Poets of the Flesh, Jugglers of the Mundane: Serious Endurance and The Limits of Control
Adam Kildare Cottrel
To always be doing something, to move, to change—this is what enjoys prestige, as against stability, which is often synonymous with inaction.
—Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.
—William James, “The Energies of Men”
Without question the most well rehearsed dispute about contemporary art cinema orbits the merit of its style.1 For much of the last fifteen years, art cinema has been both celebrated and decried for its explicit borrowing of techniques, most notably the long takes and deliberately slow editing patterns first made prominent during film’s modernist period of the 1960s and 70s.2 Representatives of this stylistic tendency include the films I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Satan’s Tango (1994), whose works have generally been referred to as “slow” or “contemplative” in an explicit attempt to pinpoint their value or lack thereof. The critical reception concerning this ongoing debate is generally represented by two camps: critics who condemn such films for their pointless preoccupation with studied homage, and those who laud this style for offering, at the very least, an alternative to commercial cinema’s insistence on speed, post-continuity editing, and digital embellishment.3 It would seem that art cinema during this period has been defined almost solely by its style, which has reductively been discussed as either unoriginal and derivative, or important because of its oppositional correlation to commercial films. Without needlessly reproducing the entirety of this well-worn discourse, I want to locate the crux of this argument in a difference of opinion about the role style plays in film more generally. In order to do so, I turn to film theory to more fully articulate the stakes of this debate, not because it is exceptional to other forms of interpretation, but because it has overtly raised the question of interpretation as a valued practice of art cinema.
Exemplary of this line of questioning is the work of one of art cinema’s most ardent critics, film theorist Steven Shaviro, who understands the phenomenon of “Slow-Cinema-As-Default-International-Style” as “profoundly nostalgic and regressive.”4 Shaviro suggests that art cinema’s adherence to slowness as an organizing principle is a retrograde practice, predicated solely on its adherence to style as a site of provocation. He elaborates further, writing, “It’s a way of simulating older cinematic styles, and giving them a new appearance of life (or more precisely, a new zombified life-in-death), as a way of flattering classicist cinephiles, and of simply ignoring everything that has happened, socially, politically, and technologically, in the last 30 years.”5 For Shaviro, the futility of this style is largely based on its strict association with the 20th century, suggesting that film itself is undergoing a larger cultural shift and its major paradigms of style need to adhere to this change. Specifically, Shaviro is concerned with the emerging digital media industry that has challenged cinema’s institutional hegemony. One of the more provocative claims Shaviro makes concerning what he understands as 20th century aesthetics operating in the 21st century can be found in his study Post-Cinematic Affect.6 Through a diverse set of texts, ranging from Nick Hooker’s music video “Corporate Cannibal” (2008) to Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), Shaviro looks at how film and other media are adopting new formal strategies to coincide with how “[d]igital technologies, together with neoliberal economic relations, have given birth to radically new ways of manufacturing and articulating lived experience.”7 Ultimately, Shaviro’s frustration with art cinema’s “outdated” style is suggestive of a larger change in how we interact with film under new economic (globalization), political (neoliberalism), and technological (digital) industries within capitalism. He goes on to argue this shift has by and large depoliticized the interpretation of film style, new or old, as a practice of resistance: “I certainly do not claim […] that these media works, or my discussion of them, or the reception of them by others, could somehow constitute a form of ‘resistance.’ I do not think it is possible to make such a leap, because aesthetics does not translate easily or obviously into politics. It takes a lot of work to make them even slightly commensurable.”8 Here, Shaviro makes a bold statement, suggesting not only that film has lost its salience in the world, but also that politically invested interpretations of film style amount to a questionable exercise without any easy or obvious connection to politics.
