At the end of William Greaves 1968 experimental film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm a homeless man living in Central Park stumbles upon the film crew assembled there and asks the central question of the film.
“Oh, you’re making a movie, eh? Well then, who’s moving whom?”
This is the key question of the film even if the answer might, at first, appear to be clear. It is William Greaves the director who is moving his actors, his soundman, his cinematographer, through and around a scene that Greaves insists on repeating again and again, through a thousand different variations. He sets one cameraman the task of filming the actors, sets another cameraman the task of filming the first cameraman and the actors, and tells a third to take in the whole scene. That is, the third camera is to film the first two cameras, the actors, and whatever else might be of interest in Central park. And all the while Greaves plays the part of an empty headed and egotistical director.
“The important thing is that I want to make sure that everything that happens on the set, whether it’s off camera, whether its among the crew, thematically should constantly be relating to sexuality. Hey, there’s that woman with the tits. Get her on camera,” Greaves said. He pointed to a woman riding by on a horse. “They’re bouncing.”
“Greaves, you’re a dirty old man,” his cameraman tells him.
“No, I’m just kidding. Don’t take me seriously.”
The movie is an experiment in psychology as much as it is an experiment in cinema, and Greaves uses recursion and repetition in an attempt to turn his cast and crew against him. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, according to the DVD booklet, “posed a screentest, not for a film that is yet to be made but as an end in itself.” Greaves gives his actors absurd and obscene dialogue (an argument between a man and his wife that revolves around the man’s possible homosexuality), has his crew to film each other, and practically begs everyone to act against him. He wants to be overthrown.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a test of man against screen, of subjects against the objective realities of filmmaking. And, back in 1968, the result is something of a draw. While the crew doesn’t overthrow Greaves, they do secretly meet up behind his back and film a group discussion about what they all agree is the director’s incompetence.
At one point the soundman suspects that Greaves wants to be doubted and that he’s pushing them to rebel.
“You really do believe in God after all,” the cameraman replies.
“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
Over the last forty years the recursion Greaves employs in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm has become a Hollywood trope. The Simulacrum film (movies like the Truman Show or The Matrix) has become commonplace. And the power of this kind of film – the alienating affect that recursion and virtuality necessarily stimulates – has been diluted. In fact, five years ago, the idea that life itself has been replaced by the mere representation of life was quietly incorporated into a vehicle for the manchild Adam Sandler.
Click belongs on your Amazon wish list right under The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation, but perhaps only as an example of how this genre may have reached its limit, for it is the most boring, most normative, most sentimental, and finally most reactionary film in the whole reality-bending movie genre. And yet, for all of its weaknesses, the message from Debord can still be seen in it, if only dimly. It’s the same message as the one Philip K. Dick delivers in all of those dime store novels he wrote, and all of those big budget movie adaptations.
“We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, What is real?” – Philip K. Dick
In Click Adam Sandler finds a door marked Beyond at the chain store Bed, Bath and Beyond. On the other side of it Christopher Walken, playing the part of the angel of death named Morty, waits for him. Morty is in charge of a warehouse full of new products and when Sandler asks for a Universal remote Walken is delighted to give him the latest, most advanced, model. Sandler quickly discovers that the remote gives him the power to pause, rewind, and fast forward through his life. It is a remote control for the Universe.
Later on we discover that Sandler’s life is a DVD. Morty makes a house call and takes Sandler on a tour of all the features. There is a menu button that brings Sandler into a blue void of design elements and words printed in digital Helvetica, and this DVD life has a commentary track featuring the voice of James Earl Jones. The making of documentary is the primal scene as a stag film starring Henry Winkler and Marge Simpson. These are the actors who play Sandler’s parents on the DVD.
