Moviematic Moments on the Road:
“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”

a contribution by Markus Rheindorf

Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia.
Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.
— Jean Baudrillard (America, 9)

The following essay is grounded more or less directly in my experiences of and on the road, traveling down the Mississippi Valley with a group of about 20 other students and professors in the course of course entitles “Live(s) on the Mississippi”. For many of us (the majority of us were, indeed, Europeans, but this was true also for the Americans among us), what we saw and encountered on the road created a strange sensation of familiarity, of déjà vu, that fascinated and irritated us in equal measure. Being human, we tried to understand and explain this feeling to ourselves, and thus naturally tried to put a name to it in order to be better equipped to handle it. Not satisfied with any of the terms of cultural studies we had at our disposal, some of us began looking for a new term, a new word, to describe our feelings of simultaneous familiarity and alienation. This optimistic and almost pre-lapsarian attempt at naming the unknown finally resulted in the neologism “moviematic”. As the term readily reveals, we had focused – though instinctively and without reflection – on the fact that what we felt was actually the sense of having entered a movie, of having stepped right through the screen and into the supposedly fictional world of a Hollywood movie. Thinking back on the smug satisfaction I felt then at having successfully exorcised the feeling by putting a name to it, it stuns me how I could have overlooked the actual implications of the term I had just come up with. It was, of course, much closer to the disturbing truth of our experiences than I realized then. Its most significant implication, of course, is that we are living, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, in a world of simulacra, a world of the always already before, dominated by that which exists only as a copy of an original whose existence can no longer be verified.

In fact, Jean Baudrillard opens his America by citing as a caption this commonplace warning concerning the deceiving appearance of objects from a car’s passenger-side mirror: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Since he does not proceed to elaborate on his choice, nor, indeed, to explain what prompted him to quote this ubiquitous message, reader are pretty much left to their own devices to determine his intentions. Not that I paid much attention to any of this when I first read America; it took the real presence of this cryptic warning, reinforced by prolonged exposure, to prompt me to remember and consider Baudrillard’s caption.[1] Going back to his work and re-reading it some time after this, what I eventually came up with were two mutually exclusive possibilities. The first relates to the basic physical properties of the convex mirror – that is, distorting the image reflected so that it appears farther away than it actually is. Obvious as it may seem, this fact has important consequences for Baudrillard’s initial chapter, entitled “Vanishing Point,” which concerns mainly what he calls the indifference and abstraction of the desert as the American landscape as one speeds through it; while the landscape itself sets into operation an aesthetics of disappearance that is a direct function of the road (and of being on the road), the fact that these surroundings are to a significant extent mediated by the mirror plays an important role in Baudrillard’s argument. The convex side-view mirror, so Baudrillard, confirms this disappearance of the self by an illusion of speed: by glancing into it one sees the vehicles and landmarks one has just passed suddenly far in the distance, thus increasing the sensation of speed and transience.

Second, deliberately misreading the warning, Baudrillard might very well be alluding to his own notion of hyperreality. In other words, when simulated or reproduced in the mirror, reality comes closer; we connect and interface with it as a reproduction of the real. This reading, of course, deliberately misinterprets the message, for the curved surface of a convex mirror does not bring the objects it reflects closer but casts them away, making them smaller than when seen in a flat mirror. However, this misreading is a conscious playing on the ambiguous wording of the warning. It should say “Objects are closer than they appear in the mirror.” As written, the phrase suggests in true Baudrillardian fashion that objects exist not in reality but in the mirror: they do not appear in the mirror – they are in the mirror. Moreover, they are closer in the mirror than they appear in reality, since the reproduction created by the mirror’s reflecting surface is of course nearer to the spectator than the original. Regardless of which way we read the warning, the mirror distorts.

These, however, are also the exact properties of the simulacrum or perfect replica of reality: on the one hand, its constant, identical reproduction (now largely digital) elicits a sense of familiarity and closeness, while, on the other hand, its original referent remains indeterminable, effectively lost among an infinite number of reproductions. In the manner outlined by me above, car mirrors and windshields alike function in ways strikingly similar to the photographic or cinematic simulacrum. The glass surface of both, like the lens of the camera, refracts and frames the passing roadside. But the windshield and mirrors of a car (or van, for that matter) are not only lenses, they are also screens across which images flicker and then disappear. More precisely, like the convex side-mirror (in Baudrillard’s suggested reading) the windshield brings the objects refracted through it closer to the driver. The landscape and cityscape images seem pasted directly before one’s eyes onto the windshield, flattened out on it, not so much as on a movie screen as on a television set.[2]

At the same time that it brings objects nearer, however, the windshield distances and isolates the driver from his surroundings. But since the edges of the windshield also make the driver aware of looking through something, this frame moreover evokes the camera shot that similarly cuts and selects. The genre that has come to define the notion of road in present-day cinema, the road movie, can be seen as utilizing that very property of the windshield in order to establish a parallel between the cultural significance of the camera and being on the road. As Timothy Corrigan has argued, “in the road movie the camera adopts the framed perspective of the vehicle itself. In this genre, the perspective of the camera comes closest of any genre to the mechanical unrolling of images that defines the movie camera” (A Cinema without Walls, 145-46).