If we take Shaviro at his word, the essay that follows is “a lot of work” because it takes the politics of aesthetics as a serious practice for reading the value of style back into contemporary art cinema. To start, I want to question the self-evident nature of the above claims in order to complicate the ease with which critics like Shaviro have dismissed art cinema. My position refuses to accept that art cinema, let alone its interpretation, is somehow a lost or devalued project in the age of so-called post-cinematic affect. In my estimation, art cinema’s style is fully engaged with our present epoch for the very reason that its aesthetic demands our interpretation, and this act of interpretation is a serious political exercise moreover. In what reads as a response to the very interpretive practice Shaviro seems to denigrate, Eugenie Brinkema explains, “Interpretation is indeed the long way round. Tarrying with a text’s specificities is, in a manner, nothing but restless detours, strange delays, awkward encounters, and endless alternative routes.”9 Brinkema’s intervention, both unique and necessary amid the suffocating volume of work on affect theory, insists on interpretation as a means to confront the “myth of asignifying affective immediacy.”10 I want to suggest, with this intervention in mind, that the interpretation of art cinema today allows us to see how affect may “press back on theory” and how “a rigorous attention to form does not preclude other theoretical commitments” but instead elevates them through “an investment in the duration of closely interpreting the forms of texts.”11
For what remains of this essay, I argue that “endurance” is a key theoretical framework to understand the value of art cinema’s renewed interest in modernist style. In this regard, my study contributes to a growing number of texts concerned with affect, aesthetics, and the profilmic body in order to better understand the value of contemporary art cinema.12 This essay is interested, specifically, in engaging with two such texts—Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism and Elena Gorfinkel’s “Weariness, Waiting: Enduration and Art Cinema’s Tired Bodies”—for the purpose of taking seriously the challenge they pose to the tired criticism of art cinema today. In order to do this, I argue that it is only by expanding the concept of endurance that we are able to continue this valuable line of argumentation. In the first half of this essay, I consider how Berlant and Gorfinkel understand “endurance” as a concept useful for locating the body as site of struggle and survival. Ultimately, this is a conception I find both productive and limiting. With their explicit attention to representations of exhaustion and exploitation, Berlant and Gorfinkel both demonstrate that the profilmic body is essential to contemporary art cinema’s preoccupation with style. My investment in the concept of endurance understands the latter as a reading strategy for interpreting style. It proposes that art cinema might also be invested in defining the body through capability rather than just survival. I analyze two sections of Jim Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control (2009) in order to show how my conception of endurance allows us to repurpose the film’s use of style for the function of critique. Therefore, instead of solely reading endurance as a way to understand “capitalist cruelty” or “cruel optimism,” The Limits of Control offers through its formal attributes the opportunity to read endurance as a concept equally concerned with capabilities. I want to propose, in making this intervention, that it is only by pushing the analytical framework of endurance beyond films reliant on images preoccupied with exhaustion that we are able to continue this promising form of interpretation. I argue these points not only to continue developing the concept of endurance for the important work of critiquing capitalism from new angles, but also to highlight the timeliness of contemporary art cinema’s so-called return to modernism.
II. The Forms of Endurance
States of perpetual exhaustion—be they physical, mental, or even emotional—have become what a growing contingent of theorists, notably David Harvey and Jonathan Crary, describe as the principal provision of our digital, neoliberal, service-driven global economy. In recent years, with the aid of this renewed attention to capitalism’s effect on the body, film studies has seen a number of publications that challenge the claims Shaviro and others have made concerning art cinema’s value. As I began to explain above, both Berlant and Gorfinkel argue that the significance of this cinema lies in the way it brings to our attention the diminished state of the body under contemporary capitalism. For Berlant, this is the opportunity to question, “What is life when the body cannot be relied on to keep up with the constant flux of new incitements and genres of the reliable, but must live on, maintaining footing, nonetheless?”13 Gorfinkel adapts Berlant’s insight explicitly to the films of art cinema, suggesting they do “far more in their gestural and aesthetic economies than in their narratives to critique the institution of work itself and its regimes of social utility, placing emphasis on fatigue as a baseline symptom of survival, the constitutive condition of early twenty first-century modernity.”14 And, for Berlant as well as for Gorfinkel, the critical apparatus of endurance illuminates the body as a site of continuity in order to make greater sense of an epoch enamored with accelerated and unpredictable change.
Through a series of different readings, Lauren Berlant makes clear that contemporary experiences of life are defined by an unhealthy relationship to objects and people. She defines this relationship as “cruel optimism,” which as she explains, “is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object.”15 Berlant describes this point as a “relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic.”16 “What’s cruel about these attachments,” she continues, “and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have X in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world.”17 For Berlant, then, our contemporary condition is defined by a damaging determination to endure a compromised form of life. Her argument rests on the pervasiveness of this situation, which subsumes a conceptual shift in our understanding of crisis from extraordinary to commonplace.
Gorfinkel, by way of addition, investigates how “art cinema presents a boundless corporeal lexicon of figures, gestures, and affects of exhaustion.”18 Directing her efforts explicitly toward the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999)19 and Kelly Richardt’s Wendy & Lucy (2008), Gorfinkel argues that these films “ask what fatigue allows or conditions us to endure.”20 In staking out this territory, Gorfinkel determines, “tiredness is a problem of work expended and strain made manifest, a bending under weight, a bulging distension, a flexing shape. It is a question of endurance, how much a body can endure as a condition of its continuous survival, set against the entropic and deteriorating force of gravity, decomposition, decay.”21 The body, understood through these films, becomes a pliable product of work’s demanding forces. The body archives temporality and becomes an index of physical experiences, such that “the temporal processes of recent contemplative cinema ask us to observe a waning and fluctuating corporeal, material energy.”22 For this reason, Gorfinkel explains the importance of slow cinema’s stylistic form as one that reinforces its critical function: to frame the stakes of exhaustion as the defining marker of lived experience.
