Thoughts On: Henry Rollins: Talking From The Box (1992)
Henry Rollins recounts a selection of stories from his life on stage.
I have almost no knowledge of, and have had almost no contact with, spoken word performances. Beyond one or two live shows, Henry Rollins’ performances are the only ones I’ve seen. And whilst I don’t have too much of an interest in this storytelling form, having spent quite a bit of time consuming Rollins’ content, a relationship between spoken word and film seems to have opened up an avenue or two concerning the way we may think about cinema. Before jumping into this, however, let’s take a brief look at this show itself.
By 1992 and Talking From The Box, Rollins (most famous as the lead singer of Black Flag and Rollins Band) had made more than 5 spoken word albums. However, this would be the first ‘album’ that he would have recorded video for. The performances themselves lie in some strange space between poetry (“poet” being a title which he refuses and despises) and stand-up comedy. It is best to let the idea of ‘spoken word’ define Talking From The Box, however, as Rollins is, in essence, just expressing–a mere euphemism for ‘talking shit’ as he says–himself through verbal storytelling. Understanding this performance as such turns this into a very stark amalgamation of biography and constructed art or entertainment; Rollins is telling us, in part at least, who he is, what he thinks, what he’s been through and where he is now in a way that has clearly been constructed for an audience’s consumption and reflection.
To take a step back, the concept of this show being an amalgam of biography and art is a pithy one that could be applied to anything within, or approaching, the realms of ‘art’. After all, if it is best to think of art as a term to define modes of communication that require some kind of router (router in the sense of a WiFi router) that facilitates a flow of thought and emotion between the ‘artist’ and their audience, then it becomes inevitable that what the artist projects will have significant – or just notable – touches of their personality, life and general biographical information on it. In regards to the art of cinema, we conceptualise this with the auteur theory, or, more commonly and less precisely, with a tendency to attribute a collectively manifested piece of work to one person; usually the director.
There is rhyme, reason, yet also discordance, surrounding this thought process. To take a slight tangent, to a thinker such as Marx, history may be comprised of collective ventures and events. Conversely, to someone such as Hegel, there are individual historic figures that lead masses. So, to Marx, there would be a French Revolution lead by the people, not necessarily just Napoleon. To Hegel, Napoleon is the historic leader to which we attribute many of the events of the French Revolution to. Without going into too much depth on these thinkers and such an idea, what we see emerge here is a problem of how to look at historic events and artefacts. Is there one individual force that leads something? Or, is there one abstract collective force?
Coming back to film, the rational summation would be that, this depends, and so the answer will vary between film productions. However, with an idea of the director being a significant one (added to this, the idea of a writer being a significant, though overlooked, one), there is a strong implication in traditional filmmaking that someone leads a creative force in an individually ordained direction. In such, the work itself is collectively sourced, but, without the individual, without a Napoleon, the work couldn’t be; it wouldn’t have direction and a voice. With such an idea making most sense to me, I am sympathetic towards the auteur theory and so embrace the attribution of a piece of work to one person, or a few select individuals, despite knowing that they themselves didn’t work alone.
So, when we look at films, we are seeing the expression of an individual. Cinema then becomes a form of communication that is part biographical and part entertainment. (And entertainment is there to ensure that the communication doesn’t fall into completely masturbatory paradigms of vanity and the audience isn’t forgotten; this ‘entertainment’ doesn’t just need to be flashing lights and explosions, but something that an audience desires). With cinema conceptualised in such a way, the way in which the individual – a writer through their script, a performer through their screen presence, an editor through their assembly or a director through the organisation of the ‘cinematics’ of a story – becomes a focal point of the medium. It’s now then that we can return to Rollins’ Talking From The Box.
With Rollins as the auteur of this film, the performer and writer, there exudes an incredible amount of personality and character from the screen. This is, of course, the consequence of the nature of spoken word. Spoken word, as Rollins presents it, is the rawest and, arguably, truest form of self expression. This is because the auteur’s body becomes the ‘router’ of the communication between artist and audience; their natural facial expressions, body language, thoughts and voice are all laid bare. Actual, staged spoken word performances then differ from cinema as there is a natural presence of the audience sitting before the speaker. With cinema, there is, of course, a huge technological mediation (a camera, editing, screens, such and so on) in between audience and artist. Nonetheless, with Rollins exuding such an eminent and overwhelming sense of character through his auteurship, he comes to separate the kind of biographical and entertainment-based communication that is occurring through the medium of film from your average narrative movie. With ‘strong characters’ being a very abstract idea in screenwriting, we can then use Rollins to better understand how great characters (Amélie Poulain being one perfect example in my view) may function.
