As Radical as Reality Itself: What Southland Tales Tells Us About Todays Media

After discussing many different facets of cinema, capitalism and affect in Jon Lindblom's Deleuze and Cinema reading group I find an increasing tendency in my thinking. I often refer to, or revert back to Shaviro's analysis of Richard Kelly's Southland Tales (in Post Cinematic Affect - Zero Books). I sometimes feel that Southland Tales has a prescient cinematic aesthetic; I find myself quite often seeing glimmers and echos from a flattened affective constellation from the future in other contemporary media. It is the similarity between Southland Tales and every day sights and sounds that I want to focus on here.

The poly-media: the contemporary constant hum of updates, bulletins, tag lines, adverts, sponsors and news is the aesthetic of Southland Tales cinematography. The viewer cannot watch or focus, but rather gaze passively, distractedly at a vertiginous retinal onslaught of information, imagery, action and stimuli. Kelly takes this dystopic media cinematography and polishes and multiplies it into a commentary. I feel that this aesthetic of capitalism is actually not overly exaggerated in Southland Tales, instead I agree with Shaviro - that Southland Tales is 'film' operating in the media aesthetic of today. The only reason it stands out, the only reason it feels like a caricature, parody or performative comment is because ordinarily the big screen is reserved for a conservatively retrospective aesthetic of deep hues, traditionally composed shots and reassuringly delightful pacing. Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Wells may well have historically vital works and aesthetic developments; but for the task of exploring how we gaze at the screens and media of today they are, charmingly, inept.

The similarities I am drawn to here are those whose "correspondences and connections form something like an affective constellation, examples remain uber-intensively flattened and "refuse to coalesce into any sort of higher, synthetic unity" scenes that drawn the viewer with an infinity of images that "coexist in their very distance from one another". Precisely, I am drawn to examples that share similarities with how, as Shaviro comments:

"Kelly's images and sounds are wildly disparate, and yet they all exist on the same plane. They do not fit together in any rational way; they are so miscellaneous, and so scattered, that they do not even conflict with one another. At the same time, none of these images or sounds is privileged over any other, no image source or sound source is treated as more authentic than any other. In particular, there us no hierarchy of representations; the images on a screen are just as real, and are just as efficacious, as the objects from which those images are supposedly derived. In the terms used by Deleuze and Guattari, the film refuses any "supplementary dimension" and operates only "with the number of dimensions one already has available" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 6). In this way Southland Tales exhibits an entirely flat ontology." (Shaviro, Post Cinematic Affect, 2010, pp. 73-74)

The 2012 X-Games (from L.A.) exhibits all of the above. The viewer is treated to, supposedly, a showcase of macho gladiatorial spectacles. Take for example the BMX "Big Air Final".


I feel that this coverage of the X-Games is a wonderful example of how modern media has "no hierarchy of representations" and "exhibits an entirely flat ontology". For example, and this is perhaps the most vitally exemplary facet for me, the commentators voice is used for multiple dimensions. The commentators narrate the action on screen and the efforts of the athletes just as in any other sports coverage but they also, without any announcement or aesthetic transition, seep in other dimensions. They slide seamlessly into comments about future programmes and deliver arrays of whole advertisements with a flattening tone of irrepressible glee. One moment the ear is fed background histories about athletes efforts to advance their capabilities or the methods they undertake to learn new skills, the next moment a list of sponsors is detailed including all the traditional components of an advert e.g.: brand announcement, advert, tag line, brand name closure. There is never any notice that this is an advert, there is never any significant break in the voice or even the action on screen, instead adverts, sponsors and sporting action coagulate into one singular plane of aesthetics.

This does not just occur at the level of the authoritative commentary; it extends, perhaps more observably, into/across the images on screen. As with much of sports coverage the screen is crammed with data, graphics, news and logos; but ESPN’s coverage seems almost directionless in its floating, fragmented flatness. It feels directionless because there are so many facets vying for ocular attention simultaneously. Obviously, all sports coverage has adverts, most news and sports channels have rolling news feeds, updates, next ups and bulletins; but I feel that the degree to which all the aspects of ESPN’s coverage culminate in is striking. For example, straight after, or sometimes during, the voiced advertisements we can see the logos on the athletes and ramps and logos on the graphics (a constant floating remind of the sports debt to capital) - but we are also treated to random brand logo pop-ups! These logos drop down and distract the attention, often from the same logo placed within the ‘action’. So in one moment the viewer could be appreciating a Go-Pro logo situated on the ramp in the action but the next moment this view becomes obscured by a pop-up graphic of the same Go-Pro logo - and all this whilst a discombobulating imbrication of narrative/sponsor is operating in both visual and aural levels of the coverage. The effect of such capitalized flattening is akin to myodesopsia (eye floaters) behind which an endlessly ramifying, imbricating, propagating and proliferating of content into capital is at work.

