February 1, 2012
January 31, 2012
January 30, 2012
Gender representations in
Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky
Chytilová’s heroines rebelliously try to subvert the patriarchal system and gender stereotypes—and fail. Małgorzata Radkiewicz examines the plight of female leads in two of Chytilová’s most famous films.
Although Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998) were made in completely different contexts, both these films by Věra Chytilová can be seen as a kind of continuation, especially in terms of female representation. First of all, they present interesting, unconventional portraits of individual female personalities. Furthermore, they paint an excellent picture of Czech culture and society described from an alternative point of view that, over the years, has been shared by non-conformists, artists and intellectuals.
Questioning the importance and the value of any order or system—political, social or cultural—Chytilová’s film were in deliberate revolt against cinematic genres and dominating notions of representation. As a filmmaker, Chytilová has worked out her own style, which she uses consistently to create a subjective vision of female individuality. Drawing on the typical structures of Czech culture and cinematic tradition, she emphasised the uniqueness of each “self” and the distance that can exist between the individual interpretation of gender and its social interpretations.
Angry heroines in a patriarchal structure
Throughout Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Chytilová persistently explored the complex relationship between the gender identity of her female characters and the repressive, patriarchal structure of the society they belong to. Although not many feminist projects existed in central and east European cinema when she began to critically comment on the conventional male-dominated culture, Chytilová’s opinions can be regarded as very close to a feminist orientation. This feminist approach is a main feature of her films, which are all in some way notable for being representative of women’s “counter cinema” and its revolutionary methods.
Based on formal innovation and avant-garde experiments, most of these methods drew primarily upon the traditions of the European new waves and were taking apart or deconstructing the methods of classical cinema. Chytilová’s artistic strategy, so clearly presented in films such as Sedmikrásky and Pasti pasti, pastičky, puts her among other female filmmakers who have deliberately deconstructed traditional methods in both fictional and documentary accounts in the belief that cinema cannot simply and transparently reflect women’s experience but it is always necessary to construct versions of that experience.
Vera Chytilova’s Sedmikrasky (Daisies, 1966)Chytilová has set herself against the notions of mainstream cinema and produced a new kind of record thanks to which she has been able to revise and re-imagine the category of femininity, a category that has been always described in terms of traditional gender interpretations. Despite formal and ideological difficulties, Chytilová developed in Sedmikrásky a subjective vision, filled with a sense of irony and humour, of the painful adolescence of two “spoiled” (zkažené) girls, Marie I and Marie II, who are trying to act out their lives. The unconventional plot revoles around a series of unconnected escapades as the two girls use their femininity and mock naivity to run rings around a succession of older men. The audacity of their rebellious spirit culminates in a spectacular food fight in a hall, laid out in advance for a grand banquet. After this, the two promise to mend their ways and make attempts to repair the damage they have done.
The plot of Sedmikrásky, as well as its two main female characters, reflect Chytilová’s fascination with experimental forms and avant-garde genres, based on which she has elaborated her own way of artistic expression. Rejecting traditional illusionist methods and realist narrative models, she proposes a subjective interpretation of gender identity within a social and cultural structure.
The story of the two Maries is shown from two parallel perspectives: personal and social. The first one seems to dominate in all scenes that present nobody but the girls talking to each other and doing strange things, such as cutting fruit with scissors before eating them. Such a personal point of view emphasises the inert world of both adolescents and the emotions, feelings and opinions they use to define their personality. Judging by their conversations, they perceive themselves as independent women, free from any restrictive notions. When one asks: “Say it’s great,” the other one answers, “I’ll say what I want.” There is no doubt about their self-confidence, as openly declared in the statement: “Anyway, we are young, after all. We’ve got our whole life ahead of us!”.
Chytilová herself is more sceptical about their possibilities in life, limited as they are by stereotyped images of women. In her sarcastic comments, Chytilová argues that—intentionally or not—one always repeats common interpretations of gender identity. When Marie II accuses her namesake of having crooked legs, Marie I answers: “Don’t you know I based my personality on them?” On the one hand, the answer explains her uncomplicated and unstable personality, on the other hand, it deconstructs social and cultural categories that define femininity and women only in terms of their bodies and physical attributes.
Questioning traditional definitions of gender identity, Chytilová revises conventional images of women and replaces them with their alternative versions. She expands the area of interests from particular characters to the whole culture and social structures. Rather than a story of two self-centred girls, Sedmikrásky should be considered as an interpretation of cultural and social mechanisms in which femininity is repressed by strict models and notions that one is obliged to follow. In such a structure, there could be no place left for free expression and creativity; nevertheless, Chytilová consistently departs from the patterns of mainstream cinema and the process of cinematic communication by subverting the representation of women. On closer inspection, Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky appear to be more about being a woman in a patriarchal structure in general than a simply plot.
Gender stratification of Czech society
Judging by these two films, Chytilová has obviously been influenced by the feminist movement and its counter-cultural ideas that make her interested in women’s experience of life and the way in which gender and sexual identity are stimulated and formed by cultural, social and mental notions and stereotypes. Many anthropologists consider gender symbolism to be basic to all cultures. Some of them, like the Czech culture presented in Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky, have highly elaborated complex notions of gender, regulating virtually all aspects of social life and defining everyday activities and social roles.
In Pasti, pasti, pastičky, a young vet is raped when her car breaks down and she is forced to hitchhike. Following the rape, she feigns amnesia and tricks her attackers back to her house where gives them drinks spiked with sedatives and then uses her occupational skill to castrate them. Her revenge is not enough to free of the memory of her attack, and she becomes increasingly desperate to seek justice for the pair. They in turn try to cover up their crime and adjust to their emasculated existence.
In showing the consequences of the brutal rape in Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Chytilová is greatly concerned about portraying another aspect of some apparently objective norms. Above all, she wants to present how gender stratification reflects the common organisation of Czech society and is reinforced by the shared normative systems of Czech culture. Furthermore, she stresses that the social roles assigned to women and men are not simply different, but also differently evaluated and differently rewarded.
As some of feminist theorists argue, there is a strict hierarchical ranking of sex groups that separates activities and behaviours of males and females, and what males do is more highly valued and differently estimated that what females do. Such thinking supplies a motive to the end of Pasti, pasti, pastičky when the men responsible for the rape are declared to be not guilty while their victim is accused of having an asocial attitude and sent to be hospitalised in a psychiatric clinic.
In Sedmikrásky, Chytilová’s position towards gender, however, seems to be more ironic and distanced than respectful, which is reflected in her filming strategies. In Pasti, pasti, pastičky, she goes much further, and overpowers viewers with a conclusion that is not only sceptical but also pessimistic. The ending shows how gender is reproduced in each generation and in social institutions. She critically comments on the stability of cultural notions and contemptuously defines the range of stereotypes.
The end of rebels
On the one hand, in her portraits of rebel heroines, so free and independent, there is no place for a limiting definition of gender roles. On the other hand, what appears on the screen is a vision of a very painful confrontation between the idealism of “angry young girls” and the down-to-earth realities that imprison them in a cage of conventional female features and qualities. In spite of their strong individuality, women in Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky are forced to sanctify and respect the patriarchal order. Although they try to reject its rules, everyone expects them to follow the gender stratification in order to comply with the requirements and expectations of the whole society.
Feminist theorists intensify and enlarge the volume of research on sex differences; furthermore, they also place emphasis on the learning of sex roles (as girls in Sedmikrásky do) arguing that most of them are induced by environmental pressures and the reality of the social, cultural and economic context. Although Chytilová might not be automatically identified with feminist theorists, she shares the opinion and consistently believes that the social expectations, rules and norms attached to a person’s position in society usually force individuals to conform to them through the identification with the parent of their particular sex.
In such circumstances, the counter-cultural interpretation of gender must be limited to very personal aspects of life and might not be extended to its social and cultural context. Thus, the female characters from Chytilová’s films remain angry, young creatures whose pathetic rebellion must be put down to a response to their lack of experience and knowledge. After a series of revolutionary acts, Chytilová’s heroines are forced to subdue their rebellious ideas and submissively declare: “We don’t want to be spoiled anymore,” as Marie I and Marie II do at the end of Sedimkrásky.
this article first published here: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/08/radkiewicz08.php
The World Tasted: Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie
by Lorraine Mortimer
Lorraine Mortimer is a freelance writer and translator, and a long time teacher and researcher in the fields of cinema, sociology and anthropology. She is the translator of Edgar Morin’s The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), and the author of Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
The following is a version of a chapter from her forthcoming book, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev, also for the University of Minnesota Press.
Sweet Movie, full of unenlighted lunacy, is not really a film at all. It is a social disease.
- Jay Cocks, 1975 (1)
Sweet Movie [is] in effect the most concentrated work I know that follows out the idea that the way to assess the state of the world is to find out how it tastes (a sense modality not notably stressed by orthodox epistemologists but rather consigned to a corner of aesthetics) – which means both to find out how it tastes to you and how it tastes you, for example, to find out whether you and the world are disgusting to one another […]
The film attempts to extract hope – to claim to divine life after birth – from the very fact that we are capable of genuine disgust at the world; that our revoltedness is the chance for a cleansing revulsion; that we may purge ourselves by living rather than by killing, willing to visit hell if that is the direction to something beyond purgatory; that the fight for freedom continues to originate in the demands of our instincts, the chaotic cry of our nature, our cry to have a nature. It is a work powerful enough to encourage us to see again that the tyrant’s power continues to require our complicitous tyranny over ourselves.
- Stanley Cavell, 1979 (2)
Three quarters of the way through Sweet Movie, Miss Monde 1984 (Miss World; Carole Laure), a young woman in complete disarray, is being wheeled onscreen in a barrow, a leg discernible amid some lettuce, arriving at a door to a warehouse. It is the entrance to the Therapie Komune run by psychoanalyst filmmaker Otto Muehl, where in Makavejev’s film Miss World, traumatized and anorexic, is to be nourished back to health and life. (3)
Inside, another woman, Momma Communa (Marpessa Dawn), nurses a baby, soothing it with the singing of “Three Blind Mice”, as Miss World is emptied onto the floor, commune members handling and rocking her body, in something like the gentler forms of therapy we saw in the documentary scenes in Makavejev’s previous film, W.R. – Misterije organizma (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). There is an accordion playing and a dark-haired woman (Anna Prucnal) is feeding people salad from a large bowl as Miss World is placed in a hanging cradle while she is sung to and showered with lettuce leaves. She is rocked like a baby and the film cuts to Momma Communa feeding her child, the child taking a moist breast with its sweet milk into its mouth. Soon, to the strains of a soft lullaby, the mother goes to the cradle and gently opens Miss World’s mouth, moistening her own finger with saliva and tracing it round the young woman’s lips, re-awakening the mouth, which starts to open and move, tentatively. Regaining one of her functions, Miss World suckles at Momma Communa’s breast. And then the games begin.
The people sit round a huge table at a staged feast, Miss World being gently fed as she kneels there. Ordinary eating goes awry, as people drop their faces into their food, talk with exaggerated movements while eating, smearing others with food, blowing it from their mouths onto their neighbours. One man appears to be about to pull out his penis from inside his pants, but it is a large animal tongue, which he extends onto the table, next to Miss World. As people vomit, the man proceeds to chop his ‘penis’ and cry out, throwing chunks to people who gnaw upon it. Then, surprisingly, Miss World takes out his small, real penis, holding the vulnerable piece of flesh, cradling it in her hand like a tiny animal, moving it to her face, over her lips and cheek.
The tender music from this last scene stays as the sounds of retching and the strange actions escalate. A man pees on the table, another interrupting the stream to take in some of the urine. People seem to “go off their heads”, as we put it in the colloquial, smashing plates of food over their skull, while Miss World, we see, is shedding a tear.
Then, on a ‘stage’ (which reminds us of a wrestling ring) people shit on plates, the ‘audience’ urging them on as they hold out their ‘achievement’ to others – to general congratulations. Amid the hilarity, Anna Prucnal’s voice comes in with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, not music we would ordinarily imagine accompanied by a “shitfest”, as Makavejev has called it. One of the excreting men takes up the song and it is sung in the original German as the gathering jumps up and down – with joy.
With the symphony itself, the film cuts to old footage of “Gymnastics for babies invented and demonstrated by Major Neumann-Neurode, Berlin”. As the major drills his babies, demonstrating their hygiene and strength, we see cute little beings with personalities and full of life. But we must go back to less pleasant sights at the commune, to Nazi babies now grown-up, trying to unmake their fascist-inherited bodies, purging themselves by their gorging, vomiting, urinating and defecating to the splendour of the “Ode to Joy”.
One of the commune men, now a big baby, lies on a mattress, still retching but being attended to by others, while more of the group sits around watching the scene. He throws up a little. They lightly slap his face, rock him, press down on his body, which they smear with shit. He is now mildly crying and is fed from a bottle of milk, then suckled by one of the women. As he is patted and looked after, Miss World sits huddled in her chair, alone. He pees and is powdered, like a big, plump baby, awkwardly moving his limbs before standing up, bowing and being applauded by the gathering.
There is a cut to the accordionist, and shaven-headed and nude people dance to the Internationale. Miss World, however, has not joined in. She sits with a man but on her own, powder in her hair and face, whimpering like a wounded animal. After an intervening scene, sweet and cruel from another narrative, the group stand around the accordionist (now playing an organ) and form a chaotic, improvised chorus as he again plays the Internationale. (4) They act cute, comic and strange and are, like in Lars Von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998), dancing like idiots – not rejecting the beautiful anthem, but certainly desanctifying it.
Going too Far
Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev
Many, including myself, were initially shocked and repelled by Makavejev’s most complex, explosive and assaulting film. In Sweet Movie, Eros and Thanatos are not concepts but forces. (5) Wilhelm Reich, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, rather than Sigmund Freud, seem to inspire this never-safe journey, grounded in the senses, a journey which seems like it has land mines placed along the way. Sweet Movie is Makavejev’s furthest and most daring departure from traditional realist narrative. It is a mixture of humour, horror, eroticism, music, colour, defilement, excrement and murder. Once again, the film combines fiction and documentary, but this time the connections collide more harshly. As we have seen, it takes Miss World and the audience to the commune where the members participate in a “utopia of regression” (6). In twin narrative threads – deadly adventures in capitalism and totalitarianism – Miss World, prized for her abstinence and virginity, but rejected by her husband, Mr. Dollars (John Vernon), will eventually writhe and drown in a bath of chocolate while making a television commercial; meanwhile Anna Planeta (a blonde-haired Anna Prucnal), prostitute of the revolution, on a corpse-filled boat bearing the giant head of Karl Marx, makes love with Un Marin du Potemkin (A Sailor from the Potemkin, aka Luv Bakunin; Pierre Clémenti), in a bed of sugar, stabbing him with her dagger, his sacrificed red blood curling through the white grains. Whilst Luv is content to die a martyr’s death, like Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) in Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), most controversial for audiences today is Planeta’s bridal/maternal striptease for a group of boys enticed onto her barge by candy while Russian Orthodox liturgical music plays on the soundtrack.
Sweet Movie went too far. It marked the beginning of the director’s emigré career and controversy about its transgressions sounded something of a death-knell to that same career. Some former champions of his films deserted him. (7) Time magazine included the film as part of a “plague” of pornography afflicting the country and Richard Roud believed that the “streak of opportunistic vulgarity”, always there in Makavejev, “took over” in Sweet Movie. (8) The essential thing, as Julien Suaudeau wrote in 2001, is that, in his radical going beyond cultural taboos in this film, “the pursuit of a physical cinema finds its limit at the same time as it reaches its height” (9). While finding the commune sequence, to which we will return, a kind of “Pasolinian delirium” that he finds “frankly repelling” (10), Suaudeau still thinks Makavejev one of the great ‘modern’ filmmakers whose films now appear “more contemporary than ever” (11). The œuvre, which maintains its youthfulness and the freshness of its “explosive vitality”, reminds us that the cinema can be a place of both “anxious and joyful questioning” (12).
So, it is both paradoxical and fitting that in this film that went too far, fundamentals of the originality of Makavejev’s vision and method come to the fore. And, despite his reservations, Sweet Movie helps Suaudeau articulate these fundamentals:
With this cineaste of transgression, the imagination knows only two rules: Dyonisian pleasure in the poetic image, and absolute primacy of the material and the organic. So, in Sweet Movie, the symbolic and the literal are never dissociated. On the one hand, sugar is presented in a form that is purely organic, and in its multiple concrete representations, in the image of Descartes’ piece of wax. But on the other hand, Makavejev tells us “this is not sugar”, but a mirage of sweetness whose truth is in turn alienation (the consumer society) and a perverse and murderous ideological mystification (what the revolutionary ideal and the USSR became under Stalin). A veritable principle of montage, the passage between the literal and figurative registers can even take place from one shot to the next […] With Makavejev, poetic power is always expressed by the brutality of the relationship established between the symbol and the object to which it refers; the more immediate this relationship, the greater its stylistic impact. (13)
While the symbolic and the literal cannot be dissociated, Makavejev’s work makes clear some of the problems of the one realm swallowing up the other. During the hegemony of structuralist theory, I would suggest the object never completely disappeared behind the referent, but the importance of the relationship was often denied. The material, certainly organic, referent was frequently regarded as inadmissible.
At the same time, the distinction between the symbolic and the literal, metaphor and reality, is just as important as the relationship between them; lives can depend on our ability to make such distinctions.
In the text that appeared in the catalogue for the Balkan Film Retrospective in Venice, in April 2000, Makavejev began with something Slavoj Žižek had said:
For a long time the Balkans have been one of the privileged places for the investment of political fantasies. Gilles Deleuze said somewhere: “If you are caught in someone else’s dream, you are done for.” In ex-Yugoslavia we are done for not because our primitive dreams and myths prevent us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe, but because we pay with our own flesh and blood the price of being the stuff of which others’ dreams are made. (14)
Something Against Nature
After Sweet Movie’s release, Makavejev suggested to Robert Benayoun and Michel Ciment that it was impossible to invent more terrifying sequences than those contained in certain documentaries. One illustration of this principle is the footage, taken by the Nazis in 1943, of the exhumation of bodies in the Katyn Forest, Polish officers massacred in 1939 by Soviet soldiers. In Sweet Movie, the footage comes after Luv, full of life, is being bathed by Anna Planeta and another woman, Anna warning him:
Don’t stay here. This boat is full of corpses.
To which Luv replies: “It doesn’t matter. The whole world is full of corpses.”
keep reading this article here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2008/feature-articles/sweet-movie-mortimer/
January 29, 2012
Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 1964) portrays the rural peasant searching for ways to overcome his social condition while moving between religious fanaticism and social banditry. The Brazilian film is concerned with inventing a renewed form of narrative, which creates a tension that is evident throughout the film: a tension between modes of narrating and spatial construction. The careful arrangement of narrational elements breaks with the transparency of realism. Black God, White Devil displays numerous references in its composition, such as the Eisensteinian montage, the Western genre landscapes and the Brechtian actor method, which are structured alongside the Brazilian literary storytelling tradition of the cordel. The combination of these references creates a non-linear narrative because it suggests the emergence of different spatialities and temporalities that hold the tension between narrative and spectacle. The aim of this article is to investigate the role and meanings of these spatialities and temporalities in the construction of the landscape as a stage of revolt. In Black God, White Devil the landscape is the element that cements the articulation and disarticulation of narrative and spectacle, thereby enabling the emergence of images of revolt. The relationship between landscape and revolt unfolds with the narrative’s exploration of the emblematic characters.
Rocha’s preoccupation with cinema’s aesthetic is evident in his 1965 essay “Aesthetic of Hunger,” presented at a retrospective of Latin American cinema in Genoa, Italy. The most vociferous filmmaker of Cinema Novo claims that hunger is the nerve of the social and political problems of Latin America. Indeed, Rocha stresses that the commitment to hunger was a commitment to the truth – the opposite of what Hollywood’s film industry proposed. Rocha and his fellow Cinema Novo directors transformed this commitment into a political problem and proposed violence as the only tool to express hunger. Cinema Novo, the filmmaker argues, transposed this hunger into violence and initiated a revolutionary cinema.  This was, as Johnson affirms, an alternative to “Hollywood’s polished, efficient, idealistic illusionism.” This engagement with a new language was based on Brazil’s social reality and ethics that would permeate its aesthetics.
Scholars of Cinema Novo have written extensively about the cultural and political context of Brazilian cinema in the 1960s and about the style and content of specific films. As a general comment on the first phase of Cinema Novo (classified as such by Johnson and Stam, according to whom the phase ranges from 1960 to 1964; 1964 also marks the year of the coup d’état and the start of the military dictatorship), Johnson and Stam claim that filmmakers employed the production style and methods of the Italian neo-realism and the French nouvelle vague. In particular, these movements used non-professional actors, location shooting and a low-budget production strategy to produce an independent cinema that opposed Hollywood’s commercial aesthetics and was “based on the talent of specific auteurs.” As Ismail Xavier claims, it is important to go beyond the ideological debate that surrounds Glauber Rocha’s cinema and be attentive to the form, that is to say, to be attentive to “the political meaning of the mise-en-scène.”
Black God, White Devil’s narrative focuses on a schematic group of characters that are brought together in the plot. Manuel (the henchman) after killing Coronel Moraes (the landowner) flees to Monte Santo with his wife Rosa. They go to follow Sebastião (the fanatic preacher). After the episode where Rosa kills Sebastião, the couple meet Corisco (the cangaceiro) and his group, and decide to join them. But they are soon found by Antônio das Mortes (killer of cangaceiros) who kills Corisco. After their escape from being killed, Manuel and Rosa’s final act is to run away to the coast, which is suggested in the film’s final image of the sea. The director sought to bring together different temporalities and spatialities in the form of the different historical characters represented. These historical characters have been transformed into mythical characters in the Brazilian imaginary and are iconic images of revolt and revolution in the popular culture of the Brazilian Northeast. For Xavier, Glauber Rocha’s cinema crosses emblematic spaces and brings together “social memory” and “popular imaginary.”
The narrative of Black God, White Devil is, at first glance, composed of binary oppositions: rich versus poor, cangaceiros versus fanatics, good versus evil, God versus the devil and landowners versus peasants. When the spatiality is carefully examined, further oppositions are revealed: Monte Santo versus the plain, internal versus external and the sertão versus the sea. These oppositions reveal the tensions between the frame (parergon) and the dramatic action (ergon). Known to be the founding dichotomies of Rocha’s aesthetic, these are analysed here as spaces of continuity and discontinuity. Rather than focusing on the oppositions this analysis looks for the elements of negotiation between narrative and spectacle. What is argued here is that image, sound and narrative are radically articulated and disarticulated by the different subjectivities constructed by the camera, which are in turn articulated by the presence of the landscape in the film. The landscape is, therefore, at the core of the negotiation between narrative and frame.
From the outset the presentation of the landscape of the sertão reveals the tone of the narrative strategies at stake in the film. It is evident from the images that compose the opening credits of the film that the cinematic space is divided into the space of the earth (physical and human) and the space of heaven (imaginary and sacred). The film’s opening image is a long travelling bird’s eye view of the landscape. While apparently providing an objective image of the landscape with its barren vegetation and arid earth, the aerial camera also evokes a God’s view of the sertão. This wide view is followed by extreme close-up shots of dead animals decomposing under the sun. As Xavier has noted, these images are “emblematic of the drought afflicting the region.”[] The juxtaposition of these images suggests a clear intention to associate the landscape with a narrative constructed by extremes. Firstly, this association is presented by opting for strongly contrasting images that almost erase the middle tones between black and white. The absence of a whole range of greys evokes the devastating presence of the sun without shadows. In this case, far from purifying the scene, the excess of light conceals and blinds. Secondly, it is achieved by opting for the contrast between long shots and close-ups. This strategy uses the observation scale to eliminate medium distances. This radical dislocation between shots places the spectator at the limit of two relations established with the space: the gaze either goes very near the subject in the frame or radically distances itself from it.
The movement from the long shot of the lifeless landscape that privileges the mineral setting of sand and stones to the close-up details of the dead animal points to an exhaustion of the conditions for survival and a negation of life. Another feature of this first sequence is the presentation of a synthetic style in the film. Rather than following the rhythm of the action, the montage accelerates the action by synthesising its temporal curve. According to Xavier:
These brief shots, then, concentrate a dramatic charge of information concerning the drought and the precarious conditions of the sertão life. The drama erupts, and dissolves, rapidly. The synthetic style and the information-laden shock-image condensing a broad range of significations already anticipate the film’s constant modulation of contrasts and energetic leaps.
No significant action is performed by Manuel in his first appearance in the film, but the insertion of the character in the landscape highlights the oppressive conditions of the sertão as indicated by Xavier. The henchman is portrayed looking down at the dead animal. Then, the camera frames Manuel’s body walking towards his horse. As he mounts the horse, another image, this time a high angle long shot, frames Manuel riding away. This sequence starts and ends with an aerial image whose point of view is impossible to identify. It is a higher gaze that often imposes itself over the other narrative devices in the film such as the cordel song that is vocalised by Júlio, a blind repentista (poet-improviser), which recounts the story of Manuel.
The aesthetic and narrative power of the landscape is suggested in a following scene, when the preacher Sebastião is introduced in the film. Poignantly, it starts with a shot of the sky that slowly pans down and frames a group of peasants gathering around Sebastião. The narration of the cordel poem that recounts the story of Manuel is played in the background. The encounter between Sebastião and Manuel is constructed of shot–reverse shot sequences from different angles. This multiplication of angles of vision, which confuses the spectator, shows discontinuous images of the environment and the sertão is presented as a fragmented space. There is a succession of shots and reverse shots from Manuel’s point of view in frenetic movements and that of Sebastião, until Manuel rides away, leaving the frame. The last shot of this sequence returns to its previous position behind the vegetation. The camera peeps through and shows the preacher and his group chanting religious verses and walking in the sertão. These shots behind the vegetation accentuate the presence of the landscape. It is a strategy that reaffirms the presence of the camera that witnesses the story through the layer of the landscape. Furthermore, the persistent framing of the landscape indicates the prevailing presence of the apparatus. The camera, thus, is agitated and anxious. It moves. It changes position. Rather than a film setting that situates the linear development of events, the sertão is constructed as a landscape that has a crucial aesthetic and narrational role that is not subordinated to the plot but is constantly challenging narrative linearity.
Martin Lefebvre suggests that cinematic landscapes emerge with the rhythm of the film between narrative and spectacle:
The interruption of the narrative by contemplation has the effect of isolating the object of the gaze, of momentarily freeing it from its narrative function. Said differently, the contemplation of filmic spectacle depends on an “autonomising” gaze. It is this gaze which enables the notion of filmic landscape in narrative fiction (and event-based documentary) film; it makes possible the transition from setting to landscape. 