In my estimation, the value of Berlant and Gorfinkel’s respective arguments resides in how they understand film style as a form that helps us make social reproduction intelligible in the 21st century. “We understand nothing about impasses of the political,” Berlant explains, “without having an account of the production of the present.”23 The slow, deliberate pace of art cinema, with its heavy use of long takes and fixed framings, helps to highlight that our present, more times than not, is produced by “fast-paced editing, or narrative hydraulics.”24 It has long been the argument that intensified continuity evacuates the occasion for spectators to think, and conversely, that a return to deliberate, slow editing, long takes, and static shots may in fact lead to a more active, critical spectator.25 For both Berlant and Gorfinkel, then, endurance suggests one way to examine that possibility by attending to the tired and weary bodies on screen. That is, the slow form of art cinema invites us to think about the weary, tired bodies on screen through its plodding, exhaustive rhythm and aversion to cutting at a more stimulating pace. What is gained from the slow, deliberate style of slow cinema is a reflection of the phenomenal experience of exhaustion that more fully articulates this affect as a predominant social concern.
Despite the interpretive work Berlant and Gorfinkel accomplish with endurance in order to resuscitate the importance of style for politics, and argue for the specific value of contemporary art cinema, they curiously end up in a place not altogether divorced from Shaviro. This coincidence is not immediate; the implications of their arguments do not concern interpretation as I have already outlined, nor do they advocate for a particular stylistic form, as Shaviro does when he insists, “accelerationism is a useful, productive, and even necessary aesthetic strategy today.”26 However, towards the end of Post-Cinematic Affect, Shaviro suggests something closely related to their arguments, writing, “in the post-cinematic age emerging today, media works like the ones I have been discussing can be valued for what could perhaps be called their intensity effect. They help and train us to endure.”27 I don’t want to suggest that we can easily reduce these three thinkers to one and the same project in the end. After all, I have spent the first half of this essay working to distinguish their various understandings about what cinema is and what it can do. And yet, for each, the question or evocation of endurance always circles back to a position or strategy to endure in the world they define as cruel (Berlant), exhausting (Gorfinkel), or complex (Shaviro). In my view, Shaviro’s distaste for art cinema as retrograde is both too quick and too dismissive of the many unique and promising formal gestures Berlant and Gorfinkel articulate as the changing nature of subjectivity defined by a body ensnared in a perpetual state of exhaustion. Nonetheless, all three arguments render the body from a defensive position, calling for viewers to witness its degradation on screen, or to subject themselves more fully to the “intensity effect” of today’s infatuation with acceleration and ensuing complexity. This strikes me as a very odd way to conceive of the body, and moreover, a misidentification of endurance with stamina.28 By way of an alternative route, then, I want to outline a different conception of endurance that helps us rethink art cinema’s contemporary value. In order to do so, I push back against Berlant’s and Gorfinkel’s overlapping conceptualizations of endurance in order to circumvent Shaviro’s fatalistic reading of art cinema style.
* * *
As I have tried to demonstrate above, critics have cast the concept of endurance as an affective state one tolerates, even suffers, with growing regularity; in other words, endurance is about a subject’s ability to “endure” the diminished state of subjectivity under capitalism. In contrast, I want to distinguish between endurance and the capacity to endure. In my view, the potential to orient our understandings of the enduring body toward the question of abilities, as opposed to subsistence, opens up a line of thinking that takes us back into the world, allowing us to construct a ground where the work of the political can take place. This opening subsequently shifts our conception of the enduring body from an index of exploitative burdens to a corporeal vessel of effective potential. My primary concern with the former interpretation is that we risk losing sight of our own potential to think and act beyond the dictates of capitalist labor. Recently, these points concerning the “capacity to endure” have most often been understood as a condition suffered due to a confrontation with social lack or phantasmatic excess beyond the subject’s determined tolerance of it. We could say that enduring is unbearable because, and in the words of Berlant: “‘We’ seem to be folks of leisure, of the endless weekend, of our own exploitation off-screen, where a consumer’s happy circulation in familiarity is almost all that matters.”29 What distinguishes my theory from Berlant’s and Gorfinkel’s is not our starting point—I agree with Berlant’s summation above—but our conclusion. How, I ask, have we been habituated to accept this defensive position of survival? And why do we insist the body can’t actively engage the world by expanding its capacity to act?
The Limits of Control could be interpreted as a rejoinder to these questions, an extended series of images that poses the question of what is possible or made possible by reorienting our conception of the body away from an ethos of exhausted failure, and toward a practice of cultivating new possibilities. The plurality of circulating and immanent ideas surrounding us at any one time exposes and exploits a fissure in the human subject, relegating the body to a spurious divide in relation to the mind. Endurance, when understood strictly as the practice of “enduring,” is in fact a failure of the mind to imagine the body as unrealized virtual potential. Endurance is more productively conceived as the practice of cultivating a larger sum of faculties. Put another way, endurance is not about what is done to the body, but what the body does to expand potential and increase its possible abilities. In The Limits of Control, the deliberately slow pace, repetitive plot, and lack of contextualizing scenes or action—in line with art cinema’s current aesthetic fascinations—demands viewers, and the profilmic bodies represented, to concentrate for long periods of time on little more than a single thought or action. In my view, this demand, placed on the viewer by the film’s style, stages a struggle between concentration and our proclivity to escape and embrace the exhilaration of techno-driven distraction. The glacial quality of the film’s rhythmic design, with its endless repetition of wordplay and representational motifs, is predicated on the idea that action is the end result of sustained, intentioned thought. Similarly, the film’s protagonist, the Lone Man (Isaac de Bankolé), refigures the body as action-oriented—a site where movement, time, and decision making are measured by long term goals established in advance—and uninterested in distractions that would force him to deviate from the work he commits himself to accomplishing. For this reason, my rendering of endurance suggests the pedagogical significance of representational resistance is a condition of thinking its value through the film’s aesthetic proclivities.
