Behavioural Being

του Tony McKibbin


Sometime in the eighties, before making Melo, Alain Resnais was reputedly working on a script with Milan Kundera which was going to be very expensive to produce. The film has to this day not been made, but there is in 1981’s My American Uncle (Mon Oncle d‘Amérique) a tone and style that would suggest why Kundera and Resnais would want to work together. As Resnais premises his film about three characters caught in various stress situations on the ideas of behaviourist Henri Laborit, but  by no means contained by them, we might think of Kundera’s third chapter in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections [on Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return] did I see him clearly.” It is the combination of thought and feeling, idea and character that for Kundera brings Tomas to life.  When Tony Rayns says in his Time Out review of Resnais’s film that “short-sighted critics seem to imagine that the fictional material merely illustrates what Laborit says”,  then it is the sort of short-sighted criticism levelled at Kundera and many of the writers Kundera admires when the Czech novelist insists in The Art of the Novel that the novel is no more nor less than “the great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.” Anybody who thinks Kundera’s fictions lack psychological depth, or a vivid sense of place, is being hemmed in by nineteenth century expectation. Talking about his love for Gombrowicz he suggests the Pole “resists Balzac’s poetics, erected over time into the normative model of the novel.” (The Curtain) Does the same sense of ambition that comes out of eschewing convention in many ways apply to Resnais – not just in My American Uncle, but in his work generally? When he suggests in Film Comment (July/Aug. 1975),  “I was once told that in an anthill, 30 per cent of the ants rush around pretending to be unbelievably busy, and ever since I’ve been convinced that human beings are full participants in the animal world”, it echoes Kundera’s claim that the purpose of the work is to search out the great themes.

Now what we mean by theme is the gap between the story and the subject, and Kundera again helps us here when he suggests that generally “the themes are worked out steadily within and by the story”. He goes on to suggest that “a theme, on the other hand, can be developed on its own, outside the story.” (The Art of the Novel) This doesn’t mean that the story’s purpose is to develop the theme, but that somehow the story on its own cannot carry the sense of necessity that lies within the theme. When Rayns mentions the critics who think that the characters in My American Uncle illustrate Laborit’s ideas, the point is missed because, of course, Laborit’s melancholic realization of the limits of humankind at present needs as aesthetic form to develop that melancholic sense fully. For example, when Laborit proposes near the end of the film that we possess an unconscious that is not Freudian, but that nevertheless contains from birth dictates, demands and rules for social behaviour, he offers it not with the reductive certitude we may feel lies behind much behaviourist thinking, but with the complex realization that we contain multitudes. If famous behaviourist B. F. Skinner believed in external behavioural prompts to improve people’s social and material conditions, Laborit seems much more to want to work from the inside out. Hence any aesthetic project that bases itself on Laborit’s more obviously scientific theories can’t do justice to them without paradoxically moving beyond them, exploring them for their hypothetical possibilities. When Laborit proposes that from our birth we’ve been pumped full of social values that sit in our unconscious without us really knowing how they are acting upon our behaviour, one of the things art can do is set to work activating that unconscious, bringing forth memories, shafts of insight, empathic possibilities.

This is not the behavioural expectations of Skinner that work outside in, if we take into account his comment “an experimental analysis shifts the determination of behaviour from autonomous man to the environment – an environment responsible for the evolution of the species and for the repertoire acquired by each member.” Skinner may say earlier in the same book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, that man is believed to differ from animals because he is capable of knowing himself, and admits that while “the ‘behaviouralists’ in political science and many logical positivists in philosophy have followed a similar line” of avoiding this aspect of knowing oneself, Skinner agrees this would be a ‘defective’ form of behaviourism. Yet nevertheless Skinner seems at best to be offering a nod towards autonomous being, while generally interested chiefly in action in the world: in manipulating being with others. This is evident when a couple of pages later Skinner reckons “constant self-observation may be a handicap. The accomplished pianist would perform badly if he were as clearly aware of his behaviour as the student who is just learning to play.” There is this sense in Skinner that behaviour generally needs to come from outside, to be reinforced by social conditioning, where for Laborit and Resnais it seems much more a constantly evolving immanent and empathic comprehension of being.

