rumble and warp. In the last moments of the interview, Deleuze says:

It’s a little like Nietzsche said so well: someone launches an arrow into space....Or even a period, or a collectivity launches an arrow, and eventually it falls, and then someone comes along to pick it up and hurl it out elsewhere; so that’s how creation happens, how literature happens, passing through desert periods.

The reappropriation of images refracted through the frame of riots makes one feel that the arrow has been picked up, by both Passi and the rioting immigrants, but in a way that nobody could have predicted.

The lights flicker on, and the screening is over. From the back of the room, El Kholti thanks everyone for coming. The metal folding chairs clang against the concrete floor as the crowd heads out to the street, to the bar, or out back to smoke. Usually I feel astonished beyond language, the experience requiring distance to defragment the barrage of images and ideas. The crowd, a mix of artists, critics, filmmakers, and critics, rearranges itself and discusses the screenings. Nothing else exists like this in Los Angeles, and though artists regularly mine French poststructuralist theory and New Wave cinema for ideas with varying levels of success, one wonders how this screening speaks to a contemporary moment.

The frightening totality of culture of the Bibiothèque Nationale could easily stand in as the bricks and mortar embodiment of the Internet. May ’68 is purposefully invoked by an immigrant rapper to discuss the powder-keg suburbs. Godard’s Origins of the 21st Century states in its title what is at stake: the ideas that shaped the history of the twentieth century are the womb from which we are born. These films, and their screening, mark the trajectory of the arrow Deleuze refers to in the final moments of the interview. Where it lands and who picks it up will begin the next rich period of creative development.

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