I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister And My Brother (René Allois, 1975)
Struck by a series of images, especially considering the way the filmmaker had split them up and repeated them, utilising the same actions and objects through different cinematic techniques. In fact, this is mentioned in passing in Deleuze’s book on Foucault (Foucault having written at length on the Rivière case), as an example of productive disjunctions between image and text. Deleuze makes reference to the opening shots of a tree embedded in a boundary fence, which is combined with shuffling noises from an adjourning or commencing court session. Deleuze highlights the problems in dealing with the discrepancies between Rivière’s lucid and precise written (and spoken) account of the story and his actions as dramatised by the actors on screen – or, as both Deleuze and Foucault put it, between what is seen and what is articulated. Allois deals with this disjunction in interesting ways – not just in using voice-over, but repetitions of action – for example when Pierre is seen writing in his prison cell, his voice-over recounting that he was disturbed in his previous attempts to write out his experiences, he jumps up from his chair, sure that someone is behind him. The film immediately cuts to the ‘original’ version of that gesture, Pierre writing at a desk in the attic as his sister sneaks up behind him, his renewed (and recounted) startled jump and turn – an action efficiently doubled, even emanating from the same area of the frame. Allois also inserts still images, both from his own film and historical drawings, engravings and images from painting. Beyond these techniques, there is also an intereting correlation to reenactment, as the farmers are played by farmers, peasants are played by peasants, the only professional actors playing ‘outsider’ characters, in order to preserve the genuine discrepancies between two broad sensibilities and assumptions, which may or may not be upheld. In fact the whole film rests on this multi-faceted positioning, always showing a few slants on the same incidents, feeding in the context of an individual voice, a different physical or imagined perspective.
In any case, there are striking references in Pierre’s extraordinary written confession / explanation / description – a discourse that Foucault views as so extraordinary as to make the crime disappear – to a machine he had constructed for killing birds. Could it be productive to think about this structure as an apparatus – if, the apparatus would be, as Giorgio Agamben describes it, “literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings”, Pierre’s invention of new implements signals a desire to manufacture situations and to capture them – a device for controlling something he cannot control. Yet, this makes one wonder about the gesture of burying the apparatus – to preserve it, to keep it safe, as if this might imply a kind of deferral or abandonment of control. An exhumed apparatus, perhaps aged, is one that is doubled reclaimed.
There is also something compelling about such an implement’s relation to writing – the isolation of objects through a process of naming; its killing capacity and its torturous look… think of Kafka’s apparatus, the Calipen (oh… pen? calipers?) including components named ‘Bed’, ‘Designer’ and ‘Harrow’...
Pierre and Balthazar
So, to draw comparisons between what Deleuze writes concerning disjunctions of image and text (or rather between what is visible and what is articulated), in Allois’ film on Pierre Rivière, particularly the opening scene of the tree image / courtroom sound which is mentioned in an endnote in his book Foucault. Deleuze also mentions Straubs, Syberberg and Duras – filmmakers worth seeking out – as being exemplary in their treatment of this disjunction, and similar concerns raised by Jacques Rancière in the opening essay in The Future of the Image. Like Deleuze, Rancière focuses on the opening sequence of a film – in this case the first sequences of Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966). Rancière describes how this sequence exposes the play of image operations – what he sees as “relations between a whole and parts, between a visibility and a power of signification and affect associated with it; between expectations and what happens to meet them” (The Future of the Image, 3) – firstly through the juxtaposition of a Schubert sonata with a run of black leader before the titles, then its replacement with the braying of a donkey playing against an image of a plain exterior wall; or mouths not being visible against words spoken from them – all image functions that subvert and contradict what has been uttered or written through them.
All these elements, for Rancière, are where Bresson stages oppositions and between the various elements and functions of the image, setting up tensions and interruptions, contrasts and separations. The materials in play are not images of a donkey and a groups of characters, nor any deployments of technical modalities, fading and cutting in, dissolve and exchanging between POVs, etc, but the operations that couple and uncouple what is seen and what is spoken, constantly working with and against expectation. This is not a specifically cinematic technique for Rancière – in fact he traces it to developments in the 19th Century novel (especially Flaubert) and a retrained focus on heretofore ‘insignificant’ details or on material that would previously have been considered unsuitable for artistic attention. They both forge and undo meaning in action – the ability to anticipate and frustrate expectation, engaging the components of a composite like a series of differential gears. It is artistic images that produce discrepancy and dissemblance as well as analogy, that produce forms of alteration in relation to the normal – or consensual – forms of sensible presentation, modes of linkages of events, modes of relations between a sensory given and a meaning.
Rancière goes on to specify that the image is not exclusive to the visible – “(t)here is visibility that doesn’t amount to an image; there are images which consist wholly in words.” (The Future of the Image, 7) Deleuze and Foucault talk about the webs of relations that stream between what is visible and what is articulated – and the perpetual cracks / hinges between them. Between the visible and the articulable there is no common form, yet at the same time the two spill over into each other, each being insinuated in whatever gaps occur in the battle between them. This is possibly where I can refer to the discourse that features so heavily in Rene Allois’ film I, Pierre Rivière, having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother – that written by Pierre following his capture. Although I’m not so sure about any comparisons to be drawn between the two films – nor between the ‘lead’ figures of Pierre and Balthazar – it’s interesting to have come across these two examples of opening sequences that, for their respective authors, constitute such prime examples of a parade of disjunction between what is seen and what is articulated. Nonetheless, it is worth considering how the production of writing by Pierre – assigned such power by Foucault, might be considered as functioning, through its proximity to image (and what is this? The vivid nature of the young man’s writing, his style, his desperation, the strangeness of the imagery, its clouded relation to the recorded events or the testimony of others?), to reconfigure the frameworks of the visible and the thinkable. Is it possible to think of a writing that can so scramble the formations of thought that it can begin to dismiss even the admissions of guilt and wrongdoing it specifically addresses and admits to. This is a writing that can get you out of anything – not the gift of gab, but something far more potent. As always, it is reminiscent of Burroughs suggesting that there existed a writing that kill, but what about a writing that redraws the coordinates of meaning, responsibility and societal practice – a writing that is in some way contaminated by image, rendered diagrammatic as a demonic combination of saying and showing.
Pierre and Benny
Benny’s Video (Michael Haneke, 1992)
Watching this after the Allois film, it seemed weirdly relevant to the same ideas about the relation of discourse and imagery to crime and violence, etc. Haneke’s disturbing film opens with a sequence of handheld video footage that shows (and repeats) a pig being slaughtered with a pellet gun – footage that is shot, it turns out, by the main character Benny. It becomes clear that the isolated teenager’s existence is surrounded by or mediated through imagery – his darkened room is constantly awash with signals, movies and TV, just as the rest of his parents apartment is covered art prints to the extent that no wall shows through. When Benny is in his room, screens flicker ceaselessly in the background, his phone conversations overlay and overlap news reports of foreign wars; there is a constant mash up of speech and image, feeding into a morass where it is difficult to discern any edges to experience. There is even a live video feed of the view from the window being piped into the dark room, running on a single monitor – the life of the street digested onto a small panel, linked to a board that can switch, edit and manipulate it.
Benny ends up taking a girl he has met outside the video store (herself staring into a hidden screen no less) back to his apartment when his parents are away. They watch the footage of the pig being killed together. Remarks are made about the fakery of violence in movies – within minutes, Benny has taken out the pellet gun used to kill the pig. It is deliberately ambiguous as to how deliberate the act is, but Benny shoots the girl in the midriff. It is only after this shot that the girl falls out of the main shot and the unfolding incident is mirrored / substituted by the recording camera / monitor set up in the room. A horrific aural aftermath then dominates, as two further shots, which eventually generate silence, always take place outside the relaying frame. Benny continues to film the clean up operation he undertakes, which he revisits, begins to edit. After the incident, Benny remains disturbingly impassive – he calmly eats, goes for walks and out with his friends, everything remaining latent, or struggling to make any impression. He shaves his head, yet this too is a gesture that remains neutral, or at least unclear as to its aggressive or recalcitrant charge. Although he comes close, he tells no one about what he has done.
When his parents return, Benny finds a way to make his confession – and this has implications in relation to the discourse of Pierre Rivière and its relation to the ‘visibility’ of the crime. Benny, sitting with his parents, switches the feed on his monitor set up to play back the entire murder. His parents both watch the sequence of film, fascinated – Haneke stays with their expressions, as if they mirrored our own, watching these people having to react to what they are being shown. Benny’s discourse and his confession, at least initially, is made through images – but how eloquent is it? Could its strangeness, even its ‘style’ (as if we can correlate Benny’s recording to a kind of written statement), somehow make the crime disappear like Foucault claims in relation to Rivière? What kind of eloquence could be delivered by this fuzzy imagery, the static camera, monochrome peephole confessional? How could it contribute to the distancing of the crime, or fame it in such a way to prepare its effacement? In a strange way, this is exactly what happens – with the revelation that they bear responsibility for what has happened when a minor was left alone, for what they’ve been shown (like their own nightmare TV show, an episode of Family Collapse), the parents begin to devise ways out, clinically going over the options open to them with an odd mix of giggling shock and cold efficiency. Throughout the film few words are spoken, especially in relation to the details of the crime – when his father asks him why he did it, Benny responds, “I wanted to know what it was like…” He has no answer to the follow up question. After the decision is made, Benny and his mother immediately go to Egypt and the father takes on the grim responsibility for clearing the apartment of any evidence. When they return home, it is as if nothing has happened – there is still nothing in the press, there are no witnesses. Benny’s room has been opened to the light, the view from the window now hovering above the dead monitor screen (Benny had found it difficult to sleep during the trip because it was “so light”). Yet an ambiguous guilt persists – perhaps the inability to have continued possession of those images, which won’t not be supplemented by further confessions, further contributions of discourse. Unable to reconcile any exchange between raw and mediated worlds, Benny again lets his videotape to speak for him – he goes to the police and shows them the murder, together with the recording he had surreptitiously made of his parents planning to cover it up.
“At the centre, what?”
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Michael Haneke, 1993)
The third film in Haneke’s trilogy: respond in fragments also.
❚ Several instances of games / puzzles (from pick-up sticks, a fragmented cross) used as obvious metaphors, not only in relation to the film’s construction, but as a general comment on the accumulation and interpretation of information in contemporary culture. The top surface of presented configurations of what is seen, what is said – distributions of image and text, we might say – are bolstered and sponsored by innumerable underlying complexities. What is being acted out here is the articulation of surface elements – combinations of fragments simultaneously scattered and intercalated into the perimeter of a story – an uncertain centre. If the way the film is cut together, black screens interrupting each sections [same becoming-icon function that Rancière sees in Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma…?], we can recognize a method of juxtaposition and arrangement, but we can also see, in the repetitions and even the departures of framing/POV, a trace of overlapping elements, a strange allusion to shallow depth, etc. There are productive correlations to writing here – the accumulation of fragments, and echoing motifs being transmitted between elements that are in some ways isolated and self-sufficient. The fragmentary structure is used to echo the interruptions seen even in the most intimate of relations, let alone the inexplicable disconnects (systems of asyndeton, anacoluthon, parataxis in image…) between cause and effect, between violence and reason.
❚ In the interview accompanying the film, Haneke says that for him the editing process is joyful, and, perhaps more surprisingly, holds no surprises for him. In a film in which the accumulation of fragments seems to move toward a coherence of disjunction, or a certain kind of timbre to our inefficient and distorting communicative channels, a film that aims to tap a composition that extends beyond its constituent parts, this seemed incredible. Could it be that the editing process was one in which the director was simply instituting his carefully prepared plans, or that he was that convinced as to what would sequences of images would work in relation to their neighbours? Perhaps this is to misread what is meant by ‘surprise’ here – surely there were instances where elements, perhaps those separated from each other by long stretches of the film and the emerging narrative, were shifted from a non-productive presence to a resonance, by way of unforeseen combinations of image, sound, etc.
❚ It is only after the violent climax of the film that a shot appears that in some way departs from the matter of fact presentation of situations – much of the film being made up of a clinical eye watching situations unfold, without ‘comment’. Yet, after the bank shooting, a man’s torso and arm sweep across the frame, nearly covering its surface except for a wedge of floor at the centre. In this space under the arm a slick of near black blood begins to well and spread, its slow progress relentlessly observed by the unmoving camera. The difference is that, unlike previous fragments, which often involved similarly static shots, there is no ambient sound (of panic, bustle of emergency, even the hum of immediate aftermath…) but complete silence. When, previously, this shot would have been partnered by the uproar of the accompanying ‘surround’ of the image of life ebbing away, it is now left exposed, stripped of distractions, presented purely as image. This could be seen, as a friend commented, too much of a departure, or even too theatrical (mawkish?) a disruption to the tone of the film in general.
❚ There are a number of other compelling scenes made up of lengthy, static camera shots (a recent example in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, was rightly lauded), for example, the sequence where the teenager plays endless repetitive shots against a ping-pong machine, its duration judged by Haneke so that the actions of ‘practice’ begin to move toward something more sinister and obsessive. The scenes with the elderly man, living alone and struggling to maintain relations with his daughter’s family, were particular affecting. Again there are visual examples of the occluded and superficial relations with have with objects, people and information – television screens peek in from the edges of the frame, from behind doorjambs, running their endless, barely audible commentary and partial images under clipped and frustrated conversations. A bisected telephone conversation lasts for several slow, agonizing minutes – routines and emotional games are played out and pressed against the silences of the lonely room on this side of the line, the fragmented discourse taking on a desperate mix of attempted contact and repeated indifference.
❚ After his recent passing, it was slightly odd to see the sequences that had news reports of Michael Jackson protesting his innocence on Austrian TV in the early 90s. As with all of these appropriated sequences of news footage there is always an uncertainty as to their origins – what is reconstructed, what is a straight lift? And what about their specific limits? Sequences can cut off sharply or linger for longer than expected. The delicacy involved in editing and sequencing these fragments, as with the film in general, takes on particularly musical connotations – the composition constantly playing with expectations, durations, tones and rhythms, etc. Strangely, the use of the film footage in Haneke’s film recalls Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which edited together amateur and professional archive footage of the Romanian Revolution. The grainy images again seemed a world away and unnervingly familiar. No doubt there are connections between Haneke’s insistence that our information age is one that paradoxically does not communicate, and the unrelenting complexity of chaos captured in all these fragments of footage in the wake of Ceausescu flight from the rooftops. Farocki’s assemblage of material, which was absolutely exhausting to watch, was nonetheless one of the most astonishingly immersive portrayals of real-time confusion in cinema. Watching the film only with German subtitles certainly was an odd experience, yet somehow appropriate – to be in a room of people, not knowing what was happening, watching a film that showed a room full of people watching a revolution not knowing what was happening. It constructed an amazing intimacy and distance to those events – a sense that the people in the ‘scenes’ must have shared, being at once party to historic events that are, at the same time, far too large to comprehend. In any case, Haneke’s carefully constructed film touches upon a similar sense of dislocation as Farocki’s does.
Performance (Nicholas Roeg / Donald Cammell, 1970)
After a long time waiting to see Performance – being an admirer of Roeg’s other films, including Bad Timing, Don’t Look Now – it was equally irritating and amusing for the circumstances of watching the film being quite strange. One can only respond to the encounter on its own terms I suppose – and it wasn’t entirely without its benefits. I had picked up a VHS copy, still wrapped in cellophane, at a market, and so hoped the quality would be decent enough. It wasn’t bad, but there were other issues – after watching about 90%, we realized that we had the TV on the wrong input channel. We had been sitting through the film in black and white – we’d muttered a few comments expressing surprise at this, but hadn’t thought to investigate further than that. Part of the reason for this was the strange and compelling early sections of the film – where scenes of a trial are cut, often in a bizarrely disorientating way, with scenes of Chas (James Fox) doing his ‘enforcer’s work. After realizing our mistake, we remarked at how the earlier sequences had been in some way more disorienting than the drug scenes later on. An edited psychedelic structure, through fast paced concatenation and parataxis, drained of all washes.
