Last Days

In his monograph on Samuel Beckett, A. Alvarez famously characterizes the author’s trilogy as “a terminal vision, a terminal style and, from the point of view of possible development, a work at least as aesthetically terminal as [James Joyce’s] Finnegan’s Wake(1). As used by Alvarez, the term denotes both an artistic vision thoroughly steeped in mortality, an “undeviating withdrawal from […] the exterior world”, and a stylistic approach that represents an end in itself, where no further explorations are possible in a given direction. (2) Just as Joyce’s nocturnal language comprised of every conceivable extant language and a slew of neologisms is not an approach that can be duplicated or an example that can be built upon, the increasingly deconstructed language employed by Beckett in his trilogy, comprised of an endless, repetitive stream of words stripped of grammar, narrative thrust and (largely) meaning, is an approach that represents the termination of another line of æsthetic inquiry. What remains at the end of Beckett is a pure stream of language.

In the world of film, there have been only a handful of similarly “terminal” works. There are certainly plenty of films that offer a vision of a world on the brink of destruction, from mainstream blockbusters like Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) to more personal visions such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986), and Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister harmóniák (The Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000), but these films lack a correspondingly terminal æsthetic program, a program which takes a specific formal approach in a given direction to the point where that approach becomes unrepeatable. In Tarkovsky’s film, the director gives us a definitive vision of a diseased world in need of regeneration, a point emphasized by the film’s drab colour palette, but the picture’s stylistic conception, while distinctively Tarkovskian, does not offer a drastically different æsthetic sensibility than any number of films that have come before and its approach is eminently repeatable. So, it seems that we are here talking about two distinct concepts – films like Tarkovsky’s that offer a terminal vision of humanity and films that are æsthetically terminal – yet these ideas are not so unconnected as they may initially seem. Just as Beckett’s prose is what gives his vision its potency (as humanity is reduced to a disembodied voice at the end of The Unnamable, so Beckett’s language is reduced to a repetition of phrases that no longer have the power to communicate meaning, at least as understood in a traditional epistemological framework), so, in many of the best films that offer “terminal” or apocalyptic conceptions, it is often the largely unrepeatable cinematic approaches that enable the director to achieve this vision.

Wavelength

What then is meant by the æsthetically terminal? A good example of a work that embodies the concept is Michael Snow’s 1967 film, Wavelength. The film consists of a forty-five minute zoom across a loft accompanied by a series of actions taking place both on and off screen (a bookcase is moved, two women drink a cocktail, a body falls to the ground) and an ambient drone comprised of various sine waves, whose buzz dominates the film’s audio component as completely as the zoom dominates its visual conception and whose lack of concrete content marks it as its aural counterpart. As with Beckett’s prose, Snow strips down his cinematic language to the level of technique which then becomes the work’s primary subject. Interactions (and even a murder) may occur among various characters, but these are ultimately foreign to the film’s formal concerns and the camera continues its relentless zoom completely indifferent to any obstructions (obstructions that include a plot and characters, the traditional elements that comprise a film’s substance). By making the work’s form its content, Snow leaves the viewer with nothing more at the work’s end than the cinematic language he has employed. As the zoom finishes forty-five minutes after its start, resting squarely on a picture of a wave-filled seascape (recalling the film’s title and further emphasizing that the film’s true subject is itself), neither Snow’s camera nor his cinematic methods are capable of further movement. Snow’s approach thus represents a terminal æsthetic, an unrepeatable stylistic experiment that reduces film to its formal elements. But does it represent a complete terminal vision? Devoid of content in the traditional narratological sense, the form becomes the content and since this form is clearly terminal, the film qualifies as a genuine terminal vision.

Another candidate for the canon of the terminal is Alexsandr Sokurov’s 1997 film, Mat I syn (Mother and Son). The film details the final days in the life of a woman, tended to by her son. Certainly terminal in its intensely concentrated focus on mortality, this vision is achieved by a startling array of cinematic techniques including hand-painted camera filters and distorted lenses which collapse the third dimension (as Keith Uhlich has it, the film is “compulsively aware of itself as two-dimensional”), combined with an almost unparalleled minimalism of dramatic presentation, resulting in an odd mélange of æsthetic stylisation and bareness of anything resembling traditional characterization that creates an incredibly moving universal portrait of mortality. (3) Towards the end of the film, the son leaves the mother and wanders through Sokurov’s landscape of fields and forest beneath an ever-darkening sky. This ominously deserted landscape, filtered through the director’s visual distortion, serves to estrange the viewer from any sort of familiar grounding and presents a deeply de-familiarized portrait of death which has no parallels in the world of film but only in certain passages of Lev Tolstoy. That this portrait, like Beckett’s trilogy, achieves its terminal vision through an unrepeatable æsthetic strategy, a painterly, flattened visual æsthetic that takes visual stylisation to the maximum level and makes unfamiliar the filmic terrain, a terrain perfectly suited to a film about death, illustrates the essential inseparability of form and content, and the necessity of an artist taking an artistically terminal approach in order to achieve a correspondingly final conception of humanity.

