Minor Cinema, Critical Regionalism, and the post-Western – Neil Campbell

‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)

“What I call Ideas are images that make one think.” -1-

According to Jacques Derrida, “cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms, it’s the art of letting ghosts come back”, a progressive art since, “ghosts are part of the future and … the modern technology of images like cinematography … enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us”. For Derrida, we must “learn to live with ghosts … To live otherwise and better … more justly. But with them … [as] a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations” (Derrida 2000: xvii-xviii). These latter words indicate the reach of this idea and the responsibility to past, present and future; towards what Gilles Deleuze called the formation of “the people to come”; a definition of community and region unscripted or fixed by the past or by systematic representations. Given the history of the American West, its expansionism and legacy of conquest, we might see post-Westerns (that is films of the modern West) as potential sites where such a “politics” might be traced, back into the past and forward to the future, functioning in between such poles and yet responsible to both, interested in, as yet unformed, peoples and communities. Continue reading

John Sayles’ ‘Limbo’: Analysing the opening sequence

Limbo © Columbia Tristar

The subject of this piece (the opening scenes of John Sayles’ film, Limbo (1999)) has been chosen as it affords the opportunity to both continue an ongoing theme of my research (representations of the American state of Alaska) and to continue to expand and explore the methodological approach of critical regionalism. For the purpose of this analysis, I take only one aspect of this emergent transdisciplinary approach – the restructuring of binary oppositions and dialogisms ignored in regionalist accounts of landscapes and their attendant cultures. Through an examination of the homonyms real and reel, I attempt to demonstrate how these terms can be theorised as binary oppositions and how an engagement with both allows for the goals of critical regionalist practice to be uncovered and examined in the subject of this case study. In order to reposition real/reel as a binary, other binaries must also be introduced and the opening sequence of Sayles’ twelfth feature film provide an ideal vehicle through which to do this.

After footage of a shoal of salmon swimming underwater over which the titles play, Limbo employs a montage of footage of the Alaskan landscape and culture which plays as a promotional film for the state. As a disemobodied narration praises “America’s last frontier” with its “azure skies … the hearty souls of men who have gone to sea … its siren call to the bold and adventurous … [and] the promise of untold fortune”, the audience sees a blend of images of glaciers, mountains, forests and their wildlife, cruise liners and fishing vessels, kitsch tourist goods such as Eskimo dolls and traditional native totem poles. As the narration and promotional film fades out, the director transports us to a garden party attended by the great and the good of Port Henry, Alaska. In attendance is Albright, “a major figure in the tourist industry” (Bould, 2009:153), who speaks of his vision for Alaska, a vision which is built on “themes for each area up here: The Whales’ Causeway, Island of the Raven People, Kingdom of the Salmon, Lumberland”.

Limbo continues a theme prevalent across Sayles’ entire output. Its Alaskan setting presents “a textured and authentic place that is alive with the genuine diversity of the modern United States” (Armstrong, 2004) and builds upon a widely accepted notion amongst critics that the director’s oeuvre is “about America, its peoples, landscapes, histories and languages” (Bould, 2009:1). Earlier Sayles works such as Baby It’s You (1983), Passion Fish (1992) and Lone Star (1996), set in New Jersey, Louisiana and the Texas-Mexico border respectively, all demonstrate an intensity of emplacement at odds with the tendency towards homogeneity of place often seen in cinematic landscapes. Herein, Sayles’ films work against not only the conventions of cinema but also the denial of the heterogeneity of specific places in regionalist representations. This tendency is, according to Lukinbeal (2005), at its most dominant in the classical paradigm wherein narration becomes a commodity “because it elides the social differences of local scale and attempts to move the consumption of a product to a larger scale” (12). This elision of difference is consistently challenged by Sayles and has lead to critics positioning the director as coming from the naturalist tradition as his work “suggest[s] a social totality” (Bould, 2009:6). It is within this social totality that “practices, institutions and relationships exist not in isolation from one another, but in actual, dramatic, mutual and dynamic interaction” (Wayne, 2002:225). These last two observations hint at possible intersections within Sayles’ work, with the emergent discipline of critical regionalism as will be explored throughout this case study.

