In Phenomenology of Perception Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues that perception is not only subjective, but also irreducibly embodied, and this inescapable fact of embodiment means an equally inherent ambiguity permeates lived experience. If we hope to understand how meanings are posited in a shared world then we can’t ignore the ambiguities that infuse perception. Part of Merleau-Ponty’s project entailed a re-working of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenological theories of temporality. The human experience of time must be considered, not as an independent entity, as in the metaphor of the flowing river, but as a series of positions and perspectives that are interconnected yet never completely unified. He writes:
There can be time only if it is not completely deployed, only provided that past, present and future do not all three have their being in the same sense. It is of the essence of time to be in process of self-production, and not to be; never, that is, to be completely constituted (1).
We don’t simply experience time as if it were a thing you could hold in your hand, we are ourselves the “upsurge of time”; we are temporal beings, always in the making and never complete. How else would it be possible that the present we use to construct ourselves also gets away from us at every instant?
When I saw AKA (Duncan Roy, 2002) I had a fairly conventional experience. I identified with Dean Page, the charming teenage run-away, and followed him unquestioningly from situation to situation; my eyes and ears happy to be taken for a ride, hoping things would turn out his way. But all the while I was also experiencing something different. It was the strange feeling that I was watching not just Dean’s story, but the reflection upon “Dean” as an upsurge of time. Of course cinema is based on time; all narratives unfold in time, but I don’t recall ever having had precisely this sensation while watching a “conventional” movie. I was immersed in the story in a mode of distance, having at my disposal an overview of how story, identity, and time are phenomenologically formed together.
Maybe this is because AKA is not a conventional movie. The first feature by writer-director Duncan Roy, it is one of a slowly growing, but still minuscule, collection of feature-length multichannel narratives; movies like Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) and Julie Talen’s Pretend (2003), which split the screen in one way or another to tell their stories by way of simultaneous, competing and interconnected moving images.
The tradition, if you can call it that, includes split-screen works as diverse as Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966), Numéro deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975), The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968), and Wicked, Wicked (Richard L. Bare, 1973), and dates back at least to 1927 with Abel Gance’s extraordinary three-screen spectacle, Napoléon. Five years before Napoléon was made, Louella Parsons, a journalist for the New York Telegraph, interviewed the filmmaker, whose plan, she told her readers, was “to redeem the screen from the banalities of life, to show things as they are, and use some of the terrific power he says he knows the motion picture offers” (2). Determined to create a spectacle, but not just for its own sake, Gance shot and projected three films side by side to tell an epic story in a way that would, as Parsons had observed before the fact, tap into the “undeveloped side of pictures, the spiritual, mental side”. Napoléon used the relationships between its three adjacent projections to experiment with scale and contrast, close-up, panorama, and composition, pushing at the barriers of cinematic narration.
AKA is also a triptych (splitting the screen’s standard 35mm ratio into three squares of equal size), but it is understandably no Napoléon. Roy’s modest use of the triptych format is characterised by a slightly off-kilter paralleling of images; movement between sequences that replace one another from left to right, right to left; minor differences in performance; and dramatic repetition of instants.
The film’s images come together intimately to describe the journey of a gay teenager, Dean Page (Matthew Leitch), as he tries to escape the dangers of a home-life he didn’t choose by seeking shelter in an identity that doesn’t belong to him. Set in Essex, London and Paris in 1978, the story is based on a very similar period in Roy’s own life, when he traded in his non-status as a bright, working-class teenager to masquerade as the son of a well-known British aristocrat. As they did for Roy, charm, good looks, and a stolen moniker give Dean safe enclosure in a close-knit elite.
One reality supplants another as a drab home is replaced with opulent apartments and decadent parties. Our protagonist reacts to his old environment and his new in simultaneous fragments of perception. New faces rush in at a dizzying pace while scenes of past abuses, and parallel moments in the “real” world cast shadows upon the unfolding adventure. Often there are at least two frames showing different versions of this “present”, while a third image, often coming in on the left or the right, reveals a lingering “past” or introduces a “near future”, whose links to the present we have yet to understand. Occasionally there will be frames representing “states of mind” – memories or memory-like visions – that haunt the protagonist in the midst of his reality. Throughout the movie the audio subtly switches channels, often alighting on the present moment, but sometimes calling attention to the encroaching future and at times echoing, doubling, and overlapping itself.