A film with a similarly minimalistic treatment of death is Gus Van Sant’s 2005 picture, Last Days. Like Sokurov’s film, a portrayal of the final days in the life of an individual, in this case a drug-addled rock star based on Kurt Cobain, Last Days compounds its sense of impending mortality by employing a corresponding æsthetic strategy which takes the form of a matter-of-fact approach so relentless in its banality that it comes to represent a terminal point in the cinematic employment of minimalism. As the rock star Blake (Michael Pitt) wanders in a daze throughout a large country house and its grounds, the film gives weight to the extreme quotidian monotony of the character’s final days, reaching the apex of this approach in a long scene in which Blake prepares a box of macaroni and cheese. Like Snow’s film and to a lesser degree Sokurov’s, Last Days has no substantial content, so that it too is really only about itself and its own form: its evocation of banality, its multiplicity of narrative viewpoint. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who did not like the film, described it as a “programmatic, mannerist experiment because it offers so little content apart from vague intimations of the Cobain myth”, but it is this very lack of content that puts the emphasis on its terminal æsthetic and grants the film its delirious power. (4) The film’s relentless pursuit of its own form in expressing the concluding moments of a human life marks it as a true work of terminal cinema.

Inland Empire

David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) similarly takes both form and content as far as they can go. With a narrative that draws its logic from the irrational workings of the subconscious, featuring characters in multiple guises and numerous plot threads that run simultaneously, fork off in different directions and circle back on themselves with no regard for what came before, Lynch’s film treats the capturing of those parts of humanity that cannot be bound by rationality with a new level of artistic commitment, but a level that makes further explorations in this direction impossible. As J. Hoberman noted, “no director works closer to his unconscious than David Lynch, and […] his latest feature ventures as far inland as this […] enigmatic director has ever gone.” (5) In this work, the director’s approach reaches its tipping point after which only incoherence is possible.

The film’s initial plot, before it splinters into a myriad of narrative fragments, concerns the filming of a movie, a melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows. By using the device of a film-within-a film and spinning this film into a number of alternative scenarios, Lynch effectively deconstructs the notion of cinema. If there was any thought of the cinematic medium allowing for a coherent narrative or means of logical expression, here Lynch debunks those notions by using the filming process itself as a springboard for the reduction of narrative into experimental chaos. Lynch had shown frustration with the filmic medium before, as his 1997 feature Lost Highway, a film like Inland Empire lacking a logical sequential progression, symbolically expressed the limitations of a narrative cinema, with the lost highway itself recalling a roll of film, the road markings suggesting sprockets. Here Lynch takes things even further, by melding his style to his deconstructed subject matter. As Lynch breaks down rational narrative, so his technique breaks down the polished æsthetic of traditional cinema. Trading his mounted 35mm camera for a digital hand-held, Lynch’s nightmare world is filled with dim lighting and obscure images. Eschewing the crisp beauty of Mulholland Dr.’s carefully composed images, Inland Empire’s off-the-cuff æsthetics mirror a darker, less rational vision than the director’s 2001 film, a work which can ultimately withstand logical analysis. Perfectly suited to the more recent picture, Lynch’s stylistic approach represents a terminal point beyond which visual obscurity is the only possibility. In an ultimate vision like Lynch’s both the æsthetics and the content of the film are unrepeatable endpoints. It is this double sense of finality that grants the work its irrepressible vitality.

The terminal is a unique æsthetic approach that represents an end to a particular line of cinematic inquiry coupled with an ultimate conception of humanity. Films that partake of this æsthetic, such as those of Snow, Sokurov, Van Sant and Lynch, are so extreme in their formal approach and finality of conception that, instead of setting an example for other filmmakers to build off, they represent a terminal point beyond which further exploration is impossible. These works, in their totality of vision, remain singular artistic achievements, but they also illustrate the need for the appropriation of new techniques and new methods of expression as well as the exploration of new areas of content. Because it partakes of a sense of conclusion in a particular line of cinematic inquiry, terminal cinema is directly tied to ideas of the end of the cinematic form as a medium. In this sense, we can trace terminal cinema back to Jean-Luc Godard’s famous assertion at the end of Week End (1967) that his film represents the fin du cinéma. This idea of the impending death of the medium continues unabated into the present era as evidenced by Susan Sontag’s controversial 1995 essay, “A Century of Cinema”, in which she proclaimed the art form’s one-hundred-year life cycle to be at its conclusion, well into the state of “irreversible decline”, with the notion becoming even more prominent today as viewers await the arrival of the next art form based on the advent of some as yet undeveloped technology. (6) These prognostications became increasingly strong in the years leading up to the new millennium, as a sort of apocalyptic fervour reverberated throughout the world fuelled by fears of Y2K and an increasingly tenuous existence on the planet, fears that also found their expression in a series of popular disaster pictures such a Independence Day and Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) Although this diagnosis of cinematic death is easily dismissed, especially given the talented crop of filmmakers working today, it is clear that, like any art form, cinema has to adapt to the challenges both of new technologies and the artistic provocations of previous filmmakers, provocations that have taken certain avenues of cinematic investigation to their inevitable limits and necessitate the adoption of new cinematic formulations, tasks that terminal filmmakers both pursue and inhibit. By taking on new cinematic approaches, they support this rejuvenation of the medium, but by simultaneously exhausting these approaches they compel a continual recommencement of the process. The idea of the terminal in cinema is one that continues to fascinate, whether the termination in question is the world portrayed within a specific picture or the entire filmic medium itself. Although the cinema is far from over, the art form calls for the adoption of fresh approaches, approaches that will ensure its continued relevance no matter what technological and societal changes may transpire.

Endnotes

  1. A. Alvarez, Samuel Beckett (New York: The Viking Press, 1973), p. 46.
  2. Ibid, p. 45.
  3. Keith Uhlich, “Mother and Son”, Slant Magazine, 2006.
  4. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Kurtsploitation”, Chicago Reader, 2005.
  5. J. Hoberman, “Wild at Heart”, Village Voice, 5 December 2006.
  6. Susan Sontag, “A Century of Cinema”, in Where the Stress Falls (New York: Picador USA, 2001), p. 117.