Materials for an Immature Film Aesthetics

on Black Sheep’s “Alone/Together” (2019)

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alonetogether

 

Alone/Together places its cards less on the romance between Raf (Enrique Gil) and Tin (Liza Soberano), but on its own conception of what it means to be mature. This exploration of the concept of maturity was deployed in form as if it’s trying something new with very few plot-points that the film have. The film relies a lot with its narrative expositions told in a non-linear manner which intends to make whatever resolution less predictable. But what seemingly a novel attempt on narrative film was exacerbated by its own choices in film-form.

Essentially, the film only follows Tin: the one who is the most exposed in the film. Tin is an art studies graduate from a State University who works part-time as a guide at the National Museum where she get to know Raf, a medicine major from another university. There’s very little distance in the running time between this encounter and the exposition of the conflict. Their romantic relationship was only placed as a prologue to the main narrative, which happens 5 years later from this plot point.

Tin’s character embodies all the supposed expectations from and stereotypes of the graduates of the State University – that is, in the logic of the film, naïve idealists with high expectations of themselves. It is from this angle that the film tries to extract the conflict of her story: Tin got involved in a corruption case in the organization she was working on just after graduating. The condemnation from her colleagues became the source of her loss of confidence which made her quit her relationship with Raf. The event also became the catalyst for her to supposedly mature. The present narrative involves trying to patch up their relationship behind their respective current partner’s back.

As mentioned earlier, the story I retold above was expressed in the film in a non-linear manner. But the film seems to be concerned with other things than the story. At some point, it tries to call attention to its non-linearity itself (among other things that it tries to call attention to). It should have been a good opportunity for “experimentation,” but not in the case of Alone/Together. Its choice of storytelling technique is not unconventional: this choice has a history which makes it more of a corporate tradition than a challenge to conventions. Black Sheep’s film from last year, Exes Baggage, despite not having any substantial aesthetic or narrative ambitions, plays with the same non-linear narrative perhaps more successfully than Alone/Together.

From this point, Alone/Together looks like an uninterested attempt to recreate Exes Baggage’s form. Uninterested in the sense that it does the non-linear track of storytelling more as a chore – despite calling attention to it – that its intended unpredictability and complexity crumbles. This results for the film’s most important scenes to perform tautologically. Take, for example, Tin and Raf’s first secret date after meeting again at an award ceremony. Before going at the designated place where they are supposed to meet, a flash back of the confrontation between the foundation officials and Tin over the corruption case and her break up with Raf was shown. Back to the present, as Raf arrives and sits beside her, then Tin mouthed off everything that’s happened to her life. It is as if the film cannot even trust its own flashbacks that it needs Tin to repeat the scenes in her lines.

Of course, Raf needs some context. And what happened to Tin is the context he needs. However, Alone/Together is not really interested on making itself interesting. Its choice of cinematic form to expose this very crucial event is very straightforward, but not to the film’s benefit. It’s doing what it should be doing, again, as a chore: and like most chores, it was done with a sense of boredom.

Perhaps, Alone/Together’s boredom of its own task as a film – that is, to make its own cinematic techniques as sensually pleasing as possible – is the very attitude its supposed conflict between youthful idealism and “matured realism” has reached.  It’s a narrative of setbacks and what-ifs. And these what-ifs are trapped at a time in the past that the film is trying hard to get back to. From this set up, you can also get this sense of immaturity in the film’s aesthetic decisions. Despite having a veteran cinematographer like Neil Daza or acclaimed sound designer Michael Idioma on board, the film still looks and sounds as if it was done as an end-of-term class project. Something that you can get, for example, from that scene of the couples’ breakup where it was shot still and flat with a three-camera setup. The frame looks small for every action that it became less dramatic than it is awkward. Not unsettling, just plain awkward.

(Note: In the defense of class projects, I’m not saying that they are bad in general, but what I’m noting here is that the quality of work done in Alone/Together is not at par with what one would expect in an industrially produced work. Take the handling of the scenes in Exes Baggage for example, which I think, was done in similar, if not, smaller production scale than this film, but has produced more impressive results, at least in mise en scene. If you try to get a look at the specific scene I mentioned above, it’s not even a “subversive” or “poetic” take, it just looks as if it was done lazily which produced its awkwardness. Whether or not this retrogression of quality in industrial film production scale is a symptom of something is of another issue.)