With this initial conception of endurance in mind, then, let us consider Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control as a test case. If we take the critical reception of this film to heart we might easily side with Shaviro’s critique of art cinema, so that Jarmusch’s effort places us right in the middle of the misguided idea of resuscitating a style long past its expiration date. For example, Manhola Dargis, writing for The New York Times, describes Isaac de Bankolé’s portrayal of the Lone Man as having a “determined gait and inscrutable gaze that initially reveal almost as little as the elliptical storytelling.”30 Similarly, Dana Stevens’ review for Slate emphasizes, “He [Bankolé] has the carved, iconic features of an Easter Island statue and, at least in this role, about the same dynamic range.”31 Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian takes a more direct approach in his criticism writing, “This shallow conundrum is at once a dull thriller and a humourless comedy, the sort of colossally self-indulgent and boring film that only a successful and revered director could make—or be allowed to make,”32 while The Daily Mail likewise adds, “This may well be the most longwinded, boring and pretentious film ever made.”33 Despite being praised for its use of color and Christopher Doyle’s breathtaking cinematography, The Limits of Control, as these reviews make clear, has largely been criticized for its deliberately slow pace, repetitive plot, stiff acting, and lack of contextualizing scenes or dialogue. In other words, on appearance alone there seems to be very little to distinguish this film from any other in the slow cinema canon. However, for all its superficial similarities to slow cinema, I argue that The Limits of Control prompts us to recognize a key distinction between different ways of interpreting its emphasis on the body—one that further elaborates my alternative notion of endurance. In keeping with this provocation, the analysis that follows foregrounds aspects of on-screen labor that have been frequently overlooked by contemporary commentators. My analysis treats these aspects as the opportunity to theorize the body defined through its adherence to the cultivation of action and thought as constitutive elements of a theory of endurance for determining “what [a body] can do.”34
III. Endurance and Sustained Action
The Limits of Control opens with an out-of-focus exterior shot dotted with artificial light, then cuts to an upside down shot of the Lone Man reflected from a bathroom mirror. The Lone Man, adorned in a brilliant blue suit, cycles through the studied motions of Tai Chi. The movements of the Lone Man throughout this scene are slow and intentional; his demeanor is focused and expressionless. When the camera cuts we see the Lone Man walk out of a public bathroom stall. Standing in front of the restroom mirror he carefully puts on his suit jacket, adjusts the sleeves, and quietly studies his appearance before exiting into the terminal of an airport. The scene continues with the Lone Man calmly walking through the terminal holding a small carry-on bag, shining his shoes, and eventually taking a seat next to a man credited as the Creole (Alex Descas) and his associate (Jean-François Stévenin). Up to this point the Lone Man has been the sole focus of the film, rendered in a combination of close-up and medium close-up shots. The tight focus of the Lone Man in these shots emphasizes his body, limiting the opportunity to contextualize his actions or motives. The dialogue that follows between the Lone Man and the two men he sits next to is equally ambiguous. It is unclear exactly what is being communicated during this conversation, although it seems certain there is definitely something afoot. At one point during the conversation the Creole declares, “Everything is subjective,” which reads like a cautionary warning for viewers looking for narrative exposition to fill in the blanks. Like the movements of Tai Chi, the dialogue serves no immediate end; we watch and wait, readying ourselves for the film to announce its purpose.
The slow, indistinct nature of this scene is precisely what Shaviro finds wrong with contemporary art cinema—a simulation of older style attempting to appease cinephiles. Despite its apparent ambiguity, the film’s opening is essential because it emphasizes the body as a point of orientation. The film’s narrative presents very little help to spectators trying to make sense of this scene, or the film more generally. And yet, if we leave the expository dialogue and cause-and-effect narrative aside, we might begin to find the structural glue holding the pieces of this film together in the figural and gestural forms of the Lone Man’s body. Seen this way, the repetition of Tai Chi practice serves as a way to conceive of the body as the film’s chief emphasis. What I want to argue in this section, then, is that the film’s treatment of Tai Chi provides a structuring principle for understanding endurance more generally in terms of a body trained to sustain action. My emphasis on Tai Chi also aids my discussion of endurance as an active practice expanding the body’s capabilities to redefine how we might conceive of the subject of endurance away from exhaustion and survival. Tai Chi puts into practice the effective oscillation between action and rest. Accordingly, my discussion of endurance eventually seeks to present the body of endurance as “action-oriented.” The action-oriented body suggests a human subject defined by her capabilities, her capacity to act and effect action within the very difficult milieu Berlant and Gorfinkel describe so well. But, as I will go on to explain, action does not rule out rest. In fact, it is the latter’s recuperative potential that makes good on the former’s concerted effort in the account of Tai Chi I offer here—and in the conception of endurance that follows from it.
Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art practiced for its health benefits and as defense training through a variety of slow, measured actions. The foundational training of Tai Chi involves the dual premise of “taolu” or solo forms: a slow, methodic sequence of exact movements emphasizing a straight spine, breathing from the abdomen (a more efficient means to fuel the body’s muscles with oxygen than by breathing from the chest), and an exacting range of motion; the second emphasizes various styles of “tuishou” or pushing hands, which adheres to disciplined movement as corporeal form. In this way, Tai Chi functions as a physical index of temporal and corporeal being brought about by physical control and mental acuity. One could thus compare its slow, contemplative movement coincides with Jarmusch’s use of aesthetic “slowness” in The Limits of Control. But when read in the context of debates about the aesthetic politics of “slow cinema,” the film poses a very different way of thinking about the nature of endurance than Berlant, Gorfinkel, or even Shaviro suggests: it places the viewer’s orientation of a laboring body away from the operating logic of flexible labor and fluid work time. Tai Chi is a voluntary engagement with work, it is a self-practice, and is not determined by anyone else. The disciplined, programmed stability of Tai Chi frames the body laboring in this style as oppositional to the kinds of work Gorfinkel describes, where “fatigue formally becomes an end in itself, a wearying loop.”35 In contrast, looking at the statuesque body of Bankolé working through the strict and programmatic nature of this routine in long form provides a durational experience unencumbered by distraction. Bankolé’s masterful, yet understated, performance during these scenes demonstrates an even more nuanced examination of filmic corporeality. Specifically, Tai Chi offers the image of a committed, disciplined subject training the body to withstand the very conditions of fatigue, temptation, and distraction Gorfinkel discusses.
From this point of view, what makes this film particularly interesting is not only its attention to a body unencumbered by the brutalities of capitalist labor, but also its interest in imaging a body as a product of closely controlled practice, a corporeal possibility first described by pathologist Karl Weigert’s law of supercompensation and later by endocrinologist Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome.36 Both Weigert and Selye, generally speaking, understand the body as adaptable under the right combination of action and recovery. For each, the body is a canvas to paint the forces of stress. Stress, properly understood, encompasses the varying intensities of force applied to the body that either positively adjust the body’s ability to act or hinder it through exhaustion. Selye’s discovery repositioned stress as a two-fold form: negative stress, called “distress,” and positive stress, called “eustress.” The latter form is depicted through Tai Chi, where the body adapts and grows to meet new challenges; the former develops as a result of physical labor being sustained at too high an intensity for too long of a duration. While stress is necessary for training a body to perform at higher levels, it can quickly break the latter down and result in compromised modes of being—exhaustion, injury, even mental disinterest and apathy. Capitalism’s violence, as it concerns this point in the work of Berlant and Gorfinkel, can thus be located in its unrelenting demand of the body to perform tasks for too long in the same rote manner while denying adaptation, which effectively keeps body and mind imprisoned in a cycle of fatigue. By managing stress, or taking “down time” in order to adapt to stress stimuli, our bodies are modified in ways that provide new capabilities for us to handle the stressors we face and ultimately allow us to perform tasks that go beyond what our day-to-day labor fails in preparing us to do.
This is where I take issue with Gorfinkel’s construction of “tiredness” as a “reflexive holding in abeyance, the body waiting for itself to recharge, reenergize, or waiting for a shifting desire, drive, event, or an approaching relation to the world.”37 This seems to me to describe rest, to borrow Berlant’s phrase, as “a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency,” which is to say, as “an activity of maintenance, not making,” as opposed to a complementary endeavor to action.38 In fairness, Gorfinkel and I are looking at two very distinct forms of labor, but each is predicated on the idea of reproducing one’s self. The problem to which Gorfinkel’s conception of tiredness points is compelling, and I want to make that clear. In fact, it is the urgency of the problem Gorfinkel isolates that motivates my own desire to expand this discussion further. What I suggest in taking this step is that we can develop an understanding of endurance that also recognizes this concept as a set of formal qualities essential to the hard work of reading the critical value of political theory back into film studies. Now that the body as site of capitalist cruelty has been rightfully articulated, I want to suggest that endurance, defined differently, can offer us much more than a way to signify this problem. Physical restoration, construed as an intentioned and active recovery rather than a form of passive waiting, warrants its own consideration as a valuable addition to the theorization of endurance.
