One of my more unpleasant, but seemingly ineradicable habits is that of bursting into nervous tears after a stretch of work that ends with some narrow escape, usually making the money I need to pay the rent. This is always a cliffhanger, the question of whether I will be late, whether I will make it, depending on when the newspaper or the magazine cut my check. And when I am secure, when I am paid, when I’ve written and edited, and even been praised, it is then that I am most easily touched. It is then that I am most easily plunged into a depression. It is then that the tussle of self-pity and self-hatred becomes a demonic, or, if you'd prefer, an angelic wrestling match, like Jacob pitted against the angel in Gauguin's painting. A garish clash.
So, being in this mood, last night I watched Henning Carlsen’s 1966 movie, Hunger. Normally, I have an intense dislike of movies about writers. This isn’t because writers live undramatic lives, which is the usual criticism leveled at this sub-genre of film. It is because the films fail to take the opportunity to strip themselves of drama, to royally purge all action, all theatricality, in favor of film’s own interiority, which is all in the lens, in the very timeframe of the shot, that glassy essence to which action here should be subordinate.
Hunger is Hamsun’s novel, his first real novel, and he produced it with the intent to strip out all clutter and sentiment, all drama, all high teas and ballrooms, as he said. Carlsen not only respected that, but he stripped the novel down further. But it is only because of Per Oscarsson, the actor playing the protagonist, that the film works, and works, and works.
What does the film show? A man in a city, Christiana, in the late nineteenth century, who is a writer. But he is not Victor Hugo or Arnold Bennett; he is, rather, a creature formed in that strange and mysterious interzone between all the classes. The interzone in which there is no division of labor – and thus he bears the doomed, archaic features of such a creature let loose in the world of money. A creature come from the country, the stranger. His instinct – it is an instinct more than a plan – is to approach the limit of what is socially possible, the limit of extreme non-necessity, the limits of the social necessity of the individual in him or herself. Why is this the writer’s task? Because this kind of writer is bold enough to address the whole world. Having no function, having stripped off the ties that would make him necessary in some way, he is at the opposite end of the scale from the great. He is, in this way, the very negative of a politician, He only represents that limit, that up-against-it, where, in the brief flare of his cry, one can see that there is no need for this particular person or any other. And thus he cuts the thin threads that keep us here on earth. Somebody’s love, somebody’s appointment.
Yet, at that boundary, the writer is full of pranks. He can’t help himself, when he talks, he has to lie, and when he lies, he believes himself. How can events have so conspired that there exists, like a crushing weight posed above him, this disproportion between himself, a man who feels sure that he can and must address the world, and the city of Christiana, where his application to be, even, a bookkeeper at a small grocery store is refused? This is how his hunger becomes a metaphysical trait, because, the more he sees food and the people who dine, the more childish it seems, deep down, this need to stuff your mouth. And yet he has to - he finds a bone and chews it, he chews on paper.
There is, as well, a business throughout the movie with his glasses. At one point he tries to pawn them. And he has these episodes in which the city blurs, it gets milky. He can’t accept this – for his spectatorship, his possessed spectatorship, is his one inalienable possession. It is the last thing, too, he can convert into cash. His last chance at elevating himself from the archaic, infantile world before the division of labor, that level in which he is stuck and which condemns him to a shabbiness and a lack of seriousness that he refuses automatically, to the cash nexus.
There is a marvelous scene at the end of the movie. The writer has one article to write. However, the landlady in the travelers hotel he has been staying at kicks him out, since he hasn’t paid. At that moment, he gets a letter containing 10 kroner. The messenger tells him it comes from a woman – the woman we’ve seen earlier in the film, a daughter of the upper bourgeoisie. The writer crumbles up the bill, throws it at his formerly landlady, and stumbles down the street. His eyes have been bothering him, clouding up, and they cloud up now. He tries to correct his article, leaning against a pillar, but he can’t see, he makes a number of marks with his pencil and they are not only no good, they mess up the page. Then suddenly, as though all the exclusions to which he has been subject hit him then and there, he tears up the pages, he throws his hat down, he tears off his glasses, and he begins to screem, Ladies and Gentlemen, all is lost, all is lost! Which is precisely true. Like Lear, he has learned that there is no place in this world where they reason not the need. It is reasoned to the least jot and tittle.
All is lost, Ladies and Gentlemen! All is lost!
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