Thursday, September 10, 2009

Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed

Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed was Alexander Kluge's second feature, an unusual collage film that deals with the frontiers of human possibility, with the problems of creating art that truly pushes boundaries and broaches uncomfortable subjects to an audience largely unwilling to hear about anything unusual. Naturally, the film is in part about Kluge's own dilemma. Taking the circus as an unlikely metaphor for all artistic pursuits, Kluge is wrestling here with central issues: how to create art when audiences want merely to be entertained, how to balance art and commerce, how to find the proper medium in which to express one's ideas. On a narrative level, the film is about Leni Peickert (Hannelore Hoger), the daughter of a trapeze artist, who desires to create her own circus, a circus that would reinvent the form and express new, revolutionary ideas through performances with animals, acrobats and clowns. But describing the narrative does little to describe the actual texture of Kluge's film, which is comprised of a collage of improvisatory fragments and brief scenes, while on the soundtrack various competing narrators tell stories, recite philosophical ideas, laugh and read dialogues as if from plays, with identifications for the speakers. The audio frequently cuts off in midstream, and it is only sporadically synced to the actual onscreen images, instead flowing languidly in and out of sync. Sometimes a scene will start with two characters speaking to one another, but as they continue speaking, Kluge cuts away to something unrelated, or else cuts in footage where the characters simply stare blankly into the camera, while on the soundtrack their voice continues on. At other times, Kluge's jump cuts wreak havoc with the flow of time and reality, as when the glasses on the face of a journalist appear and disappear between sentences.

These multiple voices create a democracy within the film, in which no single narrative voice is dominant, and the audience's own experience of the film is privileged. The evidence of the film's construction is frequently evident, in scenes that cut off abruptly, the actors breaking into laughter or stammering incoherently as they lose track of their lines and respond simultaneously to the conditions of production. Kluge leaves these moments in. At one point, Leni's business partner Von Lupetow (Bernd Höltz, also the sound man) is eating a sandwich, stuffing it rapidly into his mouth. He laughs, spitting the food, and the scene cuts off, only to return to a straight-faced continuation, as though nothing had happened. The damage is done, though, and the rest of the scene can only be taken with a self-conscious smirk, aware of the shattering of the artifice. Elsewhere, when a female voice questions a story about a sex-starved astronaut filling up a vase with semen upon his return from space, a male narrator admits, "the story is exaggerated to emphasize the point."

These disjunctive techniques are appropriate for a film that's all about the issue of audience participation and audience connection — Kluge wants to foreground the effect of artistic techniques on those who experience an artwork. There's an undeniable playfulness to the way Kluge toys with artifice, presenting a loose patchwork that is all-encompassing enough to include both the opening's color, faux-documentary footage of Leni's father Manfred (Sigi Graue), the grainy newsreel inserts that appear throughout the film, and the crisp black and white of Leni's own story. There's play, too, in his chosen metaphor, in the idea of using the circus as a vehicle for expressing grand ideas. Leni's circus, like her father's proposed radical circus, would include animals suspended from the roof of the tent, barrier-breaking acts in which wild elephants seem to charge at the audience, and an absurd, theatrical staging of the assassination of an emperor, with all the participants wearing animal masks. It's all about confrontation, about presenting challenges to passive spectatorship. Just as Kluge's non-diegetic sound and jittery editing rhythms challenge conventional responses to a narrative film, Leni's revolutionary circus would challenge audiences to find new ways of thinking about this kind of entertainment.

Of course, implicit in this exploration is the possibility that challenges like this can push an audience too far. One of Kluge's interests here is the tension between giving an audience what they want and remaining true to one's own ideals. Ultimately, Leni's circus falls apart as she realizes that her ideas are impractical, that they can't be communicated in any real way to an audience, and that her vision is being diluted with the ideas of others, her collaborators on the project. It's a film about artistic disillusionment, then, about failure, and Kluge is open to that possibility as well. His own work is open-ended, not so much a finished project as a compendium of raw material, assembled by patchwork procedures that could result in a theoretically endless number of possible films. (The evidence of this is apparent in the short sequel, The Indomitable Leni Peickert, which seems to have been assembled in an analogous fashion from leftover footage.) Kluge knows that the upshot of artistic experimentation is the risk of losing the audience, and his resulting film is sometimes entertaining, sometimes boring or baffling, at other times enlightening and insightful, but always above all a challenge, a starting point, a call for serious thought about artistic expression.