Part of Gorfinkel’s project in “Weariness, Waiting” involves the extension of Gilles Deleuze’s project of cataloging body language as a means to tie postwar cinema to tiredness in Cinema 2. Deleuze’s intent was to trace the body’s ability to archive temporality, a means, in other words, to account for the transformation of the movement-image for the emerging cinema of the time-image. Gorfinkel’s expansion of Deleuze’s method demonstrates the efficacy of this approach for defining contemporary art cinema as a meditation of the exhausting nature of capitalist labor. My approach retains the emphasis on the body, but does so in order to reach an altogether different conclusion in The Limits of Control, which I argue partakes in a new cinematic form focused on an action-oriented body to index acts of work that demonstrate endurance as a form of capability. In our culture, which both encourages and nurtures the production of reserve labor, it can be hard to be physically still without sensory stimulation, let alone to watch a film working toward an elaborate image of something in particular. The long takes of Tai Chi challenge viewers with this point, providing no context, non-diegetic sound, or other filmic comforts to “fill the time.” Unlike commercial cinema’s prescribed method of representing training—bombastic montage—Jarmusch demands his viewers patiently experience the temporal passing the body needs to absorb and make good on the stress these movements place on the body. For this reason, we might dismiss these cinematic choices too quickly since they aren’t immediately gratifying. The slow, methodical pace interferes with our accustomed sense of viewing action as a means of stimulation as opposed to disciplined control. Action as sustained effort as opposed to immediate reaction, in other words, feels irritatingly sluggish, a purposeless slowing of time where we miss out on the world’s stimulating excitement.
Endurance, as an accounting for the alternation between action and recovery, could be described as an ongoing process without end. It is a form of corporeal becoming, in the Deleuzian sense; it orients bodies in particularways, determining what each one can do by influencing how they engage and traverse space.Orientations, as Sara Ahmed argues, are about how we begin to act, how we proceed from a moment, a time, a place in space.39 As a point of orientation, then, thinking about endurance starts by placing emphasis on understanding the body in a specific relation to the world. The body offers us a starting point, a “here and now” that demands we think seriously about its next action. This orientation is not the product of happenstance, as I have just explained; rather, it reveals how we might train to perform in a given social state. For as Ahmed further suggests, “What you come into contact with is shaped by what you do: bodies are orientated when they are occupied in time and space.”40 Bodies are thus wrought in ways dependent on their contact and transformation with/from objects, affects, and varied modes of corporeal stress. What is available, even possible, is largely determined by how we find ourselves in spaces constructing any number of potential horizons: where we might go, who and how we might interact with, or even what and when we will do next. And when seen from this perspective, the invigorated concept of endurance enacted by Jarmusch’s film suggests that the possible is determined precisely by how we train our bodies in preparation for encounters of the everyday—what we choose to expose ourselves to, or not. Thus, we could say that endurance is about the virtual capacities we have banked that make some possibilities and not others viable.
Along these very lines, Tai Chi becomes one of the film’s hallmark images, repeated four times, to emphasize its importance in structuring our interpretation of art cinema’s slow form. In addition, the long takes and slow pace of these scenes help to demonstrate the sustained effort this type of action requires. The Lone Man’s training is represented in real time through these details, the meticulous movements; unhurried decision-making; and measured control over his body’s ability to engage an environment. Likewise, the scenes make clear that the endurance of movement in play here is not automatically adverse to rest; it can exist with and compliment its vast potential, even if it prepares the body for action through the recuperation of our virtual potential. The sustained action of endurance is contemporaneous with recovery, a provision for its evocation. Action is dependent on the physical reserve recovery makes possible. Action and recovery are not diametrically opposed, then. On the contrary, action is constituted by rest in reverse: one must first expand the capacity to act, to push the virtual threshold to a point where it serves the body’s capacity to act through its attention to this active recovery.
IV. Endurance and Sustained Thought
In the previous section, the Lone Man’s consistent and deliberate practice of Tai Chi served as an illustration for thinking of endurance as a form of sustained action. More commonly the link between action, the body, and film have been discussed in relation to the “Hard Bodies”41 of the Reagan era. In contrast, my theory of endurance is not gender specific, nor does it advocate a type of action associated with action films. Tai Chi is a far cry from the kinds of action we normally associate with these films. Endurance, cultivated through persistent training, is not entirely the province of action either. Although my argument relies heavily on the body to frame my concept, endurance itself is equally a model to engage with the activity of thinking as a sustained effort. For as much as slow art cinema seems to privilege the body, The Limits of Control suggests that an action-oriented body is also a condition of the mind prepared to work. This section attempts to outline endurance as a practice of sustained thought by analyzing how the accumulation of knowledge allows physical capabilities to manifest that press back against the habituation of action. To engage this point more directly, let us examine the adamant demand the Lone Man makes concerning the translation of his coffee transaction at a café in Spain.