In line with Martin Lefebvre, Harper and Rayner state that “landscape involves the isolation of a certain spatial extent and a certain temporal length.”The authors emphasise the importance of the frame, which “suggest[s] a reading and limit[s] the range of interpretations”, in the depiction of cinematic landscapes. Landscape’s definition, drawn from the fields of geography and visual arts, refers both to a slice of territory and to a genre of painting where nature – or the outside space – is its main subject. In painting, the idea of landscape as a “space freed from event[s]” was a consequence of a shift from the landscape as an accessory (parergon) to landscape as subject-matter (ergon), which occurred with the birth of a new way of seeing, a new relationship between humans and the land in the transition from feudalism to capitalism during the Renaissance. Landscape was therefore a subjective human experience, and implied an observer. The use of the rules of perspective implied a distant and outside gaze. This is why the geographer Denis Cosgrove defines landscape as a “way of seeing”. Martin Lefebvre argues that not all natural or outside spaces in cinema are landscapes, and he establishes a distinction between setting and landscape, which is primarily based on the space’s relationship to narrative. Hence, a setting is a basic requirement in every narrative film: it is the space where action and events take place. But landscape, as opposed to setting, is concerned with the autonomous character of the cinematic space.
At various moments in the film, Sebastião is depicted preaching to his followers on a hill, which is a significant characteristic of the topography of the region. What characterises the image of Monte Santo is the path made of stones that goes from the bottom to the top, cutting the screen diagonally. As Manuel decides to join Sebastião, who promises a land of green grass and milky rivers, the henchman is depicted climbing up the hill with his wife Rosa, while the preacher’s prophecy dictates that the poor will become rich and the rich will become poor. As Xavier suggests, “metaphorically exploring the topography of the mountain, the narration crystallises the idea of proximity to heaven and immanent ascension.” The path characterises the space-time passage between antagonistic universes: the city and the countryside, the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane. It is a way up or a way down, from which the characters ascend to the utopian paradise or fall into the harsh reality of the barren landscape. It is on this path of stones that Manuel pays for his sins by carrying a heavy stone on his head and climbs the path on his knees to purify his soul. Two long takes depict Manuel’s suffering as he climbs Monte Santo, while Sebastião appears detached, unemotional.
The sequence leads to a scene where, in Monte Santo, the camera portrays Rosa’s trance in the middle of the praying fanatics, which concludes with her murder of Sebastião. Rosa’s trance represents the highest degree of exasperation and revolt that encompasses the whole sequence: the restlessness of the gaze of the camera towards Manuel and the uneasiness with which it follows his martyrdom become even more heightened in the depiction of Rosa’s despair. According to Avellar, this is the aesthetic that marks the whole film. The scenes “appear on the screen marked by the tension of the gaze: nothing, no image, no action, no tranquil and quiet attitude, no silence means tranquility. Black God, White Devil is at all times agitation, anxiety, indignation.” Rosa’s act of revolt leads to the appearance of Corisco in the plot, when the peasant couple join the cangaceiros.
With the exception of two scenes that break the continuity of the mise en scène, the second half of the film is dedicated to the encounter between Manuel, Rosa and Corisco, the cangaceiro. The representation of Monte Santo in the first half of the film is displayed through different cinematic techniques to construct an autonomous landscape that is constantly fragmenting and disarticulating the logic of the narrative while imposing a cartographic view of the territory from a “higher” perspective. The introduction of Corisco in the narrative privileges the relationship between the characters and the landscape as a stage for their radical performance of revolt. As Xavier noted, Corisco is introduced in the film with a horizontal pan shot:
The sky-earth vertical panoramic transforms into a horizontal panoramic, low-lying in the caatinga, from the vegetation to the long shot that takes us to Corisco, in a movement that is simultaneous to the verse of the narrator who names Corisco as the devil of Lampião. Such inversion in the axis of the panoramic opposes the transition earth-to-earth, the rootedness in the low world of the devil of Lampião, to the elevated referential of the saint.
From this pan shot that presents a close-up view of the cactaceous vegetation, the camera moves horizontally and zooms out rapidly to depict a clearing in the sertão. Surrounded by arid vegetation, the area becomes the stage for Corisco’s expression of revolt.
When focusing on Corisco’s character, the film draws on the Brechtian performance technique of an epic character. The actor’s performance is directed at the camera, which constantly reminds the spectator that the actor is part of a theatrical stage. Corisco’s monologue recounts Lampião’s death and is a crucial moment of Black God, White Devil. It reinforces the aesthetic choices made by Glauber Rocha that were suggested in the first sequence of the film: the accentuated emphasis on extreme distances and tones. This is visible in the zoom that goes from the long shot of the clearing to a close-up of Corisco and his companion Dadá, and in the highly contrasting images of the dry earth and vegetation. In the first long shot of this sequence the characters are not identified. The camera zooms closer and places Corisco at the centre of the frame as he spins with his rifle in his hand.
Several characters are carefully placed in the clearing, among whom are Corisco, Manuel and Rosa. There is a slow-paced movement of the characters in this scene with the exception of Corisco’s brusque movements, which differ from the slow gestures of the others. Corisco’s revolted gestures are completed by the stylistic devices used in one powerful scene: the monologue performed by Corisco re-enacting his final conversation with Lampião. This monologue is a flashback, in which Corisco predicts the ambush that would kill the group’s leader Lampião. This is an unconventional narrative device that breaks with the linearity of the storytelling and challenges the space of the viewer along with the relationship between character and cinematic space. Without the mediation of a narrator, Corisco re-enacts the dialogue and is at once Corisco and Lampião. He begins by announcing: Lampião died, but he still lives inside Corisco’s body. The slight difference in the tone of his voice distinguishes the two personas, which are portrayed by a handheld camera.
The camera is tilted up from a lower angle below Corisco’s eye level and points towards his face. One long uncut shot presents the dialogue uttered in direct speech. In an extreme close-up, Corisco starts the dialogue in which he tells Lampião that the macacos are close by and that he dreamt of Lampião’s assassination. At a lower angle the handheld camera barely moves. Instead, it stays still and witnesses the performance. The actor crouches down slightly to play Corisco and stands tall to play Lampião. What is particularly interesting, as Avellar has pointed out, is the constant negotiation of the space between the staging of the characters and the movement of the camera. Avellar suggests that in this long uncut sequence Corisco is both shot and reverse shot. But instead of an edited sequence of juxtaposed shots, there is only one long shot where the camera and the character movements (framing) are the strategies that distinguish between the personas Corisco plays in this dialogue. In the construction of the myth of Lampião this continuous shot is responsible for the dramatic cutting of space. The face of Corisco, which occupies the entire screen, is the dramatic space of the scene. For Xavier, the use of the handheld camera and the extended duration of the shot expose a different subjectivity in the film, which is not mediated by a character but by the camera:
The shots of this phase of the film tend to create a tension that comes precisely from the peculiarities of the handheld camera. The camera’s unbalanced walk, freedom of movement and trepidation denounce a subjectivity, they reveal a palpitation in the operations of the narration, which level the experience of the camera to that of the characters.
After Corisco’s last statement the camera zooms out. Then, the off-screen sound of a shotgun announces Lampião’s death. The use of the close-up in this long sequence reveals a tension at the level of the cinematographic scale. The frame of the action of the dialogue between Corisco and Lampião radically closes on the face of the actor. This radical juxtaposition of long shots of the landscape and close-ups of Corisco relies on the boundaries of the screen, which gives the same measure to the landscape and the human face.
The scene after the death of Corisco (a death representing the end of the cangaço) is the flight of Manuel and Rosa from the sertão; this ends with an image of the sea. This final sequence is constructed by a horizontal travelling shot of the characters running away. Rosa stumbles and falls during the trajectory but neither the camera nor Manuel stops to look back. As the camera gradually positions itself in front of Manuel, who seems to be desperately attempting to reach it, the shot cuts to a sequence of the sea from a bird’s-eye view angle that is travelling the coastline. The abrupt cut suggests that Manuel does not reach the sea. The film juxtaposes the two images of the prophetic words of Sebastião, reiterated by Corisco’s prediction and by the narration of the cordel poem. However, as the camera traverses the sertão and is followed by Manuel, it detaches the meaning from God and the devil (Sebastião’s mystic significance and Corisco’s insistence on the eternal war in the sertão). The narrative of the cordel poem secularises the land when it sings: “the land belongs to men / It is neither God’s nor the devil’s.” The pan shot, which suddenly cuts to the sea, suggests a landscape always in movement, always mutating and always in the making. Rural to urban migration is allegorically represented. It is not a linear construction that logically articulates the narrative, space and time. Here, the final expression of revolt is suggested in Manuel’s escape from the oppressive landscape in the long take.
Through different aesthetic and narrative strategies, Black God, White Devil radically articulates different subjectivities through which the landscape of the sertão emerges as a space of revolt and revolution. The iconography of the sertão’s landscape is depicted as a stage for the narrative’s emblematic characters: from the preacher Sebastião, who revolts against the newly established Republican order, to the bandit Corisco, who revolts against the powerful landowners. When the film focuses on Sebastião the landscape is split between heaven and earth, which are represented as real and imagined spaces and are connected by the path that leads to the salvation in Monte Santo. Whereas when the film focuses on Corisco the landscape is depicted as a stage in which the cangaceiro performs his theatrical monologue. Here, the body of Corisco is scrutinised by the camera from his face (close-up) to his typical costume and is explored as a landscape. The duration of Corisco’s close-ups, which are closely examined by the camera, can be compared to the examination of the landscape of the sertão in long shots. It is the manifestation of the character’s utmost subjectivity, which is constructed by the camera’s framing and point of view. Glauber Rocha used various narrative devices that combined to continuously articulate and disarticulate narrative and spectacle. Image, sound and narrative often contradict each other making the spectator aware of the camera, which orders, transforms and rearranges the landscape through its various angles, framings and points of view.
The relationship between landscape and revolt in Black God, White Devil becomes evident in the examination of the film’s aesthetic and narrative strategies. The exacerbated characteristics of the sertão indicated that the territory lends itself to a cinematic construction that places the frame (the parergon) in the foreground. Glauber Rocha’s preoccupation with the creation of a revolutionary cinematic aesthetic is in continuous dialogue with his concern with historical and popular narratives.
 With regards to the aesthetic of this film, Johnson writes: “Black God, White Devil deals with the real while denying realism as a mode of representation. Its narrative plays with contrasts, juxtaposing sometimes agonizing temporal dilations with frenetic camera movements and rapid montage.” [Johnson,Cinema Novo x 5, 130.]
 The lyrics for the cordel poem used as a narrative device in Black God, White Devil were written by Glauber Rocha and the music composed by Sérgio Ricardo.
 Rocha, “Estética da fome,” 63-67.
 Ibid., 65-6.
 Johnson, Cinema Novo x 5, 120.
 They include the work of authors such as José Carlos Avellar, Jean-Claude Bernadet, Randal Johnson, Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, Robert Stam and Ismail Xavier, among others.
 Johnson and Stam, Brazilian Cinema, 32-3.
 Xavier, Sertão mar, 7.
 In the Brazilian Northeast’s rural society, Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, best known as Lampião – the most prominent character of the cangaço movement, was the leader of a group of cangaceiros for two decades in the beginning of the twentieth century. This movement of social banditry, acutely associated with violence and criminality, is also said to have in the figure of the cangaceiros the mark of a failed society. The movement cannot be dissociated from its place of origin, the sertão. In a place distant from the urban civilisation, with histories of messianic movements violently ended by the powers of the Republic, justice was in the hands of the local landowners, where customary laws were replaced by institutional ones. [Jasmin, “A Guerra das Imagens,” 16.] Hobsbawm affirms that: “The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.” [Ibid., 20.] In Brazil, the cangaceiros have been transformed into national symbols of resistance and revolt: “It was in the 1960s and 1970s that a new generation of intellectuals transformed the cangaceiro into a symbol of Brazilianness, of the fight for freedom and the power of the oppressed.” [Ibid., 164.]
 Xavier, Sertão mar, 10.
 Xavier, “Black God, White Devil,” 136.
 Ibid., 136-7.
 Lefebvre, “Between Setting and Landscape,” 29. (Author’s emphasis).
 Harper and Rayner, “Introduction – Cinema and Landscape.” 16.
 Ibid., 17.
 Xavier, “Black God, White Devil,” 140-1.
 Avellar, Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 74. Original version: “aparece na tela marcada pela tensão do olhar: nada, nenhuma imagem, nenhuma ação, nenhuma atitude tranqüila e sossegada, nenhum silêncio é tranqüilidade. Deus e o diabo na terra do sol é todo o tempo agitação, ansiedade, indignação.”
 Xavier, Sertão mar, 122. Original version: “A panorâmica vertical céu-terra transforma-se numa panorâmica horizontal, rasteira, na caatinga, da vegetação ao plano aberto que nos leva a Corisco, num movimento que é simultâneo ao verso do cantador que nomeia Corisco, o Diabo de Lampião. Tal inversão de eixo na panorâmica opõe a transição terra-a-terra, o enraizamento no baixo mundo do Diabo de Lampião, ao referencial elevado do santo.”
 See Avellar, Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 46.
 The original English translation is “monkeys.” In the context of the cangaço it designates the jagunços: men hired by the government or local landowners to protect their private properties and kill those who threaten them.
 Avellar, Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 14-6.
 Xavier, Sertão mar, 103. Original version: “… os planos-seqüência dessa fase do filme tendem a criar uma tensão que vem exatamente das peculiaridades da câmera na mão. Seu andar desequilibrado, sua liberdade de movimentos e sua trepidação denunciam uma subjectividade por trás da objectiva, revelam uma palpitação nas operações de quem narra de modo a nivelar sua experiência às das personagens.”
 This scene was studied by many critics, among which were Ismail Xavier, José Carlos Avellar, Randal Johnson. The last of these affirms that “what is important is the moment of transformation, the explosion, the ecstasy of resurrection, and not necessarily the results of the transformation.” [Johnson,Cinema Novo x 5, 135.]
 Original version: “E a terra é do homem / Não é de Deus nem do diabo.”
Avellar, José Carlos. Deus e o diabo na terra do sol: a linha reta, o melaço de cana e o retrato do artista quando jovem. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1995.
Harper, Graeme and Rayner, Jonathan, ed. Cinema and Landscape: Film, Nation and Cultural Geography. Bristol: Intellect, 2010.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Bandits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000.
Jasmin, Élise. “A Guerra das Imagens: Quando o Cangaço Descobre a Fotografia.” In Cangaceiros, edited by Élise Jasmin, 15-32. São Paulo: Terceiro Nome, 2006.
Johnson, Randal. Cinema Novo x 5: Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Johnson, Randal and Stam, Robert. Brazilian Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Lefebvre, Martin. “Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema.” In Landscape and Film, edited by Martin Lefebvre, 19-59. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
Rocha, Glauber. Revolução do Cinema Novo. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2004.
Xavier, Ismail. “Black God, White Devil: the Representation of History.” In Brazilian Cinema, edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, 134-148. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Xavier, Ismail. Sertão Mar: Glauber Rocha e a Estética da Fome. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007.
THE AUTHOR Mariana A. C. da Cunha holds an MA in Cultural and Critical Studies (2004) and a PhD (2010) from Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis focuses on the construction of cinematic landscapes in Brazilian cinema, particularly in films that portray rural-urban migration. She was a Brazilian Studies Leitora at Queen Mary, University of London (2005-2009) and at Oxford University (2010-2011). She also studied a documentary filmmaking course at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba (2008), during which she co-directed a short documentary entitled “Fieles a Nuestra Historia”..
first published here: http://cinemiz.net/cifj/?p=4
January 26, 2012
Les hautes solitudes
In keeping with the vast majority of the films of its writer/director, Philippe Garrel, Les hautes solitudes (1974) is an intensely personal experience. A film in which characters thrown together in empty rooms stung by silence drift between fleeting glances, reacting or not reacting as the case may be to what is said, what isn’t said, and everything in-between. It is, as one might expect given its technical presentation, a fairly impenetrable work, though one that we’re free to carry with us; ruminating on each tattered scene as we gather up our thoughts like raindrops, either during the experience of viewing or afterwards, and inevitably projecting our own thoughts and feelings (or personal preconceptions) onto the images, or its central characters, who remain vague and elusive; indistinguishable from the actors who play them and whose faces dominate each single-shot close-up composition, used throughout to establish a story – or a sense of narrative that exists between sleep and nothing – to reveal a sense of the great loneliness that the title of the film so perfectly describes.
Although the intentions of Les hautes solitudes remain unclear, obscured by the closeness of the compositions or the complete lack of any kind of conventional soundtrack to make explicit those stolen moments of thought, we can at least take the film to be a kind of silent-study of its three individual characters; the actresses Jean Seberg and Tina Aumont, and the singer and musician Nico, whose decade-long relationship with Garrel has become a spectre that haunts the very framework of his cinema, stretching as far back as her earliest appearance in the abstract, esoteric drama The Inner Scar (La cicatrice intérieure, 1972), to the recollections of her spirit and the void left in her absence in films like Emergency Kisses (Les baisers de secours, 1989) or I Don’t Hear the Guitar Any More (J’entends plus la guitar, 1991).
In Les hautes solitudes, it is Nico’s face that we see first, slumped in a kind of morose contemplation as the images flicker with a Murnau-like intensity, as the antique quality of the composition reminds us, subconsciously, of the world of Faust (1926) or Nosferatu (1922); suggesting that feeling of the supernatural, gothic and severe, or of a nocturnal underworld devoid of time and place. As was the case with Garrel’s earlier silent film, Le révélateur (1968), there is that sense of a world in which life has stopped dead; where we witness these characters interacting, thinking – the expressions on their faces telling a story in the loosest possible sense – but they, like us, are still waiting; waiting for something (anything) to happen. Good or bad, we don’t quite know, but there is a continual feeling that the world around them has fallen away, leaving only the four-walls, floors and ceilings of the apartment, the empty street bellow and those other spaces, rubble and mirrors, that seem to be beyond our basic comprehension.
Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:
Nosferatu directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922:
Le révélateur directed by Philippe Garrel, 1968:
In this sense, the film becomes a sort of ghost story in which the inability of one character to relate to another character is conveyed through the intensity of those exhausting compositions of actors attempting to express thoughts and emotions – or the basic human need to a feel a part of something meaningful or substantial – but silenced, literally, by Garrel’s particular filmmaking approach. By removing the soundtrack completely, so that not even a musical score or a drone of ambient white-noise can block out our own thoughts (either on the subject of the film, or our thoughts in general), Garrel makes the breakdown in communication between his four central characters – the three women and the actor Laurent Terzieff – all the more palpable; as lips move and the eyes dart back and forth from one side of the frame to another in a parody of conversation while the scene remains silent. The words literally cannot express the complexity of the emotions felt or experienced by these four lead protagonists, just as they fail to fully express our own relationship with them or with the film in question.
We never know if these actors are playing characters, or instead playing themselves, or even if their relationships extend beyond the actual beginning and end of the drama. Such questions remain on our mind throughout the film, as we watch these dramas play-out in bedrooms and kitchens, filled with looks and smiles which could be genuine – as in developing naturally from the drama and the interactions of the characters – or could be a cheat, as in those stolen moments, taken between takes and continuing the often Brechtian, deconstructive aspect that Garrel employs throughout. The accumulative effect of these images is eventually closer to the avant-garde of Stan Brakhage than the cinema of Vigo or Jean Eusrache, as the film becomes an installation piece, just there, in front of us, but beyond a reasonable grasp.
It is an impossible film to really pin-down and explain what is what without the benefit of further reading; with each reaction or spontaneous smile following a scene of full-face emotion disarming us, throwing our interpretations into confusion, leading to greater questions, thoughts and misunderstandings, etcetera. At certain points it seems like a depressing film, as Seberg, still beautiful, but quite clearly a world-away from the lively young girl of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) or À bout de souffle (1960), breaks down in tears and is comforted by Aumont, who reminds us of what a great and expressive actress she was away from the dull exploitation of films like Torso (I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale/Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, 1973) or The Howl (L’urlo, 1970). However, at other times the mood is playful, as we sense some of the fun and the frivolity of this collective of likeminded individuals, friends and collaborators, producing a film, a personal and to some extents private work (as Garrel’s work often seems to be), in the solitude of a rented apartment building.
Despite such moments, which could very easily be another example of Garrel’s deconstruction of the film, allowing shots to run further than the moment of the cut – or the way in which the whole thing becomes about the process of filmmaking itself – it is the gloom and the inability of the characters to communicate that we eventually come back to. A haunted film in many respects, in which characters are introduced, either slumbering or on the precipice of sleep (Nico and Seberg) or instead gazing into windows or pools of mirrored reflections (Aumont and Terzieff); or where the high-contrast black and white and the fragmented framing of images, as half-lit faces, hands and arms, expressions hidden, either by the characters themselves or by the doorways that get in the way of the action as we intrude, silently, upon the scene, becomes yet another barrier.
Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:
Beyond this, we’re left with Seberg’s face, which dominates the film, full of expression, even if the ability to plainly express in words seems to be beyond her. The fact that Seberg would be dead by the end of the decade, just three months shy of her 41st birthday, gives the film an added sense of tragedy that may not have been the intention. And when we take into consideration the early deaths of Nico (1938-1988) and Aumont (1946-2006), the idea of a ghost story, or a haunted film, becomes all the more concrete. Such ideas become manifest when combined with the cinematography, the sparseness of the locations and the feeling that time has become a mere affectation. From the first appearance of Seberg seven-minutes into the film, tossing and turning in bed and appearing to eventually fall asleep (in real-time) before a fade to black implies the passage between night and day, the narrative seems suspended, as moments pass, but with no real urgency, nothing to move along to besides the same old rooms and faces.
As a study for Serberg, or of Seberg, the film is absolutely riveting, as we watch with complete fascination the bombardment of emotions, or facial expressions, of acting at its most naked and unrefined, being projected as Garrel cuts in and out of these blurred relationships, where each look to the camera, beyond the camera, to the empty spaces that mock us with their vacant austerity, reminding us of the windows where life should be. Can we take hope from that penultimate shot, which lasts for several minutes and shows Seberg, bathed in glowing light and buried beneath an attractive sunhat, as she coyly expresses a range of conflicted facial expressions as if putting on an audition (for Garrel, and by extension the audience), or is the hope destroyed by the final plunging retreat into backlit melancholia? A silhouetted pose, cigarette smoke and “Les hautes solitudes”, as Seberg returns to the darkness, away from the bright white light that filters in through the bedroom window; away from the fantasy ideal of what could have been, or should have been, if only things had been different.
Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:
The End… by Nico, 1974:
Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:
It is that particular presentation of characters in a state of trance, fearfully in danger, which makes it impossible not to be reminded of Nico’s music; with the mood and tone reflecting songs like ‘Innocent and Vain’ or ‘Frozen Warnings’, or the lyrical reflections of ‘Afraid’; as her voice, an aching monotone, reassures us, but also hold the mirror to the heartbreaking line “you are beautiful and you are alone.” Such associations are impossible to ignore given the intensity of these two individuals and their relationship, which dominated a period of creativity that resulted in the conception of great music and great cinema (and the spaces between the two). Let’s not forget that a colour-tinted still of the film even featured on the cover of Nico’s album The End (1973), or that Garrel originally intended to use segments of Nico’s music as a soundtrack to the film, before Seberg suggested that the images remain silent.
As the film ends we’re left with as many questions as when it began; basic questions, like who are these people and what do they want? What were the intentions of the filmmaker? What role does the supposed influence of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (first published, 1888) have on the world of the film or the development of its narrative? …And so on. The only thing we’re really sure of is Seberg’s brilliance and Garrel’s genius, creating a film that is entirely dependent on the interpretations of the audience, as we project our own thoughts and feelings in an attempt to understand these characters and their complex interrelationships. In introducing his own work, Nietzsche wrote that “In order to understand the book, one must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion.” “Let us look one another in the face.” These words, which resonate on a monumental level when watching the reactions of these three no-longer-with us cult-icons, could just as easily be the introduction to Garrel’s intensely personal film.
this article first published here: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/07/les-hautes-solitudes.html
January 25, 2012
CINEMATIC EXPRESSIONS OF THE ANIMA—Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000)
Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World was prepared for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, is only six minutes long, and purports to offer a founding myth on cinema itself. It was chosen by Vincent Canby of The New York Times as one of the 10 best films of the year 2000, surely a first for a film so short.
As Wikipedia summarizes the plot: Two brothers, mortician Nikolai and actor Osip (playing Christ in a Passion Play), love the same woman—scientist Anna, who studies the earth’s core, or the “heart of the world.” Anna discovers that the world is in danger. In order to save it, she must choose between the brothers, and finally decides on a rich industrialist, Akmatov. As a result, the very heart of the world has a heart attack. Realizing what she has done, she strangles Akmatov and enters the earth’s core, replacing the failed heart with her own. The world is then saved by the new message, Kino.
Kino, of course, is Russian for “cinema” and is, likewise, the root of the word “kinetic”, an adjective completely appropriate to Maddin’s “founding myth on cinema.” Maddin deliberately references and parodies soviet montage cinema of the 1920s, German Expressionism of the 1920s, and silent melodrama film. He cites Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and La Fin du monde (1931), which likewise employs an end-of-world scenario with tension between two brothers (a scientist and a Christ figure). Mark Peranson describes Maddin’s short as a “Soviet-constructivist-cum-sci-fi head rush … shot out of an Uzi of inspiration.” His City Pages cohort Rob Nelson describes it as a “six-minute music-video-cum-Eisensteinian-sci-fi-workout.” Hyphenated descriptions abound to situate Maddin’s mash-up of styles and techniques.
Beebe—cognizant of the “workout”—reminds us that he specifically chose to screen The Heart of the World because it privileges image over narrative. He encourages us to let the images of the film wash over us and stresses that watching movies is good training in “image sense.”
State scientist Anna (Leslie Bais) is the anima of Maddin’s The Heart of the World. Anima is, indeed, the archetype at the heart of filmmaking itself. Proposing that we watch the film three times to sift out and strengthen reactions (or as one IMdb user wrly phrased it: “watch, rinse, repeat”), Beebe asks us after the first screening for an adjective to describe our reactions. Several come up—agitated, melodramatic, frenetic, exaggerated, paniced, pressured, frantic, intense, visceral—all of which, Beebe offers, would be adequate to describe the anima. The film colonizes the body with somatized sensations, underscoring that the anima is a maddening urgency from within. Freudians don’t much like the anima; for them it’s the infantile psyche, hysterical. Many men would rather develop a strong persona than develop their anima. Rather than carefully dismantling defenses, they would rather shore up the persona.
I mention that one of the images that most struck me was the silent film convention of the aperture, the iris, as a means of access to the film’s events. Beebe quotes Wim Wenders’ comment that “film is seeing” and appends that the anima is seeing film with the anima eye. Whose eye is looking out from the screen? Is it Anna’s as she looks into the machine that allows her to see the disconcerting and cephalopodic heart of the world? He thinks so.