I wanted to write something about the film before going back to see it as it was intended – mainly because it seemed that watching in monochrome allowed the structure of the film to be granted visibility that would otherwise have been less apparent. There was a firmness to the mechanics of each scene, a more primary relation between the switches of the edit and the (non)movements of the camera – a diagram of the film’s workings. Quite a few times I was reminded of another film I’d seen recently (and not yet managed to write something about), Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, particularly in the oddly heavy handed movements of the camera. I read something about Godard using heavy machinery to shoot that film, and in certain shots it seemed as though the camera detached from one weighty position, before freewheeling awkwardly along a length of track, following a permitted arc of movement, and coming to a halt ion a new position. It was like the neat, contained movement of shifting the body’s weight, say from elbow to elbow, in order to look ‘round an obstacle, a central figure. Godard often used this technique, switching viewpoints around an actor positioned in centre-frame, seen from the back like a Casper David Friedrich Rückenfigur. Roeg/Cammell employ a similar process of having characters obscuring the viewpoint, as well as being obscured themselves. This was also combined with an interesting borrowing and collage of reflections a la Bergman’s Persona, where body parts were extracted and reinserted on to others’, compounding the themes of becoming, uncertain psychological boundaries, androgyny, mirroring and symmetry, etc.
Watched in black and white I remember being struck by how the film reminded me of Chris Petit’s Radio On, in general aesthetic if nothing else, but I was also struck by the resonances between Performanceand Petit’s novel Robinson, from the underworld connections with film and pornography, to the hideaway populated with mysterious, drugged out figures. I couldn’t help feeling that the ending of Performance was weak, or at least it seemed not to hang right, if that expression can do anything other than confuse. It was a little like the ending of Blow Up, which I’ve always really liked, even it has become cliché – the uncertainty as to the contaminated identities and ‘performances’ of Chas and Turner doesn’t hold the absurd poignancy of the acceptance of the mime at the end of Antonioni’s film – it is obviously going for a different speed of mystery too, with Turner’s face only very briefly glimpsed in a car window as it escapes, as if a look of any other duration would either never establish the required tension of paradox, or would allow it to be immediately seen through.
Face to Face
I’ve wanted to write something about Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1924) since I saw it recently, but struggled to articulate anything that hasn’t been said many times over. Regrettably I watched the film online but the quality was bearable enough for me to find the film absolutely, devastatingly affecting, quite unlike any cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. I don’t know what this says about me and the films I’ve been watching, or indeed the current state of cinema, but Dreyer’s film seemed to be operating on a completely different register. As I say, there have been many things written about the film and it is justifiably considered a landmark of cinema – so much so that I feel slightly embarrassed that I am only now getting around to watching it (streaming a secondary copy at that). Its legendary status is underlined by a troubled story, with the first two cuts having been lost to fire and a long lost version only having been found in an asylum cupboard in the 1980s. It’s strange, too, that my way to the film had come by a slightly roundabout route. I had, the night before, watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, another fascinating film which I could talk more about, during which a fragment of Dreyer’s film makes a brief appearance. Joan is shown recanting her earlier confession as Godard’s lead, Nana (Anna Karina), watches her in the cinema. Nana’s eyes and oddly desperate, ‘open’ gaze are edited to switch back and forth with Joan’s, half-matching the tearful, exhausted face of the young girl now inescapably condemned to death. Nana’s eyes, framed by the dark background and hair that Joan is now missing, begin to stream. It is as if Nana’s gaze is taken over by Dreyer’s sequence, as beads of liquid bubble on the faces of both figures. This scene of affection is also a scene of becoming, where there is no sure direction to the conveyance between faces, surfaces, narratives, etc., nor an indication as to which ‘distribution’ of expressive points holds sway as the lead ‘affector’. Godard uses Dreyer’s scene to present a back and forth movement from no privileged perspective, making the affectivity of the each face, and all it withholds, indiscernible. The identification between shared plights, or the sense of a descent into helplessness, as if events cannot possibly be any other way, is transferred too, simply by means of bringing together the bareness of faces, but the exchange between Nana and Joan is not based in the subject, or in the particularities of their characters situation. It is more a diagrammatical configuration of the transfer of affect from one ‘image stream’ to another. In a short essay on the film written in the 1960s, Susan Sontag describes Vivre sa Vie as an “exhibit, a demonstration,” or a work oriented toward proof rather than analysis. Godard is concerned only with saying that something is, rather than providing an exposition as towhy it is. It is in this spirit that the cinema scene seems most interesting, not giving any precise explanation as to why this exchange of gazes is happening but simply showing its ‘passage’. There are other similarities between Godard’s film and The Passion of Joan of Arc, not least being the way in which the shots have dissociated and often follow one another without any continuity of framing, or any carrying over of visual motifs.
One of the defining aspects of Dreyer’s film is that it is almost presented as a sequence of discrete images, with very few links or echoes that bleed from one shot to another. There are simply sequences of disconnected images, like a series of set pieces, that build up a cumulative, ‘overall’ tone, as it were, that carries its own materiality through a combination of privation and rhythm. Both Joan and Nana are ‘photographed’ at wildly different angles within a few moments of each other – a fact that is made quite explicit by Godard in the film’s opening credits, as Sontag points out. Considered in contrast to more conventional techniques, it could be said that the way the shots move around and occupy vastly very different perspectives, it were as if there were countless versions of these events that could have been reconstructed by the film, as if there were innumerable cameras – B-Rolls, C-Rolls, etc. – running concurrently that might grant an alternative structure to events. With no stable, or predicatable viewpoint, the viewer is disoriented and the film’s ‘identity’, its tone, begins to emerge as one that is carried by something other than a consistency of style, something other than the consistency of a director’s vision… it builds toward a far more poignant and powerful coherence of disjunction. For some reason I also reminded of how Jacques Rancière describes the way that Godard, in his Histoire(s) du Cinéma, by extracting images from the history of cinema and reinserting them into his multilayered montage, allows them to become ‘icons’. We might ask where Dreyer’s iconic images, shown as discrete flashes, are extracted from – some kind of absent, virtual continuity of his own film? Are they pulled like singular threads, each with a crystalline uniqueness, from the accounts of Joan’s trial?
Renée Jeanne Falconetti, the actress who portrays Joan, is absolutely extraordinary throughout. I cannot remember a performance being quite so captivating, nor so strange. In fact, the ‘strangeness’ of the film is something that I cannot express clearly besides, that is, all the things about it that make it superficially unusual: the fact that it is a silent film; the presence of text inserts; the slightly washed-out look to the print; the odd angles and severe framing, the insistence of close-ups, etc. There are other, lesser aspects that contribute to the film being powerful in some ways, such as the peculiarly melodramatic aesthetic of many silent films, or the manner in which speed of movement can become mechanised, manipulated and unnatural, even if only by the smallest degree. For me, all these elements can often contribute to the film ‘holding’ an uncanny air, as if it were a structure always at risk from an embedded doubt, a feeling that something isn’t quite right. Yet this distancing, disorienting atmosphere is underlined in Dreyer’s film, alongside the narrative, to devastating effect. The fragmentation of the film, the relentless close-ups, means that there is little sense of scale. As the camera flits and zooms around, capturing scenes in near-isolated stills, it seems as though the viewer is freewheeling with it, moving around the figures, able to inhabit, block or reroute the trajectories of their gazes or their points of view. The viewer’s instability emphasises an impossibility of relations, a dislocation and detachment that is, ironically enough, emphasised most strongly on the face. There is little to identify with the characters because we are often too close to them. For the most part, the film is played out on the surface of Falconetti’s face and it becomes the site of all the evidenced transformations and devastations, making it such a powerful surface that I’m still trying to think about in terms of its where it allows us to go. If the face doesn’t allow us to ‘identify’ with Joan, does it allow us to do something else, such as witness her ‘disappearance’?
In their writing on ‘faciality’, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (who mention The Passion of Joan of Arc in various places) suggest that a tic is a faciality trait trying to escape, then perhaps every one of Falconetti’s expressions assumes the potency of a tic, as if the distribution of her features – the way they are lit, shot, framed, inter-cut, etc. – could somehow lift off from the surface of the face, moving to escape, an irresistible movement toward an inexpressible expression. For this is what Falconetti’s Joan is heading toward, what she is becoming, or even in some strange way what her face contains: something of the impossible. For me the face achieves some kind of blankness – not in the sense of being devoid of content, but assuming a distributive interface with its content that it cannot be described according to existing systems of description. It is as if the film begins to show something of the “dismantling of the face” that Deleze and Guattari see as the destiny of the human – in other words the dismantling of pre-established organisation in an unmotivated search for the new. Deleuze and Guattari base their account of ‘faciality’ in a white wall/black hole system, where the face is a surface of intersection that removes the head from the stratum of organisation through ‘overcoding’, allowing traits of faciality to emanate through the body like a map. They write that “dismantling the face is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity,” (Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2004) (trans. Massumi, B.) A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum, p208) but warn that complete abandonment of the face is not possible unless we want to revert to being primitive, faceless people. They emphasise that we are “born into” the face, and it is only through its experimental dismantling that the new is to be proffered, where the distributions of the sensible (what is sensible and articulable) that underpin subjectivity and signification become loosened from the grip of their respective codes. If, as Deleuze and Guattari also suggest, “all faces envelop an unknown, unexplored landscape,” (Ibid. 191) we can think about the landscape involved in Falconetti’s performance – a landscape that was both expanded out and cut off by the close-up frame. What I found compelling about Falconetti’s (facial) performance concerned indiscernibility and neutrality, the way she edged toward a non-presence, slowly being drained into becoming otherworldly, impossible to contain or describe and possessed of something so strange that I hadn’t really seen captured on film, something almost inhuman – just as Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the face is the “inhuman in human beings”. (Ibid. 189) Roger Ebert suggests that Dreyer put Falconetti through a tough ordeal to get this performance: “There is an echo in the famous methods of the French director Robert Bresson, who in his own 1962 The Trial of Joan of Arc put actors through the same shots again and again, until all apparent emotion was stripped from their performances. In his book on Dreyer, Tom Milne quotes the director: ‘When a child suddenly sees an onrushing train in front of him, the expression on his face is spontaneous. By this I don’t mean the feeling in it (which in this case is sudden fear), but the fact that the face is completely uninhibited.’ That is the impression he wanted from Falconetti.” As I have been trying to come to grips with it lately, I was struck by a possible affiliation between this notion of the spontaneity of acting, Falconetti’s face/performance, in relation to some things I have been reading on Alain Badiou’s difficult notion of indiscernibility, especially in the ‘wake’ of an event – the idea that the redistributive power of a disruptive event lays out a multiplicity of possible forms and inputs with no fixed contours; that Falconetti, as it were via her face, undergoes an ‘event’, acts an event, and formulates a new ‘situation’ open to anything whatsoever in regard to established knowledge – that there is no way to come to ‘terms’ with it. This might be absolutely misguided, considering my poor grasp of Badiou’s philosophy, but I found myself wondering if the film concerned the display of the matter of the new coming into being, and how the indiscernibility of Falconetti’s face – the way is dissipates itself, self-cancels, exhausts – is suggestive of a quality of indiscernibility whose nature cannot be discerned by existing categories of discourse. The face exhibits an occurrence that of a previous situation being redrawn, re-seen, stripped bare of any predicates, of any identity. As I understand it, Badiou’s emphasis is only on the structure of concrete situations, not their specific qualities, but could it be that the morphing of Joan’s face, as it were, its becoming-blankness, its becoming-anything-whatsoever, is something that concerns the structure of an event, as if Dreyer had filmed the ‘act’ of revelation, the ‘moment’ of decision, the ‘transit’ of suffering, etc. and that the film, mainly though the ‘leading edge’ of Falconetti’s face, constitutes a diagram that maps the gesture of an ‘event’ as if it is happening, and the blankness, the openness, the facial expression that is now prepared for what is ‘to come’, that accompanies it?
Give yourself thirty minutes in which to write something. Something about this particular thing. No editing and no re-writing – see where that gets you. A first viewing of the film some years ago, a small art house cinema (now sadly closed) that had palm trees either side of the screen. The film was compelling, broadly traumatic, but still that last sequence got to you.
And watching it again you wanted to slow it down – or rather go back afterwards, watch the sequence again or even pause it to examine it. Not that it’s going to yield any secrets – there’s not anything to be gained from this one supposes, except for a writing exercise. What happens comes like a ripple across the frame. A clenched fist, a character so tightly wound that you find your muscles contracting just watching her. Hair scraped back, the skin slightly puffy. A marbled lobby that is neatly drained of all activity, all sound. Alone with the echoes of the stiff (an unmoving clasp) purse, from which the knife is taken – a long blade from the kitchen.
But then, there, the expression rises as if from nowhere, it comes through like something completely alien. What is this manifestation? Strange to think that this is no doubt the most expressive moment the character has – is this right? Maybe it should be that it is the most unusual expression that comes out – the most inventive somehow. It contains too much. It a despairing, hate-filled growl but that’s not nearly enough. It’s absurd too – mocking, arrogant, even playful in the circumstances…
It accompanies the movement of the knife, high up, as the right arm is raised in front of the face, bringing it back down into the shallow flesh at the front of the left shoulder – this movement too is unsettling, the blade only entering an inch or so, perhaps hitting bone, jarring into the sturdy bars of the upper ribcage – the knife comes to a halt horribly, swaying with the initial momentum and the persistence of the action, the stabbing hand oscillating momentarily. It leaves another mouth behind, like lipstick on the blouse.
The expression – and I want to call it a smile (maybe something to do with the smile that Francis Bacon always thought he hadn’t captured successfully) – is certainly a speech act too, you can see it’s intention to wail out in the reverberant foyer, trailing both the lover who has entered the auditorium and serving as a general utterance to empty space, a swelling attempt at certainty – that she is there too, that she exists. Here too there is no need for a full close-up – no need for any magnification of tiny details of dramatic emotion – as this smile does not concern subtlety in that sense. I’m not sure what I mean when I write this but there is no going back. It is something of an eruption of the face – if it does accompany the most pronounced act of violence in the film, then this violence is matched by the tearing of the mouth… But is this a single expression or can it be broken up into countless shades…?
It is not necessarily a matter of a character being encapsulated by a betrayed detail, more a question of a character becoming something entirely other before our eyes – where an expression breaks out that is so drastic that it does not seem to belong to them, and in some curious way does not even belong to the film – maybe that’s it then, it is a leak INTO the film of something that is too extreme to be a construct of the scene, a construct consistent with the material that surrounds it, the matter that makes up that particular world. Another world interrupts here, one that is uncontrolled for a moment – a slip of chaos that the actress nonetheless has the capacity to rein in and close off, as if the tap were the mouth that closes again, the knife being returned to the purse.
There is nothing else to do now. We leave the building. There is nowhere for the film to go. It is never a question of gaining an insight into a character, identifying or empathising with her, at least not here. Already she has seemed too far away, at such a distance that is difficult to negotiate any access to her – but here there is a sense that absolutely all ties are severed for a moment – an anarchic instant, even if it is also shadowed by a strangely romanticised, overblown theatrical stabbing toward the heart, that is led by the grimace. The face leads here, not the knife – it is the weapon that permits the face to revolt…
Keep going, continue writing… the terrible nature of the smile is partly to do with its absurd humour – the slapstick puerility, a silent raspberry blown into the chest. Time’s up. Dot images into the text.
“Not a Breath of Air”
India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
- These things are built up from disjunctions it seems. A slow accumulation coming in from the sides, like salt at the edges of the mouth. Here are suggestion and overlap, our ways of arresting stories in clipped, oblique images. We take the temperature of a colonial experience in a mentioned name, in meteorological snatches – the song we must dance to.
- Nothing but heat comes through these disconnections. A stifling ring that encroaches on us and with us. The translation runs its ribbon all the while – slow-moving wafts of odour we feel coming off the screen.
