Upright Values
Dan Friedman

We claim, at Zeek, to provide 'thought and culture for bipeds' with more than a passing thought of Orwell's Animal Farm in which the quadrupeds revolt. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary tells us that bipeds are animals with two feet, or animals that use two feet for locomotion, and, while welcoming these as readers I, as one of the zeekkollektiv, would like to state clearly that we do not mean to distance any unipedal, tripedal or oedipal readers, nor do we want to marginalize those who have the requisite limbs but do not use them for locomotion. Our intention was to be inclusive in a way that does not pre-suppose the various types of 'normal' categories but, as my preceding remarks show, we have done that at the risk of including chimpanzees and excluding Dr. Stephen Hawking from our readership.

We talk of admirable people as being particularly 'upright,' because bipedality, and its implicit verticality, are seductive attributes of civilization. This particular metaphor for improvement comes from two aspects of erect human behaviour: first, the constant ability to display, and second, the constant display of expertise. In the first, as humans left the forests to build villages, they made their mating display their constant position-exchanging the occasional chest-beating for consistent chest-baring. For the second, the best illustration is the maxim about motorcyclists having two positions, fallen and falling, and their aim being to delay the former as long as possible. True, the energy, skill, and alertness needed to remain standing is not of quite the same order as motorbiking, but a species using it as its normal (but not exclusive) state of activity does imply that they have risen (again the verticality) from the purely animal. The question remains as to whether this improvement is actual, rather than hopeful-and, if it is actual, then what sort of improvement is it, really? Is this skill virtuous or just virtuosic? Is Homo Erectus a better model than his predecessor merely as a result of his posture? And if so, is his new stance one of moral uprightness or just permanent priapism?

In his 1978 short film Vertical Feature Remake, Peter Greenaway deals with humans as the vertical features of the landscape. In this half an hour of poetic cinema, Greenaway, with the initial support of the "Institute of Reclamation and Restoration" (a close parody of the British Arts Council of the 1970s) purports to remake a lost film made by the experimental filmmaker "Tulse Luper"-who is a deliberately laughable shadow of Greenaway himself. The structure of Luper's film was, it is claimed, determined through a series of aesthetic and ideological calculations in order to display a landscape according to an organic system-we are even shown Luper's own archived diagrams. What is never questioned is Luper's premise: that vertical features are the crucial features of the landscape.

The first 'remake' follows a brief explanation of the archive, Luper's initial intentions, and some stills of the working diagrams for the film. Immediately afterwards the film raises its own version of the IRR's objections to the remake. So a second version, incorporating the objections and some suggestions as to the incorporation of sound, follows, along with further explanations, with the more tentative hope of following some of the principles of the original. Yet more objections follow, and our wary belief in the existence of Tulse Luper is frayed to breaking point. We are shown a photograph of a man smoking a cigarette, arm in arm with a man and a woman in an urban scene. This may or may not be Luper, but the image is repeatedly intercut with his diagrams, and this juxtaposition adds to the impression that these artists are totally divorced from the countryside that they are apparently representing.

A third and final remake follows, this time with a 'full' experimental score, that is, again, substantially different from the preceding ones. Greenaway's narrator now disavows any intention on the part of Vertical Features Remake to make an exact reproduction of the 'lost' film. Archived material now shows that Luper himself may have lost faith with the initial concept-the narrator seems to imply that he has made the film to make friends and get laid. Neither the remakes that are contained within the film, nor Vertical Feature Remake itself, nor even the putative Luper film, are originals. They are all harking back to some earlier form which never existed.

Our responses to Greenaway's film are a mixture of hilarity at the genre, bewilderment at the multiple play of levels and characters (who all have names that sound like anagrams), enjoyment of the clear and overdone explanation of the structure, and wistfulness at the genuine loss that is apparent in the still pictures that are flashed on the screen for varying lengths of time. By provoking us in this way, Greenaway does several things. He shows how obsessed we are with ourselves even when we are ostensibly dealing with the objectively external. He shows the inevitability of ideology.* He presents a series of still shots that are, despite everything, beautiful in their evocation of a lost England. He pokes fun at institutions and their earnest insistence on their particular truths. And at the same time he tells a story of a film, of remaking a film, and of the ultimately elusive authentic original -- an activity that has brought many a worthy enterprise back down to earth.

The reason for talking about VFR here in zeekfilm is Greenaway's thematic use of verticality as a metaphor for human activity. Gradually the vertical features of the 'original' film (trees, goalposts, fenceposts, buildings) are replaced, symbolically, thematically, by the characters who dispute the film's findings and assertions, and by the characters who made (or didn't make) the film originally. It is in our verticality, through our effort and our skill, that we make the best of our surroundings, but with that same effort and skill in keeping ourselves upright, we show what we are like. Greenaway takes the two aspects of verticality and, using our constant desire to display, laughs at the ridiculous earnestness of our displays of skill. We reveal our secrets. However far we try to objectivize our perceptions by chopping them up into their constituent parts, however much we embellish them with music to dress our shame, or however absent human figures are from the initial pictures, we are always centre-stage, and usually absurd.

Mainstream films and TV appropriate forms from the documentary genre to lend them authenticity. They choose to use journalistic documentaries as models because these forms seem plausible as the actual truth which has just been edited down for the news. Often the wording of a film or television show's narrative reflects news or newsreel rhetoric, the shooting style is cinema verite, the editing gives a sense of individuals' points of view. We see this, for example, in a stream of war films leading most recently from Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down. What flicks take from documentaries is their appearance of realism: the bare facts.

In doing so they ignore the qualms that most documentarists have about their own 'facts.' The appropriations rarely allow spectators a glimpse of the filmmakers' own theatricality impinging upon their presentations. In Greenaway as well as in Bunuel's Land Without Bread, Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (to name three classic twentieth century documentaries) we feel that our presence changes things in difficult and unclear ways. Our position is compromised as voyeuristic, but we also feel that we have violated what came before, in similar ways as people within the film are continuing to violate what is now there. The reductio ad absurdum of this line of argument is in the brilliant Belgian pseudo-documentary C'est Arrivi Prhs de Chez Vous (released in English as Man Bites Dog) where the cameramen keep getting involved in the action and having to be replaced as a result.

Our uprightness is a position of display, inviting judgment. Cinema can tell our stories and be the pre-eminently democratic place of display in society. It is able to entertain, perplex, and still succeed while showing the complexities and rich diversity of the world to a mass audience. Of course, it is also capable of foreclosing on the imagination and presenting human absurdity as if it is common-sense and quite serious. Cinema is demonstrably capable of becoming sentimental if it thinks that it will make money. The non-exclusive choice for cinema is between the morally upright-questioning its own authority and inviting judgment-and the priapically upright-lusting after whatever is easy (often sex and money) and calling judgment upon itself.

* I am a fan of footnotes and will restrain myself to one this week. By 'ideology' I mean "a manner of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture." I never use ideology in the sense of dogma, or propaganda. This view of the word is an unfortunate side-effect of the Cold War. Both sides refused to believe that they spoke anything but common-sense and so ideology was what the enemy had and tried to impose it on the good guys with propaganda.. To think of the multiple philosophies and practices of either Communism or Capitalism as common-sense does no justice to either of them. Also: Thanks to JKM for the invaluable assistance.

More Film:

Digitizing Celluloid Dan Friedman
Harry Potter is cute, but is it a bad thing that adults crave escapism?


jay's head
teevee girl