If the film was done intelligent enough to be self-conscious of its “immaturity”, editing should have followed through and intentionally “missed” at some point. But the film’s editing seem to be the only one which at least had some consideration to be “mature” with its commitment to non-linear storytelling. This is where the form reached its penultimate conflict which it never gets to resolve: the uncompromising editing was done with heavily mishandled frames and sounds.

And then, there’s the narrative content. The non-linear storytelling, in practice, demands multiple complicated plots, which most of the time comes from multiple sources. Alone/Together, unfortunately, only had a unilateral source of plot which makes its choice of storytelling (that is to say, the film itself) ineffective in its delivery. This unilaterality, of course, points to Tin as the sole bearer of truth and the supposed subject of audience empathy. However, the film exerts very little effort to justify this choice. The film, like Tin, seem to lack the courage to commit to its own stand. In the end, during the confrontation between Raf and Tin in one of the last scenes which was set in New York, the two presents their own case on why one is either a coward or brave. They never really even tried to resolve this. After all there really isn’t any contradiction. Raf’s notion of cowardice (that Tin never really tried to do the right thing when the situation arose) and Tin’s notion of courage (that is, the courage to admit her own cowardice) are on the same side of the coin. The film is just too coward to admit that it is.

This cowardice, after all, is also its exercise in boredom. Arguing and proving a point is tiring, like most struggles. While it is just to empathize with what Tin went through, the film’s careless handling of the material, which never commit to any kind of resolution whether in form or content, makes it hard to even take Tin’s case seriously. Of course, except with the non-linear storytelling, which again, never really helped to give any kind of justice to Tin’s case. It is not because Tin’s case isn’t a grave matter, but the film’s choice of form do not seem to take its own material seriously.

These attempts for novelty, exacerbated by its formal cowardice, boredom and inattentiveness, gave way to the film narrative’s own retrogression. The conclusion Alone/Together set for itself brings Tin into a certain limbo of trying to regain one’s self without any form of salvation. She is, after all, admittedly a coward to even regain even her own innocence. She proceeded bearing the unnecessary guilt which became her own oedipal trap: that is, an entrapment in victimization and its reproduction. Since the film do not really take Tin’s salvage seriously, at the very least, as a piece of tokenism, you may want focus on the other things it would like to present. The idealized culture of the State University being featured, its “progressive” instructors with their “subversive” lectures, the flash protests, the festivities, and the sceneries which the film so eagerly want to sell more than it tries to make sense of itself.

Overhauling Identity (part 0)

I’ve been going back and forth to this problem of identity. At first, there seem to be a real issue concerning this problem: that indeed, there are unrests seemingly caused by conflicts brought about by differences on this category of identity. Francis Fukuyama himself, on his latest book, framed contemporary political and economic problems in light of identity politics, as if playing with it several years belated than his liberal colleagues. This isn’t to say that Fukuyama has forgotten class conflict, although he still abide by his belief that these conflicts are caused by certain search of an inner entity, an “inner sense of dignity [which] seeks recognition,” which makes his claims less intelligible than it is readable.

In recent times, some people from the left are taking into consideration whether to abandon identity politics as it has become a means for liberal opportunism. Identity politics, it is said in an article from In the Defense of Marxism, has “allowed a convenient way to deserting the class struggle and abandoning socialism, whilst continuing to pay lip service to “progressive causes”. “ Fukuyama has noted this shift from the left around the 70s to identity politics, but never really noted about this destructive implication within the left itself (of course, he’s never really concerned about it).

The case between American/Liberal-“left” discourse of intersectional identity politics and Fukuyama’s view of inner sense of dignity are two sides of the same coin: that is, both of a view of a certain fixity in the category of identity. A lot is at stake here: there are legitimate concerns of marginalized sectors and ethnic communities of socio-economic neglect from the state, ongoing repression of othered genders, disputes over national territories. But, if one is to inquire into the matter, it seems to be unreasonable that neglect, repression and disputes are caused by this sense of othering. Some would probably see it that way: that it is indeed unreasonable.

But no one seems to interrogate to the essence of this unreasonability itself. Critique of discrimination based on identity tend to become weak precisely because of this dismissal of discriminatory attitude as merely unreasonable or “incompatible” with the times (“it’s already 2019 and you’re still thinking that way”) become itself a mere reflection of the same dismissive attitude of conservatives. These critique most of the time come from affective response and emotional reactions, which, by themselves, left unchecked self-consciously, tend to become unreasonable too. No one seem to look into the very essence of this perceived unreasonability which stem from either a defense or dismissal of identity politics.