- Poring over surfaces like maps of overlaid material – hair, silks, zones of temperature – dotted by drugged saccades of ennui. Now we have time to move across objects according to no measure, with time to disperse into space in a way previously unavailable. We establish location with a single word and an oblique tilt across a façade. The cameras are moved by heat, buffeted by thermals, as they circle the grounds before disappearing behind black trees.
- The drowsy rhythm is decadent, isn’t it? Smoke-filled language disconnects us from sequence. And as if turning on a neck, taking it in – yes, all an indulgent drinking of light. Not satisfied with the emptied spaces, the arched mirrors redouble our dispersal. Taking up and replacing entire doorways.
- We are only concerned with keeping out the noise, the leprous chaos beyond the trees. Off-screen is where everything is contested, as all voices join battle, freed from any prior determinations. To join the beggar woman, railing. The only frays of the image.
- Positioned in our composites, like Rejlander tableaux, the way we hunch and spread ourselves when sleepless. Divorced from settlement, we then cut to a cuticle rising out of the lake. Everything is peeling, drying out. Even so, the deserted space is cacophonous. Wandering around the obviously entropic like automatons. These figures are set to absorb, unable to move quicker, and this is the presentation of the passage of thought sluggish with deliberation. Drained with repetition.
- A boxed collection of apertures. Figures pass past doorways, leaning on limbs. All in service of a joke worn thin, up to the point where it must be told again. It’s a cinematic aftermath. This is what we press into, thick as syrup – images, voices, no air between them, even though they are held at a distance. Like all this glamour it is decrepit, exhausted. Anaesthetic.
- Voices cannot be trusted outside the mouth. Yet being within these interiors is like being in an echo chamber – speech conjuring images or trying to hold them off… and we’ve yet to decide about the voice, whether comment or contamination leads. The voices are missing the hands to cover the mouths, stopping them being seen.
- I watched the white suit move backwards almost to the edge of the frame. An announcement of anguish slipping into absurdity, wailing from outside – all pain is absurd then, peripheral, while we watch the mirrors fool us into thinking in reverse.
- The vice-counsel’s wails are seen to return, past the point where they needn’t fade back in. And it’s exhausting to see cigarettes running off at the mouth.
- Was it a suicide pact discovered and nullified? Yes. And a reference to an indifference to life already being its opposite, as if no difference were to be drawn between the surface effects of either. Everything is vulnerable. The entire party is wary of the night and the rains, all sounds from the feral darkness and the madness that encircles them all. Their lethargic anxiety accounts for failure and violent breakdown in fragments – others are dismissed from a point of immobility, where empathy is almost entirely evaporated.
- The monsoon fizzes and light is pulled down with an eyelid shutter. This is how a day can be pressed in and out of night; everything can be put out of mind, out of sight and earshot, while he fires on the lepers of the Shalimar Gardens and puts bullets in the mirrors.
Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1973)
The immediate refusal to uphold the ‘fourth wall’ in Watkins’ film was compelling considering how early on in the film it came. There was no slow build up to establish a contained reality that would then shattered – its dismissal was signalled from the start. Strange faux interviews are conducted with workers, sometimes talking heads or surrounded by children, describing their conditions, their standards of living or the social mores of the day – a curious bleeding between social-realist documentary styles of the early seventies and a pre-cinema Kristiania (Oslo). The acknowledgement of the camera, as it were, continued throughout the film. The cast of amateur actors are forever looking out, catching the camera as if it were an attendant presence against which a look of despondency or despair could be thrown. This was all in the service of a rhythm of sympathy that the film began to build up over the course of its three and a half hour running time – a method by which you were continually drawn into the concerns of those people in front of you by (almost physically) being implicated at every turn. It was like watching an unfolding drama and being dragged into proceedings through constantly being looked at, at times as direct and accusatory as a pointing finger. Although Watkin apparently thinks of the ‘fourth wall’ as an ‘elitist barrier’, I’m still unsure as to the effect of its remaining presence here – as it were a now a tattered curtain that hangs in front of the images either as a textural overlay or an impedance. For me its effect was strangely intoxicating – when the young actor playing Munch (Geir Westby) achieved his rhythmic turns to the camera, it was never in a comedic way, or indeed, if it makes sense to say, in a way that really broke the surface tension of the world in which the character existed. The actor’s deadpan portrayal suited this process admirably – his visual asides never Brechtian or Laurel & Hardy, but something else. I cannot really figure out what it was doing in fact. For this was established and sustained throughout – the film reminded me a great deal of Sokurov’s Russian Ark, even though its techniques and concerns are no doubt very different. It provided a hallucinatory access to a kind of dream world that became, as it were, the possession of the camera. It was less like being told a story than be allowed to process a stretch of individual experience that was unbroken either by its immersion into the ‘character’ of a certain world or by the constant awareness of its theatrical unreality. In some ways I think the film managed to put together a specifically pitched ‘partial’ world – somehow precisely unfinished – that allowed gaps, like negative space, for the viewer to come in and attach themselves. the was also compounded by the other methods used – the extremely slow pace and recurrent imagery, which allowed characters and events to be accompanied and revisited at various points in the narrative. In any case, the narrative, was clustered around points of obsession and repetition both in relation to Munch’s work and life – themes of pain, illness, rejection and despair that were articulated around tiny details that we were allowed (I suppose assuming that we are that way inclined) to pore over too, to obsess and distort, as images took on more and more import. This was the case with the portrayal of the affair with the married ‘Mrs Heiburg’ – tiny moments are returned to again and again, sometimes split into sound layers that colour other events, everything starting to bleed over all of the divisions achieved in the patterns of the edit. This build up of images, at a pace that allowed them to be lived with, to be irritated or exhausted by, constructed a psychological constellation more angularly expressive than one battened together through other, fast track means of mainstream cinema or switching edits of the mass media. Watkin replaces the bombardment of rapid editing by another kind of bombardment – that of obsessive, overturning disillusionment and solitude. The filmmaker’s commitment to slow pacing and the confidence to remain with, and return to images until they have begun to assume a materiality they would not otherwise have, allows the film to be absorbed slowly. Images are used as tools for reflection in the multiple sense of the term, both allowing us to fall into or think through them, or to allow them – e.g. the portrayal of many of Munch’s canvases – to be presented as complete surfaces that a camera can survey like a contemplative version of a helicopter-shot over a landscape.
The treatment of The Sick Child is strange – its uniquely erratic and violent composition signalling it as an expressionist breakthrough, but its genesis lost in a mix of formal and emotional causes. Watkin’s attempts to link the turbulence in Munch’s life and work to the events of the age – listing concurrent events around the globe – come across as a little undeveloped and his voiceover, which was otherwise very effective, did put me in mind of Adam Curtis and his political survey documentaries – which is perhaps not such a random association given the obvious political concerns in Watkin’s work. The themes of artistic isolation and commitment, as well as relentless critical rejection, are also related to Watkin, and the filmmaker apparently makes reference to his clear identification with Munch – which, I suppose, adds another degree of intrigue into the constant ‘gazes out’ that pepper the film – the actors looking out at the director, not in search of some direction or advice, but to remind him that he’s in front of the camera as much as they are.
Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, 2009)
I’ve been interested in Korine’s output for a while now, although I’ve yet to see Gummo or Mister Lonely, starting out from Kids (I soon found that Larry Clark bored me when I saw Ken Park) and then enjoying parts of the book he published with Faber a few years later. As far as I remember, I watched Julien Donkey-Boy (that John Barth piss take title always causing me to chuckle) alone one afternoon in Barcelona – an empty, one-off screening in a makeshift cinema off Las Ramblas. As usual with Korine’s work, my reaction then was ambivalent, anxious, yet definitely not unaffected. His films are certainly powerful, usually an infectious stew, both visually and emotionally, mixing high and low, gristle and gump. In my memory, Julien… had near-psychedelic colour washes, patterns all lost to anchor, with some sequences having been shot from the centre of the main character’s chest, the camera view wildly gyrating as it looks back up into his face – as if you were being physically pressed into identifying with the tenor of his schizophrenia. Even then Korine’s work was concerned with the effects of poverty and dysfunction, bringing social outcasts centre frame, exposing the abnormalities of family life, as well as mental disorders. Supposed madnesses can reveal themselves as being the last products of logic. I recall Herzog playing the father, commanding scenes with a garden hose. Thinking back that film made me a little drunk, more than you would realise immediately, as if it had seeped a toxin into the body, such that when you emerged into the bright sun you felt as though you’d been up for five days – banalities became hallucinogenic, everything else an absurd meat for the mill. All good stuff.
Anyway, so I was looking forward to watching Trash Humpers last night, and wanted to try and write something about it quickly, so here goes. The film follows a group of four people (at least the main gang are four) over a period of a few days (and it seems clear that what we witness are everyday activities – this is the way they are, it is not some ‘bender’ we’re seeing). There are three men, two of them bald and one with a wig/glasses get up that makes him look a little like Jim Jones, and a woman with a purple hairpiece. Their facial features are striking and horrific: they look like corpses, with grey, wrinkled skin and retracted eyes. Their figures, however, reveal them as clearly younger people. Although the movie is presented as if the characters were filming themselves, it is clear that the actors are wearing heavy make up and facial prosthetics to make them look like this: unstable and disturbing crossovers between the young and the elderly, an appearance which feeds right into their strangely demonic and ageless behaviour.
A series of disconnected fragments are edited together, following only the barest narrative scheme. Scenes jump from one to another: the Trash Humpers do just that, dry humping dustbins, as well as anything else they set the minds to – trees, fences, hydrants, etc. They go about smashing things up, running riot, lingering in public (yet neglected) spaces, as well as returning home to a house shared with other marginal and eccentric figures. For the most part the effect is that of transporting you into the mayhem of a drunken night, but one that begins to get carried over into something else, something out of control. There are prolonged, repetitious outbursts of vandalism and casual violence, interspersed with moments of quietude and sleep, general bullshit, wildness, provocations and so on. It is something like the aimless destruction of bored teenagers, but here presented as an all-encompassing mode of being, as if these figures existed without constraint or restraint, free to do what they want. The more the film goes on in this way, the more you get used to the rhythms of their lives, subject only to whim, seemingly without threat or danger. Korine appears to capture and consider these actions tenderly, framing them as near-ritualistic acts or performances of significance worthy of celebration. There are many emblematic images of these scenes of destruction, where the choreography might just as well refer to A Clockwork Orange as much as Korine’s stated inspiration of William Egglestone’s Stranded in Canton. We follow the almost feral actions of the Trash Humpers, as if we were part of the gang, being shown a personal compilation of home videos compiled onto one tape. Korine’s use of VHS is telling here, and perfectly suited. The screen regularly splits into bands of interference, including the appearance of text prompts, and the beautifully grainy analogue images pulsate with variegated colour. My appreciation of this aesthetic might be something to do with me being part of a generation that grew up with videotape, being familiar with the particular kinds of degeneration its images can suffer either from overuse, constant re-recording, cross-edits and malfunctions. Throughout Trash Humpers there is a sense that an underlying chaos of fuzz and snow could reclaim the screen at any moment, seeping in at every edit or even slightest imperfection on the tape surface. When pictures do emerge from such old videotapes, they posses a unique kind of fragility which I think, together with the obviously technologically-generated texture, exactly suits what Korine is doing.
But who are these figures? Are the Trash Humpers a gang or some kind of family unit? Are any of them siblings or are they a collective of burn victims (as is alluded to later on in the film, when a friend announces, together with a trumpet call, a vague opportunity for their redemption)? They certainly come across as a nightmarish vision of extreme characters, ones you would not want to meet, and one supposes a playful indication of where a society that worships ‘trash culture’ might be heading. But the subtleties of this black joke are entirely clear, as the portrayal of these racist, homophobic savants may well be a poke at redneck ignorance or a celebration of downtrodden freakery. As in other works, the influence of Herzog is pretty clear (as well as von Trier), but Korine’s view is specifically American in a way that Herzog’s American features are not. Korine has stated how the American landscape is a crucial element to this film and they are certainly imbued with a whole range of emotional qualities, from urban pastoral, decay and desolation to the eruption of unexpected natural beauty. Flashes of a neon sunset appear like unheralded gifts, contrasted by chandelier flares hanging from streetlamps, blank scenes of roadside junk caught in the magic hour. Korine seems keen to emphasise, especially in a late sequence linking architectural facades and unpopulated spaces, that the perfect arenas for these disturbing people and the acts they perform, exist all around us. Everywhere, everyday, there are early morning car parks, there are puddle-ridden industrial wastes, there are back roads, alleys, and so on… And if these spaces are here, largely ignored, these figures are among us too, ignored to the extent that we may as well have become them ourselves.
As the film progresses, the Trash Humper’s unrestrained lives spiral out of control. Korine manages to convincingly transport you from the patterns of delinquency into those of something more sinister, as actions become more and more extreme. The increasing violence has already been prefigured by simulations, including the torture of dolls and teasing, before moving into scenarios of genuine torture on other people. A transition point comes soon after a scene where a poet, dressed as a French maid, offers the clearest indication of who these figures are (but for whom?) in a drunken, crashed out scene on a late night overpass. The Trash Humpers are labelled as the symptoms of a human disease, worthy of pity as they are “spawned by our greed” and “bought with our cash”, suggesting that the film might just be a rant against materialism. We quickly cut to the poet having been killed with a hammer in the Trash Humper’s kitchen. The doll torture also serves to set up the shock of the last sequence, where two of the gang break into a house and steal a real baby. The tension as to what they might do to the child is palpable, and the fact that they do not harm it and in fact seem to care for it, is in a strange way a relief and a disaster – as if these figures, for all the destruction they can unleash, were not necessarily self-destructive. They know how to survive, how to endure. The way in which these scenes are shot again betrays the affection that Korine has for his creations. Underneath a single street lamp, the ‘mother’ and child are bathed in light, in the centre of an oddly moving tableau.
Still, if this is supposed to indicate some kind of visitation from a society to come, if this is what the future holds for American dreams and nightmares, what should be made of this? The degeneracy of trash worship might be an easy thing to set up as a one-liner, but then what is trash culture? Who decides what is trash and what isn’t? Something about this uncertainty of how these figures are positioned (as regards to today’s disenfranchised, the poor and powerless, etc.) comes across in the scenes where the Trash Humpers interact with other, secondary characters (non-actors, perhaps unaware they are being filmed?). One example comes when a worker in a railway yard is encountered, describing how he has been struck by trains on more than one occasion. The implication seems to be that there is an affinity between him, his way of life or outlook, and that of the Trash Humpers – which is then undercut when the gang become quietened, almost shocked, when the man starts to dance and make the sound of a train whistle – as if he were crazier than they were. I’m still not sure about much of this. Obviously it’s not a great idea to try to enforce specific readings on this kind of film, but I did wonder if there were a more subtle swipe being made at the middle classes or middle America, given the fact that the Humpers seemed to be relatively comfortable in their lives. They had no restrictions to them, as they made their own entertainment. They could afford a modern car, to book a trio of prostitutes, and to live in and keep up a clean apartment. The scenes in the apartment were interesting for other reasons, especially the interactions of people living together without social borders or limits on their behaviour towards others. It reminded me of a few films I saw at the Serpentine Gallery a few years ago, made by the artist Luke Fowler: What you see is where you’re at (2001) and The Nine Monads of David Bell (2006). These films staged pseudo-documentary investigations into the lives of residents at Kingsley Hall, a London refuge set up by psychiatrist R. D. Laing in the mid-sixties. The refuge was part of an experiment that aimed to provide an alternative model for the treatment of mental disorders and schizophrenia. Both residents and therapists lived communally, in an environment free from drug treatments, breaking down the traditional hierarchy of doctor-patient relationships. The unsettling chaos of Kingsley Hall was echoed for me in the scenes where the Humpers make pancakes, the farce punctured by mantras revealing their attitudes to what they view as the phony superficialities of other people’s lives – “Make it don’t fake it!” – as if it were only within the ‘asylum’ that genuine, primal action could be tapped into.
