on the limits of art

I haven’t read the Haruki Murakami story Drive My Car adapts but Murakami’s locus of themes seems apparent: the centrality of sex, long opaque stories seeming to beg for but ultimately deny wider resonances, the intertextuality (especially with canonical western literature). 

(I understand Hamaguchi and team to have expanded quite a bit on the short story as it is stretched out over the course of the three hour film.) Murakami, a noted jazz connoisseur, also seems present in the film’s tasteful incorporation of music, both as part of the diegesis and as score.  

Like a lot of the Murakami stories I’m familiar with, the film is about the creative impulse, where it comes from, how it is sustained. It slots easily in the meta-textual sub-genre in which creative texts depict the act of creation itself: Art about other art and art mirroring life or vice versa are at the heart of Drive My Car‘s operation.  The movie unfolds in two chapters, united by a central character, Kafuku, who has been preparing to stage and star in a production of Uncle Vanya for over two years. A less patient film would not have allowed us into quite how intimately the narrator relates to Vanya and the other characters in the play.  Here we accompany the protagonist for many miles as he listens to his wife reading the carefully timed lines of each character, leaving space only for Vanya, whose lines the protagonist often delivers out loud either to himself or, in the latter half of the film, his driver.  It would be difficult to miss the manner in which Vanya’s sorrows mirror Kafuku’s own.  

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of interpretation and re-interpretation, of re-visiting texts and ideas at various points in one’s life in order to chart the way their meaning and resonance changes. I’m interested in how Drive My Car deals with re-visiting as re-interpretation both at the level of the personal, as Kafuku finds new resonances in Vanya at various moments in his life depicted in the film, but also at the level of the literary.  If Vanya’s grief maps easily on to Kafuku’s own (thanks to the filmmaker’s careful development of the relationship between driving and Kafuku’s creative life), there is another story around which the film revolves which doesn’t fit quite so easily.  It recurs at pivotal moments in the film’s story; a bizarre story Kafuku’s wife related over several sexual encounters and which is retold to Kafuku by a young male actor, initially introduced to Kafuku by his wife, later in the film.  The surrealist stories these two characters relate to Kafuku contrast sharply with not only Chekov’s, but also the directness and excruciating honesty of the real-life “stories” related to Kafuku by his young driver.  Like the stories which often fill Murakami’s texts, the wife’s story about a young girl who once was a lamprey and sneaks into a boys house to hide objects there is delivered as though it were metaphor, on the second occasion more directly, but fails to make easy sense.  When the young Takatsuki retells Oto’s story to Kafuku, there is only a brief moment of dwelling in its opacity as Kafuku attempts to re-interpret it through Takatsuki’s re-telling and his wife’s relationships with other men. What I might argue the stories re-telling prompts though, more than a concerted attempt at interpretation, is instead Kafuku’s turn to the young driver, a figure who offers him stories grounded not in the fantastic or metaphorical, but the real: in direct, honest experience.  

I didn’t foresee how much the creative protagonist in this film would develop not just through his art, although he certainly does that as well, but perhaps more centrally through his relationship with the only other character in the film who isn’t an artist.  I’m struggling to find a way to not make the film a celebration of the wisdom of ‘ordinary people’ (a la Chekov), with all of the condescending overtones that suggests, but it would be equally as wrong to understate the role the driver plays in the emotional evolution of the protagonist.  She quite literally accompanies him on a journey which not only prompts him to return her directness and truth in kind, but it is through that long journey together in the eponymous car, that Kafuku is rewarded in the form of recovering his ability to take the stage as Vanya. 

I’ve been trudging my way through the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s own struggle. I have found the experience of reading these books across the years to be really rewarding.  In part because of the contrast between the hypnotic experience of reading the profundity of banal details of someone’s life, but also for the sharp tonal contrast between the pages and pages of minutiae interrupted by the occasional reveries about art and anxiety. In the sixth volume I was somewhat surprised to encounter Knausgaard describe art as being quite often profoundly misunderstood.  One pursues art not to learn how to think, he writes, but to learn how not to think. I admit to being attracted to art exactly for the reasons he rejects, as a means of engaging with reason and critique.  I’ve even found inspiration from Knausgaard’s own professions regarding the value of challenging art, art that makes you think rather than merely occupies time.  But I wonder now if my earlier resonance with his own self-denial, the guilt which followed an evening of vapid television quickly corrected with a film or literary text that made one think, was short-sighted or self-serving. That gravitating towards that aspect of his thinking had more to do with me than him. 

One of the things I and many others admire about Knausgaard is his slowness, a slowness which translates in part to a certain attentiveness, the ability to notice and therefore be affected by what’s around him no matter how trivial.  Knausgaard would probably disdain contemporary discourse around mindfulness, and to be fair, Knausgaard’s narrator could hardly be described as a pinnacle of its practice; a great deal of the sixth volume of My Struggle is occupied by his inability to get emails sent to him by his uncle upon the publication of his first book out of his head.  But just the same, the details that fill the thousands of pages he has written over his life time reveal Knausgaard as someone who clearly has the capacity to lose himself in moments and memories. Writing and reading, although strictly organized into his day, are where he goes to stop the voice in his head and dwell in the moment.  It’s where he and his narrator have gone to turn off the ‘reason’ or ‘criticism’ or the something else that drives one always to think and see and imagine beyond one’s immediate present.  (That sense of losing oneself in the moment, as I gestured at earlier, is mirrored in the act of reception.)  

I had been convinced until reading that sentence in the last volume that my affection for Knausgaard as an author had more to do with the thinking than it did with the style.  I think I under-estimated the role his slow writing played in my enjoyment of these books, a neglect his terse sentences seem to court, but more than that, I came to this final volume at a very different moment in my own life.  My job has become about big ideas, about difficult texts and challenging art.  It can be quite easy as an academic to occupy oneself so fully with engaging and fighting the art and ideas of others that you lose the capacity to feel or think thoughts of your own: to not know where the work ends and you begin.  

Kafuku is confident he knows his text. He spends all of his time with the text. He quite literally inhabits it as it surrounds him in his car speakers. He’s equally as confident that if others will only let Chekov’s words in, they too will be changed, as he exhorts Takatsuki.  But Takatsuki isn’t changed. 

Uncle Vanya is an ambiguous text, perhaps like any Russian play, part of a world and worldview very different from our own.  Vanya is mostly a rather unsympathetic character, constantly complaining as the angelic Sonya reminds him to be patient, that life may be filled with pain, but they have something to look forward to. Regardless of its ambivalence however, Vanya is also a play that the film is at great pains to reveal to be intimately connected to Kafuku’s life both through its diegesis as its words accompany him throughout his day, but also quite literally as the words travel through his own body.  But there’s a limit to art’s value as a source of life. It can be a source of great solace but it can also be a means of refusing reality.  Driving in a car can be a great way of getting lost in the moment, but until the end of the film, despite his enjoyment of the road, Kafuku never just drives. Vanya haunts him.  The road is a place to continue his work, to continue engaging with the text which drives him.  When he finally, with the help of his driver, just drives, he reclaims the ability to just BE.  Not to think or dwell in some other moment that isn’t the present, but to not think at all.

 I still crave literature that, as David Foster Wallace has described, “not only calls out for critical interpretations but also helps direct them,” but I also recognize the value now in a way that I didn’t six or seven years ago, of not only not thinking, but not even reading. In an age in which we all seem to be collectively mourning our inability to just get lost, to silence our brains.  An age in which one’s value as an individual is based on your accomplishments, the quality of your thinking, the number of your publications, it’s a subtle but valuable signal that a movie that is about the value of art, might also point us towards the value of stepping away from it.

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