FilmJuice have my review of François Ozon’s In The House.
The film is set in a devastatingly modernist French high school where a bitter failed writer grinds out a living teaching French literature to teenagers who can barely read or write. Suddenly, the teacher’s gloom is lifted when one of his students hands in an astonishingly dry and sarcastic appraisal of a middle-class home he recently visited. His interest captured, the teacher encourages the boy’s talent and soon every piece of homework becomes another wry take-down of middle-class life. What makes this film interesting is that, rather than focusing upon the emotional connection between failed writer and ambitious student (YOU’RE THE MAN NOW, DOG!), the film uses the relationship as a metaphor for the creative process as the student is effectively writing for an audience of one who gives him detailed feedback on what he wants to see in the next chapter. Brilliantly, the teacher’s requests that the student alter his plot results in the student doing things that directly impact the teacher’s life forcing the audience to suffer for their vicarious literary joy.
One way of looking at In The House is to say that it features a more restrained approach to the shaggy postmodernism of Charlie Kaufman. For example, as with Being John Malkovich, the characters in this film blur the lines between the real and the fictional. Similarly, as with Synecdoche New York, the entirety of In The House feels like an intentionally doomed attempt at capturing the entire creative process in a single unwieldy metaphor. The problem is that Kaufman realises that the cleverness of postmodernism is inherently less satisfying than the emotional payload of a sweeping narrative arc and so he builds these huge metaphorical structures in an effort to replace emotional closure with a sense of wonder. Ozon’s comparative restraint means that, unlike many of Kaufman’s projects, In The House works as a proper story right up until the end but it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that ending the film on a flight of postmodern fantasy would have been more effective than Ozon’s discontented trudge.
I’ve recently read two quite interesting books that attempt to deal with the issue of ironic detachment from the emotional manipulations of narrative. David Thomson’s typically shaggy and typically wonderful book on the history of film The Big Screen finds him deeply troubled by the way in which the rise of advertising appears to have somehow compromised the relationship between work and audience. Prior to TV and Radio, people would submit themselves to a particular narrative and stay with it till the end. Now, they find themselves jostled out of the flow by adverts… tiny self-contained stories injected into the flow of a film or TV programme but designed to sell rather than move or entertain. After combing through the history of cinema, the book ends with Thomson experimentally watching a film backwards:
You also discover what a sweet, artificial thing story is. That is not a mocking of narrative, simply a revelation that story is just a series of tricks or steps, a mechanism, not too hard to guess in advance, and as systematic and serviceable as, say, a staircase — and as logical and mathematical. A story is something made and made up; it is a disguise of life, artfully and kindly done, but not life. It is lifelike. And stories are so artful, so manufactured, that they might as easily run backwards or forward
This vision of narrative as a system of emotional control also runs through Douglas Rushkoff’s recent (and not quite wonderful) book Present Shock. Rushkoff argues that the world around us does often makes very little sense as decades of advertising have encouraged us to find ways of protecting ourselves from stories that would manipulate our emotions:
Aristotle was the first, but certainly not the last, to identify the main parts of this kind of story, and he analyzed them as if he were a hacker reverse-engineering the function of a computer program. The story mechanics he discovered are very important for us to understand, as they are still in use by governments, corporations, religions, and educators today as they attempt to teach us and influence our behaviors. They are all the more important for the way they have ceased to work on members of a society who have gained the ability to resist their spell.
While I am still in the process of digesting a lot of these ideas, I think there is a lot of meat on the bones of the idea that a lot of contemporary culture is post-postmodern in the sense that it is built with an explicit aim of overcoming the air of ironic detachment that postmodernism has encouraged us to adopt. Kaufman in particular is quite an interesting figure as all of his films begin in the real world, deconstruct the real world and end with mad flights of fantasy. I think Kaufman does this because he realises that a) neat narrative arcs are at least as ‘false’ as CGI fantasias and b) CGI fantasias are probably a more reliable way of having an impact on an audience than a happy or a tragic ending.