Monday, August 4, 2008

krapp's last tape, by atom egoyan | LOL by joe swanberg

[Some of the later pictures in this post are marginally NSFW, scroll with caution.]

Over the past few weeks Film Club has watched two films that deal with the relationship between human beings and their technologies of communication, recording, and archiving.

First up was Atom Egoyan's memorable adaptation of Krapp's Last Tape, Samuel Beckett's meditation on old age. (It's available on the third disc of the Beckett on Film set.)

In this play, the main character, Krapp, spends his days in a dwelling which (at least in this particular production of the play) is crammed to the gills with journals, notes, and files.

He's an old man, and he appears to be going at least partially mad from extended isolation. There are no other characters in the play (or the film), it's just Krapp and us.

As it turns out, Krapp has been something of an obsessive self-documenter for much of his life, and he has spent many years keeping a sort of audio journal. The central dramatic event of the film is simply Krapp selecting a spool of audiotape out of his archive and listening back through it.

If you've ever kept a journal (or audio journal, or blog), and then revisited it years later, you know that this is not an activity that comes without its fair share of emotional risk. It has the capacity to summon up fond memories, yes, but it also has the capacity to summon up regrets, remorse, feelings of loss, irrational contempt towards one's younger self, etc. In short, it can be the stuff of drama. John Hurt does a fantastic job embodying the complexities and subtleties of Krapp's reactions:

The play's most clever conceit is its doubling of this entire dramatic mechanism: the tape that Krapp selects to listen to is one from his late-thirties, but the tape was made on an evening when Krapp had engaged in the activity of listening to an even earlier tape, one from his mid-twenties. Krapp at thirty-nine listens to himself at twenty-five and thinks "God, listen to that arrogant, self-important, foolish young man. Look at the mistakes he was making, and he didn't even know it." Krapp at sixty-nine listens to himself at thirty-nine and thinks the same thing. One gets the sense that there's never a point in life at which one can speak in a way that one's future, hopefully wiser self will respect.

So, in Beckett's universe, the pleasures of one's life—being grounded in the present—tend to deliquesce, whereas one's regrets and remorse—being grounded in the past—tend to persist. Therefore, there can be no comfort in the archive: attempting to experience a pleasure via its documentation only helps to remind us of its loss. This is the stuff of real terror.

* * *

To get the idea of our follow-up, LOL, you could almost think of it as "Li'l Krapps." Where Krapp is about an old man looking back on recordings of his life and lamenting what an arrogant, self-important, foolish young man he once was, and the mistakes he once made, then LOL is about a group of arrogant, self-important, foolish young men, making recordings of their life and making mistakes, but still young enough not to have had the experience of looking back on this with regret.

The other big difference between LOL (made in 2006) and Krapp (originally written in 1959), of course, is the increased ubiquity of recording, archiving, and communications technology. I'm a little surprised that Facebook people seem to dislike this film quite as much as they do (it's only pulling in a pretty low 2 1/2 stars at Flixter's "Movies" application), for it seems like it's made by and for them. (The weak characterization of the female characters might have something to do with it, I guess.) But still, I'm pleased to see a film that acknowledges the existence of a behavior as contemporary as taking a picture of one's own haircut with a cell phone:

And I'm always pleased when people in movies use actual browsers instead of some phony movie-world browser:

As you might have guessed from that preceding screenshot, one concern that LOL shares with Krapp's Last Tape is the mediation of pleasure, although in LOL this is specifically located around the erotic electronic image, either pornography located on the Internet:

...or the amateur image transmitted between members of a relationship as an expression of erotic connection:

...or even the (ever-growing) areas where these two categories become indistinguishable from one another:

Whether this sort of image-transmission constitutes interpersonal connection is one of the more genuine areas of concern in this film. As for whether the surplus mass of electronic documentation we generate these days will, forty years down the road, constitute something we can paw through to generate the kind of reflections that characterize Krapp's Last Tape remains to be seen.

Despite the fact that I'm now in MA, and my Film Club collaborator Skunkcabbage remains in Chicago, we're going to try to keep the Film Club going. Our next film will stick with this "mediation" theme, although see how it gets interpreted by the world of horror: we'll be moving on to George Romero's latest, Diary of the Dead (2008).

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