Anna, however, is not an anima personal to Guy Maddin but more what James Hillman has described as the anima mundi: the soul of the world or culture’s soul. Looking at her as she announces her dire predictions (“triple-checked”) channeled through Soviet agitprop conventions, she exemplies what happens when one is caught in the grip of the anima; a kind of propagandistic impulse; a propaganda suffused with idealism; an idealistic urgency to save the world. There is this redemptive quality to the anima and, Beebe wonders if we identify with the anima when we wish redemption?
Beebe reiterates that The Heart of the World is a founding myth about how movies are made. It’s heraldic, announcing the triumph of a new world order through cinema. And it details the historicity of the process by which cinema achieves integrity. Anima is implicated in the development of integrity. At the beginning of the film Anna is in love with two brothers: Nikolai (Shaun Balbar), the mortician-engineer, and Osip (Caelum Vatnsdal), the actor playing Jesus who is likewise suffering a Messianic complex. Both brothers are stricken by Anna’s beauty and battle for her attention. When Anna pronounces the grim fate of the world, they compete for a solution.
Beebe suggests Nikolai, the mortician, represents cinema’s initial murderous gaze, the original impulse to document and record through film, freezing (killing) things in time, nailing bodies in coffins (commensurate to finishing films up and putting them “in the can”). Osip, in his guise as Jesus, adopts the opposite position, representing a cinema that is a spiritual experience where bodies are resurrected and freed from their coffins. As an aside, Beebe admits to becoming “hot” at horatory cinema meant to exhort; cinema’s popular usage to push spiritual agendas. Clearly, both approaches are fraught with peril and neither—in Maddin’s film—serve to save the heart of the world. One rages forward with cold-hearted progress; the other performs miracles through reverse footage. One of my favorite images is the horror on Nikolai’s face when he witnesses Osip’s resurrected corpses. In a way, their opposing approaches negate each other.
Then along comes the dark horse contender, a lustful industrialist named Akmatov (Greg Klymkiw), who seduces and sways Anna with his chest of gold coins. She swoons and is taken by him on their honeymoon. One IMdb user describes Akmatov as a “plutocrat”, which—though it was not discussed at the seminar—is an intriguing mythic reference for me, in the sense that “Pluto” (aka Hades), is a Lord of Abduction (as in the Persephone myth) who as King of the Underworld has access to the mineral wealth—veins of gold and sparkling gemstones—beneath the surface of the earth. Though Dr. Beebe claims it’s gold coins that are being shoveled into Akmatov’s phallic cannon, I’m not convinced and can’t quite tell from the film itself; they look more to me like diamonds and chunks of coal, in turn. Either way, gold or diamonds, they suggest underworld wealth. If the marriage of Hades and Persephone is, indeed, a configuration of a woman’s marriage initiation, is it any wonder that a diamond ring set in gold is used to seal the contract?
Why would Anna choose the aggressive Industrialist? Does she really choose, or does she simply succumb? In the face of an assertive will, Beebe suggests, the anima can retreat into a vegetative state, much like the story of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne and her winsome smile over the shoulder as she transforms into an inaccessible laurel tree.
Unfortunately, by choosing Akmatov, the world suffers a seismic heart attack. This heartquake (earthquake?) jolts Anna back into conscious action, reminding her that her true mission is to save the world. She strangles Akmatov and sacrifices herself to become the world’s heart transplant. By this act the world is reborn as cinema and is shown projected onto the hearts of the world’s inhabitants.
There’s a lot to tease out here. First, as a style of cinema—in contrast to Nikolai’s documentary approach and Osip’s horatory approach—Akmatov represents commercial cinema, Hollywood as we know it today, where the bottom line rules even as expensive movies are made about how bad money is. One could say that—because the movie industry is anima-driven—it is money-crazy. And therein lies the anima’s dilemma. Just as Luis Buñuel vociferously detested Nicholas Ray’s dinner party assertion that each movie he makes must cost more than the one he’s just finished in order to remain a successful filmmaker, the temptation of financing must either be resisted or finagled in order for the integrity of creative vision to exist. Film is for the realization of an integrity of vision. This aligns with James Hillman’s thesis in Thought of the Heart and Soul of the World, wherein the “thought of the heart” is understood as the capacity to imagine truly. In The Heart of the World, Maddin pleads a case for visionary filmmaking; his kind of filmmaking.
Anna has to kill her strange bedfellow the Industrialist in order to overcome her sellout and to return to her mission. Anna becomes an imagemaking faculty. She becomes a radiant star. When the anima is integrated, it becomes a function, hopefully a broadened transcendent function. This references the idea that the anima is also fate; that the anima is trying to live out her own fate. Anima integration is more believable in those who can be vulnerable. Anima starts out as an almost ridiculously-hyped subjectivity. If the anima is integrated, a balanced subjectivity becomes possible.
keep reading this article here: http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com/2008/03/cinematic-expressions-of-animaguy.html
The post-mortem image: Peter Greenaway’s documentary Death in the Seine and writing the history of a corpse
Authors: C. David Bertolini
documentary, Greenaway, Paris, Deleuze, Žižek, death
This article explores Peter Greenaway’s film, Death in the Seine, as a relationship between the act of documentation, the document in-itself, and the implicit conflict between reality, memories and records. The film documents events during post-revolution France through the observations by two mortuary attendants named Bouille and Daude whose notes list those who drowned in the Seine. The facts that comprise the film come from the work of the historian Richard Cobb who painstakingly researched the contents of the eighteenth-century French mortuary log. Death in the Seine relies on actual facts, but simultaneously questions the viability of their truth-claims. The truth-claims reflect an emerging conflict between history and the fragile objective technologies used to document and organize events. I demonstrate how the film directly challenges truth-claims through the medium of remembering – writing, filming and recollection – and to understand their implications I will examine them through the lens of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze. I will situate what I call the ‘post-mortem image’ (the image of the immediate dead) within the broader context of the social-symbolic network of documentation.
the abstract first published here: http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=6644/
January 24, 2012
The Grandmother reviewed by Tim Maloney
Tim Maloney teaches film at California State University, Fullerton.
The Grandmother (1970 USA 34 mins)
Prod, Dir, Scr, Phot, Anim: David Lynch Mus: Tractor Sound: Alan R. Splet
Cast: Richard White, Dorothy McGinnis, Virginia Maitland, Robert Chadwick
When David Lynch began filming The Grandmother he was still a painter exploring the possibilities of film rather than a filmmaker per se. His previous shorts, Six Figures Getting Sick (1966) and The Alphabet (1968) last under five minutes in total, and the former was part of a mixed-media installation included in a gallery show. The Grandmother, then, is Lynch’s first major film in terms of length, style, and choice of material.
Describing the events of the film elicits more questions than answers, and this seems to be part of its design.
The story of the film is something along these lines. Mom and Dad wriggle up from the ground. They rut like animals, and their Boy is born from the ground in much the same way as they were. The Boy is neither understood nor loved, and his dog-like parents bark his name at him: Mutt! The Boy is incontinent, and his father beats him for it, rubbing the unfortunate child’s face in the bright yellow stain on the bed. Unhappy, the Boy finds a seed, plants it on a bed, waters, waits, and a Grandmother sprouts out to love and comfort him.
At a particularly difficult family dinner the Boy flees his enraged drunken father and goes to the Grandmother’s welcoming embrace. He fantasises about executing his parents by crushing them. He and the Grandmother spend some time poking each other with their index fingers, then she enables him to grow into some kind of dribbling cartoon flower. Sadly, the Grandmother whistles herself to death, and the Boy is despondent. The last image is troubling and difficult to describe, suggesting the Boy has somehow killed himself.
Of course this description says almost nothing about the experience of watching the film.
Lynch’s films have often been compared to dreams, and The Grandmother doesn’t do anything to disprove that reading. There is no dialogue, save the word “Mutt” grunted by the parents. There seems to be a law of cause and effect at work here, but the mechanisms by which the causes lead to the effects is obscured. For example, consider the scene after the Boy “kills” his parents. There is a cut to the bed, it fills with yellow paint until it overflows the room. The next shot shows what seems to be some kind of animated aquifer filling with yellow liquid; next, a long white plank, and the animated Boy falling off it, into the urine aquifer, splashing out yellow clouds; next, hoses puff up the animated father and mother until rods burst them.
These things follow one another, certainly, but not because anyone ever expected them to. And their enigmatic presentation – the reduction of parent-child relationships to simple gestures, juxtapositions of bodies and understated movements – has led some to indulge in Freudian analyses of the film, writing about symbolic Father-killings and the Mother’s embrace and rejection of the Boy in terms of Oedipal Complexes, and so on. To be sure, these images do convey some kind of primitive emotion. It is murky and hard-to-define, but it is there, accomplished through the images rather than through dialogue or some chamber-room drama. As such, one might first let the images and sounds of this presentation flow over him or her, and not work terribly hard to assign logic or “meaning” to any of the proceedings.
Lynch claims his interest in film stems from the desire to see his paintings move (1), and The Grandmother is full of painterly qualities and concerns, particularly in the use of a reduced colour palette. The walls and furniture are painted black, and the Boy is dressed in a black and white tuxedo. All of the actors wear pancake make-up, with only a trace of red lipstick on the mouth. When Mom and Dad are onscreen Lynch includes green and red in the frame – both on Mom’s dress and on the furniture of the dining room. There is more colour contrast in scenes which show a bright blue sky with the yellow sun and moon. This yellow colour acts as a visual accent in the Boy’s bedroom, where the bright stain on the bed sheets is the central focus. Black-and-white footage, with its greatest possible colour reduction, is interspersed, most notably in the death of the Grandmother.
A possible visual antecedent for the film could be Francis Bacon, whose 1954 painting “Figure with Meat” has precisely the same black background, limned with white, as The Grandmother’s set. And the shots of Lynch’s Boy, in the midst of being punished, frozen in time, his mouth an open, dark hole, screaming for entirely too long, recall Bacon’s “Screaming Pope” (1952). Precedents for Lynch’s filmmaking choices include, perhaps, the pixilated people of Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952), the cryptic, cabalistic cut-outs of Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), and Maya Deren’s dreamlike Meshes in the Afternoon (1943). It’s reasonable to suspect the young art student Lynch attended these films with interest, as they would have been readily available and part of most art-school curricula at the time.
The Grandmother is also Lynch’s first collaboration with Alan Splet, his sound designer through to Blue Velvet (1986). Splet’s sound design adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. Some sounds synch to on-screen activities (voices, the rustling of leaves), but there are far more purely atmospheric sounds – such as hisses and rhythmic noises, gloomy German-influenced electronic music (2).
Even Lynch’s latest features, Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001), show the same tendency to abandon classic storytelling guidelines and formulas in favour of a visual, sonic, emotional climax. The most remarkable moments in his films are the ones in which the viewer is somehow panicked and uneasy, carried along by the sounds and pictures that cannot be easily described. But the feeling remains, and the experience is unforgettable.
This comment, and others, are derived from the interviews contained on the most recent DVD of Lynch’s shorts, available from his own website. As of 2002, which is admittedly some time later than The Grandmother’s production schedule, Lynch still seems unable to put any of the motivations and artistic underpinnings of any of his projects into words. For that we are relieved; if he were able, he would probably write essays and not make films.
It is particularly helpful to think of bands like Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust and Cluster as comparisons. Lynch credits his soundtrack to “Tractor”. No information is available about this group, and a likely speculation is that it is really Lynch and Splet.
this article first published here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/the-grandmother/
January 23, 2012
Historical Background: Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy” provides bookends and a centerpiece for his film career. The Blood of a Poet (1930) was Cocteau’s debut film and Testament of Orpheus (1959) his farewell to moviemaking. The latter followed a decade after Orphée (1949), which was, along with La Belle et la Bête (1946), Cocteau’s crowning achievement in the film medium. Cocteau directed only six films, since he divided his creative energies between poetry, painting, sculpting, and writing novels.
Testament of Orpheus is as much a farewell party as anything else, in which Cocteau effectively roasts himself. It is a kind of assessment of his own life as an artist and a search for the meaning of art. On the one hand, it is a rather heady intellectual journey in search of meaning, but it is all done with so much joie de vie that one rather enjoys it like a lively party. Many of Cocteau’s old friends are invited. Five of the cast members from Orphée (Jean Marais, Maria Casares, Edouard Dermit, François Perier and Henri Cremieux) are back for another turn as well as such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Pierre Leaud, François Truffaut, Yul Brynner, Roger Vadim, Brigette Bardot, and Françoise Sagan, either in cameos or assisting in the production. Testament of Orpheus could have been grotesquely self-indulgent, but instead has a playful, joyful, and modestly self-reflective sincerity about it.
The Story: A prologue briefly recaps the ending of Orphée, in which The Princess (Maria Casares) and Heurtebise (François Perier) are headed toward “final death” (one always has to specify final death when that is what’s meant, in relation to Cocteau plots, since he was obsessed with the notion of resurrection). The plot, if one can call it such, opens with a poet (played by Cocteau himself) in 18th-century garb bouncing around the space-time continuum, intersecting with the life of a scientist at various stages of his development, from mere infant to old man. He finally encounters the scientist (Henri Cremieux) at his peak and enlists his aid in being returned to his own time. Cocteau suddenly emerges in a 1959 outfit into his own world – or, at least, his own world more or less, for it is a world between life and death in which Cocteau encounters a series of characters of his own creation from Orphée as well as an assortment of gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. Prominent among these is Cegeste, played by Edouard Dhermitte, who was also Cocteau’s adoptive son in real life. Cegeste appears, in a nifty bit of reverse photography, springing from the ocean and gliding effortlessly up to an overhanging cliff. The unfortunate Cegeste, at the end of Orphée, had been left behind and alone and now demands to know why the author left his fate unresolved. Cegeste hands Cocteau a flower, which the artist attempts to sketch, but instead involuntarily renders a drawing of himself instead. Cocteau destroys the flower in anger and, when chastised by Cegeste, delicately reconstructs it. Cegeste has come to fetch Cocteau, who must stand trial before a tribunal, which, however, is composed of only two inquisitors, The Princess and Heurtebise. Cocteau is charged with repeatedly attempting to trespass into another world (through poetry). Cocteau is given the minimum sentence – life, which at his age will likely to a short sentence indeed. Cocteau must then present his art, in the form of the flower, to the goddess Athena. This entails a prolonged bureaucratic wait before a doorman (Yul Brenner) and some business with a couple of centaurs and an archer goddess. Cocteau is shot clean through and killed by the goddess but is then duly resurrected amidst the mournful attendants to continue his artist’s journey through time and space.
Themes: Testament of Orpheus is an intellectual mediation on the nature of art and the relationship between the artist and his work. Quite honestly, it would not be very interesting as such, were it not for the delightful arsenal of images that Cocteau manufacturers to enliven and embellish a rather dry premise.
Production Values: What makes this film worthwhile is the unfettered creativity of Cocteau’s images. There is a lot of use of one of film’s oldest tricks – reversal of images. This allows a flower to be recomposed, water vapor to reform as a bubble, a man to leap out of the ocean to a cliff, the ashes of a photograph to reassemble out of the fire into the intact piece, and a chalk drawing to be un-erased onto a blackboard. There is a solitary color scene, highlighting a rose and a pool of blood, amidst the otherwise black-and-white film. We see parody of Cocteau’s own previous work when a pair of motorcycle cops show up near the end but turn out to be merely what they appear to be – traffic cops. We see a rich assortment of Cocteau’s highly imaginative paintings. We are shown a mock quiz show in which the young female contestant brilliantly answers questions pertaining to Greek mythology, but, when asked who Jean Cocteau is, suggest that he is a musician who plays “the buffoon.” There’s a rich assortment of mythological images and references and some startling use of surrealism. That all of this was accomplished prior to the advent of high-tech special effects speaks volumes for Cocteau’s creativity.
Bottom-Line: As I suggested earlier, this film is pretty much a farewell party for Cocteau and, as such, your enjoyment will depend largely on how well you know the man and admired his work to begin with. I don’t recommend seeing this film until you’ve seen, at least, Orphée and, better still, La Belle et la Bête as well. Testament of Orpheus is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 80 minutes. The Criterion DVD is included in a special boxed set called the “Orphic Trilogy” along with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orphée. The quality of the reconstructions by Criterion are superlative for the two more recent films of the trilogy but The Blood of a Poet suffers from poor image quality. Given Criterion’s impeccable reputation, one has to assume that the shortcomings relating to The Blood of a Poet are due to the limitations in the quality of source material available. This special Cocteau set is loaded with extras, including a 1984 autobiographical documentary by Cocteau, writings by Cocteau on all three films, and a color short by Cocteau called Villa Santo Sospir shot in 16 mm film.
this article first published here: http://www.epinions.com/review/mvie_mu-1037420/content_153938333316
Weerasethakul was born in 1970 and is an architect, multimedia artist, and experimental filmmaker. His singular Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) — showing at the Film Center on Thursday, March 28; the filmmaker will be present — was financed largely by a Dutch state grant tied to the Rotterdam film festival, as well as by Toshiba and a James Nelson Award.
I attended the world premiere of this film at the Rotterdam festival two years ago, and I remember wondering how long it would take to reach Chicago — if it ever got here. The film made a strong impression on me, but I forgot many details, simply because I didn’t have an analytical context in which to place it. Perhaps if the film had been less original or striking, I and other publicists, journalists, and teachers could have started packaging it immediately.
It’s the only work of Weerasethakul’s I’ve seen — he’s credited with seven preceding shorts, all made during the 1990s — but it clearly offers more ideas than the entire oeuvres of other experimental filmmakers I could name. The difficulty we have processing experimental ideas in a Thai context fascinates me: how many of our ideas about experimental filmmaking are predicated on unthinking Western reflexes and traditions that exclude many small countries as a matter of course? The obstacles are ideological, conceptual, and even practical — for example, “Apichatpong Weerasethakul” isn’t an easy name for Westerners to pronounce or remember — and all sorts of anomalies are connected to the project that complicate our responses. For starters, the film is in black and white, which is now more expensive to use in the U.S. than color; this suggests that Thai filmmakers have more freedom than their American counterparts when deciding which to shoot in. It’s bemusing that this feature was shot on 16-millimeter and blown up to 35, yet the image we see is letterboxed, a format we Yanks are used to seeing only on video. The Dolby sound track is also unexpected.
The film’s methodology and structure are even more startling. The film crew traveled through Thailand from north to south, inviting ordinary people to invent and then continue a story. New participants were free to alter the story they inherited, changing details and proposing alternative developments. Sometimes several participants at once pick up the story, as when a large group chants about various plot turns with musical accompaniment in front of a live audience and when competing narrative details are offered by schoolchildren near the end. Then the crew returned to Bangkok to shoot the fictional dramas and variations with nonprofessional actors and to film interviews with the actors as well as documentary segments chronicling the activities of both the actors and film crew. The final editing doesn’t homogenize these activities; rather it bears witness to all of them, cutting between stories being told and reenacted, overlapping the sound of one activity and the image of another, juxtaposing an intertitle and a filmed testimony, and including documentary segments about the stages of this adventure. The whole process took about three years.
Before we get to the invented story, we ride through the streets of a city, presumably Bangkok, while we hear both a man telling one story and an Asian pop song on the radio. After what sounds like a commercial for incense, we see a woman who helps run a fish stall tearfully recount her father’s efforts to sell her when she was a child to her uncle and aunt, which prompted her move to Bangkok. Weerasethakul asks if she wants to tell another story, real or fictional, and after cutting away to a few more narrative interludes, he gives us a simultaneous telling and enactment of the invented story, which involves a boy in a wheelchair who’s tutored at home in a Bangkok suburb.
At one point his teacher excuses herself from a lesson to go to the bathroom and doesn’t come back. The boy goes looking for her, finds her unconscious on the floor, tries to revive her, and sees a mysterious object roll out from under her skirt. In three of countless subsequent versions, the mysterious object becomes a flying ball that produces a miniature boy, the teacher becomes two teachers, and the teacher returns to the boy in the wheelchair as if nothing has happened, saying she just went off to buy him an eraser.
In a famous game of the Surrealists, “The Exquisite Corpse,” participants made up successive parts of a story, sentence by sentence, on a piece of paper with many folds, each participant reading only the previous sentence before adding another. The game of Mysterious Object at Noon – whose title obviously refers to the film as well as the object that rolls out from under the teacher’s skirt — is played somewhat differently, but it has the similar effect of revealing the collective unconscious of a group of unconnected storytellers. These people include, as the Rotterdam festival’s catalog puts it, “quarreling food sellers, a TV-addict-cum-boxer, a devout female cop and a loveless rubber-tree peeler”; we also encounter, among others, a herd of elephants and “a deaf neighbor who is introduced as a silent witness” — actually two deaf neighbors, teenage girls who use sign language to correct and amplify each other’s testimony. At the end, schoolchildren take over the entire show; the “noon” of the title apparently refers to a time when they play outdoors.
After a while the characters, fantasies, significations, and representations become so plentiful we may feel that Weerasethakul has bitten off more than he can possibly chew, even given a running time of 83 minutes. Apparently he wants to explore the collective unconscious of the participants for reasons that are both realist and surrealist — to reveal something real about Thai villagers through their fantasies and to reveal something about their fantasies through their reality. That’s only a beginning of course, but it’s a central part of the business of experimental films everywhere to provide us with beginnings of this kind and to invite us to run with them. The creative contributions of this film’s viewers are not unlike the responses of the Thai villagers. What is that mysterious object? Good question, and the answer’s partly up to us. Quick answers are encouraged — though not hasty packages of the results. Experimental films are frequently criticized for being boring because they say and do too little, but the best of them put us in exhilarating overdrive because they offer too much.
this review first published here: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6243/
January 22, 2012
Dusan Makavejev’s WR Mysteries of the Organism
by James DeMeo, Ph.D.
Director, Orgone Biophysical Research Lab
Ashland, Oregon, USA
Copyright (c) 2007 by James DeMeo
The pioneering research on human sexuality undertaken by the late Dr. Wilhelm Reich constituted a breakthrough in understanding about the emotional and bioenergetic nature of the sexual discharge, as well as providing for deeper understandings of the psyche-soma (mind-body) relationship, and the role of chronic sexual stasis in the genesis of mental disorders and biopathic degenerative disease. Since his death, numerous studies have confirmed parts of his discovery on the Function of the Orgasm (the title of his 1927 and later expanded 1942 book on the subject), notably on the health benefits of a gratified sexual life. Reich’s larger sex-economic theory of society has also been confirmed, dramatically so, in my own research study Saharasia, which proved that sexually gratified societies were lacking in social violence, but also did not have pornographic, homoerotic, bi/poly-sexual or pedophilic impulses. Only the sexually-frustrated societies showed such correlations to violence and distorted sexual expression. I’ve already written on this subject, of Reich’s discoveries on human sexuality, in a chapter within my larger book Saharasia. The interested reader should consult that work for a summary, or better yet, consult directly what Wilhelm Reich said about human sexual expression in his own numerous books:
* Function of the Orgasm
* Children of the Future
* The Sexual Revolution
* Genitality in the Theory and Therapy of Neuroses
* The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety
* Reich Speaks of Freud
* Character Analysis
Here, however, I wish to expose certain aspects of a growing problem, of public distortions and attacks against Reich’s work. These have taken on two major expressions:
1) Overt condemnations, based upon deliberately distorted misrepresentations of his clinical findings, as when religious moralists condemn Reich for their misperception that he advocated a “sexual free-for-all” and poly-sex perversions of all sorts, which simply is not true. Reich did argue for a loosening of sexual taboos and allowance of young lovers to have loving and responsible premarital sexual relations within their own peer-groups, something which is quite normal and healthy, and that, too, can infuriate the religious moralists.
2) Another more subtle form of attack and distortion comes when those advocating pornography and the “free fuck” mentality abuse Reich’s name as justifications for their activities or world view. Since Reich is well-known for his writings on sexual freedom versus sexual taboos, it is not uncommon to see advocates of the most grotesque forms of sexual distortions abuse Reich’s name as justification.
Since Reich is no longer alive to defend his work, that burden falls upon those professionals and others who know the facts, to speak out in his defense. Here, I wish to identify what is perhaps the most egregious example of the second expression noted above, of pornographers abusing Reich’s name to glorify their activities, with the apparent goal of destroying his work precisely because Reich’s criticisms of their behavior are so powerfully illuminating. It is the ultimate twist, that the natural scientist and psychiatrist who understood human sexuality and problems of sexual gratification and misery better than any other, and who offered social and therapeutic remedies by which sexual impotence and pornographic impulses could be eliminated, is today subjected to the slimy embrace of the pornographers. The apparent reason is to distort Reich’s advocacy of a socially permissive attitude towards young heterosexual love — as with Romeo and Juliet — and his rational criticisms of organized religion’s generally sex-repressive and anti-female nature, into a license for their own pathological ideas and behaviors. Reich would be turning in his grave over this situation.
The “most egregious example” I referenced above is the 1971 film by Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev, WR Mysteries of the Organism (hereafter WRMO), widely shown in off-beat and university cinemas in the 1970s, released as a VHS version in 2001, and recently released once again into the public on DVD. The film mixes documentary footage from Wilhelm Reich’s early research with clips of a love-making scene out in an open meadow under the blue skies, with wonderful emotive music, a deeply moving scene which stirs the longings of the viewer. Then director Makavejev inserts the phrase “fuck freely, comrades”, along with other sexually degrading words and scenes, the effect of which is like being punched in the belly. The film then degenerates quickly, into scenes of cartoonish sexual displays, a former member of the “Fugs” rock band mock-masturbating the barrel of a machine-gun with a mock-blissful look on his face, the editor of “Screw” magazine being masturbated to erection by two young women of the “plaster-caster” porno-cult, after which they make a plaster casting of his penis, and then a rubber dildoe — followed by a lecture from a “masturbation therapist”, with one distortion of Reich after another. Mostly it is childish pre-genital stuff, designed to titilate sex-frustrated people. A sub-plot continues through the film, of a female communist party member who falls in love with a sexually-dysfunctional ice-skating champion, who cannot make love to her, so instead he chops off her head with his ice-skates. The disembodied head then speaks from a table-top. Whatever serious issues might have been suggested at the beginning of the film, or by a few interviews made with friends of Reich who thought the film would be something authentic, is torn to shreds very quickly, leaving every decent person in the audience feeling nauseous. By this method, the name and work of Wilhelm Reich has been associated with sleazy pornography.
More recently, two of Makavejev’s pornographic movies, WRMO and the even more offensive and mis-titled Sweet Movie were jointly released on DVD. Numerous positive film reviews from the poly-sexual Hollywood crowd, apparently fully approving of the porn-content of the Makavejev films, appeared in magazines and on internet shortly afterward. For example, see here, and the other weblinks below. The contents of these films have been so outrageous that they have been banned as hard-porn in many nations, and of course the distortions against Reich were compounded in them. The situation is worsened, as I will show below, in that Reich’s name is also being publicly associated with the second and more offensive Sweet Movie.
