“Making Future Love Tonight” and the Cosmic Audience
“Making Future Love Tonight” and the Cosmic Audience
By Kara Keeling
The title of the panel in which I participated during Berlin Critics’ Week 2021 was “Making Future Love Tonight,” a reference to the lyrics of a song released in 1978 by the Dutch New Wave band Gruppo Sportivo entitled “Beep Beep Love.” I want to take the provocation in that panel title as an opportunity to reflect on a few of the themes that emerged during the two-day conference surrounding Berlin Critics’ Week. The formulation “making future love tonight” asks that we think about “the present” and “the future” simultaneously. It posits that some sense of a “future” inheres in “tonight.” In the context of the song “Beep Beep Love,” this present future is possible because the ship of a feminine being, described in the lyrics as “mad love from Venus,” ran out of gas and landed on the singer’s roof. The feminine being’s “alienness” provides the rationale through which the love-making in the song can be described as “future love.” According to the logic of the song’s lyrics, the alien’s landing must be a harbinger of a future in which aliens exist. The logic is that aliens do not presently exist in the singer’s world. Hence, the love the singer and the alien make during the night, as narrated in the song, must be “future love” because it is an act that is seemingly impossible.
Yet, still, several of the presentations and debates during Berlin Critics’ Week also make future love or, at least, it might be argued that they do so. Many of them offered theories, criticism, and insights without guarantees. They did so out of love. “Love” here is perceptible when theorists, artists, and critics engage deeply with our world, a here and now in which the future they are trying to prevent is presently possible and the one toward which they are working seems to be foreclosed and thus impossible. When B. Ruby Rich stated near the beginning of her opening lecture, “it is easy to be cynical. I am frequently guilty of that. But I don’t want to be on this occasion,” she set the stage for the conference to be infused by the spirit of what Antonio Gramsci referred to as “optimism of the will,” a way of working with(out) cynicism that attends any attempt to think beyond what is presently perceptible. Declaring cynicism as undesirable at the beginning of Berlin Critics’ Week, Rich characteristically clears space for imagining a mode of film criticism that opens films to the world. By refusing to be cynical on this occasion, she refuses to make assumptions about what the possible consequences of her talk, “Toward a Consequential Criticism,” will be for the unseen audience assembled on the other side of her Zoom camera, preferring instead to create an opening for future engagement and debate about the role of the critic. She explains that, as a film critic, she champions certain films. She states, “I champion consequence.” She champions films she thinks can impact the world for the better. We could say this is a mode of criticism in love with the possible worlds perceptible in films that are marginal to the mainstream of film criticism. It is a film criticism built (out) of love.
At the beginning of her talk, Rich asked us to think about the rationale for why we do what we do in any present. She called attention to some of the words at the top of the submissions page of Film Quarterly, the journal she edits. In the talk, Rich paraphrased those guidelines simply as “Why this? Why now?”, which she referred to as “her motto for the journal.” These two questions prompt media theorists and critics interested in submitting their work to Film Quarterly to account for the contemporary relevance and significance of their submissions. For Rich, answering these questions is a way of attuning the critic to the consequences of criticism. They prompt authors to account for the present significance of their work and of the work they engage in their writing. But the future significance of any endeavor, scholarly, artistic, or otherwise, is unpredictable. In this sense, film theory and criticism involve an act of faith rooted in a belief that once the written article is released into the world, there will be an audience for it sometime, perhaps even today or tonight. Yet a future reader is not guaranteed and the interests that animate future readers cannot be predicted. While the questions “Why this? Why now?” attune a critic or theorist to the exigencies of the present and the possible interests of contemporary readers, they can prompt only speculation about future audiences. I refer to these audiences and readers, whom we cannot yet even imagine, as “cosmic.”
Imagining a “cosmic audience” or a “cosmic reader” is my way of communing with aliens, those whose existence is, perhaps, presently impossible, but nonetheless desirable for me. If every present harbors futures we can neither predict nor imagine and if the future I presently can imagine — even without cynicism — is not yet one I have been habituated to inhabit, then my actions today might attend not only to the exigencies of the present in which I am writing, but also to my restless and gratuitous desires for futures that seem impossible today. For me, imagining a “cosmic reader” is an investment (if there will be such a thing) in impossible futures. Because impossible futures cannot be predicted from here and now, it also is a way of allowing for my work to be inconsequential and/or therefore consequential beyond measure. The challenge to which my formulation of “the cosmic audience” is a response is that my assessment of the consequences of my work must take place from and in the present, a present that obscures not only the impossible futures I nonetheless seek to hold open, but, often, the past futures others sought to enact and imagine from the exigencies of past presents.