Another interesting scene took place in the apartment. One of the other minor characters, who appeared to form a kind of double-act with another man (they were both dressed in patient’s robes, open at the back, and were ‘attached’ with a length of stocking between their tops of their heads, like Siamese twins). In heavy contrast, we see one of these figures start to give a speech concerning what it would be like to live without a head.
Immediately there were connections, considering the nature of the gang, with Georges Bataille and the Acéphale review (1936-1939). Bataille and his secret society called for ‘headlessness’, not only as a possibility for man to escape his thoughts, but a model of an organisation of existence in which hierarchy is rejected and overseeing authority is abandoned. And what is the Humper’s existence if not unauthorised, their crowd being “chief-less” and without rule? But in living without a head, they also live without reason or sympathy, without protection of law. And where Bataille convened Acéphale meetings in night time forests, emphasising the necessity to “become different or cease to be”, the Trash Humpers are all half-asleep in the basement, not listening to this evocation of a possible philosophy, not listening to any wild or speculative justifications for what they are or what they do. It’s no doubt the case that they would simply not acknowledge such things and do not need them. But there could be a decent description of the Humper’s in Bataille’s text The Sacred Conspiracy, where he writes: “Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison, he has found beyond himself not God, who is prohibition against crime, but a being who is unaware of prohibition. Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is headless; this fills me with dread because he is made of innocence and crime.” This mixture of innocence and criminality is perhaps what Korine wanted to preserve and I think he is mostly successful at this. At least he should be commended for maintaining the coherence of the dark vision, prolonging the tone of the dream until the last minute. The emotional image that burns through is undecided, strangely unsatisfying – these monsters are also children, and there is no clue as to what to do with them.
For all that, for me it was in the rare moments when characters spoke directly that let the film was let down slightly, as it seemed an unnecessary step for Korine to make. Although there are recurring fragments of a cappella song, often coming from behind the camera as a voiceover [“O Mr Devil, you surely love me”, “Three little devils jumped over the wall…”], this surreal, vaudevillian commentary becomes deflated when the camera is addressed and a justification given for what’s been happening (is this the director’s?). When driving along a residential street, the character with the wig and glasses (played by Korine) speaks about “smelling the pain” of the people locked into conventional lives – declaiming it “a stupid way to live” – before going on to claim that the Trash Humpers are free people who choose to live “one long game”, one that he “expects we’ll win.” Of course, we might believe him – for he’s not talking about some direct conflict, but the inevitable endgame of a culture determined to swallow all the ‘trash’ that is served to it – if we knew exactly what trash was or the limitations of our ability to resist it or transform it into art.
The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
After having come across Errol Morris’s recent articles on re-enactment in film, especially in relation to his 1988 work The Thin Blue Line, I began thinking about Shoah again and some of the things we had discussed in relation to it. It’s interesting that we actually watched The Thin Blue Line during our Sussex retreat but didn’t really make any specific response to the film afterwards – perhaps Morris’s writings on the New York Times website give another opportunity to think about these ideas both in relation to that work and to Shoah, perhaps a part of trying to bring in references to more contemporary films.
In the first of three posts, Morris goes into detail about his use of slow motion re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line – a film that centres on the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer, and which contributed to Adams’s eventual acquittal – before opening up wider debates on the implications of using reconstructions in documentary film-making. Morris claims that he uses the technique to focus the attention on otherwise neglected details of the story being told (for example the thrown milkshake – a metonymic device that stands for the numerous inconsistencies in the events related in the story of the murder). As such, the reconstructions serve as goads to memory, and, to some extent, to logic: “My re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper – something that better captures what really happened.” Morris’s reduction of the crime down to what he calls “essential questions” isolates his faith in his reconstructions to function as lenses through which the viewer/filmmaker can better engage with the materiality of the narrative (so to speak), getting some kind of always already implicated handle on the shifting terms of the event in question. It can repeat the sequence from innumerable angles, waiting for significant details to emerge, or even recede from dominant view.
Elsewhere in his articles, Morris highlights the resistance of many critics to re-enactment in documentary film (regarded with a suspicion that is coupled with the generally held opinion that a director should be ‘hands-off’), but suggests that he is convinced that this is the only way that a filmmaker can engage with a story “from the past”. This may well be debatable, and it does raise questions about Lanzmann’s approach to Shoah (as well as his direct contribution as a directorial presence in the film itself) – if Lanzmann’s project is somehow ‘presenting the past’ (i.e. allowing it to remain past in the sense of not showing archival evidence, whilst rerouting [another form of 'showing'?] it through the present), how else but in the collision of past and present that a re-enactment essentially stages could this be achieved?
Obviously, there are huge differences between what is being attempted in Morris’s film and what is occurring in Shoah, but I think it might be worth thinking about the similarities also. Morris’s concern in The Thin Blue Line is for the minutiae of a specific crime – a fleeting event that, whilst not uncomplicated, is obviously on a much reduced scale to the vastness of the criminal events surrounding the holocaust.
Morris describes our perception of reality as being assembled from small details, and so his focus in The Thin Blue Line is often on disputed accounts, objects, gestures that form component parts of what unfolded – it is in the crucial details that the nature of an event might be apprehended. In the case of Shoah,there again is the presence of countless intimated details, gestures, etc. but ones that cumulatively amount to an assemblage that might be beyond our ability to accept it, of such dimensions that it will never really form for us. When Morris speaks about trying to assemble details into something that has what he calls a “consistent narrative,” one wonders about Lanzmann’s approach to the detail, and how he manages to negotiate the general within his re-enactments. This reference to consistent narrative is interesting – this is arguably not something that Lanzmann has in mind when setting up the re-enactments of people’s experiences during the war. Using the real people, as well as combining it with verbal testimony – a curious mixture of privileging of oral testimony over imagery, text over image.
There seems to be an important question here as to whether there are any re-enactments in Shoahin the first place. It’s fair to say that they are not re-enactments in the same sense as those employed in The Thin Blue Line, and that the examples we can point to in Shoah are much more complex and unsettling. Lanzmann does not construct straightforward reconstructions but rather platforms for testimony. The sequences have a curious relationship to fabrication – in some sense they are not re-enactments at all, but simply ‘enactments’ of the survivors’ memories. There is very little relation to the measurement of events being alluded to (there is no kind of superimposition in the way it is filmed, so to speak); there is no concession to any reconstructive authenticity; it is a tangential, almost incidental connection with the actuality of past events. The way Lanzmann presents these scenes there is never any doubt as to what we are seeing. There is no confusion as to what is real (there will be no absurd confusion as when a viewer thought Morris ‘was there’ the night of the murder), but there is a genuine conflation of past and present, the here & now and the there & then, in the fact that the Srebnik is AGAIN SINGING ON THE RIVER, Bomba is AGAIN CUTTING HAIR, such that there is a direct, material / physical link between what they are recounting and where they are, what they are doing. The scenes are ritualised, aimed at facilitating the ‘transport’ of the contributors, as well as other witnesses, into those events – a poultice drawing out further information.
This might be part of the reason why the re-enactments in Shoah are unsettling and particularly powerful to watch. There are no illusions as to what is occurring, in terms of what these people are being encouraged to do (or re-do) but the action is not presented as a ‘complete’ reconstruction that we might stand outside looking in. We are very much implicated in the generation of the re-enactment, witnessing the act of remembrance as framed by simulations that both hold and fall away. The re-enactment is performed in the actions of the survivor in front of the camera – an unstable territory always a mixture of the unprovoked and the set up. When Morris brings in references to R. G. Collingwood by quoting from The Idea of History: “History is the re-enactment of the past in the mind,” one might suggest that this is what Lanzmann is probing for in his subjects by placing them in these hallucinatory blends of what is no longer and what lives on – the generation of history, watching it happen like a web being spun. Morris claims to share Collingwood’s “impassioned dream” that we might “faithfully re-enact the thoughts of the past in the mind, that history is the combination of evidence and our attempts to rethink the thoughts that produced it.” The notion of inhabiting thought is particularly powerful in relation to the way certain scenes are played out in Shoah – as Morris says: “Experience is not unlike history – just closer to us in time.”
Morris makes a very interesting comment in the third post: “People think that a re-enactment is a faithful replication of an original event. But it can also be an attempt to recall an event. (…) But if the idea of re-enacting something is to wait around until it happens again, that’s something altogether different. That’s not re-enacting something, that’s repeating something or hoping that something will fortuitously repeat itself. It would be like waiting around on Hampton Road for the shooting of the police officer to happen all over again.” Could there be something in the suggestion that in some way Lanzmann is waiting for something to ‘happen again’?
Gary Weissman, in his book Fantasies of Witnessing: Post War Efforts to Experience the Holocaust claims that Shoah is a “non-visual” or even “anti-visual” film, which is an interesting idea that seems to have connections with a lot of what Jacques Rancière has written about the distribution of the sensible, word & image, etc. and which should be worth further investigation. [Weissman also suggests that Lanzmann’s film “betrays a desire to illustrate the annihilation,” and claims that this is most clearly seen in the sequences concerning the gas chambers – more on this later perhaps.] Morris also suggests a distance from the visual: “Re-enactment is not so much a visual activity, as it is a conscious activity. It is the process through which we imagine and re-imagine the world around us. The important thing to remember is that everything we consciously experience is a re-enactment. Consciousness, itself, is a re-enactment of reality inside our heads.”
Morris’s article brings in specific references to fraudulent use of re-enactments – where filmmakers attempt to pass off their own footage as being from a specific time and place. He makes specific reference to Mighty Times: The Children March (2005) in which archive footage is mixed with faked re-enactments (as well as inaccurately assigned stock material), without any clear demarcation between them. It is disputed as to whether or not the filmmakers, as part of their so-called “faux doc” technique, identify the re-enacted scenes by showing sprocket holes at the borders of the image. This ambiguity throws the authenticity of the entire construction into doubt and leads some to suggest that all re-enactments should be labelled as such (imagine some unsubtle method of keeping the word ‘RECONSTRUCTION’ in the top left hand corner like on Crimewatch), though one has to wonder about the function of re-enactments that disappear into the fabric of a film, and question not only is validity, but whether it is being used in the most effective way. For Morris, who acknowledges that some re-enactments “serve the truth” and others “subvert it,” the key question remains how re-enactments are employed, what effects they produce (in relation to intention), and how they relate to our capacity for credulity when presented with ‘convincing’ images (what is a ‘convincing’ image?).
Lanzmann’s decision not to include any archival footage in Shoah arguably allows him to avoid many of the issues concerning the overuse of imagery, the substitution of ‘generic’ footage that may not correspond exactly with the what is being discussed or ‘otherwise shown’ – the relatively common abuse of images that are deemed to ‘look appropriate’, etc. But there are other problems that such a decision brings in that can be used productively. Lanzmann is clear that he doesn’t consider Shoah to be a documentary, but it’s not clear exactly what it is – perhaps the very reason for its power. If the director’s aim is for the film to hover at the borders of generic definitions, never settling anywhere, this ambivalence seems to be translated wholesale into the awkward, ‘hallucinatory’ (according to Rancière) scenes of re-enactment.
Can it be a re-enactment if the real people involved in an event are persuaded to ‘go back’? In some ways, perhaps it is a compromised re-enactment, a mixture of resemblance and dissemblance, in that everything around them is faked in order to allow them to have some kind of genuinely enacted re-experience? If you look closely, perhaps you can see experience come again on their faces – an experience both of this present world and the one they know as absent. Interestingly, in one of the many interesting comments on Morris’ articles, there is a reference to Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. The comment raises the point about Morris using an actor to play Leuchter in order to get the character to “participate in the director’s editorializations about his understanding of the situation he found himself in – standing by the side of the road as cars whiz by, examining an electric chair, etc.” These scenes are clearly ‘shot’ by the filmmaker and represent an artistic statement about his subject…but the illusion that the subject participated in these shoots overwhelms the artistic content of the imagery for me.”
We spoke a bit previously about Lanzmann’s role and it continues to be an important element of the re-enactments. Lanzmann in never absent from these scenes, often interjecting from behind the camera, prodding the survivors to take in their current surroundings and to cast their minds back. It is as if getting the body ‘there’ was part of this process of recall and provocation. The level of manipulation is a central question here, as is the degree to which the experiences that the survivors/witnesses go through is some sort of catharsis or therapy staged on film. It raises questions about Lanzmann’s ‘artistic ego’ and its effect on the way the film is put together.
Ambulans (Janusz Morgenstern, 1961)
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Errol Morris, 1999)
This morning I found myself thinking about the juxtaposition of the two films, and how interesting bleeds might occur between the two. I remember the really interesting double-bill during Documenta XII which put Cronenberg’s Existenz beside Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes – two films that, taken together in that way, really seemed to present an evening’s viewing as a body of interrelating, and exhausting, material. For me, they fed on each other in ways that allowed greater intensities and delicacies of imagery to emerge in both.
Anyway, I was thinking about some of the things Toni-Lynn has mentioned about her research and began considering the act of staring as it appeared in both these films. In Ambulans, there were a few lengthy shots of the children’s male guardian as he was looking intently at the SS guards preparing the ambulance – a gaze that was quite particularly blank, or even ‘open’ somehow (Incidentally, I’m sure there’s room for a consideration of just what constitutes a ‘stare’ and what a ‘look’, etc.). Even though it was in the midst of a sparse, theatrical setting – we commented about the use of the deserted airfield as a kind of endless non-space, a plateau which reminded me of the flattened sets in Dogville – the man’s gaze seemed somehow ‘undirected’, if you see what I mean. Of course it is absolutely directed, but it was as if the stare is supposed to be as neutral as possible – a look that gives nothing away, and perhaps then presents nothing for certain. A blank stare in relation to the unrepresentable…hmm, Rancière needs to be revisited again. For the stare to operate on this kind of blank sheet face, where there is no obvious reading to be discerned in his countenance, it is possible for it to be ‘filled’ or loaded with disgust, horror, pity, disbelief, even blankness or absolute nothingness, etc. By contrast, the various instances of Fred Leuchter’s ‘stare’, if I can call it that seemed very different. There were numerous moments in Morris’ film where Leuchter was photographed with, for me, a quite particular gaze. It not only appeared in the interviews and his reenactments demonstrating various execution mechanisms, but also in home movies and private photographs – images where he was perhaps shown strapping himself into electric chairs with a more tangible sense of macabre humour and gleeful self-consciousness about the eccentricity of his chosen profession – a self-fascination that he does well to disguise in much of the interviews, but which begins to emerge more and more clearly as the film becomes more complicated.
Of course, these private images were not ‘staged’ by Morris – they were not subject to the more manipulative camera angles and dramatic lighting effects that, elsewhere in the film, certainly did seem to portray Leuchter as a mad scientist figure (in his Tesla birdcage) or maniacal whackjob. These vaguely ridiculous sequences put together by Morris (and which Leuchter willingly inserted himself into) often seemed to capture and/or manipulate a kind of ‘stare’, and perhaps the considered capturing of a ‘look’ of this type relates to broader questions as to the way a filmmaker frames the subject of his work. In saying that, it seems to me though that the most ‘damning evidence’ – and by this I mean the instances where more or less serious manipulations, distortions and misjudgments (of action, appearance, responsibility, accountability, etc.) were revealed – was most obviously presented by the original footage of Leuchter’s visit to Auschwitz – in which Morris did not have a directorial hand beyond its placement in the wider context of his documentary. No doubt there is something about the physical appearance and bearing of both men that is worth thinking about. The guardian in Morgenstern’s film has an elegant, well-proportioned face, which in some ways is unremarkable to the degree that it is not noticed. Leuchter, on the other hand, is quite a strange-looking person. As Toni-Lynn pointed out, Morris found him a quite formidable interviewee, and his physicality, though hunched & unassuming (was it David Irving who described him as a “mouse of a man”?), does suggest a tangle of conviction and self-regard that is unnerving. The thick lenses on his (oversize) glasses also seems to emphasise his eyes in a quite particular way, in some ways worsening the awkward gestures he seems to get photographed employing on occasion.
More generally I was fascinated by the way the film, particularly towards the end, presented Leuchter’s uncertain make-up of naivety and hubristic arrogance, mainly through allowing his haplessness to emerge slowly and, to my mind, undeniably. The completely absurd, cod-theatrical nonsense of his ‘investigation’ at Auschwitz was painful and compelling viewing. It’s rare that a sequence can be put together in such a way that it provokes anger and laughter, but the sequence of events snowballed into stupidity in a way that it became increasingly hard to fathom. There were countless details that demanded questions, even interrogations, of the unfolding events – questions that did not really emerge in the film at the ‘appropriate’ moments, if at all (for me, Leuchter was not held to account directly enough). For example the pathetic, parodic manner in which the ‘investigation party’ dressed, the way notebooks were falling out of pockets and the absurd fumbling with ‘baggies’ (some kind of emblem of forensic rigour… sheesh) with frozen hands, the ‘clean brick’, the child-like hammering, etc. Even the anecdote about the ‘noodle water’ soup served at the Auschwitz guesthouse where Leuchter stayed – a building that used to be the SS headquarters – seemed to speak volumes of the ludicrously casual, touristic approach of the whole thing (…and I don’t know why, but this anecdote reminded me of the joke with which Woody Allen begins Annie Hall, about ‘small portions’… something very wrong in that association). The effect was of small, seemingly inconsequential actions taking on immense proportions – errors of judgement writ large, as a small-world stupidity was let loose in the wider landscape of history and culture, amid the highest political and ethical stakes imaginable.
There were two other things that I wanted to mention. Firstly, I was thinking about was the way in which, about halfway through, the film seemed to transform into something quite unexpected – in a way not completely dissimilar to what Neil mentioned about Love Streams – where the reasonably straightforward, thought offbeat, story of the guy with the ‘unusual’ job, with his seemingly genuine concern for it to have some recognisable (& recognised) meaning and clarity of purpose, etc. etc. suddenly became an increasingly shocking story about being out of one’s depth in a massively enlarged arena of responsibility, yet failing to recognise that the shore was quickly disappearing from view. Secondly, and perhaps related to this, I wanted to bring up the heavy use of a black screen, which I noticed at the time but forgot to bring up. I don’t know if either of you two noted it, but it seemed that the film – the interviews especially – was continually being interrupted by these blackouts (though often the audio or image continued in a curious syncopation), almost as if the camera was blinking. Does this say something about Morris’, or our, increasing disbelief at what’s unfolding in front of our eyes? Or is it some other, more serious, syncope?
Rancière in London, Godard in Blinks
I wanted to post something in relation to the Rancière conference we attended in London in May, even though some of the things that struck me at the time are not so clear to me now. Rancière’s own talk seemed self-contained, and perhaps worthy of comment on its own, so I’ll stick to a few small things I noted down when listening to the other speakers during the day. What was most interesting, considering that we’d been watching it relatively recently and reading Rancière’s writing about it, were the references to Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma that cropped up in several of the papers, in various different ways. It’s clearly a crucial work, both in general and for Rancière’s thought, for a number of reasons – it seems a kind of focal point for the way he structures his points about image regimes, the distribution of the sensible, representation, etc. that dominant The Future of the Image and other works.
I think it was Emiliano Battista who made reference to a severance of the link between image and narrative in Godard’s series, and how such a connection between those two elements is made untenable by the methods he employs. By rescuing images (as themselves) from their narrative placement, isolating them away from their Hollywood casings, the settings of story lines, etc. Godard succeeds in reintroducing them to their own nature / light – such that they become linked not to another image but to virtual images ‘in the underworld’. I was quite interested in this notion of making these embedded images return to some kind of virtuality, and how this might relate to what Deleuze has written about the virtual in relation to cinema, or in his wider philosophy – perhaps someone can start shedding light on this, or we could take a look at some of the relevant texts at some point?
The reference to this isolation of the images, closing them off so that they might return to a kind of virtual availability, also made me think (perhaps confusedly) to some of the references to the ‘sacred’ that came up in relation to Georges Bataille during the Free School event, as well as something I had read in Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Ground of the Image, where mention is made of the ‘image as sacred’ in the sense of being cordoned off or sectioned in a similar way. It might be interesting, at some point, to consider bringing all of these references together to see how they might fit together or fall apart.
During the conference, further references were made to the ‘blacked out’ sections in Histoire(s) du Cinéma – the way the scene fragments, images, sequences were edited together, mixed and separated from one another in different strategies of montage. Again, there is probably something interesting in asking how Histoire(s)… succeeds in not reintroducing another kind of narrative: how it manages to skirt this problem by hovering at the edge of hallucination, or dream, constantly stirred by the ceaseless disruption of the on-screen texts, crossfades, voiceovers and music – all maintaining a kind of novelty of combination that won’t fully disperse or congeal into a single or straightforward linearity or concession to historicity. Not only that, but here’s also something in asking how one might isolate different methods of isolation, so to speak, via both separation and separation – the complex ‘regimes’ in play in the combination and extraction of images from one another, whether embedding them in a black surround or in the material of another shot works in similar manner in not allowing them to settle back into clear function away from their nature as just images…
In any case, these comments about the blacked out sections made me associate it with my experience of watching Mr Death, which I think was mentioned in a previous post about that film. Clearly, the effects of these strange omissions of image in Morris’s film are quite different, but I think there might be some kind of connection. I think we spoke about it working, in Mr Death, as a way of disrupting the inevitability of the events that formed Leuchter’s descent into conviction / delusion, and, as such, functioned as a kind of spanner in the narrative. In contrast to Godard, the result is not a rescuing of images, but somehow a delaying or interruption of Leuchter’s personal logic; making the direction in which he was heading more problematic to follow or difficult to believe.
Such insertions stutter and delay the unfolding of events, make them strange. This seems to me to be strangely echoed in the way Godard handles his own insertions of text and speech – the readings and voiceovers that populate the film. Whether it be the readings he takes from his library shelves, piecemeal and fragmentary, or the odd dislocation involved in his typing out of commentary on an electric typewriter which only proceeds to print what has been committed to it after a significant delay – so that Godard can watch his thoughts be produced on paper as if they came from elsewhere. It’s interesting to note that during the conference I had noted down the observation, perhaps quoting one of the speakers, that there is a desire here to move away from a rupture of language – that Godard rather aims at continuity, and aims to build a ‘flow’ of images rather than establish any breaks. This paradoxical mixture of isolation (which suggests an interruption of sorts) and continuity seems fundamental to what is happening during Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and perhaps relates to the mixture of fact and fiction, past and present, at work in Lanzmann’s Shoah. The creation of fictions seems central to the practice of montage, and one might suggest that another order of montage is being employed in the re-enactments of Lanzmann’s film. There were a number of references the ‘real becoming meaningful through fictions’, or fiction being the ‘machine for the reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensible’ – i.e. establishing new intersections of what can be seen and what can be said about it, throughout the conference, and I’m wondering how the establishment of fictions might relate to the kind of ‘flattening’ that seemed part of what was often brought up as the ‘topography of the sensible’, suggestive of a kind of spreading out which deposes mastery and provides an non-hierarchical ‘surface’ for the engagement with what can be seen or said. In his talk later in the afternoon, Rancière himself said (although I’m not entirely sure of the context now), in reference to Godard and Histoire(s)… that the isolation of the ‘icon’ (I have suspicions about aligning this with ‘image’ immediately… what might be going on here?) is then proposed by Godard to be able to be aligned with ‘anything and everything’, which suggests a leveling of the image, even, in its opening out of potentiality (a softening of edges) a kind of neutralisation.
Gloria (John Cassavetes, 1980)
Though this was a relatively conventional film from Cassavetes, almost a straight action film but not quite, there were still a number of things that were really interesting throughout. No doubt the role of Gloria was the main focus for Cassavetes and Rowlands, and the lead role is effective portrayed as a tough, near-spinster, thrust into a (social) situation she is unprepared for and nearly unfit to cope with. However, what we talked about most of all was the character of the boy, Phil Dawn, played by John Adames, and the way he developed throughout the story. In relation to one of the themes of the film – the question as to what makes a ‘man’, as well as the degree to which people need others or let them into their affection – the young boy’s dialogue, and much of his general role, seemed somehow ventriloquised, so to speak. In various places, it was as if much of the boy’s dialogue was written with someone else – i.e. an adult – in mind. The words spoken didn’t seem to ring true coming out of his mouth – for example, when they were in the ‘flophouse’ and the room pulsed with red neon from the street outside, Phil exclaims how “these neon lights are driving me crazy” – it seemed like some cliched Noir line [which JC is obviously playing with throughout], but coming out of a six-year-old’s mouth just seemed absurd. I guess much of this approach is deliberate, given the central concern as to who is the ‘man’ in the situation, but occasionally it seemed to jar a little too much – as if the character’s deferred transition, or ambivalence between boy and man were being forced too much to be effectively upheld. The constant questioning of who is the ‘man’ (the same question, of course, being asked of Gloria, but in a different register, and with different associated responsibilities) or who is authoritative in a given situation, stems from Phil’s father, just prior to being wiped out, having bequeathed the space of that authority to both his son and his unwilling neighbour – one to become the head of the family and the other to take care of the child. This split, one might say, results in the power struggle that runs throughout the film – a struggle that is informed by mock adult relationships, the overblown perspective of the child’s world, as well as being informed by convention. The way that Phil would say things that seemed like they had come from the TV, or from his assumptions as to what should be said in this unmoored situation he finds himself in, was quite effective. Linked to this were the scenes when the boy stood at the anonymous graveside as part of a ritual created for him by Gloria so that he can say goodbye to his murdered family, and the way he improvises a way through a situation he doesn’t know how to deal with [how many times does Phil plainly state: "I don't know what to do..."?]. He blurts out something about dreaming of his family the previous night, and makes a bizarre gesture with his hands and arms, most likely an approximation intended to be the sign of the cross. The action makes him look like some kind of praying mantis, before he sprints off back to Gloria – his only remaining point of contact that makes sense for him, however difficult or distant that ‘sense’ seems to be. Apparently, Cassavetes said that the kid wasn’t supposed to be “sympathetic or non-sympathetic” – wasn’t a character designed to function in a certain way or to achieve something in the narrative – but was “just a kid”. Somehow, this seems to ring true – and perhaps explains why his way of talking or behaving seems to be so unplaceable to me – even though there seemed to be so many odd, contradictory things going on with the character. Thinking about it, one of my favourite bits of the film involved the boy spouting dialogue that was equally surreal and plausible, with a mixture of wry, near-adult sarcasm and desperate innocence. Gloria leaves him on the street to go to a bar and, as she walks away, Phil berates her, shouting over the traffic: “…’bye little insect, ‘bye little fly, goodbye little tiny insect…” whilst using his forefinger and thumb to ‘squash’ her as she recedes from view, out of shot. This throwaway outburst remained in my mind in any case.
On the Fly
A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)
After Gloria, this film seemed to operate in much more familiar Cassavetes territory. We’ve talked a lot about whether you can tell if it’s a Cassavetes film (I think Neil & I agree that its usually unmistakable), and I think this was especially true in this case, not just because of returning cast members or particular lighting, etc… there is a quality to the films that shouts out beyond any methodology or recognizable style – I’m not sure what it is of course… perhaps a combination of all those elements and something else I can’t put my finger on. Cassavetes again focuses on the minutiae of married life, and the complex intra-relationships going on at all levels of such an institution (so to speak) – whether it be on or across the level of individuals, couples, children, the wider circles of extended families and friends, and so on, all of whom spiral and press in on each other to create a situation that is, more often than not, on the verge of going out of control. As with many of his other films, an uncomfortable realism is extracted from the interaction of the characters – rhythms and patterns of interaction that are not often seen in mainstream movies, and where the slow-build tensions and cathartic releases the characters experience can convey genuine emotion and power. There is often the feeling that Cassavetes films are on the verge of collapse – perhaps something about the seemingly impromptu exchanges (which we know are carefully written/structured) allow the film to work on the borders of doubt and uncertainty. It seems the characters themselves don’t know what coming next, or what might come out of their mouths the next time they speak – especially in A Woman Under the Influence.
The central pairing of Peter Falk (who plays construction foreman Nick Longhetti) and Gena Rowlands (his “unusual” wife Mabel) dominate the film, and one of the most interesting aspects was the manner in which these characters shadowed, contradicted and infiltrated each other. Ostensibly the film focuses on Mabel’s instability, and how her eccentricities draw ever nearer to a mental breakdown and her committal, yet both characters are equally implicated by their actions – certain elements of which are only exposed in the other’s absence (& this is not to mention the demanding put upon them by the extended cast of characters that circle the couple – creepy doctors, interfering mothers, gangs of friends, etc.) Both Nick and Mabel seem to be riddled with doubt, desperation, and a relentless need for love and attention – but it takes Mabel’s absence from the film for Nick’s frailties and his incapacities to be visible to the same extent. It takes the removal of Mabel’s unrepressed weirdness to expose Nick’s own erratic actions. He would appear to be equally unhinged, and perhaps even more dangerous – the kids drinking alcohol in the back of the truck and the accident at work, for example. The implication that Nick is just as crazy as she is, perhaps more so, but on another kind of register, perhaps exposes 70s attitudes to mental illness, or certain attitudes to women – considering how the man can shield his own peculiar behaviour through machismo, loud shouting, or having a wife who is opined to be loopier than he is in the eyes of society. In any case, it seems clear that Nick is incapable of functioning without having Mabel’s madness against which he can formulate his and contextualise his own behaviour.
As in other Cassavetes films, much of the dysfunction here seems to focus on excess (a Cassavetes/Bataille sandwich sounds interesting…) – characters either trying to hard to fit into a given situation, or attempting to enforce a way of behaving onto others. Following the sequence where Nick’s work colleagues turn up at the house after a long shift and cook spaghetti, Mabel’s attempts at adjusting to the situation inevitably cross the line. Embarrassing one of the workers with an invitation to dance, Nick clears the room with an explosion of impatience and anger that had been building since he enforced a pretty unreasonable situation on his wife the morning after having ‘stood her up’. The desire to alter others (and Mabel even has that chestnut line: “who do you want me to be (…) I can be anybody…”), as well as instances of enforced happiness (i.e. children’s trip to the beach with their father – we will have a good time; or Mabel’s over-the-top affection – the hammy desperation of the unconvinced) is perhaps tempered by the reassurance and fascination that another person’s character and unpredictability can provide – perhaps the recognition of this incommensurability, and the fact that you can’t force others to change, is a main part of the film.
This is connected to the (perhaps unconscious) goading of Mabel – the family, desperate for her to ‘calm down’ or ‘not get too excited’, succeed only in setting the very conditions in which Mabel can perform the that role of the crazy woman. In fact, claiming that role back, but with another kind of authority (perhaps one that means that no one has to do anything or take any responsibility), might be what is required of her on some level. Using the same combination of plea and demand with which he assures her that he loves her, Nick implores Mabel, initially taciturn from electroshock, to “be yourself,” throwing her into confusion once again (much like the way that a violent handclap near her face seemed to put her in a trance – am I imagining this? I keep thinking of this, as if, rather than hitting her, he wanted to wake her up). It is an impossible demand – a riddle that she can have no answer to, as her unfiltered behaviour, her own self, is what inevitably strays beyond acceptable levels of dysfunction in the eyes of those around her. Her self is what caused her to be taken away from her home on the first place.