His own starting point is announced at the very beginning, with a montage of newsreel footage from a 1939 Nazi rally, which included parades and elaborate pageantry. In light of the remainder of the film, it's obvious that Kluge is calling attention to the tremendous power of spectacle as a vehicle for expressing ideas (or ideology) in a populist form. He's implicitly suggesting: if the Nazis used performance and entertainment so effectively, could the same means be put to use in order to express anti-fascist ideas, anti-totalitarian ideas? Leni fails in her quest, but the film's answer is not so much a definitive no, so much as a "why not try?" It's the effort that counts here, the effort of grappling with the obstacles to art.

Initially, it seems like it's only money that's holding Leni back, that if she only had the resources she could express herself freely. So she experiments with various compromises and negotiations with capitalism, trying to gather the necessary funds while maintaining her independence, eventually concluding that it's impossible. Then, when a sudden inheritance — a deus ex machina inserted by Kluge as a way of working through his schematic diagram of the artistic process — allows Leni to pursue her dream unhindered by monetary woes, she discovers a whole new set of barriers: the disconnect between theory and practice, the difficulties of collaborating, the challenge of communicating with an audience. It's a rebuke to the tired old excuse that one could really make a statement if only one had the money (or if only anything, really). Kluge is advocating action, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and the scenes of Leni's radical pals endlessly debating and tossing around ideas might be seen as an implicit critique of all the empty talk floating around among leftists in 1968, none of it adding up to much at all.

Indeed, the film ends with Leni, disillusioned with the circus, taking a job in television instead, essentially capitulating to the corporations, although she tells herself she's doing it in order to one day control the TV station for her own ends. The film ends on this skeptical, critical note, but Kluge retains his optimism about the potential power of art, best expressed in the repeated declaration that work without an ultimate goal or meaning is worthless. Extrapolated to art, Kluge seems to be saying that art made merely as spectacle or entertainment is empty, and that the best art has something to say, even if it perhaps says it incompletely or clumsily: the goal is what counts. This doesn't suggest an anything goes egalitarianism, however, so much as an encouragement that everyone should try, should do their best, should like Leni attempt to make something big and dangerous and original, even if everything falls apart in the process.


Marilyn said...

This is a director and film about which I am completely ignorant, but I find the synchonicity of this post with what I'm reading now - Arthur Miller's theatre essays - fascinating. He makes the same points that it appears to you Kluge is making, particularly about satisfying the conservatism of the audience while pushing them in the uncomfortable direction of a meaning they might not like to explore, that true art must have something to say, and that audiences participate in the theatrical experience. The problem of trying to do that with a film are inherent and, to my mind, insurmountable because the players cannot interact with the audience and the audience only limitedly interacts with each other. Still, it's interesting to contemplate where film technology might take us.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting, Marilyn. I think you may be right that film isn't really ideal for the kind of confrontational audience-challenging we're talking about here -- many have tried and though some interesting films have resulted, I don't think even the best of them can be said to really challenge those who would be naturally resistant to the ideas included. A lot of challenging cinema (like all varieties of challenging art, really) just winds up preaching to the choir.

Marilyn said...

Again, I like what Miller has to say:

"A play, I think, ought to make sense to common-sense people. I know what it is to have been rejected by them, even unfairly so, bu the only challenge worth the effort is the widest one and the tallest one, which is the people themselves. It is their innate conservatism which, I think, is and ought to be the barrier to excess in experiment and the exploitation of the bizarre, even as it is the proper aim of drama to break down the limits of conventional unawareness and acceptance of outmoded and banal forms."

"...Drama is akin to the other inventions of man in that it ought to help us to know ore, and not merely to spend our feelings."

"The ultimate justification for a genuine new form is the new and heightened consciousness it creates and makes possible..."

Ed Howard said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure I really agree with that, actually, at least not when taken to that extreme. Most people reject experimental or avant-garde art out of hand -- indeed, most people reject or ignore anything that has something to say, that takes itself seriously, wanting only empty entertainment. Mass audiences don't accept Kluge, Godard, Fassbinder, Brakhage, Rivette, Jarman, Ozu, etc. Should they curb the "excesses" of their experimentation? I don't think the limits of the audience's patience and tolerance for the new should impose limits on artists' experimentation based on what mass audiences will accept, if that is indeed what Miller is advocating. Yes, it's important for artists to consider the audience, but at the same time considering the audience too much can be crippling and suffocating to true art.