In several scenes during the film a Spanish café is prominently featured. Two observations are prompted by these scenes: 1) the Lone Man’s insistence on drinking two espressos in two cups, as opposed to a double-espresso in a single cup; and, 2) the choice to include, by today’s filmic standards,42 long takes of the Lone Man waiting to meet his next interlocutor. Taking on the first of these observations, let us situate the coffee transaction as a model to establish the Lone Man’s knowledge in relation to the waiter’s habituation. Again, I want to clarify the figural gesture of my interpretation: I am writing from the position that these characters embody the form of an idea and that this is an illustration of how two ideas clash to make a reading possible. That is, and more specifically for this case, when social interactions have been rendered subservient to financial transactions, consumer practices ground social reproduction itself. Meeting his various appointments at the café, the Lone Man does not share his espressos. He is, in other words, not ordering a second drink for a friend, client, or partner; rather, he is simply ordering two espressos in two cups. The idea of multiple drinks—two espressos—in a single cup is already a question of the commodity form, or more specifically, of habituation to a general movement of material consolidation and economic efficiency. There is nothing inherently wrong with this gesture, outside of the fact that the Lone Man is asking for two espressos in two cups and instead receives two espressos in one cup. The Lone Man’s insistence is neither rude nor arrogant; he is simply ordering a drink in a multiple of two.
The real question raised though with this scene is in the Waiter’s (Óscar Jaenada) verbatim repetition of the order: two espressos in two cups. Despite the cognitive processing of this linguistic request, he in fact brings back a double-espresso in a single-cup. But I would argue that this isn’t just a representation of a bad waiter, or even an example of how our economy runs through the service industry. Instead, we see how the reduction of perception to habit and social interaction to engineered response is a condition made ubiquitous through the conditioning of our bodies under capitalism—the process of thought is translated into an action predetermined. To link this encounter to the larger socio-economical resistance being met by the Lone Man’s body I turn to Bernard Stiegler, who aligns “the new form of proletarianization” with “the organization of consumption as the destruction of savoir-vivre [knowledge of how to live] with the aim of creating available purchasing power,” a process that itself “refin[es] and reinforce[es] that system which rested on the destruction of savoir-faire [knowledge of how to make or do] with the aim of creating available labor force.”43 Stiegler’s diagnosis of an omnipresent pathology toward habituated labor, as opposed to artisanal work, further relegates the body under capitalism to the position of a de-individualized self. Put another way, the linguistic violence here—what is lost in translation during the transaction—is not a simple slip. It is a symptom of surrendering the body and its style to the rote processing of a homogenous commodity transaction; a day at the café is now a space for the institutionalization of the everyday.
If it is important to recognize the body of the Lone Man as an opportunity to rethink our tacit assumptions—assumptions that help to escort us unthinkingly through capitalism’s suggested life narrative—it is because these assumptions account for both a deficiency in our potential to think and act. The Waiter’s slip serves to illustrate the body acting on habituated behavior. The mistake is not intended but instead the result of not engaging and thinking about what was said and therefore what needs to be done. The suggestion I want to make here is that rote functioning—muscle memory gone awry—circumvents the opportunity to think, and even that thinking itself is a much harder act than we often perceive it to be. While simple mistakes are no crime, the film itself spends a significant amount of time on this scene. We are first presented with the order; then, in real time, we wait for the espresso to be delivered; next, the order is made a second time and we wait a second time for the espresso to arrive. It seems odd to spend this time on such an insignificant scene. The duration of this extended scene allows us to see the process of thought transforming into action to play out. As a result, viewers are presented the opportunity to not just think (as we might expect from a film invested in slowness as an organizing principle), but to see the transformation of thought into action. The confrontation here, in other words, is not between the Lone Man and Waiter. Instead, it is between knowledge and habituation, sustained effort and rote procedure. This scene questions what actions are possible without sustained thought. As accidental as this mistake may seem, then, what drives this mistake is a routine of compliance, and thus a body trained by a habituated labor practice.
The relationship between bodily habituation and the diminishment of our perceptual capacities, as a growing number of theorists attest, is one of the more striking features of contemporary labor practices. For example, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 is largely a study concerned with how the current economic and social milieu propagate “techniques and procedures for producing abject states of compliance.”44 “One of those conditions,” he further explains, “can be characterized as a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning.”45 The demand this sweeping economic principle makes on the human subject, in Crary’s estimation, “is an ongoing diminution of mental and perceptual capabilities.”46 One of those capabilities is the sustained effort to think, perceive, and act, as The Limits of Control makes evident—first through its representation of the interaction between the Lone Man and the Waiter, and second, by the formal decision to render this scene in real time. What distinguishes the habit and repetition of the Lone Man, then, from the habit and repetition of the Waiter? This question is answered in part by how the film presents the Lone Man’s labor as an exercise in how thought leads to action. His various acts of sitting, walking, and contemplating reinforce the slow, methodical style that returns thought to representation (e.g., the Lone Man silent and ostensibly thinking) through presentation (i.e., long-takes, static shots, in other words). The measured pace Jarmusch uses implies, in contradistinction to commercial cinema, that sustained action is the result of sustained thought and not merely the by-product of automated response. If Crary is right when he argues, “Sensory impoverishment and the reduction of perception to habit and engineered response is the inevitable result of aligning oneself with the multifarious products services, and ‘friends’ that one consumes, manages, and accumulates during waking life,”47 then the Lone Man’s capacity to move, effect, and progress through the scenarios presented to him are a result of his attention to self-care and measured control. I don’t want to suggest that the Lone Man provides us with a blueprint, a script to follow in order to evade or negate the crippling effects of capitalism’s cruelty. I don’t believe any such one-to-one translation would be possible. However, I do think it’s productive to align the slow form of this film with the deliberate and sustained effort the Lone Man displays without the compromises exhaustion demands as a constructive shift in how we might reconceptualize endurance as a critical term.