When, for example, just after Laborit’s comments about an unconscious that is not Freudian,  Resnais semi-inexplicably cuts to shots of run down Harlem, what does this tell us about the characters – none of whom seem to have ever gone to the States? It tells us of course that America is not necessarily the land of plenty (for all the three leading characters invoke it at key moments in the film as just that) but Resnais seems to say not only is it not the promised land of material success, neither is it the ontological possibility, the full range of being, demanded by Laborit. It is as though what is required is neither the practical demands of a Skinner who believes in what he calls ‘reinforcers’ to shape our behaviour and ‘improve’ it, nor the dream, the American dream that is the exaggerated promise of a metaphorically American uncle, but something closer to what the French call l’inespéré, a certain impossible hope, and yet perhaps not a deluded one.

As Laborit beseechingly, mellifluously offers his belief in a better future, this is neither pragmatic demand nor misguided dreaming but, again, an immanent and empathic possibility. When the characters offer up the phrase “mon oncle d’Amerique”; they do so out of selfish desire more than selfless hope. As Jean (Roger Pierre), a rising politician, says, when he was young he used to dig looking for treasure. “I kept hearing about an uncle who’d gone off to America. I was sure he’d come back to tell me where it was. For me he was The Gold King.” This story he tells to Nicole Garcia’s Janine, an actress who several years before was Jean’s mistress, but who left him after his wife claimed that she was dying and needed her family back together. Janine backed away, but Jean believes she just left him because he had recently lost his job. Here they are years later, Jean’s wife is still very much alive (she lied about dying), and Jean, who never knew of his wife’s deceit, still holds a grudge against Janine for leaving him when he was in dire straits. Now he is doing extremely well, and one senses his imperiousness towards Janine is as much about his present social position as any betrayal he still feels. As Resnais cuts back and forth between Jean and Janine, as Jean tells her the story of the The Gold King, we see ambition on Jean’s visage, emotional defeat on hers.  If this is the America of which a character must dream, is it a selfish dream. What sort of uncle can we hope for if the American one is too fantastic, too personal and too ambitious?

In an earlier scene we see Gerard Depardieu’s René (the film’s third leading character) leave the dinner table at his father’s farmhouse, insisting that he has no interest in continuing the family farming tradition. Here he takes the moral high ground and accuses both his father and his uncle of exploitation and then storms out with his fiancée. It’s a moment we might expect from a Jean Gabin film, and not least because, as Resnais makes clear, punctuating René’s actions with clips from Gabin’s work, he sees himself in the Gabin mould. Is this another version of one’s American uncle, the star that allows one to dream a better life than the life one can expect to lead? First of all, though, we might ask, are these alternative lives Gabin leads always better than the ones we ourselves live? More heroic, certainly, but it is more useful to see a life like Gabin’s in Le Grand Illusion and Pepe le Moko as honourable, where the American uncle seems somehow dishonourable, a false promise of plenty as opposed to the hard truths of little that Gabin represents. Thus when René walks out on the family farm, the film doesn’t cut to a shot of René leaving – but because we know he’s been imbued by the spirit of Gabin’s assertiveness we also know that Gabin’s principles are guiding him.

mon-oncle-d-amerique-06-gBut – and this is where Resnais in some ways undermines both behavioural over-simplification and misguided hope – a star can represent a hypothetical value system. Where an American uncle remains a disembodied dream, an actor can offer an embodied ethos: as David Thomson says of Gabin in the critic’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, “no other French actor seemed to the French to embody so many of their admirable characteristics.” We could even say that an actor can give individuality to behaviour and arrive at a sort of inverted, subjectified behaviourism; a behaviourism that can combine Laborit’s idea of the unconscious brought to the surface, and what in conventionally cinematic terms would be called identification. Is it not the very thing Resnais’ film is itself doing, as it takes three characters with whom we identify, and follows them through their crisis situations?

