Saturday, November 11, 2006

Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan was at Chicago last week. He came to our German class, just sat there listening for an hour. (I didn't say anything remotely smart while he was there, in case you were wondering - but as soon as he left...) He spoke at the Mass Culture Workshop about physical relationships with technology in his work, but really more generally than that. He's done several pieces - films and installations - in which old-fashioned tape recorders play a central role, and he's fascinated with them because the user does have such a physical relationship with the machine, a relationship that's one a wholly different order than the one with a computer, an mp3 player or any other kind of digital technology. Old analogue machinery creates an impression of having some sort of physical manifestation of its processes - you can, to a certain extent, see it working. In other words, Egoyan is incredibly sensitive to the postmodern (which I bring up because I'm finally the tiniest bit confident as to one specific aspect of the most poorly-defined word in the English language), and nostalgic for the modernist. You can see this in his films, which are structured/styled in a manner that's often characterized as "postmodern" and yet place an extra emphasis on physical transit - think of the body hunt in Exotica, the bus crash in The Sweet Hereafter, and all those customs agents that keep reappearing from film to film.
I'm kind of obsessed with the way that space is organized and categorized on screen, and have a vague suspicion about the possible relevance of Manuel Castells's "space of flows," which is, in my own horribly incomplete understanding, similar to Egoyan's conception of digital technology: space that's organized by informational logic rather than physical, geographical logic, and in which physical distance is less a factor than access within the network. My further vague suspicion is that, not only does the cinema have a similar relationship now to postmodernism that it did in the 20s and 30s to modernism, but that the cinema has been one of the central places where we've been working through that transition from modern to post, and that there's something fundamentally postmodern (in that incomplete "space of flows" definition I tried to explain above) about the onscreen organization of space, which would therefore lead one to conclude that the cinema has not only reflected that transition but, in some sense, led the charge.

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