Apr 17, 2015

An Evening with Tom McCarthy

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997)
‘An Evening with Tom McCarthy’ was held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on February 25, 2015. The official website states that it would be a stand alone event, however, programmer Dennis Lim stated during the opening remarks that it would be the first in a potential series of programs in which the Film Society will bring in literary figures, or perhaps in the future, non-film based personalities to program and speak about filmic works. Although I was unfamiliar with Tom McCarthy before the screening he’s proved to be quite an interesting and multidimensional artist. McCarthy is an English writer and artist. He is best known for his novels which are notable for their philosophical and often avant-garde approach. He is also known for his art collective and ‘organization’ which he founded in 1999 called the International Necronautical Society (INS). Their manifesto states that they “intend to map, enter, colonize and, eventually inhabit” death. It is essentially a network of fellow artists, philosophers and writers interested in the notion of death. Their works surface through a variety of mediums including publications, social media, artworks, and live events. Their official website (necronauts.org) displays their manifesto, in addition to, their publications and some information regarding their past events (The Film Society of Lincoln Center, 2015 and McCarthy, 1999).

There were two films screened for the evening, both of which expressed McCarthy’s interests in death, philosophy, the media, and repetition significantly. The main feature was Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) by Belgium filmmaker and multimedia artist Johan Grimonprez.  Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) was digitally projected in Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The 68-minute film uses archival footage from various media outlet’s coverage of plane hijackings. Over the images Grimonprez uses music and passages from Don DeLillo’s Mao II and White Noise to create a dialogue between the writer and the terrorist. This discourse in effect becomes a comment on our image saturated media as “the ultimate hijacker.”

Towers Open Fire (1963)
Preceding Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) was a short film by frequent Beat-Generation collaborator and filmmaker Antony Balch entitled Towers Open Fire (1963). The film was written by William S. Burroughs and is a “collage of chemical and visual hallucinogens” with an incomprehensible audio track of Burroughs’ ruminations. The 10 minute film was projected in 35mm (The Film Society of Lincoln Center, 2015). 

McCarthy chose the films with the cooperation of the Film Society’s Director of Programming, Dennis Lim. Lim’s choice of McCarthy to program this first event in his potential series linking literature and cinema was probably attributed to his clear admiration of McCarthy’s work, which was noticeable in his introduction and Q&A following the screenings. Furthermore, the timing coincided with the completion of his latest novel, Satin Island, released earlier in February. Following the screenings and Q&A, McCarthy took the opportunity to sell a few copies of his book by making himself available for a book signing. 

Lim was appointed Director of Programming in April 2013 and has an extensive background in film, as well as film programming. Originally working as a journalist, he has written for New York Times, Art Forum and Cinema Scope— among others. He was the Film Editor for The Village Voice from 2000 to 2006 and also the founding editor of MoMI’s Moving Image Source. He served as Programmer of the 2010 Flaherty Film Seminar and also served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival from 2009 to 2011 (Brooks, 2013). His passion for film and writing is quite obvious when looking at his professional background. Therefore it was only natural that he chose to program a series based on literature and cinema.    

While McCarthy and Lim curated the program itself, it is impossible to look at the films individually without applying a sense of curatorship to both the filmmakers. While Balch’s film uses his own filmed images to create a “hallucinogenic collage,” it touches on both the themes McCarthy and Grimonprez are trying to convey— a complete “disorientation of the senses” (Gallagher, 2010). McCarthy and Grimonprez take this idea and apply it to society’s relationship with the media essentially stating that the media has ‘disoriented our senses’ to the point that they have hijacked our minds, fears, desires and lifestyles. These are the prominent themes in McCarthy’s writings in which the individual is kept in a sort of stand still or loop which has been imposed primarily by the media— leaving his characters often looking for a “truth.” There is no doubt that McCarthy was influenced by Grimonprez’s work. He states he probably saw Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) before the publication of his first book, Remainder (Provan, 2009). The two actually met at a screening of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) in 1998 and have been friends and frequent collaborators ever since. 