Thus we notice Resnais in some ways pushes the Kunderan notion of what the writer calls experimental selves much further by virtue of the opportunities cinema offers him. How many selves does Resnais set to work? If in most books we have the novelist hiding behind his or her characters and letting them ‘speak for themselves’, while Kundera wants to generate a narrative voice that only tentatively offers them up as characters – as experimental selves – Resnais allows for the ideas generated by Laborit to become the conceit that is the film, played by actors whose characters are also influenced by actors they admire – Gabin for René, Jean Marais for Janine, Danielle Darrieux for Jean. Thus we have mice resembling the characters played by actors whose characters are influenced by iconic thespian figures. Not only is a self never given, Resnais goes further than most in creating a film in which this non-given-ness of character can be explored by multiplying the distanciation devices of a Kundera.

Yet what is interesting is that this is distanciation which doesn’t alienate. It is as though rather than dividing the empathy it multiplies it. When Kundera at some stage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being talks about the difference between thought and feeling, and that we can understand a characters’s thoughts, but we can’t comprehend their actual pain, we can see how Resnais explores this notion of the idea of pain over its physiological manifestation. Certainly there are a number of European filmmakers today who want to physiologise our relationship with a character’s physical anguish – Gaspar Noé in Seul Contre tous for instance when it looks like the central character is going to kill himself, and also in the rape in Irreversible; or Catherine Breillat in A ma souer! when the family is terrorised near the film’s conclusion. But this latter approach is not quite the same as empathy; it is much more in these moments a physiological prompt, or at the very least a combination of the empathic and the physiological. When for example we see that the central character in Seul contre tous has shot his daughter in the head and is about to kill himself, Noé wants to take us into the situation, not remain at one remove. He wants us to feel we’re in the room with a man about to blow his brains out. This is one of cinema’s great gifts, and yet also one of its curses, and if Breillat, Noé and others are at least aware of the curse (they undeniably want to surprise us with this physiological identification), of course many other films don’t. They expect us to identify mechanically, almost behaviourally if we take into account Pavlovian responses that work off familiar prompts: in Pavlov’s case we have the sound of the bells that salivates and represents food, and in cinema’s case clichés that represent situations: the romantic comedy scenarios that create a chain of events which will release the emotion of benign happiness; the horror film the feeling of malign fear. If many European filmmakers are trying to find new thoughts out of physiologizing the ‘action’ – by utilising immediacy shock devices that owe something to Hitchcock to counter the mechanism of cliché – then this wouldn’t seem to concern Resnais. He is looking neither for the convention of identification, nor the immediacy of physiology, but a double removal that can allow for a complex form of empathy.

Anselm-Kiefer_Ch.D.Grabbe-Kleine-Panzerfaust-DeutschlandThus if we say narrative convention allows for identification, and sympathy and the physiological can close the gap to the degree that when a violent scene takes place on screen we almost feel it is happening to us – it so disturbs our nervous system in that moment of shock – then what Resnais wants is less the other that could be us, than the otherness of all of us. We don’t become one with a character so much as become at one with the world, with a wider sense of understanding than the emotional, yet an understanding that nevertheless incorporates the emotional. We can see this running through much of his work, from the library that contains a cacophony of voices in Bibliotheque nationale, the remains of the Nazi death camps in Night and Fog where Jean Cayrol’s voice-over explores the situation of the camps rather than interviewing individuals about them, and also Hiroshima mon Amour, where we have two characters trying to make sense of individual tragedy on the one hand, national tragedy on the other, and at the same time comprehending the sense of what contains them socio-politically, even ontologically.  How can we see something of the horrors of Hiroshima, Resnais asks, but it is a question that is more generally true of Resnais: how can we comprehend the world when it isn’t so much seeing with our own eyes, feeling with our own feelings, but comprehending the ocean of being that surrounds us? When in an amusing aside Resnais says after an interviewer asks “what do you do when you aren’t making films?”; “it’s very difficult to answer, because I have the feeling that if there was no problem of money I could very easily spend my life without making any films,” we sense this vastness.  Though he admits he could be wrong, and that he might miss filmmaking, he also says that “I only think that if I want to read or listen to all the music I do before I die, my time is full!” (Film Comment, July/Aug 1975) There is a sense here not so much of a mind that wants to live the ego but much more explore being and the world. When Resnais cuts from Laborit’s ideas to contemporary America alluded to above, there is once again this sense of perspective, the sense that one is small next to the whole, and we must be carefully not be too readily misdirected by not just a selfish self, but a deludedly selfish self. We don’t follow a character to the US, instead Resnais simply shows us shots of Harlem as if to say America is many things and this is one of them. When shortly after she’s been rejected by Jean, Janine goes to his house and talks to his wife, we see exactly how far Jean’s egotism has got him. The house is situated in its own grounds, with a large driveway, and its interiors are elegantly decorated to suggest the statesman Jean has become. “If you had children you would have done just what I did” Jean’s wife insists. But as we see Janine’s face we might wonder if the whole point is that she would have done it very differently. Right from the beginning we’re aware that Jean’s wife is clingy and determined to get her man, and when he does leave her briefly for Janine, she pleads with him not to go. Nothing especially unusual in that, we might admit, yet would many people claim to be dying of cancer to get their man back? In normal psychology perhaps, in a psychology that insists we only say what we say and do what we do so we can get what we want. But whilst Resnais isn’t especially interested in is abnormal psychology, he has often been fascinated by fractured psychology, by behaviour that contains a residual dimension that can’t be explained away by immediacy of behaviour.  Perspective counts for much more than one’s own immediate preoccupations.

