Infinite Summer

Formed in the summer of 2009 to read David Foster Wallace's masterwork "Infinite Jest".
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 Post subject: DFW & Ingmar Bergman & John Cassavetes
PostPosted: Mon Aug 31, 2009 10:09 pm 
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Joined: Sun Jun 07, 2009 4:20 pm
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Does anyone see any artistic affinities between DFW, Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes (as theorized by Ray Carney)?

I'm not saying DFW was inspired by them, but that their philosophies seem to be oddly the same (less emphasize on individuality and virtuosity, more focus on empathy and honesty):

Ingmar Bergman:

People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; 'eternal values,' 'immortality' and 'masterpiece' were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other's eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.

We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster's whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon's head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.



Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of "generalization" of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.


Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still "are" human beings, now. Or can be. This isn’t that it’s fiction’s duty to edify or teach, or to make us good little Christians or Republicans; I’m not trying to line up behind Tolstoy or Gardner. I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t art. We’ve all got this "literary" fiction that simply monotones that we’re all becoming less and less human, that presents characters without souls or love, characters who really are exhaustively describable in terms of what brands of stuff they wear, and we all buy the books and go like "Golly, what a mordantly effective commentary on contemporary materialism!" But we already "know" U.S. culture is materialistic. This diagnosis can be done in about two lines. It doesn’t engage anybody. What’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price? And can these capacities be made to thrive? And if so, how, and if not why not?


LM: That brings us back to the issue of whether this isn’t a dilemma serious writers have always faced. Other than lowered (or changed) audience expectations, what’s changed to make the task of the serious writer today more difficult than it was thirty or sixty or a hundred or a thousand years ago? You might argue that the task of the serious writer is easier today because what took place in the sixties had the effect of finally demolishing the authority that mimesis had assumed. Since you guys don’t have to fight that battle anymore, you’re liberated to move on to other areas.

DFW: This is a double-edged sword, our bequest from the early postmodernists and the post-structuralist critics. One the one hand, there’s sort of an embarrassment of riches for young writers now. Most of the old cinctures and constraints that used to exist—censorship of content is a blatant example—have been driven off the field. Writers today can do more or less whatever we want. But on the other hand, since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the "goal" of the forward rush. The modernists and early postmodernists—all the way from Mallarmé to Coover, I guess—broke most of the rules for us, but we tend to forget what they were forced to remember: the rule-breaking has got to be for the "sake" of something. When rule-breaking, the mere "form" of renegade avant-gardism, becomes an end in itself, you end up with bad language poetry and "American Psycho" ’s nipple-shocks and Alice Cooper eating shit on stage. Shock stops being a by-product of progress and becomes an end in itself. And it’s bullshit. Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, "Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you "could"? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens."

LM: So you get the infinitesimal calculus—"the philosophy of as if."

DFW: And this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this "as if." But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.

LM: Of course, you also have examples like Lobochevsky and Riemann, who are breaking the rules with no practical application at the time—but then later on somebody like Einstein comes along and decides that this worthless mathematical mind game that Riemann developed actually described the universe more effectively than the Euclidean game. Not that those guys were braking the rules just to break the rules, but part of that was just that: what happens if everybody has to move counter-clockwise in Monopoly. And at first it just seemed like this game, without applications.

DFW: Well, the analogy breaks down because math and hard science are pyramidical. They’re like building a cathedral: each generation works off the last one, both in its advance and its errors. Ideally, each piece of art’s its own unique object, and its evaluation’s always present-tense. You could justify the worst piece of experimental horseshit by saying "The fools may hate my stuff , but generations later I will be appreciated for my ground breaking rebellion." All the beret-wearing "artistes" I went to school with who believed that line are now writing ad copy someplace.


John Cassavetes:

There was a doubleness in Cassavetes' method, however. Even as he reined the actors in and had very strong ideas about what he wanted from them, he insisted that they should bring a lot of themselves and their own ideas to the role. In fact, in Cassavetes' view, the difference between Shadows and most other films resided almost entirely in the centrality of the actor's contribution to the creative process. The goal of most directors, particularly virtuosic ones like Sternberg, Welles, Hitchcock and Kubrick, is to impose their vision on their works, so that each shot, scene and interaction bears their imprint. Cassavetes went in the opposite direction, depending heavily on his performers' input. If the first kind of filmmaking can be called "concentrative" – so that the points of view of the various figures within the work ultimately cumulate in a single, overarching way of seeing and feeling, Cassavetes' might be called "dispersive," because it imagines the work to be the product of as many different personal voices, styles and moods as possible. The point was not to unify the work around a singular point of view, but to diversify it by allowing in as many different points of view as possible.


Cosmo struts through The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with an aplomb that dozens of gangster films have immortalized. From Cagney, Raft, Muni, and Bogart in the forties to Schwarzenegger, Nicholson, De Niro, and Eastwood in the nineties, we have seen this he-man maintain his cool under fire as he man-handles the women he lets into the margins of his life. But while these films celebrate masculine coolness and self-possession, Cassavetes wants us to question it. Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack – which features Ben Gazzara in a reprise of his role here – succinctly summarizes the difference: Bogdanovich is in love with his star's charm, panache, and style, while Cassavetes sees them as tragic evasions.

There are so many extraordinary female parts in Cassavetes' work that it is easy to forget that he was one of the supreme explorers of the male psyche in all of American art. He has Robert Harmon say "men don't interest me," but even as he says it, his tone gives away his creator's fascination with the weirdness of the male psyche. Cassavetes' films put manhood under a microscope – in all of its various manifestations, from Tony, Bennie, and Hughie in Shadows, the salesmen in Faces, and the husbands in Husbands, to Cosmo here, and Robert in Love Streams. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a searching study of what it is to be a man in our culture.

