To find a kinship between image, sound, and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together of having chosen their place. Milton: Silence was pleased.
– Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph
By Hyemin Kim
In Dennis Cooper’s world, kids are like the special herds – the group of quiet and strange animals whose gaze and intensity for their undisguised desires and dreams captivates us. Perhaps like any other iGen kids, they would also talk through the screen, exchange freaky teenage vernaculars, and shift around fantasies of drugs, sex, and every little evil imaginable in the wi-fi world. Cooper doesn’t negate this. Rather, at its heart, he casts the figures of their dreamlike collapses and memories by carefully observing and embodying their singular desires, obsessions, and fascinations, through his artistic means – recently, cinema which is crucial to his continuing creativity. Faithfully resonating to Robert Bresson’s quest of non-acting performance of internal truth and silence, the youth in Cooper’s film don’t make public statements and justifications of their important acts. Without moral guile, and with ellipsis of explanatory confessions, they are different, attractive, and private, speaking to us in a secret language, sound, and silence that we absolutely want to learn about. And, to our sheer bewilderment, in Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley’s new feature Permanent Green Light (2018) which premieres at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the series of Dennis Cooper Carte Blanche (Sept. 5 to Sept. 6), a kid’s secret language and project are scaffolded exclusively unto the act of self-explosion and its perfect effusion into the void.
As the prose-poem like log line (co-written by Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley) of the film tells us, the story of Permanent Green Light is directly focused on the main role, Roman’s (starring Benjamin Sulpice) desire of disappearance – decidedly, self-detonation – and his procedure of doing it:
Roman wants to disappear. He’s nineteen. Disappearing is the only thing he’s interested in or cares about. He’s not depressive, religious, or suicidal. His goal is to vanish, dying is unimportant. He wants to be the cause of the act’s bewildering effect. After studying the most impressive ways he could accomplish that, he decides to explode.
This idea of the film on self-explosion has germinated in Cooper’s attention to an Australian missing boy (named Jake Bilardi) who had joined ISIS and blew himself up in an ISIS’s failed mission. Unconcerned with the chattering news on ISIS and terrorism, Cooper was intrigued by the mere fact that this boy lacked any intention for this terrorist attempt and only managed to physically erase himself in that act. And then, Cooper, in his horrifying and fascinating mental swirl which has been propelling his writing career, contrived this politically estranging yet metaphysically embracing scenario: what if Jake Bilardi simply wanted to disappear and just found the publicly compelling context where he could realize it. After Jake Bilardi, who is perpetually missing now as he may or may not have wished, Roman’s elliptical and enchantingly unaccountable portrait of self-effacement emerged that way.
Beyond their alarming log line, throughout Permanent Green Light, Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley present the distilled and clandestine undertone of their script, completed in English (identical to the film’s current English subtitles) and meticulously translated into French (by Zac Farley) for filming in France. For them, language is not a passive container to convey the pre-existing content in their minds but a necessary and enthralling sign, perhaps augury, to forge desire and its development and effect in an unnervingly intimate relationship with the audience. Although all roles – as minimally instructed by the directors – crystallize their language and perform a lyrical and indeterminate force through it, Roman, most symptomatic of his disability and incommunicable desire, speaks language in such tensely slurred ways that it undermines the audience’s comfort of seeing the bourgeoisie picture postcard-like constrained frames. At one moment of the film, Roman, holding his alter-ego missing ‘Pentti Monkkonen’ drawing (the work of visual artist Kier Cooke Sandvik) in front of the mirror, utters toward his mother: “OK. I will talk about this, but/I have to be careful because I think it’s all in your head,/and I don’t understand your head. /(Mother: Can I come in?) /No./If you come in, I’ll freak out./You have to stay there,/like a video.” In Permanent Green Light, the poetic performance of language, in proximity to silence and in its distance to an illusive appearance, disfigures the palpable identity and nature of characters and their relationships in favor of the subterranean fear and the excitement of vanishing.
This enigma and lure of minimal language centering on the thematics of queer sexuality, impossible friendship, and death, has surely evolved out of Cooper’s literary body of work that crosses fiction – most notably, the George Miles Cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, and Period) and The Sluts – graphic novel (Horror Hospital Unplugged, collaborated with Keith Mayerson) as well as poetry (The Tenderness of the Wolves, The Dream Police, and The Weaklings (XL)) and more recently, the scripts for theater works in collaboration with French puppet artist Gisèle Vienne. However, in the mode of cinema that Cooper entered with his directing partner and artistic soulmate Zac Farley six years ago, the effect of his written words has been amplified in a very different terrain advantageous to the expression of the complex, ineffable desire that resists a linguistic representation at its center. And the virtue of strange language in Permanent Green Light lies in its organic convergence with the trace of invisible dreams that cinema, as a virtual medium, evokes with its password-like assemblage of the signs of the image and the sound in its own safe-keeper box: the collapsed building, the fireworks, the piñatas, the Niagara board-game, ‘Pentti Monkkonen’ drawings, and the music of Thomas Brinkmann (“PSA”), Destroyer (“Don’t Become the Thing You Hated”), and Pig Destroyer (“Permanent Funeral”). Particularly, the lullaby-like lyrics of Destroyer’s “Don’t Become the Thing You Hated” (Don’t become/Don’t become/The thing you hated/The thing you hated/The thing you hated/Suns rise and suns go down again/Open your Strathcona doors/Let them in, let them in”) that Roman listens to while sleeping under a glittering piñata at Tim’s yard offers a key to the convoluted construction of the film and its shadowy entrance.