Here is an earlier review of WRMO I wrote, and circulated to a few internet sites selling the Makavejev DVDs:
A Total Distortion of Reich’s Work, February 2, 2004
This video [WR Mysteries] was undertaken by Dusan Makavejev, who according to a 1971 film review article in the Journal of Orgonomy, obtained original footage of Reich from the Reich Museum, and interviews with various individuals who knew Reich and who had followed up on his research, by posturing as a “friend of Reich”. He then proceeded to mix that original footage with pornographic images designed to plunge a knife into the heart of everything Reich argued about, and stood for. Only a few of Reich’s genuine friends had the forethought to grant permissions based upon their approval of the final film – and they promptly refused such permission. It caused an uproar among those who knew and understood Reich, but Makavejev got his footage and danced away a laughing man. This film has done more damage to Reich’s name and legacy than any single item one might point to, by distorting Reich’s excellent and important biophysical work on the Function of the Orgasm (see book of this title) into a malignant advocacy of “free sex for all”. Reich would puke forever if he saw how his life’s work was so badly twisted. “F— Freely” announces one of the heroes of this film, in a plot about an ice-skater who seduces, but then murders and decapitates one of the “revolutionary proletariat” female characters. A weak “plot” indeed, interspliced with porno images from the plaster-casters, the first male erection to appear on a US film, masturbation images, and people group-fornicating to cartoon music — Makavejev’s apparent idea of the “sexual revolution” — all under a smiling wall portrait of Reich. “Freedom Peddling” is what comes to mind, and I can say with confidence that there is nothing of accuracy or authenticity about Reich in this film, aside from the interviews and short seconds of film from Reich’s original archives, which were obtained by fraudulent means. Reich’s work informs us, that the pornographic character is a sexually-frustrated character, no less than the sex-negative moralist of the organized church (or mosque, temple, etc.), and that they are in fact mirror images of each other, flip sides of the same coin. “Brothels are built from bricks of religion” as the poet William Blake once said — and Reich’s clinical work put substance to this idea. And so when this film was shown at my university years ago, the theatre was flooded with all the frustrated fraternity boys, come to hoot and ogle at the images of naked people. They learned nothing. Neither will anyone viewing this film, except perhaps how deceptive some Hollywood-types can be, even if they come from Yugoslavia.
Under the headline “Nocturnal Admissions” we learn from other film reviews that Sweet Movie created an uproar in Poland, where the actress Anna Prucnal was actually banned from re-entering the country. The following internet film reviews clarify the rational objections people have about Makavejev’s films, and why it is so upsetting to see Reich’s name and work associated with them:
Like his WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Dusan Makavejev’s controversial 1974 feature Sweet Movie is firmly rooted in the principles of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. In cinematic terms, this means bombarding the audience with an onset of imagery so visceral, disgusting and repellent that it “awakens” the viewer in a Brechtian manner by “short-circuiting” the audience’s reactions. Sweet Movie interweaves two narratives. One begins with a trip to the “Miss World Virginity Contest,” whose winner, Miss Monde 1984 (Carole Laure) is auctioned off to Mr. Kapital (Animal House’s John Vernon), a Texas oil billionaire with an odd perversion. Instead of deflowering her on her wedding night, he sterilizes the terrified girl’s body with rubbing alcohol and showers her in urine with his massive gold-plated penis, while an audience watches bemusedly through his bedroom window. She later escapes from her bridegroom, in a suitcase, and winds up at a wild Viennese commune whose participants indulge in public defecation and a food orgy that wraps with a massive display of gurgling, yakking, and vomiting. At the tale’s conclusion, Miss Monde shoots a television commercial that involves writhing and masturbating in a giant vat of chocolate, …. The second story involves a woman, Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal) piloting a candy-filled boat down a river, with a massive papier-mache head of Lenin on the prow and a lover in-tow who is a refugee from the Battleship Potemkin. She eventually does a seductive striptease and seduces a pack of children, then makes love to her paramour in a vat of sugar and stabs him through the heart. Throughout the film, Macavejev includes shock cuts to Nazi autopsy footage and medical experimentation footage, some of which involves physical abuse of infants under the guise of “baby gymnastics.” [emphasis mine, JD]
Another film review provides additional details:
“Sweet Movie” — a blitz of outrageous and nearly criminal offenses, cobbled onto a handful of silly dream-plots…Otto Muehl’s regression therapy (in which members of Muehl’s commune vomit and pee all over each other)…dinner plates of fresh shit, a castration in a vat of sugar…
For those who are blissfully ignorant of the Muehl commune, it was a Viennese sex-cult called the Aktions-Analytische Organisation, part of the 1960s European student’s movement which nominally took parts of Reich’s ideas as inspiration, and then often as not turned them upside down and inside-out, mixing with whatever else caught their fancy. By one internet account, “Otto Muehl was in the sixtees a representive of “Vienna-actionism” shocking the public. This “art” [included the] public slaughter of gooses and pigs.” Muehl departed from Austria to set up a commune in Germany, where he was eventually arrested for sexual abuse of children in his commune. After getting out of prison, he set up a new commune in Portugal. Such are the kinds of people Makavejev willfully decided to include in his films.
Of course, these twisted film misrepresentations most definitely are NOT “firmly rooted in the principles of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich”. It is the complete antithesis of Reich’s principles, which emphasized love and tenderness, the protection of children from adult seducers and pedophiles, and a very gentle treatment of babies and children. The only connection to Reich is via the widespread mythos created by director Makavejev, whose film career was built on the first WRMO film, the related book (of same title) and lectures he’s been invited to give, as a self-proclaimed “expert on Reich” who in fact either knows nothing, or deliberately makes Big Lies. Given the hostility towards Reich’s discoveries within mass-media circles, we can expect a continuance of this disinformation for some decades to come.
In fact, I found only one film review, by Christopher Null in 2000, whose author seemed to understand how Makavejev distorted Reich’s work.
If only WR kept up the interest level of the Reich biography, this might have been a fantastic picture. Too bad that none of the supporting footage nor the fictional tale match the sheer curiousness of Reich’s story. Makavejev has certainly gone out of his way to make WR stick together, each of his fragments working together to tell a story bigger than the sum of its parts. The narrative’s communist theme turns into one of sex; Reich’s sexual research results in a fascist destruction of his work. If only it worked that way in practice — WR’s supporting bits just don’t have the punch they need, and that drags the film down. Kupferberg’s raving lunacy serves as counterpoint to nothing. Curtis’s whining about sex comes across as, well, whining about sex.
In the end, WR (originally rated X) should be noted for having a great first third, when Reich is the focus. After that, Makavejev’s slip-slide into madness becomes ever more obvious.
We might close by asking how it was that Makavejev was able to obtain the documentary footage and interviews which provided his film’s only authentic connections to Wilhelm Reich. Without those sequences, his film would merley have been just another pornographic movie, mixed up with Marxist rantings.
In an earlier film review article of WRMO in the Journal of Orgonomy, (vol. 5 #2, p.227-233, Nov. 1971) by John Bell and Barbara Koopman, it was revealed that the director Makavejev approached several of Reich’s former associates and family members, eager to obtain documentary materials from them to use in his film, and to interview them. The article stated that Makavejev
“…asked them to cooperate with him on a documentary film he was making on the life and work of Reich. He presented himself as a Yugoslav democrat who had a deep interest in Reich’s work and wanted to make a film that would set forth Reich’s career and discoveries accurately. He was therefore accorded every courtesy and cooperation, and in turn gave many assurances that, despite his background, he was not a Communist; that he had read Reich’s works extensively and understood the difference between freedom and license, love and fucking, and the primary and secondary drives; and that he would protect Reich and his work from the political and pornographic distortions to which they had so often been subject in the past. And finally we believed him — but should we not have known better?”
Makavejev obtained other documentary materials and interviews from the Trustee of the Wilhelm Reich Museum, by claiming to be making a documentary for German television. None of it was true, and today we see how much actual lying the film director engaged in to obtain his needed documentary footage and permissions, footage which was factually the only valid part of the entire WRMO film.
Undoing the damage done to Reich and orgonomy from this one film WRMO, will take decades. People who see them are not likely to re-evaluate what they have seen, especially since so many “authorities” appearing in the mainstream media and film industry continually reinforce the falsehoods, about the film’s being “rooted in the principles of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich”.
Viewers of the Makavejev films, and especially those who firstly hear about Wilhelm Reich through those films, should therefore be aware of their deceptive background and content, that the pornographic and sick sexual themes of those films have nothing whatsoever to do with anything advocated or written by Wilhelm Reich, who was as much a critic of indiscriminate “free fucking” and an “anything goes” narcissistic poly-sexuality, as he was of rigid religious antisexual moralism.
One issue which remains unresolved is the motivations of director Makavejev to make the original WRMO film. This was done at a time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Yugoslavia was under tight controls of the Yugoslavian communist state. In his appeals to the American orgonomists, to help make the film, Majavejev told one lie after another about what the film would be like, and about his own interests in Reich. As noted above, he also claimed to be a “Yugoslav democrat” and “not a Communist”. Were those also lies? If so, was there a deliberated conspiracy to do harm to Reich’s research legacy, given Reich’s strong anti-communism? Or is this a another case of some average film-producer or journalist, who says whatever he feels is necessary in order to get people to cooperate with him and “get the information” or the movie shots they need to complete their project, the facts be damned. I considered that Mr. Makavejev was engaged in a “hit job” against Reich, given what we know from various new sources like Jim Martin’s Wilhelm Reich and the Cold War, how Reich was repeatedly attacked by American communists. For example, Makavejev’s film credits include what appear to be several Communist Party documentaries, such as the 1959 work Sto je radnicki savjet? (What Is a Workers’ Council?).
In 1981 when Makavejev lectured after showing the WRMO film in Lawrence, Kansas — I was there and heard him speak — he made condemning statements about the United States, declaring Yugoslavia to be the “freest nation on Earth”. That was quite an “over the top” statement, to say the least. Aside from Yugoslavia being a well-known police-state run by a ruthless Communist Party, WRMO and his other major film, Sweet Movie were banned in Yugoslavia, and he was exiled from re-entering the nation until 1988. That alone might speak favorably on Makavejev’s behalf, but the Yugoslavian Communist Party bosses did not eject Makavejev because he had denigrated Wilhelm Reich. They were upset because their Communism was also ridiculed, and mixed up with pornography. By one account, President Josip Tito walked out of one screening of the film, calling it “perverted”. The film did not even succeed as a sex-political commentary, which might have been useful for Yugoslavia, and even possible had the film stayed true to Reich.
From one film review, “Dusan Makavejev: Heavy Petting” by Michael Atkinson, it also states that the WRMO film “began as a Ford Foundation grant-subsidized documentary on Wilhelm Reich”, which apparently is only half-correct. He received a travel grant from Ford Foundation in 1968, which allowed him to come to the USA and Europe where all kinds of things were filmed, including some of the background interviews used in WRMO.
Today I am inclined to view WRMO merely is an expression of the director having grown up in the harsh and sex-repressive communist Yugoslavia, being swept into the 1960′s rebellions of youth culture and anti-Stalinism. Surely, he must have felt and observed the powerful clash between the rigid communist system and people’s authentic aspirations for freedom and sexual happiness. However, into this rational struggle comes another clash, between the director’s core anti-authoritarian tendencies and creative skills in the use of light and color, with his own sex-frustration and secondary layer attraction to dirty-minded scenes, much as a comedian whose intellectual creativity is diminished by always gravitating towards jokes about farting, or women’s breasts. It is a self-defeating posture one often sees among artists who deliberately waste their talent.
Any minor film talent who can hold a camera straight is able to shock an audience with provocative scenes of nudity mixed with filth, to shove a camera lens into a dinner plate of merde. The mark of genius is when the plot line, with directors, writers and actors working together, touches upon something essential and real, exposing the deeper human emotions which make it important, and tell a story which has timeless roots. Makavejev hasn’t arrived there yet, not by a long shot, and probably never will. He gained his brief notoriety only by inclusion of such towering figures as Wilhelm Reich into the mix. Or in this case, into the mix-master.
this article first published here: http://www.orgonelab.org/makavejev.htm
This chapter from Dr. Sarah Cooper’s monograph Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary (Oxford: Legenda, 2006) has been reproduced with permission from Dr. Cooper, The Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing. For more information and/or to order a copy of Dr. Cooper’s book, please visit the Legenda online catalog here.
Entre l’éthique et l’esthétique, il faut choisir. C’est bien entendu. Mais il est non moins entendu que chaque mot comporte une partie de l’autre. Et qui opte à fond pour l’un trouve nécessairementi l’autre au bout du chemin.
– JEAN-LUC GODARD , ‘L’Afrique vous parle de la fin et des moyens’
With no formal training in film-making, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jean Rouch was to emerge as an unwitting rule-breaker in the film world, and was highly revered in the 1950s and 1960s by the avant-garde directors of the Nouvelle Vague. His ethnographic films of the 1950s helped to pave the way for this reputation, two of the most significant from this period being Les Maîtres fous (1955) and Moi, un noir (1958). These will be the focus of this chapter. Recorded through the camera lens of a western male, Rouch’s ethnography is attentive to the positioning of the subject of vision when filming and, in this, his concerns are central to my study. Les Maîtres fous and Moi, un noir, were made in colonial West Africa just prior to the independence of Ghana (the Gold Coast until 1957) and the Ivory Coast (1960) respectively. The stakes of Rouch’s ethnographic gaze are thus high, since he is contributing to the manifold ways in which the west sought to know, to represent and to continue to dominate politically by means of representation. However, while Rouch’s work chimes to an extent with Jay Ruby’s claim that the primary goal of ethnographic film ‘has to be communicating ethnographic knowledge’,  it also creates a space for acknowledging what cannot be known. Indeed, Rouch challenges any possibility of knowing others fully by means of the filmic image: on this basis, his ethnographic ethics is Levinasian in its failure to possess those he films in visual and epistemological terms. Here, the Levinasian underpinnings of my study come into contact with the cultural and historical specificity of colonial Africa, as the ethical space created by Rouch’s approach takes his films beyond imitation of the colonial framework that otherwise contains them.
Rouch was born on 31 May 1917 in Paris and died in a road accident in Africa in February 2004. He trained first as an engineer, working in Niger and Senegal between 1941 and 1944. He was to carry out ethnographic enquiries in Africa before following a formal course in the discipline from 1945 to 1946. Marcel Griaule supervised Rouch’s doctoral thesis, and Rouch was inevitably to be influenced by Griaule’s style of ethnography. In particular, he learned from his mentor the importance of spending a painstaking amount of time in the field, and of familiarizing himself as fully as possible with people in their context. He made over one hundred short and feature-length films, turning his camera as readily on France as he did towards Africa. On a practical level, Rouch’s own ethical concerns are bound up with notions of respect for the veracity of the image in relation to the reality filmed; he is attentive to the dual importance of neither making things up nor stealing images. He is also concerned with the fair treatment of those he films. There are plenty of instances in which he relies upon their views as a kind of final verdict, either including their observations in the film, or modifying his work as a result of what is said. For example, Chronique d’un été (1960) and La Pyramide humaine (1961) are show to those who took part, their comments featuring in the final versions of each film. Furthermore, after listening to responses to La Chasse à l’hippopotame (1950), he uses the feed back to change the final product in line with criticisms – his first spectators, the hunters, said that the hunt has to take place in silence, a comment that caused him to remove the original music soundtrack. He has also helped numerous people who feature in his films, suggesting an on-going relationship with them. Some of his protagonists are invited to feature in successive films; he helped others to launch careers in the industry. Marceline Loridan of Chronique, who married Joris Ivens, co-produced countless documentaries and now makes her own films, and Oumarou Ganda of Moi, un noir are just two examples of ‘actors’ who eventually became film-makers in their own right. With reference to the two films under consideration here, it is the way in which relations between Africa and the west emerge that interests me with regard to ethical considerations and questions of representation.
The participants in Les Maîtres fous and Moi, un noir, although coming from different African countries, share a heritage that divides them between African traditions and colonialism, and reveal a split in identity that surfaces throughout the many and varied performances of each film. Rouch’s responsibility to his subjects is evident, irrespective of their racial or geo-political location; but this is not to suggest that it is the same in each case, since the historical specificity of the suffering or the problems of each culture is registered unequivocally. Sketching relations between a more recent and a more distant past, each film reflects on these people who are born of clashing encounters. Possession rituals played a crucial role in Rouch’s ethnography and film-making in the 1950s and 1960s, and Les Maîtres fous was one of his key films in this respect. Although Moi, un noir differs from this earlier documentary, both formally and thematically, in the absence of focus on possession, the two are connected through their staging of mimetic relations between Africa and the west, relations that take on contradictory guises in the colonial setting. Rouch’s representation of the reality of African life under colonialist rule shows how both critical and uncritical mimesis are entrenched in these cultures, and brings out the place of western culture within the African settings, while simultaneously challenging it. Rouch’s own position is similarly complex, as he carries with him his own western geo-political history, even as this is submitted to critical revision through the filming process. Initially, however, Africa appears to be utterly recuperated by the western film-maker in more ways the one, in the films as in critical discourse surrounding them. It will be necessary first to explore how this occurs, since it seems to place his work in conflicting relation to the overall ethical thrust of this study.
Of Mimesis and Mirrors
On its first screening in 1954 at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, Rouch’s Les Maîtres fous met with an outraged response from its select audience.  Striking images of black men foaming at the mouth, engaging in acts of ritual sacrifice and licking up the fresh blood of a slaughtered dog led the African spectators to feel that they were being presented with a racist view of blacks as crazed savages. The European viewers found the film insulting for different reasons, since the participants act out their ceremony in the guise of figures belonging to the then British colonial administration of the Gold Coast. Fittingly, perhaps, for a documentary that went on to win the Prix de Venise, and has since become a controversial classic within the realm of ethnography and beyond, these fiery reactions from its first respondents have continued to fuel polemical debate among subsequent commentators.  The relationships established within the ceremony between colonizer and colonized have led critics, following Rouch’s commentary, to focus on the imitative, reflective aspects of the performance. In the written introduction to the film that scrolls up on the screen before the visual images commence, the ritual we are about to witness is described as a game that plays itself out as ‘le reflet de notre civilisation’. With this in mind, we need to ask what is at stake in designating the serious play of Les Maîtres fous the ‘reflection’ of ‘our’ civilization. While the metaphor of reflection suggests parity between the poles of this relationship, it also implies an elision of difference in which self and other come together in a mirror image. If the relationship between self and other is solely reflective within this film, the link to my overriding Levinasian frame of reference disappears, since the other is thus readily absorbed into the sphere of the self-same.
Les Maîtres fous was made at the request of those who appeared in it. They formed part of the audience when Rouch screened La Chasse à l’hippopotame in 1950, and they asked whether he would film one of the major Hauka ceremonies that took place annually on the Gold Coast. Rouch’s documentary, shot in colour in 16mm on a handheld Bell & Howell camera, shows the rituals in which the Hauka spirits take possession of their human mediums. Rouch presents their ceremony as harmless but curative for those involved, while recognizing its explosive potential. The Hauka spirits possess their mediums, causing them to act out a ceremony that still bears a direct relation to their everyday lives as colonial subjects. The documentary is framed with scenes of the Hauka at work in their daily lives in Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast, and the closing scenes of the film establish links between the ritual and their day-to-day existence by featuring flashbacks to the performance of the day before. These otherwise ordinary people have, in Rouch’s view, found a way of dealing wit the psychoses that accompany the colonial situation: a way that westerners, according to Rouch, are far from able to understand. At the end of the film he asserts: ‘On ne peut s’empêcher de se demander si ces hommes d’Afrique ne connaissent pas certains remèdes qui leur permettent de ne pas être des anormaux, mais d’être parfaitement intégrés à leur milieu: des remèdes que nous ne connaissons pas encore’. Rouch has subsequently criticized this ending, which figures the ceremony as a form of normative therapy;  however, this focus on what cannot be known is important to the overall ethics of this film in ways that we will return to later. For the time being, suffice it to recognize that the concluding lines of Rouch’s commentary assimilate the performance of the Hauka to their colonial environment, in his claim that it helps their human mediums to deal with the realities of colonization. Furthermore, his commentary raises the question of who precisely ‘nous’/'we’ are in the preceding quotation and beyond, adding to the sense of fusion, and indeed confusion, between ‘us’ and ‘them’ suggested through the description of the spectacle in terms of reflection at the outset of the film.
The ceremony of Les Maîtres fous is, as the film commentary asserts, open to all those who wish to watch; Rouch’s camera performs the task of widening the circle of spectators, but this circle cannot be broadened without raising the question of positioning in spectatorship. There is an opposition within the film – set up to be broken down – between the performers and the ‘nous’ designated in the commentary. The countries more directly implicated in the dominant position of the colonizer are Britain and France. From the seventeenth century onwards, Accra witnessed several conflicts between rival colonial powers until the British influence became the stronger. The Gold Coast was primarily a British colonial administrative area, a fact that is emphasized in Les Maîtres fous as the film cuts between the Hauka ritual and the Trooping of the Colour in Accra, performed by a British force before their Governor. But, as the history of the Hauka and the special language used at their ceremony suggests, France is as deeply implicated in the questioning of colonialism in this film as is Britain. The birthplace of the Hauka spirit possession was the Republic of Niger in the 1920s. The Hauka appropriated Europeanized behavior in order to challenge the colonial order, but, given the steep penalties for defying the French, thousands of young men migrated to the Gold Coast, continuing a migratory trend that had begun in the nineteenth century. The Hauka arrived in a British administrative area, bringing with them the vestiges of their French colonial past; hence the pidgin language that mixes French and English in their ceremony, which is more directly critical of the British in Accra.  Thus, with this complex history in mind (most of which is omitted from the film itself), even when it is understood as the most specific of colonial groupings, ‘nous’ is difficult to position categorically. The ‘nous’ of the written introduction to the film and of Rouch’s commentary presumably refers to a European audience, if not a western audience more generally. Some positions are, however, always going to be more implicated in what is shown than others, and some viewing positions carry a greater weight of responsibility than others do, especially when the content of the film is so inflammatory. It soon becomes clear that the reflective metaphor Rouch uses to interrogate the relation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ does not allow for such difference between viewing positions on the basis of the positioning explored in the film. Therefore, the film commentary invites an initial reading in which Africa mirrors the west through distorted images that reiterate colonial hierarchies. Before we explore how the images of the film might be understood to exceed this framework, we need first to turn to Moi, un noir. For, this film offers a different closure of the gap between Africa and the west that is nonetheless related to what we have just explored in Les Maîtres fous.
Moi, un noir won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 1958 (against Chris Marker’s Lettre de Sibérie and Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge, among others), and drew high praise from Jean-Luc Godard in particular. Classified by the anthropologist and critic Paul Stoller as an ethnographic film and by the writer Gilles Marsolais as a psychological documentary, Rouch’s preferred term is ‘ethno-fiction’. This is the name he gives those of his films that fictionalize on the basis of fact, crossing the boundaries of ethnographic documentary into the fictional realm, but never moving away entirely from the real. Rouch explains:
La fiction est le seul moyen de pénétrer une realité (…) Dans Moi, un noir, je voulais montrer une ville africaine, Abidjan. J’aurais pu faire un documentaire nourri de chiffres et d’observations objectives. Cela aurait été mortellement ennuyeux. Eh bien! j’ai raconté une histoire avec des personages, leurs aventures, leurs rêves. Et je n’ai pas hésité à introduire la dimension de l’imaginaire, de l’irréel. 
The film focuses on a group of migrant workers who have left behind their lives in Niamey, Niger, to find work in Treichville, a suburb of Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. At the time of filming, the Ivory Coast was still a French colony. The goal of French colonization was to stimulate production of exports: the official image was of French West Africa’s most prosperous country, which contributed over forty percent of the region’s exports. Rouch’s film provides a different view, one that focuses on the financial impoverishment of the migrant workers who see nothing of the wealth generated through the exports they help to dispatch. Rouch shows us the poor standard of living of these uprooted country dwellers now that they have come to the city to obtain temporary work as dockers and taxi drivers (to name but two of the jobs on offer to the men). Women seemingly fare even less well, since only prostitution is cited in the film as a way for them to earn money. 
Rouch still provides a commentary in voice-over form in Moi, un noir but it is far more intermittent than that of Les Maîtres fous, giving way to the voice-over of the main protagonist, Oumarou Ganda, who goes by the nickname of Edward G. Robinson. It allows an ethnographic gaze to cohabit with a view of the life of migrant workers from within. The voice-over suggests familiarity but distance, while the camera is at one with those filmed, not calling attention to its presence other than in the scenes where people look and smile into it directly. Documentary images of Treichville and its inhabitants feature alongside more visibly staged scenes between Robinson and his friends. Rouch introduces the film saying that young people, like the ones we are about to see, arrive regularly in Abidjan looking for work. His interjections serve to introduce the days of the week and provide an overview of each segment. This then opens to the protagonists whose actions are glossed by the narrative, which Ganda and his friends provide on the soundtrack.
It was Ganda who challenged Rouch to make a film that used real migrant workers like himself, having watched a screening of Rouch’s Jaguar (1967) in which migrant workers are played by friends of Rouch who act out their roles, rather than live them on a daily basis. At the opening Rouch describes the film as ‘le miroir où il [Edward G. Robinson] se decouvrait lui-même’, and the film follows Robinson’s daily existence, as it does that of his friend ‘Eddie Constantine – Lemmy Caution’. In the post-synchronized commentary Robinson, interspersed with comments from Eddie Constantine, lays bare his hopes, dreams and disappointments, revealing how the discourse of colonialism has affected people like him. The protagonists improvise throughout, and the commentary is also of their own making, with Rouch largely at their service, following them with his camera, depending on what they decide to do. They are portrayed as lacking in economic terms that affect their happiness, but this is largely on the basis of a western model already well established in their urban environment. Both Robinson and Rouch, in his occasional interventions, stress the harsh reality of life in Abidjan, money being the main concern for someone who confesses to wanting a wife, a house and a car (Robinson reiterates the fact that he is broke numerous times in the commentary). It is American culture that furnishes their model; we are told that we are in ‘Le Chicago de l’Afrique Noire’, the bars and restaurants bearing out this relation through some of their names, while French names serve as a more immediate reminder of the actual colonial presence. Torn, as Rouch says, between Islam and alcohol, the unemployed migrant youth turns to the new idols of boxing and cinema. The film highlights the difficulty of confronting western industrial culture for people like Robinson, Constantine and their friends, among whom feature the likes of ‘Tarzan’ and ‘Dorothy Lamour’, nicknames assumed from American culture, notably film. While giving them idols that enable them to dream of a life beyond their current situations, film is a facet of the broader western colonialism responsible for the situation they are in. The fact that these idols are also white reinforces their divided identity that seeks nonetheless to mirror the Americans.