Postcolonial and cultural theory, extending their object of studies to gender, race, ethnicity and nationality, has been tools used throughout the years to try to make sense of these phenomena. Their general thesis is that these came mostly as a result of power relations generated by the history of colonization and patriarchal rule. While this may prove to shed some light over the matter of identity problem, contemporary appropriators of postcolonial and cultural theory tend to mythicize this notion of power relations only to generate an unreasonable discriminatory attitude towards anyone who can be associated with their “reactionary enemies.” Which, again, fall victim to the same kind of attitude and method as their supposed enemies.

This recoil towards the flip side of conservativism, the reactionary and irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance, creates a feedback loop to the same process. Liberal intersectionalism — this unproblematic embracing of identity as a fixed category and hence, requiring tolerance – recently being catered too by a lot of young leftists from the urban centers, also opens itself to the tolerance of neoliberal capitalist logic: they too, are a target market. As these theories and methods do not by itself think of a way out due to their fixation to the fixity identity, it also fail to provide an actual alternative to the situation which drive them to critique in the first place.

To follow through the outline of the problem, this series of essays will try to find a way to overhaul this general notion of identity. I argue in this essay, and for the essays to come, not a dismissal of identity or identity politics, but a reconfiguration of identity and identity politics towards a more reasonable understanding of itself. This set of essays will quite obviously borrow from the functionalist method used by Reza Negarestani in his book, Intelligence and Spirit, wherein he referred to the “essence” or “spirit” of things (geist) and concepts not as a metaphysical entity, but the way things work. We’re looking at identity and identity politics on their supposed and ideal function for us to get a general understanding of how it should be, and for us to recognize what it ought to be, and what can we do to reconfigure it. The search for the geist will then be recaptured back to Mao Tse-tung thought, where we’re making sense of these functions in the light of social practices, and that the development and progress of these functions can only happen through active struggle. And these practices, for Mao, do not just involve participation in economic production, but everything which can be deemed as sensibly productive activities and struggles, which, for Negarestani, are necessarily public or deprivatized for them to be considered as part of general intelligence and intelligibilities.

For this goal of understanding identity, on the next iteration of this series, we’re starting with what’s been assumed already by some skeptics of thinking: that identity is a construct, but were looking at it in a materialist way. Identity, being a construction, is necessarily a product of history, and by being a product of history, is also a subject of either retention or revision. As a category, identity has its own set of criterion of which it identifies itself. These set of criterion changes as the condition which enabled the production those set of criterion change. The criteria and changes of identity can be traced through the changes also of the social practices which in the first place contain the site, materials and methods to which identities are constructed.

Once we have established the materials necessary to produce an identity, the next set of essays will focus on the problems generated by the construction of identities. It is on these parts that we’re going to engage with the perceived “unreasonability” of discrimination, to make sense of these unreasonabilities, and to provide a more rational insight on the real implications and violence resulting from these unreasonabilities. In a way, the critique of discrimination will undergo a process of negation via criticism-self-criticism, which will force it to face these so-called unreasonabilities to make them reasonable. The reason for this is to provide this critique its correct weapon to address identity discrimination without falling into the same rules of what it tries to critique.

The last part will look into the liberal solution for identity discrimination: the irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance. This critique aims to expose how liberal intersectionality and tolerance do not lead toward any actual unity, but rather, it settles for tolerating unrest also without any suggestion of struggle. This irresponsibility stem from its own aim for stasis: that tolerance makes way for a smooth flow of capitalist desires. As liberal openness and tolerance forgoes the value of struggle, it also hampers the capability of man to reconfigure himself and his history, as what is actually being promoted with openness and tolerance is also an openness and tolerance to the current, that any sort of futuristic imagination – of leaving out dominating and marginalized identities of the current into the dustbin of history for actual progress of humanity; any sort of progressive and constructive activity outside the framework of the present – has become a threat.

To overhaul identity is to reconfigure the understanding of ourselves from the multiple facet of stasis to a unifying march towards history. It is only through this overhaul that actual diversity – the autonomous uprising of polyphony – can happen. That it is possible, because we’re beginning to acknowledge the non-fixity of this category: the acknowledgement of identity as synthetic. And with this acknowledgement, we were now able to control it, and change it in any way we see fit for our benefit.