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) is a work of curatorship in its own right. Grimonprez stated during the Q&A that the idea for the film originally came from saying goodbye in airports. During the time he was working on the film, he was living in New York and his daughter was back in Belgium. Therefore he was often traveling back and forth, spending time in airplanes and saying goodbye in airports. He began searching for archival footage containing images of airports and airplanes which led him to an extreme ‘saying goodbye’— not only saying goodbye to loved ones, but also saying goodbye to life, the ultimate goodbye of death, in the context of airplane hijackings and media coverage. Grimonprez’s work becomes a multimedia project. While the center of his project is the found archival news footage, it is his use of music, titles, and narrated passages that completely recontextualizes the footage. He uses popular songs, for example Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” over violent images of planes crashing and titles that read “Insert commercial break here,” or “Then in 1986, terrorism peaks: 25 US dead from terrorism, 12,000 more die from slipping... in bathtubs.” His use of irony brings a comedic effect, at times but the film ultimately becomes incredibly poetic because of the strings of passages read to us from DeLillo's Mao II (1991) and White Noise (1985). The passages are often deeply philosophical, questioning and comparing the novelist to the high-jacker. Mao II, one of Grimonprez’s main influences, is a novel about a writer who has secluded himself from the world in order to write something ‘pure,’ yet again bringing us back to the themes of ‘truth’ (Winkleman Gallery, 2010). Here, Grimonprez curates a work that ultimately challenges the spectator to rethink their relationship to the media. What is ‘truth’ if Grimonprez is saying the media is not?     

This very argument that Grimonprez formed within Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) is what constitutes McCarthy’s choice in programming. In relation to his novels, McCarthy has chosen a series of works that “disorient the senses” with a bombardment of images and forcing the spectator to recontexutlize the images they are seeing on the screen. For Dennis Lim, however, the thought-process and argument in programming for this event was a bit different. During his intro, he mentioned the possibility of working on a series which connects cinema with other arts. Therefore, Lim’s argument is centered on the importance and possibility of bridging cinematic works with other mediums, in this case literary. During the Q&A McCarthy spoke of his cinematic influences. In-fact, in his break through novel, Remainder, his protagonist likens his experience of watching Scorsese’s Mean Streets to his memories of a traumatizing accident. The way the images flow and the distance he feels towards them parallel the character’s feelings and memories towards the accident (Hubert, 2015). As McCarthy was explaining this he invited a special guest to join him during the Q&A and it was non other than Johan Grimonprez. During the Q&A, as I mentioned earlier, Grimonprez explained his influences and thought process behind his film. The Q&A not only gave the audience the perspective of the writer, but also brought the filmmaker in to become part of the conversation— fully bridging Lim’s wish to link cinema and literature. 

The resources made available to the audience to enhance the viewing of the films during the event itself were the introductions by both Lim and McCarthy. McCarthy then introduced the two films as both influences and in-tandem with his current work. The post-screening Q&A lasted about twenty-minutes, the first half consisting of questions from the moderator, Lim and the second half being audience questions. The Q&A not only allowed the audience to become part of the conversation, but it brought quite a few surprises. McCarthy presented a short collaborative work made for the release of McCarthy’s new novel Satin Island. The three-minute film features archival footage Grimonprez pieced together, again from archival footage, and a passage from Satin Island—  a sort of trailer for his new novel.

The only other accompanying information for the program was their event page on the Film Society website which gave a brief description of McCarthy’s previous works along with a blurb he wrote concerning the films and synopsis of both films.

Lim and McCarthy received quite a good turn out to the event. The 140-seat Francesca Beale Theatre, while not sold-out was almost full. The majority seemed to be college and graduate students or young professionals. I assume much of the audience were fans and readers of Tom McCarthy as the majority of the Q&A questions from the audience were directed towards McCarthy, despite the filmmaker being present. As I mentioned earlier, I myself was unaware of McCarthy’s novels, rather, it was the topic of the media which drew me to the screening.

Lim stated during his introduction that he and McCarthy had come to an agreement on these films collaboratively. I assume the choosing of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) was a no-brainer considering McCarthy and Grimonprez collaborate often. The choice that there was more deliberation on between Lim and McCarthy would have been Towers Open Fire (1963). The choice works however, for various reasons. The use of collage and montage point towards this bombardment of images and the term “disorientation of the senses,” which is the theme that McCarthy is interested in portraying. He also mentioned that Burroughs was a great inspiration and influence. For Lim it works because this is a film created in part by a writer— in-fact, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Burroughs wrote and read the muffled thoughts we hear over the images and is also in the film— once again the bridge between cinema and literature is formed. 

Q&A with McCarthy, Grimonprez & Lim
If this proposed series continues, it would be interesting to see if Lim chooses other arts besides literature to link with cinema. Likewise what other forms the programming will take, while he was able to make a very explicit connection between literature and cinema, it also became a program very much about McCarthy’s interests. Lim was able to find a writer that was very much indebted to the cinema as a central influence. Perhaps, the easier route for Lim would have been to have chosen a writer whose work had been adapted for the big screen. This is usually the most common way to piece cinema and literature together, however, Lim chose a much more challenging or alternative approach and it worked. One can only hope that if the series continues the other programs will find a way to come together this naturally and gracefully.  

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