Cassavetes uses Ben Gazzara's actorly stillness and reserve to investigate the male need to be in control. Cosmo is emotionally invulnerable. He won't let anyone – even his lover Rachel – get past his veneer of poise. He keeps the show going through thick and thin, in scene after scene. He is stunningly cool in the heat of action and unflappable in the face of death. He devotes his life to looking good – on stage and off – and succeeds. But Cassavetes wants us to examine the emotional costs of caring so much about appearances. He wants us to ask what happens to our lives when looking good and acting cool become so important.


Since the explorations in Cassavetes' films never remain merely formal, since his style is always in service of moral values and human meanings, his work raises issues with which such criticism simply cannot deal. His films explore new human emotions, new conceptions of personality, new possibilities of social relationship. He explores new ways of being in the world, not merely new formal "moves." His films are not walled off in an artistic never-never land of stylistic inbreeding and cross-referencing. Cassavetes gives us films that tell us about life, and aspire to help us to live it. He shows us that art can be a form of knowledge, the finest, most complex form of knowledge, and of its communication, yet invented. We learn things when we watch his movies, about our culture, ourselves, and our relations with others, that we never knew and that can't be communicated in any other way. This passed relatively unnoticed and uncommented upon during his lifetime because the knowledge we acquire is not didactic, but stylistic. We don't learn new facts or observations or beliefs, but new ways of seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, and being in the world.


No set of values could be more opposed to Cassavetes' belief about either the process of living or the function of art. For him making a film was not a display of power and prowess, but was rather an act of humility. It did not involve virtuosic arrangement and masterful organization, but patient exploration and tentative discovery. As he often said, for his actors, his crew, his viewers, and himself, filmmaking was a matter of asking questions to which you didn't know the answers and holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment. The work that resulted was an admission of what you didn't know and might never be able to understand. It was not about moving from confusion to clarity – for the actor, the director, or the viewer. Getting lost was the goal – being forced to break your old habits and understandings, giving up your old forms of complacency. The way to wisdom was through not-knowing. The master plot of Cassavetes' work – for himself, his actors, his characters, and his viewers – is an antivirtuosic one: moving out of positions of power and control and into places of fear and uncertainty. That is why the narratives themselves are almost always about going out of control. To allow yourself to let go was the first step in learning anything. Everything else was what Cassavetes called "doing tricks" and "playing games" with expression.

What is wrong with knowingness is that it removes us from the stimulating turmoil of experience. It separates the individual from the scrambling confusion of living because it figures a set of understandings worked out in advance of or apart from the experience. For Cassavetes, thought was not something that was done separate from, or that allowed you to rise above the turbulence of experience, but rather was the process of hacking a path through an experience as it happens. Another way of putting that is to say that, for Cassavetes, filmmaking was not something that followed the living or analyzed the living; it was the living. The styles of Hitchcock, Welles, DePalma, and Lynch tell us that they use film to present ideas and feelings that they have already worked out. They do their living and thinking, and when they reach a certain point of clarity and resolution, they summarize it in their work. That is why they can story-board their scenes and decide on their camera angles before they ever walk onto the set. They use the filmmaking process to push preselected buttons, to paint by numbers. That is not what filmmaking was for Cassavetes. Every camera movement or refocusing, every cut in his work tells us that for him making a film was a way of wondering about an experience while you were having it, not of reflecting on it from a distance. Filmmaking was exploring.


This feels like an apt description of reading DFW (though it's about Cassavetes):

The secret of Cassavetes’ method is to deny viewers every form of intellectual distance and control. The experiences he presents can’t be held intellectually at arm’s length. They won’t be simplified by being translated into received ideas or emotions. They resist being formulated. They must be challengingly negotiated moment by moment the way we live and feel things in real life. In all of their unresolved sprawl and mutability, the experiences in his films are the opposite of the canned, pre–programmed summaries of experience most other movies provide.

Real emotional experiences are never formulatable the way the synthetic emotions most other films provide are. In fact, if you can even say what emotion you are feeling while you are having it—as you almost always can in most other movies—it is proof that you are actually at a remove from it. If you can think about it, analyze it, understand it, it doesn’t have the power of feelings in life. That is the state of intensity—or reality—that Cassavetes brings back to the cinematic experience. He moves us beyond thought.


Side note: Ray Carney had this to say about DFW:

David Foster Wallace was one of America's most important (and hilarious) novelists, short story writers, and essayists. If you are not familiar with his work, a good place to start would be his collection (and the title story in it): "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." (For what it's worth: I had one of the greatest artistic experiences of my entire life taking turns with a friend reading this entire story out loud to each other late one night many years ago. Thank you, David. You were one of the greats. You saw what a world of fictions and fantasies we inhabit.)

 Post subject: Re: DFW & Ingmar Bergman & John Cassavetes
PostPosted: Tue Sep 01, 2009 5:20 pm 

Joined: Mon Jul 20, 2009 7:31 pm
Posts: 17
I do see the similarities, and can't (at the moment) say much in response beyond Thank You. I'm a huge fan of DFW, Cassavetes and (sometimes) Bergman; I'm also teaching a class on the arts/aesthetics this semester and these interviews may be a nice supplement. So, thanks much ;)

(Everything these days is reminding me of Cassavetes Opening Night--i.e. the section of the new Lorrie Moore novel that I've read. Sort of the way everything is leading me back to IJ. So I think it's time I revisit that film.)

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