Limbo © Columbia Tristar

Regionalist versions of region tend towards the monologic. Critical regionalism critiques these reductionist representations, such as those of an Alaska codified as simply reminiscent of the frontier conquered in the westward expansion of America. This national narrative – the conquering of the West – in itself demonstrates how a complex landscape is ideologically redefined through the eradication of difference in its representation: white, male and individual, rather than multi-ethnic, bi-gendered and communal. Through inserting the binary opposites back in to these imaginings of region, critical regionalism seeks a dialogical revision of these representations. I would argue that a key dialogism to engage with in criticism of cinemas representations of regions, such as the Alaska of Sayles’ film, is that of space/place.

Developments in traditional geography – as theorists attempt to define an approach to a geography of and in film – hint at an intersection with the goals of critical regionalism and provide the root of this study’s suggestion that real/reel can be redefined as a binary of use to this approach. Hopkins (1994) and Lukinbeal (2005) draw attention to the privileging of the material landscape (the real) in traditional geography and echo Aitken and Zonn’s (1994) observation of that discipline as one in which “representation is subsidiary to physical reality” (5). Film, particularly in the classical paradigm, inverts this relationship by privileging the representative elements (the reel) of landscape, resulting in this landscape becoming a space within which the narrative events can unfold, rather than as a place which can impact upon these events. This places the real (the geographical place) and the reel (the representational cinematic space) into a distinctive and interdependent relationship and one which is examined by Sayles’ film. This is an important distinction if we wish to view Limbo as a critically regionalist text for, as Lukinbeal (2005) again notes, the real and the reel intersect in “how we narrate our identities … and how we define the extent of ourselves within a global cinematic community” (17-18).

Lukinbeal’s insight continues: “sense of place … refers to the location where the narrative is supposedly set (whether real or imagined [reel])” (ibid:6). Critical regionalism would seek to take this final statement out of parentheses and make it the central point of any critique of regional representations: all landscapes are real and reel. Film, therefore, undoubtedly offers up a multitude of texts to be subjected to the gaze of the critical regionalist. The regional and the cinematic are both ‘heterotopic’ (Hopkins, 1994) and their own collision on screen (the nature of which will be explored shortly) offers the potential for a re-alignment of Frampton’s (1983) original critical regionalist clarion call – to counteract “the bulldozing of an irregular topography … [which] aspires to a condition of absolute placelessness” (26) – to the realm of cinema. This ‘placelessness’ is counteracted in Limbo through the deconstruction of cinema’s traditional convention of homogenising place to facilitate narrative space.

Whilst the title of the film and its tag-line – “a condition of unknowable outcome” – acknowledge the texts most obvious defying of cinematic convention (Sayles denies his audience narrative resolution), other elements demonstrate a more complex, often subtle, reconfiguring of filmic convention within that same conventional framework. The establishment of place at the outset of Limbo takes the form of seemingly archival footage of Alaska presented as a tourism promotion film. The icons and stereotypes within this help to construct what Jameson (1991) would refer to as a ‘cognitive map’ of the landscape which the narrative occupies: “enabl[ing] a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole” (?). To this extent, Sayles naturalist approach with its attempted presentation of this social totality, could be seen to be following an accepted convention of the classical paradigm which was introduced earlier. Lukinbeal (2005) argues that within this paradigm landscape as place is often established in the master shot … [which] occurs at, or near, the beginning of the film … [and] may simply be archive footage of locations” (8). However, when noting Bould’s (2009) observation that the footage Sayles employs is “actually a kinescope of specially-shot videotape” (150), the montage which it creates – and which both constructs and deconstructs Alaska – is opened up to critical examination.

Limbo © Columbia Tristar

Such an examination can usefully begin by turning to the work of filmmaker-theorist Sergei Eisenstein (1949) whom Aitken and Zonn (1994) invoke in their discussion of the pastiche of place which, for them, inevitably takes place when the homonyms of real and reel (imagined) are brought together in cinematic representations of place. For Eisenstein, montage allowed for the “collision of ideas” (in, Aitken & Zonn, 1994:18) which, as Aitken and Zonn, note “suggests a dialectic whereby an image-event colliding with another … [creates] a third image-event” (ibid:18). ‘Collisions’ abound in Limbo’s opening montage: wilderness/civilisation, utopia/dystopia, inside/outside, local/global and, most importantly real/reel.