The film Oumoun, directed by Fairuz Ghammam and El Moïz Ghammam, is instructive here. It is a short that consists of a single, static, medium shot of one of the filmmakers’ grandmothers in her home in Tunisia. In the mise-en-scène, clothes and other bundles of things are piled up behind the grandmother, who sits on the right side of the screen in the foreground. At the beginning of the film, we hear a recording of a feminine voice speaking Arabic. The film offers no translation of these words into English or any other language, so non-Arabic-speaking audiences watch the grandmother listen to the recording without knowing the content of the words she hears. The grandmother’s brief comments about the recording are translated into English. As she listens to the recording, she says, for example, “Thank God” and “It’s true.” After the recording ends, she thanks the filmmakers (who remain offscreen for the duration of the film), remarking “that’s beautiful,” before launching into a conversation about the quotidian details of her daily life. With the exception of the audio recording and a few responses from the filmmakers, the grandmother’s comments are a monologue throughout film. She talks about her children, inquires about how her grandchild (one of the filmmakers who lives in Belgium) traveled from the airport, and explains that tourists are charged more for taxi rides than local people. She talks about having a headache because of the heat. She conveys thoughts and information about her life in the moment in which she was being filmed while she gestures to those filming her, sometimes leaning forward and reaching out of the frame.
Toward the end of the film, the grandmother asks to hear the recording: “What’s that?” she asks, pointing offscreen. “Show me,” she instructs, “Play it.” She seems to have forgotten she has already heard it. This time, English subtitles translate the words spoken by the feminine voice. And again, the grandmother listens attentively and offers brief responses, such as “Yes. That’s true,” and “Thank God.” An English-speaking audience learns that the voice on the recording is that of the grandmother’s granddaughter, Fairuz. The granddaughter reads a letter to her grandmother, beginning with, “Dear Grandmother Houda, you will be surprised to hear me speaking in Tunisian.” In the recorded letter, Fairuz expresses her desire to talk to her grandmother about Tunisian history. From Fairuz’s recording, we learn that the grandmother has lived through “the French colonization, the Second World War, the independence, President Bourguiba, the fallen Ben Ali, and the popular uprising.” Upon hearing mention of these things, Grandmother Houda comments, “That’s past.” We hear that she was a trade unionist who raised a big family. Fairuz expresses her desire to know how her grandmother lived through all of this, as a girl, as a woman, and as a wife. When Fairuz finishes reading her letter, Grandmother Houda thanks the filmmakers for playing it and says she likes it a lot. The screen cuts to black. Over a black screen, Grandmother Houda says “souvenir” three times in French, the former colonizer’s language.
Grandmother Houda receives her granddaughter’s recorded letter as a souvenir. It is both a tribute, an act of remembering, and something that facilitates (re)memory. Fairuz expresses her desire to know the facts and affective textures of her grandmother’s life as it unfolded in momentous times. Grandmother Houda seems to receive that desire as an expression of love that she would like to hold onto in order to remember. She does not seem inclined to (or perhaps is unable to) convey her own memories of the times in her life that presently interest Fairuz. But Grandmother Houda’s surprise by the fact that Fairuz recorded the letter in Arabic is a manifestation of a future that Grandmother Houda perhaps hoped for when she sent her sons to Europe. The disembodied, recorded voice of Fairuz is like an unexpected alien arrived in Tunisia to commune with her grandmother. As Fairuz says, “…I am the fruit of your decision to send some of your sons to Europe.” She seeks, as she puts it, to make images of the past in which her grandmother lived, a past in which Fairuz’s particular existence has become one possible future, while Grandmother Houda remains locked in her everyday, a present which is recorded by the filmmakers for possible exhibition to unknown future viewers.
The circuit this film creates between the filmmakers, Grandmother Houda, and the film’s audience is governed by the temporal logics of “the souvenir.” The untranslated recording in Arabic at the beginning narrates aspects of Grandmother Houda’s life that are obscured within the image of her as an old woman. For Arabic-speaking audiences, the recording infuses the image of Grandmother Houda with a consequential past that perhaps seems inconsistent with the cluttered decor of her dwelling or with the banal nature of her conversation present in the time of the film’s viewing. For a viewer who does not understand Arabic, these aspects of her life remain hidden in the present image onscreen until the recording is played a second time with English translation. (I do not know whether the film has subtitles in other languages as well.) For the non-Arabic-speaking viewer, it is only at the end of the film when, upon receiving the translation of the recording, Grandmother Houda’s past is returned to her image. The image itself remains a static, medium shot of her throughout the short film, but the subtitles of Fairuz’s recorded letter allows non-Arabic-speaking viewers to perceive something else in the image of Grandmother Houda. We can perceive something of the futures she set in motion, whether by sending her sons to Europe, participating in the trade unions, living under French colonization, or raising her large family.
We cannot know whether the present in which she is being recorded, listening to her granddaughter’s letter, is the future she imagined or predicted when she did those now-consequential things. Nonetheless, what we witness over the course of the film is the production of a souvenir, a vehicle through which a past might return to a present and remain available in and for a future and the cosmic audiences who might dwell there.
A video of the panel and the entire conference day can be found here.