Persona

Persona ★★★★★

"All superior men who [are] irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws [have], if they [are] not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad"
- Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche

“Now I will dance you the war. The war which you did not prevent.”
- Vaslav Nijinsky

"I've come to understand that TV is a primal force. Sealed-off, timeless, self-contained, self-referring. It's like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way. [...] Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. 'Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.'"
- White Noise, Don DeLillo

Liv Ullmann's Elisabet paces her hospital room, slowly but restlessly, turning every which way except one. The television set is on and bombards the furniture, the walls and Elisabet with sound and light. Waves and radiation. She looks and is trapped by the violence.

On the 3rd of January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche witnesses the flogging of a horse while walking the streets of Turin. He wraps his arms around the animal's neck to shield it from blows and subsequently goes insane.

Thirty years later, on January 19th in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Vaslav Nijinsky, perhaps the world's first superstar, the fallen angel of the Ballets Russes and ex-lover of its founder, Sergei Diaghilev, goes on stage at the Suvretta House. He stares at the audience for half an hour, then says: "Now I will dance you the war. The war which you did not prevent." He performs, according to testimonies, "a violent improvised solo", after which he descends into madness and never dances again.

What do these stories have in common? Leaving aside for the moment the fact that one is fiction and two actually happened; all three stories could be said to be about artists who reach crucial points in their lives in which they cannot function with their own distinct identity and moral self within the world they live in. They disconnect themselves. What's that quote, about the only sane response to an insane world is to go insane?

Well, if Nietzsche and Nijinsky thought they had it bad, they would have wept outright at our postmodern world, with its internet on mobile phones and a million television channels pumping white noise at us.

"For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set. If a thing happens on television, we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is." So replies a character from Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise, to the question why we find disasters on television so intriguing. It is part of a major theme in the novel; the difficulty of constructing thought or identity in a world in which we are overloaded with information, white noise. Jim Collins writes in Television and Postmodernism that "these technologies have produced an ever increasing surplus of texts, all of which demand our attention in varying levels of intensity." The "reality" we piece together from these texts is fake. This oversaturation of signs leads to a state of mental lethargy. "We're suffering from brain fade," writes DeLillo. "We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information."

What does this have to do with Persona? During this viewing, I was particularly struck by the scenes in which Elisabet reacts to horrific imagery; firstly, the footage of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire as a protest against the South Vietnamese government, and later on, a photograph used as bookmark of the "Warsaw Ghetto Boy". The camera - so confident and powerful in this movie - lingers on these images for a considerable amount of time. And then, of course, there are the brief shots interspersed at the beginning and in the middle of the film, violent imagery from older movies. Why would we film grotesque things like this? Why do we look at them? And, wait-- She uses a photograph of a Jewish boy being herded out of a building by Nazis as a bookmark? What the hell?!

Something has shocked Elisabet Vogler into her mute state. Based on her strong reaction in the scenes above, it is not unimaginable that her loss of self is somehow tied to a dissonance with the world around her. The television, so prominently placed in that crucial scene in her hospital room, has constructed for her a world in which she is out of joint. What I am not confident about yet, but I can't shake the feeling, is that she likes it. To be continued after my next viewing...

"Come on, hurry up, plane crash footage." Then he was out the door, the girls were off the bed, all three of them running along the hall to the TV set.
I sat in bed a little stunned. The swiftness and noise of their leaving had put the room in a state of molecular agitation. In the debris of invisible matter, the question seemed to be, What is happening here?
[...] That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We'd never before been so attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. [...] Babette tried to switch to a comedy series about a group of racially mixed kids who build their own communications satellite. She was startled by the force of our objection. We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.
- White Noise, Don DeLillo

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