RESISTING TRANSCENDENCE: LISBON, 2014

Published on: May 15th, 2014

photograph by Michael Pattison

Depp was everywhere in Lisbon that week. Intrusively ubiquitous was he, as April gave way to May, on every street in the city-centre: his blandly baleful, moustachioed, stubbly-bearded countenance staring out from every other bus-shelter, every other free-stander, selling transcendence.

Or rather Transcendence: the $100m virtual-reality sci-fi thriller, directorial debut of Christopher Nolan’s regular DP Wally Pfister, which had already opened to catastrophic reviews and horrendous box-office in north America on April 10th. But here it was, being strenuously pushed to the good people of Portugal in advance of its May 1st opening (a public holiday: the day of the workers!), and by the simplest means imaginable: a big photo of its star’s proverbially handsome, unsmiling, airbrushed visage, with the tagline Ontem, Dr Will Caster era apenas umano (“Yesterday, Dr Will Caster was only human”) superimposed in modish King’s Speech / Social Network fashion.

What little yen I had to see Transcendence was gradually squashed by coming across so many posters, every single day of my visit–I was in town for the city’s IndieLisboa film festival, which specifically defines itself in opposition to such mainstream commercial output. IndieLisboa posters were visible here and there; but I kept spotting Depp on the peripheries of my vision, again and again, and half-expected his eyes to swivel as I passed, monitoring my progress. Paranoid? Perhaps. ‘Big Brother Is Watching You…’: in my own lifetime, Portugal has suffered under the harsh yoke of right-wing repression.

A hill-and-dale affair of vertiginous banks and startling vistas of wide River Tagus, multi-cultural Lisbon is today an alluringly diverse city in visual terms–but in other ways it can be quite maddeningly repetitive for the casual stroller. Certain chains of banks seem to have several branches on every thoroughfare of any significance–anyone wandering the city will spot dozens and dozens of outlets each for Caixa Geral de Depósitos, Millennium bcp, Banco Espírito Santo, Barclays and Banco BPI. Premises which could and should be independent shops and businesses are instead stultifyingly uniform examples of 21st century financial institutions–how can there possibly be enough “trade” to justify keeping so many branches in business?

With Portugal’s ravaged economy still very much in the doldrums, the banks are evidently faring better than most. Advertising is clearly also something of a viable sector: all of the Transcendence posters I saw occupied frames crowned with the small logo of Cemusa, a Spanish-based ad-space giant which is currently in the process of being taken over by the French behemoth JC Decaux. Their thousands of bus-shelters and free-standers aren’t just advertising specific products, of course: what’s also being advertised is the concept of advertising itself, such a crucial element of market-based economies all over Europe and beyond.

a typical Cemusa bus-shelter in downtown Lisbon

Cemusa (Companhia de Mobiliário Urbano e Publicidade S.A.) and their clients obviously believe in the power of brute repetition: posters promoting candidates for May’s European elections are conspicuous and fairly prevalent, but not on the scale of Cemusa’s clients such as Clarins cosmetics and Pris Audiovisuais, the local distributor of Transcendence. The thinking presumably goes that if one sees Johnny Depp’s face enough times as one navigates the city, the fact of his film’s existence will become lodged in one’s conscience and one will be more likely to purchase a ticket. But such saturation bombardment in such a heavily-populated urban environment (three million in Lisbon, making it the EU’s 11th biggest conurbation) has unintended consequences quite separate from the film itself.

On its opening weekend Transcendence took €109,618 across the whole country; with an average ticket-price of €7 that equates to under 16,000 tickets sold: a small fraction of the number of people in Portugal who’ll have seen the Transcendence poster over the same span of time; people who’ll have taken in this particular image of Johnny Depp’s face, semi-pixellated to hint at his character’s first-act passage from corporeal reality into a more metaphysical, technological realm where he assumes quasi-divine powers.

Dr Will Caster’s “transcendence”–a version of the quantum-leaping apotheosis of artificial intelligence which futurologists have termed The Singularity–is described as signalling “the end of a more primitive, organic form of life and the dawn of a new, advanced age”. Anything is possible in the utopian realm of Transcendence: whole cities can potentially be conjured from thin air.

This should, in theory, have struck a particular chord in Lisbon, a city which was effectively rebuilt from scratch after being almost totally destroyed by an earthquake and the resulting tsunami and fires in November 1755.

1755

It was the worst earthquake (actually a seaquake) recorded in Western history; 70,000 people died. It struck on… a holiday [All Saints’ Day]. The twelve-meter (40 ft) high waves slammed at the city churches just when the flocks had gathered. The impact destabilized the towers, which collapsed backwards for static reasons, crashing through roofs and crushing whoever prayed below. The brothels, located further up in the hills, were spared. The faithful died, and the sinners survived. This posed a theological challenge.

