In All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), text means differently than images. The cast of teenagers only communicates online, on a forum dedicated to the ethereal pop star Lily Chou-Chou. Offline, communication is always forestalled by class, gender, or popularity. Chat messages interrupt film images. Each line appears on a black background, first as machine code with keystrokes, before transforming into Japanese characters. As text, these chat messages offer an interiority absent from the film’s world, a virtual reality more open than reality, another form of communication besides the image.

The one exception is a trip to Okinawa, the one sequence of unreserved communication free of chat message interruptions, offering its own kind of virtual reality. Hasumi Yuichi, the film’s protagonist and forum moderator, flies with his friends to Okinawa for a vacation. They steal the money for the tickets from a stranger in a parking lot and buy handheld cameras. The young boys rent a private tour van, listen to music, meet an eccentric backpacker, and set off firecrackers at the beach. The sequence feels real, a hazy virtuality, because it’s shot with handheld, consumer video cameras in contrast with the professional digital cameras used for the rest of the film. One ambiguity of digital images is how they feel real in spite, or maybe because of, their digital artifacts and compression. When I first watched this sequence, I felt I was there.

Like All About Lily Chou-Chou, this essay is an experiment with digital, consumer technology and an attempt to make text and image mean differently. I’m interested in a specific encounter with reality: the violent, vertiginous sensation of feeling I was there. There, in Okinawa, not with Hasumi, but Ichihara Hayato playing Hasumi. Moreover, I’m interested in how to maintain and communicate that encounter in writing.

The sensation of I was there is called “the charge of the real” by Vivian Sobchack and “cinephilia” by Mary Ann Doane. Meeting reality through an image is subjective, contingent, and ethical, qualities that make communication difficult. But what good is an encounter with reality if, in the process of sharing it, language mutes its intensity? Trying to communicate, I pull examples of this encounter from my own cinephilia, dredge computer files up to a desktop, and present them in screenshots in hope that something of the contingent passes from their reality to yours. What is ethical, and what I hope to communicate, is the sensation of this encounter: the dizzying recognition of another person within and yet outside representation, alive or once living. If these examples fail, maybe my language, trying on a number of forms, will bring my reality in contact with yours. Maybe, like All About Lily Chou-Chou text can only mean differently than images when it is an image.

For Sobchack, the charge of the real is ethical because it puts a viewer in contact with an excess of the real, often figured as death. In this encounter, the fictional image gives way to a documentary consciousness. A person or animal--for Sobchack the rabbit in The Rules of the Game (1939)--ceases to be symbolic and becomes existential. “The charge of the real comprehends both screen and viewer, restructuring their parallel worlds not only as coextensive but also ethically implicated each in the other.” The viewer, suddenly in contact with another living being in and behind the representation, “takes on and bears particular subjective responsibility for the actions marked by--and in--her or his vision” (284). In this shift in consciousness, this encounter with another, subjective responsibility means reckoning with the why of the image: not only what it shows, but what it shows for.

Doane calls the same excess of reality contingency. The subjective responsibility of the charge of the real need not only be measured in loss. Contingency wrestles with what the image shows for through cinephilia and the unexpected. For Doane, cinephilia is “a love that is attached to the detail … the uncontrollable aspect of cinematic representation, its material predilection for the accidental, the contingent” (82-3). The contingent, in turn, is anything “that is neither necessary nor impossible” (Luhmann qtd. 88). The cinephile’s pleasure is the negation of the necessary, thus the gesture of humanity that survives the industry of Hollywood (although it always negatively reinforces the system it escapes). The negation of impossibility, on the other hand, makes “contingency a witness against technology as inexorability, a witness that it could have been otherwise” (88). Why the image shows is to show that it is possible.

Meeting reality is thus an encounter with belief. Belief in the possibility of what the image shows existentially existing, and belief in the forms’ ability to continue to stage this encounter. What follows are moments that brought me in contact with a reality that is not impossible, not necessary, or both. Whether or not these moments are actually real, as opposed to a staged artifice, is “inconsequential since cinephilia hangs not on indexicality but on the knowledge of indexicality’s potential” (Doane 84). Belief turns against cynicism’s rejection of communication. It springs from the fictional chat messages in All About Lily Chou-Chou. It invents new forms, not only either text or image.

The one chat message that interrupts the Okinawa sequence, the sequence that started this essay, happens early in the flight to Okinawa. It performs two movements: belief in reality through art, and the communication of that belief:

You know the southern island in Lily’s Arabesque? It may not be the same place. But in Okinawa there’s a small island like it. It’s named “New Castle” and pronounced Aragusuku. They say the gods live there.