here Myself - "Who is this filmmaker you talk about in The Feature, Phillipe something? You say all the films were lost, and he took copies and scratched them up. You say, ' That's how the films ended, you know? In a puff of smoke."
Michel Auder's films and videos up to The Feature (2007) depict a bohemian world of excess inhabited by artists, writers, junkies, prostitutes, and the idle rich. Throughout the seventies he produced a number of short films which seemed to evince a desire to break down the boundaries between art and life, recording unscripted events as they unfolded among a group of his friends and acquaintances. These films are often rife with provocation, transgression, sex, drugs, and emotional outbursts, and Auder himself tends to take a central role even when he does not appear on the screen. The Feature, made in collaboration with Andrew Neel, is both a continuation and a dramatic rupture within the timeline constituted by this ouvre, one that both alters and posits its meaning. Its scope is massive, encompassing a period of time no shorter than 40 years, and yet it is an extremely focused film, one which drives at its point directly and without hesitation or moral compunction. In this, it is an act of autobiographical documentary filmmaking with little or no precedent. It has been said of The Feature, that it shows us a man whose life is more interesting than his art. (1) This is a view which presupposes to know that the life and art of Michel Auder are one, or at least that his art presents us with an accurate account of the details of his life. It is incorrect, but not for the obvious reason which it seems to take for granted. Here, I would like to discuss the particular way in which the art of Michel Auder actually precedes what we might think of as his life while simultaneously creating a space in which a life-as-art might emerge.
Michel Auder uses and re-uses old footage and old photographs extensively in his work. The images presented in this book do not merely represent past production. Many of them are new works printed for the first time here. This is also true of large sections of his recent film The Feature. These aged materials seem to invoke a kind of authenticity. They almost shamelessly parade their access to the real. Why is this the case? Theodor Adorno refers to this phenomenon in an essay regarding the phonograph. The more audible the technology itself (the scratchier the record), the more "present" the speaker. The more accurately the original sound is captured and reproduced, the more alienated and distant the speaker becomes. Is this not also the case with successive generations of video recording equipment? As the image quality becomes more clear and crisp up to and including current hi-def cameras and monitors, we become more and more skeptical of what it is we are seeing. It is not necessarily the patina of age that lends mechanical reproduction its convincing qualities, but the willingness of the machine to disclose itself as mediator. In The Feature, obviously staged footage shot with new equipment is interspersed with the "real" footage from years ago. Our first reaction is to see the recent footage as a fictional framing device for the older work which was "true" and unmediated by staging and intention. (Staging and intention are of course the locations to which we displace our need for mediation in the absence of the palpable presence of technology.) We might think of it as a process of fictionalizing one's own autobiography. If we approach it in this way, we find that within the film there are events which are "lies" and events which are "true". But what determines this difference has little or nothing to do with the events as they happened, only with the particular technology used to represent them. From this standpoint, it is easy to imagine footage shot recently with an old camera, and inserted into the "true" sections of the film. These would then be no more or less truthful than the others like them. What this reveals is not that everything in the film is now false and/or unreliable. Instead it presents a picture of truth as appearances, and in looking at The Feature, we find that this is precisely the case.
Despite factual manipulations and its collaborative nature, The Feature does not seek to present a deconstructed view of the author. Auder's voiceovers maintain a singular and even tone throughout. It is driven by a particular outlook, a particular point of view. What we see is never a pastiche, a lot of examples of different points of view. Authorship asserts and maintains its presence in every scene. In The Feature, it is not the author whose role is to be questioned through an examination of "real" facts, but rather reality and history whose role it is to be questioned by the author.
