Late Summer; Topographies and Intimacy in the Ordinary

We are drawn to genres for a multiplicity of reasons.  Melodrama, for instance, provides an affective and narrative jolt that, in intensifying and simplifying the grounds of having a life, can make us feel like something is finally happening, something identifiable. Realism, too, is a genre that promises to help organize the sensations and intensities of life-making and in a form well-suited to the ordinary, the everyday.  In an essay on the nearly normal, the nearly utopian, and what she terms “post-Fordist affect,” Lauren Berlant turns to incipient genres of realism in contemporary Western European cinema to diagram forms of bargaining with normativity and attachments to structures of neoliberal exploitation, as well as the promise of intimacy within a deflated horizon of possibility.

At one point, Berlant asks a provocative question about desire and the everyday: “What does it mean to want a sense of something rather than something?” (176).  In a way, that question evokes my relationship to realism as a cinematic genre.  I am struck by how post-Fordist affective landscapes tend to be cool (in the sense of temperature): visually matte, saturated by thin color, but not very warm; grey, blue, expansive in scale, but slow; the feeling of being ordinary, in these realist worlds, is not feeling very much at all.  There is a kind of sedative quality to this realism, one that feels neither quite pleasurable (except as a mild relief in the form of familiarity), nor too painfully sad to stomach (because slow, diluted, and relatively quiet).

The catalyst of this train of thought was my long belated viewing of Weekend (2011), the UK gay drama that focuses on the chance hookup of two characters who go on feel torn between the compressed temporality of a weekend together and the impossible-to-realize promise of long-term intimacy (one of them, Glen, is moving to America).  I’m less interested in parsing out the content of the film’s dialogue, its negotiation of a somewhat tired binary between stranger intimacy and durable love, or really to police in any way the representation of gays, other than to mention that I was mostly repulsed by the two main characters, something I laud in the film because it seems to suggest that being gay can be almost unbearably mundane (whatever else it can be).  Weekend does also therefore capture the promise that intimacy holds out as an obviously insufficient supplement to a weary life under contemporary capitalism, a promise that, in a neat fidelity to the Berlantian idiom, it would be unbearable to live without, making both sex, intimacy and love structures of “cruel optimism.”

That notwithstanding, I became convinced in my utterly idiosyncratic viewing of the film that the most interesting moments (if only to me) were topographical and architectural; indeed, camera shots that were empty of human bodies altogether.

One half of the pair in the film, Russel, lives in the deadened concrete blocks of an apartment complex in Nottingham and the long, sleepy scenes between him and his would-be intimate Glen are punctuated by even quieter, cool shots of the topography of his quiet, neoliberal landscape.

Nothing really happens in these short moments.  The affective landscape that takes shape is, if nothing else, then, realist.  I found each of these shots sedating in the way I characterized the genre earlier: I felt very little joy (indeed, the imposing grey structures that dwarf the trees are nothing if not alienating pieces of brutal architecture) and yet was not without some feeling of relief.  More than that, the topography of the film made me want a sense of something rather than a thing.

Weekend, of course, ostensibly holds intimacy or love as the sensible choice of desire; though neither of the protagonists are able to achieve or hold onto a lasting attachment by the end of the movie, the sense of that something they may or may not have ever cultivated between one another seems to be held out as a self-evidently desirable promise, a conductive cluster of affects, desires and sensations that ought to be able to keep the activity of life-making going, to reinforce its endurance into a future.  And I don’t mean to belittle the force or effective realness of that form of attachment to what is overwhelmingly never realized in sex and intimacy, yet remains what makes both so necessary; indeed, that is precisely why the film feels real.

Yet, the empty scenes of the apartment complex, devoid of human bodies, bathed in the cool hum of the ordinary, a kind of permanent dawn without the expectation of the sun becoming any brighter, also hold out a sense of something else to me.  This thing is really nothing other than a sense, though; a kind of fleeting suggestion that the landscape that capitalism has built in this location could, or indeed already does, if only for two seconds at a time, exist without its human occupants.  That, eerie as it may look or feel, there is the potential for something other than the all-too-human, that intimacy, desire, and sex, though they are not about to disappear (nor do we want them to), need not bear the whole weight of making a livable life out of the cool temperatures of the ordinary.

At the end of a Summer, then, in which I find myself wondering about the accretive sum of a host of different moments and short-durations of intimacies (i.e., that there might not be any sum result at all, nothing to point to or hold on to), there is something almost more durable about the empty landscapes of Weekend than my constantly bubbling uncertainty at the viability of intimacy to anchor my endurance in the world.  It’s not so much that I would like to find myself, alone, in one of these cool landscapes, but rather that I find in the relief of their sedative qualities an undramatic affective aperture toward experiencing both my attachment to structures of exploitation and a hint that, whatever role intimacy or sex might play in their overcoming, desire itself will have a far more expansive force than I can imagine at the end of a humid August.

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