Oblique & Otherwise: An overview of the usefulness of doubt (Part 5)


Now that we have marched a bit further perhaps there should be a bit of rest, and we join back with, if not Ilsa, at least Casablanca and the idea of holding more than one idea; or, more fittingly, holding only a couple of ideas within a complex and contradictory many. In the essay Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage, Umberto Eco explores systems for creating a cult movie. A cult movie, he argues, ‘must display some organic imperfections.’17 Even beyond that, he says, ‘one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole.’18

Though you could perhaps do this to a written text by reducing it to a series of excerpts, the tactic he proposes for time-based media is that ‘[a movie] must be already ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself.’19 He continues ‘an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images’.20 And a cult movie should ‘display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition.’21

Eco argues that Casablanca was ‘ramshackle’ in its production because nobody knew what was going to happen next, citing one of its stars, Ingrid Bergman.22 He further argues that it uses all the cinematic and narrative archetypes, counting 24 sometimes conflicting, at other times genre-bending, within the first 20 minutes. ‘It even [contains] memories of movies made after Casablanca’ listing the work of Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which might appear something of a leap, but perhaps only temporally.23 Marcel Duchamp once said, ‘art is a game between all people of all periods’ and you can see at least one echo of that argument in Eco’s work as set out above, and also later in Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence where he examines the concept of the ‘predecessor/successor swap’.24

If one way in which a film could be ‘unhinged’ and become ‘ramshackle’ is through its production, then a similar argument can be made for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 1975 musical comedy horror film directed by Jim Sharman. Eco could have talked about its use of archetypes from pantomime tropes, to B-movie horror clichés, musicals and even in Rocky’s birth tank, which reminds one of Damien Hirst’s work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Hirst’s formaldehyde suspended shark has similar coloring and proportion to the wrapped, neutrally buoyant body of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s monster.

We will recoil from the correlation of a moneymaking children’s theater, genres of the worst movies ever made and a dead shark on the indeterminate shores of reality for now, and maybe some beachcomber or romantically beach strolling couple will find it interesting. Let’s move on to other animals at the beach, ducks and rabbits, or the interrelated duckrabbit, a drawn illusion of either duck or a rabbit, in which it is impossible to see both simultaneously. Without being able to say which the drawing truly is, we find ourselves in, if not doubt, then a flux of uncertainty. This visually ambiguous linear creation has the possibility of being seen as three things: duck, rabbit, or duckrabbit and in time the relationship between your eye and your mind can transition through all of them. And unlike Schrödinger’s cat, simply looking at the image doesn’t resolve this uncertainty – in fact, it only aggravates it.25 So, within Eco’s essay are we seeing something new, or perhaps a re-envisioning of the duckrabbit argument?26 Are Eco’s argument of the possibility of unhinging in a film and the duckrabbit examples of two different ways of creating doubt or uncertainty in the viewer? Do we see a tactic emerging? Is creating something complex, something that is two things at the same time, like the duckrabbit, something that is large and contains its contradictions like a cult movie, a useful tactic for inducing uncertainty within the audience? Even Wittgenstein had his doubts.

Wittgenstein considers the duckrabbit a temporal idea tied to its paradox and ambiguity, and in a thought experiment he explored the temporality of seeing, but came to no defined conclusion. When pondering the difference between duck or rabbit he questioned, ‘But what is different: my impression? My point of view? Can I say? I describe the alteration like a perception; quite as if the object had altered before my eyes.’ Following further investigations, he mused: ‘Imagine the duck-rabbit hidden in a tangle of lines. Now I suddenly notice it in the picture, and notice it simply as the head of a rabbit. At some later time I look at the same picture and notice the same figure, but see it as the duck, without necessarily realizing that it was the same figure both times.—If I later see the aspect change—can I say that the duck and rabbit aspects are now seen quite differently from when I recognized them separately in the tangle of lines? No. But the change produces a surprise not produced by the recognition.’ In his language, he tries to fix the image in a time with words like ‘now,’ ‘then’ and ‘suddenly’ the ‘picture-rabbit’ and picture-duck’ but the outmaneuvering duckrabbit escapes him.