Adam Sandler is shown how his life is a Spectacle, how it is unreal, and how unreality has its own demands. The primary demand unreality makes is that one should live differently. The demand from the realized spectacle is not that one should become more moral, or that one should be a better father, a better husband, a better consume; but rather, the recursive movie demands that one create a way to live that is authentic. Unreality itself charges the characters to really live, and even Sandler has to face this injunction.
The problem for Sandler is that the remote is a self-programming device–like Tivo. It assesses your preferences, and then starts acting for you in ways it thinks you’ll like. Sandler fast forwards through the act of getting dressed, the act of showering, and even through sex, and now the remote always fast forwards through these moments.
When Sandler figures out that he is in danger of fast forwarding through his entire life he is forced to abandon his daily patterns. He can’t shower or get dressed, and he leaves the house in his bathrobe. He can’t drive without risking a fast forward, so he rides his daughter’s small bicycle to work. Sandler is forced to act crazy, to break with the constraints of everyday life, in order to simply live at all.
But this alienated living doesn’t last for long. The remote control thwarts his efforts. He’s in an Adam Sandler movie, not some art film. And so the movie returns him to his body and stops him from thinking. He is made to be four hundred pounds. He is confronted with the sight of his own deformity. Fart jokes abound.
The extreme constraints placed on Click can be seen in its unconscious or formulaic fidelities. The film starts with a presupposition regarding family life as set against work, for example. In Click the family is the realm of the personal and the authentic. One’s work or career is inauthentic. This is the realm of conformity and discipline, and finally the realm of alienation and hate. The moral of the film is simple, even tedious. It is more important to succeed as a person than as a worker. According to Click the family should come before career.
But this moral and the emphasis on family, the personal, and the authentic is nothing but the ethics of Capitalism and its attendant consumerism. Under Capitalism the worker is alienated from his labor and the workplace is the realm of disciplined production and exploitation. The upside of Capitalism is not to be found in the realm of production, but in the realm of consumption. Consumption in the marketplace takes place during one’s personal or familial time. The message of Click is that we should focus on the rewards and not the punishments in Capitalism. We should work just hard enough to be able to enjoy consuming our life, but not so hard that this enjoyment is compromised. And this is why, under Capitalism, it is the hedonist consumer who is the real family man, and not the some authoritarian paternal figure from the sphere of production.
This goes hand in hand with the film’s second presupposition. The movie’s toilet humor along with its obsession with fat, boobs, and finally of course sexuality places it firmly in the summer comedy tradition, and this has a normative function. If the consumer is to enjoy his role in the market he must come to some understanding of his body. He can’t just stuff his face with Twinkies, but has to become a connoisseur of pleasure. The consumer can’t just pork his wife’s “smoking hot body” and “wind up with a stupid smile” on his face, but has to learn to deny himself some immediate pleasure in order to give his wife her share of pleasure. This is how he’ll be able to maintain his access to her body over the long haul.
These are the messages of Click, and in order to remain true to them, the demands of the recursive tradition of the Simulacrum film must be denied. In Click it is the Adam Sandler persona, and not his realization of himself as a persona, that carries the day.
William Greaves production notes from 1968 might help us understand where we’ve gone wrong.
“What is the psychoanalytical significance of this piece? Is it a dream that has the façade of truth or truth with the façade of a dream? The piece, i.e., this film, must be susceptible to analysis, and yet it must be as unfathomable as the cosmos.”
Here the trouble. The same basic assumptions as the ones in Click are embedded in Greaves film as well. There is an unfathomable truth, an ultimate cosmic reality, and we must strive after it. The goal is authenticity. The truth is the body. Its animalistic and pre-conceptual, and if we can only find the right jazz beat we might consume the whole world of appearances and be with God. This is our mistake. This is why both Symbio and Click take a tumble. It’s only in a world without an unfathomable cosmos, a world without some inner truth, a world where the only meanings available are the ones we produce, where we might be able to find a kind of freedom. There is only Spectacle and the void.
How will we live differently now that we can hear the voice of Jame Earl Jones?
image – Click