In filming Robinson and his friends acting as Americans, Rouch is using a medium that has been an integral part of the colonization process to allow them to act out their fantasies of being rich and having what they want on the basis of a western model. The participants of the film are willfully complicit in assuming the names and roles of their idols, identifying with them without undercutting the authority of colonial and racist structures that maintain them at a very real distance from what they claim to desire. An interior colony is established psychically by means of this form of identification which Frantz Fanon speaks of in an Antillean context that is nevertheless relevant here. Fanon explains how colonization functions internally via the seemingly innocuous routes of the motion picture: ‘le jeune Noire s’identifie de facto à Tarzan contre les nègres’.  If Moi, un noir is the mirror in which Robinson discovers himself, cinema itself becomes a mirror that permits identification with an image that alienates the African subjects from themselves. Through their uncritical identifications Robinson and his friends bring out a connection to American culture that is admittedly different from a direct relation to the French colonial presence: this contrasts with the relationship set up between the British administrators and the participants on which Les Maîtres fous depends. Yet the participants of each film, as we have seen, stage relations to the west that are imitative of the latter, thereby confirming the power of those whose positions they approximate. If this were the only tale that both films told, Rouch’s work would stand as a rather uncritical illustration of how colonization is lived. However, each film gives rise to a more critical discourse that has its roots in, but is not limited to, the imitations and identifications that have been the subject of this discussion so far. The move beyond imitating, or identifying with, the image of the other is fundamental to a Levinasian ethics. In this context, such an ethics allows us to emphasize instead that the other’s image is irreducible to the filming or viewing self. In both films, this irreducible aspect is made apparent through ritual celebrations and performances, that of Les Maîtres fous occupying the entire length of the film.
Between Mimesis and Mockery
The Hauka ritual of Les Maîtres fous lasts an entire day, which Rouch’s film condenses into twenty-four minutes. The participants leave Accra itself in order to perform the ceremony far away form the government center. One by one, the spirits possesses the men (along with one woman), who become figures of the colonial hierarchy as well as of its cultural artifacts; the spirits, for the most part, take the form of members of the British administration. Suspended over the sacrificial altar, which is used to kill a ram, a chicken and a dog during the proceedings, is some coloured chiffon material that they call the Union Jack. They also erect a stature of the Governor (who stands in front of a shelter that represents his palace) over whom they crack an egg at one point in the ritual. The sacrifices take place on the stone altar in front of the Governor’s effigy. The killing of the dog is particularly significant, since their religion forbids them to kill and eat dogs. This sacrifice is deemed to prove that the Hauka have acquired power by transgressing mere human taboos, since they no longer conform to the behaviour required of them in society. The Hauka ceremony attempts to move beyond the binary structure of colonialism and racial distinction altogether. Their superhuman status is exemplified further when they touch naked flames and plunge their hands into boiling vats of water without harming themselves. Through these performances, the Hauka enact a move beyond the human frame. However, in spite of their debt to mimesis, their performances are also critical of this very process. To view Les Maîtres fous on the basis of its reflective mechanisms, authorized as we have seen by Rouch’s commentary, is to ignore the interaction of different processes that distort rather than support such relations between Africa and the west. As the dual reading of the film’s title suggests, Les Maîtres fous is a double-edged portrayal of master madmen and mad masters in which neither blacks nor whites occupy a comfortable position of mastery, least of all over one another.
A focus on mimicry has generated some of the most cogent responses to this film. Critics such as Paul Stoller and Michael T. Taussig have explored in sophisticated terms the ways in which mimesis operates here in relation to the colonial situation. Taussig concentrates on the position of the spectator who views this film from an ostensibly dominant viewing position (in particular, that of the white western male), and focuses on the guilt that this film could inspire in such a viewer.  Stoller, on the other hand, considers the mimicry quite apart from its relation to western guilt, and views it as a means of mastering whiteness, which critically subverts the system through its connection to a broader history of performances of Hauka bodily system through its connection to a broader history of performances of Hauka bodily possession.  In both readings, the relation between colonizer and colonized within the film is viewed as parodic; but as we know from the fundamental place that studies of mimicry occupy in postcolonial theory, this parody is as likely to confirm hierarchies as it is to subvert them. Homi K. Bhabha has written on the ambivalence of such a mimetic relationship, undermining the possibility that it is more likely to inculcate norms of behaviour rather than throw them into question.  Similarly, Fanon’s work on identification underscores the colonial history of this process, suggesting that the aspects of mimesis within identification are responsible from an early age for the formation of a colonized psyche, with all its attendant psychological disturbances.  The parody at work in Les Maîtres fous is of a slightly different order, since it is carried out in a space beyond that of their everyday working lives and it is not solely a matter of exploring and showing how they themselves have been formed. Rather, having already been possessed by the Hauka, it involves adopting the persona of the colonial other: given the unflattering portrayal of the people they mime, there can be no doubt that this mimesis is critical. Yet mimesis and mockery cohabit to create a space for something that bears only a tangential relation to these processes. In Bhabha’s words: ‘[w]hat emerges between mimesis and mimicry is a writing, a mode of representation, that marginalizes the monumentality of history, quite simply mocks its power to be a model, that power which supposedly makes it imitable’.  What Bhabha labels ‘writing’ takes on an explicitly visual form in Rouch’s aesthetic, but one that does not rely on resemblance.
When the Hauka act out their roles, Africa and the west do indeed come together, but the result of this encounter is not one in which positions merge or supplant one another. For example, the stature of the Governor which has an egg broken over it at one stage of the proceedings, relates directly to the head attire worn by the Governor at the Trooping of the Colour: a helmet with a white feather on it. We are shown the statue of the Governor before the film cuts to the Trooping of the Colour at Accra. By association, the feather and the egg link the two Governors together, but this is through an associative relationship rather than a mirror image or its distortion. The Union Jack flag too has no direct visual correlation to the actual British flag; it is the name only that confers its status. Visual mimesis in the form of a mirror image is absent, and this is crucial to the challenge to colonialism that this film enacts. But we need to pause momentarily before exploring this further, since there is a way in which this can still be recuperated by and reduced to a western model on the basis of an aesthetic parallel that is visible in Moi, un noir, too.
The protagonists of Moi, un noir act out their western identification sometimes too well: ‘Eddie Constantine’ was jailed for three months during filming as a result of his playing Federal Agent Lemmy Caution in his everyday life – a performance that apparently did not impress the local police. The identifications are acted out in a more contained space, however, at a meeting of a youth society, ‘La Goumbé’. Rouch introduces this celebration that takes place on a Sunday, saying that those he has been filming go there to be ‘soi-même parmi les siens’ in a space in which dreams of the Far West meet African traditions. At the outset this ‘soi-même’ is Americanized through dress and performance. Young dancers dress as cowboys and perform to a surrounding crowd. This is followed by a rodeo in which the participants, still dressed as cowboys, ride bikes. In the dance of the bikes, these machines replace horses, and if we read this in terms of imitation, it is surreal. The French poet Guillaume Apolliniare’s definition of Surrealism when he described man’s desire to imitate walking was based on the wheel: ‘[q]uand l’homme à voulu imiter la marche, il a créé la roue qui ne ressemble pas à une jambe. Il a fait ainsi du surréalisme sans le savoir.’  Here the four legs of the horses, as opposed to the two legs of man, are represented by two wheels to form a surreal image in motion, based on imitation but eschewing literal visual resemblance, as do the aspects of imitation singled out above in Les Maîtres fous. Catherine Russell speaks of the jarring relation between egg and plume in the earlier film with reference to Surrealism on the basis of a debasement of authority. She understands Rouch to offer the surreal as a parallel politics to the Hauka ritual.  And my own association here brings this out in a different sense: it leads me to ask whether perhaps what draws Rouch to these cultural performances is an unconscious resemblance to a western aesthetic after all, and whether the western critic, myself included, always explains what s/he sees in terms of structures with which s/he is most familiar. Yet the performances, in their figuring and possession of the west, gesture beyond even this form of recuperation by a western aesthetic. However much of his style exudes narrative authority, Rouch and his vision are not entirely in possession of his films. Between subject positions within the film and between film, film-maker and viewer, all are engaged in a transformative process that questions hierarchies.
These ethnographic films do not widen the divide between Africa and the west, since each is interwoven with the other in such a way as to block the gaze of the colonizer, encouraging it too to become other than itself. While we have seen this on the level of the participants, this challenge to dichotomous thinking is only possible because the film-maker himself is not engaged in reiterating hierarchies. Although Rouch has been criticized for the different way in which he films French and African subjects,  one aspect of the filming of the latter in the two films under consideration, is their decentering of the position of Rouch the ethnographer. The west is a dominant force in both of the films but is something that, importantly, is also open to destabilization. This leads one commentator to observe parallels between what Rouch achieves (in Moi, un noir in particular) and what Michel Leiris and Claude Levi-Strauss do in the written realm:
Ainsi l’ethnologue est-il devenu peu à peu conscient de ceci: qu’il ne peut pas ne pas se mettre en question dans celui qu’il observe. Moi, un noir constitute un moment de cette prise de conscience, comme le sont, sur d’autres plans L’Afrique fantôme de Michel Leiris et Tristes tropiques de Claude Lévy-Strauss [sic]. 
In Les Maîtres fous Rouch locates himself in geo-political and historical terms, while simultaneously questioning this position tacitly through the film itself. The voice-over, which Rouch claims was improvised, is assertive and unfaltering, corresponding to the kind of voice-of-god narrative that is associated with traditional expository documentary. Paying attention to this alone, along with Suzanne Baron’s smooth editing, leaves us with a rather conventional sense of documentary form; it is sensational because of the ceremony it films, rather than because of the manner in which it does so. But there is an intriguing difference between the shooting of the Hauka ceremony in which Rouch and his camera are among the participants and the aerial shots of the Trooping of the Colour at Accra in which the camera has a bird’s eye view of the scene. In the latter case, the camera is never placed on a level with the participants of this ceremony, from which the Hauka were said to have gained the inspiration for their ritual. Although still an outsider to the Hauka ceremony he is filming, his camera position places him far closer to them and the protocol of their ritual than it does to the pomp and circumstance of the British administrative parade. This suggests an implicit challenge to the geo-political alignment of the voice-over, along with its authority.
In Moi, un noir the voice-over, as we have already suggested, is initially more complex in its interweaving of the post-synchronized words of Ganda and the other actors with Rouch’s unmistakable expository style. The narrative point of view from which the explanation of the film emerges is thus split from the outset, and is to be divided still further through Ganda’s role as Robinson. The images follow a similar change in visual point of view when it comes to moving between filming the African friends and a rare cut to the American culture they mime. Ganda dresses up as Sugar Ray Robinson a third of the way through the film and fights a bout in a boxing ring with an opponent. We then see the kind of match that has been taken as the model for this. Moving between a mixture of aerial shots and close-ups, the difference between the two matches is, however, ambiguous. Rouch’s camera alignment is utterly in keeping with the adulatory relation to American culture evident throughout the Africans’ acting in Moi, un noir. Although differing from Les Maîtres fous in its creation of a less critical relationship to the culture mimed, Rouch is still closer to his African subjects than to his initial geo-political positioning as a result. In this way, visually enacted, Rouch and the protagonists of both films exceed their assigned symbolic positions to become other than themselves. Such a combination of ‘becoming’ and ‘othering’ constitutes, in Peter Ian Crawford’s view, the crux of the anthropological process. Crawford understands the first part of this process – the ethnographic fieldwork – to be a matter of the anthropologist’s ‘becoming’ the other by distancing him/herself from his/her own culture, while the second part – the final anthropological product – involves distancing him/herself from the culture under study.  A focus on how the film-maker and his protagonists change through the film-making process also characterizes Deleuze’s reading of Rouch’s cinema,  but the term takes on a quite different sense from Crawford’s use of it. In Deleuze’s philosophy, ‘becoming’ has a particular meaning that reinforces the reading of Rouch’s films that I am seeking to make here, which takes us beyond the mechanisms of imitation and identification in a manner that appears initially, at least, to be compatible with our Levinasian perspective.
In Deleuze’s work, ‘becoming’/'devenir’ is an abstract process that relates to the effects of an encounter between two entities, a wasp and an orchid being two among many things that he uses to illustrate this. They come together momentarily and unavoidably, their encounter creating something new for each of them but allowing them to continue in directions common to neither. Each is changed through its relation to the other but neither becomes the other or a mirror image of that other as a result of their coming together. ‘Becoming’ is non-imitative in this sense: thereby, it bears an interrogative relationship to the original-copy logic of mimesis, which, as I have already argued, Rouch’s films engage with, in order then to throw it into question. Deleuze is also interested in how Rouch’s films allow film-maker and filmed subjects to ‘become’ other than themselves. Observing how Rouch’s position is one that the film-maker himself seeks to decolonize through the film-making process, by making himself increasingly less dominant in relation to his filmed subjects, Deleuze concentrates on this process of transformation. He ties this in with a transformation in documentary itself and then speaks explicitly about Moi, un noir:
La formule célèbre: ‘ce qui est commode avec le documentaire, ce’st qu’on sait qui on est et qui on filme’, cesse d’être valable. La forme d’identité Moi=Moi (ou sa forme dégénérée, eux=eux) cesse de valoir pour les personages et pour le cinéaste, dans le réel aussi bien que dans la fiction. Ce qui se laisse deviner plutot, à des degrées profonds, c’est le ‘Je est un autre’ de Rimbaud. Godard le disait à propos de Rouch: non seulement pour les personages eux-mêmes, mais pour le cinéaste qui ‘blanc tout comme Rimbaud, déclare lui aussi que Je est un autre’, c’est-à-dire moi un Noir. 
With recourse to Arthur Rimbaud’s poetic dictum, Deleuze notes a slippage of the positions ‘Moi’ and ‘eux’ in Rouch’s cinema. Deleuze sees ‘becoming’ at work in Rouch’s films, and in other documentaries of the same era, precisely where they explore the intertwining of fact and fiction. Deleuze explores the ‘becoming other’ of the real in the documentary mode, and he describes this process as non-imitative. He thereby offers a useful way out of a potentially interminable debate that binds the film we have been discussing to mimesis and to the dual subversion and reiteration of the hierarchies of the colonial status quo. However, in spite of the usefulness of Deleuze’s reading, his notion of ‘becoming’ raises questions that he does not answer: this is because it depends on an overlap between the positions of observer and observed, without accounting for the all-important distance that Rouch’s work also introduces through this encounter. It is Levinas, rather than Deleuze, who enables us to register this difference. Mimesis, like its antithesis, ‘becoming’, thrives on proximity, moving us away from the mirror image; but it does not remove the risk of appropriation and recuperation of images of Africa within a western aesthetic, or of documentary by fiction. And this takes us back to the heart of the ethical dilemma which runs throughout my study. By giving Ganda and his friends the opportunity to make cinema work for them, Rouch can be taken as the other self to whom the title ‘Moi, un noir’ refers, as Godard’s comments indicate. Yet such reference is only possible if we reduce Moi, un noir to its fiction aspect, since it is legitimately in this realm that a film-maker can make such a claim without being thought to invade the positions of his subjects. If the film-maker is identified with/as his subjects, we lose sight of the ways in which he is not they. This film’s resistance to such a loss of distance between the two lies in its documentary element that is, of course, all the more resonant in Les Maîtres fous. A documentary ethics of separation is apparent here that does not reinforce a problematic ethnographic distance between Rouch and his subjects, or drive a wedge between documentary and fiction, but nor does it erase the differences between them. His filming is concerned with the creating of shifting distances between colonizer and colonized, observer and observed. This works in line with a Levinasian sense of non-identification with an image of others, and the preservation of difference between self and other, but it also refuses to fix such an ethics in static terms.
Rouch’s reference in Les Maîtres fous to what westerners do not yet know and, thus also, cannot yet see, is instructive, for it implies that the film responds to colonial oppression in ways that exceed the representation of that response. It offers a move beyond the visible within this filmic space in which the documentary image furnishes ethnographic knowledge that is always incomplete. Rouch thus becomes an important forerunner to the epistemological shift that Bill Nichols has posited more recently in documentary making: incompleteness and uncertainty have become the order of the day, and the possibility of knowing anything or anyone completely is thrown into question.  My study locates this documentary questioning of epistemological mastery and its accompanying challenge to mastery through vision in the broader ethical context of Levina’s work. We have noted the way Rouch’s camera positioning marks his alignments which question the stability of the all-seeing eye of commentary, thereby disputing the perceiving subject’s mastery of its field. Rouch does not employ other formal film techniques to question an ability to see what he sees. But if we consider the ritual he is filming, we have a visual challenge to mimesis instigated by the Hauka that cannot fail to challenge Rouch’s capacity to contain their performance in his filmic images: this is because their possession lies beyond representation. The divided colonial subject whose image and subjectivity are already at odds with one another, as Fanon and Bhabha make clear, has, in this context, entered a realm in which this is dramatized, criticized and exceeded. Colonization via the conscious and the unconscious is no longer appropriable and an uncolonized subjectivity performs a different relation to the real for the length of the ceremony. The only access viewers have to this is in the form of images of the body and audible sounds that require translation, both of which divide us from the subjectivity of those filmed but in such a way as to suggest that there is more to this than meets the filming eye/I. This is not a denial of African subjectivity, but a record of the fact that documentary cannot access this through the images and sounds it records. Rouch’s reference to the unknowable thus becomes a function of the film’s exceeding his attempts to possess its subject matter. Neither Rouch, nor by implication the ‘nous’ he includes with him, can step into the body or mind of his African subjects to know what they know, see what they see, or feel what they feel. Russell argues that ‘the African unconscious remains unknown and invisible’;  however, unlike her, I do not read Rouch’s filming as part of a general utopian drive in the filming of possession rituals ‘to penetrate the mind of the Other’  and therefore falling short of its aims. Rather, the western film-maker is acknowledging his position outside the events he films from a position of utter proximity. But his transformation through filming still registers his difference and distance from those he films: it records the fact that this is as close as he can get to knowing the consciousness – and the unconscious – of these African performers on film.
Moi, un noir’s attempt to go beyond what is knowable through the ethnographic documentary image passes, as Rouch suggests, into the fictional realm. It gets closer to the subjectivity of those who participate, but allows them simultaneously to move further away by taking on assumed identities that bind each actor to western culture, especially cinema. Therefore, cinema gives way to cinema here, as Rouch records the place of American film idols in the acting of his subjects. As we have observed, Rouch manifests his alignment with his African subjects through the positioning of his camera, and thus questions his own locus. But he still marks out his distance from them, and allows us to see how Moi, un noir is both his film and also says more about the protagonists than himself. Ultimately, this film is no more effective in penetrating reality of what is filmed than is Les Maîtres fous, since ‘reality’ has cinema at its origin in the form of the protagonists’ desires. Offering us images and commentary on a culture from the position of an accepted ethnographer and the culture itself, it melds the two into one film without collapsing them into one undifferentiated position.
Les Maîtres fous and Moi, un noir thus perform a different relation between Africa and the west from that indicated in the many readings which focus principally on the blurring of boundaries between the two through the varied performances of the films’ protagonists. Having argued that there is more to Rouch’s work than the mimesis and mockery of colonial relations through which both films become mirrors (both in Rouch’s description of the ceremony in the earlier film, and in his description of Robinson’s self-discovery in the second), one final point still remains to be addressed. As I have already stressed, my challenge to seeing images of resemblance within Rouch’s cinema is aimed at bringing out the differences that the mimetic reading occludes without then setting up such differences as intractable. The problems of this become more apparent if we return briefly to Fanon’s work. When Fanon reworks the Lacanian mirror stage in order to introduce the particularity of black subjectivity, he writes that ‘pour le Blanc, Autrui est percu sur le plan de l’image corporelle, absolument comme le non-moi, c’est-à-dire le non-identifiable, le non-assimilable.’  Racial difference is thus instituted hierarchically, and the recognition of what cannot be fully identified, assimilated or known takes on wholly negative connotations. It is not in this sense that Rouch’s films constitute his subjects as unknowable in their specificity, since they break down such hierarchical subordination. And it is important to stress in conclusion that Rouch’s ethnography sets up anti-specular relations in which the excess of the image that prevents reduction of the African subjects to the western self is not the product of the racial denigration of the black. Hence the value of introducing theoretical writings such as Fanon’s to the Levinasian foundations of this study in order better to emphasize the specificity of those who are filmed. From within the very process of challenging racial and colonial hierarchy there emerges a recognition of difference which is not complicit with its incommensurable racist counterpart. In this, it is possible to equate Rouch’s practice with what Sara Ahmed terms the ‘ethnography of failure,’  whereby the ethnographer learns to know what s/he fails to know of those s/he studies. In the visual sphere, this incapacity fully to know the culture studied pivots on a gap between seeing and knowing that enables the ethnographic subject to escape possession by filmic means. While never seeking to stage or acknowledge any such inability to know his subjects, Rouch’s film reveal this subtly and implicitly, even unconsciously. This allows us then to glimpse the ways in which his subjects remain necessarily beyond himself and a western aesthetic, in spite of the proximity to these western elements that his filming (and his filmed subjects) rely upon. This represents a positive form of resistance to appropriation, and furnishes visual knowledge beyond the looking-glass that does not dominate what is seen and shown, or construct its subjects as unknowable per se. Engendering an ethics that relies on distance within proximity, the Rouchian aesthetic allows us finally to sense the paradox of the Levinasian face, as image and commentary combine to point up the limits of knowledge and vision. Herein lays the success of his filmic ethnography of failure.
 Jay Ruby, Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 38
 The ensuring discussion of Les Maîtres fous is based on a modified rendering of ideas first published in article form. See Sarah Cooper, ‘Otherwise than becoming: Jean Rouch and the ethics of Les Maîtres fous’, French Studies, LVI/4 (2002), 483-94.
 For a brief but useful discussion of the controversy surrounding Les Maîtres fous, see ‘La Polémique autour des ‘Maîtres Fous”, in Jean Rouch ou le ciné-plaisir, special edition of CinémAction (1996), ed. By Réné Prédal, 80-88. The film is also reputed to have had a far wider influence beyond the ethnographic sphere, Jean Genet’s theatrical aesthetic in Les Nègres being one of the most famous examples of this wider reception.
 Catherine Russell comments on Rouch’s rejection of the ending, saying that, in spite of its problematic status, it reflects the relation between psychoanalysis and ethnography in the representation of possession in the mid-twentieth century. Russell comments also on the film’s relation to twentieth-century Surrealist politics: see Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: the Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), especially pp. 221-29. For a useful volume of essays on the relationship between Surrealism and ethnography, which pays specific attention to ethnographic film generally and Rouch’s work in particular, see L’Autre et le sacré: surréalisme, cinéma, ethnologie, ed. by C.W. Thompson (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995).
 For a hugely informative and more detailed discussion of this historical background, see Paul Stoller, Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power, and the Hauka in West Africa (New York: Routledge, 1995).
 Quoted in Gilles Marsolais, Jean Rouch (Quebec: Cinématheque Québécoise, janvier 1973).
 On the subject of Rouch’s treatment of sexual difference, Catherine Russell provides a sensitive critical reading (of Les Maîtres fous) that touches on the problems of terming his work sexist. See Experimental Ethnography, pp. 225-28. For Rouch’s convincing defense of his focus on men rather than women in his ethnographic work, see Jean Rouch with Dan Georgakas, Udayan Gupta, and Judy Janda, ‘The politics of visual anthropology’, in Ciné-Ethnography, ed. By Steven Feld (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 217.
 Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Seuile, 1952), p. 124, footnote.
 See Michael T. Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993).
 See Stoller, Embodying Colonial Memories.
 See Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Of Mimicry and man: the ambivalence of colonial discourse’, in The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 85-92.
 See Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs.
 Bhabha, ‘Of mimcry and man’, p. 88
 Guillaume Apollinaire, Les Mamelles de Tirésias (Paris: Editions du Bélier, 1946), p. 10.
 Russell, Experimental Ethnography, p. 225.
 Feld, Ciné-Ethnography, pp. 214-15
 Micel Delahaye, ‘La Règle du Rouch’, Cahiers du Cinéma, 120 (juin 1961), 1-11 (p. 4).
 See Peter Ian Crawford, ‘Film as discourse: the invention of anthropological realities’, in Film as Ethnography, ed. By Peter Ian Crawford and David Turton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 66-82.
 See Deleuze, ‘Les Puissances du faux’, in L’image-temps, pp. 165-202, and esp. pp. 192-202.
 Ibid, p. 199.
 See Nichols, Blurred Boundaries, p. 1.
 Russell, Experimental Ethnography, p. 229
 Ibid, p. 228.
 Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, p. 131
 Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 72.
© Modern Humanities Research Association
This chapter was taken from Sarah Cooper’s book Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary (Oxford: Legenda, 2006). Find out more at the Legenda online catalog here.
Dr. Sara Cooper teaches at King’s College in London. Her principal research interests are in film theory and continental philosophy; ethics and film, especially documentary; and modern critical theory, especially feminist theory, queer theory, and psychoanalysis. She has written books on queer theory and French documentary, and is working currently on three projects: a monograph on the films of Chris Marker for Manchester University Press; an edited volume of essays on the work of Emmanuel Levinas and cinema; and a monograph on the figure of the father in contemporary world cinema and theory.
this essay first published on the web here: http://www.maitres-fous.net/Cooper.html
Jean Rouch: Cinéma-vérité, Chronicle of a Summer and The Human Pyramid
by Barbara Bruni
Barbara Bruni is currently completing her Honours in Film at the University of NSW after studying Screen Studies at Flinders University, South Australia.
Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin circa Chronicle of a Summer
Not much has been written about ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch’s documentary The Human Pyramid (1960) in comparison to the interest aroused by Chronique D’Un Été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), the product of his collaboration with sociologist Edgar Morin. While most of his earlier documentaries were filmed in Africa, Chronicle of a Summer is set in Paris in the aftermath of the Algerian war and just before the explosion of social riots that came to dominate that decade. Chronicle of a Summer does not follow an established structure but is driven in an unpredictable manner by its characters and their reactions to the camera. It is arguably Rouch’s best-known work, and has been widely discussed in the context of documentary filmmaking for its innovative cinematic techniques, its choice of scenario (the rough, urban streets of Paris during a significant historical moment) and for being the first film to define itself using the term cinéma-vérité.
Rouch’ s documentaries are often inspired by a specific context that he wishes to capture; while in Chronicle of a Summer this is Parisian society in the aftermath of the Algerian war, in The Human Pyramid it is the issue of racism seen through the eyes of young black and white students attending a Lycée on the Ivory coast. The Human Pyramid, while possessing some of the same characteristics of Chronicle of a Summer, has a more poetic almost dreamlike atmosphere; it is also much more raw and less structured, especially considering most of it was left in the hands of the kids. For these reasons, The Human Pyramid is simultaneously more and less complicated than its successor. It is simpler because its themes are only moderately connected to society at large, as the world of these teenagers is somewhat separate to socio-historical reality, and more complex because this ‘unreality’ encompasses multiple layers of meaning. The Human Pyramid recalls some of Rouch’s other documentaries made in West Africa, such as Les Maîtres Fous (1955) or Les Homes Qui Font La Pluie (1951), in which the element of the magical and the ritual plays a significant role. At the same time, it departs from his earlier work, and its results undoubtedly influence the approach taken by him and Morin in filming Chronicle of a Summer.
