Notebook: An Evening with Tom McCarthy
Midway through Don DeLillo’s Mao II, a neurotic writer poses a question with no easy answer: “There's the life and there’s the consumer event. Everything around us tends to channel our lives toward some final reality in print or on film. Two lovers quarrel in the back of a taxi and a question becomes implicit in the event. Who will write the book and who will play the lovers in the movie? Everything seeks its own heightened version.”
The problem of “the book,” encompassing news, entertainment, and, in the end, reality—not just who gets to write it, but how humans should live their lives knowing that it’s being written—came up repeatedly at “An Evening with Tom McCarthy” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Wednesday. McCarthy, the English author of Remainder, Men in Space, and C, is no stranger to themes of paranoia and mediation, and his fourth novel, Satin Island, was published by Knopf this month. For the event, he had chosen two films to screen: Antony Balch and William S. Burroughs’s 1963 short Towers Open Fire, and Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Johan Grimonprez’s 1997 essay film on airplane hijacking. After the discussion with McCarthy, a surprise guest—“It’s not William Burroughs,” McCarthy quipped—jumped onto the stage: Grimonprez himself, answering more questions and introducing the evening’s third and shortest selection, an outtake from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y accompanied by a meditative voiceover excerpt from Satin Island.
McCarthy, an energetic, articulate speaker, draws on an intimidatingly large reservoir of knowledge: as the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Director of Programming Dennis Lim put it, he “bridges the worlds of literature, thought, and cinema.” The protagonist of Satin Island, a trained anthropologist working for a nameless company, fantasizes about using his academic training to fight big business from within. “The most obvious point of contact between these films and my book is the way these movies repurpose anthropology,” McCarthy said. “Both Burroughs and Grimonprez studied anthropology, and like so many anthropologists in the second half of the 20th century, they used the classical anthropology of a ‘primitive’ culture and turned that lens onto the developed world and systems of technology underwritten by capitalism. These movies show a fascination not only with how this system of technological capitalism is maintained, but also how it might be undermined.”
Towers Open Fire
Towers Open Fire begins with a blindingly white clear frame. Almost immediately, this literal whiteness cuts to face of the “renegade son,” who’s being forced to endure the bigoted, Fascist whiteness of his father, the raspy-voiced president of “the Board” (played by Burroughs himself). “Burroughs dramatizes the notion of a world presided over by what he calls ‘the Board Books,’ the master codices,” McCarthy said, “which the Board, by keeping them in its possession, uses for control.” The president's son engages in heroin use, aimless wandering, and vandalism—deviant behavior in the eyes of the powers that be, but creative destruction to Burroughs and Balch.
But even if fiction is a tool of subjugation in the surreal world of Towers Open Fire, Burroughs never denies his viewers the aesthetic pleasures of stylized storytelling: flashing lights, dizzying camera movements, and stunning musical juxtapositions. Above all, he uses the “cut-up” technique, “jumping around all over the place, associating one thing with another,” as an alternative to bureaucratic proceduralism. “Reality is just a script,” said McCarthy, “and Burroughs just wants to cut it, bring the whole system crashing down.” If the Board uses conventional storytelling to stay in power, then Burroughs will have to tell a different kind of story.
Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y takes place in the same media-saturated world as Towers Open Fire, but one in which the establishment has poached the revolution’s best tricks. Studying five decades of hijackers from around the world, Grimonprez is as interested in the media’s depictions of criminal behavior as he is in the hijackers themselves. As Lim noted, the film uncannily anticipates YouTube, and its use of montage, comparable to Burroughs’s cut-up techniques, finds an all-too ready analogue in the juxtapositions of daily media consumption. Grisly close-ups of a hijacker’s bullet wounds morph into McDonald’s ads; murky puddles of blood segue elegantly into mop infomercials.
The fine line between working for and against the system haunts both Grimonprez and McCarthy. “I’ve got a cousin,” McCarthy said, “he’s got a double major in philosophy and literature, and he’s feeding left-wing theory—Adorno, Deleuze, Badiou—back into clothing manufacturers and government think tanks. He doesn’t say it’s Badiou or Deleuze, but it is.” With radicalism looking more and more like the establishment, it is Grimonprez’s unsettling thesis that terrorism and hijacking have largely taken the place of avant-garde art. He shows us armed men in Korea, in Vienna, and in the United States: herding hostages in and out of planes, shouting at pilots, and, eerily but unmistakably, performing for the camera, trying to control how their own books are written.
“This is what Burroughs’s revolutionary avatar is doing,” McCarthy said, “and it’s what Grimonprez’s terrorists, and in fact what Grimonprez himself is doing: taking existing media, cutting it up, and repurposing it. The Situationists called this détournement.”
The vagaries of translation added one final twist in the protean relationship between art and life, McCarthy explained.
“By chance I found out, when I watched the film with French subtitles, that [détournement] is actually the French term for airline hijacking.”