Archives for the month of: January, 2013

I talk about it often and though it’s in my past, I still learn many things from this one experience. My senior year of college was devoted to completing a thesis for my degree in German Literature. I knew it was a huge part of my college career; the school I went to drilled this fear and love of the thesis in all students, practically from the first day. So, yeah, I had plenty of years to deal with the impending final test that is the senior thesis, but I really never thought of the lasting effects this overglorified paper would have after I left college.

Nearly two years out and I still watch interviews of Herta Müller (the writer whose depressingly lyrical prose made up most my life that year) and read new articles on her writing. She’ll always be a part of me, I get it, and sometimes I think maybe I keep going back to this because it was one of the best things I did in college. What I mean by ‘best’ is of course, one of the assignments I spent most of my time on; it was something I actually cared about.

And so, when I started reading a new piece in The New Inquiry (I swear I read other magazines… TNI bloggers are just so great!) last week on a French literary movement from the 1960s I was immediately intrigued to learn more. I’m a pretty trusting person so my first stop is Wikipedia… then maybe Google Scholar before I do a quick email and facebook check (Dear GOD adult-ADD is real) and as I skimmed through the information I noticed that one of the more famous members of this group was a German-Romanian poet whose work helped me in many ways with some of the more technical analysis for my thesis. Without getting too deep into it, Oskar Pastior’s deconstructivist poetry deeply influenced Müller in her own exploration of dissociative vocabulary and style. Pastior and Müller were to work together on her 2009 novel Atemschaukel; unfortunately Pastior passed away in the beginning stages of research.

Having read Pastior’s work, it is easy to see his place within this group. One of Pastior’s techniques dealt with semantics. Using words twice-removed from their objects, he’d create open-ended mazes that allowed for the profundity of his work to resonate among his audience. This French literary group worked also wished to explore and experiment with certain technicalities in literature: from style of writing, to basic linguistic structure. The members of the Oulipo movement (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop of potential literature), from what I’ve gathered wrote to provoke and change the representation of reality in literature. Constrained by the history of literary writing, these writers deconstructed and rearranged every aspect of their work to create a new reality in which their writing could be sustained.

The one thing I find most interesting of the Oulipo movement is precisely this idea that one can control style in order to bend, strain, and break the rules of writing. Yuka Igarashi writes on the republication of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in “Exorcisms in Style”: “Though it’s tempting to see Exercises in Style as a showcase, a dazzling display of the many ways to tell a story, the truth is that most of these exercises don’t make very good versions of the story at all. Either they’re plain incomprehensible or they’re forced and awkward.” Precisely through this breakdown of the story and subsequent tinkering and restructuring Queneau creates completely new stories, and yet – we know that it’s all the same story. Style very much dictates what can and cannot be used in a story, and yet with these various stories in Exercises in Style, Queneau just as easily proves that the content itself can find its way through any form of style and inevitably leave an impression.
Igarashi agrees.

…the book’s ad nauseam variations mount a challenge to the primacy of style and the preciousness of language. The crucial word in the title is not “style” but “exercise,” with its connotations of both the physical and educational drill. It suggests that you can throw on and throw off a multitude of styles, or that you might cycle through a host of them to give the writing a workout. For Queneau, language is meant to be pushed around and played with, stretched and bent and chopped and tested.

The story cannot survive in an alien style. Though it’s valuable for a writer to experiment and practice new writing styles, it’s equally as important for the writer to understand the content of her writing and be exclusive to what works. Queneau’s Exercises in Style explains the essence of the Oulipo movement, an attempt to reconfigure the ideals of the literary tradition. There is nothing wrong in these exercises in style, on the contrary, his work brings to light the importance of experimentation.

 

**This review has SPOILERS. 🙂

Michael Haneke’s film “Amour” has been gaining much attention since it’s release, more through it’s facility for interpretation than it’s incredible beauty. Though the story is simple Haneke’s direction of the film simultaneously brings the audience into the story while reinforcing the position (both physical and metaphorical) of the audience/viewer quite clear. Moments of connection and understanding sprinkle the film and yet, certain actions remind the viewer of their definite place outside of the story.

The film follows the lives of a decades-long married couple, Georges and Anne. The story starts at the end, with the death and conclusion of both Anne’s life and the life of the couple. In Malcolm Harris’ review on “Amour”, he delves into the idea of love and the representation of that specific love – as an emotion and as a function for society – to which humans connect. In the film, Georges nurses Anne through the last moment of life, that slow process of dying and ending. Georges, along with the audience, is present for those first signs of deterioration, when Anne’s mental faculties lapse and leave her temporarily disconnected from their reality. From the beginning he is cooperative to her care and, finally, when she is void of voice and movement, places a pillow over her head and holds it firmly down until he ends her life. What happens later can only be seen as the subsequent downfall of Georges himself. As if a couple’s is created and sustained with the binding of two individuals; if you remove one of those individuals, break the bond, the other can no longer continue in the role of ‘couple’. As Harris writes in his review, “If love has the power to legally and semantically meld two people into one, then dying leaves a monstrous remnant.” It is clear that Anne and Georges have been together, emotionally and legally, as a couple for many years. While watching the film the viewer can feel their connection, which stems from not only the kind of love we all hope to find but also from the simple fact of having spent decades side-by-side. The ultimate testament to this love comes with Anne’s illness and at this point it is clear that nothing the couple has encountered in the years of being together can prepare them for this final sacrifice of individual freedome to the couple.