Often of course in Resnais’s work, this sense of perspective is radical but not as aloofly presented as it here. In Hiroshima mon amour Emmanuele Riva’s character can’t quite function in the present because of her past with her late Nazi lover; in J’taime, J’taime the central character has attempted suicide at the beginning of the film, and in Muriel we have Delphine Seyrig’s character remembering a lost love in Algeria at the same time her stepson wants to remind her of the atrocities of the past, and has footage as evidence. Yet the point so often in Resnais is that being is manifold: whether it happens to be exploring memory as irresolute past, and in its irresolution, and yet also in the process of its conjuring, action becoming complex, individualised and often inexplicable, or working from the core of being as he does here, Resnais wants to muse over questions of being but doesn’t want to ignore character. This is partly why, as Deleuze notes, “Resnais has never disguised his liking, in his preparatory works, for a complete biography of the characters, a detailed cartography of the places they go and their itineraries…“ (The Time Image) Laborit may say at the beginning of the film that the brain’s function is not thought, but action”, but what happens if the being is ‘dysfunctional’ – how can it act without the thought becoming fully conscious? For Skinner this would almost be the mind’s failing:  as he says above about consciousness often being a handicap; for Laborit it is chiefly a product of inhibition, the fourth in the drive for life: the first being food, drink, copulation etc; the second, escape, and the third combat. Clearly the fourth is a product of unreleased energy, and Laborit later in the film talks of the ways this unfulfilled drive often turns in on itself: it can’t find an outlet in violence, for example, so becomes disease or even suicide. Resnais wants to hold to character so he can explore these problems. So if we accept that Resnais frequently focuses on consciousness, and also most especially on fractured consciousness, then it’s as if what he wants from Laborit is not so much the limited behaviourism that tries to deny the vagaries of consciousness for the animal aspect that reduces us to first biological principles, but much more the oneness of existence that links us both to the animal kingdom, and also to the world at large.

ameriiWhen Rayns attacks critics for suggesting that Resnais is doing nothing more than illustrating behaviourist ideas, this is nonsense not least because what Resnais seems to take from Laborit is not only just Laborit’s beseeching tone, his kind smile and the man’s very own well-being as well as his thought, but also explores this thought through characterisation that achieves complexity of feeling, including Laborit’s own character. At the beginning of the film Laborit is introduced to us just as the other characters happen to be, and there is the suggestion, without a hint of hagiography, that Laborit’s has been a  happy life. He has achieved through his own existence, it would seem, the very well-being he tries so hard to propose is important to man. When the voice-over runs through the characters at the beginning, we’re informed of Laborit’s numerous accomplishments, that he’s married with five kids, and likes horse riding and sailing, all the while showing us images from his life and work. It then cuts to Laborit in his office, adding “that he is from the Vendee, where they imposed liberty, equality and fraternity, especially fraternity, where they left [he adds ironically] 500,000 dead.”  He then says that “he uses the gas and electricity of France which shows his patriotism” and “has adapted to a culture from which he has greatly benefited.”  He offers himself up in the third person, and provides personally fortunate details alongside the impersonally tragic. He is presented as a character but one who manages to contain within himself a broader perspective than the personal, just as Kundera and Resnais also, in their very different ways, search out a sense of self that is always much greater than the I. One thinks here of Deleuze quoting Blanchot saying that saying he is much more moving than saying I, that he feels rather than I feel. It seems consistent with Resnais’ approach here, and yet contains within it a certain sort of behavioural paradox.