If Cooper and Farley’s first five-vignette-chained feature Like Cattle Towards Glow (2015) addressed power mechanisms in queer sexuality, and the impossible experience of desire and isolation with the abstruse visualization of his writerly obsession that defies the grammar of commercial pornography, Permanent Green Light is very different. In its resolute and utopic indifference to the apprehensive symbolism of homosexuality, dying, and death, the film both protects and demolishes its own place towards the immaterial zone of uncategorizable desire, purely epitomized by a kid’s metamorphosis into ‘human-fireworks.’ In the film, Cooper and Farley, perhaps disappointing their identity-seeking “queer” audiences, break with conventionally ‘transgressive’ subjects of queer literature and cinema of any sorts. They illustrate – and refuse to illustrate – a vanishing magic of Roman, utilizing cinema’s illicit dreaming toward the image and the sound zero-degree: in other words, the appearance of the image-less and silence. Not to mention the beguilingly imperceptible end of the film, when Roman insists on listening to the explosive sound through the speaker, not through the headphones, it provokes the idea that Roman wishes to experience the images and the emotion of something unwatchable and loud (and simultaneously quiet) that trespasses the conventional sensory boundary of cinema. Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac (2008) where the obscure texture of darkness and sound abounds in ways of shaping the passion and crime central to the film would parallel Permanent Green Light in its realization of gruesome sensations and affect.
Permanent Green Light, reminiscent of Masao Adachi’s A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969) and James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986), repeatedly and slowly renders the landscape of the minimalistic buildings and town devoid of human figures. The uniform figure of the landscape, as Japanese leftist filmmaker Masao Adachi addressed in fûkeiron (“landscape theory”), implies the underlying social structure that would alienate and suffocate its inhabitants, and evokes an intangible yet strong sense of crime. Whereas Cooper and Farley were unaware of Adachi’s perception of this violence that permeates the landscape, it’s interesting to think about the film’s eerie effect from its ways of portraying the landscape. Despite the beauty of Cherbourg, a city on the ocean, Cooper and Farley deliberately filmed only the oceanless, contained land of the city. And in the film, they display the buildings like paper mâché houses where small persons, the main roles of the film, live in with uneventful routines. They sometimes connect with others, but their relationships and friendships are oblique and incomplete, and largely unexplained. (A boy goes to the amusement park alone and bursts into tears. Another boy goes to the club and begins crying in dancing to the harsh electronic sounds. And a girl collects and wears suicide vests in hopes of death.) They build a community in a sense, but they also easily disperse for their important acts: either suicide or self-explosion. Although the flippant ideological reading of Permanent Green Light wouldn’t do justice to this meta-cinematic and poetic film, the correlation between the landscape and the crime (self-destruction) in the film rumbles the horror in Adachi’s anti-subjective report of 19-year-old serial killer Norio Nagayama as well as Benning’s Landscape Suicide which mechanically sketches a pair of crimes by Bernadette Protti and Ed Gein surfaced in the American middle-class mundane landscape.
The Director of Programming of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Dennis Lim, invites the audience to the series of Dennis Cooper Carte Blanche with this curatorial note below:
“I’ve long been a fan of Dennis’s fiction, and it has been fascinating to see how a sensibility as singular and obsessive as his translates from the page to the screen. As a writer who deals often with desire, fantasy, and taboo, he pushes the limits of what can be described and represented, and it’s interesting to consider what that might mean in cinema as opposed to literature.
You can tell from his very popular blog that Dennis is a true polymath and cinephile, and Permanent Green Light is clearly the work of directors who have thought a lot about cinema. I wanted Zac and Dennis to have the opportunity to discuss not just their own work but also filmmakers and films that have inspired them in some way. Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac and James Benning’s Landscape Suicide are both remarkable, rarely screened films, not exactly obvious choices, but you can certainly see the affinities with Zac and Dennis’s work.”
Dennis Cooper Carte Blanche: September 5 to September 6, 2018, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York.