There are other similarities too. Quite often, the camera pans across a crowd of surf/skate-wear clad spectators who gesticulate, whoop and scream in a knowingly performative manner. This is not a constant state, but a reaction to the presence of the camera and the medias gaze. Upon making eye contact with the technological lens the fans of the sport begin the required performance of faux-ecstasy and leap into action. It is almost as if the real thrill is not the sport but the media… One common reaction to the cameras presence has caught my eye as embodying the forces emerging from such a media. Or rather, a disembodied want is emerging as a manifestation of such an affective media environment. Oftentimes, when the camera pans across a stand of excited spectators it is not greeted by the traditional wave, gesticulation or shouting that we expect but something quite different. Instead I often see spectators holding logos on their T-shirts out to the camera, as if to say: "this is what you came for". For an athlete to do such a thing would make perfect sense, most athletes earn far more from sponsorship and endorsement deals than prize money, but there is no such benefit for a young teenager in the stands to draw the camera gaze towards a Vans or Quicksilver logo. Granted we all do stupid things when feeling uneasy in-front of the camera, but the stoic, almost lethargic coolness of the ubiquitous logo touting performance that so many spectators feel they ought to be performing at the moment the camera pans past leads me to suppose that they are acting out something that cannot be said. They are perhaps acting out the fact that it is not the sport, event or atmosphere that is important – but the presence of various forces of capital that the logos and brands channel through the event.

The spectators also have a self-reflexivity on par with all the celebrity performances in Southland Tales. From Justin Timberlake miming to The Killers or Dwayne Johnson playing Johnny Depp playing a nervous finger twitching fretter – there is a knowingness of appearance; an auto-animation into flattened avatar aesthetic. Becoming a prop for the logo at the drop of a hat. This feels not dissimilar to the amnesiac method acting that Boxer Santaros/Dwayne Johnson displays in Southland Tales. Both the spectators at the X-Games and Boxer Santaros/Dwayne Johnson show:

“an extreme version of the flexible personality demanded by what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (2007) call “the new spirit of capitalism.” On the one hand, such a personality must be capable or participating , with total energy and enthusiasm, in whatever project engages him at the moment. On the other hand, he must also have “the ability to disengage from the project in order to be available” for a new one. “Even at the peak of engagement, enthusiasm, involvement in a project,” the flexible personality must be “prepared for change and capable of new investments” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007, 112)” (Shaviro, 2010, 90)

As the camera rolls past the spectators any “uncertainties and differences are smoothed over, and none of them are posed as “contradictions” to be dialectically resolved. Instead, they are just presented, and transformed into spectacle, in their full messiness and intractability. In the midst of (t)his multimedia barrage.” (Shaviro, 2010, 91).

The third aspect of ESPN’s 2012 X-Games coverage I would like to focus on is what the location does to the action in light of the info-saturated aesthetic. At the end of the world, as the sun sets on L.A. and extraordinary feats of aerial acrobatics and dexterity are performed under pressure by the athletes there is no culmination of affect. There is no climatic accomplishment or center to focus upon. Behind the helmets of the athletes we see cars parking and moving along stretches of motorways. The viewer is still bombarded with notices for events running simultaneously, given updates about events in other sports or showcases on other channels. The only point of temporal reference is the sun position, all other facets of content are maintained in a frenzied stasis – the effect is flat. Both Southland Tales and ESPN’s X-Games coverage exhaust temporality, they are both “exuberantly envision the entropic dissipation of all energy, and the implosion of social and media networks into a flat, claustrophobic, degree-zero banality. (The) end-point looms before us, but it is never quite reached.” (Shaviro, 2010, 86). Temporality, duration and the time-image are gone, digital media and post-modern coverage cannot communicate and sense of duration. “Just as the movement-image gave way to the time-image, so now the time-image gives way to a new sort of audio-visual or multimedia image.” (Ibid)

The reason Southland Tales is important is because it shows the banality of duration-less media as a thing to be considered, so that, in turn, a critical distance, a position for awareness and critique can now be afforded for even the most ubiquitous media.

“Southland Tales doesn’t offer us a way out from the nightmare of “capitalist realism” or the neo-liberal “end of history”. But in its crazy ambition, its full engagement with contemporary media, and its terrible sincerity, it is one of those rare works that dares to be “as radical as reality itself”. In its demented fabulation, it reflects upon our actual situation, rather than taking a pretended distance from it.” (Shaviro, 2010, 92)

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