By the time of Chronicle, Rouch is more familiar with the impact of the camera on the milieu, and, rather than simply filming a designated ritual or event, is often responsible for provoking the action: “Rouch, the observer of rituals, crossed the line to become a creator of rituals in his own right”. (1) Some of the characteristics that Chronicle and Human Pyramid have in common are: Rouch exposing himself personally on camera; setting out the parameters of the ‘experiment’ within the first scenes; incorporating the screening of the film to the actors in the final cut; and including the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the story. All these elements, nevertheless, are handled very differently in the two films, and Morin’s influence is also to be taken into account. While Rouch’s work is permeated by what Jean-André Fieschi calls “slippages of fiction”, The Human Pyramid is by far his more fantastic project. There is a sense of freshness in the film, due to the fact that it is open for anything to happen, and it is this freedom and flexibility that gives it its richness. While in Chronicle of a Summer Rouch and Morin are constantly present guiding the events, in his previous film, “once the project started, the director simply filmed it.” (2)
Rouch’s work, and Chronicle of a Summer in particular, occupies an important position in debates about the nature of documentary and the relationship between camera and object. His cinema explored possibilities that had not yet been considered, and presented a very different response to the newly introduced technological advancements in comparison to his contemporaries.
Simultaneously a liberation and a fulfilment, it (photography) has freed western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism. (3)
Bazin, himself, has shown in his own work how such a ‘liberation’ can be simultaneously satisfying and unfulfilling, as it introduces a whole new set of questions far more complicated than the ones that it answers. In the same way, the technological innovations available to documentary filmmakers during the late ’50s and early ’60s created more issues than they resolved. Up until then documentary crews had to use the same cumbersome equipment used in fiction film, with obvious limitations to their recording of events, and forcing them to turn to the practice of reconstruction. Once sound and camera equipment became portable and silent, issues concerning the impact of the filmmaker on the object and its ethical implications had to be conceived of, and addressed, in a different manner.
The issue of the camera’s relation to reality, which permeates the fiction film, is addressed directly by the documentary filmmaker, who has always aspired toward capturing the sight and sound of life in an unobtrusive and impartial manner. The ambivalent nature of the medium, which excludes the human element as an intermediary but nevertheless implies a subjective viewpoint, gives rise to issues concerning the camera’s legitimacy to record the ‘obscene’ object of reality. Questions about what degrees of faithfulness to the truth establish a film as a documentary, and whether such faithfulness is even possible, have accompanied the history of documentary filmmaking since its origin.
In the meantime, partly due to the technological advancements, documentary underwent a revival, and experimentations with the new technology abounded. The answer of ‘direct cinema’, which included Richard Leacock, Donn A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers as its representatives, was a purist approach in which the impact of the observer on the observed had to be kept to a minimum. Interviews, voice-over commentary and any other forms of interaction with the subject matter were considered to contaminate the result of the observation. Others like, Pierre Perrault, used the new equipment to draw meaning from the seemingly insignificant and the quotidian, attempting to find greater meaning in and unity to the whole by observing and bringing together the small elements of everyday life.
Chronicle of a Summer was one of the first films to make use of the innovative equipment, which Rouch himself had helped to develop. The film’s object, nonetheless, was precisely the contamination so painstakingly avoided by exponents of ‘direct cinema’: in the film, Rouch and Morin begin by investigating the nature of happiness by questioning passer-byes in the streets of Paris, but as the film progresses, the investigation becomes a pretext in order to access people’s most innermost thoughts about life and their relationship with others. In this film, Rouch is considered to be responsible for introducing the term cinema vérité, as homage to Dziga Vertov’s ‘kino-pravda‘, referring to his and Morin’s desire to create a reality between documentary and fiction through the camera’s co-existing attributes of objectivity and subjectivity. Subsequently the term has been adopted to describe projects that differ greatly from Rouch and Morin’s, one of the reasons for this divergence lies in the ambiguity of the word ‘truth’, and its complex relation to the filmic image.
What Rouch wishes to recuperate from Vertov is not the notion of the cinema-eye, radically different from the human eye, but rather the possibility of a marriage, a synthesis, between the human eye and the cinema eye – a fusion whose result will be a greater humanity and a greater objectivity at the same time. (4)
In essence, the concept’s intention is to unite the main characteristics of the camera and the human eye, objectivity and subjectivity respectively, and to find a new meaning in their relation. Rouch on the one hand grasps the enormous shift in perception caused by the introduction of the photographic image, and on the other, due to his scientific background, comprehends the impact of the observer on his subject matter. In fact, Rouch believes that, considering that the presence of the observer cannot be ignored, it should be taken into consideration so as not to invalidate the results of the observation. His first experiences with the camera come directly from this approach.
The presence of the camera is a kind of passport that opens all doors and makes every kind of scandal possible. The camera deforms, but not from the moment that it becomes an accomplice. At that point it has the possibility of doing something I couldn’t do if the camera wasn’t there: it becomes a kind of psychoanalytic stimulant, which lets people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. (5)
Since the action is partly motivated by the presence of the camera, concealing the camera would be an act of deception, which would be detrimental to an accurate experimentation. Rouch on the contrary accentuates this aspect and brings it to its extremes. He notices that the presence of the camera stimulates people’s expression rather than inhibiting it, and that it can provoke strong reactions with the pretext of fictional circumstances, due to the fact that the subject feels less defensive. These feelings are not ‘true’ in a traditional way, but come into existence in the reality produced by the camera. The use of a poem entitled ‘The Human Pyramid’ recited by the young protagonists/students during one of their classes, as the title for the documentary, reflects the director’s approach to cinema and life in general:
I look at the human sciences as poetic sciences in which there is no objectivity, and I see film as not being objective, and cinema verite as a cinema of lies that depends on the art of telling yourself lies. If you’re a good storyteller then the lie is more true than reality, and if you’re a bad one, the truth is worse than a half lie. (6)
It is this tension between Rouch the poet and Rouch the scientist that constitutes the uniqueness of his films, and that sees his influence far exceeding his original field of ethnographic film. Rouch recognizes that the facts are always disturbed by the person who asks the question, and through his acknowledgement of the subjectivity brought in by the observer, he can infuse the rationality that otherwise prevails in any kind of experiment with poetic and aesthetic qualities. Rouch nonetheless, faithful to his area of interest as an anthropologist, always maintains a scientific approach to the ‘lies’ that he fabricates. If the principles upon which he bases his observations break the traditional subject/object relationship, his methodology is reflective of his education: he begins his projects by creating the conditions of the experiment, expressing its purpose, and subsequently commenting on the proceedings. There is, therefore, a sharp contrast between his ‘poetic’ principles and his rigorous methods, a contrast that produces unusual and ambiguous results. If “anthropology must destroy what it investigates”, (7) Rouch is not interested in human nature as a lifeless object in front of the lenses, but wants to capture it as it breaths, moves, and evolves; the camera then becomes indispensable in recording life in its duration.
Confronted with the knowledge that the production of an image implies the death of the event that it represents, Rouch has no choice but to maintain the signified and the signifier intertwined, creating as a result what Mick Eaton calls “a new cinematic reality”. If, according to Barthes, the photographic image produces death while trying to preserve life, a possible approach to the matter is to render the object and its representation as closely related as possible, generating a dimension that is halfway between the two. This approach, which Rouch explores in all of his documentaries, is obviously riddled with contradiction and ambivalence, and is attributable to his double role as anthropologist and filmmaker. Traditionally, the ethnographic film is considered to be the polar opposite of ‘art cinema’, and while it would be unproblematic to say that Rouch’s work simply compresses the two categories, ethnographic film and art cinema, his work presents so many layers of meaning so intimately entwined that such simplifications are impossible.
In Chronicle of a Summer, his attempts to blur the boundaries between subject and object, and to recognize the unique dimension created by cinema, are represented by his and Morin’s efforts “to create reality starting from fiction”.
For Rouch and Morin the only possible vérité was one which included the filmmaker – as if it were the case that the only subject for documentary film was the making of documentary film. (8)
It is necessary for Rouch and Morin to be present in the film and to explain the conditions of the project for their experiment to be valid. In the first scenes, the two are in front of the camera, explaining to Marceline, whom they have chosen to conduct the interviews, her role in the development of the film, and how they will go about the project. Both Rouch and Morin are present throughout the film, even though not always in front of the camera, asking questions and instigating reactions. Before the final scene, the film is screened to its actors/participants and receives mixed reactions. Subsequently Rouch and Morin discuss the results of the experiment in private. The outcome seems to have been unexpected, and they walk off full of unanswered questions. Rouch and Morin constantly provoke their impersonators, even quite crudely, as when Rouch asks a North African immigrant (who also appeared in The Human Pyramid) to explain the numbers tattooed on Marceline’s arm, aware that the young man does not have knowledge of the events of the Second World War. Nevertheless they are exposing themselves too and putting themselves at the same level of the people they film. After that incident, Rouch said that he was ashamed of the cruel smile that he had on the screen while asking about Marceline’s tattoo, but even that simple smile is important in creating perspective for what we are watching, and in acknowledging the conditions under which it was created.
Well, the only objective document is the film, which is, however, a fiction film, acted by people playing plausible roles. Why? Because they show what an investigation would never show, that is, the context: how it happened, where it happened, the relationships between people, their gestures, their behaviour, their speech, etc. (9)
It is clear how the presence of this ‘context’ creates a very complex cinematic reality that does not proceed in a linear manner, which in turn arouses feelings of unease in the viewer. In “Cinema Vérité or Fantastic Realism”, Fereydoun Hoveyda describes the film’s inclusion of the context as that of a novel incorporating its notebook. The two cannot be viewed as separate entities, but are inextricably linked and designed to enhance each other’s meaning. The essential point is that the limitations between the subject and the object are blurred and a new space is created from the encounter between the camera and the external world, in which traditional binary opposites such as fictional/documentary, performance/private life, are imploded. This is the result of a self-conscious effort that recognizes that film, while representing reality, constitutes a reality of its own. The fictional element becomes a starting point in order to create reality, allowing the elements of truth to shine through the ‘lies’.
In Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch and Morin enter people’s lives quite intimately, with extreme close-ups and personal questions, as in the case of the interview with Mary-Lou. She has been told to improvise, but becomes very emotional while expressing her feelings. At the same time, Marceline, who has made a seemingly heartfelt confession about her past in a concentration camp while wandering around Les Halles, claims that she was only “play-acting”. Could it be true that “fiction is the only way that we can truly face ourselves”? (10)
The Human Pyramid
In The Human Pyramid, Rouch’s approach to the actors, who are adolescents, is very different. He does not probe into their lives with such insistence, but allows them to create their own illusory world as they go along. In this case, the aim is to show friendship between European and black students in a Lycée on the Ivory coast, and the pretext for the narrative is the arrival of a new French girl in class, Nadine, who is interested in interacting with the Africans. This simple pretext creates a number of situations and meetings between the two groups in which the protagonists improvise their lines as they go along, while sharing each other’s culture and point of view. The credits of the film roll only at Nadine’s arrival in the classroom. Two scenes precede this. In the first one Nadine and Denise are walking in the streets of present day Paris, obviously after the events have happened. In the following scene, filmed before the beginning of the experiment, Rouch himself is talking to the students of the Lycée about their involvement. These first two scenes belong to the ‘notebook’ of the documentary, which is also profoundly imbedded in the construction of the film itself. There is never a moment in which fiction can be separated from reality, and the dynamics of the relationship between the two is a constant source of meaning. As a consequence, the concepts of time and space, and the function of the characters and their impersonators, become non-linear and multi-layered, the results of which can be noted during the screening of Chronicle of a Summer to its participants, towards the end of the film, in which the audience had extremely diverging opinions about what was ‘real’ and what was not. The screening in The Human Pyramid is quite different and occurs a bit earlier in the film. We can’t hear the remarks of the students, but they don’t seem to be adverse to the way in which they are portrayed (or portray themselves). This is also due to the fact that the pretext of the narrative allows them great liberties in playing their roles, and disconnects them more from reality. The freedom that these characters were given has unleashed a response that is not constructed or strained, making them unaware of the results. During the screening they are able to acknowledge their cinematic persona, thus incorporating it into their ‘real’ persona: “each discovered his or her unknown image, thus fiction became a reality.” (11)
Through the screening, Rouch consolidates the reality that he has created between fiction and documentary, but he is also ready to recognize its fragility and limitations, and to destroy it. He does so by inserting into the narrative, just after the screening, the death of one of the main characters (and not a real-life person) in the film under mysterious circumstances. With Alain’s death, once again, Rouch explores the differences between the roles each of us play in different situations, and the reactions that they provoke. Alain dies, disappearing in the waves, during a picnic on a sanded ship. It was his favourite place, as he had confessed to Nadine earlier in the film during an excursion. He said that it was where he felt most comfortable with himself, where he did not feel the pressure of playing a certain role. It is difficult to grasp the meaning of Alain’s death, as it is abrupt, unexpected and disorienting. It suddenly breaks an intricate illusion, creates discomfort, and forces the audience into re-evaluating what has happened until then.
Now that everything is possible, why not go all the way with the experiment, take it to the limits? Why not test their friendship with a tragedy; a fiction that once filmed becomes reality, freeing those who believe too much in their roles. (12)
This is exactly the desired effect, to shake us out of our assumptions and demand a revised opinion. It is also about exploring the boundaries between documentary and fiction, life and performance, the viewer and the screen. Rouch, as Eaton points out, is also interested in making films for himself and his cast. The death of Alain occurs in order for him and them to realize the limitations of their own experiment, of their own creations. It shows the contradictory nature of the reality that has been created. It is so powerful as to have an actual impact on the lives of the participants, yet so fragile and ephemeral that it can be wiped out like a sand painting. Additionally, it represents a way for Rouch to detach himself from the cast and from the project, and to emerge once again as “the shaman, the master of ceremonies at a cinematic ritual, stimulating and entering the trance with his camera as the magician’s instrument…” (13), ready to perform once again by creating another ‘filmic truth’.
Within these multiple reflections of reality, Rouch is both master and actor, and shares with the protagonists a profound experience, because, besides orchestrating it, he participates in the illusion and is invested with its energy. As Deleuze notes in Cinema 2, in order to tell these people’s stories he must ‘become’ them. Perrault commented that “Rouch’s characters are prone to introspection rather than action, they are reflections of themselves” (14). The characters don’t undergo growth or evolution in any traditional manner. Their journey does not conclude at the end of the film, as Denis says in a voice over in the last scene, “The film ends here but the story isn’t over…it’s so much simpler and more complicated but it’s up to all of us to write it”. So he must feel their emotions in order to illustrate them, as their performances are uncontrollable, inundated with spontaneity and improvisation. In a similar way, the actors themselves must become Rouch: this film is not the product of a singular perspective that constructs the events in its own particular way; Rouch steps down from his position as director and allows it to be taken over, injecting the film with multiple points of view and dimensions, only to then step back and point it in a new direction, as with Alain’s death.
Similarly, there is no clear conception of time and duration. There is no beginning or ending, or, depending on the perspective, there are many beginnings and endings, as is demonstrated by the two scenes prior to the credits, and the death of Alain. Even in these instances, each segment can’t be analysed singularly as it would loose its significance. As Hoveyda puts it, “one discovers other films in it […] hidden under the first one”. (15) Here he is referring to Chronicle of a Summer, but I believe his remarks are even more relevant to The Human Pyramid. This non-linear conception of time is further complicated by the use of the soundtrack. It is a combination of Rouch’s commentary, the synchronous dialogue and sounds, and the comments made by the main characters, Denise and Nadine, that have been recorded after the film has been edited. They have improvised their speeches after watching the scenes, adding the perspective of their current position to their feelings at the time. Moreover, the synch dialogue and the commentary are continually interwoven and blended with the images. The viewer often forgets which one is being transmitted, the two time frames consistently merging.
Because the death of a character is most likely to represent the end of a movie, Alain’s death also constitutes a form of closure before the film ends. The characters created by the young students, which have subsequently become a part of them, can now live eternally, frozen by death, in the fantastic realm of the filmic image. Their world is, in a way, left intact, as immediately after the (fictional) tragedy, the audience is taken to a completely different level. This is because, in spite of the above-mentioned power of the ‘cinematic reality’, death remains the ‘un-representable’. Death constitutes the line that separates (or unites) facts from fiction, performance from life. Even though, via the pretext of fictional circumstances, the students in The Human Pyramid have felt and acknowledged the emotions that the presence of the camera has aroused in them, they cannot experience death without it actually occurring. After Alain’s death, the spell is broken and the viewer is not in a position to surrender his trust to them anymore. The truth behind the “cinema of lies” has been pushed to its limits and has, literally, died. If earlier we did not know where the performance commenced and real life ended, now everything seems fictional, yet, as it has lost ambiguity, plain.
In this respect, Rouch’s exploration of the limitations of cinema in dealing with the subject of death comes from the opposite direction of Nicholas Ray’s performance in Lightning Over Water (Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray, 1980). Both deaths occur near the end of the movie and mark a dramatic turn in the atmosphere and events of the film. In The Human Pyramid, after Alain’s death everything becomes – or reveals itself to be – mannered and unreliable, while in Lightning Over Water Ray’s actual death represents the ultimate moment of truth. There is a loss of ambiguity in this case too, but only to reveal the blue skies under which the crew of the film is sailing, before scattering his ashes into the sea. The crew itself is finally seen by the audience directly and not through self-conscious reflections in mirrors, as during the previous scenes. Simply, in the moment of revelation constituted by death, one film has become fiction, and the other has become reality. In Lightning Over Water, Nicholas Ray and his death are the raison d’être of the film, the focal element that generates the action, and it was truth that became fictionalised from the beginning of the movie until Ray’s death took place. On the other hand, Rouch’s The Human Pyramid revolves around the presence of the camera, and aims to create reality using fiction as its starting point: “The camera will not be an obstacle to their expression, but the indispensable witness that will motivate it”. (16)
One of the last scenes in The Human Pyramid is an aerial view of a boat and the ocean, as in Lightning Over Water, but this time it is the sanded ship where Alain lost his life. The sight seems to suddenly materialize all the questions and ambiguities raised throughout the film. The distance from the object and the fluidity of the shot puts the viewer in a different position from the earlier footage, and the object itself is simple yet permeated with meaning. It is a material object (it is not a set), but what has occurred on its premises was a fictional event, the death of a character (not of its impersonator). To what extent were the events surrounding the death fictional, is uncertain. The ship, in view of the emotions that it has witnessed, takes on an almost lifelike presence, a presence from which the viewers are demanding answers. And in these words, which accompany the scene, Jean Rouch expresses the position that he wishes to occupy within the film, and the aim of his work:
…No matter whether the story is plausible, no matter the camera or the mike, or the director, or whether a film was born or not, more important is what happened around the camera…” (17)
The protagonist of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges who is incarcerated and awaiting execution, reflects that “reality does not usually coincide with our anticipation of it”, (18) and proceeds to imagine different versions of his own death in great detail in order to eliminate them from the realm of the possible. In a similar way, Jean Rouch seems to think that cinema’s claim to the real automatically excludes the essence of it, and therefore represents it in his texts, particularly in The Human Pyramid, with such complex and numerous layers that the final product is somehow able to allude to the reality that has remained outside the representation by limiting its possibilities. This explains the impression experienced during the viewing of both The Human Pyramid and Chronicle of a Summer, that what is played out in front of us, what we are entranced by, is the absence of an object rather than the object itself.
1. Jean-André Fieschi, “Slippages of Fiction”, The camera and man: Anthropology-reality-cinema: the films of Jean Rouch, ed. by Mick Eaton, British Film Institute, London, 1979, p. 73
2. Jean Rouch, The Human Pyramid
3. André Bazin, What Is Cinema, 2 vols, essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California, 1967), p.16
4. Mick Eaton, “The production of cinematic reality”, in The camera and man, p.51
5. G. Roy Levin, Documentary explorations; 15 interviews with film-makers (1st ed.), Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1971, p.136
6. Documentary explorations, pp. 134-135
7. Dan Georgakas, Uayan Gupta and Judi Janda, “Politics of Visual Anthropology, an interview with Jean Rouch”, Cineaste 8 (4) 1978, p.22
8. Brian Winston, “Documentary: I Think We Are In Trouble”, Sight and Sound, (1), 1978/79, p. 4
9. Documentary explorations, p.136
10. Ellen Freyer, “Chronicle of a summer – Ten years later”, in The documentary tradition: from Nanook to Woodstock, ed. by Lewis Jacobs Hopkinson and Blake, New York, 1971, p. 441
11. Jean Rouch, The Human Pyramid
13. Mick Eaton, “The production of cinematic reality”, in The camera and man, p.52
14. Pierre Perrault quoted in Louis Marcorelles, Living cinema: new directions in contemporary film-making, Allen and Unwin, London, 1973, p. 89
15. Fereydoun Hoveyda, “Cinema vérité or Fantastic Realism”, Cahiers du cinéma 125, November 1961, p. 251
16. Jean Rouch, “La Pyramide Humaine”, Cahiers du Cinéma, October 1960, p. 15
17. Jean Rouch, The Human Pyramid
18. Jorge Luis Borges, The Secret Miracle, in Labyrinths, (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1970), p.119
this article first published here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/rouch/
January 21, 2012
Death By Hanging
Koshikei | 絞死刑
* | by Matthew Mesaros, Mark Mesaros
Are you for or against the abolition of the death penalty? According to a 1967 public opinion poll by the ministry of justice 71% were against the abolition, 16% were in favour and 13% undecided. But you, who oppose abolition, have you ever seen an execution chamber? Have you ever seen an execution?
Marking the beginning of Death by Hanging with a series of handwritten (kanji) placards, Nagisa Oshima wastes no time in communicating his opinion of the death penalty. He then narrates a documentary-style tour of the execution chamber as the condemned is guided to the noose to be hanged. The lever thrown, we witness the hanging from two angles, the second a disarming repetition in slow-motion. Thus begins Nagisa Oshima’s surreal, polemical, metaphysical and very much under-appreciated masterwork.
The chamber itself, steeped in religion and possessed of the kind of lived-in austerity one would expect to find in a rectory, is sheathed within a modest building that looks like it could be a retirement home and located at the terminus of a gravel path that snakes behind the prison proper. Oshima uses the very first shot for an overhead sweep of the prison grounds and its death house—then he takes us inside.
A physician checks the body, still hovering a foot from the ground, to find that it has survived. The officials debate the proper course of action, their training clearly insufficient for such a contingency. The representational form has now become presentational in nature; the fact of an execution gives way to fiction. They resuscitate the boy, a Korean of Japanese parents named R (Yu Do-yun), discovering that he suffers severe amnesia. He has no identity, he hasn’t even rudimentary knowledge of the world around him. Due to a legal technicality, the condemned must have cognizance of their actions to be executed; everyone takes a side. The priest, convinced that the boy before them is no longer the R who committed rape and murder (for the soul of that R has ascended), pleads with the officials and admonishes them for their determination to try the hanging again.
Only the public prosecutor is divested. His all-observing eyes symbolize us, the viewers; near the action but distant, unaffected, only responding with brief comment to direct questions. He is charged with observing the execution and there he remains as the guards first try verbal interrogation and psychological games, before transforming the chamber into Brechtian theatre; taking us back through time to probe R’s childhood, the dutiful prison workers play the parts of his parents and siblings. At this point the film comes nearer absurdist comedy as the guards transmogrify into caricatures, going to great lengths to jolt the boy’s memory so that he may be executed again.
One man in particular, the prison warden, played by long-time collaborator Kei Sato, takes his work far too seriously—the kind of maniac Kafka might swoon for. With R’s refusal, or inability, to acknowledge his identity, this man, now completely immersed in the fantasy he has constructed, goes so far as reenacting his crime by assaulting an innocent girl. Oshima then throws spatial and temporal continuity out the window as we move from a focus on the death penalty to our very notions of identity and reality. Apparently, only the lead screw can see this dead girl. While trying to convince his peers that there is indeed a body on the floor she suddenly sits up, alive and well and claiming to be R’s sister.
She has a long conversation, or perhaps lecture is more appropriate, with R (or non-R)–and with the guards as one by one they perceive her presence in the room—urging R didactically to revolutionary Korean nationalism and hissing venom at the guards and, indeed, all of Japan. This dialogue seems to transcend time and space, moving from the chamber to an obsidian lake as in a dream while provoking the viewer to confront one’s conceptions of social hierarchy and the structure of political life. Oshima, after all, had much invested in the life of Chin’u Ri, on whom the character of R is based. He was an ethnic Korean born in Japan and had been arrested, tried and executed for raping and killing a Japanese schoolgirl in 1958. A book of Ri’s letters was eventually published showing him to be, in Oshima’s words, “the most intelligent and sensitive youth produced by post-war Japan.”1 To Nagisa Oshima and his team of writers Ri’s crimes could only be understood in the context of his second-class social status, which meant suffering economic and social repression simply because he was Korean.
This film was released in 1968, barely a decade since the murder and only two decades removed from the Japanese occupation of Korea. The director boldly uses it to raise his voice against the death penalty and the racialism practiced by the authorities, the prejudice against Koreans being systemic to Japanese society. Of course, more than 40 years on, Japan retains the practice of institutional execution (as does the United States), but relations with Korea have improved dramatically (and even the death penalty may be reaching a tipping point in the coming years).
This is less a genre film—and therefore unique among the films chosen for this feature—and more the work of an auteur. It doesn’t attempt to deal with the issues confronting life in prison and it seems at first a satire of the death penalty and those opposed to its abolition only. But in the course of events, graduating from documentary to absurd theatre to surrealist fantasy in ever-widening gradations, Death By Hanging deals with sexual politics, race, religion, identity, a metaphysical conception of self and more. And throughout, despite the profundity of the increasingly absurd parody, Oshima insists upon its reality. He never draws us directly into the comedy/tragedy, and the film’s message is all the stronger for it. Like the public prosecutor we are kept at arm’s length to observe and afterward reflect.
This is surreal, self-aware, provocative and daring filmmaking. And Brechtian in every sense of the word. This even extends to Oshima’s use of handwritten placards at film’s open, something the playwright often incorporated into his epic theatre. And it’s interesting that this style—which emphasizes representation to induce rational self-reflection on the drama—rather than clashing with the non-fiction, documentary form, actually enhances the film’s total effect. By juxtaposing the two, conflating them even, we are led to ask ourselves if the reality is not stranger than the fiction. Oshima, in effect, begins with the concrete, the particular (the fact of capital punishment) and progresses toward the general (i.e. surreal, metaphysical), passing through realistic, though absurd, drama along the way. In the same way Koshikei progresses from indicting these particular, foolish men to indicting the entire body politic.