Dean travels from an abusive home in Essex to the gallery world of London to the Paris playground of expatriated British nobility, tagging along all the way to the Mediterranean coast; increasingly comfortable and unquestioningly accepted in his false identity. Dean’s alter ego, Alex Gryffoyn, is sought after by people who are lost as Dean is, but whose identities are pathetically moored to their class privilege. “Alex” is almost carried away by his own games, but something holds him back. Whether it is an innate dislike of the hypocrisy of the upper class, or his own shame at being who he is, Dean cannot completely fool himself. But in the process of trying to be “Alex”, Dean experiences something beyond just the morbid superficiality of the wealthy; he also discovers his own limits. He falls in love, or something close to it, with Benjamin (Peter Youngblood Hills), a fellow runaway tragically similar to himself; he throws that love away out of cowardice; he lies and manipulates; he observes and listens; and he thinks and changes, as most compelling characters do, into someone who can face what he once fled. Dean’s fraud ends in a prison term, as Roy’s did, but the misadventure opens existential doors that promise to remain open, even after the social ones are shut and locked.
The story of Dean Page has aspects of it that are quite conventional and easy to understand, but the individual elements are loosely bound in terms of causality and relationships between constituting moments. As a result the scenes don’t lend themselves easily to description. It is difficult to reconstruct exactly what happens on which square of the triptych, how long a shot lasts before it shifts or disappears, and what separates the ending of one sequence from beginning of the next. Each story-moment seems capable of exchanging its identity for another, in one instant being read as the cause and in the next the effect of its equally mercurial neighbours. And much depends on one’s own shifting gaze. But even though the story tells itself with ceaselessly overlapping moments, the past is not confused with the future, nor the present with the past. Dean’s present is quite easy to locate amidst all the ambiguity, but what intrigues me is that Dean himself is not entirely there, nor is he simply in the past, but somewhere else, in the spaces in-between.
Take, for example, a scene at the point in the movie when Dean and Benjamin are becoming romantically involved. Dean/Alex, tanned from days in the sunshine, sits on a couch in the Mediterranean beach-house of David Glendenning (George Asprey). As this image of Dean shifts across the segments of the triptych, adjacent scenes show Benjamin and David together in David’s bedroom, and Benjamin climbing out from under the weight of his boyfriend’s slumber. Dean sits patiently in his square of the triptych, his friends presumably having sex in the next room. He looks absently amused, wiggling his feet, which are ironically clad in house-slippers shaped like feet. The image of Dean on the couch persists while, in the adjacent squares, Benjamin and Dean/Alex have already escaped from the house and can be seen playfully chasing each other through the garden outside.
It isn’t only difficult to faithfully reconstruct the film’s scenes (and for that matter, to know at what point the scene has become a sequence!), but much of the vocabulary of classic film-narrative, created out of the need to cut from single image to single image, seems here to be inverted. The close-up becomes more objective, while what was once the “establishing” shot is more subjective, and editing techniques like shot/counter-shot suddenly read as artificial and highly compressed. Images are constantly shifting across the triptych but there is more lingering and leeway for slowness in each specific shot. Non-narrative surfaces and textures that would in a single-channel movie seem like radical departures from the diegesis emerge and recede without halting the flow of the story. In fact the overall narrative, happening across and between the screen’s segments is most dramatically altered when two of the squares black out and we are suddenly facing one unambiguous view.
In December I spoke with Duncan Roy by telephone. It was not an interview about film history, philosophy or phenomenology, but simply the chance to touch upon a few basic questions. I wanted to know what Roy thought about his own film, and why he made it. If I could find out how he set his parameters and made his artistic choices then maybe I could understand a little better why AKA gave me this feeling of watching the “upsurge of time”. What is the connection between the film’s representation of “time” and the other elements of the story?
Roy said that he had known for years he wanted to make a multichannel narrative. Before studying film he had already spent several years in the art environs of London, where he had seen work by artists like Sam Taylor-Wood and Isaac Julien. And of course he had also been influenced by Andy Warhol’s art and films. But outside of Gance’s Napoléon, he told me, Roy had never seen multichannel techniques effectively used in the service of a “strong” narrative. Then, in 2000, Timecode was released, and that event, in combination with general developments in the flexibility of digital media, ultimately gave Roy the needed sense of permission that he could go ahead and make his own split-screen feature.