Within this frame, it is possible to see ties between this and Eco’s ‘unhinging’, the duckrabbit as an imperfect rabbit, and an imperfect duck not ‘reveal[ing] a coherent philosophy of composition’ and whether duck, rabbit or duckrabbit, it is seemingly a ‘rashackle’ construction in our minds. And if we now look back at Wittgenstein ‘then is… the figure an incomplete description of my visual experience? No.—But the circumstances decide whether, and what, more detailed specifications are necessary.—It may be an incomplete description; if there is still something to ask.’ Is Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit with its visual ambiguity a more static, and notably less temporal, but temporal none-the-less ‘unhinging’ within two dimensions? Is an ‘unhinging’ one of the rules, or more aptly a tactic one can use to certainly induce uncertainty, if that isn’t a paradox?

I’m thinking about butchers in Stornoway and it is inducing doubt in my mind. Was that Macleod & Macleod or Charles Macleod black pudding we ate before the hike? Was Charles Macleod the one who died this spring leaving 3.3 million pounds in his will? The conversation in the cottage piques my interest.27 How long was I away? Did they say, shaman? I’m still in the doorway half on the tiles.

David Greig talked about shamans in his BBC radio piece about dealing with his writer’s block.28 How many shamans are there in Scotland, or the UK for that matter?

When Greig can write he says he has the sensation of bridging the world between the imaginary world he created and the real world. On an occasion when he was blocked and unable to feel that connection, he tried drink, jogging, and beating his head off the desk as if some sort of brain damage would unlock or knock loose the writer’s block like a stopped up pipe. When he envisions a shaman, he also sees a person who bridges the gap between worlds. The Fife shaman he visits during the piece in a bid to beat the writer’s block runs a school of creative shamanism and induces a visionary state of being by using a drum and other tools.

As a writer, Greig feels that every time he makes a play he has to ‘confront part of himself’ and must ‘dig into the darkness’ of his soul.29 He is quick to say he has doubts about the concept of having a soul at all, that perhaps he does not understand existence in that way. But he doesn’t discount how that abstraction is a tool for people in understanding their own personal universes. Is the beating drum of a shaman a tool for sharpening Greig’s tools?

Months later, after going for a ‘soul retrieval’ with the shaman, his creativity, his mojo, is back.30 He has ‘recovered a sense of play’ and a ‘series of new metaphors and imaginary interventions [have entered] into his interior world’, concluding that ‘shamanism, religion, psychotherapy are all ways of finding new metaphors to guide us through the world.’31

Is he asking the audience to suspend their disbelief? I’m not sure James Garner, my former Creative Director at clothing brand Tommy Bahama, would agree. He would say that work isn’t the type of place you could light a couple of candles and some incense to solve your creative problems. Most of the time he’d recommend taking 15 or 45 minutes to solve the problem with pencil and paper, or a sharpie if he hadn’t stolen it from you and absent-mindedly left a cooling coffee cup behind on your desk. On a big project maybe I would get 8 hours. I’m sure the writers I’m with now in the dreich Outer Hebrides would understand James’ view. It must be a matter of creative perception.



17 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 3)

18 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 4)

19 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 4)

20 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 4)

21 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 4)

22 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 4)

23 ‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage (pg 5)

24 Though it seems unlikely, in physics time isn’t as linear as we experience it. But Eco and Bloom are discussing a different thing. If you are interested in further investigating how the past is being shaped by the present, I hear you should look at Mieke Bal’s Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. It explores ‘preposterous history’ and how the meaning of the past can never be fixed in place and is cast into doubt by the present.

25 Schrödinger’s cat is a 1935 thought experiment, or paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It illustrates what he saw as the problem quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. The conclusion of this experiment was that you would not know if the cat was alive or dead till you looked within the box. Until then the cat was both alive and dead hence the paradox.

26Wittgenstein considers the duckrabbit issue to be its paradox and ambiguity and the experiment resolution explores the temporality of seeing, but came to no defined solution.

27 Mr. Macleod was instrumental in getting European protection for the pudding, putting it on the same level as Parma ham and Cornish pasties. The status – Protected Geographical Indication – means it can be described as Stornoway black pudding, or marag dubh in Gaelic, only if it is produced in the town or parish of Stornoway. It has now emerged that Mr Macleod had an estate valued at £3,334,072 at the time of his death. His wealth included his £2.4m share in the family butcher business, Charles Macleod Ltd.

28 Butterfly Mind, BBC Radio 4. David Greig goes on a personal quest to find out if a Fife shaman can cure his writer’s block in a first person documentary radio broadcast.

29 Quotes from Butterfly Mind

30 Described in Butterfly Mind

31 Concluded in Butterfly Mind

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *