A HAUNTING

Something very strange happened to me last night. I thought of dismissing it, of letting it waste. The incident begs to be dismissed, to be wasted. It’s an embarrassment, an interpretive fart of the first order, only possible in the 21st century.

For this to make sense, I have to provide some background, the psycho-techno setting in which I typically watch movies. We have a Mac Mini hooked up via HDMI to our HDTV. This Mac acts as our media center. This is what we see when we select HDMI 3 on the TV:

Picture 1: Mac Mini media center

If a movie isn’t available to watch instantly on Netflix, then, using Safari, I download the movie’s torrent file from bitsnoop.com and then the movie itself using uTorrent. I also hoard movies, holding on to them for a rainy day. I have Boxee installed on the Mac [second icon from the left, picture 1]; this software provides an obscenely pleasant user interface for browsing and viewing media files, those stored on the computer’s hard-drive, or on external drives:

Picture 2: Boxee’s “My Movies” interface. Essay on digital hoarding forthcoming.

I’m a graduate student. I stay up late. I try to read and write until midnight. After an hour or so of Gmail, Google Reader, etc.—everything else permitting—it’s show time. Last night I decided to watch the movie Clean, Shaven (Kerrigan, 1993). I knew very little going in, couldn’t even remember why I originally downloaded it. Boxee’s inviting description along with the Criterion pedigree and year of release were enough to convince me to give it a go. Plus, it was already 1:30 and the film is only 79 minutes.

Picture 3: Boxee’s description for Clean, Shaven. Disregard the time—that’s just the time of the screen capture.

I begin watching, bummed to discover that the movie looks like this:

Picture 4: An early shot from Clean, Shaven

Notice that black frame. I can’t stand that black frame. My TV offers three different ways of stretching the picture. I choose the option that gets rid of the frame while preserving most of the image. There’s a problem stretching the image, though. Notice the differences between pictures 5 and 6.

Picture 5: Pre-stretch, clear view of Boxee’s navigation menu / timeline, which always appears upon pause.

Picture 6: Post-stretch, notice how little of the navigation bar is now visible upon pause. (This picture is not a screen-capture, but an iPhoto rendering. The Mac’s screen-capture function doesn’t recognize changes made to the TV—it captures what it sees, not what I see.)

I had been in a rut a few months back, a time when I was unwilling to watch anything on the TV that wasn’t HD-quality, that didn’t fill up the right and left edges automatically. But there’s just too much that’s worth watching that’s only available in less-than-ideal formats. I’m willing to compromise if the movie seems worth it.

Clean, Shaven is a strange, difficult film. Every choice the director, Lodge Kerrigan, makes is in the service of occupying the mental state of a severe schizophrenic, the film’s central character, played by Peter Green. There is almost no dialogue in this film. Sounds never match images. Instead, broken, static-y noises play continually, as if we’re stuck in between channels on a radio dial, or listening to a scratched cd that isn’t quite stuck in place. We follow this character as he exits a mental hospital, tapes newspapers to his car’s windows, covers every mirror he sees with tape, stops driving to stare every time he sees a young child—altogether creepy stuff made even creepier by the soundtrack, which carries the sounds of crumpling plastic, white noise, and broken voices, all from God knows where. 20 minutes in and there hasn’t been one scene in which characters converse; 20 minutes without sounds that match images, the images themselves moving in sort-of-slow-motion, like 85% standard speed, most of the shots close-ups of trash; 20 minutes in and no narrative bearings whatsoever.

Doubt creeps in. How in the world did this movie get made? Is Kerrigan really going to keep this up? If so, is this the gutsiest movie I’ve ever seen?

My laptop and I take it outside for a five minute smoke break. I need some metatextual support, something to convince me that others have found this movie as odd and fearless as I’m finding it. This is from Dennis Lim, on the Criterion Collection website:

Lodge Kerrigan’s movies are so often termed “uncompromising” and “unrelenting” that it’s worth pondering what exactly lies behind their steadfast refusal to let up. The salient quality of these spare, intense films is that they deny the viewer the comfort of distance. Kerrigan demolishes the notion that movies are not suited to expressing inner life. He forces you to share skull space with characters most films would never think to look at, let alone so intimately. Getting close, often upsettingly so, to his lost souls and margin dwellers, he is undaunted by their opacity and failing grip on sanity, not to mention unencumbered by social judgments of any sort. In the course of three features, all as steel nerved in execution as they are rigorous in conception, this singular American independent has developed what might be the most literal and harrowing form of empathy in modern movies.

Quite a blurb. I can continue, now that I know what I’m watching is real, that it’s supposed to be like this.