The earthquake inspired no fewer than three separate (and wildly best-selling) treatises by a young German philosopher named Immanuel Kant, whose analysis of the causes of such phenomena are regarded as pioneering (if, in terms of their conclusions, somewhat misguided) works of modern seismology.

In all three essays, Kant insists on secular explanations. Earthquakes are terrible, but they are accidents. We do not know what they mean in the larger frame of things, and to interpret the Lisbon earthquake as a divine punishment is naïve anthropocentrism.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake proved crucial to Kant’s theories regarding the Sublime. For Kant, the Sublime “moves; the expression of a person experiencing the full sense of the sublime is serious, at times rigid and amazed… The sublime… is at times accompanied by some terror or melancholia, in some cases merely by quiet admiration and in still others by the beauty which is spread over a sublime place.” Kant was also much occupied with the idea of transcendence, which he defined as “that, which goes beyond (transcends) any possible knowledge of a human being.”

In science-fiction works like Transcendence, an ‘ordinary’ human is able to ascend to a new level of knowledge and ability–albeit with decidedly mixed, occasionally nightmarish results. The word itself contains the Latin root “scandere”, meaning “to climb”, and thus we’re only a step and a half away from Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Indeed, the scariest aspect of The Singularity is that the evolution of non-human intelligence may spell curtains for the human race as we know it. If/when it comes, we’re going to have to rely on the mercy and benevolence of hyper-advanced entities which may well look upon us as we regard, say, spiders: ingenious and delightful creatures, but eminently crushable.

photo by Alfredo Henriques

I pondered such prospects as I looked towards the city from the Águas Livres Aqueduct, built between 1713 and 1748 across the Alcântara valley in central Lisbon’s north-west corner, and the largest man-made structure to survive the Great Earthquake intact. 35 arches reaching a height of 65 metres support tunnels that carried water from the countryside into the city, and which were operational well into the 20th century: some sources say 1968, others 1973. (Big changes were afoot in the country in those years: dictator António de Oliveira Salazar’s 36 years as Prime Minister ended in 1968; his repressive, nationalistic, ultra-Catholic Estado Novo regime was finally ousted in the ‘Carnation Revolution’ of April 25th 1974.)

the author ponders mortality on the Aguas Livres viaduct. Photograph by Michael Pattison

The Águas Livres’ parallel walkways afford exhilaratingly panoramic views of the valley and the city centre beyond: here, right under the flight-path leading to the airport on the city centre’s edge, planes, trains and automobiles vie for attention. But not everyone is on the move. Low-rent, high-rise apartment-buildings in the Campo Ourique district visible below stir memories of similar edifices in Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth: rooms inhabited by the economically marginalised, the dispossessed, the geographically displaced; people with minimal disposable income. One inevitable benefit of wandering such less-well-off zones: a refreshing paucity of advertising in general, and Johnny Depp’s phizog in particular.

1909

The viaduct itself occupies a certain footnote in cinema history: one of Portugal’s very first films was João Freire Correia and Lino Ferreira 1909 short The Crimes of Diogo Alves (Os Crimes de Diogo Alves), chronicling the Spanish-born criminal who remains the country’s most prolific and notorious serial-killer. In the summer of 1837 alone he dispatched 76 victims–robbing them as they used the aqueduct as a short-cut, hurling them alive off the parapet to cunningly simulate suicide.

Alves remained far above, on a “superior” level–did he allow himself a gloat of satisfaction as he watched yet another hapless soul tumble to their messy ground-level demise, increasingly confident in his ability to elude detection? After all: “If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is,” as a fictional, cannibalistic successor of Alves would later remark.

One of the stars of The Crimes of Diogo Alves, Nascimento Fernandes, popped up 32 years later in Manoel de Oliveira’s feature debut Aniki-Bobo; de Oliveira is, of course, still with us, still making films in this his 106th year. And we haven’t quite gotten rid of Diogo Alves, either: after he was hanged in 1841 the head was severed from the body and preserved in a jar of formaldehyde for the inspection of criminologists. It can be visited today on its shelf in Lisbon University’s Faculty of Medicine–staring out, blandly baleful, moustachioed and stubbly-bearded, enjoying a strange form of immortality. And yesterday he, too, was only human.

Neil Young
15th May 2015

(Bring me) the Head of Diogo Alves
"the new intelligence"

another perspective from the same aqueduct:
THE WHITE CITY, AND THE DIRT WHERE NO-ONE WALKS by Michael Pattison

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