The Song Remains the Same
Daniel Cockburn on Minima Moralia
I believe in spoilers. That is to say: I believe that these premature revelations of experience exist, and are to be avoided when writing about movies (giving due warning is a fair manner of avoidance). There is an intended order to my experience of watching a film, and if this experience is meted out in the wrong order, it will be spoiled. And, as my experience is a part of me, a part of me will be spoiled.
To be sure, not every link in every experience-chain is off descriptive limits. Were that the case, we couldn’t talk about individual movies at all. It’s only particular moments that should be protected. Secret, private ones. Vulnerable ones. Moments that shouldn’t be touched or felt, shown or seen. Not before you’re/I’m/we’re ready. And I’m not just talking about the final home-run achievement of a twist ending. It’s more a matter of certain moments having weight, certain links in the chain being ideally best lived before other ones.
All this to say: I believe in a reasonable level of sensitivity to the potential experience of others. And, as a writer, I believe in a judicious give-and-take wherein, if I am to subtract from your potential experience by preemptively describing it to you, I must in good faith attempt to add to your current experience something of equal or greater value.
And all that to say: all this in mind, I still have no idea how to write with a spoiler-free conscience about Robert Lee’s Minima Moralia. It’s not a matter of trying not to give away what happens. Because for the most part, I’m not sure that this feature-length video work from 2005 is about “what happens in it,” not at least in the sense of story or event as movies generally give it to us. It’s something trickier, thornier, a problem more about the movie’s DNA than what it wants to “tell us.”
Movies’ secrets and privacies are typically event-based. The things that happen in the movie’s world are the containers of revelation, but the stuff of that world, the material of the movie, is rarely in question, thus rarely spoilable. To say “The father is killed in the film’s second act” is a potential spoiler. To say, “The film is shot in color and contains music”? Much less so.
I’m avoiding describing Minima Moralia because the stuff it’s made of is at least as much a part of its melancholic, cognitive-labyrinth effect as what happens in it.
And if it seems that I’m being overly precious about this, it’s because Minima Moralia was—and is—such a seminal, ground-shifting experience for me that I don’t want to destroy that potential for anybody else.
As if you could avoid the mistakes of the past by doing and saying nothing you ever did or said before.
Like an old man who keeps telling the same bad mother-in-law jokes.
Or like the representation of travel in old cartoons, where the same building passes by over and over again
in the background to create the illusion of movement.
Here’s what I knew going in to the world premiere of Minima Moralia at the 2005 Images Festival:
“There is something… traumatic about the destruction (disappearance or loss) of works of art that have, presumably, posterity as a distinguishing feature. Lee pulled his videos from institutional distribution and then slowly tapered personal distribution. … Eventually, so as to not have to deal with requests (that is, to not have to refuse them) Lee simply became uncontactable. If pressed on the matter, he would say that the video work no longer existed, or that it was unfinished and could not be exhibited in an unfinished state.”
—Steve Reinke, “Four Essays on the Occasion of the Robert Lee Spotlight,” Images Festival catalogue 2005
The story goes, in 2005 curator Milada Kovacova offered Lee an Images Festival retrospective of the short video works he had years earlier erased from potential public view. He accepted—contravening his local persona as the great refuser—but on the condition that he could re-edit his entire body of work. The resulting 85-minute single video piece was Minima Moralia.
This is what I can tell you about it, about what it’s made of.
1. Image Quality
It’s in black-and-white video. Resolution is low. Pixels are large.
2. Image Content
Some of the images are appropriated from feature films, music videos, etc.; some of the images are Robert Lee originals. But, as they are all crushed down to the same low-resolution black-and-white, and the appropriated footage has had any iconic images or famous faces edited out, it’s very hard to tell which shots are Lee’s and which are Hollywood’s.
There is music, often, and it’s mostly (maybe all) by Tindersticks. A few instrumentals deployed and re-deployed. You get very familiar with these tunes by the end.
There is voiceover. It comes in without warning, usually just to drop an aphorism or a one-liner (a few of which I reproduce in italics here) and disappear back into silence.
I used to hate voiceovers until I realized that most people are more likely to talk to themselves
than to other people.
These elements are arranged in sections with onscreen titles, which give the impression that what you’re watching is a series of short videos . . . but certain shots, lines, and tunes keep reappearing, being reused. It starts to feel like you’re watching the same short video over and over, but it somehow has mutated each time. Minima Moralia gives such a primacy to rewarding and thwarting your anticipation of these repetitions that the movie comes across as a world whose laws’ primary function seems to be to set you in motion grappling with the understanding of those laws. Thus:
5. The Viewer
Sure, it’s probably true of every film that its ingredients include the viewer, in some vague fashion. But never have I felt with a movie as I felt with Minima Moralia that my short-term memory was literally the raw material of which the movie was made.