The Limits of Control, and the conception of endurance I have tried to outline throughout, might lay the groundwork for thinking about the circumstance of contemporary “endurance” from a different perspective. In place of the passive fascination with cruelty and exhaustion that have largely animated endurance as a critical term to this point, I posit the sustained activity of thought and action as a response allowing us to not merely identify an issue in our culture, but, ultimately, to help us think how to move beyond it. The allure of our current cultural modalities—liquidity, instantaneity, fluidity—is a promise premised on making life easier, faster, more thrilling, and therefore more enjoyable. By contrast, at the café and various other locations Jarmusch’s film seems to raise a provocative question about the degree to which such an environment negates our capacity to think and therefore act. To conceptualize a theory of endurance, then, is to conceptualize a theory of politics. After all, such a conception of endurance maps the virtual adaptations needed to actualize a more capable political subject; it is a way to conceive a body (and mind) trained and prepared for the challenges posed to it. What this film ultimately challenges, then, is the long held fascination with idleness, non-participation, and corporeally negligent forms of orientation that are often construed as a means to resist the exploitative demands of a socially utilitarian and (re)productivist society.48 These are, in fact, the very concepts, truths, and acts that seem immanent because they are the material habits afforded and circulated by capitalism’s adherence to conformity and habituation.
We have just given attention to how the impoverishment of experience through habituated thought and action deprives political bodies of the means to see, think, and act from a base of accumulated knowledge. The short-circuit of habituation reduces the social sphere of possibilities to consumer transactions, relegating memory and knowledge to the position of inconvenient skills necessitating rigorous cultivation in a culture founded on rewarding rote consumer practices. In thinking of the Lone Man as an embodiment of endurance, I conceive him to be capable of sustained action and thought resulting in a greater number of capabilities and the efficiency to enact them. This move, from knowledge to habituation, diffuses psychic and social orientations predicated on conceptions of an alternative social being who can imagine and possibly perform the work of the body differently. Accordingly, the two quotes that serve as epigraphs for this essay were chosen to frame the dimensions of my understanding of endurance with these points in mind: first, to more fully read the value of art cinema as a critique of capitalism, extending the work Berlant and Gorfinkel started; second, to distinguish my theorization from the growing number of publications concerned with endurance, solely as a means to identify a cultural symptom, in order to continue the work this term may offer to interpretation of film.49
Further, I want to clarify this project as it relates to how we understand action—specifically my notion of an action-oriented body. While I have made several suggestions throughout this essay concerning the political nature of this term and its critique of capitalism, I have been unable to articulate the exact dimension of this relation. That facet of endurance is, needless to say, the work of another essay. But I don’t want to leave the question entirely suggestive as it may read now. The larger question endurance helps us think through is related to Berlant’s suggestion concerning artistic performance as a means to revitalize action for the purposes of “valuing political action as the action of not being worn out by politics.”50 Endurance suggests a set of principals that help orient us to a better understanding of the body as a site of un-actualized potential—an understanding that the discourse of endurance as fatigue cuts short.
If the Lone Man is a hero for these times, and at the very least a figure oriented through the political potential of endurance, he is so precisely because he is attuned to, and not overwhelmed by, the ordinary crisis that Berlant diagnosis as all too prevalent in today’s political culture. Thus, part of this project lies in a return to a conception of the body that sees the latter as a place of continuous and involved practice. To follow Étienne Balibar’s observation that “the subject is nothing but practice,”51 I question through my understanding of endurance how this practice, under capitalism’s overinvestment in acceleration and liquidity, helps to develop the subject. If anything, The Limits of Control offers a supplemental understanding of the laboring body under contemporary capitalism. Further, cinema’s principal capacity to archive this bodily performance through its renewal of modernist film techniques sheds new light on how filmmakers are reimagining progressive cinema for these times. The body thus serves as a vessel for cinematic explorations of new possibilities for action-oriented politics. Here, we see endurance as both a recruitment of physical potential and a display of action orienting our place and position in the world—a visual collection of physical force that acts, works, and can even challenge the very limits of our control.
Adam Cottrel is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, Moving Image Studies at Georgia State University. His dissertation, Cinemas of Endurance, looks at the relationship between capitalism, the human body, and contemporary aesthetic trends in global art cinema. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from The Žižek Dictionary, liquid blackness, and Paragraph. He is also a frequent contributor to the digital publishing platform In Media Res, a division of Media Commons, where he serves as Associate Editor.