And so I watch. 40 minutes pass and the film splits its narrative attention, following not only Peter, but also, separately, the detective who thinks Peter is responsible for the brutal murder of a little girl—long scenes of the detective tracking Peter, of the detective in Peter’s hotel room after Peter has left, of the detective back in his own hotel room studying the evidence, pouring over old documents, etc.

Surprisingly, disturbingly, the aesthetics of schizophrenia don’t let up during these scenes. Everything is still in a trippy not-quite-slow-motion. Nothing onscreen makes a sound. We hear only white noise and fragments of speech, some of it possibly pertaining to the detective’s search, some of it not. I begin taking notes.

Maybe these scenes of the detective are Peter’s hallucinations, his fantasies of a cop on the chase, fantasies Peter imagines in the same broken way he experiences the world. But there are no harps or fuzzy transitions, no cues that we’re cutting to a fantasy. This is potentially a radical new form of first person cinema, a movie from the point of view of someone who’s mostly somewhere else.

Maybe our access to these scenes implies another narrative presence, an overarching narrator who is also mentally disturbed, or who is somehow infected by Peter’s schizophrenia. Peter’s mental disorder certainly feels contagious from my end. Peter would have every right to be paranoid in this narrative setting, one in which the world itself is schizophrenic, in which this world watches him, if only intermittently.

Am I over-reading?

A clear aim of the film is to aggressively manifest a subjective point of view, and so to maintain the aesthetics of that subjectivity even while the film’s plot shifts into the third person is a strange move indeed, but one that the film’s attention to narration invites me to identify.

This is a narrational experiment I’m not sure I’ve seen in a film before, a strategy that suits this material incredibly well. I identify with Peter because I feel paranoid in this narrative context; everything I see is filtered through a near-omniscient, schizophrenic narration.

I write these sentences as I watch the film, a practice I’m not crazy about, but one in which the customary distractions are eased quite a bit by the film’s slowing motion—the movie is in actual slow-motion now and has been for some time. The disembodied voices aren’t quite as broken as they were before, though the image and sound still don’t connect. I can now make out little coherent bits of speech—“you stay inside all day. It’s not healthy”; “I’ll pay you back. I’ll send the money”; “he was quiet and kind as a child.” The images now correspond to the sounds from several minutes ago; the image is lagging. Sound bridges, some of them leading places, others not. As if the narrator has fragmented again, not just across space, now across time.

Picture 7

It’s 4:30.

How is it 4:30? I started watching this 79-minute movie three hours ago. I’ve only paused to take a fiver outside and one or two quick bathroom breaks.

Something is wrong with this movie.

I change the settings on the TV, reframing the image in order to see the Boxee timeline. Nothing but zeros. Boxee says that I’m at point 00:00:00 in a file that is 00:00:00 long. I tap the fast forward button on the keyboard, a button that is supposed to jump the file ahead by about ten minutes. It takes me to the very end of the movie, past the credits. Notice the timeline, colons separating hours from minutes from seconds:

Picture 8: A timeline, a broken circle.

Obviously, the file is broken. The glitch in the file slows the movie down, and then continues to slow it down for 43 hours. The movie on this file is 43 hours long.

I exit Boxee, and test the file with the trusty VLC media player. Here’s what I see:

Picture 9: VLC’s warning pop-up: “This AVI file is broken. Seeking will not work correctly. Do you want to try to fix it? This might take a long time.”

How could I let this happen? Everything I wrote about the film, everything I thought—just a broken file playing tricks on me. I’m a religious fanatic, finding God everywhere. This is an embarrassment, an indictment of everything that the general population thinks is wrong with literary and film studies. You just take that shit too seriously. You’re reading way too much into it. Your interpretation is a secondary creative work in the guise of philosophy or science. Your head is in the clouds.

Isn’t there something to be gained from this experience? What’s the meaning here?

What insanely stupid questions. The experience is a joke, a humiliation. Making anything more of it is a perpetuation of the problem. Write about it and you dig yourself deeper.

Just a broken file that Boxee is willing to play and VLC isn’t.

Why is this file broken?

The original ripper/seeder must have miscalculated something, or else was infected with a virus. Or maybe he’s brilliant, an artist; maybe this was an intentional act of torrent-textual terrorism, like sneaking a porno scene into a Toy Story file or rewriting the title cards for Birth of a Nation, only way more sophisticated, profound. Maybe it’s only my file that’s broken, or maybe it’s something on my computer that is interacting with the file, something it would take a while to sort out, something very particular to my machine, to my behavior. Maybe this is just a noticeable corruption, a corruption far more common than I thought. Every rip is an appropriation, a rewriting, in which case we have to ask what the difference is between corrupted and co-opted when it’s our condition either way.

What I watched was a very strange movie made way stranger by a technological glitch, a movie co-authored by the glitch, allowed through the gates by bitsnoop.com and by Boxee, an accidental cinema, magnificently schizophrenic.

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