The links here to critical regionalism can be drawn by further expanding the space/place dialogism which hinders not only cinema but many representations of region. Reichert-Powell (2007) notes that regions are formed not solely around landscape nor informed exclusively by topology, rather “they are ongoing debates and discourses that coalesce around particular geographical spaces” (14). The tendency of regionalism to denude the topology of individual regions, as Reichert-Powell criticises, is seen at work in the “constriction and artificiality” (Maier, 1994, in Lukinbeal, 2005:12) associated with many representations of place on film. Sayles’ self-constructed mock tourism montage provides the audience with a cognitive map of Alaska which acknowledges the ‘constriction’ and ‘artificiality’ of popular imaginings of that region.

The artifice of regional representations of Alaska as a tourist destination are revealed by Sayles when the audience sees native American handicrafts manufactured by migrant labour, salmon fishermen’s catches sent to automated canneries and the logging industry’s clear-cutting sites re-envisioned as ‘Lumberland’: a “turn-of-the-century sawmill with a water-powered generator and a gift shop” according to the character of Albright – himself a re-imagined twentieth century frontier booster. Campbell (2008), in discussing the ‘post-tourist’ experience which Limbo‘s montage can be seen to epitomise, suggests that films such as Sayles’ demonstrate “the potential for contestation and transformation, blending the actual and the virtual” (117). In this ‘blending’ of actual and virtual (or real and reel as I position this dialogism in this study) we can see proof of Lukinbeal’s (2004) suggestion that the terrain of cinema is “Baudrillardian … [it] precedes the cultural territory” (248). Certainly there are elements of simulacra in Albright’s vision for the state of Alaska which follow the deliberately simulacral elements present in the tourist montage. Both segments challenge preconceived ideas of the region of Alaska and do so through disrupting either the ontology of the cinematic form (the reel) or the epistemology of prior, received knowledge of the region (the real).

Therefore, the ontological stability of the audience’s epistemological understanding of the two film forms which they are viewing in conjunction as Limbo begins (a narrative film and a tourism promotion film), are disrupted by this reinsertion of the viewer/tourists “actual local conjunctural situatedness” (Bould, 2009:151) into Sayles’ imagining of Alaska. In adopting this tactic, the director confronts the audience with the “interconnectivity and multiple interpellations” (ibid:11) of the physical and cultural landscape of Alaska: of the real and the reel Alaska. In doing so, Limbo clearly demonstrates its critical regionalist credentials through this montage which “mediat[es] between the fascination with lost, rural, residual” culture and the simultaneous interest in emergent ones” (Campbell, 2008:43).

Jameson (1994, in Bould, 2009) refers to this act of mediation as “neoregionalism” (7), a “form of reterritorialization” (ibid) and a reaction to the eradication of distinctive regions through homogenisation, reduction, standardisation, commodification, atomisation and rationalisation. Sayles, through the juxtaposition of the images and narration in the montage which opens the events of Limbo, highlights the presence of all of these effects of regionalism – the reel aspects of representation and the real aspects of the material reality – in popular conceptions of Alaska. Neither version is dismissed but the possible incompatibility of the reel and the real are highlighted through the heterotopic qualities of both, resulting in a “contradictory, composite place of the real and the imagined of other times and spaces” (Hopkins, 1994:57) (emphasis added).

If, as I have suggested within this analysis, the real and the reel were redrawn as binary opposites alongside their related dialogic counterparts of place and space, an interrogation leading to mediation of these seemingly contradictory concepts can take place in readings of cinematic texts. This is in line with the aims of a critically regionalist approach to culture: to “disrupt … [regionalism’s] oft-discussed, conventional sheltering role and to fold outward, engaging with its own assumptions and defining principles” (Campbell, 2008:44). Limbo exemplifies John Sayles’ own attempts to engage with and mediate between, prior, reductionist and simplified versions of region and new, complex and dynamic reconfigurations of these same regions. Whether this is the region of Alaska as in Limbo, or in the Texas-Mexico border which Lone Star occupies (several critics have begun to explore this, perhaps most-celebrated of Sayles’ films, in what could be interpreted as critically regionalist ways. Cf. Arreola (2005), Etulain (2004), & Nichols (2009)) Sayles’ films focus on liminal territories and landscapes reflect another key element of critical regionalism: the transgression of boundaries. These boundaries may take physical form in national or regional borders or landscapes (the real), or the ideologically-inflected borders of representations of nations, landscapes and regions (the reel). In both cases, the dynamics of culture inside those boundaries must take into account elements from the outside.