I asked him what it was like to translate his linear narrative into a multichannel format. But he disagreed with the premise of my question, explaining that there was no need for translation because, “I think multi-laterally…I think in terms of multi-images”. For Roy, the basic attitude of multichannel filmmaking felt much more natural, much closer to how he “really” thought than the effort to fit everything into a “single” image. This surely depends on how one defines the so-called “single” image (Godard, Akerman, and Kiarostami all make highly ambivalent, multivocal movies in singlechannel formats) but personally, Roy found working in split-screen freed him to tell a story that was closer to his own experience. One of his great pleasures, for example, was that there was no longer any need to resort to the flashback. Instead he could insert a memory alongside the unfolding action. It seemed artificial to represent memory by cutting away from the action of the present. Roy said, “It’s about putting those two images together … we don’t just cut off and live in that moment – we get on doing the washing up or driving the car or whatever we’re doing, but we’re thinking about things as they happened – or we’re fantasising about things as they WILL happen…”
For Roy this simultaneity of images is a way to redefine our expectations of the movie screen and the movie itself. But it is not simply a matter of putting any two images side by side. What concerns him is the expectation people have of one image, one truth, and our habitual way of only looking for one thing at a time. AKA was built around the idea of capturing slightly different versions of the same scene, and putting them together in a way that would create an ambivalence or ambiguity about how to interpret the scene’s meaning.
Roy cited as an example, the scene when Alex Gryffoyn’s girlfriend, Hannah (Camille Sturton), enters Dean’s bedroom at the Gryffoyn house. She faces her reflection in the mirror, with Dean also visible in the mirror’s background. In one take, Hannah stares impassively at Dean in the mirror; she seems to have no plan or opinion, she is just there. In the other take, played immediately after the first, she looks at herself in the mirror and begins to put her long hair up in a subtly seductive kind of way.
Roy asks, “How do we remember this moment?” Do we discard one version of the scene for the other, the way an editor normally would? Do we try to merge them both into a revised truth, somewhere in between? Do we decide that all attempts at representation are duplicitous and that the truth is simply not available?
Listening to Roy speak about his approach, it became obvious that his concerns about creating a sense of ambiguity were essentially tied to the problem of how to honestly approach and re-live one’s own past. The story of Dean Page may be conventional, but Roy used multichannel techniques precisely so that he could reveal his fractured memory of his own life.
Thinking about AKA as a memoir made me refine my first ideas about why the film affected me the way it did. While watching the film I had noticed that each time a “near future” arrived on the triptych-scene I felt an instant of melancholy, a tiny stab of loss. It was as if the present I was living through was being stolen right from under my nose, put at a distance to me by its very connection to the encroaching future. A present that had just seemed so “fresh” had become a will-have-been, right before my eyes.
This distanced awareness of time’s passing dovetails with the idea of memoir-time, a re-living of a past that can’t completely forget what it knows.
When I call up a remote past, I reopen time, and carry myself back to a moment in which it still had before it a future horizon now closed, and a horizon of the immediate past which is today remote (3).
At first blush it sounds as if Merleau-Ponty believes we can simply live the past over again, like it exists behind us unchanged, and also like it had never before happened. But the philosopher has already explained that the experience of a “living” memory is not the same as the experience one has living in the blind spot of the current present. He has already told us that past, present, and future are truly distinct aspects of the phenomenon called “temporality”. So the above statement must be understood very subtly; we must take seriously the “now closed” and the “today remote” of Merleau-Ponty’s description. The re-living of a past, if it isn’t merely hallucination, is defined by its co-presence with “now” and “today”, a time from which it is (and remains) remote.
In the rush of present moments and changing places, Dean’s own memories chase after him and clamour for his attention. So rather than pulling us back to a previous time, memory comes into our present and conditions it, and does so particularly in the way we “reopen” it alongside, but separate from, the present. The ambiguity of the unresolved past conditions the Dean of the story, but on another level, the film’s entire landscape of contingent pasts, presents and futures is also a portrait of how “Dean” came to be, made by some other Dean, the one who is constituted by the way he weaves his moments together.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1962, p. 482. First published as Phenomenologie de la perception, Gallimard, Paris, 1945.
- Louella Parsons, “Abel Gance”, New York Telegraph, August 14, 1921, quoted in Taylorology no. 67, July 1998.
- Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 483.