When the audience is introduced to Anne, she is lying dead on her bed, in her best outfit, with flowers delicately placed around her head and in her hands. Seconds earlier, a group of police officers break down the door of the couple’s apartment and go in search of what we can only assume is the body. It’s a different kind of crime scene, one that only offers the end of a story instead of the reason for it. Because Anne is placed so formally in her bed and because of her age, the idea of foul play, of something going against nature is not the leading thought, but rather that this was suppose to happen, a natural conclusion to what we as of yet do not know.

The next scene shows people seating themselves in a theater. As the viewer focuses on the people presented to them, it is not immediately obvious for whom the focus is attached. There are young people, some couples, older individuals and their families and somewhere in this group are Georges and Anne. The musical performance begins and for a few seconds the viewer is left alone in the empty theater watching another audience as they settle in their seats and begin to watch a performance. The feeling is absolutely chilling. Seconds after the audience on the screen quiets down, both the screen-audience and the real-audience sit in silence, watching each other. Not only does this scene recreate the role of the viewer on screen, it also brings that role to the forefront, making it all too aware to the real-audience. As the seconds pass, an uneasiness falls over the audience, we are staring into the eyes of screen-audience, watching them become the voyeurs that we already are. This connection through sight is a false one. Though we are ultra-aware of what is happening to this audience (because we ourselves are living it) we are also confronted with the very real situation of watching a screen. Those on the screen, this alternate reality, cannot connect with us. The daughter of Anne and Georges, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, visits her parents throughout the film, at first depending on her father’s assessment of her mother, then quickly realizing the separation between her reality and that of her parent’s, she becomes anxious and frustrated with the path her parents are heading, one of seclusion and ending. In an interview with Salon Magazine, Huppert states “ …there is this unbearable feeling that her own parents are in an unreachable place, a world apart from hers, and they cannot communicate; they are at the end of their lives and she is still in life.”  We are at once a part of their world and far from it. The struggle in identification permeates throughout the film with George’s subsequent reactions and decisions when it comes to his wife, Anne.

After Anne’s first stroke, which leaves her immobile on one side, she tells Georges to never take her to a hospital again. Georges, who is no more his own self that he is a part of this union, grudgingly accepts Anne’s decision and attempts to care for her at home. As she worsens: losing mobility, becoming frustrated and depressed at her own inability, and finally, losing her voice, the audience is made even more aware of the circumstances Georges is in. The burden of being a couple into old age is so simply captured; Haneke adds to the feeling of discomfort and sadness he first created with the audience. The viewer is shown what comes of the kind of love and devotion society idealizes through stories and law. Harris writes “…The love-is-death story is so common we could do nothing but list sentence-long summaries of examples for weeks. In its lasting depictions, love is a way to die more often than a way to live. In Amour, Georges leaves home for the last time following a vision of Anne (Into dementia? Into death?), and it’s hard to imagine he has much time left in front of him. True love, we’ve learned, is a death sentence.” Georges is connected to Anne not only through an emotional love or a familial love (the love a father could have for the mother of his children), but by a love that goes beyond; it is a love that does away with the individual and instead feeds on the sustaining of the couple as one. Georges must and will do what Anne says because what is left for either of them?

Before the end, in the last moments depicting a bedridden Anne, Georges’ life is dictating by Anne’s bodily functions. No longer the owner of her own self, Georges becomes Anne’s motor skills. The body of Anne remains and Georges is only allowed precious moments with the fleeting soul of his true love. But to continue that relationship, Georges must sacrifice everything to that body; he must continue the facade of ‘couple’. Though the soul and the mind is rapidly dying, the very tangible body of Anne is a reminder to Georges that his duty is to remain with the body, to respect the bond of couple.

Georges’ final conversation with Anne comes at the end of her life; he sits down with her and recounts a story from his childhood. As he finishes, he quietly looks at her and slowly grabs a pillow and ends her life. Anne fights back for a few moments and dies. The last scenes of the film are of Georges in a surreal state, ending with him leaving the apartment with a vision of Anne of before: full of life, active and still a part of his world.

Why is it that Georges kills Anne in this way? Earlier in the film she asks to be euthanized; she talks about how her life has already ended and that she no longer wants to live. Though Georges actions are murderous. By placing a pillow over Anne’s face and constricting her ability to breath, Georges encapsulates the horror placed upon any one individual who finds themselves in the situation of caretaker of a loved one. No longer a couple, where decisions are decided, carried out and faced together, Georges must accept Anne’s decision and be the sole bearer of it’s action. It’s a hideous act; it’s an act in which two people are a part of it but only one comes out, fully burdened by the decision. Haneke makes this brutal because it is brutal; as Harris writes in his review “…Coupling gives narratives the appearance of a clean finality, the establishment of a bipartite they that allows for happily ever after. People hope to end up together and grow old. But the end in end up together usually refers to just an intermediate stage. Love is everlasting, but bodies are not. How do Prince Charming and the Princess die?” Haneke depicts what exactly happens after the fairytale ends, after the book is put down and the big bad wolf has been vanquished. It seems that all we’re destined to be left with is a photo album full of beautiful memories and a sad realization that in the end the idea of “couple” is too sad for just one person to bear.