Cinema and the Drive in the Digital Age
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Cinema and the Drive in the Digital Age
Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema by Todd McGowan; University of Minnesota Press, 2011

Toward the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004), Joel and Clementine come to learn that by falling in love they are about to repeat their earlier relationship. When that relationship went sour, they decided to literally erase each other from their memories. Now, knowing but not actively remembering their shared, traumatic past, they are confronted with a dilemma: should they avoid the risk of retreading their own painful footsteps, or confront it head-on? They choose the latter option, the film thus leaving its viewers with a romantic union that is already stained by the seed of future failure that is the repetition of a traumatic past. As Todd McGowan argues in Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema, through this unfolding Eternal Sunshine challenges the structure of cinematic spectatorship: "In asking us to abandon the new, [the film] asks us to forsake the dream of escaping the trauma of the past. . . . It is only in embracing repetition that we can escape being strangled by it" (109).

Eternal Sunshine is one of the films McGowan considers exemplary of what he coins atemporal cinema: a relatively new genre that is characterized by a narrative structure that defies a linear chronology of events, and without that the diegesis necessarily demands such temporal distortions.1 According to McGowan, through its nonlinear narratives atemporal cinema makes visible the traumatic loss foundational to the subject. Whereas traditional, forward-moving narratives are ruled by a logic of desire, atemporal cinema expresses the more fundamental logic of the death drive, or simply the drive. Rather than [End Page 156] being oriented toward the successful attainment of the lost object, the subject of the drive infinitely repeats the failed encounter with that object, thus embracing loss. This repetition of the drive is the collision between the temporal flow of biological life and the synchronic social structure attempting to arrest this flow. For the subject to accept his or her unacceptable loss and to emerge as a subject of the drive is the very aim of psychoanalysis, McGowan explains. Instead of buying into the lure of the "ameliorative powers of time," as does the subject of desire, the subject of the drive confronts the fact that biological life will never be fully compatible with the order of the signifier: "For the subject of the drive, time perpetuates its wounds rather than healing them" (221). Atemporal cinema, in its movement away from time and toward repetition, represents, McGowan argues, an "ethical landmark" in the history of the medium: "One treats others and oneself ethically only when one is out of time and contemporary atemporal cinema works to place us in this position" (16).

As did The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan (2007), Out of Time interweaves expositions of psychoanalytic theory and philosophy with close analysis. And as did McGowan's earlier work, Out of Time does so in lucid, admirably accessible prose. The introduction is followed by eight chapters, each of which centers around a film representing a specific dimension of atemporal cinema. The order of the chapters represents an "increasing investment in the embrace of trauma" (34). So the book moves from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), which stands at the border between traditional and atemporal cinema, to Irréversible/ Irreversible (dir. Gaspar Noé, 2002), which makes the immediacy of trauma felt in such a poignant way that "it is almost impossible to imagine teaching the film in a college classroom" (207). (And for those willing to take up this challenge I would recommend doing so in conjunction with this chapter, as the text's astute analysis of Noé's shocking visualization of trauma, including its alleged homophobic tendencies, is among Out of Time's highlights.) In addition to those mentioned, the other films that occupy a central position in the structure of Out of Time are The Butterfly Effect (dir. Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, 2004), The Constant Gardener (dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2005), 21 Grams (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003), 2046 (dir...