The Carmen Horse
December 14, 2012
The First Frame of Each Shot from Lana Del Rey’s video Carmen: Part I
The Turin Horse is about the heaviness of human existence. How it’s difficult to live your daily life, and the monotony of life.
–Béla Tarr, on his film The Turin Horse
And if I tell you that I feel something intangible, strange, circling around me in a threatening way, do you believe me?
–Roberto Bolaño, from The Third Reich
The familiar color bars. A sense of halted, paused time marking the edge-zone moments before or after the next show. The red, red shade of color bar #5 will be sampled and reaffirmed as a rose in shot #3.
Noise. (As a child, this was called “snow.”) A synecdoche for analog nostalgia. “Carmen” is a remarkably old-fashioned song and video, rusted by lust and time. “What’s the point of all this precision?” a character asks in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, which is precisely the same question posed in shot #2.
Linear time code recording. Perhaps a Panasonic VHS camcorder. Time coded precision as if analog was already foreseeing its doom in digital, and as if time itself could be captured in digits. There is—and you feel this in your bones—something lurking behind or within the image.
Lana Del Rey (Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) in black and white, born the year of Blue Velvet’s release, in glory, a flower in her hair, with the (“faux-retro, smash-edited, low production”) video that so many hate and so many love, as Ms. Grant stands in for a generation as both the object of French-infantry-bayonet-practice-hatred and the object of blood-red color drained to black-and-white adoration.
A flash of red, picking itself up from color bar #5 in shot #1. “No one notices the negative space around life. Surrounding this town, between trees and businesses,” says the narrator in Grace Krilanovich’s novel The Orange Eats Creeps. When the world fails to offer up mysteries anymore, you have to make them up yourself, to find them in hints and traces and in the blood red corners of a pop video that offers clues hidden in plain sight.
The rose, the change it undergoes from shot #3 imperceptible except that its progress is marked by the forwarded time code. A ruthless individual enters the picture now, though you cannot see him.
“Don’t ask me why I’m moving. I’ve forgotten,” Anne Sexton wrote to her psychiatrist friend Anne Clarke in 1964. The screen is blank, framed by the crimson and burnt-orange vertical lines on either side. In another context, another medium, this might count as an abstract painting.
The characters (played by Josh Rachlin and Lana Del Rey) are so hyper-aware they are being watched that they have practically forgotten.
The presence of the Other.
The time code advances. No one cares about the rose any longer. It’s going to keep opening: that’s inevitable. “I could not hear the restless sea,” says the narrator of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, “and because I could not hear it my thoughts would be peaceful too. They would not carry me down that steep path through the woods . . .”
The flecks on the screen, magnified bacteria, await a host.
A sudden flood of images, like something out of a Dziga Vertov film. The ruthless individual has now fully entered the video, and so a second story begins. In the flickering spaces between these images, he will make his way with the inevitability of history towards you.
The star, Lana Del Rey, is the object of the men behind the camera. That is the inherited legacy of the female star in the Hollywood studio system. Is it different when, today, the star creates her own, self-distributed video? “Even the entertainment film becomes a newsreel and an extension of its own publicity,” Theodor Adorno wrote in his essay from the 1940s, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” “We learn what Lana Turner looks like in a sweater.”
You are back in childhood, and your memories are shaped and filtered by the way you have thought about them over the years. Your memory has been deformed by memories of your memory.
In his essay “Screen Memories,” Freud wrote that further “investigation of these banal childhood memories has taught me that . . . an unsuspecting wealth of meaning usually lies hidden beneath their apparent harmlessness.”
In the open space of this frame, something ominous and uncertain creeps in. It is more dangerous than the ruthless individual from shot #6, and in fact “it” observes him as he observes you.
“The test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes on the known universe’s utmost rim.” H. P. Lovecraft, from Supernatural Horror in Literature.
This shot is nearly identical to shot #14 except that the camera has panned slightly to the left.
Methamphetamine causes the norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin (5HT) transporters to reverse their direction of flow. This inversion leads to a release of these transmitters from the vesicles to the cytoplasm and from the cytoplasm to the synapse causing increased stimulation of post-synaptic receptors.
“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Laura Mulvey, from “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
Miss Pole Dance Australia Felix Cane, circa 2006.
The ruthless individual stands immediately behind the camera now, and in the moment she glimpses him her eyes go black; she retreats into a mask. The location is unsourced. After the shoot, someone will tell her that something terrible once happened on those very steps.
That night, in the hotel room, she receives a mysterious phone call. She is alone, finally alone. The shower is running. In the quiet of her own mind she is neither Lana nor Elizabeth. She lifts the receiver and feels the presence of evil, purple swollen static, the stench of a hundred dead bodies, and although she hangs up quickly she realizes that it is too late, that she has been found.