I think there could be something interesting to say about the treatment of private and public space in the film. The lack of privacy seems crucial to the whole situation. Characters are rarely seen alone – there is one sequence at the beginning, just after the kids have left with the mother, where Mabel is alone in the house – she plays opera [which relates well to the great sequence at the spaghetti breakfast when one of Nick’s coworkers begins to sing operatic tunes and Mabel stares at him, right down his throat, in amazement], she smokes and drinks, and generally jitters about the house like a teenager left alone, falling into restlessness and boredom in just the same way. In addition to this, Nick and Mabel sleep on a sofa bed in the dining room, where batty mothers and enthusiastic kids easily disturb them. Tellingly, the bathroom at the back of their room has a ‘PRIVATE’ sign on it, the letters incongruously large. Given that the majority of the social situations in the film take place in this violated private space we might have sympathy for Mabel’s awkward request at the party that everyone leave so she can go to bed with her husband. The ending of the film, which suggests no real resolution to the difficulties of these characters’ lives, also suggests a return to privacy – the camera views the couple through glass windows as they prepare for bed. Stepping back from them comes as something of a relief, as if it were only through the influence of others that the delicate and tender imbalances of their relationship (in their quieter moments, they are a sweet couple) come undone and turn toward madness and violence. Nick and Mabel, amid the distractions of switching the room from social to private space, begin to bring some level of order and control to their fractured lives, alone at last with one another, with some solace but with no solution.
Quotes from Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes
“The idea of taking a laborer and having him married to a wife who he can’t capture is really exciting. I don’t know how you work on that. So I write – I’ll do it any way [I can]. I’ll hammer it out, I’ll kick it out, I’ll beat it to death, any way you can get it.”
“I knew hard-hat workers like Nick, and Gena knew women like Mabel, and although I wrote everything myself, we would discuss lines and situations with Peter Falk, to get his opinion, to see if he thought they were really true, really honest.”
“Usually we put film in such simple terms while being endlessly involved in talking about our personal experience. We admit how complex it is. But it’s as though we never look into a mirror and see what we are. So the films I make really are trying to mirror that emotion, so we can understand what our impulses are why we do things that get us into trouble, when to worry about it, when to let them go. And maybe we can find something in ourselves that is worthwhile.”
“Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are. For me [this is] the first real family I’ve ever seen on screen. Idealized screen families generally don’t interest me because they have nothing to say to me about my own life."
In the second of his books on cinema, Deleuze refers to both Gloria and A Woman Under the Influence in relation to a remark attributed to Cassavetes that characters should not come from a plot, but rather that stories should be secreted by characters, like sweat from their pores. The reduction of characters to what Deleuze calls “bodily attitudes” from which an emergent ‘spectacle’ might come – which seems something like winding them up and letting them go, with a camera running – can still “pass through” a script, but the point is less about telling a story than “developing and transforming” these attitudes.
Something about the near-ceaseless tension in much of Cassavetes films, A Woman Under the Influence in particular, seems to support the idea of the ‘coming together’ of attitudes in this sense – the unpredictable collisions of people’s behaviour, all the moving points of contact, resistance and pliability generating the form of the film on the fly.
The Intentions of Others
Zentropa (Lars von Trier, 1991)
I set myself the task of sitting in the sun and trying to write something interesting about the films we saw on Friday. I certainly succeeded in getting slightly burnt. What did stick in my mind in relation to von Trier’s Zentropa were the various, quite radical, treatments of the image/screen, especially when considered in relation to Rancière’s writings that we’ve been looking at and to the other films we’ve been watching. I thought Zentropa was visually very complex (the plot wasn’t uncomplicated either), with a lot of things going on within the same ‘screen space’, the full extent of which perhaps only apparent with repeated viewing. Certain effects were broad-stroked, others seemed subtly buried within the body/material of the final, presented images of the film. The uses of back projection, superimposition, switching from colour to black and white, as well as other odd tones, etc. seemed to stage specific and controlled collisions throughout the movie, though they were strewn throughout the duration with no straightforward correlation to the content of the scene – at least, I didn’t a sense of it. Though there seemed no obvious logic connecting a given shot (what kinds of collisions/splits it contained) and its content, these processes built toward a cumulative effect – a gathered momentum (a kind of nausea too) that tied in with the hypnotist’s voiceover from Max von Sydow. That voiceover, in fact, seemed to lay down an affective territory, or ambition, for the images – if that makes any sense. The visual (and textual) elements were brought together in such a way as to transport the viewer to Europa, in a kind of bawdy collage version of a swinging watch – some kind of regressive therapy lulled you into the same ambiguous spaces as the characters on screen. I was reading somewhere that the film was considered by some to be a cold, clinical demonstration of technique, and this is perhaps a valid criticism, if a little too straightforward. Apparently, Von Trier himself considered the film’s style to be ‘excessive’, and I think this that is one of its problems, but at least the director was not afraid to make bold statements, taking different approaches and visual orders, and slamming them all into the pot. I really enjoyed this ‘excess’ and I wonder why these techniques aren’t used more often.
The story’s focus could be said to be on various types of isolation and contamination. Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American working in post-war Germany (or a spooky, Kafkaesque version thereof) as a sleeping car attendant for the Zentropa railway company, gets involved with a mysterious woman and her Nazi-implicated father, his mad uncle, the American Occupation authorities, pro-Nazi terrorists, as well as the bureaucracy of the Zentropa company itself, all resulting in a cacophony of confused loyalties and shady pasts, such that the young man’s intention to operate in that uncertain, volatile country in an “impartial” way gradually slides away, doomed to failure. Kessler makes clear that he is on “no one’s side” in this fragile land, a place that “needs kindness”, but his attempts at “doing some good” leads, inevitably, to his furthering the motives of others, carrying out their tasks by default or by accident. The specific ways in which the director has treated the film, closing off and reopening the image/screen, seem centrally important to this idea of uncertain involvements and isolations – the dissolving image somehow symptomatic of the uncertainties and latent betrayals that figure so strongly in the story. In one short sequence, for example, we might cut back to a shot where characters are seen ‘behind the glass’ of another screen or projection (perhaps this ‘nested’ more than once…) or where midground action suddenly dissolves into a grainy image on a back wall, both overtaken by additional scenes paying out ‘over the top’. Various tones and colorations made it seem as though certain exchanges were isolated even further, placed within further recesses of memory – caught in amber. A backdrop scene might simply fade into towering letters ['WERWOLF'], in a style suggestive of propaganda posters from the war; disparate objects and POVs might be surreally juxtaposed in ways that made me think of Peter Kennard, Vertov and Harold Lloyd, all mixed in the pot.
In fact, thinking about it, this type of layering of images (theatrical backdrops – you can sense the presence of Dogville here too…?), reminds me of the uses of photographic images/documents in Shoah, which came up previously. The primacy of the screen surface, or its structural integrity and layers of prominence, so to speak, seem to be in play here too. The collage effect of different threads of imagery competing at different ‘altitudes’ within one image-screen, as well as the question whether one image, be it a still photo, an artefact or some other overlay, is allowed to fill the entire ‘image space’ and comprehensively transfer the narrative to an entirely different register, runs through the whole film. Though in a much more stylised and minimal way, these processes also brought to mind aspects of Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema. Like that piece, the effect was something of an unsettled flitting through image sequences, as if skirting back and forth through ‘history’, restlessly probing for connections and discrepancies, trying to activate some crystalline combination to induces an effect. [TL - I think you mentioned something about the hypnotic voiceover in connection to some of the sequences of Shoah - was it Jan Karski's equally hypnotic tones assuring us that he, rather, "doesn't go back"? - perhaps there might be something interesting about the type of regression demonstrated in all three of these films - Histoire(s) du Cinema, Shoah and Zentropa - which relates to different ways historicity is induced through moving images...? Everyone must become unhinged slightly and travel back... the different visual orders of regressive therapy...) A good score on the W-Ometer is on the way.]
With all these techniques combining, the depth of field was continually prominent – the film often like looking into a tunnel, rather than a window onto a world. The film’s air of a hallucinatory, monochrome dream, seemed to be deliberately mixed up or mirrored by the strategic use of physical sets. For example, there were instances when characters were placed at different depths of the scene (back-, mid- and foregrounds – we mentioned this type of thing in relation to another film too… was it Cassavetes?), or the camera pulling back from a window through an elaborate set of a train moving past, segueing into a scene set the next day, etc. This was another part of the general sensation the film encouraged, that, at any point, elements of the image might ‘peel away’ or otherwise dissolve – as if they weren’t really there, but were distortions or imaginings of events. That the ‘real actors’ might suddenly turn into images – if you see what I mean – not only compounds and complicates some of the mysteries of the plot and structure, but also questions the viewer’s own trust in what he’s seeing, and where one could judge the true ‘surface’ of the image to be – perhaps like the accuracies of history and the intentions of others.
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
Waking up to find some four inches of snow on the ground was an interesting way to start the day of the screening. Anyway – it’s no small task to attempt to write something in response to this film, which is so vast, in so many different respects, it’s difficult to know where to start. We talked about various things in response to Shoah, and I’ll try to relate what I remember of them, and thoughts that have grown since then – no doubt other points from our discussions can be brought in by others.
We watched the film straight through, with few breaks. It was certainly a demanding task, but the film is relentlessly compelling. It is broken up into two eras, each era being split into two sections, each contained on one DVD. One of the things that we discussed at length concerned the figure of Lanzmann himself – the various modes of his presence throughout the film. He is a controversial figure for many, and there are certainly instances where his style of operation, or the way he appears or is heard during the film, raised questions concerning his role and his approach to the project. His physical presence was one point of interest. His appearance, at least for me, was initially unexpected. I’m not certain what I did expect, but the vision of Lanzmann as a compact, slightly stocky, Parisian sophisticate – particularly when seen in the context of rural Poland – complete with casual shirts and sunglasses, somehow chimed with him being relatively at ease with the people he talked with. Perhaps this is testament to his journalistic background, and his skills in allowing people to open themselves in front of the camera. Lanzmann’s appearance in front of the camera, not to mention his female translators, initially seemed a little strange. The interview exchanges ranged from conversational, improvised and informal (yet not without occasional barbed or insinuating comments) dialogues, to more formalised, structured interviews, no doubt linked to practical demands of each situation, or the demands/needs of specific subjects. Nonetheless, it was intriguing to note Lanzmann’s qualities as an interviewer, especially comparing those times when he is in front of the camera and those when he is hidden behind it (e.g. the covert recordings – the breach of trust between a researcher and his subject another point entirely) – the different intensities of the interviews, and the shifts in his audio/visual presence, were fascinating throughout. As an aside, in addition to Lanzmann and his translators, the film crew also make a few appearances – most often in the hidden camera sequences, where their adjustments to the visual and audio signals from the back of a van seemed to function in an odd way. It was almost as if their modulations of what is being seen or heard served as ornamentations, there to ‘colour’ the otherwise static, restricted camera work.
The issue of the running translations was also discussed. In particular, the French/Polish translations (Polish being one of the few languages that Lanzmann does not speak during the film) gave the first sequences a strange, disconnected rhythm. The interviews in Poland were dominated by this arduous, elongated process, dotted with explanations and interruptions that often did not allow for participants to slip into flowing recollection. Delays between questions asked, their relayed translations, and the reverse translation of answers, seemed to open out gaps, spaces for loss so to speak, even for misrepresentation. On more than one occasion Lanzmann chided his colleague for not effectively translating what was being said – there was one specific occasion when a reference was made to “capital” in connection to the relative wealth of Jewish families in the local area, where Lanzmann noted its omission and demanded that its meaning be explained. Such inconsistencies and slippages seemed to imply the possibility of swathes of experience (information) slipping under the radar, or going undetected, perhaps in some way an acknowledgement of an inherently accepted shortfall embraced by the whole project. If, as Jacques Rancière suggests in the final chapter of The Future of the Image, Lanzmann’s task is to represent the “reality of the incredible, the equivalence of the real and the incredible,” (p129) then these mismatches might speak of, or emphasise, the seeming impossibility and relentless obligation that such an equivalence demands.
Lanzmann’s complex claims that Shoah is not a documentary but a work of art is difficult to wholly refute. As a ‘fiction of the real’ that does not necessarily attempt to be historically representational as such, the film actively engages with a more manipulative, and perhaps more powerful, agenda. Rancière suggests that Lanzmann does not remove the fact of the extermination in this artistic presentation – suggesting that it is not simply a case of having one at the expense of the other (as if an artwork immediately lost all claims to historicity or a certain validity, and vice versa…) – and that his task is to approach the unrepresentable, or the discourses that surround it, from a particular, and conscious, artistic vantage (however unstable some of those terms might be…). It seems clear that Lanzmann’s construction is absolutely deliberate – it assumes and manipulates countless available framings and juxtapositions – not just in cinematographic terms, but in the treatment of interviewees, the handling of oral testimony, the reenactments, use of imagery, etc. in service of a work whose scale is perhaps not as freely traversed by other means.
The reenactments are really interesting, and somewhat troubling, to watch. An article by Dominick LaCapra quotes Lanzmann: “To direct a frontal look at horror requires that one renounce distractions and escape-hatches, first the primary among them, the most falsely central, the question why, with the indefinite retinue of academic frivolities and dirty tricks that it ceaselessly induces.” ["Lanzmann's Shoah: 'Here There Is No Why'" - Dominick LaCapra, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1997), pp. 231-269] LaCapra comments that it seems odd for Lanzmann to reference a direct look when he avoids using archival footage or photographs, and posits that no look is more ‘frontal’ than that of there here and now – that of seeing a person remember, with all the untidy, unruly demands this might make on film – long, awkward silences, muddled expression, clouded memories and the distortions of distance, and so on. Another section in the Rancière text seems to concern similar emphasis on the materiality of the here and now as the tool for remembrance, where he suggests that any representation of these vanished events can only occur “through an action, a newly created fiction which begins in the here and now. It is through a confrontation between the words uttered here and now about what was and the reality that is materially present and absent in this place.” (Rancière – The Future of the Image, p127)
The instances where Lanzmann presses people to remember their experiences, and put them into words, are often difficult to watch. Abraham Bomba is interviewed whilst cutting a man’s hair in a crowded barbershop (referencing the vocation that saved his life in Treblinka) – a situation that, for one thing, seems intent on emphasising the near-impossibility of reconciliation between those recalled events and the ongoing demands of ‘normaility’, or workaday existence. Rancière identifies a similar discrepancies at work in the opening episodes, where Simon Srebnik’s is speaking in the clearing at Chelmno, where resemblances between scenes of now and then (which Rancière seems to see as a kind of shared tranquility, a pervading silence and the unspoken functionality of people standing at their posts, swallowed up as part of the machine) lay bare the “impossibility of adjusting today’s tranquility to yesterday’s.” (p128) This kind of ‘tapping into’ the past via the present, a kind of bridging between there here & now and the there & then, seems central to Lanzmann’s approach, and goes some way to justify his relentless patience with regard to his subjects – allowing the silence and the camera to induce the interviewees to do something, to drag something up, even involuntarily.
In particular, the barbershop scene seems cruelly theatrical. It appears specifically designed to exhaust Bomba, to split him in two between now and then, between there and here. The traumatic account he bravely tries to relate inevitably, as Lanzmann no doubt expects (or counts on), breaks down. There are appeals to camera, appeals to the interviewer just out of shot, to stop, to not continue. Lanzmann, of course, does not permit this, and instead allows the emotion to slowly, agonisingly, dissipate into the crowded shop. Lanzmann is patient enough to gain access to the ‘other side’ of traumatic crisis point – the period of calm, open exhaustion after the emotional storm. If there is no catharsis offered to the traumatised, is it because Lanzmann sees this process of catharsis as being worked through by, and for, the film, rather than any individual? The men in the shop (which was rented for the shooting of the scene), even the gentleman who’s hair is being cut, do not understand what is going on in their midst (the interview being in English), again mercilessly re-staging the clash of ignorance and morbid knowledge accompanying the mirrored event in the camps that Bomba relates. It is easy to resent Lanzmann’s pressing of Bomba, yet the interviewer here seems to occupy a strong position, an authorial vantage from where he must try to direct whatever proceedings he can in order to bring the ugliness to the light. Though it is no doubt problematic, and certainly difficult to watch, I don’t think that Lanzmann’s attitude is unkind, or unreasonable, but rather fully determined, aware of an enormous obligation, of a scope that he himself is only partially conscious of. You can sense the emotion, hidden out of frame, behind his concessional apology to Bomba, yet his response is an immediate and equally plaintive appeal back out into confused crucible of the shop: “You know we must do this” – a complex comment that, in such an artificial, reconstructed context, seems to give an indication of the scale of the task facing all participants, and extras, in the exchange.
