When Georges Didi-Huberman rewrote the rag and bone character fantasised by Walter Benjamin, he took good care to avoid the usual gnawing criticism against post-modern sampling. In his texts about time and work, Didi-Huberman celebrates the editing, the encounter, and the defence of the hidden jewel. His rag and bone man isn’t only an ideological figure, but a happy kid tearing shreds off art to take them to his eyes, howling out of pleasure, wildly, rolling over unfinished documents, cutting his hands with the edge of the barbarism that carelessly rears its head or burning the tips of his fingers with the ashes of an unburied corpse left behind or with the body we love and leave burning away on a cheap hotel’s bed.
The happy coincidence on the big screen of Hail, Caesar! and The Forbidden Room –the first one on official distribution cinema rooms and the second one filtered through the cinephiliac sub-world– has glancingly shown that Benjamin’s rag and bone man is still making his presence on the screen. Fragmentation prevails over the prophets of classic storytelling who still ask themselves why do we refuse to kneel down before old Hollywood, but also over the visionaries of ideological nostalgia who give themselves shots of frustrated 68 revolutions. It’s an unstable territory, a liquid kind of film half way between dynamite, premature ejaculation and the time a caress lasts at a techno festival.
Certainly, both films move forward like steamrollers on different lanes of the History of Film. However, and unlike what seems to have become the usual critic postcard, they don’t pay their toll in petty nostalgia. The Coen brothers, for instance, chew and spit MGM fragments with a clarity showing the hysterical and ridiculous nature of those topographies made up of desired and desiring bodies. It isn’t strange that part of the viewers who joined me during the projection of the film in a small town cinema were scandalised: it isn’t just the fact that the film robbed them of the possibility of circulating the hermetic chronology of wasted Hollywood stories, but besides, it was insulting them sotto voce. The film mutters the bias against the uses and habits of the narrative smoke screen that still works like the rusty machinery of bad films shown during Easter afternoons, revisitations of Empress Sissi movies or low-budget Western packs sold cheap to local television channels. Just a couple of examples: the recreation of famous Esther-Williams-style siren films allows us to see at all moments Johansson’s hysterical gesture, her incredulity, her deep contempt towards the spectacular mechanism. Her unwanted pregnancy is but a coda, a redundancy before what’s already written on the initial pages: the full of desire female that highly exceeds the stupid ghostly frame in which she’s immersed to control her femininity.
This scene is literally duplicated in the sailor musical starred by Channing Tatum. Each concrete frame, each knowing gesture towards the camera, each simple exclamation mark leaves trace of the evident homosexuality of the whole thing, the orgy between brave lads, again the incontrollable body written on the screen and all the desire that classic Hollywood tried to mask or dress up as a sweaty gladiator for the subterranean delight and triumph of the people watching it. The fact that the actor who pretends to be a repressed homosexual is, at the same time, a latent communist is one of those feints of pure genius that would need a whole article to be developed.
The idea of the body as the main problem of the History of Film –the desire of a body that is looked at, or the desire to look at the body– logically takes us to the logic of fragments. At the party of Lacan’s “object A”, it’s precisely the camera what fragments the body and shows that detail, that shredded spark that is the engine of our desire –Madeleine’s bun, already mentioned by Žižek, but also Clooney’s dimple, the back of the neck of Binoche, or Sasha Grey’s know-it-all face–. The Coens reach fever pitch by deconstructing the body of Christ, the main evangelical body, a body-God that escapes what the camera sees but, nevertheless, appears as the door to the film. Afterwards, if we take the text in all its meaning, there are two hidden bodies in Hail, Caesar!: the sacred body and the joyful body, the resurrecting body and the desiring body. This isn’t however a blasphemy at all: the closed shot of classic Hollywood, plain and simple, can’t express all there is in both bodies, so it can only but suggest them through sailors practising elliptic fellatios or through stares that are enunciated off-screen. Didi-Huberman’s rag and bone man discovers both fragments and can’t help but piss himself laughing thinking about the amount of rightful citizens who will pay their tickets to watch the Ben-Hur remake directed by Timur Bekmambetov when it reaches cinema rooms later this year.
By contrast, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s film is made to invent an alternative History of Film portraying marginalised and sombre spaces, forgotten avant-garde movements and impossible cinephiliac times. If the Coens show the stupidity of classic fragments, Maddin and Johnson try to go back to an even previous stage, a sort of repressed cinematographic past that would have been dormant –in a logic parallel to unconsciousness– waiting for something to make its exciting contents, its deep sexuality, go up to the surface.
The Coens’ film, with the excuse of the cinematographic studio, goes through a mixture of faded postcards. Maddin and Johnson use orality, confession, memories, and dreamed or even delirious stories to throw their emotional fragments against the spectator. At times, the film resembles a paranoid love song emerging from the dark areas in manuals by Román Gubern or Mark Cousins, an explicit denial of the classification populated by beautiful monsters that commit noble abominations, or of monstrous abominations beautiful to watch. Its frames see the great names of an author tradition that was written as a rejection of the Great Studios scriptures –Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling…– but absorbed by a kind of temporary cinematographic limbo, a mad filmic materiality, a sort of darkened semen-image, nourished by the mould of old film institutes, discourses and official institutions of memory.
For Maddin, the eroticism of the body doesn’t have that forbidden and almost religious exquisiteness of the Coens’. But –as a trait present in all his filmography–, it’s more of a biological problem related to sickness or to filthiness rather than pleasure. The film is literally filled with characters who suffer their bodies: ill women, all broken bones, who have orgasms when they’re being treated; men obsessed with concrete parts of their anatomy submitted to strange chirurgical practices; sons that steal opium from their dying mothers to nourish strange vampire lovers… The sick body, the body rotten with desire, Maddin locks the body in the verge of death or orgasm inside his topography and cuts it, involuntarily accepting its incontrollable nature. The film itself begins with what seems a fake didactic documentary on personal hygiene: the bathroom as a synonym of immersing oneself in one’s own dirt and, from then on, the film becomes a collection of forgotten and latent psychopathies, ready to be embodied by horrific faces that turn into inevitably filmic death masks –see the terrible appearances of Rampling’s gesture before her own fragment–, or into beautiful, desirable, carnal and deadly geographies, like Clara Fuey’s.
Both films are connected through their disjointed scripts, but at the same time, they draw two different urgent territories: the distribution to cinema rooms (a nostalgic gesture, a controlled film) versus the presumably illegal Torrent (an immediate gesture, an incontrollable film), and in between, as an exclamation mark, the future of films in itself. That is to say, in any case, a question that will still point to the body, to narrative, and time. What Didi-Huberman forgot to write is that Benjamin’s rag and bone man isn’t only capable of laughing or being surprised before the shreds of time he collects; he can also get excited about them, or even fall in love with them, or maybe ask to dance, with a guilty gesture (Coens) or a brutal desire (Maddin), the naked ghosts of his own past.