So the object of interrogation in the Feature is not the author nor any particular mode of address. Nor is it a film like Rashomon, where multiple points of view destroy the notion of singular truth. At no point are we given another narrative besides the singular chain of events related to us by Auder himself, and despite its audacity, this is nevertheless the truth of the film. That this truth seems to come into conflict at times with "what really happened" should lead us to the conclusion that the object of interrogation here is the Real itself. The Feature is not a work which presupposes its authors' access to the Real. For all of its parody, it does not seek to reveal any particular hypocrisy on the parts of its subjects. Auder knows no more than they do, and does not pretend otherwise. The Feature's attitude towards the Real continually presents itself as one of nonchalance or ambivalence. "Who cares what really happened?"(2) But this is not, as it might at first seem, an attitude of cynical disavowal or a lapse into solipsism. It is actually the "proper" attitude insofar as it is the only one which can allow the Real to occur. Auder has occasionally been compared to Nan Goldin, a photographer whose images seem to hinge on their unmediated access to real people, situations, and emotions. This is a mistake. Goldin's work posits the Real as being solidly located in the human body. Her themes of sex, death, and relationships are expounded in ways that are unquestionably direct. We may see people role-playing, but what we are being shown is not the role but the humanity of the player as it occurs in this or that person's corporeal form and its attendant fragility. Goldin tears away the mask, and in doing so the body becomes a sort of fetish object onto which meaning is projected. (3) This is far cry from Auder's work, in which there is no "human subject" behind the role being played. In The Feature, it is the role itself that is human, and this is what makes the work so difficult to confront. Because when we look too closely at these subjects, they simply disappear. In Auder's videos the surface behavior is the true location of each subject. A human body as shown in The Feature may in fact be the character, and the subjectivity the characters possess may in fact be produced by these bodies, but it cannot (as opposed to Goldin) be located there. In The Feature, the self of the subjects is like a ghost in the machine. This means that the truth of Auder's subjects is not that they are limited, finite beings and when they are dead there will be only rotting remains, but instead that they are infinite beings, their subjectivity transferred from one machine (their bodies) to another (the video). No substantial loss takes place in this transference. While this may initially sound like a McLuhan-ism, a key factor is that no substantial gain takes place either. There is no transcendence in the transfer. No digital ecstasy accompanies it. Viva does not become a saint, nor Michel himself. They do not become more or less real. They continue on as they were, their subjectivity completely intact.
By sanctioning the notion of a singular authorial voice, The Feature allows reality to occur unimpeded by a structure that might "make sense" of it. It is common observation that a sign of the success of a collaborative artistic effort would be just this singularity. This is easy to discern in Feature, where both Neel and Auder place themselves at the service of the narrative. But in this case, the act may be even more radical than it first appears, because the narrative of the film is nothing short of the life story of one of its authors. Auder's singular authorial voice is thus embedded in the very structure of the film, from its first moments to its last. Yet he does not attempt to take possession of it. The film is a collaborative project between Auder and Neel, and this finds its perfect correlative in the "collaborative project" we see between Auder and every other human subject who appears on the screen. Here we begin to experience the nature of Auder's permissiveness, his extreme disregard for authority in all forms, most of all his own. We might say that The Feature first performs a dissolution of authority, and secondly a reification of the notion of collective authorship in which the many speak as the one.
The ethical decisions regarding the character of Michel Auder and his supporting cast actually seem more questionable than they might have outside the narrative, where they would be mitigated by an infinite number of increasingly complicated factors, an endless procession of "Yes, but, ....". The character Michel seems to drift through his own life as an observer, a voyeur, a man without qualities, but when we examine the nature of this drifting, we can see that the filmmaker Auder has ruthlessly censored these mitigating factors which might have given it a "purpose", thereby intrumentalizing the ambiguous nature of his story. This does not serve to withdraw meaning from the life of the characters, but rather to preserve it by allowing it to have occurred for a reason which does not succumb to the prerogatives of fetishistic notions of free will and selfhood. The Feature is a film that allows people and events to emerge as subjects in and of themselves. Auder's vision of the life of an artist hinges on the notion of free acts, yet The Feature does not propose these acts as a result of will. There is no "cause", no individual subject's assertion. Auder is not a puppet-master of his subjects who uses editing as an instrument of control. Nor is he a revisionist, modifying events to suit his purposes. The acts emerge fully formed out of a space that permits them to occur.(4) This space is opened up by a dialogue between Auder the filmmaker and Auder the character (as well as the other characters) which reverberates in a kind of self perpetuating feedback loop. From these reverberations emerge subjects capable of having made choices, and choices capable of having been free. In this way, The Feature at first models, and then ultimately embodies the process of the emergence of consciousness.