I had a dream where the good parts of my life had been edited out and the bad parts
were cut together to last forever.
There’s a stretch of highway in Ontario, between Tweed (where I grew up) and Belleville (where I went to high school). I’ve driven that highway thousands of times, and while every stretch of it is burned into my visual memory, I somehow never committed it to memory as a sequence. Even now, driving this road, at every moment I look out the windshield and think, yes, I recognize this . . . and I wonder what’s around the corner. Then I round the corner and think the same thing. It’s an uncanny highway for me, and if I pay attention to the experience, it’s both unsettling and fascinating. Granted, this probably says more about me than it does about that stretch of road (though what exactly it says about me I wouldn’t mind knowing), but I bring it up because I found Minima Moralia to be an engine for producing this same feeling, but in a structure of creepy, funny sadness not typically found in Ontario roadways.
In Vertigo, Kim Novak plays a double and is seen jumping to her death two times. She said,
“The director saw me in a way that I never saw myself. There are many shots of the back of my head.”
A primary aspect of watching Minima Moralia is that you have to come to terms with what it’s made of, and what its internal rules are, on an ongoing basis. If this is a world, what are its laws of physics?
That this experience was so striking to me in 2005 is no surprise given what was on my mind at the time.
Back then I often didn’t accept what my senses told me as true. There were moments when I knew in my bones that nothing and nobody else was real; these moments typically arrived via a strong sense of déjà vu that manifested in a tingling all up my back and shoulders, and in that electric déjà vu I felt the certainty that I had lived this before, I was going to live it again an infinite number of times, but I couldn’t yet remember at what point I’d “go back to the beginning” or how far back that beginning was, so I lived in recurrent fear of this reset point being just around the corner.
So I hope it will be somewhat clear how a person viewing life through this particular filter—through which the world is a series of repetitions and differences waiting to be noticed and felt and decoded—would find great and striking effect (affinity, even) in a movie whose raison d’être seems to be confronting the viewer not just with a series of repetitions and differences to be noticed/felt/decoded but also with the viewer’s own mind in the process of said noticing/feeling/decoding.
But I hope too that I’m not giving the impression that in order to like Minima Moralia you have to be, basically, me in 2005. That would be a smaller target audience than even Robert Lee professes to want. It must be said, too, that it is funny, and that its humor derives largely from the voice’s delivery of “bad jokes” or “groaners.” You must be open to an element of the ridiculous if you’re to let these jokes inside, but the movie’s also aware that comedy is serious business. Something about the way Minima Moralia’s one-liners are organized, how they’re embedded in the nowhere space delineated by the flow of black-and-white visuals, allows for the jokes to work as jokes but also as windows through which we see how jokes work. And the cognitive confusion underneath them. And the loneliness underneath that. It’s a stand-up comedy routine delivered in Purgatory.
As I write this, sitting in a restaurant, a Tindersticks song comes over the speakers. Understand: I am randomly hearing a song by a band whose music is a central feature in a video I’m writing about at this very moment. Had this happened in 2005, the coincidence would have freaked me out beyond words, proof positive of the sadists at work behind the machinery of all things. Now, in 2013, I instead have a happy little shudder at synchronicities, at the rules of this world I never hope to understand; if the universe is telling me anything in this moment, it’s a joke, not a threat.
A man married a two-headed lady from the circus and went home to tell his family. His mother asked,
“Is she pretty?”, and the man answered, “Yes… and no.”
My solipsistic, once all-consuming worries that nobody else existed and the universe was a tool purposed for filling me with fear have, incredibly, gone away. They’ve given way to a whole other set of worries, more along the lines that everybody does exist and we are all responsible for each other. Fear that your insufficient empathy for other people, your hoarded secrets from them, your public and private wrongs committed against them, will prevent you from connecting with them as surely as if they didn’t really exist. I’m no longer the protagonist of a malevolent fiction, just a person like any other, stupid and excellent, stockpiling gratitudes and regrets as I move forward. It was in this newer psychic space (a more human one, or at least more humane) that I saw Minima Moralia again, last year.
I was teaching a video class in Germany. I wanted to show them Minima Moralia, so I rented a DVD from Kino-Arsenal (the German distributor which had somehow, amazingly, procured the video for institutional distribution) and we watched it together one evening after class. I took copious notes, knowing I didn’t know when or if I’d have the chance to see it again.
Its effect on me was no less intense, and it played the same games with my memory, but now with higher stakes: the repetitions and recognitions were acting on the 85-minute scale as before, but now also echoing back seven years.
Wherever I was, I was in the wrong place because I wanted to be someplace else.
