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Film Essays

Introduction: Infinite Loop

[This is the first entry in a series exploring themes in Jean Baudrillard’s America and how they relate to film. All text in quotes or italicized is from America unless otherwise noted.]

“The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the timelessness of film…”

Film, it can be argued, is the only true American art form, articulated by the very title of one of the earliest American films Birth of a Nation, a radical example of America’s forgetfulness and rewriting of its own history through the visual rhetoric of heroism and villainous-ness. America is born in film. The archetypal American hero John Wayne gave birth to contemporary ideals of American expansion. Is it any surprise that one of America’s most polemic presidents, Ronald Reagan, was a film star? Despite whatever advancements other countries may make in the medium—French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, Chinese Kung Fu, German Porn—movies are always defined by, and even referred to as, Hollywood. Movies are American and America is movies. What does this mean?

In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic. The break between the two, the abstraction we deplore, does not exist: life is cinema.

One way to examine the relationship between America and film is by using the works of Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is best known for his ideas of simulation and simulacra. I am, however, going to eschew the theoretical framework of simulation, and rather look at the travelogue America. In the mid 1980’s, Baudrillard traveled across America and wrote both his observations and opinions on our country. Despite being almost a quarter century old, America is still relevant to our culture, in fact, it seems even more so now than ever—one has to wonder what Baudrillard, who wrote a section on Reagan’s smile, would think of George Bush’s cowboy presidency or Sarah Palin’s winks. The America that Baudrillard depicts is one that we are familiar with—the joggers jogging, the eaters eating, the loners’ loneliness—but are blind to because we are completely immersed in it.

To Baudrillard, America is a desert, seemingly devoid of culture. Baudrillard even goes so far as to say that America is the last remaining primitive culture; however, he posits that, despite the barrenness that the desert implies, “the desert only appears uncultivated.”

I went in search of astral America, not social and cultural America… I looked for it in the speed of the screenplay, in the indifferent reflex of television, in the films of days and nights projected across an empty space, in the marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts on the road…

America’s visual culture is its desert landscape: vast, limitless and empty. It’s Baudrillard’s emphasis on our endless succession of the celluloid that intrigued me. How does film shape and define American culture? I decided to use three films based on a rather loose set of criteria: the setting is a desert setting, traveling by car on the highway is prominent in the story, and they have a certain “American-ness,” which is a very subjective criterion indeed.

Juliette Lewis as Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers

Julliette Lewis as Mallory Knos in Natural Born Killers

The three films that I will examine using the Baudrillardian lens are Natural Born Killers, Fargo, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. A disparate trilogy, chosen for their desert setting (anyone who has survived a winter there knows that snow-covered Minnesota is a desert) and their general “American-ness,” an aesthetic that just screams new world. This series will be continued in four more installments: the collapse of metaphor and reality in Natural Born Killers, the American smile in Fargo, anorexic culture in Romy and Michelle, and finally a piece to tie the three films together in a greater context. Sit back and enjoy: Objects in the Mirror May be Closer than They Appear

Car driving through snow in Fargo

Car driving through snow in Fargo

Continue in this series with the next article on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

[Citations, for those who want them:
-Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. 2nd ed. New York: Verso, 2010.
-If you want specific page numbers, please e-mail us at: VideoWordMadeFleshEditor@gmail.com
Make the e-mail ATTN: Theo – Baudrillard Quotes]

By Theo Estes 4/10/11

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A Touch of Humanity: How WALL-E Taught Us to Be Human
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Sadism and Indifference: Pasolini’s Salò

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