Auder's body of work is not prolific in the sense that we usually understand this word. It does not illuminate a broad section of culture through the application of his vision to an endless range of of topics. Instead, it is a tightly focused beam set behind himself and casting his shadow forward in time. This shadow would have darkened his path from the beginning of The Feature to the end, causing him to walk blindly. But this is not what happened, because forty years later, he turns around and points this light backwards, illuminating the path for himself to walk. The Feature retroactively posits a life lived with singular purpose.
Throughout the film, Auder returns to moments from his past, inserting intentions, reasons, free choices and, along with Neel, coherent narrative structure into a life that might otherwise be an unwatchable chaos of thousands of hours of recorded events in real time. Indeed, the tapes, films, and hard drives sitting on his shelves are just that. But The Feature is not the map of of Borges. It is not a life-size map of reality, laid over reality. Here Auder's work diverges from that of his contemporaries Jonas Mekas and even Harry Smith, who sought to obliterate certain boundaries between art and life entirely. With The Feature, what we are seeing is the emergence and unfolding of the mechanism of consciousness. The collaborative retroactive positing of coherence into the narrative of Auder's existence is perfectly analogous to the way in which consciousness asserts itself. (5) Auder's life exists only insofar as it appears to itself, and it does this in full view of the public through the film. Likewise in public, Auder assumes the responsibility for his life. In this way we can see that The Feature is not confessional per se, in that Auder is not involved "revealing" himself or what he thinks of himself. Everything in the film might or might not have been subjected to revision, but we can only ever take this revision as the truth.
In one scene, Auder smashes bottles in a graveyard and kicks at the stones. He declares defiantly, "Blasphemy!". We assume he is angry at god for sentencing him to death. Then he turns, walking away from the camera, and says something which we can only define as profoundly ambiguous. "If you don't mean it, it's not blasphemy." What does this mean? Is he retracting his act of blasphemy by saying that he didn't mean it? Asking god for forgiveness without really asking, the way a child might retract an insult? Or is he asserting that he did in fact "mean" it, denouncing all false acts of blasphemy as unworthy of his own? The third possibility is of course that the entire act was a charade for the camera. An act of blasphemy committed for the camera is not really an act of blasphemy at all, just as a true atheist would be incapable of such an act. To strike out at god, one must believe god is watching. We know that this scene is part of the movie that is "fake": it belongs to the category of new footage made with Neel that was created in order to frame the old stuff. And yet here we are confronted with the fiction that is more real than real. The artifice is incredibly clear. Auder is not a great actor. His defiant claim of "Blasphemy!" was stilted and awkward from the very beginning. These scenes are framed in a deliberate way that recalls certain conventions of television. But the retraction/assertion that comes right after is all too real for it's hesitant tone, and even moreso for its ambiguity. Now we can see that it is only in these segments of The Feature, the ones that are the most "fake" by virtue of the contrived and transparent narrative, that the real begins to come into view. The paradox of this is that in order for them to be real, Auder's pointless, pithy acts of blasphemy must occur in a godless universe, one that is materially determined. Reality must necessarily be structured like a fiction.