For is behaviourism nothing if not the ‘I’, and an I of the nervous system in many ways consistent with Kundera’s claims quoted above that one of the ‘problems’ with pain is that it cannot be shared; it is singular? If behaviourism out of Pavlov focuses on the physiological, and would seem to share many similarities with the way Hollywood films try and move us by the immediacy of identifying with a character so that each bang and explosion at least partly takes us into the tension of our own nervous systems, surely the reflective approach of a Resnais is antithetical to such behavioural demands? It is as though Resnais has taken from behaviourism less an idea than a figure, less behaviourism than Laborit, which is of course what makes claims that Resnais is illustrating a behavioural thesis annoyingly simple-minded. When for example Jean’s wife insists Janine would do the same concerning her lie, Janine’s face suggests she wouldn’t, and Resnais differentiates the inevitable from the probable. Probably people would do whatever they have to do to defend their family’s interests, but not everyone would defend them in the same way, and this scene bifurcates well the self-interested wife from the self-aware lover: after all Janine acted out of a more general sense of well-being than her own, as she deliberately forced Jean out of her existence and back into the arms of his wife. Certainly Jean read this gesture differently, believing that Janine left because he had recently become unemployed, but we have been privy to more information than Jean (who not until near the end of the film, years later, finds out of his wife’s deception), and sees the gesture for what it was.

Throughout Resnais’ film he tries to show behaviour contextualized in ever broader patterns of possibility; for without it where would l’inespere reside, on the one hand, and ethics, on the other? When Laborit suggests he is patriotic, he does so within the context of utilising the utilities – he’s French because he is on the national grid. There will obviously be many other ways in which he’s a Frenchman, but this is a useful method of describing one’s sense of nationality very subjectively no matter the basic material truth of the statement. It is almost an inversion of the Gabin figure, taking into account Thomson’s statement above, where patriotism resides in the mythic. For Laborit it resides in the unavoidable truth of using the national facilities, and is consistent with Resnais’ attempt to understand being in an entirety that can range from Gabin as national symbol, to the power grid as national fact. What are we in our entirety, Resnais asks, and so when he cuts between shots at the beginning of the film from plant life, to animal life to inanimate objects, it is surely to frame the film in the largest possible sense of being. These are establishing shots, certainly, but what do they establish – if we take into account the general meaning of an establishing shot, where the space is established before the film moves to closer shots of the characters for whom the establishing shot has established the space in which they move.

However in Resnais’ film the shots don’t establish for the purposes of anthropocentricism, but generate a humming oneness that suggests man as merely the most active participant in the world. Where plants can live simply by staying still and absorbing the rays of the sun, man has constantly to be on the move. “Thus there is a drive that impels living organisms to preserve their biological equilibrium, their vital structure and stay alive,” Laborit notes, but obviously the more complex the organism the more complex the behaviour. Resnais accepts man is inevitably an organism, but looks from that organism not for its universal givens, but its singularities. Yet he gives to these singularities not the physiological immediacy we’ve proposed is central both to behaviourism and also to mainstream narrative identification, but the specific socio-ethical mode as he utilises characters and also stars that reflect the characters.  Resnais takes off from Laborit’s ideas, but what interests him especially would seem to be the abstraction generated out of the behavioural possibilities. Just as Laborit can say his patriotism resides in electricity and gas, so Resnais finds equally abstract methods to suggest the nature of being.