But windshield and film overlap in even more ways than this. Both seem to entail isolated, solitary viewing. Even if one is in company, being on the road largely consists of not talking to each other. One travels in a car as if sitting alone in a movie theatre, in blank solitude, with the images unfolding before one. The sheer flux of images washing over the windshield seems to break down any resistance.

The pace and plot of my own road movie, that is, the visual experience unfolding around me in the course of the trip, were of course, radically different from the typically action-packed road movie produced by Hollywood cinema. Rather, the road movie I was spectator to resembled more the road movies of Wim Wenders, a truly postmodern de-centering of the subject. It strikes me as remarkable how well that description fits with even the most trivial, seemingly insignificant incidents on the road. Take, for instance, the generally uncontested view that, in postmodernity, the category of space has come to replace that of time. Once on the van, when waking from fragmentary sleep and correspondingly fragmented dreams, I remember asking how long I had slept and someone responding by telling me the approximate number of miles I had slept. As theory tells us, even though time on the road is thus measured in space, space itself is still not very much differentiated (the response I received did, after all, not offer this or that city or landmark as a means of spatial orientation, but rather anonymous miles).

Frequently, a reflection in the glass would draw attention not to what it reflected but to the glass pane itself, its structure and small imperfections. Like a TV-screen, it seemed mere surface, while the images on it appeared as blank and non-referential as its clear reflecting surface. And yet, the flow of signs across the two-dimensional windshield was almost ceaseless, transient, and arbitrary. To one of my colleagues and myself, there seemed to be only one alternative to letting this flood wash over us without responding to it; to engage it, record it, and, if possible, transform it into a new pattern that would have meaning. The result were a number of improvised and fragmentary road poems that consisted to a considerable extent of messages (road signs, billboards and other texts) that kept flashing at us intermittently. Our main achievement, I now realize, was to provide these already existing texts with a structure and thus invest them with a meaning that could not have existed outside of our experiencing them.

But to return to my initial concern with the confusion between real and reproduced. The landscape on the road (as seen through the actual windshield or the figurative windshield of human experience) not only unfolds like a movie, but like other movies. The windscreen does not open onto the landscape but reproduces it on its two-dimensional screen; this copy then refers not to nature “out there” but to another reproductive medium, cinema. For late twentieth-century travelers, the road movie and the American landscape are inseparably linked, and even more so for European travelers for once encountering America outside the media. As Baudrillard observes in America, “It is useless to seek to strip the desert [of which he speaks as the American landscape] of its cinematic aspects in order to restore its original essence; those features are thoroughly superimposed upon it and will not go away” (America, 69). In fact, Baudrillard goes on to suggest that one can no longer say the American landscape has an “original essence” at all. In a similar vein, Wim Wenders, commenting on one of his road movies, has also asked, “Is America not an invention of the movies?” (Emotion Pictures, 119). What one finds in these statements and what we found time and again during our time in the Mississippi Valley is a subversion of the notion of authenticity as it existed in modernity. As happens so frequently in tourist activities, what is perceived as authentic today largely depends on the spectators’ ability to establish a correspondence between the thing before their eyes and familiar reproductions of it. In other words, reality no longer gauges the accuracy of the copy; rather, the copy authenticates reality.

What one can thus observe today is a reversal of the original meaning of the word “authentic” as derived from the Greek autos, meaning the self, or that which exists by itself and on its own. At this stage of post-modernity (or late capitalism), the authentic no longer exists except by virtue of its simulacra.


Notes:

[1] European cars and their mirrors, strangely enough, do not feature the same message that American ones do, hence my unfamiliarity with the warning prior to the “Live(s) on the Mississippi” trip.

[2] There is, of course, at least in principle, always the possibility of breaking through this encapsulation by screens by opening a window and interfacing with the world outside through physical contact with the wind. This, however, is usually prevented through the joint tyranny of climate and air-conditioning.


References:

Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso, 1989.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam. New Bruswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991.

Wenders, Wim. “The American Dream.” In: Wim Wenders. Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. Sean Whiteside. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989.

Wenders, Wim. Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. Sean Whiteside. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989.

 

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