The manner in which the witnesses constructed their testimonies was also fascinating. In both the barbershop scene and other scenes involving Bomba, conducted on a sun-filled terrace, the awkwardness in putting remembered events into words was made absolutely evident, and spoke most clearly of the traumatic processes these people were being subjected to. They seem cut off in language, smothered by it, as if it will not help them but only crowd them out. Just what kinds of resources can be drawn on to articulate these experiences? If, as Rancière writes, “(t)here is no appropriate language for witnessing,” (p126) it’s interesting to note the different ways participants appealed to language to continue breathing in front of the camera – how they inhabited words in order to allow themselves to maneuver though their memories and survive. Rancière seems to suggest that this is where the unrepresentable resides – in the the faltering testimonies, made awkward by language as much as clouded by memory, where each individual must come to terms with the “impossibility of an experience being told in its own appropriate language.” He goes on to say that “(w)here testimony has to express the experience of the inhuman, it naturally finds an already constituted language of becoming-inhuman, of an identity between human sentiments and non-human movements,” (p126) which seems to suggest, though I’m not sure, the availability of an aesthetic language of fiction, of literature, carefully constructed and yet familiar enough as to be everyday, through which our remembrances are conveyed as though through the framework structures of storytelling and artistic sensibilities – aesthetic methods of pinning events together in language, much like the construction of Shoah itself.
Given that the film relies so much of the testimonies of individuals and does not use archive footage, the status and treatment of documents or artefacts was also a point of discussion. This was often linked to the occasions when Lanzmann conducted interviews with people in their homes, or occasionally on the threshold. More often than not it seemed that Lanzmann’s first comments concerned his subjects’ domestic arrangements – for example the beauty of their houses, often linked to later comments about their Jewish connections and the lines of previous ownership. This emphasis on people’s private spaces, their realms of safety or sanctuary, no doubt insinuates just what it might be to lose it all, to have everything taken away, and there often seems to be a latent hostility in many of the exchanges, as well, of course, as genuine affection, sadness and regret. Given the scarcity, the appearance of original documents and archive images gained a certain privilege in the visual economy of the film. One of the most striking example involved on the men from Corfu, when he described the loss of his family members whilst holding an array of photographs in his hands.
The conditions in which such images appear in the film is worth considering. For Lanzmann, the images seem to require a kind of material contextualisation, so that they are embedded into the surface material of the film (the here & now) in such a way that they do not protrude from its surface or overtake it completely. If an image were to assume the whole screen, reaching to the edges of the frame and ejecting all presence of the ‘present’ from the film’s continuity, this will have shifted the focus of the work into another area, and one that Lanzmann seems determined to avoid. The aim seems to be to keep the images at least partially submerged, to keep them ‘in the room’, so to so to speak, not allowing them to engage another world, a dreamworld, that the viewer can enter into. The clasp of the hands, holding the photographs almost like a group of playing cards, is very much a gesture of keeping the images sunken – sunken in the present, kept active in the world of the living. Another instance was when Lanzmann is at a table with the American historian Raul Hilberg, discussing the Nazi train schedules and holding the copy of an original document. Again the document was seen being handled, obscured by hands, kept moving (this is how I recollect it – perhaps I’m wrong here?), not allowing us to forget that this artefact is materially present, part of the here and now as much as it is part of the there and then.
I was thinking that there might be something interesting in thinking about the portrayal and function of private spaces in the film, but there are so many other aspects that we talked about – not least concerning the films editing and cyclical structure – an approach that doesn’t allow any closure, but isolates the film in an implied endlessness.
During Toni-Lynn’s presentation, I also found myself thinking about Lanzmann’s immediate repetition/questioning of “to the sky?” when Simon Srebnik is talking of the oven flames at Chelmno – a slightly poetic phrasing that Lanzmann immediate picks up on, though I’m not sure if his reaction is motivated by encouragement, incredulity or recognition...
A short film made by the artists Mircea Cantor and Gabriela Vanga, The Snow and the Man (2005), records a man building a snowman in a secluded Paris street. The ten minute piece might be considered unremarkable, yet the activities of the man observed were quite particular and, for me, compelling. Initially the man (dressed in t-shirt and zipped top, perhaps in his mid-thirties) moves about a parking area, gently rolling handfuls of fresh snow into larger and larger pieces. His actions are careful, tender, and there’s appears to a specific technique to what he is doing. His careful, circular kneading of the powdery snow seems a curiously slow method for gathering masses of snow, but it is assumed that this is a specific way of compacting it for modelling. Being viewed from above like this – the entire film is one shot, taken from an apartment window above him – seems to confer on the man, at least at first, a certain authority. There is a logical pattern to what we are witnessing. Slowly his activities begin to produce forms – he puts two reasonably sized portions of snow on top of each other, then tries to pick them up. They tumble back onto the floor, so he must start to scramble around again, slowly rolling the fragments back into the correct proportioned sphere. The man’s tentative authority gradually begins to crumble – slapstick emerges, a certain irrationality in the man’s movements, as if such traits were hidden from this vantage no longer.
The assumption that the snow figure would be built on the flat, white plain of the car park tarmac is dismissed when the man lifts his small tower of snow and takes it into a small yard, just to the right of the shot. The camera follows him as he places his materials on to a row of rubbish bins lined up against the fence. He piles a third lump of snow onto his tower to form a crude articulation on the square lid of the bin. He then disappears into the building at the rear of the yard, which he will do more than once, often with no obvious purpose – before reemerging with a long tool, perhaps a screwdriver with a wooden handle. He begins to poke it into the smallest globe – the head – perhaps marking out features, or preparing the surface for the addition of other elements. He then inserts the long tool, in an odd gesture of abandonment, near-madness all of a sudden, into the left side of the figure, leaving it protruding upwards like a fascist salute. Other fragments of snow, already stored on the top of another bin, are handled, some rolled in his fingers like cigarettes, others thrown idly of screen – though its certain, just from the look on the man’s face, that there is no person there to be his target. He is in front of a production line and his work is ravaged with interruptions. He might be profoundly bored at his workbench, with that curious proximity of attention that comes from ritualised, mindless activities and a lack of presence of mind – the body working on its own, the attention dipping in and out of sequence with it, like an oar slipping into water.
The man’s behaviour is fascinating. It is as if our voyeurism is provoking his way of being, this way of occupying space, and more specifically time, revealing it as a kind of substrate to solitude. Though he says nothing, it is like the man is talking to himself. He has a strange relationship to time here – he operates after having fallen through its cracks. He keeps looking away from what he is doing, as if watching for something out of shot, wary of being spotted, but in a way that seems at the same time wholly consistent with his automatic actions. He seems to only be operating on half-attention; his actions are of the order of slow reflexes, automatic movements working at the boundary between conscious and involuntary gestures. He glances at his watch, yet with no sense that he is waiting for something, that there is anything ever to be awaited. Perhaps it is more a checking and re-checking that time has come to a halt. The man, barely present, becomes increasingly anonymous in his erratic idiosyncrasies – this is the paradox – somehow dispersing amid his own eccentric traits and the strange, pointless task he is absorbed in. We continue to watch him, as he stabs the figure, rubs snow on it like powder, like a casual surgeon – the unsurprised improviser. He leaves the scene again, like Krapp slinking off to rummage, then returns. He lifts the figure, turns this way and that, before placing it back on top of the bin. There is nowhere to go. There is nothing to do. I suddenly think of his activity as writing, occurring in a region of uncertainty and hesitation, amid a sudden loss of power. What does one do with snow, or with the blank page? He operates outside himself. I also think of the Golem, though, instead of being made from virgin soil and pure spring water, made simply of virgin snow, of whiteness, and think that, at some point, the connection with writing would be confirmed by the placing of a piece of paper, rolled like a cigarette scroll, inside the figure, with the life-giving code printed upon it.
Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
Though it seems to be incidental, one of the images that sticks in the mind in this film was Raoul, a relatively minor character, having walnuts covering every surface in his home. He walked and talked, nutcracker in hand, as space was gradually freed up with every snack. It seemed a kind of loosening, of surfaces, of architecture – the thickest of dusts – or some way of measuring behaviour, tracing where one has been. This remained (suitably) unexplained in the film – contributing nothing, it just was, which was something that the set design and art direction was arguably guilty of generally, with many over-the-top (though beautiful) sequences, such as the shots of patients scattered over the grand steps of the insane asylum, like white oracles spread over the tiers of a shallow amphitheatre overlooking the bay. Marcello Clerici, the central character of the film (played by Trintignant), in his desire to conform – which would seem to be consonant with a desire to disappear – takes his assimilation of the prevalent ‘norms’ of society to the extreme of joining a covert government organisation, working to seek out dissidents. Clerici’s desire to become anonymous is interesting for many reasons, not least in the way it is portrayed on film – not only as a critique of the origins and nature of Italian Fascism, but also in the way that the character is seen to become an agent of passivity and inaction. Clerici’s mania for his absorption into the mass, whether it be into the prevailing political system, or the anonymities of domestic life, seems a complex mixture of a violent desire to belong and a terrible blankness. This is obviously connected to the formative trauma in his childhood (where he appears to kill a chauffeur who tries to seduce him) and contributes to his intended withdrawal. One of the interesting sequences was the confession he takes with the priest in preparation for his marriage to a middle-class girl. After questioning him about past sins, which include the volunteered murder of the pederast, the priest asks him about his new bride. Marcello’s reaction, his articulation of blankness and his approach to it, is oddly compelling. Condemning with faint praise, Clerici’s description of his future wife as desperately ordinary, of average intellect and lacking any emotional maturity, he somehow relishes an implied description and delineation of the space she provides for him to dissolve into. He admits that the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ life is what he seeks – “painfully” – as if slipping from an ill-fitting garment in order to dissolve his body entirely – to change the nature of the shadow he casts. This desire to blankness is rooted in uncertainty. Tormented by suppressed memories, and uncertainties about his own desire, Clerici seems eager to disappear into whatever vacancy can be created, and the most readily available, the easiest (no matter what the consequence) is the anonymity of a superficial, sedentary life. Clerici’s movement into blankness and vacancy – an empty space slowly being filled by the prevailing prejudices of the society of the time – is a kind of recession that resonates with other forms of withdrawal, such as Melville’s Bartleby. Yet the vacuum at the heart of Clerici is a passivity borne out of a converse desire – rather than any non preferred act of passive resistance or contamination, Clerici’s disappearance stems from an excess acquiescence, that of going along with anything in order to become inconspicuous, to belong so effectively as to be unnoticed. Clerici’s movement toward dissolution is based in desire and will (based in excess – excess of the average), even if it is the willing denunciation of will. As a result of his own isolation, Clerici’s obsessive pursuit of the mediocre naturally leads him into the heart Fascist regime, yet still he cannot really accomplish anything, lacking the commitment to any cause. The task he has been given (to assassinate his former professor) is eventually taken away from him – the gang of men kill them as he sits impassively in the back of the car, simply remaining in his seat watching it unfold. It is as if Clerici had finally shrunk back beyond himself, as if in a dream, or lost to an out of body experience. His incapacity has overtaken him, and his conforming makes him a passive voyeur, forced to stand by as the figure of difference, the possibility of another life (Sandra) wordless screams at the window. Clerici’s withdrawal into passivity, as he is wrapped up in his overcoat, huddled in the back seat, seems particularly horrific – the anti-Bartleby.
It also seems that his attempts to dismiss or misdirect focus, to avoid attention, only brings it upon him – even the desperate horror pressed against a car window (a screen that is a blockade) – and that he can’t fail but be engaged, to have demands put upon on him, which leads to his ultimate inaction – the scribe who has stopped writing yet watches his task get completed nonetheless. In another two sequences there are other images of Clerici’s contraction. In the first, set in the dance hall, Clerici is caught by the Polonaise that had briefly exited the room – the spiraling dance snares him like an insect in the centre of its vortex, as if he were the blank singularity at the centre of a black hole.
Another beautifully shot sequence alludes more directly to Clerici’s dissipation. He is talking to his former professor in the Paris office. With the blinds closed and sunlight concentrated in deep chiaroscuro, the characters (discussing Plato’s allegory of the cave) cast strong shadows onto the walls. When the blinds are suddenly opened again, Clerici’s silhouette, clearly marked on the plain surface, is suddenly erased – the disappearance of an ideal form, or an illusion, or of all preferences and presence and the opening up of potentiality.
Cobra Verde (Werner Herzog, 1987)
I watched this quite a while ago now, but didn’t manage to follow up on my desire to write something about this particular sequence. Another go, this time from memory. Towards the end of the film a ‘nun’s choir’ come into the walled section of the fort from which Francisco Manoel da Silva (Kinski) is running his slave trade outpost. The dozen or so young girls, framed at the back by a few male singers and percussionists, form a mass just ahead of the archway, pressing into the image in a lateral way, spreading out like a surface, as if reluctant to step into the full light of the courtyard. Da Silva has just walked through a group of male slaves, clinically grabbing heads and checking teeth (a horrible stocktake) and the emergence of this group of musicians and dancers is absolutely transformative – especially to Kinski. For one thing, the way the group comes up to the camera, and in particular the affecting, somehow invulnerable manner of the young woman who seems to lead the performance, seems to grow in the scene like an unstoppable contagion.
The main singer – who is undoubtedly the focal pull of the group, and who, every now and then, winds up the formation of figures with a muscular twirl, as if resetting the torsion that they are working on the film/image – and the surrounding women, address the camera straight on, smiling and winking wryly – looking through everything, all equipment and apparatus. There is no clear indication that we have assumed a character perspective, that we have cut to inhabit Kinski’s viewpoint, but this remains poised and uncertain. For then, Kinski breaks out from the frame edge and infiltrates the choir. There is something additional in this gesture I think – it’s like both Kinski and da Silva splits from themselves, drifting like a pale, and now benevolent apparition in the midst of the intense mass of the choir. Something that steps outside of the film here – not simply a breaking of the fourth wall or the consistency of characterisation – or at least there is nothing so upfront about its lack of containment, so to speak. Yet that’s what it seems to be at work here – this sequence, however instigated by Herzog, whether it became found its way into the film by design, accident, etc. it ends up blossoming unchecked in the material of the story, and the matter of the image. It overloads the narrative and historical setting, breeding over the ‘location’ like a fungus. It refuses to be assimilated on anything but its own terms – those of a singular performance, tied to an index of event that cannot be utilised in the generation of sustainable fictions. I’m tempted to say that it becomes extraneous, but this is not to be thought in the sense of any superficiality or as anything reductively ornamental. It is rather that it becomes a figure of brutal authenticity and, more importantly, materiality. This reference to materiality is echoed in what Gilles Deleuze says about what he considers Herzog’s emphasis on the materiality of images, producing a physical presence of the image that in this case could be linked both to a people’s nobility and vulnerability – a performance of disjunction that seems to protrude from the surface of the film, to come out and dismiss its construction through an integrated (paradoxical) display of porosity and imperviousness.
In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
You had randomly picked up the Susanna Moore novel upon which the film was based from the eclectic shelves in the basement staffroom of the old museum, probably sometime around 2003. It had been inattentively read in those dead moments of work, usually on a corner chair in a painting-lined gallery, or in a booth harassed by Egyptian artefacts. Even though it ended up coming home with you, the book hadn't stuck in your mind. You struggled to remember anything of its plot, or style, before drunkenly watching Jane Campion's adaptation, written in collaboration with the author. As with all Campion's other films that you knew, you were struck by its use of colour - sensitively nuanced, flipping from opulence to occasional brutality. The lighting and photography transformed New York into a metropolis both warm and precarious, capturing something of the electric atmosphere of threatening weather. The palette of autumn tones - from blacks and ochres to rich reds - bled into one another all the more effectively due to the directorial technique, used throughout the film, of diffusing the image both in terms of lateral echoes (a great car-bound shot of a young girl careening down a perpendicular city street) and drifting depths of field - a watercolour bleed. It was around this point that you suddenly remembered hearing a talk in Reading by an academic [Liz Watkins?] lengthily discussing the use of colour in the film… and cursed your memory.
