Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Maybe I'll Just Call This Movie-Week

If you've not yet seen Caché, I highly recommend you do so. Granted, I had to drive thirty minutes to my town's "other" arthouse cinema, but it was worth it. I was going to write an assessment of it, but Steven Shaviro has done it for me over at his blog.

An excerpt, but the whole thing is fantastic:

We are made to feel guilty and complicitous, while at the same time we are given no way out from this position, and no release even from our own being safe because of the unquestioned privileges that people less fortunate than us do not have. Indeed, we are shielded from consequences because we are, after all, watching a film, this is not happening directly to us in "real life." Despite the fact that "real life" itself is revealed by Caché to be no more (as well as no less) "real" than a video. Which means that, whatever we understand intellectually, on the affective level we end up sharing Georges' self-protective sense of unquestioned privilege, as well as his sense of guilt.

In this way, Caché simultaneously abuses and flatters its audience. And I think that the flattery (rather than the abuse) is the nastiest thing about the film. From a political point of view, after all, guilt is just about the most worthless and useless affect/emotion there is. Nobody has ever questioned their privilege, or even done anything decent, out of guilt. Oh, lots of white people "identify" with "minorities" out of guilt, or give to charity (Live 8, anyone?), or mutter pious platitudes and express their support for "identity politics" of various sorts, which allows them to be self-congratulatory about how radical they are, when in fact they aren't. Indeed, many people of power and privilege positively get off on being made to feel guilty, whether it is the oft-repeated apocryphal story of wealthy CEOs getting release by being abused by a dominatrix, or the more common everyday spectacle of white suburbanites feeling cleansed after getting a good scolding (followed by absolution) from Oprah (or white people with more intellectual/political pretensions getting a good scolding from bell hooks). I do not claim to be exempt from this whole process.

And this is exactly what Caché does to/for its viewers. Or better, it indeed exposes this mechanism of flattery-through-guilt; but without offering any escape from it, and even without quite criticizing or critiquing it. As if that were just the way it is: which indeed, it is. This is what the obvious question about Haneke's own position comes down to. (Is he claiming exemption from the condition that he otherwise shows to be universal among people of privilege? Well, yes and no. That's an evasion, of course, but the evasion itself is the point). What's most powerful about the film is that it not only decrees guilt, but cranks the guilt up to a self-reflexive level: the guilt is reduced or managed by the flattery and privilege that we retain while observing all this; but such a meta-understanding itself creates a new, higher-order sense of guilt, which in turn is cushioned by a new, higher-order sense of self-congratulation as to our superior insight, which in turn is an unquestioned privilege that, when comprehended, leads to a yet-higher-level meta-sense of guilt, and so on ad infinitum. There's complete blockage, no escape from this unending cycle. The experience of the film is one both of self-disgust and of a liberation, through aestheticization, from this self-disgust. The latter is what makes Caché truly insidious. . . .

There's a long shot/long take at the very end of the film, in which -- foregrounded in no way, so it is easy to miss -- amidst a whole crowd of people doing all sorts of things, we see some sort of contact between two of the minor characters . . . that suggests even new levels of complicity and uncertainty. I think that this only reinforces the film's overall coldly delirious deadlock. The more explaining we need to do, the more we are trapped in the film's (and society's) self-reflexive spiral of guilt and privilege. The film offers no way out, because it never breaks with its sense of privilege, no matter how unwarranted it shows that privilege to be. The creepiness of finding oneself under surveillance, the creepiness of seeing a marriage break down into mutual vicious recriminations, is nothing compared to the creepiness of realizing that one still has one's shield of privilege despite these intrusions, and that the facade of bourgeois marriage will survive everything that's going on underneath.