Robert Lee’s La Capitale de la Douleur

Nothing funny is going on here.

Sebastian: Look, he’s winding up the watch of his wit; by and by it will strike.
(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

One can partially numb the sadness of past experience by transforming it into anecdote; a more complete (and perhaps more desperate) tactic is to make the anecdote into a joke.

Jokes collapse history; they tell a story in some amorphous, always-happening present tense. “Two bags of vomit are walking down the street…” Read that either way: contemptuous metaphor for worthless scum, or benign setup for a scatological punchline. Robert Lee’s watch shows at least two different time zones, and he reads it both ways at once; bitter urban nostalgia hand in hand with juvenile wordplay (and it is worth mentioning that the common response to a pun is not laughter but a groan).

Gonzalo: When every grief is entertain’d that’s offer’d,
Comes to the entertainer–
Sebastian: A dollar.
Gonzalo: Dolour comes to him, indeed: you have spoken truer than you purposed.

Money changes ownerless hands, motorized stairs ascend and descend, automatic doors open and shut, and unborn babies’ hearts beat; we can see from our vantage point that everything is progressing as it should.

This vantage point, however, is of uncertain location. La Capitale de la Douleur is the product of some new kind of security camera: one which remembers not only the lost moments of anonymous urbanites (thanks to ultrasound technology, surveillance can begin in the womb), but abandoned shots from the image-culture detritus which swirls round the city’s collective head. This camera’s memory takes the form of random montage: an endless series of POV fragments denied either beginning or closure; a city of dreams and griefs, offered for entertainment, looking at itself.

Look here: this might be a Hollywood tracking shot, its expensive resolution degraded beyond context or history, or it might be the view from a stolen camcorder pointed out the window of a battered pickup truck. The images’ dollar value is rendered invisible; the uber-camera wants (you) to believe that all pictures share the same proportional degrees of anecdote and truth, as if the ennui of a lone room’s inhabitant were as natural and predetermined as the flow of capital which built the four walls encasing him.

Antonio: Fie, what a spendthrift is he of his tongue!

Subtitles are generally trusted as a bridge of the gap between languages, but I don’t trust Robert Lee. The onscreen English and the spoken French are alienated from one another, two separate monologues in two separate spaces, like a pun’s double entendre snapped in half.

Believe if you like that no man, image, or word is an island (enchanted or otherwise), but you’ll probably be alone in thinking so. This city imagines itself an audiovisual archipelago, each discrete entity shaped and isolated by the flow of something as elemental as water.

Gonzalo: Here is everything advantageous to life.
Antonio: True; save means to live.
Sebastian: Of that there’s none, or little.

Nothing funny is going on here… and where is here? All the images of La Capitale de la Douleur bleed colourlessly into one another, enlarged pixels quivering at the edge of instability. They have as tenuous and untraceable a relationship to their original source material as a joke has to its sad inspiration, as subtitled words have to their spoken counterparts in the eyes and ears of the monolingual. This could be any place where condominiums go up to “hide the ugly neighbour children;” where people, taking time out from saving means to live, dance surreptitiously on a street corner and think themselves unseen; the capital city of the nation of dolour.