Can a video by a beautiful pop star immunize itself—though irony—from its own commitment to shallow images and fame? “Carmen” presents Lana Del Rey as object of the male gaze—the false smile of the man in the purple frame—and that itself is the story the video tells. Which is to say: the subject of the video is the video itself.
Again: an abstract painting disguised as a video frame. The dark and ominous presence from shot #17 appears fleetingly in a disguised form in the upper left-hand corner. You avert your eyes. The phone rings again. She watches it until it stops ringing.
There is someone at the middle window, just out of sight. The person vanishes when observed. Lana Del Rey studied metaphysics at Fordham University.
“The postmodern fatal woman is a creature of excess and spectacle, like the films she decorates. For apolysemic, pic-and-mix cinema such as our current one, she is the perfect symbol, combining fear and nostalgia in equal amounts.” Kate Stables, from “The Postmodern Always Rings Twice.”
Q: Who is she? When was this footage taken?
A: Lana Del Rey. Contemporaneous with the making of the “Carmen” video.
The collapse of the symbolic order has opened up vast, empty spaces in the realm of signs.
The dark shadow of the doorway. “At that the priest was enflamed by the sacred fighting urge which comes upon those whose hearts are dedicated to God as soon as they sense the imminence of the evil one; it comes like the growth of life upon the seed of corn or the opening flower or upon the warrior who is confronted by his opponent’s drawn sword.” Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider.
“Our popular culture functions as a myth for our society: it both expresses and reproduces the ideologies necessary to the existence of the social structure. Mythology is remarkably responsive to changing needs in society.” Janey Place, from “Women in Film Noir”
The ruthless individual, creeping closer frame by frame, is the bearer of this gaze. He is responsible for the trouble that is to come. He feels himself falling asleep and then willfully dreams of being held in the arms of another to keep himself awake. He recalls a childhood fragment: the hot wind blowing sand and dust from the low desert through the trees. The “Carmen” video frame before you now is blurred and unsteady. The dance pole has shifted to a blue-green vertical distortion in the analog image.
“Sir, transmit / the whiteout. Wait for the white to unfocus you, but don’t wait. Can / you feel the animal breath watching? Its slow teeth watching.” Christine Hume, “Hibernating Sir, Today Is The Day,” from her collection of poems Alaskaphrenia.
The actors acting. Who are these people? What is the nature of their desire?
In the flow and context of shots, this one causes the most damage. It implicates you. It aligns you with the greedy-faced man on the screen.
Everything, everything about our loss is recorded now. Nothing is secret.
Color, beneath the Sign of the Web. Strangely, the color image—rather than the black-and-white—assumes the aura of the past, of history. It is like those World War II-era Kodacrhomes: the more color saturated, the more epically ancient.
By now, you understand that it’s too late for you. The ruthless individual making his silent, invisible way through the “Carmen” video will turn his attention to you, eventually. In this frame, he has instructed Lana Del Rey to look away.
See shot #12.
She is somewhere in the city. The dangerous person is there too, nearby. You can feel his presence in this image. He is in the building at the center of the frame, looking out across the distance at a person taking black and white footage of the skyline.
The structure is unfocused, unsteady: “Before an observation is made, an object exists in all possible states simultaneously. To determine which state the object is in, we have to make an observation, which ‘collapses’ the wave function, and the object goes into a definite state. The act of observation destroys the wave function, and the object now assumes a definite reality.” Michio Kaku, from Parallel Worlds.
Elizabeth Woolridge Grant was born in New York City in 1986, approximately one month after Hands Across America.
“Are there ever humans who are not, as it were, always already gendered? The mark of gender appears to ‘qualify’ bodies as human bodies.” Judith Butler, from Gender Trouble.
Does your heart break when guys say that? This is a statement disguised as a question. The dark presence from shots #17 and #27 is reasserted here, stronger than ever. You can feel it in the degraded, over-pixilated image, and in the broken waves of light that emanate from the white source in the frame’s upper right quadrant. The warped confusion of the frame captures a moment so evil that no technology could ever bring it into proper focus.
The chemicals, the diseases, the parasites that change us.
“Once he’d seen a dog having a rabies attack. Springing about like a mechanical toy / and falling over on its back / in jerky ways as if worked by wires. When the owner stepped up and put a gun / to the dog’s temple Geryon walked away.” Anne Carson, from Autobiography of Red.
The home movie, in warm colors, coming immediately after the shot of meth chemicals. Images, today, are learning how to think.
“I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader . . . I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary . . .” Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler.
“When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy. To stare at the television, or mainstream movies, to engage its images, was to engage its negation of black representation.” bell hooks, from The Oppositional Gaze.
Part II forthcoming, January 2013