Unfortunately, Nagisa Oshima is largely known for his sexually exploitive (some would call pornographic) work: In the Realm of the Senses in particular and others like The Pleasures of the Flesh. Both are laudable but neither is as compelling as the four brilliant films he produced from 1967 to 1968, three of which address the colonization of Korea2 with Death By Hanging being by far the most inventive, intense, provocative and experimental. He undermines conventional storytelling and logic, almost constructing a unique cinematic form, while pontificating and politicizing… and beckoning our recognition.
1 Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956–1978, Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 1992, p. 166.
2 A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs (1967) and Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) being the other two.
this review first published here: http://www.cinelogue.com/reviews/death-by-hanging
Blood Of The Beasts (1949) – Humanity’s Capacity to Dream
Georges Franju’s background was in theatrical set design. As a set designer, he would have learned to create atmosphere through the use of subtle visual queues but he would also have learned that every scene and every shot are a world of their own. Properly conceived, a single shot can convey as much information as an entire page of dialogue. Where the camera focuses, when people enter, where objects stand and how they are lit are not merely aesthetic variables, they are to cinema what words are to poetry and literature. As such, it is perhaps fitting that Ruthless Culture’s first look at a work of Franju should be a short film that is practically silent; His 1949 short film about Parisian slaughterhouses Blood of the Beasts.
Le Sang Des Betes serves as a neat microcosm for one of the major themes of Franju’s work; the encroachment of the uncanny onto the humdrum and the mundane.
Like many directors from the generation that lived through the Second World War, Franju was hugely influenced by the Expressionism of German directors such as Murnau and Lang. German Expressionism was a part of the Romantic tradition in the arts and as such it rejected the (now dominant) positivist idea that engaging with real issues demands a depiction of the world that is entirely transparent. Indeed, while Expressionist film frequently dealt with very real and very serious issues, it did so in a stylised manner through the use of dream-like visuals and the kind of self-consciously artificial set design that made many Expressionist films come to resemble dark fairy tales. However, Franju was not one to recycle the styles of others. Indeed, he combined Expressionist ideas with the French Surrealist methodology of juxtaposing real images with fantastical ones, resulting in films which, though deeply rooted in the real world, were also infused with the uncanny and the bizarre. This bizarre almost paradoxical ontological posture can also be seen in Franju’s highly idiosyncratic approach to genre. His Horror film Eyes Without A Face (1959) and his homage to the French silent Pulps Judex (1963) are both fantastical films filled with genre motifs, but neither fits comfortably within the formulae and patterns of genre story-telling.
Blood of the Beasts, though ostensibly a factual documentary, draws its power and beauty directly from Franju’s unconventional attitude to depicting the real world.
The opening to the film is filled with heart-warmingly humanistic images of post-War Paris. These are the same kinds of images that could be found in the post-War Ealing Comedies such as Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). They depict a population which, though comparative poor, positively radiates both bravery and emotional honesty. These are the people who defeated the Nazis. They are what the Americans call The Greatest Generation. Every aspect of the opening sequence seems designed to illicit a positive emotional response; From the children playing and couples kissing to the jaunty music, from the decorative pieces of bric-a-brac to the eccentric re-positioning of items of furniture from the inside to the outdoors, the opening section radiates warm-hearted playfulness. It is no accident that Jeunet’s whimsical romantic comedy Amelie (2001) should choose to hark back to these kinds of images.
From the footage of the outskirts of Paris, Franju moves us seamlessly into the world of the slaughterhouse. The same salt-of-the-earth types we saw sitting outside at antique dining tables are now at work.
Still from Film
Still from Film
They lead a huge white horse out into the open. Voices are raised in the background and the dark-hued workmen potter about around this huge physical presence whose pale coloration grant it an almost ethereal character. Then, suddenly, an object is brought to the horse’s forehead and CRACK, it drops to the ground dead. The workers cut the animal’s throat and its black blood spills out in great torrents of steam. The workers drag the horse inside and prepare to skin it. For a second the horse lies on its back, a hideous pile of limbs at unnatural angles, gaping wounds and still black eyes that look straight down the camera.
What Franju shows us is the systematic and industrialised destruction and disfiguration of life. A process of destruction that has its own traditions and history. Its practitioners are praised by governments and honoured for their endeavours. So accepted is this process of mass-killing that our infrastructure has grown to accommodate and facilitate it. Bridges are built to link markets and slaughterhouses while auction houses resemble churches. A bell tolls in the distance, calling an end not to a day’s prayer but to a day’s killing. Trains pass through the landscape. Ours is a genteel and elegant infrastructure devoted to the destruction of life.
Throughout the film, Franju’s imagery expertly balances the dream-like (the huge white horse, the steam, the one-legged butcher, the corpulent merchant posing next to a dismembered horse) with the disgustingly real as animals have their heads and legs severed, leaving their dismembered bodies to twitch and writhe as though trying to escape a fate they have already met. This surreal and grotesque juxtaposition of images is calculated for effect. The images that open the film present France as it likes to see itself, the systemic killing of animals depicts the realities that underlie this whimsical self-image while the infrastructure and the jaunty whistling of the workers shows the extent to which Humans can come to live with killing on a day-to-day basis. Even the film’s soundtrack seems to filter and distort reality as Franju shifts from silence to the whistling of the workers to the crashes of the background and finally the cries of the animals. Though broadly silent, the film’s final scenes are accompanied by two short speeches that serve to drive the point home :
“’I will strike you without anger and without hate… like a butcher’ said Baudelaire. Without anger and without hate and with the simply good humour of killers who whistle or sing while slitting throats. Because one has to eat every day and to feed others even if it requires difficult and often dangerous work”
“The day is over. In the stalls, the sheep – spared for one more night – silently fall asleep. They won’t hear their prison gates close or the little train that leaves for the country at sunset to collect new victims for tomorrow.”
Franju’s peculiar ontological footing allows for the film to be both metaphorical and directly engaged with reality. The systematic slaughter of the animals along with the extent to which human infrastructure facilitates this slaughter reminds us of the Holocaust.
Shoes… I think.
Shoes… I think.
One possible source of inspiration for Blood of the Beasts is Billy Wilder’s 1945 propaganda film The Death Mills. The film was made in order to publicised the extent and the character of Nazi atrocities. Wilder made particular reference to Buchenwald, where staff began to give each other ghoulish human trophies such as shrunken heads and lampshades made of tattooed human skin. These are not merely crimes against humanity, there are works of morbid surrealism. Franju’s juxtaposition of fantastical and excruciatingly transparent images manages to recapture the same nightmarish feeling as Wilder’s death camp photography.
Rather than a film depicting the realities of animal slaughter, Le Sang Des Betes is a film about the ways in which humans can accept and institutionalise acts of almost surreal cruelty. If it is appropriate for a man in a suit to pose next to the dismembered body of a horse and for workers to sing and whistle while slitting throats, is it any surprise that humans can reach a point where they give each other shrunken heads as presents?
Of course, Le Sang Des Betes would also prove to be the inspiration for another French film. Gaspar Noe’s first film Carne (1991) opened with the slaughtering of a horse and went on to deal with the ways in which people are pushed into and then seek to justify acts of cruelty, stupidity, violence and destruction. Franju said of his film that had it been in colour then people would have been horrified, I leave it up to the reader to decide whether he was right.
this review first published here: http://ruthlessculture.com/2009/07/08/blood-of-the-beasts-1949-humanitys-capacity-to-dream/
ENTHUSIASM (Dziga Vertov, 1931) reviewed by dennis grunes
One of the most dazzlingly inventive films ever made, especially in its symphony of natural (or purportedly natural) sounds, Entuziazm is still my least favorite film by Polish-born documentarian Dziga Vertov (Denis Abramovich Kaufman), who also made one of my ten favorite ones, The Man with a Movie Camera (1928). Entuziazm is essential viewing, of course, and it’s quite wonderful; but its celebration of Soviet progress and destiny grows tinny and a bit tiresome, and there’s at least one big inadvertent laugh. Blame Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who wrote Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Every time I see Entuziazm, when the narrator boasts that worker productivity succeeded in meeting the goals of the five-year-plan in only four years, I think of Ninotchka, where, upon meeting her in Paris, an aristocratic slacker dispenses this sarcasm to a Soviet agent: “Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year-plan for the last fifteen years.”
Entuziazm opens with the sound of a cuckoo clock—a reference to Russia’s feeble-brained tsarist past. An ordinary young woman wearing earphones is seated outdoors. Intercutting eventually suggests the possibility she is listening to the broadcast of a symphonic concert. The new order, the Soviet Union, it is implied, has brought music—the music of inspiration and possibility—to the masses.
A cruel exhibit of past religious habits follows as outside and inside a church old worshippers cross themselves—derisively, one looped sequence shows the same soul crossing herself over and over and over again—and kiss the feet of a gigantic Jesus. A low, upwardly tilted camera creates an impression of oppressiveness. All this nastiness is mere set-up, in any case, to the raiding and emptying of the church of its icons by workers: implicitly, the new freedom. (Later, we see a young woman—perhaps the same one as before—sculpting a bust of Lenin: a new “icon.”) The cross on top of the church is replaced with the nation’s flag. The old has given way to the new.
Vertov creates a stunning smoke-belching ode to industrial productivity that Robert J. Flaherty would environmentally undercut, biting the hand of Standard Oil that was underwriting it, in Louisiana Story (1948). Amidst a cacophony of toot-tooting, static, chug-chugging and ding-a-linging, we are told this: “The country needs coal.” Vertov, in a highly fragmented fashion, aims at an integrative view of the interdependency of elements of Soviet productivity. Coal-mining provides energy; factories, combining machine- and human labor, provide steel and manufactured farm equipment; the latter, fueled by coal and operated by farmers, thresh a harvest of wheat. The railroad is shown as connective tissue, transporting mined coal to the factories and, from the factories, whatever is needed in rural areas. Railroad tracks are the new order’s bloodstream. Captions and narration assist in portraying workers at whatever point in this joint process as aggressive warriors and heroic figures. However, one remark about potential worker indolence reminded me of the warnings against drinking and smoking in Vertov’s earlier Kino-Eye (1924).
This is one of those Soviet films with many low, upwardly tilted shots of laborers cast against destiny-laden eternal skies. Like time-lapser Gus Van Sant long after him, Vertov is fond of speeding up those skies, in his case to combine in the same image a steadfast structure, such as the church steeple now crowned by the flag, and the rushing skies above it. At one glorious moment, Vertov speeds up further the speeded-up motion, and the explosive result summarizes all the bursts of impossibility that throughout the film encapsulate the newness of cinema, this a combinate metaphor for the newness of the Soviet adventure: reverse motion, multiple exposures, quick intercutting, camera rotation, and so forth. Experimental techniques dizzy us with possibilities; but Vertov can also frame a shot so that it assumes tremendous life without the intervention of tricks. An overhead shot of soldiers marching in the street creates a powerful oceanic effect that pushes and pulls the viewer’s eye and pounding heart from top to bottom of the image. Vertov is a master of perceptual psychology.
Why do I not like this film more then? It is cold, not much fun, disjointed, repetitious.
Footnote: The film’s conclusive march tune suggests where Meredith Willson may have found the melody for “76 Trombones.”
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.
this review by dennis grunes first publishe dhere: http://grunes.wordpress.com/2008/04/05/enthusiasm-dziga-vertov-1931/
an in-depth analysis of enthusiasm is here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2006/feature-articles/dziga-vertov-enthusiasm/
January 20, 2012
TOSSED BY TEMPEST
by Harlan Kennedy
Meteorologists, despair; mythographers, delight. There’s another Tempest movie in town. What is it with this 380-year-old play that will not leave cinemagoers alone?
With Peter Greenaway adding Prospero’s Books to his canon of great movie cryptograms, Shakespeare’s farewell drama must rate as the most oft-adapted stagework in screen history. Consider its postwar track record alone: it’s been done straightish by Derek Jarman and Greenaway; metamorphically by William Wellman as a Western, Yellow Sky; metaphysically by Fred McLeod Wilcox as a sci-fi adventure, Forbidden Planet; and menopausally by Paul Mazursky in the pastoral-comical-autobiographical Tempest. In addition, we nearly had it as Grand Old Man’s dreamfilm: Michael Powell hoped to film it with James Mason. (But then, he’d already done so, in a sense: Age of Consent is The Tempest on the Great Barrier Reef.) And the host of distant movie relatives range from Monte Hellman’s Iguana to Louis Malle’s Milou en mai/May Fools.
Just what motherlode of ideas did a 47-year-old English dramatist strike back in 1611? As a story, The Tempest seems simple, even simpleminded: Exiled ruler-wizard sets up lonely, farflung Utopia. Then, after years of bringing up one well-behaved daughter and one ill-behaved monster, he lures his old enemies onto his island to get even. Finally he has a change of heart, forgives his foes, and abjures his magic powers.
High-concept morality drama. But as its movie shelflife suggests, it’s also much more. The play is unique in Shakespeare’s oeuvre for its observation of the unities of time and place; the timetable is as tight as High Noon. And there are almost no florid metaphors in the verse, because the metaphor is the plot itself. Shakespeare uses his “brave new world” to speculate on the nature of Man, tame and untamed. The play and its movie offspring all use an isolated fabulist setting as the crucible for a moral-dramatic experiment. What impact do the values of art, science, or morality have on raw unformed man or woman (Caliban)? Conversely, what impact does raw nature have on refugees from civilization and learning (Prospero, Antonio, Alonzo)?
Though The Tempest has fascinated the cinema ever since the first silent version in 1908, its screen tendrils have most spectacularly multiplied in the years since World War II. No need to search hard for the reason. If Shakespeare’s island was a fairy-tale version of the recently discovered Indies and Americas – a virgin land that could be bombarded imaginatively with the “civilized” values or viciousness of Renaissance Europe – the cinema’s own Tempest heyday has seen a matching confluence of historical phenomena. New-world exploration (Space) and scientific and artistic explosion (from nuclear power to the perpetuum mutabile of modern art) provide a New Elizabethan interface between virgin terrains and burgeoning intellectual energies.
No better time to tell and retell a story whose stroke of genius was to recapitulate almost the whole of human evolution in a two-hour tale. For all their era-mirroring diversity, the Tempests of Greenaway (’91), Mazursky (’82), Jarman (’79), Wilcox (’56), and Wellman (’48) have a common feature. In a tiny arena of time and place they erect a stepladder of human possibility all the way from the bestial (Caliban) to the godly (Prospero), traveling via innocence (Miranda), buffoonery (Trinculo, Stephano), homegrown wisdom (Gonzalo), natural virtue polished by civility (Ferdinand), and natural villainy sharpened by sophistication (Antonio, Sebastian).
The Tempest was a lifeboat movie before its time. Collect the most varied cross-section of humans you can dream up; then cut it off and give it the kiss of drama. Shakespeare, putting not only his characters but the whole of mankind’s growth into a tiny boat, then buffeted it about with a revenge plot. As if reprising Man’s evolution, the characters are (re)born from the sea, thrown onto the mercies of nature and primitive life, then led towards an Old Testament confrontation with their sins. But the final transfiguring twist, showing that for Shakespeare moral evolution was as important a dimension as any in humanity’s self-improvement, is a New Testament forgiveness.
Movies, faced with this complex Bardscript, often grab what they want and run like hell. Different ages, different mages. See the diversity of Tempest movies through a zeitgeist-glass (available from all leading metaphysics stores) and you see the shape of the late 20th century. For immediate postwar America, The Tempest was a noirish Western – Yellow Sky – about battle-scarred soldiers of fortune meeting a feisty New Woman. For the sci-fi-obsessed mid Fifties, technocratic Hubris and Nemesis battled it out over the new frontier of space – Forbidden Planet. In the late Seventies – early Eighties of Jarman and Mazursky, the world swung away from collective scientific agonizings to Me Era self-concerns spiritual and sexual. Finally, in the greening, Greenawaying Nineties, collective agony is back. But it’s much more to do with protecting the world’s precious, endangered fecundity and reembracing learning as Nature’s potential friend rather than enemy.
The marvel is how clear Shakespeare’s design remains when every imaginable variation is played upon it. Yellow Sky foregrounds the redemption theme and puts the salvation-exposed baddies (Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark) up front. Prospero is pushed into a supporting role: a bedridden prospector (James Barton) who has handed granddaughter “Mike” (Anne Baxter) all his power – she’s Miranda given the post-WW2 independent woman look. As in Shakespeare’s play, one villain (Alonzo-Peck) accepts forgiveness and repents, redeemed by Mike’s toughness, courage, and – yes – love (Hollywood’s version of Old Testament sweetening into New). The rest of the baddies just want the codger’s gold, and by final reel are banging away with their guns, scornful and uncontrite.
Both Yellow Sky and Forbidden Planet find precise movie-genre equivalents to the Bard’s desert isle. Wellman’s clapped-out mining town – address Nowhere, Dangerous Apache Territory, Death Valley – is a miragelike atoll in a sea of sand and salt, with Indians as the story’s shadowy Calibans (the Prospero prospector once hired them as workers; they still hellraise through town on idle days). Fred M. Wilcox’s SF yarn gives us an uninhibited planet ruled by a lordly renegade scientist.
Tackling the same tale in different guises, Yellow Sky and Forbidden Planet show the arc of change that eight years wrought in American sensibility. Look especially at the heroines. The Forties Miranda (Baxter) suggests a Rosie the Riveter from the recent war with no makeup and worksleeves still rolled up. The Fifties Miranda (Anne Francis) is a Sandra Dee in Space. In her dad’s Disneyland garden-jungle she coos innocently at terrestrial invader Leslie Nielsen (pre-Airplane!), who tries to teach Virgo Eisenhoweriana the mysteries of sexual attraction.
O tempora, O Tempests. Shakespeare’s “ladder of evolution” became in Yellow Sky an all-human, all-American dramatis personae ranging from the pre-Columbian (Apaches) to the proto-feminist (Baxter). The aftershocks of WW2 internalized The Tempest into a domestic tale of pain and redemption: “demobbed” bank robbers stumbling home to an America they can’t recognize, a society that shows suspicious signs of a new matriarchy. In Forbidden Planet the patriarchy has been restored with a vengeance. Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius is a Mr. Intellectual Machismo. He is busy making hubristic scientific discoveries: chiefly, “creation without instrumentality;’ the famous secret of the Krells (see under K for kitsch space-creatures). If this man had had rebellious Anne Baxter instead of Anne Francis for a daughter, he’d have vaporized her at birth. From Wellman to Wilcox is a giant step for mankind: from egalitarian frontier yarn to Doomsday fable. But the filmgoer’s love-hate feelings toward the movie and its scientist-overlord hero make Forbidden Planet the most mesmeric movie Tempest of all. On this evolutionary stepladder, Morbius is the one at the top kicking off all comers. But then, he’s a product of his time. The offscreen world that created him has swollen with post-atomic panic. The Forties may have seen the A-bomb go off; the Fifties have seen it evolving into the H-bomb and being offered to the Russians.
Morbius is a Prospero who has exceeded his ambitions. Scientific responsibility is becoming ever more burdensome, and intellectual overreaching releases the film’s true Caliban, the Monster of the Id: a wild, ectoplasmic creature that, with FX help, batters down the high-security walls of Morbius’s mansion. Like the Dystopic futureworlds of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, the movie sees scientific empire-building as the potential Fall in our earthly Eden. When Shakespeare’s Prospero developed signs of intellectual monomania, in the play’s imaginary prologue in Milan, his punishment by exile led ultimately to a greater enlightenment. All Nurture needed was to meet and wed with Nature. No such happy outcome is implied in Forbidden Planet. Morbius’s attempt to find his all-consuming thought-energy brings about his downfall and death.
Indeed, the only well-adjusted character in the movie, unfazed by sexual innocence (Francis) or time-space disorientation (Nielsen and pals), is Bobbie the Robot. On Planet’s ladder of evolution he’s Caliban-and Ariel, given a free passcard to shin up and down the rungs. He gets drunk Caliban-style with the (space)ship’s cook (Earl Holliman); but Ariel-like he does his master’s higher bidding and can flit into mental-arithmetical stratospheres at the touch of a button. Robbie personifies Prospero’s magic. He’s a creature made from raw resources, but transfigured by the sophisticated programmings of civilization.
Part of the play’s fascination for adaptors is that it can be stopped at almost any point in the plot where a chosen “message” awaits convenient lifting-out. Yellow Sky pursues the play all the way to its redemptive payoff. Forbidden Planet takes its philosophical thrust – that a little learning (let alone a lot) is a dangerous thing – more from the play’s fall-of-Prospero prelude than from its main action. And Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Paul Mazursky’s Tempest hitch a ride on the Bard’s original and get off, spiritually speaking, somewhere round the middle.
Both movies were made in the wake of the Sixties, when a how-we-live-together humanism had displaced both Fifties megavisions of scientific apocalypse and the bruised morality melodramas of the demob era. The New World-Old World dialectic was now recast. New world: Utopias of play and (self-)discovery islanded from the hell of city life and social-cultural regimentation. Old world: the hell of city life and social-cultural regimentation. Nature good, civilization bad.
Nature in Mazursky’s Tempest leaps off a travel poster. Blazing Greek skies, sunlit coves, goats, and Raul Julia with a beard. In this Aegean haven John Cassavetes, whizkid architect in midlife crisis, tries to get away from it all. “It all” is New York, the Anti-Nature in Mazursky’s equation. Its evils are introduced in flashbacks: overbred cultural chit-chat, gangster lords building casinos as the modern cathedrals, and all those high-pitched theater people (including Mazursky in a cameo) clustered round the hero’s actress wife Gena Rowlands. Her name in the film is Antonia and her mafioso lover’s name is Signor Alonzo (Vittorio Gassman), spelling out the match with Shakespeare’s villains.
Mazursky, taking off from the same Shakespeare original, creates a movie diametrically opposite to Forbidden Planet. Where Pidgeon’s Morbius was a restless, neurotic explorer, Cassavetes’s Philip opts for intellectual stasis – indeed for a sustained spirit of marmoreal enigma. (Cassavetes’s performance is Transcendental Meditation as an acting style.) If this Prospero has been “reborn” in a tabula-rasa environment where he can imaginatively re-ascend the rungs of human evolution, he is waiting for the ladder to come to him. “Show me the magic!” he cries, to a God who is obviously reachable through Rent -A-Miracle.
Of all screen Tempests, this is the movie least like Shakespeare’s play, although it’s the most slavish in its transliteration of characters and events. The clown Trinculo becomes Gassman’s pet comedian “Mr. Trink.” Caliban becomes Calibanos (Raul Julia), Ferdinand is “Freddie,’ and Miranda is Miranda (Molly Ringwald). As Mazursky chugs through his overliteral variants, the most interesting tweak he gives the original is in the character of Ariel. She becomes Aretha (Susan Sarandon), an American girl who falls for Philip and stays on his island, only to be forced to submit to his demand that they be celibate. Yet this touch, like the whole movie, reeks of the Pyrrhic posturing of a jaded bohemian looking for salvation. Boo to the city; Shakespeare’s Utopia-speculating counselor Gonzalo becomes an old retainer of Alonzo-Gassman’s whose Golden Age hopes include – as if in ascending order of importance – “No more wars, no more poverty, no more traffic jams”. Hooray for untamed Nature, and for self-improving frugality in an earthly paradise; doing without sex is a natural addition to Philip’s other Boy Scout do-withouts – no luxury foods, no central heating, no TV.
Calibanos, though, has a Sony Trinitron in his cave, showing that these days not even Ultima Thule need be media-deprived. And Calibanos also sings a rousing version of “New York, New York,” complete with jumping goats. Mazursky, in the midst of lecturing us about the hell of civilization versus the heaven of pastoral retreat, throws in bits of sly wit to show that neither world, in this late stage of global evolution, is far from the other.
Jarman’s The Tempest also suggests there may be no such thing as a desert island in today’s clamorous, crowded world. Jarman’s “island” is a decaying English stately home where Prospero (Heathcote Williams) and Miranda (Toyah Willcox) welcome their washed-up enemies and instead of Nemesis offer them a knees-up. The film ends with dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing “Stormy Weather.” Prospero’s kingdom here becomes a high-camp Erewhon where human beings behave like auditionees flaunting their toujours-gay mannerisms: a lisping Caliban, a drag-donning Stephano, a mirror-gazing Ariel. Prospero himself, a gentle astronomer with Beethoven hair, is a modest, recessive master of ceremonies upstaged by his own slaves and prisoners.
Jarman’s film and Mazursky’s both feature era-responsive presentations of the drama’s protagonist. Each filmmaker uses an un-actorish actor better known in other creative spheres. If quizzical disenchantment is actor-director Cassavetes’s keynote, actor-playwright Heathcote Williams, poring over his astrological books and floor-patterns, offers a gentle, fatherly, scholastic intelligence. In an age distrustful of authoritarian rulers, the godlike capriciousness of Shakespeare’s Prospero or Pidgeon’s Morbius has been thrust aside by something more inward and benevolent.
Greenaway’s contribution to Tempestology plays bookend to the postwar Tempest movie library. But like any bookend, it could also be switched to the front. Prospero’s Books is a Tempest primer pixillated by postmodernism. Like Yellow Sky and Forbidden Planet it has a hungrily apocalyptic setting, more visionary than the anything-goes venues of Jarman or Mazursky. Greenaway sets his Tempest in a neo-Roman bathhouse lit as if by St. Elmo’s fire. And his Prospero, John Gielgud, is closer to the haughty omnipotence of Pidgeon-Morbius than to Jarman’s gentle mage or Mazursky’s male-menopause-on-legs. Indeed, this Prospero not only choreographs the plot, as Shakespeare required; for most of the film he ventriloquizes all the other roles. Only in the forgiveness scene do the actors onscreen – Erland Josephson (Gonzalo), Michael Clark (Caliban), Tom Bell (Antonio), Kenneth Cranham (Sebastian) – at last begin to spout their own lines.
Since Gielgud’s wizard lord is seen penning the play as well, he’s clearly the Bard in action: artist as creator as god. The rungs of this Tempest’s evolutionary ladder are Prospero’s books, and the creatures ranged on the ladder are his incarnate imaginings. Typically of Greenaway, the books have as much life as the people. In brainstorms of graphic ingenuity, the pages of the 24 ascendingly sophisticated texts – “The Book of Water,” `A Book of Mirrors, “A Book of Mythologies,” culminating in “Thirty-Six Plays” by a well-known Tudor chap – succumb to everything from animation to trompe-l’oeil zoology (“painted” lizards or foxes suddenly stir and move across the page).
