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.