I discovered I’d been there before. I hated the place on my first visit, but repressed the memory of it.
I returned to the hated place often.
This voiceover passage hit me hard the first time I saw Minima Moralia, giving me that déjà vu shoulder-tingle and somehow talking about it at the same time. But also there was a pricking of tears behind my eyes, such as usually associated with more traditional emotional movie moments. Or so I remember it. On repeat viewing, this feeling did not fail to return to me. And this time, I felt maybe the déjà vu was just a déjà vu for the previous time I’d watched this and felt déjà vu—the tears like tears that you cry at a sad song because that’s the song that makes you cry.
But as I was keyed once again by the video into an uncanny scrutiny of my own processes while watching it, I could tell also that something was different. My reaction the first time had been linked specifically to my fear (an almost wholly cerebral thing, which had rarely if ever brought me to tears), whereas my response this time was bound up in an empathy for the speaking character, a sense of other people’s sadnesses and struggles as real things, separate from but relatable to my own.
The simple physical law that no two bodies occupy the same space at the same time translates into
the ethical principle “each person has the same value as any other.”
If I’ve painted a picture of Minima Moralia as a drab exercise in repetition and form, a piece of video art unconcerned with involvement, arc, and climax—you know, the pleasures of movies—then please let me unpaint that picture for you. It does indeed build, and brim over, in time-honored fashion. A story does emerge, a story whose form mirrors its content, a story about memory loss and linearity, about beginnings, endings, and start-overs. This story is embodied in a remarkable performance by Milada Kovacova (the curator who, it seems, is in no small way responsible for the fact that Minima Moralia exists at all). And it ends in a musical epiphany.
Of course now I’ve definitely said too much. Because I didn’t know this in 2005. I didn’t know that there would be a story, and the fact that there was one was a twist unto itself. The movie was a machine built for repeating itself, a machine I would never have imagined becoming what it did. But it did so with perfect internal logic. The very fact of the movie’s form—that all this happens while you inspect its inner workings, and your own inner workings while watching it—is a big part of what I find so ultimately hopeful about the movie.
It feels strange to apply the adjective “hopeful” to a work so seemingly steeped in pessimism, but it’s the word that I most want to use. It’s the way Robert Lee, with absolute economy of means, cuts a sequence of gorgeous rhythm that no amount of production cash could better. It’s the way Minima Moralia is an appropriated-footage piece entirely unconcerned with trainspotting clips’ source films (i.e. unconcerned with canon) except insofar as to mess with your head, and your trainspotting impulses, in the moment. And for that matter, its unconcern with being seen at all, its playing literally hard-to-get in the age of “video on demand” (the third word being one which I’d be happy to forever jettison from discussion of artist-audience transactions), is thrilling in its proof that restricting a work’s exhibition to specific times and places is a possibility whose pros and cons are still to be reckoned with. It’s the way it gives me pretty much what I could ask from a movie, but in a shape I’ve never seen.
But ultimately, that it can trudge through despair and hopelessness, and then—not in spite of doing so but as a result of doing so—reach a place describable as hopeful, makes it an instance of something I’m going to unironically call meta-hope.
I don’t claim that Minima Moralia is some consciousness-raising device; no film or video could stand up to the burdens of moral expectation my anecdotal approach has probably placed on it. I don’t in fact make any claims for Minima Moralia other than that it’s one of the best movies I expect to ever see. That it happens to overlap with some waveforms that were buffeting me and my core in the late 20th century, and also with some intimately related but significantly different waveforms buffeting me and my core here in the early 21st, seems to me less importantly an indication of how I’m personally configured to receive this movie, and more importantly a measure of how three things—the fluid beating of the human heart, the cold ticking of the human mind-machine, and the unchanging replayability of a human-made video artwork—all have within them the potential for growth and change.
Two bags of vomit are walking down the street. One gets sentimental and begins to cry.
The other asks, “Why are you crying?”, and the crying bag of vomit says,
“I was brought up around here.”
When I watched Minima Moralia with my students, I was heart-in-throat that they be enthralled. I wouldn’t know how to deal with it if they weren’t. When it ended, it was late. We didn’t talk about it. Most of them left. One of them walked over to the window and spent a long time looking out of it.
The next day, I was thinking about discussing it, but we got into other topics, other projects, and I was secretly happy to let it drop. I was afraid I’d find they hadn’t had the same reaction as I had. That they’d spoil it by poking holes in it (in my experience of it, in me) that I wouldn’t be able to patch up. Or that they’d show themselves to be different from me, and thus somehow unreal. So I stayed safe. And, in so doing, missed out on a chance to meet with other minds, in an authentic fashion, about something that had moved me. Maybe moved us. Maybe next time I’ll do better.