Unlike any other Tempest filmmaker, Greenaway brings an intellectual’s stiletto immediacy to Shakespeare’s main themes. He grounds the movie in the four elements. Shakespeare-Prospero’s vision of the drama grows from a single drop of water, recurring in magnified closeup between the credit titles. The water motif then undergoes sundry variations: from the pool where the storm-imagining Prospero capsizes his toy galleon, to the boy Ariel copiously pissing into the pool. Then, like the massing of musical instruments in a symphony, Greenaway gathers earth, air, and fire in a fugal interplay of elements. Blizzards of paper swirl in P’s writing chamber, fire crackles, and earth spatters on the exposed pages of the books. Like Prospero turning the raw resources of his island into fruitfulness and magic, Greenaway parades his materials before transfiguring them. Even the human actors, soon thrust onto the story’s stage in a delirium of Jacobean dress, are born as if out of the posed throngs of naked men and women the camera tracks past during the credits. They include, in acknowledgment of Shakespeare’s own source “savages,” a huddle of American Indians crouched round a fire.
Greenaway understands that The Tempest is about a hero who returns to first beginnings, forced to reembrace nature after abusing “nurture:’ Prospero was expelled from Milan for spending too much time ivory-towered in his library. The books of Greenaway’s title are the volumes his kindly counselor Gonzalo stowed in the boat carrying ex-duke and only daughter to exile.
In The Tempest, punishment for the abuse of learning leads to the rediscovery of nature. But nature’s rediscovery then leads to the proper understanding and application of learning: that it’s for the compassionate illumination and improvement of other lives. “Magic” is Shakespeare’s symbol for the unification of wild with civilized values, and the power that can grow from their fusion. Prospero’s initial fall from grace is thus a felix culpa; it thrusts him from the comfortable darkness of selfish scholarship into the tropical glare of enlightenment.
In Prospero’s Books Greenaway pulls The Tempest round in a turning circle from the blind alley offered by Jarman and Mazursky. Shakespeare’s play isn’t about “dropping out” Sixties- or Seventies-style. It’s about dropping back into society with a refreshed vision, and with an understanding of that society’s evolutionary context. The play isn’t a pre-hippie, Montaigne-style hooray for the Noble Savage, even if Montaigne’s essay “on Cannibals” was read by Shakespeare and finds trace-echoes in his text. Culture is a friend, not a foe. Prospero’s books, the insignia of learning and civilization, are stowed like a salvation in his boat. And Greenaway’s giddy eclectic style frames even the movie’s token stabs at Nature in ironic artifice: the soundstage cornfields, the studio-tank sea depths, the mock-trees dressing neoclassical pillars.
Meanwhile, the film’s state-of-the-art video technology allows Shakespeares raw material to be swept up in surreal visual-calligraphic paroxysms, further echoing the play/film’s theme of design conjured out of raw elements. The Gielgud here omnipresent amid the friendly battering of art and erudition is closer to Yellow Sky’s benign choreographer of an intruding destiny than to all the Prosperos in between. Like The Tempest itself, the movie tradition of Tempests moves in a circle. It returns with new accretions of fashion but never escapes – never needs to escape – the charmed wheel of Shakespeare’s all-encompassing original.
One reason The Tempest keeps blowing across our movie screens is that it’s everything the other great desert island source-myth Robinson Crusoe isn’t. The Tempest is fantasy to Crusoe’s realism, Méliès to Crusoe’s Lumière. The ex-reporter Daniel Defoe grounded his novel in protodocumentary, just as he did Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year. Movie Robinson Crusoes, even Buñuel’s, unfold like painstaking diaries of the possible – a day-to-day account of logistical victories or defeats, poeticized only by their exotic setting. The Tempest takes a non-existent island and fills it with fantastic, elemental archetypes: Godlike wizard, innocent maiden, monster, etc. The play is so primary in its patterning that it seems a blueprint rather than a finished story, or a musical theme waiting for infinite variations.
Counting off those variations in the cinema could take a lifetime. We could see Brando’s Kurtz, out of Conrad, as a deranged Prospero figure, a man lording over his moral wilderness where he practices black not white magic and awaits his water-borne enemy (Apocalypse Now, ’79). Monte Hellman’s Iguana (’88) is a shoestring, shock-horror rendering, with Everest McGill in his kingdom of sea-girt lava rocks making slaves of castaways and brutally punishing those who cross him. The shade of Gonzalo, that doddery Golden Age philosopher, can be found in the wine-soaked Utopias spun by the characters in Malle’s Milou en mai (’90) as they roam Michel Piccoli’s château garden, far from the din of Paris’s 1968 événements just as Prospero’s island was far from Milan. And you start casting Vincent Price as Prospero in all those Corman-Poe pictures, though he took the name only in Masque of the Red Death: Price decaying grandly in those insane castles – as remote as tropical atolls – while visitors bashed on the goblin door-knocker for admission, threatening to bring the world’s bacillus evils into his moated realm. Price’s Caliban was the dark secrets of his dungeons; his Ariel was his dim-flickering supernatural powers; his Miranda was his pining young wife or daughter, usually found recumbent in pinewood coffin.
The play’s most triumphant trick is concealed in Shakespeare’s gift to us of that catchphrase we apply to nearly every Utopia or Dystopia: “brave new world:” Shakespeare used the phrase originally not for new worlds at all. When Miranda says, “O brave new world that has such people in it,” she’s talking not of her father’s exotic kingdom but of Ferdinand and his friends and the world he and we come from. The familiar, civilized, everyday world is the “brave new world:’ All it takes is innocence, or senses sea-changed by physical or philosophical travel, to recognize that bravery and eternally challenging newness.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN-FEB 1992 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved. first published on the web here: http://www.americancinemapapers.com/files/PROSPEROS_FLICKS.htm
January 19, 2012
January 18, 2012
hapter 1: Eraserhead
The concept of the “Auteur” has its origin in a 1948 article by Alexandre Astruc in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. In the simplest sense it proposes the director as the “author” of a particular film and is identified by a consistency of visual style and thematic pre-occupations across a body of work. Of course, this approach to film had its criticism, much of which is dealt with over the next four chapters. First there was dispute as to the director’s overall influence as film is clearly a collaborative process, even in the smallest of productions, and to elevate the status of the director is to belittle the contributions of other creative personnel such as the cinematographer, the editor, the sound man and the actors. This is countered by crediting the director with the responsibility of choosing his/her crew. This is not always the case as the producer is often responsible for assembling the creative team, especially within the studio system. This tension between producer and director is touched upon in Chapter 2 with the relationship between Raffaella de Laurentiis and David Lynch while working on Dune.
Andrew Sarris, in “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962″, demanded a more detailed definition of the term, transforming “la politique des auteurs” into an auteur “theory”. He proposes three premises to spot an auteur, the first is “the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value”, he says “a great director has to be at least a good director”. The second premise is “the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style, which serve as his signature”. The third premise is a more mystic interior meaning:
“Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material. This conception of interior meaning comes close to what Astruc defines as mise-en- scene, but not quite. It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude to life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of cinema and cannot be rendered in non-cinematic terms.”
This is a vague premise suspiciously ambiguous and perhaps ineffable but, in my opinion, achieved Lynch’s work. It is a combination of this and the second premise I propose to define as “Lynchian”.
Lynchian Theme and Style
Michel Chion, in “David Lynch”, says “In the beginning, there was not an author, just a film: Eraserhead”. Eraserhead is very useful in the context of this study as it can be seen as a definitive text in regards to Lynch’s stylistics and thematic pre-occupations. The film’s story is very simple (the script was only 20 pages long) but the use of stylistic symbolism is very detailed and complex. Being so simple in structure and defying any categorisation of genre, it can be used as a control sample in our examination of Lynch’s other films. Chion says “There is nothing more common nowadays than an auteur. Auteur films, which create their auteur, are rarer stuff”. Eraserhead created Lynch, the auteur.
It took Lynch five years to make Eraserhead, his first full length feature, and in interviews he has often described it as his “perfect” film. It is the story of Henry, and the claustrophobic horror of his day to day life. It opens with Henry’s head superimposed over a featureless planet. Inside the planet resides a workman. Henry opens his mouth and a worm-like creature emerges. The workman starts his machinery; his first lever sets the worm in motion, his second lever reveals a water filled hole in the earth and a third lever catapults the worm into the hole. The camera emerges from this hole into a bright white light. We then enter Henry’s life, we see him walking home and taking the elevator to his apartment. His apartment is dark, minimally equipped, with a window that looks out onto a brick wall. Henry is invited to Mary’s for dinner with her family. He is offered a shrunken chicken to carve, which moves and bleeds when Henry skewers it with his fork. It is revealed that Henry and Mary have had sex and that there is a “baby”. The baby is another worm-like creature. Henry and Mary share his apartment for a while until the baby’s crying drives her back home. Henry falls asleep thinking of the woman who lives in the apartment opposite and wakes to find the baby is ill. Henry is now bound to his apartment, as the baby cries if he attempts to leave.
Then follows a prolonged dream sequence. Henry falls asleep staring at his radiator. In his dream he enters the radiator to find a woman, with grossly swollen cheeks, dancing on a small stage within. Worm-like creatures fall from the ceiling and are crushed underfoot in time to the music. Back in Henry’s room, Mary has returned but she writhes in a bed full of worms. In an animated sequence a small worm wriggles away. There is a knock on the door and his neighbour emerges from the dark. She seduces Henry, their bed becoming a bath of milk into which they both sink. Back in the radiator, the swollen woman sings an invitation: “In heaven, everything is fine”. Henry steps onto the stage, takes her hand and is consumed by a bright light. The workman appears and a wind brushes the worms from the stage. Henry finds himself in a dock, his head flies off and the baby’s head replaces it. The head then falls from the sky, is collected by a boy who takes it to a workshop where it is made into pencil erasers.
On waking up, Henry tries to visit his neighbour but she isn’t in, the baby laughs at him. He hears her return and sees her in the hallway with another man, she sees Henry with the head of the baby. Henry then cuts the baby’s bandages and pierces the baby’s heart killing it. The lights flicker and the sockets spark. A hole is blown in the planet, the workman struggles to stop his machinery. Henry, in a bright light, embraces the swollen woman and the picture cuts to black.
I don’t intend to dwell too long on the interpretation of these events as it is best left up to the individual. It’s safe to assume the workman represents God and the swollen woman, Death. When Henry stares at his radiator (where Death resides), as he does on several occasions, he is considering suicide. The worms are a reference to the original sin, the reproductive process, the worm cast into the hole at the beginning being the conception of either Henry or his baby. In the dream sequence he dreams of adultery with his neighbour, death (the invitation of the swollen woman), judgement (the dock) and the absolution of his sins (the worms swept away and his head made into an eraser). The film ends with Henry killing his burdensome child and then killing himself. Just as Henry’s eraser is tested by making a mark and rubbing it out, Henry is creator and destroyer of the baby, the planet he occupies and ultimately himself, implying this whole world existed for Henry alone. Viewed through Henry’s eyes, and probably only existing in Henry’s head, it is an expressionist representation we see on screen, with Henry’s perception of events hideously exaggerated – the fidgeting of Mary, the grotesque disease suffered by the baby, the fixed grin of Mary’s father.
Eraserhead introduces two of Lynch’s principle themes. Firstly, the concept of other parallel worlds accessed via our dreams. In Eraserhead it is the world behind the radiator, in The Grandmother (Lynch’s 34 minute short film made in 1970) it is the boy’s attic. In Twin Peaks the concept of parallel worlds is most blatantly explored with The Black Lodge, where Bob resides, infiltrating reality as well as being accessible via the dreams of Cooper and Laura. Dreams as a motif form a thread through his films; the extended dream sequence in Eraserhead, in Dune, Paul dreams of his future, the mantra being “the sleeper must awake”. In Wild At Heart sailor dreams of the good fairy, The Elephant Man dreams of his mother, and in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, Bobby assures Norma he will see her in his dreams. “In Dreams” is Frank’s theme song in Blue Velvet.
The world beyond the radiator is given a very theatrical setting; the stage, the spotlight and the surrounding curtains. This idea of performance recurs also; it is a stage on which the Elephant man is displayed, where Dorothy sings in Blue Velvet, and Julee Cruise in Twin Peaks. When Sailor dances in Wild At Heart it is very exaggerated performance, as is Lil’s dance in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The curtains are a motif: the title sequence of Blue Velvet, the decor in the Black Lodge (the floor design mimicking that of Henry’s apartment block) and the academians view of the Elephant man; silhouetted through curtains. Nadine, in Twin Peaks, is obsessed with the smooth running of her drapes. The curtains also link us to night-time, when most of Lynch’s action is set, especially in Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. Spotlights are used to highlight certain elements of mise-en-scene, with unnatural pools of light featuring strongly, especially in the black and white films. These pools of light are often cast by standard lamps which are compulsory furniture in Lynch’s world.
Lynch’s second major theme is his obsession with biology. Each worm-like creature in Eraserhead manages to resemble both a sperm and an umbilical cord. This image becomes a motif, for example, when Bobby Peru’s head is blown off in Wild At Heart, it is in a stocking, trailing behind it as it flies. Dune features giant phallic sand-worms. The sexual connotation of the worm motif is blatant. Lynch portrays sex as unpleasant and problematic, if in Eraserhead sex is undignified and dehumanising, in Blue Velvet it is animalistic and violent. Henry’s desire for his neighbour prompts his baby’s illness. The worm cast into the hole at the start of the film is the catalyst of Henry’s suffering, ultimately resulting in his death (the machine is started but cannot be stopped). The chicken symbolises the sex act, it lies prone with legs in the air until Henry penetrates it with his fork and it begins to struggle and bleed. The chicken is offered to Henry by Mary’s father, as if he were offering his own daughter. There are also the unwelcome advances of Mary’s mother, a pseudo-Freudian element which features in The Grandmother, Wild At Heart (Marietta’s advances on Sailor), Twin Peaks (Leyland raping his own daughter) and is explored to its extreme in Blue Velvet with the Oedipal “family” of Jeffrey, Dorothy and Frank.
Lynch is particularly fascinated by the disabled, deformed and grotesque variants of biology, witness the swollen cheeks of the woman in the radiator, the scarring of the workman and the numb arm of Mary’s father. Later, the One-armed man would be a principle character in Twin Peaks. The Elephant Man showed deformity to new extremes. In Dune, a feature extraneous to the novel was the Baron’s hideous skin disease. Blue Velvet’s mystery began with a severed ear. Even the way he shoots his actors distorts their natural biology, Laura Dern’s sobs in both Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart contort her face cruelly.
Urination is a favourite bodily function, from The Grandmother’s bedwetting, Dune’s recycling of bodily fluids, Blue Velvet’s over-consumption of Heineken, to Bobby Peru’s constant pissing in Wild At Heart. In Twin Peaks, Cooper and Major Briggs take time out to enjoy the ‘heavenly pleasure’ of peeing in the woods (episode 17). Lynch also has a fascination with the mouth; Duke Leto, in Dune, deals death with a poisoned tooth, Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart is a dental nightmare. Lynch’s women bare their teeth in pleasure after being struck; The Reverend Mother in Dune, Dorothy in Blue Velvet, and Marietta in Wild At Heart. Close-ups focus on mouths – the baby in Eraserhead, Dorothy in Blue Velvet, a zoom into Leyland’s screaming mouth in Twin Peaks (episode 11) and Mrs. Tremmond eating creamed corn in Fire Walk With Me. Food and drink are fetishised, from the chickens in Eraserhead, via the comparisons of beer taste in Blue Velvet, to Agent Cooper’s obsession with coffee and cherry pie.
Lynch’s third major theme is best illustrated by the opening sequence of Blue Velvet. A sequence of shots paint a picture of the small town in which the film is to be set; red roses by a white picket fence, gardens, a fireman waving from his fire-truck, a school crossing guard, a man watering his lawn. But then the man with the hose-pipe (held at groin level, the urination fetish again), suffers a heart attack and collapses, his dog continues to frolic in the jet of the hose while the camera drifts down into the grass upon which the collapsed man lies. Beneath the grass, dark insects, in monstrous close-up, feed voraciously. This metaphor could apply to not only Blue Velvet but equally well to Lynch’s subsequent work, Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks, the idea that under the cosy facade of the small town lies a seedy underbelly. Blue Velvet could probably be regarded as Lynch’s second ‘auteur’ film as Chion defined the term. The rest of the film is expanded in Chapter 3.
Timothy Corrigan, in ‘A Cinema Without Walls’ describes Blue Velvet as set in a “locale that appears so extraordinarily strange because it is so extraordinarily familiar.” Lynch creates an idealised community, not so much with surrealism, but with a ‘hyper-realism’ (this again is discussed further in Chapter 3). He utilises conventions of 50′s teen movies; the locations (coffee shops in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks), automobiles (Wild At Heart especially), teenage love (Sandy and Jeffery in Blue Velvet, Donna and James in Twin Peaks), the music (Elvis is the basis of Sailor’s character in Wild At Heart), the dress and the attitudes (Bobby Briggs in Twin Peaks seeming an anachronistic James Dean for the 90′s). He presents a Happy Days/American Graffiti nostalgia to the point of parody, to give a contrast to the dark ‘other world’ that is inevitably co-existent. Small town evil is the structure upon which the narratives of Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks are based but the idea of the facade of polite society, without the 50′s stylistic codes, also features in Eraserhead(the dinner at Mary’s), The Elephant Man(the sick fascination of Merrick’s visitors) and Dune(the society of Freman existing independent of the source of power on Arrakis).
The frolicking of the dog over the injured man is an example of Lynch’s use of comedy within tragedy. In Twin Peaks the most dramatic scenes are played for laughs, Leyland going down with the coffin at Laura’s funeral (episode 3), the obsessive rearranging of furniture prior to interviewing the rape victim Ronette Pulanski (episode 5).
The Lynchian style, the way he constructs each frame, owes a lot to his beginnings as a painter (there is an inordinate attention to detail), and echoes the traditions of silent film. John Orr, in ‘Cinema and Modernity’, says “Lynch’s brilliant vision of contemporary mores is linked, somewhat incongruously, to a style of acting and static mise-en-scene which recall classic Hollywood melodrama and before that the exaggerated gestures of the Expressionist persona of silent film”. Colour is used thematically; black and white for Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, red and white for The Grandmother, dark blues and purple in Blue Velvet and earthy greens and browns in Twin Peaks. Wild At Heart’s story stems from an incident where Sailor “got too close to a fire”, hence the colour scheme is red and yellow, with the passing of time punctuated by extreme close ups of match-heads bursting alight and the tips of cigarettes glowing.
Sound is very important to Lynch. Wind, rain, animal roars and electrical humming are used to “paint mood” to scenes. Lynch says, (quoted by Chion) “people call me a director, but I really think of myself as a sound man”. Sandy’s room is above her father’s in Blue Velvet (a film that is motivated by a severed ear), “I hear things” she says, just as the Log Lady’s log has “heard things” in Twin Peaks. Variations in speech create effect, Frank shouts in close proximity in Blue velvet just as Bobby Peru whispers seductively and Santos whispers conspiratorially in Wild At Heart when there is no danger of being overheard. The use of speech is particularly sophisticated in Dune, with its whispered inner narratives. Paul’s other name, Muad D’ib is discovered to be an animating destructive force when intonated correctly. In Twin Peaks Agent Cooper carries a Dictaphone with which he makes oral notes to his never seen secretary Diane. The ethereal music of Angelo Badalamenti is the soundtrack to Lynch’s world, it mixes smoothly with hums and roars around it, as do the whispery vocals of Julee Cruise.
Shouts and whispers are not the only contrasted extremes. Lynch’s editing loves to juxtapose a sweeping wide angle with an extreme close-up. Even his actors are the extremities of biology – Twin Peaks featured a dwarf and a giant. The way Lynch directs his actors emphasises their rigidity, from Henry’s inhibited shuffling to Cooper’s upright stance. His first two films both featured Grandmothers that barely moved, as do the waving fireman and the standing corpse at the beginning and end of Blue Velvet. The lady in the radiator performs a minimalist dance pre-figuring Audrey’s dance in Twin Peaks which involved swaying on the spot. These rigid bodies are occasionally set afloat, as Henry is in the title sequence, so is our introduction to Laura Palmer, as a corpse floating down the river. Lynch, Badalamanti and Cruise collaborated on an album entitled “Floating into the Night” some of which featured in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks including the theme song “Falling”. Falling and floating become motifs, just as Henry floats in the void at the start of Eraserhead, Laura feels she is falling into a void in Fire Walk With Me. In Blue Velvet Dorothy tells Jeffrey she’s falling. In Dune the representation is more literal, the navigator being a floating grotesque, as is the Baron.
In 1963, Andrew Sarris refined his definition of authorship with the article “Towards a Theory of Film History”, in which he states that “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography”. The autobiographical aspect of authorship is unavoidable if it is, as Sarris claims, the director’s personality that is being represented in his/her films. If an auteur’s upbringing shaped their personality it is logical that it should also shape, or at least influence, their artistic output. Lynch’s father was a research scientist for The Department of Agriculture, he investigated tree diseases. This probably explains the multitude of tree/logging references, particularly in Twin Peaks; Coopers opening line in the pilot enquires as to what type of trees grow in the town, the saw mill is of narrative importance and the character of the log lady carries a log at all times. In Blue Velvet the “sound of sawing wood” introduces the town of Lumberton. His mother was a language tutor which may be reflected in the association of women with the alphabet, not just in the short of the same name but in Twin Peaks the victims are found with letters under their finger nails. In an art school project, Lynch submitted a series of paintings in which women turned into typewriters. The director’s life experiences must also be influential, according to Richard Corliss, writing for ‘Time’ magazine, “Lynch says Eraserhead sprang fully formed from nights in that ‘crime-ridden’ city [Philadelphia]“.
Two final details to complete the Lynchian perspective are industry and electricity and Lynch’s notion of time. Put simply, industry and electricity are good. Electrical hums and industrial roarings are signs of normality. It is only when they are interfered with that problems arise, for example the saw mill is closed in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. Blowing light bulbs are used to create tension. The climatic scenes of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks (episode 29), and Fire Walk With me all feature electrical strobing. The emblem of Lynch/Frost productions is lit by electrical flashes. Lynch often speaks of his pet project, the as yet unfilmed Ronnie Rocket, which is about “a little three foot guy with sixty-cycle alternating current electricity and physical problems” (quoted by Chion). The industry links with the smoke and steam that colour his films, particularly Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Lynch has twice produced what he calls “industrial symphonies”, once as a series of paintings, second as a show with Badalamenti and Julee Cruise.
In Twin Peaks time is slightly abstract. In Eraserhead, Henry’s wait for the lift doors to close makes an eternity out of thirteen seconds of screen time. In Dune, Paul’s dreams give him access to his future. In Twin Peaks, and especially Fire Walk With me, time has gone haywire. The flowing river over the credits sets the pace for the steady flow of time in the town, this contrasts with the Black Lodge where Cooper and Laura can meet independent of time and space. The red room has the decor of a waiting room. The plot of Fire Walk With Me, bizarrely, is just as valid as a sequel rather than a prequel to the series, and, more bizarrely, most valid as both, with the progression of events across 29 episodes and two hours of film forming an eternal loop. The obsessive references to the time of day and the scene with the temporal and spatial duplicity of Agent Jefferies in Fire Walk With Me gives a clue to this interpretation.
Other themes and motifs are the subversion of matriarchy/patriarchy, many characters having ‘split’ mothers or fathers (the actress replacing the mother and the patriarchal feud of Treves and Bytes in The Elephant Man, Jeffrey’s surrogate parents of the psycho and the masochist in Blue Velvet, the home-grown parent in The Grandmother), dogs (feeding in Mary’s house, Toto in Wild At Heart, Lynch’s comic strip ‘The angriest dog in the world’), the number 26 (used as apartment number in many films), the portrait as motif (the mother and the actress in Elephant Man, Mary ripped in half in Eraserhead, Laura the home-coming queen in Twin Peaks) and the image of the woman in the doorway (Mary’s introduction in Eraserhead, Perdita’s introduction in Wild At Heart, Mrs. Tremmond beckoning from the doorway in Fire Walk With Me and Audrey chained to the door of the bank vault in the final Twin Peaks).
The Evolving Auteur
One thing that is hopefully apparent from this analysis of Lynchian themes is that not all were blatant in Eraserhead. For example Twin Peaks’s notion of time seems to fit into the world of David Lynch and can be traced back through the previous works, but never before had it been foregrounded. Similarly the notions of the facade of small town life is a very Lynchian quality, and dominates his work post-Blue Velvet, but it doesn’t really feature very prominently in his first three films. This could imply one of two things. First that the auteur evolves, new themes emerge and fuse into the director’s style; Blue Velvet introduced a second wave of Lynchian attributes compatible with the previous set, Twin Peaks introduces the third stage of evolution. Secondly, it may imply that our thematic and stylistic consistencies aren’t as ‘consistent’ as we first perceived, if the origins of new themes cannot be sufficiently rooted in early work can they be accepted as part of an auteur’s oeuvre? The auteur theory relies on the director as a constant factor in a collection of films. If the factor isn’t constant it is a lot harder to isolate. This is not to dispute the relevance of the term ‘auteur’ only to highlight the difficulties in attributing it to a specific director. Sarris came up with a pantheon of definitive auteur directors that caused considerably more debate than his definition of the term. It is unlikely that a list of ‘great’ directors (and consequently the exclusion of ‘non-great’s), in accordance with auteur theory is feasible, as it is so subjective. Even Sarris’s first premise, that of directorial competence, is a matter of opinion, and the second premise relies on the critic/spectator’s ability to discern the personality within the film. In the case of David Lynch, I can only express my opinion that he is a competent director. The second premise, the signature of his personality has hopefully been demonstrated in this chapter.
The third premise, the interior meaning or ‘Lynchian’ quality I cannot be sure to have proved; it is possibly too early into his career to make this definition. Hopefully, with the benefits of time and distance a more precise and simple definition of Lynchian will emerge, a definition that can encompass the many attributes detailed above. So far the most succinct definition I have found comes from David Foster Wallace, writing for ‘Premiere’ magazine :
“An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter’. But like post-modern and pornographic, Lynchian is one of those words that’s ultimately definable only ostensibly – i.e., we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but Jeffery Dahmer, with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk, was thoroughly Lynchian. A Rotary luncheon where everybody’s got a comb-over and a polyester sports jacket and is eating bland Rotarian chicken and exchanging Republican platitudes with heartfelt sincerity and yet are either amputees or neurologically damaged or both, would be more Lynchian than not. A hideous bloody street fight over an insult would be a Lynchian street fight if and only if the insultee punctuates every blow with an injunction not to say fucking anything if you can’t say something fucking nice.”
I think the most important word he uses here is “ostensibly”, the Lynchian is not something easily defined but it is easily recognisable.
this article first published here: http://www.britishfilm.org.uk/lynch/eraserhead.html