But then your attention, already thrilled by the use of colour, began to reconsider the shifts of focus. The wandering focal measures created transient layers of clarity that immediately supported the film's theme of additive delusions and projections concerning the behaviour and motives of others, setting up constructions borne out of clashes between fantasy, desire and the thoughts and actions of 'real' people. Almost from the opening, the camerawork could not adequately be described as "handheld" - it was something more deliberate and extreme than that. In places you suddenly noticed that the frame was shaking wildly, often in short wavelength vibrations that seemed to transform into an unconscious trembling that passed through the images, as if even a breath could disturb the stability of what was being witnessed. Together with the use of cramped bands of clarity, the result was a hazy sense of proximity (filmy eyes just after waking), as if you too, like the central characters, were unable to judge distances - whether they be across the 'vault' of inexplicable attraction and affective force in another person's presence or the grains of expectation pressed into their voice.
You noted too that there were endless examples of just-glimpsed details - insertions of domestic objects, finger movements, light effects - all observed with the 'eye-movements' of the camera - a quick servo-ed gaze in constant motion. Yet these saccadic twitches did not lose overall focus in the imagery, in fact they intensified it – like an increased saturation of colour making what was on screen come alive by drifting just ahead, already moving awayfrom sight and approaching other senses... something like touch.
Within these details you thought you noticed the use of the stars and stripes as another recurring motif, accepting it as a deliberate emphasis on public and private (acceptable and deviant) displays of desire, identity... declarationsof passion. Rather than the not-nearly-ironic-enough ‘nation (product) placement’ the US flag often plagues films with, its usage here seemed to emerge as a kind of respiratory indicator whose position recorded the variable boldness of sentiment, the degree to which 'one' was willing to abandon oneself (or one’s nation??),or it show it, as a visible exposition of heartfelt expression… The flags were spotted again and again around the city set, protruding from gantries and fire escapes like matter-of-fact acknowledgements of citizenship, or as simple decorations on vendor carts and clothing, etc, emblazoned on the flat sides of office buildings or curled limply beside flagpoles.
It reminded you of Robert Frank's New York photograph (from The Americans) where the flag had spread itself on the wind, covering open windows, and obscuring (‘the’) people – a clumsy metaphor, perhaps, but it made you think that another of Campion’s (an Australian) concerns was with making a specifically American comment on the given scenario of ubiquitous male violence, etc. - indicting the media-saturated, consumer-targeted presentations of convention when it comes to sexual relations, fantasies of courtship, romance and love... but then you had been drinking. Then it seemed that Frank was not the only photographer referenced. You noticed, or possibly imagined, reminders of other mainstream American figures: Walker Evans – the faces unwittingly captured on the subway – and Diane Arbus – the scenes of subtle incongruity and surrealism, again on the subway (clearly the site of 'tunnel visions'), where an enormous red funeral wreath was being carried and where a despondent, blank-faced bride was seen from the window of a passing train (each one another example of anomalous public displays, admissions, demonstrating something of the risks of 'admitting' feeling something for someone, anything for anything...). You took a drink at this point.
You knew that there was much to be critical of in the film, like the general plot and the moments of absurd incredulity on the part of certain characters, yet this did not seem to matter. You thought that it was not as though a filmmaker like Campion wouldn't be acutely aware that surrounding her every detail she was inlaying was the rather cranky structure of a 'thriller' - complete with a dangerous murderer, countless set ups for red herrings, and a rather stilted reveal in the last act. These aspects almost became an irritating distraction from what appeared to be the real meat of the film. Although not for this specific reason, the the film reminded you of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, more likely for the sustained unreality of the tone and the somewhat ‘spaced-out’ mood on show, as well as some underlying echoes of Hitchcock in the build up of obsessional tension. Like Kubrick's last film, which was based on Arthur Koeslter’s Dream Story, you imagined that Campion was more concerned with the establishment of saturated, intoxicated scenarios through which both careful nuances and extremities of passion (and their expression) could be made visible, audible, and then be maintained through her characters. The plot became secondary to this task (which you knew didn't make the criticism invalid) of staging the interpenetration and collisions of interior and exterior worlds, specifically through the articulations of both commonplace and fantastical sexual desire. Throughout the film, the idealism fed by societal pressure and imagery was seen to be constantly moving against the behavioural flaws of real people, but at the same time the film suggested that an oppositional cynicism was not far behind - that there is no way to connect without risking openness, becoming to some extent vulnerable, either to intrusion or internal shutdown. Even though the ways in which the film addressed this theme of constant 'endangerment' were ridiculous in its 'noir thriller' setting, you thought it revealed something authentic about desire's menace... somehow convincing you that one could never come without the other. As a study of such disjunctions and alliances – uncertain and unequivocal impacts of sexuality, borne out in a desperate misreading of signs, the catalogues of willful and inadvertent modes of display and concealment – you drank the film up. You admit it.
Five Easy Pieces / Wanda / Everyman
As I was thinking about the activation of ideas and the different intensities of ‘impression’ that material can make over time – whether it involves interrupted reading, looking away from the page/object, watching movies and then forgetting them, then having them reanimated for you, etc. – I was struck by a confluence of various things coming together in the last few days. Amounting to what? An intersection of Five Easy Pieces, Philip Roth’s short novel Everyman and Wanda, a film I’d half forgotten having seen at Documenta XII. In fact the screenings in Kassel played up to precisely these kinds of presentations of resonance – films were scheduled in double bills with the intention of setting off associations, echoes and disjunctions, etc. which may or may not be exposed until much later, as I myself found out – so perhaps this got me thinking. In saying that, I’m not sure I can even recall what Wanda was paired with. Nonetheless, these extractions of structural impressions or getting a sense of material echoes or shared forms/images is no doubt an everyday procedure, but it’s not often that I get the sense of a few things coming together in such a particular way that try to force an articulation of their shared potential as if it were always bound to be of crucial importance.
Still, in addition to the fact that the two films were released in 1970, there were other striking similarities between them. Barbara Loden’s Wanda, her only directorial effort (which she also wrote and starred in) sees the title character drifting, initially away from her young family (quite a radical theme for a film at that time), then across a bleak Pennsylvanian landscape in the company of an lowlife bank robber, before eventually withdrawing into extreme loneliness and disengagement from the world. The coal-mining country that Wanda is drawn against – in one scene a long shot watches her walking through an open quarry – is easily to associate with the similarly bleak oil fields that provide the backdrop for the opening sections of Five Easy Pieces, but can the main characters be so easily related? I’m not sure about this yet. It’s true that both films contain beaten down female characters – one in the dominant leading role, the other a minor character that is drawn rather slightly, perhaps even unsympathetically, simply to provide a context for the behaviour of the male lead. A further point of possible similarity and difference stems from Wanda being the work of Loden and Five Easy Pieces being written for the screen by Carole Eastman yet directed by a man, Robert Rafelson. The most obvious point of comparison, however, lies in the contrasts between central characters, Wanda and Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson). These figures surely relate to one another in relation to a kind of disengagement, withdrawal and gesture of ‘running away’, even though it might be argued that Wanda’s bleaker downward spiral, her ‘meaningless fate’, has more in common with Melville’s Bartleby than with Nicholson’s black sheep.
Dupea is a young man who has drifted away from a life of privilege and culture, “moving around a lot” between odd jobs and superficial personal relationships. We are introduced to him when he is working on oil rigs, drinking with his temporary friend Elton (who is married with a child – emblematic of a kind of domesticity and stasis that Bobby reacts against violently at one point, as his own frustrations and disappointments boil over – only for Elton’s own illusory security to go up in flames immediately after) and living with Rayette (Karen Black), a young, uneducated waitress that Dupea seems to tolerate rather than have any real affection for. As already mentioned, the portrayal of Rayette is interesting in terms of its function in the film’s structure, but it seems a little too sketchy. Rayette is played almost like a child, excessively needy and facile – her supposed ‘simpleness’ symbolised by an obsession with Country & Western and an advocating of television – a stance which seems a little creaky. Both Rayette and Wanda are presented as uneducated, working class women (one a waitress, the other a housewife) who are relentlessly vulnerable to the whims of self-obsessed, abusive men who treat them with near total disregard, as well as to a wider society that systematically keeps them contained or disenfranchised. Wanda‘s tender depiction of the suffering of its main character (apparently Loden took inspiration from the story of Wanda Goranski who, after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in a bank robbery, thanked the judge), which exposes the emptiness that awaits any woman (of a certain ‘standing’) who steps outside conventional social structures in 1970s America, may offer another perspective on a consideration of a female character such as Rayette. There may be other comparisons to be drawn with other female characters in the film, as indeed there is potential to compare the wandering of Wanda with the incessant restlessness of Dupea.
Even though Karen Black’s character is not fully fleshed out, her performance of the material she is given is convincing. The character’s need for constant attention, her absent-minded singing, as well as her determination to be happy (to live in the Polaroid moment), soon become annoying to the extent that she assumes the role of an easy indicator of the unfulfilled relationship Dupea has found himself embroiled in, both in relation to Rayette, but also to his father, family and the world at large. His contempt for her almost always shines through his reluctant bouts of affection – he is usually ashamed to be with her and on one occasion says to her, “if you would just stop talking, everything would be alright.” If the intention was to simply show a pair of mismatched lovers, the pudding is over-egged. If the point is to build up to a strategic collision between the working classes and the middle class world that Bobby has left behind, this is achieved in a particularly clumsy manner. Yet everything in the film is refracted through the relationship to Bobby’s aimlessness and disillusionment – supporting characters are drawn specifically to reflect the lead character’s flaws, angst and generally self-absorbed behaviour. This is why the film is so striking perhaps – you start to get a sense of his frustrations, even though you cannot quite get an handle on his behaviour or his specific motivations. For all this, the relationship between Bobby and Rayette is not straightforward – which is why he has such indecision about being with her or leaving her (including a great Nicholson hissy fit™ in the car). He hates her for the same reasons he is attracted to her – a coordinate of the same conflict that runs through the film that he cannot resolve or, at least until the very end, extricate himself from. In the end he takes a absurd, childish action, slinking away like a fugitive. He simply decides (and is this a protective gesture? Is that too generous?) to disappear.
Again, it is as if the film is deliberately slanted through Dupea’s perspective – the Dupea family, who Bobby goes to visit after hearing of his father’s recent stroke, are all portrayed as damaged – the sister (one of the few people for whom Bobby seems to have unmediated affection) is an eccentric, awkward misfit; the father is now mute and statuesque following his illness; and the older brother wears a ludicrous neck brace after an accident with a truck. When back in the affluent family home, the only connection Bobby can make is with his brother’s beautiful, and seemingly well-adjusted, fiancée Catherine (Susan Anspach), a musician who he sense may just offer him understanding or be able to absorb his frustrations. Having reluctantly taken Rayette with him in his trip north, Bobby continues his attempts to keep a distance between his two lives, leaving his girlfriend at a motel before going on to the house alone. However, after a while Rayette invites herself to the house and breaks this division, setting up the stand off between the life Bobby ‘should’ be living (and isn’t) and the life he is absorbed into (but cannot figure how to exit). Obviously, the main theme of the film is this very sense of the need for escape and extrication, together with the impossibility of doing so. This is encompassed at various points through the image of dirt and cleanliness, again clumsily symbolic of messy relationships and clean slates, etc. It seems to start from from the opening shot, which looked to me (possibly in need of a new prescription) like a painted trompe l’oeil landscape or some holographic image of a burnished forest, but turned out to be the scarred surface of an earthmover’s bucket, which then rises up to deposit waste soil and detritus in front of the camera. There is also a comic interlude in the middle of the film, when Bobby and Rayette pick up two stranded women when they are travelling north. One of these hitchers continues to rant about the excesses of consumer society and man’s ‘filth’, explaining that they are on their way to the snowy-white cleanliness of Alaska (a destination that takes on the mirage-like resonance of the incongruent image of ‘Australia’ in Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent). As it turns out it is back to this seed that the film turns at the final scene – when stopped for petrol on the way back south, Bobby surreptitiously hitches a ride on a logging truck heading, as the driver says, where it’s “colder than hell”, leaving Rayette alone in the middle of nowhere.
Beyond these interesting themes of abandonment, acceptance and reconciliation (where even after a tearful apology to his mute father, Bobby has to face the fact that he still has to make some kind of decision about his situation – messy choices have to be made, lovers to be left, etc. even if it is to sneak into a passing vehicle and escape), I think I was particularly interested in the film’s portrayal of deluded idealism, or how it captured the obscure desire for the world to conform to a personal vision (not full-blown megalomania, but an easily missed disconnect between the self and the other) and the inability to deal with the inevitable disappointment of this type of outlook. Such delusions are usually exacerbated by the vision being obscured by the strength of the desire, it being drained by the unapologetic way the world presents itself, or from being incoherent in the first place. It ties in with a general anxiousness concerning the reasons why I was so moved by similarly deluded characters in recent films I’ve seen (which may be another focus of future writing), such as George Perec and Bernard Queysanne’s Un Homme Qui Dort (A Man Asleep) and in the recent Sean Penn film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. But there is also another aspect to this – perhaps I see something of a creative spark in these characters (or is it in the way they are portrayed? Do I want to try to write such a character myself?) that is not usual or conventional, and which needs to be framed in a very particular way for its creative potential to be shown in the light – the creator of worlds or a deluded idiot? As an example of this, there is a famous scene in the diner where Bobby tries to order something not listed on the menu and the waitress responds with irritating stubbornness that there can be “no substitutions”. Although Bobby says “I know what I want” (but don’t know how to go about getting it, as Jimi Hendrix might have quipped), what he has so clearly marked out as being what will satisfy him is not available. As I say, the whole film is to an extent always concerned with the failure of meeting of expectations, exemplified by Bobby’s relationship with his family and cultured upbringing, abandoning his father’s approval, etc. which is in effect a very localised set of expectations that Bobby himself turns outward on to the wider world, which does not (and cannot) measure up. Yet it is telling, in some sense, that he earns a strangely emphatic admiration from one of the women picked up in the highway (the motormouth who carries on about filth and whitest Alaska) for the ‘clever’ way he attempted to establish a system by which the waitress could give him what he wanted without breaking any rules (before losing his temper) – an indication that there is an audience for this type of construction, which might be considered an abstracted view of creativity in the sense of the manufacture of fictions: extrapolations by which a given situation can be shaped in order that things be kept moving. In fact, the more I think about these scenes, the more interesting they become as a point of possible extrapolation. Even more so than the scenes in which Bobby reveals his former life and talent by playing the piano – either on the back of a truck in a traffic jam, where he becomes so engrossed that he doesn’t notice the truck moving off on a slip road, or playing for Catherine in his father’s house when he scorns and demeans her emotional response – the scene in the diner and the reaction it gets become an indication of Dupea’s contained intelligence or his inherent creativity that is arguably going to waste (without an indication of which, the film’s tension – particularly in the family home sections – would dissipate). Of course, the diner scene is also demonstrative of Dupea’s arrogance, as he almost implores the waitress: ‘‘if only you would think like me, we would all get along fine and no one would get hurt.” But anyway, where does Philip Roth’s novel come into this? Perhaps I saw some relation between the thematic “stoicism” that ran through the book (or rather the acceptance that is worked slowly toward the end pages, like a a pus being dragged out of the character) as the narrator slowly slowly comes to terms with the death that we know from the first pages has already taken him. There seemed to me to be a consonance between the two films and the book through their shared presentation of a certain constancy of unhappiness, what might otherwise be called the stoicism of disappointment. Between the three of them there was a suspended terrain of poignancy, a landscape drawn between the imperfect meeting points between the self and others, the endless struggles of disjunctive expectations, as well as a sense of guilt that is never acknowledged but is known to be possessed.