With Rollins as auteur and performer, we see the ‘voice’ of his ‘movie’ concentrated in one specific entity. Because Rollins has information of, what I and many others would consider, great value that can be funnelled into this entity, he begins to become a strong character. And because Rollins knows how to present himself, to sell his inner-self with a genuine and effective persona, he becomes a ‘great character’. Great character, like great art, is then an amalgam of intriguing content and dazzling form; again, we come to the idea that art needs quality biographical information and entertainment. With these two essential components concentrated in one entity – Rollins as writer and performer – we can come to understand his kind of cinema as one predicated on ‘subjective impressionism’.
‘Subjective impressionism’ (an unofficial term that we shall be using in this essay), re-defines ‘impressionism’. With impressionism as an approach to art that is concerned with the projection of the experience or perception of an individual, subjectivity is deeply embedded into the term. However, whilst filmmakers such as Epstein mean to evoke the inner feelings of characters through impressionism, art – cinema – can only communicate with entities, what you could also refer to as, to reference Saussure, ‘signifiers’. Characters can be these symbols, these signifiers, routers or entities, but they are a particular variety of signifier. Characters are alive and, if they are believable, they have a certain quality that allows us to pretend they are real people. As a result, we believe that they have a subjective view-point. And so, to conduct an impressionist approach through an individual with their own subjective perspective is ‘subjective impressionism’. A brilliant example of exactly this comes with Rollins (but also other great characters such as Amélie Poulain – I’m sure you have your own examples of a great character, too).
Rollins, as we have discussed, uses his own body as the medium through which he expresses and tells a story. However, when he is filmed, more routers, symbols and signifiers come to be involved in the process of his storytelling. Thus there is an influence from the editing and camerawork that would become very obvious with shots like this:
With Rollins shown in a close-up and a wide shot simultaneously, and almost as if he is an angel or devil on his own shoulder, we see cinematics introduced to his storytelling, and they allow us to see him as two people; one defined by his body language, and one defined by his facial movements. Here we then see cinema use impressionistically to bring out new personality and character in the already cultivated screen persona that Rollins creates; a subjective entity is further brought to life through cinematic language.
What we then see with this shot is a kind of impressionism that sees form and content interact. So, to come back to the idea that Rollins is a great character, we see his own form (his persona) and his own content (his internal biographical information) fuelling this idea. However, the cinematic elements of this film also have their own form and content – as we see with the above shot. This introduces an idea of subjective impressionism whilst also implying that cinema has many different signifiers that it can capitalise on to create engaging form and content and, in turn, be a worthwhile piece of art.
If we take a step back from this subject and now question the relationship between spoken word and cinema, we can see that spoken word has a lot to say about how cinema works in relation to its characters and subjective impressionism. For information on how to create strong characters, we can then look to Rollins to see how, through dialogue and presence, he manifests a strong persona. It is clear that Rollins does this himself by exuding worthwhile information about his existential being and its relationship with the world (see how he often talks about individuality, relationships, travelling, strength, facade and emotion – core social themes of great interest and, potentially, controversy). Simultaneous to this, Rollins himself is a formidable character; one word seems to define his stature: intensity. Because his outer facade resonates so well with his inner being and he is self-aware – he practices what he preaches, and well – we see a great harmony exude from the symbol or signifier that he becomes when on stage: he becomes a great character. What this implies to screenwriters, directors and performers is that the form of characters must interact with their content to create harmony; a general rule for creating strong screen presences.
Added to this, however, it is key to understand that cinema does not function like spoken word performances. Rollins gets to use himself as the medium through which to tell a story whilst those who work in cinema must use their respective tools to construct and manipulate such an entity. And this is where subjective impressionism comes into the frame. A, for instance, character, is created and given form by an auteur’s own biographical information (maybe biographical information that they collect from others and integrate into their subconscious which they use to write with). This is creating a subject. To manipulate this subject, impressionism needs to be employed; a writer or director need to use their given language (that of words and/or images) to project the inner workings of their pre-constructed subject. And, in such, we have subjective impressionism.
To conclude, the spoken word, as presented by Rollins’ film, can lead us to think of character and cinematic storytelling from new angles. And from these angles, we may learn lessons on how to construct and then manipulate characters in a script, on a set, or on film.
Before we end, I should note that this post says much about stand-up comedy, too. And, as you may know, I have a strong interest in stand-up comedy and use it as inspiration in some of my dialogue-centric writings. It is then through that screenplay that you may see ‘subjective impressionism’ tested. (Though, I believe that this is the kind of theory that can be applied to many films as it is more an observation and less a technique – even though it could be used to inform an approach). Added to all of this, however, with ‘subjective impressionism’, there is an implied antithesis. And this is what we’ll have to explore another time.
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