Marilyn said...

I think Miller was concerned most of all with audiences taking in the messages he was trying to convey. It's not so different from what you said about preaching to the choir. I stand solidly in his corner on this because while I don't think an artist should stop experimenting, ultimately, the artist must communicate. Sometimes people are ahead of their time. Sometimes they are just being self-indulgent. Ultimately, it has to be society that moves the conversation forward - an artist or even an enthusiastic minority will not be able to do that alone. Progress is a lumbering thing, but what caused riots in Dublin ("Playboy of the Western Word") is now old-fashioned.

Sam Juliano said...

Sydney scholar Michele Langford has stated in a superlative examination of Kluge's cinema:

"Through his writings on film and his films themselves, Kluge has sought to theorise and put into practice a new conception of montage distinct from both 'invisible' editing strategies of Hollywood and commercial film practice, and 'dialectical' montage as theorised and practiced by Sergei Eisenstein and the Soviet school of filmmakers.

Kluge's theories of the cinema are founded on the conception that mainstream narrative cinema—not only Hollywood, but also importantly, 'Papa's Kino' (the post-war German cinema denounced in the Oberhausen manifesto)—works by a process of closing off the ability for the spectator to engage their imaginative faculties while watching a film. Kluge does not simply take for granted the notion of spectator as passive observer. For him, under the right circumstances—that is, those circumstances created by the right kind of film—the spectator can assume a much more active role during the screening of a film."

As you stated yourself in yet another landmark review here at OTC, the montage technique is as much integral to Kluge's cinema as it is to the expressionistic cinema of Pudovkin, Eisenstein and Dovzhenko. yes, for sure time and reality are blurred in this film, as are convention ideas of narrative continuity.
I saw the film last year along with other Kluge titles send over to me from Europe, at the nagging insistance of Allan Fish, and it was certainly one of Allan's greatest suggestions ever. The film you review here is actually one of two Kluge titles that warrant the label of masterpiece, the other being YESTERDAY'S GIRL. of course the issues of "audience participation" and "audience connection" (at the risk of putting the audience over the edge)lie at the allegorical center of this film.
The two conflicts that are examined here are "culture vs. commerse" and "art vs. entertainment," and perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the circus for Kluge was a mirror of popular German cinema at the time, which was in the throes of change.

Sam Juliano said...

Much better than the Region 1 Facets DVDs we have of Klue here is the expensive Film Museum series on Region 2 which is certainly something to die for as far as collecting goes. On this same series Pabst's THE JOYLESS STREET is releasing next month. I alread have five others including the masterpiece ENTHUZIASM by Vertov. It's really some series.

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn: "Ultimately, the artist must communicate." I certainly agree with that. But communicate with who? I don't think artists have a responsibility to communicate with everyone, or even to communicate with as many people as possible. There's nothing wrong, I don't think, with communicating only with those willing to put in the effort to understand and appreciate your art: it means you're preaching to the choir, yes, but it's still communication. And oftentimes, the avant-garde artists known by only a select few in one generation wind up being influential and important figures for subsequent generations, and thus effect change even without ever communicating directly with mass audiences. It's like the old saying about the Velvet Underground: almost no one heard them in the 60s, but seemingly everyone who did went out and started their own band. The bizarre experimentation of one generation is often the foundation for the next.

Sam, as you know I love Yesterday's Girl as well, possibly even more than this film. Kluge seems like a tremendous talent, and I'm looking forward to exploring his work further. That Filmmuseum box set is fantastic and also very daunting, with a generous helping of material (all his theatrical features and shorts!) presented in a very compelling manner.

Sam Juliano said...

Aye Ed, aye, I remember your equally great review here of YESTERDAY'S GIRL. Those extras on the FilmMuseum set are really what make it enticing as you note with enthusiasm. The Facets transfer is weaker of course too, but I won't trash Facets anymore, as they hav ebrought some things to us over the years that we would have never had Vlacil's VALLEY OF THE BEES, the Syberberg stuff, and the Iranian THE HOUSE IS BLACK to name just a few. I am grateful for them.