However, as we’ve suggested, Resnais’ sense of abstraction is not at all unemotional; it is rather that the emotion is greater than the readily identificatory, and the immediately anthropocentric. When for example Resnais shows René humiliated by his boss, he maximises the emotional and ethical variables in the situation; and he can do so not least because he has created a thinking space, a complex thematic that can make a crisis so much more than one man’s emotional pain.  Resnais incorporates René, Jeanne, René’s boss, a stranger who René brushes past, the on-lookers who witness the incident, his landlady, his wife, and footage from films by Gabin and Marais. He even cross-cuts between René’s boss chatting Jeanne up and talking about food as René is about to kill himself. In many another filmmaker’s hands this would lead if not to incoherence then surely insensitivity, but Resnais has the collagist’s genius for bringing together disparate elements and making out of them a more textured whole. So just as Laborit can propose the coldly abstract (the electric grid) whilst suggesting the subjective, so Resnais can move thematically from one element to another while deepening the feeling instead of diluting it.

klee-park-of-idols-19381It is this surely that Rayns is moving towards in his capsule review defence of Resnais, and it is this that a Kundera/Resnais teaming would presumably have worked through. Resnais is famous for collaborations that aren’t simply those of getting a writer to work on cinema, but at the same time getting a writer whose vision can become cinematic, yet that this will be a vision that is still there’s. Marguerite Duras’s work is absolutely consistent with her script for Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work consistent with Last Year at Marienband, and David Mercer’s work with Providence. Resnais even admits that he perhaps “was not choosing…screenwriters because they were writers but because they had a hidden desire to make films!” (Film Comment, July/Aug 1975) There is a sense certainly of collaboration, of working with someone whose vision may indeed splinter, or contradict one’s own – there is Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s famous difference of interpretation over Last Year at Marienbad, and yet a disagreement over past or present events that need cause no argument.  And this is of course a difference of perspective not because of indifference, but because of aesthetic distance, the distance that can leave someone to access subjectivity without imposing it upon someone else’s. When Resnais cross-cuts between Jeanne and the boss and René, and slips in images from Gabin and Marais films, he’s doing so to generate perspective in a way seemingly consistent with his desire to work with scriptwriters possessed of a vision of their own: Resnais as a filmmaker superimposes rather than imposes. Being is not an argument, nor even a singular vision; it’s an ontological possibility, and superimposition is more important than imposing a singular vision.

This play with perspective might give the impression that he cares less about characters than most, and when asked about his experiments with time and memory he insists that character is most important. Yet this is a sense of character that is less psychological than, if you like, behaviourally ontological. When James Monaco in Film Comment asks “so you’re saying that for you it always comes from the character while a lot of people prefer to regard you as a theorist…” Resnais simply replies “yes”. He gives as an example a flashforward in La guere est finie. “When Diego’s character began to emerge I said I think we should use the flashforward for Diego because he seems to be the kind of guy who has that kind of image in mind.” However, the notion of Resnais as a filmmaker of ideas isn’t a mistake. It is more that Resnais seems to care about character so much that he refuses to keep a character hidebound by the conventions of psychology and instead searches out the layers of one’s being with a broader being, a behavioural ontology never more complexly explored than here. Thus, in conclusion, to suggest My American Uncle is an illustration of Laborit’s ideas is a bit like saying Tomas is an illustration of Nietzsche’s notion of eternal return in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Better to see Laborit and Nietzsche doing no more, finally, than offering a perspective on being that in the ideas’ very tentativeness allows us to understand a little better the richness of our own being. While so many of the formal experiments of Resnais’ work have been absorbed, and few filmmakers since Eisenstein have had so much influence on montage (as Manny Farber explores for example in an essay invoking Losey, Roeg and Boorman in Negative Space) the experimental approach to being present in My American Uncle still seems underdeveloped in cinema, and yet it is this exploration that is at the core of this masterful filmmaker’s work. Seymour Chatman says in The Rhetoric of Fiction that the film exemplifies “a broader and more complex approach to text-type actualization than the commercial cinema has yet seen”. We would be inclined to see it as inevitable in the work of a director who cannot help insisting on such narrative density when the questions he asks are so large.

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