There is another way in which which Auder structures his own existence, and this has to do with bohemia. Bohemian existence and it's relationship to artistic production is constantly reaffirmed. So much so that it begins to take on the structure of a belief system. Auder himself seems to play the role of "the guy with the camera" in the various bohemian communities he inhabits. Here it would seem that Harry Smith and Michel Auder converge. Both continually align themselves with fringe elements of society (junkies, artists, prostitutes). Both document these milieus that they might be preserved, with a sincere belief in their value. But while Smith assumes an ethnographic role (albeit one that is highly complicated by the way in which he posits himself as an other through the particularly modern ways in which he frames his subjects), Auder rejects even this minimal distance. We might say that while Smith's work pictures conflict between multiple iterations of the modern, Auder's insists upon the modern as singular and as himself as a practitioner. Unlike Smith, whose bohemian position and ethnographic take on the similarities between the modern and the pre-modern affords him a privileged position in relation to both, Auder's work evinces an almost impossible belief in the modern from the standpoint of a participant in the ongoing project of its construction. This is the key that explains the odd things Auder's documentary practice seems to take for granted in dealing with such highly documented subjects as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sheman, Eric Bogosian, and Harry Smith himself. He does not strive for an accurate or even systematic representation of these subjects. They appear on the screen only insofar as their presence serves the narrative. It is interesting to note that the films are staked neither on the obscurity nor the recognition of their subjects. In fact, despite their celebrity, this recognition-of-subjects adds little or nothing to our understanding at all. In the face of so many highly individualistic personalities all playing themselves, this would seem nearly impossible. But the feat accomplished via the folding of the bohemian (the social relationships which produce divergent narratives within a group) into the modern (singularity of narrative with regards to the group as an ensemble) creates a situation within the the film that also has the effect of folding each individual into the whole. The film assumes the role of the singular historical account of the individuals it portrays, and in each and every scene it is this account that takes precedence, rather than the individuals. The weight lies with the modern. (6)
Here is where we might enter an into an understanding of the structure of film's climactic "final decision", which appropriately does not belong to Auder. Cindy Sherman decides to end their marriage, and once again we experience Auder's permissiveness with his subjects in allowing events to take place. Auder is extremely careful with his editing in these final scenes, allowing us to see no more than we need to in order to understand. Michel has moved from inhabiting a series of squalid apartments shared by various drug addicts and fuck-ups to a perfect example of a sophisticated Manhattan bourgeois interior inhabited by a working professional celebrity of what Adorno would have called the "culture industry". This is nearly all we see of his marriage to Sherman. Michel the character walks through the halls of the apartment, and the shiny stainless steel appliances are shown in a sequence that also includes a small electric chair painting by Warhol (or is it a photograph by Lawler?), hung in a tasteful salon arrangement along with other well-known artworks. Might Auder have been there when it was made? It is the world that has changed here, and the character refuses to adapt. The reality of the situation is a historical one. It is the passage from the down-and-out bohemian art world of the 70's to the "professional bohemianism" of the 80's. From an unspoken solidarity among individuals, to a new world of competitive individualism reaffirmed by financial success. The beginning of the Reagan era signaled the ultimate subsumption of bohemia into the mechanism of capital. This is a nearly insufferable loss to Michel, who can only respond to this desublimation of individualism with a kind of petulance.
This refusal on the part of the character of Michel is his final free act of the film. Here we can see the way that a free act must necessarily be structured as a confrontation and dismissal of one's own desire. Had Michel continued on with this existence, accepted the objects of his desire, these objects would have then lost their meaning, and this would have been a far greater loss than the objects themselves. The wife and the apartment would have become part of a stable unchanging landscape rather than a moment within an ongoing narrative of struggle. Michel the character recognizes the falsity of his situation. And so he sacrifices these things, along with his marriage, precisely in order that he might be rewarded with their loss. Like every free act in the film, the drastic nature of the refusal is twofold. At its base level, it is a refusal by the character Michel directed at himself, a personal decision made so that he might be able to live with himself. But it is once again at the level of the universal that the act finds its true meaning, when the filmmaker Auder retroactively posits it. It is the radical refusal of an individual directed towards a society caught in the loop of its own self-congratulatory monologue.
1. J. Hoberman, Village Voice, Review of The Feature
2. Here we should recall the recent scandal surrounding James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces, and answer this question : "Oprah Winfrey and a large part of the American public." Is this reaction to fabrication in biography not the one of a public which cannot reconcile itself to what it perceives as a rupture between truth and meaning?
3. I owe this insight to John Miller, (The Body As Fetish from The Price Club)
4. Along these lines it is important to note that The Feature is not a humanist film. Auder's permissiveness is not the result of a politically correct consideration of his subjects' otherness. This would be laughable idea to anyone who had seen the film.
5. Slavoj Zizek on Hegel's "Positing the Presuppositions" from The Parallax View
6. If we were going to carry this all the way, we might say that the films parallel the transformation of a bohemian rabble into a revolutionary subject proper, simply by treating them as such.